There were rules to the Spirit World, Jet learned quickly, and the first one was, humans didn't belong. That was okay. He had been breaking rules and going places he didn't belong since the day his mama squeezed him out. He had his own rule, don't get caught. And he followed it. Mostly. Well, he tried.
The second rule to the Spirit World was that time didn't matter. Back home, in the world with the forest and the freedom fighters, the war and the Fire Nation, Ba Sing Se, and the Dai Li, Jet used to think time didn't matter much either. Days blended together in the forest and the lower ring. Children were children when they could be and adults when they had to be, and it had nothing to do with the passage of days. But the days had still passed. The dawn had come every morning, and twilight had shrouded the trees in the evening. He had still planned his raids to the Fire Army's patrol schedule, and stocked up on food for the fall and winter. In the Spirit World, time oozed to and fro, doubling back on itself like the tunnels underneath Lake Laogai, and the paths the Dai Li had carved in his mind. The sun rose and set when it wanted to. Sometimes it gave them a week of days that lasted only an hour, only to plunge them into a month long night. Sometimes spring would follow fall, and sometimes winter and summer would hold sway together, so that the blazing hot sun brought forth sprays of fragrant tropical flowers amid flurries of snow. Hunger no longer gnawed at his belly, and sleep never dragged at his eyelids. He ate when he felt like it and never was full. He slept when he found somewhere safe, and never woke up any more rested than he did when he lay down. The rhythm of the sun and seasons, the rhythm of his own body, the rhythm of other people's lives, was gone.
He wandered, most of the time, his feet carrying him over mountains and under oceans, through swamps and forests, past the dens of every spirit he had never known about or ever wanted to. He wandered into a library once, and wandered out of it as fast as he could when its owl-snake-thing keeper showed up. He wandered into a nest of dragon-fox kits, and almost stayed for dinner when mom and dad came home. He wandered onto the shores of a lake, where when he looked into the water, he could see the Avatar standing with the scared Fire kid from Ba Sing Se, the Firelord's crown in his hair. He wandered like his feet were on fire, because it felt as if they were. They itched when he stopped moving, and burned when he lay down to sleep, and there was nowhere in the whole wide Spirit World for him to call his own.
He found a beat up old teapot on a barren plain surrounded by rocky crags. He picked it up and traced a spiral in the glaze on its surface and felt the electric hum of its solidity. It had come from the physical world, from the human world, and he could feel in it the work of human hands. The years in the Spirit World (centuries? hours? minutes?) had left Jet feeling so hollow, so numb, so insubstantial, that it was as if there was no Jet there to be feeling anything at all. And in the Spirit World, where nothing ever changed, where Jet couldn't grow, or age, or be anything but the boy he had died as, being Jet was all he had.
But the teapot was real. When Jet held it, his hands were real around it. So he carried it with him, rubbing his thumb against its bent wooden handle, or cradling it against his chest. It was real, and even more, it shouldn't be there, any more than Jet should be there, and things like that, Jet always thought, should stick together.
Then, one afternoon, he awoke to find it gone. He had been curled around it like a dragon with an egg as he had napped, and now, the space his body had made for it was empty. He was on his feet before he had even made the decision to rise. The cheerful crackle of flames consuming dry wood drew him to a spot only a few paces away from where he had been sleeping. A figure squatted next to the fire, and Jet's hands itched for his hook swords, still lying under a lake, a plane of existence away.
The figure looked up and smiled at Jet, and took Jet's teapot off the fire. "You," Jet hissed with rage.
"Me," said Old Man Mushi mildly. "I noticed you had a teapot. I hope you don't mind me borrowing it. I thought I would make some tea so you could have some when you woke up."
"You know what?" Jet's mouth stretched open in a nasty grin. "I do mind, firebender. Now, are you going to crawl back to whatever hole you came from, or am I..."
He stopped. Mushi was just smiling at him, and when Jet stopped talking, Old Man Mushi picked up a tea cup and poured it full of tea. He held it out to Jet. Jet took it automatically, and brought it to his face to inhale the sweet steam rising from the tea's surface. "Or," Mushi said. "You can sit down and share a pot of tea with me, and I will give you back your teapot as good as new when we are done."
Jet's legs folded against his will, and he sipped his tea in stunned silence as the old man watched, smiling over his own teacup.
After he had drained the last cup of tea and awkwardly passed it back to Mushi, and waited stiffly until Mushi washed and returned the teapot to him, Jet darted away, clutching his teapot against his chest. When Old Man Mushi was almost out of sight, however... Jet doubled back, crouching low in the long grass. As the grass gave way to trees, and the trees to tangled forests full of twisted tree shapes, he stepped off the trail Mushi followed and kept to the shadows between the trees' hulking forms. Jet knew forests. He knew trees with trunks so wide it would have taken six Jets with their arms outstretched to circle them. He knew the shadows where the light shown red and dim through the tree canopy, and the sudden brightness that came with winter and the skeleton branches stripped of their leaves. He knew the clean smell of earth and decaying tree trunks. He knew the sounds of animals as they swooped and scurried, and fell silent when they heard him. This was no forest. This was a pale and monstrous imitation of a forest, a should-have-been forest. The Spirit World was full of should-have-beens, should-have-been forests, should-have-been lakes, should-have-been skies, and always, always, always, they left Jet dizzy and almost sick with how much they weren't.
But the trees broke. Jet hung back just out of sight in the darkness as old man Mushi shuffled his way through a field to a well tended little cottage sitting there in the sunshine.
When the sun went down, in the north, or what Jet thought was the north anyway, he bedded down in the grass behind the cottage, and listened under Old Man Mushi's window as he puttered around, making a meal he didn't need to eat, took his own teapot out of a cabinet, and brewed a pot full of tea.
The teacup clinked against the table. "You can come in, Jet."
Jet jolted, but he forced himself to grow still and stay quiet. It was possible Old Man Mushi had only guessed he might be hanging around. And if Mushi did some how know he was there, if he just kept quiet and still, and out of sight, the old man would think he had left, right? But he wasn't going to leave. Somebody had to keep a watch on the old man in case he tried anything.
"It gets cold here at night." Old Man Mushi poured another cup of tea and set it on the window sill. "You will want this."
Jet didn't take the tea.
Mushi didn't stay at the cottage all of the time. He wandered through the should-have-been forest, and up over the mountains on the clear summery days, but most of the time, he spent close to home, tucked away in his peaceful little pocket of the Spirit World. Regardless, Jet tailed him like an owl-cat with a squirrel-frog, wherever he went. The old man brought his own teapot with him wherever he went, along with teacups and a little tin of tea leaves, and Jet was starting to think it was some kind of obsession.
Which meant the son of a hog-monkey probably had his own teapot with him the day he pinched Jet's. He had been carrying his teacups, after all.
Once or twice, Jet saw him hunt down the locals and brew pots of tea for them to share. It was almost neighborly, if Mushi were willing to call a lizard monster with two heads, a small turtle with a large tree growing out of its shell, or giant talking vegetables his neighbors. Jet was starting to think he was. The old man always apologized for his "shy friend", even though not one of the spirits he made nice with seemed to notice Jet's presence at all.
But the cottage, where they spent most of their time, was nice. It had a massive, sturdy wooden table on the front lawn, and a garden in the back where Mushi grew flowers that Jet recognized from the mayor's garden, the one the Fire Nation had sent to lord it over the village they had built where his own had used to be. Old Man Mushi cooked with spices Jet didn't recognize, and the smell wafted through his windows, to where Jet lay hidden in the gently swaying grass.
Jet plucked a piece of grass and chewed the stem between his teeth. Mushi set a cup of tea on the window sill. "You know," he said. "You can keep an eye on me even better from inside the cottage with me."
"What do you know about it?" Jet snarled.
Startled to hear Jet finally answer back to him, Mushi looked out the window. "I know that it cannot be comfortable lying there on the hard, cold, ground."
Jet snorted mirthlessly. "Better out here than in the home of Fire Nation scum like you."
"I do not know if there are nations in the Spirit World." The old man gave a heavy sigh. "But certainly, there is no hundred year war."
"That's what they said in Ba Sing Se," Jet retorted, a thrill of victory running through him at Mushi's flinch. "But you wormed your way in there, didn't you? And now you've wormed your way in here too."
"I guess you could say I wormed my way into Ba Sing Se," Mushi mused. "If you think you wormed your way in too. My nephew and I got in the same way you did."
Rage curled reddish and hot at the edges of his vision. "That's different."
"Oh?" Mushi said, as if it were of no importance.
"My friends and I were running from the Fire Nation!" Like all of the other thousands upon thousands of refugees in Ba Sing Se's lower ring. "Not like you. We weren't Fire Nation!"
Old Man Mushi's expression grew far away and sad, like Jet had said something capable of hurting, instead of just the truth. "My nephew and I were on the run from the Fire Nation too."
Jet curled his lip. "Yeah right."
"And I bet we came to the Spirit World the same way too," Mushi said after a pause.
"Oh yeah?" Jet challenged. "You just died?"
Mushi's eyes twinkled with amusement. "Old men usually do."
Jet grinned again, fierce and absolutely without joy. "Then why are you wearing green? Why are you still pretending to be Earth Kingdom, when really you're a filthy-"
Old Man Mushi cut him off. "Come inside, young one. I have roast duck and honey cakes."
"You couldn't pay me to come inside your house, Fire Nation scum," he yelled.
"Then stay out in the field all night long and freeze." Mushi shrugged his shoulders sadly. "I will leave the door unlocked in case you change your mind."
Jet's hand grasped the door handle. He was only checking because he was curious to see whether or not the old man would really leave the door open like an idiot or not. The handle turned. The door swung open. Other than the sound of Mushi's snores, the cottage was silent inside, and with the eery half light of the moon through the window, that turned everything a dull, bluish gray, it made him remember the Fire Nation village where his own had been, and the houses of the grand officials, where he had stolen food and supplies for his freedom fighters. There was a defiant kind of power in being in someone else's space against their will, in saying hey, look, I'm here and you can't do anything about it; I'm here and I'm touching your things, taking your things, making them not your things anymore. Once, he had ridden high on that feeling and gloried in his untouchability after what the Fire Nation had done. Once, it had felt almost like victory.
Of course, Mushi had invited him in, so there was no rush of vindictive power at all, just a kind of cold resentment.
Listening to Mushi's snores, he opened the cabinets slowly so they didn't squeak, and rifled through the contents, halfheartedly, on the off chance that the old man would have left evidence to his schemes tucked away in there. The dishes, jars of preserves, and bags of rice he found instead shouldn't have surprised him as much as they did, he supposed. Someone like Mushi wasn't stupid enough to invite him in if he left his plans around where someone could find them. No, he would keep them locked in his head, where they would be safe. Disgusted with himself, Jet shut the cabinets and slipped into the bedroom, feeling for loose floorboards as he went.
There were drawers and cabinets in there too, in a great chest pushed up against one wall. Jet drew his breaths in shallowly, as soundlessly as possible in the silent room, as he slid the drawers open one by one and examined the folded piles of clothes, green robes, red robes, and shoved in the back, white robes and gold embossed Fire Nation armor. He had to hold himself so still when he saw it, for fear he would shake apart. Or grab it and shake it apart.
But the old man was right. So he had proof that he was a piece of slimy, Fire Nation bull-hog dung, but who was he going to tell? Who in the Spirit World would listen to him, proof or no proof? It would be like Ba Sing Se and the Dai Li all over again, and whatever Old Man Mushi was up to, Jet wasn't going to get anybody's help stopping him.
He didn't know why he even looked.
The cabinet door swung closed with a dull thud. Jet stilled, the sudden noise knocking him out of his helpless reverie. His eyes darted to the lump of old man and blankets on the bed, but it didn't move. As if Jet needed any more proof that he was a liar. He'd heard people call it the sleep of the innocent. It wasn't. It was the sleep of people who had never been hunted, never been afraid, never needed to learn to bolt upright at the least little disturbance to the air around them. It was the sleep of the arrogant, of the people who thought they were untouchable, and once they had realized they weren't, once they had been hunted, once they had been afraid, they never slept that easily again, never. Whatever tail the old man spun, he had never been on the run, from the Fire Nation or anyone else.
Jet clenched his fists in fury at the sudden, helpless disappointment that welled up inside him. Almost sick with frustration at the depths of stupidity he hadn't before realized he could even sink to, he stalked out of the room. On his way out of the cottage, back to the field and the cold hard ground, he grabbed the plate of honey cakes off of the table and threw them onto the floor. Let the old man see what Jet thought about him and his hospitality.
It wasn't until he had made it back to his grassy bed and turned back to see a figure bending over to clean honey cake of the floor, that Jet realized the snoring had stopped before he had even thought about going into Old Man Mushi's room.
The sun had not risen by the time Jet had grown sick of lying in the field, and with the way the full moon looked, hanging low in the eastern sky, they were in for another month long night. He gave the cottage a furtive glance before walking into the should-have-been woods. The twisted not-trees that stood along the path cast shadows like grasping hands and wide hungry mouths in the moonlight, and Jet had to clamp down on his trepidation as he stepped off the path. He began to wonder, as he traveled, and the shadows that fell on his face began to look familiar, if the wood repeated, the same trees arrayed endlessly, hiding one Fire Nation rat-snake's house from the rest of the world, or if he had just gotten lost in a should-have-been forest with none of the proper signs.
Jet had never been lost in a forest, lost on city streets that meandered this way and that for no reason, yes, but a forest, never.
He put his hand on the tallest tree he could see and decided this one would have to be good enough. Grabbing the lowest branch, he swung himself up. Branch by branch, foothold by foothold, he climbed higher into the tree, its gnarled wrongness at least good for giving him things to grab onto. He let it carry him upwards, until the branches thinned, and he had to perch on the peak of the trunk itself to find somewhere to rest. He stood up, one hand grasping reflexively for a handhold, and peered out over the forest canopy. In the moonlight, it almost looked real.
He watched the moon hang almost completely unmoving in the sky until he couldn't stand it anymore.
Mushi's eyes popped open and bugged out of his head like little grapes. Jet flashed him a fierce grin and shoved his forearm into the old man's throat as he swung himself up into a mount, his knees pinching into Mushi's ribs. Once he was in place, he let his elbow rest on the mattress and watched as the old man lay flat and unmoving on the bed, gasping the air back into his lungs. "So, old man, you going to tell me why you're wearing green now?"
Before he realized anything was happening, Jet found himself on the floor in a tangle of limbs. Old Man Mushi had moved like lightning (or a lightning bender) and twisted him around by the arm, dropping him like a stone. Jet rubbed his wrist, more in shock than pain, and wondered at this strange old man who ate and slept, and got up when he was supposed to, even now that he was dead and there was no reason for it, who introduced Jet to all of his friends, and could have easily taken Jet, with or without his bending, just like his kid, the scarred one with the raspy voice and twin swords.
Mushi offered him his hand, and he took it gingerly. The old man lifted him to his feet like he weighed nothing, and guided him to the bed. They sat there together on top of the rumpled sheets, the folds and creases like faraway mountains and canyons in the moonlight. The silence stretched between them, fragile, expectant, and strangely comfortable until Mushi chose to break it. "I wore green for most of the last years of my life." His mouth twisted until it finally settled on a smile. "Most of the happiest ones, too. After the war ended, I went back to Ba Sing Se and reopened my teashop. I guess it became a habit."
"The war ended," Jet laughed bleakly. "Yeah right."
Mushi looked sharply at him and lifted his arm in an aborted attempt to do... something. "The Avatar and his young friends brought peace." And then he finished with a note of pride, "My nephew helped."
"The one with the scar," Jet said flatly. "Li."
"Zuko," he corrected gently. "Yes."
Zuko. Jet turned the name over in his mind. It couldn't have sounded any more Fire Nation if it tried. "Yeah, old man, sure. You're just a dead old man who just happened to end up in the Spirit World, and I'm just a big meanie for picking on you. Next you're going to tell me that the Fire Nation didn't really want to conquer the world, it was all just a big misunderstanding."
"No." Mushi's voice grew soft. "I am never going to tell you that."
Mushi smiled. "When Sozin began the war, the Fire Nation was experiencing great prosperity, and the Earth Kingdom was in decline. He thought that because his people were doing so well and the Earth Kingdom people were not, that the Earth Kingdom was backward, and needed to be shown the way forward." Jet scoffed, and Mushi raised a hand to shush him. "The Avatar stood in the way of this progress, of ending starvation and poverty in the Earth Kingdom and throughout the world. The Air Nomads also stood in the way of Sozin's vision, because they gloried in the past and did not understand the importance of change, and because of this would have consigned millions to ignorance and death. Sozin was an idealist, you see, and he thought he and his people knew so much more than anybody else. He was wrong about that, of course, and even if he had not been wrong, conquest and colonies are not the way to teach, but when I was growing up, this is what I was taught justified the murder of an entire people, and the death and the enslavement of so many others."
Mushi had a wry, unhappy look on his face, the darkness making him look more like a stone statue than a man, and for a moment, Jet didn't know how to answer. Finally, Jet took a deep breath. "Are you really." He stopped, fury choking off his words. "Trying to tell me that the Fire Nation did what they did and all of them thought it was right?"
"The worst atrocities are often committed by people who think they are doing good," Mushi said grimly. "I think you know something about that."
Jet flushed. "What do you know about that?"
Mushi's face said he was a wise old man of mysterious ways, and Jet wanted to break his nose. "My nephew asked about you after the war. Did you know there is a colonial village that calls Sokka a hero now thanks to you?"
"Yes," he hissed.
"But no, you are right. Not everyone in the Fire Nation thought the war was right. Some fought against it, and died as traitors, or fled like we did. Others..." Mushi shook his head. "I don't think my-" He stoppled, shook his head again and swallowed. "I don't think Firelord Azulon ever believed that lie, and Ozai never even pretended to. But most of the Fire Nation did. I did. I was part of the Fire Army, and I believed we were spreading prosperity and wisdom to the world."
"What changed?" Jet asked, mouth dry.
"I lost my son in battle." The moonlight glinted iff the tears in the corners of his eyes. "And I realized I was killing other people's children."
"Oh," Jet said, voice small. He didn't know what else to say.
"I would have thought that after you met the Dai Li, you would have learned that the Fire Nation wasn't the only nation that made tyrants," Mushi chuckled, then stopped abruptly. "They told me the Dai Li killed you, after your arrest. I am sorry."
Jet shifted awkwardly, refusing to remember the rocks crushing his chest, and the drip drip dripping of water falling from the ceiling as he died. "Yeah well, I was trying to get you and your nephew arrested, so..."
"That's a very forgiving way to look at it," Mushi said, sounding pleased. "I am surprised at you."
Jet thought about this old man who made him honey cakes and invited him into his home after Jet had tried to have him killed. "You forgave me first, old man."
"It is much easier to forgive someone who failed to do you harm than someone who succeeded."
"You just..." Jet burst out. "You say these things like they're really wise, when really they're just obvious."
"Wisdom usually is very obvious." Mushi beamed at him over his beard. "Now, since we've forgiven each other, don't you think you should call me by my name?"
Jet grimaced. "Mushi?"
The old man shook his head. "Iroh."
"The Dragon of the West," Jet breathed.
General Iroh, the Dragon of the West, nodded. "Firelord Azulon was my father, and my brother was Firelord Ozai." He gave a grimace of his own. "Zuko was Ozai's firstborn."
Jet tried to picture the scared and angry boy he had met as someone important, as royalty. And he remembered the reflection in the lake that showed him standing with the Avatar, wearing the Firelord's crown. "Wow."
"The Avatar told us you were from Gaipan," Iroh said softly.
"Yeah." Jet closed his eyes. "Until the Fire Nation killed my parents when I was eight. After that, I lived in the forest."
"When you were eight." Iroh sighed. He sounded so disgusted that Jet recoiled before he could stop himself. "I was still a General in my father's army back then. I was still playing pai sho with the leader of the Rough Rhinos."
"Oh." Suddenly, Jet found he wanted to do almost anything other than continue talking. "Is the war really over?"
"Maybe not for you. It has never been over for me. But yes, it is over." Iroh rose to his feet with a small groan. "Why don't you stay here for a little while? I can make a bed up for you, and after we both get some sleep, I can make some more of those honey cakes."
"Yeah," Jet swallowed. "Okay."
He followed the old Fire Nation general, fearsome terror of the Earth Kingdom, into another bedroom. Iroh pulled bedding out of a low cabinet underneath a window and started making the bed. "My nephew's clothes are also in there, but I don't think he will ever need them. I think they will probably fit you."
Jet's mind boggled at the strange world he had fallen into where the Dragon of the West offered to let him borrow the Firelord's clothes. He unhooked his physical teapot from his belt and set it on the table next to the bed. "So how come you've got a house like this in the Spirit World?"
Iroh didn't look up as he smoothed down the sheets. "I think the real question is, why don't you have one?"
"Don't you know you're not supposed to answer a question with a question?"
"Ah, but if you find the answer to my question, you will learn the answers to both," Iroh said cheerfully. "But if you ask the wrong questions, you won't get any answers at all."
Jet's forehead wrinkled in frustration. "You're just an annoying old man, aren't you?"
When Iroh turned to smile at him, Jet thought for sure the sun was rising.