It smelled herbal – earthy – as Uncle Iroh poured the steaming tea into my cup, then his own. I knew better than to drink immediately. When Uncle brought tea, it was a ritual. We sat in silence for a while, his eyes half-lidded as he took in deep breaths. I couldn’t help admitting that I enjoyed this process just as much as he did. The scent was medicinal, and taking that into myself settled most of the anxiety that had built up through the council meeting.
However, even Uncle’s ritualistic comfort couldn’t last forever. The moment he lifted his cup and took a sip, it was time to talk.
“It’s good to see you, Nephew. I am glad to see you a bit calmer than you were at that council table.”
I winced. Was it so easy to see my emotions? Apparently so, as Uncle immediately laughed at my reaction.
“Zuko. I never thought the day would come where I would see you leading the council. I only wish you didn’t look so stressed. Drink.”
When Uncle said drink, I did. The tea coated my palate with warmth and the bittersweet earthy flavors of the leaves. It was a perfect cup, as expected of the great Uncle Iroh. As the taste settled, Uncle then asked:
“What is troubling your mind?”
I cradled the teacup in my hand, basking in the warmth in my hands. It was the perfect mixture of fire, water, earth, and as the steam carried the scent and filled the room – so, too, did it perfectly represent air. I desperately wanted to create something so perfect as this cup of tea, but staring at the dark liquid gently sloshing in the cup, I was reminded of one of the significant issues with this perfect vision I had.
“The Water Nation. We’ve had envoys and delegations travel between the Earth Kingdoms, the Air Acolytes, and the Fire Nations, but the Water Nation…”
There was nothing more to say. Uncle nodded in understanding, and once again, he fell into a comfortable silence as he took in another sip.
“You know, Nephew, this reminds me of tea.”
I perked up, doing my best not to absolutely beam with pride. It seemed Uncle’s thoughts were aligned with my own. I desperately longed to make him proud and to follow in his footsteps. His training and teachings had rooted themselves deeply in my core, and finally, it seemed they were blossoming.
“Tea requires heat and water. To make the perfect cup of tea, you need the perfect flame. Too hot, the water will boil, and you can burn your leaves. The tea will be bitter – too bitter to enjoy. Not enough heat, and you will never get the tea warm enough to extract the flavor.”
His words hung in the air between us. Instantly, my pride deflated. I clearly needed to learn more from Uncle, as his words’ meaning was lost on me. Thankfully, Uncle never left me hanging for long.
“You can’t blame the Water Nation for being distant. We have burned them and boiled them for a long time and left them bitter, but we also can’t leave them out on their own. Otherwise, we will never have true peace. It will only be a matter of time before both sides blister and war will begin again.”
I nodded, but even as I took in his words, I was still hopeless at how to achieve this perfect balance. How do I allow the Water Nation the distance it needed to heal but still forge strong enough bonds to prevent future wars and conflict?
“I just don’t know where to start, Uncle.”
He bobbed his head and hummed. His arms folded across his chest as he fell into thought. Eventually, one of his hands found his beard, and he stroked it rhythmically.
“It is quite a difficult situation. I think it is essential to consider the past as you move forward to the future. How did the Fire Nation create this strained relationship, to begin with?”
It was not something I liked to think about, especially since I actively participated in it in my youth. Memories of anxiousness and excitement as I rode in those massive metal warships toward the isolated water tribes made me sick to my stomach now. If only my younger self could have foreseen what the world would become and what role the Fire Nation would eventually play. If only he knew what role he would play in all of it.
“We invaded.” I then set my cup of tea down and buried my face into the heels of my hands. “We took our warships into their land. We took the people we considered a threat and killed them. We invaded.”
Uncle hummed in agreement again, but even as these terrible words fell from my lips, it didn’t stir him from his thoughtful position.
“Yes, yes. This is all true, Nephew. So how do we consider this when moving forward?”
I peered at him over my hands, and that was when I saw his gentle smile. He already had the answer. He was just waiting to see if I had figured it out.
“We… stay away from the Water Nation, but then how—“
“We stay away, and instead, we allow one of them to come here.”
I couldn’t stop myself from glaring. Some part of me still had that anger and frustration of the old Zuko. It always flared up when I was insecure. Now, in front of my Uncle, that insecurity was boiling up once more. It took everything in me to keep it down.
“Who from the water tribes would want to come here? I can’t even get them to respond to our letters as it is.”
Uncle picked up his cup of tea and took a deep, long sip. Though Uncle was wise, he was just as prone as anyone to draw things like this out. He definitely reveled in being the smartest person in the room. For him, that was in pretty much every room. Finally, he revealed his grand idea.
“Zuko, you forget. You already know the perfect person to help you.”
The perfect person? Who did I know from the Water Nation? Old faces and names flipped through my mind, but none stuck out. It wasn’t until Uncle reminded me that her face dug its way out from the recesses of my memories.
“Katara. The water bender that hated you, but who eventually you worked alongside as an ally. Who better to help start the immense effort to heal relations between these two warring nations than two individuals who, despite their differences, fought side-by-side and not against one another?”
He was right. I knew he was right, but despite our truce, after the war officially ended and the Fire Nation lord fell, we went our separate ways. I hadn’t spoken to her in forever. I didn’t even really know where she was, much less if she would be willing to come to help her former enemy. As if he could read my mind, he beamed at me:
“And what better person to help facilitate this conversation than you dear friend, the Avatar. Knowing Aang, he keeps tabs on all of your little team.”
While all the pieces seemed to fall into place, I couldn’t shake the anxiety boiling in the pit of my stomach. Uncle was right. This was the best way, but that didn’t mean it would all work out. More than likely, though, Uncle already considered that. Despite the chance of failure, Uncle still said it. He would never give me this guidance if he didn’t think it would work.
I knew he was confident as he fell back into silence and finished his cup of tea. With a satisfied sigh, he picked up the warm teapot and poured himself another cup.
“Enough of business, for now, Nephew. How about a game of Pai Sho?” I could only smile and nod in response, my own confidence beginning to grow.