“Mara, Zuko, wake up, we’re almost there!” I heard Iroh faintly call.
Sunlight flooded through the window across from me, bringing me out of my sleep. I suddenly became aware of my surroundings, and quickly realized that my head was resting on someone’s shoulder. I slowly opened my eyes, and from the angle of my head, my gaze fell on the lap of the person next to me, which I realized was Zuko. The next thing that I realized, was that my head was extra heavy; was Zuko resting his head on mine? Zuko stirred and I got my answer. We both yawned and sat up, I glanced over at him, and saw that he also realized the position we had been sleeping in. We both blushed and looked at the ground. Zuko rubbed the back of his neck. I turned to look out the window and saw houses and shops and streets for as far as I could see in either direction.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Iroh spoke up from the other side of me. I looked at him, and he smiled. I smiled back, and then looked at Zuko. He saw my smile, and his face softened.
I realized looking at him now, that his hair had grown more, and would reach his forehead soon. The train came to a halt, and we got off. People were collecting in groups, and we joined one. A woman with a large smile on her face greeted our group, and we set off into the city. She told us that we were going to be living in the lower ring for now since we were new to the city. She talked about the different places that we could go within the ring, and then one by one she showed people to their assigned place. On the way through the city, Iroh stopped by a shop and came out with a vase full of orange flowers.
Zuko gave him a weird look, but I smiled.
“I just want our new place to look nice in case someone brings home a lady friend,” Iroh responded to Zuko’s look, giving him a nudge.
I slowed, a twinge settled in my heart. Does Iroh not think that we have something between us? Does he not see it, or did Zuko tell him that he doesn’t think of me that way? I frowned and then caught up with them.
“This city is a prison,” Zuko grumbled, glancing at me. “I don’t want to make a life here.”
“Life happens wherever you are, whether you make it or not,” Iroh pointed out.
“I agree, even if you are traveling every day and not staying in one spot for too long, that is a form of life in itself,” I offered. I glanced at Zuko, and met his eyes. He had been looking at me too.
“Come on, I found us some new jobs, and we start this afternoon.” Iroh sounded excited.
“Really?” I asked, how did he manage to do that in the short amount of time we have been here for? “Where?”
“You’ll see,” he winked at me.
I rolled my eyes, and laughed lightly. Zuko let out a breath, telling me that he was annoyed. I smiled at this. We finally came up on the place that was assigned to us, a small place, reminiscent of the upstairs rooms I grew up in with Rahin and his wife. I could tell Zuko was not happy with it, he had a look on his face.
We went inside and closed the door behind us. Zuko sighed, looking frustrated.
I chuckled, “What’s the matter your highness? Not up to your standards?” I teased.
He turned to look at me, and I had trouble reading his expression.
“I think it’s very cozy and quaint,” Iroh said from the corner.
“It reminds me of my home back in my village. Rahin and I lived above the shop, and it looked very similar to this,” I said, not breaking eye contact with Zuko.
Zuko looked away, I could see a hint of guilt on his face. Did he forget where I am from?
Iroh set his flowers down on a small table, and we decided to look around. There were only two bedrooms, and two beds to sleep on. Well, at least Zuko and I are used to sleeping next to each other. We let Iroh have his own room, and put our stuff in the other room.
“I, uh, I could sleep on the floor,” Zuko offered, rubbing the back of his neck.
“No, I don’t want you to have to do that. The bed should be big enough for both of us.”
A slight smile came across his lips as he nodded. I took out our blanket and placed it on the bed. Well, it was more like a mat on the floor. But, it’s better than nothing.
Iroh called from the other room, “We should get going soon, we don’t want to be late.”
Without saying anything, we both walked out of the room and met Iroh by the door. He smiled at us, I could see his excitement once again. I smiled back at him and nodded, and we set out to wherever Iroh had gotten us jobs.
After walking for a few moments, we came up on a cute little tea shop, that Iroh stopped in front of. I looked at him with questioning eyes until I realized. Of course he got us jobs at a tea shop.
“I should have known,” I smiled at him.
Iroh smiled back and we walked in.
“Hello!” a man greeted us.
“Hello, we are here for the tea serving jobs,” Iroh grinned.
“Wonderful! Let me get you guys some aprons,” the man left and then came back with two. He handed one to Zuko and to Iroh. I looked at Iroh questioningly, and he shrugged.
The man saw my reaction and said, “We normally don’t have women who work here, normally it is just the men,”
“-But, if you really want to work, I’m sure we could find something for you to do around the shop.” He smiled at me.
I nodded to him, and Zuko reluctantly put his apron on. I could tell Iroh was struggling though.
“My name is Pao by the way,” he said.
I smiled, “Mara.”
“Uh, Lee,” Zuko spoke up.
“I am Mooshi,” Iroh grinned.
“Well, you certainly look like official tea servers, how do you feel?” the man asked.
“Ridiculous.” Zuko’s shoulders were slumped, I could tell he wasn’t too happy.
“Uh,” Iroh struggled with the strings in the back, “Does this possibly come in a larger size?”
“I have some extra string in the back. Have some tea while you wait,” he poured us some tea before walking away. Iroh held the cup with one hand, and the strings in the other. I sniffed the tea, it didn’t smell that great. Iroh took a sip and made a face.
“Ugh! This tea is nothing more than hot leaf juice!” he complained.
I smiled and Zuko said, “Uncle, that’s what all tea is.”
I held in my laughter, and then Iroh said, “How could a member of my own family say something so horrible?”
I laughed out loud, I couldn’t hold it in this time. Zuko gave me a look, which quieted me. I hid my smile behind my cup and then took a sip of tea. I made a face, “Yeah it definitely is not great.”
“We’ll have to make some major changes around here.” Iroh grabbed the pot of tea and marched over to the window on the other side of the room. I chuckled as he threw the tea out of the window.
Once he had come back, Pao was back as well with extra string.
“Here, let me help you with that,” I offered, seeing Iroh still struggling.
I tied the extra string to the apron and then tied it all together.
“Ah, thank you Mara,” Iroh nodded to me.
I nodded back to him.
“So, Mara,” Pao said walking up to me, “What are your talents? What do you like to do?”
“Uh, well, at my village I grew flowers at my shop and sold them.”
“Yes, she did. And they were very beautiful flowers,” Zuko commented.
I smiled at him, and he took on a small smile.
“Flowers eh? Well, I’ve always wanted to grow my own herbs and flowers for tea, but I’ve never been able to. Maybe you can help me?”
I perked up, “Yes, of course I will!”
“Perfect,” he smiled.
Iroh made a pot of his own tea, using the ingredients that were in the shop. Once Pao realized how good Iroh’s tea was, he asked him to make a list of ingredients and plants that he would need to make more delicious tea. Iroh gladly obliged, some of it we realized that I could grow for the shop so that it doesn’t have to be purchased all the time. We ended up making two different lists – one for the ingredients that needed to be bought, and one for the ingredients that I could grow.
By the time we had complete lists, it was almost closing time. News of the new great tea had spread, and there were a lot of people coming to try it out. We made a plan for me to go into the town and collect the ingredients tomorrow.
We walked out of the tea shop and down the street to our place. It was in an area with a bunch of connected houses, I’m assuming this is where they put all of the newcomers until they have the money to move out and get a better place. I had had a weird feeling all afternoon, like we were being watched. When we walked through the door, I stopped Zuko to the left of the doorway, so that we couldn’t be seen by the huge windows on the other side of the room.
Zuko gave me a confused look. I had grabbed a hold of his arm so that he didn’t continue walking further into the room, and I had just suddenly become aware that our bodies were very close to each other. I didn’t move though, I didn’t know if whoever was watching us could hear what I was about to say.
“I think we are being watched. We have to be very careful what we do and say, especially where someone could hear us - or see us,” I motioned with my head towards the huge windows that Iroh was now standing in front of in the kitchen.
Zuko nodded, his jaw clenched.
We walked over to the ragged couch that was opposite of the kitchen. I sat on one side, and Zuko sat on the other, but then swung his legs up across the rest of it, laying his calves on my thighs. I tried not to react, and instead settled down into the lumpy cushions.
“Would you like a pot of tea?” Iroh spoke up from the kitchen, his back still turned towards us.
“We’ve been working in a tea shop all day. I’m sick of tea,” Zuko sounded annoyed, like usual. I smiled at his response, and he smirked at me, stretching his arm up and putting it behind his head.
“Sick of tea?” Iroh turned around to face us, “That’s like being sick of breathing!”
I laughed, he really does love his tea. Zuko gave me an annoyed look and rolled his eyes.
“I believe breathing tea would not be very comfortable,” I chuckled, looking back at Iroh.
“Hm, well, you should try it sometime,” he gave me a grin before turning back around and searching through the drawers. “Have you seen our spark rocks to heat up the water?”
We both shook our heads, and I immediately got a bad feeling. I glanced over at Zuko, and he gave me a reassuring look. Iroh walked out the door and came back a few moments later.
“I borrowed our neighbor’s, such kind people,” he walked back to the teapot and struck the rocks together a few times before the sticks underneath caught fire.
I let out a breath of relief, “Yes, how kind of them. We should make a note to get new ones in the market tomorrow while I am picking up things for the shop.”
“Oh, yes good idea Mara.”
I yawned fairly obviously, giving Zuko a look. He cleared his throat and stood up, “We should get some rest.”
“You two go ahead, once I am done with my tea I will,” Iroh gave Zuko a sly look, which he returned with a glare.
Zuko started walking down to where our two rooms are, and I got up and followed him. Once we were inside, he closed the door behind us and turned to me, inches away.
I held my breath, we had never been behind closed doors together.
He tucked a stray hair behind my ear, “So you think we’re being watched?”
I nodded, not wanting my voice to give away how I was feeling in the moment. He walked over to the bed and sat down on the edge, “Do you have an idea of who?”
I swallowed before speaking, “Well, I know of one person that had been watching us since the boat, but I don’t know if he is in the same town as us.”
Zuko nodded knowingly, “Well, we better try to keep a low profile. Act like everyone else.”
I sat down next to him, “I hate to say it, but, right now, we kind of are like everyone else here.”
He didn’t look at me, he just sat there.
What was he thinking about? Does he have a plan on what he wants to do next? We are kind of in a weird situation here, and I don’t know how long he expects to stay. I don’t even know if he still wants to capture the avatar, or if he has given up on that. If the situation arose, he would have to make a choice.
Zuko stood up, “We should get some rest, we have a long day of making tea tomorrow,” he said bitterly.
I held in a smile, and slipped off my shoes. My feet touched the bare wood floor, the coolness sent waves of chills up my legs. When I looked back up, Zuko was taking off his shirt. My breath hitched as I watched him, seeing his muscles flex with every move he made. His shoulders were broad, and his chest started broad and then angled inwards to his waist. He was built very much like Lee’s brother Sensu was, I couldn’t help but make the connection. Sensu was very bold, brave, liked to work on the farm without his shirt. Whenever I went to go visit him, I would sit back and admire him working, watching his muscles ripple with his movements. I felt a twinge of guilt in my stomach, he still cared about me when he left, but I was angry at him for joining the army.
I tore my gaze from him just in time for him to not see me looking.
“Hey,” he said softly, grabbing my hand and pulling me closer to him.
Now I could feel his strength and see it. He looked into my eyes, “Is something wrong? Did I make you uncomfortable?”
“No, you didn’t,” I felt my face start to heat up, and he released me.
He nodded, “I know that you won’t be comfortable sleeping in your dress, so I’ll take the wall so that you can take it off.” He laid down on the mat and faced the wall. I hesitated, I had never been in an actual bed with a man before, especially not without all of my clothes on.
I took a breath and shook off my hesitation. Zuko was respectful the times that we went to the river together to bathe, and when that crazy guy tried to attack me. I got the feeling that he would never try to see me without my permission.
The lamp flickered as I untied the back of my tunic dress and let it fall open in the front. My undergarments were now exposed, off white cloth wrapped around my chest, leaving my stomach and shoulders entirely exposed. I could feel my heart pounding, why was I being so weird about this? More cloth was wrapped around my waist, draping loosely into a short skirt. Of course there was cloth underneath that, wrapped around my upper thighs and protecting the important parts.
I crawled onto the mat next to Zuko and got under the blanket. He shifted slightly but not much. I could feel the heat radiating from his body, and his scent of sandalwood and amber drifted over me.
“Could you get the lamp, Zuko?” I asked quietly.
He lifted one of his hands and flicked his wrist, making the room go dark. Now that he was sure he wouldn’t be able to see me, he shifted onto his back, his arm grazed mine, making my heart skip a beat.
What is going on with me? Watching him, noticing his movements, longing for his touch, being intoxicated by his smell. My heart starting to race at simple interactions, not being able to breathe while he’s looking into my eyes...
Oh god, am I falling for prince Zuko?