Zuko attempted to open his eyes, but his left one didn’t listen. He decided he was grateful that it didn’t listen. The response of pain that he received from asking it to was enough.
“Good morning, Prince Zuko,” a voice said lightly.
Zuko tried to sit up, but the rest of his body, mostly his left side, protested. His good eye focused and he glanced around to where he thought he heard the voice. Wolf was sitting next to him. A large cut marred a good portion of the older man’s face, but he was still smiling.
“Don’t call me that,” Zuko mumbled.
“Sorry. Iroh wanted to be here, but I think he wore himself out. Actually, that would be a fact. After all, we ran all the way there, and barely made it back. He crashed on the couch as soon as he knew we were back.”
“What about you?”
“As tired as I am, there’s a sudden ringing in my ears. I can’t sleep, so I decided to sit up with you.”
“Well, now that you’re up, I think I can switch shifts.” Wolf stood with a yawn and swayed slightly. He put his hands out to steady himself. Once he was certain he wasn’t going to fall over, Wolf headed for the door.
“I saw it,” Zuko commented quietly.
Wolf paused, hand on the door. “Saw what?”
“The wolf. I saw it. You didn’t lie.”
Wolf smiled slightly as he turned. “No, I didn’t.”
“You didn’t lie about anything.”
Wolf shrugged and walked over to look out the window. “Truth is, I’m a terrible liar. I always get caught.”
“I have a question Zuko. What do you think of cherry blossoms?”
“Yes. They’re in full bloom right now. Fire Nation soil is too harsh and warm for the tree’s taste, but here, they thrive.”
“I’ve never seen a cherry tree.”
“That’s sad. I think that they’re beautiful. Iroh doesn’t like them, though. He said that you can’t make good tea using the leaves, so they shouldn’t exist. Well, not the last part, but…”
“That’s just how Uncle is.”
“True.” Suddenly Wolf turned and addressed the door, “What do you want?”
“I hope you’re talking to yourself, Wolf,” a quiet girl’s voice muttered.
“No, Zuko’s awake now. I’ve been having a conversation with him.”
The door opened quickly and Jin marched in. She was livid. She stomped up to Wolf and started shaking her finger at him, lecturing. “I stayed up all night waiting for you. I made pots and pots of tea, hoping to have a fresh batch ready for you when you came back. Iroh crashed on the spot, and you refused to have any. Then you said that Zuko needs to sleep, and kicked me out of the room. You were right. Zuko was seriously injured and needs to rest to recover. So what are you doing? You’re having a conversation!”
“I was just…”
“No! We are going to give Zuko a cup of tea. Wait…We are going to warm him up a cup of tea and have him drink it. Then, we will leave the room quietly and let him rest! Now go! Get some ready.” Jin quickly went around and started pushing Wolf around the bed and out the door.
“Ok, ok. I’m going,” Wolf muttered, defenseless.
“And after your done, go get some sleep.” Jin finished, pushing Wolf out the door.
“Yeah, sure. Fine.”
Jin watched Wolf leave before turning to Zuko. “Good morning Zuko,” she said, quiet and cheerful once again.
“Jin? What are you doing here?”
She laughed, swaying slightly. “I work with Wolf some, remember? I just slipped into the palace that one time to get you.”
The pair was silent. Jin grabbed Zuko’s hand and started petting it.
“Jin was really worried about you,” Wolf stated, walking up behind the girl. “She made enough tea to serve the entire Fire Nation fleet.”
Jin blushed slightly. “I did not,” she mumbled.
“Well, here’s some. I tried to warm it up as best I could, but my firebending’s just not what it used to be.”
“I’ll take care of him now. Go rest.” Jin took the tea from Wolf and set it on a side table. Wolf left.
“Here, I’ll help you sit,” Jin muttered. Trying her best to avoid the most serious burns, Jin managed to help Zuko into a sitting position. “Your tea…” she commented, handing it off.
Zuko took a sip. “This reminds me of a long time ago.”
“It wasn’t that long.”
“It feels like it. Your tea is always the best. Right next to Uncle’s.”
Jin blushed at the compliment. “It’s not that good.”
“I think it is.”
Silence fell again. Zuko slowly sipped the tea. When it was about half way gone, he started up the conversation again. “Where you really worried about me, like Wolf said?”
Jin looked down, slightly embarrassed. “Yes.”
Jin’s gaze hardened slightly. She started wringing her hands together. “Because…you’re a nice person. Even though you’re a Firebender, you’re…pretty cool.”
“And you worried about me.”
“That makes me feel good.”
Jin looked up, startled. Zuko did not talk about what he was feeling. A mischievous look settled in her eyes. “You aren’t feverish, are you?”
“I don’t think so.”
She smiled slightly. “No, never mind. My mistake. Finish the tea, kay?”
Zuko obeyed and finished the rest of the tea with a couple swallows.
“I’m going to try and finish the salve I was working on for the burns. Now, promise me you’ll get some sleep?”
“All right. Good night.” Jin paused for a second. She took a deep breath, let it out with a sigh and a shake of her head and left. She closed the door quietly and leaned back against it. “I shouldn’t force my feelings on him. Not right now,” she muttered to herself.
The weeks passed by. Zuko’s burns healed well enough that he was able to move about. Iroh’s was still taking time. Wolf was just being Wolf. The day after the fight, he was back out scouting the island, making sure they weren’t followed. Jin yelled at him, but he didn’t listen.
Iroh and Wolf were sitting at the Pai Sho table, playing the game. Jin was in the kitchen, setting up for making supper. Zuko was in one of the rooms, resting.
“I really hate this game,” Wolf hissed.
“It is only because you keep loosing. You are improving though.”
“I’m going to teach you how to play chess. The spirits play it, so…you should catch on quickly.”
Iroh ignored the comment and moved one of his pieces.
“No,” Wolf moaned. That move put his pieces in a hole. “Yeah, we’re going to play chess. If only they had the figures for that at the market places.”
They were nearing the end of the game when Zuko entered the room. He sat down on the couch with out making a sound.
“Morning Zuko,” Wolf commented lazily.
“It is not morning any more,” Iroh corrected.
Wolf shrugged. “What ever.”
“It’s morning enough,” Zuko decided.
“See?” Wolf smirked. “So, what’s on your mind, Zuko?”
“A lot. It’s just…I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Do you guys want some tea?” Jin called.
“No,” Wolf and Zuko groaned. They had just finished off the tea from Jin’s nervous spree of tea making.
“Yes please,” Iroh smiled.
“How can you still drink that stuff?” Wolf asked.
“Because it is good.”
“Yuck. I’m sick of it.”
“What else will you drink?”
“Water. Just plain every day spring water. Or milk. They sell it in the village. You know, the one that’s not far from here. Of course, we could get a cow. We’d have fresh milk every day.”
“Just a cow?”
“You’re right. Cow cows are really hard to find. Their milk’s not that good any way. Maybe…a yakcowl? A cowoat?”
“Yakcowls are only found up north in the colder climates.”
“That’s right. So, we’d have to get a cowoat. Hey, Jin, you wanna take care of a cowoat?”
“Drat. Oh well, it’s just going to have to be daily market trips then.”
“Why don’t you take care of it?” Zuko asked.
“I don’t do well with hairy beasts. They’re better off as dinner.”
“I win,” Iroh said, snapping a tile down.
“Ah, I can’t believe it!” Wolf complained, both hands rising into the air. He looked up to see Zuko staring at him. “Your turn.”
“I don’t play.”
“Aw, come on. You can’t loose worse than I just did,” Wolf laughed as he walked over to the couch and sat next to Zuko. “Come on. Play.”
“How old are you again, Wolf?” Iroh asked sarcastically.
“I don’t want to play!” Zuko snapped. “I want to fight.”
“There’s no one to fight right now, Zuko. Besides, your body hasn’t quite finished healing.”
“I’m well enough.”
“No you aren’t!” Jin called from the kitchen.
Zuko sat, glaring angrily at the wall.
“All right. Let’s go.” Wolf stood, stretching.
“Go where?” Zuko mumbled.
“Out side. If we’re gonna spar, we gotta do it outside.”
“No!” Jin stormed into the room with a chef’s knife in one hand. She waved it around a little, making Wolf shrink back. “Zuko isn’t well enough to spar right now. His burns aren’t fully healed. Do you know what happens when you start moving quickly with unhealed burns? Wolf, you would be picking on a handicap! That’s not fair.”
“I can’t see well out of one eye. I’m not a cripple,” Zuko mumbled.
“I will not allow this!”
“Is something burning?” Wolf asked, sniffing the air.
“Oh, no. Don’t burn!” Jin hurried out of the room.
Wolf pulled at Zuko’s sleeve. “Let’s go.”
“She doesn’t need any help, does she?”
“Nah, nothing’s burning. It was just an excuse to get her out.”
“That’s low, Wolf,” Iroh muttered.
Wolf hurried out the door, Zuko close behind. Just as the door shut, Jin walked back into the room.
“I wasn’t burning anything. Now, where was I? Hey, where’d they go?”
“Out, I think,” Iroh replied. He stood with a small groan. “I get to catch up on some reading.”
“Boys,” Jin rolled her eyes. As she went back to the kitchen, she mumbled, “I’m not helping him this time.”
Wolf led Zuko a good distance from the place through the forest of cherry trees. “It’ll be good to stretch my muscles like this. Best way not to get fat. Well, exercise and not eating too much,” Wolf explained as they walked.
Zuko was quiet. He couldn’t figure out where Wolf came up with all of the random ideas that he had, and found it even harder sometimes to reply to them.
Wolf stopped at a large patch that was clear of trees. “This is good. Right here.” He started pacing around, nudging large rocks and tree branches out of the small area.
Zuko watched warily while Wolf worked. Firebenders could always attack when least expected.
Wolf caught Zuko watching him out of the corner of his eyes and laughed privately. He finished quickly. “All right. Now we can spar.”
Wolf slipped into the typical stance a Firebender used, with his hands straight instead of fisted, and held out in front of his chest. Zuko did the same, mimicking Wolf’s stance.
“Wait, one more thing. Since this is a spar, no fire.”
“What, because you can’t do it? Would that give me too much of an upper hand? Is that what you think? Or are you just afraid of getting burned?”
Wolf’s eyes hardened slightly. “Fire isn’t as easy to control. If a flame hits one of the trees, the whole island will go up in flame. I don’t want to have to deal with that. I like it here.”
“Coward,” Zuko whispered under his breath.
Wolf leapt suddenly. Zuko was slightly startled by the sudden attack, but he blocked easily. The young exiled prince counter attacked, forcing Wolf to guard or be hit. Wolf caught Zuko’s punch and threw it aside. Creating the opening, Wolf poked Zuko with two fingers. He was smiling slightly. “I win.”
Zuko glared. “I’m not through yet.”
“Good to hear.” Wolf took a couple steps back.
The two resumed the starting positions. Again, Wolf pressed the first attack. He moved just a little faster than he had the first time. Wolf threw a punch. Zuko ducked slightly, redirecting the blow over his head. Continuing the motion, Zuko spun and swiped Wolf’s legs out. Wolf fell. Zuko stood quickly and pointed towards Wolf.
“Not so tough now, are you?”
“That was a good one, Zuko. You win that round.” Wolf stood, smiling. He was really enjoying himself. “I think it would be best for now if we have a decisive round and be done. Jin won’t be too angry with us that way.”
“Who cares what she thinks,” Zuko muttered. “It works, though. One more round, then we’ll see.”
Zuko slipped back to the traditional starting stance. Wolf smirked and knelt on the ground, one leg under him and the other off to one side. Zuko’s brows furrowed. What kind of stance was that? Since he didn’t know what to expect, Zuko kept his defenses up and stayed where he was. Wolf bolted forward while still on all fours.
“I can’t believe you kicked me in the head,” Wolf commented, laughing slightly. He was rubbing the side of his head where Zuko had, in fact, kicked. The two were heading back to their place.
“I didn’t know what to expect. What did you want me to do?” Zuko replied defensively.
“Hold back?” Wolf partially asked. “Ok, fine, not really. You did really well. That just surprised me.”
“What was that supposed to be, any way?”
“I learned a lot from my wolf counter part. That was a fighting style based off of that.”
“Which is why it’s low to the ground.”
The two were silent for a while.
“The trees are nice,” Zuko mused quietly.
“They’re at the end of their season. If you had come here a little earlier, you could have seen them in full bloom. That’s a sight to see.”
Zuko nodded, expecting nothing more. Quietly, almost inaudibly, the fallen prince asked, “What did he do?”
“What did who do to what?”
“My father. He…he marked me…” with the statement, Zuko touched the healing area beneath his left eye. “He marked me as a traitor like this. How did he mark you?”
“In a little cleaner of a way.” Wolf stopped at that, and Zuko waited to hear more. Wolf glanced at Zuko, debating whether or not he wanted to continue. Seeing that Zuko was expecting more, Wolf sighed. “He branded me with the symbol of the aconite.”
“The aconite?” Zuko asked with astonishment as if to confirm that he had heard correctly.
“Yeah. I don’t know if the meaning’s changed any these past years, but the mark is still there, and it will always mean the same thing to me.”
“It’s a praise to the enemy,” Zuko muttered.
“A praise and a curse, both at the same time.”
“I would suppose it would be. Can…can I see it?”
“No, not now. It’s bad to show a Firebender marks like this.”
“I’m an outcast now as well. It shouldn’t matter.”
“All right. Later,” Zuko agreed. He was starting to understand Wolf a lot better now. He was very proud of who he was right now, but he seemed to be ashamed of the way he had become that person. Zuko could almost understand the feeling.
“Mind if I ask a question?” Wolf asked. Zuko shook his head. “You could have given Ozai a run for his money. I think you might have even been able to win, even. So, why didn’t you fight?”
Zuko froze for a moment. Wolf noticed his eyes widen slightly. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that,” Wolf muttered.
Zuko shook his head, clearing the sudden spread of emotions and started walking again. “No. I…I didn’t fight because I shouldn’t have. He’s my father, and I needed to be punished. I wasn’t scared of him. I think I could have fought against him and won, but that just wouldn’t be right, would it?”
Wolf smiled slightly. “No, it wouldn’t have been right. You’re still young, not quite old enough to be a Fire Lord. Not yet any way. Maybe in a couple more years.”
Zuko shook his head. “Not any more. I’m an exile.”
Wolf smirked. “There are ways, Zuko. There are ways.”
They made it back to the hut a little after that.
“Welcome back!” Jin called, skipping into the room as they entered. In her hands, she had a plate with odd white blobs on it.
“What are those supposed to be?” Wolf asked, leaning forward to get a better look at the monstrosities on the plate.
“Rice balls,” Jin replied proudly.
“Are we supposed to eat them?”
“Yes. Rice balls are good snacks, especially after training, because they are light and healthy.”
“Usually, I’m not one to argue, but it looks like that rice melted. I’m fine for now,” Wolf slipped past Jin and went to a back room.
“Zuko, would you like to try one?” Jin asked, hopeful.
“A rice ball?” Zuko asked. Wolf had been right, they looked awful.
“They’re kinda hard to mold, that’ why they look…weird.”
Zuko picked one up. Part of it started slipping through his fingers while the other half tried sticking. Hoping it wouldn’t kill him, Zuko took a small bite. He walked past Jin to sit at the table.
“Wolf’s missing out. They aren’t bad.”
“You like them?” Jin exclaimed. She pranced to set the tray with the rice ball monsters on the table next to Zuko. “I can make more! The book said that you could put little fillings in them. I thought I’d try it next time…”
Zuko sighed as he attempted to eat the rice ball. Jin kept talking about random things, and Zuko only paid half attention.
Chapter 9 – END