Day three of not pushing Zuko overboard dawned choppy, windy, and very red. It nooned with Sokka yawning, stretching, and flopping over a rail close enough to where his sister was practicing that he could subtly sniff at her water, because if firebending smelled weirdly like a campfire, then did waterbending—?
It was about then that the prince strode into the center of the deck and immediately got clobbered by another messenger bird.
"How did you train them to do that?" Sokka asked, with appropriate levels of respect for such pointless pettiness.
"He did that himself," the Panuk guy said. The Panuk guy was smirking his smirk-face like a perfectly innocent smirker, but he was also increasingly present when Sokka and/or Katara were anywhere near Zuko and had been very enthusiastic in that tub-dumping yesterday. Sokka narrowed his eyes. Smirk Face winked, the fiend.
"Sokka," Bato called out, "do you want a turn at the wheel?"
"Do I!" Sokka raced up the steps, beaten only by Scuttles, who had the advantage of far more legs and a wagging tail that could trip even the best of men.
"First," Bato said, "it's about time you got your crew name."
"My what now?"
"Your crew name," Bato said. "You've been ice dodging, and now you've worked a real ship; you've earned one. How about… Seal Jerky?"
The dog barked.
"Delicious yet tough," Sokka said, stroking his chin hairs, "and Scuttles likes it."
"Bato," the Fire Prince, with a giant bird in his arms and a giant bird-beak trying to gulp down his hair beads, scowled. "You cannot give him a 'crew name.'"
"Why don't you take that message down to the Chief," Bato dismissed him.
"Bato," Zuko repeated, now with extra scowling.
"What can he take down to me?" dad asked, joining them.
"New message," Bato said. Then he slung an arm around Sokka's shoulders. "More importantly: meet our newest crew member, Seal Jerky."
His dad raised an eyebrow. The prince fumed, in a more literal manner than Sokka was strictly comfortable with on a wooden boat.
"You can't— Hakoda!"
Dad paused a moment. Then he turned from Sokka and looked the prince dead in the eye. "I'm sorry," he said. "I lost naming rights."
Zuko slammed a message tube into Hakoda's hands and stomped off. Scuttles welcomed their newest crewmate with many licks.
Sokka continued at the wheel, getting pointers and corrections from both Bato and, standing a clear giving-you-space arm's length away, his dad. Which was both respectful and silly, and when dad edged a little closer, and a little closer, and complimented his good instincts, Sokka graciously allowed it.
The whole time, both men were watching the seas. The wind was still coming from straight behind them, but it was grabbing at their clothes now, and pushing the sails taut. Gray clouds were looming. White capped the growing swells, as if the Ocean's own fleet were rising to sail with them.
Sokka was not steering for long. Dad gestured subtly for Tuluk to come up and take over, which was another action Sokka graciously allowed. The last time Sokka had been in a storm at sea, he'd required dramatic saving via sky bison. It had all been very nick-of-time-y, which had led to many dreams in which saving had been delayed and drowning had happened and, really, Sokka was okay with not being responsible for the overall welfare of this ship during its oppressively looming gray-skied doom, given that the last boat he'd been co-sailing had sunk.
Bato and dad were heading below deck, already talking about course changes and safe anchorages. Right, then. Sokka would just… be somewhere else.
Dad looked back to him. "You coming?"
Sokka would be somewhere where the leaders were making the decisions. Right. He grinned, and so did dad, and Sokka didn't even let it spoil his mood when dad called over Panuk and Zuko like they were also People With Future-Chief-Potential.
"I'm staying on deck," Zuko snapped, glaring equally at the invitation and the storm clouds. "I'm not afraid. I can work."
"Zuko—" dad started.
"Just don't stay too close to your sister," Panuk said, clapping the Fire Prince on the back as he came to join them. "Toklo, chaperone them."
"We don't need a—" two voices started, in equal but opposite outrage.
"On it," Toklo called, cheerfully ignoring the both of them.
Bato had already unrolled a map by the time the rest of them made it down to dad's office.
"Came in faster than I thought it would," he said. "We're going to be on the dangerous side of the storm, at this rate. Do we try for open waters, or risk sheltering at Whale Tail?"
"General How mentioned that Kyoshi broke their neutrality over the winter," dad said, leaning over the map. "Taking back Whale Tail so it can't be used to stage against them seems the logical step. Sokka, did you hear anything when you were at Fong's base?"
"Uh." He really wanted to say yes. He really, really wanted to be able to say Yes, in fact I saw a battle map and Whale Tail is liberated and totally safe, and you would not know this vital information without me, your irreplaceable son. "No. Sorry. Fong mostly talked about Fong."
All the other men snorted in unison, so that was a decent consolation prize.
"We've lain low in the barrier islands before," Panuk said. "I doubt they'll be running regular patrols in the middle of this."
"There's something else to consider," his dad said. He traced a finger over their position and beyond. "Last sighting puts the Princess' ship a day ahead of us, and we have the winds to thank for getting even that close. Once this storm passes…"
Fire Nation boilers versus Water Tribe sails. Their ships could run forever, but they were only as fast as the Wind and Ocean allowed. If the winds calmed in the wake of this, they might never catch the Princess.
"The currents are being awfully obliging, too," Bato pointed out. His own finger traced a current line that ran south-southwest under their position, "I could swear we've been running due west since the kids landed."
"Just an isodog's wake," Hakoda frowned.
"Wait, those are real?" Sokka asked.
Panuk made a wiggly hand motion. "The older sailors swear that when a big enough pack swims under, they can drag ships along."
"Pretty sure isodogs don't get that big," Sokka said. "Do the older sailors also ignore the effects of wind on surface currents?"
"Completely," Panuk said, as one scientifically minded traveler to another. Sokka allowed that the guy might not be completely awful.
"Or," his dad flashed a brief smile, "it might just be a saying for a current that won't last, and arguing with old sailors about what to call it won't change what it is."
His dad's smile slipped away as he looked down at the map, his hands braced on the desk. Because that was just it, wasn't it? The current wouldn't last. Neither would the wind. Could they get enough of their fleet in position to take Azula's ship, if they spent however many hours hiding away in some little harbor?
"Dad," Sokka said, "what happens if we don't make anchor? If we try to ride the storm?" It might just be the gamble they needed to catch up.
"We've weathered storms this big before. We've lost ships who thought they could make it, too."
Did it really matter if they died tonight, or were hunted to extinction with the rest of their tribe while the next Avatar was still in the crib? Dead was dead. The war was ending soon; in Earth Kingdom towns with Fire Nation settlers, in famines that kept the front lines fed, in a Northern Water Tribe that would have fallen without spirit intervention that couldn't be counted on twice.
Riding the storm was a gamble. Rallying the world around a twelve-year-old who hadn't asked for any of this was a gamble. But when the odds were against you, gambling was the only way to win.
Sokka looked around at them all, and found three faces as set as his.
"Hey, dad," Sokka said. "You forgot to invite our master waterbender to this."
There was gambling, and there was loading the dice.
Katara was not best pleased by the late invitation to what was essentially a council meeting. She'd expected better of her tribe. She'd expected better of Sokka.
Sokka realized he still had a little unconscious misogyny to work through, because he'd been so excited for his own invite he hadn't thought of his sister until he'd needed her for their plans.
Hakoda realized he had a lot of unconscious misogyny to work through, and that his daughter had too much practice gritting her teeth and ignoring slights so she could focus on the situation. She didn't yell at him, she didn't even glare; she just listened with the inevitable calm before a towering wave. Then she demanded access to his deck commanders from every shift.
She'd never helped sail before, much less through a storm. They'd never had someone who could literally command the waves. Together, they worked out how a waterbender fit into their crew, a piece of their heritage slotting back into place.
The storm was on them now. Zuko was fine with this. He didn't need to leave the deck, and people needed to stop trying to trick him into doing it. He could work, he was working, he was fine. He sidled around the Avatar's bison, who was hunkered under the tarps they'd thrown over its back and secured to its legs like the world's largest raincoat, and kept working.
Seal Jerky was out on the bowsprit at the ship's front, his sharp pereopods latched to the wood. He was alternating between howling into the wind and barking at the waves, his tongue lolling and his fur soaked from rain and spray.
Zuko's new brother was below deck with the lemur. His new sister was at Hakoda's side by the wheel, bending on a level he'd only heard of in plays about the fearsome waterbenders who could drown whole crews of innocent Fire Nation ships on a whim. Wave crests parted around the Akhlut instead of over them, their deck never swamped, they always hit waves at the perfect angle, because three days on ship had of course been enough for her to excel in her new role as their crew's most valuable bender.
Zuko did not flinch as another wave split around them just in time. He worked.
"If you don't want to be out here," Toklo said, leaning back, fighting the wind for the line he was holding. "You really don't have to be. This isn't your shift. Or your job."
"I want to be out here," Zuko snapped, grabbing the same line and lending his strength.
"We've got enough people," Panuk said, tying off the slack they were buying him. "you should be below. Resting. So when we need to rotate people out you're not tired."
"I'm not tired!"
"You don't have to prove anything," Panuk said, which was so stupid that it wasn't worth getting rain in his mouth to reply.
And so it was that their ex-prince was stupidly standing in the center of the deck in the middle of a storm, as was his stupid ex-princely right, when the wind heeled the ship's rudder straight out of the water. By the time Tuluk directing sails and Hakoda on the wheel and Katara wrangling the waves had straightened their broaching ship back on course, more than one wave had swept the deck.
The Water Tribe, having more sense than little rustbucket Fire Navy vessels whose equipment was half-missing to begin with, made good use of safety lines during storms. Zuko's was currently tangled around a bison's foreleg as he took deep breaths and pried himself away from his full-body grip on its furry ankle. He was fine.
Panuk wasn't. His tether was dangling free, in the way of a man who'd gone overboard and figured his chances better in the waves than drowning in the ship's tow.
Panuk, who had only wanted to sail the ship's boats with Zuko and Toklo on good days, because they didn't have temperamental oceans in the middle of the tundra, they had nearly waveless lakes and the occasional stream to wade through. Panuk, who was the weakest swimmer out of all of them.
No one needed to push Zuko overboard. He was perfectly capable of doing that himself.
The first shock of water brought Zuko back to cold, gasping, where was the Wani? And—
"Zuko!" Uncle shouldn't sound like that.
Neither should his dad.
Zuko felt light; he gotten his armor off already, even though he didn't remember—
That wasn't right. That—that was the other time, he could tell because the waves had been smaller then. The only thing dragging him down now was Toklo's coat, which had been sodden and heavy up on deck but felt like he was wearing steel plating now. But he couldn't just take it off, it was Toklo's coat, what would he say if Zuko just threw it away—
That he'd rather have a friend than a coat.
Zuko shrugged the weight off, and swam. He didn't turn to see the ship, because Panuk was ahead, and he wasn't going back without him.
Panuk was yelling something about an idiot, by which he probably meant Zuko. And he was coughing a lot, because only an idiot shouted at another idiot in the middle of storm waves.
Hakoda held the wheel steady until Bato crossed the deck to take it from his rigid hands. They couldn't turn back to rescue the boys; waves like these would capsize any crew that didn't meet them with full respect. Katara was only one waterbender.
The boys were dark spots on dark waves, visible when the swells carried them higher, disappearing too often and for too long, harder to see each time.
Katara was only one waterbender. He had no right to ask this of her, and no other choice.
"Can you save them?"
Maybe if the seas were calmer, if she'd put as much time into figuring out how to skip over water on her own mini-iceberg like the little boys at the north did to escape their untrained mothers, if she hadn't been bending more water in the past hours than she ever had in her life, if they'd let her study under a real master—
At the bow of the ship, the dog was howling. Appa raised his head and lowed.
Appa. Appa had flown in storms before. She just needed to get close enough; a tribeswoman didn't have to work alone. She turned to her dad and nodded once, fiercely.
This was all taking a very long time for the humans to sort out. With a last howl for packmates-danger-help, Seal Jerky also jumped overboard.
(Aake had the sudden, inappropriate thought that dogs really do start resembling their masters. He did not share it.)
The Akhlut was far, but still in sight, so Zuko could confidently say he'd been through worse. Now he just needed to get back. While dragging Panuk. Who was coughing even more in the wake of the last crest, and adamantly not staying in the position Zuko had tried to put him in so he could swim for both of them, which would have been too slow to get back to the ship but would have been better than this grabby-flailing thing the older boy was doing as he tried to clear his lungs—
(They'd practiced ocean rescues on the Wani. It was one of the crew's favorite days each year: an excuse to goof off in the water, hauling each other around. The lesson Lieutenant Jee shouted into them over and over was to never let a drowning person grab you. Not one that was getting desperate. Throw them something, a rope or a float or a subordinate you didn't particularly like. Drowners didn't recognize friends or crewmates; they would push another under just to raise themselves high enough for one more breath—)
One Very Good Boy surfaced between Zuko and Panuk. Both of them grabbed onto the isopuppy's shell before they quite realized what it was. Then a wagging tail was tossing just as much spray on them as the storm, which was a strange and not altogether pleasant sensation, albeit a helpful one.
Appa was extremely dubious of flying. In his experience, storms occasionally ended in complete dislocation from the life he'd known.
Katara sat between his horns, petting his wet forehead cajolingly.
"Come on, Appa. I don't like him either, but I don't want him to drown. And the other guy is only half the jerk he is. Yip-yip."
With a very put-upon groan, Appa rose into the air. The boys were out of sight now, but the dog's howling still sounded over the wind.
Zuko couldn't see the ship. He felt numb, but not like the last time he'd been overboard. That had started in his hands and feet and gone inwards; this was freezing his chest, and working outwards. His fingers gripped tight on the isopup's fur. Seal Jerky would be fine in this for hours; he swam in frigid water for fun, and apparently he'd live in the ocean full time once he got big enough. Zuko would be fine for awhile, too. He had his firebending: if he could survive a night the first time, he would be better the second.
Panuk didn't have firebending, and he didn't have hours.
Seal Jerky lifted his head and howled again, his tail still inexplicably wagging. The next wave swelled under them.
And kept swelling.
And then Zuko's feet touched ground, which was so far from what he'd been expecting in the middle of the ocean that he tripped. This proved to be little problem, as the ground rose higher and higher until it was a great segmented rock under the two suddenly kneeling boys (and one extremely pleased isopuppy.)
"Isodog's wake," Panuk said, like a man quietly readjusting his beliefs about the world.
Seal Jerky barked a greeting.
The isodog under them tilted its head back, and barked a thunderous boom. The rest of the pack was surfacing all around them like frothing waves, poking their heads over the first dog's back to lick at those they'd rescued with tongues bigger than Zuko. It was so rare that they got to play with puppies.
When Appa arrived, signaled down by a flame cupped in still-stunned hands, there was plenty of room to land. As the sky bison was not used to predators being bigger than he was, convincing him was the only hard part.
Zuko knew, objectively, that Hakoda wouldn't be—well, he would be angry. But he'd be angry because he'd been worried, which was different from the anger Zuko was used to, which meant Zuko didn't know what that would look like or how to prepare for it. Hakoda wouldn't hurt him, he wouldn't, but how could you punish someone without hurting them?
The bison landed back on the deck of the Akhlut, and Zuko ran out of time to think. He slid off of it along with the others, his back straight, his breath of fire keeping back his shivers so that he wouldn't look like he was pretending to be weak just to beg lenience. Whatever was coming, it was worth it, and he could take it.
The Chief went to Panuk first. He held out his arm, and Panuk clasped it in that way the Water Tribe had.
"Next time you get the urge to swim," Hakoda said, "you clear it with me first, all right?"
"I'll keep that in mind," Panuk said, and let himself be pulled into a hug by that clasped arm. The Chief pounded him on the back, then gave him a shove towards the stairs down.
"I don't want to see you out of the healer's room until you've been cleared by Kustaa and Zuko," Hakoda said, which made Panuk laugh, but he didn't go down. He stood there, rubbing his arms for warmth, waiting for… for Zuko. Toklo took this opportunity to latch onto Panuk's side, which involved both hugging and shoving and a not inconsiderable amount of yelling.
Zuko stood up
His new father turned to Katara next. Another hug, and something said low into her ear that Zuko didn't catch, but she hugged him back, just briefly, and replied, "I don't need the Ocean's help to drown him," with a smile which was... something.
"Go down with them," Hakoda ordered, even as she pulled out of the hug to protest. "Katara, this isn't me fretting over you as a father, this is an order from your captain. We're in a lull, now. We'll need you rested if the storm gets worse. I always rotate my men—my ah, my crew. Warm up, eat something, sleep if you can. And see if there's anything you can do for these two idiots."
That left one last idiot for the Chief to deal with. No convenient waves rose up to wash Zuko out of the path of his attention.
Then he was in front of Zuko, and his hand was—it was coming straight for Zuko's face, on the side opposite his scar, and every joke about symmetry Zuko had ever heard snickered behind him at Fire Nation ports started replaying in his head—
The hand went past his face. It settled on the back of his head, just below his drowned-rat of a wolf tail, and then he was getting pulled forward until their foreheads touched. His dad breathed out and back in, with a steady cadence learned from nights doing correspondence while the lamps in his room followed a firebender's lead. Zuko matched him, his shoulders slumping.
"What," Hakoda asked, "was your plan?"
Hakoda huffed a laugh. "I've been meaning to have this conversation with you, son: jumping overboard should not be your first option."
"It's not always my first," Zuko said.
He got his hug, too. It felt even better than the others had looked.
Shapes darker than the waves raced ahead of the Akhlut, creating new currents in their wake. Seal Jerky darted between them, his pereopods scrabbling at snouts bigger than he was, yip-barking for play-now-play-more before curling himself into a ball. Fetch was a very good game for making sure that a puppy could keep up with his pack.
The big dogs remembered ships, and humans, and a time when they were small enough to play fetch with the great-grandfathers of the men above. When the pup grew tired, they'd return him to the deck, exhausted and exhilarated and ready for ear scritches. They knew how important it was to spend as much time with humans as they could. Old dogs could learn as many tricks as they wanted, but they could never fit back home.
(Yue looked across the vast gulf of space that separated the Moon from the Ocean. Then she reached out and slapped La upside the head, nearly flooding coastal towns all along the storm's path.
In the Ocean's defense, he'd only received prayers for the body of a drowned Fire Prince, not a living one.
This, Yue was beginning to realize, was going to be a long eternity.)
By the time Toklo made it back from the crew cabin with dry clothes for everyone, Katara had already rendered his thoughtful efforts a moot point. He allowed his own clothes to be dried by her weirdly scentless waterbending with minimal sulking, then squeezed his way between his two idiot friends. He could at least help warm them back up.
"I realized something, watching you two out there," Toklo said. "I'm the smart one."
And then he had an elbow in either side of his ribcage, because the truth hurt.
Katara waited for the ship's healer to finish draping the boys in a small mountain of fur, then went to work coaxing the seawater out of their lungs. It was precisely as pleasant as it sounded.
"Well that's not something I'd want to do twice," Panuk gagged, after she was finished. She'd done him first, not so much to make Zuko wait as because anyone who'd jumped overboard to save their friend probably wanted to see their friend helped first.
...It was weird to think about Zuko having friends.
"What about you, Zuko?" Panuk asked. "Wouldn't want to go overboard twice, would you? Oh, wait…"
"We weren't even in the water that long," Zuko snapped. "We weren't even wearing armor."
"...Armor. Because of course you were wearing armor the first time. How are you alive, did you out-stubborn death?"
Zuko was having a coughing fit now, which was the natural effect of trying to answer rhetorical questions while she was dredging water from his lungs. Katara gave him a very pointed look before re-feeling for all the water he'd just re-inhaled. As tempting as it was to leave it in and let him deal with the consequences of being a bad patient, Yagoda had said that water left in the lungs could breed sickness. Katara wasn't about to let Zuko get sick because she was a less competent healer than he was.
"I think he just doesn't realize when he should be dead," Toklo said. "Good thing he's not the smart one."
Zuko glared at his friend, opening his mouth. Katara glared at him. He shut it.
"Open your mouth and exhale. Slowly," Katara said, and coaxed a little ball of water up the final stretch of Zuko's throat. She let it splash on the floor with the rest of their collective puddle.
"Would you stop splashing lung-water on my floors, girl?" the healer grumbled.
Zuko coughed, and took in a deep breath. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. Now sit still and be quiet; I need to check you both over."
He didn't technically need to be quiet, but he didn't need to know that.
His newest prodigy sister closed her eyes and hovered her hands over both of them like she was reading something deep in their bodies, and declared that Zuko was fine, but Panuk was going to have bruises.
"Dragging against a hull will do that," Panuk joked.
Katara gave him an impatient expression. "Lift up your shirt."
Panuk did. And then Zuko's newest prodigy sister waved some glowing water around and made the half-formed bruises leave, as easily as she'd pulled the water from their drenched clothes, because Zuko couldn't even be the best at healing.
He let out a breath, and took another in. His next exhale was slower, calmer, and much warmer. Panuk made a startled-pleased sound, and shoved at Toklo's shoulder. "Hey, Smart One. Let me sit closer to the Warm One."
At least firebending was better for this part.
Time passed, the rhythm of the storm's waves sinking into their bones. They were less harsh now than they had been at the beginning, as if the Ocean had reigned itself in. Panuk and Toklo were sleeping. They were sleeping on him. Zuko, sick of staring up at the ceiling, slowly freed himself. On the other bed, Katara was asleep, too.
He opened the door, and slipped out as quietly as he could.
Katara was not asleep. Even so, she almost missed Zuko sneaking out. He was creepily, suspiciously quiet. She gave him a moment and then followed.
He was down the hall in the kitchen. Under them, the waves still churned, testing her new sea legs to their limit. It wasn't a time for full meals. But it had been hours, and the crew rotating in to warm their stiff hands over the little bolted-down coal stove needed fuel of their own. Zuko was setting out a small but steady stream of dried fish, seal jerky, and other easy foods. He was also taking soaked coats and gloves and steaming them dry between his hands. It looked like a slow, careful process.
Without a word, Katara stepped up next to him. She bent the water out of each item with a quick sweep of her hands; he took each, and returned it to its owner warm enough to make hardened warriors melt in warm comfort.
"Do you know where the spare blankets are in the healer's room?" he asked.
"You mean the ones your friends aren't wearing?" she snarked, but went to get them.
A pile of heated blankets later, they had some very content crewmen relaxing around the room's small table. Katara took over keeping the food coming as Zuko kept up his duty as a fireless hearth, grumbling each time someone dropped a blanket over his head to get it toasty warm again.
The men came and went, and the storm ebbed and surged. Katara took another shift on deck in the worst of it, and slept a little afterward—Panuk and Toklo were gone from the healer's room, and Sokka in their place, staring up at the ceiling like she'd been some hours ago.
"I feel exceptionally useless," he told the planks above him.
"I don't know how to sail, either," she said.
"That does not make me feel better in this particular instance, oh magical sister," he said. She couldn't remember if she said anything back; she was already asleep by then.
When she woke up, the storm had settled to something less all-encompassing. Zuko was still in the kitchen, surrounded by different crewmen.
"Do you ever sleep?" she asked, and got a half-dozen snorts of various volumes and a pointed glare from a former Fire Prince. Someone dropped a blanket over him to re-warm it. The blanket screeched, a lemur tumbling out its bottom.
Katara took back over drying soaked sailors and setting out new food. Taking care of their Tribe wasn't a competition.
They took their own break in a lull between rotations, when the room was empty of all but the two of them. And Momo, curled inside a blanket someone had dropped on the bench.
"Why did you stay on the Akhlut?" she asked him, grabbing one of the blankets for herself. He'd already done so; for someone who had an inner fire, he was a real freeze baby. "You could have gone anywhere."
Zuko didn't answer for a long time. He dragged Momo's blanket over, and pulled the lemur into his lap. Blanket-Momo purrfully closed his eyes as the firebender scratched between his ears.
"Hakoda let me rename his dog. He took me shopping, and wouldn't let me get a plain sea chest, and told me I could have red shirts. When I climb the main mast, he climbs after me."
Katara furrowed her brows. "I don't think I understood any of that."
"I didn't, either," Zuko said. And added, because she clearly needed more: "He didn't hurt me when we were enemies. And he wanted me, even when we weren't. There's not many people who want me."
That wasn't the important reason. He'd said the important reasons. But it was like Hakoda had told him, on the day they'd traded beads: sometimes, you had to give different reasons to different people, even if they weren't the ones that mattered to you. His new sister clearly didn't understand what sea chests and shirts had to do with anything. But she could understand mercy, which wasn't a thought he'd ever thought he'd associate with "my little sister can", so that was… weird. But good-weird.
Good-weird was a specialty of his new tribe.
"Your uncle wants you," Katara said softly.
"When did you talk to Uncle?" Zuko asked, frowning. Uncle had probably looked for him, at least for a few days, to… to find the body, so maybe they ran across him at a port. Or maybe Uncle had taken over his mission to catch the Avatar and deliver him home in Zuko's memory. But that didn't make sense, because Azula had caught the kid, which she wouldn't have been able to do if Uncle wanted him because Uncle would have beaten her to it months ago. The only reason Uncle hadn't been helping Zuko was so that Fath—so Ozai would know it had been Zuko alone who'd caught him.
"We met him at the North Pole," Katara said, which supported the Avatar-hunting theory. Why else would Uncle be so far— "When he was killing Admiral Zhao."
"He loves you, Zuko." Which Katara hadn't understood at all up at the North Pole, but she was starting to now. "Loves you enough to start a rebellion in your name."
So she told him of red fire blooming on a night the moon died, and a man who'd talked the Ocean down from its killing with promises of a more meaningful revenge.
While his sister and Zuko were inexplicably bonding in the kitchen—big appetite killer, that—Sokka took a deep breath in and a deep breath out, and knocked on his dad's door.
Right. Going in.
His dad had turned control of the deck over to Aake. Hakoda's old rain-sopped clothes hung over the back of his desk chair, drip-dripping on the floor in a way Sokka had kind of forgotten that clothes did, what with Katara around to insta-dry everything. His dad had pulled on new pants, but hadn't bothered with a shirt when he was clearly close to sleep. There were scars on his chest that Sokka didn't know the stories for.
Sokka sat down on the bed.
"Hey, dad. So, good news: I'm done needing space. Bad news: we need to talk."
Sokka patted the space next to him. His dad, with two blue beads and one red in his damp hair, joined him.
Other crewmen wandered in sometime during Zuko's shocked silence, Panuk and Toklo among them. Zuko served food and warmed clothes and adjusted the lemur that was for some reason on his shoulders in a daze.
Uncle was a traitor.
Uncle was a traitor in control of a significant percent of the Fire Navy's fleet, which Ozai probably thought lost at sea, because news of the Dragon of the West allying with the Northern Water Tribe had not drifted south. Uncle was negotiating a treaty with the Northern Water Tribe even while they sat here, and was probably going to try for the Earth Kingdom next. This was not the kind of treason that developed overnight.
"You okay, Zuko?" Panuk asked, throwing an arm over his shoulders and earning the chittering wrath of a lemur. He was smiling wide, but speaking low. "Did she say something to you?"
"A lot," Zuko said. Which made Panuk's smile twist into something different enough for Zuko to elaborate. "It's just… a lot to think about. Nothing bad. Things that happened the night the Moon was reborn."
Panuk eyed him a moment longer, then nodded, and let him go. The lemur batted one arm after him.
Uncle was a traitor.
Why was Uncle a traitor? When had he become one? It wasn't because of father taking the throne from him, or he would have pressed his claim after grandfather's death, when the military still remembered him as one of their own. It wasn't because of the war, or he wouldn't have kept advising at the councils. Uncle had been content to sit around the palace, drinking tea and playing pai sho games with other old people through the mail until—
Until the Agni Kai. He'd left with Zuko on their rustbucket ship with its dregs-of-the-navy crew, which was something Zuko had never understood. He'd known that Uncle had come to love him like a father. But before Hakoda, that had meant something very different to Zuko. It was Toklo and Panuk and Kustaa and his new dad who'd taught him that love didn't need to be earned, and it shouldn't—wouldn't—be taken away. It just was, and it showed in your actions.
Uncle thought Zuko had died on the quest Ozai set, and he was raising an army.
Zuko had to sit down.
"—And I get that it wasn't about me, but do you have any clue how it felt to miss you for two years, then find that you'd replaced me with Prince Zuko? You couldn't find a nice Earth Kingdom son to aggressively brainwash away from his terrible dad? Because Zuko is, and trust me when I say I've spent long hours thinking through the options, the literal bottom of my list for brother-candidates. And this is on a list that includes Jet and Hahn, La rest his dumbass soul—"
"—And another thing. Why does Zuko get to know how we sail? I should know how we sail. I should be a member of the crew, not the guy who's just visiting and always in the way, who can't even tie a knot right—"
His dad was a really great listener. Sokka had forgotten that.
Katara was healing a crewman's rope-burned hands when Zuko shook himself out of his stunned stupor. At least, he turned his head enough to watch, and his eyes focused on her glowing water instead of whatever thoughts had shut down his brain.
"How does that work?" he asked.
"It's about feeling the tangles in the energy flows, and fixing them."
His eyebrow furrowed. "That doesn't sound like something only waterbending can do," he said.
"Maybe it isn't," Katara said. Because Yagoda had told her how much the healing art had advanced during a hundred years; years in which the other nations wouldn't have met many, if any, trained healers. And because Zuko, with his blanket-staticky hair and a lemur head sticking out next to his, looked about as ridiculous as she would expect from a brother of hers.
"Want to try?" she offered.
Zuko leaned forward, and proceeded to listen with more sincere attention than the entire male populace of the north combined.
"—And then he offered to tell you he didn't want to be your son!" Sokka dramatically flailed, in a long line of dramatic flails. He had long ago flopped so his back was on the bed while his legs hung over the edge. This was an optimum flailing position. "I don't get him!"
"He's not so hard to get once you get used to him," his dad said.
Sokka did not glance over, because he didn't want to see the smile that tone implied. It was the Zuko Smile, and Sokka was sick of seeing it. Instead he grabbed his Screaming Pillow, the one that looked like a dog had mauled it and then a lackluster surgeon had stitched it back up, and dragged it over his face.
"Why would you try to protect him?" Sokka asked, from behind the soft suffocating succor of the pillow. "Yeah, bad home life, I get it. But he's still—he was—the Fire Prince. You always made me and Katara put back leopard-seal kittens, why'd you get to keep one?"
His dad didn't hesitate. "Because he tried to protect you first."
Sokka edged the pillow down, just far enough to peek over it. "From who?"
His dad was wearing the Zuko Smile again as he started on a story about a feverish prince and the world's most surreal interrogation. Sokka thought he was starting to understand the look a little more.
"I don't feel it," Zuko frowned.
Katara was sitting next to him on the kitchen's floor, over by the wall where they wouldn't be in the way but also didn't need to go anywhere else before starting this lesson right now because what if she changed her mind on the way. Panuk and Toklo had taken over for them in keeping the food coming. Zuko was holding one of her hands in his and concentrating so hard he was imagining little lightning tingles across his skin and under hers.
"They're like flowing water," she explained again. "There's a big one along the arm, right here; it goes away from the heart, then back towards it, following the veins. It branches off into streams, and those branch again, until everything in the body is connecting like a great estuary, with tides every heartbeat—"
He didn't feel anything like that.
"It takes most people more than one lesson," Katara said, in a way Azula never would. Her smile wasn't even sharp at the edges.
She didn't say how many lessons she'd needed, and he didn't need to ask.
Zuko tried again, but harder. He was an expert at trying harder, especially after near-death experiences.
The third time Zuko's eyes drifted closed, Katara declared their practice done.
"I can do it," Zuko insisted.
"I don't know about you," Katara said, "but when I learn about something new, it helps me to sleep on it. There's no sense exhausting yourself."
Zuko's eyebrow crinkled down like he fundamentally did not understand that exhaustion was not a learning aid.
"Zuko," she said. "I'm going to sleep. Again. If you really want, we can try again tomorrow."
"Contrary to what some people think, I'm not going anywhere."
"Yeah," Panuk said, setting down the box of supplies he'd just brought up from the hold. "Sorry about saying that."
"What," Katara said, "you didn't mean to make me feel useless?"
"Oh, I absolutely did. But Zuko can fight his own battles, and maybe you're not as bad as your brother."
She snorted. "I'll forgive you if you make sure he actually goes to bed."
"You drive a hard bargain."
Zuko glowered at them equally from under his blanket, and under his sleeping lemur.
Sokka graciously allowed one additional bedtime hug as he stood out in the hallway with his dad.
"I missed you," Sokka said, into a shoulder that wasn't as high up as he remembered. "I really, really missed you."
Hakoda hugged his son tight. He couldn't say I missed you, too —it was too simple, too automatic, too easy to compare how deeply they'd missed each other like it was a competition rather than a rend in both their lives.
"I'm so proud of you, Sokka."
He really shouldn't have been surprised at the bark this summoned.
"Eww, wet dog," his son half complained, half laughed, as the dripping isopuppy inserted himself between them. And their hug was over, just like that.
Just down the hall, the door to the kitchen opened. Panuk stepped out, pushing a grumbling Zuko ahead of him. The boys caught sight of each other.
Hakoda watched his sons exchanging mutual glares, and knew what he had to do. He set a hand on Sokka's shoulder. "You're a good boy, Seal Jerky."
Sokka's chest puffed out. "Thanks, dad."
"I hate you," Zuko declared. Panuk didn't have to apply any additional pushes to get him stomping towards the crew cabins.
When both his Fire and Water sons were off to their respective beds, Hakoda knelt down, and scratched his dog's soggy ears. "A very good boy," he whispered. "Yes you are. Where's Zuko? Where is he, boy? Go find Zuko."
The dog wagged his tail, painting the walls in sea water.
"You should talk to dad," Sokka said, staring up at the ceiling.
"You should talk to Zuko," Katara retorted.
Which left a silence in their lamp-deprived room that hung for only a moment, before there came a sound like an exhausted day crew being suddenly woken by a Good Dog shake-sharing his ocean adventure with them in a thousand cold droplets to their faces, followed quickly by princely shouting.
"No, down, you're too big—"
And a very final sort of crash, as if of a hammock reaching its weight limit. With bonus lemur screeching.
"Seal Jerky, GET OFF—"
Sokka stared up at the dark ceiling for a moment, thoughts as ponderously perilous as the waves that still rocked their ship.
"Did he just call the dog Seal Jerky?"
"Zuko did mention that he'd renamed him," Katara informed her other brother.
"You can't name the dog after me!" Sokka shouted, clear through the floorboards.
"Both of you go to sleep," Bato roared back, like a man too tired to admit he'd done this to himself.
For the first time since he'd left the south, Hakoda had no doubt that he was dadding correctly.
They rode the storm through the night, winds and waves and the current caused by good dogs bearing them unerringly west, fast as in a spirit tale.
Meanwhile, in the safety of a deep anchorage at Fire Nation controlled (and Kyoshi guerrilla pestered) Whale Tail island, a princess with no particular cause for hurry had graciously allowed her ship's captain to wait out the storm.
She would, perhaps, have felt less indulgent had she known just how many Water Tribe ships this put ahead of her.
As the skies above them cleared, Zuko coaxed a dramatic bird into carrying a very overdue message to an Uncle that loved him. And had, even before Zuko knew how to properly love back.
The bird did not have quite so far to fly as one might presume.