A/N: I live? A gigantic thanks to everyone who reviewed. You guys are amazing.
Two and a half minutes – just long enough for him to hum the first five verses of "The Girls of Ba Sing Se" under his breath, including the particularly raunchy bit with the 'secret tunnel'. That was all it took to brew the perfect cup of jasmine tea. Iroh continued humming under his breath as he took the leaves out of the pot and poured a cup of tea. He looked out the window of his apartment and had a sudden longing for home – for the Fire Nation, for his lost son, and for his lost nephew.
He blamed himself for everything going wrong. If only he had realized when his nephew had snuck back to the Fire Nation, but Zuko had locked his cabin and Iroh had assumed the boy was having another one of his snit fits, which he had admittedly been rather prone to when he started thinking about home. It was completely normal for him to shut himself in his room and refuse to respond for a while, so it took a couple of days for Iroh to realize that his nephew had gone, and by that point his little ship couldn't match the pace of whatever warship Zuko had managed to sneak onto. He was at a port three days out from the capital when he heard that his nephew had been killed for trying to return to the Fire Nation while under banishment, and for attacking the Fire Lord.
He had a heart attack. The crew had rushed him to some waterbending healer who had saved him, and for a while he wished she hadn't.
After travelling for months, he wound up in Gaoling, in the Southern Earth Kingdom. He set up a tea shop there, determined to lead a nondescript life and to try and find some happiness in his beloved tea. On a good day, he could almost convince himself that it was working.
It was surprisingly nice in Gaoling, but dusty. Definitely not the lush greenery that was home for him, but it was a simple existence and it suited him.
A young merchant walked into the tea shop, wearily set his hat down on a table, and all but fell into the chair in front of him. "Mushi, tell me you have something for me."
Iroh chuckled. "How does a nice ginseng sound? It's one of my favorites, never fails to pick me up."
"You are a lifesaver, Mushi."
"It's no problem," Iroh said as he busied himself with making the tea. "I could never be sick of tea. That's like being sick of breathing! But you seem to be sick with something else – lovesick, perhaps?"
It was a good thing the young man hadn't gotten his tea yet, because he undoubtedly would have choked with the amount of sputtering he was doing. He turned so red that it looked like his face was about to burst into flame.
Iroh chuckled, for a moment feeling the pang of never getting to see Zuko like this.
"How could you tell?"
"All young men have a certain look when they're in love." He seemed wise, with his grave air as he carried the tea to the merchant. As soon as the tea pot was on the table, though, he completely ruined the effect by grinning and exclaiming, "Well, tell me about her!"
The merchant let a dopey smile slip onto his face. "She's perfect, and beautiful, and-"
The door to the shop swung open, and they both turned to look, seeing a woman with untamable brown hair walking in.
"And that's her!" the merchant practically squeaked, ducking his head and almost hitting the tea pot.
"Hey Li, I was hoping I would find you here!" she said happily. "I was wondering, do you want to get dinner sometime?"
"He'd love to!" Iroh exclaimed before the stunned merchant could form a single word.
She smiled. "Great! Meet you by the school tomorrow, then?"
Li nodded dumbly.
She smiled again and walked off. Iroh elbowed the merchant in the side lightly and gave him a thumbs up and a lecherous grin before returning to his tea.
A few hours later, Iroh was finally closing shop for the day. He'd had one of the guards for the Beifongs stop by, and they chatted about the rumors of Toph. Although he had never met the girl, he dearly wanted to, especially to study her unique style of bending. If the rumors were true, she could even see through her earthbending! He wondered idly if there was a way to adapt firebending to do the same thing.
As soon as he had finished cleaning and was about to lock the door, someone burst in, nearly slamming the door behind them in their haste. Iroh immediately jumped into a defensive stance, but relaxed when he realized it was Yun, one of the members of the White Lotus.
"Grandmaster Iroh, I bring news."
"I have not been part of the Order of the White Lotus for some time, Yun, there is no need to call me Grandmaster." He had hidden away for so long, hurting from Zuko's death and so tired of always fighting.
"You are always the Grandmaster, Grandmaster Iroh. And I believe that when we need you, you will return."
Iroh sighed. It felt like he would never be able to escape this interminable war. "What news?"
"Your nephew is alive."
Iroh froze. "Do not give false hope to an old man."
"I don't," the scout insisted. "Despite the propaganda announcing his death, it seems your nephew was actually in the Boiling Rock, and he recently escaped and is now likely travelling with the Avatar."
"You are sure?"
"Our spies heard it from several guards stationed at the prison. They were dismissed from service after the escape and were rather bitter about it, and were happy to tell us anything we wanted to know. The other escapee was the father of two of the Avatar's companions, which is why we believe he is now with the Avatar."
For the first time since Zuko's supposed death, Iroh's face cracked into a genuine smile. Tears began to roll down his cheeks as he swept the scout into a giant hug.
"Thank you, Yun. Thank you."
When the merchant came back to the tea shop a few days later to tell Mushi about his date, he found it closed, and nobody had seen or heard from Mushi in all that time.
"Do you think she's actually going to make me make lunch?"
Sokka turned toward the firebender. "What?"
"Your sister. She said if I didn't like her cooking, I should make lunch."
Sokka laughed. They were sitting on a rock, fishing lines thrown in a pond, and the fish didn't seem the least bit interested in the bait. They had been sitting there for half an hour with only one bite (the fish was smart and still managed to get away) and absolutely nothing had been said, until now. Nothing had needed to be said; the silence was comfortable.
"It shouldn't be that bad, should it?" Sokka asked. "You have a constant heat source and everything!"
"…I only know how to cook one thing. We had servants when I was young, and then the ship's cook did everything, and then, well…"
"So what's that one thing?"
One corner of Zuko's mouth twitched upward. "Fish."
"That's convenient. Now we just have to get them to bite!"
Zuko looked at Sokka like he had grown a second head. "You do realize that I've never fished in my life, right?"
"That's okay, I've spent half of mine fishing. I'm practically a fish myself!"
With that, Sokka began stripping off his outer coat and pants, folding them and laying them in a pile on the rock with his boomerang on top. He grabbed a branch from one of the trees nearby and sharpened it quickly with his knife to make a crude spear, and then waded into the water slowly, spear held at the ready. Within just a few minutes, he had speared three fish, and he threw them up on the rock to Zuko.
Zuko stared at Sokka like the Water Tribe boy had gone insane. "Why did we even bring the poles if you could just catch them like that?"
Sokka flashed him a smile. "Because it's fun. Now, let's go over how to clean these…"
They busied themselves with scaling the fish, Zuko taking a while and grimacing throughout the whole process, obviously disgusted. A royal upbringing had definitely not prepared him for this. After a while spent in silence, a nagging thought occurred to him and wouldn't leave him alone. He sighed and paused in his work cleaning the fish.
"Sokka, your sister doesn't seem to like me."
Sokka sighed. "Yeah. She's not a fan of firebenders in general, after what happened to Mom. But I didn't like you when I first met you either – "
"Yeah, that's a real comfort."
Sokka shot him a sidelong glance for interrupting and paused for a moment to make sure he could continue without further interruption. "But I didn't like you, and now I do. She'll learn."
"You actually like me?"
It had popped out of Zuko's mouth before he had even fully formed the thought, surprise evident in his tone. He blushed vividly as soon as he realized he had said it aloud.
Sokka gave him an affable grin. "Yeah, you idiot. I actually like you."
It seemed strange to Zuko, how openly Sokka would display affection, and happiness, and emotion in general. He remembered when he was little, shortly after he first met Mai, how her mother would scold her for showing emotion. They were all taught to hide large smiles behind a hand, or to smile without showing teeth. It was rude to show emotion so openly and yet, as Zuko watched Sokka, he thought that it was actually kind of a nice thing.
They returned to the camp a little while later, bearing three fish between them. Sokka volunteered to cook some potatoes, and Zuko internally prayed that he could remember what his mom had showed him about fish, so many years before. She had decided, when he was ten, that he needed to learn how to cook something. So one day, when Azula was busy with firebending practice, she took Zuko on a trip and showed him how to make a single dish from her hometown. He ended up making it three or four times until he could get it right, but the look on her face when he succeeded was well worth it.
On the way back from the Boiling Rock, they had stopped off at a few villages, so Zuko had taken the opportunity to, well, liberate some spices. He was glad for that now as he realized he had the ingredients to make a spicy chermoula to put on the fish.
The smell of the fish cooking brought back memories. He could almost hear his mom laughing as he burnt the fish, or dropped the chermoula in the fire, as happened a couple of times when she was teaching him.
Sokka was unusually quiet as well, seeming to sense his mood. This was shattered as everyone else came by, seeming to have a sixth sense that told them that lunch was almost done.
"Katara," Hakoda was saying, "I can't believe how much your bending has improved. It's absolutely amazing."
Sokka rolled his eyes and shoved food into his father's hands before Hakoda could say anything else, hoping to distract him with eating. Once everyone had been handed food, Sokka immediately began stuffing his face, only realizing several bites in that the fish was really spicy.
He shrieked (in a manly fashion, he would later insist) and turned toward Zuko with a bewildered look on his face, tongue hanging out of his mouth slightly as he tried to cool it down. "It's hot!"
Katara shot a ball of water into his face. "Is that better?" she asked.
"Of course no- Wait. Actually, yeah. That's a lot better, thanks."
She stared at her food suspiciously, and poked it with her chopsticks before giving in and taking a small bite. Her face turned slightly red and she ended up taking a long swig out of her water skin.
Meanwhile, Aang had put some of the chermoula on his potatoes, completely skipping over the fish, and sighed happily. "This reminds me of Kuzon!" he exclaimed. "It's so spicy and delicious!"
"You guys are wimps," said Toph, addressing the Water Tribesmen. All three of them were drinking large quantities of water with their food.
"We don't really have spices like this down in the South Pole," Hakoda mentioned. "We trade for honey or sugar occasionally, but we don't have a lot of trade with warmer regions that grow these spices. It's good, though."
Zuko tried to pretend that Hakoda's compliment didn't mean anything, and failed. When Sokka went back for seconds (I don't care if it's hot, it's delicious! he said) Zuko couldn't hold it in, and he smiled, teeth showing and all.
Jet was having a shitty day. Granted, he had a lot of shitty days. That was what happened when the city you lived in was taken over by the Fire Nation. Today was spectacularly shitty because a raid had gone wrong a few nights ago, and the storehouse the Freedom Fighters were trying to attack ended up blowing up, and Smellerbee had gotten badly burned in the process. Her leg now looked like it was starting to get infected.
Longshot and Smellerbee had given up on 'starting over' once the Fire Nation took over Ba Sing Se. Jet just did what he did best – he was charismatic, and convinced people to help fight against the Fire Nation. The people here were particularly easy to convince, too, as fear set in when the so-called 'impenetrable' city was penetrated. After a few weeks, Jet had nearly fifty people working with him to fight back.
Right now he was in a Lower Ring neighborhood that was mostly Water Tribe, or so the rumors went. However, nobody wanted to confess to being Water Tribe, not with the Fire Nation in charge, so it was difficult to find a healer.
He wandered into a tea shop and flopped down at a table, feeling completely drained. Smellerbee needed a healer, and fast. He was getting worried.
Suddenly he was aware of an old man sitting across the table from him; he didn't know when the old man had gotten there, but he knew that the table was empty when he first sat down at it. He started to reach for one of his hook swords, and gave the old man a glare. "Who are you, old-timer?"
The man chuckled. "Just a friend who wants some of the same things you do. I know a good healer, if I can trust you to be discreet."
Jet let his hand slide off the hilt of his hook sword slightly. "What do you want in return?"
"I would like to help you with your cause. I know people around this city who can help."
"What do you get in return?"
"I would find some satisfaction in retaking this city… and my nephew has also had some run-ins with the Fire Nation, and I have reason to believe that he will come here."
Jet stared at him for a moment, but didn't detect any falsehood in the stranger's mannerisms. His gut instinct was what had gotten him this far, so he decided to trust it once again. He took his hand completely off of his sword, and offered it to the man in front of him. "Jet," he said by way of introduction.
The old man took his hand without hesitation. "Call me Mushi. Now, let's see that friend of yours."
A/N: So, a bit of fluff, and a tiny bit of a plot showing itself at the end... Please review and pester me to update sooner!