"You're down to cinders," Piandao said as he wrapped an arm around Jeong Jeong's shoulders and urged his friend to lean against him. Jeong Jeong looked haggard, his eyes dull and sunken. He all but sagged against Piandao and didn't murmur a word of complaint at being so supported.
That's when Piandao began to worry. His fingers dug into the indigo sleeve covering his friend's arm. "Jeong Jeong."
Yellow eyes slid towards him. "The comet passed."
Piandao nodded, studying the street of Ba Sing Se they stood in. A Fire Nation tank smoldered nearby, a puddle of slag marked the remains of another. Fire blackened the stones. He had chosen to stay with Pakku when he remained with another member of the Order at all, but he remembered seeing great walls of fire rising from the stones to the heavens.
Iroh had never reveled in fire enough to use it so wantonly.
Realization settled in like the long-forgotten weight of Fire Nation armor. Firebenders consumed massive amounts of internal fuel to create their fire. Their bodies' stores needed to be replenished after a battle. Standard military doctrine called for a meal heavy on fatty meats, cheese, bread and butter, and sweet desserts. The usual solution on campaign had been a noodle dish with strips of whatever meat they could acquire, gobs of cheese, and whatever the local edible plants were, all stir-fried and served with fluffy, sweetened eggs on top.
"Let's go find a restaurant," Piandao said, and Jeong Jeong grunted in response.
Piandao had to half-carry his friend as they staggered down the street, peering at closed doors and Earth Kingdom signs. At the end of the street, a piece of steel jutted out of a sign painted with three chrysanthemum blossoms. Calligraphy on the insides of the opened shutters proclaimed the general prices.
He hoped they'd take Fire Nation money.
He stepped away from Jeong Jeong to pound on the door with one fist. He refused to lay his sword down for an instant in this city; that was one lesson he had learned well in the army. "The battle's over - do you have any food to sell to hungry men"
There was a stirring inside and a eye-slot in the door was thrown open. Brown eyes glared out at him, then flicked behind him to Jeong Jeong. "Not to the firebender."
Jeong Jeong growled, and Piandao suddenly found himself thankful his friend was too exhausted to talk.
"My friend has been fighting the Fire Nation for your city. My money is good gold," Piandao said, keeping his eyes on the Earth man's. "All we want is a meal."
Brown eyes narrowed and glanced at Jeong Jeong again. Then they focused on him again. "Let's see the shine of your gold first."
Piandao refrained from rolling his eyes. Instead he slipped two fat koban minted on Buyou no Long Shima out of a concealed pouch and held them up. He rubbed them together briefly, listening to the scrape of metal. In the Fire Nation, he would have pointed out their island of origin, for everyone knew Daimyo Osamu's coins were heavier in gold than any other coin minted in the archipelago. No Earth man would know the name of the island or the daimyo, much less the increased value of the coins.
Gold was gold, though. Even if the coins were worthless here, the gold wasn't.
Brown eyes widened, and the door was thrown open. "Come in. Things are a mess right now, but my wife can throw something together for you."
Piandao nodded and helped Jeong Jeong into the restaurant. The proprietor hadn't been exaggerrating about the mess - heat had cracked the stone floor, and many of the tables were thrown down in makeshift barricades. However, there were far fewer people in the restaurant than he would have expected at this time of day.
There hadn't been very many people out of doors at all during the battle. Just the Fire soldiers. His instincts said no battle was ever that perfect, but his instincts also said most people would get under cover when the skies turned red and burning.
Jeong Jeong twisted away from Piandao and dropped bonelessly into a chair. "Butter."
"Bread and butter is a good start," Piandao agreed, pulling out a chair for himself. "A wheel of cheese. Fried rice. Those meat-and-cream-stuffed dumplings. Fried goosepork with the fat still on it."
"A crock of butter," Jeong Jeong growled, dull eyes staring at the tabletop.
The proprietor nodded and took the two koban off Piandao's hands before disappearing into the back of the restaurant. That left a pair of young men, hardly more than boys, eyeing the two of them.
Piandao gazed at them levely until they looked away. Then he turned back to Jeong Jeong. His friend stared at the tabletop, all cinders and ashes, his breathing so shallow it wouldn't have stirred a candle-flame.
"You took a lot out of yourself. I hope Iroh isn't in as bad a state as you are," Piandao said, reaching across the table to brush Jeong Jeong's hair out of the way.
His friend lifted his eyes to him briefly. "He isn't."
Piandao didn't ask. He didn't think Jeong Jeong had the energy to answer, and more importantly, he didn't think his friend would answer even if he did. Once Iroh had been Jeong Jeong's greatest friend, but Piandao got the impression his friend felt too much of the same things for Iroh that he felt for fire and firebending. Except, perhaps, he thought Jeong Jeong might someday forgive fire for being fire, but he didn't think his friend would ever forgive Iroh for whatever had happened.
"Someday, you need to tell me what's between you two," Piandao said.
Piandao blinked and leaned forward, the possibility of so much becoming clear just in his reach. He could smell it.
He could also smell hot bread as the proprietor's son brought them a round, dark loaf and a crock full of butter. Rather than lose the answer by pressing the issue with Jeong Jeong, Piandao tore a piece of bread from the loaf. "How much butter do you want on your slice, Jeong Jeong"
"Give me the damn butter."
"Five words strung together. I'm impressed." Piandao grinned and slid the crock of butter across the table to his friend. "I didn't think you had it in you."
Jeong Jeong growled and snagged the crock of butter. He dipped his fingers directly into the soft yellow substance, pulled out a small handful, and ate it without bothering with bread. Piandao stared. He stared as his friend licked his fingers clean, then took another scoop of butter and ate that. When the entire crock was empty of butter, Jeong Jeong licked the remains off his fingers.
Piandao stared. He tried to find words. He stared some more and noticed how much brighter his friend's eyes were.
Firebenders. Firebenders and their need for fuel.
"That was disgusting," Piandao declared. "I'll bring cheese and seal blubber next time. No eating butter straight."
"I knew a man once who carried fried butter," Jeong Jeong commented, mischief almost appearing in his expression.
"Cheese and seal blubber," Piandao repeated more loudly, trying to get the idea of fried butter out of his head.