Chapter Two: Zuko Was Never Good at Keeping Pets (But He Was Better Than Azula)
Zuko once snuck a turtleduckling into his room. His mom spent every summer morning afterwards counting the ducklings with him as they swam in the pond, her gentle way of saying I'll know if one goes missing, mister. Then his mom was gone. For awhile he had a reoccurring dream, where he counted each and every duckling, but he forgot to count her.
And then the messenger hawks realized the pond was undefended, and starting having turtleduck for breakfast.
"If you're going to have a pet, Zuzu, at least get one from the top of the food chain." Azula watched the ruthlessness of nature with some admiration and absolutely no intention of helping him hang this netting around the pond.
So Zuko got a messenger hawk (after he passed off netting duty to a servant).
"Send me a message, Zuzu!" Azula commanded, because she was still young enough to want things from her Big Brother but had always been too old to ask. So he wrote messages and the hawk swooped across the garden and delivered them, and sat goring a branch above her head as she wrote her replies, and circled back around to drop them off with him and circled to drop them off with her and circled and circled until, if they wanted to know what murder looked like, they only had to look into the hawk's eyes as it spun around the same stretch of walled-in ground over a flock of cowering turtleducks it couldn't reach.
"We should send one to mom," Azula said, and they sat next to each other and figured out what they could say to a missing mother, and then condensed it down to what they could say to a missing mother that fit in the hawk's carrier.
The hawk took the letter, side-eyed the turtleducks, and flew. It didn't come back and they never learned what happened to it. This was such an accurate impersonation of their mother that Azula didn't much care for pets after that.
She didn't like his owl-cat, which purred for him but not for her (singed hind paw, hit while fleeing; Zuko gave it to the girl who hummed while she did laundry in the courtyard, and it grew up fat and happy and only limped when it wasn't flying). She also didn't like the dog-lizard puppy he tried to share with her, which didn't bite the people she told it to no matter how carefully she trained it (he gave it to his tailor's son along with a gold coin that might have been a tip or hush money or an advancement on its food bills). She especially didn't like his ferrekeet, which... existed (her first lightning. His second funeral. The Fire Sages probably wouldn't like that he reused the speeches they'd written for Grandfather over its tiny pyre, but they were the only words he knew, and much different than the ones he shouted at Azula before and after and for a week until she got bored with him and/or had sufficient time to craft her reply. She still needed practice back then; he caught her sometimes, smiling perfect-teeth razor smiles at her mirror as she spoke the words that would make Ty Lee cry tomorrow. Or him, today.)
("Zuzu, really. A prince should be able to protect his own. Don't complain to me if you keep failing them.")
Zuko didn't get any pets after that.
Now he had his very own air-water-earth-firebender who wasn't any taller than he was, and he was just starting to realize how much bigger a responsibility this was, and how much worse he could fail, and what if he forgot to feed him and he died down in the brig before they even got back to Father.
Zuko was feeling a little dizzy as they walked onto the ship. Deep breaths. One Avatar. There, he'd counted him—now he couldn't leave.
The ship's ramp click-click-slammed closed behind them. Some girl in the village was throwing a fit and his head still hurt from the boomerang, but at least he had this staff… glider… thing to lean on.
"Your orders, Sir?"
Even behind the mask, Zuko could recognize Lieutenant Jee. He was the only crewman who could make Sir sound like There's no other ships to demote me to, but thanks for trying.
"What do you think?" Zuko used his Commander Voice. "Put him in the brig!"
The Lieutenant shifted his weight. He was also the only man who could make a creak of armor sound like It's your Uncle's fault.
Zuko narrowed his eyes at Uncle. Iroh chuckled his round, full-belly chuckle. On the one hand, it was good to hear because he hadn't laughed much since—(Lu Ten) (his real son)—since a while. But on the other hand, that chuckle was Not a Good Sign.
The brig, as it turned out, was full of tea ("The merchant gave me a discount for buying in bulk, it was quite the steal, we could sail for three years without running out!") And musical instruments ("For music night! Which works better with your schedule, Sundays or Sozindays?")
Zuko glared. Since the bandages had come off, he'd found it was the easiest expression to make. It didn't pull painfully at his scar like smiling, didn't burn salt-tracks in his skin like crying. And it was the only face he could make in the mirror that looked better than before. He looked Super Scary and grown up, which was good because he was twelve-almost-thirteen-in-a-year and someone had to be the adult on this ship.
Uncle smiled. "Since our brig needs cleaning, perhaps our guest would like tea while he waits?"
"Sure!" the Avatar smiled back.
Zuko continued to glare. He glared through the tea making, the tea pouring, the enthusiastic Thanks! of tea-cup-passing with still-bound hands. He especially glared at all the sipping and smiling. Zuko was not quite sure how keeping a prisoner worked, but he was certain something had gone wrong. It was time to get this back on track.
"Are you really a hundred and twelve?" he interrogated.
"Nope!" the Avatar smiled. "Just twelve and an iceberg. How about you?"
"How many elements have you mastered?"
"Less than twelve," the boy smiled.
Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose, which was a trick the ship's doctor had taught him to 'relieve headaches, tension, and excessive prepubescent yelling.'
"Why do you shave your head like that?" the Avatar was way, way too close, and Zuko was not entirely sure when he'd gotten to his side of the table but he wanted him gone.
"I'm a monk!"
Zuko decided that he did not like anyone who talked in more than two consecutive exclamation points. One consecutive exclamation points. Any exclamation points.
"So… you're Fire Nation? Do you know Kuzon?"
"I know five." One of them was the owner of a re-homed dog-lizard that had grown big enough for a twelve-year-old to ride (he missed that dog-lizard, Azula was the worst.)
"—which is why we should be friends! So you'll untie me now, right?"
Zuko hadn't been paying attention to what the Avatar was saying. Ignoring prisoners, he decided, was a reasonable use of a prince's time. "No."
The Avatar stopped smiling for one beautiful moment. Then something hit the deck outside. Loudly. With follow-up shouting.
"What's an Appa?"
An Appa was a flying bison. They were extinct-but-apparently-not. They were big enough for ten twelve-year-olds to ride. Zuko had never wanted something so badly in his entire life, except for his honor, but if he could have a flying bison and just name it Honor maybe his heart would stop hurting just looking at how awesome epic fluffy it was—
(Flammable. 'Flammable' was the word he was looking for. Azula would light it on fire, he could never go home if he had one, he probably shouldn't even stay in the same nation as her just to be on the safe side but since the Fire Nation's superiority was going to win the war and rule the world soon that meant he couldn't have one at all, even if an entire herd landed on his deck with little his-sized bison calves small enough to sneak into his room, uncle wouldn't even notice, he could probably just hide one behind a wall of tea boxes. But he couldn't because he had a little sister who was the literal worst. Regular, non-flying honor was the only kind Zuko could have that Azula couldn't torch.)
One deck fight later, Zuko couldn't quite bring himself to fireball the bison as it flew away. Shoot at it, sure, but he didn't have to hit.
The water tribe boy leaned over the edge of the saddle and tried hard to change his mind. "Your ponytail is stupid!"
Zuko responded the only way he knew how. "I hope your sister lights your bison on fire!"
Uncle appeared perplexed by this insult, like a man who half-understood, and half did not want to.