First, a few author's notes: A fan asked me, "How to do you pronounce 'Teiji'?" I had to admit that was a very good question! I chose the name from a baby-names list for its meaning, without ever hearing it said aloud. But Google comes to the rescue once more: "The baby boy name Teiji is pronounced as T-IYJHiy" So it's three syllables instead of two, with emphasis on the middle syllable, for anyone else who's curious.
And since so many people have been asking in reviews and PM's about this story's pairings: This story will eventually span all three seasons of the show and beyond, but I have no plans to pair up anyone romantically (at least, not in a lasting manner) during the first-season events. This story's first season will focus on familial relationships and friendships, as well as loyalty and group dynamics such as Zuko's changing relationship with his crew.
Mismatched Chapter 5: Discussed
Katara had been rather proud of herself for coming up with the idea of using the pirates' own ship to escape from them, while they were too busy fighting the Fire Nation troops to notice. Sokka called himself 'the Idea Guy', but he wasn't the only clever person in the family! With Aang's help, she floated the ship out into the water and they climbed aboard, leaving the battle behind them. Yes, she was pretty proud of herself… until they realized that they'd missed the river fork that led to a long and gradual descent to sea level, and the ship was heading straight for a waterfall dead ahead. Oh, slush!
The next five minutes were full of the most frantic waterbending she'd ever done in her life, desperately working with Aang to keep the ship from going over the falls. Aang shouted, "Sokka, I can't take the time to stop and do it; you need to reach into my shirt!"
"I need to what?" Sokka shouted back while frantically tugging on the ship's rigging, trying to use the sails to catch any wind that would help push them back upstream, and tossing Aang a look of outrage. "How can you be thinking about scratching an itch at a time like this?!"
"I don't have an itch, I have the whistle! The bison whistle; it'll summon Appa from wherever he's gone to graze, so he can get us out of here!"
"That whistle you bought in the market yesterday? But it doesn't even work!" Sokka protested. But Aang kept insisting, and they were all desperate enough that he reached into Aang's shirt and fished out the bison-shaped whistle, blew into it as hard as he could, and kept blowing until he was red in the face.
Katara still couldn't hear anything from the whistle, but in just a few minutes, the constant roar of the waterfall was joined by the roaring of a sky bison as Appa came soaring over to them. He hovered directly over the ship so they could grab onto the toes of his massive feet (Katara spared a brief moment to be thankful that Sokka had cleaned the mud and bugs out from between them yesterday morning), and he lifted them to safety as the ship swept forward and over the falls. "I knew a bison whistle would come in handy! Thanks, Appa!" Aang said happily.
"Yeah, we owe you one!" Sokka breathlessly agreed as Appa set down on the riverbank nearby just long enough for them to clamber aboard into his saddle. Even over the roar of the falls, Katara could hear the crash of the wooden ship hitting the bottom of the falls and smashing to pieces, and she promised herself she would buy the biggest, juiciest melon she could find at the market in the next town they stopped at, for Appa's thank-you gift.
After guiding Appa to head due north, Aang hopped back to the saddle to be with his friends. Katara met him with a troubled expression as she said, "Aang, I still owe you an apology." She looked down at the saddle as she continued, "You were just so good at waterbending, without really trying. I got so competitive that I put us all in danger. I'm sorry."
"That's okay, Katara," he said cheerfully. He was just glad that they'd gotten away from Zuko and the pirates, and his best friend wasn't mad at him anymore.
But Katara was still sad, as she said in a really unconvincing way, "Besides, who needs that stupid scroll anyway."
"Is that really how you feel?" Sokka said with a smirk from the other side of the saddle, as he suddenly whipped out—the waterbending scroll!
"The scroll!" Katara almost squealed with delight, as she reached for it.
But Sokka pushed her back while holding it out of her reach and saying, "First, what did you learn?"
Katara made a face at her brother, but dutifully said, "Stealing is wrong." And as Sokka handed over the scroll, she added with a little shudder, "And even if they stole it first, you don't steal from pirates! Those horrible… you don't want to know what they were planning to do to me; what they would have done if Prince Zuko hadn't gotten to me first!"
Sokka gave his sister a weird look as he said slowly, "Are you trying to say that Angry Jerk saved you from the pirates?"
"Well… in a way, yeah," Katara admitted, looking down at her hands.
"Pffft! If he did, he saved you from them only so he could capture you himself," Sokka said with a dismissive wave. "One group is as bad as the other, if you ask me! But with any luck, they'll both be so busy fighting over who gets the only ship left, that they'll-"
"Fighting over the only ship left?" Katara interrupted him, her eyes wide.
"Yup," as Sokka started grinning again. "You guys didn't see it? I guess you were too busy waterbending us out into the main current to look back. But yeah, just after we took off, I saw everybody stop fighting long enough to look at us sailing away. And it looked like the Fire Nation troops were all laughing, but I'll bet they stopped laughing when they noticed the pirates all running for their river boat instead!"
But instead of grinning with him, Katara's face turned pale and her eyes went even wider as she clapped her hands to her mouth in sheer horror. "Thevavy!" they heard her say with her voice muffled behind her hands, before she lowered them to shout practically right in their faces, "We have to go back! We have to go back right now!"
"What?! Why, so we can get captured again?" Sokka demanded.
"No, you don't understand; there's a baby aboard that Fire Nation boat!"
"A what?" as Aang stared at her in astonishment, wondering for a moment if he'd heard her right. "A baby? What's a baby doing there?"
"I'll explain later! We have to make sure he's safe!"
But even while Aang was still turning around, Sokka shoved past him to scramble up to Appa's head. The Water Tribe teen yanked hard on the reins as he shouted, "C'mon, big guy, turn around! We've got a baby to save!"
Appa growled in protest at the way the reins and his horns were being abused, but banked hard to the right to turn around, so suddenly and steeply that everyone had to grab hold of something to keep from falling off. But even once they'd straightened out and were flying level again, Sokka was gripping the reins till his knuckles turned white, while muttering, "C'mon, faster, faster! We've gotta get there before they roast him! Curse those Fire Nation scum! Raiding, kidnapping, murdering-"
His words carried back to the saddle, and Katara shook her head, her long braid whipping in wind of their passage. "Not safe from the Fire Nation; safe from the pirates!" she shouted forward to Sokka. "If they find the baby, they could kill him!"
"Okay, so we'll save him from all of them!" Sokka retorted over his shoulder, before he snapped the reins and barked "Yip yip!" to urge Appa to fly even faster. Katara looked like she was about to speak again, but instead just gripped the saddle edge and looked grimly determined as she nodded agreement.
Flying high over the forest, they passed over the clearing they'd camped in last night, then found the riverbank and began following the river downstream. They found the fork in the river that led away from the falls, and Sokka urged Appa to follow it until they saw the little Fire Nation river steamer heading swiftly back to the port town.
"Okay, how are we going to do this?" Sokka asked, thinking out loud as they began gaining on the vessel; it was moving at a fast pace with the current's help, but Appa was still just a little bit faster. "Waterbend it into running aground and wrecking the hull? How close do you guys have to be to the water to bend it?"
"Closer than this, that's for sure," Katara said, looking worried. "Aang, do you see any pirates aboard?" They'd figured out a while ago that Aang had the best eyesight out of all of them, and years of experience at figuring out what things were from a long way up.
Aang peered hard at the people on the deck of the river boat ahead and below them, still nearly a thousand feet away, and shook his head. "No pirates at all; just Fire Nation troops. Maybe Zuko's crew just chased them off before they could board." He wondered briefly what the pirates would tell people had happened to their ship, after they walked all the way back to port.
"Or they couldn't figure out how to operate the engine fast enough, before the Fire troops recaptured their boat," Sokka suggested. "Either way it's a good thing, because it means fewer foes for us to deal with. But we still have to… um, wait a minute," as he glanced over his shoulder. "Katara, normally I wouldn't doubt you, but before we go charging into battle, I have to ask this: are you absolutely sure there's a baby aboard their boat? There are animals out there that sound a little like babies, y'know; did you see this kid with your own eyes?"
"I saw him, Sokka." Katara's voice was solemn, her eyes troubled. "They brought him out of the boat to Zuko when he woke up crying. And then Zuko…" her voice trailed off.
Sokka tensed up all over, and turned completely around to show them a terrible scowl that made him look years older than he really was. "What did he do? Shake it? Try to drown it? Tell us the worst, Sis; what did he do?!"
"He rubbed his back and sang a lullaby, over and over until the baby fell asleep again."
In the sudden silence, Aang swore he could even hear Appa blinking in befuddlement. Sokka finally said simply, "What?"
Katara just spread her hands helplessly, as if she couldn't understand it either. "I swear I'm not joking! Zuko was patient and kind with the baby; treated him like his own son! He even… he even talked about having built a secret shrine to his own mother after she died, and how he'd make it a shrine to the baby's mother too!"
After another second of just staring, Sokka finally slapped his knee and gave a little shake of his head, as if he'd just realized something and was a little annoyed with himself for not figuring it out earlier. "Oh, it was a Fire Nation baby! Even wolf-gators are kind to their own young. Why didn't you say so earlier? Never mind, Appa, false alarm," he said breezily as he patted the massive head he was sitting on, before turning and tugging the reins—gently this time—to steer them north again.
But as they flew off north, Katara kept on looking back at the boat vanishing into the distance behind them, and occasionally shook her head. Aang finally asked, "What's the matter, Katara?"
"Well… the elder with Prince Zuko, his uncle—Iroh, I think his name was—he said they'd found the baby, and saved him from some Earth Kingdom peasants that were going to kill him because of his eyes."
"His eyes? What about them?" Aang asked.
Without looking at them, Sokka said over his shoulder, "They're probably gold eyes." Adding with a snort of disgust, "Three guesses how that happened to a kid from an Earth Kingdom mother."
But before Aang could start guessing aloud, Katara spoke up again. "But that's just it; they said his eyes weren't gold at all! Instead, they were polar-dog eyes!"
That got Sokka twisting around to look at his sister again. "Huh?"
"You know; like Akia's polar-dog Inu. One eye is blue, but the other one is brown."
"A witch-child? Really?" Aang said eagerly. He'd heard stories of witches with eyes like that; the blue eye looked into the Spirit World instead of the mortal world, so they could treat small spirits like pets and summon them to do their bidding. But he'd never seen one with his own eyes, and even Monk Gyatso said he'd never actually met someone like that, only heard spirit-tales about them. The stories said that all witches were evil, but Monk Gyatso also said that sometimes people only acted the way other people expected them to act, and witches might turn out to be good if people treated them kindly and hoped they would be kind in return.
But Katara gave him a sharp look in response. "What makes you so sure he's a witch-child, just because he's got eyes of different colors?" And when he explained about the spirit-tales, Katara snorted in disgust before pointing out, "Both of my eyes are blue; do you think that means that I only see into the Spirit World?"
"Um, no… but that's different; you're from the Water Tribe! It's normal for you to have blue eyes!" Aang shrugged. "Hey, all I know about them is what the spirit-tales say."
"And those spirit-tales almost got this innocent baby killed," Katara said harshly, as if she was somehow blaming Aang for those old stories. "Zuko and his uncle told me all that, but I didn't want to believe them…" She crossed her arms as she huffed, "It's a pretty sorry state of affairs when someone from the Fire Nation has to step in and save children from being murdered by their own people!"
But Sokka said slowly, "Sis, I couldn't help noticing that you kept saying 'Zuko said this' or 'Iroh said that' and such. Did you actually get to see the baby's eyes yourself?" And when Katara admitted she hadn't, he went on, "So how do you know they weren't lying to you about the whole thing? You know, as a ruse to get you to lower your guard or something?"
Katara stared back at him. "Sokka, when they brought out the baby, I was already tied to a tree. And even had a gag tied over my mouth, after all I gave Zuko was insults instead of information on where to find you! Why would he try to get me to lower my guard after doing all that?"
"Because they're as crazy as they are vicious and cruel," Sokka said with a shrug, as he turned around and went back to steering their course again; it was clear that the matter was settled as far as he was concerned. But from Katara's expression, she was still bothered by what she'd seen while captive, and Aang admitted to himself that she wasn't the only one.
Oh, it didn't bother him that some Fire Nation people had rescued a baby; he was actually really glad to hear it, because that meant that there were still good people in the Fire Nation after all, good people like his old friend Kuzon had been! But he was really bothered by the idea of the baby being in danger in the first place, whether he was a witch-child or not. Would anyone really kill an innocent baby, just because they were afraid of what he might do to them when he was grown up?
Chun the pirate laboriously pulled himself out of the river and flopped onto the riverbank, gasping for breath. Enma's balls, he'd thought he was a goner! The only way to escape that-that demon of a firebender, had been to jump overboard into the river and let the current sweep him far away. He and another crewmember—Hano, he thought—had done that after seeing six of their people killed in less than six seconds. But after some flailing and a couple of choked cries, Hano had gone under and not come up again; the Gwan River was strong and fast, and downright lethal to the unwary. Chun considered himself a damn good swimmer, but even he had barely made it back out of the current and to safety.
It was going to be a long, long walk back to civilization. And probably a long wait once he reached port, lying low since he was without a crew to back him up in case of trouble, until he found another pirate ship that would take him on. But at least he was still alive; Sil Jon, the patron spirit of pirates, must have really appreciated that offering of sake and tobacco that he'd made last week. Chun sat up with a weary, snaggletoothed grin, and saluted Sil Jon again before getting to his feet to begin trudging downriver.
Back aboard his ship and in his cabin, Zuko was absolutely at his wit's end. His uncle had gone down to the records office to get Hūn's file, with the information Zuko would need for writing his crewman's eulogy, while Zuko stayed with Teiji. The baby just wouldn't stop crying and fussing!
Taozu had said Teiji had been fine for the first minute or two after waking up that morning, but he'd started crying just a few moments before the pirates stormed aboard the ship, and he hadn't stopped since then. (Zuko wondered if he had somehow sensed trouble coming for him; Uncle was downright firm on the baby having no spiritual powers, but the spirits of kirin didn't hover around just any peasant baby.) But he hadn't stopped crying after the danger was over, hadn't stopped crying after Zuko had grabbed a rag and cleaned all the pirate blood and gore off himself to look less frightening, and hadn't stopped crying even though nearly the entire mission team had taken turns singing rhymes and nursery songs to him. He'd fussed in Zuko's arms, fussed in Iroh's arms and even refused to eat the breakfast they'd improvised for him from field rations, while speeding back to the ship in their desperate and ultimately futile effort to save Hūn from dying. What had happened to the sweet-tempered and giggling child they'd rescued a few days ago?
Now that they were back in his cabin, Zuko had hoped that the familiar surroundings would calm him down, but so far it didn't seem to be working. He tried to distract Teiji from whatever was making him cry by soaring the wooden dragon toy over his head, something that the baby had absolutely adored two evenings ago, but Teiji just kept on fussing. Teiji didn't want the cloth stuffed panda he'd bought yesterday, either, or the monkey drum, and when Zuko handed him the kokeshi dolls, he—he threw them right back in Zuko's face!
"Teiji!" he exclaimed, shocked and hurt—not by the actual impact, that was barely noticeable, but Teiji's clear rejection of him hit and crushed him worse than a dozen earthbenders' boulders. He knew it was because he'd failed as a father, he'd let Teiji be put in danger, they should have gone straight back to the ship as soon as they'd realized Teiji was aboard! But instead, Teiji had been scared by the pirates and battle and all the blood, and now he—
But just then his uncle came in through the door, with Hūn's file in his hands. "What happened?" he asked as soon as he saw Zuko, his wrinkled brow creasing even more with worry.
"T-Teiji, he… he…" Zuko couldn't actually make himself say the words, He hates me now; they clogged up in his suddenly tight throat, and his eyes were stinging but he was not going to cry, he was strong instead of a weak crybaby, he was not going to cry…
"Oh dear," and suddenly Hūn's file had been tossed onto the bed and Uncle was throwing his arms around him, hugging him tightly before he could protest—no hugs, he wasn't a baby!—before just as suddenly stepping back to hold him at arms' length while giving him an intense look. "Nephew, listen to me. Your son is grieving. He is mourning the loss of his mother, and right now that grief is taking the form of anger. He is angry at the entire world, for taking his mother away from him, likely the source of all the love and comfort he had ever known in his short life. And he is angry at you, because it is safe for him to be angry here."
"I… I don't understand," he managed to say past that stupid lump in his throat. "Safe?" But he'd let Teiji be put in danger!
"Yes, safe. Sometimes, nephew, for survival's sake, people can push their true emotions aside to deal with the situation at hand, even when those emotions would normally be overwhelming. When we found Teiji, he was cold, exhausted, starving, and alone with his mother's corpse; a harrowing situation indeed. Then we rescued him, and brought him to safety; now he is warm and fed and surrounded by people who accept him despite his differences, you most of all. Teiji knows now that you, nephew, will never abandon him or reject him; that you will always be there for him, as a parent should be." Iroh's voice was firm, but there seemed to a hint of uncertain worry in his eyes, as if he was actually unsure Zuko had fully committed himself to parenthood. Zuko responded to both his words and his fears with a slow, firm nod while blinking back the tears again.
Iroh continued, "But he has already known so much rejection in his life; from those villagers his mother fled from, perhaps from every village they had ever been in. The only one who had always been there for him before was his mother, but now she is gone, and he is too young to understand how death took her from him; he only knows that she is never coming back. For him, it seems the ultimate rejection; do you understand?"
Zuko's heart wrenched inside his chest, for reasons he was not going to think about right now, but he gave a quick jerky nod in response to Iroh's question.
Iroh's eyes were warm with sympathy, and his voice firm. "Now that Teiji knows he is safe with you, nephew, he can express the pain and loss that are currently wrenching his spirit. He must express it, or it will fester inside him for years and eventually poison his entire being. It is unfortunate for you that right now the pain is taking the form of anger, but you must remain firm and steady, and support him while you wait for it to pass."
Zuko nodded again in acceptance if not full understanding, and looked over at where Teiji was sitting on the floor, alternately gnawing on one of his teething toys and beating it harshly against a leg of Zuko's writing desk. "How long will he be like this, Uncle? How long will it take before he's… before he's ready to be happy again?"
Uncle heaved a huge, gusty sigh, and sounded defeated as he responded, "It can take years, Zuko. Long and miserable years…" Then his tone changed to one of encouragement as he added, "But that is for much older children and adults. The younger children are, the more quickly they adapt; I think this spell shall pass quickly, just a few weeks at most."
At the word 'years', Zuko's only thought was a bleak Oh bright Agni, please kill me now. Iroh's later words of reassurance helped a little, but still, the next few weeks were going to be terrible for them both. He sighed and shook his head—he was strong, and he'd endure because he had to; it was as simple as that—and then reached for Hūn's file. He had a duty to his crew as well as to Teiji, and it was time he attended to it.
"Yaaah!" Teiji shouted at him as he stepped carefully around the boy to take his writing supplies down from the shelf, and threw his teething toy at him too. Zuko took it without flinching this time, but as he set the supplies on his desk, he silently wondered how he was going to focus on everything he needed to do that day with Teiji behaving like that.
"Here, let me take him to my cabin while you work," Iroh offered, scooping Teiji up off the floor while deftly avoiding the child's waving fists. "…It may be that, even though I am a fat, lazy, foolish, disgusting, worthless, geezer, crazy old gasbag of a senile failure, I might be of some use to you that way."
Zuko had been smoothing out some paper to begin, but he paused to turn and look askance at his uncle while Iroh was reciting that litany of insults. "Why are you calling yourself—oh, ashes," as it suddenly hit him, like a hard kick to the chest. Those were all words that he'd called his uncle in the past few years, ever since his banishment and the start of their search for the Avatar.
When he could breathe again, he stammered out, "Uncle, I'm-"
"You have a duty to your crew, Prince Zuko," Iroh quite deliberately interrupted without looking at him, as he walked out of the cabin with a still-fussing Teiji in his arms. "That must come first right now."
The cabin door closed, and Zuko just flopped forward to lay face-down on his desk, unable to lift his head under a crushing load of combined guilt and shame.
He'd been behaving just like Teiji. Taking all his anger and pain over being burned and banished out on his poor uncle, who didn't deserve any of it. Uncle Iroh had tried to warn him against coming into the war meeting, hadn't he? And then warned him to keep silent during it, but he hadn't, because he'd been too outraged at General Bujing's proposal. And then after he'd been burned by Father for his shameful behavior and banished, Uncle had chosen to stay by his side, to leave their beautiful homeland behind and travel the wide and inhospitable world with him. And how had he thanked Uncle Iroh for all of his sacrifice? With three years of insults, belittling, and blatant disrespect far, far worse than his single outburst in the war room.
His uncle should have declared an Agni Kai for all that disrespect, and just put an end to Zuko's miserable existence years ago. He didn't deserve to live…
But he was still alive, and while he lived he had responsibilities to take care of. Including performing his duties to his crew, as his uncle had just reminded him. Zuko slowly lifted his head from his desk, and discarded the now crumpled and tearstained sheet of paper on it. He opened up Hūn's service record as well as his personal copies of the officers' manuals for official ceremonies and for awards, set out the ink and more paper, and began writing.
At noon, the funeral tiles were brought out of storage; white ceramic tiles that were designed to resist sustained high heat and interlocked to form a low platform on the deck. Hūn's body was placed reverently atop the tiles, wrapped in a specially-treated white cloth. The crew assembled on deck in either full armor or their dress uniforms, draped with white surcoats for mourning.
General Iroh wasn't present for the assembly, and word was quietly passed through the ranks that he was staying in his cabin with the fussy baby. Prince Zuko stood in a spot facing the body and the assembled crew, wearing a white surcoat over his armor; the surcoat didn't entirely cover the stains from that morning's battle that hadn't been completely scrubbed off yet.
The prince unrolled the scroll he was holding and began reading aloud from it: "We gather here to remember the life of our fallen comrade in arms, Hūn, son of Chao and Mikiko, of Shu Jing province. Born on the seventh day of the sixth month in the Year of the Dog, Hūn was a good and dutiful son to his parents."
"After enlisting in the service and completing his initial training, he was assigned to the troop carrier Aoba and served there with honor, participating in the Battle of Hanu Strait, before being assigned two years ago to our ship, the Wani. Private Hūn died honorably, of wounds received in battle, and will be missed by all. We will honor his memory always, as we honor his remains today and send his spirit home to Agni's warm embrace."
Listening to the eulogy, Sergeant Anzu noted with resignation that it had been practically word-for-word from the fleet's official book of ceremonies and rituals. Commanders usually personalized and added to the ceremonial words as appropriate, but Prince Zuko had only filled in the required information about Hūn's background; there had been nothing about his personality or his personal achievements. But Anzu had to admit that Hūn hadn't done much in his cut-short career that was worth celebrating, and at least the eulogy hadn't mentioned his low intelligence, or the screw-ups ranging from minor mistakes to ship-wide disasters that had landed Hūn on the Wani in the first place.
After the reading was concluded, Prince Zuko rolled up the scroll and tucked it away. That was Anzu's signal to step forward, along with Lieutenant Jee and Corporal Akio; three of the best firebenders in the crew. They each took a side of the rectangular funeral platform, Prince Zuko at the head, and they all fired their hottest blasts straight at the cloth-covered corpse on the tiles.
The accelerant impregnated in the white funeral cloth caught fire instantly, and flames roared towards the heavens. The four firebenders kept pouring out flames for a full five minutes, until all that was left of Hūn was a long low pile of ashes. Prince Zuko gave a polite bow to the ashes, then faced the sun and gave a far deeper bow to Agni, before dismissing the assembly. Lieutenant Jee nodded to Sergeant Goro, who picked up the urn the quartermaster had provided and silently began gathering up Hūn's ashes to send home, while everyone else quietly filed away.
By unspoken but longstanding tradition, after the funeral for Hūn, there was an unofficial wake for the departed in the mess hall. The Wani was normally a 'dry' ship, with plenty of tea but no alcohol allowed aboard. But also by longstanding tradition, the people who had managed to sneak some sake, baiju or other nonregulation beverages aboard after their brief shore leave, broke out their small stashes to share with their crewmates.
But this wake was rather different than most that Jiro had attended in his military career. Today, the crew spent less time talking about their crewmate Hūn than they did about Prince Zuko and the baby he'd brought aboard.
Tadao darkly expressed his opinion that 'the witch-child', as he still called Teiji, was to blame for his friend Hūn's death; that the baby brought bad luck to whoever held him for any length of time, and Hūn was the first example of just how bad that luck could get. But he was nearly shouted down by an utterly exasperated Lieutenant Jee: "In the first place, I've told you at least a dozen fucking times already that the baby is not a witch-child! And in the second place, maybe you never noticed before, but the mission we're on is anything but sunshine and fire lilies! It's spirits-damned dangerous, because the prince is trying to capture the Avatar! Remember what that bald-headed demon-child did to our ship and crew when we first encountered him? It was only by the grace of Agni that we didn't lose anyone in those spirits-damned polar waters! Or on Kyoshi Island, where they have that sea serpent nearly three times the size of our ship!"
"And you could even make an argument that the baby has been good luck for us," Taozu added in with a glare at Tadao. "Or don't you remember how the surprise of him coming aboard made the lieutenant forget to tell the prince about the midnight watch's Avatar sighting? I know you've heard just like everyone else by now, the hawk-message about where the Avatar went after that; right over Commander Zhao's head, on his way to causing a volcanic eruption that wrecked the temple on Crescent Island! If Prince Zuko had been told about that sighting, sure as sunset, we would have been caught right in the middle of that catastrophe!"
Tadao shut up and just sat there sullenly nursing his drink, while the conversation turned from the baby to Prince Zuko, and what he'd done that morning to the pirate crew.
"I'm telling you, he killed every last one of them in less than thirty seconds; hells, less than fifteen!" Goro insisted, his features filled again with awe. "And using moves I've never seen him do before; hells, moves I've never seen any bender use before! Running fire down the blades he'd taken from one of his first kills, to make them look like an oni's blades straight out of a spirit-tale… And may I be damned straight to Koh's Lair if he didn't handle those swords like a master, when I've never seen him use any blades besides that dagger he keeps in his boot!"
"(cough) witch-powers (cough)" Tadao grumbled, and then dodged the cuff Joben aimed at his head.
"It was pretty awesome," Anzu agreed, "and you all know I don't use that word lightly. I dunno how he mastered swords without anyone finding out—or why, for that matter! Because his bending's becoming more impressive every day, now that he's actually listening to his uncle's advice. Lieutenant, you remember how you'd described to us his Agni Kai with Zhao?" None of the crew had witnessed the fight from the sidelines, having been confined to the ship by Zhao's troops, but Lieutenant Jee had used the telescope to watch the duel from afar and given the crew a blow-by-blow description of the battle. "You said he'd tried early on to use the 'tiger-dillo's paw' on Zhao, but Zhao sent him flying instead. Well, he was more than effective with it against one of the pirates; he caved in the bugger's skull! And that was right after he used the 'nova-burst' technique while still leaping aboard, to take out four pirates before his feet even touched the deck!"
"He killed all of those pirate scum in probably less time than it takes to talk about it," Li Mein said quietly, staring into his drink. "If he'd just gotten there a few seconds sooner, he probably could have kept them from killing Hūn…" Knowing that Hūn and Li Mein had been friends, Jiro was about to squeeze his shoulder in sympathy when the crewman sat up a little straighter and said firmly, "Understand, I'm not blaming him for Hūn's death. Hells, he got to the ship faster than any of us did! And after the fight was over, when we found out Hūn was still alive… the prince was genuinely concerned for him, tried to rally him to hang in there and everything!"
"Oh come on; stop shoveling on the komodo-rhino dung," Kunio sneered. "I can believe that the prince's firebending is improving, because it had damn well better improve after three years of almost nothing but training! But being a master swordsman too? And actually giving a damn about any of us? Somebody must have spiked their booze with cactus juice, for you to be having hallucinations already!"
"I gotta admit, that last part is really stretching it," Sheng said with a frown, while putting down his own drink. "If he actually cared at all about Hūn, he sure wasn't showing it at the funeral. Or when Ming-Hoa pronounced him dead on arrival; I was standing right there with the stretcher, and even rocks would show more emotion than he did." Then he gave a small start before quickly adding, "I-I mean, his face was just as emotionless as stone! You know what I mean?"
"Yeah, we know," Tetsuko said glumly. "I'll admit I've had worse commanders in my career—like Zhao, for instance—but I've sure had better, too."
But several seconds later they heard the creak of the door to the mess hall swinging open, and everyone at the unofficial wake turned towards it—to see Prince Zuko standing there, with a scroll in his hand. They scrambled to their feet, some of them trying to quickly hide the booze they'd been drinking, but he ignored nearly everyone there, his eyes searching for and focusing on Lieutenant Jee.
He strode up to the table Jee had been sitting at while giving the room a general order of "Sit" instead of the more polite "Be seated," as if they were all lion-dogs instead of people. Then he unceremoniously pushed Jee's drink to one side so he could lay the scroll down on the table. Everyone slowly sat down, frowning at the prince's rudeness—interrupting a wake, just for some paperwork? That was a new low even for the Royal Pain!—but he arrogantly ignored them as he unrolled the scroll and weighted it at one end with an inkwell he pulled out of his sleeve, and his hand at the other end. "Sign," he ordered just as abruptly, whipping out an ink brush and handing it to Jee. "This one normally takes two officers' endorsement before the Board of Admirals will review it, so I'm making sure they'll have no grounds for refusal."
Jee frowned at him, but accepted the ink brush, and dipped it into the inkwell as he redirected that frown down at the paper in front of him. And then he abruptly lost that frown, as his eyes went wide and his right hand froze with the ink brush dipped and ready.
"Don't drip on the parchment!" Zuko snapped irritably.
"Uh-yes, sir," Jee said, hurriedly moving the ink brush back over the inkwell, but otherwise still just staring at the document in front of him.
"Well? I told you to sign it, Lieutenant! Unless you have some objection," but the glare and underlying growl in Zuko's voice made it plain that he would not tolerate any objection at all.
"Er—no objection, sir! And I will sign it… but first, requesting permission to read this aloud, sir? For the benefit of the crew, sir; chances are that most of them have never heard one of these read aloud before."
The prince gave an impatient huff, but indicated with a brusque wave of his hand that Jee could go ahead, so long as he got it over with quickly. Jee nodded, and then began reading aloud:
"Official Nomination for Fleet Honors. Nominee: Hūn, son of Chao and Mikiko, of Shu Jing province. Rank of Honor requested: Order of the Crimson Banner. The Justification:
"On the sixteenth day of the eleventh month in the year of the Ram, Hūn was on watch aboard a river steamer during a mission on the Gwan River in Senlin Province of the Earth Kingdom. An orphaned child was aboard the steamer, having been rescued by a member of the crew from certain death two days earlier, and was awaiting transport to the ship at the end of the mission; in the meantime, the members of the mission crew were taking turns minding the child. The river steamer had been beached and the engine stopped while most of the team was away on the mission; Hūn and only one other crewman were aboard with the child when a crew of river pirates stormed the boat, with clear intentions to seize it and kill everyone aboard.
"Leaving his shipmate inside the cabin to guard the child, Hūn stepped out to do battle with the entire crew of pirates. Despite the overwhelming odds, armed with only a spear and Agni's own radiant courage, Hūn managed to hold all fourteen pirates off long enough for reinforcements to arrive and save both the vessel and the child aboard. Hūn was mortally wounded in combat and died soon afterwards, but for his honor, compassion for the innocent, bravery and battle prowess he should be posthumously awarded the Order of the Crimson Banner."
The crew had been quiet at the start of the reading, but by the end of it they were so silent that an observer could swear he heard dust motes falling, and all of them staring at Prince Zuko in utter disbelief. The Order of the Crimson Banner was the second-highest honor possible to be bestowed on a member of the military, and recipients were few and far between; less than a dozen of them were awarded each year (and most of them posthumously; it was a long and bloody war, after all.) An incredibly high honor, and Prince Zuko wanted it to be awarded to Hūn the Idiot?
The prince was clearly not happy with the way they were staring at him; he snarled in a way that sounded almost defensive, "Hūn can't be awarded the Order of the Dragon Flame, the award usually given to palace guards who die in the line of duty. Teiji's adoption hasn't been made official yet, and anyway, he'll never be in line for the throne because he's not of royal blood!"
Jee blinked up at Prince Zuko a couple of times before saying, "Understood, sir. In that case, the Order of the Crimson Banner is more appropriate. But, ah, sir, if I may ask a question or two about the wording?"
Zuko slammed his hand down on the table. "The wording's fine; I checked it against the example in the Awards Manual myself! Just sign, already!" as he jabbed a finger at the appropriate line.
"Yes, sir!" as Lieutenant Jee inked his brush and signed the document, and then waved a carefully heated palm over the ink to dry it faster. When it was dry, Prince Zuko rolled up the scroll and stomped out of the mess hall without another word to anyone.
After the prince slammed the door shut after him, Lieutenant Jee leaned back in his chair and said to the room at large, "That was the prince's own handwriting… and if the general had dictated it to him, with Iroh's decades of experience in writing up documents like that, he wouldn't have bothered checking it against the Awards Manual afterwards. Roll me in cinders and straight to Koh's Lair, but that was all Prince Zuko's idea. Probably his way of thanking Hūn for helping to save little Teiji."
"But that's not right!" Li Mein protested. "I mean, I considered Hūn a friend, and it'd be some comfort for his family if they knew he died with honor, but it didn't happen that way! So much of what you read to us was… For starters, we didn't rescue the kid; the prince did!"
"But the prince is also our captain, which technically makes him a member of the crew," Anzu mused aloud which stroking his graying mustache.
"And if he wants to call himself just 'reinforcements' too, I reckon that's his right," Goro said with a wry grin. "Maybe it's not the whole truth, but technically not one single word of that scroll was a lie. And yeah, it sounds a helluva lot more impressive than what actually happened, with Teiji's being there purely by mistake and with Hūn not lasting even thirty seconds against the pirates, but it probably takes a lot to impress the Board of Admirals. Wonder if they'll agree he earned it, and give him the award?"
"Probably not; we're required to send a copy of the nominee's service record along for any honor that high, and Hūn's record…" Jee let his painfully wry smile finish the sentence for him. Then he continued, "But they're not going to outright refuse to give him any posthumous honors, not when it's been requested by a prince, and the admirals will know General Iroh is aboard too. There'll be some official recognition of his sacrifice; they'll probably downgrade it to the Order of the Mongoose-Lizard, but that's better than nothing."
"Yup; from what I could tell of their letters to Hūn, even the Order of the Mongoose-Lizard is more than his family ever expected of him," Li Mein said a little sadly. After another minute or two of drinking in the still quiet room, Li Mein stood up a little unsteadily but said firmly, "I want to make another toast."
Everyone looked at him inquisitively, and Lieutenant Jee made a gesture to indicate he should go ahead and do it. Li Mein raised his cup and said loudly, almost defiantly, "To Prince Zuko!"
That was one toast that had never, ever been made by the crew before, even on the rare occasions they'd been able to smuggle booze aboard. But after a few heartbeats of silence, Lieutenant Jee raised his cup high and said firmly, "To Prince Zuko!" And in a ragged chorus, the rest of the crew followed suit in toasting the prince before downing their drinks.
Two decks away, Zuko paused and turned back towards the mess hall for a moment in puzzlement. Had he just heard… had the crew really just toasted him? Just a few minutes after what he'd overheard on the way down to the mess hall, Tetsuko saying he was only a little better than that honorless scum Zhao?
No, it couldn't have been. He knew all too well what his crew thought of him; they'd be more apt to toast Zhao, or even an Earth Kingdom general, than 'the Royal Pain'. Anyway, no matter what they'd been talking about, he'd done his duty today for the crew and as much as he could for poor Hūn; now it was time to do right by his family.
For the last few hours Iroh had been in his cabin with Teiji, trying his best to keep the baby's fussing to a minimum, and reproving himself for sandbagging his nephew like that. Yes, when the opportunity had presented itself, the temptation to point out to Zuko how much his own behavior had been mirroring an upset baby's had been nearly irresistible, but the key word was nearly. The poor boy was already swimming in waters well over his head but struggling as best he could to be to be a good father; this was hardly the time to remind him that he could be a better nephew as well!
But done was done, the tea had been poured, and he would not attempt to switch the cups now; he would only wait and see what his nephew chose to do next. If Zuko chose for his pride's sake to forget what Iroh had said before leaving with Teiji, then Iroh would accept the pretense and carry on. There were larger issues to deal with, after all; very large and complex issues indeed, some of which Zuko himself wasn't even aware of yet.
Iroh had found by trial and error that the best tactic for keeping little Teiji quiet had been to set the baby inside a ring composed of nearly all the toys Iroh had bought for him, and then skillfully dance one of the marionette dolls around just outside the ring and Teiji's reach. Teiji had been fascinated by the dancing dolls, and by the wind-up walking ostrich-horse as well; they distracted him from his misery for at least a few minutes at a time, which Iroh figured was the best he could hope for right now. And a few times that morning Teiji had even let Iroh hug and cuddle him for a short while before he started fussing again; since the fussing tended to include yanking hard on fistfuls of Iroh's own beard and hair, he would regretfully set the boy down amidst the toys again.
But finally, around noon and the time for the funeral, Iroh put away all but a few of the softest toys and settled Teiji in his bed, tucking the sheets firmly around him to keep him there, and just let the child cry himself to sleep. It had been early for a nap, but an overtired child would be even more difficult to deal with, and it could well be that more sleep than usual was still warranted for Teiji after his travails in the woods only a few days ago.
Some time after Teiji's cries and squalls had finally died to whimpers and then silence, Zuko knocked very quietly on the door and then let himself in. And as soon as the door was closed behind him, he all but fell to the deck in a full kowtow, so deep and fast that his proud phoenix plume flopped over to lay in the dust in front of him.
Iroh hadn't been expecting that of his prideful nephew, and he hurried over to him while whispering for fear of waking Teiji, "Nephew, don't do that!"
Zuko's muffled voice floated up from the deckplates, misery in every syllable. "I can't commit hara-kiri. Teiji would think someone else has abandoned him."
"Do not even suggest such an act!" Iroh scolded him in his very fiercest whisper as he reached down and bodily hauled Zuko to his feet. "To throw your life away like that, would rip my poor heart to shreds again!" He hugged Zuko close—and this time, Zuko just let him do it—as he murmured, "Zuko. Perhaps I have not said it outright before, but… I have come to see you as a second son. Part of my heart, just as… just as Lu Ten was, and always will be."
And finally, after many long years of refusing or just barely tolerating hugs from him, Zuko hugged him back while saying just as quietly, "I know. And I… I'm so, so sorry for treating you so horribly, for so long! I was just… No, there's no excuse for what I've done; I should always have known better!" Zuko pulled back just enough to look him in the face, tears tricking down from the corners of his mismatched eyes, as he said hoarsely, "How can I make it up to you?"
There were so many ways Iroh would have liked to answer that question, and so many reasons he dared not:
Renounce your terrible father. No, Zuko was not ready to do that; not when he still had not accepted the truth about Ozai. Not when he still thought his father had been forced by their nation's traditions to challenge him in an Agni Kai, and forced to burn and banish him as well. And not when the men who crewed Zuko's ship were loyal to the Fire Lord as well; the merest rumor of treason on either his or Zuko's part would bring the entire Fire Nation fleet down hard around their ears.
Stop hunting the Avatar, and join him in ending the war instead, to restore balance to the world. Again, no, for all the same reasons.
Let me teach you pai sho. That was doable, and would be the very first step in preparing him to be a White Lotus member much later on… but regrettably, now was not the best time. Zuko would have enough trials of patience in the very near future, after being thrust so abruptly into parenthood; now was not the time to try to teach him a game that required patience and strategy, with Teiji underfoot and distracting them every other second.
But there was still one form of penance he could suggest to Zuko, and he did so with a wry smile. "You can make my life easier… by giving compliments to your crew."
Zuko only blinked at him in honest puzzlement. "Huh?"
Since the teenager seemed to be expecting his uncle to despise him for the years of verbal abuse, Iroh assumed just enough of an impatient and reproving air to ensure his full attention. "Zuko. Surely you have noticed that I spend a great deal of time with the crew; playing pai sho with them, eating with them, drinking tea with them, and playing music with them on Music Night. Did it never once occur to you that I was not doing so for my own benefit, but yours?"
"Huh?" Zuko said again. Followed by him saying slowly and with furrowed brow, "Are you saying… you don't actually like tea and pai sho and singing and drinking in port and all that nonsense?"
"Quite the contrary; I enjoy it all, very much! But I would honestly prefer not to overindulge as much as I have in recent years." Iroh looked down at his vast belly and sighed, "I used to be a great deal slimmer, you know; never slender, understand, I've always had a sturdy figure, but I was still quite a bit more dashing in my uniform than I am now."
Zuko blinked at him a few times before saying in bald honesty, "I'm confused. What does your gaining so much weight have to do with my complimenting the crew?"
"For starters, every meal we've had together in which I gave my compliments to the cook and asked for seconds-or even thirds!-was a meal in which you just ate your food and said nothing, or compared it scornfully to the delicacies we used to feast on at the palace." Iroh sighed again. "I started doing that soon after we came aboard, and now my overindulgence in food has become so well-known and ingrained that the cook's assistant always brings me a double portion, and if I don't eat all of it, the cook will fret for hours if not days about what he did wrong with that meal."
Zuko rubbed his chin in hard thought. "Sooo… you overeat all the time… because it makes the cook happy?"
"Yes!" as Iroh gave an emphatic nod, and a smile at his nephew for figuring it out.
"But why do you care whether he's happy or not? We both know he's aboard this ship as a punishment detail! It's right there in his record; he was transferred off the Subuzon after he got so angry over some officer's insult of his cooking that he deliberately burned the entire crew's dinner!" Then Zuko blinked a few more times before saying, "I just answered my own question, didn't I?"
"Yes, you did," Iroh said with an even more emphatic nod. "Zuko, I waged war in the Earth Kingdom for nearly forty years altogether… but since we boarded this ship, my primary role has been that of peacemaker. When the crew is upset with the way you treat them, I come along and do what I can to make them happy again, or at least less discontented with their lot, and prevent another mutiny from occurring."
"So… you want me to be nice to them, so you don't have to?" Zuko seemed to sag under a heavy burden, and Iroh sat down with him as Zuko looked up with something like despair on his face. "But, Uncle…"
"I know it will not be easy for you, nephew," Iroh said gravely. "I have heard some of the things they have said about you, and I know too well how sharp your ears are; that you have heard their insults too. It will be extremely hard for you to put aside all those hurtful and cruel words you've heard, in order to treat them fairly, but I know you can do it; I have faith in you."
"It's not just that, Uncle!" Zuko protested. "It's not just how I feel about them; I-I can't just lie, and say good things about bad people! And don't try to tell me they're not; we've both seen their service records!"
His poor, young nephew, still so convinced that everything in the world was written in black and white… they really should have had this discussion long ago, but Zuko had never been ready to listen before now. Iroh said firmly, "Zuko, those service records rarely tell the whole story. Yes, there are some members of this crew that really do belong in the brig, and rest assured that the lieutenant and I keep a close eye on them. But others are here for lesser offenses that were the result of flaws in judgment, not flaws in character. Flaws in judgment are corrected by experience; experience those men have now, so they would not make the same mistake again if faced with those situations. And there are a few on board who are here precisely because they are good and decent men."
"Really?" Zuko was openly skeptical. "How so?"
"Corporal Taozu is an excellent example. What's in his service record? Honorable and meritorious conduct in the Battle of Haiza and two other campaigns, before he was summarily brought before his captain on charges, but transferred here instead of standing on trial. What were the charges?"
"Striking an officer," Zuko said immediately. "Knocking out Lieutenant Fuka."
"Yes. And do you know what Lieutenant Fuka was about to do when Taozu came upon him and knocked him unconscious? I do; it was all hushed up, because the lieutenant is the grandson of a general, but words still gets around in certain circles. Lieutenant Fuka was prevented by Taozu from raping an Earth Kingdom child."
It was impossible for Zuko's scarred eye to open much wider, but his unscarred eye was as round as the full moon. "He… he saved a child, he was doing the right thing, but he was punished for it?"
"Yes, nephew. Do you understand now?" Iroh wished with all his heart that Zuko would instantly draw the parallels between Taozu's situation and his own, the first step in acknowledging Ozai's cruelty and in severing the tyrant's abusive grip on his soul…
But it was not to be; Iroh could already see it in his nephew's expression. Instead, Zuko's thoughts were traveling down a different path: "So, if some of the crew are actually good, loyal and hardworking people despite what their service records say, but some are not… how will I know which are which?"
It was a real struggle for Iroh to not roll his eyes. But that really was a legitimate question for someone who'd never had to really make his own assessments of people, discerning the bad from the good in both skills and temperament, before his banishment. Zuko had grown up in the palace, where only the best of the best were allowed to serve; guards and servants who failed to perform their duties to perfection were usually dismissed by the majordomo long before their flaws became noticeable to the royal family.
In truth, many of Zuko's problems stemmed from having lived all his life behind the palace walls before being exiled; he had no real experience at all with people who were less than perfect, other than Zuko himself, and his abominable father had made it clear to him that 'imperfect' equaled 'failure'. Iroh should have tried harder to get the young boy to come with him on trips around the nation, to see the lesser nobles and the commoners who lived every day in imperfection but still found happiness…
But 'should have's over the past were doing nothing for either of them right now. Iroh answered his nephew, "By observing them. By listening to what they say, not about you, but about each other. By watching them at their work, and even at their rest and recreation, if you can do so subtly enough. And when you see that they are doing well in their duties, say so to their faces. That is how you can make up your years of behavior to me, nephew; by striving to pay compliments to members of your crew on jobs well done, at least twice a day from now on. Never false compliments, because those do more harm than good in the long run, but true compliments that they have earned in the course of their duties. And not just to the same hardworking members of the crew, over and over again; seek out ways in which even the more lackluster crew members may shine. Do so, and you may find that your crew will surprise you."
Just then they were interrupted by Teiji squalling; Iroh realized that their voices had gradually risen to normal levels over their conversation, and they'd woken the baby up. "Starting tomorrow," Iroh concluded with a sigh, as Zuko bent down next to the bed to attempt to comfort Teiji, only to get smacked in the face with a stuffed rabbaroo toy. It was going to be a long day and night for them both.
That afternoon, Chun arrived back in Laosing a full day earlier than he would have gotten there by walking. He thanked the boatman who'd found a bedraggled, weaponless and penniless soul trudging alongside the river and given him a lift, by not killing the man with his own knife and claiming the riverboat for Chun's own use. Instead, he rewarded himself for his mercy by going into the port's best tavern and buying drinks with money from the purse he'd quietly stolen while the boatman had been tying up at the riverside docks.
The bartender knew him from previous visits, and casually asked after two others of his crew who'd been in there with him two nights ago, wanting to know who'd won the bet about which of them could dance a hornpipe jig longer while balancing on a sail boom. "Neither," Chun said sourly. "They're both dead now; all the crew's gone sailing to the Spirit World, save me."
The words inspired instant silence in his immediate vicinity, and after eyeing him with surprise for a moment, the bartender slid him another cup of baiju while saying, "A drink to wet your throat, if it dries while telling the tale."
Chun took the drink and the hint, and proceeded to tell... most of the story. Part of it, anyway; the parts he'd already decided while traveling back to port that he could tell without becoming a laughingstock.
Chun saw no reason to ruin his or his departed comrades' reputation by admitting that they honestly hadn't realized that the little bald-headed, airbending monk they'd encountered was the Avatar, when they'd heard the same gossip that everyone else had. The whole world knew by now that the Avatar had returned after a hundred years, as an airbending monk-child! But no one on the crew would ever have thought that someone so naive and pint-sized and-and silly, could also be the most powerful creature in the world.
Chun wasn't also about to admit that their ship had been stolen right out from under their noses, while fighting the Fire Nation troops. If anyone heard that, the jeers and laughter at the crew's expense would follow them all the way to the Spirit World, and Chun could kiss the pirate life goodbye forever; word of their outright stupidity would probably spread clear to the Fire Nation and both the Water Tribes, and he'd never be able live it down or get hired on again.
So, he omitted some truths, and stretched out a few more to cover the gaps. "We'd gone up the River Gwan in search of plunder, following a rumor we'd heard of rare bending scrolls being hidden somewhere upriver; there's a collector of such things in Ba Sing Se who'll buy them at grand prices with no questions asked. But along the way, we ran into one of those twin-hulled Fire Nation river craft, just lying there grounded on the riverbank with what looked like nobody aboard, or anywhere near it! Well, being no lovers of those Fire Nation conquerors, we decided to take the opportunity offering itself to us, and loot it of everything those cursed firebenders might have stolen from good Earth Kingdom folks before scuttling and sinking it."
Growls of approval rumbled throughout the bar—after quick looks around to make sure that no one wearing Fire Nation colors was listening. Laosing was a neutral port, after all.
"We beached right beside it and went aboard to loot and scuttle, figuring we'd be on our way again in just a few minutes. But it turned out the Fire Nation had left one man aboard that boat; a spearman, who must have thought he was the finest warrior his nation had ever spawned, because the damn fool stood there on the deck and tried to fend off our entire crew instead of jumping off the far side! We made right quick work of him, but his comrades must have been close by in the woods, because they heard his death scream and came running before we could even get to looting. There must have been fifty firebenders, and a hundred more spearmen and swordsmen among them; we fought them all and they paid dearly for attacking us, but-"
But Chun's tale was interrupted by a rude noise from another bar patron, who went on to jeer, "Tell us another one, mate! I've seen those river skiffs the Fire Nation uses for shallow-water missions; they hold maybe ten men, twelve at the most!"
Chun glared at the heckler, but the scars and tattoos on the man suggested that he might be as tough as Chun himself and not apt to back down when threatened, unless he had weapons handy to back up the threats. He berated himself for not going to a weapons shop and replacing his lost cutlass with the stolen cash before hitting the tavern. Rather than make empty threats and risk more scorn if he couldn't back them up, he grudgingly admitted, "Aye, there were only twelve in the crew. But their captain fought like fifty of them! He's a vicious demon-spawn, that one; got a terrible burn scar on the left side of his face," as he covered his left eye and swept backwards from there to show the range of the scar, "and damned if he doesn't shave off most of his hair, to show it off better!
"His body is that of a youth who's not reached his full measure yet, and when we first started fighting, he seemed like he'd be an easy foe; our captain blade-danced with him for a bit, and he didn't go for any killing blows that I could see. But then we found out he was just playing with us, like a pygmy-puma playing with a cricket-mouse; when he decided to stop playing… May I never drink again if he didn't kill four of our men with one blast! And after he snatched Taro's swords from his corpse, they turned into demon-blades in his grip, with hellfire running down them! I sprung at him to avenge my fallen brethren, but just as he kicked away the corpse of the man he'd just beheaded; what was left of poor Yama hit me and knocked me overboard, and the River Gwan swept me away. Sil Jon's doing, no doubt, to get one of his more devoted followers away from that demon-spawn. By the time I'd struggled out of the current to shore, everyone else in my crew was dead and our ship had been sent over the falls, to be smashed to kindling."
"That's quite a story," the bartender said with a carefully neutral expression, as Chun picked up his baiju and took a long swallow to indicate he was done with the telling.
"Quite a story indeed," another man said, though not the scarred and tattooed heckler from before; this one had a koto slung across his back, marking him as a traveling musician. "But are you sure there isn't more to tell?"
Chun eyed him sourly. "They're all dead and gone to the Spirit World, and our good ship with them; what more is there to tell?"
The musician gave a knowing and somewhat derisive smile. "Well, I remember a rather interesting incident on the docks yesterday…"
Chun glared at the new heckler, knowing what the man must be referring to; when the crew had chased those cursed kids all over the docks that morning, trying to get back the waterbending scroll they'd stolen. But damned if he was going to admit that batch of brats had gotten the better of them even once, let alone twice!
So he growled, "Listen, stranger, there ain't a port anywhere on this coastline that won't tell you that the crew of the Leopard-Shark was the most dangerous batch of pirates that ever sailed the seas! We plundered any booty we pleased, from pearls to people, and slaughtered anyone foolish enough to stand in our way! But that Captain Zuko and his crew are even more dangerous; the captain alone killed over a dozen of us in less time than it takes to tell of it! That scarred and head-shaven demon-spawn is responsible for the death of the Leopard-Shark and all her crew, and that's the honest truth! If I'm lying about that, may Sil Jon take my face with his blade and throw it to Koh for a doggy-treat!"
"I believe him," the bartender declared abruptly, pushing another drink his way. "No true pirate will forswear himself when invoking Sil Jon. Here, have another, Chun, so you can toast the passing of the Leopard-Shark."
Reijin the traveling koto player settled back in his chair as the pirate picked up his drink and toasted the souls of his old ship, while glaring straight at him in challenge. He made a show of scooting away a few inches, to make it plain he wasn't looking for a fight, and decided to finish his drink quickly and go elsewhere. He'd already gotten what he wanted from this bar, anyway; the inspiration for another song.
He'd seen 'that scarred and head-shaven demon-spawn' yesterday in port, a teenager wearing Fire Nation armor but with a baby in a sling across his chest, being followed by a soldier carrying a basket of baby things. They had to be the same person; there couldn't be two young men with the same type of facial scar and the same partially-shaved hairstyle in this region.
Reijin had been born in the Fire Nation colony Yu Dao, of a Fire Nation father and an Earth Kingdom mother, and would likely be there still if he hadn't run into some trouble with the governor a few years back, over the man's lovely daughter. (Really, as if it was Reijin's fault that the girl liked koto music so much! And it wasn't like he'd actually gotten her pregnant, he was always more careful than that…) The skin tone and eyes he'd inherited from his mother let him pass for a full-blooded native of the Earth Kingdom, but he didn't have their habitual fear and hatred of anything Fire Nation, so he didn't go out of his way to avoid their troops.
That scarred Fire Nation teen had been anything but friendly with strangers, glaring at anyone who came too close to him, but the baby in the sling had clearly been happy to be there, waving a teething toy about while alternately giggling and babbling nonsense. Highly intrigued by the unusual pair, Reijin had edged close enough to hear the teenager, evidently a ship's captain, confide to his soldier that he was so new to child-rearing that he'd take any advice the man would offer him. Then, though Reijin had been sure he'd uttered no sound, the teen had whipped around to glare right at him in a clear warning to back off. Reijin had done so immediately, but for the rest of the day he'd wondered not just how that young man had been scarred, but how he'd become a parent so abruptly.
But now he knew the answer to at least one question. That pirate had just admitted that his ship's plunder had included people; the crew had been slave-traders. More than likely the trip upriver had been a few days ago, and actually for the purpose of taking slaves from the less wary villages residing inland; young women and children sold for high prices in some obscene markets. There must have been a woman with a baby aboard their ship, taken in one of the raids, but the mother had died while Captain Zuko and his men had still been battling the pirates in order to free her. Since he hadn't been able to save the mother, the young captain had decided to raise the baby as his own.
Saved from mortal peril as a child, and adopted by warriors that were strange to his own people; why, that was how spirit-tale heroes were made! As Reijin left the bar, his fingers were absently strumming thin air as his mind plucked out the koto chords for his next ballad; heroes were great inspiration for ballads. But it would be many years before the baby grew up to fulfill his heroic destiny; it would better to focus this ballad on his rescuer, Captain Zuko. Reijin already had a title for his next ballad: The Scarred Savior…
The next morning aboard the Wani, Lieutenant Jee brought the hawk-message he'd just received to the royals' quarters, while they were still eating breakfast. At dinnertime last night General Iroh had shown up in the mess hall to ask the cook's assistant to bring trays to the private dining room that Zuko had always eaten in before Teiji's arrival, explaining loudly enough for all to hear that little Teiji was still fussy and misbehaving and they did not want his continual squalling to disrupt everyone's dinners.
The general had explained his theory about the baby having finally decided it was safe to grieve over his dead mother, and unfortunately expressing that grief as anger, which he was showing to everyone but directing mainly at Prince Zuko. No one had dared comment on that in the general's presence, but after he'd left the entire crew had agreed that it was about damn time the prince learned what it was like to have to put up with somebody else's bad temper.
Jee knocked on the door to the private dining room and requested permission to enter. Prince Zuko growled for him to stay out, but General called out even louder for him to come in; Jee shrugged to himself and then opened the door. He entered to find the prince and the general in their informal dressing robes, the baby in the general's lap, and all three of them spattered with baby food. Zuko had been holding a bowl and spoon while Iroh held the fussing and uncooperative Teiji, and as Zuko turned his attention from the baby and leveled a glare of pure exasperation on Jee for entering when he'd said not to, Teiji's foot lashed out and hit the bowl on the underside, sending the contents flying—and Zuko ended up with still-warm congee splattered all over his scalp and dripping from his phoenix-plume.
In the seconds of dead silence that followed, Jee found out that it was indeed possible to hurt yourself from holding in bellows of laughter.
Zuko finally growled, "Lieutenant, you see nothing!"
"Yes, sir," Jee finally managed in strangled tones. Oh Agni, his gut was starting to ache from strain and his lip was bleeding from biting down so hard, but it was so worth it! This was the funniest thing he'd seen in years; not since that time Commander Zhao, who'd been just Lieutenant Zhao back then but already an incurable arsehole, had gotten on the bad side of the base washerwoman and discovered all his uniforms dyed a lovely shade of lavender…
"I think we've gotten enough food into him for now," Iroh said hurriedly while standing up with Teiji. "I'll just go get him cleaned up, nephew, so you can deal with ship's business."
The general left with the baby, and by the time Zuko had grabbed a cloth napkin and wiped most of the congee off his head, Jee had composed himself enough to speak normally while proffering the message he'd carried in with him. "We received a hawk from the Unyo, sir. They're in the area, ready to rendezvous with us for mail delivery and pickup." This was great news for the crew, as they hadn't had any mail delivered to them in nearly three months; the prince's mission to capture the Avatar frequently took them far out of the Fire Nation's swift and dedicated mail fleet's theater of operations. "If we head north-northeast, we can meet up with them before noon tomorrow."
The prince nodded curtly in acknowledgment, then ordered, "Send a return message of our intentions and set a course to intercept."
"Yes, sir." Jee took a deep breath, then continued, "Requesting permission to tell certain crewmembers that their mail will be examined before it's handed over to the Unyo."
That got Prince Zuko to stop straining food out of his phoenix plume and look at him sharply; normally a crewman's mail was considered private, and that privacy was breached only in very serious situations, such as suspected treason. "Why?"
"Certain members of the crew are still convinced Teiji is a witch-child, sir. We don't want them writing home and spreading the worst sort of rumors about your new son before his adoption is even made official. Hopefully, sir, just being told their mail will be examined by you will prevent them from writing such letters and eliminate the need for censorship."
Prince Zuko scowled, though the scowl wasn't directed at Jee, more at the universe at large. "Permission granted. Which crewmembers?"
"Tadao, Cheung and Shoda, sir." Jee added urgently, "Sir, they're all good crewmembers, and not planning anything against you or your son; they just believe too strongly in the old spirit-tales their honored elders and ancestors told them. Given time, they should accept Teiji as a normal child but with mismatched eyes, just as the rest of the crew already does."
Still scowling, the prince muttered, "Add Jiro to that list; he said plainly while we were on the mission that he's sure Teiji is spirit-touched. Even if he meant it in a good way, I don't want that sort of talk about my son spreading back home."
"Yes, sir. I'll make it a friendly word of caution for him, sir." But Jee just stood there instead of leaving the cabin to carry out the orders given, and finally asked, "Permission to speak freely, sir?" The prince eyed him warily, but granted permission, so Jee forged ahead, "The entire crew is impressed with your decision to nominate poor Hūn for the Order of the Crimson Banner. But why didn't you mention your intentions at the funeral?"
Jee had wondered if the prince would say he hadn't wanted to get anyone's hopes up—a nomination for the award was not a guarantee that it would actually be awarded—or if he would admit that he hadn't thought of nominating Hūn until after the funeral. Jee also still had the nasty but nagging thought that, despite what he'd said to the crew about the paperwork being in the prince's handwriting, the general had been the one to come up with the idea instead, and Prince Zuko secretly didn't think Hūn deserved it.
But despite those thoughts, Jee wasn't expecting the prince's reaction, which was to look at him in clear puzzlement with a "How could I? There was no appropriate time for it."
"…Sir? It was Hūn's eulogy; I honestly can't think of a more appropriate time for it."
"But there's no place for it in the ritual! Look, I'll show you," as the teenaged royal all but dragged Jee back to his cabin, got the officers' manual for ceremonies and rituals down off a shelf, and found the section on funerals. "See?" as he pointed out the words of ceremony that Jee had probably learned by heart before the prince had even been born. "The deceased's name, parentage, home of record and date of birth go here; tours of duty and honors earned while still alive go here; and what they died of goes here. Then it's 'and will be missed by all. We will honor his memory always, as we honor his remains today and send his spirit home to Agni's warm embrace.' There are no spaces available in those last words to mention receiving posthumous honors!"
Jee stared at the prince incredulously. "Sir, you don't have to just follow the script exactly for these ceremonies! You can't take any words out when you personalize them, but you can certainly add more in!"
Now it was the prince's turn to stare, in utter shock. "You can?" And the shock became tinged with hurt, as if the prince had just found out that Jee had been keeping secrets from him. "No one told me that was allowed…"
"No one told you?! It was practically drilled into our heads by the instructor in the class on conducting ceremonies that we had in officer training…" Jee's voice trailed off, as it was his turn to stare in shock. "Training you never had, did you, sir?"
Jee wanted to kick himself hard, for not realizing it a long time ago. Of course the prince hadn't received officer training; he'd come aboard when he was only thirteen, and the very youngest age for teens to be eligible as cadets in officer training was fourteen. Prince Zuko had been given a ship to captain without any military leadership training at all; no wonder he was so terrible at it! There had always been his uncle the general to ask for advice and wisdom, but Jee knew damn well that the prince almost never listened to his uncle from the very first day they'd come aboard.
Jee was jolted from the shock of belated comprehension by the fierceness of Prince Zuko's defensive glare; if it were any hotter, the lieutenant's crewcut would be on fire already. The prince snarled, "Are you done now, Lieutenant? Don't you have a message to send, and orders to carry out?"
"Yes, sir!" Jee said hastily, as he beat a retreat out of the cabin. Now was not the time to embarrass the prince by pointing out his shortcomings, not after the congee incident; Jee admittedly had his flaws but he also had principles, and they included not kicking a man when he was down.
There had been one more thing Jee had been going to say while still speaking freely, but it would keep, and perhaps it wouldn't be necessary after all. If the prince just looked in a mirror, surely he'd notice on his own that he still had some streaks of dried congee around his scarred ear.
Except Prince Zuko always kept his mirror covered up…
Iroh spent over five hours that day minding Teiji, so Zuko could concentrate on writing what might be the most important letter of his life so far; explaining his adoption of an Earth Kingdom child to his father the Fire Lord. Judging by the fact that he heard Zuko step out of his cabin next door to bark at passing crewmen that he wanted a fresh supply of papers and ink from the quartermaster—twice—the prince was having difficulties with getting the wording right.
After putting Teiji down for his nap, and after the child had finally gone to sleep, Iroh went next door to see how Zuko was progressing in his task. The cabin porthole was open, but the scent of smoke still lingered in the air, and the heap of ashes in the wastebasket indicated that many rough drafts had been written and discarded already; a few crumpled bits of paper that hadn't been burned yet still littered the desktop.
His nephew looked up from the desk to regard him with a smudge of ink on his nose, but a weary smile of not-quite-satisfaction. "I think I've finally got the wording right; see what you think," as he handed over a sheet of paper.
Iroh schooled his features to stillness as a precaution; an old habit he'd acquired after years of receiving letters at the warfront that had been from the capital, with overanxious subordinates in the tent with him. Whether the news was good or bad, the subordinates would glean nothing from his features until he was ready to tell them. Then he began reading Zuko's letter to his father.
The salutation was good, using all of Ozai's appropriate titles and honorifics; the opening words of greeting from his son and hopes for his continued health and longevity were also appropriate. Iroh was abruptly reminded of that letter from Lu Ten that had started in similar fashion, a few years before the siege at Ba Sing Se. All the buttering-up that had preceded Lu Ten's admission that he had accidentally crashed and wrecked the prototype tank that War Minister Qin had sent for his division's use…
Then came the reason for Zuko's letter; the news that he had rescued and adopted an Earth Kingdom peasant child. Zuko made no mention at all of the kirin spirit, which was sensible of him; Ozai had absolutely no patience for spiritual matters. Instead, after relaying what the village headman had said about the baby with eyes of different colors, Zuko said that Teiji's very existence illustrated the need for the Fire Nation to rule the world, so they could stamp out the superstitious practices in other nations that call for the deaths of innocent children.
It was just as well that Iroh had already schooled his features to stillness, because otherwise he would have cried out in dismay. After three years of seeing what the Fire Nation was doing to the rest of the world, Zuko still believed their conquest was right and good for all concerned? But then Iroh remembered that Zuko had seen first-hand that the superstition about witch-children was prevalent in the Fire Nation as well. So it was possible that Zuko was just saying things he thought Ozai preferred to hear.
Zuko also spent several sentences reassuring his father than he had no intention of putting Teiji in the line of succession for the throne, and that so far as the Fire Sages were concerned, Teiji would be his ward instead of his son. Then he pointed out that there may well be advantages for the Fire Nation in the adoption; when the citizens of the Earth Kingdom learned that a child of their country had been adopted by the crown prince and walked the palace hallways without fear, perhaps they would understand that after being conquered they would be treated fairly, and they would stop all those troublesome rebellions.
'Troublesome' rebellions, indeed, Iroh thought darkly, thinking of all the lives lost on both sides when guerilla tactics were deployed against occupying forces. Then he returned to the letter, but there wasn't much more left to read, and all that remained were words similar to the ones Zuko had been writing in letters to his father for months already. Zuko wrote about how he continued to hunt the Avatar, and had very nearly captured him in an encounter two days ago; with each encounter he learned more about the Avatar's current abilities and strategies, and soon he would capture the Avatar with a foolproof plan, and drag him home to the Fire Nation in chains. In closing, your son, et cetera.
Iroh finally handed the paper back with an encouraging smile. "Very well written, Prince Zuko. You make excellent arguments in favor of Teiji being raised as your ward, that I doubt even a Fire Sage could find fault with." Zuko looked very relieved, as he rolled the letter into a scroll and put his personal seal on it. Iroh was silently glad that Zuko did not ask how the Fire Lord would receive the news, though, because Ozai was certainly no Fire Sage.
That evening down in the cargo hold, Tadao worked with two other crewmen, all of them hull maintainers who were well experienced in sanding and painting, under the supervision of Taro the quartermaster as they worked on a crib for the witch-child. …For the prince's baby, Tadao resignedly corrected his own thoughts, still remembering the 'talk' Lieutenant Jee had had with him earlier.
Lieutenant Jee had bluntly informed Tadao that thanks to his honest concerns—or, as the lieutenant had put it, his boneheaded superstitions and loose-flapping lips-his letters home were going to be examined and censored by the ship's officers before being handed over to the mail ship tomorrow. And if Jee ever heard Tadao referring to that 'poor innocent orphaned baby under the prince's care' as a witch-child again, the lieutenant would consider such talk as incitement to mutiny and Tadao would be punished accordingly. Knowing exactly what sort of punishment the lieutenant had in mind, Tadao had swallowed hard and decided it would be a good idea to just keep his mouth shut for a while.
"There we go; smooth as the proverbial baby's butt," Tetsuko proclaimed, interrupting Tadao's train of thought at she held a sanded-down length of wood out for the quartermaster's inspection. The quartermaster tested it by running the length right under his jawline, where the skin is thinnest and more sensitive than callused fingers would be, then agreed it was smooth enough for use.
The crib they were building was a far cry from the traditional cribs Tadao had seen back home, with fancy carving on the exterior done by professional woodworkers, or simple designs painted on by poor but still loving parents. All those cribs had been made to be cribs right from the start, while this crib was being built out of a munitions packing crate. The port of Laosing hadn't had any cribs for sale—or at least hadn't offered any for sale to Fire Nation troops, despite it being a neutral port—so the general had asked the crew to improvise.
The quartermaster had drawn out a basic design while they'd carefully dismantled the munitions crate and sanded off all the painted-on characters for what it had contained before. Then they'd spent long hours measuring, sawing, testing the pieces for proper fit, sawing a little more and then sanding, sanding and more sanding. Tadao had wrapped thin strips of cloth around his fingertips to help with the blisters he could already feel forming there.
After all the pieces were sanded so smooth there was absolutely no chance of splinters coming off them to hurt a baby's tender skin, they started assembling the crib in accordance with Taro's sketch and instructions. They were halfway finished when Tadao suddenly felt the heat of another firebender's presence at his back, looked over his shoulder, and nearly jumped out of his skin when he saw the prince looming over him.
"Prince Zuko!" Taro was equally shocked. Everyone knew that sometimes the prince stopped shouting and stomping everywhere and went silent, making no noise whatsoever as he all but vanished and reappeared in various places about the ship, but he did it so rarely that it freaked them out every time. The flustered quartermaster began babbling about the crib they were making, apologizing that the design wasn't up to royal standards, but it was the best they could do on such short notice and with the materials on hand. "After we finish assembling, then we'll seal and paint it, and while the paint is drying we'll make the bedding with some fabric I've already pulled from storage for airing out. It will be ready for the baby's use and delivered to your quarters by tomorrow evening at the very latest, sir!"
The prince nodded curtly in acknowledgement of Taro's words, while critically looking over the half-assembled crib. Tadao tried not to hunch in on himself as he waited for the inevitable royal tantrum about why wasn't the crib finished already, what was taking so long, or about how shoddy the design was, or why the quartermaster was letting Tadao the 'superstitious fool' anywhere near something for the baby, or something else to do with honor or the Avatar or—
"Very smooth," the prince commented while running his hand over the rail Tadao had been working on earlier. "Good sanding."
Then Prince Zuko left, as abruptly as he'd come in, leaving the crewmen blinking at each other. Tetsuko asked for them all, "That was the prince, right?"
Zuko awoke at dawn the next morning, to find little Teiji still asleep in his arms. The quartermaster had reported that the crib ready for use by nightfall that night, but when he saw the little boy sweetly sleeping in his arms, yesterday's nonstop fussing and even the battle of wills to get him to bed now just memories, Zuko admitted to himself that he really didn't mind having to share his bed with Teiji. It was… really nice, having someone cuddle up to him, even just for warmth.
But as the sun began climbing higher over the horizon, Teiji slowly stirred, his eyes opening. Zuko sighed, halfway sitting up as he mentally braced himself for another hard day of parenting a fussy baby while running a ship. But instead of his face immediately scrunching up for a round of squalling, as had happened yesterday morning, Teiji just looked at him… and gave him a sleepy smile.
"Hi there. Is today going to be a good day, Teiji? Have you decided to stop being angry at the world already?" Zuko whispered hopefully as he lay back down beside the baby, practically nose to nose. Teiji's sleepy smile only widened, and Zuko took it as a good sign. Uncle had said that children adapted really quickly; maybe two days and nights were all it took when they were still just babies, and their new parents tried hard to be good to them even in the worst moments. There had been many times in the last two days when Zuko had bitten back angry words at the baby who was making his life miserable, bitten them back so hard his lips had bled. But now he was glad he'd kept that iron hold on his temper, if that had helped Teiji feel better sooner.
Teiji reached out a tiny hand, and patted at Zuko's chin. The first time Teiji had done that, right after they'd found him, Zuko had jerked back from the contact. Other than a few attempted hugs from Uncle, no one had touched him in years, not since Mom had—had disappeared. But when the baby had tried it again, a short while before they'd reached the ship, Zuko had sighed and let the baby touch the lower part of his face, feeling his chin and mouth. And still later that day, when Teiji had insisted on sticking his fingers right in Zuko's mouth, Zuko had pretended to nibble on them, to Teiji's evident delight at the little game.
This morning they played the 'eat-your-fingers' game, as Zuko made little growls and informed Teiji, "I'm a komodo-rhino. Mmm, tasty hay! Munch munch munch." Teiji giggled in response; such a sweet sound, better than the finest singing he'd ever heard from the court musicians back home.
Then Teiji pulled his fingers out of Zuko's mouth, and reached further up his face... for his scar.
Zuko swallowed hard. He'd never let anyone touch the scar, not since the bandages had come off for good and Uncle had declared sorrowfully that they could do no more for it. But he held still, and let Teiji reach out and touch it; feel the leathery surface of the scar and how different it was from normal skin.
"It feels weird and looks really ugly, I know, but… it's just on my skin," he whispered to Teiji. "Inside, I'm just like everyone else… well, just like any other firebender. In the same way that you're just like any other baby, Teiji. That's why the kirin wanted me to raise you, I guess; so I can teach you that looking weird or even scary on the outside, doesn't mean you're bad or evil like in the spirit-tales. I hope I'll do a good job of raising you, Teiji; I promise that I'll try my hardest, every day."
At mid-morning, the fleet mail ship Unyo was sighted on the horizon, while Iroh was up on the bridge with Zuko and Teiji. The helmsman immediately began bringing the ship about, maneuvering to match their course, and the two ships' signalmen began flashing the semaphore flags for communication as soon as they were within telescope range.
As the mail ship drew nearer, Zuko took off Teiji's sling and began to hand the baby over to Iroh, but he forestalled his nephew with a raised hand. "Not this time, nephew; I will stand and wait with you instead, since my letter is not yet sealed. Lieutenant, would you be so kind as to mind both Teiji and the bridge for us?" Lieutenant Jee agreed with a nod and his arms out for the child, and in short order both Iroh and his nephew were descending to the deck, where a large sack and a small crate were waiting.
For the last two years and more, Lieutenant Jee had handled mail call, with Iroh's unofficial assistance. Zuko usually avoided having anything to do with mail call; his uncle knew it was too painful for him to distribute the mail to the rest of the crew, when he never received any letters himself. But not this time, when the mail to be handed over included a crate containing Hūn's ashes and personal effects. While any officer could receive the ship's mail, it was an old tradition that personal effects were transferred from captain to captain until they were given in ceremony to the surviving family members of the deceased. Zuko had insisted that he would do his traditional duty, even before Iroh could remind him of it.
As they descended the ladder, they could hear Lieutenant Jee's voice above them, directing the helmsman in continuing to match course and speed with the approaching Unyo. And when they were halfway down the ladder and Jee's voice considerably fainter, Iroh stopped climbing and said quietly, "Stop and listen, nephew."
Zuko had been nearly to the deck by then, having descended the ladder with his usual reckless speed (though he was thankfully much, much slower while carrying Teiji in his sling.) But the ring of his boots against the ladder rungs instantly stopped; as Iroh had hoped, he was listening with those ever-sharp ears of his. Iroh began descending again, slower than before as he said in a voice pitched only for his nephew to hear, "I heard a new rumor among the crew this morning. Now some of them not only think Teiji is a witch-child, but a shape-changer as well. Fortunately, this is a rumor we can easily disprove."
Zuko tapped the ladder once sharply; Iroh took it for a wordless command to keep talking and explain himself. He quietly continued, "All we have to do is keep Teiji in a public area for a few hours, with a measure of salt next to him and a lit torch nearby. No shape-changer can hold his shape for long in the presence of both salt and fire. I know you normally avoid mail calls, but in the mess hall, where we always have salt on hand and torches ready to light, would be the ideal place and time to disprove this rumor. Mail call normally lasts at least two hours; that would be more than enough time to prove he's not a shape-changer and dispel the rumor before it can spread further, without actually having to say anything to the crew about it."
He stopped talking as he drew near, and after a few moments the ring of booted feet against metal indicated that Zuko had started climbing down again. When they were both on the deck a few moments later, Zuko gave him a nod and a significant frown; he wasn't happy about Iroh's proposed solution, but he'd do it all the same. Just as Iroh had hoped, when he'd made up the story about the rumor a short while ago.
As the ships came closer together, crewmen on the Unyo's deck gave them friendly waves; when one of them spotted Zuko and the stenciled crate at his feet, he nudged a fellow crew member who nodded and left. By the time the two ships were within boarding distance, Captain Sujin of the Unyo was standing on their deck, ready to receive the crate.
The boarding planks were set out to make a wide walkway between the two ships, and Captain Sujin came across first. "These are the personal effects of Private Hūn, who has journeyed on to the Spirit World," Zuko said formally as he handed the crate over. "Please see that they are returned to his family in Shu Jing province."
"I shall ensure they are delivered," Captain Sujin said with a formal bow as he accepted the crate. Then he asked quietly, "How'd it happen? Killed by the Avatar?"
Zuko shook his head and said tersely, "Pirates."
"Pirates who will never attack anyone, ever again," Iroh added quickly, with a suitably fierce grimace. After reading the award recommendation that his nephew had drawn up yesterday, he'd gladly agreed to shade the truth for Hūn's sake, and let others assume that they had suffered an utterly unprovoked attack, instead of their crewman's death being largely the result of a deal that went sour. "Every last one of them is dead now, and their ship smashed to pieces."
Captain Sujin gave a grim smile of approval. "Good job."
"And this goes straight to the Board of Admirals in the capital," Zuko said curtly as he handed over the sealed scroll containing his official recommendation.
Captain Sujin accepted the scroll with a raised eyebrow as he asked, "A request for posthumous honors?"
Zuko nodded. "The Order of the Crimson Banner."
Both of Captain Sujin's eyebrows shot up nearly to his hairline. "The Crimson Banner? But… isn't this the same Hūn that served on the Aoba? The entire fleet heard about what he did there, to the-"
Zuko's face reddened as his features drew into a fierce scowl, but just as he opened his mouth to start shouting in one of his classic temper tantrums, Iroh snapped in a voice sharp enough to cut steel, "Captain Sujin!" Startled, both Zuko and Sujin shut up and looked at him as he continued in a hard tone that only gradually softened, "The request for fleet honors is valid; before he died, Hūn committed an act of great heroism. Prince Zuko's scroll is sealed, as is proper, but my personal letter of endorsement has not been sealed yet," as he pulled a scroll out of his sleeve and proffered it to the mail ship captain. "You may read the words of the Dragon of the West, all that I witnessed on the day of the battle, before I seal it for sending to the board of admirals as well."
Captain Sujin accepted the scroll with a chastened expression, which pleased Iroh more than he wanted to admit; it was good to see that his reputation as a general still held strong among not just the troops of the army, but among the ships of the fleet as well. Before reading the scroll, Sujin turned and gestured wordlessly to his crewmen, who stepped onto the walkway of planks with a large sack of mail for the Wani.
Zuko accepted and signed for the sack of mail received, while Sujin read Iroh's account of the battle. When he'd found out yesterday that Zuko had decided all on his own that Hūn deserved a posthumous award for his heroism, Iroh had been utterly delighted. Finally, his nephew was showing signs of really caring about his crew, for everyone to see! But he also knew how low his nephew's reputation had sunk back home, thanks to that cursed Agni Kai that Ozai had maneuvered him into and what Ozai had done and declared afterwards.
Iroh was sure his own reputation had been tarnished by now as well, by officers and nobles seeking to curry favor with Ozai, but there were still many people who remembered him and honored him as the Dragon of the West. Having officially retired his command and aboard only as an unofficial advisor, Iroh's signature did not belong on the award recommendation itself. But he was sure that his personal letter of endorsement would carry enough weight with the board of admirals that, instead of dismissing the banished prince's request outright, they'd see fit to grant some lesser award. Probably the Order of the Mongoose-Lizard, but they might be impressed enough to award the Tiger-Dillo instead.
Captain Sujin's eyebrows rose high again while reading what Iroh had written, but not in a look of incredulity this time. When he finished reading, he rolled the scroll up and handed it back to Iroh, saying simply, "I do not doubt the word of the Dragon of the West." Then he turned to Zuko and said with a respectful bow, "Very impressive, your highness."
Zuko looked startled and uncertain, at praise he clearly hadn't been expecting just then, but he still remembered his manners enough to bow back while murmuring, "Thank you?"
Iroh smiled serenely, thankful that Captain Sujin hadn't articulated exactly what he'd found so impressive; likely not Private Hūn's heroic but ultimately ineffective attempt to keep the pirates from boarding, but Prince Zuko's savage and entirely effective attack on them afterwards.
Iroh's personal letter of endorsement had been worded just as carefully as Zuko's more official letter. He detracted not one whit of honor and glory from Hūn's actions, and indeed went into more detail about Hun's part in the battle than Zuko had, describing the techniques he had seen Hūn use to hold the pirates at bay. While not one single word was a lie, Iroh had crafted every nuance he could wring out of words on a page to make it seem like Hūn had heroically managed to hold the pirates off for several minutes, as the away team had raced from deep in the woods back to the river, instead of mere seconds. He even implied that Hūn had killed the pirate captain instead of Taozu, by stating that the pirate captain had fallen by the time they'd arrived back at the river steamer.
And after describing Hūn's part in the battle, he'd used equally great care and detail to describe Prince Zuko's attack and the aftermath. He wrote of how the prince had been at the forefront of the charge back to the boat, and indeed reached the river vessel several steps ahead of his crew. He described every firebending move he had seen his nephew use, though he deliberately left out all mention of the swordfighting; he knew that the admirals, most of them firebenders, would scorn any firebender's use of steel instead of flame. And naturally, he left out how Zuko had ended up feeding the fishies, like nearly every other 16-year-old boy/man after his first kill. But Iroh made it quite clear that that prince had killed every pirate within seconds, even before the rest of his crew could come aboard to join the battle… while not mentioning that they'd honestly feared to approach while Zuko was clearly in the grips of a berserker fury over the threat to the baby, possibly unable to tell friend from foe.
Then he explained why Prince Zuko had made no mention of his own part in the battle, in the posthumous awards request: As always, Prince Zuko seeks no honors for himself, save that which only his father can bestow on him. Quite true, while sounding far more noble than talking about his nephew's utter obsession with capturing the Avatar And it implied that this wasn't the first time Zuko had performed great feats in battle against the Fire Nation's enemies and won the day for their cause.
Ozai had publicly scorned his own son as weak and cowardly, as every high-ranking officer in the military knew. But when the admirals read that letter, with his closing statement that I swear upon my honor and reputation as the Dragon of the West that every word I have written is true, those admirals could decide for themselves whether the banished prince, after displaying such bravery and prowess in battle, had ever deserved such scorn.
Iroh sealed his letter of endorsement with melted wax and handed the scroll back to Captain Sujin, who took it with Zuko's scroll and Hūn's personal effects over the walkway to the Unyo. Sujin's crewmen followed him across, carrying the Wani's outgoing mail. After the boarding planks were removed and stowed, while the ships began moving apart, Zuko turned to the deck handlers and said abruptly, "You were efficient in both coupling and decoupling our ship from theirs. Good job."
Cheung was so startled by the praise he nearly tripped over his own feet while staring at the prince, but Zuko had already turned towards the ladder to the bridge. Iroh beamed at his retreating back, pleased beyond words that Zuko was actively seeking out things he could legitimately compliment his crew on, praising them for good performance, which would encourage even better performance in the future. He'd turn that boy into a true leader of men yet!
Zuko made a point of complimenting the helmsman on his smooth handling of the ship during the rendezvous—there, that made two today—before taking both Teiji and the supplies bag back from Lieutenant Jee. He firmly ignored both Jiro and Jee's stares, automatically telling himself that no stare could ever hurt him (the same mantra he'd been using for nearly three years now, since beginning his exile) and went back down the ladder to rejoin Uncle. After giving the helmsman the usual order to keep a steady course and alert them via either the ship's bell or whistle if there was any change in the situation, Jee followed him down the ladder, and went with him and his uncle to the mess hall.
From the sounds of the hubbub ahead, nearly the entire crew was waiting for them in the mess hall; of course they never missed a mail call, unless they were on an essential duty like the minding the helm or the engine room. Normally Zuko would be in his room right now reading scrolls about past Avatars, or down in the beast-hold with the komodo-rhinos for company, or out on deck after the mail ship was out of sight, practicing his firebending; anywhere but in there. Today he'd been planning on spending the hours with Teiji, now that the baby was in a good mood again; tickling him and pretending to make his toys talk and play together, and generally just having fun with his son. But nooo, instead he was going to be stuck in there the whole time, undergoing emotional slow torture… Stupid crewmen with their stupid superstitions and stupid rumors!
As soon as he was through the door of the mess hall, Zuko immediately headed to the right instead of the center of the room, aiming for the side cupboards where he knew they kept common spices for crewmen to season their meals with. He grabbed a container of salt from the cupboard, then went to the side table near a wall sconce, and glared at the two men sitting there until they got up and found new seats for themselves.
He set the salt container down in plain sight with the lid off, and sat down with Teiji almost right under the sconce, setting the torch alight with a flicked finger and flicker of will. There, fire and salt; the classic defenses against mischievous spirits. Now everybody would be able to see for themselves that his son was no shape-changer, and perfectly normal except for his mismatched eyes. That is, if they even looked his way, in the back of the room; right now everyone was focused up front.
When Uncle Iroh had come in with the sack, there had been an abrupt excited increase in noise, crewmen murmuring and jostling each other. But now there was a hush of anticipation, as the retired general and Lieutenant Jee stood together near the front of the room, with the mail sack on the table in front of them.
The crew seemed to be holding their breaths as Iroh and Jee made a big show of looking over the mail sack's official seal, checking to be sure it was intact, then nodding to each other. Iroh took out a knife and cut through the wax, breaking the seal so the drawstrings could be opened; then he and Jee tugged the sack open together. The sack held dozens of scrolls, and a few small boxes; the general pulled out the first scroll, reading the name written on the end, and then announced, "Corporal Taozu!"
"Here!" Taozu said as he jumped to his feet, grinning from ear to ear. He accepted the scroll and went back to his seat as other crewmen congratulated him on getting the first scroll, and someone else asked him who it was from.
Lieutenant Jee pulled out the next scroll, looked it over, then announced, "Sergeant Goro!"
"Here!" the sergeant said as he jumped to his feet and came forward; normally he was a dour-looking man, but right now he was grinning just as widely as Taozu was.
After Goro got his letter and sat back down, Iroh pulled out another scroll, and announced, "Private Tadao!" Tadao not only jumped up to get his scroll, he eagerly opened it to start reading on the spot instead of going back to his seat. Instead of scolding him for blocking the way, Iroh just smiled and gently nudged him aside to clear the way for the next scroll recipient.
Lieutenant Jee held up a scroll and announced, "Sergeant Anzu!"
"On duty in the engine room," one of the enginemen piped up, and Lieutenant Jee set that scroll aside while General Iroh reached into the sack for another one.
When it was Jee's turn to hand out a scroll again, he read the seal and announced with a smile, "General Iroh!"
"For me?" the aged general exclaimed with delight, clapping his hands and looking for all the world like little Teiji had looked a few days ago, when Zuko had first made the toy dragon fly for him in play.
Jee handed him the scroll with an indulgent smile, then said kindly, "I can take it from here, sir." Iroh promptly sat down with his scroll, opened it and began reading, while Jee reached into the sack for another scroll.
Zuko resolutely turned away from the sight of his uncle looking so delighted, to focus on Teiji and the flat wooden koala-sheep he was currently teething on. "We don't need any of that," he whispered very quietly, for only Teiji to hear. "We don't need any stupid letters and packages from people who are hundreds of miles away from here. You've got me, right here, and I've got you; we don't need anyone else."
It was mostly true, too, though Zuko couldn't deny that he needed his uncle's advice on parenting, on almost an hourly basis. Teiji burbled at him while still teething on the koala-sheep, and he started counting the little boy's fingers over and over again, to begin teaching him how to count to ten. By focusing on Teiji, he was able to almost completely ignore the lieutenant as Jee called out name after name after name, but never once said Zuko's name…
And he was almost able to completely ignore the chatter going on at the tables all over the mess hall, from people reading their letters to their fellow crewmen. "My boy's lost his second tooth—look, my wife pasted it to the scroll for me!" "My youngest daughter's been accepted into the Home Guard!" "My wife says our komodo-rhino had twins—and one of 'em has the lucky mark on his forehead! We'll be able to sell it for half again the usual price when it's weaned!"
Others were talking about their letters from home in a much less happy tone: "My girlfriend sent me a 'Dear Lee' letter. Says she's found a new guy, some hotshot from the colonies…" "My boy's having trouble in school again. If he doesn't shape up soon, he's going to be expelled…" Good news that was shared from people's letters was celebrated with hearty slaps on the back, and promises to buy drinks at the next port. Bad news was commiserated with the squeezing of shoulders and gentler pats on the back, and even more promises of drinks to be bought at the next port.
Yes, Zuko was able to ignore the way that his crewmen celebrated and commiserated with each other (all around him but never with him, all he had was Teiji.) He completely ignored the fact that, once the large sack was empty of scrolls and packages, everyone in the room (except him) had at least one letter to read, and some of them had small stacks of scrolls and even a few packages from home (but nothing for him.)
Just after Lieutenant Jee left the mess hall with a basket full of scrolls, his own letters as well as letters for the crewmen who were on essential watches, Teiji made a smelly mess in his diapers again. But Iroh and the lieutenant had put together the 'Teiji supplies' shoulderbag for just this sort of occasion, when it would be inconvenient to go back to his cabin for changing. Zuko pulled a clean diaper, a wiping cloth and a padded mat out of the bag, set Teiji on the mat on the floor, and started changing Teiji's diaper.
And just after he'd started, Uncle Iroh looked up from reading the letters he'd received from some old pai sho buddies of his, and said far too loudly and cheerfully, "Don't fret, nephew; after the momentous news you put in your letter home this time, I'm sure that one way or another, you'll finally receive a letter in the next mail call!"
…Agni curse his uncle.
He was in the middle of changing a diaper, so he couldn't just get up and stomp out of the room as much as he dearly wanted to. Instead, Zuko kept his head down and his eyes focused on Teiji, and gritted his teeth as he heard all too clearly the whispers and murmurs from the crewmen to each other: "He didn't get anything?" "No letters for him?" "Nothing from home…" "I've never heard his name being called out. Not just today, but not ever that I can think of." "No wonder he never comes to these." "I guess I can understand about his father, but he has a sister too; even the princess doesn't write to him?" "No letters in over two and a half years…"
When he absolutely couldn't stand it anymore, he lifted his head just long enough to glare at them all and growl, "Don't you dare pity me." That made the crew go silent, but Teiji started to fuss, catching his mood again and getting upset because of it, so he forced calm back into his voice and smiled reassuringly—or tried to, anyway—while he put a new diaper on his son.
If he was a hog-monkey, then he could get away with flinging the poop-filled diaper at the crew to get them to back off! The thought made him grin just a little, one quick little grin, but it was enough to reassure Teiji as the baby gazed up at him, and he stopped fussing so Zuko could fasten the fresh diaper in place.
While determinedly not looking up, Zuko was well aware that after several seconds of uncomfortable silence, one of the crewmen got up and started walking in his direction. He finished putting fresh pants on Teiji just as the crewman said hesitantly, "Sir?"
"What do you want?" he snapped at the crewman, Li Mein, as he sat up and put Teiji in his lap.
Li Mein stood there with a small box in his hands, looking nervous but determined as he said, "Sir, my mother knows I'm friends with Hūn—was friends with him, Agni rest his spirit. She sent me some umeboshi with a note that I should share them with him, because I'd told her once that Hūn really liked the way she made them, said it was the best umeboshi he'd ever had. I can't share them with Hūn now, but I'd be honored to share them with my prince and captain, the man who avenged his death," as he dropped to one knee while offering the box of pickled plums to him.
If he'd offered the umeboshi out of pity, Zuko would have refused it outright. But… if Li Mein really felt it would be an honor, because even if he hadn't been thinking that way at the time, Zuko really had avenged Hūn… Zuko nodded his thanks as he reached into the box and pulled out a pickled plum, then took a bite of it.
It was salty and sour as could be, and normally he hated umeboshi, but right then it tasted better than fresh mangoes or even dragonheart fruit. After swallowing the first bite he said sincerely, "It's good."
Li Mein smiled a little shyly. "Can I tell my mother you said so?"
Zuko said he could, then looked down at his lap where Teiji was eagerly reaching out to the box, and chided, "No, Teiji, that's not yours."
Li Mein's smile got a little wider as he offered the box again, saying, "It's okay, he can try one!"
So Zuko scooted Teiji forward on his lap a little, so the baby could grab an umeboshi for himself. But after just one bite, Teiji made a horrible face and spat the umeboshi out, and even turned a hurt look on Zuko for letting him put something so awful in his mouth.
"I fear that umeboshi are even more of an acquired taste than spicy foods," Uncle Iroh said with a chuckle as he appeared at Zuko's side. "We shall have to accustom him to eating them, as well as other shipboard staples."
"How do we do that?" Zuko asked honestly. "I don't want to just force him to eat foods he doesn't like!"
"The trick is to make him think the food is good to eat before he even tastes it," Goro said with a smile as he also stepped up to the table, on Zuko's other side. "I used to make a big deal out of eating the vegetables in my food, with lots of 'Mmm, this is really good!" and such, to help my wife get our children to eat their veggies too."
"My mom tried to make eating vegetables kind of like a game for my little brother," Sheng offered. "I remember how she'd swoop the spoon through the air like it was a bird flying around, and bring it up to his mouth a couple of times but back off before he could actually open it, kind-of teasing him with it," as he pantomimed the actions with his hands. "Then when she slowed down enough for him to actually get the spoon in his mouth and eat the food, it was like he'd won it, y'know? That was how she finally got him to eat ocean kumquats."
Iroh watched nearly half the crew gradually surround his nephew and grandson, giving the prince their parenting tips, asking what the prince had experienced with Teiji so far, trading stories of their children's antics, arguing amongst each other as to the most effective parenting techniques… and generally including him in their discussion, in a way they'd never, ever included him before. And from the open and honest look on his nephew's face, as his seated posture gradually relaxed from a defensive stance to leaning eagerly towards the others, he not only didn't mind the way they were treating him—not as their prince and superior officer, but more-or-less as an equal—he actually liked it more than he'd ever admit.
It was all Iroh could do to not break out in song and dance, from sheer joy; his little scheme had paid off even better than he'd dared hope! After nearly three long years, his nephew was finally becoming part of the crew at last!
Meanwhile, many miles away, Katara trotted across a wooden bridge strung between two giant trees, with Aang right behind her, looking for the leader of the Freedom Fighters. In her hands she held the hat she'd made for Jet earlier; she'd let Aang try it on when he'd asked so eagerly, but told him to take it off as soon as Momo started sniffing at it a little too eagerly as well.
When they found Jet, she told him firmly, "We're staying an extra day no matter what Sokka says, and we'll help you tomorrow by filling the reservoir for fighting forest fires!"
"Thanks, Katara and Aang; I really appreciate that. You're going to make a big difference here in our war against the Fire Nation," Jet told them with a smile.
"Thanks," Katara said, blushing; she wished she could stop doing that, but it seemed like every time she saw Jet, she blushed! Then she shyly held out the hat, with a hesitant, "Um, by the way… I let Aang wear this earlier to see how well it would hold up to being worn, but I really made it for you."
Jet looked down at the hat in her hands, his expression completely blank for a moment, but before her heart could start sinking to her toes he smiled. "Well, that's really kind of you! I don't normally wear hats, but I might make the occasional exception for this one." He took it in his hands, but looked it over instead of trying it on. "Just look at all the neat stitching; this must have taken you hours to make!"
"Only two hours," Katara said, blushing even harder as she ducked her head. She shyly looked up again as she told him, "But you're worth the effort; you're so noble, with everything you've done here in the forest! Not just fighting the Fire Nation, but taking in all these children too. You've become like a father to them all!"
Even if they'd been from the same nation, Jet would still be sooo much more noble than that awful Prince Zuko. Katara had decided two days ago that the whole reason Zuko had saved the baby and adopted it was because it had mismatched eyes, like he did with that ugly scar; if the baby had been perfectly normal, just a regular innocent Earth Kingdom baby, the Fire Nation prince probably would have left it to die in the woods. But even though all these children had in common was that they'd lost their homes to the Fire Nation, Jet had adopted them all anyway; he really couldn't be more noble and heroic by her tribe's standards!
Jet looked intently at her as she spoke… and his smile widened. Then he looked past her, to Aang. "Hey, Aang, I meant to tell you earlier; The Duke came by looking for you. I think he's been hoping you'd show him some airbending tricks; would you mind?"
Aang said he'd love to show The Duke some airbending tricks and happily zipped off on an air scooter, leaving Katara alone with Jet. Suddenly she felt even shyer under his intense gaze, and found herself looking at her feet instead, sure her cheeks were bright red from blushing.
"Thanks for the hat, Katara," Jet said, sounding a little shy himself. She looked up again, to see him giving her a little smile while lightly stroking the hat in his hands. "I'm, um, I'm more used to doing things for other people, than people doing things for me."
His words made Katara just melt inside. "Well, you'll just have to get used to it where I'm concerned," she said with a bold smile, as she dared to lay her hand over his on top of the hat.
Then he turned his hand over, to hold hers in his callused grip—they were holding hands, her heart was beating madly and they were holding hands—as his smile grew a little wider. "So you really think I'm like a father to all these kids?"
"Mm-hmm," was all she could manage to say, dazzled by that smile.
"Well, you know, families usually have both a father and a mother…"
Great Ocean, was he saying what she thought he was saying? Her nerves danced with excitement, with growing hope and incredulous joy. This handsome hero was in love with her, just like she was in love with him!
"Shall we… discuss it further?" Jet asked. And then, still holding her hand, he led her back to his hut.
Some time after sunset, Zuko found himself yawning to match Teiji's little yawns. "It's bedtime, isn't it, little soldier boy?" he asked rhetorically as he got two sets of sleepwear out of his sea chest.
Unlike the night before when he'd still been grieving/angry at the world, tonight Teiji cooperated with Zuko in getting dressed in his nightclothes. He didn't put up a fuss at all… until Zuko set him down in the crib that the quartermaster had installed in his cabin a few hours ago, and put out the candles for sleep.
At Taro's suggestion, Zuko had put the cloth stuffed panda as well as two of the soft toys Uncle had bought him into the crib, before setting Teiji inside it for the first time. Teiji had happily played with his toys in the crib while Zuko had gone over the ship's budget, and had seemed quite pleased with the little bed made just for him. But now, a few hours later, Teiji was anything but happy with the new sleeping arrangements. And he made his unhappiness plain to his new father…
"Go to sleep, Teiji," Zuko said tiredly after singing "Leaves From the Vine" for the umpteenth time, as the little boy continued crying and whimpering. "That's your bed, and this is my bed, and that's the way it's supposed to be. Go. To. Sleep." And finally he just rolled over onto his stomach and wrapped his pillow over his head, to muffle the cries so he could go to sleep himself. It took some time and some of Uncle's meditation techniques, but he finally was able to drift off…
Teiji was crying the pirates were kidnapping him he was killing and killing and there was blood and fire everywhere and the pirates kept coming and now they had pinned Teiji down right in front of him and they were cutting out his eyes and—
Zuko gasped awake, and found himself fast-crawling on hands and knees over to the crib before he was even aware he'd gotten out of bed. Was Teiji all right? He'd— Asleep. Teiji was sleeping fitfully, with tiny whimpers, but there was no blood and no pirates anywhere around; it had just been another nightmare.
But judging by the little whimpers, Teiji was having a nightmare too, and that just wouldn't do. "Okay, just this one time, you can come on back with me," Zuko whispered to the baby as he scooped him up out of the crib, waking him from the nightmare in the process, and carried the baby back to his own bed. "Just this once," he muttered as he snuggled down with Teiji, already knowing he was lying.
"Just don't tell Uncle or any of the crew, all right?" he muttered to Teiji. Teiji babbled something that Zuko chose to interpret as agreement, then yawned again and went back to sleep with a contented smile.
"As much as I'd like you to stay, you can't sleep in here tonight; your brother and the Avatar are probably already looking for you," Jet told Katara, and she agreed as she got dressed again, some of her movements speaking of lingering soreness.
Before she slipped out the door, she turned to him and said very earnestly, "Once Aang and I are trained in waterbending…"
"I'll count the days until your return," he lied to her, with his very best 'sincere' smile on his face.
After she left to sneak back to the guest hut, he lay back with a grin, reliving some of the best parts in his head. There was just something about virgins, and foreign girls…
But after a couple of hours, when he was sure all their guests were asleep, he quietly gathered his most devoted Freedom Fighters and went to set up the explosives at the dam. By this time tomorrow, the valley would be washed clean of the Fire Nation taint forever!
The next morning Iroh knocked on his nephew's door, a tea tray in his hands, and smiling as he heard Teiji's happy squeals through the door. Zuko called out a little breathlessly that he could enter, so Iroh opened the door, wondering what exactly was causing his nephew to sound like that.
He found out as soon as he stepped past the door; Zuko was on the floor doing pushups while Teiji sat on his back. The toddler grabbed onto fistfuls of Zuko's undershirt to steady himself, while jouncing up and down with each piston-like move of the firebender's arms and torso. Judging by both the squeals and the ear-to-ear grin on Teiji's face, this was possibly the most fun he'd ever had in his short life.
Iroh grinned as he thought that most fathers played komodo-rhino with their toddlers by crawling about with them on their backs, but trust Zuko to find a way to combine playtime with his physical training! "Quite ingenious, nephew," he said as he set the tea tray down on the table, and was rewarded by seeing Zuko's quick grin on the upstroke of his pushups.
A minute or so later Zuko grunted, "Ninety-eight. Ninety-nine. One Hundred," on the final upstroke, before he settled slowly to rest on the floor. He turned his head to the side as he said warmly, "Okay, Teiji, ride's over; time to get off!"
Teiji at first refused to budge, instead yanking on fistfuls of Zuko's undershirt while babbling for more, so Iroh simply went over and picked him up, with a quick tickle or two to keep his good humor intact. "An excellent way to start the morning!" he commented as he set Teiji down on a cushion by the table. "Now let me mind him for a while, so you can get cleaned up and dressed for breakfast in the mess hall. I believe the cook is making your favorite side dish, tamagoyaki rolled with fire flakes…"
Even though he was frozen to a tree, Jet snarled, "Sokka, you fool! We could've freed this valley!"
Seated on Appa's head, Sokka just stared at him incredulously. "Who would be free? Everyone would be dead."
But Jet utterly refused to see it that way; instead he hissed with raw hatred twisting his handsome features, "You traitor!"
In contrast to Jet's heated words, Sokka's voice was cold and grim. "No, Jet. You became the traitor, when you stopped protecting innocent people."
Then Jet turned his head to look imploringly at Katara, even though she was the one who'd frozen him to the tree. "Katara, please—help me! Didn't last night mean anything to-"
A blast of water hit him in the face, and froze to become a thick ice gag over his mouth. "Shut up, Jet!" Katara screamed at him, red-faced and shaking with rage. Then she turned and ran for Appa's saddle.
Aang hung back just long enough to make sure that the ice gag didn't cover Jet's nose so he could still breathe, and then air-hopped into the saddle to join Katara. Sokka said "Yip-yip," and Appa rose into the air and soared away from the forest, leaving Jet far behind.
Aang was about to ask how come Sokka had gone to the town, when he and Katara had been so sure he would go to the dam, when Sokka spoke first, sounding suspicious. "Katara, what exactly was Jet talking about when he said 'didn't last night mean anything'?"
Katara just miserably hugged herself, looking down at the saddle as she mumbled, "Nothing. He was lying, just like he lied about everything else. He—Jet is evil! I hope the Fire Nation finds him there before his friends can!"
Aang sort-of agreed with her, even though he didn't want to think about what the Fire Nation would probably do to Jet if they got their hands on him. But to change the subject a little, he asked Sokka about why he'd gone to the town instead of to the dam. And after Sokka replied that he'd listened to his instincts, Aang felt compelled to point out that right then, those instincts were sending them in the wrong direction, North was that way.
But even after he and Sokka joked around a little about instincts being right only sometimes, Katara refused to join in; she just sat there in the saddle acting utterly miserable. At lunchtime, after they pulled out some food for a picnic in midair, Aang nudged her a little as he said with determined cheer, "Come on, it's not so bad, Katara. Nobody died back there, thanks to Sokka's instincts! Yeah, the townspeople lost some belongings in the flood, but they'll be able to rebuild; in another year or so, it'll be like the flood never happened! Everything will go back to just like it was before."
"Not everything," Katara mumbled, looking down at the vegetable roll she had no appetite for. "Sometimes after you lose something, you can't ever get it back…"
"Like what?" Aang wanted to know.
"Just drop it, Aang," Sokka said suddenly and harshly from where he was sitting on the other side of the saddle. Aang looked worriedly at his friend, wondering what he'd just done wrong… but Sokka wasn't looking at him; instead, he was looking at Katara with a hard frown of disapproval, and maybe even disgust.
Brother and sister didn't talk to each other for hours after that, no matter how many times Aang tried to start a conversation between them. But finally, after they landed to make camp for the night, Sokka walked up to Katara and said very seriously, "Katara, I want you to know something… I'm your brother. You're my little sister, and I'll always love you and look out for you. And nothing will ever change that, okay? Nothing you do will ever change that."
And all of a sudden Katara grabbed for Sokka as she burst into tears, and started bawling her eyes out. She cried into Sokka's tunic while Aang stared at them, scratched at his arrow and finally burst out, "What's going on?"
"None of your business, Aang," Sokka said firmly while holding Katara and gently rubbing her back, as she hid her face in his tunic to muffle her sobs. "It's a family matter, not up for discussion."
Aang was hurt; it was the first time they'd ever shut him out of a conversation. He almost reminded them that Katara had said back at the Southern Air Temple that they were his family now… but looked at Katara as her shoulders shook with sobs, and decided to just let the matter drop.
And lastly, more little author's notes: Fans who've read my story "Promises to Keep" may recognize not just the names for several members of Zuko's crew, but also some of the ceremonies and details about shipboard life that I used in this chapter. That's because once I've built a good solid background, I see no reason why the same stage can't be used again to tell a different story. Also, yes, I made up Sil Jon, the ATLA world's patron spirit of pirates; brownie points to anyone who figures out the inspiration for that name.
And finally, Reijin the minstrel and his spinning a heroic ballad out of just a few stray facts that he misinterpreted, may seem like too much of a stretch to some folks. But consider the fact that Korra-centric fics started appearing here in the fanfic archives nearly a full year before the show aired…Some people think it all started with Star Trek, but the principles of fanfic are far older than television! ;-)