Marching Madly Onward

Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender. Sadly enough.

Warnings: Speculation, Spoilers up to Season Three

AN: For AtLA Land's lottery writing challenge. Prompt was "Prayer Beads."

Companion to Children of Men and Leave a Whisper. For my awesome reader with the same name.

Jeong Jeong wanders. He has no goal in mind. No destination. He just wanders. Everywhere and nowhere. Back roads and game trails and anywhere that people aren't likely to be.

It's not really a way to live, but for him, it somehow is. Somehow, he finds enough to eat and clean water to drink every day. A place to sleep every night. And he doesn't manage to get robbed or even attacked once along the way.

Winter isn't as bad for him as it probably should be. He's a firebender after all. The likelihood of him ever freezing to death outside of the poles is very small indeed. Particularly when there is stray rubbish to burn. His uncle was a hunter, and knowledge gained from him keeps Jeong Jeong fed if not full. And having spent half of his youth chasing after Iroh on his tea-hunting trips, he can at least identify which plants won't kill him.

His possessions are few and far between. Just the clothes he wears, the things he took with him when he fled, and what he finds along the way. Stray beds that he strings together. Animal feathers. Shiny stones from the river. They have no importance, no real value. But somehow, they're worth everything to him. They're a reminder of every past deed, of every fight and every regret. Of all the things he should've done ages ago but never found the courage until now.

Jeong Jeong isn't happy. But he isn't unhappy either, and really, that's all he needs. He isn't unhappy. He doesn't dream of accusing voices or children that stare out but say nothing. He can actually sleep the night through.

He isn't consumed by guilt.

He wanders until he finds a tiny, tiny village in the middle of nowhere that's far away from the Fire Nation and all that he once knew. There aren't any wanted posters of him here, and the people are surprised but not suspicious of him. They're more confused than anything. Don't quite know what to make of him or his strange looks or even his firebending. But they say nothing on any of it, and Jeong Jeong thinks they're much like he is. Running from whatever lies in the past and praying that this place will be their escape.

And for a time, it is. For a time, he works quietly side by side with his new neighbors and doesn't once think of the man he'd been.

But then, one fine and breath-taking morning, a man shows up in the village. He isn't dressed like the prince he is in truth, but Jeong Jeong recognizes him the second their eyes meet. He should run; he should shout for the others to run. But all he can do is stand there dumbfounded as the man approaches.

"Iroh?" Jeong Jeong croaks, and it occurs to him that he hasn't truly spoken to anyone in years.

He wants to know what Iroh is doing here. He wants to know why his old friend hasn't shackled him yet or just cut to the chase and set him on fire. He wants to know what's happened while he was gone. But more than anything, Jeong Jeong wants to know how in Koh's name this man ever managed to find him. What did he do? Ride here on dragonback?

"Hello, old friend," Iroh greets then, but his voice is tired more than pleasant. His eyes are old, so impossibly old, and his hair has gone completely grey.

Whatever thoughts Jeong Jeong has of fighting or fleeing evaporate away like mist in the sunlight. He just stares at Iroh for a long moment. Stares and sees all the ways that he's the same but oh-so very different than the mischievous boy Jeong Jeong remembers from childhood or the proud man who came later.

Iroh isn't either of them anymore, but somehow, he isn't a stranger.

"I… Why don't you come inside for tea?" Jeong Jeong suggests because he honestly has no idea what else to say, and he only sighs in relief when Iroh follows him inside.

His home is little more than a shack these days, as far from the manor he grew up in as humanly possible. And he must look like some crazy hermit. Like a mountain man come right out of a spirit tale. But Iroh sits with all the grace and poise that he's always had, and he doesn't even make a face at the tea Jeong Jeong serves in chipped cups.

The silence between them is filled with the scent of oolong and the flicker of the fire. It isn't tense, but it's not easy either. Simply lingering. Waiting. Weighing.

"I understand now why you left," Iroh finally says after what has to be nearly an hour.

Jeong Jeong, who'd been busy brewing more tea, stops short. He jerks his head up only to see that Iroh's studying the far wall with unseeing eyes.

"I understand," his old friend repeats. "I understand, and I respect the distance you needed, but I had to find you." He toys with the broken edge of his cup, and he doesn't even notice the damage he does to his fingertips. "I have some friends who are very skilled at that. Very skilled indeed. They brought me to this place."

"Why?" Jeong Jeong asks in a tone that isn't quite suspicious, but old habits die hard, and so do new ones. "Why did you have to find me?"

Iroh takes a very long sip of his tea and clears his throat. His eyes when he looks at Jeong Jeong are full of agony. They are full of despair and knowledge gained through blood. But he blinks, and all that remains is exhaustion. It's like looking in a mirror. Like looking and seeing his own reflection. Iroh has always been the best of them, the brightest, the most blessed. This is… This is wrong. Something is wrong, but Jeong Jeong doesn't know what.

"Lu Ten…" Iroh shakes his head. "I don't know how much you've heard. How much you know of the goings-on in the world. But… But things are different now. Not as they should be. And I seem to have finally realized that fact."

Jeong Jeong shifts and feels the fire flare around them. He isn't a stupid man. Iroh doesn't even need to say it for him to know what must've surely happened. There are worse things than death. Outliving a child is one of them.

"I'm sorry," he murmurs, and it's the complete and utter truth.

Iroh nods and doesn't say anything for a few seconds. His head isn't quite bowed, but Jeong Jeong can't see his eyes until he looks up. Whatever pain he feels is already shuttered by then. Shut away where no one – not even old friends – can witness it anymore.

Iroh takes a deep breath, and his face is suddenly a pleasant mask.

"How good is your pai sho these days?" he questions then.

It's a complete non sequitur. Completely and utterly out of line with the previous topic. With what they just said.

Jeong Jeong blinks. Once. Twice. This has to be one of his boyish tricks. He knows that gleam in Iroh's eyes. He's seen it far, far too many times when they were naughty children forever getting into trouble. But more than anything, the familiarity is reassuring. It proves that Iroh is still himself. That the boy he'd been is still in there somewhere.

Jeong Jeong smirks. "I'm still good enough to beat you."

Iroh laughs outright, and it's a good sound. It makes his face young and the weight on his shoulders disappear.

"Good. Very good." Iroh makes to stand then and does with an ease that belies his appearance. "I'll have to bring my board by then. I wasn't sure if you'd be up to standards, but I'd hoped that you would be."

Jeong Jeong feels his eyes narrow in confusion. "What do you…"

But Iroh waves him away. He just offers a smile that's a ghost of his former self and clasps his hand firmly. Something, presses against his palm as Iroh's fingers pull away, and Jeong Jeong blinks again as Iroh waves over his shoulder with the promise to be back tomorrow and glides out the door. He can only stare after him as Iroh leaves the village much like he came into it, only stare and then turn to look at his hand as his fingers slowly unfurl.

And in his grasp is a lotus tile.

Ever Hopeful,