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I swear that I dreamed a kiss that I kept

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It starts because of Smellerbee. …Ok, maybe Jet should shoulder some of the responsibility, what with him having been the one to loudly open the front door to their house and shout, “he’s back! That fucking Firebender is back and he has a tea shop now!”

Smellerbee and Longshot immediately look alarmed. Unfortunately, Jet doesn’t miss the glance they share; they’re more worried about him than the news he brought.

So Jet forces himself to breathe. He isn’t a kid anymore. And even if the Dai Li are no longer around… no, he doesn’t simply throw himself into conflicts without using his head anymore. “You remember Mushi, right?” Smellerbee and Longshot nod. “Turns out he’s the Dragon of the West!”

“Wait, what?” Smellerbee sounds completely flabbergasted. Thank you! That is the correct reaction to have when finding out the old man who’d once made it into Ba Sing Se under the excuse of being a refugee is the same man who led a six-hundred-day siege on that same city some years back.

“Look, I know how this sounds, alright? But I’m serious. You know the new tea house, in the Upper Ring, that everyone’s been talking about?” They both nod, “well, I went there today. And I saw him there.”

“Are you sure he wasn’t just a guest? Why would the uncle of the Firelord own a tea house?”

Jet blinks, then freezes because… holy shit.

“Holy shit,” he whispers. “Guys… do you know what this means?”

Longshot blinks, Smellerbee slowly shakes her head.

“If Mushi is the Dragon of the West,” Jet says slowly, “then...”

“Holy shit,” Smellerbee says on an exhale and Jet’s glad he’s not the only one completely freaking out over the possibility that once upon a time, they had stolen food next to the current Firelord. And Jet had found him cute, but that isn’t something Jet thinks about. Ever. “And you’re sure it was him?”

“Yes, Smellerbee,” Jet says, looks her in the eyes, and suddenly he’s afraid his oldest friends aren’t going to believe him, are going to call him paranoid or-

“We believe you,” Smellerbee says, Longshot nodding next to her and Jet lets out a relieved sigh. “What are we going to do, then?”

Jet opens his mouth, because the answer is quite clear: “kill him”. But he closes it without any word coming out. Think. Jet can’t just kill the Firelord’s uncle. There will be no place for him to hide, not when the Firelord – Li, what the fuck – has been bettering the relations between the Fire Nation and the rest of the world since he was first crowned. Crowned, as a teenager. Jet remembers hearing about the Firelord back then, about the scar he had on his face, the scar his father gave him as he banished him.

… Wow, this all makes a crazy amount of sense when you have just one piece of the puzzle.

“I don’t know,” Jet finally forces out, Smellerbee and Longshot simply waiting him out. “But I can’t… we can’t do nothing. He just…” Jet clenches his jaw, forces himself to breathe slowly, in and out, in and out. He takes a couple seconds on his next exhale. “He shouldn’t simply get to live here among us like he never did anything wrong.”

Jet’s heard the stories. He knows the Dragon of the West – not Mushi, what’s his real name? …what’s Li’s real name? – helped end the war, but it doesn’t change who he is, what he once did. And now he’s just… here, like everything is fine. It pisses Jet the fuck off and he can’t imagine continuing on with his life like everything’s absolutely fine.

“Okay,” Smellerbee’s voice brings him back to the moment, as well as the way she hits a fist against her palm. “We need to get back at him.”

Jet blinks. Smellerbee smiles, showing off her teeth. “I have the perfect idea.”

.

So, like Jet had said: it’s all Smellerbee’s idea. And what exactly had it consisted of? Easy. “Hit him where it hurts.” (No, not killing the Firelord, even Jet is aware of how completely insane that sounds.) No, what the Dragon of the West – Iroh, Jet now knows – loves, is tea.

No, Jet, Smellerbee and Longshot do not burn down his tea house. That would simply cause a setback; he’s rich, he can easily rebuild.

No, what they do is much, much better.

Jet gets a loan and he opens up his own tea house. Smellerbee and Longshot decide they would like their own enterprise, and take one of their own to start an inn, the two places side by side outside the walls of Ba Sing Se, where they’d moved not too long after the war had ended and people no longer had to live on top of one another. The city had never been Jet’s thing, anyway; he was perfectly happy with only going inside for his odd jobs as a builder or helper.

The thing is, Jet is a very good tea brewer, despite what most people might think.

He lived in a forest for most of his life, after all. He’d had to get creative and sure, there had been some mishaps – never deadly, thank you very much, if not necessarily… not smelly –, but the point is: Jet knows plants and flowers and he knows what to mix and not mix to get the best teas.

The point is: the plan… works!

The tea house actually is a success. At first, it’s mostly the travelers who visit his tea house – The Hidden Firebender because he’s nothing if not petty –, sometimes in or out of Smellerbee’s and Longshot’s inn – A House on the Road –, but eventually people start coming from inside the city as well.

Jet is now the proprietor of a very popular tea house. As far as plans go… this might just be his most successful one to date.

.

Zuko cannot believe what he’s hearing. He would ask if this is a joke but he already knows the reply: uncle Iroh will puff off his chest, shake his head and say, “tea is never a joke, nephew.”

Still… he wants him to spy on a rival tea shop, really?

Zuko crosses his arms, “why don’t you go yourself?”

“Nephew!” Uncle puts a hand against his chest, fingers extended. Ah, here come the dramatics. “I can’t be seen in another tea shop! Imagine what the people would say… that I’m stealing from them?? Or worse! That I can’t brew my own tea??” Zuko thinks there might actually be tears around uncle Iroh’s eyes at the thought. Or maybe, it’s just a way to make Zuko fall for it. Not that it’s exactly hard, not when it’s his uncle.

He softens his gaze, “fine. What do you want me to do, then?”

“I need detailed information on taste, consistency, ingredients, serving temperature, presentation, the ambience of the tea shop, prices, server attitude and, of course, the most important: the aura.”

“The aura?” Zuko asks, can already feel a headache coming on because… what? Just what was that list? He’s already forgotten most of the items. (Not the server attitude one, though.)

Uncle nods. He looks serious. He leans forward, so their faces are closer together. “The aura of the main tea brewer.”

Zuko blinks. Then he nods because honestly… he might as well just along with it. “Could you write all that down for me?”

“Of course, nephew! And thank you so much, truly. You don’t know the favor you’re doing this old man. I know our tea houses are in completely different places in the city, but one must always know the competition.”

Zuko shakes his head fondly at his uncle. Apparently, he has a tea house to rate.

.

Zuko has to pretend to be taking a nap so he can escape without his guards. He likes them and doesn’t want to get them in trouble, but there’s absolutely no way he can pass by incognito with them. Even dressed in some old, baggy clothes, hair in a simple braid – crown most assuredly not adorning it –, Zuko’s half afraid people will know who he is, but no one gives him a second glance. Well, sometimes they do, what with the fact he has a pretty big face burn, but nothing beyond that.

He finds the tea shop. And then he stops outside because… what? Just… what?

The Hidden Firebender.

This must be some private joke but what kind of private joke?

Zuko goes inside. It’s a nice place; a large room, kind of takes him back to Pao’s Family Tea House, the tables not too close. Immediately, a girl just a few years younger than him approaches with a big smile. On her, it doesn’t even look just polite, but like she’s genuinely happy to see him.

“Hi! Welcome to The Hidden Firebender. Is this your first time with us?”

“Yes,” Zuko says, is nice enough not to add, “and hopefully my last.”

“Well, this isn’t one of our rush hours, so there’s plenty of space. Do you have a preference?” Zuko shakes his head and the girl – he should probably ask her name. Should he? Is that something people ask waiters? No one ever asked Zuko that, but that might have had something to do with his murder stare. He’s still quite proud of that – leads him to a table not too far from a door that Zuko assumes leads to the kitchen.

She goes and quickly comes back with a menu. “Please don’t hesitate to ask for help.”

“Thanks, I don’t think that’ll be needed,” Zuko assures her because… well, it’s choosing a cup of tea. How hard can it be?

The girl smiles and Zuko thinks there’s some… pity in there? What in the spirits?

He turns his eyes down to the menu as she walks away and… what?

He raises his head back up, the girl is now talking to a couple entering the shop. This must be a joke. Somehow, the owner of the tea house found out Zuko’s here for the owner of the Jasmine Dragon and he’s taking the piss out of Zuko. Zuko doesn’t even blame him for it. But then the couple is sat not too far and he clearly hears the guy say, “I’d like a cup of the tea that helps when you want to quit smoking” while the girl, in a low tone, requests a “cup of tea that helps with menstrual pain.”

… So… not a joke?

Zuko looks back down at the menu, which don’t actually involve any tea names, but descriptions, each one wilder than the last one. Tea that tastes slightly sour but helps with an upset stomach??

Wait… no, it can’t be. It is! This tea house truly does have a cup named tea that tastes good but is apparently poisonous and there’s an actual note beside it that says recommended drinking volume to build up an immunity: one tiny cup every two weeks. …What the actual fuck?

…Oh, oh no. Uncle is definitely not going to like this.

There, right at the end, just above a note that says, please tell the waiter/waitress of any allergy you have, the final tea is called the Dragon that Drowned in Jasmine Tea.

Zuko blinks down at the menu. And then again. He thinks his brain might just have been broken. Just where is he??

“Have you chosen?” The waitress is back, smile on her lips, understanding look in her eyes.

“These sure are… something,” Zuko says, politely, because several years of being the Firelord have taught him that, if nothing else (lies, they’ve also taught him how to run in the most uncomfortable shoes ever. Oh, and to get large robes so that he can put on comfortable shoes instead).

The girl lets out a laugh, like this all makes perfect sense. Well, she works here, doesn’t she? Clearly, she doesn’t find it too wild.

“Personally, I recommend the tea that makes you happy for the day. But,” she lowers her voice, “the shit tea,” she’s blushing, of course she’s blushing, “really does help against diarrhea.”

“That’s good to know,” Zuko says in a strangled tone. The girl nods.

“Jet knows what he’s doing.”

“Wait, what did you just say?”

“Oh, I just said Jet, he’s the owner and brewer, knows his stuff,” she starts giggling. “I don’t know how he found about the tea that makes Firebenders,” again, her voice is lowered, “fart fire.”

Zuko blinks. Oh, he’d missed that one. Yeah, definitely not what he’s choosing.

But wait, back to the point. The owner – and brewer – is called Jet. The tea house is called The Hidden Firebender. There is one tea that is called tea that flows really well after killing a Fire Nation soldier (past).

…Oh spirits no.

Zuko suddenly stands up. The girl is, of course, shocked. She takes one step back.

“I’m sorry, did I say something I shouldn’t have?”

“No,” Zuko shakes his head, “I just…” You just what? Ok, better to simply be honest. When that has ever led him wrong? (Do not start a list, brain.) “I think I know… Jet. Can I go inside your kitchen?”

“Oh, well, that’s… I’ll have to ask him.”

Zuko nods, then after letting out a deep breath – no steam, he’s an adult, thank you very much, he doesn’t simply lose control – he shares, “tell him that… I know why he called the tea house The Hidden Firebender.”

If Jet’s really the owner – the Jet Zuko knows, the Jet he thought had been killed years ago – then he’ll immediately know what Zuko means. And if he isn’t… then Zuko will apologize for the inconvenience and that will be it.

The girl nods, leaves for the kitchen. Zuko stays standing, turns towards it as well.

It’s less than a full minute before someone – tanned skin, brown messy hair, too thin eyebrows, holly shit, it is him – is coming out in a rush.

“You!” Jet yells and Zuko, not to be outdone, yells back, “you!”

The girl – Zuko absolutely needs to find out her name, this is just ridiculous now – is staring between the two of them, eyes wide. If Zuko turned around, he’s sure she’s not the only know; they’re clearly causing a scene.

But he doesn’t turn around. No, because in front of him, is… Jet.

“You’re alive,” Zuko breathes out. Jet immediately narrows his eyes, crosses his arms.

“No thanks to you.”

Oh, he has got it coming. “I’m not the one who decided to attack a perfectly innocent person in the middle of the street!”

“Oh yeah, Mr. I know why you named your tea house The Hidden Firebender? I know who you are now,” Jet smirks, eerily reminiscent of his teenage self, even as he’s now obviously an adult man. “I’m sure everyone,” he elongates the word, “here would too.”

Zuko’s eyes widen. Oh no, his guards cannot find out he left without them! Jet is still smirking, though; Zuko is not letting him win that easily. He crosses his arms, “oh yeah? I’m sure they’d love to know all about you as well.” Yes, he’s playing dirty, no, he doesn’t feel guilt over it. Really!

Jet narrows his eyes. Clenches his jaw. Zuko stops himself from fidgeting. He’s giving as good as he gets, that is all.

Suddenly, Jet relaxes, “how about I make you a cup of tea?”

Zuko vividly remembers that Jet has a tea that makes Firebenders fart fire and shakes his head.

“That’s okay.”

“No, no,” Jet is still smiling. It promises nothing good, “I insist. Bel, please make sure our guest doesn’t leave before I bring out a special tea brew just for him. ‘Wouldn’t do for him to think us inhospitable,” while the first part is said to Bel – finally, a name! –, the second is said while turned to Zuko. There’s a glimmer in Jet’s eyes. Like he thinks Zuko is too much of a coward to accept it.

Zuko sits back down, this time turned to the kitchen. He smiles, “I’d love a cup of tea. Thank you, Jet.”

“Of course… Li,” and with another infuriating smirk, Jet turns around and goes back to the kitchen.

Slowly, conversation resumes in the shop – Zuko’s truly glad he didn’t come at a rush hour – while Bel still looks a bit shocked.

“So,” she starts, “how did you meet Jet?”

.

The tea doesn’t end up making him fart fire, thank Agni. It is very spicy, though. Joke’s on Jet, though, because Zuko loves spicy stuff. He drinks it all at once, Jet staring at him from the kitchen’s doorway, Bel’s eyes widening the longer Zuko keeps the tea cup pressed against his mouth.

When he lowers it, steam comes out of his mouth.

“Delicious,” he says, with a smile. Jet’s eyes narrow. And then they just stare at one another. But Jet’s got another thing coming if he thinks Zuko’s going to be the first one to back down. Once upon a time, Chief Hakoda had thought he had a crush on his daughter (or his son, honestly, the threat was very vague, and yet very scary). Not to mention, Zuko is the Firelord. People love nothing more than to try and get him to do what he doesn’t want to.

“Well, thanks for the visit. ‘Think you should be off to see your uncle, don’t you?”

“Are you throwing me out?” Zuko asks, eyebrow raised.

“No, I’m just sick of your face,” Bel immediately gasps, turns to Jet in true disappointment. “Wait, no! It’s not about the scar, it’s him, in general!”

“He has a perfectly nice face, Jet,” Bel says, gets closer to Jet to stick her finger against his side. “Be nice to him, he’s the only one to have finished a cup of your spicy tea in months.”

Jet huffs while Zuko is still deciding whether he should thank Bel for the comment.

“Please don’t listen to him,” Bel turns to him with a smile and Zuko kind of wants to ask for lessons, because his smiles certainly never look that truthful, “you’re welcome to stay as long as you want.”

“If he orders more tea.”

“As long as you want,” Bel repeats herself and Zuko had honestly been ready to leave, but now that he knows that’s exactly what Jet wants? Yes, it’s petty but it’s not like he’s gotten many chances to be that way in the past few years. So Zuko smirks, leans back against the chair.

“Thank you, Bel. I will. And I’d love another cup of tea. Huh,” he grabs the menu once more, quickly looks it over, “I’ll have the tea that will make your guests like you even though you have nothing to offer, please.”

“Oh, that’s a bestseller.” Bel turns to Jet and it’s incredible how fast the smile falls of her face – no, really, lessons, Zuko needs them –, “you heard the man, chop chop.”

“Who here’s the boss?” Jet mutters and yet, does as told. Not before glaring at Zuko one last time, of course.

“Sorry about him, he sometimes lets his mood get the better of him. It’s why we keep him inside.”

“I heard that!” Jet yells out.

“You were supposed to!” Bel yells back, then turns to Zuko, smiles. “You’re welcome anytime, don’t listen to him.”

“Thanks,” Zuko says and after a nod, Bel goes to other clients.

The new tea, Zuko drinks slowly, looking around himself. The teashop starts filling up, and there’s now a boy – Bel’s age – working as a waiter as well.

Zuko leaves enough coins on the table to pay for the two of cups of tea, plus a nice tip – unfortunately, not high enough to show who he is – and then he finally leaves The Hidden Firebender.

Outside, he looks around himself. There’s an inn right beside it. More buildings around, but spreader out than inside Ba Sing Se. Zuko doesn’t actually know that much about Jet, but this does seem to fit him, living outside.

The teashop was a surprise, though. And the name? What exactly is the message he’s trying to send?

Zuko shakes his head; it doesn’t matter, he’s never going back.

.

He goes back. Turns out, in the midst of all the excitement of Jet actually being alive, Zuko hadn’t paid enough attention to the questions uncle Iroh had made him memorize.

This time, Zuko swears to himself he won’t be there longer than he has to. Focus on the important – getting Uncle off his back – and get out. Also, he swears he saw his guards sharing a worried look when he said he was going for a nap, again. Soon enough they’ll be telling him he’s working too much. No, thank you.

“You’re back!” Bel immediately smiles at him when she sees him, “I’m glad Jet’s personality didn’t keep you away.”

“I’ve met worse,” Zuko says, which is sadly true. Jet is kind of annoying, but Zuko far prefers him to dealing with rich Fire Nation people that want to go back to pilfering other Nations to keep themselves in precious jewels and expensive clothes. Not to mention owning several houses. Why does one person need more than one house? Okay, Zuko does have the beach house, but nowadays it’s Azula who lives there.

Zuko gets the same table as the day before. He doesn’t really care what type of tea he has, but he also doesn’t actually trust Jet not to give him the farting fire tea – no, really, how did he even find that out?? (… maybe Zuko will take some of it back to the Fire Nation. A good way to end a meeting early) –, so he decides to ask for a cup of tea that will make you happy for the day.

Jet is the one to bring out the tea. And then he sits down in front of Zuko. He crosses his arms. Zuko, meanwhile, keeps his posture open, grabs the cup and raises it to his face, inhales the aroma. Weirdly familiar.

“Afraid it’ll get cold?” Jet asks, eyes narrowed and Zuko thinks he’s one bad word from jumping across the table and trying to choke him with his bare hands.

“I’m just here for the tea, not to cause any trouble.”

“Funny, that takes me back,” Jet’s tone makes it very clear he is not amused. Zuko sighs, but he guesses that isn’t undeserved. He never got all the details from Aang, Sokka, Katara and Toph on what exactly had happened to Jet, only that it had involved him getting brainwashed, then that he’d died while saving Appa.

“’Thought you were dead.”

Jet shrugs, “’didn’t stick.”

Zuko can’t help but to twitch his lips at that, “sounds familiar.”

Jet clenches his jaw, but Zuko can’t figure out what in his words upset him. The fact that Zuko might understand a bit of what he’s talking about?

“Doesn’t your uncle own a tea shop?”

“Is that how you figured out who I was?”

“Despite what you may think, I’m not dumb. And I was right all along.”

“Well, about the Firebender thing, don’t think you ever thought I was…”

“The Fire prince?” Jet asks with narrowed eyes, leaning forward and he speaks in a low tone, but only because he’s hissing the words. Zuko nods. He takes a sip from the tea. And then stares down at it. It tastes like… like a summer day, like an old memory. Reminds him of his mother and the turtleduck pound. He exhales.

“This is good,” he tells Jet, honestly. Jet rolls his eyes.

“I know it’s good. I made it myself, remember? ‘Wasn’t gonna ruin it just so you can tell your uncle my tea sucks.”

Zuko blushes at that and Jet, always attentive, immediately zeroes in on that.

“Oh? Is that why you’re here? Spying? ‘Thought you’d have your own people for that by now.”

“It’s not spying!” Zuko leans forward himself, “it’s… it’s… intelligence gathering,” he finishes, in a ha ah sound. Jet looks unimpressed, raises an eyebrow.

“That’s literally what spying is.”

“Shut up,” Zuko says, intelligently.

Jet shakes his head, “so, come on, what are you… gathering intelligence on?” There’s an infuriating smile on his lips. Zuko is vividly taken back to being sixteen and just wanting to skewer him with his swords.

Before Zuko can reply, though, Bel is coming closer to them with an apologetic smile.

“Guess the job is calling,” Jet says, doesn’t bother with anything else before going to the kitchen, Bel telling him the tea orders.

This time, Zuko does pay attention to uncle Iroh’s questions. And it isn’t long before he thinks he has enough to satisfy his uncle. And yet, he stays. Keeps drinking the tea, and then asks for another cup. By this point, he thinks he’ll actually be making an order to take with him to the Fire Nation (Uncle must never find out).

Jet doesn’t come back out, too many people around for him to be able to take a break. Zuko has this urge to go to the kitchen himself, to continue their conversation. He stays sitting instead, eventually pays for the tea and makes his way back to uncle Iroh’s house.

The first thing he says there – after making sure the guards keep believing he was just taking a nap and they do look worried, Zuko is starting to feel guilty about it –, is: “the tea brewer’s aura sucks.”

Uncle Iroh raises his eyebrows.

“It’s Jet.”

“Jet?” Uncle Iroh frowns, which makes Zuko kind of feel embarrassed, in the way that it’s so clear he’s the one who never really forgot Jet.

“Remember, on the ferry to Ba Sing Se? I stole food alongside him and his two friends with weird names. And then he saw you fireheat your tea so he told everyone we were Firebenders, and then got taken by the Dai Li.”

“Oh yes, the poor boy. I thought I heard something about him dying?”

“Turns out he didn’t. Still has a terrible attitude,” Uncle makes a quick face at that, like it’s high mighty of Zuko to say someone has a terrible attitude. Zuko generously ignores that.

“Well, I’m sure his aura with you isn’t the one he has with all his clients.” Zuko decides to ignore that as well. “And the rest?”

Zuko rolls his eyes, “all his teas have weird names, like… tea to help make you stop smoking, tea that gets you drunk, tea that helps with menstruation pain. Things like that.”

Uncle Iroh makes a thinking sound, raises a hand to play with his beard. “Interesting.”

“The temperature of the tea was good, I guess it went cold pretty fast. Uh, don’t know what the ingredients were but I had some really spicy tea yesterday and today it was… it was good. Kind of sweet. What else was there?”

“Presentation, ambience of the shop, prices and server attitude.”

“Oh, the server is really nice! Her name’s Bel. Always smiling and her smiles actually look genuine. The presentation was… simple? It was fine. Prices weren’t too high and the ambiance was… fine too. It felt like the type of place you might go with your friends, I guess, not on a date or anything like that.”

“Thank you, nephew,” Uncle smiles, “I appreciate you taking the time to do this for me.”

Zuko blushes, nods.

“Now you and Jet can go back to pretending the other one doesn’t exist,” Uncle says, shaking his head as he laughs, goes to the kitchen – he’ll be back out soon, the cook doesn’t like him hovering.

“Right,” Zuko says to the empty room. No more reason to go back to The Hidden Firebender. Good. It’s not like Zuko wanted to go back, anyway.

.

Zuko stays away from Jet’s tea shop the next day. And the one after that. His guards go back to looking normal. And then he can’t sleep in the early morning the day before he goes back to the Fire Nation, and finds himself making his way there.

It’s closed. Of course it’s closed. What did Zuko expect, that the tea house would be open every single day? Jet and his workers need to rest.

Zuko sighs, then looks at the inn next to The Hidden Firebender. They might not make tea, but surely there’ll be something to eat.

He opens the door and immediately hears, “you!”

Zuko widens his eyes, looks around, and there’s a woman glaring at Zuko, arms crossed. She’s changed a lot physically, but the attitude gives it away. Unfortunately, Zuko has forgotten her name. He raises a hand, awkwardly waves.

“Hi.”

The woman looks unimpressed. Yeap, definitely the same girl who Zuko first met around Jet. Why is he so bad with names?? It was something… unexpected.

“If you’re looking for Jet, he’s out back,” she narrows her eyes, points a finger at Zuko, “break anything and I will make you regret it.”

Zuko nods, doesn’t doubt that she’d find a way to do exactly that.

Even though he didn’t actually come in searching for Jet, Zuko still follows what she said – he needs to find a way to remember her name. Something with a T? An S?

Jet is squatting next to some flowers, smelling them before deciding to pick them up into the basket he has besides him or not.

Zuko walks towards him, Jet giving him a quick glance before going back to what he was doing. His touch is careful. “Surprised Smellerbee let you come out here.”

Smellerbee! Now Zuko just needs to remember the boy’s – man, by now – name because with his luck, chances are he’ll be seeing him on his way out.

“She warned me not to break anything.”

Jet hums at that, then goes quiet. Zuko is still standing, which is giving him too much of an angle to look down at Jet, so he decides to join him, though he kneels beside him instead of going for a squat, too used to the position.

“You’ll get your clothes ruined. Though I guess you can just get more, right?” Jet isn’t looking at him and Zuko decides not to answer. It’ll just lead to an argument, anyway.

“I’m leaving tomorrow,” Zuko lets out.

“Guess the Firelord can’t be gone for long, right? You’d get back and your generals have decided they wanna rule the whole world again.”

Zuko snorts, “yeah, that sounds like them.”

Jet lets go of the flowers abruptly, squeezing his hands into fists. He looks at Zuko, “that isn’t funny.”

“I… Sorry,” Zuko says, blushing, doesn’t think that saying, it wasn’t a joke, not fully, I honestly think half of them are ready to do exactly that will be of any help.

Jet lets out a deep breath, rolls his neck around as if to relax. “’Don’t really wanna go back to living inside those walls.”

Zuko looks away, to the walls of Ba Sing Se. Yeah, he wouldn’t want that either. He doesn’t want any part of war, ever again.

“A war won’t happen, not on my watch,” Zuko says – promises – and Jet turns to him.

“I don’t trust Firebenders,” he exhales, “but… you seem to be trying your best.”

“Thanks,” Zuko says, ironic.

“You’re welcome,” Jet gives him a shit eating grin and Zuko rolls his eyes.

“So, these flowers, they’re for the tea?”

“Are you spying again?”

“N-No! I wasn’t spying before either. It’s not like I gave my uncle any secrets.”

“Ahah, so you did give him something?” There’s a smile playing around Jet’s lips; Zuko thinks he’s being mocked but not in a mean way, almost like… like they’re sharing a private joke.

“He just wanted to know how the place was,” Zuko says, wonders if he shouldn’t, but he’s already given himself away and he’s not good with coming up with stories on the spot (or ever, really). “Know about your aura.”

“My aura.”

Zuko nods, the assertive one he uses around the palace. “Yes, the aura of a tea brewer is very important.”

“Oh, it is?” Jet’s smiling, “what did you tell him?”

“The truth. That yours sucks.”

Jet immediately starts laughing and Zuko smiles back, kind of proud of himself, even though it’s for the silliest reason.

“But I said the tea was good. I liked the one that makes you happy. It… it reminded me of being a kid. With my mom.”

“She wasn’t like your dad?” Jet’s hands are no longer on the flower, just hanging between his knees. Zuko wonders what he knows about his father. Still, he shakes his head.

“No, she was… she was good. Not perfect, maybe I’ve been… glamorizing some memories, I guess, but… I miss her. She left when I was a kid, to save me. My father, before I left the Fire Nation to join Aang and his friends told me she was still alive. But he hasn’t said anything more about it. I’m still looking but…” he lets out a breath, “’don’t know if I’ll ever find her.”

Jet doesn’t say anything right away and Zuko turns to the flowers. He doesn’t really recognize any of them – not the one that poisoned Uncle all that time ago, at least –, but they are pretty.

“I hope you do,” Jet says and Zuko turns to him.

“Yeah, me too,” his throat sounds kind of dry. He lets out a breath, looks up into the sky. This is, after all, one of his last chances to not feel stressed for a while. And it’s around Jet. Jet, who he thought had been dead all these years. “I’m glad you’re alive,” he says, turns back to Jet, who’s sitting on the ground, knees up, feet down.

“Yeah. Yeah, me too,” Jet looks like he’s chewing on what to say next, but instead he keeps quiet. Zuko suddenly doesn’t want to leave right away; he wants to know more about Jet, not simply how he survived, but how he made it here, to having his own tea shop next to his friends’ establishment. And not just that but… how his life is truly going. If he ever dreams of leaving Ba Sing Se. If he has nightmares.

Instead, Zuko takes a deep breath, enjoys the quietness around him some more and then gets up.

“It was nice seeing you, Jet.”

Jet looks up at him, is quiet for a few moments. Then he nods, “yeah, you too… Zuko.”

Zuko smiles and then he leaves, makes his way back to Uncle’s place, back to the Fire Nation.

Three days later he finds a carrier boy to take a letter back to Ba Sing Se.

.

Jet doesn’t think about Zuko. He doesn’t! Smellerbee and Longshot might as well stop sending him looks, Bel as well, though hers are different, because while Smellerbee is clearly judging him, Longshot maybe a bit worried, Bel is… almost pitying. Like Jet is missing something.

Absolutely ridiculous!

Still, if he does spend a few days after seeing him for the last time thinking about that meeting… being in the garden with Zuko, hearing about his mother, “it was nice seeing you”, well, that’s no one’s business but his own.

“Jet!” Bel enters the teashop’s kitchen in a whirlwind. Jet just rolls her eyes; maybe the cute girl she’s been watching for the past few weeks is back. “You got a letter!”

Jet blinks; he doesn’t get many letters.  He turns away from the hob, water not yet boiling. Bel is smiling, hand extended with the letter on it. Jet takes it, nods as thanks and Bel goes back to the main room.

The envelope doesn’t give anything away, it’s just his name written in the type of pretty calligraphy that screams of a proper education.

Maybe it’s about the loan, though Jet’s kept his payments on date.

He opens the envelope, leaves it on the counter, then starts reading the letter.

 

Jet,

It’s Zuko. Hi.

I hope this letter finds you well.

I got back home alright.

Sorry that this letter is awkward. I just… I hope you’re doing well.

Did you really call your tea house after me?

If you were hoping never to hear from me again, just ignore this letter. If you do want to answer, you can send your reply to my uncle, he’ll make sure it reaches me.

Best,

Zuko

 

Jet stares at the letter and then he starts laughing. The nerve of the guy!

“Oh, shit,” Jet says as he hears the water boiling. He turns back to it, finishes making the teas Bel had come in to tell him had been ordered. By that point, there are more requests to finish.

It’s a good half an hour before Jet isn’t busy anymore. He reads the letter again.

Then he goes to find a piece of paper and writes his reply without thinking too hard about it.

 

Zuko (hope I don’t get into trouble by not using your title – how many do you have, anyway?),

I called the tea house after a different Firebender I met, who lied to me and made me get brainwashed. Not everything is about you, you know.

Will probably visit your uncle’s tea house soon to make sure you didn’t give away any of my secrets.

(After a pause, he does add)

Best,

Jet

 

Jet doesn’t have an envelope. He looks at Zuko’s; can he just reuse that? Fuck it, why not? So Jet crosses out his own name, replaces it with Zuko and the next time Bel comes in, he gives her the envelope to find someone to send to the Jasmine Dragon.

“You didn’t poison the paper, did you?”

Jet rolls his eyes. If he was going to hurt anyone, he’d do it while looking them in the eyes, thank you very much.

“I didn’t poison the paper. Just find someone, alright?”

“Okay. Might take until tomorrow.”

“That’s fine,” Jet says, even as he wonders if Zuko will start to think that he really never meant to reply if the letter takes too long to reach him. (Jet doesn’t think about how he didn’t really consider not writing back.)

“Okay,” Bel says. Jet goes back to working, resolutely doesn’t think about Zuko.

.

It takes a couple of weeks for Jet to receive another letter. By that point, he’s starting to be sure he made a mistake, that Zuko was just… bored or something. Or maybe his own letter never made it there. But Jet really doesn’t want to send a second one if Zuko did receive the first.

Luckily, before he has to make a decision whether to write a whole new letter, Zuko’s arrives.

 

Jet,

I have too many titles to count. Not many people call me Zuko anymore, so it’s a breath of fresh air that you do, but I promise not to come after you for it.

That Firebender doesn’t seem that nice.

Sorry about the brainwashing, by the way.

Sounds rough.

You seem to be doing much better now. Are you? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.

I was never brainwashed, of course, but… sometimes it almost feels like it, when I think back of being a child and learning about the Fire Nation, how great we were… Those were the excuses for the war, you know. That we were a great nation and we were simply sharing that greatness.

I remember the first time I made it out of Caldera – that’s the main city, where the palace is – after I was banished. I did see war but I didn’t want to believe we were really doing this.

You probably don’t care about any of this.

Sorry.

I hope you’re well,

Zuko

 

Jet leans against the counter as he reads Zuko’s letter, slowly. Sorry about the brainwashing followed by possibly the worst thing anyone could ever say in response to that. Sounds rough?? Jet chuckles at it, then his smile falls as he continues on reading.

Being asked about how he’s doing, being told about the Fire Nation, the period of Zuko’s life immediately post-banishment…

Jet raises a hand to his hair, pushes it back.

What is he doing? Does he really want to continue on a correspondence with the Firelord? Not to mention a Firebender but despite what many may think, Jet doesn’t hate all of them anymore. He certainly holds no love for them, but it would make him a hypocrite to hate only them when it was his own Nation that had brainwashed him.

But he looks at the scratched-out words, so it’s a fresh of breath air that you do and he thinks that Zuko is lonely. Which truly doesn’t give Jet any sort of satisfaction because somehow… well, isn’t he that too?

He loves his friends, he loves his life… but he does miss the action. Jet had considered going back to the forest, but Smellerbee and Longshot seemed to want to settle down and Jet would rather be near them than away. They were his family.

Jet gets a piece of paper.

 

Zuko,

Yeah, the brainwashing was rough. You doofus. Who says that to someone??

I still don’t remember it. I used to be afraid I’d wake up one day in the middle of somewhere, no idea how I got there. …I’m still afraid of that, to be honest. But it hasn’t happened yet. So I just keep going.

 

Jet pauses. Just what is he writing? A part of him wants to simply start over but… Zuko isn’t going to judge him or be patronizing about it. Jet wonders if he feels in any way similar – maybe not the waking up with no idea he got there but he mentioned a type of brainwashing, didn’t he? Maybe he fears one day he’ll wake up and feel like his father, like his grandfather, great-grandfather and want to burn the world down.

Not that Jet believes that for one moment.

He goes back to letter writing.

 

Do you fear one day you’ll become like your father?

I don’t think you will, by the way.

I’m glad you eventually figured out the war wasn’t right.

We all did bad things, though.

I try to be kind to myself about it. Tell myself I was young and didn’t know better. But I did know what I was doing.

Maybe I shouldn’t send this letter. Is it making any sense?

Jet

 

Jet doesn’t bother re-reading it before using the same envelope as last time and going to find Bel so she can get the letter to the Jasmine Dragon.

Jet tries to keep the words away from his mind, but it’s kind of hard. He does try to be kind to himself and he does try to simply… ignore the brainwashing. And sometimes it almost works, at least during the day, when he’s busy working and with his family. But then comes the night… and he wonders if he’s going to wake up with no memories, or with… blood in his hands, that he doesn’t know where it came from.

It’s not going to happen, Jet tells himself, takes a deep breath. He’s fine, everything is fine. He wonders what Zuko is going to make of the letter, if he was just asking for politeness’ sake, if he’s definitely going to think Jet is crazy and he’s never going to hear from him again.

It’s fine, he tells himself. What does Jet care about what a Firebender thinks about him?

He goes back to work, ignores every other thought. Instead, he decides to focus on creating a new tea flavor. Wouldn’t do for the competition to get ahead, after all.

.

Jet has almost forgotten about the letter – lies, though he’s certainly tried to – when a reply does come through. Jet doesn’t open the envelope immediately, instead just weights it on a palm. It doesn’t weight more or less than any of the other letters. This time, though, Jet decides not to open it while working.

So he leaves the letter inside a cupboard, where it’s sure not to get accidentally wet, and goes about his day. Of course, he still can’t help thinking, “what did Zuko write? Is he calling me a weirdo and saying he doesn’t want me to send him letters anymore? Well, he can fuck off if that’s the case. I didn’t send the first letter!”

Bel ends up asking if everything is alright when Jet ends up boiling the water so much he has to start over – yes, he could simply add cold water but it’s not the same – and Jet smiles, knows it looks forced.

“How about we close earlier?” Bel asks and Jet opens his mouth to tell her that’s unnecessary, that he’s fine, but she lets out a laugh, also kind of forced, except she’s the one who deals with the customers, so from her it doesn’t actually come out sounding that fake. “I actually have a date and wouldn’t mind more time to get ready.”

Jet blinks. That, at least, he doesn’t think is a lie. Then he narrows his eyes, “who with?”

“No, no,” Bel wiggles a finger in front of Jet. “I’m not telling you. You’re not my father or brother, you don’t have a say in who I date.”

Jet makes a face at that; it’s not like she’s wrong, after all.

“I like him,” Bel says, smiles, and it isn’t one of her big ones, kind of shy, but it is truly content.

“Alright. But if he does anything,” it’s Jet’s turn to point a finger at her. He lets the threat hang unfinished in the air and Bel lets out a laugh.

“Don’t worry, I remember everything you’ve taught me.”

“Good,” Jet says, nods, because sure, maybe they are in peace times, but he isn’t an idiot, and no one that’s family is ever going to not have some self-defense knowledge.

“So…” Bel starts and Jet rolls his eyes.

“Yeah, close the shop early.”

Bel gives a little jump, then gets in his space to give him a hug, not even giving him time to hug back before she’s letting go. “Thank you, you’re the best!” Bel turns to go back to the main room, but just before she leaves, she turns back to him, smiles, “it’s going to be okay, Jet.”

Jet nods, decisively, because it is. Even if Zuko has mailed back something really fucking rude… well, so what? It’s not like they’re friends. They definitely don’t run in the same circles. Jet lets out a laugh at that; yeah, there’s definitely no reason for him to ever see the Firelord ever again.

Jet shakes his head at himself and goes back to work, since closing up early doesn’t mean right now. He does feel calmer. He still steals glances at the cupboard but the ball of anxiety – and anger, but what’s new – in his stomach is no longer threatening to swallow him whole.

Eventually, Bel comes over to tell him she’s closed the shop and she’ll be on her way. Jet nods at her, wishes her a good time and finally gets the letter out. He moves to the main room, grabs a chair that Bel had turned upside down on top of a table to wipe the floor and puts it right once more to sit down on it. Almost raises his feet to the table but then remembers he isn’t actually home and Bel will know.

Jet carefully opens the envelope. The letter takes over more than one page.

 

Jet,

Thank you for opening up. And I’m sorry it took me so long to answer back. I just… I didn’t know what to say. First of all, you’re right, my question was insensitive and I apologize over that. You have no idea how often I’ve almost started an international incident.

… That was a joke. Sorry, I’m not very good at them.

Anyway. (This dot looks larger than normal, like Zuko had left the brush over it for too long, as he pondered on what to write next.) I’m sorry that the brainwashed happened. You didn’t deserve that. No one does. Do you… have you talked to your friends about it? Or, maybe you could keep a journal? To write what you do every day, this way there’ll always be a recounting. … Sorry if that’s a dumb idea.

About your question, about me turning into my father… No one’s ever put it like that. Spirits, I haven’t put it like that. But you’re not… wrong. Especially at the beginning, after I was banished, I was just so angry, all the time. And not at the right people! I was angry at myself, at my uncle… but not at my father, the person who actually deserved my anger.

It took me a long time to see he was wrong. I don’t know how he became this person. I mean, not that he was ever a great father… but it wasn’t all bad. I think if it had been, that would have made it simpler, you know? So yeah, I guess sometimes I do wonder if one day I’ll wake up and decide… that I know better, that there’s another way to make the world the way I think it should be, a more violent, bloodier, worse way. But I’m friends with the Avatar, the greatest Earthbender in the world, the last Southern Water Tribe Waterbender, the guy who won out against the Fire Nation military at sixteen and the leader of the Kyoshi Warriors. So I think I’ll be fine. Oh, and let’s not forget the woman who can immobilize by touching strategic points in your body and another who I still don’t understand where she’s hiding all the knives on her person.

Huh, looking at it like that, there’s definitely no way anyone is letting me become a dictator. Thanks for that!

Right, I’m rambling.

The other thing you said, about how we were young… you know, sometimes I’m so angry about that. As in, I was thirteen and my father told me to go chase the Avatar. Who does that!? The man who’s just looking for a way to get his son killed without actually having to do it. And he only didn’t do it because it’d look back, I’m sure. And then other times… it’s like you said, I did know what I was doing. Maybe I didn’t know everything, but I still hurt people.

And I have to live with that. (Another big dot.)

There’s a part of me that wants to destroy this letter and not send it but you asked if your last letter made sense and it did. So spiritsdamned much. So… thank you and I hope you know you’re not alone. I mean, I know whatever you send me takes some time to reach me, but I hope you don’t stop writing to me.

… Was that pushy? Ignore me if it was. You can stop writing to me at any point, of course! And I’ll do it too if you want me to, obviously. Just… for my part, I don’t want to.

Right, I think I’ve embarrassed myself enough for one day.

I wish you all the best, Jet. Really.

Zuko

 

Jet blinks down at the letter. Then he exhales and that turns into a laugh, relieved. He immediately goes to get a pot of ink, a brush and a piece of paper, goes back to Zuko’s letter to write back exactly what he’s thinking. Definitely to tell him that as far as he’s concerned, he doesn’t want to stop sending Zuko letters, and he doesn’t want to stop receiving them.

.

Zuko wishes there was a faster way to send letters. Well, there’s the carrier option, but he really only uses that for official Fire Nation purposes. Still, he’s starting to feel like one letter every two weeks just isn’t enough. Jet’s the one who first sent back a letter without it being in response to one of Zuko’s, that probably hadn’t arrived by then yet.

It’s a short story, just a funny one about how Longshot has decided to try his hand at farming, but it keeps Zuko in high spirits the whole day, even as he has to deal with annoying bureaucracy. Of course, people notice, but who’s going to ask the Firelord why he’s actually smiling?

 Well, there is one person.

“You look happy,” Mai says as she appears out of nowhere and starts walking beside him. Zuko doesn’t jump; he’s gotten far too used for that.

“It’s a good day,” Zuko says and Mai makes a humming sound. Zuko can’t help to steal a glance at her. She doesn’t know he’s been corresponding with Jet, he’s never told her, though she does know about him. He’d gotten back from Ba Sing Se with too many feelings to keep them hidden. Annoyed feelings, that is. Absolutely nothing more.

“Sure,” Mai says and she doesn’t sound unimpressed but Zuko still hears it. He’s been trying to be able to do the same thing, really. It’d be great for talking with his council, he’s sure.

Zuko almost stops right there in the middle of the corridor to finally say… something, but if there’s one thing he’s known about the palace since he was a child, and which hasn’t changed, is that there are always ears around. Not simply the palace guards everywhere – plus his personal guard – but the staff. Not to mention spies. Which Zuko is aware of – possibly one had escaped him, but Mai had it under control. And sure, he could fire them… but then that would simply mean starting over.

Instead, Zuko walks outside, towards the pond, Mai going alongside in silence. It won’t be long before one of his assistants is calling him for something or other, but if there’s something Zuko’s learnt in the past few years, is to take the breaks when they come.

He kneels down by the pond and then Mai takes off a cloth bag from the inside of her sleeve with broken pieces of bread inside. Another thing Zuko doesn’t question, just thanks her for it.

They start throwing the bread at the turtleducks in silence.

“You’ve seemed more relaxed these past couple of months,” Mai finally says and Zuko turns to her. Mai’s already looking at him, one eyebrow raised. Zuko knows there’s absolutely no reason for it and yet… he still blushes. Mai just continues to stare at him and Zuko knows that he’ll break, just as he knows that he could simply walk away and Mai wouldn’t actually push.

What he does do is open is mouth and ask, “you remember Jet?”

Mai’s eyebrow, somehow, raises even more. “The peasant that you met on the ferry to Ba Sing Se years ago, liberated some food with him, then he found out you were a Firebender because he saw your uncle warming up tea and stalked you until you two fought and he was taken by the Dai Li,” Zuko opens his mouth to stop her, but Mai continues, “and you thought he died, but it turns out he’s alive, living in Ba Sing Se and owns a tea shop, which your uncle sent you to spy on? Yes, I remember Jet.” Mai’s lips are not twitching in the least, but Zuko is still sure she’s enjoying herself.

“Right,” Zuko says, then pauses, kind of lost in the midst of Mai’s – accurate – description of Jet. “I’ve been sending him letters since I left Ba Sing Se. And he’s been writing back,” definitely an important part to add.

Mai nods, but doesn’t say anything. Zuko still waits her out, but she just keeps quiet. “Well?” he finally prompts, never a big fan of silences.

“Am I supposed to say something?”

Zuko opens his mouth, closes it with an audibly quick. Opens it again, “no?” why does it sound like a question? It’s not a question.

Mai doesn’t roll her eyes, but Zuko still feels she has. Truly, she should give a whole course in how to get your face to judge you so well… without actually twitching.

“Do you want to continue to send letters to him?”

“Yes,” Zuko’s answer is quick, probably too quick, but Mai doesn’t comment and Zuko refuses to raise a hand to his cheek to see if he’s blushing or not, even as he can feel the skin warming up.

“Would you like more?” Mai’s tone is kind, and patient and Zuko almost runs away right there. Being the Firelord to a nation that hasn’t really known anything except imperialism for the past century? Easy. Talking about his feelings? Zuko is about ready to see if there’s any chance Aang will take him on as an Airbender monk.

“What do you mean?” Zuko’s voice does not come out embarrassingly high.

Mai looks unimpressed at him. Without, once again, changing anything in her facial expression. It’s a gift, really.

“Don’t be dense. You’re the Firelord, if you want something, go for it.”

Zuko frowns, “he probably doesn’t like that I’m the Firelord.”

“Good,” Mai immediately says and Zuko looks surprised at her. “You know he’s not in it for the power.”

Zuko isn’t sure how to react to that. He can’t help but to feel relief, since that’s what he’d been thinking, that Jet isn’t really gaining anything through their friendship except… well, a friendship. His second thought is that there’s nothing for Jet to be in in the first place, immediately followed by, but don’t you want it to be?

Mai’s look turns far too understanding. Zuko stomps on the urge to flee, gives her a small smile.

“What should I do?”

“It’s been a while since you visited your uncle.”

Zuko’s eyes widen, understanding immediately what she’s on about.

“I…” He almost starts listing all the reasons why he can’t leave the Fire Nation right now, almost followed by I can’t go, can I? before realizing that he is the Firelord and only he can decide where to go.

Still, he can’t help but to ask – struggling for it to not come out lower than it should –, “what if it doesn’t work?”

“Then it doesn’t work,” is Mai’s easy response. Zuko hadn’t expected anything else, honestly. Again, the raised eyebrow. “When has that ever stopped you?”

Zuko can’t help but to laugh at that. That’s a good question; when has anything in his life ever been certain? And he has to admit that the best things truly have come out of the least expected decisions in his life.

“You’re right,” Zuko still has a smile playing around his lips, “I haven’t seen Uncle in a while.”

Mai nods, “I’ll start making preparations.”

“Thank you.”

Mai doesn’t wait for another word before leaving. Zuko gets get out Jet’s latest letter, reads it again, smile impossible to wipe off his face. Then he raises his head to the sun, warming him up.

For better or for worse… yeah, he’s ready to take this chance.

.

Zuko doesn’t bother writing to Jet to let him know he’s coming. He does warn his uncle, though, and is warmly welcomed.

“It’s so good to see you, nephew!” Uncle says as he grips Zuko by the shoulders, studying him from head to toe. Zuko can’t help but to feel embarrassed by it; he remembers a time when they didn’t touch this easily. He’s happy that’s changed, but there’s still a part of him that can’t help but to be surprised by it, even as regular as it’s become.

“You look good, prince Zuko.” Zuko likes that Uncle keeps calling him that, hasn’t changed it to Firelord Zuko. He gets enough of that.

At least there’s another person just calling you Zuko now, Zuko thinks but doesn’t focus on it, since that’ll lead to a blush or something, and his uncle knows him far too well not to notice. And is one of the few people in the world that would call him out on it, of course.

“I’m glad you’ve come to visit,” Uncle is saying, smile soft, letting go.

“I’m glad to be here as well, Uncle,” Zuko says with a slight bow.

“I have heard rumors that The Hidden Firebender has a new flavor of tea. Apparently very good.”

“Uncle-” Zuko starts, already knowing where this is going, but Uncle doesn’t let that deter him.

“You wouldn’t say no to doing a favor to your old uncle, would you?”

“You’re not old,” Zuko mutters, as he looks away from his far too knowing eyes. Their letters have been going through uncle Iroh, after all. Zuko appreciates that he isn’t mentioning them, at least. Though he’s sure that won’t last forever.

“Maybe take your guards with you. They worried last time,” Uncle speaks in an amused tone, but still serious and Zuko nods. He’s not going in these clothes, though.

Zuko changes, talks to his guards to keep their distance, and then makes his way to the Hidden Firebender, in between walking like a normal person through the streets and jumping across roofs in a way that the palace doesn’t exactly allow it for. Doesn’t hurt reminding his guards that he does know what he’s doing, thank you very much.

When he enters the tea shop, Bel immediately notices him and she almost drops the tray she’s holding but, in a way that would make Ty Lee proud, is able of keeping everything on it.

“Hi!” She goes to him as soon as she’s given the clients the tea and cups, giving him a big smile. And then, she actually leans forward for a quick hug, letting go before Zuko can awkwardly raise his arms to hug her back. “I’m so glad you came back.”

“Uh, thank you,” Zuko blinks at her. He isn’t sure what to say to her. Also, is it weird that he does know a lot about her from Jet’s letter but without having actually talked to her? Well, he guesses it’s the same situation with Jet. He hasn’t seen Aang and the others in years, has certainly never met Azula, and yet, he knows a lot about them.

“Come on, sit down, I’ll tell Jet you’re here,” Bel says and leads Zuko to a table – not the one he sat at all those months ago, that one already has people around it – and goes to the kitchen without another word, simply leaving Zuko with the menu.

He looks over it more from instinct than anything else. Then he remembers Uncle’s words, pays more attention to it.

Tea that feels like getting a long-awaited letter.

Zuko stares at it. Then he chuckles, even as he can feel his heart squeeze.

“What’s so funny?” Jet’s voice makes Zuko let go of the menu, which flutters to the ground. They both lean down to get a hold of it and then accidentally bump their heads together. The menu ends up with Jet, the two of them holding a hand to their heads. Jet quickly looks it over and then, to Zuko’s utter delight, he gets to watch Jet’s cheeks go red.

“Oh, right,” he lets out a little laugh and it actually sounds kind of nervous. “I wanted to try something new.”

“I want it,” Zuko says and Jet looks at him, surprised and… pleased? Zuko doesn’t look away from his eyes. “It sounds great.”

It’s slow, but Jet’s lips turn up into a smile, ending up in a really big one, showing off his teeth and Zuko is powerless to do anything but smile back.

“I’ll bring you a cup.”

“I’ll be here,” Zuko promises and Jet sends him a look, that he can’t quite decipher, and then he turns around to go to the kitchen, taking the menu with him. Zuko takes a deep breath, even though he doesn’t know why. They’ve seen each other and everything is okay.

Oh, right, he remembers, there’s that whole conversation with Mai about where you want this to go next.

Right, that.

Zuko takes another deep breath. It’s going to be fine. He does feel nervous, more than he can remember being in quite some time, but it isn’t the type of nervousness he’s gotten used to what with being Firelord and all that. No, this is… this is exciting as well.

Sure, it could all end up in flames around him – not literally, very much not literally – but it could also be the start of something… great, truly great. Zuko is going to take that step and then he’ll deal with whatever comes of it, good or bad.

Just as he’s always done.

Before Zuko can get too far into his own head, Jet comes back with his tea. He doesn’t go back right away either, so Zuko holds onto the cup, exhales against it to try and get it be less hot.

“How’s your uncle?” Jet suddenly asks and Zuko can’t help but to look surprised at him. But Jet is simply looking back, relaxed.

“He’s okay.”

“And everyone else?”

“They’re good too,” Zuko remembers his own manners, turns the question back on Jet, “and Smellerbee and Longshot?”

Jet snorts, “Longshot has decided he wants a hippo cow.”

Zuko blinks. He remembers they’re indigenous to the Fire Nation, though he knows they exist in the Earth Kingdom as well. “Right,” he says, for better of anything else.

Jet rolls his eyes. “Don’t be surprised if he comes trying to convince you to let him buy one.”

Zuko blinks another time, too caught off guard by too many parts of that sentence, starting with Longshot convincing him, and ending with why they actually think he has any hippo cows to sell.

“Right,” he repeats. Then finally takes a sip of the tea, smiles. “It’s good.”

“Good,” Jet smiles back and it looks soft. Zuko wants to touch it. Of course, he doesn’t, just drinks some more of his tea. “I don’t close for a few hours.”

“I’ll wait,” Zuko says and Jet sends him a studying look. Then he nods, doesn’t say anything more before going back to the kitchen. Zuko keeps drinking his tea.

.

Zuko stays. Jet is the one to bring him a new cup of tea whenever he has a chance, talks with him a bit. Nothing serious, though, not when they’re surrounded by people. Jet doesn’t know how to talk about the things they’ve written to each other, anyway, now that Zuko is right there.

Eventually, closing time comes. Jet tells Bel to leave, that he’ll do it himself, receives an understanding smirk in response and the expression looks far too familiar.

“Do you want me to go?” Zuko asks.

“No,” Jet says and Zuko gets up, starts pulling chairs up so they’re upside down on the tables for Jet to wash the floor. The silence is kind of uncomfortable. “Won’t people notice you’re missing?”

Zuko sighs, “there are six guards outside.”

“What?” Jet asks, turns to him with widened eyes.

“Two are on the roof across, four more not too far away.” Jet blinks. Right. Zuko’s smile has a tint of self-depreciation, “I am the Firelord, of course.”

Once upon a time Jet might have heard something smug in it, but not now, not when he knows Zuko so well. So he just nods.

They finish cleaning up. Jet puts down two chairs again so they can sit, feels too awkward just standing, even as he can’t quite keep still.

“So…” he starts, absolutely no idea how he’s going to finish that. Luckily, Zuko cuts him out.

“I’ve really enjoyed your letters!” Zuko is blushing, more obvious in one cheek than the other. He looks… young. Not Firelord-y at all. There’s a small voice inside Jet’s head that says, “but he is. Don’t forget it” but it doesn’t sound like it would just some months ago. It isn’t an insult, it isn’t demeaning. Zuko is Firelord, that is a fact. But he’s so much more.

Jet smiles, “me too.”

Zuko smiles back and Jet can feel his heart squeeze. He gets up, no longer willing to stay sitting. “Wait here,” he says and quickly goes to the kitchen. He comes back with a small wooden box, winds up the handle a few times. Music starts playing, soft.

He leaves it on top of the table and offers up a hand. Zuko looks at Jet’s face, at his hand, back to his face. Jet wiggles his fingers, “dance with me?”

The blush comes back with a vengeance but Zuko still nods, accepts Jet’s hand to get up.

Jet realizes he has no idea how they dance in the Fire Nation, so he goes for the easiest thing he knows – puts his arms on Zuko’s waist, waits until his are around his neck – and then starts swaying them to the sides.

Zuko lets out a breath. He lowers his head so its sideways on Jet’s shoulder. Jet squeezes his waist.

The song ends but neither of them pull back. They keep swaying.

Eventually, Zuko straightens up. He moves back so that his hands are now on Jet’s shoulders, squeezes once before dropping them. Jet follows his action, already misses the contact.

“CanIcourtyou?” Zuko asks and Jet blinks because… what?

“What?” He asks with a frown. Is Zuko alright?

Zuko takes a deep breath, then repeats the question, this time in an understandable manner, “can I court you?”

Jet freezes. Zuko takes that as a chance to keep talking.

“I just kept thinking of you while I was in the Fire Nation, kept waiting for your letters, they were the best part of my day, whether it was a silly joke or a serious story and I kept wondering what you would say if you were there, and wanting to share my thoughts and I just… I realized I like you in a way that’s different from how I like the rest of my friends. And maybe I shouldn’t say this, maybe you don’t want to hear this but I…” Zuko takes a deep breath, looks seriously at Jet, “I learnt a long time ago that sometimes life can change unexpectedly. That you don’t know what’s coming next so you should… you should always enjoy your days. And not have regrets. So this is me, not having regrets. Even if you say no, at least I’ll have said my part and…” suddenly, Zuko seems to deflate, “that’s all. Sorry, that was probably too much.”

“No,” Jet immediately says, “it wasn’t too much.” He smiles, takes a step forward so that he can grab both of Zuko’s hands, squeezes them. “The answer is yes.”

“Wait, really?” Zuko’s eyes are ridiculously wide, even the burnt one.

Jet laughs, and then he leans forward so that he can drop their foreheads together, then nuzzles their noses. “Yes, really,” he says in a low tone.

“Oh, that’s… great,” Jet leans back simply because he can tell Zuko’s smiling and he doesn’t want to miss it. And just as expected, Zuko’s smile is one of the most beautiful things he’s ever seen.

“It is,” Jet says, barely aware of what’s coming off his mouth anymore, too busy simply looking at Zuko. At touching him. Because this is something he gets to do now. He laughs, freely. And then he has a thought. Oh no. “Fuck.”

“What is it?” Zuko says, immediately concerned.

“I need to tell you something,” Jet says, seriously, looks Zuko in the eyes. Zuko only nods, and doesn’t look reticent at all, not suddenly afraid of what Jet is going to say.

“I got the tea house to get back at your uncle.”

“Wait… what?”

Jet explains. He tells him about finding Iroh’s tea house, getting upset, going to Smellerbee and Longshot about it, the idea she’d had… and well, everything else is history.

When he finally ends the story, Zuko doesn’t say anything. He just looks at Jet. And then… his lips start twitching, and he’s suddenly laughing. He honestly ends up bending forward, hands still in Jet’s.

“I’m glad you’re amused by this,” Jet says, but he just sounds fond. Disgusting.

Zuko straightens out, smile still playing around his lips. “That… is the pettiest thing I’ve ever heard. You’re going to do great in the Fire Nation.”

Jet blinks. Zuko blinks. “Shit,” he says. “I don’t mean that you have to come to the Fire Nation, obviously! Just… if you wanted, one day. And if you don’t want to, that’s also fine! We don’t have to live together, of course. And we’ve only just started courting. Oh no, this is too much, right? It’s too much,” Zuko ends and this time it’s Jet’s turn to laugh.

He leans forward to rest his forehead just below Zuko’s neck. He’s warm, warmer than most people, Jet realizes. Firebender, of course. Well, that should come in handy. Though Jet has no idea if the Fire Nation is hot or cold.

“Never change,” he says.

“What does that mean?” Zuko lets go of Jet’s hands to grab onto his arms instead, pull him up so they can look each other in the face. “What does that mean?”

“It means,” Jet starts, smiling, “it’s not too much.”

Zuko smiles back.