Zuko looks out at the sea cast in saffron and scarlet, reflecting the fading light of day, and tries to make peace with the life that lies before him. The waves slap against the side of the ship, the beat as steady as the brag of his heart. The sun is slipping down past the horizon, being swallowed by the water in the distance.
Zuko will live the rest of his life on the run. He will jump from ship to ship, duck between port cities, keeping his head low, and shield the scar that marks him as the Traitor Prince. He’s a pirate now in the eyes of his family and home–a pirate his father has sworn to drag back to the Fire Nation, shackled and trapped.
His eyes sweep the endless line of the horizon. The wind tousles his hair, forcing it across his face. It’s getting long now, untrimmed and untamed. He feels like he’s growing wilder, too, like he’s learning from the sea and all Her unruly, unfathomable ways.
She’d nearly taken him once already, the time that he betrayed his father’s navy. The night that had changed his stars, changed his life. He remembers the water being black as ashes, red as blood. There’d been flames licking at the top of the sea, the ship’s guts spilling out into the sea, it’s bloated belly ripped open, jagged wood like its broken ribs.
He’d hit the water that night with a gunshot wound ripped through his shoulder, open and vulnerable. He’d hit the water with little faith he would survive.
But he had made peace in that moment, swallowed whole by his beloved ocean.
Everything had fallen away in that moment, the world gone fuzzy and dark and so clearly cold. His heart had slowed. There’d been pressure, but–but it’d been so beautiful, to be in Her arms. To see the light of the fire above him, all that chaos, now just a glassy, swimming mirage he could barely make out through the water.
He still doesn’t know how he survived that night, how he’d ended up washed ashore, near enough to a port in the Earth Kingdom that a local had dragged him out and taken him in. She’d been kind. She hadn’t asked where he had come from nor what had happened. She’d dressed his wound. Fed him. Let him sleep for long, long nights.
Zuko can’t remember much of that night–just something strange. The feeling of hands. A flash of scales. And–
And there’s a song he’s humming to himself now. Some little tune that won’t leave his head. He whistles it to the wind, to the sky when he’s hoisting sails and working until his hands ache on the decks of ships that aren’t his.
He feels like he hears his song everywhere now, too, feels like he hears it in the cry of the gulls and the crackling of hearths and the pattering of misty rains.
A crewmate–Suki, he’d learned her name later–had commented on it, her smile clever and sharp. “You’re lovesick,” she’d said, “you’re humming a lost song.”
“You know it?” Zuko had asked her, almost hopeful. He wanted to put a name to it, explain away it’s mystery, its sudden appearance in his mind.
She’d shaken her head, “No, of course not! It’s your song.”
Zuko must’ve looked at her strange, he must’ve looked clueless, because she’d laughed. The sound was full and bright, carrying to the circling and squawking birds above their head.
“They say every pirate has their own song–it’s unique to them. It touches your soul, soothes you when your heart is hurting, comforts you on the long journeys.” She gave him a nudge to his ribs, “But you have to be careful because they say sirens will use your own song to lure you to them!”
She’d laughed again, then, maybe again at the expression on Zuko’s face.
“You believe in sirens?” he’d asked her.
A shrug of her shoulders. “Sure. Makes it more interesting, doesn’t it?”
Zuko hadn’t argued. But it had stuck with him.
He thinks of his song now, looking out at the foreverness of the sea and the sky.
He hums it, voice low and soft, carrying on the sea breeze. It settles with the cresting waves, with the flutter-snap of the sails, and the rhythm of his own heart.
Suki had been right about one thing; it soothed him, whatever this song was. But it made some part of him ache, like nostalgia, like desire. It’s sweet, with its sharp little edge–the halcyon memory he loves but can never return to, the wanting of something he can never have.
He tries to make peace, out here, on the deck, with the sea.
He promises to admire and love and follow Her vastness. He promises to try and let Her soothe him, he promises to give in to Her, lest she try to take him once more.
(He can still feel Her filling his throat, burning, his lungs, his body–)
She doesn’t need to take, Zuko thinks, She already has his heart. She already has him.
And She is all Zuko has left, too.
He has no empire to return to. No navy behind him–he’s been stripped of his title of Prince and Captain. He’s nothing now, just a sailor. Just a pirate. Just a man with a life of running ahead of him, a man who’s prepared to chase the sun to the ends of the earth.
So he stays out on deck until the water becomes moon-splashed, the tops of waves shimmering like silverfish, beneath it all plum dark, sloshing against the side of the great ship. He stays until his voice carries off, until he sings no more.
Until he stops thinking of his father and the life of a banished prince, wanted for treason. Wanted dead or alive.
He makes peace with Her. With himself and Fate.
And then he goes below deck, tucks himself into the hammock that is beneath Suki’s and lets the lulling rock of the ship cradle him.
He drifts off to sleep, the same way he had drifted down, down, down into the ocean’s depth that bloody and wartorn night.
And Zuko hears his song, the one that’s sweet and sharp and beautiful, hears a voice like no other sing it to him–
But in the morning he can’t remember her. Can’t remember the sound of his longing, of his own heartbeat.
Zuko is thankfully an early riser. It’s good to be one on a crew with pirates, because if you’re not up in time, someone is bound to flip your hammock over and dump water on your face.
Suki has flipped him over once, just to laugh when he’d dropped to the floor and woken up confused and rubbing his head. Despite it, she’s somehow become some sort of a friend to him. They often do the same work together on the ship–they get yelled at by the firstmate plenty.
One of these days he swears Suki is going to get them on dish washing or dinner duty for all her trouble. Still, Zuko likes her company. He likes her quips. He likes her bravery, too. She’s a strong fighter; not many will mess with her, not with the way she moves, sharp and swift as a hawk, as a swordfish.
They work beside each other on the deck of the ship, and the sun beams down on them harsh and warm. Zuko likes the sun, the heat of it on his shoulders, on the back of his neck. His long hair is up, tied away from his face, but the pieces that fall forward cling to his forehead. The sea spray is his only, brief relief from the heat.
Suki is down to her bindings and a loose pair of trousers as she works with him. Her own choppy hair is messily pulled away from the nape of her neck, too. They are yanking and pulling and retying knots, being sure the ropes are sturdy and strong for the sails. Zuko’s fingers are raw and aching, but it’s fine work. It keeps his mind busy and away from wandering thoughts.
Suki isn’t overly chatty, but compared to Zuko, she’s talkative. She doesn’t mind that he’s quiet, except for the occasional comment or affirmative noise to let her know he’s still listening.
Today she’s telling him about the myths that many sailors believe in. Zuko doesn’t know many, despite being a captain for several years for his father’s navy. The navy was always strict, there weren't talks of wraiths or sea gods or selkies. There were no stories around a small fire at night with bottles of alcohol and music, drunken singing and even dancing. There was no chatting while they worked, like he does with Suki now.
She heaves another heavy rope, drawing it near her to inspect the knot. She’s telling him a legend about a ghostly skeleton whale now, something about how they’re massive and aggressive.
“They’re said to bring deep misfortune, too.” Suki explains, grunting with effort as she yanks at the large rope again, “If you survive your encounter with one, legend says you’ll be cursed with bad luck for the rest of your life.”
Zuko hums, “And you believe this?” he asks, as he always does.
Suki’s eyes glint, a smile curling at her lip. “I know someone who defeated one.” Her fingers work hard against the rope, pulling at the knot and tugging it into a stronger placement.
“How’s their luck?” Zuko asks, if only to humor Suki.
“Good, actually,” Suki responds, just as Zuko redoes another large knot with tired fingers, “She never actually saw it, so she’s not cursed with misfortune.”
Zuko scowls, “How’d she defeat it with never seeing it?”
Suki’s grin is a clever, rueful twisting of her lips, “She’s blind.”
“Then how’d she know it was a skeleton whale?” he asks, skeptical, yanking at the rope in his hands.
Suki scoffs, “Her crew, obviously. They all have bad luck now– they say her ship is cursed and she’s the only one who can safely captain them. She’s something of a living legend. Maybe you’ve heard of her–” Suki leans closer to him now and the sun flashes in her eyes, dances mischievously, “They call her the Blind Bandit.”
Zuko has heard of the Blind Bandit. But he always thought she was a ghost story. He gives Suki another dubious look, “I thought the Blind Bandit was made up.”
Suki laughs, the sound a little tight with the way she’s working, “What? No! I know her.”
“You know her?”
“I know her!” Suki declares, wiping at the sweat on her brow, “I saved her life, actually. She owes me a debt.”
“The Blind Bandit owes you a life debt?”
Suki’s smile is a fox’s grin, sharp and knowing and mischievous, “There’s a lot you don’t know about me, Zuko.”
Zuko narrows his eyes at her, wondering how she got here, on this ship of outcasts as another lowly crewmate. Well, he supposes she might be wondering the same thing about him.
“Well, there’s lots you don’t know about me, either,” he counters, almost childishly, a slight huff to his tone.
Suki tilts her head. “Oh, I know that already.”
Zuko rolls his eyes a little, flexing his burning fingers. “You just seem to know everything, is that it?”
Suki laughs at his surly tone and the sound of it is bright and pinging, carrying up to the sails that flutter and snap above their heads.
He can’t help but let a hint of a smile touch his lips, either.
And later, when they’re sitting around a small fire, mugs of too-strong alcohol cradled in their worn palms, Suki leans over to him and says, “I used to be a captain, you know.”
Zuko eyes her in the firelight, hears the slow rolling of the sea against the ship. In the distance, if he listens closely, over the ruckus of the other sailors, he swears he can hear a song, slow and sweet and entrancing. A song he swears he hears every night now, when the moon is high and starshine paints the water silver and pearlescent.
He finally smiles, like he has his own secret, and tells her;
“I used to be a captain, too.”
Zuko has been sent out with Suki and a crew of people to the port in order to gather more supplies, to make sure they’re stocked up until they reach the next port, which could be months from now. The port they dock at is on an island in the Fire Nation. Zuko can’t exactly decline the task of going to get supplies without revealing his identity, but he knows it’s dangerous for him to enter Fire Nation territory.
His appearance, with his specific scar, is a dead giveaway in the Fire Nation. He’s sure there are wanted posters with his face plastered across the country, should he ever dare to return.
He swallows, glad they’re going with the cover of evening. The sun is low in the sky, the flare of orange on the horizon before it bleeds away into mellow, deep blue. Soon, it will be dark. It is cooler now, with the sun gone, so it’s more acceptable for him to throw on a cloak, to cast the hood up and try to hide his face.
He thinks Suki must catch on to his odd behavior, but she thankfully doesn’t say a word for once.
They walk through the port together, the lush island palms casting tall shadows on cobblestone roads. The town bustles in the last rays of evening; men coming home from work, women cleaning up their shops or homes, children rushing about with their final games for the day. The air is balmy and honeyed, the sounds of the small town almost musical. The smell of bonfires, of spiced food, and bakeries with warm, doughy desserts remind him of his childhood.
A certain nostalgia grows in him as he looks around at this small Fire Nation town, knowing he can never settle down in a place like this again.
But the sound of the ocean behind him, the one he has begun to love, is its own siren song to him now.
Almost all of their evening goes smoothly, bargaining for food and wares with other crewmates. Suki is especially good at this and Zuko is particularly bad. He doesn’t have a charming smile or pleasant attitude to put on for sellers. He lets Suki do most of the talking.
Everything is going suspiciously well until it isn’t anymore, until they’re finished with most of their errands and much of the crew decides to spend the rest of the night in a tavern.
Zuko is wary. And he’s right to be, because when he walks in, there is a board of Wanted posters, renditions of faces spread out across the great wall.
And in the center is his face. With his scar and dark hair. Whoever drew him, drew him very severely, the harsh lines of Zuko’s face heavy. He’s scowling deeply. Perhaps more unpleasant than he usually looks. He looks like a criminal in this drawing, like he’s just waiting for blood to be spilled or chaos to erupt.
If anyone from this crew finds out that he is the wanted, disgraced prince of the Fire Nation they’ll either;
Cut him down where he stands; turn him in for the bounty on his head; or, in the least, they’ll leave him here.
He’s too much trouble. They would hate to have the might of the Fire Nation navy chasing after him all for the likes of this washed up prince.
He feels his heart squeeze tight, fear rushing through his chest. What’s he to do? Walk out? Rip the poster down? If he walks out, it’s likely someone from the crew will still see the poster and recognize him. If he tears it down, it simply draws attention to what he was trying to keep secret.
Suki breezes past the board without spotting it and he assumes most of the crew had already, too, so he takes his chance. He ducks his head, tries to hide in his cloak, and follows behind her into the dimly-lit tavern. It’s already growing rowdier with nightfall. Workers and sailors enjoying alcohol in tin mugs covered in scratches and marks.
And for a moment, as he sits with his crew and takes small sips of his drink, he figures he shouldn’t have been worried. Most will be stumbling out of here by the end, it’s doubtful they’ll notice anything. He sits beside Suki, listens to her trade quips with other sailors. She’s entertaining, a natural crowd pleaser. He can see her as a captain, decisive and clever in the face of her crew, in the face of danger.
Zuko almost manages to relax for the evening, until a bar fight breaks out. He has no idea who starts it, but as these things tend to go, absolute chaos erupts. Suki is prepared to go down swinging, but Zuko knows he should get out before he gets jostled too much, before his hood falls and someone manages to recognize him.
Glass shatters. Chairs are being tossed around. Someone yanks on the back of Zuko’s cloak to turn him around.
His hood falls, just as a fist collides with his jaw.
Pain erupts sharply over his face, sending his teeth clicking as he grunts.
Through the blur of stinging eyes, he manages to see the fist raised for another strike. But it halts and Zuko’s eyes travel to its owner finally.
Clearly a Fire Nation man– no one on the crew. He blinks at Zuko before suddenly saying in a booming voice that seems to echo over some of the calamity, “Aren’t you the wanted Prince?”
“Prince?!” Suki snaps, head whipping towards Zuko, letting go of her own opponent in her surprise.
Zuko winces, knowing he needs to make his escape now as eyes begin to turn on him. He kicks out into the stomach of the man who has revealed his identity, tearing his grip on him away.
That flash of movement has much of the bar converging on Zuko.
“I told you there was a lot you didn’t know about me!” he gets out to Suki, just as he’s ducking out of the way of another fist. He curses quietly as he dives to the floor following the throwing of a bottle at his head.
“Someone get him! Turn him in for the money!” he hears as he rolls away from the feet nearly stepping on him.
He needs to get out of here, hide somehow–
Someone with a piece of a broken table raises it above their head to slam down on Zuko. He has nowhere to turn to, nowhere to dive for. He grits his teeth, squeezing his eyes shut as he prepares for the impact.
But it never comes. He opens his eyes tentatively.
Suki stands above him now, a broken bottle in her hand.
“What are you doing? Get up!” she snaps, dropping the glass to offer him her hand. She pulls him up hard, shoving at his back, “We need to get you out of here!”
Zuko is surprised, tripping his own feet as she tries to shove him out of the bar. He’d expected Suki to turn on him, too. He knows how it is with pirates– or he’d thought he did.
When she manages to get him out into the balmy, night air, the door flooding out with other patrons trying to escape the bar fight, too, Zuko takes in several deep breaths. He throws his hood back up, just as other members of their crew burst out of the bar.
“There they are!” one shouts and any hope of rejoining the ship he’d been on is dashed out the window.
“Let’s go!” Suki grabs at Zuko’s cloak again, yanking him into a sudden sprint.
Zuko doesn’t need to be told again as he follows after her. She heads for the docks, which surprises him, since that’s where their ship is rocking steadily. For a moment, he thinks she’s going to accidentally trap them.
But then she veers sharply onto another ship that is tethered to the docks. It’s smaller than the one they’d come on, but not tiny. Zuko jumps in after her.
“Cut the ropes!” she hollers, rushing for the sails, “This is gonna be rough!”
Zuko doesn’t hesitate. He draws out his knife and whacks at the ropes that keep the ship in place, rushing around quickly. He uses all his strength to push the ship away from the docks, knowing this job usually requires far more people.
But Suki is getting the sails in place just as a small burst of wind catches. She rushes to yank the wheel of the ship away from the dock, from the other ships.
Zuko watches as the other pirates and people from the pub rush onto the docks, watches as they reach in futile attempt for the ship just as it veers away from the dock.
One person falls in the water. There’s more shouting.
“Man the sails!” Suki snaps and Zuko rushes to follow her order, just as she steers them out towards sea.
And then they’re off, just like that, together on a ship that is a little too big for the two of them. When they’re a safer distance away from the port, Zuko finally calls to her over the wind, over the sound of the waves that he has never been happier to hear, “Why’d you help me?”
Suki leans away from the wheel to look at him. She shrugs. “We’re friends, aren’t we?”
Zuko looks at her, somewhat taken back.
But then he nods, a jerky motion, “Yeah–I mean, if you think–if you want to be.”
His cheeks prickle with heat.
Suki laughs. “Yeah, Zuko, I don’t just steal ships for people who aren’t my friend.”
And then she looks out at the horizon, at the distant, sparkling sea that grows darker with the impending night.
“Besides,” she calls over the sounds of the wind, tossing her head back to the sky for a moment to crow, “I wanted to be a captain again!”
And Zuko’s answering laugh is rough and scraping, heard by the clouds, by the distant skies.
It’s heard in the water, too, by the sparkling, blue eyes that watch him from afar.
Unfortunately for Zuko and Suki’s luck, a storm rolls in late into the night–perhaps early into the morning. It’s hard to tell in the dark, but the rumble of thunder is clear and the waves are getting choppier, slapping harder against the side of the ship.
They’ll be in a lot of danger if this storm grows worse–there’s only two of them to manage a ship that is perhaps built for a crew of fifteen or so. Storms are dangerous for sailors on their own, but now that they’re alone, out in the open sea, it feels like it could be a death sentence.
Suki keeps a stiff upper lip, even as the rain begins to come down in harsh sheets, as the ship begins to sway and rock roughly. Zuko slips and slides around on deck, but he listens to every barked order that Suki gives him.
Lightning flashes, throwing her features into sharp brightness for a moment. Her brow is furrowed deeply, jaw tensed as she tries to steer their rickety ship through the sloshing and rough waters.
The waves seem to be gaining size to Zuko, the walls of everchanging crests growing taller and taller, only to crash over the side of the ship and onto the deck. Each time it douses both him and Suki in icy, brutal water. Zuko has to cling to the masts, the sides of the ship, just to keep the waves from washing him straight off the ship and into the swirling ocean.
His fingers are white and cold, shaking as he watches the water towers into great heights.
He barely hears Suki over the storm, over the thunder and rushing water, “Zuko, hold on–!”
He turns, watching in horror as the greatest wave yet gathers steadily beside their ship. It grows and grows and grows, seemingly never ending, blacking out the world around them.
Another bolt of lightning slices through the sky, white-hot, and illuminates the largeness of the ocean, the wave that seems like a death sentence now.
Zuko holds fast to the railing of the ship, but as the wave froths white at the top, ready to crash, ready to sink down and splinter their little ship into driftwood, he knows they won’t make it through this one.
It would take a miracle.
The wave crashes down with the force of the world onto the deck of the ship. Zuko’s fingers are wrenched away from the railing, his strength nothing in comparison to the oceans.
If She wanted him, She would have him, that’s all Zuko can think. He’s Hers anyways, so he let’s the rush of water push him hard into Her depths.
The water is cold but when it fills his lungs, it burns hard and swift. He tries not to splutter too much, not as he’s being thrown around ruthlessly in the churning water. He doesn’t try to fight it too hard–kicks and flails from time to time, pushing against the current that is quick to turn him around.
Pressure shoves at him from all sides, forcing him to tumble, to be pushed down, down, down.
And for a moment, he’s able to get his bearings. He can see the cut of silver, maybe lightning, at the top of the water. Down here, though, it’s inky black and dark. He can hardly see.
He hopes Suki is okay.
He hopes she makes it out of this storm alive.
He kicks a little, towards the surface, he hopes, but isn’t sure.
His lungs ache, pain flooding his body the way the salty, cold water does.
Zuko hangs there, suspended in time, in nothingness, for a moment.
And then a song comes to him–the one he’s been humming, keeping close to his heart, burying it in his chest like treasure.
It’s sweet, soothing in all his terror. He thinks he feels hands, the gentle coaxing of them, the water moving around him.
A flash of scales.
Eyes bluer than the heavens, glowing in the dark.
He thinks he passes out.
He supposes he wouldn’t know the difference in all of that blackness, the silent pressure of the ocean.
He must be dreaming, when he hears the song his heart has longed for, the one that he lulls himself to sleep with, and rouses himself from nightmares with. It must be a dream, to feel the gentle pull of hands–delicate with him in a way no one has ever bothered to be.
He must be dreaming with the soothing lilt of her voice that fills his head, his song sung, melodic and sweet and aching so badly that his chest feels as if it could split open with it. Like his heart keens just at the sound.
Her voice is a lullaby. A storm. Something that terrifies him and astounds him and calms him. Both the cut and the balm, the song of his heart is as much of a tragedy as it is a triumph. So beautiful it’s terrible.
When he wakes, it’s on the sandy shores of a beach. The storm has passed. The bright sun stings his eyes. He keeps them squeezed shut for several long moments, trying to suck in salty air. His lips are chapped and dry, sand clinging to him. The waves rush up to meet him, rolling past him, skittering around him.
He has no idea how he survived again.
He struggles to sit up, his eyes roaming over the world around him. All he can see is the beach and sand and ocean. A lush forest behind him. He must be on an island. He has no idea where, though. He has no idea how close the nearest village or port is.
But he’s alive, somehow, some way.
And that song, the one he’d heard again in the depths of the ocean, stuck now in his head, wrapped tightly around his heart.
For a moment, he foolishly thinks his song has saved him again somehow. But that sounds too fantastical, too magical– like all the myths and legends that Suki had loved to tell him about.
He looks out at the horizon, glances around the beach, as if he might just find her in the sand with him. But there’s not another soul in sight.
He hopes for a miracle for her, too.
But for now, he stands on shaky, uncertain legs, the waves rushing up to kiss him goodbye as he walks out of the surf like a new man.
He tries to stand tall against the sun that warms his skin and the ocean that has for some reason been merciful for a second time with him. He watches it for a moment, almost thankful to Her.
He bows his head, whispers his gratitude on cracked lips.
And then he turns and begins to stumble away in search of anything–signs of life or food or water he can drink.
But he’s humming again, voice rough, the tune that he clings to desperately, wobbling around on sea legs like a true pirate.
Like a man in love with the sea.
Zuko discovers that he has ended up on an island in the Earth Kingdom. He’s thankful it’s not one on the shores of the Fire Nation, where he might be recognized or discovered with his wanted posters hanging in any busy, public place. It’s quiet on this island, only has one small port. The locals are a little standoff-ish to strangers, but Zuko can’t blame them. They have something good here, he would want it protected, too.
And though they aren’t overly friendly, they still offer him food when he tells him he has no coin to offer them, but he’ll help with work if they need it. He chops up trees for them and helps a few fishermen with the catch of the day.
An innkeeper beckons him in one evening, when he’d planned to sleep in a makeshift hammock he’d made outside.
“It’s supposed to rain,” he says as an explanation for his kindness. He knows Zuko has no money to offer.
“What can I do to pay you back?” Zuko asks, following him down the short hallway.
The innkeeper shrugs, “You can do some repairs for me–this place needs a little fixing up.”
Zuko readily agrees and the door to his room is opened to reveal a modest bed that might as well be a lush, king sized one because he is so relieved to see it. He barely gets out of his clothes to collapse onto it, body sore from being so tossed around in the storm and sea. He’s sunburnt, too, probably from laying out on the beach that he’d woken up on. His skin prickles uncomfortably. But the mattress is better than the ground or a tight hammock.
But he has to admit, after all this time, he misses the rock of a ship at night, settling him to sleep like a babe in a cradle.
Still, he’s exhausted, and his eyes shut easily, head buried in the soft pillow.
He wakes to the sound of tropical birds late the next morning. He is offered breakfast by the innkeeper before he begins his day of helping repair the rickety stairs and a railing that is falling off its hinges.
It’s fine work, the sun beating down on him harshly. He’s sure his cheeks, already tanned from his work as a pirate, are once more tinged red. The scar on his face is more agitated and he tries not to rub or touch it too frequently.
A cool bath at the end of the day soothes him, though, all his aching muscles and sunburnt skin.
He spends several days like this; working for his place to stay, for his food, trying to help the locals in any way he can for their reluctant hospitality. When his hands aren’t busy, he worries about Suki, turns her over in his mind. He hopes she lived, too, washed up on her own shores.
For a moment in time, he considers just staying here, on this little island. Maybe getting a job as a fisherman. He could eat ripe mangoes and watch sunrises over this little village day in and day out; it’s unlikely the Fire Nation would ever find him here. The locals don’t know who he is and now they’ve begun to warm up to him a little. The fishermen share their jokes with him. The woman at the fruit stand slips him an extra papaya with a smile. They take care of each other here.
It’s peaceful, the air honeyed and always warm. The sea is always as brilliant as a jewel, ripe with the colors of the sky or sun. And even on the overcast days, it’s still emerald and silver, still entrancing.
He considers staying but–
But he looks out at the horizon with too much longing, too much aching in his chest. And his song has felt distant from him since staying on land, feels like it’s fading from him. He misses it, misses the feeling of a rocking ship and the endlessness that splays out on all sides of him while sailing.
He misses the ocean and all Her unruly ways.
The fishermen tell him they’re going to the next biggest island to pick up supplies the following week. Zuko plans to go with them. Maybe he can find another crew to slip into, to join. Maybe he can manage to get his own ship.
In his spare time, between helping the locals and doing chores around the port, Zuko spends his time near the water. On the dock or settling down onto a large rock near the shore to watch as the waves roll in. He watches the sun in the sky dip to touch the ocean in the distance, casting the water in shades of peach and ruby, wine dark as night begins to slip over the island.
And there is a night when the ocean is calm that something strange happens.
He’s humming his song to himself absentmindedly, to the tempo of the waves that wash up against shore.
He sees a flash in the water, like a jewel, the quick gleam of something brilliant and sparkling.
He waits and watches carefully, searching the dark water for more movement.
And eventually, Zuko stands from his rock and stretches. He takes a last look at the ocean, before turning away, and heading towards the call of his bed, yawning contentedly as he goes.
He doesn’t see the eyes that peek up from the surface of the water, glowing as bright as the moon in the sky above her, doesn’t see the way she watches him go, curious and longing.
A twin expression to his own, when he looks out at his beloved ocean.
Zuko boards the fishing boat that will take him to Kyoshi Island, which is the next largest island in the area. It’s as far as the fishermen take this boat, to trade their catches and bring other supplies to their own island.
Zuko casts his gaze back out over the small town, a pinch of fondness blossoming inside of him for this little island. He can’t say he’ll miss it, because the call of the ocean is too strong, too overpowering, but he does want to return one day. Maybe years from now, maybe if he ever needs to hide from the Fire Nation for longer stretches.
The innkeeper was kind and wished him well on his travels. A few locals bowed their heads to him in goodbye as he walked towards the dock for a final time. He’d thanked them all again for their kindness, their hospitality. He has been lucky twice now with strangers.
He has been very lucky in general, which is uncharacteristic of his life. Usually luck is not on his side, nor in his pocket.
She was born lucky, you were lucky to be born.
Zuko winces with the memory of his father’s voice, vicious and low, cutting through his mind.
“Ready to go?” A fisherman asks Zuko, clapping him on the back, jarring him from his thoughts.
Zuko looks once more out at the village, people in rich shades of green and yellow and brown busying themselves with the first work of the day. It’s quaint, pretty with the sound of tropical birds, with the white-gold of the morning sun. It’s a lovely sight.
Zuko turns to look out at the horizon in front of them, tries to pick out the place where the sea and sky converge, that hazy line like a siren song. The ocean calls to him, the waves rocking the boat beneath his feet in time with the brag of his heart.
Zuko nods, “Ready to go.”
He sits at the ledge, nearly leaning over, and the spray of the water splashes up to kiss his cheeks.
He smiles, small and fond, lets his fingers drag through the waves like reaching for a lover, gentle in his greeting, reverent with the way the light splays against the water to speckle him in its soft glory.
Deep beneath the surface of the water another hand reaches for the one at the top, her fingers splayed by muted light that cuts from above.
She finally gives her voice a rest, quieting, after singing for so long, with so much force, trying to lure him back to her.
And he’s returned.
He’s returned to her, with his lonesome heart, and eyes like the sun.
The journey to Kyoshi Island is only a day’s trip. The ocean is calm, easy for sailing. They make good time so that they reach the port late into the evening, when the sky and sea are plum and dark.
He thanks the fishermen again, wishes them safety on their journey back.
Zuko has little to his name. A small sack that rests on his back filled with spare clothes the innkeeper gave to him.
He doesn’t even have any weapons to bargain or sell. Nothing to help him.
This port, this town, is bigger than the previous one, but he’s hoping by some miracle they’re just as generous.
He can offer hard work again for a place to stay, for food and some water. He meanders his way down the dock and into the town. People are closing up their shops and stalls for the night, cleaning their stoops and bringing in their wares before the ruddy sun can fully set in the sky.
He heads towards the inn he sees, hoping the keeper is as kind as the last. Or at least as willing to bargain. It’s windows glow warmly, gold and homely.
He barely steps inside the inn before someone asks him, “Lookin’ for a room?”
His eyes are drawn to a girl at the front desk, chin propped in her hand. She looks almost bored. And she looks young–couldn’t be older than him. Maybe not even in her twenties yet.
“Uh, yes, but–” Zuko starts.
“But?” she interrupts, cocking a brow before he can even finish.
Zuko swallows. “I don’t have any money.”
She scoffs, “Well then you can’t have a room.”
“I’ll work for it,” Zuko replies quickly, “I don’t expect it for free. Anything you need me to do, I’ll do it.”
She tilts her head now at least, considering him.
Zuko tries not to fidget under the intense scrutiny of her dark eyes.
He’s not sure what he’s expecting from her, but he certainly isn’t expecting, “Are you a pirate?”
“What? Um–no–of course not–” Zuko splutters, knowing that pirates aren’t always welcome in establishments. They cause too much trouble. Some consider them bad luck. Others don’t want to risk someone from a country’s navy knocking down their doors.
“Ya sure?” she asks. “You look like a pirate.”
“N-no, but I did get separated from my crew in a storm. I lost everything, so I don’t have money to pay you but–”
“Are you a fisherman, then?” she interrupts, narrowing her eyes.
“Um, yes. From the Fire Nation.”
She hums in thought, and then huffs, “Shame you’re not a pirate.”
“I-I’m sorry?” Zuko asks.
“Ya know, with your,” and then she gestures to her face, around her eye and Zuko realizes she’s talking about his scar. He exhales roughly as she continues, “and your overall sense of brooding mystery. You’d make a good one. Bet they’d tell ghost stories about you–”
Zuko is still stuck on brooding mystery when an elderly voice admonishes, “Miwa, are you pestering a guest?”
“He’s not a guest, he doesn’t have any money.” The girl–Miwa, apparently–replies to an elderly woman.
“But I can pay for a room by working for you–I lost my money and belongings in a storm and–”
“Oh, dear! Of course! Of course!” she replies, ushering him closer to the desk, “Miwa, give him a key and show him to a room.”
Miwa throws an annoyed glance to the elderly woman, but she does what she’s told, reaching behind her to snag a gold key dangling on the wall.
“Thank you so much,” Zuko says and he means it, bowing his head forward slightly in gratitude.
“Not a problem, dear, plenty of people like you come through here,” she says and she winks, which Zuko doesn’t know what to make of, before she adds, “I’ll give you a list of things you can do for me tomorrow.”
Zuko is still expressing his thanks when Miwa rounds the front desk and jerks her head towards the hallway, indicating Zuko should follow her. He does, squeezing tight to the small pack on his back.
“Ya sure you’re not a pirate? My grandma seems to think you are, too,” Miwa says over her shoulder.
Zuko realizes that must’ve been why she winked. He frowns, “Uh, no, I told you, I’m just a fisherman–”
“Pirates are so much cooler, though,” Miwa replies. “Kyoshi Island is known for our pirates–we’ve had some of the fiercest captains born on this island.”
Zuko is only partly listening to her as she begins rattling off the names of captains and famous pirates that have come from Kyoshi Island. She’s counting them on her fingers as they round a corner, “Captain Mishi, and Captain Suki–”
Zuko’s head snaps towards Miwa now.
“What?” Miwa asks in response, coming up to a door and finally turning to face him.
“Captain Suki?” he asks, “D-Do you know her?”
“Oh yeah! She visits every so often, brings in all sorts of souvenirs. She was famous for her all girl’s ship named after the famous Captain Kyoshi herself–”
“Does she have short, brown hair? Around my age?” Zuko asks, heart beginning to swoop with a new sense of hope.
“Yeah–you know her?” Miwa asks. “She writes letters to me still about all her adventures–”
Zuko’s eyes widen, his mouth falling open, heart beginning to race. “When was the last time you heard from her?”
Miwa’s face screws up in thought for a moment, eyes going skyward as she thinks. “A few days ago, I think. She’s stuck at the port of Chin Village. She said she was shipwre–”
“I was with her,” Zuko interrupts, almost breathless with his surprise, amazement swelling inside of him, “on that shipwreck. She’s okay?”
“I knew you were a pirate!” Miwa exclaims, her eyes lighting up. “And she’s okay! It’d take a lot more than a storm to bring down Captain Suki–”
“Can I send her a letter?” Zuko interrupts, his relief and excitement brimming, making him impatient. “Would you send it for me?
“Yeah, sure, I guess I can do that for you.” Miwa answers, “Mr. Mysterious Pirate.”
Zuko doesn’t even have it in him to respond to her jab, his shoulders dropping, sloughing off a weight he hadn’t realized he’d been carrying. “Thank you,” he tells her on an exhaled breath, alleviated.
Miwa eyes him, “I’ll do it on one condition.”
Zuko grows worried she’ll ask for money or gold–a treasure, now since she knows he’s a pirate.
He quirks a brow. “Name it.”
“You tell me the story of how you survived that shipwreck tomorrow. Captain Suki thought you’d been lost to sea.”
Zuko almost laughs a little at her request. But he nods, “I can do that.”
A smile sweeps across her features, banishing her earlier grouchiness, bringing a new shape to her face that makes her look less prickly and more wily.
“What’s your name, Mysterious Pirate?”
“Zuko,” he answers, swallowing, glancing to catch her eyes. “And you’re Miwa?”
“Sure am!” she responds, before finally turning to unlock the door to his room for him. She spins back around to offer the key to him, the gold dangling dully in the darkened hallway. “If you need anything, I’m at the end of the hall. I look forward to hearing about your pirate stories.”
Her grin is almost too pleased, eyes alight like a child who just smuggled candy into their reaching hands.
“Thank you,” Zuko answers, unable to help the small tick of the corner of his lips.
But then she is moving aside and bidding him goodnight, a new skip to her step after finding out his secret.
Zuko shakes his head, still marveling that he has managed to somehow discover that Suki is alive. And to end up on the Island she was born to.
Zuko never really believed in fate, in some sort of destiny or higher divination working to pull the strings of their lives. It all seemed too mystical, like the stories Suki told him of sea monsters and ghosts and sirens.
But he falls to sleep that night knowing another miracle has somehow occurred, his life now just a string of them like precious pearls that have kept him alive up until this point.
He falls asleep that night with the faint sound of his song curling around his heart, squeezing when he forgets a note, or because he can’t hear the sound of the sea with it.
He dreams of eyes in the dark, luminescent and star-blue. Hands that were gentle. The glint of scales.
And when he wakes the next day, he’s still grasping for his dreams, the way lovers grasp for each other.
Zuko learns that Miwa is enamored with the life of pirates. She is insatiably curious about all of Zuko’s adventures and tales to tell. He tells her remarkably little, is careful to keep his stories brief, lest he give anything damning about himself away.
Still, he regals her with stories of the seas over dinner with her grandmother.
He writes to Suki, who writes back. She is thrilled to hear from him, astounded that he is alive.
Someone is looking out for you! She’d written, and maybe fate is looking out for both of us!
He is going to meet her in the port of Chin Village. Another group of fishermen and traders are the ones who are going to offer him passage on their boats.
Miwa promises to share his stories with all the travelers that come through when he says goodbye.
(And she does–she tells everyone about the pirate with a scar on his face who carries himself like a prince. She makes up grand tales about how he got the scar, too–anything from harrowing shipwrecks to a run-in with a phantom.
She tells them that he hums a strange tune when he works, like something she’s never heard before. It’s a swelling tune, she tells him, something musical and clashing all at once. It circles itself, it’s notes parallel each other, neverending.)
Zuko steps onto another boat and sighs in a form of relief. He leans back against its side, feeling it rock him to and fro. The wind brushes against his cheek, a splash of sea water coming up to greet him again.
That prickly part of his heart is soothed, looking up at the sun in the endless sky, with his endless sea the color of apricots, the color of peaches.
When he arrives in Chin Village, he is almost reluctant to leave the rocking boat.
But he hears, “Zuko!” and he barely has time to register the blur of green that knocks into him.
The air is knocked from his chest for a moment, breathless, exhaled hard in a huff of air.
Suki hugs him, tight and fierce, laughing brightly as she pulls away to see his surprised expression.
“I thought you died!” she says, overjoyed with the opposite, and now it’s Zuko’s turn to smile, looking down at her–alive and well and beaming.
“I thought you died,” he counters, shaking his head in disbelief. “I can’t believe it.”
Suki laughs again, as free as a bird, as lively as a child. “Neither can I! Nothing short of a miracle–even more so that we found each other again.”
Zuko nods, something inside of him softening, opening up to gratitude. Suki has been one of his only allies since he was cast out and hunted by his father’s navy. And even before that, he hadn't ever really had allies or friends.
And now here she is, slugging him on the shoulder a little, leading him down the dock and into Chin Village.
She’s already chattering about next plans to get back on a ship and Zuko can’t help but smile, can’t help but relax a little, knowing that she understands what it’s like to seek out the sea and sky, too.
She flashes him a clever look, her eyes catching in the last auburn rays of sun. “We need to find a ship, join a crew or steal one,” she says, “and I think I know just where we can do that.”
“Where?” Zuko asks, tilting his head.
Suki casts her eyes out at the horizon, something wistful touching her expression. Zuko follows her gaze, like he might be able to see what she sees out in the distance. When she looks at him again, there’s promise in her eyes, the hope of adventure, of life on the cusps of waves and the tails of wind. She grins at him like she has nothing to lose, and everything to gain;
“How far south have you been, Prince Zuko?”
They journey with another group of fishermen further south, in hopes of finding another captain that Suki is familiar with; there’s a great deal of superstition around his reputation, but apparently Suki is close with him.
What Zuko gathers about him is that he’s a fierce pirate from the South, an incredible warrior, who dons stark black and white face paintings during raids.
People have given him the name Sea Wolf.
Zuko hears rumors about how he was born of a siren and another famous pirate, one known for his bravery against the Fire Nation fleets.
Apparently this pirate Suki knows was left on the rocky, cold shores of his homeland as a baby for his father to find. A child born from the sea, swaddled in sea foam.
Allegedly siren songs don’t work on him. He also supposedly has the most enchanting voice of any human.
Suki swears most of it’s true.
Except, “He’s not as intimidating as people make him sound. Really, he’s a sweet guy.”
Zuko is skeptical.
He isn’t sure how Suki knows almost exactly where to find him– and when he questions her about it, she is constantly responding just trust me.
Zuko starts to wonder how well she knows this pirate.
They’re in what Zuko thinks is the middle of nowhere on an island further south, where the water has gone cold and the air is chilled. The winds are harsh, whipping across his cheeks to smart them pink and bright. He’s familiar with the burn of the sun, but not the burn of the cold.
The tavern they walk into is lit from the inside out with warm gold firelight. It’s cozy, overly friendly. It’s also surprisingly quiet, almost a little homely. It’s a good place to hide from the chill, to sit down in and rest weary feet.
But Zuko hears, “Suki!” and his head is already turning in the direction of the sound, piqued with interest.
“Sokka!” Suki shouts in return and she’s off in an instant, a rush of color as she bursts forward.
She collides with a man who's tall and broad shouldered, with warm brown skin and dark hair. His smile is as bright as the sun, pulled lopsided on one side as his arms come around Suki in a tight hug. He lifts her clear off the ground, their laughter mingling together in a chorus of excitement. Fondness.
Zuko gathers that Suki knows him better than she lets on, with the way they’re holding each other. With the curves of their smiles.
The man sets her on her feet only to take in her features, savoring them. Zuko almost glances away because it seems strangely intimate or vulnerable. But then his blue eyes flicker past Suki’s shoulder, to meet Zuko’s gaze.
“Who’s this?” he asks, and Suki turns to beckon Zuko closer.
“Sokka, this is Zuko. Zuko, this is Captain Sokka–or known more famously as the Sea Wolf.” Suki introduces the two, looking between them.
Sokka gives Zuko a scrutinizing look, his eyes narrowing skeptically.
“We had to flee our crew,” Suki explains to Sokka, “and then we stole a ship and got shipwrecked in a storm.”
Sokka looks between him and Suki once more. “So I suppose you’re looking for another ship to board, is that it?” His gaze softens every time it settles back on Suki, lightening into something playful. “Can’t give up the pirate life, huh?”
“Never,” Suki grins. “You know that.”
Sokka throws another heavier look at Zuko, taking him in once more. “And what about you? What’s your deal?”
For a moment, Zuko isn’t quite sure how to respond. His mouth opens, closes. He just thinks of the melody of his song, of the sound of the sea, the gulls above his head. Wind rushing through the sails. He thinks of moon bright eyes peering at him in the soft darkness of the sea.
His deal is he has to keep running for the rest of his life. His deal is he has to keep chasing for the rest of his life.
He longs for it now, even as he stands here, on land. He wants to be back out at sea, surrounded by Her.
But he can’t say any of that without revealing his identity or his past or some tender, unnamed part of his heart that has been claimed by the rough sea.
He swallows around the lump that has lodged in his throat.
“I just want to be out on the sea again,” Zuko answers, surprisingly honest, surprisingly raw.
After another long moment of skepticism from Sokka, he finally nods, accepting his answer. “You have that look in your eyes.”
“What look?” Zuko asks, feeling something in his heart twinge.
“A man possessed.” Sokka laughs now, throwing his arm around Suki. “That’s alright– men like you make good pirates.”
Suki fits beneath his arm easily, as if they’d done this a thousand times before. “You know you’re always welcome on my ship,” Sokka finally declares, and Zuko lets go of a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.
Sokka buys a round of drinks for them afterwards and Zuko realizes that Sokka isn’t nearly as intimidating as the tall tales make him out to be. Suki was right. He also has a sense of humor that Zuko wasn’t prepared for.
Zuko also realizes quickly that Sokka is in love with Suki.
A man possessed, Zuko thinks back, watching as Sokka gazes at her the way Zuko thinks he looks out at the water.
They toast to their future adventures, to their life on the sea, to chasing and chasing and chasing.
They toast to a pirate’s life, with all it’s longing and loving and grandness.
Sokka’s ship isn’t massive, but is crewed by an excellent group of people. Around them, Sokka wears the furs of the South draped over his shoulders, walks tall and proud down the deck of his own ship. Zuko understands why some may find him intimidating now, with the almost inhuman glow of his blue eyes, with the raised chin of a warrior.
He tells the crew that Suki is as good as captain on this ship, too. And anything she says should be listened to and respected as if it came out of his mouth. His crew barks out their agreements of “Aye, Captain!” and “Yes, sir!”
There is no room for debate in the hard lines of his features. He is the infamous Sea Wolf in these moments, swaggering about with his crew’s eyes glued to him.
But later at night, he shares sake with Sokka and Suki around a small table below deck, in the Captain’s quarters, and Sokka is nothing but smiles and jokes then.
The candlelight splatters playful shadows across their features, across the walls and floor. The rocking of the ship is peaceful, lulling to Zuko.
Sokka tries to convince him that he is the son of a siren.
“It’s true!” Sokka says again. “My father, may he rest his soul, found me on the rocky shores of the ocean.”
Zuko shakes his head. “You would’ve died, especially in the cold,” and then he twists up his face in thought. “Besides, why don’t you have the tail then, too?
“Only women are sirens,” Sokka says. “My sister is one!”
And now, Zuko can’t help but laugh.
“I swear! I used to swim with her as a child!” Sokka exclaims, his glass of sake sloshing with his wild gesturing.
“You’re making things up,” Zuko counters, looking at Suki for backup.
Suki shakes her head, denying his silent plea for reassurance. “I believe him,” she says, taking another sip from her cup.
“I still see her from time to time. We were close when we were children, she was always looking out for me,” Sokka continues. “She still does. Whenever I need her, she’s there.”
Zuko is unimpressed with what he assumes is lying or foolishness. “Can you summon her?”
“What? No. I wouldn’t summon her. But if I called, I think she’d answer.” Sokka explains. “Depends how far she is from me.”
“How would you call her?” Zuko demands, narrowing his eyes.
“By name or by song,” Sokka answers, and there is an honesty to his face, an openness that Zuko has a harder time doubting. “It’s also dangerous,” he explains, “I have no idea what else that call might attract.” He takes another sip of his sake. “It’d also put my crew in danger by attracting other sirens. And I may be immune to their call, but others certainly aren’t.”
“What happens if you’re lured by one?” Zuko asks, buying into this if only to keep questioning them. “Do they kill you?”
Sokka shrugs, “Presumably. Anyone who has been lured has never been seen again.”
“I thought you said you’re the son of one? How did–I mean, then your father must’ve–” Zuko presses, his cheeks warming slightly when he isn’t quite sure what he’s trying to ask.
Sokka laughs, “my father was never lured by my mother. He was careful and crafty. He and my mother just about chased each other around the world, though.” And now Sokka’s voice softens, becomes somewhat reverent, “Of course, until he turned old and grey. Then, he heard her song one day and he walked right out into the surf, into her arms. I never saw him again.”
Zuko feels his heart squeeze for some reason. “What about your mother? Do you ever see her anymore?”
Sokka shakes his head. “No, she died years ago at the hands of the Fire Nation. My sister told me.”
Zuko feels his heart drop, straight into the pit of his stomach. He swallows harshly. He doesn’t know why guilt wells up inside of him; for all he knows, Sokka could be lying. And yet, he knows the Fire Nation. They have a horrible trait of taking something beautiful and exploiting or destroying it. So much taking and ruining and hurting.
He wouldn’t be surprised, if all of this was true, then.
“Do you–do you know who did it?” Zuko asks cautiously.
“Raiders of some kind, I think,” Sokka answers. “I’m not sure.” He drinks again, heavier this time. Zuko does the same.
Then, for some reason, he dares to ask, “would a siren ever save a human?”
The question bubbles out of him before he can even register what he’s asking. Sokka cocks his head, studies him for a moment.
“Of course,” Sokka answers. “Especially if you’re the one they’re trying to lure to them. They need you alive to do that.”
“Well–say your ship wrecked and you’re drowning, wouldn’t they just take you then?” Zuko asks, suddenly feeling his stomach twist up with nerves.
“No,” Sokka shakes his head, “because then you would just die by drowning, lost to them, too. They need to lure you to have you. Their song has to be what brings you to them, into the water.”
Zuko feels his heart do something strange in his chest. He feels like he’s brushing up on a truth he isn’t quite ready to brace.
Suki pounces on it, “I wonder if that’s how you survived the storm. Maybe you have a siren following you.”
Zuko shakes his head, perhaps too quickly, “No, that was just luck.”
“–you’re always humming that song. Maybe you attracted a siren.” She suggests and there’s something in the curl of her smile, the side glance she shares with Sokka. It’s a silent conversation he’s not privy to.
“Sirens are crafty. Even being touched by one can leave you haunted for the rest of your life.” Sokka adds, “saving you would put you in the palms of their hands.”
Zuko swallows harshly, and tries for his own smile, but it feels wane and tight, “good thing I don’t believe in them.”
Sokka laughs now, a sound that blossoms into something hearty. He even wipes his eyes a little, dabbing away tears that may have sprung up with how amusing he’d found that.
Sokka tilts his head to study Zuko. His blue eyes feel like they’re peering far deeper than they should be, like Sokka can see who he is as a person a little too clearly in this moment. And then he speaks, his voice still laced with a smile, but there’s something important in it, something Sokka doesn’t want him to miss;
“Zuko, even if I didn’t believe it, the sun would still rise in the east and set in the west.”
The following evening, Sokka takes Zuko out onto a rowboat to sneak into a nearby port to raid a few Fire Nation ships. It’s risky for Zuko to do, but because of his knowledge of the Fire Nation, Sokka wants him for this little mission. Suki had told Sokka about Zuko’s status as a rejected Prince and former Captain to the Fire Nation’s navy.
He’d been a little more wary at first but Suki had easily calmed any of his fears. It had been obvious to Zuko instantly that they were close, but the more time he spends around them, he realizes that even that is an understatement.
Regardless, Zuko sits now in a rowboat opposite of Sokka, steadily helping drag the oars through the rolling ocean. The sun is an explosion on the horizon, a flare of heated crimson and orange, plum and ripe in the sky as night begins to ink into the sky.
The sea glints with ruby, sinking to purple.
Their raid goes well, if not for the small amount of bickering they did when they’d nearly been caught and had to duck into a narrow supply closet below deck.
They’d been hissing out quips of “Watch your elbow!” and “Could you move?” as they tried in vain to gain more space for themselves.
They’d had to wait with their ears pressed to the door in hopes of waiting for silence to allow them to come out, get what they came for, and sneak back off the ship.
They’d stolen plenty of knives, any money that had been unattended, and a couple of swords.
One of which is a pair of swords that Zuko keeps eyeing in hopes of getting them for himself.
On their way back to their own ship, when the sun has slipped below the horizon and the moon has taken its place in the sky, a heavy scythe that casts the water in it’s quicksilver glow, the wind seems to change. The ocean suddenly becomes very still.
Sokka tilts his head, casting his gaze out into the dark waters.
The first soft note makes Zuko’s heart stop.
He even pauses in his rowing to listen as the song begins to swell into a lullaby opening that he knows well. Too well.
“Hey,” Sokka snaps, “what are you doing? Don’t stop.”
But Zuko suddenly leans over the side of the small boat, peering deeply into the swirling waters.
“Zuko,” Sokka says again, sharper, just before the song grows closer, and Sokka figures out what it is that Zuko’s suddenly so invested in.
“Shit,” he curses, his own grip on his oar slackening, before he’s reaching over to shake at Zuko’s shoulder. “Hey, c’mon, listen to me–we gotta get out of here, we gotta get back on our ship.”
But he sounds far away, not the way that his song has wrapped around him, cradling his head and heart and soul so sweetly that he could melt into it’s sound.
The voice that sings it is ethereal, ringing and bright and astonishing.
The wind is knocked out of him.
It’s like an arrow has just pierced his heart cleanly and sharply.
Zuko grips the side of the row boat with one hand and reaches out with his other to touch the glittering water, as if it might bring him closer–as if he could just fall into his song.
He wants nothing more, he realizes, than to disappear in it’s depth, in the cresting high note that bleeds warmth and aching love in the pit of his chest, in the sweet and crooning low note that seduces him like a wolf to the moon, like a flower to the sun.
His finger barely skims the top of the water when a form seems to shimmer into focus just beneath the water’s surface.
A hand breaks the water, reaching for his own, just as Zuko is jarringly pulled away from the side of the boat.
It rocks precariously with the rough movement. Sokka’s strong arm is wrapped tightly around his neck and shoulders, hauling him away from that side of the boat and into Sokka’s chest.
A person appears on the other side, risen out of the sea like a wraith. A webbed hand curls around the ledge, pulling herself up further.
Luminescent blue eyes lock with starstruck gold.
She’s still singing, and suddenly all of Zuko’s world narrows down to just her voice, otherworldly and haunting and beautiful. It sounds like a dream, it sounds like hope, like salvation is in her fluttering vibrato. All he could ever want is there, in the music of her voice. It’s the answer to a question his soul has asked his whole life.
Zuko thrashes in Sokka’s hold unknowingly, wild-eyed, trying to lurch forward like his life depends on it.
“Katara,” Sokka says through grit teeth as he tries to keep Zuko from going towards her. “Let him go–he’s a part of my crew now!”
She stops singing, and the moment the song is gone, Zuko’s heart plummets into his chest. He feels suddenly bereft and aching. He feels as if he’s lost a limb–so lost and spiraling, forgotten, dismissed, banished –
“Sokka,” Katara responds, eyeing her brother, “it’s been awhile.”
“Good to see you, too,” Sokka responds dryly, still clutching tight to Zuko to keep him in place. “Now, please let my sailor go.”
Katara shakes her head. “I’ve been following him for a while.” And at this, her eyes snap to Zuko’s, features softening into something curious. “Or he’s been following me. I can’t tell anymore.”
Zuko tries to reach for her again, eyes still dazed and lips parted in awe. Sokka holds tight to him. He even shakes him again, trying to jar him from the state he’s in.
It must work fractionally because Zuko’s eyes go wide as he takes in Katara again, this time with presence, and not just mindless need to follow her into the water. “Wha–” he begins to stutter.
Sokka doesn’t let go of him fully, but he let’s go of a breath, “Zuko, this is my sister, Katara.”
Zuko stares slack jawed for a long moment, taking her in fully now that he feels as if he can breathe again. Her hair is dark and long, clinging to the nape of her neck, to her shoulders. Her skin is brown, like her brother’s, and even in the night, he can see the light of her blue eyes.
And she’s a–this is a siren, then, in the flesh. He knows it at once by looking at her. She is no human, he can feel it in the air around her–like lightning, like an oncoming storm.
Zuko feels his heart squeeze, pumping furiously in his chest.
He can hardly believe his eyes.
There are fins on the sides of her forearms, the color quicksilver and aqua. They’re bristled and sharp-looking. They’re beautiful. They’re dangerous.
“I don’t–I don’t understand.” He manages to get out.
“Apparently she’s taken a liking to you,” Sokka says and slowly, he begins to release Zuko. He eyes his sister, though, but Katara is focused solely on Zuko.
Her gaze is almost scrutinizing, eyeing him warily.
“I haven’t taken a liking to him,” she replies defensively, the fins on her arms flaring with irritation. “I told you– he’s been following me for a while now. He’s been humming my song.”
“I just found out you existed!” Zuko exclaims, jolting up from Sokka, the boat rocking again.
“You were chasing my friend,” Katara says, her eyes glinting in the silver cut of the moon, “when you were on the ship with the large, red sails.”
“My friend– he was the one your fleets couldn’t catch. He travels on the wind.”
“Captain Aang?” Zuko asks tentatively and she nods in confirmation.
He’s still a wanted pirate by the Fire Nation; perhaps one of the most wanted, outside of Zuko himself now. Captain Aang has caused them a great deal of trouble and sparked a lot of rebellion in the nations.
“I was with him, while you were chasing him. You followed us.” Katara says and her voice almost makes Zuko shiver. “Your ships with the red sails also killed my mother,” there’s a flash in the darkness, and when she speaks again, it is around sharp, sharp teeth, “and destroyed my father and brother’s home on land.”
Zuko jolts away and his back hits the opposite side of the boat, jostling them.
She disappears suddenly back into the water.
Zuko’s heart is the only thing he can hear. The water is unnervingly silent.
And then she resurfaces behind him, so near that when he turns his head, they are almost nose to nose.
“I was going to kill you at first,” she admits.
Zuko’s breath shudders out of him.
“Katara,” Sokka warns, white knuckling the side of the boat.
“But then they tried to kill you, too,” she says and her voice is almost a hush, like a whispered wave against the side of their boat. “Didn’t they?”
Zuko swallows hard. There is a wound in his chest that feels opened with her quiet question, with the strange look in her eyes. An anchor sinks into him, threatens to tear him down, down, down.
He nods, the smallest dipping of his chin.
She makes a humming noise, a confirmation, and moves away from him.
Zuko almost follows after her, almost leans near her, like he might chase her. Instead, he forces himself, shaking, to be still.
“Besides, you have my song,” she tells him, a sigh caught in her mesmerizing voice. Then her eyes finally glance off to Sokka. “And now, apparently my brother’s protection.”
Sokka nods at her questioning gaze.
“You should stay near him, Prince, lest I catch you alone.” Katara says and there’s a smile in her voice, almost a challenge in the sapphire of her eyes.
Zuko feels his stomach swoop, the way the gulls in the air dive in the morning sky.
But then she’s gone again, sinking beneath the inky water and disappearing into the sea. Sokka and Zuko wait long, drawn out moments to see if she’ll return.
Sokka slumps against the side of the boat a moment, letting go of a rough breath. “Well,” he starts, “do you believe me now?”
Zuko snorts, almost laughs at the ridiculousness of it all. His heart is still stirring in his chest, unsettled and interested and aching. “Hard not to, after that,” Zuko answers.
He was face to face with her, caught in that haunting blue of her eyes.
Sokka eyes Zuko, studying him, before shaking his head slowly. “I knew I recognized your stupid tune from somewhere. I thought it was some old sea shanty you liked that I’d forgotten about.”
“What do you mean?” Zuko asks and a wind cuts past them, raising gooseflesh up onto his arms. Onto the back of his neck. The waves lap gently against the side of the boat, rocking them. The darkness surrounds them.
“That song you hum– it’s a part of hers. She’s been singing it since we were children.”
Zuko feels something strange inside of him twist, uncertain, terrified, relieved, before he looks around at the water once more. As if she’ll appear and tell him so herself again, as if he’ll hear those first few notes once more.
But all is quiet.
And Sokka picks up the oars again.
Zuko does, too, but he’s shaking, and not out of fear.
Wonder, maybe. Astonishment. Anticipation.
For what, he doesn’t know. But the moon is smiling down at him and when they’re safely back on Sokka’s ship, Zuko looks back one last time out at the water.
He swears he hears a splash, a glance of scales in the silver cut of starlight.
But otherwise all the world is silent, longing for that song to fill it’s space in his heart once more.
When they stop at a port on an island for a night, Zuko sneaks away from his drinking crewmates to catch a breath on his own. He finds large, smooth cut stones that rise from the sea by the dock once more. He sits on the edge, watching the gulls circle in the last rays of the sun. He can hear the sailors unloading their boats, greeting their wives and children after a long day of work.
He hums softly.
The ocean answers.
And out of the wine-dark water, a head appears.
Zuko jolts, lurching away from waves that rush up to caress the rock he’s on.
Katara’s eyes land sharply on him, but she isn’t singing.
“I thought I told you to stay near my brother,” she says, and Zuko can see the glance of her elegant shoulder, the dipping of her collarbones as the water seems to cocoon her, cradle her and suspend her.
“He’s near,” Zuko gulps, “don’t sing–please don’t sing.”
Katara’s eyes narrow into a glare. “ You were the one humming. You called me. ”
“O-oh,” Zuko answers dumbly, swallowing hard, “I didn’t realize.”
Katara disappears beneath the water, but he can see her now, the silhouette of her as she glides nearer, the great shape of her tail in the water, before she pops up next to the stone he’s on. She places her arms on it to suspend herself, tilting her head up to look at him.
“A-aren’t you going to sing? And take me?” Zuko asks.
But she answers instead with, “I saved you, you know.”
“I was the one who saved you, when they tried to kill you.” Katara says and the admittance is far too simple for what she’s saying. “I saved you in the storm, too. You humans are so fragile.”
Zuko can’t help himself, he returns to kneeling, drawn to her, getting closer.
Is this just another way for her to lure him nearer? Is he falling for it that easily?
Still he asks, “why?”
She shrugs and it’s a graceful movement, a lifting and falling of her shoulders like the waves lift and fall. She looks away briefly, out at the horizon and Zuko can see now that she does know why she saved him. She just simply won’t tell him.
When she turns back to him, he realizes he’s drifted nearer than he should’ve. She tilts her chin up the smallest amount, closing even more space between them.
Her eyes trace over his features slowly.
She lifts her hand and Zuko doesn’t flinch as she sets it atop his scarred cheek.
“Did they do this to you?”
Her fingers are cold, but something about it soothes him, quiets the unruly storm in his chest. His eyes drift shut.
There is a long moment where he fears he can’t breathe. Perhaps she’s stolen his voice somehow, too.
But eventually he’s able to exhale, “yes.”
And he works up the courage to open his eyes.
All he sees is her; she’s swallowed up his world, drowned him in all that impossible blue.
“Your eyes are like the sun,” she hushes, almost scowling, almost angry, “and you keep humming my song.”
Tentatively, Zuko lifts his hand to cover hers–the one still pressed to his cheek.
“Then yours are like the moon,” he answers, almost sick with longing, “and you keep singing my song.”
“Shall I sing it now?” she murmurs, “will you follow me?”
And he almost says yes, if only to hear her voice again, the one that he adores so much. The one that shimmers in his dreams, behind his eyes, that he holds in his chest as tightly as possible. His north star, his seafaring love.
“Zuko!” Suki shouts, and the spell is shattered. “What are you doing down there?”
Katara slips through his fingers like water, like moonlight. Gone in an instant, like she’d never been there at all.
“Come up here and drink with us! Stop brooding!”
Zuko looks hard at the water, searching for her, for the shape of her. But all that greets him is the slow rolling waves.
“Coming!” he shouts back, staying a moment longer, hoping for a fraction more that she might return.
But she’s gone again and Zuko’s heart is beating strangely, out of rhythm and lost. He can’t help but wish for her back.
For her cold fingers on his cheek and her eyes like the moon.
And for her song that he loves. For her song that is also his.
Flames lick up high into the navy and maroon sky, the rose-dark sea swirling with turmoil as two ships try to destroy each other and every life on board.
Sokka’s ship had clashed with a Fire Nation ship.
He’s barking orders now about firing cannons, but Zuko is concerned with keeping those that try to swing over on ropes, off of their ships. He knows their tactics; he knows if they let too many in, they’ll overwhelm them. It’s part of their strategy.
Like ants, they’ll swarm and tear the ship apart.
More than that, he tries to keep his hood up, and tries to move under the cover of dusk and shadows so no one sees his scar.
If they found out their disgraced, wanted prince was on board, it would only mean more danger for Sokka and Suki, for this whole ship. For himself.
His swords are curved and lithe and an extension of his nimble hands. He cuts down ropes and watches Fire Nation soldiers fall into the dangerous, churning water below.
They disappear once they hit the water.
The battle is long and bloody but they’re winning– they’re cutting down the forces of this Fire Nation ship. They’ve blown large holes into its side, left it gaping and wounded, wood splintered into the sea. They put out their enemies' fires quickly, since Zuko anticipated them. They haven’t lost a soul yet, but some have been injured– including Sokka, who risked himself for one of his sailors and received a stab wound for his troubles.
He’d grit his teeth and Zuko thinks he’ll survive, but his shirt is blossomed with red and he’s wincing in pain as he moves across his deck, as he still yells out orders.
They’re winning, though– it’s almost over. They’re going to survive this, Zuko realizes, and he almost sags with relief.
The Fire Nation ship is beginning to retreat when Zuko hears a sudden, pained, “No!” from Sokka.
He looks, sees the way Sokka’s face has fallen into a deep, guttural fear. Zuko follows where his eyes are stuck on, cuts across near the bottom of the Fire Nation ship, where he sees a tangled net being lifted from the water.
And inside it, there’s a flash of turquoise, of sapphire, glittering blue moon of scales. The prettiest colors Zuko has ever seen.
A hiss. Thrashing.
They haul the net higher, clear out of the water and he hears their shock and fear and astonishment.
“Is this what was taking our men in the water?!” he hears a Fire Nation soldier ask.
Katara is caught in their net. She thrashes again, hard, and Zuko can hear the thump of her tail against the side of the boat.
Then a blood curdling, resonating screech pierces the air like a bullet. It echos and wavers in a way that sounds monstrous, that sounds like a nightmare. It makes most slam their hands over their ears, startle back and away from the sound.
But all Zuko hears is his heart splintering.
“Katara!” Sokka shouts, so terrified that it’s a guttural yell, tearing up his throat.
Sokka lurches forward, almost like he might climb right over the railing and drop into the ocean to try and save her himself.
“No!” Suki shouts, grabbing for him, “you’re injured!”
“I can’t let her get taken by them!”
“I’ll go,” Zuko hears himself say, and he’s already moving, his feet are already carrying him to the ledge of the ship. He lifts himself up, stands tall on that ledge as he readies to dive into the vermillion water below, “I’ll free her. Get the ship out of here.”
“What about you?!” Sokka asks, “How will we get you back?”
“I’ll be fine,” Zuko answers and he doesn’t know why, but he believes it fully, more than he’s believed anything else in his entire life. “Send someone out on the rowboat later, when you’re far enough away and safe.”
Sokka looks like he might protest more, but another ringing, horrible scream shatters through the air and it jolts Zuko into moving. He sheaths his swords to his back, he crouches low, and then he leaps.
He dives right into the hungry sea.
Salt water stings when he hits it in a headfirst glide. All of the shouting and fighting become fuzzy, distant. It’s almost peaceful under here, surrounded by Her.
But he can hear Katara’s screech, the horrible sound that pulls brutal and sharp on his heart strings.
He swims fast and hard towards the sound, resurfaces only for air before diving back beneath the waves.
And once he’s at that side of the ship, he clings hard to any notches and grooves in the design of the wood. He hoists himself clear out of the water, his shirt clinging to him, long hair plastered to his face, against his cheek, his neck.
He climbs like his life depends on it to get nearer to her, to the net that they’ve captured her in. The heated, fiery rush of anger lances through him at the thought– to try and capture someone as remarkable as her, to try and harm her–
Zuko climbs higher, until he’s level with the net and he reaches out for her, slides his finger into the rope of the net.
“Katara!” he tries to shout over her panic. He needs her to be still so he can cut the rope without hurting her. She thrashes again, but when she turns to see him, she startles. She’s wild-eyed and frantic, the fins of her hands sharpened and splayed as wide as possible. Her tail even is barbed and as large as it can be. Her teeth, sharp and glinting, are bared.
She’d be terrifying, to any other man. The true siren, in all her monstrosities.
But to him, he only sees her fear. He sees someone who wants to live, who wants to be free with everything inside of them. He sees himself for a searing moment, trying to escape his own fate at the hands of the Fire Nation.
“I’m going to get you out of here,” he promises her roughly. “But you have to be still. I don’t want to cut you.”
Her chest is heaving and for a moment, Zuko fears she hasn’t recognized him or comprehended a word he’s said.
The net lurches upwards as the Fire Nation soldiers try to hoist her up further.
She looks at him, terrified, and he doesn’t waste anymore time.
He unsheathes his sword and begins sawing away at the thick rope that the net is made out of, just above where she rests in it. Katara twists and begins yanking and pulling at the point of tension to help him, to help split the rope faster.
There’s more shouting– Zuko doesn’t quite hear it, but then there’s a flashbang and something that whistles past his head.
They’re firing at them– using that gunpowder that Zuko knows the Fire Nation has favored ever since they learned to create it.
He narrows his focus onto cutting at the rope, sawing desperately, watching as the net begins to splinter and break apart. A hole begins to form, small, but steadily growing. His wrist is cramping with the angle he has it at, but he doesn’t care, and he doesn’t stop. He grits his teeth, chest heaving, and uses all his strength to keep desperately cutting at it.
The net starts to give, especially when the sailors try to lift it again, inadvertently helping by creating more tension, snapping more of the frayed ropes.
Another shot bursts through the air.
It hits his shoulder, nearly knocks him clean off the side of the ship.
Pain explodes inside of him.
His sword flings uselessly out of his hands on impact. It gets swallowed by the sea below them.
Katara squirms a hand through the hole in the net, latching tight to his shirt. Her nails cut up his chest and the fabric in her hand nearly rips with her grip, but she hauls him back, at least closer to the side of the boat so that he’s not dangling for his life.
His shoulder screams in pain when he reattaches himself.
He groans through tight teeth, knowing he needs to reach for the twin sword strapped to his back.
Agony rips through him, blood bursting through the white of his shirt.
But he gets his sword. And he continues his job.
Free Katara. Save her. That’s all there is. And then he can shut his eyes and give into this pain.
He keeps cutting and hacking and sawing. Katara tears at it with frantic hands.
A piercing scream from her let’s him know that she’s been struck, too, and he glances down to see the edge of her tail is bleeding, writhing in her own pain.
More tension. Almost– almost–
The net gives, ripping apart and sending them both careening back into the water below.
Zuko hits it hard, so hard that he swears he nearly blacks out, stars dancing behind closed eyelids. Salt stings his wound, turns his arm and shoulder afire.
But the moment he’s fallen into Her arms, all goes still and soft.
He dares to open his eyes.
All he sees is her; she’s swallowed up his world, drowned him in all that impossible blue.
And it’s like all of time is suspended, frozen for just this moment, where it’s only the two of them– the last cut of light that shines through the water and spills gold over their features. They’re eternal here, in the depths of the ocean, in the last rays of the fiery sun.
She swims towards him and the moment he’s in her arms again, Zuko knows he can rest easy.
His eyes roll, falling shut as darkness sweeps in to claim him. The pain fades, the crushing softness of his ocean, of Katara’s touch, is all that he feels.
Bubbles rise from his lips, float up to the surface surprisingly peacefully for all this violence.
He goes slack in Katara’s arms, in the arms of the Sea.
Despite her injury and all the pain she’s in, Katara doesn’t slow until she’s found a cove to hide him in. And when she does, she lifts herself out of the water, only to drag him up with her.
She settles his back against her chest, curls her arm protectively around him and glares at the mouth of the cave with her sharpened teeth bared, chest heaving, as if daring anyone or anything to try and challenge her now.
But no threat presents itself and eventually she sags in exhaustion. Her fins finally deflate and the pain there, in the bottom of her tail, is excruciating.
Her hand fans out over Zuko’s chest.
She feels the rhythm of his heart, still beating. Faint, but still drumming along.
She inhales, letting her fingers drift over to his wound, open and aching and still bleeding.
And on her exhale, she begins her song.
It fills the cove, echoes with it’s infinity, with the desperate lilt of her voice– tired and hurting, but still strong. Perhaps even more so, the sound coming straight from the deepest parts of her, working up her throat to burst from her in a flare of startling, blue light.
She sings and sings and sings, until the wound in his shoulder begins to stitch itself together.
Until her voice is gone and the last notes are just barely a breath, as soft as the gently lapping waves that protect them.
Until it all fades, until his wound is closed, and their heartsong is sung– a question finally answered, a symphony finally done.
It takes Zuko nearly two days to wake again after being healed. When his eyes open, he is first met with the rocky ceiling of the cove, jagged stone that gleams grey, shimmering navy. Sunlight from the mouth of the cave creeps in, but doesn’t quite reach him.
The water is near crystalline; almost completely clear and revealing the tendrils of seaweed, the interesting stones that rest at the bottom. He catches sight of a few brightly colored fish, the way they linger in the emerald green of the sea plants below. They’re shy, darting around each other. It’s peaceful. The water gently laps onto the rocky outcropping of this cave, dimly sparkling.
He lifts himself slowly, feels his head burst with pain. His shoulder aches but–
He glances down at it, remembering now with sudden clarity, what had happened.
The shot. Katara.
The wound is gone, though. A scar rests in its place, silvery on his skin.
He looks around more, as if he might find her suddenly, just off to his right, beneath the surface of the water. But she’s nowhere to be found.
Zuko feels his heart quicken. She’d been shot, too, hadn’t she? Is she alright? Is she safe?
How did he get here?
It must’ve been Katara.
He tries to shout for her, his voice weak with misuse, scratchy and raw. The water continues to gently lap into the cave. There’s no disturbance that might signify her arrival. The peacefulness now turns to eariness.
He leans over the water, tries to peer below. It must be deeper than he knows, even if he can see the bottom. He lets his fingers drift through the surface– it’s cool to the touch and sends a chill through him.
He wants to shout again for her, and call her to him. He can feel fear twisting steadily inside of his gut. Is she still injured? Is she in danger? Is he stuck here, alone?
A thought strikes him;
“You were the one humming. You called me.”
Zuko begins to hum the song he knows so well, the one that has comforted him and terrified him and brought him here, to a cove, alone with water like glass. The song that has tethered him to a siren.
There is a long stretch of time where nothing happens. All that is heard is Zuko’s soft hum echoing in the cove, the waves swallowing up the noise. The fish beneath the water meander. He sits, letting his fingers grow cold as they skim the surface. He waits for her, hoping with all that’s in him that she’s not– that she’s–
For a terrifying moment, he wonders if he will forever hum this song and never receive a response again. Will he long for it? Chase it? Travel the world in hopes of just catching a glimpse of her again?
Is she gone forever?
His heart grows tight and painful. But he keeps humming, soft and low and raspy.
He can tell the sun is beginning to set. He’s hungry. He’s still tired. But he hums, but he aches.
Hours later, there is movement near the mouth of the cove.
A splash. Zuko’s heart soars.
“Katara?” he tries again, his voice tired and weak.
A flash of turquoise, scales gleaming.
And then the shape of her gliding through the water, clear as day, sails towards him. He sags in relief, leaning towards the water, almost falling right into the pool.
A smile breaks across his face, despite everything.
She surfaces in front of him, jeweled eyes aglow as she takes him in. Relief colors her face, too.
“You’re awake!” she says at the same moment that he says, “You’re okay!”
And they can’t help the laugh that falls out of them, giddy with relief, as they drink in the sight of each other again. He feels as if he’s greeting a long lost friend, a person from his dreams who he’s always known in the back of his mind, in the crux of his heart.
Zuko’s the first to speak, “How did you– my shoulders healed somehow– how long was I out? Is your tail okay?”
He glances down into the water now to look her over and–and he’s seen her, in all her glory before, but he doesn’t think he’s ever been able to admire her. He sees now that the scales of her tail look like sapphires, fiery blue little stars clinging to her body. Silver dashes through the blue, some of the scales more iridescent, catching peach and gold in the lone rays of light that spread from the mouth of the cove.
She looks healed though, too. She looks okay.
She only answers, “You were asleep for two days. I healed us.”
Zuko gawks at her, mouth falling open. “You healed us?”
Katara hums in affirmation, “Didn’t you know sirens were capable of that?” she asks and then her eyes flash in that inhuman way of hers, “Or did you think we were all sharp-toothed monsters leading sailors to their deaths?”
Zuko shakes his head, “I never thought that.”
The honesty in his voice rings clear, bounces off the cove walls to surround them.
Her features smooth out again, accepting his answer, accepting him . She tilts her head, eyes skimming over his form, “Are you hungry? I caught you fish.”
And now she looks off to their left and Zuko follows her gaze, where there are several fish strung up along a stone. He isn’t sure why he's surprised.
More than that, he’s touched. Deeply thankful. Not just for her but–
He thinks of Suki and her unwavering kindness and wit. And all the locals on islands he’s passed through who were willing to offer him a place to rest his head, some food to settle in his stomach. He thinks of Miwa. He thinks of Sokka and his willingness to take him in, for all the trouble he’s worth.
And now Katara.
He once mourned the life he had to live; banished from country and home, wanted as a criminal, hunted like an animal.
But now, even in what many would say is dire circumstances, he can’t help but feel infinitely tender and grateful for all the kindnesses given to him– both big and small, simple and elaborate. What he knew of pirates could never have prepared him for a life like this.
It’s full, he realizes, bountiful, bursting with adventure and excitement and their love. Bursting with his love.
“Thank you,” he says softly, with more meaning than she’ll know or perhaps understand.
His voice echoes in their cove, gently and otherworldly.
He ends up spending his evening sharpening a stone to gut the fish, stray debris to begin a fire. It’s all very simple, but at the end of his hard work, there is fish in his stomach, and a small flame keeping off the dark.
And they live like this for some time, taking care of each other, tucked away from the world in a cove with water as clear as crystals.
When he is healthier and stronger, Katara tries to persuade him to come into the water with her. And he isn’t scared of her by any means, but he knows the myths. He knows what Sokka told him. He doesn’t understand why she doesn’t just open her mouth and sing to him, lull him right into her waiting arms.
It’s because she doesn’t need to, he realizes, body slipping into the cool water of the cove. He’ll do as she asks of him, perhaps foolishly, but if it allows him to see the lovely tilt of her lips into a smile, he supposes it isn’t all bad.
It would be a fine way to go, after everything he’s been through, if he simply followed her to the depths.
And she does encourage him under the water, tugs on his hands until he’s pushing against the pressure and diving down with her.
She leads him through a tunnel beneath the water; it’s strange, almost terrifying.
For a moment, he thinks she is going to lead him away from all he knows. She’s going to take him and no one will ever see him again. Although, living in this cove, perhaps that’s what's already happened.
Perhaps he is already hers.
Zuko’s lungs begin to burn with the breath he’s holding. He kicks harder, trying to move faster, trying not to panic at all.
But they emerge on the other side and she allows Zuko to come up for air.
“I want to show you something,” she tells him, her voice bubbling with excitement, eyes sparkling in a way that reminds Zuko of his beloved sea.
Under they go again and he follows her, watching the graceful curve and bend of her body in her own element. Her hair floats around her in a way that makes Zuko believe he’s dreaming.
Even the fuzzy pressure as they swim deeper makes him think so, the beauty of her too ethereal, too astonishing still.
The rocks underwater seem to open up to them then and Zuko can hardly believe his eyes.
Surrounding them is a new world entirely; it’s made out of glowing, iridescent crystals. They gleam and shine, sparkling in the little light that cuts through the water. But it’s enough, with the way they reflect off each other, heavenly light splaying out, setting everything afire.
Zuko nearly loses his breath.
He has to kick up to the surface for another lungful of air. But Katara waits for him, just below him this time. He rushes back down to be with her. She takes his hands in hers and pulls him along in the water. He holds tight to her, before she’s easing out of his grasp, swimming around him.
So close she nearly curves around him. He chases after her.
The smile she gives over her shoulder is earth-shattering. He swims harder for her.
She dodges away easily and Zuko gets the sudden, strange impression that they aren’t swimming, but floating.
They could be in the stars, he thinks, with all these glittering crystals, in this dimness. Perhaps they’re dancing there, in all those cosmos.
As above and so below, he thinks, his heart beating and beating like a song of its own.
He has to keep rushing to the surface for air, but he dives back down to be with her every time. He follows her, gliding through the water in a way that has never made him feel so free.
And with the way she turns and twists, her tail flashing prettily, he thinks they could be dancing. She glides her hands along his forearms to find his hands again, pulling him up towards the surface once more.
He looks up at her, stray seaweed tangling with his legs, the crystals around them glancing off to create pearly light splayed out against her. She’s a vision of stunning brightness, of color and life. So brilliant he can hardly think.
He breaks the surface with her this time and the water clings to her like morning dew.
“Beautiful,” he says without thinking, before feeling the flush of heat race through his cheeks, “I mean– it’s beautiful.”
Katara smiles, “This is nothing– the ocean has so many secrets.”
And for a moment, Zuko almost asks, can you show me?
Perhaps she’s waiting for it, as if setting a trap. He watches her eyes fill out hopefully, waiting for him to ask. But he holds his tongue.
He swears he catches the flash of disappointment that crosses her face.
She takes him back through the way they came. He eases himself out of the water and starts a fire to dry himself.
But he spends the night by the edge, hand dipping into the water so that she can trace strange patterns into the skin of his palm. So he can be near her as much as possible.
And as he drifts off to sleep, he swears he hears her humming, her lovely voice lulling him into a deep sleep.
He dreams in a wash of color and light, bittersweet and extraordinary. A secret place, a sky in the sea. A slice of heaven.
He dreams of Katara, of surrendering to her.
It isn’t painful or scary at all, but rather simple, as if it was always meant to happen.
Zuko’s hair grows long, down around his shoulders. He still lives in the cove, swimming out daily to catch the sun. Sometimes the tide rises and he grows wary, but Katara is always there when he needs her.
He does say to her, though, “I should try to find your brother and Suki again.”
He should return to life. They must think he’s dead. Perhaps this is the afterworld.
Katara’s features grow stormy at this, “Why?”
“I should get back to my life,” he tries to explain, as gently as possible.
“Isn’t this life?” she asks in return.
“Of course,” he agrees, “But I have so much more of the world I’d like to see.”
She reaches to touch his cheek, to study his features. Her hand is cool and wet, yet he still leans into her touch. She takes a long moment to think.
And then she breathes, “I could show you more of the ocean.”
It’s tempting, Zuko thinks, so tempting, looking into the depths of her eyes. If the rest of the ocean is even half as beautiful as her, he doesn’t know if his heart could take it.
His resolve holds, though, and he watches her features turn desperate.
He is careful now, so careful with what he says;
“Not yet?” she asks, eyes flying over his face, as if trying to see with her own eyes if he means it or not.
“Not yet,” he repeats, and there’s a promise there, the cusp of forever on the quiet rasp of his voice.
Katara eventually confesses that there is an island not far from the cove. She helps him swim there. She tries not to cling to him when the water gets too shallow, when he must use the legs she doesn’t have to carry himself into the surf. He tries not to cling back.
Leaving her is worse than he thought, leaving the embrace of the ocean is like trying to rip out his own heart. He’s sick with it, almost doubled over with the ache that bleeds to life inside his chest.
But he walks on his own two feet, back onto the land for the first time in months, wobbling like he might collapse.
Like a man possessed, a man in love with the sea.
Zuko sends a letter to Miwa first, since he knows exactly where she is. He asks her to put him in contact with Suki once more.
She writes in her letter to him;
Separated again? By storm or siege? By the kraken? A wraith? Share your stories, pirate!
He laughs to himself because she doesn’t know the half of it, because he doesn’t think she would believe him even if he tried.
Still, he writes back, not a storm or a siege. I’ve yet to see a kraken nor a wraith, either. I’m bewitched by a siren, though. I think I’ve promised her my soul.
When he finds Suki and Sokka again, they crash into him like a wave, so hard that the three of them go down in a heap of laughter, maybe even a small amount of tears.
They ask him a thousand questions, elated and astonished. Zuko tries to answer them to the best of his ability. He feels strangely protective over his time with Katara and is careful about what he shares with them.
He misses her so sharply and greatly that he can’t wait to get back out on a ship. He can’t wait to return to the ocean.
He dreams of returning to her arms, to the sky beneath the water.
Worse than that, there is a long stretch where he does not see her. Even on Sokka’s ship, Katara seems to have disappeared. He spends weeks looking and waiting for her, humming their song each evening, like it’ll make her appear.
Zuko’s heart sick; everyone notices. Rumors spread.
Poor soul is in love with a siren.
I heard he made a deal with one to survive.
They say if you listen close enough, at night you can hear her wailing for him.
Some say he tricked her, others say they both fell in love. The stories about them grow and change shape until they are hardly recognizable at all. Another fable told, another story for a crew of pirates.
Their story spreads, too, all different versions of it, spider webbing out into the world.
All Zuko cares for is seeing her again. He hums their song, sits on the edge of the water, feeling as if a part of him is missing. He longingly waits for her, watches the horizon, the turn of the waves like one day he might just find her among them.
But eventually, he grows tired of waiting.
I’ve been following him for a while. Or he’s been following me. I can’t tell anymore.
So he takes the story into his own hands and begins to chase her. He follows her the way a lost man follows the stars in the sky. He seeks for her at every port, at every crest and curve of the ocean.
He hums his tune so much that Sokka and Suki and the rest of the crew are sick of it.
But they meet again when the night meets the day, when the moon kisses the sun goodbye in the grand expanse of the sky.
Dawn is filled with lilac light, spreading out onto the ocean. Zuko almost can’t believe his eyes when she appears to him again, wrapped in the soft violet of the sea. At first, all he sees is the peeking of her eyes from above the water.
He leans over the side of the ship, nearly falls right in with his excitement.
He says her name like she’s a miracle.
“You’ve been calling for me,” she says in return.
I missed you, he wants to say, I looked for you everywhere and in everything. His heart drums hard and quick in his chest, squeezes tight until he’s aching with all of it. He wants to reach out, he wants to fall into her arms again.
He wants her to sing and sing and sing until it fills his head and the heavens and all his heart.
“You finally answered,” he responds.
She dips below the water for a moment, easing closer, until she resurfaces next to the ship. She pulls herself up, half out of the water, and Zuko, drawn to her the way the moon draws the tide, leans further down to meet her.
She reaches up to touch him; tentative, seeking fingers that slide along his jaw.
She studies him for a moment, eyes like starfire, shimmering and sweeping over his features. He reaches out to gently ease a strand of hair from her temple. He wants to cradle her cheek, too, he wants to study her features until he could never even comprehend missing or forgetting them.
His fingers twitch like he might, but he stays still.
And eventually, she asks, “Would you like to see more of the ocean yet?”
The question holds a vow inside of it, tenderly wraps their desires in its simplicity. But it’s grander than that, weighted and brimming with the pull of fate.
Zuko can almost feel it–that pull–where he nearly gets dragged right into the ocean below him.
But he swallows and although he may wish to give in to her, he shakes his head, “Not yet.”
Her fingertips skim the bow of his upper lip, surprisingly soft and cool.
She scrutinizes him a few moments more, before she says, “I’ll have you yet, Prince.”
And Zuko can’t help the laugh that escapes him, rasping and boyish, his smile crooked and eyes as bright as the morning sun that climbs into the sky.
“You will,” he agrees, “but not yet.”
His lips skim her open palm, reverent and gentle, “But not yet.”
She smiles, too, like she knows something he doesn’t.
Then she’s gone, falling away, back into her sea.
Zuko is left with her lingering touch, with the brush of his lips to the pads of her fingers. He’s left with the settled weight of a promise, the inevitable pull of his fate.
And what a fate it will be, he thinks, watching the curve of her disappear into the depths of the ocean he loves so dearly.
Zuko chases and is chased.
They do an eternal dance; forever circling each other. It’s greater than them and yet, some days, Zuko thinks it can only ever be for them. Their secret, their small slice of another world.
Playfully, she tries to pull him into the water. Sometimes he jumps in himself, or wades into the surf, searching for her, restless for her.
In these times, she says, “It could always be like this,” with a smile that has him weak-kneed. But he gazes out at the sun and the land and he forces himself to part from her once more.
And other times, he sinks into the water in hopes of it soothing him, falling away into her arms and home when he is weary and tired of running.
Sometimes he can hardly breathe with the longing that takes up all the space in the cavity of his chest, resting in the notches of his ribs, squeezing tight around his poor lungs.
In these times, she nearly begs with him, her eyes round and full of twilight, “Let me show you the rest of my world.”
He denies her still, even when she fits her hand to his, or touches him like he could fall to pieces.
“Not yet,” he murmurs to her always, “Not yet, my love.”
And they chase each other around the world, falling between the horizon of the sky and sea, reaching with seeking fingers for all they can have.
Just not yet.
He hums their song and longs to hear her sing it.
One day, his heart promises, swooping every time he spots her again, every time he catches the pretty flash of her tail, or the bright peek of her eyes above the water. One day.
Just not yet–oh, not yet.
“I swear it’s true!” Miwa shouts over the ruckus of the bar that is next door to the inn, “I know the Blue Spirit! He’s told me all about his adventures and he always, always, always tells me about the siren who he’s promised his heart to!”
“Aw, c’mon, Miwa, sirens aren’t real.” One of the men responds and several others coo and laugh at her.
“They are! I swear it! And it’s true the Blue Spirit follows one all over the world, forever chasing each other. It’s his curse, but he told me it’s also his blessing!” Miwa says and her voice is strong, despite their jeering and protesting.
They’re all half-drunk, anyways.
“I believe you, Miwa.” Another says, grinning, “I think it’s romantic.”
My blessing and my curse. Such is love, though, isn’t it? Zuko had written to her.
“I think it’s terrifying,” a woman pipes up, taking another drag of her alcohol, “You’re forever tethered to some monster.”
“He says she’s the most stunning being he’s ever seen– he says nothing compares to her! Not the sunset or the moon or all the stars combined.” Miwa replies, jutting her chin up.
“Well, that’s what all sirens want you to believe, don’t they?” she replies, “I hear they have sharp teeth to eat you with.”
“This one has saved him! Many times!” Miwa protests, “And she won’t lure him with her voice. She’s different.”
More disagreements erupt, but Miwa is quick to dispute and fight back.
She tells their story; tells it with a tenderness that Zuko appreciates, pulling his words right from the pages he’d written her.
More than that, she’s a good storyteller. She knows a story’s heart. She knows the soul of a pirate promised to a siren, knows how much longing is tangled up in the vow of the future.
There were several times the whole table–hell, nearly the whole bar– had fallen silent to listen to her gentle, musical voice.
Everyone had held their breath when Katara had been captured and stuck in a net.
Everyone had let it go when Miwa painted the scene of the cove, of her stunning voice, of the way she’d healed him.
Their story is safe in her hands, Zuko decides, hiding the small smile that curls at his lips, tightening the hood of his cloak to shield himself better.
Not a soul knows he’s here, only passing by. That’s all he can do lately.
But he listens secretly to Miwa, to the whole bar, the whole world talking about the story of his heartsong.
The night blossoms, but Zuko can’t stay for too long. No, he can’t keep her waiting. He can’t be away from the ocean for too long, not anymore.
So he stands from the bar on a pirate’s legs, unused to the solid land and he walks back out towards the ship that sits and bobs in the water there. A siren’s call is heard distantly, so far that he can hardly heed it, but nonetheless feel it. Not enough to lure him mindlessly, but enough to make him ache. Always aching in the best and worst ways.
He walks back out towards the ship.
Like a man possessed, a man in love with the sea.