Things were better after the Boiling Rock. It’s not often that prison actually improves things, but Hakoda was - in some ways, at least - grateful that everything had happened the way it did. He was back with his children, everyone was safe and alive, and the Avatar had a firebending teacher. Who was the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation. Who had been hunting his children for months.
Things were strange.
Whatever Hakoda had expected from Prince Zuko, it wasn’t this. Nobody referred to him as prince here and he seemed to be the least pompous person Hakoda had ever met. He cooked with the rest of the children, did chores with them, and was just generally a helpful person. He took most of the ribbing and gentle teasing directed at him with grace and even responded with some carefully crafted jokes of his own. At the same time, however, he avoided Katara like the plague and was just more… reserved than the rest of the group. Zuko seemed a bit nervous compared to the rest of the group; he spent most of his time training with either fire or blades and rarely joined in when the other children went off exploring or played games. His dedication to Aang’s education was absolute. Despite how quick to anger he seemed, Zuko took Aang’s training very seriously but was a kind and firm teacher.
He displayed an unsettling gravity and seriousness for someone who was still a teenager. It saddened Hakoda in a way he had never really thought about before. He was all too aware that the war had stolen his children’s youth, but it had taken something from Zuko as well. One only had to look at his face to see that.
It all began to go downhill when they started planning for Sozin’s Comet.
They were all gathered around the fire at the end of the day. Darkness was creeping over the horizon and the dishes from dinner had long been cleaned and packed away. Hakoda was in deep discussion with his children, Zuko, Suki, the loud and brash Toph - whose entire plan seemed to be “kick down the front door and paste any firebenders behind it” - and the Avatar. Zuko wasn’t offering much other than tidbits of information regarding the layout of the palace and the capital city of the Fire Nation. He was quiet and tense, sitting formally next to the relaxed Avatar and Sokka, who was lounging against a fallen rock. Sokka was trying to figure out the strategy behind their attack. Hakoda could feel pride welling up inside of him, threatening to spill over as he watched his son build a plan that would save the world. Sokka had always been brilliant, but his son had grown so much in the years Hakoda had been absent.
“Dad, that’s ridiculous!” Sokka said suddenly, staring down at the scroll they were marking on. “There’s no way this will work. Katara can’t hold this port by herself, it’s suicide. We don’t have the help of the other Waterbenders this time.”
Hakoda wasn’t offended by Sokka’s comment. He was ready to counter it - after all, he had already thought about that, and accounted for it in a different plan - but the fire flickered and caught his eye. Zuko’s face was ashen and his fists were clenched tight. The fire was suddenly brighter than it had been a moment ago. Zuko was rigid and tense, and he was glancing between Sokka and Hakoda. Hakoda narrowed his eyes as he looked closer. Zuko was glancing between Sokka and Hakoda’s club he wore belted at his side.
“Sokka,” Hakoda said chidingly, and reached over to ruffle his son’s hair. Zuko gave a full body flinch and jerked like he was about to stand up before Hakoda continued. “I know that. Look down at the next bit.”
“Oh, I see,” Sokka said without looking up. He hadn’t noticed that Zuko was breathing heavily and looked about as relaxed as Hakoda would be at dinner with the Fire Lord.
“That’s enough for tonight,” Hakoda announced. He was still covertly watching Zuko. The firebender’s fists had finally relaxed, though his face was still tight with some unnamed emotion, and he seemed immensely relieved that their strategy session was over. Zuko stood and began to make his way off to his room back in the temple when Hakoda called out to him.
“Zuko, mind speaking with me for a moment?”
Zuko froze and turned around, his eyes respectfully downcast. “Of course not, sir.”
“There’s no need to call me sir,” Hakoda said gently as he led the disgraced prince to the edge of the temple. He sat down, hanging his legs off into the ravine below, and patted the stone next to him. Zuko stiffly bent down and copied his posture, holding himself still.
“I don’t know your father,” Hakoda said.
“There’s not much to know.” Zuko sounded bitter and disappointed, and he wouldn’t look Hakoda in the eye.
“I know that he’s your father,” Hakoda continued. “But I don’t know how he was as a father. To you and your sister. I would imagine this is not easy for you.”
“It’s not as hard as you might think,” Zuko said. “I already confronted him during the eclipse. I’m not his son anymore.”
Ah. That certainly explained why Zuko had nearly no qualms about the fact that this war would end with his father dead.
“Why were you so startled during our war meeting?” Hakoda asked directly. Zuko flinched again.
“I - uh, well - Sokka disrespected you, didn’t he? He called your plan ridiculous.” Zuko’s hands were clenched over his pants, creating wrinkles in the fabric. “I know it wasn’t my place but I reacted on instinct. Sorry.”
“Sokka wasn’t really being disrespectful,” Hakoda said. “That’s just how we strategize. Why would that matter?”
Zuko finally looked at him, his eyes surprised. “Is that not how you do things in the Water Tribe? When I disrespected my father - well, you can see.” His gaze dropped again.
Hakoda was confused. What did disrespect have to do with Zuko’s appearance?
“What happened when you disrespected your father, Zuko?” Hakoda asked quietly. Zuko stared at him in consternation.
“Do you not know?” he asked incredulously. Hakoda raised an eyebrow and waited.
“My face,” Zuko said finally. “The scar? I interrupted a war meeting and I had to duel my father.” His voice was dead as he said it, completely devoid of emotion. Hakoda could feel a slow horror creeping through his heart.
“Your father dueled you and burnt your face?” He asked. It was unbelievable - a parent, to their own child -
“No, no,” Zuko said quickly. Hakoda felt a surge of relief for a brief second before Zuko continued. “I refused to fight him, and then he burned me.”
Hakoda suddenly felt sick. Fire Lord Ozai deserved death for a lot of things, but right now, Hakoda could only think of this one reason. And Zuko had been looking between Sokka and Hakoda during the meeting, and at Hakoda’s club… the implications were so horrifying that Hakoda didn’t even want to think about it.
“Zuko, you know that was wrong of him, right?” Hakoda needed Zuko to understand this. “A parent should never hurt their child. Ever. And I would never hurt Sokka or Katara, for any reason.”
“It’s different,” Zuko dismissed. “You’re proud of your children. They’re amazing. I’m sure my father would never do something like that to Azula.”
Hakoda suddenly wished he was the Avatar so he would get the opportunity to smash Ozai’s face in. “No, Zuko. There’s nothing that justifies that.”
Zuko’s brow was furrowed and he looked conflicted. Hakoda didn’t want to push him too hard; this was clearly a very painful subject and Hakoda wasn’t sure he had the strength to handle this gracefully at the moment seeing as he wanted to drown Ozai in a freezing lake and burn his corpse. But Hakoda did have one more thing to say.
“I saw you move, you know,” he added. “You were going to protect Sokka, weren’t you?”
“No, I - I mean, I -” Zuko started but the look in his eyes was all the confirmation Hakoda needed.
“Thank you, Zuko. It means a lot that you would defend my son.” Zuko sputtered again and Hakoda wanted to laugh but refrained out of respect for the boy sitting next to him. “He’s very lucky to have friends like you.”
And now that Hakoda was paying attention, he could see the doubt cross Zuko’s face, but he knew that Sokka thought of Zuko as a friend. He had faith in his son. Zuko would know it soon enough.
“It would mean a lot to me if you would continue protecting them all,” Hakoda said softly. “I don’t know where this war will take them and that makes me scared. But I would feel better knowing that you would be there to defend them.”
Now that Zuko understood. Hakoda could see something akin to relief on his face.
“I promise,” Zuko said solemnly. “I promise I’ll protect them.”
Hakoda stood up to leave and get some sleep, but he patted Zuko once on the shoulder before he went. This boy was shouldering a lot, far more than he thought any of them realized. In a way, it gave Hakoda some hope for the future. If Zuko could turn on everything he’d ever known to try to make things right, perhaps the next generation could truly make a change.
Zuko stayed there at the edge of the temple, staring into the night.
When Azula attacked, it was Hakoda’s worst nightmare. His children, all of these children, in danger again from another child of war. There was fire everywhere and airships in the sky. He wanted nothing more than to stay with Katara and Sokka and to fight by their sides, but there are other children here he must protect. Toph and Haru made an escape tunnel and Hakoda ushered everyone into it. They’re lucky, he thought - lucky that such talented benders were with them, lucky that Aang had brought them to the Air Temple that’s protecting them, lucky that they’ve survived this far at all. The explosions ringing in his ears made him terrified for his children, but as Hakoda watched, Zuko stepped forward.
Zuko jumped through the air with his characteristic grace and caught Katara, rolling her across the stones and saving her from a pile of rocks falling from the temple ceiling. Hakoda could see her snap something at the prince as she shakes herself free, but Zuko’s eyes met Hakoda’s and he gave a tiny nod. Hakoda had the uncomfortable feeling that he had placed another burden on this boy’s shoulders, but his daughter was safe. At the moment, that was all that mattered.
They ran to the tunnel, but Zuko stayed behind. When the firebender stopped and said he’d hold off his sister, Hakoda almost wanted to tell him to flee with the rest of them. As much as Zuko seemed to deny it - as much as this war has destroyed him - Zuko was still young. He was a child in Hakoda’s eyes. But he’d keep the promise he made to Hakoda and he would protect them all, so Hakoda let him go.
When Appa refused to enter the cave, he knew they would have to split up. It was the only way to protect everyone here. Aang must survive, and he knew that Sokka and Katara had to go with him. Their fates were intertwined now. It still nearly killed him to leave them again, but he thought of Zuko waiting on the other side for them and he felt a tiny bit better.
It was over. The war, the hundred year war, was finally over. His children had saved the world. Hakoda thought he might just be the proudest father in the world. He and his band of misfits had escaped from the temple and immediately begun the journey to the Fire Nation capital. They had traveled on the unwavering faith that Aang would succeed and it had carried them all the way here.
They had entered the capital and been escorted immediately to the palace. It seemed the capital was already aware that the conflict was over because they arrived unaccosted, and Hakoda demanded politely to be taken to his children immediately.
“Dad!” Sokka called, just as Hakoda was using his name and rank to terrify some poor palace servant to locate his son and daughter.
“Sokka!” Hakoda said immediately, turning to get an armful of his son. Tears were leaking out of his eyes with abandon as he hugged Sokka within an inch of his life. Finally, he held Sokka out at arm’s length and took stock of his son. Bandaged leg, a few scrapes, but no serious injuries. Hakoda silently thanked the spirits that Sokka was alright and felt fresh tears prick his eyes.
“We missed you so much, dad,” Sokka said. His eyes were wet too. “Aang did it, he defeated Ozai! Except he didn’t kill him, which is great for Aang but the rest of us kinda didn’t care if he lived or died, right? Anyway, he’s totally fine, but we did it! Toph and Suki and I took down the airship fleet before it could damage too much of the Earth Kingdom too, so even they’re fine!” Sokka was running out of breath but the visceral relief he felt at seeing his father was so overwhelming he nearly fell over his bad leg.
“Sokka, you can tell me all this later,” Hakoda said gently. “Where’s your sister?”
A grief-stricken expression stole over Sokka’s face for a moment and Hakoda felt his stomach drop. Sokka saw his expression fall and hurried to explain.
“No, dad, she’s fine! She went with Zuko to face his sister for the final time. And, uh, they won, sort of,” Sokka said.
“Sort of?” Hakoda wasn’t feeling reassured.
“Apparently Azula tried to shoot lightning at Katara,” Sokka said, glancing around nervously. “And Zuko jumped in front of her, so he took the blast when he wasn’t prepared. Katara actually had to finish the fight because Zuko was in really bad shape. She’s off healing him right now. I can take you to them.”
“Let’s go,” Hakoda said, and let Sokka lead the way. They went through a winding maze of palace corridors. Sokka didn’t have an escort, but he seemed to know exactly where they were going.
“Do you visit Zuko often?” Hakoda asked after their third incomprehensible turn. Sokka blushed faintly.
“Well, yeah,” Sokka said, “He kinda saved Katara’s life, you know? And he’s my friend too. It’s crazy to think that a year ago, we were trying to kill each other. Things have really changed.”
“You kids give an old man like me hope,” Hakoda said, nudging Sokka companionably. “If you can get over your differences, maybe the world can too.”
Sokka brought them to an ornate set of doors. Two guards were posted outside, one a Kiyoshi Warrior who smiled at Sokka and the other a Fire Nation guard. They recognized Sokka, who nodded at them, and they opened the door.
“That hurts!” Zuko snapped.
“If you would quit squirming, maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much,” Katara snapped back. Zuko was sitting up in a large bed, propped against pillows that kept him upright as Katara focused her waterbending on his abdomen.
“Chief Hakoda,” Zuko nearly yelped upon seeing who had entered the room.
“Dad!” Katara cried, abandoning her patient stumbling off the side of the bed as she ran to her father. Hakoda caught her in his arms and hugged her as tightly as he possibly could. Over her shoulder, he saw Zuko shrug on a robe, but not before he caught sight of the massive, starburst scar that covered his stomach. It looked raw and red and Hakoda felt a sliver of ice drop down his spine. That could have been Katara, if not for the bravery of the boy who was about to lead a country.
Katara stepped back, wiping tears from her eyes. She smiled tremulously at her father and brother and Hakoda smiled back. It was hard to believe that they all had made it.
“Zuko,” Hakoda said warmly, stepping forward to sweep Zuko into a hug. Hakoda was careful not to touch the wound on Zuko’s stomach, but he wanted to hug the boy that had protected his children. “Thank you so much for taking care of Katara.”
“It was nothing,” Zuko said, stiffly returning the hug after a moment of hesitation.
“Still,” Hakoda insisted as he let the poor boy go. “It means a lot to me that you would protect them.”
“I did promise,” Zuko said, as if that discredited everything he had done.
“You kept your promise,” Hakoda corrected. “And my children live because of it. Hopefully, from now on, you won’t have to do anything to keep it. I want nothing but peace for you and your future.”
“Wait, what’s this?” Sokka interrupted, and Zuko flushed bright red.
“I had Zuko promise to keep an eye on you guys,” Hakoda said smoothly. “And it looks like it was a good idea.”
“Dad, that’s so embarrassing,” Katara groaned.
“I’d like to talk to Zuko about politics for a moment, if you don’t mind?” Hakoda pointedly glanced at the door. Behind him, Zuko just looked confused and a trifle intimidated.
“Sure, dad, we’ll just go see if we can find something for lunch. Zuko can show you to the banquet hall when you’re done.” Sokka grabbed his sister and awkwardly towed her out of the room, dragging his crutch across the ground. They shut the doors behind them and left Hakoda and Zuko alone.
“Chief Hakoda, if there’s anything I can do-”
Hakoda stepped forward again and dragged Zuko into another hug. This time, he didn’t let go immediately, but instead chanted thank you, thank you into the firebender’s shoulder. Zuko stiffened immediately but eventually, cautiously, brought his arms up to hug Hakoda back.
“Zuko, you saved my daughter’s life,” Hakoda said when he finally released the boy. “She’s alive because of you. If I had lost her - I don’t think you quite understand how much you’ve done for me.” And Hakoda dropped down to kneel in front of Zuko, one knee on the ground and his face upturned to the incipient Fire Lord. “I owe you so much, Crown Prince Zuko. If there is anything I can ever do for you, I would be glad to.”
Zuko was blushing and fidgeting, his hands restless as he tried to look anywhere but the Chief of the Southern Water Tribe kneeling before him.
“Please, Hakoda, stand up,” Zuko said desperately. Hakoda obliged and resisted the urge to hug Zuko again.
“Zuko, if you ever need anything - anything at all - let me know.” Hakoda rested his hand on Zuko’s shoulder and looked into his eyes. They were that curious amber-gold, a color that had haunted Hakoda for decades. They were tired eyes, eyes that had seen too much - a father’s abuse, the deeds of his country, the end of an innocence far too early - and they were young eyes that still held hope.
“Let’s go find my children,” Hakoda said finally, and he let Zuko lead the way out of the room.
They were eyes that would lead a nation, and they belonged to a man who saved the world.