A/N: Dear readers, thank you so much for your continued support and patience with these long waits. Hopefully Part 2 of this chapter should be up pretty soon.
Sarapsys on Deviantart has drawn some gorgeous fanart for this story, go check it out! Also, if you're interested in reading 3YS in Hebrew, DrEllert on Deviantart has started a translation. I can send you the URL if you're interested since it looks like external links from profile pages are disabled right now.
As usual, I'm always up for criticism! Tell me what you think!
"Sir, we have a problem."
"What is it, lieutenant?"
Lieutenant Jee's face remained blank. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the handful of sailors heading purposefully down the pier: four masked firebenders led by a bare-headed captain. Zuko scowled and shaded his eyes against the fiery dawn on the horizon.
He clenched his jaw so hard that his teeth creaked when the captain strode, uninvited, up the gangplank with her firebenders in tow.
"Prince Zuko?" She phrased it like a question, but she already knew who he was. She would not have come aboard otherwise.
She inclined her neck in the slightest bow she could manage. "My name is Sun. Captain Sun. That's quite a handsome prize you brought in this morning."
It certainly was. The pirate ship was a green-sailed Earth Kingdom junk, unimpressive on the outside, but filled with all kinds of valuable loot. Its crew had done a fine job of using the ship's boring exterior to avoid the attention of regular Fire Nation ships. This particular Fire Nation ship, however, had few scruples about the size or ornamentation of the vessels they went after and had been rewarded for it.
The pirates' primary cargo had been weapons. Pirates and other miscreants jumped on the opportunity to sneak supplies past Fire Nation lines to the Earth Kingdom armies where they were needed. Of course, they usually sold the cargo to the Earth Kingdom army for extortionate amounts of money, which continued because the Earth Kingdom navy spent more time masturbating and crashing into rocks (the two might have been related) than catching pirates and keeping track of their own property.
Even so, if the supplies were needed badly enough, the Earth Kingdom army would pay the pirates' fee. Which is why it was up to the Fire Nation to keep anyone from getting their hands on any of it.
"I do my duty to my nation."
Zuko knew she wasn't here to compliment his work. No captain ever approached his ship for any purpose other than to needle him. He had no reason to act like this would be any different.
"Indeed." The captain turned to Lieutenant Jee. "Please excuse us, Lieutenant."
Jee somehow managed to give her a bow that was even shallower than the one she had shown to Zuko before he left.
Captain Sun's tone was civil but not friendly. "I wondered if you might answer a question for me."
"Which fleet does your ship belong to?"
"Hmm. That's what I thought." She placed her hands on her hips. "In that case none of your acquisitions benefit the Fire Navy at large." She glanced overboard at the workers carrying crates of contraband from the wrecked pirate ship onto the pier.
Her eyes narrowed. "I believe that those who fight and die in the name of freedom should be first to pick their rewards. Don't you agree?"
"What's your point?"
"Leave the south seas to us. The pirates here have resources that will advance the campaign. At present, that is the most important thing. You can look elsewhere for your own prizes."
Zuko's frown deepened. "We're staying here."
"Oh really?" She took a step forward. Zuko tilted his head back to maintain contact with her eyes and not her chin. This wasn't going to work. No commoner navy captain could bully him into doing anything. Not when he'd already made up his mind about what he was going to do.
"Perhaps you should reconsider." Her voice took on a chilly tone. Zuko's eyes were starting to water, but whatever he did, he swore he would not blink.
"Your little errand for Commander Wei might have gotten you a place in New Azulon, but his hand only reaches so far. If you continue to place yourself above the goals of your nation, you may begin to find yourself… unwelcome in certain ports." She smiled slightly. "The world is a big place. How will you survive if you have no place to go?"
Zuko gritted his teeth. "I am the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation. It would be treason to close a port to me."
"To a prince with any legitimate claim to the throne, yes." Captain Sun turned and went to the railing. Her gaze followed two dock workers who lugged a heavy crate out of the junk and set it down on the pier. "But to a prince whose liege has all but declared him illegitimate… well. Things are a lot less certain."
Zuko's insides went cold.
"Get off my ship," he said quietly. She turned back to look at him, eyebrows arched in displeasure and an almost predatory gleam in her eye.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Get. Off. My. Ship."
He could feel the blood pounding in his head, the heat running through his veins, threatening to burst out of his hands in a cloud of fire. He'd made an effort to control it before, but now… it was over.
"Are you really in a position to be giving me orders, Prince Zuko?" She grinned. Her teeth were obsessively white.
"You are on my ship. Get off."
A large and heavy hand clapped Zuko forcefully on the shoulder, jarring him out of his focus.
"Captain Sun! What a privilege to see you again," Uncle said. "I suppose you have met my nephew?"
The captain's grin melted in the presence of someone who could actually send her to a court martial. She bowed, properly this time. Zuko's fists were still clenched tight, small wisps of steam escaping from between his fingers.
"I am honored, General Iroh."
Uncle's smile was benevolent as usual. His fingers tightened on Zuko's shoulder when the prince tried to pull away. "You must forgive me for not inviting you to stay, Captain. We have a bit of a schedule to keep and I'm sure you're very busy as well."
"Quite busy, I'm afraid, sir." She stared directly at Zuko. Her eyes were very dark, cold, and almost without reflection. Their taunting gleam had disappeared. There was no mistaking the malice there, no matter how deferential her manner had become in Iroh's presence. Zuko stared back, still not blinking.
He didn't look away until Iroh had steered him all the way around and in the direction of the tower. Lieutenant Jee stood to one side, hands clasped behind his back. He followed them into the tower and shut the door behind him.
"I think it is time for a cup of tea, Prince Zuko. On the bridge, I think."
Zuko made no effort to conceal his exasperated sigh. Even so, he followed Iroh up the narrow spiral staircase, all the way up to the bridge, and took a seat at the pai sho table. For once he couldn't find it in himself to fight back—not against his uncle, not after the tattoo incident. It was still too recent. He'd been forgiven almost immediately ("I just cannot stay upset with you, my nephew"), but he still felt the sting of Uncle's disapproval as acutely as the tattooist's needle.
Iroh sat down and began making the tea. Jasmine this time, once again brewed in his favorite silver teapot. Instead of looking either at his uncle or at the shiny teapot, Zuko looked down at the table. He found a deep scratch in the wood and started to worry it with his fingernail.
"You must believe me when I say that Captain Sun is not a woman to be crossed," Iroh said while the water began heating.
"She was crossing me."
"She was deliberately provoking you. She wanted an excuse to challenge you to an agni kai, nothing more."
"I could have taken her."
"Captain Sun has challenged eleven capable and experienced Fire Navy officers, and beaten every one of them."
"Are you saying I'm not capable?"
"I am saying no such thing, Zuko. I am saying that you should avoid fighting unless it is absolutely necessary. She wanted you to walk right into her trap."
Zuko flexed his fingers. In reality, he knew that Uncle was right. But even so… he could have taken her. He just knew it. His fire was still running hot, demanding real violence for once. He was tired of holding back. In this moment he wanted nothing more to fight, to win, to watch her humiliation as she realized just how wrong she was.
A prince whose liege has all but declared him illegitimate…
He would show her. Her and everyone else who thought the same thing. They were wrong. He was the crown prince of the Fire Nation, the rightful heir to the throne, and one day he would make every single one of them pay.
Iroh poured Zuko a cup of tea, which he ignored.
"I will not show her my respect, Uncle."
"Of course not. She is a bloodthirsty savage who is unworthy of your respect." He took a serene sip of his own tea. Zuko blinked. He'd never heard Iroh call anyone a "savage." Not even the Water Tribes.
"Bloodthirsty savage or not, I don't care what she says. We're staying here, according to schedule."
"I assume she told you to look elsewhere for pirates?"
"Typical. Well, I agree that you should not feel bound to do what she says. We must be ready for confrontations, however, as I believe she is stationed here and patrols the area regularly. Am I correct, Lieutenant?"
"What kind of confrontations?"
"Blocking our path, trying to keep us out of certain areas, generally getting in the way," said Lieutenant Jee, voice full of disapproval. "It would be better to avoid her than to try to deal with interruptions as they happen."
"Indeed," Iroh agreed. "We must also be careful to avoid anything that could be construed as a challenge, as she will jump on any opportunity to fight." He looked thoughtful for a moment. "You know, my nephew, perhaps it would be easier to move on a little earlier than we had planned. It may not be worth it to provoke Captain Sun over pirates that can be just as easily found in Chameleon Bay."
"No. If we leave, that means that she wins."
Iroh sighed. He poured some more tea for himself. Zuko knew he was being unreasonable. He didn't care. He would not let Captain Sun win. He wouldn't even let her think that she'd won. He picked up his own teacup and drank the whole thing in one gulp—the tea scalded his throat, but he didn't mind. It felt like the fire that was still begging for a fight within his body.
He had to start somewhere. He certainly wasn't going to back out like a ducken, but he wasn't going to go into this completely blind.
"I want you to find any information you can about Captain Sun."
"Anything in particular?"
"No. Anything that seems important. If she's going to bother us until we decide to leave, I want to know how she operates."
Jee's eyebrows shot up as if in surprise—Zuko had a vague idea that he should be insulted by this for some reason. "I'll see what I can do."
Lieutenant Jee returned to the ship a few hours later, empty-handed and looking frustrated. Zuko was still on the bridge, studying a chart of the south seas. Iroh had gone into town to shop.
"I'm afraid I wasn't able to find anything, sir."
"Why not?" Zuko scowled.
"The records here are completely sealed. You need special clearance to even get into the building. Stricter than most, in that regard."
"You just weren't trying hard enough."
The lieutenant sighed. "If you say so, sir."
Thoughts ran through Zuko's mind at a dizzying pace. This shouldn't be this hard. Certainly, every port had plenty of records that were off-limits without express permission from whoever was in charge, but the whole building usually wasn't closed. Usually people could go in and see most of their own records, at least. What was the commander trying to hide? What kind of records were so secret that they justified shutting down everything? Why was it different here, of all places?
He could already guess what would happen if he tried to obtain permission. By all rights he should have access to everything. The prince should know everything about his future subjects, after all.
Someday. Someday he would have his honor back and nothing would be closed to him again.
For now, he needed a different plan. He already had a vague idea. He just had a few things to do before he could put it into action.
"I'm going out," he said. "While I'm gone, I want you to find some dark blue dye."
"Um, all right. Why?"
"Never mind that." Zuko stood up and started toward the door.
"How much do you need?"
The town looked like any other seaside town in the colonies. Shady port district, shops and stalls, apartments, houses, a factory, government and military buildings. That which constituted the navy base was up the hill a little further, surrounded by a high wall and guarded at all entrances. There was no way around and it was quite smooth all the way up. A few guards strolled along the wall. Nonbenders, most likely.
Zuko walked along the edge of the wall, trying to look casual and eating a satay. At the gate, he showed his ID tag and was let in. So far, so good. No one was suspicious.
Barracks, mess hall, armory, offices, nondescript buildings… there it was, the records building. The door was guarded, but the windows weren't terribly secure. Wooden shutters, closed from the inside, but able to be opened from the outside with a little effort. At the moment, several of the shutters were open to let in the warm summer breeze.
This shouldn't be too hard.
The rest of his outing was, thankfully, uneventful. When Zuko returned to the ship, there was a paper-wrapped cake of dark blue dye sitting on his desk, just as ordered.
He drew a large bucket of hot seawater from the showers, lugged it back to his cabin, and dropped the dye into it. The dense cake started to disintegrate immediately, staining the water as deep and dark as the ocean.
"Pants… shirt… and a hood," he muttered to himself as he rummaged in his clothes chest for the appropriate items. "All right, I don't have a hood." He did have a spare shirt and pair of pants: worn and slightly too small, but perfect for what he had in mind. They went into the bucket of dye while he searched for something he could make a hood out of. His pajama shirt would work fine, he decided. He didn't need it anyway.
He cut a large, vaguely head-shaped piece out of it with his knife and went at it with a needle and thread. The finished result wouldn't look pretty, but that didn't matter. After examining the existing stitches in another piece of clothing, he figured he could manage to pass the needle back and forth in the fabric; sure enough, he did a rough but fair job of making the hood fit snug against his head and only stabbed his fingers a few times. Into the bucket the finished hood went.
While waiting for the dye to process, he unrolled one of his scrolls on swordsmanship.
He really needed to practice more. There were, after all, enough hours in the day to practice both firebending and swordsmanship—he just needed to budget his time better.
"Nephew, what are you doing?"
Zuko's head jerked up. He looked immediately over at the chest to make sure he hadn't accidentally left out one of the dog-eared prints he usually kept folded up and hidden inside the formal silk tunic that he never had the occasion to wear.
Iroh fixed Zuko with a shrewd stare as he stepped over the threshold and into the cabin. "It looks like you have a new project."
"Does this have something to do with the records you weren't able to get earlier?"
Uncle peered into the bucket, hands tucked into his sleeves. "Your dedication to your goals is admirable. But sometimes I wonder if that will be your undoing someday."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You will fight to the bloody end to achieve whatever you set your mind to, even if you were in over your head to begin with. Sometimes you get so caught up in pursuing a goal that you don't realize the danger you are in."
Zuko frowned at his scroll. "I'm not in any danger that I can't handle."
"That's how it always starts. We rarely put ourselves in situations that we know are dangerous. And then… it catches up with us." He put a hand on Zuko's shoulder. Zuko shrugged it off right away.
"Stop touching me. Everything's fine."
Iroh sighed, the deep, long-suffering sigh of a man trying to hide concern that would not be appreciated by its recipient. "Very well, Zuko." He turned back toward the door. "Be careful."
The old general departed, leaving Zuko to his scroll.
The wait for the dye to finish was agonizing, but at long last, it was done. Well, it had been a few hours, and surely that was enough time to give the gray fabric the perfect color to blend into the shadows at night. After rinsing the clothes out in the showers (and staining his hands and the entire floor blue), Zuko rigged a clothesline in his cabin and hung all three pieces up to dry.
So began the unbearable wait until nightfall. His project had already taken several hours, but it was only mid-afternoon, and he would have to stay in until it was completely pitch-dark outside. Four, five hours. Maybe even six, this time of year.
He paced the deck of the ship. Deep, dark clouds were rolling in from the sea. Rain had not figured into his plans, but he appreciated the clouds.
He looked out at all the other vessels in the yard. As usual, his was the smallest that he could see. Captain Sun's imposition on his business was clearly not out of concern for the well-being of the navy itself. These ships could take anything they wanted, from any enemy ship or poorly-defended port. And yet she had the audacity to tell him to stop picking off the smallest pirate ships he could find just to stretch his yearly budget.
It wasn't about the rewards. It had never been about the rewards. Not for her, and not for him.
At last, it was time.
The deep blue pants and shirt had a chemical, almost vinegary smell to them, and were stiff with excess dye. Both had shrunk in the bucket, which was fine, if a little uncomfortable. They had already been a bit too small to begin with.
Instead of his usual hard-soled boots, Zuko wore a pair made of softer leather, the ones he wore while training. Not only were they quieter, but they also helped him keep his balance. A belt, a pair of gloves, and finally the hood. It too was itchy and smelly, but it served its purpose. A heavy application of coal dust to the exposed parts of his face would keep his skin from glowing in the darkness.
Finally, he strapped his swords to his back and slipped off into the night.
Something about the secrecy of it all made his skin prickle, every sense attuned to signs of detection as he flitted between shadows and dark crevices.
The dockside establishments never slept. Raucous voices, laughter, cheers floated out into the street. Zuko passed unnoticed between a tavern and a brothel. A man was passed-out drunk in the alleyway, a bottle of cloudy liquor dangling from one limp hand and saliva glistening on his chin.
Thunder rumbled in the distance. Zuko cursed and quickened his steps. He couldn't go too fast and still remain beneath notice, but he had to hurry before the rain came in.
He paused for a moment between two apartment buildings, crouching behind a rain barrel. A watchman with a lamp strolled down the street. Zuko held his breath until he was safely gone and the sound of his whistling had disappeared around a corner.
The quiet was shattered by a barking dog. It was coming closer. Swearing silently to himself, Zuko grabbed the nearest windowsill and began to climb. His foot slipped once on the way up and his heart skipped several painful beats, but he ended up on the roof, no worse for the wear. He peered over the edge to see an astonishingly large and ferocious-looking black dog below, barking and jumping and clawing at the wall just below where Zuko was perched.
"Shut up, damn dog," he hissed. "Go away. I'm not going to rob anyone."
The dog did not shut up. Lights were starting to come on in doors and windows all around the neighborhood.
"Who's there? Show yourself!"
Zuko bit the inside of his cheek and stayed put. If only he had something to keep the dog busy…
He had to run. The space between this building and the next one over looked close enough to clear in one long jump.
Heart racing, he sprinted across the roof and jumped with all of his might.
The landing knocked all the wind out of him and sent a sharp pain through his right ankle. He rolled onto his back and forced himself to take deep breaths in, even though every movement sent spasms through his body. At least he made the jump. At least he wasn't splattered all over the pavement.
Keep going… you have to keep going…
He staggered to his feet. His ankle was fine; he'd just rolled it a little. It hurt, but he could put his weight on it.
The dog was still barking somewhere below him. He had to get out of here before the whole neighborhood decided to check in out, but he didn't know how many more roof-jumps he had in him. He needed a different plan.
Thunder rumbled again, closer this time, and a fat raindrop hit him square in the eye. It picked up immediately, rain falling faster and faster all around him.
Okay. This will work.
He still had to hurry. Even with the rain blocking his scent from the dog, there were still other obstacles before he reached his destination. The rain would also wash the coal dust from his face, and he had nothing else with which to disguise himself.
Carefully, and testing each step to keep from slipping, he climbed down the wall and back to street level. He'd already made it this far. The base wasn't much further. If he could just avoid detection between here and there—
It was raining harder now. It poured down in heavy sheets, soaking through his clothes in second. He swiped a hand across his eyes, and the glove came away clean. No coal. He had to hurry and stay invisible.
Staying on the ground was easier, but more dangerous. He covered more ground this way, but there were more people and dogs, and he winced every time he splashed through a puddle he couldn't go around.
Quick. Stay low. Keep to the shadows. Almost there.
The high wall around the base loomed in front of him. He could climb it, but he had to make sure absolutely no one saw him. With nothing to disguise his face…
The wall looked smooth from a distance, but cracks and jutting stones made functional handholds. When he reached the top, he waited until a passing guard's footsteps faded away into the sound of the rain before hoisting himself up and over.
A large trash heap on the other side cushioned his fall, though it did make an alarming crunch as he landed in it. Now he was wet and covered in garbage. Any dog who could find him now deserved fresh meat every day and cats to chase to its heart's content.
The records building was just up ahead, past two sets of barracks and a mess hall. The door was guarded, as it had been earlier, but there was a window open on the third floor. The building itself was dark and deserted for the night. Zuko scaled the wall, lifting himself up on the window frames and decorative molding, until he reached the third floor.
He had no idea where he was looking, if there was a section for captains stationed in the area or if it was arranged in some other way. All around him were shelves upon shelves of scrolls, all labeled and color-coded. In the center of the room were a few desks where bureaucrats worked during the day, well-stocked with paper and writing implements. Zuko squinted in the darkness, trying to avoid conjuring a flame to read by. He couldn't be discovered now after making it so far.
These were all names of people, whether military or civilian he couldn't tell. Wrong section for someone named Sun, though. Treading quietly and keeping a hand on the end of his swords to keep them from rattling, he crept down to the second floor.
Yes, this is where it would be. He ran a hand along the shelves, searching for the name… there it was. Sun.
There were six people named Sun on this shelf. He pulled one out and unrolled it.
Sun Fong, midshipman, seventeen years old… that wasn't right.
The next one was Sun Meiling, a female soldier, information that almost made Zuko take the scroll until he realized that she was in the army, not the navy.
Sun Tan, an elderly local merchant… Sun Xiang, a bartender…
Sun Chao. Navy captain. Female, thirty-six years old. Columns upon columns of acquisitions at sea and victories in the agni kai arena. This was the one. Zuko stuffed the scroll into his belt and replaced it on the shelf with a scroll from across the room, one that probably wouldn't be missed.
Time to get out. No use lingering when he had the information he needed. Every second he stayed was another second that he might be caught.
Just as he was about to leave, a door caught his eye. The words TOP SECRET were painted in bold black ink right in the middle.
He couldn't help it. He tried the knob and, finding it unlocked, walked in.
Part of him scoffed at the state of Fire Navy bureaucracy, leaving such an important door open for anyone to go in once they managed to enter the building unnoticed, but mostly he was curious. So this was why the whole building was off-limits, because of this one little room.
It too was lined with shelves and scrolls, but there was a large worktable in the middle of the room, strewn with bottles and vials and bits of metal and paper. He looked closer. There were several objects that looked like fireworks, but in this light, they could have been anything. He picked one up. It definitely looked like a firework, but more substantial. This one had "Prototype" painted on the side.
Not a firework, but a rocket. All of them were rockets, different kinds for different purposes. One might bring down a wall, one might set fire to a house or send shrapnel flying into whatever was nearby.
Top Secret. Well, it made sense now. Time to leave before anyone decided to check to see if their top secret rocket room had been compromised.
As careful and quiet as ever, he climbed out the window he had climbed into and dropped lightly onto the ground. Cross the base, climb the wall, and disappear into the rain. Simple enough. Whether it would be easy was a different question entirely.
He had the scroll of information. No use lingering any longer.
"YOU! Stop right there!"
Zuko's insides froze.
He paused for a moment, not turning around to see where the order had come from, and then took off running. Run for the wall. If he could make it over, he could get away.
"This is your last warning! Stop!"
He kept running, straight for a building that looked like an armory. If he could just grab a helmet from inside, he could face the guards head-on with his swords.
A spear whizzed past his left ear. More shouting voices joined the first-they were coming. He had to get away. His heart was hammering inside his chest, his breath coming hard and fast as he ran.
He jumped into the nearest armory window. He found himself not among helmets and body armor, but in a room full of dozens of different kinds of rockets.
The voices were getting closer. He had to find something quickly. A helmet, an engineer's mask, anything. He stumbled blindly in the darkness, tripping over tables and chairs, until he made it to the next room over. Here were the helmets, their empty white faces staring blankly at him from the shelves.
He reached for the nearest shelf. His fingers closed not on a firebender's helmet, but on something smaller, made of ceramic or maybe lacquered wood, he couldn't tell.
Not a helmet, but a mask. An opera mask depicting a grinning blue-and-white demon.
He had no idea what it was doing here. But it would work in a pinch. He tied it over his face and prepared for whatever was going to happen next.
The guards were coming still closer. He could hear their voices getting louder and louder as they approached the armory.
He heard the distinctive whoosh of firebending. The wall tumbled inward. Zuko drew his swords and prepared to face them, trembling behind his grinning mask and thinking nothing more than one long stream of incoherent fear.
More firebending. Shouts, flashing weapons, and then—
The building exploded. Rockets shot off in every direction, destroying the building and everything around it. Zuko dropped low to the ground at the last second, before a chunk of burning masonry flew right at where his head had been. Another explosion, and then a third—something hot and sharp tore into his left shoulder and he bit down hard on his lip to keep from making a sound.
Blood coursed from the wound, running thick and warm down his chest. He had dropped his sword; gingerly, he picked it up and sheathed both weapons.
Another set of rockets went off. He had to get out of here before the smoke cleared and the guards were chasing him again.
Holding his left arm close to his body, he took off running.
People from all over the base—all over town, too—were turning out to investigate the explosions. Zuko knew he would never be able to climb with his arm like this. He disappeared into the crowd, taking advantage of their confusion to cover his escape. The front gate was unguarded. He pushed it open, closed it behind him, and ran off into the downpour with still more rockets going off in his wake.
Only when Zuko was back on the safety of his ship, barricaded in his room, did the wound in his shoulder really start hurting.
He dropped his swords and the scroll down on his bed and hid the mask in his clothes chest. He tried to peel his sodden shirt off without doing any more damage.
He couldn't do it. Teeth clenched, eyes squeezed shut, he tried to pull it over his head, but his arm wouldn't bend that way. Whatever was stuck in the muscle, a wood splinter, perhaps, made his nerves scream with agony whenever he tried to move in any direction. He tasted blood in his mouth and realized that he was biting down on his own tongue.
This wasn't working. Something was really wrong and he couldn't move his arm. He sat down on the floor and tried to think of something to do. Nothing came to mind, just white-hot pain so intense that he almost felt like throwing up. Why hadn't his eye ever hurt this acutely?
He got the scroll. That was what mattered. He could deal with the rest as it happened. Now that he had the scroll, he could take just as much time as he wanted to figure out how to take off his wet clothes.
Right now, just breathing was a struggle. Later. He'd figure it out later.
His door swung open. Uncle, uninvited as usual.
"Nephew, have you heard the expl—ah. I see." Uncle raised his eyebrows and stepped into the room. Zuko grimaced up at him. "Apparently you have yet to learn the meaning of 'be careful.'"
"Sorry, Uncle. I tried."
"I'm sure you did." He came closer. "What happened?"
The words wouldn't come. Somewhere between his mind and his mouth, all rational thought disappeared. He pulled his right hand back from his shoulder—it was dark and gory with partially-congealed blood. Uncle was at his side in an instant. He pressed his own wide sleeve to the wound to stop the bleeding.
"I suppose you don't want me to know what happened out there."
Zuko just grimaced again. He was tired, and in so much pain that he could hardly even think.
"So," Iroh continued, "I won't ask. If it's important, as I suspect it is, I'll find out anyway." He removed his sleeve and probed at the wound. "Hmm, it feels like a wooden splinter. It went in cleanly; I can probably remove it in one piece."
"Just do it," Zuko said through clenched teeth.
Uncle grasped the end of the splinter in two fingers and pulled. Some kind of sound clawed its way out of Zuko's throat, halfway between a shout and a whimper. Fresh blood welled from the wound. He cracked his eyes open to see Iroh holding up a bloodstained, three-inch shard of wood.
"Does it feel like it's all out? Is there any other piece that I missed?"
"I think so," Zuko gasped. "Yeah. I think it's out."
"I will be back with bandages. Stay there, and keep pressure on it."
"I don't think that's going to be a problem." Things like standing up and moving around were so far out of the circle of things that Zuko could realistically do. Sitting wasn't a problem. Staying put wasn't a problem.
Iroh left, and Zuko tried again to take off his shirt. It hurt, but he could lift his arm enough to get it off this time. He pressed the wet cloth to his shoulder…
He was blue. His whole body was stained blue from the dye residue running off his clothes in the rain. He checked his reflection in the blade of one of his swords—even his head was blue. Looking up again, he realized that he'd tracked in a trail of blue water and was now sitting in a puddle of it.
"Damn cheap dye," he muttered.
Iroh laughed as soon as he re-entered the room with bandages and a bottle of alcohol. "What an adventure it must have been, my very blue nephew."
"This had better wash off."
"Ironic words, coming from a young man with a tattoo." The raised eyebrow was back.
"It's not the same. I didn't want to be completely blue all over."
"Even so. You may want to hide both from your crew for a while. The rumor's already made its way through the docks. They are looking for someone in dark blue or black, who fights with two swords. While you cannot hope to fool me with regards to anything you do, you may yet fool them if you keep it covered."
Zuko absently covered the tattoo with a sleeve of his shirt. A simple design: a pair of crossed swords underneath a small anchor, drawn just below his ribs on his right side. Unobtrusive, a little smaller than his palm, but iconic. Instantly recognizable.
He bit his tongue again when Iroh took an alcohol-soaked cloth to his shoulder. It still burned long after it was neatly bandaged, and only started to fade after a midnight cup of tea.
He crawled into bed, utterly exhausted, and was dead to the world before his head even touched the pillow.
Even through all the pain and terror of the evening, he had to admit… it had been fun.
Captain Sun surveyed the wreckage of the armory and the general mayhem in the area.
The soldier saluted. "Ma'am, someone broke into the records building. The special projects room has been compromised by the same person who caused the explosion."
"It must have been Earth Kingdom rebels. Search the area, they can't have gotten far." She rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "Check the land and the sea in all directions. These plans cannot fall into the hands of the enemy."
What a mess. What an absolute disaster.
She had to contain this slip-up, or all of her hard work would have been for nothing. Her future plans depended on how well she demonstrated talent for command—she would not have everything undone because some slipshod guards and lazy bureaucrats couldn't do their duties properly. And when she found those responsible for everything, she would deal with them in proper Fire Nation form. She always did.