Jungkook notices the man immediately, the first time he comes into the tea shop.
“He’s like…hot.” Jungkook says. “I mean. He looks wealthy. I think he’s from the Upper Ring?”
Jin waves his arm dismissively as he prepares some dumplings in the back kitchen. “Of course he is. Did you see that jade bracelet?”
Jungkook huddles close, eyes narrowed as he squints at the far side of the room where the suspiciously well-dressed man sits.
“All I see is his silk shirt.”
It’s true. The pale-skinned, black-haired man is wearing a silken green shirt with fancy gold trimmings typical to Ba Sing Se fashion. Except it’s not suitable at all for the Lower Ring, where hooligans and ruffians thrive. Jin’s little tea house is one of the safer places here, but it still doesn’t explain why a nobleman would come down to the Lower Ring in the first place. His attire is begging for a mugging.
“Maybe he’s here for someone.” Jin suggests, pouring green tea into their ceramic cups. “Anything weird happen here recently?”
Jungkook pauses, thinking. Still, nothing was coming up. “He could pass for a Middle Ring-er.”
Jin turns to stare at the guy again. They were probably being too obvious, but subtlety wasn’t Seokjin’s style.
“Yeah. Yeah, he could actually. One of those fashionable Middle Ring-ers.” Jin comments.
“Well,” Jungkook concludes, “It’s not our business anyway.”
It was just that the well-dressed man had been here eleven times already in the last month. The first time had been unmemorable. But the second, and the third, more-so. The guy had sat in the same spot each time, off in the corner near the back. Jungkook had only served him three times, Jin the rest. The man was mainly quiet, offering tiny smiles when poured his lotus tea, but mostly blank-faced and focused. Sometimes he brought a book. This time, he hadn’t and instead had been staring off at the window for some time.
Jin side-eyes him. “Frankly, it’s nice to have some gossip around here once in a while.”
“Jin, there’s always gossip down here.”
“Murders and thievings? Not the type of gossip I meant, honey.”
And Jungkook rolls his eyes, returning to serving tea to their customers. The rich-man is still sitting there contemplatively, and Jungkook tries not to stare.
Jungkook had spent most of his formative years in the Lower Ring.
While Jin had grown up in the Middle Ring, parents moderately well off in trading fortunes, Jungkook was forced into the Lower Ring after his parents were killed in a Fire Nation attack when he was little. Now that they had settled into a tense ‘peace’, the Lower Ring was still all he knew. He remembered the bursts of fire, the screeches and red splatters— there was always fear of an impending invasion. Always, even if people pretended everything was okay.
There were good memories here and there—playing earth soccer with the other kids, Jin voluntarily starting a tea house in the Lower Ring and taking in Jungkook. There were also the bad memories. Of learning how to defend himself the hard way, getting beat up in the streets—his pockets stolen of all his money.
Jungkook breathes in the fresh, air of the cold night, stepping out of the tea house. It’s a little past midnight.
There’s a whiff of roasted duck in the corridor to his left, a slight taste of puke to his right. Some dude is pissing in the dark alleyway ahead, and Jungook ducks under the archway of the street to walk briskly forward.
He makes a left, another left, two rights, and goes down the stairs.
Jungkook hears the screams and the roars first. It’s faint, but there. A distant pounding thuds in his head as he gets closer. Seokjin would kill him if he knew Jungkook was back here again. But they need the money.
“Identification, kid?” The gatekeeper this time is a muscled, towering man with twin dragon tattoos running down his biceps. Great. They changed the door guy again.
Jungkook sighs. “I’m a contender. I was here last week?”
“Don’t believe you. You have coin?”
“Then I can’t let you in. Needa pay the first-timer fee.”
Somehow Jungkook just knew this would happen. It’s not that he can’t afford the first-timer fee— it’s just that he’s paid it three times already.
“Call Halla out here. She knows me.”
Now the doorman pauses, giving Jungkook a considering look up and down. “Lady Hotshot!” The guy screams. He has a surprisingly loud voice. “Some kid says you know him?”
“I’m coming! Fucking— shit!” A crash. “Watch where you’re going, dirtbag, or I’ll kill you.”
And then Halla’s there, hair messy and eyes bright. She looks the most alive before the show, clothes dirty and rundown just like the venue, but demeanor energetic.
“You gonna kill someone?” Jungkook asks, amused. “Thought you didn’t bend anymore.”
“Jeon, I don’t need to earthbend to shank someone with a knife.” Makes sense. “Now get the fuck in here.”
The low hangings are familiar, corridor tight and narrow. Jungkook has to squeeze his way through the crowd, keeping his eyes on the back of Halla’s head. He’s been through this hallway what feels like a million times. Jungkook even gets a few conciliatory pats on the back in recognition from loyal bystanders who have watched him participate before.
They reach the pre-game table, right outside the ring, and Halla grabs a little bundle of clothes. There’s a tiny bottle of oil nestled at the top.
“What’s that for?” Jungkook points out, fingering the little bottle curiously.
“It’s to oil yourself up.” Halla says flatly.
Jungkook turns to look at her incredulously. She stares back, deadpan.
Jungkook’s jaw opens and closes for a moment until he finds his words.
Halla sighs, arms on her waist. “You’ll get a lot more bets if you let these babies,” She slaps his arms, “Show off a bit. Alright?”
More bets means more money, but only if he wins. Jungkook gets it. But still, oiling himself up feels a little like whoring himself off to the crowd. He voices as much as he changes into the standardized fighting clothes. He’s already uncapping the oil.
“Baby, you are a whore. You’re selling your body and skills for visceral entertainment.” Halla smirks. “Now scram. You’re up next.”
Jungkook walks forward into the medium sized ring. It’s nothing like Earth Rumble VI in Gaoling or V in the Middle Ring, where the crowds are huge and full of the biggest thugs out there. Rumble Ring is a relatively small rumble contest embedded in the deep twisting alleyways of the Lower Ring, not actually part of the official Rumble series. It’s a quick way to earn money and keep his earthbending skills sharp. Jungkook is good. He knows he is.
The commentator is already starting by the time Jungkook steps into the middle of the ring. His opponent is huge and menacing. Jungkook loves those types. It’s endless fun.
“—third contestant of the night is Jeon, who’s in a five-time winning streak right now! Will he beat The Bear, who has won seven consecutive matches at Earth Rumble VII?”
The crowd absolutely roars. Jungkook breathes in. He imagines that Halla is watching. She always is.
Jungkook jerks his hand forward, left foot stomping forward. A huge column of stone erupts upwards, but The Bear is surprisingly nimble. Jungkook darts to his left as a huge array of boulders are thrown at him, circling around the ring in a crouch.
Then The Bear runs forward, arms out and palms flat towards the ground, as thin pillars of stone rise from the ground, distinctly shaped like javelins. It’s actually pretty creative, and Jungkook raises a wall at the last second to prevent himself from getting hit.
This needs to end quickly. He has to get back uninjured to keep Seokjin from raising any suspicions. Jungkook twists his foot sharply, grinding his leg into the stone floor. His arms arch. Dance.
He encases the man in a stone prison— it erupts as the guy shouts in fury, but the distraction is long enough for Jungkook to send a boulder hurdling at The Bear, pushing him out of the ring.
There’s silence. Then, murmuring. Eventually, a deafening cheer.
Jungkook looks up at the reserved section, and Halla is sitting there, eyebrows raised. She jerks her head upwards.
By the time Jungkook makes it up, the crowd is cheering again for some other money-grabber competing their damn souls away.
“Good match, nice theatrics.” Halla says. “Have a surprise waiting for you.”
Jungkook is wiping the sweat off his forehead when he blinks. “Surprise?”
“Yep.” She says, and leads him to the back where they usually count coins. Halla pulls out the gambling box from underneath the table and slams it on the table.
Then she unlocks it. Jungkook leans forward to take an inquisitive look.
“There’s… a nice sum of money there?” He tries.
There is. Maybe the oil trick worked, or perhaps the match was better then he thought. The quantity of copper and silver coins is large, even a gold coin or two thrown in there. It’s certainly enough to keep him and Jin happy for a while. Maybe some renovations to the tea house could be made, even. But Jungkook wouldn’t call this a surprise.
Halla just stares at him some more, the grin on her face splitting. She reaches down again and pulls out another fucking box, but this one is different. The wood is a little more polished. There’s even a nice painted white design on the top.
“Open it, hun.” She says, smirking.
Halla looks pleased and happy. It’s a weird look on her. He still remembers when he’d seen her for the first time in Rumble Ring two years back, the glow of the fight on her face before she’d gotten permanently injured. She only manages the ring, now, no fighting.
Jungkook hesitates before reaching forward and opening the box.
His jaw drops. Eyes widening. Jungkook’s hands tremble.
“What… Halla—what is this? Shit. Holy shit.”
“I know.” She sounds smug. Jungkook can’t tear his eyes away long enough to confirm if she looks that way as well.
Jungkook’s body feels completely still other than the tremulous shake in his hands.
Right there, inside the box, are seven gold ingots.
It’s a fortune. It’s a fucking fortune. With this, Jungkook and Jin could renovate the entire tea house, hire a new manager, and theoretically leave to live in the Middle Ring for the rest of their lives in fucking luxury. They could relocate to the countryside and start a farm if they wanted. They could travel the world. They could do anything.
“This must be a mistake. Is this a practical joke?” Jungkook’s voice feels small.
“Jungkook, this isn’t a joke.” Halla sounds joyful on his behalf. “Some guy in a fucking fancy ass green shirt bet on you. He dropped the box on us and left after your match.”
Jungkook is still staring at the shining, golden blocks of metal. He jerks his head up in surprise.
“Guy. Green shirt?”
Halla stops. “What, you know him? Dude seemed loaded.”
Jungkook clutches the box tightly, eyes desperate. “Did he have a jade bangle on? Pale skin, dark hair. Kinda short.”
“Yeah, I guess he did. Wait, you know him? How?”
Jungkook feels dizzy. He plops down hard on the nearby stool. “Holy shit. I mean, technically,” he swallows, “I don’t know him. But he’s been dropping by our tea house regularly this month.”
Halla pursued her lips. “Maybe he likes you?”
Jungkook shakes the box frantically. “Halla. This is not Middle Ring money. It’s not even normal Upper Ring money. This is like, fucking, royalty level wealth!”
“Okay, calm down. Just take the money back and confront this guy the next time he drops by, okay?” She makes it seem so easy. As if Jungkook isn’t the shy little bitch he is.
But still. “Believe me, I will.”
Except the wealthy man doesn’t stop by for the entire week. And then two weeks. Jungkook thinks about keeping all the money and just getting himself and Jin out of the Lower Ring. But curiosity eats at him. Was it a mistake? Who was this guy?
Besides, Jungkook isn’t even sure he’s capable of leaving the Lower Ring anymore. Jungkook keeps the money in floorboards under his bed. He doesn’t know how he’ll even explain that amount of money to Seokjin. The rest of the competition coin goes to repairs and polishes on the tea house— the chairs are upgraded, some extra food is stocked just for the two of them. Jin barely notices. He knows that Jungkook does odd jobs on the side here and there anyway, so it’s not that suspicious.
They don’t really need the money. The tea house keeps them afloat, but it’s nice to have the little improvements there, along with backup money. Life in the Lower Ring is unpredictable; you never know when you’ll need extra coin. Besides, Jungkook likes the fight. He has all this built-up energy. Jungkook is fussy, feisty, and he loves competition, especially with something he’s so good at.
Jin’s not a bender, which is fine by him— Jungkook can do the protecting for both of them (even though Jin would willingly take a boulder to the head for him). Still. Jungkook just has to talk to this rich guy, at least once, and get some answers out of him. Halla would probably tell Jungkook to just thank his lucky stars and get the fuck out of Ba Sing Se. Too bad Jungkook is notoriously rebellious.
Jungkook even willingly takes on extra shifts, which Jin finds profoundly weird.
“Are you sure you want to wake up? At seven in the morning?” Jin asks skeptically.
Jungkook nods his head vigorously. “Oh, of course. I just—uh. Love being productive.”
“Jungkookie, you hate waking up early.”
“Not anymore,” Jungkook shakes his head demurely, “It’s a lifestyle change, you know? Trying to be healthier.”
Jin shoots him another weirded-out look. “If you say so.”
So here Jungkook is at early dawn, dusting the outside of the shop. It smells like piss outside. Jungkook scrunches his nose, shuddering at the unpleasant aromas morphing together. Then he heads inside and pours a tub of dirty water out back. They have a row of garden plants lining the backdoor of the shop. Jin and Jungkook alternate taking care of the plants. It brings a lull of comfort back into their lives, seeing the green, pretty leaves decorating the porch. Jin’s memories of green are all domesticated plants in the Middle Ring. Jungkook remembers rice fields and bamboo forests from the countryside.
When Jungkook heads back out, the rich guy is right there, sitting at his usual place. The tea house is completely empty besides him.
All thought screeches to a halt.
Jungkook takes an aborted step forward before realizing he actually has to serve this guy tea, it’s what the man is here for— so Jungkook grabs the steaming pot and strides awkwardly forward. Jungkook stops right in front of the table, and the guy is wearing a green tunic with a sash this time, along with black trousers. It’s more casual, but the material is still soft and high-quality. The guy doesn’t look up, hands fingering at the pages of a book he’s reading.
Then Jungkook realizes he’s just been standing there without pouring anything or saying anything. He pours a cup hastily.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?” The man asks, amusedly.
“Thank you?” Jungkook chokes. “Uh, shit. I mean, I was— shit, I’m so sorry.” This is probably why Jin does the serving and Jungkook stays at the back.
The man raises an eyebrow. “Thank me for what?”
Jungkook narrows his eyes, voice lowering as he peeks around the shop. It’s empty and he abruptly feels embarrassed. He continues to speak lowly anyways.
The man is smiling now. It makes him look a lot younger. Nicer, too.
“I know about what you did last week.” Jungkook says quietly. “Thank you. For the money. But I really can’t take that much.”
The smile disappears off the man’s face. “Oh. You figured it out?”
“Yes!” Jungkook hisses. “Seven gold ingots? I would have investigated that like I was one of the Dai Li even if I didn’t know the owner of Rumble Ring.”
The man shrugs. “I was in the area the other night and I knew you’d win. I bet on you hoping you would take the tea house and move somewhere nicer.”
It was a dense sentence. A lot to unpack. Jungkook decides to focus on the first part.
“You knew I’d win?”
“The way you move. It’s obvious to anyone that you were trained in combat.” It’s true. Jungkook had taken dance lessons and sword training when he was younger, before he’d moved to Ba Sing Se. It’s certainly not obvious though—not even Jin or Halla know. Jungkook isn’t keen on talking about his life from before.
The guy takes a slow sip from his tea, jade bangle hanging mockingly off his wrist. He looks very, very handsome.
“I was also hoping you’d win,” the guy continues, “pretty thing like you, beating that massive guy. It’s quality entertainment.”
Jungkook flushes. He’s been called pretty before, but only by Halla or by sleazy guys on the street. He bites his lip, and now the other guy is getting a light dusted pink on his cheeks too. Neither of them are looking at each other.
“Look, I really can’t take all that money. It’s just—way too much.” Jungkook tries again.
On one hand, it’s unexplainable. Jungkook is half afraid that the Dai Li is actually going to show up and arrest him for extortion. But Jungkook is also guilty. Underground bending certainly isn’t worth this much money, and the guy sitting across from him has been nothing but a loyal customer to their tea house for the last month. Jungkook feels like a thief.
The other man frowns, looking almost disappointed. “It’s really not a big deal.”
“Not,” Jungkook repeats slowly, “A big deal.” Seven gold ingots. Not a big deal. Jungkook is going to blow his gasket.
“Uh,” The man changes the subject hastily once he sees the look on Jungkook’s face, “We never introduced ourselves to each other. At least tell me your name?”
Jungkook sits down in the chair across from the guy. “I’m Jungkook.”
“Jungkook,” The guy repeats, testing the name in his mouth, “My name is Yoongi.”
“Well,” Jungkook decides, “It’s nice to meet you, Yoongi.”
“I’m not going to take that money back, Jungkook.” Yoongi says calmly, one hand tracing the rim of the teacup as he stares Jungkook in the eye. He leans back in his chair looking extraordinarily arrogant—the type of guy Jungkook usually avoids. “But how about this: you serve me free tea daily for the next month. I’ll take that as recompense.”
“That’s it?” Jungkook asks skeptically. “That’s still only like, five silver pieces.”
Yoongi shrugs. “Have a few conversations with me as well. I could use the company.”
Even more skeptically, “You just want some daily free tea and someone to talk to?”
Yoongi says, “Your ability to hear what I’m saying and repeat it back to me is stellar.”
Jungkook scowls. “It’s just— so mundane!”
Yoongi raises both his hands in a what-can-you-do manner, face mockingly innocent. “I’m a mundane person.”
It absolutely a lie, but Jungkook declines to point it out. Then Yoongi slaps a sizable sum of coin on the table, scooting his chair out and lazily walking towards the door.
“Well, I’m gonna head out now.” He says, leaving Jungkook still standing there, slack-jawed and irritated.
Jungkook has gotta hand it to him—at least the guy has attitude.