A/N: I wrote this fic utilizing my own naval experience. I took what I know about running a ship today and then tried to scale it back to the level of technology the Fire Nation seems to possess. They're basically a late 19th century navy. I tried to avoid references to electricity, though I don't know how the Fire Navy can run ships like they have without it. Comments and criticism are appreciated; this is my first Avatar fic, though I have experience in writing for other fandoms. Enjoy.
Some quick naval terminology (or just skip this part, you should be able to figure it out) :
Starboard—the right side of the ship when facing forward (the left side being Port).
Close Aboard—very close to the side of the ship.
Bridge—the platform, usually near the top of the ship, from where the ship is steered and commanded.
Pilothouse—a small room built on the bridge to shelter the crew from the weather while steering.
Watch—the period of time a section of the crew is on duty, and the what the on-duty section of the crew is called.
Sloop-of-War—a small armed sailing ship.
Cruiser—A larger, self-propelled warship designed for long cruises away from home, 'large enough to destroy anything it can catch and fast enough to outrun anything that can destroy it'.
Rudder--The "fin" sticking out underneath the ship that steers it, controlled by the helm.
"Shift your rudder"--turn the rudder in the opposite direction the same number of degrees it is set at now (e.g., if you are steering 30 degrees left, shifting the rudder means steering 30 degrees right).
Officer of the Deck—in charge of the watch, is the captain's direct representative on the bridge, responsible for everything that happens on his watch.
FNS--An acronym I made up, stands for Fire Nation Ship (like USS for United States Ship)
Lieutenant Wan sighed heavily. He was on his third cup of tea already, and it was only halfway through the mid-night watch. That was a bad sign. This was going to be one of those watches; the kind where the main threat came not from the enemy but from the total lack of anything to do. The navigator had already been up from his room to take the evening stars and fix the ship's position; the ship was right on track, no wind or current to speak of, and the Nav went back to bed with a grunt. As the Officer of the Deck, however, Lt. Wan and his bridge crew had no such luxury, at least until the ship's clock struck four and the dawn watch came on.
Outside the bridge windows, the sea was mirror smooth in every direction, disturbed only by the wake the light cruiser generated as its prow sliced through the water. The moon and stars, unobstructed by any clouds, cast a dim light over it all. The view would have been beautiful if he hadn't already been staring at it for the last two hours. The only sounds he could hear were the low hum of the ship's engines far below and a slight whistling of air blowing past the open doors to the bridge wings.
Wan took another sip of his tea and grimaced, as it had gone cold while he lost himself in his observation of the little, self-contained world that was the good ship Roku. He had always thought it ironic that the ship was named after an Avatar but had always had to keep the sentiment to himself, lest some arrogant superior overhear the comment and decide he was not faithful enough to the Fire Lord or other such nonsense. Bitterness rose sharply within him and he had to force himself to calm down. Deliberately, he took in a great breath and then blew it out onto his tea, warming it with firebending. Wan, like all officers in the Fire Nation Navy, was a firebender, since the skill was necessary for maintaining ships' steel hulls and for stoking the fires in their engines.
He swept his eyes across the bridge, taking in the men and women under his charge through the dim red light given off by the battle-lanterns. The helmsman stood at his post, quietly keeping the ship on course. The Junior Officer of the Deck, a young ensign fresh out of the Fire Nation Naval Academy, faithfully kept her watch in the foremost part of the bridge, scanning the horizon for obstacles and vessels with a spyglass. The Petty Officer of the Watch was hunched over at the chart table, going over the night's logs. And dimly, he could just make out the bridge lookout outside as a silhouette against the stars. All in all, the perfect picture of a routine, uneventful, boring mid watch.
"Hey Lin, you see anything?" Wan spoke to the ensign, joking to break the monotony.
"No, Lt. Wan, nothing at all, sir," she replied stiffly, only tearing her gaze away from the horizon long enough to face him.
"Hey, relax, there's nothing out here. And don't call me sir; I only got out of the academy two years before you."
"Yes, s—I mean—ok." She eased her stance a bit and put down the spyglass but continued to scan the horizon periodically. She started to say something, then paused hesitantly, and then pressed on. "Is it...is it always...like this? Bridge watches?"
"What, you mean boring as hell?" Wan replied sardonically. He laughed. "Not what you were expecting after all those lessons about the glorious history of the Fire Navy, huh?" Ensign Lin tried to respond, but Lt. Wan cut her off. "Don't get me wrong, of course, I love this job, but it's certainly not all action all the time. I feel that watches like these are Karma's revenge for our wrongs." He smiled in the lamplight, but then his expression tightened. "Besides, you only have to see combat once before you decide you never want to again."
"You were in combat, sir?" Lin said, slipping back into the formal in her excitement. Wan didn't correct her.
"Once..." he trailed off, distractedly, looking out to sea. "On my last ship; we ran into an Earth Kingdom sloop-of-war. We were on a cruiser, so we clearly outmatched them; we told them to surrender, but they just started flinging rocks at us. Once the shooting started it was over quickly but they still got a couple of good shots in before they caught fire and sank." Lt. Wan looked back at Ensign Lin and forced a smile. "But hey, it's like that old proverb says: War is hours of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror."
They shared a chuckle but then settled back into the near-silence of the FNS Roku's steady progress through the sea. Wan was about to try to start up a conversation again, if for no other reason than to keep himself awake, when he was suddenly preempted by the bridge lookout, who stood in the doorway to the bridge wing.
"Sir, I think you need to take a look at this!" Lt. Wan picked up his spyglass and strode outside, the rest of the bridge crew looking on in curiosity.
"What is it, Seaman Jiang?" He said, looking ahead near where the lookout was pointing. No sooner had he spoken the words, however, when he saw something extremely odd: little pinpricks of yellow light, like stars, rising from the horizon and, unusually for stars, getting bigger. He stared for a moment in puzzlement, but it was not until the lights started moving down again while continuing to grow that something clicked in his brain. He sprinted back into the bridge, tea now forgotten.
"Ensign Lin, run an evasive pattern, all engines ahead full and shift your rudder every thirty degrees of turn! Petty Officer Lee, sound the general alarm and call the captain to the bridge!" A chorus of affirmatives and repetitions in acknowledgment echoed back to him despite the obvious confusion in their voices. The general alarm bell began blaring throughout the ship. He ignored it and instead trained his spyglass on the lights again. Closer, faster... Even as the ship began swinging from side to side he moved to the sound tube that communicated with the whole ship and shouted into it: "All hands, incoming! Brace for impact!" He looked up again and the points of light had resolved into balls of flame. He had just enough time to sprint to the bridge wing and drag Seaman Jiang back into the pilothouse before the first fireball impacted the water.
There was a tremendous crash and the bridge was showered with water when one of the flaming objects, by now obviously burning catapult ammunition, splashed into the sea close abroad on the starboard side. Wan craned his head to look outside even as the ship lurched to one side, pushed by the splash. There were so many of them...
"Helmsman, continue maneuvering at full power. Ensign Lin, with me!" They ran out to the bridge wings. Wan shifted into a firebending stance and began blasting the biggest jets of flame he could manage into the air, trying to somehow deflect or slow the incoming projectiles. Lin caught on quickly and began pouring her own stream of flame into the sky. All around them, projectiles screamed into the water and impacted with massive splashes. A few of their own fireballs connected with the incoming and they were treated to a shower of lesser flaming debris, which made aiming even harder.
Lt. Wan, lost in the process of trying to defend the ship, wondered in the back of his mind about where the hell all these fireballs were coming from. He was distracted suddenly when he saw an odd silhouette move across the moon; something flying...and definitely not war-balloon shaped. It looked like... it had six legs?
"WAN!" The Lieutenant was ripped back to reality by Ensign Lin's desperate call. She pointed up at a flaming missile that was terrifyingly close. Together, they bent a massive fireball at it. The fire streaked into the air...hit!...but to their sudden horror, the shot was only deflected, not destroyed. Rather than striking the bridge, as it would have, it screamed downwards and impacted the deck below them with a resounding boom. The whole ship shuddered as if cringing from the hit and the pair of officers were thrown from their feet and into the wall of the pilothouse. Wan fell to his hands and knees, dazed, until the acrid smell of smoke wafting up from below shocked him back to his senses. He helped Ensign Lin back up and ran back onto the bridge, peering through the forward window after making sure his bridge crew was alright. Through the smoke and darkness he could make out a fire steadily burning on deck. If that made it to the ship's ammunition magazines...he ran to the sound tube again.
"Fire, fire, fire! Fire on the gun deck! Away the at-sea fire party!" He turned to the helmsman. "Is steering still responding?" The helmsman nodded, still clearly a bit stunned. "Come left to get this smoke out of our eyes."
"Ensign Lin! Get on the tube and tell engineering to get those pumps running! Where's my spyglass?" Ensign Lin handed him hers, which she'd managed to keep tucked in her belt the whole time. He extended it and tried to look at the horizon. Who had been shooting at them?
He stared at the horizon, searching for anything that might tell him who their attacker was. Finally, he caught a reflection of something near the horizon...it couldn't be. Or could it? The outline was unmistakable.
Just as he reached his realization, the captain stormed onto the bridge, dressed in full battle armor.
"Lieutenant Wan! What the hell is going on up here? Report!"
"Sir, we were attacked by unknown ships and struck by flaming shot. When Seaman Jaing saw the incoming fire he notified me. I ordered an evasive pattern and general quarters and called you. Then Ensign Lin and I attempted to defend the ship with firebending, but were unable to stop every round. That last shot hit amidships; I called away the fire party and came left to try to identify our attackers. Sir..." He hesitated, and the captain looked impatiently at him. "...Sir, I think they're ours." He handed the captain his spyglass, who took it and went outside to look. Lt. Wan followed.
"Agni damn it you may be right. Ensign Lin, send up the private signal. Lieutenant Wan, I have the bridge. Go below and take charge of the fire party."
"Aye aye, sir." Lt. Wan took just enough time to hand Lin her spyglass back and then ran below to fight the fire.
It took the better part of five hours to finally put out the last embers of the fire started by catapult shot, and then the work of repairing the shattered deck and burnt compartments could start. Lt. Wan stayed down below deck the whole time, working side by side with the sailors under his command. It was early afternoon by the time he finally felt satisfied with the state of things and turned over the repair effort to one of the other officers. Exhausted, he made his way up to the undamaged portion of the gun deck for some fresh air. He was absolutely filthy, his armored uniform soaked through with water from firefighting and sweat, his whole body covered with soot and ash. He smelled of sweat, and smoke, and oil. And blood—the deck below where the missile hit was not totally unoccupied at the time. Wan walked towards the rear of the ship and sat down with his back against the wall. He closed his eyes and leaned back, savoring the clean air flowing over the side of the ship.
He lay there for some time, relaxing, until he heard footsteps and a light thump next to him. Rolling his head and opening one eye, he spied Ensign Lin lying against the wall. Her uniform wasn't as dirty as his, but she looked no less exhausted.
"Hey. You alright?"
"Don't call me that."
"Long day, huh?"
"Tell me about it. I've been doing fire signals since you got sent below. The captain said he didn't trust anyone else."
Wan shrugged. "That's a complement, take it."
"You know, you were right. It was our own fleet."
"Why would they shoot at us?"
"The captain had me relay a few, uh, choice words to that effect. Apparently, Admiral Zhou was chasing what they called a 'low flying target'. What do you think that means? Some kind of code?"
Wan thought about it. Flying target? He'd heard of the army's war balloons and flying ships, but why would they be shooting at those? And at night? He thought back to earlier. Had he really seen something in the moon, right before the hit? They must have been shooting at it. But what was it?
Wan shrugged it off, and went back to relaxing. After a while, he got up and went down to his stateroom and went to sleep.
Almost a month later, Wan got his first shore leave all year. He was looking forward to a nice dinner followed by a relaxing bath at some nearby hot springs. Some of the other officers, and most of the sailors, were heading to taverns to blow off some steam, but he never seemed to enjoy it and preferred some peace and quiet. As he walked down the street he spotted Ensign Lin, also on leave, looking at a nearby poster board. He walked up behind her and gave a tap on her shoulder. She nearly jumped into the air.
"Sir! I mean, Wan! You startled me."
"Sorry, I thought I'd say hello. What are you looking at?"
"Here, look at this poster. It says the avatar is back!"
"Really?" He leaned in to look. Sure enough, it proclaimed the return of the avatar and a reward for his capture. At the bottom was a drawing...and Wan could not believe his eyes. That bison! It was in the moon, that day a month ago. They had been so close.
"Hey, wouldn't that reward be great, Wan? Too bad we'll probably never run into him."
"What's wrong, Wan?"
"Huh? Oh, nothing. Say, you want to come with me to the Charging Komodo-Rhino? Their chicken-pork is amazing." Lin looked as though she was going to push him for more but apparently decided against it.
They set off for the restaurant, content, in this case, to enjoy life and not go looking for those next few moments of terror.