The albatross-pigeon flew northeast, away from the Akhlut, over ocean and the outer edge of the Water Tribe fleet and a small, rather rusty Fire Navy vessel approaching from the opposite direction.
It was watched by a man who had once thought himself a good prince, a good general, a good father, a good uncle—
By a man who had once thought himself many things he was not.
To Uncle Iroh, the letter in the bird's carrier said.
Wani, said the name on the ship's side.
The bird kept flying, on to the Earth Kingdom base which would relay her message north towards its recipient's last known location.
Messenger birds could not read.
It had been the second storm since the winter solstice. Iroh had been making tea. When his nephew grew tired enough to be coaxed inside, he would be cold, and Iroh would be ready.
Some hours later, when Iroh himself grew numb enough to be coaxed back in by the crew, the tea was still sitting on the table with two cups waiting. It was very cold by then. Iroh sat down to warm it.
His nephew would need it to be warm when they found him.
Zuko had been born ten days earlier than Lu Ten, and many years apart.
"Maybe you'll catch up next year," Lu Ten teased, year after year, during those ten days when their ages were closer.
"I will," said Zuko, small and stubborn and still too young to understand that there were some things that hard work would never get him.
And then Lu Ten's birthdays stopped. Iroh did not know how he would feel when his nephew grew older than his son.
(Even less did he know how he would feel if Zuko never did.)
Day Negative One of Not Pushing Zuko Overboard began with a spar: water versus fire. The fire was in noticeably shorter supply than the water, because wooden ship, and also ocean, but Zuko was getting in good practice with his basic blocks and precision counter attacks and not thinking. He was just sparring, and giving it his full attention, because the whole point of sparring was so he didn't have to think about the messager birds that had been steadily flying to and from their ship since the storm had cleared, relaying increasingly more accurate reports about his sister's position, which was behind them. Somehow they'd passed her during the storm and now she was trapped in a constricting circle of Water Tribe ships, and only one crew would even think twice before murdering a child of Ozai's—
Zuko dodged to the left and skidded, because his new sister had iced the deck without him noticing. Instead of pressing the attack as he fought for balance, she set her hands on her hips.
"Zuko. If this isn't taking your mind off things, we can try something else."
"Uh-huh," she said. And then, "Duck."
Zuko did not duck. He sheathed his swords, and skidded to catch the latest incoming bird. Katara was acting like he always got knocked over by—
He was still standing on her ice. He got knocked over, landing hard on his shoulder. His bad one.
"Where are your falling lessons now, brat?" Kustaa crowed from across the deck.
Zuko did not groan. He did not groan because it didn't actually hurt, it had just gone numb, which would have been more reassuring to him before he'd read whole chapters about irreparable damage to the lightning-chi paths. He let Katara take the bird from him and sat up, already massaging his shoulder with a fire-warmed hand. He'd helped Panuk and Toklo with enough strained muscles to know that a little heat was all it needed. Probably. The first touch hurt like the under-skin spark-needles from sleeping on an arm wrong, and he grit his teeth, but after that it was just… tingly.
"Don't poke it," Katara said, shoving the bird at a passing crewman. Ranalok ended up with a face full of manhandled bird as Katara knelt. "Here, let me see."
"It's fine," Zuko said, but he obediently sat in place while she ran water over his shoulder.
"It is fine," she admitted, voice dubious.
"I think I pushed something back in when I fell," he said, rolling his shoulder. "It actually feels better than it has in awhile."
"How about we practice healing, instead?"
"Okay," Zuko said, trying not to sound too eager. Azula had always told him he looked stupid, being eager for lessons she was just going to beat him at.
They took a seat next to Appa, more out of the way than their spar had been, and also much warmer. The bison lowed a greeting; Katara pat its side, like it could feel anything so light under all that fur. When Zuko had snuck out to pet it before his new siblings woke up, that fur had swallowed him up to the elbow. He slipped back into his coat as he sat down; there was still a strong breeze, southerly now instead of easterly. The coat swallowed him as effectively as bison fur; it was Hakoda's.
"I still can't believe you lost my coat," Toklo said, pausing in his work.
"It's okay. The Blue Spirit lost my coat, too. If he wants to make it up to me, he could always show me some of his amazing moves…"
"You don't even know what my amazing moves are."
Not so very far away, Hakoda paused in opening this latest correspondence.
The Blue Spirit was Zuko.
For once, that answered more questions about their ex-prince than it raised.
He shook his head, and turned his attention back to the letter.
Another Fire Navy ship had been spotted. Not Azula's, or one of the blockade ships still days ahead of them; this one was coming at them full speed from the northeast.
"Strategy meeting," Hakoda called. He made sure to invite all his children, though he knew better than to expect all of them to attend.
Katara made her way below decks on an excited Sokka's heels. It wasn't until she was taking her seat that she noticed Zuko hadn't followed.
The Wani was haunted by silence where once a teenager had been. The search continued. It was some days later that Iroh came on deck and found his crew—his nephew's crew—huddled around something by the rail. He tightened his grip on his breath control, and approached.
The crew parted. There was not a living boy. There was not a body. There was only a piece of driftwood, newly fished aboard, one end of a robe's sash still tightly tied to it. The other lay on the metal deck, loose and sodden like a dead thing. The wood would not have held the weight of a man full grown. The sash was red silk.
"Sir," Lieutenant Jee said, "your orders?"
"You have them, Lieutenant."
The crew darted glances between them. Jee looked as if he might say more. He was wise enough not to.
It was only cloth. It could have belonged to anyone's boy.
The crew brought Iroh his meals, and fresh tea. He could not drink Zuko's, of course. It was rather oversteeped by now, but his nephew preferred it strong.
"Is this a new blend?" Ursa asked pleasantly, while his brother sipped with casual elegance, seemingly unaware of little Azula mirroring his every motion and expression exactly.
"Is this water?" Zuko asked, causing that same self-possessed little girl to snort tea out her nose. Her father noticed her then, and frowned.
"Zuko," Ursa said firmly, "apologize."
"But you said Uncle Iroh said he liked when children asked questions," the little boy protested.
Lu Ten leaned over, and whispered something in his ear. Zuko nodded very seriously, then addressed Iroh again.
"I'm sorry the courtiers are too scared to tell you your tea tastes bad. I promise I'll always tell you the truth, even when you're Fire Lord."
Azula's cackle was exactly like Lu Ten's, in spirit if not in octave.
Zuko didn't go up the mast, because if he did then someone would tell Hakoda and then his dad would come—it might even interrupt their meeting—and then Zuko would have to talk about it.
He found the bison's brush, instead. The back of a ten ton animal proved to be a sufficient buffer against anyone talking to him.
He should have remembered that wanting to be alone was one of the best ways to attract the attention of a little sister.
Katara climbed up next to him, the lemur on her shoulder, and leaned back against the bison's head. "We gave him a good scrub a few days ago, you know."
"No," Zuko said, from within the ever-replenishing jetstream of loose fur he was brushing out, "I don't. You realize animals shed in spring, right? And you need to brush them more than once?"
She raised an eyebrow. "I didn't know you had opinions on animal grooming."
"The khomodo-rhinos shed their winter scales in spring. If they don't molt cleanly, the saddle straps can hurt them."
"So you weren't at the meeting because of your urgent need to brush Appa?"
He brushed harder. She coughed and shifted a little further away, and a little more deliberately upwind.
"Zuko. You can talk to me. I'm your sister now, apparently." Her face and tone still didn't know what to do with their sibling status.
He paused to wipe bison hair out of his eyes, at least enough to glare properly. "In the Water Tribes, do siblings plot against each other?"
"That sounds like more of a Fire Nation thing."
"Then why would you try to make me do it?"
"Oh. Oh," Katara put a hand over her mouth. "I'm sorry, I just… forgot."
"Forgot. Because I'm so different from Azula?"
He brushed even harder, down to the soft undercoat and the thick skin beneath. The bison's legs slid out to the sides as it flopped on the deck, groaning.
"I won't help you fight my— fight the Fire Nation. Hakoda knows that."
Katara was scratching the lemur's head, and watching him, and not saying anything.
Zuko's hands had cramped around the brush like they used to cramp around the sanding stone as he smoothed the ship's rails. He let go of it and stretched his fingers out, painfully.
"She's my sister," he said.
"What's she like?" his other sister asked. "When she's not trying to kill us, I mean."
His lips twitched. "Actually, 'trying to kill you' is a pretty good place to start."
Azula's ship had departed Whale Tail and sailed straight into the center of a Water Tribe fleet that, without any advance warning, had somehow ended up perfectly circled around her.
"Someone is going to die for this," she said, as the sightings of the blue-sailed water fleas began to tilt from 'coincidence' to 'enemy action'.
(The Ocean was extremely pleased to show Yue his ship-circle. Yue was grateful for his help, but not quite sure why his waves were glimmering with such pride until she realized her counterpart had used the Water Tribe fleet to draw the Moon.
Oh, she thought.
La was very pleased with his terrible art. This reminded Yue of another boy she'd known. It was a painful thought, but less so than it had been.)
"Morning, Seal Jerky," Bato called. "You're up almost-early."
Sokka joined the man, his shoulders falling into a suitably dramatic slump. "You can't call me that, Bato. Zuko named the dog that."
Said dog, apparently well practiced at learning new names for itself, had already trotted over to them with its tongue lolling happily.
"And you're going to let him?" Bato asked. "Don't let the Fire Nation steal this from you, too. Fight back."
"Yeah," Sokka said. "Yeah, I will."
Scuttles and/or Seal Jerky pawed at Sokka's pants. Sokka crouched down, and scruffy-whuffied the fur on the dog's head. "And that starts with giving you your own name, boy. The best name I know. It's completely Water Tribe, and completely mine to give. Now, this is an honor, but I don't mind sharing. How about… Sokka Junior?"
Sokka Junior wagged his tail and danced excitedly on his pereopods, not like a dog renamed, but like one finally hearing his true name.
Bato clapped a hand on his shoulder, speechless with pride at Sokka's selflessness. The crew grinned their approval. Zuko stomped off, his villainy defeated.
Hakoda was kneeling on his bed, taking this pause between waves of letters to pin something up, when Zuko stomped in.
"He named the dog Sokka. Sokka Junior."
"Sokka." Zuko's eyes narrowed at the wall. "...What are you doing?"
"Just making things fair." Hakoda put the final pin into the poster he'd bought off of Toklo. "Now I have a poster for all three of my kids: the Blue Spirit, Seal Jerky, and Katara. Look, you're all 'wanted'."
Zuko stomped straight back out.
Hakoda had missed being a dad.
The crew put the word out at ports. Hung posters, asked a question they already knew the answer to.
Have you seen this boy?
Iroh sent letters, and kept a teapot warm. Meals continued to arrive at his room, too often and too plentiful. He should tell the cook to send smaller portions; Zuko had always been so conscious of their limited budget. For the first time in… how long had it been? For the first time in some time, Iroh went down to the galley.
There was a small shrine in one corner, newly built. Zuko's picture, cut carefully from a missing poster, stood framed in front of a bowl of rice, the chopsticks sticking up.
Iroh returned to his room. It was some hours later that the smell of burning tea leaves was so good as to inform him that all the water had boiled off from the pot.
If he had to pick a smell for failing his nephew, burning would certainly be appropriate.
This is how he lost a son:
"Trust me, dad," Lu Ten smiled. He had an excellent smile. Very popular with the ladies, and many of the gentlemen. "I can do this."
Zuko, too, thought he had much to prove. And Iroh trusted that he would be a great man one day.
Iroh did not bury Lu Ten's body. This was another similarity to Zuko.
The Fire Navy ship coming towards them was small, rusty, and very much alone. Likely a transport simply on its way to Whale Tail, with the bad luck of stumbling too close to things they couldn't be allowed to report. Hakoda's commanders had requested permission to attack. A ship that old wouldn't be hard to sink.
"That sounds a lot like Zuko's ship," Sokka said, during their meeting.
But it couldn't be, because that was the ship that Prince Iroh had used to get to the North Pole, and he'd told them he'd stay there until at least the start of the summer. He had to finish sorting out the commanders who'd really sworn to him from the ones that had just been scared of the Giant Glow-Koi, and finalize the alliance with the North, and he had been very clear about not tipping his hand to Ozai about the whole I stole your fleet thing before those were accomplished. A living Zuko was probably enough to bring him south early, and doing it with only the one ship Ozai already knew he had would certainly keep the fleet under wraps, but Zuko had literally only sent his letter yesterday. So.
"Definitely not Iroh, though," Sokka had concluded.
Permission granted, Hakoda had replied to his commanders. He already had his hands full planning the Avatar's rescue from Azula's top-of-the-line cruiser, when their existing tactics focused on not leaving survivors; they didn't need new enemies mucking things up.
"Your expertise would be invaluable," Zhao said.
Iroh had not offered him tea. He wondered, in a part of his mind that thought through the numbing fog on the rest of his thoughts, how long the man could speak before his throat became parched.
"And, of course, it would be a chance to avenge the insult upon your late nephew's name—"
"Insult?" Iroh asked.
"I understand that Fire Lord Ozai has limited the information to select circles," the leech-rat on their naval command structure said, "but there is no reason to pretend with me. I know all about the Water Tribe's tasteless farce. To claim Prince Zuko was in their custody, after you yourself had reported his tragic loss at sea—"
Zhao could not quite keep the gloating out of his tone. That would get him killed one day.
When the man had scurried back to his own ship, Iroh stood. For the first time since—
For the first time in quite awhile, Iroh opened the door to his nephew's room. A scroll on Avatar Yangchen was still unfurled on his desk, as if Zuko had only just stepped out. An ink stone held it open on one end; on the other, a familiar knife.
Never give up without a fight.
Zuko would have fought to the end, past when anyone could have expected him to, past what was in any way reasonable, and a few breaths more. He had fought long enough to be found. And, presumably, found lively enough to shout his title or his father's at some baffled Water Tribe commander, for Iroh could not fathom why a people known for leaving no survivors would have otherwise stayed their hand.
Iroh did not need to question whether his nephew had tried to fight them, to escape; he had only to wonder how, and what it had cost. Hopefully the Water Tribe had not… Hopefully they had seen the child, under the prince. Hopefully they had made it quick, when his brother had denied their terms, insulted their honor, made it clear exactly how much value his own son held to him—
Zuko was dead. He had died alone at sea, as Ozai had intended from the moment he'd put a boy with a fresh burn on a ship crewed with the navy's dredges. Iroh had asked forgiveness instead of permission when he'd put himself aboard. He had not been close to Zuko, then; only guilty. The love would come later, when he watched a boy fight through infection, through fear of his own flames, through nobles and commanders who thought a banished prince an easy stone on which to step to raise themselves high. Through pai sho games that Zuko hated but he knew Iroh loved, through Avatar hunts that took them to towns renowned for their tea just in time for Iroh's birthdays, through watching a child grow into a young man who still, impossibly, cared.
Ozai had killed his son three years ago, and left behind a son for Iroh.
Iroh lifted the knife. The avatar scroll curled back shut. Beneath it was another, somewhat flattened from more regular unfurling: a play scroll.
Iroh laughed. He did not know how this led to him kneeling on the floor, crying, clutching the sheathed knife to his chest.
Never give up without a fight.
Zuko had left his fight behind. If Iroh wished for his nephew's spirit to reincarnate into a world where he would not have to fight every day, then Iroh's own fight needed to begin. He had stood with the spectators, his gaze averted, for too long.
The crew came to startled attention as he entered the galley. Iroh carried with him a teapot, freshly scrubbed and steaming with new brew, and two cups, newly dusted. He knelt at the shrine, and had one last cup of tea with his nephew. Zuko drank about the usual amount.
Iroh stood. He gathered the crew.
"Ozai stole my crown and my son," he began, "I will have back what I can."
The fleet's attack on the Fire Navy ship was rebuffed. By waterbenders.
"Oops," Sokka said.
" 'Oops'?" Zuko shouted.
"Hey, if you cared, you should have been at the meeting—"
A messenger hawk followed soon after his commander's albatross-pigeon; a tracking hawk. Zuko didn't rush to catch it. Instead, he grabbed a strip of leather to wrap around his arm, and let the bird gracefully land.
I believe you have something of mine, read the most pleasantly threatening letter Hakoda had ever seen. The paper smelled faintly of smoke and tea.
When Hakoda showed it to Zuko, his son spent a long time just holding it, and breathing in.
"Please be my firebending teacher."
Iroh touched the young Avatar's shoulder, signaling him to straighten from his bow. "It would be my honor. I will be here, after you have found your earthbending master. Come to me when you are ready to begin your training."
This was a lie. Soon after the Avatar departed, a letter arrived from a small port town.
To be fair, the Avatar was still very far from mastering earthbending. Geographically speaking.
"Did you dunderheads seriously leave without me?" a twelve-year-old shouted to the sky, in the middle of a deserted and somewhat smoldering Earth Kingdom town.
Maybe if she could really see, she could look up and find Appa in the distance, or squint into the horizon and spot the next town. Everything in her feet's range was nothing and more nothing. Maybe her parents were right; maybe she—
What was this loser-think and how did it get in her brain.
If she was out here alone and unsupervised, that wasn't her problem. But it was about to become everyone else's.
The Blind Bandit cracked her knuckles, picked a direction, and started walking.
The ship approaching them was the Wani. Zuko would have known her at any port, could have recognized her by the dent in her railing from when a supply crane had dropped a crate, or the pattern of rust spots across her hull, broken by the new plating where the Avatar had dropped an iceberg on them. It was weird seeing her from such a distance; like watching his own leg stroll back to him. In two and a half years of living on her, he'd rarely seen her from so far away.
And, as she drew closer, he could see figures on her deck. He couldn't make out their faces yet, but he knew them by stance and stride. Lieutenant Jee's unamused stiffness. Crewman Teruko's irreverent lean against a rail. Uncle's patient presence, waiting by the prow.
Zuko wondered how recognizable he was.
"You should wave," Katara said, elbowing him in the side. But gently.
"I don't know," Sokka said. "Wouldn't shouting be more recogniz—"
Panuk elbowed him in the side. Not so gently, judging by the wheeze that followed.
"Is that him?" Toklo asked, following Zuko's gaze.
Zuko swallowed. "Yeah. That's Uncle."
"Hmph," Kustaa said.
There were people next to Uncle that Zuko didn't recognize. People in blue. A tall, thin man created some kind of flat iceberg, which ferried a boarding party towards the Akhlut much faster and much more flashily than a ship's boat could have.
Katara stiffened next to him. Zuko looked to her for an explanation.
"Pakku," she spat.
Iroh had already lost Zuko twice. He did not—could not—let himself hope when he read the letter. To open his heart again—
Well. It had been good there were so many healers in the north; his heart had needed it, after that letter.
He did not hope as he ordered the Wani south. Did not hope when the Wani closed on the lead ship of the southern fleet, such as it was. Did not hope when he stepped over the rail of his own ship and onto Pakku's ice. Whether the ride was rough or smooth, Iroh could not say. He was watching the deck as it approached, the way each figure stood, looking for the tense pride with which Zuko always held himself. His nephew had a way of trying to make himself the tallest, in spirit if not in stature.
He did not find what he was looking for, and he did not hope. He would have needed to meet the chief of the united Southern Water Tribe eventually, anyway; that was all this was. A diplomatic mission.
Features resolved into faces as they drew closer. There was a boy on deck with a scar, similar to Zuko's but smaller, softened at the edges by the easy fall of hair that had escaped its binding.
(The number of times a day Zuko would disappear into his room and tidy that phoenix tail of his, thinking that no one noticed—)
This boy was taller than his Zuko, broader in shoulder, standing relaxed and sure amid his fellow tribesman. Such scars were probably more common amongst those the Fire Nation fought. Still, this boy looked so exactly like the young man Iroh had hoped for Zuko to become that Iroh found his vision blurring. He was not quite sure when Pakku, his expression exasperated, had helped him off the ice and onto the deck. He really must compose himself to meet Chief Hakoda; he had to drag his eyes away soon—
"Uncle?" the young man said. He took one step forward, then another, and then he was colliding with Iroh's chest, wrapping his arms around him, leaning down to rest his head against his shoulder in the same way a much smaller boy had stood on tip-toe to do on the days they would take (terrible) tea together.
"Zuko," Iroh breathed.
"I'm sorry, Uncle."
Uncle did not hope. Hope was for things that may yet prove a disappointment. The boy in his arms would never be that.