It's the Midsummer Festival, and Zuko is working alone in the tea shop which is just fantastic. He would much rather be at home, wasting time, but if he's home Uncle can drag him out and that is unacceptable. Zuko would rather pull his own teeth than be stuck wandering about the crazed main square full of happy drunks and - if he'd really unlucky - his sister. Besides, if Uncle isn't flirting with a co-ed he'll throw Zuko at her and that will be awkward for everyone involved.
No, even though he's been alone for the past two hours, bored out of his skull, it's preferable to the alternative.
Besides, it's late now. There's only a half hour left until he can close. Uncle had wanted to close early, force his nephew to "live a little," but Zuko convinced him to keep regular hours. After all, someone had to look after the drunks wandering up their way, and even if none showed up, Zuko could finish homework. Uncle had raised an eyebrow at that last excuse - since when does Zuko not do his homework right when assigned - but let it slide.
It's eighty thirty, and Zuko has cleaned the grill twice, reorganized the tea display to spell out naughty phrases and back again, and has just started a pot of jasmine tea for himself when the door bursts open.
He had just decided to close early himself - it's not like Uncle is losing money. Zuko has snuck enough of his wages into the till to somewhat make up for the electricity - and is about to tell the figure as much when the door closes behind her and she practically throws herself into a chair and collapses over the table.
Zuko slips out from behind the counter, flips the simple sign to "closed," and then approaches the blue mess carefully. The smell of vanilla is the only one hanging about her, but Zuko still approaches carefully as if she's a mine field.
Before he can reach out a hand like the fools in horror movies do, she snaps up suddenly, a too-bright smile on her face that doesn't reach her eyes. Her voice is dripping with faux cheer when she says, "Oh, I'm sorry, am I supposed to come to the counter for tea? I was just so relieved to see something open." Her impossibly wonderful eyes meet his, slide to the right, and then return to his without any hesitation or flinching.
He manages to keep from stammering in reply. "No, you're fine. The grill is closed, though. So I can only get you tea."
"A tea shop has a grill?"
"People like to eat."
She's looking at him like he has a three heads when the timer on his tea goes off. He starts, finds some confidence somewhere and drags himself back behind the counter to throw the pot, mug, and stuff on a tray which he quickly brings back to her table before she can respond. She just seems shocked, honestly, but Zuko doesn't pay her any mind as he sets the mug in front of her. He places the honey and brown sugar just within her reach, and only hesitates when he lifts the pot of brewed jasmine.
"Uh, I was making some jasmine for myself when you came in. It's ready if you want."
She blushes. "I don't know tea."
He tries to look affronted - Uncle would before covering it with lovable instruction - but he can't quite manage it. "Truthfully, I'm only good at this because of the timers. Uncle says I make tea strong enough to strip paint. Not that this is! It's jasmine. It would be an insult to Uncle if I ruined jasmine." A smile twitches at her lips, and for some inexplicable reason he wants more, so despite every screaming instinct he squeaks out "hold on" before diving back behind the counter to get his own mug and collect two containers of tea on impulse. "These pots make two cups. I'll show you how it's done, and maybe brew you something else if you want. Here-" he foists a kettle on her, filled to the brim with water that almost splashes her, as he ducks under the table to plug the kettle into the wall.
She's giggling at his antics, eyes lighting up finally as one gorgeously tanned hand flies up to her mouth. Zuko looks like an idiot, he knows, having thrown himself over the counter and now he's ungracefully rising from the floor with two tins still precariously balanced in his arms but sweet Agni she's worth it and he's known her all of five minutes.
He quickly sits across from her, arranging the other tins next to the kettle, belatedly realizing one of the blends he's grabbed is lapsang souchong, his favorite but a very polarizing tea. Zuko sets those thoughts aside as he pours tea first into her mug, and then his. He grabs up a spoon and the honey while motioning her at the tea. "Drink. See if you like it plain, then add in some honey and sugar. Always try a tea unaltered first, so you understand the flavors you're playing with."
He's parroting Uncle - even though he's come to believe it all the same - which she seems to realize by the lift of her eyebrow. He simply stares back, not needing to look as he measures out brown sugar into his mug.
The tea is halfway to her lips when she blurts, "I'm Katara."
"And I'm Zuko," he replies, absently stirring. "Drink."
Her eyes flash with the challenge and blatant order, but she takes first one sip, and then another, before setting the mug down and reaching for the honey. "So what are you doing making tea the night of the Midsummer Festival?"
"What are you doing drinking tea on the same night?"
She doesn't answer - and he denies her trying the jasmine with both honey and sugar before she's tried sips with just honey. She declares that jasmine is pleasing on its own, but so much more rich in concert with the sweeteners. He starts calling her 'Sweetness' in response.
They talk then about school. She's finished all her gen eds for a pre-med program and with her second year will finally get into the grit of learning. He's about to finish his degree - he doesn't specify what, telling instead a complicated story about declaring for the second time. He can tell Katara's gathering clues, and is about to call him on evasiveness, when she realizes her mug is empty. Zuko happily offers her the choice of tea, and naturally, because the universe hates him, she asks about the souchong.
He almost tries to convince her to try the Lady Grey he had grabbed, but he can't resist his own favorite. When he accidentally lets that fact slip, she is even more determined to try the tea.
While the water boils, he brings their mugs to the sink and rinses them out. He drinks the tea straight, and won't have her opinion of it colored by granules left by the jasmine.
To his surprise, Katara trails after him, pestering him for more stories from school and with jokes that he must be an English major as he's already a practicing barista. He declares himself a baristo, which she takes as pure folly, then immediately starts on with questions of what he wants to do after school.
Zuko's hands are wrapped around her mug in the sink, so it's easy to resist the urge to touch his scar. His fingers still tighten uncomfortably. She notices the shift in mood, and makes to apologize.
Just as she smiled a lie at him, he returns the favor and waffles about editing, translating, or working in the tea shop until Uncle buries him beneath the floorboards. Katara's fingers curl slightly, her eyes locked on his face resolutely pointed at the sink. One hand does inch towards his shoulder, but then she sees the register and distracts them both.
"Oh my gosh I haven't paid for any of this!"
Zuko chuckles at a joke she doesn't know. "Don't worry about it. I've been slipping money in all night so that Uncle thinks there were customers and this wasn't a waste of my time. Even if I hadn't, Uncle would kill me if I let our only customer of the night pay for simple hospitality, especially when she is, hypothetical quote, 'the loveliest maiden who could have wandered in.' Endquote."
"Oh," she smiles, sheepish and cared-for and flattered. Then she ducks her head so as to force herself into his line of sight. "Why are you open tonight?"
"Only open for you now, Sweetness." She turns to see the "open" is on their side. "But I'm here so I don't have to wander around a festival with people I don't know or with Uncle who will put me in anxiety-inducing situations with girls. I'm as awkward as a turtleduck, so I'll stick to making half-decent tea, thanks."
Katara takes the mugs from him and leads him back to the table where the water is ready for brewing, which Zuko takes to with prejudice.
"I'm avoiding my brother and his friends." She halts, uncertain, and Zuko would like to think his intense gaze from under his hair - which was in his face again dammit but maybe it looked sexy - inspired her to continue. "His girlfriend is great, honestly, as is this blind streetfighter that tags along - don't ask - but," she sighs. "There's this kid, who doesn't get consequences or that there are more reasons to do things than 'it's fun' or 'it will save the world.' I mean, I've been his friend for ages, and I think I'm only now realizing he has a crush on me but I don't know how I feel about him now and it's just suffocating-" She breaks off, her steam run out.
"Plenty of air in here," he replies, like an idiot, but she nods almost gratefully.
They sit in companionable silence until the timer beeps, at which point Zuko leaps to his feet to pour Katara the first mug. He pours his own cup, even though it's not quite as strong as he likes. He doesn't want to kill her tastebuds right off.
She takes her first sip, and her eyes go wide.
Zuko starts writing sonnet to fallen angels on broken pedestals when Katara takes a second sip and calmly states, "It tastes like fire." He tilts his head to one side, an open question. "Well it tastes like smoke, yes. Which basically means it tastes like fire, all those family campfires, among others, the smoked wood and the whiskey Dad never lets us drink. It's strong, and bitter maybe, but I like it."
"Good," Zuko replies, short and to the point. "I don't know if we could be friends if you didn't like it."
He can tell she's on the cusp of replying, her mug lifted so he can only see the curl of her lips over the edge as she looks at him almost playfully. That's when the door bursts open again and three people come tumbling through. Zuko knocks back his mug - and hears Katara's choke of surprise but if this is going to be round four with Jet, Zuko will be damned if a second cup of tea is wasted.
It turns out not to be Jet and his little band after all. Instead, it's a different pack led by a boy Zuko's age who is in as much blue as Katara with as many features and mannerisms they have to be related. Backing him up is a girl who is less into her cups than their leader, and much more dangerous at first glance. She's a shorter girl with hair haphazardly in her face, so she has to be the blind streetfighter Katara mentioned. The two of them are clearly being herded by their third member, who is looking the most ashamed of their entrance but if Zuko had to peg the person who decided to barge in here, Zuko would pick the skinny bald kid who thinks it's okay to wear orange and yellow together, who's clutching a staff like it's a lifeline.
"We're closed," he drawls, settling into an easy but alert stance.
"And we're headed home, Sparky," says the streetfigher, her finger pointed only an inch off from straight at him. "But Twinkletoes here said we need to collect Sugar Queen."
Zuko's lips twitch in amusement.
"I can take care of myself," Katara protests, still in her seat but she's twisted to face the entrance. The mug of tea is clutched to her chest as if it can defend her. "I don't need you guys to walk me home."
Zuko can see it forming on - Twinkletoes - the bald kid's face. He's clearly the youngest of them - though the streetfighter is probably too young to be as drunk as she looks - so he must not be prepared for the responsibility of escorting drunks home, as he'll claim. He needs Katara's help to mop up after someone else's stupidity and it'll mean Twinkletoes - ooooo the short one is catching and he likes her - gets more time with Katara. It means Zuko gets less time with her. He risks one glance back at Katara. Her grip on the mug has tightened but she's slipping - shit she's responsible - and Zuko turns to the group.
Her brother and Twinkletoes are watching him, one more clear-eyed than the other. He still has the feeling the blind girl could see him best, but he didn't like their scrutiny.
"I can walk her home if it means that much to you," Zuko began. "After all, your friends need to get home and sleep this off. You be responsible and tend to your friends, and I'll take care of Katara."
Twinkletoes narrowed his eyes. "How can we trust you?"
Zuko shrugs, gesturing to the shop. "You know where I live. And what's more, that's Katara's second cup of tea that she has not finished. It is a shame my uncle will never let me live down if I allow such a lovely lady to leave before she has the chance to drink her fill." He turned towards the one in blue. "You must be Katara's brother." He bowed shortly. "On my honor, I will get her home safely."
"How do we know you have any?"
"Sokka!" Katara jumped to her feet, mug still glued to her hand. She stalked over to her brother. "For your information, I would like to stay and finish this delicious pot of tea. So you can walk yourselves home and crash in our living room. Try not to let Dad see that a minor is drunk." One handed, she turned her brother around and shoved him towards the door. "See you guys later," she says, with all the finality of a mother.
When the door is shut behind her friends and they have vanished into the dark, Katara slumps against the door. "That- that's not- that's a bad example of our relationship. I love them, honestly. They're good friends, and a good brother. But sometimes-"
She trails off when Zuko gently puts a hand on her shoulder. "Just a warning, but the tea gets even more bitter when it gets cold."
Katara sighs, turns herself so the door braces her back, and takes a longer drag of her mug. "Maybe I should go home. Make up to all of them." She takes another sip and looks at Zuko, before setting her mug down on the door-side table. "What would you do?"
He shrugs. "My sister is kind of crazy, so I wouldn't know."
"Crazy?" She has an eyebrow raised with her next drink.
"It's a long story-"
"Did she give you the scar?"
"No that was-" He looked down, fisting his hands in his apron so as not to brush the scar. "That was someone else."
When he looks up, she is suddenly in his space. Her hand is raised as if to rest on his shoulder, and then her fingers are brushing the loose hair away. Oh Agni the pads of her fingers are running over his scar. Somehow, he doesn't flinch, doesn't flee from the touch. Her blue eyes, impossibly big and blue, are right there but he keeps his own on her shoulder. She's mapping him, and he's letting her and realizing he'll never be able to say no to her when she's this close. Or maybe ever.
"It's not your fault. You weren't there."
Both of her hands are on his collar now, and in his shock he turns to meet her gaze, and now he's trapped and can't look away. "I can still be sad you were in pain."
"It's history now, over and done."
His hands are at her waist, familiar and fitting. He wants to stay like this forever. Just her and an empty tea shop, sugar and smoke on her breath. He's unsure of himself, but moves anyway, drawing on the same confidence that brought her jasmine tea she didn't ask for and sent him sprawling over counters and under tables. She takes a little step closer as one of his hands creeps up her back, and his confidence builds.
She tilts her head; he tilts his, and she drags him gently forward by collar as his hand presses into her shoulder and they kiss.
At first he doesn't know what to do with his hands; he simply freezes them where they are as he focuses on the exquisite joy that is kissing Katara. He starts to panic at the realization they don't even know each other's last names, but she gets a hand around his neck and moves it just so and everything is ten times better, and he can't think anymore. He pulls her a little closer, tightening the grip of his arms - he remembers her death grip on the mug and swears to burn anyone that hurts her, even him - which she willingly steps into.
He's ready to die happy when she pulls back, suddenly shy, and breaks their embrace. She retreats slowly, as if stunned, and Zuko lets his arms slide down hers until he has her by their fingertips. She glances up at him, and he just looks back, open and bare like she can see his soul.
Katara must like what she sees, for she smiles and says, "Better start walking me home before my brother gets too worried," but doesn't let go. Instead, she curls her fingers, tugging him closer.
Zuko takes a step forward, into her space, and breaks their fragile hold to reach past her to snatch up the abandoned -and empty! - mug. "Just let me lock up. Can't have any other ruffians barging in here while we're gone. Oh, and Sweetness," he says, as he sets her mug by the sink and comes back to the front to take her by the arm. "I've had many long night avoiding homework in this city, so I know it well. I can guarantee no matter where you live there are at least three dark alleyways in between here and your house."
She blushes as he leads her out and locks the front door. She's recovered by the time they step out onto the sidewalk, for she smirks up at him and declares, "We had better inspect each one."