Case 0, Prologue: Scared Straight
1. Zuko Makes an Accurate First Impression
The stone cuffs were tight, but not tight enough. It was the only thing stopping Zuko from hyperventilating. He didn't think displaying a firebender's carefully timed breath control would be a good idea, here. They were already suspicious.
"Name?" the guard said. One of the guards; the bored one, built like an equally bored mountain. He readied a brush over a stack of paperwork, never bothering to look at Zuko.
"Li," he answered.
"You always say your name so snippy?" the sarcastic one asked, from his spot leaning up against the closed door. He was built more like a flint knife, crossed elbows sticking out at jagged edges, hair as dark as Zuko's own and just a little longer, just a little unrulier.
"Yes," Zuko said.
The interrogation room was small; two chairs, and a door that had clipped the table on their way in. The bored guard had run a hand over its corner, smoothing out the chip with a casual display of earthbending.
"Bender?" he rumbled.
"No," Zuko snipped.
The knife-edge guard watched him. If he ever blinked, he hadn't while Zuko was looking. "You get a lot of people attacking teashops under the misapprehension that you are?"
"You get a lot of enjoyment out of making me miss the rest of my shift?"
The man held up finger and thumb, and pinched them close together. A little. "That eager to get back, huh?" He looked Zuko up and down and back up again, lingering pointedly on the apron. "Definitely the teashop type."
Zuko flushed. "I need the money. I mean, Uncle needs it. We have an apartment. And he… he likes to buy things. Nothing extravegant, just stupid little things like bonsai plants that he keeps killing and teacups and we already have four and there's only two of us—"
Knife raised an eyebrow, real slow. Zuko shut his mouth, real fast.
"Place of residence?" Mountain asked. The brush looked like a piece of especially breakable straw between his muscular fingers. Who had muscular fingers?
Zuko opened his mouth. Shut it again. He awkwardly dug in his pockets with his cuffed hands for the piece of paper with their address, the one written in Uncle's lazy just-a-normal-refugee scrawl, so different from the princely characters he'd written with back before they had to hide who they were.
Knife's eyebrow climbed higher. "What are you, a lost five-year-old?"
"It's a big city," Zuko said, and didn't say I don't remember how to say Earth Kingdom addresses, they're so weird, you number your blocks instead of your houses how does anyone get anywhere. "And all your streets sound the same. Why is there a Dirt Road and a Dirt Street and a Dirt Circle and a Dirt Row and—"
"If the city planners didn't care, you really think I do?"
Zuko shut his mouth again.
"Date of immigration?"
Zuko turned a little redder. He turned his face away, and dug in his pocket for his passport. He always carried it; the guards could stop anyone in the Lower Ring and ask for proof of legal entry. So could the Dai Li. Golden-eyed people got asked a lot more often by both parties, Zuko had noticed.
He just pushed the papers over to the Mountain, so he didn't fumble reading the date. The Earth Kingdom's calendar reset to zero with each new king, got a new era name like any of their kings ever did anything worthy of being called an 'era'.
"Date of birth?"
"Can't you read?" Zuko snapped, because he had no idea what his birthyear was in the Serene Era of the Forty-Sixth Earth King, Kuei, Second of His Name, Long May He Ignore The Outside World.
"Can you?" Knife asked, with a head tilt Zuko didn't trust. "Neat skill for a—" the man leaned over, dramatically. Scanned the page, dramatically. Stretched out the next words, like he was calling the lie with each new syllable. "—Fisherman's son."
"Relation to the perpetrator?" Mountain asked.
"None," Zuko growled. "We met on the ferry. He's insane."
"Yen-Jin tells me your sword skills are pretty neat, too. You learn those gutting fish?" Knife struck a pose, like someone confusing dual dao with nunchucks. " Whacha, whacha," he mimed something that might have been sword moves, or just a dramatic half-body seizure. Ended with a flash of teeth, one of them chipped, the edge just as sharp as the rest of him. "Hey, where'd your Uncle learn to brew tea like that? That a usual fisherman skill? Lots more posh culture than I thought, out on those boats."
"Leave Uncle out of this." Zuko was half-way out of his seat before he realized it. Mountain stared at him blandly, and re-dipped his brush. Zuko eased himself back down.
"Sure, sure," Knife said, making little settle down gestures, like a guy trying to brush off an over-eager dogaroo. "Good to see a kid your age so attached to family. None of us here would want anything to happen to him."
Zuko grit his teeth, and turned his glare away from the man's chipped-tooth smile. They were on to him. They knew. He didn't know how much, but firebender and prince and false paperwork all led back to dead, one way or another, whether it was a public execution or being kicked out of the city for Azula to find. The rock cuffs were tight, but not tight enough. He could get up the heat to shatter them without burning his own wrists, or slip free if he didn't mind skinning his hands.
It kept Zuko from hyperventilating. Mostly.
"Tea?" the stoney-faced guard captain asked, his hands clasped behind his back. He was not the one waiting to pour.
"Always," Iroh smiled. A rookie officer, his status clear from his lighter uniform and jittery demeanor, filled his cup with only a minimum of splashing. Iroh lifted it, and breathed in deeply. He blew across its surface. Finally, he sipped. "Ah, southern jasmine. Perhaps from the fields of Leng-Sho?
The rookie's gaze flicked to the nondescript tea box. The captain continued to hold Iroh's own gaze. He'd taken a seat behind his well-organized desk, and sat there with as much natural stiffness as a tree that had grown in the spot. His hair was grey, his expression likewise. "You're quite the expert."
Iroh continued sipping with evident enjoyment, hmming his reply. The captain had left his own cup to cool in front of him. He was clearly waiting for Iroh to say something a bit more substantive.
"Excellent floral undertones. Subtle, as if waiting to convey its message." He smiled genially. "You really should try yours, Captain!"
The captain's eye twitched. He spoke, with very little inflection to hint at his inner thoughts. "That boy is your nephew?"
"My pride, my heart, occasionally my heart attack," Iroh placed a hand to his chest, and beamed. "Also my nephew."
"He took my guard's swords," the captain stated.
Iroh sipped his tea, and gave another hmm.
"From his belt," the captain elaborated.
Iroh continued to sip.
"As he was standing to intervene," the captain said, and just a faint hiss of frustration touched the frown lines cragged over his face.
It was really quite watery tea, but Iroh did not find this the proper time to say so, nor the proper place to judge.
"Is there a reason," the captain asked, his flatline tone restored, "your nephew would have so little faith in the ability of my officers to keep him safe?"
"Ah, well." He set his cup down, and gave it the quarter-turn to complete a tea ceremony that no one was performing. "We have been on the road for some time. Not everyone we have met has been as willing to help as your honorable and dedicated guards."
"Mushi." The Captain said the name like he was waiting for Iroh to confess to his real one, like no one could possibly have named their beloved son 'Mushi'. Iroh did not confess, though he did agree. "We have a program for boys like yours."
"And what sort of boy would that be, exactly?" Iroh asked mildly. He reached for the teapot the rookie had left at the desk's edge, and poured a drop more into the captain's already filled cup. The captain took the cue to good manners, and poured in return for Iroh.
"The kind who hates his job, but his boss says he's a hard worker anyway. Shows up on time, doesn't start trouble that didn't start on him first, yells at his Uncle to take his breaks and forgets to take his own."
The captain had spoken to Pao before Iroh. Iroh noted this, and chuckled amiably. "My Li does that, yes."
The captain was not done. "The kind who doesn't trust my guards, and thinks that trying to decapitate another boy in the middle of the street with my guard's swords is a proportionate reaction to danger."
Iroh sipped his tea. It went unsaid that his Li did that, as well. "What is this program of yours, Captain?"
"An internship of sorts. We pair kids like your Li up with senior guards. Send them on a few harmless assignments. Get them over any ideas they might have about our guards not supporting them; it gives them a few friendly faces they know they can talk to if they get into trouble, even if they're still skittish of authority at large. You're not the first refugees who had a rough time on the road. We don't like to see kids with Li's skill set falling in with the wrong crowd. We can schedule around his shifts at the... teashop." Whatever image Li in a teashop brought to the captain's mind, it caused a slight hint of skepticism to tug his mouth down. "Better he goes home tired, anyway."
He'd be less trouble tired, the captain implied, and Iroh could not help but agree.
"How long would this be for?"
"A week or two," the captain said. "A month at the outside. Usually doesn't take long to set boys like Li straight."
Iroh sipped his tea, and hmmed. The captain narrowed his eyes at the noncommittal sound.
The door behind them slammed open; a tall guard entered in its wake, striding like he expected all obstacles to similarly remove themselves from his path. When he smiled, it was with a sharply chipped front tooth. "Got him good and ready for you, Captain. He's a little fidgety, little scared, ready for the spiel." He turned that smile on Iroh. "You are definitely his weak point, old man. Kid loves you so much he goes ballistic if I even try to start a word with 'Un'."
The captain stared at his guardsman silently. The guard resheathed his smile, swallowed, and revised his earlier old man. "Uh. 'Esteemed sir'?"
The captain stood. He was not so tall standing as one would assume from the weight he brought to a room. Shorter than both the sharp-toothed man and the hulking guard who had stayed out in the hall; just of a height with the young rookie who was still hovering at the edge of the room. The captain nodded to his guard. "Good. With your permission, Master Mushi?"
"You have it," Iroh said. And sipped his tea. And hmmed. The captain, wisely, waited for him to explain. Iroh set down his cup. Turned it, a quarter. Smiled benignly at the sharp-toothed guard. "Pardon me, but did you leave my nephew alone just now?"
"Yeah." He said it with a sort of head tilt, and a narrowing of eyes that said he already knew where this was going, but wished to be proven wrong.
"I see. Tell me, does he know you have me in custody, as well?"
"You aren't in custody," the captain said. Iroh did not think he needed to explain how things might appear differently to his dear Li.
"Didn't want to rile him up that far," the sharp-toothed man said.
"I see," Iroh said. He picked back up his cup, and sipped.
The sharp-toothed man watched Iroh's placid face, and started in on all the protests he thought would somehow help. "It's a locked room. With no windows. In a guard station. With guards everywhere."
"...Oh you have got to be kidding me." The guard ducked out, presumably to check on this so-called locked room of his.
Iroh was unsurprised by the result, though a few guardsmen out at their desks in the main room jumped at its volume. It was soon matched by stomping, coming back their way.
"Maijing! Ryo Cho!"
"Cho Jyo," the rookie corrected. "Or just Ryo—"
"Didn't ask, don't care, get out here. That little dust-ferret couldn't have gotten far—"
Iroh watched the rookie and the mountainous officer as they followed the other into the hall.
The captain watched Iroh sipping his tea. "You don't think my men will find him."
"Oh no, they certainly will! Right here at your station, I imagine."
"When he comes back for you."
The sharp-toothed guard was rallying more men. Whoever was not hiding sufficiently behind their paperwork, it seemed. "Listen up, the streets are deadends all around here, and that kid is so new he still carries his address in case he gets lost. We just need to figure out which way he went and then we'll box him in—"
"My Li is such a caring boy." Iroh wiped a false tear from the corner of his eye. "It warms an old man's heart. I just know that he will blossom under the kind tutelage of your men, Captain. Thank you so much for extending this generous offer to our family."
The captain pinched the bridge of his nose. But he did not retract his offer.
"More tea?" He poured another drop into the man's nearly overflowing cup, and waited for the captain to refill Iroh's own.