Chapter 1: A Beautiful Day in Ba Sing Se
It was a beautiful day in Ba Sing Se. The sun was shining, birds chirping, and people pleasantly bustled back and forth in the busy marketplace. Even the Dai Li were surprisingly cheerful, as no one was thinking about the war on such a wonderful day, so no mysterious kidnapping-brainwashes had to occur. Overall, everyone was in a stupendous mood, content to enjoy one of the rare relaxing days the humongous earth kingdom city had to offer. Everyone except three teenage boys, that was.
The first of these unhappy, ungrateful of the wondrous day young men went by the name of Sokka. The hapless boy was a companion of the Avatar, and had been stuck in this barren, earth-filled city for ages. The fact that he wasn’t allowed to talk about the war or was constantly tailed by Dai Li agents or Joo Dee did nothing to help his rapidly deteriorating mood. And then there was the fact that Aang was still constantly moping on about “Appa this” and “Appa that”. It was nerve grating, and generally the tawny-skinned water tribesman was a pretty easygoing guy. However, there came a point in life where everyone reached their limit. The sarcasm-meat-boomerang-and-plan guy of the Avatar’s little team was quickly approaching that point. Even walking around the bustling marketplace and basking in its happiness and cheer did nothing to uplift his mood.
Of course, it didn’t help that he’d just been kicked out of a poetry class because his last line of haiku had had one too many syllables.
“I mean, come on!” he exclaimed to himself. “One syllable. One! They could’ve been like, ‘Hey, Sokka, why don’t you give it another try? After all, your other poems have all been amazingly wonderful!’ But do they? Nooooo. One slip up! Stupid, inconsiderate, witchy, overbearing…” the dark-skinned boy trailed off into an incomprehensible mumble, continuing to bump into people as he made his way through the crowd. So upset was he that he completely ignored the market stalls lining either side of the street that would’ve led to his favourite activity: shopping. After all, those girls had been pretty. Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe liked pretty things.
“Young man! Hey, young man!” a voice called from a stall selling assorted trinkets and jewellery caught the boy’s attention. “Yes, you!” the merchant affirmed when he saw that he had the kid’s attention. “Can I interest you in a pretty bauble?” The older man held up a complicated...something that was beautiful. But he had promised his sister he wouldn’t buy anymore useless, stupid stuff, so it would be best if he made sure this ‘bauble’ was something useful less Katara decide to drown him or something.
“What’s a bauble?” the blue-clad boy asked, meandering over to the money-hungry vendor. Curiosity sparkled in his luminous blue eyes.
“Oh, a bauble is a tremendous thing of...uh...high importance! Very rare in the world, they are. Very good for any pretty ladies you might have,” the grey-haired merchant added with a slight wink.
Sokka sighed, running a hand through his bound hair. The only pretty ladies he had were the moon and a deadly warrior who would either kill him over something so girly or love him forever. Could they even be considered his ladies, though? Yue was a spirit now, after all, and Suki had deemed her fellow Kyoshi warriors more important than he was, so... Crossing his arms over his chest, the boomerang guy stared at the bauble forlornly.
“I don’t have any ladies...” he muttered, digging his toe into the dirt.
The merchant was suddenly moved with pity for the put-upon young man in front of him. After all, he seemed pretty pathetic standing there looking as if he’d just been betrothed to the princess of the fire nation while the bubbly crowd floated past with not a care in the world. Remembering what it had been like to be that age so many years ago, the salesman knew just what the boy needed to cheer up.
“Aww, don’t look so down, kid,” he protested, swinging a heavy arm around the lithe teen’s shoulders. “You know what will cheer you up? A nice cup of tea. And I know just the place! It’s called the Jasmine Dragon, and it’s a few streets over from here in the restaurant part of the ring. The owner, Mushi, makes the best cup of tea this side of the world! It’s bound to cheer any poor soul. Doesn’t seem to have worked for that moody nephew of his, though...” the merchant trailed off, a slightly contemplative look on his face as he stroked his grey beard. “But trust me, boy,” he perked up after a few moments, “even if that grouchy schmuck does end up serving you, that tea will cheer you up so much you’ll be able to completely ignore that rude attitude. Trust good ol’ Aadi on this. I wouldn’t steer such a pathetic looking young man wrong.” And then the vendor was off, enticing the next unsuspecting victim into his lair of merchandise.
“Hey!” Sokka protested after a second. He’d been so busy contemplating the information that he hadn’t realized he’d been insulted. But now he just felt even more put-upon than before. “Well, if the tea’s really that good...Ah, what the hell.”
And so the boy ambled off into the crowds, heading straight into the heart of the restaurant district to the best tea shop in the entire Earth Kingdom, if not the entire world. The Jasmine Dragon.
The merchant had given Sokka surprisingly good instructions, so he found the place with little problems. Of course, the enticing smell of tea had certainly helped, as well as the stream of people coming from the direction talking about “that wonderful tea!” and “that nice old man Mushi”, or—in the case of the younger women—“that waiter is grumpy, but he’s hot!”, and so here the dark-haired teen found himself seated at a table next to the wall, waiting to be served. Five minutes of fruitless patience made the tribesman almost get up and leave, but the teashop just smelt so pleasant and fruity that he couldn’t bring himself to tear himself from the good feelings just yet. He closed his eyes and just flowed where the scents took him, from the top of the Northern Air Temple to the Cave of Two Lovers. He even felt some of the Temple of the Fire Sages thrown in the air. This place brought back such fond memories of near-death experiences. The only thing missing was—
“What can I get—you?!” the sharp, annoyed, and most of all familiar voice cut into Sokka’s musings. Jumping, the water nation teen’s bright blue eyes snapped open to come face to face with the shocked gold ones of Zuko.
Zuko. Banished Prince of the Fire Nation. Current teashop assistant going by the name ‘Li’. The second of three boys in the city that weren’t enjoying this pleasant day. Of course, there was also the fact that there were very few things that could currently make this moody firebender cheer up, and most of those things were either impossible or next to impossible (like seeing his sister get her ass handed to her, or his father deciding that Zuko was the best son ever and should never, ever have been banished and deserved a great big hug! ...Okay, so maybe the hug was pushing it a little, but the point still stands). So considering that depression was the black-haired boy’s usual state of mind, it was no surprise to anyone that he wouldn’t enjoy such a glorious afternoon.
Of course, Zuko’s day plummeted from its usual level of gloom to ‘the world is out to get me’ gloom (which, admittedly, wasn’t that large of a difference) when he came face to face with the boomerang buffoon from the Avatar’s gang. While wearing an apron and offering to serve him tea. The exiled prince had every certainty in his mind that if he didn’t do something fast, this idiot whose name escaped him at the moment would do something to mess up he and his uncle’s precarious refugee status. So, putting his best blasé, indifferent look on his face, the teashop assistant returned to his duty with gritted teeth.
“What type of tea would you like?” the light-skinned teen ground out. He crossed his arms and glared at the currently petrified younger boy.
“Tea?” the somewhat slow tribesman yelped. “Right! Tea!” He picked up his menu and pretended to glance over it for a few moments before he dropped it with a ‘thump’ and stood up. “Well, you know, there are just so many different types that look so good, I just can’t decide! So I guess I’ll just be going—!”
Zuko grabbed Sokka’s arm before he could make a speedy exit. A fake semi-pleasant look was plastered on the permanent grouch’s face. “You’ll have the house blend,” he growled around the fake smile. “And since you seem to like tea so much, I’m sure you’d love to meet my uncle. In the kitchen. Now.”
A nervous laugh bubbled out of Sokka’s throat as he glanced around the medium-sized, completely full shop. About half the customers were watching their little scene, most with either hidden or outright amusement at “Mushi’s crazy nephew”. There was definitely no escaping, but the blue-clad boy took comfort in the fact that Zuko probably wouldn’t kill him when there were so many potential witnesses near, especially the two Dai Li agents hidden in the corner sipping at their tea. He hoped.
The fire nation prince manhandled his pseudo-enemy into the back, where the quaint old teashop owner stood brewing new tea.
“Uncle,” he announced himself, giving the brown-haired boy a slight shove once the door had been shut behind him.
Iroh turned around and took in the scene before him. The young water tribesman stood there chewing on his lip and shifting from foot to foot. His pissed-off looking nephew blocked the door, glaring harshly at the unlucky companion of the Avatar.
“Oh, hello, young man!” the former general addressed Sokka cheerfully as he turned back to his pot. “Would you like a cup of tea?” He continued to stir his brew with one hand as he waved his other hand through the steam to relish the smell of perfectly prepared hot tea.
Sokka opened his mouth to respond, but was cut off by an annoyed response.
“Does he want a cup of—?! Uncle! Don’t you know who this is?” Zuko couldn’t say he was shocked at Iroh’s response. After all, he’d been travelling with his eccentric relative for over three years. Some things you just learned to accept at face value.
That didn’t mean the fire prince wasn’t fuming at his uncle’s seeming indifference, though.
“Oh, yes. That’s the nice young man who travels with the Avatar! How have you and your friends been? Especially that nice young lady—Toph, was it? You know, she and I had a really interesting conversation when I offered her some tea once. ”
“Yeah, Toph’s, uh...good...I guess. But I want to know—!”
“Exactly!” Zuko cut Sokka off again. “He travels with the Avatar.”
“Nephew,” Iroh replied lightly, still intent on fixing his tea, “I’m sure this lovely young man just wants some tea, right?”
“Uh...yeah! Tea! That’s all I want. It’s not like I’m going to go back to Aang and tell him about this or tell the earth king that Fire Nation have invaded Ba Sing Se! Or anything.” Sokka nodded his head as if to emphasize his statement and turned around to meet the glaring face of the exiled prince.
“You’re not telling anyone about this!” Zuko hissed, folding his arms. “All we’re trying to do is hide out peacefully in Ba Sing Se because my crazy sister is trying to kill me—”
“Your sister is crazy.”
“—and not get caught which could, hey, I don’t know, get us killed! Do we really look like we’re out to hurt someone right now? I mean, we’re running a teashop! A freaking teashop! We are serving people tea! Do you understand that? Do you think this is all for fun? That one day I decided, ‘Hey, Uncle, let’s go live in Ba Sing Se for a while and serve tea!’ Of course not! And I don’t have time to worry about you going around telling people about this between my sister trying to kill me, hiding out in the middle of enemy territory, and being forced to deal with—”
“Oi! Li!” A loud, rambunctious voice called from outside of the kitchen.
“—Him,” the unlucky teen finished forlornly, smacking his forehead.
“Oh, don’t worry, nephew.” Iroh smiled at his nephew, wiping his hands on his apron as he moved to the door. “I will talk to your friend for you. What was his name again? Jet? Oh, that’s right! He’s such a helpful young man!” the retired general muttered to himself as he exited.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Sokka exclaimed. “Jet? Smooth-talking, hook-sword wielding, wheat-chewing Jet? Freedom fighter, hates the fire nation? That Jet?”
Zuko looked out from under his hand. “Why, you know him?”
The water tribesman scoffed. “Of course I know him, he’s my sister’s ex. How do you know him?”
“We met on the boat into Ba Sing Se, and, damn it! The guy’s obsessed. He won’t stop stalking me!”
“Yeah, like you’re one to talk about obsession or stalking.”
“First of all, I had (and still have) a reason for hunting the Avatar. Second of all, it’s not like I spied on any of you bathing naked or broke into your campsite to sniff your clothes!”
Silence for a second, and then, “...Wait, you didn’t do any of those things, right?”
While the two unhappy teens stood in the kitchen talking, the third and final unhappy boy stood out front, trying to wait to see the current object of his affection. Jet would normally have been happy and enjoying such a pleasant day that had been bequeathed upon the earth kingdom, but today wasn’t like most other days. For weeks, the poor young Freedom Fighter had been trying to catch the attention of the teashop waiter who he’d met on the boat into the city, but Li just ignored him...or tried to kill him, it really depended on the shorter boy’s mood. Even when Mushi had gotten his own teashop and his nephew had moved to the upper ring with his uncle, Jet had still found a way to sneak into the upper ring to stalk/spy on/see Li every day. Today was day fifty-three in his endeavours, and so far, everything was going the same. He stood outside of the teahouse, waiting for the object of his desire to make his way out to try and stop Jet from causing a scene (as he was prone to do—everyday). Instead, though, out came Mushi.
“Good Afternoon, Jet,” the old man greeted with a pleasant smile. “It is a pleasure to see you today as every day. However, I must ask that you refrain from shouting out to my nephew whenever you get here. It’s bad for business, you know, but if you really need to see Li today, he’s in the kitchen with a friend. I could definitely use some help with the dishes.”
Jet scratched his head and chewed on the wheat stalk sticking out of his mouth in thought. On one hand, he really didn’t feel like washing any dishes. On the other, it was condoned Li-stalking time. Putting on his fakest smile, the teen grinned. “Of course I’ll help!” he announced. “You know me. Always willing to help a nice old guy out with his dishes.” For a sweet glimpse of your nephew’s ass, the dark-haired boy tacked on mentally, making his way into the teashop, past the patrons, through the door to the kitchen, and then—
“Hey, L—Sokka?!” Instead of being greeted by the wonderfully harsh glare of the moody waiter, Jet found himself meeting the not-so-great harsh glare of a very familiar blue-clad watertribesman. Li stood slightly behind him, completely ignoring the both of them as he scrubbed at filth-ridden dishes.
“Wonderful! You know each other already!” Mushi exclaimed, entering behind Jet. Suddenly, the old man was struck with a wonderful idea. A horrible idea. A wonderful, horrible idea. With a sly smile, he continued, “Sokka here is our newest employee. “
“Wait, I’m what?!” The blue-eyed boy complained. “I never agreed to that! I don’t even know how long I’m going to be in the city! I don’t even want a job!” As usual, his protests were ignored.
“He doesn’t know how long he’ll be staying in the city, but he said that he could use the money on his travels.”
“I said no such thing!”
“Look,” Zuko quietly interrupted with a sigh, turning from his dishwashing, “Don’t bother arguing, he’ll just ignore you and then force you to do what he wants anyway. How do you think I got stuck working here? Besides, if you’re here and we’re here, you’ll always know what we’re doing, now, won’t you?”
Sokka frowned, leaning back against the wall next to the sink. “Are you openly inviting me to stalk you? No wonder you’ve got such a problem with Jet. You’re practically asking for it.”
Zuko’s good eye twitched slightly, and the younger teen suddenly found it in his best interest to shut up lest he ended up fried and served as a snack.
“Sure, I’d definitely love to work here, too!” Jet’s loud, boisterous voice cut into Zuko’s intimidation.
The Fire Nation boy snapped to attention, focussing back on his uncle and stalker’s conversation. He could not have heard what he just thought he’d heard. No way.
“Isn’t it wonderful, nephew? Two new, hardworking employees, all in the same day!”
“Uncle!” he cried. “You can’t do this to me!”
“Stop talking nonsense, Li, this isn’t about you.”
As the two relatives continued to argue back and forth, Jet sidled up next to Sokka, smirking down at the younger, shorter water tribesman.
“So…” he began. “How’s Katara?”
Sokka punched him.
Chapter 2: One Big, Cosmic Joke
It was days like this that Sokka wondered when his life had turned into a big, cosmic joke. Actually, scratch that. He knew when it happened. It happened the day Katara was born, all cute big eyes and cool waterbending skills and innate ability to make her older brother look like an idiot. But during some point since he started this journey with Aang (this futile attempt to save the world), the spirits seemed to have started taking delight in torturing him, personally.
Which is how Sokka found himself here. The Jasmine Dragon. Serving tea in an apron, with Zuko (prince of the spirits-damned Fire Nation) and Jet (…yeah, that same psycho Jet who tried to destroy a whole village). On the bright side, Iroh was pretty cool now that Sokka had taken the time to get to know him. And he paid well. If Sokka kept this up (and Aang didn’t go spending money they didn’t have on useless things like whistles) Team Avatar would probably have enough money to finish their quest and destroy the Fire Lord. Once they found Appa, of course.
All in all, though, Sokka had to admit that the job wasn’t that bad. He’d been working here for all of five days, and it turned out that working in such a city-renowned teashop had great benefits. Namely, eye-candy. Like that girl with the braided pigtails who had come in every day since he started. From the scowl Zuko got on his face whenever the scarred teen noticed her, Sokka assumed she’d been coming in for even longer than his measly five days. So, in that way, life at the Jasmine Dragon was pretty damn good. Even Mr. Moody-Fire-Nation-Price wasn’t a problem as he tended to sit in the back room being emo too himself while brewing the tea (turns out he was grateful that Iroh had hired the extra help after all. He only ever needed to deal with people when the place got extremely packed—usually about two hours every day). No, the problem was a certain Freedom Fighter with a penchant for hitting on his favourite baby sister. The wheat-chewing boy had been bugging him for the past week: today, especially. And if there was one thing Jet had in droves, it was clearly stalker-tendencies. Every step the blue-clad teen took, every move he made, Jet was there on his heels. And exiled princey over there had to deal with this almost every day?
Sokka almost felt bad for Zuko. Almost.
“Hey, Sokka,” Jet, speaking of the slimy bastard, sidled up next to him.
“Don’t talk to me,” the water tribe boy ordered, picking the tray with Iroh’s freshly-brewed, freshly-poured tea, and turning to deliver it to cute pigtailed girl who was staring at Mr. Emo-pants himself, a love-struck grin spread across her dainty face
“Sure, why not. That girl’s been eyeing Li for days, and he’s completely oblivious. I think she’s going to make her move.” The smirk that was plastered on Jet’s face clearly read, ‘I’m a genius’. Which he so wasn’t. Sokka had called it from the first day on the job—not that the stalker would remember.
“Ignoring you,” he replied instead of pointing this fact out.
“Yeah, okay,” Jet shrugged, his own tray full of tea almost spilling with the movement. “Bet you two gold coins that he completely blows her off.”
Sokka snorted, shooting a bemused look at the current object of his ire. “Like hell that’ll happen. You’re on.” Clearly Jet wasn’t factoring Iroh into the equation. Sokka rolled his eyes, turning away from his fellow employee to drop the tea off at his table. And now that the lovely young lady there had been served, it was break time. Which also meant time to sit back and win two gold coins, easy as pie. Shooting an eager grin at his nemesis as he passed, the water tribesman meandered over to the sequestered table that the two had claimed as their own during breaks. He plopped himself into the seat against the wall and mentally prepared himself as he watched the girl finish her tea. A few seconds later he was joined by said nemesis, and the other boy seemed perfectly content to stalk Zuko to his heart’s content. The two turned to each other, shared a look, and then sat back to watch the fireworks.
Meanwhile, Zuko, Mr. Emo-pants himself, was absolutely positive that his life was a big, cosmic joke. The universe simply took pleasure in taunting him, in creating situations that it knew would cause him pain and agony, be it physical or mental. The spirit world was out to get him and him alone. No one else. Just him, banished prince of the fire nation.
Let it never be said that Zuko was not paranoid. Of course, it’s not paranoia if it’s true. In this case, though, it definitely was paranoia. Approaching his uncle, he glanced around cautiously to make sure that no one was in earshot (especially Jet, the stalking bastard) before he started.
“One of the customers is on to us,” he began. “Don’t look now, but there is a girl over there at the corner table. She knows we’re fire nation.” Iroh raised an eyebrow, turning to glance over his shoulder at this mysterious girl. With a scowl, the teen grabbed the old man’s arm. “Didn’t I say don’t look?!”
A sly smile slid over Iroh’s face as he replied. “You’re right, Zuko. I’ve seen that girl in here quite a lot. Seems to me she has quite a little crush on you!”
The exiled prince froze, a look of horror slipping over his face. He gaped at his uncle like a button-down shirt that was entirely too small. “W-what?” he finally managed.
“Thank you for the tea!” a peppy voice interrupted, and the dark-haired boy turned to see the pigtailed girl there, holding out the money for the payment. Zuko grabbed the money and turned to put it away before she could see the blush that was beginning to form on his face. “What’s your name?” she asked once his back was turned towards her.
Spinning back around, the socially-stunted teenager awkwardly replied, “My name’s Li! My uncle and I just moved here.”
A soft smile was on her face as she stared at him. “Hi, Li, my name’s Jin. Thank you, and…well…I was wondering if you’d like to go out sometime.”
Zuko stared at her blankly.
“He’d love to!” Iroh interrupted, a giant smile on his face. Who knew that after all those years of living on a ship at sea with absolutely no girl’s around, his nephew would turn into quite the lady-killer? Granted, the signs had always been there, what with the young lady Mai, but living with no women changed a boy.
Zuko, meanwhile, continued to stare blankly at Jin.
“Great!” she exclaimed. So what if Li hadn’t agreed himself? She had a date! “I’ll meet you in front of the shop around sundown,” the pigtailed girl concluded, turning to leave. Iroh, still smiling, slung an arm around his taller nephew’s shoulders, finally breaking the boy out of his stupor as the scarred young man turned to glare down at him. Of course, the retired general had dealt with that look for years and just ignored it, giving his very favourite relative a pat on the back before turning back to his brew.
Jet, meanwhile, could’ve laughed…if he didn’t cry, that was. Turns out the joke was on him. All the spirits were probably having a grand old time with the fact that he hadn’t factored the old man into his equation. He turned to face the water tribe boy who was giving him that cocky smirk.
“Pay up,” Sokka chortled. With a scowl, the older boy dug into his pocket and plopped the two coins into his competition’s hands.
“This isn’t over,” Jet growled. There was absolutely no way he was losing to that idiot, not after Sokka had caused him to lose Katara’s favor. The girl had left him stuck to a tree and covered in ice. When the rest of his Freedom Fighters had finally managed to get him out, it had been a wonder to all of them that he hadn’t caught any type of hypothermia. “How about this: double or nothing. I bet you anything he ends up ruining the date tonight.”
Sokka snorted. “Oh, please. If there’s one thing I know, it’s girls. I made out with the moon spirit once, you know. Oh, Yue…” he trailed off for a second, staring longingly into the distance before snapping back to the conversation. “And my current girlfriend? Kick-ass warrior, let me tell you. But like I was saying, I know girls. That’s the type of girl who’ll find all Z—Li’s weird antics adorable. You’re on.”
“Fine,” the tall boy glared. He stood up and stretched, getting ready to return to work. “We meet out here just before sunset to follow them. How does that sound to you?”
“Perfectly agreeable. But, man, Li’s completely right about you. You are a stalker.”
“If I’m a stalker, what does that make you for coming with me?” Jet shot back, placing his wheat stalk back between his lips.
Leaning back in his chair and placing his arms behind his head, Sokka regarded his nemesis coolly. “I’m just a man with a heavily invested interest.”
“Sure you are,” was all the reply he got before the other boy was off helping with closing up the shop for the day. Just as he was about to get up to go help, a dark presence suddenly hovered over him. For a second, a chill went up his spine and Sokka thought it was some dark spirit come to wreak vengeance for an unknown evil. Then he looked up and realized it was just Prince Pouty with his usual penchant for pissy-ness.
“Oh, uh, hey Li,” he greeted, an unusual glint in his bright blue eyes.
Zuko grunted and grabbed Sokka’s arm. “C’mere,” he muttered, dragging the younger boy into the back room.
Sokka raised an eyebrow, definitely curious. The other teen kept twitching, and had begun to pace back and forth.
“Um…I, uh…I kind of—you will help me!” the angry prince finally forced out.
A snort came from the water tribesman as he leaned back against the shelf. He glanced around the small room, taking in the washbasin filled with dirty dishes and the tea supplies stacked around the room before finally settling his gaze on the sweating boy, a sight that was strange in itself because firebenders rarely sweated. Their body heat was unreasonable.
“Okay, I’ll help you,” he finally relented after a moment. “But only because you look so pathetic. Oh, and I’ve got invested interest in this. See, Jet bet me that you’ll end up scaring that girl off on your date tonight—don’t look so surprised, it’s a small teashop, and you guys were pretty loud. At least your uncle was. But like I was saying, Jet had a bet, so there was no way I could refuse it, you know how relentless he is.” Sokka broke off, noticing how hot the room had suddenly become. He glanced at the silently stewing prince.
“You…you guys are betting on me?!” Zuko exclaimed. Anger flowed off of him in waves of heat causing the room to suddenly become stiflingly hot.
“What the hell, Zuko? Calm down before you set something on fire! Unless, of course, you want to be arrested by the Dai Li.” He paused before adding, “Not that I care, or anything. I mean, go ahead. Get arrested. No skin off my back.”
The temperature dropped back to normal and Sokka was met with a look that was singularly not amused, Zuko’s only good eye narrowed. “Let it be said that the only reason I’m agreeing to this stupid date is because it’ll get Uncle off my back and Jet’s an asshole whose face I will beat in again when all this is over. So what do I need to do?”
Sokka paused. “Wait a minute, wait a minute. Did you say again? You mean you’ve beat Jet up before? Seriously? You gotta tell me, c’mon, dude! From one guy who can’t stand him to another.
Huffing, the prince dropped to the floor, stretching his legs out as he gestured for his enemy-turned-coworker to do the same. “Fine. I tell you, you help me, no one else ever hears of this. Got it?”
“Sure, sure,” the water tribesman acquiesced, sliding down to sit across from the scarred boy.
“You know how Jet’s been stalking me?” Zuko asked, though he continued before Sokka could get a word in edgewise. “Well, it didn’t start with the creepy, obsessive, underwear-sniffing type that he’s got going on now. It was a few weeks ago, and he saw uncle bend his tea warmer at the station—we had met on the boat to Ba Sing Se, by the way, and he kept trying to get me to join his stupid Freedom Fighters—and started following us around trying to prove we were firebenders. Which we are, but no one else needs to know that. Anyway, one night I guess he got tired of it and publicly accused us of firebending at the old teashop we were working at while some guards happened to be there. He attacked us to try and get us to defend ourselves by firebending, and I, uh,” Zuko paused, rubbing the back of his neck as a faint blush crossed the bridge of his nose, “I grabbed one of the guards’ dual dao blades and took him on. Almost sliced his head off, too, but the asshole ducked…So, anyways, the Dai Li came and were going to arrest him for ‘disturbing the peace’, but I…might have felt a little bad? I don’t know, it was a stupid moment of insanity, but I told them he was drunk and I’d take him home. Surprisingly they left him alone, and Jet decided I couldn’t possibly be firenation if I’d done something that nice. Bastard didn’t stop stalking me, though. What?” the prince added, seeing the way Sokka was gaping at him.
“Okay, two things: first of all, you took on Jet, master of the hook sword, with dual dao blades? I thought firebenders didn’t lower themselves to things such as weapons. And secondly, did you just say you did something nice?”
Zuko glared at him. “I happen to be a master at dao blades, thank you very much. When you don’t live in Fire Nation territory, which I haven’t since I was thirteen, it helps if you have other forms of defense. I learned that shortly after I was banished.” He fell silent for a moment, and Sokka shot him an indecipherable look before he continued. “And as for Jet, well…temporary insanity, like I said. Besides, the look on his face—it was like kicking a tiger-puppy!” And the look on Sokka’s face got even stranger.
“Um, Zuko, I don’t know if you didn’t get the memo or something, but you’re evil; you’re supposed to do things like kick tiger-puppies.” An extra nod of the water tribe boy’s head gave the statement extra emphasis.
The exiled teenager snorted and shot a disbelieving look at the younger male. “I’m not evil. Azula’s evil. And for the record, she does do things like kick tiger-puppies and throw rocks into turtle-duck ponds for fun. And besides, Azula’s downright friendly compared to my father…” His voice turned slightly bitter during the last bit, and Sokka decided it was officially time for a topic change.
“So!” the tan boy exclaimed, slapping a hand down on his knee. “Girls. Here’s what you need to know…”
Chapter 3: Life Sucks
Zuko sighed as he stepped foot outside of the shop. He had known for quite some time, approximately three years now, that his life sucked. After all, if having your dad decide to burn half your face off for barely any reason at all didn’t tell you that, who knew what did. That wasn’t even getting into his crazy psycho of a little sister or uncle of questionable sanity (who at least had never tried to kill him, so there was a point in Iroh’s favour). Right now, though, this fact was being reinforced in his mind. From the slicked down hairstyle Uncle “Mushi” had forced him into to the fancy clothes Sokka had picked out to the scowl on his face, everything about his look and demeanor screamed out, “I’m going on a date looking like a dork and clearly not happy about it”.
Zuko had never been that hard to read.
Glancing around to see if he could spot his two stalkers for the night, the prince almost missed Jin when she came around the corner. In fact, he probably would’ve missed her entirely had she not announced her presence.
“Hey!” she greeted, a pleasant smile gracing her pleasant face. “Well…look at you! You look so cute!” Zuko’s scowled deepened out of pure frustration when the girl reached out and mussed his hair.
“It took my uncle ten minutes to do my hair!” he protested weakly. So his hair did look kind of stupid. Still, that gave the girl no right to just come and—fix it. It wasn’t like she was his girlfriend or anything. She was definitely not his girlfriend, actually. Fixing his hair was probably just some status thing or something: a “my hair is better than yours”. Her hair had probably taken all of ten seconds to pull into that (kind of cute, actually) ponytail.
Zuko detested people who had hair that manageable. There was a reason the royal palace had about twenty hairdressers on hand at any given time. No one understood just how much work it took to get The Firelord or Azula’s hairstyle just right. In fact, Zuko doubted that Azula even realized just how challenging doing hair was. There was a reason Iroh still did his nephew’s to this day.
The scarred prince was pulled from his musings when his date grabbed his arm. “Come on!” she called. “I know just the place.”
He sighed once more, and completely resigned himself to his fate.
Meanwhile, around the corner of the teashop, two dubious-looking faces appeared.
“It’s basically like I’ve won already, so you might as well just give up now,” Sokka announced, watching the two walk away. “I mean, he snipes at her and she just giggles. There’s no way he’s ruining this.”
Jet pulled back fully around the corner, placing his wheat stalk into his mouth. "The date just started. He could still do something unforgivable. I mean, he’s not the most polite person in the world.”
“And clearly she’s not the most sensitive person in the world. I mean, she’s going on a date with Zu—Li,” the water-tribe boy corrected himself at the last minute. Jet shot him a strange look as he walked out into the now empty street.
“Why do you keep doing that?” the taller teen asked, more suspicious than curious.
“Doing what?” Sokka replied. He meandered out into the street after his sister’s ex-boyfriend and the two began following their designated stalkee.
“You keep going to call Li something else. Some Z-name. Zu-something. Why?”
Sokka paused, momentarily taken aback. It had become something of an unspoken agreement that he would keep the banished prince’s secret, despite all the bad blood between them. After all, working together for the week or so they had, the young watertribesman had come to realize that Zuko wasn’t the mean-hearted, baby-killing, turtleduck burning monster that he had imagined. Sure, the older teen was a tad uncouth, a little rough around the edges, but he’d been living on a ship for three years. Working with him, Sokka had come to realize that his life didn’t suck quite as much as he thought it did. No, Zuko’s sucked. And that scar had a story behind it, one Sokka didn’t know for sure yet, but he’d heard the rumours. So he froze, wondering how to answer the question without giving the prince away. Opening his mouth, he turned to answer.
Jet was unimpressed. As the two continued down the barren, stone streets, he folded his arms behind his head and shot him an even stranger look than before. “You’re hiding something.”
“What?!” Sokka laughed nervously. “No! Of course not! It’s just, he looks like this one guy we had down in the South Pole. Yeah, that’s it. His name was…Zutara! We always used to play…tag out on the icebergs. He would always be it, chasing us around. All the time. Nonstop. And then he got eaten by a tiger-seal, and we were all very sad.”
The tall, wheat-chewing boy gave his companion a disbelieving stare. His scathing reply, however, was cut off as they watched their quarry enter a pretty nice looking restaurant. They glanced at each other, shrugged, and then followed.
Meanwhile, ‘Li’ pretended not to notice the two idiots who had tagged along behind him. As one who was pretty much an expert in the skill of stealth, it was practically embarrassing to see how bad these two were at it—especially because Zuko knew that Jet was better than this. After all, the boy had been stalking him for weeks in a creepy, borderline obsessive kind of way. It was…odd, to say the least, having someone so interested in him. And now it was more than just Jet: it was Jin, too. The girl sat across from him, teacup in hand, staring in a way that was starting to creep him out a tad. He stared down at his food, playing at it in the way his mother had taught him never to do in order to deal with the unnatural silence.
“So,” his date began, startling him as she sipped at her tea. “How do you like the city so far?” Jin smiled at him, and Zuko mentally began to freak. He had no idea how to deal with something like this! Why would Uncle do this to him?
“It’s okay,” he replied disinterestedly, managing to keep a clamp on his emotions.
“What do you like to do for fun?” she tried again, taking another sip.
The two lapsed into silence once more. Zuko was grateful when the waiter suddenly came up. He was most definitely a welcome distraction.
“Excuse me, sir. Would you and your girlfriend care for dessert?”
…And that was absolutely the wrong thing to say. The prince had tried to keep a lid on his rapidly bubbling over emotions, but that made him snap.
“She is NOT my girlfriend!” he shouted, banging his fists on the table. Everyone in the restaurant turned to stare at the temperamental boy, and he turned his head away, continuing to stare into space as the waiter ran off. Jin looked slightly taken aback at his outburst for a second but then seemed to shrug it off and started to pile food into her mouth.
Zuko was panicking, though. This date was not going well at all. He tried to remember what Sokka and Uncle had both told him: “Always remember to compliment her!”
“You have…quite an appetite for a girl,” he tried, twiddling his thumbs.
Jin paused in her eating. “Um…thanks?”
A couple tables over, Jet snorted. “You might as well pay up now, Sokka,” he taunted. “I mean, you’ve practically lost already.”
“I wouldn’t quite count him out yet,” the younger boy shot back, watching their coworker attempt to blunder his way through the questions his date was asking him about where he came from.
Jet frowned for a second before an unsettling smirk drew around his ever-present wheat stalk. “So, Sokka,” he began slyly. The other boy didn’t even so much as turn to look at him, but the Freedom Fighter could still feel the glare that had been aimed at him in thought, if not in action. “You never did tell me how Katara’s been.”
“Making out with Aang a bunch, that’s how she’s been,” came the not-so-happy response from the not-so-happy young man that was currently gripping his chopsticks so hard that they were beginning to crack.
“Yeah, good try,” the tall teen replied, his smirk growing wider as he leaned back in his seat. “There’s no way Katara’s noticed Aang’s googly eyes. Especially not after me. You want to know what we did that night in my room? I can tell you it was more than kissing.” And that smirk was downright perverted now.
Sokka rubbed his face for a second before turning to face his temporary partner, anger glinting in his eyes as he stood up in an attempt to intimidate his sort-of rival. “Jet, I swear to Yue, if you don’t shut up right this instant, I will boomerang you.”
Peering up at his ex-girlfriend’s older brother, the Freedom Figher idly wondered if maybe he was pushing one too many buttons. Then he shrugged and decided to screw it. After all, it wasn’t like Sokka could really beat him in a fight or anything. Although the way he was staring down was kind of creepy. A different approach was probably best called for, he decided.
“Swear to Yue? Who the heck is Yue? Are you making up names now or something?” The way Sokka froze at that informed Jet that that probably hadn’t been the best thing to say.
Sokka would have liked to say that he literally saw red at that comment, but it wouldn’t have been an accurate statement. No, what the young watertribesman saw was more of a very vivid image of Jet’s head on the end of a patented Water Tribe spear. With Zuko cheering on in the background while Toph cackled maniacally, Katara cried, and Aang gave a speech on the evils of violence.
Sokka had always had an overly active imagination.
Either way, what he did at that moment could only be termed in one way: incredibly stupid. With a loud yell, the younger and shorter boy jumped across the table to tackle the person he disliked most in the world.
Zuko was about to attempt juggling in an attempt to please this girl who was smiling at him so charmingly when he heard the yell three tables away. Snapping out of his hormone-induced rage, he turned to see what was going on. A whole new, but much more familiar, kind of rage began to bubble up inside of the banished prince as he watched Sokka tackle Jet.
“Oh Agni, no!” he growled angrily. Part of him wanted to drop his head into his hands and bemoan his fate in life (as he was so prone to doing), but Zuko just couldn’t bring himself to look away. It was the most horrible thing he’d ever seen: his first date about to end horribly and chaotically.
…Okay, so it wasn’t the most horrible thing he had ever seen, but the prince could definitely not think of too many more things that were worse than this, excluding the major ones (like his dad burning half his face off or his sister trying to kill him on a semi-regular basis). This was definitely more horrible than the time he’d nearly been captured by Zhao breaking Aang out of Pohuai Stronghold. Hell, it was worse than the time those pirates had blown his ship up trying to kill him!
“I thought Sokka was supposed to be helping,” he groused to himself as he slipped down in his seat, arms crossed angrily across his chest. Jin glanced at him oddly as she noticed how Zuko had suddenly begun to pout, albeit angrily, but her attention was quickly redrawn to the fight between the two boys, as was Zuko’s.
Jet grappled with Sokka, partially mindful of the tables around, but only so much as it took to slam the other boy down on top of one. The Freedom Fighter growled as he suddenly found himself kicked away and being punched at wildly. He dodged all the loose punches his foe threw, only to accidentally trip over the tray the waiter had dropped in his haste to get away from the feuding boys. Jet was only half aware of the litany of words and curses being thrown at him, but he was distinctly aware of Sokka about to hit him again. Not about to let that happen, the older teen grabbed at his opponent once more, only to find himself in a sort-of stand-off that ended when both went flying onto an occupied table, food flying everywhere, but most likely on top of the guests sitting there.
Jet was about to punch Sokka again when he suddenly realized the other boy had stopped, a slightly horrified appearing in his blue eyes. Jet glanced up to see pretty girl from the teashop and froze as well. It took all the courage in his body (which was quite a lot, actually) to turn and glance at the furious gold eyes glaring down at him with all the loathing they could possibly muster in between the food dripping down the face that held them.
“Uh…h-hey, Li,” he stammered out. At that moment he’d never been more glad for discovering that Li was, in fact, not a firebender. Otherwise, Jet was sure he would be dead within the next few seconds.
Zuko just continued to glare. Food dripping through his hair, on his clothes, on top of his date, everywhere, all the firebender could bring himself to do was glare.
In, out. Breathe in, breathe out. Do not set anything on fire. Breathe in, breath out, was the mantra on repeat in his head. Idly, the prince noted that it was amazing how no one had noticed the lanterns all flickering in unison with his breathing patterns, but from the look in his eyes it appeared that Sokka had. Giving himself a few more moments to make sure nothing was going to spontaneously combust from anger, the former crown prince of the Fire Nation pushed himself up to tower over his two enemies/stalkers-turned-coworkers.
“I’m leaving,” he ground out, food continuing to drip down his forehead. It had managed to make it’s way into his collar, actually, and the feeling of noodles down his shirt was most definitely disconcerting. Zuko contined, “Jet, if you follow me home, I will hurt you.”
Jet gave a slightly nervous laugh as he idly noted his wheat stalk had disappeared from between his lips.
“Sokka,” Zuko began before pausing. He closed his mouth then opened it again before shutting it once more. Sokke ‘eep’ed. Finally, the scarred young men stomped off angrily, leaving his two antagonists and date sitting there covered in food.
“Well, that went better than I expected,” the water tribe boy finally announced.
Meanwhile, Zuko growled to himself as he stormed into the apartment he and his uncle shared.
“How was your night, Prince Zuko?” Iroh asked, and the prince didn’t even bother to reply as he stormed into his room and slammed the sliding doors shut. That was all the response needed.