As it would turn out, meeting the rest of the village would not take very long, given that of the small tribe, maybe only thirty of them hadn’t been on a ship with him for the past two months. The prisoners eyed Zuko with distrust, however Hakoda made sure to emphasize that Zuko was welcome, something that Zuko was grateful for.
Kana toured around with them, although he learned very quickly that she was not one for polite conversation. She did not reveal much about herself, and reminded Zuko very much of Mai. Meeting the village children was the most unusual experience for Zuko, who had never been around so many younglings before. Some were initially frightened of him, and others were curious. One in particular was interested in Zuko’s hands.
“You’re very warm.” She said. “Are you sick? My brother was sick and he was really warm.”
Zuko shook his head. “No. I’m just warm naturally. I’m not sick.”
“Good.” The child said. “I don’t like it when people are sick. That means they can’t play. But if you are not sick, you can play.”
Play? Zuko panicked. He didn’t want to play. Unfortunately, just like everything else in his life recently, Zuko did not get what he wanted, and was soon dragged into a game the children called whirlpool.
The rules were very simple. The children formed a circle around one person in the middle, and the person in the middle was supposed to turn in place. The children ran in the direction counter to the person turning, and counted. The person in the middle stopped when the children reached zero, and the children stopped running. Whomever the person in the middle was facing once they stopped was out, making it a game of chance. Zuko thought that it was a good way to get dizzy.
Hakoda watched as Zuko played with the children, along with the other adults, when Sokka came running up to him. “Hey Dad, have you seen…oh, there he is.” Sokka noticed Zuko who was spinning quite fast as the children ran around him.
“Sokka, were you looking for Zuko?” Hakoda asked. “I was introducing him to some of the villagers.”
“I can…uh, see that. He…he was not what you were expecting, huh?” Sokka commented.
“Definitely not.” Hakoda deadpanned.
“He’s not what I imagined someone from the Fire Nation would be like.”
“Oh?” Hakoda asked, an eyebrow raised. “What did you imagine?”
“I don’t know. Angry. Mean. Evil. Pointy.”
“Pointy?” Hakoda repeated, amused.
“Yeah. I mean, have you seen their armor? Pointy, just like their shoes.” Sokka gestured to the boots that Zuko was wearing, which indeed had the toe curved up into a point. Hakoda snorted.
“But Zuko seems…not like that. Sure, he snapped at Katara, but she said he apologized immediately.”
Hakoda glanced at his husband, not having realized that he had already spoken to his daughter. “What happened?”
Sokka winced. “She said that she blamed him for mom’s death, and he turned around and blamed you for his mom’s disappearance. But then he rolled it back, saying it wasn’t your fault, and he shouldn’t have said that or something.”
“His mother disappeared?” Hakoda looked back at Zuko. “I didn’t know about that.”
“He said he thought it was because of the engagement.” Sokka elaborated. The others standing nearby, eavesdropping gasped softly, sympathy growing for the young Firebender.
Hakoda thought back to Zuko’s relief earlier at learning he wouldn’t be exiled from the tribe. “I told him that I didn’t want ours to be a traditional marriage, that we wouldn’t have a romantic relationship. He was worried that I was going to kick him out, exile him or something.”
“Abandonment issues.” Kana interrupted. Hakoda looked at his mother. “That boy is a skin filled with issues, abandonment and emotional neglect too. And I know my burns. That kind of scar is only caused by close range exposure to an open flame. That was no accident. Not when it looks like an open palm.”
Horror filled Hakoda and Sokka. “You mean, someone did that to him on purpose?” Sokka whispered.
“It wouldn’t surprise me.” Kana grunted.
They watched as Zuko tried to stop spinning, and suddenly slipped on the ice. The children laughed at him, and Sokka could see pink dusting the older boy’s face as he stood back up. Zuko turned, and asked the children who he had been facing before he fell, but clearly the honor code did not apply. Each child pointed at a different person, and Zuko shook his head, knowing they would not give him an easy answer.
“Why don’t we just try again? And I try not to fall this time?” Zuko asked, and the children cheered.
Hakoda smiled. “You know, he has a sister that is the same age as Katara?”
Sokka nodded. “Yeah, he said. The psycho.”
Hakoda laughed, remembering now the conversation that had taken place after the wedding. “He seemed close to his uncle, who was much different from what I expected as well when I first met him.”
“The old guy? Why, what were you expecting from him?” Sokka asked, curious.
“Prince Iroh, an acclaimed general of the Fire Nation Army, so called the Dragon of the West. He was the one who led the assault and laid siege to Ba Sing Se. A brilliant tactician, and a phenomenal bender, the man has a reputation.”
“Wow.” Sokka’s eyes widened. “That guy? The old fat guy? I guess looks really are deceiving, huh?”
They continued to watch as Zuko stopped spinning again, and this time successfully eliminated a child from the circle. The child stepped out, and the gap in the circle closed, and the children started running again, and Zuko sighed before starting to turn in place again.
“Do you ever get dizzy watching them play that?” Hakoda wondered aloud.
“No.” Sokka responded. “I think this is the first time they’ve played this game in two years when I haven’t been the person in the middle.”
Hakoda was briefly reminded that next to Zuko, there was almost no one else in the tribe close to Zuko’s age. When Hakoda sailed off two years ago, then-thirteen year old Sokka had been too young to come with them, leaving him the unfortunate oldest male in the tribe while they were gone.
The youngest of the former prisoners had been fifteen when they left, only two years older than Sokka, but prison had not been kind to him, or any of the others. While the physical age gap didn’t change, the prisoners did age mentally, and developed a solidarity with each other, further isolating Sokka from the other men in the tribe. It was one of the many things Hakoda felt guilty about, robbing his son of friends his own age.
“Y’know, Sokka. Since Zuko’s going to be staying with us, we’re going to need his help on several of the chores around the village. He admitted to me earlier that he doesn’t really know how to hunt. Maybe you, Bato and I could take him sometime, and show him the ropes?”
Sokka perked up, eager at the idea. “Yeah. And maybe we could take him ice-dodging too. He’s old enough?”
Hakoda hummed thoughtfully. “You know what, Sokka? That’s a great idea. The ice should be in the perfect position on the coast because of the ship leaving. Tomorrow, let’s take one of the boats out, we can even bring your sister along.”
Sokka grinned, excited at the concept. He remembered his own time ice-dodging, his dad took him last year. Bato had been there as well, and Katara had sat by the bow of the ship, watching intensely. It had been really fun, and Sokka was sure Zuko would enjoy the experience too.
The next morning, Zuko found himself being shaken awake. The sky was still dark out and a flash of fear ran through Zuko that Hakoda wanted something from him after all. But it was Sokka jostling him.
“C’mon. Get up. Let’s go!” The younger boy whispered, gesturing excitedly towards the door.
Zuko rubbed his eyes and frowned. “Sokka? What’s going on?”
The young tribesman grinned at his stepfather. “My dad and I were talking yesterday, and we thought we’d show you a tradition we do here, that you’d get to participate in. I can’t really tell you more, that’ll ruin the surprise. Now get up, get ready.”
Zuko did get up, although his body protested. “It’s still dark outside?”
Sokka looked at him like he was crazy. “It’s the South Pole. It’s almost always dark outside. The sun won’t rise for another couple of hours.”
Zuko blinked, having never considered that aspect of where he was now living. “Oh. That’s…different.”
Sokka frowned. “How so?”
Zuko stood up and stretched, and Sokka sat on the floor of the hut, watching the older boy wake up. “In the Fire Nation, the days are long, and the sun rises early. And Firebenders rise with the sun. We don’t sleep very much, the exposure to our element invigorates us. The same with Waterbenders and the moon. But if the Sun doesn’t rise as long here, I expect I will sleep more than I would have back in the Fire Nation.”
“Oh.” Sokka blinked. “That’s cool. I…uh, didn’t know that. Are you ready?”
Zuko pulled on his pointy boots, and ran his fingers through his hair, retying it into a low ponytail at the nape of his neck. He nodded at Sokka, who then scrambled to his feet, and rushed out the door, Zuko following slowly behind.
The prince was surprised to see many of the villagers awake and already moving around, and Zuko could see Kana and Katara already tending to a pile of fish, getting rid of the bones and scales. Animal fat candles were everywhere, lighting up the village as they waited for the sun to rise.
Sokka led him away from the main encampment, and closer to the docks, where Zuko could see Hakoda and Bato working on a single ship. As the two boys walked closer, Bato recognized the, and pointed out to Hakoda that they had company. Hakoda smiled, and greeted the teenagers.
“Good morning Sokka, and Zuko. I imagine you probably have some questions, providing that my son hasn’t yet spilled the beans?”
Zuko shook his head. “He just said something about a surprise tradition. I don’t really know what we’re going.”
“Good,” Hakoda clapped just hands together. “In that case, allow me to explain. In our culture, our lives are intrinsically tied to that of the ice and the water. Snow gives us shelter, ice gives us land, and the sea gives us food. Our entire way of living is linked to the environment around us, and so, as you can imagine, we have to learn how to work with that environment. Sailing is important to us, however in this landscape, the changing formations of ice can often trap ships and put lives in danger. It is the duty of a leader to be able to avoid scenarios like this, or get out of them, therefore this ceremony, which we call ice-dodging, is a rite of passage for young men in our tribe to test their wisdom, bravery, and show trust in their crew while expecting it themselves. Today, you will be performing the ceremony, with Sokka, Bato, and myself as your crew. But first, let me show you how this all works so you have a basic understanding of what you’re doing.”
As Hakoda explained the mechanisms of the ship, with various commentary from Sokka, Zuko began to gain a basic understanding of the concept. There were two sails, the mainsail and the jib. Controlling the sails meant controlling their speed, and made steering easier. Steering the ship was done by rotating the rudder, attached to the back, or the stern of the ship. The crew’s job was to make sure the ropes connected to the sails were either tight enough or slack enough to maintain their speed and direction, while fighting winds and sea currents. And of course, the main objective was not to get trapped by the ice or run aground on a glacier. By the time Zuko was comfortable steering, and had a good enough understanding of sailing, the sun had started to rise in the sky, giving him a warm feeling deep within his chest.
Hakoda smiled at him, and then went to go sit on the bow of the ship. “Now we begin the test. For this part, Zuko, I can’t help you, but if you trust in your crew, and in yourself, you will not steer us wrong. Good luck!”
Ziuko looked out at the ocean in front of him, a debris field littered with sharp icebergs. The wind on the water started picking up, and the waves began to rise. Slightly daunted, Zuko exhaled softly and nodded. He ordered Sokka to take control of the mainsail, and Bato the job, figuring that the boon of the mainsail would swing around, causing someone to need to duck a lot. The two got into place, and Bato pulled his rope taunt, flattening the sheet. The ship started picking up speed, and Zuko adjusted the rudder arm to correct their course, avoiding a small outcropping of ice. More obstacles came into their path, and Zuko told Bato to slacken the rope, slowing them down long enough for the ship to neatly weave amongst them. Sokka grinned at Zuko, who smiled back briefly, before returning his gaze to the ocean. A large glacier drifted quickly towards them, and Zuko frowned, worried about the ice that might be underwater. He navigated quickly away from the iceberg, but then realized he had made a mistake.
By correcting the course away from one obstacle, he had inadvertently sailed them into the path of another. Two large icebergs were on a collision course with each other, and there was no way to sail around them in time. In order to avoid them…he would have to sail between. Rapidly, Zuko ordered both Bato and Sokka to pull the sails tight, and help them pick up speed, knowing he would have to move quickly to avoid being smashed flat by the ice. Sokka eyed his dad, worried, but Hakoda looked at Zuko in confidence.
As the icebergs started to collide, the water tribe ship neatly scraped through the gap, suddenly finding itself in open ocean. They had made it, Zuko had passed.
Hakoda and Bato both clapped, and Sokka cheered. Zuko smiled, feeling a small flash of accomplishment run through him. They quickly sailed back to shore, and found Katara waiting for them on the dock. She took in their faces, and smiled brightly at Zuko, congratulating him on the achievement.
“Well done! You’re officially honorary Water Tribe now!” She said, prompting a small smile from Zuko.
“Thank you.” Zuko responded, not sure what to do next. The sun was now fully up, and he could see the tribe children playing in the snow.
“Zuko,” Hakoda called out. “A moment please.”
Zuko turned back to his husband, who was now holding a small bowl. “Marks are given to those who complete this test as a way of demonstrating which quality they best possessed during the trial. You trusted your crew, and yourself to get through a situation that could have gone very differently and it worked. Therefore I give you the mark of the trusted. This is a good quality to have, and I hope you will embody it throughout your time here. Good work.”
Hakoda dipped his thumb in the black liquid the bowl contained, and swiped it across Zuko’s forehead, leaving a shallow arc curved above his brow. Zuko nodded, grateful for Hakoda’s words, and Sokka rocked back and forth on his heels. Bato clapped Zuko on the shoulder, and nodded to Hakoda, before walking off, and Hakoda nodded to Sokka before also making to leave.
“I have some duties to attend to, but I believe my children have already planned out your day in order to get you familiar with some of the chores we’re going to ask you to do. Is that alright?” Hakoda asked, and Zuko nodded.
“Yes, that’s’s fine. Thank you Ch…Hakoda.” Zuko nearly slipped, calling the man by his title, however he dropped the formality in time, and Hakoda’s mouth twitched into a smile.
“C’mon. Lots to do today!” Sokka grabbed Zuko’s arm, dragging him off the ship, towards a rowboat.
“Like what?” Zuko asked.
“Fishing!” Sokka cheered. Internally, Zuko groaned. It was going to be a long day.