Zuko had been waiting for this afternoon all week.
A week ago Katara announced her plans to stay in the palace after the summit the entire gang attended was over. Every night since that day, just before falling asleep, the young Fire Lord thought about her embarrassed smile as she asked if he’d be okay with her staying a bit longer. He almost gathered up the courage to hug her, to show her how okay he was with that.
After bidding their friends goodbye in the morning, the Fire Lord couldn’t have been more eager to get to work. There were a few crucial matters on his agenda for today and he rush through them to make it on time.
On time for afternoon tea with Katara.
The appointed hour was near and Zuko hurried to the gardens where he was supposed to meet his friend. He did, however, make a quick stop at his quarters to pick up a very important object—a surprise for Katara.
With the large package in hand, he stepped out of the palace straight onto a soft carpet of grass. Zuko breathed in the fresh air, a blissful relief after the morning spent stuck in his stuffy office. The sight of the old wisteria met him, the one Uncle Iroh claimed to be over a hundred years old, sagged under the weight of its flowers. The tree was really one of a kind—Zuko has never seen another tree bloom in blue.
No wonder Katara’s favourite spot in his gardens was the one right under the biggest branch of the indigo tree. She was already seated there, smiling at him over her book which Zuko recognized as one he recommended to her in one of his letters.
“I’m surprised to see you on time,” she said, skipping the pleasantries. They were too close friends to care about such trivial things as greetings. “I thought your ministers would long for you after you abandoned them for almost three weeks for some foreign delegations,” she said the word foreign with mock disdain, her lips twisted in a smirk. Sunlight danced on her crinkled nose and her cheeks were slightly flushed from the heat, and Zuko wished he had any artistic talent as he was hit with the sudden desire to capture the view.
He waved with disregard for his ministers, not caring about them at all at the moment. Before he could answer, Katara took notice of his pack.
“That’s a heavy looking bag. What is it?”
Zuko couldn’t stop the grin from appearing on his face, as he sat across from Katara and dropped the round package on the grass between them.
“Something special I’d like to share with you.”
Or rather brag about.
Katara’s eyes shone, and she raised her brows in anticipation, leaning closer to him. He took his time untying the strips on the bag, giving his friend a messy introduction in the meantime. “I’ve been hiding it for a few days—from the others—and before that I kept it a secret for more than a year. It became kind of a hobby for me,” he revealed. “Took me a long time to get to this point, and for now I’ve only managed to grow this one—that’s why I hid it, because I wanted to share it with you—” he finally uncovered the mysterious object, and turned his gaze to Katara, excited to see her reaction.
Zuko’s smile fell, seeing a sceptic frown on her face.
“Uhm...Technically, yes. But it’s different from a regular melon.” He took a glance at the globose fruit, the stripes of various greens shining in the sun. And then he remembered why Katara confused the name. “I know that’s how we called it on the Ember Island during the war, but that is not what it’s called. We call it ’arbuz’ here.”
She nodded, eyeing the fruit with genuine curiosity. “And what’s so special about this ‘arbuz’ again?”
“I grew it myself,” he said with an enthusiasm that suited a child more than a Fire Lord, but he didn’t feel embarrassed in front of her. “Have you ever tried this fruit?”
“No, I don’t think so. I remember blasting it with various attacks, but I didn’t care much for its consumption back then,” she chuckled. “But I know how a regular melon tastes.”
“This one is slightly different. Some call it a ’watermelon’, because it is 91% water.” He put an emphasis on the number and Katara was polite enough to show amused interest in the fun fact he provided. “And I thought…” He put his hands on the sides of the fruit to keep them from shaking. “I thought you might like it, because… you know… you like water,” he finished, his shoulders slumping from embarrassment.
Her frown deepened and his heart froze.
“So, because it is made of water, you figured I’m bound to like it?”
Heat rose up his neck, threatening to bloom on his cheeks. He tilted his head, showing the scarred side, hoping the redness wouldn’t be that evident there. Now that she said it out, loud it sounded so damn stupid.
“Umm...no. I mean yes… but like in a humorous way… I didn’t mean… did I offend you?” he eventually blurted out.
Giggles bursted out of Katara’s chest and she raised her hand to cover the open mouthed laughter. Zuko wished she didn’t—she looked so beautiful laughing in his gardens he forgot to be embarrassed.
“I’m just teasing.” She leaned closer and playfully tapped him on his thigh, and he felt his blush raising up again when her palm lingered on his knee. “I’m honored to be included in this special occasion of arbuz tasting.” She smiled at him and his own lip curled in response. Her teasing couldn’t upset him really when she beamed at him like that.
His heart, which stopped just a few moments ago, now started beating frantically, so he set to keep his hands busy with cutting the fruit. He sank the blade into the rind and once it broke the barrier Zuko was happy to observe the internal part was much softer.
“Is this the knife Sokka gave you?”
“Yes, I always carry it with me.” He smiled, sentiment tugging at his heart.
“Why?” Katara furrowed her brows.
Distracted, trying to form a coherent answer, he stopped cutting the fruit for a second.
“Because my Dao swords freak people out on a regular day.”
He was more than happy to hear her laughing at his joke, and his knife cut through the rind on both sides. The watermelon opened revealing delicious red flesh. Zuko grinned at the sight—it was a good sign—and raised his head to share his excitement with Katara, only to notice her smile fell.
Her tone turned serious. “Is it still so bad?”
He sighed. The issue of Katara’s friends’ safety always seemed to upset her.
“No, it’s been quiet for some time. I have to admit though—chasing the assassins was quite an entertainment,” he added with a smirk. “Now I’m almost bored from the lack of action. And it is you I blame. You scared them off.”
Katara shrugged, nonchalantly playing with her hair. “If they couldn’t take a few water whips, they didn’t deserve to be the Fire Lord’s assassins.” She smirked with a dangerous glint in her eye.
It was the same look she would wear on the nights the two of them chased the criminals through the rooftops of Caldera City. With the bottom of her face covered with a cloth, he could only see the blue of her eyes, sharp with satisfaction when they caught the bad guys. Their duo had never failed.
He smiled at the memory, making clean cuts of the fruit to shape it into small slices.
“So, you grew it yourself,” Katara started with a smirk. “Who would’ve thought the Fire Lord Zuko had a knack for cultivation?”
“No one,” he whispered with a playful smile, handing her a triangle piece of watermelon. “It’s the best kept secret in the Fire Nation. You’re the only one who knows.”
She raised her brow. “Not even uncle Iroh knows?”
“Not even uncle.” The revelation caused Katara’s face to lit up. “Nor the gardener. I was this close,” he pinched his fingers, “to asking for his help after so many fruitless attempts. But I didn’t and grew it anyway. It’s the first and so far only one.” He eyed the fruit. “I’m so anxious to try it.”
Suddenly the stupidity of his actions struck him. He was so excited to show Katara his watermelon, he ignored the risk of the fruit’s dubious taste. What if it was actually disgusting? Just because it looked good it didn’t mean it had to be good.
Katara’s cheerful voice shook him out of his musings. “I’m not.”
And before Zuko could say anything or knock the slice out of her hold and run far away with his watermelon, Katara sank her teeth in the flesh. She munched, making weird noises and pulling faces at him—some affirmative, some not.
“Oh, stop tormenting me, Katara!” Zuko groaned. “So? How is it? Is it good?”
His desperation caused the girl to burst in another round of laughter. He kept an impressive track record of making her laugh today.
“I don’t know how it is supposed to taste, you tell me!”
Katara shoved her nibbled slice right in front of his face. Zuko froze for a second, taken aback by the intimacy of the gesture, but recovered quickly. He grasped her wrist to bring the fruit closer to his mouth and took a bite.
Her smile widened seeing his reaction.
“It is good!” Excited, he took another bite of Katara’s slice. The blush that bloomed on her cheeks had the color of his watermelon and Zuko realized it had nothing to do with the heat. “Do you like it?”
She nodded enthusiastically, grinning. “Yes, it’s very refreshing. And surprisingly cool.”
“I put it in a cooler last night. Even awful watermelons are bearable to eat when cold.”
“But this one isn’t awful.”
“No, it’s not.” He didn’t even try to stop the cheeky grin from appearing on his face. The watermelon was sweet but refreshing—exactly how it was supposed to taste. And so succulent a small bead of juice ran down Katara’s chin as she took another bite. Without thinking, he reached to wipe it.
Katara stared at him with a funny look on her face—she seemed spooked. His palm which lingered on her jaw now sprung as if burnt.
An awfully awkward silence fell between them for a few long seconds. Then Katara cleared her throat. “Better learn how to grow more of them, Zuko,” she said with a stern voice, but her smile betrayed her teasing. “You had a good feeling about me liking them a lot.”
“Thank Agni, it’s good,” he let go of all the anxious breath that was trapped inside him all morning. “It would’ve been quite embarrassing if I grew a disgusting watermelon for you.”
Zuko choked on said fruit as he realized his slip. Falling into a coughing fit, he didn’t notice Katara drew closer until her hair tickled his forearm.
“Thank you for sharing with me. That’s very sweet of you, Zuko. As sweet as this perfectly cultivated arbuz.”
And then a strand of hair tickled his jaw, and the next thing he knew was Katara’s lips on his cheek. She withdrew quickly, avoiding his gaze. The spot where she left the butterfly kiss burned, but it was a pleasant heat (nothing like getting burnt by a parent).
“I should return the favor now,” she muttered, and Zuko barely heard her.
Still dumbstruck a little, Zuko wasn’t able to formulate a coherent question, so he just furrowed his brows in confusion.
“And cultivate something from the South Pole for you,” Katara clarified.
“Oh.” Something warm swelled in his chest, something that suddenly made Zuko very nervous to be around Katara. “I didn’t know stuff grows on the South Pole.”
“Hardly,” she chuckled. “All I can think of are sea prunes. But they grow in the ocean. Do you like them?” she asked, and Zuko saw the excitement budding in her eyes.
“I don’t think I’ve ever tried them.”
“Hmm…” Katara bit her lip and Zuko knew he was staring but couldn’t look away. “I’ve heard they’re similar in taste to Fire Nation’s ocean kumquats. Do you like those?”
Zuko hated ocean kumquats.
“Yeah...I like them a lot.”
Her eyes widened in now full bloomed excitement and she clasped her hands together. “I can’t wait to treat you with sea prunes stew!”
And as Katara carried on describing the details of the famous South Pole’s cuisine Zuko didn’t even have half the mind to be disgusted by the depiction, because a dumb grin grew on his lips and a feeling started sprouting in his heart.