Chapter Three: Talking
"Dad, please! Stop talking!" His son's cheeks were crimson. It gave Hakoda a good impression of what his own face had to look like. Giving your fifteen-year-old son that particular talk was something every father could do without. It was just that Sokka's obvious attachment to Suki worried him. They were both young and he didn't want them to make a mistake. So, he told his only son that this affection came with a great responsibility and then went further into this embarassing discussion by saying something about the importance of being gentle if they ever happened to do... it.
He felt his cheeks take on an even darker shade of red as he watched his son stalk away. He wished the earth would open up and swallow him whole.
He wondered if Toph might do him the favor.
Did all fathers struggle like this? Maybe it was easier if you didn't leave your children before they started to turn into young adults. The familiar feeling of guilt resurfaced, not too intensely, but it was painful nonetheless.
"Sokka?" the Prince's, now familiar voice, was heard.
They'd found a small plateau where they decided to build their camp for the night. It wasn't dark yet, but Appa was tired and they were unwilling to exhaust the Avatar's most loyal companion: especially since they hadn't stayed at one place for longer than a night, for the past seven days. According to the firebender, they were flying at the very edge of his nation. At first, they'd wanted to leave for a place called the 'Ember Islands,' but Zuko feared that his sister would suspect him to do just that. Thus, there was no real destination for them to reach. And yet, due to the training sessions that Aang had to take, they had moved just enough to avoid being caught.
"Oh, Chief Hakoda. Forgive me. I thought you were Sokka," Zuko apologized when he saw his mistake. "Have you seen him?"
He wondered if firebenders could feel when a person's face burned in embarrassment.
"Yes," he answered, sounding a bit hoarse. "He's just…ahem… I doubt you'll see him for a while. He went out for…"'letting the earth swallow him…'"a stroll."
The prince's reaction wasn't what he'd expected. All of a sudden he looked both concerned and wary.
"Did you… Was there…" Whatever the question was, the slender young man thought it best not to ask it. He seemed strangely sad and nervous.
What was going through that boy's mind? He looked miserable at the prospect of a conversation between father and son…
'Hakoda, you are a fool!'he reprimanded himself. How could he have possibly forgotten who Zuko's father was?
"Well, I thought it important to talk about my son's relationship with Suki," he answered truthfully, willing his face to remain calm.
All he received in return were furrowed eyebrows on Zuko's part.
"Don't you approve of the match?" he asked, sounding surprised.
"I'm sorry?" Hakoda responded in bewilderment. It seemed as if he lost all of his eloquence whenever he found himself in an uncomfortable situation. "Ah, no. I mean, yes, I do not have a problem with my son's interest. It is the nature of that interest that I'm worried about."
At first, Zuko seemed confused. Then, when it dawned on him, his face turned bright red. Due to his pale disposition, the contrast was a lot more noticeable on his face when compared to Hakoda's own one earlier.
"Oh," the prince whispered, deeply mortified. He was unable to meet Hakoda's gaze.
What happened next, Hakoda couldn't really explain.
Suddenly he remembered the girl Sokka had mentioned a few days ago.
She was that girl who had risked her own life, subsequently saving Zuko's and all of their lives, at the Boiling Rock. It was obvious how much those two cared for each other, especially given the prince's stricken look whenever she was mentioned. And he was a young man…
"Maybe, you and I should…" Hakoda began, but Zuko gave him a look as if the chief was a leopard shark ready to strike.
"No!" he shouted. His normally pale face was crimson. Then, he looked away and said in a quieter voice , "No. I've… My uncle has already given me this particular… talk. Never again! And don't ask me to repeat the metaphors he used on that subject," he added feebly. For once, both of his ears wore about the same color.
"Two years ago. I… My men have been to port before, but I refused to join them…" He halted, unsure how to continue. "Anyway, it was the first time I showed interest in leaving the ship and my uncle explained to me that some of the men would have … urges." Oh, it was possible to assume an even darker shade of red. That was interesting. "Some of the sailors didn't have any companions waiting at home, so… You command your ships, Chief Hakoda. I don't need to explain," he hastily added.
"In my experience, it's not just the men without a wife or beloved waiting at home that have urges. Surely, there were problems with infidelity? Especially among the young men," Hakoda said, glad to speak of handling crews instead of… that other subject. Even if it weren't for the avoidance of further embarrassment, it was good to speak of his men for once. He avoided the subject whenever possible around Sokka and Katara to spare them the grief.
Zuko seemed honestly puzzled.
For all his past experiences, the boy was rather naïve sometimes.
"Infidelity?" Zuko asked in honest astonishment.
Then, he started to laugh. Hakoda took a step back, surprised. It was so uncharacteristic for Zuko that the Chief of the Southern Water Tribe couldn't help but stare.
He had no idea what amused the younger man so much, but it had to be utterly hilarious because Zuko couldn't stop laughing.
"I think you broke him, Sokka Senior," Toph, who'd been drawn to the sixteen-year-old's obvious amusement, stated casually. Judging by the cautious steps she took towards her friend though, she was rather bewildered despite her careless tone.
Zuko was taking deep breaths, obviously trying to regain posture, but Toph's comment caused him to crack up yet again.
"What did you do?" Toph asked Hakoda, not even trying to hide her bewilderment. The warrior helplessly lifted his hands in a defensive gesture.
"Infidelity…" Zuko muttered, his chuckles turned into hysterical giggles. "Agni! People don't know anything about the Fire Nation, do they?"
It had to be some record on how swiftly he managed to go from hysterical to dead-serious in the blink of an eye. Zuko's question had been addressed at neither him nor Toph. He was looking right towards the sun, in a way only firebenders were able to without blinking.
"The Fire Nation is a nation of honour," Zuko stated quietly, his smile slowly fading. "Yes, we've already had that discussion, Chief Hakoda. That we forgot what true honor was. But within family? We still have honour. Adultery is one of the worst crimes you can commit in the Fire Nation."
"Chit Sang mentioned robbers and murderers, not adulterers," Hakoda contradicted.
"Yes, well, it's the kind of crime that is never presented in a legal court," Zuko said, looking grim. "That one is settled between partners, sometimes within family."
"Settled as in…"
"It depends on your beloved's benevolence. There is a saying at home concerning a 'woman scorned'…In the capital, it is not allowed to kill the adulterer, but in the smaller villages? Let's just say that those men are considered lucky if their throats are slit before anything vital is cut off." Zuko shuddered not too subtly.
Hakoda gulped visibly.
"I thought not only men served the Fire Navy…"
"That's true, but the women serving the Navy are usually viewed as comrades, not potential partners." All of a sudden, the pale teenager's face was crimson again.
"What if the woman's the cheating party?"
"Let's say that if Mai…" he looked away, but quickly regained composure. "My partner cheated on me, it would be within my mother's and sister's right to have a say in it."
"Ouch," Toph said pointedly. Then she grinned, "You just have to love the Fire Nation!"
Hakoda couldn't help but gape at her, a sound of disbelief escaping him. The sharp movement and the sound gave the blind girl enough clues to estimate his surprise.
"Well, look at it from my point of view. I am blind and a girl and I'm considered useless because of it in the Earth Kingdom. I still don't know if that false impression is caused more by the former or latter. In the Fire Nation, girls are respected warriors. Elite troops like the Yu Yan archers consist of as many men as women. Azula, Mai and Ty Lee are all considered the best in their field." The girl's eyes shined in excitement. "The throne is inherited by the first-born, disregarding the gender. At home, girls are hardly taught to defend themselves. Those who can't earthbend aren't taught at all. And now this? Imagine Sparky cheating on Needles! She'd cut off his…"
"Yes, she would," Zuko interrupted her frantically. "There is no need to spell it out."
"Sparky!" Toph exclaimed exasperated. "Don't treat me as if I am a child!"
"You mean like a twelve-year-old?" Before the prince was able to finish his sentence, the ground swallowed him whole, with the exception of his head.
Well, that answered Hakoda's earlier question.
Zuko didn't even as much as blink.
The earthbending prodigy huffed, "Sparkles! It's no fun when your heartbeat hardly changes."
The prince's lips formed a small smile: half amused and half apologetic.
The Chief of the Southern Water Tribe had joined the Avatar's group a little more than a week ago; the Fire Prince wasn't there for much longer. It was amazing what a close relationship had formed between Toph and Zuko. Hakoda always had a nearly uncontrollable curiosity concerning their talks when they were taking one of their short walks.
Meanwhile, the earth released the sixteen-year-old. Or rather, it spat him out. Zuko however smoothly landed and turned as if nothing out of the ordinary happened.
"Toph, look, I simply don't think it wise…"
"Please, Sparky, pretty please." Sightless eyes were fixed at some point over Zuko's shoulder, looking like a sea wolf cub: cute, but deadly.
"I've participated at the Earth Rumbles! That's a really tough crowd. How much worse can it be?"
"I am not going to teach you Fire Navy obscenities, Toph!"
If he hadn't sounded so desperate, he could have been confused for her older brother. Or father.
"Toph, as much as I despise the circumstances of my banishment, it did allow me to see the world in a way I otherwise wouldn't have known. Nevertheless, one of the downsides is that parts of my education suffered from it. While I can handle court and most ceremonies, I don't…" He stopped, sighed and began anew. "Unlike the Earth Kingdom, you don't have to be born into the upper class in order to be part of it, but those that weren't, lack certain…" He hesitated because he was unable to think of the right word. "…mannerisms that are taught to nobility when they are but little. Those three years took away some of that sincerity and replaced it with… Men who were in the navy and return from the war, are called 'sea-touched.' I was at sea for three years… A sailor might serve for a lot longer, but hardly anyone spends as little time as I did at port for such a long time. So, I'm sea-touched."
"It can't be that bad!" Toph protested.
"You should have seen some of the servants when I came home."
There it was again.
It was moments like this when Hakoda looked at Zuko and could see nothing but the enemy he'd once been. Of course, Hakoda could understand the sentiment. He hadn't seen his mother for so many years, hadn't smelled the clean, icy air of the poles and he missed it so much sometimes, his heart ached… But still, to know that it was the Fire Lord's domain that Zuko called home, made him feel uneasy all over again.
He was so caught up in his thoughts, he hardly heard Zuko continue.
"They were all whispering whenever they thought I wasn't around. About me turning wild, even primitive, during my years at sea."
Toph tilted her head back and started to cackle. Loudly.
"You? Sparky, altogether too proper prince of the Fire Nation? Wild? You're kidding me! I mean, I'll give it to you, you don't carry the same stuck-up stance as your fellow countrymen. You're balanced, no doubt, but you bear it with a certain flexibility like a flame in the wind. Still, wild you are not Sparky, especially when it comes to conversation."
For the split of a second, he looked irritated, displaying the shadow of the temper Sokka had told Hakoda about. Then, the teenager just sighed in defeat.
"Yes, well, I never said I was any good as a crown prince in the first place," was the self-depreciative reply.
"Have mercy, please!" the twelve-year-old moaned in fake despair. "Per definition of Fire Nation's authority, Crazy Blue Fire is the perfect princess. I guess we should thank the Spirits that you aren't perfect then."
Zuko lowered his head, but a tiny, perhaps grateful, smile graced his lips.
"Now that we've cleared that up…" Toph began, resuming her sea wolf cub 'I'll-eat-you-if-you-don't-answer' expression. "One word. That's all I'm asking."
When the teenage boy didn't answer, the earthbender continued pleading, alternating between threats and rather pitiful whimpers. The former sounded by far more sincere than the latter.
"Alright!" The prince exclaimed, exasperated. "But promise me you won't ever use this when Uncle's near."
For once, the enthusiastic girl was behaving according to her age. She gave her word, grinning broadly.
"kuso," Zuko stated, with a sigh.
"What does it mean?"
"I didn't agree to do more than giving you one word," Zuko replied, amusement adorning every last syllable.
Toph, definitely unused to being played by the older bender like this, whirled around. Surprise shifted into a very nasty grin that made the brave warrior want to run the other way.
Her victim on the other hand had been ready before he'd even spoken his words. As Toph's arms spread while her hands balled into fist, only to unclench within the blink of an eye, Zuko moved.
Then, he stopped dead. Quite literally: his left foot barely touched the ground. And it was beneath that foot where the earth shifted. The moment the earth shifted, Zuko used his right foot that was carrying all of his weight to push forward. He rolled over his right shoulder, touching the ground that was being bended a moment ago.
Toph's grin slipped away and was replaced by utter astonishment.
"What did you do?" she asked immediately. Her surprise showed Hakoda that this hadn't happened to her before, at least not with Zuko.
"You anticipate the next step and you attack that one step. If I refuse to take that last step, it gives me an opening to fight off your attack."
'Or to fight you.'
Zuko's unspoken words were heard by all three of them.
"How did you know it would work?" Toph asked, seemingly curious.
The prince gave a short chuckle, "I didn't." He sobered quickly, "I had to try, though."
Not give up. Find a way.
They said water was the element of adaptability, fire the element of determination and earth the element of stability. However, when Hakoda heard those two young nobles talking about adaption of styles, stealth and the readiness to learn new things, all while Zuko gave a short bow in his direction…
He couldn't help but think that the young Lady Bei Fong and the Fire Prince had a firm grip on all three of these characteristics.
And stubbornness. Determination and stability always led to stubbornness.
A/N: It has been a while. And I'm sorry. Real Life just kept interrupting, that and I spent the summer reading more than writing. I hope to update more regularly from now on.
At this point, I thank AESnooks (FFN doesn't accept (.) in between words.) for editing this chapter... You've done a great job. Thanks a lot.
Also, a very big thank you to all of you who reviewed. While I haven't replied them all (I'm sorry), be assured that I read and reread them all.
I hope you all liked this chapter. It was a bit silly, I admit, but this is ATLA. I just thought it fit, and it's a bit of a break to the more serious chapters I posted before.