A:TLA is not mine and never will be.
A/N: Once again, many thanks are due to my amazing beta, amanda91, who has assisted me greatly in polishing and improving this story.
After he and Sokka had worked out a new escape plan, Hakoda asked about something that had had him wondering since Sokka mentioned it. "You said that Prince Zuko is on our side now," he said. "When did that happen?"
"Right after the eclipse," Sokka said. "As in, immediately after. He used a war balloon to follow us from the capital. We hadn't even been at the Western Air Temple for a full day before he appeared and asked to join us."
"Did he tell you why he changed sides?" Hakoda asked.
"Not really," Sokka said. "But he has said that he's sorry for what he's done in the past. He's also teaching Aang firebending."
"He is?" Hakoda asked, surprised.
"Yep," Sokka said. Getting to his feet, he continued, "I'll tell you more later. Now I need to tell Suki and Zuko about the new plan."
After Sokka left, Hakoda pondered what he had been told about Zuko. He wondered what had made the prince decide to turn against his father and join the Avatar. Sokka clearly trusted the other boy not to throw a fireball at his back or otherwise betray him. While relying on Sokka's trust of the prince would have to do during their escape, Hakoda knew that once they got away, he would have to make his own observations before he would be able to fully trust Zuko.
As they made their escape from the prison, Hakoda watched Zuko as critically as the circumstances allowed. When the prince first joined them in the yard, Hakoda was surprised to see that he was wearing prison clothes. He had assumed that Zuko would also be disguised as a guard. He wanted to ask the prince about it, but it had to wait as they raced for the gondola. Once the gondola started moving, he noticed that Zuko was lingering by the controls instead of heading for the gondola himself. Hakoda wondered what the prince was doing until he saw him kicking the control lever. When Zuko leaped for the gondola as Sokka leaned out the window, Hakoda realized that Zuko trusted his son just as much as Sokka trusted Zuko. The prince's eagerness to fight his sister spoke volumes for their sibling relationship, but Hakoda knew that that didn't necessarily speak to Zuko's relationship with his father.
Watching his son joking easily with Zuko during the trip to the Western Air Temple, Hakoda was reminded that Sokka had never had another boy his age to be friends with, growing up. The novelty of having a close male friend for the first time could explain some of their closeness but not all of it and Hakoda wondered how Zuko had earned the rest
"Where are we?" Bato asked.
"I don't know," Hakoda replied. "You're the one who thought he saw tracks in this direction."
"I did see tracks," Bato said. "It's just that they've disappeared now."
Hakoda looked up at the sky as the wind picked up. "Well, whether or not you actually saw tracks, we'd better find some shelter," he said. "That storm that was threatening earlier is moving in."
Bato looked around and spotted an opening in the ice cliff to their right. "There," he said. "We can take shelter in there."
Running to reach the cave in time, they had entered it just before the storm hit. Moving further back into the cave, Bato tripped over the polar leopard's tail before either of them saw it. The creature was not happy about having its sleep interrupted by two humans and they were forced to fight it. There was no panicking, no questioning looks between the two, just unspoken agreement on their tactics. First Hakoda distracted it while Bato attacked from the other side, then Hakoda attacked while the creature was distracted by Bato. It went on like that for a while, each of them having a few close calls, before Hakoda found an opening to make the kill.
"At least we made a kill," Hakoda said after the leopard's death throes had stopped.
"Yeah," Bato said, "but we're still going to be in trouble when we get back, both for making people worry about us being out in the storm and for being unobservant enough that we had to tangle with a polar leopard by ourselves."
Bato was absolutely right. When they got back to the village with the leopard's carcass in tow, their mothers read them the riot act. Hakoda's father decreed that for being foolish enough to end up having to take on a polar leopard alone, their punishment would be to do all the work of skinning and dressing down the carcass and cleaning the hide entirely on their own.
Once they reached the temple, Hakoda had a chance to observe the way Zuko interacted with the rest of the Avatar's group. As he embraced his children, Hakoda saw Zuko being welcomed back by Aang and Toph.
"Welcome back, Firecracker," Toph said, punching the prince on the arm.
Smiling ruefully, Zuko rubbed the spot Toph had punched. "Thanks, Toph," the prince said. "It's good to be back." Turning to the young airbender, he asked, "Did you do the homework I assigned, Aang?"
"I did," Aang replied. Then his face brightened and he asked, "So, Sifu Hotman, now that you're back, does that mean I no longer have to practice every time a badgerfrog croaks?"
"Don't call me that!" Zuko snapped. Hakoda noticed that Sokka mouthed the words along the other boy, indicating that this was a common exchange. Then, in a calmer tone of voice, the prince said, "Yes, Aang, you can stop doing that. But it's back to regular training tomorrow morning."
"Sure thing, Sifu Hotman," Aang replied cheerily.
Apparently deciding that the Avatar's mood needed deflating, Zuko added, "And that includes dawn meditation tomorrow."
The airbender's expressive face fell. "Aw," he moaned, "do I have to?"
"Yes, you do," Zuko said. "I know you haven't been doing it while I was gone. Learning to sense the rising sun helps improve your firebending control."
Sighing dejectedly, Aang said, "I know. You've said that before."
Clearly, not even Zuko was immune to the airbender's puppylike charm, because the prince then said, "If you do well at it tomorrow, you can skip it for the rest of the week."
The younger boy perked up at that, saying, "Thanks, Sifu Hotman."
Sighing, Zuko muttered, "I told you not to call me that."
"Try it again, Hakoda," Kesuk said. "You almost had it that time."
Hakoda sighed. It seemed like he'd been throwing the boomerang for hours without coming any closer to hitting the target than he had the first time. He was happy that Kesuk was willing to teach him, he really was. Anyone would be happy to be taught by the best warrior in the tribe. Still, it was beginning to feel like he was wasting Kesuk's time.
Throwing the boomerang again, he could tell as it left his hand that it was going to miss the target. The throw didn't have that snapping sensation that Kesuk had described a proper throw as having.
As the boomerang swung wide of the target, Hakoda wondered if he was ever going to get it right.
"You'll get it eventually," Kesuk said as Hakoda caught the boomerang on its return. "Do you want me to demonstrate again?"
"Please," Hakoda said.
"All right," Kesuk said. "Watch closely," he continued, unsheathing his own boomerang.
As Kesuk threw the weapon, slowing his movements somewhat so that Hakoda could see what he was doing, Hakoda focused all of his attention on the older man. And this time, he thought he saw what he was doing wrong. He was holding his wrist too stiffly.
Throwing his own boomerang again, Hakoda could tell that he had finally gotten it right. There was the snapping sensation in his wrist right as he released the weapon, just as Kesuk had described.
As he watched the boomerang smack into the target and arc back toward him, Hakoda felt an immense satisfaction.
"So there I was," Sokka said, "faced with a split second to make a hard decision—blow Zuko's cover to protect my own or risk blowing mine to protect his." It was dinnertime and Sokka was regaling everyone with the tale of their adventure at the Boiling Rock.
"What did you do?" The Duke asked breathlessly, caught up in the story.
"I chose to protect my own cover and helped the guard arrest Zuko," Sokka said.
"It was the right choice to make," Zuko added. "My cover was compromised as soon as that guard said she thought I was an imposter."
Sokka continued the story, explaining how he had checked out the coolers and realized that they'd make perfect boats. He told how Chit Sang had gotten involved and described the fight that Zuko and Chit Sang had staged to get Zuko into the cooler.
"I knew Zuko'd be able to stay warm enough to get the job done," Sokka said. "After all, he survived swimming into the North Pole."
"I was wondering about that," Chit Sang said.
"You can thank my uncle for teaching me the breath of fire," Zuko said.
Then Sokka explained how he and Zuko had overheard the guards talking about the arrival of new prisoners, including war prisoners, and how their gamble in staying had paid off with Hakoda's arrival. He described how he and Hakoda had come up with the new plan and how Chit Sang had placed the blame for the first escape attempt on the bully guard.
"I thought my heart was going to stop before I saw who he was pointing at," Sokka said.
"Like I told you," Chit Sang said, "it came with a price."
Sokka went on to describe the riot, Suki's capture of the warden, and Zuko's bravery in disabling the control lever for the gondola, overriding Zuko's protests that it wasn't particularly brave or noteworthy.
"And then," Sokka said, "almost as soon as Zuko was inside the gondola, Azula and Ty Lee appeared. Zuko, Suki and I climbed onto the gondola's roof and prepared to fight them." He described how he and Zuko had fought Azula, once again emphasizing Zuko's actions over the prince's protests.
Suki described her fight with Ty Lee and then Sokka picked up the story again.
"While we were fighting, the warden managed to break loose and ordered the guards to cut the line," he said. "Azula and Ty Lee escaped to the roof of the other gondola, but we had nowhere to go. Then, just as the line was about to break, we were saved! And you'll never guess who it was who saved us."
"Who was it?" Aang asked.
"Mai," Sokka said.
"Mai?" Katara echoed. "Why would she do that? I thought she was Azula's friend."
"She's also Zuko's girlfriend," Sokka said, "so I guess she decided that she liked Zuko better. Anyway, she was awesome—whirling and spinning, blades flying everywhere and pinning the guards. She kept that up until our gondola had docked on the other side."
Sokka quickly finished the story and Hakoda finally had a chance to put forth his own opinion on the subject of the prince's surprising and genuine humility. "Sokka was right while telling the story, Zuko," he said. "You do deserve praise for what you did there. I was particularly impressed by the forethought you displayed in disabling the gondola controls, given that it could have cost you either your chance to escape or your life if Sokka hadn't caught you."
"It was the least I could do," the prince said, "especially considering everything I've done in the past."
"That's for sure," Katara snorted.
Turning the conversation back to their adventure, Sokka said, "I've still got a question for Zuko, though." Turning to the prince, he asked, "What did those guards want with you?"
Zuko actually winced at the question. Then, sighing, he answered it. "The warden is Mai's uncle," he said. "Before I left the capital, I left her a letter telling her I was leaving and breaking up with her. She wasn't very happy about that."
"Of course she wasn't," Suki said. "A letter is the worst way to handle that sort of thing. It's always better to do it face to face."
"I know that now," Zuko said, "but I didn't want to drag her into it. I thought she'd be safer if I just left her a letter. If I had talked to her about the fact that I was leaving, she could have been implicated in my decision. I didn't want her to be labeled as a traitor, too. Anyway, he must have told her I was there, because she was waiting for me in the room the guards brought me to, ready to give me a piece of her mind."
"Well, something you said must have had an effect on her," Sokka said, "given that she saved us."
"I know," Zuko said, "and that was after I locked her in the room so she couldn't follow me. I almost wish she hadn't saved us, though."
"Why?" Suki asked, shocked. "If she hadn't, we'd all be dead and so would her uncle."
"I know that," Zuko said. "But she may have saved us at the cost of her own life and it hurts that I, personally, was unable to do anything to help her. I love her and yet I was completely helpless to aid her when she was in danger."
"What do you mean when you say that she may have saved your lives at the cost of her own?" Haru asked.
"It's because she had to betray Azula to do it," Zuko said. "Azula isn't exactly forgiving of that sort of thing."
"Surely the fact that she's Azula's friend will count for something," Aang said.
"No," Zuko said, "it won't. That just makes it worse. If there's ever been someone Azula knew she could always count on siding with her, it was Mai and Ty Lee. Now that Mai's proven that untrue, Azula is going to be furious. And it really doesn't help that I was the one Mai betrayed her for."
"How is Mai betraying her for you any different from Mai betraying her for someone else?" Sokka asked. "It's still just a betrayal, right?"
"No, it isn't," Zuko said. "Azula's always prided herself on the fact that almost everyone likes her better than me. So for someone—and not just anyone, but one of her best friends—to suddenly decide they like me better is a huge blow to her prestige, or at least her perception of it."
When the black snow began to fall, Hakoda's father, Arrluk, gathered the men of the village to prepare for battle. Hakoda presented himself to prepare with them, but Arrluk waved him away. "You're not ready, Hakoda," he said.
"But I want to fight," Hakoda protested.
"There will be plenty of chances for you to fight in the future," Arrluk said. "Besides, you and Bato are the oldest of the children. I need the two of you to protect the rest of them while we're fighting."
"All right," Hakoda grumbled. But secretly, he promised himself that he would show his father that he could fight now.
Having pretended to go to the place where the other children were hiding, Hakoda now hid near the front of the village, waiting for the right moment to join the fight. The men had already begun to fight the firebenders and the battle was getting closer to his hiding spot.
"Hakoda," a voice called from behind him, "what are you doing out here?"
Turning his head, Hakoda saw Kya. She was just a bit younger than he was and he had recently begun to see her as attractive. If he were to be honest with himself, he would admit that part of the reason he wanted to fight was so that he could impress her.
"I want to fight," he told her. "Dad says I'm not ready, but I am. I'm fourteen."
"You'll have plenty of chances to fight later," Kya said. "Now come on. I'm—look out!" She tackled him to the ground right before a fireball passed through the spot where his head had just been.
"I'm the only one who's noticed that you're missing," she said as she lay on top of him. Rolling off of him, she continued, "If we hurry, we might be able to get back before anyone else notices. If the firebenders do find the other children, Bato isn't going to be able to defend them alone."
Seeing her logic, Hakoda agreed to return with her. It wasn't easy to make it back unnoticed, but they did manage it. After the fight was over and the firebenders had left, his father thanked him for staying with the other children and he was glad that he had listened to Kya.
Late that night, as Hakoda was coming back from relieving himself, he heard a sound like that of someone whimpering. Looking around for the source of the noise, he noticed that Zuko was cringing in his sleep. Concerned for the boy, he came closer, only to realize that Zuko was the one who was whimpering. As Hakoda debated whether or not he should wake the boy from what was clearly a bad dream, Zuko began mumbling softly. Straining for the sound of Zuko's voice, Hakoda realized that it sounded like the prince was pleading with someone. There was a note of desperation in the boy's voice, though, and Hakoda thought he could make out the words "father" and "please don't".
That was all Hakoda needed to hear to know he should act. Reaching out, he placed a hand on Zuko's shoulder and gently shook the boy awake. "Zuko," he whispered. "Zuko, wake up."
Rolling over, the prince sat up and blinked at Hakoda sleepily. "Is something wrong?" he asked.
"You were having a nightmare," Hakoda replied. "I wanted to make sure that you were okay."
"I'm fine," Zuko snapped. "It's nothing that hasn't happened before."
"All right," Hakoda said. "I was just checking." Turning to go back to his own bedroll, he paused, then said, "If you want to talk about it, I'm always available," before continuing away.
Hakoda was woken by an icy draft tickling his neck. Looking down at his side, he was unsurprised to see Katara snuggling up to him under his covers. It had only been a month since Kya's death and Katara was still having nightmares more often than not. Spirits, he wished that he had been able to prevent her from seeing that. No eight year old should have to see their mother's charred body. But Katara had and all he could do about it now was soothe her when she needed it.
"What's the matter, Snowflake?" he asked, stroking her cheek. "Did you have another bad dream?"
"Uh-huh," Katara said, snuggling closer to him.
"What was it about?" he asked.
"That man," she replied. "What if he comes back for me? I'm a waterbender."
"Even if he did come back, I would never let him hurt you," Hakoda said. "You and Sokka are my entire world now and I won't let anything take either of you away from me. And the rest of the tribe would stand by my side in protecting you. You are our treasure, the first real sign of hope we've had in ages. Does knowing that help?"
"Yeah, it does," Katara said.
"Do you think you'll be able to sleep now?" he asked.
"Yes," she replied, her eyes drifting closed already.
By the time Hakoda woke the next morning, the sun had been up for several hours, and so, apparently, had Zuko. When he asked Sokka where the prince was, his son replied, "Training Aang. He must have made good on his threat of dawn meditation, since both he and Aang were up by the time I woke. That's normal for Zuko—I think it's a firebender thing—but Aang likes to sleep in. I can't exactly blame him. Zuko's a hard teacher and Toph is even harder. He's generally exhausted by the end of the day."
"Where are they training?" Hakoda asked. "I think I'd like to watch. I've never had a chance to observe firebending in a non-combat situation."
"They're on one of the lower terraces," Sokka said, giving him directions.
Following the directions Sokka had given him, Hakoda soon made his way down to the terrace where Zuko was drilling the Avatar. As he arrived, he heard the prince say, "Do it again, Aang."
Stepping out onto the terrace, he saw Aang starting a form as Zuko looked on, leaning against a broken pillar. Looking around, he realized that he wasn't the only spectator for the lesson. Teo and The Duke were watching from off to the side, well out of the way of any misaimed fire blasts.
Moving through the form smoothly, Aang finished it with a long exhale, pushing his hands down in front of him. Looking up at the scowling firebender, the young airbender asked, "Did I do it right this time, Sifu Hotman?"
Sighing, the prince reached up and pinched the bridge of his nose before answering. "Yes, Aang," he said, "you did it correctly." Noticing Hakoda standing by the sidelines, he asked, "Do you need something, sir?"
"Just call me Hakoda," Hakoda said. "I don't need anything. I'm just here to watch the lesson."
"Then you might as well join Teo and The Duke," Zuko said.
Hakoda spent the rest of the morning watching Zuko teach Aang. He wondered what Bato would make of this situation—the Firelord's son teaching the Avatar firebending. Hakoda hoped that he and the other warriors were holding up well in prison.
Once again, the Water Tribe chief was impressed by the young man, this time with his forbearance and control. If the number of sighs was anything to go by, Aang was driving the prince straight up the wall. Despite that, the prince never yelled at the airbender, though he did raise his voice a few times, rarely snapped at him and never once raised his hand against the younger boy. If the rumors he'd heard about how discipline was handled in the Fire Nation military were correct, the prince's restraint in the face of aggravation was highly unusual.
Finally, as lunchtime approached, Zuko prepared to end the lesson. "Run through that advanced form once more," he told the young airbender, "and then we'll be done for the day."
Going through the motions flawlessly as far as Hakoda could see, Aang finished the form, then looked up for Zuko's appraisal.
"Good job today, Aang," the prince said, his face sporting the first real smile Hakoda had seen on him that morning. "I'm sure Katara has lunch almost ready. Why don't you go find her?"
With a shouted "Thanks, Sifu Hotman," the airbender zipped off toward the rest of the temple, grinning happily and followed by Teo and The Duke.
Muttering "Don't call me that," under his breath, Zuko waited until the younger boys were out of sight before whirling and blasting flames at the pillar he had been leaning against. Letting the flames die, he then began going through another set of katas, one that was more complex than anything Hakoda had seen him show the Avatar.
Waiting for Zuko to finish the katas, Hakoda noticed that, judging from the soot marks on the pillar and the scorched plants around it, this was not the first time that Zuko had taken out his frustrations on the inanimate object.
As Zuko gave the downward thrust of his palms that appeared to signal the end of a set, Hakoda spoke up. "Is Aang really that bad a student?" he asked.
Startled, Zuko spun around to face Hakoda. "How long have you been watching?" he asked.
"I never left after you finished Aang's lesson," Hakoda replied.
"You don't trust me, do you?" Zuko said. "I can't exactly blame you," he continued, slumping his shoulders and sighing. "Not after everything I've done in the past."
"It would be more accurate to say that I don't know you," Hakoda said. "At this point, I'm reserving judgment until I've made my own observations."
"That still means you don't trust me," Zuko said.
"I suppose you could see it that way," Hakoda said, "but that's not the whole truth. Right now, what you have from me is secondhand trust. I trust Sokka and since he trusts you, that means that I have some level of trust in you as well. Getting back to the original conversation, though, is Aang really that bad a student? It didn't look like he was doing that poorly to me."
"He isn't and he wasn't," Zuko said, sighing. "That's part of the problem."
"How so?" Hakoda asked.
"He doesn't have any concentration," Zuko said. "He has absolutely no concentration at all, and yet he picks things up more than twice as fast as I ever managed to, even when I was solely focused on learning. I've only been teaching him for two weeks and I've already had to show him some of the basic advanced forms. I know he's the Avatar and all, but it's still incredibly frustrating to watch."
Hakoda and Bato circled each other warily, spears at the ready, each looking for an opening in the other's defenses. Thinking he saw one, Hakoda lunged forward, swinging his spear point toward Bato's abdomen. Bato brought his own spear down to block the blow, then swung it up at the side Hakoda had left exposed in his lunge. Hakoda pulled out of the lunge in time to block Bato's swing and the fight was on.
The fight continued for a while, neither young man having a clear advantage, before Bato managed to hook Hakoda's legs out from underneath him. Hakoda toppled to the ground and Bato leveled his spear at the other boy.
"I yield," Hakoda said, laughter in his voice.
"I told you I would win the next time we sparred," Bato said, putting down his spear and offering his hand to assist Hakoda in getting up.
"You did, and I didn't believe you," Hakoda said, taking the offered hand and pulling himself to his feet. "I guess that's what I get for not taking your claim seriously."
"I have been doing a lot of practicing recently," Bato said. "Rematch tomorrow?"
"Sure," Hakoda said. "I can't let you win all the time."
It turned out that lunch was something that each of the temple's current residents got for themselves anytime after it had been prepared, so Hakoda was not able to continue his observations of the prince then, but sometime after he had gotten his own lunch, his son sought him out. "Hey, Dad," Sokka called, coming toward the fountain where Hakoda was talking with Katara.
"What is it, Sokka?" Hakoda asked.
"I wanted to know if you want to come watch me spar with Zuko," Sokka said.
"Zuko has a sword?" Hakoda asked, surprised. Why would the prince, a confirmed firebender, bother with a sword? From everything he had learned in the past two years, firebenders thought learning to use mundane weapons was a waste of time.
"Two swords, actually," Sokka said. "He has twin dao."
"That sounds interesting," Hakoda said. "Sure, I'll come watch."
Watching the sparring match proved to be as interesting as Hakoda had thought it would be, but it was the conversation he had with Zuko afterward that really gave him food for thought. When the sparring match ended, Zuko having managed to disarm Sokka, his son commented on the way Zuko had disarmed him.
"Man," Sokka said, going to retrieve his own sword, "I'm never going to get used to keeping track of both of your swords."
"Yes, you will, Sokka," Zuko said. "You were getting pretty good at it before our trip to the Boiling Rock. You just have to remember that they're two halves of a whole."
"There's still no way I'll ever be as good at it as you are," Sokka said.
"Don't underestimate yourself," Zuko said. "It took me a long time to get used to how the dao work together."
As Sokka left the terrace, saying that he wanted to find Suki, Hakoda approached the prince. "Where did you learn to use those?" he asked.
"I taught myself," Zuko replied.
"Why?" Hakoda asked. "I've never heard of a firebender using mundane weapons before."
"I've always liked swords," Zuko said, "but it wasn't until I was banished that I had a chance to learn how use them. At first, it was just another way to pass the time, but it soon came to be one of the ways I trained myself to compensate for the limited vision in my left eye."
So he got that scar around the same time he was banished, Hakoda thought. I wonder if the two are related? Even if they are, would he tell me if I asked? It must have been very painful to receive and I doubt he likes talking about it. Thinking of the prince's banishment, he was reminded of a rumor that Zuko had been banished as the result of a fight with his father. But that's just a rumor, he thought. A simple fight isn't worthy of such an extreme punishment. The worst he'd ever faced from his own father was being denied the right to go on the next big hunt.
Almost as if he sensed where Hakoda's thoughts were headed, Zuko quickly changed the subject. "I wish Sokka wouldn't sell himself short so often," the prince said. "He's really good for someone who's only been using a sword for two months, but he doesn't believe it."
"That's at least partly the result of growing up in Katara's shadow," Hakoda said absently.
"Oh?" Zuko said, sounding curious.
Hakoda hesitated a little. Was this really something he should be sharing with the prince? Then he decided that it couldn't hurt. Besides, it might elicit some more information from the boy. There had been an undertone of surprise in his voice when he responded to Hakoda's comment.
"Once it was discovered that Katara was a waterbender, the first one born in the Southern Water Tribe in more than sixty years, the entire tribe doted on her," Hakoda said. Sokka had been quite sulky for a few days after that discovery, he remembered. "She never got spoiled, but she did get far more attention than Sokka did."
"Ah," said Zuko. "That sounds like what happened with me and Azula."
"How so?" Hakoda asked.
"She's always been the firebending prodigy who started bending at the age of four, two years early," Zuko said. "I didn't start bending until I was seven, a year after she did. Even after I started bending, our father still gave her more than twice as much attention as he ever gave me."
"Daddy, look what I can do!" Katara cried.
Putting down the whalebone spearhead he had been working on, Hakoda turned to look at his five year old daughter. "What can you do, Snowflake?" he asked.
"Watch," Katara said. Focusing hard, her tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth, she raised and lowered her arms…and the snow piled against their igloo moved with her.
Hakoda was stunned. Katara was a waterbender!
"How long have you been able to do that, sweetie?" he asked.
"A few days," she said. "It doesn't always work, though."
The news was all over the village by nightfall and the next evening, there was a small celebration in her honor. The day after the celebration, Hakoda noticed that Sokka appeared to being trying to avoid Katara. Inquiring as to what was wrong, though, got no results. Sokka was unusually sullen for the next two days and things came to a head in the evening of the second day, when Sokka deliberately tripped Katara as they were coming in for dinner.
Sending Sokka to bed without dinner as punishment, Hakoda ate his own dinner before going to talk to his son.
"Sokka," he said, settling beside his son's bed, "why did you trip Katara? You know better than to do that."
"It's not fair," Sokka said.
"What's not fair?" Hakoda asked.
"Everything," Sokka said. "Everyone thinks Katara is so special just because she's a waterbender."
"Sokka," Hakoda said, gathering his son into an embrace, "your mother, your grandmother, and I don't suddenly love Katara any more just because she's a waterbender, nor do we suddenly love you any less because you're not a bender. We will always love both of you equally."
"But everyone's so excited about her," Sokka said.
"That's only because there haven't been any benders in the tribe for nearly sixty years," Hakoda said. "Once the novelty wears off, things will calm down."
That night, as Hakoda lay awake in his bedroll, he thought about what he had learned of the prince thus far. Zuko was brave and determined, as demonstrated by his actions at the Boiling Rock. He clearly had a temper, but it was kept under firm control around others. The boy had expressed genuine remorse and guilt over his past actions, which was a good indication that he had truly changed from the person that he used to be, but that wasn't enough to explain what had caused the prince to change, especially in light of the fact that he had had to leave behind someone he obviously cared about in order to join the Avatar. At this point, if he had to make a guess as to the cause of the prince's change of heart, Hakoda would guess that the root of it lay in the hints of a dysfunctional family relationship that he had picked up. Having managed to organize the information he had gathered, Hakoda went to sleep.
He was woken sometime later by the sound of someone whimpering, Suspecting that he knew who it was, Hakoda made his way over to where Zuko was sleeping. Sure enough, the prince was whimpering in his sleep again. As Hakoda watched, Zuko curled up into a tight ball, bringing one hand up to shield the left side of his face.
Looking at where Zuko's hand was, Hakoda suddenly noticed the scar—the large scar—on the prince's face. He had always known it was there, but he was just now realizing how large it was. It covered nearly a quarter of Zuko's face, extending from his nose all the way back to cover the ear on the left side and reaching from above the brow ridge to the bottom of the nose in height.
Getting down on his knees to wake the prince, Hakoda noticed that it sounded like the boy was once again pleading with someone—his father?—in his sleep. "Zuko," he whispered, gently shaking the prince's shoulder. "Zuko, wake up. You're having a bad dream."
Sitting up, the prince blinked bleary eyes at Hakoda. "Again?" he asked.
Hakoda nodded in response.
"Sorry to disturb you two nights running," Zuko said.
"It's no problem," Hakoda replied. "Any father would do the same."
"Not my father," Zuko muttered. "My uncle, yes, but not my father."
There it was again, that hint of a strained family relationship. Hakoda was tempted to ask what Zuko meant by that comment, but as sleepy as the prince was, he might not have even realized he had spoken aloud. Instead, Hakoda asked, "Do you have nightmares often?"
"Often enough," Zuko replied.
"Well, the offer I made last night still stands," Hakoda said. "I'm always available if you want to talk about it."
"I'm fine," Zuko snapped. "I can handle it myself."
"Okay," Hakoda said. "I was just offering."
The next day, Zuko acted as if nothing had happened during the night, but several times, Hakoda caught the prince looking at him almost as if the boy was…afraid of him. Hakoda had noticed the day before that the prince seemed to be wary of him, but he had thought that that was just a natural part of the process of getting to know each other. Now, though, looking back, it was obvious that the wariness had come from fear. He wanted to ask Zuko about it, but the prince seemed to be going out of his way to avoid opportunities for Hakoda to ask him alone. By the time he went to bed that night, Hakoda had still not been able to ask Zuko about his wariness.
Sometime later, Hakoda was woken up, not by the whimpering of the night before, but by a loud gasp that also woke Toph. Sitting up in his bedroll, Hakoda saw Zuko get out of his own bedroll and head over to the fountain. Following the boy out of concern while Toph woke the others, he saw that Zuko was drenched in sweat and was breathing heavily. How bad must his nightmare have been to cause such a reaction?
"Zuko, what's wrong?" Aang asked, rushing over to the firebender.
"Are you okay?" Sokka asked.
"I-I'm fine," Zuko said. "I-it was just a bad dream."
"You're not fine," Toph said. "Your heart is pounding a mile a minute right now and you were thrashing in your sleep before you woke up. Whatever that dream was about, it really disturbed you."
"Okay," Zuko said, "maybe I'm not fine right now, but I will be. Please, everyone, just go back to sleep." As he said this, though, he cast Hakoda an imploring look. Assuming that the look meant that Zuko wanted to talk to him, Hakoda stayed up as the others returned to their bedrolls and fell back asleep.
Once everyone else had resumed their interrupted sleep, Zuko shakily walked over to Hakoda. "Can I ask you something?" the prince said.
Hakoda was tempted to try and lighten the mood with a joke about how Zuko already had asked him something, but he sensed that the prince would not appreciate the levity right now, so he simply replied, "Yes, you can."
Once both of them had settled themselves on the rim of the fountain, Zuko began talking. "What would you do," he asked, "if Sokka disrespected you in your role as the chief in front of other important people in your tribe?"
"The same thing I'd do if he disrespected me as his father," Hakoda said. "I'd send him to his room without dinner and give him extra chores for a while."
"What about if he spoke out of turn at a…planning meeting that he wasn't supposed to be in?" Zuko asked.
"Why did he speak out of turn?" Hakoda asked.
"Someone important had just proposed a plan that was obviously wrong and cruel," Zuko said.
"I'd agree with him," Hakoda said. "But I'd also assign him extra chores for breaking the rules."
"That's all you'd do?" Zuko asked. "You wouldn't…hit…him or anything?"
"No," Hakoda said, "I wouldn't. What would your father do?"
Zuko's only reply was a slight shudder that ran down his spine.
"Zuko?" Hakoda asked, placing a hand on the prince's shoulder.
Zuko pulled away from Hakoda's touch, more shudders running through his body. Realizing that the prince was lost in his memories, Hakoda tried to figure out the answer for himself. Once again remembering the rumor that Zuko had been banished as the result of a fight with his father, he was reminded of his earlier speculation that the prince's scar was related to what had gotten him banished. Putting the pieces together—the scar, the rumors, Zuko's fear of him, a father, his own speculations, the oddly general yet too-specific questions—Hakoda suddenly got a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. If that was the behavior Zuko expected from a father, it was no wonder the prince was afraid of him. The boy couldn't have been more than thirteen when it happened.
Turning Zuko around to face him, Hakoda shook the prince gently until the boy looked up at him. Gripping the prince's shoulders, Hakoda looked him in the eye and said, "I'm not going to pretend to know exactly what your father did, Zuko, but I do know one thing—he was wrong to do what he did."
"How—how did you know?" Zuko stammered.
Hakoda was certain now. The idea of a father doing that to his son was repulsive. "I guessed," he said. "It was wrong and it was cruel and he never should have done that. No true father would have."
"I know that now," Zuko said. "I just wish that it hadn't taken me three years to figure that out. I spent three years searching for the Avatar to try and please him, trying to earn the love that I never should have had to earn. It wasn't until I had it that I realized it wasn't worth what I had to do to get it."
Hakoda no longer had to wonder why Zuko had changed sides, no longer had to wonder if the prince could be trusted. He knew. Zuko could be trusted. Ozai was a monster and even his own son had finally realized it. That was why Zuko was here now, teaching the Avatar and working to bring his father down.