A/N: I figure from the growth of Zuko's hair that a couple of weeks or a month or so passed between "Tales of Ba Sing Se" and "Lake Laogai." And like any BYU student, I know that a lot can happen romantically in that amount of time! *rimshot*
This is slightly AU, I suppose, but not much. And while Maiko is and always will be my OTP, Jinko is just too adorable not to write about.
Zuko dreaded going to work that morning, just in case she happened to be there, sitting in that exact same chair at the exact same table in the corner that she had occupied every day for the last week. He dragged his feet even more than usual when Uncle woke him up a few hours before dawn, stalling at every possible opportunity and walking as slowly as he could manage as they left the building and headed down the empty street to open up the shop. He nodded as Uncle kept up a running commentary on the way, but his mind wasn't on tea even as they opened the door and windows and lit the green lamps out front.
What am I going to do if she comes in today? Should I say something? What would I say? Should I just pretend like last night never happened? That seems like the easiest thing to do… He struggled to light a fire in the stove with spark rocks, and for a moment his consummate hatred of everything about his life in Ba Sing Se almost overtook his constant worrying. But once the fire was crackling merrily and he had lugged a huge pot of water in from the cistern out back to start heating, his thoughts returned to what he would do if Jin walked into the tea shop and sat down at the far table that day.
She'd been happy to talk about herself last night. He knew that she worked at a bakery down the street and had a break in the middle of the day, which she spent drinking green tea. She always stayed for about an hour and left him a pretty good tip, even though he didn't really do anything special to deserve it.
"Lee, we're trying out a new blend today. If it sells, we'll add it to the menu."
"Yes, Uncle." Zuko went to the slate, erased yesterday's special with his sleeve, and wrote out Iroh's new blend in its place in purposefully rough characters.
The first customers starting coming in before the sun had risen in the sky. Usually regulars at this hour, night watchmen on their way home and a few groggy people just heading off to their own simple peasant jobs. For a little while, Zuko was able to focus on taking orders and collecting money and making sure that everyone got the tea they wanted, the mind-numbing routine that seemed to drag by even though the time passed much quicker than he thought it did. After the customers left, he collected their cups and cleared up any spills. Simple and boring, yet uncomplicated and free of Jin… so far.
Uncle continued to talk through their shift, alternately expressing his approval of his new tea blend and wondering if it wasn't very good after all. Then, when the sun had climbed higher in the sky and the bell at the door had rung yet again, he stopped talking and placed a hand on Zuko's shoulder. Sharply, Zuko looked up from where he had been wiping teacups and felt a familiar chill of dread growing inside of him as he noticed Uncle's conspiratorial smile. That look never meant anything good.
Very, very slowly, Zuko turned around to see a familiar round face and demure brown braids in the far corner.
"That young lady would like the special, Lee. A fresh pot is just about ready, but regrettably we have run out of rose hips. Can you handle the shop while I make a quick trip to the market?"
"What—I—Uncle, I don't really…" He sighed. "Yes. I can watch the shop."
That sneaky old man. Normally he would have sent Zuko to the market if they needed something.
Zuko gritted his teeth and picked up the chipped pot once Iroh headed out the door. He couldn't put it off any longer, and there was no way he could invent an excuse to be otherwise occupied until Uncle returned. Let's get this over with. Just pretend like nothing happened.
His palms were damp as he approached the far table. She looked cute, he noted grudgingly. She had some flour on her terra cotta-colored robe, and a little on her chin.
He looked at his own hands as he poured her tea. Was the silence as awkward for her as it was for him? When the cup was full, he lifted the teapot and prepared to leave… but hesitated.
"I'm sorry about last night," he blurted. Where did that come from? Why did I say that? Why did I say anything? What made me do that? "I actually had a good time. I just panicked. I'm not used to… stuff like that." And why do I keep talking? "And I'm not very good at—"
"Lee… it's all right." She smiled so disarmingly that Zuko fell completely silent once again.
"Do you want to go out again sometime?" Zuko's mouth said before he could stop it. No! Why did I say that? Why am I so stupid?
"Of course! How about tonight?"
"Oh… um… that's great. Tonight would be great." Not that he had any other pressing appointments that night, or the next, or the next… or ever… "So, um… see you then."
Uncle returned before long with a basket of rose hips. He gave Zuko a wink and nudged him with his elbow, which made Zuko run out back and try to control himself to keep from setting the counter on fire in frustration.
"I have a date tonight," Zuko muttered at his reflection in the mirror. He ran his fingers through his spiky black hair and wondered, for the hundredth time, what he had been thinking. No, he hadn't been thinking at all. He let his mouth do all the talking. He felt he should know by now that doing things like that only got him in trouble. So why did he just blab about how he actually enjoyed the ill-fated date and seal it by asking her out? Stupid!
He rubbed his eyes and tried to imagine how he could get out of this. But no, that girl was ridiculously determined. She'd been determined to get a date out of him before, and she was determined to get her tea at the same tea shop as always despite the fiasco at the fountain. He knew she would be determined to go on this date tonight and would probably hunt him down if he tried to stand her up.
Not that he would do something like that. It was unbecoming of a prince, to treat a girl with such disrespect.
Resignedly, he changed his clothes and washed his face and got a little comfort from telling himself that after tonight, there would be no more dates. This was a one-time thing, to apologize for the night before. At least he could try to not be a complete dolt this time. Before he left the apartment, he grabbed a flower from the vase on the windowsill and left Uncle grinning in his wake.
Flower in hand, he headed down the street, taking a right and a left and another right until he arrived at the bakery where Jin worked. She was just wrapping some bread for an old woman when she saw him through the propped-open window and waved.
"Just a sec! I'm almost finished here!" When her customer had paid and left, she said something to the other girl working there before coming out of the shop, smiling as brightly as ever.
"I brought you a flower," Zuko said. He promptly sent a silent plea to every spirit he could name—please, if I can't ever get the Avatar, just let me at least figure out how to talk to girls.
"Oh, thank you, it's so pretty!" And then she had him by the wrist and took off into the city, dragging him along like a particularly awkward but not quite unwilling puppy.
Later, when Zuko had returned to the apartment and Uncle's repeated winks, he tried to figure out just what had happened.
It started with some noodles from a noodle stand a couple of blocks over. They got to talking about noodles. Noodles were a safe subject. At least, they were until Zuko started thinking about how they served them in the Fire Nation, with heaps of chili and garlic and maybe some shrimp. "Noodles around here are different from where I'm from," he had said.
"Really? How do they do it there?"
Zuko was stuck. Everyone knew that they ate spicy food in the Fire Nation. "I'm from the colonies, sort of," he replied, hoping it would be enough. "They put a lot of spicy stuff in the food there. Chiles and spices and things like that. I guess they're trying to turn us into proper Fire Nation citizens, or something."
"Well, there's no danger of that here," Jin said with such a carefree smile that Zuko was slightly concerned. Everyone's worried about the war outside of the city. How can she say something like that?
"No… I guess not."
After Zuko had steered the conversation away from where he came from and how they ate noodles there, they went for a walk. There was a lot of talking about nothing in particular. He could hear his voice saying things, but he didn't seem to be able to control the words. He could only think a few times in his life when he'd been more terrified, and none of them involved something as trivial as a date.
When the night watchmen came onto the streets and started to enforce curfew, she planted a warm kiss on his cheek, something that made him freeze for several moments. And then—
"I just agreed to another date," Zuko said to the tiny sleeping room in a voice so soft that even his uncle wouldn't be able to hear it (despite his "Zuko's Love Life" hypersensitivity). He slumped down against the wall. "I'm going… on another date."
The third date turned into four. The fourth date turned into a fifth one, and the fifth date turned into Jin coming to the tea shop after her shift at the bakery was over, being greeted warmly by Iroh and offered some tea, on the house. Which, in turn, led to Zuko standing in a corner of the bakery when she had to work late, a silent pillar of awkwardness until she grabbed his arm and took him out for a walk.
It was… nice. Zuko eventually found himself being comfortable around her and her willingness to take his clumsy conversation in stride.
Maybe a little too comfortable.
He didn't know why he did it. He didn't know why he lit those lanterns on the first date with his firebending, which ranked pretty high on his very long personal list of Stupid Things That I Have Done. He didn't know why he let slip something about Fire Nation noodles. And on the third date, he didn't know why he mentioned roast turtleduck as one of the foods he missed the most—that was a Fire Nation thing.
Each time, he dropped something that he really shouldn't have said. He took such great pains to be an anonymous Earth Kingdom peasant. He never said or did anything that might blow his cover. So why was he doing it now? There was always the possibility that she believed he had been part of that traveling circus, but he honestly didn't believe she was stupid enough to still think that. It was such a ridiculous lie that he was embarrassed whenever he remembered it.
Maybe it was because of her smile. Warm and disarming, like her demeanor in general. Maybe it was because she looked at him with an expression of honest curiosity, unlike the vast majority of people who examined his scar, muttered to each other, and averted their eyes when he turned to look at them. She wasn't trying to manipulate him, or lie to him, or expose his secrets. She was just Jin, an obscenely cheerful and friendly citizen of Ba Sing Se.
Just maybe, though, he wanted her to find out. To learn that he was from the Fire Nation and that his name was Zuko, not Lee. Maybe he was simply tired of pretending.
He had bought three leather balls from a toymaker's stand at the market after the fourth date. Late at night, after he'd finished his shift and spent a few hours with Jin, he practiced. First with one ball, until he could pass it back and forth between his hands without accidentally throwing it across the room. Two was trickier, but Zuko decided that if those circus buffoons could do it with six, he could do it with two.
It took him five days—five dates, too—to learn to juggle two balls.
Three was hard and he lost his patience with it more than once. But he always kept going back to it, muttering that he was smarter than three leather balls and that he was going to learn how to juggle no matter what.
Six dates later, he could keep all three balls in the air for a full minute.
Practice. Like firebending. You won't get better if you don't practice.
On their next date, they went walking again. Jin sure liked to walk, and Zuko was fine with that. Sometime after the lamps were lit but before curfew was enforced, they sat on a low, crumbling wall behind a tailor's shop. Zuko almost envied her ability to talk about anything and everything without having to constantly check herself to make sure she wasn't ruining any secrets. She talked about her family, her sister who lived with her in an apartment a couple of miles from his building. She talked about her work and the things she liked to do for fun. She still wasn't convinced that he did "nothing" for fun, but that was pretty true. Zuko didn't do much but work and then sit around thinking about how much he hated Ba Sing Se once he was done working.
"Actually," he said when she asked him yet again what he did in his spare time, "watch this." He stood in front of her, took the three leather balls out of his pocket, and took a deep breath.
It was easier than it had ever been when he was practicing. Even though she was watching him and making him nervous, he could do it. It wasn't too hard to go through the motions, to keep each ball flying at the same speed in the correct direction. Her expression was totally worth it, too—she smiled brilliantly and her big green eyes sparkled as she clasped her hands in front of her.
"You actually can juggle!" she said with a laugh once he had bowed at the end of his exhibition.
"I was just… nervous… before," he replied. He found himself smiling back at her, the first time in what seemed like forever that he could smile so unguardedly, and with so little effort. His stomach did a weird little flip-flop when she took his hand.
"You know, Lee… you're really cute when you smile."
"I am? I mean, uh, thanks. You're... really cute, too."
She was closer than he had thought. He could see faint dimples in her rosy cheeks, and the light of the streetlamps reflecting in her green eyes. Maybe... just maybe...
Her hand was cool on his cheek. He shivered a little, but didn't pull away, when her fingers brushed his scar. She was even closer now, her little button nose barely an inch from his pointed one.
He didn't decide to kiss her. It just happened, a silent but mutual agreement that felt as natural to him as his firebending basics. Her lips were soft and warm against his, and he froze when they made contact, but melted after a moment. His heart thudded in his chest, so loudly that he thought she could hear it as well—he reached up and put his hand on her shoulder, after a brief, confused moment of wondering where he should touch her.
They separated after a few seconds, and neither of them said anything at first. Zuko simply couldn't think of anything to say, but Jin seemed fine with that. He felt warm all over, calm for once, and he didn't want to ruin it.
You know what, screw it. Screw the Avatar. Screw going home. Screw hating this city and pretending that my life is going to change for the better. This right here is what I have now. And it's pretty damn good.
He kissed her again and felt at peace—no Fire Nation, no Avatar, no quest, no honor, just the two of them in the darkened streets of Ba Sing Se.
When Zuko returned to the apartment later, he made up his mind.
He was going to tell her. He was going to tell her everything. He couldn't keep going like this—and whatever this was was going to progress, he could tell. He couldn't keep lying to her with his silence. Uncle was out, probably talking to the neighbors. Zuko went to the washroom and stood in front of the mirror, preparing his speech for tomorrow.
"Um, hi, Jin," he said. "Uh... there's something I want to tell you. But, um, first of all, I really like spending time with you, I know you like me a lot and I kind of like you too... uh, I'm telling you this ahead of time because I don't want you to hate me after I finish telling you all this stuff. But yeah, I really like you and I don't want to keep lying to you. The thing is..." He didn't know how to say it, not even to his own reflection. He sighed and looked down. "The thing is, I'm from the Fire Nation. My name is Zuko, not Lee, and I'm a firebender. That's how I was able to light all those lamps, you know? Uh... I'm here right now because I got kicked out when I was thirteen, and then my father decided that—oh, yeah, I'm actually the crown prince. Was. Whatever. Anyway, my father is the Firelord. And, uh, he disowned me and I'm on the run. So here I am in Ba Sing Se. I've told you everything, I guess... no, wait, don't leave..."
Zuko sighed and let his hand drop to his side. This would not be easy. But he was not one to quit when things got difficult. Maybe it would be easier when he was with her. It was easy to talk to her, after all. Or it could be harder. He was taking a risk, he knew, a risk that she would hate him after this, or worse, turn him into those robed earthbenders who took Jet away...
No. She wouldn't do that. Not everyone was out to get him. Not every girl was like Azula.
He'd have to try. He couldn't keep lying to her.
Zuko's shift the next day didn't start promisingly. Some sponsors came in and offered Uncle a better living, running a tea shop in the Upper Ring, and the first thing he thought about that was that it would be harder to see Jin when they lived in different parts of the city.
Harder, or impossible? He had never seen any upper-class citizens in the Lower Ring, and he knew that no one who lived here ever went higher. Stupid city. Stupid rules. Stupid Uncle and his famous tea.
Maybe he could stay here and work... but no, he didn't really want to... and Uncle would be heartbroken.
Frustrated, he slammed his serving tray onto a nearby table and went outside. He had to clear his thoughts. Leaning against the wall, he closed his eyes and wondered what he was going to do. There was nothing that came immediately to mind. He wouldn't be able to travel between rings very easily, and neither would she. The only thing he could think of was to marry her and take her with him, an option that really wasn't an option, and terrified him as soon as it entered his mind. It was much too early to even consider something like that.
Suddenly, a sound of a sheet of paper fluttering through the air reached his ears. He looked up to see a leaflet fluttering gently down to where he stood and caught it when it reached eye-level.
Everything he had been thinking about dropped out of his mind. It was all inconsequential, unimportant, just a distraction. His thoughts were clear again, he had his goals. All his dreams, all his ambitions, were suddenly possible again. He could have his honor back, something that he had all but given up since entering Ba Sing Se.
Leaving Jin wouldn't be that much of a problem. There was no way he could stay with her and do what he needed to do at the same time, and given the choice, he knew which he wanted.
A drawing of the Avatar smiled naively up at him from the corner of the sheet. He was in the city, and his huge bison-thing was missing.
A dozen ideas were already starting to form in his mind. He needed to get to the bison, and then he could work from there.
I'm sorry, Jin. You're better off without me anyway.
And this way, he didn't have to tell her who he was after all. It was a cowardly way to go, but even so, Zuko breathed a sigh of relief.