"You’re going through a metamorphosis, my nephew. It will not be a pleasant experience, but when you come out of it, you will be the beautiful Prince you were always meant to be."
~ Iroh, The Earth King
Chief Hakoda hated the cleanup after any battle, even if it was one that ended in victory.
He stood on the high prow of the newly captured Fire Nation ship, silent and watching his men work in twos and threes; stripping the ship for much needed supplies and throwing the bodies of their enemy overboard. Dark red pools of blood splattered the deck and drained under the metal rivets. Most of it, Hakoda noted with a grim satisfaction, the enemy's.
It hadn't been luck that had resulted in not a single mortality for his tribe, but careful strategy. The Fire Nation ship had been sighted mid-morning and they had stalked it silently. They struck at night, with the moon high in the sky blinking her baleful light on the fighting — the screaming.
The enemy ship had only three benders among her ranks, and without the energy of their elemental Sun Spirit they had been at a near disadvantage.
And now they were dead, and Chief Hakoda had a Fire Nation ship at his command.
A stiff breeze whipped his brown hair, and the newly rising sun cast long shadows across his face making the normal handsome man look haggard; old before his time.
As soon as his men were done scavenging, they would blast a hole in the bottom of this unnatural abomination. Hakoda trusted his own ships which were secured with natural wood, resin, and tar. This metal blasphemy deserved to be at the bottom of the ocean.
In water this deep, the Fire Nation would never be able to salvage it. It wouldn't be a great loss, but it would be a loss, and any wound to those evil murdering savages was a boon to him and his men's hearts.
This mission was one of revenge.
It had been three months since the surprise attack on the Southern Water Tribe. It had happened while most of the men were out on their annual seal-hunt. The losses… were staggering. Many had lost their entire families. While his own two young children were safe, Hakoda had lost his wife, Kya… and a part of his heart had died along with her.
Hearing his name, the young Chief turned and saw Yuruck waving at him from portside. "There's something here you need to see!"
Raising his hand to signal that he had heard, Hakoda took the stairs to the lower deck two at a time. A group of men were gathered around what almost looked like an emergency metal raft. It had been strapped to the side of the ship, and its dust coverlet had been tugged half off by the search party. Whatever drew his warriors interest had been underneath.
Hakoda's second in command, Bato, turned at his arrival. "Tatum found him while searching out for supplies." Then he moved aside, and quite suddenly Hakoda found himself looking at a boy.
There was no doubt that the child was Fire Nation, what with his raven black hair and pale skin. He lay curled up, asleep with his knees tucked to his chest, completely unaware of the group gathered around him — and the reason for that was quite clear. Dark stains of blood, black with age spilled down the front of his robe like a young child who had tipped water on himself. It looked like someone had slashed his neck, from ear to collar. There was more. The visible upper left corner of his face surrounding the eye and left corner of his face was black, blistered and burned. Both wounds seemed infected, and Hakoda could smell the stink of rot from several feet away.
"What kind of monsters…" Yuruck whispered, but couldn't finish.
Bato touched Hakoda's shoulder. "I know you said that there were to be no survivors." It was a simple statement, and for a moment Hakoda didn't know what his first mate was alluding to until he noticed that the boy's chest was rising and falling in small, shallow movements. Despite the grievous wounds, he was alive.
All the men were looking to him now, and Hakoda felt the weight of responsibility on his shoulders. Bato was right. There were to be no Fire Nation survivors. The invading Fire soldiers had specifically targeted children on their last raid. Bato's two daughters were part of the casualties — murdered as they slept in their beds.
This was war.
Hakoda knew could not ask any of his men to do this. This would be his burden and his alone. With a nod, he reached to his long knife on his hip, unsheathing it. "Go," he said, simply.
The warriors didn't argue. None wanted to witness this. Hakoda shut his eyes, and waited until their footsteps faded away. Then, gripping his knife in a sweaty hand, he brought it to bear. The boy was clearly fevered with his wounds — this would probably be an act of mercy. The kindest thing would to make it quick as possible so that he never woke up.
But as he turned the child over to get a clear, precise target at the neck, he caught a glimpse of the other side of his face; whole, unblemished, and young… younger than he thought. Why, the child had to be about the same age as his own Sokka…
An image of his firstborn flashed in his mind. Sokka's laughing face, his sly intelligence, so sharp for a nine-year-old. He was a brave boy. He had begged to go along with them, to help take revenge for his mother's death. Both Sokka and his younger sister, Katara, expected Hakoda and his men to fight for their mother and the others…. How could he go back to them, and look them in the eyes, and tell them that the face of one of the enemy had been a child?
Hakoda's hand dropped. He had lost his nerve.
His men wouldn't like this, but he was the Chief, and besides… it was a great possibility the child would be dead before morning.
Carefully, wrapping the boy in the raft coverlet, he hefted him in his arms. The smell from the rotten wounds was nauseating.
The Fire Nation boy slept on, oblivious.
Later that evening, Hakoda chose to take dinner alone in his private cabin rather than fest victory with his men. He wanted to be with his own thoughts and plan what to do next.
Counting this last victory, he and his men had taken out four Fire Nation battleships. There were dozens more out there, sailing what should have been Southern Water Tribe waters. His warriors were willing to challenge them all, but reports from below deck had their supplies running low. Even with salvaging there were things that just couldn't be replaced. His men were getting fatigued, and soon it would be time to return home.
Hakoda's wishes for privacy were, of course, ignored by his second in command. Bato burst in the cabin without preamble, stinking of bad Fire Nation wine. Hakoda glanced up from his navigation maps and gestured for him to shut the door. Bato was the only one who could get away with interrupting him like this, but he didn't want the other men to see it.
"Healer Kuthruk's finally finished on the boy," said Bato in his normally direct way, as he came around to the other side of the desk. "He'll have to use most of our bandaging and probably all of our rosethorn packing to stay the infection. He says, though, that he might survive, but he'll probably lose that eye."
Hakoda grunted acknowledgement and went back to his maps. He knew Bato almost better than he knew himself. The man had another point to make, and Hakoda would be quiet and let him make it. He wasn't in the mood for games.
Sure enough, after a brief pause, Bato spoke again. "The men are relived we don't have a child's blood on our hands, but what if he survives, Hakoda? You know what he will become. No one will tolerate a Fire Nation man—"
Hakoda cut him off with a wave of his hand. "I doubt that boy is even eleven years old. He's hardly a man."
"He will be, someday. What do you plan to do? Take him ice-dodging when he's older?"
The chief looked up and saw the steel passion in his friend's blue eyes. "If he survives," he replied. "The boy will be taken on our next voyage and dropped off at the nearest Earth Kingdom port. Some of the Southern Islands are still neutral in the war." He had no intention of letting the seed of an enemy take root in his tribe.
Bato nodded, satisfied, and finally bent his attention on the navigational map. "Back home, then?"
Hakoda marked his stylis against the paper, drawing out their route. "Not right away. I want to patrol the local area for at least a week before we pull into port. No use going back only to be attacked again… I want our waters clear. If all goes well," he made another small notation and then leaned back, overlooking his work with satisfaction, "we should be seeing our shores within the month."
"I'll pass the word along?"
It was more a question than anything else and Hakoda nodded, rolling up the map and passing it along to his first mate. "If you please, and tell me about any changes with the boy."
Zuko awoke to a world of pain. The left side of his face seared in agony, much worse than the needlesharp pain in his neck and on his chest. He tried to groan, feeling the world tilt and spin around him. He reached up automatically to his face only to have his fingers snatched in a much stronger hand. "No," said a voice. "Don't touch. Drink this, boy. It'll rehydrate you."
Something warm was pressed against his lips; the lip of a bowl. Salty broth splashed in his mouth, and he sipped eagerly for his hunger and thirst was almost worse than the pain. Later on, he would realize that the broth had some kind of medicine in it. The pain receded, and within a few moments he was asleep again.
Thus passed his first few days onboard the Water Tribe ship. He would wake up — sometimes by the executing pain of a bandage being changed on his face, sometimes by simple hunger. He would be told not to touch anything, and either broth or soothing tea would be forced on him.
On the forth day, Zuko opened his unbandaged eye, and got a fuzzy impression of wooden walls, a thick animal fur and a tanned, deeply lined face above him.
Then there was nothing.
On the sixth day his fever broke and Zuko awoke for the first time from what was more or less a natural sleep. For once there was no firm voice directing him to drink, and his hand went up to his face to encounter a soft bandage, like a patch, over the left side of his face.
What happened? Where was he?
The room he was in was small and dark except for a single oil lamp lit in the corner. His bed was nothing more than a simple pallet lined with what had to be some kind of animal fur. Zuko stared dumbly at it, tracing his fingers along the soft edge of the blanket. It felt foreign to him.
The door opened, and he startled, pulling himself up to his elbows. If he was surprised, the figure in the doorway was as well. The man paused for a long, long moment before walking in, tray in hand. "Well, I see that you're up… good. That's a good sign," he said, his voice carefully measured.
The man set the tray by his bed, and his face fell into the light. Despite himself, Zuko took in a quick breath of surprise. He was unlike any man he'd seen before; darker with a rounded, flat nose and brown hair and… very, very cold blue eyes.
"How are you feeling?" the man asked.
Zuko opened his mouth to reply, but a sharp pain in his throat ended his word before it even began. He couldn't even hiss an answer. Instinctively, he reached up to grip at the sudden source of pain, but his hand was slapped away.
"No, don't touch!" Reaching over, the man brought the oil lamp closer and peered at Zuko's neck, grunting with what he saw. "Must have cut the vocal cords. Not that I'm surprised. You're a very lucky little boy. Whoever did that did that to you missed the big vein there by a hair."
Zuko didn't answer. He couldn't.
The man continued as if he had, "But I don't suppose you're feeling very lucky. I dare say that you won't lose the eye after all, but there will be a scar." He paused, snorting, "Oh yes, there will be a scar. The neck may heal, with time. Until then, you will use this." He reached under Zuko's pallet and came back up with a piece of parchment and some soft coal-chalk. "Write your name. Now that I'm fairly sure you'll live, I don't want to be calling you 'boy' anymore."
Swallowing painfully, Zuko did what he was told. He wanted to ask so much: Where was he? How did he get here? Did someone attack him? But his fingers trembled with the small effort of writing his own characters. When he pushed the parchment back the healer didn't look pleased.
"Zuko. Great Spirits." The healer rolled his eyes up to the ceiling. "Now that's a Fire Nation name if I ever heard one. Let's hope that the Chief graces you with a new name; a proper Water Tribe name. Now," and he pushed the tablet back, "tell me what you were doing on that ship. Were you a stowaway?"
Zuko stared at him for a moment, and then at the tablet. What was this man talking about? And what had happened? He couldn't remember… he had been…there had been fire… and pain… he was screaming something… and there was nothing.
Looking back on his own memories felt like a raw-burned wound. He didn't want to remember. It hurt too much.
Shaking his head, he shoved the tablet back.
For a moment he thought that the healer was going to demand he write again, but with a shrug he simply packed the tablet under the bed and brought the tray forward instead. "Well, I'm sure you'll tell your story when it's time. For now, let's see if you can keep down solids. You do remember how to eat?" His voice was kinder than it had been, and when he lifted the top off the tray a rush of delicious scents made Zuko instantly forget how upset he was. He nodded enthusiastically.
The next morning, he awoke to a soft shaking on his shoulders. Kuthruk, the healer from yesterday stood above him. "Wake up. The Chief wants to see you. Sit, and don't touch your eyepatch."
Blinking, feeling muzzy from a combination of painkillers and fever weakness, Zuko did what he was told. Trying to move about was difficult with his neck and face all tied in white. Kuthruk had to help him change into a simple blue tunic and pants. The clothes were obviously made for a man, and he had to cinch up a leather belt nearly twice around his torso to keep everything together.
Then, with a steady hand on Zuko's shoulder, Kuthruk guided him up to the main cabin. They had to pass for a few moments between two doorways on the outside, and Zuko caught a rush of salt-scented air and endless blue ocean before he was ushered in again.
The Chief's cabin was many times larger than his own, and it wasn't only the Chief, but a whole group of tanned, brown haired men there to greet him. Their conversation stopped the moment the door opened, and immediately, Zuko felt himself the center of attention from at least ten pairs of eyes.
Most boys would shrink back, and indeed years down the road Zuko would examine this memory and wonder at the fact that he didn't, and what it meant for him. But as it was, he was used to attention, and found it almost ordinary to be stared at.
The Chief himself sat in the middle. He was younger than most of the tribesmen, but he had an immediate way about him that commanded respect. Like the rest of the men, his eyes were blue. Like looking into a deep volcanic lake where the waters extended down, down, down…
Kuthruk pushed him forward, and Zuko knew what to do without being told. He got down on his knees, hands and forehead touching the floor in the way any Fire Nation child would greet a high leader.
A buzz of murmurings broke out among the group, and a couple laughed out loud. For his part, the Chief merely cleared his throat into a fist and touched Zuko's shoulder, bringing him back up into kneeling position.
"We'll have none of that here. You're on a Water Tribe ship." The Chief said, in a way that would probably make a lot of sense to an adult, but made none to Zuko. He looked back over his shoulder in confusion, seeking Kuthruk's guidance, but the healer's face was a blank mask. He was no help.
The Chief spoke again, drawing back Zuko's attention. His voice was neither kind or unkind, but direct and to the point. "Healer Kuthruk tells me that you can't speak, so I would like you to nod and shake your head when I ask you a question. Can you do that?"
Zuko nodded his head. He did this carefully, to avoid pulling the stitches across his neck.
"Good. As I said before, you are on a Water Tribe ship, my ship. While you are aboard it, you are under my command. Do you understand?"
Chief Hakoda seemed to hesitate as if weighing his next words. "Right now there are no other children here, so you will be treated like a man. You will be given chores, like the other men, although I'll make sure that these don't interfere with your recovery." He gave a nod of respect towards Kuthruk. "You will be expected to do these without complaint."
Although Hakoda hadn't asked him a question, Zuko felt he should nod again. It seemed to be the right thing to do. For the first time, the Chief graced him with a small smile. "I have a son around your age. You may meet him. How old are you?"
Zuko started to raise his hands, and then hesitated, confused. For a long moment he stared at his fingers, his uncovered golden eye darting back and forth. He knew how to count. He was sure of it, yet… he didn't know his own age. He couldn't recall having a birthday, although he knew what one was. Finally, he looked up at the Chief and shook his head.
"No?" Hakoda repeated. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "You don't want to tell me, or are you not sure? No, you can't answer that. Well, then." One hand came up, tapping thoughtfully at his chin. "Do you know if your father was on a Fire Nation ship?"
Zuko shook his head. He didn't know.
"He could be a bastard," muttered one man, from the back. "Doesn't know who his father is."
"That's enough from you, Tatum," snapped another man, to Chief Hakoda's right.
Hakoda ignored the sniping and gestured towards one of his men. Immediately, a map was rolled out in front of Zuko. "Do you know what this is?"
Zuko looked and recognized the Fire Nation archipelago. It was more or less a detailed map of all the major islands. He glanced up to the Chief with a vaguely amused expression before nodding. Of course he knew what this was.
The Chief named some islands, and Zuko put a finger to them, pointing them out accurately. Hakoda asked him to point to the major cities, and then almost as if it were a test, the minor villages.
Then Chief Hakoda asked where Zuko lived, and for the first time the boy's mind stuttered to a halt. He took a long moment to study the map, and found that he didn't know.
Zuko looked up, and shook his head.
Hakoda asked if he had ever seen any ships in the ports, and how many there were and what kind were they? To this, Zuko also had to shake his head. He couldn't remember that either.
Finally, they asked him to write down his family name and the name of his parents. That, he couldn't do. After a long moment of staring at the parchment, he shook his head and pushed it back.
Healer Kuthruk spoke up. "He may be just frightened, Hakoda. He is just a boy, and considering his injuries…"
But Zuko was looking at him, shaking his head. He wasn't shy. He just didn't know. They kept questioning him about it, expecting him to be frightened or upset, but it was hard to be scared when he didn't even remember the people he was supposed to miss.
Hakoda still tapped at his chin thoughtfully. "If you remember any of these things, Zuko, I want you to find Kuthruk and have him let me know."
"Excellent. You're dismissed."
At once the Healer put a hand on his shoulder and steered him to the door. Zuko left, feeling weak, but thinking already about how hungry he was getting again. It didn't occur to him that he would continue to be the subject of the men's discussion for the rest of the night.
The next day Zuko was put under the care of Nunka, who, at twenty, was the youngest warrior on the ship.
"Have you ever knotted netting before?" the young warrior asked, as he retrieved Zuko from his room the next day. At Zuko's headshake, he said, "There's nothing to it, really. It's just tedious. Normally, the women do it, but since it's just us we have to make do."
Nunka may not have liked the work, but after he sat down on the deck, Zuko saw how quick and accurate his tanned fingers were with the net-rope. It seemed to be only a few flicks of his hands, and he had a string of knots completed which was the beginning of a tightly woven net.
"See?" said Nunka, holding up his work and grinning when Zuko's eyes widened. "Nothing to it."
Zuko opened his mouth, about to request for Nunka to do it again, but slower this time; his throat burned with pain. He couldn't even hiss.
Nunka did end up showing him again, and again. He would show Zuko as many times as he needed, but demanded near perfection in return. He would unstring twenty minutes worth of Zuko's work for a minor error. The third time this happened, Zuko made the mistake of glaring at the warrior and trying to snatch his rope back before it was undone. He received a sharp cuff on the back of his head for his insolence. After that, Zuko still seethed when he was made to redo the work, but he seethed discretely.
Finally, around midday Nunka seemed satisfied with his knots and allowed Zuko to have a snack of seal jerky and dried snow plums. Zuko's fingers, unused to working with rope, were starting to blister. So after the meal, Nunka led him down to the gallery and put him in charge of the cook, Ekchua, who had the biggest nose Zuko had ever seen.
Preparing food, Zuko quickly found, was much better than net-knotting. He didn't get to be outside, but he did get to sneak bits of what was being prepared, when Ekchua wasn't looking.
The next few days passed much the same with meeting the men and learning new things from each one of them… and eventually those days rolled into weeks. Slowly, as he grew stronger, Zuko was introduced to more and more of the ship's chores. The men weren't kind, but they weren't cruel. As long as Zuko did what he was told, and didn't put up a fuss, they were satisfied.
Occasionally, someone would ask him a question about the Fire Nation, and as long as they worded it in an indirect way, he found he could answer it with a nod or a shake of his head. The moment it became personal, he couldn't. One day Nunka mentioned that Fire Nation food was spicy. To this, Zuko nodded. It was spicy… but also full of flavor and delicious. But when Nunka asked what his favorite food was, Zuko could only shrug. He didn't remember having any particular dish… so how would he know?
One day, Ekchua (who was a quiet sort of person, so he and Zuko got along very well) asked if he missed his family. Zuko shook his head. He didn't miss his family. He didn't know his family.
As the days wore on, and the ship sailed further and further south, the air became cooler and cooler. Zuko got the surprise of his life one morning when he slipped and fell on a patch of frost that had collected in a shadowy corner of the ship.
Frost, he found, was something he felt sure he had no experience with at all prior to waking up on the Water Tribe ship. He liked the way he could trace patterns in the patches using his warm finger, and watch the white ice melt away to water. By mid-day, all the frost on the ship had melted away completely. It came back the next day, and the day after that… until it was cold enough so that the frost didn't disappear at all.
Zuko would get to know ice very well. Indeed, in the next few years he wouldn't pass one day of his life without it. But he wasn't to know that yet, and having lived near the equator all of his life, he now saw it as a novelty.
There was one more important lesson that Zuko learned while on the ship: Fear of the Fire Nation.
He knew that he was different from the Water Tribe men, of course, even without their constant comments. His skin was pale, his eyes gold to their blue. He wore his dark hair up in a high fashioned phoenix tail at the top of his head — he didn't know why. He just knew he had always done this, and it was right. So he fixed it as such, every day. The Water Tribe men had the top layer of their brown hair pulled and tied at the back of their head's, with the rest of it flowing to their shoulder's.
But some of the men had burn-scars; on their arms, or on their legs. Sometimes when the wine would be passed around, Zuko would watch them compare their scars and tell outlandish stories on how they got them fighting Fire Nation soldiers.
But none of them could beat Zuko's scars.
Healer Kuthruk finally stopped bandaging his eye on the third week and allowed Zuko to look in a small polished piece of metal at his own reflection.
I look mean, was the first thought that came to his mind. One quarter of the left side of his face was an angry red, extending raggedly past his hairline to his temple. The skin around his left eye was a darker shade; the eye itself puckered into a permanent glare. Zuko could see well enough, though.
The other side of his face was whole, and this was the side Zuko preferred to focus on. His neck was healing better, and the scar there would be more of a puffy line… maybe it would even fade in time. It was nothing compared to his face.
Zuko touched his scar around his eye, felt the tough flesh there, and put down the mirror. He didn't pick it back up for a week.
While all this related to the Fire Nation in a more or less direct way, and although he knew that he was Fire Nation, he didn't give where he came from much thought.
At least, until they attacked.
Zuko woke up one night to the clammer of alarm bells being rung topside. He had seen the great bells before; one positioned on every side of the ship, but had never heard them until now. He lay still under the thick blankets, unsure of what he should do. The warriors all slept in separate bunks in another room. His own room, a hastily cleaned out storage space, was given to him because he was the only boy and also because he was Fire Nation. He had no one to look to for direction.
Footsteps thundered from the hallway beside him, and a shout went up, "WE'RE BEING BOARDED!"
Instantly, like a thick cloud bursting all of its rain at once, a roar went up from the Water Tribe warriors. And an answering one sounded from somewhere topside.
Zuko threw back his blankets shot to his feet. He had no real idea what he would do when he got out there, but it didn't matter because the door didn't budge; not even when he threw his entire weight against it. Someone had thrown the bolt against the other side. Perhaps they did it every night, and he'd never noticed before, but now it kept him in and away from the battle.
Zuko shoved his shoulder into the door again and again, and beat his fists against it. His mouth opened in silent shouts. Outside he could hear screaming, the swell of fighting men… everyone he knew was out there fighting. Everyone but him.
Suddenly, it was as if the world itself exploded. He was thrown backward against his bed in a rain of wooden splinters and flame. Zuko coughed, blinked, and then looked up into a nightmare.
To the boy's eyes, the man standing in his doorway seemed to be about ten feet tall. He was dressed in red plated armor, colored like dried blood. His face was covered in a white skull-like mask with only his light amber eyes glinting out.
The man stared down at him. This boy with the strange coloring, but who also wore the colors of the Water Tribe. With a snap of his wrist, the man lit his hand in a sheath of yellow flame and stepped forward, ready to snuff out the enemy's child.
Zuko stared at him with wide eyes, pressed against the fall wall, shaking his head silently. Mute as he was, he couldn't scream for help.
The Fire Nation solider took another step towards him, and then faltered. His eyes, locked against Zuko's suddenly grew wide… and then blank. He fell forward onto his knees, and then crumpled down to the floor; the handle of a long bladed knife sticking from his back.
Behind him, stood Chief Hakoda.
"Are you alright?" Hakoda stepped forward, grabbing Zuko's wrist and hauling him up to his feet. Seeing his grateful nod, he reached to his belt and unstrapped something from the worn leather. Zuko found a slanted piece of metal shoved in his hand. "Here, take this boomerang. Use the sharp point to defend yourself if you have too. We're going to the top. Stay by me."
Then he was off and running, and Zuko didn't even have time to gape at the dead Fire Nation before he had to turn and follow.
The deck was pure chaos; fighting men, bodies lying in horrible awkward positions, and explosions of flame flying everywhere.
One solider stepped in front of Hakoda and Zuko, a jet of fire blossoming from his fist. The Chief was more than equal to it. He moved faster than Zuko had ever seen, and with a smooth movement had gotten beside the man and knocked his knees out from under him. The man gasped, and with another shove Hakoda had toppled him off the deck and into the cold, black night sea.
The soldier's final gout of flame had not dissipated into nothing. It caught the wooden railing on fire. Zuko grabbed for a bucket of water — left over from when he and some of the other men had washed the deck earlier in the day — and doused the flame.
But there were more. Small fires left from Fire Nation benders caught the wooden ship like kindling. The warriors were too busy fighting to take notice; indeed Hakoda was in hand to hand combat with another Fire Nation solider. Zuko knew keep in his bones that the fire must be contained. It was just as important as fighting. So, grabbing another bucket, he ran to the aft of the ship and put out another fire there.
The warriors of the Water Tribe were fighting for their very lives. They had been ambushed by surprise, and were greatly outnumbered, but they were up to the challenge, and they were slowly winning the battle.
Only a few took notice of the Fire Nation boy running back and forth, putting out their enemy's small fires. No one saw how, when Zuko ran out of water, he took off his shirt and beat the flames down with it — sometimes slapping the fire with the palm of his hand to make sure it didn't spread — and all without being burned.
Finally, with a long hooting call from the attacking Fire Nation ship, what was left of their soldiers turned and retreated.
Dawn broke with celebration and success. The warriors had driven the enemy back… but the cost had been painful. Nunka, the youngest warrior on the ship, had been stabbed through the heart by an enemy blade.
Later in the day Hakoda sat in his cabin, battling back a ache that was threatening to split his head in two.
The food stores had been burned to a crisp, and the fresh water tainted. The Fire Nation's aim had been to stop this rouge ship from its mission of revenge, and in that it succeeded. They would have to turn immediately for home or risk starvation.
This wasn't how he intended to end their months long campaign. Not on a failure. It was looking, though, like he wouldn't have a choice.
A soft knock sounded at the door. Hakoda growled, "Come in!"
He expected Bato with some more bad news. What he got instead was Zuko.
The boy walked in carefully and placed one clasped fist into his cupped palm in a bow of respect — they had finally gotten him to stop bowing to the floor like a Fire Nation dog a couple weeks ago. The boy couldn't speak what he wanted of course. Instead he reached back behind him and pulled out a bladed boomerang from his belt, handing it to Hakoda.
Hakoda looked at the boy and his disfigured, but earnest face. "No, Zuko," he said, pushing the boomerang back. "A boy your age ought to have a weapon for himself. Keep it, it's yours."
A grin lit up the Zuko's face, taking the Chief by surprise. He was a quiet child, of course, being muted. But Hakoda also noticed that he kept to himself; never playing outlandish imaginary battle games, or running around the ship in a fit of childish energy. This was the first time he had seen him smile.
"We will be arriving back at our home village within the next two days," Hakoda continued. "My son, Sokka, is very good with the boomerang. If you ask him, he'll show you what he knows." Actually, it was very likely that Zuko wouldn't have to ask at all. Sokka would be more than willing to show off to whomever was around — whether they cared to see or not. But Zuko was nodding enthusiastically, and Hakoda felt a hint of a smile cross his face.
He dismissed Zuko and watched the boy scamper off. It would be strange, he thought, strange to see a boy like him running and playing in the village. When Hakoda had decided to spare his life, he didn't truly think he would survive, much less begin to thrive.
When the men next went out to battle, they would have to drop the boy off at an Earth Kingdom port, of course. Zuko couldn't stay with them forever. But Hakoda didn't realize until just then that he wasn't looking forward to that day. Not at all.
With a sigh, the young Chief got to his feet and headed out his cabin. Now that he had promised the boy, he might as well make his orders to turn home known to his men.