‘Ohhhh.’ Uncle was wasted in the military; he’d missed his calling as an actor. ‘Ack, ohhhh.’
The waterbender bowed over him, her brow creased in worry. She was a glutton for people’s pain, that one. ‘Iroh? Do you need more ice?’
Eyes impossibly round, hi uncle nodded feebly and leaned back in his bedding beneath the wizened tree. The Avatar’s flying rug had taken them an admittedly impressive distance that day; Zuko reasoned it would be impossible for him to capture the boy now that he was without his ship to keep pace with the bison. He frowned, brooding; not that capturing the Avatar would do him much good anymore.
Enemies and traitors all working together, Azula had said. A princess surrenders with honour. He ground his teeth together at the barb; it rubbed at him like the coarse bandages had itched against his face in the days and weeks after that fateful Agni Kai.
‘I can’t feel anything.’ The waterbender was frowning anxiously, her hand glowing. Zuko shook his head at his uncle. ‘Would you like some tea? That seemed to help last time.’
‘I could not impose any further on your kindness,’ the old man said smoothly, winking at his nephew when the girl bent the water back into her pouch. Zuko glared at Uncle; how stupid were these people? How had they evaded him for so long?
‘Not at all.’ He watched the waterbender’s mouth as she smiled so amenably at his uncle. The Avatar would have such a ridiculously naïve girlfriend. He crossed his arms tightly against his chest and slumped against the tree behind him. The girl stood and retrieved the tea and pot from the ground beside Uncle. He glanced away quickly, he was a Son of Fire and would not be caught looking at some peasant healer.
She stopped just out of reach, watching him, he could feel it. It would be ludicrous for him to ignore her much longer.
‘What?’ he asked, glancing up at her ambivalent expression. How could she laugh with his uncle, then come to him with that look on her face? Maybe if he had a stupid arrow on his head, or a burn over his chest…
‘I wanted to make some tea for your uncle,’ she explained, ignoring his tone. He didn’t like when people did that. ‘Can you make a fire?’ When he didn’t reply immediately, she dropped her free hand to her hip. ‘You know, when we stop to make camp, usually everyone helps out. In one way or another. A fire would be a start.’
He exhaled in a controlled rush and a thick plume of flame rose over his palm; she eyed it distrustfully. ‘Where do you want it?’
The waterbender pointed to the firewood the earthbender had gathered earlier. Despite himself, he couldn’t help but find the blind girl’s attitude amusing; she wasn’t as much of a bleeding heart as the Avatar, or as much of a blithering idiot as the Water Tribe boy.
Zuko stood and pushed passed the waterbender, snatching the teapot from her as he went. He was more than capable of making his own uncle tea.
‘Uh, nephew?’ Uncle’s voice was almost alarmed; Zuko looked over suspiciously in case one of the Avatar’s little friends was about to try something. But no. He was laying comfortably, unthreatened under the tree, his eyes following the teapot in Zuko’s hands worriedly. ‘Perhaps you could help Katara make the tea? She is very accomplished at my favourite jasmine brew.’
He glanced back at the waterbender. She hadn’t moved except to clench her fists and glare at him; Agni help him… these people. Shrugging, he turned back to the kindling and quickly had a small fire burning happily, the battered teapot warming above it.
He made to add the tea leaves.
‘What are you doing?’ the waterbender asked sharply, grabbing his sleeve to stop him.
He pulled his arm from her grasp. ‘Making tea,’ he said as insultingly as possible.
She rolled her eyes at him. ‘Obviously. But you can’t add the leaves yet, the water hasn’t boiled. They won’t steep right.’
Must be some peasant trick. He had noticed his uncle didn’t wince when he drank her tea. ‘You do it then!’
He nearly stormed off at the smirk that slid across her face. ‘Your uncle was right,’ she said, forcing him to drop his glower to the teapot. ‘You don’t have the patience to make tea.’ He could feel her smug grin. ‘Guess you don’t have servants anymore to make it for you. You’ll just have to learn like the rest of us.’
He bit back his irritation; he’d made tea plenty of times the waterbender didn’t know about. She didn’t know anything about him!
But his uncle didn’t flinch when he drank her tea.
‘Will you show me?’ He didn’t like how unsure he sounded. ‘Show me now.’ Much better.
She looked at him in surprise and burst out laughing. ‘Sure thing, oh fiery one,’ she snickered, taking the canister of tea leaves and kneeling more comfortably beside him. He watched her shake her head, still smiling. She had laughed like that earlier with Uncle, the Water Tribe boy, and the earthbender.
‘The water has to boil,’ she explained, putting the tea canister down for the time being, ‘to remove any impurities. Then you have to wait for the temperature to drop a few degrees or you’ll scald the tea leaves. That’s what makes a cup of tea bitter.’ She gestured to the bubbling teapot. ‘Let’s take it off the boil.’
He did as she indicated, oddly reminded of his uncle’s instruction on the deck of his ship. ‘I could just cool it to the right temperature,’ he pointed out. Just so she knew.
‘So could I,’ she countered, tucking her hair behind her ear as she leant forward. ‘But that’s not how you make tea.’ He huffed and set the teapot on the grass. ‘If you take the lid off, it will let out heat more quickly.’
He rolled his eyes but did as she indicated. ‘Some tea making tradition you peasants practice in your hovels,’ he muttered under his breath, following the coils of steam with his gaze.
‘One your royal uncle appreciates,’ she snapped, and he glanced up at her. Had she been insulted?
‘Is it cool enough yet?’ he asked to smooth the awkwardness away; why did she have to go and get all offended?
‘Count to fifty, Prince Zuko,’ she said coolly, retrieving three cups from her bag.
He glowered at her; he wasn’t a child. One irritating waterbender, two irritating waterbenders, three irritating waterbenders…
She set the three cups down and uncapped her water canteen, bending a handful of water out to rinse each cup. Did she put that soiled water back? Did she drink that stuff?
‘Okay,’ she said finally despite the fact he’d only got up to forty-two irritating waterbenders. ‘Now you can add the tea leaves, then put the lid back on the pot so they can steep in the humidity.’
‘Are you sure?’ he asked quietly, arching his eyebrow at her. ‘You don’t want to say a little peasant prayer over it first?’
She gave him the strangest look, as though he had spouted a second head. ‘Was that a joke?’ she asked in disbelief.
‘Forget it!’ he snapped, clenching his teeth against the heat that crept up his neck. Snatching the tea canister, he dumped enough of the stupid leaves in the pot for the three of them. He slammed the lid back on the teapot and glared off over her head.
‘Fire is the element of power…’ The familiar words drew his attention. ‘The power for firebending comes from the breath, a concept I’m sure is familiar to you from what I’ve seen of your airbending, young Avatar,’ his uncle was saying, watching the boy closely.
The boy nodded seriously. ‘The monks used to say the breath is how we connect to the part of ourselves where our bending comes from.’
Uncle nodded his agreement. ‘This is true, and most important with firebending, where control is paramount.’ He glanced at the bald boy thoughtfully. ‘Can you think of any firebenders you have met who lost connection to their breath and their root, and so lost control?’
The Avatar’s face darkened. ‘Zhao.’
Uncle nodded sadly. ‘Yes, the admiral was always ruled by his temper. But you need not fear the same fate, Aang. With a strong stance and controlled breath, you will find a peace with your inner fire. I’ve always taught my nephew that the basics are where true control, and thus power, come from in firebending.’
‘Uncle!’ Every eye in the clearing turned to Zuko.
His uncle watched him steadily, even as the waterbender walked over and handed him a steaming cup of tea. But Zuko could barely see around his shocked indignation; his uncle, his uncle, was giving their enemy a firebending lesson.
He’d never believed their slander— his father, Azula, Zhao— not once when they looked at his uncle and uttered the word traitor had he believed them. The retired general was quirky, yes, perhaps a little foolish at times, but he was a loyal son of the Fire Nation. Anyone who said otherwise was simply wrong.
He couldn’t look away from the calm defiance in his uncle’s eyes. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked tightly, standing from the fireside.
The Avatar stood and gave him that look. The keep the peace one. ‘Your uncle and I were just—’
‘I was talking to my uncle,’ he snapped, glaring at the little monk.
The old man sipped slowly at his tea, his face lighting up in delight. ‘Did you make this?’ he asked the Water Tribe peasant.
She shook her head, looking away from Zuko for a moment. ‘Not really. Zuko did most of it.’
Iroh turned back to his nephew with an expression of such pride Zuko nearly forgot his anger.
‘Uncle. A word,’ he said thickly, holding onto his fraying temper with great difficulty.
To his surprise, it was the waterbender who first broke the tension. ‘Aang, come on,’ she said quietly, avoiding his furious gaze. ‘Sokka. Toph.’
The earthbender made a big deal about having to get up, but the four of them retreated from the hollow. From the Water Tribe boy’s loud boasting, Zuko presumed they’d return with something to eat at least.
Zuko couldn’t meet his uncle’s eye. ‘Why?’ was all he said.
Iroh observed the tension in his nephew’s arms as he clenched and unclenched his fists. ‘The Avatar asked me about control in firebending,’ he replied, sipping his tea. ‘Simply delicious.’
‘You gave the Fire Nation’s greatest enemy advice on his firebending,’ Zuko said sharply, narrowing his eyes at the old man. ‘I don’t understand, Uncle, why would you do such a thing?’
The grey brows over the general’s stern eyes pulled together sharply. ‘The Avatar is no enemy of the Fire Nation, nephew. He is the balance between light and dark, order and chaos. It is the Fire Nation’s thirst for war that is its own enemy.
‘You are not the same man who left the Fire Nation, Prince Zuko. You are stronger, and wiser, and freer than you have ever been. But we have come now to a crossroads.’ The old man sipped his tea, eyeing the ambivalence in Zuko’s expression. ‘The person you were three years ago would never have had the humility and wisdom to take advice on how to prepare such an excellent cup of tea from the Avatar’s companion. There is great good in you, nephew. It is time you considered your own destiny. Not the one forced upon you.’
He turned his face aside. ‘I know my destiny, Uncle.’
The old general’s face clouded like a sudden storm on a sunny day. ‘You follow a boy’s dream, one that will never be,’ he said emphatically, leaning forward, all pain forgotten. ‘You seek to trade a life for something your father cannot give you. Your honour is yours, Zuko! It always has been! It is time for you to look within yourself and decide what kind of man you truly are.’
A strained silence fell between them, during which Iroh (unbeknownst to Zuko) worried that he might have pushed the boy too far. Perhaps he wasn’t ready.
Zuko turned away from his uncle. ‘I’ll think about it.’ A strange buzzing filled Zuko’s ears as he heard those words that had haunted him down the years echo through his memory with new meaning. Rise and fight, Prince Zuko… You will learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher…