A/N: *Tiptoes in*
*hides the chapter next to your morning newspaper*
*creeps to the door and peers through it, waiting for your response*
"Uncle, I need two jasmine, one ginseng, and an oolong tea on table five," Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation called across the tea-shop, his voice that low rasp that made Katara's skin prickle. She strolled into the shop and peered around curiously, her lips twitching when she spied Zuko dressed in Earth Kingdom green and wearing a slightly soiled apron.
He was in the process of hurrying an order over to hand to his uncle, and to collect a pot of tea and some cups for the table in the corner when she sauntered toward an empty table right in front of the counter. It was clear no one wanted to sit there from the way every other table was full and from the way Zuko – clearly in a bad mood – tossed a serving tray down on it before carrying the teapot and cups to the table without it.
He didn't notice her at first, not until she was about to sit down. Katara watched him turn to her, wearing an aggravated expression, before flashing a clearly faked smile of greeting automatically until he recognized who she was. Katara almost laughed when he stopped dead in his tracks – in the process of collecting someone's used cups – and narrowed his eyes on her.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded, stomping closer and Katara couldn't help it.
How someone could sound so condescending and so mean even whilst wearing an apron was beyond her, but he managed it.
"I heard this place is serving the best tea in the city," Katara said, trying to wipe the smile off her face. "And a kind man gave me this wonderful coupon for a free cup of tea the last time I visited the lower ring."
Zuko's eyes narrowed even more.
"I warned you not to use that," he said in a low voice, stalking closer until he invaded her personal space.
"It's kind of cute that you actually believed I was going to do what you said," Katara grinned, refusing to back down.
She couldn't help it. Even knowing he had a temper, and knowing he was a jerk, she kind of wanted to torment him just to see what he'd do.
"Do you think that being in a room full of people will protect you, little peasant?" he asked, his voice sliding across her senses and making her quiver.
"Do you think I need protection from you?" she countered, tipping her eyes up to meet his.
He glared at her, looking like he wanted to throw her out of the shop.
"Katara?" Iroh's voice intruded.
Katara grinned, turning from the angry prince to smile widely at the old man. He beamed at her, looking like he couldn't be happier to see her.
"Hello, Uncle," she said, floundering for only a moment when she realized that they would be unlikely to be using their real names, and she didn't know their cover names.
She heard Zuko draw in a breath of surprise at the address. If the General minded that she'd called him 'uncle', he didn't show it.
"It's good to see you again," Iroh said. "Would you like some tea? Li, why don't you show the lovely Katara to a table? That one, nice and close, so that I can talk to her while I'm brewing."
"I'd love some tea," Katara smiled. "Can you do a blend of jasmine and white-dragon?"
Iroh's eyes widened as though he hadn't even thought of combing the two.
"Of course, I can," he said.
"White-dragon is the most expensive tea on the menu," Zuko sneered from behind her.
Katara turned and raised her eyebrows at him before grinning.
"I'm sure I can afford it," she assured him quietly. "Though, as I mentioned, I have a coupon."
Zuko glared at her.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded, snatching the serving tray up off the table she'd already been intending to sit at and jerking a chair out for her like a proper gentleman.
"Putting up flyers," Katara said innocently, irking him all the more when she ignored the chair he clearly intended to tuck her into, sauntering across the tea-shop to a noticeboard and pasting one of her pictures of Appa on it.
"You can't put that up in here," Zuko hissed, following her across the room and reading it over her shoulder before reaching for it like he might pull it down.
Katara caught his arm before he could snatch it off the wall, snagging her fingers around her necklace where it was still snugly secured around his wrist.
"It's the civic duty of the entire city to help find the avatar's bison, Li," she chided, staring up at him and watching the way the fire of his anger glittered in his eyes. "Appa is essential to the war effort if we are to triumph over the Fire Nation."
"He'll be essential to your kidnapping if any of these thugs figure out you're with the Avatar and that you've probably got more money on you than any of them have seen in their lives," Zuko hissed, jerking her closer when he tried to pull his arm from her grip and she refused to release him.
"I think I can fend off any plucky thieves," she muttered, patting her waterskin indicatively.
"Because that did you so much good the last time you were down here?" he challenged, glaring down his nose at her from so close that she was suddenly aware that his burned eye had no eyelashes.
"I'm sure that if anything goes wrong and I'm unable to defend myself, there'll be a masked hero lurking somewhere, just waiting to rescue me," she replied, grinning.
"I don't make it a habit of saving the same person twice," he said.
"Sure, you don't," Katara said quietly, very aware that she was flirting with him, but unable to help herself.
She hadn't been able to think about anything else for the past two weeks. Every time she closed her eyes, she could feel the searing heat of his skin against hers, and she could almost taste his lips on hers, once more.
He glared at her even more, suspecting a trap, and Katara grinned before very deliberately brushing against him as she squeezed past him to return to her table. As she did, she spied a pretty girl sitting in the corner of the room, watching the two of them intently. From the way she watched them, Katara got the feeling the poor girl have developed a crush on Zuko and thought her some interloper, there to steal his affections. Katara supposed she might need her head examined when she felt the strongest urge to do just that.
"You need to leave," Zuko growled quietly as he followed, right on her heels as she made her way back across the shop.
"I will," she said, before plonking herself down that the table. "After I have my cup of tea. Don't you have tables to clear?"
He narrowed his eyes on her when someone across the shop called for his attention, waving an empty teapot and clearly wanting a refill.
"You'll pay for this, little peasant," he warned.
"Oh, yeah?" Katara challenged, raising her eyebrows, just daring him to do something.
Zuko growled and turned away, getting back to work before he could get into trouble.
"So, you are putting up flyers?" Iroh asked, drawing her attention.
"Yes," Katara smiled. "Appa is missing. He was stolen when we were in the desert and we've been trying to find him."
"I haven't heard any rumours about him," Iroh said sadly. "Though, I expect I know someone who has become an expert at locating that bison."
Katara smiled widely.
"Me too," she said. "Think he could be persuaded to help?"
"I suppose that depends on the currency of your persuasion," Iroh grinned, shooting her a wink and Katara blushed.
She glanced toward Zuko, who was stuffing used crockery into a tub across the room whilst glaring at them. He cleared the cup and pot from the table of the pretty girl in the corner without taking his eyes off Katara while she chatted with Iroh, and Katara was a little bit ashamed that she felt a thrill of pleasure when the girl looked a little crestfallen.
She knew she had no right to be happy that he was focusing on her instead of another pretty girl, and she knew she shouldn't be concerned with who Zuko looked at or what other girls thought about him. She knew, but still she found herself thinking that if anyone was going to steal his attention, it would be her.
"I'm a world traveler," Katara told Iroh, smirking at the old man. "I have plenty of different currencies rattling around in my pockets. I'm sure something will persuade him. Or I could always knock some sense into him?"
Iroh laughed out loud, clutching his belly and chortling with glee at her suggestion.
"You might get a little knocked into you, too," Iroh cautioned. "I'm certain there are other currencies that could be acceptable to him."
"Not with that scowl," Katara chuckled when Zuko narrowed his eyes, glaring at them all the more.
Iroh looked in the direction of his nephew, too, and he laughed a little more.
"It's a good thing our shift is almost over," Iroh said, shaking his head. "He was already grumpy, but with that scowl, he is likely to snap at the customers."
"I'm sure your delicious tea will make up for his surliness," Katara said, grinning. "After all, look at all these people, braving their waiter's bad temper just for another cup of your teas."
Iroh's cheeks turned pink and he smiled humbly.
"You are too kind, Miss Katara."
Katara smiled. "Just telling the truth. Even drinking the last tea you made for me – which is not exactly the sweetest brew in the world – it was tasty."
"Perhaps you just had something of an appetite after your exertions," Iroh offered slyly and it was Katara's turn to blush. "Oh, dear."
Katara looked over when there was a crash behind the counter and the old man made a face of distress.
"Uncle, what is it?" she asked at exactly the same time as Zuko, who hurried across the shop when Iroh frowned and clapped a hand to his forehead.
He pointed toward the ground, where a large ceramic pot that he must've been using to store water for brewing the tea had cracked open, spilling water all over the ground.
"What happened?" Zuko asked, peering over the counter in confusion.
"I accidentally kicked it and it broke," Iroh admitted.
"Uncle, you're bleeding," Katara said, leaping right over the counter and squatting in the puddle to examine the gash on the old man's foot.
"The pottery went right through my sandal," Iroh said.
"Are you alright, Uncle?" Zuko asked, rounding the counter and squatting beside Katara.
He caught her wrist when she was gathering the water to heal the General.
"What are you doing?" She asked, frowning at him. "I can heal him."
"Not in here," Zuko muttered even as the shop owner hurried over to investigate.
"Oh dear," the owner was saying. "Your shift is almost over, Mushi, why don't you head home? Li..."
Katara watched the man look around at the shop full of customers, obviously knowing it would be mayhem if the head brewer and their only waiter left simultaneously with no one to cover for them.
"I'll take Uncle home," Katara offered. "Li, you finish your shift until your replacement arrives."
Zuko opened his mouth like he might argue, but Iroh put his hand on the boy's shoulder.
"I am alright. I just need to be patched up, nephew. It's not far to the apartment. I will see you at home in just a little more than an hour."
"But, Uncle," Zuko protested, frowning.
"He'll be fine," Katara smiled reassuringly, rising to her feet. "I'll see to him. We'll see you at home."
Before Zuko could say anything else, Katara grabbed the front of his shirt and went up on her toes, pulling him down just far enough to brush a kiss to his lips. Despite his surprise, he responded in kind, kissing her back before she pulled away.
"Come on, Uncle," Katara said. "Let's get you home."
She took the old man's arm, wrapping it around her shoulders and letting him lean on her as she helped him out of the shop. She could tell Zuko wasn't happy about finishing his shift, but he didn't protest any further before they were out the door.
"I might have to keep you around more often just to prevent him from arguing like that in future," Iroh chuckled as he hobbled up the street.
"We needed a cover for why I appeared out of nowhere today and jumped the counter and called you 'uncle'. Sorry about that, I didn't know what your cover name was."
"It's perfectly alright," Iroh smiled. "Seeing Zuko's face when you say it is well worth it."
"How far is it to your house from here?" She asked. "I need to heal that foot. You're losing a lot of blood."
"Just around this corner," Iroh said. "Thank you for your help, Katara. "
"You're welcome," Katara said, helping him around the corner and up the stairs into his apartment. "Alright, sit down and I'll heal you."
She helped him into a chair before squatting once more and bending the water from her pouch to enclose his foot. Iroh sighed as the healing took effect and Katara's brow furrowed as her healing raced along his chi paths, picking up a few things that she didn't like the feel of.
"General?" She asked quietly, looking up at him.
"Yes?" He asked, raising his eyebrows.
"How long have you been feeling run down and experiencing these pains?"
"What pains?" He asked, though he looked guilty.
"Your chest still isn't properly healed inside after Azula's attack," Katara told him seriously. "And I'd be willing to bet you're suffering with arthritis."
Iroh sighed, nodding.
"I took a few tumbles and beatings getting here," he admitted. "There hasn't been much chance for rest or comfort when we needed money for food. Being a fugitive is not easy."
"Will you allow me to heal you?" Katara asked quietly. "It might make you tired."
"I need to get dinner on to feed Zuko when he gets home," Iroh admitted. "He makes bad choices and almost poisons me when he cooks."
"How about you put on a pot of tea, I'll make dinner, and you let me heal you?" She bargained.
"Can you do so before Zuko returns?" Iroh asked. "I don't want to burden him with my aches and pains."
Katara smiled, recognizing that for all his good nature, he was a proud old man who didn't want to be seen as weak in front of his nephew.
"I can," Katara nodded. "Doing so will make you tired because some of the aches are because of scar tissue, incorrectly healed hurts, and the result of your age. But you will feel much better when you wake up, I promise."
"You are too kind," Iroh said.
"It might be best if you lie down, General," Katara said. "You might feel a bit dizzy as I heal you."
Iroh did as instructed, lying on the floor in the middle of the room. When he was comfortable, Katara kneeled next to him, bending her element and placing her hands on his chest and closing her eyes. She could feel scar tissue and a tightness under his skin from Azula's attack and tension in the surrounding muscles where he'd compensated for the injury. His breath grew laboured as she worked but she didn't let up.
"There's a lot of energy knotted up around here," she told the general softly. "I can't heal the external scarring, but I can undo some of the internal damage."
Katara felt the way his skin heated rapidly under her touch, making her wonder if it was some kind of firebender defense response. She pushed harder with her bending, chasing the damage through his blood and tissue, feeling the way much of the damage began knitting back together, her bending forcing the cells to rejuvenate.
"That feels strange," Iroh said quietly, his breath coming easier when his body healed much of the internal damage that had been paining him.
"You can feel the cells rejuvenating?" She asked, opening her eyes to meet his gaze.
"Feels like the fire in my chi has just sparked, crackling through me like lightning, without the burn."
Katara smiled. "Tingling?"
"Good, that means it's almost healed. I'm going to chase the pain from your joints next," she told him. "It might sting a little. Healing bone is harder than skin and tissue."
Iroh nodded, bracing for the onslaught of sensation. Katara took a slow, deep breath, smoothing her hands over his chest to his shoulders and healing the worn cartilage in the joint. Iroh's breathing grew more and more laboured as she worked and Katara shifted her hands slowly down his body to his hips, his knees and his ankles.
"Roll over and I'll do your back, too," Katara said when she'd finished with his feet.
"Will I be able to walk tomorrow?" Iroh asked, sounding tired, but happy.
"You'll sleep well tonight," Katara said. "But I expect that tomorrow you'll feel better than you have in years."
"One can only hope," he said, rolling to his stomach and groaning when Katara used her waterbending to realign his spine and unknot all the tense muscle there.
She smiled when she was finished and patted his shoulder gently.
"Why don't you wash up, so you'll be ready for bed after dinner?" She said. "I'll cook."
"I don't think there's much in the pantry," Iroh said ruefully. "I usually stop at the market on my way home."
"I'll get something," she offered. "What time is Zuko likely to be home?"
"Another hour or so," Iroh smiled.
"Good," she said.
"Let me give you some coins," Iroh said when she made for the door.
"I think I've got it covered, General," she said, lifting her bag and shaking it, making her heavy coin purse rattle.
"You can't spend your money on us," he protested.
"I don't even earn it, Iroh. People just give it to me because I'm travelling with the avatar. There's plenty more back at our house. Save your coins. If I spend my money, I can buy whatever takes my fancy. Do you have any requests for dinner?"
"Do you know how you make fire-chicken seared with moon-peach and sunberry sauce?" He asked hopefully.
Katara smiled. "No, but I could give it a try. Is that a traditional fire nation delicacy?"
"It is. Though I would also welcome traditional Water Tribe food, if you're willing to share?" The old man said.
Katara beamed at him.
"I'll see what I can find," she said before hurrying out the door and heading for the market.
She was surprised to find that despite being in the lower ring, the produce range was wider than in the upper ring. She managed to get sunberries, moon peaches, sweet-melon, and even found some sea prunes. She bought extra, knowing Sokka would love a feast of stewed sea prunes when she got back to the house. She glanced at the sky, knowing she would need to hurry if she was going to make it all the way back to the upper ring before they locked the gates at nine. It might still be four hours off, but it was at least an hour's walk back.
She grabbed up as many groceries as she could carry before hurrying back, knowing that if she wasn't cooking before Zuko showed up, he would distract her entirely and Iroh would have to make something himself.
"Oh, let me help you," Iroh laughed when she struggled up the stairs with her baskets.
"Thank you," she said. "Alright, I got sunberries and moon peaches and fire-chicken and all of this other stuff."
"Goodness, child, how much do you imagine we eat?" Iroh chuckled. "We might be royalty, but it has been years since either of us have had a feast like this."
"I like variety in my diet," she shrugged. "And the vendors wouldn't sell me the baskets without them being full."
Iroh laughed, shaking his head at her even as he began helping her unload the baskets so they could begin the meal.
"So," she said. "Tell me what to do to make this dish you so enjoy?"
"First when need to chop some of the moon-peaches and the sun-berries," Iroh explained. "Then we smush it to make a thick paste with the fruit and the juices, which wraps around the chicken like a blanket and is cooked on a high heat in a pan."
"What's it usually served with?" she asked.
"A mint, cucumber and red-onion salad dressed with lemon juice," Iroh smiled.
"Sounds delicious," she smiled.
"It is," Iroh nodded. "It's Zuko's favourite, in fact."
"No pressure, then?" Katara laughed.
Iroh chuckled, shrugging his shoulders. Katara focused on the cooking after that, Iroh helping her locate everything before leaving her to it so that he could bathe after the long day he'd spent in the tea shop.
Before he returned, the apartment was full of the smell of the many dishes she was preparing and Katara hummed while she worked, twirling the knife as she chopped vegetables and fruits, slicing the meat, peeling the sea prunes before dumping them in to stew.
She almost jumped out of her skin when someone set a heavy basket down on the table behind her and Katara squeaked in surprise. Spinning, the knife she clutched held protectively in front of her, Katara's eyes widened at the sight of Zuko suddenly filling up her gaze.
"Oh," she said. "You're home."
"What are you still doing here?" Zuko growled at her, apparently in an even worse mood now than he'd been in when they'd left him at work.
"Making dinner," she smiled. "Iroh's bathing."
"You're not staying for dinner, little peasant," he warned. "We had a deal that you'd stay out of the lower ring."
"We did not," she rolled her eyes. "The only deal we made was that you wouldn't lose my necklace, and I wouldn't lose this."
She pointed to her neck where she'd moved the ribbon he'd given her, having tied the red strip of fabric around her neck in the place of her necklace. He eyed it with surprise.
"You can't wear that around your neck, Katara," he frowned at her. "My name is clearly legible. If anyone from the Fire Nation sees that, they'll think you're my wife. "
"What?" She hissed in surprise.
"When worn around the neck, those are the equivalent of a wedding band," Zuko said. "I tied it to your wrist for a reason. Around the wrist it means you're a warrior of the royal family. With my name showing like that, around your neck, it means marriage."
"You didn't tell me that," Katara hissed.
"I didn't think you'd take it off your wrist," he replied.
"Well... Sokka kept giving it funny looks around my wrist. I had to move it and tell him it was a necklace to make him stop annoying me about it."
"So, you're wearing something that typically only the Fire Lord's wife would wear, and I'm wearing something that, in the Water Tribe, means I'm your husband?" he confirmed.
"Technically," Katara nodded, her cheeks flushing.
"Why are you here, Katara?" Zuko demanded. "We're enemies, remember? Last time didn't change that."
Katara rolled her eyes.
"Yeah, right," she scoffed. "You've known exactly where Aang is for the last two weeks and you haven't even tried to capture him. Everything has changed, Zuko."
He narrowed his eyes on her. "It hasn't."
Katara rolled her eyes, turning away to stir the stew and turn the fire-chicken. She was nervous, having her back to the prince, but she tried not to let it show.
"Your uncle is healed," she said, changing the subject quickly. "He might be tired tomorrow. He was in pretty bad shape."
"It was just a cut on his foot," Zuko sneered.
Katara turned back to him, darting a glance toward the door to make sure that Iroh wasn't on his way back from the bath house. She doubted the old general wanted his nephew to know the full extent of his aches and pains.
"No, Zuko," Katara said quietly. "It wasn't. Your uncle isn't a young man, you know? And the way you've been living hasn't been good for his health. He had more aches and pains that you can probably imagine. I'm surprised he's been able to get out of bed, to be honest. I've healed him of everything I could fix, and I expect in the coming days you'll see a renewed man in him. But he was in a bad way, Zuko. His bones and his joints can't bounce back as easily as yours or mine after being thrown off the back of a rhino, or tossed about in a fight, or being forced to dance for his dinner."
"He told you about those things?" Zuko frowned at her.
"Only because I asked what he'd been doing to hurt himself so badly. He's been suffering through and keeping the pain from you to keep from adding to your stress, but I expect he'll be in need of a big sleep, and some better food. Hence," she waved her hands towards the amount of food she'd been cooking.
Zuko eyed the food coldly for a moment before lifting his eyes to meet hers, his brow furrowed, and his face pulled into that ever-present frown.
"Why do you care?" he asked in a low voice. "I hardly need to point out all the things I've done to you over the past few months. We're enemies. What do you care if an old firebender is too stiff to go about his day without pain?"
Katara sighed, turning away and stirring the many dishes she was juggling on the stove.
"The things you've done to me and my friends had little to do with your uncle," Katara replied quietly. "In fact, I recall overhearing him trying to talk you out of hunting us, more than once. Iroh is a kind old man who has put himself through horribly uncomfortable things for your sake, Prince Zuko. I don't doubt that the man would prefer to be sitting in a tea-shop somewhere in the Fire Nation where he could get daily massages and enjoy the quiet life in the lap of luxury as a retired and renowned General and a Prince of the royal family. He didn't have to put that on hold for you, and yet he did so. The least you could do is watch out for him and make sure he's comfortable."
"So, you're doing my job?" Zuko demanded in a low voice and Katara could hear him moving closer until he stood directly behind her. She could feel the heat of his anger on the back of her neck, but she didn't turn around.
"It was within my capabilities to heal him of all the things ailing him, and I did," Katara said quietly.
"Why are you here?" Zuko growled, and Katara could tell that he wasn't going to let her change the subject or deflect the question again.
"I don't know," Katara answered truthfully, her voice just barely a whisper.
Zuko's hands closed over her shoulder, his grip tight as he spun her to face him. Katara didn't dare meet his gaze. She could feel her cheeks burning and if she closed her eyes, she could almost pretend they were back in the dark in his bedroom two weeks ago. She was alarmingly aware of the prince as he stood there inside her personal space, glaring down at her and probably exasperated with her honesty.
"What do you want from me, Katara?" Zuko asked quietly, his voice tight with anger and Katara shook her head.
"Nothing," she whispered.
"You're lying," Zuko said. "Everyone wants something."
Katara sighed, tipping her eyes up to meet his gaze, surprised all over again by the complex kaleidoscope of colors in those golden pools.
"I don't know what I want from you," she clarified. "I don't know why I came down here. I don't know why we did what we did, and I don't know why I can't stop thinking about it. But I can't, and we did, and I'm here. Maybe I hoped that seeing you would make it all make sense, or that you'd have an answer."
Zuko's eyes narrowed, and Katara watched the way his gaze jumped between her eyes and her lips. She wondered if he was thinking about kissing her again. There was a part of her that knew she shouldn't let him. Part of her knew she never should have let him. But she had, and she wanted to kiss him again. She'd been dreaming about kissing him. She'd been dreaming about all the heat that had wrapped around her so completely when he'd been inside her and she hated herself a little for wanting to feel that again.
"Are you keeping tabs on me?" Zuko asked, surprising her. "Trying to make sure I stay here in the lower ring, rather than hunting you and the Avatar again?"
"Seeking you out hardly suggests fear of you stalking me, Zuko," Katara pointed out.
Zuko's good eye twitched like she annoyed him and Katara fought the urge she had to smile, knowing he would think she was lying if she smiled. His eyes darted over her face for a long moment before he suddenly gave a mean little smile.
"Bored of the Avatar's company, little peasant?" he sneered quietly.
"No," Katara denied.
"You are," he told her knowingly. "You're bored in the city without the thrill of danger knowing me and the rest of the Fire Nation are all hunting you. You're looking for the thrill of danger, should your friends figure out where you are and who you're with."
"I am not," Katara argued, frowning at him. "Maybe I wanted to make fun of the disgraced prince living like a peasant."
Zuko lost his smirk in an instant, his eyes narrowing on her once more and he stepped closer, lifting his hand to collar her throat threateningly. Katara wasn't scared. He wasn't going to hurt her.
"Maybe you wanted to lure the disgraced prince between your legs again," he retorted and Katara narrowed her eyes on him in return.
"Maybe I did," she hissed bravely, though her cheeks warmed with embarrassment.
"Good," Zuko grunted and Katara drew in a surprised breath when his hand around her throat slid into the hair at the nape of her neck, tipping her head up as he closed the small distance between them, claiming her lips in a hot kiss.
Katara was rather ashamed of the way she melted into him, her hands lifting to his chest and her body wilting into his arms as she kissed him back hungrily. He wasn't hesitant or careful this time, instead surging forward, his lips rough against hers as he kissed her hotly. One hand knotted in her hair, his other hand slid around her waist, splaying against the small of her back and pressing her to him more fully.
He nipped her lower lip before licking away the sting, his tongue sweeping in to meet hers and Katara sighed, pulling him closer still. Her whole body was on fire and his touch practically scolded, but she couldn't get close enough. When he lifted her up to perch on the kitchen bench, Katara curled her legs around him.
Zuko jerked back from her when Katara broke the kiss with a pained hiss, accidentally burning her elbow on the frying pan.
"Ouch," she complained, twisting the appendage and frowning at the bright red burn on her flesh. Using her bending, she coated her hand in it and pressed it to the burn, soothing it and healing it instantly.
"You shouldn't be here," Zuko said, unfurling her legs from around himself and stepping backward when she realized she was going to burn the food in her distraction.
"I know," Katara said.
Zuko didn't say anything else before he turned away and paced across the room. She could tell he was still angry when he opened the door to his bedroom and stomped inside it, pulling his shirt off over his head as he did. She almost dropped her stirring spoon at the sight, her hands itching to trace over all that finely muscled skin.
He caught her looking and one corner of his mouth twitched like he might smile, but he didn't let it reach his eyes.
"You should wash up before dinner," Katara said, trying to sound casual as she forced herself to turn away. She turned the chicken and stirred the stew without looking at him, hyper aware that he was behind her and watching her.
"What are you cooking?" He asked quietly, and she nearly jumped out of her skin when she realized he'd snuck up behind her as one of his hands curled around her middle.
"Um... a little of everything. Your uncle asked me to make a few things from the Fire Nation and this is a traditional Water Tribe stew and that one's this really tasty spiced fish that we tried in Omashu and this one is an Air Nomad delicacy that Aang taught me to make and..." she trailed off when he pressed his lips to the side of her neck, molding his body against her back and curling his other arm around her snugly.
"Why did you come, Katara?" He asked. "We're still enemies."
"No, we're not," Katara argued quietly. "Enemies don't kiss like we just kissed."
"I tied you to a tree," he reminded her. "Fought you countless times. Tried to kidnap your friend."
"I know," she said. "And my friends would lose their minds if they knew I was here. But I am, just the same."
"Trying to convert me to team avatar?" Zuko asked, sounding amused.
"Is it working?" she asked.
"You'd never convince your friends to forgive me, even if it was," he argued. "They hate me."
"They could change their minds, if you were willing to help Aang learn firebending."
"And turn traitor to my Nation?" he asked. "Betray my people? My family?"
"They already consider you a traitor, Zuko," she argued. "Both as the prince, and as the Blue Spirit. They'd put you in chains if they could find you. Do they deserve your loyalty? Your sister is a psychotic bitch, and your father is a sadistic, power hungry, cruel wretch who loves you so much he disfigured your face and banished you with a task to hunt down and capture someone that hadn't been seen in a hundred years. He doesn't want you back, Zuko. He doesn't deserve your loyalty."
Zuko jerked away from her with a growl of fury.
"You don't even know him!"
"And you do?" Katara challenged. "You haven't been home in three years. Does he bother to send you letters? Or does he just send soldiers to capture you?"
Zuko glared at her from across the room.
"I disgraced myself by refusing to fight," he argued. "My father is right to be ashamed of me."
Katara spun to face him, narrowing her eyes dangerously.
"You were a thirteen year old boy who spoke up in opposition of a downright disgusting plan to ritually sacrifice untrained boys just for the sake of having a distraction in battle, Zuko. You were incorrectly accused of disrespecting a jaded, sadistic, blood-thirsty old man who would prefer to line his pockets with the profits of war over concerning himself with the lives and sacrifices of the soldiers he is supposed to be invested in training and protecting. Whoever that man was, he offered those boys up like freshly butchered meat to a pack of rabid dog-bears, and anything less than disgust and opposition to such a plan would have been both spineless and horrifying on your part.
"You did the right thing, and to have been punished for speaking out - especially given that you're a prince and he's just a war lord, no matter his rank - is beyond ludicrous. To then be expected to fight your own father, who for all intents and purposes is the King of your entire Nation and is supposed to have the interests of his citizens at heart, is ridiculous, twisted, and utterly barbaric. That would be the equivalent of my father expecting Sokka or I to fight him for suggesting we hunt Whales instead of our fellow tribesmen. Can't you see that? He not only expected you to engage in an unfair and horribly rigged fight, he forced you to do so in front of the entire Nation, and when you refused to meet his outrageous terms, he banished you. You're his son, Zuko. Would he ever banish Azula for refusing to fight?"
"Azula would never have refused to fight," Zuko argued hotly.
"Yes, because she's as twisted and sadistic as him. She'd probably have relished the idea of challenging him because she's as thirsty for power as he is," Katara snarled. "No father who loves his children would ever willing cast them out on their own, Zuko."
"Oh, and what did your father do?" Zuko sneered angrily in retort. "Mine sent me away from the Palace with a mission that would better the future of the Fire Nation, if I was to succeed. Yours just left. How old were you when he sailed away, hmm?"
"That was an entirely different thing," Katara hissed. "My Dad left us with Gran Gran because he needed to fight in the war to protect our Tribe, and he needed to avenge my mother's murder. Yours publicly disgraced you and threw you out of your home and your country just for daring to oppose the needless and despicable bloodshed of war. How dare you suggest that they're even remotely the same. My father did what he did to protect me. He put himself in danger so that Sokka and I would be safe. Yours cast you out, alone, and ordered you to fend for yourself, daring to dangle the carrot of being allowed to return only if you achieve something no one has managed in one hundred and twelve years. He doesn't want you back, Zuko. Maybe he never wanted you to begin with."
Zuko roared at her, flinging an arc of fire in her direction, and Katara's eyes widened in shock, but before it could connect and burn her, and before it could destroy the apartment, Iroh appeared, redirecting and dousing the fire with a bit of fancy bending.
"Get out!" Zuko shouted at her around his Uncle, looking very much like he wanted to murder her.
"Just because you don't want to hear the truth, Zuko, doesn't make it any less true," Katara said, refusing his command.
He flung more fire at her, and Iroh stopped it again before it could connect with her.
"Zuko!" Iroh shouted when the boy looked like he was going to breath fire over everything in his fury. "Enough!"
"You heard what she said, Uncle!" Zuko snarled.
"And she was right," Iroh said quietly.
Katara crossed her arms over her chest and Zuko spluttered, his eyes widening in shock. He stared at his uncle, bewildered.
"Ozai cast you out over something small and foolish, Prince Zuko," Iroh said gently. "Think of all the times when Ursa was still at the Palace and he made a point of belittling you and favouring your sister. Think of all the times after Ursa was gone that he stared at you with disdain when you weren't as gifted at Firebending and weren't as ruthless as Azula."
Zuko's eyes narrowed hatefully.
"He wanted you gone, Zuko," Iroh said. "From the moment when you were just a baby, Ozai has been disappointed in you and has been looking for a way to be rid of you. When you didn't immediately show signs of being able to Firebend, he planned to have you hurled from the castle walls to die while you were just an infant. He has never loved you, Zuko. He saw an opportunity to be rid of you, and he took it."
"He gave me a ship and a crew, even though he banished me," Zuko argued.
Iroh looked sad, moving over to sit at the kitchen table even as he shook his head.
"No, Prince Zuko," he said. "Those were bartered for you by me. By Fire Nation law, any man or woman who is banished must be off Fire Nation land within twenty-four hours of their banishment. I got you out of the palace. I bartered to get you a ship and a crew and enough money to survive. I ensured we had a healer on board to attend you while you were unconscious and recovering from the burn to your face. Ozai banished you after injuring you so badly, doubting you would wake before the twenty-four hours were up and planning to have you killed before announcing that you were weak and had succumbed to your injuries. He does not want you back, my nephew. He never wants to see you again."
Katara covered her mouth, tears welling in her eyes as she watched the way Zuko's face belied his confusion and his fury. His breath grew labored and he looked like he wanted to believe it was all a vicious lie.
"I'm so sorry, nephew," Iroh whispered. "I did not mean for you to find out this way. I hoped you might come to the realization on your own, in time, and that you would turn your anger on Ozai for what he has done."
"You're lying," Zuko shook his head. "My father…"
He trailed off.
"He's never written to you," Iroh went on, driving the point home though he sounded loathe to do so. "He's never enquired after your well-being."
"He sends money," Zuko frowned. "Or he did, before we were both declared traitors."
Again, Iroh shook his head.
"The money came from withdrawals I made from the royal vaults. Since it is still my right to do so, and since you were out of Ozai's hair and no longer in line for the throne, he did not stop me, but he does not care about you, Zuko. He is not sitting at home, wondering if you are happy, or wondering what type of man you are becoming. He thinks only of power and war."
Zuko shook his head in disbelief, obviously reeling and Katara's heart clenched for him while tears ran down her cheeks. Seeming at a loss of what to say, and obviously still furious in addition to being hurt, Zuko turned and stomped back into his bedroom, slamming the door hard enough that it bounced open again before sliding closed.