Disclaimer: Avatar and all its characters are the property of Nickelodeon. This was written solely for entertainment and not for any kind of profit.
Notes: C&C are greatly desired, especially as this is my first Avatar fic.
There were times when Prince Zuko was sorely tempted to simply give up, tell himself it was over, and just end it all.
One of those times happened to be now, as he was putting clean tea cups back up on the shelf, re-stocking with an economy of movement that had become second nature after only a few weeks of practice. It was at times like these, when his mind was not occupied with too much of anything else, that his thoughts began to drift to a very particular and esoteric form of suicide.
These thoughts (and they were happening with greater and greater frequency) did not involve anything in the way of actual, physical death at his own hands. That wasn't his style. If he was going to die--really, truly die--it would be in the pursuit of, well, of something.
And that, he thought as he muffled a harsh laugh, was exactly the problem. Once upon a time (and it seemed like much longer ago than it really was) he knew exactly what that something was:
Capture the Avatar and regain the respect of his father.
The bell over the door rang, and he looked up automatically, turning back to his work once he saw that Uncle was attending to the customer.
If asked he would have said that of course he still wanted his father's respect, but he had a nagging feeling that this wanting was akin to the wanting he had for an ostrich-horse of his very own back when he was a child. He was never very keen on riding (and even to this day rode only out of necessity) but he still asked and wheedled whenever the matter came up. Wanting had become a matter of mere habit. If he'd been given an ostrich-horse, he probably never would have ridden the damned thing unless he absolutely had to.
If his father one day forgave him, he no longer knew what he would do with that forgiveness. Oh, not too long ago, Prince Zuko would have headed back to the Fire Nation with his head held high, delighting in the respect of a man he (now that he thought about it) frankly hated.
"Lee, please set another kettle onto boil."
"Yes, Uncle," he said, instantly responding to the false name without even thinking about it.
Truth be told, he barely even thought of it as false any more. Yes, there were times when he wondered what the hell he--a prince!--was doing here, wearing an apron and serving tea to people who were too low in class and ranking to even rate as scullery men in the Fire Lord's palace. There were times when his uncle's (Iroh, he reminded himself--Iroh, not Mushi) apparent delight in this low-class existence had nearly caused him to spit fire right there in the middle of the tea shop. But this existence was starting to slip in through the cracks. It was wearing at him, growing on him.
And that scared him like very few things ever had. Not even Azula scared him the way this did.
It scared him not just that he answered to "Lee," but that every day it became more natural to give that as his name. It scared him that he had--on more than one occasion--started thinking of himself as "Lee." And that was far from the only thing that scared him.
It scared him that the crop-haired, green-and brown clad person he saw in the mirror in the morning was now who he expected to see, and that it was becoming harder to remember a reflection that showed a meticulously shaven head and a pristine red and black uniform.
It scared him that he was starting to think of some of the low-born peasants who entered the shops not just as nuisances but as regulars. He knew their names. He knew their orders. He knew that Deng liked his tea double-strong and double-sweet (much to Uncle's annoyance). He knew that Zhang liked jasmine tea better than anything, but would always eagerly try any new blend or variety that was offered. He knew that Xiao (Oolong) would hold her cup in ropy hands for five minutes, letting the warmth ease arthritic joints as she waited for the tea to cool to where she could drink it without discomfort. He knew that Ling (Lapsang Souchong) would bet on everything from horse races to the weather and was equally cheerful about losses and wins. He knew that Huan (anything, as long as it was hot) spent hours in the tea shop because he'd rather spend time gabbing with his buddies than sitting in miserable silence with his wife. He knew that Wei (ginger infusion) was always worried about his oldest daughter, who was running with a bad crowd and breaking her father's heart.
(Prince Zuko was not the sort of person who would devote more that a second's thought to these people. Oh, it wasn't as if he actually cared about them, but he knew about them, and that was more than he'd ever bothered to do in the past. Next thing he knew, if he was not careful, it would be him who was asking Madame Xiao about the pain in her hands, and not Uncle.)
The bell over the door rang again as he was ferrying the kettle from the pump to the fire, and he stopped to see who it was. He was both relieved and disappointed to see that it was just old man Deng again, he of the double-strong, double-sweet.
Just as he wasn't sure what he would do if he received his father's unconditional forgiveness, he also wasn't sure what he would do if a smiling girl with brown braids and warm hazel eyes came through that door again. Part of him hoped he'd succeeded in pushing her away last night. Part of him was very much afraid that he had.
When he went back to shelving the cups, the clink of porcelain against porcelain was noticeably louder than it had been before.
He did not want to make a life for himself in Ba Sing Se.
"It's not going to happen. I won't let it happen. That's not what I want. I want nothing to do with this shop, I want nothing to do with this city, and I want nothing to do with her."
The last of the cups rattled and settled into its place on the shelf, and so he stalked over to the stove and gave the coals a good blast. Afterwards, he looked around a bit sheepishly, but no one was there to see.
He had said that when he first arrived, and he had repeated it to himself every day since then. Every one of Uncle's suggestions that he relax and enjoy what life was offering them was greeted with sullenness at best and an outright tantrum at worst.
As he turned from the stove, his fingers skimmed across his lips as they had many, many times since last night.
Even as he'd said it, he knew that what he said about not wanting anything to do with Jin was a lie. He did want, and that was the problem. He wanted to know what would have happened if he hadn't fought off his instinctive reaction to kiss her back after she'd kissed him.
He wanted to know why he'd done something so stupid as to use his firebending in such a public place. It didn't matter that the place seemed deserted except for the two of them--anyone could have been watching from a window, and alley or a roof.
Maybe it was because he wanted Jin to find him out, wanted to know before it was too late if she would reject or accept him as the enemy, but as he replayed those events (measuring out tea leaves with such a practiced hand that he no longer needed to think about it) he knew things were well beyond too late. They had gone beyond too late the instant he'd noticed her disappointment upon seeing the unlit fountain. He barely knew her, and already it seemed fundamentally wrong that Jin should be anything other than cheerful and delighted by whatever she saw. He'd wanted to bring that cheer back to her the way he once believed he'd wanted his father to accept him.
If he was honest with himself, he realized that while he was not quite in love with her, the possibility was there, very real, and very dangerous.
So many, many possibilities.
"Lee, the table in the corner needs clearing."
"Yes, Uncle." He did as bidden, and if his response was a bit surly, it was partially out of habit and partially because he couldn't keep himself from remembering who was sitting at that table just the other day.
He stacked used cups on the tray, distributing them so that the load would be stable, and he tried to think about the worst that could happen. Jin could find out who he was, and look at him in disgust and loathing the way the other Lee had (and it was now "the other Lee" and not just "Lee"--yet another nail in Zuko's coffin). He could give up and go on and try to make a life for himself here. It wouldn't be the life he had imagined, but would that be so bad? There were people who now greeted him by name, and there was no trace of fear or contempt in those greetings. He could stop reminding himself that they were beneath him. He could find out what would happen if he kissed Jin back and then maybe he would find out that things were perhaps not quite so complicated as he'd claimed they were.
From there, it was all too easy to wonder what would happen after that, and after that, and after that. He could work at becoming a part of this city and not just an exile biding his time until he could take back a destiny and a role in a far off land. He might even have a family one day, a family that would not be torn apart by the power plays and vendettas that seemed inseparable from what he grew up with. He thought about the affection with which Uncle still spoke about Lu-Ten, and he wondered if he would ever experience that kind of love and that kind of pain.
He could find out. All he had to do was let his old life and old ambitions slip away. Another few months in this place, and it might happen anyway. It would take even less time, perhaps, if Jin decided to come back in here and give him another chance (and he thought she would--there was a daunting persistence that seemed to go hand-in-hand with that cheerfulness of hers, that dogged insistence on enjoying whatever life put in her path).
In other words, he could choose to give up. He could let Prince Zuko and everything he stood for simply die.
It would be as easy as stepping off a cliff.
But that was a coward's choice, he told himself earnestly, forgetting about how frightening it was to be on the edge of that cliff, with no idea of what would be waiting for him when he hit bottom.
Facing up to his birthright and his destiny was the only proper choice, wasn't it? It was what he was meant to do, supposed to do. Didn't someone once tell him that he was meant to learn through suffering?
He would not indulge in these thoughts of suicide. He would not. He would be strong. He would see this through.
After all, he was a prince, and there were certain expectations that went with that role.
"How much longer do we have to put up with this nonsense?" he hissed as he brushed past his uncle on the way back to the kitchen.
As he had many times before, he ignored his uncle's sigh of disappointment along with the mocking inner voice that asked him if, once he received his father's forgiveness, he still planned on asking for an ostrich-horse of his very own.