To say that wandering around the Palace of the Fire Lord unaccompanied and not heading for his own execution is weird, is an understatement, Hakoda decides.
The ornate halls are decked in deep reds, dark stone and gold trim, and Hakoda, stripped to his under-robes, is still overheating.
He will be alone here for a few days; his fourteen-year-old daughter left with the Avatar to help set up refugee camps outside Ba Sing Se. She had kissed his cheek and pulled her pack onto her shoulders, standing tall with a confidence that came only from suffering and looking to all the world a grown woman. Sokka, too, was on a trip to Kyoshi island with Suki. Toph had accompanied them, claiming she was bored of being forced to sit in meetings and that if they didn’t let her go, she’d break the table in half at the next one. Sokka had acquiesced immediately. The way he rolled his eyes after Toph flew into his arms made Hakoda think that, perhaps, his son no longer had only one sister.
So, for now, the palace is quiet. He wanders past an open door and hears the tell-tale sounds of a meeting going on, and stops outside to listen. He attends them half the time, but makes Bato go in his stead the other half. Bato is slightly more level-headed and infinitely more able to deal with the never-ending stream of underhanded insults and patronizing comments that come with being a tribesman among national leaders.
“-financial reparations of course should and will be made,” A tired and familiar voice was saying. “However, our economy is currently tied up in the military, and we don’t have the liquid assets to send out immediately.”
“Fire Lord,” Someone is saying sternly. “Your nation needs to pay for what you have done.”
“And we will.” The familiar voice is saying, and now there’s a lilt of frustration so Hakoda recognizes it immediately. “But until we can make actual reparations, I hope you will accept our help in setting up camps and assisting in rebuilding efforts.”
“I suppose we will have to.”
There is some shuffling, some muttered talking, and dignitaries come flooding out of the room. Hakoda nods to some of them, and then Bato comes out, rolling his bad shoulder and groaning.
“Chief,” He greets.
“I didn’t know there was a meeting today,” Hakoda says as some minor Earth King begins berating a younger diplomat over a mistake in formalities.
Bato raises an eyebrow and grins, knocking shoulders with him. “Do you ever?”
Hakoda shrugs. “Occasionally. How many Earth Kingdom leaders implied we’re savages today?”
The King stops his reproaching to shoot Hakoda a nasty look, and Hakoda bows to him in response. Bato rolls his eyes, deeply unimpressed.
“Only a few.” He glances back at the open door. “You know the Fire Lord?”
Hakoda shrugs again. “He’s friends with the kids.”
“Hm. You should check on him. Didn’t look so good during the meeting.”
“Good as in, like, he wasn’t great at politicking, way, or-”
“I think he’s sick.” Bato says flatly. “So unless you want the next meeting to include the Fire Lord puking all over the budget scrolls, maybe see if he's okay?”
Hakoda glances up the hallway, like perhaps Katara will appear and take over dealing with the prickly teenager. Of course, his daughter is off treating refugees with the Avatar and Bato is still staring at him expectantly, arms crossed.
“Fine,” He sighs, and he claps Bato on the cheek before heading into the room.
Zuko is still seated on the ground, hunched over the table with hands pressed deep into his eyes. He’s still in formal robes, but his hair has begun to fall out of its top-knot and strands of it are settled about his face. Hakoda can see from here the flush on his cheeks and resists the urge to feel his forehead.
“Fire Lord,” He says. Zuko startles and looks up. For a second, his expression is something incomprehensible- the closest Hakoda can relate it to is sheer fear- before it smooths into something decidedly more neutral.
“Chief Hakoda,” He says, bowing his head in greeting.
“Please,” Hakoda says, crossing the room and sitting cross-legged next to him. “Just call me Hakoda. After all, you did save my life and my daughter’s. We’re in your debt.”
That gets a twitch of a smile from the teenager, and now that he’s closer, Hakoda can see fully the glassiness of his eyes. He never noticed, but the scarred eye doesn’t quite have the same coppery-golden coloring as the other- it’s covered in a dull sheen of white. He wonders vaguely how much sight he retained. It must have been quite a training accident, to produce a scar like that.
“Zuko, then,” The boy rasps out. “And it was the least I could do to make up for-”
“Zuko,” Hakoda cuts him off firmly. “If my children have forgiven you for your past, then so have I.”
There’s a long, pregnant silence. Hakoda doesn’t quite know how to ask a sixteen year-old who’s political power is only rivaled by the Avatar if he’s sick. Especially not one that is studiously avoiding eye contact like he’s allergic.
“Is there- is there something I can help you with?” Zuko offers, rubbing the back of his neck. “I spoke to your second-in-command, and all water tribe members have already been released from the prisons, but-”
“No, I’m sure Bato discussed with you what was necessary. I come on strict instructions from Katara.” Hakoda lies smoothly. Zuko seems to perk up at the mention of one of his friends, and the smile that finds its way to his face makes him seem much closer to a child than the leader of a war-beaten nation.
“Katara?” He says hopefully. He coughs into his elbow and Hakoda tries not to raise his eyebrows.
“She was concerned that you may be becoming ill and asked me to check on you.”
Zuko narrows his eyes.
“Even if I am,” he says carefully, and Hakoda remembers suddenly that Toph is practically a walking human lie detector and that the boy has probably gotten used to telling half-truths. “I have several meetings this afternoon and I can’t just, you know, take a sick day!”
To emphasize his point, he throws his hands up in the air, and tries and fails badly, to hide the ensuing grimace.
Hakoda is silent for a moment. The boy’s movements are jerky and uncoordinated, and his breathing uneven. He knows for a fact that the first training young firebenders go through is breath control.
“Very well,” Hakoda stands up. “Could you at least come point me in the direction of the gardens- Aang said something about a pond?”
Zuko nods, and makes to get up from the table. Whatever color is left in his pale skin drains completely out, and Hakoda only needs to take one step closer to catch the child as his eyes roll back into his head. Hakoda sighs, and finally gives in to checking his temperature. He is hot to the touch- but then again, most firebenders were.
“Guard!” He calls out. One steps into the doorway, and her eyes only go slightly wide at the sight of the Fire Lord passed out in Hakoda’s arms.
“You may want to send for a physician.” He glances down at the boy in his arms. “And for General Iroh in Ba Sing Se.”
“Well, his wounds don’t look infected,” The physician says, straightening up from bending at Zuko’s bedside.
“I told you that,” Zuko says, pulling the blankets up over his chest, and is that a hint of a whine in his voice?
“I believe it’s a chest infection.” The physician says to Hakoda. “I will have my assistant send over a tincture to be taken once every three hour. His fever will need to be monitored, so I will send over some nurses too.”
He begins packing his bag, and Hakoda hazards a glance. The boy is merely a lump, having curled up under his blankets and made himself as small as possible. Hakoda can only see some of his loose hair and the top of his scar, and he wonders how many times Sokka or Katara were sick in the past few years and were devoid of either parent to nurse them back to health.
“That’s alright, I’ll sit with Fire Lord Zuko myself,” He decides.
The physician looks at Zuko for confirmation, but Zuko is half-asleep already, and doesn’t give a response.
“Very well, I will just send up the tincture.”
He bows to Zuko and turns and leaves.
“Don’t patronize me. I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.” Zuko says, muffled from under his pillow, which detracts from the heat of his words.
“I’m certain you are, but Katara would never forgive me if you were sick and I didn’t send her updates on your condition.” Hakoda says again. And again, Zuko acquiesces.
“Fine,” he says shortly, and turns away from Hakoda, “But I’m getting up in an hour to go to my council meeting.”
“And I’m going to find the pond. I’ll be back soon.”
Hakoda pushes open the door to the bedroom, half-expecting to find it empty, and he mentally prepares himself for the onslaught the teen is sure to unleash when Hakoda interrupts his meeting.
Instead, he finds Zuko. On the ground. Curled up in a patch of sunlight with just a blanket. Spirits, he’s like one of the cats who wandered around the ships, doing little else than catching the ratfish and seeking out the sun wherever they found it.
“Zuko,” Hakoda kneels by the boy and shakes his shoulder. The heat radiating off of him doesn’t seem normal, even for a firebender.
Zuko cracks open his good eye, and Hakoda can almost immediately tell he’s not fully lucid.
“Why are you out of bed?” He asks.
“S’too soft,” Zuko mumbles. A cough gets caught in his throat, and for a minute, his shoulders shake with pain as if his body is trying to expel his lungs. He struggles to sit up, breathing heavily. “Hafta go- meeting-“
“The only meeting you need is with your bed, Fire Lord Zuko.”
Zuko’s face screws up in confusion.
“Fire Lord? Prince.” He corrects. “I’m a prince. Crown Prince”
Hakoda sighs and reaches out to try and help him up, and isn't at all surprised when the boy shrugs off his hands and gets up himself, leaning against the wall for support.
“Prince Zuko, you should get in bed.”
“Yes, your meeting.” Hakoda says patiently, and guides him back to the bed.
“I have- I have a meeting- Father is going to, he’s gonna kill me-“
Hakoda bites his tongue hard, as he gently pushes him down onto the pillows and pulls his blankets back up.
They’d been at sea for several years, and there was not much to do with long nights at sea except gossip. Hakoda had heard plenty about Ozai, how he was not only a strict, absent father, but a cruel one.
Hakoda glances at Zuko again, at the scar that curls around his deformed ear and into his forehead, and can’t stop himself from reaching out and brushing his loose hair away from his eyes.
The fever worsens steadily with every passing hour. Hakoda forces the tincture down Zuko’s unwilling throat, and, when he sweats through his sleep-clothes, takes him out of his shirt and tries to swallow his shock before the half-lucid boy notices.
He was aware of the lightning strike, and that it was his sister, attempting to kill. He knows the wound was grave but not fatal, and that explains the crisp white bandaging that covers a majority of his torso.
But it doesn’t explain everything else. Hakoda had been at war for many years, before that had fended off raids and tried to keep his village in one piece, and he didn’t have nearly the collection of scars this child did.
Some were certainly congruent with war wounds; thin, neat scars from sword swipes, splotchy bumps where broken ribs didn’t heal quite right. It was the others that shocked him. There were obvious burn scars up and down his arms and Hakoda could swear that the five marks on the back of his shoulder would fit perfectly with the fingertips of a grown man.
Zuko turns away from Hakoda, mumbling about cold water and the moon, and Hakoda just thanks any spirits listening that the boy is finally asleep.
He decides to slip to his room, just for a minute while Zuko is asleep, to retrieve some letters from the Southern tribe.
That’s his first mistake.
His second mistake occurs on his way back.
He's walking back, engrossed in a letter from Kanna detailing her recent engagement to Pakku, who, by all accounts, was a raging sexist that she ran from as a young woman, so Hakoda is a little bit perplexed, and maybe that’s how he misses Zuko stumbling in a daze past him.
And then Hakoda realizes and whips around so fast he thinks he’ll have a crick in his neck by morning.
Zuko turns around and his eyes widen like Hakoda has just caught him having a second helping of egg custard. His robe is hanging off his shoulders untied, and spirits, Hakoda can’t help it, why can’t the child just go to sleep?
“What are you doing?” Hakoda says gruffly, moving swiftly and grabbing his wrist. Zuko says nothing, just stares at Hakoda wide-eyed and slack-jawed.
“Why are you out of bed?” He tries again, as he leads the boy down the hall. Zuko just shakes his head, and Hakoda can hear how labored his breathing is from here.
“M-meeting,” Zuko stammers hoarsely. “I have-”
“A meeting, I know, a meeting.”
It’s late enough that the only people who see the Southern Water Tribe Chief gently manhandle the Fire Lord back to his bedroom are the occasional guard stationed along the halls.
In retrospect, Hakoda should have been suspicious of how quiet Zuko was being. An irritated Zuko was one who made everyone around him aware of his irritation. A terrified Zuko, apparently, completely clams up and goes limp.
The second they reach his room, Zuko yanks his hand away from Hakoda and holds it tight to his chest. He backs away from him, his eyes blown asymmetrically wide.
“I’m sorry, s-sorry,” He whispers. “I’m sorry, please-”
“Zuko?” Hakoda looks over his shoulder, on the off-chance that somehow his sister or father have escaped their holds and are standing in the doorway, but it’s empty. Hakoda realizes, with the ice-cold water of discomfort in his stomach, that Zuko is talking to him.
“You have nothing to be sorry for, what’s wrong?”
But Zuko is barely listening. He’s backed himself into a corner, his long hair is matted down with sweat, and his wolf-golden eyes have developed a wild glint.
“P-please, I’m sorry, please-”
This is his third and final mistake. Hakoda doesn’t mean to snap, just wants to get his attention, but Zuko doesn’t, or can’t, make that distinction.
His back hits the wall. He slides down it, one hand wrapped tight around his bad shoulder, the other held out in front of him, his head turned away into the wall and his eyes shut tight against the tears that have already started falling.
“Please,” he whimpers, and Hakoda thinks he might be sick to his stomach. “Please, Father, don’t, I’ll be good, please, my face- it hurt so bad last time, please-”
The boy continues with his broken pleas, but Hakoda has gone very still several feet away from Zuko, and he can no longer hear anything but a violent rush in his ears.
The scar on Zuko’s face has a distinct shape. Hakoda has never really thought about it, but perhaps, he was simply refusing to acknowledge how the mottled, fused flesh is flat along the bridge of his nose and splayed out to five distinct points, beginning on his forehead and ending behind his deformed ear. How it is darker and more severe around the eye that is permanently half-swollen shut, like the damage was concentrated there.
How Hakoda is now and forever will be, aware of the fact that there exists in this universe a person monstrous enough to hold down a child- a child he must have been, the Fire Lord is only sixteen, and the scar is old- and purposefully scorch the skin off his face with their hand.
He thinks of Sokka when he was younger. Short, skinny, a chipped tooth from being a little too reckless playing warriors with the other kids, constantly stealing sweetbread and antagonizing his little sister. He thinks of Sokka, forced to his knees, as Zuko must have been, held down, and disfigured. He thinks of Sokka screaming himself hoarse. Imploring for help, for leniency, and receiving none of it.
A few years back, they stopped at an Earth Kingdom port only a few clicks off from a Fire Nation Colony. Bato had come back on board with a wildly sensational story from a bartender, rolling his eyes even as he relayed it, that Ozai had challenged his son to a duel- an Agni Kai, they were called in the Fire Nation- after the child disrespected him. That the child had prostrated himself before the Fire Lord and refused to fight. That, in front of a crowd, the child had begged for mercy. That, in response, the Fire Lord caressed his son’s cheek, and then grabbed his hair to hold his face in place while he lit it on fire. That no one intervened, as the child screamed and cried and begged. That the Fire Lord continued until he fell unconscious from the pain, and while the child lay at his feet, announced his banishment to the watching crowd.
Bato had looked equal parts uncomfortable and dismissive while telling it, and Hakoda immediately decided it was ridiculous propaganda- either from the Fire Nation to demonstrate their ruthlessness, or from the Earth Kingdom to demonstrate the cruelty of their oppressor, and had not thought about it since.
Except for now. Except for standing in the quarters of the Fire-Lord regent- not crowned yet, you see, on account of having been shot full of lightning by his sister and afflicted with a terrible fever, and seeing the Fire Lord himself backed into a corner and begging for mercy.
Perhaps Hakoda knew from the moment he met Zuko that the story was true. Everything about the boy screamed that he had endured unthinkable trauma, and the scar was so distinctive. Perhaps Hakoda had always known and simply never wanted to acknowledge the terrible truth.
Hakoda is going to be sick. His blood is boiling, and he is sure he will never regain what little hope he had for humanity left, and he is going to be sick.
He doesn’t know where Ozai is being held. He’ll find out later.
For now, there is a very sick teenager on the ground before him, sobbing and taking shuddering breaths that cannot be carrying enough oxygen to his lungs. Hakoda swallows the bile in his throat, clenches his fists tight, and drops to his knees in front of the child.
“Zuko,” He says, and his voice is as soft and gentle as when Katara was born and he was handed his daughter for the first time. “Zuko, listen to me.” He places his hands turned up on his knees. “I am not going to hurt you. I’m going to stay right where I am. I just need you to tell me you can hear me.”
Zuko is still sobbing, his hands at his throat, but he nods slightly.
“Good. Breathe, okay? In, out.”
Hakoda sits very still and exaggerates his breaths, trying to imitate the firebending meditation he’s seen Zuko do in the very early hours of the morning.
It takes a few minutes, but Zuko catches on, and is soon sitting straight up against the wall, breathing evened out. His eyes are closed and he keeps rubbing at his scar like it hurts. Maybe it does.
“Great job,” Hakoda says softly. “Keep breathing. I’m not going to hurt you.”
Zuko nods again. His voice cracks when he says in a strained tone, “I know.”
The tight feeling in Hakoda’s chest dissipates infinitesimally.
“Okay,” He breathes. “Let’s get you to bed. Can you get up?”
Zuko stumbles up and nearly slips back down the wall. Hakoda has to physically restrain himself from reaching out to help. He has a hunch Zuko will not respond well to touch. By the grace of Tui and La, Zuko somehow makes it back to the bed. He collapses into the pillows, and Hakoda pulls up the blankets.
By the time Hakoda has managed to inform a guard that all meetings tomorrow need to be postponed and drag a chair to his bedside, Zuko has fallen fast-asleep.
Hakoda allows himself a moment to stare at the tear-stained, fever-rosy, sixteen-year-old face of the Fire Lord. Sixteen. At sixteen, Hakoda had some responsibilities in the village, sure, but spent a great deal of his time getting into trouble with Bato and trying to impress Kya. Not attempting to piece back together a war-fractured country, forced to work with generals complicit in his own abuse and banishment.
Hakoda sits back in his chair, rubs his eyes firmly, and silently forgives Zuko every past sin.
The fever is not broken by morning, but the physician sees some improvement, and with any luck, the Fire Lord should be able to resume light duties within a few days. Zuko is far more lucid than the prior night, and Hakoda swears he sees him rolling his eyes as he brings over a breakfast tray.
“Rest will do you good.” Hakoda says as he hands him his tray.
Zuko huffs and disinterestedly picks at the roll on his plate as he goes over briefing materials brought in this morning.
“I have too much to do-” His complaint is cut short by a harsh coughing fit. Hakoda lifts the tray from his lap so the tea won’t spill.
Hakoda is fully aware. Today was meant to be focused on the abolition of work camps, where a good amount of political prisoners are held, and he knows Zuko is trying to weed out any council members still abetting in Ozai’s agenda. He has far too much to do. But he also can’t go more than three minutes without coughing so hard his face turns violently red.
“I think you should listen to your physician.” Hakoda says mildly, and the scowl Zuko sends in his direction seems properly childish enough that Hakoda relaxes a bit.
They sit in silence for a few minutes. Hakoda has found that some Fire Nation teas are very similar to the hot drinks prepared back home, and is nursing one now to quell his ever present homesickness. Zuko is still picking at his food like he’s hoping it’ll disappear off the plate before he has to eat it.
“So, last night,” Hakoda starts casually, sipping his tea. Zuko immediately flushes and stays silent.
“You were very sick, Fire Lord Zuko.” Hakoda says. He doesn’t want to embarrass the boy, but he has to make sure he understands. “But I want you to know that what has happened to you in the past does not define you, and that I hope you have understood by now that no child could ever do anything terrible enough to deserve that kind of punishment.”
And that any adult who inflicts it ought to be abandoned in the tundra without clothing or food-
“Yes.” Zuko says, and he’s sitting up painfully straight. “Yes, I know.”
“Okay.” Hakoda says softly. “I know you don’t know me well, but believe me when I say I would rather fall on my own spear than harm a child.”
Zuko looks at him, and nods once.
“I believe you.” He says. He is stiff and proper, and perhaps he doesn’t really fully believe Hakoda, but this is a step in the right direction, and Hakoda will not push him.
“Good. Now, I have to ask you if Sokka ever told you about the time that he slept-walked into a village meeting with no pants on…”
Iroh arrives late in the evening, and Zuko is sleeping when Hakoda steps out to greet him.
“How is my nephew?” He asks urgently.
“Better,” Hakoda assures. “He has a bad fever and a cough, but the court Physician isn’t worried.”
“Zuko has always been prone to fevers.” Iroh says. “Thank you for sending a messenger hawk. He can be...difficult while ill.”
Hakoda huffs a laugh. “Yes, I’ve learned.”
“You sat with him?”
“All night. The children are gone, and-” He shrugs. “He needed help.”
Iroh looks at him steadily, and Hakoda notices his eyes are the same shade as Zuko’s- warm gold, flecks of copper.
“Thank you.” He says. “For taking care of him.”
“From what I’ve been told, you took care of my children every chance you had. It was the least I could do to take care of yours.”
Iroh bows his head and makes to go into the room, but Hakoda catches his arm, caught with a sudden need to confirm.
“Iroh, the scar.” Hakoda says, low and urgent. “It was Ozai?”
“My brother was as cruel with his children as he was with the rest of the world.” He says. “I did my best to shield Zuko, but I couldn’t stop him from…”
He trails off, and Hakoda can see he’s staring at Zuko, curled up in his bed.
“It was really an Agni Kai?” Hakoda says. He doesn’t want to know the answer, isn’t sure why he asks.
“Yes. In front of the court.”
“I thought it was propaganda.”
Iroh smiles sadly. “No. There is not much exaggerating to be done when it comes to Ozai’s treatment of his son.”
“I understand.” He says, and Iroh bows his head once more and enters Zuko’s room.
Hakoda stays by the door, wants to give them space, and watches from afar as the older man sits on the edge of the bed and gently cups his nephew’s scarred cheek. When Zuko’s eyes open, there is no flicker of fear or distrust. There is just Zuko immediately flying into his Uncle’s open embrace. Hakoda watches as he buries his face in Iroh’s robes, watches as Iroh combs his hair out of his face and holds him close.
Hakoda hopes Sokka and Katara are getting back soon.
Iroh sits with Zuko for the rest of the day and night, and the next morning, Hakoda drags himself to a meeting with Northern Water Tribe officials where Bato elbows him no less than twelve times to stop him from saying something stupid.
Hakoda can’t help it. The Northern Tribe ignored the war and their sister tribe for years. Excuse him if he feels a little righteous anger. He’s sitting in the courtyard, trying to get his temper back under control when Appa lands in front of him.
“Dad!” Katara hops off the back, closely followed by Aang while the rest of the kids unload.
Hakoda readily accepts the hug from his daughter, and if he holds her a moment longer than normally, no one will know.
“How was it?” He asks, taking her pack and slinging it over his shoulders.
Katara tightens her jaw. “Bad. We need more healers. That’s why we’re back so early. I need Arnook to authorize Northern healers to come help. Some of the Earth Kingdom healers are good, but we’re running out of supplies too quickly.”
Hakoda thinks about the man’s decidedly not traditional Water Tribal tendency towards isolationism and sighs.
“I’ll try and help you convince him.” He says.
“Hi, Dad!” Sokka appears, one arm around Suki’s shoulders, looking slightly tanner and much more relaxed. “Did you have fun at the Palace without us?”
Hakoda pulls his eldest son into a tight embrace and ignores his indignant squawk when he kisses the top of his head.
“What was that for?” Sokka demands, straightening out his tunic and trying desperately to hide how red his face has gotten. Suki badly stifles a laugh and Toph doesn’t attempt to stifle hers at all.
Hakoda shrugs as they move towards the palace doors.
“I can hug my children, can’t I? It’s been alright- Zuko’s been sick, and-”
“Wait.” Toph says and stops where she is. “Sparky’s sick?”
“Yes?” Hakoda says, and is not ashamed to admit he’s slightly scared of this twelve-year-old girl. Toph sighs dramatically and stomps up the steps, blowing open the doors with a flick of her wrist.
“Has he been super whiney?” Sokka cackles and follows Toph up.
“D’you remember when he caught a cold on Ember Island and was all ‘I can’t be angry all the time with a stuffy nose’ ?” Aang says.
“Oh spirits, do I,” Katara groans. “He wouldn’t even let me try and heal him. Massive baby.”
“He was supposed to spar with me then.” Suki says morosely. “We still haven’t sparred.”
They disappear into the Royal Palace while openly talking shit about the Fire Lord. Hakoda has a hunch where they’re going and isn’t sure if he should stop them.
He gives himself one more minute of standing in the setting sunlight and breathing deeply before he follows them in.
When he gets to Zuko’s bedroom, it only takes a second to realize the arguments have followed them in, and he braces himself to find at least one angry overpowered teenager ready to bring down the palace around them.
“Flameo!” Aang’s voice rings out, and he hears Katara’s giggle before Zuko says indignantly,
‘That’s- that’s not real slang-”
Hakoda steps into the doorway. Iroh is sitting at Zuko’s bedside, quietly sipping tea and allowing this full-fledged assault on his nephew, who looks far better than he did yesterday. He’s wearing a loose sleep robe, his hair is tied back, and he sounds coherent. Toph is laying on the bed next to him, plucking food off of Zuko’s abandoned tray and occasionally sticking her feet on his legs. Zuko, surprisingly, lets her. Aang is hanging upside-down off the top of the bedframe and Katara seems to be trying to coax him down, while Sokka and Suki are sitting together on the couch by the bed.
“How would you even know what the slang is, Crown Prince Ritzy-Ritzy?” Toph says. Zuko turns and stares at her, and then seems to shake himself.
“You’re a Beifong,” He complains. “And I’m not the Crown Prince. I’m the Fire Lord.”
And in a deeply unimpressed tone, considering that they’re children who count among them three master benders, two warriors, two titles of nobility, and the literal Avatar, they all groan in unison.
Aang flips off the bedpost and bows deeply to Zuko, allowing his nose to touch his knees.
“My apologies, Fire Lord Hotman.” He says gravely.
Toph cackles and punches Zuko’s arm, while Zuko drags his hands down his face.
“Uncle,” He pleads. Iroh looks up from his tea and smiles benignly.
“Avatar Aang,” He says. “Your slang is correct. Please keep using it, especially in regards to Fire Lord Zuko.”
The room erupts into cheers, and Hakoda can barely hear Zuko wail, “How could you say that?” over Sokka’s peals of laughter. But still, there is a hint of a smile on Zuko’s face, and his shoulders are relaxed as he kicks Toph’s feet off of him and the kids keep up their relentless teasing.
He looks happy.
Hakoda resolves to keep it that way.