Chapter 1: In Which the Avatar Infests Zuko's Roof
"What was it that kid said? Yee-haw? Hup-hup? Wah-hoo? Uh… Yip-yip?"
The bison gave a mighty groan… and splashed into the water.
Sokka leaned back, both completely vindicated and disappointed in a corner of his soul he hadn't known existed . "...I knew it couldn't fly."
"Maybe he's still tired?" his dear sweet sister, ever the optimist, was looking as disappointed as he felt. "It's still faster than a canoe, at least."
But not as fast as a Fire Navy ship. They watched their target disappear over the horizon ahead.
The bison kept swimming.
Two Days Later
The Avatar was on the roof of the lookout tower. The Avatar was on the roof of the lookout tower, and he wouldn't come down .
Zuko kept going through the motions of the Tiger-Crane form, and did his best to ignore Uncle. He'd had three years of practice.
Uncle did his best to not be ignored. He also had three years of practice.
"Prince Zuko, I cannot help but feel you are distracted from your training. Perhaps a break—"
"I don't need a break! I need the Avatar to not be on the roof of the lookout tower! "
"Breath control, Prince Zuko," Uncle scolded. His eyes trailed upwards. "And he is still captured. Technically."
"Only until we get in sight of land! Or… or until he starves up there!" Zuko transitioned from hawk-crane takes minnow-wasp to gesticulating wildly . Though not a traditional firebending form, it still involved rather a lot of flames. "I can't bring my father a dead Avatar, he'd just send me out for the new one!"
"Don't worry, he won't starve. I have made sure the crew is leaving food out for him. He has been surprisingly polite in his gratitude, if a bit distant ." Uncle chuckled.
" Stop doing that! No, not the chuckling , the leaving food! How are we ever going to get him down if he has everything he needs up there?"
Uncle stroked his beard. This was always a sign that Zuko wouldn't like whatever he said next. "Perhaps you could talk him down?"
It was a ridiculous idea, and Zuko gave Uncle a scowl for even suggesting it.
"Zuko." And there was Uncle's serious voice. Which meant Zuko was going to like whatever this was even less. "I cannot help but notice that your Avatar has only demonstrated one form of bending in his escape attempts."
"He's clearly conserving his strength, Uncle. We're in the middle of the ocean."
"A clever strategy." He was stroking his beard. Again . "Would it not, perhaps, have been even more clever to have used waterbending? He could have easily escaped us back in the icepack."
"He's trying to get us to let down our guard! By… by pretending not to be the Avatar! He already has his air master tattoos, so he knows we know he's an airbender. Any other bending form would give him away."
" Very clever, yes. So clever, in fact, that I wonder how you will demonstrate to your father that this is, indeed, the Avatar. All he must do is stick to his strategy, and those at court may confuse him for a simple airbender. An exceptional rarity to be sure, perhaps one of a kind, but not what is in the terms of your return."
"Then we'll make him angry. He's young; if we provoke him enough, we should be able to induce the Avatar state."
"Hmm. So your plan is to make the Avatar reveal its full powers in a fit of rage. Aboard our small ship first, of course, because we must test your theory. And later, in the middle of the Fire Nation. Perhaps in your father's throne room?"
Zuko really, really didn't want to hear this. "Uncle."
"I wonder how you will do this. It must be with some trigger you can control; something that we can expect to consistently work, both when we test it and when we demonstrate in the Fire Lord's court..."
"Perhaps you should talk to him after all, nephew!"
" Uncle! "
Aang was trapped on a roof. It… wasn't so bad. It wasn't so good , but… it could be worse? They could be starving him. Or throwing fireballs again; they'd done that a lot the first day. But there was this really good spot in the middle of the roof where if he just sat down and tucked his knees up to his chest, they couldn't hit him at all, and…
...And he missed Appa. And Monk Gyatso. And his new Water Tribes friends. Well, friend. Katara had been so nice (and pretty) and nice , and it would have been really fun to go all the way to the North Pole together—they could have visited Kyoshi and Whale Tail and everywhere! But her brother was kind of mean. And Gran-Gran's stares had been intense , like she knew exactly what he was thinking everytime he looked at Katara and maybe-blushed-a-little. And the rest of the Tribe… well, they'd kicked him out. Not that there'd been many of them to do the kicking.
Since when was the Southern Water Tribe so small ? It was summer, so maybe the men were all out hunting. And most of the women had gone with. And most of the children too, couldn't leave them behind. They'd just left a few people to tend camp, and that's where Aang had ended up.
It… couldn't really have been a hundred years, could it?
Aang sat in the middle of the roof. And tucked his knees to his chest. And didn't get hit by any fireballs, not that anyone was throwing them right now.
His stomach growled.
Aang scrunched up as small as possible . That voice-that-sounded-like-it-had-yelled-until-it-tore was really distinctive. And also the most likely person on board to do the fireballing. Even when Prince Zuko was just practicing on deck—which he did a lot , wow, didn't he have anything better to do?—it seemed like all of his stray fire came straight towards Aang.
"I know you're up there, Avatar. Obviously. Or you wouldn't be on the roof of my lookout tower ."
He, ah… he didn't sound any happier about that today than he had yesterday, or the day before. He sounded like he was standing on the walkway below, in front of the windows to the bridge. Which was already way too close for Aang's comfort.
"Look, I brought you food."
Aang did not look. "Thank you, Prince Zuko. Uh, you can just leave it there. I'll get it later."
"Or you could come get it now."
"Or I could get it later."
"Or… Avatar, you cannot live on top of my lookout tower ." He had a way of saying it, like this particular location was somehow super offensive , and anywhere else on deck would have been better. Since he could fireball Aang from anywhere else, maybe he did think that.
"Why not? The view is pretty great," Aang said.
Wow, Aang could actually hear him doing meditative breaths.
And then he couldn't hear him.
And then he heard a soft thud , and when he turned Zuko was on the roof, how did he even climb up here so fast, was he part ninja?
Aang leapt to his feet and held his hands up and felt the winds around him. The ship had been skirting the edge of a storm since morning, and the winds wanted to move, wanted to push and shove and rage. The smell of rain on the wind and the cold lashes of air over his bare arms were familiar, too familiar, even though that storm was a hundred years ago. Opposite him, the fire prince shifted into a battle stance. It was kind of ruined by the plate of food in his hand. For a second he looked… really baffled to still be holding it. Aang sort of felt the same. Also Zuko wasn't wearing his armor, which was… strange? He looked like an actual human being instead of a tireless fireball launcher.
"Thanks for carrying it up," Aang said. "You can just leave it there."
It was hard to read Zuko's expression. Which—kind of made Aang feel bad , because it wasn't Zuko's fault that half his face was burned into a scowl. But the perma-angry-look was always there and always on, so it was hard not to be a little scared of him, especially when it matched the rest of his personality so well. Maybe if the other half had been smiling it would have evened out, but right now it was just… neutral . And neutral + scowl = still really unhappy looking.
"If you blow me off this roof, Avatar, I'll…" he didn't finish that sentence. Since it would have ended with 'die horribly', Aang couldn't really blame him. "Look. I'm going to… hand you the food. And we're going to talk. Because you can't live on the roof of my lookout tower. " He was really stuck on that point. "You have my word that I will not attack you while we… parley."
"That's a really fancy word for 'talk on the roof of your lookout tower.' "
The prince let out a breath through his nose and it was on fire . But he didn't attack.
Aang's stomach grumbled again. He took the plate. And then he sat in one corner of the roof and the prince sort of paced on the other side, while Aang shoveled food in his mouth and made sure to track him with his eyes and only blink when he really had to. The prince had said they were going to talk, but he wasn't really doing a lot of talking. Aang got them started.
"Are you vegetarians?"
"What? No ."
"Then why have all my meals been?"
"Because you're an air nomad . ...Aren't you?"
"Yeah. Umm. But I thought no one had seen an air nomad in a hundred years?"
"I've studied your people, Avatar. I've been hunting you for three years ."
"Wow. That's… awhile. How old are you?"
"That's none of your concern . You just… you can't—"
"Live on the roof of your lookout tower?" Aang guessed.
Zuko slashed his hands down and they were very on fire , and whatever conversation he'd had going in his head wasn't the same one Aang had been having. "Can you even use the other elements?"
"No. Umm. Why did you think I could, anyway?"
"Because you said you were the Avatar!"
"You were shouting about the Avatar before I said that, though. Before I was even in the village."
"I saw the light. Don't play dumb."
Aang suddenly saw the opportunity to play dumb. "You mean the flares from the ship? Yeah. That was… oops. We didn't think the booby traps would still be active."
"The other light! The one before that."
"Oh," Aang said, drawing the sound out. "You mean the spirit thing."
"The spirit thing," Zuko repeated flatly. His hands hung at his sides. And weren't on fire, for once.
"Yeah. It, uh… are we really in the South Pole? Because I was close to here, but then the spirit thing happened, and… I kind of showed up?"
"Because of a spirit thing." The fire prince really got hung up on things, sometimes.
Aang nodded sagely. "Airbenders are very closely connected to the spirit world. Spirit things happen. You must have learned all about it in your studies, right?"
"Where were you before that?"
"With the monks! But I—" ran away "—got separated from them."
"The monks. Where are they ?"
"They're—" At the Southern Air Temple. But he couldn't tell Zuko that, if the world was really at war than maybe the Fire Nation would do something awful to them. "—uh, I'm not going to tell you?"
Zuko's shoulders slumped. It made him look about a million times more approachable, like the difference between a big raging tigerdillo and a sharp-toothed tigerdillo-kitten. "...Are you even the Avatar?"
Aang looked directly into his eyes, and smiled the same way he did when Gyatso asked who'd eaten the last pie. "No. No, I'm not."
For a second the prince just kind of stood there like a kicked tigerdillo-kitten. Then he started pacing again, and wow how was he not burning his sleeves with all that fire? "Why would you lie about that?"
"Why would you assume I was?"
"Because… ugh!" He sat down on the ledge of the tower. "So you lied about that, and you lied about the terms of your surrender. Anything else?"
Aang set his bowl down. He hadn't really finished but he didn't really want to. "I don't like lying. But I had to." He still had to. "You were going to hurt someone if I didn't say I was."
"I wasn't going to—" the prince took in a deep deep breath and let it out, and Aang saw steam rising above him. "I wasn't going to hurt anyone."
"Uh. You could have fooled me."
"That was the point . If people are scared enough, they don't fight, and then I don't have to hurt anyone. " He sounded a lot like a teenager just then. An almost-normal teenager. Which was maybe why Aang said what he did next.
"Wow. So you're a vegetarian and a pacifist. We have so much in common!"
The fire prince dropped his head in his hands. "Shut up, airbender."
Airbender was a big improvement over Avatar .
"My name is Aang."
And he could not believe this was working.
Zuko couldn't believe this. No, he could . That was the problem. No—the problem was that he'd ever believed a twelve-year-old could be the Avatar. He'd embarrassed himself in front of his crew and his uncle, and by the end of the month somehow the entire fleet would know because they always did , everytime he thought he had a lead and it didn't turn out, and Uncle said he couldn't confiscate the men's letters but sometimes it was really tempting to just have a training accident on mail day.
"I knew you weren't him." He shouldn't have said that out loud, but he did anyway. Not that it mattered.
"You did?" the airbender sounded startled. Like he'd thought he was a believable Avatar, like anyone besides the Banished Prince would have ever made this mistake.
"You're too young, and you barely put up a fight, and what kind of Avatar just surrenders to the Fire Nation? Some beacon of hope you would be."
"...Yeah. Yeah, I guess I'd be… pretty bad at it. Umm. Sorry to get your hopes up."
"I didn't have my hopes up!"
"Sorry to make you angry?"
"I'm not angry!"
"Sorry you shout so much when you're not angry?" The stupid airbender was smiling , like he wasn't still trapped on a ship with the people who'd genocided his own. Though apparently Sozin hadn't been as thorough as he'd thought, if there was a whole enclave of monks and initiates hiding somewhere around here (and there had to be nuns, Zuko knew where little airbenders came from).
"I don't—" Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose. "Will you get down from here now?"
The boy froze. He was still smiling, but he didn't look so good under it. "...Are you going to try to lock me up again?"
It was… a valid question. And Zuko didn't really like the answer, even as he said it. "The only spare beds are in the holding cells."
The boy waved his hands in a no thank you , and there was a burst of wind. Not really focused. Just… a burst. "I think I'm fine up here. Airbenders like being out in the elements. And not in small metal cells with big locks."
"Airbender. You can't live up here. Don't make me starve you down." Zuko was trying to be reasonable, but he… knew how he sounded when he was reasonable. The monk-in-training looked terrified . So Zuko had gone from having the Avatar to scaring small children in the space of a conversation. This was… this was great. This was definitely how he'd expected his South Pole trip to go. "I could… uh. I could leave the door unlocked. If I have your word of honor that you will obey my orders as the commander of this vessel. And Lieutenant Jee's as captain. In fact, everyone here outranks you, you have to listen to all of them." He thought for a moment. "...Except Uncle."
No one should be ordered to play pai sho. No one.
The kid had a really good skeptical face. "How do I know you'll really leave it unlocked?"
"Because you'll have my word , airbender. Though if you break yours again, I'll lock you in for real. You are still my prisoner, is that clear? But I will allow you honorable parole if you give your word that you will remain on the ship. And behave. And not live on the roof of my lookout tower. "
He was going to regret this. One look at the airbender's suddenly renewed grin, and he already regretted it. And the crew was going to think he was soft, and Uncle was going to smile that patronizing you didn't kick a puppy-kitten today, nephew, I'm so proud of you smile, and the little monk was probably going to sabotage the ship and leave them adrift on the polar seas or maybe just snuff their breath while they slept, because how else had an enclave of airbenders remained secret for a hundred years —
But at least he wasn't terrifying a twelve-year-old. At the moment.
"Well?" he snapped. "Do you accept?
"Yes sir, Commander Prince Zuko, sir."
...He regretted it.
The airbender was out on the deck, flitting between crew stations like a half-tame humming-ferret. He never quite got within arm's reach of the crew, but he would stop a few feet back and lean forward to see what they were doing like he was curious, like he'd really like to talk to them, like his kind weren't threatened with extinction from people dressed in exactly the same armor.
Zuko was unimpressed with the airbender's survival instincts. He did not share this thought with Uncle, for fear that Uncle might say something about his survival instincts. He just crossed his arms, and stood on his own spot on the deck, and kept a frowning watch over the boy.
"... Should I lock him in, Uncle?"
"You have already given your word you would not." Uncle was sitting down, setting up a pai sho game based on one of the letters from his friends. There were an alarming number of old people who liked to send pai sho games through the mail. If that was what getting old did to people's minds, Zuko was never going to do it. (He didn't share this thought with Uncle, either. Because it wasn't too hard to put together the no survival instincts means you won't have to worry about growing old joke on his own.)
"I know I did. But… do you think he's a threat?"
Uncle copied one of the moves in his letter, and frowned at the board. "Even the most timid mouse-rabbit will bite, if the cat-mongoose has him cornered."
That was one of the easier proverbs to parse. "So I made the right decision. He'd be more desperate if he was locked up."
"You did see how he fought the first time you tried, nephew."
...Yeah. He had. And he needed to run the crew through more drills, stricter drills, if they couldn't stop one small boy from rampaging all over the ship. At least Zuko had been able to steal the kid's glider back before he'd escaped.
(This would be a lot less complicated if he had escaped.)
(...But then Zuko would probably be chasing him across the world, still shouting about the Avatar. Agni, Zhao would have laughed himself into a coma.)
"Uh… can I help you?" a crewman asked. Apparently the airbender's hesitance to shove his face right into a firebender's had only lasted for a half an hour. He reminded Zuko of the turtleducks back home, but even they had been smart enough to fear fire.
"Uncle." Zuko swallowed, and lowered his voice. "Are Great-Grandfather's laws about airbenders still… enforced ?"
Uncle's hand paused above the board. "It could be argued that Azulon rescinded them when he overturned the 32nd edict and replaced it with the 75th. There is no mention of airbenders in the new law."
Because it had been assumed they were all dead, neither of them said.
"And… we could argue that? If someone sees him?"
"You intend to keep the boy on board longer than the next port?" Uncle was staring at his game, and doing that completely neutral voice thing he did when he suspected Zuko was about to make the wrong choice.
"Until he's served his purpose," Zuko snapped.
"He is not the Avatar, nephew."
"I know that. But he's the closest I've come. The only air nomad anyone's seen in a hundred years. I could… question him. Study his bending style, for when I do fight the Avatar. And it would be prudent to keep him in the safety of our custody until then." Until his first reaction to seeing the pikesmen practicing wasn't running over to them. Agni, what did those monks teach their children? Clearly not history.
"Very wise, nephew," Uncle said. He was watching the boy instead of his gameboard, and Zuko had the feeling he was thinking the same thing Zuko was.
He didn't know how many of the regular Fire Nation troops even knew about the 75th edict. Most probably assumed that Sozin's orders were still in effect.
That airbenders were to be killed on sight.
"Boy! Get away from the catapult now or I will truss you up and demonstrate its operation! "
At least Lieutenant Jee would have someone else to scowl at, for a change.
"My name's Aang! What's y—?"
" DID I ASK YOUR NAME, BOY? "
...Though the lieutenant seemed to have an unhealthy amount of anger saved up for shipboard children.
"...We're never catching up, are we?" Sokka groaned, draping himself with situationally appropriate drama over the side of the saddle. It was Katara's turn at the reigns.
"Maybe Appa's feeling better now? You got some sleep last night, didn't you boy—yes you did. And I know you want to find your friend. Aang is waiting for us, and he's in trouble. Could you please, please go a little faster?" Katara was rubbing the giant bison's head like it was a baby penguin-otter. "Yip-yip."
The bison groaned. And surged. And flew.
Sokka clutched the side of the saddle and screamed, at a situationally appropriate volume.
Chapter 2: Breath Control
To Little Zuko readers: yes I am shamelessly reusing crew names and personalities. But these ones didn't get a life-changing field trip with their prince...
Also, "%%%" means "I'm officially declaring that I'm too lazy to convert these /million page breaks/ into /real/ page breaks." And "%%%" is about the only symbol FF doesn't eat when I copy-paste, so it became my goto. So. *lazy salute of lazitude*
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The airbender had made a nest in the holding cells. He'd taken his mattress, dragged it into the hall outside the bars, and piled blankets on top. Zuko wouldn't even be sure the boy was in there if the blankets weren't blowing —breezing?—with his every soft snore. Moving in a way blankets generally didn't. Except when an airbender was sleeping under them, apparently.
Well. Great to see how much the child trusted Zuko to not lock him in. Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose—which had to be some kind of headache record, this soon after dawn—and tried not to take it personally. The kid was scared and alone and acting as if Zuko had no honor .
Since Zuko legally didn't, it was irrational to be angry over yet another person he'd just met assuming that fact. Like his status was branded on him for all the world to see and okay, yeah, it was too early for this . He needed to punch some fire, and not think for awhile.
"Mmph," the pile of blankets said.
"Airbender, wake up. You will be assisting me in training today."
The blankets rolled over. Zuko couldn't tell if that meant the boy was facing towards or away from him. It was… a pile of blankets. Where had he even gotten so many…?
...The storage closet was down the hall. Zuko was going to need to have a talk with the quartermaster about locking doors per regulation . Also, he updated his cultural notes on airbenders to include 'open, shameless thieving.' Which… did not contradict the idea that they put little value on worldly possessions. Maybe property was communal, in the boy's enclave?
Or maybe he was just a thief.
A hand emerged from the blankets. And waved him off .
Zuko reached in, and dragged the monk out by the scruff of his robes.
Okay so Aang had maybe overreacted a little to being woken up by an angry firebender grabbing him but he didn't think— ahh! —that this was— spirits that was close —an appropriately proportionate reaction—
And really he hadn't even meant to blow the prince into a wall. Or down the hall. Or into the other wall.
He had definitely intended the part where he'd wrapped Zuko up in a blanket and run away , but by that point there had been a lot of fire so Aang considered it completely justified and— AHHH!
Iroh sipped tea, and watched his nephew train with the airbender. They trained up and down the levels of the ship and across the deck. They trained while the crew made every effort to jump out of their way (and were somewhat hampered by the airbender's proclivity for leaping startling distances to hide directly behind them). They trained with live fire, and a considerable amount of localized wind.
It was certainly instructive.
Zuko wasn't panting. He wasn't . But if his Uncle said breath control he was going to—to—
"Nephew," Uncle said.
"Don't. Say it."
Uncle sipped his tea. He didn't say it. "I was going to ask, in light of our new guest, if you still intended to allow the men shore leave at the Southern Air Temple. Will we be stopping there at all, or do you have a new heading on your quest?"
Across the deck, the airbender was perched on a railing. He was panting, too (not that Zuko was, because he wasn't). When he caught Zuko's gaze, he grinned . And then looked immediately terrified of having grinned. Zuko scowled at one of those reactions, and didn't think too hard about which.
"I'm going to interrogate him. We'll hold course for now."
"Good luck, nephew." Uncle continued not-to-say-it, but he made a point of taking in a deep breath, and letting out a relaxed sigh.
Zuko grit his teeth, and calmly strode towards the airbender. The airbender responded to his completely peaceful approach by leaping to his feet—still balancing on the rail—and starting those Agni-cursed swirling motions with his arms that hadn't looked nearly as ridiculous and completely overpowered evasive cheating in Zuko's scrolls.
"Stop running! "
"I wasn't running. I was, ah—relocating?" the airbender replied. Still clearly intending to run. His eyes kept flicking from Zuko's scar to his hands and back again.
Zuko turned his face to the side. And forced his hands open, which made it significantly harder to call flames unintentionally. "What do you know about the Southern Air Temple?"
"Nothing. At all." Little breezes followed his hands, harder to anticipate and significantly less flashy than a firebender's unconscious bending. "Well, I know that it's there. But… I've never been?"
He narrowed his eyes. "You're having breakfast with me. Come here."
"I'm not really hun—"
"That was not a request."
"...Yes sir, Commander Prince Zuko Sir."
At least one member of the crew looked at the kid with wide eyes. Then at Zuko. Then tried very hard to look like they hadn't heard anything at all.
…They were all going to be calling him that behind his back by the end of second shift.
Aang had a feeling this was an interrogation. He also had a feeling that the prince of an evil war-starting-and-continuing empire should be… well, better at it?
"Just tell me where they are!" Prince Zuko shouted. And he looked really scary , even if he hadn't had the scar he'd have the scary face down pat. But, ah. He wasn't actually doing anything? Except to Aang's eardrums.
"Sorry," Aang shrugged. "I forgot."
"You forgot. Where you live."
He flashed a sheepish grin. "You should see how lost I get when I have Appa. But it's really exciting finding new places! And new friends!"
It was kind of mesmerizing , watching the flames on Zuko's hands. They shifted shades with how mad he got, but they didn't actually burn anything. Ever. He had really good control for someone with really bad control.
"Are you even paying attention?" the prince snapped.
"Oh, sorry. Hey, could you pass the rice?"
Zuko very, very grudgingly passed the rice. It had probably been getting cold sitting on the table, but it was nice and steamy by the time it reached him.
"Wow, firebending is really convenient. If I was the Avatar, I would definitely ask you to teach me how to do that. Just let me know if you ever need something cooled down! Or aired out."
Aang wondered, with alarmed fascination, just how on fire the fire prince could get before actually lighting himself on fire. What air temperature did it have to be for sleeves to spontaneously combust?
...He probably shouldn't experiment with that.
...Which was a little like saying he shouldn't ride the hog-monkeys and he shouldn't fly Appa upside down unless everyone in the saddle was an airbender and a lot of other things he probably shouldn't do.
"Hey, could you pass the soy sauce, too? But try not to heat it, it's better cold."
Zuko passed the soy sauce. And somehow managed not to curl up in a ball and die while he was at it. When it came to Avatar hunting, most of the things he interrogated were… books. Scrolls. The occasional faded mural in an overgrown ruin clinging precariously to the underside of a cliff. It had been a hundred years; living leads were a little scarce . Sometimes he had to intimidate his way past an ancient temple guardian or stomach spirits-forsaken onion-banana juice, but he hadn't actually interrogated a person before. Not seriously. Normally, if someone knew an old spirit tale or a half-remembered story from their grandmother, he could just sic Uncle and a pot of tea on them, and sit back to take notes.
He didn't think that would work here. The airbender was obviously lying, but he was lying to protect his home, not some scrap of a story that couldn't get anyone hurt. It would take more than tea and proverbs to get it out of him.
The royal tutors had never covered extracting information from a prisoner . Zuko was… familiar. With the general concepts. But he was a prince of the blood; if he needed information extracted, other people were supposed to do that for him. Somehow, though, the Wani 's budget hadn't had room to keep a torturer's services on retainer. Music night didn't count.
...At least he'd taken them into a room for this. If he'd done it on deck, the crew would be pantomiming his failure until the next port.
"Hey, is this your room?" the airbender asked, looking around with way too much interest to possibly be healthy. "Wow, your futon is the same as mine. So… I'm sleeping on a bed good enough for a prince?"
Zuko was the one doing the interrogating here, not the airbender. So he didn't tell the little monk how they'd bought the futons in bulk. For a discount. Or that Uncle had stolen the invoice off his desk and used his own private funds to do so, and Zuko would pay him back one day, because getting new A-Man-Needs-His-Rest beds for himself and the crew was not his fourteenth birthday present.
"You could really use some better decorations, though. Those fire hangings look like they came with the ship."
Zuko didn't curl up and die. Except on the inside.
"How did your interrogation go?" Uncle asked. He was now playing his own one-man pai sho game, and carefully composing a letter of moves for his friends.
"...We'll maintain course for the temple."
"Thanks for breakfast, Zuko!" the airbender shouted. Across the entire deck. "I mean, thanks for breakfast, Commander Prince Zuko Sir!"
"...The ocean is really big," her brother said. Unhelpfully.
"Yes, Sokka. I've noticed."
The Water Tribe siblings kept flying. And keeping an eye out for one very small ship on one really big ocean.
It took three more days to make it to the island of the Southern Air Temple. If it had been four, Zuko wasn't sure he could have stopped Lieutenant Jee from tying the airbender to a railing. Or a propeller. The kid was just… everywhere. Primarily where he shouldn't be. And he was ruthlessly friendly about it, so most of the crew was left awkwardly floundering on how to politely tell him off.
The lieutenant had no such social constraints.
"Did I TELL you to stop?" Jee snapped at the pikesman. Who had rather quickly aborted their practice when the airbender had raced past riding a ball of air , because apparently that was a thing he did when he got bored. He just.. circled the deck. Endlessly. "If the mosquito-fly wants to get pinned, oblige him! "
"Wow," the boy said, coming over to hover by Zuko's side. "Your captain is kind of mean."
"Is there a reason you're talking to me?" Because Zuko could not fathom one. He didn't actually mind , he was only nominally observing the drills while actually watching the coastline slip by—the southern archipelago was beautiful, a fact he would never admit to Uncle—but. But he really didn't know why the airbender would want to talk to him. With the exception of Uncle, people didn't just come up and do that. They hadn't at the palace, they certainly didn't on the ship, and someone sauntering over to talk with the scarred teenager in a port town was the quickest way to spot a lady of the night. Or gentleman, because apparently Zuko didn't look like he had a preference. (But at least he looked like he had money?)
The kid tilted his head. With a smooth motion of his hands, he dispersed the airball, landed back on his feet, and dropped the smile for once in his life. "Why are you going to the air temple? There's nothing there."
Oh, the monk had an ulterior motive for talking to him. Zuko's world made sense again.
He stared down into grey eyes. Down, because the kid was twelve. Twelve and naive as a baby rabbit-squirrel coming up to a fox-cat to play, and if that wasn't a sign he'd never seen death, Zuko didn't know what was. And those were his not-so-distant relatives up there.
Zuko swallowed. And started lying, hard.
"I'm looking for traces of the Avatar. Scrolls and… other things. They say he was raised at the Southern Temple. It's the only place in the world I can be sure he's been."
The airbender's face got all scrunchy with skepticism, which was a fairly typical reaction to Zuko's attempts at lying. "You said you've been hunting him for three years. Why haven't you been here already?"
"I have! But it doesn't hurt to check again. We're in the area." Zuko gestured broadly at the gray seas and the green-topped cliffsides towering around them. See? The area. They were in it.
"...Was there anyone there?"
Zuko wasn't good with people. He knew that. And he knew that whatever sad-strange fear-hope was on the airbender's face, he couldn't even begin to parse. So he shrugged his shoulders, and leaned against the railing, and watched a school of puffinphins play in the waves off the ship's bow.
"No. No one."
The kid got really quiet after that. Zuko… could do quiet.
Maybe they were hiding.
Zuko was the most obviously Fire Nation person ever, so probably the monks had seen him coming from miles away, and made sure the temple was empty before he got anywhere near. They were just waiting for a real airbender to come back, that's when they'd show themselves.
They had to be hiding.
Aang sat down, dangling his legs through the railing, and stared up at the scrub-dotted cliffs. The fire prince kept standing next to him, like he was trying to be supportive .
Then Aang remembered that he'd basically stolen the prince's spot on deck and probably Zuko was just being too stubborn to give it up, and the world made sense again.
They dropped anchor on the northern coast, where the land formed as close to a natural harbor as the island had. It wasn't the best: the air nomads and their flying bison herds hadn't been thinking of storm anchorages when they'd chosen where to settle. It was too open for Zuko's liking. But the depth readings were good, and the beaches provided inland access even to people who didn't scale cliffs for fun, and there was fresh water not too far in.
His ship probably had the most accurate map of this island made in the last hundred years. Maybe even before that; the air nomads had been great travelers, but not great map makers. The freedom of the air didn't like being pinned to measurements on parchment. Or at least, that was what Zuko thought. He'd been to three of the cardinal temples and countless minor ruins, but he hadn't yet found a map made by the monks.
He realized he could ask .
"Did your people make maps?" It was the first thing either of them had said for eight degrees of the sun. This close to the south pole's summer, that was roughly an hour by the sand clocks that Uncle kept in his rooms (and Zuko really did find it bizarre that in the Earth Kingdom, the hours of the day were as steady as bedrock, instead of changing with the light Agni shone on different places and seasons. And he hated the mechanical clocks some Fire Nation craftsman were starting to turn out, with their perfectly regulated ticks and complete disregard for the changeability and adaptation that Agni himself had blessed their nation with). What did the Southern Water Tribe use? What did the nomads? "And what do you use for clocks? Do you have clocks, or is time," he moved his hands, in kind of a wibbly-wobbly manner, "not something monks keep track of?" Because the world was impermanent and time an illusion, and… yeah. Zuko had read more air nomad philosophy scrolls than was strictly healthy for a sixteen-year-old who stomped scowl-blushing away from port town hookers.
...The two might be related.
The airbender was still sitting on deck, his legs dangling over open sea and his arms on the rail above. He looked… bemused. "Of course we have maps. Um, what's a clock?"
"It's a… a thing. For measuring time?" Oh Agni the monk looked confused, maybe removing themselves from the world for a hundred years had shifted their culture even further from anything resembling normal. "Which is, uh—it's a way of dividing the day into segments, for… for coordinating activities, I guess, and—"
...And now the boy was grinning. Because he'd been joking . Of course. Zuko shifted into a scowl, and turned away to yell at his lieutenant. His lieutenant, in turn, yelled at the crew. And everyone felt better.
Zuko's own preparations had been done days ago. He double-checked that the mice-hoppers hadn't gotten into his food again (they really needed to get another mimic-catopus, Sushi was getting old ). He triple-checked that he'd remembered to bring the good rope. He quadruple-checked that uncle wanted to do this with him.
"I can handle it on my own," he scowled.
"I know you can, Prince Zuko." Uncle shifted his weight, doing that alarming thing where he looked like he was going to hug him in front of the crew and only just contained himself in time. "But you should not have to."
Zuko didn't thank him. But he nodded, a little jerkily. Then he double-checked Uncle's food and triple-checked Uncle's rope and also the rest of his climbing gear, because Uncle was a little careless with maintaining it sometimes, and—
—Evicted one self-packed cat from Uncle's bags. The old girl changed from spare-clothes-red to deck-gray as she crawled out, her fur sparking between colors as she wrap-cuddled around Zuko's leg with all of hers, her tenta-tails curling happily behind her. He scratched behind her ears as he very firmly and securely closed the bag . He was not accidentally carrying a cat up a cliffside again, and neither was Uncle. They had enough weight with the urns alone. It would be even worse on the way back, especially if they had a cat with a stomach full of native species.
"I didn't know you had a cat!"
Sushi flattened herself against the deck and turned steel-gray (with a dabbling of rust for authenticity, even the cat made fun of his ship—) as the miniature tornado approached. Of course small animals would be natural airbender attractants.
"...Uh, where did she go?"
"She's a mimic-catopus. Figure it out." Zuko shifted his own pack just a little, to hide her lump from view. He stood, and crossed his arms, and stared down at the kid (and didn't twitch at all as Sushi slowly, slowly dragged one tenta-paw after the other as she edged her way between his legs and back towards the door to the lower levels.) "You are to remain on this ship and obey every order Lieutenant Jee gives you. Do you understand?"
"What if he orders me off the ship? Because those would be two conflicting—" the airbender was paying more attention to searching the ground than to this conversation.
(Helmsman Kyo quietly closed the door that Sushi had fled through. Very rarely, in limited circumstances, Zuko loved his crew.)
" You will listen to Lieutenant Jee ," Zuko barked, "or I will have to court-martial him upon my return for flaying a prisoner alive. That would be unfortunate. He'd be hard to replace."
So the monk didn't know when Zuko was joking, either. Good to know.
"Lieutenant, the ship is in your hands. We'll be back in a week."
The crew had readied a rowboat. Zuko set his and Uncle's bags in it, made one last check for cats, gave one last glare to the airbender hovering at the ship rail, and set out.
" 'He'd be hard to replace'?" Uncle quirked an eyebrow, once they were a fair distance away.
Zuko finally let himself smirk.
Land. Sweet blessed not-just-ocean-in-all-directions land . Sokka slid off the bison and considered kissing it, but Appa turned and started eating it before he could. Well, the bushes on it. And the grass. And at least one unfortunately scrumptious young tree.
"He might be faster than a canoe," Sokka commented, "but he sure eats a lot more."
So, islands. They'd found islands. Maybe they'd even find a ship, soon?
...Once their flying canoe was done refueling. And sleeping.
Sokka approved of both of these activities. The bison, he decided, was an acceptable mode of transportation.
Zuko had been gone for three days and Aang was going a little crazy because what was the fire prince even doing up in the temple? He said he'd already been here before, why had he needed to come back , had he found some trail last time and now he was hunting down the last of Aang's people and, and—
"Boy! Those komodo-rhino hides had better be silky enough to wipe a noble woman's posh posterior or I will tan yours ."
Aang grumbled, and kept scrubbing at Cherry Daifuku's back with the pumice stone. The rhino lowed appreciatively. In the next pen over, Wasabi Peas was rolling in the only patch of mud on the entire beach how did he even find that, now Aang was going to have to wash him all over again—
"Who even named you?"
It was mostly a rhetorical question, but the crewman scrubbing down the saddles actually answered. "The prince. We think he was going through a food phase. It's stuff he could probably get any time he wanted at the palace, right?"
"So why doesn't he just go back ?" Aang was maybe a little frustrated. Maybe. And could Cherry please just hold still , he never knew a komodo-rhino could be ticklish (he never knew he could get this close to a rideable animal and want nothing better than to stomp away from it).
"You have seen our ship, right?" the crewman said.
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"Small?" the crewman prompted. "Rusty? No railings on the lookout tower? Galley food approaching vegetarian whether we want it to or not?"
Aang felt like this was going somewhere. He just wasn't sure where.
The crewman sighed. " Banished prince, kid. He's not going back. Welcome to the Avatar Hunt Pleasure Cruise. Next stop: wherever he throws a dart at the map. It's a good way to see the world, at least. My little sisters really like my letters."
"Bad place to get promoted, though," the woman trying to fit a new bridle to Melon Dango's head said.
" But ," another crewman, the one trying to trim Dorayaki's toenails said, "a really good place to avoid actual combat."
Lieutenant Jee glowered over at them. " If you ladies—"
" Excuse me, sir?"
"I said ladies, Teruko! Are there any actual ladies here to take offense? If you ladies have time to gossip, you have time to finish before you get any lunch!"
Aang joined the chorus of groans.
And turned his eyes towards the mountain again, and the temple he knew was up there. There was smoke coming from the mountain peak. A thin stream of it, since yesterday, and what was Zuko doing to his home .
When the groaning-complaining-joking crew was finally allowed to trudge towards the firepit the cook had started for lunch, Aang groaned right after them. Slowly. Until he was the last one. And Lieutenant Jee took his eyes off of him for just one second—
Aang disappeared quick as a mimic-catopus. But, ah. With less changing colors, and more diving into the underbrush.
"...Should we go after him?" Kyo whispered.
"I really don't want to," Teruko replied.
And Lieutenant Jee resolved not to chase the airbender that his entire crew hadn't been able to catch while contained on the fleet's smallest ship . Not into an island forest. Not until after lunch.
The bison was a lot faster when properly rested and fueled. This was not a flying canoe, this was a sailboat on the leading edge of a typhoon.
"Woo!" Sokka screamed into the wind. And then added a preemptive brotherly, "Shut up, Katara."
"I didn't say anything," she said, with sisterly smugness. Like she wasn't just as surprised that their bison-boat could not only fly, but fly so fast they could probably cross continents at the speed of plot.
There was another island ahead. And a harbor. And a Fire navy ship.
There was a white cloud flying against the wind, circling their location. Lieutenant Jee resolved not to deal with that until after lunch, either.
The rest of the crew very studiously and with no particular discussion on the matter finished their meal while staring at the sand. They had three years of experience at not seeing anything even vaguely spirit or Avatar related; not while on shore leave.
Zuko was sweaty and sooty and exhausted, but almost done. Which was good; he actually would have time to look around for any Avatar clues he'd missed. Not that he couldn't have extended the time they had here, there was food and water and the crew wouldn't complain about more time lounging on the beach. But he liked to keep a schedule. To make one, and stick to it. It made it feel like he was doing something, getting somewhere, even if the somewhere was just loops on a map . Patrolling the world for for Avatar clues, like maybe this time past Whale Tail Island or Chameleon Bay he'd find something. Right. Zuko ran a sleeve over his face, let out a breath, and ran to help Uncle. Who was just supposed to help deal with them, not carry them up and down a million stairs.
"Give me that," Zuko snapped. But he accepted the cloth-wrapped bundle with great care. It was… small. Way smaller than it should be, it made him sick when they were that small and he could smell the fire on them and fire shouldn't ever be so wrong —
"They are not heavy, nephew. And I am not so old you need to worry about my back."
"Yes. You are."
"Ah, but it is my heart that you wound."
Uncle's banter was… was nice. Zuko didn't have to reply, Uncle didn't expect him to. The words just… washed over. Like the sounds of the sparrowkeets, and that one chittering lemur that kept trying to steal their food even though the trees were full of fruit , and Zuko was regretting not bringing Sushi along to guard their bags, respect for native wildlife be damned.
He let out a breath, and carried the bundle downstairs. They'd picked a spot off the main courtyard. It was best to do this over stone, especially smooth stone they could sweep properly afterwards because… because it was best. But doing it in the center of the temple, like they had any right to be here or be doing this—they couldn't. He lay the bundle on the fire-marked spot they'd used for all the others, and took up position on one side. Uncle stood opposite. Together they took in a breath, and started the flames.
Cremation didn't take much power, but it did take focus . Low hot flames that would turn even bones to ash.
It went quicker, with the small ones.
"Breath control, nephew," Uncle reminded. So Zuko steadied himself, and just… breathed.
When it was done, Uncle dispersed the fire and the heat, and began sweeping up what remained. Zuko went back up the stairs for the next one. The urns they'd brought were small, almost disrespectfully so, but they hadn't known how many they would need. He hadn't… hadn't counted , last time. So he'd had to buy ones that were easy to pack, so they could bring a lot . It looked like he'd over-estimated. Which was… it was good. It also said something about his memories of this place from last time, but it was good.
...Oh Agni he needed to bathe, he was filthy . Just a few more. He carefully picked up the next shroud-wrapped pile. Fire Nation this time, and why had Great-Grandfather left troops behind. It was disrespectful. Not that—not that he had any right to presume to know what Sozin had been thinking, he was a great man with incredible vision to lead their nation into the future—
But who did that?
"What are you doing ?" a voice that was way too young to be here asked.
Zuko startled. Hard. But he didn't drop the shroud as he spun around. "You're supposed to be on the ship!"
"You're lighting things on fire at my temple !"
"You gave me your word you'd stay—"
"How could I stay when you're up here doing something horrible—"
"—Not that I should have ever trusted the word of an air nomad, all the stories say you weren't bound by contracts like any civilized person—"
"—And the first thing you ever did was lie to me. Twice. So great, here's the third time, does it make you happy to break my trust?"
" Don't yell over me! You threatened to burn down a village and then you took me prisoner and now you're burning things at my temple, what have you ever done that I could trust!"
"I didn't break my word! "
"That doesn't count when all you're doing are horrible things! "
"I don't always do horrible things! If I did I would still be home! "
" How does that even makes sense! "
" I don't know!"
They were both panting. Again. Zuko was willing to admit it this time, because he was covered in soot and trying not to think what the soot was and apparently he was a terrible horrible person , and if there was one person in the world allowed to stand in the courtyard of an air temple and say that to his face it was definitely an airbender .
" What are you doing ?" the little monk repeated.
"...Laying their spirits to rest," Zuko said. Maybe too quietly, because for a moment it looked like the monk hadn't heard him.
Then he realized the kid just didn't understand .
And then, suddenly, he did.
"Sit down, airbender." Zuko set his own burden down as quick as he respectfully could, and then he made the little monk sit down. Wait, bad idea, not here —not when the kid understood what the half-dozen shrouds around them meant . Zuko grabbed his arm and marched him to one of the side areas, a pretty little terrace overlooking an amazing view of island and ocean and oddly moving clouds that neither of them were really seeing. Then he sat him down, on a ledge built into the wall. Two hands pressing down on the shoulders of one very small airbender who looked weird , like he was somewhere between passing out and punching Zuko or maybe calling up a tempest to tear this whole place to the ground. Zuko should… he should get Uncle, was what he he should do. But that would mean leaving the kid alone , and that seemed like the worst possible idea —
"Breath control," Zuko blurted. "Here, come on. Just… breathe with me."
So they did. For awhile. They just breathed.
"Everyone died?" the monk asked. Which was Zuko's cue to take his hands off his shoulders, to stop touching him . He leaned back against a wall nearby, instead.
"Not everyone," Zuko said. "Your people made it."
Which… wasn't the right thing to say, apparently, because the kid leaned forward and hugged his knees. "How did this happen?"
Zuko didn't know if that was a how that was a how , or a how that was a why . He answered the first. It was easier. "Sozin's comet. It, um. It comes every hundred years, and it… gives firebenders more power." He swallowed. "A lot more. It… wouldn't have really been a fight."
"They wouldn't have fought ," the airbender said. "We're pacifists ."
Pacifists backed into a corner. Which was a lot like uncle's cornered mouse proverb the other day. There had been… rooms here, rooms he was glad he and Uncle had cleared out so the kid would never see. Places the monks and their students had definitely fought back. Especially that one guy, with the necklace—the bones had been in layers around him, what kind of commander sent his men into a kill zone like that? What kind of pressure had the troops been under that they went ? Zuko didn't understand, he didn't .
"I don't understand," the airbender said.
So Zuko slid down the wall and sat next to him, and they didn't understand together. Just breathed. Uncle probably checked on him at some point, he'd been gone a long time, but he didn't see the old dragon and whatever Uncle had seen was apparently not enough to get him to rescue Zuko from sitting next to the great-grandson of the people his great-grandfather had murdered. Not murdered, killed —he couldn't think murdered, that made it sound like it was wrong , and if he thought it too much he might say it and if he said it someone might hear and then they'd tell because they always did , and he didn't need father thinking he was harboring treasonous thoughts on top of every other way he'd failed the man.
...Zuko really, really needed to go find a nice place to kick around fire for awhile. But the airbend—the prisoner's health was his responsibility, so he stayed.
"The comet comes every hundred years," the little monk said, eventually.
"It's been a hundred years."
"When will it be here?"
"The end of summer," Zuko said. "Well, the northern hemisphere's summer. Not this summer. About eight months."
Something in the kid's face tightened. "What will you do with it this time?"
Aang watched the fire prince closely. He kept expecting… fire. Especially after he asked that. But Zuko just leaned his head back against the wall, and shrugged.
"Watch. We're scheduled to be around the eastern edge of the Earth Kingdom by then."
His hands tightened over his knees. "What will your father do with it?"
Zuko didn't answer. Just… shrugged again, a little, and turned his face away.
...Aang had to stop the Fire Lord, before the comet came.
The Avatar had to stop the Fire Lord, before the comet came.
Ever wondered why the Southern Air Temple was full of bones, but the Western was clear? If the White Lotus or anyone else cared enough to lay the airbenders to rest, they'd have done it everywhere. Which implies to me that no one particularly cares. So, who do we know is a secret softy who had three years of nothing-much-to-do and a lot of carefully repressed guilt about his ancestor's actions, and who definitely visited the Western temple before the Gaang got there? I'm totally nominating Zuko for the Not As Bad of a Grave Desecrator As He Could Have Been award. Also, Zuko had to have done something besides just angst and shout disrespectfully for three years, or Uncle wouldn't have had nearly as much faith that his nephew still had a good heart.
Cheating-at-Pai-Sho!Zuko totally scheduled this air temple visit for after the south pole trip so he wouldn't be shivering in artic seas while also super depressed. Good mental self-care, Zuko. Pat-on-back. Hug your cat.
On a lighter note, I maintain that Sushi is canon. What self-respecting ship doesn't have a ship's cat? If you look very closely at the background of ship scenes in the show, you may be so fortunate as to spot the elusive mimic-catopus in its native habitat, ie, mooching off of sailors.
Trivia: Sushi was originally a chameleon-cat, and then I started writing an author's note about how I know that's not how real chameleon coloring works but a mimic-octopus-cat sounds like the start of a Lovecraftian shipboard horror. At which point my brain fizzled because why was I talking myself out of that, exactly? So. Please enjoy the newly edited eldritch horror, which can be found purring in the dark void of Zuko's room at night. Possibly while attached to the ceiling by its many many tenta-paws.
The name 'Sushi' also got about a million times more hilarious when applied to an octopus. Sorry, I meant catopus.
Chapter 3: It Starts and Ends with a Bison Crash
Americans: Happy 4th of July!
Brits: Happy Ungrateful Colonials Day!
Everyone Else: Happy New-Season-of-Stranger-Things!
Ya'll are lucky my spousal unit slept in until literal noon, or the marathon watch would have put this chapter off by a day or two.
On the subject of comment replies: I'm starting to get a lot of comments across my fics (especially Towards the Sun crowd, who have given me literal hundreds of comments on those last two chapters). Working on the assumption that most of you would prefer new chapters to comment replies, I'm no longer going to be replying to all comments. I'll still reply as time allows, but it's absolutely nothing personal if you don't get a reply—it's just a "there is literally not time in the day" issue. Please know that I read them and love them and they truly inspire me. You fuel my inner flame. <3 (For the record, AO3 comments stand a much higher chance of getting a reply, because the system over here is much more author-friendly than FF.)
Sokka kept pulling at the reins. The sky bison kept pulling the other way. They were arguing in great big circles in the sky and he was really starting to wish for a canoe, nevermind that a canoe wouldn't have been flying in the first place, unless he'd done something very wrong (or… very right?) (Man, wouldn't that be cool if someone somewhere invented a flying canoe-thing? He could just picture it now, soaring majestically and turning the direction it was told— )
"The ship! Is right there!" he shouted, in case deafness was the creature's problem. "That mountain did not take him, the ship did! Object recognition, you gigantic uncooked steak! "
The bison groaned and shook its head. Sokka held onto the reins with one hand and a horn with the other because he wasn't really sure how invested the bison was in keeping him in the air.
Katara crawled carefully out of the saddle and up next to him, and of course that's when the flying fluffball settled down. "You didn't see it, Appa, but we did; they took Aang onto that ship. Can we please go down and check? If he's not there, we can go to your mountain next."
The bison groan-muttered in a really surly way. Sokka wasn't biased in this assessment at all. But at least it started heading for the ship.
Katara smiled and thanked it and rubbed it on the spot right above its ear, spoiling it like she always had the polar bear dogs, which was exactly way no one ever let her train the polar bear dogs. Then she crawled back to the saddle, and gripped the side.
The bison turned its head and looked at her grip with a giant black eye. And looked at Sokka, not-having-a-grip.
Which gave Sokka all the warning he was going to get before it dove straight down .
The cloud came screaming down towards the deck, in a more literal manner than the crew was used to.
"Huh," Crewman Teruko said, briefly pausing at mahjong. She instinctively put a hand over her tiles as she turned to stare up, because Hawker Genji was an unabashed cheater and spirit-shenanigans had never stopped him from fleecing the rest of the crew.
"Tch," Genji said.
The cloud grew closer. Took on definition. Became something with a brown arrow on its head, and…. six legs.
"The f—" Engineer Hanako began to summarize the situation with her usual eloquence.
"Language," Lieutenant Jee snapped habitually, even though the prince wasn't thirteen anymore and the general wasn't there to quietly disapprove of them.
The six-legged furry cloud-thing hit the deck with a resounding boom , knocking over Helmsman Kyo and his lost-the-last-game mop bucket, and sending exactly zero player tiles skittering across the game table. Everyone had covered theirs.
"You guys have terrible priorities," Genji groused.
"I'm going to be sick," the sky-beast moaned, from the top of its head.
"Not on the deck, please?" Kyo gripped his mop like a spear. A spear held by a guy who was a Helmsman, not a Pikeman.
The beast whuffed. And then two Water Tribe children jumped down off of it, shouting.
"Give us back the Avatar!" the girl said.
"Or else," the boy said, with shakier enthusiasm. And stance. And a general greenish tinge to his dark skin.
Kyo offered him the empty mop bucket. The tribesman glared at him, raising some kind of animal-bone club. The Helmsman cringed back, and—
Teruko caught movement out of the corner of her eye. The new guy had an actual spear. And a look in his eyes like he didn't realize they were dealing with literal children . She made a grab for him, knocking over her chair and closing one hand around his waist and one hand on the haft of his spear in case he got any bright ideas about throwing the thing, which… made for two hands. That were not defending her tiles.
" Yes ," Genji said.
"You better have a very good excuse for denting our ship, Water Tribe," Teruko growled.
"Give us," the girl said again, taking a step forward like that was supposed to be menacing. "The Avatar."
"He ran," Lieutenant Jee said. He pointed a thumb back over his shoulder, towards the forest they'd made a token effort to search after lunch, and the suckers who had drawn short straws were still searching. "That way. Knock yourselves out."
"...You sure you don't want the bucket?" Kyo asked.
" No, I don't want the— You are all being suspiciously helpful ," the boy said. "And where is your shouting teenage anger problem?"
"He went that way, too," Kyo helpfully replied.
"...Why does that make an alarming amount of sense." The boy kept his club raised, darting suspicious gazes all around. The crew had weapons at hand, or bending at breath, but… in three years of Avatar-hunting, they had dealt with a lot weirder than two kids and a huge-but-tangible-(and-presumably-burnable) flying-bison-thing.
Except for the new guy. The new guy was hyperventilating under her arm. So that was great.
"Could you move?" Kyo said, motioning to the deck under their feet with his mop. "I need to, ah..."
"Oh sure, sure," the boy stepped back. "Sorry. ...WHY ARE YOU NOT BEING EVIL?"
"Uh… I'm not currently under orders to be evil. Am I, sir?"
Lieutenant Jee sighed one of his do I really have to answer these questions sighs. "No, Helmsman. You are not."
"Right. Just moping, no evil. And you're really young, so it's not like I'm actually feeling threatened right now. What are you, thirteen?"
" Fifteen. "
"Fourteen!" the girl said, like she was feeling a little ignored. Some of the mop water on the deck jumped, which… Teruko noted, in the corner of her brain that also noticed the girl's stance was terrible , and that the Southern Raiders had apparently missed one (though not the people who could have taught her).
"Wow, that's great. You're so grown up." Kyo smiled like a guy who was both cripplingly sincere and completely crap at dealing with children. "But I'm still pretty sure I could take you with this mop."
"I'm a warrior!"
"That's nice. I'm a helmsman. Oh, ah. Sorry about running into your village. I tried to aim for the sturdier-looking ice, but not too sturdy because I like not destroying the bow of my ship while in enemy waters. Not that you were really enemies, I mean your village was so small and I felt really bad about it—"
"Wait. Wait wait. That was you ?" the boy was re-brandishing his club.
Kyo looked more puzzled than concerned. "Yeah. Uh, I'm a helmsman? I said that, right?"
"Why ? " the girl demanded.
"Orders," Kyo shrugged.
"You… you ." the boy said, gesturing with his weapon alarmingly close to Kyo's head. (In Teruko's arms, the new guy bucked.) "You… weren't kidding about the evil-orders. How… What…"
Behind them, the flying beast was sniffing at the air. It turned and stared in the direction the airbender had gone, towards the temple mountain. It crouched down, hunkering on its unnecessarily many legs like a whole flock of albatross-roos about to take off.
"Sokka—!" the girl said, scrambling to get back up to the saddle.
"Clubs beat mops!" the boy shouted, and scurried after her.
"They're not really directly comparable weapons, but sure. Nice meeting you!"
The flying beast took off. The deck made a sad straining noise and popped back up, leaving only a small crease where the bison-dent had been.
"...Did you just awkward them off the ship, Kyo?" Teruko asked.
"It's a talent," The Helmsman shrugged modestly. And… flushed. "Umm. Do you want me to help with Kazuto? I could, uh. Bring him to the infirmary. Or to bed."
Teruko shook the new guy, just a little. His breathing had gotten a whole lot better once the blue-clad kids had left his sight. "Hey. You okay?"
"Was that… normal?" Pikeman Kazuto asked. It was questions like that that cemented his 'new guy' status, even though he'd been with them for four months now.
"Eh," Teruko said. "Better than spirits. Can't stab those. Come on, you look like you need some of Cook's spiced cocoa."
"I could take him there," the Helmsman offered. "Really. Wouldn't want to interrupt your game."
"Yeah," Genji said. "Wouldn't want to interrupt our game."
Teruko eyed the Hawker, and her undefended tiles that might or might not be the same ones she'd had when she stood up. Then she steered the new guy towards the stairs. "...I've got this."
Kyo watched them go, sagging over his mop.
"So," Engineer Hanako said. "You and the new guy…?"
"Shut up," he sighed. "...And now I have to scrub giant footprints off the deck. It flies, how does it have dirt on its feet?" He returned to his mopping, with significantly more muttering.
"We could have told them he's not the Avatar," Genji said.
"I could have done a lot of things with my life," Lieutenant Jee said.
Which was altogether too real, and needed to be cleansed with a new game.
Uncle had finished with the last of the shrouded forms by the time they came down. The urns were lined up in two distinct groups that needed no explanation. They'd inked names onto the ones they could identify, mostly the soldiers—it wasn't uncommon for them to have been carrying a letter from home, or to have scratched their name in the back of their armor. For the rest of them… they'd have to cross-reference with the records of troop deployment, if they could get their hands on them. They obeyed their Fire Lord's orders and died for it: they deserved to return to their ancestral shrines. The Air Nomads… he didn't know. If they could get into the inner sanctuary this time, maybe they could leave them there.
Or... he could ask.
"Airbender. Um, Aang. What should we… do with the…" He was terrible at asking. "The only scrolls I've found about Air Nomad burial customs weren't written by actual Air Nomads, and they were… probably not right." Seriously, who hacked up their loved one's bodies and tossed the parts to vulture-coyotes? 'Sky burials' sounded like something Sozin's propagandists had come up with to emphasize how abnormal airbenders were, and how little respect they paid to any life, including their own venerable ancestors—
"...Do you have any bison milk? Or flour?"
Zuko preemptively glowered down at the little monk. If this was a joke … But the kid wasn't looking back at him, and he definitely wasn't smiling. He was staring down at the urns of his own people, his arms wrapped around himself, and just… not passing out. Which was an achievement Zuko was willing to acknowledge.
"Why?" he asked.
"We don't cremate. But. But if they were up here for a hundred years than the vulture-coyotes already—" The boy continued not to pass out. Zuko continued to be impressed. "I guess what you did counts as breaking down the bones. So… we need to mix them with something, so the crow-hawks can have their share. Then they'll go back to the sky."
...Or maybe Zuko's scrolls had been completely accurate, and the Air Nomad disrespect for the dead was just one of those backwards cultural things he was going to have to deal with. Like the Earth Kingdom burying people in sunless, airless holes for worm-roaches to eat and leaving them there, taking up great tracks of land with rotting corpses (and if that wasn't a sign they had more land than they needed, Zuko didn't know what was). And the Water Tribes sinking their dead into the dark-cold of the ocean to bloat. They lived on the sea, how did they not know what decomposition did to water-logged bodies?
"We don't have bison milk, or flour. Just naval rations. I'm not sure the crow-hawks would want them," especially not full of corpse-ash , "but we could try."
He tried to keep the disgust off his face.
Aang tried to keep the disgust off his face. Zuko and his uncle had meant well, that had to count for something, but if he thought too hard about how they'd taken people murdered by the Fire Nation, people he knew, people he couldn't even picture right now because they were just piles of ash stoppered up in confining airless pots after their bodies had been burned to ash, he was going to throw up.
"There's… there's another way. At the Northern Temple they scatter the bone-dust to the winds."
"Right. Okay." Zuko's shoulders slumped, like he was relieved. "Let's do that."
So… they did. The prince was really efficient when he got moving. He had the urns tucked into an empty wooden case before Aang could even really help, and why had he had a case in the first place and why did it fit the urns so perfectly—
That question. Kind of answered itself, didn't it?
"There's a good spot this way," the prince said. "Or. I think it's good. Just… tell me if you see a better one, okay?"
It was the same spot Aang would have picked. Up five stair cases, and over to the far side of the temple, where a balcony overhung the cliff and the winds were strong and below them was a river of clouds. He'd flown here a lot, the air currents were the best , all bumpy-chaotic but actually really gentle, so even the smallest kids couldn't really get in trouble. Unless they flew into the side of the cliff like Gansho had that one time, oh man that had been really scary-funny —
The prince was unpacking the urns, and laying them out at the balcony's edge.
Aang had flown here a lot. So had everyone.
"Are you… going to do this with me?" he asked.
The prince startled, looking up at him with wide gold eyes, like a half-grown fox-leopard. "Oh. I could… Go."
He'd set each urn in a careful line. Many of them had trinkets looped around them: bracelets or necklaces, each distinctive, worn by time and weather in a way they hadn't been when Aang had seen them last. Zuko and his uncle had tried to make each urn identifiable, without ever knowing their names, or how they sounded when they laughed, or anything except where and how they died. Which was the only thing Aang didn't know about them. Between him and Zuko, they knew everything. Beginning to end.
"You can stay. If you want. You came all this way to help; I don't think they'd mind." And Aang didn't want to be alone.
The prince nodded, sort of jerkily. And swallowed. And stayed. He stayed kneeling, handing each jar up to Aang, and Aang… let them go. The winds took the ash up. The clouds down below took the urns, and the trinkets, and kept flowing on.
"Are you doing that?" the prince asked, his eyes following the ashes as they hung in the air, swirling and mixing, making patterns that were almost pictures before breaking apart again, little black drifts on a background of white and blue.
"No," Aang said. "It's important that it's natural. That way they get where they're meant to go, not where someone wants them to be."
Zuko handed him the last urn. A necklace was wrapped around it; faded red tassles on either side of a broad wooden pendant carved with air symbols. He hadn't seen it in days. In a hundred years.
...It really had been a hundred years.
He squeezed his eyes shut, and remembered Monk Gyatso's smile and how he raised just one eyebrow instead of talking sometimes, and… and lots of things that he'd thought he'd get to see again, and he never would, and it felt like if he could just go back he could make it right, never leave, fix it all or stay with them when it happened so he wouldn't have to stand here alone and, and…
(He wasn't alone.)
The monks taught that people and pain were both impermanent. The people were gone, and the pain would be too. Someday. It was okay to hurt. The monks taught that, too. That it was natural to feel for as long as he needed to. There was no shame in feeling, and there would be no shame when one day he would realize the feeling was lighter and he was living without them and living without hurting, that he'd let them go.
He opened the last urn. The wind swirled down to take Gyatso away, brushing against Aang's hands like it had spent a hundred years waiting for him to come home.
If the monk was crying, Zuko didn't see it. That was how things worked in the Fire Nation: no one cried. And a lot of people didn't see.
He thought of the urns back at home; Lu Ten and Grandfather and Great-Grandfather and all the others, sitting in neat rows in the family shrine. A part of him didn't understand what the little monk was doing at all; who would want to be cast aside, to never go home , even in death?
(And a small part of him watched the ashes swirling unfettered in the wind, and understood perfectly.)
(That was the part of himself that needed to shut up , if he ever wanted father to forgive him.)
"Why were they still here?" the airbender asked. "Why didn't anyone… Even if they got it wrong , if they burned them or buried them, why didn't anyone do anything?"
"People don't care," Zuko said. It was one of those truths of the world that it didn't hurt to learn early.
Zuko was still kneeling on the balcony, next to the empty box. The monk was looking down at him with some kind of weird expression on his face, something Zuko couldn't even start to understand. The kid was still holding the last urn, his fingers curled in the beads of the necklace wrapped around it. And he completely didn't care that he was crying, so Zuko had to turn away to give them both a little dignity.
"I don't care," he said. "About anything. Except finding the Avatar."
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the little monk let the urn fall. But he kept holding on to the necklace. And kept holding on. At least he finally scrubbed his eyes with a sleeve, so Zuko could look back.
"You could keep it." he nodded to the necklace. "If you want. They're your people; you have the right."
The kid fidgeted with the beads. They were thick and wooden, and still had traces of bright paint that the rain hadn't completely stolen away. "We're not supposed to keep things after people die. It's… too permanent."
"He's already waited a hundred years. Just throw it away when you're ready." Zuko shrugged, and something in his words set the kid off again . He had no dignity; none. Zuko jerked his gaze away. "Besides, maybe he'd like to see the world. That's… what we do, on my ship. Unless you want to tell me where to bring you home…?"
The kid sniffle-laughed. "You're really bad at interrogations. I bet when you find the actual Avatar, he'll just say 'I'm totally not the Avatar' and you'll believe him."
"Shut up, airbender."
When he looked back, the kid was wearing the necklace. And smiling, just a little. "There's something I want to show you." He held out a hand. Zuko stared at it. "You're supposed to take it. So I can help you stand up."
"...I can stand on my own."
"That is not the point," the airbender said, and kept holding out his hand. So Zuko… took it.
He regretted his life choices immediately, as the airbender literally dragged him through corridors and down stairs, aided by just enough wind to propel himself forward and keep Zuko stumbling after.
They stopped in a small courtyard, in front of a statue wearing the same necklace the kid wore now. Must be a popular design.
"This is Monk Gyatso," the kid said. "He was… um, they told a lot of stories about him. About how he was super nice and funny and he cheated a pai sho all the time , and—"
Zuko stood there, a little dazed, wondering if he should take notes on airbender culture.
"Why did a monk get a statue?" he asked, in one of the rare lulls as the kid caught his breath. "Isn't that the opposite of impermanence?"
The airbender grinned. "That's another funny story. See, Gyatso traveled a lot, and helped all kinds of people. One time he helped carry medicine all the way down from the Northern Water Tribe to the southern Fire Nation—"
Zuko jolted. Because… the Water Tribes? Helping the Fire Nation? With Air Nomad assistance? This Gyatso had probably been dead for centuries .
"—and they were so grateful that they commissioned an Earth Kingdom artist to make a statue! But they wanted it to be a surprise so they didn't tell anyone, and suddenly this ship docks in the harbor and a team of komodo-rhinos drags a huge box up the mountain, and bam, they just set it down in the middle of the courtyard, this giant granite statue, all super proud . But the monks were like '...That is the guadiest thing ever, we're going to push that off the cliffside as soon as they're gone,' and they did , but they didn't wait long enough and the people in the harbor spotted them doing it. So they came back up and asked why they did that, and the monks said 'We didn't. It was a stray breeze. But if we did , it would be because we don't keep permanent images of people.' And all the Fire Nation villagers huddled together, and then one of them looked right at the monks and said, 'Define permanent.' And the monks said 'If you have to ask, it's permanent', which is kind of how they started a lot of their sentences, I mean, the monks I know do. I don't actually know if these ones did because it's not like I was there or anything. But anyway, Gyatso and his student were watching all this and laughing really hard. And three months later the villagers came back and dragged up another box , and inside was a wooden statue. 'Look, it's impermanent,' they said. 'The only way it'll become permanent is if a stray breeze pushes it off the cliffside. Then we'll have to keep replacing it. Over. And over. And over—"
Zuko made token efforts to free his hand throughout this speech, but the kid kept snatching it back and excitedly gesturing with it.
"He almost looks like he's smiling," he said. "...Did monks smile?"
The airbender grinned up at him. "Only when they're throwing pies at other monks."
"I'll show you some time," the kid promised, somehow managing to smile wider.
"It would be my honor."
Zuko flinched at the h-word, and looked away. Not before he saw the little monk's smile turn to confusion.
"You should go back to the ship." He finally managed to tug his fingers free. "We'll be up here for a few more days."
"Looking for the Avatar?"
He didn't know why, but that made the kid smirk . Zuko might have given it more thought, but a noise caught his attention. A really distinctive cutting whistle, one he'd heard before, but which… didn't make sense here. He turned towards the noise, trying to spot what had to be some weird bird or frog or lemur, because it couldn't be a boomer—
Aang winced in reflexive sympathy, and just as reflexively caught the fire prince as he slumped.
"Aang!" Katara shouted, and she was here and running forwards and here and smiling and she looked like she wanted to hug him and seemed really confused when he didn't drop Zuko to immediately enter her arms. Actually, he was a little confused by that too.
"Aang, step away from the ashmaker."
...And she'd brought her older brother, too. Great.
Zuko groaned, his head lolling against Aang's shoulder. Aang eased him down to the ground.
"How hard did you hit him, Sokka?" he asked.
"Uh, hard enough?" The tribesman caught his boomerang as it came whistling back around. "Come on, let's go , your bison is—"
Appa lumbered into the courtyard.
"—Is really bad at following simple commands. I told you to stay . Your head is the size of a polar-bear dog, how do you not understand stay ?"
Appa walked past the teen, looking like he wanted to lick Aang and then get some quality cuddles. He seemed just as confused as Katara when Aang didn't come running to him, either.
"We're rescuing you," Sokka said slowly, like he suddenly realized this might need explaining. "This. Is a rescue. Which means we should leave Mister Creepy Bad Man on the ground now, and fly off on your magical bison, and go on some kind of Avatar adventure—"
"...Avatar?" Zuko's eyes fluttered open at the word because of course they did. And wow, he could go from unconscious to jumping up with fire on his fists really fast .
"Wait, no, stop!" Aang wrapped his ams around Zuko, kind of side-tackle-hugging him, and now the fire prince looked just as confused as Katara and Appa. But only about half as confused as Sokka, who had the best how-is-this-my-life face.
"...Why are you touching me?" The fire prince still looked really dazed . And there was a definite bruise starting on the super pale skin of his forehead, right where it would be hidden if he believed in hair.
"I would also like to know the answer to that question," Sokka seconded.
Aang shuffled his feet somewhat awkwardly, looking at them around the side of the prince. "Sokka, Katara. This is Prince Zuko. He's… not as big of a jerk as he could be?"
"You are still touching me," the prince pointed out. He didn't seem to know what to do with this information.
"Prince Zuko, this is Katara and Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe, and Appa of the South-Western Air Bisons."
Appa whuffed in the prince's face. The prince didn't know what to do with that, either.
"Okay then," Sokka said. "Introductions complete. We'll just be leaving, then. With our Avatar."
"He's not the Avatar," Zuko scoffed. He also kind of shook his arms out a little, like he was testing whether that would get Aang off him. But honestly, Aang was starting to think anyone this baffled at getting hugged probably needed more hugs, and hugs seemed to be natural flame retardants, so he… kept holding on.
"I'm really not," Aang grinned. And gave the prince an extra huggy squeeze, which made him go super stiff like he'd just been wrapped up by a mongoose-constrictor instead of a twelve-year-old (or like he would have preferred the mongoose-constrictor.)
"Wait, what? So we just left our homes and continental ice sheet and swam and/or flew for days to rescue some random non-Avatar kid?"
" Sokka . We are rescuing Aang , whether he's the Avatar or not. ...You're not?" She sounded a little heartbroken.
Aang wanted to say definitely not and wink, but he also wanted to not have Zuko catch him doing that. "I kind of panicked when Prince Zuko was lighting your village on fire—"
"I did not light their village on fire!"
"—and he really wanted an Avatar, so… I figured I'd just go along with it?"
"Wait," Sokka turned to Zuko. "So you kidnapped a random child? I mean, not that kidnapping a random Avatar-child would be any better, but… seriously? That's low, even for the Fire Nation."
"Shut up, peasant," the prince ground out. His hands started to spark, but then he glanced at Aang still clinging to him, let out a breath, and shook them out. "Airbender. Let go. "
Yeahnope. Aang was just going to keep hugging him.
"Well, the rescue is still valid," Sokka said. "So just… let go of the not-as-big-a-jerk-as-he-could-be, and let's go. Even if you are a big fat liar and not the world's last hope, and I don't even know how I'm going to start explaining that to Gran-Gran when we get back..."
"He didn't actually lie to us," Katara pointed out. "Just to, umm..."
"Zuko," Zuko said. "It's two syllables. How can you not remember two syllables?"
"Oh really," Sokka said, "do you remember my two syllables?"
"Peasant," Zuko said, with kind of a hilarious smirk and Aang had to admit that was a good one, but also he had to drag Zuko back a few steps because Sokka looked ready to use his boomerang again and wow , that metal was a lot sharper close up, and if Zuko would stop baring his teeth and trying to struggle towards it Aang could definitely help him not get hit again —
"...Right," Katara said. "He lied to Zuko, but—"
" Prince Zuko."
"That's three syllables!" Sokka protested, and was ignored by all.
"—he told us he only knew people who knew the Avatar."
Okay Aang was letting go of the fire prince now. Also, patting smoke off his sleeves. Also… cowering a little?
"Where is he?" Zuko loomed over him, with his super-scary-face back on, the one he hadn't used for days. "How old is he? How many elements has he mastered?"
In front of you, twelve, one. "He died!" Aang blurted. "Before I was born. So. I knew people who knew him, but… I never met him?"
Zuko narrowed his eyes. And loomed some more. And then… kind of deflated, and pinched the bridge of his nose. "So the Avatar is Water Tribe now. Great. That's… great. When did he die?"
"Umm." Any date he could give would result in Zuko harassing a whole age-group of people. "We… don't really keep track of that? Because defining a person's life by numbers would, uh, make it harder for their spirit to find freedom within the transient nature of reality, and… stuff."
"And stuff," the prince squeezed his eyes shut. And pinched his nose harder .
"So all I know is that some of the older monks knew him, and that he is definitely dead now. And not an airbender." Aang nodded in complete agreement with himself. Zuko didn't see it, but he thought it really added something to his voice.
Zuko cracked an eye. His good one. "...Is this a ploy so I don't track down your people?"
Aang didn't even have to fake his I hadn't even thought of that expression. Because his people were… already tracked down.
...He didn't have to fake turning pale, either. So. Great.
The fire prince sighed like a person who'd spent three years practicing frustrated sighs, and dropped his hand, and glared at each of them in turn (including Appa. Who snorted back, because Appa was twenty times his size and Not Impressed.)
"If the Avatar is Water Tribe now, this place is useless. I'm… going back to the ship. You'd better meet me there, airbender. Remember, you're my prisoner." He turned, and started stomping away. His stomping wasn't nearly as impressive on stone as it was back on the steel ship, Aang noticed.
"Huh," Sokka said. "So… we're escaping now, right?"
" Sssh ," Katara said.
The prince's shoulders tensed, and he missed a step, but he kept walking.
The little monk was probably lying. Almost certainly lying. Everything out of his mouth was a lie. And if the Air Nomad Avatar was still alive, then Aang's enclave was Zuko's best lead. It was probably where he was . But.
He didn't have the men to storm a whole Air Nomad settlement. And he couldn't ask father, father expected him to do this alone —
(If father believed him, he'd send an army. They'd burn everything, and it would be another hundred years until anyone cared enough to lay the bodies to rest.)
A Water Tribe Avatar was… was good news. They might even be young enough that they only knew their own element; young enough he stood a chance against them. When he found them, which he would, because this was new information, a new lead, he could work with this, he didn't need to track the little monk's enclave down or put it on any Fire Nation maps (and if the kid had lied to him, he could come back to the southern seas later. There weren't that many islands here, and Zuko had a surplus of free time.)
In other words: he knew the monk was going to run away on him. He would take his friends and his sweet-spirits-that-was- actually-a-flying-bison , and if they were both lucky, Zuko wouldn't ever see him again. That was good. One less mouth to feed on his ship, one less annoying kid who came up and tried to talk to him like that was a thing people did (not to mention that Zuko had been touched more in the past hour than in the past three years, and it tingled ).
The kid would have run away at the first port anyway, because clearly Zuko's crew couldn't be expected to watch him. It was better that he left with people he trusted.
Hopefully they had better survival instincts.
"...No," Sokka said. "That is a terrible idea. A terrible idea that makes me very concerned for your survival instincts, and why do you keep looking over the railing, I am trying to explain to you why staying with the guy who kidnapped you is a terrible horrible idea ."
"I'm just making sure Zuko's really gone. He has freaky -good hearing. One time he tripped while training and I laughed at him from all the way across the ship, I had my hand over my mouth and everything, and he turned around and looked right at me. "
"Aang," Katara said, "why do you want to go with him?"
Aang gestured them both closer. No, closer. Yes, Appa too, everyone join the huddle. "Because I'm the Avatar."
"Umm," Sokka stated the general Water Tribe opinion on this matter.
"When we first met, I lied to you. I didn't know the Avatar, I am the Avatar, but I was afraid to say so because I don't want to be, but I have to be now, I'll explain later but basically there's a comet of doom coming—"
"There's what ."
"It's okay, we don't have to worry about it for eight months. So anyway, when we were on Zuko's ship I realized he didn't know if I was the Avatar for sure so I lied and said I wasn't and he believed me. It's perfect!"
Sokka and Katara exchanged looks. Appa whuffed. Aang bounced in place, waiting for them all to catch up with his brilliance.
"...What's perfect?" Katara asked, kind of smiling like sometimes the monks did when a super young boy ran up talking too fast for anyone to understand. Or maybe that was just how they looked when he talked.
Aang took in a breath and let it out slow, which is what Gyatso always told him to do. He touched the necklace, for luck. Okay. Try two. "He's looking for the Avatar. I'm the Avatar. But he doesn't think I'm the Avatar."
Katara nodded encouragingly, and with a complete lack of comprehension.
"So he's going to be traveling the world, probably meeting all sorts of benders. Who I need to meet, because I'm the Avatar, and I have to learn somehow."
Katara's face was doing a thing that the monks' sometimes did, when they really hoped Aang's story wasn't going where they thought it was going.
"So I could either fly around on Appa being super obvious about finding teachers. Or."
Sokka's face clicked from total incomprehension to world-shattering excitement . "Or you could hitch a ride with the prince of the Fire Nation, learning behind his back, making him a complete sucker!"
"This… isn't a good idea," Katara said
"It's brilliant!" her brother said. " Completely suicidal , but brilliant!"
"If he finds out, you're going to be in a lot of danger," Katara said.
"He's really good at not seeing the obvious," Aang said. "I think he practices. Also... he's really not that bad. He shouts a lot, but most of what he sets on fire is himself."
This didn't seem to relieve Katara of her concerns.
"I wish you the best of luck," Sokka said. "Hey, can we borrow your bison to get back home? We're kind of stranded here."
"We can't let you do this alone," Katara said.
"Uh," Sokka said.
"What?" Aang blinked.
"We're coming with you. That's what friends do, Aang." She was smiling at him, and it was like the sun breaking free from clouds and birds singing and the first time he flew.
And sure she'd said 'friend', but she'd be coming with him, so he could work on that!
"Seriously," her brother said. "This is a terrible idea. Genius, but terrible."
"Do you want to borrow Appa to go home?" Aang offered, sweetly.
Katara's brother opened his mouth. Then closed it. Then gave Aang a very suspicious look . "Nope. I think I'll be coming along. You know, to supervise ."
Aang could work on that, too.
The bison crashed onto the deck about five minutes after Zuko got back. Had they been waiting ? And if they had, why hadn't they offered him a ride ? Not that he'd needed one, but it was an actual flying bison and Uncle was getting too old to be climbing up and down cliffsides.
"Nephew," Uncle said, "you are underestimating me with your eyeballs again."
"I am not! And there are more important things to focus on, Uncle!" He gestured with both hands to the bison. The bison that had crashed on the deck, with a surplus of children on board. And why was Helmsman Kyo waving at them ? "Stop that!"
The Helmsman eeped , and retreated a few steps.
Two children in blue and one in yellow slid onto his deck. Zuko stomped over to them—Agni, he'd missed having steel under him, it was so satisfying to stomp—and glared.
"Thank you for delivering my prisoner, Water Tribe. You may go now." He was completely confused as to why they would , he'd given them ample time to escape, but… he also had no idea why else they'd be here.
"Well, that's that," the boy said. "He turned us down, no way to change his mind—"
" Sokka ," the girl said, crossing her arms.
"Great news!" the little monk said. Which… filled Zuko with the immediate desire to clap a hand over the kid's mouth before he could say anything else . He didn't. This proved to be a mistake. "Katara and Sokka are coming with us! Also Appa."
The bison padded around in a deck-denting circle, then fwumphed down in the sun like a bear-dog.
"No. They're not," Zuko said. "...Maybe the bison." It was an actual flying bison.
"Oh," the monk said, twiddling his thumbs and ducking his head. "Well, that's too bad. I mean, they would have been really helpful on your Avatar quest…"
Zuko had been tricked enough in his life to know when he was about to fall for something again. It was just a feeling he had, a sinking in his stomach. It didn't help that the monk was ducking his head to hide a grin . "...Explain."
"The Avatar is Water Tribe, right? So you'll need to know about Water Tribe culture. And Katara is a waterbender, so you could train with her. To prepare for when you fight the Avatar. And their Gran-Gran is super old , I bet she told them all kinds of spirit stories."
"This is true," Sokka confirmed. "But we've definitely forgotten all of them, so no hard feelings if you turn us down."
Zuko scowled at the peasant. And the airbender. The waterbender scowled at him . The bison remained indifferent.
"Plus, if you're going to look for the Avatar in the Water Tribes, wouldn't it be helpful to have actual Water Tribe members to guide you? They could help you get in, and vouch for you so you don't have to threaten any more villages."
"Aang, we can't vouch for him," the waterbender said. "He assaulted Gran-Gran."
"See? The Water Tribes are fiercely protective. So once you earn their trust, they'll be perfect allies!"
The peasants looked extremely skeptical. Zuko shared the expression. "Even if I agreed, the waterbender is the only one of use. What does the other one have to offer?"
The airbender shrugged. "He's part of the package?"
"I am not 'the other one'!" the peasant protested. "I've taken you out twice with boomerang!"
Boomerang was going to disappear into the ocean if the teen kept waving it around.
"Come on, Zuko," the monk wheedled. "How else are you going to catch the Avatar? Err, I mean, 'Come on, Commander Prince Zuko Sir, how else—'"
"You can't just keep repeating 'Avatar' and expect me to care," Zuko snapped.
The monk gave up his hesitant act, and grinned . "Avatar Avatar Avatar—"
It should not have been a convincing argument.
"Fine!" Zuko threw up his hands. "But you're helping me train, and you're telling me everything you know . Both of you. Other One, you're on bison clean up detail."
The bison cracked an eye. And stood. And demonstrated on the deck, as if he'd been waiting for days to prove a point to the annoying boy who'd jerked at his reins one too many times, and hadn't even believed he could fly.
Helmsman Kyo handed the peasant a bucket and a mop.
"Normally he flies off to do that," the airbender said, sounding a little puzzled. "Oh well. Once you're done cleaning, I'll show you to our cells!"
"Our what ?"
Chapter 4: They Didn't Know What They'd Expected. But.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
There were sounds on this ship. Sounds Sokka would never, ever get used to. Metallic creaks and groans, pinprick scrapes like claws over pipes, steady wet noises like something sucking and unsucking, hissing that could come from pipes or something far, far more sinister.
"For the last time, Sokka. Go. To. Bed," his innocent little sister said, dragging a pillow over her own head. There were a lot of pillows in this hallway. Also blankets. They'd dragged all four of the mattresses out of the cells and raided the closet the crew had shown them down the hall. It was quite the comfortable snowfort, except made out of pillows and blankets. Like some kind of pillowfort. It was enough raw comfiness to almost, almost lure Sokka into a sense of complacency.
"Are you still awake?" Aang whispered, hours or days or minutes or seconds later, blinking blearily up at him in darkness lit only by the moon through the corridor's porthole. "You don't need to keep watch. There's soldiers on deck doing that already."
"That is not reassuring, Aang," Sokka pointed out, but the world's savior had already nodded off to sleep again.
The moon rose above the porthole's circle, then sank back down. It glinted dully off the unnatural metal all around them, casting back the light in a way no proper ship would. Metal wasn't even meant to float: even in this, the Fire Nation found a way to corrupt nature. Making their fleet out of material that would rust in the water they spitefully launched it in, material that would be frigid in the cold of the seas they invaded and scorching in the volcanic heat of their own homeland. Nothing like the natural insulator of wood that was-once-alive and still had its soul, if carved by a Tribesman that knew what he was doing. These ships were dead from the start; red ore ripped from the flesh of the earth and beaten under fire to become this unnatural thing of steel and rivets and noise.
The moonlight glinted. The moonlight glinted off of eyes .
The darkness above him writhed, and dropped.
Zuko reached the prison hold first, which was not a sign of his insomnia shut up inner voice of Uncle. He didn't know what he expected—blood? Yeah. With that much screaming there should be a lot of blood.
He did not expect to find the airbender cooing .
"Kitty! Oh my gosh it's turning as red as your face—"
"IT IS CUTTING OFF MY AIRWAY AANG."
"Because you're scaring it! Look, its tentapaws constrict when you struggle! Just—"
"If it was cutting off your airway you wouldn't be so loud ," the waterbender mumbled, pressing a pillow down over her face. "You have been waking us up all night for every little thing —"
The guards on duty caught up behind him. They, like Zuko, took a moment to look around for something threatening.
"...I was expecting more blood," Assistant-to-the-Doctor-and-Occasional-Pikewoman Satomi muttered, relaxing the grip on her spear. Next to her, their newest crewman very distinctly did not relax. Or take his eyes off the kids down the hall for more than brief moments as he kept looking for a threat that was clearly not here. "Kazuto, bank your fire. It's literally just the cat."
"Back to your stations," Zuko ordered. And pinched the bridge of his nose. He took in a deep breath, as Satomi dragged the new guy back up the stairs.
"Don't hit it, Sokka!" the monk shouted.
Snap . It wasn't an audible noise. More of a mental one.
"You hit that cat again and you're hitting the water , Other One!" He stomped over, which was loud and satisfying right up until he was stomping on pillows. Where had they gotten so many more—?
Ugh, he needed to have another talk with the quartermaster. Or maybe he could just give up, and declare this the linen closet. Let the crew fight with feral peasants everytime they wanted new sheets.
"Come on, Sushi. It's okay, get off the stupid savage's face, you don't know where he's been," Zuko rubbed behind her ears, and tickled under her suckers, and soon had an armful of shivering cat-tentacles clinging to his wrist and mewing for comfort. He kept petting her, and glared down at the also-shivering Water Tribesman. "What is your problem ?"
"Tentacle monstrosity. Eyes on the ceiling and dropping, dropping down, iä, iä, catopus fhtagn—"
"Uggh," the sister said, dragging another pillow over. "This is like the time you thought the otter-penguins were surrounding you."
The tribesman shook himself out of his gibbering long enough to be indignant. "They were!"
"Because you were carrying fish , Sokka."
"Because of the smell of fresh death carried by one still living , Katara."
" Go to sleep ."
Meanwhile, the monk was scooting into Zuko's personal space. "Can I pet it?"
" Her ," Zuko snapped. "And your friend just scared her. Does she look like she wants to be petted?"
"Uh, yes? I mean, you're petting her right now —"
Zuko glared at the monk, and pointedly stopped petting the catopus. Sushi snagged his retreating hand with one tentapaw and dragged it back to that spot under her chin she really liked, the one right below her teeth-beak. Zuko continued glaring, but also resumed the petting. It wasn't her fault.
"Come on, airbender. We're going to train."
" What? The sun isn't even up!"
"Yeah, but we are. Thanks, Other One." Nevermind that Zuko had already been awake. Trying to go back to sleep was even more pointless this close to sunrise, so now that his maybe-prisoners were up he might as well do something more productive than searching for pictures in his ceiling's soot spots. "You too, Waterbender."
" Ugh ," she said. " Thanks, Other One."
"I am the victim here!"
She dragged her still-protesting brother out of bed with her, which saved Zuko the effort. He gave her a quick approving nod. She gave him a bleary-eyed glare. Zuko turned his head away, and kept petting the purring catopus who had tentacle-manacled both his wrists. That was just a thing cats did; he didn't know why the peasant boy got an eye twitch just looking at it.
They dropped Other One off to work in the kitchen. Assistant Cook Dekku took one appraising look at him, and set him to watching the rice. Which was about as far as he could be put from actual responsibility, and from anything sharper than a wooden spoon.
"I'm not helping to feed the Fire Nation!"
"Guess you're not eating, then," Dekku deadpanned, reaching for the teen's spoon.
"...I retract my earlier complaint. But can't I do something more manly? This is women's work!" the teen protested. Once.
Dekku and the other male kitchen workers were not amused. Neither were any of the off-duty female marines.
The waterbender looked on with a vindicated expression as her brother was forced into an apron. Zuko supposed that was an appropriate reaction to finding herself among civilized people.
"Is this your first time outside your village?" the Fire Prince asked her. Katara wasn't sure what surprised her more: that he'd asked something without scowling at her, or that he was keeping a completely straight face with that furry tentacle thing still purring around his hands.
"Yes," she answered.
"Thought so," he said, shaking one of his wrists free, with the disturbing sound of suckers un-sucking.
"What does that mean?" She narrowed her eyes. And crossed her arms, for good measure.
He blinked down at her. Stupid tall prince. Stupid tall morning person prince. "Uh. Nothing? It just shows."
"Does it." She started tapping a finger on her arm.
"Are you sure I can't pet her?" Aang asked.
The prince looked relieved at the excuse to turn away from her. " No . We're training. Go do your warmups, or something. I'm starting with the waterbender."
"Wait, so I could have slept in?"
Katara joined her glare with the prince's. Aang's shoulders jumped to his ears. He held up both hands, and retreated to the railing.
That left them alone in the center of the deck. Just her, and the Prince of the Fire Nation.
He was frowning down at her. That seemed to be his default expression: both the frowning, and the looking down on people. "Do you need a barrel of water, or can you call from the ocean if you need more than what's in your waterskin?"
"I..." Now would be the time to tell him she didn't know. Because she'd never sparred before, with waterskin or barrel or ocean. Or ever.
"Well?" he snapped.
"This is fine," she snapped back. He was just one bender, and he was barely older than her, and they were surrounded by water . She'd cracked a whole iceberg open on accident; she could take one scowly enemy teenager.
Probably not, but it was just a spar anyway, and she just… needed to do her best.
"Ready?" he asked, settling into some kind of stance.
"Uh… are you ?" She pointedly stared at his wrist.
He flushed as red as his shirt, and straightened back up. The tentacle-thing squiggled as he reached a hand into its mass, turning a dizzying array of colors right up until he… scruffed it. Then it turned into a limp collection of calico-spotted tentacles dangling from his hand, mewing.
"Wait, that's a cat? "
He found a way to scowl harder. It was kind of impressive, actually. "What did you think it was?"
Some kind of horrible miniature Fire Nation attack-beast. "I've just… never seen that breed before."
"You wouldn't have; they're tropical." He held the cat out to the side and waited, like he expected some kind of cat-valet to come pick it up—
"Yay!" Aang rushed forward, and wrapped the cat up in a hug. The cat's arms squiggled all around the airbender's, doing everything except hugging back. It looked a lot like it was trying to crawl away, actually. Katara felt… a little bad for it. Now that she knew it was just a poor sweet kitty. A poor, sweet, squishy kitty. As Aang was demonstrating.
Zuko scowled even harder . How much more could he scowl? "Keep her away from the fight."
"Yes Sir, Commander—"
" Don't finish that."
Aang's grin somehow got wider, too. "Yes Sir, Commander Prince Zuko Sir."
Zuko reached maximum scowl . He turned to Katara, and sunk into his stance again. It looked a lot more serious without the cat on his arm. Katara mirrored him as best she could, widening her stance and setting her feet like his, but it… didn't really feel right. But she didn't know what else to do.
"Ready?" he asked.
"As I'll ever be," she said, and popped the cork on her waterskin.
And then the world was fire. Three fireballs, punched in quick succession, and she jerked out of their path on instinct more than anything else. She raised her hands, tried to raise her water with her, and it came but then he was fireballing again and the water splashed at her feet as she dodged. She tried to flick it at him, and it worked it worked, it shot away from her and turned to ice but he stepped to the side and kicked fire she didn't know you could bend with your feet and she tried to dodge again but—
She was on her back. He was looking down at her, and she'd been wrong before, because that hadn't been maximum scowl. This was.
It took her a long, cold moment to realize she'd slipped on her own ice.
"What," he growled, "was that ." He didn't even wait for her to answer, didn't even look down on her long enough to care what she said. He turned his back on her, in the middle of a fight, and she really wished she could make him regret that but he didn't even seem to notice when she frosted over his boots. He just… stomped away from her. "Airbender! You said I could train with her!"
"You can!" Aang grinned, from between the tentacles flailing at his face. "I never said she was trained."
"Why would you—" the prince let out a breath that sparked and steamed in the air. "I don't know why I expected anything different. Is lying cultural, or is this just you? Don't—don't answer that." He turned back to Katara, as she was getting back to her feet. "Waterbender. Have you trained with a master a single day in your entire life ?"
"Well, no, but—"
He growled. Literally growled .
Katara's spine snapped straight. "We don't have any masters. You killed them all!" She threw her arms out to the side, and set her feet on the deck, and didn't even notice how the ice held her instead of betraying her again. "Or, or took them away, and they never came back, and… I'm learning as fast as I can but I have to teach myself everything and I don't know any of the forms, why do you think I wanted to get on your stupid ship and go to the north—"
One of the guards on deck, the one who'd looked like he really would attack them when they landed on Appa yesterday, twitched. Violently. And Prince Zuko stared over her shoulder, his good eye wide.
Katara turned around. The wave kept towering over the deck just long enough for her to think Am I do—
And then it crashed down. On her, on Aang, on the guards, on the Fire Prince, on the cat that rode the water half-way across the deck. It shook itself dry, and turned the shimmer-gray of wet steel before Aang could find it again. The Fire Prince just… dripped. And stared at her.
He turned on his heel, without a word, and left.
"Wow," Aang said. "When he gets angry at me , he usually shouts more."
"That wasn't angry," the female guard said. "That was way worse."
"Worse?" Katara asked.
"That was his determined face," she said, and every crew member in hearing range shuddered. Except for the twitchy one. He just held his spear to his chest with both hands, and looked slightly alarmed. "You might want to go get breakfast, and dry off. He'll be awhile, but he will find you."
"I slaved over this rice all morning , Katara," her brother said, handing her a filled bowl like he was bestowing a great treasure upon her. "You better have seconds!"
"No, you better not," the towering assistant cook said. "We're at the end of a tour, we've got three unexpected mouths to feed, and someone's been breaking into the food stores. No seconds."
"But," Sokka said. "My rice."
"Someone's been stealing food?" Aang asked. "Who?"
The medium-sized mountain stared down at him. And her. And also her brother. "Haven't caught them yet, or they wouldn't be stealing. But it started yesterday."
The staring was increasing in intensity, both from the assistant cook and the rest of the crew. Who were waiting in line behind Katara and Aang, waiting to get their own soup-and-rice breakfast.
"Oh, uh… it wasn't me?"
The cook slopped soup in his bowl, never breaking eye contact. Katara grabbed his elbow, and edged towards the emptiest table. The only other person there was a really short woman with fantastic bedhead, nursing a pot of tea. Which seemed… safe enough.
Except that the entire room had just gone morbidly silent.
...Katara steered Aang past that table, to the second emptiest, and took a seat as the room started breathing again. She was pretty sure she caught money changing hands out of the corner of her eye.
She… didn't know what she'd expected, when she'd agreed to join Aang in coming aboard a Fire Nation ship. The same kind of ship that was still trapped in ice, rusting by her village; the same people who'd decimated hers for generations, who sailed south to a land they didn't want to settle and didn't know how to live in, for the sole purpose of war . And these ones were no better, destroying the very ice her village rested on and terrorizing elders and children and kidnapping Aang. And they knew she was a waterbender, now. Even if Sokka hadn't been waking her up every five minutes, she wouldn't have slept well last night. It was only a matter of time until the crew turned on them, and she had to keep her guard up for Aang's sake, and—
"Hi!" the Helmsman who'd crashed into her village on 'orders' said, scooting his tray a little closer to them. "How are you liking things? Did you sleep well? I mean probably not, what with the screaming and all, that kind of woke us all up, but I hope before that you—oh hey you haven't met everyone! This is Crewman Teruko who doesn't get a rank and we're not allowed to talk about why and that's Genji he's our Hawker and also the rhino handler and bison-wrangler now too I guess and Dekku's serving soup and accusing you of theft and over there is Engineer Hanako and you made me five coppers by not sitting with her because I said you'd be too smart to fall for the obvious trap but Genji said—"
A guy who'd been face-first on the table turned just enough to glower at them with one gold-brown eye. "They would have sat with her if you all hadn't gone creepy-silent ."
"Genji's a really sore loser but we like him anyway, and—"
The woman—Teruko—reached out, and put a hand over the Helmsman's mouth. "Kyo. Too peppy. Just… bring it down."
"You're not even a firebender," Hawker Genji groaned, not bothering to raise his head from the table. "How are you this awake? "
"Hanako let me have a cup of her tea and it is crazy strong , I think she got into the General's special stash, and it is just wow . Like wow in my head. I'm not sure what was in it but wow. " The Helmsman talked straight through Teruko's hand.
At her table, Engineer Hanako slugged back a teacup. And poured herself another. This did not have a visible effect on the short woman's state of wakefulness.
"Pretty sure the General's special stash is calming tea," Teruko said.
"Wow my hands are shaking, guys, guys look at my hands —"
"...Just what I want to hear from next shift's helmsman," the Hawker said.
Katara wasn't sure what she'd been expecting, but she was. Uh. Concerned, for entirely different reasons than the ones she'd thought she would have.
And Aang was grinning at her. "I knew you'd like them. I was really scared at first too, but once they stopped trying to fireball me and stab me and chase me, it turned out they were really nice!"
"I am not awake enough for this," the Hawker muttered. "Speaking of. Do you mind if we gag your brother tonight? It wasn't just the screaming, it was… all night. The talking. Sounds carry in metal ships, he realizes that, right?"
"...What kind of gag?" Katara asked.
"I could rig something up from a rhino muzzle—"
"KATARA!" Sokka shouted. "Stop being corrupted by the Fire Nation! Don't make me take off this apron and come over there! ...Hey, no seconds!" Her brother slapped a marine's hand with a spoon. "I worked and worked for this rice, and you just ate it without even tasting it, didn't you? You should be ashamed —"
Hawker Genji was squinting at her brother, taking vague air-measurements between his hands. "I'd have to bring in the sides, but it could work."
"Or you could just shove it over him as-is," Helmsman Kyo said. "Like a hat of shame. His skull is super rhino-muzzle-shaped, if you tilt your head."
Katara… couldn't help tilting her head, right along with the rest of the table. She ate her breakfast, feeling more than a little surreal as the discussion on brother-muzzles continued, at a level of technical detail she didn't know how to respond to.
Later, she would admit to not tasting the rice at all. But not to Sokka.
They heard the prince coming long before he got there. Sound really did carry in metal ships.
"Waterbender!" he stomped through the mess hall doors.
" Attention on deck! " someone shouted. And then there were a lot of people suddenly standing really stiffly , including Aang. He was the only one grinning, though. Katara hurried out of her own seat, trading what the heck glances with Sokka.
"At ease," the prince snapped. He stopped in front of Katara, and shoved a scroll at her chest. "Read this."
"Thanks," Katara said, "I love having random things shoved at me during breakfast."
The prince's face was at one-quarter-scowl. "Just read it, okay?"
She glared at him. He… shuffled his feet. She raised an eyebrow, and unrolled the scroll.
The waterbending scroll.
With beautiful illustrations of things she'd never even dreamed of trying, complex movements that must have been copied by someone watching a master—
"Urk?" the prince said. Which is when she realized she'd grabbed the front of his shirt.
"Do you have more?"
" Show me. "
Engineer Hanako downed another cup of tea as Katara dragged the prince out the door.
There was a girl. In his room. Destroying his organizational system. None of Uncle's proverbs covered this situation.
"Don't— That doesn't go there! Stop—"
"Why aren't these grouped by bending type ?" the peasant complained. She was elbow-deep in his wardrobe, carelessly shoving scrolls whichever way she wanted, plucking the waterbending ones out to shove under her armpit , hundreds of gold worth of priceless documents painstakingly collected over three years of world travels getting elbow-creased and how did he make her stop without tightening her grip and hurting them more —
"Because they're organized by age!" He tried to shove the wardrobe door shut, but she body-checked it and kept rummaging.
"That's really inconvenient."
"Bending styles evolve over time, and it's important to know what forms were favored relative to the Avatar cycle because most Avatars show an inclination towards the style of their native element—"
"Can anyone besides you make sense of this mess?" She wasn't even listening .
"I'm the only one who needs to!" He kept his hands carefully unclenched. Flame daggers and irreplaceable documents did not mix.
"And why is your wardrobe full of scrolls ?"
Because his scrolls needed more room than his clothes, but that was—
"Where did you even get all of these?"
It was fashionable for the upper class to collect war trophies from areas they'd never set foot in, and it was fashionable to invite the Banished Prince to dine when he was in port to show him off like another trophy, and Uncle always reminded him how impolite it would be to spurn such connections and everyone knew he couldn't refuse the invitations without giving up even the pretense of having allies (and they were the only times he got to eat food that even came close to reminding him of palace meals) so he went and spent hours trying to avoid the whispers and the scorn and the pity-glances by casually assessing the security of the fancy manors he'd been invited into. And sometimes, a few months later, while the prince was docked at a port a few miles away in another town entirely, the Blue Spirit helped himself to their ill-gotten goods.
But all that was— "It's none of your concern! Leave, peasant!"
"You have an entire wardrobe full of my stolen cultural heritage , and it's none of my concern?"
Zuko wasn't sure when his life had gotten away from him. Sometime before the waterbender backed him out of his own room, and slammed the door in his face.
" Thank you, " the watertribe boy said. "You know, I really feel like I put a lot of love into it, and it's so nice to have someone appreciate that. Now I'm not supposed to give out seconds, but..."
Iroh nodded along. It had been perfectly unremarkable rice, but a compliment here and there never hurt anything, particularly his waistline.
" Attention on deck! " For the third time that morning—Iroh's own quickly waved off entrance included—everyone at breakfast hurried to stand.
Iroh himself turned away from the still-preening teenager, and glanced at his nephew. Who looked… very strange. His first thought was to check the boy for injuries, but Zuko was moving well enough, and did not appreciate it when his old uncle doted on him in front of the crew.
"Uncle!" He sounded half-strangled.
Iroh tucked his hands up his sleeves so he really wouldn't pat the boy down in front of everyone, and surreptitiously scanned the floor for any drops of blood left in his nephew's wake. "Yes, Prince Zuko?"
"Uncle, there's a girl in my room and she won't leave! "
The crew had already been at the silence of attention. Now they descended into the silence of hoping Zuko would not notice they were silent. Iroh blinked. And stopped looking for injuries.
"Ah," he said.
"That's it? Uncle!"
Iroh cleared his throat. "So she is in your bedroom. And she will not leave?"
" I just said that! "
"I was simply confirming my grasp of the situation." Iroh nodded once. And grinned. "I believe this means you are doing it right, nephew. Be safe!"
"I… what?" his nephew turned a brilliant shade of red. It was a much healthier color on him. "Not like that . She's studying!"
"Ah," Iroh stroked his beard, "I, too, used to study with young women in my bedroom…"
"No! I— She— You're useless! Why is everyone useless! STOP BEING SO USELESS!" He stomped off, looking significantly more lively than when he had entered. Iroh considered this an instance of uncleing well done.
"That grump is not getting any of my love-rice," the watertribe boy said. "And you can say goodbye to seconds, Mister Sweet Talker. That studying girl is my sister ."
Iroh's stomach regretted his life choices.
Zuko didn't know what he'd expected, taking so many foriegn peasants aboard his ship. But he certainly hadn't counted on them infesting his room . This was… it was so much worse than the airbender being on the lookout tower. That was just where he went when he wanted to pretend no one knew where he was. But his room was his room , he slept there, and meditated there, and practiced with his swords there, and read his scrolls and what if she found his plays —
Maybe if he got together some of the female guards, they could bodily drag her out. But… all she was doing was over-enthusiastically reading . It didn't seem like something he should sic guards on her for, but she couldn't stay there . Maybe she would leave on her own? She hadn't finished breakfast, she had to get hungry eventually. Maybe… maybe he could lay a trail of seal jerky, or something. If it worked for feral bear-wolves it would work for waterbenders, right?
Why was Uncle's advice on women never practical ? Three years of proverbs on how to get a girl in his room (which, for the record, had never included "entice her with your Avatar research, nephew"). Uncle had never said anything about making them leave.
"Sir?" a voice called from down the hall.
Zuko spun, and glowered at Hawker Genji. " What ."
"Better to show you, sir." The Hawker beckoned. Zuko followed, with a scowl. "I was checking on the rhinos after breakfast, and…"
They went into the animal hold. Zuko immediately saw the problem. The large, gaping problem.
Where the bales of feed had been, a bison now slept. The wooden pen they'd put him in was in air-sliced shambles.
"...How much hay was that?" Zuko asked.
"A week's worth. Sir."
The bison groaned, and rolled on its side. It scratched at its belly, with two of its too-many legs.
A week's worth of food. For four komodo-rhinos. In a day. Zuko ran budget numbers in his head. He didn't know what he'd been expecting bringing an actual flying bison on board, but bankrupcy hadn't been his first thought.
He clearly hadn't been pessimistic enough. It was a lesson the world sought to reteach him, every time he thought he'd finally learned.
She'd kicked the Prince of the Fire Nation from his own room. She'd kicked the Prince of the Fire Nation from his own room . And he'd… left. There hadn't even been any fire. So she clutched an armful of precious bending knowledge to her chest, and… stood in the middle of the room. Alone.
It wasn't that impressive of a room. It was only a little smaller than the hut she'd shared with Gran-Gran and Sokka back home, but it had so much less personality . There was a futon in one corner—which looked a lot like the one she'd slept on last night, actually. The sheets were crumpled to the side and the pillow had fallen to the floor. There was a wooden trunk at its foot that probably contained his clothes, because every other shelf and cubby and closet seemed to be full of these scrolls. He had a low table with candles over there, and a desk there, and really tacky Fire Nation banners everywhere, but aside from a pair of swords hung up on one wall there were no real decorations . Like he expected not to stay here long, even though Aang had said he'd been on this ship for almost three years already.
Which was actually a little weird. Shouldn't the Prince of the Fire Nation be back home, learning prince-y things?
Like, for example, how not to get bullied out of his own room. She… still wasn't sure why that had worked. And she felt a little bad, for how easy it had been.
And a little terrified , for whatever he would do when he got over the shock.
She would just… grab a few more scrolls. Then she'd leave, and find a nice quiet place to read them. Somewhere that wasn't the big, empty expanse of the Prince of the Fire Nation's oddly undecorated room.
Huh, Zuko was right about the changing styles. This scroll and this one and this one all depicted the same end move, but the motions to get there looked really different. She spread them out side-by-side, using Zuko's candles as paperweights, and tried to see how they connected; what logic carried through all of them to produce the same result. If she could just understand then… then she would understand , she would know how generations of benders had been able to do what she'd been trying for her whole life to grasp, because someone had been the first and it didn't matter if she didn't have a teacher if she could just… just…
She jumped. "Hi, Aang. How long have you been there?"
"Awhile?" he leaned over her shoulder. "Oh wow, these are really nice. Is that a Kuruk-period scroll? Monk Gyatso said that bending changes to reflect the times, and to understand the flow of history you only had to see the emphasis benders put on attack or defense, style or concision. In times of peace the moves could be like dances, but during wars—"
"Are you still here ?" the prince in the doorway didn't sound surprised. Just really, really angry. And Katara realized that the sun looked way higher through the porthole than she remembered it being, and she hurried to scoop up the scrolls that had somehow been forgotten in a tumbled pile on the floor—
"Hi Zuko!" Aang air-wooshed, and was suddenly right next to the prince.
Zuko put a hand on Aang's forehead, and pushed him a step further away. "Airbender. I see you are also in my room."
"I am! I was looking for Katara, she'd been gone a really long time and Sokka was kind of worried but also concentrating really hard on boiling eggs—which I guess is more difficult than it looks?—so I offered to check on her. But I was looking for you, too!"
The prince took a step into the room. And turned. And pushed Aang another step, but this time towards the door. "That's nice. Waterbender, leave ."
"See it looks like we're going to pass really close to Kyoshi, and I was wondering if we could stop to ride the elephant-koi—"
The prince shoved Aang. "Are you trying to get my entire crew killed?"
"I know elephant-koi look scary, but there's a trick to—"
"Firebenders disappear on Kyoshi!"
The prince scowled. And then… smirked. "We never got a chance to train this morning."
"Uh. I had a really big breakfast, I think I should probably wait awhile before—"
"Start running, airbender. Believe me, I'll catch up. "
Aang ran. The resulting airblast had Katara scrambling for the dozen scrolls he'd sent flying. When she looked up, the prince was glowering down at her.
"You better not be here when I get back, waterbender." He stomped off.
Then there were… a lot of yelps, from above her. And fiery wooshes. And thumps. And equally fiery cursing. And the distinct sounds of a twelve-year-old laughing way too cheerfully after all those other noises. Sound really, really traveled on this ship. Katara shook her head, and kept gathering up her scrolls. They'd be busy for awhile, right? She would just… take a few more minutes.
"Would you like some tea?" somebody or another said, the nice old guy that had been with Zuko at the temple, but she'd just found a really advanced scroll and apparently there were all kinds of katas that made ice move as freely as water, and people who could stop rain in place , and… and the tea ended up by her elbow as the door was closed behind her with a quiet chuckle.
"You're still here ?" A very—wow, a very sweaty , shirtless prince growled. He was unnaturally pale compared to the healthy brown of the Water Tribe. Like a dead fish. Like a dead fish that had more muscles than Katara knew a stomach could have. These were very conflicting impressions, and she wasn't quite sure what to do with them, except to make a sort of strangled-otter-penguin noise in his general direction and wish that the first non-familial shirtless boy she'd seen had not been the Fire Prince, both because he was the enemy and because he'd just imprinted her mind with unreasonable standards for male fitness .
He stomped over to the wooden chest, dug out fresh clothes, and stomped back to the door. Stomping seemed to be his primary method of movement. " Leave , waterbender."
"I'll let waterbender know, if I see her," Katara said.
The prince scowled. And stomped. And slammed the door so hard it bounced back open.
At least there was nothing attractive there .
...Five more minutes. If only she had some water; she could almost feel this move under her skin, waiting to be tried. It was the most basic one she'd found—wait, was this the scroll the prince had first given her?—but she thought she understood it now. Her waterskin was still empty from that morning, though, and she didn't know where to find—
The teapot sat next to her elbow. It had cooled a long time ago. Now it was just… leafy water. She propped the scroll up, and went to a particularly empty corner of the room, somewhere she wouldn't get all her precious scrolls wet if she messed up.
When the prince came back, he'd put on a clean shirt and largely ditched the scowl. He was toweling his hair dry.
"Really?" he sighed. But showers apparently mellowed him out, because he didn't even bother to shout at her. He just went to his desk, sat down, and pulled a really nice comb out of one of the drawers. The haircare routine that followed might have been distracting, if Sokka wasn't just as ridiculous about his. Which… made her realize how close their styles were. Really, the only difference was that Zuko shaved all the way down to the scalp while Sokka left the artic-peach fuzz on the sides. "Is there a reason you're staring, waterbender?"
The scowl was back.
You and my brother should trade haircare notes , Katara thought. "Nope," she said, and studiously returned to studying. She should… probably feel more nervous, being alone with the prince of the enemy nation. In his bedroom .
But she was starting to see what Aang meant, with this not-as-big-a-jerk-as-he-could-be business. He'd been yelling at her all day, but the only time he'd turned a flame on her was in their spar.
And… he'd left the door open. And both Aang and his own uncle were, apparently, prone to dropping by unannounced. She could leave. She probably should . But she was pretty sure he'd close the door then, and she wouldn't see him again until the next time he wanted something from her.
"Is there a reason you're turning my room into occupied territory, waterbender?" he asked, finally setting down his comb.
Because you were the only kid on this ship for three years, and your room doesn't feel lived in, and you're really good at pushing people away but really bad at making them leave .
"The cells are too dark to practice in," she said.
He pointedly picked up a little oil lamp from his desk and set it down loudly on the floor. And gave it a toe-nudge towards her; did he practice at being insulting?
"They're too narrow, too," she said. "And I don't want to soak our beds on accident."
"But soaking mine is fine?" His hair was steaming between his hands. Was he firebending it dry? With heat, but no flames. Could she do that? Just use cold, without forming ice? Or use waterbending to dry things, for that matter. That would be incredibly practical, not to mention life-saving—how many people could be rescued if waterbenders pulled them out of artic waters as soon as the ice broke under them? Dried them, with some motion of the hands? Could she even pull water straight from lungs, so they could breathe again?
"Waterbender," he said, snapping his fingers to get her attention like she was a polar-bear dog. "Go practice on deck. Get out of my room."
She could leave. She probably should. Be he could and should ask her politely and use her name.
"Oh," Katara said, sweetly, "so you don't mind if the wind blows your scrolls right into the ocean?
He actually winced at that, before he could hide it with another scowl. He grabbed his comb, and started brushing his hair again . It was distractingly soft-looking now that it was dry. What did he use in it, and would he share? "Go grab Other One. He can hold scrolls for you."
"I would, but apparently he's concentrating really hard on boiling eggs." She'd meant that sarcasm for Zuko, but… well, it applied equally well to her brother.
He raised one eyebrow. And… she felt a little horrible, for only realizing now that he only had one eyebrow to raise. "That's literally just watching water boil, isn't it?"
"Do you need to learn how to boil eggs?" She also raised an eyebrow. And tried not to feel too self-conscious about it.
He smirked. "I'm a prince. I have people for that."
"Wait. Was that a joke?"
The smirk died. " No. Go away."
Whatever his Uncle had been teaching him these three years, 'social skills' hadn't been on the top of the list. Katara crossed her arms, and kept her eyebrow up. "Tell me a better place to train, and I will. After all, if I don't improve, how will you ever practice for catching the Avatar ."
She'd said the magic word. Now he was thinking about it; she could actually see him thinking about it. He got this little crease on his forehead, and he started tying his hair back up with a red ribbon—of course it was red—but spent way too long fussing to get it right, and finally raised his chin and crossed his arms and tried to pretend like he was in control of this situation.
"You may stay," he benevolently allowed. "But as soon as you've got the hang of that one, you're practicing outside . Now be quiet, I have work to do."
"Yes, Your Highness." She bowed, and hoped he realized that the Water Tribe didn't bow.
Her? Be quiet? She hadn't been the one growling all day.
...Zuko hadn't been aware that the Water Tribe bowed. Which meant either the peasant was attempting to learn manners, or actively mocking him. He pinched the bridge of his nose, and wondered when this had become his life.
Yesterday. The answer was 'yesterday.'
He could still kick the Water Tribe children off his ship. All three of them, maybe, before the rest of the fleet saw that he had found an airbender . And the last Southern waterbender, apparently. He could just... shove them all back on their bison, and point them towards the South Pole, and yell at the crew to forget this had ever happened.
Except that the crew would sell him out at the first port, just like they always did. Hopefully they were getting paid in more than free drinks, but he didn't think it was the savvy types that ended up on the Wani , as a general rule.
Even if he did kick the kids off, they would need supplies . Supplies he didn't have to spare. The Wani was already on course for the nearest friendly port, and he sincerely hoped they wouldn't have to go on rations before reaching it. It was only a few more days, but they'd already been stretched thin before the Water Tribe boy had decided he'd starve to death without breaking into the food crates .
It had to be him—the airbender hadn't touched the supplies in all the days he'd been on board, the waterbender had been in his room all day, and another crate had been found emptied just after the Water Tribe boy's very vocal this isn't a Fire Nation labor camp and I demand rights break from the kitchen. Which he'd spent wandering the ship, thieving and making abstract art, if Crewman Teruko was to be believed. She'd thought the boy was making technical diagrams, but there had been nothing recognizable in the scribbles she'd confiscated. So she'd… given them back.
Zuko would have to make sure the crew watched him more closely. Kept him busier. And if the idiot kept this up, he was off at the next port, whether or not the airbender or his sister went with him.
Until then… Zuko had to go through the ledgers, and find the money for their next mission. More money, because actual flying bisons ate food in proportion to their near-mythological status.
It would be easier to think if the waterbender would stop splashing . And getting all growly when she splashed. At least accidents with water caused less collateral damage than fire.
"Could you stop growling?" she growled. "I can't concentrate."
"Me?" he growled right back.
"No, the other prince."
"...Uncle Iroh?" he asked. And immediately afterwards realized that she was being sarcastic , that had been sarcasm, could he please just curl up and die now. Preferably somewhere she couldn't see him. "Shut up!" he retorted. With exactly as much intelligence as he felt. Maybe if he lit something on fire she would leave . (But so many of his scrolls were in the line of fire.)
She blew a strand of hair out of her face. "So what are you doing, anyway?"
"...I'm trying to figure out how to afford feeding a flying bison."
"Aren't you the Fire Lord's son?"
"My father expects me to maintain a reasonable budget," Zuko said, stiffly.
She laughed , and he stiffened more. "You'd better budget in Sokka, too. He's almost as bad."
Oh. She… hadn't been laughing at him. That was a weird feeling, to be honest.
"What?" she snapped. "You're staring ."
"It's more of a wrist flick," he blurted. "The move you're trying. I think it's... more of a wrist flick. At the end."
She looked confused for a moment. Then she looked down at her hand, and back up at him. "How do you know?"
He raised his chin and met her skeptical stare with a scowl. "The Avatar is master of all four elements. If I'm going to beat him, I need to be familiar with all the bending styles. Do you really think I haven't studied my own scrolls?"
"...Can you show me?"
Sokka was mildly insulted that his technical diagrams had been given back to him. The confiscation, that part had made sense, and he had been filled with the righteous pride of indignation. And then the marine lady had blinked at his 2D Road Map to Future Sabotage, and handed it back to him .
"You shouldn't be here," she'd said, and shepherded him back to the kitchens like he was a lost penguin-otter. A lost penguin-otter with a possible concussion, or maybe it had just been born that way.
This was, of course, a challenge. A challenge to map their entire ship , and take detailed schematics of all their critical systems, and if they couldn't recognize his genius when they were literally staring at it and rotating it ninety degrees to the side and tilting their heads then it was a victory for the Water Tribe.
"...Is it a mimic-catopus?" Aang asked. Aang asked from over his shoulder. Aang asked from over his shoulder after coming out of nowhere .
"Gah! ...No, it is not a Fire Nation ceiling monster. It's… it's a secret ."
"I like secrets," the airbender said.
Sokka narrowed his eyes. "But can you keep them?"
"Uh… yeah?" He pointed. To his head-arrow. And then sort of did an all-encompassing hand-swirl to indicate that he was the Avatar currently roaming freely aboard a Fire Navy ship .
"Point," Sokka acknowledged. And looked both ways down the corridor. And leaned in close. "I'm trying to find their engine-thingie. So I can learn their evil Fire Nation ways. This ship has no sails , but it moves."
"Ooooh," Aang said. "Engineering's that way. There's a sign on the door, you can't miss it!"
He pointed. It was very anticlimactic, as pointings went. And a little mystery-ruining.
"No problem. Uh, be careful, you don't want to upset Hana—"
"Sssh," Sokka said. "No spoilers."
He was not trapped on an enemy death ship to cook rice and boil eggs . He was here on a dangerous intelligence gathering mission.
"Have fun?" Aang said. "I'm just going to go find earplugs—"
"Sssssh," Sokka said.
The monk sshed. Put a hand over his own mouth and everything, and backed off down the hall.
Sokka didn't know what he'd been expecting when he'd gotten on this ship infested by literal monsters, two-legged and otherwise. But the most stressfully boring day of his life hadn't been it. What was with these people, who were completely normal but-wearing-red? And just waiting for the evil orders that would flip their evil switches to evil mode? Because that Helmsman guy was weirdly fun to talk to, but he'd also rammed Sokka's village with a battlecruiser. And those soldier guys had just as much trouble waking up in the morning as Sokka did, and complained about not having seconds just as loudly as he would have had he not been the one beating their hands off his delicious rice with a spoon, but they were also the same faceless skull-mask soldiers that been okay with following Zuko's lead. And some of those guys were girls , which he was still trying to process. Were they… more evil, because they were girls? Real women stayed home and cared for the village children, no one expected them to fight, so any woman who willingly left her own country to go a-killin' abroad must be… just broken in the head, or something. Inherently eviler -than-evil.
He had a feeling he should never share that speculation with Katara.
And Zuko . Who was the literal spawn of the world's most evil man, but somehow had no idea how to deal with Katara. Like, hilarious incompetence. Sisters were not that hard, and Sokka had no idea where Zuko had gotten the impression they were. Sometimes you just needed to shove a snowball down the back of her parka and run before she got you with a snow boulder , and that was that. How hard could it be to get one fourteen-year-old out of his room? Those scrolls of his couldn't be that entrancing.
Also, the prince apparently didn't realize that the drain pipe from the shower room ran straight up to the sink in the kitchen. All that shower-shouting he'd done about girls not leaving his room? That majestic soapy-time monologuing? Not as private as he thought.
"Has… no one ever told him about this?" Sokka had asked.
"After the first time, it was already too late," one of his fellow kitchen workers confided, "Who was going to admit they'd heard him? And it just got worse, every time. We're three years in. I'd rather join a suicide pact than tell him, at this point."
"We hoped he'd figure it out on his own," added another. "Everyone knows how much sound carries on this ship. But he just… keeps monologuing."
"The quality's really gone up since he was thirteen," said a third. "You could tell when he started smuggling those play scripts on board. Not really sure why he hides those, you can always tell when he's holding one behind an Avatar scroll..."
That was the point were Sokka started to wonder if maybe he should tell the guy. Just… air it out there. The second-hand embarrassment was crippling . Especially when the crew's solution to the overheard monologuing was to shove a literal sock in the drain.
Which all brought things back around to the key point, which was that this was an enemy ship and Sokka wasn't going to forget that. He would infiltrate them and learn all their evil secrets, so he wouldn't forget that. Because with a blue or green paint job, it would be disturbingly easy to forget that. He would not fall for the clever psychological machinations of the Fire Nation and their missed-his-calling-as-a-dramatic-play-lead prince.
Sokka found the door to engineering. It was, indeed, clearly labeled. He looked left, he looked right. He darted inside, clever as an artic fox-hare diving into a hidden burrow.
The door creaked closed. The temperature rose crazily , higher than the hottest summer he could ever remember. He could probably take off his coat and his snow pants and maybe even his lined under-shirt and still be too hot. Here, truly, was the beating heart of the Fire Navy ship.
Sokka slinked from one pipe to the next. There was an eerie red glow over everything, and deep shadows, and soot that smeared on his clothes like the black snow that had fallen on his village too many times. He clutched not his boomerang, nor his club, but a fiercer weapon yet: his charcoal, and a stack of paper he'd stolen from under from their very noses. Tricked them into giving him. ...Straight up asked Kyo to bring him, and the Helmsman had done so with Aang-like levels of naive cheer. His enemies' weakness was his strength, and he diligently diagrammed the flow of the pipes as he went. The inner workings of this foul machine did not yet make sense to him, but they would. Oh, they would.
The door creaked open again behind him. Sokka dove into a tangle of pipes, the space just wide enough for a cleverly slender Water Tribe teenager.
It was Crewman Teruko, the Eviler-Than-Evil woman, She Who Stalked Him Through The Ship. "Hanako! Have you seen the Water Tribe idiot? He slipped me again."
"You mean you got bored and let him loose again," a grumbly also-female evil-status-confirmed voice called back, from deeper in, from closer to the source of the heat and ominously flickering light. "If he's in here, I'll kill him for you."
"Thanks, hon. Let me know if you need help hiding the body."
They both chuckled. Well, Teruko did; the grumbly lady had sort of a snort-laugh. The door creaked again, and thudded shut. Sokka shivered inside his pipe sanctuary, completely unclear on whether they'd been joking. They'd been joking, right?
...He was a brave Water Tribe warrior, his mind his weapon, also he had his literal weapons that no one had confiscated and honestly he was feeling really insulted over that, too. He did not fear death. He did not fear—
Steam hissed above him. He jumped, and his head clanged off a pipe. Oww oww oww . He crouched in his hiding spot, holding his breath as he strained his ears—had the grumbly lady heard? Was she even now sharpening her engineer-knives, or heating her magical fire? He rubbed the back of his head, wet with blood, which was a little weird because he didn't think he'd hit it that hard—
Drip , the pipe said. Drip. Hiss .
Sokka did not want to turn around, he did not want to look up. But he was a brave Water Tribe warrior. A brave, brave...
The darkness of the pipe-labyrinth glistened red. Blood-soaked tentacles reached for him—
Sokka. Had never screamed so much in his life. He clatter-fell out of his hiding spot and scrambled backwards and hit something soft but unyielding. He looked up, and up. And then… back down again, by a lot.
The shortest woman he'd ever seen scowled down at him.
"What are you doing in engineering," she growled, "and what did you do to our cat ."
The tentacle-beast squirmed free from the pipes and onto his leg and Sokka kicked . The short grumbly engineer lady drew in a sharp breath.
And the world.
The world erupted into eardrum pain .
Zuko re-adjusted his stance. Less sharply rooted and ready to strike, more… ready to flow . The scowling was technically optional, but made him feel better. "This feels weird."
"This feels right ," the waterbender said, examining his stance, and adjusting her own next to him.
"It's not that different from airbending," the monk said, somehow doing it better than either of them.
"Why are you even here ?" Zuko snapped.
"Moral support!" the kid grinned. "Also, I'm sure there's lots to learn from other bending styles, even if I'm not the Avatar."
"Young Aang is quite right! I think this is a wonderful new hobby for you, Prince Zuko."
"It's not a hobby, it's training ," he growled. "And you've seen actual waterbenders, Uncle. You could help."
Uncle barely even glanced up from his pai sho game. He was writing a whole stack of game-letters to his old man friends. "Only Northern ones, I'm afraid. I would not wish to contaminate our Southern lady's budding style."
"This is based off a Northern scroll!"
"Is that so? Well, in that case..." Uncle stood. And immediately winced, bending over and rubbing at his spine. "Oh, my back. If only I had listened to my caring nephew and not climbed up and down all of those stairs. Also that cliffside." The Dragon of the West had clearly missed his theatre calling.
"Besides," the old man straightened, with no trace of pain. "You are doing a fine job! You know those scrolls much better than I do, nephew. Besides, I would not wish to come between you and other things that might be budding..."
" Uncle. "
"Could we… try the next stance?" the waterbender asked.
" Fine ," he snapped. And tried not to get creeped out by how smooth the motions were, or how moving in sync with the waterbender and air nomad wasn't so different than practicing next to Uncle and the crew, except that he was the one leading and they were looking to him to do this right and he wasn't a master, especially not a waterbending master, he just had a lot of practice trying to read bending scrolls, but actually doing the moves felt weird —
(But not that different from his dao forms.)
They finished the kata slowly. She pretty much had it, now. And he was going to ignore how easy the monk was making it look.
"Again," he said. "Faster this time. Try to… feel the water, or whatever it is you do."
They did it again. Faster. And the water from the mop-bucket followed her, lashing out into the air with a snap. Which was the point where she made some kind of high-pitched noise and hugged him , why did these children keep doing that , and oh Agni was he actually screaming or was that just in his head—
Or… coming up through the deck?
He and the waterbender both looked down. A heartbeat later, Engineer Hanako's very distinctive voice started resonating throughout the ship.
"Whoa," monk said. "I can actually feel the shouting through my feet."
"You," Zuko ordered, pointing at the first unfortunate crewman he caught trying to skulk away. "Go find out what set her off."
"...Yes, sir," Crewman Teruko said. "Permission to get earplugs first, sir?"
"Granted." Zuko felt bad for anyone caught below deck when that started. Sound carried on this ship. He felt worse for whoever her target was, though whatever idiot didn't know to stay on the engineer's good side deserved what they got.
Even if they were a literal idiot, he amended, as Teruko dragged a shivering Water Tribe boy onto the deck. In her other arm was a quivering mass of cat. Bloody cat.
"What happened ," he and the waterbender said together, and even stepped forward together, and he blamed the synchronized bending practice. He straightened up and crossed his arms, and let her be the one to scoop up Sushi. The traitor cat didn't even care she was in a stranger's arms, she cuddled just the same.
"Teruko," he snapped, "report."
"Idiot gave me the slip. Idiot slipped into engineering. Idiot learned a life lesson. Sir." Teruko's reports always left something to be desired. As he literally could not demote her further, he let it stand.
"It… doesn't seem to be her blood, sir."
Everyone on deck took a moment to process that. The Water Tribe boy whimpered. "...Blood in the darkness, the chittering of the pipes…"
"Sokka," the waterbender said, "stop being so dramatic . This is just like when you thought the constellations were shifting so you'd get lost."
"They are in fixed locations relative to each other , Sokka."
"Not when the eons remember that the future is but a turning of the past, Katara!"
" Ugggh ," the waterbender said, and knelt down to gently splash-clean Sushi with the water from her bending bucket. The catopus squirmed, and slipped under the water. "Huh," she said, like cats weren't fully submersible where she came from. A tentacle reached out and dragged her hand down; she went back to scrubbing.
"How did he get away from you to begin with, Teruko?" Zuko asked, narrowing his eyes.
"His wily Water Tribe ways, sir," she answered, with a completely straight face. Next to her, the idiot was staring into the depths of the bucket like it had depths to stare into. Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose.
"Perhaps if you want him watched, nephew," Uncle said, "you could do it yourself. You are the only one free right now."
"I'm not free, I'm training the waterbender! So she can help me train against the Avatar!" As always, his Uncle failed to be impressed by Avatar-related arguments. "Maybe you should teach him how to play pai sho."
Uncle stroked his beard, and looked the peasant over with a critical eye. "Perhaps I will."
"Uh," the peasant said, "do I get a say in this?"
No one bothered to reply to him. Teruko gave him a shove towards the pai sho table; the rest of them got back to… waterbending training.
This was Zuko's life now. Apparently.
The monk got bored and started spectating the pai sho lesson, after barely an hour. The waterbender kept insisting they try just one more move before they took a break. They never did take a break, not until Uncle set up a small dining table in the middle of their training space and had dinner brought up.
"These eggs are amazing," the Water Tribe boy said. "It's okay, you can compliment the chef if you want to."
"I think it's more of a side twist," Katar—the waterbender said, as they leaned over the scroll. "To keep the water's momentum going, from this stance to the next."
"No, but look at the feet," Zuko countered. "A twist would put you off balance. It's important to stay rooted—"
" I think the eggs are good, Sokka."
The sun set. If anything, the waterbender got more excited to train. Zuko… was okay with that. It was almost nice, having someone else on board who wanted to get better just as badly as he did. Zuko wouldn't keep her from the advanced forms.
The night was dark and full of noises, and the gird of a pai sho board was still imprinted on the back of his eyes, and the click, click, click of tiles was in his ears—
Click, click, chitter , the darkness laughed.
Sokka. Did not sleep.
Zuko 100% practices monologuing. That speech to an unconscious Aang at the North Pole? Shouting into a lightning storm? This kid looks both ways to make sure no one's listening, then monologues his soul out. Love him so much.
I has Tumblr! There is a lot of quality people-writing-ficlets-for-my-stories stuff goin' on. Search the "ficlet" tag.