in the Dark
Chapter One: A Rumor of Ba Sing's Se's Best Tea
All Standard Disclaimers Apply: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender or anything related to it.
"You guys are going…again?" Sokka turned around from in front of the mirror where he had been examining his barely visible facial hair. Katara nodded as she stood by the doorway to Toph's room, waiting for the younger girl to get ready for their day out.
"What's wrong with going again?" Katara asked. "We happened to enjoy it last time." She insisted.
Sokka let out a snort and returned to the mirror in front of him. "I think it's just a big waste of time. Laying around in tub of mud…you can do that for free outside, right, Aang?"
"The monks kind of steered away from that sort of thing," Aang said as he wiped the razor against a towel and examined his scalp. He looked over his shoulder and offered a smile at Katara. "But I've got nothing against playing in mud."
"We're not 'playing in mud'. You're boys, you wouldn't understand," Katara retorted. She crossed her arms and looked into Toph's room. "You almost ready?"
"Yep!" The earthbender walked out of her room, tucking a small pouch of money into her pocket as she stopped beside Katara.
"We'll be back later this afternoon. Whose turn is it to make dinner?" Katara asked as she and Toph headed for the door.
"Sokka's." Aang and Toph chorused. Aang grabbed his glider and headed for the door with the others.
"Yeah, yeah…" the young Water Tribe Warrior nodded as he smiled at himself in the mirror. The door closed and Sokka stood up straight, his eyebrows furrowing with realization. "Wait a second…I cooked yesterday!" He turned around to confront his friends and frowned. The house was vacant. He let out a frustrated groan. "This is exactly what happened yesterday!"
Outside, Katara and Toph scrambled to get away from the house before Sokka came storming out, ranting about how it had been his turn to cook for five days straight. If he even realized it. When would he learn that he agreed to just about anything when he was preoccupied with grooming? And they said girls were high maintenance.
"One day, someday that's not soon, Sokka will eventually realize that it's been 'his turn' to cook about fifty percent of the time we've been here," Katara chuckled as they walked down the path to the day spa. "But until then, we've got an entire free day. So what do you want to do after the spa?"
"I don't know," Toph shrugged. "I'd say check out that zoo Aang made, but I can't really see the animals."
"Maybe the zookeeper will let you touch some of them," Katara offered. "I heard there are some pretty cute rabbiroos that are soft and warm..." she trailed off invitingly. Toph grinned slightly.
"Okay, maybe it wouldn't hurt to drop by." the younger bender agreed. The Water Tribe girl giggled as they reached the Fancy Lady Day Spa.
As Katara leaned back against her cushioned chair, getting her feet done, Toph was already in the next room, lying in a vat of bubbling mud. After their last visit and Toph's demonstration of her earthbending skills on the poor pedicurist, no one forced her or even suggested that she sit for another session. And that was perfectly fine with the Bei Fong girl.
Katara closed her eyes with a little sigh of content, allowing the pedicurist to complete her job, when she picked up the conversation of two women seated just behind her.
"It's the best tea in Ba Sing Se," one woman was gushing. "It's too bad it's all the way in the lower districts."
"But I've heard they had quite a good looking young man as a server," her friend replied. "The best tea in the city and the best looking waiters? You can't get that up here."
"I'm sure I can get my husband to spare some extra guards," the first woman mused. "How did you hear about it?"
"This week's newsletter came out and many of the readers were gushing about that tea shop," the second woman told her. "Fei Chen went with her sister last week and is still raving about the tea."
"And the waiter?" the other woman chuckled.
"Very good looking…least on one side."
"He has this horrid burn mark over his left eye…"
Behind them, blue eyes went wide. Katara's body stiffened as her eyebrows furrowed. Did she hear them correctly? Shifting carefully in her seat, Katara leaned back a bit, trying to listen to what else was being said.
"…It mars his face, but that hasn't lessened his appeal," one of the women explained. "At any rate, are you interested in coming with me tomorrow? I heard that the old man that works there has been approached by several other shops and the Chi Huang family to come and work for them and he's rejected all of them."
"His tea is that good?"
Old man? Boy with scar on his left eye? Katara bit her lower lip. Impossible. What would they be doing in Ba Sing Se of all places? Why were they there? Aang! Her hand rose and rested over her chest, the sudden weight of worry pressing down against her.
Did they know they were there? Did they know where Aang was? How did they even get in?
"You're done, miss," The pedicurist's voice cut through her thoughts and Katara sat up straight. The woman was putting away her tools into a little tray. "Would you like to go to the mud baths now?"
"Uh…yes…" Katara nodded dumbly. She uncrossed her legs and was about to stand up when curiosity finally got to her. She grabbed the back of her chair as she turned to the two women. "Excuse me…I couldn't help but over hear your conversation."
The two women looked over their shoulders, eyeing Katara distastefully for cutting into their conversation. "You're excused." One spat out, annoyed, before turning back to her friend.
The waterbender ignored her tone. "This tea shop. You wouldn't by any chance know where it is or what it's called, would you?"
"No, I don't," she hissed. "Now do you mind? You're being quite rude." Katara narrowed her eyes.
"Sorry for bothering you," she turned her head away and stood up. As she walked towards the next room, she lifted her hand smoothly. A scream echoed behind her as the pools of water their feet were bathing in exploded into the air, soaking their robes. A sly smirk graced her face as she entered the other room. "Hey, Toph."
The cucumber eyed, mud covered bender turned her head slightly to the side where Katara's voice was coming from. "Hey, Katara. Have a nice foot spa?"
"It was…satisfying," Katara grinned. She didn't have to bend the water, but then again, they didn't have to be so rude to her. It could've been worse. She could've frozen the water. An attendant helped her out of her robe and into the tub filled with bubbling mud. "I think I came up with something for us to do after we're finished here."
A small grunt signaled Toph's interest. "Do you like tea?"
"Yeah," Toph shrugged. "You want to go get tea?" She asked, somewhat surprised. Katara may have been more girly than her, but getting tea was something out of the ordinary.
"Kind of," Katara said. She leaned back against the head rest as the attendant knelt down behind her head and began rubbing on a mud face mask. "I'll tell you later, okay?"
"Okay," Toph mused. "Are we going to bring Aang and Sokka?"
Katara nearly cringed at the names. Aang would want to go and Sokka…Sokka would probably blow things out of proportion. "Um…not for this."
Thirty minutes later, they were rinsed off and clad in soft beige towels. Katara closed the door to the steam room behind them as Toph bended some more stones into the fire in the center off the room. Katara bended some water on to the stones before taking her seat on the wooden bench across from Toph.
"So what did you want to tell me?" the younger girl asked coolly.
Katara took a deep breath. "I think Zuko and his Uncle are in the city." She stated bluntly. Toph's sea foam eyes widened.
"What?" She sat up straight. "Why'd you think that?"
"I heard these two ladies talking behind me when I was getting my feet done," the blue eyed bender explained. "They were talking about this tea shop that has an old man that makes the best tea in the city-"
"Oh, big shock, Katara," Toph snorted as she leaned back against the wooden bench. "An old guy that likes tea? Sound the alarms!"
"Will you let me finish?" Katara retorted. She leaned forward. "They said an old man was there along with a tea server with a scar on his left eye."
Toph paused for a moment, allowing the comment to sink in. She turned her head away and shrugged her shoulders. "It could be anyone with a scar on his left eye. I mean, how do you even know for sure that it's…what was it? A burn mark?"
"I don't know for sure, that's why I want to go to the tea shop."
"Are you crazy?" Toph snorted. "You don't even know if what those women were saying was true."
"I heard them talking about this newsletter that came out," Katara rambled on, not listening to Toph's words. "I bet we can find out where the shop is if we can get a copy."
"Are you even listening to me?" Toph asked with a frown on her face. "We don't even know where to get the newsletter. And I'm sure Aang and Sokka aren't just going to let you walk out the door to check it out by yourself. Or with me for that matter."
Katara glanced at the younger bender. "Who said we were going to tell them?"
Toph closed her eyes and shook her head tired. "This is a bad idea…"
"Oh, come on, Toph, it's not like we can't handle them," Katara insisted. "And if they work at a tea shop, in Ba Sing Se, of all places, do you really think they'll be able to do anything?"
"I'm not afraid of what they'll do…" Toph mumbled under her breath.
"What was that?" Katara asked as she bended some more water into the fire.
"Nothing, nothing…" Toph shrugged. "Okay, fine, Sugar Queen. I'll go with you – just to make sure you don't do anything you'll regret."
"Don't worry about it," Katara assured her. "All we'll do is peek in, see if it's them, and then leave. No confrontation. They won't even see us!"
Toph felt her head nodding, despite the feeling of dread crawling in her stomach. "Whatever you say, Katara…"
"Table for two?" The young woman's voice was accompanied by giggles and the young waiter struggled to keep from scowling.
"Hold one for one moment," he said in a low raspy voice. He turned around to survey the small room of the tea shop for a spare table and heard the wave of giggles behind him. He tried not to roll his eyes. They were the fifth group of young women to step into the tea house that morning and he had a feeling they weren't there for the tea. Narrowed gold eyes spotted a vacant table in the corner. "Follow me."
The two young women followed him into the small shop. From the looks of their clothing, they were from fairly well off family. What they were doing in a hole in the wall tea shop was completely his Uncle's fault.
As Zuko seated them at the table, he shot a bitter glare at the jolly old man happily pouring tea and talking up another group of girls across the room. He had encouraged the owner to enter a contest on the premise of bringing in more customers. Of course, Iroh's tea had won the contest and upon the reception of the award, someone took notice of the little server boy.
The server boy in his cute little apron, scowling as he bused tables. The next thing Zuko knew, women of all ages were flocking to the small tea shop with the excuse of 'tasting the award winning tea'. But those rather large tips he received and the leery looks from middle aged women made him think otherwise.
In the last week, the shop had been painfully busy. He, the owner, and his Uncle could barely keep up with the clientele; not that the owner was complaining. "Uncle," Zuko said, his frown never leaving his face. "We have two more."
"Wonderful, Li!" the old man said as he turned and smiled warmly at their new guests. "Thank you for choosing us today, ladies. Li, take their orders."
"Fine," he said. He took a deep breath and turned back to the young women who were apparently ogling his behind while he had his back to them. As soon as he turned, the sat up straight in their chairs and smiled sweetly. "What can I get for you today?"
"What's the special?" one girl asked.
"Jasmine tea is the house special, except on weekends, then its green or ginseng." Zuko repeated, having memorized the little blurb.
"We'll have that then," the girl nodded and smiled. Zuko nodded and was about to turn around when she called out once more. "Um…what's your name?"
"Li." he murmured before darting back behind the counter.
"We are attracting quite a crowd," Iroh said as he joined his nephew behind the counter and prepared some ginseng for the girls across the room. "I knew that contest would be very good for business."
"Well, thanks to your great idea, Uncle, we blew our chance at remaining anonymous," Zuko spat out, disgruntled. "I can't walk ten feet without having some girl stop me and ask if I work here."
"You make it sound like it's a bad thing," Iroh said with a mock gasp. Zuko scowled more so. "They are only curious. What is wrong with all the attention?"
"You know what's wrong with it." Zuko grumbled. He put a tea pot on to his tray and turned away from the counter. He heard Iroh sigh heavily behind him. For most men, being undressed by women's eyes whenever they set foot outside their doors would be extremely flattering, but they didn't need the attention right now.
Eyes were watching their, or rather his, every move. It was driving him crazy. There were times when he desperately wanted to fire bend, if only to loosen his muscles or relieve some stress. But practically everyone in the lower tiers knew how he looked like now. The scar was the biggest give away.
In truth, he did wonder why exactly they'd taken such a liking to him. Didn't the scar disgust them and send them away? He'd heard some women and girls sigh at the tragedy that was the scar on his face; as if it was a sin to have been placed upon him. Such comments bothered him.
The scar made him who he was. He didn't feel he should be ashamed of it. Then again, there were those other girls who thought it was mysterious and sexy. That was awkward. He never thought of it that way. Silently, he walked to the table and placed the cups on the flat surface. "Thank you." One of the girls said shyly as she accepted the porcelain tea cup and blushed.
"You're welcome." Zuko replied, automatically. He poured them some tea and turned back around.
"Um…when do you have a break?" one of the girls asked behind him. "Would you like to join us?"
He stood stiffly by their table, unsure of how to answer despite the fact that he had been asked that at least a dozen times already. "Maybe some other time," he answered calmly. "We're very busy and my Uncle needs me to help."
The disappointed sighs reached his ears, but he continued back to the counter. And he thought Jin made him self conscious. Apparently, any female he wasn't fighting or bossing around, if he took time to notice them, made him feel that way. And he had the feeling his Uncle found sick pleasure in watching him stutter and say awkward things.
"Hi, Li," He nearly dropped the tray he was holding. He whirled around in an instant; his eyes meeting the familiar ones of young woman would a messy mop of brown hair tied back in a pony tail. "You look busy."
Part of him had been happy that she returned, even after the more than awkward ending to their date the week before. She had seemed reluctant, but hid it all behind a happy smiling face, pretending that nothing as disheartening as him running away from her in the middle of a kiss never happened. He had tried his best to at least act normal.
Yet every time he saw her, he couldn't look her in the eye. He had felt so horrible for what he did that night. His Uncle had given him such a long lecture of the fragility of a young woman's heart and how he had so thoughtlessly shattered Jin's. Iroh swore Jin would have free tea if she ever came by again.
When she did, about three days after the 'incident', Zuko apologized for his rudeness, but made no real explanation for his actions. Jin had assured him it was fine and she would still like to be friends. She had even suggested that maybe one day they go out again…as friends. He smiled slightly and agreed. Now they were dancing on that thin line between friendship and possible date.
"Hello, Jin…" he trailed off weakly. Zuko swallowed nervously, his eyes darting around the room for any sign of his Uncle. He found Iroh standing and talking to one of the old men that frequented the shop across the room. Iroh couldn't help him now. Not that he would've. "Yeah…we're busy…" He mentally cursed. He pushed himself back from the counter and stood straight up. "Did you want some tea?" he asked stupidly.
Jin smiled. "I'd like that. Thanks."
Zuko nodded and lead her over to a spare table in the corner. As he placed a tea cup in front of her, the door opened behind him.
"Mommy, can we go to the zoo again?" a little boy's voice pleaded.
"We went yesterday, honey," a woman's voice replied. "Table for two, please?"
"Follow me," Iroh said cheerfully. "I did not know there was a zoo here."
The woman chuckled as she was seated. "Well, the Avatar recently created one just outside the inner wall, out in the fields." the woman replied. Zuko nearly spilled the tea.
"Li, are you all right?" Jin asked, concerned as the young man fumbled with his hold on the pot.
"I'm fine." He stated. He continued to pour the steaming hot liquid into her cup as he listened in to the young boy rambling on behind him about the new zoo that had been created.
"And he flew on his glider!" the child ended.
Zuko narrowed his eyes. So the Avatar was in Ba Sing Se. He placed the tea pot back on to the tray and headed towards the counter.
"Li," the owner said as he peered out from the back room. "Can you prepare the small cakes for this afternoon's crowds?"
"Yes, sir." Zuko replied respectfully. He put his tray on the table and looked down at the rows of small pastries that they served in the afternoon, when the tea time crowds began to flood in. His hands moved swiftly over the pastries as his mind reeled with the new information. He'd have to look into the Avatar's presence in the city.
"And why are we wearing this?" Toph asked as they walked down the crowded streets of the lower tiers. Both she and Katara were dressed in their green-yellow tinted clothes, make-up lightly dabbed over their faces as they walked through the area.
"Because if they do see us, I don't want them following blue all the way back to Aang," Katara insisted. "This way, we'll blend in."
"But my clothes were already blending in," Toph argued with a frown. "I don't see why I couldn't have come in my regular clothes."
"We would've looked like a strange pair if one of us was dressed up and the other wasn't," Katara assured her. "Don't worry, we're blending in completely."
Despite the fact that Toph couldn't see, she didn't buy Katara's assurance. She could almost feel the looks the commoners were giving a pair of girls dressed in clothes signaling that they were from the Upper Tier. It was so obvious, even to her. Still, she just let out a heavy sigh and allowed her friend to continue on with her plan.
After the spa, Katara had dragged her home to change. They had been lucky. The only one home had been Momo, and Momo was sprawled on a window sill beside two pygmy pumas. If Sokka or Aang had been home, they would've questioned them and subsequently stopped them from going off alone.
After two hours, they had finally made it to the lower tier. It had taken them another five minutes to find out where the infamous tea shop was. The first woman they asked told them directions and before long, they found their way to the front of the small shop and beheld the sight of a dozen women struggling to get a seat inside.
"Hmm…feels like it's popular." Toph stated blandly.
"Don't tell me there's a line…" Katara frowned. "Great…just great…"
"Looks like they're full. You might not even get to look inside." Toph shrugged.
"No way, we walked all the way down here and got lost-"
"You got lost. I didn't think this was a good idea."
"You were with me, so we both got lost," Katara insisted. She looked back at the tea house. "Anyway, we don't need to go inside, we just need to peek inside and see."
"Can't you just look through a window?" Toph snorted. Katara surveyed the street side front of the small shop. The two windows on either side of the door had their blinds closed downwards. She shook her head.
"No good, I can't see through the wooden panes," Katara frowned. "I'll check the sides,"
Katara left Toph standing across the street as she crossed the dirt path and peered around the alley. Grumbling, she returned to her friend's side. "No windows on the side."
"We can always wait it out," Toph said, leaning against the side of another building. "Sooner or later those people will go home."
"We can't wait forever," Katara frowned. She looked up at the sky. "By the time we get home, it'll be dark."
The young earthbender frowned. First she wanted to go look, but now she was hesitating after their two hour trek. "Then what are we waiting for?" Toph grumbled. "We might as well go inside and get it over with!"
"We can't go inside!" Katara gasped, scandalized at the very thought. "What if it really is them?"
"What are they going to do?" Toph retorted. "Fight us? Get real…with the Dai Li everywhere, they'd have no chance."
Katara took in a deep breath. Toph made a good point. Blue eyes glanced back to the small shop. Suddenly, she felt nervous and was starting to second guess her idea. "I don't know…"
Was that reluctance in her friend's voice? Toph frowned. "First you drag me down here, saying that we have to see and then when we get down here, you don't want to go any more? That's it!" Toph stood up straight and reached forward. Her hands blindly grabbed on to Katara's arms and pulled her forward.
Katara's eyes widened as she stumbled forward. "Toph, what are you doing?"
"I walked two whole hours here and then followed you as you wandered cluelessly around the city! You didn't listen to me when I said we shouldn't go; you insisted on coming. Well, we're here now, Sugar Queen! It's too late to back out! We're going to get some tea!" Toph proclaimed determinedly.
"What?" Katara gasped. She struggled to pull her arm back, but found the twelve year old girl stronger than she looked. "Toph!" She pleaded, only to be ignored.
They reached the crowd by the door and Toph stomped her foot on the ground. A wave of shrieks cut through the crowd of women as they were suddenly parted into two groups on either side of the door, giving Toph and Katara a clear pathway to the shop. Confused and annoyed, the women glared down at the two new comers as they made their way through.
From the doorway, the flustered owner blinked dumbly at the sight of the wealthy looking girl dragging her friend behind her. "I'm sorry, ladies, but there is a line-"
"Do you know who I am?" Toph demanded smoothly. Katara cringed. She knew that tone. "My name is Toph Bei Fong," she said as she reached into her robes with her free hand and produced her gold sealed documentation. "Of the Bei Fong family of Gaoling."
The owner gasped as he saw the glistening gold seal and bowed his head, immediately pouring out the apologies. Katara mentally groaned. Please don't let us in. Please don't let us in…
"Forgive me, Miss Bei Fong. Right this way."
Curse you! Katara closed her eyes in defeat. She began a new chant. Please don't be Zuko. Please don't be Zuko…
"Heh," Toph grinned as she dragged Katara through the doors. The warm, welcoming smell of tea and freshly baked pastries filled the air with a pleasant, homely aroma. "And you were afraid we wouldn't get in."
The waterbender stumbled forward, tripping over her own feet as she struggled to pull her arm away from Toph's iron grip. "Okay, Toph. I can walk by myself-" Her sentence was suddenly cut off as her shoulder slammed into another being. Katara instinctively jerked her head up, ready to apologize. "Sorry about –"
A sharp gasp was heard behind her and Toph turned around. "Katara?"
Gold eyes pierced blue ones as Katara stood rooted in her stop, her entire body frozen and tense. Her heart was racing as her mouth opened slightly, wide eyes staring up in shock at the familiar scarred face of one banished Fire Nation Prince. "Oh my gods…"
Zuko placed a tray of small cakes in front of Jin. She looked up at him curiously. "Thanks, Li, but I didn't order any cakes."
He turned his head away and shrugged. "My Uncle says they're on the house." He told her lamely. A wide smile graced Jin's face. She lowered her eyes and blushed slightly.
"Then please tell him thank you."
"Sure," Zuko brought the empty tray against his apron covered chest and looked around the shop. It was practically full. From what he could hear outside, there was a large group of women waiting for afternoon tea. He took a step and felt the earth move slightly beneath him. His eyebrows furrowed. "Did you feel that?" he asked no on in particular.
"Feel what?" Jin asked as she looked up at him with half a finger sized cake in her mouth.
Golden eyes narrowed and he shook his head. "Never mind."
"Do you know how I am?" Zuko's head perked up. He'd heard that voice before. It was a young and female and he'd heard it…but where? Curiously, he craned his neck towards the door, only to see the owner of the shop bowing profusely.
Must be another rich customer… Zuko thought. He shrugged off the voice and turned around, about to head back to the counter when another voice, one much more familiar, cut through his psyche.
"I can walk by myself!" His eyes widened as his feet rooted him to the ground.
No. Of all the tea houses in Ba Sing Se…The gods must've had some sort of vendetta against him. Gripping the tray in his hands so tightly that his knuckles began turning white, he turned around to verify his suspicions. That was when the smaller frame of a girl in greenish-yellow slammed against him.
He immediately downed down at the person. Brown hair. Check. Dark skin. Check. She raised her head, her red painted lips about to apologize for running into him. His eyes widened. Blue eyes. Check. Crap.
Her jaw dropped as she looked up at him. His mind reeled, trying to tell him that he was just seeing things. After all, the girl wasn't wearing a hint of blue. Then his eyes betrayed him as they landed on the sliver of blue from the necklace peeking behind the green cloth on her neck. That was a sign of her identity if there ever was one. Desperately, he tried to rationalize what was going on.
In the back of his mind something registered. He now knew for sure that the Avatar was in the city. The Water Tribe girl was there, therefore the Avatar was, too. And this was the Water Tribe girl…beneath the make up, the fixed hair, and the curve hugging Earth Kingdom dress. He was fairly sure.
"Oh my gods…"
That was an understatement. "Katara?" Zuko's eyes drifted to the younger girl beside her who had called out the name. He studied her. Was that the earthbender they were traveling with? His Uncle had told him about her and he could've sworn she didn't look like that. She was standing there, her eyes narrowed as she stood her ground. She was blind, but she knew what was going on.
The room was suddenly filled with a heavy, tense atmosphere. Two enemies in a small tea house. And this wasn't like the episode with Jet. These two enemies went back quite a way. He'd captured her. Twice. Tied her to a tree, had some animal paralyze her, knocked her unconscious, and tried to capture her friend the Avatar.
She had frozen him in a dome of ice, frozen him to sheer ice walls and knocked him unconscious, told him to jump into a river and kept him from her friend the Avatar. She knew who he really was. She knew he was a firebender. She knew his real name. And she could reveal it to the world.
This is it… Zuko mused to himself. Game over. So much for keeping my identity a secret. His eyes narrowed and his body tensed, ready to fight her at a moment's notice.
She took a step back, her eyes still shone with horror and surprise. Her mouth was still gaping. Her hands lowered and made a motion towards her side. Blue eyes widened more so at the realization she wasn't carrying around her water skin. It would've clashed with the dress.
A small smirk graced his face. Odds were obviously in his favor in this fight. Then, before he could even take a fighting stance, another voice cut through the tension filled room.
"Welcome to the store, ladies!" Iroh burst as he walked over, beaming widely at the two young women. "Can I interest you in the house special? For you, half off."
Zuko nearly fell back. Was his Uncle insane? Didn't he know who they were? Maybe he didn't recognize them.
"What's your house special?" the earthbender asked. She walked over to where the waterbender peasant stood and grabbed her arm. "Come on, Katara."
The blue eyed Water Tribe girl stiffened. He watched the emotions dance across her face. It was as if she suddenly realized what was going on and where they were. Gritting her teeth, she stood up straight and casually brushed a strand of brown hair out of her face.
"My apologies," she told him with a curt bow of her head. He could still detect the slight tremble in her voice. "I mistook you for someone else."
She turned her head and followed behind Toph. The earthbender kept a firm hold on Katara's arm, making sure she didn't suddenly turn around and attack him. Zuko followed them warily with his eyes. Iroh lead them to a corner table, close to the counter, and motioned for them to sit.
Toph sat on the nearest chair and Katara sat against the wall. Her eyes were lowered, her brows furrowed with concentration, as if trying to put together what was going on. Meanwhile, Toph conversed easily with Iroh.
"We'll have the jasmine tea then," Toph told the old man. "Katara, did you want cakes?"
"Hmm?" She looked up, still obviously lost in her own thoughts. "Cakes?"
"On the house for old acquaintances," Iroh assured her with a warm smile. "I will be back with your tea in a minute, ladies." He gave them a bow of his head and waddled off behind the counter.
Immediately, Katara turned back to Toph. The young earthbender grinned. "Well, we got what we came for."
"This isn't the way I wanted to find out," Katara hissed in a low voice. "I can't believe you dragged me in here! What happened to the plan?"
"Hey, you wanted to find out and I didn't want to waste any more of my precious time," Toph replied coolly as she leaned back against her chair. "Just relax. Enjoy the tea."
"Well, what if he tries to poison us or something?" Katara asked. She grimaced at her words, knowing how absurd it sounded. For someone who spouted about honor, Zuko didn't really seem the type to poison them. And his Uncle…definitely not.
"The old guy?"
"Well, no, not him…" she trailed off. Her eyes moved back to the old retired general behind the counter. He seemed completely in his element making tea. "But what about him?" Her eyes moved across the room, to the younger server in an…apron?
If she could've told Sokka about the apron, she would do so. "He won't try anything," Toph assured her. "He didn't expect to see you here either."
Katara narrowed her eyes. "So what are you saying? That they didn't know we're here?"
"Did he look surprised?" Toph asked. From Katara's silence, she assumed it was a yes. "Don't worry. I'll handle this. You need to work on being subtle, Sugar Queen."
"I need to work on it?" Katara scoffed. "You're the one who dragged me in here against my will!"
"Part of being subtle is knowing when to use it and when to be direct." Toph asserted. Katara rolled her eyes.
"Is this another lesson in society manners?" she grumbled.
"You catch on fast," the earthbender grinned. A shadow loomed above them and Katara turned her head towards the old general as he placed a tea pot on their table and two cups. "So…" Toph began. "I heard you're the best tea maker in the city."
"Oh, you're too kind," Iroh chuckled, obviously pleased with the compliment. He put a small tray of bite sized cakes in front of them. "But really, anyone can do it once they learn."
"I see," Toph nodded. "Been in the city long?"
"Three weeks now," Iroh told them. "And you, ladies?"
"About two," Toph replied. "Ah, but I'm being rude. My name is Toph Bei Fong and this is my valet, Katara." Across the table, the waterbender shot her a glare.
"Valet?" she spat out.
"Now not, Katara," Toph said as she raised her hand to shush the young woman. Katara crossed her arms over her chest and frowned at the indignity of the unnecessary title. "What is your name, sir?" the twelve year old asked politely.
"Mushi," Iroh nodded. "And that young man over there is my nephew, Li."
"Li?" Katara couldn't help but say the name and scoff. Of all the aliases, he picked Li? She would think he'd go with a different name.
"But we like to call him Junior." Iroh beamed a wide smile and Katara smirked back. She looked over Toph's shoulder at the young man. Zuko had apparently heard their conversation and was gripping his tray tightly as he took an order from another table.
"Junior, huh?" Katara grinned. She could almost see the steam coming from him. "Fitting."
"We're refugees here," Iroh said, his voice lowering. "Like many people, we are trying to start a new life here."
"I see…" Katara nodded. So they weren't after Aang. She looked at Iroh. The old man always did seem honorable…she didn't think he would lie so blatantly. After what she had seen when they fought the blue fire bender in that abandoned town and all those wanted posters, she figured he was telling the truth. They were wanted criminals in their homeland and attacked by one of their own. Katara's eyes widened, suddenly remembering something. "Your shoulder!" she gasped.
"Hmm?" Iroh lifted one hand and rubbed the shoulder that Azula had blasted. "Ah…it is feeling much better. Thank you for your concern."
Her eyes softened. "I'm sorry I couldn't help you at the time," she admitted, guiltily. Her eyes flickered over to Zuko as he walked past them. "Things…got in the way."
Iroh nodded. "It's understandable," he mused good naturedly. "Well, I must return to my duties here. If you two need anything, call for Li or myself."
The girls nodded. Toph began sipping her tea and Katara nibbled on some cookies. They were safe. Uncomfortable, by safe. "It's still…weird." Katara whispered.
"I can imagine." Toph mused. Her first experience with the ex-general had been pleasant, even life affirming, and the first time she had a run in with his nephew, they had fought side by side.
However, for Katara and the others…well, Toph had heard Katara mention something about a tree once. The young woman's slender brown fingers reached down and cupped the porcelain tea up. She slowly lifted it up and placed the rim against her lips. Her heart nearly stopped as she met knowing eyes of the banished prince pouring tea across the counter.
Don't you dare say anything. His eyes were glaring. Katara took a sip of her drink and locked eyes with his.
I don't think you're in any place to tell me what to do, apron boy. She glared back. Apron boy…that was good one.
Zuko gritted his teeth and looked back at the tea he was preparing. The nerve of that peasant…glaring back at him. She'd been a thorn in his side since they first collided in the South Pole. He placed the tea pot down. Then again, he had grabbed that elderly woman and threatened all of them.
"Thanks for the tea," He turned around and saw Jin's smiling face. She handed him some coins for her drink. "How much were the cakes?"
"They're free," Zuko assured her as he took her coins and put them away. "Don't worry about them."
"Oh, okay…" she trailed off. She seemed somewhat nervous and fiddled with her fingers on top of the counter. "Hey, Li," she began as she looked up at him. "They're having a festival two weeks from now."
"That's nice." Zuko replied, emotionless as he kept his back to her and looked around the counter for some clean tea cups.
"There will be a lot of food and music…even dancing." Jin added, sounding hopeful.
"Sounds fun." He was barely listening.
"I was thinking of going…" she trailed off, invitingly.
He nodded, distracted. "You should."
From their seat behind the counter, Katara and Toph casually eavesdropped. "Way to be a conversationalist…" Toph murmured. Katara snickered.
"It beats threatening her," She replied in a low voice, just loud enough for Zuko to hear. "You'd think a prince would have more manners in front of a girl."
A tray slammed on the counter and Zuko whirled around. "If you have something to say to me, peasant, say it!" He demanded. Katara sat up straight in her seat and half of the customers turned to look at him. Jin jerked her head back. She'd never seen him like that before.
Zuko was leaning against the front counter, his hands gripping the edge as he glared daggers at the young female waterbender. Before Katara could reply, Toph let out a mock gasp of shock. She lifted her free hand up to her chest.
"I have never been treated so rudely!" Toph said as she put her tea cup down and frowned. Katara looked over at Toph and gave her a questioning look. "I wish to speak to the owner immediately!"
Zuko's eyes darted upwards and instantly locked on with the disapproving ones of his Uncle. Iroh raised one eyebrow, as if to ask what Zuko had done to upset the poor girls. The owner was already walking towards them and Zuko mentally swore.
"Miss Bei Fong, is there something I can help you with?" the owner stammered as he offered Toph a smile.
"Yes," Toph began, waving her hand dismissingly towards the counter. "Your server here yelled at my valet. His rudeness was most uncalled for."
"Forgive me, Miss Bei Fong. He shall be fired immediately." A small surge of panic shot through Zuko. Who exactly was the blind earthbender that she was so powerful to cause the city to do whatever she wanted for her? Bei Fong? He'd never even heard of that family! And there he was, Prince of the Fire Nation. Everyone knew his family and he had to apologize to some lowly waterbender in Earth Kingdom clothing? Life hated him.
"No, no," Katara insisted as she waved her hands in front of him. "That's not necessary. A nice apology will suffice."
The owner looked at Katara and then at Toph for reassurance. "An apology will be fine. And throw in some more of those little three layer cakes - to go."
"Of course, Miss Bei Fong," the owner nodded. He straightened up and waved for Zuko to come over. "Li, please apologize to Miss Bei Fong's valet."
His hands were shaking with fury as he rounded the corner. Golden eyes were narrowed as he shot Katara a glare. "I'm sorry." He said, behind gritted teeth.
"I asked for a nice apology." Katara told him with a superior smirk.
One day, I will wipe that smirk off your… Zuko took a deep breath. Calm, Zuko…calm…think of Uncle. You don't want to cause more trouble for Uncle. It's a small price to pay for Uncle. "Please forgive me, miss."
"See, that wasn't too bad, was it?" Katara asked, if only to egg him on. Inside, she let out a little evil laugh. "You're forgiven, Junior."
He shot her another glare before silently bowing his head and returning to the counter. She had hit a sore spot with the manners comment. Who did she think she was? Saying such things when it was she who probably didn't have a drop of manners in her. Stupid girl…making him loose his concentration and nearly costing him his job.
With that settled, the owner went to personally pack some snacks for the girls. Iroh walked over. "Thank you for that. It would take him forever to find another job." He admitted.
Katara and Toph chuckled. "I can imagine."
From the counter, Jin glanced over at the two young women. "Do you know them?" she asked curiously.
"We've run into them once or twice…"
"In the circus?"
"The circus?" Zuko raised an eyebrow, looking at Jin as if she had lost her mind. "What the…oh…" Zuko nodded dumbly as his eyes widened. "Yes…the circus." Jin giggled and nodded.
"Anyway, I wanted to know if you wanted to come to the festival with me in two weeks. As friends, of course." She added hastily.
"Oh…well…that depends on the schedule here," Zuko stumbled stupidly. "I'll have to check with the owner first to see if I can."
"Okay, no problem," Jin nodded as she smiled back. "I'll come by later this week for your answer. Thanks again!" She waved her hand and headed out the door. As soon as it closed behind her, he let out a relieved sigh.
"How much is our total?" another voice asked. A dark skinned young woman suddenly occupied his line of sight. Katara was digging through a small money pouch, standing a few inches from the counter across from him. "We had jasmine tea and some cakes," She fished out some coins and looked at him as calmly as she could. "Your Uncle said it was half off." She added, ignoring her rapidly beating heart and the wary feeling gnawing at her gut.
"What are you doing here?" his spat out in a low voice.
"I'm trying to pay for our tea and snacks," Katara replied, holding out some money and trying to keep calm and natural. "We had a plate of fruit tarts and-"
"Don't play dumb with me," Zuko growled in a low voice as he leaned forward, his eyes narrowed into gold slits. "The Avatar is here, isn't he?"
Katara narrowed her own eyes. "I thought your Uncle said you were refugees and trying to start a new life here." she hissed quietly.
"That is none of your business." He grumbled.
"Well, the Avatar is none of yours, Junior," She retorted. She placed the money on the counter and turned around sharply. "Let's go, Toph. It's getting late. We don't want to run into any trouble on the way home."
Zuko seethed. The blind earthbender stood up from her chair and proceeded towards the door, Katara behind her. Iroh met them at the door, smiling warmly. "I hope to see you two again. Perhaps next time, we can sit and have some tea together." he offered.
"I'd like that." Toph nodded. Katara looked over her shoulder. She couldn't resist one final jab at the young man sending her spiteful glares from across the room.
"By the way," she called towards the serving boy, a smirk across her painted lips. "Nice apron."
Zuko's eyes widened as she rubbed in his current commoner status. He was about yell at her when the walked out the door. Iroh let out a heavy sigh. "It's so nice to see familiar faces every now and again," he smiled as he looked over at Zuko. "Isn't that right, nephew?"
"Yeah…" Zuko frowned as he began to untie the apron around his waist. He lifted it over his head and placed it on a hook on the wall.
"Li? Where are going?" Iroh asked. He saw the determined look on the young man's face and frowned.
"Tell the owner I'm taking the rest of the night off," Zuko stated. He headed towards the back room. "I'll be back later tonight, Uncle."
"Li," Iroh said as he rushed after the young man. Gods, please tell me he's not going to follow them! "Li, wait a moment!" If they were with the Avatar, they must've been staying in the Upper Tiers. From the look of their dresses, it was fairly certain they were up the Upper Tiers. And the Upper Tiers were crawling with Dai Li. Iroh cut through the back room and reached the back door. He stopped just outside and frowned. Zuko had disappeared.
A.N. - Please read my long rant about this story on my profile. Know that I am writing this when I am really bored at work and have nothing better to do, so it won't be updated nearly everyday as RotR. There is a chance that this might never be completed. But don't worry, it won't be some epic that consists of two dozen or more chapters where one day I will just stop and disappear off the face of the planet. :) All I ask is that you expect nothing. This is a very PWP fic. Thank you:heart: DamageCtrl