Thankfully for the crew, Iroh's map included the location of a neutral retreat, where soldiers of any nation could rest and relax on the condition they did not bring the war with them. Those who worked at the retreat were somewhat shocked at the size of the group that arrived - they were used to tending individual generals, or at most a lone patrol, at a time - but they quickly rallied. The troops themselves, given permission to relax, quickly enjoyed their shore leave, making sport in the surf and sand and heading to the nearby town - out of uniform - to find some fun at the local bars.
Iroh and Zuko mostly remained within the retreat itself, keeping an eye on Cadence and helping her recover. Admittedly, Iroh did avail himself of the massage service, and convinced Zuko to make use of similar services as well. Cadence attempted to as well, but none of the attendants knew enough about equine physiology to give her a proper massage. The first attempt had resulted in...a rather shocking experience for the masseuse, to say the least. After that, Cadence settled for the relaxing baths and hot rock massages.
"So," Iroh asked Zuko at one point, "how long do you intend to let the men relax?"
"Until they get restless," Zuko replied easily, laying back in a hammock, a large hat over his eyes. "Until then, they're still trying to forget what happened up North. Once they get restless, I know they'll be ready for action again."
Iroh nodded. "And...if Cadence isn't ready to continue at that point?"
"Then we'll go slow," Zuko explained. "Take our time. Walk back to the western shores to get a ship back to the Fire Nation. That's our eventual goal, anyway. We'll have to report to Father in person about what happened. And we'll need to be careful, anyway. We're deep in enemy territory."
"Then we will be careful," Iroh agreed. "With luck, upon our return, my brother will have different tasks for us both. I do not think I am cut out for racing about the world anymore."
Zuko frowned thoughtfully. "I still haven't captured the Avatar," he pointed out. "Father said I had to do that, to prove myself. I still need to bring Aang back to the Fire Nation."
"Let's not think about that just now," Iroh offered. "We faced down a Deep One attacking our fleet, and you kept your head! Surely, if nothing else, that proves what a capable man and leader you are." He chuckled. "I am not ashamed to admit that the first thing I needed after we made landfall was fresh trousers."
"...that thing still haunts my nightmares," Zuko admitted, shame tinging his voice.
"While I am not surprised, had you not admitted it I would never have known," Iroh praised. "The measure of a man and leader is not how little he fears, but how he handles those fears he has. And you, nephew...you have shown to handle your fears exceptionally well."
Zuko managed a smile, pleased at his uncle's praise. They lay back in silence as Cadence stirred in her own hammock.
"So...how long until something happens to throw our plans straight out the window?" Iroh asked idly.
"I'd give it a week, two tops," Zuko replied calmly.
A week and a half later, Zuko was unsurprised to find Iroh coming back from taking Cadence to the beach. "Look at these magnificent shells Cadence found!" Iroh proclaimed happily, pouring out a satchel of seashells in all sorts of shapes and sizes. "We will cherish these keepsakes for years to come."
Zuko rolled his eyes. "And who's going to carry them?" he asked. "We don't have a ship anymore, or any beasts of burden, and we'll be weighed down with supplies as is."
Iroh scratched his chin. "Umm..."
Cadence couldn't help but giggle at his expression, but the giggle cut off as she felt something in the air, and spun to face a shadowed corner of the room.
"I'm sure there will be room in my ship's cargo hold for your...knickknacks," Azula said calmly as she leaned forward. "Hello, Brother...Uncle...Cousin."
Zuko stiffened as he saw his sister, dressed in a military uniform. "Sister," he greeted calmly, keeping himself under control. "What brings you here?"
Azula frowned slightly before standing. "Father sent me to give you and your men a lift home," she replied calmly. "He's heard about what happened to Admiral Zhao's fleet...but all he has are rumors and second hand accounts. He was overjoyed to learn that you and your crew escaped, but he needs your first hand account of what happened...and he wants to hear it with his own ears."
Zuko closed his eyes, mulling the news over. While it was expected, the fact that it was Azula delivering the news made him naturally suspicious. However, beyond his own suspicion of Azula, he had no reason to doubt the news. Still... "Our men are currently on leave, recuperating from the events," he explained calmly. "It will take all of today to gather them, as well as our supplies. We'll meet you at the docks tomorrow."
Azula smiled. "It will be good to have you home again, Zuzu."
Zuko flinched visibly as she left, gritting his teeth as he got himself under control. He hated that nickname.
Once Azula was down the road a ways, Cadence couldn't help but giggle. "Zuzu?" she gasped out, her eyes delighted as she looked up at her cousin.
Zuko couldn't stop the smirk that came to his face. Maybe he just hated when Azula called him that.
"Do you think she's telling the truth?" Iroh asked.
"About Father's intentions? Yes," Zuko confirmed. "Do I trust her to not try to stab us in the back? Not for a minute."