We'll meet again. Don't know where. Don't know when. But I know we'll meet again some sunny day ~ We’ll Meet Again , Vera Lynn
It’s no surprise that Ba Sing Se, a jewel of the desert and the largest city in the world, was the source of inspiration for many pieces of art. A popular ballad written in the early years of the Hundred Year War once professed that though the fighting separated them, the singer would reunite with their love in Ba Sing Se. Because of this, the city earned the moniker ‘the City of Reunions’. And as another dawn rose above the tiered walls, a very special reunion was about to occur.
“Hey losers, wake up, this is important,” Toph announced to her sleeping companions from their comfy home in Ba Sing Se’s Upper Ring. She frowned, tapping her feet in annoyance; she’d even tried to be polite . But instead, the Avatar and the Water Tribe siblings simply ignored her message and continued to sleep. Now a familiar emotion, aggravation and rowdiness, stole across her face as she stomped violently on the ground causing the earth beneath them to swell and throw the peacefully sleeping children in the air until they landed in a muddled heap one on top of another. Their complaints were cut off with another threatening stomp.
“Oh good you’re awake,” Toph said with false cheer. “We have a visitor asking for our help, now come on,” she turned her back to them but paused. “Sokka, I can feel you squirming deeper into your bedding. If I have to be up then so do all of you.”
“Who comes visiting at...” Sokka moaned, squinting out the window as he got himself ready, “this early? The sun’s barely up yet. I shouldn’t have to get up this early unless some crazy Firebender is chasing us.”
“As the Avatar, it’s my duty to help those in need, no matter the time,” Aang said solemnly but the impact was lessened by the large yawn in the middle as he wearily rubbed at one eye. Katara didn’t say anything, surprisingly awake as she fiddled with the cap of her waterskin, already on edge from the early morning visit. Toph didn’t seem overly worried but then few things did phase the blind girl. Perhaps that’s why Katara was the first to react when they entered the kitchen and found a familiar face gently coaxing the stove fire as the kettle began to whistle.
“You,” Katara sneered, instantly stepping in front of her family and lashing out with her water whip.
“Katara wait,” Toph frowned, putting up a wall between them to stop the water before lowering it back into the dirt. “He gave me tea and advice when I needed it and I always pay back my debts. He told me you guys had some bad history but he promised to behave or else I’ll catapult him beyond the Outer Wall.” The latter statement was said with her head swiveled in the firebender’s direction, who nodded in acquiescence as he laid out several cups and began pouring the freshly brewed tea. His hands held the handle of the teapot in a white knuckled grip.
“And he did try to help us at the North Pole,” Aang interjected, “I’m willing to listen at least.”
“Your generosity is appreciated,” Iroh said. “I’m sure you children can understand that I would not be here if I were not desperate.” Coming out of his stuttering stupor, Sokka stalked forward and slammed his hands on the table causing some of the tea to jostle.
“You’re Fire Nation!” He shrieked.
“That is corre ct,” the man said, pausing to give a smile as he handed the Avatar some tea. Aang went to take a sip before Katara waterbended it out of the cup and out the open window. She glared at him for accepting a drink from the enemy while Aang just looked saddened at his empty cup.
“You’re Zuko’s crazy grandfather!” Sokka continued as if still trying to wrap his head around who was standing in his kitchen trying again to pour tea into Aang’s cup only for Katara to pluck it out of her friend’s hands and toss that out the window as well.
“Uncle,” he corrected but he seemed distressed at the mention of his nephew’s name. Understanding that no one else would be having tea, he poured his own cup and sat down, his thumb nervously rubbing along the smooth porcelain edges of the steaming cup. “Please, I mean you no harm, I am not here as a Prince of the Fire Nation or a highly decorated General,” his eyes flickered for just a moment, hinting at what he could do — if so inclined, “I am here merely as Zuko’s uncle.”
“Yeah, where is Zuko?” Aang asked, reaching over to try and take some of Toph’s tea but she earthbended his chair until he was just out of range. The others looked around, as if noticing for the first time the Zuko sized hole in the room.
“That is why I am here,” Iroh said with a concerned frown. “Zuko didn’t come home last night and I’m worried about what's happened to him. I humbly beg for your help in finding him.”
“I cannot believe we are doing this,” Sokka grumbled, his shoulders hunched and his arms crossed angrily across his chest as he stalked behind the seemingly harmless but surprisingly frightening Fire Nation General ( “I don’t believe we ever had a proper introduction, I am called Iroh,” the man had said as he did some stupid, evil Fire Nation bow, “but in this city I am simply Mushi.” “No, your name is Uncle,” Toph said slowly, as if it were inconceivable for him to be called anything else).
“He seems to be genuine,” Aang had countered with a little shrug. “I mean he looks pretty upset, you can’t fake that kind of emotion.”
“Aang, everyone knows that Firebenders don’t have real emotions,” Sokka explained patiently as one would a small child. “It’s a fact of life, like the sky is blue or the Earth is flat.”
“Fun fact, the sky isn’t really blue, it’s actually colorless but the sun’s light makes it reflect blue,” Aang chirped.
“And the Earth definitely isn’t flat,” Toph said with a raised eyebrow, “and Uncle is telling the truth; he and his nephew are on the run from the Fire Nation, they came to the city as refugees, Zuko went out last night and never came home.”
“Please don’t call him Uncle,” Sokka wrinkled his nose before rolling his eyes. “And, come on, are you saying your bending magic can tell if people are lying?”
“Yeah actually,” Toph growled threateningly and Sokka wisely scooted over so Aang was between them. “People react when they lie, their heart rate and breathing changes and I can feel all those interactions through the ground.” She became sadly contemplative, “the last time I saw Uncle; he was steady, warm and patient. His vitals are all over the place now and he can’t stop fidgeting. He’s really worried for this Zuko guy.”
“My nephew has always been reckless but his unfortunate circumstances over the last few months have only made it worse,” Iroh said, no longer pretending like he hadn’t been listening. “He is a complicated young man but he is considerate to a fault. He knows better than to make me worry, in this city of all places.”
“We’re not interested in how considerate Zuko is,” Katara frowned. “We’re allowing you to come while we look for Appa but when we find Zuko, we’re going to ensure that you don’t cause any harm even if we have to chase you out of the city ourselves.”
“Katara, we said we’d help,” Aang said but his teacher just gave him a look. “Can’t we all just get along? Like Uncle said, they’re not here to hurt anyone; they just wanted a place to start over.” Aang bit his lip and thought of a blue theater mask, tattooed archers and frozen frogs. “Toph said you need to pay your debts and I, I’m honor bound to return the help that was given to me.”
“Zuko has changed since you last saw him but I understand that we have different goals. Familial loyalty is not restrained to your tribes, young Waterbender. If we need to flee the protection of this city in exchange for my nephew’s safe return then I will do so in a heartbeat. All I want is my boy returned to me, no cost is too high.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Sokka interrupted, still sulking near the back. “I only agreed to this because the sheer irony of tracking down the guy who chased us all over the spirit blasted world is too good to pass up.”
“Hey so I added a little bit on Zuko to our Appa posters,” Sokka grinned, ink staining his hands and face as he proudly showed off the new addition. Katara immediately burst into hysterical laughter.
“Sokka, Zuko’s hair couldn’t have grown that much since we last saw him,” Aang corrected doing his best not to laugh at the drawing’s long, luscious locks. “Also the scar is on the wrong side.”
“It is not,” Sokka stomped as he clutched the posters to his chest. Zuko’s face was the center of his worst nightmares, the Fire Nation invading his village and threatening his people. There was no way he’d forgotten something as crucial as which side his scar was on.
“It is,” Iroh sighed, looking like he wanted to be amused by the antics but was too worried to do so. “Also my nephew is much more handsome than that, couldn’t you have drawn him smiling?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Zuko smile,” Aang noted thoughtfully.
“Zuko’s smiles are like the sun on a cloudy day, mysterious and fleeting but each glimpse is nothing short of a blessing,” Iroh added, almost thoughtlessly as he looked around the crowded market place.
“What does that even mean?” Sokka sighed.
“Just because something is rare does make it any less beautiful,” Aang translated as Iroh nodded. Sokka’s eye twitched, oh great, another person who only communicated in proverbs. No wonder Zuko ran off. He wisely did not mention as much to the twitchy Firebender who was still glancing around the area for his nephew. It was uncomfortable seeing the enemy look so human.
“I can’t feel him here in the Upper Ring, maybe we should check back at the tea shop you guys work at,” Toph suggested before frowning. “Wait a minute, you guys live in the Lower Ring, so how’d you get into the Upper Ring without being spotted?”
“An old man is entitled to a few secrets,” The man chuckled before his cheer dissolved into a sigh. “As for your suggestion, I don’t believe he’s there. Zuko gets easily lost on the ground; he prefers to travel by rooftop so I don’t know if you’ll be able to find him. I waited at the shop until past the start of our shift, he doesn’t like the job but he wouldn’t miss it unless he was forced to. I know my nephew better than he knows himself; he’s not there.”
“Then we’ll just have to keep looking, even if it takes the rest of the day,” Aang announced, puffing out his chest with determination, ignoring the groans of his companions behind him.
“Oh Zuko loves animals, always has, ever since he was a boy,” Iroh said with a genial but strained smile. No one commented on the way his eyes darted over the crowd with increasing anxiety or how he kept clenching and unclenching his hands or when he’d started telling funny little stories as if that would fight back the mounting dread. They’d all been there, felt that fear and worry for a loved one. Sokka had long since given up his proclamations that it was all a trap when the man’s distress was so obvious. When, not if, when they found Zuko; they were going to wallop him for making his uncle worry so much.
“In fact, and don’t tell him I said this, he’s quite enamored with your bison, young Avatar. He’s never said as much but I know if circumstances were different, he would love nothing more than to bury his hands in all that fur. You should have seen the way he doted on the ostrich-horse we had before we came to the city; I swear he fed that animal more than he did himself.”
“Appa used to love visiting the Fire Nation,” Aang said sadly, “My friend Kuzon would get his hands super warm and rub between Appa’s toes. He knew all the sweet spots to get Appa’s tail thumping, one time he was flapping so hard the wind knocked over a tree,” Aang chuckled but it was thin and despondent. “I miss him,” the last Airbender whispered, not specifying if he meant his dead Fire Nation friend or his missing Sky Bison. Perhaps even he was grieving the loss of the world he had once known which had been lost by the ancestors of the man beside him. Iroh laid a gentle hand across the young boy’s shoulders.
“Those we have lost are not gone, so long as we keep their love and memory alive, their spirits will always burn within us. We may grieve them but not lose sight of our way forward, not lose hope for a reunion with the loved ones still in this world,” Iroh added softly with grim understanding. Aang nodded, fighting back the tears and doing his best to channel his sorrow into finding Appa, and Zuko now too.
“When we find them, I’ll be sure to let Zuko pet Appa. I know he’s missed fire warmed hands petting him down,” Aang added, happy no one mentioned his cracking voice. Iroh withdrew his hand and tucked them into his sleeves where they were being wrung nervously.
“The pond in the palace garden was always filled with turtleducks and Zuko adored those creatures. No matter how many times his mother told him that turtleducks belonged outside, that boy was always bringing them in. Some days we couldn’t go an hour without hearing a quiet little quacking coming from underneath his shirt. Eventually they became so used to being handled that Zuko could sneak them all the way to his room without us knowing. At least a few times to my knowledge, he would be found in the mornings surrounded by a little nest.”
The group laughed at that, trying to imagine a prickly, screaming teenage Zuko curled protectively around a bunch of sleeping turtleducks. This morning, the image would have been impossible but Iroh’s loving perspective and endless wealth of stories had made the idea a little more plausible. Zuko may have been a jerk and trying to turn them over to the Fire Lord, but he was also a talented tsungi horn player and had stuttered as a child and had a horrible sense of direction and an animal lover. Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation was none of these things but Iroh’s nephew apparently was and that was the person they were searching for, the one they were hoping to meet.
“Zuko!” Sokka shouted loudly through the market, “Come out, come out, wherever you are! Come on, man, you’re upsetting your uncle!”
“Idiot,” Toph hissed, punching him in the arm. “He goes by Lee here, are you trying to get them locked up by the Dai Li?” Sokka’s face twisted in momentary contemplation, it would probably be for the best to turn in the two Fire Princes but… they’d apparently been here for a while without doing anything evil so that was probably too harsh. Huh, the Dai Li successfully out jerked the Jerkbenders. Evil really was escalating these days.
“Sorry, he just doesn’t really strike me as a Lee , y’know?” Sokka shrugged.
“He still struggles with it,” Uncle said with a smile. “When he first picked the alias, he was always calling himself Zu-Lee, an admittedly beautiful name for a young lady. He’s gotten better since we arrived in the city but he still slips sometimes,” a fond shake of the head. “For a boy who loves the theatre so much his acting skills leave much to be desired, that is,” he said with a sly little glance at Aang, “unless the situation is especially dire, then he gets rather Spirited .”
Aang, pointedly ignored the questioning look his friends were giving him. There had been more than enough revelations surrounding Zuko today for him to drag that mess with Zhao into it. Like a good Airbender, Aang diverted. “Zuko seems to have lots of hobbies: theatre, animals, bending,” he bit his lip, “swords.”
“Wait, what, swords? Since when? I’ve only ever seen him, you know,” he looked around at the crowd before miming some Firebending complete with small explosion noises. Katara raised an eyebrow at her brother.
“Despite how clear a river may appear, it can still hold many unseen depths,” Iroh smiled. For just a moment, he seemed almost relaxed, clearly in his element speaking confusing proverbs to children. Then he seemed to come back to himself, to remember it was not his long-suffering nephew he was addressing but his enemies.
“I have no idea what you’re saying,” Sokka rolled his eyes. “As much as I love discussing, Zuko’s hobbies , let’s talk about the Fire Nation; specifically strategic weaknesses and firebending counters. I would be amenable to hearing about some secret tunnels, possibly one that leads straight to the Fire Lord’s bedroom.”
“Alright,” Iroh shrugged, always agreeable to a little bit of treason when his nephew wasn’t looking. And besides, these nice kids were being so kind in helping him search for Zuko. “Let’s see, the palace is pretty heavily fortified though talented benders like yourself could make quick work of the building and guards. There is a network of tunnels running underneath the Capital City but most of them have been blocked off after an attempt on Fire Lord Azulon’s life.” He stroked his beard in contemplation before snapping his fingers. “Oh you might be interested in this; a total solar eclipse which will cover the Fire Nation is coming up just after the summer solstice. Firebenders are reliant on Agni’s power to bend so, for about ten minutes, they will be vulnerable.” He thought the children would be delighted by that revelation but instead they all looked as if he’d slapped them with a dead fish.
“Oh,” Sokka squeaked, “Tell me, does uh everyone in the Fire Nation know about this eclipse?”
“I did mention our power is dependent on the sun, therefore we devote a lot of time and energy into being able to predict when and where eclipses will occur. The whole city will likely be under heavy guard but many, including my brother and niece, rely too heavily on firebending. They mocked Zuko for studying the blade but my nephew would never let something like a loss of his bending stop him from fighting.”
“So you think, hypothetically of course, if we were to amass an army from the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes we could, theoretically, invade the Fire Nation on uhhh let’s call it the Day of Black Sun and fight the Fire Lord?” Sokka grinned while his friend’s smacked their forehead with their palms.
“The defending side always has the advantage in a siege but with a skilled enough group and a solid plan I would favor your odds,” the General smiled. “Ah if I were ten years younger and not trying to rehabilitate a troubled young man, I would love to join you.”
“But why? This is your people you’d be fighting and you’re royalty, the Fire Lord is your-” Katara cut herself off, aware of the ears around them but also unable to put the words together. She couldn’t imagine going after her own brother that way but she supposes she might, if he was as big a jerk as the Fire Lord seemed to be.
“My young lady,” Iroh said in a soft but absolutely menacing voice. “If at any point in my life I am within sight of my brother I will take great care to sear him down to his bones . It will pain me certainly but some things cannot be forgiven.”
“But killing is wrong, even the Fire Lord,” Aang said resolutely after a minute of stunned silence.
“All life is sacred, that is the creed of the Air Nomads and it is a beautiful sentiment I do my best to uphold,” Iroh acknowledged. “But I stayed my hand too many times, watching him hurt his son in every way imaginable and twist his daughter into someone scarcely human.” He gently patted Aang’s small shoulder. “There is great honor in seeking to avoid death, if you decide you cannot end the Fire Lord’s life then I will be happy to act in your steed.”
“Thanks we’ll keep that in mind,” Sokka said in a frantic, high pitched voice from the sheer power and danger radiating off the man.
“Jeez, I know the Fire Lord is bad and all but what’d he do to make you so mad?” Toph questioned.
“He knows what he did,” Iroh said with such venom that they were all taking a step back. Worse yet, was the slight almost flippant gesture to his left eye, to the eye where Zuko had been horribly burned. Suddenly stopping the Fire Lord seemed so much more important than it had five minutes prior.
“Great, we’ll just take your contact information and send you a messenger hawk when we need you. Don’t worry, we’ll be sure to feed and water Zuko while you’re gone,” Sokka quipped.
“No, Mushi,” the shopkeeper Shiran said with sympathetic eyes, “I haven’t seen young Lee around since you last asked. I’ve passed around that you’re looking for him and the moment he’s spotted, we’ll have someone let you know.”
“Yes, thank you, I appreciate it,” Iroh mumbled feeling more stressed and anxious than he could ever recall being in his entire life. Well that’s not true, he’d felt this way on the warzone that once existed outside these walls and forever in his memory. That stomach dropping, hand shaking realization when only half of Lu Ten’s division had returned to camp, most injured and weeping and he couldn’t find his boy’s face among the crowd and he’d been forced to reckon with the too terrible to contemplate reality that- No. This was not a battle and Zuko was not Lu Ten. He would turn up, he would accept his Uncle’s chastising and let him hug him longer than he normally did and everything would go back to normal. He had to believe it, it was the only thing keeping him standing. “Please let me know if you hear anything else,” he said, turning to leave.
“Well,” Shiran said hesitantly as he looked around to ensure they were alone, “there might be something. I don’t want to get you worked up without cause but with your boy still missing, you probably should know…” For the second time in his life, Iroh could feel as if he were on the end of the world about to tumble over the edge into nothingness.
Outside, the rest of the group was anxiously searching the dirty alleys and dusty streets of the Lower Ring. Toph’s feet were almost buried in the dirt, her tongue stuck out in concentration as she tried to expand her senses. Sokka was handing out as many posters as he could while Aang and Katara clarified about the inaccurate illustration. They’d started out the search as unwilling tag-a-longs but now were looking in earnest.
“Uncle said Zuko had gotten in a fight with another boy a few days ago who’d accused them of being Firebenders. Maybe someone overheard and decided to do something about it. Zuko could be locked up, unable to escape, maybe even being tortured.” Katara said anxiously, her fingers rubbing across her mother’s pendant; the thought that the boy she worried after had once held it hostage far out of her mind.
“He’s many things but he’s not stupid,” Sokka interrupted. “He’s in the heart of Earth Kingdom, if anyone found out he was Firebender, much less the Fire Lord’s son, he’d be up an ice flow without a paddle. Uncle mentioned he hangs out on the rooftops to brood; he probably decided to skip work so he could practice his pouting.” He continued doubtfully, not convinced of his own theory.
“He wouldn’t, he’s got to know Uncle’s going out of his mind with worry,” Toph said softly. Sokka opened his mouth to counter that they didn’t actually know what Zuko was thinking but shut it again. Iroh’s, Uncle’s , stories had gotten to them; the picture he’d painted was of a very troubled but loyal nephew. They understood that Zuko would no more want to upset his uncle than Katara would learn to fly. Spirits what a day this was turning into, he didn’t want to feel like this for the enemy. Toph frowned and twisted her foot, “Someone’s coming towards us, a teenager, light on his feet but walking confidently.”
Katara stood on her toes and caught a glimpse of shaggy dark brown hair like how Iroh said it had grown out. “There!” She said before frowning. She didn’t remember Zuko being that tall and the walk was all off. She didn’t get a chance to correct herself before Aang had launched himself into the air towards the teen.
“Zuko, we’ve been so worried!” the Airbender enthused, wrapping his arms around the figure and burying his face in the boy’s chest. “Your Uncle has been looking all over for you and we’re so glad you’re not-,” he looked up and gasped, jumping back away from Not-Zuko. “Jet?” He yelped as the others plus Uncle rushed over to where they congregated, the crowds going around them like a river.
“I’m sure you’re surprised to see me but I promise, I’m here to help you find your bison,” Jet said with a smooth smile. In his hand, he had one of Appa’s posters.
“You know where Appa is?” Aang asked with a hopeful gasp before he noticed that Uncle had crept up beside him. He had to do a double take; the Firebender was white as a spirit and had a look of barely controlled devastation on his face. The man looked at Jet like he was the answer to his worst nightmare.
“This is the young man who attacked my nephew and I in our shop,” Uncle whispered. “He accused us of being Firebenders and fought my nephew until the Dai Li arrested him.”
“The Dai Li!” Katara gasped before furrowing into a snarl as she pulled some water from a nearby fountain, pushing him roughly against an alley wall as she locked his wrists over his head with ice.
“Hey old man, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve never seen you before and I sure don’t know about the Dai Li or your nephew,” Jet said holding up his hands in surrender as best he could.
“You’re lying,” Katara shouted, forming several icy spikes and bringing them closer to his face. “Why should we trust anything you have to say? You’d do anything to hurt the Fire Nation. Did you think working with the Dai Li would help?”
“I swear, I've changed! I was a troubled person and I let my anger get out of control, but I don't even have the gang now! I've put all that behind me!” Jet exclaimed, looking between all of them but lingering on Iroh. “I promise I’ve never seen you before in my life.”
“He doesn’t feel like he’s lying,” Toph frowned, putting her hand up against the wall. “Are you sure it’s the same guy?” Their interrogation was interrupted by an arrow embedding in the wall beside them.
They turned and saw Smellerbee and Longshot, who had notched another arrow into his bow as a silent but obvious threat, coming towards them. Smellerbee looked so furious; she might start spitting sparks herself.
“Jet, what is wrong with you?” She screeched. “You got taken by the Dai Li because you couldn’t leave these people alone! I don’t care if they really are Firebenders or if you’re just repressing your crush on the scarred kid but I am sick and tired of your obsessiveness ruining our shot at a new life!”
“What are you guys doing in the city?” Jet gaped, “And I wasn’t kidnapped by anyone, I don’t know anything about the Dai Li or Firebenders.” He added with a slightly manic look as everyone stared at him, “Get away from me, I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“Joo Dee,” Sokka breathed out as a horrible, horrible scenario came to mind. Jet had been taken in by the Dai Li after calling Zuko and Iroh Firebenders. The Dai Li were serious about keeping the war outside of the city. The Dai Li apparently had something that could make you forget key memories. Zuko had gone out last night and not come home. What if Zuko was wandering around the city, his mind wiped blank of his uncle and their whole life? Or maybe the shadowy protectors of Ba Sing Se would come up with a more permanent solution if they found a Fire Nation royal within their walls. “Oh man guys this is bad, this is really bad,” he said as he laid out his terrible theory.
“I was just informed that another young man was taken last night, no one knows who he was b-but he about the right age and apparently fought viciously before he was eventually subdued,” Iroh said softly, his voice catching in the middle. “Why are you here? Did they let you go because you gave them a more appealing target?” His fists were trembling at his sides, from fear or anger or both. He looked so lost, his amber eyes searching Jet’s eyes as if he could find Zuko’s fate written in them.
“Uncle, we don’t know what happened but I promise we won’t stop until we find out,” Aang said, laying a gentle hand on his arm. He didn’t know Uncle all that well but he did know Zuko and he wanted to prevent this situation from getting any more violent than it already was. Aang was ready for the Firebender to lunge so he was taken by surprise when the man became dead weight and to sunk to his knees as if all the strength had suddenly left his body.
“Zuko,” he whined under his breath, “my boy, my boy, my precious boy. You can’t be gone. I can’t go through that again, not in this accursed city; I cannot lose another son to Ba Sing Se.” Iroh breathed out unevenly, his shoulders shaking as he did nothing to repress his painful, aching sobs. It was a sound so far removed from the terrifying General who’d beaten back a score of Firebenders at the North Pole; a sound so terrible it pulled tears from the eyes of those who had been his enemies not a day ago.
Katara held him in a half hug, muttering empty assurances under her breath not knowing if they were true or not. Sokka keep a steady hand on his shoulders, slightly apart but still offering support. Aang was looking at the group with wide, wet eyes, sympathetic to the man’s grief and secretly fearful that he soon will be grieving for Appa. Toph, not good with such heavy emotions, turns to the group that have dared to hurt her Uncle and friends. She encased the three of them in stone up to their necks.
“Do you have anything to say about what happened to Lee?” She demanded in a low, tight voice. Thankful for the bangs covering her eyes so they couldn’t see how upset she was.
“N-N-No, the last I saw, he-he was at the tea shop with the old man. Believe me, we want nothing to do with them,” Smellerbee defended. Long Shot nodded in confirmation.
“I have no idea who you’re talking about,” Jet said simply, “but if I had anything to do with his disappearance then I’m sorry.” Toph snarled and released the earth binding them.
“Get out of here,” she said with a brusque wave of her hand. “You better pray to the spirits none of us catch you again. Take this chance and turn your life around or I’ll make you regret it.” Smellerbee grabbed ahold of Jet’s hand and hurriedly pulled him away, disappearing into the crowd followed by Long Shot. Jet was pulled behind, looking like there was more he wanted to say before he too was engulfed. It occurred to her that they never did find out what Jet knew about Appa but, who cares, they didn’t need anyone who made Uncle cry. They’d find Appa and Zuko all on their own.
“H-hey,” Aang sniffed in a wobbly voice. “We’re getting ahead of ourselves; Z-Zuko is probably just fine. We can’t search while we’re all worked up, let’s take a tea break and keep searching.”
“Tea sounds good,” Sokka nodded as he pulled his sister to her feet. “That is, if Katara will let us have any this time.”
“Yeah, I think we all could do with some tea,” Katara mumbled, wiping at her eyes. She held out her hand for Iroh to take. “Come on Uncle, you promised you would show us your shop; everyone we talked to said it was the best around.” But the old man did not move, his tears were silent now but he could not bring himself to move. There was nowhere to go if Zuko really was gone.
“Uncle,” Toph whined, flopping to the ground and resting her head against his shoulder. “We won’t find him if we just sit here.”
“Toph’s right; after Appa was taken, I almost lost myself to my despair. But Katara told me to have hope, hope to be reunited with my friend and hope that we will be able to end this war. Sometimes that’s all we have, the belief that tomorrow will bring a brighter day.” Aang said, tightening his grip on his staff.
“My own words turned against me,” Iroh said softly as he accepted Katara’s hand and let her help him to his feet. He looked terrible, his eyes red and his face an unhealthy mix of pale and flushed with his warm amber eyes looking dim and so very lost. But he was standing because if there was even a glimmer of hope that his nephew still breathed than he would walk to the other ends of the earth to find him. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to check the shop one more time.”
“Yeah, Zuko’s probably there waiting for you to return, just as worried for you as you are him,” Katara babbled, ignoring Sokka’s panicked shaking of his head. The old man was already fragile right now; there was no reason to get his hopes up.
“Perhaps,” Iroh sighed, not putting much hope in the theory but appreciating the comfort nonetheless. These were good children, had the war not been between them, he knew Zuko would get along with them. Iroh had suspected ever since that fated, impossible meeting at the South Pole that some force had been driving Zuko into the Avatar’s orbit; that is was his destiny to be the boy’s Firebending teacher and repair the wrongs of Sozin’s line. But right now, he didn’t care about destiny. He’d trade all the tea in the world just to see his boy, hold him close and tell him how loved he was. Iroh closed his eyes as his feet shuffled and led them closer to the shop. Why, he can almost hear Zuko’s sweet voice now… He paused for a moment and opened his eyes before he broke out into a sprint leaving his young companions behind.
Iroh kicked open the door to the shop, so hard that it whacked loudly against the back wall. Everyone turned to look at him but he only had eyes for one person.
“Uncle,” Zuko said, looking stressed and angry and relieved all at once, setting the serving trays he was balancing down so he could put his hands on his hips. “Where have you been? I was starting to get wor-” there wasn’t much to say after that because Iroh had engulfed him in his arms, hugging him so tightly he could barely breathe. He planted little desperate kisses in the boy’s hairline and face, too caught up in his own relief to care about his usual distance or propriety.
“Zuko, Zuko, Zuko,” Uncle chanted breathlessly, rocking him back and forth before pulling back, gripping the sides of his face with trembling reverence, like he was holding onto something more precious than gold. Zuko grabbed ahold of his robes in concern. Uncle had been crying, that was plain to see. He looked, well, he looked how he had after he had returned home from the battlefield with a jar full of Lu Ten’s ashes. Uncle leaned forward until their foreheads were touching. “Don’t you ever do that to me again, young man. Don’t you ever give me reason to think you are gone. You are my love and my light, never forget that nephew.”
Zuko should be embarrassed to be the center of such an emotional, public display. He should be furious his uncle had disappeared to spirits knows where leaving him to manage the shop alone. He should be so many things but instead he felt reassured to see his only true family member safe and returned back to him. He lowered his guard, just for a moment, and let his eyes slide shut as he focused on the feel of warmth and safety his uncle always provided. The moment was broken by several sets of arms wrapping around the two of them.
“You’re okay! We were so worried!”
“You stupid idiot, where did you go? We’ve covered half this stupid city looking for you!”
“We thought you’d been killed! Or brainwashed! Or locked up in some dungeon! Or all three at once!”
“Where in the spirit’s name were you! Do you know what you put your Uncle through!”
Zuko’s brief moment of comfort and happiness burst into flames, as it usually did, when he realized he was surrounded on all sides by the Avatar and his annoying entourage. He’d known they were in the city because of their bison posters but that was a whole different story compared to seeing the lot of them in their tea shop, hugging him . Only the heavy eyes of the entire shop on them kept the group from bursting into flames.
“Uncle,” he hissed testily, “what are They doing here?” Uncle began carding his fingers through his hair and, hmm, okay that felt nice as he relaxed into the man’s touch.
“Come, let’s go to the back, I’ll put on some tea,” Iroh said, gently shooing the children off while gently pushing his nephew along, refusing to let go for even a moment. Such a dramatic reunion would keep the customer’s gossiping long enough for a quick cup.
“ Uncle ,” Zuko questioned again once they were tucked back in the small, crowded kitchen. “Why is the Avatar here?”
“You didn’t come back to the apartment after your little ‘walk’”, Iroh stated. Now that Zuko was safe there going to be hell to pay for making him worry so. “What was I supposed to think? I thought you’d been kidnapped or injured or what other sort of spirit blasted nonsense you always find yourself in.” Deep breath in, but quell the flames so he won’t fear being burned. “You know what city we’re in, Nephew, you know what date just passed; you cannot expect me to sit calmly on my hands when you don’t return home.” Zuko winced, ducking a bit into the collar of his tunic with shame. He felt like the biggest jerk around except he couldn’t know that most of Team Avatar thought he looked a bit like a shy turtle-duck standing there. Zuko wasn’t supposed to be adorable and yet here they were.
“I don’t know what that all means but where were you, Sparky?” Toph demanded, poking Zuko forcefully in the chest. “So spill, were you lighting fires? Starting fights? Kissing girls?”
Zuko flushed, with rage, embarrassment, possibly both. He looked over at his uncle with pleading eyes as he bowed deeply. “I’m sorry I worried you Uncle Iroh, it won’t happen again. But now that you’ve found me, the Avatar and his friends can leave us, preferably the city. Forever.”
“Oh no,” Katara said, stepping forward into Zuko’s personal space. This boy used to terrify her but now he was no scarier than her brother or Aang, just another dumb kid caught up in this terrible war. “I did not cover half this city and have my heart torn out listening to your uncle’s anguished worries just to be dismissed by some brat in an apron ,” he scoffed, curling his fists into said apron in open offense about his uniform. Spirits, boys really were all the same.
“I would answer her, Nephew,” Uncle said cheekily. “Lady Katara is a master Waterbender and we’re surrounded by a great deal of boiling tea.” Zuko pursed his lips into a fine line, his balled up hands smoking somewhat as he stared stubbornly down at the floor. After a moment or two, he muttered something quietly.
“I’m sorry I didn’t quite get that?” Sokka demanded, holding his hand to his ear and stepping closer. Zuko flushed some more and mumbled something even more quietly.
“Louder Sparky!” Toph shouted, striking a heel to the ground so a sharpened pillar emerged, stopping just below Zuko’s chin, he jumped back into the wall.
“I fell off a roof, alright,” He yelled, fists completely on fire now. “They were still wet from yesterday’s rain so I slipped and hit my head and didn’t wake up until after dawn. When I got back, Uncle was gone but someone needed to run the shop so I didn’t get a chance to go searching. There, are you all happy now?”
“I am,” Sokka began with a big grin on his face, “so happy I can’t even describe it. You fell off a roof , I can’t believe it, I will never be afraid of you ever again.”
“Sokka!” Katara chastised, slapping her brother’s arm, “A fall that knocks you out for that long could be serious! Are you having any headaches? Blurred vision? Nausea? Come here, I’m a healer.”
“It’s okay, Zuko, I fall off things all the time, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Oh! Uncle said you like animals so I promise, when we find Appa, that’s my Sky Bison, I’ll let you have extra pets and snuggle time to cheer you up!”
“This can’t be happening,” Zuko muttered in a daze as Uncle and the Waterbender manhandled him into a chair and began fussing over him. “Is it possible to die of shame?”
“Oh you know nothing of shame,” Sokka said with manic glee as he knelt down to Zuko’s level. “Because now that I know you’re not being physically and mentally tortured, I can appreciate all the wonderful stories your Uncle told us. Everything from crying at the end of period romances to rescuing turtle crabs from hawks on the beach. I have so much beautiful material to work with that it will take me this lifetime and the next to cover it all.”
“Uncle!” Zuko shouted, betrayed as he never had been by the one family member he thought would always protect him. Azula was right, you really couldn’t trust anyone.
“I am sorry Prince Zuko but I needed to distract myself from my worries somehow, consider it your punishment for scaring me half to death,” Iroh shrugged, his face calm and unrepentant before he went back to discussing care options with the girl.
“Earthbender, can you please end my misery and pull me underground to let me suffocate,” Zuko begged. He swore he would never again ask for mercy after his banishment but these were extenuating circumstances.
“Nah,” Toph proclaimed, picking at her nose, “we worked too hard to find you, ask me again tomorrow.” And that was the real horror, there was going to be a tomorrow with the Avatar’s group. They knew he and uncle were in the city, they knew where they worked, they knew all Zuko’s embarrassing childhood stories . The mortifying ordeal of being known to the biggest enemies of the Fire Nation was a nightmare that could only happen in this spirit blasted city of Ba Sing Se, the City of No Good, Awful, Terrible Reunions.. He going to deep fry whoever wrote that old time song.