"I'm begging you, Prince Zuko! It's time for you to look inward and begin asking yourself the big questions. Who are you, and what do you want?"
~ Iroh, Lake Laogai
Sokka sat, legs crossed, in the great room of his father's largest ship. Furs from a dozen different animals were hung up on the walls beside swaths of fabric in Water Tribe blue. If there had been a fire in the middle, and the crisp smell of ice in the air, he could almost make himself believe he was in the roundhouse back home.
Princess Yue sat at his side, as perfectly composed as if she took part in meetings in front of the entire Tribe every day. Then again, maybe she did. The Northern Water Tribe was all about their official hoity-toity functions. The Southern… not so much.
Shifting slightly, Yue reached her hand out and her pinky finger brushed against Sokka's. She offered a calm smile when he glanced at her. It made his racing heart want to do back-flips in his chest.
"You're going to do fine," she said.
He swallowed past a dry throat. "I know. Who said I was nervous? I'm not nervous." Though his traitorous voice cracked in the middle. He'd seen his father do this sort of thing a dozen times back home… but tonight it was going to be him Speaking to the Tribe, telling the story of their journey with Aang.
Tonight, his father sat with the rest of the men in the audience. He would be hearing most of Sokka's story for the first time along with them: it was how things were done.
Katara should be Speaking, too. Unlike some tribes, the South didn't prohibit women from addressing crowds. But she'd been stubborn about wanting to stick with Aang and help heal his wounds.
She was probably still angry with Sokka. By the end of the night, she might not be the only one.
Finally, the last of the men trickled in and took their seats. Hakoda stood. "Men," he said and his voice took on the formal tone- a drone of a Chief who was Speaking, "Tonight Sokka, my eldest son, Speaks before us of the journey he has taken with his siblings and the Avatar. Listen to him as you would me, and judge his words for as they are and not as you would like them to be."
The traditional words spoken, Hakoda nodded to Sokka and sat among the audience again.
Sokka drew in a deep breath. "Okay," he said, and his voice wavered only a little. "I guess..." Yue brushed his hand again, and Sokka's back straightened. He looked out over the assembled men and let his eyes unfocus a little so that they blurred all together into brown oval heads and blue eyes. He let his mind wander back to that day he, Katara, and Zuko took their canoe out to the ice-fields to fish. It felt like a lifetime ago, and Sokka found his lips up ticking at the corners, remembering how Katara had run at Aang's iceberg with a whalebone club in hand. "My story starts the day we met Aang. My brother, sister, and I took the canoe out fishing..."
He Spoke for a long time.
Unconsciously, his voice fell into a rhythm, a retelling that was not quite song but that had a rhythmic quality to it. He was aware of the men's reactions—chuckles at the moments of levity, of Aang's airbender antics, gasps and hard looks between each other as Sokka Spoke of what Avatar Roku had told Aang at Crescent Island, of Zuko learning who his birth parents were, the many times they escaped the Fire Nation by the skin of their teeth.
Sokka kept some things to himself—little failures that would have embarrassed others, like how Aang had burned Katara (and the really scary, firebendery, way Zuko had gone after him for it), Sokka's own adventure in the spirit world, and what his spirit guide, Lu Ten, told him. The exact reasons the pirates went after Katara for their stolen waterbending scroll. If there were gaps in logic here and there, no one called him out on it, and Sokka was a good enough storyteller to smooth over rough spots.
By the time Sokka got to the North Pole, his throat was parched and his voice was rough. But he felt like he were no longer in the cabin: he was seeing the Northern Water Tribe's capital city for the first time again, describing the wealth and splendor of their sister tribe to a room full of men who'd lived on the bare ice-fields their entire life.
Then Sokka Spoke about how Katara had been denied waterbending lessons because she was a woman, then the Fire Nation's approaching armada and their attack… and all that had happened at the Spirit Oasis: Chief Arnook's fall to Prince Iroh. How Azula shot Aang with actual lightning.
For the first time in hours, Sokka faltered. "The Oasis temple was packed with warriors and soldiers, all fighting. I knew Zuko had to be in the middle there, somewhere, but I couldn't see him, and Aang was down—he wasn't breathing. More firebenders were pouring in from the main entrance. We had a clear path to the back exit and... and I made the call to retreat." He looked at his father, who had gone a few shades paler, and swallowed hard. "We got aboard Appa. I took the reigns and charged the Fire Nation's armada—we barely made it through. As we left, we saw the Fire Nation throwing red banners over the ice walls. They had taken the city."
A low groan went up from some of the men. Sokka looked down, his hand which was holding Yue's—when had she taken it?—tightened hard.
She squeezed back. Her eyes were closed, biting her bottom lip, remembering.
"Katara got Aang breathing again—I guess her healing lessons paid off," Sokka added. "We were headed South, aiming for the Earth Kingdom… it was only luck we found you. And… well, here we are."
Sensing the end of Sokka's Speaking, Hakoda stood—a little stiff due to the long time he'd spent sitting and listening.
"Thank you, Sokka," he said. "You've done yourself and your Tribe proud."
Sokka should have felt buoyed by that, but his mind was still filled with his failure at the Spirit Oasis, and the words struck hollow. He hadn't felt less proud in his life.
A grizzled warrior, Tatum indicated he wished to speak. Hakoda approved him with a nod.
"I'm sad to hear about our brothers and sisters to the North, and the fall of their great city," Tatum said to the crowd. "But I believe we should offer them the same help they have given us through the war: Nothing. For generations the North has hidden behind their ice walls while we have suffered Fire Nation attacks. Now they send their Chief's daughter for our aid?" He sliced his hand through the air in dismissal, and sat down.
Sokka stiffened and opened his mouth to speak, but to his surprise Yue got there first.
"You misheard," she said calmly. "I escaped the fall of my city with Sokka, Katara, and the Avatar, but I have not yet requested your aid."
Tatum opened his mouth to reply, but Hakoda quelled him with a look. "The North and the South used to be as close as blood-kin, but by their choice became distant neighbors over the last one-hundred years. Even then, we still are of the same people, Tatum." He glanced at Yue. "Though, I'm not happy with how your Tribe treated Katara and Zuko."
"And the Avatar," Bato added in a low growl. "Sokka, you Spoke of this… Master Pakkun? You said he cast the Avatar off as his student?"
"Well… Yeah," Sokka admitted. "But we were in the middle of the siege, so it wasn't like there was time for waterbending lessons, anyway." He decided to Speak plainly. "Pakkun was a grumpy old man who wanted to embarrass Katara and make her apologize. It wasn't about Aang."
"But of course, they were happy for the Avatar's help in fighting. An untrained twelve-year-old, now without a Waterbending master to oversee him—" Bato broke off with a shake of his head. "It is not how things should be done."
Sokka had not thought about it from that angle—there hadn't been time—but he couldn't disagree.
"How do those Fire barbarians expect to hold the city through the winter?" another warrior demanded. "Without the sun, the firebenders will drop like yak-flies."
The eyes of the Tribe turned to Sokka. He was, he realized, now the resident authority on the Fire Nation, seeing as he was traveling with the Avatar.
And it wasn't like Zuko was there…
Pushing that thought aside, Sokka put his hand to his chin, considering. "Not all Fire Nation soldiers are firebenders," he said after a moment. "But... I don't think it matters. The Fire Nation will only need to hold the North Pole for a few months."
"Why is that?" Hakoda asked.
"Sozin's Comet's coming at the end of the summer," Sokka said grimly. "The last time, the Fire Nation destroyed the Air Temples in one day. Who knows what they'll do this time?"
Another disquieted murmur swept the crowd.
"What about the Avatar? What does he think?" someone called out.
Hakoda held up his hand. "I do not ask one man to Speak another's opinion for him. We will ask the Avatar to Speak to the Tribe when he is well, and then he will tell us his plans."
Sokka winced. Aang and 'plans' didn't go together. "Aang needs to learn all four elements. He's... pretty good with water, and I think Zuko started to teach him the basics of fire." Before they met Jeong-Jeong, at least. "But I'm not a judge on bendy-magic. I'm just the meat and boomerang guy."
That got a low chuckle from the crowd.
A warrior in the back stood to speak. "Perhaps, if Zuko lives, he can help retake the Northern city."
"If they'll accept his help," healer Kurthruk muttered with a scowl. "No offense, Yue, but I do not approve of your father's actions toward Zuko, either. The boy is Water Tribe, and should have been welcomed without suspicion."
Yue's face remained impassive, but her blue eyes narrowed. "I agree Zuko should have been given the respect of his rank—as a Chief's second son. But, you forget, Zuko is also a Fire Nation prince."
That brought a new round of muttering. It was clear from the faces of the men they were still having trouble swallowing that bit of news.
Sokka turned to her, not quite believing what he was hearing. "Yue, what are you saying? Zuko wouldn't turn on us."
"No, of course not." She shook her head. Her voice, practiced and trained to command, echoed easily through the room. "But he has one foot standing in each world. If the Fire Nation can bend his will to them, they will hold him up as an example of so-called unity."
Hakoda rubbed a hand quickly across his forehead, looking like he was getting a headache. "We don't have Princes and Princesses here, Yue. We're simple folk, we lead simpler lives. Sokka will take my place when he proves his worth as a warrior, which is is well on his way to doing. But he is not royalty." He flashed a smile at Sokka. "Sorry, son."
For the first time all night, Sokka smiled. "I'm good, Dad."
Hakoda looked at him and asked the question Sokka had been dreading all night. "Do you believe there's a chance Zuko is alive?"
The smile died. "I think..." He couldn't quite look at Yue. "If he's with Iroh, he's alive." Unsaid, but clear in the room was that was only if the Northern Water Tribe hadn't gotten to Zuko, first.
"And really he's one of those Fire Nation royals? Our Zuko?" someone demanded.
Sokka took a breath and let it out. "Yeah." Then he grinned, remembering how many times Zuko was outraged whenever someone had called him a Prince. "Zuko was sort of pissed about it."
The murmurs grew and Hakoda held up his hand. "That is a separate conversation, for a later time. What Zuko was born into in the past does not matter. He is Water Tribe. He has proved it with his heart and actions for years, and he is my son. We, as a people, have raised him to be the man who stands with the Avatar and his Tribe." He closed his eyes, looking pained. "Even then, I cannot risk my remaining warriors or my ships to give him or the North aid. It takes all five of our ships just to hold Chameleon Bay."
Sokka looked down. If anyone could pull a squirrel-rabbit out of thin air, it would be his Dad. But five Southern Water Tribe ships could not tackle an entire Fire Nation armada.
"Perhaps," Bato said, "with the Avatar's help… if he defeats the Fire Lord… Then, we could sail to the North's aid…?"
"Yes," Hakoda said, with an air of grim finality. "Until then, Sokka, what needs to be done?"
Needs to be done. Like gathering a run of silverfish for the winter, or shoring up family tents against storms. Like they were speaking of chores and not the fate of the world.
"Aang needs help. He hasn't fully mastered Water, and he still needs to learn Earth and Fire." And now they were down one firebender. Sokka straightened. "He needs to defeat the Fire Lord before the comet comes."
"Then that," Hakoda said, "is what we will help him do."
Zuko slammed into his own room and shut the door. Then he locked it.
He, a prisoner, was allowed to lock his door.
His room was as large as his family's tent back at the South Pole. Steel walls decorated in reds and oranges that were pleasing to the eye, with a stone pit sunk in the middle for a fire. It was a room meant for a firebender, and offered a windowed view out to the bow of the ship.
There was a simple bed with lightweight rich red sheets, and a nightstand and mirror. Set on the nightstand was Zuko's pearl-hilted knife.
Crossing the room, Zuko scooped it up. His captors had taken it from him, and he hadn't expected to see it again. As usual, once it was in his hand he felt a bit calmer. Safer, with a weapon of his own.
Drawing the curtains shut, he sparked a fire and paced around and around, agitated.
He'd heard of the phrase 'kill them with kindness' and he had no doubt that was what Iroh was doing: Giving him a room, a knife, and the illusion of welcome. Well, Zuko wasn't going to allow it to happen. He had a Water Tribe warrior's heart and would not be turned. He'd wait until the guards changed watch. He'd sneak to a lifeboat in the dead of the night and…
Take it where?
There was no sight of land in any direction. The ocean was vast, and Zuko had just been given a hard lesson on dehydration. Dad's tales of men being caught alone out in sea were horrific enough to make him pause. There was a reason why he and Sokka never went beyond the ice flow fields in their canoe.
He glanced toward the bridge. They would have navigational equipment there. He could… he could defeat the officers there (they were sure to be highly ranked, possibly firebenders with a lot more training than he had) and… lock them out somehow. (A bridge door wouldn't have locks), take control of the ship… (Using equipment he'd never seen before, with the whole ship's crew beating down the door.)
"Sure, Iroh is really going to allow that," he muttered sarcastically, hand clenching into a fist. Despite all his tea and perceived kindness, the Fire Nation Prince was a powerhouse. Much stronger than Zuko.
He went to the curtains and twitched them aside. The stars sparkled down overhead.
Sokka would have a plan by now, he was sure of it. Maybe even two plans, for when the first went sideways. Katara would have something inspiring to say to make him feel better. And Aang… well, he'd probably airbend something to float around the room. Lighten things up a little while they waited for the right time to break out.
Zuko glanced out to the sky which was crusted with stars, but so very empty.
Why hadn't they come for him, yet?
Sighing, he ran his hand back through his loose hair. Long and unbound, it was annoying. He hadn't been provided a tie to keep it back—Iroh didn't want him to wear his hair Water Tribe style, in a wolftail.
Zuko eyed the small mirror on the nightstand, then the knife. Fire Nation nobles, he knew, wore their hair long and bound back in a topknot. Iroh would probably want him to do the same. He would probably insist on it soon.
Standing in front of the mirror, Zuko took a hank of his dark hair, and, using the dagger, cut it short to his scalp. The first cut was the hardest. After that, it was easier. It didn't take long, and by the time he was done his short cut hair was a little shaggy. He shortened the long piece in front and rewove in the two blue beads.
The sharp features of his face were more prominent, and exposed the ragged parts of the burn-scar where it extended into his hairline. But the short-haired boy looking back at him was not a Fire Nation noble. That was good enough for him.
There was no way to keep time in his quarters, but once Zuko judged a few hours had passed, he unlocked the door and peeked outside. The hallway was empty. Iroh had not even posted a guard.
This is a trap, he thought but he wasn't going to look a gift ice-yak in the mouth.
He slipped out of his room and crept into the hall, ducking into the shadows of an open supply room when he heard approaching footsteps. But it was only a fire nation helmsman returning to the bridge, a steaming cup of tea in hand.
Dog watch shift, he thought absently, without wondering how he knew that.
He moved once the helmsman had passed, every sense on alert. He wished Sokka was there to watch his back, or Katara, or even Aang even though he was too loud and distractible to sneak around properly. Traveling down the hallway of the enemies ship, Zuko had never felt more alone.
He shoved the rising loneliness and homesickness aside, and focused on not being seen. It was easy. This time of night, most of the soldiers were asleep. And discipline seemed… lax.
There was an open balcony leading to the lifeboats on the second deck. The metal raft hung by a set of sturdy chains and was covered by a dust coverlet. Zuko hesitated, seeing the black water churn against the hull of the ship. Then he reached out, grabbed a thick chain, and shimmied down.
He saw how it was possible to release the chain moorings of the life raft once he was safely inside.
Do it quick, he told himself and didn't allow himself to look down at the turning, frothy sea. In the lifeboat he heard the roar of the water only six feet down as it sloshed against the broad middle plating of the ship.
His fingers touched on the pull ring. The impulsive part of him wanted to yank the ring away. He would crash with the lifeboat into sea and then…
… Where would he go?
Unwillingly, the questions that had plagued him earlier rose up again. The stars overhead were unfamiliar — they were different in the northern hemisphere than the south he'd grown up in. He had no idea where he was going to go. Depending on the current, he could drift for days. Weeks. Even months. Dad had told him stories about men who went to sea, got lost, and thirsted to death.
Zuko had just had a hard lesson about the dangers of dehydration. And he was still somewhat hungry from his half-meal earlier.
Pulling back the coverlet, he checked the supplies. There was enough for perhaps three days. Hardtack bread, and a couple jugs of water. Not enough.
He growled under his breath. Part of him — he suspected the impulsive firebender part that Katara always teased him about — wanted him to pull the ring. He'd figure the rest out, somehow. The rest of him — the part that had grown up hearing dad's stories and watching Sokka make plan after plan — knew that was a really bad idea.
So, I'll just make a plan. It can't be that hard.
He needed food and water and he needed to know where he was going. He would have to find a way to smuggle maps and supplies into the lifeboat. He would also need to build himself up again. It was only a few hours past dark, and Zuko felt exhaustion drag at him: The results of stress in battle and getting blasted by lightning and going a few days without food and water. Any of it. All of it.
Gritting his teeth, Zuko dropped his hand from the ring, returned the dust coverlet back to his former position, and then scaled the chain back up to the deck of the ship.
The burn in his arms and the slight tremor he felt in his legs told him he had made the right call.
It was late at night. Zuko trudged back to his quarters and made sure to lock the door.
He did not notice Prince Iroh's watchful, amber eyes from the window of his quarters.
A soft knocking at his door the next morning startled Zuko. He had been awake at dawn, but had not come out of his room. There had been a ship-wide breakfast call, but he had ignored both it and his newly rumbling belly.
"What?" he asked wearily.
"Prince Zuko, I am Fire Sage Lin Yun," said the voice on the other side. May I speak with you?"
Zuko almost told him to go away – he had no love for Fire Sages after what happened at Crescent Island, after they turned on Aang—but the query caught him off guard. The man was asking to come in. Again, it was as if someone was giving him a choice.
Cautiously, he unlocked the door and opened it.
The man on the other side was a decade younger than Iroh, wearing red Fire Sage robes, with a thin beard that went down to his chest. He bowed low, upraised palm over fist. "My prince."
"Don't bow to me," Zuko snapped. "And don't call me a prince."
Lin Yun straightened smoothly, not concerned or put off. "Prince Iroh thought you may have questions for me."
Zuko folded his arms over his chest. "What, like why you and the other Fire Sage's turned on the Avatar?"
Lin Yun raised a single eyebrow as if Zuko were being impertinent. "My brothers and I are, of course, the living repositories of the art of firebending."
Oh. Zuko stared for a moment, but his curiosity was piqued. He nodded and stepped back.
Lin Yun glanced around the room, and nodded in approval at both the fire in the pit and the wide windows with open curtains so Zuko could watch the deck (and the sky for a flying bison). "It is good to let in the sunlight. As firebenders, the sun both strengthens and rejuvenates the spirit."
"My spirit is fine," he said, annoyed.
"Hmm." The corner of the Fire Sage's mouth twitched up. Then he held out his hand and kindled a flame in his palm. "May I?"
Zuko eyed him. "May you what?"
"You are a firebender, are you not? Try to take the flame from my hand."
What was this man playing at? Increasingly suspicious, but not seeing where the catch was, Zuko stepped closer and passed his hand over Lin Yun's to gather the flame. It resisted him, and for the space of a second he felt… a tug of war, of sorts between himself and Lin Yun. Then the flame was in Zuko's hand—cool and red, puddling in the cup of his palm like water.
The Fire Sage stared at him for a moment, then bowed again. Low and deep. "My Prince."
"I told you to knock that off," Zuko said, wondering if he should just throw him out. "What's this about?"
Lin Yun straightened again. "As I said, Fire Sages are the authority on Firebending. We are… exceptionally sensitive to the stirrings of fire in the blood. In the moment you made my fire as yours, I sensed your chi and the bloodline behind it." Zuko couldn't quite read the expression on his face, but it looked close to awe. "You are indeed the son of Ozai and Ursa, Great-Grandson to Fire Lord Sozin himself."
It wasn't a trap. It had been a test. The fire in his hands brightened in Zuko's reflected anger.
"Leave!" Zuko snapped, flicking his fire away. "Get out of here."
The Fire Sage paused. He obviously expected a different reaction. Perhaps he thought he had paid Zuko a great compliment. Then his hand closed, snuffing out his own flame. He bowed again. "As my Prince commands." With another deep bow, he left the room, shutting the door gently behind him.
Breathing harshly, Zuko stared after him.
He's under my command, he realized with a shock. I commanded him to leave, and he just… he did.
It was one thing to hear from Iroh that the men would treat him with respect. Another to see it.
They're insane, Zuko thought. I'm Water Tribe. I'm their enemy. Can't they see that?
But he wore red and orange silks. He had the face of their dead prince… a Fire Nation noble who was third in line to the throne.
Iroh said he could ask them questions and he was free to tour the ship. Zuko thought it was past time he tested that.
The ship's mess hall was hopping with activity. A delicious rich and meaty fragrance wafted in, drawing Zuko like a magnet.
The loud conversation, scraping of cutlery and laughter briefly lulled as he walked in, but quickly picked up again. Though it was lower, with some surprised whispering and glances his way.
Scowling, Zuko looked at no one as he picked up a tray and a bowl of hot fish-flake stew from the serving counter.
The Water Tribe would sip broth from the bowl, then pick out the leftover vegetables or meat by hand or using wrapped seaweed. The Fire Nation used spoons for the broth and chopsticks for the meat. Zuko took both utensils without thinking.
Finding an empty seat, he sat at a table. He could practically feel the eyes of the others on him.
He scowled around. "What?"
A soldier only a year or so older than him actually cheeped in fear. He wore the bronze rank knots of an ensign. "Nothing, Prince Zuko." He blinked at him through large glasses.
Grimacing at the mention of his rank, Zuko returned focus on the food. The fish flake stew was… delicious. It annoyed him, in a perverse way. The Fire Nation had no right to season everything so spicy and hot. So… good.
Around him, people laughed and gossiped. The table he sat at was silent and uncomfortable. Tense.
Zuko was thinking about leaving when someone blurted, "Is it true you defeated Admiral Zhao in Agni-Kai?"
The voice was high and… female? Zuko glanced up in surprise. "Uh, yeah."
The girl who sat across from him was, again, a year or two older and a little too plain to be pretty. She wasn't even focusing on his scars. At least, no more than usual, but she actually blushed when he met her gaze.
She's and ensign, too. The Fire Nation don't keep their women from fighting.
"And… and Princess Azula?" she asked tentatively.
Zuko blinked. "How did you hear that?"
"Everyone's talking about it," the one with the glasses said, so quickly it was as if he'd barely been holding the words in until now. "I was stationed on the Bonfire, her flagship, on the journey over. I watched her defeat six Royal Instructors at once."
The boy sitting next to Glasses sneered at that. "I thought Princess Azula arrived with four instructors."
"She did! Well… she sent two of them off the deck in training, on the journey over."
Zuko stared. "Azula knocked two of her own men off the deck, and she… left them? Out at sea?"
Glasses looked down. Zuko felt a little ill all over again. Fire Nation, he thought with disgust.
Except… Glasses, the woman and the sneering boy had equally sick looks on their faces. No, not just sick. They seemed frightened.
They're worried they've insulted me by speaking about it, Zuko realized. He wasn't good with people. Not the way Sokka was. He wasn't charming, or inspiring. But at least this much was clear to him. They're wondering how much I'm like Azula.
"What Azula did was wrong. You don't leave men behind." Not in the Water Tribe, at least. In the Fire Nation? Who knew? "People aren't expendable. Someone should have gone back for them, or she shouldn't have knocked them off in the water while sparing to begin with." He looked down at his stew and grabbed up a meaty cube with his chopsticks. "When she and I fought… I had the advantage of terrain."
"I bet," the sneering boy said. The girl elbowed him, but Zuko shrugged. He was Water Tribe. He had lived on the ice, and he was not ashamed of it.
But they think I'm their Prince. Can I use that? Can I command them like I did with the Fire Sage?
"Do you have a library aboard? A place where you keep… navigation charts? Star maps?" Zuko asked abruptly.
Glasses stiffened. "Of course, Prince Zuko. My department is in charge of logistics and navigational readings."
Zuko hesitated, wondering if he could order this guy the same way he had done the Fire Sage. It felt wrong. "What's your name?"
"I'm Hana," the girl chirped.
"Renzin," said the swearing boy.
Zuko nodded, committing their names to memory. "Well, Eito… could you show me to the library?" Was it really going to be this easy? Armed with star charts, he had a much better time figuring out where he was on the ocean. From there, he could navigate the lifeboat back to land.
"Of course, sir. Right away!" Eito practically leapt up from the table.
"Not now!" Zuko exclaimed, surprised. Eito's lunch wasn't even finished, and Zuko hadn't had a full meal in ages. If he was going to escape, he had to build himself back up, first. "Finish your food. Please," he added after an awkward moment. Spirits, he was no good at ordering people.
Eito reluctantly sat back down and the other two chuckled nervously.
Eito was more excited than Sokka on a shopping trip. There were rolls upon rolls stored in the library. Zuko unrolled a page and frowned down at it. The northern hemisphere stars were different than the ones he had learned in the south.
However, the Fire Nation had extensive maps with more constellations marked than the Water Tribe taught. Come to think of it, he never remembered seeing a Water Tribe constellation chart. Cleaned hide was hard to come by, paper far too valuable to waste. Everything he had learned about navigating by stars had been taught to him on night camping trips, or verbally through stories.
These maps are really detailed, he thought, noticing the fine paper and how the ink didn't bleed through. There wasn't a hint of yellow to indicate age.
Eito hung behind him. It was making Zuko twitch. He hoped that Iroh wouldn't punish the guy when Zuko escaped.
"Don't you have… something else you should be doing?" Zuko asked.
"This actually is my post, sir. I tend to the message hawks, see?" He gestured to the nearby birds, who sat patiently in their tresses and hoods.
"Oh. Uh," Zuko rolled up the scrolls and wondered how far he could push this. "I'll just be… taking these then?"
"Of course. And if I might add, Prince Zuko, try this one and this one. Oh, and this scroll is great reading, too, if you're interested in astronomy."
So, loaded down with priceless maps and scrolls, all freely given, Zuko made his way back to his room.
The next morning, Zuko woke with the sun as usual, though he wasn't happy about it. He had been up late last night pouring over the charts, then, during the dog watch shift, moving supplies from the other lifeboats to his own.
The star chart scrolls were incredibly detailed, though it wasn't sure he was reading it right. From what he could tell, they were sailing the Eastern Current, which was no where near the Fire Nation. Not unless they intended to take the current all the way south and then tack across the sea of Azulon and turn north at Whale Tail island.
No. A journey like that would take months. Why would Iroh sail them out to the middle of nowhere? He had to be reading the charts wrong.
Zuko was just reaching for them again, thinking he may as well take another crack at it in the light of a new day, when he heard noise outside his room.
Curious, he twitched the red curtains aside. The view from his high room led down to the bow. It seemed the entire ship was assembled in orderly ranks. All stood at strict attention, facing towards the ship flag. At the head stood Iroh's second in Command. He held up an oil painting of a regal, but spindly gray haired man.
Fire Lord Azulon, Zuko realized with a shock.
"Stand for the Fire Nation Oath!" the Lieutenant barked, though everyone was already at strict attention. This seemed to be a morning ritual.
Then, in one voice, the crowd started to speak. "My life, I give to my country. With my hands, I fight for Fire Lord Azulon and our forefathers before him. With my mind, I seek ways to better my country, and with my feet may our March of Civilization continue."
At the last line of the oath, the Lieutenant lowered the painting, took up a clipboard, and started announcing duty assignments for the day.
Zuko quickly shut his curtains.
He knew those words. He didn't remember saying them, but he knew them like someone who had recited them over and over a long, long time ago.
It hit him, suddenly, in a way it never had before: This could have been his life.
Well, as a prince he probably wouldn't be living on a battleship. But he would have gotten up every day, spoken the Fire Nation Oath, and done whatever assigned duties he had to help on the wrong side of the war.
Maybe he'd even be helping Iroh hunt down the Avatar.
With a grimace, Zuko turned away from the window.
"I have to get out of here."
Zuko stopped dead in his tracks, then turned, hiding the small bag of rice he'd managed to swipe from the kitchen behind his back. Tonight, he planned to add it to the supply pile in his lifeboat. If they were indeed in the Eastern sea, he would need all the food and water he could get.
Hana, Eiko and Renin stood at attention before him. All bowed in the Fire Nation style.
Zuko felt his unscarred cheek heat. "Don't do that," he snapped. "What do you want?"
They straightened. Then Hana stepped forward, eyes bright. "My squad has booked the bow deck for sparring this afternoon. If it's not too forward, Prince Zuko, would you like to join us?"
He froze. "Sparring…?"
"If you're not afraid to test yourself against three ensigns, of course," Renzin added with perfect fake politeness. He grinned chillingly when Zuko looked his way.
The ever-present fire in the pit of his belly rose up in response. It was the similar to the inner flame he felt when Zhao had challenged him — but Renzin was no Zhao. There wasn't malice in his gaze, but there was expectation.
They were both firebenders. It was only natural and right to see whose flame burned hotter. Zuko felt this in a way that went deeper than instinct.
Besides, he was not going to let some Fire Nation boy show him up, if he could help it.
"Yeah," Zuko found himself saying. He had better things to do, but no way was he going to allow this type of challenge to go unanswered. "I'll meet you out there."
Once he figured out a place to stash the stolen rice, first.
Lieutenant Izhar found Iroh overlooking the deck, where several young fire benders were sparring.
"At first, I thought you were insane," the Lieutenant said, easy and comfortable speaking openly to his commanding officer, "for bringing on such a young crew. But now… I think I see your reasons."
Out on the deck, Prince Zuko was faced off against another firebender. A noble-born ensign named Renzin. The ensign was shooting rings around the prince, no doubt trying to impress him.
Zuko turned every attack that came close against him in an irritatingly waterbending fashion.
Iroh smiled and sipped his tea. "Prince Zuko was born to rule, but even as a child, he never was allowed to be among his people. I argued with Ozai and Ursa about this, but they had their reasons. But if he is to rule them, Zuko must know them."
"Right now, he sees and treats them as peers."
Iroh shrugged. "Command will come. And if he makes loyalties and alliances out of future officers of his military, who am I to stop him?"
Out on the deck, Zuko's fire-whip caught the ensign by the ankle. Renzin went down, yelling in surprise. Around them, spectators whooped and clapped.
The match had gone to the prince.
Grinning, Zuko came over and, clasping Renzin's forearm, hauled the ensign up. It was a distinctly Water Tribe clasp, but the ensign didn't seem to notice, or care. They were both grinning with adrenaline and pleasure of a good match.
Iroh sipped his tea, pleased. "Right now, Zuko must remember what it is like to be a firebender."
"I heard you did a great job Speaking our story for us," Katara said, which was the most she'd said to Sokka in days.
She was turned away from her eldest brother, running a globe of glowing water down the column of Aang's spine. The middle of his back was raw with new-healed flesh. Same for out the bottom of his foot where the lightning had escaped.
It looked better than it had when it first happened, but Sokka didn't notice any difference when Katara tried healing it now. It was scar tissue, same as Zuko's. Ugly, but healed.
"That was Yue's doing, mostly. She saved the day," Sokka said with false modesty. Inwardly, he was pleased Katara had heard he did well. There was a good chance one day he would take his father's place, and Speaking before the tribe would be a common thing. "I wish you could have been there. We're not like those jerks at the Southern Northern tribe. Women are allowed to Speak here, you know."
She shrugged as if she didn't care. "I had to take care of Aang."
Sokka paused. "How's he doing?"
"He... he hasn't woken up yet." His sister finally looked at him, her blue eyes brilliant with unshed tears. "I took the stupid healing classes, but I was so angry... I wish I could have gone back and paid more attention."
"Hey, no." Sokka wasn't a hugging type of guy, but he manfully put his own discomfort to the side and slid his arms around her. "This is amazing. No one else can do what you can. Yue said you're doing a better job healing than she could."
Katara sniffed, nodded and let go.
"He's not, um, going to sleep for another hundred years, is he?" Sokka asked. "We kind of need him now."
"He was in ice that time, Sokka," she said with such familiar annoyance that he grinned. Yup, she wasn't as mad at him as before.
Katara bit her lip and glanced at him. "What did Dad and the others say about... about Zuko?"
Sokka's heart sank. He let out a long breath. "We don't have the ships or the people to retake the north. At least, not until we win the war. Zuko's going to have to get himself out, or... or just hang on. Until we can rescue him, I mean."
He wasn't going to mention the third option: That Zuko was already dead.
Katara turned away again, and Sokka got the bad feeling that silent tears were slipping down her cheeks. There was no anger or disbelief from her, though. Katara was smart. Even though she could be hotheaded as the best of them, she had seen their father's small fleet and had done the same math.
"I'm sorry, Katara," Sokka said lamely.
Her hands clenched into fists. "I am too."
I'm so sorry, but I had to get you and Aang out, he wanted to say, but part of being a man was taking his knocks. She seemed to be over the worst of the anger, and he had his own guilt to live with.
After the war though, the North better watch out. He was coming for his brother.
Before Sokka could voice any of this, a low call from a giant snail-fish horn sounded from outside. It was a call for general assembly out on the deck.
Katara wiped her face and turned. She and Sokka exchanged a look.
"Come on," Sokka said, grabbing her arm. "Aang will be fine here for a minute."
When they got topside, they found most of the men gathered at the rails. Sokka looked for, and found Yue, who was staring out with her own tears running down her cheeks.
Another girl crying? Am I supposed to hug her, too? Sokka wondered. Not that he minded in this case…
"Yue, what's going on?" Katara asked.
The princess pointed.
Far out to sea tiny dots of ships were scattered along the horizon. Sokka felt a jolt of horror—the Fire Nation?!—before he realized, no the ships were too small. They were boats.
Or… small canoes?
"It's the Northern Water tribe," Yue breathed. "Some of my people have escaped."
As the ragged Northern Water Tribe flotilla drew closer, Sokka saw how much of a sorry state they were in. Gone were the sleek vessels which had seemed to cut through the water like glass. These looked like hand-hewn canoes, rafts of hastily strung together floating debris, and quickly patched sailboats. Families, women and children, and badly injured men.
These were the boats that were small enough to escape past the Fire Nation armada without being noticed.
Hakoda's vessel was in front, and so the first to draw up to the largest of the vessels.
"That's Palukar," Sokka said, recognizing the proud bear of a man in front. He now wore a haggard expression and had one arm bound in a sling.
"Aang's waterbending master?" Hakoda asked sharply.
"No, that was Pakku. Palukar was a weapons instructor for the warriors."
Hakoda nodded. "Do you recognize any of the warriors as waterbenders, son?"
Sokka took a swift look around. "No, but I'm sure some of the women they have with them are. Not that they'd allow them to bend outside of healing and doing laundry."
"That changes now," Hakoda said grimly.
"What do you man, Dad?"
His father grinned at him with teeth, and then turned to hail the sad looking sailboat. "Hello, the boat!"
"Hello the ship!" Palukar called back, raising his hand in traditional greeting. Sokka couldn't help remembering how the Northern Water Tribe had literally drowned them when they'd first arrived.
"I am Palukar, first born son of the Arctic-Dog house. Our city has fallen, and we heard there was a Southern force guarding Chameleon Bay. We've come seeking sanctuary from Chief Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe."
Hakoda nodded to Bato to lower the gangplank down. "I am Hakoda. Come up and talk."
Once aboard, Palukar was surprised and pleased to see Sokka. He gave Katara a nod, too, and bowed deeply to Yue. "I am glad to see you well. Your father—"
"I know," Yue said sadly. "What of the others in the council?"
"Dead or captured, or left behind in that city which is the same thing. We are leaderless."
"Yue is Arnook's daughter," Katara said pointedly. "Isn't she? Why can't she be your Chief?"
It was as if she hadn't spoken. Palukar turned to Hakoda. "It's hard for me to count on the run, but I estimate three-hundred survivors. Out of those, we have eighty fighting men."
"Palukar." Hakoda's tone was like ice. "My daughter asked you a question."
Palukar blinked, visibly reordering his thoughts. Then slowly, he turned to Katara. "Princess Yue is honored as Arnook's only child, but of course she cannot be Chief."
Katara put her hands on her hips. "Well, now that you have no Chief, I hope you realize how stupid that rule is."
Yue spoke up, her voice serene. "I was engaged to Hahn of the ice-Yak house. Do you know if he lives?"
Palukar shook his head, looking pained. "I don't, Princess. I'm sorry. Once the city was taken, it was all I could do to organize this evacuation."
"It doesn't matter," she said calmly. "Because I am not marrying him any longer. Our engagement is broken."
"What?" he blinked. "Who gave you permission to do this?"
"I don't need anyone's permission. It is my life." And with that she took off the beautiful necklace. Sokka found himself gaping as she reached over the rail and dropped it into the cold waters. It sank to the sea floor, gone in an instant.
Palukar clenched his fists, and then shook his head. He looked like a man at the end of his rope, facing down too many problems to have to be able to shoulder one more. He turned from the princess to Sokka's dad.
"Chief Hakoda, the people here… We have no where to go. We beg the sanctuary of our sister Tribe."
"As it happens," Hakoda said, "We have extra stores on board, and space for your women, children, and other noncombatants in our village at the South Pole. It isn't fancy like your city, but since the Fire Nation took the last of our waterbenders, they have rarely troubled our waters." He paused and favored Palukar with a hard look. "Whoever pledges their loyalty to me as Chief will have a place in my Tribe."
Sokka, Bato, and every other Southern warrior gaped.
Palukar nodded as if he expected this. He fell onto his knees and looked up at Hakoda, his whalebone spear laying across the open palm of his good hand. "You have my loyalty, Chief Hakoda. Save our people and you will have the strength of my spear until we depart this world."
Zuko stood at the bow of the ship, watching the churning wake of the propellers below. The sun was setting, orange and bright, along the horizon. It was a firebender's sunset — the sky was alight with flame.
And empty of both cloud and airbison.
Where are you? he thought for what must have been the thousandth time over the last few weeks. He'd give almost anything to know if Katara, Sokka, and Aang were okay.
Zuko and Azula had survived lightning, and Aang was a firebender, too. Sorta. He had to have survived. But… what if he hadn't?
Zuko learned that the Fire Nation had a extensive news network, all carried by message hawk. Eito himself had told him at the mess hall on his forth day of being on the ship.
After that, Zuko made a habit of visiting Eito's library to scan the message hawk reports every day. It was all dry stuff: troop and ship movements in towns in the Earth Kingdom he'd never heard of. Spotting the Avatar would be big news. There was nothing.
The Avatar's death would be even bigger news. The fact that Zuko had heard nothing was a good sign, but frustrating.
Zuko clenched his fists. Once he got off this ship, he had to know where to go. He'd bet a good piece of seal blubber jerky that Aang, Sokka, and Katara were hiding from the Fire Nation somewhere in the Earth Kingdom.
Too bad it was the biggest continent in the world.
A cough behind him interrupted his woolgathering. Zuko turned to see Iroh standing nearby, his hands tucked into his sleeves.
"What do you want?" Zuko grumbled.
"It is too fine of an evening to spend sulking, Nephew," Iroh said placidly.
"I'm not sulking." He was worrying. Big difference.
Iroh paused. "I saw you practicing your firebending out on the deck this morning."
Zuko shrugged. He'd been going stir crazy from pouring over charts and maps. Getting out to stretch his muscles felt good— although practicing the katas he and Katara had developed together had made him achingly homesick. He wanted ice under his shoes and his sister's rippling water at his side.
Sparring with the other firebenders had helped. It was a lot of fun, too. In fact, it had turned into the highlight of his days. He felt himself growing stronger after the hit his body took with the enforced fasting.
To Zuko's surprise and pleasure, he won the spars a good deal of the time. He didn't think the others were pulling their punches because he was a prince. At least, he hoped not.
But it was as clear as the sun in the sky that his firebending techniques were different. Zuko had tried attending a training session this morning, led by one of the junior Commander's. The fast punches, kicks, and strikes felt unnatural. When he copied their movements, his flame came out cool and weak.
That worried him, too.
I'm not like the other firebenders. That's a good thing, but… but…
Jeong Jeong told him he should learn firebending from a waterbending master, but that had been a disaster. Besides, toward the end he was unable to convert the high level katas Katara was learning with Aang into fire. He would never be able to ride a fire tornado, for example. Some things just didn't translate across elements.
"Someone told me," Zuko wasn't going to rat out Jeong-Jeong, "that I was a dragon who learned to swim."
He sensed an odd sort of tension from Iroh at that, though when Zuko glanced over he couldn't read anything on the older man's face. "The sages teach us that fire comes from the breath, and is sparked by our passion and rage, but you don't feel that when you bend, do you?"
"No." Zuko admitted. "I feel… alive."
Iroh stepped to his side. Together, they looked out to sea. "There is but one way to firebend, officially. We use katas fine-tuned for generations. Proven, powerful methods that spark the most heat from every flame." Iroh hesitated, "But that doesn't mean there haven't been other forms, in the past."
Zuko flicked a glance at him. "What other forms?"
"Forms officially not sanctioned by the Fire Lord. It would be unseemly for a royal of the blood to be seen practicing them."
Zuko rolled his eyes. "Iroh, we're on your ship hundreds of miles from land. No one is going to message hawk the Fire Lord."
There was a glint in the man's amber eyes. "Why, I think you may be right Nephew."
Oh, Appa turds. Zuko knew he was playing right into Iroh's hands, but was unable to resist asking, "What do you want?"
Zuko stiffened. He was powerfully interested in learning a new fire bending technique from a master—because Iroh was no doubt a master—but if Iroh wanted information on the Water Tribe or Zuko to betray his people, he could shove his ancient firebending forms where the sun didn't shine.
"I will teach you these forbidden forms when the sun is at its peak and the officers and crew are busy at their duties," Iroh said. "And afterward you will have lunch with me and play Pai Sho."
"Pai Sho? The… game?" He'd seen the board in Iroh's quarters, empty of pieces.
"Indeed." His voice quavered with an old man's edge that Zuko knew was false. "It gets lonely being up in my room, with no one else to set my wits against…"
Zuko rubbed at his forehead with the side of his thumb. There was something going on here, but he was no good at looking underneath people's motivations for plots. Sokka was the guy for that.
But to finally learn real firebending…even if it wasn't official…
I can use the lifeboat to get off this ship, but not until I know where I'm going. And if I can learn useful firebending before then…
"Fine," Zuko said. "Firebending first, then Pai Sho. Happy?"
"Exceedingly." Iroh crossed his hands over his stomach and gazed back out to sea. The stars were coming out. "It is truly a fine night."