Disclaimer: Avatar belongs to Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. I own the rights to this story.
Author's Notes: So my friend just had a birthday this month and TOTALLY DIDN'T TELL ME. (angry face) Anyway, I've had this image in my mind for a long time, and I thought it would be the perfect belated gift for his celebration. I hope you enjoy, buddy. (glomp)
…Oh yeah. And the rest of you readers and reviewers better enjoy it, too. Or else. XD
The Tea House
"Ugh! This tea is nothing more than hot leaf juice!"
"…Uncle. That's what all tea is."
The tea shop smelled absolutely wonderful.
As soon as the fifteen year old warrior walked in the small establishment, his nose was assaulted with many wonderful odors ranging from spicy to succulent, tantalizingly sweet to deliciously sour. He stopped and inhaled, breathing in the smell of the place. The southerner had a sharp nose for food, and he could definitely appreciate the diversity displayed in this place.
A stout, motherly woman dressed in Earth Kingdom green stopped before him. "What can I do for you, sweetheart? Just a table for one?"
"Yes, ma'am," Sokka replied politely, following the rosy-cheeked woman to a small table in the corner. He sat down and took the menu from her, even though he knew he didn't need one.
"What are you doing so far away from home?" the woman asked, wiping her surprisingly smooth hands on her apron. "I thought a stout Water Tribesman like yourself should be out and about, working to rebuild your people's culture."
The blue-eyed boy blinked in surprise, looking down as if to re-examine himself. Yup, he was still wearing his regular, green-tinted Earth Kingdom clothes. "H-How could you tell?" he stuttered. "I'm not wearing my Water Tribe stuff."
She winked at him. "Sweetheart, with eyes that blue, no amount of green can cover up your nationality." He flushed, thoroughly embarrassed, even as she continued. "And even so, your skin tone gave you away."
"I don't understand. I've seen many people in both the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation with skin just as dark or darker than mine. I can't see how—"
The woman sighed softly, tucking a glossy black curl behind her ear. "That's a little different. People here in the Earth Kingdom are tanned by the sun, yes, but they aren't born that way. Not in the Fire Nation, either." She shifted her weight and placed her hands on her hips. "You people of the Water Tribe are lucky, getting that lovely tone naturally. Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation people get all wrinkly and old-looking when they stay out in the sun too long. But I can always tell a tribesman by the way his eyes sparkle and the way his skin's a lovely chocolate brown. Not fake, but real."
Sokka rubbed his neck. "Um, thanks?" He wasn't quite sure how to respond to that, and he hoped the color flooding into his cheeks would leave soon. Spirits, he got embarrassed so freaking easily. He tried to hide his face behind the menu. "So I guess I'll have a cup of ginseng tea, if you don't mind."
She took his menu and folded it under her arm. "You didn't even look at the list. Are you familiar with tea?"
He nodded. "A little. I've heard a lot about ginseng."
The Earth Kingdom woman gave him an understanding smile and a nod before taking his order behind the counter. Considering it was a slow day for making tea in Ba Sing Se, the woman returned quickly with his brew and allowed him to drink in peace. The southern warrior sighed and breathed in the slightly spicy scent of ginseng.
His mouth was watering even before he took a sip. But when he did… oh my. It was like liquid beauty running down his throat, the conflicting flavors swirling and intertwining and creating something so delicious, yet so simple at the same time. Now he finally understood why old people loved tea so much.
The shop was nearly empty, so of course he noticed when another customer walked in. Sokka's blue eyes widened in surprise, even as his grip on the teacup tightened unconsciously. Zuko. He could recognize that tell-tale scar from a mile away. But… he didn't look like he usually did, like a prideful prince should. His dark hair covered both of his golden eyes, and his gait was slow as he strode behind the counter. Sokka resisted the urge to run out of the shop and warn the others about the Firebender being in Ba Sing Se. His natural curiosity was getting the best of him.
Why was Zuko here? And why was he dressed like a commoner?
The younger boy's brow furrowed. He pursed his lips, thinking. Perhaps this was worth looking into.
"I'm here," Zuko muttered to the other woman. He pulled on a white tea-serving apron and brushed a dark strand of hair out of his face. Hmm. His eyes were dark and subdued; nothing like the glinting pools of gold they usually were… had been… when he was chasing them.
"Where's your uncle?" the woman asked politely.
The prince hung his head. "He, um… didn't feel well today. I think I gave him my sickness."
She tsk'ed. "Such a shame. He makes the best tea in all of Ba Sing Se."
A small, quite surprising smile crept across the other's face. "Yes, I know." Sokka frowned and peered into his now-empty teacup. Why was a prince, banished or not, working at a tea house in Ba Sing Se? Surely he had better things to do… like chasing the Avatar.
…On second thought, Sokka was fairly content with Zuko's new choice of employment, though he was still skeptical about the other's sudden "change of heart." So he might stay and see how well the Firebender worked as a commoner, but he definitely wasn't going to turn his back on him any time soon.
A steaming cup of new tea appeared on his table. The warrior blinked, surprised, and looked up to see Zuko. Their eyes locked, blue on amber. If the prince recognized him, his face showed no sign of it. Sokka cocked an eyebrow. "What is this?"
"It's your tea," Zuko replied, taking a seat across from the southern boy. Sokka shifted uncomfortably. "You're supposed to drink it." As if that answered his unspoken questions. Did he poison it? Doesn't he recognize me? So yeah, I'm not wearing all blue, but still. He should know me, know my face.
Carefully, Sokka picked up the tea and sniffed it. It didn't smell poisoned. He could feel Zuko's eyes on him, very impatient, waiting for him to take a sip. He wrapped his lips around it and tipped the cup back, licking the tea from his chin as the warm liquid flowed down his throat and settled in his stomach. The boy grimaced. It was a little too hot, a little too spicy, and much too bitter.
"So… how is it?" Zuko was trying very hard not to look eager for Sokka's approval.
Sokka pursed his lips and carefully set the cup aside. "It's hot," he admitted honestly, making a face. "And much too bitter."
Zuko didn't respond, but somehow, the other knew that the Firebender was upset. Maybe it was because his uncle was so good at making tea, and he automatically expected to be good at it, too. Sokka suddenly felt unreasonable sympathy for him; he knew he shouldn't, but he and the prince actually shared something in common. The dark-skinned boy eyed his remaining tea.
And then he got an idea.
Sokka picked up a small container of buzzard-wasp honey, running a slim finger around the rim to test its worth. He was satisfied. "It's bitter," he admitted honestly, "but it's not incurable. All your tea needs is someone to sweeten it and take away all that bitterness." He poured in a bit of honey, noticing how surprised Zuko looked as he watched him. Sokka took an eager sip, sighing in satisfaction. "Now it's perfect."
Zuko bowed his head slightly. "Thank you."
The warrior shrugged nonchalantly. "Hey, it was no problem." He took a moment to notice the sun's position in the sky. "Oh… crap. My sister's going to be looking for me. Uh… I really gotta go." Sokka rubbed the back of his neck before standing up and sprinting out the door into the setting sun. Zuko watched him go, running a pale finger over the Water Tribe money he left behind.
The woman coworker sat next to him. "He's such a sweet boy, isn't he?"
All you need is someone to sweeten it and take away all that bitterness. Zuko immediately straightened up, eyes widening sightly. Sweet. "Yes," he said slowly, as if realizing something for the first time, "I suppose he is."
Now you're perfect.