When Iroh comes back and Zuko leaves for the teahouse, they silently communicate. She’s here, he says. I lied to her—
(He doesn’t tell Uncle that he might regret that.)
When he returns for dinner, Katara is poised, sitting at their table, still looking a bit out of it. He takes off his apron and stares at her back, supported by the chair. “Should she be out of bed?” he says blithely, his tone hiding an undercurrent, a question Uncle might understand. Did you talk to her?
Iroh smiles genially at him. “Miss Katara is doing well, Zuko. She will be fine. Why don’t you make some tea while I finish dinner for her? Perhaps some jasmine will do the trick.”
The older man lights the fire for the stove carefully and gestures to him. Don’t bend.
Uncle knows Zuko is terrible at making tea. He stares at the girl once again before grabbing the kettle and filling it with water. While he starts to heat it up, ducking out of the way to hide his bending from her view, he remembers the necklace on his wrist, and reaches down to unravel it until it’s laying in his hands.
Zuko traces the pendant on it, the sign of the water tribes, takes in its characteristic blue color. It feels warm, even to his touch. It feels familiar—
(It isn’t his, and this is him trying to do the right thing.)
He nearly scorches the tea but he doesn’t think it’s that bad (Uncle would probably disagree, but Zuko has few opinions about hot leaf water). He takes the pot and three cups over to the table and sits across from her. She’s staring out the small window in the corner, her hair falling over her shoulders. Katara is out of her torn wrappings and now in a comfortable tunic that fits her loosely and awkwardly. It’s his, however, and that makes him shudder. While she’s distracted he runs his eyes over her collarbone and traces the curls at the bottom of her hair.
He ends up tracing all of her features, against all of his intentions. He doesn’t know why.
Katara doesn’t react when he slides her the cup, but she does turn to face him when he waves the necklace in front of her eyes. “I believe this is yours.”
“Oh, yeah, it is,” she takes it from his fingers, and her eyes start to briefly well up. “It belonged to my mother.”
Belonged. The implication thrums through him, and he shifts in this strange position. He almost wants to sit closer to her. “I’m sorry.”
Zuko thinks about a Blue Spirit mask and his knuckles tighten under the table.
Katara faces up and takes him in again, almost like she’s seeing him for the first time. Her sight is clearer now, and her eyes are bright. He can tell that she’s staring at his face, analyzing his scar. “That’s a burn mark,” she pronounces.
“Yes,” he shifts uncomfortably.
“You were attacked by the Fire Nation,” she concludes after a moment. “But you look like you’re Fire Nation.”
“I thought you’d never left home—”
“I know what firebenders look like,” she says darkly, although her voice doesn’t seem any more aggressive. “You’re refugees here. So I don’t think you’re very pro-Fire Nation,” he’s saved from responding to that by her next words. “I hate the Fire Nation. They killed my mother.”
“I’m sorry,” he repeats before lowering his voice; he knows Iroh will be able to hear him anyway, but this feels like an intimate moment with a stranger. “That’s something we have in common.”
In that very second, as they make eye-contact, Zuko can feel Katara’s low-walls break down. He almost feels guilty about his words—
(But they’re almost, maybe, the truth—his knuckles press into his short nails, and he draws blood.)
“I should ask around and find out who I was,” she says in his bed, and he frowns from the pallet he’s set up on the floor. “Maybe I can find out why I’m here.”
He stares at the ceiling above them, rickety and moldy. “You don’t have any leads.”
“Maybe if I ask around—”
“This city is really, really big. And I don’t think that you used your real name here at all.”
She groans and something slams up above. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine. But I don’t get why—I’m really confused, Zuko. I don’t get anything. I don’t get why I’d leave home—”
“You might never know,” he interrupts brutally. “Maybe you should let it go. Maybe the spirits are trying to make sure you don’t remember what happened. Maybe something really bad did.”
The silence from above is strange, but he knows that she’s awake, because her breathing is ragged. “They must have died.”
“That’s the only explanation,” she says quietly. “I wouldn’t be away from Dad and Sokka unless something really bad happened. The Fire Nation probably destroyed everything. Maybe I escaped. Do you know . . .”
“I don’t know much about the South Pole,” he admits, placing his hands behind his head and slightly elevating himself.
“Can I tell you something?”
“Can I trust you?”
An interesting question. No—
(Can he lie, if the truth no longer exists?)
“I guess so.”
“I’m a waterbender,” she whispers quietly. “That’s why they killed my mom. I’m not very good at it but I’m a waterbender. That’s probably how I escaped.”
So she’s latched into this narrative. He supposes that’s fine. “Oh,” he starts before deciding to throw himself in too. No, he’s not very good at thinking things through, sometimes. “I’m a firebender.”
She’s quiet, and he realizes that’s not a good thing. “I know you hate firebenders—”
“Why’d you save me?” she interrupts, her voice shaking. “You’re not supposed to—firebenders don’t do things like that. Firebenders are evil.”
Zuko stares up at the ceiling. He’s glad he can’t see her face. “I didn’t hurt you.”
“You saved me,” she says harshly, like the words are supposed to be an attack. “I don’t—I’m so confused.”
Zuko places his hands above his chest and gets ready to deal with a confrontation—
(He knew this was coming. He doesn’t know why it’s preemptively paining him.)
Instead he hears sobs. Is she sad?
Maybe he would be sad if he was in a bed next to someone who represented everything he hated, and he didn’t know who he was. In retrospect, it’s surprising she’s managed to keep it together for so long. This is a strange situation, and he’s the only person she probably thinks she can trust here. And she can’t trust him, not very much. He’s not a good person.
Loud tears suddenly become soundless and he quietly rises to see her shoving her face into one of his pillows, crying out a storm. The wetness on the sheets and her body, crawled up like she’s trying to protect herself from the world, scare him.
He doesn't want to see Katara cry.
“Hey. It’s okay.”
“No,” she blubbers, “it’s not okay. I’m here and I don’t know who I am and I’m in the Earth Kingdom next to a firebender and this has to be a dream. I just want to go home. Why did this happen to me? I just want to go home.”
He sits on the bed and places a hand uncomfortably on her back. “But I don’t think that’s a possibility.”
“What am I supposed to do now?”
He doesn’t know any more than she does. “You can try to go back home.”
“But they’re probably dead,” she whispers, drawing her face out of the pillow to stare at him, tears running down her face. “And I came here. And I don’t even know what I did here. And I’m next to a firebender.”
“Do you want me to go?”
“No,” she closes her eyes and breathes in as if to realign herself; it doesn’t work, because her next breaths are just as choppy. “You’ve been taking care of me. And you don’t even have a reason to. And,” she swallows, “and oh my spirits. What am I going to do after I leave? I’m barely a person anymore. I don’t even know that I exist—”
“Take it easy,” he mumbles, placing a hand on her back, letting it settle there when she doesn’t flinch away from him. “You don’t need all the answers right now. Maybe the memories will come back!”
“But what if they don’t? I can’t keep leeching off of you—”
She’s concerned about that? “Don’t worry. Uncle likes you.”
Katara shuffles forward until he’s forced to stare at her big, blue eyes. Agni, and she was pretty, untouchable, broken in his bed. Now she’s put together and still gorgeous—mostly put together. “Do you like me?”
“I’m the one who should be asking that question,” he says, before taking his hand off her and pressing on her shoulders lightly, trying to keep her still, mitigating her shaking. “Go to sleep, Katara.”
“You don’t have to take care of me.”
Zuko nearly drops the groceries he’s bringing in when he sees her standing at the stove. “Sit down! Katara—”
“What? Oh, hey. Uncle just left to play Pai Sho. He said he’d get dinner with his friends and I started cutting the vegetables—”
“You shouldn’t be standing up!”
A pepper falls out of his hand, and she reaches down to pick it up. His face blushes bright red on one side before he grabs her side and hoists her up, forcefully placing her down on one of the dining table chairs. If she won’t take care of herself he’ll do it for her. “What were you thinking? No standing, no sharp objects—”
She pouts. “I’m fine, Zuko. I just wanted to help.”
“I don’t need your help,” he grumbles as he starts tossing the remaining vegetables and spices onto the kitchen table. “You need to sit down. You’re still healing.”
“It’s been a week. I’m fine. At least let me—”
He sees a stack of carrots in the corner, left on a chopping board, and dumps them unceremoniously into a random pot. “Your head is still healing.”
“I’m sorry, what do you want me to do? Sit here all day like some sort of . . . child?”
After he’d been given his burn he’d been bedridden for days—the pain had been indescribable. This might not be the same, but he’d woken up on a ship with Iroh, and his life had changed drastically after that ailment. Katara’s life has, too, but he doesn’t want her to be more concerned than necessary—
(He is not concerned.)
“You don’t want to mess up your head. If it heals wrong you may never . . . remember.”
That leaves her silent as he grabs the knife she’d been using and starts slicing away at the peppers, wishing he was training with his swords right now; they’re much more therapeutic. Each thump sounds loud in the kitchen and he reaches over to add water to the pot, setting the bottom on fire and trying to keep it at a boil.
The peppers go in and then some sort of meat. He’s staring at the mixture bubbling in front of him when she speaks up. Katara is pouting in the corner, her hair swept over her shoulder, glaring intently at his actions. “You should add salt or something.”
He grumbles and does so, letting the mixture bubble over. Some sort of calm has ascended over them. “I want to be helpful. I need money, too.”
Zuko frowns and almost burns himself on the horrible metal pan. “What?”
“I . . . I’m taking up room and eating your food. And I’m not paying for any of it. And I can’t stay here forever. I’m going to need to find my own place, or wherever I used to live. If I can’t find a job, at least let me cook,” he turns to see her smile wryly. “I can cook, at least.”
He doesn’t know where to go from here. “Don’t worry about that right now. You just need to get better.”
He hadn’t even stopped to consider that even this version of her might want to leave. He should have calibrated for that, expected that. She is not his responsibility—
(She doesn’t remember herself, but she still knows herself. She’s starting to know him.)
An awkward taste-test has him realize that this is the best he’s going to get, so he grabs two bowls and ladles out enough for the both of them. Zuko lights his hand up against a pot of rice from last night to reheat. She nods in thanks when he hands her the bowl, but doesn’t reach down to eat. Her brow furrows and she bites her lip. Zuko forces himself to press his chopsticks to his mouth.
“I don’t get why you’re so nice to me.”
(Because you’re intriguing, and strange, and I need you, and I’m starting to think I might want you.)
“I’m not a nice person,” he shrugs and takes a bite that scalds his tongue. Perhaps his flames had been a little much. “I tolerate you.”
“Yeah, sure,” she stares at him. “You could have left me hurt there. You don’t need to be feeding me or talking to me or giving me your bed.”
You’re bait for the Avatar, he could say. But he knows, deep inside of him, that that’s not completely true. Not anymore. “I don’t mind you.”
“Thank you. I owe you a lot. You and Uncle.”
Zuko swallows. “You’re calling him Uncle?”
“Is . . . is that okay? He said he prefers that.”
“Yeah, it’s fine, I guess.” He nods to her bowl, his expression indecipherable. “Eat.”
Four days later, Uncle brings Katara to the tea shop kitchen. Pao looks intrigued by her but all Zuko can do is frown as he sets a few mooncakes up on the plate he’s set to carry out. “She shouldn’t be here.”
“Ah, no mind,” Iroh smiles genially at Katara. She’s been dressing in assorted versions of his clothes, because they haven’t been able to buy her anything of her own yet and she’s . . . she’s still garments that don’t quite fit, in loose pants and a shirt that’s too big for her. That’s painfully obvious, too. Her hair is falling wet around her shoulders and her eyes have a spark in them, however, so he can’t be too angry. “She is not here to work, simply to observe. Is that okay, Mister Pao?”
“Of course, of course,” the man smiles excitedly, his eyes running over Katara’s form. “And we could use a new server too, with all the traffic that you're bringing in, Mushi! Who is this lovely young woman?” he doesn’t even wait for a reply before he turns to Zuko, who’s heading out the door with a cup of tea and several cakes in his hand. “A lady friend of Lee?”
He remembers the bounty-hunter, June, calling Katara his girlfriend, and wants to just blush. They’re on opposite ends of the room—they can’t look like they’re dating! A few drops of tea fall out around the cup he’s holding, and he almost swerves back inside before deciding to walk out. He catches the tail end of the men’s conversation while he places the plate in front of a group of women his uncle’s age. “. . . I wish!”
Zuko doesn’t really want to walk back into that, so he steps to the empty counter and takes in their clientele. There’s a few men gesticulating wildly in the corner and a couple sitting just past them. The women he’d just served look slightly poised, likely not from the Lower Ring, and beyond them is . . . a girl.
He narrows his eyes at her, because her face is starting to look all too common to him. He’s sure she was here during his last shift, and perhaps even the one before that. Maybe she has been hanging around . . .
He blanches all of a sudden and turns around, ready to storm back into the kitchen and get Uncle, until he realizes that he doesn’t want to walk back into that scenario. That said, he’s willing to get teased about his nonexistent feelings for the amnesiac waterbender in order to alert Uncle to the fact that this girl knows that they’re firebenders. That’s the only reason she would be staying around. That’s the only thing that really makes sense.
Still, his hesitation is momentous. Before he can move inside he feels a hand on his shoulder, and he turns around to see the girl smiling at him. She grabs his hand briefly and drops in a few coins before he’s actually aware that she’s right there, and he places them on the table and pulls away.
“Thanks for the tea,” the girl says. “What’s your name?”
Zuko knows he can’t disengage a customer for any reason, so he groans and tries to smile at her. “My name’s Lee. I just moved here.”
“Nice to meet you, Lee. I’m Jin—”
Jin is about to finish her sentence, but someone runs into Zuko’s back before she does. He sees his uncle out of the corner of his eye, his usual calm smile on his face. “Oh, Lee. Who is this?”
“Uh. This is Jin,” he deadpans, and Iroh grins at her.
“It is nice to meet you, Jin! If you need help with your order, please let me know. I’m sorry to say you’ll have to give up on my nephew,” he addresses Zuko. “Please help Miss Katara in the back. She’s trying to prepare some fruit—”
“Uncle,” he says, aghast. “You know she isn’t supposed to be around sharp objects. I . . .” he takes in Jin’s expression, suddenly less than cheerful, before walking through the kitchen door again.
Pao is luckily gone but Katara is in the corner, sitting with a knife on a chopping board. He walks up to her back and places a hand over hers, stopping her massacre of melon. “No knives.”
“You’re boring. Uncle said it was okay—”
“No, okay?” he groans, and she places the handle in his hand as she swivels around to face him. Zuko is once again taken away by the light in her eyes—
(It reminds him of fire, blue and swirling, raging hot.)
Katara pouts. “You’re overprotective, Zuko.” Still, she just eyes him as he places the knife down carefully. “I can work here, like you do. It’ll help. I know money’s tight—”
Once upon a time, Zuko lived like a king, because he was a prince. Then he had been a starving refugee in the Earth Kingdom. Pao pays him and Uncle well, and extra funds are always nice, but not necessary. If Katara wants to work, he’s nobody to stop her—
(He is nothing, he really is.)
Katara is so trusting, and they are growing something, here, something strange in the little apartment where she’s recuperating. Maybe this version of her is innocent; she believes whatever he says, and she trusts him. Perhaps that is why she is such a good ally of the Avatar.
Zuko should feel guilty, because he has lied to her about everything. She thinks he and Iroh are ex-soldiers, and thinks he is a victim of this war, from the colonies. That might not be a complete lie, because this war has been his downfall. But it’s still not the fact he sometimes wishes it was. Katara only knows of the other nations from stories. She tries new food with gusto. They’d stepped outside for just moments to come to the tea shop, and even within those, she had pointed at the streets with her mouth wide. He feels bad that she spends all her time in the apartment, staring out the window. He wants her to be—
(He is not doing the right thing.)
Sometimes Zuko forgets that there is a pragmatic reason Katara is here—she’s his way back to the Avatar, should he want it. That’s the reason why she isn’t allowed to go out on the streets. That’s the reason—that might be why he’s so overprotective.
They are growing and building this thing, here. She tells him stories about the spirits at night, and she teaches him how to cook, and he shows her his swords. They laugh with each other, and she trusts him—she trusts Zuko, not even Lee, and she does not know who he is.
Maybe Zuko is being overprotective because Katara cannot get better. If Katara gets better, if she walks through the streets, then this little, innocent thing . . . it might come to an end. And yet . . .
He doesn’t even know what he wants. His heart beats like a mess when he stares at her, and he feels comfortable, sleeping on a pallet below her. Last night he had woken up with his scarred side up. He has not done that in a long time.
“Okay? Okay like . . . I can work here?”
She seems all too excited at the prospect of being allowed to work in customer service. He supposes that she might be the daughter of the Southern Water Tribe’s chief, but they are not the same. “You don’t really need my permission,” he scratches the back of his head awkwardly. “I’m sure Pao will offer you a job.”
Katara reaches forward and hugs him, all warmth and curves and smelling like him.
(He is so, so terrified. He has no idea what she is doing to him.)