The Earth King’s palace was too big.
To put it more accurately, the Earth King’s palace was just a little bit bigger than the village Jin had been born into, and comprised mostly of empty stretches of space, seemingly designed so that servers would never be allowed to be anything but out of breath, trying to get from place to place.
“Get these cakes to the reception area! And try not to look so flushed, we can’t afford to show any imperfect-“
“-Imperfections in front of the Fire Lord. I know.”
The cook gave her a milk-curdling look at her sarcasm, but she ignored it, taking the tray of small desserts and power-walking to the reception hall where the Earth Kingdom’s and Fire Nation’s high and mighty would be rubbing elbows in an hour or so. He had already heard enough about the appearance they needed to maintain for the Fire Lord to last a lifetime. She understood it. She really did. It was just that non one else seemed to trust a humble customer service worker to understand the complexities of pleasing difficult guests.
There had been a two-hour seminar for the servers, just to go through the complexities of being a perfect but invisible tray-holder and supplier of drinks for his fiery majesty. As all the advice seemed to boil down to “pretend to be part of furniture when he is near” and “do what ever he tells you”, Jin had thought that the time could have been better spent actually prepping the tables and decorations. Maybe then they wouldn’t be doing the rush job now.
But hey, Jin was just a humble server, what did she know?
Okay, so she wasn’t really complaining. Being selected to serve in the Earth Kingdom-Fire Nation Peace Treaty/Restoration Movement celebration was not only an honour, but also the kind of feather in Jin’s cap that no future employer could ignore when presented with Jin’s CV. She was good at her job, had worked hard to be where she was now, she deserved this.
“The ember-cakes cannot be placed next to the spiced rice! Don’t you know anything girl!”
Jin turned around to face the lined face and the sharp moustache of the man in charge of the table-settings.
“I’m sorry, they didn’t give me any instructions-“
“You should know this. Everyone knows that ember-cakes-“
“I’m sorry sir. I don’t actually work in the kitchens, I’m a server. They just needed extra hands to bring these-“
“If you are a server, then you should be getting into your uniform, instead of messing up my tables.”
“Of course sir. I’m sorry sir.”
“This is what you get hiring staff from the lower rings…” Jin could hear the man mutter as she hurried to the dressing rooms, even if it was much too early for her to get into uniform yet. With years of practice, she balled up the emotion his words caused in her, and then threw the ball away.
Slipping into her dark green server’s dress, Jin took a moment to calm down. She could understand that everyone was prickly and nervous at the moment. To a degree, she was too. She wasn’t unaware of the importance of everything running smoothly today. She knew that this was not the same as serving in a noodle bar in the lower ring, or even serving in a higher scale restaurant in the upper ring. The consequences of things going wrong here were more dire than a brawl between drunk customers or an irritated Ka-Ren yelling to speak to the manager.
Jin wasn’t especially interested in politics, but as a child-refugee, she had first hand knowledge of what politics going wrong did to people.
She could still remember fire from her childhood. She still lived in a shared apartment complex in the lower ring with the other orphans who had been stuck in the same carriage with her those ages ago. She could see the price of failed politics painted on the bodies of her friends, neighbours, customers. In the red welts on Jong’s legs, in the missing leg of Pumi, in the memory of Lee’s burned face.
She understood. She just wished that they weren’t so happy taking their nervousness out on the servers.
For the first few hours Jin is the most perfect server the Earth Kingdom has ever seen. No noble goes without a refill of their glasses. Not a single drop is spilled, not a single ego is ruffled. Jin is always where she is needed, never where she is unwanted, invisible but helpful part of the hall’s furnishing.
The star of the evening hasn't even announced himself yet, hushed whispers telling of meetings stretching longer than expected, which seems strange considering that this is supposed to be a celebratory visit, to mark the ending of the long treaty negotiations.
She doesn’t mind though. She’s sure that none of the servers mind. They have all been drilled with warnings about the Fire Lord. The young warrior from the bloodline of mad conquerors. At least with the Earth Kingdom nobles, you aren’t in danger of being turned into a heap of ashes if you spill wine on them.
But she will also be a little bit disappointed if she doesn’t see the Fire Lord in the flesh. She was planning on telling this story to her grandchildren one day.
Maybe it’s the comfort of everything going so smoothly that lulls her into false sense of security, which allows for the absolute disaster that happens next.
She could also try and defend her actions by pointing out that she has never seen even a picture of the new Fire Lord, but that she had been very well acquittanced with Lee’s customer service voice. Had been pretty well acquittanced with Lee himself, if only for a brief period of a time, once.
Their date had been a disaster, but in the absolutely best way possible. In the way that demands to be told as a story to your friends, but with a tone of fondness and laughter towards yourself. And Lee had been sweet, even if he clearly had the unfortunate condition of being a firebender taking refuge in a city that would take his head for it.
Jin was no snitch though, and Lee was pretty great to hang around with, so she had gently bullied him into a friendship after she had ascertained that the cute boy wasn’t ready to start dating yet. Jin got that too. It had taken Jin time too, before she could feel comfortable in Ba Sing Se. Before she could be comfortable with other people. But everybody needed friends, especially those who work in customer service. It hadn’t taken long for Lee to get used to their post-work, worst customer of the day discussion.
So, what the fuck was she supposed to think when she stood in the middle of the hall, holding a tray filled with champagne flutes, and heard the familiar notes of Lee’s barely restrained, sing-song, customer service voice mixed with the general susurrus of the crowd.
“Of course general. And while this is certainly an issue I will look forwards to discussing with you, it really must happen at a later date.”
She doesn’t really have time to form any coherent theories to how it could be that what she clearly is hearing is true. Maybe, she vaguely thinks that somehow, she had just missed Lee amongst all the other servers this whole evening. She isn’t really thinking, which is the root of the whole disaster, but she doesn’t really have time to. She just walks towards the voice, keeping her gait steady and professional on autopilot, while screaming on the inside. Because last she had heard of Lee and his uncle, the two had been invited to serve tea in this very palace, palace that had at the same day been invaded by the Fire Nation, and no one had heard of Lee and his kind uncle again.
She had refused to think about Lee and Mushi caught in the crossfire, their bodies mangled quite possibly on this very floor, just a little over a year ago.
But she knew Lee’s voice, and that was definitely-
The Fire Lord
She stood directly in front of the Fire Lord, his red robes shimmering like living fire and the crown shining golden like the sun on his head.
It’s not the Fire Lord. It’s not the Fire Lord, it’s fucking Lee standing there in front of her, for some incomprehensible reason dressed like Fire Nation royalty, and her brain completely stops working, which is the only explanation for what comes out of her mouth next.
“Lee!! What are you doing here!!??”
It’s amazing how well sound carries in the vast room, and how quickly silence can overtake a group even as big as this one.
She has the disorienting experience of having a weirdly layered picture of the man in front of him, because that is definitely Lee, but she also knows what the golden flame crown on his head means, and- it’s Lee, but it’s the Fire Lord, but it’s Lee, but-
“Jin”, says the Fire Lord, quiet enough that only Jin can hear him, looking uncertain, just like Lee always did-
“HOW DARE YOU! Disrespecting the Fire Lord like that-!” There is a man suddenly next to her, an older Fire Nation noble of some kind, Jin doesn’t really know, but he is raising his hand and-
There is pain on her face, and she is suddenly sprawled on the cold stone floor, wet now with Champagne and glittering with broken glass. It takes her a moment to understand that she has been hit, slapped in the face. It takes her an even longer moment to realise that her face feels like it is burning because it is. She has been slapped by a firebender, a firebender whose hand had been glowing with heat.
Maybe the time working in an upper ring restaurant has made her forget what the world can be like, because her first thought is: Shit. I’m going to be so fired from this job.
Then she thinks: Shit. That’s the Fire Lord. That’s not Lee, that’s the Fire Lord, and shit, she might about to be fired- fired.
And then she looks up and-
She looks up at the Fire Lord standing directly over her. She looks up at the Fire Lord, who is looking down at Jin. Who is looking down at Jin kneeling in front of him, with an angry red burn, shaped like a handprint, on her face.
Jin forgets that she is looking up at the Fire Lord, because in that moment she realises that between them, she is not the one who is the most scared. There is something wrong with Lee, (and it is Lee, she knows it in that moment more clearly than anything else) and Lee needs help.
She’s seen this before, never on Lee, they hadn’t been close enough for that, but with others. Some of her fellow servers, fellow refugees, would sometimes freeze like this, their eyes going distant and seeing some horrors from the past, unable to comprehend the moment and place their body was currently inhabiting.
More than once, an angry customer getting too close, or a loud sudden noise, had triggered Jin’s fellow employees and forced them all to come up with unofficial protocols on how to deal with it.
The protocol was roughly: You don’t leave a fellow worker alone, and you always side with your fellow worker, not with the customer and not with the boss. In a city like Ba Sing Se, where it hadn’t been allowed to speak of the war, and where most carried scars, it was crucial that you had your fellow worker’s back. They had no one else, so they had to have each other.
This was a truth she knew, a belief so strong that it allowed her to ignore the crown and the robes and elbow her way past the Fire Nation nobleman who was still talking, even if Jin hadn’t heard a word, and pushed close to Lee, who was shaking uncontrollably.
“Hey,” she whispered, pushing close to his field of vision. “let’s get out of here.”
“Jin,” he said again, now clearly asking.
“yeah. It’s me.”
His eyes zero onto the red mark on her face, and a terrible choked off moan escapes him and the trembling intensifies, while whatever lucidity there had been in his eyes, is gone. His eyes go to roam around the gathered and whispering nobles in the vast hall, and it is clear that he is seeing somewhere else.
That’s enough of that for Jin, who quickly slips a hand around Lee’s waist, taking his hand in her other, and turns him around where he knows the servants’ exit to be.
“I’m sorry sir. I’ll have someone clean up this mess in a second.” She says on customer service autopilot to the nobles staring at her like she had grown a second head, and efficiently manhandles Lee away from the scene.
She determinately ignores the feeling of silk beneath her fingers. The vibrant red her friend is wrapped in. Instead she focuses on the soft sobs that he is trying to supress, desperate half-words (please, please, no, no, father-) that are whispered into her ear as she drags him towards the kitchen.
She kicks open the kitchen door, and then makes a straight line towards the cooler. She is aware of the stares of kitchen staff, as they see the boy wrapped in red robes walked through the room. Her small body is not enough to shield the taller and bulkier form of Lee (and the royal garments don't help, meant to be flashy and space-consuming, to draw attention) but she does her best.
“There’s broken glass in the main hall that needs to be cleaned!” She yells at the people gawking at her and then yanks open the heavy door to the cooler room.
“Is that the FIRE LORD!?” She hears yelled at her back, as she kicks the door closed behind her.
The cooler is well insulated, silent, cold room. Barrels filled with ice and perishables are lined up against the stone walls. Only the smallest of windows lets light in, and the shadowy space could be from another world entirely. The Golden Lotus also has a room like this, and she has taken a fellow workers to calm themselves in it before. The cold and the half-light usually helped, after the hustle and bustle of the restaurant.
Lee falls down, sitting back against a barrel filled with lobster-eels and becomes a small, softly crying ball.
Jin really, really can’t ignore the crown tightly woven into his hair. Or the luxurious red robes pooling down on the floor. She is going to need answers, and pretty soon, but for now it looks like Lee is in no shape to give them.
Someone tries to open the door, and Jin quickly kicks it closed again, and then jams a broomstick against the door, making sure that no one will be able to just barge in.
Then she goes to Lee, carefully trying to pry his hands away from his face. Tries to see his eyes.
(And the scar is there, she has of course seen it before, but now it seems so much bigger, more ragged, more alarming. The slight irritation on Jin’s cheek is nothing compared to it, but she can see that the old scar is shaped like a handprint too, and she can imagine the vague outlines of what might be going on in her friend’s head)
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry-“ Her friend keeps repeating like a mantra, and Jin isn’t sure if he is apologising to her, or to some shadow from his past.
Carefully, she wraps her friend in an embrace, his head coming to rest on her stomach, and his hands nervously, like seeking permission, wrap around her lower back.
The sharp top of his crown digs unpleasantly between her ribs, but she ignores it.
She holds him, absentmindedly petting his hair, while her mind wonders whether she is having a very vivid dream after all. It could happen. They say that in dreams your mind uses the faces of people you have known to fill in for the people you don’t know. Maybe she would wake up soon and laugh incredulously at her subconscious that had dressed Lee up in the Fire Lord’s robes.
It is completely silent in the well-insulated cooler-room, and Jin can easily hear as Lee’s breathing goes from the shallow and panicked to calmer and steadier. As his breathing becomes more normal, his awareness of the situation also seems to come back.
“Oh no.” He mumbles in Jin’s dress, before quickly pulling back, like Jin’s touch was suddenly now the one burning him. “Oh, Agni no. Jin? Is it really-“
“Yeah, it’s me. The real question is that Lee, is it really you?”
“We need to get you to a healer, right now!” Lee stands up and reaches with his hand towards Jin’s red cheek, before yanking his hand back, looking desolate and miserable. “Your face-“
“It’s not that bad.” Jin shrugs. “But I really want some answers-“
“No, we need to get you to a healer right now, or it might scar-“
“Lee, why are you dressed as THE FIRE LORD!”
Lee blinks. “Because...I am the Fire Lord?”
Now it’s Jin’s turn to blink like an idiot. She wants to ask how? Or maybe why? Or maybe even just what?
Lee doesn’t give her time. He grabs Jin’s hands and drags her towards the door. “I have a friend here who is a healer, she can help you, don’t worry, I’ll fix this-“
He removes the broomstick and opens the door, only to come face to face with fire nation royal guards, looking very out of place in the already packed kitchen.
Lee does not slow down, only orders the guards to stand down, dragging Jin straight through them. Jin keeps her chin up, refusing to be intimidated by the heavily armoured fire nation soldiers, that had haunted the world’s collective nightmares for so long.
As they appear out of the kitchen, the man who had slapped Jin stands there, waiting.
Jin could feel Lee’s grip on her arm tighten momentarily.
“General Zhou. You are thereby stripped of your position in the council.”
“But Fire Lord! I am a loyal general of the fire nation and have-“
“You burned a servant!”
“But your highness-!”
“Leave! While you still have your land and titles.”
The man bowed away from the situation faster than Jin had ever seen anyone do before. In the surrealness of the situation, Jin almost felt sorry for the man.
“Come Jin. We need to find Katara. She said she and Aang wanted to check out the gardens-“
And Lee started to walk towards the main hallways, the official route, but Jin knew better.
“If we want to get to the gardens, I know a shortcut. C’mon.”
Lee switched directions on her tug easily, and the two disappeared behind a small unnoticeable door, Jin leading him through a maze of plain corridors. The same corridors that she only few hours ago had been hurrying through with a plate of ember-cakes, worrying about the Fire Lord catching any imperfections in their table-settings.
“I really need some answers now, Lee. Are you really the Fire Lord? And how-?”
“My name. It’s Zuko. Jin I’m so sorry, but I wasn’t honest about my identity back then-“
Jin rolled her eyes in familiar way at Le-Zuko’s awkward fumbling. “Well, yes obviously I knew that. You weren’t exactly a good liar. I mean that stunt with those lanterns, do you have any idea how worried I was that you would pull something like that again and get caught by the Dai li.”
“Why didn’t you turn me in?”
“Because you are my friend, you dumbass!”
“What do you mean, oh? We used to hang out almost every night.”
“That’s not- Aaagh. But that doesn’t explain- I mean. From a firebending refugee to the Fire Lord! What the fuck man?”
“Yeeeeaah…You see…I was kind of the fire nation’s prince in exile at the time.”
What the fuck? What is even Jin’s life right now. The theory that she was still dreaming was not entirely off the table at this point, because, once again, what the fuck?
Princes didn’t go into hiding amongst the common folk in real life. That was the kind of thing that happened in plays. It was believable in Love Amongst the Dragons, not in real life. Fire nation prince couldn’t have been living in the lower ring of Ba Sing Se, sneaking off for cheap beers with Jin in her small crappy apartment and complaining about the shitty, run-off-the-mill asshole customers that also frequented the noodle shop where Jin worked. It was just so…unheroic and average.
She stopped in the empty hallway and turned to look at Le-Zuko. Her friend.
“Is this real? You are absolutely serious about this? The crown prince, working in Pao’s tea-shop?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry I lied to you.”
An he really looked like he was sorry, the fucking fire lord, looking like a kicked puppy because he thought that Jin was angry at him.
She couldn’t help it when the short laugh burst out of her. She regretted it when L-Zuko looked even more like a kicked puppy.
“It’s okay. I mean, I probably wouldn’t have believed you anyway if you had told me the truth, you know. Because that’s…damn.”
“Yeah. So, you…forgive me.”
“Yes, I forgive you, idiot.”
Looking at Zuko’s fidgeting hands, Jin made a snap decision and grabbed one of them to shake.
“Maybe we should introduce ourselves again. Hi! I’m Jin, I live in Ba Sing Se and work at the Golden Lotus restaurant as a waitress.”
Zuko gave her a bemused smile, but played along.
“Hi. I’m Zuko. I live in Caldera City, and I’m….the new fire lord. The Golden Lotus? Really? That's great!”
"Yeah. I've been moving up in the world."
There was a moment that Jin took just to marvel at the utter nonsense that her life had suddenly turned into and then decided to just go to hell with it and give her friend a hug.
It was nice. Until the fabric of Zuko’s robes touched against her cheek, and she suddenly remembered what had started this topsy-turviness of her life.
Zuko immediately pulled back as he heard the soft hiss of air sucked between Jin’s teeth.
“Right! We need to find Katara!”
Jin led the way to the gardens, and once there, Zuko immediately rushed towards a dark-skinned girl admiring the Orchids with a short bald boy besides her.
“Katara! We need your help!”
The girl turned around, and looked a bit confused at the sight she was presented with. The panicking fire lord dragging a waitress behind him. “Zuko, hey! What’s wrong?”
“It’s Jin. That absolute asshole Zhou burned her face! Katara you have to help-“
“Calm down Zuko!” The girl- Katara- removed Zuko to sit at the edge of a fountain with ease of someone who is used to manhandling the fire lord on daily basis. Then she turned to face Jin, and Jin couldn’t help but be a bit nervous under the scrutiny. She turned her face this way and that and guided her to sit down at the same fountain-ledge. The water from the fountain jumped up and gathered at the girl’s hands.
Of course, Jin stared. She had never seen waterbending before. She hadn’t seen actual water-tribe people before either.
The waterbender smiled at her, and pressed a hand covered in water against her burn. “It must not feel pleasant, but it isn’t that bad. You won’t even have a mark left after it heals.”
From the corner of her eye, Jin could see Zuko sag in relief. Apparently Katara could too, from the flicker of sympathy in her eyes, as they flicked towards him.
“What happened?” she asked, looking at Jin again.
“Ah.” Jin tried to play it cool. “Funny story actually, I kind of disrespected the fire lord in the middle of all these nobles- and well, the fire nation general did not think it was neat at all.” Her forced laugh was quickly cut off by a growl from said fire lord.
“It is not funny at all. It was no excuse to do what he did to you-!”
“Zuko. We know.” The short bald boy had stepped up and was now squeezing Zuko’s shoulder. He had kind eyes, and there was something about the boy that was tickling at Jin’s memory. “What happened to the general?”
“I fired him.” Zuko spat. Then seeing the boy’s uncertain look, elaborated. “Kicked him out of the council- not, you know.” He wiggled his fingers. “But maybe I should have.”
“You know that’s not true, Zuko. It’s not who you are.”
“I know.” Zuko slumped against the hand that was on his shoulder. Looking at the two of them, the memory suddenly opened in her mind. The arrows. The orange robes.
“Wait is that the AVATAR!?”
The boy (THE FUCKING AVATAR) turned around and smiled at Jin, a smile that could put even the sun to shame.
“Hi, Zuko’s friend! You can call me Aang!”
What the fuck was her life even?