The Brothers of Ba Sing Se
Chapter One: The Origin Story - Part I
By DamageCtrl & Ebontien
*All Standard Disclaimers Apply: We do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender/The Legend of Korra.
A trickle of sweat dripped down her temple. She could feel her heart slamming against her chest as she clutched her newest procured goods – carefully wrapped in a tiger seal skin pouch to keep the sea spray from her ride back to the island off of them, against her chest.
It was by sheer luck that she had found a lot for sale and she had nearly emptied her money pouch in exchange for the items. Part of her knew it was a risk to bring them back. If she was caught with them, they'd be taken away and she'd never get to even bask in her haul.
Korra narrowed her eyes. She wasn't about to let them be confiscated when she was almost to safety.
She peered around the corner of the hall and strained her ears. Somewhere, further inside her airbending master's home, she could hear Meelo shouting about something while the scent of a delicious dinner cooked by Pema wafted through the air.
Tenzen himself was still outside. She had seen him on her way up the steps, from the island's little seaport. Ikki was with him, asking what sounded like a never-ending sentence on airbending.
This meant that the particularly curious and loud middle child wouldn't stop or reveal her. Neither could Meelo, Pema, and most certainly not Tenzen, whose disapproval she could almost feel in the air.
Carefully, she tip-toed down the wooden floors. She could see the door to her room up ahead and bit her lower lip. So close….
"Hi, Korra!" a small voice greeted from behind her. "What are you doing?"
"Ah!" The package nearly flew out her arms as the young Avatar cried out in surprise. Her arms scrambled to snatch the package from where it had been tossed, only to watch in horror as the seal-skin pack opened and slammed onto the floor with an echoing thud; its contents exposed.
Brightly colored covers looked back at her as Korra's mind struggled to figure out what to do next. She didn't hear the eldest of Tenzen's children creep around her and look over her shoulder.
Jinora tilted her head to the side and furrowed her brows. "Did you get books?" Was that why Korra was sneaking around? She had plenty of books and she never thought to hide them.
"These aren't just books-!" Korra caught herself before blurting out everything. She narrowed her eyes and quickly looked back towards the hall. She shuffled back to the corner and looked up and down the other halls before nodding in satisfaction that no one had come running at her embarrassing yell.
"Korra?" Jinora asked, confused. "Is something wrong?"
The older brunette quickly bent down, shoved the items back into the back and snatched it against her before suddenly turning around and grabbing the little airbender under one arm and dashing to her room.
The child let out a little yelp as she landed on Korra's bed, only to watch the abnormally skittish Avatar close the door and lean back heavily against it. She could make out Korra's heaving shoulders as she held the package she had dropped tightly against her.
Blue eyes looked at Jinora suspiciously. "What did you see?"
"Huh?" The airbender looked even more confused as the older girl held up the package.
"When I dropped it," Korra pointed out. "You didn't…see anything, did you?"
"Umm…just books," Jinora replied. She looked at Korra questioningly. "Why are you sneaking around the house? You live here. You don't have to do that, you know."
"I wasn't sneaking," Korra insisted proudly. She let out a small cough and looked away. "I was just…walking the halls…carefully."
"You were hiding your books, weren't you?" the child stated dully.
"They're not just books," Korra said as she tiredly walked over and unwrapped the package. She placed them carefully on her bed, beside the airbender, and spread them out to reveal the colorful covers. "They're…graphic books…graphic novels of sorts," she tried to explain. She lifted her hand and scratched the back of her head. "You've seen them before, right? Aren't they supposed to be popular for your age? They have a whole section at the bookstore in the city."
"I know what they are, but Dad doesn't like it when I read them," Jinora stated, almost proudly. She sat up straight and lifted her hand up, pointing her index finger upwards as she phrased her father. "He says they are distracting and of no use, other than to waste time."
Korra felt the corner of her eye twitch. It was as she feared. Of course Tenzen would say such a thing. He wasn't exactly Mr. Fun. "Right," Korra drawled. She took a deep breath and put her hands on her waist, tilting her head back, trying to figure out what was the likelihood of Jinora outing her to her mentor and what she could to do avoid it happening.
"But…," a sheepish voice said from the edge of the bed. Korra glanced at the younger girl, who was chewing on her bottom lip as she looked down at the comics hopefully. "They look interesting. I kind of always wanted to read them."
Korra's eyes widened, looking surprised before allowing her face to light up. "Then do I have a treat for you!" the Avatar beamed as she scrambled to the window and opened up a large, wooden chest where she kept a few of her possession. She rummaged through the chest until she found a box she had hidden at the bottom and then brought it to the bed.
She sat down and carefully opened the lid. Jinora leaned forward and peered into the box. "What are those?"
"These," Korra smiled almost conspiringly as she lifted up three bound, paper books. "Are only the best graphic novels in all the world. The original artist and writer, Wang Fire, was supposed to have come from Republic City! Every kid from the Southern Tribe to the Northern one has heard of these!"
The child furrowed her brows once more and frowned. "I haven't," she said, displeased with her lack of knowledge. The books had bent spines and dog-eared pages; signs that they had been read over and over. The fact that they were still sturdy and in good condition showed care.
"Heh," Korra smirked and held out the books. "Then it's time to get you educated!"
The younger girl stared at the colored covers. Part of her was repeating her father's words about resisting temptation when offered…, but another part of her couldn't take her eyes off of them. The colored masks on the cover seemed to promise her a story even more interesting than those of the books her father made her read.
Her eyes crinkled up with as much determination as she could muster. Hesitantly, Jinora held out her hands and grasped the books.
"Jinora," Korra began proudly. "Meet the Brothers of Ba Sing Se!"
Ba Sing Se, Earth Kingdom – About 68 Years Earlier
The stone train rattled on the elevated track. The sound of its thudding rock parts filled the small carriage as he sat in a seat towards the back, lazily looking out the windows from behind the fringe of his hood.
No one knew he was coming. In fact, he wasn't even supposed to be there. He was supposed to be in the confines of the Fire Nation's inner palace's sanctums, going through page after page of reformation and litigation. Treaties, plans, trade agreements, additional schematics for the new Republic City – the capital of a new nation brought together by him, the Avatar, King Kuei of the Earth Kingdom, and with guidance from Katara and Sokka.
Its creation was their legacy and while he left most of the construction to the existing former-colonies, various other leaders and peers, he wanted to personally oversee the welfare of the citizens that were formerly from the Fire Nation.
There had been a lull in his workload. While there were still many who despised him in the Fire Nation and deemed him as a traitor, he had received massive support from the former colonies and the Earth Kingdom. He was by no means secure in his position as the Fire Lord, but he wouldn't let his doubts hinder him. He had duties to fulfill.
And personal endeavors he needed to finish.
Zuko looked down at the crumpled piece of paper in his hand. How many times had he looked over it since he received the letter? It was from the Earth King and he had done something Zuko didn't think anyone would've expected.
King Kuei had found his mother.
"No…," Zuko shook his head and pushed the thought out of his mind. There was a slim chance it was actually true. The Earth King had, as a personal task of his own, sent out a few of his own men across the kingdom in search for a woman that met Princess Ursa's description. It could've been anyone, as far as Zuko was concerned.
There were plenty of middle-aged woman with dark hair, pale-skin, and gold eyes. Yet, that had not stopped Zuko from leaving his post. He sent Mai a message, asking her to summon him should an emergency arise: he was going on a brief trip to check on his uncle.
"Middle Tier! Tu Dee Cha station!" a loud, male voice called as they slowed to a stop. Zuko gathered the worn looking bag that had been placed beside him and slung it over his shoulder as he rose from his seat. He stepped onto the platform, tugged his hood down, and headed for the stairs.
"Ah…nephew, have you been gone so long that you do not remember the way to my shop?" a raspy, amused voice chuckled from his left.
"All I can remember are palace corridors so I don't get lost, government documents to be signed and speeches my councillors write because they don't trust me not to say something stupid to my own people," Zuko replied dryly as he turned and saw the familiar old man waiting for him.
"The pressures and pleasures of being a ruler, I see," Iroh said as he pulled his nephew into a hug. "I've missed you."
The younger man returned the embrace. "I've missed you, too. How have you been, Uncle?"
"Never better. The Jasmine Dragon has been prospering well. I think if everything goes well, I might be able to open a new shop in another year or two."
Zuko was mostly silent on the walk as Iroh cheerfully filled him in on everything from his latest Pai Sho game to a lovely statue he found for a steal to the new exotic teas he was going to test out at his shop.
The Jasmine Dragon was a relatively large building on a plaza just before one of the main gates to the upper tiers. It had been moved from its original location from the upper tiers because Iroh felt his shop should be easily enjoyed by all and what better location than close to the middle of the city? The entire plaza was always alive with patrons from all the city's sectors. With its prime location and excellent reputation, Iroh's flagship stop was extremely popular, particularly amongst women, both young and old.
Every so often, there was a group of old men having their tea under the shade of the eaves outside, overlooking the plaza while discussing politics, and as they wove through the plaza, Zuko could already see several of the outdoor tables spoken for.
Pai Sho boards built into specially commissioned tables dotted the front portion of the Jasmine Dragon and all were occupied; some were actually being played and others merely used as tables as the patrons passed the time. The double doors up the steps were wide open, signaling that the shop was opened and Zuko silently wondered how much help his uncle needed to run the establishment.
"Do you still order the pastries from other stores?" Zuko asked as he ascended the stairs beside his uncle.
There were numerous other places to eat there and Iroh could've easily hired his own bakers, however, he found it more convenient to order and have freshly made and delivered upon ordering to the store from the bakeries and patisseries. This way, it made for more room for tea and tea accessories, which he also sold.
"Oh, yes, but recently I have been experimenting on my own," Iroh told him proudly. "I wanted to have a signature pastry for the store and some of the bakers from across the way," he said motioning his hand across the plaza. "Have helped me come up with the Red Dragon platter. It is several individual pastries that are arranged to look like a dragon descending from the heavens on the stand. My star server had actually arranged it and even figured out that if we put a small kettle in the middle, it looks like the dragon is breathing smoke. It's very popular."
Zuko smiled as his uncle puffed up with pride. "You must have quite a staff at your fingertips now, Uncle."
"Just a few servers working part time," Iroh said. "All good children."
"I'm impressed though," Zuko nodded as he stepped through the doors. The familiar scent of tea wafted through the room as the chatter of its patrons filled the air. He would never be impressed enough, he decided, with his uncle's ability to draw in people. "It's so busy...," he gawked. He looked at Iroh worriedly. "Uncle, you didn't have to come for me at the station if you were so busy here."
Iroh waved his hand dismissively and shook his head. "The store is in good hands, Zuko," he assured him. He grinned. "Did you think I would leave my precious store to just anyone?"
A small laugh escaped Zuko's lips and he shook his head. "I suppose not."
"I am more capable than you think," Iroh winked. He patted Zuko's back, ushering him further inside and towards the back counter to get something to drink.
"Boss! You're back," a familiar voice called from the far corner. Zuko automatically turned towards the voice. "The ladies at table 20 are asking for you."
Black and gold boots stopped moving. The hooded guest stopped in the middle of the shop, surrounded by tables, patrons and tea. His unscarred eye widened as his face drained color. It was impossible.
They had told him that he had been gravely injured…that they had been forced to leave him behind, surrounded by enemies. Sokka said it was unclear. Even the rebel's companions that Aang had introduced him to acted as if he hadn't made it out from under the lake alive.
"Ah, thank you, Jet," Iroh smiled happily. "I will see to them in a bit. Can you take Zuko to the back and show him where he can get something to eat?"
Arched eyebrows seemed to perfectly fit on a face that couldn't stop smirking. The wild-haired brunette stepped back from the table he had been exchanging teapots at and met Zuko's dumbfounded face.
"Sure thing, Boss," Jet drawled. He lifted his chin and gave Zuko a small nod. "Hey," he greeted. "Long time no see."
Zuko couldn't stop staring. He'd grown a little taller, his shoulders were broader and his face a bit more defined, but he still had the same haughty look on his face and self-satisfied smirk on his loud mouth. All that was missing was the sprig of wheat in his mouth. And the hook swords.
Iroh maintained a smile on his face as he gently prodded his nephew forward. "I am glad you remember our old friend," he beamed cheerfully. "It was quite a coincidence that I happened to bump into him one day. Why don't you go into the back room and catch up?"
To casual listeners, it sounded like a mere suggestion, but Zuko understood clearly what his uncle was saying: Jet's a good boy; don't fight. Please talk it over…and away from the customers.
"Yeah, come on, Your Highness," Jet goaded as he headed towards the back of the shop. "Let's have a little chat…catch up on old times."
Zuko narrowed his eyes. His hand tightened on the bag he was holding as he nodded solemnly and followed the other young man into the back of the shop. He didn't take his eyes off Jet, seemingly watching for the slightest hint of aggression and Iroh let out a heavy sigh.
He supposed that it did come as a surprise as Jet and Zuko didn't exactly part on the best of terms, but you couldn't blame an old man for hoping.
"General Iroh," he heard a well-dressed woman beside him ask as she leaned towards him, looking somewhat hopeful. "Is he a new server?"
"Ah…," Iroh smiled cheerfully. "Not quite."
Jet reached back and began untying the apron he wore over his Jasmine Dragon uniform. He heard Zuko's footsteps following him into the back room and heard the sound of the door closing.
Suddenly, his collar was grabbed from behind and pulled back roughly. Jet instinctively twisted his body, maneuvering himself to face his attacker as he was shoved back against the wall and was met with the tip of a sword and furious gold eyes.
"I don't know how you're alive or what you've said to my uncle to con him into allowing you to work here," Zuko began in a low, dangerous voice. He pressed Jet harder against the wall and brought the sword closer to Jet's neck. "But I swear, if you're planning to do anything to him-"
"Relax," Jet managed to say as he slowly raised his hands, to show he was unarmed. His own eyes lingered on Zuko's. "I'm just a server…and it's nice to see you, too."
A thud sounded as Zuko slammed him into the wall once more. Jet grimaced as his body almost bounced against the hard surface. "Don't joke with me, Jet!"
"I'm not!" Jet snapped back as he glared back. "Listen, your uncle hired me! I didn't purposely sneak in here to harm the old man, if that's what you're thinking," he snorted indifferently. He lowered his eyes at the sword and smirked. "And it looks like that's exactly what's on your mind, ain't it, Fire Lord?"
Zuko's shoulders heaved up and down as the two remained where they were, locked in some sort of glaring contest.
The door creaked opened. "Hey, Jet, the boss wants to know if we have any more green tea cakes from Fong Yu's bake…," another uniformed server paused at the doorway, his hand on the wooden barrier as he held an empty tray in the other. The teenager looked at the older men, unsure what to do. "Uh…," he mumbled as he swallowed the lump in his throat. "Sorry. I'll come back!"
He whirled around and quickly shuffled out of the back room as Jet let out a scoff. "You've only been here a for a short while and you're already disrupting business," he taunted. "Now, do you mind letting me go? I have some green tea cakes to bring out."
Steam seemed to come out of Zuko's nose as he released Jet and stepped back. The other brunette straightened up and fixed the collar of his shirt before he brushed past Zuko and headed to one of the shelves to pick out a box. He grabbed a tray and placed some pastries on it before carrying it out to the door and shouting for who Zuko assumed was the teenage server to get the cakes.
"Answer my question," Zuko said as he eyed Jet crossing the room. "What are you doing here?"
"What does it look like?" Jet snapped, almost annoyed. "I work here. Look, I have uniform and the apron with the dragon and flower petals embroidered on it," he pointed out as he motioned to his clothing and the untied apron that still hung around his neck. "Do I look like I'm here to start a fight?"
"You started one last time," Zuko pointed out. Jet let out a heavy sigh as he stood by a stove. The fire had gone out, but a pot of still warm rice and a stew sat above it.
As he scooped some rice into a small bowl, Jet seemed to relax his shoulders. "I almost died," he began. "Under that lake, past the city. By some miracle, the Dai Li didn't kill me on sight. I don't know what they were planning to do with me, but somehow I survived. I stayed in some cell for weeks, and when I finally got out, I heard the war was over and the Avatar won."
"But why are you here?" Zuko stressed.
Jet snorted once more. "Eager to know, aren't you?" He placed the small bowl of rice onto the tray and began scooping some stew into a bowl. "I wandered around with no money, no home and tried to break in to get some food. Your uncle caught me." A small smirk tugged at his lips. "For an old guy, he's pretty strong."
"You have no idea," Zuko mumbled. The tray of food was brought over to a small table in the back room, by the window. "What are you doing?"
"Preparing your food, what does it look like?" Jet snapped. He slammed the tray on the table and frowned at Zuko. "Listen, I know you don't believe me and I actually can't blame you, but I owe that old man a lot. No one trusted me. No one would hire a scruffy-looking street kid, but General Iroh offered me a place to stay and a job. And I wasn't a good guy," he added. "I tried to rob him, out him as a firebender; I even tried to set this place on fire."
"Yeah, that's really smart, since he's a firebender and all," Zuko retorted. Jet ignored him and went to get a cup from a cabinet.
"The old man kept giving me chances and he never stopped believing in me, so I stayed," Jet concluded. "I've been here for a year and a half now. I'm not the same guy I used to be. This is my new lease on life."
Zuko stood by the table, his arms crossed as he continued to eye Jet suspiciously. "What are you planning to do?"
"Dunno," Jet shrugged. "I don't plan to be a server forever." He poured Zuko some tea and then gave him a look when he realized Zuko wasn't eating. "What? Are you going to stare at the food until you're full?"
"I don't trust you."
"Yeah, I got that," Jet rolled his eyes. "But the old man cooked the food." He put the teapot on a table and re-tied his apron. "Well, I've done my part. Enjoy lunch!" He gave Zuko a little mock salute before he strode out the door and back into the store front.
By the time Zuko had decided that the food was not an attempt on his life, the food had gone cold. Regardless, once he started eating his uncle's familiar cooking, he couldn't stop. Before he knew it, his bowls were empty and he brought them to the washing area. Another teen was out there, washing the various plates and cups from the shop and gladly took Zuko's bowls.
He stepped back out into the front of the store to tell his uncle he was going to head to the house; a building connected by a walkway where Iroh lived. Before he took two steps, an apron was tossed his way. On instinct, he caught it before it fell to the ground and looked up, confused.
"Zuko!" Iroh panted as he rushed over. "I am sorry for troubling you so soon after you arrived after such a long journey, but Liu had to go home. There was a family emergency!"
"We're short on staff," Jet said as he seemed to fly by, his arms filled with carefully balanced trays. "Put your apron on!"
The scarred ruler shot him a glare. He would expect such a request from his uncle, but from Jet? Jet knew perfectly well who he was and yet he still expected him to put on an apron and cater to a bunch of housewives?
Zuko tossed the apron on the counter and scowled. "I didn't come here to wait tables," he spat out. He turned around. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I've been on train and caravan all day and-"
"What's the matter, Your Highness?" Jet mocked daringly as he stood over the counter, replacing cooling tea pots with fresh hot ones. "Can't handle the pressure of ten tables wanting ten different things at once? I would think that someone in your position would be able to do that." Zuko took a deep breath. "Maybe you're just not up to the task. Hey, Boss," Jet looked over at Iroh and gave him a determined nod. "Don't worry about it. I'll handle both sections on my own."
"But, Jet," Iroh looked concerned. "That's far too much work for one employee."
"It's fine," Jet assured him as he finished refilling his trays. "It's the least I can do for everything you've done for me." He paused and gave Zuko a superior smirk. "I'm not the ungrateful kind."
That did it. He didn't care if he was the Fire Lord. No one implied that he was ungrateful to his uncle. He wouldn't be where he was if Iroh had not taken him under his wing and provided him with the guidance he sorely needed.
"Give me that!" Zuko snatched the apron from the counter and shoved it over his head.
"Zuko, are you sure?" Iroh looked uncertain. "I was only going to ask if you could tell Hyung to come out from the washing station to help."
"It's fine, Uncle," Zuko assured him as coolly as he could. His hands quickly tied the apron strings around his back. "I still remember how to do this."
Iroh didn't look convinced. "Zuko-"
"Now," the Fire Lord asserted as he grabbed the nearest tray. "Which is my section!"
"Heh," Jet smirked. Iroh sighed, conceding.
"This way, nephew."
On the upside, Zuko was oddly popular with the ladies. At first, the scar was somewhat frightening to the more fragile of heart, but then it somehow turned into a badge of mystery and half the shop had been enamored with the Jasmine Dragon's newest, albeit temporary, server.
On the downside, the somewhat foreseen rivalry that escalated between Jet and Zuko had resulted in several misplaced orders, five near-fights, and one table that Jet said was his, but Zuko insisted was actually his, thus creating a territorial dispute of sorts.
Iroh had finally stepped in to calm them both and take care of the table himself. As much as he didn't want to say it, Zuko may have done more harm than good, but they had no choice. A message arrived that Liu's family needed him and so he wouldn't be in to work the next few days.
This was a blow to the Jasmine Dragon.
"The Lunar Festival is in a few nights," Iroh said thoughtfully as he finished balancing the books for the night. Jet was sweeping the floor and Zuko was putting away the tea cups behind the counter. "We will need to hire a temporary worker for the festival rush."
"I'll go out and ask around for part-timers in the morning, Boss," Jet said as he finished sweeping.
"Uncle," Zuko began as he stood up and wiped his hands. "I can help in the daytime."
"That is very kind of you to offer, my nephew, but it is in the evening hours that we will be the busiest this time of year," Iroh replied. "I am sure we can find someone for one night."
"I can work," Jet piped. "I know I asked for that time off, but if you need an extra hand-"
Iroh merely chuckled at the idea. "Do not be ridiculous, Jet. You asked weeks ago," Iroh dismissed the idea with a shake of his head. "Besides," he smiled knowingly. "Will you not be spending that evening with a lady friend?"
"Ugh…," Zuko rolled his eyes and pretended he didn't hear that. Jet put his broom away and told the old, former general that he was retiring for the night. Then, to Zuko's confusion, he headed into the back of the store. As if noticing his nephew's suspicion, Iroh spoke.
"Jet has a room at the house."
Gold eyes widened as Zuko whirled around. "What?" he spat out, clearly disagreeing with the idea. "Why!"
"He didn't have a place to go," Iroh pointed out. "And Jet is a good boy. He helps not just at the store, but at home, too."
"But Uncle he's…he's…," Zuko struggled to come up with an excuse before finally shaking his head and throwing his arms in the air. Iroh raised a brow half-heartedly. Sometimes, Zuko was still as easily riled up as ever. "I don't know! Crazy!"
"He's not crazy," Iroh laughed. He looked at Zuko fondly as he rose from his seat. "Jet is a good boy deep down and he just needed some guidance to put him on path that would calm and fulfill his restless soul," the old man pointed out. He smiled at his nephew. "Doesn't he remind you of someone?"
Zuko lowered his eyes and released a deep breath. "Uncle…it's not the same."
"Just give him a chance," Iroh urged as he tucked the record books under his arm and headed towards the back. "He's not bad. And, he's quite a hit with the ladies." A familiar exasperated groan came from Zuko as he ran a hand down his face. Iroh patted his shoulder as he passed. "You've had a long day…why don't you go and get some rest."
"That's a good idea," Zuko sighed as he removed his apron and hung it on a hook by the back door. "I have a long day ahead of me tomorrow."
He couldn't help but remember all those nights, years ago, when he wandered the muddy, shack lined streets of the lower tiers. He didn't expect much improve upon his return and wasn't surprised to see he was right. Many of the city's poorest citizens were still living in sub-par living conditions, but he did notice quite a lot of construction in regards to streets and some larger buildings.
Still, the thought that his mother was there, somewhere, living in squalor, angered him. She didn't deserve this. No one did.
However, the letter the Earth King had sent him said that some of his agents heard about a woman in the lower tiers of Ba Sing Se who matched the description of Zuko's mother.
"Excuse me," Zuko stopped at a store on the main street and lifted up a carefully drawn portrait of his mother he had copied. "Have you seen this woman?" He was probably in the tenth, maybe eleventh store.
The middle-aged man manning the front of the store squinted his eyes and leaned forward. "Who is that? The Fire Lady?"
Zuko resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "Just pretend she doesn't have the pin in her hair," he suggested. Why did everyone ask that? It was the best picture he could find of his mother from the last time he had seen her. He knew she would have aged since then, but he doubted she would've changed that drastically.
The man shook his head. "Sorry," he sighed. "I don't remember her, but she has a familiar face. Then again, I might be thinking of someone else."
For a moment, part of Zuko wanted to scoff. How could he not remember his mother? Princess Ursa was a renowned beauty! Everyone used to compliment her and even his father had once spoken that he fallen for her upon first sight. No one could mistake possibly mistake his esteemed mother for some other woman!
"Are you sure you haven't seen this woman before?" Zuko pressed. The man sighed once more.
"I already told you, no. Have you tried checking with the city?" the man suggested. "Maybe the police or something have seen your mother." That was one of the last things Zuko wanted to hear. "She looks like a pretty lady."
"Of course she is," Zuko snapped as he began rolling up the painting. This was becoming a waste of time and he silently wondered if the Earth King's agents really knew what they were doing.
"Maybe the Dai Li took her."
He froze. Zuko lifted his head up and narrowed his eyes as they bore into the merchant intensely. "What."
The man found himself shrinking back under the younger man's look. "The Dai Li," he repeated. "The cultural ministry's officers. Sometimes, they help women find jobs. I think it's for tourism or something, but they usually have to fit a particular profile. That lady," he pointed out, motioning towards the paper still in Zuko's hand. "Looks like she might fit."
He could feel his skin crawling at the mere thought of his mother captured by the Dai Li. He'd seen first hand their aggression and near obsessive determination to keep utter control of the city. Anyone who stood out had been quashed and knowing that they might have his mother made his chest tighten.
Zuko could almost feel his face drained of color as he gave the merchant a nod and small thanks before continuing on, if only for someone else to somehow tell him that his mother couldn't possibly have had any contact with the elite, fanatical earthbenders. Such luck was not his.
Another hour of restless searching resulted in partial defeat. The merchant was only the first. Others he questioned also told him about the Dai Li taking women who were most certainly never seen again. Those that were would tell their would-be acquaintances that they were mistaking them for someone else when their family and friends would have sworn up and down that the woman was their missing wife or best friend.
He'd been searching since morning. It was only early evening. Try as he might, Zuko needed help. If there was one person who would know about the Dai Li now, it would be the Earth King who had sent him the note in the first place. If he was quick, he could make it to the Earth King's palace to meet with King Kuei. The sooner he got to the bottom of this, the sooner the creeping feeling in his stomach would cease.
Except one slight problem: he had forgotten his visitor's pass. Although King Kuei made many changes the concept of the tiers was not one that would vanish overnight or so easily. It was one thing for a person to stroll from the middle tier to the lower, but for him to try and bypass the upper ones without incident, he would need it.
To get into the palace and gain an audience with King Kuei, he would need other documentation, as well...unless he snuck in.
He bit his lip. Given the amount of time it would take to backtrack to the Jasmine Dragon, this was certainly faster. If he got caught, he could always make a big enough fuss and King Kuei could vouch for him. If not, they'd have a private audience with each other and he'd return to his uncle's.
Either way, Zuko knew what he had to do.
The plan had worked better in his head than it did in actual application when Zuko realized what the Upper Ring's security was like. Several feet high of thick walls with groups of guards at every corner. Unlike the guards of the Middle Ring, these ones were not slouches given who they were supposed to be protecting. He grimaced.
There was one more way into the Upper Ring, but he was not going to like it: the water system.
In all the time he had been in this city, he noted the waterways in the Upper Ring were on par with some of the places in the Fire Nation. The better and bigger the system, the richer the area. The drainage ditches flanked both sides of the avenues and streets, never with a speck to trash clogging the gutters.
Zuko remembered bitterly that a large portion of the clean water was diverted to the Upper Ring for the canals and gardens, so that the city's elite could enjoy them, despite the fact that the majority of the population resided below.
However, for his purposes, it worked out. The large and well kept system also meant that the waterways would be wide enough for a young man to go through, if he didn't mind the trip.
Getting into the waterway itself was almost too easy. It didn't take him too long to find a grate with a wide enough crack for him to slip through while still in the Middle Ring. From there, it was just an upwards navigation.
Apparently, he wasn't the only one with this brilliant idea. As Zuko crept through one of the waterways leading into the Upper Ring, he noticed another figure in dark clothing. The Fire Lord slowed his movements to lessen the rustle of his clothes as he moved back against the side of the tunnel. Cautiously, he kept his eyes on the stranger, watching for any sudden moves and listening for any possible companions.
The other man seemed alone as he tilted his head towards a drainage grate leading to the surface, narrowing his eyes as he listened to the footsteps of patrolling guards. Zuko's eyes widened a bit as he made out the man's features. He recognized this person and while he wasn't expecting him, he wasn't surprised either.
Jet seemed to be waiting until the guards had gotten further away before continuing to move.
"So much for reforming...," Zuko muttered to himself. People who say they've reformed did not go sneaking into water systems in the middle of the night. "Just a server my royal..." Grumbling, Zuko stalked forward, his legs cutting through the knee deep water being released down into the next tier swiftly. Up ahead of him, the sound of his splashing seemed to have been picked up and Jet suddenly froze. His shoulders tensed as Zuko could see his one hand reaching for the handle of a sword clinging on his back.
Narrowing his eyes, Zuko, lacking his own swords, prepared to bend if need be.
And it was need be.
Jet suddenly whirled around and charged forward. Zuko's arms were shot forward immediately, sending out carefully controlled flames used more as a warning than for actual attack. As the tunnel illuminated with flames, he could see Jet's face take on a look of surprise before he covered his face with his arms to shield himself from the fire.
Not that it was necessary. Almost as soon as they had been summoned, Zuko swept his arms to the side and extinguished the flames. Jet was kneeling in the water and Zuko scowled.
"What are you-"
"Are you crazy!" Jet cut him off. Suddenly, the taller young man was on his feet, glaring at Zuko as he placed his sword back. "You could've given us away!" he hissed in a low voice as he shoved Zuko back.
"Me!" Zuko yelled in return. He shoved Jet back. "What are you doing here, anyway-"
A wet gloved encased hand was suddenly slapped over his mouth as Jet stilled beside him. The tea server didn't move as his eyes looked upwards. In the sudden quiet, Zuko could make out voices coming from above ground over the sound of the water. Gold eyes flickered to the open gratings.
"They'll hear us...," Jet whispered icily beside him. He slowly removed his hand from Zuko. For a few tense moments, the two stood unmoving in place; waiting for the guards to finally decide whatever caused the noise was probably a raccoon dog or something before leaving. As soon as their footsteps vanished, Jet fell back against the tunnel and let out a heavy breath. "We're underground, but noises can echo up the drain pipes to the gratings and streets above," he pointed out.
"I got that," Zuko replied. He continued to look at Jet suspiciously. "What are you doing down here?"
"Taking a casual stroll," Jet retorted cheekily. "What does it look like?" When Zuko didn't respond, Jet sighed. "It's nothing bad, okay? I meant what I said about being in debt to your uncle."
For a moment, Zuko wanted to scoff. Shaking his head, he brushed past him and continued forward. "Forget it," he snapped as he proceeded to ignore Jet.
Curious, the other brunette straightened up and grinned. "Now, I gotta know." He began to walk after Zuko. "There's no way the Fire Lord wouldn't be able to get an audience with the Earth King now. You're up to something."
"It's none of your business, Jet."
"Planning on finding out some secrets?" Jet smirked. "Maybe weaknesses?"
While Zuko know he didn't mean any of it, all things considering, it couldn't stop the anger from raising. He turned around sharply and grabbed Jet by the front of his shirt.
"I'm looking for my mother," Zuko growled dangerously. "And I don't need you getting in my way." He released Jet roughly and continued walking.
Behind him, Jet furrowed his brows. "Your mother? The Boss said she went missing a few years ago."
"The Earth King has been sending agents out on my behalf," Zuko retorted. "He got a tip and sent me a note. I came to see if I could find out more."
"Here?" Jet asked incredulously. "Under the city?" Zuko stopped in mid-step and let out a heavy breath. He turned around and faced Jet.
"I checked the Lower Ring and some merchants had seen someone who looks like her," he explained as evenly as he could. "However, they haven't seen her in a while. It's possible she may have been recruited by the Dai Li for some tourism program that gets jobs for women."
Jet's lips pulled into a tight line. "Joo Dee."
Jet took a step forward. "Joo Dee are the names of women. Not one, but a whole group, who work under the Dai Li. The tourism cover is almost spot on, since the women are brainwashed into becoming guides for visitors. They're trained to keep visitors in line, so they don't disrupt the 'peace'."
"What are you saying?" Zuko frowned. "That my mother could be held against her will and used as a drone!"
"Calm down," Jet held his hands up to calm him. "If that is what happened, she's probably not injured."
"I count brainwashing as injury, Jet," Zuko snapped. He whirled around and quickened his pace. "Just because it's not physical, doesn't mean it doesn't do any damage. I need to find her."
"It'll have to wait until tomorrow," Jet said as he pointed to a drainage vent. "The sun's going to raise any minute."
For a moment, the Fire Lord seemed torn between continuing his search and returning to the shop. Jet seemed to sense his hesitation and lowered his arm.
"Listen, I'll come with you tomorrow and show you how to get into the palace," Jet offered. "But right now, you're not even sure she's there and if you get caught, that'll be problematic."
Zuko scowled. "For who."
"Some of us who enjoy the solitude of tunnels," Jet replied snidely as he raised his arms up.
"You still haven't answered my question," the Fire Lord pointed out.
Jet raised a brow, stared at Zuko, and then shrugged his shoulders. He turned around and headed back the way Zuko had came. "It's nothing you have to worry about. If you want to wander this maze of tunnels without a guide, go for it, but I'm heading back," Jet warned. "I want to get a little sleep before I open the shop."
Still frowning, Zuko looked back up the waterway, measuring his options. A few moments later, he followed Jet out.
"Oh, for me?" Jet smiled at a little girl who held up a drawing she had painted of him as she sat at a table with her mother and some other women.
"Is for you!" she beamed proudly as he cheeks turned pink.. "I drawed it!"
"You drawed it? Wow, it looks good," Jet said as he seemed to seriously contemplate the piece. He gave a nod of satisfaction and humbly accepted the child's drawing. "I'll be sure to keep in a safe place, kid. Thanks!" The child beamed proudly that her work had been praised and accepted as Jet patted her on the head. "Let me go talk to the Boss and see if I can get you a little treat as thanks."
He headed back to the counter and seemed to send a glance to where Iroh was sitting, having his own tea break. The old man nodded, as if giving him permission before pouring some tea into Zuko's half filled cup.
"What is the matter, nephew?" Iroh asked. "You look tired. You returned late last night. You are on vacation; if you wanted to sleep in, you could've, you know."
"It's nothing," Zuko mumbled as he reached for his cup. Part of him grimaced as his lame attempt at a reassuring his uncle. Nothing always meant something.
Iroh knew that. His old eyes followed Zuko's intense glare back to his star server. Jet was rewarding the little girl with a small fruit cup for her drawing.
"Zuko...," Iroh began carefully. "Is this about Jet?"
"What?" Zuko slammed his cup of tea on the table and fervently shook his head. "No! Of course not!"
"I see," Iroh nodded. "Zuko, you know you do not have to hide anything from me. I know you and Jet have had...disagreements," he choose carefully. "In the past, but he is a changed man."
"I know," Zuko sighed. In truth, he wasn't completely convinced. He kept a scowl on his face as he poked at his half-eaten fruit tart. "He's a server and you trust him with the shop."
The former general watched Zuko carefully. "I am very pleased with how far Jet has come and am happy that he is happy," his uncle told him. "After these few years, I like to think of him as one of my boys." Iroh paused. "But, my nephew...I will only always have one of you."
"Uncle...," Zuko began softly. "I'm touched...but...," he looked hesitant. "That isn't what I'm concerned about."
Iroh jerked his head back "Then...you're not jealous?"
"No," Zuko frowned as he looked at his uncle. "Why would I be jealous?"
"Oh." Iroh looked away casually. "No reason." He quickly reached down and brought his cup to his lips. "Ah...this is good tea!"
Across from him, Zuko chuckled slightly and took a bite of his tart. "Your tea is always good, Uncle. No one makes it better."
A soft smile graced old man's face as he lowered his cup. "Then, Zuko...what do you seem to be so concerned about?"
"Nothing, Uncle," Zuko assured him, this time with a kind smile. "Just the usual stuff...how things are going back home...what needs to be done and so forth."
"Well, while you are here, I hope you are able to relax," Iroh told him hopefully. He rose from his seat and passed Zuko, patting him on the back as he did. "It's a big city with many things to do. I'm sure you'll find something to do."
Zuko kept thinking about what he had do all day. By the time the sunset and the shop finally closed its doors for the night, he was ready to disappear once more. Following his path from the night before, Zuko returned to the open waterway hatch and waited.
Jet had arrived later than Zuko expected only to cavalierly asked if Zuko had been waiting long. The darkly dressed firebender simply told him to help him get a layout of the waterways as he adjusted his mask over his head to give him more visibility in the dark.
"Did you go to the theater before you got here?" Jet snorted as he eyed the blue and white mask.
"It's to cover my face if I'm seen," Zuko snapped. "In case you didn't notice, I have a very distinguishable mark."
"I'm not complaining," Jet replied as he tugged up a black mask that covered the lower portion of his face. "I had forgotten to mention covering up and bringing a weapon for tonight." He paused and glanced at the handles of Zuko's swords peeking over his shoulder. "Glad to see you had that covered."
"This isn't my first time doing this sort of thing."
Jet smirked. "Of course not." Zuko shot him a glare and Jet easily ignored him and switched into a more serious mode and began dutifully leading him, as if carrying out a mission briefing.
"Like I said yesterday, pay attention to the vents that go up," Jet said as they stopped and motioned down a waterway dotted with holes coming from the top of the tunnel. "The vents lead up to the street gutters and drains, meaning they're open to the surface. You want to be your quietest near them. If you hear voices or footsteps coming from above, stop completely and wait for them to pass."
"Is there a patrol cycle?" Zuko asked quietly. Jet shook his head.
"Yes, but it doesn't matter. It could just be a civilian, but if they're suspicious, they'll call for help, so it's best not to alarm them either. Worst are their pets. A dog once started barking down the vent. The guards were about to come down and check," Jet frowned.
Zuko nodded as they kept walking up the incline. "Where are we going?"
"To a drain in one of the parks," Jet replied without looking over his shoulder. "Once the tunnels start going into the palace, they get smaller and have a lot more grates. It's easier to get in over land and then into the palace's tunnels."
"The palace has its own tunnels?" Zuko asked.
"What, the Fire Nation palace doesn't have any underground bunkers?" Jet snorted. Zuko glared at the back of his head.
"Just keep walking."
Jet continued to smirk until they reached a vent. Glanced at Zuko as he prepared to climb up the narrowing vent to the surface. "Wait until I check that it's clear. The park is usually empty this time of night, but you never know."
Before Zuko could answer, Jet was already in the vent; his legs and arms spread around him as he pushed against the walls to keep himself up. Carefully, he moved upwards until he reached the grate. Zuko peered upwards, watching as Jet braced himself against the walls, pushed the iron grating up, and pulled himself out.
A moment later, a hand waved for Zuko to follow from the top. Just as easily, the climbed up and crawled out. His eyes quickly adjusted as he found himself behind some bushes.
"How do we get into the palace now?" he whispered as Jet carefully closed the grating over the hole. It was clear to Zuko that this wasn't the first time Jet had snuck into the palace.
"Up the tree," Jet smirked as he patted the large, towering object beside them. It's old, thick branches stretched over a wall, mingling with the branches of another tree. "Into that tree." He pointed to the top of another tree peeking over thick, stone walls. "Into the bear's garden and into the palace."
For a moment, Zuko was impressed, but wouldn't allow himself to show it. He mere gave Jet a nod. "And to go back, the same way?"
"As long as we're not caught. The inside of the palace is a tangle of halls that all look the same," Jet frowned. "Anyway, once we're inside, try to work your way into the lower levels. You may find something there."
"Thanks," Zuko nodded. "What about you?"
"Just doing some research." There was rustle of clothing and Jet was in the trees at once. Zuko watched him from the ground, silently memorizing Jet's path along the branches before following.
Once he was over the wall, Jet darted off through the sprawling elaborate gardens that were marred only by balls, large rings, and other things that the king's bear must've played with. Jet wisely avoided being out in the open and finally slipped into what appeared to be a decorative stone rain gutter opening in one corner.
The Fire Lord took a deep breath, taking in the sight of the sprawling compound once more in hopes of reorienting himself once inside, and followed the former rebel.
A.N. - Thank you for reading! This is a collaboration that will crossover into the two Avatar-eras. Most of it will take place in Aang's time period as a semi-AU shortly after the war, to cover the bromatic-adventures of Zuko, Jet, and sometimes Sokka, as they become crime-fighting vigilantes.
damagectrl A.N. - Thank you for reading and if you have any questions, please let us know!
ebontien A.N. - This idea is insane and we went there. This is why you don't use A:TLA as the basis of your term paper. You get more than just a paper.