AN: This is an attempt at the age old question: What would have to happen for Zuko to stay in Ba Sing Se and how awesome would it be? It's already finished, so I have no excuse not to update every day. (Except for extreme laziness. And maybe sketchy internet access in hotels off the interstate during the holidays. But probably just laziness.) To warn you in advance, it is 29 chapters and around 80,000 words. As further warning, it contains some violence, and a respectable level of cursing, drinking, and non-explicit sex. It starts a bit fluffy and gets more dark and intense as the characters get more comfortable with each other and the war collapses in around them.
Alright. Let's jam.
Chapter 1: The End and the Beginning
At one point Jin found this courtyard beautiful, but now she was coming to despise it. It just reminded her of painful memories of torture and heartache and Lee's inconsiderate actions.
"I don't know what to do."
Lee sighed and ran his fingers through his hair.
She slumped down on the edge of the fountain and buried her face in her hands.
"I just don't know."
He didn't say anything and a silence stretched between them punctuated only by the sounds of evening in the lower ring: the buzzing of insects, footsteps on the main street, women announcing dinner to their children playing outside.
They had been in this courtyard twice before. Both times he had left her and she had stubbornly followed him. She had followed him despite her better judgment, despite the dangers, and despite his many character flaws that should have pushed her away.
She heard the rustle of fabric as he sat next to her.
"Do you want the torches lit?"
She berated herself that she should never have gone back to the tea shop to see him again after their first date. But she had. And now she felt drained and fragile. She wasn't sure that she had the strength – or that she even wanted - to follow him again.
Zuko knew that grin on his uncle's face far too well. That grin meant that his uncle had found some new way to torture him. It meant shopping. It meant getting new clothes. It meant taste testing his latest concoction. It meant open mic night at the tea shop on Thursdays. It meant awkward lectures and life lessons involving incomprehensible metaphors and non-sequitur fortune cookie advice.
In short: this could not be good.
The old man chuckled. "It seems that your lady friend has returned. You must have made quite an impression!"
Iroh feigned seriousness. "Now nephew, I know that you do not have so many female acquaintances that you cannot remember their names."
"You mean Jin? What's she doing here?" Zuko craned his neck to see over his uncle's shoulder and out into the front room of the tea shop.
"I do not know. But I imagine that she is here to see you. Or perhaps to try some of my new hibiscus tea. Yes, I think she will like that very much. I'll start brewing some." And with that his uncle shoved him out of the back room.
There was no way Jin wanted to see him again. Their date had been disastrous. At first he thought that maybe it wasn't so bad, but as he considered it, it became worse and worse in his memories until it ballooned into a completely fabricated catastrophe. Now, three days later, he had worked himself up to believe that he was the most socially incompetent, ugly jerk in the world. She couldn't possibly be here to see him again.
Unless she had come by to yell at him. That made more sense. Surely, she had also spent time, thought on it, and now she was going to make a big scene and curse him and belittle him and maybe slap him a few times.
He cringed and walked hesitantly towards her table.
"Hi, Lee." She set down her menu and beamed at him. "What's this new hibiscus tea like?"
He blinked at her. "You're here for tea?"
"Well, you did give me this coupon." She reached into her sleeve and pulled out a slip of paper.
He stared at it.
What the hell was this? She wasn't yelling at him. She wasn't really flirting with him either, which he oddly enough found a little disappointing. He ignored these feelings and continued to stare uncomprehendingly at her coupon.
After a moment she sighed. "Look, Lee. I can tell that you're not interested. Could we just be adults about this and avoid all the awkwardness, or should I find a different place to get a drink?"
Wait. What? "You would… not come here anymore?"
"Sure, if that would make you more comfortable. Of course I like hanging out with you. You're fun. And I love Mushi. So if we could be friends and I can get my tea, then that would be great."
"Oh… Yeah… My uncle's fond of you too."
"I'll … go get your hibiscus stuff."
He fled into the back room, and leaned against the wall trying to figure out what had just happened.
"How did it go?"
His uncle was smiling knowingly. Zuko just stared at him for a moment before holding out the coupon stupidly.
"She wants some tea." His voice was almost a plea. His uncle raised his eyebrows.
Zuko nodded. His eyes were wide. This didn't make any sense. Why didn't she want to see him? How could she act so relaxed? Why wasn't she mad at him? Why didn't she ask for a second date? Why the hell did he even care? Wasn't this a really good situation for him?
"Arg!" Zuko grabbed his head and retreated further into the back to restock something or lift something heavy. He wasn't really sure, but he had to get away from Jin's calm face and his uncle's smirk and that horribly sweet smelling tea.
Iroh grinned to himself. He liked this girl a lot. She was smooth.
When he brought out her tea, he slipped another coupon onto her tray. They exchanged the smallest of winks as she lifted her cup. She then closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, humming with pleasure.
Yes. He liked her very much.
"Where does she keep getting those coupons?" Zuko was pacing around the low table in their apartment, stomping and kicking things in his rage. Iroh sat calmly at the table and watched his nephew with a twinkle of amusement. "She's come almost every day for the last week and she always has a coupon. She must go around to every advertisement I put up and take them. Doesn't she know how much work I had to go through to put those up? And that's not how they're supposed to work. Those are meant to be so that a lot of people come by and then want to come back and the second time they come they pay FULL PRICE!" Kick. "We should start a one-coupon-per-person rule." Pace. "She must be stalking me. How else would she know where to get the coupons and why else would she KEEP COMING?"
Iroh took a bite out of his bean paste bun. Zuko's rant hadn't made sense for at least ten minutes.
"Maybe she's forging them. She's found a way to make her own coupons and that's why she has so many. I bet she's some kind of deviant who makes loads of money off the refugees by making fake passports and official documents and all sorts of things."
"Jin is a seamstress. She makes very fine dresses in a work house a few streets over."
"If she has a job, why does she keep coming by? Why doesn't she go to work? I have to go to work every day."
"She comes by as a break between her schooling and her employment. She works very hard and she deserves nice food and pleasant company."
Ok. He hadn't known that. But still, there was something not right about the situation. It made him feel queasy. Zuko huffed and marched to the other side of the room, where he paused. "How do you know so much about her?" No, that was not jealousy in his voice. It was not.
"She told me during one of our many discussions. She is such a charming young woman. You should really talk to her more."
"I talk to her plenty! How can I not talk to her? She's around constantly." Stomp Stomp. He halted suddenly and spun around to face his uncle. "No."
Iroh looked up at him curiously.
"It's you, isn't it? You keep giving her those damned coupons!"
"It is you! You just handed her a whole stack of them so she would keep coming. Didn't you? Why would you do that? If you're pulling something on her, I swear-"
"What are you implying?"
"You and your only giving discounts to pretty girls. It's disgusting. You leave Jin alone!"
Iroh decided that his nephew had completely lost it. Therefore, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to torment him.
He sighed theatrically. "Alright. I will not pursue Jin with any romantic intentions." He began to take another bite of his bun, but stopped and looked up at his nephew with interest. "But the other young ladies are still fair game, correct?"
"Arg!" Zuko resumed pacing. Iroh smiled to himself and continued eating.
"I don't understand, Zuko. I thought you didn't have any interest in Jin."
"She gets under your skin a great deal for that to be the case. She didn't come by yesterday and I could see your concern." Zuko scoffed. "I think that perhaps now that she has made it clear that she has no interest in you, your attention is drawn. Like so many women, she poses as a challenge. I wish you the best of luck."
Zuko's ears were turning red. If asked about it, he would say it was from anger.
"You're crazy. I don't want to be her friend. You make friends when you intend on keeping them, and I don't want to stay here forever." He stomped off to his room, leaving Iroh alone with a beautiful moment of tranquility.