Iroh, Fire Nation General turned exile was excited. In a few days time his tea shop, The Jasmine Dragon would be opening. A smile curved the older man's lips upwards as he and his nephew ambled down the crowded market street. Truly he was blessed. Owning his own tea shop was a dream come true. He could see it now, green and gold tapestries...elegant cups and with steaming pots of tea nearby...Customers milling around anxious to sample the latest blend...A beau-
"Uncle stop smiling like an idiot, people are staring!" the sharp tone cut through Iroh's day dream.
Sighing inwardly, Iroh turned and smiled at his nephew. Prince Zuko glared back, cheeks flushed in embarrassment. "Nephew, perhaps if you also smiled it would draw some attention away from me. I am sure the young ladies would enjoy it." Iroh finished his statement by glancing at a group of tittering teenage girls who were eyeing Zuko with interest. As Zuko's flush deepened, Iroh couldn't help but swell with pride. Indeed his nephew was very...Iroh felt his breath catch, his last thought slipping from his mind as he found himself staring at the most exquisite pottery he had ever seen.
In front of a tiny shop was a table featuring several tea sets. At first glance they appeared to be glass but as Iroh came closer he realized they were in fact rock. Picking up a tea cup reverently he studied the design. It had been hand painted with a white and gold floral design. It was perfect, exactly what the shop needed! Turning towards Zuko with shining eyes Iroh said happily, "Nephew! This is exactly what we have been searching for!"
Zuko's face twisted into another scowl as he looked at the cup and he replied flatly, "I thought we were searching for new flowers? You said it was of utmost importance remember? "
Iroh set the cup down carefully and stroked his beard. "Indeed nephew you are correct. You must continue with out me." He turned away and walked into the shop leaving an annoyed Zuko on his own.
Mei Lin's eyes were closed as she sat behind the counter inside her small pottery shop. It had been a mistake to open this shop. It had been 3 weeks and less than a handful of customers had graced her shop doorway. Her vases, plates, cups, tea sets were all hand made by her; each one uniquely beautiful. Each one unappreciated by the bustling crowd outside the door. Sadness filled Mei. Ba Sing Se was nothing more than a disappointment. She had come here seeking refuge after her village had been destroyed by the fire nation...after her only son had been forced into the Fire Nation's Militia..Mei brushed aside a tear and opened her eyes, there was no use dwelling on the past. She had to concentrate on the now...and now no one was interested in her pottery.
Her spirits sank lower. Standing, Mei slipped out from behind the counter. She would close up early and head to the local tea shop. Perhaps a hot cup of tea would lift her spirits. She grabbed the broom and began to briskly sweep the shop floor, careful to not hit any of the tables. As Mei swept dust out from under the table near the shop entrance the door opened and hit her from behind. Surprised she dropped the broom with a small cry and it hit the floor with a clatter.
"Oh pardon me! I did not mean to harm you...here allow me."
Mei turned and watched stunned as the gentleman who had entered and hit her with the door bent over to retrieve her fallen broom. As he straightened and handed it back to her, Mei could only gape at him. He was dressed simply but well, his grey hair braided neatly in the back. His long beard, in a fashionable cut, flowed over his chest and she couldn't help noticing he had a large girth. His amber eyes crinkled in concern when she stayed silent. After a moment Mei flushed in embarrassment and bowed slightly.
"No, please forgive me...welcome to my shop, I hope you will find what you are searching for." She straightened, excitement beginning to rise in her.
The gentleman's eyes crinkled in amusement and he nodded before walking to the first display and studying the plates displayed upon it. Mei wanted nothing more than to go over and encourage him to buy something but she forced herself to go back behind the counter and wait patiently. Attempting not to be obvious she watched the man as he browsed. He would carefully pick something up and stare at it for several moments before carefully setting it down and going to the next item.
Mei felt herself swell with pride. It was obvious from the look on the gentleman's face he was enthralled with what he was looking at. This...this is what it meant to be a shop owner! She was so caught up in her prideful thoughts that it took her a few moments to realize the man was trying to get her attention. He was standing in front of her and had placed a tea set on the counter. Mei flushed in embarrassment and cleared her throat. "Forgive me...I drifted off."
The gentleman laughed. "Forgive me for interrupting." He pointed to the items on the counter. "I wish to purchase these."
Mei nodded and began to carefully wrap up the tea set. Absently she noted he was purchasing one of her favorites. Perhaps she would make another set for herself. Mei handed him the wrapped items and he paid her. "Thank you for purchasing from my shop." She bowed slightly to him and he smiled at her before leaving.
Now...Now things were looking up.
"Uncle! You wasted your money on ANOTHER tea set?" Zuko stared in outrage at his uncle who was seated calmly in the center of the room sipping tea from his new tea cup.
Iroh sighed. "Nephew!" He paused to take another sip of his tea. "...one can never have too many tea sets! See, this one matches my new robe!" He chuckled softly as his nephew left the room in a huff. Iroh hoped that living here would sooth his nephew's bruised heart. A sudden image of the shop keeper from earlier flitted into his mind. Thinking about it now, she was a handsome older woman. Her beauty however had been marred by what seemed to be a heavy sadness. Iroh stroked his beard. What she needed was a nice cup of calming jasmine tea. Perhaps he would invite her to the shop once it was open.
A few days later found the exiled general outside of the shop. The opening of his shop was the next day and Iroh had decided to extend an invitation to the shop keeper of the beautiful tea sets. As he stepped into the shop he was surprised by the tension he felt in the air. The shop keeper was standing behind the counter and she was glaring defiantly at a well dressed man.
"...Enough of your excuses Mei Lin, either you have the rent or you don't! Where's the money?"
Mei Lin took a deep breath, not noticing the customer from a few days before. "I...I don't have it right now...but I swear Yi Min I will have it within the next day!"
Yi Min scowled at her. "Where have I heard that before? This shop of yours is a failure; a stupid dream of a foolish old woman. Your place is in th-!"
"Say one more word and I will teach you to respect your elders!" The voice was sharp and it lashed out at the younger man.
Mei Lin blinked in surprise as the customer from a few days ago stepped forward. Then her cheeks flooded with color. How humiliating for him to see her in such a situation! Yi Min growled under his breath. "You have until tomorrow night to get together this months rent, and the back rent! If not pack your things and leave!" He stormed out of the shop angrily.
For a moment it was silent. Mei Lin forced herself to look at the gentleman and she said stiffly, "You didn't have to step in."
He smiled slightly. "It was an honor to defend a beautiful woman such as yourself."
Mei Lin raised an eyebrow and laughed mirthlessly. "Please; don't flatter me. It has been many years since I could have been considered beautiful." She glanced around the shop and felt a deep sadness spread throughout her. Yi Min was her landlord and he had been generous to rent her both the shop space and a small apartment. She couldn't blame him for being angry. She would close the shop and move back down to the lower ring...It was an undesirable area but what choice did she have?
Touching a hand to her now aching head Mei Lin said bleakly to the man, "Sir, it appears that the shop will be closing, everything is now half priced."
Iroh felt his heart leap with excitement. Such a bargain! "Half priced! that's won...I mean..." he paused and cleared his throat, slightly embarrassed. "I am terribly sorry to hear that. I came today not to buy but to invite you to the opening of my tea shop, The Jasmine Dragon. Ah...It seems I have forgotten my manors. I am Mushi."
Mushi? Poor man to have grown up with such a name...it was a wonder he turned out so kind. Mei Lin bowed in return. "And I am Mei Lin."
As if forgetting her earlier comment Iroh smiled graciously and replied, "Mei Lin, a fitting name for a jewel such as yourself." He brightened slightly. "Why don't I treat you to a cup of tea? It will relax your nerves and perhaps open your mind to a solution for your current problem."
Mei Lin stayed silent. Mushi's offer was kind and there was no reason for her to continue with the farce of being a shop keeper. A slight sigh slipped through her lips and she forced herself to smile. "I would be honored to join you for some tea."