"Penguins?" This was ridiculous. Zuko had assumed that Aang had intended extra firebending lessons or advice from the Avatar or something. Not to walk out in the middle of the frozen ice sheet with a bag full of fish to find penguins. "You asked me to come to the middle of nowhere, interrupting months of planning and negotiations, for penguins?"
Aang nodded, taking out a fish. "You needed a break. You and Arnook are practically at each other's throats. Katara and Master Pakku are talking to him while we're out here."
He'd assumed that the negotiations would be easy. Aside from Admiral Zhao's failed invasion, the Northern Water Tribe hadn't suffered like its southern sister or the Earth Kingdom. But, he'd ended up breaking the chief of the Southern Water Tribe out of prison and had the support of Sokka and Katara. Here, the only Northern Water Tribe member he really could count on was Pakku, who mostly seemed to think of him as 'Iroh's nephew'. He wasn't even sure if the dour old man liked him or just thought of him as something to be tolerated for the sake of a friend. And Arnook seemed to hold Zuko personally responsible for the loss of his daughter, and every one of Zhao's casualties. "So you said you'd talk me down," Zuko replied to Aang.
"That and I haven't ridden penguins in ages." Aang pointed to the otter-penguins on the ice ahead of them. "Be careful. They spook easily if you look threatening, then off they go into the water. But this colony is probably pretty used to people if it's this close to a settlement. Kids from the Water Tribes ride them all the time."
Zuko looked dubiously at the otter-penguins. "We're not kids any more. Well, I'm not." Aang was... well, Aang was the oldest among them if you counted memories of a century ago and decades spent frozen, unchanging, but still not physically an adult. That and being the Avatar had matured him - when he was in Avatar-mode, you could forget he was a short bald kid who invented games like he needed to cram as much fun into his childhood as possible. Zuko was a bit envious of that - both the gravitas that made people take Aang seriously, and the way he could shed that, and a year of fighting, as effortlessly as water off of a turtle-duck's back and be... well, a thirteen-year old boy.
"You're never too old to be a kid. Come on!" Aang grabbed Zuko's arm, leading him towards the otter-penguins.
"I'm coming." Zuko struggled to keep up. Despite Aang's lesser height, he had the confidence of a waterbender on the ice, walking as easily on the surface as solid ground. Zuko, on the other hand, had to borrow a pair of boots from Sokka once he realized that his own cold-weather gear was not build for the ice architecture the Northern Water Tribe favored. Traction on ice was a necessary thing.
The otter-penguins swarmed Aang as soon as they noticed the fish he was taking out from his bag, any fear of humans forgotten with the sight of food. "Grab a fish from my bag. They're really not shy at all when you've got something delicious for them." He tossed the fish to one, which snapped it up.
"You still haven't explained the point of this exercise, besides to distract me from torpedoing the negotiations because of personal problems with Arnook. And that you wanted an excuse to play with the local animals."
Aang looked up as he scratched an otter-penguin under its chin. "We need a reason other than that?"
Zuko sighed. "Never mind." He grabbed a fish from Aang's bag, feeling the slipperiness of its scales in gloved hands. Which meant cleaning his gloves later, unless he wanted them to smell like tonight's dinner.
Suddenly, the otter-penguins found him just as interesting, and he was nearly knocked over as they tried to grab the food from him. It wasn't like feeding the palace's turtle-ducks, which were content to wait in their ponds for you to drop them crumbs. Wild otter-penguins probably didn't get as much free food as the turtle-ducks, whether or not penguin-sledding was a common sport.
Aang, of course, seemed to find this sudden mob of feathery bodies attacking him hilarious. "Toss them the fish, Zuko!"
"I'm trying!" He eventually just let go, and the fish was snapped up.
Aang reached for another fish. An inquisitive otter-penguin, more intelligent that its colony-mates, was trying to get its head into the bag. Aang tossed it a fish first, then reached for a third. "Once we feed these guys, we can get them to take us sledding. We just need to show them that we're friends. They like sledding on their own, and having a human along makes them go even faster, but they have to trust us."
Zuko watched 'his' otter-penguins flock to Aang. "You aren't trying to offer some kind of lesson for me, are you?" Establishing trust by generosity in order to work together for something greater than either could achieve on his own. As a metaphor, it wasn't a bad one. Uncle would be proud of it, and then trot it out at any opportunity that could be remotely relevant.
Aang thought for a moment, a fish in his hand. Zuko had to grab it, and toss it to the otter-penguins before they knocked the shorter boy over to get it. "No, actually I wasn't," he said. "But that's a good one. Maybe I should try it on Chief Arnook. He would have gone penguin-sledding as a kid."
"Let's finish feeding these guys first, then we can go practice penguin diplomacy," Zuko said, reaching for a second fish.
"Feeding first, then sledding second," Aang replied. "Work third."
Zuko nodded. "Well, we did come all this way in the cold and the wind. Might as well go sledding." Perhaps he would take two lessons from this. The first, about how people were like penguins, and the second? The second was about how Aang managed to stay himself and stay relaxed, despite being the Avatar. About remembering to take breaks to go penguin-sledding with friends, where they weren't the Avatar and the Firelord, or sifu and student, but Aang and Zuko.