Teashop, Jet, fights.
Genuine surprise crossed Iroh's face and he again glanced at the flirting couple, before he turned to Zuko with raised brows. He took in his nephew's disgruntled features as he stated, "He is doing nothing wrong and Miss Katara does not appear troubled by his attentions."
Zuko scowled. "He's annoying."
She giggled again and Zuko's scowl grew fiercer. Iroh's lips quirked in amusement. "Miss Katara doesn't think so. You should be friendly to him."
Zuko ignored his uncle's significant look and instead huffed, folding his arms and resisting the urge to set the annoying former Freedom Fighter on fire. As satisfying as that would be, it would attract unnecessary attention. They were refugees and he doubted the Earth Kingdom guards would allow them into the city if they realized they were firebenders. Even if the firebenders were wanted by the Fire Nation. The reward offered for their whereabouts would see that they were swiftly handed over to bounty hunters. Finally, the ferry gently bumped into the dock and the ramp was lowered. Smellerbee arrived and managed to pull Jet away from Katara's side, but not before he bestowed one last flourishing kiss to Katara's hand and a wink. "I'll be sure to find you. I'd be a fool to let a pretty girl like you get away. Perhaps we can meet up for tea or something some time and catch up."
Katara blushed, looking pleased. "I'd like that."
Jet grinned then waved jauntily at Zuko and Iroh before heading down the gangway. Katara watched the Freedom Fighter swagger off, a fond smile on her face that made Zuko feel ill. Part of him wanted to hunt the guy down and…seriously maim him. A large part of him. He wondered how good the arrogant Freedom Fighter was with those hooked blades he carried. Zuko was sure he could beat the twit in a duel with his dao swords. If he still had them, that is. Iroh clapped him on the shoulder, jarring him from his murderous thoughts. "Well, we best be off. I want to find a tea shop. My fondest wish is to open a tea shop of my very own, you know. I would name it The Jasmine Dragon."
Zuko groaned quietly, but followed Iroh and Katara into the city. He kept an eye out for the annoying Freedom Fighter. He told himself it was just because he wanted to be aware of his surroundings and ignored the tight feeling that squeezed his chest when Katara slipped her hand into his to keep from being separated in the crowded streets. She grinned when he turned to look at her, moving closer to his side. He frowned and looked away again without a word, but didn't release her hand. She sighed, giving his hand a gentle squeeze. "You look angry."
He was. Well, maybe not angry, but—He didn't know what he was. "I'm not."
He pointedly ignored her curious gaze, instead searching the milling crowd for his uncle. How the rotund older man was able to slip through a crowd so easily had always baffled Zuko. He lost count of the number of times he'd lost his uncle on various docks and markets, only to find him in front of some gaudy stall buying some hideous item at what he considered a bargain. Any time Zuko would complain about wasting resources, Iroh would launch into some tale or legend about the item or area they had stopped. Stories Zuko, for the most part, ignored.
The streets were filthy. A close press of too many unwashed bodies and an accumulation of waste and discarded food. It was like the refugees stepped off the ferry and moved a few paces into the city before giving up and making a home in doorways and alleys. The stench was nearly enough to turn his stomach and despair hung heavily in the air. Zuko grimaced, pulling Katara along behind him, searching the crowd for his uncle. He spotted the other firebender rounding a corner and hurried after him, keeping a firm hold on Katara.
They followed Iroh several blocks away from the harbor before they finally caught up to him. The streets were mercifully less crowded though no less dirty. At least there was room to breathe. They finally caught up with Iroh when the older firebender came to a halt in front of one of the shops on the street. Iroh was standing outside of a decrepit looking teahouse, chatting cheerfully to a sallow, glaring man. One look at him and Zuko wished he had his dao swords. Iroh turned to them, excitement clear on his face and Zuko felt a swell of dread. He recognized that kind of excitement. It usually meant he was going to regret whatever plan was about to unfold. "Lee! This nice man has offered to let us buy his teashop."
Zuko was sure his expression showed that he was as thrilled about working in a teahouse as he was about the thought of taking another swim in arctic waters. A shiver ran down his spine just at the thought of that. Thankfully, Katara expressed enough enthusiasm for both of them. "That's great! But," she hesitated, looking uncertain, "we don't have that kind of money."
Iroh didn't seem at all concerned about that, shrugging cheerfully. "That's all taken care of."
Zuko's groan was ignored by both Iroh and Katara. Yes, Zuko decided, he was about to have the worst experience of his life. He backtracked at that thought. Maybe not the worst experience of his life, but working a teahouse was pretty high on the list. The sallow man sneered at Iroh's enthusiasm, slapping a crudely written sign on the window next to the door and then stalked off without another word. To Zuko, it appeared the man was relieved to be free of the tiny shop. Iroh called a thank-you after the man before bustling into the rundown building, leaving Zuko and Katara staring at the sign which read:
UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT!
That sense of impending doom Zuko had been feeling got worse and he groaned. There was no escaping his fate once he passed through those doors. He knew enough about the tea establishments his uncle frequented to know what awaited him. "This has got to be the worst idea ever."
Katara looked surprised at his words before she laughed, squeezing his hand and letting go. "That's saying something. Come on, it can't be that bad."
She followed Iroh into the teashop, ignoring Zuko when he called after her, "I'm not wearing an apron!"
Zuko decided it really was that bad. He should've walked away and never looked back.
It took them two weeks to clean the decrepit building and generate enough business to replace the chipped tea services and broken tables and chairs. Iroh insisted on those ridiculously delicate, flowered monstrosities that Zuko always hated when he had to sit with his mother during tea. The noble women always tittered about how beautiful the tea sets were. As a boy he thought they were girlie. That opinion hadn't changed much in the past few years. Why Iroh couldn't get a few sets with no pattern on them, Zuko didn't know. If they had to have a pattern, why not dragons? He could at least hold the delicate thing without feeling embarrassed then.
They managed to eventually replace the table clothes and procure whimsical vases and flowers to create, according to Iroh, a welcoming and homey atmosphere. Zuko didn't see the appeal in it and the disappointed frown from Katara when he said so left him with an uncomfortable feeling.
Zuko had managed to avoid wearing an apron during that time, but eventually business picked up and another server was required. His desperate attempts to stay away from the customers failed. He'd been barred from tea preparations after he "ruined" the brews of several orders. Iroh then banned him for all time from any cooking requirements. It wasn't his fault he couldn't cook, after all. So it was that he found himself grudgingly tying an apron around his waist and desperately ignoring the grin Katara sent him as she moved from table to table. His one relief was that at least the apron didn't have any frills.
After three weeks, he was still a grudging participant in living his uncle's dream and no happier about it. The teahouse was mainly patronized by groups of old ladies—who commented on how cute he was and winked flirtatiously—and awkward first dates. The old ladies made him uncomfortable and the awkward dates embarrassed him. Katara seemed at ease no matter who was at the table. Zuko just wanted to be anywhere except where he was.
The business day was drawing near close and Zuko was anxious to disappear into his tiny room above the teahouse and pretend he was somewhere else. Across the room, Katara was taking an order from a red-faced boy and his awkwardly shifting girlfriend. He would've been relieved to be spared that particular table if the one he'd received instead wasn't so humiliating. Four old ladies twittered among themselves as he tried to recite the day's specials without stuttering and he could feel his collar burn. They were regulars and always ordered the same thing, but they always wanted to hear the specials. He ignored the quiet snicker from Katara as she passed with a tray for another table. Several flirtatious remarks later and Zuko escaped with their order, trying to ignore the giggles that followed him and the burning of his ears. He passed the order through the kitchen window and Iroh nudged a tea tray. "Table 3, Lee."
Zuko glanced at the tray. One cup, one teapot, and a plate with three small cakes. Katara must have taken the order because he didn't recognize it. He carefully picked up the tray, weaving between the tables to Table 3, gently placing it in front of a brown haired girl, inquiring without looking up, "Can I get you anything else?"
Zuko looked up, meeting brown eyes and a shy smile. He almost flinched. He'd been trying to avoid the girl for several days, but it seemed Iroh had decided to meddle. "Uh…hello…Jin."
She laughed at his stumbling hello, a soft blush appearing on her cheeks. She was always asking questions that made him feel self-conscious and he knew another was about to come. The girl confused him.
"Are you—" she began only to be interrupted by the dramatic entrance of another customer.
"Katara! There you are!"
Zuko grit his teeth, resisting the urge to strangle someone. Jet breezed into the teahouse, collapsing at a table like he owned it. The Freedom Fighter had taken to visiting in the evenings, shamelessly flirting with Katara and winking roguishly at the girls on awkward dates when Katara was absent. He half-wished he could blast the other boy, but they were refugees and firebenders. They had to keep a low profile.
Jet caught his eye, grinning and he scowled in response. He did not like the other boy and he didn't care what his uncle said about making friends, he would never like him. Katara came hurrying from the kitchens, untying her apron. She lifted a hand in greeting when she saw Zuko. "I'm going on break, if that's okay."
She was settling in next to Jet and reaching to pour them each a cup of tea before he could come up with an appropriate response. It was clear she was on break whether it was okay or not. She didn't notice when Jet sent him a smirk and wrapped a possessive arm around her shoulder. Zuko's eyes narrowed and his grip on the empty tray in his hands tightened. Blood rushed in his ears and he wasn't sure what he would have done if a hand hadn't touched his arm and jerked him from his violent thoughts. "Lee?"
"What?" he snapped, ripping his gaze from Jet's smug expression.
Dark eyes searched his face before turning to look across the room at Jet and Katara. The couple's heads were tilted toward each other and it was obvious Jet was again flirting and telling tall tales about himself and his Freedom Fighters. A bunch of kids playing war if you asked Zuko.
"I," Jin cut herself off with a shake of her head, changing her mind. "You shouldn't let him get to you."
He forced himself to take a deep breath before he accidentally set fire to the serving tray. That would create more problems than solve and would be difficult to explain away. He couldn't resist glowering back at the other table. "He doesn't get to me."
Jin's searching gaze was fixed on Zuko this time. He shifted restlessly when he realized she was looking at him. She sighed, placing her chin in her hand, asking, "Do you like her?"
The question caught him by surprise and he fumbled for an answer for a moment before insisting, "I don't like him."
Katara laughed at something Jet said, rocking into him with her shoulder. Zuko's jaw tensed. "And he makes her do that."
He pointed angrily at the pair, missing the sad look that crossed Jin's face. Whatever Jet had said couldn't possibly be that entertaining. Zuko's mutinous thoughts insisted that she never laughed at anything he said.
"Lee," Iroh called from the kitchen window.
Zuko stalked back to the kitchen window, taking the tray waiting there. Iroh watched him in concern, glancing at the table where Jet and Katara laughed. When Zuko returned to the window, Iroh smiled and offered, "Perhaps you would like to pick up some ingredients we will need for tomorrow. I can take care of the tables until Miss Katara is back from her break."
Zuko gave a tight nod and spun on his heel, marching out the door without a glance back. The sun had sunk below the high walls of the city, casting the narrow streets in deep shadow. Zuko ignored the drop in temperature as evening set, wandering through the streets in no particular direction. Irritation simmered just below the surface and he hardly realized he'd forgotten to get the list of things his uncle wanted from the markets before they closed for the night. Most of the shops were already closed anyway, wanting to avoid any possibility of violating curfew.
Eventually, he found an out of the way fountain in a small square and dropped onto the wide ledge, letting his head drop into his hands. He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, taking a deep breath. Why he was so annoyed with the former Freedom Fighter, he couldn't say. Jet was irritating and arrogant, but that wasn't enough reason for him to hold so much animosity for the guy. It felt similar to the time they'd spent in the Foggy Swamp, but at the same time it felt different. He refused to admit that he felt threatened by the other boy. Zuko snorted. It was ridiculous to even think it. Jet wasn't the first man—boy—to flirt with Katara and Zuko doubted he would be the last.
Zuko let his hands drop, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck and trying to ease the tension that had built up over the past weeks. His eyes narrowed at his shoes. No, Jet was an annoyance and he'd eventually leave. He'd just have to convince Katara that it was better for her to stay with him and forget about the former Freedom Fighter. After all, she'd had plenty of other opportunities to leave him in the past and she hadn't. He ignored the warmth that thought gave him.
The low sound of a horn blowing announced curfew and Zuko sat up, suddenly realizing how late it had gotten. He wondered if Katara had even noticed his absence. Iroh was probably worried he hadn't returned yet. The night patrols started shortly after sundown and they weren't exactly pleasant to run into. Curfew was strict in the lower ring of the city and too many run-ins would get you put on the watch list. He rose to find his way back to the teahouse when a notice board caught his attention and he found himself approaching it curiously. He stopped in front of the board, his eyes adjusting to the dim light. At first, nothing of interest was apparent and then he saw it. Zuko glared at the poster. Well, there were actually three posters that caught his attention, but the one he was glaring at had a crude rendering of himself as he was when he had a ship and a crew. Before his life went up in smoke. He frowned. Well, even more up in smoke. The other two posters were of his uncle and the Blue Spirit. He scoffed at that last poster. They'd never find the Blue Spirit. No, his glare was reserved for the wanted poster of himself. They were offering a reward for his capture. Him! Prince of the Fire Nation and heir-apparent! They were treating him like some kind of criminal.
His shoulders slumped, the indignation draining out of him. He was only fooling himself. Azula had more claim to the throne than he did. She was the prodigy after all and she hadn't been exiled. She didn't shame her family by merely breathing. Father loved her best. Annoyed, he ripped the posters of himself and Iroh off the board and crumpled them into tight balls. He nearly set them aflame before a voice spoke from the darkness behind him, "Yeah, I hate them too."
Zuko groaned silently. He recognized that sneering tone. His night just kept getting better. "What do you want, Jet?"
The other boy seemed to melt out of the shadows, eyes narrowed suspiciously at Zuko. They never really spoke, each content to antagonize each other from across the tearoom. Still, Zuko wasn't used to the wary, scrutinizing look Jet was giving him. "There's something familiar about you and that old man. I know I've seen you somewhere before."
"Weren't you with Katara?" Zuko sneered, ignoring the twisting in his gut at the reminder.
Jet shrugged, waving a careless hand. "She's angry with me."
Zuko turned to stare at him. Katara was rarely actually angry with someone without good reason. The thought made his fists clench around the crumpled posters and his hands warmed. "What did you do to her?"
"Relax, man," he drawled. "It'll blow over. It's not important. What I want to know is how you got that scar."
Zuko resisted the reflex to cover the burn scar and turned away, saying flatly, "How do you think I got it. From a firebender."
He did not want to talk about it. Jet didn't seem to care about his invasive questions, instead circling Zuko to get another look. "Looks like a pretty personal wound."
Zuko snarled, debating the wisdom of punching the cocky Freedom Fighter when the boy made a sound of amusement. "Looks like the Avatar has run into a bit of trouble."
Zuko turned his attention back to the notice board, taking in the other posters that crowded together in the tight space. Now that he wasn't glaring hatefully at his own wanted poster he could see the others; notices of events, announcements, and lost and found posters overlapped each other. The one on top looked the newest and most poorly written. The poster read:
LOST: SKY BISON
IF FOUND, PLEASE CONTACT AVATAR AANG.
Accompanying the description of what a sky bison actually looked like was a crude drawing of what appeared to be a pickle with six sticks protruding from its sides. Zuko felt his heart skip a beat. The Avatar must be somewhere in the city if they were looking for the sky bison here. His redemption was so close. Jet gave another grunt of amusement before turning away from the poster to peer at Zuko again. "I'll be keeping an eye on you and the old man."
Zuko scowled. That did not sound like a friendly offer. "Why?"
"Don't want any firebenders here, if you catch my meaning, and you two are suspicious. Katara may think you're harmless. You can fool her, but you can't fool me. We can win this war without the help of the Avatar. Kid needs to stay out of our way."
"Got something against the Avatar?"
Jet gave the poster a dark look. "Yeah. He and that Water Tribe nobody friend of his betrayed my Freedom Fighters. He's the reason I'm hiding in this disgusting place. He's a coward."
Jet seemed to shake himself and he gave Zuko another narrow-eyed, suspicious look. "Remember what I said. If you're a firebender, your days are numbered."
The boy skulked off into the deepening shadows in the opposite direction of the teahouse and Zuko pushed Jet from his mind. Katara was upset and Iroh was probably thinking about sending out a search party for him. He gave the missing sky bison poster another lingering look before he slipped down the streets, heading back to the teahouse. He'd given up his search for the Avatar. Returning to that path would do him no good now. Hushed voices alerted him that people were approaching and he ducked into a dark doorway, holding his breath. The patrols were starting and he was still a distance from the teahouse. Two Earth Kingdom guards passed and Zuko just caught their words as they rounded the corner.
"—the Avatar's sky bison?"
"Do you question the orders of Long Feng?"
The first guard flinched back, stuttering, "No! Of course—of course not. It's just…the beast can't stay in Lake Laogai forever. Avatar Aang is growing restless."
"Long Feng can handle a twelve-year-old kid, even if he's the Avatar."
They passed his hiding spot and Zuko shifted to watch them. At the cross streets, they took different paths. He hesitated. He had no plans to search for the Avatar's missing pets. It was none of his business and he had given up seeking his father's approval after the last disastrous encounter with his sister. Katara's smile flashed through her mind and, without realizing he'd come to a decision, he slipped out of the doorway and followed one of the guards.
Locating the guard was nearly one of the easiest things he'd ever done. The city's refusal to acknowledge the war in any way had allowed for a sense of complacency to settle on the city's defenders. The guard was clearly expecting trouble to come from the ground and with the curfew, there was not a single soul outdoors. Still, Zuko knew he was at a disadvantage. He was unarmed. Firebending would send out an alert beacon to any other patrol in the area and he wasn't sure if the guard could earthbend. He would have to take the guard by surprise. An ambush. The guard turned suddenly and Zuko quickly ducked around a corner.
Zuko pulled himself over the edge of the room just as the guard turned the corner. He crouched low, watching the guard's progress down the street. The guard advanced slowly, hands up and ready to strike with earthbending. That answered the question about his fighting abilities. The guard moved cautiously down the street, warily peering into the deep shadows. Zuko followed his progress from the rooftops, moving slightly ahead of the guard and preparing the ambush. The firebender breathed slowly, counting down until the guard reached the point Zuko would drop on him. He was pleased to see the guard was armed with a sword strapped across his back.
The guard's movements were slow but eventually he slowed to a halt under Zuko. Zuko dropped from the roof, pulling the swords from the guard's sheath and spinning the stunned man to press the blades against his throat before the man could raise a cry of alarm. Zuko was grateful for the darkness of the streets as it hid his face. He half wished he'd brought his mask that was safely tucked deep inside his bag back at the teashop; keeping his identity hidden would have been so much easier. Taking a breath to calm his breathing, he demanded, "Where's the sky bison."
"I-I don't know."
Zuko's snort of contempt startled the man. "I don't believe that. Try again."
The guard twitched, craning his neck in an attempt to look behind him, but Zuko was too close. Apparently they weren't trained in hand-to-hand combat. Fools. The guard gulped. "And if I don't tell you?"
"Your loss. One of you will tell me what I want to know." Zuko felt the guard tense and he pressed the blades closer, hissing, "Bend and it'll be the last thing you do."
The guard stilled immediately when he felt the sharp blade at his throat. "I don't know why you would want to know."
Zuko recognized the stall tactic and grit his teeth, annoyed. "You're running short on time."
"Do you want to test me? It'll be your head."
A tense moment passed before the guard sighed. "Fine. Follow me."
The guard led Zuko through a maze of streets to a small door, cleverly hidden and easily overlooked that opened to a set of stairs that led to a labyrinth beneath the city. He prodded his captive down the stairs, not wanting to give him free reign to alert his friends of a security breach. Zuko left the guard, bound and unconscious, in a conveniently located storage closet once he got directions through the Lake Laogai compound. He'd taken the dao swords and their sheath when he left the guard, comforted by their familiar weight against his back. On stealthy feet, Zuko moved down the wide corridors, impressed at the sheer size of the place. The ceilings rose high overhead and disappeared into darkness above him. The whole place had a damp feel to it and he wondered if the compound really had an underground lake somewhere within the maze of corridors and vast rooms.
A low murmur of voices alerted him that he wasn't the only one in the compound. It didn't sound like they were heading in his direction, but Zuko loosened the swords in their sheath to be prepared. Eventually, the voices moved away and Zuko continued his winding path through the corridors. He breathed a quiet sigh of relief when he finally found himself outside a set of large double doors. The eerie green light made his skin crawl and he didn't want to stay any longer than he had to. He scouted out the immediate area around the room for any guards standing watch over the room before he pushed the door open just wide enough for him to slip through.
Zuko turned and his breath caught. He'd always known the sky bison was big, but he'd never really seen it this close before. It was huge. Large brown eyes stared at him from beneath shaggy, dingy white fur assessing his sudden appearance. It seemed more intelligent than he'd ever given it credit. Zuko took a step back when a rumbling groan warned him to be careful in approaching the large mammal.
"Not who you were expecting," he said with more bravado than he felt.
A hot snort washed over him as Zuko cautiously approached, hand out to pat the sky bison. The rumbling groan increased to a dull roar and Zuko froze, warily eying the bison. A tense moment passed as the sky bison sniffed him. To his surprise, the roar subsided with what could only be a happy mumble and the sky bison settled down, inching closer. A giddy feeling settled over him and Zuko let his hand rest on the sky bison's snout before reaching to let his fingers stroke through the thick fur. The fur warmed his hands after the chill of the damp corridors and he allowed several moments just to stroke the silky strands. It was like petting a giant…sky bison. Voices outside the chamber jerked him back to the present situation. This was no time to be petting animals and getting lost in silly thoughts. The guards moved on and Zuko gave the sky bison one last pat before stepping back. "What do you say to getting out of here?"
As soon as he asked the question, he felt ridiculous. The animal was not going to answer him. The bison groaned, shifting on his many feet and Zuko heard the clink of chains. He moved around the side of the large animal, walking slowly to avoid startling him. The sky bison was chained to the floor with manacles around four of its six legs. A quick examination of the nearest manacle didn't reveal any immediate weak points and he pulled a sword, wondering if he'd be able to shatter the chains. They were considerably thicker than the chains at the Yuyan Archer's fortress. The timber of the bison's rumbling groans changed, giving Zuko a second to realize he was about to be discovered, before the bison dropped to a low crouch. A guard entered the chamber, another several steps behind him, arms loaded with weak looking vegetables. Zuko ducked against the sky bison's side, grateful that the bulky fur hid him from view. As long as the guards didn't circle the bison, he'd remain unseen. The guards dropped the vegetables just out of the bison's reach, sneering, "There you go, you mangy beast. Long Feng should just chop you up and sell your parts. He could make a fortune. I know a good dealer—"
The bison lunged against its chains, releasing an earth-trembling roar that had the two earthbenders stumbling backward. The manacles groaned with the bison's pulling. Clearly it wasn't the first time the bison had pulled at the chains and Zuko could see them weakening at the bolts. The commotion was distracting the guards and Zuko darted out, drawing the dao swords and shattering the weakened links. The bison's angry roar covered the sounds of shattering chain as Zuko moved from manacle to manacle. The guards were shouting to make each other heard over the echoing noise. Zuko broke the last chain just as the bison was drawing in another breath.
"—told you not to antagonize—hey!"
He'd been spotted. Zuko swore, scrambling back to the bison's side, grateful when the large animal lowered its head to allow him to pull himself onto the bison's back. The two guards were advancing and alarms were already sounding out in the corridor. The large room shuddered and Zuko had a feeling more earthbenders were on their way.
"Drop your weapons and get off the bison!"
"You're surrounded. There's no escape."
Green clad guards were already blocking the door and assuming bending stances. Earth manacles flew at him from one of the guards and Zuko ducked, shattering them with one of his swords. He crouched low to the bison's head, hissing, "Get us out of here, you furry monster."
The bison tossed his head with an offended grumble and Zuko had to grab a horn to keep from being tossed off, missing another earth manacle. "Okay! Okay."
Muscles tensing in the bison's neck was the only warning Zuko had before the bison surged forward with a roar, bowling over the earthbenders. The guards scattered, most dropping to the floor to avoid the large bison. Zuko clung to the bison, hoping it knew where it was going.