A/N: So basically this is what happens when I try to be original. A modern Jeeko AU. Meaning: YES, there will be cross-generation slash here in the future, complete with everything that comes with it. You have been warned.
It may perhaps be considered ironic that when Jee saw Zuko Xi for the first time, it happened in a teashop.
Jee was not a tea man by any definition. If he were to align himself with any beverage in such a way, he would have chosen something less leafy and more… vegetable-or-fruit-based. Preferably served in a bottle or a glass rather than a teacup and containing a reasonable dosage of alcohol, though as to the precise nature of the vegetable-or-fruit-drink in question and the actual quantity of alcohol in it, he wasn't picky.
As if to make the meeting even more unlikely, the day of this momentous occasion was in the middle of an exceptionally hot August, with the sun reigning supreme in the sky and gracing the Earth with its mercilessly intensive gaze. All summer long it had been persisting in this way, chasing children into the air-conditioned sanctuary of their basements and grown men into the even more pleasant sanctuary of pubs.
The aura was not in the least favorable to frequenting bloody teashops, thank you very much.
Looking back, Jee really did believe it was ironic that one of the most important things to happen in his life began in probably the least likely place he would go to, second only to the old town museum, which contained mostly boring rocks, but failed to contain air-conditioning.
If Jee believed in such a thing as fate – though he did believe that someone up there was actively trying to screw him over, which to some people is pretty much the same thing – he could have said that it guided his footsteps that day.
Because it was precisely in a teashop that Jee had found himself in on that particular afternoon, his best white shirt already drenched uncomfortably in sweat, the trousers of his lightest suit clinging to his sweaty legs. Accompanying him was Headmaster Pakku, who was, in fact, the one to have guided his footsteps here instead of Fate and who must have been an emissary from some very deep level of hell in disguise, since any other man would not have chosen to have hot tea in this damn weather.
Jee only hoped they served iced tea in this place.
"Ah," Pakku stopped in the doorway and closed his eyes. "Smell it, Lieutenant. The Jasmine Dragon has been a pride of our Asian district for years now. No one makes tea like Iroh. You must try it."
"I'll make it my top priority, sir," mumbled Jee distractedly; he did not add "Right after finding a table near a going fan," which was in fact the priority occupying his mind at the moment as he discreetly scanned the mercifully air-conditioned, ostentatiously Chinese interior.
This one time, luck seemed to be on his side; Headmaster Pakku was obviously entertaining similar thoughts and steered Jee in the direction of just such table, breaking teashop protocol and not waiting for a waiter to accompany them. The table-near-a-fan hunt successfully completed, Jee stretched his long legs discreetly under the table and squirmed in a way he hoped was unnoticeable, trying to find some comfort in his sweat-soaked attire. The older man paid him no heed, too busy craning his neck in search of something or someone.
"Sir?" Jee cleared his throat as politely as he could.
"Oh, no, it's nothing, I was just trying to find that old bugger Iroh… He's probably at the back, brewing away. Forgive me, Lieutenant. Old acquaintances and such. I'm sure we will be given the card in a moment… Ah. And here's the nephew."
Jee could not help but notice the way Pakku's already grumpy voice dropped even lower and quieter at this last sentence. And just as the words left his mouth, a shadow fell over their table and a voice said:
"Good morning, Headmaster."
Jee looked up.
Some foolish people would say that this was when Destiny happened. Jee though, whenever he thought back to that very first meeting, preferred to think this was when God (or whatever bugger there was up there) decided to screw him double-over. How else could one describe putting this on his path – this which would be the start of a whole other this; which was one of those this-es that left a man scarred and quivering and hugging an empty bottle of booze; which was, in a word, a catastrophe he really should have been smart enough to avoid?
There should have been some warning at least, as Jee mused often in hindsight, especially in those grey hours of three o'clock in the morning in an empty apartment smelling of imminent hangover. Something. A tingling, a creepy sensation of foreboding dread, Spider Senses, a random thunder – anything. He wasn't picky about his omens. And he didn't even believe in omens.
But if anyone deserved a random thunder, it was definitely Zuko. That boy deserved a fucking overture.
But there was no overture, no random thunder, no tingling Spider-Senses and certainly no other indications of imminent Doom other than the stifling, debilitating heat and the impression Zuko himself had made when Jee first set eyes on him.
And, well, as far as first impressions go, this one was pretty strong.
In the end, as he remembered with faint embarrassment, Jee did not manage to stop himself from gaping just a little. It wasn't as if he could help it. The young, black-haired waiter's appearance would catch anyone unawares. Especially with that scowl lurking very visibly on the surface, ready to break out in full at the slightest provocation.
"Is your uncle at the back?" asked Pakku rather brusquely, sitting back and crossing his arms, not even attempting to smile at the young man.
The young man with the s – the scowl. Yes. A scowl. And not the scar. Not at all with a big, angry red burn scar stretching around his left eye all the way to his ear and occupying nearly half his face. No. Not at all.
As soon as he realized he was staring, Jee abruptly tore his gaze away from the scar, but the image stayed with him even as he fixed his gaze determinedly on the table.
"Yeah," murmured the boy, handing the two men the teashop cards adorned with elaborate paintbrush paintings of dragons and cherry blossoms. "Do you want me to tell him you're here?"
He had a strange sort of voice – raspy, as if continuously hoarse. But not only that. The words left his mouth in a comprehensible sentence all right, but they didn't seem quite natural, not entirely linked. Clipped, rather, forced, even gritted out. The very definition of unfriendly if anyone asked Jee, and not at all like a waiter was supposed to speak.
Even though his uncle owned this fragrant joint, if Jee read the implications correctly. Interesting.
"No, thank you, Zuko. I won't bother him while he's back there in his emporium. We'll both have the house special. What is it today?" asked the headmaster – and, as the boy's attention was momentarily focused on him, Jee risked a surreptitious glance.
Unruly black hair falling shaggily all over his face, probably so as to neutralize the scar somewhat. Pale. Tallish. Broad shoulders and chest. Asian features, quite handsome on the unscarred side. Wearing what seemed to be the teashop equivalent of a uniform – red and black traditional Asian robes with golden trimmings – though this one was probably the summer edition, with short sleeves, loose breeches and sandals. It looked so much more comfortable than what Jee was forced to wear and the Lieutenant felt a pang of envy.
Further furtive examination provided a more detailed analysis: back held rigidly straight. Entire posture stiff. Face muscles taut. An angry scowl lingering somewhere in there, as if barely contained and ready to be unleashed. Fingers clutching the order notebook as if holding on for dear life. The boy looked positively ready to spring, but whether at or away from someone, that much was unclear; and glancing at him, Jee realized with a sudden hollow feeling in his stomach that he had seen body language like that before.
In the navy.
Too intent on his surreptitious staring, the Lieutenant had, rather belatedly, realized that the sudden lull in conversation around him was a little suspicious. Turning his gaze on Pakku, he saw both the headmaster and the teen waiter looking at him expectantly, the former with a mild frown, the latter with something that might have been akin to curiosity had it not been for the scowl, which had by then floated very close to the surface.
"Excuse me," muttered Jee as politely as possible, clearing his throat, "I must have blacked out a little there. It's the heat."
Pakku's frown deepened a fraction as he held Jee's apologetic gaze, but then the older man shrugged and let it drop. "I was just saying, Lieutenant," he started, folding his hands on the table, "that Zuko here is probably going to be among your pupils this semester. He is about to begin his senior year in our high school. As I was saying, Zuko, this is Lieutenant Jee, our new gym teacher who will be filling in for Mr. Bracknell."
Oh. A student. Of course, this made perfect sense.
Having now obtained an official blessing to look the boy openly in the eye – and Jee was very careful not to look in the right eye only – the old sailor was struck by how… well, striking Zuko's gaze was. Not only was the color rather extraordinary – very bright, nearly golden, who on earth really had eyes golden like that? – but the intensity boiling there was positively scorching. And the kid wasn't even scowling anymore. Frowning, maybe, his mouth in a tight line, but without the hostility that Jee was half-expecting to see there, judging by the aggressive body language. No, the kid was just… assessing him, gauging him out, perhaps. Like any kid would with a new teacher. Seemingly nothing out of the ordinary.
But Jee had been the object of many such gazes in the past. He knew how to differentiate between them. And now that he had a little time to study this boy, he did fancy he saw something else in those eyes as well – something fleeting, flashing there for just an instant, like a spark. Genuine interest.
"Good to meet you, Zuko," he said, holding this arresting gaze with a smile that made its way to his face entirely unbidden. "Thinking of taking the gym this semester?"
"Yeah," admitted the kid with a slight nod. And did not elaborate.
"I hear Zuko is rather skilled in martial arts," intervened the headmaster before the halt in conversation turned into awkwardness. "That seems to be your field of expertise, isn't it, Lieutenant?"
"It is," agreed Jee, still holding eye-contact with Zuko; neither he nor the boy seemed, for some inexplicable reason, able to look away. "Which style?"
"Kung fu, Northern Shaolin," answered the boy, at once this time and with an unexpected flash of eagerness. Jee permitted himself to smile a little wider.
"Me too. I'm expecting to see you in my class then."
"Are you really a soldier?" blurted out Zuko abruptly, apparently completely oblivious to how rude it sounded; he just stood there, ignoring Pakku's severely disapproving frown, clutching his notebook and looking expectantly at Jee, the left side of his face fixed into a permanent glare, the right one displaying growing curiosity – at least, as far as Jee could tell.
Honestly, one could get cross-eyed trying to decipher that face, grotesquely lopsided as it was. With the left eye squinted like that. That burn looked really bad. The poor sod.
"The Navy," Jee allowed for the question without flinching. "Fifteen years of service."
To the boy's credit, he didn't ask "Then what the hell are you doing here teaching gym?", but from the skeptical frown shadowing his face and the clearly disdainful look he cast around the place, it was clear that this was exactly what he had on the tip of his tongue.
"I have to go back to work now," announced Zuko instead after this short pause, turning to Pakku. "Double special blend, then. Right."
And, with a short, tight nod first to the headmaster and then with an even smaller one to Jee, the boy was gone. Jee found himself looking after his retreating back, absently stroking his right sideburn.
Well. That was definitely… curious.
It was only when Zuko silently hovered back to their table and put two steaming cups of tea before them that Jee realized what Pakku had ordered, and that no blessedly cold iced-tea was in store for him.
Keeping up his polite façade after that proved rather challenging indeed, but Jee managed somehow. It was, after all, a business meeting.
The interview was brief and to the point – as everything about the headmaster was. Just a formality, really, with the necessary exchange of remaining vital documents and useful tips as to the inner workings of the school, complete with quite a lot of dry sarcasm. Jee was rather pleasantly impressed. He found himself growing to appreciate Pakku's brisk and cynical manner – the latter especially being a quality which Jee himself did not lack. He could tell working with the man was going to be if not easy, then at least bearable. And the man did not ask too many probing questions, which was another huge point in his favor.
Of course, having a bearable boss was, on the whole, only a small blessing. But given everything that'd happened, Jee was ready to embrace even the tiniest blessings any given higher power was ready to throw his way.
He was that desperate.
"I will be quite frank with you, Lieutenant," Pakku leaned back in his chair, looking at Jee from above wiry arms crossed over his chest. "You will probably not enjoy yourself. No one is going to pretend otherwise. This is not a wealthy area. Though I do pride myself on being a resourceful man and we do manage to pull through passably each year, you will not find any glamour or happy pink feelings of self-fulfillment working here. I daresay it shall be quite the contrary. Now, though I must admit I am rather curious, I did not inquire as to the reasons that have driven you here," the headmaster's dark forehead creased as the intensity of his gaze was turned up a notch, "nor am I going to. It is entirely your own business, as long as it was nothing illegal. I just want it to be clear that it's not going to be anything like the Navy. If anything, it might be harder."
Jee smirked and inclined his head to the headmaster, taking one final sip of the special house blend – which, admittedly, was oddly delicious despite the scorching heat and Jee's habitual dislike of tea.
"And I am not expecting any glamour or happy pink feelings," he replied. "Which makes it a perfect arrangement."
"Indeed," Pakku permitted himself a smirk in response. "If you have no further questions for the time being, I believe it is time we request our bill. I have a couple of other staff appointments to get through today."
"Of course, sir."
Zuko appeared by their table not long after – a silent specter, his eyes firmly fixed on the china he was handling rather than on the customers, he nodded jerkily when Pakku asked for the bill and trod away just as silently as he came, posture stiff and rigid. Once again Jee found himself gazing after him.
"Curious boy, isn't he?" The headmaster was smirking openly now, watching Jee watching Zuko as the boy disappeared in the kitchen. Jee's head snapped back to him immediately.
"Oh, come now, Lieutenant," huffed the older man. "Nothing to get flustered about. That's how everyone reacts to him. He's been living here with Iroh for three years now and the community still hasn't gotten used to him. And vice-versa, I suppose."
"He lives with his uncle?" asked Jee, deciding he could risk questions now that the headmaster opened the subject himself. No harm in a little gossip, after all, was there?
"Yes. Three years now, like I said. Though from the way the boy carries himself, all up at arms against everyone, one could suppose he moved here only yesterday."
"Difficult one, is he?"
"Well," Pakku leaned forward in his chair again and rested his chin on interlaced fingers, "I wouldn't say difficult, exactly. He has not caused any trouble beyond the ordinary, at least in the open. There was some… trouble right after he first arrived, but no bullying or vandalism, nothing of the sort. He does make it exceptionally hard to get through to him, though. Stubborn. Headstrong. Brash. Shouty. With personal boundaries stretching for about a mile. You'll probably see for yourself, Lieutenant. Martial arts is the only thing he's shown any remote interest in so far."
"Aren't I a lucky man, then," muttered Jee, scratching his cheek absently. And then, since his idle curiosity was being indulged anyway, he probed a little further. "And the scar, sir? How did that happen?"
"No idea," answered Pakku, his tone suddenly sharp, any shadows of the previous dry humor gone from his face. "His uncle never told me and I did not see it fit to ask. It has no impact on the boy's performance at school, so if he chooses to keep it to himself, so be it. The same thing goes for why he ended up here, away from his parents. Some educators find it prudent to know every little thing about their students, but I firmly believe that as long as there are no causes for alarm, we have no reasons to pry into their private affairs."
Jee hung his head, recognizing a scolding when he was being given one. "Apologies, sir. I will keep that in mind."
"Good. There are many rumors flying around about Zuko. If I were you, I wouldn't pay them any heed. But speaking of the devil…"
Jee was very careful not to look at the young man too intensively as he hovered by their table to leave the bill. But before the boy left, the Lieutenant found himself calling after him:
"See you in class, then!"
Zuko paused in his step then and slowly turned to look at Jee over his shoulder. Their eyes met and he nodded once, his features softening momentarily into an expression which could almost be mistaken for polite – and then he was off, striding quickly to another table to take the order.
Jee loitered a little, falling behind Pakku as the headmaster left, and then, on a sudden impulse, he left a big tip.
He didn't think of Zuko as a sexual creature then. No. The interest in the boy he found himself developing had been idle, a fleeting fascination, merely something curious to relieve the boredom of solitude, to focus his attention on for a few minutes so that he didn't have the think of anything else. That was all there was to it during that first meeting, with perhaps a tiny spark of potential that went largely unnoticed. Jee entertained idle speculations regarding Zuko for perhaps an hour after he returned to his cramped, messy, newly-rented apartment, and then he got himself busy with the final stage of unpacking and tidying up, doing as much as he could be bothered to do. No thoughts about the boy visited him all through the evening when he watched some television and went for a late walk to further explore his new, unimpressive neighborhood.
And if a fleeting image of an angry burn scar did come to haunt him again that night, it was just before he fell asleep, during this hazy stage between dream and reality when a man is drifting in a no-man's-land, ready to be pulled one way or the other.
And Jee had no reason to suspect that, back in his own room up above the teashop, Zuko was thinking of him.