Chapter 35: Aftermath

Zuko spent most of the day yelling at people. After awhile, he wasn't sure which were his own people and which were the Water Tribe's, just that everyone was equally stupid and if they didn't stop trying to fight each other he was going to personally render each of them deaf. People in red needed to go that way, back to the ships, and help with the rescue efforts because some of their ships had capsized and those sailors aren't saving themselves so get moving.

People who were stabbing and/or waterbending at the people going towards the ships needed to STOP THAT OR ELSE. DO YOU THINK YOU'RE AS TOUGH AS A GIANT WATER SPIRIT BECAUSE YOU DON'T LOOK AS TOUGH AS A GIANT WATER SPIRIT—

(Sokka. Was getting a lot of exercise running interference. "Sorry, the Avatar's Fire Nation Advisor—you remember him, he's lived in your city for weeks and is on our side? The one who is possibly engaged to your princess, I'm still not entirely clear on how serious that is? He hasn't had his nap yet, and he apparently… generates little bitty bits of lightning all over his arms when he's cranky. Well that's a new and completely non-alarming development of which I was totally aware. So anyway could you please let these nice not-fighting-any-more troops retreat? And seriously, has anyone seen the Avatar, because we could really use some international mediation right about now—")

At some point someone picked Zuko up and carried him to bed. He was still shouting, he remembered that, and if he ever remembered who had interrupted him (and wrapped a blanket around him to ward against errant sparking, and carried him like he was a child), he was going to—to do something. Something more than curl up on a bed with a purring lemur at his back, when did Momo even get here. The bed was super warm even though the blankets were thin, because he was back on a Fire Navy ship and his people had invented hot-water radiators. He loved his country, good night.

When he woke up it was the next day, and people were still stupid, but no one new was dead so he had time to take a bath and eat the food Assistant Cook Dekku shoved his way before meeting with the fleet's acting commander. The fleet's acting commander seemed to think Zuko was the acting commander, which was—it was stupid, he was a banished prince, he couldn't hold a rank like that, and why was everyone bowing extra low—

"It might have something to do with the giant fish spirit you stopped before it could kill us all," Lieutenant Jee said. "Sir."

Right. For the purposes of simplifying negotiations, then, Zuko would be the fleet's representative to the Northern Water Tribe. But he was not their commander, that would be illegal.

"...Of course," the fleet's acting commander said. "Sir."

All the adults were looking at him, and somehow it made Zuko wanted to go back to bed for at least another day. But he needed to make sure their retreat was being organized, and that the Water Tribe knew the fleet was retreating and was going to let them, and that Sokka and Katara and Aang were okay, and his fiancee had stopped glowing—

So he borrowed a proper red winter coat from Hanako and marched back into the city. He tried to ignore the honor guard following him. Banished princes didn't get honor guards.

"What do you mean everyone is at the healer's?"

%%%

Yue didn't know how to soothe away her father's fears. He fussed at making sure she was comfortable sitting up against her pile of pillows, and held her hand, and kept looking at her hair without quite meeting her eyes. She used to be good at this; she could have found the words that would assure him that nothing had changed.

She still remembered the words, but she wasn't that girl who wanted smooth this all away just because he was worried. She hadn't been for awhile, but the difference between who she'd been at winter's start and who she'd been yesterday was as great again the gap to who she was today. She had been the Moon.

She had always been the Moon.

"Father," she stopped him, rather than soothed him. Raised a hand to the side of his face and touched him gently. Her father flinched under the craggy texture. The burns were scarred over, but the skin had healed tight, quick, unearned. Yugoda had warned her of the long road physical recovery would be. Warned her like Yue still thought 'months' or 'years' to be a long span of time.

In her hair was the barest sliver of new white. The moon had risen that day, past its fullness now, with its own barest sliver of black. Waxing and waning.

"I'm your daughter."

"Of course you—"

"Your heir. If I am to sit at your side, I will have a voice."

"I have always valued your council, Yue."

"In private, father. In words that did not offend, or push too far past your comfort. But I am your daughter and your heir." She was Yue and Tui. She was a short-lived mortal with so very little time to change things, and she would live forever in an unending state of nothing but change. "I am smart. I am competent. I understand our people's history, and I know how we must change if we are to survive into the future. We are the people of change, but for a hundred years we've—"

"Yue. I know the Avatar and his friends have put ideas in your head, but you know better. We've had to protect ourselves, defend our borders against attacks like this—"

If I was your son, would you talk over me?

She ran clumsy fingers over the white strands in her hair. She felt the touch in her scalp, but not in her hands.

"Father. I am your daughter and your heir. I am both. I've always been both, and I have no intention of separating the two any longer. I'll see you in the council room tomorrow. If any of your men protest, remind them who stabbed the enemy commander."

Remind them who tussled with the Ocean. Remind them by whose grace their bending works.

Things she could have said, but didn't. Because she shouldn't have to. She was the heir to the Northern Water Tribe, and she should not have to heap up impossible evidence to prove that her gender didn't make her weaker. She wasn't doing this as Tui. She wouldn't let them make her an exception, the one woman they would tolerate in power because the Moon had blessed her. She was doing this as a mortal girl, born too weak to make a sound.

He didn't argue with her further. Was it because she looked too worn, laying in her sickbed? Because Yugoda had warned him how close she'd come to true death? She was no sickly babe any longer, but the Moon had given her strength, and the Moon had needed it back. They shared it, now. Would he argue with her again when the moon was new, and her strength at its full again?

Or had she actually gotten through to him?

"Oh, and father? Could you please contact Master Pakku?" she smiled as sweetly as she ever had. "I'm a waterbender now. Yugoda has already agreed to teach me healing, but the future Chieftess should have the best of combat instructors, shouldn't she?"

He looked shaken as he left. He looked like a man whose daughter had stabbed someone while he'd been safe in his palace, had been a divinity and fought a divinity, and told him she was going to have an active voice in politics.

Yue rested back against her pillows. She flexed her fingers as far into fists as she could. It wasn't very far, and the skin flexed like a too-tight glove, but it was a start.

(She was already a master waterbender. She was the original waterbender. But she had never been a waterbender with two arms and two legs and a heart that pumped warm red water. She couldn't just push and pull in this body, or she might tear herself apart. No wonder humans had learned to dance with her, instead.)

"I don't need an escort!" shouted her favorite fiery cousin, from outside her room. "I know she fought a giant spirit monster, so did I, why are you acting like that makes her scarier than she was yesterday? She's a princess! Aggh, now she's giggling, this is all your fault."

Prince Zuko stomped inside her room. His arms were crossed, and scowl firmly in place. It was strange to see him dressed in red again. If Agni's chosen expected her to stop giggling, he could have perhaps taken the lemur off his head before entering. His escort, one patiently creaking former prisoner, took up a guard position directly inside the door. The Lieutenant looked strange, too, back in his armor instead of huddled under his polar bear goose wrap.

When her father had come, he'd looked first at her arms before he'd been able to jerk his gaze away. The Prince of the Fire Nation stared at her hair. Narrowed his eyes. Considered it, for a long moment, before giving a single sharp nod that made the lemur's ears flop.

"You're still pretty. And even if you weren't, you know how to stab someone, which is better."

"Thank you, Prince Zuko." Her best hostess voice rolled off her tongue, so easy to remember when she had nothing to prove to the boy in front of her. "Please, take a seat. How is our dear Admiral?"

He took the offered chair, the one her father had only just left, and glanced towards his Lieutenant. "I, ah… I forgot to check on him when I woke up. How is the prisoner?"

%%%

Zhao had been thrown into the brig of his own flagship last night. He had the whole cell block to himself. His armor had been stripped, his stab wound and the incidental burns of an enraged twelve-year-old bandaged. He had not been shackled. It wouldn't have been sporting.

As ranking officer, Lieutenant Commander Teruko had physically restrained Engineer Hanako until the rest of the crew could arrive. She believed in equality among her subordinates.

(As the no-longer-ranking officer, Lieutenant Jee sulked creakily in the direction of her new officer stripes. He believed in reinstating demotions, but their chain of command was no longer clear.)

Hawker Genji had taken up watch by the brig doors. Signaled the all clear, with no trace of a smile.

"All of you for one of me?" Zhao sneered. "How brave."

"Like trying to kill a twelve-year-old?" Hanako asked.

%%%

Somewhere in the Earth Kingdom, Admiral Frog-Zhao croaked.

This was one of life's many illustrative lessons on literal v metaphorical occurrences.

%%%

"Lieutenant?" the prince prompted.

"Zhao died of his wounds," Lieutenant Jee replied.

This was a completely factual statement.

"Oh." The Fire Prince blinked up at his Lieutenant, then turned back to Yue with another tight nod. "Good job."

Yue took a moment to look at the Lieutenant, too. The Lieutenant took a moment to look over her head, incidentally avoiding all eye contact.

"...I'm sure we all did our part," she said.

Zuko shifted in his seat. Very stiffly. Now he looked at her arms, though his gaze didn't flinch away as her father's had. "Do they still hurt, or did the spirit magic make it okay?"

"They… feel like they don't fit right."

He nodded again. A different nod from before, though still perfectly serious. "I don't think it goes away, but sometimes you can forget. Unless people are staring and they make you remember, but then you can glare at them. Though I guess your glare isn't any better now. Maybe you could wave?"

"I'll take that under consideration." If his aim was to stop her giggles, he was doing a very poor job of it.

He fidgeted, and flushed, and looked away from her for the first time. "Are we… actually engaged?"

"What's the legal marrying age in the Fire Nation?"

"Sixteen."

"And you're?"

"Twelve."

"Then we're engaged for the next four years."

"You… you can't use me as a marital meat shield!"

Yue smiled in exactly the way a demi-goddess fiancee princess who'd guaranteed herself four whole years without suitors would.

%%%

Aang heard Zuko coming from all the way on the other side of the healing house. Which on one hand was good, because he had plenty of time to sit up (with Katara's help) and stop wincing (mostly) and then realize that sitting up was a really bad idea and kind of slide back down (oww). On the other hand it was really bad because Zuko was shouting which meant he was already in a bad mood and, well, Aang didn't think he was really going to make it better—

Sokka helped him tug the blanket back up over his chest, and gave an encouraging double-thumbs-up and a not-so-encouraging smile-wince. Aang returned a wince-smile. And then Zuko was in the room and literally steaming and Momo was puddling on his head and looking immensely pleased with the world.

"Hi, Zuko!" Aang said. He added the exclamation mark to cover for the lack of volume and enthusiasm.

"Where were you yesterday, there was this giant water spirit attacking my— Are you okay?"

"Uh," Aang stalled. Because those were two very different questions with one remarkably similar answer. "Great! I just, uh… How are you?"

"How are you?" Katara took over, soothing and in charge and totally deflecting the topic as she gave up her own chair and made the prince sit down. "Have you been checked over by a healer yet?"

"The ship doctor—"

Katara eye-rolled dramatically. "A proper Water Tribe healer. Come on, take off the coat. The shirt, too."

Zuko flushed, and turned away from Aang to comply, and Sokka threw Katara a double-thumbs-up all her own.

Healing bruises and Zhao-burns and double-checking that Zuko hadn't gotten a new concussions, because that wasn't something they could ever trust Zuko to report accurately, successfully delayed the conversation by ten whole minutes. And all of the take-a-deep-breath-please's that Katara ordered in her assistant-healer-voice really toned down the shouting by the time he wiggled back into his shirt. So. Zuko was calm now, right?

So everything was going to be fine. When he asked again. Which he did, immediately, because Aang was still laying down and Zuko narrowed his eyes at him.

"What happened? Did Zhao get you? I didn't see, I thought he only hurt Yue—"

"Uh. Do you remember the Ocean Spirit?"

"The… black fish, in the pond? You got attacked by a fish?"

"Not attacked. Just… possessed? A little?"

Zuko's face darkened. "I'm going to fry it."

"No need for the future tense there, little buddy," Sokka said. And immediately clapped a hand over his own mouth. Over Zuko's head, Katara glared at him.

Zuko looked between them all. Aang hoped that he'd get it, then Aang wouldn't have to explain it, but… Zuko definitely didn't get it.

Aang twiddled his thumbs. In his lap, because it hurt too much to set them on his chest, not that he was complaining. Yugoda said he was healing really well and it was a miracle he wasn't—

Zuko was doing that really deep scowly thing he did when he realized everyone else knew something he didn't and they weren't telling him. He crossed his arms and stared at Aang and didn't blink.

"Do you remember when the Ocean got… really big?" Aang asked.

"It… what? Wait, that was the Ocean? I shot lightning at the Ocean?"

Aang twiddled his thumbs a little more and really, really hoped he wouldn't have to say it—

He didn't.

Zuko was always pale, but he went snow pale. "I shot you."

"But I'm okay! Your fiancee kissed me, but not in a cheating-on-you-way, just in a healing-me-way, and I'm totally fine now—"

Zuko definitely needed a hug. Aang kind of needed a hug too, which meant this worked out great. He just needed to sit up—

Sitting up had not become a better idea at any point in the last fifteen minutes, oww, he was just going to… not do that.

Zuko stared at the place where Aang's blanket had slipped.

Lightning scars were actually kind of cool. And his was pretty much healed, between Yue and Yugoda. It wasn't even that bad. Sure it was kind of big, but he could always hide it under a shirt if he wanted to, not like Zuko's scar (oh that was a not-nice thought he was so glad he hadn't said that out loud—)

"I—I didn't mean to," Zuko said. "I didn't know, I wouldn't have—"

%%%

I wouldn't have fought you, Zuko didn't say, because he couldn't, because what else could he have done, the Ocean and apparently the Avatar and been attacking his people—

"Hey, nephson. Breathe. It's okay."

Sokka tried to hug him but he didn't want hugs, he wanted to not have thrown lightning at his friend. He wanted his friend not to have killed his people; there were eight ships that had gone down in the waves, and all the soldiers who'd been in the streets when the spirit monster had passed them, and the survivors had been keeping up efforts to find them but rescue had turned to recovery because polar waters weren't forgiving. The Ocean wasn't forgiving.

He'd had to attack the spirit. And he didn't regret it. He… he didn't regret attacking Aang.

Sokka had gotten past his elbow-stabs to hug him, and Katara was trying to wrap an arm in there too, because they didn't know that he was a horrible person who would—would burn a twelve-year-old, try to kill a twelve-year-old, and not regret it. What kind of person did that—

Zuko very suddenly and very clearly needed to not be in this room. Or thinking. Or being forgiven.

%%%

Zuko shrugged out of Sokka and Katara's hugs and ran out before Aang could even try sitting up and joining in.

He ran before Aang could thank him. Because… because Aang remembered being so angry, and he remembered how many more people he'd wanted to hurt—

He ran, and Aang felt kind of super terrible that it was easier to breathe with him gone, because he also remembered pain that had felt like it went on forever and—

(He didn't remember dying. But he remembered waking up and not being dead, and it… wasn't the good kind of surprise. It was the kind of surprise that made him remember turning to look down on the tiny figure that dared attack him and he'd been ready to kill that one, too, but then the lightning had hit.

He had seen the lightning that had—

Had—)

Tui had fixed it. But he was still relieved that the person who'd killed him was gone (the person he would have killed, if Zuko hadn't killed him first), and Aang didn't have to smile at him anymore.

(It was good he'd been stopped, someone had needed to stop him, he was grateful he really was but—)

(But Zuko hadn't hesitated at all.)

(Aang hadn't hesitated, either. He'd just turned too slowly.)

%%%

Sokka gave his nephson a few minutes to cool down before following.

This proved to be a minor mistake when he found that said nephson had fled back into the Fire Navy fleet to sulk.

It proved to a giant terrible are-you-serious-right-now mistake when the fleet left.

Giving Zuko room to cool down, Sokka realized, was the stupidest move he had ever made as the uncdad of a child who'd had half his face burned off the last time he'd screwed up in his father's eyes.

Sokka was going to find his son and hug the rejection-adversion out of him, so help him.

%%%

"Prince Zuko," the acting fleet commander said. With a bow, he held out a map. "Our course."

"You don't have to get my approval," Zuko scowled. "I'm not your commander."

"Of course, sir. It's a… courtesy."

The man was still bowing. And people were allowed to be courteous, even to banished princes. Zuko took the map.

The fleet wasn't going back to the Fire Nation. Not immediately, not even though the northern islands were within range of their remaining supplies. They were going back to the colonies, first. To one of the ports Zuko was allowed to set foot in.

"...Thank you for your consideration, Commander."

"Of course, my Prince." he said the words in exactly the way Zhao never had. "Do you have any suggestions, sir? ...Unofficially."

I want to go home. I want to see Azula and Uncle and—and Father.

(If he ordered it at that moment, they might obey. And he'd bring a fleet of warships to his Father's harbor.)

"No," Zuko said. And handed the map back. And fled that room, because fleeing rooms was apparently his new hobby.

Lieutenant Jee was waiting for him at the door. One of his old crew always seemed to be waiting for him, no matter where he went, like they were afraid he was going to disappear again. Zuko draped himself over the ship's rail and listened to the reassuring sound of waves against the hull, and Lieutenant Commander Who-Had-Prompted-Her Teruko shouting orders at the deck crew, and the creaks of armor behind him.

"Do you think my Father will be proud of me?" he asked.

"He should be. Sir."

But he wasn't. Neither of them were.

There were blue sails ahead. Zuko straightened.

%%%

"That," Bato said, "is a lot of ships."

Ugly metal hulls pierced the waves in a hundred places, running full steam towards them. Water Tribe ships were sleeker, quicker. When there was wind.

The Ocean had been… temperamental, the last few days.

"Ready the men," Hakoda said. An order he knew two dozen other ship captains were giving their own crews. They were near dead in the water, but they weren't helpless.

The Fire Navy fleet approached, its course unchanged.

...Completely unchanged. They were going to pass straight by Hakoda's ships.

"What are they doing…?"

Bato wordlessly passed him the spyglass.

Hakoda saw his so-called grandson for the first time, standing at the bow of the largest flagship he'd ever seen. The Fire Prince was dressed in a blood red coat and scowling across the distance as if he could see them. There was, inexplicably, a sword hilt sticking up from his back. And something white on his head that Hakoda couldn't quite make out.

The Fire fleet passed.

Within an hour, the Ocean seemed in much better spirits. Hakoda continued north.

%%%

"Do you think Zuko realized he stole Momo?" Aang asked.

"...Dibs on stealing Hawky," Sokka replied, like the responsible adult he was.

Besides, someone had to take charge of Zuko's bird. All this lazing around in pet sweaters was making her fat.