A/N: Sorry about the huge wait for this chapter and thank you so much for all the reviews, you guys are amazing!
Zuko regretted his decision to run from the Sun Warriors almost the very moment he made it. Running through the rapidly darkening jungle, he fought with himself every step of the way not to turn back. His reasons for running hadn't changed. He was still terrified that he would be judged disloyal to his father, though the cowardice he showed in running away stung just as badly as the cracking scab under his bandages. There seemed to be no right answer, stay and be judged disloyal or run and be judged a coward.
At the very least, he refused to show evidence of his inner turmoil when his river steamer reached the ship. The two engineers were waiting for him, and Zuko left them to take care of the steamer, retreating to the helm. A snapped order to Liu to take the ship north and he was free to seal himself in his room again.
Once he was within his sanctuary, Zuko bolted the door and crumpled. He felt so ashamed, but he still didn't know what he could have done. There was no way he could submit himself to be judged. He just couldn't. His loyalty to his country, to the Fire Lord, to his father, had never been so tested and he didn't yet know the arguments that would help him regain his faith that the Fire Nation was right. Tucking himself into a ball, Zuko wished once more for his uncle.
When Zuko finally rose from the corner he could barely stand, his muscles were cramped and stiff and when he opened his door and painfully ascended to the helm the pink-tinged light of dawn flooding the room shocked him. It had been just past sunset when he'd arrived back at the ship.
Zuko didn't remember sleeping.
Liu heard the prince approach, his footsteps distinctive as he was the only one aboard who wore silk slippers. He didn't turn however, remembering Jee's injunctive to just leave the kid alone.
Nervously, Liu watched the prince stagger out onto the balcony, he looked awful. He was still in yesterday's dirty clothes and he looked like he hadn't slept.
Turning back to the helm Liu almost didn't notice Lao, the ships' medic, coming up the ladder. Liu liked Lao, the man was even tempered and pleasant. He didn't set Liu's nerves on edge like some of the other crewmembers. He was also excellent on the drums, not that they'd had much of a chance to do a music night since they got their new captain. Liu hoped Jee would broach the subject soon.
Lao gave Liu a nod as he moved past to speak quietly with the prince. As they turned to make their way down, Liu caught sight of Zuko's face, the boy was white as a sheet. Liu had a fairly good idea of what was going on and he felt a wave of sympathy for the kid. He hoped the scar wouldn't be too bad. Though he supposed the prince had it a bit easier than most. Even if the scar was hideous, he still had his status. Better to be an ugly prince than an ugly peasant.
Zuko sat stiffly under Lao's ministrations. The man had been tending his wound since they'd left Hesan, but Zuko was still uncomfortable with him seeing it. He hadn't seen it himself, unconsciously avoiding looking into any polished surface.
When the medic finished unwrapping the bandages he washed his hands and started poking the scabby, scarred tissue. Zuko couldn't feel a thing.
After a moment Lao stood and pulled a wooden slat over the red-glass window, plunging the room into darkness.
"Alright Prince Zuko, I'm going to massage your eyelid with some warm water and we'll try and get it ungummed, then I want you to try and open it. It will probably hurt."
Grimacing, Zuko waited patiently as the man smoothed warm water over his eye, trying every so often to open it. It wasn't that gummed, he'd been opening it a little under his bandages when he was in his room, and so it only took a moment for the tension to release and the lid to crack open a little.
This time Zuko forced the eye all the way open, and choked on a scream. The tiny slivers of light coming through the slats burned like staring into the sun.
"Good, yes, it's going to hurt to look at the light, your eye has been in the dark for a very long time. You'll need to stay in here and keep it open for a while before it will adjust." Lao sat back and waited.
The pain was incredible, and he could tell that his vision was horribly blurry, though he couldn't really see anything much. Forcing his eye to stay open Zuko voiced his concern, "I... I can't see right. It's all blurry, is it going to stay like that?" The thought was frightening.
Lao clucked his tongue, "You are young, so your eye may recover over time. It will get better the more you use it Prince Zuko." He didn't sound very convinced.
In the gloom of the infirmary Zuko imagined a life with one half of his vision blurred out.
Lao had him sit for about an hour in the gloom of the infirmary, slowly opening the window slats as the time went by. By the time the window was fully uncovered and the room was fairly bright Zuko's left eye was burning and watering.
His sight was horribly blurry and colours seemed to bleed. He was sensitive to the light, which formed large whited-out spots in his vision. He didn't seem to have much peripheral vision on the left side either. All-in-all it was a complete nightmare, and he hadn't even seen what it looked like yet.
Lao was giving him instructions again, but Zuko wasn't listening. A chittering panic had sprung up in his head and it was all he could do to walk to his room, not run.
He didn't pass anyone on his way up, for which he was thankful. There was a small mirror of polished metal in the officer's washroom and Zuko decided to stop there first, morbidly curious as to what he looked like.
Zuko stepped into the room, pulling the hatch door shut behind him. The mirror was large, covering the wall above two basins. As soon as he turned away from the door he saw it. The scar was enormous, stretching from just inside his eye back to just past his ear, from just above where his eyebrow should have been to just below his cheekbone, and it was a horrible dark red colour. His eye was slitted and angry, a permanent glare.
Zuko quickly looked at his feet, breathing fast and shallow. That couldn't be... couldn't be him. It was awful. Worse than he had imagined it would be. He remembered his sister's comment, a lifetime ago it seemed, asking how he thought he could ever show his face at court. He couldn't. He just couldn't.
He couldn't look at it again either. Sliding down the door, Zuko gripped his head in his hands. His left hand encountering the harsh, leathery scar. It was an awful, nauseating feeling, to touch his face without feeling it. The scar tissue was rippled and cragged, forming deep lines around his eye. Dropping his hands in disgust, Zuko fished into his pocket.
He'd taken to carrying around his uncle's letter, he didn't know why, but it made him feel better. He unfolded it carefully, smoothing out the creases. It was hard to read the text with his blurry left eye, but he didn't shut it.
Over the years that this crew had been serving together it had become customary for Jee, Liu and a few others to gather in some out of the way place to complain about their captain. Usually the secrecy was necessary to avoid said captain stumbling in on a harmless and purely theoretical discussion of exactly how they could weight his ankles and throw him into the North Sea.
On this ship however, the secrecy was mostly cosmetic. The danger of Prince Zuko wandering across their little gathering was minimal, not to mention the chances of him deliberately seeking their company. Since his bandages had come off, a few days ago, the prince had been even more reclusive than usual. It had become a game with the men, spotting the Prince, and to Zuko's credit it was actually pretty difficult. Liu was still getting harassed about missing the kid climbing on top of the helm, swears he didn't hear a thing.
So it was without the anxiety of getting caught that Jee listened to Zheng and Liu arguing about who the prince's instructor must have been at the Naval Academy.
His entertainment was interrupted when Hideki coughed politely and stepped around Zheng who was gesturing with the force of his point. The engineer, startled, let his arms fall limp and Liu's nervous gaze snapped to the cook.
"I think there's an obvious solution that we're all missing," he began solemnly, "the prince's instruction obviously came from his father, the Firelord. He is the Crown Prince, after all, and we all know that Ozai's military service was... mercifully short."
Zheng snorted, "That's one way of putting it!"
Jee leaned forward intently, "So you think the Firelord trained him? Why would he do that? He's got an Academy for that sort of thing. Prince Lu Ten went there, it's not like it's not good enough for Princes!"
Hideki stroked his beard thoughtfully, "It's true that Prince Lu Ten attended the academy, but our current Firelord may think his son should have a more exclusive education," nods and grunts of assent greeted this statement, "Ozai favours the military, we've never had greater numbers of enlistments than under him, and much of the Nation's wealth goes to funding ships and weapons. But Firelord Ozai is not a military man, and for all that he has elevated his generals, he is not one of them. Not like the former Crown Prince, General Iroh. I think he would not want his son to be one either."
Zheng narrowed his eyes shrewdly, "No, the boy would be a threat then, wouldn't he?"
Liu shot him a look, "Yeah... or, could be that whatever this mission is, it's too important for anyone else to know about, right? 'Cause you know... I won't believe for a second that we're really out here to capture the Avatar. Thats ridiculous! And besides, he's just a kid and we ain't soldiers, we're sailors! What does he think we're gonna be able to do hunh?"
There were more murmurs and various nods or shakings of heads following that little outburst and Jee figured it was time to intervene.
Pushing himself off of the wall, Jee caught the eye of each crewmember present, making sure he had their attention, then he gave a little lopsided smile and shrugged, "It's a good theory Hideki, but I can't see as it makes much difference where he was trained. The situation is what it is and what we have to do now is learn to deal with it. So, men..." Jee paused dramatically, waiting to see the hope spark in his men's eyes as they anticipated his wise words. Then he raised his mug, drained it all at once and pronounced, "I'm going to bed." And with that he turned and left, the dissatisfied grumbles that followed him bringing a smile to his face.
As he made his way back to his quarters he paused, ducking into a small space between the engine room door and the upper hatch. Hiding and listening were two skills that Jee had mastered since becoming a Lieutenant and they always served him well; there were just some things that the men wouldn't talk about in front of their Lieutenant, even one so easy going as Jee.
Sure enough, as Zheng and Tachi made their way back into the engine room he caught Zheng's blunt question, "Have you seen his face? Since the bandages came off I mean. What happened to him?"
By the time Jee made it to his quarters his eye was twitching again, it always did that when he was stressed.
What had happened to him?
Zuko was perched on the roof of the helm, next to the flagpole and signal pipe, it was remarkably easy to climb up here from the helm's balcony and the look of surprise when the man on watch spotted him was a nice change from the looks he'd been getting since removing his bandages.
It wasn't anything overt, never enough that he could make a scene or accuse them of doing anything wrong, it was just a feeling he got whenever anyone would catch his eye. A quick flick of their eyes left, a slight tightening of the jaw and eye. They were disgusted with him. He couldn't blame them really, he was disgusting.
Zuko scrubbed at his eyes, wincing at the harsh feeling of the scar tissue and grimacing when his sight only worsened. He hadn't been sleeping enough, he knew that, but it was hard to care when the left side of his world had slid into a mess of blurred shape, piercing light and confusing movement.
He heard movement beneath him as Liu returned to his post, he was doing that more often now, relying on his other senses. Maybe they could compensate a little. Zuko doubted it.
Standing noislessly he slipped down and ducked in the rear door. Stealthily making his way to his room, Zuko was relieved to not encounter any of his crew. He'd taken to slipping out of sight whenever possible, moving silently and only when nobody was looking. It was just easier than dealing with the looks.
As usual, when Zuko returned to his room he went straight to his meditation table. It was the only thing that he enjoyed anymore, the calm, peaceful blankness as he concentrated on his fire. He'd found that the more he worked hard and with determination, the easier the fire came. Pure fire. He hadn't tried to use his anger to bend since it failed so spectacularly against the Sun Warrior Chief.
So every day he spent hours just working hard on mastering his fire. It was basic, but challenging to his concentration. It helped him not think about... everything else.
Seating himself at his table, Zuko calmed his breathing, drawing the fire into its rhythm and settled down for the evening's meditation.
Aguta crawled backwards across the rocky ground until his soft-soled boots touched the cliff face, then with a sideways roll he slipped into the crevice where the rest of the raiding party was waiting for his report.
Fifteen men of the Southern Water Tribe greeted him with murmurs and hand clasps as he hunched down over the sketching sand.
"Tarnak was right, only one ship. I saw two boiler stacks, only one lit." he explained, sketching out what he'd seen. "I'm guessing it's a runner, probably scout or message ship. I say we hit it. Watched for six hours and only saw one rotation of guards, two posted - thats all. One fore, one aft. Helm is at the top of the tower but I couldn't see inside at this distance." Aguta glanced hopefully at his Chief, if they were to raid this ship it would be his decision.
The Chief nodded thoughtfully and then gestured to a few of his men. They knew what to do, in four hours it would be sunset and the ship would be within striking distance of the cove where they kept their ships. The crevice emptied quietly as men left to prepare.
Nilak was the youngest of the warriors, he would be the one to make the climb tonight.
Nilak crouched in the prow of his canoe, Tarnak was behind him with the paddle, keeping the boat steady beside the anchor chain of the Fire Navy ship. He would stay here until Nilak returned, or they were discovered.
The anchor chain was just over Nilak's head and he had to stand to reach the lowest link. He had wrapped his hands for this climb and so the barnacles did not cut him as he pulled himself up the side of the ship.
He paused just before he reached the gunwale, breath held, eyes wide to catch the light of the moon. He was Water Tribe, so he knew he was at an advantage in the dark, Fire Nation eyes did not see as well by moon and stars.
When Nilak was sure that the aft guard was at the far end of his patrol he heaved himself over the side and crouched next to the tower. Now came the difficult part, Nilak would have to climb the tower quickly, quietly and pray to the Ocean and the Moon that nobody glanced upwards. Settling his nerves, he began.
The climb was difficult, Fire Navy ships were crafted entirely of metal, and their sheer surfaces left few hand holds. By the time he reached the underside of the helm's balcony he was sweating and shaking with effort. One last push and he would be there though. He tried not to think about having to climb back down.
He slipped over the guardrail on the port side of the helm. He could see nothing from this angle and knew he would have to slip around the back to see inside. The back door was not locked, which was a blessing and Nilak slipped inside, shutting the door quickly to prevent a draft - if there was anything a Fire Nation man would notice, it was a cold gust.
The mews just inside the door were bare, all their hawks must be away. There was one man at the helm, middle aged, greying, and looking relaxed. Nilak took three deep breaths and then rushed forward.
It was fully dark by the time Zuko emerged from his meditation. His room felt hot, stifling and his eye burned fiercely. He couldn't remember when he'd last had a full nights sleep. Unbolting his cam lock Zuko began the familiar climb to the helm.
The hatch was open, as it usually was when they were not in dangerous seas and Zuko could hear something going on in the helm. He almost turned back, not wanting to encounter any of his crew, but figured he'd just retreat to the roof.
As Zuko cleared the top of the ladder, keeping habitually silent, he glanced up and froze at the sound of breaking glass. A tall Water Tribe man was standing in the centre of the room, his bone club caught in the shattered remains of the compass, a collection of navigational scrolls were clutched tightly in his other hand.
Zuko stood rooted in place as the man turned, he'd obviously made some kind of noise, but was galvanized into action when he saw what the man stood over. Liu was lying on the ground at the man's feet and there was blood around his head. He wasn't moving.
With a wordless scream Zuko stepped forward into a low stance and punched out sending a powerful blast of flame into the chest of the startled Water Tribe warrior.
The tibesman flew backwards, smashing through the front window and sailing across the balcony. Zuko was already running forward, vaulting himself through the shattered window - ignoring the glass that cut into his palm. But the man didn't stop when he hit the railing, there was a sharp, metallic sound as it gave way behind him and he limply plummeted to the deck, landing with a sickening thump and a clang.
Zuko flinched at the noise but cast his eyes out to the sides of his vessel, looking for Water Tribe ships. He caught the blur of what he thought was a mast on his left side and shot a stream of fire at it.
When he turned back to his deck he saw three more Water Tribe warriors had scrambled aboard and were carrying the limp form of the man from the tower between them. His two guards were running towards them but the warriors were armed and, noticing this, Shiro and Xu backed off.
The four men slipped over the side and the ships moved apart. The Water Tribe vessel had failed to ignite.
Zuko screamed in rage, firing another blast at the ship which was rapidly falling behind, but it was too far and his fire fell short.
Clutching the shattered railing with both hands Zuko slid to his knees, panting. Movement behind him caught his attention and he swung round, fire gathering at his fists, to see Jee carefully lifting Liu from where he lay.
The Lieutenant was in his sleep pants, he had obviously just woken up. In fact, it seemed the whole ship was awake. Suddenly light headed Zuko leaned over and vomited. He was pretty sure he'd just killed that man.
The medical suite was loud, bright, and even with only three people in it, crowded. Liu was lying on a bed at the side of the room and Lao was saying something to him about his hand, but the words weren't penetrating. Zuko looked around for Jee, he was angry and he wanted some explanations.
Jee was leaning in the doorframe of the suite, frowning at Liu. Zuko pushed Lao aside and shakily stood. Marching forward he placed himself in the Lieutenants space.
"Lieutenant, Water Tribe warriors invaded my ship. How? How did they get on board? Why didn't anyone see them? WHY DIDN'T ANYBODY STOP THEM!?" Zuko was shouting by the end, and if his eyes were stinging, it was probably from lack of sleep because he certainly wasn't crying.
Jee didn't back up, he just looked at Zuko - hard. Eyes flat, arms crossed Jee stared at him, "There are no soldiers on this ship Prince Zuko. What would you have us do? Attack them with our fists? Then Liu wouldn't be the only one in here."
"But there are thirteen of you! You could have done something!"
"We're sailors, not soldiers. I'm the only one who has armor. I'm the only firebender amongst the crew and none of them can use a sword. You should have known that. You should have hired soldiers. Especially if you're taking us this far North. We're damned lucky Liu isn't dead. Now if you'll excuse me... sir... I need to see to the men."
Jee turned and strode out onto the deck, leaving Zuko staring at the empty doorway, full of helpless rage. He should have known that, he should have hired soldiers. He was terrible at this, and people were going to die because he didn't know what he was doing.
Hissing in frustration, Zuko sat back down and let Lao finish sewing up his hand. He needed soldiers, he couldn't let this happen again. His crew were defenseless right now and he was in charge, which meant he was the one who was supposed to keep them safe. It was what any honorable captain would do.
Jee kept his face carefully neutral as he spoke to Shiro and Xu, Mung was ranting, but he didn't have time for that right now, he had to see to the helm.
Liu was in bad shape. Lao said that blows to the head could be tricky. The best bet would be to get to Yu Dao as quickly as possible, so Jee had ordered the auxiliary boilers fired up. Four days he reckoned. He wasn't as good at the helm as Liu, but he was pretty confident that it wouldn't take longer than that to reach the colony.
He hoped Liu would last that long.
Next Time: The crew make port in Yu Dao and Zuko meets a girl!