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The Taste of Tea

Chapter Text

The first time it happens is on Zuko's 14th birthday.

He’d stormed off on his own; he doesn't need Uncle's hovering, doesn't need to be treated like a child.

(His father surely knows this. He wouldn't have banished him or given him such an important mission if he hadn't thought Zuko could fend for himself.)

He is unprepared for the staring. His bandages have been off for a while now, leaving the still-new scar on full display, so he has already become used to people’s horrified curiosity and – worst of all – pity (how dare they?). But it’s different, somehow, without his uncle there to distract him with incomprehensible proverbs and infuriating shopping habits.

He feels the full force of their curiosity, hears the whispering.

And then suddenly Zhao is there in front of him. He hadn't known the man would be here. (Was this one of the ports he operated from? Or was he just visiting? Zuko should know this. Why didn't he know this?)

He doesn't know what it is, but the man makes his skin crawl.

It's the first time the man has seen his burn unbandaged, and his gaze lingers on it longer than Zuko is comfortable with. He is almost positive he sees a smirk, but it’s gone so quickly he thinks he might have just imagined it.

His men surround Zuko.

No, that’s not right. It makes it sound like he's being captured, which is ridiculous. They are simply gathering around a prince and an important naval officer in order to provide protection from the rabble. That’s all.

Zhao stands way too close to him for his liking, but what can he say to that?

He offers Zuko tea. He doesn’t want tea. He doesn’t want to go with him. But he doesn't have a good enough excuse to decline, and the soldiers are all around, and he’s positive that people are staring even more now. He shouldn't make a scene. Uncle is always telling him not to make a scene. It would disappoint him if his nephew shamed him in public.

And Zhao is an influential person.

Influential enough to be present when Zuko had been...

He accepts the offer of tea.

He’s taken to a house, not a ship. (Does Zhao live here? Or just stay here when in port? Does this mean the port is particularly important? Zuko should know this. Azula would know. She would know everything about this place.)

He drinks the tea and tries not to look uncomfortable as Zhao moves closer and closer. He doesn't know how, but somehow every time he blinks the man is closer. He should say something, but what? He’s not actually doing anything wrong. (He should move closer; Zuko is his prince, and he should be hanging on his every word. It was perfectly reasonable.)

If Uncle were here, objecting would earn a stern look and a proverb on the nature of politeness and being receptive to your conversation partners.

Zuko says nothing.

Zhao is next to him now. He rests a hand on Zuko's thigh.

He wants to say something, but his head feels like it’s stuffed with cotton and his tongue won't work properly.

He’s vaguely aware of being pulled to lean against him, the man's breath hot on his face...

He wakes up in Zhao's bed, the man is snoring next to him, an arm draped possessively over his waist.

That is bad enough, then Zuko realises he's naked. He's pretty sure Zhao is naked too, but he is not going to lift the covers to check.

He tries to remember what had happened, but it’s all blank. (Part of him is glad. He doesn't want to remember.)

He slides carefully out of bed, not wanting to wake Zhao. The movement causes pain to shoot through his body. He desperately tries not to think about the reason behind that, combined with waking up in a man's bed.

He catches sight of himself in a mirror as he reaches for his clothes, and wants to throw up.

His hair has come loose from his phoenix tail and is hanging in limp strands around his head. There are bite marks all over his neck. Above his hips are two hardpoints, left by too-hot hands, not quite bad enough to scar but enough to leave a mark. And his inner thighs, streaked with blood and... other things.

He dresses, quietly but hastily, trying not to think. Refusing to think.

Zhao wakes as he is tidying his hair as best he can. (He is not going to use his hairbrush.)

"Leaving so soon?" he asks with a mocking smile, eyes running up and down Zuko’s body, not even pretending to be subtle, not now there is no point to any pretence. "And we had so much fun."

"You had fun," Zuko snaps. He tries to prevent his voice from shaking, tries to sound commanding.

(He fails.)

Zhao’s smile becomes a smirk. “Are you sure you didn’t enjoy yourself, your Highness?”

Zuko wants to snarl at him. Of course he's sure. He would never...

(But how can he be sure when he can't remember what happened?)

He flees, Zhao's laughter echoing after him, seeming to follow him.

He doesn't pay attention to where he's going, just away from Zhao. He only knows that he manages to make it a few streets before the urge to throw up rises in him again, and this time he is unable to ignore it.

Seeing an alley, he ducks in, letting loose the contents of his stomach the moment he's out of sight of the judging eyes of people on the street.

Then he vomits again, and again, until he is heaving up nothing, but still can't stop.

Eventually, though, he does. Exhausted, he slumps down to the ground, resting his scarred cheek against the rough wall, trying to ignore the puddle of sick next to him, and the stickiness between his legs.

What now?

He should tell someone. Report Zhao. How dare he lay hands on his prince! What would Father say?

Oh, Agni. What would Father say?

Father would say he should have fought back, that he had shamed his bloodline by allowing another man to lie with him, an act that was illegal in the Fire Nation. Yet another infraction that he has committed.

Look at him now, curled up in an alleyway, sobbing, with the taste of vomit on his lips, and covered in proof of his weakness. He was the furthest thing from a prince right now. His father would be disgusted.

Maybe he should tell Uncle... but how could he disappoint him so? What could he think? He'd given up his comfortable retirement to guide Zuko in his banishment and now his nephew was sprawled in an alleyway, filthy and even more dishonoured than when he’d been sent out on this mission.

He doesn’t know how long he sits there, alternately sobbing and dry-heaving (and occasionally both at the same time) but eventually he realises night has fallen.

It had been early evening when he had entered the alley. How long has he been here?

He staggers back through the streets in the direction of the harbour, feeling as if everyone he passes is looking at him, as if they know.

He wants to scream and yell, but that will only make them stare harder.

He isn’t sure if he’d wanted to avoid Uncle, or to see him and receive reassurance from him that everything would be alright. (It would be a lie, but one he desperately wants to hear.)

Whatever he’d wanted, there the old man was, sitting on the deck, drinking tea and clearly waiting for him.

"Ah, nephew! You're back!" he greeted, cheerily. "I was beginning to think I’d need to send out a search party!"

His tone is jovial, but there’s a hint of worry in his eyes.

He should tell him, he thinks. Yes, he'll be disgusted, but Zuko is used to being the family disappointment.

He opens his mouth to speak, to explain what happened (as far as he knows what happened), to beg for him to never allow them to cross paths with Zhao ever again...

Then his uncle’s eyes fall to his neck, to the marks that his collar doesn’t quite cover, and he smirks (just like Zhao had). "But I see you were out celebrating instead! A little bit of birthday fun, hmm, nephew?"

"No!" he stammers. “It’s not what you think…”

But his uncle laughs, obviously not believing him. Not when he can see the evidence. And really, it is just as he suspects; Zuko has indeed had sex.

His laughter sounds like Zhao's.

"Oh don't be like that, nephew." He pats the space opposite him. "Come, sit with your old uncle, have some tea. Perhaps I can give you a few tips for next time?"

Tips. For next time.

He wants to scream at his uncle.

Then the smell of tea wafts towards him as his uncle pours some into a second cup that he must have been keeping ready for Zuko.

Before he knows it, he is at the railing, heaving into the water.

He doesn't realise his uncle has approached him until there is a chuckle from right behind him.

"Ah, I think someone is a little the worse for drink! Here-" And there is a hand on his back...

Hands. Hands tugging at his clothes. Touching him. parting his legs. All around him is the smell and taste of tea.

Yelling, he pushes his uncle away, fire on his fingers, not even hearing what the man shouts after him. All he can hear is Zhao's laughter.

He runs to the shower room, rips off his armour (that had not protected him when it mattered) and his clothes, and stands under the spray scrubbing at himself, trying to get clean. He stays long after the water has gone cold, eventually slumping to the cold metal floor, still scrubbing away, skin raw.

He still feels filthy.

That night, he dreams he is back in the Agni Kai arena. only instead of his father demanding he stand and fight, and burning him to teach him respect, it’s Zhao. Doing things to him. The crowd watches. As before, nobody steps in to stop it. Nobody ever does.

Uncle keeps offering him tea. He refuses, screaming for what feels like the millionth time that he doesn't want tea. Any thoughts he has about telling his uncle what had happened are quickly forestalled by the disappointed looks he receives for his outbursts.

And even not drinking it isn't enough. There is no escape from tea on this ship. The hold is full of tea. It seems to comprise 90% of their supplies. (Why do they have so much tea? No one can drink this much, surely? Not even Uncle.)

The ship has excellent air circulation – it’s about the only thing on this rust bucket that works consistently, something he’d previously appreciated.

Now he curses it.

Nowhere on the ship is safe. He can be walking down a corridor, heading for the engine room to ask for an update on their fuel reserves, or to Lieutenant Jee's cabin to discuss possible places to search next, when suddenly the smell of tea will waft out of an air vent and he feels like it’s choking him and he wants to scream and he’s losing control of his fire…

So he screams. At whoever is nearest.

Especially if they’re near enough to have seen him briefly freeze up.

Because he shouldn’t be afraid. He can’t be afraid. So he does the only thing he knows how to do, channelling that fear into rage, lashing out at anyone who crosses his path and scorching the walls and the furniture.

He tries to demand they get rid of the tea. The crew looks at each other and shakes their heads when they think he doesn't see. (He does. His vision may be poor in his left eye, but it’s more than enough to allow him to see their contempt.)

He shouts more at this lack of respect.

Eventually his uncle gives him a severe look and sharply tells him that perhaps he should work on being worthy of respect. (Later, he apologises for the lapse in his temper, but the words can't be unsaid. Besides, Zuko already knows he is unworthy. His uncle is just reconfirming something he is already aware of.)

He shouts more, stomps around the ship more.

He just wants people to listen.

Why won't they listen?

Chapter Text

The second time, he is nearly 15. He has managed to avoid Zhao for almost a year.

He still feels sick when he thinks about what happened. Still can’t bear anyone touching him. Still feels horribly uncomfortable whenever somebody stands too close. Still hates the smell, taste, and even the sight of tea.

Uncle keeps trying to get him to drink it, explaining over and over how calming tea is, both the drink itself and the delicate art of preparing it.

Zuko can’t tell him that calming tea is the problem. So he screams at him instead, desperately trying to get him to understand that no, he doesn’t want tea, please stop offering him tea. But he doesn’t understand.

He is so patient, that’s the worst thing. He doesn’t flinch from his nephew’s outbursts. And after a few times where he tried to embrace his nephew only to be met with fire, as Zuko reacted without thinking to being handled by someone who smelled – no, reeked – of tea, he never tried again.

(Zuko tells himself he doesn’t miss the hugs. He doesn’t. He’d hated when Uncle would hug him. He was too old for that. But it still hurt when he stopped and never once asked why.)

Sometimes, Uncle’s quiet disappointment gets to be too much, and Zuko accepts an offered cup, just to make him stop looking at him like that, choking down the tea.

He is getting better about not throwing up afterwards.

But he is almost starting to hope that maybe, just maybe, he might be able to forget it eventually, once enough time passes. (A lot of time.)

And then they pull into a port for some urgent repairs, and Zhao is also there. He invites the two of them for tea and of course Uncle accepts.

Zuko tries shouting that they are wasting time, but Uncle, with excruciating patience, explains that they’re not going anywhere until these repairs are done, and there is no reason not to take Commander Zhao up on his offer of hospitality.

There is a reason, but how can he even begin to explain? Especially not when Uncle is giving him that Look he has learned to recognise. The one where it seems like he is judging Zuko and finding him wanting.

And it's safe enough, he reasons, as they accompany the Commander to his room at the inn where he's staying. He'll be fine. Uncle is here. Zhao won't dare try anything with the Dragon of the West present.

He drinks the tea, ignoring the urge to throw up.

Uncle does not stay.

Zhao laughs at Zuko's panic when he comes to, finding himself once again naked in Zhao's bed covered in nastiness, his uncle nowhere to be seen.

He tells Zuko that Iroh had left him to his ‘nap’ while he checked on the progress of the repairs, and Zhao had promised to take good care of his nephew.

"And I did," he sneers, stroking a hand down Zuko's side.

He finches away from the man's touch (far, far too late) and lurches out of the bed, He makes it to the sink in time to empty his stomach, as Zhao watches, laughing.

Zuko dresses with as much dignity as he can muster, as Zhao leers at him. (What does dignity even matter anyway? It's long gone, as is his honour.)

He gets back to the Wani to find the repairs have been completed enough to allow them to set sail, but there are still a few minor issues. Like the showers, which won't be fixed until tomorrow.

It's not like he can ever truly feel clean anyway, but...

He shouts. And the crew shake their heads and mutter about the spoiled brat who can't bear to have even the slightest speck of dirt on him. Why else would he feel the need to shower so much, wasting water like this? They’re growing bolder about sneering at him, hardly bothering to hide their contempt anymore, unless Uncle is present.

He shouts even louder.

It doesn't help.

Nothing helps.

(Nobody helps.)

Chapter Text

The third time is only a few months later. Their respective ships pass each other in the middle of the sea, and Zhao invites them to come aboard for tea.

Zuko shouts that they don't have time, that they have to concentrate on their mission. They can't waste time stopping for tea.

"Zuko!" his uncle snaps, and he flinches. He hadn’t even raised his voice, but he didn’t need to.

Not nephew. Not Prince Zuko. Just his name.

Uncle sighs, making an obvious effort to rein in his temper.

"You do not need to be friends with Commander Zhao, but he has much influence over the waters we sail through. It is in your best interests to put any dislike aside for such a valuable ally."

(Do as you're told. Drink his tea. Let him between your legs. Let him use you as he wishes.)

Uncle accepts the invitation, and Zuko follows obediently. He'll be fine, he tells himself. There's no repairs that need checking on, and since this is simply a brief meeting rather than an actual stop, if Uncle does return to the Wani, it’ll be because they’re leaving, and he will have Zuko carried back. (Will he wonder at how Zuko has fallen asleep yet again after drinking Zhao’s tea? Or will he laugh like he did last time and tell his nephew that this was a sign he needed to relax more?)

There's no reason to leave him, this time.

And he will be careful to drink as little tea as he can politely get away with.

(One of Zhao's men claims to be a master of pai sho, and Iroh can never resist a chance to test his skills, not when his nephew snaps and sulks whenever tries to play a real game against a challenging opponent in any ports they visit, claiming they lack the time.)

Not only has Uncle left him, but drinking less tea has backfired horribly.

The lower dose means he has woken up earlier than he should have. And Zhao is- He hasn't finished.

Agni, it hurts.

Zhao notices, of course. "Awake, your Highness?" he sneers, Zuko's title a mockery. "Good. The lack of reaction can be so boring sometimes.”

He tries to push the man off, but he’s still feeling the effects of the tea and may as well have been trying to move a building. So he tries to summon flames, but all that he can manage are sparks. Zhao snarls and pins his arms above his head with one hand.

He opens his mouth to call for help. Zhao covers it with his other hand.

"Are you sure you want to do that, your Highness? What would people think if they saw you like this?" He leans forward, his breath hot on Zuko's face. "What would your uncle think of you?"

He moves his hand.

Zuko does not call out.

He tries to pretend it’s all happening to someone else, somewhere far away.

He fails.

Zhao’s hand is hot on his wrists, and he knows it will leave a mark that’ll last for days, even with him sneaking into the infirmary to steal burn salve. Will his uncle notice? (Does he want him to notice?)

He cries, and Zhao leans down to lick at the tears streaming down his face.

The next day, he 'accidentally' knocks the pai sho board overboard.

Uncle is not happy. There is actual steel in his voice and something sharp in his eyes as he lectures Zuko over his inability to hold his temper and his treatment of those around him.

Zuko shouts back, feeling betrayed. His uncle cares about protecting a stupid game, but not his own nephew.

Iroh snaps, insisting that he will learn respect (Zuko flinches) for other people’s possessions by spending all of tomorrow in the hold, conducting an inventory of the ship’s supplies. (The hold, filled with tea.)

He doesn’t wait for Zuko’s response, instead turning away to inform Lieutenant Jee that they would be sailing to the nearest port to purchase a new board. Zuko fumes at this – literally, there are sparks on his breath and wisps of steam rising from him – but there’s no point in arguing. Nobody cares what he has to say.

He stomps down to the showers and stays there for over an hour.

When he walks into his cabin, not feeling any cleaner than he had before (he never did), his uncle is waiting with a conciliatory expression. And a cup of tea.

Zuko throws the tea at the wall and screams. Now his uncle really does shout at him.

He should apologise. But he can't.

Chapter Text

The fourth time he drinks tea given to him by Zhao, he is 16, and Zhao is now an Admiral.

Zhao’s ship is pulling up next to the Wani again and how is he doing this? Does the sea hate him? Perhaps he should start making offerings to La? It’s a Water Tribe spirit but Zuko is desperate enough to make offerings to Koh if it’ll mean he never has to feel Zhao’s breath on his face and hands touching him and…

(How is he Admiral now? Would he be Admiral if Father knew?)

He tries to avoid him for as long as possible, engaging Lieutenant Jee in conversation about anything he can think of, without shouting even once, because his throat is almost closing up in panic, and it’s all he can do to keep talking.

The only thing this achieves is that Jee gets invited to tea, and Zuko manages to be seated between him and Uncle, so Zhao can’t be next to him and taking every opportunity to lean into his space and even touch him when Uncle isn’t looking.

It won’t matter in the end. Neither of them will save him.

(And this only means Zhao is opposite him, staring right at him.)

Zuko’s skin is crawling and it feels like he’s being burned up by his own inner fire and it takes everything he has not to scream. Zhao is smirking at him, and it’s worse this time because there is another person, and that person is one of his subordinates and he can’t show weakness in front of someone he’s supposed to lead. (What would he think if he knew how weak his prince was? What would any of the crew think?)

He vows he will not drink this time, but Uncle snaps at him and he sounds like Father when he is angry with Zuko (he was always angry with him), so Zuko drinks as Zhao smirks at him and tells him he should listen to his Uncle. He wants to shout at him, and that must show on his face because Uncle is giving him another Look. “Nephew, I blended that tea myself, just for you. Please don’t insult your old uncle by letting his hard work go to waste.”

He wants to cry. No, princes don’t cry – he wants to scream, that’s it.

He drinks the tea, as Uncle watches until he is satisfied that Zuko won’t shame him by being rude.

Jee is watching him too, like he’s waiting for something.

The conversation shifts from tea blends, to something to do with one of the colonies; Zuko is barely aware of what’s being said…

He’s jerked back to awareness by Uncle saying something about Music Night. He’d completely forgotten that was tonight!

Maybe it’s a good thing? Maybe he can go, for once, and enjoy safety in numbers? People will laugh at how he somehow manages to sleep through the racket, but that will be so much better than being left alone with Zhao.

But Zhao is leering across the table (nobody notices because nobody cares) and Zuko knows he’ll find an excuse somehow. There is no escape.

Then Jee speaks. He’s been quiet up until now, just sitting and looking between Zuko and Zhao with an expression Zuko couldn’t figure out.

“Your Highness, you mentioned wanting to learn more about navigation. Perhaps now would be a good time?”

He has no idea when he’d ever expressed such a sentiment but Past Zuko obviously had the best idea ever. He nods, frantically, fighting past the dizziness this causes. He’s struggling to stay conscious now, but he needs to hold onto this fragile lifeline and he can’t allow anyone to see his weakness because they’ll use it as an reason to stop him leaving (he can practically hear Uncle telling him he needs to rest and Zhao slimily offering to help him back to his cabin…) and he needs to get out of here.

He tries to answer clearly, but his words are slurred and he stumbles getting up. He can see Uncle frowning and Zhao opening his mouth to offer some suggestion…

Jee insists they’ll be back for Music Night and picks up their cups to take with them, saying the tea is too good to waste, and Zuko tries to agree (even though he doesn’t want tea anywhere near him and Jee must be mocking him, but he’ll say anything to get out of here) but he doesn’t think it comes out at all coherent.

Zhao’s mask slips then and he snaps that they can’t just leave, and for a moment Zuko is scared that he’ll stop them, but Jee rests a hand on his back and steers him towards the door. And Zuko does not want to be touched (please don’t touch him) but he wants to be around Zhao even less so he allows the Lieutenant to all but shove him out into the corridor.

And that is where his legs give out.

Zuko doesn’t know where Jee is taking him but he knows they go past the mess hall, because the crew gathered there catches sight of their prince being all but carried and tag along, laughing at his misfortune.

(He can hear Jee saying something about poison to someone, and he should probably care that someone got poisoned but all he can focus on is the laughter.)

The crowd stays as he is lowered onto a cot in the infirmary (when had they gotten there?) and he wants to scream at them to go away, but he’s barely holding onto consciousness and knows they won’t listen anyway.

Jee is talking to someone and he can’t focus on their words, but something they’ve said causes the laughter to stop, so that’s good.

Then there is a cup being pressed against his lips and nonono he doesn’t want any tea please no, and he manages to push the cup away but he doesn’t know how much longer he can fight Zhao off…

Someone is kneeling in front of him and speaking. “Prince Zuko,” the person says, and it’s not Zhao; it’s Medic Satomi. “You need to drink this, okay? It’ll make you throw up, which won’t be fun, but we need to purge whatever you’ve been given out of your system, alright? I give my word that you won’t be hurt.”

Her words wash over him but don’t really sink in, but she’d treated his burn and hadn’t hurt him and Mother had always been very firm about doing as the healers said, so he nods and this time he accepts the cup when it is held to his lips.

It tastes vile and he wants to spit it out, but that would look weak, and anyway it’s not tea, so he obediently drinks until the cup is empty.

(And maybe it’ll actually kill him.)

(He doesn’t really want to die. He just wants it all to stop.)

And then he starts throwing up, and now he really does want to die.

Someone is holding him and he wants to push them off (don’t touch!) but all he can do is heave his guts up. There’s a laugh from somewhere nearby and he realises the crew is still there, watching his suffering and he wants to cry, but he won’t, he refuses to.

(He just wants it all to stop. Please.)

It feels like an eternity passes.

Eventually, the nausea subsides, and he slumps. He feels drained, but no longer like he’s about to pass out.

Jee tries to lay him down and there’s a flash of fear about what being pushed to lie down means. He fights. He has no hope of winning, but Jee lets go anyway, and he pulls himself to sit upright using the wall as support.

Instead of making another attempt to grab him, Jee sits down on the edge of the cot and begins talking to someone (the medic, he thinks, but doesn’t look up, not wanting to risk meeting anyone’s gaze and see the contempt in their eyes), and he relaxes and tries to focus on breathing. Because the sooner he is in control of himself, the sooner he can get out of here, out of the eyes of the crew, find somewhere to hide.

(There is nowhere to hide, he knows.)

He listens with half an ear to the conversation between the Lieutenant and Satomi, letting the words wash over him.

The sound of someone throwing themselves into a chair. “That’s all the tests I have, and I can’t find even a hint of anything.”

“There’s nothing else you can try?” Jee’s voice sounds desperate and he wonders what could have scared the man so much.

“Well I suppose I have this stuff…”

A rustle of fabric. Paper tearing. A long silence. “Oh.”

He can feel Jee’s tension, and there’s fear in the room but he doesn’t know why.

“Agni damnit, woman! How bad is it?”

“I think it might be worse than we thought.” Her voice is quiet.

What is worse? And worse than what?

“What sort of poison is it?”

Poison?

“It’s not actually poison. Not really…”

Who’s been poisoned? Nobody seems to be sick, except- Oh no. They think he’s been poisoned. They’re investigating. They’re going to find out.

(He wants them to. He wants them to know.)

(Please, Agni, don’t let them find out.)

“This is the sort of stuff you take to bars to check if your drink has been spiked.”

(Oh no, please.)

“So?”

“Lieutenant. Sir. Why would someone spike a bar patron’s drink with something to render them unconscious?”

There’s a long pause, and then disgusted cursing from the assembled crew and he can’t breathe, because now they know.

No, wait. They know Zhao put something in his tea tonight. He can say it was a prank, that’s all, salvage whatever scraps of dignity he has left after being this evening’s main entertainment. They might even step in if Zhao gets him alone again, to avoid any more pranks. (Probably not though.)

Somebody chuckles, a dark, wry sound. “No wonder the kid is scared of tea.”

A snort. “Nah, he just got drugged tonight, and he’s been freaking out about that for what? Two years now? More?”

There’s another long pause, and Zuko feels his heart sink.

They know.

Then Jee is leaning over him.

“Prince Zuko…” He pauses, as if he doesn’t want to continue. Zuko doesn’t want him to continue. Please don’t ask. Please don’t ask. He wants people to listen to him but he doesn’t want them to ask. “Has Admiral Zhao done something like this before?”

Zuko curls in on himself and cries.

He’s not sure if it’s from despair or relief or both.

There’s a hand patting him on the shoulder, and he flinches so hard it feels like his whole body is seizing up, and then there’s a hesitant sounding, “There, there?” and-

It’s been so long since someone – anyone – has comforted him, and suddenly he is throwing himself forward and clinging desperately to Jee and sobbing into his uniform because this is the first comfort he has received in years

(Uncle just keeps offering him calming tea.)

And then there are arms round him, stiff and awkward, and he flinches again but he can’t remember the last time anyone hugged him…

…and he finds himself hanging on even tighter and crying even harder, desperate to keep a grip on this small thing.

(Distantly he is aware that he will never live this down, but he’s almost past caring by this point. The crew knows his shame, and there’s no going back now. It’s too late.)

Then there’s a new voice in the background and someone is asking if he is alright and he snarls that he’s fine.

(He is not fine.)

The man is delivering a message: Uncle has gone to Zhao’s ship, where Music Night is being held. And Zhao has helpfully stayed behind to escort the prince and is waiting on deck…

He’s not going to stay there. He’s going to come down here and order the crew away and they’ll go because he is an Admiral and they don’t care.

And he’s fully conscious now and Zhao is not going to waste time giving him more tea but he doesn’t think he has the strength to fight him off and panic is flooding him and he can’t even breathe…

There’s a hand patting his back, and Jee’s voice (with an angry note that he’s never heard before) saying that Prince Zuko is in no condition to be going anywhere right now, so someone needs to take the Admiral refreshments while he waits and make sure they’re prepared properly and do whatever they can to stop him coming down here.

They’re… protecting him?

He opens his eyes to see the gathered crowd dispersing as the crew leave to follow their Lieutenant’s orders. (Or because the show seems to be over.)

A few stay though, sitting on the floor and breaking out a deck of cards.

He pulls away from the subordinate he’d been sobbing all over, who will never respect him again (Not that he ever had in the first place...) and watches them play for a while.

One of them looks up. “You two gonna sit there all night or you joining in?”

You two?

“Me?”

They’ve never included him in anything before.

(They shouldn’t include him. He is their Prince. He is supposed to be above them.)

“Um, okay?”

So they deal him in. He doesn’t know the rules, but he’s used to that from playing games with Azula – at least here, he probably won’t end up with any injuries when he gets it wrong.

But…

“But what if Zhao comes down here?” Even if they’re willing, they don’t have the authority to go against an Admiral.

“Oh, don’t worry, your Highness. He won’t.”

Chapter Text

The crew can’t actually murder Zhao, not without consequences. But they can make him wish he was dead.

Engineer Natsumi leaned back against the rail with Satomi, watching Zhao drinking his second cup of tea, as music played with vastly varying degrees of musical talent drifted over from the deck of the larger ship. He kept glancing at the doorway to the lower decks, looking about ready to go down, and they both shifted their weight slightly, ready to set an intercept course.

Thankfully, right at the moment, the emetic kicked in and Zhao rushed to the side and began emptying his guts into the sea.

She sniggered a little, but the medic didn't join in, instead looking confused. "Wait, he's throwing up?"

Natsumi turned to her, confused. "Yeah, why are you surprised?"

"I didn't realise you put something in! I thought I was handling it!"

Just then, Zhao shot bolt upright, and dashed towards the doorway he'd previously been glaring at, holding a hand to his mouth. They should probably have stopped him, even with him clearly being too busy to worry about assaulting their teenage commander, but they were too distracted.

His movements were extremely awkward, as if he was trying to run as quickly as possible, but without moving too much.

"What did you put in?"

"A really strong laxative."

From below, there were loud banging noises that sounded like someone hammering at a door with their fist, and enraged and frantic shouting that put Prince Zuko's outbursts to shame.

"Also I bribed Toshi to hang out in the privy all night with the door bolted behind him." The shouting grew more frantic. "Don't worry. He'll open the door to anyone else."

Zhao reappeared, looking flustered, and made a waddling dash for his own ship. Slowly, they followed, ambling over to lean on the opposite railing so they could watch as he scuttled over the board between the ships, hoping to see him fall in, but alas he made it.

His luck ran out there.

They couldn't see him amidst the crowd, but voices carried over the evening air.

"Ah, Admiral, you've come to join us! Excell-" *sounds of vomiting* "Oh, are you quite alright?" An awkward pause, that somehow felt embarrassed, followed by muffled sniggering that wasn’t muffled enough. "Oh. Oh dear. Where is the medic?"

Natsumi held out her fist towards Satomi. The other woman met it with her own. 

Iroh sighed as he knocked on the door to Lieutenant Jee’s cabin. Music Night had certainly been more… entertaining than usual. But now he had to deal with it.

Admiral Zhao had suddenly taken ill (extremely so) after taking tea on the Wani. It wasn’t hard to figure out what had happened. It certainly wouldn’t be hard for Zhao to figure out.

He’d taken advantage of the man’s distraction to weave a thick enough net of words around him that by the time he was done he had Zhao convinced that up was down, black was white, and whatever had made him sick had probably been consumed hours or days before.

He’d also suggested that making a stink of things (though that might not be the best term to use, under the circumstances…) would draw more attention to his embarrassment.

But if he ever came to figure out the truth he would probably find some petty way of getting his own back. Preventing them from entering a port, denying them vital reports on enemy ship movements, refusing to authorise some urgently-needed supplies. Or one of many other ways he could make their mission just a little bit harder than it already was.

(This was why he kept trying to impress upon Zuko the necessity of learning to deal with unpleasant people who unfortunately held power. One day the boy would be Fire Lord, and he would be a great one, Iroh was sure. But there was still so much he needed to learn.)

But while he may have (hopefully) staved off disaster here, he needed to see to it that the individuals involved did not try such things again. However much they might dislike the Admiral, and however amusing it had been. Iroh might not be able to smooth things over next time. And they can’t just go around putting things in people’s tea.

But his efforts to quietly find out who was responsible had turned up nothing. The entire crew had oyster-clammed up and had closed ranks.

Which was strange. He was a General, the famed Dragon of the West, and a member of the royal family. But he’d done his best to be as approachable as possible to the crew, and liked to think he was well-regarded by them.

And normally somebody would at least accidentally let something slip without meaning to – a careless word, an implication they hadn’t intended, a story that clashed with somebody else’s. But here, he’d received only glares and non-committal answers. (Or blatant falsehoods – three crewmembers had claimed to be playing cards with Prince Zuko while Admiral Zhao had been on their ship, for spirits’ sake!)

He’d hoped the Lieutenant would be of more assistance.

But as soon as he’d explained why he was there and saw the closed-off expression on the man’s face, he knew it was not to be. He fought the urge to sigh.

“Lieutenant, I’m not sure you understand just how serious antagonising Zhao is. I realise he… isn’t the most pleasant of people-” He chose to ignore that exhalation that was definitely a barely-repressed snort. “-but alas, we must deal with him. I assure you. I have no intention of meting out any punishment. I simply wish to have a quiet word with the individuals involved and explain this to them in person. They have to know that this is unacceptable.”

Still nothing. Something was going on here. If the Lieutenant was ignorant of the culprit, why not say so outright? If he knew, why protect them? Iroh had turned a blind eye to more than a few minor infractions in the past, and he tended to avoid involving his nephew unless absolutely necessary, lest his temper exacerbate whatever ill-feelings had led to the insubordination. He hated feeling like he was using his nephew as a deterrent for more serious incidents, but that’s how it normally worked out.

He couldn’t shake the feeling that something was very, very wrong…

“Lieutenant, I demand you tell me what is going on here.”

“No, sir.” He froze for a moment, as if he hadn’t meant to say that (or at least, not out loud). But he didn’t retract his words.

“I’m sorry, what did you say, Lieutenant?”

He took a deep breath, steeling himself to face consequences. “I said, ‘No, sir’.”

He continued keeping his voice and expression neutral. “That is what I thought you said. It’s good that my nephew’s shouting has not damaged my hearing. What I don’t understand is why you won’t tell me.”

Lieutenant Jee opened his mouth then closed it, before trying again. “I can’t, sir.”

Iroh dropped his usual genial old man demeanour and spoke in a voice that had commanded an army. “Lieutenant Jee. I demand you tell me what is going on. Right now.”

He was actually impressed that Jee stood his ground, tensing slightly in nervousness, but nothing else.

“Who are you protecting, Lieutenant?”

This got a reaction. “He had it coming, alright!” snapped Jee.

Now Iroh was actually worried. This level of insubordination, anger towards a superior officer… The crew was constantly on the verge of mutiny as it was. If they were willing to humiliate a sneering vermin like Admiral Zhao, what would they do to the prince who screamed and threw things and tried to set them in fire?

“Lieutenant…” He’d known men to break down in terror at that tone, but Jee simply raised his chin and stared him down.

He wasn’t going to get anywhere like this. He knew that look – he’d seen it enough on the faces of men and women on the wrong side of an interrogation; Jee was not going to talk, or back down from whatever hill he’d chosen to die on.

The old Iroh would have killed him, then and there. But that wasn’t who he was anymore.

He needed to think about this, take some time, find a way to get to the bottom of this mystery that was getting more worrying by the second. And he needed to talk to his nephew, to make sure he was aware of this new development in the crew, to warn him.

“This is not over, Lieutenant. I will be discussing this with my nephew, and we will decide how to proceed from here.”

At that, Jee looked somehow both angry and terrified for a moment, before collecting himself. Then he sighed, apparently resigned.

“Just don’t take him any tea, sir.”

“Is that supposed to be a joke, Lieutenant?”

“I mean it, sir.”

Zuko is absolutely not hiding.

Yes, it is well past dawn, and yes, he hasn’t left his cabin yet, even though he should have been going through Firebending katas that Azula had mastered years ago and giving orders to the crew. But he isn’t hiding.

He’s just… meditating.

Normally he does that in the evening, to wind down at the end of a day. But he hadn’t done it last night, what with… everything.

So he is doing it now.

He isn’t simply putting off having to face the crew. Because now they know.

Nobody had said anything last night (at least not to his face). Nobody had even laughed at him for flinching when he’d heard Zhao screaming in rage from somewhere else in the ship.

(He’d actually smiled a little when Engineer Natsumi and Medic Satomi had joined the card game shortly after that and relayed the events of Music Night.)

And even after finding out that Zhao was… indisposed… nobody had left him alone; Lieutenant Jee and Medic Satomi had even escorted him back to his cabin.

But that was last night, and this is today. Things will surely be different, and he has to figure out how to fit into this new normal. How does he handle this? How does he command a ship of people who know the depths of his shame?

It’s one thing to know and not sneer at him, but it’s something else entirely to expect them to know and not see him as weak.

He grimaces as his breath control slips for at least the tenth time, and the candles flare. But his attempt to calm himself and resume his meditation yet again is interrupted by a knock at the door.

It’s the ship’s cook, Ryuichi, holding a tray.

“Yes?” he asks, hating that his voice shakes, just a little.

“Sir…” He pauses, clears his throat. “I noticed you hadn’t been to breakfast yet, and I thought you might not be feeling too well still, so I brought you something.”

He is pretty hungry, now that he thinks about it. There’d been some food shared over the card game, but he’d been too nervous to eat much of it.

Zuko moves aside, letting him into the room so he can set the contents of the tray down on the low table.

He tries not to look too suspicious while peering into the jug, but the man notices. “It’s just water, your Highness. Well, I did put a sprig of wild mint in there to give it some flavour, but that’s all.”

That was… thoughtful. (It was water, with leaves in, just cold. It was almost tea. But not quite.)

His silence must come across as refusal though. “Um… if that’s alright, sir? I can bring something else?”

Nobody had offered to bring him something else before, no matter how much he’d screamed at being offered tea.

“No. No that’s fine. Um. Thank you.”

The man bows (actually bows!) and leaves.

(The whole time, he notices, the man had avoided stepping too close.)

The rice and fish on the plate isn’t much of a surprise - the Wani’s supplies were so limited that breakfast was almost always leftovers from the previous evening’s meal. But there is a small bowl of broth too, which hadn’t been served last night, and Zuko wonders if the cook had prepared it specially.

(Why is he smiling? It’s just plain broth?)

He’s just finishing when there’s another knock at the door. “Nephew?”

He nearly chokes on the last mouthful.

Uncle. Uncle means tea.

The urge to scream is comforting in its familiarity. The candles blaze suddenly next to him (he never let them go, he realises, but they’d been so steady while he’d been eating that he hadn’t noticed).

“I don’t want any calming tea!”

The door opens, and his uncle steps in, ignoring the clear dismissal (as always) and looking serious. “I did not bring any tea, nephew.”

Uncle must take his surprise as an invitation, sitting at the table opposite him.

“Prince Zuko, I must talk to you about an urgent situation involving the crew.”

At least some things were normal. The crew might be acting… odd. But his nephew greeted him with shouting as usual. It hurt, as it did every time, but he tried to remain calm and understanding, hoping that eventually Zuko would stop denying the truth of his situation and accept that he needed to find his own path, instead of following the one set for him by his father. And when that happened, he needed to know his uncle would be there to support him, no matter what.

(He’d been slipping up there lately, he knew, allowing his temper to get the best of him on several occasions.)

At least he understood the seriousness of the situation, looking downright worried in the flickering, jittery light of the candles, as Iroh laid out the situation, explaining what had happened to Admiral Zhao. And when he described how the crew, including Lieutenant Jee, had closed ranks and refused to talk to him, his hands shook so hard he had to put down his drink to avoid spilling it.

“It’s extremely concerning. I even threatened him, but the man stood his ground – I’d give him a medal for bravery if that bravery didn’t suggest mutiny.” He shook his head. “He doesn’t seem to understand how serious drugging Admiral Zhao’s tea is-”

Zuko’s wariness quickly twisted into an expression of rage that Iroh was all-too-familiar with... But…

Were those tears?

His nephew jumped to his feet, shouting, as the candles surged, melting into piles of misshapen wax in an instant. “Oh, of course! Now you want to find out who put something in someone’s tea! You never cared when it was my tea, but when it happens to Zhao, then it matters!”

Then he froze, clapping a hand over his mouth.

The lone candle that still had enough wick left to burn was snuffed out as Zuko collapsed back to the floor on his knees.

Iroh went cold. It was the same numbness he’d felt when he’d received the news of Lu Ten’s death.

“Neph-” he began. “Zuko… What do you mean?”

But he knew what he meant. He could see it all now, like a scroll slowly unfurling. A sudden aversion towards a drink he’d shown no antipathy towards before, to the point where he freaked out at its presence on the ship. Sudden attacks of sickness despite long since having gotten used to being at sea, that always seemed to happen after he’d been nagged into drinking some tea. Near-constant shouting and screaming and stomping for no reason at all, as if he’d just needed to yell about something. Throwing fire at people who got too close. The long showers (and the time he’d screamed so loud at Jee when he’d had the water supply turned off in frustration that he’d actually damaged his voice). Sabotaging the pai sho board after Iroh had left him with Zhao to play the game. Anger at having to spend time with Zhao (though admittedly that last one wasn’t necessarily indicative of anything – aside from good taste – but taken alongside everything else…)

It seemed blindingly obvious with the gift of hindsight. How had he not seen it? At the time it had seemed to be part of Zuko’s anger at his banishment, combined with normal teenage moodiness…

But it wasn’t.

He wanted to ask what he had done to make his nephew feel he couldn’t confide in him.

But he knew.

He had tried. Many many times. And Iroh hadn’t listened.

He reached across the table and took his nephew’s hands in his; they were shaking.

“I am listening, nephew. Please talk to me.”

And he did.

Chapter Text

Iroh does not unleash his rage. He wants to, but his nephew will only misinterpret its target. So instead he remains calm, holding his nephew as he pours his heart out, offering reassurances that probably ring hollow as they are coming far, far too late…

…And he waits.

A quiet word with the crew and a course is set to follow Zhao’s ship to its next destination. He tells Zuko that he has urgent business in that port but does not explain what, or tell him who else will be there.

A few days later, and the Wani pulls into port. Iroh orders the crew to find a berth that’s as far as possible from Zhao’s ship, and instructs them not to let the prince out of their sight under any circumstances.

(He also instructs them to unload all the tea on board, and trade it for something else – anything else. He will miss it, of course, but the comfort it brings him is not worth the distress it causes his nephew.)

He invites Zhao for tea. Regrettably, he explains, his nephew cannot join them, as he is far too busy planning their next attempt to capture the Avatar, which Iroh will be only too happy to discuss.

Zhao is too caught up on this mention of the Avatar to watch what Iroh’s hands are doing as he pours tea into the cups. He sits and drinks while Iroh gives him what information they have on the Avatar. Precious information that has been hard-won, that could give Zhao an edge in this competition for the Firelord’s favour.

It doesn’t matter, as Zhao will never get the chance to use any of it.

Iroh finishes his cup, then pours himself another and slowly drinks it, before clearing away the tea set. He throws away the cup Zhao drank from.

Then he leaves. Zhao does not wake, and he never will.