Story: Good Manners|
Title: Good Manners
Fandom: Avatar: the Last Airbender
Characters: Zuko, Song, Iroh, Mazao (OC)
Word Count: 1800+
Summary: Prince Zuko and his uncle are invited to dine with the local governor and discover an unusual acquisition of his.
Notes: Written for Rin for her birthday. :D Also an AU of an AU. I have the crack, okay?
Being banished from the Fire Nation hadn't freed Prince Zuko from all the duties of being Firelord Ozai's firstborn. When an invitation came in from Governer Mazao, Zuko couldn't get out sharing dinner with him. He had tried -- the last thing he wanted to do was to delay his hunt for the Avatar -- but Uncle Iroh had overridden him.
"This is a waste of time, Uncle," he muttered as they approached the front door.
"We must pay the governor our respects, Prince Zuko," Iroh told him.
"Why?" Zuko demanded. "I've been banished."
"Because it is good manners," the one-time General said. "Not extending the invitation to dinner could be construed as an insult to the Firelord's family."
"Then why accept?"
"Because it is good manners," Iroh repeated.
Zuko snarled in response.
When they reached the front door of the manor (and what a contrast it was to some of the hovels they had passed on the way in), it was Uncle who knocked on the door, rather than Zuko.
The man who answered the door had swarthy skin and dark green eyes -- Earth Kingdom, most likely. Zuko stepped back, his eyes wide. In the seven months that he had been exiled, he had never seen any man as dead as this one while still breathing.
The dead-eyed man showed them to a dining hall, then bowed himself out.
Zuko stared after him.
"Governer Mazao has done much to pacify this region," Uncle said mildly.
Zuko jumped, then looked over at the one-time general. His expression was just as mild as his voice, but he too was looking after the dead-eyed man. If he didn't know better, Zuko might think Uncle disapproved of the governor. "What do you mean?" he asked.
The old man didn't answer.
"Uncle?" Zuko pressed, but then the door opened and a man who could only be Governor Mazao entered.
He was a man in his middle years, maybe a few years older than Father, with his black hair held back in a military topknot. Zuko's good eye narrowed as he noted that the governor's clothes were also cut in a military fashion, though the man at least wore nothing that might be mistaken for ranking. His body was fit, but it lacked the hardness Zuko had come to associate with soldiers -- even Uncle, three years retired and gone to fat, always had a sense of readiness about him.
No wonder Uncle hadn't asked the men to come along.
Then Zuko saw the girl behind Mazao and stopped breathing.
Though her eyes were downcast and she wore simply-cut servants' robes, she stood out like a gilla cat among ratpigeons. It was her hair that drew the eye, two colours all swirled together like cream in coffee, and pulled back from her face in Fire Nation style that displayed the patterns. Around her neck was a red choker with a gold ornament hanging from it that reminded Zuko of Water Tribe betrothal necklaces.
Beside him, Uncle sucked in a breath.
Then Governor Mazao was bowing and Zuko had to drag his eyes away from the not-quite-a-servant. "Prince Iroh; Prince Zuko," the man said cheerfully on straightening. "Welcome to my home. I'm sure it's not anything like you're used to, but we do our best in these barbarian lands."
Zuko was not sure he liked the governor.
He barely managed not to shudder at the thought of the not-servant betrothed to a pompous jackass like Mazao. Fortunately, neither the Fire Nation nor the Earth Kingdom followed barbaric customs like that.
(Then why put her in something so similar to a collar?)
"I see your nephew has taken an interest in my pet," Mazao said to Uncle, and Zuko's hackles rose instantly. Pet? His head snapped up.
"She is very... unusual, Governor," Uncle said before Zuko could comment. "Where did you find such a treasure?"
Mazao waved a negligant hand. "Some of the locals had her. Earth barbarians don't deserve a prize like her, so I took her for the glory of the Fire Nation." He stroked her hair, ignoring how she had stiffened at his words and his touch.
For the glory of Mazao was more like it, Zuko thought. It took all his strength not to snarl at the man and snatch the poor girl away from him.
"I see," said Uncle, and put a hand on Zuko's shoulder.
"Now come, sit," said Mazao cheerfully, "and enjoy your meal."
It was difficult to enjoy his meal when Mazao had so thoughtfully seated him across from the kidnapped girl. She wouldn't look at Zuko, or even at the food put in front of him -- which was weird, because she hadn't been served. Was she there merely to sit still and be decorative?
"Don't you feed her?" Zuko blurted, interrupting the conversation between Mazao and Uncle.
The governer sighed. "I have tried, Prince Zuko," he said mournfully. "Alas, she will not eat like civilised people; she only eats things like mousevoles and ratpigeons, and then only when she can catch them." He shook his head. "If only I'd gotten to her before she was so ruined."
Zuko nearly snapped at him, but was silenced by the glare she sent at Mazao, so full of poison he was surprised that the governer wasn't struck down.
He tried to turn his attention to the meal, but had no appetite. He ate a little, to be polite, and found that his food turned to ash in his mouth. Stupid Mazao.
He wanted to talk to the girl, wanted to tell her that it would be all right, but how could it be all right for her ever again? A jackass like Mazao wouldn't turn her over to a banished prince, and Uncle would never order him to do so.
He couldn't ask for her anyway -- she was a person, not that that jackass would ever view her as such.
Then don't ask.
The thought arrived in his mind, and Zuko latched onto it so it wouldn't escape.
You can get her out, was the next thought.
Midnight found Zuko sneaking off the ship and back to the governor's manor. This time, however, he was wearing dark clothes and a mask to hide his scar. He was not paying Mazao an official visit.
He wished he'd had an opportunity to scout out the manor before this rescue attempt, but by his own orders they would be leaving at dawn. He had about six hours to pull this off.
Entering the manor was easier than he'd anticipated -- the side door, likely a servants' entrance, had been left slightly ajar. Suspicious, but not something Zuko was willing to question. He slipped inside, taking care not to trip on or run into anything.
He was greeted by a soft, inquisitive miao. Startled, he looked down to see a large black catsquirrel sitting by his feet and peering up at him, moonlight making its eyes shine. He glowered at the beast for making him jump, but didn't try to shoo it away. The last thing he needed was an offended animal rousing the house.
It tilted its head and regarded him for a moment, then got to its feet and bounded down the hallway, vanishing into the darkness. Zuko waited until he could no longer hear it, then continued on his way.
He'd wandered for nearly an hour when he ran into the very girl he was searching for. They stared at each other, wide-eyed, then she opened her mouth. Quickly Zuko covered it with his hand, afraid she'd scream, and was rewarded with a flash of pain across his arm. He snatched his hand back to see that she was holding the black catsquirrel.
When she spoke, it was in a fierce whisper. "You can't stop me from leaving!"
Zuko's good eye widened, and he took a step back from her. He didn't want to stop her, he wanted to help her. How could he tell her that?
...well, he could just tell her.
"I'm here to help," he said, whispering like she had.
She blinked, looking confused.
"You won't get far on your own," he went on. "I've got a ship-- I could hide you until you're far away from here, or maybe take you home, or--"
Her eyes suddenly filled with tears.
Oh Agni, she was crying. What should he do?
The catsquirrel turned a dire look on him, then climbed carefully onto the girl's shoulders to purr in her ear and rub its cheek against hers. How she didn't fall over under the thing's weight, he didn't know.
"I can help you," Zuko said again, soft-voiced but not whispering this time.
She didn't look at him, but the catsquirrel purred louder. "Okay," she said, rubbing her eyes. "Okay."
He led her out of the manor, always watching his step and listening for an alert, then back to the ship.
Getting aboard with a girl and a catsquirrel was harder than he liked -- Jee was on watch, and Zuko had never successfully been able to sneak past the lieutenant. This would take some doing.
The black catsquirrel leapt down from the girl's shoulders and trotted up to Jee, then twined around his ankles, bold as brass. The lieutenant looked down and, too Zuko's surprise, smiled. "Hello there," he said, kneeling down to scratch the animal behind the ears. "Out to find some lady cats?"
Oh gods, was Jee actually talking to it?
On the other hand, the normally alert lieutenant was distracted.
"Come on," Zuko whispered to the girl. Taking care to stay in the shadows, he led her across the deck and inside the ship. Hopefully it was late enough that none of the men would be wandering the hall.
They reached his room without incident, and Zuko sighed in relief as he showed her in. "You can hide in here for now," he told her, stripping off his mask now that they were safe inside.
She nodded and turned to him, then gasped.
He flinched, guessing what she was thinking. "It's okay," he said quickly. "I really do want to help you. My name is Zuko." He paused. "Which... you already knew."
She nodded, then quietly said, "My name is Song."
Zuko bowed to her, Earth Kingdom-style, and was relieved when she bowed back. "It's nice to meet you?" he offered.
A small smile crossed her face. "And you."
Zuko smiled back.
"I see you have made a friend," said Prince Iroh.
Lieutenant Jee bowed respectfully to the former general, then went back to stroking the black catsquirrel. "He came aboard late last night with your nephew and a girl."
The prince raised an eyebrow. "A girl?"
"Yes, sir," Jee answered. "He thought I was too occupied with this handsome fellow to notice them sneaking aboard."
Iroh shook his head. "We had best set sail, then. I suspect Governor Mazao will be rather unhappy when he wakes."
Current Location: the apartment couch
Current Mood: thirsty
Tags: character: fire nation, character: iroh, character: lieutenant jee, character: song, character: zuko, fandom: avatar, fanfic