Interlude Three Field of Fever Dreams
As they waited, she watched him sleep.
The world felt smaller here in the flower shop, small than it had that morning, filled as it was with discoveries of wanted posters and the torment of the Rough Rhinos. Not since his niece almost shattered Iroh on the living blades of her lightning had Song felt such crippling terror.
She remembered the how Mongkes men had leered at her as she clung to Zuko, feeling his rage seethe beneath his skin in physical heat. She remembered one mans attempt to grab her, and the Princes wrath as he repelled the rider, wrapping his own swing-chains about his throat and throwing him back with a blast of heat.
so close shed felt it on her face. She shivered as they urged the ostrich-horses away, shivered as they dismounted outside the desert bar. He had taken her shoulders and gazed at her with his uneven eyes.
She shook her head. I just
She is frightened, nephew, and why not? That was a brush with danger I would have liked to avoid.
Still he gazed at her, searching.
Zuko, she whispered, voice full of pain, you have to understand, the last time I saw that much fire, that close
When the raiders came, he said, face guarded.
Before that, she breathed, eyes downcast to one particular place on her right leg
He had stared at her for a few seconds, then dropped his hands from her shoulders and silently followed Iroh into the bar. Shivering, she had followed.
Here, now, in the flower shop, she watched him sleep, and remembered his hands on her shoulders, the concern as he looked at her
Her faith grew back again, stronger than before, and silently, she curled up next to him, letting his arm slip around her and resting her head upon his shoulder.
Within minutes, she was asleep too.
Where am I? he asks no one.
Beneath his feet, the path stretches away, curving, becoming the top of a great wall. He cautiously makes his way to the edge and peers down. Leagues below he can see fields, each one merely a single patch in what should be a great rolling quilt of green. Beyond is a second wall, and beyond that gentle hills covered in cityscape.
Yet everything, everything is layered with snow. His booted feet crush drifts of flakes with every step he takes. As he gazes outwards, stunned, a wind kicks up, throwing handfuls of snow into the air, sending them dancing in tiny cyclones about his ankles. He staggers back to the safety of the centre of the pathway, bracing his feet against the cold stone.
Dont be afraid, a voice says, strangely clear through the wind. You cant fall.
He looks up.
She is walking slowly towards him, unfazed by the wind and snow. White furs are layered around her shoulders, their colour showing up the duskiness of her skin, the darkness of her hair which she wears bound with a single lotus blossom. He can see the pale brown of her boots flashing as she moves. Her eyes are discs of jade in her watchful face. Clasped loosely in one hand is something small and pale green, a statue perhaps.
There is a sharp bark, and when he looks down, he sees that Jin is not alone. Trotting a few paces in front and to one side of the girl is a creature usually only seen in legend.
A snow vixen.
Just as the silver-coated knowledge seekers are the assistants of Wan Shi Tong, so the vixens patrol the edges of the spirit world, turning back souls unready to die, those still wearing the sparks of life. This one gazes at him, its eyes electric cyan. The angles of its small face, the movements of the wind through its luxuriant pelt are so very supernatural.
It doesnt snow in Ba Sing Se, Jin says. She smiles. Not usually, anyway.
He frowns. No, not usually, he echoes, unsure of where this is going.
She tilts her head. He sees her thumb move over the small statue in her hand.
Youre going to see some pretty unusual things, Zuko. The question is, will you be ready?
She smiles again. Her arm swings Catch, she says and she tosses him the statue. It feels cold as it strikes his cupped palms. Just as he parts his fingers to see what it is
He woke, still in the old apartment. In the rich morning sunlight arcing across the room, he could make out their old furniture, stacked and ready to be taken away. A stack of boxes cast a cool shadow over him and his temporary bedding. He shivered.
Moving day, he thought hazily.
Turning his head he spotted a semi-familiar lump a few feet away. Semi-familiar, because he knew what Song looked like when she slept, but hed never seen her so thoroughly curled up like that upon a large floor cushion. Someone (probably Iroh) had draped a blanket over her, though her unbound hair still lay in a rich brown spill over the edge of the cushion and onto the polished floor. There were kinks and waves in it from being braided, and each of these caught the sunlight that pooled in the room.
Wheezing with effort, he levered himself half upright and reached out. His fingers were just able to touch her hair, to comb through a lock of it. He lay back, arm still stretched out and simply gazed at her before drifting back to sleep, soothed by the rhythm of her breathing.
Iroh and Aneko found them like that an hour later as they returned with food for the morning meal; a boy wreathed in shadow, reaching out to a girl bathed in light, both oblivious to the movements of the other.
So, moving day, Jin said as the three girls lent against the apartment buildings front wall.
Yup, said Uri, watching the Quons men moving like ants to and from the main entrance as they brought down the furniture Iroh had added since arriving in Ba Sing Se.
And that Quon guy is paying for all this? Just so he can have Mr. Mushi make tea for him?
Aneko gave the other girl a look. Youve tasted that tea. What do you think?
Jin thought about it. Good point. And you guys got hired for the new shop?
Uri was smug. Not only that, she sing-songed with a grin that nearly broke her face in half, we get to go on the shopping trips
Jin stared at her. Shopping trips?
To buy stuff for the new shop, Aneko explained, idly reaching round Jin to rub Dee-Dees ears. He had settled across Uris shoulders that morning and refused to move. Their new apartment is fully furnished, but Bossman wanted to keep the stuff he chose. So all thats needed is to pick from samples for the tea shop.
Which Quon will then buy in bulk? Jin guessed.
Thats the plan.
I know, right?
They watched the moving men quietly for a moment.
Hows Lee? murmured Jin.
Uri abruptly frowned. Song says hes a little better; Shans feverfew helped, but he wont be out of the woods for another day or so.
Aneko was nodding. We managed to move him into Songs old room so the moving guys wouldnt bother him. Itll be a bit of a mission though, getting him to the new place. She gave her companions a rueful sidelong smile. Quon has very thoughtfully forked out for a carriage. She sighed. Still, itll be nice to have him back on his feet.
Where am I? he asks no one.
The woods about him are sparse, interrupted by sporadic clusters of boulders or what could possibly be the worn remains of collapsed statues (some of the stones appear to have faces). The trees are huge and ancient, many of them oak and maple, and all with their autumnal coats on, filling their branches with tones of brown, fawn and yellow-gold. The ground is carpeted with the leaves they have shed, and every so often, he thinks he can hear things moving around in the leaf litter.
Then, somewhere close by, he hears familiar laughter.
Looking up, he sees a shape making its way towards him.
Its a bear, a huge brown bear and upon its back is Aneko. Her robe is covered in shifting brocade, the leaf and lily pattern dancing in the dappled light bronze, ochre, black tea and beech, the colours of fall. She waves to him, the laughter still filling her face.
As they near, she slips from the bears back and steps lightly though the fallen leaves. They stand two feet apart, and he can see her eyes full of affection, glinting like the panda lilies embroidered on her collar and sleeves. The green in them is completely drowned out, and they seem almost bronze.
The storm isnt far off, she tells him gently, and takes his hands. But as it breaks, you must remember
be true to yourself
never forget who you are.
He grips her hands, suddenly afraid. But I dont even know who I am anymore! How do I tell?
Her smile is somehow sad, and she puts one hand against the scared side of his face
where there is no scar.
Oh, Zooks, she says, you are who youve always been.
Overhead, thunder rolls across the white sky.
On the whole it was a good day for shopping. Iroh, as promised, had arrived in Quons carriage to pick up the girls from Anekos parents house. When Ryo and Tia, Zukos little worshipers, stood gazing mournfully at them from the gate, the old general did not hesitate to call them forward. The two children dashed happily inside, giggling like fiends.
Ryo, for his part, was simply glad of an outing. Tia, on the other hand, having been recently thwarted in her wishes for visiting her knight in shining armour while he was so afflicted with fever, settled with listening to his Uncle tell her stories of spirits and timeless lovers, all the way to the warehouses.
The warehouses themselves were located in the lower ring and filled to the brim with produce and stock from the artisans and crafters of the City. Quon had one of his own where he kept sample stock for new enterprises (such as new tea shops) and it was here that Iroh and the children began perusing, seeking out furnishing for the still nameless shop.
Iroh was inspecting a particularly elegant set of cream upholstered mahogany chairs when he heard Aneko call him over.
Found something you might like, Bossman, she said. Before her were a set of freestanding silk screens, each painted with watercolour scenes of mountain tops, open skies and distant rivers. In each scene there was a magnificent pale green dragon, his yellow eyes oddly hooded as he gazed over his eerie domain.
He looks like a ghost, Iroh said softly, still smiling.
Aneko smiled and gave him a gentle nudge. Nah, she said slyly. Look how full his beard is. Hes just old is all.
Iroh patted his own beard and the two of them were exchanging chortling sideways looks when there was a cry of surprise followed by explosive giggling from deeper in the warehouse. Following it, they emerged around a pile of packing crates to see Uri, Ryo and Tia leaping about on a huge feather bed.
Oh dear, said Iroh.
Oh hell, went Aneko.
Is something wrong? asked Quon, appearing seemingly from nowhere.
Aneko nearly leapt screaming from her skin.
Im so sorry, did I startle you? Quon said to her with his usual charm, trying to peer past her and Irohs shoulders.
Aneko made a strangled hurk noise. Quon appeared politely perplexed. Iroh was smiling nervously.
Well, he began
Only to be cut off by a blizzard of white duck down.
As it settled, Uri and the kids could be seen, blinking innocently from the wreck of the mattress.
Master Quon, Iroh said with a sigh, meet my baker, Uri.
Hi, piped the baker. Nice bed.
Covered in snowy feathers, Quon began to laugh.
Where am I? he asks no one.
Around him the night is balmy, the air heady with the scents of summer; the dry grass, the baked ground, sap moving in warm streams through the veins of night-blooming plants. The field in which he stands is overflowing with fire lilies, their red and magenta faces open to the starlit sky despite the late hour. He can smell them too, their subtle fragrance like that of spiced wine. The field is lit not only by stars, but by a wide circle of torches, each flame standing at waist height, their staves tied with red and black banners.
Then, behind him, he hears a low growl.
Turning, he espies first Dee-Dee, prowling happily amongst the tall stalks of the lilies, and then Uri, watching him with those amber eyes.
She is clad in an áo dài of deep gold and red. In the flicking torchlight its hard to make out what is part of the tunics flame and spark pattern or a true movement of the light itself. Its not a traditional áo dài either; she wears it with a low belt to hang her old fan on and the sleeves are cut and hemmed open from elbow to wrist. There are gold cuffs on her wrists and a smirk on her face.
I know youve been asking the big questions, ge-ge, she tells him. But now its time to find the big answers.
He gives her a pained look. There are so many, mei-mei
Her smile widens and she walks to him, the lilies sighing and parting for her as she comes.
I know. I can give you one answer for free, though.
She reaches up and hugs him. He doesnt hesitate to return the gesture. Still smiling, she whispers into his ruined ear that is no longer ruined.
Just remember, to us, you are whole
The Tea Lord.
Flat eyes gazed back at him.
The Lord of Tea?
More flat gazing.
The Oolong River?
Aneko narrowed her eyes at him.
Ah! The Fragrant Butterfly!
Song bit her lip.
The Crouching Tigerdillo?
Jin gazed beseechingly at the ceiling.
I have it! The House of Steaming Cups.
Uris left eyelid ticked.
The Tea Weevil?
All four girls threw up their hands.
Iroh flapped. All right, all right! Theyre awful, I know. I dont suppose any of you can come up with anything better? he asked, greatly disgruntled.
Song heaved a sigh, taking in for a moment the island of calm that surrounded them while the rest of the (still nameless) tea shop was in chaos. The new furnishings were being put into place, both in the kitchen and the front of house.
I still like the first one you picked, she said absently to the former General.
The Tea Lord?
The Jasmine Dragon.
There was a rather eloquent pause. Aneko, Jin and Uri all gave Iroh looks of great long-suffering.
Now why, Jin said, didnt you just tell us that one in the first place
Once again, Iroh flapped.
It had taken then two days of pushing the ostrich-horses as hard as they could, two days of riding hard, two days of biting his lip 'til it bled to keep from crying out when his still healing insides pained him
and they had just reached the edges of the Great Divide, the fabulous network of canyons sprawling out before them, the walls of its cliffs turned hot ochre and red in the light of the setting sun.
Jet closed his eyes as he slid from the saddle and stood with one hand pressed to his ribs. Behind him, Longshot and Bee were setting about making camp for the oncoming night. He could hear his little-sister-in-arms keeping up one side of a conversation and the clash of metal as she beat tent pegs into the dry earth, while the silent archer went about putting together a fire and tripod to cook their dinner on.
They were welcome, familiar sounds, and yet for the moment they brought only a little comfort.
Jet was worried, and had been since theyd left Ba Sing Se. Song was still there; still within reach of a pair of firebenders, and for some reason in love with one of them. It could only make her more vulnerable if something were to happen
He opened his eyes, heaved a sigh and silently took in the brilliant dusky world around him. Worrying wouldnt help her, he realized. For now he would simply have to wait, and heal, and quietly bide his time.
Still, he couldnt help wondering where she was, right now
Where am I? he asks no one.
He is in a small boat, tied to the lanai of a familiar house. It stands upon strong posts driven deep into the bed of the river that flows beneath the little boat. The world is bathed in spring sunshine and for a moment he is dazzled. When he looks up to study the house, he is surprised; its roof hangs low, heavy, covered in rampantly blooming wildflowers of every elegant pastel imaginable; a literal rooftop garden. These fragile beauties are not without lovers; he can hear the bees humming with happy vigour as they peruse from flower to flower. And the smell...a hundred and one perfumes wending through the air
He breathes deeply, a small smile beginning at one corner of his mouth, when overhead he hears a soft, faraway cry. Looking up, he sees a faint, dark shape wheeling against the warm sky. A hawk, perhaps, keening as she rides the gentle winds.
Another sound draws him; the low shush and thud of a door being slide back.
Its Song, emerging from the house to sit upon the lanai. As he climbs from the boat, he recognizes her old hanbok (or one just like it) made from new raw silk of white and peach, though this one is embroidered over the bodice and sleeves; expertly threaded images of White Dragon blossoms with their twirling white and red petals. Each blossoms yellow centre is picked out in fabulous pale gold thread.
As she begins arranging the tea set before her, her sleeves slip back and he sees the sunlight catch on her grandmothers gold bangles and on the family seal that hangs upon a chain about around her neck. Hes seen the seal only once, but remembers it a stylized hawk, its wings spread to shelter a collapsed child.
Cautious of his welcome, he nevertheless settles opposite her and waits for her to speak. She glances up at him, smiling, and pours them both tea from a steaming pot. He politely waits for her to drink first, and then sips his own.
Its delicious, he says, surprised.
Song smiles, almost shyly. Its White Dragon. Uncle was right, it does make a tea so delectable She laughs softly. well, its almost heart-breaking.
He has time to utter, White Dragon? before his limbs begin to itch furiously and he feels the swelling start as the traitorous tea takes hold of him. The bone china cup drops from his fingers as his throat closes and he scrabbles against the neck of his shirt, fighting for breath.
Song gives a gasp and knocks the tea set asunder in her rush to catch him as he keels over sideways. Just as before, he collapses in her arms, gasping, the world darkening before his eyes.
Oh, Zuko, he hears her whisper. Its your fear of betrayal that cripples you. She sighs. Although the reverse is also true
She leans forward, and presses her lips to his. As she does, the swelling fades, the itching goes, and all he can feel is her kiss.
It was dark when he woke. The last of the suns rays had just slipped beneath the western horizon, though their warmth still lingered in the air. He felt it upon his face as the sweat on his brow cooled. A second later, a damp towel mopped it away and replaced it with a small hand. A familiar sweetness filled his nose, conjuring a reel of images, each dual-toned with tentative faith and aching sadness. And yet
And yet when his eyes fluttered open and beheld the source of scent and emotion, his first reaction was still a smile.
Song, of course, smiled back. Hey, she whispered.
Hey, yourself, he echoed back and her smile widened to birth a small chuckle.
How do you feel?
He turned his head to press the scarred side into her palm, his lips moving against her wrist and heel of her hand. Better. He gazed at her face for a few steadfast seconds, then let his eyes slide closed with a sigh. Much better.
Her thumb traced the top of his scar where is arced across his forehead. You temperatures come down, and you havent been sleeping as restlessly
I think your fevers probably broken.
He opened his eyes again and met hers. Really?
She was still smiling. Well have to see how you get through the night, but
The look on her face broke him a little, and he came apart gladly. Yes, if youre still lucid by morning
youll be out of the woods.
He watched her pick up the bowl of cool water and folded towel. Before she could wish him goodnight, he levered himself up on one elbow, feeling the blanket slip down his chest and asked, softly, earnestly, Can you stay? Please?
She flushed. Zuko
Just til I fall asleep?
She searched his face before setting down the bowl and sitting slowly upon the edge of his bed. He subsided back against his pillows and watched her with half lidded eyes. He felt muzzy, halfway back to oblivion already. Song reached out and with the tips of her fingers skipping his forehead, brushing a few wayward scraps of hair back out of his eyes. There was that look again, and Zuko realized hed never wanted to kiss someone more in his life.
But lethargy gripped him, leaving him limp as a noodle, and he could only watch the pale oval of her face, marveling silently at the pink bow of her mouth, the wide set of her dark eyes as exhaustion took its toll and he was sucked down into sleep.
One thought circled his brain.
In the morning
Ill kiss her in the morning
Before he went under, he felt her lips on his forehead, then nothing.