A/N: No excuses, no promises. As for disclaimers, I own nothing and expect less. Suit would result in, as they say, pissing in the wind…

Chapter 31

Shumo had been surprised to see the opening play of the white lotus at the center of the board. It was, he knew, a highly unorthodox move, generally calling for a rather obsolete form of stylized play that changed the rules of the game somewhat, making it actually a point advantage to advance without either sacrificing one's own tiles or taking your opponents. He could pretend he didn't recognize the gambit, and follow the normal rules. In all likelihood, his opponent would abandon the form and they could settle in for a traditional no-holds-barred battle. Which he had every intention of winning.

But when he had looked across the board into the old man's wintery eyes, the twinkle within and gentle smile creasing deep lines from forehead to the slack skin beneath his jaw spoke a silent challenge that he found himself unable to ignore. So what if winning without inflicting or enduring significant losses was the most difficult form of the game. He'd show the old fart that just because his own brow was free of wrinkles, Shumo was a sufficient master to best him at his own game! With a certain defiance, he placed his sleeping dragon tile on the north-point one-west square.

His opponent's smile deepened and, before playing his next tile, he poured out two cups of tea from the tray at his elbow. "Ah, my friend. You give me much pleasure this afternoon. I hope you will enjoy this as much as I will!"

"Of course, sir. I only hope you won't find me too poor of an opponent to give you a good game," he responded demurely, nodding thanks for the tea. "Osuwa, why don't you bring out a bottle of Omashu brandy to serve with the tea. It has a fine balance that I'm sure our guest will appreciate." And a hell of a kick to it, that sneaks up on you if you're not used to it!

He didn't miss the look of surprise on his subordinate's face as he scurried out of the room. There were only a few cases of Omashu brandy left since, with the city's fall to the Fire Nation, it had become almost prohibitively expensive to obtain.

"Oh my, the Springs is truly hospitable. I will certainly take advantage of your graciousness." The old man settled himself a bit more comfortably, almost negligently placing yet another tile. Shumo wondered if he was really as careless as to the course of the game as these last several moves seemed to suggest, or if this was a sham to disarm him. Well, as far as he was concerned, it wouldn't make any difference. He shifted his own position at the table and attempted in inject real warmth into what he knew was a rather watery smile.

The brandy would come out of Osuwa's pay.

For the most part, Jeong-Jeong's prowess as a fire-bender was holding off all the small fry. With Zuko aligned with him, Sokka thought the two had also made significant inroads against the fire-benders stretched out in a rough half-circle before them. Rough, because they kept shifting in and out of the surrounding trees. Sokka had yet another opportunity to observe fire-bending's general reliance on attack over defensive moves, but he spared little attention to such analysis.

It did strike him as somewhat ironic to see fire-benders battling against one another in earnest. He was relatively certain that throughout the course of one hundred years of war such a sight was so rare as to be incomprehensible, probably at least as much to the combatants themselves as to the on-lookers. Except, of course, for those 'duels' Zuko had told him about, and that odd confrontation between Iroh and Zhao's retainers back at the North Pole last winter.

Given the apparent advantage Zuko and Jeong-Jeong had over their opponents despite their greater numbers, there was a distinct argument for Sokka hanging tight right where he was. And he had to admit, he liked the idea of letting the combat strengths of the two fire-benders lead the way, with Jeong-Jeong's trained ranks of pseudo militia on clean-up.

It only took one arrow digging deep into the wood near his shoulder to decide this argument was, after all, less than compelling, as far as he was concerned. Not that he could incinerate the arrows in mid-air as Zuko and Jeong-Jeong did. While he considered this, his eye had already measured the angle of the offending arrow's flight path as he assessed the likelihood of his assailant's quickly changing position from a good vantage point. On his next breath Sokka launched the boomerang at the arrow's source, and another breath later a muffled cry indicated success in it's reaching its target. He shifted his stance to anticipate the weapon's return even as he plotted his next angle of attack.

Don't let them pin you down, don't be predictable…

Okay. So to Zuko's flank there seemed to still be some decent cover, but none of Jeong-Jeong's men had made their way to that side yet. Granted, it was predictable if the enemy were paying good attention and thought he would actually move… Sokka grinned. Rarely did anyone ever pay sufficient attention to the non-benders in a bender battle, as his success just now in eliminating the archer sniper indicated. And, as Dad always said, ignoring an enemy's weakest asset could be fatal in a close battle. Ah, the beauty of being underestimated was that it always, yes always proved to be a telling advantage.

As the boomerang sailed back over the felled trunk Sokka caught it and rolled heavily past Zuko, scrambling yet further to get at the far edge of the cover before letting fly yet again with the boomerang. This time he aimed a far broader arc for his throw before diving in to kneel behind the still burning tangle of branches at the near end of the newly felled tree. The green wood of the branches sent up a dense cloud of smoke, and while the heat was uncomfortable, as long as Sokka kept low neither the smoke nor flames were a real problem to him.

Still, it would be a good time for a water-bender to show up. Pity Katara's not around to make use of that stream.

Sokka's thoughts of his sister did not interrupt his mental counting, which had already made allowances for slight shifts in trajectory as the boomerang sailed past - and even through - some obstacles given the force of his throw, even as he considered the likelihood of flank attacks, either from fire or arrows. Gripping the machete by its strap, he started swinging it in a broad rotation before him, hoping to shield from the latter as he carefully timed retrieval of his boomerang.

"There's a lot of smoke over in that direction," Aang shouted. "How many fire-benders do you suppose there are, and who are they fighting?"

He had kept his pace down to a trot given his companions' limitations, but he was surprised at how quickly the elderly Iroh actually managed to move. They were close enough where they all could hear the sound of burning trees and fire-blasts. Aang's heart grieved for lost woodland, remembering the great forest spirit's sorrow in another time, another place.

"How many depends as much on who is in charge and who they are fighting against as anything else, my young friend. But for all the smoke and noise it seems to be fairly contained in area. We'll know better once we get closer." Iroh said grimly. It was a good thing he had been spending so much time with these lively children these past weeks. His own stamina had improved significantly lately.

"Aang, can you use your glider to get above them and see what's going on?" Katara suggested.

He shook his head. "Too much smoke. And the air currents in those conditions are pretty tricky. I could do something about it – remember that volcano last fall? – but then they'd definitely know I was here. Do we want to risk that?"

Katara shuddered. "I dunno. General Iroh, what do you think?"

Toph snorted. "Aang's our trump card. We don't play him unless we need to, and no lousy group of fire-benders is enough to beat me! Are you really feeling so wimpy, Katara?"

"Of course not. I'm just worried about what might happen to Sokka before we get there. After all, Aang's a lot faster!" Katara said hotly.

Had Toph forgotten the whole point of this venture?

"We cannot fault you for worrying, Katara," Iroh soothed. "But at this point, any indiscriminate bending of any sort might cause more harm than good. We need to get closer. Perhaps, though, it would make sense for Aang to go on ahead of us." He nodded to the Avatar.

Without another word Aang leapt ahead, hurdling the berm of earth that Toph continued to roll along with them and disappearing in a cloud of dust.

"Great. Now we're gonna have to find him as well as Sokka. 'Super' idea, Sugar Queen," Toph grumbled.

Katara bit her lips to keep from snarling back. She knew Toph was only speaking out of a somewhat misplaced sense of worry for her student, as well as a bleeding out of the worry they all felt for Sokka. She understood it perfectly – Aang was now a more than competent water-bender, and she had been astonished at his versatility at earth-bending – but his instincts still relied on air-bending, and if she had learned nothing else over these long months of traveling the world with him, Katara had learned that different situations favored different forms of bending. This should have given Aang the advantage, since he could theoretically bend all four elements at will. And without question, he was an astonishingly fast learner. But his expertise at all but air-bending was still so new, so untested, and so not natural to him… Maybe Toph was right to be worried.

"Courage, young ones," Iroh interjected again. "Have faith in your companions as well as in yourselves. We can only do what we can do. Now, perhaps I can run a bit faster if you can?"

Both girls answered with a quickening of their pace.

Zuko was a bit surprised when Sokka slipped past him to join the fray. It wasn't that he thought the other boy was a coward, but he had noticed that Sokka was extraordinarily rational most of the time – so it was no particular surprise that he was definitely one to avoid a fight where possible. And really, not only did he think he and Jeong-Jeong had things well in hand, but he wasn't wholly comfortable with Sokka's ability to handle himself in a fight among fire-benders. Sokka's strength was in strategizing, and while he was handy enough in a general fight – he'd seen evidence of that on numerous occasions – a fire-bending battle was an altogether different sort of affair.

Well, he certainly wasn't Sokka's keeper, and it wasn't as if they were exactly friends or anything. Sokka would just have to manage for himself in this if he wasn't prepared to stay under cover.

Zuko was still wondering why Jeong-Jeong kept his own tactics to standard fire-bending. Well, if you could call the exquisite form and control of the old man standard. What Zuko found particularly impressive was how Jeong-Jeong managed to pull energy from the blasts aimed at him and turn it around to their attackers. There was very little burning brush or trees behind them, although the scorch marks from their own battle were clearly evident. Still, he couldn't help thinking a little bit of lightning-bending would have put paid to this whole affair in pretty short order. After all, it was fire-benders they were fighting.

Zuko stumbled a bit as he felt a rather forceful thud against his armor. One of the archers apparently had managed to put enough force behind his arrow that its head retained sufficient momentum to actually hit him even after its shaft had disintegrated. Not only that, it had managed to penetrate enough to actually stick to his chest armor. Damn! He needed to keep his focus on his opponents, not on his allies!

Zuko dropped to rest his weight on his hands in a spinning kick that shot out a particularly potent gout of flame in the direction he guessed the arrow had originated, springing back up to meet a flame attack from another angle. With a grimace he remembered how recently his shoulder had been impaled – that arm was still a bit weak, and his recovery from his kick had been both slower and less graceful than he liked. Not to mention, he was getting tired.

But he couldn't help feeling a certain satisfaction at the same time. Jeong-Jeong was clearly not making any effort to cover him, and that confidence in his abilities sent a flush of warmth throughout his being, reminding him again of his recent triumph in deflecting the old man's lightning.

It never occurred to him at all that Jeong-Jeong didn't actually give a damn if he survived. It wasn't as if anyone actually knew the prince of the Fire Nation had made contact with the renegade Navy officer. In any case, both were under death sentences.

What mattered was that he was expected – no, trusted – to pull his own weight here. And he had no intention of disappointing anyone!

What were the consequences of a whittling down of the Fire Nation royal family, anyway? Assuming the Fire Lord could be set aside, short of some all-out conflagration, - such as confrontation with the Avatar - his only heirs were his son and daughter. The first was already essentially disinherited, absent his appearance at the palace with the Avatar in chains behind him. And the other? Well, those in the know were ready to attest to the Lady Azula as a potential Fire Lord without historical parallel.

Of course, there were those – in aplenty - who couldn't help but wonder where the lines of such a dynasty would, or could, be drawn. Hopes born with the apparent ascendency of Prince Iroh had for long years been buried. Perhaps it should have been no surprise to learn how those hopes had shifted, finding form here and there, such as with the new young prince or, even on occasion, the new princess.

Even without Iroh apparently disinherited - and equally important, disappeared - the Fire Lord's children were the obvious heirs apparent.

But, under the circumstances, it would take an astonishing act indeed to determine which would take succession!

Jeong-Jeong was ready to pull out the entrails of his closest lieutenant at this point. By his own count, this particular skirmish counted at least four dead and perhaps half a dozen maimed possibly beyond recovery on both sides. Unconsciously, he was already tabulating this particular battle against some mental pai sho game in his head, scored against the White Lotus gambit of losses tolled against the game-leaders on each side.

Damn it! He was a soldier, and an uncommonly fine one, ready to give his all to his countrymen; nay, he had already given virtually all. Wasn't that enough? Having signed his allegiance to the Order, he knew better, of course. But it had never occurred to him that he would be the one to hold such wild cards as the Fire Prince and his oh-so-unlikely ally, the decidedly unusual son of an unrecognized southern Water Tribe chief, during the final play round. Hadn't it been hard enough to manage the very wayward youthful Avatar earlier on?

Clearly, the spirits were not playing fair with Jeong-Jeong!

Much as he would have been loath to admit it, Iroh knew in his heart that "fair" was not a word that held much sway in the Dragon of the West's lexicon. Ever a canny warrior, Iroh had always placed more credence in greater intelligence over greater numbers in any encounter. He hadn't been exaggerating as to his success rates with Katara and Toph. Rationally, he'd always considered the future consequences of massive death counts after every battle on both sides, weighed against somewhat fatter calves and purses of prominent persons in the opposition, and had had no difficulty in balancing out the accounting. As for his enemies' morals, well, Iroh felt no particular compunction there – if by agreeing to his terms they fell by the wayside that was their problem, not his.

He'd always believed that thereby lay, ultimately, fewer deaths – the betrayers weren't dependent on him for a source of betrayal, surely – and in Fire Nation supremacy lay progress for all…

It galled him that it had taken a highly personal death to open his eyes to the insubstantiality of "Fire Nation supremacy". He thanked the spirits that his career hadn't taken a yet greater toll in life before he'd finally understood the immeasurable difference between "resource value" and "life value".

His still excess weight (despite several months now of dieting and exercise) placing more stress on his legs – and lungs and heart, thank you - than he liked to think about as he struggled to keep pace with the younglings on either side of him, Iroh dove deep into the wellsprings of certitude that had always formed the crux of his world-belief, his reason for being, to keep going forward. From there he drew strength – his inspiration already arrayed on each flank in the fierceness of a feminine gaze.

He considered, briefly, how much off-task this particular foray had veered from his Order-assigned duty to instruct the Avatar in fire-bending. It wasn't as if he hadn't done his utmost to do just that, especially given the reports from Jeong-Jeong, the Order's greatest teacher. Iroh chuckled a bit – the only reason he'd been allowed to continue teaching Zuko was because his teaching skills were considered obscure, and failings by the Fire Prince would be all to the good. On the other hand, ancient methods might serve the out-of-time Avatar better than current thinking…

With a wry twist of his lips, Iroh acknowledged to himself, if no one else, that his obsolete and obscure methods had only served to open the teaching door and, in point of fact, it had been wholly the Avatar's choice – just as it had always been Zuko's – as to just what he was prepared to learn from Iroh. He heartily doubted that any of his compatriots would have served measurably better, teaching either student.

As he drew closer to the heat generated by the battle, Iroh tamped down his own ego and ability. His time as a leader was long-gone. A battle-weary eye assessed the situation, taking in Katara's frightened face and his own experience, before firmly setting aside the Order's objectives.

At least, for today.