Fortune Favors the Bold

Zuko studied the small fire in a valiant attempt to conceal his impatience.

It was small. It was a fire. It was fueled by wood. Someone had been foolish enough to install it in a room with little apparent ceiling ventilation. Zuko considered himself fairly knowledgeable when it came to conflagrations, so he had no problem classifying this one as hopelessly pedestrian.

"This is it?" Zuko asked, wondering if the old woman wished for him to manipulate the fire in some way. He hated sitting here with nothing to do. He could be training right now. Instead, he was stuck in an anteroom that smelled like scorched incense while his Uncle charmed the little servant girl in the foyer out of her mistress' best tea.

"Oh, no my dear," the fortuneteller said, as she knelt down on the other side of the fire. From the way she moved it was evident that her joints had seen better days. "We're only just getting started."

The fortuneteller drew a small silk pouch out of the folds of her robes and emptied the contents into her left hand. Zuko was mildly surprised to see that she was holding shards of bone.

Firelight glinted off of the woman's strange headdress. Any son of the Fire Nation knew that a half-moon didn't look right in gold, solar circle or no solar circle.

"As you say," Zuko inclined his head, bidding the fortuneteller to continue. This woman was helping them with more useful things that fortunetelling, and he was no ingrate. He'd give her what she wanted.

"I see you're a skeptic." The old woman had the audacity to look bemused. Her makeup was too thick. It emphasized the way that her lips curved in some private joke.

"As you say," he admitted, with a small shrug.

"Would you like to know a secret?"

The fortuneteller's eyes sparkled. If Zuko were Uncle, then he'd probably be able to read volumes from that expression, but he wasn't Uncle so he decided not to care.

"If the information you're offering were a secret, then you wouldn't tell it to me," Zuko answered succinctly. It was a statement of fact, not an accusation.

These meetings with Uncle's 'friends' all followed the same script. They'd travel to some improbably out-of-the-way stopover on their way to Ba Sing Se, allegedly because no one would think to track them along such a nonsensical route. Then Uncle would seek out the most unlikely building in town and then flash his favorite Pai Sho tile at the resident oldster. Uncle and his associate say a few things that were both cryptic and boring, after which Zuko would be summarily dismissed and ignored for the next few hours. The next day luck would turn in their favor and they'd be off to repeat the process all over again.

It was unusual for one of them to wish to deal with Zuko alone. Or at all, for that matter.

"You remind me of someone I knew, a very long time ago," Wu said. Apparently Zuko's answer had entertained her. Thick red paint made fortuneteller's smile appear wider than it actually was.

Great. They were already covering the boring and cryptic statements part of the process, so maybe this 'Aunt Wu' would shoo him out soon and Zuko could get on with his evening.

"Fire is alive. Like all living creatures, it consumes to survive. When we die our bodies return to the earth, our blood flows into the ocean, and the breath escapes from our lungs – but the spark disappears for good," the fortuneteller continued. She sifted the bones from palm to palm. It was a wonder that the old woman wasn't cut by any jagged edges. "That is why fire readings are the most accurate way to forecast the course of an individual's future. We will burn these bones in your stead, and the cracks that form will show me your path."

Zuko leaned forward in order to be closer to the heat. He certainly did not lean forward because he was interested in this clearly bastardized take on the works of the Great Sage Hyung. Conventional Fire Sages from the fifth century onward universally recognized that true fire was like unto the sun – it would never die. That was the enduring renewal of the superior element.

"I see," Zuko said noncommittally.

"And I'll get on with it, will I?"

Had the old woman just smirked at him? Zuko would dearly love to know what entertainment she was getting out of this.

"Yes." Zuko shifted impatiently on his cushion.

Madame Wu threw the bones onto the fire with a nonchalant flick of her wrist. Zuko watched the shards settle in amongst charred kindling. Marrow crackled ominously. All of this was ordinary.

Zuko relaxed his posture and suppressed the thought that this was kind of a letdown. The fire chose that exact moment to billow up out of control, shards of bone exploding outwards from the blaze.

Hot lancets of pain tore through Zuko's left arm. He clutched at it with a muffled grunt. Four superheated shards of bone shrapnel were embedded in his arm. Patches of blood blossomed on his shirt – his last and only piece of clean clothing.

"Is that how you treat all of your clients?" Zuko groused, ignoring the fact that Uncle hadn't paid the fortuneteller anything at all.

"Oh! My goodness, no! I've never seen anything like this. Stay right there. I'll help you."

The old woman sprung up, spryly, and then bustled off. Zuko noted with more than a little annoyance that she was completely unharmed.

"That isn't necessary."

Zuko was more than capable of removing the splinters on his own. He moved to do so, only to have the recently returned old woman grab his arm and take it hostage. She was carrying a towel, a bottle, and some blunt peasant tweezers.

Buffeting the old woman away would be easy, but dishonorable. He would not give into temptation.

"I mean it," Zuko grumbled.

"I know," said the fortuneteller. Then she rolled up Zuko's sleeve and set to work on the splinters, flagrantly disregarding his wishes.

Arthritis had not claimed the fortuneteller's hands yet, but removing the bone hurt all the same. Jagged shards tore at his skin. Zuko clenched his jaw and kept his arm in place through force of will. The candles strewn about the room guttered in unison, and the fire wavered guiltily when Zuko cast a baleful glare in its direction.

"Now, don't be so put out," the fortuneteller clucked. "That display told us quite a bit, though I've not seen the like in all of my days. You should be proud, young man. It's not every day that you can surprise an old woman like me."

"I wasn't."

"Wasn't what?"

"I wasn't surprised," Zuko elaborated. Inadvertently injured during the course of a perfectly ordinary transaction was exactly the sort of thing that happened to him on a regular basis. So was watching destiny blow up in his face.

"And why is that?" The fortuneteller daubed alcohol over Zuko's wounds so that they wouldn't be infected. It hurt, but it wasn't as bad as the cauterization that he usually had to resort to. He and Uncle couldn't afford many medical supplies.

"I'm not lucky."

'Aunt' Wu – who was no aunt of his, thankyouverymuch, even if she was fussing over his stupid arm – merely looked at him.

The silence stretched.

Fine. She wanted Zuko to explain? He'd explain. Uncle had told him to treat his friends courteously.

"I was born in the middle of the night. In my family, that's a bad omen."

"Is it, now?" The fortuneteller smiled, enigmatically, as though she knew something that he didn't. "You shouldn't be so put out, my dear! You've got a very interesting destiny. You're going to fight in a climactic battle for the balance of the world."

Zuko raised his remaining eyebrow.

"You don't believe me?" The old woman chuckled, tearing her towel into strips that would bandage Zuko's wound. He wanted to tell her that it wasn't necessary – he'd left far worse exposed to the open air – but now wasn't the time.

"If you're a friend of my Uncle, then you know where we're going. Into hiding."

"Mmm," the fortuneteller assented. "Does that matter? Fate will find you no matter where you go."

She stood after she finished tying Zuko's makeshift bandages, and bid him to do likewise. Zuko was more than happy to oblige.

"There's no question that you'll fight," the old woman advised him. "Pain will come for you, and I fear that you'll be obliged to do painful things. Make pain your strength and there's a possibility that you might win."

Zuko stopped at the entrance to the foyer and favored the fortuneteller with a curt nod.

"Thank you for your time, Madame Wu."

"That's Aunt Wu," she corrected him.

"Ah," Zuko declined to answer. His real aunt was long-dead in childbirth.

Zuko caught sight of his Uncle, reclining on a large cushion with an overstocked tea tray. The little servant girl had ducked behind Iroh as soon as Zuko stepped into the room. Strange.

"Uncle," he inclined his head towards the fortuneteller, indicating that it was time for Iroh to get down to the usual business.

"I'm afraid we'll have to finish the story of the Avatar that fought the dread eagle-hare another time, my dear," Uncle apologized to the servant, warmly, and got to his feet. Then he turned to Zuko. "I'll meet you at the inn's stables in a couple of hours. Since Madame Wu has agreed to help us, it would be ungracious to repay her hospitality by loitering outside."

That was new. Did Uncle not want them seen here? Zuko guessed that their presence would make news in an insignificant town like this.

"Understood," Zuko said. He strode out of the shop without a backwards glance. Thank Angi that was over.

---

Wu dismissed her servant for the evening - something of a pity, since it was rare that Iroh got to chat with another person who still saw the wonder in fairy tales – and led Iroh to her back room. Iroh couldn't help but notice the halo of soot that that surrounded her fire pit and the blackened bone fragments embedded in the floorboards. It didn't take an ex-general to pick up on the mess.

Being a gentleman, Iroh complied when Wu bid him be seated on one of her cushions. A little padding was heaven on his poor old knees, given all the work they had to do to hold up his girth! Pleasures were fleeting in this world. He'd learned to make the most of them while he had the chance.

"Are you going to tell me what that was all about?" Iroh asked Wu, once she'd fetched them a tray of tea and settled in the seat to his left. Wu sat cross-legged instead of kneeling to pour tea, as she once would have, and that reminded him far more keenly of their age than her time-worn face ever could.

Iroh had long determined that wrinkles added character, grey hair added dignity, and extra weight made a person all the more easy to hold. Coincidentally, by those standards he was still a rather handsome specimen.

"Meng would have thought it odd if I didn't tell both your fortunes," Wu placed some herbs in a cast iron teapot, and Iroh obliged her by heating the water without being asked.

Iroh didn't believe that non-answer for a second.

"You don't want to tell me? I'm hurt," Iroh gestured, expansively, to convey the depths of his sorrow. His eyes widened into an adorable kicked-puppy look that probably would have been cute forty years ago. "We're old friends! Persons of noble caliber! I thought that we could bypass these little manipulations during my time of woe."

Wu snorted, but she was smiling, too, so Iroh knew that he had scored a direct hit. How nice to know that he hadn't lost his touch.

"Enough of your dramatics, you old dog. I haven't been a lady for nigh on twenty years, and we both know that you are an absolute scoundrel." Wu tended to their tea. She made it seem entirely natural to completely ignore Iroh's not-so-pointed accusation of manipulation. A lesser man might not have noticed her segue at all.

Wu had always been good at things like that – one of the very best of their generation, until she became fed up with the court and fled to her little village. Wu's absentee husband hadn't dared follow. She played her politics too well for that.

Controlling this village was probably her version of a retirement hobby.

"You're never going to let me forget getting caught with the twins in the palace stables, are you?" said Iroh, attempting to sound long-suffering. The reminder didn't actually bother him. He certainly didn't want to forget the afternoon his fifteen year-old self had spent with Li and Lo in the palace stables.

Iroh'd been such an active lad. It would be a shame not to cherish those memories.

"Not so long as you walk upon this earth," Wu replied, all pleasantries. Bright blue paint above her eyes only served to emphasize how her crows-feet crinkled in amusement.

"I've already spent months not walking on this earth," Iroh pointed out.

Wu shrugged and poured them their tea.

"I don't talk behind your back."

Iroh sipped at his drink. Ah, jasmine – it warmed his flesh and tugged at his memory.

Mention of the spirit world had cooled their conversation. They sat in silence, until Wu set her teacup down with an audible clink. She'd placed a White Lotus tile alongside it.

So it was down to business, then.

"The Avatar passed through here a few months ago. He needed to be tested, so I created a situation where he'd be obliged to take care of our volcano problem instead of evacuating the village," Wu said. "Then I told him something he needed to hear, and nudged the girl he obviously had feelings for in his direction. Why shouldn't I sew the seeds of suggestion in your nephew as well?"

Iroh cleared his throat, pointedly, before retrieving a White Lotus tile of his own from the folds of his tunic. The protection of the Dragon of the West was still a very good reason not to meddle in the affairs of the Fire Nation's once and future Prince.

He rubbed the tile between his thumb and index finger, finding peace in the feel of familiar indentations.

"Relax," Wu told Iroh. She had returned to nursing her tea. "This desperate gamble of yours to mould the boy into something that could depose that brat Ozai is a long-shot at best, and I'd expect much better from you if your resources weren't so limited. You know as well as I do that if the young man pulls through he'll need common cause with the Avatar, and I can tell you've been priming him in that direction by the way he doesn't react poorly to alternative takes on Fire Nation elemental philosophy. All I did was slip a little blasting power into the fire for him, just as I did for the Avatar. If that small action can provide them common cause in the future then I'll know I've been successful."

Iroh shook his head ruefully.

"Lu Ten was never this much trouble."

"Your son was a lot like you," Wu reminisced. "But this one amuses me."

"Is that so?"

"Surely you must have noticed," Wu chuckled. "You can read it in every move he makes. All that stuff, brittle dignity, and no time for nonsense at all! You've raised yourself Azulon's grandson."

Wu's chuckle transformed into a laugh. "You! Of all people! I could hardly believe my eyes."

"It's not entirely like that," Iroh remarked, trying to defuse Wu's laugher. It didn't work. "He'd got ideas about honor."

"Of course," Wu allowed, with more than a little condescension.

"Don't we have formalities to take care of?" Iroh suggested. The last thing he wanted to do was spend the one night he had with his old flame talking about Zuko. Iroh's nephew would be around to deal with tomorrow, and for many days after that. Adult company was a rare treat for him these days.

"I hardly think that's necessary," Wu seemed determined not to be distracted from her teasing. She must have forgotten whom she was dealing with.

"I have to disagree. I think it is important to preserve our venerable rituals. We should find a Pai Sho board and open the petals of the lotus," Iroh ruined the effect of his lecture by waggling his eyebrows suggestively.

"I don't know," Wu primly set her cup back down. She was eyeing him like a dog that had potential for the stewpot. "You might not be preserved enough to preserve our rituals."

Considering the state that his old paramour was in, Iroh wasn't about to let that comment affect his masculine pride.

She wasn't what she had been and neither was he. Their skin hung too loose and their cheeks were fleshy. He could see smile lines etched into her face, and was relieved to know that some of them were genuine. All the beauty he remembered was still there, hidden in the curve of her eyes and the structure of her bones.

The former general was of an age where he preferred comfort to all the combative business of seduction. Lean years had done wonders to refine his sense of hedonism.

Iroh drained the last of his tea, appreciating the subtle way in which sweet floral accents highlighted the bitter herbs beneath. The room smelled agreeably of beeswax and he gave the candles around them some 'encouragement' to amplify the scent.

"Perhaps you're right," Iroh told Wu, once he'd finished savoring the pleasures of civilized surroundings. He yawned in as fake a manner as possible, stretched out his arms, and faux-casually draped one over Wu's shoulders. "The lotus blossoms at all hours, but a tired old man like me should know when to get to bed."

The general completed his gambit by pulling Wu flush against his side, with a big cheesy grin. Wu's breasts – no longer perky and high – still felt soft and intriguing pressed into his pectorals. It didn't hurt that they'd become a bit more well-padded.

"What do you think, Wu?" Iroh continued. His tone was filled with all the gravitas that the subject matter merited. They were, after all, having a serious discussion about scholarship. "As a man of learning, I have made many extensive studies of the lotus, but we of the Order can always increase our knowledge through collaboration. I don't have your kind of experience."

Iroh was gratified when Wu collapsed into giggles against his chest, and for a moment they were teenagers again – the kind of teenagers it might have been nice to have been, instead of the worldly young scions of the Fire Nation court that they were.

"You think you have new tricks, old dog?"

"Try me."

It was pretty gratifying when she kissed him, too

---

Zuko was disgruntled.

Uncle had promised to meet him at the inn stables two hours ago. Military life had impressed the value of punctuality onto him, so he'd been on time for their rendezvous. That meant that he had been waiting for two hours by disgusting public stalls full of unwashed beasts and questionable riff-raff. This was worse than the time when Uncle'd left him with a back alley with frozen desert air and a lone plant for company.

Two hours alone with the stinging in his arm and the old woman's vague portents wracking his brain. What a racket. Of course there'd be pain, there was always pain, it was part of life. There were no great truths in that kind of catch-all claptrap.

The young man fidgeted unconsciously with his makeshift bandages. Uncle's absence put him on edge. It wasn't like Uncle to break his promises, and Zuko had no reason to trust the members of this enigmatic society. Especially not an insufferably all-knowing old woman who had an entire village wrapped around her little finger. He'd heard the villagers conversing – it was astounding how the fortuneteller had the plebs wrapped around her every word.

Those tactics were too underhanded for Zuko's tastes. Otherwise, he might have been grudgingly impressed.

Maybe.

A group of gangly men in multicolored tunics flowed past Zuko like a school of fish. They were on their way to check their mounts and possibly speed-race them through the streets. He knew this because it was impossible to drown out their half-drunken rambling.

Now Zuko's peace and quiet evaporated along with his patience. He didn't want to be around these morons when the local authorities investigated their disturbance of the peace. It was long past time that he made sure his Uncle was all right. Ordinarily Zuko would trust Uncle to take care of himself, but he knew enough to see through the way that Uncle joked about his electrocution. It showed in the way that Uncle's bending faltered when he thought that his nephew wasn't looking.

Zuko always made sure to keep an eye out for his Uncle.

The young man skulked from shadow to shadow with his straw hat pulled low over his face. He couldn't be seen to have suspicions about the town's beloved matriarch. The villagers wouldn't be particularly skilled, but they were in familiar territory. Zuko was serious enough about his responsibilities to Uncle that he would take stringent precautions.

It took him a half hour to reach Madame Wu's doorstep by weaving a circuitous route through the village's treetops and back alleys. He scouted to see which room was still candlelit – that was the most likely to be occupied - and then vaulted up on the roof to avoid detection. Years of seeking privacy amongst the too-large crew of a too-small boat had honed his lurking skills beyond the capabilities of ordinary men. His first successful evasion of music night had been one of his few triumphs in life.

Compared to that, sneaking up on the old woman was easy as lighting a candle.

Hopefully Uncle had merely lost track of the time. Dropping from eaves did in order to make sure Uncle wasn't having problems did not make Zuko an eavesdropper in the traditional sense. As long as everything was fine he'd leave the two elders alone. It didn't matter how curious he was about where they were headed and why these Earth Kingdom citizens wanted to help them. Zuko had to keep his trust in Uncle.

Zuko got a solid grip on the edge of the roof, and then flipped around, so that he was holding himself in place upside-down against the wall. His arms protested the strain but Zuko took grim satisfaction from the way in which they did not buckle. Swiftly yet surely, he lowered his face until he had an unimpeded view of what was going on in-

OH SPIRITS WHY.

---

Iroh lay prone on Wu's futon and enjoyed the feeling of his first real bedding in months – in both senses of the term. The simple mattress felt soft as a cloud. His beard was tangled, and Wu's makeup was smeared, but neither of them cared very much. In the cold reflection of the afterglow they were back to being people who'd seen and done far too much to be bothered with trivialities.

The years caught up with Iroh. They always did.

"Do you know what they're saying about troop movements in Xiaoming?" Iroh traced his fingertips, absentmindedly, over Wu's naked belly.

"Goro's already removed the scrolls from that location. He's in transit to the Northern Tribe Citadel."

"You think that's wise?"

"Chief Arnook is in mourning, and he's got his hands full trying to channel the new military enthusiasm up there. Ozai needs time to revitalize his navy. It's a secure area where Goro can disappear. I predict that he'll have an easy time of keeping them away from the militaries."

Iroh sighed.

"Many of-"

Iroh was interrupted by a strange thud outside the window. Could it be bounty hunters, or enemies of the Order? He was instantly on guard.

"Stay there," Iroh told Wu, tying one of her bed-sheets around his waist before he walked over to investigate. Should circumstances turn dire he was ready to Firebend at a moment's notice. There were things that he could burn without attracting undue attention – things that were very unpleasant to have burnt.

"Who goes there?" Iroh barked. He opened the window, and leaned out to get a good look at the landscape.

Nothing was out of the ordinary beyond a couple of broken branches from the bush below the window. A person would have to be insanely agile to escape detection after a crash.

"Must have been a bat-raccoon."

Iroh ambled back to bed. He briefly considered going to contact his nephew, but figured that the boy could take care of himself for a little while longer. Iroh had the fate of the world to discuss.

---

Zuko found himself at loose ends after fleeing the scene of his Uncle's… social activities. He didn't care that he'd just taken a humiliatingly amateur tumble off of Madame Wu's roof, or that he was stalking down the village's byways in plain sight. He did care about never never never thinking of this evening ever again.

It wasn't that Zuko was naïve. He knew intellectually that Cousin Lu Ten had to have come from somewhere. Zuko simply hadn't ever felt the need to explore the subject any further.

The swordsman's first instinct was to deal with his discomfort by finding an empty field and training until pain drove away all rational thought. It was an attractive plan on multiple levels. Now that Zuko had more motivation to blank his mind he might make some progress on Lightningbending. There was also a chance that intentional overexertion would drive him into the sweet relief of unconsciousness.

With his mind made up, Zuko stalked over to the stables to retrieve his weapons, only to receive his second unpleasant of the evening.

"What are you doing?" Zuko demanded, from the relative safety of the doorway. That group of idiots hadn't left the stable building in all the time he'd been gone. Zuko'd known that when he heard singing from down the street it could not possibly end well for him.

The situation appeared to have deteriorated from half-drunken to fully drunken, in the swordsman's absence. The men lolled around on bales of hay with bottles of unidentifiable liquor. They had let one of the ostrich-horses out of its stall and appeared to be trying to paint it with whitewash. Little green bows were scattered all over the ground, though a few hung precariously from the ostrich-horse's pinion feathers.

"I asked what you were doing," Zuko repeated. He crossed his arms and made his voice as severe as possible. Drunken people acted in an infantile manner and therefore needed to be treated like children.

Surely there was a way that he could get past these people and escape with his weapons without raising any sort of alarm. Surely.

"Hey man!" One of the men waved at Zuko as though Zuko were a long-lost and well-beloved cousin. "My buddy's getting hitched tomorrow. Isn't that right, buddy?"

"Yeah. I'm getting married," the 'buddy' said, as though that fact stunned him. The man was wearing a deeply effeminate pink and white outfit, complete with a bun that wouldn't have looked out of place on Azula.

Zuko truly did not want to know what motivated someone to wear that kind of ensemble. This town was crazy.

"Congratulations," Zuko said brusquely. He attempted to make his way past the ridiculously decorated ostrich-horse, only to have the distressed bird try to peck his head off. The swordsman saved himself from certain brain damage by merit of his highly-developed reflexes; which was to say that he saved himself by jumping into a nearby bale of straw.

Zuko's audience erupted into inebriated babble.

"Shit. I am so sorry." One of the men crawled over to him, proffering a bottle of the clear liquid that they were all drinking. "It's, y'know."

Zuko didn't know, so he didn't answer.

"It's a wedding," the man continued. "Gotta decorate the bird. Gotta. Otherwise we're dead."

The other men nodded in assent, fearful of the women in their lives and their insane wedding-day expectations. Zuko supposed that he could see the reason in that.

He accepted the bottle, tentatively, in the hopes that accepting the gift would make the peasant go away. It didn't work.

"What you need is a comprehensive strategy. One person can't beat this thing," Zuko said without thinking.

All eyes were on him now.

"Let's do it!" One of the men shouted. The rest looked overjoyed that they might somehow escape the morning with their manhoods intact.

Zuko let out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding, and looked down the barrel of his brand new liquor bottle. He knew how to drink. There had been plenty of state functions back at the palace which were replete with wine, and only alcoholic beverages kept well at sea. Whatever this peasant liquor was it couldn't possibly be as powerful as Zuko's customary sake.

Ridiculous. This whole situation was ridiculous. Zuko was fed up. He needed a distraction.

Maybe transforming his pain into strength really was the way to come out on top.

Zuko took a swig of the villagers' moonshine, and nearly choked at the way it scorched down its throat.

"Okay," Zuko croaked. Heat spread through his limbs, making him bold. "I know how we've got to tackle it and hold it down."

---

Morning found Iroh and his nephew riding towards Tiansin on top of an armadillo-zebra. Their steed's sedate pace made it easy to enjoy the scenery, though the way its armor dug unto his hindquarters left something to be desired.

When Iroh asked how they had come to be in possession of such a beast, his nephew had winced and mumbled something incoherent about dice gaming. Iroh chose not to press the matter further. Zuko held a valid deed of ownership for the animal and Iroh was happy to no longer have to beg rides off of cart drivers. There was no need to antagonize his nephew by mentioning his obvious hangover symptoms.

Frankly, Iroh was extremely relieved by this turn of events. For years his nephew had flatly refused to enjoy music night or periodic trips to port bazaars, let alone flirt with dock wenches or cajole liquor from longshoremen. At the time Iroh hadn't allowed himself to become too concerned about Zuko's complete lack of interest in anything resembling fun. They were on a military ship and they had to uphold military standards.

Yet when Zuko refused to indulge in any kind of teenaged shenanigans when he was fancy-free amongst all the bounty of the Earth Kingdom… well. That was when Iroh was forced to face facts.

There was something just not right with that boy.

Whatever Wu'd done to drive Zuko to drink, Iroh'd have to thank her for it. It felt good to make progress.

Iroh took a deepand satisfying breath. There was nothing so refreshing as a stiff morning breeze.

"Uncle." Zuko's posture was stiff, his shoulders slumped. He radiated stoic dejection. "My actions last night. I mean to say… that is, I acted shamefully. I have no excuse for such behavior."

Iroh patted his nephew on the shoulder in a reassuring manner. He needed to head this train of thought off at the pass, or he'd spend half the day listening to heavy sighs and terse statements about honor. There absolutely was no way that Iroh was wasting his first good post-coital haze in months on that kind of discussion.

"Elk-tigers do not resent one another when they lock horns in the spring, and they feel no guilt for stripping the trees of sweet berries. The spirits of the spring dictate their actions. In the same vein, there is nothing shameful about acting according to the nature of all men. We are as guided by the rhythms of this temporal world as the elk-tigers or any other beast," Iroh consoled his despondent charge.

What Iroh actually meant was that it was nice to see that Zuko was capable acting like a remotely normal person, but he was far too wise in the ways of temperamental young men to phrase it that way.

"I'm not a beast. I'm a rational human being," Zuko bristled.

"Thinking can control their instincts and urges. But only ghosts lose them altogether – spirits that cannot reconcile themselves to the ties we all have to the world."

Hm. Iroh could have sworn that he saw Zuko blanch at the word 'urges'. Not that it was easy to tell. They had spent months exposed to the elements, yet Zuko miraculously managed to avoid even a hint of tan. Any pampered court lady would envy that bone-white complexion.

The blessings of the sun spirit were ironic, if nothing else.

"Are you feeling well? We can stop if you need to be sick."

Zuko shook his head in the negative.

Iroh contemplated telling Zuko that there was a green ribbon tied in the back of his hair, but decided to let the topic rest until later.

---

Author's Note:I place a lot of the blame for this on the band Zero 7. Their new CD The Garden is quickly becoming my all-purpose Fire Nation soundtrack.

Would you believe that this fic was only supposed to be a hundred-word drabble on the theme of Iroh getting laid? TRUE STORY. Thankfully, writing this has more than revived my Tinderbox muse. Next week I should be back to my regularly scheduled Mai/Zuko.

If you've bothered to read through all this then please comment! C&C is welcome, not to mention motivational.