At first, there is something eerily similar about the days Katara spends in the brig. The prince is irritable, the fake-consort is enraged at best, and this is reminiscent of the first days she spent onboard the ship. However, that is where the similarities end and the first night Zhao boards when Katara has been sequestered away symbolizes that nicely.
They have just sat down - Iroh and Zuko on one side of the table, Zhao on the other - and tea has been served. Iroh answers the unasked question in Zhao's eyes.
"Poor Katara - so unused to the spice of our food! She's not well tonight and won't be joining us."
Zhao is not particularly accepting.
"Sick? After this many dinners, only now she's sick? Perhaps I should see her myself, general - to pay my respects, of course."
But Zuko is not pleased.
"We could always put into port and settle the argument like civilized men with Agni Kai, Admiral, if you don't believe my uncle when he tells you about the condition of my consort."
Iroh stares, Zhao blinks, and Zuko sips his tea, his face carefully blank. It is the only expression he has worn since the night before, save a scowl.
Eventually, Zhao smiles. "That won't be necessary, I'm sure."
Zuko drinks his tea and doesn't speak for the rest of the meal.
Officer Zheng is seated in the brig with a notepad. Nothing about Katara's imprisonment seems similar to him this time - this time, he is to watch her at all times, to quiet her in case of noise, to obey what few demands she's allowed to give, promptly and silently.
The first time the girl was in chains was the keep her out of Zuko's sight. The second time, more than just the prince's pride is on the line.
This incident is far different for another reason - where Katara had once yelled and raged at anyone within earshot, to make sure they knew of the injustice being done to her, now she stays quiet and still, sulking in her cell.
Zheng glances to her now, pausing in his scribbling on the notepad. She refuses to meet his eyes anymore, rarely looks at him at all if she can help it. This is her quiet protest, her only way to fight since she'd raged at him in the hallway.
He almost wishes she would scream at him again. Guarding a ghost is unsettling.
Iroh thinks three days is enough time. Katara surely must have most of the sulk out of her system, Zuko is confident enough not to keep an eye on his old uncle to make sure he doesn't break rules or bend orders. So it is on the third day that Iroh calls for Katara, asks for her to be brought to the bridge.
That he can watch how Zuko's training is progressing from the large window is one plus. That the Pai Sho board is kept on the bridge is another.
The girl is quiet and composed when she enters and Iroh knows this isn't right. Her eyes linger on the window while Zheng closes the door to wait outside, and as flame erupts on the deck, the general can see blue eyes grow cold and hard.
"Do you know how to play?"
She blinks and turns to him, as if surprised he's there at all, and slowly her gaze drops to the board he is kneeling behind. He never expected her to adore him, but Iroh is still a little surprised with the bitterness she holds in her gaze when she looks at him. He should not have expected much only days after he himself agreed on her banishment.
He smiles enough for the both of them and gestures to the other side of the board. "Ah, never mind. I will teach you." When she starts to wander over, he beams and gestures to the pieces, lecturing. "Pai Sho is a very important game to understand, you see. It teaches strategy."
The line of her mouth hardens and she looks at him with narrowed eyes, speaking softly, "It must be very popular in your home."
"No, actually," Iroh replies, folding his hands in his lap. "The men onboard don't seem to care for it."
"I know what you meant, Katara."
They stare at each other for another moment and Iroh drops his smile, just a fraction. It is difficult to take an old man seriously, when he smiles too wide. But the distinguished man with wise eyes commands attention and respect-- even when gesturing to a game board.
Iroh considers the girl who kneels across from him one of the greatest victories of his life.
Prince Zuko is easily distracted and it shows in his Firebending. Movements that were sharp and smooth one day are erratic and uncontrolled the next, all depending on how his day has been going. Lieutenant Jee has watched the morning's practice daily for years and no one misses it when the prince has a bad day.
Watching the smooth kicks and blasts of flame, Jee wonders why he woke to screaming in the middle of the night last night if he wasn't going to be able to watch the prince flounder this morning.
"You need to protect your soldiers, Katara. They can't hold your side if you use them as fodder."
Frustrated, the girl huffs out a breath and gestures to her dwindling tiles. "If I don't put them up, you'll take my Rose Tile!"
"Use them to protect her," Iroh instructs, tapping the board lightly with a finger, near his own surrounded Rose, "not block her."
Scowling, Katara returns her gaze to the board, shoulders hunched. It's an entirely juvenile position and Iroh is certain she's aware of it, considering her next words. "You're trying to make a point about soldiers and armies, aren't you?"
There is pride in his voice and his smile as Iroh watches her reach for a tile and pull back again. "I didn't think it was very subtle."
"The only way it could have been more obvious is if your pieces set fire to mine before taking them away-- ah! I got your Lotus!"
It takes Iroh ten minutes to win three games and Katara's mood hasn't improved for it. If anything, she is surlier in the wake of loss and scowls when he offers to escort her to the kitchens to eat.
Iroh still considers this a victory - at least she isn't angry with him about Zuko anymore. Which means she'll be far more receptive towards hearing about Zuko.
"You know, my nephew's birthday is coming up."
That he gets a disinterested grunt is still worthy of celebration - an hour earlier, she would have ignored him entirely.
"We'll be stopping at a market later this week. He is so very difficult to shop for - everything seems too frivolous to him. Such a driven boy."
Another grunt is all he receives, but when Iroh stands, Katara follows him down the hall toward the kitchen. Another victory.
"In fact, the only thing I've ever managed to get him to accept these past years has been candy - can you imagine? No scroll, no art piece, not even an attempt to spruce up his wardrobe. Always a small bag, always lemon, always something he can easily hide in his room. Amazing, isn't it?"
But what is far more amazing is the way the girl's face falls. She has been warrior, prisoner, protester.
Iroh sees the mother in her now, the sister - the one who cherishes her companions and feels their pain.
He sees the compassion, too-- and the conflict when her gaze drops. Pity and guilt warring with righteousness and justice.
"...I can't get off the boat."
Iroh smiles for her, even if she doesn't look up. A hand finds her shoulder and, for once, she doesn't shy from it. "You can write the card," he says softly and squeezes her shoulder gently.
She sighs and continues toward the kitchens, shrugging his hand away slowly.
This, too, is a victory.