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|A Simple Game|
August 20, 2014
A Simple Game (One-shot)
A ringing bell signaled like a gong through the empty Jasmine Dragon tea shop. The orange light of the evening sun poked through the curtains on the windows, revealing an establishment in its waning glory. Black boots with red accents quietly clicked against the floor as the patron to the old shop made his way to the counter.
A single, solitary bell sat on the front counter, but the visitor had no need to sound it as he noticed the old man who owned the shop come from the back.
"Welcome to the Jasmine..." The old man smiled, and tears came to his eyes. "Lord Zuko, it has been quite some time."
Zuko returned the smile and made his way around the counter, where he wrapped his arms tightly around the old man.
"It has been too long, Uncle. I've been busy, but that is no excuse."
Iroh waved the comment off. "I am just happy to see you, on today of all days."
"I wouldn't miss this for the world, Uncle; today is a day where we must remember together."
"Indeed," the old Firebender replied. "We will celebrate with tea and Pai Sho!"
The former Fire Lord's smile waned. "The tea I understand, but I'd rather not play Pai Sho."
Iroh raised an eyebrow as he bent down and reached under the counter. "You'd rather not play Pai Sho? Might I ask why? I hear you've become quite the player."
"Exaggerations, I assure you," he said. "I've lost to both Yun Zhen and Sokka; the game is not my strong suit."
A full belly laugh came from the old man, and he continued by placing the board on the counter between them.
"Yun Zhen can sense your intent through the earth, an advantage I can barely circumvent. And Sokka is a master of the unconventional. Besides, both of them have lost to Suki, who you defeated."
Zuko allowed himself a small smile. "So, you've been paying attention to our little competition."
"I have, and I am happy to see you take an interest in a most enjoyable way to pass the time." He pulled a box from under the counter that was filled with pieces and began to set up the game. "Now, let us enjoy—"
"Not today, Uncle," Zuko replied with a frown. "I told you; I'm not a worthy opponent."
Iroh allowed his fingers to run down the length of his beard. "What is bothering you, Nephew? It is not the game."
"Let's just have our tea and go out to the—"
"Zuko," the old man's tone grew stern, something the former Fire Lord hadn't heard in years. "If something is wrong, you can tell me. We are family, you and I, and you can come to me with anything."
"We're here for Lu Ten's memorial," Zuko said sourly. "Not to play games. I love you, Uncle; I do. Sometimes...sometimes it seems like you can't take things seriously."
The old Firebender nodded slowly. "So, you think that my desire to play Pai Sho on this day dishonors my son's memory, and you attempted to avoid a confrontation with me by claiming that you were no good at the game."
The orange light moved along the floor as Iroh sat on the stool on his side of the counter. "Sit, Lord Zuko."
As he sat down, Iroh set up the board, placing each piece in its proper spot on the board. "You know, I taught your cousin the art of Pai Sho. He was a master of the Rock Tile Shuffle, and I found myself having to resort to my best tricks to beat him." Tears formed in his eyes. "Our last game was on the trip to Ba Sing Se. He almost beat me, and when he lost, he said the same thing he always did. 'I'll beat you next time.'"
The former Fire Lord bowed his head. "I...I'm sorry, Uncle."
"No, you wanted to honor his memory. That is commendable, Nephew. But I am telling you that this game will honor his memory. If we both give it our all, I am certain my son will smile at us from the Spirit World."
Zuko pursed his lips. "Then let us begin."
Iroh smiled warmly and gestured toward his nephew. "The guest has the first move."
The game began with Zuko putting his first piece, the Rock tile, into position. Iroh responded by pushing the Wind tile forward, and the former Fire Lord grinned.
"Favoring the Spinning Gate strategy? I can oblige."
As they took their turns, Iroh jumped his Wind tile around the board in an erratic fashion, taking several of his opponent's pieces rather quickly. Unfortunately, he was stopped by a line of tiles, spearheaded by the Rock tile.
The old man grinned. "A variation of the Rock Tile Shuffle. Very impressive."
With his advance halted, Iroh could only watch as Zuko used the Rock tile to take his Wind tile, and several others, off of the board. When his nephew's turn had ended, the Dragon of the West realized that he was in a compromising position.
"This was a strategy I picked up when playing against Yun," Zuko said. "He liked quick endgames, and this strategy was one of the many he's used on me over the years. I figure I can't beat you in the long run; that's your play. We're playing by my rules now, Uncle."
"So, you seem to be enjoying yourself well enough, now that the game has truly begun." Iroh winked to dull the sharpness of the remark.
Zuko frowned. "I...I made a mistake, Uncle. I should never have said what I did. I know this is your day as much as it is his, and I—"
"It is our day, Lord Zuko," Iroh replied. "The past is the past, and you have apologized enough. Now, we play on, and I get to show you how an old man defeats his youthful counterpart."
The younger man smirked. "I'm not that young anymore. My children are grown, and my hair is beginning to gray."
Iroh slid his piece forward; only one strategy would save him. He watched as his nephew eyed the board.
He rested his chin on steepled hands. "If you wanted to use the White Lotus Gambit, it would've served you better early on."
"We shall see."
Zuko moved the Rock tile over several more pieces, until Iroh only had four pieces left, three of which protected the Broken Crown Tile. When the Dragon of the West moved the White Lotus Tile forward yet again, the former Fire Lord furrowed his brow.
"Are you sure you don't want to retract that move? I'm in range to capture your Capstone Tile."
"Play on, Lord Zuko; I am well aware of what I've done."
The younger man scanned the board with a careful eye, checking to ensure that the White Lotus Tile was nowhere near his Capstone Tile. When he was satisfied that his was safe, he moved the Rock Tile in and took the Dragon Tile.
"I believe I've secured victory, Uncle," he said with a broad smile.
Iroh's grin was even broader. "Not yet, or have you not seen where I've left my Serpent Tile?"
As both men stared at the board, Zuko's eyes went to the tile Iroh mentioned. It wasn't quite in range of his Rock Tile, which meant he would have to sacrifice the Serpent to temporarily save the Broken Crown.
"I see it; you can't beat my Rock Tile Shuffle with that as it's placed."
The old general chuckled. "Then my plan worked. You see, Lord Zuko, you were so focused on your Rock Tile and my White Lotus Tile, that you failed to realize that your pieces form an interesting line that leads back to my Serpent."
Zuko looked at the board once more, and his eyes widened. "Impossible..."
For his next move, Iroh brought the Serpent's Tile through the line the pieces had formed, capturing them one by one until even the Rock Tile had been taken. But still the line continued until the Serpent was in range of the Golden Crown Tile, Zuko's capstone. He would have to move it behind his few remaining pieces, a space at a time.
"Fortunately," he mused quietly, "his Serpent can only follow in the same fashion."
He moved his Golden Crown, but Iroh raised his hand.
"Ah, but look," he said while pointing to the White Lotus. "What a trap I've set for you! Unless you can find a way to move your capstone away from the Serpent while avoiding the White Lotus, you have lost."
Zuko's jaw dropped as he scoured the board for a possible solution, but he found none.
"I..." He swallowed. "I concede defeat, Uncle...you truly are a master! But tell me this, did you see any way for me to escape? I could find none!"
The Dragon of the West smiled and shook his head. "If my strategy, which I've taken to calling the Black Lotus method, actually succeeds, there is no known way to counter it. Still, it is a serious risk, requiring precise planning and foreknowledge of your opponent." He sighed contentedly. "Your Rock Tile Shuffle variation was fast and deadly, but you blundered into the trap I had planned from nearly the beginning."
"Incredible!" The former Fire Lord rubbed the back of his neck. "It's no wonder Sokka, Suki, and Yun could never beat you; you are a master at this game."
Iroh waved him off. "Nonsense! Had you made one or two moves differently, it would've derailed my entire strategy. It hangs by a thread, you know. Not only that, but I wanted a chance to do more with it than theorize. It needed to pass a trial by fire against a true master of the game, as well." He bowed his head. "Which you are, Lord Zuko. You gave your best despite what you thought of my desire to play, and I believe we have done more to honor Lu Ten already than all of my efforts in the past."
Iroh stood up from his stool and stretched. "Enough of this. You've indulged me in a game of Pai Sho, so now we can grab our tea and begin our journey."
"To the tree?" Zuko asked, as if he didn't already know the answer.
Iroh smiled sadly as tears formed in his eyes. "To the tree."
As they exited the shop and Iroh began to lock up, Zuko drank in the cool evening air. "Uncle?"
"What is it, Nephew?"
"I'll beat you next time."
Iroh's smile widened. "We shall see, Nephew. We shall see."
- This nice little one-shot has been written for Round 5 of Fruipit's fanon contest! - It's an interesting turn for me to write a piece with no violence or icky romance. ;) I quite enjoyed writing it!
For the collective works of the author, go here.