Smellerbee never truly understood it.
From day one, Jet had been anti-Fire Nation this and anti-Fire Nation that, going on and on about how awful and ruthless the people were. “Fire Nation scum,” he would say, “ruining our lives!” Stuff like that. And she understood that, her own village suffered from Fire Nation raids and attacks. All their homes did. That’s why they were there, a group of misfits banded together under the name of Freedom Fighters.
Mutual hatred for the Fire Nation was what brought them together. It was the Freedom Fighters against the world, as it often seemed, as everything was gradually getting taken over or influenced by the powerful force of the Fire Nation. So they pledged, each and every one of them, to do whatever they could to take down the Fire Nation’s supplies and allies. Revenge, that’s what Jet taught them. Revenge would get them what they wanted.
Smellerbee was all for the “take down the Fire Nation” plan, she was. She respected Jet as a leader and she liked a lot of the other Freedom Fighters, especially Longshot. Everything about their group made sense. There was no question of authority or loyalty, no extra drama, no unnecessary complications. They were like ninjas or something, lurking behind the scenes and working silently, creeping around in places no one paid enough attention to catch them.
Life was good, Smellerbee had thought. They were progressing day by day, knocking down small camps and Fire Nation settlements. They had enough food and supplies to last them a while; there was nothing to worry about. All one had to do was enjoy the warmth and security the forest provided.
So when Smellerbee found herself in Jet’s room regarding a meeting about the next raid, sitting on the floor next to Longshot, legs crossed and elbows resting on her knees, watching Jet as he paced back and forth about the room, she was honestly surprised to see a torn picture of the Fire Nation prince haphazardly taped to the wall.
“Jet,” she interrupted, too caught off guard to let the question wait. She didn’t really want to believe it, mostly because it didn’t make sense, at all, so she asked: “Who is that?” She pointed to the worn canvas, eyebrow raised beneath her bangs.
Jet halted in his pacing, following the direction of her finger. He glanced at the picture on the wall, then down at her and Longshot, eyes squinted and mouth hanging open. “Uh,” he coughed, reaching back to scratch at his neck. “That’s, uh, that’s Zuko.”
He said the name so casually, as though the two knew each other personally, and had for a while. There was no attachment of Prince, or mentioning of the Fire Nation. Just Zuko.
“Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation?” Smellerbee clarified, still staring at Jet. Longshot remained silent, eyes glued to Jet in silent disapproval. “Jet, why is he on your wall?”
Jet glanced back to the picture, frowning. It was an old one, from a good few years ago at least, back when the Prince was around thirteen or so. He held a deadpan, eyes seeming to resonate with a sense of reluctance, most likely toward the idea of standing still for several hours on end for the artist to create the portrait. The Prince seemed to be sitting on something as well, his stature demanding authority even at such a young age. His hair was pulled in the classic topknot and he wore the signature Fire Nation emblem on his crown. However, the picture was torn around the edges; Smellerbee figured this small image of the Prince came from a family portrait.
“Just, ah… because, you know. Fuel for hatred, and stuff,” Jet supplied, but Smellerbee could smell the lie. Jet was blushing a bit. Which was really weird, when she thought about it, considering the Prince was, again, probably thirteen in the picture, whereas Jet was currently seventeen. Too weird, she decided. She shot a quick glance at Longshot and met his eyes. He nodded in agreement.
Shaking her head, she turned back to Jet. “You’re really weird, you know that? He’s too young there. It just makes you look like a pervert.”
“Hey!” Jet whipped around to shoot a dirty look at her. “I’m not a pervert! The picture’s old, I’ve had it for a while.”
Longshot blinked and Smellerbee offered an uncomfortable grimace. “That’s really not helping your case,” she admitted.
Jet sighed. “You know what? Maybe I thought he was kinda pretty, you know? Maybe I just wanted someone nice to look at.”
“Yeah, someone nice to look at while you jerk it,” Smellerbee snorted. “It’s kind of gross, Jet. Again, he’s like, thirteen in that picture.”
Somewhat embarrassed, Jet shuffled over so he was inconspicuously blocking their view of the torn picture. “He’s not thirteen now! He’s probably sixteen or seventeen or something, you know? He ages too!” Jet waved exasperatedly around the room, looking anywhere but them. “Besides, you don’t see any pictures of the guy anymore! What do you expect me to do?”
Smellerbee made a face, eyes wide and mouth still stretched in somewhat of a grimace. “Stop jerking off to the Prince, that’s what! Plus, he’s Fire Nation! How in any way is this okay? Especially for you?”
Jet shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably, shrugging, acting very unlike him. “He’s pretty, okay? I feel like he’s different, I guess.”
“Whatever, Jet,” Smellerbee concluded the conversation, shaking her head, fully exasperated with Jet’s ridiculousness. “What was the plan?”
It took some time, but Smellerbee got used to the idea that Jet had some weird infatuation with Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation.
She later figured out, from a combination of eavesdropping and assumptions regarding the situation, that Jet had somewhat fabricated the persona of the prince. He built up a character based off what he wanted the prince to be. Flawless in every form of the word, somewhat innocent and malleable, as though he had never experienced the harsh truths of the world. Jet wanted to corrupt the prince. Jet wanted to corrupt Zuko.
She also concluded that Jet wanted to drill the prince into a mattress, too, from what she could interpret from the grunts and groans she heard from Jet’s room in passing one night.
Smellerbee was almost glad that Jet liked Prince Zuko and not her. It would probably have been a bit awkward otherwise. Plus, Jet was a bit much at times, so.
Other than the fact that Jet obviously wanted to fuck the prince, Smellerbee caught onto a few other things, too. Jet mentioned he thought the prince was pretty. Which, Smellerbee agreed, he was. Physically. There was little to no knowledge about him as a person. Yet Jet remained infatuated with the image of Zuko that he had conjured in his mind.
Subconsciously, Smellerbee hoped that image was never shattered.
Smellerbee almost couldn’t believe her eyes.
Here she was, with Longshot and Jet in Ba Sing Se, hoping to start a new life for themselves, and in the process of starting said new life, standing in a tea shop, where Jet was shamelessly flirting with the guy at the counter. She supposed she wouldn’t have really been surprised in any other given situation, but…
The guy was obviously of Fire Nation blood. His eyes a shining gold, his hair a sleek black, his skin pale and relatively flawless, sparing the giant, somewhat gruesome burn scar on the left side of his face. He wore a deadpan, almost a frown, and from what she could tell by the little movements he had made so far, he carried himself elegantly, almost like how someone with money would. He claimed his name was Li and, so far, seemed completely immune to Jet’s charms.
Jet was trying, though. He had targeted Li as soon as they walked through the doors to the tea shop, sauntering up with a smirk and attempting to chat the guy up. Longshot and Smellerbee had taken a table embarrassingly close to the counter where the two guys stood, allowing them to catch most of the conversation.
“You know, Li, if you didn’t have that scar, I’d say you looked almost identical to the Fire Nation prince,” Jet stated, in what he assumed was a compliment, but by the look on Li’s face, the compliment flopped almost as bad as every other pick-up line Jet had already tried.
“Gee, thanks,” Li drawled, then sighed, slightly irritated. “Look, are you going to order anything or not?”
Shrugging, Jet sent a wink Li’s way before stepping back from the counter, hands dragging across the smooth countertop. “Only if you’re on the menu.”
In return, Li offered an expression of stifled embarrassment, unable to prevent the flush of red that rose to his face. His mouth dropped open, as if he were going to make another remark, but he snapped it shut and shook his head resolutely. Stiffly and silently, Li picked up a tray from the kitchen and awkwardly stormed over to a table of awaiting customers.
Jet must’ve thought that was some sort of successful advance, for he strolled over to their table wearing a winning grin. He pulled out a chair and slid onto it, stretching his legs out to the side, slouching in his seat.
“Wipe that smirk off your face, Jet,” Smellerbee chastised, not even amused anymore. “Did you even get us drinks?”
The smug smile faded a bit.
“Right,” Smellerbee sighed, raising a hand and calling Li over. She felt sorry for the guy, bringing him back to Jet’s arrogant presence. “Sorry, Li, but Jet here forgot to order us some tea. Could we have three cups of jasmine?”
Li nodded, flashing a snippet of a glare in Jet’s direction, before strolling off to the kitchen to call in their order. Great, now the waiter had a grudge. Smellerbee prayed that he wouldn’t spit in their drinks.
When Li came back, he wore the same grumpy frown from before. He took care to set down Smellerbee and Longshot’s cups, but he nearly slammed down Jet’s, ignoring the tea that sloshed over the sides. Jet took this as a good sign and grinned wolfishly at Li.
Smellerbee quickly interjected. “Uh, Li? Sorry again, about him. Jet. He’s got this weird thing for the Fire Nation Prince and…” she trailed off, unsure and almost reluctant to continue.
The expression that washed over Li’s face was utterly unreadable. He blinked a few times, a bit amused, a bit confused, a bit embarrassed, and a bit of something else. He didn’t say anything for a few moments, but when he did, Li cleared his throat and asked, “Why? The guy’s not even that great.”
“What are you talking about?” Jet questioned, still smiling, but his brows had pulled together in confusion. “The guy’s hot and he’s rich. He’s a prince for fuck’s sake.”
Jet cocked his head, more confused than before. The smile was still frozen on his face as he stared up at Li, who suddenly appeared uncomfortable in his own skin. “What do you mean, was?”
“He was a prince. Was rich, was hot, I guess,” Li stated coldly, only sounding unsure towards the end. “He, uh… there was a… something happened, and he got banished.”
Now this was interesting. “He was banished?” Smellerbee questioned, intrigued. “What happened?”
Li took a deep breath and released it slowly, jerking his head as if to clear it of previous thoughts. “He spoke out of turn at a meeting and his father challenged him to an Agni Kai. The prince lost, obviously, and got a scar to prove it. Then his father banished him from the Fire Nation and said he couldn’t come back unless he captured the Avatar,” he explained, all the while voice tight and clipped, almost hostile. He mumbled something under his breath, but it was so low that Smellerbee couldn’t catch it.
Cautiously, Smellerbee turned to look at Jet, who appeared as though he just witnessed his own personal world explode, as though the fabrication of the prince he had created was slaughtered before his very eyes. He stared at Li for a few minutes, struggling to absorb the information just given to him.
Coughing, Jet managed to ask: “Where? The scar, where is it?”
At this, Li’s hostility grew, though Smellerbee could tell it wasn’t directed at them. His golden eyes glinted with something dark, mouth twitching into a frown haunted by resent, the type usually flavored by age-old tears and some form of regret. “Oh,” Li replied, “his face.”
It clicked. Smellerbee glanced up at Li and eyed him like he was a god, like he was Koh himself. Here was the banished Prince of the Fire Nation, standing at their table, less than two feet away from Jet, his number one fan. It was so blatantly obvious that if Jet didn’t connect the dots, Smellerbee decided there was no saving him after all. He was obsessed with the guy, surely he’d be able to spot him when he saw him.
“Ouch,” Jet finally replied. “I bet that hurt. How does it look? Is it big?”
Li blinked a few times, staring blankly at Jet. Turning to Smellerbee, Li--no, Zuko-- raised his singular eyebrow in question. She, Zuko, and Longshot exchanged several glances, throwing a disbelieving glare at Jet every so often. The guy wasn’t taking the hint. Eventually, Smellerbee settled for shaking her head and thanking “Li” for their tea.
Even after visiting the same tea shop nearly every day for the past two weeks, Jet was still not making the connection.
They always sat at the same table, the one closest to the counter, so Jet could harass Zuko while he waited on other customers. Zuko was less than pleased with this development, but from what Smellerbee could tell, he didn’t mind her and Longshot. Honestly, she found that she rather enjoyed his company. Even if he was Fire Nation scum.
It was almost routine; the three of them would come in and occupy the table. Longshot would remain silent, as usual, watching the other people in the shop as they bickered and chatted and drank their tea. Smellerbee would interject a word or two in the one-sided conversation between Jet and Zuko, which mainly consisted of awful flirting attempts from one party and a range of scowls and disinterested grunts from the other.
Smellerbee and Zuko had made it a silent competition to see who could get Jet to understand that “Li” was the Fire Nation Prince first, but each day they seemed to lose confidence in their efforts. Jet wasn’t the brightest guy out there, but Smellerbee never pegged him as someone this dense.
“You know, Li, now that I think about it, you really do look like Zuko. I knew you did, but I mean,” here Jet paused, shoving his hand into his pocket and revealing the crumpled torn portrait that had hung in his room, back in the forest. He flattened it out on the table and held it up so that the two faces of Zuko appeared side-by-side. “You guys are identical. Minus the scar, of course.”
Deadpanning, Li stared at Jet and lifted a hand, covering the left side of his face where his scar was. “Here,” Li asked, voice monotonous, dead. He was getting tired of Jet’s shenanigans. They all were. “Does this help?”
“Holy fuck,” Jet breathed, grinning wildly. “You guys look so…” his voice trailed off, dying in his throat, eyes widening. His chocolate eyes flickered between real Zuko and the picture of Zuko, back and forth, repeatedly. Was he finally figuring it out? Would they be able to end this seemingly endless torturous game? Smellerbee could only hope.
“...identical,” Jet finished. He set down the paper on the table, lifting his head to gaze solely at Zuko. Removing his hand from his face, Zuko gave a weak wave and a sarcastic grin.
“Took you long enough,” Smellerbee commented, taking a sip of her tea. “Thought you’d never figure it out.”
“Wait, Li… you’re…” There it was. The tell-tale signs of shock, disbelief, an inkling of embarrassment. It was finally coming together. Jet finally figured it out. The guy he had obsessed over for so long was standing three feet away from him, scarred and much more damaged than Jet would have liked. But he was there nonetheless.
Zuko had seen the harsh truths of the world. He was not innocent, and he certainly wasn’t malleable. In a way, Zuko was like them; kicked out of his home, on his own, just trying to make it through the life he was given. And he was pretty, still very much so, even with the scar.
Smellerbee was starting to see the appeal.
Sensing Jet’s sudden state of shocked understanding, Zuko rounded the counter and walked over, taking a stand right by their table. He stared down at Jet knowingly, waiting to see if the other boy would make some sort of response. Jet didn’t.
Satisfied with the situation, Zuko leaned over so he was face-to-face with the sitting Jet. He inched forward a bit, fully invading Jet’s personal space. Shining gold met swirling chocolate. They were still. Neither one did anything.
The sexual tension was suddenly very high, Smellerbee decided.
Zuko cocked his head to the side and offered a sly grin. In a low, extremely amused voice, Zuko whispered, “My shift ends at seven.” Then, abruptly, he stood up straight and walked back over to the counter, resuming business as though nothing had happened.
Something had happened, though. Smellerbee grinned, exchanging amused glances with the ever-silent Longshot. Jet continued to stare at the spot Zuko had been, quietly, bewildered, trying to digest what had just happened.
They had sat in a healthy amount of silence before Jet muttered, “I have a date with the Prince of the Fire Nation.”
“Yeah, you sure do,” Smellerbee nodded, feeling a bit happy for Jet, albeit a little annoyed.
“I have a date with Zuko.”
She nodded once again, looking over at Zuko, who, though showing it less, seemed equally amused. “At seven,” Smellerbee reminded him.
“Yeah,” Jet nodded, dazed. “Seven. Right.”
Another bout of silence, then:
“I have a date with Zuko at seven.”
Zuko jerked his chin in Jet’s direction. “And you better be on time.”
Smellerbee finally understood it. Somewhat. A little, at least.
Well, not really. But she could pretend to, if just this once.