AN: I am so, so, SO sorry for my sudden disappearance. I suddenly lost my motivation to write and couldn't even work on my personal projects. However, I finally had a whole day with Titan's real-life inspiration, so that was helpful.
I'm very happy everyone has been paying attention to the use of the phone. In some deleted/rewritten scenes that I forgot to write in again, Nina has been saving the battery by turning the phone off when not in use. However, I didn't know that a lack of signal kills the battery faster (huh, one does learn something new everyday. Would explain why my phone has been dying faster, I thought I broke it . . .), so I'll have to adjust the useage. The phone does have an importance later, I promise its not all tossed in just willy-nilly.
I'm sorry if I haven't replied to your review, I haven't had much time on my hands and I wanted to get this out as soon as possible. But I'm getting a common question among the reviews so I should answer that here: Is Nina going to be a bender? I don't know if I've publicly answered this yet, but just in case, No. Nina is normal. Funfact: But if she did (And she's NOT!) she would be a waterbender.
Special Thanks To: If you have any questions I didn't answer please ask in the next review. I'll try to keep track of it by answering right away!
New and Old
medvsa (Chapter 3)
Guardian of Fire
Chapter 12: The Tale of the Tea Shop pt. 1
It isn't until I'm left with the decision to buy something that wasn't food or clothing that I realized I was really getting low on money. No job, no money. What else did I expect? I'm pretty sure the only reason we haven't gone completely broke yet is because Iroh and Zuko have been kind enough to feed Titan and I, and my Polynesian pride wouldn't allow me to mooch off of them for much longer. My last little street performance got me in trouble with a couple shop owners, who were annoyed that I was distracting their potential customers. Just that one troublesome run ruined my ability to continue doing it anywhere else, and so the idea was scrapped.
Shopping for more fitting clothes for Titan, and trading in that awfully big black robe so that I too can have something new to wear, we had just enough to buy food for the next week - and that's if we limited our snacking to three times a day. Trust me, that's saying a lot considering members of my family constantly eat throughout the day. Our new diet was already changing Titan's behavior, and not in a good way. I could only be grateful that the healthier food and constant walking was helping me lose my baby fat already, and that Titan was healthy and not losing any of his needed weight yet. The day I notice him getting lighter will be the day I really worry. And if I have anything to do about it, that won't be happening anytime soon.
I could tell Iroh's teachings about money was paying off. At one point as I was picking up a bag of fruits, I realized the shop owner had jipped me by two silver coins when I saw how much he charged the lady before me, and recognized him as one of the people who wouldn't hire me due to my ignorance of how the money system worked. He was surprised when I returned and demanded the rightful price, and sheepishly handed me back my change with a low-voiced apology.
By the end of our trip, I had a palm full of mostly bronze and silver coins.
I tried calculating what the rest of this could possibly buy before I would have to turn to stealing for our survival again, and with the limited knowledge I had on this world's currency thanks to Iroh's teachings, the numbers weren't looking good. Our belongings consisted of at least two pairs of clothes counting our modern ones, the backpack of stuff from our arrival in Full Moon Bay, and a small toy Titan was quickly bored of. I considered trying to sell it again for some extra pocket money, but my hesitance in talking to strangers off the street quickly dashed that possibility. I had a hard enough time shopping,I didn't need anything more to topple my crippling anxiety. What I did need was something to entertain Titan and I at home.
(It is here that I also wonder how people survived without TV and Internet and other such technology in the olden days, and then I remembered that people had things called jobs that occupied their free time.)
The thought of strangers brought my thoughts back to Iroh, the old man being the kindest soul I've ever met. He reminded me of my grandfather just by the way he acted and the way he spoke.
"See something you like?" the kind, young man in his 30's asked at the stringed-instruments vendor. I hesitated, and to occupy my nervousness I pushed the flower I suspected was a moonflower vase into the shade, where it bloomed beautifully. Nodding to myself, I made my final decision.
"Umm. I'm not sure . . . how much is this one?" I could always buy the ukulele-type instrument I another time.
The man stopped himself short when he offered the price, his eyes casting over my pinned-up hair.
"Your hairclip is quite beautiful." He observed. "With such an elegant carving and material. Where did you get it?"
"M-My hairclip?" I stuttered, wondering why it held his gaze so. I took it out and my braided hair fell long over my shoulder. The clip was almost as long as my hand, and could be found at any Walmart back home. The grip was tight and strong enough to hold up my thick hair, which was the only reason I bought it. I believe the cast of the sunlight made it more beautiful, showing off the intricate carvings and the smooth, marble paint of bronze and black.
"Are you willing to trade? It would be such a lovely gift for my wife. Not many could afford hairclips like that here."
Thinking about it, women usually held their hair in rubberbands or chopsticks here. Hairclips (at least, good ones) must be a luxury they don't have.
Well, damn. How much could I have gotten if I'd decided to wear my turtle-shell hairclip on Titan's birthday?
If he wanted my hairclip instead of my money, then damn, I won't pass this chance up!
The young man behind the counter handed me the Liquin, taking my hairclip in exchange with a bright smile. He bowed politely, thanking me for my service and I nodded back. Titan took my free hand, holding our small bag of groceries in one arm and pursed his lips.
"Are you going to play, Nina?" he asked.
"No," I told him. "This is a gift for Mister Ir-er, Mister Mushi." This name thing is getting out of hand.
"Oh." He tilted his head. "Okay."
Our walk to the tea shop was silent for a few moments before he spoke up again. "Daddy likes to play the leh-leh a lot, 'member?"
By 'leh-leh', Titan meant the ukulele, an instrument our uncles played often during family gatherings or when they just sat around doing nothing. I played occasionally, but only when I was alone. I remember sneaking out to my parents bedroom and grabbing my mother's to practice while they worked and my brother attended school. I could confidently play two songs through-and-through.
Thank the stars for Youtube.
"I remember." The thought of Titan's parents nearly stopped me in my tracks. Titan hadn't spoken of them since his birthday. How have I not been more concerned about this? Does he know that there is a small possibility that we'll never see them again?
To be honest, I didn't want him to know. I didn't want him to understand how complicated our situation really is. He's already having a hard time adjusting with the cultural and historical differences here. He was my only beacon of hope that we would actually return at all.
"Titan, do you miss your daddy?"
Titan thought for a while, and then shook his head. "No, I wan'stay with you."
"I know that." We stopped in front of the tea shop. I kneeled down so that I was eye-level with him and cupped his cheek.
"But you have to be missing him, right? And mommy? Don't you want to go home?"
I didn't think he understood what I meant until he shrugged. "Yeah." he said, looking down and shuffling his feet. "I miss them. And Karen and Merida."
"But?" I pressed.
"But . . . it feel wrong there. I wan'stay here with Nina cuz it feel right."
Now I didn't understand. His words jumbled over each other and it took me a second to figure out what he was saying and even then it didn't make any sense. I was going to press more, but his look of discomfort stopped me and I smiled, ruffling a hand through his hair.
"You almost look ready for a nap. Do you want some tea?"
Titan perked up, nodding.
"Alright, then. Let's go!"
The bright smile on Iroh's face as I handed him the instrument lifted my heart. Titan smiled shyly at the old man, peeking behind my leg.
"How kind of you! You didn't have to give me any-"
"For what you've done to take care of us, it is literally the least I could do." I shifted nervously, hoping I didn't overstep my boundaries secretly knowing Iroh's history. He simply nodded, rubbing his eyes and taking a deep breath.
"Well, thank you, Syrena. This is . . . just what I needed today." He almost looked ready to cry. Acting quickly, again hoping I didn't overstep my boundaries, I nodded, waving it off and motioned for Titan to sit at a small table in the far corner.
"Are you and -" Don't say Zuko! Lee. Lee. Lee! "Lee working today?"
Iroh shook his head. "I have graciously asked for a day off as there aren't usually many customers on this day. But Lee," he turned to glance at the full head of spikey hair poking out from the kitchen window. "will still be able to serve you, should the need arrive." he laughed, and then winked at me with a mischievous grin before taking his leave.
The action confused me as I waved good-bye, and then my face burned with knowing as my mind shifted into something that Iroh totally-probably-absolutely didn't mean. The images of a shirtless, cartoon-version of Zuko scanned over to the tight muscles of his arms and torso and I couldn't help but wonder just how that would look on a person in real life. Something that, as my mind reminded me, is a complete possibility now.
"Aish!" I gasped, scolding myself for the dirty thoughts and shaking my head. Bad Nina! Bad, bad, bad Nina! This is a real person you're thinking about now! Not appropriate!
"Stupid spirits!" I muttered, low enough for my voice to sound unintelligible. "Stupid cute, firebending tea server!"
Feeling my cheeks heat up to an abnormal temperature, I subconsciously reverted to my otaku-mindset and patted the sides of my face in attempts to calm myself down. I scurried to the table Titan chose and searched for something to distract me.
"Alrighty, Tai. What kind of tea do you want?"
"I like the lavender!" he exclaimed, wriggling in his seat impatiently.
"I'm bored. Can I play on phone?"
"It's almost dead." I sighed sadly, remembering the dreaded 20% charge message it had left this morning.
"Can you charge it?" he asked.
The damn thing was supposed to last me two weeks! Two! It's been, what, a week and a half? Even with the mophie - its emergency charger - it was already starting to die. I ended up leaving it in our bag, hidden under some loose floorboards in the apartment so that I didn't have to carry it around and be tempted to use it.
"No. We don't have the charger, so it's going to be a while before we can use it.
Titan pouted, folding his arms and swinging his legs in his seat. "Fine." I rolled my eyes at his attitude and turned, intending to place an order until a rough hand gripped my upper arm and tugged it tightly.
"We have a problem."
I'd recognize Zuko's voice anywhere. The alarms in my head silenced, and I relaxed in his hold.
"What's wrong?" I whispered, looking behind me as if a villain with the word 'EVIL' plastered on their face were going to be there. Zuko shook his head, and motioned his head to the counter for me to move over. Not able to live down that night with Jet, I grabbed Titan with my free hand and followed Zuko to the counter.
"Hey!" Titan fussed, kicking his feet. "I wanna sit!"
"Shush, or your not getting a cookie!" I scolded. Titan immediatly stilled, his eyes widened.
"Okay. I be quiet!"
I rarely ever bought the small biscuts and cookies the tea shop made, and I suddenly felt guilty for lying to him. We didn't have enough.
I hope the sandwiches I packed would distract him.
"What's wrong?" I asked Zuko who clearly looked annoyed.
"Did you tell anyone?"
"Tell anyone? Tell anyone what?"
Zuko glared, his amber eyes burning with such hot intensity. My attempts not to swoon were replaced with understanding, and then offense. He wanted to know if I told anybody about his and Tai's firebending training.
"No, I didn't tell anyone! Despite what you may think, I'm not an idiot!" I hissed, wrenching my arm out of his grip. "And don't grab me like that again!"
He ignored me, which only fanned the flames of my anger further. "There's a girl over there at the corner table. She knows something - no, don't look!"
Irritated, I ignored Zuko's demand and turned to see the girl he was speaking of smiling lightly to herself, sipping a cup of tea. She was a small girl with her dark hair in two long braids and a cute, round face. I recognized her as a regular. After a good three seconds, it finally clicked, and I had to keep myself from laughing - is that the girl that had a crush on Zuko? From The Tales of Ba Sing Se?
Are you kidding me?
I didn't recognize her before - of course, the only reason I'd recognize anyone would be because they'd have physical traits that stood out like a blinking beacon from the show. Since people here weren't cartoons, they looked like really good, really dedicated cosplayers. That also meant facial shapes and proportions were more realistic.
Zuko gives no fucks about girl stereotypes, I'll hand him that. To suspect an innocent-enough looking girl of spying on him told me he really didn't care to underestimate anyone no matter how harmless they looked.
I sighed, slightly relieved to know where I was in the timeline and turned back to face Zuko's scowl.
"I told you not to look!"
"You're kidding, right?"
"She's been here way too often and stays way too long to be some normal customer. She knows. Give me two minutes to distract the shop manager and I'll lead you two out the back door -"
"I'm going to go talk to her." I say defiantly before turning on me heels and tugging Titan with me.
"What? Wait -"
Before he could stop me, I strode forward until I got to the girl's table. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Zuko face palm and mutter something unintelligible.
"Hi!" I greeted in a high pitched-voice that I would immediately regret. The girl looked at me with a pleasant smile, and I suddenly felt very awkward.
"Hi!" she greeted back.
I stood there awkwardly for a few seconds, unsure of what to do next.
Why did I do this again?
What do I say?
What do I do?
Oh, stars, why am I allowed to interact with people?
Thinking fast I held out my hand.
"I-I'm Nina. I thought I'd come over and introduce myself because I've seen you come in here often and I don't really know anyone and I'd really understand if you'd like me to walk away now . . ."
I bit my lip, struggling to keep up my tense, shaky smile. She took my hand, her own smile warm and welcoming and shook her head.
"No! No! It's nice to meet you, please, have a seat! I'm Jin."
I gulped, suddenly relaxing and laughed nervously.
"Sorry, I don't normally . . . talk to people." I sat down.
She giggled. "That's okay." she spotted Titan peeking out from behind the table.
"Aw," she cooed. "What's your name?"
Titan grinned shyly. "Tai."
"Hello, Tai." the girl greeted. "He's adorable! How old is he?"
"Two - wait, no, three!" I furrowed my brow, wondering where the common sense in my brain went and poked Titan's cheek. ". . . How old are you?"
He held up three bent fingers. "Three! 'member?"
Jin giggled behind her hand. "He's very cute. He looks a lot like you."
At this point, if someone assumed Titan was mine, I didn't bother correcting them. It got tiring, and it was much easier to just let them think what they think until the subject actually came up.
And it was here that I decided I liked Jin. A lot. However, that like-ness begins to falter when, during a few minutes of mindless conversation, she nods her head in Zuko's direction. "Do you know the server?"
How bold of her. I gulped, feeling something like a rubber band tighten around my stomach. "Lee? Yeah, why?" I ask out of courtesy. I already knew Jin had a crush on Zuko. This was the episode when Jin asked Zuko out on a date, and they want on a semi-romantic evening, and he actually used his firebending to light the lamps at the fountain and yadda, yadda, yadda.
"No reason, really. I was just wondering if he was seeing anyone." She took another sip of her tea, and my hands tightened into a fist. I began to remember that feeling in the pit of my stomach as the same feeling I got when my friends got a 'crush' on my favorite characters in books or TV shows. But I had to remember that Zuko wasn't a character, and that in this world of fiction-gone-nonfiction I had no right to put some kind of creepy claim over him. Still, I couldn't help but clear my throat and find some way to steer the conversation.
The gears in my mind shifted and clicked perfectly, with the reminder that the Tales of Ba Sing Se episode told me where Katara and Toph were going to be today for their girl's night out.
"Lee isn't very social." I say slowly. "Which kind of sucks because I never have anyone to go places with. I thought I heard about a nice Spa around here, do you know of any?" This would be the perfect time to get some information from a local.
"I don't know where you heard that. Spas are usually reserved for the richer districts up north." She spoke as if this were an obvious thing I should know, and I nearly smacked myself.
"Oh, yeah. Right. Silly me." I licked my lips, suddenly feeling uncomfortable in the aftermath of my ignorance and occupied myself with fussing over Titan, who sat on the bench obediently with barely eaten sandwich in his hand.
"This bread is hard." he whined, nibbling on the sliced tomato instead. I rolled my eyes, understanding his adjustment over the real bakery-made bread. Instead of the soft slices he was used to back home, this bread was covered in crust and had to be hand-cut (a feat I found more difficult than anything).
He gave me large, pleading eyes.
"I wan'na cookie."
I rolled my eyes. "What do you say?"
"Aii, eat your food."
"Do you know the waiter?"
Zuko nearly spilled the tea he was pouring for a customer three tables down. His suspicions with the girl, Jin, hadn't wavered. Nina may buy the innocent act, but she was quite naïve. Just look at where her friendship with Jet got her! However, he didn't expect Jin to converse about him outright.
He could see, with a quick glance as he stood back behind the counter, that Nina's shoulders had stiffened. Aware of her discomfort, he found himself cleaning a table just within earshot.
"Lee isn't very social." she replied. Zuko blinked at the use of his fake-name. It sounded so wrong coming from Nina's lips. He can't even think of the last time she said his fake-name. "Which kind of sucks because I never have anyone to go places with. I thought I heard about a nice Spa around here, do you know of any?"
Now that was strange. Why would Nina be interested in a Spa? It wasn't like she had any money to afford it - and he knew this due to the painfully quiet jingles in her coin pocket. Actually, where would she even hear of a Spa in town? Did she have other friends he didn't know about? Not that it was his business who she hung out with during her time away from him. After all, there was no need for the three of them - He, Nina, and Tai - to spend every waking moment of the day with each other.
When Jin told Nina that there weren't Spas in the poor districts, Nina quickly turned her attentions to Titan, agreeing that she should've known that.
Zuko grit his teeth and risked another glance at their table as if the answers he was searching for would present themselves to him. He didn't know why, but the simple subjects felt really out of the blue. Was she trying to avert Jin's attention away from him?
If she was, it didn't work. Zuko, lost in his thoughts, turned from wiping down the table and nearly jumped out of his own skin when he found Jin standing next to him.
"Thank you for the tea." she said, her smile unwavering at his sudden unease.
"Uh," Zuko tried to blink the surprise from his eyes.
"You're Lee, right?"
His answer was automatic, making his voice very monotonous. "Yes. I am Lee."
"Hi, Lee. My name is Jin. I just wanted to say thank you and . . . I was wondering if you wanted to go out sometime?"
Well, that gave him an explanation for her constant presence that he didn't expect. In fact, the question caught Zuko so off guard, he was probably staring at Jin slack-jawed with fast-blinking eyes for a good fifteen seconds before his brain fully processed her words.
"Oh . . . uh . . . I can't!" He tried thinking, but his brain just wouldn't cooperate. He'd never been good at speaking to girls who liked him before. He thought of his sister's childhood friend Mai, and his mother's giggling as she explained why the girl was always blushing and sheepish around him.
Jin frowned, and tilted her head. "Oh, okay. Maybe some other time."
"Because I have girlfriend!" he blurted. "Yeah! A girlfriend. And, uh, she wouldn't want me to because, you know." He stuttered over his words, feeling himself look like a complete idiot as the old man three tables over chuckled and whispered something to his companion.
Jin blinked owlishly at him for a second, almost as if she didn't believe him. Zuko ears burned in a way he never felt before, and his eyes flickered in Nina's direction. Jin followed his gaze, and then broke out into an even bigger grin.
He could see with the look on her face that she was putting what he could only assume meant 'two and two together'. She may be coming to the wrong conclusion, but it was one he understood immediately nonetheless.
"Oh! Okay, then. I understand!" She took a few steps back. Her understanding was clear on her face - she was thinking, not that Nina and Zuko were dating, but that he had a crush on Nina.
"I'll be going then. See you later!"
"Wait! That's not what I -"
But she was gone before he could explain himself and his stupidity. Nina, bidding Jin a quick goodbye, looked up at him in confusion.
Zuko crossed his arms and cleared his throat. "Nothing! Nothing happened!" He huffed.
Stomping away, Zuko willed his embarassment to burst into flames.
A/N: Sorry for grammar mistakes. I'm writing, editing, and posting this at 3 in the morning. Yay, summer (she types sarcastically).
Re-watching The Tales of Ba Sing Se reminded me how awkward Zuko actually is, so I'm scared that I've been writing him too serious? And Jin is just a cheerful, forgiving character, and I absolutely adore her.
Because the original planning for chapter 12 ended up long, I decided to split it into two parts. Which means you'd get an earlier update than you would have! Yay! Again, I'm so sorry for disappearing. Life has been hectic, my motivation has been shot, and . . . yeah. Again, I'm sorry!
Titan just said 'Please' in Samoan. Nina's sounds in exasperation (am I using that right?) such as Aii or Aish (along with others) are common sounds Polys make to show their annoyance.