Author's Note: Written for ghost-zoast who won it in my 1,000 followers lottery. They wanted a story about the Boiling Rock escape in my age swap AU. In this AU, Aang and Toph are sixteen, Katara is fifteen, Suki is fourteen, and Sokka and Zuko are twelve. All other characters remain the same age. You can find more about this AU at my tumblr (username Attackfish) at the tag, Gaang-age-swap-AU
Carry On Carry Away
He didn't look any bigger on the airship than he had looked in the prison. Only as big as a thumb, Hakoda's mother would have said, like she did when he and Bato were little, stumbling into all the trouble they could ever want, or when Kya had died, and he brought their children to her, begging her to help. He looked scarcely bigger than Sokka had in his war paint, as Hakoda left him behind.
The two boys were playing some kind of keep away game with a perplexed Suki drafted as referee. It involved a lot of hopping around on one foot, yelling, and trying to knock each other over. Sokka was probably going to win. The Fire Prince seemed about Sokka's age, but he was shorter, and his arms and legs just didn't reach as far. Not that he wasn't trying. He headbutted Sokka in the stomach, sending him reeling onto his backside.
"See, that was a foul!" Sokka yowled from the floor. "Suki, wasn't it a foul?"
"It was not," Zuko shot back, outraged.
"I have no idea," Suki told them. "Because you didn't tell me the rules, and I think you're making it up as you go anyway."
Hakoda tried not to laugh, but he didn't succeed. Both boys turned to glare at him, and he couldn't help laughing even harder.
But there was something behind the Fire Prince's glare, something darker than Sokka's childish wounded dignity, a fragility and desperation that flickered in his eyes for only a moment. Hakoda wished he could pretend he had only imagined it.
Hakoda was rapidly growing sick of Fire Nation emergency military rations. In theory what he was holding was not that different from Water Tribe jerky, but Water Tribe jerky didn't taste like red chile powder glued together with pineapple juice. Sokka had refused to touch the stuff. The Fire Prince had called him a chicken-mouse.
Giving up Hakoda passed the last of his jerky to one of the Boiling Rock guards. He was young, not so young that he was a boy like Sokka and the Fire Prince, or even like Avatar Aang, but young enough that it made Hakoda feel old, and filled him with an overwhelming exhaustion. He wasn't Too Young, but he wasn't Old Enough. "I wanted to ask you something."
The guard's eyes went wide, which made him look even younger, and Hakoda suddenly wanted to tease him about being afraid of the big bad scary mean Water Tribe Warrior. "O-okay," he said hesitantly.
"Sokka, my son, told me the Fire Prince was nine when he was banished, and when he got that scar, from his father." He held his voice steady by sheer force of will.
"Yeah." The guard's eyes traveled jerkily around the room, like he couldn't want to look at Hakoda but didn't have anything else to look at. "It happened three years ago, so if he's twelve now, yeah."
"You didn't know your prince's age?"
He shrugged. "My mom said when Prince Lu Ten was born, there were royal festivals that lasted ten whole days, but I don't remember anything for the Firelord's kids. He was just the second prince back then, and Lu Ten was the crown prince's son, and was going to be Firelord someday. Everybody was really surprised when Azulon named Firelord Ozai his successor. It never seemed like he liked him." With that it seemed he had gotten over his fear of him, which Hakoda almost wished he hadn't, because his eyes locked onto Hakoda's, unsettlingly wide and somber. "I remember hearing the prince was banished. I guess I always just assumed he was older."
There was an air of neglect about him. Sokka too, but as much as it sent a pang of something that wasn't quite regret or shame through him every time he saw his son, it was understandable. It was expected. All he wanted was to pick both his children up and carry them home to his mother, where they would be safe for a while.
But seeing the Firelord's son with ragged, shaggy hair, and the ways of a child used to doing for himself or going without, that was something else again.
The Fire Prince had a paper packet of dried noodles in one hand and a strip of the near-lethal jerky in the other. He tore into both with massive bites, gulping it all down as fast as possible. And when he noticed Hakoda watching, he glowered back at him, his shoulders hunching defensively.
"I was just going to ask if you knew there was a kitchen on this thing," Hakoda said pleasantly.
"Of course I know that," the Fire Prince snapped too quickly to be honest. "And it's called a galley, not a kitchen."
"Good to know," Hakoda managed to say without rolling his eyes. "Anyway, I haven't been able to figure out the stove, and I was wondering if you could show me?"
The prince shot him a look brimming with suspicion, but he followed Hakoda down to the galley. Sauntering over to the stove, turned one of the dials, and then jabbed one of the circular things on the stovetop, sending a single spark into it. The spark erupted into a burst of flame before dying down quickly into a small ring of fire around the circle. "You're lucky you didn't mess too much with the stove. The gas is poisonous. It could have built up and killed us. Or exploded."
"But instead the fire burns it off," Hakoda chuckled. "Clever."
Zuko shrugged. "I guess."
Hakoda filled a pot with water from a spiggot and set it on the stove. On the floor was a half empty crate full of dried noodles and seasoning packets. He dug a few out and held one up to Zuko. "Iare these too spicy?"
"None of it's too spicy." Zuko glanced up at him nervously. "You're just a wimp."
"Hush you," Hakoda told him, ruffling his hair.