"I told you, the twist puts you off balance."
"And I told you, I have to keep the water's momentum up or it just splashes everywhere."
"It splashes everywhere when I knock you over because you're off balance. Do you need another demonstration, waterbender?"
Iroh sipped his tea, drinking in the sound of his nephew making friends. Granted that Zuko had to semi-kidnap them first. It was an approach to the problem Iroh himself should have considered years ago; perhaps if he had found some war orphans in the colonies, and bribed them aboard with the promise of regular meals if they would simply not run when his nephew approached…
"When you get sick of hitting the deck, let me know. I'll show you proper footwork. Again."
"Your footwork is too—too And-Then-The-Fire-Nation-Attacked! I can't change directions like that! You try doing this while holding water. Where did that—here! Hold this."
"I am not holding your water bucket."
"Hold it and try to do one of your jumpy fire kick things."
"I could. If I wasn't holding your water bucket."
"Just do it."
Ah, but colony children would be much more differential towards their prince. They would not, for instance, set his nephew up to dump half a bucket of water on his shirt.
"I told you! The twist keeps the water contained, otherwise it just… does that. I can't do the jerky starting and stopping you do."
Zuko dripped with far more patience than Iroh was accustomed to.
"Heh," the Water Tribe boy said. "She called your fire magic 'jerky'. You jerkbender."
Iroh sipped his tea, his ears losing a few more days off their useful life expectancy as his nephew returned to his usual volume.
It had been a week since their prison hold had filled up with children. Which was, Iroh noted, not a phrase he had ever expected to think, much less with any fondness. Miss Katara was making quite remarkable progress on her bending, particularly her sparring. As sparring appeared to be both her and Zuko's preferred method of interaction, it was little wonder.
"Lean back a little more, Katara. Let the water counterbalance you. Push and pull," the boy who was no longer claiming to be the Avatar said, having perfected this particular move on his second try.
"I know push and pull, Aang," Miss Katara growled. She had been working on this particular move all week.
"No, maybe he's right. Fire doesn't have weight to it, but water does. Maybe its like… like grabbing the edge of a wall, and spinning around. You're off balance, but—"
"—The wall holds your weight so—"
"Your center of gravity is shifted towards the middle, and—"
"That's what I said," the just-an-Air-Nomad complained, as he watched Zuko help the waterbender adjust her stance, with hands very close to her waist in case she should fall. The monk looked distinctly jealous that it was not his hands by the waterbender's waist. Ah, young love.
His nephew was proving very good at understanding the frustration that came with competing against a prodigy.
"I got it! I got it, I got it!"
"Get off of me."
Less so at understanding the concept of physical affection. Or perhaps uncomplicated affection, in general.
"They have a betting game, you know," Sokka said, finally choosing his move. He placed the water lily tile in the eastern quadrant, ascendant of the fire lily, the opposite elements protecting his growing bid for territory in a way Iroh had not anticipated. If the young man had not taken ten minutes to do so, Iroh would have been impressed. "Most jerk-hugs in a day wins their pick of the pillows. Commander Prince Zuko Sir has to earn the hug first, though, or it would be like that day Aang just followed him around."
Iroh remembered that day. And the resulting fires. He moved the panda lily in opposition to fire and water, threatening a coup of the tribesman's own pieces. An ample distraction from the net he was forming on the outer edges of the board. "Are you participating in this hugging game, as well?"
"You are assuming I have a need for pillows," the boy smirked the smirk of the manically sleep-deprived. He would, perhaps, be picking up pai sho even faster without the sunken pits of exhaustion growing under his eyes. Assistant Cook Dekku had stopped trusting him near the stoves two days ago, when he'd found the boy entranced by boiling water—so bubbly, life is but a short stride from the roiling of the primordial ooze that beckons our return. So, so bubbly. This had lead to much more time for pai sho.
"Aren't you going to try?" the waterbender asked.
"...What do you mean?" his nephew shifty-eyed.
"Zuko. You realize we can see you when you practice, right? Just adapt it like you did for the waterwall, and—"
"I was alone."
"Aang and I were up on the lookout—"
"Airbender you said you would stay off my lookout tower."
"I promised I wouldn't live on your lookout tower," the child who was technically still too young to have even been told whether he was the Avatar said.
"I don't get what the big deal is. Why shouldn't you practice new moves?"
"It's not proper bending! You wouldn't understand, you've never had a master, there are rules, and standards, and if you don't meet them then—then it's bad and you're wrong, okay?"
"Because that's the way it is! That's why I'm still on basics, because my style is all wrong and—get off of me, airbender!"
"Nope," the young monk who was the subject of many of Iroh's new pai sho letters smirked.
"I moved," Sokka said, jarring Iroh from his thoughts. "And you didn't immediately make a mind-bogglingly complex countermove five strategy layers deep. Are you… okay?"
"My apologies," Iroh returned his attention to the board, and made a simple move a mere three strategy layers deep. If his outer net should fail to conquer the board entire, he would at least have the western and southern quadrants to fall back on. And perhaps the northern too, if the boy didn't realize what moves his creeping ivy had opened up two turns prior. He need only place the sunflower just so, but he was hoping Sokka would close that gap in his defenses before he got to tearing it wide open and making it bleed across the board. Iroh would generously allow him two additional turns for this noticing. Truly, closing his net would be more elegant. It was so rare to extend a game long enough to play out such an all-encompassing strategy.
"Hey. Hey," Sokka said, and closed an incidental gap in his defenses that Iroh had not even considered. "Thought you could pull one over on me, did you?"
"I see you are too quick for this old man," Iroh replied.
"How are you on the basics when you can beat three of your crewmen at once?" Miss Katara asked, crossing her arms.
"Because they're even worse than me," Zuko said, demonstrating his ability to be maximally insulting both to himself and others. Simultaneously. "Airbender, let go before I—"
"Ah-HA!" Sokka said, triumphantly placing the sky lily in its place, turning Iroh's panda lily to his own ends. The cascade of piece exchanges rippled over the board, flipping the daikon root and the chive tile and a seemingly random scattering of others until finally, at the very bottom edge, Sokka's humble dandelion flipped into Iroh's control. The net closed. Iroh sipped his tea while he waited for the tribesman to realize what he had just happened.
"...I just beat myself. Didn't I."
"You did have some small assistance," Iroh smiled.
"And that's enough of that," the Water Tribe boy said, standing. "Hey, Commander Prince Zuko Sir! What scrolls do you have for real weapons?"
"None," Zuko scowled. "I was preparing to fight the Avatar; I have bending scrolls. And don't call me that."
"Avatar Kyoshi used weapons," the not-an-Avatar said. "And Avatar Yangchen would have known how to use a staff, everyone learns. And—"
Zuko shook himself out of the airbender's grasp, and stomped off.
"I'm always really unclear on whether he's coming back," Sokka said.
"The trick is in the volume," Crewman Teruko replied, from her place nominally guarding the deck but mostly enjoying the show. "The louder he's shouting, the longer he'll be gone. I think he just went to get something."
Iroh reset the board. Miss Katara shrugged, and looked to Aang. The young monk hopped down off the deck rail, and eagerly took his place in the space Zuko had vacated. Together the two began to move through the kata she'd just perfected. The water in the bucket at her side rose, as did the ocean at the not-an-Avatar's side, and the waterbender dropped her arms and froze while the certainly-just-an-airbender gaped at what he had definitely not just done in full view of the crew—
Iroh spilled his tiles all over and very loudly, how unfortunate. He followed this up with many equally loud, laughing apologies, and perhaps accidentally bumped a few tiles to go rolling off for the deck guards to chase.
When Zuko came stomping back with a scroll in his hand, the airbender and waterbender were leaning against the railing. Not-The-Avatar Aang was whistling. This was so far from inconspicuous that even Zuko paused a moment to glare suspiciously at them before finishing his stomp over to Sokka.
"Here." The scroll was thrust into the boy's chest, somewhat more gently than the action implied. This was likely for the scroll's sake more than the boy's.
"So you do have weapons scrolls," Sokka said. "And you lied about this, why?"
"I forgot," Zuko lied.
"Uh-huh," Sokka did not believe him. But he did unroll the scroll. "This is for two swords. Don't you have anything for one? Or for a club? Or for two clubs?"
"What part of hunting the Avatar don't you understand?" Zuko said.
"The 'why you're doing it' part," Sokka said.
Prince Zuko ignored him. "Avatar Kyoshi used two fans. This was as close as I could find. If you don't want it— "
The tribesman curled protectively over the scroll. Behind him, the young monk and Miss Katara edged their way towards the door to the hold. Iroh could tell the exact moment they crossed from the blind spot of Zuko's scarred periphery into the center of his vision; he tensed, and scowled hard enough to cover for it.
"Where are you going?"
"Our cells," Katara answered, with a bright smile.
"With your water bucket?"
"It's really breezy up here," young Aang said, his smile even brighter.
"You're an airbender."
"I figured I could practice finer movement control. In a, ah, smaller space," the waterbender's smile was, perhaps, frozen to her face.
"Oh. Uh. Do you… want me to come with you?"
"No, no, we wouldn't want to impose upon your princely time," the girl might be giving herself a permanent smile-cramp.
Iroh could tell the exact moment his nephew realized his presence was not wanted, as well. The reaction was much the same as to someone approaching from his blind spot.
"Fine!" he shouted. "It's about time I had the deck to myself. Go splash in your cell, Waterbender."
"I will," she snapped.
"Have fun throwing fireballs!" the monk said, with an earnest wave.
"I don't have fun!"
Perhaps there was some merit in these semi-kidnapped friends. But there would be more in real ones. Ones who were not already lying to him, and destined to leave him. Iroh only hoped that this 'Aang' was a match for Bumi's; he wished to get the boy and the Water Tribe siblings off the ship, before their leaving would hurt his nephew too much.
Sokka awkwardly reached out a hand, as if to pat Zuko's shoulder. He retracted it at the last moment; it was in Zuko's blind spot, and he never saw.
"Hey there. Buddy. You could, ah. You could hold my scroll for me, if you want."
Zuko was shouting very loudly when he left the deck. Iroh did not expect to see him again for some time. Not until they sighted the port, most likely.
Zhao's ship was at port. Because of course it was.
"Does he ever actually patrol?" Zuko asked, lowering the spy glass. Behind him on the bridge, Lieutenant Jee didn't tend to reply verbally to his teenage commander; replying could lead to conversations, conversations to fraternization, fraternization to caring about the child commander he was watching grow up and thinking too hard about how and why the leader of their glorious nation came to banish his gravely injured thirteen year old son on a ship likely to sink with a crew whose records read like future mutiny in an ocean full of enemy ships.
Lieutenant Jee avoided non-course-related conversations with the younger prince whenever possible. But he shifted his weight, and his armor creaked sympathetically.
The prince glared at him. "I thought I told you to maintain your armor, Lieutenant."
Which was what Jee got for even trying. "Yes, Sir."
"Dock as far from Captain Zhao as possible. I need to go make sure some peasants know their place."
The prince stomped off. Jee refrained from creaking.
Aang shifted through the stance, and gracefully returned the water to the bucket. The water Katara had spilled. For the third time.
"See, you just need to keep your wrists steader, and move your ankles more—"
"That," Katara smiled through gritted teeth, "is exactly what I've been doing, Aang."
Oh thank the spirits, someone she could yell at and/or strangle. Aang hastily took a step back from the bucket, and clasped his hands behind his back, beaming a still-not-the-Avatar smile. Katara crossed her arms, and set her feet, and scowled.
And made a mental note to have Sokka guard the stairs, the next time Aang was practicing bending down here. If Zuko had a single stealthy bone in his body, they could have been in real trouble. As it was, the shouting and stomping gave them more than enough time to prepare.
"Peasants! Where's Other One?"
"Wasn't he on deck, training with you?" Katara asked. "Did you lose my brother?"
"I was not— Why would I know anything about swords, they're—they're for non-benders and screwups, and— and I'm not your brother's keeper, that's Crewman Teruko's job!"
"No offense, but she's not that invested in it."
Zuko shut his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, and exhaled slowly in a very clear counting to ten before continuing this conversation way. When he looked at them again, his volume could almost pass for normal people's volume. "We're almost at port. I order you to remain in your cells. ...Or their associated hallway. Don't come up the steps, and don't talk to anyone."
Katara might have snapped something about them not really being his prisoners, and actually a look at this port (her second stop outside the home she'd never left before) sounded lovely, but he interrupted her with a key. Shoved at her crossed arms. She caught it, on reflex.
"The key to your cells," he said, before she could ask. "In case you need to lock yourselves in."
"Why would we…" her words trailed off as her brain caught up to the million horrible scenarios that she'd somehow forgotten over the past few days. She and Aang exchanged a look of mutual remembering-where-they-were. Because this was a Fire Navy ship and they were about to dock at a Fire Navy port full of Fire Nation citizens. People who'd sent a whole fleet south when they heard they might have missed a single waterbender. People who were pretty sure they'd gotten all the airbenders. They weren't safe here, and she didn't know when she'd forgotten that.
The Fire Prince turned his head away from whatever look was on her face, and rubbed at the back of his neck. "It… it shouldn't be a problem. There were no admiralty flags in the harbor, so no one here outranks me, and they wouldn't want to get on Uncle's bad side. You're my prisoners, they don't have any right to take you off the ship. But Uncle and I and Lieutenant Jee have to go deal with resupplying, and Zhao's in port, and I'm pretty sure he learned after the last time not to take things from my ship but he's an asshole so he might try to pull rank which he doesn't have—"
Katara could have probably gotten another hug in towards her Pillow Pick, but opted for an awkward pat on his arm, instead. "Thanks. Umm. For the warning? And for not turning us over at literally the first port we came to? I—I was really worried when we first came aboard, but you're…" She wanted to say 'a surprisingly good person', but had a feeling he'd take offense. What was a Fire Nation-y compliment? "...an honorable man. And a pretty good teacher."
And he could turn red as fast as a mimic-catopus on a Fire Nation flag, wow. The scowl did nothing but emphasize how bad he was at taking a compliment.
"Just… just stay here. That's an order. I'll have Teruko bring your brother down when she finds him."
They had still not found Other One by the time the crew was tying up at dock. Zuko didn't know if this was because Teruko was that good at ignoring her orders, or the boy was that good at hiding. If he was breaking into the food stores again, Zuko hoped he choked.
This was the mood in which he disembarked, and waited for Zhao. Not that he actually waited, but he took three steps off the gangplank with Uncle and—
"Ah, Captain Zhao!" Uncle beamed, loudly warning him.
"It's Commander Zhao, now," the man smugged back, because of course he'd been promoted again. Of course. At this rate he was going to be admiral by the time the comet came, and Zuko was just… going to have to avoid an entire swath of ocean, to stop his ship from being commandeered, or something.
"Congratulations on the promotion, Commander," Uncle said, so Zuko didn't have to. Behind them, Lieutenant Jee quietly used their sacrifice to sneak off towards the coinmaster's office. He'd long ago perfected the art of using his princes as human shields. Zuko… couldn't blame him.
"You're back from the South Pole early." Zhao's smile was like an eel-shark's. "Find the Avatar?"
"I will find him." Zuko took in a measured breath, and let it out. "What do you want, Captain?"
"Commander," he corrected, with a narrowing of his eyes over his unwavering smile. "I wished to apologize in person for the shortages on your way south, Prince Zuko. Supply line troubles; you understand. Only priority missions can be given preferential treatment."
"Finding the Avatar is a priority mission," Zuko snapped. "And I have a lead—"
Zhao smirked the exact same smirk he'd used the last time Zuko had shouted 'I have a lead'. And the last-last time. And the time before that. "And what is it this time, my Prince?"
"I found an air—"
"Nephew," Uncle interrupted, with a friendly chuckle, "let us not bore the new Commander with the scrolls we found on our Air Temple expedition."
Zuko shut his mouth over found an airbender and realized he couldn't say that, even if it was the best lead ever, even if he was getting so close to finding the Avatar and he wanted to rub it into this smug weasel-rat's face. Because Aan—the monk wasn't a scroll or a dusty relic or a spirit-cursed object, he was a person, and hadn't Zuko just told the kid and the waterbender to stay down in their cells so they wouldn't attract attention?
"You're right, Uncle," Zuko ground out. "Excuse us, Commander. We have a lot to do if we want to make the next tide."
He took a step to go around. Zhao took a step to block him. And another, until they were nearly toe-to-toe. "Oh, you wouldn't be boring me at all. I'm a dabbler in spirit research, myself. Perhaps we could discuss your future plans, and your options. Join me for tea?"
Zhao's face was right there, and all Zuko wanted to do was take a few steps back and scrub the wet-warm feeling of Zhao-breath off his face but if he gave the man an inch he'd look weak and it would just be worse next time—
"Wow, you're creepy," a dock dock guard said. A short, scrawny dock guard wearing ill-fitting armor with the Wani's seal on its shoulder plate even though he was not one of Zuko's crew. Zuko couldn't see who he was behind his helmet, but he had a feeling he knew anyway. "Like, don't follow the strange shadow into the tundra creepy. Do you practice, or is this just a natural talent?"
Zhao took a step back, to better see his new target. Zuko did not let his shoulders sag in relief.
"...I see they've lowered the age of enlistment. Or are you filling the dearth in your ranks with colony brats, Prince Zuko?"
"Who are you calling a colony brat?" the false guard puffed out his chest. "I'm a warrior! A W— Fire Nation warrior! Fire and imperialism, rawr!"
Zhao's face was the fine line between perplexed and apoplexed. Zuko stepped between them, knocking the fake guard back towards the boarding ramp with his shoulder as he angled his body towards Zhao's.
"Unfortunately, Commander, I will have to decline your generous offer. I must discipline my crewman."
"Do so," Zhao said.
Zuko and Iroh and the fake guard turned their heads, watching him leave. Zuko let himself take two calming breaths after that. Then he spun around, and ordered very reasonably, "Take off the helmet, Other One."
The Water Tribe boy did. He then proceeded to hold said helmet up, and point at it, apparently for Zuko's benefit. "These things have terrible peripheral vision. Just a really bad design. I thought the Fire Nation was supposed to be advanced with its engineering. And what's with the skull motif? Are you guys not even pretending to yourselves that you're the goodies?"
Zuko took in another breath, and did not roast the boy alive inside his well-insulated armor. "Why," he growled. It was the only word he could get out, but the teen seemed to understand.
"After you went rage-stomping off to sulk, I went to find swords to practice with. You should really lock your armory."
...Zuko was going to have another talk with his quartermaster. And remove the supply closet keys from the man's control. "Why."
Again, the boy understood. "Just testing how easy it would be to infiltrate your fleet. Pretty easy."
"Go back to your cell, peasant."
"Sure, I'll get right on that. But first: correct me if I'm wrong, but was or was that man not the creepiest ever. With the leaning into your personal space and the breathing on you and the would-you-like-to-drink-of-my-probably-drugged-tea."
Zuko knew he shouldn't, in no way should he be distracted or in any way encourage this behavior, but his hands were already gesturing before he could stop himself. "Yes. Uncle always says I'm imagining it!"
"You are not imagining it."
Uncle stroked his beard. "I did not say you were imagining it, only that the lotus bloom rises above murky waters."
"What does that mean," the Water Tribe boy said, "and why would you want your nephew's lotus bloom touched by murky waters."
Zuko gesticulated in an extremely vindicated manner, before he remembered he should be angry about this. "Get back on the ship! And take off that armor!"
"Yes sir, Commander Prince Zuko Sir," the sleep-deprived teen saluted. "I will definitely do that and nothing else."
Lieutenant Jee arrived at the coinmaster's office. The coinmaster looked up as he entered, looked down at the Wani's crest on his shoulder, and proceeded to put an Out to Lunch sign on his desk.
"Sorry," the man said, "we just closed."
"You're going out to lunch?" Jee asked. Not pointing out that most people, at this degree of the sun, had only just finished breakfast. The man looked down at his own sign, as if to confirm that neither he nor Jee were illiterate. "Let me come with; I don't know the good places around here."
"Sir— " the man began to decline.
"On me," Jee said. "After all, it's payday."
Or it would be, as soon as he could talk this man around to releasing the crew's wages. Lunch, Jee had found, generally helped where a shouting teenager did not. The Wani's resupplying party was a highly specialized team.
"Do you think they ever found Sokka?" Aang asked, his legs propped up on the wall and his back on the pillow pile.
"Honestly? I'm not sure they even looked," Katara said, in much the same position, but with a catopus sprawled purring on her stomach.
Prison was boring, even when you had the key.
Sokka was entirely unclear on whether the crew didn't notice him under his newly replaced guard helmet, or just didn't care.
"We're going drinking, Ensign Other One," Hawker Genji said, thoroughly answering the question above. "You coming?"
"You want a Water Tribe warrior imitating a Fire Nation solider to accompany you on an ill-supervised, well-libated excursion into an enemy port," Sokka summarized. "A port he may or may not be actively thinking of ways to sabotage?"
"Aren't we all?" Engineer Hanako said.
Which pretty much sold him on going drinking with the evil people, yes.
Iroh cornered the supply officer with good cheer and a ruthlessly effective memory. "Ah, Sargeant Yuuki! How is your wife?"
"She's well, General, thank you for— Excuse me, you can't— Commander Zhao has ordered a hold on supply distribution while we conduct inventory—"
Crewman Teruko and Assistant Cook Dekku blithely ignored the man, and began loading bags onto the cart they'd appropriated. Pikesman Kazuto looked somewhat more nervous, but followed his senior crewmen's lead.
"And your daughter? She is four now, correct?"
"Her birthday was last— Put that back!"
The Wani was, on paper, allotted the usual food supplies for a ship of its class. In practice, there were always shortages and inventory check lockdowns and supplies urgently needed elsewhere, yes all of them.
Fortunately, those assigned to the Wani were already naturally inclined to disrespecting such inconveniences as 'authority.'
"If I'm not mistaken, she'll be throwing her first sparks soon!" Iroh chuckled, keeping his considerable good will positioned between the supply officer and the rapidly working crewmen.
"Yeah, she— We only have one of those, you actually can't take that one!"
They had gotten very efficient, in two and a half years.
"So I don't actually have any money," Sokka said, sometime after the Wani's crew had sat him down at the table but before Helmsman Kyo had come back with their drinks.
"Darling," Hawker Genji said, clapping his armor on the back. "If you're paying for drinks, you're doing it wrong."
"Uh," Sokka said, suddenly a little alarmed by the course this night might take. "I'm flattered, but—"
"And I'm spoken for," Genji grinned. "Also: not what I was talking about. Observe." He grabbed Sokka's shoulders, and turned him around. The one they were observing was the Helmsman.
"Kyo's got kind of this easy-to-eat-alive air about him," Assistant-to-the-Doctor and Occasional Pikeswoman Satomi confided. "We always send him up to break the ice."
Sokka had seen shark-wolves closing in on bleeding prey. This looked a lot like that. The red-dressed soldiers around the Helmsman were laughing, but Sokka wouldn't describe it as with him. And they were showing a lot of teeth, but he wouldn't describe it as smiling.
"Uh, no?" Kyo was replying. "We didn't find the Avatar, just a bunch of Water Tribe savages. We converted a few to Agni's light, I think. It's a bit of a work in progress. Oh, and we caught an airbender! And his bison. The bison eats a lot. Which I guess makes sense considering its size, and the flying. You would think the original airbenders would be more inherently aerodynamic—"
"...What," one of the shark-wolves replied.
"Did… did he just sell us out?" Sokka asked. "For free drinks?"
"We're not selling anybody out," Genji sagely replied, "if no one ever believes us."
"It's a really long story," Kyo was saying, "and my crew is waiting. Could you guys help me get this round ordered?"
"Bless that man and his inherently wholesome air," Satomi said, sculpting the Flame of Agni over her heart. "They always fall for it."
Sokka suddenly understood why the crew had pushed together way more tables than their small party needed. They were expecting new friends. Friends with wallets.
"Don't have any in medium," the quartermaster said, his feet on the counter.
"Do you have any size of uniforms," Zuko asked, through gritted teeth.
"Don't know. Might have to jog my memory, sir."
"...Do you have smalls."
"Can't say as we do."
"Do you have spare uniform fabric."
"Does this look like a fabric shop, Your Highness?"
Zuko breathed in through his nose and out through his mouth, and did not leave immediately and just come back with a mask on tonight, because then Zhao would know what had happened to those coats on their way south.
"If you don't have any uniforms," Zuko said, "then what is on those shelves behind you?"
The man didn't turn around. "Out of season inventory, sir."
Zuko took in another deep breath. This one was less about temper control, and more about lung capacity preparation. He'd tried to be nice. Uncle always said to try being nice first. He got a lot of practice at being nice, and it didn't work any better now than it had at his first port when he was thirteen and just tall enough to try smiling over the counter.
Obligatory niceness out of the way, Zuko moved on to more effective methods.
The rest of the bar looked up at the sudden volume increase from outside. The crew didn't. What they did do was wordlessly click their glasses together, and down their current drinks in one go.
"Bottom's up, Other One," Genji nudged him. "Ship rule: if you can hear the Prince shouting from across port, you have to drink."
Sokka drank. He was learning a lot of rules, like 'you're not a Fire Nation citizen so I can't see how our drinking age applies to you' and 'yeah, Prince Zuko definitely knows we do this, don't worry about it. Not even worth mentioning to him, really.' All these rule-things were getting a little wobbly in his head-place. All sloshied-up, like they might leak out his ears if he tipped too far over. He made sure to steady himself by leaning against Genji's side. Not Hanako's. He had learned that lesson.
"You're all a bunch of liars," one of their Free Drink Providers said. His voice said gruff and unimpressed, but the way he leaned over the table said tell me more. "No way a single part of that is true—"
"Didn't see the pillar of light myself." Engineer Hanako was smaller than Sokka, drinking more than Sokka, and sounding so lucid she had to be cheating. He tested this theory by sipping from her cup while she was distracted, and got his first taste of fire whiskey burning down his throat cough-wheeze-dying-now. She snagged her cup back from his hand without even looking. "But the airbender is a damned smiling nuisance, and the Water Tribe idiot is afraid of cats."
"I am not!" Sokka protested, over his wheezing. "I'm afraid of extradimensional beings prying at the cracks in our reality with appendages untold! Have you tried to count all of that thing's legs? Have you? Does not the number change?"
The table was staring at him. It was a collective kind of stare. Genji slung an arm over his shoulder. "Oh, didn't we mention? Here's one of those savages, right here."
There were suddenly a lot of people taking in his dark skin and blue eyes. These things had existed all evening, but gotten only cursory glances until now.
"Your nation is awful and so are all of you," Sokka said authoritatively. "And that thing is not a cat."
"No way," another soldier said. "I'm not buying it. You styled up a halfbreed's hair to get a few laughs. I've heard of the things your crew does to get free drinks."
"Do you find my hair laughable?" This seemed very important. So did standing up and trying to loom over the guy. This was hindered both by his own lack of relative height and the way the floor kept trying to be the ceiling. Or a wall. Or just kind of… roll-y.
Genji grabbed his arm, and tugged him down into his seat. "They doubt your authenticity, Water Tribe. Why don't you regal them with tales of your native icy wasteland."
The drinks kept coming. The two-fish-hooks story was a big hit. And absolutely no one believed he was actually Water Tribe (it's not a topknot it's a WARRIOR'S WOLFTAIL), or that there was a bison on their ship (of course you can't see it it's in the hold!), or that an airbender had appeared from a beam of light (actually he was frozen for a hundred years in an iceberg. With the light trapped inside, I guess?)
Engineer Hanako started intercepting his drinks. Sokka was thoroughly incensed about this, until he realized pear-mango juice existed and was delicious, and these stupid Fire Nation soldiers were just making themselves weaker targets by enjoying their stupid throat-burny liqour instead of this divine nectur of the unalcoholic spirits.
Zuko moved on to the stables, to secure a new bridle for Melon Dango and enough hay for four komodo rhinos and an actual flying bison.
He was nice. Then he wasn't.
It didn't change the fact that his ship wasn't scheduled to pick up that much hay, and the price for extra was apparently slightly inflated due to shipping costs, so very sorry your Highness—
He applied more volume to the problem, just to see if it would help.
The coinmaster, and the majority of the restaurant's patrons, jerked their heads towards the sound of the teenage fire alarm going off. Jee reached for his drink, and downed it in one go.
"What is that?" the coinmaster asked.
"That," Jee said, picking back up his bowl of noodles, "is what's going to visit your office after lunch, if I'm not back with the crew salaries and ship stipend."
They only drew wages quarterly, for reasons of not dealing with this on a monthly basis. The coinmaster hadn't had the pleasure of Zuko's acquaintance on their way south. Jee noisily drank his broth, and set the bowl down.
"Listen," he said, leaning back in his chair. "I know you have orders to hassle us, and I have orders to hassle you, so how about we both just leave the fire-measuring contests to our commanders. You can tell Zhao you gave us the run-around for hours; I'll tell my commander I put the fear of Agni into you. Meanwhile," Jee turned his head towards the nearest waiter, and lifted a hand. "Two fire whiskies, and another plate of those dumplings."
They toasted their deal, and enjoyed their three-course lunch. Jee got a receipt on their way out; he'd be billing this as a work expense. Such things were a line-item deduction in the Wani's regular budget.
"Money problems, Prince Zuko?" Zhao asked. Zhao asked while pushing himself off the wall of the building, where he had clearly been waiting for Zuko to exit, how did he keep getting promoted if he never did real work?
(The secret lay in proper delegation. Zuko would have had trouble fathoming this concept, even if it were diagramed for him.)
"Commander Zhao," Zuko said with a curt nod, in lieu of a real answer. The man liked the sound of his own name better than any other reply, anyway. "Excuse me. I'm going back to my ship."
"I'll accompany you. As I said, we have… options to discuss."
Zuko's armor hid the shudder along his spine. It was the number one reason he still wore it in friendly ports.
"Not that way," his best friend Hawker Genji said, steering Sokka right. Left? Reft? Lefight? The street kept changing its dimensional orientation, as such things did when the veil on reality grew thin.
"But I like that way," Sokka said, pulling or maybe pushing back. "That way has stylish hair. S'almost as good as mine, except more stupid. Hi, Commander Prince—!"
A hand parked itself over his mouth. "Let's not get the nice Prince's attention, okay? Keep walking. Eyes straight. This street, not that one."
Straight was so many directions, and Sokka made sure to look boldly into the spinning truth of each of them. "But Commander Creepy is with him," Sokka said, as loudly and clearly as one could say through another man's hand. He also pointed behind them, for clarification. Genji tugged his arm back down to his side.
"Let's not point at the nice fleet commander, either. We are just going to walk back to the ship, put some more water in you, and tomorrow we'll pretend that you're sick instead of hungover and none of us will ever admit to this. Doesn't that sound like fun?"
"It must be hard, being such a burden to your uncle," Zhao's voice oozed up the street.
"But he's creepy," Sokka muffle-spoke, pointing with his other hand. Because Genji had a hand over his mouth and one over his arm, but was a mere mortal with only two such limbs, so that left Sokka still pointing-capable. "Why are we leaving Zuko alone with the creepy?"
"He has a point," Helmsman Kyo said.
"Is this really worth getting yelled at by both of them?" the short, inexplicably sober engineer said. "We go back to the ship, we find the General—"
"Perhaps a loan, my Prince? You will find the terms of repayment quite… agreeable."
A collective slump went through the group.
"So," Kyo said. "Fake fight?"
"Fake?" Assistant-to-the-Doctor and Occasional Pikeswoman Satomi grinned. "Genji cheated at cards last night."
"I always cheat at cards," Genji said, like this was a defense. He held Sokka between him and the woman, as a slightly more effective measure.
"Yeah. But it really took the fun out of my four-pair of aces when you had them too."
"I am unclear on whether this is fake—" Genji backpedaled, dragging his Sokka-shield with him. Which was the point where punches started getting enthusiastically thrown his way. Kyo and Hanako cheered them on.
Sokka was still in the middle, but being short and mostly drunk weight proved to be an asset.
A fight tumbled out from the adjacent street. Four of his crewman and a drunk Water Tribe idiot dressed as a fifth.
Zuko had never been so glad to see a headache coming. He took an overly large step away from Zhao, and a deep breath, and let an entire day of frustration vent.
At various points around the port, other crewmen on shore leave drank.
"Put him in the brig," Zuko ordered, when they'd returned to the ship.
"I will definitely stay where I am put," the drunk teenager said, as he was carried by two other crewmen and still managed to almost fall sideways.
"The rest of you," Zuko said, having adopted a policy of Ignoring the Other One, "I will deal with later."
Later, when he had time to sit down with Lieutenant Jee and figure out the worst possible duty rosters to shift them to. They'd taken his prisoner into port. They'd taken his prisoner into port while he was impersonating a crewmen. They'd taken his crewman impersonating prisoner into port, told anyone who would listen that he was a Water Tribesman, no doubt mentioned the water and airbenders while they were at it, probably the bison too, and don't forget that he'd thought he'd had the Avatar again and been wrong again. And. And they'd gotten the Water-Tribesman-impersonating-a-crew-member drunker than they'd ever offered to get him. Even that one time when he was thirteen and Teruko had smuggled that fire whiskey on board and they'd bought his silence with a cup of his own (which, he'd realized when he was fourteen and snuck off to a bar on his own, they'd had the audacity to water down)—
"Later," Zuko repeated.
"Told you it wouldn't be worth it," he caught Hanako muttering as they went up the boarding ramp. Which was good, maybe they'd think before they made embarrassments out of themselves next time.
That left him with Lieutenant Jee, and Uncle, and the day's real business. The resupplying party met up again at the dock, as Teruko and Kazuto loaded sacks into the hold.
"Report," Zuko said.
"The Wani is fully restocked in non-perishables," Uncle said, tracking the drunken tribesman with his eyes as he almost-but-not-quite managed to pitch himself and Kyo into the water. "They had a tragic case of cabbage-slugs, though. I did not know cabbage-slugs were omnivorous! They have infested all fresh food and meats, and the supply officer could not in good conscience allow them to spread to another port."
"Crew salaries in full," Lieutenant Jee said, firmly ignoring the crew's disciplinary issues until such a time as something was bleeding, on fire, or an active danger to the ship. "We got shorted on the ship maintenance stipend; our decommissioning exemption 'didn't transfer.' Crewman Teruko's wages will make up most of the difference, but not enough for the refit of those engine panels Engineer Hanako's been asking for. Not at Zhao's port."
The two adults looked at him. Zuko squared his shoulders, and refrained from grimacing.
"I got proper clothes for the stupid peasants, and enough new uniforms to deal with usual wear and tear. ...New-ish. And Melon Dango's bridle." Zuko said. "We… are not currently allocated a new shipment of hay. But I'll make it work. I just need to—to look at the books again, I know we have the money."
"Our most pressing need is the food for our two-legged crewmembers, then," Uncle said, clearly hiding his own grimace. "My apologies, Prince Zuko."
"It's not your fault," Zuko reminded him, pushing Zhao and his it-must-be-hard-to-be-such-a-burden-to-your-Uncle out of his mind. Uncle wasn't even technically part of the crew, he didn't need to be here or be helping, and it was Zuko's responsibility to keep his ship running, not Uncle's. "I'll make it work," he repeated. Because he always did.
"Hi, Sokka," Aang waved, still sitting upside down.
"Are you drunk?" Katara said, holding water in a steady circle between her hands, broken only by catopus paws batting lazily up at it.
"I am not not sober," Sokka said, then counted on his fingers and added an additional: "...Not. So anyway, I'm going to go exploring because Zuko told me not to and also because there's an abomination in your lap and I'd rather not be in the same plane of existence as it but I'm drawing a hard line at the same room, who wants to come?"
"I do!" Aang said.
"Aang, we promised Zuko we'd stay down here until he tells us it's safe."
"We didn't actually promise that," Aang pointed out.
"It was implied, Aang."
Sokka wandered off somewhere during the lecture on promises and the-spirit-of-the-aforementioned that followed. So did Sushi.
He left via the door. She left via the dark gaps in the ceiling's pipework.
Pikesman Kazuto, aka the New Guy, had left the ship for less than two hours and now the young Water Tribe warrior was wearing Fire Navy armor. And… nobody was saying anything, they were just letting him wander around the ship dressed like one of them. Hadn't he been making technical diagrams of their systems for a week? Wasn't this a problem? Nevermind that the teenager looked exactly like a younger version of—
(Of the night Kazuto lost his last crew. The man with the ice-blue eyes and blood on his wolf helm—)
Watching the tribesman was Teruko's job. Kazuto knew that. But it felt like she didn't. And he hadn't been given any orders after they'd finished loading the new food on, 'go relax, you're up for shore leave next' wasn't an order. If he was free now, then he was free to follow the warrior. See what he was planning.
...Watch as he bumped into every wall, making the halls seem a lot more cramped than they actually were. Was the teen… drunk? Had they taken him drinking?
(No one had taken Kazuto drinking. That shy Helmsman had asked, but Kazuto had already promised to help Crewman Teruko with the food supplies.)
The Water Tribe teenager paused in the middle of the hallway. Looked up. Kazuto followed his gaze.
Toxic green eyes, unblinking in the darkness
The chitter-scrape of claws on steel
Then silence, and silence alone, echoing where something now appeared to have never been
"Did you see that?" the teenager demanded. "You saw that, didn't you? Didn't you?"
"...Teruko said I shouldn't see anything when the crew has shore leave," Kazuto said, gripping his spear. He wasn't pointing it at the Water Tribesman.
Zuko went over the ship's savings. Again. It got a little easier to cross things out every time. Like… he didn't need a new armor set. He wasn't growing as fast as last year, and it was stupid to buy armor every year anyway. And he probably wouldn't need to fight the Avatar before their next annual budget. Probably.
Now how much feed would that buy them, when he had an actual flying bison on board?
...Not much, at this port. How much did they need to buy, to make it to the next port? (Did he expect the prices to be any better there?)
Zuko went over the ship's savings. Again.
Behind him, the door to his room opened without anyone first knocking or otherwise bothering to announce their presence.
"Uncle, when did you put board games into the budget—"
"I am not your Uncle," Other One said, "though I wouldn't rule out the possibility entirely. There's probably some alternate universe where I am your uncle. Or your dad. Or your uncdad—"
Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose. Very carefully, he re-added door lock repairs to the budget.
"Is there something I can do for you, Other One? Maybe help divest you of your armor?"
"Naw, I'm good," the still-drunk teenager waved him off. "But I can't help but notice that you want supplies, and I want to flee this ship of my foreshadowed death."
Zuko had stopped pinching his nose. That was a mistake. "What are you getting at, other one?"
"If this Zhao guy is such a problem, why go through him at all? We have a flying bison. If the port stores are being stupid, go further inland."
He could… do that?
He had an actual flying bison. He could do that.
AN: Did anyone else find Zhao's way-too-close body language and would-you-like-my-tea-little-boy smile really damn creepy in his first introduction scene? Like. Inappropriately creepy. And that's not even mentioning his obsessive rivalry with a minor. Zhao, man. Zhao what are you doing, man. There is no way Zuko does not feel personal-space-(and-possibly-other-kinds-of)-violated after at least two and a half years of that behavior.
Sokka sees you, buddy. Sokka validates your feelings, and has your back.
PS: Tumblr! Check out the growing collection of fanart. You won't be disappointed. There is Sushi. And guard!Zuko. And turtleducks biting our young Fire Lord's nose, because what is Zuko's life but a turtleduck to the face.