Zuko, Jong, and Zhin traveled on, doing their best to be stingy with their supplies. However, the gap between towns and villages plainly indicated that having an ostrich-horse to ride would make the journey much easier. Still, Zhin - who always took second night watch - seemed to be especially good at 'night time foraging', as whenever Zuko took third night watch - the before dawn shift - empty food bags would be filled. Given that Zuko had spotted ostrich-horse tracks on three separate occasions near the camp, he privately suspected that someone who was doing exceptionally better than they were leaving supplies for them during Zhin's watch. The prevalence of tea leaves in those supplies made Zuko suspicious about who was doing the leaving. Discovering a pink feather ground into one of those ostrich-horse tracks confirmed his suspicions, though he decided not to say anything about it.
When they finally reached the next settlement, they saw it was rather run down. Some Earth Kingdom troops were gambling nearby, and looked a sight better than the civilians or buildings. They moved to a nearby stand to buy some fresh supplies, but they didn't have enough for a hot meal. All they could afford was to refill their water and some basic supplies.
While the salesman was fetching the supplies, a pair of children hurled eggs at the soldiers, hitting their balding leader in the back of the head. Giggling, the children ran off. The soldiers approached Zuko and his men. "Hey!" he snapped at Zuko. "You throwing eggs at us, stranger?"
"No," Zuko replied calmly.
"You see who did throw them?" he demanded again.
"That all you can say? No?" another soldier asked.
"Yes," Zuko replied, making a couple of the other soldiers chuckle, much to the leader's frustration.
"The eggs had to come from somewhere," he insisted.
"Chickens, last I checked," Jong spoke up, getting more laughter until the leader glared it into silence.
As the salesman returned with the supplies, the leader started to lunge for them, but found his way blocked by Zhin and Zuko. Since the latter was armed visibly with his double short swords and the former had three visible daggers in addition to his bow and full quiver, the soldier backed up to his men as Jong took the supplies. "You better leave town," the man insisted. "The penalty for staying's a lot steeper than you can afford."
"You can count that high?" Zuko asked with a raised eyebrow. "Astounding." More laughter filled the air, though not from the soldier's men this time.
The soldier's hand strayed to the silvery sledgehammer hanging from his hip, then turned and stormed off with his men.
Once the soldiers were gone, the salesman spoke up. "Those soldiers are supposed to protect us from the Fire Nation," he explained, "but they're just a bunch of thugs."
As the trio turned to leave, the child from before popped out of a nearby alley between buildings. "Thanks for not ratting me out!" he said happily.
"Next time use rotten eggs if you can find them," Zuko suggested. "Much worse for the soldiers, and food during wartime is rather precious."
The child wasn't the only one to laugh at that. "Come on! I owe you, so come to my house for a hot meal!" Turning, he led the way.
Zuko turned to his men, who both shrugged. Seeing as the child hadn't given him a chance to argue, they were forced to accept the offer.
The young boy - Lee, it turned out his name was - introduced the group to his parents. Zuko learned that Lee's big brother was off fighting the war, while the soldiers in town - the supposed home defense - bullied everyone. He could see from Zhin and Jong's reactions that he wasn't the only one disgusted by the idea.
Zuko had, once again, been stuck with the pseudonym 'Zuzu', which vastly entertained Lee. While Zhin and Jong helped do some work around the farmstead, he found himself keeping an eye on Lee to keep him out of trouble. Since the family was kind enough to let them stay the night as well, Zuko was able to sleep on some hay rather than flat stone and dirt as had been the case for quite some time.
Unfortunately, his sleep wasn't restful, as he found himself dreaming of...unpleasant memories from the time before Cadence arrived. Remembering how Azula had tormented him, and gloated over horrible things...
Waking in the middle of the night, he found Lee outside trying to fight with his twin swords. Rather than scold him as Lee expected, he found himself teaching him the proper way to wield the weapons. It was...strangely relaxing, and Lee seemed to appreciate it.
The following morning, as the trio prepared to leave, the soldiers from before came to taunt the family about Lee's older brother's platoon being captured by the Fire Nation, and talking about what the Fire Nation did with prisoners. However, the sight of Zhin calmly stringing his bow - which unstrung was taller than he was - silenced them and made them withdraw.
When Lee's father talked about going up to the front to find Lee's brother, Sen Zhu, Jong spoke up. "You won't find him," he stated calmly. "The Fire Nation Army has specific protocols for war prisoners. If your son's an Earth Bender, he'll be transferred in a metal carrier to a metal island off the coast where he will have no earth to bend well before you make it to the front lines. If he isn't an Earth Bender, prisoners of war go to the Boiling Rock."
Lee's father stared at Jong for a time. "How do you know this?" he asked quietly.
Jong turned to him. "It's also where the Fire Nation sends traitors," he replied cryptically. While his explanation went over Lee's head, the father plainly understood it.
As the trio left, Zuko knelt down beside Lee, who begged him to stay. Deciding to give him some encouragement, Zuko gave him a knife that Iroh had given him long ago, one that had encouraged him to keep fighting...though he cautioned Lee to choose his battles.
The trio hadn't even made it back to town when they discovered Lee hadn't heeded the advice, and had pulled the knife on the soldiers, who took him to 'enlist' in the army. Before Zuko could say a word to Lee's mother - who'd come to beg their help - Zhin stood up. "I'll get him back," he said simply.
"You need some help?" Zuko asked worriedly. "It's four against one."
Jong laughed as Zhin grinned widely. "They won't even see me," he replied jovially.
Half an hour later, Zhin had returned with Lee, who was now eager to take up archery. The 'soldiers', meanwhile, were fleeing town, their weapons in pieces and clothes in ribbons flapping in the breeze behind them as they desperately tried to cover themselves.
"How...how did you do that?" Zuko asked as they left town.
Jong laughed. "We were all hand picked for your crew, Zuko," he explained. "And save for a few, not for our sailing skills. Didn't you wonder why Fire Lord Ozai sent along a non-Firebender?"
Zhin smirked. "I washed out of the Yuyan archers before being shunted into the regular army," he explained. "Not for lack of skill though. It was because I couldn't stay quiet."
Zuko shook his head in wonder, turning with a smile as he heard Lee cursing at his first failed attempt to make a bow broke apart on him. With luck, by the time he had bow and arrows to use, he'd have the discipline to know when not to use them.
A silhouetted figure of a man on an ostrich-horse in the distance made him smile. He'd intended to head out on his own to spare those he cared about...but he realized now that, as long as he was loved...
...he was never truly alone.