You know, I never tend to write the usual tropes. Is there a reason for that, I wonder?
Iroh couldn’t help but smile in response to the curl of Zuko’s lips, the light dancing in his golden eyes, the way he animatedly and yet nervously shifted his weight in a display that was as poignant as it was heart-breaking. He didn’t just come out and tell Iroh what he was so passionate about because history had shown him over and over that his parental figures didn’t care about his happiness. His father might even have hated to see him happy. But Iroh was not his brother, he was not Zuko’s father, he was not Ozai.
“You look delighted,” Iroh said to break the ice. It was easier to throw Zuko the rope than expect him to reach out and take it. “Want to tell me what happened to put that big smile on your face?”
Zuko’s hesitant beaming blossomed into a full-blown grin. Only the scarring on the left side of his face fractured the image of an enthusiastic teenager. “Uncle,” he said brightly. He hesitated again and then pushed forward with a surge of will. “I have a… a date.”
Iroh forced himself to smile rather than showing his concern. Something twisted, slimy and concerned, in his great belly. “Oh?”
Zuko’s fervor had been uncorked and, like a waterfall pouring, his story came tumbling out before Iroh could even offer a cup of tea. “Her name is Mai,” Zuko explained. “She goes to my school. I mean, of course she does, where else would I meet a girl like her? She likes the color black and coffee with sugar, not milk, and, apparently, she likes me because she asked me on a date. She asked me, Uncle!”
Iroh put out a hand to steady Zuko, resting it lightly on his nephew’s shoulder. “Do I know her?” he asked. The name sounded familiar, but he couldn’t place her face.
Zuko nodded. “She’s one of Azula’s friends, but she’s not in Cheer. She’s artistic and she writes poetry and she likes the tsungi horn and…” Some of Zuko’s cheer dampened when he read Iroh’s concern from some minute details in his uncle’s expression. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing is wrong,” Iroh said quickly. “I am very happy for you, Zuko. She sounds like a lovely young lady.”
“She is,” Zuko confirmed. Some of his earlier cheer returned. Nervously, he brushed back some of the long loose hair that hung over the scarred side of his face. “She really is.”
Iroh shuffled Zuko into the sunlit kitchen, put the kettle on, and opened a container of cookies that the neighbor had dropped off. “Sit down,” Iroh instructed. “Tell me all about her.”
Zuko watched Iroh spoon loose tea into the strainer and pour hot water over it. “Do you… think it’s a… bad idea?”
The question was so small that it broke Iroh’s heart all over again. He abandoned the tea in its most crucial moments to focus on Zuko. He placed a hand firmly on Zuko’s slight shoulder and squeezed gently. “Zuko,” he began in a gentle voice, “do you have doubts about this girl’s intentions?”
Zuko shook his head, chocolate hair moving across his cheek with the motion. “No. Mai is nice. She’s really nice and she… I don’t think she minds my scar. I mean, I didn’t ask her, but…”
“If you want to go, you should go. Follow your heart,” Iroh said.
Zuko’s lips pulled into a smile at the cheesy line. “Yeah? You really think so?”
“It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” Iroh told his nephew and only hoped that his words weren’t an omen of the future. “When is your date?”
“Tomorrow,” he said with a smile.
Iroh turned back to the tea and found it only a little over-steeped. He poured it out into his favorite cups and set one down in front of Zuko. “Where are you going?”
“To Beifong’s,” Zuko said. He turned shy again, twisting his cup around and around in his fingers. “Mai likes their cuisine.”
Iroh nodded. He knew the place; everyone did. It was a nice restaurant, upscale if not outright fancy with linen table clothes, elaborately folded napkins, and white candles on every table. Zuko was just the kind of person to go all out for a first date and Iroh had no doubts that he had saved enough money from his part-time job for a genuinely nice dinner. However, Iroh fetched his wallet and removed a crisp one-hundred-dollar bill.
“Oh, no, Uncle,” Zuko protested. “I can’t take that. I have money saved, honest.”
Iroh folded the bill into Zuko’s fingers. “Take it, I insist. It’s your first real date.”
Zuko opened his mouth to protest again, but met Iroh’s soft gaze and then lowered his head in defeat. He set the bill on the table beside his cup and started to reach to embrace Iroh. Another moment of uncertainty prickled Zuko, his hands stalling just before they touched. Iroh closed the space, squeezing Zuko tightly.
“Congratulations,” Iroh said into Zuko’s hair. “I’m sure you will have a wonderful time.”
“Thank you, Uncle,” Zuko said softly.
They chatted a little bit over the cooling tea, nibbling cookies until Iroh took the tin away under threat of ruining both their appetites for supper. Zuko picked up his bag and headed down the hall to his bedroom. Now that he had the time to study, he was dedicated to his education and always took the time to do his best. His grades had been increasing steadily throughout his junior year since he and his sister had come to live with Iroh, if only the same could be said for his self-esteem. Iroh washed the teapot, put it away, and started on dinner.
It was about half an hour later when Azula came home from cheerleading practice.
Azula blew in like a hurricane, throwing her bag and kicking off her shoes. Though she glistened with sweat, her long hair was pulled back in a perfect bun and her makeup wasn’t smeared in the least. She looked adorable in her cheer outfit, the pleated shirt and short top showing off her agile body to the best advantage. She had been in Cheer since before their mother abandoned her children and their father was incarcerated. It was her one constant and her dedication showed through. Azula kept her grades up effortlessly and had earned her place at the top of the pyramid in her freshman year.
“Afternoon, Uncle,” she said by way of greeting and smacked a kiss on his cheek. She found the cookie tin, popped it open, heartily scoffed one cookie, and ate the second more slowly. As she chewed, she watched Iroh for signs of displeasure. While Ozai had suppressed and burned Zuko, he had encouraged and tortured Azula. The battle with her weight was ongoing and her emotions were still unstable, but she improved a little more every day.
“Welcome home, Azula,” Iroh said warmly. “Dinner will be ready soon.”
Azula opened her mouth, fought the knee-jerk reaction to say that she wasn’t hungry or had already eaten, and then swallowed it with the last bite of her cookie. “What are we having?”
“It’s Tuesday,” Iroh said. “Taco night.”
“I’ll make a taco salad,” Azula conceded.
“That sounds delicious,” Iroh told her. “I may have one too.”
“Do I have time to shower?” Azula asked.
Iroh looked at the skillet of simmering meat, peppers, and onions. “Just a quick one,” he said.
“I’ll be fast,” she agreed. She hustled down the hall, yodeled a greeting to Zuko, and started up the shower.
A few moments later, Zuko emerged to help put the finishing touches on dinner. Azula flew out of the bathroom, wet hair dripping down her back, and quickly poured glasses of milk for everyone. Iroh had lost his opportunity to ask Azula about her friend, Mai, and Zuko’s upcoming date. Though Azula’s expression was often as closed at Ozai’s had once been, Iroh had a lifetime of reading them both. He could tell when she was up to something. Concern still wriggled in his belly, but he hoped he was wrong.
The next day, Zuko came home at little later than usual and with a bouquet of black dahlias in hand. He made space for them in the fridge to keep the flowers fresh while he puzzled over what to wear. Iroh didn’t want to pressure him, so he just made himself available in the kitchen while Zuko came out time and again in a parody of a fashion show.
First, he skittered out of his room wearing maroon jeans with a fitted red silk shirt and white sneakers. He looked ridiculous and he knew it with only one look at Iroh’s face. His second attempt was better with blue jeans, a green polo shirt, and shiny black dress shoes, but it still wasn’t perfect. Finally, he settled on black jeans, a red button-down shirt with hints of a subtle gold pattern, and more casual shoes in case they went for a walk after dinner. He combed his hair but didn’t style it. He liked to leave it loose and hanging in his face to take the edge off his scar. His golden eyes were bright with anticipation as he removed his flowers from the fridge and double-checked that he had everything he would need.
Then, well-dressed and bearing flowers, Zuko loitered just inside the door. He uneasily and noisily jiggled his keys.
“Did you bring protection?” Iroh asked when it looked like Zuko would rattle right out of his skin with nerves.
The question shocked Zuko enough that he spluttered and blushed, but stopped panicking. “Uncle!” he protested. “It’s our first date!”
“I was young once,” Iroh said wisely. “I know how these things can go.”
“I… I have one in my wallet,” Zuko admitted. His embarrassment rose high in his cheeks and his voice lifted shrilly. “But just in case! I’m not expecting anything!”
Iroh chuckled. “Good enough.” Then, he pulled Zuko into his arms and hugged him snugly. “Have a good time.”
Zuko squeezed back. His entire body softened at the embrace. “Thank you,” he said. “I will.”
Iroh watched Zuko pull out of the driveway from the front window where he kept his flowering plants. The car Zuko drove was a hand-me-down that had once belonged to Iroh’s son, Lu Ten. Iroh hadn’t been able to bring himself to get rid of it, even after Lu Ten’s death overseas, but there was something about seeing Zuko drive it that warmed his heart. Iroh watched until Zuko was out of sight.
He waited a little longer for Azula to arrive home, but there was no sign of her.
Finally, he gave in and texted Azula. ‘How was Cheer practice?’
She responded with a pom-pom emoji and a smiley face. ‘Good. Ty Lee and I are going out for ice cream after practice. Is that okay?’
‘Of course. Have fun,’ Iroh answered. He still felt worry gnawing at the pit of his stomach, but tried to ignore it. There was no reason to think something bad would happen to Zuko on his first date and Azula didn’t seem interested in the fact that he was about to be dating one of her friends. Maybe, for once, everything would work out perfectly.
Iroh should have known better.
Suki was working the door at Beifong’s when he came in. She vaguely recognized him as someone who went to went to her high school, though he ran in a different social circle than she did. Suki got along with almost everyone, from the nerds to the jocks, the goths to the hippies, and everyone in between. She might have had a class with him, but she couldn’t quite recall. His scar was memorable and she knew he had an interesting name similar to hers.
“Welcome to Beifong’s,” Suki said brightly and picked up two menus from the stack.
“Good evening,” he said politely. “I’m meeting someone, but I’m here early. I wanted to make sure she wasn’t left waiting,” he rambled a little, but cut himself off. He cleared his throat. “Um, a table for two, please.”
Suki smiled warmly. “Sure, right this way.” She chose a romantic corner booth and set the menus down. “Your server will be right with you and I’ll get you a vase for those flowers.”
“Thank you,” he answered automatically. His smile was tight at the corners but sincere.
Suki pushed through the swinging door into the kitchen, nudged Katara’s ankle with her toe, and then started rummaging under the counter for a vase once her friend had stepped out of the way. She was sure there were a couple under there for occasions such at this. “Table for you,” she told Katara. “Looks like it’ll be a nice date.”
Katara stopped cutting a loaf of fresh Italian bread and regarded Suki. “What makes you say that?”
Suki pulled a lovely red vase out from under the shelf triumphantly. “Aha!” She told Katara as she put water in, “He brought flowers.”
“Ooh,” Katara said and lifted her hand to her head in mock-swoon. “What kind? Two dozen red roses? And how old is Casanova?”
Suki elbowed her. “Be nice. I think he goes to our school,” she said. “I can’t remember his name.”
Katara sobered, finished slicing her bread, deposited it into a basket, grabbed some garlic and oil, and took the vase from Suki. “I’ll see if I recognize him. What kind of flowers?”
Suki shrugged. “How should I know? I’m not a plant expert.”
Katara backed out the kitchen door with her offerings, approached the table, and set everything down. Suki was right. He did go to their school and Katara shared a class with him. He was one of the few juniors taking a freshman level Introduction to Art. From what she had seen, he was talented but he rarely let anyone see what he was drawing. Besides, Katara would never forget a face like his.
“Hey. Zuko, right?” she said by way of introduction. “It’s Katara.”
Zuko looked up at her, surprise and sudden horror written on his face. “Katara,” he managed. He turned his head so that he wasn’t looking at her straight on in that way he did, like it would do anything to hide the scar on his face. “What are you doing here?” he stuttered.
“I work here,” she said and gestured to her pen-filled apron and neat black-on-black uniform.
Relief stole over his face. Zuko tended to look like he always expected a punch. It twisted up Katara’s insides to see that expression on anyone’s face. She remembered reading articles about his father, but she wasn’t sure what was true and what was embellished. Either way, it didn’t seem polite to ask.
“Those are some lovely flowers,” she remarked instead.
He blushed adorably. “Thank you,” he said. “They’re black dahlias.”
Katara watched his hand shake slightly as he slipped the stems into the vase and then absently arrange the blooms. “They must be for someone special,” she said.
“They are,” he agreed. “It’s our first date.”
Katara smiled and removed her notepad from her pocket. “Do you want to get started with something to drink while you wait?”
Zuko nodded and pushed his menu around with the tips of his fingers. He was jittery, on edge, and he didn’t want to be that way in front of Mai. “Do you have chamomile tea?”
Katara nodded. “Sure,” she said. “Let me get you a pot. Anything else?”
“Not right now, thank you,” Zuko answered.
Katara tucked her notepad back into her apron, stuffed her tray under her arm, and returned to the kitchen where Suki was loading up a tray to take her food out to her large group table. “Zuko’s his name,” Katara told her friend.
“Zuko,” Suki rolled the name around. “That sounds right.”
“It is right,” Katara said. “I have a class with him.”
“He’s got a sister, right?” Suki asked and placed a parmesan shaker on her tray. “Azula?”
“The head cheerleader?” Katara asked incredulously. “The mean one?”
Suki shrugged. “We can all be mean, can’t we?”
Katara didn’t argue that point.
“Less gossip, ladies,” Bato instructed from behind the line. He brandished a spatula with a grin.
“Sorry, Chef,” Suki said and hefted her tray.
“Need an assist?” Katara offered.
“Nah, I’ve got it.” Suki backed out the door with her tray.
Katara loaded up a porcelain tea pot, a little caddy of different tea bags, sugar, cream, and honey in a little ramekin. She carried everything out to Zuko and set the spread out before him. He was fidgeting with his menu and the vase of flowers in turn, but hastily stopped when she approached. His date wasn’t there yet.
“I’m early,” he told Katara without prompting. “I’ll wait for her.”
Katara nodded and walked away. She met up with Suki at the server’s station and folded some napkins in the fancy rose-fold that was arranged on each table. Suki came to join her with a sigh. It was Wednesday and the restaurant was slow save some regulars seated at the classy bar and the birthday party Suki had in the back. Katara helped Suki run desserts and sing ‘Happy Birthday.’ After the party left, Katara helped Suki clean up the big table and then checked on Zuko. His date still hadn’t arrived.
Katara made a casual pass, just in case Zuko needed something.
He met her gaze when she approached and forced a little smile. “She must be stuck in traffic,” he said.
“Of course,” Katara agreed. “What time were you supposed to meet?”
“Six,” Zuko said.
Katara pointedly didn’t look at the clock. She had just come from the kitchen and knew it was almost seven. “Did she reach out?”
Zuko had his phone facedown on the table. “No.”
Katara didn’t say what he was clearly thinking, even though she was thinking it too. “Do you want to order an appetizer while you’re waiting? You must be hungry.”
“I’m fine,” Zuko assured her. “But I’ll have another pot of tea, if it’s no trouble.”
“Not at all,” Katara said. She cleared his mug and the pot, refilled it in the back, and returned with a fresh cup. The beautiful flowers were starting to sag. “Do you want me to put those in the fridge?”
“No, thank you,” Zuko said. “I’m sure she’ll be here soon.”
Katara squeezed her tray tightly. “Right, of course.”
Suki was in the kitchen, helping herself to some bread and soup now that her party had left. “Any update?”
“He’s still waiting,” Katara admitted.
Bato looked apologetic.
“Harsh,” Suki said. “What kind of person does that?”
“Maybe she has a good reason for being late,” Katara said. She snitched a piece of Suki’s buttered bread. Zuko looked so sweet and excited, bringing special flowers and dressing up. She really hoped that his date wasn’t the kind of person who would leave him hanging without so much as a phone call.
Suki fended Katara off her snack. “Get your own!”
Defeated, Katara headed back into the restaurant to watch the door for customers while Suki ate. Zuko was still sitting in his nooth, though she could only see the back of him from her position near the kitchen door. He had his head down and was probably looking at his phone. Hopefully, his date had reached out. Katara fiddled with her pens, resisting the urge to gnaw on one.
Then, the front door opened and a trio of giggling girls entered. Katara moved to greet them, pushing away from the rear counter where the coffee was brewing. From where she was standing, Katara couldn’t see Zuko’s heart shatter, but she did have a front row seat to the after-party.
Zuko pushed out of his booth, going to greet one of the girls with a bright smile. “Mai,” he said. “There you are. I was worried.”
Katara identified Azula and Ty Lee immediately since they were always Cheering at her brother’s football games. She recognized Mai’s face and style but hadn’t known her name as Mai’s social circle was tight-knit and a little unusual. It was totally weird to see her hanging out with Azula and Ty Lee. Her plain black street clothes were at odds with the colorful cheer outfits and Zuko’s dressy clothes.
“Oh, Zuko,” Mai said in a flat tone. Her dark-lined eyes flit over his shoulder to the dark flowers and then back to his face. “You’re here.”
It was obvious to Katara almost immediately what had happened and she hastily made her way over to try to pick up the pieces, but it was clear that Zuko was still trying to figure out why Mai was late. In fact, it didn’t seem like he was going to figure it out at all. His earnest face was open, uncertain, and concerned all at once. The skin at the corner of his eyes, in the middle of his scar, pulled tight.
“Of course, I’m here,” he continued. “I’ve been here since six, like we agreed.”
Mai gave a little laugh, stifled behind her hand. “You… you thought I was serious?”
Zuko’s eyes widened and his jaw went slack. He glanced behind Mai to where Azula and Ty Lee were just watching the exchange with barely-suppressed grins. Then, he appeared to realize what was going on. His jaw hardened and his eyes shuttered. It was as though someone had dropped a curtain over his face, hiding his softer side.
“I told Azula to let you know it was just a joke,” Mai continued.
Zuko’s gaze turned to his sister, betrayed.
“Oops,” Azula said flippantly. She passed around an open palm. “My bad.”
Zuko turned sharply away from the girls and pulled up short when he realized Katara was right behind him. His cheeks flushed with shame. Katara wanted to put a hand on his shoulder, offer him some kind of comfort, anything, but he brushed quickly past her and returned to his booth.
“That was cruel,” Katara said sharply. “How could you do that?”
“Excuse me?” Azula asked. Her eyes flashed to the bartender and back. “What did you say to us?”
Katara sucked in a breath and steadied herself. She gritted her teeth so she wouldn’t give these girls a piece of her mind. They hadn’t seen Zuko come in, delighted and anxious like a little boy. Instead, she forced a brittle smile. “Nothing, never mind. Welcome to Beifongs.”
“Maybe we should go somewhere else for dinner,” Ty Lee said lightly. Her eyes strayed to Zuko, hunched in his seat with his back to the door and his flowers just visible. She had the grace to look guilty.
“I like the tiramisu they have here,” Mai said blandly.
“I’m not feeling it anymore,” Azula told them airily. Her gaze strayed to Zuko’s back. “Too many carbs. Let’s go somewhere else.”
Mai looked like she wanted to protest, but relented when Azula glowered at her. “Fine,” she agreed.
The girls left without a backwards glance. The door closed softly behind them. The few regulars seated around the bar were turned in their seats, goggling at the spectacle, and Katara shot them a glance. Half went back to their drinks, but one elderly woman continued to stare. Katara tossed down the menus with a slap. She hadn’t realized that her nails had bitten into the nice patent-leather covers. Quickly, Katara returned to Zuko’s table.
“Hey,” she began.
“Don’t,” he said. His voice was too gentle to be sharp, but Katara heard the ache in it. “I’ll just… I’ll take the check, please.”
“Sure,” Katara murmured. She felt bad for him, but there seemed nothing she could say. She wheeled through the kitchen, printed his check from the computer in there, chose a slice of chocolate cake from the fridge, put it in a to-go box, and carried everything back to his table.
Zuko was staring blankly at the flowers, but turned at her approach.
“Here,” she said and placed the check facedown. “Chocolate cake, on me—just the thing for a broken heart.”
His smile was thin, just a shadow of the one he had greeted her with. “Thank you,” he said. “You’ve been so nice to me.”
Katara fingered a strand of hair and then tucked it behind her ear. “That was low,” she said, “what those girls did to you.”
Zuko shrugged half-heartedly. “Thank you,” he said. “Have a nice night, Katara.”
“Have a nice night,” she echoed. Katara didn’t have any excuse to linger, so she headed back to the kitchen where Suki was waiting.
“What happened?” Suki asked.
Katara gave her the details. By the time she finished, Zuko had left. She went to clear his table and found a folded one-hundred-dollar bill under the check with a simple note, ‘Thank you for everything. Keep the change.’ Zuko had taken the slice of cake, but abandoned his flowers. Like Zuko’s emotions, they were a pale imitation of the gorgeous blooms he had come in with. Katara’s heart twisted as she cleared his meager dishes.
Iroh was waiting up. Since it was well after seven when he pulled into the driveway, Iroh had thought things were going well for his nephew. However, the way Zuko slumped in through the door spoke volumes before he even said a word. Zuko’s eyes were red-rimmed, but it didn’t look like he had been crying. He was upset and disappointed, but he wasn’t surprised, and that was probably the cruelest thing.
“Oh, Zuko,” Iroh said softly.
Zuko hung up the keys and toed off his shoes inside the door. “I’m… just going to go to bed,” he said softly.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Iroh asked.
“Not right now,” Zuko murmured. “Tomorrow? Over tea?”
“Of course,” Iroh agreed.
Zuko put something in the fridge and slipped down the hallway to his room. All was quiet, without music or any display of emotion. It almost would have been easier to hear Zuko cry or throw something. Then, Iroh could have at least tried to help him, but Zuko’s silence in the face of strife was ingrained into his psyche. He wouldn’t want to make a sound, attract attention, entice someone’s displeasure or frustration. Iroh remained sitting up, the television on low and his cup of tea growing cold for a long time. Azula was still out with her friend and he couldn’t shake his worries. It was almost eight when Azula returned.
Iroh knew she had something to do with Zuko’s mood immediately by the way she tried to sneak in. When she realized he was waiting up, she stopped dead and her gold eyes were wide. She had a container of Zuko’s favorite store-bought cookies in her hands and her guilt skyrocketed across her expression before she tried to hide both.
“Uncle,” she said by way of greeting. “You’re still up?”
“Come here,” Iroh said. His tone left no room for argument. “Sit.”
Azula dropped on the couch beside him and stared at the cookies in her lap. She couldn’t look at Iroh.
“What happened tonight?” Iroh asked gently.
Azula fiddled with the edge of the plastic. “A harmless prank,” she tried.
“A prank?” Iroh repeated. “On your brother?”
“It was supposed to be harmless,” Azula admitted. Her voice was scraped and raw. “I mean… I thought he knew that Mai was a lesbian. I didn’t think he’d take it seriously.”
Iroh sighed heavily.
Azula turned the package of cookies around and around on her lap, the plastic rustling. She had been at Cheer practice while Zuko had bought flowers, while he spent all his time getting ready—while he pushed aside his insecurities and his damages and put himself out there and gone to meet a girl he liked. Azula had only see the fall of Zuko’s house of cards. She hadn’t seen the effort he put into assembling it.
“Is he mad at me?” Azula asked softly.
“I think that would be fair,” Iroh told her. “He’s gone to his room. I think it’d be best if you talked in the morning.”
Azula nodded, gave her uncle a hug, and made her way down the hallway. She lingered outside Zuko’s door, turned the knob silently, pushed the cookies inside, and closed it again. The whole exchange took less than a second. Azula had great practice sneaking her brother things to make him feel better. Then, she ducked into her own room and music from the sad band she liked began to play. Iroh turned off the lights, locked the front door, and saw himself to bed as well.
Katara saw Zuko in school and in their shared art class, but anytime she made a move towards him, he quickly backpedaled. She wondered if he disliked her for not standing up for him that night at Beifong’s, but it was her job and she needed the money. Even though she was close friends with the Beifong’s daughter, Toph, they wouldn’t have forgiven her if she had made a scene at their restaurant. Shouting at customers was a sure way not to have a job.
A few weeks passed.
It was a rainy night. The sky hung low and close with dark clouds. The downpour promised that the restaurant would either be dead-slow or jam-packed. So far, it looked like it was sizing up to be a slow night. Katara sighed heavily as she folded napkins with Suki at a table in the back. The front door opened and she called reflexively, “Welcome to Beifong’s.”
Suki kicked her under the table.
“What?” Katara demanded. “It’s your turn.”
“Oh no,” Suki said. “This one’s for you.”
Katara looked up and saw that Zuko had entered the restaurant. He looked the same, but was dressed casually in jeans and a t-shirt that clung to his chest underneath a dark windbreaker. He carefully leaned his umbrella in the corner to stop it from dripping on the floor and then pushed back his windblown hair. He flickered a little smile in their direction, a small fragile thing, like he wasn’t sure how they would receive him.
Katara got to her feet immediately. “Table for you?”
“Um, no, actually, I have an order for pick up,” he said. “My uncle called it in. It should be under Iroh.”
Katara ducked into the kitchen to check, but Bato was still preparing the last of the dishes. Katara headed back out to let Zuko know it would be another ten minutes. “Do you want to sit while you wait?”
Zuko shuffled awkwardly, his head turned slightly away from her. “Um, no, thank you. I’m fine.”
Katara stared at him for a heartbeat longer, but she was nothing if not direct. “Are you upset with me?”
Zuko looked surprised enough that she believed him when he said, “No. Why would I be?”
Katara folded her arms across her belly, gripping her opposite elbows in each hand. “After what happened last time, I wasn’t sure if you were upset that I didn’t stand up for you. I wanted to, but this is my job and we need the money at home since my mom was fired.”
Zuko’s smile was wan. “It’s okay, Katara, really. I wasn’t expecting you to stand up for me. If you did and you lost your job, I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself. Okay? So just… don’t worry about me.”
Katara shifted her weight. Zuko’s eyes were so sad, the left one pinched by his scar. She had heard rumors about how he’d gotten it—a birthmark that he had been born with, a freak accident in Chemistry class, a drunken bar fight, that his own father had pressed his face into their gas stove. There was truth to the last one, Katara knew. She had read the articles about Ozai being put behind bars.
“Let me make it up to you,” Katara said. “Can we go out sometime?”
Zuko’s soft expression hardened like a storm. “Thanks, but I don’t date.”
“Because of what happened before?” Katara asked.
He didn’t answer.
“I’m not going to stand you up,” Katara said.
Zuko still didn’t respond, watching her with his face turned slightly away.
‘Talk is cheap, Katara,’ she heard her mother say.
“Here’s the deal,” Katara continued. “Stay home and I’ll come pick you up. That way, even if I don’t show, you won’t be sitting somewhere, waiting, but I promise that won’t happen.”
“Thank you for your interest, Katara,” Zuko said calmly. “You’re a beautiful girl, but I’m not interested.”
“Just as friends then,” Katara pressed. “We can go get ice cream or shoot hoops at the park. Heck, we can go to the river and shoot rats if you want.”
Zuko’s mouth quirked as he fought a smile.
“Please,” Katara insisted. “You can’t stay home for the rest of your life just because one girl stood you up. You’ve got to get back out there.”
Zuko studied her for a moment and he must have found what he was looking for because he relented with a thin smile. “My uncle was just saying the same thing to me,” he said and then faltered. Finally, he relented, “Okay. That sounds… nice.”
Katara beamed. “So, Friday?”
“Friday,” Zuko confirmed.
“I’ll text you,” Katara said and fumbled in her apron for her phone. “What’s your number?”
Zuko gave it to her and she sent him a message immediately. His phone made an adorable quacking noise for its notification. Zuko flushed scarlet and quickly grabbed it, pressing his finger to silence the sound. Katara couldn’t help but smile wider. Yes, she thought, this was someone worth knowing. That girl who had left him hanging didn’t know what she was going to miss.
Suki appeared behind Katara with a bag of food to-go. “Here you are,” she said cheerfully.
“Thank you,” Zuko answered automatically.
Katara rang him out, swiping his uncle’s credit card. “See you Friday!”
Zuko smiled at her as he left. Outside, he found that the downpour had stopped momentarily. Zuko loaded the Italian food into his car and drove home wrapped in the smell of garlic and tomato. The rain had broken just long enough to allow him to get in the door before the skies opened up with a crash of thunder and a flare of lightning. Azula was coiled on the couch, buried in blankets, with Iroh seated beside her to wait out the storm.
“I have comfort food,” Zuko announced.
Azula peeked at him between her fingers, her face little and white like a child’s. “Garlic bread?” she ventured.
Zuko nodded and dropped onto the couch beside her.
Katara spent a long time getting ready, much to her brother’s chagrin because there was only one bathroom in their little homestead. She shaved her legs, deep-conditioned her chocolate tresses, and then spent twenty minutes trying to get her wild hair just-right. She applied a little makeup, the way Suki had shown her, and emerged in a waft of steam. She was wearing her favorite blue dress trimmed with white lace, fastened on her grandmother’s necklace, and then cornered Sokka in the kitchen to demand how she looked.
“You’re my sister,” Sokka responded which was how he always did.
Katara kissed his cheek and made a grab for his keys.
“Oh no!” he protested and held them behind his back. “You can’t borrow my car until you tell me where you’re going!”
“I have a date, Sokka,” she said. She wrapped both arms around him, squeezing tightly in an attempt to make him drop the keys. “You told me that you didn’t want to know anything about my love life.”
“That was when you were with Jet,” Sokka said with a theatrical shudder that wasn’t just for show. Jet had been bad news. He switched hands and held the keys high above her head. “Now, I want to know everything about this mystery guy that keeps you hogging the bathroom for hours on end.”
“You don’t know him,” she said. She strained to reach the keys, the boomerang keychain jingling merrily throughout the struggle. She gripped his forearm, trying to drag it down where she could reach.
“I heard you tell Mom he goes to our school,” Sokka told her curtly and tossed the keys from the hand she had just-about-reached into his other. “Our school isn’t that big.”
Katara huffed and started trying to finagle her way to his other arm.
“Just tell me,” Sokka insisted. He began swinging the keychain around his finger.
“It’s Zuko,” Katara admitted.
Sokka stopped spinning and mulled it over, trying to place the name and the face. “Zuko,” he repeated and then it clicked. “Zuko as in the son of the guy who tried to get our mom arrested stealing from the company—which was a lie!—and then fired her when she proved her innocence, putting our family finances in dire straits? That Zuko?”
Katara released him and stepped back, folding her arms across her chest. “Zuko isn’t his father,” Katara said. “Besides, you know the rest of those rumors. You know what Ozai probably did to Zuko—to his face.”
Sokka relinquished the keys. “I know that,” he said softly. “But you’re my little sister and I love you. I don’t want to see anything bad happen to you because you trusted the wrong guy.” Sokka didn’t say ‘again,’ but they were both remembering the fallout that came after her breakup with Jet.
“Zuko isn’t like that,” Katara said and briefly relayed the story of him waiting earnestly for his date, only to find out that it was just a cruel prank. “Besides,” she said, “I don’t think this is a real date. Zuko seemed a little too nervous for that. We’re just going to grab some food and maybe take a walk.”
“Okay,” Sokka said. “But you call me if you need anything. Aang and I will be here all night.”
“Ah, guy’s night, huh?” Katara asked.
Sokka nodded. “Got the new Zelda and Aang has been driving me nuts about playing.”
“Have fun,” Katara said and double-checked her little purse for all the essentials.
“You too,” Sokka called after her.
Katara let herself out the front door, climbed into her brother’s beat-up ride, and trundled off to Zuko’s address to pick him up. She cranked the stereo and rolled the windows down. It was going to be a good night, she was certain of it. She made one stop before she drove across town, winding through the streets until she reached the middle-class neighborhood where Zuko lived with his uncle.
Zuko didn’t want to admit he was waiting for Katara so he made a show of talking to his uncle’s moth orchid in the front window. He had a feeling Iroh was wise to his strategy, but had nicely decided not to call Zuko out on it. Iroh was seated on the couch a few feet away, sipping his tea and reading a book while Zuko restlessly checked his phone, turned the potted plant, and then glanced out the window again. He repeated the motion four times, five times.
“She’s not coming,” Zuko said dejectedly and turned away from the window.
Iroh laughed warmly. “Zuko,” he said chidingly. “You agreed to have her pick you up at six. It is 6:01.”
“How long should I wait?” Zuko asked. “Another hour? Just like with Mai?”
The doorbell rang, cutting off Zuko’s downward spiral into his insecurities. Zuko froze, his eyes wide.
Iroh laughed again. “I’ll get the door,” he said.
“No!” Zuko protested. He practically leaped the coffee table. “I’ll get it.”
Iroh sank back down, watching with a smile on his face as his nephew neatened his hair and then his clothes before opening the door. Katara was standing on the other side with a smile, as well-dressed as Zuko and with a modest bouquet of sweet pink flowers, white sprays of jasmine, and a pair of red fire lilies at the center. It was wrapped in pretty paper and Katara offered it to Zuko with a smile. His jaw dropped as he accepted the blooms, bringing them slowly to his face to breathe in their perfume. He looked drunk on the scent and Katara stifled a giggle.
Jolted, Zuko lowered the flowers and stepped aside. “Would you like to come in?”
“Sure,” Katara said. She wiped her feet and stepped inside. “Hello,” she called to Iroh. “I’m Katara.”
Iroh rose to greet her and gave her hand a warm shake. “I am Zuko’s Uncle Iroh. You may call me Uncle or Iroh, whatever you feel comfortable with.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Katara responded.
Zuko returned from the kitchen with the flowers in a glass vase that he set down on the coffee table. “They’re beautiful,” he said. “Thank you.” His cheeks were pink to match the little flowers.
“You’re welcome. Are you ready to go?” Katara asked him.
“Good,” she said with a grin, “because I am starving. I made us reservations at my favorite restaurant. I hope that’s okay.”
“It’s fine,” Zuko assured her hastily. “Anything is fine.”
“Come on,” Katara said. “See you later, Iroh.”
“Have a nice time,” Iroh called as they stepped back outside and closed the door behind them. He went to the window and watched Katara’s car rumble away with a smile on his face. Some things happened for a reason, he supposed. In life, when a door was closed, there was always a window that opened.
Katara’s favorite restaurant turned out to be a little hole-in-the-wall that Zuko would have walked right past if he hadn’t been with her. The parking lot was packed, but the front façade was unassuming pale-yellow brick with a large window covered in creeping green ivy. Smiling, she caught his elbow and pointed to a red door nestled between two massive flowering shrubs. He opened it politely for her and then stepped inside. It was lit with wrought iron lamps above every table, a large sparkling chandelier, and fading sunlight filtering in through the ivy-covered window that dappled the tables. The walls were covered in original paintings from local artists with unobtrusive price tags.
“The mole they have here is to die for,” Katara told him.
“Hey Katara,” called the mustached waiter. “Grab your usual seat. I’ll be right there.”
“Thanks, Haru!” Katara said in response.
She helped herself to two menus from the server’s station, took Zuko by the hand, and led him through the crowded restaurant to her favorite corner table under a beautiful painting of the sun setting over the desert. Zuko took his seat across from her and she handed him a menu. Zuko was immediately overwhelmed by the number of dishes that he couldn’t pronounce and instead looked at the pictures.
“No way,” Katara said when she read his flustered face. “You’ve never been here, have you?”
“I didn’t know it existed,” he admitted.
Katara gasped. “This is only the single best Mexican restaurant in the whole city, Zuko!”
Haru stepped up to their table and set down two pineapple sodas in glass bottles along with cups of ice. “It’s the best in the kingdom,” he corrected.
Katara huffed. “You always say that, but I’ll be the judge after I graduate and start traveling.”
Haru deposited a basket of homemade chips and fresh green salsa. “Whatever Katara. You’ll have to come crawling back for the food, just you wait,” he said. “The usual?”
“We’re going to need a few minutes, Haru,” she said. “It’s Zuko’s first time.”
“Here?” Haru asked mock-scandalized.
Katara started to nod.
Zuko interrupted. “Actually, I’ve never had Mexican food before.”
Now Haru did look truly shocked, as did Katara. They both stared at him.
Zuko had the sudden urge to turn away. His scar itched. “I, um, I didn’t get out much until recently,” he admitted.
Haru looked at Zuko a little closer, as though trying to place him.
Katara waved Haru away. “Just give us another minute, Haru.”
“Sure,” he agreed and headed back into the bustle of the busy restaurant.
Zuko was grateful that it was so packed. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to take the silence that suddenly stretched between him and Katara. He had never thought that he would think it was better to be stood up and left hanging for over an hour, but this awkwardness was… terrible. Katara studied him for a moment and then slid her hand across the table. Her fingertips brushed his knuckles comfortingly and he resisted the urge to jerk away. He met her eyes and found her gazing earnestly back at him over the salsa.
“Hey,” she said softly. “We can leave. Go someplace else if you’re not comfortable.”
“It’s fine,” Zuko told her. “It’s not your fault.”
Katara’s fingers inched near his hand, just brushing his skin. “Anytime I go to a restaurant for the first time, I always order a sampler. That way I can try a couple different things and I’m not locked in if I don’t like it,” she explained. “Why don’t you try the same? Although I can personally vouch that everything here is delicious if you’re feeling adventurous.”
“A sampler sounds good,” Zuko said.
Katara’s smile was broad, showing her white teeth. Gingerly, finger by finger, she drew him back into conversation. She talked endlessly, unbothered by the fact that she had to fill the silence while Zuko put in a word or two in response to her direct questions. He was struck by the sudden realization that if he had gone on his date with Mai, the quiet girl and he would probably have just sat and stared at each other without ever managing a conversation. He was suddenly so grateful to Katara that he found himself gripping her hand where it still lay on the table. She munched a chip and beamed, squeezing his fingers back.
Haru returned a moment later and Katara placed their orders, including an appetizer that she insisted Zuko was going to love.
Zuko chatted with her more and more easily as they demolished the basket of chips between them. Zuko found the spicy salsa fresh and delicious, especially when paired with the tart sweet of his pineapple soda. Haru brough over a plate and set it between them, along with a second dish of red salsa.
“What is that?” Zuko asked incredulously at the sight of the deep-fried item.
“Just taste it,” Katara said. She picked one up and made a ‘cheers’ motion.
Zuko bit into the hot crust and found a squish of sweet cream cheese, the skin of a pepper, and something else. It was spicy and sweet and cool and fatty all at once. He almost moaned, eyes fluttering shut.
“Good, right?” Katara asked with a victorious smile. “I love jalapeño poppers.”
“This is so good,” Zuko agreed. He tried the red salsa and found that it was spicier than the green and the flavor was different. His lips were tingling and he realized that he was grinning.
They chatted again and Zuko found himself contributing more and more. Katara made it feel easy to talk, to open up, to be himself. He even realized that he was looking at her straight on, something that he usually only did with his uncle. He preferred to keep his scar turned slightly away from people if he could, but Katara wasn’t even staring at it. She was holding his gaze, her eyes only darting lower when she went for a bite of something. It wasn’t the rigid focus that Zuko was used to when people were trying hard not to look at his scar. She was just looking at him, enjoying herself, smiling.
“Thank you for this, Katara,” he said suddenly.
“For what?” she asked.
“Asking me out,” he said. “I don’t think I would have gone out again if you hadn’t.”
Katara waved her hand dismissively. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “Of course you would have. You were just waiting for the right person to come along.”
Zuko bit back the impulse to disagree, to insist that he would have hidden in his uncle’s house until he was old and grey. If nothing else, Iroh would have forced him back into the world eventually. “You’re right,” he agreed, “but I’m still glad that I’m here with you now.”
Katara smiled, long chocolate tresses tumbling over her shoulder when she tilted her head. Her eyes crinkled when she smiled and she was the most beautiful girl Zuko had ever seen. He became aware all over again that he was still holding her hand beside the chip basket. His skin suddenly felt too warm.
“Ooh, food,” Katara said with delight as Haru set the plates out before them. “Thank you!”
“Thanks,” Zuko added.
“Can I get you anything else?” Haru asked.
“No thanks,” Katara said.
“Enjoy,” Haru said cheerfully.
Katara dug into her food with relish. Zuko followed her lead, taking bites out of each strange dish on his plate. Everything was delicious and flavorful, piled with sauces and spices that he couldn’t name. Katara watched him eat, smiling as she sipped her fruity soda and cut dainty pieces from her dishes, scooping up the thick dark sauce that pooled on her plate. Zuko swallowed and she arranged a neat bite on her fork.
“Here,” she said. “Try it.” She held her fork out, hovering near his mouth.
All he had to do was lean forward and open his mouth to take it. After a moment’s uncertainty, he surprised himself by taking the bite from her fork. An explosion of spice and flavor washed across his tongue and he actually groaned in bliss. A blush raced up his cheeks, settling hotly in the tips of his ears.
“Sorry,” he said hastily.
Katara laughed and the sound was charming. “No, no,” she assured him. “That was my reaction too. It’s the best mole I have ever had.”
“I’ll have to get that next time,” Zuko said.
Katara looked up, her eyes meeting his as she smiled.
He realized what he had said and sputtered. “I mean—you don’t have to—with me—I’ll come by myself—unless you want—I mean, I just—never mind…”
Katara chuckled and reached across the table again.
Zuko watched her hand approach and then placed his atop it. He looked into her eyes and found himself smiling.
“I’d love to go out with you again, Zuko,” Katara said.
“Really?” he asked, genuinely shocked.
“Yeah,” Katara confirmed. “You’re really sweet and I’d like to get to know you better.”
“Okay,” Zuko said lowly. He wasn’t sure what else to say. He almost couldn’t believe it.
“Dessert?” Haru asked.
Katara’s eyes sparkled, but she didn’t let go of Zuko’s hand. “Of course!”
“Coming right up,” Haru said and disappeared with their almost-licked-clean plates.
Zuko and Katara devoured the tower of churros and vanilla ice cream that Haru delivered to their table. Katara fended Zuko off, making a show of getting the biggest bite of whipped cream. He watched as she licked her lips, feeling something warm and light settle in his stomach. He sat back, stuffed, and let her finish the final few bites.
Haru brought the check and dropped it off.
Zuko immediately reached for his wallet, but Katara snatched it up.
“Oh, no you don’t,” she told him sternly. “This was my treat.”
“But,” he protested.
“No buts,” she said. “Just say thank you.”
She handed Haru her card and the check backwards over her head without looking. She smirked smugly at Zuko like she had gotten away with something.
Zuko reached across the table and she mirrored him readily. He intertwined their fingers, met her eyes, and said earnestly, “Thank you.” He didn’t mean just for dinner.
Katara flushed. “You’re welcome.”
Night had fallen outside the brightly-lit restaurant. Zuko hadn’t realized how much time had passed while he whiled away the time enjoying Katara’s company and the good food. They piled into her brother’s car and she drove him back to his uncle’s house, pulling into the driveway. The porch light was on and another lamp glowed inside. Iroh was waiting up. After his last date, Zuko didn’t blame him.
“I’ll walk you to the door,” Katara said and unfastened her seatbelt.
“You don’t have to,” Zuko said.
“I want to.”
He didn’t have an argument for that. In fact, butterflies took flight under his ribs at her words.
They lingered outside the front door. The lamp glowed behind Katara’s head, limning her dark hair in gold and shadowing her face. Her bright blue eyes stood out like gemstones. Zuko wondered what his own face looked like because Katara gently placed a hand on his shoulder and pulled him a little closer. He went smoothly, stepping into her space, and she tilted her chin. He could feel her breath, warm and spicy on his face. She was so close. If he just…
He was kissing her in an instant, wrapping his arms around her waist and tugging her into his chest. She rested her weight against him, one hand on his shoulder and the other over his pounding heart. Her kiss started chaste, gentle, sweet, but there was fire underneath. She nipped his lip and deepened the kiss when he opened his mouth. He could taste the cinnamon and sugar of their shared dessert and hoped she could to.
They kissed for what felt like seconds and hours at the same time. Katara drew back and her eyes were dancing in the light. Zuko kissed her again, holding her flush against him, feeling her respond to the press of his hands and the slant of his mouth. She was warm and soft, gripping him in return until he thought they might melt into each other. She drew away again and rocked back on her heels.
“Goodnight, Zuko,” she said warmly.
He watched her walk back to her car. She slid behind the wheel, waved vigorously, and then pulled away. He watched until her taillights had disappeared around the corner. Only then did he take a deep breath of the perfume still lingering where she had been standing and let himself in.
Iroh was waiting up, feigning interest in his book. “How was your date, Zuko?” he asked.
Zuko couldn’t suppress his smile nor did he want to. “It was nice.”
Questions, comments, concerns?