Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: the Last Airbender, nor am I making any money off of this.
Summary: Based off of Kimberly T's awesome fic 'Promises to Keep', mostly inspired by chapter six, plus a few bits and pieces, such as the crew's ultimate loyalty, from other authors.
Water Tribe ships were not easy to spot, unless in broad daylight, or if they wanted you to. With no steam or noise to give them away, blending into the fog of the dawn and the dark of the night, they had wreaked no small havoc on the Fire Nation Navy.
Equally effective was the few times that their victims had seen and reported the symbol they bore. Hakoda felt no regret for using the crest of the Northern Tribe, rather than his own, as anything that could drag their sister tribe into seeing what was right under their nose, and possibly ensure their aid to end this pointless war, could only be for the good, in his opinion.
A few of the Fire Nation had termed them 'Ghost Ships'; there and gone in the blink of an eye, always heralding doom for those who saw them. They took advantage of this. Psychological warfare was almost as important as the actual fighting. Appearing out of the mist long enough to be seen, then trailing the ship without notice was enough to keep a crew jumpy and on edge. When they were too nervous to think straight, or lulled themselves into a sense of security, the Water Tribe would strike.
Their most common tactic, but not their only one. The ship that they currently followed was too small to be a warship, which suggested that either it was on a covert mission, or it was transporting someone or something important. Life was harsh, and resources scarce, so it made no sense to take prisoners, unless they could be ransomed or interrogated. A ship such as this one was worth investigating, so Hakoda and Bato's ships had followed, unseen and waiting.
As was usually the case, the first that the crew knew of the attack was the sound of explosions and people screaming. The Water Tribe warriors were not sure who was traveling on the ship, or how important they were, so they settled for tying everyone up tighter than the catch of a shark-whale hunt while they searched the rest of the ship.
A shout from where some of the younger warriors had gone to search for prisoners drew Hakoda's attention, and the frantic call of his name had him turning toward the passage below deck, even as the tribesmen came running up, carrying a struggling young man and a horrifyingly familiar girl. "Katara!"
He had longed endlessly to see his children again, but not in this way. Still, Katara flew into his arms with a joyous shout of "DAD!", and for a moment, Hakoda could let the war go and just hold his little girl close. Why the scarred boy looked suddenly jealous was anybody's guess, but hardly important.
But they had other things to deal with, and Hakoda was forced to let her go, only to be confronted with an expression of such seriousness that he had hoped not to see on her face for several years. An expression that said he was not going to like what she had to say, but she had no choice but to tell him. "Can I talk to you quickly? It's very important."
It would take more than five minutes to escape from a Water Tribe knot, especially when under guard. Hakoda nodded and led her off to the side, where she quietly spun an almost unbelievable tale. She spoke of how she and Sokka had found and freed the Avatar, and how the ship had come to their village in search of him, and left without hurting anyone, even after Aang had escaped them.
She told him of how the ship was one of an exile, bound to the Fire Nation only by birth and love of the family left behind, but not by belief or participation in the war. She did not meet his eyes, looking down in shame as she described how the old man had taken pity on her youth and offered honourable parole, the terms and her sacred oath to keep them, how she had accepted it to try and convince the prince that what they were doing was wrong. She repeated how Tetsuko had been kind to her, almost as a much older sister, and how the boy had made sure that she would not be dishonoured, how he had become so horribly scarred, and her discovery that not all of the Fire Nation were monsters, merely ruled by one.
This placed Hakoda in something of a pickle. On the one hand, keeping this many prisoners was impractical under the best of circumstances, and he could not trust that they would not report this to their friends and family, which could put what remained of the Southern Water Tribe at risk. On the other, he owed them for his daughter's life and well-being, especially if the Prince and the General had protected her as she said. The Fire Nation were not the only ones to place significance on honour, and Hakoda would disgrace himself if he repaid their indirect kindness to his family and community with death.
He was not the only one to have come to that conclusion. Keelut spoke in a low voice. "See if they have any alternatives, we owe them that much. Otherwise, we have the resources to take them back to General Hung and let him deal with it."
Bato, nursing a badly-burned arm, agreed, suggesting that the Fire Nation crew swear silence by Agni, as Katara had agreed to Iroh's terms by Tui and La. By the Water Tribe's sense of community, Katara was like a collective niece, and they could not forget that. Katara beamed at her 'Uncle' and bent some water out of a nearby Barrel, wrapping it around Bato's arm. The water started to glow, as Hakoda remembered from his days as a very small child, when the Southern Water Tribe still had Healing-gifted Waterbenders.
Seeing Bato's suggestion as the best potential option, Hakoda addressed the captives. "Katara claims that you treated her well and honourably, and that you are not the monsters that kill and destroy without cause, as those we have previously encountered were, merely ruled by one." The one Katara had identified as Prince Zuko opened his mouth to object, but was elbowed by the soldier next to him. Hakoda tried not to think of how much it resembled the way Sokka would have reacted, and continued. "For your conduct toward my daughter, I am inclined to spare you, but we have neither the resources to keep prisoners, nor any way to trust that you would not report this encounter to the Fire Lord, if only to keep your families safe from the repercussion of remaining silent."
There was a long and very uncomfortable silence, finally broken by the old man that Katara had pointed out as Iroh, her main protector. "We are exiled, and Ozai would kill us before listening to any report we gave. There are already things we have not reported, or mentioned in letters home. Our quest is to find the Avatar, not be involved in the war."
A Fire Nation youth aimed a cautious glance at Prince Zuko. "My loyalty to the Fire Lord ended when I discovered that he attacked his own son." (The Water Tribe warriors were horrified; harming one's own family, especially on purpose, was unthinkable! Anyone who deliberately inflicted a wound that resulted in a scar like the Prince's would have instantly undergone the Rite of Exclusion, if not had their limbs broken and left on the ice!) "I won't say anything."
An interesting turn of events, but even an absent comment to a family member was too big of a risk. They were only a day away from General Hung's forces, possibly less, in a Fire Nation ship, and Hakoda did not like to kill, if he could possibly avoid it. The Water Tribe ship was tied to the Fire Nation one, and the warriors set course for the Earth Kingdom. It was strange to be sailing a foreign ship, but they had a basic knowledge of how they worked, having fought them enough times.
The crew were escorted to their cabins and locked in, with a guard posted at the door. Zuko and Iroh were led to the prince's cabin, where Hakoda and Katara stayed with them. Katara had not broken any of the terms of honourable parole, so the two royals were still honour bound to protect and not harm her, which the prince was clearly fuming over. Oddly, that fact made Hakoda feel a bit better. When he wasn't scowling, Zuko was not bad-looking, and probably the first boy Katara had met that was both her age and not her brother, and Katara was about the age when Kaya had first shown interest in him. No, as long as the clear animosity between the two teens didn't go too far, Hakoda was happy to let his little girl and the prince be angry at each other.
A/N: I have Kimberly T's permission to write this, but I don't know what she plans on doing in Promises to Keep, so consider this an AU. Hopefully I haven't done too badly.