Warning! This fanfiction contains spoilers for most of Book 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender. If you haven't seen that far and don't want any major spoilers, please don't read this fic.
The Stowaway and the General
If Iroh hadn’t found Zuko after their ship was blown up by pirates.
[ Part 2/3 ]
He joined Admiral Zhao for tea the next day. Focusing on the steaming cup of tea in his hands was the only way he could keep his mask from breaking. Seeing the steam rise into the air brought back memories of the billowing smoke - all too fresh in his mind - but those memories gave him the resolve he needed.
"I'm devastated to hear about Prince Zuko," Zhao said, in the same exact tone Ozai had used all of those years ago after hearing the news about Lu Ten. "Absolutely devastated."
Iroh took a sip of his tea.
"The Fire Lord will not be pleased when he learns who was responsible," he said. He kept his gaze mostly on his tea, but snuck a glance in Zhao's direction to see his reaction. He was trying to trick him, of course, but Iroh would have been lying to himself if he didn't admit the pause was to see Zhao squirm.
Zhao knew exactly who the more powerful of the two of them was.
"You know who was behind the attack?"
He gave a small nod. "Yes..." he said, savoring Zhao's wariness, "...pirates. We had a run-in with them a while back."
Zhao sipped his tea.
"Have you reconsidered my offer?" he asked, dropping all pretenses of empathy and pity. This was what he had wanted from the very start.
Iroh put his tea down.
"Yes," he said. He gave a small nod again. "I accept. It would be an honor to serve as your general. To the Fire Nation!"
And to your defeat, Iroh thought.
If he hadn't been so focused on his plan falling into place, Iroh might have noticed how one of the guards posted by the door shifted and ducked his head down.
They had been sailing for a few days now. The air had begun to grow cold as they approached the Northern Water Tribe. Iroh used the change in temperature as an excuse to stay in the room that had been provided for him. He told himself it was because he needed time to plan; if not that, it was to avoid slipping during a casual conversation.
But Iroh knew that it was because he wanted to hide.
He knew he was doing exactly what he had coaxed Zuko from doing after Ozai had fought him in the Agni Kai. That it wasn't healthy to be sitting away from the sun and other people for so long. Grief was never healed through solitary agony. Still, Iroh couldn't interact with Zhao or his crew - even the ones that had formerly been Zuko's crew.
One of those crew members had suggested what he was doing now. A few of the rooms had metal tubs that could be filled with water taken from the sea outside. When the water was heated to just the right temperature, it felt like a hot spring. Zhao had given him a room with one, likely as a courtesy gift and nothing else. He hadn't tried it until the crew member suggested it - seeming to understand how desperately Iroh needed any form of comfort right now.
The young man had been right. The water was exactly what he needed right now. He felt like he was cleaning his skin and his mind. And even though his chest still ached for his nephew, the pain became ever so slightly easier to bear.
The door creaked.
Iroh looked towards it.
One of Zhao's men had entered with a tray full of tea. He knew the tea would taste terrible, but he offered the soldier a small smile. The soldier only stared at him for a moment before looking away - an almost familiar look in his golden eyes.
"Thank you," Iroh said as the soldier put the tea down.
The soldier, who had been heading for the door, froze. He was wearing the full suit of armor the Fire Nation soldiers wore - the white, skull-like mask included. Zhao had been hounding his men to wear it lately, but most of them were avoiding it until they were closer to the Northern Water Tribe. This soldier must have been a little more dedicated to the rules and tradition than his comrades.
Still, Iroh had always had a soft spot for soldiers.
He wasn't sure what came over him, but something about the hesitation and just how small the soldier looked in his uniform made Iroh decide that he could use a conversation with his daily tea.
"Come sit," Iroh offered. "Join me while I have my afternoon tea."
The soldier hesitated for a moment, his gaze going between the door and the tea set down beside the tub.
"You don't have to," Iroh added. "It's not an order. Tea, however, is very good for calming nerves."
After lingering by the doorway, the soldier slipped back into the room and closed the door softly behind him. He awkwardly sat down on the ground beside the tub, not even bothering to grab a cushion from around the table in the corner of the room.
"This must be your first battle," Iroh guessed.
The soldier looked up at him for a moment, only to avert his eyes immediately afterwards. He grabbed the tea kettle and poured both Iroh and him cups of tea.
"It's alright to be nervous," Iroh said. "Even I get nervous, and I've seen more battles than you could possibly count."
The soldier shook his head; he seemed to be the silent type. But from the way he kept staring down at his tea, and the way his hands shook as he held the cup, Iroh knew that his guess had been right. This soldier - this boy, because he couldn't have been that old - was terrified of the attack.
For good reason - attacking the water tribe so close to the full moon was a foolish attack. He doubted the soldier knew that much about bending; few soldiers had access to proper teachers. But anyone could see the flaws in the plan Zhao had been proposing since they left the Fire Navy's base.
"What will you do in the battle?" Iroh asked.
Sometimes, a change in topic was the best comfort one could provide.
The soldier thought for a moment, then placed the tea cup down on the ground. He held out a hand and let flames spring to life in its palm. The flame was small. Timid, even. For a moment, Iroh was transported back to the first few days that followed Zuko's defeat and banishment. Bending was often tied to one's emotions. Though Zuko's firebending had ultimately been fueled by his anger, his bending those first few days was much more withdrawn.
"Ah," he said, "you're a firebender."
The soldier nodded.
"Your flames are beautiful," Iroh added.
The flames disappeared. The soldier looked up at Iroh for a moment. Gold met amber as their gazes met. But then the soldier looked away again; Iroh just wished he understood the reason for his discomfort.
"What's your name?" Iroh finally asked.
The soldier froze.
When he finally gave an answer a minute later, his voice was so quiet that Iroh - only a few feet away - couldn't hear what he was saying. The soldier looked over at him. Seeming to realize that Iroh hadn't heard him, he spoke up a little louder.
"...Lee," the soldier said, his voice almost too deep - like he was trying to sound older than he was.
"Lee is a very good name."
The soldier faltered again.
A moment later, he was on his feet again. His tea cup sat full and steaming as he headed over to the door - his footsteps nervous and quick. "I...I need to be going," Lee said.
Iroh shifted in the tub; something sounded familiar about the soldier's voice.
"Thank you for talking to me," he said, hoping that he could hear another snippet of Lee's voice. "I...I could use the company after the death of my nephew."
Lee stood in the doorway, his hand gripped the doorknob so hard that Iroh thought he might break it.
"I know we are almost at the North Pole, but you can come to my room whenever you want to talk," Iroh offered.
Lee let go of the doorknob; Iroh didn't miss the little droplets of molten metal that fell from it after he started to step out into the hallway.
"Goodbye uncle," the soldier said, seemingly out of habit.
Lee froze, too.
"...Zuko?" Iroh whispered.