|A Matter of Appearances
Author: chromeknickers PM
Iroh has Zuko and Katara serve tea at his shop, which consequently leads to Zuko and Katara getting shamelessly hit on. Their solution to their pervert woes? Pretend to be a jealous couple in order to scare off the grab-happy folks of Ba Sing Se.Rated: Fiction T - English - Humor/Romance - Zuko & Katara - Words: 7,776 - Reviews: 100 - Favs: 368 - Follows: 29 - Published: 07-20-11 - Status: Complete - id: 7199062
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
This story is dedicated to my very dear friend Ann, who wanted the following one-shot: "fluffy, cute, coupley, post-war, and no unrequited love!" Well, your wish is my command, m'lady.
So, enjoy some super cute fluff, everyone (with some totally adorable otter-penguin bandages!).
A Matter of Appearances
"I am the Fire Lord! I shouldn't be serving tea and having my ass grabbed every damn minute!"
Zuko was dressed in his old Earth Kingdom robes and white apron, shaking a fist at the ceiling and looking anything but the regal Fire Lord that he was. He had his hair cut short again, letting it grow shaggy in the front in an attempt to hide his scar and not alert his uncle's patrons to his true identity. Of course, since the customers did not know that a genuine Fire Lord was serving them their tea they felt a touch more liberal with their hands than they what would have been allowed, especially the women.
"Aww, poor Zuko," Katara crooned beside him, dressed in matching Earth colours and apron. "How could I, as a woman, ever relate to your pain?"
Zuko could only growl in response as he began to bus the tables in The Jasmine Dragon with a bit more vim and vigour than was necessarily needed. Smirking, Katara simply rolled her eyes and set a tray of dirty dishes on an empty table.
"It was your uncle's idea that you humble yourself by working in his tea shop for a week on your month-long vacation," she reminded him with her finger poised in the air. "You know, to keep in touch with the common people."
"Is that why I'm stuck working with you?" he asked, looking down at her with his good eye before lifting an eyebrow in a haughty manner. "Then I am ever so humbled."
Katara hit Zuko in the face with a dirty dish rag, causing him to stumble backwards and sputter with disgust. He retaliated by grabbing an ice cube out of one of the used glasses and slipped it down the back of her dress. She let out a high-pitched scream, causing the customers to lower their cups in concern while she manoeuvred herself around so that the ice cube would fall out of her dress naturally without her having to bend it out. This, of course, led to Zuko chuckling thickly to himself while Katara threatened to bend some ice cold water into places where the sun didn't shine.
The verbal sparring match continued for less than a minute until they were both called to serve their next orders. An hour later, and once on break, Zuko was already rubbing his backside before taking a seat on the bench outside.
"This was supposed to be a vacation," he complained, offering Katara a cold drink. "Instead, I'm working in my uncle's shop—for free—and having all the lecherous women of Ba Sing Se and beyond undress me with their eyes." His lips tightened into a thin line. "Their evil, lustful eyes."
Katara snorted into her drink. "Please, Zuko," she said, coughing up an ice cube and bending it into water over the potted plant beside her. "You're hot, but you're not that hot."
He blinked. "I'm hot?"
"Well, I, uhm." Katara choked on her drink again. "That is . . ." She paused, her cheeks glowing pink. For a Waterbender, she wasn't all that smooth (must have been a Southern Water Tribe thing—see Sokka for details). "So, how's Mai doing?"
"Fine, I guess," he answered with a shrug, going along her obvious tactic of changing the subject. "She's back at Omashu with her family or hanging out with Ty Lee and the Kyoshi Warriors. I'm not sure which." When he finally glanced down at Katara, seeing the puzzled expression on her face, he inclined his head knowingly. "We broke up again."
"Oh." She frowned. "I'm sorry to hear that."
Zuko noisily inhaled through his nose. "Don't be. She gets bored easily." He exhaled and fingered the cup of water in his hands. "We'll get back together again in a couple of months when she's bored of her family and friends."
"Oh, uhm, that's good," Katara said while slowly nodding, and then added with a mumble, "I think."
He suddenly shifted in his seat, watching the people walk by. There was a beat of silence and then another as they both quietly observed the pedestrians travel to and fro on the busy streets of Ba Sing Se.
"So how are you and Aang?"
"Oh, you know," Katara said, quietly sipping her drink, "me and Aang."
Zuko raised his good eyebrow and stared at her pointedly until she began to squirm uncomfortably under his gaze.
"We're on and off—mostly off," she confessed with a sigh. "It's hard to have a relationship with someone who's never around." When Zuko's brow creased into a deep V, she shrugged indifferently and offered him a thin smile. "He's got the wanderlust thing going on right now."
Zuko's eyes widened in understanding. "Ah, right. Air Nomads."
"Air Nomads," she agreed, and then motioned to their surroundings. "Hence why I'm here, helping out."
Zuko's lips curved upwards into a mischievous grin. "Sick of delivering zebra-seals—I mean your brother's kids—at the South Pole?"
Without warning, Katara punched Zuko in the arm. He flinched and leaned back, wincing in pain, and brought his hand to his arm to rub at the bruise that was bound to be forming there.
"You're terrible!" she cried, but could not stop the smile from creeping onto her lips. "Better not let Sokka hear you talk like that."
Zuko's grin widened. "So when is he finally going to have a son?"
She leaned back against the bench and looked up at the sky. "When the spirits forgive him for being such an oppressive and over-protective big brother."
"Hey, I let Azula do whatever she wanted when we were growing up and she turned out evil." Zuko nodded sagely. "You should be appreciative of Sokka's over-protectiveness."
Katara laughed and then winked. "I'll send him a thank-you card."
When their break was over, they both returned inside to relieve the other two servers of their duties. The Jasmine Dragon had become the most popular tea and beverage shop in the city, with more than six servers working at once. It just so happened that the new servers, Katara and Zuko (known as Kya and Lee), had become rather popular with the respective male and female clientèle, which resulted in a lot of unwanted flirtation and grabby hands.
"Excuse me!" Katara roared from across the room, looking ready to dump an entire pot of tea over a patron who had surreptitiously pinched her bottom. "Who do you think you are?"
Zuko was at the culprit's table in a matter of seconds, picking up the younger man by his collar and escorting him to the door.
"You have no right to touch her like that!" Zuko's face was in the other man's, smoke curling from his nostrils in anger. "Now get out of here—" he flung the patron across the floor "—right NOW!"
Frightened, the man, not much older than a boy, lay prostrate on the newly tiled floor, not quite sure what had just transpired or what was about to happen to him.
"I'm sorry, I—"
"Get out before I bend you out!" Zuko growled, fire glowing in his palms as he pointed at the door.
"Zuko," Katara whispered behind him, placing a hand on his shoulder.
They weren't supposed to reveal that they were benders while serving at the shop, as it would have given away their identities. Zuko, however, did not care and would not be placated. He stared the man down until he left the premises and then, and only then, did he extinguish the fire in his palms. Iroh, who had come out of the kitchen during the commotion, was already apologising to the guests and appeasing them by telling jokes, serving free tea, and having the other servers pass out coupons. Such was the charm and intelligence of Uncle Iroh.
"The nerve of that jerk," Zuko rasped, his chest still heaving with rage, "of all these jerks leering at you like you're some slab of meat."
Katara dropped her hands to her hips. "Slab of meat?"
Zuko paused and turned around, seeing Katara's blue eyes narrowed into slits. "Okay, like some kind of prize," he said, offering her a sheepish grin.
Katara nodded, smiling. "That's better."
Zuko could only blush and turn his head, watching his uncle mingle with the customers. Unlike Zuko and even Katara, Uncle Iroh was always in control of his emotions, always thinking before acting. Zuko hoped that it was a hereditary trait that came with age and experience.
"I'm sorry, Katara." Zuko sighed, walking over to take a seat at the now-empty table. "Sometimes the middle and upper-class sections of Ba Sing Se can be just as uncouth as the lower."
Katara shrugged indifferently and sat down beside him. "It's okay, Zuko." She patted his arm affectionately. "It's not your fault. Besides, guys can be dogs no matter what class they're from." She offered him a playful grin. "I guess our butts are just too squeezable for our own good."
Zuko laughed. "Yours maybe." Then, as though catching himself before he said something really embarrassing, he back-pedalled. "I mean to that if I were your boyfriend, I'd be giving everyone the evil death glare." He glowered at a group of teenage boys who were unabashedly checking Katara out, as if to prove his point. "And that guy who actually had the nerve to grab your—" he pantomimed the action and then dropped his hands, stymied "—well, you know."
Katara just stared at him until a flush of pink bloomed on his cheeks and spread to the tips of his ears.
"Anyway—" he nervously rubbed the back of his neck "—I'd find out where he lived and have the Blue Spirit pay him a visit."
"Jealous type, huh?" Katara raised an eyebrow in jest.
Zuko lowered his hand and smirked. "You have no idea."
Katara smirked back and then a light seemed to switch on behind her eyes; she snapped her fingers in triumph. "That's it!"
"What's it? You want me to go get my Blue Spirit mask?" Zuko asked excitedly, before schooling his features. "I mean, do you want me to make a Blue Spirit mask?" He tried to act casual and aloof as he stood up and gathered the half-empty cup of tea onto a tray. "It's not like I have another one lying around here somewhere."
Katara furrowed her brow in deep confusion. "What? No." She shook her head. "We should pretend to be boyfriend and girlfriend!"
Zuko dropped the tray down onto the table, splashing tea up onto his apron and neck.
"W-what?" he stuttered, taking out a clean rag and drying his face and neck with it.
"We should pretend to be boyfriend and girlfriend."
"Yes, I heard you the first time," he said, wiping his brow, "which is why I poured tea down the front of myself." He pointed at his stained apron and grimaced. "What I want to know is why would you want to pretend such a thing?"
Katara leaned forward and rested her elbows on the table. "Besides the fact that everyone in the Fire Nation and most of the Earth Kingdom already assumes that we're in love anyway?"
The tip of Zuko's right ear burned with heat, and he looked away. "Yeah, aside from that."
"It would stop the girls from hitting on you," Katara offered, and then added hastily, "and the guys from hitting on me." She swallowed hard, an effulgence of colour blossoming on the apples of her cheeks. "You know, we could act like the jealous couple type."
"Yeah . . ."
"C'mon, Zoozie," she cooed, standing and saddling up beside him.
Zuko visibly blenched. "Zoozie? Ugh, no. No pet names." He shook his head resolutely, holding onto the tray. "I'm going to forever be in therapy over Azula's nicknames for me."
"Aww, you've got to give me something." Her eyes brightened. "Abs, how about Abs?"
Katara bit her bottom lip shyly. "I've seen you without your shirt on, Zuko."
"Oh." All the blood seemed to have drained from his face and he looked past Katara at the tables of girls watching him silently. "No, not Abs. It will only encourage them."
"Fine," she pouted, and then began to contemplate other nicknames. "Hmm. Oh, I know! Shaggy."
Zuko blinked nonplussed. "Shaggy?"
"Yeah." She stood up on her toes and ran her fingers through his mop of jet-black hair, tousling it. "I love it when you wear your hair like this, all cute and shaggy."
He seemed to melt at her touch and then flushed bright pink again. "Thanks."
Smiling, Katara lowered her hand and stepped back. "What about me?"
"What about you?"
She rolled her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest. "What pet name are you going to give me?"
"Blue Eyes," he answered immediately, shutting his mouth just as quickly as he had opened it.
Katara lifted an eyebrow in curiosity. "Blue Eyes? That didn't take long. Don't want to mull it over a bit?"
He shook his head, a subtle smile playing across his lips. "You have insanely huge blue eyes, Katara. They're not hard to miss."
Without missing a beat, a crimson hue rose to Katara's cheeks and then an order was called out. Both exchanged knowing glances before resuming their work, silently agreeing to pose as boyfriend and girlfriend to keep the grabby, flirtatious patrons off their cases (and their hands off their arses). And as the day progressed, this tactic seemed to work: men didn't bother to grab at Katara and women didn't seem to flirt with Zuko. When they closed up shop at the end of the night, they both considered Katara's plan a resounding success.
"We should do this more often!" Katara said, hanging up her apron. She locked her fingers together and brought them over her head, stretching and working out the kinks in her neck and shoulders.
"What, serve tea?" Zuko opened the door for her to exit and then locked it behind them.
"No!" She laughed, reaching out to playfully swat at his arm. "Pretend to be boyfriend and girlfriend to get people off our backs." She took in a deep breath of the fresh night air and glanced up at Zuko, who was smiling down at her. "Don't you think it would be a great way to make Mai jealous so that she'd take you back?"
Zuko snorted. "Don't you mean it would be a great way to make Mai furious so that she'd throw knives at myback?"
"Well, that's an unfortunate but necessary drawback," Katara retorted in a blasé fashion, causing Zuko to shove her. "But, you know, we'd just do it for appearances' sake, not for real. It does stop people from hitting on us while we're in the city, and if Mai found out, she could get all jealous and beg you to take her back. Then we could, you know—" she made air quotation marks with her fingers "—break up, and you two would kiss and make up." She dramatically dusted her hands for emphasis. "Bada bing bada boom."
Zuko's brow creased sharply as he tried to follow her logic. "Bada bing bada boom?" He shook his head. "Katara, Mai and I are always on and off. It's our thing. You and I pretending to be boyfriend and girlfriend isn't going to change that. If anything, it will get me killed."
He reached out to grab her arm, spinning her around to face him. "Are you sure there isn't another reason why you want to do this?"
"What do you mean?" she asked, looking down at his hand on her arm in shock before shrugging it off and pointing at herself. "You don't think that I—you—?"
"N-no," he stuttered, raising his hands in a defensive position. "No, I just—Aang!" Zuko brought his hand to the back of his neck and rubbed nervously when Katara gave him the evil fish eye. "Does this have something to do with Aang? You know, a way to keep him from pining after you or something?"
"Maybe . . ." She dropped her head and sighed before balling her hands into fists. "Ugh, I don't know, Zuko. I get mad at him when he runs off and I get mad at him when he doesn't give me my space." She glanced up at him, her big round eyes shining in the moonlight. "Sometimes, I only see him like a brother, you know?"
"No, not really." He shook his head and then placed a hand on her shoulder. "Look, if we were to pretend to date in order to get Aang off your back, he'd kill me. And I don't want the Avatar, who can take away my ability to bend, pissed off at me. It took a lot for me to win over his friendship and everyone else's, especially yours." Zuko lowered his hand and smiled ruefully. "I don't want to ruin all of that just so that we can play at house, even if it's just for the sake of appearances. What would your brother say, or your father?"
Katara frowned. "You've put a lot of thought into this for me just mentioning it less than a minute ago."
"I've become more cautious and calculating in my advanced years."
She laughed and then frowned, bowing her head. "No," she sighed loudly, "you're probably right."
"There's a first time for everything." Zuko smirked and turned around, lightly elbowing her in the ribs. "Listen, I have no problem pretending to be your boyfriend for the week—" his entire face flushed and he tried to shrug it off nonchalantly "—you know, to get these losers to leave you alone."
"Thanks, Zuko," Katara said, glancing up at him with a ruthless grin on her face before elbowing him back. "It will stop me from bending boiling hot tea in their faces."
"Uncle will appreciate that."
"But if we're going to act as the jealous couple," she added, bringing her hand out to Zuko's, "we have to promise not to bend. We don't want to reveal our identities."
Katara held out her pinky finger like a promise, and Zuko just stared at it dumbly before offering her his forearm. She rolled her eyes but took his arm, grasping it firmly.
"No bending," he agreed, and they both held arms for a moment longer, smiling conspiratorially.
The two then continued the rest of the trek to Iroh's house, gladly looking forward to sleep. Luckily they had a late shift the next day and could spend the morning sleeping in and going shopping. With their plan to act as the jealous boyfriend and girlfriend set in motion, neither saw any troubles lying in store for them for the rest of the week. Unfortunately, the weekly course events didn't run quite as smoothly as they had hoped . . .
The teenager barely let out a yelp before his arse skidded across the cobblestone path.
"What goes up, must come down," Zuko called out after him, before turning back inside the shop.
"Zuko!" Katara admonished, running up to the door to see if the kid was okay. Sure, he had tried to grope her, but Zuko had clearly overreacted.
"What?" he asked in his raspy voice, giving her a pointed look. "I'm just helping the kid out. I had to learn Physics on the streets."
Katara rolled her eyes and turned around, raising a pointed finger in the air. "One weekend fishing trip with Sokka and you come back thinking you're a comedian!"
"Why are those girls over there pointing and giggling at me?" He waved his hand over at a group of girls who were looking up at him, blushing and whispering amongst themselves.
Katara shrugged. "I dunno."
Zuko's eyes narrowed. "Well, I think I do." He saddled up beside her, his voice low and his mouth close to her ear. "As I was walking away from serving them tea, one of them said something about the female server, my girlfriend—that's you, by the way—casually commenting that I used to be an exotic dancer before I, quote, 'started down the straight and narrow path', end quote."
"Save it, Blue Eyes," he growled, watching her eyes instinctively crinkle into a smile. "This means war."
"Hey, have you seen that Li guy around lately?" Katara asked absently, fumbling with her notepad and quill. "The one that left me a huge tip the other day."
"Li, L Hmm, I don't recall a Li frequenting here."
Katara looked up at the Firebender and glared. "Zuko, if you're going to play dumb, at least have the sense to wipe that smirk off your face."
"Oh, Li—that guy." He scratched his head thoughtfully. "Yeah, I might have given him a look or shown him my double broadswords out back . . ."
"What? You said we were supposed to act all jealous and such to scare off potential perverts."
"Potential perverts, not polite clients!" She smacked her forehead with the base of her palm. "You're taking your duty as the jealous boyfriend way too seriously."
"Hey—" he brought a hand to his heart and feigned a haughty, insulted look "—I'm a method actor; I respect the art."
She smacked her head again. "Oh brother."
"What's up with the red dot on your forehead?"
"Yes, Blue Eyes?"
"Wu and Yao—"
"The two Earthbending idiots who trip over their own slobber every time they come in to order tea from you?"
"The two pleasant Earthbenders who tip well and bring in business for your uncle," she corrected in a scolding tone.
He shrugged. "Yeah, what about them?"
"They are looking at me strangely."
He didn't bother to glance up but continued cleaning the table. "Are they gawking at you more pathetically than usual or something?"
"Seriously," Katara sighed heavily and crossed her arms over her chest, "how often do you and Sokka go on your fishing trips?"
Zuko straightened his back. "He visits the palace every couple of months, embassy stuff. Of course there are my dignitary meetings that I hold around the world. Sometimes Sokka and I get together for meat trips."
"Meat trips?" She gave him an incredulous look. "Fish isn't meat?"
"Not real meat."
"Right." She shook her head, dismissing the direction in which their conversation was heading. "So, anywa Wu and Yao won't let me take their orders. They say they want either you or your uncle to do it." She placed both hands on her hips and glared at him accusingly. "Do you know why?"
"Maybe they've finally figured out what that means." He pointed at her necklace with his dish rag before throwing it on the tray with the dirty dishes.
"Pardon?" She looked down at her chest in confusion.
"Never mind." He sighed, picking up the tray and shifting it onto his hip. "I'll go take their orders after I drop this off in the kitchen."
She was fast on his heels, following him into the back.
"Zuko, did you say something to them?"
"We just had polite conversation—about Earthbending."
"Earthbending?" she repeated, unconvinced. "That's all?"
"Yeah." He shrugged, set down the tray of dishes, and then headed back out into the main shop. "I have no idea how they came to the conclusion that you used to be a man."
"Those girls will not stop staring at you," Katara commented with a small frown on her face. Her eyes were narrowed slits and her arms were folded across her chest. She did not look amused.
"Well, go fulfil your jealous girlfriend duties, Blue Eyes," Zuko offered with a smile and a wink, and then delivered an order of tea to an elderly couple.
Katara nodded, her frown deepening, and stood up. She walked over to the girls' table with purpose. Her hips sashayed in a confident manner, which made all the guys stare, including Zuko, and all the women frown.
"Hey," she greeted curtly, placing her palms flat on the table as she leaned forward.
All four girl sat back, puzzled by the pretty tea server with the dazzling blue eyes and dark skin.
"Paint a picture," Katara growled, eyeing them menacingly. "It'll last longer."
"Take a good long look at him girls—" she pushed herself up off the table and pointed a finger in Zuko's direction "—and then just move along." Her eyes narrowed dangerously. "Got it?"
They all nodded, and the girl farthest away spoke up, "Is he your—?"
Katara didn't even need to point to the boy who had been eyeing her like a 'slab of meat' all night. Zuko was already walking over to the table.
"I'm on it, Blue Eyes."
The man couldn't have been older than nineteen, with dark black hair and a cocky grin on his face. His eyes were golden, like Zuko's, and it was more than obvious that was Fire Nation looking for some hot Water Tribe tail.
"If you think about touching her, I'll break your hand," Zuko interrupted, his voice a low growl. "If you think about talking to her, I'll break your face. Got it?"
The boy swallowed hard. "Is she your—?"
When the week was over, Zuko and Katara couldn't help but toast to their success with some of Uncle's expensive rice wine. They were both sitting beside each other at a table, drinking tea and eating rice that Uncle had prepared for them as a reward. They were technically off work, but they couldn't help but hang out at The Jasmine Dragon. It was the most popular tea shop in all of Ba Sing Se, after all.
"I think this week went well," Katara said, pouring herself a second cup of rice wine.
"I agree," Zuko said, raising his own cup in cheers.
Katara tipped her drink to his with a dull clink and smiled conspiratorially as she took a sip. "You might have scared away a few customers in the beginning, but I think it turned out fine."
Zuko looked over his cup at Katara and snorted. "Yeah, I think you pulled your own weight in deterring the guys, Blue Eyes."
She blinked. "What do you mean?"
"Well, some of them might have got the wrong impression about you, like I did when we first met."
He pointed at her necklace. "That."
She fingered the carved pendant with a frown. "How does this give the wrong—oh." Her eyes grew wide and she looked up at Zuko in an accusatory manner. "You mean you always knew what this meant?"
He rolled his eyes, as if to say 'of course'. "I had been travelling the world for three years before I met you, Katara. I learned a lot about the different tribes and their cultures."
"The greatest conqueror is he who overcomes the enemy without a single blow."
"Yeah, something like that." He took a drink and leaned back in his chair. "It wasn't until I was forced to give up chasing the Avatar that I realised the folly of my obsession and that I was the true enemy—to the world and to myself."
Katara closed her eyes and nodded solemnly, pointing a finger in the air. "He who seeks vengeance must dig two graves: one for his enemy and one for himself."
Zuko wrinkled his nose. "You're just full of Uncle's cryptic proverbs tonight."
"He was telling me something about tea earlier this morning and I just kind of drifted in and out. I think I absorbed most of what he said through osmosis."
"That's a polite way to put it."
Katara laughed. "So," she began, leaning into him with a small smile on her lips, "you really thought I was betrothed to someone when we first 'met'?"
"For a half-second," he replied, refilling his rice wine, "until I found out Sokka was your brother."
Katara made a face. "Sokka? Eww." She elbowed him in the side, causing him to spill his wine onto his lap. "But I was only fourteen back then."
Zuko sighed heavily, exasperated. "I didn't know how old you were," he said tetchily, trying to clean the wine off his robes. "Plus, you were really pretty. It'd be hard to imagine someone like you as single."
He looked up, a guilty expression flitting across his features, before he shook his head and flushed pink to the tips of his ears. "You're gorgeous and you know it, Katara," he rasped, his golden eyes briefly meeting hers until she turned away, blushing. "Although—" he smirked "—now that I know who you are beyond those pretty blue eyes of yours, I can understand why you weren't betrothed."
She punched him in the arm. "Yeah, and you're such a big catch, Mr I-Have-Issues."
"At least Mr I-Have-Issues has always been a man, Blue Eyes," Zuko said with a wink, before rubbing his tender arm.
"Yes, Shaggy, and you showed that plenty of times on the dance floor, didn't you?" She waggled her eyebrows suggestively, causing Zuko to growl.
They were already in each other's faces, their noses pressed up against each other's with twin smirks lingering on their lips, when an older woman (maybe in her late fifties) approached their table and bowed respectfully.
"I'm sorry to interrupt," she began politely, causing them both to turn and glance up at her, "but I have to say that you two make a lovely couple." She offered them a warm smile and tucked a loose strand of grey hair behind her ear. "Fire Nation and Water Tribe?" They both nodded dumbly, and her smile only brightened. "How beautifully romantic. It's something you never would have seen during the war."
Zuko and Katara exchanged wary glances, and Katara looked up at the smiling woman, opening and closing her mouth like a fish out of water.
"Uh, thanks, but we're not—"
"Thank you," Zuko interrupted seamlessly and with well-crafted charm, draping a protective arm over Katara's shoulders. "We've always believed that love has no borders or nationality."
The older woman clasped her hands together excitedly. "That is so—" She stopped herself, sighing deeply with dreamy eyes. "Oh, you're such a dear boy."
"Zuko!" Katara said warningly through clenched teeth; however, she did not remove his arm.
"Zuko?" the woman repeated in a hushed whisper and then studied his features. "Fire Lord Zuko?" He nodded, and the woman immediately backed away, bowing lowly. "Forgive my impertinence, m'lord. I did not know."
Zuko suddenly looked embarrassed. "Please, don't bow," he said, dropping his arm off Katara's shoulder. "There's no way you could have known. I am just here visiting with my uncle."
The woman looked up, still half-bent. "General Iroh, the Dragon of the West?"
"One and the same," Katara said with a grin, grabbing hold of Zuko's arm. "This is his tea shop. We've been helping him out all week."
"How 'of the people' of you," she said, impressed, and looked down at Katara adoringly before bowing respectfully. "You must be Master Waterbender Katara of the Southern Water Tribe. You are even more beautiful in person than how you are depicted in all the stories and plays."
Katara blushed, holding a hand up to her face. "Thank you."
Zuko hugged her close, laughing softly at her embarrassment, and Katara slapped at his chest before burying her face into his arm. This exchange only made the older woman smile even broader.
"Please forgive a humble woman such as myself, but I must say again how much it warms my heart to see such a wonderful union between two nations." She sighed heavily, placing a hand on her heart. "It will usher forth a lasting era of peace."
Katara stole her face from Zuko's arm. "Union?"
"Yes, thank you again for your kind words," Zuko interrupted with a polite but dismissing tone. "Please, enjoy your tea."
The woman immediately bowed lowly and stepped back. "I will excuse myself." She straightened her back and offered them a toothy smile. "It has been an honour to have met you both. I will never forget this moment as long as I live."
When the older woman finally left, there was no one else in the shop but the staff, who were busy cleaning up. Zuko stretched out and put his arm back around Katara's shoulders and took a sip of his wine, which Katara promptly smacked out of his hand, causing it to spill on the floor.
"Hey, I was drinking that!"
"Zuko!" she hissed. "Now someone thinks we're—we're betrothed!"
He bent down and picked up his cup, which luckily hadn't broken. "Betrothed?" he repeated, sitting back in his seat. "No, not that. Maybe just a couple."
Katara brought her hands to her face and held her burning cheeks. "Yes, but you're the Fire Lord. They're going to think any relationship you have now is going to be serious." She buried her face in her hands and mumbled, "For pity's sake, we're both 'slumming it' as tea servers."
Zuko wiped his hands with a cloth napkin before reaching down to lift her chin with his fingers. "This is your idea of 'slumming it', Blue Eyes?"
She jerked her head back and slapped her palm on her forehead, letting out a guttural sound.
"Oh, look, the red dot's coming back," he commented with a grin, tracing his finger along her umber-tanned skin. "Katara, it was your idea for us to pose as boyfriend and girlfriend."
"Yeah—" she leaned back, allowing Zuko's hand to drop from her face "—to cut down on the ass-grabbing moments, not for the entire world to think that our 'union' will bridge the gap between our nations." She threw her hands up in the air in total exasperation. "That woman's going to tell everyone she sees!"
"You're the one who hissed out my name," he said, pointing an accusing finger at Katara's nose, making her go cross-eyed. "She would have never known!"
Katara easily batted his hand away and snorted. "Yeah, because you have one of those faces that easily blends in with a crowd."
Zuko reeled back as though she had just slapped him in the face. He brought his hand to his scar, just below the eye, and frowned.
"Oh, don't give me that look!" she admonished, pointing at the crest-fallen expression on his face. "You know that's not what I meant. I don't even notice your scar anymore."
His golden eyes narrowed. "Then what did you mean?"
"I, well . . ." She paused, looking torn between dismissing his question or answering it truthfully. Suddenly, her cheeks blossomed with colour, and she began to examine her nails, muttering softly, "You're very handsome, okay?"
"You're handsome, Zuko! Handsome! Gorgeous! Stunning!" Even the tips of her ears were pink now. She looked up at Zuko with her ocean blue eyes darkening. "Just drop it, okay?"
Zuko couldn't help but grin at her discomfort. "It's not like she wouldn't have eventually figured out who you were, either."
"What? It's not like I was Waterbending in front of her."
"No, but you have a recognisable face."
"I do not," she pouted.
He rolled his eyes. "The stories about us—about the Avatar and us—are already becoming legend." He draped his arm back over her shoulders and hugged her close, tipping her face towards the side of his chest. "And Katara of the Southern Water Tribe is considered to be one of the most beautiful women in the world."
Katara hid her face in his side, her cheeks burning from the rice wine and his compliment. "You read the stories?"
He nodded. "Uncle sends them to me."
Then, all at once, several patrons began entering the shop. Zuko and Katara glanced up, seeing that the older woman had returned, along with a few friends. There were at least a half-dozen or more, and several others were trickling in, all looking in Zuko and Katara's direction.
"Crud," Katara mumbled, trying to bury her face in Zuko's side. "There's a crowd forming. Must be here for some more entertainment."
"Well," he began, leaning down so that his lips brushed against her ear, "let's not disappoint them, then."
She couldn't even croak out a response before his lips travelled across her cheek towards her mouth, his lips lightly grazing hers. She could feel his hot breath on her skin and she lifted her fingers to his face, gently tracing his scar. He closed his eyes, taking in her scent, and then pressed his lips to hers. His long lashes fluttered against her left cheek, and she sighed as his lips brushed against hers, so gentle yet bruising, numbing her senses. Her fingers pushed past his scar into his dishevelled hair, tugging as her nails scraped softly along his scalp. His grip on her arms tightened, and he moaned into her mouth, pulling her in closer.
The kiss was short but sweet and warm, full of emotion and longing. As he leaned back, preparing to break off, she pressed forward, infusing the kiss with her smile. Her nose nudged against his, and he opened his mouth into a grin, bringing his hands up to cup her cheeks. He deepened the kiss for just a moment before sealing her name against his lips and resting his forehead against hers.
When he opened his eyes, he saw that hers were still closed. Her thick, black lashes were tickling against the apples of his cheeks before they fluttered open, as if realising that the kiss had ended. Half-lidded blue eyes met gold, and they both drew back with their lips parted and swollen, breathing heavily with desire.
"Zuko," Katara whispered, licking her lips as though she were licking the taste of him off them, "are you drunk?"
He laughed. He might might have been a little inebriated, but it didn't matter.
"Do you realise what you've done?"
Zuko smirked, still cupping Katara's face with his hands. "Considering I initiated it, yes." He trailed his thumb down her cheek and then paused, frowning. "Why, did you not enjoy it?"
"Of course I enjoyed it," she replied, blushing so fiercely that he could feel the heat rise from her skin. "But that's beside the point. What about the rumours?"
He lifted her chin and stole a chaste kiss. "Who says they'll be rumours?"
"Why not make it official?" he interrupted, tucking an errant lock of hair behind her ear before tracing her jawline with his fingers. "I've actually kind of enjoyed being your boyfriend without benefits this week."
He nodded, kissing her nose. "Yes, really." He then pulled her onto his lap so that she faced him, and she wrapped her legs around his hips. He leaned in close, their foreheads touching. "Although, I really would like the benefits now."
His fingertips slowly delved through the mass of her thick chestnut hair and feathered across her scalp. She shuddered gently and closed her eyes, feeling his lips already pressed against hers. Her hands found their way up his arms and grasped tightly onto the hard muscles through the fabric of his robes. In turn, his hands reached down to the small of her back, holding her stationary against his chest and hips. She reacted instinctively, curling her neck and tilting her head back, allowing him better access to her mouth before winding her arms around his neck and coiling her slender fingers into his perfectly tousled hair.
They only stopped kissing when they heard a loud noise, such as the clearing of several throats in unison, causing them to break apart in embarrassment. Zuko then lifted Katara off his lap and led her outside into the cool night air, stealing like thieves in the night. They laughed boisterously, holding onto each other for support.
"So," Katara said, grasping Zuko's hand with her right while rubbing the length of his sleeve with her left, "what's the royal family's policy on dating non-royalty outside the Fire Nation?"
He stopped walking and turned her around, leaning her back against the railing of the bridge between his uncle's shop and his house. His fingers were entwined with hers and he raised them to his lips, kissing each knuckle tenderly.
"It's rather specific in its opposition on both counts."
"Oh." Her face fell, but he reached out and lifted her chin, smiling encouragingly.
"But then I am the Fire Lord and I did say that I was going to make some changes and help usher in a new era of peace and unity."
"Unity, yes." She smiled deviously, releasing his hands and slipping her own inside his robes to hold him close. "You did say that, didn't you?"
"Mhm," he murmured happily, resting his chin on top of her head as he cradled her close. "This would make many people happy."
"Yes, many people," she agreed, nuzzling her face into his chest, "and it would only be a matter of appearances."
Suddenly, he pulled back, pushing her away at arm's length. She blinked, confused and hurt, wondering at the wounded expression lingering on his face.
"I hope that it would be for more personal reasons than for appearances," he said roughly, his eyes darkening to amber, "or to bring peace and unity to the world."
Katara smiled, relieved, and stood on her toes, leaning forward to deliver a kiss to his chin. "Much more personal than that," she agreed, and he happily folded her back into his arms. "I don't want to have to share you with anyone else, including the world."
Zuko laughed softly and kissed the top of her head and then the tip of her nose when she glanced up at him, smiling.
"Why, Katara," he began with feigned indifference, tracing his fingers along her lips, memorised, "are you saying that you're the jealous type?"
She grinned lopsidedly before kissing his fingers. "You have no idea."
"Is that right?" he asked, his artificial indifference evaporating like smoke.
She nodded, her blue eyes half-lidded. "So, are we going to kiss again or just keep talking?"
He blushed. "I'm getting there."
"To talk much and arrive nowhere is the same as climbing a tree to catch a fish," she replied in her best Uncle Iroh voice.
Zuko growled peevishly and cupped her cheeks, lifting her face towards his. "Shut up, Katara."
Before she could retort, his lips were already on hers. She moaned into his kiss as his hand cradled around the nape of her neck, pulling her in close until there was nothing left between them—nothing but the feel of their hearts beating together as one.
Back at The Jasmine Dragon, Iroh was locking up with a small bag of coins in his hand and several Earth Kingdom teenagers waiting patiently behind him.
"Here you are," Iroh said, turning to hand the leader of the group the sack of coins. "Thank you for your help all this week."
Each boy bowed respectively in appreciation while the older teenager rubbed nervously at the back of his neck.
"You know, your server almost killed me and my friends," he said as respectfully as possible, not wishing to disrespect General Iroh.
Iroh only laughed and shook his head. "No, no, he would never do such a thing . . ." He paused thoughtfully and brought his hands together under his sleeves. "Not in front of Master Katara anyway."
Iroh released a hand from his sleeves and waved it dismissively. "Never mind. You boys have done well, and you need not worry about my new tea servers. They have moved on to greener pastures."
The teenagers let out a collective sigh of relief, elbowing each other in turn of mocking.
"Good," the leader said with a small smile, tucking the bag of coins into his robes. "They're both kind of nuts." He shrugged and then laughed heartily. "They deserve each other."
"I couldn't agree more, my young friend," Iroh said with a hearty laugh, patting the lad on the back before escorting them off the premises. "I couldn't agree more."
Author's notes: Uncle Iroh, you mad genius! Now you had all better review this fluff that you've been whinging for since I started writing Unrequited. Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to write this kind of stuff? It's like pulling nails. Took me a whole day to write and edit. Appreciate my efforts, dammit! ^_~
I'd like to thank Jessica (idreamofdraco) for beta-ing this one-shot for me (muchas gracias, señorita!), Lariren-Shadows for suggesting the prompt, and Em_Dixon for allowing me to pirate "Zoozie" (*cackles and points at stolen Zutara term of endearment*).
Note: Rice wine is the Avatar world's equivalent to our (and by our, I mean the Japanese's) sake, which is rice alcohol. This has been Lia, your guide to the world of facts.