Notes: Written in reply to prompts by the marvelous Attackfish and Sharkflip. This is the first of two planned chapters.
The sun is shining bright and Li tilts his head into it, feeling the warmth on one cheek. But he doesn't stop for long – he's due at work in a half-hour, and he wants to make sure he can get there a few minutes before time. That way he will be ready to work the moment his shift starts.
Pao is a very good businessman, a kind merchant for bringing him in and giving him employment. One day, if Li is lucky, he can honor him by taking over more duties. Maybe take over the teashop himself, once Pao retires.
The word slips in and out of his mind, leaving a strangle ripple of disquiet in the tranquil pond of his thoughts. Li shakes his head and continues on. He must not be late.
He greets customers at the door, shows them to tables and takes their orders. He enjoys his work. Enjoys recommending the day's special… smiles at a pretty young lady. She looks at him with hopeful green eyes.
If given a choice, Li would probably work through his break. His body is young and not tired, but Ba Sing Se has labor rules and all rules should be adhered.
He is out in the back, sitting on a crate and taking in the last of the dying sun, when Mushi, the old tea-maker, comes to him. He kneels down, eye to eye, and presses something into his hand. Li looks down. It is a cup of tea.
"A special blend," Mushi says, and he is staring at him so intently that Li almost feels unnerved. "To stimulate the mind."
Li drinks obediently. The tea is strangely spicy, but good. Mushi watches him the whole time.
His break is ending – Pao is yelling from the shop that there are more customers. Li hands the now empty cup back to Mushi and quickly puts his closed fist in an open hand in a bow. "Thank you, sir. You have a gift with blending teas."
Li thinks that his compliment must mean a lot to Mushi – why else would the man's eyes tear up? Li offers a smile and then goes back into the shop; time to finish his shift.
After the door swings shut, the man known as Mushi sinks down to the crate. He stares into the empty teacup, and silently weeps.
Li's hands are shaking. He closes his eyes for a moment, takes in a steady breath, but it's all he can do not to spill the expensive spice all over himself. Old man Mushi is the real genius with tea. He was ever only a server – just learning the art of the trade. He isn't ready for this… not ready at all…
But that's not why he's trembling.
He opens his eyes again, but there's no sense of peace, because she is watching him. She catches his eye and a smile curves her lips. Somehow, Li thinks it's not a very nice smile. He drops his gaze again, focusing on the cups.
"Is there a problem?" Her voice is so smooth, but cold. Like steel. Like finely polished blades – Two of them, glinting in the sun and –
His hands are still shaking.
"No, Princess," he mutters, head down, nearly speaking into his cups.
He doesn't know when she moved, but at some point she did, and now those sharp pointed nails are grazing along the back of his neck. Li tries and fails not to flinch. The Princess is pretty, but her touch feels so wrong… wrong… wrong…
"Make sure you wear your best tunic," she's saying, and her nails lightly scratch along his skin. It's almost a caress. "I want all of my servants to be at their most presentable for the Fire Lord this evening."
She studies him a moment longer, as if awaiting some other reaction. Li only stares at his tea-tray, trying not to think of what the hand stroking the back of his neck was capable of: Everyone heard how she struck the Avatar himself from the sky.
Which is odd, because there's no war in Ba Sing Se.
After another moment, the Princess smiles again and mercifully walks out of the room.
Li looks down. One of the delicate porcelain teacups has been shattered in his hand. Strange. He didn't remember picking it up. Didn't remember squeezing.
One of the shards has dug into the heel of his hand. He pulls it out and watches the blood drip down.
Li fishes out a spare towel and dutifully wipes his tray clean before attending to his wound. The Fire Lord is a very important guest, and all must be made ready.
When Li closes his eyes, he dreams of home – his comfortable apartment overlooking the street. The teashop where he'd worked under Pao and he'd learned so much…. Old man Mushi and his odd ways and sad, sad eyes…
And each morning when Li awakes, it was to an aching chest and a constricted throat. His cheeks oddly damp.
The candles were lit, the wax puddling in thick pools along the stem. Yet Li always makes doubly sure to snuff the flame before he goes to sleep every night. It never made any sense…
Still, Li knows these are unworthy dreams. For surely, wasn't he bringing glory to Ba Sing Se with this new position? The Fire Lord himself had been so impressed upon his visit to the great city, and Li's service, he had requested his presence in the great Fire Palace.
Instead of an dusty apartment, Li know has his own rooms in the lavish servants quarters. He serves tea on a nightly basis to the Fire Lord himself.
Courtiers and ministers and nobles all make sure to point him out when he passes them in the halls. Occasionally, they stop to talk to him, and inquire if he likes his new position. He assures them that he does, that he is honored to represent the great city of Ba Sing Se.
They are always grinning when he's dismissed, so Li knew they are pleased with his answers.
So Li knew should be content in his work. There was no reason he could see to feel otherwise... No reason to feel this way at all...
"What are you doing here?"
The monotonous tone draws him out of his thoughts, and Li finds himself abruptly standing at a small garden pond, staring down into the still waters. He does not know how he came to be here.
He turns, sees one of the Fire Princess' companions, and bows low in reply.
She stares at him, dark eyes unreadable. "You shouldn't be here," she intones.
Li swallows past a sudden lump in his throat. No, he shouldn't be here… he only wants to go home.
He bows again. "I apologize, Lady Mai. I was… It was an accident."
She just stares at him, as if waiting for more and Li shifts around nervously, casting a glance back to the pond. He's… strangely reluctant to leave it.
Two turtleducks swimming side by side – a fan of hatchlings paddling after them. A stone breaks the stillness – a child's high, cruel laughter…
Someone grabs him by the shoulder and Li comes back to himself once again. Lady Mai is there, holding onto his arm with one hand. The other cupping his cheek. Li flinches away.
"I… I…" he stutters, then forces himself to take a deep breath. In through his mouth and exhaling out his nose. The fires in the palace all flicker at once, but he takes no notice. He has found his center again. The world is at peace.
"Is there anything I can get you, my lady?" Li asks. He wishes she were not so close. It isn't proper. "We have many teas, many varieties in the stores. Perhaps I can—"
She shoves him away, hard and Li nearly falls, recovering himself just short of falling into the muddy pond. He straightens and looks up at her again with wide eyes, but Lady Mai's expression has closed again. All emotion gone.
"No," she says, and the coldness of it chills Li to the marrow. Odd. He's hardly ever cold. "Just… Get out of here, Zu—Li."
He nods, bows a third time, and takes his leave.
He feels her eyes on his back until he's turned the corner and back behind the walls.
The servants are crying. Most are dashing back and forth, packing up the best of the plate silverware.
"The Avatar is coming. The royals are in the bunker, and… oh! He is coming! We must hide!"
Li says nothing, and leaves them to their hysteria, going instead to stand by the tall window. Looking out, he can see the capital city: deserted. The orderly evacuations took place in the last night, and the Avatar is coming…
He is coming.
Someone, another servant, shakes his shoulder and tells him its time to leave. Li ignores him and after a minute the man gives up and goes running off with the others, leaving Li alone.
He is coming, and Li will be there to greet him.
He turns away from the window at last and walks to the great hall, knowing the Avatar will think nothing of bursting in… just to encounter an empty room.
Something has changed within Li. He's not sure when exactly it happened or why, but now he walks past empty rooms where he has served tea to the very top of society… and he feels no pride. He's just tired. He can't do this any more.
A shadow falls over the land – the moon moving in front of the sun – and Li shivers. He sits in the empty throne room, strangely cold on the inside, hands folded neatly on his servant's robes, and waits.
The door bursts open at once; the whoosh of air ruffling Li's hair, and the Avatar jumps in, crouching down with airstaff held ready.
"The Avatar is back!" the boy calls, then, seeing no one, "Um, hello? Anyone home?"
"He's not here."
The Avatar flinches and twists around, staff held ready. When Li steps into the light, his jaw drops. "Zuko?"
Li shakes his head, and into the silence he says, "I… We've never met before, but I've seen your face. I see it every night, and others. There's a boy with you and a girl with a blue necklace." He touches the hollow of his own throat en emphasize. And it's as if Aang is frozen, just staring at him. Li steps forward, cautiously, the hem of his heavy servant robes sweeping the marble floor. "And there is more… there are others, but it all happened to someone else, a long time ago."
"… Yeah?" The Avatar says cautiously. But the airstaff lowers. "His name was Zuko. He… wasn't my friend."
"I'm sorry," Li says flatly. But not with much feeling. He didn't know this 'Zuko' after all. "I just want to go home."
"Home?" The Avatar's eyes widen slightly and he glances around himself, to the gilded throne room. "But aren't you already…?"
"Ba Sing Se," he answers, then adds, almost proudly, "There's no war there."
"Oh. Ohhhhhh." His eyes widen even further, and he looks at him as if several things have clicked into place. "Um, okay. I have a friend who can help you, but first… Um, I really, really, really need to defeat the Fire Lord. Do you know where he is?"
Li considers for a moment, realizing he knows the exact route to the private bunkers, although he can't remember being shown. "Yes, but you won't be able to take him alone. Princess Azula is there, and a regiment of her Dai Li. You'll need help."
The boy nods. "Okay, I'll get my friends. Just wait right here, okay? I'll be right back." He pauses, waits for Li to nod his assent – even though Li is only a servant and should technically be far below the Avatar's notice – and takes off, the airstaff snapping open as he ran.
The wings on the staff are blue this time, not red.
The red wings snap open and The Avatar is leaping into the sky and someone is screaming... Someone stop him! The Avatar is getting away!
Li goes to wait by the door, heart pounding and palms slick with sweat although he feels nothing on the inside… nothing at all.
He wonders what kind of a man this Zuko is, and if he would like him if they should ever meet.