Zuko strolled through the market place on Ember Island in relative anonymity. Relative in that there was an unwritten code on Ember Island: you knew who vacationed here and you knew their rank so everyone just ignored it when they could. He learned this as a child when Azula complained that no one was calling her "princess"; personally at the time he'd never given much thought to who called him what. Later he noticed. As Fire Lord, however, he did receive more honorifics than before.
Today, however, he just wanted to be Zuko. His current mission consisted of finding the where everyone was getting what looked like cups of cold tea that was actually good. Mostly he wanted to know what all the fuse was about (tea was tea, in his opinion, but maybe Uncle would like to know about it).
"I'm going to ask the cold tea girl out," he over heard a boy who couldn't be more than sixteen say.
"Why? She works here," his companion complained.
"Oh I don't want to date her. That's not what the girls who work here are for. They're here to entertain us while on vacation." Zuko had to bite his tongue. At one point he'd believed the same thing. However working in the teashop and having Upper Ring girls proposition him like that had changed his mind considerable. He made a mental note to not only warn the girl (it seemed a new enough thing that she might not know about this) and to speak with the governor of Ember Island (the best job to retire to).
He easily found the stall he was looking for a few minutes later just as a large group left. At the counter he took his time looking over the list of drinks (typical with a few that offered to have hippo-cow milk added) while whoever was worked busied herself in the back. He kept his head down as he heard her come out, not really wanting to startle her.
"I'll have the-"
"Zuko?" A voice he knew asked. He looked up into Katara's blue eyes and rethought his whole 'warn the girl working about the lecherous thoughts of teenage boys' plan.
"What are you doing here?" He asked.
"I own this place," she told him proudly.
"Since when? And since when do you live in the Fire Nation?"
"Oh about a year now," she said sweetly.
"Why didn't you tell me?" He huffed.
"Messenger hawks work both ways you know. I sent you dozens of letters before I moved here and I maybe got one or two one line replies. I figured I wasn't worth the might Fire Lord's time."
"Of course you are I was just-"
"Busy," she finished for him. "You always say that."
"It's the truth. You try rebuilding a country, surviving assassination attempts, and almost going to war and see if you have spare time."
"I was with Aang through most of that, who was, aside from the assassination attempts, doing the exact same thing and I still found time to write you."
"Not the same."
"Why because I'm not royalty?"
"Yes!" He shouted without meaning to.
She took a step back. "I see how it is, your highness. What would you like and are you all right with a simple working peasant like me touching your food?"
He glared at her. "Stop that."
"Why it's how you seem to think?" She accused.
He sighed. "You know it's not and you're just being annoying now."
She crossed her arms but her expression softened. "I know. It's just been a long day."
"Are boys propositioning you?"
"How did you know?"
He blushed and looked down. "Well, see, a lot of the people who vacation here think that, since you work here, you work here, if you get what I mean."
"THEY THINK I'M A PROSTITUTE!?" She yelled. The people hurrying past looked at her.
"Keep your voice down and kind of. Payment is optional," he admitted.
"Did you, how could you, everyone here is a whore?" She sputtered.
"Not everyone, I'm sure. And no, never."
"But you've come here-"
"When I was a kid and with Mai."
"Oh, right, sorry," she said sheepishly.
They stared at each other for a moment before he cleared his throat. "If anyone does that again freeze them in place."
"Already did," she admitted. He smiled.
"So what's the best thing here?"
“The peach with a bit of hippocow milk seems to be selling really well. I like it well enough but I also like the straight iced tea.”
“Whichever you think is best.” He watched her study him for a moment and shifted under her gaze. No matter how hard Iroh tried Zuko still could only vaguely tell the difference between tea blends and had an even worse time picking a favorite.
He watched her work and hum a song he’d never heard before. Idly he thought red looked good on her. He wondered what others thought when she blew ice-cold air at the drink in her hands.
“Here,” she said. “Green tea and lemons with a little sugar. My favorite.” He took a sip and decided he liked it too.
“How did you come up with it?”
“Just playing around with things which was basically how I came up with the whole menu. Iroh tasted a lot of them first and helped me narrow things down.”
“Why were you with my uncle anyway?”
“Oh, well, I was working for him for a little.”
“Wait, why? Weren’t you traveling with Aang?”
“Yes and then I wasn’t, end of story.”
“Oh so because I didn’t write to you I don’t-” thunder rumbled in the distance and the wind picked up making him stop. “A storm is coming.”
“I can tell. I need to close up shop, why don’t you head back to the beach house and I’ll see you tomorrow maybe?”
“I could do that or I could help. Get things done quicker.”
She looked him up and down and shrugged. “Fine, the door is around the back and if you break anything you’re going to pay for it.”
“You’re still mad about that bowl.”
“We had just enough for everyone and you broke it! Of course I was mad!”
“A week later we were at my beach house and you had all the dishes you wanted,” he grumbled as he walked through the back door.
“Shut up and help washing.”
“Yes Master Katara.”
Together they quickly washed the dishes, stored all the supplies, wiped the counter, and set out measured out the tea needed for the first batch for the next day. Finally Katara pulled the chain to lower the awning to officially close up for the day.
“I guess I’ll see you later then,” Katara said after she locked the back door. The wind had picked up and she was trying to keep her hair out of her face. Zuko, without really meaning to, reached up to tuck a stray strand of hair behind her ear.
“I’ll walk you home,” he told her.
“You don’t have to-”
“I want to and it’s the nice thing to do.”
“Fine.” She led him down the street and out of the main square. They passed houses that slowly became smaller the farther they went. Lights appeared in the windows as the sky grew darker and fat raindrops began to fall. Katara’s arms began to move in a circular motion and the rain stopped above their heads. They walked a little farther until they came to one of the few, new, apartment buildings on the island. Katara dropped her hands to fish out the key from her pocket drenching them in the process. She quickly opened the door with a “sorry.” She quickly bent the water off of them, flicking it out the still open door.
“I guess I’ll be going now,” Zuko said, rubbing the back of his head.
“Stay, at least through the storm,” she offered.
“Thanks.” She began to climb the stairs. They reached the top and Zuko wondered if she purposely got an apartment on the top floor.
“It’s not much,” she murmured as she opened the door. She was right, he thought. There was a couch and a few feet back was a table with two chairs in a tiny kitchen. He saw two doors to what he assumed was her bedroom and the bathroom. Not much but he could see Katara here with the blue pillows on the red couch and the picture of everyone hanging above it. “Make yourself at home.”
He plopped himself down on the couch and watched her scurry into the kitchen and begin busing herself in there. He watched her fuss and assemble everything she needed to make tea. He stood and walked over and placed his hand over hers to stop her.
“You don’t need to do that.”
“I have to do something and it’s polite.”
“Katara,” he said softly.
“Don’t Katara me. I’m trying to be nice, which is better than you. You don’t kiss a girl two years ago and don’t say anything; in fact we talked about just forgetting it, and then not write to her. Ever. I wrote you. I told you about my break up with Aang over a lot of things and I just wanted a friend to talk to and you ignored it while your uncle was much more understanding. I mean I wrote Suki too and it helped but you were like my best friend and weren’t answering me and now you’re here and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised but you can’t just keep disappearing and reappearing and thinking everything will be all right,” she finished with a huff.
“I’m sorry, I know it’s not enough, but I am.”
“You’re always apologizing, you know that?”
“It’s mostly to you.” He held out his arms and she enveloped him in a hug. “Would you like to go to dinner tomorrow night?” he asked into her hair.
“I’ve been waiting a long time for you to ask that.”