Winter in the Fire Nation was nothing like winter in the South Pole and after almost four years living there, Katara thought she’d be used to the lack of snow and ice, and just accept the cooler than normal weather.
She still woke up expecting to see a fresh dusting of snow on the stone streets. Instead, it was mild weather for the subtropic Caldera City, and at most, she wore a light jacket.
She checked the time on her phone and frowned. Her part time student job at the medical library on campus set her schedule back. With the medical students preparing for a wave of tests, the open hours were extended and as a result, so was her work schedule. It was still open when she left, but another wave of part timers arrived to relieve her.
At ten at night, the campus shuttle had stopped running and in order to get to her apartment, she’d have to walk.
The city was relatively safe for its size and she didn’t mind walking alone at night. She just wished she didn’t look forward to the thirty minute walk across campus and then through downtown to get to her new apartment.
She pulled up a map app on her phone to calculate how much time remained. Katara frowned as it auto-updated. Of course that needed to happen right then and there. At the very least, it didn’t take long and typed in the address to her apartment. She furrowed her brows and lifted her head to look around the area.
That was strange; there was a short cut in the update. It would cut her time in half if she went through an unnamed alley behind the Souzin building.
“That’s a bit risky...,” she said under her breath. She looked across the street, at the towering building baring a flame logo associated with the corporation that seemed to dominate the Fire Nation.
Several buildings on campus were named after Souzin family members. There were enough that rather than call them Souzin One or Souzin Plaza, students just referred to them by the given name of who they were named after. The medical library was named after a female Souzin who developed a vaccine that eradicated a extremely fatal childhood disease.
But that was neither here nor there.
Katara crossed the street and peered down the long alley behind the building. It could fit perhaps two car across and had some folded umbrellas, tables, and chairs stacked against the side. The space was probably used for outdoor dining for the building's office workers during business hours.
There were a few street lamps in the back and she could see light pouring from windows in the middle of the alley.
It was well lit and she deemed it safe.
Katara clutched her phone in her hand and began to walk through the alley.
She glanced up, at the tall building beside her. Upon closer inspection, it was actually two large buildings that made up the length of the block. She let out a low whistle. From the back, it was easy to see the walkways that connected the buildings at the upper levels.
As she neared the glass windows that were still illuminated from within, she slowed. It wasn’t part of the building. Unlike the elegant glass and metal structure around it, the light was coming from a two story traditional looking building. Red tile roofs that curved outwards and red painted columns.
Was it a historical building that was preserved? If so, the only part that was really changed as the glass panels at the front of the building that showed off the interior of what looked like a cafe. Metal canisters and small wooden boxes were lined up on shelves behind a long counter and she could make out an entire wall of different teapots and matching cups.
To one side, there were wooden tables with pai sho boards embedded into them. To the other, behind the largest glass panel, was a flat area with a fire pit in the center. Was this a tea house? Did they do tea ceremonies there?
Katara slowed to a stop and studied what she could see from the window. She glanced around the building, looking for some sort of plaque that would tell her what the old building was and why it was preserved. She couldn’t find any such plaque, but noted the name of the shop on an old wooden shop.
She was sure it was one of those fancy tea houses the Fire Nation was famous for. Katara nodded to herself and was about to leave, making a mental note to look up the shop and its tea on the internet later.
Then she saw a young man walk out from the back room clad in an olive green apron and holding a broom, making her stop in mid step. His dark hair was messy and she could see the remains of a faint scar over his left eye.
He had white earbuds in his ears and his head was bobbing up and down.
The poor guy must’ve been closing. She turned to continue on her way when she saw him move from the corner of her eye.
A slow, amused smile filled her face as the young man in the apron began to half sweep and half dance across the floor.
He hadn’t had a customer in three hours. No wonder his cousin said ‘yeah, you only need one person there’ when he handed the keys to the family owned tea house to him. Zuko didn’t believe Lu Ten; after all, his uncle’s tea brand was an empire in itself outside of the family business. Then again, it was a luxury tea with award winning blends not found anywhere else as Iroh blended them himself.
Not many people knew that Ten Tea had an actual store where you could purchase leaves, packets, and sit down to have actual tea traditionally prepared and poured for you in an actual century and a half old tea house his family preserved.
The only reason the shop wasn’t demolished was because it had been continuously open for that century and a half and his uncle saw it as a legacy to keep working, even if it was only open four days a week.
At most, Zuko had two or three customers in at a time, and they were usually just there to purchase tea and leave, not sit for the tea ceremony. It made clean up light, but he was still required to sweep the floor and make sure all the tables were wiped clean before closing.
He turned the sign on the door to ‘closed’ and locked it. He turned off the lights at the front of the shop and walked to the back to fetch a broom. The tables were all clean, the tea wear were washed, dried, and already in their places, ready for the next customer tomorrow.
All he had to do was sweep.
He reached into his olive green apron pocket and took out his phone. He put the earbuds on, making sure it was secure before he opened a streaming app.
The music filled his head as he allowed the phone to slip back into the pocket. He made his way to the back room to get the broom as he hummed along.
As boring as it was, he enjoyed time to himself and the near zen like motions of cleaning up. It was far less stress than working directly under his father, as he had done over the summer. He was sure more than ever that the business world was not for him.
During his time working ‘upstairs’, Azula and Lu Ten had taken turns manning the tea shop for Iroh and they were more than happy to hand him the keys when their turn was up. While Azula enjoyed the praise she received from guests at her skill, she found the rest of the time boring. Lu Ten enjoyed running the shop, but wanted to spend more time with his young wife and newborn.
Zuko supposed it was a blessing that he was now tasked with the job. His sister fared much better at the Souzin Corporation’s planning department and Lu Ten had his free time available for June and their son.
Zuko slid out of the back room, tossing the broomstick from one hand to the other as he turned and danced across the tea house, lost in the music. All Souzins knew how to dance and while he didn’t take lessons as long as his sister, he could still move fluidly. He did a few years of children’s theater, too, as the son of the volunteer director.
He hadn’t forgotten all the numerous dances he learned in various musicals his mother put him in. He didn’t want to admit it, but he did have a soft spot for them. His mother’s influence he suspected.
Zuko mouthed along to the lyrics of the song as he watched his footwork and made a point to sweep in one direction.
As he turned, extending his hand with the broomstick outward, he faced the window across from him and froze.
A young woman was standing just outside, with mirthful blue eyes and a wide smile across her lips.
His face flooded with color as he nearly dropped the broom.
“You’re a great dancer!” Her enthusiastic voice was muffled by the glass. She gave him a thumbs up and Zuko scowled. He tossed the broom behind him and stalked forward. He reached for a string by the window and tugged, sending a thick curtain of traditional woven straw down and blocking her view.
He could’ve sworn he heard a disappointed “aww” as the curtain fell.
Mortified, Zuko pulled out his earbuds and slammed them on the counter.
“Oh no...” he said under his breath as he looked back towards the window. He couldn’t tell if she was there or not, but he wouldn’t risk it. He turned off the music from his phone and grabbed the broom, his dancing lost for the moment.
Ten Tea was open four days a week, from early afternoon to late evening. In order to have the full traditional tea experience, it was required that she make an appointment.
And she would’ve, if the prices for such a thing make it clear it was not college student budget friendly.
Katara leaned back against her chair and let out a heavy sigh. The historic tea house was a must for tea aficionados worldwide and according to the website, the appointment for the tea ceremony were overseen by an experienced member of the Souzin family themselves. Apparently, it was family run and when no one could run it, it just closed for that day.
Weird, but rich people did all sorts of weird things.
Did that mean the young man dancing across the shop last night was a Souzin?
She balanced a pencil on her upper lip as she turned in her chair.
“Katara, can you do me a favor?” One of her co-workers approached her from the copy room. “Can you take over my extended shift today? I have a group project and they won’t reschedule for me.”
Aang looked stressed. He was in an accelerated program for animal behavior and looked about ready to collapse; a far cry from his usually bubbly self. Katara sat up and nodded without hesitation.
“Yeah, sure, Aang. No problem. Are you okay?”
“Yes, yes, I’m fine,” Aang said, attempting to smile. “Just a lot to do, you know. Thanks, Katara.”
She gave him a small nod as he trudged back into the copy room. Poor kid started college at an early age and while his mind was all caught up, the stress couldn’t be good for his growing body.
Katara looked back at her screen, at the open browser window to Ten Tea. She pursed her lips. Her grandfather used to drink tea a lot when he was stressed. Maybe should could get some for her friend.
She leaned forward and scrolled through the list of teas they had. While still considerably expensive, they were far more affordable than a tea ceremony appointment.
She combed through the list for what was recommended for stress. As she scribbled down some notes, her phone began to vibrate and she lifted it up to her ear after glancing at the screen.
“Hi, Mom,” she said. “Really? When? I’ll make time, but I should be available in the evening. I can meet you there. I’ll probably have to come straight from the campus. Where are you having tea?”
The laugher echoed in his ear as Zuko sat behind the counter, glaring out into the empty tea house floor as his cousin’s voice came from the phone in front of him. Perhaps telling Lu Ten about his encounter the other night wasn’t the best idea.
“What did you do?” Lu Ten asked, sounding as if he were desperately trying to keep composed. Another muffled snort left him and Zuko rolled his eyes.
“What else could I do? I pulled the curtains down,” Zuko said. “Ugh, I can’t believe someone saw me. No one ever walks through the alley at night.”
“Hey, at least you know how to dance.”
“Ha ha.” Zuko said in a droll voice. “It was humiliating.”
There was a pause on the other side of the line. “It’s Zuko,” he heard his cousin tell someone. “Oh...okay. Zuko, Uncle wants to talk to you.”
He furrowed his brows. Uncle as in his father?
“Zuko.” A low, stern voice replaced the casual cheer of his cousin. That was his father all right.
“I’m glad I caught you. I’ve been meaning to tell you to book an appointment for your mother at the tea house.”
Zuko pulled out a worn, leather back ledger from beneath the lacquered counter. “When?”
“In two weeks. Are there any openings?”
“There are always openings,” Zuko said as he flipped through the ledger. “Morning or afternoon?”
“Evening works best. It’s for your mother and a good friend of hers who is visiting,” Ozai said. “Her friend is bringing her daughter along.”
“Okay....” Zuko didn’t think much of it as he wrote his mother’s name. “For three people? You won’t be joining them?”
“Her husband and I have business.”
“Uncle is taking him to the game that night,” Lu Ten said in the background.
Zuko furrowed his brows. It almost sounded like his workaholic father had a friend. “All right. I’ll put down tea for three.”
“Four,” Ozai said. “Your mother wants you to join them.”
“But I have to be the host.”
“Your mother wants you to join them ,” Ozai repeated, slower and firmer, as if stressing the importance of his joining. Ozai Souzin had a fierce reputation in business, but when it came to his wife, near anything Ursa wanted Ursa got.
Zuko let out a low breath. “All right. I’ll join them.”
“Good. And Zuko.” His father’s voice lowered and sounded as if he were giving him a warning. “It’s important you make a good impression on their daughter.”
“Wait, what?” Zuko sat up straight as he heard shuffling on the other end of the line. “Dad? Dad!”
“Zuko, I think your parents are trying to set you up,” Lu Ten said in a conspiratory voice.
“You think?” Zuko’s voice rose. “I must’ve heard wrong.”
“No, I was listening and it definitely sounded like they want to introduce you to their friend’s daughter.”
This wasn’t happening. Zuko ran his hand down his face. “I’m sure they just want me to get along with her.”
“Yeah and maybe marry her.”
Zuko closed his eyes and let out a silent swear. Was that Azula? That’s right, she was working in planning not far from Lu Ten’s office. “Are you on speaker?”
“Don’t worry, Zuzu, I closed the door,” Azula’s smooth voice said. “I saw Daddy walk out and heard what he said. Now I'm a bit curious as to this friend of theirs.”
“Don’t get involved, Azula.”
“I’m not. I’m just...observing intently.”
“It wouldn’t hurt to find out more about your guests in two weeks,” Lu Ten said, placating the two of them as usual. “Azula, poke around Auntie and see if you can get any info on their friend. I”ll try to pry into Uncle’s schedule to see who his friend is.”
“This is ridiculous. I’m sure he didn’t mean it in such a way.” But their father was often a frank man about his goals.
“I don’t know, Zuzu,” Azula said in a sing song voice. “For Dad to specifically mention making a good impression on their friend’s daughter says something.”
“You know, after Jin was born, Auntie has been telling June she couldn’t wait to have grandchildren from one of you,” Lu Ten said. “Maybe it has something to do with that.”
“I’m twenty-four,” Zuko said. “It’s a bit too early to be thinking about having kids.”
“Especially when he’s been girlfriend-less for, what? Two...three years now?” He could almost hear Azula’s smirk.
“That is none of your business, Azula-”
“Oops! Time to get back to work,” his sister said. “I’ll get back to you with what I find. Bye, Zuzu!”
He heard the door open and close. Lu Ten let out a little ‘hmmm’. “I’m sure their daughter is a nice girl.”
Zuko hung up. He leaned forward on the counter and shook his head. So he hasn’t had a girlfriend in three years. Big deal. He’s been busy. There was graduating from the university, then interning at Souzin Corp, and now, he was applying to law school.
He didn’t plan to work at the tea house forever and he was genuinely interested in law. He just had other things to deal with recently and it wasn’t as if the perfect woman for him was going to walk through the tea house doors all of a sudden.
A little bell rang from the door and he looked up.
“Hi, I was hoping to buy some tea?” A young man, probably still in his teens, with a bald head walked in wearing a dark red FNRU sweatshirt. “A friend of mine suggested this tea house.”
Zuko was a bit surprised to see him; while they were right next to the campus, students rarely came to the tea house.
“Of course,” he said, rounding the counter. “Do you have a particular blend in mind?”
“She looked over your website and had a few listed, but if you have any recommendations, that would be great,” he said, providing a piece of paper with a few choices.
Zuko took it from him and skimmed the list. “Stress, huh? My uncle has a particular blend that is a mix,” he said, turning around and heading to the wall of tins. “I used to drink it all the time when I was in school.”
The young man’s face lit up. “Then it works?”
“He swears by it,” Zuko said. He moved a wooden step ladder closer along the wall and climbed up to pluck out a dark blue tin. “I can portion them out for you in individual tea bags in sets of three or if you’d like, we also sell them loose leaf by weight. We provide the tin.”
“Loose leaf is fine. I have a tea set at home I can use,” he said. “How much is it?”
“Our smallest tin is about 10 servings. It’ll come to be two silver pieces.”
“Oh, sounds good. Thanks!” Zuko nodded and went to prepare the items. The young man looked around the old building. “I didn’t know this place existed so close to the university.”
“It’s kind of overshadowed by the building,” Zuko said, pulling out a small scale. “But it’s considered a city landmark as one of the first big tea houses in the Caldera, so it’s been preserved. Still, we hardly ever get students. How’d you hear about us?”
“My friend passed by the other day,” he said. “On her way home.”
Zuko tensed in the midst of scooping out some tea leaves. He swallowed. “Really? Has she bought from us before?”
“I don’t think so. She just said ‘Aang, you looked stressed. Get yourself some tea,’ and handed me some money,” the young man said with a cheerful smile. He placed the silver coins on the counter. “But if this works as well as you say, I’ll definitely tell her to come by.”
Zuko took his money with a small nod. He put the small tin into a paper bag and handed it to the student. “Thank you for your business. I hope you enjoy the tea.”
The student thanked him once more and seemed to bounce out of the tea house. Zuko shook his head; for someone who was stressed, the kid didn’t seem like it. Then again, it could be the delirium kicking in. He knew that feeling all too well.
His phone began to vibrate in his apron pocket and he pulled it out. The alarm was going off for him to get ready. He had a tea ceremony in an hour and had to set up. He swiped his thumb across the screen and rounded the counter with a spray bottle and clean towel to wipe down the ceremonial preparation area.
After a thorough wiping of the tight, woven mats, he prepared the fire pit and laid out memory foam cushions for the scheduled two guests that day. The memory foam were, of course, a modern addition and, as his uncle said, “good for older guests”.
As the host, Zuko wasn’t allowed to use one. It didn’t fit in with the aesthetic once he was dressed.
He returned to the counter to collect the items needed: the special powdered tea, the kettle, the gold decorated cups, measuring spoon and whisk. He arranged them neatly on a tray and placed it beside his spot.
He checked his phone; thirty minutes to go. Guests usually arrived earlier than expected, so he rushed to the back room to change into his traditional red Fire Nation robes in preparation for the ceremony. He checked himself in the mirror or an old vanity table shoved in the back corner.
His uncle required them to put their hair up in the traditional top knot. It was practical, too, as it kept the host’s hair out of their face. Zuko tied up what he could of his hair and stepped back to make sure he looked presentable. Satisfied, he walked back to the front of the store just as the bell rang once more.
“Madam Cheng, Madam Fu.” Zuko clasped his hands togethers and bowed to the two elderly women who arrived. “Welcome to Ten Tea.”
Aang’s text message was accompanied with a food pic, or rather, a shot of his cup of tea with a small tea cake and the glimmering eyes of Aang’s cat, Momo, peeking from the table edge. She was glad he was able to get some, though she had wanted to go with him and get some for herself.
She looked at the time and wrinkled her nose. The shop was probably closed already.
Sighing, she crossed the street to cut across the alley once more. Even if the tea house was closed, the alley still cut her walk home in half. It only half surprised her that the lights were still on in the tea house.
The guy was probably dancing around with a broom.
Katara lifted her hand to subdue her snort of amusement as she imagined him spinning around with cleaning tools.
A small bell rang and she lifted her head. Shadows fell across the alley as two figures stepped out of the tea house.
Katara flung herself against the side of the building, behind a stack of chairs, and held her breath.
“Thank you for coming.”
“It’s always a pleasure. Give our regards to your uncle.”
“Of course. Shall I walk you to your car?”
“No, no, it’s fine, my dear boy. My driver is there waiting.”
Katara couldn’t see where the old lady was pointing to, but the fact that she had a driver waiting for her told her they were probably there for the expensive tea ceremony she read about. She leaned forward and peeked behind the stack of chairs.
Two little old women were walking opposite her, towards the street. Standing by the entryway of the tea house was a figure who was still bowing.
Was he wearing traditional clothes? How fancy.
He stood up straight and Katara pasted herself back against the wall. She listened for the sound of a small bell, indicating he returned indoors, and then let out the breath she had been holding in.
Cautiously, she peeked around the stack once more. He was no longer there.
She lifted a hand to her chest and pressed against it. She needed to calm down. It wasn’t as if she was breaking any rules cutting through the alley. It wasn’t fenced off, nor were there any signs indicating it was private property.
So why was she so nervous all of a sudden?
She reached the tea house and could see through the windows at the brightly lit interior. A young man was standing by the counter, removing a hair tie and placing it on the table. He ran his hand through his hair before reaching down. His outer robe loosened.
Katara’s eyes went wide and she froze in her spot. It was just his outer robe, but as he shrugged it off and laid it across the counter, she drew her lips inward. Underneath was a sleeveless vest of sort and the broom dancer had some nice arms .
A small part of her felt as if she shouldn’t be seeing what she was.
He turned around and Katara dove to get out of sight.
“What are you doing....?” she whispered to herself as she crouched by the side of the building. She wasn't some pervert that needed to hide. She saw a movement from the tea house and peeked to watch the young man look out the window and narrow his eyes. For a moment, she thought she was caught.
Then he pulled the woven curtains down.
Katara ran a hand down her face. That was close.
She took a deep breath to collect herself and pushed herself up. It was fine. He didn’t see her. How could he if he drew the curtains down?
She found herself a bit relieved as she walked past the tea house with just the faint glow of light seeping from the edges of the curtains.
She made it home without stopping and as she collapsed on top of her bed, she gathered her large stuffed penguin in her arms and buried her face it in. Now that she was home, she could admit it to herself.
He was hot.
“Ah!” She nearly fell off her bed at the sound of another woman’s voice. She grabbed on the edge and looked up. Suki was wearing her glasses and her hair was twisted into a haphazard bun as she munched on a meat bun. “What are you talking about?”
“You just screamed ‘he was hot’ into Waddles,” Suki said, motioning towards the blue and white stuffed penguin. Katara’s face heated up as Suki grinned and leaned against the door frame. “So...who is he?”
“He’s no one,” Katara said, rolling over on her side to have her back at the older student. Suki was the reason Katara moved to a different apartment that year, as Suki and her brother were engaged and Suki, who had started at the Fire Nation Royal University that fall for graduate school, wanted to room with someone familiar.
On one hand, she liked Suki. On the other, she was forced to listen to her talk about Sokka and deal with Sokka’s random visits.
“Oh, come on... you’re all flushed,” Suki said. Katara felt her poking her shoulder. “Is he a classmate?”
“Medical student at the library?”
Suki gasped, scandalized. “Oh my...hot, young professor?”
“No! Suki, what the heck?” Katara rolled over and scowled. “A professor ?”
“It happens! Besides, I was running out of options. Aside from school and your part time job, where else would you meet someone new?” Suki said with a shrug. Katara groaned and buried her face into Waddles once more. “C’mon...share...what makes him hot?”
A muffled groan came from the stuffed penguin. “He’s not super hot. I just think he’s little cute.”
“I don’t know.”
“They’re okay, I guess.”
Suki made a face. “Explain to me what attracted your attention? Was he nice?”
Katara groaned once more. She didn’t even know that. The most contact she’d had with him was giving him a thumbs up and complimenting him from the outside of the tea house before he drew curtains on her. That wasn’t the best interaction.
Suki sighed. “Have you even talked to him?”
“I said he’s a good dancer.”
“Oh, there we go. Now we’re talking!” She felt Suki nudge her to the side so she could sit at the edge of the bed. “So, you saw him dancing?”
“He was sweeping and dancing around with a broom when I passed,” Katara said. “I wasn’t watching him, I just thought it was kind of funny. He turned around and saw me and I said he was a good dancer.”
“Mmm-hmm....” Suki nodded, more to herself than to Katara. “Well, you know what they say about men who can dance.” She lifted her brows suggestively and Katara’s face filled with a mixture of horror and disgust.
“I do not need to hear that from my brother’s girlfriend!”
“I didn’t say anything about your brother. Although, now that you mention it-”
“Ahh! I can’t hear you!” Katara grabbed her pillow and held it over her head. She could hear Suki laughing as the weight on her bed lifted.
“Okay, okay,” Suki said between her laughter. “I get it. But I think before you get in too deep, you should talk to him.”
“If I do, will you never bring up the dancing thing again?” Katara asked with a suspicious glare. Suki lifted her hands.
“Promise,” she said. “Now, go get my future brother-in-law.”
Waddles hit the door just as Suki closed it behind her. Katara shot out of bed and gathered the penguin back in her arms. She reached for her phone and looked over her schedule. She was set to work late again and the shop would be closed by the time she left. Katara pushed herself up on her bed, Waddles on her lap.
Even though her day ended late, she also had a late start tomorrow. Her first class wasn’t until noon. She had nothing to do until then and the shop opened at eleven. Perhaps she could drop by and get some tea.
That was the perfect excuse. She’d just say “oh, my friend bought some tea here yesterday and recommended it”. It wasn’t a lie; Aang said it was some of the best tea he’d ever had...and Aang grew up as a monk in the Southern Air Temple.
It would be a good chance for her to introduce herself or at least actually speak to the broom dancer guy. It was a good plan.
Katara got ready for bed and settled in with one of her books from class.
She didn’t even realize she had fallen asleep until Suki was shaking her awake. “Your alarm has been going off for ten minutes,” Suki said as Katara groaned and sat up, her book falling off the bed. She pushed back her wild bush of hair as she reached for her phone.
“It’s 10:40!” She swung her legs over the side of her bed, tangling them in the sheet and sending herself on to the carpeted floor.
“Katara!” Suki lifted her to her feet.
“I’m fine, I’m fine! I have to get ready. Shoot, I was supposed to be out of here by now!” Katara rambled to herself as she began pulling clothes from her wardrobe.
“What’s the rush?” Suki said as she moved towards the door to give Katara her space. “You have a noon class, don’t you?”
“Yes, but I have to do something before I get to class,” Katara said, tossing her night shirt over her head and reaching for her bra. “I’m working late today, so don’t wait up.”
“Okay,” Suki said. “Be safe.”
Katara was out the door in fifteen minutes. She was sure that was some sort of record for herself, even if her hair wasn’t done and only tamed by being put in a braid. She gripped her phone in her hand and kept looking down at the time.
She rounded the corner and could see the Souzin buildings towering into the sky. Her phone told her it was 11:03.
Katara slowed to a stop at the crosswalk and took a deep breath. She needed to be calm about this. She couldn’t appear rushed and out of breath when she got to the tea house. What would that say about her plan to casually drop by for tea? This was all supposed to be a whim, not a carefully calculated plan to meet the guy with the nice arms.
The signal changed and she began to cross, chastising herself at how she described him. He was more than a nice set of lean, muscular arms and thick, shiny hair.
Katara rounded the building and headed into the alley. She began to recite her introduction in her head.
Hello, are you open? I’d like to buy some tea.
Then the hot broom dancer guy would tell her they were open and ask what kind.
She’d ask for his recommendation, bring up her friend who raved about the tea, and ask how long he’d been working there.
She’d have to play it by ear after that, but it was a good way to start a conversation.
Katara readied herself with each step closer to the tea house. She could see it’s curved, red tiled roof and the red painted wooden pillars and felt her chest tighten. She took a deep breath and turned towards the gate that lead to the tea house.
Her eyes stared at the sign and she looked down at at her phone. 11:10 AM.
A wave of disappointment and confusion swept through her.
It was 11:10. Why was it still closed?
“A college friend?” Zuko almost couldn’t wrap his head around that. He could imagine his father in college. He seemed the studious, serious type who didn’t have many, if any, real friends and considered everyone around him not worthy of his friendship. Ozai had plenty of business partners and contacts, but friends? “Are you sure you don’t mean former classmate or something?”
Azula gave him an amused snicker. “He actually used the term ‘friend’. And what’s more, it’s not like they haven’t kept in touch. They converse rather frequently.”
“Then why haven’t we ever heard of his ‘friend’?” Zuko asked, almost annoyed that such a fact was hidden.
“I didn’t pry too much. Dad looked upset and asked if I thought he didn’t have any friends.”
“Trust me, Zuzu, it took everything in me not to say that,” Azula said. “His name is Hakoda and he’s an engineer. He’s here as a consultant for something Uncle is working on.”
“So, Mom is taking out his wife while he and Dad go to the game?” Zuko said, climbing up the stairs from the underground parking garage of the south Souzin building. He parked his car as close to the exit as possible for easy access to the tea house above.
“Oh, it gets better, Zuzu. I asked Mom how long she’s known the wife and she said that they were roommates in college and it was through her that she actually met Dad.”
“I thought they knew each other because Great-Grandpa Souzin knew Great-Grandpa Roku.”
“Please don’t make me recite the whole story. I couldn’t leave the room for thirty minutes.” There a hint of disgust and exhaustion in his sister’s voice. “Anyway, Mom and the wife are close and she’s been so excited. They’re spending the whole day together and ending at the tea house before dinner. Don’t screw this up.”
“I’ve done the tea ceremony a hundred times,” Zuko said as he reached the ground level. “I can do this with my eyes blindfolded....” His voice trailed off as he caught sight of a someone bundled in a red college hoodie, standing by the gate of the tea house. “I gotta go.”
“Enjoy your oh-so-busy work day.” His sister hung up and Zuko slid the phone into the back pocket of his dark jeans. He craned his neck and squinted; another university student. That was two days in a row.
“Can I help you?”
“Ah!” She jumped and whirled around, lifting her hand to her chest as wide blue eyes met his.
Zuko stopped several paces away. Those big blue eyes. He was sure he’d recognize them; she was the one who saw him dancing the other night. The memory rushed back and humiliation hit. How he remained standing before her without faltering was a mystery, but he was sure his face reddened despite his best efforts.
What was she doing there? Was she looking to see if he was dancing again?
“Hi!” she said. Her voice was loud, echoing off the walls of the alley, and she cringed. “I mean...hi. Are you here? I’d like to open tea.” He narrowed his eyes as her light brown face grew a darker shade. “That came out wrong. I meant, are you buying tea?” She seemed to know she said something that didn’t make sense and took a step back, her face growing more and more flushed. “Are you opening?” she asked, as if giving it her final attempt.
Zuko tilted his head to the side and held up the keys to the gate and the front door. “Yes. I’m sorry about being late. There was traffic,” he said in a measured voice. He walked around her to unlock the gate, catching her bury her face in her hands from the corner of his eyes. The wooden gate creaked open and he walked to the door.
She didn’t move from where she was standing, her brown skin tinted red from the very tips of her ears to her slender finger tips covering her face. She looked absolutely mortified and Zuko, forgetting his own embarrassment, had to keep himself from grinning as he turned back to the door.
He pushed it open and looked back at her.
“Are you coming?” he asked. She lifted her head, a few stray strands of brown hair falling over her face making her look rushed and confused.
“I...yes. Can I?”
“We just opened,” he said. “Come on inside.” She nodded and made her way through the gate and to the door with hesitant steps. Zuko headed to the counter, shrugging off his coat and tossing it in the back room before grabbing his green apron from a hook on the wall. “Do you know what you’d like?”
“Oh, uh....” She was looking at the wall of teas with a lost expression. Zuko was familiar with that look. She was overwhelmed.
“I can recommend something if you’d like,” he said reciting a line he used over and over.
Zuko raised a brow. There was only one student in recent memory who came and wanted something for stress.
“A blend for dealing with stress, huh? Is it finals?”
She looked at him and shook her head. “Yes. No. I mean...almost!” She groaned into her hands. “I’m not making any sense.”
She wasn’t, but he wasn’t about to tell a customer that. He turned towards the wall of tea canisters. “What about a blend for focus?”
“There’s a tea for that?”
He chuckled. “Trust me, there’s a tea for everything.” He moved the step ladder against the wall and climbed up. He took a tea canister off one of the middle shelves, almost surprising himself that it was near second nature to find the right tea in that massive wall. “Did you want packets or loose leaf?”
“Probably packets,” she said. “I don’t any sort of tea infuser at home.”
“You should get one. I find the flavor stronger with an infuser,” he said, once more going with the script. “We can also do tea service with an appointment. You can select the blends of your choice.”
He pulled out some thin, folded filter paper to use as packets.
“Oh, I can’t afford tea service,” she said, shaking her head. “I saw how much it was. I’m a college student and work part time. That’s at least a good week and a half of work.”
He lifted his eyes to meet hers briefly. “I didn’t say it was for the tea ceremony. We have a far less formal tea service. Basically, you select a tea you want to try and we supply all the equipment and brew it in front of you.”
“Oh...that wasn’t on the website,” she said in a quiet voice. She sighed and shook her head. “Even if it is more affordable, you guys are only open when I’m at school. The only time I’ve seen this place open was just before closing, like the other night.”
Zuko tensed and could feel himself succumbing to a blush. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Might as well get it over with.
“So, it was you that night.”
He could see her sheepish smile. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to see. I just walked by and saw you dancing-”
“Let’s pretend it never happened,” he said in a rushed voice, pushing the metal lid back on to the tin. “Okay?” He met her eyes and she nodded.
He released a low breath and weighed the loose leaves on an old scale. He felt a prang of guilt. Perhaps he shouldn't have been so strict. He tried to find something to ease the tense silence. “So...classes go until ten at the university?” That was the best he could do? He could almost hear his sister criticize him.
“I work at the medical library on campus and it closes at about the same time.” He could feel her eyes on him, watching him use the scale with interest. She didn't sound upset.
“I see...how long would it take you to get here?”
She looked up, as if calculating the time to herself. “Ten minutes.”
“Ten minutes?” he asked. He didn’t know what possessed him, but he reached for the canister and opened it, dumping the loose leaves he’d scooped out earlier back in.
The young woman drew her head back and knit her brows. “What are you doing?”
“Making an appointment,” he said. He'd make up his rudeness to her, he decided. “Stop by after work tonight and I’ll make you some tea.”
She blinked, just as surprised by him as he was by himself. “I...how much-?”
“In exchange for your silence on the dancing thing, it’s on the house,” he said. “Besides, for new customers, we often make them a cup of tea when they make a purchase. You can still pay for the tea.”
“Really?” She nodded, a slow smile appearing on her face. He swallowed. He felt his stomach flip. Zuko didn’t expect her smile to do that. “Then, that would be great. I’ll head over right after I get off of work.”
He gave her a nod. “I’ll prepare the packets before then. A half dozen all right?”
She nodded once more, her smile now filling her face. “That would be perfect. Thank you!” She bowed her head as she moved towards the door. She lifted her hand and placed it against the door, pausing for just moment as she looked over her shoulder. “What was your name?”
He remained rooted in his spot behind the counter, unable to take his eyes off those twinkling blue eyes and beaming smile. “Zuko.”
“I’ll see you tonight, Zuko!”
The door swung closed and the little bell rang. He blinked. He never got her name.
“Ugh...stupid....” Zuko darted around the counter and shot through the door, stumbling out into the alley as he looked from side to side. He saw her walking towards the street. “Hey!” He called out. “Hey!”
She looked over her shoulder and stopped, giving him a confused look. “Did I forget something?”
“Yeah,” Zuko said. He swallowed as he felt that familiar blush rise. “What’s your name?”
She smiled once more and he felt his heart quicken. It wasn’t just a one time thing.
Dried ginseng root needed to be crushed, coarse, in a herb grinder.
Then the coarse mixture was put into a tea infuser.
Done and set aside.
Hot water was poured into a tea pot, awaiting the tea infuser. A dainty little ceramic cup was placed next to it. At one corner of the tray was small tin with hand packed, individual packets of the same ginseng mixture.
Everything was ready.
Zuko looked down at the tray he spent far too long preparing and asked himself, for what felt like the hundredth time that day: what was he doing?
It was already past ten in the night and there he was, waiting for a ‘customer’. They never stayed that long for a customer. He leaned over the counter and covered his face with a hand as he groaned. While they really did provide a tasting service for first time curious buyers to taste their tea, it was not as elaborate as the set up he had prepared.
They’d normally get poured a glass of hot water from the electric water kettle and then the tea infuser went in it to steep until ready. The glass was given to the customer or put into smaller cups if the tasting was for a party.
Instead, the hot water was waiting in a vintage fifty gold piece, handmade in the southern Earth Kingdom teapot and had its matching cups next to it. If his cousin saw, Lu Ten would’ve asked who he was trying to impress.
And Zuko’s answer was embarrassingly straight forward.
Katara. He wanted to impress Katara with his ability to make tea. If she’d smile the way she did at him that morning, closing later would be well worth it.
If she didn’t, well...at least he got to see her one last time.
If she came at all.
Dread swept through him. What if she didn’t come? There was always a chance, wasn’t there. Despite the tea ceremony being non-refundable, there were those who had cancelled last minute. Katara wasn’t even paying for the experience. What if she decided she didn’t want the tea after all?
What if she had to work over time? Or forgot? Or saw through his attempt to get her to return and decided she wanted nothing to do with some guy who worked in a fancy tea house?
The bell rang and his head shot up.
Katara was gripping the doorway, looking out of breath as she offered him a smile. “I’m not late am I? A bunch of med students suddenly needed copies of the same book and we were swamped!” Zuko stared at her, trying to convince himself she wasn’t a hallucination. She tilted her head to the side. “Zuko?”
He blinked and jerked his head back. He lifted a hand to his mouth and let out a little cough. “No, no...you’re right on time.”
“Oh good,” she said with a relieved expression. “I didn’t want to hold you up any later.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I invited you. Have a seat.”
“Anywhere?” She looked around and walked towards the wooden table with a pai sho board embedded into it. “Is here okay?” she asked before taking a seat.
“That’s fine,” he said, rounding the counter. He took the hand carved wooden tray by the handles, took a deep breath, and turned around to walk to her. Katara looked eagerly at the tray as she placed her bag on the floor beside her. “I prepared ginseng tea. It’s supposed to help you focus.”
“Oh, perfect,” she said, clasping her hands together. “I can always use that. I have to get some work done tonight.”
“After this?” he asked. She was diligent. He placed the tray on the table and lifted up the infuser. “We use this fine mesh infuser. My uncle, the owner of the tea house, had them custom made to his specifications. The coarse ginger was grinded and the amount for this tea pot was measured out.”
With practiced motions, he opened the lid and slid the cylindrical infuser inside, using a small hook on the side to hang it on to the lip before placing the lid back.
“How long does it steep?”
“Seven to ten minutes,” Zuko said. “It’s seeping in a hand made tea pot by artisans in the southern Earth Kingdom.” He turned the cups rightside up and placed one in front of her. “These are its matching cups. The set is quite old and if you look closely, you can see where it has been repaired.”
Katara lifted the cup with care and brought it closer for inspection. She furrowed her brows and glanced up at him. “Is that gold?”
He nodded. “Gold is often used to seal any cracks. Each cracked piece of tea wear will have a different pattern because of that.”
“Adding to the cup’s character,” she said. His lips pulled into a small, approving smile.
She looked back at the cup with a smile. “So tell me about the tea.”
“It’s sourced from a farm in the western Earth Kingdom. This particular blend is mixed with native ginseng for a milder flavor.”
“Do you guys blend them?”
“My uncle does,” Zuko says. “He’s the big tea afficanado in the family.”
Katara nodded. “My grandfather’s the one in mine, but he’s partial to tea from the northern Earth Kingdom.”
“We have some from there if you’re interested.”
“It would make a good present for him.” She had a thoughtful look on her face before she placed her cup down. “Hey, can I ask you a question?” He gave her a small nod. “Am I drinking tea alone or are you going to join me?”
He hoped he didn’t look too surprised as his heart shot to his throat. “Uh...are you inviting me?” That sounded stupid. Of course she was.
She giggled. “I’d enjoy the company, yes.”
“Then, yeah...if you don’t mind.” It was happening. It was really happening. He took the second cup and placed it on the setting opposite her before taking the tray and placing it on the next table. The chair scraped as he pulled it out and took a seat. “It’s strange being on this side of the table.”
She laughed. “What, do you not like tea?”
“It’s not that I don’t, but I’ve been around tea long enough to get tired of it,” he said. His eyes went wide as he felt like kicking himself. “I mean, that’s not to say that I don’t want to have tea with you. I do!”
He could’ve sworn she blushed as she lowered her eyes and smiled. “Well, I’m glad.”
He was, too.
Silence slipped between them. Katara seemed to be studying her cup again and he was trying to come up with something to keep the conversation going. Should he ask about what she was studying? Was it too soon to ask about her life plans? Suddenly, the most important question became was she seeing anyone? Or even interested, for that matter.
“...time do we have?”
He stared at her. What did she say? “Uh...I’m sorry, I was thinking about the...uh, tea. What were you saying?”
Katara glanced at the tea pot. “How much more time do we have?”
“Oh, uh....” He looked towards the clock above the counter. “Six minutes.”
“Okay.” She smiled and he could see a glint of playfulness in her eyes. A small flash of excitement sparked in him. “Tell me about yourself. You have six minutes.”
Was this flirting? No, no...she was just curious and probably making small talk. Zuko corrected himself and took a deep breath. He needed to tread carefully if he was going to make the most of this time. “Three.”
She raised a brow. “Three?”
“Three for me, then three for you.” Her smile widened and he felt his heart quicken once more.
There it was. There was that beautiful, brilliant smile.
“Three minutes,” she said in agreement. “Go.”
“My name is Zuko, I have a civics and economics degree from Fire Nation Royal University. I graduated two years ago and interned at the family company for a year and realized business is not for me. Now I’m in the middle of applying to law school. While I’m doing that, I’m working here.”
He continued on, explaining that he had formal training to do traditional tea ceremonies, what martial arts he did, conveniently skipping over the dance lessons and participation in musicals, and how aside from working at the tea house, he also assisted in various charities his family supported.
At exactly the three minute mark, he said “That’s time. Your turn.”
It earned him a wide grin as she sat up in her chair.
“Katara from the Southern Water Tribe. I’m currently studying physiology and hope to get into physical therapy. It’s my last year at FNRU.”
She practiced tai chi, was the youngest of two children, and a champion canoe racer. She liked to cook and suspected that her roommate, who was her brother’s girlfriend, was trying to get her to cook for them because she liked Southern Water Tribe cuisine.
“I take it you’re a good cook,” he said.
“I can make a pretty impressive sea prune stew,” she said, looking quite proud of herself.
He knew what to say, but it was a risk. “Maybe you can make it for me some time.” He watched the brief look of surprise on her face before it turned to pleasure.
“I’m sure we can arrange that. You are making me tea after all.”
“I can do better than tea,” Zuko said, reaching for the tea pot. “That’s time. It should be ready to go.”
Katara looked excited as he pulled out the infuser and Zuko felt a thrill making tea he hadn’t felt since the first time his uncle praised him for his perfect tea ceremony. He wiped the small cup and placed it in front of her before pouring.
“Still steaming,” she said.
“Careful.” He poured some tea into his cup. “No need to rush.”
“Don’t you have to close?”
“We’re already closed,” he said, placing the pot down. “Don’t worry. Just take your time. Tea should be enjoyed.” He sounded like his uncle, but he didn’t want to upset her.
Katara gave him a thankful smile and brought the tea to her lips. She blew on it and inhaled the scent.
“Even the smell is good.” She took a sip and Zuko watched her reaction. The tension in her shoulder seemed to release and she slumped a bit against her chair. A small, dreamy smile rested on her pink lips. A satisfying reaction as he could hope. “It’s delicious.”
“You should try my fruit tarts.”
“My mother loves them and I learned to make them when I was little for her birthday,” he said. “After all these years, I guess you can say I’ve mastered it.”
“Shall we make a trade then? One of these days, you get some stew and I get a fruit tart?”
Oh, spirits, yes. He raised his tea cup towards her. “We’ll make dinner out of it.” It was a date , his mind screamed.
Katara nodded and took another sip of her tea. She closed her eyes and seemed to relish the warmth that spread through her body.
Zuko took a moment to do the same, glancing up at the clock. 10:30.
“Are you sure I’m not holding you back?” he heard her ask. She must’ve noticed him looking at the clock. He met her eyes and shook his head.
“I’m sure,” he said. “Take as long as you want.” Stay as long as you want.
She seemed to still feel a sense of urgency and he took his time drinking his tea to try to ease her worry. When he offered to prepare another batch, she looked flustered and said she wouldn’t take up any more of his time.
“I still have some stuff to read after this,” she said, smiling weakly as she stood at the counter.
Zuko wrapped her tin in a decorative rice paper wrapper and paused. “If that’s the case...” He trailed off and turned around. He shuffled through a small wooden box for a small packet of tea. “When you’re ready to go to sleep, steep this for about five minutes. It’ll help relax and loosen you so you can fall asleep easier.”
He tucked into the wrapping and slid it across the counter at her.
Katara looked curious. “What is it?”
“Simple chamomile. On the house.”
Her eyes seemed to search his for a moment before she gave him a warm, gentle smile. “Thank you, Zuko.”
Gods, and he thought that brilliant smile earlier was took his breath away....
“I...no problem. Uh...I remember how hard it was when I was a student. Come back any time.”
She smiled with a hint of disappointment. “I’ll try to swing by next week, when I have another noon class so I don’t hold you up.”
“I told you, you aren’t holding me up,” he told her, firm. “The sign on the door will say closed, but it’ll be unlocked. Just come by after work if you’re up to it. I’ll be cleaning up anyway.”
She looked hesitant to take up him on the offer. “Are you sure?”
“I’ll leave it unlocked until 10:30,” he said. “If you can’t make it, I’ll see you next week. I hope.”
She blushed and took her tea tin from the counter, placing it in her bag before zipping it closed. “I”ll see you tomorrow then, half past closing?”
He found himself mirroring her soft smile. “Half past closing.”
She chewed on her lower lip as she stepped back. “Good night, Zuko.” She pushed open the door and the bell rang.
“Good night,” he said, giving her a dumb little wave of his hand. “Katara.”
“No, I don’t mind, Mom,” Katara said as she balanced her umbrella against her with one arm while her hand held her phone in the other. A white wire led from her phone to her ear as she trudged down the street, careful not to get splashed by passing cars while on the sidewalk. She wasn’t sure she preferred rain over snow for the winter, but either way, it was an inconvenience to walk home in. “Will his daughter be joining us, too?”
Her mother sighed and said that her friend’s daughter would not be joining them for the tea ceremony at the end of the week; instead it would just be them and her friend’s son.
And Katara was suspicious.
“They’re not trying to introduce me to their son, are they?” she asked with distaste. She hated being treated as if she wasn’t able to meet a person on her own.
“No, I was very firm with Ursa that my daughter is not interested in seeing anyone right now,” Kya said. Katara let out a relieved breath. “Besides, I heard that there is someone you have your eye on?”
“What!?” Katara stopped at a stop light. “Wait, where did you hear that?” She bet it was from Suki.
“Sokka may have mentioned that Suki said it in passing.”
I knew it! Katara glared at the street in front of her. “You misheard. There is no such someone.”
“She said you were coming home late these last few days” Kya said with a hint of worry. “Don’t stay out too late, Katara. If you need to stay over, just please remember to wear protect-”
“Mom, no!” Katara nearly screamed into her phone as a car turned the corner and splashed up the water in a puddle before her. Katara had enough time to jump back and avoid getting her phone wet, but her boots and the tights tucked into them didn’t escape the puddle. She looked down at the dripping, mud dusted water with disdain. “Ugh...Mom, I have to go. I got splashed while walking on the sidewalk.”
“Oh no. Katara, be careful where you walk.”
“I know, Mom,” Katara said, though it was a bit too late for such a warning. “I’ll call you later this week and don’t listen to what Sokka and Suki say.” She hung up and pulled the the earset from her head. She shoved her phone and the wire into her pocket and looked down at her pants. “Great....”
She was supposed to meet Zuko for tea that night and she didn’t want to drag her muddy, dirty boots into the nice clean tea house. He always cleaned before she got there, she’d hate to ruin his work, especially when he was always so kind to her.
She lifted her head and looked up at the Souzin building across the street as the light turned for her to walk. She’d apologize, she decided, and come the next night. After all, they’d sort of made it a thing between them. Whenever the tea house was open, he’d stay past closing and wait for her to come in for a cup.
They’d sit there, discussing everything from growing up to the frustrations of university life. She loved hearing his stories about his sister and cousin and that eccentric uncle he seemed to adore.
“I’d love to meet him one day,” she said. The man sounded brilliant, not just for his tea blending prowess, but as the head of the Souzin Corporation.
Zuko had chuckled and looked happy with her inquiry. “I think he’d love to meet you, too.”
It struck her then, as it had many times after that first night she intruded upon him, that the things Suki asked if she liked - his eyes, his smile, even the kind of person he was - were all things that attracted her. Burn scar or not, he had a handsome face, and he was kind, and his sometimes sarcastic, self-deprecating sense of humor somehow made him more attractive.
He was a good listener, paying attention her her when she vented and validating her frustrations before offering tea to help her relax. Honestly, her finals week had flown by and she was the most relaxed she’d ever been during. Her break would start next week and so she planned to make good on her dinner with Zuko then.
She just had to say it and rehearsed her casual invitation to cook for him at her place, while Suki was visiting her brother, in her mind over and over. She prayed it went better than her initial plan to talk to him, where she had gotten so flustered and tongue tied, she couldn’t even form coherent sentences.
It was a miracle Zuko didn’t think she was crazy and pretend they were closed to get rid of her. However, that morning went far better than she expected. She had hoped to learn his name and not only that, got an invitation to tea after hours.
Katara could already see him now, in his green apron, lifting up a small tea pot over her cup and pouring in tea as she took a seat at one of the tables with the pai sho boards. Zuko said he only knew how to play a little and so it was easy for her to beat him. Sokka had a pai sho set at home and was an excellent player, so she had plenty of practice.
The night before, she caught Zuko reading a book on pai sho. It looks like he wanted a rematch and she was more than happy to have one and triumph again.
She crossed the street and headed to the alley. The wind picked up between the buildings and she felt her umbrella pull against her grip. She frowned as she tugged it back against her.
She felt the rain start to come down at an angle and hit her bare hands and face. A strong gust swept upwards and she heard a crack as her umbrella flipped inside out. “No!”
Katara reached upwards to try to force it right side out, but she was fighting against the wind and a broken umbrella rib. She’d have to get that fixed. She managed to turn it right side out, but the broken part made it impossible to stay open. She already knew there was no way it was going to work the rest of the way home.
“Katara!” She heard his voice as she wrestled her umbrella closed. She squinted through the rain and could see Zuko running down the alley with some cloth above his head. His usual green apron was gone and in its place he wore the red robes she had seen him in when she ogled his arms several nights ago.
She paled at the sight. What was he doing? He didn’t need to come out. “Get back inside! You’re going to ruin your robes!”
“I can get them cleaned,” he said, brushing off her worries as he reached her. He lifted his arms over her head and covered her with what appeared to be a towel. “Come on. Let’s get you inside.”
“I can’t go inside like this,” she said as she vaguely motioned to her rain swept clothes. “I’ll track in water!”
She saw him roll his eyes. “That house has survived a century and half; it can survive a little rain.” His arm pushed against the back of her shoulders as he drew her closer to him, under the towel. “Let’s go.”
She pouted, but allowed him to lead her to the tea house. The familiar bell rang as he pushed open the door and let her come in, lowering the towel and tossing it on the back of a wooden chair. Katara rested her broken umbrella against the same chair and pulled back the hood of her jacket. A pool of water was at her feet.
“I’ll get you another towel,” Zuko said, already walking past her to the back room. He walked out a moment later with an armful of pristine white towels and Katara recoiled back against the door.
“Those look new!”
“We just started using them this week-”
“I can’t use them!” Katara said. “Don’t have any anything old that can stand the mud?”
“Katara, it’s a towel,” Zuko said, unimpressed as he put the pile on the table. He took one from the top of the pile and unraveled it before placing in top of her head. “Just dry off. I’ll get your tea.”
As if knowing that she was hesitant to sit down and get the chairs wet, Zuko draped two more towels on a chair he pulled out for her and gave her a pointed look. She sighed and resigned herself to having her tea after all. She patted her face dry and leaned back against the chair, letting out a heavy breath as she melted into her seat.
“Long day?” A tray of hot tea was placed in front of her and she tried not to smile too much as the sight welcomed her.
“It has been with this rain,” Katara said, eyeing her cup. “One of my classes was cancelled because the road from my professor’s place was flooded. There was a leak at the library and it’s like the facilities guys couldn’t be any louder trying to fix it. Then on the way here, I get splashed by this car.”
“It looks like you can use something to warm you up,” he said as he poured her a cup of steaming out liquid. “Ginger tea.”
She couldn't help but let out a small chuckle. “There really is a tea for everything.”
“I told you.” He pulled out the chair across from her and took a seat. He reached across and pressed the towel around her face to catch the slivers of water sliding from her hair. She could feel his fingertips brush against her cheeks. He was nice and warm. “When’s your final?”
“It was a paper we submitted. The professor will just email us our grades since the class was cancelled today,” she said, relishing the warmth of the tea cup in her hands. “I still work the next two days, but as of the end of the week, I’m on break.”
He took a sip of his tea before standing up. “Be sure to get some rest,” he said as he untied the loose belt around his waist. Katara kept her eyes on him as she brought the tea cup to her lips. Zuko shrugged off the outer robe and she licked her lips. He draped it over his arm as he headed towards the back room. “I need to hang this to dry these. I’ll be right back.”
“Okay.” She hoped she didn’t sound too disappointed. It wasn’t as if he was going to strip in front of her. Katara, get your mind out of the gutter....
She took another sip of her tea. “About your break,” she heard him say behind him. She turned around and nearly spit out her tea. Zuko was pulling on a long sleeve shirt he had changed into. His hands were at his chest, pulling down the fabric over an impressive set of stomach muscles peeking above the waist band of some expensive looking jeans. She turned back around and wiped her mouth before he could catch her. “Katara?”
“Yes?” she said, wincing at her awkward voice. The chair was moved in front of her once more as he took a seat.
He sat down as if nothing was amiss and she almost wanted to scream at him. How dare he pull that stunt when she was defenseless and unprepared. Did the man not know of his own attractiveness?
His large, pale hands reached for his tea cup. “Are you going to be in town?”
Katara forced herself to focus on the conversation. Don’t think about his body. Don’t think about his body. Mom said to wear protect-no! No, Katara!
“Yeah, Suki’s flying down to stay with my brother, so I was just going to spend some time unwinding while she’s gone,” she said. “I wanted to start looking into graduate schools for physical therapists, too.”
Zuko nodded. “You wouldn’t by any chance have time, would you?”
“To drop by?” She was touched that he still wanted her to visit and felt warm at the thought. Her original plan was to visit every day it was open, but was worried she’d annoy him. It was a relief to see that wasn’t the case. “I can come by during actual work hours now.”
He grinned and looked away. She could see a faint blush on his cheeks. “I was thinking more about dinner?” he said, his gold eyes glancing up at her to gauge her reaction. “Stew for a fruit tart?”
He beat her to it. Could Suki have been right? Could ‘hot tea guy’, as Suki had dubbed him, be interested in her?
“Your place or mine?” She maintained her calm look despite internally screaming. Your place or mine? What was that? So much for not appearing desperate.
His grin grew wider and he leaned forward. Katara could feel her face heating up the closer he came. “How about yours?”
All at once, all sorts of images flew through her mind. Zuko in her apartment. Zuko eating at her dinner table. Zuko standing in her post-finals mess of a room, looking at Waddles the penguin and asking Waddles if she really lived like that.
Her face was blank. “I have to clean.”
Zuko laughed. “I only say that because I can drive over and a fruit tart is easier to transport.”
“No, no, I’m fine with it. It’s just with finals, I haven’t really had a chance to clean up,” she said, although Suki generally kept the shared living area clean. “Can we aim for a week from now?”
“Sounds good,” Zuko said with a nod. “You can tell me how to get there tonight.”
He looked out the window and she followed his gaze. The rain was still coming down at an angle and the wind was so strong, the small stack of chairs that was usually pushed against the building wall was slowly being pushed across the alley.
“Considering the weather and your umbrella,” he said, causing her to look over at the broken piece of metal and cloth. “I thought you could use a ride. Is that okay?”
“Well, yeah, I’d really appreciate it, actually, but you have so much to clean up afterwards. I don’t want you to have to stay so late.”
Zuko shook his head as he finished his cup. “It doesn’t take that long to mop up, Katara. Just enjoy your tea. I’ll clean up and when you’re done, we can go.”
She nodded and took another sip from her cup. Zuko came out with a mop and began wiping down the puddle she had tracked in. He assured her any remaining drips would be dry by the next morning. As she watched him with mop in hand, a small grin appeared on her face at the memory of him dancing with a broom.
“You’re giggling.” She looked up and drew her lips inward.
“No, I’m not.”
He leaned against the mop and gave her a knowing look. “Okay, first of all, I didn’t think anyone was watching me that night. There was a song I was listening to and-”
“Hey, if you want to dance, you’re more than free to,” she said as she leaned back against her chair. “I’m not stopping you.” His face turned red.
“I’m not going to dance.”
“Why not? I told you, didn’t I? You’re a good dancer.”
“What was that song you were listening to?” She pulled out her phone. “How about this one?” She pressed the button on the side of her phone to raise the volume. He didn’t move from his spot, maintaining a neutral look on his face. “Okay, what if I dance with you?” She tossed back the rest of her now warm tea and Zuko furrowed his brows.
She stood up. “If you don’t want to dance alone, than I’ll dance with you and get water all over your nice clean floor.”
He looked aghast as she stood up and put her phone on the table. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“Did I mention I’ve been told I’m a terrible dancer?” she asked, looking far too proud of herself. She lifted her arms. “Here we go!” She slammed a foot on the floor and a squish sounded as water hit the floor.
Zuko watched with his mouth slightly agape as she tried to follow the steps he had been dancing the first night she saw him. As she made her way across the floor, arms flailing and movements jerky and stiff. He drew his lips inward and held back his laugh.
She really was terrible, but to him, amazing.
As she slid across the room, running into a stool before she could stop herself, Zuko silenced her phone.
“Hey!” She looked over her shoulder and frowned as he lifted his phone.
“Play playlist ‘clean’,” he said. He pressed the button on his phone to raise the volume and placed the phone next to her. The first few notes came out and he motioned his head. “This was the song.” He watched her smile widen. “And this is how it’s done.”
He easily handed off the mop handle from one hand to the other before turning and moving across the length of the aisle with fluid movements.
Katara clapped her hands together and laughed. “Okay, so you’re a great dancer, but can you clean at the same time?”
He spun in a circle, smoothly stepping around her and wiping up her trail of water with the mop. “I don’t know, can I?”
He danced circles around her, completely in sync with the music. He extended his hand to her and Katara furrowed her brows, giving him a curious look as she reached out. He handed her the mop and danced away.
“Now you want me to do it?”
“It’s not that hard.”
Katara let out a tired breath and shook her head. “This is going make work for you.” She tried to mirror his steps again, this time with the mop. Where his mop work made clean, smooth trails across the floor, Katara’s were jagged and didn’t have a particular method. She looked down at the damp mop trail she made and wrinkled her nose. “Told you.”
Without a word, he stood behind her and moved his arms around her. He put one hand on the mop handle. “Need help?”
She held back her smile. “Maybe a little.”
She felt him place a firm, steady hand on her elbow and began to lead her around. She giggled, allowing him to take her up and down the aisle and between the tables. Before she knew it, they were dancing around the tea house and her clothes had stopped dripping.
Katara laughed as she spun around and then rolled back against his arms, landing comfortably against his chest. He looked down at her and grinned. “Having fun?”
She licked her lips and gave him a small nod. “Yeah.” She watched his face soften as his eyes met hers. Such kind, gold eyes. She relaxed, his arms still around her as she tilted her head upwards. He was leaning down, her lips reflected in his eyes. She closed hers.
The sound of a ring tone cut off the music and filled the tea house. Zuko snapped his head up and Katara jumped, both looking around for the source of the noise before looking towards the table with their empty tea cups and noticing Zuko’s sleek silver phone vibrating.
He let out a breath that sounded almost frustrated as he released her and crossed the room. Katara looked away and pretended to look for a place to put the mop.
“Sorry, it’s my mom. Can you give me a minute?” he asked as he lifted the phone. Katara nodded.
“Yeah, no problem. I’ll...uh...finish off my tea.” She shuffled back to the table as Zuko wandered back. She couldn’t hear what he was saying, too lost in her own thoughts. He was going to kiss her, right? All that dancing and that blood pumping and he was leaning down to kiss her. She was so close .
Katara poured herself another cup of tea. The remaining tea was warm, at best, and she tossed it back like a shot.
“She wanted to confirm something later this week,” Zuko said as he emerged, rubbing the back of his neck. “Um...let me finish cleaning up. Are you still working on the tea?”
“No, no, I’m done,” she said. “It was delicious, as usual.”
His smile was thoughtful. “Then sit right there. This won’t take long.”
“Uh-huh!” She gave him her best smile and proceeded to look through her phone. She scrolled down a random app, not registering what she was looking at. Her thoughts were elsewhere. She didn’t know what to say after they were interrupted. What was she going to say? Did he plan on continuing? Because she was more than happy to.
She heated up and scrolled faster.
She didn’t notice Zuko take the tray and the tea away, or hear him washing them in the back. She didn’t notice he was putting on a jacket until he was right next to her.
“Ready?” She looked up and saw him a dark leather jacket and with a towel on his arm. She gave him a quizzical look.
“What’s the towel for?” she asked as she stood up and began gathering her things.
“An umbrella won’t survive out there. We just need to get to the garage. The entrance to the garage stairs isn’t far.” He seemed to usher her towards the door and lock up behind them as she looked past the tea house overhang and squint out at the rain. She felt his arm move against her and gently rest over her shoulders as he held the towel over her head. “Okay, let’s go!”
He held her close and led her past the gate, letting it lock close behind him. He was so close and the rush of trying to outrun the rain made her blood pump. He steered them towards the garage and Katara could make out the gated door to the building’s lower parking levels. Zuko slid a badge next to the card reader and the little red light turned green. He pulled open the door and let her inside.
“You have a badge?”
He nodded as he wrung out the towel, the door closing behind them. “Yeah, only Souzin employees can park here, the tea house included. You know how parking is in this area. If anyone could park here, the regular employees wouldn’t have a place to park.”
That was true; nearby college students were notorious for taking parking for businesses to avoid paying on-campus parking fees.
She felt Zuko’s warm hand wrap around her as he began down the steps. She liked the feeling of his hand against hers; it felt natural. Katara heard a small beep and lifted her head. The lights of a black, luxury sports car flashed in front of her. She tilted her head to the side.
That couldn’t be his car. She knew he was related to the Souzin patriarch, but not that closely related. That car was on calendars, the walls of teen boys, and what middle-aged men in crisis bought. Zuko was just mopping a floor earlier.
“Katara?” She snapped out her thoughts and found herself standing by the said sports car. Zuko held the door open for her. It really was his car. She swallowed: as she thought, he had leather seats. And she was about to sit her waterlogged butt in them.
“Thanks....” She bent down and slid into the leather seats, wincing as her clothes squeaked. She looked up. “Sorry about this.”
He shook his head. “It’s fine. I said I’d drive you home.”
“No, about getting your car wet,” she said.
His eyes softened and she felt her heart jump. “You’re more important than the car.” He closed the door and Katara squeezed her bag. Not fair making her feel so special out of the blue.
Zuko walked around the car and got into the driver’s seat. As he started the engine and put on his seatbelt, he turned on the heat. The car filled with music and he lowered the volume so they could talk.
“This is a nice car....” Katara said.
“Thanks, but it’s not like I earned it. It was a graduation gift from my parents,” Zuko said, pulling out of the parking spot. “My sister as a red version.”
“I didn’t know you were...um....” How could she say it without sounding unpleasant?
“Lucky,” Zuko said. He sounded as if he had this conversation before. “I was lucky to be born into a wealthy family. But really, it’s my uncle’s wealth. We’re to earn our own living once we start our careers, but I know we have advantages. The right connections, the amount of resources....I still live in my cousin’s old condo, which is Souzin property.”
“Is that bad?”
“No,” Zuko said. “I just want to be able to take care of myself without having to rely on being a Souzin. I’m grateful, but I’m more than just the Souzin scion, right?”
Katara nodded. So he was self aware and wanted to do things with his own power. She could understand that, having moved far from home to go to school. “Much more.” He glanced over at her with a gentle gaze.
“I’m glad you think so....” The car cut through the parking lot and Zuko settled his eyes ahead of them. “So,” Zuko said as they reached the parking exit. “Where to?”
Right, he was driving her home. Katara began to give him directions, allowing him to take his time as rain was dumped on them and the city. As soon as the wiper blades wiped water, it seemed like it was blurred once more with a thousand fat rain drops.
“I can’t believe I thought I could make it back in this weather...and with a broken umbrella,” she muttered. Zuko chuckled beside her.
“It’s not that far though,” she said. “There’s the complex.”
“It would’ve taken at least another ten minutes to walk here. You’d look like you took a dip in a pool with all your clothes on.”
She laughed. “It’s a good thing I’m an excellent swimmer. Ah, go over one lane. It’s right there,” she said, pointing to the multi-storied building at the corner of a relatively new apartment complex. Zuko glanced at his mirrors before turning on his signal to park. “I can run up the steps.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to use the towel?”
“It’s fine,” she said, waving a hand. “The door is right there and there is an overhang.”
The car slid close to the curb and Zuko got as close to her front door as possible. “Is here all right?”
“It’s perfect,” she said, gathering her things on her lap. “Thanks for the ride, Zuko.” He unlocked the door and prepared to get out. She reached out and grabbed his arm. “Wait, where are you going?”
He tilted his head to the side. “To open your door.”
She flushed once more. “You don’t need to do that! You’ll get even more wet!” He sunk back into his seat and sighed.
“You already went out of your way to drive me here,” she said, squeezing his hand. “That’s more than I can ask for.”
He seemed to hesitate. “Is it all right if I stay until you make it in?” he asked. “Not to be pushy or anything, but just to make sure you get in safely.” He cringed, looking a bit panicked. “But if it’s weird-”
She pulled him down and across the center console. With her things still clutched against her with one hand, she cupped his the side of his face with the other and kissed him.
Zuko tensed up.
He didn’t respond.
He sat there, wide eyed as she pulled away. Katara looked at anywhere but at him as she pulled the handle of the car. The sound of the rain intruded as she bit her lower lip.
“Thanks for the ride, Zuko,” she said once more as she stepped outside. She closed the door behind her before he could say anything and walked faster than usual to the door.
As soon as she reached the second floor, she peered out the window and watched Zuko’s car merge back into the street. Katara let out a low heavy breath. He looked just a little distressed and the first thing she did to try to reassure him was kiss him.
Then she left him.
“What have I done....”
“Katara?” The door to her apartment opened and Suki stuck her head out into the hall. The worried look on her face eased into relief. “It’s nearly midnight. I was getting worried.”
“Oh....” Katara clutched her wet bag and broken umbrella against her. “Sorry, Suki. I should’ve called to let you know.”
“It’s fine, come on in,” the older woman said, stepping to the side. “You’re soaked. Go change.”
Katara nodded and left her things on a pile in the foyer before heading into her room to get her robe. She passed Suki’s packed bags in the hall, reminding her that after tomorrow, she’d be home alone and in a week, Zuko would come over.
“Are you okay?” Suki pressed her hand against Katara’s damp forehead. “You’re heating up!”
“I’m fine!” Katara flushed and backed away. “Just a little out of breath from running to get here!”
Suki narrowed her eyes. “It wasn’t that far from the car.” Katara gasped.
Suki nodded. “I saw.” Katara groaned into her hands and Suki grinned. “I swear not to tell Sokka,” she said. “But for confirmation...was it...?”
Katara nodded. “Yeah. Hot tea guy.”
Suki burst into laughter as she wandered into the living room. “I knew it! Oh, your mom is going to be so disappointed.”
Katara paled. “Why would she be disappointed?”
She followed Suki into the living room and watched as the other woman fell back into their well worn sofa. “Your mom is taking you to tea to meet her friend’s son, isn’t she? C’mon, Katara,” Suki said with a knowing look. “They’re trying to set you up.”
She didn’t come the next night. Or the next.
He waited until well past half past closing, and she didn’t come. The logical part of him said she was working and busy or perhaps taking a well deserved break after finals. She had a life that didn’t revolve around him and tea.
She wasn’t avoiding him.
She kissed him. She was the one who kissed him . And left him sitting stupefied in his car, staring at the spot where she was seated for a good thirty seconds before snapping out of his daze and making sure she got into her complex safely.
Zuko sat there a moment longer, gathering his thoughts before finally settling on confused frustration.
“Thanks for the ride, Zuko,” she told him when she got out of the car. Did he reply? No.
How did she take that? Was she angry? Did she think he didn’t like her? Because he did. He really, really did.
“Not that I made that clear....” Zuko grabbed the ends of the gold sash around his waist and pulled them hard, tightening the belt around him more constricting than normal. He sucked in a sharp breath and loosened the sash just a bit.
He stood in front of the mirror in the back of the room to inspect his tea ceremony uniform. It was a replica of traditional noble clothing from around the time the house was built. Lighter versions were still worn at formal traditional events, but his uncle had insisted on the original silk robes with hand embroidery. A little rain didn’t do it any harm.
Zuko took the comb and pulled back his hair, putting it into a small bun.
With his sleeveless vest tied over loose pants and dark boots, he reached for the over robe and slid his arms through. He looked at his reflection for a final once over. It was always important to look the part for a tea ceremony. Knowing that his mother would be present this time was added pressure.
Ursa Souzin also had formal tea training and could spot a mistake easily, even if she wouldn’t mention it until after the ceremony was over. Unless her father was doing it, then it was a constant “watch your arms, don’t raise your shoulders, you splashed some tea” and so forth.
Zuko was sure she did it just to annoy his father and aside from scowling, his father let her. He wouldn’t be as lenient with him when Zuko let them know he was interested in someone else. As much as he loved his parents, he wasn’t going to allow them to push some woman on to him. Especially when he didn’t know where he stood with Katara.
Despite how they last parted, he still hoped there was a chance. He couldn’t remember feeling so relaxed and happy talking to someone as he did with her. Everything felt natural with Katara, yet there was something that made him feel excited and alive. He looked forward to seeing her every night. He even opened when the story was closed for a chance to see her.
He supposed now he could only hope to see her again.
As Zuko straightened the side of his robe, he heard the familiar bell of the front door. He glanced down at the time on his phone. It wasn’t time for the ceremony yet and the guests rarely arrived that far ahead.
Maybe it was a customer.
“I’ll be right out!” he said as he adjusted his sash once more. He walked out to the counter, lowering his head to greet the customer. “Welcome to Ten Tea, how can I help...Katara.”
He straightened up and stopped by the side of the counter top. Zuko looked across the tea house floor, to where Katara remained standing by the door in a navy blazer and black skirt reaching her knees. She shifted from one heeled food to the other, playing with the strap of her purse.
Her usual mess of soft, brown hair was pulled back into a neat bun at the base of her neck and he had a nice view of her slender brown neck and the thing silver crescent moon pendant resting against her decollete.
He held his breath as she met his eyes.
She seemed to take a deep breath. “Hey.”
Zuko swallowed. “Hey. You look nice...I mean...better than usual.” This was not starting off how he wanted.
She pursed her lips and furrowed her brows. He readied himself for her anger.
“I’m sorry for dropping by so suddenly!” He drew his head back. Why was she apologizing? “I know you have a ceremony today, but I wanted to apologize for kissing you and then running off and avoiding you for the last two nights.”
He had mixed feelings. So she really was avoiding him. He lowered his eyes. “Did I upset you?”
Her look of apology turned into confusion. “What? Why would you upset me ?”
“I...I did force driving you home on you,” he said, trying to find a reason to validate his question more for him than for her. “And then I’m sure it’s strange for some random guy to offer to walk you to your door.”
Her mouth was open just a bit as she stared at him. “Zuko, it was pouring that night and I’m thankful you drove me home. I was soaking just getting up to the doorway. And you’re not some random guy,” she said. She told him she wasn’t upset, but she sounded like it. “You’re Zuko. I would think that after all that time we’ve spent together having tea, you’d be more than some guy.”
That was a very valid assessment. “Right. I just...I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable.”
Her shoulders sunk and she looked at him with sad eyes. “You don’t, Zuko. You really don’t. I wouldn’t have...you know...” She looked away, her hand brushing her lips. He felt the blush fill his face. “I didn’t want you to walk me to the door because you’d get even more wet and you had already done so much for me.”
“It’s just rain,” he said. He looked down at his robes. “These dried fine.”
A small smile reached her lips. “You look very handsome in it.”
He chuckled, relaxing a bit as crossed his arms over his chest and offered her a playful look. “Just in it?”
She groaned, her cheeks rust colored once more. “Don’t make me say it....”
He let out a little laugh and lifted his hand to rub the back of his neck. “Sorry...I’ve been told I’m not very good with women.”
She let out a snort of indifference. “Who told you that? They’re wrong. You’re sweet and funny and h....” She seemed to stop herself from saying something. “A hell of a dancer.” He raised a brow. She sighed. “Anyway, I should apologize for making you uncomfortable. I came out of nowhere and kissed you.”
“No!” Zuko was crossing the room. “Don’t apologize. I was the one who didn’t respond. I was just surprised. I was so focused on trying to make you comfortable, that I didn’t even realize you kissed me and then I just sat there, like an idiot. When you didn’t come back, I thought you were angry at my reaction. Or lack of one, rather.”
“So you don’t mind if I kissed you?”
“I would’ve kissed you earlier if my mother didn’t call.” A flicker of recognition flashed in her eyes as he stopped in front of her. Zuko looked down, moving his hands over her waist and holding them there as hers moved up his arms. “I...would like to see you more, Katara. Not just for tea.”
“Are you asking me out, Zuko?”
“I’d like to ask you more than that.” It came out before he could stop himself and as her eyes went wide, he turned red. “What I mean is-”
He blinked. Did he hear wrong? “What?”
“Yes, I’ll go out with you.” Her hands went up and down his upper arms, feeling up his biceps before putting his hands on her waist. She curled her lips into a small, teasing smirk as she moved closer. “Just say when.”
When? When!? His mind struggled to suggest a time and place for a relaxing activity they could do together. “Do you want to come by tonight for some tea?” Different relaxing activity, you idiot!
She giggled and gave his arm an apologetic pat. “Can’t. I’m having dinner with my mom. She’s visiting.”
“We’re still on for cooking next week,” Katara said with a challenging look. “You’re not getting out of that.”
He cracked a grin as he lowered his head. “I don’t plan to.”
She matched his grin before his lips met hers. She tasted of minty toothpaste and he couldn’t help but smile as she giggled against him. Her fingers curled into the sleeves of his robe as his arms wrapped around her, bringing her closer to him until there wasn’t any space between them.
The warmth of her breath and the softness of her skin and lips both made his heart race and relaxed him. She felt perfect in his arms and if he could close the store at that moment, he would’ve.
Zuko felt the edge of the counter at his back, but maintained his embrace. He could feel her small hands following his arms and then her cool, slender fingers stroking the side of his neck and sending little shocks of electricity through his body. He shuddered, deepening the kiss.
He didn’t notice the two figures walking to the front of the building. He didn’t hear the sound of the bell as the door opened.
“Zuko?” His eyes flashed open. He could recognize his mother’s voice in an instant and it might’ve been a siren cutting through his Katara-fueled daze. He looked past the top of Katara’s head and let out a muffled gasp in her mouth.
“Hmmm?” Katara pulled away, tilting her head in confusion. She didn’t hear the bell either.
As he looked across the room with wide eyes, Katara turned around and nearly screamed at the same time he did.
“Mom!” They snapped their heads towards each other with equally shocked looks on their faces. “ Mom ?”
“Oh my....” Ursa lifted her hand to her mouth as her eyes crinkled with mirth. “I didn’t know you two knew each other.”
Katara seemed to process the situation faster than Zuko and took a step back; her eyes giving him another once over as she straightened her clothes. “You’re Ursa and Ozai’s son ?”
Zuko could only gape at her, unable to believe his situation. There he was, having readied himself to make it clear to his mother that he wasn’t interested in his parents’ friend’s daughter because there was someone else he was interested in, and it turned out the person he was interested in was his parents’ friend’s daughter.
“This never happens,” he said, more to himself than anyone else in the room. He leaned back against the counter and ran a hand down his face. If he didn’t think he was lucky before, he certainly did now.
“Katara.” The blue-eyed woman beside his mother looked at them with calm eyes. “I thought you said not to listen to Sokka and Suki.”
Zuko looked towards Katara, who looked at him. Both their faces heated up and she quickly looked away, embarrassed. He didn’t know how she’d explain it to their mothers, either. “I...uh....”
“Has it been long?” his mother asked with barely constrained excitement. He could see her squeezing her hands in front of her as if waiting for her favor dessert.
“No,” Zuko said. Katara looked back at him and he swallowed. “It’s been...uh...very recent.” Katara’s warm flush reached the tips of her ears and he tried to hold back a smile. This was a first - seeing her shy. The woman who danced terribly around him and kissed him in the car....
“How recent?” Ursa asked. Beside her, Katara’s mother raised a hand and placed it on her arm.
“Ursa,” she said in a calm voice. “What did we talk about? No pushing.”
“I know, I know,” Ursa said, straightening up. Somehow, Zuko wasn’t sure she knew. Katara’s mother released her arm and smiled. Ursa reached into the small clutch she had pinned under her arm.
“Don’t even think about texting Ozai,” Katara’s mother said, making his mother freeze.
“Kya, this is important news,” Ursa said. She still snapped her bag closed and didn’t pull out her phone.
“I came to meet your son and that’s what I’m going to do,” Kya said. She stepped forward, the warm smile still on her face as she gave Zuko a relaxed bow. “It’s wonderful to finally meet you, Zuko. Your mother talks about you all the time.”
Oh, spirits, what has his mother told Katara’s parents?
Shaky, he tried to steady himself on his feet and bowed back. “It’s good to meet a friend of my mother’s....”
“Call me Auntie Kya,” she said in a pleasant voice. “And Katara, you haven’t greeted your Auntie Ursa.”
“My apologies, Auntie.” Katara was suddenly at his side, mirroring his respectful bow. “I was caught off guard. I didn’t expect you to arrive so early.”
Zuko lifted his head and could see the all too pleased look on his mother’s face. He cringed. He could only guess what thoughts were running through her head.
“I had wanted your mother to meet Zuko first, but I suppose you beat us to it,” Ursa said.
“Mom!” Zuko gave her a pleading look to stop.
“Since we’re all here,” Kya said, cutting in with a graceful motion to the tea ceremony set up. “Why don’t we get started? It’s been a long time since I’ve had some of Iroh’s tea.”
That was his cue. Zuko stood up straight and brought his hands together before his bow. “My apologies; I haven’t greeted you properly. Welcome to Ten Tea. I am Zuko and will be your tea master today.”
There was a quiet sound of a shutter and he looked up. His mother looked elated as she held out her phone and admired her photo of him. Zuko forced himself not to cringe. She was so dotting, as usual.
Straightening up, he led them to the prepared seating area. The memory foam cushions were placed two across from him, on the other side of the hot water. Another was placed on his right, across from the utensils he’d use.
Following his led, they removed their shoes before getting on to the slightly elevated area. Ursa and Kya took the main seats across from him and Katara took the seat on his right. He took a deep breath as they settled in, sitting on his legs and bowing once more before preparing the tea.
He’d done this hundreds, perhaps a thousand times. It was bad enough with his mother watching, but Katara and Katara’s mother were there, too. He prayed he wasn’t sweating under their gaze.
Zuko zoned out and almost felt as if he were watching himself go through the motions. Pour the water, add the tea, whisk the tea, and present the cup one by one.
It wasn’t until his mother took a sip and closed her eyes, letting out a satisfied breath that he refocused.
“It’s wonderful,” Ursa said.
“Iroh himself couldn’t have done it better, Zuko,” Kya said with a warm, approving smile.
“I didn’t know you’ve had Ten Tea before, Mom,” Katara said. Her cup was in her hands, resting on her lap.
“It wasn’t Ten Tea back then,” Kya said. “Iroh would send Ozai tea and he’d make it for us. Or try to.”
“He was never very good at it,” Ursa said, agreeing with a small nod.
“Your dad got sick once and refused to touch anything Ozai made for the remaining year they lived together.” Kya laughed. “He also told on Ozai to Iroh and Iroh made him re-take tea ceremony classes.”
“I took them with him that time,” Ursa said. “Since were dating at the time.”
Kya shook her head. “We all did and we did so much better, Ozai refused to serve us tea again.”
“You know how to serve tea, Auntie?” Zuko asked, surprised.
“Yes, it really impressed Pakku.”
“Does grandpa know?” Katara asked.
“No, but he wanted to put you and Sokka into classes to learn. We never got around to it, though,” Kya said. “You were both such outdoorsy children.”
“I heard about that.” Ursa smiled at Katara. “Do you still canoe race?”
“In the summers, yes.” Katara glanced at Zuko and a sly smile appeared on her lips. He saw it and felt a sense of danger. “What about Zuko? I know he’s a good dancer.”
His mind was screaming ‘no’. Zuko looked at his mother, boring his eyes into hers in wordless plea for her silence.
“Oh, that’s because he and his sister used to do theater and take dance classes.” She didn’t get his plea.
His hands gripped the cloth at the top of his lap. It was all he could do to keep from covering his face and breaking his tea ceremony posture.
‘ “In theater!” Katara’s face lit up and looked at him. She was enjoying herself, and while that made him happy, he still wished his mother mentioned anything other than dancing. “Does he sing, too?”
Mom, please....don’t say any more.
“Not as well as he dances.”
He broke posture. A groan escaped him as he covered his red face with his hands. Katara’s laughter filled his ears and he felt a gentle tug on his sleeve. He looked down at her hands and followed her body to her face.
“I’m sure you’re better than you think,” she said. He would’ve continued to bury his face in his hands if her fingers didn’t weave between his and hold his hand.
The motion was not lost to their mothers. Ursa eyed their hands and gripped her phone. She was trying to keep herself from taking a photo. Kya looked amused and Zuko wondered if that meant she liked him. Not as Ursa’s son, but as Katara’s...guy she was seeing for tea on the regular basis?
Just as his mother seemed to give into her gut reaction of taking a picture, her phone began to vibrate and sound off. Ursa jumped in her seat as everyone looked over.
“Oh...we should get going.” There was disappointment in her voice as she slid her thumb across the screen. “With the traffic, we’ll be late if we don’t leave for the restaurant soon. Zuko, are you sure you can’t come with us?”
“I’m sure, Mom. I need to finish my shift.”
His mother pouted. “All right, but you’re going out to dinner with us before Kya and Hakoda leave!”
He gave her a resigned sigh and nodded. “I’ll make room on my schedule.”
He began to stand up, keeping his hand intertwined with Katara and helping her up. “It was great tea, Zuko.”
He gave her a lopsided smile. “Thanks.”
“Chit Sang,” he heard his mother say as she held the phone to her ear. “Can you bring the car around? We’re ready to go.” She paused and frowned. “No, the young master will not be joining us.”
Zuko sighed once more, ignoring his mother’s slight glare of disappointment as he extended his hand to help up Katara’s mother. “Thank you for coming, Auntie Kya. I hope you enjoyed the tea.’
“I did; you did a wonderful job. Far better than your father.” She leaned in a bit closer. “And your mother, if I’m being honest.”
“Hey!” The two women laughed and Zuko stepped off the ceremony mat. They put their shoes back on and he held out his arm so his mother could use him to steady herself as she slid her heels on.
Another buzzing sound came from Kya’s purse and she took out her phone. She glanced at him and Katara before taking Ursa’s arm and tugging her towards the door.
“I need to take this call. Katara, we’ll meet you outside,” she said with a nod. She gave Zuko one last warm smile. “And again, it was a pleasure meeting you, Zuko. We’ll see you again later.”
He returned her smile and nodded, lifting a hand in a small wave as Katara’s mother seemed to drag his outside while on the phone.
“She’s telling dad, I bet,” Katara said beside him. He glanced down and cocked his head.
“Is that bad? Is he overprotective or something?”
“Dad? No, no, he’s fine. He just mentioned not wanting to be related to your dad,” Katara said. Zuko held back his laugh. He gathered her hands in his and kissed the back of them.
“So...when are you coming next?”
Her big, blue eyes were sparkling. “How about you give me your number and I’ll let you know.”
He chuckled and went to the back room to get his phone. They quickly exchanged numbers and as she was writing his name into her contact list, she glanced up. “Is the shop open tomorrow?”
“For you, any time.”
She grinned and put her phone back into her purse. She lifted her arms, waiting for him to move into them. He wrapped his arms around her once and kissed the side of her head before placing his lips back on hers. He knew she’d come back, but really wished she didn’t have to leave.
Tapping was heard from the window and they turned to see Kya motioning towards the street. “Katara, the car is here.”
She let out a low breath, her arms still around his neck. She stepped back, letting her hands go over his shoulders and chest. “See you tomorrow?”
“Sure,” he said following her to the door. “What time?”
The little bell rang. She looked over her shoulder as she stepped out into the alley and gave him a cheeky smile.
“Half past closing.”