I took great pains to get this out today, my eyes are killing me so I apologize for any typos. I will be constantly reading and rereading to fix any. I'm not a huge fan of how this chapter came out but I'm slowly chugging along to get this story finished. I refuse to abandon it!
Passage to Kyoshi was harder to secure than the prince anticipated. It didn't help that Kyoshi's waters housed the unagi. Most merchants and fisherman found enough trading and supplies outside of that territory. Which was why Kyoshi dyes and silks were so valuable. After a morning filled with refusals that ranged from petrified fear at the mere mention of Kyoshi's waters to disbelieving laughter because who in their right mind would sail there especially during the unagi's mating season?
The trio found themselves sitting in a pub, heads in their hands.
"How are we supposed to get to Kyoshi if no one is even willing to think about sailing there?" Katara pouted, head dipping lower into her palm.
To everyone's surprise, it was Sokka, after one too many cups of a drink the proprietor insisted was non alcoholic, who suggested, "We should just steal one."
Zuko and Katara peered at him from over their glasses. "But that's wrong," the waterbender gasped at exactly the same moment the prince declared, "That's brilliant!"
The benders exchanged glares. "Of course you would think it's the best plan," the young woman scoffed.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"That you've got no moral compass, Blue Spirit," she hisses his name like a curse.
"And what do you suggest?" Zuko retorts, "Floating there on some driftwood?"
"You kids need a lift to Kyoshi?" Came a smooth voice, dangerous and inviting all at once. All three eyes glanced up at the stranger. Her hair was sleek, dark like her eyes, and upon her arm a swirl of ink contrasted with pale skin. She smirked, one hand on her hip, the other enclosed around a small cup of what they could already smell was sake. "I might have a means."
Zuko's eyes narrowed, studying the newcomer. "What's the catch?"
A careless shrug, "I...have a package I need to deliver to Kyoshi and said package comes with a boat." She studied the empty cup in her hand, as if pondering an imaginary design upon it. "I need a crew."
"Is that all?" Katara pressed, disbelieving of their own luck.
"If you won't help me, I'll find someone else."
"Good luck finding someone dumb enough and desperate enough to sail Kyoshi's waters," Zuko snorted, leaning back in his chair.
The stranger grinned. "A woman as her ways." Her eyes slanted to the waterbender, "This one knows," she said, gesturing to Katara, who blanched in response. The woman chuckled, "Or perhaps not," she amended. "Anyone free to sail me to Kyoshi?" She announced to the public.
A handful of men leered, offering their help.
"Seems I have my pick."
"No one would help us!" Sokka whined.
"Look. I need people who won't talk and won't get on my last nerve. Are you in or out?"
"If you have your pick why ask us?" Katara queried, eyeing the woman with a mix of admiration and distrust.
"Because she wants a crew who won't bother her," Zuko answered. He understood. This package of hers was confidential if he hazarded a guess. She didn't want men prying about her mission. Golden eyes narrowed. "We'll crew your vessel," he declared, ignoring both Katara's and Sokka's protests, "for 50%."
The woman met his steady gaze. "15%."
Silence, then. "Deal." An outstretched hand.
The prince smirked, reaching forward to shake it.
"What just happened," Sokka inquired as the woman went to the bar to presumably get one more drink before their departure.
Zuko settled into his seat. "She's a bounty hunter," he began by way of explanation, "and we're helping her deliver her bounty and collect the reward."
A beaming smile spread across Sokka's lips but Katara shot him a scowl. "We are not going shopping," she tutted.
It is nearing mid-afternoon by the time they are out on the open seas. June, their mysterious companion, was tucked away in a cabin with her bounty and the terrifying shirshu. At the helm stood Sokka with his trusted map, and at the bow sat Katara, looking out over the waves. The prince had just finished properly hoisting the sails, bracing his foot against the boat's edge as he struggled with the knots.
Why wouldn't the damn thing stay?
He grunted, just barely containing his frustration as he tugged to check on its security and it fell apart. Inwardly, he reviewed everything his uncle told him about sailing, unfortunately for the prince most of it involved tea, and the bits that didn't were nothing more than a faint buzz in his ears. Something painful twisted in his chest at the thought- would his uncle's teachings all be forgotten?
"You need to loop it one more time."
The firebender started, glancing at the young woman who had moved towards him on legs far too accustomed to the sway of the waves.
"The knot," Katara continued, nodding her head down to the rope in his hands. "Here." She reached forward, looping the coil properly, and handing it back to the prince, "Now try."
He tried tying it once more, looping the rope around the the designated handle, and was surprised and relieved to find it held. "Finally!" He couldn't quite tamper his excitement and immediately flushed, running a hand through the locks at the back of his head. "Er, thank you," Zuko said with a tilt of his head.
Katara shrugged, grace and nonchalance. "Not a problem," she insisted.
Something hung in the air between them, the awkward tension thick enough to slice with a knife. What would Uncle say? Zuko cleared his throat. "Would you like some tea?"
"So where did you learn to sail?" The prince inquired, pouring his companion a cup of freshly brewed tea. If Uncle could see me now, he thought, rolling his eyes at the idea of the older man encouraging Zuko to socialize.
Across from him, the waterbender graciously accepted her cup and breathed in the scent of Jasmine. "My dad," she answered simply, blowing lightly into her tea. "When we were kids, he taught Sokka and I. He'd take us fishing sometimes." She delved into numerous fishing tales that often included her brother getting into some kind of predicament, and Zuko felt something twinge in his chest- this young woman had a surplus of family stories. He could hardly recall a time when his father had give any indication of affection. She was laughing then, wiping an amused tear from her eye. "I miss him," she sighed at last, something somber in her tone.
Zuko watched her eyes soften, watched the laugh lines in her cheeks fade as the grin fell, and she was reminded entirely of their situation. "How-" he hesitated, wondering if it was too imposing of a question, "how did you end up so far from home?"
She stiffened and he instantly regretted asking. An apology was ready on his tongue but Katara had beat him to it, "It's a bit of a story," she confessed.
"I've got time," he answered quietly, sincerely.
His uncle always told him he was a terrible listener. He would never learn if he refused to acknowledge what he'd done wrong, he would never progress if he was unable to understand other stories, other experiences. What more wisdom did the prince need? He studied at the most prestigious Fire Nation school, had highly educated tutors, and his uncle who was perhaps the greatest source of wisdom of all.
But as the sun melted below the horizon, as the stars winked into existence above them, long after Sokka had retired to the cabins below, he sat and listened to the waterbender's story.
She was right, it was long. And dark, darker than her nauseating optimism let on.
The Fire Nation came to the South Pole and took with them all the children, her and Sokka included. From what they gathered, Ozai had been hoping to somehow brainwash the children into loyal Fire Nation citizens, but the siblings were too old, or too angry and willful to succumb. They escaped soon after.
"How did you get away?"
"Someone helped us," she said, looking into the distance as if watching the memory unfold. "They didn't know I was a waterbender, and I managed to use what little I could manage to create keys to escape rooms. We got lost in the servants' secret passages and someone helped us."
Zuko allowed it all to sink in. Why did he have no recollection of this? Who exactly was aware of this happening?
"I'd see you, you know," Katara went on, voice just barely audible over the breeze. "In the palace. Always in passing, always just a glimpse. In your fire nation reds and your hair in that pony tail."
He hadn't seen her. He hadn't seen any of them. Children.
He felt sick.
"I heard he let them all go anyways," the waterbender went on. "I never knew why and I don't know where they all went..."
"I'm sorry," his voice was gravelly, low, and though he knew his apology did little to ease any pain his own father has caused not only her but an entire people, he felt compelled to say something, anything, to acknowledge her vulnerability. Her self-less sharing of a history too personal.
"It wasn't your fault," she responded quietly.
He knew, in his heart of hearts, that she was right, but that didn't make the shame any easier to bear.
The following morning arrived in an explosion of pastel hues and the firebender met the ocean's spray, taking in a deep and steadying breath as he greeted the sun. Before was the open malignant sea, the waves ensaffroned in the dawn's rays. He could feel the heat, the energy, filling his lungs, his chest, settling the fire in his blood, the tumultuous thoughts in his mind.
Even as the power rose within him the prince couldn't keep the yawn from escaping his lips as he exhaled- he was kept up quite late the night before, having talked to Katara well into the darkest hours. His eyes opened at the thought of her, recalling everything she had divulged, and he had shared in turn.
She revealed how she had learned waterbending from swamp benders, how she and Sokka stumbled into Jet's encampment (here, she was a series of blushes as she glazed over their time with the insufferable boy), of how Jet wanted to take out an entire village of civilians which was why they left the Freedom Fighters to begin with. It was that separation that led them to the White Lotus.
As she spoke, he wondered at Fate's grand design.
He told her about leaving the palace, how he faced the Fire Lord in an Agni Kai and how his uncle had saved him from certain death and took him and ran. She was horrified, and Zuko found himself very nearly jumping to his own father's defense. "I was wrong to disrespect him!" "I shouldn't have interfered!" "It wasn't my place!" In the end, he knew his father was wrong for turning his hand on a thirteen year old boy.
"Your dad was contemplating genocide, Zuko," Katara said fiercely, her hand on his as she demanded he not defend his father. "You did the right thing."
The prince had quieted, but less from her words and more because her hand was warm against his.
There on the deck while greeting the day, he imagined that he could feel remnants of the warmth from her skin tingling upon his wrist, fleeting touches of something alien and intrusive but wholly welcome and, dare he think, missed. Perhaps he was simply starved for affection, perhaps he would welcome any kind of gentle touch from anyone. Even as he thought it, he knew it wasn't true.
Another hour passed before someone rose from below deck.
"Up early," Sokka noted, munching on an apple as he moseyed to the helm.
"I rise with the sun," was the prince's simple reply.
The warrior eyed him, a series of words passing behind his gaze, but he remained quiet, disappearing behind the map he unfolded before him. The wind tugged at the edges and Sokka pressed it down onto the wheel, muttering to himself.
Zuko ignored him, instead rising up to climb the mast and lower the sail.
"What were you and my sister doing up so late last night?"
The question caught him off-guard and he glanced over at the young man just as he reached for a length of rope and missed. He came tumbling down from his short climb, cursing as he rolled out of the fall. When he looked back at Sokka, he winced at the implication behind the warrior's glare.
"We were just talking," Zuko declared, suddenly irritable as he rose, rotating his arm so as to release the pain in his shoulder.
"Talking," Sokka repeated.
"Yes, talking," Zuko retorted. "Did she say otherwise?"
At this, Sokka blinked. "No, but she's young and impressionable," he said. "I know how boys think."
The firebender sighed, peering at him from his second attempt at the mast.
"Boys don't just talk all night," the warrior hedged.
The prince growled, "Nothing happened." He took great pains to appear busy with his task but could feel twin slate orbs drilling into his back. After far too long, the feeling of being watched subsided, and the prince relaxed, hopping down from the mast only to turn around and find a boomerang aimed at his nose.
"I've got my eye on you, Fire Nation," the warrior announced, at which Zuko arched a brow and lifted his hands as if in surrender.
"Sokka, for the love of- what in Spirits do you think you're doing? Put that away before you put an eye out!"
Katara appeared, an angel, a savior, and glaring daggers at her kin.
"But nothing!" The waterbender cut in, prodding a finger into her brother's chest. "He's been nothing but helpful, he doesn't need you going around accusing him of things. Don't you have a route to chart?"
Sokka peered at the prince from around his sister's head, grumbling about no-good firebenders and since when did his own flesh and blood go around defending the enemy and wasn't it just yesterday that she had said he was not her friend, he was a murderer? Only after he was out of ear shot did Katara finally turn to the firebender with an apologetic smile.
She tucked a strand of hair behind an ear that was rather round and perhaps stuck out a bit but Zuko had never seen anything so endearing.
"I'm sorry about that, he gets really big brother sometimes, even though he's only one year older than me!" She emphasized the last part, aiming it at the young man at the helm who only responded by sticking out his tongue.
Privately, Zuko compared their relationship with him and his own sister, fondly recalling a time when it was innocent and protective. Harmless laughter was quickly replaced by static lightning and blue flames and he banished the thought from his mind.
With a shrug, he raked a hand through his hair, drawing the excess from the ocean's spray from his locks. "He's just worried about you," Zuko answered.
"He's got nothing to worry about," the young woman said. A beat of silence and shy eyes, "Does he?"
The firebender studied her, the way her eyes captured the sun. "Er, no, of course not."
"Yeah, exactly," Katara added with a soft laugh, the look in her eyes guarding a secret sweeter than the sea or sky could whisper.
Zuko was about to ask her if there was something Sokka should be concerned about, but she excused herself, citing chores to tackle, and the prince found himself looking after her long after she disappeared below deck. When he finally tore his eyes from the door leading down, he found her brother glaring.
Sokka raised his fingers in a v, first pointing at his own eyes, and then setting his fingers in the firebender's direction.
The prince rolled his eyes, convincing himself that Sokka had nothing to worry about at all.
"So where's the rest of you?"
She had told him of the Freedom Fighter's tree forts, the admittedly incredible system they had in place. Unbidden, flashes of Jet came to mind, and the prince found himself getting annoyed all over again.
Between them, the tea brewed.
Katara watched it, following the trail of steam rise. "After you helped me get them out of the palace, we got word that the princess was out for our blood. So we did what we had to."
"You left," Zuko finished.
She nodded, lifting her eyes to meet his. "I'm sorry we didn't tell you."
"Why should you have? We didn't even know each other. We weren't even friends."
She caught the teasing in his tone and grinned. "Right." Katara reached for the teapot but Zuko waved her hand away, insisting that he would serve her, and the waterbender pretended his submitting himself to serving her wasn't indicative of something far more significant. Instead she watched as he went about his task, noting his steady hand, the scars on his knuckles, and sighed. "For awhile we argued about what to do. We were on our way to the Earth Kingdom and Jet wanted to infiltrated the Fire Nation army to damage from the inside."
Zuko scoffed. "My father would have no qualms using his own soldiers like an endless supply of bodies. It's a good thing you didn't listen to him."
"He wanted to start a rebellion," she went on, taking her cup. Their fingers brushed and he told himself his stomach lurched from the ocean waves, nothing more. "He started instigating unrest, encouraging action. Someone ratted him out and he was taken away. He told us to go, that we shouldn't be captured to." Something strained was evident in her voice and Zuko looked at her face then, noting the watery glaze of her eyes. "Sokka and I ran while the Fire Nation captured our friends, and this time we couldn't go back to save them."
Zuko surprised himself by reaching out, taking her hand. "You are going back to save them, it'll just take a little longer this time," he assured.
Katara smiled a watery smile.
Zuko wondered if she could taste the tears that spilled into her cup.
Their arrival to Kyoshi was met with unease. The warriors intercepted them at the shore and the trio were immediately captured and trussed up.
"They're with me," June announced as she emerged from the boat, a hostage tied up and sitting in the saddle of her shirshu. "And I come bearing a gift," she said, gesturing to the body on Nala. Without any fanfare, she removed a scroll tucked in the bag at her hip and unfolded the paper, showing the warriors a poster of a wanted man.
The leader, donned in emerald armor hemmed with gold, pale face and lined eyes dangerous, gasped. "You've captured Hashuro Dai?"
June shrugged, "Why don't you go see for yourself?"
The warriors retrieved the man who wriggled in protest. He was tied up quite securely, and when the sack was removed from his head he glanced around with wild eyes. His hair was thinning, revealing a shiny bald spot upon his head. His face was pale, ashen, whether from fear or the state of his imprisonment, Zuko couldn't be sure.
"So is that him or what?" June asked.
The Kyoshi women took him away and the leader nodded. "It is. We thank you."
"I didn't do it out of the kindness of my heart, you know."
The other woman laughed. "You will receive your payment. But first we must celebrate his capture."
That evening found the group nestled in Kyoshi Village, surrounded by civilians who were eager to learn of June's capture of the infamous Hashuro. Apparently he did the Elders a great disrespect- no one would reveal just what he did, but rest assured it was dastardly (or so a half-drunk fellow informed him).
Across the way, Sokka was bickering with the Kyoshi Warrior leader.
"So how did you lot get wrangled in with someone like June? Aren't you a little young to be bounty hunters?" An older woman inquired. She had graying hair and a face that told stories of the years she's lived. The kindness in her eyes belied her inexperience with war. Silently, Zuko wondered how long Kyoshi would remain untouched by the Fire Nation.
The prince shrugged. "We had a common goal."
"That being?" The woman pried.
"I needed to come to Kyoshi."
"Why is that?" She asked, only appearing half-interested as she busied herself with a sweet smelling breaded delight. When she broke into it, steam came from its center, revealing juicy meat within.
Zuko trained his eyes on the bonfire at the center of the festivities. He wasn't certain what to say, so he settled for a detail of the truth. "My mother died, I wasn't sure where else to turn."
"Why would you decide to come here?" The stranger asked around a mouthful of meat.
She nodded, as if she understood. Perhaps she truly did? "Who was your mother?"
His eyes rose from the flames and landed on vivid blue ones.
"Her name was Ursa."
The woman dropped her dinner.
If anyone would have told Zuko that within a week of leaving the Fire Nation, he would be welcomed with open arms on a little island simply because he was the son of Ursa, he would have scoffed. But there he was, fawned over due to his mother's far reaching influence. She was beloved and known on Kyoshi. Hearing of her death saddened everyone, but somehow he felt empowered in their presence. They loved her, and they loved him because he came from her.
"She had so much support," Katara whispered at his side, drawing his attention away from a lively retelling of his mother arriving on Kyoshi and demanding healers to help her comrade.
"They loved her," the prince answered in awe. Perhaps one day he would be admired, too?
As if hearing his thoughts, the waterbender lifted a hand to squeeze his shoulder. "They love you, too."
"They don't even know me," Zuko responded.
Her hand slipped from his shoulder, down his arm, leaving a trail of fire in its wake before reaching his wrist.
Though she said nothing in turn and settled on listening to more tales of his mother, laughing when it was called for, looking solemn when things got serious, her hand never left his, and he was grateful for her anchor. He was able to enjoy the company of those people who adored his mother, people whose lives she touched with her light, people she helped. The spiral of depression called to him, a dark and dangerous abyss, enticing him to succumb as he had many times before when thoughts of his inadequacy filled his mind- but she squeezed his hand, bringing him back from the precipice.
When she looked at him, her gaze reflected the solemn and unfathomable stars and he found himself reconsidering whether or not her brother had anything to worry about afterall.