Based on the web serial "Worm" by wildbow and the "Avatar: The Last Airbender" animated series.


A Dragon in Winter


"The 'Jasmine Dragon' is a shit name," Bakuda said.

Iroh's took an empty teacup in one hand, warming it. He paid her no heed.

"Just saying."

"I like to think it has a burly, poetic quality."

"It's blatant Breakfast at Tiffany's-style orientalism. Should I expect a fortune cookie later?"

The old man chuckled. "I've found life is best contemplated with a warm belly, but if you'd like a dessert I can have Oni Lee whip some up. You haven't lived until you've tasted his fruit tarts."

Bakuda drummed short, ragged fingernails on the tabletop. Even with the cushion her legs were getting sore kneeling on the floor. At least the downstairs shop had chairs. Upstairs, the old man had decided to recreate a dead country in excruciating detail.

"Not what you expected?" He handed her a cup.

She glanced dubiously at its contents. He'd asked her what she liked, but tea really wasn't her thing, so Iroh had said he'd guess for her.

"A strong black with a splash of milk," Iroh explained. "Kaiser takes his tea the same way."

"That's fucking hilarious." She sipped it. It was... pretty close to amazing, actually. She took a gulp. "And no, this is exactly what I was expecting."


"Yeah. You're a badass, sure. You came here and singlehandedly kicked the asses of a bajillion gangs, along with any heroes who got in your way. Right?"

Iroh absentmindedly stroked his grey beard. "I recall some excitement when I immigrated, but moving to a new city is always an adventure."

"Uh-huh. Except you never did anything after you got every East Asian punk in the Brockton Bay under your thumb. You have, like, ten parahumans at your beck and call and you have them picking up litter and shit. You use your protection money to run daycares."

"There is nothing wrong with a life of peace and humble prosperity, especially if you share it with others."

"That's my point! You're an old man playing at being emperor of the Docks, his conquering days behind him. It's pathetic. Can I have more tea?"

He gave her a refill. "I'm glad you like it."

"It's not bad," Bakuda allowed.

Iroh cupped a hand to the side of his mouth, and whispered as if he were a gossiping schoolgirl, "The delectableness comes from a tiny pinch of love and care."

She snorted into her drink.

"In all seriousness, these particular tea leaves are imported from Earth Aleph."

"Can't find them on Bet anymore?"


Japan, then. Or maybe China. The People's Republic never fell on that alternate Earth and, unlike the Union-Imperial, still traded with the outside world.

"Nice to know you remember how to splurge on yourself."

"It was actually a gift from an old friend."

"You have trade contacts on Earth Aleph? Or your friend does?" Impressive either way.

"She visits Aleph from time-to-time, and brings me leaves whenever she stops by to play a game of Go."

"Bull. Nobody travels through the portal."

Iroh ignored her as he refreshed his own cup. "I always lose, but they are educational defeats. Rather like your recent experience at Cornell."

The crack of porcelain shattering filled the air. Black tea dribbled onto the silk tablecloth, along with dots of red blood. "You wanna watch your fucking pie hole, fat man?"

The Leviathan of the East leaned back. Sipped his own tea. Rested his hands on his belly. When he next spoke, Iroh's tone was as chummy as ever, but it carried an air of authority that he'd previously obfuscated. "You've mistaken me for an old fuddy duddy, Bakuda, but in truth you don't understand me very well—or yourself. You are not the person you used to be. You are smarter and meaner and freer than ever before. What your trigger event gave you can be a wonderful thing."

"No shit." Bakuda bit her tongue at the impulse to append 'sir' to that quip.

"You're also crazy."

As if to cut off any retort, the ambient temperature in the room shot up twenty degrees, like someone had just opened the door to a giant oven. Iroh hadn't moved at all. Hadn't set anything on fire. He just sat there.

"You pride yourself on your ability to inflict fear," Iroh said, "because your gift allows you power outside of others' reach. I once believed as you do, but that sort of narcissism is misplaced. Pride feeds shame, and shame can never be sated. Eventually, it devour us all. You dynamited your old life out of petty revenge for academic slights. What do you have to show for that?"

Well, she'd been expecting a fortune cookie, hadn't she? "That was its own reward."

He smiled at her, like a grandfather at a child holding up a sloppy crayon drawing.

"I'd rather be Bakuda than Jennifer anyway," she added. "You said it yourself. I'm a better person now."

"A mad bomber. That's what you want people to think of you."


"How unfortunate. I've found fear to be a weak armor. It can be defeated. By brute force. By desperation. By love. And then people like us are revealed to be paper tigers. There's always something or someone bigger than us."

"Says the man who singlehandedly beat back an Endbringer."

Iroh slammed a palm down on the tabletop, making his tea set jump. "Did that SAVE ANYONE?!"

Bakuda shivered, despite the heat.

"The millions of people I failed that day," Iroh continued, deflating, "I had failed every single day before that. I'd killed wantonly. I'd pimped out mothers and daughters. I'd seduced young parahumans with the lie that being a supervillain was a glamorous and honorable profession. That was my true legacy as 'Fire Lord', not battling the Leviathan to a draw as Japan sank under our feet."

Silence stretched out between them.

Bakuda cleared her throat. Iroh didn't object, so she spoke up. "So all this anti-hero warlord junk is penance?"

He sighed.

"I'm much too old to put stock in labels." Iroh started fixing her a fresh cup of tea. "I can't undo being the Fire Lord anymore than you can un-explode those bombs at Cornell. The only thing people like us can do is to keep moving, helping others along our way. Eventually we'll come to a better place. Look at me. I'm just everybody's 'Uncle'. As for your future...?"

He passed her the tea, along with a fresh napkin to bind her cut hand.

"You've been on the run for weeks, Bakuda, and the thrill of dodging the authorities must have worn thin by now. Everyone needs their rest. Stay in Brockton Bay for a little while. Unwind in the lab I've provided. Think about who you are, what you really want in life—you, not your superpower, or what drove you to trigger. Because we're more than just a pyrokinetic and a bomb tinker."

"What if the government comes knocking?"

"As long as you don't start another terror bombing campaign, you'll find the PRT tends to look the other way with people like us. We're not worth the trouble. Picking a fight with me could also undermine the balance of power in this city, stirring up the other gangs. One of the benefits of not grabbing every scrap of territory in reach."

"Yeah, yeah. You're a real Sun Tzu. But I don't exactly have a secret identity to hide behind. Kind of blew that up along with not enough of Cornell."

"Then I will greet them with a smile and a fresh pot of tea, and we'll all sit down for a nice chat. My lawyers will tell them my dear niece couldn't possibly be the young woman they're looking for. You'll find the people of the Docks will swear that they've known you forever."

"The other gangs won't be happy with what you having a tinker does to their precious balance of power."

"The Docks are under my protection."


"Everyone in the Docks is under my protection."

Bakuda sipped her tea slowly, savoring the taste.

"Alright," she said. "You got me."