Iroh frowned as he unfurled his letter, wondering how many eyes his father had on him, tracking his movements. He sat down, rubbing a hand over his mouth as he thought of his response.
“Hello—uh oh,” Lu Ten said, walking through Iroh’s open door. “I know that look. What’s wrong?”
Iroh mustered up a smile. “Whatever would be wrong, son?”
“Well, you’ve got a letter in your hand, and you’re squinting your eyes like you’re trying to think of the nicest way to answer,” Lu Ten replied as he settled in the other chair in Iroh’s room. “What did Grandfather say?”
Iroh chuckled and handed Lu Ten the letter. Lu Ten’s brow furrowed as he read it. “If Grandfather knows we’re on our way back to the Fire Nation, doesn’t he know that the Avatar is dead?”
Iroh shook his head. “I suppose whoever delivered information about our whereabouts forgot to mention it,” he said, wryly. “So now I must be the one to inform my father that the Avatar is no more, and we will have to look to the poles to find the next one.”
“Good luck giving him that news,” Lu Ten said with a snort. “At least you can tell him it’s unlikely the Avatar will be reborn in the South Pole.” Iroh raised an eyebrow. “Kallik mentioned most of the men have been gone a long time. There won’t be any babies for a while, it seems.”
“He mentioned the state of his tribe to you?” Iroh asked, curiously.
“Well, not really,” Lu Ten said, scratching his head. “He was watching me train, and when I was done, I asked what he learned about fighting and how. He told me his dad taught him until the men left. He wouldn’t tell me anything more after that. Poor kid looked like he was gonna kick himself.” Lu Ten’s mouth formed a thoughtful frown. “To be honest, if Captain Jee hadn’t shown up I probably could have gotten more out of him. The man frightens him for some reason.”
Iroh stared at Lu Ten thoughtfully. “He trusts you,” Iroh said.
“It wasn’t difficult to gain his trust, Father,” Lu Ten replied, solemnly. “Kallik lost a lot in a short period of time. He’s tired and scared and—well, he’s vulnerable.” He turned his head and stared blankly at a point on the wall. “It’s not that hard to convince him to trust me.”
Iroh sighed and stood up, walking over to his son. He placed a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “I know this is hard. You’ve never been fond of this skill that we share.”
Lu Ten snorted as Iroh removed his hand and sat back down. “This skill you taught me, you mean.”
“You may not like to use it,” Iroh said, “but it has saved your life many times, and has supported you in your missions for the Fire Nation. Never forget that.”
“He’s so young, Father.”
“I know,” Iroh said, sadly. “But in the end, this will be justified.”
Lu Ten looked up at him very seriously. “Will it? Will it truly be justified?”
“If he is our missing prince, then yes. Bringing him home by any means necessary will always be justified.”
Lu Ten sighed, looking away. “I hope you’re right.”
He was here.
The man who saved their tribe was here, on this very ship. He had wrinkles and his hair was gray now, but Kallik would never forget that face. The man seemed to know Kallik, too, despite how much Kallik had grown.
They both decided to avoid each other. Kallik couldn’t wrap his head around the idea that the man he met—the man who opposed the raid on their village—was still serving with the military. Then again, it was so long ago, and Kallik couldn’t remember much except that he said he would lie for them. It was hard to forget the earnest tone to his voice, and the way he looked at Kallik before he left, as if he were something that needed to be protected.
Kallik bit the inside of his cheek as he rested his hands on his knees. What if he told the princes? What if he told them that they never found the waterbender when he raided their village? They didn’t know it was Katara. Even if they did, what reason did they have to believe that a dead girl was the last waterbender? They would think Kallik was lying to them to save his people. What if they sent new raiders back home? It didn’t matter that they joined the neighboring village. None of them could withstand the raids for very long.
Then again, if he was avoiding Kallik, maybe he didn’t want to tell the princes what happened. Maybe he just didn’t want the princes to know he recognized the boy. After all, it wasn’t like the man had a reason to wait until now to tell his superiors the waterbender was never found.
Kallik was twisted in knots inside when he heard a knock on his door. Lu Ten came in with a small cloth bundle, smiling candidly. Ever since his hands sparked at Lu Ten, he insisted Kallik sit with him and meditate before a candle. The point of the exercise was to make the flame grow and shrink with their breaths, but so far Kallik hadn’t seen the value of the practice. It was boring, and Lu Ten didn’t bother explaining why meditating was important.
“So, I was speaking to my father, and he thinks your progress is going really well. He wants me to move up to two cand—”
“Why am I here?” Kallik said, bluntly, cutting Lu Ten off. He held his breath, worried about the raider and what he might tell these men. The prince stared at him for a moment with his mouth hanging open.
“I don’t know anything. I can’t tell you about the war, and you’ve already killed Aang,” Kallik bit out. “Why are you keeping me here? What do you want with me?”
Lu Ten gazed at him in silence. After the span of several heartbeats he cleared his throat, then sat across from Kallik, putting his bundle on the floor. Kallik stared at him, eyes cold.
“That’s really something my father should tell you,” Lu Ten said, carefully.
“What, you don’t know?” Kallik asked, snarling a little.
“It’s complicated,” Lu Ten said, hesitantly. “And to be honest, I don’t know how much is true, and how much is wishful thinking.”
“You make less sense than the Spirits,” Kallik muttered folding his arms over his chest.
Lu Ten shrugged. “Yeah, I suppose it seems that way.”
Kallik scowled. Lu Ten stared at him for a minute before opening his mouth to speak.
“Prince Lu Ten!” a soldier stood at the entrance of Kallik’s room. Cell, you idiot, he thought to himself, never forget this is a prison! “The general requires your presence at once! An important letter was received from the Capital!”
Lu Ten scrambled up and bolted out of the room, not giving Kallik a second glance. Kallik blinked, stunned by what just happened. He realized Lu Ten left the cloth bundle on the floor. Kallik carefully picked it up and unwrapped it, revealing two black candles. He sat silently for a few minutes before he sighed and set them up, lighting them both. Then he relaxed into position and focused on the flames flickering in time with his breaths.
“What is it, father?” Lu Ten asked as he met his father and Captain Jee on the deck. Iroh nodded his head to the both of them and led them back to his chambers. Once they were all inside, Iroh snapped the door shut to ensure they weren’t overheard.
The crown prince pulled a letter from his sleeve and handed it to Lu Ten. Captain Jee leaned over his shoulder to read it as well. Lu Ten’s eyebrows were climbing up his face, but he couldn’t stop them. He reread the letter to make sure he wasn’t imagining things.
“He’s alive?” Lu Ten asked, breathlessly. “Father, the Avatar is alive?”
Iroh nodded. “It appears he is either more skilled than I thought, or he got very, very lucky. Regardless, our mission has not changed. We are to turn the ship around and pursue the boy with great haste.”
“Sir,” Captain Jee said, frowning. “I believe a storm is brewing to the north, if the water and skyline is to be believed.
“I know, Captain,” Iroh said, tucking his arms into his sleeves. “However, this is an order that came directly from the Fire Lord. I cannot ignore it. We will travel as safely as possible while trying to apprehend the Avatar. Please go and set a course for the Pohuai Stronghold. Keep this quiet, for now, until I figure out how to break this news to the crew.” Lu Ten nodded in agreement. They lost several men trying to escape the island. Finding out the Avatar survived when he was in the very thick of things would be terrifying for many of them.
“Yes sir,” Jee said, bowing before he left the chambers.
“Father,” Lu Ten said, quietly. Iroh looked up at him with a tired expression. “We have to tell him.”
“Son, I know you don’t want to hurt the boy, but—”
“Father,” Lu Ten said, sternly. “I won’t lie to him about this.”
Iroh sighed. “It seems as if you are forgetting what we spoke about,” he said, reproachfully. Lu Ten resisted the urge to roll his eyes. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know his father’s tricks by now. “When we discussed this, we agreed that any means necessary is justified.”
“No, Father,” Lu Ten said, sternly. “You believe any means necessary is justified. If we keep trying to validate the means with the end result, what we do won’t matter. We won’t have acted with honor.” Iroh raised his eyebrows at Lu Ten’s quick statement, surprised.
“You think so?” his father asked, thoughtfully.
“Look at it this way, Father,” Lu Ten said, folding his arms over his chest. “He already doesn’t trust us because of the raids on his home and the way we went after him and the Avatar. If we don’t tell him and he finds out—and he will on a ship this small—he will never believe a single word either of us says ever again.”
Iroh let out a long sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose. “But if he knows the Avatar is alive, he may believe the people he grew up with, the people he knows as his family, will be alive. He will try to find his way back to them.”
“Maybe so,” Lu Ten said, “but if that’s the case, and he does make his way back to them, at least he’ll know we didn’t lie. That would be useful, if we ran into him again.” And knowing the dogged streak that ran through his father, he didn’t doubt that if would become a when.
Kallik sat at the edge of the deck, watching the clouds move overhead. The ship changed course, but Kallik couldn’t figure out why. It must have had something to do with that letter. He wondered what it could have said. Maybe the Earth Kingdom was mounting an attack against the Fire Nation. Maybe someone important would be arriving somewhere and the princes would need to meet with them.
Maybe the Water Tribe ships had been spotted.
Kallik’s heart started pounding. That last one wasn’t so impossible, was it? His father could be out there right now, sailing in these very waters. He didn’t know if the man was alive or dead, only that he hadn’t been able to write in a year. Kallik touched the carving on his necklace, feeling the lines that were etched deeply into the bone. He missed his dad so much. Bato would know what to do. Bato would know how to save him, and if he did, Kallik might finally feel safe again, for the first time in years.
The teenager frowned, touching his face. He had changed. He looked more and more like these people than he ever wanted to admit. Everyone in the Earth Kingdom thought so. Everyone who saw him thought he was Fire Nation at first glance. He didn’t belong with the Water Tribe. What if his father wouldn’t be able to look at him after all he had seen the Fire Nation soldiers do in this war? What if—what if Kallik was as wrong as he always felt? If Bato looked at Kallik like he was an enemy—well, Kallik didn’t think his heart could take that kind of rejection.
Dad wouldn’t do that to me, he thought. He loves me. A shadow fell over him, making him jump. He looked up and frowned at the sight of the elder prince staring solemnly at him.
“Young Kallik,” Iroh said, “would you please join me in my chambers? There is something I would like to discuss with you.”
Kallik pursed his lips, ready to reject the man, but he caught sight of the raider watching them. He swallowed nervously and stood up, nodding at Iroh before following the man below deck. Any time spent out of sight of that man was a good thing, in Kallik’s opinion. They arrived at crown prince’s rooms. Kallik clenched his hands into fists as he followed him inside. Iroh settled himself down on a chair near a desk, gesturing for Kallik to sit in the free chair near him. Kallik wrapped his arms around himself, still standing.
“You don’t want to sit?” Iroh asked, curiously. He picked up a ceramic teapot and pressed his hands against the sides until steam rose from the spout.
“I prefer to stand,” Kallik replied, stiffly.
“Very well. The chair is there if you change your mind,” Iroh went on, pouring a cup of tea for himself. “Would you like a cup of tea? This is ginseng. It’s very stimulating, and quite delicious.”
“You wanted to discuss something with me,” Kallik said, bluntly.
Iroh took a careful breath in through his nose and let it out through his mouth.
“Yes,” Iroh said, seriously. He raised his head and looked Kallik directly in the eye. “I have news, and it concerns you.”
Kallik swallowed. Maybe they had found the warriors from his tribe. Maybe Iroh was warning him that they were his next target. Maybe Iroh was going to tell him they were already prisoners, or worse.
Kallik bit his tongue and held his breath, not allowing himself to speak.
“The Avatar has been sighted.”
Kallik felt all the air leave his lungs in a rush. He stumbled, and Iroh swiftly stood up and guided him to the free chair, pressing his head between his knees.
“Easy now,” he was saying, when the blood stopped rushing in Kallik’s ears. “Deep breaths in through the nose and out the mouth.”
“What—” Kallik gasped. He felt a sharp pain developing behind his eye. “What did—they’re alive?”
“Breathe, Zuko,” Iroh said, rubbing circles into Kallik’s back. Kallik gasped until he gained control of his breaths, trying to make sense of what he was just told. “In and out, there you go.”
Kallik raised his head, staring up into the old man’s face. Iroh gazed back at him in concern.
“They’re alive?” Kallik asked again.
Iroh sighed and sat back down. He stroked his beard before he answered. “The Avatar appears to be,” he said. “There has been no word of any companions other than the flying bison.” He regarded Kallik very seriously before continuing. “I do not want to give you false hope.”
Kallik shook his head. “If Aang survived, he would have done his best to save the others.”
“I’m not disputing that,” Iroh said. “I can only tell you what I know, and I don’t know what happened to your family.”
Kallik felt his heart pounding in his chest. He fought to keep the smile off his face. If Aang survived, there was a chance. That was all he needed. “Aang is my family.”
“Ah,” Iroh said, nodding. “I see. Well, I’m sorry to say that we are on a course to apprehend him.”
“You won’t catch him,” Kallik said quickly.
“That remains to be seen.”
Kallik scuffed his toe along the floor. “Why did you tell me?” he asked, curiously.
Iroh sighed and gave him a rueful smile. “Because my son told me it would help you to trust us, and I truly mean you no harm.”
Kallik gazed at the man for a minute, searching for any dishonesty in his face. He frowned when he found none, more confused than ever.
“Oh,” he said, dumbly. “Well, thank you for telling me.”
“You’re welcome,” Iroh said, bowing his head. Kallik glanced between Iroh and the door.
“Can I go now?”
Iroh chuckled and waved him away. Kallik shot to his feet and darted to the door, but he paused after he pulled it open. He glanced back at Iroh.
“I mean it,” he said, seriously. “Thank you.”
Iroh nodded once again, and Kallik took his leave. It wasn’t until he was halfway down the hallway that he realized Iroh had said something odd before.
What kind of a name is Zuko, anyway?
“So how old are you?” Lu Ten asked. Kallik sighed as he picked at his dinner. Iroh sat with them, quietly enjoying the conversation.
Once Iroh told him about the Avatar, Kallik started to feel like he may be able to trust these men after all. They didn’t seem to want him for information about the Southern Water Tribe or their fleet. Kallik was pretty sure they didn’t even know the warriors were active, or that Hakoda was leading raids against the Fire Nation Navy. The teenager wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad thing. On the one hand, it was great if the men from the tribe were operating undetected. On the other, they may have stopped movements altogether. Kallik tried not to think too much about it. Even if the fleet were still active, they wouldn’t know he was on a Fire Navy ship.
“Come on, tell me,” Lu Ten prodded. “I know you’re old enough to have kissed a girl.”
“Why are you so obsessed with the most uncomfortable topics?” Kallik asked, staring into his soup and fighting against a blush.
“Spirits, you’re touchy,” Lu Ten replied, cheekily. “Sorry. Old enough to have kissed a boy?”
Kallik sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “It’s none of your business.”
“In the Water Tribe,” Iroh interjected, “you don’t discuss these sorts of things outside those close to you in your family or community. We’re outsiders to Kallik, so he wouldn’t share any personal information like that with us unless he considered us trustworthy enough to know his community.”
Kallik raised an eyebrow, surprised at Iroh’s knowledge. It unnerved him how much Iroh knew of their customs, but he couldn’t help but be impressed. Iroh smiled knowingly at him. “I have done much traveling while Lu Ten was recovering from his injury. I even spent some time at the North Pole, observing waterbenders and learning about the people there.”
“You’ve been to our sister tribe?” Kallik asked.
“Yes. It was a very majestic thing to behold. I had never known ice could be so versatile. Each structure was ornate and beautiful, and seemed to rise out of the ground as opposed to being built.” Kallik blinked and looked back at his soup. He couldn’t even imagine it. Other than their lodge, they had no buildings made of ice. The lodge itself was built by normal men, not benders. The idea of waterbenders creating lodgings so easily twisted him up inside. He wondered what his home would be like if there were any waterbenders left. Well, other than Katara.
Kallik ignored the pounding of his heart. They might be gone, he reminded himself. Don’t get your hopes up. Focus on finding Aang first.
“Sixteen?” Lu Ten guessed. “You’re at least sixteen, right?”
Kallik resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Spending time with Lu Ten was an interesting endeavor. The man was both entertaining and infuriating at the same time. He was also incredibly pushy and demanded attention constantly. It was exhausting to try to ignore him or argue with him.
“I’m seventeen,” Kallik offered, glancing up. “I just turned seventeen, actually.”
“When?” Iroh asked, slurping his own soup.
Kallik shrugged and cleared his throat. “My birthday is on the Winter Solstice.” Lu Ten’s eyes widened and his mouth dropped open a little bit. “Yeah,” Kallik added, snidely. Lu Ten must have been reminded of how horribly he treated Kallik and his family. “Kind of the worst birthday ever, actually.”
Iroh stroked his beard thoughtfully. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I know it’s not worth much, but I truly did not want any harm to come to your friends.”
“My family,” Kallik corrected, glaring.
Iroh nodded. “Yes, that boy said he was your cousin? By blood?”
“No,” Kallik said. “His father and my father are brothers in all but blood.”
“I see.” Iroh nodded, but raised a curious eyebrow. “Pardon me for asking this—I know it’s not my place, but you are not what I expect for someone from the Water Tribes.”
Kallik let out a humorless laugh. “Yeah. Haven’t heard that one before.”
Iroh smiled softly at him. “Your mother is Fire Nation?”
“My mother was Water Tribe,” Kallik said, suddenly fierce. He hated questions like this. “My father is Water Tribe, and so am I. It doesn’t matter that I don’t look like them.”
Iroh held up his hands in placation. “My apologies. I’m sure it must be frustrating to hear these questions. I just have never heard of firebenders in the Water Tribe.”
“Yeah, neither has anyone else,” Kallik sighed, slumping a little. “Look, I know you won’t stop asking me until I tell you. No one does. I wasn’t born there. Whoever actually had me didn’t want me, but my parents did. They asked the spirits to give them a child, and they gave them me.”
“Just like that?” Lu Ten asked, arching a brow. “They just accepted you as their kid, even though you had no relation to them at all?”
“I don’t get why that’s so surprising,” Kallik said, crossing his arms over his chest. “It’s the rest of you that are weird. Do you know how many orphans there are in the Earth Kingdom? Hardly anyone steps up to take care of them. The adults act like the kids aren’t their responsibility.”
“Well, they’re not,” Lu Ten said, slowly. Kallik opened his mouth to argue, but Iroh cut him off.
“The Water Tribe values family and community,” he said, with authority. Lu Ten settled back to listen. “The responsibility for children falls to the whole tribe. Mothers and fathers raise them, yes, but all the adults teach them, and older children and teenagers help take care of them. If something happens to their parents, someone from the tribe immediately steps up to take them as their own.”
“Why?” Lu Ten asked.
“The conditions are harsh at the poles, my son,” Iroh said. “Terrible things happen easily to the people who live there. It is a necessity that the children are cared for so they can help the tribe in turn when they are old enough. These values have been passed on for generations to those who are part of the Water Tribe.”
“Huh.” Lu Ten furrowed his brow. “I suppose that makes sense.”
“What I want to know,” Iroh said, staring at Kallik intensely, “is why you think your birth family didn’t want you.”
Kallik set his spoon down. “Lu Ten told me you know I’m Spirit-touched.” Lu Ten told him a lot more than that. He told him how Iroh respected the Spirits. He told him how Iroh went on a journey through the Spirit world to save his life. If anyone would fully believe this story, it would be him.
Iroh nodded. Kallik sighed before he continued. “I was touched by Tui when I was a baby. And the Spirits haven’t left me alone since.”
“Tui?” Lu Ten asked.
“The Moon Spirit,” Iroh explained, gesturing for Kallik to go on.
“Well, I just recently ended up in the Spirit world, and I got to meet Agni.” Iroh’s eyes widened. Lu Ten gaped at him. Kallik took a careful breath. “He said the man he gave me to had no love in his heart for me, so his sister delivered me to someone who did.”
“What?” Iroh whispered, stunned.
“You met Agni?” Lu Ten asked, awed.
“I don’t really want to talk about this anymore,” Kallik said, a little discomforted.
“Alright,” Iroh said, shaking himself. “I apologize if I overstepped. Perhaps you would like to learn about Pai Sho?”
Iroh sat before a blank sheet of paper, still trying to figure out how to word the letter he needed to send to his father.
They found him. Iroh was certain the boy they found on Crescent Island was Prince Zuko. All the pieces fit. Zuko was only a baby when he disappeared. Kallik was adopted by a Water Tribe couple before he was old enough to have memories. He was the right age, and he even shared the same birthday as the missing prince. The most convincing evidence of all was his face. He looked exactly like Ozai. He looked exactly like Azula. Other than some of the softer features Ursa possessed (a rounder nose and thinner eyebrows) he was the spitting image of Iroh’s brother at that age. Those brilliant gold eyes that Azulon passed down could not be mistaken for anything else.
But the boy met Agni, and if he was to be believed, Agni didn’t want him with Ozai. Ozai, who demanded retribution against those who would dare to take his son. Ozai who doted on his wife and daughter. Ozai who lit a candle on the Winter Solstice every year in remembrance of his lost child. Agni thought Ozai had no love for Zuko.
Iroh didn’t want to believe it. How could his brother have no love for his own son? For his firstborn? It was true that Ozai could be a little cold, sometimes, but for a Great Spirit to say he was undeserving of his child took tremendous doing.
Iroh tapped his fingers against the paper thoughtfully. Ozai always regretted that there was no spark in Zuko’s eyes when he was born. He often lamented the bad omens that hung over his son’s head during that first year of life. He was also the first of them to believe Zuko was dead instead of missing.
Assassins often went after members of the royal family, but none had such intimate knowledge of the layout of the palace. Attacks were almost always during travels, or visits with the commoners. When one considered the fact that the rooms belonging to the second prince were practically unknown, one had to wonder how an assassin could have reached Zuko’s room to begin with. And wasn’t Ozai fixated on sending a letter that very day by messenger hawk? What could have demanded his attention so much that he couldn’t even properly mourn the loss of his son?
The more Iroh thought about it, the more concerned he became. Finally, after much consideration, he put the paper away.
Perhaps it was too soon to notify his father that he found Prince Zuko. It couldn’t be known for sure, and Iroh had more pressing concerns at the moment.
The Avatar was not quite at the top of the list.