Twenty three minutes after blowing out his red prayer candles, and after taking one last bitter sip of his over-steeped evening tea, Iroh finally hears it; the traitorous squeak of an under-oiled hinge, followed by the near-silent slide of footsteps in the hallway. Whoever it is is in quite the hurry. Iroh can sympathize. An old general like him was made for mud and dirt, Earth, for better or for worse, and almost three years later he’s still unaccustomed to the exquisite claustrophobia of a ship at sea.
Iroh peeks, because of course he does, opening his door the barest sliver and taking in the sight of a figure all in black slinking silently down the corridor and up onto the deck.
He chuckles. The poor boy probably thinks he’s being sneaky. Bless him.
It’s honestly a relief, Iroh thinks as he’s pulling on his coat, for Zuko to be doing something as mundanely teenage as sneaking out. Childhood burned through him so quickly, for Zuko, most of the small rebellious milestones that other youngsters meet (drinking, carriage-crashing, piercings in regrettable places) never came to pass. Other parents would probably be grateful to have such an eerily well-behaved child as Iroh’s nephew, but Iroh has always wished Zuko would be a little... freer with himself.
When Iroh was his age, he had the kind of energy buzzing beneath his skin that could only be sated with mischief, and he split his time between sneaking sips of wine at banquets and awkwardly flirting with the doe-eyed daughters of every nobleman at court.
Zuko, by contrast, is at war, chasing a promise made in bad faith to a man who never loved him, that was more than likely intended to get him killed. Instead of youthful revelry, he pours over sea charts and port gossip, forgoing the kind of food and sleep a young man his age requires, endlessly scouring the Earth Kingdom for the Avatar, for his father’s prize.
So. Sneaking out. Wonderful.
Iroh still worries, because of course he does. Zuko is his most beloved nephew in all the world, and if anything happened to him Iroh would kill a not insignificant number of people and then himself. But he meant what he said about letting Zuko have his secrets, so as much as he would like to, he does not follow where he nephew goes.
(Lu Ten grew restless once, as crown princes with famous fathers are wont to do. His restlessness led him to the battlefield, which in turn led to the greatest tragedy of Iroh’s life.)
The night guard bows to him as he makes his way down the gangplank, it is no secret that he favors evening strolls, and he tucks his hands into the sleeves of his long cloak to shield them from the cold. Iroh heads into town, taking his time so as to thoroughly enjoy the fresh air. The windows of the buildings glow softly with lamplight and the air smells heavily of tavern spice and coal smoke, and eventually Iroh finds himself in front of a humble tea shop with a lotus motif carved into its ancient double doors.
Iroh knows this particular establishment well. He stayed here for a time after Ba Sing Se refused to fall, after his Lu Ten… well, after. He’d vomited his grief into the floorboards of it’s tiny upstairs bedroom, had contemplated hanging himself whilst peeling potatoes in the grubby little kitchen. It was here he was introduced to the Lotus Gambit, and here he took his first steps on the winding road toward redemption. The Madam of the Crooked Lotus is a dear old friend. And she makes a truly stupendous cup of tea.
Iroh enters the shop and is hit with a thousand flavors of smell all at once, so many that even his expert nose cannot pick them all apart. The tea hall is unusually crowded for this time of night, the small waitstaff answering shouts for snacks tea all while darting between tables holding trays stacked precariously high with clay pots and cups. He finds a seat in the corner and orders ginger tea from a gangly teenage waiter, asking politely if he would alert the owner to his presence. The waiter gives him a strange look, but he agrees, and Iroh settles in to wait. It takes awhile for the Madam to make an appearance, but the tea is fragrant and the bustle of the other customers is soothing, so Iroh doesn’t mind.
The owner of the Crooked Lotus is a stout woman whose hair is black as pitch, save for a long silver streak that winds its way through her tall braid. She carries herself like a forgewoman, her gaze always on the steel before her, waiting for the perfect time to strike. When she spies Iroh at his table in the corner after the watier points him out, she actually rolls her eyes , to his absolute delight, before barking orders at her employees and shedding her apron with prejudice. She stomps over and plunks down in the empty seat across from him, folding one leg over the other.
“I hope you don’t expect me to rehash the whole ‘lotus gambit’ spiel.” The woman sneers. “Because as you can see, the pai sho board is gone, it’s late, and I’m fucking tired , Iroh.”
Iroh blinks. “What happened to your board?” He asks.
“Sold it.” She says bluntly. “To some Fire noble a few winters back. Paid a damn fortune for it, too. Bought myself a brand new copper boiler, the kind you rich types have on your fancy ships.”
Iroh smirks. He likes smirking. He never gets to smirk on the Wani . “Just so we’re clear, this is the same pai sho set that has been passed down through the order for generations - the one that marks this building as a sacred house of knowledge safe haven to our kin?”
“Oh spare me the speech.” The woman scoffs. “It was an eyesore and it was taking up space.”
“Forgive me, the ancient relic upon which the code that has ensured the security of the White Lotus since time immemorium was taking up space?”
“If someone needs to find me, they find me. With or without Spirits-damned riddles. Case-in-point, you. And you know how much I hate pai sho.”
“Pai sho is a wonderful game!”
“No, pai sho is boring -”
“- and hard to play -”
“ - Tactical.”
“- and I don’t know why the Founders even chose it in the first place. One wonders how they ever had time for peace and unity and all that garbage when it takes all fucking day to play a single fucking game!”
Iroh doesn’t try to hold in his laughter, throwing his head back and slapping the table with mirth.
The owner snorts, and her face eases into a soft yet crooked smile. “How are you, Iroh?”
Iroh smiles back. “I am very well, Madam Xiao, and yourself?”
“As well as can be expected, I suppose,” Madam Xiao crosses her arms and frowns. “What with the deluge of uninvited guests that keep darkening my door.”
“Uninvited?” Iroh cries. “The last time I was here you told me that I was always welcome!”
“Last time you brought booze. And yet here you are, booze-less before me. I’ve half a mind to kick you out right this second.”
“Careful, Agent Xiao, that sounds like treason.” Iroh says, eyes twinkling.
“Will you sanction me then, oh wise and powerful Grand Lotus?”
“Lucky for you, kind Madam,” Iroh smiles, “I’m not here in an official capacity. I am merely paying a visit to an old and treasured friend, nothing more.”
“Ha!” Scoffs Madam Xiao. “I don’t believe you. Cut the crap you old dragon, why are you really here?”
Iroh pouts, mock-hurt. “Can’t two people have a conversation without one of them accusing the other of subterfuge?”
Iroh laughs, belly deep. He really does adore this woman.
“Very well.” He says. “You’ve caught me. Sadly, there is a reason for my visit. A matter into which I had hoped you might offer insight.” Madam Xiao leans back in her chair, taking a pair of spark rocks and a short pipe out of her sleeve and lighting it with a click.
She takes a deep drag, then exhales a cloud of blue-black smoke. Her eyes are keener than any dragon’s. “Depends.” She says at length. “What do you want to know?”
“I’m sure you’ve heard of the Avatar’s recent escape from Puohai Stronghold.” Iroh begins.
Madam Xiao snorts. “Who fucking hasn’t? The news was everywhere. Admiral Zhao - he’s a fucking Admiral now, can you believe it? - was spitting blood.” She takes another long drag of her pipe. Blows out. “But you don’t need me to tell you that, General. What’s this really about?”
“I am curious about the culprit behind the Avatar’s rescue.” Iroh sips his tea, finds it lukewarm, and gently reheats it between his hands. “You could say I have a… personal interest in knowing what kind of man would risk his life to rescue a single child from captivity. Even if that child is the Bridge Between Worlds.”
“Hm.” Madam Xiao squints suspiciously, searching Iroh’s guileless face for true intentions. “Unfortunately for your ‘curiosity’, there’s actually very little information about him. My contacts at Puohai were surprisingly... vague in their report about the whole incident.”
“I don’t need much. Just a description will do.”
“Well, physically, they said he was on the shorter side, skinny, but moved as fast as an eel-hound. Said he carried a set of dao blades with gold inlays on the handles, and that he wore a painted mask.”
“What sort of mask?”
“A fanged blue devil. I guess that’s why they’re calling him the ‘Blue Spirit.’”
He always did love that play, Iroh thinks, hiding a smile behind the rim of his teacup. It probably reminds him of his mother . Where under Agni’s all-seeing eye did he get the mask, is Iroh’s question. Did he smuggle it onto the Wani when no one was looking? It’s just childish enough that the thought has Iroh biting back a chuckle.
“Any clues as to his identity?” Iroh asks.
“Not at the moment.” Says Madam Xiao. “Whoever this guy is, he’s good. The whole fucking Fire Army is after him, and so far they’ve turned up squat. Zhao even put a whole company of Yuyan on the case. Still nothing. He’s a damn ghost. The best they could do was track him to some backwater Earth Kingdom town before the trail went cold.”
“Hm, impressive.” Iroh says, even as his shoulders unclench and a wave of relief sweeps through him. He expected as much, this is his nephew they’re talking about, but it’s still nice to hear that Zuko was so capable in covering his tracks. Of course, Iroh is retroactively horrified that his boy did something as suicidally reckless as break into the most secure stronghold in the occupied territories, to save the life of his self-proclaimed nemesis . And they will be having words about it eventually, make no mistake. But for now, Iroh reasons, a little rebellion is good. Healthy even.
Zuko scaling a fortified building in the dead of night with swords strapped to his back is hardly the most worrying thing he could be doing.
Madam Xiao cocks an eyebrow at whatever emotion is on his face. “Indeed. It’s not every day the Fire Army puts all their resources into hunting down a single enemy. Excluding Avatars.” She takes a pointed puff of her pipe. “Anyone I know?”
Iroh winces. “Not… personally.”
It’s then that he notices how empty the teahouse has become. In fact, other than the gangly waiter, he and Madam Xiao are the only people left. Goodness, has it really gotten that late? Zuko is probably home by now. Iroh should return as well. “Well then, noble Madam,” he says, standing and slowly stretching out the kinks in his back. “As always, I thank you for your time and your hospitality, but as you’ve mentioned it is getting late and I must take my leave.”
“That’s it?” Says Madam Xiao sceptically. “You only wanted to hear about some daredevil punk going around stealing monks?”
Iroh puts his hand on his heart. “Of course not! I also wanted to partake of some of your delectable tea. And gaze upon your beautiful face.” Iroh drops a few coins on the table and is turning to leave when he hears -
“Sit down, Iroh.” Madam Xiao’s sharp voice rings out, making Iroh start at the sudden change in her tone. The Madam’s gaze is dark where it rests on the tip of her pipe. “You asked for my insight. I have yet to finish giving it.”
Cautiously, and with no small amount of trepidation, Iroh complies.
Madam Xiao is silent for a moment, then sighs and leans forward, meeting Iroh’s gaze intently. For the first time Iroh notices the dark shadows beneath her eyes, the wispy unkemptness of her hair, usually so impeccably braided. “... I wasn’t going to contact you until I had more information, but as long as you’re here you might as well know. There's movement in the Other World, Iroh.”
Iroh’s stomach sours. So much for his good mood. “Are you certain?” He rasps.
Madam Xiao nods. “There have been signs. Animals emerging early from their dens. Clouds in bizarre shapes. And this.”
She takes a small package out of her sleeve and places it on the table between them. With hesitant fingers, Iroh reaches out and unwraps it, revealing a thick bundle of corded plants that seem to... pulse against his senses, glowing softly with an otherworldly light.
“... Where did you get these?”
“You remember that village I mentioned? The one where the Yuyan lost the Blue Spirit?”
“One of my people found them growing along the riverbank there. And these aren’t the only ones. I’ve been getting reports from other agents all over the coast who’ve had similar findings.”
“Got it in one.” She carefully rewraps the bundle and returns it to her sleeve.
“How long has this been going on?” Iroh asks gravely.
“About a week, give or take.”
“Why wasn’t I alerted?”
“I told you. I was going to, I was just waiting until I had more intel.” Iroh gudgeingly accepts that this is true, but that doesn’t mean he likes it. Abruptly, Madam Xiao pushes back her chair and gets to her feet, gesturing for Iroh to follow her.
“Gongyi!” She shouts over her shoulder.
“What!?” The teenage waiter yells back.
“I’m going out.”
“What, now?” The teenager blinks. “It’s the middle of the night?”
“Yup. Mind the shop.” She turns to Iroh. “There’s something else I want you to see.”
Iroh swallows, but smiles through it. “By all means lead the way.”
Madam Xiao leads Iroh out of the shop through the back kitchen door, which in turn opens onto a little dirt path that winds its way into the forest. The two follow the path for a few minutes until they come upon a tiny shrine, a simple stack of flat rocks adorned with talisman paper and Spirit charms carved in the shape of whatever local deity to whom the people of the town send their prayers.
If Iroh didn’t know any better, he would say that it was abandoned. The faded plaque that leans against the stones, invoking the Names of Oma and Shu, is cracked and peeling, the calligraphy almost totally worn away. Green moss drapes over the stones, shiny with dew, and the whole shrine is overgrown and unkempt. tall grass growing around it in an almost perfect circle. Nestled among the grass are strange blue flowers whose petals catch the light and seem to glimmer, reflective like polished metal.
“My Grandson is the keeper here.” Madam Xiao breaks the silence. “He weeds and cleans everything once a week. All this shit sprouted practically overnight.”
Iroh squats down to examine the shrine. “Have you ever seen flowers such as these?” He asks, cupping his hands around one of the blooms, very carefully not touching the sharp-looking petals.
“Never.” Says Madam Xiao.
“Neither have I. They are not of this world.” Cautiously, he runs his finger across the petals of one of the flowers. It doesn’t bite, but it shimmers oddly, like it’s upset about being susceptible to touch.
“So it’s a Spirit then?”
“Do you know which one?”
“Not any that I am familiar with.” There are hundreds of Spirits, thousands even, that exist in the combined lore of the Mortal Realm. Memorizing all their Names and attributes would be a gargantuan task, and Iroh’s memory is good, but not that good.
He stretches out with his energy, seeking the disturbance that Madam Xiao described. He can almost make it out, but it slips through his senses like an eel through a hole in a net. He chases it, far enough into the web of energy that he almost has to pull back for fear of losing himself among the threads, when he finally manages to extend himself enough to touch -
Flames lick up his body, searing him, eating up his skin like paper. The Other World is loud in a way Iroh has never felt before, it’s voice an unstoppable tidal wave of emotion and sound. It bubbles up like laughter, it cuts like a scream. Iroh’s soul was not made for this, it stretches and strains against the pressure of it, so close to snapping, and it hurts hurts hurts -
Iroh severs the connection as fast as he can and is left reeling, holding onto Madam Xiao’s shoulder for dear life. She’s in his ear asking if he’s alright, asking what he felt, what he saw. He can’t answer, because he doesn’t know . A presence like that… Iroh has never felt anything like it before. No minor Spirit could put forth such energy.
And anything to do with the Great Spirits almost always spells disaster.
“-- oh. Iroh. If you don’t answer me right this second I swear to Shu -”
“Peace, Madam.” Iroh tries not to gasp. “I am alright. Just give me a moment.”
Madam Xiao bites her lip, but helps Iroh settle down onto the grass where he folds into his meditation pose, focusing all of his energy towards soothing the turbulent flow of his chi.
“It is a Spirit.” He says after a long moment. “An extremely powerful one.” He says after a long moment.
Madam Xiao sucks in through her teeth. “I was afraid you’d say that. Is it a threat?”
“Unclear. It hardly seems like coincidence that a Spirit as powerful as this should make itself known the same year the Avatar returns from the dead.”
“Makes sense. Fuck, this is all we need right now, huh?” Madam Xiao swipes a hand through her hair, mussing up her braid even further. “I’ll alert my network. See if we can’t get to the bottom of this.”
“I advise caution.”
“Yeah, yeah,” She rolls her eyes. “I’m aware of what the Spirits are like. And more importantly so are you. ”
Iroh carefully unfolds his fist to keep his nails from biting into his palm.
There are scars etched into every facet of his soul that can testify to what, exactly, the Spirits are like .
They return to the inn, plans for investigating the Unknown Spirit made. The sky is dark pitch above them, and Iroh feels the lateness of the hour in his bones.
Their goodbye is muted and, as always, bittersweet. Madam Xiao makes him take a loaf of her lychee nut bread home with him, and then threatens to do him bodily harm if he doesn’t write. She grabs his hands in his, and they are as warm as a firebender’s, warmer even, because Iroh has felt them carding softly through his hair while wracked with fever, body sick with the taint of his grief.
Iroh has much to think about in the wake of the night’s activities, so he takes the scenic route back to the ship, walking along the water with his hands folded pensively into his sleeves. He wonders if Zuko is home yet. He hopes he is, the knowledge that his nephew had been to a place touched by the Unknown Spirit settles heavily in his gut. Iroh thinks back to every strange thing Zuko has said or done since the morning Iroh found him. Catalogues every strangeness, every emotion out of place.
It could be nothing. Or, Iroh might very well need to keep a closer eye on his nephew going forward. The Spirits are not to be trifled with, and Zuko is painfully young, susceptible in a way that Iroh and the other Masters are not.
He will protect him.
Or else he will see the whole world burn.