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Little Zuko v the World

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Book One: Spirit Blessings (Some Restrictions Apply)

1: Zuko

Uncle told him to be patient. That no one had seen the Avatar in a hundred years, and Zuko couldn't expect to find him in a week, two weeks, three, a month. That perhaps his father meant this more as a meditative journey, a chance to reflect upon himself—

 

And then they saw the light shooting up from the ice pack, from ground to sky like a candle-beacon lit just for him.

 

Uncle told him not to get his hopes up. That it might be the celestial lights—

 

And then signal flares went off, and Zuko saw a spry (old man?) airbender carrying a (girl? sack of potato-chokes?) carrying a blue-wrapped something down from the ship in extravagant leaps.

 

Uncle told him they shouldn't crash the ship straight into the Southern Water Tribe's village. That these things were not polite for a (banished) ( temporarily banished) prince of the Fire Nation to do, and he should certainly reconsider leading the attack himself, he was only twelve—

 

Zuko was starting to doubt his uncle's advice.

 

2: Lieutenant Jee

The prince was practicing his Commander Voice on the assembled men, and Jee hoped that 'shouting loudly' wasn't what the boy would settle on for the duration of their voyage.

 

"When we hit that shore—" the prince roared (very impressive lungs for a kid who'd been near comatose when the General had brought him aboard) (very literal statement of intent, too.) "—are you paying attention, Lieutenant?"

 

"Sir, yes sir!" It had taken Jee a few years longer than most to realize that was the only answer commanders wanted to hear. It had taken the twelve-year-old prince less than twenty-four hours to demand it, and for the first eighteen the boy had been in a drug haze. (And Jee had found him stumbling in an empty corridor while his uncle was sleeping, and guided him back to bed with a hand on his shoulder and half-amused words, and had another six blissful hours to think that the kid looked a lot like his own nephew and not the teething tigerdillo he really was.)

 

"You'd better be! When we hit that shore—"

 

The ship crashed straight through a small snowbank. In retrospect, it was the village wall.

 

3: Sokka

The angry kid's ponytail was stupid, and he couldn't duck a boomerang to save himself a concussion, and he broke Sokka's spear in four places and hit him on the head with it like some kind of preemptive karmic revenge. Because, you know. Boomerang. To the head. Did Sokka mention the concussion?

 

But the important parts to focus on were the ponytail (which was stupid) and boomerang (which was effective), because it was either that or think too hard about how his Gran-Gran had just packed him and his little sister off to assault a Fire navy ship led by, apparently, a twelve-year-old. With a stupid ponytail. Who'd just kidnapped another twelve-year old. Who was bald. And did not have a concussion.

 

In a kinder world, Sokka would wake up on the ice with a bleeding head wound and an angry elephant-walrus bearing down on him and that's why his head hurt, just a regular old life-and-death situation out on the tundra, and none of this… this.

 

A man of the tribe can dream.

 

Yip yip.

Chapter Text

Zuko once snuck a turtleduckling into his room. His mom spent every summer morning afterwards counting the ducklings with him as they swam in the pond, her gentle way of saying I'll know if one goes missing, mister . Then his mom was gone. For awhile he had a reoccurring dream, where he counted each and every duckling, but he forgot to count her.

 

And then the messenger hawks realized the pond was undefended, and starting having turtleduck for breakfast.

 

"If you're going to have a pet, Zuzu, at least get one from the top of the food chain." Azula watched the ruthlessness of nature with some admiration and absolutely no intention of helping him hang this netting around the pond.

 

So Zuko got a messenger hawk (after he passed off netting duty to a servant).

 

"Send me a message, Zuzu!" Azula commanded, because she was still young enough to want things from her Big Brother but had always been too old to ask . So he wrote messages and the hawk swooped across the garden and delivered them, and sat goring a branch above her head as she wrote her replies, and circled back around to drop them off with him and circled to drop them off with her and circled and circled until, if they wanted to know what murder looked like, they only had to look into the hawk's eyes as it spun around the same stretch of walled-in ground over a flock of cowering turtleducks it couldn't reach.

 

"We should send one to mom," Azula said, and they sat next to each other and figured out what they could say to a missing mother, and then condensed it down to what they could say to a missing mother that fit in the hawk's carrier.

 

The hawk took the letter, side-eyed the turtleducks, and flew. It didn't come back and they never learned what happened to it. This was such an accurate impersonation of their mother that Azula didn't much care for pets after that.

 

She didn't like his owl-cat, which purred for him but not for her (singed hind paw, hit while fleeing; Zuko gave it to the girl who hummed while she did laundry in the courtyard, and it grew up fat and happy and only limped when it wasn't flying). She also didn't like the dog-lizard puppy he tried to share with her, which didn't bite the people she told it to no matter how carefully she trained it (he gave it to his tailor's son along with a gold coin that might have been a tip or hush money or an advancement on its food bills). She especially didn't like his ferrekeet, which... existed (her first lightning. His second funeral. The Fire Sages probably wouldn't like that he reused the speeches they'd written for Grandfather over its tiny pyre, but they were the only words he knew, and much different than the ones he shouted at Azula before and after and for a week until she got bored with him and/or had sufficient time to craft her reply. She still needed practice back then; he caught her sometimes, smiling perfect-teeth razor smiles at her mirror as she spoke the words that would make Ty Lee cry tomorrow. Or him, today.)

 

("Zuzu, really. A prince should be able to protect his own. Don't complain to me if you keep failing them.")

 

Zuko didn't get any pets after that.

 

Now he had his very own air-water-earth-firebender who wasn't any taller than he was, and he was just starting to realize how much bigger a responsibility this was, and how much worse he could fail, and what if he forgot to feed him and he died down in the brig before they even got back to Father.

 

Zuko was feeling a little dizzy as they walked onto the ship. Deep breaths. One Avatar. There, he'd counted him—now he couldn't leave.

 

The ship's ramp click-click- slammed closed behind them. Some girl in the village was throwing a fit and his head still hurt from the boomerang, but at least he had this staff… glider… thing to lean on.

 

"Your orders, Sir?"

 

Even behind the mask, Zuko could recognize Lieutenant Jee. He was the only crewman who could make Sir sound like There's no other ships to demote me to, but thanks for trying.

 

"What do you think?" Zuko used his Commander Voice. "Put him in the brig!"

 

The Lieutenant shifted his weight. He was also the only man who could make a creak of armor sound like It's your Uncle's fault.

 

Zuko narrowed his eyes at Uncle. Iroh chuckled his round, full-belly chuckle. On the one hand, it was good to hear because he hadn't laughed much since—(Lu Ten) (his real son)—since a while. But on the other hand, that chuckle was Not a Good Sign.

 

The brig, as it turned out, was full of tea ("The merchant gave me a discount for buying in bulk, it was quite the steal, we could sail for three years without running out!") And musical instruments ("For music night! Which works better with your schedule, Sundays or Sozindays?")

 

Zuko glared. Since the bandages had come off, he'd found it was the easiest expression to make. It didn't pull painfully at his scar like smiling, didn't burn salt-tracks in his skin like crying. And it was the only face he could make in the mirror that looked better than before. He looked Super Scary and grown up, which was good because he was twelve-almost-thirteen-in-a-year and someone had to be the adult on this ship.

 

Uncle smiled. "Since our brig needs cleaning, perhaps our guest would like tea while he waits?"

 

"Sure!" the Avatar smiled back.

 

Zuko continued to glare. He glared through the tea making, the tea pouring, the enthusiastic Thanks! of tea-cup-passing with still-bound hands. He especially glared at all the sipping and smiling. Zuko was not quite sure how keeping a prisoner worked, but he was certain something had gone wrong. It was time to get this back on track.

 

"Are you really a hundred and twelve?" he interrogated.

 

"Nope!" the Avatar smiled. "Just twelve and an iceberg. How about you?"

 

"How many elements have you mastered?"

 

"Less than twelve," the boy smiled.

 

Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose, which was a trick the ship's doctor had taught him to 'relieve headaches, tension, and excessive prepubescent yelling.'

 

"Why do you shave your head like that?" the Avatar was way, way too close, and Zuko was not entirely sure when he'd gotten to his side of the table but he wanted him gone.

 

"You're bald."

 

"I'm a monk!"

 

Zuko decided that he did not like anyone who talked in more than two consecutive exclamation points. One consecutive exclamation points. Any exclamation points.

 

"So… you're Fire Nation? Do you know Kuzon?"

 

"I know five." One of them was the owner of a re-homed dog-lizard that had grown big enough for a twelve-year-old to ride (he missed that dog-lizard, Azula was the worst. )

 

"—which is why we should be friends! So you'll untie me now, right?"

 

Zuko hadn't been paying attention to what the Avatar was saying. Ignoring prisoners, he decided, was a reasonable use of a prince's time. "No."

 

The Avatar stopped smiling for one beautiful moment. Then something hit the deck outside. Loudly. With follow-up shouting.

 

"Appa!"

 

"What's an Appa?"

 

An Appa was a flying bison. They were extinct-but-apparently-not. They were big enough for ten twelve-year-olds to ride. Zuko had never wanted something so badly in his entire life, except for his honor, but if he could have a flying bison and just name it Honor maybe his heart would stop hurting just looking at how awesome epic fluffy it was—

 

(Flammable. 'Flammable' was the word he was looking for. Azula would light it on fire, he could never go home if he had one, he probably shouldn't even stay in the same nation as her just to be on the safe side but since the Fire Nation's superiority was going to win the war and rule the world soon that meant he couldn't have one at all, even if an entire herd landed on his deck with little his-sized bison calves small enough to sneak into his room, uncle wouldn't even notice, he could probably just hide one behind a wall of tea boxes. But he couldn't because he had a little sister who was the literal worst. Regular, non-flying honor was the only kind Zuko could have that Azula couldn't torch.)

 

One deck fight later, Zuko couldn't quite bring himself to fireball the bison as it flew away. Shoot at it, sure, but he didn't have to hit .

 

The water tribe boy leaned over the edge of the saddle and tried hard to change his mind. "Your ponytail is stupid!"

 

Zuko responded the only way he knew how. "I hope your sister lights your bison on fire!"

 

Uncle appeared perplexed by this insult, like a man who half-understood, and half did not want to.

Chapter Text

"Uncle," Zuko began.

 

"The answers you seek," Iroh replied, "are inside yourself."

 

Which was not, and had never been, an answer to the question 'is my ponytail stupid.' He didn't need Uncle to answer—it was a phoenix plume not a ponytail and it was practical not stupid and he couldn't do anything else while the bandages were on and they only just came off and it was easier to shave every day than to wonder whether he'd wake up with hair stuck in his scab which was a nightmare on par with that one about loose baby teeth falling out—but Uncle had been avoiding answering the question. And that made Zuko wonder if maybe, possibly, what the Water Tribe peasant had shouted was true.

 

"Uncle—"

 

"A man whose image reflects his true self is a crane wading through still waters. If it does not turn around, how is it to see the ripples it spreads behind it?"

 

" Uncle ."

 

"Ah, Captain Zhao. What fortuitous timing!"

 

It was Commander Zhao, now. Zuko didn't have all the rank insignias memorized yet, but he knew Uncle did. And he knew Commander Zhao knew that Uncle did. But both of them smiled and pretended not to know what each other knew, and it was times like this that Zuko was almost glad he wasn't at court any more.

 

Though he'd be going back soon. Very soon.

 

Zhao was eyeing the Wani like a crocomander at a puppy-kitten buffet. "What happened to your ship, Prince Zuko?"

 

"I found the Avatar!" That was one exclamation point too many. Even the Avatar's name was his destined foe.

 

Zhao's mouth hung open, briefly. And Uncle didn't immediately invite the new Commander in for tea. Zuko wasn't sure which of these was the surer sign that he'd said something wrong.

 

He cleared his throat into his fist, and stood up straighter, which made him almost as tall as Uncle. "I found the Avatar. At the South Pole."

 

"Did you, now?" The puppy-kitten buffet was all-you-can-eat.

 

"I did," Zuko said. "And you're going to help me catch him."

 

"I am?" The crocomander hadn't eaten in three days.

 

"Prince outranks Commander," Zuko said, with the absolute confidence of someone waking from a month-long nightmare back to a world where everything made the simple sort of sense.

 

The crocomander choked.

 

%%%

 

Responses Zhao could have made, but didn't:

 

Banished prince. You don't outrank me, any of my men, any of your men. You don't even outrank my boots.

 

Wan Shi Tong keeps a library of everything you don't outrank. Hint: it's more than Ten Thousand Things.

 

Or, more concisely:

 

Your father should have aimed for your mouth.

 

The prince had been banished a month ago. Banished, exiled except for a mocking technicality, sent on a wild goose-snipe hunt until he figured out that 'banished' meant 'your presence is no longer required'. The Avatar hadn't been seen for a hundred years, the Avatar cycle had broken when the nomads burned, the Avatar was gone .

 

But General Iroh wasn't chuckling, and the Banished Prince's crew were banging dents out of his ship like the fate of the Fire Nation depended on it.

 

A Banished Prince held no rank. But a Banished Prince who'd found a legend in only a month? Zhao had a successful policy of bootlicking first, backstabbing second. He bowed, hand over fist.

 

"You do me honor, my Prince."

 

The Commander exchanged further pleasantries to the boy's half-beaming half-hideous face, avoided the General's all-smiling cold-fire stare, and went directly to his own ship to write to the Fire Lord.



%%%

 

In the Fire Lord's court, the Prince's banishment was a joke. The kind that wasn't funny so much as instructive: the kind to be laughed at when the Fire Lord was laughing, to make sure you were seen laughing, too.

 

Go and find the Avatar , the Fire Lord said. I'll welcome you home just as soon as you do . And off the little prince went, with his uncle waddling behind like a mother turtleduck whose own chicks had been eaten by a messenger hawk. Or an Earth Kingdom army.

 

It was a joke, until the first letter arrived.

 

(Not the Prince's letters—those were hawk exercise, and nothing more. Kindling with ink, piled on a table next to Ozai's real work, waiting for the Fire Lord to notice them enough to warrant burning. Words to a father who hadn't listened to a word past please .)

 

The Prince's mission was a joke, and then it wasn't.

 

The Prince was at the South Pole just in time to see the Avatar awaken. The Prince had fought against an ancient bending art and held his own, had captured a legend, the Prince was on his trail even after the Avatar crippled his ship in an escape after another legend crashed on his deck.

 

The Prince had flushed out their nation's greatest enemy in the same year the sun would go dark and the comet would return, a year where greatest weakness came before greatest strength with the absolute certainty of the heavens.

 

In the court of the Fire Lord, the nobles began to whisper a different punchline. The Fire Lord stopped laughing. Zhao received a hawk, the reply as swift as the original message.

 

Ozai shut himself in his rooms, and read his son's letters from the beginning.

Chapter Text

Their latest intelligence placed the Avatar on Kyoshi Island. Which was weird, since the last hawk from Commander Zhao placed him at a port town in the Earth Kingdom. But Zhao's hawk had come yesterday, and their information was from today. There was only one explanation.

 

"Sky bison must fly at truly astonishing rates," Zuko declared. He would not underestimate this fluffy foe.

 

"I am sure you are right, Prince Zuko," his uncle said. "What will you do when we get there? It will be difficult to crash into a village on solid land."

 

Zuko scowled. Crash into one village full of women, children, and the elderly. He just wished he'd run over the boomerang guy. "Of course not. We'll take a squad of komodo-rhinos—"

 

"Ah. Trampling instead of crashing."

 

"Let's see you come up with a better idea!"

 

Uncle's idea started with a haircut, and progressed to Earth Kingdom clothes and an unassuming boat he just happened to have on board, as if he had always meant to convince Zuko to leave their Fire Nation ship with only the two of them. It was probably a sign of the old General's tactical genius, but Zuko wasn't focusing on that part.

 

"...So the ponytail is stupid," he mumbled.

 

"If you are to infiltrate as a refugee—"

 

"Why didn't anyone tell me ? And I can't just cut it off, it's a symbol of my—" ' honor' got stuck in the back of his throat. 'Station' was a weak substitute. Even if he was practically un-banished, and any day now he'd be going home. Where Azula would definitely make fun of his hair and probably write on his shaved head while he was asleep (or have Ty Lee chi-block him so she could do it while he was awake). Oh Agni, the Water Tribe peasant was right.

 

Uncle did that weird thing he did, where he reached out and wrapped his arms around Zuko and didn't let go even when Zuko's stiff shoulders turned to flailing. "Nephew. When you return to court, you will want a proper head of hair, won't you? And I could not in good conscience allow you to grow it back unevenly. That would look stupid."

 

He finally released the struggling boy. Zuko flushed, and straightened his clothes, and finally nodded. Uncle knew where he kept his shaving supplies; he gathered them, and sat behind him, and talked to distract Zuko as his head felt lighter and lighter and colder and colder.

 

"Our spies who return report quite favorably of Kyoshi." Uncle kept talking before Zuko could quite parse that statement. "They even have a lovely beach! I am not sure it's for swimming, though… Oh! And they attack all newcomers on sight, so do not fear they have uncovered us as Fire Nation. It is simply part of their quaint local greeting!"

 

"This place is neutral ?"

 

%%%

 

As the wooden boat hit the shore, Suki's first thought was another bald kid? Her second was a sigh. Her third was better get the blindfolds.

 

The old man chuckled indulgently as they restrained him. The kid squawked, and got a solid kick in on Aoki's stomach before they got him trussed up, and kept trying to fight blind and hand-tied even after. Suki slung him over her shoulder. He kicked ineffectually at her back the entire way into town.

 

She kind of liked him.

 

%%%

 

Uncle hadn't mentioned the blindfolds. The not-scary-at-all-he-was-a- prince blindfolds, the it-was-just-a-tactical-disadvantage-he-hadn't-been-expecting blindfolds, the ow-ow- ow -it-was-cutting-into-his- burn blindfolds.

 

He couldn't see the person carrying him, but he knew they had kidneys, and he did his best to kick them into submission.

 

"Tie them to the statue?" one of their assailants asked. A girl. Which was no surprise, because all the worst people in the world were girls.

 

"Hmm. Traditional, but aren't they still re-painting that?" the one carrying him replied. She shifted him on her shoulder. He took this as a sign of her discomfort, and renewed his kidney assault. She patted him on the back. He redoubled his kidney assault. "Let's just drop them at the dojo until the headman can come. I think I have a date with an idiot, anyway."

 

There was a lot of girlie tittering. Another sign that he and Uncle were in the clutches of evil.

 

Zuko preemptively set his glare to maximum force as he was dumped on the ground.

 

"All right, let's see what we've got this time." The leader ripped off his blindfold. Ripped . Zuko clamped his teeth together and blinked hard and didn't cry his eyes just stung. "Oh, that's… a little oozy. Sorry. Aoki, go get him some bandages. You got a name, kid?"

 

(When he'd asked Uncle what he should say, what backstory they should use, Iroh's reply had been simple: "Just be yourself. I am sure they will find you delightful!" Zuko had never been so sure that words so close to his mother's were actually an insult. And then Iroh added, because he apparently assumed his nephew was an idiot who didn't know when to keep quiet: "The best story is one that is based in truth. But do not mention the Fire Nation. Or firebending. Or being a prince. And, perhaps, you should abstain from the phrase 'Dragon of the West.' Oh! We need new names!" )

 

"I don't need your apologies and I don't need your bandages and I don't need to tell you my name!" Zuko shouted.

 

"This is my charming nephew, Li," his traitorous Uncle said. "And I am—"

 

"Uncle Mushi," Zuko declared, because it was the stupidest name he could think up on the spot.

 

Uncle coughed. "Yes. Mushi. We are but humble refugees—"

 

Zuko didn't like their cover story anymore, it was stupid and undignified and he refused to be a part of it. "I'm not a refugee! I just... can't go home. Right now. But I will!"

 

"—seeking a safe, neutral place for my nephew to recover from his wounds."

 

"If I had my—" bending "—swords, you never would have beaten me!"

 

"Because we're girls?" one of them asked, with a hand on her hip. It sounded like a continuation of a conversation he was no part of.

 

"What does that have to do with anything?" Girls are terrifying , was the emphatic subtext of this sentence.

 

"Can we keep him?" another one asked. Zuko turned his glare on her, which somehow was her cue to clasp her hands over her heart and make a high-pitched sound like a boarquipine sitting on its own quills.

 

Another girl returned with a roll of bandages, which prompted Uncle to further treachery. "Thank you, kind ladies. You may wish to keep my nephew restrained until the bandages are in place."

 

" Uncle! "

 

The leader raised an eyebrow. "No offense, but we're not untying either of you just yet."

 

"Are you sure? I could make us tea while we wait for your headman. I brought my pot!"

 

One of the girls nudged uncle's bag with her foot. Zuko heard a slight porcelain click.

 

" Uncle ," he groaned, and let the girl with the bandages touch his face, because it had to be less embarrassing than this. As she dressed his wound, he tried to ignore the mounting pity and understanding in her eyes, because it was all wrong . "Stop it. You think you know what happened but you don't ."

 

"Really? Because it looks like you took a fireball to the face." She grabbed his chin, and tilted his head. "Close range. Didn't even have a chance to dodge, did you?"

 

He glared. And finally, finally , she looked past his stupid scar to see him . Green eyes met gold. She hissed, and dropped his chin. "Fire Nation."

 

Uncle sighed, very dramatically. "We are indeed colonials. But as you can tell from his stubbornness, my nephew is just as much of Earth as he is of Fire. We do not bring the war with us."

 

This was such a blatant lie that Zuko turned his scowl to the ground, and kept quiet as the girl finished tying his newest bandages off. The wrapped fabric felt comforting and familiar, which was stupid. Just as stupid as Uncle's the best story is one that is based on truth. He should have just trampled into town with komodo-rhinos. At least trampling was honest.

 

The door of the dojo slid open.

 

"Suki?" the Water Tribe boy asked. Then he blinked down at Zuko and Uncle.

 

%%%

 

"Oh good," Sokka said. "More prisoners. That's, ah... that's really a hobby of yours, isn't it?"

 

And maybe, in retrospect, he should probably have definitely recognized the little prince and the old guy. But he'd only seen the old guy once, from a rapidly-flying-higher bison. And the Fire Prince's distinctive features (in Sokka Vision) were his stupid ponytail, his that-had-to-sting scar, and his My Little Megalomaniac suit of armor that made him look like he had some kind of heft . Width. Whatever. And he'd only actually seen the kid twice. And in further retrospect, he was going to feel like a real jerk when he realized he recognized small children by their stupid hair, clothing style, and disfiguring facial features. But right at this particular non-retrospective moment in time, when he saw a little bald kid with a bandage over half his head who gave Aang a run for his money in the twiggy build department (except for those biceps. Tui and La, Sokka was not jealous but he wouldn't be opposed to comparing training notes), his first thought was less "holy crap, the enemy!" and more "I sure hope bald isn't Suki's type." Because it seemed a little bit like she had a collection going.

 

"I was hoping we could, ah," he cleared his throat. Squared his shoulders, ran a hand over his wolf tail, and brought out the suave. "I was hoping to show you how a real man fights."

 

The kid glared murder at his boomerang. Since this wasn't actually a change in his expression, Sokka didn't notice.

 

Suki's smile was crafted by the finest spirits. Or by Koh. He really wasn't clear on which, not even after the first (second, third, and oh hey here comes the fourth) times she slammed him into the tatami mats.

 

The kid hit his head back against the wall. "Please blindfold me again. Please. His footwork is physically painful to watch."

 

"You think you could do better?" Sokka sniped in his general direction, mostly, plus or minus the spinning room.

 

" Yes ."

 

The entire world revolved around Suki's smirk, in a way that was probably more metaphorical than literal.

 

%%%

 

Zuko was mildly insulted at being untied. Like they thought he wasn't a threat. (If he wanted to be untied he could have just burned his way out, thank you .) And then he demanded swords and they gave them to him , which was even worse. And then he took it out on the women's leader, and his footwork was perfect, but he still ended up on his back. He blamed the lack of depth perception.

 

"Ha!" the Water Tribe peasant said.

 

Zuko spun on his hands, and scythed the teenager's legs out from under him without even getting up. " Ha ."

 

"But seriously," one of the warriors whispered to another, a lot more loudly than she probably meant to. "We're keeping him, right?"

 

"Fire Nation," the other whispered back. "Don't get attached to the unagi bait."

 

"Wait, Fire Nation?" The peasant was just starting to get up. Zuko kicked his legs out from under him again, derailing that train of thought like a face to the floor. "...Ow."

 

"Get up," Zuko ordered.

 

" Excuse me , you're the one who keeps—"

 

"Get up and keep up."

 

Tag-teaming a foe was not dishonorable. It was strategic. And he wasn't getting revenge for blindfolds or just-a-fluke defeats, he was testing his enemies' fighting acumen in a controlled environment while waiting for the Avatar to collect his team idiot from Dojo Daycare.

Chapter Text

Zuko was sprawled back on the tatami mats. Not because he was gulping in air and his everything hurt—that was just what he wanted them to think. He was just lowering their guard, one wheeze-groan at a time.

 

"I hear you, little buddy," the Water Tribe peasant said, from a similarly horizontal arrangement. Somehow he made it look more comfortable, like laying around was a particular skill of his.

 

"Shut," Zuko wheezed, "up."

 

"Don't think I'm physically capable of that, little buddy. But I'll take it under advisement."

 

Zuko growled vaguely in his direction.

 

"Now that you're all tuckered out," the insufferable had-to-be-cheating-somehow leader of the local teenaged kidnapping squad smirked, "It's time to go for walksies. Come on. The headman is ready to see you."

 

Zuko elbowed a ribcage or two in token protest as they took away his swords and tied him up again, but mostly he was just very sulky dead weight. Because he was conserving his strength. Not because he was tuckered out.

 

"Are you going to blindfold us again?" He glowered off to the side, so no one would think he actually cared about the answer.

 

"Are you going to memorize the layout of our village and use it for nefarious purposes?"

 

Zuko's head snapped around. "Um. ...No?"

 

"All right, then. No blindfolds. Come on, Sokka. You can come too. Aang's going to help judge them."

 

"Who's Aang?" Zuko asked.

 

Uncle sighed quietly, in that way he did when Zuko had missed an answer days ago.

 

***

 

Pro: Aang hadn't been eaten by the unagi.

 

Con: Getting eaten by the unagi was probably the only way to catch Katara's attention. He'd have to try harder. (To get Katara's attention. Not to get eaten.)

 

Pro: Everyone on Kyoshi loved him. He had a whole fan club!

 

Con: But nobody wanted to see his marble trick anymore.

 

Pro: The village headman had called on him to help judge Fire Nation refugees. This was great, it practically proved that all four nations could live together again!

 

Con: The unagi had looked really hangry the last time it had snapped at him. And for that matter, why had it snapped at him? Most wild animals, especially marine ones, didn't just leap out and try to eat people. Unless they'd gotten used to it. Maybe from having bound-and-wriggling prisoners dumped into the ocean enough times that it got over its aversion to small-weird-biped-things and finally took a bite and decided 'now I have tasted of the flesh of men, and no elephant koi shall ever sate me again!' (He had to say that part in a really dramatic theatre voice in his head, and laugh a little nervously out loud afterwards, because if he didn't laugh than it might not be funny and—)

 

Not that he was going to accuse anyone of murdering people! Traditional island greetings were great and it had been a lot of (scary) fun (of the good kind!) to be ambushed and blindfolded and tied to a statue of his past life and threatened with unagi death, but they'd let him and Sokka and Katara and Momo go right away, and Appa hadn't even shown up for any of it, so he must never have been in serious danger at all! It was just a… a quaint local greeting! Aang was sure they'd never been serious . About the feeding. To the unagi. Which seemed to really, really home in on anyone who jumped in the water, like people where its favorite treats...

 

Maybe one of their prisoners had just gotten scared at some point, and run off the end of the pier. By accident. Definitely not on purpose. Or with pushing. People didn't do that to each other, especially not the people of Kyoshi, everyone here was so nice! (To the Avatar.) (But what if he wasn't?)

 

Pro: And besides, he was definitely judging that the refugees could stay no matter who they were, so it wouldn't be a problem anyway!

 

***

 

"Fans are stupid," Sokka's new little fiery-tempered buddy said, with all the blunt stubbornness two hours of getting right back up immediately after Suki had beaten him down had led Sokka to expect. "You need a sword."

 

Sokka stumbled like he was the one tied up in excessive rope. "Ix-nay on the tupid-say an-fay, eah-yay?" He jerked a thumb over his shoulder to Suki. Who was walking right behind them. And, judging by that raised eyebrow, was waiting to hear exactly how stupid the little guy thought fans were and exactly how much Sokka (definitely did not!) agree with him so she could decide exactly how hard to make them both eat dirt. Of which there was plenty, in this road up to the village meeting house. Plenty, and hard-packed, and with lots of embedded rocks whose acquaintance he was not eager to make.

 

"I have no idea what you just said. Where those even words? Does the Water Tribe lose the ability to talk coherently when confronted with logic?"

 

What logic, 'fans are stupid' is NOT logic and Her fans sure seemed to beat your swords, and what was with the—admittedly cool—dual-wielding anyway, aren't you a little young to be overcompensating and Racist, much? all tried to come out of Sokka's mouth at the same time, resulting in sputtering. Very eloquent, semi-coherent sputtering.

 

Suki came to his rescue. Or the rescue of her island's traditional culture. Whichever. "Fans are the weapons Avatar Kyoshi herself left us."

 

"Yeah. Avatar Kyoshi. Who could airbend. "

 

"You don't have to airbend to make full use of a war fan—"

 

Having spent all afternoon with him, Sokka was beginning to appreciate the gradations in the kid's glares. This one meant Think that through again, idiot , or maybe just Idiot with the rest implied in the subtext. It was really quite the skill. Sokka dared not dream of the teenie-tiny wrath that would be unleashed on the world when that bandage came off, and the kid could glare with both sides of his face.

 

Suki was sputtering (and some of her words sounded a lot like 'unagi'), so Sokka came to her rescue this time. Or possibly the kid's. Probably both, because a true hunter can hit two targets with one boomerang.

 

"If you are an expert of such unparalleled heights ," he waved a hand over the kid's head because hey, bonus short joke, "then please, elucidate us lower mortals on the superiority of swords vis a vis fans."

 

"Did you just use every big word you know? Uncle, am I supposed to give him a cracker now?"

 

Sokka returned to sputtering. Some of his words sounded a lot like 'unagi', too.

 

"Ah," the old man said, tilting his head back to the sky. "I believe I have an appropriate proverb—"

 

"Okay fine . Fans are all right on Kyoshi but since I will hopefully never see you in makeup again , it's going to be really hard for you to find teachers off the island. Or weapons-smiths that can make or repair fans and not just charge you a ton of money for your exotic weapon needs while they pretend they know what they're doing. Swords are common, and they don't attract attention, and you can find teachers anywhere, which is really useful because even though sticking with one master is the smart thing to do sometimes you can't because stupid—" the kid trailed off into something unintelligible that sounded like a mixed between 'Pain-dao said Uncle couldn't pay him enough for this' and 'Azalea' (what did flowers have to do with anything? And wait, why were flowers setting things on fire? )

 

"So what you're saying," Sokka stroked his chin hairs. His beard-in-progress. His three little pride and joys that were definitely there and he didn't need to squint to see them, shut up Katara. "Is if I want to get straight answers out of you, I just need to threaten you with proverbs? Ooh, try this one! 'If a cowapotamus produces enough milk for cheese, isn't it grate?' No, sorry, that was just a pun. I'm not sure I actually know any proverbs. Oh, how about this one—'What did the flying bison say as he sent his son off to see the world?"

 

"I will murder you. "

 

" 'Bison!' Okay, not my best, admittedly. Kind of put the punchline in the lead up. I penguin-otter be ashamed."

 

The kid's sputterings started to sound like 'unagi', too. It was just another bonding moment that they'd shared in this long, physically-and-mentally bruising afternoon. Sokka threw an arm over his little buddy's shoulders.

 

"Man, I love having a captive audience."

 

Suki giggle-snorted out her nose. It was the most beautiful sound in the world. (Actually, no, it was kind of gross. But adora-gross .)

 

And so they arrived at the village meeting house, having stripped their Fire Nation captives (one of them, anyway) of the desire to live. Just another day's work for Team Avatar's tactical genius and weaponized punster.

 

Aang and Katara were already seated up at the headman's long table, and there were villagers with murderous stares gathered all around that nice accusingly open space they'd left on the bare floor for the prisoners to kneel on. Yeah. Sokka kept up his steady stream of hilarity as they entered, because maybe his amazing people skills would rub off and someone would stop radiating unmitigated hate long enough to see that they were judging a jovial old guy and an injured kid, not… not the Fire Lord himself. Or something. Seriously. Sokka was not liking the vibes in this room. His last joke wandered off when he forgot the punchline (or maybe he'd said it twice?), and Katara was gesturing him towards an empty seat, so he kind of awkwardly pat-patted the kid on the shoulder one last time before he took a slow step sideways and—

 

And that's when Aang sat up straight and beamed like all his last hundred birthday parties had hit at once.

 

"I like your hair!" he said to the kid. "And I love your dress," he told Sokka.

 

Which was approximately the point the injured kid and the jovial old guy burned through their ropes and that whole in-retrospect-he-should-have-recognized thing kicked in and the Prince of the Fire Nation threw a fireball at Aang. Two fireballs, actually. They kind of fizzled out before they actually did any damage, but the way Aang had to stop talking to dodge was somehow deeply satisfying.

 

"...Aww. Was that second one for me?" Sokka asked.

 

The kid nodded tersely.

 

"Thanks, little buddy. Wait, no, not thanks. Thanks retracted— !"

Chapter Text

The Water Tribe peasant was squawking about how fireballs aren't the answer, but there weren't any ear-bleed-inducing puns involved, and that was stupid advice anyway, so Zuko ignored him. He crossed his arms and stood up straight and met his fated foe's gaze.

 

"Avatar. I will accept your surrender, now."

 

Behind him were sounds of war fans, crashes, and disarming chuckles. "Kind ladies," Uncle said. "You have been such gracious hosts. It would be quite unfortunate if you should make an old man fight seriously inside a flammable structure with most of your village assembled, would it not? Perhaps you should hear my nephew out."

 

"Kyoshi island is neutral!" the leader of the fan warriors shouted, like someone had just fireballed her owl-cat.

 

"And it would be a shame if reports to the contrary reached the Fire Lord. Reports of, say, aiding the Fire Nation's greatest enemy? A simple mistake, I am sure. Now that we have informed you that he is not merely an airbender, but the Avatar himself, I am sure you will allow for his peaceful and voluntary extradition. I have a new ginseng blend you simply must try, Avatar Aang."

 

"I do like ginseng…"

 

"Aang." The Water Tribe boy facepalmed. "Aang, no."

 

"But Sokka, these people believe in the Avatar. I need to protect them. Besides, it's really easy to escape from Zuko's ship."

 

" Hey! We cleaned out the brig, now!"

 

"And put in new sheets," Uncle confirmed, which Zuko did not think helped the point.

 

"And if you don't surrender, we'll burn this village to the ground," Zuko continued, in an attempt to get things back on track. "Our ship is meeting us here with orders. If you're not on the dock with us and ready to leave when they arrive, my men will bring a whole squad of komodo-rhinos out and trample everything ."

 

"But I get tea before I get put in the brig, right?"

 

"You can have tea in the brig!" Even as he shouted it, Zuko was sure that negotiations always went somehow wrong when the Avatar was involved.

 

"Well all right, then! I surrender. (It's okay, I'm not really surrendering.) I'm surrendering, and coming with you to the Fire Nation to await my tragic fate. (No really, Suki, I'll be fine.) Oh, woe is me. (Sokka, can you wait an hour before you bring Appa? It's really good tea. )"

 

Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose. "I can hear you when you whisper."

 

"(Guys, I think he can hear—)"

 

" Even when you whisper behind your hand. Uggh." Zuko grabbed the Avatar's arm, and dragged him outside. He tried to ignore all the waving and smiling the airbender did on their way out.

 

They bumped into another fan warrior in the doorway. "Suki, come quick—it's the Fire Nation! They're attacking!"

 

For the second time since Zuko had met him, the Avatar stopped smiling. Then an airblast sent Zuko out the door, and down the street, and tumbling into the wall of a building.

 

"You promised. You said you wouldn't attack if I surrendered!"

 

And there were a lot of things Zuko could have replied to that with, like Well the last time you made a promise to me you ran away the second you could and You were JUST whispering about how you weren't really surrendering , but for some reason he felt the urge to defend himself. "There has to be a mistake! They're too early, and they weren't supposed to really attack unless we gave the signal, and—" He dodged a second airblast. Whoever had said airbenders were pacifists hadn't made one mad .

 

Uncle placed himself back-to-back with Zuko, taking up a defensive stance as a ring of warriors surrounded them. The makeup didn't look half as stupid when the faces behind it were angry. And the war fans suddenly looked very, very sharp.

 

Houses were already burning at the waterfront. There was a Fire Nation ship in the harbor, a big one, way bigger than the Wani .

 

"Zhao," Uncle said, which cleared up most of Zuko's questions. Zhao might be one of his family's most loyal supporters, but he could get a little overeager. How had he even known to be here, though?

 

***

 

It wasn't that Commander Zhao liked watching the world burn. No, he didn't like burning down the occasional town anymore than he liked vandalizing libraries or planning fish fries. He did not do these things for fun. They just happened to be fun. Zhao had found that the world rewarded men who enjoyed their jobs.

 

"Isn't Kyoshi neutral? Sir."

 

"Your objection has been noted, Lieutenant," and oh, how very noted it was. "But may I remind you of one simple fact."

 

"Sir?"

 

"There are few places more neutral than smoldering rocks."

 

And what a tragedy if Prince Zuko happened to be on that rock. Why, only yesterday Zhao himself had advised the Prince to turn his search far north; how could the Commander possibly have predicted the presence of royalty here? Why, no one could. In fact, Zhao was quite certain no one would ever know what had truly happened to the Fire Nation's lost Prince. Probably killed by the Avatar. How tragic. How good for the country to rally around. The Fire Lord always appreciated little touches like that.

 

"Get my rhino saddle, Lieutenant. This town needs a personal touch."

 

And it would be better if his men didn't see exactly who they were burning.

 

***

 

"Kind ladies—" Uncle's negotiating skills had broken down sometime between the fires starting and the calls of rhinos being set loose in the streets. Probably the only reason they weren't being finely-sliced into sashimi for the unagi was because most of the girls had left to deal with the town's actual attackers. Which he and Uncle weren't . But that was really hard to explain when no one was listening to them anymore. Zuko wasn't even sure where the Avatar had gone, except he had a sinking feeling it involved using air to attack people in a town that was very-on-fire and he wasn't sure if anyone had ever taught the airbender the phrase 'fanning flames'. Zuko looked from one hostile white-painted face to another, and finally settled on—

 

"Water Tribe!"

 

The peasant's fan drooped a little. "Did you really spend all afternoon fighting next to me without learning my name?"

 

"I— Well— Do you know mine? "

 

"Zuko. It's Zuko. But you were going by Li earlier. Little. Buddy."

 

"...Okay, but clearly I'm more important than you anyway, of course you would know my name! But that's not the point. I need to—"

 

" Excuse me?"

 

"I need to get to Commander Zhao so—"

 

"Back up to the 'you're more important' bit."

 

"—get to Commander Zhao so I can order him to stop would you shut up and get me there!"

 

The idiot stuck a finger in his ear, and twirled it. "Okay, now back up to the part where I take orders from you."

 

The town was really on fire now. So this is what it would have looked like, if he'd gone with his original plan. If Uncle hadn't talked him out of it. Zuko smelled smoke and burning wood and, and—

 

"Okay, all right! Sokka , can you please get these morons to stop pointing sharp things at us long enough to save their worthless town without firebending them out of the way for their own safety?"

 

***

 

Sokka slapped a hand against his forehead, and dragged it down. He had a lot of questions about this situation, like If you knew my name why were you trying so hard not to say it and Is it possible for you to get any ruder and What is this, some kind of Rage Altruism?

 

"You're not going anywhere," one of the Kyoshi warriors said—not Suki, Suki had gone to kick some firebender butt. Umm. Other firebender butt. "The people who lied to us all day are not suddenly trying to help, Sokka. They're just trying to escape to their ship."

 

"That's… actually a reasonable concern," Sokka acknowledged.

 

"That's actually not a bad idea," the old guy mumbled.

 

"But on the other hand," Sokka said, "I'm pretty sure if the old guy really wanted to escape, he'd just fireball us."

 

"This is also true," the old guy helpfully acknowledged.

 

"But he's playing nice. So. Maybe they're serious about calling this off? I mean, their plan to catch Aang was working, why light things on fire now ? So how about I escort them in case of villainous backstabbing, and you run off to do the fan thing to some firebender faces. You know you want to."

 

They really, really did. The remaining Kyoshi warriors looked at eachother. Then they nodded to him. And left him alone, with the two firebenders who'd been lying to them all day. One of whom was the Fire Nation's Prince. Son of You-Know-Who. And the other one… Sokka was not really clear on who the old guy was, actually.

 

"So when he calls you 'uncle', that's on his mother's side, right?"

 

The old guy smiled benevolently. Somehow, this was one of the most terrifying things Sokka had ever seen in his life.

 

Fortunately, about two minutes later, a fireball almost took his head off. So that definitely helped him reassess his priorities. Especially when the taking-off-his-head thing was only incidental , because he was pretty sure it had been aimed at—

 

***

 

The Banished Prince scowled, and finished shaking fire off his sleeves. "Zhao! Watch where you're aiming!"

 

"Ah, Prince Zuko. I didn't see you there." Zhao did not bother getting off his rhino. He rather liked feeling like a volcano-god looking down on mortal earth-dwellers.

 

"Sure you didn't," some especially scrawny Kyoshi warrior had the audacity to back-talk. The girl took up position right next to one of the prince's shoulders, her fan held at the ready. Interesting.

 

"An honest mistake, I am sure," General Iroh said, taking position on the boy's other side, his stance no less ready. And somehow, everyone present knew exactly what they were talking about except the person they were talking about.

 

The ignorant prince crossed his arms. "Commander Zhao, I order you to stop this attack. Remove your men from this island immediately. You are hindering my plans."

 

General Iroh's fingertips crackled with the light of his other option.

 

"...Of course, my Prince. Since you appear to have concern for these…" he eyed the Kyoshi warrior, her fan, and her three chin hairs. "...Peasants, shall I have my men put out their fires before they go?"

 

There was such a fine line between helping and controlled demolition , after all.

 

The General laid a hand on the prince's shoulder. "That will not be necessary. My nephew requires more practice in extinguishing fires he has started."

 

"But I didn't—"

 

"And besides, I would not wish to keep you from your ship. Nor you to keep us from ours." Iroh's smile was wide. "The Wani is quite small, but so is that dock! You really must be gone before our crew arrives. Your ship really is quite a large target. "

 

"Of course, General."

 

"Retired." Wide, and toothy as any dragon standing over its hatchling.

 

The prince was tilting his head. "How did you even know to be here? Didn't you think the Avatar was in that Earth Kingdom port?"

 

"Ah, but then we heard a new report. I rushed to assist you, my Prince. I thought only to keep the Avatar occupied until you had a chance to arrive. But your superior hunting instincts prevailed, and you were already here. Imagine my surprise."

 

"Well that's not suspicious," the warrior deadpanned. "At all."

 

Zhao smirked. "Sky bison must fly at truly astonishing rates."

 

This seemed to more than satisfy the little prince. It never really mattered what the other two thought; the Kyoshi girl didn't matter to begin with, and the General had already formed his own assumptions. Correct ones, no doubt. But he couldn't be with the boy every moment, and they both knew which of them was in the Fire Lord's favor.

 

Zhao bowed low, to hide the wide curve of his smile. "By your leave, my Prince."

 

***

 

Sokka let his fan drop to his side as Skeezy Sideburns rode away, and really wished he'd had more than basic I can bluff a starting stance weapons training so he could have done something. If something had needed doing. Or even that he was carrying boomerang right now, because the man's open back and stunning lack of helmet were just asking for some target practice.

 

"You know, I'm pretty sure that guy is trying to kill you."

 

His little buddy puffed out his chest. "Commander Zhao is one of my father's most loyal supporters."

 

"Uh-huh. Does your father not like you, or something?"

 

Which was about the point the prince fireballed him . Or, okay, fireballed his fire-resistant combat skirts. But still. Totally uncalled for. Also all the yelling, and threats of second-or-third-degree violence. Sheesh. Sokka could take a hint. Friendship revoked.

 

****

 

Zuko knew that putting out the stupid fires that Zhao's stupid men had stupid started wasn't something he should have ever agreed to. It wasn't his fault, and Zhao had offered to have his men do it for them, and everyone in town was glaring at them and yelling at them to hurry up there's more over here at least try to be useful you ashmakers and they didn't even seem to realize how hard it was to put out fires to begin with, much less bright warm town-sized raging fires that just wanted to chew their way from support beams to ceiling and wave to the sky with Agni's own cheer. They were so happy and Zuko was killing them and some of these houses weren't even salvageable anyway, the Kyoshi peasants were just being stingy . And it was really exhausting and he'd already been tuck—he'd already been conserving his strength and he didn't know much more he had and then

 

and then.

 

And then the Avatar dumped unagi vomit on everything.

 

Zuko stood in the middle of a steaming town. Holding his arms out to the side. Dripping, and noting, in the part of his mind that wasn't screaming, that the town was cheering for vomit even though they'd only had curses for advanced firebending. And there was probably a lesson about international relations in there, but Zuko was going to have to take a shower and burn these clothes before he could deal with politics.

 

"Well," Uncle said. "That is certainly one way, to… ah…" Words failed him. Zuko completely understood. "Oh look, our ship. We should probably stop them before they unload the rhinos."

 

"Probably," Zuko said, as he watching the Avatar do some kind of mid-air somersault over the bay and land on his sky bison and fly away. Not covered in unagi vomit.

 

Uncled squeezed his shoulder and went to yell at Lieutenant Jee. Zuko continued standing. And dripping. Until suddenly the leader of the warriors was in front of him, staring down at him like he was exactly as disgusting as he currently felt.

 

"Leave," she said.

 

Zuko lowered his damp arms back to his sides, and tried not to process the squelch sound his armpits made. "We have burn medicines on board for my, ah. We could—"

 

"Just leave."

 

"This isn't what I wanted to happen," he felt some bizzare desire to explain. "That's why only Uncle and I came, so we wouldn't have to fight, and—"

 

She was very silent. And everything was dripping and awful, and smelled like salt and smoke, and he didn't even have the Avatar, and something in this felt like the thing Uncle had said about fires he had started and now he had to put out.

 

Zuko bowed. Hand over fist, forty-five degrees, the lowest bow permitted to royalty for a formal apology to a rank inferior (but she was a military commander, so he realized he could deepen it to sixty-five on a technicality). Then he went to go yell at Lieutenant Jee, too.

 

***

 

"So you really didn't recognize him?" Katara asked. Again.

 

"Yes! No. Eventually! Did you ?" Sokka could have really used an unagi-shower. This makeup was not coming off.

 

"Of course!" She sounded all indignant about it, but that was a big load of she only recognized him because he was throwing fireballs . If she'd met him earlier in the day when he'd been all pint-sized and prickly, Katara probably would have snuck him into their saddlebags when he wasn't watching. "...Sokka, did you steal a sword?"

 

"No!"

 

"Did you at least steal it off the Fire Nation?"

 

"I did not steal a sword at all! I was gifted a sword, thank you. And a fan." Suki had found him on their way out of town. Alone. And, umm. Well there had definitely been a sword scabbard shoved into his chest and then a hand in his wolf tail and then she'd kissed him and slipped a fan down the back of his belt and he wasn't sure which, but one of those was definitely the sexiest thing that had ever happened to him.

 

"...Sokka? Are you okay? You look like you're starting to get a fever."

 

"I am completely fine, little sister!" Sokka coughed his cracking voice back under submission and dodged the hand she was trying to put against his probably-very-red-if-she-could-tell-through-the-paint-smears forehead. "But I think we should focus on the important thing, here."

 

And they both turned to the airbender in their midst, who smiled, and ducked his head between his shoulders in the best turtle-seal impression this side of the equator.

 

"Aang, you have got to stop surrendering every time Little Prince Anger Problems threatens a village. That is setting the kind of precedent I don't think we should encourage."

 

"But—"

 

"I don't care how delicious the tea is!"

Chapter Text

The prison rig was very dented.

 

"The Avatar's been here," his nephew said, leaning over the bow railing to look in exactly the way that made Iroh most nervous.

 

"Prince Zuko, not everything that goes wrong with the Fire Nation or its properties is the Avatar's fault. For example, if you were to fall into the sea right now, that would not be the Avatar's responsibility."

 

"I'm not going to fall," the prince snapped.

 

Iroh drew in a slow breath and raised a finger in his Proverbing Pose. The boy scowled, and slid down until his feet were touching the deck again.

 

"Shall we give our regards to the warden?" Iroh suggested, instead. "Perhaps he would appreciate a crate of tea. I seem to have extra in my room, now that my own dear nephew has forbidden an old man from using the storage rooms…"

 

"Uncle. If you put that tea back in the brig, I'm locking it up and throwing the key overboard."

 

The boy did not mean to be cruel, Iroh was sure. Ozai had neglected many areas of his growth: hugs, healthy emotional expression, music lessons. Tea was simply among the more tragic of these casualties. Tea, and how not to put himself in physical danger every thirty seconds.

 

They docked at the rig. As a point of fact, it was not dented by the Avatar. Only by his waterbender, and a prison revolt's worth of earthbenders. The warden had not been having a good day. He had, in fact, been having a career-ending day. Then he saw two members of the royal family step into his domain, one of them scowling, and turned the color of an execution warrant. Iroh ordered the man into his own office for a cup of calming tea.

 

Zuko declined to join them. "Just tell me when you get the heading. I'm going to look around." By which he meant (Iroh inferred, keeping the boy in sight through the warden's windows): testing his weight against a half-broken rail, sticking his head into a coal chute that lead to an active boiler, and jumping into a sinking mail boat. The escaping earthbenders had taken every seaworthy vessel with them; the ones left were distinctly unworthy of princes. Or anyone with a shard of self-preservation. Iroh downed his very calming tea in one scalding swallow and hurried outside.

 

"Nephew, perhaps you should not—" do not say 'play', his nephew did not take kindly to the word 'play' "— hunt the Avatar in sinking boats."

 

"Uncle. Uncle, help!"

 

These were the two words Iroh most wanted and most feared to hear whenever his nephew was involved. He hurried faster. He was just in time to catch… the mail bag.

 

"They're going to get soggy," Zuko said, with the fiercest of scowls. He was knee-deep in water, and Iroh did not think it was his imagination that the waterline was passing up to his thighs even as they spoke.

 

"...How very considerate of you, Prince Zuko. I'm sure our brave men and women will be quite happy to know you thought of their correspondence before your own safety. Perhaps they would be more happy if you were to step out of that boat before it sinks."

 

"Uncle. Look ."

 

Iroh did. The bag he was holding was clearly stamped with its intended recipients: the 41st Division . "Ah. We had better hurry."

 

The warden joined them as Iroh was stacking the last duffle atop their tidy, only slightly dampened stack. Zuko pulled himself back up onto the rig. He glared down at his sodden pants, then took himself to the side to drip, away from uncle and warden and mailbags.

 

"Is there another mail boat?" the prince demanded.

 

"There was, your highness, but the prisoners absconded —"

 

"When's the next one coming?

 

"Next week, your highness."

 

"Not good enough." Zuko was too busy scowling at the way his boots squelched when he moved to notice the nervous breakdown he was inflicting on the poor warden. "Uncle. Our river steamer has about the same draft as this boat, doesn't it?"

 

"Prince Zuko, no. I am sorry, but the terms of your banishment—"

 

"Not me, Uncle. But we could lend them our ship, right? And Lieutenant Jee. Or somebody. However many people they need."

 

His nephew was still staring down at his boots as if he expected this idea, too, to be rejected.

 

"It may interfere with your quest for the Avatar," Iroh stated carefully. "We will have to wait in the area for our crewmen's return, and we will not have access to the boat should we need it ourselves."

 

"Isn't this more important, Uncle?" the boy asked it like he really wasn't sure. "Some things are, aren't they?"

 

Iroh set a hand on his shoulder. "Yes, nephew. Some things are."

 

The boy almost smiled, for the first time since he'd asked Can you get me into that warroom and a foolish old man had said Yes .

 

"Oh," his nephew blinked, and crouched down. He picked up something blue with a light coating of coal dust.

 

"Ah, the Water Tribe girl's necklace," Iroh observed. "I can fix that clasp! It will give us something to do while we wait for Lieutenant Jee's return."

 

This plan involved Zuko being out of danger for more than five minutes. Iroh should have known better.

 

***

 

Lieutenant Jee was leaning against the river steamer's railing, feeling Agni's light on his face and a lack of entitled prepubescent shouting in his ear. Three days up the river, a day or two to drop off the mail and pick up replies, two days back down, and maybe one last day of faking an engine problem or steering into a sandbar before they returned to the Wani . Six to eight days without the Prince micromanaging him or the men under his command. Six to eight days without any Prince at all.

 

He should have known better.

 

"Lieutenant," Crewman Teruko said.

 

Jee tilted his head back to the sun, and closed his eyes. "No."

 

"We—"

 

"No."

 

"Have a—"

 

"No."

 

"Stowaway. It's—" the crewman paused, as if waiting for an interruption. Jee stared her down. "It's Prince Zuko. Sir."

 

"I'm not Prince Zuko!" Prince Zuko loudly protested. "That's ridiculous. I'm… I'm Kuzon! A stowaway. I mean a mailboy! Who is stowing away. And who is not Prince Zuko. Because Prince Zuko can't be this far inland in Fire Nation territory without special dispensation from the local governor co-signed by a court representative, so I'm definitely not him. That would be really stupid. To be him."

 

Lieutenant Jee contemplated the sunlight, and how General Iroh was going to kill him. He had six to eight days to contemplate this. No, that was a fool's dream: he had two hours.

 

"Turn the boat around, crewman."

 

"No!" Zuko, who was dressed in those spirits-cursed Earth peasant clothes, and hadn't a sea monster vomited on those? Zuko protested. Loudly. "We'd lose a whole day!"

 

"I'm sure this mail's already been delayed more than a day," Lieutenant Jee said. "Sir," he added.

 

"That's exactly the problem!" And suddenly around the edges of his tiny angry fists and his standing-up-as-tall-as-he-could and his burned-on scowl, the boy looked like he might really scream. Not his usual orders shouting, but the scream of a twelve-year-old who is being listened to but not being heard . Lieutenant Jee's anxiety level rose. Sharply. "They don't… they might not have an extra day. They already might not be there, when we arrive."

 

"So we'll find their new encampment—"

 

The Prince's scowl straightened out into a flat line. He had very gold eyes—like a fledgling tiger-phoenix. And hair like a sheared koala-sheep. It should have been hard to take him seriously, but it wasn't.

 

"Sir. Why do you think they'll be gone?"

 

"...I can't tell you. It's classified."

 

Jee looked at the boy, and thought He's acting like he cares about other human beings.

 

Jee thought, Zhao's ship was last sighted ten kilometers north of the Wani. He might actually be safer here, as long as he can lay low.

 

Jee thought, And the General's going to kill me either way. So.

 

Jee pointedly did not think about how he wanted to believe the Prince had a good reason for what he was asking. How he wanted, just once in his life, for any member of the royal family to have a good reason for what they'd asked of him.

 

"What are you doing, Crewman? Last I heard the 41st was near Omashu. Keep this boat moving."

 

"Lieutenant?" Teruko's eyes flicked to their stowaway.

 

"Haven't you ever seen the prince's cabin boy? Teruko, this is Kuzon. He's an idiot; please keep him away from wobbling railings, sharp things, and important life decisions. And someone teach him how to scrub a deck."

 

The Prince smiled for a moment. Actually smiled . And then Jee's words caught up to him, and his fists briefly ignited.

 

"Do you have a problem with working your way up this river, Mailboy ?"

 

"Of course not. Sir ."

 

And damn if the Prince didn't sass like a enlisted man. Jee's lips twitched.

 

"If you'll excuse me, I have a hawk to send. The General will no doubt be missing Kuzon by now."

 

Five minutes later found the Lieutenant back on the deck. The Prince was glaring down at it with a bucket in one hand and a scrub brush in the other and a clear desire to avoid putting these things together for as long as possible.

 

"...Kuzon. Where is the messenger hawk?"

 

***

 

Sokka jerked his fingers away and counted them just to be sure. "Bad Hawky. Bad, bad Hawky." The hawk preened her blood-red feathers with her beautiful murder beak as she perched on the edge of Appa's saddle. Sokka's heart melted into a great gooey glob of forgiveness, already calculating how many strips of seal jerky it would take to subvert an enemy bird. Possibly more than he had. Possibly more than it was worth. But what was the worth of having a new feathered friend? Priceless, that's what.

 

"Who would be sending us messages?" Katara asked, with a frown that said she already knew.

 

" Water Tribe ,"

 

(Sokka read outloud, to get this over with.)

 

I'm not sorry I threw a fireball at you. Tell your sister not to throw her cheap jewelry at my nation's prisons. She can have her necklace back when you give me the Avatar. Kidnapping this hawk for six to eight days will definitely not make me change my mind so don't even try it.

 

Zuko, son of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai, Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, Commanding Officer of the Wani , Objectively More Important Than You

 

Sokka rolled the message back up, and let out a long breath. And an eyebrow twitch. Momo was shrieking, the hawk was shrieking, Katara was somehow louder than both of them. It was impressive how the tiny prince could insult everyone here with one piece of paper smaller than Sokka's hand. Even Aang was sulking.

 

"He fireballed me, too, and I didn't get a messenger hawk."

 

"Yeah, well, maybe he just likes me better." Sokka said. And then he tried very hard not to groan at that statement. "...Let's just get to Omashu."

 

***

 

"Kuzon," Jee ground out.

 

"I sent her to a hawk-sitter, Sir ," Zuko smugged. He smugged like it was a verb. He smugged so hard that somewhere across the Earth Kingdom, a teenager with mouth-grass felt briefly inadequate.

Chapter Text

Kuzon-not-Zuko wasn't bad at chores; he was completely incompetent . Crewman Teruko had learned, over the last two-and-a-half days of upriver steaming, that there was a difference. She'd also learned that somewhere under a prickly layer of shouting and a burned-on glare was a kid who couldn't insult anyone if he tried.

 

It was the times he wasn't trying the crew had to look out for.

 

Cases-in-point.

 

Kuzon-not-Zuko, upon tasting Assistant Cook Dekku's cooking: "It's like when Azula burns my fire flakes."

 

Then he'd asked for a second helping, and seemed baffled by the splatter as Dekku sloshed it into his bowl. " ...But I like burned fire flakes. "

 

Kuzon-not-Zuko, upon being lent a spare set of clothes to change into by Engineer Hanako, by default she was both the smallest and nicest and most likely to get covered in oil before her shift was half-way through and so had packed accordingly: "Wow. I thought only Ty Lee was smaller than me."

 

When she'd snatched her good shirt back and thrown one of her scrubbing-only-gets-out-so-much-grease duty shirts in his face, he'd looked at her like a kicked puppy-fox. Teruko had walked by this conversation in the kitchen, later:

 

"I thought girls liked being told they were small!"

 

"Thin, not small," Assistant Cook Dekku dropped a heavy hand on the prince's shoulder. "And definitely not women who might be, ah, sensitive about their height. And don't let a Fire Nation naval officer catch you calling her a girl."

 

"Why are girls so hard ?"

 

"Zu—Kuzon, just take that word out of your vocabulary. There are places back on the Wani only you and she can fit. We will never find your body."

 

Kuzon-not-Zuko, upon the occasion of Lieutenant Jee's ill-fated asking of the question Did you sleep well after the first night bunking with the rest of them: "It's like sleeping with pets."

 

Which led to a lot of crew-wide stomping and snarking and thinly veiled insults all that second day, and Hanako smiling a toothy Sleep well, pet last night and the not-a-prince's sleepy You, too before he curled up like a panda-kitten under his pile of borrowed blankets, and was asleep before the engineer could snap a comeback. Assistant Cook Dekku dropped a hand (very far down) to Hanako's shoulder and said, very quietly, "He didn't have any nightmares last night . " Which was a statement anyone who'd stood a night watch on the Wani understood.

 

Two-and-a-half days ago, Crewman Teruko had been ready to take everything the little royal said as an insult. Now she took it as a kid whose bedroom was too damn quiet, who'd been raised in a palace where fire flakes were probably made by gourmet chefs, but little hands might just be able to crisp them up as well as a proper festival vendor.

 

Teruko smiled down at his fuzzy head, just peeking out from his blankets. Readied the metal pan and spatula donated by Assistant Cook Dekku. And woke up their not-a-prince with the kind of ungodly crashing heard only in active combat or boot camp.

 

"Rise and shine, firefly-maggot! That coal won't shovel itself!"

 

Crewman Teruko had been a Sergeant before her demotion to the prince's ship.

 

The not-a-prince came awake, sputtering and scowling and eloquent as a dog-lizard with a mouth full of hazelnut-peanut butter. He was pretty bad at intentional insults, actually.

 

Still sucked at chores, though.

 

***

 

The short mouthy were-they- really- pretending-he-wasn't-a-prince shoveled coal like an earthbender. This was not a compliment. Engineer Hanako felt herself growing taller with each new dent the brat put in the casing of her furnace. She had Lieutenant Jee's permission to make her displeasure known, and given that the Dragon of the West was going to immolate them all when they got back anyway, she had a literal lifetime's worth of shouting to get in before her fiery end.

 

"Isn't it too early for you to be this loud?" the fuzzy-headed punk asked, with neither irony nor self-awareness.

 

Engineer Hanako drew in a deep, deep breath.

 

***

 

Aang looked at the King of Omashu's new outfit, and didn't say You look like someone dyed a tiger-seal purple and flattened it under Appa . "Great," he said instead. "It looks… great."

 

And so he passed the first test. Which wasn't one of the deadly ones, apparently.

 

He didn't see how getting a lunchbox key was any better.

 

***

 

"YOU HAVEN'T HEARD LOUD."

 

The shout reverberated through the hull. Lieutenant Jee could have worn earplugs and still understood that shout through his feet. He sipped at his tea, and regretted absolutely nothing about his life.

 

"DO NOT. CALL ME. A GIRL."

 

"She really is going to hide his body, isn't she?" Assistant Cook Dekku said, stirring a handful of raisin-berries into their breakfast congee.

 

Lieutenant Jee refilled his mug and went to get the prince started on laundry before they found out. Or delegate the Anti-Murderer Watch to Teruko.

 

***

 

Normally Aang would be all aboard petting Flopsie, but Sokka and Katara were starting to look really unhappy (and really heavy) and Momo was trying to pluck feathers from Hawky's tail who was trying to bite off Momo's tail who was trying to pluck— and Aang was this close to doing something drastic, like maybe raising his voice.

 

"Next challenge, please," he smiled, like he was grinding rocks between his teeth.

 

***

 

Former Sergeant Teruko was half-way convinced that Kuzon-not-Zuko was developing a secret love for laundry. The twelve-year-old sat on the floor and dangled his bare arms into the tub and swished the water around as steam started to rise.

 

"You can put the clothes in now, Mailboy."

 

"Probably."

 

She wondered if princes were allowed to splash around during bathtime at the palace.

 

"Anytime now, Mailboy."

 

"Mmm-hmm."

 

Probably not, she decided. And wondered if she could rustle up a wooden turtleduck or a carved navy ship to toss in the tub on the way back.

 

"If you wait any longer, Mailboy, we'll have to hang the clothes in the boiler room to dry."

 

Kuzon-not-Zuko splashed a lot when he was panicking.  

 

***

 

Aang was not panicking he was tactically retreating left right up wait no not up oh gods rocks why were they flying rocks should not fly .

 

He could have picked anyone up on that balcony. Why hadn't he pointed at Sokka, or Momo, or— ROCK!

 

***

 

Lieutenant Jee supervised the prince's packing as they got ready to disembark. Since his highness had stowed away with only the clothes on his back and a poorly constructed alibi, he considered this a reasonable precaution.

 

"How do you expect me to carry all this." The prince staggered under a typical supply pack and the weight of the smallest mail duffle.

 

Engineer Hanako strode past, with her own bag and two duffles slung over her shoulders. Lieutenant Jee watched her go, and watched Zuko watching her go, and watched the determined scowl grow over his face.

 

"...Give me another bag."

 

***

 

"Bumi!" Aang's hug was fierce and tight and almost perfect. He just wished Kuzon was here, too. And all their other friends. And Gyatso. And—

 

"And now," his old friend said (literally old, when had that happened ?), "for your fourth challenge!"

 

Aang drew back. A little. "Wait, wasn't the fourth challenge your name?" He did a mental recount. "Or the fight? Isn't this more like the sixth challenge? Can't I be done with challenges?"

 

"This one's extra credit. Your fourth challenge," Bumi said, and Aang's hopes of his extra credit being a trip down the mail chutes died with the twinkling in Bumi's eyes, "is… to defeat the Fire Army hiding in our woods!"

 

"WHAT?"

 

"Well I could send in the elite unit of earthbenders we have stationed nearby—"

 

"Yes!" Sokka shouted, still picking pieces of rock candy out of his clothes. "Do that!"

 

"—But the Avatar could use some practice! Don't worry, they seem to be raw recruits. Very easy to squish. Definitely not a trap." Bumi laugh-snorted.

 

Aang finally broke off their hug. He needed his arms for flailing. "I don't want to squish anyone!"

 

"Oh? So what will you do?"

 

" Not squish!"

 

"Well if you don't want to, I could call in those troops—"

 

"No no no, I'll think of something! Like a mad genius!"

 

Aang had to save those troops. And Bumi's troops. And everyone, somehow.

 

***

 

Zuko panted, and took a step, and didn't die yet. Panted, took a step, still alive. Panted— And finally, through a break in the forest, they came to the camp of the 41st Division. Their banner hung outside the command tent, and new recruits were getting yelled at to straighten their uniforms and their tent lines and their everything by people who sounded a lot like Crewman Teruko, and they were here and they were alive .

 

Zuko's last chore was to keep them that way. Somehow. But a prince protected his own, even when no one else would.

 

***

 

Uncle sat on the deck of the Wani , pai sho board set up the same way it had been all morning, and watched Commander Zhao's ship signal their intent to board.

 

It really was too bad that Zuko had come down with dragon pox, and could not meet the Commander himself. Highly infectious, dragon pox was, and he'd heard that Commander Zhao had never had it as a child.

 

Uncle practiced his own sickly cough as the Commander came aboard. He practiced his sincerest wave as the man retreated back across the ramp to his own ship. Then he went back to sitting in front of a pai sho board that was set up the same as it had been all morning, and yesterday, and the day before, and practiced in his mind all the ways he would have his vengeance on Lieutenant Jee. The Dragon of the West might have killed the man; the Retired General could think of much worse.

 

Whether Prince Zuko had stowed away or commandeered the steamboat outright, the result was much the same: his nephew had taken their only river transport into an active war zone to save a division the Fire Lord himself had as good as ordered destroyed.

 

His nephew had done this, and left him behind . As if he had not expected his own Uncle to support him, if this truly was a task he must do.

 

Uncle reserved the worst punishment for the boy himself. Uncle sat in the afternoon sunlight, and practiced proverbs for when his nephew returned to him. Safely, and soon. And hopefully without ruining his alibi.

Chapter Text

Aang slumped over the edge of the palace balcony. Down below, Appa was munching on a hay pile. Momo and Hawky were perched on opposite horns, hissing at each other. Flopsie had jumped in the hay and hadn't come up for air, but Appa would eventually eat his way down to the gorilla-goat. Aang really, really wanted to go play with them. Or grab Bumi and go for another ride on the mail chutes. Or grab Katara and practice some waterbending in the palace fountains. Or interrupt Sokka's sword training with the King's Guard via a whole tray of pies to the face. Or something

 

Something that wasn't slumping against a stone balcony, trying to ignore the fact that Omashu had giant walls and a giant-er chasm separating it from the world because one-fourth of the world wanted to burn it to the ground . (Or was it one-third of the world, now? Could Aang count as a whole nation on his own?)

 

Ugh, the Fire Nation had really gone downhill. But he couldn't let them all die. Probably. No, definitely! Bumi had even said these were just new recruits, they probably didn't even want to be here! If he could just talk to them— (without getting fireballed) (or captured) (or running into Zuko, which would be both plus a village under duress)

 

People from different nations weren't even that different , he didn't know why no one understood that. If he hid his tattoos, no one would ever even guess he was an Air Nomad. Then all he needed to do was wear green, or blue. Or red.

 

Hawky landed on the balcony with a vindictive shriek and one less feather in her head-crest. Momo chittered below. Appa took another mouthful of hay, paused, and spit out a gorilla-goat. A mail cart clattered by overhead.

 

Aang looked at the mail cart. Looked at Hawky. 

 

Aang had an idea .

 

He did not run the idea past Sokka first. He wouldn't even be gone that long, honest!

 

***

 

Kuzon of Aomori had always known he had a common name. But it wasn't until he'd mandatorily volunteered to join the army that he'd realized how common. 'Kuzon' was the name every Sergeant shouted when they didn't have anyone more specific to pick on; 'Kuzon' was 'your parents took the first name the Fire Sages suggested'. 'Kuzon' was the Li of the Fire Nation. 

 

So Kuzon of Aomori was lined up between Kuzon of Fukushima and Kuzon of Byakko for afternoon drills when they first saw Kuzon the Mailboy trudge into camp with two mailbags that probably collectively outweighed him. That Kuzon started immediately telling the officer that met his group that he was Definitely Kuzon , but didn't immediately add his hometown to his name. That was Kuzon of Aomori's first clue that the kid was a fake Kuzon. A Kuzon Impersonator. 

 

That, and he looked exactly like the crown prince. Except…

 

"If he's the prince, then what happened to his face?" Fukushima whispered, his lips barely moving and his eyes forward. The Sergeant had called Atten-shin! and Atten-shin! they were standing in. "Who could even get that close to a prince?" 

 

"Gotta be assassins," Byakko whispered, out of the corner of his mouth.

 

"It's a burn," Fukushima whispered back. "You think the Earth Kingdom has firebender assassins in their pocket? What, did they brainwash them? Or what, the Water Savages learned to walk on land, got past the royal guard, and took a torch to him?"

 

"You're missing a nation. One with a lot of firebenders," Aomori whispered, which wasn't quite treason. Whoever had done that to their prince, that was treason. 

 

"You sure it's even him?" 

 

Aomori watched a twelve-year-old in a teenie-tiny senior engineer's uniform walking in the middle of his mismatched entourage like he owned them, and leaving a trail of confused social interactions in his wake.

 

"Positive. One of my uncles is on the war council. Got us middle-row seats when the prince was officially crowned heir." That was when his uncle had handed him a stack of recruitment papers, pre-filled, and said sign here. "I mean, his hair's shorter, but the doctors would have shaved it after… that ."

 

"Maybe one of the other noble families…" Byakko didn't finish that sentence. So it also wasn't treason.

 

"Yeah," Aomori said. "Yeah, the Fire Lord probably sent him away from court while he… deals with it. So now the prince is traveling incognito."

 

"As a Kuzon," Byakko said, and all assembled Kuzons took a moment to feel both pride and complete obscurity. 

 

"But why would they send him to the front lines?" Aomori struggled not to fidget. The Serg was looking right at them .

 

"Come on, Aomori. It's just the front lines on paper," Fukushima stared somewhere over the glaring Serg's head and managed not to move his lips at all. "You think they'd really stick a whole division of fresh meat on the real front? Plus we've got the 82nd shadowing us. We're safe as turtleducklings in the palace pond."

 

A fact relevant to this conversation: mail service at the Fire Nation's front lines, outside of the order-carrying hawks, had a pretty reliable six-to-eight week delay. None of the assembled Kuzons had ever given much thought to this delay. Or its relevance to their current conversation. Or the letters that were about to be opened.

 

Also, Kuzon of Fukushima was poorly informed on the life expectancy of palace turtleducks under the reign of Fire Lord Ozai.

 

***

 

Zuko was definitely going to save these people. These people who didn't know that they needed saving, because no one here was acting like they were on a suicide mission. The recruits were goofing off, the Sergeants were yelling, the birds were singing and the sun was shining. Everything was normal , except that the 41st was camped in Omashu's territory and no ruler could ignore that for long.

 

What could he do? Maybe… maybe the commander just didn't know. (Didn't know what, that the division had been sent unprepared into enemy territory? The commander knew .) He could give them new orders— (Banished Princes didn't out rank anyone, no matter what he'd bluffed Commander Zhao into believing. But Zhao had never been the brightest flame.) He could give them new information, something that would make the commander feel he had a higher priority than existing orders (Like what? What could he possibly say?)

 

"Wait here," the soldier escorting them said, and their little group stood outside the command tent's flaps. Lieutenant Jee set down his mailbags, and then Crewman Teruko did. Zuko didn't set his down until after a brief stare-off with Engineer Hanako. They let theirs drop at exactly the same time.

 

(Zuko wished Uncle were here.) (But he knew Uncle didn't care, or he wouldn't have been alone in that war room. Uncle cared about him but he didn't care about the Fire Nation , that's why he was a Retired General and a Retired Crown Prince and was fat and lazy and sat around all day drinking tea and playing board games, just like Father said.)

 

Their escort came back. Zuko was out of time.

 

***

 

Colonel Akio was carving an eel-hound when the mail arrived, a week late. He gave himself a moment to finish the diamond pattern on its tail with a few steady swipes of his blade.

 

"Send them in," he said, gave himself the half-breath between when his man left the tent and when the mail carriers entered to close his eyes, and send curses and thanks to Agni in roughly equal measure.

 

The men and women under his command deserved their letters from home. Of course they did. He was just terrified of what those letters might carry. He praised Agni, but he prayed to postal censors. The children under his command did not need to know the fate the Fire Lord had ordered for them. Knowing didn't make it easier.

 

The tent flap opened again, and things got… irregular. In walked a naval lieutenant with no top knot (what was the story there ?), the shortest senior engineer he'd ever seen, a crewman with her sergeant bars recently and conspicuously unstitched, and… another senior engineer? One that hadn't bothered to put on his good shirt this morning, judging by the oil spots. 

 

Colonel Akio looked from uniform to the face. He dropped the eel-hound carving, and the knife, and himself. The hound's tail snapped under his knee as he kowtowed.

 

"My prince."

 

"I'm not Prince Zuko!" the burned prince protested, but even with flailing his arms he stood as straight as any noble. "I just… look like him! A lot. But I couldn't possibly be him because then you'd be legally obligated to arrest me. Have you thought about moving camp at all? Because if I was Prince Zuko than I might advise you that the west is, ah, really hospitable this time of year, and—"

 

Colonel Akio began to see how a twelve-year-old could get in so much trouble from one war meeting. 

 

***

 

The camp was exactly where Bumi's maps said it would be. Aang circled high, so high he'd look like another bird in the clouds. Then he swooped down low about a mile from camp, and snapped his glider shut. He readjusted the bag of borrowed-for-authenticity mail on his back, and took a strip of jerky out of Sokka's snack bag (also borrowed). 

 

Hawky landed on his shoulder, and disappeared the jerky so fast it was like a magic trick.

 

"Good Hawky," Aang said. "Now just… keep sitting there. There's another strip in it for you if you do."

 

Shriek .

 

"...Two strips? Three."

 

Mailbag: check. Messenger hawk: check. Reddest clothes he could find in Omashu: check. Confident and completely authentic Fire Nation strut: check and check. Operation Mailboy was a go. He wasn't even going to do anything dangerous, just look around a little! Ssesh, he didn't know why his Inner Sokka was shrieking as loud as a hawk.

 

Aang double-checked that his hat was on straight, then strutted straight into camp. 

 

"Another mailboy?" one of the soldiers said. Which was as good an opening as any. Aang was up next to him quicker than he could say personal space violation.

 

"That's right! It's me, Kuzon the mailboy. I have brought your mail this fine day, hotman."

 

Another soldier muttered to himself about please tell me 'hotman' isn't in again, that's how my grandma talks when she's trying to be cool but mostly Aang ignored him in favor of luminescently smiling at his current target.

 

"Kuzon, huh?" the soldier smirked. "What a flamin' coinkydink."

 

( Please not you too , the mutterer muttered.)

 

"I'm Kuzon of Fukushima, the muttery guy is Kuzon of Byakko, and the guy who's just kind of staring is Kuzon of Aomori."

 

"There sure are a lot of Kuzons," Aang smiled.

 

"The other mail carriers are in the Colonel's tent," Kuzon of Fukushima said. "Come on, I'll show you the way."

 

...Other mail carriers? His Inner Sokka shrieked louder than twenty hawks. "That's okay, I can find it on my own."

 

Kuzon of Fukushima caught his shoulder as he turned to leave. "No problem, hotman. Wouldn't want you to get all flameo flamin' lost."

 

(Byakko dropped his head into his hands. Ugh please stop, you're doing it on purpose now. )

 

"Umm, that's really okay—" Aang protested. And was dragged off anyway.

 

Byakko peeked out from between his fingers, watching them go. "So whose incognito noble kid is he ? And whose bright idea was it to call them both 'Kuzon'?"

 

Aomori kept staring after the boy. "That's what I'm trying to figure out. Looks almost like one of those chi blockers, but I thought they only had daughters that age."

 

"Well they are hiding him," Byakko pointed out, quite reasonably. "Think he's one of the prince's bodyguards? In training. ...They're both so tiny , who would even want to hurt kids like that? I hope the Fire Lord roasts 'em."

 

"Yeah." Aomori kept thinking he was missing something. It was the kind of feeling he should really listen to, but he'd been having it pretty much since the division had been deployed to Omashu, so he was getting a lot of practice tuning it out.

 

***

 

"—Oh, and you should get up now! Because I'm not the prince," the prince finally finished, as if he'd just noticed that kowtowing was not something a mailboy should expect from a colonel.

 

Akio straightened into seiza , but did not get back to his feet. He looked above the prince's head, to the Lieutenant he'd come in with. "Could you give the—the mailboy and I a moment in private? Perhaps you could begin mail call."

 

The man nodded, and ushered his people out. The prince fidgeted with a rolled-up shirt cuff just a bit too long for him.

 

"Mailboy Kuzon," Akio began. "As a member of the Fire Nation's postal infrastructure, I hope you can carry a message for me to Prince Zuko. Please convey to him heartfelt gratitude, on behalf of myself and the men and women of the 41st, for all he has sacrificed for us. Please send my wishes for his health, long life, and swift return to the capital. It is this officer's humble opinion that he will be the Fire Lord our nation needs. Please also convey to him my regrets that I will not be there to see it."

 

The boy startled. "But—"

 

It was inexcusably rude to interrupt a prince. But he had been commanded to ignore the royal status, and Colonel Akio followed commands. "Please make it clear to him that the 41st Division has its orders. We are, as he is, loyal sons and daughters of the Fire Lord."

 

The boy's face paled. The flames that had begun to gather around his hands were snuffed to smoke in an instant. He swallowed, and bowed.

 

A full ninety degrees. Too much for a prince to a colonel, but well within a simple mailboy's rights. 

 

Prince Zuko left the command tent. Akio rose, and dusted his knees off, and did not smile at stiff shoulders and a retreating back. He picked up his carving, and settled down at his desk. A stack of paperwork was waiting for him. Colonel Akio really couldn't see himself getting in trouble for ignoring it.

 

Outside, there was a whumph of two bodies colliding. 

 

***

 

"This is the least organized mail call I've ever seen," Byakko complained, because he wasn't as good at elbowing his way to the front as Aomori. The pseudo-mail-carriers had pretty much dumped their bags on the ground and let the soldiers have at it. Their Sergeant had taken one look at the spectacle, and gone for tea.

 

"Hey, I got yours too," Aomori said. "And Fukushima's. And… wait, we have a Kuzon of Aizu? What, is he too good to hang out with us?"

 

"Aizu? As in… Sergeant Aizu?" 

 

The Kuzons exchanged a terrified look, and swiftly returned Aizu's mail to the pile. They took their own letters off to a quieter corner of camp. Aomori smiled down at his mom's perfect handwriting and little calligraphy flourishes.

 

( Wrong , something pinged again in the back of his head. Very very very— )

 

He glanced over at Byakko's letter, then back at his. Censor marks. There were none, zero, flamin' nada interrupting his mother's careful lines. That was… almost impossible. Last time, the censors had blacked out the price of cow-pig milk , for Agni's sake. The censors were a bunch of bored brush-pushers with a kilometer-long list of things the troops didn't need to know because it might hurt morale. 

 

Aomori looked down at his mother's letter, where every single word must have been deliberately chosen to be as innocuous as possible, so that every single one of them would make it through. 

 

Aomori started to sweat.

 

Dearest Kuzon,

 

We hope this letter finds you well. Everything is quiet at home. Your uncle finally retired…

 

Aomori only had one uncle. The one on the war council. The one who loved his job like fire loved dry boards and closely packed Earth Kingdom homes.

 

...He hopes you can visit soon. Perhaps at your next break, or your earliest convenience. But he understands you were hand-picked for your assignment, and he's sure you'll do our family proud…

 

Hand-picked. He'd been hand-picked to be here? His uncle would know, if anyone would. Somebody was trying to kill him. Because of his family. But that didn't make sense, he wasn't some scout off on his own all easy to accidentally disappear, he was part of a whole division— A division on the front lines, when it really shouldn't be. And they hoped he could come home at his earliest convenience oh Agni they wanted him to desert.

 

...May a hundred blessings be upon you and a thousand upon Fire Lord Ozai and his glorious heiress,

 

Your loving mother and the whole of your family,

 

Ayu

 

Heiress. Oh Agni. The Fire Lord was cleaning up court. And somehow, whatever had happened with the prince was related to whatever was about to happen to his division, and Kuzon of Aomori really wished he'd paid more attention when his uncle had tried to teach him all the million ways a proper courtier could kill with a twist of words.

 

"That is the sweetest letter I've ever read," Byakko said, glancing over his shoulder. "You should hear my mom. It's just 'come home with a medal or not at all' and 'don't you think I didn't clean under your bed after you left and your little brothers could have found those mister' and—"

 

Kuzon of Aomori smiled and nodded and laughed in mostly the right places.

 

And wondered if there was more information in here, coded somehow, like a map to the traitor Jeong Jeong's location and how long it took to get there from Omashu, because he could really use more than just a 'get out, get out right now' letter, thanks mom— 

 

And then the shouting started.

 

***

 

Zuko stepped out of the tent and directly into another boy carrying one of the Wani 's messenger hawks.

 

"Fire Flake?" he asked, confused.

 

"Zuko!" the boy under Fire Flake yelled. 

 

"Avatar!" Flames leapt to Zuko's fists. Fire Flake hopped to his shoulder, and started preening his hair. All of the messenger hawks had been really weird since his hair had started growing back, like they were confusing him for a fuzzy chick or— not the point . "Surrender. You can't escape."

 

Why was the Avatar in the middle of a Fire Nation camp? Did he have no survival instincts? ...They were gathering a crowd. Zuko flushed, and made sure to enunciate really loudly and clearly: "And I'm not Zuko."

 

"Hey, you're a prince, right?" the Avatar was in his personal space again, why was the Avatar in his personal space again, at least Fire Flake looked like she was about to peck him right back out—

 

"No I'm not!" Zuko shouted. "I am definitely not the prince!"

 

"And honor is really important to you and everything, and you wouldn't break your word?"

 

It was getting to be kind of a big crowd. "Yes, I definitely hear that honor and not breaking his word are very important to Prince Zuko who-I-am-not." Zuko narrowed his eyes and was very suspicious about where this was going, coming from a kid who broke his word every time they met . "I also heard he sent this bird to Sokka. Why did you have it?"

 

"Well we do travel together, but that's not the point! The point is—I challenge you! To a duel! Ah, an Agni Kai? But I'll use air instead of fire, because I haven't learned that yet. And if I win, you have to take all these troops and leave!" 

 

The Avatar was beaming like he'd just solved all the world's problems. Zuko's eyes widened, because maybe the little airbrain just had . He could feel Colonel Akio standing behind him and the crowd was muttering and this was such a bad idea in so many ways but—

 

Zuko puffed out his chest, and tried to channel his inner Azula. "You, Avatar, dare challenge me, Zuko, son of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai? Hahaha!" (It was a pretty good Azula laugh. Even the hawk looked a little uneasy.) "If you wish your doom to be so swift, then I accept. But when I win, Omashu surrenders ."

 

"Fine!"

 

"Fine!"

 

"...But, ah, I'll have to check with Bumi first. It's his city."

 

"Fine!"

 

"Fine!"

 

The Avatar flew off. He circled the camp once, and shook a bag of… jerky? Fire Flake soared after him with a screech.

 

"I'll send her back with the answer, I promise, nice seeing you again!"

 

***

 

Bumi leaned forward on his throne. "So you want me to rest the fate of my city... on a pit fight between children."

 

Aang held his glider behind his back and shuffled his feet. Just a little "...Yes?"

 

"Are you sure I shouldn't just surrender?" The king tapped his chin, like he was actually thinking of that as a real thing he would do.

 

"...No?"

 

"Pit fight it is!" the king cackled. "I'll bring the pop-jennamite. Say, you haven't seen my Pai Sho Monthly, have you? It should have been in today's mail…"

 

"I've got to go write Zuko bye!" Aang hurried out of the throne room, a bag of Omashu's mail still borrowed-not-stolen on his back.

 

***

 

Fire Flake swooped down, and landed on Zuko's outstretched arm. 

 

"The king agreed. The fight's tomorrow." He felt a little dizzy, like when he'd first caught the Avatar back at the South Pole, when you're banished suddenly had a clear end date. 

 

The Colonel didn't speak until they were back in his tent. But at least he didn't kowtow, this time. "I can't retreat if you lose. We have our orders, my prince." And they both knew a banished prince couldn't change them.

 

Zuko swallowed, and leaned into the hawk's preening. "Then as your prince, I just need to win."

 

The Colonel gave him his own tent for the night, but everyone from the Wani piled in without even asking and set up their sleeping bags right around his and completely ignored his shouting, What was that, Mailboy, we didn't hear you. In the morning, Engineer Hanako let him borrow her good shirt for the fight.

Chapter Text

The fight was in four hours, and Zuko didn't want any breakfast, go away Lieutenant Jee that's an order, no we're not still pretending I'm a mailboy and yes I outrank you again and if I eat a piece of toast will you go away?

 

The fight was in three hours, and Zuko didn't have his Agni Kai bands, they were back on the ship, and I know shouting doesn't help so why are you shouting Engineer Hanako you're fifty times louder than I am YES YOU ARE, LIEUTENANT JEE TELL HER SHE'S LOUDER THAN I AM WHERE ARE YOU GOING— 

 

When Lieutenant Jee came back, he had gold fabric. So they wrapped that on Zuko's upper arms instead of real gold, just like peasants did. As least it pinched less than noble bands.

 

The fight was in two hours and they didn't have a Fire Sage, why hadn't he realized they didn't have a Fire Sage, of course there wasn't a random Fire Sage in the middle of the Earth Kingdom just waiting to bless fights under Agni could they even have an Agni Kai without Agni's blessing?

 

"I'm sure the sun will be there regardless, Sir," Lieutenant Jee said, and Zuko and all the crewman from the Wani reflexively looked up like they expected a cloud to pass over the sun just to spite them, but it was a lovely sunny day with just a hint of crisp almost-the-winter-solstice bite to the morning air. Omashu was almost as close to the equator as Caldera so there was neither snow nor hail nor any ill omen in sight.

 

The fight was in an hour and why had he even borrowed Engineer Hanako's shirt it wasn't like he was going to wear it and he didn't have a prayer shawl and the fight grounds were being smoothed down and readied by earthbenders and nothing about this was right.

 

Colonel Akio cleared his throat outside Zuko's tent (the Colonel's tent, on every night except last night and every day but today). "None of the men have a prayer shawl, Your Highness. I hope you will accept this, instead."

 

And he draped the division's flag over Zuko's shoulders, already neatly folded to fit him. Zuko ran his hands over the fabric.

 

"Will you officiate?" he asked, and the Colonel agreed.

 

The fight was in ten minutes and the Avatar had finally shown up, swooping down on his giant fuzzy amazing bison that he didn't even deserve piled all full of luggage and Water Tribe peasants, and Zuko knelt on the freshly cleared earth with his back to his opponent while someone went to give the airbender a crash course in not offending Agni, take-off-your-shirt-and-put-these-armbands-on.

 

Noon. The fight was now. Colonel Akio took his place at the edge of the field. It was going to start, any second it was going to start, and everything was wrong and different, this wasn't how anything was supposed to be. Zuko would know: he remembered his first (his only) Agni Kai.

 

He remembered it really, really well.

 

"Lieutenant Jee?" he whispered. "It's the Avatar behind me, right?"

 

Lieutenant Jee, who still thought the prince's burn was a training accident and this Avatar hunt some kind of royal coming-of-age lark gone sideways when the Avatar actually showed up , didn't understand. But he answered. 

 

"Yes, Sir."

 

"Okay." Zuko stood up. The flag-turned-shawl slipped from his shoulders, and he knew he was supposed to let it fall to the ground as so too do Agni's rays fall, but he caught it before it could get dusty and handed it off to the lieutenant.

 

And he turned.

 

And his opponent was exactly who he'd thought.

 

Zuko let out a slow breath, and took in a faster one, and strode to the center. 

 

***

 

King Bumi's reply had warned them to expect the Earth Kingdom troops. It was only fair: if Prince Zuko had a division at his back watching the fight, the Avatar should get one, too. 

 

What they hadn't expected was for the troops to be there when the sun rose. Which implied, rather uncomfortably, that they'd been within an easy marching distance all along. Kuzon of Aomori explained this implication to his fellow Kuzons. 

 

The colonel had looked at the Earth troops with absolutely no surprise. Aomori shivered under his armor, and did not explain the implications of that. 

 

The prince hadn't look surprised either, even though the people who'd come with him had .

 

Aomori really, really hated politics. Really.

 

"Where's the 82nd?" Kuzon of Fukushima growled. "Weren't they supposed to protect us?"

 

I don't think that's what they were here for , Aomori didn't explain. "I hope the prince wins," he said. "I really don't want to fight those guys."

 

"Flamin' right," Fukushima said (to Byakko's baleful side-glare), "They look like they eat boulders for breakfast, with undertrained firebenders for garnish."

 

"You heard the Avatar," Byakko said. "If the prince loses, we're retreating. Not fighting. Win-win for us, right?"

 

Kuzon of Byakko , Aomori continued to not explain, you're a great guy, but stay out of the capital. You'd last three minutes at court. Five, if somebody thought you were funny. 

 

The Avatar had promised that. Not the colonel. The colonel hadn't technically agreed to this at all; he was not honor-bound by the outcome. And while a prince should outrank him...

 

That still-healing scar on his face had a pretty clear explanation once Aomori'd put together the whole who could get close enough to a prince to do that with the Fire Lord has a new heir.

 

"...Right?" Byakko asked again. 

 

Kuzon of Fukushima took away the sword Aomori had been sharpening (how long had he been doing that?) "You're being real quiet, Aomori," he said. "Something you want to tell us lowly country bumpkins?"

 

So Aomori explained. Everything. And it wasn't just Kuzons who were close enough to hear. 

 

The new recruits of the 41st gathered around the fight grounds, and very sincerely cheered for their prince's victory. 

 

Colonel Akio noted, in the corner of his mind devoted to if-we're-still-alive-tomorrow , that Kuzon of Aomori either needed a promotion or a year on latrine duty.

 

Time for this match to start.

 

*** 

 

"No weapons," Colonel Akio listed. "No outside interference. No targeting spectators. No leaving the ring."

 

The Avatar shot a hand up in the air, but didn't wait to be called on. "But flying is okay, right? I am an airbender."

 

The colonel stared at him until his hand withered back to his side. "No leaving the immediate airspace of the ring, or the ring itself—" 

 

Zuko didn't raise his hand; that was for commoners. Princes interrupted . "What if I get blown out, but I can still fight?"

 

Colonel Akio had accepted his role as impartial judge, and treated the prince to precisely the same stare he'd turned on the Avatar. "No intentionally leaving the ring or the airspace of the ring, and if either opponent is involuntarily pushed out they must make every reasonable effort to immediately return, and their opponent must allow them to do so—" 

 

***

 

Finally the list of rules was over and finally the soldier-guy let them start and finally everyone stopped fire-splaining Agni Kais to him, Aang knew the rules okay? Kuzon had told him.

 

...Umm. His Kuzon. A hundred years ago. So maybe the refresher had been a little useful (and also ruined his plan to just blow Zuko out of the ring, this officiator was totally biased against airbenders.)

 

But it was okay, he would just go with Plan B: Win Honestly! So as the fight started he stayed on his toes and/or in the air and kept moving, and fireballs were hot hot hot but it was okay, he could dodge them and not having a shirt was actually really useful for not getting lit on fire, he totally understood that rule now, and Zuko—

 

Zuko was being really cautious . By Zuko standards. He was kind of… slow, actually. Sokka was right: without a village to threaten, the prince really wasn't that hard to fight. Aang could do this!

 

***

 

Zuko couldn't do this, he couldn't, everything was different but everything was the same and every time the Avatar jumped in the air and got between him and the sun his shadow was just as long as Father's—

 

"KICK HIS ASS."

 

But he hadn't had Engineer Hanako cheering him on back in the capital. Or Lieutenant Jee, or Crewman Teruko, or the entire 41st Division.

 

He had to do this. So even if his breath control was so awful Uncle would have brewed him an ocean of calming tea and even though the sweat on his left eye burned like fire, he just… kept getting up.

 

***

 

Zuko wouldn't stay down why wouldn't Zuko stay down he was going to get really hurt if he kept getting back up. Aang was the better fighter, everyone could see Aang was better, this fight was already over but maybe he'd hit Zuko's head into the ground too hard with that last airblast because Zuko didn't seem to realize he couldn't win .

 

"Stay down!" Aang shouted. And got fire kicked at him, as Zuko flipped back to his feet. 

 

The flames were kind of pathetic, actually. They didn't even singe Aang's pants.

 

***

 

There was something wrong with his fire. Zuko knew they'd needed a Fire Sage.

 

(Maybe Agni didn't approve of this at all.)

 

Zuko tumbled over the ground and got up again and attacked again and he knew he'd timed his breath right that time, but his fire whip was half-strength at best—

 

(The Fire Lord was Agni's mortal voice. His father had ordered him to capture the Avatar, and his father had ordered the 41st dead, and here Zuko was not even thinking about capturing the Avatar because he had a division to save.)

 

The Avatar's attacks were not half-strength. If anything, they were getting stronger as the monk got more frustrated. He was even shouting now, but Zuko couldn't really hear it over the ringing in his ears.

 

(Maybe Agni would have forgiven him if he felt guilty, but he didn't. He felt... really good.)

 

He tumbled over the ground. And got up again. Attacked. 

 

(Everything was going wrong, he could feel it going wrong in the aches and bruises, in the guttering of his flames, but this all felt right .)

 

Tumble. Get up. Attack. What even was that, Azula would have been rolling on the ground if she could see him now and he'd have beaten her because she was laughing too hard. Zuko snorted.

 

The Avatar didn't get the joke.

 

(He was disobeying the will of his Father and his Nation and his God, and all three of these were the same thing.)

 

Tumble. Get up. The little pfft of smoke that came out of his fist couldn't even be called an attack. So he ran forward, and tried to kick the monk instead. Just a regular, non-fiery side kick. The look on the Avatar's face as he dodged was hilarious

 

If he just kept getting up, there was nothing a pacifistic monk could do to beat him. And he would keep getting up. He'd already lost half a face to this, and if Fire Nation economists had ever heard of the sunk cost fallacy, no one had told Zuko.

 

He was going to save everyone. He really was.

 

(He was happy.)

 

Zuko couldn't win. But he wouldn't lose. 

 

***

 

Why was Zuko smiling, his fire barely even worked, he had to know he couldn't win, stop smiling— 

 

Everyone was counting on Aang to win this. Bumi and his city, and even the Fire Nation soldiers (even if Aang hadn't stopped to tell them so), and… and the whole world! This was supposed to be practice , Bumi had said so. If Aang couldn't even save Fire Nation troops from Zuko's stubbornness how could he save the world from being lit on fire by Zuko's dad

 

And now he might lose (how was that even possible? ), but he couldn't because if he did then—then he'd convinced Bumi to surrender Omashu! Why had he done that? This was all his idea and all his fault.

 

He'd thought it would be easy . And it was . Zuko wasn't a master of his element like Aang, and every time Aang hit him he got slower and clumsier and it was really easy, was this why other nations hurt people, because it was so easy? But he wasn't like them, he was fighting for a good reason, and he had to win—

 

"Stay down! Please! " Aang maybe yelled and maybe pleaded. And Zuko punched him in the face. Which, Katara told him later, was when he started to glow.

 

"AANG!" Her voice called him back to a field that was a lot less flat than he remembered. There were kind of… rock spikes everywhere. And some scorch marks? Had the armies gotten into a fight while he was… while he was… oh no. Where was Zuko? He hadn't hurt him, had he? The crowd was a lot further away, like everyone had backed up really fast , all except for Sokka and Katara who'd held their ground.

 

"Aang!" Katara called again.

 

Sokka was holding her back from the field, and it took Aang way too long to realize it wasn't because Sokka was afraid of him but because the fight was still going. No outside interference.

 

Aang remembered that rule, right about when Zuko tackled him to the ground. 

 

***

 

Zuko sat on the Avatar. And the Avatar didn't get back up. He kind of squirmed and twisted, but Zuko was a big brother (and his little sister would light something on fire if and when he let her up, so Zuko had become a master of delaying the inevitable).

 

"Did I… win?"

 

Everyone was really silent. Colonel Akio watched the Avatar, and watched, and watched, and raised a hand. On Zuko's side.

 

Half the crowd started to cheer. His half. Zuko's ears started ringing again, and events got a little blurry.

 

"Congratulations!" a hunched-over old guy dressed in really terrible purple was… pouting at him? "You don't like my new outfit?"

 

Oh. Zuko had said those other things out loud. "I can burn it for you, if you want," he offered.

 

The old guy threw back his head and laugh-snorted. "Well, at least I'm surrendering my city to an honest man!"

 

Oh . King Bumi. Zuko had heard he was insane, no wonder he'd even agreed to this I'm talking out loud again aren't I— 

 

"Yeah you are," Sokka said, and when had the Water Tribe peasant gotten here? "Been here for a few minutes. Could  you stop sitting on Aang? And you should probably get someone to check on those multiple head wounds , Aang really kind of… bounced you around at the end. A lot. Do you remember that part…? Easy, just kind of slide off, maybe don't try to stand yet—Or do, that's fine, no need to take advice from a Water Tribe peasant. "

 

Zuko narrowed his eyes. "You let the Avatar borrow Fire Flake. I'm never letting you hawk sit for me again."

 

"I wasn't hawk-sitting for you! And Fire Flake is a stupid name."

 

"A little help here, Sokka?" the waterbender sounded really snitty. "I do not!" She did. "You—!"

 

"A little help here, sis?" Sokka caught the sagging Avatar as his sister almost dropped him. Then there was a lot of glowering in his direction. The Avatar was awake and apologizing to Bumi and all limp-and-weak over the Water Tribesmen's shoulders like he was the one who'd just gone from fighting an airbender to fighting the Avatar.

 

Wait, the Avatar. He should probably try to capture—

 

Bumi waggled a finger at him. "I'm surrendering the city of Omashu. As Aang and his friends are not Omashu citizens, they're free to go."

 

Something about that didn't sound quite right, but Lieutenant Jee was next to him now and looked like he was going to do something appalling like help Zuko stay standing , so he let it go. 

 

And the bison flew away, and Colonel Akio was talking to King Bumi in kind of a is-this-really-happening-or-are-we-all-waiting-for-the-Avatar-to-leave-before-we-fight voice (but a really professional one).

 

"Would somebody get him to the camp doctor?" Colonel Akio frowned his way. But it was the kind of frown his mother would have given him, not his father. "...Now, please."

 

"I can walk!" Zuko shouted. And proceeded to prove, a little shakily. Why was he so shaky, he'd won.

 

Zuko made it to the edge of the Agni Kai field. Then he threw up. This endeared him to the raw recruits of the 41st in a way bravery hadn't. 

 

***

 

And later, after they'd marched into the city and into the palace and it wasn't all a trap, King Bumi really had surrendered, Zuko leaned over a balcony staring down at a gorilla-goat and a demolished pile of hay and asked a question he hadn't wanted to ask the doctor.

 

"Lieutenant Jee, can Agni take your fire away if you disobey the Fire Lord?"

 

Which is the point where Lieutenant Jee realized he was not, and had never been, qualified to look after children. "...You should probably ask your Uncle that one, Prince Zuko."

 

"Kuzon," Zuko corrected. "It's Kuzon again."

 

Because Omashu was Fire Nation territory now, and Prince Zuko couldn't be here. By order of the Fire Lord.

 

Even later than later, Zuko found a mail bag stuffed under a guest bed in the Refurbished Chamber That Was Once Bad (which was where he was staying, with the rest of the Wani crew, because they could not take a hint ). So Kuzon the Mailboy handed off most of the bag to a slightly sullen Omashu postal worker, and hand-delivered a copy of Pai Sho Monthly to the dungeons.

 

Which is when he realized some genius had invented the Bumi Box.

 

Predictably, this is when the shouting (re)started.

 

"He surrendered to me! I mean, to Prince Zuko. And Prince Zuko would be really angry if he learned you were keeping his honorable prisoner in a box he wouldn't keep a sparrowkeet in. If you can requisition steel for a box, requisition enough for a bigger box. Just make him a real cell. No one can metalbend."

 

***

 

Across the country, sprawled in the hard-packed dirt of her teachers' den, another twelve year old had the sudden urge to cackle and didn't know why. 

 

This was a frequent occurrence for her.

Chapter Text

Iroh received a messenger hawk from Omashu. The bird was, according to their hawker, the same one they'd sent with the steamer. This was what she carried:

 

Uncle, 

 

Lt Jee says we'll be back in two days if we don't hit a sandbar. He also says I should say I'm sorry for not telling you where I was going and for letting the Southern Water Tribe imprison a Fire Nation messenger hawk. He checked to make sure I wrote that, but now he's gone so I can say I'm not sorry at all because the 41st is safe and nobody even got hurt except for me and the Avatar. I didn't capture him.

 

I am sorry we've been gone so long. I accidentally made Omashu surrender. It's okay, I told them I was Kuzon. Except for at the Agni Kai.

 

Zuko

 

Iroh read this letter, and re-read this letter. Then he walked himself down to the ship's doctor. 

 

He was only experiencing phantom pains, not a true heart attack.

 

Iroh read the letter again, and realized he needed much better punishments. Those he had dreamed up over the past week were platry, unimaginative things. So nice of Prince Zuko to give him two more days to plan. His nephew was such a kind, considerate boy.

 

A kind, considerate boy who returned to the Wani wearing an oil-spotted engineering uniform, covered in purpling bruises, and with the left side of his face swathed in bandages again .

 

"Stop fussing," Zuko snapped. "It's not for my eye, it's just for the head wounds!"

 

Iroh turned a smile on the crewmen who had brought him back in one very tenderized piece. 

 

"Thank you for keeping my nephew safe," the Dragon of the West said, and they all had enough intelligence to look uneasy.

 

***

 

Assistant Cook Dekku had been left to watch the steamer while Prince Zuko accidentally Omashued . Iroh judged him least culpable. He was sentenced to watching all the meals he'd prepared be dosed with extra salt and dragon-pepper for a week. Iroh also stopped going back for seconds, unless the Head Cook had been the only one to touch the dish. 

 

"Is everything to your taste, General?" Dekku fretted.

 

Iroh coughed behind his napkin, then smiled. "It's lovely! Truly your skills have only improved while catering to my nephew. I am simply on a diet."

 

He waited until Dekku had slumped away, and winked at the Head Cook. Then he picked up the salt shaker, and waited for Dekku to sneak another forlorn glance his way.

 

Engineer Hanako had been in the furnace room for much of the first day Prince Zuko had been aboard, and had lodged a formal protest—in writing!—with Lieutenant Jee about conveying a minor into a war zone. Her formal protest identified the minor as Kuzon of Urasai . In acknowledgement for her bravery in standing up to orders and her generosity towards his nephew, Iroh gifted her two of Zuko's finest shirts. He made a great speech to go along with the shirts, and held her hands as a single tear rolled down his cheek. He did this in front of the dining hall during the busiest part of dinner. 

 

"—Your kindness in caring for my dear young nephew, so far from home, when even his own uncle could not be with him—"

 

Everyone saw that the shirts would fit. This was revenge enough.

 

Crewman Teruko had been the one to find Zuko stowed away. She had immediately brought him to the attention of Lieutenant Jee, and accepted her commanding officer's decision on the matter. This was irreprehensible behavior under Fire Nation naval code.

 

Since she was such a fine upstanding soldier, Iroh made her his new sparring partner. It was clear that his nephew was not going to keep himself safe, and Iroh had become quite the corpulent dragon since his own time in the military. In addition to his new diet, Iroh prescribed himself several hours of intense firebending practice every day. It was quite refreshing.

 

"Do you need a break?" he asked. "Perhaps some tea?"

 

Teruko groaned something from the ship's deck that Iroh chose to interpret as both polite and a negative.

 

"Ah, the energy of youth. Very well, let us continue!"

 

He chose to interpret her stream of invectives as enthusiasm. He had been a sergeant once too, long long ago. He had not been demoted.

 

Lieutenant Jee. Iroh had many perfectly ordinary conversations with Lieutenant Jee. The man was stiff and unsmiling for all of them, and full of unfounded suspicions and clear concern for his personal safety. Iroh wondered how long it took him to realize that Iroh only mentioned the words Avatar and course correction when Prince Zuko was in hearing range.

 

He wondered how long it took the lieutenant to realize he always mentioned the words Avatar and course correction when Prince Zuko was in hearing range. And Prince Zuko had very good ears. Quite the set of lungs, too! 

 

"Are we not on the most efficient course?" his nephew shouted. "Didn't we just have this conversation? I don't want your excuses! Show me the maps!" 

 

His nephew was learning quite a bit about navigation, too. Revenge really was quite instructive.

 

One morning, Zuko began shouting before Iroh could even say anything. It was like Kuzon of Pavlov's lizard-dogs; soon Lieutenant Jee and course corrections would simply belong together in the prince's mind.  

 

And finally, his nephew. His dear sweet nephew, who had left his own Uncle behind and risked everything a twelve-year-old could risk to see his self-appointed mission through. Who was so full of love, but who seemed baffled by the idea that love could be returned. For him, Iroh devised a multi-pronged vengeance.

 

There was pai sho ( It is not unusual for a game to last more than two hours! ) Tea tasting ( Do you prefer the northeastern or the northwestern jasmine blend?) Breathing exercises ( Yes, I can see you are very calm. Have a new candle, Prince Zuko ). A relaxing training regimine ( Oh no, Prince Zuko, you cannot join Crewman Teruko and I. Think of your head wounds! Your fire is clearly still recovering. Please, practice the beginner set again.) (Zuko did not protest this as loudly as Iroh had expected.) And daily hugs. Iroh counted in his head; he almost had his nephew up to three seconds before the boy shoved him away.

 

Also, hot springs! 

 

"Are you sure you will not join me, Prince Zuko? The water is most soothing for aching muscles."

 

"Maybe if you let me train on more than the baby katas , I'd have some of those," the bundle of half-faded bruises that called itself a boy complained. Iroh very much wanted to hug him (and also, perhaps, to pull him into the water), but his nephew had grown wary of standing within easy hugging range.

 

"Just for a few minutes, perhaps?"

 

"I'll be at the ship. If you're not back in half an hour, we're leaving without you."

 

"Oh, so Lieutenant Jee has finally worked out the course?"

 

It was the little things in life. Iroh leaned back as his nephew stomped off, and relaxed. He had not been joking about those aching muscles. 

 

Perhaps he relaxed a bit too much. When he woke, the Earth Kingdom soldiers did not look like they had come to join him in a friendly soak. Iroh thought of how his nephew would feel when he realized what had happened. This, too, was a type of revenge. If perhaps not one Iroh would have planned. 

 

"May I put on my clothes before we depart, gentlemen?" Iroh asked.

 

"Get moving, General."

 

"Retired," he smiled.

 

No, this was altogether too crass for one of Iroh's vengeances. Earthbenders . They were subtle as stone.

Chapter Text

Sokka was beginning to question his life choices. Specifically, the ones that had led to leaving the South Pole. More specifically, the ones that had let Aang anywhere near a map or navigational decisions, seriously, they should have been at the North Pole by now. Even more specifically , the ones that led to him learning that the inside of a terrifying black-and-white spirit-creature's stomach was some kind of swamp.

 

Yep. Sokka was in a spacious stomach swamp. That seemed to spread out infinitely far in all directions, with all kinds of trees and mossy root walkways and suspicious murky water and cheerful bamboo groves that he could walk towards until his legs fell off and still not reach. And he was wearing his parka for some reason, the same one he'd worn most of his life but had definitely left on Appa. And he had his boomerang and club, but not his spiffy new sword-and-fan combo from— sigh —Suki.

 

All in all, he was still piecing together the physics of stomach swamps, but he thought he was getting close. To something. Definitely. Though if Aang wanted to get him out before he finished his investigation, he wouldn't complain. And what was that glinty gold flash over that-a-way?

 

Sokka walked and walked and didn't get any closer but then he blinked and was there . 'There' being defined as running straight into a bundle of red-and-black robes and falling over in a tangle of silks and Sokka-limbs.

 

The silk robes squirmed, and punched him in the kidney.

 

"Get off!" That young-yet-superior voice was really familiar. Sokka sat up, and turned a critical eye on the very small and very angry fellow stomach dweller and/or stomach-induced hallucination. The kid was so Fire Nation it was physically painful . The robes said 'your annual village income equals a pair of my socks'; the eyes were wolf-bear gold and seriously since when did humans even have eyes that color?; the teenie-tiny top knot said 'we invaded your tribes, took everything you love, and couldn't even culturally appropriate wolf tails right'; the little gold flame-headpiece said 'little gold flame-headpiece.' It was about as subtle as the rest of their nation.

 

The kid was pinned under Sokka's superior body weight (and the layered stupidity of his own clothing). His glare was really expressive. On both sides of his face. Because the giant fresh scar Sokka was expecting wasn't there .

 

"Are you Zuko's twin, or something?" Sokka asked. "Please tell me you're the good one."

 

"If you don't get off me, Water Tribe, I will be forced to remove you."

 

Nope, this was definitely the regular Zuko. And crap, Sokka was recognizing children by their disfiguring facial features again, but to be fair Zuko's was pretty prominent and he'd never really questioned how the kid would look without it.

 

"How'd you get the scar, anyway?" Sokka was going to follow this up with and why don't you have it now , but he got distracted by all the snarling. 

 

Zuko reminded him he had two kidneys. 

 

Oww.

 

***

 

Fire Lord Ozai sat at his desk, slitting letters open like lesser men slit throats. 

 

From Colonel Akio: — Regretfully, news of the former prince's banishment did not reach the 41st until after he had already departed. On behalf of my division, I accept full responsibility for the oversight that allowed him to move unchallenged within Your Majesty's territories. The occupation of Omashu is proceeding well— 

 

***

 

"So," the Water Tribe teen said, once he was done sitting on Zuko . "You got eaten by a four-armed giant spirit monster, too?"

 

"I was looking for my uncle." Zuko rubbed at his head. He felt… weird. Like the colors in the world were really bright, and like he could see everything all crisp and clear and—

 

Like he could see from his left eye. Not the blurry color wash that had replaced the darkness under his bandages when they finally came off, but really see. He darted a glance at Sokka, then very casually not-at-all-obviously moved his hand to touch his left ear (which was whole) and, a little cautiously, the skin of his left cheek (which was smooth) and then he blinked (and it didn't hurt). What .

 

Also, he was wearing his palace robes. And he was pretty sure Uncle had given Engineer Hanako this shirt. 

 

Uncle! 

 

"The Earth Kingdom took him. I think there was a patrol, they attacked him and I found the tracks and I couldn't get him back myself because—" because Agni was still angry at him but Zuko was not apologizing, the sun god could go steam himself "— because , so I was running back to the ship and I ran into a… a…"

 

"A four-armed giant spirit monster," Sokka guessed.

 

"...Yes." Zuko dropped his hand away from his face. He rubbed his arms instead, because he was shivering. Which was stupid, because he wasn't any colder than he'd been a minute ago.

 

The Water Tribe teen rubbed at his own ribs, but that was mostly because of the new bruises. "Hey. I'm sure your uncle will be—"

 

"Did you hear that?" Zuko A) didn't need pity from the Water Tribe, and B) really had heard something. Having two good ears again was amazing , he even knew what direction it was coming from. He turned just in time to see the little slimy black thing poke its way out of the water behind them.

 

And keep poking.

 

It wasn't so little.

 

"Huh," Sokka said. "It kind of looks like an elbow leech, except it's… ah…"

 

They both craned their necks up, and back, and up.

 

"Really big," the teen whimpered.

 

And suddenly Zuko's back felt heavy with the familiar weight of his swords, and he wasn't drowning in stupid palace robes it took three servants to put on, he was in his favorite sparring clothes. And he had two eyes and two ears and two swords and one smirk. 

 

"Wait, we can change our outfits?" Sokka was not focusing on the same details Zuko was. Clearly.

 

"Keep up, Water Tribe."

 

***

 

From Commander Zhao: —Trying to find witnesses who will swear to the Banished Prince's presence, but there is a distinct lack of soldiers who will admit to having seen the prince prior to the fight. Colonel Akio's interference continues: he has delivered to me his sworn testimony stating that the prince was at all times on Earth Kingdom grounds. The absurdity of this lie is clear, given that the prince must have crossed Fire Nation territory to even get to the fight. It will not be long before I secure a witness attesting to such— 

 

Fire Lord Ozai set this letter aside, before heated hands could turn to scorched fingerprints.

 

While witnesses to Zuko's arrival were traitorously scarce, there had been an overabundance of soldiers at the fight itself. Witnesses that Zuko had fought in single combat for the conquest of Omashu, and won . Worse, he refused to claim credit for the deed; all honor went to his countrymen and Fire Lord. A bloodless victory and a humble prince: the court was positively charmed. Ozai couldn't arrest him for this, no matter how many terms of his banishment he'd flaunted, no matter how many witnesses were found. The boy was, at least until the fickle nobles found some new gossip, popular.

 

Ozai expected these games from Azula, not Ursa's boy. What was Zuko playing at?

 

***

 

They were covered in black ichor. Well, the Water Tribe teen was. Zuko really didn't want to be , this was so far beneath a prince's dignity that he couldn't even contemplate it, and when he shook himself in disgust it all splatted off. 

 

"...So why did you use swords for that?" Sokka asked, staring at Zuko's newly cleaned clothes with a mixture of surprise, curiosity, and eye-twitching resentment.

 

"Fighting the Avatar broke my fire," Zuko said, because it was easier to say than Disobeying my Father broke my fire

 

"Huh," Sokka said, wiping leech blood off his parka. "Maybe you should have thought of that before you punched the World Spirit in the face. But seriously, is your evil dad evil-ordering you to pester Aang, or something?"

 

"I'm not pestering, I'm capturing!"

 

"Sure you are." 

 

"And the Fire Lord is following the will of Agni." 

 

"Sure he is."

 

"He is! Why else would he ban—send me to look for the Avatar? He'd been missing for a hundred years, but I sailed straight down to your miserable little village and found him. And everywhere I go he's there , even the places he isn't supposed to be."

 

Like the middle of a Fire Nation camp, neither of them said.

 

"I think… this is what the spirits willed. They guided my father's hand, and now they're blessing my quest so I can—" go home "—restore my honor. And save my people." From the Avatar. Obviously.

 

Zuko didn't notice that he'd touched his face, starting at my father's hand . Sokka did, and found himself—for the first time in his life—wanting to not know something. To make the suspicion of knowledge, this inkling he wanted neither confirmed-nor-denied, be gone. Because when he thought back on Kyoshi and his little buddy's totally unwarranted fireballs and some idiot saying Does-your-father-not-like-you-or-something, he'd like for Zuko to remain the villain in that memory. 

 

***

 

From his sedentary sloth-slug of a brother, the former Crown Prince Iroh: —Hearing conflicting reports by now, I imagine. I am sure if you would simply return your son's letters, he would be delighted to tell you everything that has transpired since—

 

***

 

Sokka needed to unknow something. His go-to strategy: letting words flow out of his mouth so fast that hopefully they'd carry the poison out with them.

 

"So how broken is broken, with this fire of yours? Because I heard somewhere that benders can't bend it up in the spirit world. And I'm starting to think we might be there. It would explain the whole 'we can change appearance just by thinking hard' thing." Which Sokka was still working on. Seriously, parkas: not appropriate swamp attire, even before the leech blood. "So if you could try using some magic fire, we could test that theory."

 

"Why don't you try using some magic water ," the kid said. He pointed at all the water around them, in sort of a big looping hand gesture that also meant you idiot.

 

"Umm. Non-bender?" Sokka pointed to himself, in a quick poking gesture meant to convey who's the idiot but which kind of failed because he was pointing at himself. 

 

His little bu—nope, not going back to calling him that, tragic completely unconfirmed backstories did not make for stable friendships— Zuko paused. "Oh. I just figured you were as bad as your sister."

 

"Yeah, she is pretty bad."

 

The kid looked like he recognized something in Sokka's tone. "Sisters are awful," he offered, like a truce.

 

"They really are." Truce accepted.

 

And if the sliding scale of awful in their relative family trees was a little different, neither of them thought about it just then.

 

***

 

From Zuko: —Uncle kept us anchored while I had dragon pox, but we've got a new heading on the Avatar now and I'm sure— 

 

The boy had moved from simple incompetence to willful rebellion. This was the closest Fire Lord Ozai had ever been to feeling he had a son.

 

***

 

"So you just want something and then it appears?" Sokka tried to drop his spirit-parka into the spirit-muck they were trudging through, but it spirited itself right back onto his shoulders when he blinked. Solution: shove it off again, and never blink.  

 

"How is this so hard for you to grasp," his little temporary-truce-founded-on-awful-sisters buddy  grumped. "Do peasants not want things hard enough? Is that why you're still peasants? When I want something, I just—" 

 

The kid stumbled. And hugged his arms over his chest. And started turning the most interesting shade of red. Sokka's eyes watered from the not-blinking, but he was pretty sure he was seeing this right.

 

"...Is there a particular reason you're hiding a plushie Appa under your shirt?"

 

"I'm NOT."

 

Sokka summoned his inner Gran-Gran, and gave the prince a look . Said prince blushed down to his collarbone.

 

"It's not mine, it must be yours." He shoved the toy into Sokka's chest and stomp-sloshed off.

 

Its fur was the softest thing Sokka had ever imagined. His heart actually melted a little, just touching it. He blinked, and wasn't even mad when his parka came back, because the fuzzy-wuzzy Appa in his hands was just so soft .

 

"You are going to be very disappointed when you touch the real Appa."

 

"I don't want to pet your smelly bison!"

 

"Uh-huh. You realize I can never take you seriously again, right little buddy?" 

 

The Appa had a squeaker, Sokka was delighted to find.

 

Squeakers attracted giant elbow leeches, he was less enthused to discover.

 

***

 

Ozai dipped a quill, and inked another letter to Zhao. 

 

***

 

Zuko stumbled out of the bamboo grove and back into the real world, too busy wiping off spirit slime that no longer existed to shove Sokka back into the swamp behind them. Which Sokka deserved. Ten times over, he deserved it. 

 

"Ugh, that was worse than unagi vomit," Zuko said.

 

"Wasn't that just salt water?" Sokka asked, beating at a leech that was no longer wrapped around his arm but he could still feel it eww eww eww.

 

"It came out of an unagi's stomach."

 

"Didn't really look like it came out of its stomach. I don't know where it came out of," Sokka said. Which didn't make it better. At all. Both of them let the subject drop. 

 

Which was good timing, because Sokka's awful sister was here.

 

"What happened in there?" she demanded, looking back and forth between the two of them, her expression somewhere between confusion and looking like she'd touched a giant elbow leech.

 

Zuko looked at Sokka who was looking at Zuko.

 

"...Don't remember," Zuko said.

 

"Got to use the bathroom!" Sokka said, and literally ran away from this conversation.

 

The waterbender was staring down at Zuko. She seemed murderous and a little nervous, like Azula on those two times Zuko figured out a firebending move before her. Also, the Avatar was standing on the tallest rooftop in town—when had Zuko gotten to a town ?—and preaching peace and friendship and Could we please not light any villages on fire this time, please? down at the masked firebenders below. They hadn't surrounded his position. They didn't look like they were even trying to.

 

"Sir," one of them said. It as the kind of Sir that said This is not how I imagined my evening going.

 

"Lieutenant Jee," Zuko acknowledged. And swallowed. "Where is—?"

 

"General Iroh is back at the ship, sir."

 

There was a lot more in those words, too.

 

Zuko took the reigns of the offered komodo-rhino, and didn't even look at the Avatar again before he left. Which he regretted when he got to the ship, and Uncle was fine . He was smiling and chuckling and Zuko resigned himself to a hug that he definitely didn't want as he stepped within grabbing range.

 

One of the crewman brought in a pot of tea. And poured.

 

Uncle's smile was a little strained as he looked down at Zuko, and did not even try to reach for him.

 

" Sir ," Lieutenant Jee said, and he wasn't talking to Zuko. 

 

"Ah, well. The spirit world and giant elbow leeches were a much grander adventure than mine. Perhaps I could tell you, while we drink? I will require… some assistance."

 

Uncle let his sleeves slip back. 

 

"Your hands." Zuko stared down at the thick white bandages. He thought a lot of things all at once, like When I'm Fire Lord I'm going to burn the Earth Kingdom to the ground and This wouldn't have happened if I had my fire and I'd have my fire if I listened to Father and Who's going to fix the clasp on the waterbender's necklace now?

 

Uncle clearly needed a hug but was being too stubborn to ask. Zuko gave him one anyway.

Chapter Text

Zhao's ship was on the horizon again, Iroh noted. Zhao's ship had three catapults to their one. Zhao's ship had not yet sent a hawk. It was not unusual for ships to be in the same area, nor was the lack of direct communication strange; most ships simply passed each other by, already flying the flags that signaled their basic orders. The Wani flew no flag save the Fire Nation's, because they were on no mission the navy supported. Zhao's black flag meant Special Assignment .

 

Iroh watched the flag fluttering through a telescope that someone else had set up for him. Nearby, Zuko was running through his morning drills with only the barest of flames, as he had been since he returned from Omashuing ; he was, surprisingly, heeding doctor's orders and avoiding overexertion. His form was not the cut-glass perfection of his sister, but it was good for his age. As it always was, when he was simply moving and not worrying . When he did not think he was being watched, or judged. It had taken two spats with the Avatar and one report of a very determined Agni Kai for Iroh to realize this. There was more his nephew could learn, of course—there was always more to be learned!—but…

 

But.

 

Iroh stood on deck with his ruined hands, watching Zhao's ship on the horizon. 

 

"Prince Zuko, please come here. Today you will start on the advanced forms. I will ask Crewman Teruko to demonstrate the—Prince Zuko?"

 

His nephew did not look elated, or proud. His nephew did not look anything like a boy who'd been begging to learn the advanced forms since his little sister had first surpassed him. His nephew looked like Iroh had served sky bison veal for lunch. 

 

Lieutenant Jee coughed very pointedly, somewhere to the aft. It was the kind of cough that said I told you to tell him.

 

"Uncle. I… my fire..." Zuko would not meet his eyes. "I disobeyed Father's orders, and… and I don't regret it! But Agni is really mad, I think, which is stupid because what I did was right —"

 

It took Iroh a moment to untangle the meaning behind these words. Losing his fire made much more sense than his nephew obeying doctor's orders. 

 

"Ah," Iroh said. "This happened much sooner than I anticipated."

 

Zuko did not seem to find this reassuring. At all.

 

"I believe I know how you may regain your fire, Prince Zuko. First, though," his eyes drifted back to the horizon, "we must practice something else. Are you acquainted with politics-bending?"

 

"I don't think that's a thing, Uncle."

 

"Your tutors seem to have overlooked the subject, yes."

 

***

 

Zhao was getting all manner of royal letters lately. First the Fire Lord, now the Dragon of the West. He needed only Princess Azula to round out the set.

 

And perhaps Zuko. Something to remember him by. 

 

But since he'd yet to hear back from the Fire Lord about simply sinking the Wani and being done with things from a distance, he'd indulge this little lark.

 

"Lieutenant, set course for the Prince's ship. General Iroh has invited me to tea."

 

***

 

Zuko poured for Commander Zhao and kept his gaze very far from his Uncle's hands, which were tucked up his sleeves and hidden by the table.

 

The first rule of politics-bending, Uncle had told him, was Don't let your opponent know you cannot smite them with lightning.  

 

A sealed scroll sat on the table between the men, a centerpiece that Zhao had eyed but had not inquired after. 

 

"I am curious, General," Zhao did not touch his tea, "why you really called me over here."

 

"Is my new white dragon blend not reason enough?" Uncle also did not touch his tea. For very different reasons.

 

"Of course, General. And how are you doing, my Prince? Recovered from the dragon pox?"

 

Zuko had two jobs. One: pour tea. Two: Do not talk, I am just as serious this time as I was the last, Prince Zuko. Your job is to listen, and learn.

 

This would be easier if Uncle would stop baiting him.

 

"Unfortunately, my nephew has lost his voice. Too much shouting." Uncle smiled benevolently at Zuko, who resisted the urge to shout something like I don't shout that much . "What brings you to this area, Commander Zhao?"

 

"I'm expecting a reply from the Fire Lord. It seemed prudent to remain within range of my objective." Zhao turned his cat-gator smile on Zuko. "What about you, Prince Zuko? Have you spoken to your father lately? Oh, please forgive me—I forgot you can't answer. Feel free to simply nod."

 

Zuko kept his lips together and refused to shake his head.

 

"No? How strange. Perhaps the palace ran out of hawks."

 

Zuko opened his mouth to say That's stupid , then shut it again. 

 

Uncle cleared his throat. "Nephew, this tea is growing cold. Could you please fetch a new pot? The Commander and I will wait."

 

Zuko grabbed the still-steaming pot and left the two men with their full cups. He shut the door behind him. And pressed his good ear to it. Listen, and learn.

 

***

 

Iroh and Zhao did not drop their smiles, but they let the steel come out. 

 

"You are quite far from the rest of the fleet, Commander," Iroh said.

 

"I have my orders."

 

"And the message you await?"

 

"Clarification on accepted collaterals," Zhao replied. 

 

Iroh let out a slow breath, and nodded to the scroll on the table. "Perhaps this will clarify things. It is our best guess, based upon observed headings and sites our target would find significant. At the observed rate, he should be there by the solstice."

 

Zhao reached for the scroll like he expected it to bite; he reached for it, without ever taking his eyes off of Iroh. Broke the seal, and read, and set it back down. "Crescent Island. If you know where the Avatar will be, why aren't you headed there?"

 

"And take my nephew into Fire Nation waters? He has only just recovered from his last case of dragon pox, Commander. I will not let him relapse so soon."

 

Zhao pushed the scroll away. "As bribery goes, General, you could do better. I've already received a higher offer."

 

"My brother is persuasive. And good to his friends, while they remain as such. But tell me, Commander Zhao: would you rather be known as the man who captured the Avatar, or the man who fears poison in every cup?" He looked down at Zhao's tea, still untouched. Just as his own was. It was a message, and Zhao had not failed to read what he believed into it. "Or, perhaps, the traitor who killed a prince of the blood. Princes are not just forgotten, Zhao. There will be questions. Do you think my brother will keep around a man who knows the answers? I do not think anyone will question your death so closely. If you do as my brother commands, the best you can hope for is to be forgotten. Capture the Avatar, and you will be remembered . It is the best protection I can afford you."

 

"The Avatar is your prince's only way home. Why give this information to me?"

 

"His father does not wish him to return to the capital. Is it so strange that I would feel the same? Go capture the Avatar. Leave my nephew to heal, Zhao."

 

"Thank you for the tea, General." The man was no longer smiling. This was the most Iroh could hope for.

 

There was a knock on the door. Zuko entered. He did not look surprised when Zhao pushed his way past, but at least he remembered to keep quiet.

 

***

 

Zhao's ship was steaming towards the western horizon, but still Zuko was not speaking. 

 

"I did not think you actually lost your voice, nephew," Iroh tried. This was exactly the kind of situation tea was made for, but the pot had gone very cold, and Zuko did not seem inclined to reheat it. This was also what hugs were for, but Iroh did not think the prince was inclined to those at the moment either. So they sat in the silence of Iroh's quarters, until Zuko was ready to break it. 

 

"My father doesn't want to kill me. He didn't order Zhao to kill me."

 

Iroh really could have used a cup of tea.

 

"My father will welcome me home. Once I have the Avatar."

 

"I am sure he will, Prince Zuko." He was sure Ozai would have no choice, if his son were a national hero. Heroes must first be tarnished before they could be discarded.

 

"Why did Zhao even believe you?"

 

"A man can convince himself of the ocean, if only he can find a grain of sand in his shoe." 

 

His nephew reacted to proverbs as usual. His scowl was a reassuring return to life. So were his crossed arms, and the sudden fire in his eyes. "You sounded like Azula in there."

 

Uncle understood this as both highest insult and unintended praise. "Prince Zuko. I am the Dragon of the West, and I am your uncle. Both of these are true. Right now you are my nephew, but you must also become a dragon. Otherwise you will never hold the throne even if you sit it."

 

These were truths Iroh had not been planning to teach Zuko. Not yet, when there was so much else for the boy to learn—like how to relax for even the time it took to enjoy a cup of tea, or practice his firebending without looking over his shoulder to see who was watching, or smile without his father first approving the action. But he had thought he'd have years; he could not imagine his brother reconsidering the banishment any earlier, if ever. He had not imagined they'd find the Avatar. Yet the Avatar was here, and the Avatar was twelve, and the Avatar was like a rabbit-mouse who had not yet learned the fear of fire-snakes. His nephew might just rub Ozai's banishment terms in his face. 

 

"...I'm no good at lying," Zuko said. "I'm not good at talking to the courtiers." 

 

Iroh smiled. "Ah, but you are very good at telling the truth. So good, perhaps, that it wraps around again. Would you kindly heat new water? I believe it is time you learned to brew tea."

 

"I don't have time for tea."

 

"Second rule of politics-bending, Prince Zuko: there is always time for tea. And a corollary: tea is never just tea. Why do you think Zhao accepted my invitation?"

 

And so Iroh talked Zuko through brewing his first pot of tea, and told him exactly how his actions at Omashu looked to the Court. And to his father.

 

Zuko drank his tea as if it were not awful (which made Uncle feel offended on behalf of every good cup he'd ever served the boy), and interrupted so often his voice started to truly get hoarse. And a bit frantic. 

 

"That's not why I did it!"

 

"That is your truth. But it is not the truth others saw. And the more you protest that you did it to save common troops and because those soldiers love their country and not at all because it makes your father look like—" a child-abusing psychopath "—he misjudged you, the more those at Court will smile and agree with you, and think they share in your joke. So you see, you are actually quite good at lying!"

 

Zuko put his head down on the table. "So Father thinks…"

 

"That you are blossoming into a successor to rival Azula," Iroh happily returned the earlier insult-praise. "Why, you took a whole city without fighting! Not even the Dragon of the West could do that, and he certainly did not do it at twelve . Your Father never had any major military accomplishments."

 

His nephew did not seem inclined to sit up ever again. The noises he was making were more commonly associated with sinking ships, or dying ox-horses. By this, Iroh knew he'd understood his first lesson in politics-bending.

 

"Why did we even tell Zhao about Crescent Island?" the boy finally groaned. "We could have lied."

 

"We could have, but the Avatar makes for quite the distraction. We want Zhao to be very distracted when we skirt the blockade."

 

That got the boy sitting up. "What?"

 

"I believe," Iroh said, "it is time you met the Masters Ran and Shaw. They may be able to help with your fire problem."

Chapter Text

As they flew away from the highly volcanic and ironically fiery destruction of Fire Nation cultural heritage, Sokka leaned over the saddle, scanning the ocean around Crescent Island one last time. Still nothing. Huh. 

 

"I kind of expected Zuko to be here," he said. 

 

"What is that?" Katara asked, squinting at his hand and the totally expert carving he was holding. "A badgermole?"

 

"It's a bison! How many legs do you think a badgermole has?"

 

"I was going to ask you that," his charming sister muttered. "Wait. Did you make that for Zuko ?"

 

"Umm." Sokka looked into the face that sewed his pants and washed his socks and could vote with Aang to form a majority block against meat in their meals. "Not specifically, no. But I made it, and then I thought 'Hey, if I was going to throw a small wooden bison at someone's head, who would that be?' and Zuko was right there at the top of my list. So it's not really for him , just… aimed in his general direction?" 

 

"He stole mom's necklace!" This seemed to be Katara's primary point in any conversation concerning the prince. It made it hard to talk to her about horrifying suspicions Sokka may or may not have. 

 

"Oh yeah, your necklace." (This was not the right response, and she would make him regret it later.) "Maybe I could trade with him!"

 

Katara narrowed her eyes. "What happened in the spirit world?"

 

"What happens in the spirit stomach stays in the spirit stomach, Katara." 

 

Aang turned around on Appa's head, and ever so helpfully joined the conversation. "I told you what happened to me ."

 

"What happens in the spirit stomach stays in the spirit stomach, Aang."

 

***

 

From Commander Zhao, to the Fire Lord: —Though General Iroh's protection continues to prove problematic, I successfully diverted the banished prince from his quest and confronted the Avatar myself. His capture would have been assured were it not for the traitorous actions of the Fire Sages. I will temporarily remain at Crescent Island to determine how deeply this plot against Your Majesty has festered— 

 

***

 

The Wani lay anchored near a jungle infested island. Lieutenant Jee watched dubiously as General Iroh ordered a rowboat readied for just the prince and himself. A crewman started putting in a second set of oars, then paused, and took them back out.

 

"Are you sure you won't take a marine with you, sir? For the rowing, if nothing else." Lieutenant Jee was not volunteering. He could hear the mosquito-ticks from here.

 

"I can assure you this island is perfectly safe. Why, I killed the last dragon myself!" This was less reassuring than the General seemed to think. "I am simply taking my nephew on an educational archaeological exploration into one of the Fire Nation's most ancient sites. We will compare the architecture with that of modern fire temples, and observe the murals of the Sun Warriors. Perhaps even study an ancient firebending form or two from their silent statues—" 

 

Lieutenant Jee was bored just listening. He wasn't sure if this was a continuation of the General's Omashu punishments for the boy, or just an elaborate Avatar-and-Zhao-free detour. Probably both.

 

"We will be back before sunset. Please keep the crew on the ship, the island's traps are still active!"

 

...Jee was less bored, hearing that.

 

***

 

Zuko had thought unagi vomit was the worst thing that had ever happened to him (besides the obvious worst thing). Then he'd thought it was spirit leeches. Now he knew for a fact it was mosquito-ticks.  

 

"It was as big as my hand, Uncle," the prince muttered. "My hand ."

 

"A slight exaggeration. I would say it was only as large as your eyeball. Ah, we're here!"

 

Zuko shuddered from head to toe. It took him a moment to appreciate what he was seeing. 

 

They'd emerged from the jungle into a wide, tick-free street in a sprawling ancient ruin with a hundred dark semi-collapsed buildings that a twelve-year-old could wiggle into but an Uncle probably couldn't, wrapped up in thick easy-to-climb vines like a present waiting to be opened. 

 

"Whoa."

 

And then the half-dressed people surrounded them before he even had a chance to touch anything.

 

Of course Uncle knew them. Now they were talking, and Uncle was doing his how-are-you-and-your-obscure-second-cousins thing and they were going to be standing here for hours and probably then they'd have tea. It wouldn't hurt to slip into just one building, right? He'd be back before anyone even noticed.

 

Zuko was really good at going unnoticed, when he thought theatre thoughts.

 

***

 

There were many kinds of traitors, and many forms of treachery. Fire Sage Kaito reflected on this truth as he stood on the deck of Commander Zhao's ship, shackled like the others, tuning out the man's pontifications. It was not meant for his prisoners. 

 

Shyu's treachery was the most obvious: the young fool had actually escorted the Avatar to the inner sanctuary, and allowed for blasphemous Water Tribe trickery to open doors made for holy fire. Sixty-year-olds; pssh . Fire Sage Kaito remembered all the flamin' tomfoolery he'd gotten up to at sixty. That was precisely why he'd opposed the boy's transfer here in the first place. 

 

"—threats to the Fire Nation, blah blah blah—" Commander Zhao was still saying. "Treachery something something." 

 

Ah yes, treachery. That was what Kaito had been thinking of. There were many forms. Zhao's was hardly more subtle than Shyu's: the man did not care who the Avatar was, who the Fire Lord was, who the Sages were. Zhao was the sort of dog-vulture who would run to the biggest bowl, regardless of who poured his food.

 

For himself, Fire Sage Kaito prefered loyal treachery. So when an upstart viper-rat like Zhao had ordered him to open the door to the inner sanctuary, Kaito's fire had slipped. Just a hair to the left, and the lock had not opened, and Zhao had not been able to capture the Avatar before Roku's spirit had intervened. Granted, he would have preferred that Roku left the place standing… but it was hardly the first time a Fire Nation temple had self-immolated. More importantly: the Avatar had escaped. 

 

Capturing him was Crown Prince Zuko's path to the throne. If a bit of treason here kept the Avatar in play, then Kaito was pleased to be a traitor.

 

"—Glory and greatness and hot air—"

 

Dear Agni. He was still talking. Fire Sage Kaito would be decrepit before he was done. 

 

"Young man," Kaito interrupted. "I am a hundred and eleven years old, and I would like to be escorted to my cell now. You can listen to yourself speak without me."

 

Zhao threw fire like a toddler threw tantrums. Fire Sage Kaito, leader of the Crescent Island Sages, exhaled a long breath and snuffed his flames.

 

"My cell, young man."

 

That ended the speechifying quite nicely.

 

***

 

'One building' turned into 'slightly more than one building'. If Uncle asked, he got lost. If Sokka were here to ask… the peasant wouldn't, because he'd be right next to Zuko and squealing something high-pitched, because Zuko had just tricked a solar calendar into letting him into a super-secret temple. 

 

...That was full of completely boring statues. Ugh, Uncle hadn't been serious about learning bending from literal statues , had he? If the Masters Ran and Shaw ended up being some dead old guys on a mural (and if Zhao caught the Avatar while they were off on this stupid field trip—)

 

He stomped over to a statue. A floor tile clicked under his foot. Zuko, who had made his way past the awesome traps leading up to here (and had not hummed the Blue Spirit's theme to himself while he vaulted over spike pits), jumped back instantly and also ducked and rolled for good measure, but nothing tried to kill him. 

 

Huh. 

 

He slowly stood. And walked back to the statue. And poked the tile again with just his foot. Click. Still nothing. But now that he was looking, he could see a whole line of suspicious tiles bordering the statue ring. Zuko looked up at the statues, and down at the titles, and up at the statues. Then he shifted into the first stance they portrayed, and… click. Click, click, click.

 

He got to the end, and looked over his shoulder expectantly. Nothing happened. 

 

Which was when he noticed that the ring was symmetrical, and the forms repeated themselves on the other side. Was this made for two people? Was he supposed to be using the buddy system when he explored ancient booby-trapped ruins? No one had told him that friendship had practical real life applications .

 

He could go get Uncle. (Who would proverb him into submission for disappearing, and not let him out of his sight the rest of the day and possibly the rest of his life.) Or...

 

Zuko went outside, and started dragging fallen stones back into the temple. Click. Click, click, click. When he'd perma-triggered that half of the circle, he went back to his side, and tried this again. He was rewarded by an awesome golden glowing egg on a pedestal .

 

...Which was a trap. He had a lot of time to contemplate how obviously trap-like it had been while he was pressed against the metal grille on the ceiling.

 

"Zuko?" Uncle called, in the distance. He'd been doing that for awhile.

 

So Zuko's choices were calling out to his Uncle for help, or staying stuck up to his neck in sticky goo that was somewhere between unagi vomit and regular mud on the scale of how awful is this thing oozing under my clothes (and why did Zuko need a scale for that, since when had this become his life).

 

"Zuko!" Uncle called again.

 

Zuko made his choice. 

 

***

 

"Prince Zuko, why didn't you call for assistance?"

 

Zuko's hair was being licked clean by an aardvark-sloth. This, plus a glower and crossed arms (...he couldn't actually uncross them, they were glued that way), was answer enough. His uncle sighed. 

 

"Did you at least enjoy yourself, nephew?"

 

Zuko glowered harder. This was mostly because the aardvark-sloth's tongue was really tickly, and Zuko had learned long ago about the tactical significance of not letting anyone know you're ticklish. (Ty Lee was already a chi-blocking monster, she didn't need to know she could make him laugh , too. And the idea of Azula holding him down and tickling him with that gleam in her eye that said at any moment she might add flame to her hands—) (Zuko had enough nightmares.)

 

When he was clean(er) (and could uncross his arms again), Uncle introduced him to the Sun Warriors. The Sun Warriors introduced him to the Eternal Flame. Which wasn't a spirit tale, it was real and Zuko was holding it and he hadn't been planning to let it go out but then they'd told him not to and now it was all he could worry about. Also he was pretty sure that one guy had just said something about him getting eaten. 

 

"Uncle," Zuko whispered.

 

"Quaint local custom," Uncle whispered back. He did not hold a flame of his own, for obvious reasons. But he still accompanied Zuko on the trail up to the Master's cave. Zuko wasn't sure if this was a bonding activity, or to make sure he didn't get lost again. 

 

It was actually kind of a cool walk. There were more ruins (which he wasn't allowed to go in), and then a winding hike, and then an epically large staircase that people in fancy loincloths had definitely not made. 

 

But these weren't really the Sun Warriors, were they? They were their descendents. The real Sun Warriors had built an amazing city; their children just… maintained the traps, as the buildings crumbled around them. It felt like one of Uncle's proverbs.

 

Also, their tribe had totally cheated and taken a shortcut, because every single one of them had beaten Zuko and Uncle here.  

 

"...Is there a shortcut up the stairs?" Zuko whispered.

 

"Of course! The Masters frequently take it," Uncle whisper-smiled back, and didn't let Zuko in on the joke.

 

Then the chief started talking. And Zuko started bristling. He stared down at the flame cupped in his hands and tried not to talk back, listen and learn , but the chief was lecturing him about his ancestors killing off the dragons, and how the Masters might be angry at him for it because apparently he was responsible for every bad thing his bloodline had ever done, which wasn't fair and anyways his great-grandfather might have started it but it took a lot of people to finish it and Uncle had killed the last one himself, why wasn't he getting a lecture?

 

"I didn't do that," Zuko finally snapped. 

 

"Nephew—" Uncle cautioned.

 

"That's not who I am, and if your Masters have a problem with it than they can get out of their caves and take it up with my Father. Or the Dragon of the West . Can I climb the stupid stairs now?"

 

His bad ear wasn't playing tricks on him, that one guy definitely said something about 'dinner for the masters'. Zuko glared at him, then stomped off to meet his new cannibalistic teachers. He looked back once, almost expecting Uncle to be following him… But Uncle couldn't hold a flame, and he couldn't practice his bending until he'd healed more, and he'd clearly already met these masters. He just smiled, and nodded at Zuko to go on. So Zuko did, alone.

 

The stairs were really wide, but felt narrower and narrower the higher up he went. And he went really high . Up to a walkway where the wind tugged at his clothes and kept trying to push him towards the edges. Having seen the rest of the city, he was pretty sure this was all somewhere between five minutes and five centuries from collapsing under his feet.

 

(It was kind of awesome and he really wanted to go explore those caves, but everyone was watching him. Also the caves were probably just full of old people stuff, like Uncle's room.)

 

The wind picked up even further, until he had to widen his stance just to stay in place. It had a sort of growl to it. It was getting louder and rumblier and closer, and he couldn't place the direction it came from—in front or behind? 

 

Oh.

 

Both. 

 

Oh.  

 

There were dragons. Red and blue and horned and fanged and too big to fly but the sky was afraid to tell them that, circling and twisting and waiting—

 

Dancing. 

 

Just once, Zuko glanced down at everyone watching him below. Then he didn't think of them again for (seconds, hours), because dragons were alive, and here, and moving with him and he was moving with them

 

With one of them. Just like with the statues. There was supposed to be someone else here with him; Uncle should be up here, they should be sharing this together. And Zuko really would burn the Earth Kingdom to the ground, he could feel his inner fire flaring up with the anger and hate— 

 

—the dragons settled down on either side of him, their mouths wide as temple ruins— 

 

—and it was really hard to hold onto that rage when fire was the color of so much more. He tilted his head back, and breathed out, and breathed in. He could feel the dragon fire just above his skin in a hundred shades of temperature, heat and the cold between them. He could see the colors shifting just as well with his left eye as his right.

 

He'd fought with fire to save the 41st; he already knew fire was life. But now he knew .

 

***

 

Zuko was at the bottom of the stairs. He didn't remember getting there. The dragons were back in their caves, but he still felt wind over his skin and fire beneath. 

 

The chief was at the bottom waiting for him, and so was Uncle. Zuko talked to the chief first. 

 

"When I'm Fire Lord, it will be a capital offense to hunt dragons. Let's go, Uncle." 

 

He did not apologize. He hadn't done anything wrong. He knew it and the masters knew it, and that was maybe all that ever needed to matter. 

 

...Well. There was maybe something else that mattered. Zuko looked over his shoulder as they started back to the ship, and then leaned in close to Uncle. "Do you think they have any eggs?"

 

Uncle sighed, and hooked his elbow around Zuko's. They made it back to the ship with no further dragon-cave detours. Once there, Zuko promptly started yelling at Lieutenant Jee about course corrections so he could look at the maps, so he could memorise their current location, so that when he was Fire Lord there would definitely be dragon-cave detours. 

 

Appas were fine, but he'd just found a pet Azula couldn't light on fire.

Chapter Text

Present

 

Katara was a waterbender. A waterbender on a ship. She could do this. She just… needed to figure out what 'this' was. Because she was an untrained waterbender on a pirate ship. An untrained female waterbender, and they were pirates she'd stolen from , and her childhood might have been isolated but it hadn't exactly been sheltered. And she was not panicking. She wasn't . Even though they'd taken her while her brother and friend were asleep, and Sokka and Aang might not notice until they woke up and might not figure out what happened to her for hours after that—

 

Someone would save her from the pirates. She was sure of it. People cared about her and they'd be looking for her and they would find her (when?)

 

***

 

Four hours ago

 

The pirate ship sailed out of the river's mouth and into the open sea. Sails were set, and idle hands started turning idle eyes on their captive.

 

"We aren't much in the habit of keeping guests for very long, girl," the pirate captain said, as his awful iguana-parrot sneered down at her. "So as I see it, you've two choices in rooms. There's the cargo hold, or—"

 

***

 

Eight hours ago

 

She could barely see the waterbending scroll in the moonlight. She could barely see the pirates, either.

 

Aang would have been able to fight them off , she thought. With airbending, or with the waterbending moves he'd learned today, from her, that he was already better at than she'd ever been.

 

***

 

Twenty hours ago

 

Aang glided back down to their camp, leaving the pirates a whole town and half a forest behind them. Katara's feet touched down, and her heart was still racing and a victory dance would probably be too much.

 

She settled for gloating over her new high-risk acquisition, instead. She didn't know what Sokka was so worried about.

 

***

 

Eight hours ago

 

The pirates had the scroll, and they had her surrounded. And that was when Katara realized they weren't just going to let her go.

 

Her first water whip fell apart into weak splashes and pirate laughter. Her second made a man stumble back. Her third and fourth just made a lot of boots wet, but her fifth was better than Aang's.

 

They got her back on their ship, but they had to chip two men and an iguana-parrot from the ice before they could set sail.

 

***

 

Four hours ago

 

"—You could have yourself a nice warm bed." His lips curled, and his crew laughed. "What'll it be?"

 

Slaps were for polite girls, and Katara's hands were tied behind her back anyway. She kicked the Captain instead, exactly where Gran-Gran had taught her.

 

"Wrong choice, girl," he growled, when he could talk again.

 

"Captain, we've spotted a ship. Fire Nation; a small one. Seems to be alone."

 

He narrowed his eyes at her, and straightened up. "Put her in the hold. Change course to pursue—"

 

This was the last thing she heard before she was dumped down a trapdoor into the dark, where she could feel the water all around her.

 

***

 

Present

 

She was a waterbender on a ship. An angry waterbender on a ship. She could do this, and 'sitting around waiting to be rescued' wasn't 'this'.

 

Okay. So she was locked in their cargo hold. Obviously not a permanent arrangement. She didn't know when they were coming back. There was something loud going on above deck—a fight?—whatever it was, hopefully it would keep them distracted.

 

What would dad do?

 

Abandon his children to go fight the Fire Nation. Okay, bad example.

 

What would Sokka do?

 

Make an elaborate plan that started with… started with…

 

Getting her hands free. That's how it started. They were tied behind her back, but waterbenders-in-training were nothing if not flexible. Just squirm, and bring up her legs, and kind of squiggle and— there!

 

Okay. Hands in front. Still bound. Still sitting in the dark. Still completely proving Sokka and all his sexist views on women wrong by standing up and looking for something sharp. She bumped blindly around, finding a crate, a crate, and… more crates. Their corners were pointy and oww , but not exactly sharp. And even if they were conveniently full of knives, a few experimental slightly-curse-laden attempts to pry off a lid told her that fingernails did not make good crowbars.

 

Katara sat on a box, and closed her eyes (which did nothing, but still helped somehow). She took in a deep breath. In through the nose—(the ship's hull creaked, squeezed by waves that were just as sick of pirates as she was)—and out through the mouth. She found the rope's knot with her teeth, and got to work loosening it.

 

Hands free. Bleh. Now she needed a weapon, and she needed to get out of the cargo hold. Probably in reverse order. They'd pulled out the ladder when they dumped her down here, but they'd left her plenty of stackable boxes. She could see a dim square of light outlining her target. All she had to do was shove around these really heavy crates by leaning all her weight against them and pushing come on come on—

 

(The waves scraped against the hull with icy fingers.)

 

YES! Woo! Victory! She did dance, because she'd earned it. Just one or two more of these. That she had to move and then lift .

 

(Ice grew. On the lowest level of the ship, something splintered. The noise above deck washed it out.)

 

Katara was thoroughly ready to kill something by the time she flung the trap door open. It wasn't locked, which saved it from being her first victim. She emerged out into the pirate's boutique—the cramped room of curios. It was currently pirate free. She pulled herself up, and tip-toed over to a display of weapons. She found a dagger that fit her hand, and preemptively thanked the spirit of whoever it had come from for lending her their strength. Then she shoved every scroll down her shirt (it was the principle of the matter), and—

 

The door crashed inwards. A pirate fell back into her. The dagger was pinned at her waist, (the seas surged their way through an ever-growing hole but couldn't reach her,) so she grabbed blindly at the shelf behind her and hit the creep hard with the first thing her hand closed on. Then she readied herself for the man in the doorway, the skull-masked evil looming Fire Nation soldier—

 

***

 

Crewman Teruko eyed the snarling Water Tribe girl who'd just brained a pirate with a ruby-eyed monkey statue.

 

Crewman Teruko backed out the door, and shut it softly behind herself.

 

***

 

Present

 

"Zuko!" Iroh called. "Come back here this instant!"

 

Lu Ten had never been this much trouble.

 

(Lu Ten had never been within leaping distance of a pirate ship.)

 

***

 

Four hours ago

 

There were pirates on the horizon. It was a welcome change from Zhao, in the same way roach-mice were an improvement over mosquito-ticks. Iroh watched the ship tacking to port; its sails billowed out as it picked up speed. It had spotted the undersized Wani , rusty and slightly Avatar-dented and so very far from the help of the rest of the fleet. It was hunting them.

 

"Evasive maneuvers, Lieutenant Jee."

 

"The wind's in their favor, Sir. Engineer Hanako's already warned against pushing the engines."

 

Iroh sighed, in a way that several Earth Kingdom generals still had nightmares about. This will hurt me more than it will hurt you, because dead men do not hurt.

 

Zuko was leaning over the rail; any further, and they would have to fish him from the sea. The sun was warm against his skin and his fire brimming. Miles away but coming closer, a certain waterbender was being thrown into the dark.

 

***

 

Twelve hours ago

 

Zuko finally stopped practicing and let Uncle shoo him to bed, but not until the sun set and the fire inside of him wanned (and even then he could feel it, warmer than it had ever been, like a hug on the inside) (not that he needed any hugs).

 

He dreamed of dragons while a waterbender fought.

 

***

 

Twenty hours ago

 

The anchor was up and their course set and the Wani at cruising speed. Lieutenant Jee had run out of excuses. He joined the prince on deck, and learned… the Dancing Dragon.

 

Off to the side, pretending to check the catapult, Crewman Teruko snickered the snicker of someone who wanted latrine duty for the next month.

 

The General smiled. "I believe Teruko would like to be your next dance partner, Prince Zuko!"

 

"It's not a dance!" The prince had his flame daggers back. And the rest of his fire, for that matter. Ancient ruins apparently made for better field trips than Jee thought. "I wish I had something real to practice on."

 

"I'm sure something will come up, sir," Lieutenant Jee said, with perfect fatalism.

 

Around the same time, a Water Tribe boy was ranting at his sister about all the piratey doom she'd just invited. His sister wasn't listening.

 

***

 

Present

 

The last pirate fell. Katara stood above him, monkey in one hand and water whip in the other, and stared across the deck at the prince of the nation who'd stolen her mother and who'd stolen her mother's necklace . His crew ringed him protectively, a mass of red with those faceless white helmets that made each of them look just as heartless as any other.

 

"I won't be anyone's prisoner," she said.

 

"Umm. Could we maybe talk about this on my ship? The ship that's not sinking."

 

Katara grudgingly accepted the validity of this point. She waved an after you hand. After you turned out to be after the prince's crew, and the trussed up pirates, and the prince himself who seemed satisfyingly stiff-shouldered and sneaking-glances-behind-him about having a Master Waterbender In Training stalking over the plank on his heels.

 

The prince's uncle waited for them on the opposite side, his arms crossed and his hands tucked up opposite sleeves. "Nephew, did you just save the Lady Waterbender from pirates?"

 

Katara stomped her last step, off the plank and onto the deck. The sea swelled under them. "I saved myself , thank you."

 

"I see." The man smiled, and looked down at her impromptu weapon. "Oh, that is exquisite! A souvenir of your triumph?"

 

"Keep it." She shoved the monkey into his hands; he winced, and caught it on his wrists. Then she set her hands on her hips, darted a look at the Appa-free sky and the empty ocean in all directions, and held her head up high. "Where am I staying? If anyone says a warm bed, I will end you."

 

***

 

"...A cold bed?" Zuko offered.

 

Sisters were terrifying, and Sokka's had four more years of practice than Azula. And she had just sunk a ship.

 

Maybe he shouldn't have let her on his.

Chapter Text

"Someone must have seen something!" Sokka was about to punch a guy (or maybe be punched, it was really unclear) when the Fire Nation messenger hawk swooped out of the sky and landed on his shoulder.

 

"Son of a doe!" the dock worker who totally knew where the pirate ship had gone but refused to give it up for two coppers and a knuckle sandwich shouted. He recoiled from Sokka's intimidating manliness and the bird's sharp beak.

 

"Good Hawky," Sokka said, and slipped her a strip of seal jerky, mostly on reflex. He'd trained her very well and definitely not the other way around. "Wait, Hawky? Aang! "

 

The airbender hopped between docks, blithely ignoring gravity. "Thanks anyway," he called over his shoulder, "let us know if you see her! What's up, Sokka? Did you—is that Fire Flake?"

 

"This is Hawky ," Sokka corrected, unrolling the message. "You've met Hawky. We kidnapped her."

 

"Weren't you just hawk-sit—?"

 

Sokka cleared his throat, aHEM, and read the prince's letter.

 

Water Tribe ,

 

(It began, because of course it did.)

 

I have your sister. Bring me the Avatar. Coordinates attached.

 

Zuko, son of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai, Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, Dragon of the Wani

 

...Zuko. Not pirates. Sokka sagged in relief. 

 

"That's great!" Aang's enthusiasm carried him a few feet into the air, which attracted the attention of everyone around, which went a long way to explaining why the prince and Zhao had such an easy time tracking them even without the giant flying not-as-soft-as-he-apparently-looked bison factored in. "We can go pick her up, and maybe stop for tea—"

 

"Aang! What have I told you about the tea?" Sokka put a stop to that right there. 

 

He flipped the letter over, and scrawled a reply.

 

***

 

The waterbender had not left her five-foot radius of deck-pacing since she'd come on board. Behind her, the half-sunk pirate ship bobbed like a warning buoy. Lieutenant Jee and Crewman Teruko kept a respectful guard at a respectful distance, any uneasiness safely hidden behind the helmets they still wore. Usually the crew was quick to pull those off after danger had passed, helmets got really stifling on firebenders, but—

 

"You sent Sokka what ?" 

 

—the danger hadn't exactly passed.

 

The seas surged under the Wani . The crew was getting alarmingly good at ignoring that; only one person even stumbled. That person was Zuko. And it was definitely a stumble, not a step away from the shouting waterbender.

 

"Um. A ransom note?" he tried to use short sentences and small words, because for some reason she was taking offense to this, he must not have explained it right the first time. "So they know where you are. And they can come and get you? And since you're my hostage, they'll know that I'm honor-bound to keep you safe—"

 

"I can keep myself safe!"

 

Definitely another stumble. Not another two steps very-quickly-back, and then a court-perfect bow, and then a quick retreat to the other side of the deck where Uncle was drinking tea from a cup held between his sleeve-draped wrists (he was getting really good at that, of course the first thing he'd re-master was drinking tea). Zuko sat down next to him, and watched the pirate ship bubbling its way lower and the waterbender pacing and every tiny speck in the sky that might turn into an approaching bison.

 

The waterbender glared at him, and the crew hiding under their helmets, and the speck-free sky.

 

***

 

"Are you sure Katara's going to be okay with this?" Aang watched the hawk growing smaller in the distance. He still looked concerned. Clearly Sokka hadn't explained things right. 

 

"It's basic tactics, Aang. She's safe with Zuko, you're safe with me, we are not making a trade. Plus, she's perfectly positioned to spy on and sabotage all of Zuko's tiny little evil princely plots! Us Water Tribe members, we're close. Know-what-each-other-is-thinking close. As soon as she reads my letter, she'll understand the plan."

 

"And… what is the plan?"

 

Sokka sighed, and started from the beginning. Again. Aang remained unconvinced.

 

***

 

Fire Flake landed on Zuko's shoulder and started preening his hair, would she please stop that? It was really embarrassing with Uncle smiling indulgently and Lieutenant Jee's armor creaking a I'm not saying anything Sir creak and the waterbender glaring from her patch of deck like she'd already claimed it in the name of the Southern Water Tribe and soon she'd be marching out to declare war on the rest of his ship.

 

Zuko read the letter. And wondered how fast he could burn it, but she was already storming over and snatching it from his hands like a piranha-gator and he tried to jump up and grab it back but she held it too far above his head as she read— 

 

"Sokka said what ?"

 

The sea surged. Zuko bravely stood his ground, because he had to be strong for his crew. He would show no fear in the face of the enemy (or the enemy's sisters).

 

"I'm writing back to him," she said, in a tone that brooked no argument. "Bring me paper. Now."

 

Zuko nodded for a crewman to do so, even though he wasn't sure the Wani could survive another reply from Sokka.

 

***

 

"But are you really, really sure?"

 

Sokka didn't know what had Aang was so worried. The airbender had traveled with Katara for two months now; he should know her better than that.

 

"Trust me, she's completely on board with this. Zuko won't last a week before he's begging us to take her back."

 

***

 

Prince Chick-Fuzz Hair,

 

Don't believe you. Even if I did, an awful sister for an Avatar? Sweeten the deal, then we'll talk.

 

Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe, Dragon of Appa's Saddle, I Can Make Up Titles Too

Chapter Text

Dearest brother,

 

Thank you so very much for your concern. You might be interested to know that I was captured by pirates in the middle of the night while all the brave Water Tribe warriors were sleeping...

 

Sokka's shoulders relaxed more and more as he read Hawky's latest delivery. Aang, reading over his shoulder, starting biting his nails. 

 

"Are you sure she's not angry?"

 

"Pfft, of course not! Look at this, and this. Clever code phrases, right out in the open! Zuko is probably reading her mail, but he's an idiot and she's slipping them right under his nose. She's clearly saying that she's got things under control."

 

...and I will graciously forgive that 'awful sister' comment if you come get me now. 

 

So very sincerely,

 

Katara

 

"Huh, just 'Katara'? That's kind of lame."

 

"So… are we going to get her now? She did underline that. Five times."

 

"What? No! That is clearly the opposite of what she wants. I mean, just read all this scathing sarcasm. Do you really think that's aimed at me ? Look, she's already got Zuko under her finely-crafted Water Tribe boot—she's even sleeping in his room!" 

 

Which, now that it was out of his mouth, was one of those statements that would have alarmed Sokka a lot more if Zuko wasn't twelve. And not the sure -you-need-to-go-splash-in-that-water-without-shirts kind of twelve that Aang was, but the noticed-the-fluffy-bison-instead-of-his-sister variety. 

 

"I guess you'd know her better than I do," Aang admitted.

 

"She knows what she's doing, Aang. We've got to trust her. Hey, do you want to write the next one?"

 

Aang air-poofed himself away like he thought the paper was going to come back to bite him. "Uh, no thanks. You clearly understand this, ah, code better than I do."

 

***

 

Hey Katara! Glad to hear you're okay. We're kind of busy today, try again tomorrow.

 

Sokka, Best Big Brother South of the Equator, Were You Even Trying to Fill This Part Out, Please Respect Fire Nation Titling Customs in Your Future Missives

 

***

 

The brig was full of pirates. And maybe Zuko wouldn't have put the waterbender down there anyway, she was Sokka's sister (and a completely untrained, powerful bender). But he wouldn't have given her his room. That was Uncle's idea. Uncle had ordered this while Zuko was brewing a new pot of tea for him, and Zuko was starting to suspect Uncle didn't even like his tea he just used it as an excuse to get Zuko out of the way for five minute intervals. Which was, as it turned out, enough time to give away his room.

 

This was why Zuko was currently pounding on his own door. "Waterbender!"

 

"Go away!"

 

"Sokka's sister!"

 

"I don't want to talk to you!"

 

"Too bad, peasant!"

 

The door screeched open. ( We really need to oil that , was not what Zuko should be thinking with a girl glaring down at him why did she have to be taller than he was couldn't they have this conversation after his next growth spurt—) 

 

"Do you even know my name?" She stood with her hands braced on the frame, Sokka's latest reply crumpled in her fist.

 

"Um. Is that really important right now?"

 

She slammed the door. He heard the very distinct sound of it being locked on the inside. Which was also where he'd left the key, right out in the open on his desk. Because who would dare lock the prince out of his own room on his own ship?

 

"...I just want my shirts," Zuko said.

 

The door did not care.

 

***

 

Katara paced in the confines of the horrible metal box. Five steps until her foot hit the futon on the floor; five steps back until she was nose-to-cloth with the disgusting Fire Nation banners. There was a shoddy little desk in one corner and a chest of clothes that would fit her but it was all red and black and smelled like fire. Her skin crawled just touching them; she'd slammed the lid shut. And kicked it, and now her foot hurt, and it was all Sokka's fault and all Zuko's fault simultaneously. There was 200% blame to go around. 

 

At least they'd left her the key to her cell; Fire Nation hospitality. Not like she was going anywhere, not with Sokka playing whatever stupid game this was, and oh when she got her hands on him—

 

She was trapped. On a Fire Navy ship. Just like the ones that had come to their village. And that key was mocking her, it wasn't like she could just go wandering around a shipful of killers.

 

...Couldn't she? 

 

She could , just let them try and stop her!

 

Katara flung open the door, and came face-to-mask with her guard. Of course there was a guard. She straightened up and narrowed her eyes and dared him to stop her.

 

"I'm going for a walk."

 

And she did. Right past him.

 

***

 

Crewman Teruko should have never snickered at the Lieutenant's dancing. Or at the least, she should have done it from the safety of the bridge, where all the smart people had been laughing. 

 

She'd scrubbed the latrines this morning; now that something worse had come up, the duty roster had been quietly updated to put her on Waterbender Watch instead .  

 

Teruko trailed the violent savage as inconspicuously as a woman in full armor could, and fondly remembered a time when she only had to scrub toilets. 

 

***

 

The soldier stomped after her at every bend and turn, but Katara would not be intimidated. Or stopped. Especially not by doors; she threw open the first one she saw. See how they liked being invaded.

 

Inside were bunks. Red blankets spilled over every bed like blood. Most were empty, but there was one soldier sleeping. He could never pass for Water Tribe, but with his eyes closed she could almost imagine he was from the Earth Kingdom. 

 

That muzzy sleepy fake-innocence lasted only a second. He cracked open a brown-gold eye and grabbed for his weapon, lunging for her— 

 

***

 

Pikeman Kazuto was having a really good dream one moment, and the next there was a Water Tribesman in the doorway and he was back to the night when his last ship had been lost (butcherers in wolf helms, everyone knew the Southern Slaughter didn't take prisoners) (and the days that followed, the fear of every ship on the horizon, hoping he and his scrap of flotsam would be found by the right side), and then as now he had only the clothes he'd worn to bed, but he'd learned to keep his spear propped next to him—  

 

(She was too young for a warrior, and since when did the Water Tribe let women fight, and her eyes were really blue and getting wider and he couldn't pull back in time—)

 

Teruko knocked the shaft aside with an armored wrist. "Go back to bed, Kazuto. Your shift is in three hours. Did you seriously sleep through the pirates?"

 

"...What?" 

 

"Sleep." She pried the spear out of his hand, and leaned it back against the wall next to his bed. "It'll make sense when you wake up."

 

Kazuto blinked at the glaring Water Tribe girl, and doubted that. 

 

***

 

Katara stalked away from the half-asleep man who'd almost murdered her , ignoring the one who'd saved her. Just to prove she wasn't afraid, she shoved down the next door handle she saw. The guard crossed his arms and shifted his weight, almost daring her to do it. So Katara did.

 

Steam whafted out. 

 

***

 

Helmsman Kyo was in the shower. Surrounded by water. Staring into the eyes of a waterbender who'd gotten pirate blood on his armor, and he'd never noticed how small this scrub cloth was before, and his full towel was over by the lockers he dove for it and crouched low—

 

"Get out!"

 

***

 

Teruko smirked under her helmet. And the waterbender learned to knock.

 

***

 

Katara knocked. No answer. She looked at her guard. No particular signs of smugness. She let the door creak open, very slowly.

 

Oh. The toilet. The unoccupied toilet. 

 

She pointed at the ground outside, and stared her guard down. "Stay." Backed inside, shut it...

 

...Came back out, an appropriate time interval later. "That was surprisingly clean."

 

"Thanks," her guard said.

 

She had heard of Fire Nation pride, but this was just getting weird.

 

***

 

Hawker-Slash-All-Purpose-Animal-Handler Genji was babying the rhinos. Everyone was either in the mess hall coming down off the adrenaline high, or still showering (not to name names Kyo, always taking twice as long as everyone else, guy should have been born Water Tribe), so no one was going to walk in on him talking baby-talk to these big mean chubby-wubbies, oh no they weren't—

 

Blossom growled a happy growl, tugging at the eel jerky in his hand. He braced his weight and leaned back. 

 

"You wanna eat, you'd better work for it—"

 

Someone knocked on the door. It was kind of a snitty knock, if a knock could be snitty. "Ah… come in?"

 

***

 

Katara opened the door on a man tormenting penned animals, making them struggle for every scrap they ate.

 

She didn't know what she'd been expecting, but she still managed to be disappointed.

 

***

 

In the mess hall, third watch was crashing. Hard. But not quite hard enough to crawl back into their beds for the handful of hours they had left until their shift.

 

"Didn't anyone wake Kazuto?" 

 

"Are you kidding? That guy startles ."

 

"So take away the spear before you poke him, obviously. "

 

Over at the prep counter, Helmsman Kyo huddled in hastily re-donned armor, a towel draped over his wet hair like a kid hiding under blankets. 

 

"I used to think they were relaxing, but it's really just marinating yourself in the enemy's weapon."

 

"You'll need to shower again sometime, Kyo." Assistant Cook Dekku handed him a warm cup of spiced cocoa.  

 

"I always thought the Southern raids were extreme," Kyo continued, utterly failing to notice the knock on the mess hall door, "but if that's what waterbenders are like, maybe they deserve—" 

 

"Deserve what?" the waterbender asked, and she was there and she was glaring and he was holding a liquid .

 

Kyo whimpered.

 

***

 

There was a clatter as every soldier in the dining hall leapt to their feet and pulled on their helmets. All this for one fourteen-year-old; such a brave people, these Fire citizens. Katara squared her shoulders and didn't give them an inch. 

 

Even the cook was trying to intimidate her, with his level stare and his crossed arms and his being-so-much-taller-than-her. "Can I help you?"

 

"Yeah. I need something to eat. Or do you just live off suffering and misery?"

 

"Misery, suffering, and soup. Got some bread, too." He slapped things on a tray, which made him the only one in the entire room who took his eyes off her for a single second, and why did that guy have a towel under his helmet?

 

Katara didn't sit. She downed the soup in a few quick gulps, and shoved the bread in her pocket. They probably hadn't had time to specially poison her food yet, but who knew what they'd do before the next meal.

 

She eyed the room at large to show them she wasn't going to be intimidated by a bunch of faceless foes, then slammed the door behind her.

 

***

 

Third watch sagged back into their seats. 

 

Helmsman Kyo stared down at his cocoa. "...How many ways could a waterbender kill with just this cup?"

 

"You can't stop drinking, Kyo." Assistant Cook Dekku slid him a bowl of soup. Kyo looked into the broth, and shuddered. 

 

Engineer Hanako was second shift, but she deserved a cocoa break after digging out her armor. Engineers weren't supposed to need their armor. She leaned over the counter, and put on her best Innocent Technical Question expression. "How much water is in the human body, do you think?"

 

Kyo made a sound like a lost deer-frog fawn.

 

Assistant Cook Dekku turned his frown on her. It shifted into a smirk, right at the edges. "Has she been to engineering yet?"

 

Hanako pulled on her helmet, and ran.

 

***

 

Katara was stopped outside the suspiciously outlined-in-a-fiery-glow door by a shouting half-pint in armor. The voice was muffled through the mask, but it definitely hadn't cracked yet, and there was only one person on this ship who could possibly be that short. She narrowed her eyes.

 

"What are you hiding in there, Zuko?"

 

Raw volume hit Katara. She wasn't able to make out words, but she didn't need to know how many ways her ancestors were being cursed in order to execute a tactical retreat. 

 

That… hadn't been Zuko.

 

***

 

Lieutenant Jee pinched the bridge of his nose as Engineer Hanako personally scared off all sea life within a kilometer radius. Then he stopped, because he was not going to be picking up headache-reducing habits from the prince . Or admitting that Zuko was right: Hanako was at least fifty times louder than he was.

 

"Is the waterbender literally just opening every door?" a crewman asked. 

 

"Maybe they don't have them in the South?" another answered. "I don't know, kids and new technology..."

 

Lieutenant Jee had not, in fact, seen any doors at the South Pole. He did not contribute this to the conversation, preferring instead to stand at military ease in the doorway of the bridge, just past the swing of the door's arc, awaiting the inevitable. 

 

She knocked, first. The Southern Water Tribe had an unusual conception of manners.

 

"Occupied," Jee said. 

 

There was a very slight pause, then she opened the door anyway. 

 

"Very funny," the waterbender scowled.

 

I'm glad you find this amusing , Jee did not say. "You can't be up here, ma'am."

 

"Says who?"

 

Jee continued standing at ease. Directly in her path.

 

"Lieutenant Jee!" another entitled voice shouted, stomping closer down the hall. "Why is Hanako shouting ? I was trying to meditate!"

 

Prince Zuko elbowed the waterbender out of the way to claim his usual place inside Jee's personal space.

 

Maybe you should ask Hanako, sir, Lieutenant Jee also did not say. Somehow, the prince seemed to understand him anyway. All his least favorite commanders always had. To be fair, getting written up for disrespectfully creaking armor had been one of his proudest achievements.

 

"I can't ask her, she's still shouting!"

 

This was a valid point, and Lieutenant Jee let him have it. Unfortunately, Hanako wasn't the only one with volume control issues.

 

"Did you just shove me out of the way?" the waterbender shouted.

 

"What are you even doing here?" the prince also shouted. 

 

"I'm not your prisoner! I can go wherever I want!" More shouting.

 

Jee cleared his throat. " Is she a prisoner, your Highness?" 

 

Somewhere in the deafening cacophony that followed, the prince never quite got around to clarifying that point. And Lieutenant Jee began to realize how many fourteen-year-old girls there weren't in the palace. Especially ones a prince couldn't just order around.

 

***

 

Iroh heard the stomping coming from a deck away. "Ah, nephew. What was—oh, Lady Waterbender! Would you care to join me for tea?"

 

"My name is Katara!"

 

The stomping carried on.

 

Crewman Teruko gave Iroh a respectful nod, then followed after.

 

***

 

Stupid Fire Nation on their stupid ship with their stupid royalty , even a brief glimpse through the old man's open door was enough to show her that he was too lazy to even pour his own tea, a soldier was doing it for him, how was this country taking over the world— 

 

Katara stomped out on deck and found the most isolated corner, tucked between a railing and some metal piping where her guard couldn't follow because his stupid armor got in his stupid way, ha.

 

Having the ocean be just a sweep of her arms away was an added bonus; one that her cell didn't have. She'd lock herself in there to sleep, but she was not going to be an obedient little not-a-prisoner and cower for them.

 

She let out a breath, and took another one in, and started shifting through the stances she knew. They weren't many, but they felt easier out here on the ocean than they ever had on land. 

 

Her shadow grew long. The sun set in reds and oranges. Her guard switched with another, just as faceless, who watched her with just as much intensity. The moon rose, and she could breathe again. She relaxed into her stances, and flowed.

 

Then she heard the squawk. Katara poked her head out, and found the prince surreptitiously laying a trail of breadcrumbs across the deck, from where the pirate's iguana-parrot crouched on a rail back towards her own quiet corner that apparently no one had told him was taken.

 

The iguana-parrot hopped down to the deck, and started suspiciously sniffing the first chunk of bread. Zuko crouched ten feet away, holding the rest of the loaf. The soldiers on night watch seemed to be very deliberately ignoring him. That left it to Katara to step out, put her hands on her hips, and put a stop to whatever this was.

 

"And what are you planning to do with that bird?" 

 

The prince fell over and the parrot retreated back to the rail. They made about the same noise. Zuko looked up at her with his golden eyes wide (...one of them, anyway).

 

"...Poison it?" he offered, in a sort of hopeful tone, like he expected her to approve.

 

***

 

That was an answer that would have kept both Zuko and the bird safe from Zuko's sister, but it was apparently not the correct answer for Sokka's sister. 

 

"You're all the same! Just a nation of murderers, and you're the prince of murderers—"

 

He slowly inched back towards the railing, trying to wave the nightwatch off. Just yelling was okay, it wasn't like he wasn't used to yelling. She was a lot angrier than she'd been on the bridge. Maybe if no one startled her she wouldn't punch a hole in their hull like she'd done to the pirates. 

 

"—took my mother , she was only trying to protect me, how could you—"

 

It was very important that he looked like he was paying attention to this (even if he already knew that tone and it was anger and disappointment and nothing you can do will ever be good enough , and even if he'd already been over this with the Sun Warriors, and if dragons didn't blame him for everything his family had ever done he wasn't going to let Sokka's sister).

 

"—and then you stole her necklace! The only thing I have left! You sneaky, rotten—"

 

Paying attention got really hard when the iguana-parrot dropped onto his shoulder. It tucked its neck around his, hiding its head half-way down the back of his shirt like that would protect it from the noise. One of its wings was tickling against his face, and its body was way colder than he'd expected, were iguana-parrots cold-blooded? It had been outside for hours and this was winter , he had to get it in—

 

"Are you even listening ?" 

 

"I'm sorry," Zuko said, because it was the kind of phrase that never helped but never hurt. Then he wrapped his arms around the parrot, and bolted for the door back below deck before it could squirm free.

 

(Before Sokka's sister could yell at either of them more. She was scaring the bird.)

 

Back in Uncle's room with the door safely closed-and-locked behind him, Zuko accepted a cup of tea (and instructions on how to pour for himself more elegantly), and tried not to pay too much attention to the hissing parrot perched on top of Iroh's cabinet. Sometimes you had to ignore animals to calm them down. 

 

His eyes drifted to a blue pendant on Iroh's work table. Sokka's sister's mother's necklace. 

 

"How do I fix the clasp?" he asked.

 

Uncle was very pleased to tell him.

 

***

 

Katara locked herself into her cell and sat down on the lumpy futon and pulled the blankets up over her head. It was a cold bed, which was exactly what she'd been asking for when she got on this awful ship.

Chapter Text

Zuko woke to an iguana-parrot using him as a heat rock. It was curled up on his belly, wings tucked against its sides and the feathers on its chest foofed out in perfect contentment. 

 

Uncle chuckled. "I think it likes your inner fire, nephew."

 

Its eyes were half-lidded, and it looked sleepy and happy, which meant that Zuko was never allowed to move again. This was a problem, because Uncle had apparently been awake long enough to have breakfast sent up, which meant he'd been staring at a tray of food he couldn't eat. 

 

"Why didn't you—!" Too loud; the parrot chirped reproachfully. "...Why didn't you wake me up?"

 

"And disturb your guest?" Uncle's eyes were doing that twinkle thing they did right before he ruined Zuko's day. "Speaking of guests, did you remember to invite the Lady Waterbender to eat with us?" 

 

Zuko huffed (the parrot stirred). "I was going to do it this morning."

 

"I see."

 

"I was!"

 

"I believe you, nephew."

 

"After I help you," Zuko clarified. And did not move. Because the parrot was preening under a wing now and moving might make it stop. 

 

Uncle smiled his gentle I will remember this moment, and regal all the guests at your eventual wedding smile. Zuko scowled, and sat up. Slowly. The parrot stared at him in betrayal, gripping his shirt harder as he got more and more vertical until finally it clawed its way up to his shoulder and flapped back to the top of Iroh's dresser with a hiss. 

 

He went to the table, and sat at Uncle's side, and picked up Uncle's chopsticks for him. Then they both pretended the next fifteen minutes didn't happen.

 

"Are you sure you don't want more?" Zuko asked. Uncle had been (mostly) able to eat the soup on his own, but he needed Zuko's help with the fish and he'd only wanted half of it because there was literally only so much the old general's pride could stomach. 

 

"I am quite full, nephew. Thank you."

 

"Tea?"

 

"I am also quite hydrated. Perhaps it is time for you to stop stalling? I would knock on her door myself, but..." Uncle said. "If you are worried about her yelling again, I believe your gift will endear her to you quite nicely."

 

The fixed necklace sat on Uncle's table, wrapped in a piece of the gold fabric he'd used during his Agni Kai against the Avatar, because Uncle insisted that presents should always be wrapped. Which was stupid, since she wasn't going to think it was a present when she assumed he'd stolen it

 

"I'm not worried!" Zuko shouted. And stomped off to invite the waterbender to breakfast. 

 

***

 

Firebenders. Woke up. Too early

 

Katara flailed her way out of her blankets. It took her a moment to realize that horrible racket was someone pounding on her door. Pink still tinged the sky outside her room's porthole. 

 

"Whozza whazzit?" she slurred. For just a moment, she understood exactly how Sokka felt every morning. 

 

Then she remembered where she was. And woke up very fast. She straightened her clothes, tottered until her sea legs woke back up, and inched the door open. 

 

It was Zuko. Of course it was.

 

"What do you want?"

 

The little prince's clothes were looking just as rumpled and slept-in as hers, but he stood up straight and crossed his arms and addressed some point over her shoulder in a rehearsed monotone. "My uncle and I cordially invite you to breakfast."

 

"Cordially."

 

"Yes."

 

The prince's tone was anything but cordial. And there was still a guard on her door, not that Katara could tell if it was the same one from yesterday or not. 

 

"Is this the kind of invite I can refuse?" she asked.

 

"If you don't want to eat."

 

Well that wasn't a threat at all . Katara still had the loaf of bread in her room from yesterday… but she was not awake enough to get in another fight with the prince. She shut the door, and locked it behind her, and followed Zuko (and was followed by her guard) down the hall.

 

Zuko's uncle had already eaten before she came, and Zuko only picked at his food, and they all had separate plates from the start instead of a communal bowl. ...But that fish did smell good. Katara decided she wasn't awake enough to worry about poison, either. Or table manners. Not like the two royals weren't going to judge her no matter what she did.

 

"Do you like tea, Miss Katara?" the old man asked, right as she picked up her cup.

 

"...Yes?"

 

"Then you might not wish to drink that." He winked. Katara set her tea down, very quickly.

 

" Uncle ," the prince's face was red, like he'd just been caught in the middle of a diabolical little scheme. Katara scowled at him.

 

Which was the point where an iguana-parrot flew low over her head, landed on the prince's shoulder, and starting hissing at her. 

 

Katara straightened up from her totally-not-overreacting duck. "I thought you were going to poison it."

 

"He doesn't drink tea."

 

"Zuko!" the old man gasped. "Don't make such jokes about tea."

 

" You just did! "

 

"There is a difference between undrinkable and poisonous, nephew. Well, usually. But we will continue working on your technique!"

 

Katara would not be fooled by endearing banter between relatives. Fortunately, a soldier delivered Sokka's latest reply just then. All urges to smile abruptly ceased.

 

***

 

Prince Can't-Even-Think-Up-New-Insults (Which-Being-Water-Tribe-Is- Not ),

 

Stop being redundant. My sister, and what else?

 

Sokka, son of Kya and Hakoda, Not-Crowned Son of the Chief, Seahorse-Serpent of the South, Does It Make the Fire Nation Feel Economically Superior to Waste Paper Like This

 

***

 

"Wait. If that's his reply, what did you send him?" 

 

She flipped the paper over before Zuko could stop her. 

 

***

 

Water Tribe,

 

You can also have a komodo-rhino.

 

Zuko, son of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai, Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, Dragon of the Wani , Bearer of Real Titles and Not Stupid Fake Ones

 

***

 

"I'm going to murder him. Both of you, but mostly him," the peasant said. And wrote. Zuko had hastily cleared the leftovers out of the way as she stole paper off Uncle's desk without even asking and slammed it down on the table and now she was hunched and growling like a feral raccoon-rat. The iguana-parrot, picking at their abandoned plates, seemed very civilized in comparison.

 

"You can't just write that!" Zuko tried to grab the quill from her but she held it out of his reach, thus proving her continued state of taller-than-him. "He won't want you back if you're going to kill him!"

 

There was a pause, and then she looked down at him the same way she had last night, like he was something slimy in her shoe. "I wasn't being serious !" 

 

"...Oh."

 

"What is wrong with your country? Sokka said you have a sister. Do you really think she'd kill you just because she said so?"

 

Zuko thought about this, and finally nodded. "You're right. She wouldn't tell me first."

 

This was the wrong thing to say. Again. Her growling intensified, and many murder threats were written. Zuko thought about stealing the letter and burning it, but he owed it to Sokka as one brother to another to allow him advanced warning. When she was done, she shoved the letter towards him. He pushed it back to her. 

 

" You take it to the hawker. I'm sure you'll find him; just open every door."

 

Her eyes narrowed. "And what will you be doing?"

 

"Business," Zuko said. "Important business."

 

"Nephew," Uncle started. "Don't you have something to give—"

 

But she was already out the door. Which was fine , she was the one who'd lost the stupid necklace anyway. 

 

Uncle sighed. "You can try again at lunch. What was this business…?"

 

***

 

"This is an order , Engineer Hanako," Zuko said. "I know you have them!"

 

"Don't know what you're talking about, sir."

 

"Uncle gave them to you! In front of everyone!"

 

"Oh," she said, drawing the sound out. "You mean my Extra -Good Shirts. Yeah, I don't lend those out. But maybe if you got the stains out of one of my duty shirts, I'd let you borrow that ..."

 

Zuko stomped off. Hanako counted that both as a win and someone else's problem .

 

***

 

Katara vaguely remembered the messenger hawks being with the rhinos, which was… that door? 

 

A mop handle hit her in the face. There was snickering behind her, which stopped abruptly when she glared back at her guard. 

 

Maybe… that door?

 

Katara eventually found the rhinos. And the hawks. But not the Hawker. When she finally stormed back to her room, Zuko was crouched in front of her door, picking the lock.

 

"What are you doing ?"

 

"I need a shirt!"

 

"Too bad." She slammed the door behind her. And re-locked it. And stomped over to his clothes chest to get changed, just to see the look on his face (...and also because she'd been wearing these clothes for three days, with pirate blood for two.)

 

"...You're invited to lunch!" came through the door. It was the least inviting invitation she'd ever heard.

 

"I decline!"

 

(These sleeveless vest-tunics-things fit her surprisingly well. Pants were short, but her boots mostly hid it.)

 

***

 

Lunch time. Or midnight snack time, for third shift. Pikeman Kazuto had crashed on a table, his spear tucked in the crook of his arm. He was trying to work up the energy to go to bed. Lieutenant Jee had denied his request to be on Waterbender Watch, which meant he'd spent all night not knowing where she was. And he'd seen the way Jee looked at him (how they all looked at him, sometimes), but drifting at sea hadn't turned him into some kind of crazy child murderer, thank you. He wasn't going to hurt her; he just wanted to make sure she didn't hurt them .

 

He didn't know where she was this morning, either. Until she walked into the mess hall wearing the prince's clothes, with a gaudy had-to-have-come-from-that-pirate-ship dagger tucked in one boot and a folded letter sticking out of the other. 

 

He raised his head off the table just high enough to send an accusing stare over the girl's shoulder. "Teruko. You told me this would start making sense."

 

"Go to bed, Kazuto." That was always her answer to him.

 

***

 

The soldiers shot her looks , and the one who'd almost sleep-stabbed her yesterday was talking over her head like she wasn't even here. At least most of them didn't pull on helmets at the mere sight of her. Katara stalked to the counter, grabbed a tray, stalked to one of the emptier tables, and slammed it down. 

 

***

 

Helmsman Kyo sat very very still with a bowl of miso soup cupped in his hands and a waterbender right across from him— 

 

"What?" she snapped, and he sloshed soup all over his hands.

 

Hawker Genji took pity, and came to his rescue. "Were you trying to mail that?" He pointed with his chopsticks, down at the letter in her boot. 

 

Her eyes narrowed. "Why?"

 

"Because I'm the one that mails 'em." Genji smiled, like there weren't innumerable sources of water in just this very room. And then he upped the ante , the maniac. "Was that you slamming all the doors in the hold this morning? You weren't looking for me, were you?"

 

"Yes," she bit out. "I was."

 

"Any clue why your brother's giving you the runaround?" Genji asked, revealing his latent suicidal tendencies to the whole of the mess hall.

 

"Have you been reading my mail?"

 

"To be fair, you guys have been writing on both sides of the paper. Hard not to pick up a few words. So?"

 

The waterbender started to rage-eat her rice. And rage-drink her miso. And then she slammed her chopsticks on the table and just sort of raged, in a general way. "Because he's a big stupid jerk and I'm going to kill him!"

 

"Literally or figuratively?" Genji had apparently had enough of this life, and wanted to know what came next. " 'Cause if it was my sister saying that, then figuratively, but you royals—"

 

"I'm not a royal!"

 

"Then why's your brother signing everything 'son of the chief'?"

 

At the next table over, Kazuto started to hyperventilate. Kyo set down his spilled miso and delicately whipped his hands off on his pants and wondered how quickly he could get under this table if water and/or spears started flying. 

 

The girl shot a glance at Kazuto. "What's wrong with him?"

 

"I dunno," Genji scratched at the back of his head, because he was turning assisted suicide into an art . "Someone's dad killed his whole crew in front of him?"

 

It took her a second to get it, bless her savage heart. "My dad didn't—!"

 

"Let's go get your letter mailed, my lady. Sooner you're off our ship, the better for everyone." And Genji actually touched her shoulder and hustled her out , the crazy bastard. But then, his idea of cuddly was two-ton temperamental war steeds. 

 

"You okay, Kazuto?" Kyo asked, when they were gone.

 

"...I'm going to bed."

 

Kyo made sure he got there. 

 

***

 

...right NOW.

 

Katara underlined it seven times. And didn't write herself any stupid titles, because this wasn't a game . She rolled up the letter, and shoved it at the soldier, and didn't make eye contact as he tied it shut with a ribbon and pushed it into a carrier tube. 

 

"Did my dad really…?"

 

"If your dad's Chief Hakoda? Then yeah." He distracted Fire Flake with a fish treat, and slipped the carrier onto her back. "It's war. Kazuto's ship was a valid military target. And you weren't the one that did it. Anything else?"

 

"What?"

 

"We've got two hawks. Maybe that jerk brother of yours just needs to get dive-bombed more often."

 

"Like that would help. Brothers. "

 

"Heh. My sister would probably say the same."

 

Sisters , Katara thought. And had an idea.

 

The Hawker shifted very uneasily when he heard her idea. "I'll… need to check with the prince on that one."

 

They didn't have to search hard. When they opened the door, Zuko was there . It looked like he'd been pacing.

 

"Here to read my mail?" Katara crossed her arms, and glanced down at the gold-wrapped package in his hands. "Or are you bribing Sokka to take me back?"

 

"No! I… Are you wearing my clothes? "

 

"Sir," the Hawker said. "She wants to send a letter to—"

 

"Or were you trying to send a komodo-rhino by hawk?" Katara interrupted.

 

Zuko had already been turning a little red, but now he flushed

 

"Send her letter wherever, I don't care!" He shoved the package into a pocket in his ever-more-rumpled clothes. "You're ordered to come to dinner with Uncle and I!"

 

"How very cordial !" Katara shouted after him, as he stomped off. 

 

***

 

The letter arrived as Mai was packing her room. Of course Mai wasn't packing, but she was supervising the servants. They looked extremely nervous; Azula danced a flame over her fingertips, and couldn't imagine why. 

 

Ty Lee bounced over to get it, even though that's what servants were for . "Azula, it's for you!"

 

Her flame briefly flickered, blue to red and back again. "Very well, bring it—"

 

This order was interrupted by Ty Lee already shoving the letter into hands. Her on fire hands, did they really need to have the fire safety talk again? Ty Lee hadn't enjoyed it much last time, as Azula recalled. Fortunately, she was (almost) a master, and snuffed the flames before they burned paper or flesh or pretty pink clothes, what a shame that would be. "...Thank you, Ty Lee."

 

The over-excited girl blithely ignored this dismissal, and remained inside her personal space. The things Azula tolerated in the name of friendship.

 

"Open it open it open it!"

 

"So, Mai," Azula returned to their earlier conversation. "How are you looking forward to Omashu? Sorry, New Ozai. "

 

Mai was sitting in a windowseat, somehow slumping with perfect posture. "Maybe we'll be attacked by rebels."

 

"Such a romantic."

 

"—open it open it—"

 

"Perhaps you'll be saved by a dashing mailboy, hmm?"

 

"If your brother is stupid enough to still be there, I'll stab him myself."

 

"—open it open it open—"

 

"That's all I ask." Azula looked down at the letter in her hands. Oh yes, this, read her expression. Ty Lee rose up on the tips of her toes. And slumped, as Azula lowered her hand. "What do you suppose is for dinner?"

 

"Assuming they haven't packed up the kitchen?"

 

When ten consecutive seconds free of Ty Lee's babbling had passed, Azula opened the letter. (She might not know how to train lizard-dogs, but Azula was getting quite good with people.)

 

The message tube had carried the name of her brother's ship. And though her brother had not deigned to remember her these past two months (even though Father, who didn't even want his letters, got one nearly every day) (not that she cared, but she would have at least read them for the entertainment value—) regardless, Azula had formed certain assumptions when she was handed this letter.

 

These assumptions went up in flames, rather quickly. (Non-literal flames, it was worth specifying.)

 

Zuko's Sister,

 

(The letter impertinently started, and since when was her importance measured in relation to Zuko ?)

 

Suffice it to say, things went spiraling into a volcano from there. Azula felt a little numb and tingly inside, like she'd been practicing her lightning too long. Her expression must have matched, because Ty Lee's eyes were wide and Mai had raised an eyebrow

 

"I…" Azula began. "I… think I have been presumed upon. By a peasant." 

 

It was an incredibly novel feeling. She didn't even protest when Ty Lee slipped the letter out of her hand, or when Mai rallied the energy to stand up and go read it with her. 

 

"Eee!" Ty Lee made a noise most small animals reserved for when they were on fire. "There's a girl in Zuko's bedroom ! Oh, I'm so sorry Mai—"

 

"He wouldn't know what to do with a girl," the eleven-year-old stated.

 

"Oh my gosh and he saved her from pirates— "

 

"That's the opposite of what she wrote," Mai said.

 

"Sssh, you need to read between the lines, silly. Oh! And she wants… she wants…"

 

"Advice on how to deal with my brother," Azula said.

 

And smiled. 

 

She didn't know it was possible to be so pleased by someone else . By someone else asking something of her, no less. She felt magnanimous and queenly, and wondered if this was how Father felt every time he approved a request from his generals. 

 

"Ty Lee," she ordered. "You write."

 

"...Me?"

 

"I shall dictate. Translate the words into," she wiggled her fingers vaguely, "peasant appropriate language. And draw those little hearts and things at the sides."

 

She began composing the key phrases in her head, as Ty Lee squealed and begged the servants to go fetch the most colorful inks they could, particularly in shades between magenta and coral.

 

...as a child, Mother had to stop him from throwing rocks at the poor turtleducks...

 

...even Father was horrified by the things Zuko suggested in that war meeting... 

 

...I only hope that his travels will help him build appropriate empathy for the people who will one day be part of our empire…

 

...Mai sends her love, and hopes he will have time to visit her when next Kuzon the Mailboy is in New Ozai… 

 

("If you write that, Ty Lee, sleep with one eye open."

 

"I wasn't going to sleep at all! Did you know there's a circus in town?")

 

...and remind him not to forget his dear sister in his next letter, he knows exactly how much I miss him...

 

Ty Lee added extra hearts and flowers and even a fuzzy little turtleduckling with a bump on its head. It was masterfully done, in its own… unique way. 

 

Later, she wrote the letter to Zhao herself. The commander was Father's minion, which made him hers by extension. 

 

***

 

Sokka's sister didn't come to dinner. Zuko shoved her necklace in a drawer and slammed it shut. 

Chapter Text

Katara had sent her brother a really long message yesterday. Apparently. And Sokka had used the ample space on its back to… to...

 

***

 

Water Tribe,

 

Did you seriously send a message with nothing but titles? I'm limiting your paper from now on.

 

***

 

Prince States-the-Obvious,

 

Did you seriously forget to include your titles?

 

Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe, He Who Wins Forever, Gracious in Victory, Never Knowing Defeat, Now Accepting the Terms of Your Title-Duel Surrender, I'm Running Out of Paper Because You're Stingy And I Can Only Write So Small But You Know You Lost

 

***

 

IT WASN'T A CONTEST

 

***

 

Uh-huh. Next you'll tell me Sozin didn't start this war just to get himself some sweet sweet titles. PS: Good morning Katara!

 

***

 

Zuko banged his head against Uncle's desk. And just stayed like that for awhile, until there was another knock on the door. He threw it open with a well-deserved scowl.

 

"I didn't even send the hawk back yet! How did he write another message?"

 

He didn't , creaked Lieutenant Jee's armor. "There's a ship on the horizon, sir. Commander Zhao's." 

 

"...Can we pretend we didn't see him?" Zuko did not mean to say, except that maybe he did.

 

Lieutenant Jee stared down at him. "Sir. If I may speak freely?"

 

Didn't he always? Not always out loud , but… Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose. "Fine."

 

"The helmsman was inexcusably sloppy when those pirates chased us. I recommend we practice evasive maneuvers."

 

"...What about Zhao?"

 

"Who, sir?" 

 

You are my favorite officer , Zuko didn't say. But he might have grinned.

 

I've never had a commanding officer not-say that before , Jee didn't reply. But his armor might have creaked in a flustered fashion. He got even more emotionally confused when an iguana-parrot dropped off the dresser and onto his shoulder. 

 

Pirate parrots knew captains when they saw them.

 

***

 

As Hawky swooped back down, Sokka let out a suspiciously whoop-like sound. Taunting the prince through letters was even more fun than in person: it came with built-in volume control. And a comprehensive fire protection plan. He traded the bird a piece of jerky for her scroll.

 

Sokka ,

 

(The letter started, and he had never been so worried to see his own name.)

 

Don't write any more messages until I send you another hawk. Commander Zhao is approaching our ship and I don't want him getting a heading on you. The Avatar is mine.

 

Zuko

 

Commander Zhao, as in the guy who wanted Zuko dead? Zuko, who was on a much smaller ship than Zhao's. The ship that also contained his sister. His sister who was a waterbender and a member of the Southern Water Tribe, both of which were big frowny-face items to the Fire Nation at large.

 

Well. That wasn't alarming at all.

 

...Wait, Zuko had been using these messages to get a heading?

 

"Hawky, you traitor! " he shrieked.

 

Zuko had also taken the time to burn the characters for 'Fire Flake' into her carrier. 

 

***

 

The waterbender was over practicing on that half of the deck, and Zuko was on this half, and he'd never been so aware that the Dancing Dragon had an emphasis on the dancing part. 

 

"Uncle," he snapped, stopping because he knew these moves and not because Sokka's sister kept shooting him looks . "You said you were going to teach me the advanced set."

 

"Wouldn't you rather ask Lieutenant Jee to practice with you again?" asked Uncle, who seemed amused by the Water Tribe girl. And possibly a little by him.

 

"Lieutenant Jee is overseeing the practice maneuvers." Zuko could see him up on the bridge, the parrot still perched on his shoulder. He seemed to be rolling his shoulders every few seconds, but otherwise ignoring it like it was a superior officer. 

 

"Ah, yes. The practice maneuvers." Uncle smiled. "They remind me of a certain bending move… a very advanced one. I know of only one person who knows how to perform it."

 

"Is that person you?" Zuko crossed his arms.

 

"However did you guess! This is a move I made myself, by studying waterbenders…"

 

Across the deck, their resident waterbender started paying attention as he explained. 

 

And Zuko started feeling like treason. " Uncle ," he whisper-hissed. "I only know three people who can throw lightning, and none of them are going to do it at me."

 

Uncle just looked at him. For long enough that Zuko had time to think of all three of those people in turn and Zuko did not like what the old man was implying. But what Uncle finally said, very simply, was: "Azula."

 

"...How do I start?"

 

"One moment. Lady Katara? Would you care to join us? Ah, I thought you might. Now, this is based primarily upon the Northern style, and I do not know if it will work for waterbenders as it does for fire, but if you are ever staring down a lightning bolt it certainly would not hurt to try…"

 

Sokka's sister edged closer. Uncle demonstrated the broad movements— in, down, up, out —and then started talking them through the finer hand and finger positions. It was best to lead with one or two fingers of the receiving hand, to channel the energy upon a more focused path through the body—

 

The waterbender gasped. "What happened to your hands?"

 

Uncle shook his sleeves back down. "A misunderstanding," he said, at the same time Zuko growled: 

 

"The Earth Kingdom."

 

She crossed her arms. "I'm sure you were doing something evil at the time."

 

" He was visiting hot springs! "

 

"And they had not heard that I've retired! Now, let us start from the beginning—"

 

"I don't want to practice this anymore," Zuko growled. "Jee!"

 

Up on the bridge, Lieutenant Jee briefly paused, then started ignoring him like a shoulder parrot. 

 

"I know you can hear me!" 

 

***

 

Zuko was dancing with one of his soldiers (and the iguana-parrot). Katara was confused. 

 

She was even more confused when a short woman stepped on deck, dressed a lot like Katara. That was: in one of the prince's shirts.

 

"There are women on this ship?" Katara asked.

 

" Excuse me?" her guard said, and took off his— her mask.

 

Oh. 

 

Oops.

 

The short woman started laughing. (This drew princely glares, mostly directed at her clothes.)

 

"You!" Katara said, recognizing the short woman on volume alone, if nothing else. "You're the one who yelled at me!"

 

"You're the one who called me Zuko ," the woman snapped back. Katara's guard made a sound somewhere between a snerk and a gulp. The short woman side-glared her, then shifted her gaze back to Katara. And smiled like a gator-shark. "You know how to use that dagger? ...Want to learn?"

 

***

 

Engineer Hanako was terrifying with a knife (where had she even been hiding that ) and Zuko was never sassing her again , she could keep his shirts

 

Crewman Teruko was not on the same page. "Pfft, what kind of firebender are you? Steel isn't for real fights."

 

"I can weld a seam, but I can't punch fire across the deck. Not exactly a requirement in engineering." Hanako casually disarmed Sokka's sister, in a way that made her squawk. "Us crappy benders should always learn both."

 

"I'm not crappy!" the waterbender protested. "I just need practice!"

 

"Tell it with the knife, girl."

 

***

 

Katara panted, and panted some more, and accepted the diminutive-but-she-was-never-going-to-say-that-out-loud woman's hand up. 

 

"That's probably enough for today. If you're still our prisoner tomorrow, let's do this again."

 

"I'm not a prisoner!"

 

"You smell like one."

 

...Katara slumped. "Ugh. I wish I could take a bath."

 

"We have showers, you know," the woman said. "Just go during women's hou—mpfh?" 

 

Katara's guard had placed a finger on the woman's lips. "A bath, you say. A warm bath?" 

 

The guard was grinning at Katara. Slowly, she turned that expression on the prince. 

 

***

 

Zuko felt the brief urge to run. He didn't, because a prince did not flee. This proved to be a tactical error.

 

***

 

Katara crossed her arms, quietly stinking-in-place as she waited for the world to make sense again. Her guard had wrestled a laundry tub up into Katara's room, and bullied other soldiers into bringing water. And now Zuko was… draped over the edge, muttering a steady stream of complaints but looking like a polar dog sprawled near a fire. He'd rolled up his sleeves (and why were there oil spots all over his shirt?), and was swirling his arms around, apparently heating the water.

 

So firebending had at least one non-homicidal use. Good to know.

 

"That's warm enough," her guard said. Teruko, Katara thought her name was.

 

"No it's not," the prince said.

 

"Mailboy. We are not trying to boil lobster-shrimp. Remove your arms from the tub."

 

"Nu-uh. There are still cold spots."

 

"...'Mailboy'?" Katara repeated. 

 

"Sorry, habit." Teruko had completely removed her helmet at some point. She was less intimidating without it, except when she smiled.

 

"Princes don't do laundry," the knife-wielding engineer—Hanako? What was with all of these 'ko' names?—smirked. "But mailboys do."

 

"Wait, is this about Omashu? I thought Aang was the mailboy, not..." Katara asked. Then realized there was a more pressing issue at hand. "Wait, Zuko knows how to do laundry ?"

 

"I'm right here, peasant," the prince complained. But it was a mumbly, relaxed sort of complaint. Steam was collecting in his short hair.

 

"I think I need to hear this story," Katara said.

 

The two women exchanged glances. Her guard spoke. "Yeah. I think you do."

 

"So it starts," Hanako picked up, "on a steamer two hours upriver from the Wani . It starts, as most Prince Zuko stories do, with really incompetent lying ..."

 

" Hey! "

 

There was something about hearing Omashu's events told by Fire Nation soldiers that felt really weird . Like there were people on the other side who thought they were the good guys. And every time Katara laughed she felt just a little horrible on the inside.

 

"...It was what, two hours until he stopped saying everything out loud? We had to keep him shut up in the medical tent, because he started this running commentary on which soldiers looked like which courtiers." Hanako snickered. 

 

"Oh Agni, I remember that." Teruko put in. "Remember what he said about the Lieutenant and Zhao?"

 

" 'What amazing children their sideburns would have'," Hanako cackled. 

 

"Hate you all," Zuko said, like he was about to fall asleep. He was making little waves in the tub with one hand, while his head rested on his other arm. 

 

"But why did you have to go undercover at all?" Katara asked. 

 

"Father won't let me come home without the Avatar," the prince replied.

 

"What? Why?"

 

Hanako and Teruko exchanged another look. A very quick one. Then Hanako took over. "Royal tradition," she waved a crazy royals hand. "All the princes and princesses take a shot at it; 'Avatar hunting' is a good way to see the empire. Prince Zuko's just the unlucky one who actually found the kid. I guess we're out here until somebody catches him for real. Can you imagine if we actually did ? From rust bucket crew to national heroes..."

 

Hanako was still talking, but there was something on Zuko's face that said her words weren't right at all. He flicked droplets off his hands like they had personally offended him, and stood. 

 

"The water's ready. Enjoy your bath, peasant."

 

The steam coming off it felt colder than a moment ago. Katara didn't think that was just in her head.

 

There was a knock at the door. "Got a letter for you," a voice called. 

 

"Come in," Zuko called, like someone who didn't remember his room was currently her room. 

 

There was a pause, and then Hawker Genji entered. "Didn't know you were in here, sir."

 

Zuko's eyes were locked on the rolled paper he carried. "That's the royal seal."

 

"Sir…"

 

The prince snatched the ribbon-wrapped letter, and turned it over in his hands. "It's for... Katara?"

 

"So you do know my name." She said it almost teasingly. She expected him to snipe back, not... look angry, and then like someone had kicked him, and then like nothing at all. 

 

He shoved the letter at her chest. "We'll be letting Zhao catch up with us soon. Stay in this room." 

 

"I'm not your prisoner!"

 

"Would you rather be his?"

 

Hanako slipped between them. "Come on, sir. Let's get you a good shirt."

 

The prince nodded stiffly, and followed the engineer out. He didn't seem to remember that there was a whole chest of shirts in the room, and none of his crew reminded him. The shirt was… probably not the point. The Hawker bowed and left; the guard excused herself, and resumed her position out in the hall. It was a swift and extremely obvious retreat from all parties. 

 

Katara sat down on the edge of the tub. She hadn't done anything wrong , and they'd all been… almost having fun, before. Before the stupid letter had shown up. She felt a little horrible on the inside again, and didn't know why.

 

That feeling disappeared quickly as she read Azula's well-illustrated reply.

 

Katara wouldn't fall for the prince's huggably-misguided-child act again; sisters knew their brothers.

 

***

 

Zhao had been largely joking about completing his collection of royal letters. And then the princess' had shown up, early that morning, in all its imperious curtness. His first thought: she is ten, the sun hasn't even risen, I am going back to bed. 

 

His second: this is the future Fire Lord, and it's never too early to start sucking up.

 

By mid-morning, the prince's ship was back in sight. Not that Zhao had ever been far from it. He'd delayed at Crescent Island as long as he could; now he had to at least appear to be following the Fire Lord's orders. Even if those orders contradicted General Iroh's will—a man who nominally had no right to command him at all, but had made several very good points concerning Zhao's life expectancy. And who, at the end of the day, could still throw lightning . As could the Fire Lord. At least Azula's first foray into command did not contradict either her father or uncle.

 

Zhao's collection of royal letters was, in all honesty, beginning to be a headache. Some soothing jasmine would have been wonderful, but General Iroh was very blatantly not drinking his own brew. Again. Zhao sniffed his cup, then set it down. 

 

"Your ship was very elusive this morning, Prince Zuko."

 

"We had a run-in with pirates earlier in the week," the prince replied. "It brought to light our need to practice evasive maneuvers."

 

"Pirates. Really."

 

"Lieutenant Jee," the prince nodded to his officer. "Ready the pirates for prisoner transfer. Zhao's ship is more equipped for them than ours." 

 

...Zhao was forced to concede that there were, in fact, pirates. And it would have been considerate if Princess Azula had deigned to mention them. But that wasn't what her letter had been about.

 

"And your other prisoner?" Zhao asked.

 

"...Who?" 

 

The banished prince was getting marginally better at court speech, Zhao had to admit. At bold-faced lying, not so much.

 

***

 

In the mess hall, Zhao's men were unsubtly fishing for information on the Avatar. Most of the crew was giving them the runaround, or outright ignoring them. But Helmsman Kyo (now on break after an intensive morning of having Lieutenant Jee and his new… iguana-parrot?... staring over his shoulder)... well, Kyo was starting to get a little concerned about Pikeman Kazuto. 

 

Concern the first-and-foremost: the guy was still awake. It was past noon, why was he awake, it was like the guy's insomnia had downed a pint of caffeine since the waterbender had come aboard.

 

Concern the second: he'd written something down, and he kept looking at it. Under the table. Really shifty-like.

 

Concern the last: he'd taken his tray and sat, very deliberately, across from one of Zhao's people. 

 

So Kyo took his tray, and sat next to him. Just to discourage whatever this was. And now Kazuto was twitching, and that paper was getting crumpled-and-smoothed, crumpled-and-smoothed over one of his knees, and Kyo angled to get a look

 

Southern waterbender, he saw. And daughter of Chief Hakoda.

 

Ah. Well. 

 

Monkeyfeathers.

 

Kazuto was giving him sort of a desperate you understand right look, and Zhao's guy was pretending he didn't see any of this but was clearly waiting — 

 

And the note didn't say anything about her knowing the Avatar. Nothing that directly compromised the prince's mission. It was just… the kind of note that would get her off the Wani and make her Zhao's problem, instead. Let her throw a tantrum and threaten his ship, that would help the prince, wouldn't it? (Or maybe she could walk in on his men in the shower.)

 

Kazuto slipped the note to Zhao's guy, and Kyo pretended like he didn't see anything wrong happening. This was a well-documented talent among Fire Nation soldiers.

 

***

 

"A woman in your private rooms, Prince Zuko?" Zhao practiced his I care about your reputation voice, with a dash of parental this is for your own good . "And a barbarian , at that. Your sister is afraid you might become distracted from your mission. You know how she wishes for your swift return."

 

She doesn't want that. At all, the prince's face said, very clearly. And: How did she even know?

 

Zhao wondered that, too. It was existentially unsettling to find that the world's most cloistered ten-year-old had more reliable sources of information than he did. Another reason to humor her whims.

 

One of his people knocked, and entered the general's quarters without invitation. Good man. He slipped Zhao a note, and waited for orders. 

 

Waterbender , Zhao read. And daughter of Chief Hakoda . He slipped it up his sleeve, and did not react. 

 

"What was that?" the prince frowned.

 

"Just work, your Highness. Not all of us can stop what we're doing for tea time." Ah, that bristling. Always satisfying. Zhao turned to his man, and waved dismissively. "Collect what you need to requisition the part. Bring it to me for the final sign-off."

 

The banished prince narrowed his eyes. Zhao benignly lifted his teacup—

 

The General smiled, just slightly. Zhao very quickly set it back down.

 

***

 

Katara was finger-combing her wet hair when the commotion started. 

 

Teruko was arguing with someone. "Show me the orders, then." 

 

"We're going down the hall, not to the capitol. I didn't get it in writing . Listen, just come with us and ask him yourself."

 

Katara cracked open the door. "What's going on?"

 

Four other soldiers were in the corridor, and Teruko had put her helmet back on, so Katara wasn't even sure which one she was .

 

"Go back ins—" the one closest to the door said. Teruko.

 

"You're wanted in the Prince's audience chamber," one of the other soldiers said. Which was the fanciest way of saying Iroh's room that Katara could imagine. 

 

"What, does he want to show off his prisoner ?"

 

The soldier shifted. His armor creaks meant nothing to her. "Can't say, ma'am. Right this way."

 

"Whatever." She slammed the door behind her. And locked it. And marched; she knew the way. Teruko slipped in next to her side. The other four tried to form a diamond around them, but Katara kept walking faster than the guy who was trying to get in front. And it really wasn't that far to Iroh's room, anyway.

 

Knocking didn't seem necessary. She was expected , after all. Katara threw open the door, and set her hands on her hips. "What did you want?"

 

The prince did not look like he'd expected her. His uncle did not seem surprised. By process of elimination, the last stuck-up guy must be Commander Zhao. He was smiling like someone needed to kick him in the teeth. 

 

"Katara, daughter of Chief Hakoda," he greeted. "Do come in. Tell me, are you the last waterbender of your tribe? Because I could have sworn the last was dealt with—oh, six or so years ago? And yet here you are. Any relation to the last 'last'?" He turned to the prince, with a shrug and a smile. "These waterbenders, they're like ice-roaches. Squish as many as you want, there's always another ready to crawl out of the walls."

 

Katara did not murder him. This was primarily because there were five guards between them, and Teruko's arms were suddenly around her, pinning her arms to her side, and there was only so much waterbending she could do with three cups of tea and kicking feet (and the entire ocean around them, bucking). 

 

"Really, you should have sent a hawk as soon as you caught her, my prince. She's far too dangerous to keep on such a small ship. Even more dangerous once her father knows where she is. I wonder what the Southern Slaughterer would give to see his daughter returned unharmed…"

 

Couldn't reach her dagger, either, and why hadn't she gone for that first ? Hanako was right about crappy benders and steel, a knife to his coal-black heart would have been quicker—

 

The prince crossed his arms. "Her father can't have her back."

 

—Azula was right Zuko was a terrible human being — 

 

"And you can't have her, either. I'm trading her for the Avatar."

 

***

 

Zhao kept eighty percent of his attention on the too-calm general, and split the other twenty between the two children. "With all due respect, my prince, the tactical advantage of disabling Hakoda's fleet far outweighs that of putting one twelve-year-old monk in chains—"

 

"Commander Zhao. They don't even let girls fight in the Water Tribes. Their Chief didn't care when I rammed into his village; do you really think he'll care that we have one untrained girl hostage? The only one she's valuable to is her brother. And her brother has the Avatar."

 

For the first time in his life, Zhao couldn't tell if the prince was lying. He was lying, wasn't he? Everyone lied at court. (But the prince had always been terrible at that game.) (The General's increasingly amused eye-twinkles were not helping Zhao's concentration.)

 

"This is a matter for the admiralty to decide," Zhao hedged. "They'll know how to best utilize—"

 

"I'm not giving you my prisoner." The prince did not know the meaning of 'hedging.'

 

"I'm afraid I must insist. Or must I speak to someone higher for clarification?"

 

The prince's shoulders tensed, but his scowl only deepened. "Yes. You must."

 

"Very well. Thank you for the tea, my prince."

 

The tea had long ago soaked into all of their clothes, and the cushions, and the throw rugs. The girl had even splashed some as far as the wall hangings. And when Zhao stood, his sea legs had to briefly fight against the unnatural rolling of the waves below them. Those smoothed, somewhat, as he crossed back to his own vessel. And remained localized around the prince's ship as his own slipped away. 

 

Zhao was just as happy to leave the waterbender aboard the Wani ; it would solve several of his problems if the girl sank that tub. But he'd still send a hawk to the Fire Lord, on principle. 

 

***

 

"Would you calm down," Zuko said, in the quietest shout he could muster right now. Because Zhao was going to write to his father that he had a Water Tribe peasant savage barbarian staying in his room and wearing his clothes and apparently the peasant herself had already written to Azula about it and eww, like he would even want to do that with her. "This is all your fault!"

 

"My fault! How is this my fault?"

 

"He knew who you were!"

 

"I didn't tell him!"

 

"You wrote to my sister!"

 

"I didn't tell her ! I don't put a half-page of titles on my letters, Prince Zuko, son of Ursa and— "

 

" Don't say her name! " he tried to cut back on his flame daggers, before he singed the sleeves of this shirt. It was Hanako's now, and he didn't want to give it back with holes burned in it. "If you didn't tell her, then how did she know ? How did Zhao know?"

 

"I don't know! They're your evil commander, and your sister! You tell me!"

 

He forced his fingers to uncurl. Shook the flames off. Let his hands cool, just a second, then pinched the bridge of his nose hard . "Because it's Azula . She just… knows. I warned you she won't tell you before she tries to kill you."

 

The waterbender spluttered incoherently. The waves under them smoothed out to a choppy confusion. Teruko took this as a sign that she could finally let the girl go. 

 

"...You were serious about that?" 

 

"It's Azula ," Zuko repeated, like the name contained all anyone ever needed to know. Uncle seemed somewhat disturbed by the accuracy of this statement, and did what he always did in times of internal strife: he took a sip of his tea. "...Is it okay?"

 

"The best you have made yet!" Uncle smiled. And set his cup back down.

 

Zuko slumped. 

 

For some reason, the waterbender interpreted this as an invitation to join them . She sat down, her eyes on the porthole as Zhao's ship grew smaller.

 

"That guy is… exactly what I expected the Fire Nation to be."

 

Zuko sipped his own tea. It was a little cold now, but it wasn't bad . "Your brother thinks he's trying to kill me."

 

"Is he?"

 

"Uncle thinks so."

 

"What do you think?" she asked carefully, and Uncle was paying attention in a totally-not-listening way. 

 

Zuko scowled at both of them. "I don't know who he's taking his orders from. Father wants me back."

 

"Of course, Prince Zuko," Uncle agreed neutrally, letting the waterbender make all his dubious faces for him. 

 

Zuko vindictively drank the rest of his tea, just to watch the old man wince. 

 

(And it completely slipped his mind to send an all clear message to Sokka.)

 

***

 

Sokka did not forget. That Zuko forgot. That he hadn't received anything after "Zhao is coming." He sat watching the sky for a hawk that never came, ignoring Aang's I-know-what-will-cheer-you-up! marble tricks, biting his nails as the sun set.

 

(If Katara had known, she would have called this situation karma .)

Chapter Text

Hanako had been laughing at Katara all day . So when the woman simply stood back and grinned as they prepared for their post-sparring bath in the room-she'd-learned-to-knock-on-before-entering, Katara narrowed her eyes with all due suspicion. 

 

"Hey, waterbender," the woman said. And pointed. "Spin that knob."

 

Katara narrowed her eyes even more . And did not touch the shiny metal circle. Teruko rolled her eyes, and did it for her.

 

The room rained . Katara yelped, and jumped back towards the lockers. 

 

"It's called a shower," the engineer smirked. "Fire Nation technology at its finest. I swear, if we just went around setting these puppy-cats up in every town, the world would welcome us with open arms. Great, isn't it?"

 

...Katara eased a hand under the pattering water. "It's a little cold."

 

Teruko snerked, and reached for the soap. Hanako looked like she'd been personally insulted. "It's—you—! That water comes straight off the boiler! You're from the South Pole! "

 

"Steam baths are warmer." Katara shrugged, leaving the woman sputtering as she washed her hair. "What, can't firebenders take the heat?"

 

It was her first victory over the woman all day. It wasn't in combat, but she'd take it. 

 

Afterwards, when Katara was doing her best to prove that waterbending got hair dry faster than firebender steaming and Teruko was shaking her head at both of them, Katara declined the engineer's offer to go to dinner. 

 

"Maybe when it's less crowded," Katara said 

 

"Yeah. That's… not going to happen, tonight."

 

"Why?"

 

"Oh, you'll see. Or hear. Beat you up again tomorrow, waterbender." The woman waved over her shoulder as she left. 

 

Teruko took up her usual post outside the door. Katara unlocked it, stepped inside—

 

And stared at the boy frozen halfway through the room's porthole.

 

"...I thought you'd be at dinner," Zuko said. "Umm. I can explain?"

 

Katara did not shove him into the sea. This was an action that showed her maturity, she thought, as she grabbed him by the front of his shirt and dragged him inside.

 

***

 

Explanation attempt one:

 

"I need a map."

 

"There aren't any maps in here," the waterbender pointed out.

 

"I mean, I need clothes. To get a map?"

 

"Why is that a question," she asked, "and how does that make sense?"

 

Zuko ran both hands through his hair (it was just long enough that this action changed it from 'unkempt' to 'licked by an aardvark-sloth'). "Umm. Can't you just… pretend I'm not here for five minutes? And then I'll—"

 

"Climb out the porthole?" The waterbender crossed her arms.

 

"Well what was I supposed to do, you locked the door!"

 

"Because I didn't want you coming in!"

 

" It's my room!

 

The waterbender crossed her arms, and tapped her foot, and generally made waiting for an explanation look like pausing before throttling him. Zuko took in a few deep breaths.

 

Explanation attempt two:

 

Zuko opened his mouth, and shut it again. And roughed his hair from licked by an aardvark-sloth to hedgehog-hawk in a windstorm. He'd never had to explain his Blue Spirit excursions to anyone before, because the whole point was not getting caught . When he tried to put it into words, it sounded… a little silly. ' Hey, Prince Zuko here. I put on a theater mask and dash around the palace sometimes. None of my guards notice, and Azula still doesn't know how her favorite toys ended up in the rafters of the Fire Temple right before Father's speech that one time.'  

 

Zuko crossed his arms. "I'm a prince. I don't have to explain."

 

The waterbender walked to the porthole. Closed it. Latched it. The main door was still locked, with the key presumably in her pocket. She tapped her foot some more. 

 

Explanation attempt three:

 

"...You put on a theatre mask," the peasant said really slowly, like she was trying to wringe the stupidity out of each syllable. 

 

Zuko had already flushed. Now he was approaching Maximum Redness. "Yes."

 

"And… go on secret missions."

 

"I train my stealth . It's a mission-critical skill. When you're trying to be secretive," Zuko said. The waterbender rubbed at her temples. "If you have a headache, pinching the bridge of your nose—"

 

"I wouldn't have a headache if you— ugh! " She flopped back on his futon, her hands over her face.

 

Zuko took this as implicit permission to rummage through his clothes chest. Move those to the side, feel along the edge, press there and there at the same time—and the secret bottom for his secret clothes clicked open (actually, it was just a board he's found that fit into the bottom really well, but one of these days he would definitely have a chest with a proper secret bottom. Everyone knew you had to visualize the future you wanted or one day you'd wake up and your little sister would have your throne). Zuko pulled out the mask and his dark clothes, and started edging towards the porthole.

 

...He edged back, grabbed another normal shirt to wear tomorrow. Then made for the porthole again. 

 

"Wait. Where are you getting this map from?"

 

"The communications outpost," Zuko said. She sat up, giving him a the-what-now? look. "It's about three miles from where we anchored."

 

"And the ones on your ship aren't good, because…?"

 

Zuko rolled his eyes. "Because they're naval charts. They don't have the latest troop movements. I need to know what's officially Fire Nation territory now, and where the front is, and what towns Sokka might think were safe to camp by. We already have his general location from the hawk pings—"

 

"The what?"

 

"Hawk pings. If you send a hawk and someone sends it back as soon as they can think up fifty-three different titles , and you measure the time it takes, you can figure out distance. Like counting the time between lightning and thunder. It doesn't usually work against enemies because they typically shoot hawks, not send them back, but—" 

 

"Wait. You're hunting Aang! Again! " And now she was back on her feet and shouting. 

 

Zuko made little frantic please be quiet gestures. "I'm not hunting the Avatar! Or I guess I am, he'll be there, but I was hunting your stupid brother!"

 

"...I want in."

 

But I only have one mask , was not a valid point. Zuko went for the more eloquent option: "What?"

 

"I want in," Katara repeated, her eyes narrowed . "Sokka is being an idiot. And he's my brother."

 

Zuko might have argued, but he picked up a sound in the hall. Something ominous. Something coming closer at a steady, inexorable gait. "Okay. But we need to go now. "

 

"Why?"

 

Someone cheerfully knocked on the door. "Miss Katara, would you care to join us? It's music night! Also, have you seen my nephew?"

 

Zuko shuddered. 

 

***

 

Iroh had not found his nephew, and the Lady Waterbender did not care to join them for music night. Why, she had not even opened her door. He hoped that these facts were related—how nice it would be for the two of them to get along! Especially if getting along meant staying out of the way all night. 

 

Iroh clapped his hands, and smiled at the assembled crewmen. "Welcome to our second monthly music night! Having heard your enthusiasm and unique interpretations last month, I have decided to audition crewmen for our remaining instruments! Genji, please come with me. Everyone else… please, don't forget to tune before you begin!"

 

"Sir, I don't play any —" the Hawker protested, as Iroh hooked an arm through his and dragged him away. 

 

The room they went to did indeed contain multiple musical instruments, including his nephew's very own tsungi horn, which the boy kept tragically misplacing while they had packed. Fortunately, Zuko had not thought to look inside of his dear Uncle's tea crates, and so the instrument had made it aboard.

 

The room also had a chair. One. Iroh offered it to the Hawker, quite jovially. 

 

So many of the crew were taller than him. It was only when they were sitting that he could properly loom.

 

"Sir…?" Genji asked, suddenly nervous.

 

"Commander Zhao knew many interesting things about our passenger list, Master Hawker," Iroh began. And smiled.

 

Genji very much wished he could return to music night.  

 

***

 

The boat scraped up against the sand. Two figures jumped out into the surf, and dragged it up the shore and into the tree line. The one in the Blue Spirit mask worked to cover it in leaves and branches; the one with a dark cloth wrapped over forehead and nose and mouth wiped a branch over their back trail, obscuring the drag mark and their prints. A blue pendant glinted at the figure's throat.

 

"Which direction?" the Blue Spirit asked.

 

"That way," Zuko answered, still scowling behind his stupid headscarf. Which he'd been doing since she stole his mask

 

It happened like this:

 

"Why do you even have a mask?" the waterbender asked. "You can turn around now." She'd pulled on his second-darkest set of clothes, pulling the shirt inside-out so the gold trim didn't show so much.

 

"My mother gave it to me. She really likes the theatre. Liked." Sometimes he said it both ways, to see if one of them felt more true. "She—"

 

The waterbender snatched the mask. Right out of his hands. There was a startled look on her face, like she hadn't planned this so much as heard 'mother' and stole it on reflex . He jumped for it, but she held it above his head and stood on her tiptoes and elbowed him when he tried to knock her over.

 

"Give it back!" he wheezed. 

 

"Give my mom's necklace back."

 

Princes did not bend to ransom demands. "Keep it," he growled. And later, as she waited in the little boat he and Iroh had taken to Kyoshi, he'd said I forgot something and climbed back up to Uncle's porthole.

 

And unwrapped the necklace. And put it on. And climbed down to the boat and sat down and crossed his arms and waited for her to notice. 

 

Her silent rage cut down their rowing time significantly.

 

***

 

Hawker Genji returned to music night paler than he'd departed, and tapped another crewman on the shoulder. "He wants you next."

 

"That bad, huh?" the crewman laughed.

 

The crewman stopped laughing as he took a seat in the room, and looked up at Iroh's smile. 

 

"I hear that you spoke with one of Zhao's men," the retired general said.

 

***

 

"Look before you step!" the prince hissed.

 

"I am looking! It's dark!" Katara hissed back. And it wasn't like Zuko wasn't just as loud, too. What would a prince raised in a palace know about moving through forests? Less than a girl raised on the tundra. 

 

Then they hit the little town, and Zuko vanished

 

"Keep up," a shadow said.

 

"...How did you do that?"

 

The shadow elaborately sighed. So began Katara's sneaking lesson. Alleys and overhangs, window ledges and gutters and roofs, and how to soothe startled owl-cats with a quick pinch of pygmy-puma-nip that he apparently kept in his pockets. For the dog-lizards, he had seal jerky, and knew a spot right behind their ears that did the trick. It was the same spot that polar dogs liked. 

 

And suddenly they were there: the communications building rose above them, lit up with torches and patrolled by men (or women) that were indistinguishable from Zuko's crew. But a lot scarier, somehow.

 

"Do they have a spot behind their ears?" Katara whispered, skeptically.

 

"Even better," he said, and led the way.

 

But something still bugged her. 

 

"Why are you humming? " Katara asked.

 

"I'm not!"

 

***

 

"—It wasn't like we were talking talking. I mean, they were talking to me , but I was just…"

 

"I see," the General said. Perfectly neutral. 

 

The crewman gulped. "Look, Zhao's guys kept sitting with us. But… but Kazuto and Kyo, they sat with Zhao's guy. If you know what I mean."

 

"Thank you," the General said, in exactly the same tone.

 

***

 

Fire Nation technology included 'sewer systems'. These were tunnels that went under every 'settled and civilized' town. Katara had never heard of them, but knew better than to mention this to Zuko. He still noticed her surprise and scoffed appropriately anyway. 

 

"Our ground is frozen," she defended. "And why would you want to build tunnels for poop anyway, instead of using a chamberpot like a normal person?"

 

"Come on, savage," Zuko said. "...And don't bend the water."

 

"I wasn't going to—!"

 

He shushed her. It took all of her willpower not to bend at him, and that was only because she didn't want any of this touching the room where she had to shower, too.

 

***

 

"—She's really scary , sir." Helmsman Kyo had started, and he couldn't seem to stop. "I know we've been sticking close to shore anyway for the hawk pings, but she's one tantrum away from us needing the lifeboats. And if Kazuto's right about her dad, we're one message away from having the Water Tribe fleet slitting our throats while we sleep—"

 

The General let out a slow breath. "Helmsman Kyo, you will request a transfer at the next port."

 

It took him a moment to process that. "But… there aren't any other ships lower than this. I mean—even if there were , I like serving under the prince! He's… I know he's always going on about regaining his honor, but he's probably lost more honor than most people ever had, sir."

 

"Yet you do not trust his judgement."

 

"He's twelve. Sir." 

 

"You will request a transfer at the next port," the General repeated, and continued to look down on him with a quiet disappointment that hurt more than any shouting his old commanders had ever done. 

 

"But it's… it's just the infantry after this, sir. I, I can't— …Yes, sir."

 

***

 

In the third room they checked, Zuko found his maps. 

 

"Just shove it in your shirt," the waterbender insisted, having much recent experience in the scroll-stealing department.

 

"Then they'll know someone was here." Zuko held the map flat, and scanned it for the details he needed. The fighting front had moved— there . It followed the course of the Yalong River until there , and then it bordered the Han Forest down to the Foggy Swamp. So that town had flipped, and that town, and he could figure out the rest once he was in front of the maps back on the Wani . Now that he knew where the line was, he could figure out a range Sokka would be in. Piandao had taught him this, once: how to look at something, and break it into the important details at a glance. Of course, Piandao had taught him with landscape painting; Zuko had maybe muttered a lot about how useless it was until he'd seen his first war maps. 

 

" Zuko ," the waterbender hissed, her ear pressed against the door.

 

He let the map roll shut, slid the ribbon back on, and left it exactly where he'd found it. There were footsteps in the hallway; he could hear them now. And while there was always a chance that the person was going to a different room… that would be lucky. Zuko knew his luck.

 

And besides, he'd been teaching the waterbender all night. Time for her practical exam.

 

" Zuko! " she protested, as he disappeared out the window.

 

The window that was two floors up, which might have been jumpable but there was a patrol going past below them right at that instant. Because of course there was. And this sliver of roof didn't connect to much, he would have to climb up a level to the main roof to get anywhere. But there were eyes shining down at him from there. Pygmy pumas. A whole pack, because of course there was. 

 

He knew his luck. He just… sometimes forgot.

 

Katara dropped down next to him. Zuko caught her arm before she could slide too far, and braced his own feet so he didn't slide with her. Back inside the room, the door opened. They both instinctively hunkered a little lower. One of the pygmy puma hissed above them, irritated at these interlopers in its night. Another growled. And then there was a row of eyes glaring down at them, and the patrol was one angry yowl away from looking up— 

 

...Huh.

 

The Blue Spirit turned to him, and even with the mask he could feel her don't do it look. Not like she even knew what he was planning. 

 

Zuko slid the pygmy-puma-nip out of his pocket. Opened it. And threw the contents down on the patrol below. 

 

This proved to be a sufficient distraction for them to reach the main roof.

 

***

 

"You will request a transfer at the next port, Pikeman Kazuto."

 

Kazuto took a slow breath in, and let it out. "Yes, sir." It would be a relief to get away from the sea, anyway. Probably. "Look after the prince for me, sir?" 

 

It earned him the first real smile the General had ever turned his way.

 

***

 

Zuko didn't know why she was complaining, they'd made it out fine

 

"We could have been killed! "

 

"A lot of things in my life are like that," Zuko said, which apparently did not help. At least she was keeping her voice down to whisper-shouts.

 

"You're a prince! Couldn't you have just requisitioned that map, or something?"

 

"Could have." If they didn't have orders not to help me, from Zhao or my— from Zhao. And if anyone suspected a break in after I'd asked, they'd know it was me. "But then I wouldn't get to practice stealth."

 

She didn't kill him at all, not even when they got back to the boat and slipped it back into the waves. She just threatened to a lot, but didn't mean it at all. Something in Zuko's shoulders relaxed as the litany of murder methods rolled over him. 

 

Sokka's sister was not Azula. 

 

***

 

Teruko traded off Waterbender Watch with the night guard, and headed over to music night. She didn't even have a chance to sit down before Helmsman Kyo was nervously shooting glances her way. And, wonder of wonders, he actually approached .

 

"Hey. Would you like to dance?"

 

"Thought you'd never ask," she said. 

 

Neither of them knew how to dance, it turned out. It was a fact which didn't make much difference. 

 

"You and me," Teruko said, as they barely avoided crashing into Genji and Dekku, and where had a Hawker and an Assistant Cook learned to move like that? "Dinner at the next port?"

 

"Yeah," Kyo smiled, sort of wanly. "I'd love to."

 

Which wasn't a yes, but she didn't realize that then. 

 

***

 

They tumbled back through the porthole to the sound of knocking. There were a lot of whispers and elbows and you get it, no you 's as Katara hid a mask behind her back and Zuko pulled off his headscarf and shrugged a regular not-secret-mission shirt over his black one. She shoved him towards the door when his arms were half trapped by the new robe, because she was a traitorous barbarian , but the joke was on her because the door was still locked.

 

They were both standing in the doorway when she finally opened it. The knocking had persisted, at polite intervals, the entire time. 

 

"Good evening, Miss Katara," Uncle beamed. "Ah, nephew! So wonderful to see you making friends. I have been knocking on your door so long, I was almost starting to believe you had both snuck out to do ill-advised activities in Fire Nation territory. You'll tell your dear uncle if you're having a dragon pox relapse, won't you?"

 

Zuko tried to hide from that genial smile behind Katara, but she was already hiding behind him. Because, to repeat, she was a traitorous barbarian. "...We were just avoiding music night." 

 

"But you must come! It is imperative for crew morale."

 

Katara was still standing behind him when he tried taking a step back. And she was apparently still a little angry that some of the puma-nip had gotten on her, which was not his fault it was the wind's, did he look like an airbender? And so when he stepped back—

 

She shoved him forwards. "Well, Zuko. If it's for crew morale. "

 

"And of course," Iroh continued, "we must properly introduce them to our Lady Waterbender! Would you believe that some of the crew are scared of you, Miss Katara?"

 

Zuko latched onto her arm and refused to let her retreat. "Scared of you," he said. "How horrible. It's like they know you."

 

"Don't you mean they don't know me?" Katara narrowed her eyes. 

 

Zuko had meant what he said, and did not offer a correction. This led to additional shoving. Uncle indulgently shepherded them down the halls, ignoring any and all squabbles. He had two empty seats and a tsungi horn waiting for them. Zuko's tsungi horn, hadn't he hidden that in one of the palace's secret passages? Uncle handed it to… Katara.

 

"I don't know how to play this," she said.

 

"That's fine," Uncle continued to beam, "we're having auditions! Just blow really hard ."

 

"That's not how that works," Zuko tried to say, but was drowned out by Katara's playing. 'Playing' here meaning 'torturing a musical instrument.' Across the deck, the iguana-parrot shrieked and flew off Lieutenant Jee's shoulder. The shriek had a more recognizable melody than whatever Katara was—

 

—what Katara was—

 

—she wouldn't .

 

***

 

Katara didn't know how to play whatever this loopy metal thing was. But that didn't stop her from trying to puff out the song the prince had been humming during their little mission.

 

" Give me that! " he shouted, and wrestled the thing away from her. She didn't put up much of a fight. Just enough that he wouldn't get suspicious until it was too late. 

 

"Ah, Zuko!" his Uncle said. "I did not know you missed the tsungi horn so badly!"

 

***

 

Which is how Zuko ended up treating the entire crew to The Blue Spirit's Theme, an Arrangement for the Tsungi Horn.

 

It did not help when Lieutenant Jee joined in on the pipa. Or when people clapped at the end. 

 

"I'm going to bed," he stated-not-shouted, and fled. The smirking evil savage barbarian traitor waterbending sister followed his stomping out.

 

***

 

They ended up back in Katara's room, because both of them needed to not be wearing their Secret Mission clothes the next time Iroh looked. Zuko scowled and muttered something suspiciously like this-is- my -room when she yelled at him to turn around, and ended up sulking on the futon. By the time she was done, it was more of a finally-my-own-bed flop combined with an adrenaline crash. He didn't look much like the enemy when he was yawning. Just when he caught her catching him yawning, and brought back out that scowl.

 

"Why are you even trying to catch Aang?" Katara asked. 

 

He scowled harder, and burrowed into the pillow just a little bit. "I have to. My father believes I can do this."

 

"You're twelve."

 

"So is the Avatar."

 

For the first time Katara realized that, except in reverse. Aang was twelve and a goofball and a kid . And… Zuko went on dangerous self-appointed missions while humming his own theme song. That was… pretty kid-like behavior. She eased down onto the bed next to him, and tactically ignored it when he stole the pillow completely.

 

"My dad left Sokka and I behind when he went to war. He trusted us to watch over our village. I was twelve, too." 

 

Zuko eyed her. One eye, the good one, staring over the fluff of being face-first in a pillow. "But you left. Without his permission."

 

"We had to, but I think our dad would understand that this is more important. Even if he doesn't… I know I'm doing what's right." She leaned back against the wall. "What will your dad do with Aang, if you catch him?"

 

"I will catch him."

 

"Okay then. When you catch him, what then?"

 

"...I don't know." 

 

She tucked her legs up on the bed. "Dads expect a lot, and it's hard to let them down. But sometimes that's what's right. Can you promise me you'll think about it?"

 

The pillow twitched with his nod.

 

The Blue Spirit mask was on the floor by her hand, and mom's necklace with still around his neck. They'd talked about fathers, but neither of them talked about mothers, because both of them had talked about them in the past tense.

 

"Sokka's stupid," he mumbled. "You're not an awful sister."

 

Which was probably why she didn't kick the prince back out to the mercy of music night. And if anyone asked, she didn't tuck him in. No one could prove anything anyway, since he immediately kicked the blanket half-way off. She could see why: she didn't need any extra blankets, either. It was a warm bed.

 

***

 

...Sokka was still waiting for that hawk. Yep. Just sitting here, in the dark, patiently waiting. Patient was he, and he was panic. Patient! He'd meant patient. If there was one thing he was not doing, it was definitely not panicking. Nope.

 

"Aang I'm borrowing Appa stay here don't get caught avoid swimming with large marine animals don't ride anything without a saddle bye!"

 

"What—? Sokka, wait! "

Chapter Text

A royal hawk flew in with the dawn. Zuko heard Genji knocking on Uncle's door first, asking where he was. He slipped off the futon and away from the stupid waterbender who he was not sharing a blanket with and met the Hawker in the hall before the man could make a racket and wake her up.

 

The letter was for him. From Father. Zuko stared at it, then shoved it inside his shirt (which was, for once, actually his shirt). He went on deck, and breathed. Then he got writing supplies from the bridge.

 

He set the red-jeweled monkey on a stack of blank papers, making it the world's gaudiest paper weight. The morning wind tugged at the paper's edges, and he had to use the Breath of Fire to warm up his hands before he wrote, but working on deck was worth it to avoid Uncle's where did you sleep last night, young man chuckles this early in the morning.

 

He was writing a letter to Azula. Because he'd snuck a look at what she'd sent to Katara, and she'd asked for one. In her Azula-y way.

 

Five burned drafts later, he noticed the fluffy white dot that was keeping pace with their ship more consistently than the rest of the clouds. 

 

That was a much easier letter to write. 

 

***

 

Sokka did not actually know how to storm a Fire Navy ship. Despite previous experience. Especially not when the ship was a trap

 

Oh sure, it looked like Zuko's ship. All rusty and tiny and alone, and he hadn't spotted Zhao's anywhere near. But that was just what Skeezy Sideburns wanted him to think. After all, Zuko was his little buddy and also a brother, too, so he'd understand how ridiculously worried Sokka would have been. There was no way he'd have just forgotten to send the all-clear hawk. Right?

 

Hawky screeched, and dove off Appa's horn. It was kind of a happy screech, and involved a lot of looping around another hawk that was coming his way. Hawky landed on his left shoulder, and the new bird landed on his right, and Sokka stared into its eyes. Both of his shoulders slumped, mostly from hawk weight but also from knowing exactly what the message was.

 

"...I'm going to call you Hawky Too. Spelled T-O-O. Because you're a hawky… too."

 

The bird turned its head almost upside down, and blinked, and all-around looked a lot cuter and less likely to rend flesh than Hawky. Sokka disregarded the name burned into its carrier, and dug out its message. 

 

Took you long enough, Water Tribe.

 

The miniscule slip of paper was unsigned because Zuko was apparently still being a cheapskate paper-hoarder, but Sokka sincerely doubted that Zhao could replicate the prince's tone. And even squinting and re-reading and holding it up to the sun, he didn't see any traces of a secret stay-away-my-ship's-been-compromised message snuck in anywhere. So. Sokka exercised his only reasonable option. 

 

He didn't bother to write anything; just tore the paper in half, pushed part of it into both carriers, and let slip the birds of war.

 

***

 

Two hawks dive-bombed Zuko, fighting above his head on who got to sit on which side. Also, a flying bison landed on the deck. And a Water Tribesman came screaming off of it, sword raised like he expected some kind of sneak attack and thought that shouting was the answer.

 

This resulted in a lot of Zuko's crew swarming the deck between him and the scrawny teenage threat, with shouting and a bison bellowing and—

 

" Fire Flake! Miso! Just pick a shoulder! Ugh." He crossed his arms, and glared with one-and-a-half-eyes and two hawks. One hawk. Fire Flake was less glaring-at-the-enemy and more preening-his-hair. He tried to brush her beak away, but that upset Miso. "Water Tribe. I don't see the Avatar."

 

"And I don't see my sister," the surrounded tribesman said.

 

And now Miso was preening him, too. Why was this his life. "She's still sleeping. Umm. Would you like tea?"

 

"...Sure?" 

 

Tea was an accepted ship-wide signal for 'this thing doesn't need killing yet.' Most of the crew returned to what they were doing. One of them brought out a low table and two cushions. Genji took the hawks. Zuko provided the tea, with a scowl at the crewman who offered to make it for him. 

 

***

 

Forever more, jasmine would taste like confusion to Sokka. Confusion and burned leaves. Sokka did not get what Aang was always raving about. But then, tea always tasted bad anyway, and this wasn't the worst he'd tried. He'd had four chin hairs before Gran-Gran's last batch of seaprune tea.

 

Zuko's Uncle came on deck, but declined to join them. He watched Sokka drinking with a sort of morbid fascination that made Sokka very briefly concerned for poison, but Zuko was scowling at the old guy and pouring himself a new cup like he was proving a point, so. Probably not. With the poison. Still with the confusion, though, because… he was having tea. On a Fire Navy ship. With the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation. Whose hair had been styled by messenger hawks.

 

And then came Katara, yawning her way onto the deck with bedhead that could ensnare a trout-squid. She was wearing one of the prince's shirts. And... was that mom's necklace the prince was wearing? Sokka started to wonder if he should be concerned

 

"Did you two… sleep together?"

 

"Yeah," the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation said, unaware of how close to death this brought him.

 

"Ye—No!" his precious naive full-of-hope-and-sparkles little sister protested. "Not like that! We just had a late night, and then we stayed up talking, and—and the bed was cold! And firebenders are warm! And—and there was a parrot between us! Right?"

 

She grabbed an iguana-parrot off the shoulder of a passing soldier, and held it up as squawking proof.

 

"No there wasn't," Zuko said.

 

The parrot squirmed its way free, and flapped off towards the shoreline in the distance. "Come back!"

 

"What did you do ?" The prince shot to his feet, fists smoking. "You scared it away! That was Jee's!"

 

"It really wasn't, sir," the soldier said, and was ignored by all parties. 

 

"It's a pirate parrot anyway!" his sister shouted. "And you were being really slow at poisoning it!"

 

"I wasn't— ugh! Sokka, take her!"

 

"He can't take me, I'm leaving!"

 

Sokka sipped at his tea, which had started tasting better the moment his little sister and little buddy had started acting like kids, and not like people he needed to have a sharp-pointy-object talk with. "...Not holding out for an Avatar trade, huh? Not even going to fight for her? Or ransom her for five minutes of cuddle time with the big fluffy bison?"

 

They were not paying attention to him.

 

"And give back my shirt!" the prince yelled.

 

"Like I'd want to keep it!" 

 

"All right, then," Sokka said. He'd known Zuko wouldn't last a week with Katara. The amazing totally-agreed-upon-by-both-Water-Tribe-siblings plan had gone off without a hitch. 

 

***

 

The waterbender marched back on deck in her own clothes, with a bending scroll shoved down her shirt and the Blue Spirit mask in her hand. She marched up to Zuko.

 

Zuko met her glare for glare, and unclasped the necklace from his throat. 

 

The hostages were exchanged.

 

"...Keep thinking, okay?" she said. She'd already gotten a nod out of him last night; he didn't dignify her with a repeat.

 

"Thinking about what?" Sokka asked. "How to forget to send a hawk? How to give your brother additional heart attacks? I had chest pains, Katara!"

 

"Zuko is also very good at inducing those!" Uncle put in. 

 

***

 

It wasn't until they were flying over land again that Sokka remembered the most important part. He dug the carving out of his pocket, and stared at it mournfully. "Aww, I forgot to throw it."

 

Katara leaned over the saddle to see. "Is it a platypus bear?"

 

"It's Appa Mark Two!" It wasn't his fault that Appa's tail looked a lot like a duckbill. "...I was really worried, you know. What happened? Why did you stop sending messages?"

 

"I wasn't sending them because you were being stupid. And Zuko… forgot, I guess. What with Zhao, and breaking into the communications center—"

 

" What ? You broke into… where? How? Why? "

 

His sister opened her mouth. Then closed it. And winked . "What happens on Zuko's ship stays on Zuko's ship, Sokka."

 

"I'll tell you what happened in the spirit stomach," he bargained.

 

"That'll get you one day. What will you trade for the rest?" His sister crossed her arms over her chest, and since when had she become a cutthroat barterer? Had to be the pirate-y influence. And—what the—since when did she have the world's gaudiest dagger shoved in her boot? Not that she knew how to use it; he was the weapons guy. Right? Not that much could change in not-even-a-week, right? That grin on her face didn't mean anything, right? "There is one thing I can tell you."

 

Sokka knew better than to ask. He did, but he was really curious and sometimes traps were baited with delicious delicious seal jerky and no wonder antarctic hare-foxes got caught. "...What?"

 

" He knows how to do his own laundry!"

 

Sokka briefly considered turning this bison around, but he didn't think Prince Zuko would allow give-backsies.

 

***

 

Zuko waited until the bison was out of sight. Then he broke the royal seal. 

 

His father didn't ask how he was. Or congratulate him about Omashu (no matter how accidental it had been). He didn't include Crown Prince in Zuko's titles or give any advice on how to fulfill his everyone-thought-it-was-impossible-until-it-wasn't quest and return to his proper place in the capital.

 

In the blandest possible language, in the handwriting of some dictated-to scribe (...he had at least dictated, hadn't he?), his father ordered him to relinquish the waterbending prisoner to Commander Zhao.

 

Zuko stood blinking down at the letter. And then he laughed, which was completely inappropriate and made Uncle look really nervous—

 

"Is everything all right, Prince Zuko?"

 

"I—no—yes—it's just—" he gasped in a breath. "Sokka's titles were longer."

 

He needed to stop laughing. Now. He couldn't laugh at his father's titles, they were each a piece of history, passed down through their bloodline or earned, not like Sokka's stupid fake ones. He wasn't laughing because his father's signature suddenly looked just as ridiculous as a Water Tribe peasant's attempts to look impressive, he was—outraged! This was outraged laughter. For the insult to his family, and, and…

 

(And it was really easy to picture Ozai making up new ones, like Dragon Emperor or Phoenix King . Where had half these titles come from?)

 

Those peasants had done something to his brain. Stupid Ka—stupid waterbender and her promise-me-you'll-think-about-it. Their idiocy was contagious. 

 

At least their bickering had given him an idea. Zuko went back to his letter writing. 

 

Lala,

 

You are the worst sister ever. Please refrain from harrying my prisoners at a distance.

 

Zuzu

 

That should do it. And for Father… For Father, he studiously copied each and every title, and then wrote. 

 

He sent two hawks, but only one of them came back with a reply.

 

Dum-Dum,

 

I knew you cared. 

 

In future correspondence, please be sure to use my correct name and titles or you will learn what else I can do from a distance.

 

Princess Azula of the Azure Flame, Youngest Wielder of the Cold Fire, Heir to the Dragon Throne, Objectively Less Banished Than You

 

Zuko broke down laughing. Again.

 

Uncle was still startled by the noise, but thought he could get used to it.

 

***

 

At approximately the same time Ursa's son was having an unseemly fit of emotion, Fire Lord Ozai was dismissing his court and sitting down with his mail.

 

The waterbender escaped before I read your orders , the boy had written, amidst court-perfect niceties and formulaic apologies drilled into him by his tutors. Escaped , he wrote, while numerous sources reported to Ozai what friendly terms Zuko was on with the girl's brother. The firstborn son of Hakoda, whose fleet was the only resistance to the Fire Navy worth mentioning. The unmarried young heir apparent of the Southern Tribe, traveling towards the Northern Tribe's unmarried daughter. An ineffectual non-bender that Zuko had repeatedly allowed to escape uninjured, despite the tactical advantage of capturing him. Or killing him. 

 

If Zuko had shown even half this capacity for political maneuvering while he was still in the palace, Ozai might have kept him. A pity he was funneling all this newfound acumen into treason. Ursa's son, indeed.

 

Ozai did not return the boy's letter.

Chapter Text

Jet was working his magic. And this girl, she wanted to be worked.

 

What'd she think a bunch of kids were doing in the middle of a forest when there was a town right there ? They were outcasts, unwanted. But her sparkle-vision just saw kids, not the dirt and the half-healed bruises-on-bruises and the patched clothes no one had ever taught them how to sew. She didn't want to see. So he kept their story simple and inspiring : this was a place for people who'd lost their homes to the war, a place he kept them all safe. 

 

What happened to their families? Did she really need to ask? Ah, there she went—touching that necklace again, wearing her tragedy around her throat. 

 

So he told her about his mother, and his father (and everytime he told it, he wondered if he was remembering them or remembering the last way he'd told this story). Told her about flames. Didn't tell her about what he saw in those flames, or the scars he'd gotten trying to go back. Definitely didn't tell her about the scars he'd gotten running away. Kept it clean and pretty, just for her. She just about spirits-damned swooned . They were sitting side-by-side in front of his treehouse, their legs dangling over the edge of the walkway, just about brushing. He waited until she turned to him; then he turned to her— 

 

Her brother cleared his throat. "Ahem," he said. "A hem ."

 

Katara jerked away. Jet turned a smile on the boy behind them, and raised an eyebrow. "Got something in your throat? You could go get a drink. River's that way."

 

"Yes. Let us go to the river, Katara," Sokka said. "You and Aang can… practice your magic water."

 

"Actually," Katara said, "I was hoping to practice with you."

 

"Katara. I love you, but everytime I hold that scroll for you I end up soaked. That is not teaching me to do my laundry, Katara.

 

"Actually, I was thinking we could spar." She slid her dagger half-way out of its sheath. Gaudy enough to re-blind a badgermole, but decent steel. 

 

"Katara. To repeat: I love you, but I'm not going to stand still and let you stab at me until you figure out where the pointy end goes."

 

Ooo, that got a reaction. Rage looked good on her. " Excuse me?"

 

Her brother twirled a finger in his ear. "Oh, sorry. Did you have something to tell me about what happened on Zuko's ship?" 

 

"I have something to show you ," she growled.

 

Which was about enough conversation time that didn't revolve around Jet. "Zuko," he said. "Sounds like a Fire Nation name."

 

Sokka snorted. "Try Prince -of-the-Fire-Nation name. Katara here went for a luxury cruise last week, and apparently came back knowing how to poison parrots and stab things."

 

"And you went into the spirit world, and came back best friends! Is Appa Mark III for his birthday, or just because you care ?" 

 

And there they went, shouting like he wasn't even here. Again. Jet smoothly slid between them. "The Prince of the Fire Nation, huh. Didn't think he'd want to buddy up with two Water Tribesmen."

 

"If by 'buddy up' you mean constantly insult —" Sokka started. And then they were both complaining, at length, about this Zuko of theirs. And somewhere in there they did start sparing. Sokka wasn't bad with that sword; amatuer, but good instincts, and Jet did not see that fan coming—why did the guy keep it in the back of his pants? Katara was a mess with her dagger, but her sheer desire to stab something definitely brought a unique energy to the table. Jet worked with one of them, then the other, then wove between them as the siblings fought two-on-one against hook swords and a smile that hadn't faltered since they'd said Zuko .

 

Zuko, not Prince Zuko. Zuko, synonymous with little buddy in Sokka's tales. Zuko, who Katara definitely wanted to strangle but not kill

 

By the end of the spar, Jet had given them both enough nicks and bruises that he wasn't going to kill anything, either. Yet. 

 

"I wasn't going to mention this," he said, slipping his swords away, so his hands couldn't twitch around them. "You were traveling with the Avatar, and… well, he's the last of the Air Nomads, right? I thought he'd have it in for the Fire Nation."

 

The Avatar wasn't like that, they both hurried to assure him. Not their precious Aang. He wanted to end the war, sure, but he didn't want revenge. Smile , Jet told himself, and he did.

 

"See, we've been having a drought. And that town downriver, they're Fire. I was worried you wouldn't want to help. There's this reservoir…" 

 

She wanted this. Wanted to believe him. All the signs were there for her to see, and her brother did , but she wouldn't even look. 

 

Later, frozen to a tree with a dagger held at his throat by a pretty little hand that still thought humans died different than hog-cows, he didn't even waste his smuggest grin on her. He just gave a lazy smile. "Take a good look, Katara. You're going to let that Zuko of yours in, and he's going to betray you. It'll feel a lot like this."

 

No one told him the prince was twelve. Wouldn't have really changed things, except how he'd pictured that week she'd spent on his ship. 

 

Rage really did look good on her. Jet might have stomached kissing the girl, if he hadn't thought the Fire Nation got there first. 

 

***

 

At the next port, the Wani learned that the Avatar and his waterbender helped blow up a dam and destroy a Fire Nation settlement.  

 

The Prince got that scowl on his face, the one the crew hadn't realized he'd stopped making until suddenly it was back. And so was his Commander Voice. He cancelled shore leave; the Wani departed north with all due speed. 

 

"Without Sokka, the townspeople would not have evacuated in time," the General reminded his nephew.

 

"It's not Sokka my father wants."

 

"Do not regret helping the Lady Waterbender, nephew. Even if the lion-rabbit bites, it was still noble to free it from the snare."

 

The prince scowled so hard that even Lieutenant Jee walked quietly around him. 

 

(The waterbender had left a pile of scrolls in his room. Among them, a first edition script for Love Amongst the Dragons with original playwright comments inked in the margins. So. Saving waterbenders from pirates wasn't a total waste: it had proven invaluable to the Fire Nation's cultural heritage, even if detrimental to its colonists.)

 

***

 

"And you couldn't have kept a single scroll? Or monkey's ruby eye?" Sokka asked. 

 

"They were probably worthless anyway," Katara replied. 

 

"And we can't just sell the dagger?"

 

"Good idea! And when we run out of money next time, we can sell boomerang."

 

This was one line crossed too many. Sokka stomped off, and hired himself out to the first fishing boat desperate enough to take on a teenager muttering about sisters and daggers

 

***

 

"A storm is coming, Prince Zuko," Uncle said.

 

"...Proverbial or literal?"

 

Uncle thought about this for a moment. "Primarily literal."

 

Zuko scowled up at the blue sky, and scowled at his uncle, and crossed his arms and scowled some more as he remembered the war map he'd seen while on a stupid field trip with a town-destroying only-pretended-she-was-nice waterbender. "The nearest ports are all controlled by the Earth Kingdom. The troops looked like they were concentrated more towards the southern mining towns to secure them after that rig breakout—" also the waterbender's fault, how had he ever forgotten that "—but if there's a patrol going through, or even just people being patriotic , we could be trapped in the harbor with an angry mob."  

 

Uncle very pointedly did not ask where his nephew had acquired information on recent military movements. "A storm cannot choose mercy, Prince Zuko."

 

Uncle kept his hands tucked up his sleeves, and Zuko did not look at them. He opted for more scowling. "At least the storm won't actively try to kill us."

 

***

 

Sokka was ninety, ninety-five percent sure that this storm was actively trying to kill them. Possibly him in specific, judging by the number of waves going out of their way to slap him in the face, particularly in the mad moments he was scrabbling between lines, trying to help the old guy keep this tub under control as the waves arched over it, twice as high as they were— 

 

three times as high—

 

four—

 

Wait, was that Zuko's ship? 

 

Even better, was that Appa ?

 

***

 

The lightning strike shuddered throughout the ship. Helmsman Kyo, having been slightly closer, felt it in his bones. And in the sliding of the lookout deck downwards, and the creaking of the mangled rail as it decided it didn't like his weight, and the water streaming over his hands, and the listing of ship, so as far as holding on went, he mostly…

 

Didn't. 

 

He'd been watching the deck below with morbid fascination, so he wasn't prepared for the sudden jolt to his shoulder as someone caught him. The Prince. How in Agni's name was a twelve-year-old hanging on to a rain-slick ladder with one hand , carrying the weight of a full-grown man in armor , when Kyo hadn't even been able to hold himself up—

 

Oh. He wasn't. 

 

The Prince's grip was slipping. Kyo had never been the bravest guy, but he'd had a few long seconds to stare down at that deck and it was only, what? Forty feet? Fifty? 

 

He'd really wanted to figure out what was up with Teruko and whether it was going to go somewhere, but he was transfering so it was kind of a moot point anyway, and—and it was sixty feet, tops. It was just the infantry for him after this anyway, and non-benders in the army had about as good of survival odds as this to hear his cousin Kuzon tell it. So. 

 

Huh. It was… really hard to make his fingers let go of the Prince. Sort of didn't want to. Which was weird, because they'd gotten scrapped up on that mangled rail so bad that his free hand couldn't grip the ladder, but here his other hand was refusing to let go. Had to concentrate on each finger to get them loose, and it felt like this was taking a really long time and no time at all. 

 

The Prince was holding him so hard his nails were digging into Kyo's wrist, but the rain was slick on both their hands and heavy on his armor. Kyo had let go of the Prince, but the Prince wasn't letting go of him . The kid had that ladder rung by his fingertips. Lieutenant Jee was right below them shouting something. Kyo looked down, and met his eyes. 

 

The Prince's grip finally slipped. Jee made the right choice on who to catch.

 

Forty-fifty-sixty feet go by real quick, same for cowards as for the brave.

 

***

 

Lieutenant Jee climbed back down the ladder with a screaming child under one arm. A screaming, kicking child. A child who happened to be his commanding officer, and Jee thought of all the past commanders he'd gladly have taken this excuse to drop. 

 

He set Zuko on the deck. Then thought better of it: wrapped both arms around his waist, and lifted his feet off the ground. 

 

"Let me go!" the Prince shouted, as another wave washed over the deck, and someone else—Teruko?—ran to catch Kyo's still form as he was washed towards the rail. Jee watched as she tugged off a glove with her teeth. Checked his wrist, his neck. The Lieutenant kept his body turned so the Prince didn't have to watch, but the kid was struggling and craning his neck, and saw all the same. 

 

Then the Avatar's bison flew up out of the water, because what else could go wrong.

 

The prince growled like something rabid and bit him. Jee let the little bastard go.

 

Lightning flashed. The prince rooted himself on the deck, one hand extended.

 

***

 

There were a lot of screams aboard the Appa Express. Kind of went hand-in-hand with the near-drowning and the terrifying water cliffs they were surrounded by, and the flying bison really didn't seem to be doing well with staying out of them, and was all-around not quite as designed for flotation as the metal ship they'd just flown over.

 

"Aang!" Sokka shouted. "Great time for tea, don't you think?"

 

If Aang said something anywhere near as witty back, the wind stole it. But Sokka saw him flick the reigns and Appa's sides shook with a bellow as he dove— 

 

Which was about when Zuko did some kind of thing with his hands and that lightning that was going towards the ship was suddenly going right over Aang's head . So. Maybe not with the teatime, then.

 

"Since when can Zuko shoot lightning ?" Aang yelped, loud enough Sokka could hear all the way in the back.

 

"Why is he shooting it at us ?" Katara shouted, sounding none too surprised but pretty thoroughly outraged. She'd brought up her hands in kind of exactly the same pose that Zuko had just struck, and once they were out of this Sokka was going to sit her down and get that what-happens-on-Zuko's-ship story out of her with all its apparently lightning related details.

 

"I don't know," Sokka snapped, "maybe he heard about a little town called Gaipan ?" 

 

Jet really was the gift that just kept on giving. Or the terrorist who just kept on… terrorizing? In retrospect, they probably should have turned him over to the local militia, Fire Nation or no. But hey, it was a big world. What were the odds the guy would come back to haunt them?

 

That sunny sky in the eye of the storm was giving Sokka a headache. No other reason.

 

***

 

"How is he?" the Lieutenant asked their doctor. It could have referred to either of them.

 

Zuko sat in the doctor's chair, not on a bed, go away Uncle , as the doctor guided his arm into a sling. Which was stupid, it didn't even hurt. 

 

"It will," the doctor promised. "You're lucky you didn't dislocate it, catching him like that."

 

"Oh, sorry. Next time I'll let him fall ."

 

Crewman Teruko spared him a look , from where she sat next to Kyo's bed. And Kyo… Kyo smiled. Shakily.

 

"It's okay, Lieutenant. It doesn't hurt at all." 

 

Which was exactly the problem. 

 

Fire needed air. Zuko brushed past the doctor and Uncle and Jee, and went back on deck. He leaned against the rail and ignored the crew's bows, why were they being extra respectful when he'd messed up . Messed up even harder than they'd realized. He'd been… taking things for granted. The spirits had been blessing his quest; anyone could see that. 

 

The spirits were blessing his quest. 

 

Not his Uncle, and now look at Uncle's hands . Not his crew, and now the Helmsman might never walk again. Not his Nation, and the Avatar had just destroyed one of their towns. A town that would still be there if Zuko hadn't let the waterbender go so she could teach the Avatar bending and the both of them could fill that stupid reservoir and try to drown everyone

 

He'd failed his people, his crew, his family. The spirits kept giving him all these opportunities, and he was wasting them. He couldn't just… redirect fate. He had to control it. 

 

Promise me you'll think it over, the waterbender had said. 

 

Zuko had. And he knew what he had to do. He stepped back from the railing, and rooted himself. Slipped his arm from the sling. Let out a breath, and moved his arms in the familiar circle he'd seen so many times from his father, his uncle, his sister who was two years younger and had never seen dragons dance. Energy sparked and crackled, the same energy he'd felt flowing through him earlier. He pointed—

 

—And glowered at Uncle's fretting, later. Which was much harder to do with both his eyebrows burned off. 

 

...Oww.

Chapter Text

It wasn't so much that it seemed like a good idea at the time, just that Aang had no other choice. Yes they were really really close to Fire Nation territory and some big scary fort, but they couldn't just keep flying when Sokka was so sick. Thought-he-was-an-earthbender sick. That was the kind of thing that needed medicine, right? Right. 

 

And it wasn't like Aang really thought the ruins of an isolated herbal institute would still have a super-competent staff that would go oh yes, we know exactly what's wrong with your friends, and we have this medicine and this illustrated pamphlet of instructions already prepared please take them , but he didn't have a choice . This place was close enough to check, and he'd rather do that first than risk going into a town when Katara's (oddly accurate) knowledge of which towns were under Fire Nation control was starting to get as wobbly as her ability to stand. And, well, if a crazy old lady told him to shove frozen frogs in his friends mouths, it was worth a try at least. Right? ...Right. 

 

And okay, so maybe he should have turned around and windstorm-run the other way when the hail of scarily accurate arrows started, but just then he spotted a frog—a frozen frog!—and apparently the things were real, so maybe they really worked, and he just needed two and it wasn't like the archers were trying to kill him or anything so they probably worked for Zuko anyway. He'd been a little (lightning-y) angry the last time they'd seen him, sure, but it wasn't like he'd leave Katara and Sokka all sick if he knew about them, maybe Aang should just go ahead and get captured so he could explain— 

 

(They didn't. Work for Zuko.)

 

Now he was hanging from chains and this must be the Zhao guy Sokka and Katara had warned him about. And he'd gotten the frogs, but these chains were… really tight. And he was in a big stone room with no windows, and he'd seen how many guards were out in the hall, and how many soldiers were in the fort, and Zhao's smile as he talked about the long, long life Aang had ahead of him. Aang could feel the air all around him, but it was stale and it wasn't enough and he couldn't breathe and— 

 

And he really didn't think Zhao was leaving to get him tea.

 

===

 

"Water, Momo," she-who-rationed-the-food said, and handed him the dead folded flesh of an animal that sloshed when it was moved. (Though it did not slosh now.) The lemur tilted his head, and churred.

 

Groan , his no-wings size-of-mountain fluff-of-cloud flying-friend translated, though he was self-admittedly more fluent in Rapidly Chattering Monk-Child than Very Small Mother-of-Flock

 

Chitter , the lemur replied, and did his best. She-who-rationed-the-food had handed him a not-sloshing meat-bag. So the lemur took a guess, and returned with a still-sloshing meat-bag.

 

She-who-rationed-the-food was not pleased by the dead vole-mouse on her chest. "Water," she repeated. 

 

So he tried again. And again. 

 

By the time he brought the ring-of-shinies and set it atop her head, the lemur admitted he was just guessing. 

 

"Water," she said, and started coughing. He'd really like to bring her water for that, but there weren't any good fruit trees around here, and how could a lemur carry water to sick-flock-mates if it were not inside of fruit? And these flock-mates were very sick. Even he-whose-stomach-challenged-the-gods was shaking like a just-born in a spring-storm-that-brings-snow-death. The male hadn't tried to eat the vole-mouse, either, even though he was a bad!-danger!-carnivore! and it was meat-near-mouth.

 

Flying-friend lowed his concern. The lemur chittered, and took to the air again. If thing-she-wanted was not here, then he would fly further and try harder, because flocks were only as strong as their most-likely-to-be-eaten-by-hawks member. 

 

%%%

 

Fujita tried to remain expressionless. The Yuyan tattoos helped. The lemur trying to steal the arrows off Ritsuko's back didn't. Especially not when her face was somewhere between what in Koh's name and oh-my-gosh-cute. 

 

Should I shoot it ? This was conveyed through a single hand signal. That signal was, perhaps predictably, the act of nocking an arrow.

 

Don't you dare, these things are super endangered, Ritsuko returned. The fact that the Yuyan had a concise signal for this spoke volumes towards their history as a unit. And what bored sharpshooters get up to while stationed in backwater forests, or islands with isolated ecosystems. The signal was largely just a frantic no no no wave, reminiscent of the rapid fluttering of the (tragically extinct) humming-snipe. 

 

Toriyama, thinking faster and less homicidally than Fujita, offered the lemur one of the arrows he'd been re-fletching after that morning's mission. It had three new feathers on its end, a scrap of orange fabric still caught on its tip, and smelled a lot like fresh glue. 

 

The lemur jumped off Ritsuko, ran a loop around Toriyama's shoulders, then grabbed the arrow in its lower paws and took off with a lot of chittering. It swooped down off the walls of Pohuai Stronghold, disappearing into the forest towards the mountains, gliding into a somewhat erratic headwind that would make for interesting targeting—

 

Super endangered, Ritsuko repeated, with a pointed humming-snipe flap of her hand that came really close to smacking Fujita upside the head.

 

"Oh, shoot," Toriyama said, momentarily at a loss for nonverbal communication. "That glue was still wet."

 

Somewhere below, a super endangered lemur screeched as it realized the same thing. 

 

You idiot , Ritsuko conveyed. The signal for this was a face palm.

 

^^^

 

"Water."

 

The lemur's ears drooped. 

 

"Water."

 

He tried to drop off his latest attempt, but… couldn't. He shook his paw, and gnawed at the wood-and-feathers, and growled his fiercest but it refused to be scared off. 

 

"Water."

 

The lemur had no idea what that vocalization meant, but he was coming to hate it. The things he did for his no-flight bipeds. (And why did this sticking-stick smell like his flying biped?)

 

"Wat—"

 

With an exasperated shriek, the lemur took to the air. Again. Trailing an arrow and a scrap of cloth behind him. 

 

@@@

 

Zuko was face-first on his futon. This was where he lived now. 

 

(Part of him couldn't help but think how nice it was to be able to press his face into his pillow and not have it hurt, his scar was almost totally healed, but the rest of him refused to admit that anything could be nice right now. Because Zhao was an admiral and he had the Avatar and Zuko was never going home and—)

 

Zuko was face-first on his futon with the Blue Spirit mask next to him, but as long as he didn't raise his head he didn't need to look at it and think about how maybe the Avatar could mysteriously escape. 

 

He hadn't eaten all day but his stomach still really hurt. He'd opened the porthole earlier to get fresh air (well, Uncle had, before Zuko locked him out), but the dock outside smelled like dead fish and sounded like loyal citizens celebrating a great enemy's capture, and if he was a loyal citizen too he'd be happy no matter who'd caught the Avatar. The stupid town-destroying monk needed to be stopped, he knew that, he'd been ready to do it himself. But— 

 

(But when he contemplated Father's track record with twelve-year-olds and mercy he started to wonder if letting the airbender and his smiles anywhere near Father and his smiles was ever a thing he should have tried to do, no matter how much he wanted to go home, and there was a traitor-voice in the back of his mind that sounded like him but it couldn't be because it was asking if he really did want to go home, why-would-he? Mother was gone and Azula had probably let the hawks eat all the turtleducks by now—)

 

(Azula was ten and alone with Father, and that was so much worse than being twelve and half-way across the world with Uncle.) 

 

Zuko was face-first on his futon and… and why was there a hawk grooming his hair, did Fire Flake destroy another cage? The hawk chittered. Which was… not a hawk sound. 

 

He turned his head, just a little. A lemur peered down at him. Zuko turned his face back into the pillow and laughed a not-good laugh. Zhao had the Avatar, and Zuko had the Avatar's pet. If ever an animal looked like a participation ribbon, the lemur did. 

 

"Go away," the (banished) (banished forever ) prince said.

 

The lemur responded to this very reasonable request by smacking the back of Zuko's head with an arrow. 

 

This offense on his royal person was met with shouting and arm flapping. The lemur was an excellent conversational partner, in this regard.

 

"Prince Zuko?" his Uncle called through the door. He didn't ask something stupid like are you okay . "Did a seagull-rat fly in, or has Jee's parrot returned?"

 

"Neither," Zuko huffed.

 

Which was quite uninformative, but confirmed for Uncle that the boy was not being torn apart by an errant flock of wolf-hawks, despite all sounds to the contrary. In this regard, it accomplished exactly what it was meant to. "I will be just down the hall, nephew."

 

"...I know."

 

Uncle's footsteps retreated. Zuko stared down at the lemur in his lap. It tilted its head, its ears tall and attentive. 

 

"You don't know where to go now either, huh?" But wait, that didn't make any sense. "Why aren't you with Sokka and Katara? They didn't get caught, I know they didn't."

 

It wasn't hard to keep up with Zhao's exploits when the man gloated so much. He was probably already practicing his I-caught-the-Avatar speech on whoever was closest to him. The lemur tilted its head the other way, and then lifted up its foot and gnawed at the arrow.

 

The Yuyan arrow.

 

The Yuyan arrow with a scrap of airbender-orange attached. That was glued to its foot, why

 

Zuko spent an unreasonable proportion of the next hour trying to give the lemur a foot bath using only the supplies on hand. Namely, the pot of tea that had been sitting by his door for hours. By the end, Zuko had an arrow with white fur in its fletchings, a shirt that needed changing, and a lemur that smelled like ginseng. The lemur sat on the far side of his futon and only interrupted licking its paw to chitter-scold him, like this was his fault. What kind of idiot glued an arrow to a lemur

 

...Zuko's mind readily supplied the image of a Water Tribe peasant. Only then did it occur to him that Sokka and Katara were still free . And the Avatar's lemur was in his room, carrying a pretty clear 'hey, in case you didn't know, the Avatar got captured' message, like some kind of discount messenger hawk. And Sokka never did seem to have his own paper. 

 

"Is he asking for my help?" Zuko asked the lemur, voice somewhere between deeply offended and cautiously hopeful. This was a message, wasn't it? Were they breaking the Avatar out and they wanted his help? Katara knew how sneaky he was, and both siblings knew he needed to catch the Avatar for himself, and they probably (stupidly) (...correctly) thought it would be easier to get the monk back from Zuko's ship than from Pohuai Stronghold. But even if this were a message and he did help, could they break the Avatar out? Pohuai Stronghold was the Boiling Rock of the Earth Kingdom, only minus the boiling lake and the steep crater and the ocean and all terrain advantages that would stop a twelve-year-old from easily approaching. And also, not really specialized at holding prisoners.

 

The lemur gave its foot one last lick. Then it picked up the Blue Spirit mask, and made for the window.

 

"Wait!" 

 

Zuko snatched back his mask. Then he used the smallest scrap of paper possible, and a ribbon not glue, to attach a note to the lemur's foot.

 

Tonight. Try not to die before I can save you

 

The lemur flew off. Zuko stared down at his mask, his heart beating fast, and thought about all the things he needed to do before sunset. He hadn't eaten all day and he was suddenly really hungry , and he needed some new tea because the old pot would taste like lemur feet, and maybe he should actually sleep a little instead of just angsting aggressively , and—

 

&&&

 

The lemur landed on one of flying-friend's horns, and gnawed at the ribbon tied to his leg. 

 

"Water…" she-who-rationed-the-food-and-made-very-unclear-demands said.

 

The roll-of-thin-bark bounced off her head, and rolled to the floor. The lemur took some small satisfaction in this. He flapped his wings.

 

Groan, flying-friend scolded. 


Chitter, the lemur retorted scathingly, and took to the air. At least boy-who-smelled-like-hawks-and-fire appreciated a good arm-flap shouting match.

Chapter Text

The supply wagon had two drivers. One of them was humming. The other looked like this had been a long, long drive. 

 

"Run into trouble?" the guard asked, as he stopped them just outside of Pohuai Stronghold's gates. He walked around back, and stuck his torch in where he could start poking through their cargo. 

 

"Worse," the tired driver said. "Earworms."

 

"You started it," the hummer briefly interrupted himself to say. Then he returned to the humming. 

 

"I did not!" 

 

"Right." A few bars of hummery interrupted the flow of the hummer's words. "Our mysterious and invisible stowaway was humming, not you." He didn't really need to pause for breath while humming; hums on the inhale, hums on the exhale. "If it's stuck in my head it's going to be stuck in yours, too." Humm. "It's called taking responsibility for your actions." 

 

The tired driver slumped as far as the seat allowed. The guard walked a loop around the wagon, checked underneath for good measure, then gave their komodo-rhino a pat on the flank. "You're good to go in. What song is that, anyway?"

 

"Blue Spirit's theme," the tired driver said.

 

"I," humm, " knew you knew it! See, I didn't even know what it was called." The humming resumed, full force, and with just a dash of vindictive victory. 

 

Catchy , the guard thought, and let them roll right in.

 

%%%

 

One Hour Ago

 

Zuko had been all over everywhere and stupid Sokka and his sister where nowhere , unless they were just really good at hiding, but he knew for a fact Katara wasn't that stealthy and he should have heard either Sokka's stomach or his mouth by now. He'd gone around the entire perimeter of Pohuai and he'd had to dive into a bramble-rose bush when a patrol had gone past, and he had a million little scratches on his arms under the dark sleeves of his shirt because he'd thought for five seconds that teamwork was the answer to his life problems. There wasn't any sign of the Water Tribe siblings.

 

He should have just done this alone. (How?)

 

He should have just stayed on his ship. (And left Aang with Zhao?) (No not Aang , the Avatar .)

 

Uggh, this was so stupid . He was going home. Zuko turned around.

 

...Home. That tiny awful insult-to-his-royal-status ship (that-his-dad-had-gifted-him-with-a-smile, but-only-after-Uncle-had-begged), he'd thought of it as home . Zuko turned again, and marched back towards the fortress. He just needed to get the Avatar and then he could go back to his real home.

 

Maybe he was just too early. He'd said "tonight" on his note, and it was technically still "tonight," though if they waited any longer it would be tomorrow because the Earth Kingdom measured time with weird sand clocks and called midnight the start of the new day. Not like the sensible Fire Nation, where sunrise was, and you could just ask any firebender the position of the sun. Did the Water Tribes do something different? Was this a cultural misunderstanding?

 

Maybe. Probably. He should check the perimeter again, just to be sure.

 

...Wait, was that the Avatar's lemur?

 

%%%

 

The lemur circled once, twice, and then landed on boy-who-smelled-like-hawks-and-fire's shoulder once he was sure there were neither hawks nor fire there. 

 

"Do you have another message? ...Did Sokka run out of glue?" 

 

Boy turned to him and—and the lemur leapt back into the air and screeched, because boy had face-of-wood! 

 

" Sssh ," boy-whose-face-was-like-tree-bark vocalized. 

 

The lemur landed on his head, and leaned forward, and sniffed. Still hawks. Still fire. He rapped a paw against boy's face. ...Still wood. All proper animals had two parts, of course. He was lemur-bat, and had met lemur-birds and bird-bats and inferior bat-lemurs which were not to be confused with most excellently groomed and fit-for-mating lemur-bats. He had never met a lemur-tree, but it was not so hard to imagine a boy-tree when the proof was under his paw. The lemur was a very sensible animal, and not prone to judging the paternity of others. And really, this explained many things: why boy smelled like hawks (they perched in trees), why he smelled like fire (trees sometimes turned into fire, especially when there was lightning, which boy also smelled like), and why his hair was like moon-peach-fuzz, except longer and more tempting to groom. Maybe like trees, he would have many delicious bugs?

 

"Quit it!" boy-tree-who-smelled-excusably-like-hawks-and-sometimes-lit-on-fire growled, brushing at the lemur's paws. It was a very fearsome growl, but less fearsome now that the lemur knew he was part tree. Lemurs got eaten by many things, but trees were best-roosts-safe-home-food-pantries. He settled down and wrapped his tail around himself, and just like a tree in a storm, the boy made many scary noises but did not throw him off. "Fine, whatever. Ugh . Do you know where Sokka is or not?"

 

The lemur yawned. Then his ears perked, towards top-of-stone-cliff above them. The wind had shifted, and he smelled… 

 

He smelled bad-thing-that-sticks-to-feet . With a chittering shriek that would have called down a mob of lemurs to attack this foe had any lived in this forest, he launched himself at this ancient-enemy-from-earlier-that-day. 

 

%%%

 

The Yuyan did not have a set hand signal for Aaaaah there's a lemur attacking my glue pot aaaah!

 

Toriyama wouldn't have had time to make it, anyway. He was too busy trying to rescue his beautiful new arrows from the snares of lemur fur. 

 

Fujita's fingers twitched towards his own arrows. With the way the critter was darting in and around his teammate's arms and legs and oh man, his clothes , it would be a really tough shot...

 

Ritsuko supervised, because someone had to. 

 

Why does the lemur smell like ginseng? was another signal the Yuyan lacked.

 

%%%

 

Do you know where Sokka is , Zuko had asked, and then the lemur had launched itself into an angry blitz of fur over the walls of the Pohuai Stronghold. 

 

Zuko wasn't too early. He was too late . This was what he got for trusting someone who glued arrows to lemurs to not get caught. He pulled back up his hood to cover his lemur-ruffled hair, took a moment to make sure all his screams where only on the inside, and went to case the road. 

 

Sokka was going to owe him so much . Let-him-take-the-Avatar-without-a-fight levels of so much . Or at least, stop-his-sister-from-destroying-more-Fire-Nation-towns amounts of so much .

 

%%%

 

Present

 

The wagon rolled in. Zuko rolled off. He clung to the shadows until he found a sewer.

 

%%%

 

Ritsuko eased her head around a corner, watching silently as another unit of common soldiers stomped past, headed to the yards. Admiral Zhao had ordered all non-essential personnel to attend his victory speech. 

 

The Yuyan weren't big on speeches, as a general rule. Ritsuko's wasn't the only squad surreptiously ducking the ceremony, which would make it easy to explain if their absence was noted.

 

Less easy to explain: the lemur glued to Toriyama's arm. It was kind of just… stuck there, it's back to his forearm, wings flapping erratically, hiss-chittering around the archery glove they'd shoved in its mouth. 

 

This morning, her squad had been on the frontlines, helping to capture the Fire Nation's greatest threat. They had acted in perfect concert with their entire unit, a honed fighting force that had made the Avatar look exactly like the child he was. This morning, they had been destined for the history books. This evening... the lemur. Ritsuko and Fujita and Toriyama all knew with certainty which they'd be remembered for forever if anyone saw them now . They would be a sidebox in the history books, an amusing anecdote for Fire Nation's school children. So help her, she was not joining the likes of Kuzon of Bungee, and the triumphant victory over the Air Army's last stronghold and hey kids, if you're ever rappelling down on an upside-down enemy fortress, here's what not to do!

 

The soldiers turned a corner down the hall. Ritsuko signaled the all clear, and raced towards the next intersection. If they could just make it to the shower rooms, and maybe grab a pair of scissors on the way…

 

It was the most important stealth mission of their lives.

 

%%%

 

Water gurgled in the pipes under the shower room. Zuko slid past the grates above, his back pressed to the sewer wall, and kept going. Twenty feet further down he found another grate. A much darker, quieter one. 

 

He pushed it open, and found himself in the kitchen. It was weird finding a kitchen empty . On the Wani , Cook or Assistant Cook Dekku were almost always there making something for the next shift. The same thing should be happening here too, right? Pohuai was big and had a ton of soldiers in it. 

 

Pohuai also had Zhao, and Zuko was pretty sure he could hear him shouting something about glory and honor and this day shall be remembered for eternity from here. Ugh. He pulled himself out, and closed up the grate behind him, and felt a little bad for whatever shift was missing its dinner and/or breakfast to listen to—

 

He rolled under a table and went very still, and wondered if it was better to hold his breath and be extra quiet or take deep breaths in case he needed to bend. 

 

The door had opened. A block of light shone over the floor. A Yuyan archer stepped in, her impassive eyes scanning the room slowly. She took a purposeful step inside.

 

Zuko held his breath. 

 

Another step. Another. Straight towards his table and then she was there and— And she picked something up, and turned, and left. The door swung shut behind her.

 

Zuko took in big messy gasping breaths, the exact kind Uncle would have been disappointed in him for. He waited in the dark, watching the thin strip of light under the door, but he didn't see anyone else moving outside. Or hear anyone. Except Zhao's voice, distantly booming. 

 

He could do this. He didn't need any stupid Water Tribe backup, Sokka's loud voice probably would have gotten them caught seven times by now. Zuko was fine on his own and he could definitely do this, even though he was suddenly thinking about what it would mean for a Banished Prince to get caught trying to free the Avatar, and everything Zhao would be legally allowed to do to him, and—and everything Father might do if he heard. Or might not stop from happening. But it was okay because he wasn't going to get caught, he never got caught, he could do this.

 

Once he stopped shaking long enough to get out from under this table, he could do this.

 

%%%

 

Got the scissors, Ritsuko signed. The signal for this was snipping the kitchen shears ominously.

 

Toriyama was sitting on a stool. His arm and the lemur were a cloud of angrily chittering bubbles. Fujita had a bucket of water and a soapy cloth, and was taking ridiculous care in trying to scrub them apart. It was times like this that Ritsuko remembered her trigger-happy teammate had a four-year-old daughter down in town who had taken the fact that daddy had tattoos as blanket permission to paint designs on her own face. With anything she could find while mommy's back was turned. There was probably a lot of delicate scrubbing during bathtimes at that house.

 

Ritsuko didn't have kids. She snipped the scissors again, and advanced.

 

%%%

 

It was really easy to tell where they were keeping the Avatar. It was the only room that still had guards. Big, scary, adult guards. 

 

...Zuko could do this.

 

He just needed a distraction. If he could maybe lure them into a side hall one-by-one and… and attack from behind (yeah, because if it worked on the first one the others definitely wouldn't suspect anything) or maybe attack them while they were surprised by something (there were still four of them and one of him and it wasn't like Zhao would leave his weakest men here) or, or— 

 

A bubbly lemur went shrieking past. Zuko only recognized it by the white bat wings and fact he'd known it was in the stronghold somewhere . To anyone else, it probably looked like a foamy spirit of ear-shattering vengeance, especially when it landed right on that guard's face

 

Which was probably about as good of a distraction as the Blue Spirit was going to get.

 

Zuko drew his swords, and closed the distance as quickly and as quietly as he could. 

 

%%%

 

Aang's arms had hurt for the first few hours. But now they were sort of going numb, so… that was an upside? And Zhao had left him torches, so he wasn't locked in the dark! And… and every once in a while he could hear the guards talking, so maybe he could learn about contemporary Fire Nation culture. Yeah. These chains and these guttering torches and this big empty room with suspicious stains on the floor (what had they used it for before him?), these were really helping him learn a lot about the modern Fire Nation. And its treatment of prisoners. And if he didn't find a way out really soon he was going to learn all about prison transport and prisons on the mainland and he'd probably get to meet the Fire Lord, too. Should he… say hi to him, for Zuko? Or would Zuko be there too? With no Avatar to hunt he'd probably just sail home and get back to being a prince. So… maybe they could have tea. And talk. In prison. 

 

And maybe Katara and Sokka would get better all by themselves, and they'd ride Appa to his rescue, and Momo would unlock the cell door, and Zuko would learn the Power of Friendship and his dad would learn the Power of Not Being a Homicidal World-Conquering Megalomaniac and Iroh would serve tea at the peace conference and Aang wouldn't even have to fight (to kill) anyone to end this war because everyone really did have good inside of them, it had just gotten hard to remember that after Zuko's great-great-granddad had killed all the world's peaceful air monks and nuns down to the last uninitiated child, including the ones that were even younger than he was now. 

 

One of the torches choked on its last bit of fuel, and went out.

 

"Yeah. I know how you feel," Aang said, and let his head drop. 

 

He was kind of glad his shirt was full of wiggling half-defrosted frogs. It made it really hard to stay depressed when cold little feet kept poking into his ribs. It kind of made him giggly, actually. And it was just so weird and not-serious in the middle of all of this, that it made him wonder if he was actually just laying against Appa's side with a raging fever instead of locked up here. Maybe he would imagine that for awhile, instead of world peace. It was easier to picture.

 

He was in a very pleasant daydream where Katara was so worried about him that she was—she was saying things that made him blush, like I think I like you . Or she was just about to, when Momo screeched.

 

Momo screeched really loudly, and really close, and really for real.

 

Aang jerked his head up. Maybe that lemur-with-a-key daydream hadn't been that far off. 

 

(Maybe the Katara one wouldn't be, either.)

 

%%%

 

The first guard didn't see Zuko coming because all of them were suddenly really focused on stopping a lemur from dissolving their friend's face with its oww it burns my eyes get it off get it off spirit bubbles. Zuko hooked a foot around his leg and pulled and then hit him in the head with the hilt of a sword as he went down, and really really hoped he'd judged the force right because it wasn't a move you could practice and there was a really fine line between unconsciousness and brain damage and these were his people, he didn't want to hurt them—

 

The second guard startled at the sound of armor hitting the floor, and looked down at the black-clad child spirit with the terrifyingly contorted face , and made sort of a strangled scream. 

 

( Of course the World Spirit can summon other spirits to its aid, this particular guard thought, in the back corner of his brain where he was still coherent.) (The rest of his mind settled on Kill It With Fire. )

 

Zuko split the first wave of flames with his blades, and danced around the next, and told himself it's-not-dancing for the third. And even if it was dancing, it was dragon dancing, which was totally different. And apparently really effective in actual battle, wow, dragons definitely knew how to move with fire. This was actually… kind of (not easy , it wasn't easy , but… but freeing? Exciting? Alive ). Even when the third guard gave up on helping his friend and joined in with the fireballing. Now if they would just stop being so tall so he could get in a headshot—

 

Whatever. Kneeshots then headshots. 

 

That just left him with the last guard, who'd already sunk to his knees and was begging for him to please call it off .

 

Zuko reached out, and picked up the lemur by its scruff. 

 

Thank you thank you merciful spirit, the guard gibbered, sinking into a full prostration. Which made Zuko feel really bad about knocking him out. 

 

After a moment of thought, he used the unconscious guard's shirt to wipe the lemur off. It chittered, and raced up his arm to perch on his shoulder. Then it started twisting this way and that, trying to groom the bald spot on its back. The freshly shorn bald spot.

 

...Zuko was going to ignore that. He was going to ignore that like Uncle Iroh ignored his technical place in the line of succession. Instead, he patted down the guards' pockets until he found a keyring. 

 

%%%

 

None of the Yuyan cringed, because cringing was not on the list of accepted Yuyan facial expressions. But it was a near thing, when from down the hall they could hear the very distinctive sounds of soldiers fighting against a Flying Bubble Spirit. 

 

And losing. Apparently.

 

Toriyama finished toweling off his arm, clearly lamenting over the new hole in his sleeve. It was either that, or leave a patch of lemur fur glued where anyone could see. The evidence had been disposed of with much prejudice via Ritsuko's limited firebending. Their squad's reputation was secure.

 

And they'd unleashed a super endangered abomination upon Zhao's hand-picked soldiers.

 

... Should we help? Fujita asked, fingering his arrows with a rather indifferent air.

 

It's a lemur, how are they losing, Ritsuko attempted to sign, but mostly ended up making a series of highly frustrated and largely incoherent gestures that conveyed her meaning even better.

 

The hallway went alarmingly silent, except for an ominous string of irritated chittering. The Yuyan shared a single still-better-than-listening-to-Zhao's-speech look, and advanced with all due caution.

 

%%%

 

The Avatar hung from the ceiling by chains. The Avatar hung from the ceiling by chains, smiling , because of course he was. He looked a little confused for a second, and then he smiled even harder.

 

"Wow, is that you Zuko? Did you find the Power of Friendship?"

 

"What—? No . I'm capturing you. And I'm not Zuko! I'm the Blue Spirit, and the Blue Spirit doesn't talk! "

 

"Ooooh. Do I get a mask too?"

 

" No! "

 

Zuko made a point of ignoring the Avatar's other questions and not asking why frogs were jumping out of the monk's shirt. He just found the right keys and got the idiot down, and helped rub feeling back into his arms. The Avatar smiled sheepishly and happily and glad-to-see-him-ily.

 

"How are we going to get out?"

 

"We're not," the Blue Spirit said. "We need to find Sokka and Katara, first."

 

"Huh?" the airbender said, emphasizing the intelligence that had gotten him into this mess in the first place. Zuko growled and grabbed his hand and dragged him out into the hall.

 

The four soldiers were still unconscious.

 

The three Yuyan archers were not.

 

%%%

 

Down that hall, there was either a creepy child-sized spirit or a kid playing dress up in the middle of a secure fortress. He was kidnapping their kidnapped Avatar. While a lemur cleaned itself on his shoulder.

 

Fujita nocked an arrow, and drew. Should I shot it

 

Toriyama and Ritsuko mirrored the motion. This was how the Yuyan took votes.

Chapter Text

"Well," the Avatar said, "thanks for trying."

 

If they weren't both pinned against the door by innumerable arrows in their clothes, Zuko might have killed him. It might take a long time to find the new Avatar, but at least a baby wouldn't talk .

 

"I don't think you need to worry about Katara and Sokka," the monk kept rambling. "I mean, you do , but not about them being here, because unless you saw them get captured then I'm pretty sure they're still back at the—at the place. That I left them. Because they were really sick and not going anywhere and Sokka thought he was an earthbender but his stance was terrible —"

 

"But he was supposed to meet me here. To break you out."

 

"Did he… say that?"

 

The Blue Spirit didn't talk, so Zuko didn't have to answer. And he definitely didn't blush. Wearing a mask was like being blush-proof, and no one could prove otherwise.

 

At least he had his answer: What kind of person glued arrows to a lemur? One running a really high fever

 

%%%

 

Colonel Shinu was not quite sure how long this speech would take. More concerning was that Zhao didn't seem to know, either. He just kept… talking.

 

It therefore came with great relief when one of his Yuyan dared to walk across the stage and bow to them. Zhao's words kept going, but his eyes—and everyone else's—were tracking Squad Leader Ritusko. It was the most exciting thing to happen in the past hour.

 

Something you should see , she signaled. Nominally to Admiral Zhao, her acting commander. But since the Navy man didn't even know enough of the archers he'd borrowed to understand their most basic signs, Shinu was left to translate. 

 

"She says there's—"

 

Zhao broke off somewhere between summer and end of the war . "I am in the middle of a speech, Colonel. Unless the Avatar has escaped and is now running loose in the fortress, I don't want to hear it."

 

...Not running loose, Ritsuko said, with the pointed half-second pause of completely still hands to indicate an ellipsis. It wasn't a formal part of the Yuyan sign language, but generations of highly trained archers with too much down-time between missions worthy of them had resulted in… quite a few hand signs that were not strictly necessary to the running of their units. Some of which they tried very hard not to use where their current commander could see. 

 

"Well?" Zhao snapped.

 

"No, Sir—"

 

"Then take care of it, Colonel. And make sure your archers know that attendance at this speech is mandatory . Why is it that I count fewer of them now than there were when I started?"

 

Shinu was more impressed that they'd been sneaking out without Zhao catching them at it, even though the man hadn't taken his eyes off the crowd. He did not share this thought; just bowed, and followed Ritsuko off the stage. 

 

"Whatever it is, Colonel," Zhao yelled after them, "See that it doesn't interrupt my speech."

 

Perish the thought, one of the few remaining Yuyan in attendance subtly signed. 

 

Shut up, Colonel Shinu's watching, his squad mate replied. 

 

Colonel Shinu, like all good Yuyan commanders, pretended not to understand.

 

Moments later, he stood in a hallway. Four guards where sprawled on the floor. ( Can't see any wounds , his mind noted, with battlefield calm. Which was all he could do, when they were too far away to ascertain if they were breathing .) Ritsuko's squad mates had not approached them: they stood with arrows readied as far back as the corridor permitted.

 

The Avatar was pinned to a door by his clothes. No blood, and the child didn't seem to be in physical distress. Good shooting. 

 

A flying lemur was pinned to the same door by its fur and a scattering of arrows that had been ricocheted off the walls at just the right angles to form a cross-brace around its neck. Also no blood, despite the outraged screeching. Excellent shooting. 

 

The third target was the size and shape of a twelve-year-old, wearing dark clothes and a common theatre mask. There were very few twelve-year-olds motivated enough to chase the Avatar into one of the greatest fortresses in the colonies. Colonel Shinu took the advice of his physician: he pinched the bridge of his nose. Hard. It did not stop his sudden headache. 

 

It also did not stop the Banished Prince from being pinned to his wall, one unmasking away from ruining all possibility of plausible deniability.

 

"...Take them to my office. Don't take off the mask."

 

Super Endangered too? Ritsuko asked, lacking a distinctive signal for 'flying lemur-bat,' or assuming he wouldn't know it. To be fair, he didn't. It had never come up. 

 

"Sure," Shinu said, conveying his enthusiasm. "Why not." He would rather be listening to Zhao's speech than dealing with this. 

 

...Almost.

 

%%%

 

Zuko got a few elbows into a few ribcages and one solid stomp-on-a-foot as the archers unpinned him from the wall. They didn't do this until after they had a pair of cuffs ready for him. Real steel cuffs, not stupid Kyoshi Island rope, and they weren't even stupid enough to leave his hands in front where they could maybe be useful. They did the same to the Avatar, except there were less elbows and more token efforts to blow them over using his breath. The lemur got in a few angry snaps at fingers and actually got free before they could shove it into a sack, but instead of doing something useful like providing a distraction or escaping to find help all it did was roost on the top of Zuko's head like he was some kind of especially small tree. It chitterred angrily. The archers exchanged silent looks, and left it there. 

 

Once they were secure (or securely roosting), the Colonel knelt to checked the pulses of the guards. They still hadn't woken up, and Zuko wasn't sure if that was normal or a Bad Sign, and he would have felt a lot better if they were groaning and moving instead of… not.

 

"...Are they okay?" he asked.

 

"They're alive." The Colonel stood, tucking Zuko's dao swords under one arm."I didn't think spirits spoke."

 

Zuko shut his mouth. And jabbed his elbow into the nearest Yuyan, on principle. 

 

%%%

 

Toriyama was signing some very impolite language that Ritsuko hadn't even known he knew. She didn't know some of those. Had he been hanging out with Tanuki Squad again? 

 

He was very pointedly not using his foul-mouthed hands to rub at his bruised ribcage. Yuyan were impassive elites who didn't feel pain; everyone knew that. 

 

...Ritsuko's foot hurt . She didn't know if spirits could really touch people, but she was almost positive that they didn't throw mini-tantrums and stomp on their captor's feet. Flesh-and-blood twelve year olds, on the other hand…

 

The Avatar was one thing. He might look like a kid, might even act like one, but she knew her spirit tales. Give him a few years to train or get him angry enough, and the child facade would crumple as the multi-millenia World Spirit came out to play. And there was no way what lived under the airbender's skin would approve of what her country was doing. The Fire Nation stood for human progress, not the artificial stagnation of separate nations under the forced arbitration of an eternal Avatar. 

 

The Yuyan were elites. The best of the best. Promising archers were pulled from the common ranks in the first weeks after enlistment, were put through years of specialized training, were shipped directly to Pohuai with their small squads when they were ready to join the main units. There were never many of them; less than a hundred and twenty at the moment, most of them on assignment securing the supply lines between the coast and Ba Sing Se. Earthbending terrorists that endangered caravans were best dealt with from a safe distance. A mile back and with a favorable wind, preferably. 

 

The Yuyan were expensive to train, expensive to deploy, expensive or impossible to replace—only three people had made the cut from Ritsuko's training year, and she was looking at the other two. They weren't used in trivial missions. They weren't put on the frontlines with the kind of rabble who burned villages or employed other unsavory tactics. Those things happened, it was war, but the Yuyan were… detached from that. Too valuable for that.

 

Which was to say: before this morning, Ritsuko had never pointed an arrow at a child. Though the Avatar wasn't a child, not really. The mission briefing had been very clear about that, but their unit leader had still made a point of keeping their newest recruits stationed back at base, and looked the other way when Usagi Squad had all come down with a sudden case of the Ethical Flu and sat out the mission. All he'd asked was that they protest to him or Colonel Shinu, not to Admiral Zhao. Admiral Zhao was commanding them, but he wasn't a Yuyan commander . The Navy sunk entire ships and called it a victory; in the Yuyan, even scratching your target without a direct order to do so could get you ragged on for weeks in the barracks. Sloppy shooting was what regular archers were for; they were better than that.

 

The masked kid had stomped on her foot while she'd put on his cuffs, and now her foot hurt . Which was easier to think about than how his wrists had been shaking under her hands. She appreciated the Colonel ordering them to leave the mask on, it made it easier to pretend, but she was pretty sure real spirits didn't shake

 

She grabbed his shoulder and marched him down the hall, and tried to ignore the twist in her gut that said you're better than this . And seriously, what kind of twelve-year-old snuck into Pohuai

 

…Probably the same kind who won a city in a single fight with no serious injuries on either side. Which was an very Yuyan way of handling a situation, really. 

 

She would really appreciate it if the prince of her nation and future Fire Lord would stop digging his boney elbow into her ribs.

 

Better you than me, Fujita said, dropping back a pace as she wrangled the prince and Toriyama handled the Avatar. By a quirk of Yuyan semantics, this was the same hand sign as I'll take rear guard.

 

%%%

 

Colonel Shinu was up for promotion this year. He looked across his desk at the reason he wouldn't get it. 

 

Aforementioned reason still had a lemur on his head. The creature caught Shinu's gaze and hunkered down with hackles raised, like the boy's head had somehow become its exclusive territory. Shinu let out a slow sigh.

 

The moment he took off the Blue Spirit's mask, the boy would be conclusively identified as Prince Zuko . As soon as he knew he had Prince Zuko, he would be legally obligated to arrest him, because unlike certain of his contemporaries—Colonel Akio of the 41st, he was looking at you—Shinu worked in a major communications relay point, so any attempt to pretend he didn't know of the prince's banishment terms would lead to imprisonment, not a cosy new command at the nation's newest colony. And once he arrested the prince, his political career would be over. Zuko was banished, but popular . With courtiers and the rank-and-file alike. His hunt for the Avatar was a literal spirit tale in progress, and one he was doing astoundingly well on. If Shinu was the reason he was locked away mid-quest, he'd be reviled nationwide. 

 

Which made him wonder why Zhao was so keen to interfere with the boy's progress. Frankly, there was only one person who could have ordered him to do so; who could have offered him terms that would make becoming a national villain still sound sweet. 

 

Shinu couldn't arrest the boy, or the people would hate him. Couldn't let him go, or the Fire Lord would be most displeased . Couldn't unmask him, or he'd have to choose. Couldn't leave the mask on, because there was only so long he could stall. Surely the prince couldn't be alone, he must have backup somewhere that could rescue him—but if he had responsible adults looking out for his welfare, he wouldn't be in Shinu's office right now. He would, in fact, be back in the Fire Nation. Presumably that was where he'd left the rest of this face.

 

The lemur started licking at its back. The prince tried to elbow-stab Ritsuko again. The Avatar had been babbling something about world peace and the balance of the nations and how one person could make all the difference if he could maybe make the right choice, please, but Shinu's promotion wasn't hinged on whatever tripe that was.  

 

There was only one way out of this: he had to frame Zhao to take the fall before Zhao could do the same to him. The prince had to escape, and it had to be because of the new Admiral's incompetence. 

 

So nice of Zhao to pull all those guards to watch his speech. His three Yuyan surely stood no chance against the Avatar, not when Zhao had deemed an entire unit necessary for taking the boy down.

 

Shinu lifted his hand off his desk, and started to sign.

 

%%%

 

Ritsuko was trying very hard not to listen to the Avatar. Firstly because the kid sounded more like a kid with every word out of his mouth, and secondly because one person could make all the difference was exactly the problem she was facing right now, and she didn't need her internal thoughts given external commentary. 

 

It took her longer than it should have to catch the sign. She didn't even see it until Toriyama twitched . It was an extremely guilty twitch, that came dangerously close to giving him a facial expression. 

 

Where is Colonel Shinu , Colonel Shinu was saying. Either that or he had the world's worst itch over his eye, and felt that making intense eye contact with the three of them would somehow help it. 

 

...No, not 'Colonel Shinu'. That was the sign for their acting commander, which was usually Colonel Shinu but was currently… Admiral Zhao. 

 

Ritsuko hesitantly moved her hand in a blah-blah-blah motion at her side, a sign which needed no further interpretation. And while it wasn't the most subtle of their signals, he was looking for it , which… had a whole wealth of implications for what constituted a private conversation between Yuyan and not their commanders that Ritsuko really didn't want to deal with right now. Especially when he clearly understood that Where is Colonel Shinu was the accepted opening to any pitch for on-base shenanigans. 

 

Communication established, the Colonel kept signing. He also opened his mouth and started parroting some of Zhao's more villainous lines about you're my prisoner and never escaping and with your capture this war ends for their two spectators, but it was pretty obvious which conversation he was actually putting effort into, to anyone who spoke both. 

 

He wants us to WHAT? Toriyama signed, forgetting that their private signs weren't so private.

 

Your choice , Shinu reiterated. Can't order you

 

"Now, if you'll excuse me," he said, sneering coldly at the airbender. "I believe Admiral Zhao would like the honors of unmasking your savior . I doubt he'll have as long a life as you, Avatar. "

 

The Colonel smirked (a bit too theatrically, in Ritsuko's opinion), and left. 

 

Left them with the prisoners. 

 

Left them, literally, with the prisoner's lives in their hands.

 

He wants us to WHAT? Toriyama repeated. 

 

He's setting us up for the fall, Fujita signed, angrily enough that the Avatar cut off his stream of desperate-hopeful words and stared at the archer's hands. 

 

"Do you guys have some kind of secret language?"

 

"Of course they do," the prince said. "They're the Yuyan archers. They're the best and they go on the most awesome missions so of course they have a secret language. And they never talk, like the Blue Spirit, so shut up." 

 

"Wait. That means you shouldn't talk, not me—"

 

The prince stomped on the Avatar's foot.  

 

This was not helping Ritsuko make good life choices.

 

... Super endangered , she signed, with great trepidation. Because if that term didn't apply to their nation's banished prince, she didn't know what did. 

 

We'll be executed, Fujita countered.

 

Only if we're caught.

 

Some of those sentences had taken more than one sign. Plausible deniability didn't.

 

%%%

 

The Yuyan were arguing. It had started out really subtle, they might have even been doing it while their commander was still in the room, but Zuko hadn't noticed it then. It was really hard not to notice it now. Probably they hid a lot of their signals from their commanders because that would be extra awesome and definitely something he would do if he was one of them. A secret language in a secret language.  

 

They were arguing and they were distracted , and his swords were on the commander's desk, and there were windows on the wall, and this was only the second story so he'd definitely jumped from higher before and the Avatar was an airbender he'd be fine . If they could just get their hands free, they could do this.

 

...These were kind of adult-sized cuffs, weren't they?

 

%%%

 

How do we plausible-deniability them out of steel cuffs? Toriyama had to get very creative with his signs, but he made it work. He'd definitely been spending time with Tanuki Squad; the veterans had the best curses and the best circumlocution. 

 

He's working on it, just keep—DON'T LOOK. That last sign actually translated to PLATYPUS BEAR and caused Toriyama to look around in some confusion, but she had to do something to stop him from staring directly at the kid wiggling out of his cuffs. Plausible deniability started with not letting the prisoners know that they were letting them escape. Ritsuko drew the line at trusting a pair of twelve year olds—one of them extremely chatty —to know that they'd been helped and not blab it to all their friends, and probably the Dragon of the West too.  

 

We, Fujita continued to enunciate, like maybe they just weren't reading his signs right, will be. Executed.

 

She played the only card she had, when it came to Fujita: Tricky targeting .

 

No it's not. We already caught them. Easy. 

 

Catching them was easy , she agreed. Not catching them while looking like we're catching them? Hard.

 

He looked… thoughtful. 

 

The prince elbowed the Avatar. " Oww , Zu—" Another elbow cut off that particularly incriminating name. "Oww! What are— oh ."  

 

His wrists were even scrawnier than the prince's. 

 

All three Yuyan returned to talking very animatedly, mostly about nothing at all. This gave them an excellent excuse to not stare at the prisoners' hands.

 

%%%

 

Colonel Shinu strode over the stage. "Admiral Zhao—" 

 

"Is the Avatar running loose?" the man hissed.

 

"No, Sir, but—"

 

"Then wait until I am done, Colonel Shinu."

 

Well, Shinu had tried. No one could say he hadn't. Especially not this entire fortress full of witnesses, only a small portion of whom were in any way loyal to Zhao. 

 

The Colonel adopted a perfect at-attention stance, and made sure to open his mouth every time it even looked like Zhao might be wrapping things up.

 

Zhao smirked, and talked over him every time. Shinu did not smirk, and let him.

 

%%%

 

It was working, it was working and the archers hadn't noticed yet, they were still hand-talking to each other like they were having a really big fight about something important. Zuko had wiggled one hand completely out of the cuffs which was all he needed ( oww, he hadn't needed that skin anyway, oww ), and a quick glance sideways told him that Aang had too, which meant… 

 

Which meant they were escaping. Right now. He could tell by how much of Zhao speech he couldn't hear that these windows faced the back of the fortress, which was perfect. For some reason most people had an aversion to jumping out of windows and an even bigger aversion to wadding through sewers, so if they could just get away before these archers sounded an alarm they stood a chance of getting out of sight before they were caught. 

 

Zuko didn't really know how to signal Aang. So. He just met his eyes, and then bolted. 

 

A jump and he was sliding across the desk, grabbing his swords in hand. The Avatar actually could take a hint, he was already at the window and he'd knocked the archers down behind them. Breaking the window would be flashy, but glass was awful and stabby , so Zuko took the extra second just to open it. Up on the ledge and jump and get ready to land— 

 

%%%

 

Tanuki Squad had been the first to duck the speech, which put them in the coveted furthest from the yapping commander position at the complete opposite side of the fortress. It was a little dark back here, so no one was getting chatty. Didn't need to be chatty to pass around a bottle of fire-whiskey. A window creaked open above them. The five veterans looked up. 

 

A bat-winged child spirit came hurtling down at them. 

 

In an instant they were steady on their feet—veterans did not get wobbly, even if they had been passing that bottle for an hour—with arrows drawn. It was unanimous: shoot the thing . A sudden airblast deflected their first round in a very familiar way, as the Avatar landed next to his accomplice. Squad Leader Kuzon of the Yuyan was the first to get another arrow nocked, the first to shot—

 

—The first to have his own arrow deflected by another arrow. One with very new, still-smelled-like-glue, distinctively Yuyan fletching. He raised his eyes, and saw Hiyokezaru Squad staring down at them.

 

Super endangered, Squad Leader Ritsuko signed, backlit by the light from the Colonel's office.

 

Which was the point were the bat-winged child spirit resolved itself into a twelve-year-old with a flying lemur clinging to his head. 

 

...What kind of twelve-year-old broke into the Pohuai Stronghold? 

 

His squad paused, because the obvious answer to that involved possible execution for harming a prince of the blood. A banished prince, sure, and possibly one who'd just sprained his own ankle, but also the hero of New Ozai.

 

"Oww," the hero of New Ozai said. 

 

The Avatar waved. "Hi. Uh… Bye?"

 

He grabbed the prince's arm, and ran. There was a distinct poof of air as he did so. With the wind currents he was creating, and the lemur flapping, and the prince stumble-running behind him..

 

...It was really interesting targeting. Had Kuzon of the Yuyan been anything less than the best, he might have smiled.

 

"Not that way!" the prince shouted.

 

"It's either this or the archers!"

 

" Pick the archers! Pick the— "

 

Ritsuko's Squad came leaping out of the window. The Avatar did not pick the archers. 

 

%%%

 

"Admiral, I really must insist—" Colonel Shinu said, instead of anything remotely informative.

 

"—a new day in our nation's history," Zhao continued. Loudly. "A day that shall be remembered—" 

 

Which was exactly the point where the Avatar ran past in his own personal tornado, a masked prince and a screeching lemur caught in his backdraft. Every non-essential soldier in Pohuai turned their head to watch them pass. 

 

"Admiral Zhao," Colonel Shinu had the great pleasure of saying, "The Avatar is running loose."

 

%%%

 

Running loose with Prince Zuko , the scheming colonel did not say. Zhao shot the man a single, scathing look. A we'll talk about this later, when you're at my mercy look. For now…

 

Plausible deniability was the Banished Prince wearing a mask. He'd clearly ordered the boy to stay in the harbor, hadn't he? How could he have possibly known that the Blue Spirit was actually Zuko? Really, what kind of twelve year old breaks into Pohuai?

 

Zhao smirked. "Kill the intruder, and capture the Avatar!" 

 

%%%

 

Zuko had his swords (and a bad ankle and skinned hand and a shoulder that still remembered a storm and a catch he hadn't been strong enough to make). The Avatar very quickly had a staff, once he'd broken the useful part off some soldier's spear. The lemur had… very strong flap-in-their-faces instincts. 

 

And then the arrows started raining down. It was like the Yuyan were crawling out of a dozen clever hiding places all around the fortress where they'd just been waiting to ambush them— 

 

%%%

 

The Yuyan came peeking out of a dozen speech-dodging hiding spots. There was no time for hand signals, and no need; Zhao had ample lungs, and his orders required no interpretation. 

 

Until Tanuki Squad and Hiyokezaru Squad came racing around the corner, and… things got strange.

 

Suddenly the Blue Spirit's swords were deflecting arrows , and the Avatar's twirling staff was an arrow-ridden but highly effective shield, and… and that was really tricky shooting . To hit a narrow moving target in the middle of a localized windstorm, while shooting around the rest of the guards, and—and had Kuzon of the Yuyan just lined up a shot through the Avatar's dangling handcuff

 

Even Usagi Squad stopped their subtle skulk back to the barracks, and reconsidered their Ethical Flu relapse. Following Zhao's orders to kill and/or maim children was a far, far easier shot than what those two squads were pulling off. And when the senior most members of the Yuyan and the three who'd most recently talked to the Colonel started acting strange, the rest of the unit paid attention.  

 

And, a heartbeat later, they started having fun .

 

It was widely agreed by every non-archer on the field that that was when things became terrifying.

 

%%%

 

Zuko was— oh crap —deflecting— too close too close —arrows— it's okay he didn't like that corner of his sleeve anyway —with his swords.

 

How was he deflecting arrows with his swords, that wasn't a thing people did outside of plays, Master Piandao had always told him if you ever try that for real I will deny ever having you as a student , so how—?

 

Oh yeah. Because there were so many of them. So many that the regular soldiers were keeping their distance to avoid impalement, so many that he literally couldn't miss hitting at least a few. 

 

...So why were the arrows missing them ?

 

%%%

 

"Colonel Shinu," Zhao said, past gritted teeth. "Your archers are missing ."

 

"Your archers, Admiral," the Colonel replied. "Perhaps it's a deficit in leadership?"

 

Shinu watched the spectacle of sheer anti-marksmanship and reflected that, perhaps, he did need to send his Yuyan out on more missions. The level of enthusiasm they brought to creatively not shooting someone was… mildly alarming. 

 

Especially when they started splitting each other's arrows. The ones embedded in the Avatar's rapidly spinning staff. 

 

Ten points , he caught one of them signing.

 

%%%

 

"Aang," Zuko hissed, "back up towards the gate."

 

"I can't! We're barely holding them off!" 

 

"I'll, ah… cover for you?" Zuko offered. And stepped forward. And twirled his sword in utterly meaningless patterns but still deflected all the arrows. This was a lot easier to do now that he knew they were aiming for his swords

 

...Were the Yuyan secret Avatar supporters? 

 

"Kill him, you idiots!" Zhao shouted again. "I'll have you all up on mutiny charges!"

 

Nevermind, they probably just didn't like him. Zuko spun his swords in great sympathy, and kept backing towards the first gate. 

 

He was absolutely not expecting the ladder-hopping stunts that followed, but the archers seemed to enjoy it. And with the regular soldiers still staying very far away from the target-practice, it was… not actually that hard to get out of the gates. Apparently having a whole unit of Yuyan on your side made life a lot easier. He would definitely remember this lesson when he was Fire Lord.

 

%%%

 

"I can't help but feel," Colonel Shinu said, making no effort to lower his voice, "that this could have been prevented if my guards had been allowed to remain at their posts. How will you explain the Avatar's loss to the Fire Lord?"

 

Zhao snatched a bow from the nearest Yuyan, and an arrow off the back of another, and marched to the center of the final gate. He was no Yuyan, but on this particular evening, that made him the best shot in Pohuai. 

 

%%%

 

Zuko looked back in time to get a concussion. This was better than the alternative, but probably still not great for his health. He'd been getting hit on the head a lot since finding the Avatar.

 

This definitely explained what happened next. No other reason.

Chapter Text

When Zuko woke up, the Avatar was kidnapping him. This was a status that continued despite his best efforts to escape. Every time he shook off the stupid monk's hands and stumbled away towards his ship, somehow he ended up not going towards the harbor at all and also tipped over on the ground, with a lemur batting at his face with chitter-purring concern. He was… experiencing navigational difficulties. He really wanted Lieutenant Jee here, so he could yell at him about course corrections. 

 

"Zuko, please stop running away. It's going to be light out soon and then I bet those scary archers will be out hunting for us. We need to go. I told you I can fly you back on Appa, but first we need to get frozen frogs—"

 

Zuko remembered being told that. Kind of. But it still didn't change the fact that the Avatar was capturing him, which was backwards and not at all acceptable, and why was the Avatar looking at him was he doing that talking out loud thing again?

 

"Only for the last… ah, half-hour? But it's okay, because—because I'm not capturing you, you're capturing me! Once I fly you back to your ship, then you'll have me right where you want me. That's definitely your clever plan, so you should stop running away . Hold this frog for me? Thanks!"

 

It… wasn't a bad plan. So Zuko sat in the mud while the Avatar dug out frogs. They were frozen for some reason, even though the water wasn't, how did that make sense, were they waterbending frogs?

 

"I hadn't thought of that! Wow, I always heard waterbenders learned from the moon but maybe it was frogs all along and they're just too embarrassed to admit it—" 

 

Or maybe there was a creepy waterbending predator previously unknown to man lurking in the depths of this swamp, stalking unwary airbenders through the pre-dawn darkness from the murky water, freezing its prey into snack-sized portions to consume at its leisure.

 

"...Uh. You don't really think there's something in the water, do you? Lurking, and stalking, and freezing..."

 

Zuko wasn't talking to the stupid Avatar, he was having an interal monologue featuring the stupid Avatar.

 

"Oh. Sorry. Wow, this one's huge !"

 

Zuko and his internal monologue quickly discovered that frozen frogs felt really good pressed against the bump on his head. 

 

The lemur quickly discovered that he liked licking frozen frogs that his boy-tree helpfully held up. (Frozen frogs were very strange tree-fruit, but the lemur was not one to complain about things-that-made-his-tongue-go-numb.)

 

The Avatar quickly discovered that firebender foreheads and lemur licks defrosted frogs really quickly and Zuko either didn't remember or didn't care that he kept telling him not to put them on your head and don't let Momo do that . Aang carried his own frogs thereafter. 

 

"Hey," the Avatar said brightly, as he tugged Zuko further up the mountain. Wait, when did they start climbing? "Umm, awhile ago? But I was going to say that this is awesome, I'm finally getting my field trip with you! And it was really fun , except for the parts that were terrifying, but judging by what Sokka and Katara don't say I'm guessing that's how field trips with you work? So I'm doing it right!"

 

"No," Zuko said. Very clearly. Out loud. "This isn't a field trip. And if it was, it would be Momo's . Not yours."

 

The Avatar ignored him. "This is so great, everyone else got one—"

 

The lemur chittered at Aang. Zuko agreed. (Concussions made him fluent in lemur.)

 

%%%

 

Across the Earth Kingdom, in the sleepy town of Gaoling with its stable merchant class and its unregulated underground fighting ring, Toph felt like she just got cheated. Like everyone else had gotten a turn at something and she hadn't. She didn't like this feeling. 

 

As with most things in her life, she took her dissatisfaction out on her current opponent.

 

"The Blind Bandit wins the championship!"

 

%%%

 

The bison growled at him. Zuko took a step back and crossed his arms and scowled at the cave wall, because it wasn't like he cared what a giant fluff-monster thought of him, anyway. 

 

Chitter , Momo scolded the bison.

 

"I don't need you to defend me!" Zuko huffed. Though he appreciated the lemur's efforts.

 

"Umm," Sokka said. "Why is Zuko holding complete conversations with Momo? And what's in my mou— ah! Ugh! Eww! Pfft! Ptew! AANG!" 

 

The bison stood very slowly, lumbering to its feet with a gentle shake to remove children, dust, and various lemur-provided oddaments from its fur. 

 

Zuko squared his shoulders and lifted his chin and scowled at the wall harder . And his heart definitely didn't do any fluttery-weird beats as the bison came closer. And sniffed him, which made all of Zuko's hair (and one lemur) drift up like it was getting sucked in. 

 

Chitter, Momo said. 

 

"He's stupid anyway, and I bet he sheds everywhere , and—" 

 

The bison licked him. Which was—it was—it was appalling, it made Zuko stand up on tiptoes and almost fall over, he tried to fit it on the scale from unagi vomit to giant elbow leech slime but had to shift it to the side on its own scale— 

 

(A new scale, for things that felt horrible-nice instead of just horrible.)

 

The bison lay back down with a whuff . And well. If he was going to sulk about it, then Zuko had to kind of… sit next to him. And lean in. And it maybe get absorbed into his fur just a little. Sokka was right, it wasn't as soft as it looked but it was still really, really easy to sink into. And past the long coarse hairs on top there was a super fluffy fine-haired undercoat that was eating his arms — (It wasn't nice or comfortable or warm as a just-banked fire at all , but… maybe he could just stay here for awhile? His frozen frog ice packs had all hopped away and his head hurt again.)

 

Chitter, Momo said.

 

Groan, Appa said.

 

"You're both too flammable and I hate pets anyway," Zuko muttered. "Except for dragons," he added, and fell asleep. 

 

Sokka blinked over at this scene. He tried to be surprised that the Prince of the Fire Nation had just become one with a sky bison's fur, but somehow wasn't. "Did you make a friend, Aang?"

 

"Yeah! I think?" ...And that was the air nomad's guilty-feet shuffle.  

 

Sokka narrowed his eyes. "Did you kidnap a friend, Aang?"

 

"No! Umm. I think?" 

 

Sokka gave himself the forehead slap of that-was-a-yes . "How much of a head start do we have before the cheerful old guy comes to roast us?"

 

"Uh, I don't think he knows where Zuko is. See, I got caught by Zhao and then Zuko came and he was deflecting arrows with swords , it was so cool, we were barely holding them all off with both of us and then he said I'll cover you and he held them all off himself and we escaped , he rescued me all on his own—"

 

Chitter , Momo objected.

 

Groan , was Appa's long-suffering agreement.

 

"—Monkeyfeathers! I was supposed to say 'What happens at Pohuai Stronghold stays at Pohuai Stronghold,' wasn't I? Ugh, I need a field trip do-over!"

 

%%%

 

When Zuko woke back up, the sun had fully risen and he couldn't speak lemur anymore. There were peasant-voices saying peasant-things outside the cave, but in here he could pretend that the bison's big slow heartbeat under him was the only sound in the world. 

 

He'd rescued the Avatar. Rescued . That was the opposite of capturing, and even if he went out there and re-captured him right now and then flew back to his ship on the sky bison who would definitely realize that Zuko was going to treat it better than a stupid air nomad ever could, once he was back in the palace he'd buy it the most expensive hay and he'd have servants brush it twice a day and anytime Azula even looked at them funny they could go flying to a different prefecture (and that would be at least three times a day) and—

 

And okay so probably the bison would hate him if he captured Aang. But Zuko hadn't captured him. Because he'd rescued him. 

 

Zuko squeezed his eyes shut and curled into a tight ball on his side, which was the appropriate preparation when he expected the world to kick him. He slowly slowly brought one hand up next to his face, and cracked his bad eye not-his-good-one so that if it didn't work than maybe he just wasn't seeing it right, and… and he tried to light a flame.

 

And the fire came, steady and strong as it had been since he'd not-danced with dragons. So. At least Agni wasn't angry with him again.

 

But that still left Father. 

 

Zuko kept the little fire going, and stayed curled in his ball, and wondered if doing the right thing would always make him feel this sick. 

 

(He'd thrown up after saving the 41st, too.)

 

The peasants were still talking, and it was easier to listen to them than to his own thoughts. Zuko lay on itchy-soft fur and stared at his fire and breathed, deep slow breaths like the bison's.

 

"So how serious are you about this kidnapping?" Sokka said, and Zuko's flame leapt a little. 

 

"I didn't kidnap him!" the Avatar protested.

 

"All I'm saying is, we could probably have him about three hundred feet in the air before he wakes up."

 

Zuko should probably have been more upset about this. But his head hurt and so did his ankle and his skinned hand, and there was a lemur curled up in the dip between his chin and his shoulder (which also hurt), and the bison was sweaty-warm in a way that made him not ever want to move again. And if they actually tried to put him in that saddle, there was plenty of time to light them on fire then. (And if they wanted to kidnap him, didn't that mean they wanted him?)

 

"I promised I'd fly him back to his ship," the Avatar said. "And I didn't kidnap him!" 

 

"So he came with you. Willingly."

 

"Well, he did try to run away a lot…"

 

There was a long pause. And then the distinctive sound of a peasant slapping a hand to his own face, and it probably said something about his relationship with Sokka that Zuko could recognize that without looking. 

 

"Okay maybe I kidnapped him a little . But it's not like we can just keep him."

 

Another long pause, and then the waterbender spoke. "Actually…"

 

"Yeah," Sokka said, and the way they were both talking made Zuko pretty sure they were doing a sibling eye contact thing. He and Azula did it sometimes too, but usually theirs didn't end in agreement . "Aang. Who's Zuko's dad?"

 

"The… Fire Lord?"

 

"And who's the most evil guy in the world?"

 

"Probably the Fire Lord. Unless there's some kind of crazy serial killer hiding in a small village chaining up victims, or—"

 

"Let's just focus on that first answer. Now, who is a little incendiary ball of shouting who is somehow not evil despite all expectations, initial impressions, continued impressions, and his own best efforts to the contrary?" 

 

"...Zuko?"

 

"Yeah. So how about we not let him keep hanging out with the other evil Fire Nation people, one of whom—not to name names, but the Fire Lord —is almost certainly a child abuser, as if we needed another reason to take him down? Seriously. If he were Water Tribe, Ozai's the kind of guy who would have an accident on a hunt and someone else would adopt his angry little child. I'm pretty young to be adopting, but I do kind of want to see my dad's face when he realizes he left for two years and now I've got a son. A firebending son. Pretty sure he'd never leave me behind again."

 

"We can't just—" Aang started.

 

" 'Brother' makes more sense, Sokka—" Katara started.

 

"My dad is not a—!" Zuko started, and didn't know how to finish, but that was what fireballs were for. 

 

"Uh-huh," Sokka said, and he didn't even dodge he just trusted that Zuko was aiming over his shoulder. "So, brother or son? You've got to be family somehow , or the rest of the Tribe might try to push you off an iceberg when you do the fire-magic thing."

 

Zuko growled. And Sokka, again, did not dodge . Zuko had to snuff a trailing spark before it lit the tribesman's stupid not-even-a-real-top-knot on fire. "You aren't kidnapping me! Or… or adopting me! I have a family, and they're not Water Tribe!

 

"But they could be," Sokka said, and preemptively hid behind a conveniently Sokka-sized nonflammable rock column.

 

Zuko debated chasing after him, but Momo was yawning on his shoulder and Appa was trying to tuck him back under a giant fuzzy leg. And his head really hurt . He compromised at sitting up, wincing.

 

"How are you feeling?" the waterbender asked, like she cared .

 

"You tried to flood a Fire Nation town." This wasn't an answer to her question, but it was the answer that mattered.

 

%%%

 

Sokka didn't think telling his little buddy/brother/son (okay, yeah, son would be weird) about how his new sister/aunt (aunt sounds less weird, maybe Sokka could be an uncle? Zuko seemed to have good taste in those) (wow, sitting still and trusting a firebender to not hit him really made his mind and/or adrenal glands jumpy, he was definitely going to keep hiding behind this column until he stopped smelling phantom smoke next to his head) (but anyway :) he didn't think telling Zuko that Katara was prone to swooning for Earth Kingdom terrorists was going to help this situation. Jet was barrel of blasting jelly he didn't want to touch. 

 

And they still needed to establish how kidnapped Zuko was. Soonish, because the sun was fully up and Appa was mostly packed and it was about time they hit the sky.

 

"You know what would stop us from flooding additional Fire Nation towns?" Sokka asked. "A Fire Nation advisor. I mean, this party—nay, this Gaang —is pretty Water Tribe heavy, and we're going to be surrounded by more Water Tribe soon—"

 

"So you are going to the North Pole!"

 

"Uh, yeah? Aang needs a waterbending master. So does Katara. And after that we'll be heading to the Earth Kingdom and picking up a teacher there and be we'll be surrounded by all those Earth-y types. Fire's last in line. That means months and/or years of the Avatar having your enemies whispering all sorts of woe-is-us-the-Fire-Nation-is-so-evil completely true, might I add propaganda into Aang's impressionable young mind." Sokka edged out from behind his safe stone column, and emphasized this point with a poke to Aang's blue head-arrow. "Just look at how impressionable he is, his head literally comes with pre-printed instructions on where to put the propaganda. If only he had some kind of sane, rational voice of megalomania to explain to us the Fire Nation's oh-so-superior ways."

 

His little buddy kept resting against Appa's side, with an uncharacteristic lack of attacking-Sokka-on-principle. He just crossed his arms. "You're trying to get me to kidnap myself."

 

"...Is it working?"

 

"I'm not listening to someone who glues arrows to lemurs. "

 

"I… what? I do not!"

 

Katara was looking far too thoughtful for comfort. She had a thinky-crease on her forehead and everything. "There was an arrow glued to Momo… And you were hallucinating. A lot."

 

"I was hallucinating that I was Bonzu Pippinpaddleopsicopolis the Fourth, Junior, Knight-Champion of Earthbendia. Lemurs are non-native to Earthbendia!" This point did not seem to convince them. "Do I look like the kind of person who would glue an arrow to a lemur?" Belief in his innocence continued to not be. "Where would I even get glue? Or an arrow?" 

 

As one, the others looked at the extremely large pile of random things that he vaguely recalled messenger hawks delivering from devoted citizens to the bossy-but-beloved Queen of Earthbendia. 

 

"Okay, if a lemur brings me glue and an arrow while I'm trying to send a messenger hawk as a thank you to Her Majesty's imaginary hallucinated subjects for their many offerings, I cannot be held responsible for my actions! Also, any gluing that may or definitely may not have occurred during aforementioned hallucinations have nothing to do with this current non-hallucinated discussion! Now, is this a voluntary kidnapping, or are we actually kidnapping you?"

 

His little buddy scowled. " Neither , this isn't a kidnapping at all!"

 

"Great; voluntary. We'll finish packing and be on our way. I'm sure your uncle will be stalking us, so we'll just pick up your things from the ship the next time we see him—" 

 

"I'm not going to let you use me against Father!"

 

Which was not the anti-kidnapping argument Sokka was expecting, to be honest. Though ' taking the Fire Prince hostage ' was arguably a pretty solid strategic move, it wasn't one he'd given any thought to. At all. Which wasn't actually like him, but there was a pretty obvious reason for it. He shared a look with Katara, and somehow Momo and Appa got included, but Aang looked pretty confused, bless his impressionable head. "Zuko. Can we use you against your father? Does he care?"

 

And oh hey there stone column ol' buddy, Sokka was just going to never leave your protection again , because there was all the jumping up and actually-attempting-to-aim-his-fire that this conversation had been missing. The terrifying heat cut off after a moment, and a couple of this-is-fine-this-is-okay breaths after that Sokka stuck his head out just far enough to peek and not a flammable-hair further. 

 

Katara had all that tiny rage wrapped up in a hug. Zuko wasn't fighting his way free in nearly as effectual of a manner as Sokka knew he could. It was like he was just sulking in her arms, but with more occasional elbows to her ribs. Judging by his sister's almost complete lack of reaction, they weren't even that hard of elbows.

 

"Think about it," his sister said softly, "what's going to do the most good for your nation—catching Aang and... and giving him to your father? Or teaching Aang about all the good things in the Fire Nation?"

 

Sokka admired his sister's ability to say 'all the good things in the Fire Nation' with a straight face. And maybe that showed in his face, because his little buddy was shooting him a look and Sokka was just going to duck right back around this stone, was what Sokka was going to do.

 

"...I have been thinking about it," Zuko said. 

 

"I know," Katara said. "You did a really good thing last night. I'm proud of you."

 

Sokka risked another look, just a smidge of a peek, around the other side of the column. The expression on his little buddy's face was like he hadn't heard anyone tell him that in ever . Sokka was pretty sure Operation Parental Custody Transfer was a go, and Katara was New Mom. 

 

Which was when the Fire Nation showed up to ruin everything. Because of course.

 

Uncle Sokka gripped his sword. 

 

%%%

 

Lieutenant Jee had been hiking for miles. At night. Through a swamp. Following a trail Crewman Teruko claimed was there, and not invisible, and yes Sir I'm sure . And though yes Teruko he'd grown up in a city , he did not consider himself a city boy anymore than he thought it paranoid to think that something had been stalking him through the waters. There had been a lot of unaccounted for splashes in the dark. 

 

He was ready to go back to the Wani now. To the ocean, where the worst they had to fear was a leviathan-kraken, which would at least have the dignity and self-respect to attack them outright and still be there when he turned around.  

 

Lieutenant Jee cleared his throat, and trusted that the sound adequately reflected how little he currently cared that a bunch of children were now taking defensive stances against them.  

 

The prince startled, and shoved the waterbender off of him. "This isn't what it looks like, especially if it looks like treason!"

 

Jee's armor was gunked with mud and water weeds. It did not creak. This was fortunate, as nothing polite could have possibly been conveyed. "...Let's get you back, sir."

 

"A hem ," the Water Tribe boy said. "We're kidnapping him. Not you. Go find your own prince."

 

Jee shifted his weight, and his armor ribbited. "Prince Zuko, we must be back at the ship before Zhao comes looking for you. I strongly suspect—" he shifted his gaze to the bald monk "—that the Avatar escaped last night. It would be most unfortunate if witnesses could place you anywhere but on the Wani ." 

 

The prince hesitated . Crewman Teruko glanced to Jee, but Jee… didn't know what to say.

 

Actually. He did.

 

"It would be most unfortunate for your crew and your uncle as well, sir. I suspect they'll swear you never left your room, even if you haven't yet returned. It would be better for everyone if you were found in your room."

 

The prince paled. Lieutenant Jee did not feel particularly good about this, but it had to be done. He wasn't going to let a group of irresponsible children kidnap his prince. They could go find their own.

 

When it became clear that Prince Zuko would be leaving, the children didn't fight them. The bison looked like it might have, but Zuko… hugged its nose. The lieutenant saw fit to be looking elsewhere as this transpired, though he was fairly certain Teruko was watching with a particularly unprofessional smile. The hardest part was getting the lemur off of the prince's head. Which was, it should be noted, not a phrase Lieutenant Jee had ever thought he'd use.

 

"No, you can't just live here, get off ! Zhao will know if he sees you, you—stop looking for bugs!"

 

The prince glanced back at the other children, and scowled, and didn't say goodbye. Which made significant sense, given that he'd never been here at all.

 

"Hey, Zuko," the Water Tribe boy called after them. "Don't you even dare send another hawk to check our heading. I definitely won't fall for that again." 

 

Lieutenant Jee missed his creaky armor. He settled for a sigh.

 

%%%

 

The prince started coughing on the way back. If they'd spent a bit longer up at that cave, perhaps the Avatar could have warned them how fast that particular symptom could escalate. 

 

It was frankly disturbing how easily Prince Zuko could climb from a rickety rowboat up to a porthole while running a high fever. It was almost like he'd done this far too often before. It certainly answered the question of how he'd left unseen in the first place. 

 

%%%

 

It had taken Zhao some time to organize troops— loyal troops, troops who could and would aim . It had taken more time to strategically position ships at the harbor's entrance, ones that would obstruct a certain Banished Prince's ship should it choose to flee. 

 

It didn't. The Wani sat quietly in its slip throughout the morning as it had throughout the night, by all appearances the very model of a law-abiding rust-bucket. 

 

Zhao was going to enjoy this. 

 

"By the order of—" one of his men loudly hailed the ship. Really, there was no reason not to make a spectacle of this.

 

"Admiral Zhao!" a somewhat frazzled looking Dragon of the West greeted them. Without lowering the boarding ramp. "I'm afraid there is sickness aboard, and we have some cause to believe it's—"  

 

"Contagious, General?" Zhao sneered. "Really, you could come up with something new. Lower the ramp at once. I will see Prince Zuko, no matter how indisposed he might be."

 

"As you wish, Admiral."

 

Zhao strode up the ramp, his best men around him. They should prove sufficient as lightning rods if it came to it. The Dragon of the West was powerful , but like any dragon, he was hardly immortal

 

"May I ask what brings you here, Admiral? I fear our hospitality may not be up to its usual standard—"

 

"The prince is under arrest for treason."

 

"Just what treason could he have committed? My nephew has been bed-ridden."

 

"Dragon Pox again, General?" Zhao knew the way to the prince's room, and he took it, dragging his entourage plus one discarded heir behind him.

 

"Swamp Frog Fever. Or so our doctor thinks; Zuko is making the diagnosis… somewhat difficult . Causing difficulties is quite the talent of his, it would seem!" 

 

The man smiled. Smiled . Zhao scowled at him, and pushed his way into Prince Zuko's quarters.

 

" I am not putting a frog in my mouth! Especially not one you dug out of your armor! "

 

The prince's supposed illness was clearly having no effect on his volume . Zhao paused a moment to take in the scene, to savor the last moment the little nuisance would have of freedom before—

 

Zhao was hit in the face with a pillow. He stood, blinking, as it fell to the floor. Then he really did take in the scene. 

 

The prince had dragged his futon over to the front of his desk, and… barricaded himself in the space under it. His face was flushed and his shoulders shaking with fever. And when he was not shouting, he was coughing , though he seemed to be doing his best to alternate the two regularly.

 

The ship's captain and another crewman were trying to coax him out. Their armor was somewhat singed for the effort.

 

"What is this?" Zhao hissed.

 

"As I said, my nephew has been quite ill." 

 

"Just—sir, stop—" the captain, one Lieutenant Jee , if Zhao recalled, made a grab for the boy.

 

Zuko responded by trailing his arms in a circle and threatening him with hands that crackled with seed lightning.

 

...The boy could do lightning now. 

 

"Last night the Banished Prince broke into Pohuai Stronghold, and freed the Avatar—" Zhao began hotly.

 

"My nephew locked himself inside his room yesterday morning. Very shortly after your visit, Admiral. We have had quite a long night, trying to reach him." 

 

"There are dozens of witnesses—"

 

"Oh? What did they see?" The General, it should be noted, was still smiling. His own hands were tucked innocuously up his sleeves. Lightning , he did not have to say at all, because every relaxed line of his body reminded Zhao just how quickly it could be produced, how unblockable it was. Cold fire was the ultimate in firebending, grasped by only a few masters in every generation. 

 

And a twelve year old boy who was currently ranting about how he wasn't a lemur and he wouldn't lick a frog

 

Zhao had dozens of witnesses who saw a twelve-year-old sized boy (or spirit, as some insisted), wearing dark clothes and a mask. Using swords, and perhaps airbending , but no flames. No lightning. 

 

Of all people, Zhao did believe in spirits. But… it was Prince Zuko. It was

 

The boy wobbled under his desk fort, behind the safety of his futon shield. His eyes darted between Zhao and Jee and back again, the pupils large and unfocused. "...Sideburn children." 

 

In this moment of inattention, his officers pounced him. They dragged him out, pinned him down, and… shoved a frog into his mouth. The prince kicked. The frog kicked. The old general hmm ed. "That frog may have defrosted too much. Perhaps we must acquire a fresher one?"

 

The prince spit, and coughed, and turned desperate eyes on the man who'd come to arrest him. "Admiral Zhao, I order you to help me. Zhao —" 

 

Admiral Zhao left. 

 

An hour later, he began coughing.

 

%%%

 

Ozai was beginning to dread any mail that came from the vicinity of Zuko's ship. He was tracking that location very closely, these days.

 

From the newly promoted Admiral of the Northern Fleet, Zhao: 

 

—escaped with the aid of the spirits, evading or outright blocking even the countless arrows of the Yuyan. This only exemplifies the need to address the other spirit issue I brought to Your Majesty's attention, before the Avatar entrenches himself in the north and the target becomes unreachable. Or worse, sides directly with the World Spirit against Your Majesty's subjects—  

 

%%%

 

Zuko got a letter, too. Once he'd sent Fire Flake out to take a heading. 

 

We'll be at the northernmost town on Blue Orca Harbor by the seventh of Seal-Turtle Moon. Don't know what that is in your calendar, don't care. Join us or don't, but stop skimping on the paper, there's something undignified about writing titles on the same line as the message. Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe, Advisor to the Avatar, Smallest Writer in Four Nations, I Don't Know Who Glued An Arrow To Momo But It Wasn't Me (Though It May Have Been Bonzu Pippinpaddleopsicopolis the Fourth, Junior, Knight-Champion of Earthbendia)

 

%%%

 

Later, he heard that the Avatar saved a town from a volcano. It wasn't a Fire Nation town, but he supposed it was a start. 

Chapter Text

"No!" Sokka shouted. "And no again! And no times infinity, which is an uncountable set of no! ...Or possibly zero, I'd have to double-check that math." 

 

"But there might be airbenders there," Aang whined. Nay: wheedled. With those big Avatar-eyes of his, and a lemur discontentedly perched on his head like it was looking for something it had lost, and—and no! Sokka would be strong. 

 

"We already had this discussion, Aang. We are on a schedule. Do you see this schedule?" Sokka held up the schedule, and hit the back of his hand against the schedule, and pointed to where they were not on the schedule. "We're already behind because you two wanted to get your fortunes told. And I asked, 'Are you sure this is how you want to spend our buffer days? By letting a random old lady spout off highly unspecific life advice?', and you said 'Yes Sokka, we love our magic elements so much that we believe in all magic, please let us study under the wise lines-on-our-palms-bender—' " 

 

"That is not what we said," his sister put in. 

 

"I was paraphrasing, Katara."

 

"We saved the town!" Aang also put in.

 

"And if you can show me proof you knew that town needed saving prior to the volcano starting to erupt, I will consider that a valid point. Until then, the point remains that if we want to make our potential kidnapping and/or adoption date and/or catch-the-Avatar-trap with Zuko, we can't go on any more detours. I don't want to have this argument every time you see a Fire Festival poster or hear a campfire story!" 

 

Aang wilted, like some kind of airbending flower who was watered exclusively on hopes, dreams, and time-wasting side-trips. "But Sokka, that guy said his grandpa saw the air walkers just last week. These could be my people. They… they might have survived."

 

Sokka pinched the bridge of his nose. And then stopped doing that, because it was too soon to be picking up headache remedies from his nephew-to-be. "Aang, look. I know how much this means to you. But if there really are airbenders there, do you want to lead the Fire Nation straight to them? I promise, we can visit on our way back from the North Pole. We'll have ditched our tail by then. If these are some kind of great-grand relatives of yours, we need to keep them safe. And sometimes safe means you have to stay apart. Okay?"

 

And frankly, if they didn't have time to follow Bato's map and visit the father Sokka and Katara hadn't seen in two years, they definitely didn't have time to visit Aang's potential-relatives-he-hadn't-known-existed. Not when Zuko would be waiting for them, one way or another.

 

"...Okay." 

 

Sokka hugged his less-adopted-but-no-less-official brother, and Katara did too, and it was a big moment of hugs all around until Sokka broke it off. "And that's all the group hug time we had scheduled for today. Back on the bison, people!"

 

"You scheduled group hug time?" his sister asked, with all the skepticism she hadn't had for that fortune teller. 

 

"I also scheduled Debating the Schedule Time, but it's an in-flight activity. Come on you two; chop chop, hup hup, yip yip!"

 

Appa rumbled at this false flying alarm, but fortunately did not take off without them. That would have put a serious crimp in the schedule. 

 

There would be no more totally-unimportant-to-the-course-of-this-war side-trips: the schedule must be obeyed.

 

%%%

 

Teo didn't scare easy. As the kind of thirteen year old who regularly launched his wheelchair off the side of a towering column of rock made by and for people who'd once been able to fly, 'not scaring easily' was sort of a given. His dad didn't scare easily, either: as the sort of father who attached wings to a small child's wheelchair and gave him a proud push towards a three hundred foot drop, he couldn't be. 

 

But Teo was really scared right now, and he was counting on his dad to… not be. Because his dad was smart and amazing, and he'd think of something. 

 

"Dad? Dad!" Teo skidded to a stop in front of the office door, his hands gripped too tightly on his wheels to shake.

 

"Not now, Teo," his dad called from inside. "I'm doing a very important experiment, very delicate—" 

 

Teo rattled the handle, but it was locked. "Dad, you have to come quick! I was out gliding, kind of a little further than usual and don't be mad , and—and I saw a Fire Nation camp, a big one, with these crazy tanks and lots of soldiers, and the only thing this far out is us —" 

 

"That's… that's terrible , Teo," his father said. "I'll just put this away quickly, must make sure it doesn't explode—"

 

Teo really, really wished his dad would stop playing around with natural gas at the least convenient times

 

The lock clicked open. While his dad was still muttering about whoops that's unstable and be-right-out , which didn't register with Teo until he'd already wheeled inside and—

 

—And his dad was standing by his work table not doing an experiment at all, and someone else closed the door behind Teo. 

 

"You must be our dear Mechanist's son," the Fire Nation man smiled. "I've heard absolutely nothing about you. What a pleasure to meet you. Teo, was it?"

 

"War Minister Qin," his father said. "Please."

 

"Dad…?" Teo was afraid. More afraid, a colder kind of afraid. For reason he couldn't wouldn't think, but he was his father's son and ' why was there a Fire Nation soldier in dad's office ' really had a limited set of answers that his brain was rapidly, too rapidly, stop stop stop flipping through until the most probable conclusion was literally staring in his face. Smiling at him. Teo jerked his gaze away, back to his father. "Dad. What have you done?"

 

"Smart boy you have, Mechanist. He wouldn't be the reason your designs are late, would he? Children can be so… distracting."

 

"Please," his dad said. Again. Said it weird, and Teo realized his dad was afraid .

 

The Fire Nation man set a hand on the back of Teo's chair. And Teo's mind searched through the possibilities, raced through ran through speed through, if he went forward probably the man would be strong enough to stop him but if he went backwards real fast Teo could hit him, take him off guard and give them a chance, and then they could then they could— 

 

(The man was here because his dad had let him in.)

 

(The soldiers in the woods were there to make sure his dad let them in.)

 

(If this man didn't come back then the other soldiers would attack, and it would be everyone in danger instead of just him. )

 

Teo stayed exactly where he was. Sometimes being smart looked exactly like being frozen. 

 

"Here's what's going to happen, Mechanist. You are going to finish the designs. I'll be back for them in a week. Your son—"

 

" Please— "

 

"—Is going to come with me. Call it a cultural exchange . The governor of New Ozai has hired all the finest tutors for his own daughter. I hear she's only a year or two younger than Teo here. A boy like your son deserves a proper education. He is the future of the Fire Nation, after all."

 

"Let me come with him," his dad begged. 

 

"You need the gas for your experiments, and the secrecy of the air temple has been a… beneficial element in our relationship. There's no need to spoil that. The boy will be perfectly safe where he's going, and I'll be sure to see he has a strict minder. Why, I'd say he'd cause more problems if left here, wouldn't you?" 

 

"Teo won't say anything. He's a good boy, a smart boy—"

 

I'll tell EVERYONE, you're a traitor you're working for the FIRE NATION. But Teo was a smart enough boy not to say that . Maybe not even to really mean it, not if he had a chance to sit and think it through. If he promised not to tell, maybe he could stay. Maybe when people talked about right and wrong what they really meant was what was right for his family— 

 

"We'll be sure he maintains regular correspondence with you, Mechanist. But I'm a busy man; I'll only have cause to stop by with his letters if you have new designs for me…"

 

His dad was smart. And Teo was smart. And as threats went, there was nothing subtle here. 

 

"Dad," Teo said again. 

 

The man let them hug. But he didn't let dad pack anything for him, because Teo was going to have an accident while flying and that was why he was gone and he was never coming back, that was why the Mechanist was going to spend all day every day locked in his study, making designs with feverish purpose as if working himself to exhaustion would bring his son back. 

 

"Goodbye, dad."

 

Teo was going to school. 

Chapter Text

Bato was grinning. This was Hakoda's first and last warning, and it went unnoticed in the cheers and backslaps and welcome-backs of an injured tribesman rejoining the fleet, fit for battle once more. 

 

Bato was grinning like the time he'd switched Hakoda's wine for sea prune juice, and made him spit-take on Kya at their wedding. Bato was grinning like the time he'd forgotten to tell Hakoda that the leopard-caribou they'd killed was a mother, and Hakoda had woken up to a kitten-fawn mauling his elbow and his two children asking can we keep it Uncle Bato says we can can we can we? Bato was grinning in a way that implied he was about to add a new story to this list, one that deserved place-of-pride as a crowning achievement.

 

Bato was still grinning as he finished regaling the Tribe with inappropriately hilarious nun-themed exploits, and turned to Hakoda. With, it should be emphasized, a grin. 

 

"I met your children."

 

That, Hakoda had not expected. "Sokka and Katara?"

 

"Do you have any others?" Bato. Grinned . And grabbed Hakoda's arm, and steered him towards his tent. "It's best you hear this first."

 

Hakoda nearly missed his next step. "Are they all right?"

 

"They had their own run-in with a firebender, let's just say." Bato was trying not to grin, but Bato was still grinning . Hakoda finally noticed. It set his mind at ease in one respect, and made him deeply un easy about a whole new rainbow of other options. 

 

Bato's story started with the South Pole and the Avatar, and Hakoda both wanted to strangle his children and his encouraging-this-behavior mother, and also hug them close and tell them how brave they were and how proud he was, and also to never storm a Fire Navy ship again.

 

Bato's story continued across Kyoshi and the Earth Kingdom, with Ozai's recently banished spawn in pursuit. The same one who'd been on their village in less than a day after the Avatar appeared, the same who'd defeated the Avatar in single combat and claimed Omashu for the Fire Nation. The one that drunken Fire Nation citizens in every port town were either toasting or starting bar fights over, depending on how many Ozai loyalists were in the room. Hakoda's fleet had been eager to make the prince's acquaintance , because he was by all accounts on the smallest ship the Fire Navy possessed, nominally unsupported by the rest of his nation, and in dire need of having this spirit quest of his brought to an end before it reached the conclusion his countrymen were already rallying around. Hakoda had rather mixed feelings about hurting a twelve year old, but if he'd had the chance to snuff the flame of Sozin or Azulon, Ozai or the Dragon of the West in their cradles… Some things had to be done. At the South Pole, they knew that. 

 

But Bato kept talking. And grinning. 

 

His story ended with a clap on the shoulder, and two words Hakoda had wanted to hear but not until his hair was much, much grayer. Though the words certainly helped accelerate that process. 

 

"Congratulations, Grandpa! ...Hakoda? Don't pass out." Bato kept his hand on his friend's shoulder, to stop the Chief of the Southern Tribe from listing to the side. 

 

"...My son is either a tactical genius or an idiot." Either way, Hakoda should not have left him unsupervised for two years. And, in retrospect, also taught him that kidnapping was wrong. "You said they're going to the North?"

 

"Yeah. Your daughter and the Avatar need a waterbending master. ...Seriously, don't pass out."

 

Maybe it was time to request aid from their sister tribe again. If he happened to meet any forcefully adopted grandsons while he was there—

 

Well, first he needed to have a talk with his son.

Chapter Text

Zuko lay on the deck looking up at the sky. It was stained with sunset pinks and reds, and a little hazy around the edges.

 

"...Oww."

 

"Lightning is the most advanced technique in firebending," Uncle said. "It is not unusual for a bender to go their entire life without producing so much as a single spark. Your progress is already quite astounding, Prince Zuko."

 

" Azula can do it."

 

"Your sister is, ah…" Uncle never seemed to know how to finish sentences about Azula. 

 

" I could do it. When I was running a fever. "

 

"You did have quite exceptional focus at the time."

 

The focus to not have a frog shoved in his mouth . He was never, ever telling Lala that his first non-exploding lightning had involved licking frogs. She would still find out somehow, but he wasn't going to tell her. 

 

"Perhaps there is something on your mind, nephew? Some source of inner conflict?" Uncle was making his patient you can tell me, I have already heard it from Jee anyway face.

 

"No," Zuko said. "There isn't ."

 

Whatever Jee and Teruko thought they saw up in that cave—

 

Well, they were probably completely right.

 

But he wasn't going to talk about it. He couldn't. Because it (maybe) (possibly) (definitely) was treason. And he couldn't bring his crew into that, and he definitely couldn't bring Uncle. Uncle was way older than him, basically ancient, and if he'd wanted to commit treason he'd have found a way long ago, and they'd been on this boat for months now so he'd have told Zuko by now. Instead, he just played pai sho through letters and exchanged tea recipes with other old people at every port and talked about flowers. Which was about as far from treason as someone could get. 

 

Zuko had to decide this on his own, and he couldn't talk it through with Uncle or anyone else because that would be conspiracy to treason. 

 

He rolled back to his feet. "I'm going to try again."

 

"Please don't, sir," Lieutenant Jee said, and tripped over a formerly frozen frog. He almost but didn't quite drop his pipa. 

 

"Don't kick Zhao!" Zuko shouted. 

 

"Sir. Please don't call him that." 

 

"I think it's a her." 

 

"...Sir. Please don't call her that." 

 

Admiral Frog-Zhao continued her lazy hop amidst the music night preparations, coming to a stop next to Lieutenant Frog-Jee where he sat stoically ribbiting next to the rail. Frog cuddles ensued. 

 

"If you didn't want me to name them," Zuko said, "you shouldn't have shoved them in my mouth. " Revenge tasted a lot like defrosted frog.

 

Lieutenant Not-a-Frog Jee closed his eyes very briefly, muttered something that was either a prayer or a smiting request to Agni, and then sat down to tune his instrument.

 

"Frog alert," Teruko said, far too casually. Which was the only warning the rest of the crew had before boots stomped their way up the boarding ramp, and Not-a-Frog Zhao stepped foot on their ship along with a handful of generically masked firebenders for backup. Probably it wasn't a good thing for Zuko to feel smug-pride that Zhao thought he needed backup, but he did anyway.

 

"Ah, Admiral Zhao!" Uncle beamed. "I see you received my invitation to music night."

 

There had definitely not been an invitation to music night. 

 

"What do you want, Zhao?" Zuko asked, letting seed lightning crackle over his fingers, because even if it hurt a little the look on the admiral's face was worth it. Besides, it was the first rule of politics-bending— 'Don't let your opponents know you cannot smite them with lightning.'

 

Zhao narrowed his eyes. And then relaxed. And then smiled . "I'm looking for Pikeman Kazuto."

 

"...Sir?" Kazuto said, pausing his setup of the chairs. 

 

"You'll be pleased to hear that your transfer request has been approved." The smile stretched to frog-mouth proportions. "You'll be stationed on my very own ship. I know it's quite the promotion; you can thank me later. As for the rest of you… report to my staff sergeant for your new assignments. Per the Fire Lord's command, all non-essential personnel are to aid in our assault of the North. And of course, General Iroh, your services as a consultant would be most welcome."

 

...They were assaulting the North?

 

Zhao was stealing his crew?

 

His crew was non-essential?

 

Real lightning crackled around Zuko's hands, and it only hurt a little. "Show me the orders."

 

"Of course, my Prince," Zhao's smile was oily-slick, but his eyes were scared-frog-jumpy. He took elaborate care in pulling a scroll out, trying hard not to look at the blue and white sparks leaping in the hand he would have to set it in. 

 

Zuko scowled up at the admiral, holding his gaze as he let positive and negative chi mix back together. The lightning went back inside him, where it lived now. Zhao set the scroll in his hand.

 

Zuko kept scowling. And kept holding the admiral's gaze. And it was really, really satisfying when he lit the unopened scroll on fire.

 

Ribbit, Lieutenant Frog-Jee said into the silence that followed. 

 

" What ," Not-a-Frog  Zhao croaked. 

 

"If Father wants me to give up my crew and abandon my quest," Zuko said, "he can write to me himself. Until then, I will be continuing to hunt the Avatar at the North Pole."

 

Probably that was a little bit of treason, too. But it felt really good .

 

Zhao stormed off. The crew waited until the admiral and his men were back on the dock before the cheering and the backslapping started and why was everyone touching him

 

Lieutenant Not-a-Frog Jee snapped a series of very serious music night orders, effectively dispersing the crowd. He stood next to Zuko, very carefully observing the preparations. 

 

"...Should I set a course for Northern Omashu, sir?"

 

He said it with no change in expression, and no glances towards his prince. He said it like if Zuko wanted to try an even bigger scoop of treason, Jee would bring him a spoon. 

 

The lieutenant didn't know what he was saying. Princes might… might get locked up or burned more, but common officers got executed

 

"We'll stay in port for another day," Zuko said. "...Lieutenant Jee? Thank you. Umm. You can rename the frogs, if you want."

 

Jee was clearly overwhelmed by this honor. He pinched the bridge of his nose. "...Teruko. Teruko and Zhao."

 

Which was another kind of treason.

 

" Sir! " Teruko snapped. "At least rename the other one, too!"

 

And his crew snapped at each other, and laughed, and did some things with instruments that might technically be classified as music, and Zuko looked into Uncle's eyes and declined the tsungi horn with seed lightning in his hands. And there was treason everywhere , Zuko had leaked it all over them, because they'd all heard Zhao's orders but they were still acting like they would stay with him. They couldn't.

 

He couldn't. 

 

He sat at the bow and dangled his legs over the ocean, and definitely-didn't-listen-to but also didn't run from music night. He stayed there a really long time. 

 

Maybe his crew knew what was coming and just didn't want to talk about it anymore than he did, because there were still people talking and sleepily leaning against each other and half-strumming songs when dawn came.

 

Zuko must have fallen asleep at the rail, because he woke up to a blanket over him and Uncle's hand on his shoulder, and a royal bird perched on Hawker Genji's fist.

 

The scroll had Father's seal, but it wasn't written in Father's hand. Sokka doesn't use scribes when he writes to me, some stupid part of him said. It wasn't a minimal qualification to be a father, but maybe it should be.

 

Zuko swallowed the treason down where it wouldn't show on his face. The crew had assembled, sleepy and somber. He didn't bother reading them the orders, which were the same as Zhao had said and everyone had known they would be. And he didn't thank them, you didn't thank someone for doing their job, that was an insult. Even if he'd wanted to, there weren't any words for a crew that had complained everyday about the cold in the South Pole (but still went) and grumbled about the rust on their stupid little scrapyard-salvage ship (but spent hours trying to polish it out) and kept holding music night against his explicit orders (but always tried to include him). He just… bowed. 

 

Way lower than he should have, but not as low as they deserved.

 

And they bowed back.

 

And that was the end. 

 

It didn't make Zuko's decision for him, because he'd already made it. But it made it… easier. 

 

"It is okay to be upset, nephew," Uncle said, because he didn't understand at all.

 

"I'm not. I'm just…" 

 

He could do lightning now. Right now, if he wanted to. He could feel it, as sure as he felt his inner flame, but cold and sure instead of warm and eager. But he didn't, because he felt like somehow Uncle would see it and know

 

"I'm going to my room."

 

"Zuko…" Uncle's voice was all wrong. Sad and soothing when—when that wasn't what Zuko needed at all.

 

"Can I borrow your good paper?" 

 

"Zuko…?"

 

It was the Seventh of Turtle-Seal Moon, and he was just across the bay from the northernmost town on Blue Orca Harbor, and there was so much he had to get done before he left.

 

"I'm fine, Uncle," Zuko scowled, because it gave away less than if he'd smiled.

 

Treason was a lot of work. He had to get started.

 

%%%

 

There were mutterings along the dock, and in the town. Mutterings that Zhao only half-heard, mutterings that hushed themselves and stared as he went by. Mutterings about princes who'd just had their toys taken away, and the villain of the story who'd done it. 

 

Zhao grit his teeth, and strode into the town's prison. 

 

The iguana-parrot perched over the doorway watched him pass, with a single squawk. 

 

"Admiral—!" the officer on duty hurried to straighten. Zhao waved him off. 

 

"I need a word with the scum I delivered," he said, and continued walking.

 

"Gloating again, sir?"

 

Zhao spared the man a snarl, and kept walking. Down the corridor, down the stairs, down to a row of cells full of flotsam that might yet find a use. 

 

"Gentleman," Zhao said, "I have a proposal."

 

The words may have gotten their attention. Either that, or the key he dangled from his fingers. 

 

There would be a breakout tonight. And perhaps a new tragedy in the prince's little spirit tale to be muttered of in the morning. 

 

Very vengeful people, pirates. 

 

%%%

 

Iroh was growing increasingly alarmed, and he did not know why. Pride in his nephew's dignity would have been the proper reaction: Zhao's men were already on the Wani , already stripping fleet-owned supplies, already leading the komodo-rhinos off. And his nephew was facing these new circumstances with great aplomb. Barely scowling at Zhao's men as they skulked about taking inventory, signing his acknowledgement on the requisition letters as they came. And, apparently, writing letters of recommendation.

 

"Thank you, sir. I… I don't know what to say." Former Helmsman Kyo looked down at the letter in his hands, as he sat in the wheeled chair the doctor had found for him. The Helmsman would not be joining the rest of the crew in their journey north. Nor would he remain in the navy's employ. The Fire Nation… did not have a very good pension, for its injured soldiers. There were decades of them, in far too great of numbers.

 

"I'll write to Colonel Shinu, too," Zuko said. "I can't promise he'll take you, but… he's a good man. He should be able to help you find employment, if you want it. If you're not ready to go back home, yet."

 

"I… yeah." Kyo looked down at the letter, and the legs underneath, covered over in their thick blanket. "Yeah, I'd rather not have my mom see me like this. Not until I've got… well, something . Thank you, sir."

 

"Oh, and… could you take care of Terufrog and Zhao for me?"

 

"I… sure?" Kyo accepted a ribbiting box onto his lap, looking somewhat bemused.

 

The Helmsman was one of the last off the ship. Kazuto and Teruko had waited on him; Kazuto pushed his chair down the boarding ramp. Teruko gave one last bow to her prince, and followed. 

 

It was… very empty, without them. 

 

"I am going for a walk, nephew. Would you care to join me?"

 

"No thanks, Uncle. I have to write to Azula while we still have the hawks. She'd worry if I just stopped replying." 

 

"...I'm sure she would be," Iroh said.  

 

At least the boy would not just be sulking in the dark. 

 

%%%

 

The blasting jelly was where the admiral had said. 

 

Sssh, one pirate said to the other, as a navy man walked by. 

 

Squawk, the parrot said. It fluttered out to land on a shipping crate, it eyes reflecting torchlight as it stared at the man. 

 

Lieutenant Jee paused, and stared back. Slowly, he held out his hand. 

 

The parrot took off in a flash of feathers, and wheeled away. 

 

Must be a different bird, Jee thought, and kept walking.

 

I am going to pluck that bird , the pirate captain thought, and got back to directing his men.

 

%%%

 

To Father: —I am your loyal son, and a loyal son of the Fire Nation. It is in our Nation's best interest not if the Avatar is captured and chained, but for the world to see him side with Sozin's line willingly—  

 

To Azula: Remember you don't have to be perfect, Lala. I'll always be there to make you look good. 

 

Zuko took the letters to Miso and Fire Flake, and stroked their feathers until they went from preening his hair to nipping his fingers. Then he let them fly. Miso was going to Omashu, to let Colonel Shinu know that a very good man formerly under royal service was looking for new employment. That left Fire Flake to carry two scrolls to Caldera. After only a brief hesitation, Zuko addressed the second one: To Fire Lord Ozai, c/o Fire Princess Azula. It wasn't like Father could get more angry with him, and he wanted to make sure Azula really did get her letter.

 

Uncle's letter, he left on the bed.

 

I've had a dragon pox relapse. It's very contagious, so please don't follow me. I don't want you catching it, too. 

 

Zhao's men hadn't confiscated the rickety rowboat he'd taken with Uncle to Kyoshi and Katara to the communications outpost. He didn't even have to climb out a porthole to get to it. 

 

%%%

 

The explosion rocked ships three slips away, and sent flaming shrapnel raining down over the assembled fleet. If Zhao hadn't wanted them to use all the blasting jelly in that hold, perhaps he should have specified. 

 

"That's a job well done, then," the captain said, suddenly feeling as expansively warm and full of good-will-towards-men as the flames. Why, he'd even leave his shoulder parrot unplucked for now, the lucky beast. "Right, then. Who's up for robbing refugees? I hear there's good pickings by Ba Sing Se."

 

It was mostly a rhetorical question. They were, after all, pirates.

 

%%%

 

Sokka didn't fidget so much as express his growing concern through assorted bodily motions . "He's late."

 

"Maybe he's just…" Katara started, but she was fidgeting too. Mostly verbally, but also with the sewing job on his shirt. The fact that she was willingly sewing his shirts for the first time since she'd added 'Prince Zuko can do chores, why can't you' to her arsenal said all that needed to be said.

 

"Well," Aang said. "At least it's not an Avatar trap? Or if it is, he's late for that, too."

 

A few moments of silence passed in the night. 

 

"He's really late," Sokka got the rounds started again.

 

"Maybe…" Katara started.

 

She was interrupted by a bison groan, followed shortly by a lemur chitter. Momo glided down off the saddle edge and landed directly on the head of one very-very-late Fire Prince. Sokka had the urge to scold him or hug him or scolug him—hugold him?—which, in retrospect, was his first taste of parenthood. 

 

Zuko stopped at the edge of the clearing with his arms crossed and his chin high (and a lemur grooming his hair, purring). 

 

"I have decided to accept the advisory position." 

 

Sokka grinned. "Welcome aboard, nephew-son. Nephson? Sonphew?"

 

"Uggh, I'm not . And didn't brother make more sense?"

 

"I told you," Katara chimed in. Because sisters.

 

"Yeah, well. I talked to Bato about how the tribe would feel, and 'brother' is too lukewarm. Got to go all in with enthusiasm or you are definitely disappearing down an ice crevasse."

 

"I'm what? "

 

"So you get your choice of me as dad or Katara as mom. Now I know you're eager to choose, but go ahead and think it over, and just let us know before we get to the North Pole. And not to influence your decision, but I would definitely be a good Crazy Uncle and Katara is already Group Mom, and— Aang you are too young to adopt, lower your hand right now. "

 

"Awwww."

 

"Oh, and Bato's going to pass word on to my dad, so it's pretty much already approved."

 

"Don't I get a say?" the prince scowled. 

 

Sokka grinned, and took his nephson's bag, and tossed it up into the saddle before he could change his mind. "Nope, you're underage."

 

"So are you!"

 

"Am not. I, thank-you-very-much, passed my manhood trials."

 

"When?"

 

"Two weeks ago. So if you round up, nearly a month." Sokka puffed out his chest.

 

"So did I," Aang said.

 

"Yeah, well Bato doesn't always make the best choices in child care. There's a reason he's dad's second, not the other way around. Also, you're not Water Tribe enough."

 

"Well, the Air Nomads could use people more than the Water Tribes—"

 

" We are not comparing genocides again, Aang. "

  

Zuko had a look on his face like he was just realizing what he was getting into. Mom Candidate Katara stealthily hugged it off of him, and somehow got him up into the saddle while she was at it. That ninja training back on Zuko's ship had really paid off. 

 

They had Zuko about four hundred feet up and a few miles north when something in the harbor went boom. Sokka squinted, trying to make out what it was. Beside an impressive pillar of flame that rained little bitty flames down on all the other ships. 

 

"You'd think the Fire Nation would know how to store blasting jelly," he said.

 

"Shut up ," Zuko said. And added, like the adorable product of an expansionist empire he was: "Water Tribe peasant."

 

Sokka slung an arm over his shoulders. "And that is why we needed a Fire Nation advisor. Look at all this positive cultural exchange. Aang, are you looking?"

 

"Yeah," Aang said, totally not looking, because fire was apparently too distracting. "That's nice, Sokka. Is it a sky bison?"

 

"I'm not even holding a carving!" Sokka protested. "And Appa Mark Three is a thing of beauty! Extremely recognizable beauty! On an unrelated note, I'm making you a present."

 

"What." The prince tried to shake his arm off. Sokka refused to be shook. "Can we circle back? I want to see what happened." And maybe jump off while your guard is down, his tone strongly implied.

 

"That's going to be a nope , little buddy. We are not going to casually fly over all those catapults . Besides, we've got to keep to the—"

 

"Say 'schedule' one more time, Sokka. Say it," Katara dared him.

 

Sokka did not dare. He especially did not dare as she scooted closer to them in the saddle, but fortunately she was just tucking herself in to join the hugging at Zuko's other side. They were now a delicious Water Tribe sandwich with a toasty-scowly center and a curled-up lemur garnish. 

 

"I'm so glad you're here," she said. "You made the right choice."

 

Oh, sure. Zuko would lean into her hug, but not his. Momma's boy.

 

"Sometimes fathers need to be disappointed," the prince muttered. 

 

Katara side-hugged Zuko so hard it cut off circulation in Sokka's arm. He allowed this. And stared back at the pretty fire. "Say. Why are there so many ships, anyway?"

 

"Oh. Ah," Zuko said, which was an inauspicious start. And continued on to an inauspicious explanation.

 

"WHAT?" He hadn't factored a friggin' full scale invasion into the schedule. 

 

Aang was already urging Appa to fly faster. The bison might be marginally slower with an extra passenger, but their Fire Nation advisor was already pulling his own weight. 

 

%%%

 

Iroh was the first to the harbor. Jee and the crew were not far behind him. When they heard the explosion— 

 

There were very few ships prone to blasting jelly accidents . It did not take long for each member of the crew to come running (or wheeling) towards what was once their ship's dock.

 

Towards what was once a ship, and once a dock.

 

Armor and boots and shirts were shucked off with haste, and left scattered on the beach. There were still flames on the water, but the crew's benders encouraged them to stay lit, to help light the night. Shivering swimmers were warmed by benders on the shore, then sent back out into the waters. There was very little talking.

 

There was very much shouting.

 

"Prince Zuko!"

 

There was no dock, no ship. No reply.

 

No Zuko.

 

%%% 

 

At dawn, Azula received two letters via the finger-biting menace her brother kept affectionately sending. 

 

Her letter alarmed her.

 

The one sent via her care… that, she stared at and stared and realized for the first time in her life that she did not know what to do.

 

She could give it to father.

 

She could burn it.

 

Or she could write her idiot brother back right now — 

 

Whatever you are doing Dum-Dum, stop it, that is an order from your Crown Princess and future Fire Lord and sister— 

 

%%%

 

At dawn, Iroh went to see Zhao.

 

"I have decided to take you up on your offer," the retired general said. "You have probably heard, but my nephew…"

 

"Yes," Zhao said, standing on the far side of the room, his guards causally positioned between them. "Such a tragedy."

 

"So you see," Iroh said, taking but a humble step closer (four guards for one meeting between allies, how very unseemly), "I find myself at a loose end. I will accompany you, Zhao, and perhaps help to turn my grief to the service of our nation."

 

"Perhaps it would be healthier," Zhao said, "for both of us, if you were to vent your grief in a different direction."

 

Iroh narrowed his eyes. Another step closer to the dear admiral. His guards twitched. "What do you mean?"

 

The guards acted. The Dragon of the West had been more ready then they, but there were yet more guards waiting outside the door, and his fight was not with these men but the smiling puddle of filth who was looking stunned , then speculative , then gleeful.

 

"Why, General Iroh. Whatever happened to your hands?"

 

If he could only kill Zhao before he was brought down—

 

But he had failed at Ba Sing Se and failed at a fire-lit harbor, and here he failed, too. Iroh would always fail his sons. 

 

"Don't worry," Zhao said, placing a hand on his shoulder only after the soldiers—such that remained, such as were not so much flesh that had stood between him and his target—had restrained him. Had forced him, kneeling, to the floor. "I'm sure your brother will be sympathetic to your plight. He just lost a son, too."

 

Once more the dragon roared.

 

Zhao left him for his soldiers to handle. 

 

By noon, a small ship broke off from the main fleet flying the royal flag. At half-mast, of course: one musn't be tacky. Prince Iroh was going home.

 

Admiral Zhao was going North.

 

%%%

 

Azula didn't get a reply. Zuzu said he wouldn't be able to reply anymore but she'd sent him back his vicious hawk, he had no excuse to ignore her like this, the audacity of him, if she was Fire Lord she'd unbanish him just so she could re -banish him, why wasn't he writing back?

 

"Princess Azula?" a servant bowed low but not low enough, how dare he interrupt her, he should bow so low the catterworms felt honored. Azula scowled down at the man with fire on her hands. "The—the Fire Lord requests your presence—" 

 

Azula's hand flew to her sleeve, where two scrolls rested, hidden. Two, not one, father hadn't somehow gotten the other, hadn't read Zuzu's treason yet. (She should show him.) (She should burn it.)

 

Father waited for her behind his curtain of flames. She bowed to the ground. 

 

"Rise," he said, and she did. He dropped the theatrics, and lowered the flames. She could see his face; see the scroll by his side, and the subtle smirk on his face. "There has been terrible news, my child. My only child."

 

Two scrolls up her sleeve. Father hadn't needed Zuzu's treason to wish him dead.

 

To get his wish.

 

Zuzu was...

 

"That is terrible indeed, Father. Shall I get fitted for clothes of mourning? I do look quite good in white."

 

"So you do," Father smirked, and Azula smirked back.

 

Two scrolls up her sleeve, as light and meaningless as a child's ghost. 

 

Remember you don't have to be perfect, Lala. I'll always be there to make you look good. 

 

And people called her the liar.

 

%%%

 

"What is that?" She-who-rationed-the-food asked, squinting over the glaciers. 

 

The lemur uncurled slightly from its warm-roost-that-shouts-lots, and followed its flight-mate's gaze towards Something! What Is! 

 

The lemur went very very still. And then it launched itself from its boy-tree's head, screeching a call to mob the bad-predator-danger. 

 

Like always, its flockmates ignored the call and huddled under the lemur's protection like flightless fall-from-nests. 

 

Fierce! Foe! Hawk! rose and dove and clawed, but the lemur was swift-strong-protector and the hawk was wind-weak and shivering— 

 

(—And so was the lemur—)

 

And so they both shrieked and clawed and dove, and ended up perched shiver-panting on opposite shoulders of the lemur's personal fire-boy-tree-who-smelled-like- this -hawk. 

 

"Fire Flake?" boy-tree scowled. "Why did she send you back?"

 

"What's up, nephson?"

 

" I am not your nephson, that is not even a word . And it's just Azula, I think she's worried."

 

"That's… a lot of threats for someone who's worried," she-who-rationed-the-food said.

 

"It's Azula ." Fire-boy-tree was unbuttoning his outer fur as he chittered, and he lifted the hawk off his shoulder—

 

Even the trees rejected hawks! Lemur triumph!

 

—and tucked it into his warm new trunk-nest .

 

...The lemur sulked, chittering, back to its head-roost.

 

The hawk shivered and preened and shivered and smugged .

 

Chitter, the lemur chittered.

 

Shriek , the hawk shrieked.

 

"...Oww, that was right next to my ear. Ugh, I can't send Fire Flake back—it's way too cold for her to fly, how did she even make it here."

 

"Well, your sister will just have to wait," said the god-challenging stomach-on-legs.

 

"I guess. I hope she isn't mad. ...Or Uncle."

%%%

 

Or Father, no one in the saddle said, but everyone heard.

 

"Everything's going to be okay, nephson." Sokka slung an arm over his shoulders. Again . It was some obsession of the peasant's, comparable to the lemur's desire to always be on his head . And now he had a hawk down his robe, so great. The Northern Water Tribe was going to take his royal status really seriously with lemurs and birds and peasants draped all over him.

 

Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose, and briefly considered kicking Sokka out of the saddle. But it would disturb Fire Flake and Momo, and the stupid Avatar would probably insist on catching him, contrary to his Fire Nation Advisor's clear recommendations. 

 

"Could you at least call me nephew ? 'Nephson' is stupid ."

 

"Aww, look at you, surrendering to the inevitable. You've got it, nephew."

 

Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose harder . Treason was a lot more aggravating than he'd planned on. And uncles, apparently, were just as embarrassing in any nation.

Chapter Text

"We need to figure out titles before we get there," snapped the world's grumpiest sleeping bag. "And for the last time, you are not my father ." 

 

Sokka was trying very hard to listen and take his nephson's concerns seriously, but. But he was just so grumpy . And completely sleeping-bag-wrapped, like a big blue caterpillar-turtle with lemur ears on top. Zuko, his brilliant little fire-child, had forgotten to pack his arctic coat when he’d gone a-treasonin’. Sorry: when he’d joined Team Avatar as an advisor.

 

"I have previously established my favorable views on being your Crazy Uncle," Sokka said, resisting the urge to poke at all that grump, just to see if it would grumble-ooze out its seams. Resist, resist. "So we'll just introduce Katara as your mom—" 

 

"The waterbender is not my mother!" the little rage-ball fumed. Literally. Steam rose out of the sleeping bag's top. Momo purred, his ears relaxing in the kind of contentment that honestly made Sokka a little bit jealous. The lemur and the hawk had their own personal prince-sauna, while the rest of them just had Appa's breezy backside. 

 

"Young man," Sokka said, "that is no way to address your mother."

 

"I am loyal to my father and I had the best mom and neither of you are either of them."

 

"And the Northern Tribe probably has a lot of ice flows where a non-tribe firebender could sleep with the turtle-seals . Com'on, just pick: dad or mom. Like you said, we'd better get this sorted before we get there."

 

The steam continued. Sokka was getting tempted to hold his hands over it, just for a wee bit of mitten-warming, when his nephson stuck his head out just far enough to make proper glare-y eyes. A suddenly exposed Momo chittered reproachfully and dove down the back of Zuko's collar, leaving only fantastically mused hair-spikes and a firebender who was already starting to shiver without his self-heating lemur-hat. 

 

"You're not my parents," the prince said. And pulled the sleeping bag back up over his head, leaving only his golden eyes exposed. He mumbled something into the fabric over his mouth. 

 

"That started with a 'but'," Sokka prompted. 

 

"...But Fire Lord Azulon ordered my death so if Hakoda wants to be my new grandfather—GET OFF!"

 

"The rules have been clearly established," Sokka said, keeping his arms wraped firmly around the squirming bundle. "Every time you casually say something mind-bogglingly traumatic , you get a hug."

 

"How am I supposed to know what's traumatic!" 

 

This was a frustrated exclamation more than a question, but nevertheless, Sokka answered it. With more hugs. And the gleeful realization that his nephson was far too bundled up to elbow him properly, and valued his sleeping-bag-cloak too much to burn himself free. In both his capacity as Dad and as Crazy Uncle, Sokka had no qualms with exploiting this weakness.

 

"Ssh, go ahead, get all your ineffectual struggles out. But remember: I can and will upgrade this to a group hug."

 

The Fire Prince went limp as a scruffed bear-pup. "I hate you," he muttered. "So much."

 

Parenting, Sokka had determined over the last few days of endless ocean , was really just one long string of threats. And making good on those threats. And occasionally having his clothes lit on fire around the edges. 

 

He was pretty sure he was doing it right.

 

"Zuko," Katara said, scooting closer. Making herself hug-adjacent, thus indicating her status as hug-available without trespassing into his anti-hug-grump-zone. "Did your grandfather really…?"

 

"Where is this stupid city, anyway?" the firebender huffed. "Appa can barely stay in the air and we've been flying forever and if I'd known you were this bad at navigating I would have had Lieutenant Jee plot a course before I left."

 

Sokka was pretty sure he was getting pecked through the sleeping bag. Hawky, he had noted early and often, appreciated hugs even less than her human heat-pack. Just one more squeeze—

 

" Stop it! "

 

—And he let go. "You know what would have been even more useful than a map, nephson?"

 

"If you say 'a coat' I will burn yours ." 

 

Sokka simply grinned, content that his message had gotten through. Also because Zuko had proven capable of making good on his own threats, and establishing healthy parent-child boundaries based on mutual physical retaliation was important.

 

He was definitely doing this right.

 

"I think you are stressing too much about this title thing," Sokka said. "I mean, Water Tribe . We don't do that. Plus, we've got this whole 'the Avatar has returned' news, plus plus, oh yeah, 'and there's a huge invasion fleet assembling just south of here'. Pretty sure titles are going to be the last thing on anyone's mind."

 

The sleeping bag huffed dramatically enough that it both chittered and squawked. "You don't know anything about courts. Unless you're important enough, no one cares . They'll hear your news and then they'll stick you in the turtleduck garden and pretend you don't exist while more important people make all the decisi— go away! "

 

"That was a little too specific to not be based on trauma," Sokka said, with all due pre-threatened hugging. Since it was only a little trauma, he made it a quick hug.

 

"Do you really think the Northern Water Tribe will be like that?" Aang called back, from Appa's head. "The Southern isn't."

 

"In the South, the Chief's son and daughter let people call them peasant ," Zuko said, like all that peasant-calling hadn't originated solely from him. "If I'm even going to pretend to be related to you people, you need to act more dignified. If we can find this stupid city before the next solar eclipse, they'll have weeks and weeks to prepare. It takes forever to organize major assaults, and to gather all the ships and supplies, and Zhao only just started, plus it would be really stupid to do this so close to winter when they could wait for summer, the only thing worse would be timing it for a full moon. It would be really stupid to attack now."

 

"Stupid," Sokka said. "You mean like Zhao?"

 

His nephson haughtily re-adjusted his sleeping bag in clear acceptance of Sokka's accurate character assessment. "My point is, the invasion is urgent but not urgent enough that they have to listen to a bunch of kids. Not unless we can make them take us seriously. This isn't some scattered chiefdom like the South, the tribes are united, and Arnook might still call himself ‘chief’ but he calls his daughter ‘princess’. He’s their Fire Lord. ...Their Water Lord? That sounds so stupid, no wonder they kept 'chief'—"

 

"Okay, first," Sokka interrupted, "you really need to stop with the casual cultural disparagement before we get there. Ice flows, ice crevasses, icebergs. Lots of icy places to disappear , only three of us to protect you." 

 

Appa groaned. 

 

"Four of us," he corrected, and ignored any chittering because lemurs were hardly effective personal protection and really, what had Momo ever done for this team except get Sokka blamed for the glue incident? "Also: seriously? They have a princess?"

 

"Why do I know more about your sister tribe than you!" 

 

A literal century of cultural isolation thanks to your grandpappies , Sokka did not say. Because he was also working on his casual disparagement. And his nephson was a blameless little incendiary butterfly-moth. 

 

"So I'm Princess Katara?" his sister smirked. 

 

" Yes ," Zuko clearly tried to throw his hands up in exasperation, but only succeeded in making himself a hilariously flailing sleeping bag rectangle with bonus sounds of irritated wing-flaps. " This is why we need to figure out titles! You might be stupid peasants that live in unsanitary ice huts at the bottom of the world—"

 

"Oh we are not having the sewer discussion again—" Katara said, giving Sokka yet another tiny piece of her week-on-Zuko's-ship puzzle.

 

"—But we can make you sound really important. All of us sound really important. We have the Avatar and a princess and two princes. And if we're really important representatives of our nations , then they can't afford to offend us by leaving us out of th-their war councils… and..."

 

Sokka had no idea why war councils made his little buddy's throat close up. But he did know when it was time for more hugs. Zuko barely even tried to squirm out of this one. 

 

"You're right," Sokka said, "this title thing sounds really important. Thanks, Fire Nation Advisor." 

 

Zuko nodded tersely. And relaxed in his arms, just a little. Sokka absolutely did not make any comparisons to turtle-seals peeking out of their shells, except in the warm-fuzzy-feelings comfort of his own mind.

 

"What do you know about the Northern Tribe?" Zuko asked, eventually. "My tutors didn't talk about it much, because it doesn't import or export and there's not really anything there we'd want and they haven't done more than scout a little too close to our waters in eighty years."

 

"Well," Katara said, "Gran-Gran ran away from them, but she never really wanted to talk about it."

 

Which… yeah. Was pretty accurate. But now Zuko and Aang and Momo were peeking over and/or out to stare at Katara and him, and Sokka was struck by something that would maybe have been obvious if he hadn't grown up with it.

 

"That's probably a bad sign, huh?" he asked.

 

Which was when they were attacked by more waterbenders in one boat than there were men under seventy in Sokka's entire village. 

 

And that was just the one boat.

 

%%%

 

One of the scout ships had returned a full week early, they reported to Chief Arnook. 

 

They had found the Avatar, they reported; or rather, the Avatar had found them.

 

The Avatar was twelve, and traveling in the company of three similarly aged children. The eldest two were the heirs of his Southern counterpart, Chief Hakoda. The third was, very loudly, claiming to be the offspring of his Western counterpart, Fire Lord Ozai.

 

The Fire Prince was also twelve, and had offered informal proof of his claim by lighting one of the scout's parkas on fire. 

 

This was after they had tried to drown him for responding to their ice-attacks on the… the flying bison with firebending, but before Chief Hakoda's son had given another scout a concussion with his boomerang, and Chief Hakoda's daughter had proven to be not just a waterbender, but one that was unfamiliar with her proper role as a non-combatant healer. When her bending had proven too weak to compare to a true warrior’s, she had pulled a knife on an unnamed member of the scouting party until the others had dragged the firebender into a boat and agreed to let Chief Arnook judge him, rather than the ocean. It was reported to be a very gaudy knife, though Arnook failed to see the relevance of that detail, and did not appreciate the vehemence with which it was delivered. He kept his own face impassive, as a subtle reminder of how a real man gave and received news.

 

The scout leader reporting all this was, on the whole, soggier than Arnook was used to his scouts being. The man kept rubbing at his throat. And… were those claw marks on his face, or peck marks?

 

...Both?

 

The Avatar himself had, reportedly, laughed nervously. And held off the rest of the scout ships with some manner of wind-and-water cyclone, and preemptive apologies for any property damage that might result in them getting too close, really he would be so sorry so could they all please just keep their distance, thanks. 

 

"Gather the council. We will see what the Avatar and his companions have to say," Chief Arnook ordered, because there were very few other options, and have a headache was not mutually exclusive with meeting its cause. 

 

%%%

 

Zuko wasn't as cold as Katara and Sokka seemed to think he was. He was dripping a lot, and Sokka's sleeping bag was at the bottom of the northern ocean by now, but he had his breath of fire and he should be able to keep it up until they got somewhere warmer. Somewhere that wasn't the middle of an ice-street in an ice-city surrounded by ice-houses. They weren't ice on the inside too, were they? But he'd be fine even if they were, because… because breath of fire. He wasn't cold at all. Uncle had always known he'd fall into polar waters sooner or later, and Zuko maybe owed him an apology for how much he'd shouted that he wouldn't . To be fair, Uncle always made it sound like when it happened, it would be his own fault. 

 

The scowling Water Tribe warriors flanking him were definitely not his fault. 

 

"Stop that," one of them growled.

 

"Get my hawk a towel," Zuko countered. When no towel was forthcoming, he took in an even deeper breath through his nose and blew out a lick of flame over his tongue. Fire Flake appreciatively huddled against his warm back, perching on his tied hands. Tied with rope, ha . If it wasn't such a good hawk perch he would burn right through. Could burn right through. Definitely wasn't shivering hard enough that maybe it wasn't a good idea to try doing any close-to-his-skin burning-right-through.

 

"Listen, you," Sokka said, poking the leader of their escorts in the chest. "You… you gigantic man-bear you , either you need to tell your people to stop freaking out every time they see sparks and let my son firebend himself dry, or you need to get him some new clothes. Are we clear?"

 

Chitter , Momo added angrily, his head peeking out of Sokka's half-buttoned coat. 

 

Zuko really wanted to protest the 'son' part of that, but even if his teeth definitely weren't chattering too much for casual conversation, it was important that they present a united front. Which was exactly why they should have worked out all their titles ahead of time.

 

Katara and Aang were a few yards away, riding on Appa's back as he swum through a canal. Zuko wondered how deep down those canals went, but also decided that for right now he'd rather walk as close to the buildings as his guards would let him and not try to investigate that. Aang was on the bison so Appa wouldn't try to eat another boat's cargo of sea-lettuce. Katara was on the bison so she was only in eye-stabbing range of the warriors, not literal stabbing range. They'd… made some comments. About girls, and fighting.

 

She rolled her pirate-knife over her knuckles in a way that Engineer Hanako had definitely taught her, it was too terrifying to have come from anywhere else, and watched the warriors surrounding Zuko and Sokka. The warriors refrained from looking back.

 

"Stop that , " Zuko's guard snapped again.

 

"Sorry," Zuko said, steaming slightly in a way that made Fire Flake coo. "I guess it's just my natural evil venting."

 

They'd made some comments about firebenders, too.

 

"Nephson," Sokka said, "please stop deliberately antagonizing the nice men who tried to drown you." He jerked his head towards the canal, like he somehow expected Zuko to have forgotten all that depthless water that was one hard shove away. 

 

Zuko took in a breath, and let it out, and could almost feel his fingers again. "I can hold my breath a lot longer than it takes for Aang and Katara to pull me out."

 

"That. Is not the point. The almost dying is the point."

 

"I almost die all the time," Zuko rolled his eyes, "it's not that big of a— don't you dare—"  

 

"Excuse me," Sokka elbowed his way past Zuko's guards. And hugged him . In front of their escort, and everyone, and why did it feel like the whole city was watching. "There there, little buddy. There—whoa."

 

Zuko followed his gaze to the gondola floating past, and the really-awesome was-that-even-real completely-white-haired but-not-super-old girl in it, and took this as an opportunity to headbutt his distracted hugger. He would have elbowed him, but Fire Flake seemed really comfy back there. "Don't check out girls while you're hugging me!"

 

"Don't worry, nephson, no woman will ever come between us." But his eyes were still following the stupid girl. Zuko ground his heel into Sokka's boot, and stomped onwards. It was super easy to see where they were going, there was a giant snow palace

 

His guards hurried to follow, looking progressively more lost the longer they let their captives talk. 

 

%%%

 

The councilors came, with varying degrees of confusion that told the chief exactly who among the noble houses had their own access to unreleased information. Master Pakku was the last to arrive, and took his place at Arnook's right with a simple stoic nod that did not admit to knowing anything, while implying he knew everything. 

 

"Send them in," Arnook said, with a nod to one of his guards, who opened the door to the meeting hall with a bow.

 

Ice was an excellent sound-proofing material. Open doors, less so.

 

"I am not wearing your stupid over-sized coat to a formal meeting!" shouted a shivering boy. His thin clothes clung to his skin, their red so deep it gave the illusion of blood; the fact that it was dripping made the sight even more disconcerting.

 

"You're not catching pneumonia either, mister!" a scrawny teenager in appropriately practical layers of blue shouted back. "And I really don't think they'll appreciate you breathing fire in front of their chief!"

 

"Uh, hi?" A small bald child waved at the council. "Guys, I think they're ready for us."

 

"I'm going to light your coat on fire," the Fire Nation boy said. The hawk perched behind him on his bound arms leaned around his side, and screeched in apparent support.

 

The lemur down the front of the Water Tribe teen's coat chittered back, as the teen poked the younger boy in the chest. "Young man, in this family we don't use our threats, we use our words. We talk things through, and then we decide that the adults were right all along."

 

"I'll be sure to listen if I find one."

 

" Zuko ," the only girl among their number hissed. " Sokka. " She grabbed a shoulder each, and turned them towards the open door. 

 

There was, Chief Arnook noted, an extremely gaudy dagger tucked in her boot.

 

It was almost as distracting as the boy's face . Arnook did not gasp, as some of the other councilmen did, but he felt a brief flash of unease for such a terrible wound on such a young child. He'd seen worse burns, but only on the oldest of the tribe's veterans. The boy straightened haughtily under the council's scrutiny, and glared

 

It was a timely reminder of who and what they were dealing with. If Ozai's spawn was that much of a fire hazard to himself, Arnook held little hope for what he would do within their city.  

 

"I am Chief Arnook," he announced, cutting short the murmurs of the council. He let the silence grow, providing no direction to these children; how a person reacted to silence was telling.

 

The Water Tribe siblings glanced at each other. The boy with the airbender tattoos—the Avatar, he presumed—was looking all around the chamber with curious eyes. The young firebender stood as still as his shivering allowed, head imperiously high, as if perfectly used to the stares of a room full of adults. He would be. 

 

"Is this the part where we introduce ourselves?" the Avatar stage-whispered to his companions.

 

They all, Arnook noted, looked to the Fire Prince.

 

%%%

 

There was supposed to be a court crier, what kind of backwards barbarians expected people to introduce themselves . But no one had taken their full names before they'd come in, and now Aang and Sokka and Katara were all looking at him like he should know what was going on , and the first rule of court life was to always act like he did because if he got it right than everything was okay and if he got it wrong than Azula would laugh at him later but if he asked then everyone knew he was stupid .

 

So he nodded tightly to Aang.

 

"Hello your Chiefliness," the monk said, with a really dramatic bow, what was he doing, if that was his idea of a court bow Zuko was going to kick him later. "I'm Avatar Aang."

 

"Princess Katara, daughter of Kya and Chief Hakoda. Waterbending master in training." At least she didn't do anything stupid, even if crossing her arms was maybe a little more stand-offish than necessary. She definitely wasn't his mom but she could maybe be his aunt if she kept being the only one to not embarrass him . Because he knew he was going to get embarrassed, Sokka was grinning before he even started — 

 

"Prince Sokka, son of Kya and Chief Hakoda, Tactical Advisor to the Avatar, Navigation and Evasive Maneuvers Specialist—" 

 

Zuko had never taught the stupid functionally-a-peasant the difference between written titles and what people actually said when they had to introduce themselves. So a part of this was his fault. But an even bigger part was Sokka's own fault, because he kept grinning and not looking at Zuko which meant he definitely knew what he was doing— 

 

"Scientifically Minded Traveler of the Spirit World, Flaunter of the Western Blockade, Incidental Destroyer of Fire Nation Cultural Heritage Sites, Occasional Knight-Champion of Earthbendia, Father of—" 

 

No no no — 

 

"Prince Zuko," Zuko interrupted. "Son of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai. ...Grandson of Chief Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe."

 

He felt way too warm . It had nothing to do with either his bending or any pending hypothermia. He let out a breath, and hope-wish-prayed he wasn't as red as he felt.

 

%%%

 

The grandson of Fire Lord Azulon and Chief Hakoda blew out a flame, as if to prove a point. 

 

It struck Chief Arnook that, perhaps, they should have maintained closer ties with their Southern sisters. And closer communications with the world in general. Isolationism was all well and good until there were royal firebenders in the Water Tribe.

 

Chapter Text

Yue saw their guests from her gondola. Her Tribe had never had guests. Not like these, dressed in yellows and reds and shades of blue out of fashion with her own people, subtle differences in cut and style and material that drew the eye. The boy and girl, so close to her own age, looked like something out of one of her scrolls. Southern Water Tribe. And those tattoos on the child who was steering that giant animal through the canals—a master airbender, and at his age! 

 

The other child came from quite a different sort of scroll. Fire Nation . The red wrapping his body was an alarm; fresh-spilled blood, butchered animals, a color one should not have on their person in such a quantity unless something was very, very wrong. A color no one in her Tribe would wear, not willingly. They didn't even have the dyes to make it, and hadn't for decades. He was young, but she could see the tongues of fire crossing his lips even from here, and— 

 

And it should have been just as instinctively repulsive as the red, but that part of her that was more felt

 

( Agni's flames, brother, opposite-balance, the light that lets us shine )

 

a certain kinship. She had these feelings, sometimes. She'd stopped talking about them long ago—father had always looked worried and mother had looked at her like she was something distant , something more than what her parents had made. Yue had stopped talking about the feelings, but she still trusted them, every bit as much as when she was five and her nursemaid had pulled her away from stepping into the sea ( you'll drown dear, you'll drown.)

 

(She wouldn't have. The sea would have held her, though she did not know then and dared not test now whether it would hold her up, or hold her forever.) 

 

Even before her Southern kin embraced Agni's little cousin, Princess Yue had gotten over the startle of so much red and was looking at the child underneath. The shivering child. 

 

"Why doesn't he have a coat?" she asked.

 

"I wouldn't know, Princess," her gondolier replied, with his usual disinterest.

 

The teen and the child were both looking at her, now. With very different expressions. She let her own gaze linger only a moment; then she turned away.

 

"Take me back to the palace, please." 

 

The man inclined his head, and steered them towards a side canal. 

 

%%%

 

Chief Arnook was breaking them up to speak with one-by-one, as if things would make more sense to him if he had them explain it individually. Aang wasn't entirely certain that was going to work, but he was up first! He figured he'd just go along with it while Katara and Sokka figured out how to bully the guards into getting Zuko a coat. Aang himself did not approve of bullying for worldly gain, only for awesome animal rides, but the Southern Water Tribe seemed okay with it and he had to respect their culture. Especially when it helped his new advisor-who'd-been-very-clear-he-wasn't-Aang's-friend.

 

"Yep!" Aang answered the council's latest question, bouncing on his heels. They were finally here and soon he and Katara would get to learn waterbending from a real master and it was so great.  

 

"So that.. boy really is the prince."

 

"Yep!"

 

"Fire Lord Ozai's heir."

 

"Uh-huh!" Aang was starting to wonder how many ways the councilmen had to ask that question. He wanted to make a bet with Sokka, but Sokka wasn't in the room. Just him, and a bunch of frowny-faced gray-haired old men who probably hadn't been penguin sledding in decades .

 

Wait, did they even have penguin-otters at the North Pole? He could never remember which pole was full of penguins and which was full of man-eating polar-bear-geese.

 

...The South had definitely been full of penguins, though. So.

 

Oh oops they were still talking.

 

"Sorry!" he rubbed the back of his head. "What was that last question?"

 

The Chief sighed. "Where have you been, Avatar? We… have been expecting your birth for some time. Are you truly an airbender? How did your people survive the genocide? How did the cycle return to air again with no one discovering your other incarnations…?" 

 

Oh. That was… less easy, as questions went. Aang felt his heels come back to the ground. 

 

"It… it didn't. I messed up, a hundred years ago. And when I woke up it was now , and… and—" And he hadn't even known there was going to be a war, but there had been and everyone had died , and Katara said he probably couldn't have stopped it even if he was there. Sokka said so too, but he'd thought it over a lot more first, which… had made Aang feel better. Your Avatar state lasts, what, a few minutes? You could have killed a lot of them, Aang, but you wouldn't have gotten them all. And then you'd have passed out at their feet, and woken up Water Tribe. Not to mention that you're not big on the killing thing to begin with, and I don't think active genocide has a quick peaceful solution. So stop beating yourself up over it, and let Katara hug the bad feelings away.

 

He lifted his chin. "I won't mess up again. There's something you need to know. Something Zuko told us."

 

Avatar Aang stopped taking questions on whether Zuko was really-for-real the Fire Prince, and started telling them about the invasion fleet. 

 

%%%

 

The sun child was still shivering when he came out of the council chamber. Of course he was; men

 

"Welcome to the Northern Water Tribe," Yue curtseyed, low enough for greeting fellow royalty; a gesture she'd never had to make in her life, but which the whispers in the palace told her was appropriate with this group. "I am Princess Yue. Please, come this way."

 

The prince and princess of the Southern Water Tribe exchanged looks over their ward's head. Yue simply smiled, and gestured them on.

 

The room was near. It was a simple waiting room, with a simple fire and a simple spread of refreshments, and a pile of clothing waiting on one couch.

 

"You may change in the room through that door," she said. "Please, let me know if anything is a poor fit, or not warm enough."

 

The prince and princess exchanged another look. A much more complimentary one. The firechild took a step towards the clothes, and then… stopped.

 

"Is there something wrong?" Yue asked.

 

"Uh." He shifted his arms, which he'd been holding behind his back, forming a perch for a very cold-looking hawk. A perch on his bound hands .

 

(Sometimes, Yue wanted to scream at her father and never stop.)

 

(These weren't thoughts befitting of a princess.)

 

The prince and princess exchanged another look. And a look at the guards, who had followed them from the council chambers and taken up a position inside the door. Yue did not frown at the men: years of practice kept her face perfectly placid. Nevertheless, they shifted a little guiltily under her gaze.

 

(She did not order them out. Could not, if it meant countermanding her father's own orders. That was not a thing she could or should do.)

 

"This is getting ridiculous," the Southern princess said. And drew a dagger from her boot . It was a very… unique dagger. She shooed the hawk to a perch on her brother's shoulder (the lemur in his coat chittered angrily), and cut through the boy's ropes. "There. Go get changed, Zuko. I'm sure no one will mind." She turned her gaze on the guards again. And paused a very long moment before putting her dagger away.

 

( It sparkled and shone like moonlight on frosted waves, pretty and cutting )

 

When the Fire Prince came back, he was wrapped up in the thickest white parka she could find on short notice. It was a little large, but not by much. The pants also fit reasonably well, and so did the boots, and he was wrapping the scarf around his neck even as he came out. He was bundled up for a blizzard while standing in one of the warmest rooms they had, but at least there was color returning to his cheeks. He hadn't pulled his hood up. A moment later, she found out why: the lemur flew to the top of his head, turned around twice, and settled down. Then he pulled it up.

 

Should she tell him about the tail sticking out the side? His companions weren't. 

 

"It's not blue," he observed.

 

"Blue didn't seem to be your color," she smiled.

 

He narrowed his good eye almost suspiciously , though she wasn't sure what she had done to warrant it. He bowed, at a different angle and with different placement of his hands than any she'd ever seen, but with considerable polish. "Thank you."

 

"Meat," the Southern Prince said, finally noticing the refreshment table. "Meat and meat and meat wrapped in meat, fatty meat and thin-sliced meat and meat-rolls—"

 

"Aang isn't going to like that," the Southern Princess said.

 

"I'll just have to eat it all before he sees." He grinned—it was a wide grin, perhaps too wide, like a child down at market instead of a nearly grown young man at court. He turned it on Yue. "You are my meat benefactress?"

 

"I am," she allowed, with one eyebrow raised.

 

" Marry me, " he gushed.

 

The Fire Prince choked. 

 

Yue flushed. 

 

So did her spontaneous courter. "I mean—uh, that was a joke!" He waved his hands. "Not that I wouldn't. Marry you. You're really—hey have you met my son? I mean he's not really my son he's—he's adopted! I don't have other girls. On the side. Producing sons. Haha, that would be—OWW!"

 

The child bowed again, lower this time, after extracting his elbow from his father's side. "Please forgive Prince Sokka; the Southern Court is... quaint . I am Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation. ...And the Southern Water Tribe. By adoption. I do not share blood with him.

 

Yue curtsied back, and they both ignored the still-spluttering teenager next to him with the art of true royalty. "A pleasure. What brings you so far north?"

 

"Princess Katara and Avatar Aang require waterbending instructors." There was something very stiff in how he talked and held himself, like he was somehow afraid of screwing up simple smalltalk.

 

"Yes! That is Princess Katara. My sister. And I'm Prince Sokka. Son of the Chief. Which makes me a prince," said a teenager who was very much unafraid of screwing up. 

 

Yue hid a smile behind her hand. "Really, a prince? How impressive."

 

Prince Zuko was shaking his head, his eyes widening. Princess Katara was slapping a hand to her forehead. And Prince Sokka was puffing out his chest.

 

"So you like titles, do you? Princess Yue, have I got some titles for you—"

 

The young airbender—the Avatar—

 

( So young again, soon to be old again, a waxing and waning )

 

—peeked his head into the room. "Oh, here you are! The Chief said it's Sokka's turn."

 

" Aang . Timing."

 

"Huh?"

 

"...Nevermind. Princess Yue," Prince Sokka swept into a bow that was far too low, "I'll have to regale you later. So just. Hold that thought."

 

She wasn't sure if the elaborate wink as he sauntered from the room made him more or less charming.

 

The way he ran into the doorframe while staring back at her, though—

 

"...Oww. I'm fine, I'm okay, I meant to do that. Just, ah. Testing your structural stability. Good. Good stability."

 

She giggled. It was a startlingly uncourtly sound.

 

( Push and pull, refinement and… not. )

 

%%%

 

Chief Arnook had no sons himself; only one daughter. Daughters were easier. More obedient. 

 

"To summarize," Master Pakku said. "The Avatar inflicted repeated head injuries upon Prince Zuko while you engaged in a dedicated campaign of psychological manipulation and near-constant physical assaults to break his spirit."

 

"I mean, if that's what you want to call hugs …" The teen raised an eyebrow at Master Pakku. Master Pakku arched a brow back. The teen shrugged, and casually tilted his head out of the way of his shoulder-hawk's retaliatory beak-snap. "Then yeah, that's a fairly accurate assessment of the situation. Don't forget the part where he deserves way better than his world-burning child-abusing bio-dad." He spread his arms. "Listen, I know the whole 'firebender' thing is super off-putting—I tried to spear him when I first met him, too, it's a completely natural reaction!—but I'm just going to remind you of a few salient points: he's twelve, he's on our side, he's the one that told us about the invasion fleet, he still has lots of information about the fleet that he's willing to tell us as long as no one points out we're interrogating him, he's twelve , and if he disappears while we're up here you're going to learn that it doesn't take a firebender to light this place on fire."

 

"Are you threatening us, young man?" another councilor asked.

 

"Nope," Hakoda's son said, popping the 'p'. "Just pointing out casual facts, to my Sister Tribe's honored elders, just in case they looked at a member of the Southern Water Tribe, grandson of our Chief, and got any ideas about what to do with my son. Did I mention he's twelve? And your people dropped him straight into polar water?"

 

"I'm sure they checked his age before doing so," Master Pakku drawled. "Remind me, was that before or after he tried lighting our scouts on fire?"

 

"It was one parka ," the teenager said. The hawk on his shoulder squawked with equal indignation.

 

Arnook let Pakku wrangle the boy. For now, he just… observed. Prince Sokka was no older than his own daughter, perhaps even younger, but it was not so hard to picture him leading his people a decade or two from now with some nameless young wife by his side. Or perhaps his uncouth sister, with her knife. 

 

It was only possible to picture his own fragile, demure Yue as some man's nameless wife.

 

Hakoda's heir was appallingly uncultured. Almost as barbaric as the other nations made all Water Tribesmen out to be, and apparently flaunting of the fact. But the Northern Tribe, for all its greatness, had very few young men who dared half so much in their lives as Hakoda's son did in this single conversation. He spoke to them as their equal, and Arnook's councillors spoke back. They did not even seem to realize they were doing it.

 

Chief Arnook loved his daughter with all his heart, but he could not help wondering what it would have been like to have a son. 

 

"Oh I'm sorry, did you think I was joking about the Fire Nation cultural heritage destruction? Where have you guys been, locked in a self-enforced policy of isolationism? Do you even know about Omashu ? ...Wait, no, forget I said anything, my son definitely doesn't conquer cities on accident at all and even if he did it was just the one time and, really, Aang started it—"

 

Not that Arnook would have wanted this one.

 

%%%

 

"Your turn, Zuko," Sokka said. He patted the doorframe on his way in. "Yep, still stable."

 

The Northern Princess giggled again. It was, possibly, the world's most lovely sound. He would need Suki here to do her own giggle-snort for a truly fair comparison. But maybe he was just going to slide thoughts of Suki aside for right now. It would be rude not to give this white-haired manifestation of first snow's beauty his undivided—"OWW!" 

 

Zuko. Was grinding his foot into Sokka's boot. Which was a habit they were going to have to talk about

 

"Don't trust her," his nephson whispered. "She's a princess. "

 

"Uh. So is Katara?"

 

Zuko didn't seem to understand the point Sokka was making any more than Sokka understood his. 

 

" Princesses are terrifying, " Zuko tried again. "When they're being nice they're even more terrifying, it means they want something and you don't know what it is. "

 

And, well. Yeah. If they were lumping Katara and Zuko's far-off-but-still-made-the-kid-shudder sister into the category, maybe some princesses could be a little scary and liked to reindeer-butter people up right before they asked for something. But not this one. Not Yue. 

 

"Stop sighing ," Zuko hissed.

 

"Go talk to the Chief," Sokka said back, with a little shoo-shoo flutter of his hand. "Shout if they try to kill you."

 

" Ugh ."

 

Zuko stomped off, as dramatically as possible. The slightly-too-big boots helped the effect. Sokka grinned fondly; when he looked back to the room, Yue was also doing some fond grinning, if he did say so himself.

 

Time to break out the Sokka suave .

 

%%%

 

Zuko knelt on the ground, and bowed, and waited for leave to rise. And waited.

 

And waited.

 

(And did they even know what he was doing? They seemed to have some form of culture up here, way more than in the Southern Water Tribe, but maybe they didn't do this. His knees were getting cold even through his new pants, which were a lot thicker than his old pants which was nice even though he hated them. He'd had no choice but to put them on because he'd been so cold, but he hadn't asked for them and he didn't like taking gifts when he didn't know their price, he definitely wasn't going to let his guard down around that princess even if her hair was supercoolamazing —) 

 

"Rise," their Chief said, and he made it sound like Zuko had inconvenienced him rather than honored him. 

 

Zuko stood all the way up instead of staying humbly kneeling. Then he waited for someone to speak. And waited.

 

And waited.

 

(And tried not to think about the guards behind him, and how far away Sokka and Katara and Aang were, and if he shouted would they even hear him through all this ice? Not that he needed them because he didn't , he had his fire back and he was pretty sure he had his lightning even though Aang had nervous-laughed and asked him not to do experimental bending on Appa's back please. But… but Zuko was standing in front of a room full of frowning old men, and if they'd been dressed in red instead of blue this would have been exactly the same as—)

 

"What are your intentions here?" the Water Lor—the Chief asked. 

 

"I'm the Avatar's Fire Nation Advisor." 

 

The Chief narrowed his eyes. The especially cranky looking man next to him scowled. So Zuko crossed his arms and lifted his chin and scowled back , because these barbarians clearly didn't care about manners anyway and Zuko's were wasted on them and, and why did they all have to be so tall even when they were sitting , and the stupid coats made them look twice as big as normal people—  

 

The lemur churred under his hood, quiet enough that no one else could hear him. Zuko took in a breath and turned his head to the side so he wasn't scowling at anyone in particular. His good side, so they couldn't stare at his scar.

 

"...Is that a tail?" one of the councilmen asked.

 

"Momo was cold," Zuko huffed. And didn't blush at all, he was just really hot suddenly. And now everyone was back to being quiet again and it was creepy , like watching sharkipedes crawl around in narrowing circles on their hundreds of legs all hungry-silent as they sniffed for blood.

 

The cranky old man let out a sigh. " Prince Sokka tells us your invasion fleet is coming."

 

"It's not my invasion fleet. And don't say prince all weird like that, if Yue is a princess than Sokka is a prince. I don't make the rules in your stupid Tribe."

 

The old guy had a really scary scowl. But Zuko had the scariest scowl. He turned the bad side of his face towards the man and narrowed his always-narrowed eye even more and just dared him to say something. And he felt good and not at all bad when some of the other councilors flinched. But not the cranky man. He just stared at Zuko steadily, super unimpressed. 

 

"Prince Zuko," their Chief said. "What are your intentions here?" 

 

He scowled a little less. Then more, to make up for the lapse. "What do you mean?"

 

"Your… tribesmen's fleet is coming. Yet you stand before us as a both a prince of this invading nation, and our guest. What are your intentions? Whose side will you be on, when these ships arrive?"

 

"I…" (didn't think about that) "I…" (except he had, a lot, but Sokka and Katara and Aang had never asked so he'd never had to answer, and it didn't matter how much he'd thought about it, he might as well have not thought at all for all the good it had done him.) 

 

The councilors were all looking at him and he didn't know, he just… he just wanted to stay with the others, but that wasn't a good reason, he couldn't say that. 

 

He straightened up and looked the Chief in the eye, and gave the only answer he could. "I don't know. It's stupid that Admiral Zhao is even coming here, you don't attack our people and you don't have anything we want . Except for the Avatar, but he's my mission. I don't know what's going to happen or what I'll do, but I'm going to do what's right. Whatever that is."

 

" 'Whatever that is,' " the cranky man repeated, raising two eyebrows, the cheater. 

 

The Chief kept looking at Zuko. Like he expected more or maybe just something different , like Zuko's honesty was stupid and too transparant and the Fire Lord's son should at least be able to pull off a pretty lie if he didn't want to get dunked in hurting-cold water again— 

 

Zuko took in slow deep breaths, warming himself. But, umm. Not letting the flames out from between his teeth. He waited.

 

And waited. 

 

"Thank you for your… candor, Prince Zuko. That will be all," the Chief dismissed him. 

 

Zuko bowed one more time, perfectly polite but not a degree lower than he had to, and turned to leave. The old guys behind him were getting up and talking, they looked almost like they were going to move to a different room, but that couldn't be right— 

 

"Aren't you going to talk to Princess Katara?" he asked.

 

The Chief looked startled, like he hadn't thought of that. "I don't think that will be necessary."

 

%%%

 

"My turn?" Katara asked, standing. As fun as watching Sokka verbally faceplant again and again in front of a regal girl-who-had-always-known-she-was-a-princess was...

 

"Uh," Zuko said. "They… don't need to talk to you? But, uh. We're invited to Princess Yue's birthday party tonight. And you can borrow a dress to get ready. They said."

 

"I don't think that will be necessary," Katara said, gritting her teeth behind a smile.

 

%%%

 

The Chief had seated them in places of honor at the head table, right next to the true star of tonight's festivities. Princess Yue, who was turning sixteen; an auspicious age, made even more auspicious by the Avatar himself appearing after a hundred years to grace the tribe on the very same day. Not to mention the three members of royalty he'd brought with him. 

 

No really, don't mention them. They'd received a very minimal introduction. Almost like Chief Arnook was trying not to draw too much attention to the firebender sitting between Sokka and Katara. Prince Sokka, Prince Zuko, and Princess Katara of the Southern Water Tribe, our welcome guests . And if the Chief had left out what else his little buddy was a prince of, at least he'd included him under the 'welcome' header. 

 

And Sokka got to sit next to Princess Yue, for the whole meal. He was in his suave ice flow. His suave current. His suave dangerously shifting ice pack. His suave boat careening wildly through all of the above, desperately trying not to crash, and Princess Yue kept laughing behind her hand but he was getting less and less sure if she was laughing at the jokes or the joke-teller, and he had this sort of fuzzy-around-the-edges feeling like maybe he didn't care , just as long as he could listen to that laugh forever.

 

"You're allowed to just tell her she's pretty," Zuko said, interrupting his third joke about seal jerky. She'd liked the other two so much and he had a bajillion of these— 

 

Wait what? 

 

"Am I?" Princess Yue asked, leaning forward. Leaning around Sokka . Raising a perfectly curved eyebrow, like a crescent moon sculpted 'cross her brow, a reflection of the half-smile that tugged at yonder lips— 

 

"Stop sighing ," Zuko elbowed him. "It's really gross. " And that was when this conversation got away from Sokka, because his little buddy glared at Yue and proceeded to say, with almost belligerent earnestness: "Of course you are. Your eyes are a really nice color, like the sky when it's going to be a perfect day for sailing, and everyone else wears these bulky fur-robes like koala-wool-stuffed sacks but you make yours look like a silk dress, and your hair is—" He made some kind of really dramatic gesture to indicate what her hair was. Sokka had no idea what it meant, but it was clearly highly complementary. So complimentary, in fact, that his nephson had gone completely non-verbal with how wonderful she was, and Sokka looked at the sudden snowmelt fondness in Princess Yue's eyes and realized there were danger flags all over this interaction, and if Zuko had just sleeper celled into puberty Sokka was going to—  

 

"Nephson," he hissed into Zuko's ear, making sure to smile for the lady through his gritted teeth. "It is not cool to block your uncle-dad—" 

 

Princess Yue stood, and stretched out a hand. For one radiant glorious moment he thought it was for him

 

"Would you like to dance, Prince Zuko?"

 

"No." Zero hesitation. 

 

She laughed. And took Zuko's hand anyway, despite Zuko's tactically endearing protests of I don't dance and let go and I WILL step on your feet . But Sokka watched in growing despair as he didn't step on her feet at all during the first dance. Or the second. And… and… what was he doing.

 

"Oh," Katara said, finally clueing in that there was something more interesting afoot than talking about girl stuff with that random noble lady next to her, like 'how many of your scouts are women' (none) and 'when do your girls start learning to fight' (never) and 'don't you want to—' (you are so darling , child, I remember when I used to chase the boys for waterbending tips, they really do like a girl who knows a move or two—) and 'this is not about boys!' (everything is, dear. Or are you telling me the Southern Tribe doesn't leave its women at home? Don't judge us, dear, our men aren't all off fighting the war; we can't run wild. You're lucky your brother is so indulgent) and the resulting angry huffs that had lead her to break off the conversation and look around in the first place. Girl stuff, and he was definitely staying out of it. "Is he teaching her the Dancing Dragon?"

 

"He said he couldn't dance!" Sokka had his own dramatic gestures that reduced him to non-verbal status.

 

"It's not a dance," Katara sniffed. "It's an ancient and noble bending form. And I think it's great she wants to learn."

 

(The noble lady smiled with genial affection and patted Katara's arm, and you could not bribe Sokka with meat to get involved in that.)

 

Zuko was similarly protesting the non-dance status of his dragon dance very loudly in the middle of the dance floor, as Princess Yue indulgently nodded along. His hood had fallen back somewhere during dance two, revealing the adorable lemur hat on his head. Around the room, a lot of the people who'd been in the know on his other princely title were shifting from actively glaring at him to looking vaguely unmoored in their cultural assumptions. A few others were shifting from glares to vague disgust , and Sokka took a moment to catch their gazes one by one and deliver firm eye warnings to each and every offender before returning to lamenting the tragic loss of his own romance, a spring flower shorn by frost before it could ever bloom— 

 

The party at large politely clapped as the Dancing Dragon, Not To Be Confused With a Dragon Dance, came to an end with Yue and Zuko double-fist-bumping , what was he even seeing , this was the absolute last time he adopted a princess-stealing traitor son. He would try to be happy for them of course, but he would also get surly-drunk at their eventual wedding and they'd have to seat him at his own table off in the corner where the other guests could pretend not to see him.

 

Zuko rage-sat back down at the table. He grumpily crossed his arms, his face as red as a Fire Nation banner, but Sokka was not to be fooled. He patted him on the back, supportively. Definitely not hard enough to make his nephson almost faceplant the table.

 

"What is wrong with you?"

 

"Just wishing you the best," Sokka said. "Via physical assault." Master Pakku's term for it really was more inclusive than just hugs.

 

Princess Yue laughed, ah, a sound he remembered fondly from the time when he still could dream of their life together…

 

And she stretched out a hand.

 

To Sokka .

 

They did not dragon dance. Actually he couldn't completely vouch for that fact, since he didn't know what dances they did dance. But they did. The dancing. And it was… it was…

 

"I'm sorry nephson," he said, when he was sitting down again but his head was still spinning. Katara had asked if she could have the next dance, so Princess Yue was very far from hearing range. There was some quality princess-on-princess dancing going on (read: cultural subterfuge in the form of not-so-subtle martial arts training).

 

("Is this really a Southern dance?" Yue asked. "It looks like a bending form."

 

"Funny, that. Just follow me, this one is called the, uh, the Dancing Water Wall. ") 

 

"...Why are you sorry," Zuko asked, like he really didn't want to hear the answer.

 

"I have tried to remove the princess from my heart, but I fear we are going to be rivals in love. May the best man win." He offered a hand, for shaking over this solemn agreement. 

 

Zuko glared at said hand, and did not shake. " Eww ," he said, with a certain emphaticness that lifted Sokka's heart, and filled it with hope. But something remained to be clarified.

 

"If you don't like her," he asked, "what was with that dramatic speech about how pretty she is?"

 

His little buddy was growing alarmingly red. And there was a visible heathaze around him that had Fire Flake eyeing him from her perch by a brazier, clearly debating which location would be warmer. 

 

Zuko… muttered something. That Sokka was not entirely certain he'd heard correctly. He cleaned his ear with one finger, and leaned in closer. The better to hear.

 

"I'm sorry, what?"

 

"...She has hair like Appa's."

 

Sokka's heart lifted, free and easy, completely clear of the presence of a romantic rival. The Sokka suave. Was back on. 

 

"Would you like to do an activity?" he asked, when next Yue returned from the dance floor.

 

" 'An activity'?" she laughed, and he knew she was laughing at him. And he knew he didn't care, because that smile of hers was agreeing even before her words did.

 

%%%

 

"—train my friend, too—" Avatar Aang was saying.

 

Pakku waved him off. "We begin at sunrise. Don't be late."

 

"Great!" the boy raced away on a gust of his own wind, already shouting at the head table in a display that made their Southern visitors look well-mannered. "Katara, Katara—!"    

 

Pakku ignored the boy's antics, and followed the guard who had been beckoning him. Out of the banquet hall, down a corridor, into the small sitting room Chief Arnook liked to use when he was being discreet. Inside the Chief sat, and a scout with him. The man wasn't from the ship that had brought the Avatar in.

 

"Another scout ship returned," Arnook said, somewhat needlessly. "Their leader took initiative, when Avatar Aang's group told him of the invasion." 

 

Arnook nodded to the scout; the man took his cue, and spoke. "We pushed as hard as we could to the south. We didn't find the fleet, but we did find a scout ship. On our side of the border. We took their captain alive."

 

Their captain, as it turned out, was a surly man with a natural inclination to notably disrespectful silences. A firebender, naturally; far be it for them to acquire an easily controlled prisoner, though a dunk in the ocean had rendered him more manageable. 

 

Not as much as expected, however. 

 

Pakku had only known one man who practiced the breath of fire. That man wasn't the sort to spread his secrets about; particularly not certain techniques developed while training clandestinely in the arctic. Techniques to keep himself warm in a cold that made others of his kind lose their fire completely; techniques to control the flow of energy, and turn their mutual enemy's greatest attack into his greatest weakness.

 

Of course, provoking Ozai into shooting lightning would have been far easier if Iroh hadn't holed himself up on a ship with his nephew. Having met the boy, Pakku failed to see the allure. It was understandable for Iroh to teach the child his techniques, though. 

 

Far less understandable was how some low-level captain on one of the Fire Nation's smallest ships—more a boat , really—had stumbled across the Dragon of the West's breath of fire. 

 

Unless...

 

%%%

 

Lieutenant Jee. Was freezing his un-armoured under-clothed ass off, in this ice cell. The North Pole was exactly as terrible as the South, except with less children shouting at him.

 

He crossed his arms, focused on his breath, and successfully convinced himself that the shouting child wasn't the part he missed.

 

The ice wall parted, with a crack like a splitting iceberg. Some gray-haired old waterbending master with more frown lines than Jee stood outlined in the door, like that was supposed to be intimidating

 

Jee pushed himself stiffly up the wall. "Round two?" he asked.

 

Which was the point where one of the punks who'd been working him over earlier brought in a pai sho table , and Jee started wondering if they'd hit him on the head and he'd just forgotten it. 

 

The old master sat down on one side, and closed off the ice behind him with a flick of his wrist once his helper had scurried off. "The guest has the first move."

 

...Prince Zuko had been right. Pai sho really was just another form of torture. Jee held in a laugh, for the sake of both his bruised ribs and his dignity.

 

Slowly, watching for whatever trap this was, Jee sat down. What would the General have done?

 

Jee reached for the white lotus title. 

 

The man's blue eyes followed his every move, like a wolf-piranha just waiting for an opening. "I see you favor the white lotus gambit. Not many still cling to the ancient ways."

 

Jee shrugged noncommittally. He didn't really know how to play despite the General's best efforts, and he wasn't invested in winning so much as in figuring out what the man's real game was. So he just copied what the other guy did. And together, they… made a flower?

 

%%%

 

It was hard to tell, at the end of the game, which of them was more confused.

 

"The White Lotus opens wide to those who know her secrets?" Pakku tried, not really expecting much by this point.

 

"...Are you seriously telling me," the prisoner deadpanned. "That the General is part of a secret international pai sho association? "

 

Which answered Pakku's questions much more succinctly than the game had.

 

 

Chapter Text

Caldera City was draped in white.

 

General Iroh's ship docked on a cloudy morning, the sky itself shrouded with Agni's own grief. Fire Lord Ozai and Princess Azula made a somber procession as they went to greet the last member of their family. None could hear the words exchanged on that dock; they saw only a hug between brothers, and the respectful bow of a mourning young girl to her mourning uncle.

 

"I postponed the funeral for you," Ozai hugged his elder brother close, and whispered into his ear. "Thank you for your support in these trying times, brother. I am sure you know how painful it is to lose a son."

 

They saw the General's face contort in grief so strong it could have been rage. He did not embrace his brother back. Misplaced decorum? Perhaps even a spurning of his Fire Lord's kindness?

 

No, the dockhands whispered; the barbarians crushed the Dragon's talons.

 

Maimed one prince and murdered another. The Earth Kingdom had much to answer for. 

 

%%%

 

The Northern capital sparkled white under the sun. Hahn jumped to the dock before they'd even stopped moving; it was too nice of a day to stay and help tie up. He had places to be, people to be engaged to. His old man was going to be a little peeved he wasn't back in time for the birthday bash, but he'd be less peeved when the porters dragged home all the tiger-seals he'd caught. And the polar bear goose. A white feather-pelt like that would look stunning wrapped up around his Yue at their wedding, and he was already making the story bigger in his head, spinning it into a legendary tale of heroism and daring and at the center, humble hero Hahn. She would hang on his every word, gasp at just the right places—

 

A little bald kid in way too thin eye-stabbingly bright clothes bumped into Humble Hero Hahn. 

 

"Sorry!" the kid said, and kept dragging some super shabbily dressed girl after him. Where had she even found a parka as worn-out and old-fashioned as that, her grandmother's closet? "Katara, you can't stab our waterbending teacher—" 

 

"Oh, I won't," the girl said through her teeth. "He's not my teacher."

 

"Katara."

 

And then they said some more stuff, but Hahn was too busy being in love. Precious Yue forgive him, but the most beautiful sight in the world was before his eyes.

 

"—if he won't teach you, then I quit too! We'll—"

 

He just… couldn't tear his eyes away. Those sharp edges, those curves— 

 

"No Aang, you have to learn—"

 

That blue, that white, that red and yellow and green, glinting like the northern lights held in one woman's hand—  

 

"So do you!" 

 

That dagger was made for him.

 

"How much?" Hahn asked, and he only had eyes for his newest acquisition.

 

The fashion-deprived girl narrowed her eyes at him, giving herself super unsexy forehead crinkles. "Half a day in a pirate's hold," she snapped. 

 

"...Bwa?"

 

"Excuse me, I need to go know my place." She shoved past him, and didn't apologize. Hahn watched the dagger leave, and sighed. 

 

It would look amazing on him. So would the girl, if she wasn't so much of a man. Not like his sweet Yue.

 

%%%

 

The royal palanquins progressed through city streets lined with people. In his grief, Ozai had ordered the empty litter placed first—the Fire Lord's position. The symbolism was not lost on those who touched forehead to stone as it passed. They mourned for the nation's lost future; for the Fire Lord they could have had.

 

The final steps up to the palace were lined in honor regiments representing all arms of the military: a squad of elite benders from the army's 82nd Division; the navy's Southern Raiders; the air corps' 1st Division in their new uniforms. Even Commander Shinu had spared a small detachment of Yuyan from the war effort. The Hiyokezaru and Usagi squads stood at attention as the palanquins were carried past, their division's legendary silence rendered common by the silence all around them.

 

The governor of New Ozai had even returned home; it was rumored that his daughter had been a close personal friend to both princess and the late prince, a rumor rapidly confirmed when the grieving Fire Princess took her hand and entreated her to ride in her very own palanquin, so that she would not be alone on this day.

 

"...And apparently mother thinks it's a charming idea, she always wanted a son she can give back if she gets bored," Mai droned, behind the safety of the curtains. Loud enough to be heard over Ty Lee's sniffles, but quiet enough not to be heard by the peasants outside as they bowed and scraped for royalty who couldn't even see them. Zuko least of all. "So I'll have a crippled Earth Kingdom commoner sharing my tutors when I get back. Yay."

 

Ty Lee sobbed, and clutched at Azula's hand. Azula tolerated the movement, but did nothing to encourage it.

 

"So New Ozai is as dull as you feared?"

 

"Worse." She propped her chin on her fist, and turned her face to the closed off window. "...Dad's petitioning to change the name to New Zuko."

 

"Now that is just tacky. Not that his first attempt at buttering father wasn't equally appalling."

 

"Tell me about it."

 

Ty Lee made a horrifying movement, like she was going to lean into Azula's shoulder and cry . Azula put a firm stop to that with a palm to the girl's forehead, and an equally firm shove back. "Ty Lee, please . Some of us are going to be on stage for the next three hours. I do not need snot-creases ironed into my shoulder." 

 

The girl looked horrid dressed in white instead of her customary pinks. Like a bleached coral, dead on the sand. "Aren't you two sad?"

 

Mai shrugged, and declined to turn her face away from the closed window.

 

Azula rolled her eyes. "What would it help if I were? Oh, don't cry more—"

 

%%%

 

Sokka was on a mission. He strutted through the city, over ice-streets and ice-bridges, past towering architectural ice-marvels, following the flow of traffic like he would in any port town until the snowmelt trickles of foot traffic merged into streams, into rivers, and let out into— 

 

The main market. He paused a moment to take in a nice frost-tinged breath, appreciating the sight of so many Water Tribesman in one place. Blue and purple and white, everywhere. Just… going about their day, in their giant waterbent city, as if he'd taken a step back a hundred years. Had this been what the South Pole had looked like?

 

...Was this what they could have been like, if they'd stayed out of the war?

 

Was this what they could still be like, if the North had answered their calls for aid? Or would this city just be a scattering of hand-packed ice-huts, too? 

 

Bad thoughts, Prince Sokka. Bad thoughts. He was not on a Subtle Historical Resentments Shimmering Under All His Interactions With The Northern Council Mission, he was on a Girl Mission. A Girl Gift Acquisition Mission. Specifically: a ribbon acquisition mission. And there he spied, at that fine shop of necklaces and other glittery things, a whole line up. But did they have one worthy of his beautiful Yue? Perhaps that one, so dark blue it was nearly black. His stretched his hands towards it— 

 

And had it snatched away.

 

"How much?" some teenager with fabulous hair and a steel-cut jaw asked. 

 

"Excuse me," Sokka tapped his shoulder. "I was reaching for that one."

 

"And I reached it first," the teen said, throwing money on the table.

 

"That," Sokka said, "is the point I am trying to address—" 

 

The teenager looked him up and down, and smirked. "Wow, nice coat. Did your grandmother make it?"

 

"Yeah, she did," Sokka puffed out his chest proudly. "I helped hunt the mink-wolverine for the collar—wait a minute, was that an insult? Were you insulting my Gran-Gran? Hey! Hey, come back here!" 

 

The teen flicked a wave over his shoulder in an objectively cool, completely dismissive wave. Fine, whatever. Sokka would buy the white one. It matched Yue's Appa-hair anyway and was therefore the superior option. He couldn't let one no-name completely inconsequential probably-never-gonna-see-him-again jerkface ruin his shopping experience. And ooo, was that a whole stand of pet sweaters?

 

Hahn walked off humming, slipping the betrothal pendant to its new ribbon.

 

%%%

 

Years and years ago when people still called her a child, there had been an assassination attempt on grandfather. This was back before her own branch of the family had become important enough to attract such killers, though the man had come through their apartments on the way to more politically relevant targets. Perhaps he hadn't thought there would be as many guards there, or he'd thought that father hadn't already started pulling the court's strings to ensure his family got the very best. 

 

Azula had slipped her nanny and her mother, and tugged on Zuko's hand, and they'd gotten to the hall in time to see the blood still wet on the floorboards. Zuzu had promptly cried, thus ruining their stealth, and mother had wrapped them both up in hugs and scolded their nanny and taken them, quote, away from that awful place, end quote. It had all been very dramatic. Azula had craned her neck over her shoulder, trying to get one last glimpse, trying to see

 

The blood had looked the same as it did on the kitchen chopping boards, no different even though it was human and everyone acted like humans were more special. 

 

Zuzu had cried, which told her here was something to cry about , even if it was by his own admittedly low threshold. Azula hadn't felt anything at all. 

 

Maybe if she saw the death for herself, she would feel different. 

 

%%%

 

Katara took her place in the half-circle of girls, feeling… tall. Awkwardly tall. This was clearly a basic lesson meant for the tribe's youngest girls. Should she tell the teacher she'd been helping set bones and brew teas and birth babes since before she could remember? She didn't need a basic first aid lecture— 

 

And then the healer wrapped her hands in water, and it glowed .

 

Waterbending could heal. Uncle's hands, Zuko's scar— 

 

The little girls around her tittered as she asked question after question. The old master, Yugoda, smiled and invited her to stay for the intermediate class. It would have taken the town guards to drag Katara away from the advanced lesson after that, with real live patients.

 

"Bring the water to the wound, and let your chi reach to theirs," Yugoda guided her. "Don't be frustrated if it doesn't connect immediately, some girls work for weeks to—"

 

The water glowed. Under her palms, energy flowed, hers and her patient's, and it wasn't really that the water was healing, it was that the water allowed the mixing, let a part of her know what was wrong and how it should be and let her guide their body to rebuild— 

 

When she sat back to wipe the sweat from her forehead, Yugoda was smiling at her again. "You have a gift, Katara."

 

Fighting was important, but she'd been fighting since she left the South Pole. Fighting and winning

 

This… this was important, too. And it felt incredible.

 

%%%

 

Azula knew what to do during a state funeral. She'd already practiced on grandfather's. It wasn't difficult: sit, bow at the appropriate intervals, look like a princess of the blood, don't do anything to muss her hair or robes. She hoped it didn't rain; if she was expected to be stoic, then great great great grandfather Agni had better keep his act together, too. 

 

In the first rows of the audience—sorry, the mourners— Mai was doing her best impression of the low-maintenance daughter her parents had always wanted. Nearby, Ty Lee was sobbing enough for three people and a Sun God.

 

Uncle sat next to her on the stage. He bowed at the appropriate intervals, shuffling his broken hands from his lap to the ground and back again. He cried as little as her and father, but he made it look completely different and she didn't know how.

 

%%%

 

Zuko had never thought that being in the middle of an enemy nation's capital could be so boring . Aang and Katara were at their bending training, and he wasn't allowed to go with because there would be a lot of waterbenders intimidated by his ability to melt their city. It wasn't his fault their architecture was temperature-dependent. Sokka was supposed to be staying with him to protect him from the guards, but he kept remembering things for his stupid date with the scheming northern princess and then he'd run out and come back with pet sweaters.

 

Fire Flake huddled inside her penguin-otter hoodie, her wings stretched out inside the little black sleeves like she didn't even recognize them as part of her body anymore. At least she looked warm? Warm was the temperature of fresh trauma, right? Zuko was pretty sure that was right.

 

"Now I know I promised Appa Mark III to you, nephson, but—"

 

"I don't want your dumb carving," Zuko said, from his place sprawled spread-eaglelion on some kind of white fluffy-feathery animal skin spread in front of the fireplace. Momo was curled up on his chest, gnawing at the feet of his turtle-seal onesie. "Throw it off an ice bridge for all I care."

 

"But I promise you that Appa Mark IV is yours, just as soon as I carve it—" 

 

"I said I don't care! And isn't that some sort of betrothal custom?"

 

"It's a what now?" Sokka asked, pausing as he strung the carving onto a ribbon, which was the point where Aang came in. "Hey, Master-Waterbender-in-Training Number Two! Where's Master-Waterbender-in-Training Number One?"

 

"Uh… isn't she back yet? I thought her class was just for the morning." The Avatar looked around like maybe they were just hiding her. Zuko glared up at him from the floor, on principle. "I really hope she didn't stab anyone," Aang said, with that nervous I-hope-I'm-Joking laugh he did sometimes.

 

"...Who did she try to stab?" Sokka asked.

 

"What did they do to deserve it?" Zuko found more relevant.

 

Which is when Aang explained that apparently waterbending girls didn't really learn waterbending in the North. He made it sound all bad and stuff, but Zuko was sitting up and leaning towards him.

 

"Waterbending can heal? How much? Can it do bones and stuff? What if the injury is a few weeks old, can it still heal then—"  

 

"I don't know," Aang waved his hands, interrupting. "I'm not learning that stuff!"

 

"Why not?"

 

"I… don't know," he said, letting his hands drop. "Maybe Master Pakku was saving it for later?"

 

"Come on. Let's go find Katara." Zuko stood, catching turtle-seal Momo by the stuffed shell as the lemur fell, his wings not working so well inside the flippers. Zuko put him on his shoulder, and made for the door. As soon as he pushed it open, the nearest guard looked down on him. And narrowed his eyes. And cleared his throat.

 

"Fine." Zuko slammed the door, and promptly made for the window. 

 

Sokka caught him by the hood. "Nu-uh. No ditching the guards without an escort."

 

"Aang will be with me!" 

 

"I will? Yeah, I will!"

 

"No ditching the guards without an escort who has an attention span longer than a ferret-wasp in a flower field."

 

"Awww," Aang ruled himself out.

 

"Why don't you come with me, then?"

 

"First off? Not climbing out the ice window to my icy wall-climbing-and-failing-to-climb doom. Second? I have a date. I love you nephson, but I don't third-man-on-a-sled-for-two love you."

 

"What does that even mean?"

 

"And third," Sokka said, completely ignoring the question, " no you are not sneaking out the second I'm gone. Let's not antagonize your nice northern cousins, shall we?" 

 

"They are not my cousins." 

 

"Yeah, cousins would be weird." He was making his dreamy ensorcelled by an evil princess eyes again. 

 

"Uggh. Your date isn't even until sundown!"

 

"Which is really soon . North Pole, not equator. Just after the Winter Solstice, not the Summer. And a gentleman does not leave a lady waiting, particularly when a gentleman is mildly afraid of mis-remembering the specific ice bridge the lady designated for their rendezvous, so a gentleman is going to spend a quantity of time we will not specify casually strolling in the general vicinity just in time to coincidentally bump into her on the way."

 

"It's okay, Zuko, I'll ask all your questions for you," Aang said. "I should probably get going anyway if I'm going to have time to visit the healer's hut, Master Pakku said something about bending me into an ice block for another hundred years if I was late coming back from break." The airbender laughed his I'm sure it was just a joke (I'm not sure at all) laugh.

 

Zuko flopped back on the animal skin rug by the fire. Momo bounced down next to him, legs kicking as he tried to get off his shelled back.

 

"Zuko," Sokka said. "You're staying in this room, right?"

 

"You really think the guards wouldn't notice me sneaking out?" Zuko huffed, in complete non-answer.

 

"Zuko."

 

"How would I even make it across the city when I have no clue where I'm going?" Zuko continued to not answer.

 

"Zuko I will drag you on this date if I have to. Please don't make me, Zuko."

 

Zuko rolled over, and buried his face in the fur-feather rug. "It's too cold anyway."

 

Which continued to not be an answer, but Sokka seemed to take it for agreement. Or enough agreement that, after fussing with his hair and clothes for another fifteen minutes, he finally left. So did Aang. Zuko peeked up over the rug's foof as the door closed. 

 

How hard could navigating an icy city full of firebender-hating tribesman be? He double-checked the buttons on his coat, straightened his scarf, and took the stupid costume off of his lemur-hat before pulling his hood up. Fire Flake chirped entreatingly. 

 

"Stay warm, girl," he said, and went out the window.

 

%%%

 

Not long after the assassination attempt, a royal ostrich-horse, one of the feathery beasts gifted to them by some Earth King trying to curry favor, broke its leg. Some noble had taken it joyriding over particularly craggy volcanic grounds. Azula wouldn't have cared, except that she heard the courtiers gossiping: apparently these creatures were as weak as the kingdom they hailed from. They could not heal from a broken leg, and the animal would need to be put down.

 

Azula watched the stablemaster crone sweet things into its ear as she slipped the knife in. The woman closed her eyes and kept stroking the dead thing's feathers for a long time after. Clearly this was a very moving experience, but Azula still didn't feel anything. 

 

Perhaps would feel different, to kill with her own hand.

 

%%%

 

Some bumpkin bumped into Hahn in the palace hall. Hahn magnanimously allowed him to pass without body-checking him back, even though the scrawny guy was glaring at him like he'd—oh, it was the ribbon guy! And there really weren't many reasons a man would be shopping for empty ribbon necklaces, unless he had a hand-made pendant he needed to string.

 

"Good luck with your girl," Hahn said, patting his fellow dude's shoulders, in benevolent solidarity. 

 

"Uh… thanks? Listen, I guess we got off on the wrong sled track earlier. I'm Sokka." 

 

"Hahn. Nice to meet you, Soaka."

 

"...Sokka."

 

Hahn saw his dad, beckoning from down the hall. "See you around, Soaka."

 

"Sokka. Prince Sokka!"

 

Hahn turned back around, walking backwards and smirking. It was a little early, but he was just a signed contract and a rock around a girl's throat away from it being official. Close enough. "Prince Hahn. And mine isn't fake."

 

"Neither is mine!"

 

Wow , Sokka thought, as the Ribbon Thief disappeared into the council chamber. Yue's brother is a real jerk.  

 

Huh, Hahn thought, as he passed the last window before entering the room, is someone humming?

 

But there was no one outside the window when he looked. He shrugged, and went in to meet his bride and claim his future. 

 

The next chief of the Northern Water Tribe completely missed the white-clad child methodically melting hand-holds into the wall outside. Or the lemur keeping lookout from under his hood.

 

%%%

 

Over the prince's ceremonial funeral pyre, Ozai announced the expanded war effort. The savages that had killed him were from the Earth Kingdom; it would fall by summer's end, with the aid of their new air corps and by Agni's own grace. As for the prince's mission, so tragically interrupted—even now the greatest naval fleet they had ever amassed was gathering. The Northern Water Tribe had broken their long neutrality to train the Avatar for war; the Fire Nation's brave troops would sail to face the savages down in their own inhospitable lands. They would capture the Avatar, in their fallen prince's name, and finish the quest he had given his life to. The assault would begin as winter turned to spring, as the seasons turned to their favor; the time of rebirthed flames. The Fire Nation would not falter; in the name of their Fallen Prince, they would grow stronger. 

 

He didn't announce Azula as the new crown heir. Though his speech continued, and the governor of New Ozai's petition was approved, Ozai was only New Zuko levels of tacky, not replace one heir with the other on the same day levels. 

 

The subtext was fairly obvious, however. Azula bowed low as the city cheered for her. 

 

The portraits of Zuko arrayed on the stage showed him unbandaged, unblemished, unscarred. She wondered how he really looked, in the end. She would never see for herself. Even if she left the palace and went to where he was, she couldn't ever meet him again. That was what being dead meant. 

 

%%%

 

"Didn't you promise Sokka not to leave the room alone?" Aang asked.

 

"I didn't." The boy who'd just entered the healing hut pointed to the lemur-face staring out of his hood. 

 

"Uh, I don't think that counts."

 

"We infiltrated Pohuai Stronghold together. Do you really think a snow fort is going to stop us?" 

 

Katara knew, in the back of her head, she should probably take a little time to scold Zuko both for child self-endangerment, lying to her brother, and comparing her sister tribe's most advanced city to the piles of snow Sokka used to called fortifications. But she was sweaty and tired and manic.

 

"Zuko!" she called. "Yugoda! Yugoda Zuko!" 

 

The old healer turned a tolerant smile on her. The young Fire-and-Adopted-Water Prince finally noticed her. And ran straight past Aang, his hood falling back and his lemur hat flapping, to reach her.

 

"Katara, Uncle—"

 

"Yes! I think? Yugoda!"

 

"I would have to see the patient to be certain, dears," the old healing master said. "And with injuries like Katara described, it may be that we would have to rebreak the bones to heal them correctly. But I can assure you the healing will go much faster the second time." Her smile wrinkled her face into a hundred different lines of warmth and kindness and just a hint of habitually laughing at her patients. "Now, let's see what we can do for you, young man."

 

"For me?" Zuko said, in a voice that made it clear he hadn't even thought of that. Katara wanted to hug him. Yugoda squeezed his shoulder, and guided him to sit down on one of the healing beds. His eyes widened as much as they each could, tracking the water in her hands as it started to glow. 

 

She slowly brought it to his face; he scrunched both eyes shut, a moment before it touched. "Hmm, yes. Would it be all right for my apprentice to take a look as well, Prince Zuko?"

 

"Katara?" he asked. At the healer's affirmative, he nodded stiffly. 

 

Yugoda moved over. "Come, tell me what you feel. Don't try to heal just yet—diagnosis only, Katara." 

 

She wrapped her own hand in water, and pressed it to Zuko's cheek. He flinched a little at its chill. His eyes were still squeezed tight and his forehead all wrinkled, his fists clenched in his lap. She reached out with her free hand, and set it on top of his. They uncurled, just a little.

 

"Tell me what you feel," Yugoda urged.

 

She swallowed. "The skin... doesn't remember how it used to be. Does it?"

 

Yugoda nodded. "This is common with deep scars. It will remain." 

 

Zuko's hands twitched under hers. His head turned slightly away.

 

"Of course," the old woman continued, as if she hadn't noticed a thing. "A scar is the mark of a survivor; it shows the strength of the one who bears it. And the ladies quite like them, I hear."

 

"Eww," the prince said. But he relaxed again.

 

Yugoda chuckled. "What else do you feel, Katara?"

 

She didn't know what else there was . It was just one huge scar. His bad eye squeezed shut even tighter as she moved her hand— 

 

His eye. She could feel where the fire had been too hot, too bright, where it had scalded inside the eye itself. But it wasn't anywhere near as bad as his skin. Maybe his own firebending protected what was under the surface, because—

 

She looked at Yugoda. Yugoda smiled, and nodded. "Diagnosis only, dear," she reminded. "I'll be doing that part myself. It's delicate."

 

"What's delicate?" Zuko asked, all tense again. She didn't want to get his hopes up, didn't know how much Yugoda's healing could do, so she didn't answer. He scowled.When she shifted her hand to his ear, and her water tickled inside, he squirmed. And she felt the same thing—there wasn't much they can do for the deformed skin, but there was almost… it felt like little hairs deep inside his ear that were burned and warped, but wanted to be straight again. 

 

Yugoda was still smiling. She motioned, and they switched places. "Keep your eyes closed, dear. This won't take long." 

 

The water glowed over his eye, his ear. Then she motioned again, relinquishing her place at the bedside. "Go ahead and finish things up."

 

"But I thought—"

 

"It won't be what it was, no. But I think the young man would appreciate never needing a debridement again. Burn scars can take months to heal the usual way, and they don't do so easily."

 

Zuko was so stiff under her hands. She closed her own eyes, and settled both her hands on his face, cupping over the scar both in front and on the side. She could see the glow of the water through her own eyelids, and she wondered how it looked to him.

 

"You can open your eyes, now," Yugoda said, as Katara dropped her hands.

 

She didn't know if it was for her or Zuko. Or for both of them. They open their eyes together. Gold blinked, and widened just a little more than it could before. 

 

"I can see." He poked at his face in a way that she wanted to stop, that probably wouldn't have been healthy if he'd done it ten minutes ago, but Yugoda was chuckling tolerantly. "And it doesn't hurt at all, and—" He snapped his fingers next to his burned ear, then the other, then back to the burned one. 

 

Then he lunged forward, and hugged her.

 

Which was the first time he'd ever hugged her . She was more than happy to hug back.

 

"Avatar Aang," a voice droned from the doorway. Master Pakku stood with his arms crossed, clearly unimpressed by this touching scene. "It is not my habit to track down my students when they fail to return from the breaks they begged of me. On their first day of training."

 

"Master Pakku, healing is amazing," Aang gushed. Katara had almost forgotten he was there, because he'd been on the edge of another bed, leaning forward but watching quietly. There was a look on his face she recognized; she'd probably looked exactly like that, when she'd first seen Yugoda's hands light up.

 

"It is… utilitarian, yes." His eyes flicked over Zuko, who was still pressed into her shirt. She glared, on her nephew's behalf. 

 

"When will you be teaching me that?" Aang was almost vibrating in place.

 

"I won't be."

 

"So when will I get my turn training with Master Yugoda?"

 

"Healer Yugoda knows as well as I do that a fighter's chi is soon disrupted if applied to the gentler arts. They will lose their cutting edge. That is why we separate the classes."

 

"Oh," Aang said. "Huh."

 

Pakku narrowed his eyes. "What, Avatar Aang?"

 

"I think I should be a healer, then. I mean… if I can only be one, then healing is more like me? And Katara's our fighter, so you should really take her back as a student before her chi gets all messed up, because she's really good and we kind of need her—" 

 

Pakku's scowl was deepening. Yugoda had turned her face demurely to the floor. But, Katara saw, she was biting her lip like she was stifling a laugh. 

 

"Avatar Aang, are you a man or a girl?" Pakku snapped.

 

"Uh, a boy?"

 

The master fighter's eye twitched. Then the shouting started. "You will return to the training grounds at once, and report to Tulak for sparing practice, and you will remain there until I return to excuse you. If you have time to be bothering women you have time to train for the coming invasion. You," his voice dripped with something she couldn't place as he shifted his gaze to Zuko. "Will come with me." He didn't address Katara at all, to no one's surprise.

 

Zuko shifted his head out of her coat just enough to glare. "Are you going to disappear me down an ice crevasse?" 

 

Pakku pinched the bridge of his nose. 

 

"That wasn't an answer," the prince pointed out.

 

Yugoda turned away, her shoulders shaking with laughter.

 

%%%

 

Not long after the ostrich-horse, Azula looked down at Zuzu's stupid ferrekeet and still didn't feel any different. He didn't talk to her for a week except to shout, which was completely unfair because he never shouted why.

 

At least he shouted. When father found out, he smiled.

 

Mother was long gone by then, of course. Even if Azula left the palace and went to find her, she wouldn't know where to go. That was what being disappeared meant.

 

%%%

 

The world was amazing , Zuko could see almost as far to the side on his left as his right and when he closed his good eye the world wasn't blurry at all . Just really bright, oww . It felt like he'd just stepped from the darkness of a ship out onto a sunny day on deck, and Agni was saying hello directly to his cornea. Maybe he should… not stare at the sun. Until he got used to this not-being-partially-blind thing. 

 

He could see Pakku turning to scowl at him from both sides, and hear the water in the canals and the people around them with both ears, and when some random person smiled at him he realized that he'd been smiling first and it seemed to really annoy the old waterbender so he kept doing it . Even though his cheeks kind of hurt. He wasn't used to smiling this long, oww.

 

"Keep up," the old man snapped.

 

"Or what?" Zuko smiled. "You'll leave me unsupervised in the middle of your city?"

 

The waterbender growled, and reached down like he was going to grab Zuko's arm and drag him like some kind of child. He wasn't expecting an angry lemur to come chitter-charging out of Zuko's hood like a foreign predator was invading its territory. Zuko upgraded from smiling to smugging. The old man huffed, and kept walking like that was what he'd meant to do all along. Zuko also kept walking. In a really slow, deliberately distracted manner. 

 

To be fair, it wasn't his fault the city had mysterious holes down to an unseen bottom.

 

"Where do those go?" Zuko asked, sticking his head in one. 

 

Pakku risked the lemur growls to drag him back out by his hood. "To the turtle-seal caves."

 

"...There are caves that lead right into the middle of your city?" Zuko asked. "Aren't you afraid attackers can just climb right up?"

 

"Not unless they can hold their breaths as long as a turtle-seal," the old man monotoned.

 

Zuko starred speculatively back down the mysteriouscool hole. "...How long can turtle-seals hold their breaths?" 

 

The master let out a I will refrain by sheer will from killing you breath, and kept walking. Zuko followed, more or less. There was a lot to see now that he could see it. It was all the same stuff he'd seen on the way to the healing huts, but now he could use both eyes.

 

The waterbender lead him back to the palace, and off into a side room he hadn't seen before, and… set up a pai sho table. 

 

Zuko sank to the floor in well-practiced resignation. At least the tiles were really pretty to look at. He grabbed Uncle's favorite and closed his right eye and turned it over and over, admiring the mother-of-pearl inlays. Uncle would have really like playing on this set. It was too bad he'd definitely ever had a chance. Maybe when he came to get healed.

 

...But would the tribe let him come to get healed? 

 

"The guest has the first move," Pakku intoned, like this was some kind of ritual instead of an old man trying to distract him from wandering the city.

 

Zuko clicked the white lotus title down in the middle, frowning at the board, because nothing on it was helpful to his thoughts. They played. He didn't lose as badly as normal, because Pakku made some really weird moves at the start that had almost destroyed his game. 

 

"Did your Uncle teach you nothing on that ship?" the old man growled, when they were done and the board was its usual mess. Which was a pretty normal reaction when one of Uncle's friends tried to play pai sho with him while Uncle was off talking about flowers at port—

 

But why would Pakku — 

 

Zuko screwed up his face. The skin on the left tugged, but there wasn't any pain in it, just tightness. So he screwed up his face more because he could. "Are you seriously telling me that you're one of Uncle's pai sho pen pals? I am not talking with you about tea. Or flowers."

 

The old master looked a little like he regretted not shoving Zuko down a turtle-seal hole. "Who captained your ship?"

 

Zuko crossed his arms, because that was a really weird question. "What, Uncle didn't put that in his letters? How did you even get letters up here? Do you have some kind of arctic messenger hawks? ...Can I see them? For tactical reasons," Zuko hurried to clarify.

 

The waterbender was pinching the bridge of his nose again. He stood, and left, and Zuko assumed that meant he was supposed to follow even though the man wasn't saying anything to him at all. He was right: they went back to the room Chief Arnook had given his distinguished guests. The guards looked distinctly uncomfortable to see Zuko approaching from this side of the door. 

 

"Gentleman. Keep closer watch on our visitor."

 

"It's boring in there," Zuko tried. "Can't I come help Aang train? He's going to need to know how to fight firebenders. I bet your people haven't fought many either. I bet I could take them."

 

"I sincerely doubt—"

 

Zuko let a little lightning spark over his fingertips. He really wanted to try using his lightning again, now that he was pretty sure that he could do it, and now that he had the depth perception to aim it properly. 

 

"What was he teaching you," the man hissed through his teeth. "Stay here, Prince Zuko. Not everyone will be so lenient if they find a firebender wandering our—what was that?"

 

Zuko might have been muttering that they wouldn't find him unless he wanted to be found, but he pressed his lips together and scowled up just as hard as Pakku was scowling down. 

 

"Stay. Guards, be sure to check in on our guest regularly. "

 

Zuko went inside, and flopped facedown on the rug again. And shivered, a little. It really was too cold out there.

 

%%%

 

Azula found Uncle that night, sitting by the turtleduck pond, like he was trying to take Zuko's place. But he was doing it all wrong—Zuko had always sat here , not there

 

"Princess Azula," he greeted her, with the minimum respectful nod of his head. 

 

He hadn't nod-bowed to Zuko in years. And he'd been as likely to call him nephew as Prince Zuko.   

 

Azula crossed her arms, and lifted her chin. "I'm the heir now. That means you have to teach me just like you did my brother."

 

"I'm sorry, princess," he raised his ruined hands. "I fear I will be doing no teaching. I am but a humble old man, now."

 

"I want to know what you were teaching him." She did not stomp her foot; that kind of show was for peasants. She lit blue flames in her hands, instead. Much more appropriate for the unofficial crown princess.

 

"Primarily, I taught your brother how not to fall into polar waters. And what to do, when he failed at the first lesson." His smile was shallow, his eyes just like mother's whenever Azula was doing something that father would praise her for. 

 

They both knew he'd been teaching Zuzu more. Father hadn't murd—hadn't pruned the royal tree on a whim. He'd been scared of his twelve-year-old son, for the same reasons that the streets had overflowed today, and Azula needed to know why and she needed to know now because ten wasn't very far from twelve and father was young and now that he was down to one heir he might remarry and make more. If this fat old man knew something, Azula could use it better than Zuzu had. She had always been better. She was, after all, the one who was still alive.

 

Something in Iroh's eyes went weird, like he was being soft. People didn't do that with her; it was clearly a trick. "Perhaps we could have tea together, sometime. Or a gripping game of pai sho."

 

She narrowed her eyes. Perhaps they were code words? The old man was unusually devoted to his hot leaf juice and his flower tiles. "Fine. We'll start with the… tea. But I refuse to play pai sho." 

 

"Your brother was much the same," he said, and there was something warmer in his smile. But it wasn't for her; it was for her liar of a brother, who wasn't here to make her look good anymore.

 

"And father can't know," she hurried to add. 

 

"As you command, Princess Azula." He agreed, and neither of them had to talk about why.

 

%%%

 

Operation Causally Bump Into the Princess had been a success. Now he watched, with all due nervousness, as phase two was enacted: Operation Present Her With A Recognizable Gift.

 

She turned Appa Mark III around in her hand. "Is it… a sky bison?"

 

 "Yes! Yes it is."

 

He didn't know why his beaming pride led to I'm engaged and tears and running away from him. He caught her hand, and he didn't know what he'd just ruined, but he did his best to fix it.

 

"Hey. I'm sorry, I didn't know. About the engagement thing. Could we still be friends? Because you're a pretty awesome person, Yue, and I'd like to get to know you better even if it's only for strictly platonic friendship activities—" Oh wow now she was sobbing harder. "Or, or maybe I'm not friend material, that's okay too. I, uh, I'll see you around?"

 

"I don't even—" She bit her lip on whatever was about to come out next, but Sokka was getting pretty good at interpreting half-finished trauma-based sentences. 

 

"Then why are you marrying him?" he asked, in as gentle-practical a manner as possible.

 

She ducked her head. "My father commanded me."

 

"Uh. Your father's not the one getting married." He didn't understand.

 

And she understand didn't why he didn't understand.

 

And then they both realized it.

 

"...Your women can choose who they marry?"

 

"Yours can't?" And Sokka wasn't Fire Nation, but he kind of wanted to complain about the northern savages right now.

 

"Then the one your sister is betrothed to, she choose him? That's," Yue wiped at her tears. Which did nothing to help, since there were more where those came from. "That's lovely. I'm so happy for her."

 

"...My sister is what to the who now?"

 

Yue explained. It was an explanation that quickly boiled down to Zuko being right about the necklace, hoo boy was that an awkward gift in retrospect, and yes he would politely take it back as she blushed and they both agreed not to mention it again. Unless in the future, when they knew each other better. If it became worth mentioning again.

 

Which would be a little hard, with her already being engaged.

 

Sokka was learning a lot tonight. About the Northern Tribe's culture, and why Gran-Gran had run, and women's rights. Which they needed some of, up in here. 

 

"Hey," he said, squeezing her hand. "Worse come to worst, feel free to hop a bison south with us. I've got a grandmother who would love to meet you." 

 

She laughed, and scrubbed at her eyes again. And hey, what do you know—she really was done crying. 

 

They stayed up on the bridge awhile longer. Their activity was talking softly, and standing a chaste distance away, and watching the moon. Man, Yue had some crazy childhood stories about the moon. He just had the fishhooks story.

 

"Two fishhooks?" she covered her mouth with her sleeve when she laughed. It was a really cute habit of hers, like even when she was making fun of him she was perfectly polite about it.

 

"Well, now I regret this anecdote. But it made sense at the time, okay?"

 

Neither of them noticed the teen, out strolling after his objectively awesome day, too wound up to sleep. He'd been humming to himself—some weird song that had gotten stuck in his head earlier in the day. He stopped when he saw the silhouettes on the bridge. Wouldn't want to harsh on another man's date. He was just going to quietly walk under the bridge, and straight on by, when he recognized those voices. Both those voices. 

 

Hahn clenched his fists. So she didn't love him, couldn't even stand him, was revolting from daddy's orders by seeing some badly dressed trash the same night they'd been engaged. Fine, whatever. He'd only been in this for her assets, anyway.

 

It had never felt so good to punch a punk. That white-ribboned betrothal necklace the guy had in his hand went flying into the canal where it belonged, down where it would never touch his woman. So did the punk. Yue was yelling at him to stop, and people were coming out from the houses and holding him back as they helped the shivering wannabe bride-thief out of the water, but it didn't matter. Hahn would get what was his. He already had.

 

%%%

 

Azula did not creep into the family shrine. She strolled in. After dark. Between guard patrols. Hours past when her servants had tucked her into bed.

 

Inside the palace Fire Temple was the room where everyone important who died got to sit on a shelf and listen to the family prayers for eternity. Or until they were so old that no one cared about them anymore, and the Sages took their ashes away to wherever people who didn't matter went. 

 

Zuko's urn sat next to Lu Ten's. It was black with a red sheen. Inside was only wood ash, she knew. Azula looked at it, wondering if this was what Zuzu had felt about his ferrekeet. It was twisty and awful, and she didn't like it at all.

 

%%%

 

Sokka was the last to stomp back into the room that night. Soggily. He could tell, by a glance at the other faces here, that stomping was a sentiment shared among multiple parties. They all looked up at him from their floppy pile on that giant what-even-was-that-animal rug in front of the fire. Zuko was still bundled up like he was going to catch frostbite if he lost a layer; Katara was sprawled next to him, so warm she'd shed down to equatorial Earth Kingdom levels of clothing. Aang was next to them, encouraging a despondent Hawky to fold her comically stiff wings back next to her side. ...Had she kept them hilariously stretched out since he'd put that sweater on? No Sokka, bad Sokka, focus Sokka. Less hypothermia, Sokka.

 

He stripped out of his own wet shirt and pants, and rolled up in a corner of white feather-fluff to shiver. Even better idea: he grabbed his firebender nephson over for flailing, protesting, super-heated cuddle-grumps.

 

"I hate you," Zuko said, when he'd finally surrendered to the inevitable. "What did you do, go swimming?"

 

"I think it should be apparent to all parties that the answer to that was an involuntary yes ," Sokka sniffed. "Now do the fire breath thing."

 

He wasn't sure if Zuko actually did the fire breath thing, or was just an angrily steaming parka puffball in his arms. Same effect, either way. There was something a little different about his nephson, though.

 

"...Hey, is it just me, or did your scar heal like three years since—you snuck out as soon as I left. Didn't you."  

 

Zuko lifted his head, bumping Sokka's chin. "I was testing their city security. They failed."

 

"...Uh-huh."

 

"Why did you go swimming, Sokka?" Aang asked, still messing with Hawky's wings. The adorably miserable bird wasn't even bothering to murder-peck him. 

 

"Ah yes, that." Sokka sat up a little straighter. "Hey, everyone. You know what this tribe needs?"

 

"Rights for women," Katara snapped. 

 

"Equal rights," Aang corrected. 

 

"To meet my sister," Zuko said.

 

"Right," Sokka rubbed his hands together. They were all on the same page, then. "So how are we going to do this?"

 

%%%

 

Ozai posthumously rescinded his son's banishment. Quietly, but publicly, with no particular fanfare to remind the nation of who sent a fire-scarred twelve-year-old on an impossible quest in the first place.

 

The clouds over the Fire Nation cleared as the first such proclamation was nailed up. No one took particular notice of this fact. 

Chapter Text

"I don't think 'politics-bending' is a thing, little buddy," Sokka said, still snuggled up on his personal heatpack as the Gaang lounged in front of the fire. Aforementioned heatpack was not struggling nearly as much as he could be. You're stupid and you're going to freeze to death so I guess you can hug me this time but don't get ideas Prince Peasant. 

 

"Uncle said it is," Zuko grumped. Which was clearly a final, so-that-was-the-way-the-world-worked sort of statement. He took in a breath, and let it out, and Sokka melted a little at how extra-toasty he'd become. 

 

"So what should we do?" Aang asked, trying to lure Momo over with the promise of snacks. But the lemur had the same heatpack as Sokka, and was not moving until summer came 'round again. 

 

"I don't know," Zuko said. "I'm terrible with politics. Why do you think I'm here?"

 

Sokka gave his nephson a that-sounded-like-trauma squeeze. Zuko gave his uncdad an elbow to the solar plexus. Sokka wheezed.

 

"What would your Uncle do?" Katara prompted instead.

 

Heatpack McSharpElbows took some thinking breaths as he contemplated this. Sokka and Momo puddled at the resulting heat. "Probably say something like 'The leaf does not see the tree, but the tree counts each branch before spring begins.'"

 

"What does that mean?" Sokka continued to wheeze.

 

"I don't know. But we should figure out what we're trying to do before we start. We want girls to be able to fight if they want, and boys to be able to heal, and Princess Yue to upset centuries of tradition in the name of her personal quest for power, right?"

 

"Close enough," Sokka agreed. 

 

His nephew leaned back against his chest, scrunched up his almost-healed-except-for-the-huge-scar-but-seriously-that-was-a-big-improvement face, and thought .

 

His thinking was warm, and toasty, and started like this: "Princess Yue is the easy one. You just have to marry her, Sokka."

 

"...I what now?"

 

"But first you have to take down the competition."

 

"...This is what your Uncle would do?"

 

"Uncle is the Dragon of the West."

 

"I don't actually know what that means," Sokka said, with the feeling he was about to find out. 

 

%%% 

 

Chief Arnook received word with his morning meal that Prince Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe had nearly drowned last night, and had requested a formal meeting with him this morning.

 

The meeting was extortion, and made only plausibly deniable attempts to hide the fact.

 

"You wish me to break my daughter's engagement," Arnook repeated, with narrowed eyes.

 

The Southern boy shrugged. "I wish you to consider alternative options. She's been engaged for a day, and it hasn't even been made public yet. What is public is that her stellar fiance dumped one of the Avatar's entourage into polar waters for no reason."

 

"Hahn tells it differently."

 

"Pretty sure Princess Yue and all those witnesses tell it the same way I do."

 

They did. Arnook crossed his arms, and waited.

 

"Look, I know you haven't known me long. But you have known Hahn, and I'm betting that's a strike against him. Let me guess: powerful family, good connections, strengthens your own political position, and you're young enough that you'll comfortably hold onto all the political power until your grandkids are ready to take over, totally skipping him for any Chiefly title inheritance. 'Prince Hahn' is going to be a prince forever, because anyone who impulsively tries to murder a foreign dignitary and friend of the World Spirit isn't the kind of guy you'd let make any actual decisions for your tribe. Am I wrong?"

 

He wasn't. Arnook waited.

 

"So. You can announce your future son-in-law to the tribe, right after he publicly boomeranged himself in the head. Or."

 

"'Or,'" Arnook repeated. 

 

The boy flashed a grin. "You could consider an alternative candidate. One from a powerful family, with global connections and a war fleet behind him, who won't single-handedly ruin your tribe if you have a heart attack before your grandchildren are ready to inherit. And oh hey: I respect your daughter as a human being. I'll only ask her with your blessings, but if she says no, I won't make her cry on bridges in the middle of the night. All I'm asking is for you to consider my proposal." 

 

"And what proposal would that be?" Arnook asked.

 

"No, literally." The boy pulled a carved necklace from his pocket; an abstract piece reminiscent of a flying bison. "My proposal."

 

%%%

 

"Uh, no," Sokka said. "Veto. Abort. The whole point is to not put Yue under marry-this-guy-or-else pressure. Even if I am the objectively better option. I'm not forcing her to marry me. Or me to marry her. I am very young to be doing the getting married thing. Plus, Suki. You remember Suki? The girl who made out with me after you burned her village down?"

 

"You what?" his precious baby sister had very different priorities. "I thought you were running a fever!"

 

"Point is, there are many eligible women in the world, and only one Sokka. I'm not sure I'm ready to commit."

 

"You're not committing," Zuko huffed (it was an indignant, toasty sort of huff). "You're stalling for time."

 

"Not sure how that's gonna help us, little buddy." 

 

Zuko rolled his eyes and, aww, he didn't flinch at the way it pulled at his scar. His nephson was all healed up and able to be condescending with his whole face again. "'The rhubarb-carrot grows deep roots beneath the ground.'" 

 

"...What does that mean?"

 

"I don't know. But get Fire Flake out of the stupid pet sweater, we need her."

 

%%%

 

"I don't like either of them," Pakku said, when Arnook went to him for council. "But at least Hakoda's son isn't an idiot."

 

It did not occur to either of them until much later to ask for Princess Yue's opinion. 

 

%%%

 

Princess Yue lay on her bed. The moon was new (her face full to Agni, as they spoke of many things) , and the stars brighter for it (a thousand other cousins waiting in the sky).  

 

A hawk pecked at her window. Not a messenger snowy-owl-hawk, warm in its plump white feathers, but a shivering creature of thin red. 

 

Fire Flake, said its message carrier. 

 

Want to join a revolution slumber party? said the note inside. 

 

The moon showed the tiniest of waxing slivers, peeking with interest through the window outside. The princess didn't notice; she was rummaging for her best pajamas.  

 

%%%

 

Lieutenant Jee. Was trying to decide whether he was more bored, or more cold. The Northern Water Tribe's hospitality leant itself so well to each, it was hard to decide. At least his cell walls were good for icing his bruises. And he hadn't even been given any new ones, since that game last night. He was pretty sure it was last night. Either that, or they'd been skimping on his meals.

 

The ice opened with an overly dramatic crack. The General's pai sho pen pal stood in the opening, posed like a twelve year old about to throw a tantrum.

 

"Out," he said. 

 

Jee reclined against the ice wall, crossing one ankle over the other in a display of doing fine here, thanks.  

 

The man threw a coat at him. Which… was not generally a prelude to interrogations. Or executions for figuring out nation-spanning secrets he wasn't supposed to know.

 

"It's been a long time since I've sparred with a firebender," Pakku growled. 

 

Jee shrugged on the coat, and stretched out his legs. Cracked his neck. Flicked a bit of lint off his sleeve.

 

The cranky old master hit him with an ice spike in the back, one that sent him stumbling out of the cell. Jee rubbed at the spot as they walked. Nodded to the guards that scowled at him. Winced a little when they hit the sunlight. It was too damn cold to be so damn sunny. 

 

The waterbender led him to a private training ground, and then proceeded to use Jee's bones to test its structural integrity. Or maybe that was the other way around. 

 

"What's got you on the warpath?" 

 

"Children," Pakku snarled. 

 

Lieutenant Jee, fully able to appreciate the sentiment, wiped blood from the corner of his mouth. "You'll miss them when they're gone."

 

"I sincerely doubt that."

 

I did, too, he didn't say. Instead, he took his stance. "Another round?"

 

The man narrowed his eyes. "You seem awfully dedicated to this."

 

"Wouldn't want to disappoint my admiral," Jee said, meaning something entirely different than what the waterbender heard. 

 

"Hmm," the old bastard said, and put Jee in the ice again.

 

He got back up. He'd seen some lessons in determination these past months, and they'd had the unfortunate habit of sticking. Zhao was coming; Jee needed to brush up on his combat forms. 

 

%%%

 

Chief Arnook received word at lunch that the Avatar wished to speak with him and his council. 

 

For some reason, he brought his girlfriend to the meeting with him. 

 

For some reason, this gave Arnook a headache before either of them even spoke. 

 

%%%

 

"Pakku's easy, too," Zuko said. "He's just like every royal tutor I've ever had. He'll tell you you're useless and refuse to teach you and complain to the Fire L— the Chief, and you'll get punished, and if you hug me Sokka I will let you freeze to death, but then in a few days he'll be back to teaching you because he has to. And besides, you're going to be awesome once you're trained. Both of you are; Aang is the Avatar, and Katara is Katara. Do you really want that jerk taking credit for being your master?"

 

"But he's the best," Aang said. 

 

"But you're a beginner. What's wrong with the second best?"

 

Sokka, meanwhile, was just smiling that his nephson had recognized personal trauma before Sokka had squeezed him. This was just like training a polar bear pup. 

 

%%%

 

"The… second best," Arnook echoed. "Have you found Master Pakku's teachings to be lacking in some way, Avatar Aang?"

 

"Well, no," the Avatar too-readily admitted. "But he doesn't think he's good enough to teach a woman how to train her chi for combat bending."

 

"Excuse me?" Master Pakku said, in a tone that redefined 'dry ice'.

 

%%%

 

"Just throw everything he's said back into his face and smile while you do it."

 

"That's… what your Uncle would do?" Katara asked, with some hesitance.

 

"Azula," Zuko corrected. "She's better with people. Uncle just makes them tea until they give in."

 

"You are going to be a terrifying Fire Lord, nephson," the stupid huggy backrest behind him said.

 

"Thank you?" Zuko said, because that was exactly the kind of compliment a Fire Prince was supposed to receive. He didn't really get it, though—he was just saying what Uncle would have. 

 

%%%

 

"Master Pakku explained to us why your tribe don't teach women," the Avatar continued, with far too much cheer, "and it makes perfect sense! Fighting chi messes up healing chi and healing chi messes up fighting chi. But see, airbenders are naturally closer to healers in their nature, so I'm going to ask Master Yugoda to be my sifu so my airbending doesn't get messed up by all this waterbendy-fighting. And Katara's chi is already super messed up because she didn't have a teacher like Master Pakku to set her on the right path. We talked it over last night, and we decided that she should just keep being a fighter so she doesn't get even more chi-twisted. What would that even do, switching back and forth? Make her chi paths into a pretzel? I'll have to ask Master Yugoda…"

 

"Healer. Yugoda," Pakku corrected, through gritted teeth.

 

"Healer," the Avatar sighed, smiling. "I can't wait until I earn that title. There's so many bending masters in the world, but I've never met an honored healer before."

 

Arnook could have used a healer for this migraine. "I don't believe you understand, Avatar Aang. We do not train women as fighters. It is a part of our culture, just as the separation of women and men into different temples was yours. I had hoped that the Avatar would show more respect for the differing traditions of other nations."

 

The boy's face fell. "Oh. So you don't have any masters who can help Katara?"

 

%%%

 

"They're just going to shoot us down," Katara said.

 

"And I really really want to heal," Aang added.

 

Sokka could feel a huff building in his nephson's chest. He patted that foofy-short hair. "It's okay, little buddy, I think I can field this one. Hey Aang, how many Avatars are there in the world?"

 

"Uh, one?"

 

"Hey Katara, how many evil looming Fire Nation fleets are closing in on us?"

 

"Also one," she said, with a slow grin.

 

"Maybe," Sokka said, "just maybe, you should remind them of that."

 

%%%

 

"That's too bad," the Avatar said, sharing a glance with the girl before turning his attention back to the council, and… bowing. "Thank you for your hospitality. If it's not too much trouble, may we stay for another few days? There's a lot of supplies we have to gather before we can set out."

 

"Set out," Arnook repeated. 

 

"For the Earth Kingdom," the girl put in, like she couldn't restrain herself. "Our Fire Nation Advisor informed us there's another tribe of waterbenders living there."

 

%%%

 

"Creepy swamp people," the firebender shuddered. "I went to them before the South Pole and it was—the bugs were bigger than mosquito-ticks , and they wore less clothing than Uncle in a hot spring, and the swamp was, was—" 

 

"Worse than the spirit swamp?" Sokka guessed.

 

Zuko shuddered again. 

 

There was a polite knock on the door. Aang hurried to open it; outside was Princess Yue, regal in comfy white pajamas with fur trim, carrying a shivering messenger hawk wrapped up in a blanket like the world's beakiest baby.

 

"Princess Yue!" Sokka greeted her. "Come in, come in! We were just deciding how best to threaten your tribe with the withdrawal of the Avatar's backing if all your men don't stop being dicks."

 

"It's phase one," Katara added, grinning.

 

"I see," the princess replied, with a sort of quiet dignity, and a crescent moon glint in her eyes that implied she really did see, just maybe not the same things Sokka did, and he could just look into those eyes until his nephson headbutted his chin and made his teeth clack together over the tip of his tongue.

 

"Stop being gross," Zuko grumped. "Princess Yue. Would you care to join our War Council?"

 

The Princess swept her eyes over their piles of fur and their fire-that-actually-hadn't-needed-any-new-wood-for-awhile-was-Zuko-doing-that and their grins and his own extremely shirtless self and then she was blushing and he was blushing and did it count as partial nudity if he was wearing the Prince of the Fire Nation over his chest? No. He was going with 'no.'

 

"I would love to," she said, and smoothed her skirts out. She settled down in the space Aang and Katara had made for her in their ring, kneeling with grace and poise and just a dash of mischief. 

 

%%%

 

"You would abandon us on the eve of battle," Arnook said, like the words sat less strangely in the air than in his mind. 

 

"We wouldn't be much use helping you fight if you don't have any masters who can train us," the girl continued to speak. The Avatar seemed content to let her be his voice. "Unless, perhaps, that second-best master cares less about what's under my clothes…?"

 

This conversation was making the chief uncomfortable, on many levels.

 

"You would blackmail our tribe," Master Pakku sneered, "for your petty self-gain? The fate of the world, thrown out for one girl throwing a temper tantrum because she can't accept the role she was born to?"

 

The Avatar raised his hand. "One boy, too."

 

Pakku's lips curled into the technical definition of a smile. "You think you're suited to fighting, girl?"

 

%%%

 

"Remember," Zuko said, "the more compliments you give, the more insulting you'll be."

 

"Only if they catch it," Princess Yue put in, her legs kicking in the air behind her as she lay on the furs. "...What?"

 

"You do have a very sincere voice," Sokka did-not-sigh, because his ribs were bruised from his nephson training the sigh-at-pretty-girls-being-casually-badass response out of him.

 

Yue smiled, and there was nothing in the world that would have stopped Sokka from tanking that elbow jab just to bask in her reflected glow a little longer.

 

%%%

 

"If the venerable Master Pakku wishes this humble girl to give a demonstration, perhaps he would be so gracious as to step outside," Katara said, her lips curled into the technical definition of unless you're too pig-chicken.

 

Two minutes later, Katara pulled a water whip on the master waterbender. Also, a knife. 

And there was something very wrong in thinking the Fire Nation would be proud of me as she fought for the rights of Water Tribe women.

 

"That's my necklace," Pakku said, when he'd stopped her from fighting, but not beaten her. Never beaten her. 

 

His voice was small, like a seal-puppy waiting to be kicked. 

 

%%%

 

"So hey, Katara, fun fact," her brother's voice was as high as it had been before his last growth spurt, and he was looking anywhere except at the Princess. "Fun, not at all super awkward fact. Did you know you're wearing a betrothal necklace?"

 

"A what now?"

 

%%% 

 

"No wonder she left you," Kana's granddaughter said, and walked away.

 

%%%

 

Lieutenant Jee. Felt a lot like he was bearing the brunt of someone else's problems.

 

%%%

 

"Why did you do that you can't do that don't ever do that again he's a fire—a, a waterbending master, and you disrespected him, and challenged him to a fight, and I didn't tell you to do that—"

 

Everyone hugged Zuko until he stopped shaking, including Princess Yue. Zuko hugged back, but only Katara. Who he might or might not ever let go of again. It really depended on whether she looked like she would challenge another old geezer. Which, yes. Yes she did.

 

Speaking of challengers, not-yet-a-prince Hahn was watching their hug with rapidly narrowing eyes. And oh hey, Sokka's hand was incidentally touching the Princess' arm. He raised a want to make something of it? brow.

 

Oh boy, did Hahn ever.

 

"Soaka, or whatever your name is—"

 

"Sokka," Sokka corrected, disentangling himself just enough from the group hug so that he presented a small, separate target. He rolled back his shoulders and channeled his inner royal, through the only example he'd ever known. "Prince Sokka. Is your peasant brain too small to remember two syllables?" 

 

Sokka spoke this quietly and calmly, with only a hint of a smirk on his face. Which was all the people around them saw, right before Hahn bellowed in disproportionate rage and attacked him.

 

The humble Prince Sokka graciously allowed the benevolent Princess Katara to take the punk down. A few months ago, it would have hurt his pride to have his baby sister defend him. Both for the 'baby' and for the 'sister' parts. Now?

 

Now, he just enjoyed the show. The very very public show.

 

%%%

 

"I will do whatever you think best, father," his daughter replied serenely, which was not exactly a heartbroken response to having her engagement put off. "There is another matter I wished to discuss with you, if you have the time."

 

Arnook always had the time, for his daughter. She demanded so little of it, after all.

 

"I've been so scared since I heard of the invasion. Not for myself, but for our people—"  

 

%%%

 

Prince Sokka had fallen asleep, still leaning forward on Prince Zuko. Agni's young son was nodding off slowly, leaning back against Sokka, startling awake with a glare at the occasional sound of soft, sister-ish giggling. 

 

The Princesses sat together on a couch across the room, a single fur spread over both their legs, the Avatar asleep between them. They did as all girls left unattended at slumber parties did: plotted the systematic overthrow of the patriarchy. 

 

"If they think we're weak," Katara said, "let's shove women-are-weak guilt down their throats and watch them choke."

 

"I like how you think, Princess Katara."

 

"Likewise, Princess Yue."

 

Zuko startled awake, then nodded off again. He dreamed dreams of not-messing-with-women.

 

%%%

 

Chief Arnook had had no such dreams. 

 

"—our healers, carrying our injured men to safety, but who will protect them? Our fighters should be free to focus on the defense of the city, not on the burden of guarding able-bodied waterbenders—"

 

But he was starting to think today was a waking nightmare.

 

"—self-defense only, of course. Enough to escape, and find shelter elsewhere. Or to hold the Fire savages off at the healing huts until our men can arrive. Did you know that in the Fire Nation, they consider women combatants? The barbarians—" 

 

Arnook was not sure why everything his daughter said made complete sense without making any sense at all. And why he wanted to say no, even as she kept serenely laying out reason after reason he must say yes.

 

"It's unseemly for women to fight."

 

"More unseemly then for them to die cowering on the ice of their own home, father?" There was something too-blue in his daughter's eyes, and too-white in her hair. Too much light in a room that was by all accounts as dim as it had been a moment before. 

 

"Self-defense only. And only for those who wish it; I won't force this on any."

 

"Of course not, father. No one should be forced into a role they do not fit."

 

%%%

 

"You actually said that? Right to his face?" Sokka grinned. "Think he caught it?"

 

Yue blushed. 

 

He held up a hand. And kept holding it. After a few awkward moments, he taught the isolated Northern Princess all about the ancient Earth Kingdom art of high fives. 

 

%%%

 

Pakku was informed that he would not be taking on just the one uncouth girl, but as many as showed up to his school for training. The other bending schools had been ordered much the same. Self-defense bending, for their healers. 

 

This was a slippery slope. As a waterbending master, Pakku had much experience with the concept.

 

%%%

 

The cell wall crashed to the floor. Lieutenant Jee cracked a bleary eye. It was the only part of him that moved. He'd earned a fur blanket after his last session of being this man's therapist, and he intended to stay under it. 

 

"Up," the waterbender demanded.

 

Jee slowly pushed himself up. The ice under him creaked exactly like one man calling another out as a drama king. 

 

%%%

 

The first class was only Kana's granddaughter. The first week of classes; only her. But other girls started watching from the sidelines—whispering, giggling, and in all ways comporting themselves in a manner unfit for fighters. Not just girls, either; full-grown woman, demonstrating that the inherent silliness of their gender did not grow out of them with time. 

 

The first to show any spine—second, really, after Kana's girl, whose progress spoke well of her grandmother—stepped forward the next week. A thin-faced, homely thing. Teenage, likely set in whatever poor habits Yugoda had instilled in her.

 

She put five ice daggers through the center of his target with a flick of her fingers. "Party trick," she said, by way of explanation. "And I have to walk home alone at night a lot."

 

Pakku wondered, with no real interest, how fast she could fire. 

 

...Very fast, as it turned out.

 

"Teach me that, and I'll show you how to stab someone in more interesting ways," Kana's granddaughter said. They clasped arms on the deal, disregarding his presence as if they didn't need him to learn. Pakku cleared his throat. 

 

A handful of others drifted in as the days went on, despite the way his boys jostled them, and sneered, and whispered at how they were good for a few things but marriage wasn't one. 

 

Pakku buried that particular gentleman in the snow up to his neck, and left him there. The other boys got a lesson in etiquette, reinforced with two hours of early morning combat practice against their firebending guest, before the girls were due to arrive. 

 

"Must you smile like that?" Pakku asked.

 

"You just told me I can throw fire at all the punk children I want," Iroh's man continued baring his teeth in an entirely appalling way. "It's Fire Festival come early."

 

By the time the girls had arrived, his firebender was locked back in his cell humming to himself, and his boys were appropriately contrite. 

 

More girls joined after that. Many more. As if the mere act of not tolerating disrespect from anyone in his classroom made them feel comfortable imposing upon his lessons. 

 

One particularly small girl hugged him, and thanked him for the lesson. Pakku wiped at his clothes as she ran off, and found Kana's girl watching him with an expression. One impertinently close to a smile. 

 

"Gran-Gran would be proud of how much you've changed," she said. "She's single again, you know."

 

%%%

 

"Why are you taking me hunting," Jee asked, making it more a resigned statement than a question as he trudged behind the waterbender, carrying enough gear for two men. 

 

"Because I want to kill something," Pakku replied, carrying enough gear for zero men. And talk about my feelings went unsaid.

 

"...Can I be the thing you kill," Jee requested. 

 

"No. Ah good; polar bear geese."

 

The most terrifying animal Jee had ever seen reared up from the snow, its sinuous neck thick with muscles and topped by a tooth-filled beak. 

 

Honk, it said, and the rest of the flock rose with the flutter-scrape of wings and claws. Then Jee was fighting for his life, back to back with the bastard who'd brought him out here as a pack-mule.

 

It was the kind of talking that Jee could get behind.

 

%%%

 

"'The hippo-crane will not be moved from its mud, but when it steps on the fallen branch, the clever fox-monkey need but jump on the other end.'" Uncle said, via Zuko.

 

"What, I ask again, does that mean."

 

"You're the one who keeps asking for proverbs, you figure it out."

 

"How can I, they're all nonsensical Fire Nation proverbs based in cultural assumptions I don't share!"

 

"They're Uncle's proverbs," Zuko said. "He's his own culture."

 

"...Give me another. One of these has to make sense."

 

"They're so sweet together," Yue said, as Katara sat behind her, running a comb through her hair. Sleepovers had become a regular occurrence. "He's right, though. If we wish to accomplish anything else, we must act while we still have the leverage of the coming fleet."

 

"Is that what that meant?" Aang asked. He was sitting behind Katara, combing her hair. Momo sat on Aang's shoulders, staring at the Avatar's bald scalp and looking vaguely put out of this grooming loop. 

 

"Phase two?" Katara asked. 

 

Yue looked at her, and she looked back, and Aang looked too, and Sokka flopped down on the furs across the room and groaned about Uncle making no sense ( "I know!" )

 

"Phase two," everyone not hung up on proverbs agreed.

 

%%%

 

Hakoda's son had begun attending council meetings. No one was quite sure who had given him permission to; everyone assumed it was the person he was sitting next to on any given day. Or the chief. By the time it was ascertained that the permission-granter was himself , he was already offering too valuable of suggestions to casually ignore. Even if his fleet information was clearly coming from the Avatar's Fire Nation Advisor.

 

His suggestions were good enough that nothing he said could be lightly dismissed. Particularly not when rumor had it that he was, perhaps, to be their future chief. 

 

"So all those kids are going to be huddling in shelters when the fleet attacks?" the boy asked, standing so he could peer more effectively over the city map. "Including the waterbenders?"

 

"You would have us send our children into battle?" a councilor asked.

 

"Naw. I'd train them to heal."

 

"The healing apprentices will already be in the huts—"

 

"Uh, yeah. The girls. But what about the boys? That's a huge untapped resource you've got literally sitting on ice, waiting to be utilized," the boy said, poking at the shelter marks. "Twice the healers, gentleman. Think about it."

 

Not so easily dismissed at all. 

 

%%%

 

The first boy to throw a tantrum at being forced into a class with girls was given a look by Yugoda. It was a look that made him feel like he'd deeply disappointed her, but she knew he was a good child under it all.

 

The boy crossed his arms, turned his face away, and largely shut up.

 

%%%

 

Sokka low-fived Yue as he left the emptying council room. She returned the gesture, and went in. 

 

%%%

 

At least his daughter had waited until the other men were gone, Arnook reflected. It wouldn't do for them to see him caving so easily; they would think him water-whipped.

 

"—What if the brutes were to invade the shelters, while our men are still fighting? Our non-bending mothers must be able to hold them off long enough for support to arrive. As a princess, it is my duty to lead by example—" 

 

%%%

 

Being ordered to teach did not equate to teaching well . Not all were as tolerant of change as Pakku. Not all allowed for such tolerance. Not all sent the girls who came to them home with the same number of bruises as the boys who'd come to them, or in the same places. 

 

"And that's enough of that," Sokka said, to his growing night class. "As you can see, two swords are flashy overkill and I completely meant to faceplant the snow. It was a valuable demonstration. Now, advanced class, grab your practice weapons and head off with Zuko. Newcomers, you're with me."

 

"...Are you serious?" a girl with a black eye that had come from training, but not from training, said. She was eyeing Sokka's fan.

 

"Deadly," Sokka grinned, and showed them how to disarm a man before he even realized a demure little lady was packing heat as well as fashion. 

 

%%%

 

"Get up," the trainer ground out. "You want to fight like a man? Want to take my time away from training our boys? Then be a man, and pick up your weapon. We're not done here."

 

The woman clutched her wrist to her chest. There were catcalls around her, and laughs, and a steadily creeping silence from the back as the crowd parted. 

 

Princess Yue and her ladies in waiting swept onto the training grounds. It was, the trainer thought stupidly, the first time he'd ever seen his princess wearing pants. She looked… strangely intimidating. 

 

"Master Jakklo," she smiled. "We've come for lessons."

 

He found it significantly harder to push around his princess, in more ways than one.

 

Who in La's name had taught her to knife fight, and did they know the word 'defense'? 

 

%%%

 

"And then you aim for the squishy bits," Princess Katara said, demonstrating. Her knife flashed in the sun, glinting a thousand colors.

 

"Is that the technical term?" Yue asked, with a sleeve hiding her smile. 

 

Her fellow princess grinned. "That's about as technical as my teacher ever got, unless she was talking about engines."

 

"I'd like to meet this woman," Yue said, unable to imagine someone whose aggression scared even this Southern Princess.

 

"Engineer Hanako is terrifying," Agni's child vouched. "And really, really loud."

 

"Don't mind him," Sokka said, with a dismissive wave. "He's two for two on meeting crazy prodigy bending princesses. I think he's waiting for you to reveal you're secretly an all-powerful demi-goddess, or something."

 

Yue laughed in a way that made Sokka laugh too, and made the fire prince scowl harder.

 

(Agni and Tui's favorites, together at the top of the world, as the axis of all things tilted back towards the sun.)

 

"Stop thinking at me," the prince glowered, and Yue laughed like moonlight.

 

%%%

 

Aang spent his mornings with Yugoda and his afternoons with Pakku. Beginner classes, both. The latter because he always showed up exhausted and he'd already been bending for hours he didn't want to demonstrate a perfect water wall again. The former because he'd been trying and trying to make the water glow and it was the first time ever that bending wasn't easy and why couldn't he do this he was the worst Avatar ever come on past lives someone had to have learned this .

 

Didn't they?

 

Was he the first healing Avatar? 

 

Maybe he would be, if he ever actually healed.

 

"As I understand it," Healer Yugoda said, "airbending is about finding another way around a problem, yes? But injuries are here, and they are not going away. They must be seen as they are, and met with bravery, for healer and patient both. Sometimes all you can do is stand firm on the ice."

 

A young mother smiled at him. In her lap, her son kept crying, because Aang couldn't heal the scrape on his arm. Aang was letting everyone down, they were all waiting for him and he couldn't do this, it was all his fault that the little boy was upset, why couldn't the other healers step in and help, why did it have to be him, he was the worst choice ever for this— 

 

(Because the other healers didn't see patients with such minor injuries. They didn't even let them into the huts unless there was an apprentice around who needed practice. So Aang was the only one who could help him, the only one that would help him.)

 

Aang dipped his fingers into the bucket, and wrapped his hand in water again. And tried to smile. If he couldn't do this right, he had to at least do what he could. He couldn't run away.

 

(He was done running away.)

 

"I know it hurts, okay? But let's get it washed off, and we'll see how bad it is. And then I can put some ice on it! Would you like your icepack to be shaped like a seal-turtle, or a flying bison, or maybe a penguin-otter! You don't have those here in the North, but they have a ton down South and you can ride them—"

 

The boy's crying turned to ragged hiccups as he listened to Aang's stories, his big blue eyes fascinated. 

 

Aang didn't even see it the first time his water glowed. When he realized the skin under his hand was whole and new-made pink, he almost cried. 

 

%%%

 

Katara spent her mornings with Pakku, and her afternoons with Yugoda. Intermediate classes, both. There was so much to learn in healing, and so much to learn in fighting, and only so many hours in the day so why couldn't she join the night classes, too?  

 

"Because you'll exhaust yourself, dear," Yugoda turned her down.

 

"Hmph," Pakku said, and didn't physically restrain her from attending. 

 

Which was where she met the Fire Nation prisoners. The Northern fleet had been catching scout ships, and using the benders who surrendered for practice. 

 

She wondered if Sokka knew.

 

%%%

 

"Yeah," her brother told her, later. "But, uh. You know what they'd been doing to the Fire Nation soldiers they caught before, right? And are still actively doing to the non-benders, because apparently non-benders are literal jetsam? But anyway, one of the first guys they caught was a good sport about the getting-beat-on-for-fun-and-practice thing, so when his execution came up at the council meeting Pakku had ideas. Ideas that didn't end in polar swimming contests. It's actually kind of hush-hush; apparently they're a wee bit afraid of political backlash from keeping enemy firebenders locked in cells made of melty ice, and don't even get me started on all the waterbent shortcuts in the architecture around here. Can we, uh. Can we not tell Zuko I knew about this? Because I wasn't hiding it from him on a permanent basis, just until I'd talked them around to my if-the-prisoners-cooperate-we-won't-kill-them-after-the-invasion deal, and the risk of Zuko Omashuing on behalf of his people was slightly lessened—"

 

%%%

 

"Hmph," Pakku said again, here and now, at the distaste in Katara's face. 

 

So Katara squared her shoulders, put on her best Waterbending Warrior face, and faced off against a man who was wrapped up in a coat and scarf even more fluffy and ridiculous looking than Zuko's, and with a new polar bear goose cloak wrapped over his shoulders to boot. She didn't know how he planned to combat bend from under all those layers. 

 

He waited for her to go first, with the surly patience of a man who didn't want to be here. It was… familiar.  

 

"...Lieutenant Jee?"

 

"Waterbender," Zuko's Captain acknowledged, his voice muffled behind his scarf. "So you made it to the north safely."

 

He said safely weird. Like he was angry about it, or jealous, or simply put-off by the notion of her not being maimed in a ditch somewhere.

 

"Does Zuko know you're here?" Katara asked. 

 

It should have taken more than five words to upset the order of the world. 

 

%%%

 

"Everyone thinks I'm dead?" Prince Zuko was glaring the glare of an obviously-not-dead person. Or a really convincing corpse. "And the Northern Tribe has been using prisoners of war for training?"

 

"What monsters," Sokka said, in a tone that convinced no one but his intended target. "Who knew."

 

Lieutenant Jee pinched the bridge of his nose, and wondered if the warm feeling in his chest meant he was coming down with a fever. He was developing some kind of facial tick from seeing the prince again, too; his lips kept trying to twitch up. 

 

%%%

 

"Everyone thinks the Fire Prince is dead," Chief Arnook echoed, at a council meeting that did not include any member of Team Avatar. "And this 'Jee' claims some believe the enemy admiral was behind it. How do we use this?"

 

%%%

 

Spring arrived. 

 

Katara was in the advanced class. All of them.

 

Aang was an intermediate healer, and Pakku's second-most frequent cause of migraines.

 

Zuko shouted a lot and brought furs down to his captured countrymen by the overbalanced armload. The guards should not have found this as endearing as they did. The prisoners felt no such compunctions in appreciating their prince, who had come back from the dead to fuss over whether they were getting enough to eat and sufficient sunlight and were they were hitting the stupid Water Tribe peasants hard enough because if they want you to fight fight. He tried to join them at practice, even though he wasn't a prisoner like them. Pakku banned him after the first incident with seed lightning.

 

He also Pohuai Strongheld an owl-hawk to tell the world he was alive. The owl-hawk lived in a corner of their room, hooting from the blankets he tossed over it every time someone came in, until Zuko admitted he didn't know how to send messages with Northern birds. The hawkers were ordered, in no uncertain terms, not to teach him. Not even if he really really wanted to learn, and had an exotic fire hawk to tempt them with. 

 

The stolen owl-hawk was well-preened and male. Fire Flake fell in love.

 

As much as Momo sniffed the air, there were no other excellent fit-for-mating lemur-bats here. Appa sympathized.

 

Sokka and Yue went on some activities. Some of these activities were bison rides, I'm borrowing Appa have fun at class Aang thanks bye, and some were weapons-shopping. Yue seemed both touched and mildly disappointed with the tasteful mother-of-pearl-handled knife he got her for her months late came-to-your-birthday-party-without-a-present present.

 

(The moon should only be outshone by the sun. The hilt Was Not As Gaudy As Her Teacher's.)

 

Black snow fell. 

 

Zhao's fleet fired a catapult. Several, actually.

 

Chief Arnook fired a messenger owl-hawk. To the question of 'how do we use this,' there was only one answer: in the most confusing manner possible. 

 

%%%

 

To the Honorable Captains of our allied Fire Navy fleet, and all soldiers loyal to the advancement of the Fire Nation,

 

Knowing the climate limitations of your messenger hawks, we bear you no ill will for this unprovoked attack, and will assure Fire Lord Ozai on your behalf that your actions have in no way impacted negotiations.

 

You may not be aware that your prince was declared dead through the treasonous actions of former Admiral Zhao; nor that Prince Zuko survived the attempt, and sought asylum in our court while the traitor forged orders and commandeered fleet resources to seek his own glory in pointless battle against a neutral nation; nor again that talks have been opened regarding the prosperous joining of our peoples through the union of Princess Yue the Moon-Touched, Daughter of Miakko and Chief Arnook of the Northern Water Tribe, and Fire Prince Zuko, Hero of Omashu, Advisor to the Avatar, Son of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai, Grandson of Chief Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe.  

 

Your ranking officers are welcome to verify the truth of our claims, and enjoy the hospitality of our court until such time as the traitor Zhao can be secured, the safety and future happiness of your prince guaranteed, and your fleet mobilized to return to Fire Nation waters.   

 

Regards,

 

Chief Arnook

 

%%%

 

They dropped a letter on each ship in the fleet. Several, actually.

 

%%%

 

"Did I. Did I just get politics-bent?" Zuko asked, staring down at a letter announcing a betrothal he hadn't been consulted on. He was a minor, after all. His legal guardian would have to agree if they were serious and this wasn't just a tactic to sow confusion in the fleet. Which it definitely was, but was it also a betrothal? Was he engaged to Yue? It was very important to know if he was engaged to a princess right now. And how could he be, if they hadn't talked with his father?

 

...Chief Arnook couldn't be serious. This was Definitely A Tactic And Nothing Else. Even if Yue had come bouncing into the last sleepover with the news that her engagement to Hahn was officially broken. And even if it was an objectively good move, since Zuko came with all the same perks as Sokka because technically he was Hakoda's grandson but he was also Ozai's eldest, so there was potential for peace between North-South-and-West but he couldn't be serious— 

 

"Nephson," Sokka said, as he returned from the latest council meeting. "Blocking your uncdad is not cool."

 

"It wasn't my idea!"

 

%%%

 

Fire Lord Ozai watched the royal hawker bow before him, and had the inexplicable urge to leave the man there. Just… never grant him permission to rise, or to deliver that blue-wrapped scroll. 

 

%%%

 

Arnook didn't expect the Fire Lord to agree. But he took some small pleasure in knowing that Ozai would have to deal with the restructuring of his world view, too.

 

The letter to Hakoda was far more incidental, but no less ice-shattering.

 

%%%

 

"They grow up so fast." Bato grinned, clapping Hakoda on the back. "Looks like we'll be in time for the wedding, eh?"

 

The Southern fleet continued its course north. Faster. 

 

 

Chapter Text

No one could get word to Pikesman Kazuto.

 

They knew where he was, of course—on the Admiral's flagship, at Zhao's side, running the man's petty errands. But they couldn't get word to him. Not with him so close to the enemy, so scrutinized.

 

It was easy to get word to Assistant Cook Dekku; a hundred people came in and out of a kitchen every day, and if some of those were visitors from other ships who stopped to chat, who cared?

 

Easy for Engineer Hanako; she was one of the few mechanics in the fleet with experience keeping engines running in arctic temperatures. It was simple enough to stop for a word with an old comrade or two on her way from ship to ship.

 

Genji was a hawker. As it grew too cold for the hawks to safely fly, the hawkers became glorified inter-ship messengers. This was a poor life choice on Zhao's part, but hardly the first he'd made, or the worst.

 

Their prince had been murdered. Their captain sent north on a scout ship that had never been meant to return. No, not thinking through his lax standards for messengers was hardly at the top of Zhao's list of errors.

 

It was the one that would get him killed, though. 

 

Crewman Teruko— Lieutenant Commander Teruko, now that she was on a ship that couldn't fathom the trail of paperwork errors and not-so-errors that had left her unranked on the Wani— yelled at her subordinates to ready the catapult again. The sooner the wall around this city went down, the sooner Zhao would get cocky about this invasion. The sooner he got cocky, the sooner her real crew would get their chance to gut him like a cow-pig.

 

No one had gotten word to Pikesman Kazuto, but they trusted he knew the plan. 

 

Between one reload and the next, letters fluttered down to the deck. Teruko, as ranking deck officer, snatched one.

 

To the Honorable Captains of our allied Fire Navy fleet, and all soldiers loyal to the advancement of the Fire Nation...

 

Lieutenant Commander Teruko was neither of those things. Nonetheless, this letter was for her. 

 

"...Do you think it's real?" one of her subordinates asked, sneaking a peek at the letter.

 

"Did I give you permission to stop? Has that catapult become self-loading? If you're so eager to test the Water Tribe's hospitality, perhaps you'd like to ride with the ammunition, Ensign!"

 

Her crew scrambled back to work. Teruko ordered the letters confiscated, and sent up to the ship's captain. 

 

It didn't matter if they were real. The plan stayed the same. They'd just… adjust the end a bit. If their prince was alive, then at least a few of them needed to live through this, in case he needed them.

 

(If there was anyone who would survive death just to make Zhao's life more difficult, it was Zuko.)

 

"She's smiling," one of her subordinates whispered to another.

 

"Work faster," the other said, with a shudder.

 

%%%

 

"Gentleman," Zhao said, behind a confident smile and gritted teeth. "I'm given to understand that some of the lower crewman have been deceived by our enemy's little stunt."

 

His assembled captains didn't speak immediately. Zhao let that silence continue, one eyebrow arched, until the first head volunteered itself for the chopping block.

 

"They have questions," one of the older captains said. "Sir."

 

The fleet had temporarily halted its assault on the northern capital's walls. If the city itself had a proper name, Zhao admitted he'd never bothered to learn it. Nor had the Fire Nation's mapmakers. 

 

"I trust you've assured them of the transparent attempt to sow dissension that this letter is," Zhao said. 

 

"Of course. Sir. But not all of us are gifted with your eloquence; perhaps you walk us through the explanation, so we can bring it back to our crewmen."

 

It was the same captain who spoke again. The men on either side of him had, wisely, frozen in place. Zhao took a moment to place him: Captain Keej, who had twenty years of service more than Zhao and three promotions less. Stationed on the Firecracker, a battlecruiser on the… ah yes, their front line.

 

He'd never much liked Captain Keej. 

 

"Of course," Zhao said. "We could, of course, start with their transparent attempt to discredit your fleet's admiral. How very convenient, that the very officer leading the assault is the one they accuse; as if I had anything to gain from assassinating our young prince. Why, I had already helped him in his quest at Kyoshi Island, and caught the Avatar for him at Pohuai Stronghold before that Blue Spirit set the boy free. They accuse me of seeking glory. What do barbarians in animal skins know of glory? I'd offered General Iroh a place of honor at my right hand, and approved his crewmen's own requests for transfer—"

 

Behind him, Pikesman Kazuto, formerly of the Wani, did not shift at all from his position. He was, of course, there to refill their cups. Zhao fond he rather enjoyed petty and misdirected vengeance, though it would have been more satisfying if the man ever fought back. He'd barely even spoken since they'd reached polar waters. One glance into his service history had explained that, but it was still terribly disappointing. 

 

"I'm already the Admiral of the entire Northern Fleet. There's no more glory for me to achieve; the rest is for our brave soldiers, and our nation."

 

Zhao wasn't expecting rousing applause, but he would have appreciated at least a shift in expression. Jealous fools, all of them. He continued.

 

"As for these claims of betrothal, and alliance—where are the messenger ships overtaking our fleet with urgent news? We move at the pace of our slowest ship; if such world-changing events had occurred in the slim few weeks our hawks have been grounded, the Fire Lord would have sent his fastest cruiser to intercept us. Ah, but perhaps all these ships were struck down in mysterious storms. Fortunately, the Northern Barbarians could simply send news to us using the scout ships they've captured, opening negotiations before we were at their very gates—Oh dear, it seems like they've been indiscriminately sinking them, instead. You all know of the bodies we've found in the waves. Too frozen to even bloat, the luckiest—the unluckiest—still clinging to flotsam from their ships as if they hoped for rescue—"

 

Pikesman Kazuto was turning that sickly pale shade. His neck was, anyway; this was precisely why Zhao had made him wear the helmet. No need to disturb their fleet's captains with the weak constitution of one coward.

 

"What strangely vicious behavior from our allies," Zhao said, his smile coming more naturally now. And his captains were doing less to keep their expressions neutral; were listening. "Strange, as well, that they didn't attempt to send their own hawks before now. Theirs clearly are not limited by this climate."

 

"As for the prince being alive—" he took in a breath. Closed his eyes, briefly, as if it pained him to continue. (The need for this conversation pained him; acting was not required.) "I was there, gentlemen. I watched his crew dive into the waves over and over again, calling his name. For hours we searched the water and the shore. General Iroh was inconsolable, raging; I arranged his transport back home myself, and can only hope he's found some solstice in sharing his grief with the family he has left. That these Northern Savages would dreg up our prince's memory, and accuse him of treason—"

 

Another breath. He was really getting a bit theatrical here, but they'd bought tickets to this play. What was a man to do?

 

"Advisor to the Avatar? Grandson of a southern pirate? They aren't even attempting to hide their mockery. And if you need any further proof—Hero of Omashu. Not New Ozai, as any loyal son of the Fire Nation would call it. Because no loyal son of the Fire Nation was consulted in writing this letter. Your prince—my prince—is dead, gentlemen.

 

"I want these letters burned. I want your own crews to do it, after you've explained every last word so that even the dullest mind can grasp the insult they've dealt to our late prince's honor. They could have written any number of lies against me, any slander they wished, and it would have been only another part of this war. But there are lines that civilized men do not cross. They've insulted our prince's memory; let their final memories be fire. When that wall goes down, we finish our prince's quest for the Avatar and destroy those that would tarnish his name."

 

Ah, there was the applause, the agreement. Zhao didn't smirk; it wouldn't have been seemly. He sent his captains off happy and well-satisfied, and finally allowed himself to touch the wineglass by his hand. 

 

The letter was all lies. Of course.

 

(If there was anyone who would survive death just to make Zhao's life more difficult, it was Zuko.)

 

"Pikesman," he said. "My glass is empty. Fix that."

 

The prince's ex-crewman obeyed. Silently, promptly. It didn't bring Zhao the same satisfaction as it used to.

 

%%%

 

(Kazuto had a plan. It… probably wasn't the same as the rest of his crew's.)

 

%%%

 

Well that had worked for all of an hour. Or, if Sokka was going to be both fair and realistic, half a day. It was nearly dusk now, on the night of a full moon, and what Fire Navy Admiral would be stupid enough to attack in winter, during the full moon, at night?

 

Given that Zhao had already checked off two of those boxes, Sokka wasn't going to hold his breath on the third. But if the man wanted to give them every possible advantage, who was he to say no?

 

He'd received an actual invite to this war council. It was a hilarious formality he appreciated on the eve of his maybe-dying-in-a-genocide. Zuko had been invited, too, in his Fire Nation advisor capacity. All of Team Avatar had, and Yue had taken the liberty of placing herself under that heading when her own invite had failed to manifest. Though it wasn't so much a liberty as a 'fact suddenly made formal by her seating arrangement opposite her father.' 

 

The council was currently split. Keep at full readiness all night, or let the bulk of their warriors sleep?

 

"The healers are ready to help," Yue demurely offered. "As there's little risk of real fighting at night, our men can sleep and be well rested for the battle tomorrow, and we can maintain full patrols. If there is any small skirmish with their scouts, our women need only hold until our men can be roused."

 

Sokka let out a tiny, barely audible appreciative sigh at her serene fighting sexism with logic face. And got an elbow in his side for the effort. As he had preemptively rolled up an extra shirt and shoved it under his shirt on his Zuko-side for padding, this was, and continued to be, an ineffective deterrent to admiring the Fire Prince's fiancee. 

 

The council argued circles around itself, finally settling on graciously allowing some women to stand watch, but only with a Proper Man in each group for supervision lest they faint at the first sight of the enemy or something-something. Sokka was too busy worrying over Katara's too-sharp smile to really pay attention. Thus he was blinded-sided when Arnook turned to Team Avatar, and brought up the next point of discussion. 

 

Not to Team Avatar. Just to his nephson.

 

"I have asked you this before, Prince Zuko, and the time is past for you to answer. Your fleet—"

 

"It's not my fleet," the prince muttered, at Sokka's side.

 

"—is here. Our nations are at war. Whose side do you fight for?"

 

His nephson squared his shoulders, and sat up as straight and potentially suicidal as a twelve-year-old could.

 

"My nation's."

 

Which is how Zuko volunteered himself to spend the rest of this siege down in the ice cells with the other Fire Nation prisoners. This seemed to reassure the Northerners, but was nowhere close to where the rest of Team Avatar could keep an eye on him. Sokka looked at Katara who looked at Aang who looked at Yue, and there was a great big circle of looks that required no interpretation. Except if you were an old man still convinced that children weren't Omashu-level threats, apparently.

 

"He won't be harmed," Arnook promised them.

 

Which was a nice sentiment and all, but not really what any of them had been worried about.

 

They let Zuko bring down lots of blankets. Sokka took the liberty of searching the depths of those warm fuzzy wraps, and confiscated one pair of dao swords and a blue spirit mask. 

 

"No theme songing your way out of this one, nephson. Stay."

 

"Stay safe," Zuko countered with, and initiated a hug.  

 

Which meant this was officially the end of the world, and the end of the world was warm and cuddly and a little too tight around his ribs. So. That was nice to establish. 

 

He left Zuko locked up with the cranky lieutenant. Time to join Katara and Yue on Aang-guarding duty in the oasis. Though honestly, he wasn't sure that trying get spirits involved in a human war was the world's best idea. 

 

That might have just been his experience with angry pandas and giant elbow-leeches talking. 

 

%%%

 

The walls fell the next day. It wasn't unexpected.

 

The pikesman who surrendered to the first Water Tribe warriors he saw? Slightly less expected.

 

%%%

 

Pikesman Kazuto was a coward. He'd survived the loss of his first ship by jumping over the rail while the rest of his crew was being butchered by wolf-helmed nightmares. He'd weasel-ratted out a child to Admiral Zhao's men just because she'd been wearing blue. (And because she'd been a terrifying waterbender, but he if he'd just trusted his commanding officers it would have been fine.) He hadn't climbed a ladder in a storm to save Helmsman Kyo; he'd just stood on deck watching as a twelve-year-old did, and then he'd been too much of a coward to even be the first to check for a pulse— 

 

He hadn't spoken out against his transfer to Admiral Zhao's ship. When his second ship had gone up in flames, he hadn't left his new posting. He'd just stood sentry on the towering deck of Zhao's battleship, watching the dark figures of his former crew diving into the waves over and over again like that would bring their prince back.

 

(He wasn't going back into the waves. He was never going back in. Water sapped your strength little by little, you couldn't fight it or escape it once it had you, not until the next ship came to pull you out and you could only pray their flag was red—)

 

He hadn't spoken up at Zhao's meeting with his captains. He could have, even though he didn't have proof of what everyone on the Wani knew, that Zhao had murdered their prince and was now flaunting the certain knowledge of Zuko's death to disprove the enemy's letter with absolute confidence.

 

If he wasn't a coward, he would have killed the man. He was using Kazuto like a valet; Kazuto brought him his meals, tidied his room, helped him take off his armor. It would have been easy, if he wasn't—

 

If he wasn't a coward, he would have told the man where to shove it when he'd first been handed his transfer orders. Or at least after the Wani had blown up. 

 

If he wasn't a coward, Kyo would still be able to walk.

 

If he wasn't a coward, he would have died with his first crew.

 

Instead he'd of put himself on the Ocean's mercy, and the Ocean had spared him. The water had been cold enough to kill, he'd seen the enemy ships hunting other survivors in the waves, and the odds of any friendly ship finding him in time—

 

The Water Tribe had attacked his ship, and the Water Tribe's patron spirit had spared the life of a Fire Nation soldier who'd been desperate enough to pray to anything that night. He hadn't understood why. Not until he'd tidied up an Admiral's room, and picked a few locks that were easy for a colony slum brat to get around, and found out.

 

"The—the—" he stuttered, because he was a coward.

 

The Water Tribe woman narrowed her eyes at him, and the shaking hands he'd raised, and the spear he'd dropped. He'd heard that the Water Tribe didn't let their women fight, but he'd met Katara and now there was this young woman with her terrifying ice-knife throwing wrist flicks and he was trying very hard not to look at the new cuts in his coat and just how much red came from the uniform and how much came from him, and part of his mind calmly accepted that "the Water Tribes repress their women" was just another piece of propaganda. The rest of his mind gibbered uncontrollably, because he was a coward even though he'd made it this far, snuck in with the ground troops and found somewhere isolated enough that he stood a chance of not getting attacked either by their people or his own before he could get his message across— 

 

"The Admiral—" Pikesman Kazuto swallowed. And closed his eyes, so he didn't have to see cold blue eyes and enemy about-to-kill-me when he spoke. "The Admiral is going to—"

 

Which is the point where a bone club hit the side of his head. Suffice it to say, he did not see it coming.

 

"You need to be more aggressive with them if you want to fight, girl," the Water Tribe man growled.

 

"I think he was trying to tell me something, boy," a woman who'd never been that great of a healer but was loving life on the front lines replied. "Don't you dare hit him again, I'm bringing him down to the other prisoners."

 

If she had been a better healer, maybe the cursory water she ran over the soldier's head would have been enough to wake him sooner. Instead, he came to sense-by-sense: cold air on his face, something warm wrapped around him. Dim blue light like it was filtering through ice.

 

...Because it was filtering through ice.

 

Someone fussing over him, adding more blankets to the not inconsiderable pile already weighing him down, tucking them up closer to his chin even though the white feather-fur was already getting in his mouth.

 

The blurry things around him resolved themselves into ghosts. Pikesman Kazuto had already willingly walked into a Water Tribe stronghold and put himself on the mercy of murderers; ghosts weren't very scary, comparatively. 

 

"Prince Zuko. Lieutenant Jee. Are we dead?"

 

"No," said the prince.

 

"Not yet," grumped the lieutenant.

 

"Okay." Kazuto tucked a blanket up further over his head, and settled back down. "Then you should probably know that Zhao is going to kill the Moon spirit and destroy waterbending forever. Also the tides. I don't think he's thought this through."

 

As a coward, he was relieved that this was now someone else's problem, and he could snuggle up under polar bear goose pelts and let the world spin around his new concussion as his commanding officers did what commanding officers do: ie, applied volume to the problem. 

 

%%%

 

Zhao and his elite force of hand-picked guards easily slipped past the front lines, into the city. 

 

Teruko and her band of disgruntled shipmates knocked together a few heads, and followed. 

 

Sokka plucked a handful of oasis grass and let it slip through his fingers in complete boredom, because Aang had been glowy for like a day and still wasn't back, and a true Water Tribe warrior would be out there where the real fight was.

 

"Sokka. Please don't pick the spiritual grass."

 

"Sorry, Yue."

 

Back to watching the fish, then. The boring, endlessly circling fish, trapped in a pond that was way too small for them. They were large and fat and probably deliciously tender from their caging, but he wasn't allowed to put them out of their misery and/or eat them, how unfair was that?

 

"Sokka. Please don't drool into the spiritual pond."

 

"...Sorry, Yue."

 

%%%

 

"You need to let us talk to Chief Arnook," Zuko said, very reasonably and at a prisoner-appropriate volume. It wasn't his fault that the ice cells echoed.

 

"We're in the middle of an assault, Your Highness," one of the guards answered. "The Chief is busy."

 

"You heard him talking!"

 

"I heard the concussion talking. How do you kill the Moon?"

 

"It's a fish!"

 

The guard winced, and rubbed at an ear. "I think we would know if our patron spirits had turned into a pair of fish and put themselves in the royal family's fancy spirit garden."

 

Zuko narrowed his eyes. "If you don't let me out, I'll have no choice but to escape."

 

The guard did not smirk, or say I'd like to see you try. The guard was not trying to encourage this behavior.

 

The guard was, in fact, rather distracted by the faint sounds of battle and the feeling that he should be up there were the real fight was, not down here babysitting the Avatar's fun-sized firebending teacher and the advanced classes' worn-out punching bags. 

 

The guard hadn't put too much thought into the whole ice cells and firebenders who'd previously been on their best behavior because their prince commanded it thing. 

 

%%%

 

The oasis went from boring fish pond to full of (non-friendly) firebenders as quick as kicking down a little wooden door. And while Sokka took a moment to mentally pat himself on the back for being able to make a distinction between firebenders now, he took an even quicker second to get his sword between a still-glowy Aang and Zhao's smug face. 

 

"Get them," Sleazy Sideburns ordered, and Sokka regretted every thought of boredom he'd ever had.

 

Katara was their distance fighter. She tried to keep the pressure off with waterbending, tried to funnel the soldiers that made it past her with ice walls so that they couldn't all surge forward at once. It was winter and night and the full moon, and she had a giant water moat to pull from, and Sokka caught her smiling.

 

Sokka appreciated the ice walls, and the funneling-down-to-one-convenient-soldier-at-a-time, and was glad neither Zuko nor Aang were here to see what he did with them. To be fair, he was going to be a crispy critter if this kept up so he wouldn't really have to face either of them— 

 

Yue had her knife and only a few weeks of training that had been very interrupted with politicking. Last he saw she was somewhere behind him, near Aang, pretending to have neither. Playing the ol' helpless princess, oh dear what will I do if you brutes come closer, please do underestimate me card. Which was a decent last-ditch strategy and he was going to leave her to it before he got impaled by this pikesman— 

 

The pikesman took a fireball to the back.

 

Sokka was suddenly very glad that he'd gone on a world-spanning journey and understood that not all firebenders were bad because this was now a highly relevant fact, and wow there was some sheer chaos going on past these ice walls, and would it have hurt whichever team was on their side to have worn different uniforms? The red v red was not helping him understand who needed stabbing, just that he couldn't stab indiscriminately anymore.

 

"Teruko! Hanako!" Katara called.

 

Sokka did not know any of these people, but Katara apparently knew all of them, and since she was controlling who got to easily slip past their ice walls that pretty neatly sorted them into stab/no-stab piles.

 

"What are you doing here?"

 

"Came to kill Zhao," the short lady said, all casual-murder-like. "Is the prince really alive?"

 

"Yes."

 

"I'll need to kick his ass for making us worry, then. Did you know he disappeared when our ship exploded?"

 

"Lieutenant Jee told us."

 

"The Lieutenant's alive? ...I have so much ass-kicking to live for," the tiny woman grinned. It was a Katara grin. It was the grin Katara had learned from.

 

"Oh hi," Sokka said, "you must be my sister's terrifying knife teacher. Nice to meet you." He hadn't actually meant to say the 'terrifying' part but she grinned wider so that was… a good thing? 

 

Also they were all still maybe about to die, so. Back to the fighting. Aang could get back from his spiritual hobnobbing up anytime now thanks. 

 

Zhao's men made it over the moat. His sister was amazing, but she was just one waterbender. One waterbender could not keep putting up ice walls against a whole squadron of Fire Nation soldiers. Team Avatar (and Team Murder Zhao) pulled back around Aang's position, and Sokka really wished they'd established some kind of 'we're under attack' signal with the rest of the Water Tribe's troops, or they had some way to scale the sheer ice wall behind them and get Aang out of here, because being in the blizzard he could see starting up on the plateau above them would be highly preferable to their imminent immolation. It was nice that Zuko's old crew had turned up and all, but most of them seemed to be sailors first and soldiers second and there was only so much that kill-happy enthusiasm could make up for. If the spirits wanted to send any divine intervention to their oasis right about now Sokka would not complain—

 

"Zhao!" his nephson shouted, taking a moment to kick open an already thoroughly kicked door as he stomped into danger on the wrong side of the battle line.  

 

Sokka. Would like to lodge a complaint. At least Zuko had apparently brought every firebender in the prison with him. Which was… that was great. Great security, Northern Water Tribe. Sokka wasn't sure if these new benders were on his side, but he was reasonably confident they were on Zuko's.

 

"So you really are alive," Sideburn McSmugface said. "How is your engagement, Prince Zuko?" 

 

"It's—It's— You tried to kill me!" His nephson was as subtle in his conversational redirections as always.

 

"Zuko! He's after Aang!" Katara shouted.

 

"No he's not!" 

 

"Who's after me?" Aang asked. And wobbled a little behind them, before suddenly looking very alarmed. "Guys, the Moon spirit is in danger!"

 

"You don't say," Zhao said, and bagged a fish. 

 

Sokka was not quite sure why the man had paused their battle to catch a snack, except that Aang and Zuko looked horrified and Yue looked… like she was recognizing an old friend for the first time.

 

"Wait, the fish is the Moon?"

 

Sokka would like to lodge an additional complaint, please. 

 

%%%

 

"Now I was going to monologue," Zhao said, "but you know what they say—victors and history writing, and all that. It's getting a bit crowded in here; let's say we just skip to part where I'm immortalized. I'll pass out copies of my speech to any survivors."

 

It was a good speech. It would be a shame to ruin it with all this brawling, and it was so hard to give a proper soliloquy with so many children about. Zhao raised his fist, and lit up. Fish cooked at 145 degrees, yes? He'd just go ahead and double that— 

 

"Please, stop!" a regal voice cried out, with the kind of heart-rending drama he could appreciate. A white haired girl stepped forward from the Avatar's group, her hands clasped over her heart as she boldly walked through his own troops. To be fair, his own troops hadn't been fully briefed on his moment of glory—it wouldn't do for someone to beat him to the punch, as it were—and parted with a bit more general bafflement than they otherwise might have. The girl knelt before him, her skirts flaring just so with years of practice. "Please, this fight is between mortals. Let the spirit go."

 

Her clothes were rich and untouched by the combat—which she had not been participating in, he realized. Though her head was demurely bowed, he could see her blue eyes sneaking shy glances up at him. Her hair was white beyond her years, and luminous in the moonlight.

 

"Yue the Moon-Touched," he realized. "Prince Zuko, is this your fiancee?"

 

How delightful.

 

But like many things, a delight to be savored later. He raised his flames to the bag, and gripped its squirming contents in one fiery fist. Squeezed as the moon above bled red with the Fire Nation's triumph— 

 

Coughed. Took half a step back, from the light impact. The princess was… hugging him? 

 

The pain didn't register until she stepped back, sliding her knife out from the gap between chest and shoulder armor. The weakly struggling bag dropped from his numb fingers, onto the grass. 

 

Zhao roared, and his flames followed.

 

Above them the moon began to flicker, red to black, and all of their waterbender's ice shields splashed useless to the ground.

 

%%%

 

"Yue!" Katara rushed forward. Her bending had failed her but she still had her knife, and she cleared a path with a ferociousness Zhao's stunned troops were unprepared for. Most were watching the moon. Dropping weapons, raising faceplates. They hadn't known. 

 

"Help me," the princess said, her teeth gritted.

 

Katara was already reaching for her friend. "Of course—" 

 

"With the Moon," Yue said, her burned fingers trying to—to close around the bag, but they couldn't— 

 

Katara hesitated a moment more, then lifted the bag, and slid its contents into back into the pond.

 

The fish fell limply into the water, its body seizing spasmodically. It looked—it looked— 

 

(It looked like Yue's arms, but up its whole body, and there wasn't much difference between spirit and girl when all was black and red, red and black, like the moon above.)

 

"Heal her. Please."

 

Katara reached in. The black fish—the Ocean— nudged at her fingers as she raised the Moon back up towards the surface. She gathered the pond water around her hands—

 

But it didn't come. It didn't glow. It didn't heal. 

 

The moon was red and black, in the sky and in her hands and Yue's arms were the same. Fish and princess both shuddered with pain, and Katara couldn't heal either of them.  

 

The moon was dying. 

 

No one in particular noted Admiral Zhao as he enacted a tactical retreat, or Prince Zuko following, or Sokka cursing quite profusely in their wake. 

 

Most parties present were far more concerned with the Avatar, who'd just stepped across the pond's water and been swallowed whole. The water began to glow the worst shade of blue imaginable.

 

"Kneel!" Princess Yue shouted, because she'd also become acquainted with the idea of good Fire Nation citizens.

 

Most in the oasis followed her command. Those that didn't served as adequate incentive to the rest to keep kneeling.

 

%%%

 

"Where's the prince?" Lieutenant Jee asked. "He… he kneeled, didn't he?" 

 

"Was he here?" Crewman Teruko asked. "Was Zhao?"

 

His prince was with Zhao, and the Ocean was coming. Jee didn't peg Zuko as the kneeling type. He ran, and his crew followed. 

 

%%%

 

The moon was injured, dying. And Katara couldn't heal it because she needed the moon to heal.

 

"She's strong," Yue said. "So are you."

 

So was the princess, not even making a sound with burns like that. Comforting Katara, with burns like that. Katara didn't realize her shoulders were shaking, that she was crying, until Yue set her chin on her shoulder. Of course it was just her chin, she couldn't use— 

 

Yue leaned in, pressing their cheeks together. The only comfort she could give. "Don't give up."

 

"But I can't—"

 

But she could. Because the water under her hands was glowing. Not the overpowering blue of the Ocean's wrath, but the familiar shades of healing— 

 

She didn't know whether it was her gasp or Yue's. She didn't know which of them leaned forward first, but they didn't lean forward together, and their contact was broken—

 

The water stopped glowing.

 

The Water Tribe Princesses looked at each other. Then Yue leaned back in, her cheek warm and her breaths so painful-short, and Katara… Katara healed the Moon. 

 

She didn't see that with each charred piece of red and black she smoothed back into white scales, Yue's hair dulled. It blackened, strand by strand, as the Moon regained its luster.  

 

%%%

 

Zhao was older and more experienced and maybe a little better, but he could barely use his right arm and he'd never seen dragons. 

 

Which was to say that Zuko totally would have beaten him, except that suddenly Sokka was tackling him to the ground and then everything was glowing. The glow was stealing his opponent. A giant Water Tribe spirit-monster was stealing his countryman. 

 

Zuko squirmed free, chasing them up onto the sculpted ice of a bridge's ledge. "Give me your hand!"

 

For a moment it seemed like Zhao would. Then he curled his hand to his chest with one final sneer.

 

Which was a completely unacceptable response to his Prince's orders. 

 

"Zuko no, Zuko don't you dare, Zuko so help me son—" 

 

Zuko had let go of Helmsman Kyo's hand. He was not letting go again. He jumped and grabbed, and Sokka jumped to grab his legs, and Lieutenant Jee grabbed Sokka's, and the rest of the crew and the firebending prisoners had caught up by then and were somehow completely unsurprised, which allowed them to react very quickly in tugging all three of them back. 

 

They played tug-of-war with the Ocean, and they won. 

 

%%%

 

The Moon was whole again in Katara's hands, but it… it wasn't swimming. Its gills moved, but it lay in her hands as weak as it had when she'd first put it in the pond. And she remembered Yugoda telling her that sometimes you could heal the body, but if the spirit had already given up then the patient could still waste away to nothing—

 

"What else can we do?" Katara asked, turning. A black-haired girl slumped off of her shoulder, and onto the ground next to her. A girl who'd been dressed like a princess. "...Yue?"

 

The princess stretched out an arm, and touched the fish. 

 

Nothing happened. 

 

And then everything did.

 

%%%

 

Zhao was quickly pinned down under the crew's disgruntlement. Also, as many bony knees as could reasonably be forced into his ribcage and/or kidneys. He cursed and struggled and generally assisted in bruising himself up quite nicely.

 

Zuko watched the Ocean spirit striding onwards. Watched it taking the red armored figures in its wake, the ones with no one there to pull them free. Watched it approach his fleet. 

 

Where was Aang, what was he doing, wasn't dealing with giant terrifying spirits his job— 

 

The moon turned white. This just meant the waterbenders around them could fight again.

 

%%%

 

Waxing and waning. What one gave, the other took; what one took, the other gave. Yue's burned fingers touched smoothed white scales and she understood. Water spiraled up her arms, leaving silver scars glowing in their wake. 

 

The Moon shown down from the sky, and the Moon flicked out of the waterbender's hands to swim again, and the Moon rose to her feet feeling light as moonbeams.

 

(Sokka would appreciate the terrible wordplay. Where was Sokka? Ah, there.)

 

The soldiers still in the oasis were understandably wary of the girl who wore silver-shining water like others wore flowing sleeves. Even more so when the water kept creeping, a layered gown of light and waves settling around her without a single twitch of hand to indicate bending. They bowed very low, very quickly, if they'd even dared to get up at all. The Moon laughed, and ran her hand over the heads of the closest. Wounds healed. Tiredness washed from their muscles. And a warning frost lodged itself deep in their bones, where they wouldn't soon forget that she had seen them.

 

A second glow rose from the Spirit Oasis as the Moon walked. Each stride was perfectly normal; each covered more ground than it had any right to, until she stepped off a bridge and onto the heights of the city's outer wall. Below her, waterbenders newly restored to their element were hunting down those few red-armored soldiers that remained. Above them, her counterpart and the Avatar towered, with rage and power no mortal could oppose.

 

She took another step, and stood before them on the sea. The water was nearly glassy under her; a rushing pull that could be mistaken for calm, as La gathered the waves to him. When he let the tsunami come crashing down, she pushed, and it parted around the fleet. 

 

These were not her people. But they were her little cousin's, and her brother's, and she would not let the sun rise to find any more of them dead. 

 

La disagreed. The Ocean was ever a realist; the specks that sailed upon his back did so at his indulgence, and he had retracted it.

 

"The fight is already over," Tui said, pulling at the waters as he tried them gather again. "You don't need to do this."

 

This piddling fight was a wave. Wave would follow wave as long as water remained; the Ocean would not leave any alive to try this blasphemy again. He pushed, and the first of the ships toppled. 

 

Tui and La continued to have a minor disagreement over this small stretch of sea. 

 

It felt slightly more dramatic than that to the fleet caught between them.

 

%%%

 

The monster raised another wave. The Avatar was still nowhere in sight, maybe he was back at the Oasis helping Katara heal the Moon Fish and Princess Yue still (...that couldn't have been Yue walking past them. Could it? Her hair was boring-black, and she'd been glowing.)

 

The monster raised another wave and the Avatar wasn't there to stop it. So Zuko raised his hands, and let out a breath. Seed lightning crackled over his fingers, under his skin, lifted each hair on his head. There was fighting all around him but his crew would protect him. He could focus on just this: those were his people. He was their prince. 

 

Lightning was much, much easier than he'd thought. 

 

The first bolt hit the creature's arm, and its wave faltered. Zuko slid his feet to a firmer stance as it turned towards him. Began to come towards him. Towards his crew.

 

The next bolt went through its glowing core. The water spirit collapsed into a tidal wave that swept the streets for blocks, washing over blue and red alike. Not that there was much red left to hit.  

 

...Now he needed to save his people from hypothermia. Also Yue's, because he was maybe going to marry her one day.

 

(She'd stabbed Zhao with all the sweet words and deceit of a proper princess. He could maybe see himself marrying her, a little.)

 

%%%

 

The Avatar fell. It was not easy to spot one small non-glowing boy rushing towards the ground in the pre-dawn light (or one black fish indignantly flopping its way from the street into a canal, and sullenly swimming back towards the oasis.) Most missed it. 

 

Tui didn't. She took another step, and caught him. Kissed him lightly on the head. 

 

Breath shuddered back into his lungs.

 

She lay him down on the ice. Lay herself down, next to him.

 

Agni was rising, and the Moon was setting. Yue collapsed.

 

%%%

 

"Hey, Zhao," Zuko said. The man sneered up at him from where he was still pinned against the ice. Zuko crossed his arms, and bared his teeth. "My fish was bigger."

Chapter Text

Zuko spent most of the day yelling at people. After awhile, he wasn't sure which were his own people and which were the Water Tribe's, just that everyone was equally stupid and if they didn't stop trying to fight each other he was going to personally render each of them deaf. People in red needed to go that way, back to the ships, and help with the rescue efforts because some of their ships had capsized and those sailors aren't saving themselves so get moving.

 

People who were stabbing and/or waterbending at the people going towards the ships needed to STOP THAT OR ELSE. DO YOU THINK YOU'RE AS TOUGH AS A GIANT WATER SPIRIT BECAUSE YOU DON'T LOOK AS TOUGH AS A GIANT WATER SPIRIT— 

 

(Sokka. Was getting a lot of exercise running interference. "Sorry, the Avatar's Fire Nation Advisor—you remember him, he's lived in your city for weeks and is on our side? The one who is possibly engaged to your princess, I'm still not entirely clear on how serious that is? He hasn't had his nap yet, and he apparently… generates little bitty bits of lightning all over his arms when he's cranky. Well that's a new and completely non-alarming development of which I was totally aware. So anyway could you please let these nice not-fighting-any-more troops retreat? And seriously, has anyone seen the Avatar, because we could really use some international mediation right about now—") 

 

At some point someone picked Zuko up and carried him to bed. He was still shouting, he remembered that, and if he ever remembered who had interrupted him (and wrapped a blanket around him to ward against errant sparking, and carried him like he was a child), he was going to—to do something. Something more than curl up on a bed with a purring lemur at his back, when did Momo even get here. The bed was super warm even though the blankets were thin, because he was back on a Fire Navy ship and his people had invented hot-water radiators. He loved his country, good night. 

 

When he woke up it was the next day, and people were still stupid, but no one new was dead so he had time to take a bath and eat the food Assistant Cook Dekku shoved his way before meeting with the fleet's acting commander. The fleet's acting commander seemed to think Zuko was the acting commander, which was—it was stupid, he was a banished prince, he couldn't hold a rank like that, and why was everyone bowing extra low—  

 

"It might have something to do with the giant fish spirit you stopped before it could kill us all," Lieutenant Jee said. "Sir."

 

Right. For the purposes of simplifying negotiations, then, Zuko would be the fleet's representative to the Northern Water Tribe. But he was not their commander, that would be illegal.

 

"...Of course," the fleet's acting commander said. "Sir."

 

All the adults were looking at him, and somehow it made Zuko wanted to go back to bed for at least another day. But he needed to make sure their retreat was being organized, and that the Water Tribe knew the fleet was retreating and was going to let them, and that Sokka and Katara and Aang were okay, and his fiancee had stopped glowing—  

 

So he borrowed a proper red winter coat from Hanako and marched back into the city. He tried to ignore the honor guard following him. Banished princes didn't get honor guards.

 

"What do you mean everyone is at the healer's?"

 

%%%

 

Yue didn't know how to soothe away her father's fears. He fussed at making sure she was comfortable sitting up against her pile of pillows, and held her hand, and kept looking at her hair without quite meeting her eyes. She used to be good at this; she could have found the words that would assure him that nothing had changed.

 

She still remembered the words, but she wasn't that girl who wanted smooth this all away just because he was worried. She hadn't been for awhile, but the difference between who she'd been at winter's start and who she'd been yesterday was as great again the gap to who she was today. She had been the Moon.

 

She had always been the Moon.

 

"Father," she stopped him, rather than soothed him. Raised a hand to the side of his face and touched him gently. Her father flinched under the craggy texture. The burns were scarred over, but the skin had healed tight, quick, unearned. Yugoda had warned her of the long road physical recovery would be. Warned her like Yue still thought 'months' or 'years' to be a long span of time. 

 

In her hair was the barest sliver of new white. The moon had risen that day, past its fullness now, with its own barest sliver of black. Waxing and waning. 

 

"I'm your daughter."

 

"Of course you—"

 

"Your heir. If I am to sit at your side, I will have a voice."

 

"I have always valued your council, Yue."

 

"In private, father. In words that did not offend, or push too far past your comfort. But I am your daughter and your heir." She was Yue and Tui. She was a short-lived mortal with so very little time to change things, and she would live forever in an unending state of nothing but change. "I am smart. I am competent. I understand our people's history, and I know how we must change if we are to survive into the future. We are the people of change, but for a hundred years we've—"

 

"Yue. I know the Avatar and his friends have put ideas in your head, but you know better. We've had to protect ourselves, defend our borders against attacks like this—"

 

If I was your son, would you talk over me? 

 

She ran clumsy fingers over the white strands in her hair. She felt the touch in her scalp, but not in her hands. 

 

"Father. I am your daughter and your heir. I am both. I've always been both, and I have no intention of separating the two any longer. I'll see you in the council room tomorrow. If any of your men protest, remind them who stabbed the enemy commander."

 

Remind them who tussled with the Ocean. Remind them by whose grace their bending works.

 

Things she could have said, but didn't. Because she shouldn't have to. She was the heir to the Northern Water Tribe, and she should not have to heap up impossible evidence to prove that her gender didn't make her weaker. She wasn't doing this as Tui. She wouldn't let them make her an exception, the one woman they would tolerate in power because the Moon had blessed her. She was doing this as a mortal girl, born too weak to make a sound.

 

He didn't argue with her further. Was it because she looked too worn, laying in her sickbed? Because Yugoda had warned him how close she'd come to true death? She was no sickly babe any longer, but the Moon had given her strength, and the Moon had needed it back. They shared it, now. Would he argue with her again when the moon was new, and her strength at its full again?

 

Or had she actually gotten through to him?

 

"Oh, and father? Could you please contact Master Pakku?" she smiled as sweetly as she ever had. "I'm a waterbender now. Yugoda has already agreed to teach me healing, but the future Chieftess should have the best of combat instructors, shouldn't she?"

 

He looked shaken as he left. He looked like a man whose daughter had stabbed someone while he'd been safe in his palace, had been a divinity and fought a divinity, and told him she was going to have an active voice in politics. 

 

Yue rested back against her pillows. She flexed her fingers as far into fists as she could. It wasn't very far, and the skin flexed like a too-tight glove, but it was a start. 

 

(She was already a master waterbender. She was the original waterbender. But she had never been a waterbender with two arms and two legs and a heart that pumped warm red water. She couldn't just push and pull in this body, or she might tear herself apart. No wonder humans had learned to dance with her, instead.)

 

"I don't need an escort!" shouted her favorite fiery cousin, from outside her room. "I know she fought a giant spirit monster, so did I, why are you acting like that makes her scarier than she was yesterday? She's a princess! Aggh, now she's giggling, this is all your fault."

 

Prince Zuko stomped inside her room. His arms were crossed, and scowl firmly in place. It was strange to see him dressed in red again. If Agni's chosen expected her to stop giggling, he could have perhaps taken the lemur off his head before entering. His escort, one patiently creaking former prisoner, took up a guard position directly inside the door. The Lieutenant looked strange, too, back in his armor instead of huddled under his polar bear goose wrap. 

 

When her father had come, he'd looked first at her arms before he'd been able to jerk his gaze away. The Prince of the Fire Nation stared at her hair. Narrowed his eyes. Considered it, for a long moment, before giving a single sharp nod that made the lemur's ears flop. 

 

"You're still pretty. And even if you weren't, you know how to stab someone, which is better."

 

"Thank you, Prince Zuko." Her best hostess voice rolled off her tongue, so easy to remember when she had nothing to prove to the boy in front of her. "Please, take a seat. How is our dear Admiral?"

 

He took the offered chair, the one her father had only just left, and glanced towards his Lieutenant. "I, ah… I forgot to check on him when I woke up. How is the prisoner?"

 

%%%

 

Zhao had been thrown into the brig of his own flagship last night. He had the whole cell block to himself. His armor had been stripped, his stab wound and the incidental burns of an enraged twelve-year-old bandaged. He had not been shackled. It wouldn't have been sporting. 

 

As ranking officer, Lieutenant Commander Teruko had physically restrained Engineer Hanako until the rest of the crew could arrive. She believed in equality among her subordinates.

 

(As the no-longer-ranking officer, Lieutenant Jee sulked creakily in the direction of her new officer stripes. He believed in reinstating demotions, but their chain of command was no longer clear.)

 

Hawker Genji had taken up watch by the brig doors. Signaled the all clear, with no trace of a smile.

 

"All of you for one of me?" Zhao sneered. "How brave."

 

"Like trying to kill a twelve-year-old?" Hanako asked.

 

%%%

 

Somewhere in the Earth Kingdom, Admiral Frog-Zhao croaked. 

 

This was one of life's many illustrative lessons on literal v metaphorical occurrences.

 

%%%

 

"Lieutenant?" the prince prompted.

 

"Zhao died of his wounds," Lieutenant Jee replied. 

 

This was a completely factual statement.

 

"Oh." The Fire Prince blinked up at his Lieutenant, then turned back to Yue with another tight nod. "Good job."

 

Yue took a moment to look at the Lieutenant, too. The Lieutenant took a moment to look over her head, incidentally avoiding all eye contact. 

 

"...I'm sure we all did our part," she said.

 

Zuko shifted in his seat. Very stiffly. Now he looked at her arms, though his gaze didn't flinch away as her father's had. "Do they still hurt, or did the spirit magic make it okay?"

 

"They… feel like they don't fit right."

 

He nodded again. A different nod from before, though still perfectly serious. "I don't think it goes away, but sometimes you can forget. Unless people are staring and they make you remember, but then you can glare at them. Though I guess your glare isn't any better now. Maybe you could wave?"

 

"I'll take that under consideration." If his aim was to stop her giggles, he was doing a very poor job of it. 

 

He fidgeted, and flushed, and looked away from her for the first time. "Are we… actually engaged?"

 

"What's the legal marrying age in the Fire Nation?"

 

"Sixteen."

 

"And you're?"

 

"Twelve."

 

"Then we're engaged for the next four years." 

 

"You… you can't use me as a marital meat shield!"

 

Yue smiled in exactly the way a demi-goddess fiancee princess who'd guaranteed herself four whole years without suitors would.

 

%%%

 

Aang heard Zuko coming from all the way on the other side of the healing house. Which on one hand was good, because he had plenty of time to sit up (with Katara's help) and stop wincing (mostly) and then realize that sitting up was a really bad idea and kind of slide back down (oww). On the other hand it was really bad because Zuko was shouting which meant he was already in a bad mood and, well, Aang didn't think he was really going to make it better— 

 

Sokka helped him tug the blanket back up over his chest, and gave an encouraging double-thumbs-up and a not-so-encouraging smile-wince. Aang returned a wince-smile. And then Zuko was in the room and literally steaming and Momo was puddling on his head and looking immensely pleased with the world. 

 

"Hi, Zuko!" Aang said. He added the exclamation mark to cover for the lack of volume and enthusiasm. 

 

"Where were you yesterday, there was this giant water spirit attacking my— Are you okay?" 

 

"Uh," Aang stalled. Because those were two very different questions with one remarkably similar answer. "Great! I just, uh… How are you?"

 

"How are you?" Katara took over, soothing and in charge and totally deflecting the topic as she gave up her own chair and made the prince sit down. "Have you been checked over by a healer yet?"

 

"The ship doctor—" 

 

Katara eye-rolled dramatically. "A proper Water Tribe healer. Come on, take off the coat. The shirt, too."

 

Zuko flushed, and turned away from Aang to comply, and Sokka threw Katara a double-thumbs-up all her own. 

 

Healing bruises and Zhao-burns and double-checking that Zuko hadn't gotten a new concussions, because that wasn't something they could ever trust Zuko to report accurately, successfully delayed the conversation by ten whole minutes. And all of the take-a-deep-breath-please 's that Katara ordered in her assistant-healer-voice really toned down the shouting by the time he wiggled back into his shirt. So. Zuko was calm now, right? 

 

So everything was going to be fine. When he asked again. Which he did, immediately, because Aang was still laying down and Zuko narrowed his eyes at him.

 

"What happened? Did Zhao get you? I didn't see, I thought he only hurt Yue—"

 

"Uh. Do you remember the Ocean Spirit?"

 

"The… black fish, in the pond? You got attacked by a fish?"

 

"Not attacked. Just… possessed? A little?"

 

Zuko's face darkened. "I'm going to fry it."

 

"No need for the future tense there, little buddy," Sokka said. And immediately clapped a hand over his own mouth. Over Zuko's head, Katara glared at him. 

 

Zuko looked between them all. Aang hoped that he'd get it, then Aang wouldn't have to explain it, but… Zuko definitely didn't get it. 

 

Aang twiddled his thumbs. In his lap, because it hurt too much to set them on his chest, not that he was complaining. Yugoda said he was healing really well and it was a miracle he wasn't—

 

Zuko was doing that really deep scowly thing he did when he realized everyone else knew something he didn't and they weren't telling him. He crossed his arms and stared at Aang and didn't blink.

 

"Do you remember when the Ocean got… really big?" Aang asked. 

 

"It… what? Wait, that was the Ocean? I shot lightning at the Ocean?" 

 

Aang twiddled his thumbs a little more and really, really hoped he wouldn't have to say it— 

 

He didn't. 

 

Zuko was always pale, but he went snow pale. "I shot you."

 

"But I'm okay! Your fiancee kissed me, but not in a cheating-on-you-way, just in a healing-me-way, and I'm totally fine now—" 

 

Zuko definitely needed a hug. Aang kind of needed a hug too, which meant this worked out great. He just needed to sit up—

 

Sitting up had not become a better idea at any point in the last fifteen minutes, oww, he was just going to… not do that. 

 

Zuko stared at the place where Aang's blanket had slipped. 

 

Lightning scars were actually kind of cool. And his was pretty much healed, between Yue and Yugoda. It wasn't even that bad. Sure it was kind of big, but he could always hide it under a shirt if he wanted to, not like Zuko's scar (oh that was a not-nice thought he was so glad he hadn't said that out loud—) 

 

"I—I didn't mean to," Zuko said. "I didn't know, I wouldn't have—"

 

%%%

 

I wouldn't have fought you, Zuko didn't say, because he couldn't, because what else could he have done, the Ocean and apparently the Avatar and been attacking his people— 

 

"Hey, nephson. Breathe. It's okay." 

 

Sokka tried to hug him but he didn't want hugs, he wanted to not have thrown lightning at his friend. He wanted his friend not to have killed his people; there were eight ships that had gone down in the waves, and all the soldiers who'd been in the streets when the spirit monster had passed them, and the survivors had been keeping up efforts to find them but rescue had turned to recovery because polar waters weren't forgiving. The Ocean wasn't forgiving. 

 

He'd had to attack the spirit. And he didn't regret it. He… he didn't regret attacking Aang. 

 

Sokka had gotten past his elbow-stabs to hug him, and Katara was trying to wrap an arm in there too, because they didn't know that he was a horrible person who would—would burn a twelve-year-old, try to kill a twelve-year-old, and not regret it. What kind of person did that—  

 

Zuko very suddenly and very clearly needed to not be in this room. Or thinking. Or being forgiven. 

 

%%%

 

Zuko shrugged out of Sokka and Katara's hugs and ran out before Aang could even try sitting up and joining in. 

 

He ran before Aang could thank him. Because… because Aang remembered being so angry, and he remembered how many more people he'd wanted to hurt— 

 

He ran, and Aang felt kind of super terrible that it was easier to breathe with him gone, because he also remembered pain that had felt like it went on forever and—

 

(He didn't remember dying. But he remembered waking up and not being dead, and it… wasn't the good kind of surprise. It was the kind of surprise that made him remember turning to look down on the tiny figure that dared attack him and he'd been ready to kill that one, too, but then the lightning had hit. 

 

He had seen the lightning that had—

 

Had—)

 

Tui had fixed it. But he was still relieved that the person who'd killed him was gone (the person he would have killed, if Zuko hadn't killed him first), and Aang didn't have to smile at him anymore. 

 

(It was good he'd been stopped, someone had needed to stop him, he was grateful he really was but—)

 

(But Zuko hadn't hesitated at all.)

 

(Aang hadn't hesitated, either. He'd just turned too slowly.)

 

%%%

 

Sokka gave his nephson a few minutes to cool down before following.  

 

This proved to be a minor mistake when he found that said nephson had fled back into the Fire Navy fleet to sulk.

 

It proved to a giant terrible are-you-serious-right-now mistake when the fleet left. 

 

Giving Zuko room to cool down, Sokka realized, was the stupidest move he had ever made as the uncdad of a child who'd had half his face burned off the last time he'd screwed up in his father's eyes.

 

Sokka was going to find his son and hug the rejection-adversion out of him, so help him.  

 

%%%

 

"Prince Zuko," the acting fleet commander said. With a bow, he held out a map. "Our course."

 

"You don't have to get my approval," Zuko scowled. "I'm not your commander."

 

"Of course, sir. It's a… courtesy."

 

The man was still bowing. And people were allowed to be courteous, even to banished princes. Zuko took the map. 

 

The fleet wasn't going back to the Fire Nation. Not immediately, not even though the northern islands were within range of their remaining supplies. They were going back to the colonies, first. To one of the ports Zuko was allowed to set foot in. 

 

"...Thank you for your consideration, Commander."

 

"Of course, my Prince." he said the words in exactly the way Zhao never had. "Do you have any suggestions, sir? ...Unofficially."

 

I want to go home. I want to see Azula and Uncle and—and Father.  

 

(If he ordered it at that moment, they might obey. And he'd bring a fleet of warships to his Father's harbor.) 

 

"No," Zuko said. And handed the map back. And fled that room, because fleeing rooms was apparently his new hobby.

 

Lieutenant Jee was waiting for him at the door. One of his old crew always seemed to be waiting for him, no matter where he went, like they were afraid he was going to disappear again. Zuko draped himself over the ship's rail and listened to the reassuring sound of waves against the hull, and Lieutenant Commander Who-Had-Prompted-Her Teruko shouting orders at the deck crew, and the creaks of armor behind him. 

 

"Do you think my Father will be proud of me?" he asked.

 

"He should be. Sir."

 

But he wasn't. Neither of them were. 

 

There were blue sails ahead. Zuko straightened.

 

%%%

 

"That," Bato said, "is a lot of ships."

 

Ugly metal hulls pierced the waves in a hundred places, running full steam towards them. Water Tribe ships were sleeker, quicker. When there was wind. 

 

The Ocean had been… temperamental, the last few days.

 

"Ready the men," Hakoda said. An order he knew two dozen other ship captains were giving their own crews. They were near dead in the water, but they weren't helpless.

 

The Fire Navy fleet approached, its course unchanged. 

 

...Completely unchanged. They were going to pass straight by Hakoda's ships.

 

"What are they doing…?"

 

Bato wordlessly passed him the spyglass.

 

Hakoda saw his so-called grandson for the first time, standing at the bow of the largest flagship he'd ever seen. The Fire Prince was dressed in a blood red coat and scowling across the distance as if he could see them. There was, inexplicably, a sword hilt sticking up from his back. And something white on his head that Hakoda couldn't quite make out.

 

The Fire fleet passed. 

 

Within an hour, the Ocean seemed in much better spirits. Hakoda continued north.

 

%%%

 

"Do you think Zuko realizes he stole Momo?" Aang asked.

 

"...Dibs on stealing Hawky," Sokka replied, like the responsible adult he was. 


Besides, someone had to take charge of Zuko's bird. All this lazing around in pet sweaters was making her fat.

Chapter Text

To Fire Lord Ozai, c/o Princess Azula, from Your Loyal Son Prince Zuko:  

 

—died of his wounds. The letters we found in his room were really good forgeries; please take extra care to confirm future orders with your officers, Father. It would be really bad if people thought you were the one ordering things like full-scale attacks at the worst possible strategical time and killing the Moon. We'll turn the evidence over to the Fire Sages for analysis as soon as possible. In the meantime please do not worry about your fleet, the acting commander is a loyal Fire Nation citizen who has sworn his officers to double-check all suspicious commands. When in doubt they show things to me as a 'courtesy', so I can figure out if you really sent something and help stop any orders you clearly didn't mean—  

 

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To Uncle, c/o Princess Azula, from The Worst Nephew:  

 

—made you worry. I left you a note but apparently Zhao blew it up. He's dead now, my fiancee stabbed him. Sorry I didn't tell you directly, but I know how loyal you are to Father. This is my mission, not yours, and I didn't want to put you in a position where you would have to choose between us, and besides you seemed to really be enjoying your retirement. 

 

I met your pai sho pen pal up in the Northern Water Tribe. He's even grumpier than Lieutenant Jee but talks in more flower proverbs— 

 

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To Princess Azula, from Dum-Dum:  

 

—had to wait until our hawks were back in range because the Northern Tribe is super stingy with theirs and lemurs are terrible messengers. I know you'll be really angry that I can't control the weather or the temperatures Fire Nation hawks are adapted to fly at, so I'll be in the colonies where you can't get me. Unless you hire an assassin, but I have a really good track record with not dying, so probably you'd just be wasting your money. 

 

I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do now that I'm not hunting the Avatar. I guess I could have asked Father for new orders, but I think he likes it better when I take the initiative— 

 

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To Dum-Dum, from Her Highness Crown Princess Azula, Superior Heir to the Dragon Throne, Still The Youngest Wielder of the Cold Fire But Good Effort:  

 

—You've been unbanished. Father found it tasteless to keep insulting a corpse. However, do not bother coming home; I have the royal headpiece and I'm not giving it back. You will have to pry it from my hair, and I believe we both know who is the superior hair-pulling duelist. You also owe me several hours of my life back, as sitting through your funeral was somehow even worse than grandfather's. 

 

If you'd like a list of those courtiers who fake-cried, please do settle down in the colonies. Perhaps leave a door unlocked, while you're at it. I'll send an extra-special messenger just for you.

 

If you don't desire a more intimate perspective on your own funeral, perhaps it would be wise for you to keep moving—  

 

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From Objectively Best Uncdad, to Passably Huggable Nephson:  

 

—In conclusion I love you, and Katara loves you, and Aang loves you but has some mixed feelings right now which I'm pretty sure you understand, what with the mutual trying to kill each other without fully understanding the situation thing. But people who love each other (and are no longer possessed by vengeful spirits) find ways past things that. 

 

So no pressure if you're doing actual important prince things in that fleet of yours, like stopping them from casually genociding along the coast. But if you're just sulking then I hereby insist you stop that immediately and come meet us in the Earth Kingdom. We're catching a ride down with my dad to some guy named General Fong to find Aang an earthbending teacher. And hopefully work out some kinks in the whole Avatar State Murder-Mode. It sounds like we'll be there for a while, you could meet us there. 

 

Please don't bring your entire fleet.

 

Also please don't steal this owl-hawk for future correspondence, that would be totally awful and I definitely haven't accidentally included possibly-state-secret-instructions on how to get him to fly where you want (see page three).

 

Also also Hawky is fat and lazy and refuses to fly to you no matter how much I poke her even though we're far south enough. And you owe me about a million new shirts, she keeps tearing mine into teenie-tiny strips. I hope lemur-sitting involves less wanton wardrobe destruction than hawk-sitting. 

 

PS: Katara told Yue about writing to your sister that one time. I'm not saying that your fiancee and your evil sister are going to be penpals. But I am saying this is a really good time to seek safety with your friends and/or adopted family— 

 

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End Book One: Spirit Blessings (Some Restrictions Apply)