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Forgiving (These Bloodied Hands)

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When a guard comes bursting into his cell only a few moments after he himself is placed there, Hakoda is understandably concerned. The warden hadn't been wrong, after all; dramatic and horrible rumors about the Boiling Rock prison had filtered their way onto his ship long before they'd even come close to Fire Nation waters. (All manner of horrible and dramatic rumors had made their way onto his ship, really, but now isn't exactly the time to speculate on that.)

 

Being identified as the leader and placed in a cell block separate from his crew had been daunting enough, but now he's been taken from the Fire Nation homeland entirely and he feels the ocean stretching between not just him and his children, but him and his crew. The only solid thing he's been able to count on for two and a half years now, and being ripped from them has Hakoda feeling overwraught and unsteady.

 

(Idly, he thinks this must be what Bato felt like being left at that abbey. Not so idly, he thinks this must be how his children felt when he left the South Pole and isn't that a horrifying prospect?)

 

Anyways, the rumors are bad, and the presense of a guard in his cell so soon probably means they're going to torture him for information on where Aang and the rest of the children went. He's not above admitting that he's a little scared, but these ashmakers aren't getting anything out of him, least of all compliance.

 

“Thank goodness you're okay!” the guard cries, which is... weird. But Hakoda has heard of this; the way the Fire Nation tries to get inside your head and he'll be damned if he's falling for it.

 

Sliding into a defensive stance and raising his fists, he snarls back, “You take one more step and you'll find out how 'okay' I really am.” The guard (who is really small, now that Hakoda thinks about it) raises his hands and pulls off his helmet, and whatever he says is drowned out by the blood pounding in Hakoda's ears as he sees his son, safe and alive and... and here.

 

His sweet, brilliant, amazing, stupid son is here, in the most notorious prison in the Fire Nation, and a whole myriad of emotions are flooding him so intensely that his arms sag around Sokka's (pointier than usual) body and he just stands there for a few moments.

 

Unfortunately for Hakoda, the situation only gets weirder. It would seem there's another child here, Suki, whose warriors he'd met in the first prison. (The vicious and tight knit group of ladies there had been quick to inform him and the rest of his crew that they didn't need any sort of protection, nor did they appreciate any implication that they might. It had actually brought about a few brief moments of levity, seeing his crew so thoroughly cowed by some teenage girls. He thought it was probably character building for them.) Apparently an escape attempt has already been made, but some other prisoners involved themselves and then ruined it. Hakoda is itching to ask how that happened without Sokka's cover being blown, but the words die in his throat when Sokka tells him that one Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation is also here. Which is a problem.

 

The conversation reaches peak weirdness when Sokka informs him that Prince Zuko is actually on their side and that Sokka wouldn't have succeeded in getting here without his help.

 

Hakoda really wishes he could sit and think about this for a while, but time isn't a luxury they've got, so he shoves it to the back of his mind and starts thinking of a plan.

 

(But he also promises himself that he'll keep a close watch on Prince Zuko when they meet, because while Sokka sounds sincere, he thinks it's probably best that he reserve judgement for now.)

 

***

 

The plan ends up being exceedingly simple: create a distraction (a riot shouldn't be hard to incite) grab a hostage (preferably the warden) and ride the gondola to safety. Hakoda pointedly does not mention the whole “death before dishonor” thing the Fire Nation has going on but does casually mention that they should probably gag their hostage. Just in case.

 

The most agonizing wait of his life ticks by slowly as he sits on his bunk and tries to clear his head. Going through with the plan and escaping is the first priority. If when they escape, he can think about everything else.

 

It is this mantra that carries him until the prison erupts around him with a horrible, screeching metal sound as apparently every cell door opens. As the corridor fills up, Hakoda blends in fairly easily and moves with the crowd towards what seems to be some sort of concrete courtyard in the middle. Several glances upwards confirm what he suspects; Sokka opened every cell. Smart lad.

 

In the courtyard, Hakoda looks around wildly for his son and buzzes with relief when he makes out his son's face, now clear of the guard's helmet. He's standing next to a young woman with russet colored hair and fiery, intense eyes that must be Suki. The third and royal member of their party doesn't seem to be there. Sokka tells him that just after he went to inform Zuko of the plan, the prince was dragged away by guards by order of the warden, which really throws Hakoda for a loop. He expected the prince to be disguised as a guard as well, but being a prisoner... Well, that's incredibly dangerous, especially if the 'traitor prince' he's heard many a guard refer to in the past couple of weeks actually is Zuko, and not Iroh like he'd originally thought.

 

His attempt at starting a riot is... well, he can admit it doesn't go well. He's willing to bet he shoved the one and only prisoner in here who's 'working on his anger' and it's probably childish to feel so chafed by something like that, but he does. The situation, already complicated by the missing prince, happily decides to get worse when a prisoner approaches them and informs Sokka that he intends to escape with them, which is why he didn't rat Sokka out as the fake guard. Hakoda opens his mouth to point out that he can't really hold that over Sokka's head anymore, but Sokka beats him to it by throwing his finger into the burly man's face and saying, “You know how to start a riot?”

 

The situation happily uncomplicates itself when Anger Management Man is hoisted into the air and Burly Encroacher shouts, “Riot!” The courtyard is immidiately filled with a cacophony of shouting and profanity and hurled fireballs.

 

Now he knows.

 

Hakoda turns to ask Sokka how they should go about locating their missing prince when he sees another prisoner weaving his way through the chaos to their group. As the newcomer launches himself over a pair wrestling on the ground, the sun hits him directly and Hakoda gets his first look at the infamous scar painting the left side of Prince Zuko's face.

 

(Yes, many dramatic, outlandish and horrible rumors made their way aboard his ship, but none were so deeply disturbing and unbelievable as the tale of Prince Zuko, kneeling before Fire Lord Ozai while his face burned.)

 

Another prisoner appears behind Zuko and tries to wrap an arm around his shoulders to haul him backwards, but the kid catches the man's wrist and then his upper arm, plants his feet, and throws the much larger man over his shoulder. Hakoda doesn't want to admit that it's impressive. (It is.)

 

Amazingly, the kid proceeds to completely ignore both him and Burly Encroacher to focus solely on Sokka, asking almost frantically how they plan on grabbing the warden. Their back and forth exchange grows more and more frenzied until Hakoda thinks he sees a stray wisp of smoke coming from the kid's hair, but before he can address that, Burly Encroacher announces that Suki's handling the warden. He glances over in time to see her scaling the wall, swinging herself back and forth over the railings and taking down soldiers as she goes. The warden is standing on the fourth landing, and the group collectively groans as they begin to follow up the stairs.

 

Fortunately, Sokka seems to have passed the 'gag the warden' recommendation on to Suki, or she thought of it herself, because the warden's stupid headpiece has been turned and fashioned into a knot in his mouth when they get there. (Hakoda hopes he's been sweating in it all day .) Their tag-a-long prisoner hoists the warden over his shoulders like a sack of rice, and they're running again by the time the reinforcements have reached the second landing.

 

Everything seems to stutter to a halt when Hakoda rounds the corner next to Prince Zuko to see a waiting group of guards who are throwing a concentrated fireball directly at Sokka. The hope beginning to bubble in his chest starts to freeze over when suddenly a pale hand is closing around Sokka's wrist and his son is being thrown backwards. Hakoda catches Sokka's shoulders but doesn't take his eyes off of the spot that Zuko now occupies, thrusting his folded hands into the flames and parting them to the sides. The display of power makes his palms itch, just a little.

 

The prince draws himself up, a little more like a soldier than a noble, and barks out, “Back off! We've got the warden.” The guards all reluctantly drop their weapons and raise their hands, closing ranks behind them as they carefully but quickly make their way to the gondola. Zuko turns on his heel at the lever that controls the gondola and raises his hands into a fighting stance facing the guards behind them. The rest of the group piles into the gondola while Suki stands by the door, waiting for Zuko.

 

A couple of beats after they've boarded, Zuko shifts without looking back and yanks the lever, sending the spool of wire creaking and turning. The gondola lurches as it starts making it's way out of the docking station, but for some reason, the prince isn't joining them. Hakoda joins his son at the back as Suki is forced to wrench the doors closed in time to see Zuko kick the lever. He slides effortlessly into another spinning kick, and with his third kick fire trails from his heel and the lever creaks before snapping. The ingenuity of the action catches up a second later as Hakoda realizes their gondola is now a one way ride.

 

Unfortunately, it's also already moved above the boiling water, and Hakoda feels like his heart is seizing in his chest when the prince takes off at a dead sprint and launches himself off the platform. Sokka feels the same, if the strange aborted cry that escapes his mouth is any indication. Then his son is hauling himself halfway out the window, reaching for Zuko's hand. Hakoda closes a tight fist in the back of Sokka's ill gotten guard's uniform and when Sokka lurches under Zuko's weight, Hakoda steadies him before leaning out the window and grabbing the prince's other wrist. Sokka's other hand grabs a fistful of the faded red prison tunic and together they haul him into the gondola, probably with a little more force than is necessary.

 

Although Hakoda highly suspects that Zuko uses that rough entry as a cover to yank himself out of Hakoda's grip, and that hand curls into his chest instead of dropping to his side like it's counterpart.

 

Before Hakoda can even begin processing that, Sokka grabs Zuko's shoulders and shakes him roughly. “What were you thinking?” he demands just short of hysterically.

 

“Making it so they can't follow us,” the prince roughly replies as something catches Hakoda's attention on the platform below.

 

“Hey guys, who is that?” he asks dumbly, jolting a little when Zuko appears beside him with a curse instead of Sokka.

 

“That's a problem. It's my sister and her friend.”

 

Before Hakoda can point out that they can't exactly stop them, the girl in armor snatches something off of a guard behind her and launches herself over the boiling water with a blast of blue fire. The something ends up being a pair of handcuffs that she snaps shut around the cable carrying the gondola, and with a powerful burst of flames, she sends herself gliding up the line behind them. At the same time, the girl in pink jumps and springs upwards off a wall, catching the edge of the roof and swinging herself on top. Then she's taking off towards the gondola as well, sprinting along the cable with ease.

 

(Hakoda always thought if he had a heart attack, his own children would be the cause, but now he thinks these Fire Nation kids might make it happen first.)

 

As if driven by the thought, Zuko declares this a match he's been waiting for before hauling himself to the roof of the gondola. Sokka and Suki follow suit, and Hakoda supresses the urge to scream at them that they're still about a hundred feet above a boiling lake , but a horrible metal squeal cuts through the air and the gondola shudders and lurches to a stop. A glance down at the platform confirms that a piece of metal has been wedged into the spool of wire, effectively halting it.

 

Two thuds sound on the roof as the girls arrive, and it's only a second before their precarious shelter is rocking with the movements of fighting on top. Licks of blue and red flame curl into the air above before disappating, but Hakoda can't see anything else, and it's all he can do to grip the edges and pray to any spirit that might be listening.

 

Burly Encroacher must have had the same thought because neither of them notice the warden wriggling free of his bonds until he's leaned out the window, screaming at the soldiers below to cut the line. Burly Encroacher claps a hand over his mouth and hauls him back inside, but it's too late. Down on the platform, two soldiers are dragging a giant serrated blade back and forth over the wire. Hakoda feels a wave of dizziness as he wonders if the Fire Nation would so willingly sacrifice both the Prince and the Princess.

 

A feminine voice from above screams, “They're about to cut the line!”

 

“Then it's time to leave,” another female voice replies, sounding far less frantic. The gondola shakes again and Hakoda jerks his head to the side to see both of the girls now standing atop the other gondola, which is going down towards the platform. The girl in pink has a hand pressed to her mouth, eyes wide and distressed as she stares at them. The girl in armor, on the other hand, is smiling viciously. “Goodbye, Zuzu,” she drawls, and the honey in her voice sends chills down Hakoda's spine.

 

The kids swing themselves back into the gondola as Hakoda prays for a miraculous idea, and his prayers are answered in the form of Suki asking, “Wait, who's that?”

 

He rushes towards the window as the prince gasps and chokes out, “Mai.”

 

The girl in question throws something at the guards and they all end up standing awkwardly against the walls or sprawled on the floor unmoving. Hakoda can't see from this distance, but he's pretty sure it's the knife thrower his children have told him about that travels with the Fire Princess. She takes a running leap and slams her foot (because the Fire Nation just loves kicking he supposes) into the piece of metal wedged into the wire spool, and the gondola shudders again before resuming it's steady trek upwards. The prince says her name again, lower but more urgently, and his hands grip the edges of the gondola so hard his knuckles go white.

 

When they reach the loading platform at the rim of the volcano, everyone spills out with a collective sigh. Hakoda hopes the warden knows how very not sorry he is when he announces Boiling Rock's record broken.

 

He's following Sokka when he remembers that the war balloon his son had brought here had also been destroyed and it raises an important point- how exactly are they supposed to leave the bigger island? Sokka's asking the question a second later, and the prince jerks to a stop mumbling something to himself.

 

“Yeah,” Sokka responds, “and they're probably on the way up here now, so we need to go!”

 

“No, what I mean is they had to get here somehow,” the prince calls back as he starts picking his way along the side of the rock, eyeing the shoreline intently. “There!” he shouts, pointing at a giant metal monstrosity sitting at a dock. “That's our ride out of here.”

 

Slipping and sliding his way down the face of a volcano isn't fun, Hakoda finds, but it is fast. The group lands at the bottom all at roughly the same time and when Sokka stands up, he has a large hunk of rock in his hand that he hurls at a guard standing by the entrance to the ship. The guard is facing the other way, but he begins turning as the rock sails through the air and when it connects, it hits the side of his helmet with a hollow clang. The soldier crumbles and lays unmoving as the group advances at once, and they make it to the ramp before the next guard appears at the door. When Hakoda notices he isn't wearing a helmet, he lifts his arm and slams his fist against the guard's nose as they pass him, and he collapses in a heap as well that Hakoda nudges down the ramp to the dirt below.

 

When he makes his way to the control room, there are three more soldiers, all sporting metal cuffs. Burly Encroacher is standing at a panel with Sokka and Suki, and he announces that they'll be able to take off but one of the firebenders will have to man the furnace before they can gain altitude.

 

“Keep us low,” the prince murmurs, and when Hakoda finally blinks and focuses on him he realizes Zuko is stripping the guards of their armor, leaving them in regular clothes. The final soldier even ducks his head a bit for the prince to remove the (ridiculous) shoulder guards, and they're all quiet and strangely compliant. With the final soldier devoid of armor, the prince picks up a discarded sword and levels it at the group before him. “Down to the catwalk. Now,” he commands quietly, and they bow their heads and shuffle forward. (Hakoda thinks they understand the signifigance of what the prince has just done; without their armor, they'll likely survive until they're collected.)

 

***

 

Zuko doesn't like the way Sokka's father has been looking at him since he caught up to them in the courtyard. The tribesman (Hakoda, that's his name) has the same piercing blue eyes as his children, but they don't look at him with the contempt he expected.

 

They look at him with pity.

 

He can't believe he's almost wishing that the chief would be angry with him or at least distrustful of him, but here he is.

 

He feels that gaze boring into his back as he ushers the prisoners (his countrymen, his people) down to the catwalk where they gaze at the ocean below. They outnumber him now, and their hands are cuffed in front of them instead of behind them, but they'd surrended quickly and sworn not to attack and they haven't yet. (Agni, he hopes they don't. But there is comfort in knowing that if they do attack, he can probably take them down with him.) Instead, they just look between him and water. After a moment he draws in a deep breath and does his best to project his voice over the rushing air.

 

“Keep your feet together and your legs straight when you hit the water. We're not too far out; you might be able to swim back.”

 

The one closest to him shuffles around until he's facing Zuko. His hands stay below his waist and his movements are clearly telegraphed, but Zuko tenses and backs up a step anyway. But the soldier just bows at the waist, far lower than anyone's ever bowed to him before, and the breath in his throat catches. Then all three are jumping, following his directions he notes with relief.

 

After another moment in the whipping sea air, he turns around and makes his way back into the ship, intending to find the engines and stoke their fires. As he closes the hatch behind him, the darkness closing in seems suspiciously like his own vision dimming rather than the sunlight disappearing, but he shakes his head roughly and grinds his teeth. Two days at the Boiling Rock, one of them as a prisoner, are starting to take their toll on him, but he has a job to do. He's done less important jobs in worse shape before.

 

He's not expecting the prisoner that escaped with them (Chit Sang... he's pretty sure) to be in the engine room feeding the fire already. He jolts a little at the sight and stands there dumbly for a moment, wondering whether it would be safe to stick around the man now that they're out of prison. While he's swimming amidst his thoughts, Chit Sang turns and catches sight of him. He seems every bit as surprised as Zuko for a moment before his brows furrow and he looks almost concerned.

 

“I thought you'd found somewhere to rest, Prince Zuko,” he rumbles, and Zuko grimaces before he can stop himself.

 

“Don't call me that!” he snaps before taking a shuddering breath and lowering his voice. “Please. I'm not a prince anymore.”

 

A long moment passes where Chit Sang stares at Zuko carefully, like he's trying to figure something out. He finally dips his head in a nod before saying, “Alright, but I still think you should go get some rest. I can handle this by myself.”

 

Zuko stands there weighing his options. One on hand, he's hesitant to let his guard down, even with Sokka on board. Chit Sang and Hakoda are both a lot bigger than him, and both have reasons to hate him a lot. He also itches with the need to contribute, to do something and be useful and he can't do that if he's curled up sleeping somewhere .

 

On the other hand, a nap sounds like the most glorious thing in the world right now, second maybe to some good spicy noodles with fried pentapus.

 

It doesn't take long for Zuko to take a step backwards towards the door, muttering, “If you're sure you've got it...” When the burly man only nods, he backs out of the room and starts wandering the narrow corridors, trying to escape the oppresive heat of the engine room.

 

After a couple of minutes wandering the ship, Zuko finds a corner with some boxes piled up that's dark and mostly quiet. He hops over one box and maneuvers his way into the corner, sliding down until he's sitting with his knees tucked up under his chin and his arms wrapped around his legs, hands tucked in the backs of his knees. As he sits there and takes careful, measured breaths, the reality of what he's just done settles over him.

 

'I've broken into and out of two imprenetrable Fire Nation prisons, both times to help an enemy of the nation escape. I wonder what Father would say if he knew.'

 

That's a dark line of thinking that doesn't bode well to dwell on, so he instead takes stock of his body. The fight with Azula doesn't seem to have left him with any injuries, although his shoulder is absolutely killing him from catching and being caught by Sokka. His joints are still stiff from his stint in the cooler, but that should go away in the next day or so. He's pretty sure he's got bruises around his upper arms from where he was grabbed and carted around, but he's too used to that to pay it much more than a glancing thought.

 

He's come out far more whole than he expected, with the person they were supposed to rescue plus Sokka's girlfriend and a useful (if uninvited) convict. Things don't usually go well for Zuko, but he supposes whatever luck Sokka carries must have guided them through the ordeal as well as it did.

 

It'll be several hours before they reach the Air Temple, and Zuko's just so tired. He thinks surely that it must be okay for him to close his eyes... just for a bit...

 

***

 

“-ince Zuko. Prince Zuko?” A voice is calling him, using that same title that Father always used before his hands started burning and flying, and Zuko wrenches his eyes open quickly. The sleep hasn't quite cleared and everything is still blurry, but Zuko can make out a hand reaching for him and his instincts take over.

 

In a split second Zuko's cringing back against the wall, dropping his shoulders and bringing his arms up to shield his face. He sits there, trembling, for what feels like hours but is probably only half a minute, before glancing up between his arms.

 

Hakoda is sitting back on his heels, with his palms open and laid flat on his knees and an almost wounded expression on his face. He doesn't move when he sees Zuko looking at him, but a tiny bit of the tension eases out of his expression. A bit more of the tension seems to leave him when Zuko drops his arms and pushes himself back upright against the wall, though he still looks like he's gazed upon something unpleasant and wishes he could forget seeing it.

 

“We're about thirty minutes out from the Air Temple,” he finally says softly. “I didn't mean to startle you, Prince Zuko.” Something unpleasant must go across his face because the chief gets that concerned look again.

 

“I'm not a prince anymore. You shouldn't call me that.” There are several longs beats of silence before the man dips his head in a nod. He doesn't say anything though, or move in any way, and Zuko feels like his skin is crawling along his skeleton. “Ah... thank you for waking me up. I'll be down in a minute.”

 

The chief finally seems to take the hint and he nods once more before slowly straightening and rising to his feet. Zuko's eyes dart to the side and settle firmly on the stacks of boxes that he'd hoped might provide him some shelter. (He pointedly does not think about how tall the man is, or how he towers over Zuko in this position.) The chief stands there for a minute, looking like he has something to say, before he seems to think better of it and finally leaves Zuko alone again.

 

It's only when the man's broad frame disappears around a corner that the knot in Zuko's chest starts to loosen a bit. He scrubs his hands roughly over his face and heaves a great sigh before clambering to his feet. They're almost back at the Air Temple, which means his temporary job of keeping Sokka alive and helping him rescue his father is finished and his real job can go back to being his priority: teaching Aang firebending.

 

As he makes his way to the control room, he catches sight of Suki and Chit Sang as well, and the knot unravels a little more. Katara hates him, and she has good reason to, but maybe the arrival of not just her father, but two new people, will make it easier for her to ignore his presence. At least, he sincerely hopes the family reunion provides enough distraction that he can slip away and go unnoticed.

 

Of course, Zuko very rarely gets what he wants.

 

***

 

It's not until the temple is in sight (the temple which is upside down and thousands of feet in the air which Sokka has the audacity to treat as normal) that Zuko reappears. He looks slightly more put together than when Hakoda last saw him, but that isn't really saying much. He's gripping his left hand in his right and tapping or rubbing at the skin there and his weight keeps shifting from foot to foot. He's also pointedly not looking anywhere in the chief's general vicinity.

 

Hakoda really hopes the kid is just embarassed by his reaction earlier, but he's got a nagging suspicion in the back of his mind that the prince is scared of him.

 

When they dock the monstrosity of an air ship and make their way into the temple, the sight of Katara makes the blood rush in Hakoda's ears as he finally gets confirmation that she's here, that she's still safe. He pulls both of his children into his arms and squeezes them until he's sure they might start fusing with his own body, and they both sag into him and hold on just as tightly, and for a long moment, Hakoda can let himself believe everything will be okay.

 

“You guys have some timing,” Katara chuckles wetly as she releases him. “I just finished making dinner. Not that it has a lot of meat, since someone left a note saying they were going fishing,” she tacks on, giving her brother a hard stare. As Sokka begins to squawk a rather indignant answer, Hakoda catches sight of Zuko, slinking away from the group towards one of the many hallways branching off into the temple.

 

“Zuko,” he calls, loud enough to be heard but not so loud as to be called shouting. The sound of his name sends the boy flinching forward, shoulders drawing up around his ears as he slowly turns. “Won't you have dinner with us?”

 

A question so simple shouldn't cause such a reaction, Hakoda thinks. His hands are twisted together in front of him and he's still tapping out a pattern on the back of his left hand. He glances to the side and opens his mouth to reply when Sokka beats him to it.

 

“Yeah buddy, you gotta get some food in you and sit by the fire. Fire breathing is cool and all, but I don't believe staying in that freezer for so long didn't bother you at all.”

 

When the other children voice their agreement, Zuko ducks his head but shuffles towards the fire pit to sit beside Toph. Aang sits on his other side and beams brightly at the older boy, launching into a tirade about how diligently he'd kept up his practices while they were gone. A soft little smile breaks out across Zuko's face listening to Aang ramble, and Hakoda can almost imagine for a moment that he looks his age.

 

Everyone accepts their bowl of food gratefully and all eyes are trained on Sokka as he begins the dramatic tale of breaking into the Fire Nation's most secure prison. At least fifty percent of it is embellished, and Hakoda's pretty sure some of it's even made up. (Great Tui he hopes it's made up, but two volcanoes hadn't been made up, so.)

 

It keeps the attention of the group though. Hakoda's settled between Sokka and Katara, and there's a loose circle around the fire of all the children that had escaped the invasion, plus Zuko, Suki and the two adults. Still, the group is quiet and the children lean forward as Sokka goes on energetically.

 

With the exception of Zuko. He hasn't escaped Sokka's embellishments and with every bit of praise Sokka gives him, he seems to shrink a little more. Toph seems to notice because she's got her arms wrapped around his left arm and is clinging to his side like a koala-sloth, and Aang keeps shooting him worried glances that Zuko doesn't seem to notice. His now empty hands are back to fidgeting mildly in his lap, and Aang grabs his wrist when Sokka recounts the leap Zuko had taken from the platform to the gondola.

 

The flinch Aang receives is more like a twitch compared to the way Zuko had flinched (and cowered) away from Hakoda, but he does jerk both of his hands up to his chest for a brief second. A brief second in which Zuko's hands are clearly visible above the fire and bathed in the warm light.

 

Hakoda sees now what Zuko's been doing to the back of his left hand. Not tapping out some pattern, but scratching furiously, jagged nails raking over the skin back and forth continuously for what must have been at least an hour. He's scratched abrasions into his own skin, deep ones, and his knuckles are slick with blood.

 

Kya and Bato have always teased him over what they call his 'overactive paternal instincts'. He's always been guilty of fawning over the runt in every litter of polar dogs, always been guilty of fawning over all of the village's children, and he suspects he'll be guilty of fawning over these war hardened children before it's all said and done.

 

So he blames those instincts for the way he straightens, locks his eyes on the prince, and snaps in his best 'father' voice, “Zuko, stop that!”

 

In immidiate hindsight it was the wrong thing to do.

 

“What are you doing?” Katara demands harshly, glaring accusingly at Zuko with her hand hovering over her water skin.

 

“You're bleeding, Zuko,” Aang says at the same time, voice carefully measured as he stares at the bloody mess of his teacher's hand.

 

Hakoda suspects that Zuko doesn't hear either of them though, because at the same time he throws himself backwards like he had earlier in the ship, only this time there's nothing solid at his back. Instead he tumbles backwards off the raised earthen ledge he and Toph were seated on and lands hard on his back. Hakoda stands immidiately and feels Katara rise next to him, but his feet root themselves to the ground when Zuko finally meets his eyes, only to yelp and kick himself backwards a couple of paces.

 

Several things happen in the next few moments that Hakoda registers dimly. Katara stiffens and gasps quietly next to him, and when he glances at her there's confusion and even a hint of concern in her blue eyes. Aang starts to take a step toward Zuko, but he's stopped by Toph, who released his arm when he cringed from Aang and hasn't moved to touch him since. Sokka and Suki sit huddled together, staring at where Zuko's halfway sprawled across the floor with parted lips and sad eyes. Haru quickly mentions another room in the temple he'd like to explore, and he and Teo usher the Duke away with matching expressions of alarm.

 

Hakoda registers all of this dimly, because his mind is still reeling over the way Zuko had looked at him.

 

Hakoda is no stranger to fear or to being feared; he's lived and fought in a war, after all. There was once a time when eyes of yellow gazing at him in fear had been a good thing.

 

But not even the eyes of dying men held the sheer, animal terror in Zuko's eyes. The boy looked as though he'd seen a nightmare come to life, or perhaps looked upon a monster from a spirit tale. And for the life of him Hakoda can't figure out what he did to make this child so afraid of him.

 

He's wrenched back into the present when Katara shifts her weight, taking a step around the fire towards Zuko. The sound seems to break some spell that's been cast over Zuko, and he cringes before scrambling to his feet, stammering all the while about needing to be up early for sunrise meditation. He takes several steps backwards as he says it, never taking his eyes off the floor it seems.

 

“At least let me heal your hand,” Katara says softly. Zuko's eyes dart to her in what looks like surprise before flitting away just as quickly.

 

“'S not a big deal,” he mumbles. “It was my fault anyway.”

 

“Yeah, but-” Katara begins, taking another step towards him, but that seems to be the final straw because he spins on his heel and sprints into the temple. A long half a minute passes before Toph sighs heavily and stands up.

 

“I'm going after him,” she barks to the rest of the group, loud enough that Zuko probably hears it wherever he's made it to. No one objects as she turns and starts marching off in the same direction, and for some reason his feet and voice both decide to unfreeze themselves at that moment.

 

“Toph!” he calls out, moving to follow her when she stops and turns slightly. “I'd like to come with you.”

 

Twelve year olds shouldn't be able to snort so derisively, Hakoda briefly thinks, before she's answering. “Not happening. I dunno what you did to Sparky, but having you around ain't exactly gonna calm him down.”

 

“That's the thing though; I don't know what I did either and I'd like to apologize.”

 

Surprise, followed by a brief understanding, passes over Toph's face before she answers again, tone softer. “Still no. Even if he'd accept your apologies, which he won't, he certainly won't hear them now. Just leave him alone.” With that, she turns and disappears into the yawning shadows of the temple, using her seismic sense no doubt to scout for the missing (again) prince. Hakoda sits back down, feeling nausea and the beginnings of anger seeping into him.

 

The silence stretching into minutes is heavy and stifling, broken only by the crackling of the fire. Sokka and Katara have pressed themselves back into his sides, and his arms go up around their shoulders to pull them in close. Sokka doesn't bother finishing the story of their grand escape, and Hakoda is strangely grateful for it.

 

Eventually though, it gets to be too much for Aang, who looks at the chief with teary eyes and says, “It's like he thought you were going to hit him. But why would he think that?”

 

Hakoda isn't sure he can formulate an answer that would make sense to a twelve year old pacifist, but he's saved from trying when their tag-a-long prisoner (his name is definitely Chit Sang) snorts and shakes his head.

 

“You all know Ozai to be a cruel man. You think that changes behind closed doors or something?” he asks, and Aang's face crumbles while the rest of the children squeeze their eyes shut.

 

Hakoda stands abruptly, wracked with a need to make sure the boy is okay that can't be shaken. Both of his children look up at him worriedly.

 

“Dad maybe you should stay away for a while,” Sokka says, to which his sister nods.

 

“I won't talk to him or even let him see me,” he replies, trying to placate his son.

 

“Toph will know you're there,” Katara points out.

 

“Yes, and if nothing else she'll keep me away from Zuko. I just need to see that he's okay.” He stalks off in the direction Toph had taken without waiting for an answer. No one else tries to stop him.

 

***

 

It takes a good ten minutes of wandering the upside down buildings of the temple before he hears two sets of breathing; one ragged and one exaggeratedly even and deep. He follows the sound up a staircase and comes into a corridor lined with stone pillars, and Toph and Zuko are tucked behind one of them.

 

He catches sight of Zuko's head tucked between his knees, hands wrapped around his ankles, before Toph's face morphs into a glare that she manages to aim directly at him. Her foot taps subtly on the ground and suddenly the rock under him is shifting, moving him behind a pillar beside the staircase where he can't see them anymore. He takes the hint and flattens his back against the stone, sliding down until he's sitting on the ground with his own knees tucked up.

 

After a few more minutes, the two sets of breathing start to match up and a knot in Hakoda's chest starts to loosen. When he hears Zuko release a shuddering sigh, he releases his own silent breath and braces his palms against the floor, making to stand up.

 

“Do you think he's mad at me?” Zuko asks it quietly, but his distinctive rasp seems to bounce off the stone around them.

 

He shouldn't listen to this. It's eavesdropping, and technically an invasion of privacy. Zuko's already scared of him and learning his secrets without his express consent isn't going to help matters at all. He should really leave right now.

 

He knows all of this, but it doesn't stop him from sinking to the floor once more.

 

“Who, Hakoda?” Toph replies, quieter than he's ever heard her talk. “Nah Sparky, he isn't mad. I think he was probably worried.”

 

Zuko makes a disgruntled noise. “Worried? Why?” He sounds so genuinely confused by it that Hakoda resolves to break Ozai's nose before everything is said and done.

 

“I'm told that's what good parents do. They worry about kids, even the ones that aren't their's.”

 

“That's weird,” Zuko mumbles, and Hakoda bites down on one of his knuckles. There's a lull where he thinks maybe they'll just sit in silence before Zuko speaks again in a fragile, shaking voice. “His hands are really big, Toph.”

 

Once, when Hakoda was a teenager, he'd been a crew member in another teens ice dodging trial. The young man had been a bit overconfident and had crashed the boat into an iceberg, and Hakoda had stumbled forward and slammed his chest into the railing. The air had rushed from his lungs at once and for a horrifying moment Hakoda had been unable to draw in another breath, chest expanding and contracting uselessly.

 

He feels like that now, the simple sentence washing over him like a physical weight that he wants nothing more than to curl away from. He's stuck though, paralyzed by the sound of that rasping voice rambling on.

 

“He... When I jumped to the gondola, Sokka caught me, but he grabbed my wrist and helped Sokka pull me up. He was helping me, and I know he's not like... like... but he grabbed my wrist and his hands are so big and all I could think about was that he could snap my wrist as easily as Father did but he didn't.

 

“Whoa, Sparky-” Toph starts to interupt, but Zuko chatters on like he can't hear her.

 

“F-Father didn't have any reason to hate me and he did, but Hakoda has every reason to hate me but I don't think he does and it doesn't make any sense!”

 

There's silence for a few seconds during which the chief's heart thuds in his ears. When Toph finally replies, her voice is tight. “Is that why you hurt yourself?”

 

“No, no I didn't mean to do that. I-I hadn't even realized I was doing it.”

 

“How do you even- No, nevermind. That's not important. Listen, I really doubt he's gonna hate you, okay?”

 

“I terrorized his children, Toph!”

 

“And one of them has already forgiven you for it! Not to mention you helped Sokka break him out of prison, which is kind of a big deal to most people.” There's some shuffling, but Hakoda doesn't dare move to see what it is. Toph heaves a heavy sigh after a minute. “Listen, I've been around a lot of hateful people, and Hakoda isn't one of them. You broke him out of prison, and apparently saved Sokka's life a couple of times doing it. That will matter just as much as whatever you did in the past. And even if he does decide he doesn't like you, he's not gonna hurt you or anything. And if he tries, I will chuck him off this cliff, got it?”

 

There's a snort and a wavering chuckle, which Hakoda can't help but smile at. Who knew Toph could be so good with feelings? Or indirect threats.

 

“Please don't do that, Toph,” he mutters, but he doesn't sound on the edge of crying now.

 

“I'm not gonna have to. Now, let's at least go back to your room and wrap your hand up, okay?”

 

“Yeah, okay,” Zuko acquiesces, and there's some more shuffling before he hears Toph stomping by. He assumes Zuko is with her, but he can't really hear a second set of footsteps. As the girl begins making her way down the stairs, Hakoda chances a peek from behind the pillar and sees two silhouettes.

 

He decides to give them plenty of time to make it back to Zuko's room before moving. He has several reasons for this; he doesn't want to run into Zuko and Toph and risk them (well, Zuko) finding out that he'd been here. Honestly, he's also not entirely sure he can go back to his children quite yet with Zuko's words rattling around inside his head. Instead he stretches his legs out and looks down at his open hands.

 

He can't imagine raising them against Sokka or Katara, or any child for that matter. The knowledge that Fire Lord Ozai had no such compunctions isn't surprising at all but it still makes nausea coil through his gut.

 

'Tomorrow,' he thinks over an hour later as he retraces his steps through the temple, 'I'll find a way to talk to Zuko. I'll find a way to make him understand that I won't hurt him, no matter what he did in the past. Tomorrow.'

 

He never gets that chance, because the next day, he wakes to Azula blowing a hole in the side of the temple.