It's not there now
Ineloquence and anger
Are all we have
Although the Jasmine Dragon was the centre of local gossip, the people of the village never told their tales directly to the owners. Though respected for their excellent tea, the village still had an instinctive dislike of the amber-eyed uncle and nephew. It was recognised that regardless of their current situation they once must have been part of the hated Fire Nation and that was something that they could never leave behind them. Nevertheless, Iroh and Zuko were still able to overhear the rumours whispered by their customers, listening for news of Cheng and his journey.
Soon a month passed with no news of Cheng which was a mixed blessing at best. At best he had not yet succeeded, at worst he'd been captured and killed. There was however, news of other travellers. A young man and woman, the patrons had concluded they must be lovers, had arrived in the village less than a week ago. The rumours suggested that they were looking to escape the occupied Earth Kingdom, some even going so far to insist that they were rebels on the run.
Zuko paid little attention to the gossip, having no interest in yet another pair of dissidents desperate to escape. Iroh felt sympathy for the couple but was hesitant to aid the couple and risk drawing attention to himself, his nephew and the orders that they were keeping safe. There were always people wanting to cross and he could not help all of them.
His mind was later changed, however, one late afternoon when he was shopping in the village market.
Zuko had, as usual, declined to join him. Iroh found that he didn't mind. As much as he loved the boy; his nephew could be a pain while shopping. Constantly hovering behind him while he tried to shop and then telling him off for buying anything that wasn't a complete necessity. However, as Zuko hadn't joined him, Iroh felt free to buy all these necessities and a little extra. He had been studying a stall specializing in ornate antique teapots when he accidentally bumped in to a young woman.
"Ah, I do apologize-"
"It's okay, I wasn't-"
They paused as recognition dawned.
"I can't believe-"
"-overjoyed to see you-"
"-missed you terribly-"
"-here of all places!"
"-into a fine young woman."
There was another pause as they realized that they were talking at cross-purposes. Both stood and waited for the other to begin from where they had suddenly stopped. Katara was the one who broke the silence when a sudden though made her smile.
"Is Zuko here too?" She asked, her eyes shining.
Iroh's joy was dulled at the question Katara asked so hopefully. Unsure how to begin, what to tell of the year that had passed since they has last seen her. He knew that he shouldn't hide the truth but couldn't resist the urge to gloss over it.
"Yes. He is here too. He's not quite as… He's unhappy. I don't think that meeting you at the moment will bring him the same joy it brings you." Iroh tried to utter a diplomatic warning, enough to make Katara wary of his nephew's reaction but not strong enough to convince her to avoid him.
Katara's forehead creased in confusion. "Why?" And then straightened in understanding. "Ah, it's about how I left."
"It was unfortunate." Iroh replied, trying to ease the sadness on her face.
Nonetheless, her eyes remained downcast. "I know it must have seemed selfish but I had to." Her face brightened again, almost to the level of before. "And I have great news. I mean, why I left. I've wanted to tell you and now… I just want to wait until he's with me. Just to see what you think."
"He? The young man you're travelling with?"
"Yes." Katara nodded enthusiastically. "Where could we meet you?"
"We own the village's teahouse", announced Iroh with pride. "You're welcome there any time."
Katara smiled with pleasure and nodded again. The pair said their goodbyes and an eager Katara left to fetch her companion.
Iroh collected his purchases and headed back to the teahouse. He strode through the villages streets nodding greetings at those that he knew and considering the second upheaval to his life in a month. He could not deny that he was pleased to see the girl again but still felt wary. His nephew was still confused and troubled when it came to his path and feelings. Especially when they intersected with the waterbender.
Iroh had watched the pair's relationship grow ever since he and Aang had found them in the caves of Ba Sing Se and wished for nothing more than the pair to work out the past. Nevertheless, he doubted that the pair would have a harmonious reunion.
Zuko had gotten very tired of waiting for his uncle. The old man had said he was only buying food but had no doubt noticed a particularly fine teapot and departed on a tangent. Aware of this, Zuko could only hope that it would be a tangent that wouldn't delay him long.
His efforts to simply sit and wait for his uncle's return grated on his nerves and only increased his irritation. Eventually, he knew that he would have no peace until he went and found the old man and dragged him back. Not to mention he would be able to prevent him from making more unnecessary purchases. Nonetheless, he considered, he knew that ultimately it would be better if he didn't go. He knew that his uncle would be back eventually. He knew that Kaori, although trustworthy, was unready to mind the shop for the time it would take him to locate his uncle. He knew that if he was to miss his uncle it would only serve to put in a bad mood that would take hours to abate. Zuko left anyway.
Zuko walked directly to the market and without expectation appraised the shop that sold foodstuffs where his uncle was meant to be shopping. Gathering that his uncle was not present; Zuko sighed and moved towards the section of the market that was concerned with antiques and households items. This time Zuko was surprised to discover that his uncle was not in there bartering for a new set of teacups or an antique instrument that neither of them played.
Scowling in frustration, Zuko guessed that he had missed his uncle during the walk to the market and that he had most likely returned to the teashop. He turned and began to storm back to the Jasmine Dragon.
He spotted a couple walking together a little way ahead of him. The young man was excited and running ahead of the young woman who called after him, shaking her head. Unconsciously, he registered that they must be the mysterious lovers that the town had speculated about but his attention was distracted as he realised he knew one. He moved faster, shoving his way past bystanders. As he reached Katara he grabbed her arm and pulled her to a stop.
Katara watched her friend disappear into the crowd ahead of her and turned to face the stranger who had grabbed her. He heart giving a twist when she saw the face of the young man who had once been her enemy but for so much longer been her friend and ally. She smiled broadly; too happy to notice that Zuko's expression grew darker and angrier.
Her words were cut short as Zuko dropped her arm and turned away. Katara stared blankly as he pushed through the crowd away from her. This time her hand reached out, lightly grabbing his sleeve.
"Zuko?" Katara asked quietly, concern thick in her voice. "What's wrong? Are you angry with me?"
"Angry? How- You- Did you know I was here?" He stopped and started, his anger preventing him from following one train of thought.
Zuko didn't seem to hear her answer as his ire grew. "You came here. After you- you- I thought you were- but instead I find out you've been slutting around with some other guy and now you've brought him here!"
Katara's face flushed with anger. She stared at Zuko as if she expected him to promptly throw himself at her feet in remorse. A flicker of regret had passed over Zuko's face after he spoke but it had vanished just as quickly. Instead, he coldly stared in to her eyes, challenging her to contradict him.
Forcing herself to steady her breathing, Katara asked quietly, "Is that what you think?"
"'What I think'? I-"
"How could you? I've been missing you so much and wanting to see you so badly, and when I finally find you, you accuse me of being a slut! That I left you to go off with some other guy?"
The angry reply Zuko had been trying to express died swiftly ask he watched her yell. Her distress preventing him from repeating his accusations. Instinctively, Zuko reached out to try and console her.
Katara slapped his hand away before he could act upon the gesture, glaring at him with unabated anger and turning away to storm after her friend. Zuko caught himself before he called out after her, instead mutely watching her leave him behind in the crowd.
Zuko gave a short yell of anger and slammed his fist into the wall next to him, passerbys jumping back and staring at the show of anger. Bristling his attempted restraint, Zuko clenched his fists. He forced himself to walk back to the Jasmine Dragon, eyes forced forwards, knowing that he was dangerously close to firebending and revealing himself.
Iroh was serving tea to a last few straggling customers. He'd already sent Kaori and the other's home, surprised that his nephew had left them to run the shop so long by themselves. Nevertheless, he assumed Zuko would be back soon, no doubt irritated by his fruitless search. Yes, soon his nephew would be back and he could talk to him about seeing Katara in the marketplace. Iroh wondered idly when she was going to arrive with her friend. His musings were interrupted by the entrance of a man in Fire Nation armour. Iroh glanced over his newest patron, and after asserting that he would not be recognised, approached him.
"Welcome to the Jasmine Dragon. Unfortunately we'll be closing soon but I'm sure there's enough time for one cup of tea."
The solider gave Iroh a disdainful glare but still mentally noted the old man's amber eyes. "I am not here for tea, man. I am Captain Yin of the Fire Nation Army. I'm visiting you on an important and serious matter."
"Ah, it is my pleasure to have you in my establishment, Captain", said Iroh without pause.
The Captain sniffed, implying he did not feel the same pleasure to dwell in an Earth peasant shop. The few remaining patrons of the Jasmine Dragon, previously enjoying themselves, were now hurrying to finish their tea and leave. Fire Nation soldiers rarely differentiated between those under suspicion and simple passerbys.
Yin paid the quickly disappearing patrons no mind. He found himself disconcerted by the old man's unfaltering friendly smile. As a member of the Fire Nation army, he was used to worry and intimidation as a response, not apparent pleasure from his company. His earlier vigour faded as he surveyed the teahouse.
"Would you like some tea?" Asked Iroh, smiling still as he reached out for the teapot.
Yin snapped back to attention. "No, I am here to discuss an important matter."
Iroh only half listened to the Captain's words as he sadly watched the last of his customers sneak out the door. Soon, word would travel through the village that Mushi and Lee were under suspicion and patronage of his shop would suffer accordingly. Instead of replying immediately to the Captain, he moved over to the kitchen and began brewing a pot of tea.
"You have already mentioned that, my boy. Are you sure you wouldn't like a cup of tea?"
Yin's eyebrows drew together as his frown deepened. "No. I have come here to discuss the visitor that you had a month ago."
"We have a great many visitors everyday, Captain. We are very popular tea makers." Iroh's smile remained as friendly and welcoming as ever, throughout their exchange.
"This guest seemed to be known to you. He was invited by the other owner into a back room. This guest is suspected of illegally possessing an important document."
Iroh again ignored Yin's insinuations, instead pouring out a cup of steaming tea. Captain Yin's outrage grew at the apparent slight and glared angrily in Iroh's direction. He moved over to the old man and slammed his hands down on the table where Iroh worked.
"I could have you arrested on the spot for suspicion of withholding these very documents! I could hold you indefinitely under suspicion of being a defector!" He yelled as he tried to stare down the old man with the amber eyes.
Iroh calm smile did not falter as he gently lifted up the warm cup of tea and gestured to Yin. "You seem tense, Captain. May I suggest a soothing cup of chamomile tea?"
Yin's eyes flashed and he pulled his arm back in preparation for firebending.
"What are you doing?" Interrupted an irate Zuko as he resisted the urge to drop in to stance.
Captain Yin turned and rounded on the young man who stood furious in the doorway.
"Are you Lee, co-owner of the Jasmine Dragon?"
Zuko coldly glared at the stranger. "What the hell do you want?"
Iroh, who had been gesturing at Zuko from behind Captain Yin's back, winced at his nephew's impudence.
"How dare you address an officer of the Fire Nation like that?"
Yin kicked a chair towards the wall next to Zuko. Falling into position quickly, he sent a short furious burst of flame in to it. The chair and the wall behind it were burnt black by Yin's display and smoked still as he turned expectantly to Zuko. Instead of the cowed expression Yin had expected, Zuko gazed on the Captain's handiwork unimpressed. Yin's temper flared again and his fist flew out towards Zuko as he once again began to firebend. Zuko smoothly blocked the hand before Yin could bend and twist his wrist backwards sharply.
Incensed and humiliated, Yin aimed another punch at Zuko who easily dodged and kicked the captain's feet out from under him. Yin fell gracelessly to the ground and glowered at Zuko. The exiled prince stood over him in a defensive stance, a slight smile on his lips.
Yin's glare never left Zuko as he stood but his movements gave no indication of a desire to continue their fight. He walked slowly to the now vacant doorway.
"You'll regret this." His voice full of promise, Captain Yin left the teahouse.
Iroh turned to his nephew who smugly looked after their retreating enemy.
"What were you thinking Zuko? Attacking a Fire Nation officer with warning or provocation?" Said Iroh, disbelief in his voice.
"He was about to bend."
"It could have easily been avoided. There was no need to turn it in to a brawl. What if he recognised the similarities of your move to that of a firebender's? To his own?"
"He wouldn't have noticed, Uncle!" Yelled Zuko in reply, frustrated and tired.
"You assume." Iroh looked his nephew over. "I had news to tell you but I suspect that you already know."
Zuko pointedly ignored his uncle's words. Instead, he turned to the remains of the chair and the scorched wall, inspecting the damage.
Iroh sighed and shook his head, knowing that tonight at least, there would be no getting through to his nephew.