To Be Cast Adrift
(A/N: I don't own anything but the notion of an idea that may or may not work out. Starts out 1 year before the show begins. A bit of a 'what if'. Also known as a writing experiment. Expect sporadic updates.)
adrift adverb or adjective \ə-ˈdrift\
of a boat : floating on the water without being tied to anything or controlled by anyone
: without guidance, purpose, or support
: behind by a specified amount in a race, competition, etc.
~~( - )~~
In the year 98AG, a messenger hawk was finally dispatched to the Fire Nation Naval Headquarters carrying the news that Zuko, son of Fire Lord Ozai and Lady Ursa, the banished crown prince of the Fire Nation, had been lost at sea while putting down a mutiny during a violent spring storm. The retired general, Prince Iroh, Dragon Of The West, vowed he would continue to search for Prince Zuko in hopes that he survived and in addition he would also continue the quest to find the Avatar.
~~( - )~~
In the week prior to the message being sent…..
General Iroh held up a hand, stopping the words of the men before him. "I understand. You are not pleased with my nephew right now." He let out a huffed sigh. "Even I am not pleased with his actions of late," he admitted sadly. "Yes, he reacts poorly when he is criticized. Yes, he demands much from you and the rest of the crew. And yes, he has no patience when his commands are not followed. But…." he once more held up a hand to stop the words of the men. "But.. do any of you try to explain why you delay following his orders? Do any of you try to explain, in the simplest of ways, why you do not follow his commands in the order he gave them? And 'Just because' or 'we've always done it that way' will not be accepted. That includes you, Lt. Jee." He tucked his hands into his sleeves once more as he turned around to watch his nephew practice on the ship's foredeck as he waited for the answers.
"Sir…" Lt. Jee started to say then paused to reach up and rub his temples.
"Did any of you or the crew even make an attempt?" Iroh asked, still looking out the windows. "Everyone on board should know by now, that if there is a problem with my nephew that either cannot, or will not, be handled by chain of command, that I can and will deal with him."
"...We've all tried Sir. And to be honest Sir... you only make things worse," the helmsman said.
Lt. Jee turned his head and gave the helmsman a glare. Playing go-between with the crew and the Prince was never easy for the lieutenant. And dealing with the General was, in comparison, while much easier was quite a bit tricker. He often found himself somehow agreeing to whatever the old man wanted. "Sir… Prince Zuko has gone too far this time. It's taking all I can do to keep the crew in order right now. Either we do something to appease them, or there will be bloodshed."
Iroh fingered the Pai Sho tile that was tucked up his sleeve for a moment as he deliberated with himself over what to do. He turned around again and studied each and every man there in the room with him. "Gentlemen, do you side with Lt. Jee on the matter?"
Nods and murmured agreement from all around followed.
The retired general knew that sometimes small sacrifices were required to reap the greatest rewards. "What does the crew plan on doing to Prince Zuko?"
Looks were exchanged before Cook spoke up. "Throw him to the mercy of the sea. Set him adrift with nothing but some hardtack and a flask of water is the current favorite."
"Better than what they originally wanted to do to him…." the head engineer muttered.
"And what did they wish to do to Prince Zuko?"
Lt. Jee winced, wishing the engineer had kept his mouth shut. "A few of the men were… disgruntled about having their shore leave canceled at the last port..." He really did not want to continue but knew from the hardening expression on the retired general he had better or else. "They expressed their desire to…. rectify that…." Lt. Jee trailed off as he looked up at the ceiling, then to the left and right. Anywhere except the Dragon of the West.
"Continue Lt. Jee." It was an order, not a request.
The lieutenant swallowed once, then closed his eyes and took a deep breath. After slowly letting it out, he opened his eyes and focused on a point over the left shoulder of the general. "These men expressed a desire to use Prince Zuko as a means of releasing their sexual frustrations then afterward to weigh him down and drop him over board. The hand full of men in question are angry at being denied shore leave at our last port of call, due in part, to their slipshod performance, lackadaisical attitudes in general and their blatant breaking of the 'no distilleries on board' rule. Sir." The rules were simple; as long as it could be stored in their locker, they didn't sell it to their crew mates and they did not drink while on duty. Alcohol was permitted in modest amounts, but it could only be purchased while in port, not made while aboard ship.
Cook, who was much more familiar with the general and his legendary temper, quickly added in that the men were harshly reminded of the penalty for rape. Especially rape of a minor. Until they reached the age of 17, they were by Fire Nation Law, a minor; even if said person was in command of a naval ship.
Heat waves rippled around the older Prince and smoke curled up from the corner of his mouth before he brought his temper back in check. "I see…. Lieutenant, I want those men off this ship at our next port of call. I do not care how you accomplish that, or how you word the reports, but they will Not be aboard when we leave that port. Do You Understand?"
The lieutenant snapped to attention, "Yes Sir!"
"Good." Iroh once more turned around to face away from the men. "Will the crew be willing to listen to a compromise?"
"What do you have in mind Sir?" Lt. Jee asked.
"Allow the crew to go so far as to putting Prince Zuko in a liferaft. Slow the ship to the minimum speed possible and tow the liferaft behind the ship. Leave him there for a day, two days at the absolute most. Then bring him back aboard. By then, tempers all around should be cooled enough that you and I can sit down and explain to my nephew just how close he came to losing this ship and its crew."
"How will we accomplish getting him into the liferaft without a fight?" the helmsman asked.
It was Cook who replied. "Simple, we drug him. We get the herbs from the medic, I make one of his preferred foods, put it in his dinner and it's nighty night for our dear sweet prince."
The helmsman thought about it for a few moments. "OK, but when he gets back, how do we explain General Iroh not stepping in?"
This time it was Iroh who answered. "Simple, you drug me as well. I can claim that the herbs had less of an effect on me. From there we can work out a story as needed." He turned his head and glanced over his shoulder at the men. "If we plan this for tomorrow evening, will it give you enough time to prepare everything?"
"Yes Sir, it will," Lt. Jee said.
"Good, I'll encourage my nephew to work himself into exhaustion between now and then so that the herbs have a greater effect on him."
The engineer scratched his chin," Uh.. General Iroh, sir? How will you do that?"
The old general let out a chuckle, "Why by encouraging him to sit down, take a break and enjoy tea and Pai Sho with his old uncle."
~~( - )~~
The sun was barely a handspan above the horizon when Lt. Jee arrived on the bridge. As per his usual morning routine, he checked the overnight log for any problems that may have occurred. He couldn't keep in the sigh of annoyance as he found two sets of readings inked onto the page, one from the night shift and the second from Prince Zuko. Today there was traces of coal dust and something else smudge across the page. He pinched the bridge of his nose then closed the log book and put it back in its place without investigating what that second substance was. If Prince Zuko was already up and about it meant today was not going to be a good day.
Nodding a greeting to the helmsman as the man entered the bridge, Lt. Jee took his cup of strong morning tea and stepped out onto the decking that encircled the bridge level of the ship for a casual bit of observation. Those crewmen who had assignments for the morning were slowly making their way across the deck to their work, nothing unusual or out of place there. As he made his way around to the rear, movement in the shadows of the smoke stack caught his attention. Ghost pale skin flowed through a series of katas in the inky shadows. Jee frowned as he watched the youth move from form to form. Something wasn't right, but he couldn't figure out what. He glanced once more to the horizon, judging the time. The sun had risen several finger widths higher since he arrived on the bridge. Looking down again he realized the young prince had vanished.
Down in the galley, Cook was already several hours into his normal day. At some point before the rest of the ship's crew started arriving, Prince Zuko had acquired his food, ate it, then left again, but Cook never had proof because there was never any dirty dishes waiting to be cleaned, not to mention the Prince never ate with the crew. Breakfast had been served along with many pots of strong tea for the morning crew while the off duty night shift received tea of a different blend to help calm and relax them. Though he suspected many of those on the night shift fell asleep anyways while on duty. The night before, Cook had gotten the herbs he wanted from the ship's medic and was currently adding it to a small pot of jook that seemed to be Prince Zuko's favorite food. Once added, the pot was set off to the side to allow for slow all day cooking as he started preparing for the lunchtime meal of steamed buns, fish and rice.
Through out the day, the only place anyone saw Prince Zuko for any length of time was on the foredeck of the ship, practicing his firebending either alone or against several opponents at once. Even Lt. Jee took a turn sparing (rather aggressively at that) with the prince. Throughout the practice, General Iroh was sitting near the command tower, sipping tea and playing lazy games of Pai Sho with whomever joined him. Whenever Prince Zuko would say something about his uncle's opponent who was suppose to be elsewhere working, Iroh would have a hand and make some comment about it being a beautiful day with no need to work so hard at nothing in particular. In turn, those comments only seem to anger the young prince further, who ended up taking it out on his own opponents. And that in its turn caused the men he was sparing with to become angry with the prince. It did not help matters with General Iroh barking at Prince Zuko about 'remember your basics!', 'don't let them break your root!' and 'Stop! Do it again Prince Zuko! Firebending comes from breath, not muscles!'.
"Enough Uncle!" Zuko yelled finally. With a harsh slash of his hand that left a shimmering heat wave behind he barked at the men he was sparing against, "Dismissed!" Seeing how he was in his full armor, he had nothing to collect as he stomped off towards the command tower and his quarters within. "I'll be in my room, I do not wish to be disturbed," he growled loud enough for his uncle and Lt. Jee to hear before vanishing through the hatch.
About two hours before sunset, a persistent knock on his door brought Zuko out of the trance he had fallen into as he worked on the ships budget for the second time that day. "What?!" he yelled at the door as he started to hastily put away the inks, brushes, scraps of paper and the account books.
"Your highness, your respected uncle, General Iroh has requested your presence in his room for dinner." Lt. Jee's voice was muffled through the thick metal hatch.
The young prince cursed silently. "Tell him I'll be there in a few minutes."
"Yes…. sir." Lt. Jee had no intention to relay the message himself. Instead he nodded to Cook and his assistant who were delivering said dinner to the general's room. He leaned against the wall with arms crossed waiting on the bratling prince.
Zuko no longer had to search though his sea chest for the bottle of licorice, ginseng and honey, it was always at the top within easy reach. As he picked up the bottle, he noted that he would have to get more soon. What should have lasted him half a year was barely holding out for a couple of months at best. It was bad enough he hardly slept a full night thought due to the night terrors he still experienced and the sickly sweet smell of the incenses his uncle used in his room also cause flashbacks of his time in the tender mercy of the palace physicians. If his uncle knew he was still taking the herbal concoction almost two years after the 'incident', he was sure they would have put into port somewhere and he'd be drug off to who knows where for who knows what. He didn't want to think of the crew's reaction either. Bad enough none of the crew respected him or at least respected his rank, he didn't need or want their pity as well if they knew the truth. After rinsing his mouth out, he checked himself over once and was satisfied. Unlocking his door, he opened it just enough to slip out then closed it behind him. When he turned around he was met with the annoyed looking Lt. Jee. "I said I would be there," he spat out.
Lt. Jee said nothing, just motioned with his hand for Prince Zuko to take the lead to General Iroh's quarters. The older man was spared from having to say anything when they stepped through the hatch thanks to the delighted smile on the general's face.
"Ahh good, good! You're both right on time, dinner just arrived and was set out. Sit, no need for formalities here." Iroh was already sitting at one end of the table.
Zuko took one look at the placement and wish there was some way he could get out of the meal, but with the lieutenant at his back already closing the door he was stuck. He walked over and sat down at the place his uncle indicated then waited until the elder prince took the first bite. He barely tasted what he ate and only as an afterthought. Most of the meal was spent in silence as his uncle and the lieutenant discussed all manners of things. He set his empty bowl down and waited for the moment he could politely leave.
~~( - )~~
Zuko slowly awoke to the nauseating smell of old solvents, tar based paint used to rust proof the metal hulls of naval ships and brine water left in the bottom of the boat that had gone stagnant. The smell of human wastes far too close to his face just added to the stench. With the smell came the sounds of open water, of wind rushing over cresting waves and the water smashing into the side of the dinghy. There was no other sounds. Not the echoing slap of water against metal hull or the constant thrum of old engines at work or the sounds of men talking, walking, working or relaxing. Just the emptiness of the open ocean. The harsh rocking of the tiny dinghy did nothing to help alleviate the head pounding hungover feeling that was growing worse as time passed. The wind blew across his bare skin, chilling the water droplets left behind from the spray as it hit the side of the dinghy. It wasn't just water soaked cloth that caused him to be cold. No, it was the fact he was dressed in nothing but the skin he was born in. He'd been stripped of everything, including his loincloth. When he tried to move, he discovered that he had been tied neck to thigh to ankle with his arms lashed together at elbow and wrists behind him. Curled as he was around some solid object, his diaphragm was compressed preventing him from taking much needed deep breaths which only increased the state of his confusion and panic. Coming close on the heels of that discovery was the realization that he was also blindfolded and gagged. And from the rather putrid tastes in his mouth it had not been the cleanest of rags to start with. Had his eyes been uncovered, he would have seen nothing in the pitch blackness of a nearly moonless night. The glow of the luminescent froth on the wave tops dissipating within moments of appearing. It took longer than usual for the young boy to piece everything together. The last he could remember was eating an early supper with his uncle and the lieutenant, but that could have been yesterday or even days before.
In the week prior, after getting another scathing yet impersonal dispatch from the Capital inquiring as to why he had not completed his mission, questioning his competency and informing him that his personal stipend (which he used to augment the already pitiful budget) had been terminated as of his 15the birthday. Did the ship's crew not realize that their performance reflected back upon him and in turn they were judged on how well he did? Did they not realize that the longer his mission took, the longer they were away from their homes. And the longer they were away from their homes, their chances for better assignments decreased. No commander worth his rank wanted lazy, disrespectful or incompetent men under them. As his anxiety increased, he lashed out at the crew in anger and frustration. Because of that, the discipline aboard his ship had declined to the point of indifference from Lieutenant Jee, who was the captain of the ship, to outright insubordination from the lowest ranks of the crew. And Uncle, his frustratingly lazy, tea and Pai Sho obsessed doddering old uncle did nothing. Nothing except utter falsely placating nonsense, most of which countermanded his orders, cutting away at what little remained of the quagmire and quicksand foundations of his authority. Things had finally come to a head.
After his crew's apparent mutiny, the recently turned 15 year old banished prince of the Fire Nation had finally been cut adrift, alone and bereft of human company. Oh, he had been drifting, unmoored emotionally since the day his mother vanished, always trying but never achieving that love and approval his sister so readily received from his father. Needing that approval like a plant needed sunlight and water to grow. What he received from his uncle was but a pale reflection like the full moon on a stormy night when compared to a bright, clear, sunny afternoon he just knew his father would give him when he returned with the Avatar in chains. He'd also been drifting, clueless about the societal norms and expectations, for just as long also. Always told how he was expected to act around those of lesser social status yet never being allowed to mingle. He had been kept in isolation making him dependant upon the cruel whims of his sister and the withering scorn of his distant father before he'd been turned out of the only home he'd ever known. Even his uncle had pushed him first in one direction then another with seemingly nary a thought to what Zuko wanted or didn't want for that matter. In his spiraling descent into despair, Zuko was too focused inward to notice the outward.
An unusual spring storm was brewing, churning up the seas and turning the newborn dawn into gloomy dusk before the sun had even peeked above the horizon. The increase in the wind whipped the waves into frothing, mountainous peaks. In his ship such waves would make going about their daily routines a bit more difficult, but for the small dinghy he was in, the pitch and yaw was like riding an exceedingly angry and untamed komodo rhino. There was a crackle-snap as something broke loose, adding to the chaotic movement already going on in the dinghy. A huge wave slammed head on into the dinghy sending everything aboard flying upwards only to come crashing down the next instant. Loose container solvents rattled about spilling their contents across the bottom of the boat adding to the oozing pool of tar paint from a busted barrel. Zuko was thrown about like some childs kick ball, unable to even brace himself against the turbulent motion. Another sickening heave and he was thrown once more, slamming down on rolling pots, his head cracking against one of the bench seats. The young prince knew no more as he was smashed forcefully into darkness.
Call it a miracle or call it the intervention of the spirits, (for it is universally accepted that Zuko has no luck), that during the storm, the dinghy never capsized, thought it came close a time or two. Instead it was pushed far to the north and east along the fast moving fringes of the storm and closer to land. His ship, which caught the brunt of the storm's power, was forced in the opposite direction farther out to sea.
~~( - )~~
The murky mid-morning greeted General Iroh as he stumbled out of his room, with the intent of heading to first the bridge to check on the status of the ship, then down to the aft hold where the steamer launch was located to check the status of his nephew. When he reached the bridge, he stepped to the side out of the way of the crew. Information was thrown back and forth between the helmsman, Lt. Jee and the head engineer down in the engine room. Iroh moved closer to one of the windows, looking up and out. The sky was lighter in one direction then the rest, but even then it was still a dull grey color with bands of lighter and darker grey. "Lieutenant, what's the status of my nephew?" he asked. "I don't like the look of the storm right now and no matter how angry the crew is with him, it will be too dangerous to leave him out there much longer."
Silence rang out through the bridge, punctuated by the low rumbles of distant thunder and high whistling whine of the wind against the edges of the tower.
"Lt. Jee?" Iroh asked, turning around to face captain of the ship.
All morning the Lieutenant had a feeling of nagging dread lingering in the back of his mind. The moment General Iroh mentioned his nephew, it was as if a gong had been rung. "Prince Zuko…" Jee uttered in a deathly whisper. He looked up at the elderly prince with wide eyes and a bloodless face. "Prince Zuko… I… Ashes!" He turned grabbing the speaker tube, "Engines full emergency stop!" he bellowed into it before twisting around and yanking the floor hatch open and vanishing through it. He slid down the ladder fast enough to leave friction burns on his palms but that didn't matter at the moment. "Move! Move! Out of my way!" he continued to bellow as he sprinted pell mell through the corridor towards the steamer's launch bay in the aft of the ship. He cursed himself silently for having become accustomed to ignoring the young prince thus having forgotten he was being towed behind the ship. The sight that greeted him when he arrived had just slit the throat, then kicked the dying body of hope straight to the watery depths of Koh's corner lair of hell. All four of the men who had wanted to rape then drown the prince were sprawled in unconscious heaps around the area, empty bottles making it known they'd drunk themselves into stupors before passing out. Not even the rough movement of the ship in stormy seas could wake them from their comatose states. When he spoke again, his orders were eerily quiet and concise to the sailors behind him. All four were stripped, chained then thrown into the brig with little care for the wellbeing. The two men who had originally been assigned to keep watch was found bound and gagged behind several crates of extra parts.
When Iroh arrived, it was to Lt. Jee and two other men hauling in the rope connected to the liferaft with a mad determination, lips moving as questions were asked and answered. Knowing he would only be in the way as several more sailors joined the lieutenant, he waited off to the side. As he waited, he prayed to the spirits begging them to let his nephew be safe and unharmed.
When the liferaft was pulled aboard, the fear that Prince Zuko was not on it had been confirmed. The old tarp along with a canteen of water and a bag of hardtack lay forlorn at the bottom of the craft. The only glimmer of hope was a second rope, trailing out from the rear of the raft and the missing repair dingy.
~~( - )~~
When Zuko woke next, he found himself in a large garden with a small pond in front of him. Standing up, he moved to the pond and looked down at his reflection expecting to see the mark of shame his father put there. Instead, he found himself staring at his 8 year old, unscarred self. Movement behind and to the side had him turning his head. "So… I guess I'm dead, right?" he asked his cousin, Lu Ten.
Like his father, Lu Ten was short and sturdy of build, with a face that reflected the generous smiles of an easy going young man. "Well little cousin, that is entirely up to you." He draped his arm across his younger cousin's shoulders, leading him away from the pond to the base of a tree. "Come, sit down with me and I'll explain what I can." Once the pair was settled, Lu Ten leaning against the trunk and Zuko leaning against his side, the elder of the pair started talking. "You see, you have several choices in front of you right now. First, you can go back and change things, but you won't remember anything from that point onwards and how far back is up to Lord Agni himself. You could end up repeating everything all over again or you could change things, for better or worse. Second, you can return to your body as it is now and continue forward from there. If you choose that path you may or may not have a companion to help you out, depending on his mood at the time. Third, you can go back, not as yourself, but as whatever Lord Agni choose you to be, to live out that life, die, be reborn again. You would go through the cycle of reincarnation until you were ready to be human once more. Or fourth, you could choose none of those and stay here with me."
"How much time do I have to decided?" Zuko asked already thinking of the paths before him.
Lu Ten laughed, "Ah, that is the golden question. Time has no meaning here, but you will know when you must decided. But for now, tell me about everything that's being going on."
Zuko crossed his arms over his chest, chewing on his bottom lip. "Well…."
~~( - )~~
After an extended search General Iroh was forced to concede that his nephew was lost at sea, though he still held out hope that the young prince was alive. When the storm finally abated, he ordered Lt. Jee to drop bring the ship to a stop and drop anchor so that every man aboard would be present for the Captain's Mast, sentencing and execution of the verdict. After everything was said and done, every grievance real or imagined was brought out into the open, not a single person was left untouched. Not even General Iroh himself. And by Prince Zuko's own words written down in his journals, the boy was harshest on himself. The sentencing was harsh and unyielding.
Lt. Jee stood, with scroll in hand as he read out the charges, then the punishment each man would receive. "On this day, the following men have been sentenced to The Ocean Spirit whims and mercy for the plotted rape and murder by drowning, and the planned and carried out abandonment at sea, of Prince Zuko, son of Fire Lord Ozai, Crown Prince of the Fire Nation. Their punishment shall mirror what they did to Prince Zuko." Low murmurs all around as the four men were brought forward as they were named. "Seaman Third Class Takeshi. Seaman Third Class Gorou. Engineer Assistant Second Class Kunio. And Seaman Second Class Akihiro." Lt. Jee cleared his throat then continued reading. "They shall have their eyes gouged out so they are blinded to Agni's light, their tongues removed so their words can not spread hatred and dissent, their hands crushed to prevent those same words from being written and their genitals removed for their deviant sexual behaviors against other men and women both above and below the age of consent. These men shall then be given to the Ocean where they shall to live or die at the La's decree."
Each man had their sentence carried out with a minimal loss of blood to prevent fast deaths. Weights were chained to their legs and their arms stretched out so that planks could be tied front and back turning them into living buoys. Then they were tossed overboard without a word.
General Iroh picked up a scroll, taking his place at the front of the assemblage. "We are all guilty, myself included, of failure in some form of fashion with concerns to Prince Zuko. The ship wide punishment shall be as follows; Alcohol will no longer be allowed aboard ship and summarily removed, tobacco will no longer be permitted aboard ship," He stopped a moment, lips curling in a sad looking smile. "I do not expect you to give it up right this moment, you just will not be permitted to bring anymore aboard." He gave the men time to fetch their pipes and light up before he continued. "Until we reach an official Fire Nation Naval Port, everyone.. again myself included, shall be restricted to rations of water and hardtack. At that time, I will allow you to choose whether or not you stay aboard this ship. I plan on searching for my nephew until I find proof he is either alive or dead and I do not expect any of you to follow me if you do not feel you are capable of putting forth your very best." He rolled the scroll back up and handed it off to Lt. Jee.
Lt. Jee accepted the scroll, placing it with the first then stood facing the men. "Dismissed." He motioned to the helmsmen and the head engineer. "I want a course plotted for the nearest refueling platform then to a port that has a repair facility, fastest speed possible without damaging the engines. I'll be with General Iroh going over what we found in Prince Zuko's room."
~~( - )~~
When the ship arrived at the coal refueling platform, another newer and larger ship was there as well. The traditional information was exchanged between the ships crew, who was in command, anything noteworthy from the area the ships had been in, etc.
General Iroh stood on the deck of the ship, looking upwards at the one moored next to them. "Good afternoon Captain Zhao… permission to come aboard? I have a request to make of you."
Leaning over the railing looking down at the retired general, Captain Zhao smiled that oily, smirking grin of his. "But of course General Iroh, permission granted. Your nephew, Prince Zuko, banished though he is, is also welcome aboard." He didn't miss the change of expression nor the look exchanged with the officer standing next to him. "I hope nothing is wrong, General Iroh." He gestured to a pair of sailors to extend the boarding ramp down to the other older ship. "Do be careful General Iroh, the difference in ship sizes does make the transition between the two difficult."
"Thank you Captain Zhao…."