No Bars Between Us
He sees her standing there in the doorway of his teashop, looking uncertain and a little afraid. The simple brown dress and cape she wears do not disguise her identity; as soon as he sees her face he knows her.
"Ming!" he greets her warmly and ushers her to a seat at an empty table in the corner. It is evening, and though the place isn't packed, it is still quite busy. "It is so good to see you." He beams at her as though looking at a very old and very dear friend. "What can I get you? We have a wide variety of delectable teas to choose from."
"I—" Her voice sounds timid and weak to her own ears. "Whatever you recommend."
"Ah!" He smiles, clasping his hands in front of himself. "A cup of my fine jasmine tea then. It is very popular."
"That sounds good." She smiles faintly.
She waits until all the other customers leave, and the staff begin to clean up. He sits down across from her, a cup of fragrant tea in his hand. "What a day," he says. "Running my own tea shop is a dream come true, but it sure is exhausting."
It seems so strange to see him like this: clean and combed in fine green and gold robes, and happy. So strange, and yet so right. No bars between them. No reason to pity. "I'm glad the war's over," she blurts out, feeling flustered. She's just not sure how to begin, but his expression is encouraging.
"Things are different now, better." She pauses and looks thoughtfully into the dregs at the bottom of her teacup. "Somehow, when I was younger, I didn't see things the same way. Things were simple: Love your country, serve your country, honour your country. Obey orders and don't ask why. We were fighting a war that had been going on so long, it seemed normal; I just accepted it-it's how things were. But things got confused—I mean, we still weren't supposed to question anything, but I think—but I think many of us started to wonder when the Fire Lord's banished son came home a hero for killing the Avatar…and you were called a traitor. I don't know, maybe people had been wondering long before that, but just knew better than to talk about it. I just know, for me, it seemed so wrong what they did to you. I started to wonder if the rest of us were traitors and you were the only true patriot left. In retrospect, I guess you were."
She frowns at her teacup as if unsure how to go on. "That day—that day you told me to go home, I-I knew, I mean I didn't know how, but I just knew somehow, you were going to get out, to get away—and I wanted—I felt like a coward, claiming illness and hiding at home, but I didn't know what else to do—I—and then, you were gone and I couldn't—I mean, I didn't—I felt so…confused! I should have been angry; a traitor got free, but I didn't feel like that was right; you were a good man, you were—maybe, my friend, or at least I wished we were friends, and I should have been happy you had escaped, and—but I—I mean, I didn't even know where you had gone, and I—I mean, I was happy for you. But I-I was still there and I had to pretend—and no one even asked if I had known anything, but I just felt so—" She breaks off speaking. Her eyes brim with tears and her expression is desperate, begging.
He reaches across the table and takes her hand in his, comforting, reassuring. "I missed you too."
A choked laugh escapes her lips and she gives him a smile filled with so much: relief, surprise, joy, embarrassment.
"Take a walk with me?" He stands and, with a small nod, she follows.
As they walk in the coolness of the evening streets, he speaks again. "We were all different people when we were young, Ming. Or, at least I was. When I look back, I judge myself foolish. It took losing someone very dear to me in that futile war to finally open my eyes."
"You—" She stops and looks away, a rosy blush rising on her cheeks. "It was you who opened my eyes." Her words are little more than a whisper.
He turns towards her and gently takes her chin in his fingers to turn her face towards him. "You were my brightest star in a very dark time. You chose to show kindness and compassion when there was no benefit in it for you." He looks away and down. "I was often worried you might be punished for my sake."
She lays her hand against the side of his face and turns it back to her. "It would have been worth it." And he sees it there, shining in her eyes in the midst of a tumult of emotions—respect, joy, wonder, longing, regret, admiration—love. "I never thought," she continues, "an ordinary person like me could ever hope to even meet someone like you; you're a legend, General Iroh, and I'm just—"
"You are not 'just' anything, my dear; you have the power to write your own destiny. You have the power to ask yourself who you are and what you want out of life." His voice softens. "And you are my friend, and you are so very beautiful…"
She starts crying then, sobs wracking her body. She clings to him and buries her face in his shoulder. His muscular arms encircle her, and he gently strokes her hair. After a few minutes, she pulls away slightly, embarrassedly trying to compose herself. "I'm so sorry, I—"
"Don't apologise. It is not very often a man my age gets to comfort a beautiful young woman."
She blushes and looks away. "About what you said…who I am and what I want…" She turns back to look at him. "I-I don't know if I can answer the first question; not right now. But what I want… I want to see more of the world than just the Fire Nation, to learn about other people and other ways of doing things. And I'd like to start here, in Ba Sing Se. And also…I'd like to spend time with you—like this, with no bars between us. I mean, if that's alright with you."
Iroh grins broadly. "I can think of nothing that would give me greater pleasure than to spend time with you here in Ba Sing Se."
Her smile is so dazzling, he knows he is going to enjoy every moment.
A/N: Amazingly enough, after writing this in its entirety, I looked Ming's name up to see what it means. It turns out it directly translated as "enlightenment" being a combination of "sun" and "moon" representing light, and therefore enlightenment. So I'd written Iroh telling Ming that she was his "brightest star in a very dark time" and at the end I describe her smile as "dazzling". Then I decided to look "enlighten" up and found it means "to give intellectual or spiritual light to" and "to free from ignorance, prejudice, or superstition" which ties in with the bit where the two talk about their eyes being opened.
Also, if you liked this, be sure to read my poem "Bars Between Us" which is sort of a prequel/companion piece to this story. (I wrote the story before the poem but uploaded the poem first because it was shorter. lol)