June wasn’t in the habit of counting days, but suddenly it’d been not a few years since that snot-nosed princeling had shocked everyone and took power. Things had changed a fair bit, mostly for the better. But no matter what, business went on, and there were always people to track down no matter who was in charge and that was about all that counted to June’s mind.
The upheaval after the war (and having helped out at the end) turned out to be good for business as the new Fire Lord and his friends didn't forget her when they had commissions (of which there were plenty since winning a throne didn’t exactly make friends and end a war entirely). June couldn't believe that hotheaded kid had actually joined up with the Avatar and helped save the world, but that was life for you. Contrary to expectation, he was actually doing a not half bad job too. So she guessed it was worth the aggravation they'd caused her overall (plus the gold had gone a fair way). The only major thing that changed in her routine was when Toph Bei Fong turned up one day and said, “Those guys are alright and all, but I’m not made for sitting around and drinking tea and diplomacy. You seem pretty cool. Need a partner?” June didn't flat out reject her. She wasn’t fool enough to think that just because Toph couldn’t see in conventional ways she wouldn’t be useful. Nyla had been her companion for too long and June had seen too much herself to make that mistake. She just said "Only if you can keep up, honey." Toph had smirked in her general direction and said "Watch me."
She was as good as her word. Toph turned out to be better than Nyla at seeing things in her own way and twice as tenacious in trapping a fugitive with bending instead of agility and a poison tongue (though Toph's tongue was pretty venomous if you were on her bad side). Plus she appreciated shirshus as much as badgermoles and could really hold her liquor and June’s back in a fight. The partnership worked out better than June had ever expected. She hadn't traveled regularly with anyone since her father died and Toph was good company--smart, sharp-tongued, solid as the earth underfoot, and willing to do whatever it took to get the job done. They fell into a rhythm on the road after awhile, roaming from one end of the kingdoms to another. Toph had some good ideas, and if they weren't, then she was equally capable of sneaking or fighting her way out. So when Toph suggested swinging by Ba Sing Se and stopping by this little hidey hole she knew to lay low and stock up after a spot of trouble they'd run into, well, June was willing to go along. When it turned out that the hidey hole was that creepy old guy's tea shop was when the problem started.
“Why are we going to see creepy uncle again? We could just as easily stay at that tavern on the outskirts. I always make good money in the armwrestling contests. The inner ring in Ba Sing Se is still boring even if the Dai Li’s out of power.”
“Because he’s my friend. And he knows more than you ever will. Plus he makes good tea!”
“Oh good, tea. Well then, let me cancel everything. And I swear if he hits on me again I won’t be responsible if he ends up a few whiskers short.”
“Cry me a river. Look, here we are and it’ll only be a few days.” Toph leapt off Nyla, her sense for the ground unerring, and took off at a run toward the teahouse. The old guy was just coming out front.
“Toph!” Good thing the old guy’s stance was solid or he’d have gone ass over teakettle when Toph hit him with a flying tackle-hug.
“Iroh!” June had rarely seen Toph so enthusiastic and despite herself, her reflexive sneer turned up at the corner as she tied Nyla to the hitching post in front of the Jasmine Dargon.
“It is good to see you again.” Iroh beamed at Toph benevolently. “I hope you’ve had good travels. Come inside and rest awhile. I’ve got a new tea you must try.”
He bowed and cocked an eyebrow at June. “And my lady, it’s a pleasure to see your beautiful face once more. The willows have nothing on your grace and strength, and it would be my pleasure to serve you as well.”
June snorted. “Save it, Uncle Lazy. Weak tea won’t satisfy me, so unless you have something stronger then get out of my way and point me to the nearest tavern.”
Iroh’s mouth quirked. “I think I might have something for a lady of discerning taste such as yourself in the back as well. It would please me if you would join us.” He held out an hand.
June brushed by him and swung into the packed teahouse (whatever he was doing, clearly the tea business was doing pretty well). “Whatever. Just set ‘em up and keep ‘em comin’ old man, and don’t make it any cheap swill.”
It turned the old man’s liquor was as good as his tea, and the table he laid was even better. She could see how how he’d come by his weight honestly (though that had pared down a bit since she’d last seen him). She hadn’t eaten this well on the road in some time, and they spent half the night up drinking, Toph and Iroh gossiping about the rest of that ragtag gang like a bunch of fishwives (June shook her head. Toph and Iroh talked about the new Fire Lord like he was still that pinched-mouthed, silly kid who had stormed into the tavern all those years ago and guessed he always would be).
It got to be a regular thing after that. She and Toph would swing by Ba Sing Se anytime they were near, for Toph and June to stock up and Toph and Iroh to gossip about the rest of that lot (who also showed up unpredictably from time to time. June had walked in the Avatar juggling tea trays and on Fire Lord Zuko brewing up tea and commiserating with Iroh in the backroom over a problem with the Fire Lady. June just rolled her eyes and walked right out again. Honestly.)
But this latest time they actually had business in the city. They’d tracked a fugitive from a splinter faction of the old Dai Li that had holed up in the old Lake Laogai facility and it turned out there was more going on than they thought. The group was barricaded in even better than the old city walls. It was going to take more than Nyla’s poison tongue and Toph’s bending ability to get them out, especially since they suspected that some of the Ba Sing Se old political guard was behind their financing. There was no way some random rebel band had that much power or knew about the facility. Toph had insisted that they go to Iroh.
“What he doesn’t know about sieges, strategy, and politics hasn’t been invented. Plus he’s Order of the White Lotus. He’s the Dragon of the West. He’ll know what to do,” Toph said and June couldn’t see any reason to object, though she wanted to. Iroh just rubbed her the wrong way. She hated owing anyone for help in battle, though she figured not punching him for the his advances when they first met settled that first debt. And too often he seemed to be quietly amused at her behind the kindly grandpa mask, when he wasn’t slyly complimenting her like she was some Ba Sing Se lady to swoon over a pretty speech. She always felt the urge to be even louder and more, well, her around him just to spite him. She didn’t know why it bothered her; she’d never cared much what people thought. She knew who she was.
“OK fine. We’ll get creepy grandpa and he’ll use his powers of tea and tsungi horns and pai sho to make it right.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you’d seen him in action.”
“You haven’t seen him in action either so I don’t know why you’re so hot on this.”
“Hey, I don’t have to see him to know what he can do.” Which, fair point.
“OK, fine! Let’s see if that bag of bones can get the job done.”
June kind of had to eat her words on that one, even though she’d die before she’d admit it to Toph, much less to the old guy himself. He’d sneaked them in and then when it got down to a barebending fight, she’d seen Iroh unleash the bending power of a man half his age. He didn’t waste motion or words and seemed to know instinctively where everyone was on the field of battle. It was like Nyla at work, totally focused on the job so that June only had to watch her own back. She was a little busy keeping her seat and wielding her whip but she got ample opportunity to see the effect of the flames and blue lightning Iroh unleashed. He was everywhere at once and none of the rebel faction could stand against him. She could see how the walls of Ba Sing Se had fallen to him, and where he got the moniker he held. Underneath that placid, tea-loving exterior he was certainly packing more of a punch than he let on.
Back at the White Lotus he wrapped the wounds she’d taken, like he was nothing more than a teahouse proprietor.
“You wield that whip with skill. I haven’t seen a woman with that kind of fire since my late wife. Are you sure you’re not Fire Nation?”
June found herself oddly at a loss to reply. She shrugged. “It’s who I am.” She twitched as he wrapped another round of gauze around her upper arm, fingers so lately flaming gentle on her skin. “You weren’t half bad yourself.”
He made a gruff, half-affirmative sound and patted the finished bandage. “There, all set. Wouldn’t want skin as lovely as yours scarring, though that wouldn’t detract from your beauty. It’s what’s on the inside that matters.”
His hand lingered only a moment longer before he moved off to make another of his endless pots of tea, saving June the trouble of coming up with a reply.
“Yeah, ‘cause you don’t like him at all.” Toph rolled her eyes in June’s general direction.
“You know I could just leave you here.”
June made a point of making sure they had jobs elsewhere for awhile. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to see Iroh; it’s just that there was always a fugitive to run to ground in the Fire Nation or in the Northern or Southern Water Tribe. But when Toph missed her monthlies for a bit and decided to keep on missing them, it only made sense to wander back down toward the temperate climes, and since they were there, stop in to see Iroh when the press of Toph’s stomach against June’s back grew a little more present. Iroh surely had some tea to soothe her in the mornings anyway. Toph could hardly get more cantankerous.
The days settled into a kind of pattern at the teahouse. June drank for two, sparred with Toph, and hustled the customers at pai sho (which she was actually not bad at; her father had taught her during their long nights alone saying “June girl, knowing how to see the battlefield in miniature can only help you survive”). She beat Iroh only one game in every three if she was smart and lucky (crafty old bastard) and spent the rest of the time wandering the countryside and grooming Nyla. Having a break was oddly relaxing, though the itch under her skin kept her out and about, taking tracking commissions form the city dwellers and missions from Zuko and company. But it was kind of nice having the teahouse and them to come back to, Toph tweaking Iroh about his beard or the daily goings-on or her latest scheme (“Come on! Tea battles! What’s better than that?”). She knew it was a brief stop before they got back on the road after a bit but it was still odd having a kind of home base.
Iroh was her main problem. She hadn’t quite figured him out, or rather, hadn’t figured out why he was bugging her so much more this time when nothing had changed. He was still all “Would you like another firewater or maybe some tea” and “Let me brush Nyla” (who actually accepted his touch unlike pretty much anybody but her and Toph) and “I bet I can take you two out of three” on armwrestling as well as pai sho. His hands brushed hers as they exchanged cups and he stood a little close then faded away just as she was about to snap at him. There was none of that pretending to pass out, and certainly none of the overbearing muscleman crap she might expect of a firebender of his talents. It made her itchy. She rode out every few days, and he waved her off with an enigmatic smile, saying nothing. She was irritated and annoyed at herself for it. She didn’t want anything from him. So why was she so twitchy? One night after he’d played the pipa until Toph was nodding in the corner, she snapped, “Why don’t you go sit by the fire old man and quit bothering me with your noise,” put out for no reason she wanted to name.
He regarded her seriously for a long moment. “Fire is a fleeting thing, June. I learned that a long time ago. Fire sparks, warms, blazes and dies, no matter how much mastery or control over it you think you have. I know you cannot make the fire go where you want, only tend it and encourage its path. You can only make a chimney, a hearth, appreciate its warmth when it is there. And maybe make a cup of tea to share.”
Stupid poets. June cocked a challenging eyebrow. “And if the fire doesn’t stay in the hearth, goes where it wills, burns down your house?”
“I am an old man, June. But if I’ve learned anything over the years it’s when to warm my bones by the hearth and when to enjoy the bright blaze wherever it goes and as long as it lasts. The difference between your house burning down and an unexpected bonfire to dance around is all in how you look at it.”
June laughed softly, almost despite herself. “Big talk, old man. Can you handle the heat?”
Iroh’s mouth quirked and she felt that blaze light up under her skin.
“Well, I do have a fire upstairs if you’d like to see and share a cup.”
It turned out Iroh knew a thing or two about tending to a fire and coaxing it to burn. They kindled quite the bonfire between them that night and Iroh’s bending on the battlefield was a pretty good indicator of his skill in the bedroom (not always the case, June had found). All in all, it was one of the better nights she’d had. But that didn’t mean she was planning to stick around afterward and poke at the ashes in the hearth. Housekeeping wasn’t her game. She left before dawn caught fire on the horizon and pretended she didn’t hear the appreciative rumble Iroh made at her retreating back.
The only reason she was back around now, she told Toph, was that she knew she’d never hear the end of it if she missed the baby being born. Toph just cast a skeptical eyebrow at her but saved her invective for the matter at hand.
“Well you got that right at least, you brainless boarcupine. I’m not popping this one out on my own, and all the others are useless. Well, except Iroh.” To her credit, Toph only punctuated that with a sharp punch in the arm. Apparently their “screw who you want and shut up about it” rule was still in effect, even for Iroh. “And Katara I guess. Not that you’ll be much help, unless the baby decides to flee my ladyparts and needs to get stuffed back in. But I guess it’s good you’re back to keep the rest of them from worrying me to death. Do you know how much easier it is to scam people like this? And they won’t even let me! It’s not like the baby stops me bending. Also can you get Nyla to knock Ty Lee out? If I hear one more thing about chi during birthing. . .”
“For you? No charge.”
Iroh barely blinked when she walked into the teahouse with Toph, and the smile he gave was only warm and pleased (rather than expectant or smug, which would have had her out the door). “Ah, the lovely June! I trust you had safe travels and will again. Would you like a cup of tea? I’ve kept the hearth warm for you.”
Besides Iroh, Toph was the only one in the place that didn’t look startled by the loud laugh she let out. “Only you, old man.”
Later that night, it turned out Iroh was also an old hand at stirring up fire from embers.
After all the baby chaos and recovery, they got back on the road. June had grown up that way and look how well she’d turned out, no matter what that housebound lot said. In between their circuits through easy jobs, the houses of more aunties and uncles than June ever imagined, and June’s own side ventures, they managed to get back to Ba Sing Se pretty regularly, and Iroh kept the home fires burning. June found she didn’t mind coming around to his hearth anymore when they passed through.