He’s rounding the corner when his heart stops.
Zuko’s late-night excursions are a way for him to blow off steam, to revel in the freedom he craves, to be a vigilante. Still, he is careful not to bend; careful not to release the flames which thunder under his skin, which wish to creep out through his fingers. Today he isn’t wearing a mask or a way to hide his features, just a hood which covers the marked side of his face and a permanent smirk. He’d intended to go on a walk to recalibrate his fire and that had been all. He hadn’t intended to witness—
A girl strewn across an alley floor, several boys barely older than him kicking at her. Her clothes are on and he breathes out a little at that—honor is at the forefront of his mind, and he will do what is right—before rushing forward. His relationship with his dignity right now is barely comprehensible, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to extrapolate upon his shame by ignoring something so disgraceful.
He takes in a waterskin lying on the earthen ground as he reaches for the sword at his back. It doesn’t separate into his dual broadswords, because those are weapons of war, not a tea-shop employee. Zuko misses the familiar weight of his daos in his hand, but this one does the trick. His feet touch the ground stridently and he lurches forward to press the blade to the neck of one of the boys before seconds pass. The pressure is rough, but not enough for skin to crack—
(Not enough to hide the boy’s cacophonous scream.)
The others leave the girl on the ground and stare at him, taking in his sheathed face and the weapon bloody to their friend’s neck, before freezing in place. Zuko can’t place their dirty faces and rough skin tones—all the people of the Earth Kingdom look the same, in his opinion—but he thinks they place his. He’s sure they think he was harmed by the Fire Nation at best, and he’s fine with their assumptions. Better to be damaged by war than by the hand of your own father.
“We’ll go,” one shudders out, and the rest frantically nod their heads.
Briefly, he wants to shout at them, say that they are cowards— but then he closes up that part of him a box, places it away and relaxes his singular brow. He draws his sword back minutely, and the boy underneath him squeaks before sidling back to his friends. They hunch up and sprint out of the alley.
At least I’m still terrifying, he thinks for a second—because isn’t it funny that some Earth Kingdom hooligans followed his instructions faster than his own crew used to?—before remembering what his intentions here were. The girl on the ground is a sad vision, crawled up in a fetal position, in dirty green robes, brown hair tossed over her face. The streets here are paved by mud and she’s covered in it and a collection of footprints.
Zuko debates leaving her there alone for a few moments before realizing that she isn’t moving—that she hasn’t moved since he interrupted the other teen boys. His heart pounds violently in his chest because—
(Of course, he can’t even do a good thing correctly. Of course, she’s dead.)
He sheaths his sword and walks up to her prone form, bending down to see the back of her figure. She’s tiny and looks young and blood is pooling on the ground underneath her. He suddenly wants to wrench back, terrified—that much blood is terrifying. But he doesn’t because he’s going to try to help—because it isn’t honorable for anyone, even a poor girl in the Lower Ring, to die like this. He’d hope someone would do the same for him.
He flips her over and sees a face matted in crimson, hair covering painted features. She almost looks familiar and . . . her hair is moving, strands rhythmically fluttering across her lips.
He carefully moves his hand over to her neck and presses over her pulse point. Then Zuko almost exhales with relief when he notices that her breath is still falling and rising to some sort of cadence. It’s comforting, for whatever reason.
Zuko can’t make out the girl’s features in the darkness of the light, and he isn’t going to leave her here in this dark alley and—
(He thinks he might be about to do something stupid. He might.)
He makes sure his sword isn’t going to dig into his flesh, and then lightly runs his fingers over her clothing, veering away from what’s considered inappropriate. He thinks she might have broken a few ribs, but he can’t do anything about that, so he just gently drapes her over his shoulder and starts walking home, trying to ignore the blood dripping down his neck.
“Grab some water,” Uncle says, and Zuko acquiesces, grabbing the pail from the front room. When he returns Iroh dips a towel into it and gestures for him to go back to the bathroom. He doesn’t listen to that instruction.
He stands in the doorframe of his small room, staring at his uncle wiping the girl’s face. “Is she going to be okay?”
Iroh moves her hair away from her features and breathes in sharply. “Zuko.”
“Yes, Uncle? Is she going to be okay—”
“Did you attack the Avatar’s waterbender?”
“What?” he exclaims. “Of course not! What does this even have to do with—”
Uncle moves out of his line of sight so that he can take in the girl’s slightly reddened face. Her features are heavy and drawn, like they’re under reconstruction, and he wants to tell his uncle that this could be any Earth Kingdom girl.
Zuko’s gaze flits across her warm cheekbones and large lashes, and he almost convinces himself that she is nothing special. Almost. There is a wide leather choker fastened to her neck.
(It feels familiar, and he can feel the ghost of it on his skin.)
He knows that piece of jewelry very intimately—he’d almost been comforted by it for a while. But it doesn’t matter what it used to be—Uncle is right. This is the Avatar’s waterbender. Iroh sighs. “You need to give up on the Avatar, Zuko—”
“I swear, I didn’t know it was her,” he breathes out, suddenly attached to the wall. He’s hurt this girl before—she hurt him terribly at the North Pole—but she looks utterly broken in front of him right now. This is unexpected, and he is much more nervous faced with her lying on his bed, pale and dirty, then he ever was fighting her in ice at midnight. “I wasn’t trying to do anything.”
Iroh takes him in for a second and sighs. “I see. She is gravely injured. I am worried for her head. What did you see occur?”
“There were a few boys kicking her in an alley,” he remembers the waterskin on the floor. “They must have gotten her face and her ribs.”
“Some people are terrible,” Iroh says sharply before switching out the towel again and combing his worn fingers lightly through the girl’s hair. “I do not even know if she will regain consciousness.”
“Wait,” he starts. “Do you mean . . .”
“There is a possibility that she will die,” Iroh says mournfully, and all Zuko can do in response to that is back out of the room and into the kitchen. He has fought her, and she is a supporter of the Avatar, but he keeps picturing her prone form and thinking—
(He really, really, does not want her to die.)
When Iroh comes out of the room, after what seems like hours later, he drops something warm in Zuko’s hand.
It’s the necklace.
It has been two days and the girl has still not woken up. Zuko has been growing steadily more concerned about her—and also, strangely, hopeful. Surely if she hasn’t succumbed to her wounds yet, she will be okay eventually, he thinks.
He sits awkwardly at her bedside and attempts to replace the bandages on her ribs. They’d had to cut off the middle part of her robes to access her stomach. That feels inappropriate, and almost grates at his sensibilities, but he hopes that she won’t mind when she wakes.
He knows that when she wakes she’ll have other concerns on her mind. She’ll likely wonder as to why she’s being tended to by Prince Zuko. She’d known his name in that abandoned town, she’d told him that she could help his uncle. She’s a waterbender and she likely has healing capabilities. He wishes she would heal herself.
The necklace is wrapped around his arm again, and he sits back at the finished bandages and stares at it. Uncle is in the shop right now and Zuko is on break. They’ve been taking alternate shifts to look after her. He wishes he remembered her name but he doesn’t, though it’s at the tip of his tongue.
At the Siege of the North he’d called her big girl, laughed at her. He is still that person, somewhere deep inside of him, but he regrets that phrasing.
She is a big girl—she’s a powerful bender, he knows that. She’s much better a waterbender than he will ever be a firebender. He’d gotten lucky with her being relatively unpracticed and the sun rising those days ago. She’s strong—
(But she looks so vulnerable and peaceful sitting in his bed. That scares him.)
It doesn’t feel quite right, to have her here like this. He runs his hand softly over the bandages on her head once more, pressing his fingers against cotton, before sitting back in his chair and just taking her in.
She has nice features, the water tribe girl. Even sick and broken in her enemy’s bed she looks sort of beautiful. Her features are smooth, and he knows that when her eyes open they’ll be bright cerulean.
If they open, he has to remind himself.
He’s dozed off in the chair. There’s a permanent crick in his neck, but as the hours turned to days, he hadn’t wanted to leave her alone.
Still, he startles and wakes at the briefest sound, as usual. His eyes meet glassy blue and he jumps up, because the waterbender is awake. He’s almost excited . . .
Before he remembers that even if he’s a traitor to his nation, he’s still her enemy. Zuko isn’t quite sure what to do here, doesn’t know if he should hold his hands up in surrender—
(It’s hilarious, because here she is, at his mercy, and yet even unconscious, she holds all the tiles.)
Then she attempts to sit up and place her head against the headboard. She winces. Zuko rises quickly, blinking spots out of his vision, and grabs her shoulders clinically in order to place her back.
“Thanks,” she creaks in the low-light, and he quickly places his hand back when she’s propped up. He doesn’t know how to reply to that, and he’s still primed for an attack, an argument. He compromises by standing still and trying to school his face into some sort of nonchalance.
“What happened?” she asks after a moment passes and it has become clear that he isn’t about to volunteer any information to her. Her tone is rather peaceful, and he bites his lip before turning his head to the side so that his scar is visible. She doesn’t react beyond the way most people do, eyeing it briefly.
“You were being attacked by a couple of guys,” he replies quickly. “You got hurt. I found you and brought you back here.”
“Um, my apartment,” he scratches his neck awkwardly and looks away from her. “In the Lower Ring?”
It was easy to think of her as beautiful when she seemed almost ethereal and nonexistent—
(It’s difficult to realize that he feels the same way now, while she is right here, blinking up at him between her lashes.)
“What’s that? It’s warm here,” she says dazedly, her eyes losing focus of his face. “It’s a strange igloo.”
He doesn’t get an answer—her head lolls against the wooden headboard and she enters the dreamworld again.
The next time she opens her eyes is a few hours later.
Uncle has just left the apartment and he is stirring porridge in one of their pots, lighting up his hand underneath the congealed grains to ensure they heat evenly. He is terrible at cooking, but he knows how to repurpose whatever Uncle makes, so he tosses a few berries into the mix before taking the bowl back to his room so he can watch the girl and eat.
What she’d said the day prior, about igloos and warmth—it had been confusing. And she hadn’t been terrified of him. Perhaps she’d imagined that she was lucid dreaming. His feet pound against the wooden floor of the apartment before he pauses at his doorway. She’s moving.
It’s likely a coincidence that she wakes up at that very moment. Zuko had carefully placed her back down into a lying position after last night, and now her eyes struggle to open. When they do, her gaze is angled right at him, and she blinks at his wooden figure and the steaming bowl in his hand. He doesn’t say anything. Maybe this time she’ll scream at him.
Her eyebrows knit together and her mouth opens and closes before she speaks. “Who are you?”
She just seems to be confused—maybe she is trying to reconcile the old him with this him. He places the bowl in his lap and—
(He realizes that she can see him; she does not know him, but she can see him better than he can, himself.)
“I’m Zuko. You know me,” he says tightly.
She winces, and one of her eyes twitches imperceptibly, but she doesn’t seem any more alarmed. “I do? I don’t think I do,” she frowns. “I’m Katara.”
Katara. It’s fitting—he feels like he knew it already. But he doesn’t know why she’s telling him this. “I know.”
“This is your home, Zuko?” she asks, and he is so confused, but he nods. “It’s warm here for the South.”
He forgets about holding himself in, about trying to stay calm, and raises his eyebrow at her. “What do you mean, South? We’re in Ba Sing Se,” he states matter-of-factly, and that seems to drive her madder than him.
“No,” she says calmly, almost—her words have a frantic undertone. “We’re in the South Pole. Are you okay?”
“This . . . isn’t the South Pole,” he reiterates.
“But that doesn’t make sense! I was just home at the South Pole. You have to be from the South Pole,” she lets out rapidly. Then her eyes move to his scar and she sucks in a deep breath. “Oh. You don’t look like you’re from the South Pole.”
“I’m not,” he frowns, a strange thought coming to mind. He lets go of his inhibitions about being attacked because he doesn’t think she’s going to hurt him. There’s still a bucket of water to her side but she’s paid it no heed and her expression is more perplexed than angry. “Don’t you remember me?”
“I—should I? But I don’t. I’ve never met you before.”
Zuko doesn’t know whether he should feel relieved or disappointed right now—
(That’s a lie, a terrible one, and he doesn’t know what’s driving him.)
What did he expect from the water tribe girl? He thought that she would attack him, and then leave the apartment, and then go tell all of her friends that Prince Zuko is hiding in the Lower Ring. The best-case scenario for him a few hours ago had been her deciding to pay him back by keeping his very existence a secret. The bowl almost falls off his lap as he scoots forward and stares intently into her eyes.
“What’s the last thing you remember, Katara?” he tries to keep the name familiar on his lips.
“I was out on the ice with my brother,” she says tightly. “And then that’s—that’s all. I thought I blacked out but I should be home. I don’t know—where is this? I’m not at home. I should be home—”
He breathes in tightly and watches as she continues to babble, her mouth moving as she frowns and comes to the same conclusion he has in her feverish haze. She thinks she is in the South Pole and she woke up today with a firebender in the Earth Kingdom. She doesn’t remember.
She doesn’t remember.
Her words go over his head—for whatever reason he feels very relieved right now. No, he knows why he does. He’s fought this girl for the Avatar. He’s carried her necklace around his wrist. She’s known the worst part of him—she knew the Prince Zuko that stormed into her homeland and grabbed the elderly woman next to her, who shot flames at her brother.
There’s a small thought niggling at the back of his mind; this girl doesn’t know about the Avatar. She doesn’t know about him. She’s here, out of her element, completely at his mercy for now. He can use her to get back at the Avatar, and she’ll be fully unaware. For once, he has an advantage—
(Strategy has never been his strong point, but he will make it one.)
That makes him feel a bit dirty. Katara is shaking in his sheets, and the water underneath the covers, out of her line of sight, is moving in the bucket. She doesn’t seem to realize that she’s moving it. Has she forgotten how to bend? He’s thinking of a lot right now—her lamentations have paused, and she is staring at him. Did she ask him a question?
He can’t quite recall, so he picks up the bowl in his hand and moves it into her line of sight. “Are you hungry?” he asks.
Food is simple and universal. Her mouth opens for a moment before closing, and she looks defeated as she nods and tries to pull herself up, into a sitting position. Zuko stares at her, struggling, for a moment. Then he awkwardly reaches out to grab her shoulders tightly and bolsters her up.
When she’s in a sitting position he transfers the bowl into her lap and places a spoon in her hand. He watches her transfer a bite of porridge slowly though her lips. She’s sluggish at first, but she hasn’t eaten in days, and she quickly starts to consume the breakfast readily. He shifts away and places his hand behind his neck. “You should eat slowly or you’ll throw it all up.”
“Yeah, okay,” she murmurs as her movements slow down. It’s a bit awkward, him staring at her eating, but he doesn’t know what else to do. He watches her wrist flex around the spoon, almost spasm, and moves forward to catch it before she drops it.
“Are we in the Earth Kingdom?”
He breathes out. “Yes.”
“How did I get to the Earth Kingdom? Where’s my family?”
He doesn’t quite know how to play this, so he does it by ear . . . and also a bit maliciously. He shouldn’t, of course, but it’s not as though he can tell her that she’s with the Avatar and her brother and the strange little earthbender girl. He’s already told her that she knows him—
(This is a mess. His fingers drum across his tunic, and he knows what he needs to do.)
“I think you came here as a refugee.”
“What about my brother? Do you know anything about my brother?” She’s paused eating to stare at him hopefully, and he places away the small part of him that already regrets what he’s about to say.
“I’ve never seen you with your brother before. You’re always alone.”
“How do I know you?”
“You come to the tea shop where I work,” he thinks quickly. “We’re friends.”
“I’m here in the Earth Kingdom,” she summarizes, “alone. As a refugee. Are you a refugee?”
It seems like she’s trying to distract herself from what else he’d said, more than anything else, but he nods his head anyway. “Yeah, my uncle and I are refugees. We work at the tea shop below here.”
“What am I doing here? Wait. When is it . . .”
How long has it been since he found the Avatar? A few months, maybe. “It’s the year one-hundred,” he tells her, and she lets out a sigh of relief.
“But if it’s the same time . . . I don’t get it. I’m alone in the Earth Kingdom? Without Dad or Sokka?” she talks to herself before addressing him. “What was I doing here?”
“I don’t really know,” he shrugs. “I think you were looking for work. But I didn’t know that much about you.”
Katara doesn’t answer him after that. She finishes the rest of her bowl and hands it to him before grasping her head and lying back down in her sheets. Before her eyes close, she whispers out. “Thank you for saving me, Zuko. But I think this is just a dream.”
(He doesn't know whether or not he wants it to be.)
I've been out of it lately . . . sorry about that, especially if you follow me. I had a really long streak of writing a lot going and then my mental health crashed, I started to hate my writing, and I decided to take a brief break from posting on AO3. I'm not necessarily back and I have a lot of WIPs to continue working on . . . and a lot in the works lol . . . and I will finish everything, eventually. Promise. It took me some time to remember that I write for me.
Nobody cares about that, though. This fic doesn't have an updating schedule but it's about half-way written and I'll finish it before the end of the year. A general warning that my Zuko is decently morally ambiguous, and he can be a little selfish in love.
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.)
I rewrote the first chapter of this, so you might want to give it a reread :D I've changed my writing style a bit, and I wanted to ensure that this story has some kind of continuity. Hopefully it's for the better!