Zuko is a quiet boy.
Hakoda discovers this on their way from the Boiling Rock to the Western Air Temple. While Suki and Sokka chat, while Chit Sang talks loudly, while Hakoda shares stories with his son, Zuko sits silently and watches.
He has reason to be quiet, Hakoda supposes. He's just spent the past few days in Boiling Rock, and Sokka says he spent hours in that horrible cooler. And then he fought his own sister, who tried to kill him. Hakoda would be quiet in that situation as well.
But Zuko's not quiet like someone who's tired, or hurt, or sad. He's quiet like someone who's waiting for the other shoe to drop. He's quiet like someone who's in a dangerous situation and is still figuring out the best way to get through it.
Hakoda's not sure what this dangerous situation is yet, but he's going to find out.
Hakoda gets a tight hug from Katara when they arrive at the Air Temple, and the others give him a warm welcome. Suki gets her fair share of hugs too, and Sokka is congratulated on his daring rescue. Zuko stays on the edges of the conversation. Aang asks him about firebending practice, and Toph says something about tea that sounds like an inside joke, but otherwise, no one speaks to him.
That strikes Hakoda as unfair. From what he saw, Zuko did as much to organize the escape as Sokka did. Why is no one, not even Sokka, acknowledging that?
Katara says something to Sokka about saving the day, and Hakoda interjects, "Yes, he and Zuko did a pretty good job on the rescue."
Zuko's unscarred eye goes wide as the attention turns to him. "I- It was nothing."
"It was not nothing!" Sokka protests. "You went in that cooler!"
"Cooler?" Aang asks. "What's that?"
"This metal cell thing that was freezing cold," Sokka describes. "Apparently it's miserable for firebenders."
"I had my Breath of Fire," Zuko protests. "And it wasn't the worst place I've ever been. Swimming under the ice at the North Pole was colder."
"That doesn't devalue what you did," Hakoda replies. He puts his hand on Zuko's shoulder, but removes it quickly when Zuko flinches violently. "Thank you, son," he says without thinking, and Zuko flinches again.
"Dad!" Katara says, grabbing his arm. "Come with me! I want to show you the all-day echo chamber!"
Hakoda lets himself be dragged away, but he peeks at Zuko again before he turns the corner. He's still standing there, quiet and on the outskirts.
He still looks like he's waiting for something to happen. Hakoda wishes he knew what.
"Hey Suki, look at this," Sokka says when they're all sitting by the fire, pulling out his boomerang and his sword. "Watch."
Suki watches with a small smirk on her face as Sokka throws the boomerang, waits for it to come back, then hits it hard with his sword, sending it flying away. He aims it well enough that it clatters to the ground without getting too close to anyone. Hakoda is impressed.
Suki laughs. "I don't think you'll go up against a anyone else with a boomerang, but that's not bad."
"You think that's not bad?" Sokka boasts. "Check out this."
He picks up the boomerang again and throws it, but he puts too much force behind the throw. It almost hits Haru in the head, and Hakoda acts on an instinct borne of many weapons lessons when he snaps, "Sokka!"
There's a crash behind him.
Zuko is standing a few steps away from the fire, his hands empty in front of him, a tray of broken teacups on the ground. For a moment, there's an expression almost like terror on his face.
"Sorry," he blurts out when he realizes all eyes are on him. "Sorry, I-"
He drops to his knees and starts picking up the broken glass. His hands are trembling slightly. Everyone else slowly goes back to what they were doing, but Hakoda goes to Zuko and kneels by his side.
"Did I startle you?" he asks, gathering shards of glass and putting them on the tray.
Zuko looks up at him, shocked and... Is that fear in his eyes? "It was my fault," he says. "I apologize."
"I apologize for startling you," Hakoda says, picking up more glass.
Zuko gathers the last handful of glass and dumps it on the tray. Hakoda can see blood begin to well up from tiny cuts on his palm, but Zuko ignores it. "It- I'm sorry," he stammers, and then he picks up the tray and flees.
Hakoda thinks he might know what danger Zuko thinks he's in. He hopes he's wrong.
Sokka turns around. "Dad? Is something wrong?"
"Do you know how Zuko got his scar?"
Sokka blinks. "Uh, no, he's never said. Why?"
"Do you know anything about his relationship with his father?"
"I mean, I don't think it's great, but I don't know the details," Sokka replies. "Look, we can trust him, Dad, I'm pretty sure we can."
"I agree," Hakoda replies.
"You do?" Sokka says, looking surprised. "Could you tell Katara? She won't lay off him."
"Katara will have to make up her own mind," Hakoda replies. "I think we both know that."
Sokka sighs. "Yeah, I just wish she'd be nicer. I mean, even now, after what Zuko did for us at the Boiling Rock, she still won't trust him."
"Katara has always been able to hold a grudge," Hakoda replies. "But she's also able to forgive if the other person shows she should. Zuko just needs to prove himself to her."
"He's proved himself to everyone else," Sokka mutters.
"Then I'm sure he'll be able to prove himself to Katara," Hakoda replies. He claps Sokka on the shoulder. "I must admit, I never thought you would be friends with the Fire Nation prince."
Sokka laughs. "Me neither. But he's not that bad, when you get past the whole 'Fire Nation' bit. And the whole 'chased Aang across the world' thing."
"I'm glad to hear it," Hakoda replies. "He's a good ally to have on our side."
"Yeah," Sokka agrees. "He's a really good firebender. It was scary when he was trying to kill us, but it's good now that he's working with us. He's a good teacher for Aang. Although he might set him on fire if he calls him Sifu Hotman again."
"Hotman?" Hakoda repeats.
"Apparently, it's one hundred year old Fire Nation slang," Sokka replies. He shrugs. "It drives Zuko crazy."
Hakoda laughs. "Maybe I'll watch one of their bending sessions. It sounds entertaining."
"We can watch them tomorrow," Sokka offers. "They normally do it in the mornings."
"Then I look forward to watching tomorrow morning," Hakoda replies.
And then, maybe, he can talk to Zuko after the training is done. He thinks he should probably deal with this sooner rather than later.
The next morning, Sokka leads Hakoda out to a ledge where Zuko and Aang are shooting balls of fire. "Good," Zuko is saying, "but you should have a more firmly planted stance if-"
He catches sight of Hakoda and stops dead.
"Hey, do you mind if we watch you do some bending?" Sokka asks. "Dad was curious."
"Fine with me," Aang replies cheerfully. "Is it okay, Zuko?"
"Yeah," Zuko says, his voice much more tense than it was a minute ago. "Yeah, it's- It's fine."
"I can go, if it's a problem," Hakoda offers.
"It's fine," Zuko says again. "Aang, you should fix your stance."
"Like this?" Aang asks, moving his back leg a little. "Ugh, I don't like it. It feels weird."
Zuko's eyes flicker to Hakoda, then back to Aang. "It's different from what you're used to, but firebending is different from other sorts of bending. You need to learn how to firebend properly before you start combining it with the other styles."
"Fine," Aang replies, shifting into the position Zuko demonstrates. The two of them start punching out fireballs again. Zuko's gaze keeps coming back to Hakoda.
"Alright," Zuko says after a few more minutes. "You can go."
"I can go?" Aang asks, looking surprised. "Really?"
"You kept saying you were hungry," Zuko retorts. "But we can keep practicing if you want."
"No, no, it's okay!" Aang says immediately. "I'll go have breakfast. Thanks, Sifu Hotman!"
Zuko groans. Aang grins, then grabs Sokka's arm and drags him towards the fire and the others. Zuko's trying very hard to hide it, but Hakoda can tell he's watching him.
"Prince Zuko," he says. "Could we talk?"
"You don't need to call me that," Zuko says, then Hakoda sees a flicker of horror cross his face, like he's just realized he said something he shouldn't.
Like he expects something bad to happen because he talked back.
"Zuko, then," Hakoda amends, trying his best to keep his voice calm and steady. "Can we talk?"
Zuko looks like he wants nothing less than to stand and talk, but he nods once, jerkily.
"I want you to know, I have no ill will towards you," Hakoda says. "My son tells me you're on our side, and I believe him. I mean you no harm."
Zuko swallows visibly, but says nothing.
"And you should know, I would never strike a child," Hakoda adds, wondering even as he says the words if he's laying it on too thick. "Certainly not one who has done nothing recently but help, if my son is to be believed."
Zuko's unscarred eye is wide, while the other is trapped in its eternal scowl. His lips part, just a little, but no sound comes out.
Hakoda inclines his head slightly. "I just wanted you to know," he says, then he turns around and joins the others at the fire. He can feel Zuko's gaze on his back.
He doesn't join them. Hakoda doesn't blame him. He's sure he just gave the boy a lot to think about.
Hakoda doesn't avoid Zuko, but he keeps a careful distance for the rest of the day. If Zuko wants to see him, he'll go to him. If he doesn't, Hakoda doesn't want to push.
Zuko does avoid him. Hakoda barely catches a glimpse of him all day until dinner, at which point Zuko eats silently, shooting Hakoda looks that he probably thinks are more furtive than they really are. Hakoda's not used to children being afraid of him, and he doesn't like it, but he's made his move. It's Zuko's turn.
After dinner, after the dishes are taken away and everyone disperses, Zuko makes a move of his own. "Chief Hakoda, sir? Could we talk?"
"You can just call me Hakoda, if you want," Hakoda replies easily. "Do you want to talk here or somewhere else?"
"Could we talk somewhere quieter?" Zuko asks. Hakoda silently translates that to mean "somewhere with less potential eavesdroppers" and nods.
"Lead the way, then. You know this place better than I do."
Zuko hesitates for a moment, then starts walking. Hakoda follows him. Sokka notices the two of them and opens his mouth like he's about to speak, but Hakoda shakes his head and Sokka obediently closes his mouth again. Katara doesn't notice them, which Hakoda is glad of. He loves his daughter, but she's not always the best at subtlety, and there's no way she'd let Hakoda and Zuko go off somewhere without commenting on it.
Zuko leads them to one of the rooms and gestures inside. "Is this okay?"
Hakoda steps in and looks around. Someone clearly sleeps in this room, but there's not much to personalize it. There are dual swords, and a bag of clothes, and a small portrait of an old man.
"Whose room is this?"
Zuko looks a little embarrassed. "Mine."
Hakoda nods. He wonders who the portrait is of. "What did you want to talk about?"
"I wanted to apologize," Zuko says. He's still hovering fairly close to the door. "For how I've been acting."
"You have nothing to apologize for."
"I've been avoiding you," Zuko continues like Hakoda didn't say anything. "I'm sorry."
"It's alright," Hakoda replies, trying to sound gentle.
"I'm not good with... parents," Zuko says hesitantly. Hakoda's fairly certain that when he says "parents," he means "fathers." There hasn't been a Fire Lady in years, but if rumors are to be believed, the Fire Lord is no less cruel to his children than he is to anyone else.
"You've been hurt before," Hakoda says. "But I promise you, I will not hurt you again."
"I know," Zuko says, although he sounds like he's trying to convince himself as much as Hakoda. "You're an honorable man. I wanted to tell you that I know that."
Hakoda offers Zuko a smile. "You are an honorable man as well, Prince Zuko."
"Just Zuko really is fine," Zuko says, and this time, he doesn't look scared by the words.
Hakoda's smile widens. "I am glad to fight by your side, Zuko."
"I'm glad to fight by yours," Zuko replies.
When Hakoda rests a gentle hand on Zuko's shoulder, he goes a little tense, but he doesn't flinch. It's not much, but it's progress.
Hakoda will take it.