Toph was right about Ba Sing Se. This place was really the worst. It wasn't that Katara didn't enjoy having a soft bed and ample food and an allowance from the royal treasury—that was all nice. The cleanliness and manners that Toph railed so hard against didn't bother Katara either. But Ba Sing Se had Joo Dee. And Joo Dee was terrible.
No matter where they went, Joo Dee managed to be two steps behind them all the way, smiling that creepy, unflappable smile, and scaring away anyone they tried to speak to. It was bad enough when they approached that shady-looking ostrich horse dealer and he slammed the door in their faces. That made sense. He acted like he had something to hide even before he saw Joo Dee. But when a pastry shop turned them away at the sight of Joo Dee's unnaturally wide smile, they had all had enough.
It was Sokka's idea to turn it into a game. There were four of them and only one of Joo Dee—logically, if they were to split up, Joo Dee could only ruin the day for one of them.
Since Sokka was the only nonbender, they agreed to give him one advantage—while Katara, Aang, and Toph could use their bending however they saw fit ("Without getting arrested, guys," Katara cautioned them. "You lose if Joo Dee catches you or if you get arrested"), only Sokka was allowed to wear Earth Kingdom clothes. If Katara or Aang could conjure fog to hide in, and Toph could choose to hide underground, it was only fair that Sokka be able to blend into a crowd.
So when they left the house the next morning, Sokka wearing a nondescript green tunic and Toph in one of Katara's spare Water Tribe dresses, Joo Dee looked surprised—or as close to surprised as she could possibly look without breaking her smile. They let themselves be escorted as far as the first busy street before Sokka gave Katara, then Aang a pointed look and nudged Toph with his elbow.
"Remember, the game ends at sunset," he whispered. "Ready? On three. One—" he glanced back to make sure Joo Dee wasn't too close. "—two, three. Run!"
Katara summoned a dense fog from the nearest fountain and broke into a sprint. She didn't really know where she was going—Sokka had spent most of last night plotting routes through the city and strategizing, but she preferred to improvise. So she ran west, smirking when she heard Joo Dee calling after them. Not yelling, though. Joo Dee wouldn't yell, that would be undignified and unsuited to the refined atmosphere of the Upper Ring.
She ran until she could no longer hear Joo Dee's voice, shrill with agitation, then ran further, until her lungs protested and her knees felt wobbly. Slowing to a walk, she turned down a street lined with fancy shops. A whole day without Joo Dee. This would be nice. Of course, it would be more fun if she weren't alone, but a day without that creepy smile and those wide, expressionless eyes constantly hovering over her shoulder was more than worth it.
Katara wandered into a clothing shop, then a shop that seemed to specialize in utterly impractical silk slippers. The kind that Toph and her mother wore in Gaoling—the kind that were too delicate to be worn outside. Katara wrinkled her nose. She didn't hate shopping, but she didn't have Sokka's enthusiasm for it. Especially when she was alone.
She meandered down one quiet street after another, farther and farther from the center of the Upper Ring. The Middle Ring felt more comfortable to her—it always had. But today, she had no interest in stopping. She hadn't had much chance to explore the Lower Ring, and today, armed with her waterskins and unhindered by Joo Dee, seemed like the perfect opportunity.
It was nearly midday when Katara realized she was hungry. The taverns in the Lower Ring looked a little shady for her tastes—if Sokka were here, he'd scold her for even considering going in alone. Truthfully, he might scold her for coming to the Lower Ring in the first place, but that didn't bother her. The drunken shouts from inside the taverns were another matter entirely. Luckily, there was a tea shop on the corner—a sleepy little place, not exactly quaint or charming, but it seemed quiet. Quiet suited her today.
She chose a table in the corner where she could look out the window and settled in.
"Welcome to the Pao Family Tea House," a weary-sounding voice said. "My name is Lee, and—"
Katara looked at the server and froze. And he froze. And for what seemed like a very long time, she stared into the very surprised golden eyes of Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation.
He recovered from the surprise first and spun toward the kitchen. "Uncle!"
Jaw hanging open, Katara turned slowly, eyes trailing after Zuko as he retreated behind the counter. Sure enough, there was his uncle, round and pleasant-faced as ever. And Zuko. Prince Zuko. In a teashop. In the Lower Ring of Ba Sing Se. In an apron. She wasn't sure what part of the image was strangest to her.
She pinched her arm, and it hurt. Not dreaming, then. Maybe this wasn't a dream, though. Maybe she had hit her head or something and it was a hallucination. Yeah. That made sense. Or at least more sense than—whatever this was.
Zuko was staring at her like she was a Foggy Swamp apparition as he whispered to his uncle in a voice that carried clear across the room. Katara snapped her gaping jaw shut. That was Zuko, all right. And spirits, he really needed to learn how to keep his voice down if he ever wanted to keep a secret. He was worse than Sokka, and that was saying a lot.
"What am I supposed to do?" Zuko hissed. His uncle mumbled something in reply. "No. No, Uncle. Absolutely not. No!" The old man glanced in Katara's direction and waggled his bushy gray eyebrows. "Uncle, I'm not serving her tea! For all we know, she's here to—" Zuko cut himself off and flushed a deep shade of red.
The old man clasped Zuko's shoulder and went off into a low, rumbling lecture that Katara couldn't understand from her seat. From time to time, Zuko glanced her direction, then turned back to his uncle, shamefaced. What was that about? It almost made Zuko seem—normal.
At last the lecture ended, and the old man patted Zuko's shoulder with an affectionate smile. Zuko made a show of throwing himself over the counter so his head thumped lightly against the wood and let out a prolonged groan. His uncle poked him in the side and offered an order pad. Zuko rolled his head to the side and glared up at his uncle for a second, then grumbled a string of wildly creative curses and snatched the order pad out of the old man's hand.
"Welcome to the Pao Family Tea House," Zuko began before he was even halfway to her table. The look on his face might have been an attempt at forcing a smile, but he just looked constipated. "My name is Lee—"
"You have to be kidding me," Katara interrupted.
Zuko's ears reddened. Or ear—it was difficult to see whether the scarred one changed color or not. "My name is Lee," he tried again, voice taut enough to crack. "And I will be your server today."
"What are you doing?"
His shoulders visibly tensed, and he held up his order pad as if it were a shield. "My job." He tried to smile and managed to look nauseated this time. Katara couldn't decide if that was better or worse than his constipated face. "Our special today is—"
She shook her head. "That's not what I meant. Why are you here?"
He threw his hands up. "I just am, okay?"
"And you work in a teashop?" Katara asked, still unable to fully wrap her mind around the concept.
"No, I just think the apron makes me look cool." He crossed his arms. "Are you going to order anything, or can I throw you out?"
Across the room, Zuko's uncle looked up. "Nephew," he warned.
Zuko stared up at the ceiling and gave a long sigh. "I mean," he said through clenched teeth, "What can I get for you today?"
A second of silence passed before Katara remembered why she had come in the first place. Lunch. Right. She was hungry. "Uh—do you have food here? Not just tea?"
"We have a small selection of fruit pastries." The reply came automatically, as if he'd repeated those exact words hundreds of times before. Zuko looked briefly startled by his own answer but settled back into an expression of annoyance.
"Okay." Fruit pastries weren't an ideal lunch, but it had to be better than braving the taverns. "I like everything but papaya."
"Papaya's all we have," Zuko snapped.
Okay, that response was far too quick. Katara glanced back toward Zuko's uncle.
"Nephew, I believe you misunderstood me earlier," the old man called across to them. "Papaya is the only thing we're out of."
Katara found herself smiling in triumph. "In that case, I would like a peach tart. Please. And a cup of tea."
Zuko grumbled, but he scribbled her order down—which probably wasn't necessary, considering the fact that the rest of the shop was empty—and stomped off to fetch her food.
He dropped the plate in front of her and thumped her teacup down. He folded his arms again. "Will there be anything else?"
Katara frowned up at him. "Actually, yes." She leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table. "I want to know the truth. What are you doing here?"
"I, uh—" He ran a hand through his hair. The motion made it stick out in several directions at once, but she had to admit that it still looked better than that stupid bald ponytail thing he used to have. "Excuse me, I have to get back to work."
"Take your time, Nephew," the old man said brightly as he bustled to clear the dishes and crumbs off the counter. "See? All cleaned up. And our busy time isn't for a few hours yet."
Zuko's mouth opened and closed a few times, and Katara smirked. "Sounds to me like you've got time to answer my question."
He glared at her.
"What are you doing in Ba Sing Se?"
"I—" He let out a puff of air. "I can't talk about it."
"Because—" He fidgeted with the edge of his apron. "People can't know where I'm from."
Her first impulse was to jump up and yell, Ha! I knew you were here to do something evil! But he didn't look like he was plotting anything. He just looked—embarrassed. And frustrated. And maybe a little bit frightened. And—it was stupid, but Katara wanted to hear what he had to say. She leaned back. "Well, there's nobody else here, and I already know where you're from. So your secret's out. I could go to the Dai Li right now and turn you in—"
His eyes widened, and the color drained from his face.
"Or," she continued, "I could stay here and eat my lunch while you tell me the truth."
He clenched his jaw and looked down. "What, so you can turn me in as soon as you leave?" Surprisingly, there wasn't any anger in his voice. Just weariness and defeat.
She shrugged. "Your chances are a lot better if you explain. Why are you here?"
Zuko rubbed the back of his neck. "My sister is insane. Next question."
"Are you just going to keep standing there? You're making me nervous."
With a sigh, Zuko glanced back at his uncle, but he pulled out the chair across from her and perched on the edge, ready to bolt out of his seat at any time. Okay, this really wasn't any better than his hovering. It should be impossible for a person to be that awkward.
"Happy now?" he asked.
Katara frowned. "Not really." She tore off a bit of the tart and popped it into her mouth. It tasted better than she'd expected. Actually, it was good. Really good. She tried not to let it show. "So—are you still looking for Aang?"
Zuko scrunched up his nose. "What's an Aang?"
She paused, mid-chew. "Seriously?"
"What? I've never heard of—" Realization washed over his face. "Oh. Is that—" He looked around and leaned forward to mouth the last few words, —the Avatar's name?
Katara flicked a few crumbs at him. "You have to be kidding."
"Hey!" He brushed the crumbs off of his apron, scowling. "Excuse me for having other things to worry about."
Rolling her eyes, Katara shook her head. "Yeah, well we had plenty to worry about too, and I still managed to learn your name." She took a sip of her tea. "Answer the question. Are you still hunting Aang or not?"
"I don't know." Zuko scratched at a stain on the tabletop. His good eyebrow crept downward, and his voice lowered. "I don't know if it even makes a difference anymore."
"What is that supposed to mean?" She crossed her arms. "It makes a difference to me if you're going to show up someday and try to kidnap my friend."
"No! I can't go home without the—without Aang, but I don't know if that would be enough anymore." He stared at the table. "My father sent my sister to bring me back, but I got the impression that she wasn't too concerned about keeping me in one piece for the trip. And she always does what my father expects of her, so—"
Katara almost shuddered at the memory of the fight back in that abandoned village. Azula was practically unstoppable. Maybe the fight would have gone differently if Katara's water supply hadn't been dangerously low, if they hadn't all been sleep-deprived, but she didn't savor the idea of meeting the princess again. "I'm glad you and your uncle are okay." Zuko looked up at her in surprise. "I mean—" she faltered. "He got hurt pretty badly, and I would have healed him. We never could have won that fight without the two of you. I would have helped if you'd let me."
His mouth hung open a fraction as he studied her, his golden eyes peering deep into hers, searching. For what, she wasn't certain. Katara felt her face heat and she hastily shoved a too-large piece of the tart into her mouth. She wasn't blushing. Zuko's lips parted a little wider—no. She wasn't looking at his mouth either. His awkwardness must just be contagious.
"Why are you here?" he asked after a pause. "You're travelling with—" He waved a hand, apparently unable to decide whether to say Aang or the Avatar. "Doesn't that basically put you in the Earth King's lap?"
"Gross." Katara wrinkled her nose.
"No, not like—" he sighed and rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand. "Aren't you staying in the palace or something?"
She shook her head. "A house in the Upper Ring. We've been trying to get a meeting with the Earth King, but they won't let us anywhere near the palace." She stopped herself. She was dangerously close to revealing Sokka's plans for the eclipse. She shouldn't be telling Zuko things like this, but it was just too easy to keep talking.
"So why are you in the Lower Ring? I'm sure the teashops are a lot nicer where you live."
Okay, now she was blushing. "We were playing a game."
It was Zuko's turn to gape. "A game? What kind of game is it?"
"Ditch Joo Dee. It was my brother's idea."
He nodded slowly, looking as confused as ever. "And Joo Dee is?"
"The creepy lady who follows us around to make sure we don't cause trouble." Katara ran her finger around the rim of her teacup. "We split up so she couldn't ruin the day for all of us."
Zuko nodded as if he understood. He probably did, Katara realized. He was royalty. The Fire Nation might be different than Ba Sing Se, but if anyone there had to deal with overbearing glorified babysitters like Joo Dee, it was probably the crown prince. But before he could respond, his stomach growled loudly and he flushed, crossing his arms over his stomach.
"Impressive," Katara said, smiling.
Zuko scowled. "Shut up." He turned his face away, but not before she caught him glancing at her plate. He stared deliberately out the window and she saw him swallow.
"When was the last time you ate?" She didn't really mean to say it aloud, but now that she was paying attention, she couldn't help but notice how lean his face had become.
"This morning," he snapped.
From the corner of her eye, Katara saw the old man shake his head, and she raised an eyebrow at Zuko.
"Fine. Last night. I overslept this morning." His scowl remained fixed on his face and he turned his attention to the stain on the table again.
Or you deliberately slept in because there wasn't enough food for breakfast. She and Sokka had done the same a few times on their trip across the Earth Kingdom. They were older than Aang and Toph—it was their responsibility to take care of the younger kids. Most of the time, that meant the two of them doing most of the work to set up camp, Sokka hunting and fishing for their meals, and Katara doing the cooking and the washing. Toph rarely contributed more than her own earth tent, and Aang tried to help, he really did, but he had a tendency to wander off and play with Momo midway through chores. But there had been a few times when there was only enough rice left to feed Aang and only enough meat for Toph—it was just easier if she and Sokka pretended to sleep through breakfast so the other two could help themselves to the leftovers.
She frowned down at her plate. "You know—I think I'd like to try another kind of tart." She heard Zuko let out an irritated sigh. "Do you have anything with mango or cherry?"
He ran a hand down the side of his face as he stood. "Yes," he grumbled.
Katara smiled and Zuko's uncle gave her a curious look as she carefully cut off the untouched half of her peach tart. She tried to rearrange her expression into something like neutrality before Zuko returned with the second plate. She wasn't sure if she succeeded or not, but Zuko didn't seem to notice.
"Will that be all?" His voice was tight again and he refused to meet her eyes.
"Not quite." She sliced the second pastry in half and divided it so that she had the mostly-eaten half of the peach tart and half of the cherry tart on one plate and an untouched half of each on the other.
Zuko's brow furrowed. "What are you doing?"
Katara slid the second plate across the table and gave a crooked smile. "I said I wanted to try another kind. I didn't say I could eat all of this on my own."
A closed-off look came over his face. "Don't."
"Don't what?" She took a bite.
He ran a hand through his hair. "Don't—act like we're friends." He shifted uncomfortably.
Katara looked up, studying him. There was that defeat in his eyes again, though he was clearly trying to hide it. She rested her elbows on the table. "Why not?" The words came out almost as a challenge.
Zuko frowned, but his uncle cleared his throat. Zuko glanced back at the old man, then took a deep breath and eased back into the seat across from her.
It was strange, and for a while, Zuko sat stiff on the edge of his chair, answering in monosyllables. But one sarcastic remark made Katara smile, and Zuko relaxed a little. Talking to him was easy. And comfortable. And natural. And it was weird, but Zuko listened to her talk, unsmiling and gaze steady, and that felt nice too. Even if he didn't smile, even if that guarded look didn't quite disappear from this face, his eyes were warm.
She found herself wondering if she should ask again—Are you still chasing Aang? Can I trust you not to hurt him? Because she wanted to trust Zuko. It would be easy. If he had really given up on the idea, maybe she could stop acting like they were friends. Maybe they could be friends.
He said something that made her laugh—When did Zuko develop a sense of humor?—and a small smile flashed across his face. It was fleeting, gone as quickly as it had appeared, but for the instant it was there, his eyes lit up and Katara's stomach fluttered. Okay, so he had a nice smile. But Katara wasn't blushing, and a little stomach flip didn't mean anything. It was just—surprise, probably. Zuko smiled so seldom that a little surprise was only natural.
There was a commotion outside and they both started, turning toward the window.
A woman's voice, shrill and piercing, rang through the street, and Katara groaned. "That's Joo Dee." She dropped her face into her hands so that her elbows thumped on the table. "Sokka's never going to let me hear the end of this. I lost the game."
Zuko peered out through the blinds a second longer. "No, you didn't."
Katara raised her head enough to see him smile. A real, proper smile this time. Her stomach went wild with butterflies, and Zuko grabbed her by the hand.
"Come on," he whispered, pulling her out of her seat.
Trotting to keep up with his long stride, Katara hissed, "What are we doing?"
He led her back behind the counter, past his uncle, who shot them an amused smile, and pulled a serving cart out from under the counter. "Hiding." He pointed at the open space where the cart used to be.
Katara gave him a skeptical look, but then Joo Dee's voice came nearer and there were footsteps just outside the door. Taking a deep breath, she ducked under the counter and pulled her knees to her chest. Zuko crouched to make sure she was hidden, and the front door opened. Before Zuko could stand back up, his uncle shoved him out of sight and pushed the serving cart in front of their hiding place.
"Good afternoon my dear lady, and welcome to the Pao Family Tea House."
The loud greeting masked both Zuko's grunt and Katara's surprised squeak as his face collided with her shoulder. Zuko jerked back as quickly as possible, his head thumping against the counter in his haste. He winced, and Katara pressed a finger to her lips.
Sorry, he mouthed, face flushing scarlet. Bracing his hands against the sides of the little compartment, he pushed himself off to the side.
It's okay, she mouthed in reply and squeezed farther into the corner to make room for him.
"What may I do for you on this lovely day?" The old man clattered around over them, noisier than necessary, sounding pleased with himself. "We have an exquisite selection of teas from all regions of the Earth Kingdom—" He went on, chattering about a rare oolong that was rumored to be a favorite of the great King Bumi of Omashu.
Katara tried to ignore the heat gathering in her cheeks while Zuko's face hovered only inches away from hers. The space under the counter was scarcely large enough for both of them, and she could feel the gentle warmth radiating off him as he tried to twist himself around to sit. When he finally succeeded, she let out a small breath of relief. Their shoulders were wedged uncomfortably tight, and their hands were nearly touching, but at least now she could look away and pretend that her heart wasn't racing, that his piercing golden gaze wasn't making her stomach do strange fluttery things.
"Excuse me," Joo Dee interrupted. "I am sure that your shop is the pride of Ba Sing Se, but I have no time for tea. Four of the Earth King's young guests have gone missing. I believe that one of them may have come into your shop."
"Oh dear." The old man made a thoughtful noise.
"I believe either Lady Toph Beifong or Master Katara of the Water Tribe was seen heading this way," Joo Dee pressed.
"Mmmm." The old man stopped his clattering. "May I ask what these young ladies look like?"
Katara tensed. He couldn't. It would be bad enough losing the game, but being caught hiding under a teashop counter with Zuko would be downright humiliating, to say nothing of the danger for Zuko. She didn't want to see him caught. It felt strange, but she cared. If Katara was caught, it would be embarrassing. She would have to face teasing and questions from Sokka and the others, but Zuko—he could be arrested. Or worse. She started to squirm forward as Joo Dee described her and Toph.
Zuko's hand landed on her arm and he shook his head. Wait, he mouthed.
"I'm afraid I haven't seen any young ladies wearing blue today," the old man said. "Business has been very slow."
"Perhaps they changed their clothes?" Joo Dee demanded. There was a pause, then Joo Dee added, "If business has been slow, what is this?"
Oops. They'd left their plates at the table. Zuko's eyes widened, and Katara pressed her hands over her mouth.
"The scoundrel!" There was an edge of amusement in the old man's voice despite his apparent effort to sound serious. "I apologize, my good lady. It seems a customer left without paying."
"I shall alert the patrol on your behalf."
"Oh, don't trouble yourself," the old man answered jovially. "I know the young man well. Rest assured, I will have a very stern conversation with the boy's uncle."