A/N: Gah, the shame! It burns! On a more positive note, we performed Honk! Junior, and may I just say that we freakin' kicked ass and took names. Sorry for the long wait. Onward with the story!
"I just don't understand it! How can you win every time?"
Iroh's responding laugh rumbled deep in his chest.
"The key is years and years of practice. Rest assured, Miss Katara; I already see improvement on your part! You lasted four full moves more than the last round. A new record, yes?"
She scowled; an eyebrow raised high in the air, and pushed a few pieces in beginning order.
He really had to admire the girl's dedication.
Two weeks had passed since Katara's arrival, and things had been going quite…well, perfect, actually. Swimmingly. It was sort of creepy, to be honest.
The only complaint the Dragon of the West could conjure up was the…stagnancy of the two bender's friendship. Sure, his nephew was in a happier state than he had seen in months, but come on! This would be much more tedious than anticipated.
If only she would be so adamant in matters of the heart as she is in Pai Sho…
While the Waterbender set to realigning each tile in it's proper place, the older gentleman couldn't help but rack his mind for ideas. How could one gently nudge the two closer together, but in a way as to not encounter the legendary temper of either one? Risky business, indeed.
Alas, no matter how well the teens fit together, both seemed to remain completely obtuse. Really, it didn't make any sense. They were hardly dumb.
Chicken-Pig headed, stubborn, and irritatingly perfect for each other, yes, but never short in wits. The poor saps probably didn't even realize it.
That's where I come in...
He chuckled inwardly.
"Um, General? Are you…okay?"
…Maybe not so inwardly after all.
"Of course, of course," He said, clearing his throat, "Just daydreaming a bit; forgive me. Just Iroh is fine, really."
The Firebender stretched his back languidly, motioning for Katara to take the first move. After staring intently at the innocent board for a few calculating moments, she complied.
"I must thank you for indulging this old man. My nephew seems to absolutely abhor Pai Sho…though, I can't for the life of me imagine why."
Katara let out a loose shrug, "It is a game of waiting, right? It requires a lot of…" The following movement of Iroh's tile brought about a slight twitch in her left eye, "Patience. We all know that isn't really Zuko's strong point."
She tentatively made her move, observing the ex-General's countenance in search of any subtle hints of approval. He hummed softly, and Katara exhaled quietly, straightening to observe her work.
"Indeed," He eyed her over a steaming cup of tea, hiding his smile, "You seem to have gotten to know him very well."
The Waterbender, more focused on deciphering what he had done in his turn, responded slowly, chin in hand, "Well…he isn't exactly an open scroll, but," she moved the Lotus tile with finality, "Like any one worth finding; he's a pretty good read."
Needless to say, tears of joy threatened to greet the man's eyes…and she hadn't even fully registered what she had been saying!
"How exactly do you mean?" Iroh prodded gently.
Bless his elderly meddling (She just made it so easy!).
"I guess, you could say…" She straightened, eyes narrowed in thought, "Zuko's…It's sort of hard to describe. Like…" She started rapidly twiddling her fingers, "A challenge. I can never be completely sure of what's going to happen next. I like that about him."
Might as well have been taken straight out of a romance scroll.
"That makes for the beginning of a truly magnificent relationship, you know."
Maybe just a little nudge…
"Yeah…" Katara smiled somewhat wistfully before breaking into an all out grin.
Iroh sat expectantly, hanging off the edge of his seat, and…
"We've really become great friends!"
…toppled unceremoniously onto the marble floor.
"...I just don't understand why we need to visit Zuko all of a sudden, that's all. There's still so much tension in the outer Earth Kingdom, and-"
"Come on, Twinkletoes! We deserve a teensy weensy break, don't we? After all this peace keeping, we need some 'r & r'."
"I don't know…"
"I'll let you next three training sessions."
The day had started off normal enough; Zuko awoke shortly before dawn, bathed, dressed, eaten, and dutifully committed himself to hours upon hour of grueling meetings.
The Fire Lord, valiantly battling a stiff crick in the neck, had just been released from the strangle hold of politics, and was making the short trek to his room.
I'll just take a short nap before dinner…
He picked up the pace, eager to sink into sweet neglected slumber.
Zuko strode into his chambers minutes later, and made a koala-bee line to his awaiting bed.
He lifted his thick blanket and crawled in with a stifled yawn. "Hey, Katara, Uncle."
Now to catch up on some much needed…wait. What?
He then proceeded to shoot up from his bed like a rocket, eyes wide and bulging, and made (among various other incoherent sounds) this intelligent observation:
"You! Eh! What-Why are you in my room!"
Now, Katara seemed to be choking on withdrawn laughter, so Iroh felt it necessary to take the reigns.
"We merely were awaiting your arrival, Katara has even become quite the Pai Sho player; would you care for a match?"
"I…gah, no! I'm very tired, Uncle." He groaned in sleep addled misery.
"Yeah, maybe we should let the Lazy Lord nap, General. He's just a widdle sweepy. Besides, I'm sure he just doesn't want to face the embarrassment of getting his butt whooped."
Sometimes, it was very easy to call Katara out on being Sokka's sister.
And somewhere, deep in Zuko's throat, a growl sounded.
"Is that a challenge, Waterbender?"
"Why, yes, your Laziness, I do believe it is. Do you accept? For me to kick your royal butt at Pai Sho, that is. "
The Fire Lord threw his covers aside, and strode over to the awaiting game board, taking his Uncle's previously occupied seat without wondering why in the world he was sitting on the floor.
Meanwhile, Katara leaned over to whisper deviously to Iroh. "I was completely bluffing; you'll help me out, right General?"
"Of course, of course…" He trailed off, smiling warmly, "But, please, just call me Uncle."
Despite his teddy-bear like front, Iroh silently sulked.
She got him playing in one try…it takes me hours to get even a consideration…
"Suki, this is ridiculous…and just plain weird!"
The Kyoshi warrior looked up from her half packed bag. " Sokka. Just think of it like this: the gang will all be together again! A reunion!"
The young man eyed her warily, the perfect picture of a skeptic.
"No. It's a scarily well thought out coup to set up my sister with the Fire Lord. Call me old fashioned, but that's not normal!" He pouted, hands tugging anxiously at his Wolf Tail.
"Oh, come on, Sweetie. It'll be fun…"
"No." Sokka's face tilted up and to the side in a universal sign of hard-headedness. Suki took a deep, patient breath before fixing her eyes on him in the most adorable face she could muster.
He made no move of surrender. She flashed a regal fan.
"Don't make me make you."
…Poor soul never had a chance.
Ah, something wicked this way comes. Wicked awesome. Yeah. ::cough::
Not too happy with this chappie, but it does the job. Please review! :)