Chapter 1: The Nine-to-Five
In which a job is needed, Sokka is a slacker, and Katara is the mom friend in every universe.
This chapter was written by @sofileall, who I sadly can't add as a co-creator because she's not on AO3, hence the shoutouts here and in the summary. While we each write our own chapters, she and I have input on each other's work, so the style will probably be similar. Both of us are insanely excited about this Boba Shop AU, so we hope you guys are too!
“Sokka, I swear, get your sorry butt out of bed now or I'll leave you at home!”
Katara banged her fist against the door to the room she shared with her idiot brother, wincing at the sharp pain in her knuckles. Never mind that he was the one with the driver’s license and the car, not her - he knew all too well that she’d leave without him if she had to, license or not.
He didn’t respond, though. It was a wonder that she hadn’t already woken him up with all the noise she made while getting ready before sunrise, but that never seemed to be able to stir him. Nothing could, it seemed. Mornings were a struggle in their household: Katara woke up at the crack of dawn to make breakfast - a responsibility Sokka could not possibly be bothered to take on - and then spent a good half-hour trying every available tactic to get him out of bed in time to drive her to school on time. He usually pulled through, but whether she’d be late was always in question.
She tried to keep thinking positive, as she always did, but keeping up a front and smiling for the world was getting harder every day. She was tired of listening to Gran-Gran complain about back pains, and she just couldn’t work as much anymore. And though her father, constantly on the road for work, brought in enough to support their basic needs, Gran-Gran’s medical bills were mounting, she knew it wouldn’t be enough to put even one of his children through college, let alone both. Which brought her to her next concern: how was she going to rework her schedule to fit in the part-time job she’d need to fund her education?
Both paying Gran-Gran’s bills and saving for her college fund were non-negotiable, though, so Katara would have to find a way to fit in a few shifts at Jasmine Dragon Tea & Treats around swim team and student government commitments. The kind, aging owner of the Jasmine Dragon, a run-down but homey boba shop near her school, had hired her on the spot after he heard of her family’s plight, so she had the job, but making it work would be up to her.
“You’re quiet today,” Sokka said, bringing her back into reality as he glanced over from the driver’s seat on their commute to school. He turned down the death metal he played in the car every morning solely to annoy Katara - both because she hated the music, and because he’d spent money that “could have gone towards your tuition!” on the speaker system that he was using to play it. (Aside from the deep irony of such a powerful subwoofer in such a beaten-up car, Katara was convinced they’d both go deaf from the constant pounding of the bass in their ears.)
“I'm just thinking. Can you drive Gran Gran to bingo after school or not?”
“Why can't you do it again?” He said, focused on the road. Sokka might’ve been a careless person, but he wasn't a careless driver, fortunately.
“I start working today, remember? Come on, you can just do it after practice. Right?”
Sokka groaned. “Alright, but you better behave at work. No snapping or no losing your temper like you do with me, okay? Can’t lose this job. Not if you wanna pay your tuition.”
“ What?” Katara shot him a venomous look. “I have to save!”
“Sure ya do.” Sokka rolled his eyes. She knew he understood, but he’d rather die than admit it.
“That's rich, coming from you. Besides, isn't that my line? You’re the one who’s always losing your temper.”
“Whatever,” He replied, parking and getting out of the car as quickly as possible. “See you at lunch, loser.”
The siblings did not, in fact, see each other at lunch, or at any other given time of the day, although she did steal the football hoodie she knew he kept in his locker before spending an hour in English class, which was always freezing. But she didn’t run into Sokka at lunch - Aang needed help with his biology homework, and she spent the half-hour lunch period trying to explain the Krebs Cycle to her best friend. Aang was often too busy disrupting class to learn much from it, and he often asked his older and infinitely more responsible friend to fill in the gaps; Katara knew she shouldn’t - how would he learn the material if he never paid attention on his own? - but she couldn’t help it. Their friend Toph often joined them on such occasions, snapping up any available opportunity to mock her friends - Aang for his lack of discipline, and Katara for her inability not to be the mom friend. Today, though, she was conspicuously absent, and their little group - usually five, with Katara, Aang, Toph, Sokka, and Sokka’s so-out-of-his-league-it-wasn’t-even-funny girlfriend Suki - was down to two, mostly because sokka and sukki and decided to go join their jock friends for lunch.
"The Sonic down the street is selling 50-cent milkshakes. Wanna go?” Aang asked, his expression full of excitement. Even at fifteen, he had the joie de vivre of a much younger child, and she loved him for it - even if said enthusiasm was applied to cheap dessert.
“You know I’d love to get five flavors of milkshake and mix them all together,” Katara replied, because she knew Aang too well to suspect he’d want to do anything else with such an abundance of cheap food, “but I can’t. I have work.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot about your new job. You’re so old,” He whined, which made her laugh.
"No, I’m just the closest thing to a responsible adult in my family while my dad looks for another job," she sighed. Aang’s face fell; he always got like this when she mentioned her family’s financial hardships, and she hated it. So she shoved him playfully, which made him laugh in return.
“Well, maybe it’ll be fun,” he told her, ever the optimist. “You love boba, right?”
“I guess.” Katara smiled tightly. “We’ll see.”
All she could do was hope for the best.
Chapter 2: Quick Study
In which Katara starts her first day of work, Iroh probably ships it, and Zuko acts as the most reluctant of teachers.
Chapter written by yours truly, @lettersfromnowhere.
Note on boba: "boba" refers both to the drink as a whole and to the tapioca pearls. As a rule of thumb, if I'm talking about the boba shop or someone drinking boba, I mean the actual drink, and if I'm talking about making boba or something of that ilk, I mean the pearls. There are really not a lot of synonyms for boba, so please bear with me as I try to make this not-horribly-confusing.
And yes, I did find a recipe for tapioca and essentially transcribe it here, shut up *steam nose emoji*
“Uncle, I don’t-”
“Have time?” Iroh arched an eyebrow as if to say oh, really?. “Tell me, Zuko, what else were you planning to be doing after school?”
“...studying,” he replied through gritted teeth. Iroh didn’t look convinced, as well he shouldn’t. Zuko had always been a good enough student, but he wasn’t Azula with her competitive fixations and constant “I-can’t-I-have-to-study” excuses. "And even if I wasn't, I don't have time to train some idiot who doesn't know what she's doing!"
“Your grades are good enough to spare a few hours a week for a while, Zuko.” Iroh said nothing of Zuko's harsh assessment of his new coworker; he simply nodded diplomatically in agreement with his own statement. The meaning was clear: this assignment wasn’t optional. “Our new employee starts this afternoon, and you’re going to train her.”
Time to change tactics. Zuko shoved his hands into his pockets, assuming the most unapproachable stance he could. “But I’m not personable.”
That, at least, got a laugh out of his uncle. “No, you’re not,” he agreed, “but what a golden opportunity to work on that!”
“ Seriously?” Zuko threw up his hands. “If you have me train this girl, all you’re gonna end up with are two employees who scare away customers!”
Neither noticed the welcoming jangle of the bells above the door as someone walked in.
“Hey, uh...am I interrupting something?”
Zuko and Iroh turned to the door, falling silent before Iroh realized who was there. “Oh, Katara! I’m sorry, I didn’t see you come in,” he greeted her. “Welcome to the Jasmine Dragon! Ready to work?”
Zuko felt like he’d swallowed hot coals when he met the girl’s eyes - huge and excited, possibly the bluest he’d ever seen. She wore an open, friendly expression, full of eagerness, so much that her bronze skin was aglow with it. But she seemed a little nervous, too, though almost imperceptibly so: she tugged at the hem of her Boiling Rock High School Swim Team sweatshirt as she replied to Uncle Iroh, and when it was Zuko’s turn to make an introduction, she played with the ends of her hair.
Simply put, she was gorgeous. He'd never seen her, but she went to his school - the sweatshirt said as much - and he had no idea how that had happened. Much as he avoided people, it would be hard to miss someone so stunning.
“Uh. Hi,” Zuko started after an elbow jab to the side from his uncle. “I’m Zuko. Hi. I’m...gonna be training you, I guess.”
“Hi...Zuko. Nice to meet you,” Katara replied with a little wave. The way she said his name - as if she were testing it out, taking a bite to see how it tasted on her tongue and deciding that she liked it - made Zuko’s cheeks heat. Innocent as the gesture had been, it almost felt invasive, but...he didn't even know if he hated that. “I can’t wait to work with you!”
“Cool,” he said, shoving his hands in his pockets. That she had this immediate effect on him was disconcerting at best, and he wasn’t going to encourage it, no matter how much he might want to. The last thing he needed was to inject emotions into the already-simmering mix of things going through his mind right now. “So, uh...I guess I gotta teach you how to make boba.”
Katara nodded. “Do you guys make the pearls in-house, or do I just need to know how to make the drink part?”
Iroh grinned. “You came prepared,” he told her. “Zuko, we’re definitely keeping this one. Yes, we make our own pearls.”
Great. A try-hard, he thought, rolling his eyes “What he said. If you wanna…” he gestured with his thumb towards the kitchen.
“Right.” Katara followed him back into the kitchen, where he quickly set to work pulling out ingredients from the shelves.
“So, you’re gonna need three things,” he explained. “Taiwanese brown sugar, water, and tapioca flour.” He held up a container of bright-white powder. “This stuff. It’s what makes the pearls.”
“Three ingredients. Wow. Simpler than I expected,” Katara commented, peering into the saucepan where Zuko was measuring out the brown sugar and water.
“It’s ten tablespoons of the sugar and a half-cup of water per batch,” he told her, figuring he could probably ignore her less pertinent comments. “We need way more than this for a day, but Uncle likes it to be fresh for every order, so we don’t make it too far ahead.”
Why am I talking so much? he couldn't help but wonder. He'd only felt the urge to go off on this girl twice so far, which was...unprecedented. And he was actually sort of enjoying this, explaining how to make the pearls. That was unexpected.
“That’s amazing!” Katara really did seem amazed. “No wonder it’s so much better than the stuff at the Tapioca Express by school. Your uncle gave me a tea when I interviewed” - of course he did, Zuko thought, wondering why Iroh thought they could afford to give away tea - “and it was amazing.”
“He really can't afford to be doing that,” Zuko muttered, his face completely blank as he measured out the ingredients. "Glad you liked it, 'cause you’re gonna be up to your ears in boba.”
“Can’t wait,” she replied cheerily, completely missing his sarcastic tone.
“Mm-hm.” Gorgeous or not, Zuko had little patience for talkers, and he already wished this girl would have a silent thought. And...a less piercing stare.
Seriously. It was creepy, and it was harder than he’d expected to keep his focus on the brown sugar mixture simmering on the stove with her (distractingly beautiful) eyes on him all the time. He took a shaky breath and continued explaining. “So, you’re gonna want to let this boil until the sugar is all dissolved. You’ll probably need to stir it a little,” he told her, giving the sugar one last stir before lifting the spoon from the saucepan to demonstrate the smooth texture of the finished mixture.
“How long will I need to keep it on there?” she asked, and Zuko wasn’t even slightly surprised to find that she’d pulled out a notebook labelled “AP Psychology” - probably a school notebook she was repurposing - and was taking notes on the process in it.
“Uh, until it dissolves?” he’d been making boba for so long that he no longer had to pay much attention to the time it took to make.
“Oh...kay,” Katara responded, sounding less than enthusiastic for the first time. Zuko knew the type, never satisfied unless there was a right answer - another mark against her in his book. He was more of a freehander.
“Next you’re going to get ¾ cup of tapioca flour,” Zuko continued, “and add in about half to the sugar. Leave it on the stove and stir it in.” He could feel her intent gaze as he demonstrated and a flush crept up his neck, very much against his will. “It should get really sticky. When it is, you can take it off.”
“Mm-hm. Got it,” she muttered, chewing the end of her pen. He couldn’t deny that it made an appealing tableau, Katara lost in thought as she tried to commit the recipe to memory.
“Now, uh...take it off and add the rest of the flour,” he continued, praying his voice wouldn’t crack. “Mix it all in, then put it on the cutting board.”
“Should I let it cool before I touch it? Seems pretty hot,” she commented.
“No, I don't have feeling in my hands, so it can't burn me.”
He glared. "No, idiot, Of course you let it cool."
"Oh. Right." Katara looked a little wounded at that and Zuko wondered if perhaps he wasn't on an insult basis with the new employee, but he brushed the thought aside quickly.
“Anyway. You gotta shape it into a ball after that.” He kneaded the dough until it was almost round. “Then...make the pearls.” That one, at least, didn’t take explaining - all he had to do was pinch off a bit of dough and roll it into a tiny sphere, and she got it.
“Individually? Seems pretty labor-intensive,” she said, her tone more appreciative than judgmental or reluctant.
“What a keen observation! Will wonders never cease?" Zuko said sarcastically.
"I..." Katara trailed off. The confidence and enthusiasm on her face had faded with every barb, and now she looked like a puppy with its tail between its legs - he almost wished she'd fire back.
But she didn't, so Zuko kept going. “Roll ‘em in more flour after you finish so they don’t stick together. Then you boil them.” He gestured with the wooden spoon that still sat next to the saucepan at a pot of boiling water that he’d started before she arrived.
“Ooh, can I drop them in?” Katara asked, her eyes lighting up again. Thank God. Zuko felt a little too relieved that she'd bounced back so quickly.
“Sure.” Zuko almost smiled - as annoying as he wanted to find her enthusiasm, it was...okay, yeah, kind of adorable. He passed her the cutting board with the finished pearls. “Have at it. Just remember to stir them so they don’t stick together.”
“Stir. Got it,” Katara replied after she’d dropped in the pearls. “Then what?”
“Turn the heat down,” he instructed, stretching his arm over hers to reach the knob. She pulled back to give him space and their hands brushed-
I’m feeling nothing, Zuko tried to tell himself. Nothing! I am not in a cliché rom-com. My entire arm doesn’t have goosebumps because of one accidental touch!
He was not as persuasive as he wanted to believe.
“Uh...now you just let it cook for, like, fifteen minutes,” he said. “Then you just rinse it, and you’re done.”
“Cool!” Katara copied Zuko’s posture as he leaned against the shelves behind the stove. “Do we also make the desserts?”
“Huh?” no one had even mentioned the desserts that Jasmine Dragon sold to Katara, so he was surprised she’d asked.
“I saw the menu,” she explained. “And the macaron case...kinda hard to miss.”
“Oh, right.” Duh. Of course she saw the case. “No, my sister and our day employee - Mr. Piandao, you probably won’t see much of him since he does the mornings - do all the baking. We just do drinks.”
“Aw, I kind of wanted to learn how to make macarons.” Her smile returned quickly, though. “But this is cool too.”
“Mm-hm.” It dawned on Zuko that she’d probably be talking nonstop until the boba was done and he already wished for a reprieve.
“So...your uncle says you go to Boiling Rock,” she continued. Yup. Called it. “You’re a senior, right? Your sister is in my grade.”
“Yeah. Sorry.” He wouldn’t wish his sister on anyone, no matter how irritatingly chirpy. "You think I'm charming? Wait 'til you see Azula at seven in the morning."
“Yeah, Azula is…” Katara grimaced. “How can I say it nicely?”
“You can’t,” Zuko snapped. “Can we not talk about her?”
Katara didn’t even acknowledge that, which he appreciated. Clearly his distaste for her was shared. “So...do you do anything at school, or just work here?” she asked.
Well, there would clearly be no dodging this conversation. “I do martial arts,” he told her. “Taekwondo, aikido, jiu jitsu...that sorta stuff.”
“Oh, cool!” she really did seem to mean it. “I swim, and I’m in student government, and I do this thing called Impact Club where-”
“I know what Impact Club is!” he snapped, because he was about ready for her to quit talking before she spouted off her entire resume. Katara flinched, and he almost regretted his tone, but she went quiet after that, so he couldn’t regret it too much.
That must’ve cut more than he thought it did, though, because Katara was quiet for the next (he checked his watch) six minutes while the boba cooked, and when he told her to be sure she rinsed the finished pearls with cold water, she was silent. The only sound in the room was that of her pen scratching against paper.
“Anyway, that’s how to make boba,” he said curtly. “Now for the drinks…”
Katara was still silent - good, he wanted to think, even though it felt a little disingenuous - but took diligent notes on everything he told her, so he wasn’t worried that she wouldn’t remember how to prepare customers’ orders when she came in tomorrow. Uncle would be impressed at her quick learning, he was sure.
But thinking about tomorrow meant thinking about how he’d have to deal with her constant chatter again, and this confusing feeling of imminent peril mixed with excitement and anticipation, and all he could think was I really wish that studying excuse had worked.
Chapter 3: Younger and More Vulnerable Years
In which Gran-Gran has some advice; Azula and Katara can turn anything into an excuse to argue, even classic literature; and the gang has mixed feelings about Katara's new job.
Written by Sofi, except for the bulk of the middle section (English class), which was written by Sarah (lettersfromnowhere).
You may be wondering, if you noticed the title, why it's a quote from "The Great Gatsby." This is because of the English class section, as you'll see, and there's a story behind that.
So, story time: I actually have had the argument that Azula and Katara get into in this chapter. In my 11th grade English class, I got into an absolutely vicious in-class argument with my then-ex best friend about whether Myrtle Wilson's adultery was justified in "The Great Gatsby." And although my friend was never out-and-out mocking like Azula is here (no one is quite like Azula...), this fight went down almost the same way IRL. Why did I include that weird high school memory in a boba shop AU about a cartoon? I have no idea. But Gaby, if you're reading this, you're in a fanfic now!
Anyway. We're kind of obsessed with this thing, so we hope you like it. :)
“How was work, baby?” Gran-Gran asked later that night while they were doing the dishes. Sokka, predictably, had dodged the work: he was in their room pretending to be busy with homework, when in actuality there was a much better chance he was just texting Suki.
Katara sighed, scrubbing at an especially stubborn piece of cheese that had burned onto a pan after that night’s lasagna was baked in it. “It was okay.” She shrugged noncommittally. “The owner is really nice. His nephew, on the other hand…not so much.”
“Oh, your coworker?” Gran-Gran’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Is that boy giving you trouble?”
“Not like that, Gran-Gran. He's just annoying. And really unnecessarily rude,” she muttered, feeling the anger she felt earlier resurface, when Zuko had practically told her to shut up. And yes, she knew how overwhelming her talkative streaks could be; maybe she had it coming for overwhelming a new acquaintance, but she was just trying to be friendly. He seemed like he needed a friend, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to be one.
It wasn't like Katara hadn't seen him at school before - he was kind of hard to miss - but they weren’t exactly friends. His sister Azula, a classmate and constant thorn in her side, was unpleasant enough that Katara’s friends had thought she was insane for taking a job with her family in the first place. And what little she knew about him didn’t help matters: Sokka had told her about all those times he'd snapped at the teachers or kicked chairs around in anger. It seemed like the boy earned himself a detention slip nearly every day.
But there were times yesterday when he’d almost been civil - pleasant, even... no. Katara shook herself. We’re not going there.
“Maybe he likes you,” her grandma replied,a twinkle in her eye. She knew it would make Katara angry. “You know what they say about boys who are mean to girls-”
“That's pretty sexist, you know,” she huffed, her cheeks coloring. She hated how much she didn’t hate that idea. “And besides, I’m pretty sure he has a girlfriend.” She was not actually sure of this, but it seemed like it’d get Gran-Gran off her back. “Also, he's rude to everyone apparently, so I can't really feel special.”
“Well, maybe he could use a friend,” Gran-Gran replied. Katara wanted to resent that, but she really couldn’t when she’d thought the same. “Who knows? He might be better for it. You always do bring out the best in people.”
“Thanks, Gran-Gran,” she sighed. “But this time, I’m not so sure.”
Turns out, she didn't always bring out the best in people. Sometimes she brought out the worst, even when she didn't mean to. That was the case with the girls in her English class, especially the ones she was sitting next to.
Azula was the worst one, usually. She and her posse - Mai, who never talked except to raise her hand and explain how something in a book was “actually a metaphor for death” (it never was), and Ty Lee, a talented gymnast who was out of school more often than not - were always looking in Katara’s direction and snickering. Maybe she was just jealous that the teacher always used Katara’s work, and not hers, as an example for how their current assignment had to be done - after all, she and Azula were each other’s primary competition for valedictorian - but the intensity of her dislike for her confused Katara to no end.
Especially when it came time for class discussions.
“Alright, class, move your desks into a circle,” Mr. Pakku, the 11th grade Honors English teacher, instructed them. “We’re going to have that socratic seminar I told you about last week. I hope you all prepared” - every eye in the room swiveled towards Katara and Azula, likely the only two who had bothered to do the homework - “because you will be graded on your participation.”
Groans all around. Katara, though, pulled a notebook and her copy of The Great Gatsby from her bag, attentive and ready to go. Azula rolled her eyes; she was just as studious as Katara but would never admit to it. Being seen as smart was one thing, and she relished it; being seen working for it was entirely another.
“Okay, class,” Mr. Pakku continued when everyone had gotten themselves settled. “So we’re going to be doing something a little different today. As you’d know if you did the homework, instead of me asking you questions, you’re going to pose questions about the reading to each other.” He paused, looking out at the circle of terrified faces - the faces of procrastinators who knew they weren’t ready, he was sure - looking back at him. “Anyone want to start?”
“I will.” Haru, a casual friend of Katara’s who she shared several classes with, raised his hand.
“Excellent! Okay, Haru, fire away.”
Haru cleared his throat and nodded, reading from a sheet of binder paper in his hands. “Um, so, one of the major sources of conflict in The Great Gatsby is infidelity,” Haru started, sounding a little nervous. “So, uh...using the example of Myrtle and Tom, why do you think that’s the case, and is it justified?”
Ooh, good one, Haru. That’ll start an argument for sure. Katara raised her hand.
“Yes, Katara?” Mr. Pakku called.
“So obviously the book talks a lot about, like, this idea of decadence, and the moral decay of society,” Katara began. “And how the upper class kind of has this attitude of ‘take what you want and let someone else deal with the consequences’, right? And I think that’s why infidelity is such a big deal in the story. Because...people just want what they want, and they don’t really have any moral influences telling them that it’s wrong. And in this case, it is. Neither of them are in a situation that might justify that, they just see something they’d like better than what they already have and go after-”
“I have to disagree,” Azula cut her off. “People have a right to pursue the best life that is available to them. I mean, think about it - Myrtle got sick of her husband and Tom essentially married for status. They were bored and something better was available to them. And if you’re bored with your spouse...seems reasonable to me.”
Katara wasn’t sure if Azula actually meant that or was taking this stance just to irk her, but either way, her blasé opinion about cheating made her feel sorry for anyone unlucky enough to date her in the future.
“It’s really not,” Katara replied with a pointed look at Azula. “When you marry someone, you’re giving them your word that you won’t be with anyone else, and obviously there are cases when you have to break that promise, but boredom is not an excuse!”
“Careful, your idealism is showing,” Azula taunted with a wicked grin. Okay, yeah, she’s definitely baiting me. “No one should be trapped in a life they’re unsatisfied with because of ‘morality’ or ‘promises’-”
“People deserve more respect than that!” Katara slammed her fist against her desk, trying not to wince at the pain. “They’re not just...expendable commodities to be used and discarded whenever you feel like it. They’re people. You can’t make promises to people like that and then drop them like hot potatoes once you decide it’s not worth it anymore and you’d rather do something else.”
“Marriage is an outdated institution and should be dismantled anyway, so I really don’t see the problem,” Mai deadpanned. She appeared to have been sleeping before she raised her hand, and after she finished speaking, she laid her head back down on her arms and resumed her nap.
Katara didn’t even feel like justifying that with a response, since Mai had a habit of going for shock value instead of substance when she spoke in class. “Well, my final answer is no, it’s not justified in that situation, and the reason it even happened was because the society they functioned in encouraged them to recklessly put their personal desires above all else.”
“I think Katara’s right,” Ty Lee chimed in. “What they did to each other was wrong. Think about how upset Daisy and George were when they found out that their spouses-”
She trailed off when Azula dug a sharp elbow into her side so hard that she yelped. Haru, who’d gone silent while the girls’ argument was playing out, shifted uncomfortably at his desk. He probably hadn’t meant to spark a debate like this.
“Uh...okay, some great points made there. Thank you, girls,” Mr. Pakku said, awkwardly attempting to divert the conversation before Azula and Katara came to blows over fictional characters. “Next question…?”
“ What’s with the grouchiness today?” Suki asked Katara when she walked over to their lunch table and set down her tray of spaghetti and meatballs with an exaggerated sigh. Perpetually exhausted as Katara was, she rarely looked so utterly done.
“I can’t with Azula today. We got into this huge fight in English and... ugh ,” she sighed. Katara had been coerced into sitting with Sokka’s friend group - volleyball girls, mostly, thanks to Suki - at lunch, since Suki wanted to hear all about her new job, and she was already regretting it. They were spontaneous and fun on a normal day, but she lacked the energy to deal with their antics right now. “I’m pretty sure she does it just to annoy me, and I always fall for it.”
“Katara's probably still annoyed that she has to work with Azula after school,” her brother said, putting his arm around Suki as he always did. To Katara, the gesture felt a little like he was showing her off - hey everybody, look how out-of-my-league my girlfriend is! - but it was sweet nonetheless. “And Zuko.”
“You mean scar Zuko? Is that who you have to work with?” their friend Toph barged in, bursting into laughter when Katara nodded. Toph, a sophomore and a mutual friend through Aang, wasn’t normally a part of this friend group, but she knew that Katara and Sokka - and, by extension, Suki - had all but adopted her, so she often crashed with them. Not even Suki’s volleyball friends objected anymore; she was too entertaining for that.
“Yeah. That guy’s a freak,” Sokka muttered under his breath.
“Sokka! That’s not nice.” Katara punched him in the ribs, ignoring the laughter and agreement from the rest of her friends. "He's rude, but he’s not that bad."
“Hey, just stating facts.” Sokka shrugged. “What, you like the guy or something?”
“ Ugh. No.” Katara didn’t understand how the flutter in her stomach could possibly coexist with the disgust she felt, but there they both were. “He’s just not as awful of his sister.”
“High bar, baby sis,” Sokka laughed.
“Yeah, can’t you aim a little higher?” Toph teased. “Although I suppose if he’s really not so bad after school hours, we could drop by and say-”
“No!” Katara’s cheeks colored. “Please don’t! I mean, come to Jasmine Dragon, sure. But not-”
“While you’re getting on Zuko’s good side? Mmkay.” Sokka was usually the teaser in their group, but Suki had her moments, too. “Don’t worry, ‘Tara, we gotcha.”
Katara shook her head. “Somehow I doubt that.”
Chapter 4: Detente
In which Azula's friends pay a visit to the boba shop, Katara feels the need to defend Zuko's honor, Azula does Azula Things, a tenuous detente is reached, and we see why I included the "one-sided and quickly-thwarted Zuko/Mai" tag.
Written by Sarah (lettersfromnowhere).
This was a very fun one for me to write, so shoutout to the Fire Gang for the Drama. This was also the one where I discovered how much I hate writing enemies-to-lovers, even though I love *reading* it, and how eager I usually am to end it and kick off the Wacky Friend Shenanigans That Inevitably Lead to Romance. Enjoy. :)
This was really not shaping up to be as horrible a day as Zuko usually had.
A pop quiz in calculus had been as easy as it was unexpected; having Katara around at the shop had lightened up the workload enough to let him do a little homework in the afternoons so he could sleep at a reasonable hour; the weather all day had been unexpectedly warm. And the customers...
“You know what I want,” Mai said flatly, setting her credit card down on the counter.
There was that, too: his sister’s friends had dropped in for drinks after school, and that meant Mai had made an appearance, demanding Thai tea and honey brick toast without saying a word. Maybe she knew Zuko was too interested in her not to remember her after-school boba order, or maybe it was a consequence of her being around the shop so much, but she didn’t bother asking anymore.
But it was Katara who was working the counter, and who’d been given the unenviable task of figuring out what exactly the intimidating girl in front of her was asking for. They probably weren’t going to get off on a great foot; Zuko dropped what he’d been doing in the kitchen to attend to the girls when he heard Mai’s voice, but there wasn’t much he could do about that now.
“I’m new here,” Katara explained, a little offended. She’d been so docile on her first day of work that Zuko had expected her to have a little trouble defending herself from rude customers, but once she was past the initial excitement of her new job and her fear of losing it, she’d shown herself to be just as assertive as he was. Never mind that she had only been working there for a week or so - Katara had no qualms about doing or saying whatever was necessary to keep things running. The look she was giving Mai was further evidence of that. “So no, actually, I don’t.”
“I’ve got this. Can you watch the sugar back there?” Zuko asked as he took off his apron and sheepishly ran a hand through his hair in an attempt to make himself presentable. “Oh, by the way - Mai, Ty Lee, this is Katara,” he told the two girls standing at the counter. “She works here now. Katara, this is Mai and Ty Lee.”
“I know. We go to school together.” Katara’s tone stopped short of openly rude, but she clearly wasn’t fond of these two and didn’t care who knew that.
“Hi, Katara!” Ty Lee, the shorter and infinitely less terrifying of the two, waved at Katara as she disappeared into the back to check on the batch of sugar mixture Zuko had been making when he left. She turned and managed a tight smile in reply.
“So...Thai tea and a honey brick toast with Nutella and banana, right?” Zuko asked, turning his attention back to Mai. She never deviated from her standard order, and God forbid he ever forgot it. (Three years of pining meant they both knew he never would.)
“And a strawberry smoothie for me,” added Ty Lee, whose order was never the same two weeks in a row. As a competitive gymnast, sugar was a luxury that Ty Lee didn’t take lightly; her trips to the boba shop were often the only times she could get away with it, so she took advantage of its vast menu as much as she could. “With extra boba.”
Well, that part of her order never changed.
“You got it.” While he rang them up, Zuko turned back to Mai. “So, are you two planning on going to homecoming?”
“Of course!” Ty Lee said, completely ignorant of the fact that Zuko’s question hadn’t been directed at her. “I have my dress and everything! Want to see?”
He didn’t, really, and he’d been asking Mai, so Zuko ignored her.
“I don’t know,” Mai said pensively, staring at her fingernails - this week, her long, pointed acrylics were painted with holographic silver polish - with an expression of complete disinterest. “I’d have to have a compelling reason to go.” She paused, glancing up at Zuko ever so briefly. “A very compelling reason.”
“Same,” Zuko replied. Was that a hint? “Otherwise it’s a waste of money.”
“Forget the money, it’s a waste of time. ” Mai flicked her eyes towards the corner table she and Ty Lee always took over when they came in. “So why are you asking? Do you plan on compelling me or not?”
His cheeks reddened. “Do you want-”
“One strawberry smoothie, extra boba,” Katara interrupted, handing Ty Lee her order. Zuko felt like screaming at her timing; only the thought of Mai’s judgmental glare if he lost his cool in front of her kept him from doing so.
Without missing a beat, Mai’s gaze flicked back to Zuko as soon as Katara disappeared into the kitchen again. “Perhaps.”
He was fairly certain she was, but he had to tread carefully. “Well, then. Maybe I’ll-”
“And a Thai tea for you.” Katara reappeared with Mai’s drink, and this time Zuko didn’t bother trying to keep his cool.
“Katara! I am having a conversation!”
“And I’m doing my job!” Katara shot back. “You can flirt with your sister’s entourage while I bring them the drinks that they paid for!”
Katara was just inches away from him now, standing across the counter with her arms crossed defiantly over her chest and an irate expression on her face. Zuko leaned across just so the point would be crystal-clear. “I’m not flirting with her!”
Mai leaned back in her chair, watching the exchange play out with an expression that simultaneously managed to be both bored and amused. “That’s good to know,” she cut in after the two reached a breathless impasse, barely bothered. “Because I definitely was not going to say yes to that homecoming proposal you were trying to make.”
The room fell silent at that. Ty Lee and Katara both looked stunned, Zuko’s face fell, and Mai’s self-satisfied smirk stayed firmly in place.
And that, because of course it was, was the moment that Azula chose to appear with Mai’s honey brick toast.
“Aww, what happened, Zuzu?” she asked, surveying the scene with a sneer. “Mai shoot you down?”
“How sad,” Azula said, enjoying this moment of schadenfreude more than she had any right to. “I’m so sorry. You’ve liked her for so long, and now she just says no? Mm.” She shook her head. “Pathetic, brother. Truly pathetic.”
“Come on, ‘Zula,” Ty Lee protested weakly. “You don’t need-”
“You really dodged a bullet, Mai.” Azula completely ignored her friend’s objections. “Did you know Zuzu’s had a crush on you since we were freshmen?”
“I’m gonna murder you, Azula,” Zuko muttered, his fists clenching.
“Go ahead and try, Zuzu.” Azula smirked again. “I doubt it’ll be half as satisfying as watching Mai shoot down your sorry attempt at flirting.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, leave him alone!”
At that, the room froze again. Katara had been silent for the whole exchange, observing the siblings, but evidently she’d had enough. Her fists were clenched and there was as much anger in her eyes as any of them had ever seen - even Azula, who’d targeted such jibes at Katara on many occasions in an attempt to get inside her competitor’s head, had never seen her quite so incensed. She paused for a minute to catch a breath and then resumed her tirade.
“Azula, I know you don’t know what this word means, but can’t you have a little compassion? I mean, lay off! And Mai - seriously? Flirting with a guy to bait him into asking you out so you can turn him down?” she shook her head so vigorously that her long ponytail swished behind her. “You people, man. All of you are such jerks.”
“Aww, cute.” Azula was anything but fazed. “Standing up for your-”
“She’s not my anything,” Zuko snapped, quieter than usual. “Don’t drag her into this.”
“Yeah, Katara, hear that? You’re not his ‘anything.’” Azula smiled wickedly. “Why are you defending him, anyway? He hates you.”
“Because no one else was going to.” Katara turned on her heel with an indignant huff and stomped back to the kitchen. Zuko could’ve sworn her eyes were moist as she stormed past him, but he wasn’t about to ask.
After spending a miserable half-hour ringing up customers while Mai sat at the corner table, pointedly not looking at him, Zuko couldn’t take it anymore. Shoving his hands in his pockets and trying not to notice Ty Lee’s guilty expression, which was, no doubt, directed at him, he made his way back into the kitchen. Katara looked up when he walked in but didn’t say anything.
I should probably say something, Zuko realized, because almost no one had the guts to stand up to Azula and none ever had for his sake (save Uncle Iroh). But the idea of thanking Katara…
Well, it was weird. He didn’t quite know what he thought of her: were they friends? Business associates? They hadn’t spent much time together, and Zuko never tried to hide the fact that Katara got on his nerves more often than not, but internally, he wasn’t so certain where they stood. Sure, she was an incurable chatterbox, but she was also a great worker, smart and hardworking and better at dealing with customers than he’d ever be. And she irritated him sometimes, but she was kindhearted and fearless and...maybe even fun. Her ever-present smile (well, amost) made the dimly-lit shop look a little cheerier.
And beautiful. Much as he wanted to, Zuko could not let himself forget that Katara was stunningly beautiful. Neither could the customers: when the rare new diner walked in, they’d be greeted by Katara, gorgeous and gracious, and wind up slightly intimidated when Zuko handed them their orders with a glower. At least no one gasped when they saw the scar on his face anymore, now that his hair was longer, but he was nonetheless more self-conscious in her presence than he was alone.
As much as Zuko wanted to dislike Katara, he couldn’t forget how much he’d wanted to protest when Azula had claimed that he hated her.
Well, that was something he could correct easily enough. “I don’t hate you, you know,” he told Katara. “I never have.”
“I never thought you did.” Katara glanced at him, managing a tiny smile in his direction as she brewed another batch of Thai tea. “Don’t worry. Azula can’t make me believe anything.”
“Azula always lies,” Zuko agreed. “I’m sorry you saw all that.”
“I’m sorry she said all that.” She looked back over at him, sympathy coloring her expression. “Can I be brutally honest?”
“Hit me.” Zuko was surprised to find himself genuinely interested in what she’d say next. Now that she’d gotten her feet under her, Katara’s outspokenness was unpredictable as a summer thunderstorm, and he rather liked that he never quite knew what she’d say next.
“You’re better off without Mai.”
“Yeah, I’m realizing that.” Zuko scratched the back of his neck. “I honestly wonder what I was thinking.” He hadn’t expected to admit that, but it was certainly true.
“Was what Azula said true?” Katara’s voice softened. “That...you’d liked her for a long time?”
Zuko just nodded.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, staring down into the saucepan. “Azula’s awful.”
“Tell me about it.” Zuko’s breath caught in his throat at the simple tenderness of her words. It’d been a long time since someone other than Iroh showed him this kind of concern.
“Zuko…” Katara started, but trailed off. He looked over.
Almost shyly - there’s that timidness again - Katara approached and set her palm against Zuko’s forearm. “Do you wanna start over?”
He was so startled by the unexpected touch that he nearly backed away, but the half of his brain that wasn’t screaming made him stay. “Wh-uh...what do you mean by that?”
“We obviously didn’t get off on the best foot.” Katara removed her palm from his arm self-consciously, her cheeks flaming. “And...I know I can be a lot, but I mean well. And I know you’re not as much of a jerk as you seem. So do you want to give this coworker thing another try?”
Zuko took a deep breath,surprised at how much the idea pleased him. “Yeah. I’d like that.”
Katara smiled softly again and something in Zuko’s brain broke. “Great.” She extended her hand for him to shake. “I’m Katara. Nice to meet you.”
“Zuko,” he replied, shaking her hand with his first genuine smile in a while. “I’m going to be training you.”
“I didn’t literally mean ‘start over,’” Katara teased, laughing with a faint flush to her cheeks.
“Oh. Sorry.” Zuko dropped her hands, scratching the back of his neck.”
“No problem. Also.” Katara’s eyes lit up. “I have an idea.”
“Yeah. So you know how Mai always gets the same drink?” Katara asked.
“Yup.” Zuko sighed, blowing a stray lock of hair out of his eyes and leaning back against the fridge.
“What if every time she came in, we gave her the exact same wrong order and then pretended not to know what she was talking about when she complained?”
“That’s...stupid,” Zuko told her, somehow enthusiastic and unimpressed all at once. “Let’s do it.”
Katara grinned. “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful-”
“Uh...no. We’re not there yet.”
Katara barely seemed fazed. “Right.”
Chapter 5: Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy
In which friends can be a bit of a nuisance, music tastes are discussed, and Katara is going to get Zuko on a dance floor or die trying.
*Written by Sofi, except for the ending/homecoming conversation, which I wrote.*
Ah, teenage flirting...did we take Zuko and Katara from "mortal enemies" to "flirty little you-know-whats" way too fast? Probably. But I do not care. :P
"Hey miss, can I get your number along with my order?" Aang said smoothly, leaning against the counter on one elbow in his best approximation of “suave.”
“Absolutely not, mister,” Katara replied, flustered, but not missing a beat. “Flirting during work hours? You know better than this, Aang.”
Clearly he’d been trolling, trying to make Katara laugh and catch her in the act of acting unprofessional on the job. Early on in their friendship, after they’d met through Impact Club when Katara was a sophomore and Aang was a freshman, it had been common knowledge that Aang had a massive crush on Katara. After he’d gotten over it, it had become somewhat of a running joke in their friend group. So when he wanted to get on Katara’s nerves, he always did this, innocently flirting in a manner that was so utterly Aang that it never failed to make her laugh. But this was neither the time nor the place for it.
This wasn't what she expected when she had invited her friends to come by Jasmine Dragon for drinks after school, but Katara was beginning to realize that, knowing them, she should have seen it coming.
Joking with her, making a scene amongst themselves in any way possible, even mildly terrorizing Zuko by asking him “what your intentions are with my baby sis, exactly” (that one had been Sokka’s bright idea) - they’d certainly made their presence known, and Katara was growing a little tired of having to pretend not to be amused. She glared at her friends, who were sitting at the stools in front of the counter, trying not to laugh.
"Aang, you’re going to get me in trouble,” she said as flatly as she could manage. “Can you not-”
"One oreo shake, one matcha milk tea, brown sugar milk tea, and a honeydew tea?” Zuko interrupted, approaching the counter with a tray of drinks.
“Yup, that’s right,” Suki confirmed after taking stock of the drinks. “Thanks, Zuko!” If nothing else, Suki could always be counted on to temper the group’s wilder ideas, and Katara shot her a grateful look for ending that interaction before any of their other friends had a chance to derail it.
“‘Course,” Zuko replied with a curt nod before turning to Katara. “Is he bothering you?" he asked, lowering his voice. He'd been like this ever since they made up - a little protective, and more attentive than usual - and she thought it was kind of sweet, if not a little strange.
“A little. This doesn’t exactly seem like the place for jokes like that.” Her cheeks colored. “We’re not...he’s not…”
“Yeah...I picked up on that. What is he, fourteen?”
“Fifteen, but yeah. He’s like my little brother.” Katara realized with a pang of concern that she was far more relieved that he’d picked up on that than she should be. “Yeah. He’s just messing with me. They all are, so, uh...ignore them.”
“Yeah, I was already doing that.” Zuko shrugged. “So are you gonna introduce us or what?”
“Oh, right.” Katara raised her voice again, now that their conversation didn’t need to be private. “Zuko, this is my brother Sokka, our friends Aang and Toph, and Suki.”
“My girlfriend,” Sokka added a little too proudly. Suki rolled her eyes.
“And, uh, everyone, this is Zuko. But you already knew that.”
“Yeah,” Sokka said, glaring at him. “And if you know what’s good for you, you’d better stay away from my-”
Both Katara and Zuko were blushing furiously now. Thanks a lot, Sokka, Katara wanted to gripe, but she held her tongue. It wouldn’t do to make them even more aware of the discomfort their jokes had caused. That, she knew all too well, would only encourage them. And that would be the last thing she needed when she wasn’t even sure what she felt.
"Sorry about my brother, by the way," Katara said, once they were closing up the shop at the end of her shift. "He likes to joke around like that, so he doesn’t really mean anything he says.”
Zuko chuckled, albeit almost imperceptibly, which surprised Katara. She hadn’t heard him laugh yet - so far he’d been nothing but serious.
"Don't worry about it, I get it." He wasn’t looking at her, but she could tell he was smiling to himself, probably thinking about his own nightmarish sibling experiences.
"Ha. Maybe we should start a club," Katara suggested, raising an eyebrow.
"The ‘my sibling is kind of a jerk’ club?" Zuko replied. Katara’s cheeks flushed at the way she said it and she wondered why she liked his voice so much. It was raspy and kind of hoarse, and she had no idea why it affected her the way it did, but something about it made her wish he’d say more.
"Exactly.” She went to turn off the sound system that played background music in the shop. She didn’t know who made the playlists they used, but whoever it was, they updated it regularly. She’d noticed that in her two weeks at the shop that she frequently heard many of the top-forty songs that got airplay on the radio, but it was much broader in scope than that: while at work, she’d heard acoustic indie songs, classic rock (her favorite), ‘90’s hip-hop, EDM, and even a little K-pop.
"Wait, I love this song," she muttered to herself, turning it up instead of off as she cleaned off a coffee maker that she hadn’t gotten to earlier after making a coffee milk tea earlier. She couldn’t help but dance a little, grateful that whoever curated this playlist had great taste. “Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy” was the last song she’d have expected to hear at work, but hearing the familiar lyrics at the end of a long shift was a nice surprise.
"I never thought you would like this kind of music," Zuko replied from the counter with a tiny smile. He was pointedly not looking at Katara again - she’d noticed that he had a habit of doing that - as she finished cleaning off the coffee maker and rinsed out her cleaning rag.
"Everyone with taste likes Queen, Zuko," she replied, feigning offense. She placed her hands on her hips, one still holding a rag. “I am curious, though. What did you think I liked if not this?"
"Pop music?” Zuko guessed. “I don’t know, I see you hum top forty songs when they play here."
He’s noticed that? Katara thought, feeling her cheeks heat up. She leaned over to swat him with her rag, which he dodged, laughing. "Oh, come on, now you're just being snobby, Zuko!”
"No, I’m not! It’s just...I don’t know, it wouldn’t be Top 40 if a ton of people didn’t like it?”
"If you say so." Katara smirked at his flustered expression.
"I’m serious!" Zuko insisted. “Seriously!”
“Two uses of ‘serious’ in one sentence...do you have any other words in your vocabulary?” Katara teased.
“Plenty, but none of them are appropriate for work.” Katara laughed, though her face was still red, and that only made Zuko more flustered. “You know what I meant by that, right?”
“Yeah.” Now it was Katara’s turn to look down at her shoes. “So, what kind of music do you like?”
“Can I plead the fifth?” Zuko grimaced. “You’d laugh.”
“I won’t, I promise.”
“Still pleading the fifth,” Zuko replied. “It’s...never mind.”
“Oh, come on, you can’t just say that and not tell me!” Katara insisted. She’d set down her dishrag, but he’d probably be getting a faceful of dirty towel if she hadn’t.
“I can tell you that it’s not this, though.” Another song had come on, this one a blend of pop and R&B influences that was wildly popular among their peers at the moment, and Zuko rolled his eyes. “I hear this way too often.”
“Yeah, no, this song is too overplayed for me to have any other opinion about it,” Katara agreed. “They’re probably going to play it, like, six times at homecoming.”
“Ew, really? This is why I never go to school dances.”
“You were gonna go with Mai,” Katara pointed out.
“Yeah, but that was different. I’d never go to a dance for any other reason.”
“Oh really?” Katara crossed her arms, moving to stand in his direct line of vision. “Is that a challenge?”
“No, it was a statement.”
Katara smirked. “I think it was a challenge.”
“I’m not going to homecoming, Katara,” Zuko sighed, as surly as ever.
“What if you had a group of friends to go with?” Katara offered. “Wouldn’t that be fun?”
“I don’t have friends.”
“You have us!” Katara protested. “I know they can be...a lot, but my friends are great, and I’m sure they’d be more than happy to let you come with us.”
Zuko raised an eyebrow. “Did you hear your brother earlier?” he asked incredulously. “He looked like he would’ve killed me if I so much as looked at you.”
“Zuko, I told you he was joking,” Katara sighed. “That’s just how he is. He doesn’t actually think you like me, and he wouldn’t-.”
“Who said anything about liking you?” Zuko snapped, his face reddening. Katara smirked. Interesting reaction.
“Uh, my brother? Dude, chill.” Katara chuckled. “I promise that if you agreed to come with us to the dance, he won’t make any weird comments.”
“What about the little one? Toph?” Zuko challenged. “She looked like she would’ve killed me, too.”
“Oh, that’s just Toph.” Katara couldn’t help but smile. “Tough as nails, that one. She doesn’t mean anything by it, either.”
“I’m not convinced.” Zuko ran his hand through his hair (he had that shaggy, falling-in-his-eyes haircut that Katara had to admit was wildly attractive on certain guys). “Honestly, why do you even care if I go?”
“A lot of reasons. You need to make some friends, for one,” Katara told him. “I may not know you that well, but I don’t think you’d be so grumpy if you had someone to talk to.”
“Isn’t that what you’re for?” Zuko asked.
Katara shook her head. This boy could be so impossible. “More than one person, dummy.”
“Okay, and?” Zuko asked, crossing his arms to mimic her posture. “Why else?”
“Uh...I’d like it?” Katara admitted, cringing inside even before she finished her sentence. You’re trying not to give him that impression, she chastised herself. “I like hanging out with you. It’d be fun. And our friend group is way more fun when we bring new people around.”
“I don’t think they like me very much,” Zuko countered. “So what’s the point? I wouldn’t have fun, they wouldn’t have fun, you wouldn’t have fun - see? Pointless.”
“Oh, and I just got rejected.” Zuko’s self-satisfied expression very clearly told Katara that he thought he’d won, and as valid as that last excuse may have been, she couldn’t let that stand.
“Yeah, and you want to move on, right?” Katara asked. “And...wouldn’t it be kinda fun to make Mai jealous by going and having a great time without her? Hm?”
“I got over her, like, five seconds after she rejected me, so that’s not really a thing.” Zuko almost smiled, enjoying this argument for the sake of arguing a little too much. “And even if Mai did care what I did with my life, wouldn’t I have to have a date to make her jealous?”
Katara bit her lip. “That’s a good point,” she mused. “But not necessarily. Going with friends would still be a way to show her that you’re better off without her.”
“I’m pretty sure she already knows that,” Zuko replied.
“Well, think about it.” They were making their way out of the kitchen now, done with the cleaning. “Tickets are on sale for the next two weeks, so you have time. Just...consider it?”
“I mean, I’m still going to say no.”
“You are impossible, Zuko!” Katara swatted his arm.
“Likewise, Katara.” He turned to her with the tiniest smirk on his face and her heart fluttered.
Not this again. Katara wanted to scream. Why do I always get this way around him?
Truthfully, she knew the answer. But admitting it to herself was another issue entirely.
Chapter 6: Hatching Plans
In which Uncle Iroh has bad news.
*Written by Sarah (lettersfromnowhere)*
This is a short one, sorry. Remember that "save the shop" subplot I mentioned in the summary?
Yeah. We didn't forget about that, we promise. Here it comes. ;-;
“You look happy tonight.”
Zuko looked up abruptly from his miso soup at his uncle’s voice from across the dinner table. “Hm?”
“I said you looked happy,” Iroh repeated. “And lost in thought. Something on your mind?”
“Oh, uh...not really.” Zuko shrugged in an attempt to look casual, hoping against hope that Iroh wouldn’t see through it.
“Hm. Well, if you want to talk about it, you know you can.”
“Thanks.” Zuko turned his attention back to intently gazing into his bowl, grateful that Uncle Iroh hadn’t chosen to press the subject. He wasn’t wrong; Zuko did feel lighter today than he had in a while. But happiness was such a rarity that it felt too personal to share and too precious to desecrate by putting it into words.
Or maybe he just knew that if he admitted in as many words that yes, this had been the best week he’d had in ages, he’d have to think about why, and why was a question he couldn’t answer without opening a whole other can of worms. Why would mean confronting how miserable he was whenever his sister picked up a shift. Why would mean thinking back on the brightness the small dining room of the Jasmine Dragon had taken on earlier today when Katara’s friends were there, joking and laughing and making as many scenes as they possibly could. Why would mean admitting that for as long as he’d been pining over Mai, he...barely felt a thing after her initial rejection, and how the disillusionment that day had left him feeling made him want so much more out of life than he’d ever had.
Why would mean admitting to himself that the warmth that bloomed in his chest when Katara smiled at him wasn’t a fluke reaction to kindness or any of the many things he’d tried to pass it off as over the last two weeks.
“Well, I hate to put a damper on a good day, but I have to tell you something.” Iroh’s voice snapped him out of his thoughts again. The obvious concern in his tone, though he was clearly trying to hide it, made the statement all the more alarming.
“Uh...yeah?” Zuko asked.
“So, you know we haven’t exactly been having a busy year?”
“Yeah, I noticed.” Zuko felt his stomach twist, knowing where this conversation was going to go. “Why, are the finances bad?”
“It’s worse than I thought,” Iroh sighed, taking a sip of his ever-present tea. “Much worse.”
“How much worse?”
“Worse enough that our current business model isn’t sustainable anymore,” Iroh told him. “Either we have to make changes or…”
Neither of them wanted to finish that statement.
“So what are we going to do?” Zuko asked. He wasn’t always enthusiastic about his job, but the idea of losing Jasmine Dragon hurt more than he expected it to. Ever since he’d come to live with Uncle Iroh, the shop had been his home as much this house was, and losing it would be losing one of his few refuges - from Azula, from his father, from his own loneliness. He couldn’t imagine what he’d do with his extra hours if he didn’t have shifts at the Jasmine Dragon to work.
“Well, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” Iroh said. “The good news is that I don’t think have any trouble getting customers in if we get the word out. Boba’s getting more popular all the time, you know that, and our product is good. I would accept nothing less. But I can admit that we don’t exactly have the best marketing strategy.”
“And by that you mean that we don’t have one?” Zuko asked. “I don’t even know if we have a website.”
Iroh cringed. “Does the FaceBook page count?”
“Uncle, we haven’t updated that since 2012.”
“And that’s where you come in,” Iroh told him. “We need to figure out a better way to get the word out. Whether that’s...an online presence, special promotions, anything, I don’t care. As long as it brings in new customers.”
“So we need to come up with new ways to advertise?” Zuko had always been vaguely aware that the Jasmine Dragon’s word-of-mouth-only marketing was a little outdated, but Uncle Iroh always been so confident in the quality of his tea that they had both somewhat naively assumed it would bring in enough customers to sustain the business on its own. Clearly, they’d been wrong.
“Without spending heaps of money, preferably. But I know you guys can come up with something. Young people are the best asset to a business, you know.” Iroh smiled encouragingly. “Fresher eyes see things I might miss. You get good ideas that way.”
“You guys?” Zuko asked. “Are you really expecting Azula to help you?”
“Oh, no, I was referring to you and Katara.” He took another sip of tea. “You work so well together, and she has so much enthusiasm...I thought you two could come up with a few good ideas.”
Zuko had to be careful not to choke on a mouthful of soup at the knowing look on his uncle’s face. “What does that mean?”
Iroh shrugged as if he had no idea what Zuko was implying. “She’s got good people sense, you have good business sense, and you get along well. Great combination for marketing. And I have a feeling having Katara and her friends around makes you hate the world a little less.”
“She doesn’t,” Zuko groused, as if it had even the slightest chance of convincing Iroh that Katara wasn’t responsible for the recent improvement in his mood.
“Right.” Iroh didn’t press. “Well, I’ll fill her in tomorrow, and I want you to see if you can meet before or after one of her weekend shifts to brainstorm. Is that all right with you?”
“If I have to,” Zuko sighed. As if working with Katara was a chore - even he had to admit his “I-can’t-stand-her-what-are-you-talking-about” schtick was wholly unconvincing.
“Good. I have complete faith in the two of you.” Iroh paused for a moment, then continued. “Oh, and Zuko?”
“Ask her if she wants to include some of her friends in this. They might have good ideas.”
“Uncle, she’s worked here for two weeks. Is that really-”
“It’s best to pull ideas from a variety of sources.” Iroh shrugged. “And you could use the company.”
Chapter 7: Partners
In which plans are hatched, arguments are had, and there are a few too many longing gazes for comfort.
*written by Sarah (lettersfromnowhere)*
Yup, switching up the order for this one! It'll be followed by two Katara chapters. I had a LOT of fun with this one, making them stare and freeze up like the awkward little turtle ducks they are XD
Also, note: the authors have nothing against poetry slams/Poetry Out Loud. The opinions expressed herein are those of the characters, not the humble scribes following their directives.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“So, obviously, the biggest thing we need to work on is expanding our social media presence.” Katara briefly glanced up from her notebook to make sure he was listening and Zuko couldn’t help but smile at her easy use of ‘we’, or her acknowledgement that she had become an invaluable member of the Jasmine Dragon family. Iroh had filled her in on the shop’s precarious position that Monday, and she had - apparently - been brainstorming ideas to bring in customers ever since. Zuko, who’d had very few ideas beyond “maybe posting on FaceBook more than once a decade,” had to be impressed - and, he admitted reluctantly, a little grateful.
Katara’s enthusiasm had been a bit much at first, but Zuko couldn’t deny that he’d grown fond of it.
“Right,” Zuko agreed. “I feel like we should start by making a website?”
“Yeah, definitely, but we could reach additional customers with a boots-on-the-ground approach. You know, seeing if we could sell at community events and stuff, or doing fundraisers and promotions.” She turned back to her notebook, flipping a page to make sure she hadn’t missed anything. Katara had thrown herself into the effort to save Jasmine Dragon with impressive zeal; Zuko was almost intimidated. “You have any thoughts?”
“Uh...not that you didn’t also have,” Zuko replied. “I feel like you and your friends are, uh...maybe overestimating how much you have time to do, though. I mean, organizing all those fundraisers and events you talked about is time-consuming, and we don’t exactly have much help.”
“Which is why we’re going to focus mostly on the online stuff. But I think we can pull it off. I mean...we have nothing to lose, right?”
There was that glint in her eye again - the “bet I won’t and I’ll do it just to spite you” look he’d grown incredibly familiar with and even rather fond of. I really need to stop forgetting that she takes everything I say as a challenge, Zuko thought.
“Uh, I guess, but aren’t you busy?” Zuko countered, knowing it wouldn’t really do much but feeling like he should say something.
“Well, yeah, but that isn’t going to be the bulk of our advertising, so I think it’ll be fine. Besides, a good website and active social media are the biggest things we can do, and those are easy to maintain. But, I mean, come on...who doesn’t love karaoke nights?”
Zuko chose not to point out that he doubted hosting a karaoke night at the shop was going to do much to improve business unless someone sang so terribly as to go viral online.
“Um, well, we can start with the Facebook,” he suggested before Katara could throw out any more wild ideas. “I know for a fact the menu we list on there isn’t updated, and we haven’t posted in, like, eight years.”
“Yeah. We can definitely do that,” Katara replied, pulling out her laptop. “Login?”
“Uh…” Zuko couldn’t remember, and he doubted Uncle Iroh would either, given that neither had logged on since he was in elementary school. “I...actually have no idea. Maybe we should just make a new one? But keep the same profile picture.”
“What do you want it to be called?” Katara asked, pulling up Facebook on her laptop. “And at what email?”
“Maybe I should do that,” Zuko suggested. “Can I…?”
“Yeah, of course.” Katara passed him the laptop. “I’ll get some pictures of the menu while you set it up. We can post those to start with.”
“Mm-hm,” Zuko mumbled, typing absentmindedly. He blinked a few times to clear his vision and- oh. He took his finger off the “h” key to find that he’d been accidentally holding it down for long enough to fill the e-mail box with nothing but an endless string of H’s. He cleared them all and tried to enter the correct e-mail address, only to find his fingers typing of their own will, entering Katara’s name instead of his.
Zuko, get it together, he chastised himself, rubbing his temples and glancing at the ceiling to snap himself out of it. But it didn’t work - when his eyes dropped back down, he couldn’t help but let them rest on Katara, standing between him and the counter, lost in thought as she glanced at the pictures of the menu she’d taken on her phone. Before he could bring himself to avert his eyes - she was beautiful, couldn’t he admit that now? - she turned, and her gaze locked on his. A soft smile overtook her features and her cheeks colored. Zuko knew without seeing it that his own face was probably even redder, just feeling the way his cheeks were burning.
“Nice pictures,” Zuko finally stammered after what was likely the most awkward minute of his entire life.
The subtle flush in Katara’s cheeks was a raging wildfire now, her whole face a shade redder than usual. “You haven’t even seen them,” she tried to tease, but her voice came out too shakily to make it sound convincing.
Great, Zuko. Great job! ‘Nice pictures’?
“Well, uh, I...I know you’re good at pretty much everything you do here,” he rationalized, unsure if he was making things more or less awkward by attempting to explain himself. “So, I mean, I figured that they were good. Right? That makes sense?”
“Sure.” Katara’s expression was a little less startled now and a whole lot more sheepish. “So, I’ll get these loaded onto the FaceBook page and write an intro post. That sound good?”
Zuko let out a sigh of relief. Getting back to business was the best antidote for whatever insanity had temporarily overcome him. “Yeah, sounds good. Want me to give you the login information?”
“That would work.” Katara nodded, already busy transferring the photos from her phone to her computer. She slid her notebook to the other side of the table along with the blue pen she always used, and Zuko took it, scrawling the username and password at the top of the page it was open to. It felt almost wrong to desecrate Katara’s immaculate notes with his messy, lopsided scrawl, but if she minded, she was too distracted to point it out.
“So...do you know anyone who could make us a website, or should we do it ourselves?” Zuko asked, wishing to break the awkward silence.
“Sokka’s pretty good with programming, so he could do it, but it probably wouldn’t look very good.” Katara grimaced. “No...definitely not Sokka. There’s an artistic side to it and...no, that’s not Sokka’s thing.”
“Okay, then maybe we should do it ourselves?”
“I mean, we could do it, right? Can’t be that hard.” Katara scribbled down another note. “But that’s going to be a slightly bigger project. Not the actual blog, I mean, but it’ll take a while to get the menu on there.”
“Why? All we have to do is type it up, right?” Zuko asked, already ready to break into a cold sweat because he knew Katara well enough to know by now that whatever she was about to propose was going to be a lot of work.
“But...people respond better to visuals, right?” Katara asked hopefully.
“I don’t know, do they?” Zuko crossed his arms. “I don’t see how that’s relevant.”
“I thought it would be good to have, like, a visual menu. You know, a picture of every item?”
“Katara, do you have any idea how many flavors of tea we have?” Clearly he hadn’t been wrong to be concerned. “If we have to make and photograph every single thing we sell, we’ll be bankrupt before we finish!”
“We can have pictures. I agree that that would be good. But, like, five of them, not seventy.”
Katara huffed. “ Fine. Got any other objections before we move on?”
“Actually, yes.” Zuko slid Katara’s notebook back across the table to glance at her neat, color-coded events list. “If you can explain how hosting a Poetry Out Loud event is going to improve our sales, be my guest, but... why?”
“It’s community engagement!” Katara insisted. “We have to let people know that we care about the community by interacting with it, and we can do that by-”
“Katara,” Zuko cut her off, resting his palm on her forearm. “You sound like a real estate ad.”
“I do not,” Katara muttered, flustered but not moving her arm out from under Zuko’s hand. He nearly forgot what he’d been trying to say over the noise of his racing heart, and it felt as if the temperature of the room had inexplicably risen. They locked eyes again like two deer caught in the same set of headlights and froze.
“I think the poetry slam needs to go.” Zuko moved his hand after what felt like eons. It still felt like he’d shoved it in an electrical outlet in a way that was surprisingly not unpleasant, but at least his brain was up and running again. “I just don’t think anyone will come.”
“Yeah, I wasn’t actually that attached to that one,” Katara admitted, shrugging. “I was just looking at events that they have at coffee shops and bars to get ideas, and that was a suggestion.”
“Watching a bunch of hipsters who are probably all stoned read poems that sound like bad My Chemical Romance lyrics?” Zuko grimaced. “I think we might actually lose customers if we tried that.”
“Hey, they’re not all bad,” Katara countered. “I mean, there are some people who do that and are actually really good. But the stereotype...yeah, it’s kind of not the best image.”
“Maybe not, but I’m invoking my family privileges here and saying that we’re not gonna have one.”
“Okay…” Katara smirked, a little too invested for someone who claimed not to be attached to the idea in question. “I’m the one who came up with the ideas, so you gotta make me a counter-offer if you’re gonna shoot down my suggestions. What can you give me?” She leaned forward on her elbow like a character in a mob movie.
“Uh.” Zuko would rather that the floor opened up and swallowed him right about now than admit what the look on Katara’s face - a little scheming, a little playful, and all challenge - was doing to him. “I’m gonna have to think about that?”
“Well…” Katara leaned back against her chair, tilting its front two legs off the floor and balancing on the back ones. “I think I have an idea, if you don’t have anything to offer.”
“Oh, this should be good.” Zuko couldn’t help but be caught up in whatever this was. It was a rush, bantering like this, and he couldn’t deny that the smile and the flush it brought to his face were...nice. It wasn’t a feeling he got often. “Tell me, Katara, what exactly are you asking for?”
You know, I really wouldn’t hate it if you asked me to kiss you right about now.
“I,” she started with a playful smirk, “will call off the poetry slam and the extra pictures for the website, if…” she paused for dramatic effect. “And only if...you agree to go to homecoming with my friends and I.”
“Oh, come on!” Zuko threw up his hands. “The one thing-”
“That you’re gonna have to do if you don’t want to spend a Saturday listening to stoners read poetry? Why, yes, it is!”
“You are impossible,” Zuko groaned, dropping his head to his arms, crossed on the table. “ Impossible.”
“What, like you’re not?”
“Okay, fine. I’ll do it.”
“ Yes!” Katara crowed. “I can’t believe that worked!”
You could get me to do a lot of things I hate, Zuko almost told her, but he held back. He’d told her they weren’t quite there yet, after all. He didn’t know how to tell her that he was regretting it all - the distance, the shyness, the way he’d been so determined to hold her at arm’s length even as he failed miserably at it, the awkward drawn-out glances when so much more could be said, could be done.
So he said nothing at all.
It's been a long time since I was prouder of a line I'd written than I was of "nice pictures," and I'm just gonna say it, I love it.
Chapter 8: The Green-Eyed Monster
In which Aang isn't thrilled with Katara's new friendships, and Zuko advises.
*written by Sofi*
Because Sofi wanted a hurt/comfort scene and more Aang. :)
Update...oh boy. (Hint: 6,200 of those 8,000+ words are in Chapter 10. Oops.) We could not be more excited for you guys to read this! We both had a lot of fun with these ideas and can't wait to see what you guys think. This will be one of the shorter build-up chapters before the big watershed climax-y bit in the homecoming dance chapter, which is kind of what we built the entire first arc of this story around. (We're very excited about this, if you can't tell.)
The fight started over Aang's stupid geometry homework, of all things.
Katara was helping him with a few tricky problems about the Law of Sines before her Saturday evening shift at the Jasmine dragon, constantly checking the time to make sure she wouldn’t be late and wishing this would go a little faster. Not that she minded helping Aang - she rarely did - but it had been a long day, as she had exams to prepare for, and helping him meant she’d have to go straight to work with no break from her own studying.
"No Aang, that value goes in the denominator!" Katara said, trying and failing to be patient with him. "I’m trying to be patient here, but I’ve been studying all day and I have work in less than an hour, so please just pay attention, okay?" She said, starting to explain the formula he needed to use again and ignoring how Aang was glaring daggers at her. She’d known he was grumpy, but she thought this was rather excessive.
"I just don’t get this,” Aang whined.
Normally Katara would never lash out. It took a lot to push her to the point where she was ready to blame Aang for his own failure to understand material he wasn’t paying attention to, but after everything she’d had to deal with today, she wasn’t having it. It had been a long week - she’d had multiple tests to take, conflicts to resolve among the sophomore officers in student government, and a website to make for Jasmine Dragon - and this was not the relaxing weekend she’d needed to cap it off. "Aang, I’m sorry, but at this point, there isn’t much I can do for you,” she said, resting her head in her hands. “You don’t seem to be paying attention to anything I’m saying.”
"Maybe I should ask Sokka to do it.” Aang crossed his arms peevishly, pointedly not looking at Katara.
"Yeah? Are you really going to wait for him to come home from practice?" she replied, crossing her arms to match his, and Aang sighed, slouching in a very clear display of ‘woe-is-me.’
"You're so mean,” he whined. “You've been like this ever since…"
"Ever since what?" Katara challenged. This ought to be good.
"Ever since you started working,” Aang huffed. “And...hanging around that Zuko guy."
Is he kidding? Katara threw up her hands. “This is not about him, Aang!”
"Maybe it is! You never have time for us anymore."
Katara inhaled sharply, wondering why that hurt so much. Was he right?
"Aang, I’m trying to provide for my family,” She replied, pinching the bridge of her nose. “I’m sorry, but I’m doing the best I can and I’m still stretched thin. I thought helping you today would be enough...I guess not.”
“Wait, no, I didn’t mean it like that,” Aang called after her as she got up to leave, his face falling. “I’m sorry. I guess...I just felt kinda jealous.”
That got Katara’s attention, and she turned back to face him again. Her hands dug into the straps of her backpack so hard that her knuckles turned white. “Jealous? Of what?”
Aang hesitated for a moment, and then continued. “Well, it’s like...before you started working, you were like the glue that held our group together. And I know it’s not fair, ‘cause you need this job, but sometimes...I wish we still had you to ourselves.”
Katara’s face clouded over. “I know,” she admitted. “I wish I had more time, but...this is my future on the line. Everything I do is to try to give myself a better chance - getting a job, all of my classes and activities...I can’t afford not to push myself. And I’m sorry, but I can only stretch myself so thin.”
“But it isn’t even that that’s the worst,” Aang continued. “I wouldn’t mind if you just didn’t see us anymore. But when you are around, all you talk about is your job.” He looked down at the floor. “And Zuko.”
“Okay, not having time I can understand,” Katara replied, clenching her fists in a vain attempt to keep her cool. “And I’m sorry. But please, please tell me that the actual reason you’re upset is not what I think it is.”
Aang narrowed his eyes. “And you think it’s-”
“Are you jealous of Zuko, Aang?” Katara asked, all attempts at staying calm swiftly discarded. “Are you doing this because you have feelings for me and you think he does too? Because if you do, let me remind you that you said you were over me, and Zuko and I are friends!”
“I never said that!” Aang protested. “You can do whatever you want-”
“Aang, don’t make this harder than it already is.” Now Katara had to bite back tears. “I love you, you know that, but I know you well enough to know that this is about Zuko whether you’ll admit it or not.”
“Katara, I can be upset, but I’m not going to get in the way,” he admitted, and Katara had to grip the kitchen counter just to brace herself at the shock. “I know I’m being unreasonable, and I’m sorry. And I’m sorry it looks like I lied.”
“ Looks like?”
“I really did think I moved on, Katara,” Aang said helplessly. “I guess seeing you with another guy just-”
“I’ve heard enough.” Katara turned and stormed out the door before she could hear another word.
When Katara arrived at the Jasmine Dragon, it was all she could do not to cry. She couldn’t tell whether she was more angry, frustrated, or just plain sad that she’d incidentally driven a wedge between herself and her best friend, but whatever she was feeling, it had threatened to overwhelm her since she left Aang’s house. Seeing Iroh waiting in the door with a welcoming smile didn’t help.
“You did a wonderful job on our website design,” he told her as she walked in, and she tried to manage a smile as she headed for the back to grab her apron, but anyone could see that it was forced. “Is something wrong?”
“It’s okay, just personal stuff,” she said, wiping at her eyes before any tears could spill. “Thanks for asking.”
“Do you need to take a day off?” Iroh called after her as she disappeared into the back. “It’s really no trouble.”
“No, I need to stay. But thank you.” The older man’s kindness brought Katara even closer to tears.Also,she kept thinking about how after the shift she had to go home and stay up late doing homework,and what if aang was still there? she didn't want to see him. Also,what was she going to say to Sokka?
“Well, at very least, I can work the register if you need to take a break,” Iroh offered. That Katara might take him up on.
By the time she reached the back, she couldn’t take it anymore, and, seeing no one around, she let the angry nervous tears dribble down her cheeks. She’d tried so hard not to cry on the job, but it was a fight she knew she couldn’t win, so she let the tears fall - the only way out was through. Crying wasn’t necessarily unusual for her, but rarely did so many things - her job, upcoming tests and school projects, student council responsibilities that always came up on her too fast, and now this problem with Aang - converge at once. The release of letting it out in liquid form came as a relief, one she was so caught up in that she didn’t hear approaching footsteps.
“Katara?” she sat bolt upright at the sound of Zuko’s voice. “Are you okay?”
“No, but I will be,” she sniffled. “I just...need a minute.”
She’d expected Zuko to leave after that, but instead, he pulled out the chair next to her. “Do you wanna talk about it?” he asked.
Katara hadn’t wanted to tell him about the fight, but something about his presence right now was disarming, and she found herself telling him everything.
“And now he hates both of us,” she sobbed, dropping her head to her hands as she finished.
“Katara, I’m sure he doesn’t,” Zuko tried to reassure her. “He’s your best friend. It has to take more than that to make him hate you.”
“I just hate knowing that I’m hurting him,” Katara sniffled. “And there’s nothing I can even do. I’m not dating you, obviously, so I can’t do anything about that, and I’m not about to start liking him just because he realized he’s not over me, and this whole thing is just so stupid that it makes me want to...I don't know. Kick something?" she said, laughing at herself weakly.
“Do you want me to talk to him?” Zuko offered. “I could...maybe let him know that there’s nothing going on between us, if that would help.”
“That’s really sweet of you.” Katara swiped at a few stray tears. “But if anyone’s going to fix this, it needs to be me.”
“Well, I’m here for you if there’s anything that I can help with.” He extended his arms, offering a hug; Katara accepted, gratefully leaning against him. “And if you want to kick something, I bet you I can find something of Azula’s-”
That got a weak laugh out of Katara. “Much as I’d love to, I’m going to have to pass on that one. I really don’t want to deal with her.”
“Neither would I. Good call,” Zuko chuckled, giving her shoulders one last squeeze. “But you should talk to him. Sooner rather than later, I’d think.”
“I will,” Katara promised as he let her go. “We...should probably get to work now.”
“I should, but you can have all the time you need,” Zuko told her. “Send that text if you think it’ll help.
“Okay.” Katara pulled out her phone and began to type, her head a little clearer now, as soon as he walked away.
Hey Aang, can we talk about earlier?
Chapter 9: Say Yes to the Dress
In which the gang shops for homecoming dresses.
*written by Sarah (lettersfromnowhere). If you're wondering why we did two Katara chapters in a row, it's to balance out the two Zuko chapters earlier*
This is a very pointless filler chapter that has nothing at all to do with either the relationship development or the save-Jasmine-Dragon sideplot, but I thought a little harmless fun before the roller coaster that is the dance chapter (it's coming! It's next!) would be a nice breather for y'all. Hope you like it. :)
Also, Toph is quickly becoming my favorite character to write in this. Just sayin'.
Katara ran down the stairs to the parking lot, trying not to let anything fly out of her overstuffed purse. A pair of strappy heels hung by a band of leather from one of her fingers, and a hairbrush, snacks, and various other unidentifiable objects poked up out of her bag. “I’m coming!” she hollered to the cheery red Honda waiting in the parking lot.
“You ready to get your shop on?” Toph yelled from the open window of the driver’s-side backseat. Suki, in the driver’s seat with her elbow leaning against the window, rolled her eyes.
“Yeah, but I’m surprised that you are,” Katara called as she reached the bottom of the stairs and made her way around to the passenger side. She really was - even after she'd worked out a tentative peace with Aang, she needed the break and was looking forward to spending a little quality time with her less-difficult friends. “Don’t you hate shopping?”
“Oh, yeah.” Toph’s devious grin told Katara that she had other reasons for her excitement. “But I’m not shopping today.”
“Oh, you’re not?” Katara narrowed her eyes, unable to imagine a scenario in which the Beifongs wouldn’t use this dance as an excuse to get Toph in a floofy dress. Though she’d try everything she could devise to get out of it - and, apparently, had - Katara would’ve thought Toph’s parents would have made her participate when she went shopping for homecoming dresses with her friends. Maybe they don’t know, she reasoned.
“Nope. They gave me money to buy a dress, but I didn’t wanna, so I took $30 to the Goodwill and got myself a pantsuit. So I’m wearing that, and you can use the rest of the money on your dress.” Toph grinned triumphantly. “Might even be enough left over for Suki, too. They’re crazy.”
“Can we trade parents for a day?” Suki joked.
“Be my guest,” Toph replied. “If they found out what I did they’d make me return my pantsuit, and the Goodwill doesn’t even take returns.”
“Toph, that’s so sweet of you to offer, but I can’t,” Katara replied, her heart warming at Toph’s generosity even if it wasn’t entirely altruistic. (She probably counted this as a win against her parents.) “I set aside-”
“No, you should take it,” Suki agreed. “You’ve been working so hard...you shouldn’t have to cut into your savings. Besides, what else is Toph going to do with the money?”
“Buy tickets to the fight this weekend,” Toph helpfully provided. “Undertow vs. The Soul-Crusher! The fight of the cen-”
“You’re going to buy tickets to a fight you can’t even see?” Katara asked incredulously. “Okay, I take it back. Dress it is.”
“What do you think?”
Suki stepped out of the dressing room in a short, fitted silver cocktail dress with a dipping neckline. She fingered the hem apprehensively, clearly unsure about the dress.
“Oh, Suki, you look stunning!” Toph replied, grinning cheekily. “I absolutely love it!”
Suki brightened, totally unaware that anything was strange about that statement. “Thanks!”
Katara nudged her arm. “Suki, uh, I don’t know how to tell you this, but-”
“ Oh!” Suki remembered, smacking her forehead. “Right. Seriously, Toph?”
“Couldn’t resist.” Toph shrugged.
“Hm. So...it looks good,” Katara analyzed, biting her lip. “But... I feel like it’s also not really your color?”
“Or my cut.” Suki glanced back down at the dress. “Doesn’t really hang right.”
“Yeah, maybe keep looking,” Katara advised her. Suki slumped onto the bench in her dressing room, sighing.
“I always forget how exhausting this is.”
Katara fished a protein bar out of her purse. “But I didn’t. Take a break?”
“Dude, you’re a lifesaver.” Suki eagerly accepted the snack and then waved Katara off. “But now you need to work on finding your dress!”
“Wait, you’re not going to help me look?” Katara asked when Suki showed no sign of intending to come with her.
“Taking a break, remember?”
“Right.” Katara took off for the racks of dresses crowding every inch of the store’s floor space. With nearly every high school’s homecoming dance looming, dresses were in no short supply, and as Katara flicked through the endless racks of options, she couldn’t help but feel a little overwhelmed. What do I even want? She wondered, pulling a purple tulle dress off the rack and immediately putting it back. Definitely not that one.
“Do you need any help, miss?” a saleslady approached Katara, noticing the conflicted expression on her face. Katara nodded.
“I normally wouldn’t ask this, but I’m supposed to be buying a homecoming dress, and I just have no idea what I want,” she explained. “I don’t really know what to look for.”
“Oh, of course!” the clerk brightened. “So...are you thinking of a certain color or style?”
“Um, I’m not even sure,” Katara admitted. “I don’t even know what I would look good in.”
The saleslady looked her up and down, appraising her appearance. “Red,” she decided. “You’d definitely look good in red.”
“Red. Okay. Have any suggestions?”
She nodded. “I think I know just the thing.”
“Mission accomplished!” Toph announced as they stepped out of the freezing, overly-air-conditioned store and into the hot midday sun with two bags in tow. “So can we eat now?”
“I second that,” Suki said. “I’m starving.”
“Seriously? I just gave you a protein bar!” Katara protested, but she didn’t stop them.
“Yeah, but shopping is hard,” Toph reasoned. “I kinda want to get a gyro at that Greek place in the food court. You guys okay with that?”
“That does sound good,” Katara conceded. “And we don’t have anywhere else to be, so...might as well.”
“Wait, you don’t have work?” Suki asked. “You always have work.”
“Nope, not today,” Katara said. “Took a day off.”
“Incredible,” Toph said. “I can’t believe you’d pick us over Boba Boy.”
Katara elbowed Toph’s side. “Really, Toph? I have a job.”
“Yeah, and a smoking-hot, endearingly awkward coworker who totally has a thing for you,” Toph replied, grinning.
“You’ve never even seen him!” Katara protested. “How can you-”
“Is she wrong, though?” Suki teased. “You have been spending a lot of time together lately.”
Katara couldn’t help but think of what Aang had said a few days ago. Though they'd talked it out, it still weighed on her. “Do you think I’ve been neglecting you guys?” she asked. “I’m really sorry if-”
“No, not at all,” Suki reassured her. “You need this job. We know that.”
“Oh. Thanks,” Katara said. “Aang is kinda mad at me for not being around you guys as much. And...other stuff.”
“He needs to get over himself,” Toph said, catching her drift. “You’re doing the best you can. And you can date whoever you want.”
“Thanks.” Katara smiled wanly. “I'm not dating Zuko and I don't know why everyone thinks I am, but it means a lot to hear you say that.”
“Yeah, but…” Toph trailed off, her devious grin returning. “It also means we get to tease you about him as much as we want.”
“Wouldn’t you do that anyway?” Katara shot back, her mood boosted again.
“Oh, for sure. If he’s gonna go to the dance with us, it comes with the territory,” Suki replied. “How did you get him to do that, by the way?”
Katara grinned, leaning in conspiratorially. “I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”
Toph and Suki exchanged a knowing look and Katara went beet-red, realizing what that sounded like. “Wait, no!” she cried. “Not like that! I just told him he didn’t have to host a Poetry Out Loud event-”
“Right.” Suki crossed her arms. “You realize everyone in the food court is staring now, right?”
Chapter 10: Speechless
In which homecoming dances are a great way to move the plot forward.
*written by Sarah (lettersfromnowhere)*
THIS IS IT, GUYS. THIS IS *THE CHAPTER*. This is the one we've been building up to since the beginning! Eep! I can't wait :)
Also, fasten your seatbelts.
Also, if you like to listen to music while you read, I have a few suggestions for this chapter:
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Zuko was early.
“You’re way too early,” Toph, the only member of their group who was at their designated pre-homecoming meeting spot before he was, took no time in telling him. “No one’s gonna be here until, like, seven.”
“But the dance starts at eight,” Zuko replied, loosening the tie his uncle had insisted he wear. The dance was being held in the conference room of a hotel near a lake, so they’d agreed to meet on the lake’s beach; usually it was cool near the water at night, but the day had been hot and it was still a little bit warm. He dreaded the thought of standing out in the heat for another hour. “We’re gonna be late if they don’t show up until seven and we have to get dinner.”
“Welcome to the club, kid.” Toph patted his shoulder in solidarity - well, tried to. She was a good foot shorter than him, and it wasn’t very effective, but he got the point. “Like my dress?”
“It’s...great.” Zuko almost laughed, for only now did it finally hit him that Toph wasn’t actually wearing one. She’d chosen to wear slacks with a white pinstriped blazer that wouldn’t have looked out-of-place on the leader of a barbershop quartet, but her smug confidence in her choice helped her pull it off, however unusual.
“I knew you’d agree.” She smirked. “Got all the pieces at thrift stores just to make my parents mad. They handed me $300 and told me to go buy a dress, and no way was I ever gonna spend that much money on a stupid dress that I can’t even see, so I took $30 of it to the Goodwill and boom. Homecoming look.”
“That’s...economical,” Zuko replied, rather unsure what else to say. Toph’s nonchalant allusions to both her family’s wealth and her blindness took a little getting used to.
“Yup. What time is it?”
“Uh...six-fifty-five,” Zuko told her, checking his phone. “So everyone else should be-”
“Hi, sorry we’re late!” a familiar voice rang out from the parking lot across from the lake. Suki. So everyone else must be here, Zuko realized. Thank God.
But “everyone else” meant “Katara” and the thought of facing her tonight, at an event he was only at because of her, with both of them dressed to the nines, made his head spin a little. As he watched the group approach - four of them, so the rest of the group must’ve driven over together - he felt a little warmer than he already had, though it was hot to begin with. Just play it cool, he told himself. You see her every day. It’s not hard! Just don’t-
He’d been a little too lost in thought to notice that the rest of their group had finally made its way down to the lake, the girls holding their heels so as not to sink in the sand. Katara stood in front of him, her made-up face flushed with something - excitement? Exertion? The heat? - that he couldn’t identify. She wore her hair in loose curls, and she was barefoot. The wind rippled through the maroon chiffon of her skirt, giving way to a fitted lace bodice with sleeves that barely hit her shoulders before dipping into a sweetheart neckline, and-
Zuko had been attempting to prepare himself for this in the hopes that seeing Katara in formalwear wouldn’t render him utterly incapable of speaking coherently. In the moment, it was a little bit unbelievable how completely he’d failed.
Katara laughed, a blush rising in her cheeks. “Thanks. You...don’t look bad yourself,” she told him, a little sheepish, as she took in his navy suit. “So…”
“Guys, it’s seven already!” Suki shouted over the wind that had picked up. “We gotta get these pictures done, like, now or we’re going to be late.”
“Oh, it is?” Katara checked her phone, snapping out of it. “Yikes. Yeah, we need to get on that. Uh...everyone get in position, I guess?”
“But who’s going to take the picture?” Aang asked. “If...we’re all in it, I mean?”
“I’ll do it,” Zuko offered a little too eagerly. He had no desire to be immortalized in the kind of awkward dance pictures he’d spent four years avoiding, so if he could get out of these ones, he’d much rather do that. “Who has a good phone camera?”
“Uh-uh, don’t even think about it.” Katara grabbed his wrist before he could walk off. “I didn’t make you come just to not be in the pictures.”
“ Fine,” he sighed. “But then who-”
“Oh, do you kids need a picture?” a woman in an oversized straw hat - probably a tourist - asked, stopping as she walked by. “You all look so lovely!”
“Thank you, yes!” Suki replied, passing her phone to the woman before rejoining the group, adjusting her green satin dress before falling back into the line. She and Sokka stood in the middle of the group, arms around each other’s shoulders, flanked by Aang and Toph on either side; Katara took the last spot on the left, and Zuko finished the line on the right.
“Okay, ready?” the woman asked. “Smile!”
She snapped the picture, and Zuko couldn’t help but think that the chances that it turned out well were borderline nonexistent, but he wasn’t complaining. They broke into groups to take individual or paired pictures after that, which Zuko spent the next ten minutes trying to dodge (only to be forced to take a paired photo with Katara wherein both of their faces were beet-red). When they finally finished and broke off into their cars - “hey, ‘Tara, why don’t you go with Zuko so no one has to get crammed into the middle seat?” Sokka suggested with an incredibly unsubtle wink - Zuko couldn’t help but let out a relieved sigh.
“What, are we really that unbearable?” Katara teased as they walked back to his car.
“No, I just hate having my picture taken,” Zuko told her. “Please tell me that’s the only time we’re going to have to do that?”
“I mean, there might be a photo booth at the dance, but you don’t have to do it unless you want to,” Katara said. “You should be okay.”
“Good. So...is this restaurant we’re going to any good?” he asked.
“Zuko, did you not read our group chat? Like, at all?”
“No, I had it on mute.”
“Well, ‘this restaurant’ is a Burger King drive-through, so I hope that meets your exacting standards.”
“Oh, it is?” Zuko grinned. “Actually...that sounds great.”
Katara returned his grin. “We thought so, too. We can just eat in our cars and head right over to the dance.”
“I thought you were going to go with something fancy. I like this better.”
Katara laughed. “Like any of us could afford that.” She paused. “Well, Toph could, but she would probably rather die.”
Zuko supposed he’d known all along that homecoming with this group wouldn’t be exactly as he expected, but at that moment, it hit him just how much this night wouldn’t go as he thought it would.
“Hey, kids, you all look-” Mr. Zhao, a math teacher who’d evidently gotten stuck chaperoning the dance, started but trailed off almost instantly when the group approached his table to check in. “ Zuko? Is that you? ”
Kill me now, Zuko thought, as he replied, “yes. Hi, Mr. Zhao.”
Suffice to say it the two hadn’t had much fondness for each other when Zuko took geometry as a freshman. Or Pre-Calculus as a junior. Or sat for detention almost every day of sophomore year.
“Which one of these is your date?” Mr. Zhao gestured to the group. “You gotta have come ‘cause someone made you, right?”
“Not mine,” Toph immediately said, and Suki held up her wrist, which held the corsage that Sokka had given her. Katara just turned red.
“He’s coming with all of us,” she said. “As friends.”
“Yeah, Suki has a date, Aang and Katara are single Pringles, and it can’t be me, ‘cause…” Toph fished around in the big leather bag she’d brought in and pulled out a bag of something. “I couldn’t pick just one date, so I brought a whole bag.”
“What?” Mr. Zhao asked, narrowing his eyes as he stared at the nutrition facts label on whatever Toph was holding up.
“It’s backwards,” Katara told her, reversing the bag. Oh. “It’s...a bag of dates. Like, the fruit.”
“Cute.” Mr. Zhao clearly did not think this was amusing. “You’re good. Go in.”
“Are you...actually going to carry a bag of dates around all night for a pun?” Zuko asked, unsure whether to be impressed or concerned.
Toph glared at him. “You doubt me?”
Zuko shook his head, laughing to himself. “Wouldn’t dare.” They made their way into the carpeted ballroom, the dance floor hemmed in by cloth-covered tables. Many of them were already crowded with jackets and bags; the group made a beeline for one that was still empty and set down their stuff. Toph took a seat - “don’t wanna dance,” she told them - but the rest of the group made their way to the dance floor, which was already in full swing with hip-hop blaring from the speakers. A ring of dancers had already formed in the middle of the floor, surrounded by more students crowding around the outsides.
“So this is what they do when some kid wants to twerk or whatever and not get caught,” Katara explained over the music. “They just make a huge circle around them and crowd in so tight that the chaperones can’t see them, so they won’t get kicked out for ‘suggestive’ dancing or whatever.”
“Okay…” well, that’s information I didn’t need.
“But you can stay away from that pretty easily,” Katara told him, grabbing Zuko’s hands and pulling him towards the rest of their group. Sokka and Suki were already dancing, her arms looped around his neck and his hands on her waist, totally lost in their own world; Aang was...well, no one really knew what (“one time he tried to break dance in the middle of the twerk circle,” Katara had told Zuko once before, and he didn’t doubt it); and Toph was sort of just standing in the middle of the circle, barely moving to the music. It was an odd little group, but soon Suki’s volleyball friends joined them, followed by Haru and a few of Katara’s friends from student government, and their circle grew a little more lively. Even Zuko couldn’t resist getting a little caught up in it, letting Katara take his hands to dance for a few minutes.
It was weird how normal that felt, after being nervous in her company the rest of the evening. He didn’t feel like he’d jumped off a cliff every time he caught her eye anymore; dancing with Katara just felt...fun. I’m having fun, he realized.
It was an odd feeling.
And then a wildly popular recent hit began to play, and a collective shriek rose from the crowd, which began to jump and flail in a dense cluster - it reminded Zuko of the schools of fish he’d seen on that “calming” nature channel they always played in waiting rooms - and Katara grabbed his hand and started running.
“Mosh pit!” she yelled over the crowd. “Might wanna move if you don’t want to get crushed.”
“All right, this one goes out to all the couples out on that floor!”
The music wound down as the DJ signalled the start of the first round of slower dances, and almost immediately, about half of the crowd shuffled off of the floor, uninterested. Sokka and Suki, obviously, stayed, but Aang and Toph disappeared (though Toph returned after a few moments), and Zuko wasn’t quite sure what to do. Katara motioned towards the table where they’d set down their stuff, and he followed, glad to be told what to do.
“If you wanted to ask someone to dance, you could,” Katara explained. “But if you don’t, you can just sit it out.”
“Right.” Zuko nodded, trying not to feel disappointed that she hadn’t wanted to dance. They sat back as Ed Sheeran’s voice began to pipe through the speakers, watching the dancers.
“Wait,” Katara piped up after a moment. “Is that Toph?”
“Where?” Zuko asked, trying to find the spot Katara was pointing to. “Who’s she dancing with? I didn’t know she-”
“She’s not,” Katara said, barely able to stop herself from laughing. “She’s holding her bag of dates.”
Zuko didn’t even try not to laugh. “You have to admire the commitment to that joke,” he said after he’d had a moment to collect himself. “Slow dancing with a bag?”
“I almost want to cut in on her,” Katara giggled. “Y’know, ask if I can dance with it.”
Zuko crossed his arms, mock-offended. “Katara, if you wanted to slow dance, you could’ve asked me-”
He stopped short. I said that out loud, didn’t I.
“Wait, you wanted me to?” her cheeks colored. “I had no idea that you...I thought…”
“I mean, do you want to? I don’t wanna dance if-”
“I thought you would be uncomfortable-”
“Do you wanna dance?” Zuko finally blurted out. “Like...the next song?”
Katara grinned. “Thought you’d never ask.”
They sat in satisfied silence for a few moments before the song faded out and the next one began. “I love this one,” Katara mumbled, a soft smile crossing her features before disappearing into a more neutral expression. “Shall we?”
“Uh. We shall?” Zuko wasn’t sure if that was how he was supposed to respond to that, so he just followed him onto the floor, placing his hands on the small of her back like he’d seen the other dancers do for their partners.
And they began to sway, and for a moment Zuko wondered if any of this was actually happening before Katara’s voice jarred him from his thoughts.
But she wasn’t saying anything. She’d started singing along.
“ ...and just stay here in this moment for all the rest of time!” she belted out, horribly off-key and totally unconcerned. Her eyes were closed, her arms laced around his neck, and Zuko had never wished with such urgency that her lips were on his.
But he also knew there was a good chance the blissful smile she was wearing now had more to do with the moment and the atmosphere than her dance partner, so he restrained himself and tried to focus, remember every detail of this perfect moment.
When she opened her eyes and met his with that same blissful smile, he had no doubt that she’d been doing the same.
Katara turned abruptly from the dessert table where she’d been examining a tray of brownies (if she wasn’t going to take the time to search for the one with the best powdered sugar-to-brownie ratio, what was the point?) at a tap on the shoulder.
“Yeah?” she asked before locking eyes with whoever had wanted to get her attention.
“Hey, Katara,” Ty Lee greeted her, and Katara nearly jumped out of her skin. Ty Lee had always been kind to her, but where she went, her friends were likely not far behind. And the last thing she wanted right now, on this night that was shaping up to be so close to perfect, was to have to deal with Azula. “I, uh...came to warn you about Azula.”
Great. Just what I needed. “What?” Katara asked, already looking for unblocked exits. “Why?”
“We saw you dancing with her brother,” Ty Lee tried to whisper (it didn’t work), “and she’s kinda pissed.”
“Extremely. I’d run if I were you.” Ty Lee squeezed her eyes shut. “I’ll even close my eyes while you find somewhere to go so I can’t tell them where you went if Azula asks me.”
Katara glanced back at Ty Lee with newfound respect. “Thanks, Ty Lee. That was really cool of you.”
“‘Course.” She nodded, eyes still closed. “I always feel bad that my friends are so mean to you. At least this way I can do something about it.”
With one last “thank you again,” Katara made her way over to Suki, who was dancing with her volleyball friends, and pulled her aside to explain what Ty Lee had told her.
“Are you sure it’s not a trap?” Suki asked when she’d heard the whole story. “She might just be trying to get you alone.”
“Suki, she literally closed her eyes so she couldn’t tell Azula where I went. I think she was being genuine.”
Suki sighed but relented. “Okay. So there aren’t a lot of places to hide here, obviously, but I would definitely not recommend the bathroom. Too few witnesses.”
“Well, where else am I supposed to go?” Katara threw up her hands. “She can’t exactly get me if I’m locked in a stall!”
“It’s Azula. I wouldn’t put that past her for a second.” Suki crossed her arms. “I think the best thing you can do is surround yourself with witnesses so she can’t try anything. I’ll go get Sokka. You find the rest of our-”
“Well, if it isn’t my brother’s new arm candy!”
Katara’s stomach dropped as Azula sauntered over and Suki finished, “...friends.” The volleyball girls - most of them close to six feet tall and muscular enough to kill a man with their thighs - cleared out, like fish fleeing at the appearance of a shark.
No one - not anyone - wanted to get on Azula’s bad side.
Suki grabbed Katara’s arm and held on tight, glaring across the room at Sokka in an attempt to get him to come and back up his sister. An ever-widening swath of empty floor formed around them as dancers skittered off to the sides in fear of the impending confrontation.
“I am not,” Katara said calmly, in her best effort to retain at least a modicum of composure, “his ‘arm candy.’”
“Oh, really?” Azula smirked. “Why else were you slow dancing with my pathetic excuse of a brother?”
“Because we were bored of watching everyone else dance,” Katara said flatly. Outwardly, she appeared composed, but she knew it was only a matter of time before her temper flared. It would be best for everyone if she could get away from Azula before that happened.
“Do you really think I’m that stupid?” Azula’s simpering tone couldn’t be a more clear signal of aggression. “My brother, who hates dances, shows up after the new employee tries to defend him from his sister and her horrible friends? Katara, that boy is whipped.” Now her tone turned openly nasty. “And I am not letting this happen!”
“Nothing is happening!” Katara snapped, dangerously close to throwing Azula into the chocolate fountain. “We aren’t a couple, he’s not in love with me, and you do not get to decide what we do with our lives, family or not!”
“Oh, but what kind of sister would I be if I didn’t protect my helpless brother from the high-minded, hotheaded, idiotic girl who’s spent the past three years trying to ruin my life?” Azula shouted. Half of the room was staring at them now, and Katara was amazed that none of the chaperones had jumped in to break it up yet. “You’re nothing but bad news, Katara. I’m not letting my own family be tainted by-”
“That is so rich coming from you!” Katara shot back,not caring about whether they were causing a scene because suddenly she was seeing red.“You make Zuko’s life miserable every single day, and then you waltz in here and pretend you care enough to feel the need to protect him from me?”
“He makes his own life miserable, honey.” Azula shrugged. “I just give him little nudges.”
“Fine, then what about me?” Katara challenged. “You accuse me of ruining your life, but I have done nothing to you. Nothing! It’s you who thinks mocking me is the greatest source of entertainment in the freaking universe. It’s you who-”
“Hey, hey, what’s going on here?” Katara felt a hand on her shoulder. Zuko. His grip on her shoulder tightened protectively. “Azula, what did you do to her?”
“Why is it always my fault?” Azula said, fluttering her eyelashes innocently. “It’s Katara who lost her temper. It’s not my fault she’s a hothead!”
“Azula,” he repeated, his voice a thousand kinds of warnings. “Say whatever you want about me, but leave her alone.”
“Aww, he’s defending his arm candy!” Azula crowed. “Isn’t that sweet? He’s so in love!”
“Azula, I’m not giving you any more warnings. Leave her alone or-”
“You’re in no position to threaten me, Zuko.” Azula crossed her arms and took a few steps to plant herself in front of Zuko and Katara, who stood in front of the dessert table. “You and I both know I could ruin you with the things I know-”
That was all Katara could take. “ leave him alone!” she shouted, lunging forwards to put a stop to whatever Azula was trying to do. But her fist never got far enough to wipe the smirk off Azula’s face. Zuko’s arms, firmly around her waist, held her back and her entire body felt like it was about to burst into flame with both the proximity and her anger.
“Don’t do this, Katara,” he said softly. “You’re gonna get suspended. Don’t do that for me.”
Katara jerked out of his grasp. “No, Zuko. Someone has to put her in her place.” She pulled herself to her feet and raised her fist, but Azula’s elbow connected with her eye before she could land the blow.
She stumbled backwards, shooting pain coursing through her head. Barely able to see through the pain, she was only slightly aware when her ankle slipped out from under her, betrayed by the strappy heels that had seemed so perfect for this night on the shelf. She didn’t notice when Sokka and Suki arrived, each taking one of her arms to hold her back while Zuko helped her stand. She didn’t see the dozens of students filming the showdown on their cell phones or the chaperoning teachers who bled out of the woodwork to drag away an irate but uninjured Azula.
All she felt was adrenaline, racing through her veins at breakneck speed.
“Katara, what were you thinking?” Sokka yelped. “Fighting Azula in front of five hundred people? Are you kidding me?”
“‘Tara, sweetie, are you okay?” Suki asked, slipping Katara’s arm over her shoulder to support her weight. “Is your ankle okay?”
“I don’t-” Katara glanced down at her ankle, already red and swelling in the prison of straps that encased it. “Oh, crap.”
“We need to get her out of here,” Zuko told the group.
“I’ll take her home,” Sokka offered,his grip tightening on katara's arm.
“No, don’t.” Katara shook her head, biting her lip against the pain. “You and Suki should stay. It’s your last homecoming, and if Gran-Gran saw me like this, she’d lock me in the house for weeks.”
“Yeah, you just got into a fight, so maybe she should!” Sokka shot back. “I’m taking you-”
“No, stay,” Zuko told them. “I can drive her back to Iroh’s to get cleaned up, and then she can spend the night at Toph’s like you all planned.”
“We can tell Gran-Gran I fell down the stairs leaving her house in the morning,” Katara suggested. She’d normally be horrified at the idea of lying to Gran-Gran, but the last thing she wanted to do right now was face her grandmother like this. And she had been looking forward to sleeping over with the group at Toph’s house that night…
“Okay, but if anything happens to her, I’m murdering both of you,” Sokka warned. “Be safe, Katara.”
“Right,” she groaned, squeezing her bruised eye shut tight as if it could keep the pain from spreading.
Leaning on Zuko’s shoulder for support, they made their way out of the ballroom and into the cold night air.
The ride back to Uncle Iroh’s house had been deathly silent, but once they got to the door, Zuko had many things to straighten out.
“Katara, what were you thinking?” he admonished, wanting to shake her shoulders for emphasis but choosing not to for fear of worsening any of her various injuries. “Getting into a fight with my sister over me?”
“I couldn’t stand the way she was talking about you.” Katara couldn’t meet Zuko’s eyes. “About me. About us. And I couldn’t stand that you were standing there telling me not to bother trying to stand up for you.”
“I told you not to stand up for me because you ended up with a black eye, Katara,” he said, his voice softening. “And now I have to live with knowing that I let you get hurt on my behalf.”
“It was my choice,” Katara said hollowly. “It’s fine.” She rang the doorbell, holding the shoe that had belonged to her injured foot in one hand, and crossed her arms across her chest protectively. Uncle Iroh was quick to answer.
“What are you two-” he stopped short when he saw Katara’s eye. “What happened? Come inside.” He ushered them in and, Katara leaning heavily into Zuko’s side, they stepped over the threshold.
“Azula happened,” Zuko said, his voice steely. “She needs to get cleaned up and rest until the dance ends and her brother can come get her. Where’s the first aid stuff?”
“Cabinet at the end of the hall. Do you need help walking?” he asked Katara.
“No, thank you,” she said, trying to bite back tears. “Where’s your bathroom? I need to clean up.”
“Just over there to the right,” Iroh told her. She disappeared as Zuko went off to fetch the first-aid kit; when he returned, his uncle shot him a questioning look.
“Azula saw me dancing with her and started goading her, I guess. I wasn’t there at first.” He closed his eyes, trying to ignore the guilt pushing down on him from all sides. I let this happen. “She started saying increasingly rude things - mostly about me, some about her - until Katara snapped. She would’ve punched her if I hadn’t tried to hold her back.”
“Why’d you do that? She deserved it.”
“Seriously, Uncle? I didn’t want her to get suspended!”
Uncle Iroh shook his head. “I know that, Zuko. You did the right thing. Anyway, how did she get a black eye?”
“Azula hit her before she could defend herself. She kinda fell backwards and I think she twisted her ankle.”
“So she took a black eye for you.”
“Yeah,” Zuko admitted, feeling the weight of the night’s events in full. “She did.”
Uncle Iroh disappeared after that and returned a moment later with an ice pack.
“What’s this for?” Zuko asked, even though he already knew perfectly well what Iroh was telling him.
“Two things. One. She got hurt trying to defend you. You owe her this, at very least.” He handed Zuko the ice pack. “And two. That girl spends enough time trying to take care of everyone else. After this, the least you can do is return the favor.”
“So you’re saying-”
“When she gets done cleaning up, make sure she gets whatever she needs.”
Katara winced as she shifted her weight onto her right ankle, pulling on the sweats she’d packed for Toph’s sleepover. It was nearly impossible to dress herself like this, but it was preferable to sitting for the next three hours - they’d only gotten in an hour at the dance before having to make a hasty exit, and it wouldn’t end until midnight - in a tight, restrictive dress. So she sucked in a breath and finished changing, cleaning the smudged makeup off her face and pulling the pins out of her hair.
In all that pain, she didn’t regret a second of this night, truly didn’t.
Well, maybe one: Katara regretted that she hadn’t been the one to throw the first punch.
Zuko was waiting in the hallway when Katara swung open the bathroom door, limping out into the hallway. “Here, let me help you,” he said, offering his arm again. Then he had another idea. “Wait, actually, no. Would it be better if I carried you?”
Katara shot him daggers with her glare. “I can walk just fine, thank you.”
“No, you can’t,” he protested. “Please, just let me make this easier for you. It’s the least I can do.”
“ Fine, but I’m gonna kill you if you drop me, ” she relented, allowing him to lift her, bridal-style, into his arms. “This is humiliating.”
“So was letting someone I care about take a black eye from my sister for me,” Zuko replied. He was struck by how tiny she felt in his arms - Katara wasn’t short by any means, but she felt like she barely weighed a thing.
“Hey, it was worth it.” A tiny grin played at Katara’s lips. “Did you see the look on her face?”
“No, it really wasn’t,” Zuko huffed. “Would you prefer the couch or a bed?”
“Mmm...bed,” Katara decided. “I should elevate my foot to keep the swelling down.”
“Yeah. I have an ice pack,” Zuko agreed, setting her down gently on his bed. (He wasn’t going to think about the fact that Katara was in his bedroom right now - he wasn’t.) He grabbed a few pillows and stacked them so she could set her foot atop them, adjusting the ones behind her so she could sit up. “Is anything else wrong, besides your foot and your eye?”
“Nope.” Katara sighed. “I do need to get my eye cleaned up, though. Do you have any ointment or anything?”
“Yeah, it should be in here,” Zuko said, fumbling with the clasp on the first aid kit. “Here!” he produced the tube and handed it to her.
“I can’t really put this on myself,” Katara told him, handing the tube back. “Can you…?”
Zuko’s stomach flipped. Oh. “Um...sure.” He uncapped the tube and squeezed a dollop onto his finger, dabbing it against her injured eye in case there were any cuts or scrapes to disinfect and wincing with every sharp intake of breath. She blinked her eyes open when he finished, locking them with his. He’d moved closer to her to administer the ointment, and their faces were so close-
No. Not now. Not thinking about that!
“Zuko,” Katara said, a little breathless. Her hand reached up to cup his cheek and he swore his heart stopped.
“Y-yes?” he asked.
“You’re staring again,” she said playfully, backing away.
“Oh.” Zuko felt a flush creep up his neck. “Sorry.”
“No, it’s kinda cute,” Katara said. “That...you like to look at me, I mean.”
Zuko felt like he’d swallowed a frog. “I-uh-wh-I didn’t…” he choked. “I-”
“Oh. Sorry.” Katara’s face fell.
“No, no, no, not that!” he rushed to correct himself. “I mean...I just didn’t really know what to say, that’s all. Is there, uh...anything else you need?” he asked. “It’s...gonna be a while until Sokka comes to get you.”
“Yeah, there is one thing,” Katara said, playing with the hem of her tank top.
“Well, um.” Katara looked at the ceiling, a little embarrassed. “I’m freezing. You guys have a blanket or something?”
“Right. I’m so sorry, I always forget that not everyone is used to Iroh turning the AC to sixty degrees every night.” Zuko walked to his closet and dug around for a moment. “This should help.”
Katara’s cheeks flushed when she saw what he’d handed her. “Is this yours?” she asked, unfolding the red sweatshirt in her hands. It was soft, worn and faded with years of use - he loved this thing, she could tell just by touching it.
“Mm-hm.” Now it was Zuko’s turn to blush. “It’s warm.”
“Thanks.” Katara slid the oversized sweatshirt over her head and settled into it with a contented sigh. “Ooh, you’re right. I’m never giving this back.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to.” Zuko couldn’t not smile at the sight, Katara snuggled up with his favorite sweatshirt. She pulled the hood down over her face and tied the drawstrings tight.
“You can’t see me. I’m invisible,” she declared.
“Hm. That’s a shame,” Zuko replied teasingly. “You said it yourself. I like looking at you.”
“Shut up,” she muttered into the fabric, before taking the hood off. “How long do we have?”
“Uh…” Zuko checked his phone. “It’s nine-twenty-five. So...a little over two and a half hours?”
“Okay. Mind if I take a nap?” Katara yawned. “Toph and Suki aren’t gonna let me get much sleep tonight.”
“Of course. Whatever you need.” Zuko nodded, almost disappointed to burst the bubble of whatever had just happened. “Do you want me to leave you alone?”
“No.” Katara caught his wrist, swinging her leg down from its perch on the pillows. “Join me.”
She took Zuko’s other hand in hers and pulled him down to her eye level. “Just stay here. It’s cold. You’re warm. Duh.”
“Okay,” he agreed, swallowing hard. Sliding the pillows out of the way to make room, he gingerly took a seat at the edge of the bed next to Katara, unsure whether she’d meant for him to be any closer. “Just...stay here?”
“No, not like that.” Katara moved over and patted the comforter next to her. “Next to me.”
He moved into position next to her, and Katara rested her head against his shoulder. Almost without thinking, he slipped his arm around her shoulders, and she snuggled into his offered embrace, nearly sitting in his lap.
“Yeah. That’s what I meant.” She looped her arms around his waist, her cheek pressed to his shoulder. Zuko thought his heart might burst at the tenderness of the moment, the smell of her perfume mingling with that of his favorite hoodie. “You make a good pillow.”
“I’m glad,” Zuko said softly, carding his fingers through her hair. She shifted again and then settled, and soon she was sleeping.
Zuko didn’t bother to keep track of the time they spent like that. He thought a little too much: about how soft her hair was, and how perfectly she fit under his arm, and how beautiful she’d looked that night. How it felt to dance with her in his arms, the entire room melting away around them. The collision of awe and anger in his mind when she realized how far Katara was willing to go to defend him. The black eye she’d carry for the next few weeks because of him.
I have to do something about this, he finally concluded. I can’t go on pretending I don’t need her like oxygen.
Maybe not tonight, but soon, I have to tell Katara how I feel.
The first thing Katara noticed when she stirred from her nap was how warm she was. She felt like she was cocooned in blankets with the sweatshirt she was wearing and-
The second thing Katara noticed when she stirred from her nap was that she was very nearly in Zuko’s lap.
His arms were around her, and her face was pressed against his shoulder. He’d pulled her close to him until she was nearly flush against him, snuggled cozily into the crook of his shoulder.
And it felt... perfect.
“Hey,” she mumbled, turning to look up at Zuko. “You awake?”
“Hm?” Zuko muttered, blinking awake. “Oh. Hey, Katara.”
Katara giggled, a little bit disgusted with herself for doing so but unable to stop herself. “Hey yourself.”
“I’m, uh...I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have,” Zuko said, hastily moving away from her. “I didn’t-”
“Hey.” Katara threw her arm over Zuko’s shoulder to stop him. “I asked you to.”
“Oh, okay.” He looked relieved to be asked to stay, snuggling back down under her arm. “You warm enough yet?”
“Yeah.” Katara leaned up to press her lips to his cheek. “Thank you.”
She had to take a moment to enjoy the look of total shock on his face, morphing into a tentative smile. He squeezed her shoulders a little tighter. “I owed you one, Katara.”
“Wow. You really do know how to suck all the romance out of a thing.”
Zuko’s face immediately reddened, and Katara chuckled. He was just too easy. “Who said anything about-”
“Zuko, we were just sleeping on each other.” Katara leaned in, ruffling his hair. “And you shouldn’t be surprised. I mean, I did take a black eye for you.”
“Yeah.” Katara smiled softly, cupping his chin again, thumb running along his cheekbone. "Don't know how you haven't figured it out yet, but I like you, Zuko."
"I, uh..." Zuko swallowed hard. "Same. I mean, me too. I like you too," he stammered.
Katara laughed and pressed her forehead to his. "You're so awkward," she said softly, tracing the contours of his face with her thumb. "It's adorable."
Zuko was certain he'd say something spectacularly moment-ruining if he spoke, so he didn't. He just leaned into her touch, closing his eyes and angling his face towards Katara's-
Then the door flew open. "Hey, ready to head over to-"
Sokka stopped short. He and Suki stood in the doorway, slack-jawed, and Katara nearly threw herself off the bed trying to get as far away from Zuko as she could. No one said anything for a moment. Then Sokka couldn’t take it anymore.
“Does either of you wanna tell us what was going on just now?”
Chapter 11: Fallout
In which awkward situations are awkward.
Sorry this update took so long, ahh! We hope you like it. :)
I-I have to go," Katara said shakily, trying to stand up by herself and gather her stuff. She stumbled, prompting everyone in the room to rush to her aid; she flushed crimson, even redder than she already had been. She risked one last look at Zuko (and she had to admit that he did look good, with a look on his face that seemed half-confused and half-mortified, concern in his eyes, a stiff blush in his cheeks) as she took Suki’s arm to leave the room.
"Uh..sorry?" Zuko said, following but stopping at the doorway as she staggered painfully out of the room. Sokka and Suki trailed along behind her, muttering between themselves; their words may not have been audible, but it couldn’t have been clearer what they were talking about. But neither broached the subject with Katara until they reached the car.
"I’m still waiting on that explanation,” he brother said, still looking a little traumatized, as they walked out.
"Don't want to," Katara said, wondering for a second if she could get herself down the stairs from the porch to the driveway without falling. Suki, ever the saviour, swooped in to help her.
“Let's just blow this popsicle stand and head over to Toph's. You're still up for that, right?" she asked once they were outside and had greeted Uncle Iroh goodbye.
“Yeah.” Katara nodded weakly. “Wouldn’t miss it.”
Suki could tell she was distracted, though, and she shot her a knowing look. “You’ll get another chance, you know,” she said, hoping Sokka couldn’t hear.
“Is it bad that it’s all I can think about?” Katara asked, momentarily forgetting to be humiliated. Her eyes shone with something she’d never seen in them before, and Suki smiled knowingly.
“No,” she replied. “You’re just finally letting your brain catch up to your heart. Happens.”
The ensuing car ride couldn't be more uncomfortable. Katara tried to avoid looking at her brother, who she knew was as preoccupied with what should have been her and Zuko’s first kiss as she was, but it didn’t work. Even laying down in the backseat - as much to avoid meeting his eyes in the rearview mirror as it was to allow her to put her feet up - didn’t work.
"How was the rest of the night, Sokka? did I ruin the mood by getting into a fight?" Sokka said mockingly after a few silent moments. "Thanks for asking, and no you didn't the rest of the night was great. But I gotta say, I didn't expect to find you making out with your coworker when I came to pick you up!"
"Sokka, we didn’t even kiss!” Katara groaned. “Honestly, I’m as sorry you had to see that as I am, but I have had a long night, so could you please lay off?”
“Be careful with that guy, Katara,” Sokka warned her. “He seems decent enough, but do we really know that? I mean, he’s the reason you have a-”
“Yeah, because I like him, Sokka. A lot!”
The car swerved and Suki clung to her seatbelt strap for dear life. “Sokka! Eyes on the road!” she admonished.
“Sorry.” Sokka let out a long breath. “Well, I can’t control who you like, but we are definitely having a chat about this later.”
Katara rolled her eyes. Of course he would.
By the time they arrived at Toph’s house, her head and eye were painfully throbbing. Luckily, her parents were already in bed and mostly left her to her own devices, so they didn't have more explaining to do, but there was still the problem of the Beifongs’ massive house. With its millions of stairs, Katara dreaded having to make the trek to Toph’s bedroom. Suki decided to have mercy and gave her a piggyback ride upstairs, but she was vaguely worried that she might just die on the spot if she were to need anything during the night - it would be impossible to navigate this house on an injured ankle.
As soon as Suki dropped her unceremoniously on Toph’s futon, Aang began to bombard her with questions and hugs, while Toph stood in the corner with a knowing smirk.
“Are you okay?” Aang asked, every bit of tension between the two of them forgotten. “I was so worried when Azula-”
“Wait. Why is Katara barefoot?” Toph interrupted. Katara’s eyes bugged out and she looked to Suki, who shrugged helplessly for lack of a convincing answer.
Instead, she deflected. “How could you possibly know that?” she asked.
Toph just shrugged. “You wear loud shoes!”
Sokka, who had arrived a few minutes after his sister and girlfriend after going back to the car to get Katara’s bag, threw down his bags and leaned in the doorway. “She messed up her ankle when Azula hit her, so now she can’t wear her heels.”
“Sokka!” Katara jabbed her elbow into his side. He wasn’t supposed to tell them that!
“That looks pretty bad, ‘Tara.You sure you’ll be okay? Shouldn’t we go to the hospital?” Aang asked, wincing as he poked Katara’s ankle. It was the size of a tennis ball now, and Katara couldn’t help but wonder if he was right, but she wasn’t about to give up now.
“I’m sure it’s just a sprain,” she said, her Mom Mode reactivated. “Now...you guys said you were going to watch a movie?”
A few good hours watching and mocking bad sci-fi movies with Aang and Toph - and being a little grossed out by Sokka and Suki being overly cuddly and gross, which Katara was pretty sure was some kind of karmic retribution for them walking in on her and Zuko earlier - was enough to make Katara forget her ankle for a while. But even after they all drifted off, Katara couldn't sleep. Her brain kept replaying the night before: waking up in Zuko's warm embrace and liking it, confessing that she didn't hate him at all (maybe the opposite), and nearly kissing him.
Oh, how she wished she could remove “nearly” from that sentence.
And it hadn’t been for lack of trying, or lack of desire. Zuko had responded in kind to her confession, and it had been plain as day that he’d have kissed her if they’d had just a moment more to themselves. That was what smarted - she knew now that her feelings were reciprocated, but knowing how awkward Zuko could be, a botched first kiss might be enough to take them several steps backwards. And they still had to work together; they had a karaoke night planned for next Friday at the shop, and there was no way they could put it off if their near-kiss made things awkward.
Great. How was she supposed to sleep with all those uncertainties?
(Also, Toph was snoring, and it was actually amazing that such a horrible noise could come out of such a small being. It was driving her nuts.)
They left after a very silent breakfast with Toph's family, still not sure how - or if - to talk to each other after what had happened that night,which made katara wonder whether they were all just overreacting. There was one stroke of luck in store for them, though, and that was the fact that Gran-Gran totally bought their "Katara fell down the stairs at Toph’s house” lie, or at least pretended to. (They had been thorough - Sokka had gone so far as to call Gran-Gran when they were driving home so it would look like they’d let her know as soon as it had happened - so to have the ruse work was a relief.) And she had no stairs to worry about in their apartment, so getting around wasn’t as difficult.
But it was hard to dodge the person you shared a room with while you could barely walk, and that meant that for Sokka and Katara, there was still a very, very awkward Sunday at home to get through.
At first, it had been easy enough. Katara had started her pre-calculus homework in the kitchen while Sokka holed up in their bedroom, gaming on his laptop and occasionally working on a few of the physics problems he had to complete by Tuesday. But it was impossible for the siblings to avoid each other completely, and the tension simmering between them grew too taut to ignore that night. They were already getting ready for sleep when Katara’s phone dinged with an alert - loudly and entirely too conspicuously for Sokka not to take notice. She glanced down at the screen, momentarily forgetting to hide whatever the alert was from Sokka.
Her heart leapt when she read the name on the screen. 1 New Message from Zuko.
I'm sorry, Zuko had texted her. Is it too soon to talk?
Smiling to herself, Katara swung her legs down from the bed and limped down the hall to the bathroom so she could text in peace. Preoccupied with typing her response, she forgot to close the door or turn on the light, just standing in the open bathroom in total darkness save for the light of her phone screen. No, not at all, but I can’t really talk about it with my brother around. Maybe on my shift tomorrow?
“Katara? Why are you hiding in the bathroom?” Sokka followed her down the hall and poked his head in the door. “Who are you texting?”
Katara turned off her phone, her cheeks burning, and tried to set it on the counter behind her back, but the clack of the case hitting the granite gave her away. Sokka narrowed his eyes and Katara knew he was about three seconds from figuring her out. She needed a diversion.
"Uh...are you still going to be mad at me by Friday?” she asked clumsily, changing the subject as she started back down the hallway. Sokka offered his arm, but she waved him off. “Because you promised to bring Suki and your football friends to karaoke night, and we’re counting on you."
“None of my friends sing. Why does it matter?" Sokka answered, throwing himself into his twin sized bed with a groan. Thank God. Attention diverted, crisis averted.
"We need people to show up so the business can grow and preferably not close down, because I’m really not sure what I’m going to do if I get laid off!”
Her text tone punctuated that statement and she couldn’t help but glance down at it. I still feel bad, Zuko had responded. Did you get in trouble at home?
Not rly but Sokka is being weird, Katara replied, and must have been smiling at her phone in the dark, because Sokka sat bolt upright, watching her suspiciously.
“What is it now?” he asked. “Texting your boyfriend?"
"He's not my boyfriend!” Katara yelped.
Sokka shook his head, turning on their lights and sitting on the edge of his bed. “You know what? We do need to talk about this,” he told her. His voice was firm but barely above a whisper, just quiet enough to evade Gran-Gran’s surprisingly acute hearing. "Look, I think Zuko is an okay dude. I'm not worried about that, and honestly, if he makes you happy, I’m all for it. But you almost starting a fight over some dude?” Sokka shook his head. “I know as well as anyone that you have a short temper, but that...it’s not you. Normally you wouldn’t give in if someone was teasing you like that.”
"Well, maybe you’re wrong about me,” Katara said defiantly, crossing her arms. Tears stung the backs of her eyes and she wished more than anything that they’d go away.”
"I’m pretty sure I’m not!” Sokka countered. “Which has to mean that there’s something about Zuko that makes you act different. Just tell me what's going on. Are you guys a thing?"
“No,” Katara said reluctantly. She’d intended to avoid this discussion, but she was beginning to see that the only way to get around Sokka’s prying was to tell him the whole story. “Technically, we’re just friends. Not dating or anything.”
“I find that hard to believe,” Sokka replied, leaning against his pillows. “You do...like each other, right?”
Katara nodded. “I’ve liked him for a while and I wasn’t gonna say anything,” she confirmed. “But then last night...he kinda had to help me clean up after I got hurt in that fight with Azula , and one thing led to another, and I told him how I felt. He felt the same way and I was pretty sure he was going to kiss me, but then you showed up, so I guess we’ll never know.” She made sure to
“That’s nice and all, and I really am happy for you, but what I’m not happy about is how reckless you are when it comes to him,” Sokka said. “I mean, fighting someone in front of the whole school? You’re lucky Zuko held you back and they had footage from enough people who were filming you to prove that you didn’t start it. You could’ve been suspended. And because...what? Because you like a guy?”
“I know I shouldn’t have reacted that way,” Katara admitted, her voice small. “But I couldn’t just stand there and listen to Azula say those things about him,about us.She just...makes me so mad.”
“Just be careful,” Sokka sighed. “He’s a nice guy, but that’s not what I’m worried about.”
“Then what is?” Katara was almost afraid to ask.
“That if this gets serious, you’re gonna hurt yourself more than Zuko could ever hurt you.”
“Whatever,” Katara sighed, biting back tears. “I’m sleeping on the couch.”
Chapter 12: You've Got a Hold On Me
In which karaoke night is surprisingly eventful.
*Written by Sarah (lettersfromnowhere)*
Again, buckle up. Slow start, but picks up quickly.
(Title is a Shawn Mendes lyric because Sofia and I have a running joke that Zuko is a huge Shawn Mendes fan in this AU.)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“So how are you going to do this on crutches?” Toph asked. “Seems like it’d be pretty rough to manage a crowd like this.”
“Yeah, shouldn’t you be resting?” Aang echoed. He’d been the most worried of their friends after she’d been injured.
“Guys, it’ll be fine,” Katara sighed, slipping easily into her familiar role as the mother of the group. She wanted to cross her arms, but her crutches stopped her. “I know it’s gonna take adjusting, but it’s not like I have to do much.” At first, Katara refused to use the old crutches - they’d been Gran-Gran’s after a bad fall a few years ago - when Sokka found them, but had decided that it was easier than making someone else help her get around for the next few days.
“Fair point.” Toph snagged one of the macarons that the Jasmine Dragon team had set out on tables scattered throughout the shop, providing light refreshments - and great advertising - to the patrons who’d come to sing karaoke. “Gotta say, that Azula’s a piece of work, but she makes a mean macaron.”
“Oh, Azula made these?” Aang looked at the red velvet macaron in his hand with newfound distaste. “I take it back. They’re not all that great after all.”
“Aang, you’ve eaten six of them,” Katara pointed out. “It’s okay. I don’t like her either, but I’m not one to withhold praise where it’s due.” She grabbed a matcha macaron to make the point. “And I’m really not exaggerating when I say that these things are like the cookie version of crack cocaine.”
“Yeah, maybe you should leave a few for the other customers?” Sokka suggested, popping a chocolate macaron in his mouth.
“You’re one to talk.” Suki nudged him, pointing to the plate of macarons he was polishing off.
“Hey, I got everyone I could talk into coming to show up tonight, so I think I earned a little compensation!” he protested a little too loudly. Jasmine Dragon Tea & Treats’ first-ever Community Karaoke Night wouldn’t start for another fifteen minutes, but the few patrons who’d trickled in to get drinks and desserts before the night’s activities began glanced over at his volume. It drew Zuko’s eye, too, and though he’d been steering clear of Katara, he made his way over to the group warily.
Of course, he’d wanted to approach the group the moment they walked in. Katara had been out of work for a couple days at Iroh’s insistence (“she needs a few days to rest,” he had insisted), and their paths rarely crossed at school, so it had been days since he’d seen her, and Zuko was amazed how much he’d missed her in that short time. Work was infinitely duller without her; there was so much he hadn’t realized he’d missed.
He missed her easy smile and willingness to deal with the customers he didn’t know how to talk to.
He missed her enthusiasm.
He missed seeing her belting out the classic rock that Iroh had added to his “To Play In the Shop” playlist at Zuko’s request after he’d learned that she liked it while washing up at the end of her shifts.
He missed her. And he’d be lying if he denied that his heart stopped for a second when she walked (crutched?) in. As one of the event’s emcees, she’d gone all out: her normal sweatshirt-and-jeans look had been upgraded to a different pair of skinny jeans (not her usual ripped ones), a gauzy white button-up, and a black leather jacket, and she was...well, stunning. Even as he approached the group, Zuko had to make a concerted effort not to stare.
(Knowing that both Aang and Sokka were probably mad at him helped with that.)
“Hey, so, uh, Iroh’s been looking for you,” he told Katara as he approached, forgoing a greeting. “We’re starting in a few.”
“Got it.” Katara gave him a quick smile - all she could really do in front of her friends and brother - and followed.
“Can I, uh...can I carry something for you?” Zuko offered, eyeing the tiny leather backpack she’d brought in lieu of a purse to carry her stuff on crutches.
“No, I’m okay,” she replied. “But I do, uh...wanna talk later. When we get a minute.”
“Of course.” He hoped that was a good thing, or at least a neutral one. “You sure you don’t want Iroh to emcee by himself?”
“No, I’m okay, I promise.” When she got to the stairs that led up to the riser that was acting as a stage for the night, she took her crutches under one arm and hobbled up the two small steps. “But thanks.”
Zuko wanted to linger there, being around her to make up for lost time, but he’d been put in charge of running the cash register for customers who wanted to buy drinks throughout the night, so he had to make his way back over to the counter to serve the line of beginning to form. But he was a little distracted as he took their orders, watching Katara and Iroh explain how the night would work. Though injured and frazzled, Katara was bubbling over with enthusiasm, and he couldn’t help but stare.
“Um...one brown sugar boba?” the customer in the front of the line repeated, snapping Zuko out of his distraction.
“Right, sorry,” he muttered, ringing up the customer. The line was growing rapidly now as more people began to trickle in, and the first singers, a pair of regular customers who’d known Iroh for years, took the stage to butcher The B-52’s “Love Shack.”
Zuko sighed and turned back to his customers, trying not to think about the conversation he was about to have with Katara.
All Katara had to do was introduce each singer, so during songs, she could relax and enjoy (if that was the word for it…) the performances. True to his word, Sokka had brought his friends along, and aside from eating every macaron they had in stock, a few had even heckled each other into singing. Two of them, whose names Katara couldn’t recall, had performed an off-key duet that had the whole place in stitches; another had purposely botched “Careless Whisper” to entertain a cute girl in the front row. (Katara smirked when she saw him walk up onstage, because that woman, though she looked young, was a regular customer who she happened to know was twenty-three. Good luck with that one, she almost told him.) But, though the turnout was good, none of the gang had performed yet, and Katara intended to remedy that.
“Hey, Aang, why don’t you sing?” she suggested, knowing that Aang had the confidence to get up there if he so chose.
“Only if you sing with me,” he’d said, though, and she wasn’t about to let him rope her into a duet (he’d pick something embarrassing on purpose), so he was a lost cause.
“Toph?” she tried next. Toph just glared at her.
“Oh, come on,” she sighed. “Guys! You gotta-”
“Hey Sokka!” Toph cut her off, calling him over from the group he was standing with. “I’ll give you twenty bucks if you serenade Suki!”
“Twenty bucks?” Sokka’s eyes bugged out. “What song?”
“Anything you want,” she said with what Katara assumed was supposed to be an “aren’t-I-generous” expression. “There’s one person in front of you, but after she goes, I wanna see you up there.”
“You’re on, little dude.” Sokka patted Toph’s shoulder. “Easiest twenty bucks I’ve ever made!”
Katara rolled her eyes, but she couldn’t pretend she wasn’t looking forward to this.
“ And I! Ee-I! Ee-I! Will allll-ways love youuuuuuu!”
Even Suki looked about ready to jam in a pair of earplugs and call it a night by the time Sokka belted out the final chorus of “I Will Always Love You,” throwing one arm out to gesture towards his girlfriend with the theatrical flair of a drunk musical theater major. Toph actually was covering her ears, Katara would have retreated to a back room long ago if she hadn’t been filming the blackmail footage of the century, and Aang looked extremely uncomfortable. Suki, though, had a slightly lovestruck expression in spite of the obvious pain on her face that Katara swore she would never understand.
When the song was finally over, Sokka stepped off the stage to the enthusiastic shouts of his teammates, who’d inexplicably but wholeheartedly embraced the idea of karaoke night for all it was worth. (They’d also ordered countless drinks, which had to have been great for business.) It was weird, but Katara had to admit that it warmed her heart to see this event bringing people together. The shop, though crowded, felt cozy like this, full of people enjoying each other’s company along with their boba and macarons. Crutches aside, it was exactly what Katara had envisioned, and she briefly wondered if Zuko was thinking the same thing-
In her excitement, she’d forgotten that she had told Zuko they were going to talk. They hadn’t seen a lot of each other, since he’d been manning the register all night, but with a lull in drink purchases as the night wound down, she thought this would be as good a time as any to have this conversation. Not wanting to crutch across the whole store, she opted to text him.
Hey, can we talk now? Back room?
He caught her eye across the room a few seconds later and nodded, and they made their way to the back. A pair of older couples who’d come together were singing The Crystals’ “And Then He Kissed Me” as they left, a choice so apropos that it made Katara wish she could blend into the walls and stay there for a while where no one would see her, but their voices got further and further away as they walked. Zuko shut the door behind them when they reached the back and for a moment they just stood there, facing each other and not saying a word.
Then Katara couldn’t take it anymore. “I’m not in trouble,” she blurted out. “Gran-Gran bought what I said about falling down the stairs, and Sokka doesn’t hate you, and everything is fine. I’m not mad. You don’t have to think-”
“Katara, it’s okay.” He tried to smile reassuringly, but he looked a little too nervous to pull it off. “I wasn’t worried.”
(This was a blatant lie.)
“Oh, right. I’m not either!” Katara said a little too brightly.
(This was also a blatant lie.)
They froze again. Zuko stared at Katara, and Katara stared at the wall. Neither knew quite where to go from there.
“I guess I just wanna know if you meant it,” Katara finally told him. “What you said that night. Before we...you know.”
Zuko nodded. “I did. All of it.” A stiff blush rose in his cheeks.
“I did too,” Katara said shyly, staring at a different wall this time. “In case you were wondering.” She finally found the wherewithal to look back up at him. “So...what now?”
“I don’t know.” Zuko shrugged helplessly. “I don’t get how this is supposed to work.”
“Do we date? Do we pretend Saturday night never happened?” Katara asked. “Like...where do we go from here?”
“I, um.” Zuko looked down at his shoes, so adorably bashful that Katara would’ve kissed him on the spot if they were anywhere else. “Well, I don’t want to pretend it didn’t happen…”
“Good,” Katara said. “I don’t either. So...do you wanna…”
Zuko nodded. “Yeah. I’d like that.”
Katara’s face shone like sunlight through the clouds. “I would too!” she said. “I mean. We don’t have to be like Suki and Sokka-”
“But...I do want to be with you,” Katara admitted, meeting his eyes. They shared a small, tentative smile. “So what would you say to trying it?”
“You’re sure your brother won’t kill me?”
Katara rolled her eyes. “Zuko, he wants me to be happy. As long as I don’t get into any more fights over you” - Zuko cringed and Katara wished she hadn’t mentioned it - “he’s gonna support us.”
“And you don’t care that I’m graduating?” Zuko asked.
“Are you trying to convince me not to date you, Zuko?”
“No! No, I’m sorry, just... gaah. I’m so bad at this!” Zuko rubbed his palm across his forehead. “Of course I want to be with you, Katara. But I’m not used to good things just... happening like this.”
Katara couldn’t speak for a moment. She’d never heard him speak so openly about his feelings, or for that long, and she was really rather floored, but she had to come up with something to say, so she went with “well, you deserve them,” before staring at the floor again.
“So...um. Am I supposed to ask you to be my girlfriend now?” Zuko asked, a little embarrassed at his own outburst.
“You can.” Katara smiled shyly. “If you want.”
“Okay, then.” Zuko cleared his throat. “Uh-”
Katara knew this would be painfully awkward and stepped in. Realizing she’d recovered a little bit of brain function, she decided to go the extra mile. “So, if we’re gonna make it official, wanna make it official- official?”
“Explain, please.” Zuko caught the hint of teasing in his tone and followed suit, crossing her arms.
“So, if you wanna be my boyfriend, raise your right hand and repeat after me.”
Zuko obediently raised his hand.
“That’s your left hand,” Katara pointed out, rolling her eyes. “You’re such a dork.”
“You love it,” he teased, wondering where this sudden smoothness was coming from when he’d been too awkward to string together coherent sentences just a few moments before.
“Perhaps.” Katara smirked and raised her right hand. “Okay, repeat after me. I, Zuko, want to be Katara’s boyfriend-”
Zuko switched hands. “I, Zuko, want to be Katara’s boyfriend.”
Katara grinned - no guileful smirk this time, just pure elation - and continued. “And swear to uphold said relationship for as long as is possible.”
“And swear to uphold said relationship for as long as possible,” he repeated. “So, uh...are we a thing now?”
“Again. Dork.” She rolled her eyes fondly. “Yeah, I...guess we are. Which brings me to my next question.”
“Yeah?” Zuko was right back to staring at the floor.
“On Saturday...were you actually going to kiss me?”
“Were you actually going to kiss me?” Zuko asked. She’d never seen him look more mortified, and for a guy who’d just sworn a ‘legally-binding’ oath to date her, that was...actually rather impressive.
“I mean, yeah, I think so,” Katara admitted. “Did I...were you...did I misread?”
Zuko swallowed hard. “No, uh...you didn’t.”
“So you were going to kiss me. Just to confirm? Yes or no?” Katara said, wishing she could stay quiet for once in her life. Her heart was kicking insistently at her ribcage and she was sure Zuko could hear it.
Zuko paused for a moment, wondering if there was a way out of this and quickly realizing that there wasn’t. “Um. Yeah. I mean, yes, I was going to kiss you.”
“Um.” Katara “Do you wanna…”
“Do I…” Zuko took a moment to get it. “Oh! Um. Sure?”
“Uh...cool!” Katara shrugged. “So, do you-”
“I’ve never kissed anyone,” Zuko admitted. “You?”
“Yeah, but it sucked, so.” Katara stubbed the toe of her ballet flat against the concrete floor. “Not sure if we want to go by that.”
“It’s okay. We can figure it out.” Zuko smiled reassuringly, taking a few steps towards her to bridge the distance between them. “So, what do I do with my hands?”
“Yeah.” Katara looked down at the floor, then took his hand. “So, um, I’ve always loved that thing they do in movies where the guy, like, puts his hand in the girl’s hair” - she moved his hand to place it behind her ear, tucked into her hair near the nape of her neck. “Like this. Is that, um. Is that okay?”
“Like this?” Zuko shifted his hand to bury it in her hair, cradling her neck. “Yeah, um...that’s good. Both hands or just this one?”
“Uh...just do whatever you want with the other hand,” Katara said, her cheeks flushing crimson. “Do you want me to do anything?”
“Uh...no, just whatever works. You’re the one with all the experience.”
“Zuko, making out with Jet in the backseat of his car after a football game does not count-”
Zuko looked mildly ill. “Um. I’m gonna try my best to forget you told me that.”
“Good idea.” Katara cringed. “Anyway. Do you want me to, like…” she looped her arms around his waist. “That?”
“Yeah. Yeah, that’d be perfect.” Zuko cupped her chin in his free hand to raise her face to his. “Ready?”
She nodded. “Ready.”
For a moment, they didn’t move. They could faintly hear the sounds of a customer’s smoky voice belting out a love song that neither of them had ever heard, and both were frozen in the moment.
But something shifted in the millisecond they stayed that way, and Katara leaned forwards and brushed her lips against his, barely a peck, before she pulled away. A panicked expression crossed her face - why did I do that so badly? - just as an elated expression crossed Zuko’s, and, using the hand he’d raised to her chin to pull her back in, he kissed her again, clumsy and slow but undeniably sweet. Her arms tightened around his waist and he threaded his fingers through her hair, moving his free hand back to cradle her head on the other side.
It was slow and careful, too new to risk overstepping any boundaries, but to Katara, it felt electric. More than any of the past kisses she’d been too eager to forget, she felt the touch of his lips in every inch of her body, lighting up at his touch like he’d flipped a switch. It felt right, exhilarating, knowing she could languish in this moment forever without having to worry that it’d come back to hurt her. She knew she was giving him her heart along with that kiss, that she could trust him with it, and the knowledge was intoxicating. She shifted her right hand from his waist to his shoulder, pulling him in closer.
Kissing Zuko was perfection.
Even as the intensity of the kiss grew, Zuko felt more comfort than anything. Katara’s touch was feather-light and impossibly gentle, her lips soft with what tasted like strawberry Chapstik. As much as Zuko had thought he’d feel like he was on fire whenever he’d pictured his first kiss, the fire he felt was more of a comforting blaze in a fireplace on a winter’s day than the raging wildfire he’d expected. It was safety and belonging, challenge and victory. It was easy but thrilling, exciting and solacing. It was hunger and fulfilment, adventure and homecoming. He freed one hand to stroke his thumb along her jawline.
Kissing Katara was everything.
They pulled away after three minutes of eternity, shaken and elated all at once.
“You’re good at that” was all a dazed, breathless Katara could manage.
(This was a blatant truth.)
“Only because I’m kissing the right person,” Zuko replied.
(This was also a blatant truth.)
I normally write kisses with zero detail because I've never kissed anyone (I KNOW, I'm 18 and haven't been kissed yet, shut up) and don't know how to write them, but I felt like this one deserved a little more effort. Please forgive the blatant purple prose here, yikes.
Chapter 13: Make This Place Your Home
In which the honeymoon phase occurs.
*written by both of the authors!*
This chapter has zero relevance to the boba shop plot, and it's mostly just fluff because yes, but Sofia and I were NEVER going to pass up such an easy opportunity to write 3k-ish words of Zuko being a snuggly little turtleduck. :)
Katara’s week was passing in a haze, cliché as it sounded. Things were going well, her ankle was on the mend, and…well, there was always the small matter of her boyfriend.
No, she couldn’t deny that she truly was becoming a cliché, but she couldn’t think of Zuko without smiling - she almost couldn’t believe that this was happening, they were happening - and feeling a happy flutter in her stomach that she tried to ignore but secretly loved. They’d barely seen each other, with school and work being so hectic that they’d barely been able to get a word in, or anything more satisfying than a quick peck on the cheek before closing, but they’d texted.
(That was probably why Zuko was openly staring as she walked into the shop on a Friday afternoon wearing the oversized red hoodie he’d given her over her favorite jeans with her hair pulled back into a loose ponytail. Katara blushed a little, but couldn’t deny that she loved his attention, the way he looked at her like she was a mystery to be solved and a treasure to be cherished all at once.)
"I missed you at school today," he said softly, not letting his eyes wander away from her for an instant.
"I skipped lunch to help Aang practice a presentation,” Katara explained. “And, I mean...we literally talked yesterday. But I missed you too.”
(She was still getting the hang of the whole sweet-nothings thing.)
"Texting isn't the same," Zuko replied with a shrug, getting started on the tapioca pearls. Apparently he’d exhausted his “sensitive-comments” quota for the moment with his opening line, which Katara was perfectly fine with. She loved it when he was sweet, but she often found it hard to respond.
"It was a long time, though,” Katara reminded him. “We stayed up late enough for my brother to yell at me to get off my phone.”
Zuko looked a little bit alarmed at that - he’d never quite gotten over his fear of Sokka’s older-brotherly wrath. “How did he know?” he asked, a little tense. “Did he just walk into your room at night?"
"No,we share a room. He's just a big baby who can't sleep when my phone is turned on.” Katara rolled her eyes while Zuko dropped his to the floor.
“Oh, sorry,” he mumbled, staring guiltily into the pan where he was boiling sugar syrup.
"Don't worry about it,” Katara said, turning to leave and work the register for a while. Zuko caught her braid and gently tugged - stay, he seemed to be insisting - and Katara laughed.
"What are you doing? I need to work!" she protested playfully, turning to face him with her arms crossed. He pulled Katara closer, playing with a strand of her hair again. He was watching her intently now, with a soft, admiring expression, and it took him a second to string words together.
"You look really good today,” he said, blushing but not breaking eye contact. “I...like that you kept that.” Zuko played with the drawstrings on her (his, really) sweatshirt, which made her heartbeat go crazy. Katara wasn't really sure if he meant to be flirty sometimes or if this awkward admiration was just his way of doing things, but she found it endearing anyways.
“Like I’d ever give this up.” She leaned in to quickly kiss him (that was a new thing that katara liked, being able to kiss Zuko as long as no one around to watch them) and pulled away a moment later, because she really did need to work. "There are clients waiting, so I gotta go. Don't let the tapioca burn!”
And she walked away, leaving a flustered Zuko and a pot of burning tapioca.
"Can I join you?" Zuko said, rubbing his good eye as Katara looked up from her phone at the sound of his voice. She'd been sitting on a worn brown leather armchair in the southwestern corner of the shop with her feet tucked beneath her, waiting for the last customer to leave so they could close.
"Sure,” she said, scooting over to make room for him. The seat wasn't meant for two so she was practically sitting on his lap; for a moment, she didn’t know what to make of that, but Zuko seemed to, wrapping his arm around her. For someone so hesitant to so much as look at a stranger, Zuko had become very affectionate with her now that they were together; it was as if he was touch starved, which he probably was. Katara eagerly snuggled under his arm, grateful for the cue that she could show him how she felt.
"You're warm,” she mumbled, burrowing her face in the crook of his neck.
"I know. It's annoying.” He shifted, grabbing her free hand and covering it with his. Katara shifted and looked up at him, meeting his eyes with a soft smile.
"No, I like it,” she said softly. “Did you close?"
"Uncle Iroh is doing that,” Zuko said, just as the latter walked into the room. Katara, startled and blushing, fled from his arms to the edge of the loveseat, taking a seat on the arm in a rather weak “act natural” pose.
"Okay, closed," the old man started, giving Zuko and Katara a once-over. Both were blushing like mad, though they were no longer touching. He chuckled. “Well, are you going to tell me what this is all about, or do I have to drag it out of you?”
Katara stood up, and Zuko followed her, taking her hand. She was touched at the gently assertive gesture and gave his hand a little squeeze. Iroh looked them over with a knowing smile.
“We, uh…” Zuko started, scratching the back of his neck with his free hand. “We’re...together, Uncle. Me and Katara. Like...dating.”
"I know it’s unprofessional, and we didn’t mean for it to happen,” Katara joined in, hoping to do a little damage control. “But...it kind of just did.” She knew under normal circumstances this could have gotten her fired - conflict of interest, perhaps - but she knew Iroh, and she doubted he’d do that. Still, though, she had to be careful.
“And I’m glad it did.” He smiled at them. “I’ve seen the way you are around each other. If this makes you happy...what’s professionalism got on that?”
“Thank you so much,” Katara said, relief washing over her. “I was worried-”
Iroh waved her off. “Nonsense! Would you like to join Zuko and I for dinner?”
And that was how Katara ended up in the backseat of a car with her boyfriend and his uncle, laughing at some story Iroh was telling while zuko stared out the window, blushing. She pulled out her phone and texted her brother before she forgot: hanging out at Zuko’s, will be home late.
Sokka was quick to reply: okay, stay out of trouble.
Katara rolled her eyes at her brother's response, sure he was hanging out with Suki too. Zuko's house was homier than she remembered, though to be fair she'd only seen it once, a few weeks back when she was still hyped up on adrenaline and in enough pain not to remember much about the house. But it had a warm light to it and nice decor, and even some pictures of Zuko and Azula as little kids in matching taekwondo dobok. (Katara couldn't help but coo at them, much to Zuko's embarrassment.) She wandered up and down the halls, stopping to admire each framed photo on the walls, while they waited for their food delivery to arrive.
"You were a really cute as a baby, what happened?" she teased, which got a little laugh out of Zuko. Her heart swelled - everytime she made him laugh it kind of felt like a victory and she wished she was better at telling jokes, because seeing him happy was everything.
"Life happened," He sighed, making Katara wince.
“Don’t worry, you’re still cute,” she hastily reassured him with a quick peck on the nose. His face heated, but he didn’t seem to mind. A few feet down the hall, Katara pointed at a picture of a young man who looked a little older than Zuko. "Who's this?"
"That's my cousin,” he replied, dropping his voice to a whisper. "He passed away not long ago."
Katara's eyes widened. "I'm so sorry," she said, hushed. She hadn’t even known that Iroh had a son; it broke her heart to think of the kind old man suffering such a devastating loss.
"It's okay, I didn't really know him that well,” Zuko said, taking her hand and giving it a squeeze.
"I’m still sorry," Katara said, and they lapsed into silence. It dawned on her once again that there was still so much she didn't know about him: she hadn’t yet thought it appropriate to ask the questions she’d had since they met. She wondered how he’d gotten his scar, why he lived with Iroh and not his parents, where Azula lived if not with them and why they were in two different places.
But she didn’t ask - she was afraid asking would put a strain on their relationship even though she knew she’d answer his questions in a heartbeat if he asked about her own home life.
But any thoughts she may have had were quickly extinguished by the arrival of their Thai takeout, and the two rushed to the kitchen, lured by the delicious smell of pad thai. They shared a container, sitting next to each other and alternating bites as Iroh chattered away across the table. He talked about anything and everything, questions about their classes alternating with anecdotes about difficult customers who’d dropped in while the kids were off work. Both were polite, but neither said much; Iroh had enough to say for the three of them, though Katara did engage him in a spirited argument about which of the two possible boyfriends of their favorite TV show’s protagonist should end up with. Every so often she and Zuko would glance at each other and just...smile.
It was that easy. No need for words, for touch - just faces softened and lit in each other’s company, their messages clear as day. I’m glad you’re here and so am I; isn’t he crazy and you know we both love him; you look beautiful and so do you. When their food was done, Zuko reached for her hand under the table - it was buried in the excess fabric of his sweatshirt, far too long for Katara’s arms. She pulled the cuff back when she felt his fingertips brush her wrist and grabbed his hand like it was driftwood and she was lost at sea.
And her heart beat out: home. home. home.
Because that was all this moment felt like. This brightly-lit, cozy kitchen filled with the warmth and laughter of a tiny family welcoming a newcomer with open arms felt a million times more like a home than her own ever did. Hers was all bickering with Sokka and Gran-Gran’s heart medication on the counter, a constant reminder of all that wasn’t quite right, and a fridge that was never very full - not out of lack of money but because no one but Katara would ever shop and she’d been run too ragged to do it some weeks. She loved her family dearly, but it had been a long time since there was any warmth in that little apartment of theirs. Here, she felt it in spades, practically radiating from every surface.
And, leaning tentatively into the shoulder of a boy too in love to resist but shy to say he adored her, across the table from a man almost as fond of her in a different way and endlessly willing to open his home to a newcomer in need of an escape from the gloom, Katara knew these two felt precisely the same way.
They ended up in Zuko’s room after that, unwilling to say goodbye too soon. Katara almost smirked at the way things had shaped up - remember the last time we were in here and I was wearing this sweatshirt? - as they settled against his pillows, Katara curled into Zuko’s side while his laptop sat on his knees, playing a movie he didn’t seem to be paying much attention to. Katara watched attentively, but he seemed absent-minded and she finally noticed when he paused the movie, moving his computer to the side, and spoke up.
“Katara?” he asked.
He paused, perhaps wondering if he should continue, but he did. “Why do you like me?”
Katara’s lips quirked up at the corners, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes. “Why do you ask?” she asked, running her fingers back and forth across his wrist from the spot where their hands lay clasped against his thigh.
“Because I don’t get it,” he said, his voice almost fragile. “You’re... you. And I’m...me. And I don’t get-”
“Zuko.” She pulled away and sat up so she could look him in the eyes. “What are you talking about? ”
"I don't know. I’m just not the type of person people like," he deflected, moving towards her to pull her back towards him. Katara’s heart melted at the simple vulnerability of the gesture, the way he craved her affection like sleep at the end of a long day. She was all too glad to take him into her arms, wrapping her arms around him as he rested his head against her shoulder.
“You are ,” she insisted, placing her hands on each side of his face and softly pressing her lips to his forehead. He leaned into her touch like a cat might. "You might not see it, but you're...really cool. And kind, and sweet, and…” she paused for a moment, unsure if she should go on. “...hot."
"You think I’m hot?"
"Of course," Katara said, laughing softly and ruffling his hair. She never got sick of playing with Zuko’s hair - it was soft, and he looked so much younger, so much happier, when she did. "What’s this about, anyway?"
Zuko pulled away from her and lay back down against the pillows, crossing his arms. “It's stupid. Some jerks were just talking in class. I mean. About you, how they can't believe you're dating a freak like me, because you're perfect and-"
Katara sat up and locked eyes with him, her gaze fiercely protective and firmly chastising. “You're not a freak."
The hesitation in his voice broke her heart, but she also wanted to disavow him of the idea as fast as he could. "Self pity is not a good look on you, Zuko," she said, cuddling up close to him and just leaning into his embrace for a moment. He clung to her like she’d found exactly what he needed, and after a moment she cupped his cheeks in both hands and leaned up to kiss his temple. He sighed contentedly and buried his face in her shirt and she pressed her lips to the crown of his head.
Something in her reaction must’ve been right because he sat up abruptly until his face was just inches above hers, supporting himself with his arms on both sides of her torso where she lay propped up against the pillows. He met her eyes and brought one supporting hand up to cup her chin, tilting it towards him as she held her gaze with one full of such simple devotion that Katara’s breath caught in her throat. They held that gaze for a moment, Katara ignoring his hair falling in her face as a soft smile overtook her features and her frantic heart rate - which she was sure he could feel, given their proximity - beat out another clear signal: kiss me, kiss me, kiss me.
And after a moment, he raised her face to his and brushed his lips against her. Their kisses were gentle, soft, but without any of the awkwardness of their first or the heat of their second (stolen behind the boy’s locker room in the single instance in which they’d been able to meet at school this week); she kissed him like they had all the time in the world and he kissed her back like he could spend an eternity kissing her and still not have had his fill. Her wrists notched behind his neck and his returned to her sides, holding him up because he was a little too euphoric not to fall if he didn’t. It was as cliché a kiss as Katara could imagine - wearing his sweatshirt, leaning back against his pillows, soft and patient as could be - but it was...well. Magical, if she were to be honest with herself. It was closeness and warmth in a world all their own.
“Thank you, Katara,” Zuko said softly - a little breathlessly - after she’d pulled away and pulled herself into his lap, leaning against his chest. (Now it was his turn to stroke her hair and she understood why he loved it, now - it was comforting like almost nothing else she’d experienced.)
“For what?” she mumbled. He was so warm, and the safety and comfort she felt made it almost impossible to stay awake after a long day.
“Taking a chance on me,” he said simply. “You’re the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time, you know that?”
“Aww, Zuko,” she mumbled sleepily, pulling herself up to reach his face again. Zuko pressed his finger to her lips to hold her back before she kissed him again and she pouted.
“We can do that tomorrow,” he said gently. “You’re tired. Just rest.”
And, here in her safe place, Katara did just that.
Chapter 14: Publicity Stunts
In which Sokka gets himself involved in one of Jasmine Dragon's more ambitious promotional stunts and Katara is becoming a frequent dinner guest.
It's kind of eating me up inside that Azula dropped out of the story after the fight, as was the "how are Zuko and Katara hanging out so much if she's so busy?" stuff, so I'm throwing in some mentions of that stuff to satisfy the "don't introduce something you won't pay off" rule. Also, dancing pineapple time! If you couldn't tell, this chapter is all over the place.
In addition, if the macaron argument makes you wonder, this is an ube macaron: https://smoergasbord.wordpress.com/2017/04/27/filipino-inspired-flavors-ube-macarons/
And yes, Zuko's love of the *purple* macaron flavor is definitely symbolic. :p
“Nuh-uh. I am not going out in public in this thing.”
“Sokka, you already signed off on it.” Katara crossed her arms over her chest and her eyes darted from her brother to the costume in his arms and back. “Do I need to explain again why-”
“Trendy new menu item means more customers means more money. Yup. Got it.” Sokka glared at her. “But do tell, why does that mean I have to wear this? I don’t even work here!”
“It’s free advertising,” Katara explained exhaustedly. “You wearing that thing draws people’s attention, they read your sign and see that we’re selling Dole Whip now, we make sales - you know what, forget it. You have an A in AP Microecon! Why is this so hard for you to grasp?”
“And you’re getting paid, Sokka,” Zuko pointed out. “It’s not like we’re making you do this for free.”
“Oh, really?” Sokka lifted the limp costume for emphasis. “If it’s that easy, I’d like to see you run around in a freakin’ pineapple suit for $10 an hour!”
“Actually, so would I.” Katara smirked, elbowing her boyfriend’s ribs. “What do you think, Zuko? Wanna be our official Dole Whip promoter?”
Zuko looked green and Katara, still smirking at his expense (their relationship was beginning to shift from its clingy-as-limpets honeymoon phase to one they couldn’t quite name, but which consisted primarily of the two teasing each other relentlessly one second and making out the next), leaned in to kiss his cheek. Now it was Sokka’s turn to look green.
“You know what, just for that, I’m doing this.” Sokka shook his head as he walked away to put on his pineapple costume, muttering something about having the decency not to give his sister the satisfaction of seeing her boyfriend in this getup.
“I told you he’d do it,” Katara said primly, crossing her arms again, this time with an air of superiority.
“...so I drive around the corner,” Suki told the group, all of whom were hanging on her words. “Just listening to my music, unaware that anything is going on. And then I happen to glance out my passenger window and guess what I see?”
“Truly, I have no idea,” Katara deadpanned, a delighted (if slightly evil) smirk betraying her attempt at nonchalance. “Tell us, what did your eyes look upon?”
Zuko shook his head fondly from his now-regular place beside Katara at their group’s lunch table. It had taken a moment for them to get used to the idea of his presence there - especially Sokka, who looked like he wanted to die every time he saw them together - but he had a spot now, and the group always seemed to enjoy his company. Today, their intertwined hands rested against his thigh beneath the table; Katara counted it as progress that their comfort level together was such that neither of them gave their position away by blushing.
“...my boyfriend, wearing a pineapple costume and dancing on a street corner with a Jasmine Dragon sign!” Suki crowed, to the delight of the rest of their friends. Neither Aang nor Toph had known about Sokka’s role in Jasmine Dragon Tea & Treats’ latest publicity stunt.
“It was a promotion,” Katara rushed to explain. “Supposed to bring in customers. He said he’d help out if we paid him before we actually told him what he’d be helping with.”
“Oh, it was the best,” Suki cackled. “I’ll never forget the look on his face when I rolled down my window and he saw me filming him at the next red light.”
“I wish I could see,” Toph replied mournfully. “I’d give anything to watch him make a fool out of himself!”
“I truly hate all of you.” Sokka slid into his usual seat beside Suki with his tray of food, evidently figuring out what the group had been on about quickly.
“Wait, why?” Aang’s face scrunched up in confusion. “What does a pineapple costume have to do with selling boba?”
“See? This one gets it!” Sokka cried indignantly, gesticulating wildly with a lukewarm chicken finger. “What does it-”
“We sell Dole Whip now,” Zuko interjected. “Hence the pineapple.”
“Oh, like at Disneyland?” Toph perked up. “Love that stuff.”
“Yeah, we’re hoping that’s how a lot of people will feel,” Katara replied. Zuko bumped her shoulder with his in what he hoped was a clear want to cuddle? signal; thankfully, Katara got it, snuggling up against his side as he opened his arm to her. Sokka looked sick again. “Right, Zuko?”
“Right,” he replied, gently squeezing her arm. “A lot of our promotional stuff so far has worked. I think it’s mostly because of the social media presence, but we’re doing a little better. Hopefully this goes just as well.”
“I just gotta say that I love that your strategy for saving the shop involves making Sokka wear a pineapple outfit.” Suki smirked, ruffling Sokka’s hair (he’d worn it down today, probably because it was a well-known fact that Suki preferred it that way). He crossed his arms, a disgruntled expression fighting its way past the amusement on his face.
“Hey, if any of y’all want to, uh...make a connection,” he said, scratching the back of his neck in embarrassment after a moment, “I got, like, six girls who randomly came up to me and gave me their numbers-”
“ Sokka!” Suki smacked his arm. “Don’t tell me you were encouraging this!”
“Oh, no, don’t worry.” Now it was Sokka’s turn to smirk. “I ran them off.”
“How?” Katara asked, sharing a slightly worried glance with Zuko that made Sokka feel irrationally angry. He made up his mind not to let this stand.
“I gave them Zuko’s number instead of mine,” he said nonchalantly.
“We’re going to have to start setting a place for you, Katara!” Iroh commented as they sat down to dinner (tacos tonight) at their house after the evening shift. She grinned back, though whether she was smiling at his words or the sight of her dinner was unclear.
“It’s your nephew’s fault,” she joked. “He keeps on inviting me back.”
Zuko flushed, which made Katara flush in kind, because they were comfortable enough now in the second month of their relationship that the ability to make Zuko’s face redden was a rarity that she rather cherished. “You’re the one who keeps saying that you don’t have time to get groceries,” he protested weakly.
“And I sincerely hope you won’t stop.” She leaned up to kiss his temple, which really made him blush. He looked like he wanted to fall through the floor and Katara made a mental note of that - not in front of Iroh.
“Don’t worry, I’ll see to it that he doesn’t,” Iroh replied, diplomatically ignoring the exchange. “A student like you shouldn’t have to be worrying about keeping house. It’s the least we can do for my best employee.”
“Yeah, I’m not even going to deny that.” Zuko shrugged. A month ago, he would’ve been rather irked by a comment like that, but now he was almost proud - proud that his girlfriend had taken something that meant so much to his family to heart, proud that someone who excelled at everything she tried the way Katara did had wanted to be with a mess like him. Just being around Katara - whether they were working, eating dinner, watching a movie, or silently doing their homework side-by-side on the couch because both needed to study but neither wanted to leave the comforting presence of the other yet - made him feel like he’d done something right.
“Nah, I think that has to be the guy who does the baking,” Katara deflected. “The day employee...what’s his name?”
“Oh, Mr. Piandao?” Iroh asked. “Azula used to do most of it, but…” he trailed off.
They all knew what had happened to Azula. It had been a touch difficult to ignore the screaming match born of Iroh’s announcement that he couldn’t risk business operations by keeping on an employee who’d engaged in fisticuffs with another employee and would likely cause no end of problems for her if she stayed.
It had also been difficult to ignore the fact that she now worked at the Tapioca Express across town, a decision so utterly Azula that it had to have been out of spite.
“Anyway. Yeah, Mr. Piandao.” Katara paused to take a bite of her carnitas taco, her eyelids fluttering shut with pleasure. “ Man, this place is good. Anyway. He’s definitely your best employee. Those matcha cheesecake macarons he made last week... ”
“I’m partial to his Mandarin orange ones, myself,” Iroh replied.
“This is ube erasure,” Zuko cut in. “It’s obviously the best flavor.”
“Ube? Have you lost your mind?” Katara glared at him, feigning indignance; she couldn’t hold it for long and burst into giggles after a few seconds. “I just...it’s purple! Who wants to eat purple food?”
“Um. Sane people,” Zuko said. “With taste.”
“You’re accusing your own girlfriend of having bad taste?” she crossed her arms. “Do you realize what that sounds like?”
Iroh chuckled. “Careful, Zuko. She’ll talk you into a corner if you’re not careful.”
A month ago, Zuko would’ve made some depressingly self-deprecating comment, but he didn’t now. He just shook his head and kept eating.
A month ago he would’ve done a lot of things, wouldn’t have done a lot of others. But “would” and “wouldn’t,” “can” and “can’t,” “should” and “shouldn’t” looked different now.
He wondered if that was love.
"Oh, and I've been meaning to mention," Iroh continued before Zuko had a chance to answer that question. "We both have small families, so if your family wants to join ours for Thanksgiving next week, you're more than welcome."
Katara's heart fluttered. Thanksgiving? That's so official. "I have to check with Gran-Gran, but Sokka's not going to object to anything that involves free meat, and my dad's finally going to be in town and he won't want to cook, so I think...probably?"
Iroh shot his nephew a you're-welcome look. "We'll be looking forward to it."
The pointy corner of Katara’s AP Chemistry textbook poked Zuko’s thigh. He tried not to wince, but it was sharp, and it had poked that exact spot at least six times in the last hour.
She’d wanted to study here, which...well, of course Zuko didn’t object to. She needed to study and rarely had time to do so during the day, what with student government and Impact Club. Besides, being home always seemed to put a damper on her mood - though he suspected it was more loneliness than anything, as they’d hung out at her apartment once and she’d seemed happier with him there than she described herself as being when she was home by herself - and he’d do anything to make her happy. That was an established fact and one he was proud to verify. But hauling around a clunky textbook, sitting so close that her crossed knee bumped his thigh and so did the book sitting on it…
Well, he wasn’t focusing on his English homework, that was for sure.
“Sorry, am I poking you?” Katara asked, glancing up from her reading. Her reading glasses - the ones he’d only recently learned that she wore (and the ones she looked impossibly adorable in) - had begun to slip down her nose, and he gently pushed them back up.
“It’s okay,” he muttered, because now he was looking at her, and he already knew that would be the end of any hope he had of being productive tonight. “Doesn’t hurt.”
“It definitely does,” Katara said. “You were grimacing.”
“‘s’okay,” he mumbled, utterly distracted now as Katara took one of the hands he’d removed from her face and pressed her cheek into it so it was sandwiched between the soft, chilly skin of her cheek on one side and the warmth of her hand on the other. His heart stuttered.
“I hope this isn’t weird,” she said. “You’re just so warm.”
“Your face is freezing,” he said softly, bringing his free hand up to cup her other cheek and brushing the pads of his thumbs across her cheekbones. She closed her eyes, a tiny sigh escaping her lips. “Why do you let yourself get so cold?”
“Can’t help it,” she muttered, her textbook clattering to the floor as she uncrossed her legs and moved in closer. Her legs lay perpendicular to his now, stretching across his lap, and she smirked, noticing that Zuko’s face was on fire. There was nothing but innocence in the gesture but it was so unfamiliar that he seemed at a loss as to what to do. “Besides, you have enough body heat for, like, three people.”
“Mm-hm,” he muttered absentmindedly, unaware of anything except the fact that Katara was practically sitting in his lap.
“Something wrong, babe?” Katara teased, fully alert now. Perhaps, she thought, she should’ve been slightly more worried about how much she enjoyed flustering him, but it was just too good an opportunity to pass up.
And now the full weight of her words and did she just call me that? and I think she did and what do I do? and do I say it back? hit him dead-on, and Zuko looked like he might not ever recover as he croaked out “no” and Katara began to laugh and laugh and laugh because his face was priceless-
And then he surged forwards with a resolve she’d never seen him show before for anything, and fisted his hands in the fabric of her shirt and kissed her like he’d combust if he didn’t.
Katara could barely speak when they had to pull apart for air. “You like that, huh?” she asked once she finally regained her composure. “Good to know...babe.”
This time Zuko just smiled, and the simple joy on his face broke her heart because such an act of love as simple as giving a nickname shouldn’t have been such a novelty as to inspire this reaction. But it also made her heart leap, and her mind wonder how on earth her cranky coworker had become the center of her world in only three months.
“Mm-hm,” he finally said with a tiny nod, pulling her tight against his chest. (Warm, Katara thought, realizing he was right about her needing to stop getting so cold.) She settled in, her textbook still open to the page it had fallen to - Chapter 7: Equilibrium - but completely forgotten. She could stay like this for hours - had, on several occasions - just to marvel at how safe and warm she felt here.
She wondered if that was love.
But she never answered her own question because her phone rang, and she knew she couldn’t ignore it when Sokka’s name popped up on the screen. Sighing but not leaving the safe harbor of Zuko’s embrace, she answered.
“Yeah?” she asked. Phone etiquette was a bit of a nonstarter between the two.
“Katara, you gotta get home. Now.” Sokka’s voice was tight with panic and she was on her feet in a flash. This had to be bad.
“Why? What happened?” She exchanged worried glances with Zuko, who stood when she did.
Chapter 15: Lifeline
In which Gran-Gran's illness forces Katara to confront some long-repressed demons.
*written by @sofileall*
This is probably the first purely angsty chapter we've written. Buckle up. Sorry for the cliffhanger! It seems we got a bunch of new readers right after the cliffhanger, which seems to be a cruel twist of fate...SORRY, GUYS. I promise the Thanksgiving chapter, which I'm writing and which will also be angsty but not as much so as this one, will be up by tomorrow. :)
Also! I feel like Sofia doesn't get enough love for her contributions to this story because I'm the one posting it, and that's not fair because she's writing half of it and it wouldn't be nearly as amazing without her ideas. So y'all! Shower her with love in the comments! I promise she reads them too :)
Katara was used to shouldering crises. She was usually the one who was expected to keep calm as her brother and everyone else around her lost their heads, because someone had to remain unbothered, right? Someone had to make sure what needed to be done was done. The fact that she'd learned first aid as an extracurricular only cemented her status as the resident crisis expert in her life. That stretched back to her childhood: she’d always been the one to sit down and patch up the kids who sustained injuries in intense games of tag on the playground while the other kids ran at the sight of a little blood. She’d told herself she loved it: “it’s why I’m studying medicine. I have a good head in a crisis,” she told everyone who asked about her career ambitions.
But as Sokka explained that Gran-Gran had collapsed in the kitchen that night and he thought she’d had a heart attack, Katara couldn’t handle it anymore.
This time, she was close to losing her head too. Though she didn’t like to show it around Zuko, her stress levels had been through the roof already before she’d gotten Sokka’s call; her classes and student government were demanding so much of her time that she hadn't slept properly in days. She was unlikely to be able to stay calm and centered like she usually did.
And besides, this was different. This time there was a life at stake, and that of the person who raised her, no less.
"You called 911 already, right?" she asked Sokka on the phone, trying not to let panic seep into her voice.
"Of course. They're on their way,” Sokka replied. She could tell he was fighting to keep the edge from his voice.
"Tell her to hold on, okay?" Katara told him, her voice cracking. Zuko glanced over at her at least every ten seconds with concern written all over his face, which she did her best to ignore.
Once she’d hung up, Katara let her head drop until her forehead was resting atop her arms on the dashboard. Her breaths came in heavy and Zuko reached over to rest his hand on her forearm. "Breathe,” he told her. “I know this is scary, but she’s going to make it.”
Katara bit back tears. “How do you know?"
"Just trust me on this one, okay?” he squeezed her arm. “It’s okay to cry if you need to, but you gotta breathe.”
She couldn't. It felt like someone was stepping on her chest, like they'd entered an alternate dimension where nothing was right and something so awful could actually be happening. “I can’t,” she croaked, the tears she’d tried to hold back slipping down her face.
Zuko shifted to give her better access and she melted into his arms, neither one caring that she was leaning across the instrument panel with the gear shift poking into her side. “Can you breathe with me?” he asked, rubbing her back in slow, calming circles. “Like this. It’s a trick my uncle taught me when I was having nightmares as a kid. Inhale for three seconds-” he inhaled - “then hold for three seconds, then exhale for three seconds. Think you can do that?”
He demonstrated the breathing pattern, and Katara did her best to copy it, though her breaths were shakier than his as sobs threatened to break through.
“Good,” he murmured, folding her into his arms. “You’re doing good.”
They both knew they needed to get to the hospital, but he didn’t have the heart to make her peel herself out of his arms when she was so close to breaking. So they stayed in his car, listening to the rain patter against the windshield, breathing.
One-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three.
They arrived just as the paramedics did. Katara tried to rush to her grandmother’s side, but a paramedic stopped her as they wheeled the gurney she was lying on into the ambulance. “Gran-Gran!” she shouted, trying to fight her way through the crowd of paramedics hovering around Gran-Gran to no avail. “Can you hear me?”
“Miss, you need to back away,” one of the paramedics told her, but she elbowed her way past, breaking through the line. Another paramedic shot her a sympathetic look.
“Honey, I know how hard this is, and I’m so sorry, but you can’t be here right now,” she said gently.
"Is she going to be okay? Can I ride to the hospital with her, please?" Katara said, her voice strained with the effort it took not to cry.
“I’m sorry, but we can’t allow that,” the woman said soothingly. “We’re doing everything we can for your grandma.”
She was about to protest again when Sokka walked up to her, half restraining her and half hugging her. She could see he’d been crying, too, from the puffiness in his eyes, and the ride to the hospital felt hours long in the passenger seat of his car. No one spoke, except for a brief “dad’s flying home right now” from Sokka. And Katara didn't notice that she’d started crying again until they parked the car and her brother pulled her into his arms.
"She's going to be fine,” Sokka told her, rubbing her back the way Zuko had earlier. “Gran-Gran is the strongest person I know.”
"I know,” she replied tearfully. “But…”
"Dad’s about four hours out,” Sokka told her after a silent moment. “He should be back by the time she gets out of surgery.”
Katara held back down a sob, hiding in her brother's shoulder. Surgery - she’d heard too much about open-heart surgery not to feel panicked when she realized that Gran-Gran faced one. The risk was always there, and it dawned on her that dad might have to quit his job to take care of them if something happened to Gran-Gran. After losing a local job, he’d found decent work as a maritime engineer for a company that ran scientific expeditions, but his work often took him on months-long trips at sea, and even when he was back on land, most of his work was at the company headquarters a few hundred miles away. She tried her best not to think about it.
"What are going to do?" she asked, and Sokka didn’t know what to say.
Waiting rooms are the worst , Katara thought. Especially when you know that someone you love is fighting for their life on the other side of the doors and you didn't even get to say goodbye -
"Do you want coffee or water?" a sweet female voice distracted her from her thoughts. Suki, Katara quickly registered . She'd completely zoned out and hadn't even seen her come in.
“Water,” she said weakly, taking the bottle that Suki offered her. After she’d given her the water, Suki sat down next to Sokka, who leaned into her arm like she was the only thing holding him up; seeing her comfort Sokka, who was on the verge of tears himself, made her tear up again.
"How long have you been here?” she asked after a few sips of water made her feel a little stronger. Crying had worn her out and, apparently, dehydrated her a little bit. “And what are you doing here?"
"Like, fifteen minutes,” Suki replied. “I went out for snacks and you were zoned out like that. You sure you're okay? You scared me a little, all glassy-eyed.”
"As okay as I can be." She looked over to Sokka, who’d drifted off against Suki’s shoulder. How does he do that? Katara marveled, wondering how anyone could possibly sleep at a time like this.
"Good. I’m here for you guys, you know that, right?” Suki asked, leaning over to wordlessly press a kiss to Sokka’s hair. He stirred slightly but didn’t wake up and the tenderness of the moment made Katara feel like an intruder.
"You're the best.” Katara smiled weakly at her, pulling out her phone and struggling to unlock it with her shaky hands. Zuko had sent a few messages to check in and she realized she hadn’t updated him since she got here.
10:20 PM: I hope everything is okay, Katara
10:21 PM: keep me updated
10:23 PM: If you don't mind
Aang had sent a few concerned messages, too, and she replied Gran-Gran in surgery, heart attack, they won’t tell me anything else to each individually and then to their group chat. Suki heard her phone ding and looked up.
"You look exhausted,” she said. “Do you think you should sleep?”
Katara couldn’t deny that, so she nodded. “Maybe.”
Katara woke a few hours later with a crick in her neck to the feeling of someone gently shaking her awake.
“Katara,” a familiar voice said through the fog of her sleep. “Katara, Gran-Gran’s out of surgery. Wake up.”
Katara blinked a few times to clear her vision, which was still foggy with sleep. “Huh?” she mumbled, pushing her fallen glasses up her nose. Seemingly every part of her body ached from sleeping for hours in a waiting room chair.
“Gran-Gran’s okay,” the voice repeated, and that was enough to jolt her out of sleep. She sat bolt-upright and-
“Dad!” Katara cried, launching herself out of her chair so fast her head spun and throwing her arms around her father. “You made it!”
“And so did she,” her father repeated, holding her tight. “I missed you so much.”
“We missed you too,” she replied, breathing in the scent of the ocean that had long ago seeped into every piece of clothing he owned. She was too relieved to see him to be upset. “Gran-Gran’s okay?”
“Well, not exactly okay.” Her father let go of her. “She did just have surgery and that operation has a long recovery period. But she made it and she’s going to be okay eventually.”
Tears of relief stung Katara’s eyes. “Thank God,” she murmured. “I don’t think I’ve ever been more scared-”
“Wait.” Her father crossed his arms, his eyes shifting to Sokka and Suki, who were passed out on each other. “Who’s she?”
Katara just stared at him in disbelief for a moment. “You’ve met Suki, dad. You know her.”
“Suki? Is that her name?” her father scratched his head. “Huh. Could’ve sworn I’d never seen her before.”
“Dad. That’s Sokka’s girlfriend,” Katara explained, the irritation that she’d been stifling roaring back in full-force. “They’ve been together for two years. Didn’t you notice that the same girl was snuggled up to Sokka in every picture we sent you?” she was beginning to raise her voice, but she didn’t care. “How could you not know this kind of stuff? Suki’s been there for us more than you have!”
She froze, her heart thumping wildly as she took in the shocked expression on her father’s face. Tears sprang to her eyes all over again. “I’m sorry,” she gasped. “I shouldn’t have-”
“No, Katara, you’re right.” He couldn’t meet her eyes. “I can’t believe I missed that, either.”
She changed the subject. “Now...can I see Gran-Gran?”
"Do you think dad will make us go to school tomorrow?" Sokka asked on the way home. Their dad had decided to stay at the hospital with Gran-Gran, who wasn’t awake yet (he’d promised to call the moment she opened her eyes, which Katara didn’t quite believe he’d do). He’d insisted that Katara go home, so she’d reluctantly piled into Sokka’s car, feeling like she’d aged ten years overnight.
Katara groaned. Annoying her had always been her brother’s favorite coping mechanism, and it was always irritating, but right now it made her want to smack him. She felt a headache coming on and she didn't care for her brother's antics.
"I don't think so, but I want to go. It's not like he can stop me," Katara snapped. Sokka shot her a slightly worried look, sensing that something was seriously off about his sister for the first time that night.
(Sokka was, in many ways, a wonderful brother, but ‘perception’ could never be claimed to be one of his strengths.)
"Uhh, okay, but I don't think I would be able to focus,” he said, side-eyeing her. “Aren't you worried about Gran Gran?"
Katara shrugged. “Of course I am, but she’s stable, and we can’t let that stop us from going on. Gran-Gran would smack me if she heard that I let my worry for her keep me out of class.”
"Well, if dad says to stay home, I’m staying home,” Sokka replied. “I know you’re mad at him, Katara, but he really just wants what's best for us."
"I know he does, but he doesn’t exactly show it!" Katara snapped, grateful when Sokka parked the car so she could get out. She bundled up tightly in the down parka she’d been wearing all night, the biting chill of the night air almost refreshing. She didn't know why she was so angry, or why her heart seemed to want to beat right out of her chest, but whatever she was feeling was so fervent that she felt warm with it.
Deep down, Katara knew her dad really did want the best for his children, economically speaking, but it still hurt to see him after that long, showing up in their lives without a clue about the lives they’d been leading while he was off living his own life. She’d made every excuse for him that she could come up with, but she was fresh out; all she could think now was that it wouldn't have hurt him to answer her calls or respond when she texted him pictures of their milestones. She’d never deleted those conversations - prom photos she’d taken of Sokka and Suki that he’d never even opened, a picture of her swim team the night they won the CIF Championships that he’d ignored. Dozens more milestones completely overlooked in his desperation to provide for them. And he’d shown up at the worst time: she had no energy left to process her feelings for her father with Gran-Gran sick, finals week coming up, a new relationship to feel out, student government planning the Winter Formal, and Sokka’s college applications to revise.
She felt like her head was about to burst, and, lacking any other private place to run, she bolted for Gran-Gran’s room without thinking about it, locking the door behind her. She sat on the floor and buried her face in her knees, finally letting herself cry because everything was just too overwhelming and there was nothing to be done.
"Katara, are you okay? Open the door!" Sokka’s voice rang out from behind the door. He knocked frantically but she didn’t budge. He can give me some space for once.
"Stop banging on the door,” Katara replied weakly. “I’m fine.”
"You don't sound fine! Just let me in,” Sokka called. “Katara, you need to talk instead of just bottling everything up.”
Bottling things up? I’ll show him bottling things up, she thought. “Nope. I’m actually fine.” With an effort she was surprised she was capable of, Katara bit back a fresh round of tears and stood up, opening the door. “I just needed to get my bearings,” she told him. “See? Fine.”
Sokka squinted suspiciously at his sister but stayed silent. “Okay then,” he muttered, turning to go now that Katara had emerged from the locked room.
“So next week is Thanksgiving,” she reminded him, trying with every bit of strength that she had to sound like nothing was wrong. “And with Gran-Gran recovering, we’re not going to be able to cook.”
“Why are we talking about this now?”
“Like I said, Gran-Gran wouldn’t want us to put our lives on hold because of this,” Katara replied. “I can’t cook an entire Thanksgiving meal by myself and you won’t help, so we have to figure something else out.”
“Um, can’t we figure something else out later?”
“Thanksgiving is in five days, Sokka. There is no ‘later’!”
“Katara, come on,” Sokka sighed, rooting through the fridge. “There’s nothing we can do about this tonight.”
“Actually, there is,” she replied. I can’t believe I’m actually doing this now, she thought, but she didn’t have time to dwell on the timing. “Zuko and Iroh invited us to join them since they’re only two and we’re only three. I could always tell him yes.”
“Hm.” Sokka was too absorbed in his quest for a snack to properly respond. “Sounds good.”
“Great,” Katara said tightly, trying to keep up the facade for just a few more seconds. “I’ll RSVP.”
“Cool.” Sokka had found half of a leftover Italian sub in the fridge, so she knew she wasn’t going to be getting any more of his time. She pulled out her phone to reply to Zuko and then walked back down the hall to Gran-Gran’s room, because the last thing she needed tonight was Sokka in the same room as her.
And as soon as the door locked behind her, she collapsed into sobs.
Chapter 16: No Greater Trial, No Fiercer Heartache
In which a very depressing Thanksgiving answers the question on everyone's lips: 'when are they going to talk about their parents?'
*written by Sarah (lettersfromnowhere)*
Oh gosh, guys, I'm sorry. I'm evil and I let this happen. I know the cliffhanger followed by two chapters of intense family angst was rough, but at least here you have Certified Good Boyfriend™ Zuko and ONE huge relationship moment?
ALSO @MaliaIsBoring MADE BEAUTIFUL ART OF THE ENDING OF THIS CHAPTER THAT YALL NEED TO SEE: https://zutarafuckedmeup.tumblr.com/post/621884408720457728/from-chapter-16-of-stay-frosty-royal-milk-tea
Sokka was sitting up straight, and that was how Zuko knew this was going to be an awkward Thanksgiving dinner.
“I was hoping your father would be able to drop by,” Iroh said conversationally, passing him a platter of green beans, which he passed along to Sokka without taking any. “It would be good to meet him.”
“He wanted to be here,” Katara replied, ever the diplomat. “But our grandma is still recovering, and he didn’t want to leave her.”
“I don’t blame him. How is she doing?” Iroh asked as the same platter of green beans made its way back to him.
“As well as you could expect,” Katara said, glancing at a still-silent Sokka. “She’s in a lot of pain, but she’s awake and well enough to complain about how much everything hurts, so I think she’s on the mend.”
“I can imagine,” Iroh replied. “Your grandmother must be a fighter to the core to push through an operation like that. Remind me to send you home with leftovers-”
“I will!” Sokka perked up immediately and Katara and Zuko shared a knowing smirk across the table. Of course it’s the mention of free food that gets him to break out of his shell.
They lapsed into a semi-comfortable silence after that, stuffing themselves with as much as they cared to - Zuko noted with an inordinate amount of pride that Katara seemed to love the stuffing he’d made - and inwardly he was grateful for the silence. This kitchen had always been so homey, but right now, on the heels of near-tragedy and occupied by two people who weren’t quite ready to move past it, it felt stiff and lonely. Katara looked especially lost and Zuko wished he were sitting next to her instead of Iroh, close enough to grab her hand under the table and give it a little hang-in-there squeeze.
(It was amazing how much Zuko’s touch had come to be an anchor for her in the last week. He’d always clung to his girlfriend, desperate to be told he was safe and loved in her presence in the unmistakable language of her gentle hands against his skin; now she was returning the favor. At every opportunity, she sought out his touch - clung to his arm when they walked down the halls at school, asked him to hold her when she was feeling overwhelmed. She’d leaned on all of her friends - Toph when she needed to vent, Aang when she needed advice - but it was him she seemed to run to when she felt broken, and Zuko was keenly aware of the responsibility that came with that.
And he hated that, by a quirk of the seating chart, he couldn’t fulfill that responsibility now.)
When Katara had finished eating, she glanced over at Zuko - neither had been very hungry, so both finished earlier than their respective families - and glanced over at the door. Come with me? She seemed to say, and he nodded, all too relieved to stand and follow her.
The moment they were out of the dining room, Katara grabbed his hand and began to run, and they stumbled into the nearest room - a guest bedroom that hadn’t been used in years. She didn’t drop his hand until they reached the bed and she pulled him down to sit with her, crawling into his lap and burying her face in the button-down Iroh had insisted he wear that day. Her hands found their way around his neck and soon he felt hot tears soaking through the thin, starched fabric of his shirt as her shoulders began to shake under his hands.
“Oh, Katara,” me mumbled into her hair, holding her as tightly as he knew she wanted him to. “I’m sorry…”
This had happened enough times in the past week for him to know that there was nothing more that he could say, no matter how much he might want to. The first time it happened, Zuko had been almost afraid of the force of the emotions she could no longer contain: he had never seen Katara so vulnerable, had no idea what she wanted or how to give it to her. He’d wanted to comfort her more than anything but hadn’t known where to start. But then she’d clung to him for dear life, and asked if he’d stroke her hair, and he’d realized that, much as it broke his heart to see her break like this, she didn’t ask much of him.
She only wanted his touch with which to anchor herself. And she wanted his attention by which she’d be reminded that, even if only for now, there was a place in her life that she could stop and break and be pieced back together by hands that loved her, taken care of the way she cared for nearly everyone else.
“I hate having my dad here,” Katara sobbed. “I miss him so much when he’s gone, and I’m always so excited to have him back, and he’s so happy to see us, but then five seconds in I’m reminded that he knows nothing about us.”
“Is that why you’ve been so sad all week?” Zuko asked, pressing his lips to the crown of her head. She’d only mentioned her worry about her grandmother - it made sense, though, for there to be another reason for this anxiety.
She nodded against his shirt. “You know what set me off this time?”
“When we were at the hospital that first night,” Katara said shakily. “Suki came by, and she and Sokka were sleeping on each other in the waiting room, and when my dad showed up, he didn’t even know who Suki was.” She let out a choked sob. “Suki, who’s been with Sokka for two years and in every single one of the pictures I’ve sent him that he didn’t open and has been there for us more than he has...he straight-up didn’t know that my best friend and the love of Sokka’s life even existed!”
“Oh,” he mumbled against her hair, turning her so he could cradle her shaking shoulders. I know the feeling, he wanted to say, but this wasn’t about him. “That must be so hard.”
“It’s horrible,” Katara sniffled. “I love him, I really do. So does Sokka. And I know he loves us, but...he’s just not showing it.”
“Doesn’t sound like it,” Zuko said, swallowing the bitter taste in his mouth at the injustice of this girl in his arms, whose entire life was a case study in selflessness, being treated as an afterthought by the one person whose approval she craved most.
(And oh, how he knew the feeling.)
“Things didn’t used to be like this,” she sniffled, her sobs abating. “Before our mom died and he lost his other job, he was always here.” Katara paused, taking a steadying breath before moving on. “We were really close. He did all kinds of stuff with me when I was little. He’d take me hiking and swimming, taught me to fish and kayak and ride a bike...I loved my mom, but it was Dad I really felt close to. He just got me.”
“Mom died when I was eight,” she said shakily. Zuko knew that, but hearing her talk about it still made her heart clench. “Bad car accident. No one saw it coming. And it was like a light just went out inside him. He stopped being fun and started being...distant, I guess. And a few months later he lost his job and had to go on the road to find another one, and it ended up being so far away that he had to move, and then he just fell out of touch with us.” A sob broke up her sentence. “His own children, and he just lost touch with us like we were old high school classmates!”
He truly didn’t know what to say to that. He’d seen her vulnerable and upset countless times this week, but never like this, curled up in his arms and collapsed in on herself as if making herself small would shrink the pain she faced, too. He rocked her, unsure if it would work but willing to try anything, and to his relief, her frantic sobs turned to whimpers, and soon she was breathing freely again, her cheek pressed to his chest.
“Thank you, Zuko,” she whispered.
“It’s the least I can do,” he replied, equally hushed.
“You don’t get how much it means to me that I have you right now,” she sniffled. “You’re one of, like, two people in my life that I don’t have some kind of responsibility for, and...and…in a week when everything’s gone wrong, you’ve done everything right, and Zuko...” she took in a long, shuddery breath. “I just don’t know how to tell you how grateful I am for that.”
“I’m here,” was all he could think to say to a confession like that. “If I could take this from you-”
“No, don’t.” She shifted, meeting his eyes. “You have enough problems of your own. You don’t need mine.”
He wasn’t about to deny that. “Maybe, but I’d still do it if I could.”
“Why?” Katara asked, her voice barely more than air. “Why would you want that?”
He froze for a second. Why would I?
Because she deserved more. Because he knew the pain she felt and would do anything to spare her that feeling. Because there was no greater trial, no fiercer heartache, than a parent who never took you for enough.
“Because I love you,” he said simply, all those things and infinitely more in one, and for a moment he couldn’t believe he’d blurted it out -
but his heartbeat slowed, and he realized that it was true.
I love her, he realized, and the thought made him feel like he was floating. I love her, and I never want to live in a world where I don’t .
“You don’t have to say it back,” he said after a moment passed and she still hadn’t said anything. “If you’re not ready-”
“I love you back,” she blurted out, wrapping her arms around his neck, and his heart melted like butter in the sun.
“Isn’t it ‘I love you too’?” he teased, and she attempted to elbow him without detaching her arms from his neck but couldn’t quite hit him.
“I don’t care,” she replied. “The sentiment is the same.”
“I like it,” he said. “‘I love you back.’ It’s sweet.”
“You think so?” Katara pulled back, cupping his scarred cheek as her still-red eyes regarded him fondly. She ghosted a thumb over the puckered skin and he’d never wished more that he still had feeling in the skin she was touching.
“Can I ask you something?” Katara asked as she stroked the outlines of his scar, the surrounding skin feeling the whisper of her fingertips across his face even when the feeling faded just a millimeter over when the burnt skin began.
“Anything,” he said, swallowing the shock he felt at the gesture - at the gentle ministrations of a person he’d come to love so much to the bane of his existence. At the way her fingers mapped the lines of his face.
“How did you get this?” she asked, skirting her hand down to cup his chin so he had to meet her eyes.
Anything but that, his brain begged. Please. Anything.
But she’d confessed her deepest insecurities to him, and it was only fair that he do the same.
“My father,” he admitted, turning his eyes so he wouldn’t have to look at her even as she held up his chin. He flinched at a sharp intake of breath and he could practically see her seethe, though he was pointedly not looking at her face. “I was thirteen. I talked back and he threw hot coffee at me.”
“ Zuko,” Katara gasped, anger and shock and pity mingling in her voice. “I- how?” the tears that had ebbed away returned now. “How could he?”
“My father is not a good man,” Zuko sighed. “That’s really all there is to it. He wasn’t like this when I was younger, but my mother died of cancer when I was ten, and he just...snapped after that. Lost it. And I was his only outlet for his anger until Iroh sued for custody and won a few months after I got this.”
“This is a third-degree burn,” she seethed. “You were thirteen?”
Zuko just nodded, leaning into Katara’s touch as she stroked his jawline with near-impossible tenderness.
“I’m gonna murder your father,” she hissed. “And I don’t-”
“Katara, don’t.” He set his palm against her tensed forearm. “I’m safe now. He got slapped with a restraining order as soon as the court saw my face and I never have to see him again.”
“But you should never have been unsafe,” she protested, her voice shaking. “I can’t believe I ever complained about my dad-”
“Hey, no.” Zuko pulled her back into his arms. “What you’re feeling sucks just as much. This horror story on my face doesn’t diminish that.”
He figured she was going to start up with some platitude about how beautiful he still was that wouldn’t mean a thing after five years spent wearing his eternal failure to gain his father’s approval on his face, but she didn’t. She just nuzzled into his neck the way she knew he liked her to (it felt safe, and her hair and face were soft, and she fit so perfectly there), and stayed.
“Aren’t we a pair?” she asked after a few moments.
He didn’t need to say a word for Katara to know he agreed, and he loved her all the more for it.
Chapter 17: Honesty
In which Katara confronts her father and Zuko meets Gran-Gran.
*WRITTEN BY @sofileall*
Okay, we PROMISE this is the last angst chapter! Chapter 18 will get back to the fluff, friendship, romance, and boba shop antics that you guys are probably reading this for.
“So how are things going with Zuko?" Aang asked, not looking up from his homework. It was a Sunday, and as usual, he’d waited until the night before to start on his work; thankfully, though, it was pretty self-explanatory, so Katara was free to focus on the DBQ she had to write for her AP US History class. They sat together, though, because Aang had known she needed company, even if they were just working together at her kitchen table. She had been grateful for the offer, but now Katara looked away from the essay she was writing to frown at him.
"Good, but why are you so interested all of the sudden?" She was pretty sure Aang had moved past whatever he’d had against Zuko at the start, but old apprehension came flooding back into her mind. Is he jealous? she wondered, praying the answer was ‘no.’
"Because I care about you,” he replied calmly. Katara let out a long breath. Oh, good. Looking around as if to check if anyone was listening to them, he continued. “Does your dad know?"
"No, and he probably wouldn't care anyway,” she said without a hint of remorse in her voice. She'd been feeling slightly better now that things had settled down a little, but her feelings towards her father were as complicated and unpleasant as ever. Her sadness had turned into unrestrained anger and resentment, and she didn’t want to process any of it. Besides, she didn't have time, with finals coming up and semester projects due any minute.
"Katara, don't say that,” Aang said, turning his best pleading eyes on her. “I'm sure he cares!"
"I doubt that, Aang,” Katara sighed. “But it’s fine. We’ve made do without him for this long and I hardly need him to get involved now. I’m okay, I promise.”
"He’s your dad, Kat. Part of you is always going to want him to be a part of your life, whether you think you want him to be or not,” Aang replied, all too wise for his years. “And I don’t really know him, but I can also tell your dad is an okay guy at heart. Maybe you should try to talk to him?"
"Maybe I should,” Katara said, not looking too convinced. "Thanks. I gotta get dinner ready now.”
"Can't you just order a pizza?" Aang whined, which made her laugh. He lit up like the Christmas tree on their end table (a tiny one, in a little foil-wrapped pot - she’d always wanted a proper tree but never had the space or the time for it) at the sound of her laugh, and she realized with a twinge of regret that it’d been a while since she’d felt like laughing at anything. She had to take a minute to compose herself before she continued.
"No can do,” she teased. “Zuko's coming over, and Gran-Gran hates pizza, so stew it is."
The ring of the doorbell was a welcome sound and as soon as Katara heard the familiar buzz, she rushed to the door to let her boyfriend in. “Hey!” she greeted him, pulling him in for a quick hug. It amazed her that even after all these months, and even in such a short time, being in his arms was instantly grounding. She felt a little less nervous and a little less conflicted as they walked in, hands intertwined.
"I missed you,” Zuko said as they walked. She rolled her eyes as she always did when he said that after incredibly short periods of separation, but she'd missed him too. She’d missed his raspy voice and his lanky arms around her waist and his constant warmth and his golden eyes watching her as if nothing could be more fascinating. "Hey, you're wearing my sweater again!”
"I am.” She held out the green fabric of the second hoodie Zuko had given her (the first was still her favorite but he’d given her this one, too, after she’d stolen it from him) for him to see. “But I...kinda have to get back to work, and, um…” Katara glanced around nervously. “My dad doesn't know you exist and Gran-Gran has no filter when she takes her pain medication.”
He interrupted her rambling with a hand on her shoulder. “Hey, it’s okay. You know I don't mind.”
“Yeah, you say that now,” she muttered under her breath, dropping his hand so she could get back to the food she was making. “Want to help me cook?”
He did, and as it turned out, Zuko was actually rather helpful in the kitchen, unlike her brother, who could barely fry an egg and, even so, wouldn't be home for dinner because he had football practice. It was nice to have help for a change, and once they’d finished, dinner unexpectedly went off smoothly at first.
"Dad, Gran-Gran, this is my boyfriend, Zuko," Katara told them after they’d walked in and her father had helped Gran-Gran sit down. Gran-Gran’s eyes lit up and her dad looked confused, but not in an entirely unpleasant way.
Zuko held out his hand for both of them to shake. "Nice to meet you both," he said; Katara could hear the telltale strain of nervousness in his voice. Her dad looked sheepish and confused, while Gran Gran gave her a look of approval at his good manners.
"It's very nice to meet you too, Zuko,” her dad replied, genuine if a bit suspicious. Katara bit her lip, trying not to let the knowledge that her father had no idea who her boyfriend was sting as much as it did.
"So how do you two know each other? Friends from school?" Gran-Gran asked, smiling while she carefully started to eat. Zuko smiled back nervously, which Katara doubted escaped her grandmother’s notice. She shot her a look that seemed to say he’s cute, isn’t he?
“Sort of. He's in Sokka's grade at school, but we work together at the tea shop, remember?"
"The owner's nephew?” Gran-Gran beamed. “Oh, Katara, I told you he liked you!”
Katara blushed, throwing apologetic looks at an incredibly flustered Zuko (she could just see the wheels turning in his head: wait, what did she say about me?) as if to say, pain medication, am I right?
Dinner was smooth enough, but once Zuko and the protective buffer he provided (no one wanted to make a scene in front of their dinner guest) were gone, things began to go downhill. Katara’s father approached her as she worked on her pre-calculus homework at the table.
"You didn't tell me you had a boyfriend. He was nice," Her dad started, trying to make friendly conversation. Katara wasn't having it.
"Yeah, he's a really good guy. I would have told you sooner, but I didn't think you would care," Katara said, lowering her voice towards the end. Her dad still caught it, though, and he looked hurt. And tired, as if this was all just too much.
"Of course I care, Katara,” he told her. “You're my daughter. And if it’s worth anything, I’m happy for you."
"Oh yeah, I forgot. You really do care, you just have a funny way of showing it, don't you? Makes it really easy to forget!" Katara snapped as she stood up, gathering her things. She was ready to be done with this conversation, but her father clearly wasn’t. He cleared his throat to get her attention and then gestured to her chair.
"Sit back down, Katara. We need to talk about this."
At that, Katara exploded. As if he’d ever have realized this was going on if I hadn’t gone off on him! "Fine! Let's talk about how you basically ignored us for two years, or how you stopped answering my texts and hung up because you were ‘in the middle of work’ every time I called you-"
"Kat, I really was working! I’m sorry you felt ignored. I didn't mean to-"
"You didn't mean to neglect us? That doesn’t seem like something you’d do by accident! "
"Look, Katara, I know this has been hard, and believe me when I say that I wish I’d never had to move. But I had to do it because if I wasn’t providing for you, who would? I had two choices: move away or let my children go hungry. Please, Katara...I know I can’t make this up to you, but try to understand why I did what I did.”
"Money doesn't equal parenting, dad!" Katara cried, hating how her voice was breaking. “I tried so hard to keep up with you, and I’d tell you about everything happening back home, but you just didn’t care. A call would have been nice every now and then! We used to be so close. But now you barely know me, and I'm just wondering what I did wrong. Because it feels like you just stopped caring, and I can’t figure out why.”
“Kat, I’m so sorry.” To his (minimal) credit, her father really did look broken-up over her words. “I know I haven’t been the father I could be, but I never wanted you to feel like I didn’t care, or there was something wrong with you.”
“But I did,” Katara said tearily. “Whether you meant it or not, that’s how I felt.”
Her father sighed, shoving his hands in his pockets. “I know you have no reason to believe me, but I truly am sorry that I failed you. And there’s nothing I can do about that now, but I can do better,” he said, opening his arms to Katara.
She didn’t want to run to him but when all was said and done, she missed him. And as she cried into his shirt and he rubbed her back just as he’d done when she was little and things were still easy, she found herself hoping he wouldn’t let her down.
(Two weeks later, when he left town to return to work, Katara couldn’t tell if things felt more or less normal.
But then he texted her to ask how finals had gone and let her know he was shipping them their Christmas gifts...well, the road to forgiving him would be long, but things felt a little more like the kind of ‘normal’ they should’ve been.)
Chapter 18: Something About that Feeling
In which Zuko has Feelings, any one of several people might be hitting the cactus juice, we hear of two lovers forbidden from one another, and Zuko channels said Feelings into a Grand Gesture.
*WRITTEN BY @lettersfromnowhere (Sarah)*
I was hungry and dehydrated and running on several nights of not very much sleep when I wrote this, so please forgive the fact that it sounds like *I* was the one hitting the cactus juice here.
Yeah, that's about it. This one be wilding.
“Remind me why we keep thinking music events are a good idea?”
Katara crossed her arms as their friends buzzed around them, helping to set up the necessary infrastructure for Jasmine Dragon’s first-ever open mic night. “Zuko, this was your idea.”
“Yeah, Zuko,” Sokka teased, passing by with a microphone stand in each of his hands. “It was your idea.”
“It was?” Zuko was genuinely puzzled. When did I ever say I wanted to do this? “I don’t remember suggesting this.”
“Yeah, you did. Remember? I told you to pick a community event to do to promote the business and you said you’d do an open mic night,” Katara reminded him. “Or are you choosing to forget you said that?”
“Well, I still don’t see why we’re doing it,” he complained. “We just finished finals. And business is good enough that I don’t think we should have to do these publicity stunts anymore.”
(But mostly, he was exhausted. He’d have preferred almost anything to running another Jasmine Dragon event but he especially felt like curling up with Katara on Iroh’s couch, rewatching Spirited Away until they nodded off in each other’s arms-)
“We’re not out of the woods yet!” Katara protested. “Honestly, Zuko, I’d expect you to know that.”
“And I’d expect you to be as tired as I am,” he sighed.
“I have a job to do, Zuko.” She leaned forward to press her lips to his ever so briefly and he made a soft noise of protest when she pulled away so soon. She laughed softly at his obvious distress and he wondered if it was even possible to be more drawn to someone than he was to his girlfriend at this very moment-
“And I have to actually do it,” she said. “Don’t worry, babe. We’re on break. We’ll have time for that later.”
Grumbling to himself, Zuko set about rearranging tables to give every patron the best possible view of the stage. Iroh nodded in approval when he walked by.
“I’m glad to see that Katara finally got you to do the work you were so adamantly opposed to earlier,” he chuckled. “She’s good for you, Zuko.”
Zuko wanted to glare at his uncle, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. “I know,” he said. “Believe me, I know.”
(He tried not to think about the fact that all he wanted to do was escape to the back room and make it crystal-clear just how good she was for him-
Zuko, pull it together! he chastised himself, because he hated it when he got like this and could barely even look at her straight but...well. He was tired, and he and Katara had experienced a bit of a drought while studying for finals so he was touch-starved as can be, and his impulse control was rather poor. And that kiss - he couldn’t take teasing on top of all of that.)
“You doing all right over there, buddy?” Sokka walked by and, apparently, observed the odd pallor in his friend’s expression. “You don’t look too good.”
Kill me now.
“Yup, I’m good,” he forced himself to reply. “Just tired.”
Totally not trying to keep my mind from going off the rails because of your baby sister.
Sokka didn’t look convinced. “You sure you don’t want to sit down? Suki and I can take over for a while.”
“Yeah, if you don’t feel well, we’d be totally fine to help out,” Suki offered, joining her boyfriend.
“Thanks, but I’m okay.” At least I will be now. “But if you guys could check the sound system, that would be great.” He breathed a sigh of relief when they were gone, only to suck that sigh right back in when he saw the first guests arrive.
They were a raggedy bunch, the three of them - a little dirty and all of them wearing bell-bottoms. Their leader had a guitar case slung over his shoulder. “Hey, brother!” he called. “Is this the-”
“Jasmine Dragon Tea and Treats,” Zuko recited, his exhaustion suddenly roaring back. “Yup.”
This was going to be a long night.
It was almost an hour before he saw Katara again, and though he knew he had a flair for the dramatic as well as anyone else did, Zuko was pretty sure he might actually have died if he’d had to wait any longer.
A boy with strange facial hair, wearing a sweatshirt bearing the logo of a nearby college, was onstage when she finally reappeared after a shift at the register, wiping her hands on her apron. The boy was crooning (well... whining, really) to the chords of a Bruno Mars song, and the moment Zuko laid eyes on Katara - circles beneath her eyes, green apron askew, her hair slipping from its braid - he felt some heady combination of hunger and relief that nearly knocked him off his feet.
Is this weird? he asked himself. It did feel weird, he decided: she’d always left him breathless but this - the feeling of being lost in a desert without water until she appeared, like an oasis in the endless sand - was new.
And surprisingly hard to control.
“Katara,” he whispered as he strode to her, reaching the spot where she was standing to watch the performer in only a few purposeful steps. He knew he couldn’t hear her but it felt important to say it anyway. “I missed you.”
“Hm?” she turned to him with a slightly dreamy, glassy-eyed expression. “Oh! Hey, Zuko.”
“ Katara,” he whispered again, and before he could remember a single word of the many lectures he’d received about ‘professional behavior’ over the years, he took her face in her hands and kissed her fervently.
She pulled away after a moment, her eyes soft and yet sparkling with mischief. “ Well.Looks like someone missed his girlfriend.”
"You could say that,” he replied, brushing his lips against hers again and pulling away too quickly just as he had earlier. “And did my girlfriend miss me?" he teased.
(Katara chose not to point out that Aang had been watching their whole interaction, looking like he wanted to make a run for it while Toph, who seemed to be picking up on the gist of their conversation just fine, smirked.)
“She did,” Katara said breathlessly, and there was no mistaking the look in her eyes. “Crazy, huh? It’s only been an hour.”
“Still too long,” he says, his voice dropping. “When was the last time I told you that you’re beautiful ?”
“Oh, stop it,” she teases, flushing but undeniably enjoying it. “What's gotten into you today? You're going to get me fired!"
“Yeah, I doubt that,” he said, leaning down to meet her halfway for another quick kiss. “I mean, we do have jobs-”
“That Suki and Sokka are totally doing for us right now,” Katara finished. “So-”
An unholy screech of microphone feedback cut her off and Zuko was almost relieved because as tantalizing as this...exchange...had been, he had precisely no idea what to do with the many very prominent feelings he was experiencing. This way things would...cool down.
And besides, Katara was soon distracted too, because the “dirty hippie trio,” as he’d taken to calling the three in bell-bottoms, had taken the stage.
“Brothers!” the leader called, strumming a guitar that looked like it had been through far more than it should’ve. “I just gotta thank you for comin’ out tonight. ‘Cause, y’know, the real prize was the hospitality we were shown along the way!” he calls.
Zuko rolled his eyes and looped his arm around Katara’s waist. She leaned into him and the innocent, familiar touch was almost a relief. “This oughta be good.”
“Anyway, we’re the River Nomads,” the leader continued. “And we’re gonna be starting our set tonight with one of our favorites.”
Katara and Zuko exchanged slightly worried glances as the group began to play. “ Two lovers,” a woman in the back sang, beating a tambourine. “ Forbidden from one another! A war divides their people!”
“Twenty bucks this is an allegory for something,” Katara leaned in and whispered.
“Nah, it’s probably just something they came up with while they were high,” Zuko answered. “I mean, it makes no sense otherwise.”
“They’re hippies, Zuko. Of course it’s an anti-war ballad-”
“SECRET TUNNEL!” the lead singer screamed. “SECRET TUNNEL!”
“Wait, what?” Katara scrunched her nose. “Okay, uh...maybe they were hitting the cactus juice.”
“ SECRET SECRET SECRET SECRET TUNNEL!”
The group finished with a clanging, out-of-tune chord and it was all either could do not to burst into uncontrollable laughter.
“Definitely hitting the cactus juice,” Zuko decided.
And that was when he was struck with an idea.
“Hey, wait, is that Zuko?”
Zuko could hear Sokka’s rather unsuccessful attempt at a whisper from the stage and flushed, wondering for the fifth time in five minutes why he’d ever gone up to that hippie and asked to borrow his guitar. He could’ve sworn he heard Suki gasp and Toph was full-on cackling. (Her shouts of “oh, man, Boba Boy’s gonna sing?” could probably be heard two states over.)
But he’d dug himself into this hole already so he cleared his throat and decided that he would dig himself out.
“Uh, hi. Zuko here,” he started, immediately cringing when a collective chuckle made its way around the room. “I mean, uh. My name’s Zuko. I work here, and, uh...I’m gonna be singing, um...something. For someone.”
Again, kill me now.
“I mean. This one goes out to my girlfriend,” he said, his face so red he thought it might catch fire. I truly hate everything. “So, um...yeah!”
With more relief than he wanted to admit to feeling, Zuko looked down at his strings instead of out into the audience and began to strum (not many people knew he’d picked up guitar as a stress-reliever, and he was admittedly a little excited to surprise Katara with the skill).
And Zuko wouldn’t call himself a singer, per se, but when he finally found the courage to raise his eyes again and they found Katara’s, which looked a little teary and a lot in love-
Well, it was worth every moment of “maybe I shouldn’t.”
Chapter 19: May Your Days Be Merry and Bright
In which the gang exchanges Christmas gifts.
*co-written by both of us!*
We thought you guys deserved another fluffy chapter after the heartbreak that was chapters 15-17 to reset that fluff-angst balance, so here ya go. This advances the plot in absolutely no way but we wanted to include fun Gaang interactions and Christmas shenanigans so here ya go.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"Can I ask you something?" Zuko said as they were walking to the shop. Katara was exhausted from an evening shift after staying up late the night before working on her Christmas gift for Zuko, and a family dinner afterwards that, though no one had cooked, had left her feeling a little tired. But the excitement of a Christmas Eve gift exchange with her friends at the Jasmine Dragon was keeping her as awake as she needed to be. They’d all drawn names out of a hat to determine who had to give a gift to whom, though in reality, the majority of them had ended up getting a gift for almost everyone in the group. Katara was proud of her selections and couldn’t wait to give them out.
"You can ask me anything," she replied. “What’s on your mind?”
"If you could be or do anything right now, what would it be?”
Katara frowned at him. Why would he ask that? But it was an interesting question, and she tried to answer. “Hm. Within reason? Probably some sort of beach. Back when we still lived in California, before Dad got his new job in Seattle and had to send us to live in Phoenix with Gran-Gran, we used to go all the time. I miss it."
He nodded. “That makes sense."
"How about you?" Katara asked, a little suspicious but playing along.
"I don't know. I’ve always wanted to go to Singapore.” He shrugged. “But within reason...I'm pretty happy where I am.”
"Guys, why bother putting up mistletoe if you're not even gonna kiss?" Suki said as soon as Katara walked back into the closed shop. Zuko had picked her up from the apartment, since Sokka had the car, and they’d come together, but she hadn't expected to see her brother and the rest of her friends already there. At Suki’s comment, she glanced overhead and her face went beet-red, as did Zuko’s.
Evidently they’d passed under a well-placed sprig of mistletoe without noticing.
“I don’t know, Suki,” Katara said, narrowing her eyes. “Why is this even here? It’s just gonna-”
“It’s not Christmas without it!” Sokka crowed.
“Oh really?” Katara folded her arms across her chest. “Because you actually want to see your baby sister kiss someone?”
Sokka looked uncomfortable, evidently realizing he hadn’t thought this through. “Well, of course not, but-”
“Come on, you gotta!” Suki insisted. Zuko looked down at Katara, mortified, and she shrugged - what can you do? - before leaning up to give him a quick, chaste, and relatively painless peck on the cheek.
“Happy now?” she asked, checking to make sure Zuko was still breathing (he was, and he looked relieved) before turning to Suki with her hands on her hips.
“Better.” Suki grinned. “Now...are we all ready for our gift exchange?”
Katara glanced around the room suspiciously. “I mean, yeah, we are, but where are Aang and Toph?”
“Oh, Aang didn’t actually wrap any of his gifts,” Sokka explained. “He just brought them in a big shopping bag the way he bought them. Toph’s helping him get them ready.”
“Why would he ask a blind girl to help him wrap gifts?” Zuko asked, puzzled.
“Oh, he didn’t. He asked me.” Suki smirked. “But I told him that procrastination has consequences and I sent Toph in there instead. If you listen closely, you can probably hear them-”
“That’s what you get for not getting them wrapped beforehand like a normal human!” Toph’s unmistakable voice shouted from a back room.
“-arguing,” Suki finished. “Hey, Aang? Toph?”
“We’re almost done!” Aang shouted from the back room. With a slightly nervous glance at Zuko, Katara stepped forward and set her gifts on the two tables they’d pushed together for the exchange. The room was dim but the colored lights of the Christmas tree blinked cheerily in the far corner, casting a homey glow over the dining area. Katara smiled to herself, taking it in - four months ago, she’d come here seeking a job, and it was a little hard to wrap her head around just how much more than that she’d ended up with.
A moment later, Aang and Toph emerged from the back room sheepishly bearing a pile of lumpily-wrapped presents, and Iroh stepped out of the kitchen carrying a tray. “I thought I’d stop by with a gift of my own,” he told them as he set the tray down on their table. “In thanks for all of your efforts to bring in new customers. You have no idea what a help you’ve been to me.”
“You shouldn’t have!” Katara cried, taking in the delicacies on the tray. He’d remembered each of their signature orders and prepared them all: brick toast with nutella, mochi, and strawberry ice cream for Toph (a combination which Katara privately thought was positively disgusting); Thai tea for Sokka; an oreo shake with boba for Aang; a crepe with strawberries for Suki; jasmine tea with boba and an ube macaron for Zuko; and a crepe with marshmallow fluff and chocolate ice cream (her own invention, one Zuko had teased her about almost endlessly) for her. It was far too generous, given the business’ recent struggles, and Katara was struck by the realization of her luck in working under a boss like Iroh.
“It was the least I could do. You’ve brought more than customers here,” Iroh replied graciously. “Jasmine Dragon has been a happier place since you started work here. And that’s to say nothing of the happiness you have all brought my nephew-”
“ Uncle ,” Zuko cut in, mortified all over again, as he approached. “Can you please not- oh.” He noticed the tray. “Thank you.”
“Merry Christmas, Zuko.” He smiled and retreated back into the kitchen, after which the group took their seats and dug in while shuffling around the gifts to their recipients. Sokka made a show of shaking each gift to check its contents, making wild predictions about what each one was, and Aang sheepishly handed out his barely-wrapped gifts. And by the time they finished their food, hopped up on sugar and eager to see what would be inside each one, they were practically vibrating with energy.
(They were just kids, Katara had to remind herself; three of them may have been legal adults, but right now, they were children on Christmas Eve, and that was okay. This excitement was good. She was allowed to be a teenager tonight and no one needed caring for and things were good, she was lucky -
It was a strange feeling.)
“I think Katara should go first,” Toph announced. “Since she’s the reason we’re all here.”
“I agree,” said Aang, and Zuko and Suki agreed, leaving only a rather grumpy Sokka dissatisfied. With a shrug, Katara reached for her first gift, a neatly-wrapped bundle that Toph had said was from her. Not wanting to disrupt the pretty wrapping job that some harried store clerk had evidently done on the gift, Katara carefully peeled off the tape, lifting the wrapping off gingerly to reveal the shiny black cover of a book beneath. Intrigued (for she did love to read when she had time), she opened the gift all the way to reveal-
“ Twilight?” Katara groaned. “Toph, seriously?”
(She’d never have acted so ungrateful had she not known Toph was absolutely, one-hundred-percent trolling her by giving her a book she was widely known to hate, but she felt no need to hide her disgust now.)
“It’s a classic,” Toph cackled. “Happy reading! Oh, and turn to page fifty-one.” Narrowing her eyes, Katara turned to the page Toph had given her and found a gift card to the local bookstore neatly pushed between the pages.
“Oh!” now that she could use. “Thank you.”
“So you can get something you actually like,” Toph explained. “Or just AP exam prep books. Like a nerd.”
“That’s actually really thoughtful, Toph!” she smiled though she knew her friend couldn’t see it. “Thank you.”
“‘course. Can I open one now?” Toph asked impatiently. Everyone rolled their eyes but allowed it, watching as Toph chose a green gift bag and pulled out its contents. She felt around on the surface of the object - a plastic bag of something a little bit squishy - and raised her eyebrows. “Who’s this from?” she asked.
“Me,” Zuko replied. “I drew your name. I know it’s lame, and I’m sorry, but I didn’t know-”
Toph’s eyes lit with recognition. “Is this a bag of dates?” she cried, feeling the bag a little too enthusiastically.
“Can’t say I understand why, but yup,” Sokka confirmed. Immediately, both Toph and Katara burst out laughing.
“Oh, man, that was the greatest moment of my life,” Toph crowed. “Seriously, Zuko, don’t be so hard on yourself. I love ‘em.”
He relaxed a little. “I’m glad.” Katara knew he had only gotten gifts for herself and Toph, whose name he’d drawn, so he was glad to see one of the two go over well. “Does that mean I’m going next?”
“Sure, why not?” Aang shrugged. “Who drew his name again?”
It was obvious that it hadn’t been Katara, since two presents sat in front of him. “I did,” Sokka volunteered. “Hope you like it.”
Evidently a little worried about what he might find inside, Zuko removed the tissue paper from the bag gingerly. His eyes widened a little when he saw what was inside: a bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos the length of his forearm. “How did you know?” he asked, a little bewildered, and Katara had to restrain the urge to laugh.
“Katara told me you liked spicy food.” Sokka shrugged. “Hope you like these.”
“I love them,” Zuko said, still a little awed. “Thank you, buddy. Seriously.”
“Eh, it’s nothing.” Sokka waved him off. “But can I open one next?”
Everyone nodded, watching as he selected the gift from his partner - “I got your name,” Katara revealed - and pried open the perfectly-wrapped paper to find a graphing calculator.
“Katara, do you have any idea how much these things cost?” Sokka asked, taken aback. “
“Of course I do, dimwit. I bought it.”
Sokka looked rather close to tears. “Katara, you didn’t have to-”
“You needed one,” she shrugged. “Your old one’s on its last leg and if you’re gonna be an engineering major, you’ll need a good calculator. It was a worthwhile investment.”
(Sure, it had taken two weeks of overtime work at the shop to pay for it, but she knew her brother needed it and she was proud to have been able to give him a gift that would matter.)
Sokka reached across the table and hugged her. “Thank you, Katara,” he said. “So much.”
“Of course.” She gestured to Aang, all too eager to get their eyes off of her. “Aang, have you opened one yet?”
He shook his head, grabbing a package. “Who had my name?”
“I did,” Suki told him, raising her hand. “I hope you like it.”
He opened a tiny box to reveal a geode with a teal center, grinning from ear to ear when he picked it up to examine it. “For my collection?” he asked.
Suki nodded. “I’m sorry that it’s so obvious, but...I couldn’t really think of a better gift for someone who collects rocks,” she explained. Aang reassured her that he was delighted - his interest in geology was well-known in the group and he loved collecting unusual rocks - and Suki looked relieved as they moved on to Suki, the last member of the group not to have opened anything.
After deciding that the exchange was taking a bit too long, the group opted to let Suki open all three of the gifts in front of her at once. She thanked Aang, her partner, for a sweatband he’d given her to replace a beloved old one that she’d lost at taekwondo recently; was amused with Katara’s practicality when she gave her a 50-pack of hair ties, but nevertheless thanked her profusely because both girls were always using, abusing, and losing them; and nearly cried when Sokka presented her with a heart-monitor necklace made specifically for her based on a recording of her heartbeat. Fitting, Katara thought, though she’d known about the gift all along.
Then it was Aang’s turn to finish up.
“Batteries?” he asked, confused, when he unwrapped Toph’s gift.
“They were on sale,” Toph told him, as if that was all the explanation he would ever need of her unorthodox gift choice.
(The meditation journal and pack of jelly beans - his favorite - that Katara gave him were received with a little less confusion.)
They were all in tears of laughter by the end of the night, once everyone had opened their gifts and Iroh had come by with a new round of macarons to snack on while the group admired their loot. A few patterns had emerged: Katara’s gifts were unerringly practical; Toph’s were mostly meant to troll; Sokka’s were somehow useful and stupid at the same time; Zuko barely gave any; Suki’s were personal but unsentimental; and Aang’s were incredibly sweet. Zuko had nearly been reduced to tears by Katara’s gift, a bundle of letters in envelopes marked for specific occasions: “for when you’re feeling down,” “for when you’re homesick at college,” “for when things are going great,” “for our first anniversary,” and anything in between. (She’d been a little too proud of that, even as she noted with a pang that Zuko hadn’t given her anything in return.) And though some selections had been rather odd (a flashlight - also on sale - from Toph to Aang, and a blood pressure cuff from future nursing student Suki to Sokka, because ‘you need to keep tabs on that before you give yourself a heart attack’), there was a congenial air in the room, and the group traipsed out of the shop laughing and chatting.
All but Katara, who hung back with a lump in her throat in spite of the festivities.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” Zuko asked when he noticed her standing away from the group as they said their goodbyes. She didn’t say anything for a moment, just looking up at him with huge, regretful eyes. Does he really not know?
“Nothing,” she said, forcing a smile.
“Wait, is this about me not giving you anything?” he asked. “Because I am. It’s just...an experience, not a thing.”
“An experience?” Katara raised an eyebrow. “That sounds-”
“No, like, a thing you’ll want to do!” he corrected himself, growing flustered. “I’ll text you the information. I promise you’ll like it! But you’re going to have to wait until the 26th because I can’t leave on Christmas and-”
She rocked upwards onto her toes and kissed him sweetly, relief washing over her. “I don’t mind,” she whispered. “I’m just glad you didn’t forget.”
He leaned down to steal another kiss. “I could never.”
Sokka was driving her home, so they bid their farewells at the curb with a quick kiss and a hug that lingered longer than it should’ve. “Merry Christmas, Zuko,” she said softly as she walked away, not wanting to disturb the hush that had fallen over the night.
“Merry Christmas, Katara,” he replied, watching her walk to the car and drive away.
She held his gaze until they turned the first corner with a tiny smile.
My grandfather really has given my grandmother batteries, a flashlight, and a blood pressure cuff for Christmas before, and I can 100% see Toph doing the same.
Chapter 20: You and Me and the Open Road
In which a road trip is taken.
*written by Sarah (lettersfromnowhere)*
The fact that this story is set in Phoenix is 100% an homage to the lovely @MaliaIsBoring. Fight me. And this chapter is definitely an homage to the fact that I wanna go on a road trip. Fight me again.
(Fluff, but I couldn't NOT include a *teensy* bit of angst! I'm proud of this one.)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Katara couldn’t remember the last time she’d been up so early, at least not purposefully.
After she’d gotten Zuko’s text at seven last night - meet me in front of the building at 1:30 followed by going to bed now so I won’t fall asleep in the car - her mind had been racing, wondering what exactly she was meant to be doing that would require her to be up at such an ungodly hour. And even if her mind hadn’t been racing, analyzing every possible reason for the odd request, she wouldn’t have even thought it worthwhile to sleep - he was driving, and she’d never be able to get any meaningful amount of sleep with the anticipation of the next morning hanging over her. Katara had an idea of what to expect - she figured it was the Christmas gift he’d alluded to at the gift exchange a few days ago - but she couldn’t fathom why his gift would involve leaving so early.
(Or how he’d ever gotten her family to go along with it. Leaving with her boyfriend in the wee hours of the morning - what kind of bizarre parallel universe was she living in where Gran-Gran was fine with that? Where Sokka wouldn’t murder said boyfriend in cold blood for the mere suggestion of it?)
“I can’t believe Gran-Gran’s letting you do this,” Sokka whined, throwing a pillow over his face to block out the noise as she packed (Zuko hadn’t told her to bring anything, but she liked to be prepared). “Going on a road trip with a boy that leaves at one-thirty?”
Katara glanced over at their alarm clock, which read 1:12. “You weren’t going to fall asleep for at least an hour and you know it,” she countered, sticking out her tongue at him. “Besides, you people are always saying I need to get out more, and Gran-Gran loves Zuko. How could she say no?”
“Please don’t be dumb,” he sighed. “I really don’t need to wake up tomorrow and find out you got yourselves killed or arrested doing...whatever it is you’re going off to do at one-thirty in the morning- ”
“Hm. I’ll remember that you said that next time Gran-Gran wants to know what you and Suki are up to,” she said sweetly, folding a blanket into her duffel bag. She surveyed its contents and, deciding that she could not possibly have missed anything, zipped it up. (Sokka groaned at the noise, which was rich, given that he’d been fully awake and playing Minecraft with Suki and his football friends until he’d decided to make a scene.) Brushing her hands to clear the imaginary dust from them, Katara grabbed Zuko’s red hoodie from the place she’d set it on her nightstand, pulled it over her camisole and sweats, and padded down the hallway to their kitchen to grab a few snacks.
She checked her phone - 1:21, it read - and raced down the stairs after she’d pulled on her sneakers, cringing with every slap of their rubber soles against the stone stairs of their building. She hoped the echo they created as she ran wouldn’t carry but wasn’t optimistic, so she settled for the comfort of knowing she’d be out of the woods by the time any neighbors she might’ve awoken were awake enough to be mad about it.
Zuko was a little bit early, already sitting in his car when she reached the parking lot. He grinned when he saw her approach, rolling down his window. “Morning, sleepy,” he teased. “Ready?”
“You know I didn’t sleep,” she teased. “So are you going to tell me where we’re going or what?”
“Mm...nope.” He smirked as she climbed into his passenger seat, leaning across the center console for a quick kiss. “That would spoil the surprise.”
Katara crossed her arms. “You’re getting me up at 1:30 in the morning and you’re not even going to tell me why?”
“You’ll see,” he teased. “Want music?”
“Sure.” She took the aux cord that he offered her, setting up a playlist and relaxing back against the cracked leather of her seat. She smiled across at him before she reclined the seat, shifting to her side to relax against it.
She nodded off in minutes and he smiled.
The sky had barely begun to lighten as the car wound its way across desert highways, past cactus fields and rolling shrub-covered hills. Four hours of driving and they were meandering down a winding highway cut into the rocky foothills; Katara had been sleeping soundly, the soft music she’d chosen still piping through the speakers.
She was beautiful this way, carefree and soft in her sleep. He knew Katara carried the weight of the world in her waking life, but when she slept she looked was like she was young again. Her face was open and relaxed, and a tiny smile curved at her mouth even in her sleep. Her arm twitched and her smile widened, and for a moment he wondered what she was dreaming about.
(Later, thinking about that moment, he’d find himself wishing it was him, but he doubted it was.)
He just watched her, unaware that his eyes had left the road until he felt the road curve and - oh. He looked back to the road, regretfully tearing his eyes from his sleeping girlfriend to focus. She began to stir in the passenger seat a few moments later.
“Hey,” she mumbled groggily. “Where are we?”
“Close,” he said. “Morning. Sleep well?”
“Mmph,” she muttered, checking the clock. “Good enough. It’s five already? Where are we going?”
“Somewhere you’re gonna want to see,” he said, grinning. “We’re close. Only about an hour out.”
“Another hour?” she whined. “You’re only making it harder to not ask where we’re going, you know.”
“Yeah, but you’ll see.”
“You keep saying that,” Katara huffed. Nevertheless, a tiny smile crossed her features.
“Because it’s true. You bored?”
“I just woke up, Zuko,” Katara reminded him. “But...yeah, a little.”
“Let’s play a game, then.” He glanced over at her in the rearview mirror to see what she thought.
“A game?” a faintly amused expression crossed her face. “Like what?”
“I dunno.” He smiled sheepishly. “I’ve just...never really been on a road trip, and I’ve heard it’s something people do. So I wanted to try it.”
“Aw.” Katara returned his smile, hers a little fonder than his. Combined with the sleepy haze still evident on her face, Zuko thought her rather too adorable for words. “Let’s do it, then. Any ideas?”
“Um...I may or may not have Googled this before we left,” Zuko admitted, his face warming. He’d never admit it to anyone but Katara, but this day wasn’t entirely about her - it was no secret that taking the classic road trip had been one of his childhood dreams, unfulfilled until this chance to share it with her. He’d jumped at the opportunity to recreate that experience he’d never had as a child and which, somehow, meant so much.
Deep down, he knew why he’d wanted to do this. It seemed like the ultimate mark of a loving family, one he’d hear his classmates discussing after summer breaks with a pang of loneliness. There was something he romanticized about setting out on a cross-country car trip, sharing hours upon hours, talking and stopping at dumb roadside attractions and playing inane word games to pass the time. It took a degree of patience and stability and love that his family could never have reached to take a trip like that. And Iroh would gladly have taken him if he knew, but Zuko didn’t think it would be quite the same, just him and his uncle and the glaring elephant in the room driving thousands of miles.
Road trips meant family meant stability meant happiness and innocence and youth and he had none of those things, not until Katara had given them to him without even being asked, and for that he had to repay her. And he knew exactly how.
“So what’d you find?” Katara asked, her expression warm and fond and full of everything he’d imagined a road trip was supposed to be like.
“Well, there’s this one that I thought might be kinda fun where you say a song lyric and the other person says another one that starts with the last word of the first one,” he said. “So, like, if my lyric was ‘do all the things I should’ve done when I was your man,’ you could follow up with ‘man, I feel like a woman,’ that kind of thing. I know it’s kinda weird, but if you don’t mind-”
“Zuko, that sounds perfect.” She reached across the center console to lay her hand on his forearm. “What, do you think I wouldn’t be into cheesy roadtrip games? Have you even met me?”
“I wasn’t sure,” he admitted. “But, uh...wanna start?”
“Oh, um, sure.” Katara paused to think. “Um. ‘If life is a movie, then you’re the best part,’” Katara started. “You know that one?”
Zuko squinted, trying to remember if he’d heard those words. “No, I don’t think I have. What’s it from?”
“Here, let me show you.” She switched the music on her phone, which was attached to a charging cord. “Wait, when did I plug this in? I don’t remember-”
“Oh, I did that,” Zuko told her. “It was about to die because of your music, so I went ahead and plugged it in for you.”
She looked like she was going to melt. “What did I ever do to deserve you?” she said softly, raising her eyes to glance over at him with a gaze that could give a person multiple cavities.
“It’s nothing,” he said, a little too pleased to have been able to anticipate her needs like that. “We’re going out of state. You needed to have it charged.”
“Anyway,” Katara continued as the opening guitar chords of the song began to play. “This one. It kinda reminds me of us.”
He nodded along, smiling to himself as he listened to the soft melody. “I like it,” he said after a moment. “Now…’part’? Was that my word? Hm.” He paused to think. ‘you will always be a part of me’ - isn’t that a Mariah Carey lyric? Except...just the part that starts with part?”
“Oh, yeah, ‘Always Be My Baby.’ That works. Uh…is it ‘me’ now?” Katara asked. “Hm. Uh...there’s gotta be a song that just has the lyric ‘me and you’ in it, right? Can I just go with that?”
Zuko rolled his eyes. “Weak. Can’t you think of-”
“Hey, I’m indulging you here.” Katara stuck out her tongue at him in the rearview mirror. “Now your turn. ‘You.’ Should be easy.”
“Oh, I have one for this. ‘You love me with your bones,’” Zuko replied.
Katara scrunched her nose. “Never heard that. What song is it from?”
“Hand me your phone.” He gestured for her to hand it over and she glared at him. “Yes, babe, I know I’m driving-”
“Did you just call me ‘babe’?” Katara looked like she was a few seconds from jumping through the ceiling in excitement. His cheeks heated; it hadn’t exactly been intentional. Sort of slipped out, like it did when she used the term of endearment so casually.
“Um, yeah, I guess I did. What’s the problem?” he asked, a little more aggressively than he’d intended to. Katara shot him a look but handed her phone over so he could queue up the song.
“My word was ‘bones,’” Katara said, but she didn’t bother to follow up once the song began to play. She just sat and listened, humming along once she picked up the melody.
“You said the one you played earlier reminds you of us,” Zuko said after about a minute of music. “This is that song for me.”
Katara nodded, lost in thought, before looking up the lyrics. “‘You love me with your bones, you hold me when I’m broke, you don’t ask for a thing…’” she trailed off, looking up again to meet his eyes. “Well, that’s us, all right.”
They drove on towards the rising sun.
It was about half an hour before they talked again.
“Katara?” Zuko asked softly, trying to break her from her thoughts gently. She’d closed her eyes, listening to every word of the songs they’d chosen (all ones with personal meaning, important songs, ones both considered essential to understanding them - this time was practically sacred), and leaned back against the seat.
“Do you trust me?” he asked.
She sat up, opening her eyes. “Of course I do, Zuko. You know that.”
He smiled to himself. “Then, if I ask you, will you close your eyes?”
Katara raised her eyebrows. “Sure, but why?”
“I want this to be a surprise.” He handed her a towel, clearly intended to act as a makeshift blindfold. “If you really want to be surprised, put this on.”
“Seems a little excessive, but okay,” Katara muttered, tying on the towel. “It’s not even really light outside yet, but if you insist…”
“You don’t have to, but I thought you’d want to keep it surprising. We’ve only got about fifteen minutes to go, so if you want to not know, I’d recommend it.”
“Well, I do like surprises.” She tied the blindfold around her eyes and leaned back. “Can you queue up a few more songs? I’m gonna need something else to do if I can’t see.”
He was all too happy to oblige.
“Okay, we’re here.” Zuko put his car in park and reached over to squeeze Katara’s hand. “And about ten minutes ahead of schedule. We made good time.”
“What could possibly be happening at six-thirty?” Katara asked, feigning grumpiness when he could tell she was itching to see where he’d taken her.
“Something you won’t want to miss,” he promised. “Okay, don’t freak out, but can I carry you a little ways?”
He could see Katara’s eyes narrow even through her blindfold. “Um. I mean, sure, but this is getting weirder by the minute. Blindfolds, and now carrying me? Zuko, what exactly are we doing?”
“Okay, I know it’s weird, but it preserves the integrity of the surprise,” he told her, crossing her fingers she’d go with it. It was hard to explain, but he knew she’d instantly know where they were if he let her walk. “It’s only a few hundred feet. Think I can do that?”
“Okay,” she conceded, stepping out of the car and letting him hoist her onto his back, piggyback style. “Will I need anything?”
“Just your phone, I guess,” Zuko replied, beginning to walk. Watching the scenery in front of them, Zuko’s heart thumped with anticipation. I hope she loves this. She’s going to love this, right?
Katara settled against him after a moment, resting her cheek against his shoulder as he walked. “It’s chilly,” she mumbled, pressing as close to him as she could to preserve body heat. “Is it gonna be snowing when I get down? Is that why you wanted to carry me - so I wouldn’t slip on ice?”
“We’re not in Arizona, but it’s not that cold,” Zuko chuckled. “I have a blanket. We’ll be okay.”
“Hm. Okay, then.”
Once he reached a spot with a decent view, he set Katara down and untied her blindfold. He could feel her heartbeat pick up from the spot where he stood behind her and he knew she was figuring things out as the substance beneath her shoes spread out under her weight. “Zuko,” she said breathlessly. “Are we-”
“Merry Christmas, Katara,” he said, pulling the blindfold away and watching her face as she took in the scenery.
She glanced down at her feet first and her blue eyes widened to saucers when she saw the sand under her feet, even wider when she glanced out to the waves lapping the shore in front of them. The sound of the sea rang in their ears and her eyes moistened.
“Zuko, you didn’t,” she gasped, pressing her hand to her mouth. “You...drove me all the way to the ocean?”
“You told me you missed it,” he said, wrapping his arms around her waist from behind. She reached up and gripped his arms for dear life. “I hope this is a good enough gift-”
In a split second, she let go of his arms, turned so fast she nearly gave him whiplash, and crashed into him, pressing her lips to hers as if the fate of the world depended upon it. She pulled away breathless and pressed her forehead to his, smiling as her breath came in short. “I love you, Zuko,” she panted. “So much.”
“I’m glad.” He smiled almost dazedly until he realized what he’d said. “Wait! No. I mean, I love you too. Gaah, I’m so bad at this-”
She silenced him with another quick kiss. “Why so early, though?” she asked.
“Oh, right.” He took her shoulders, turning her around as he draped the blanket he’d brought around her. “Because of that.”
In the far-off distance, the sun was beginning to peek over the horizon, staining the line between sea and sky a brilliant orange, and Katara’s eyes filled again. “That’s why? To see the sunrise?”
“Mmhm.” He leaned his chin against her shoulder. “I’ve heard this is supposed to be romantic.”
“Mm, extremely.” She snuggled into his arms. “Thank you.”
“Of course,” he whispered. The moment felt too special to profane with any louder sound. “I’m just glad you love it.”
They watched the sun crest above the horizon and settle over the water with the sound of the waves beating the shore in their ears and Zuko couldn’t help but think that six months ago he’d never have been able to imagine that he’d ever experience a moment like this. He’d never have been able to imagine her, this happiness, the light at the end of the tunnel he’d seen so clearly since he met Katara.
But this was not six months ago, and for that he thought he would always be grateful.
“How’d you come up with this?” Katara asked as they sat at a bench by the water, working on a pair of identical ice cream cones despite the sixty-degree gloom. (Apparently California was not eternally seventy-five and sunny, Katara was learning.)
“I’ve always wanted to take a road trip.” Zuko shrugged. “And you said you wanted to go to the ocean, so...why not?”
“Well, it’s perfect.” She leaned over to steal a strawberry-flavored kiss. (When it came to ice cream, he swore by strawberry, for whatever reason.) “I can’t believe you actually drove five hours for me.”
“It was fun,” he said, squeezing her hand. “And it was worth it to see your face when you figured out where we were.”
“I’m lucky,” Katara sighed. “Really lucky.”
“Lucky I showed up at your work.” She smiled. “Lucky I talked you into going to homecoming with me. Lucky I fought your sister and had to go home with you. Lucky I had the courage to kiss you when I knew you wouldn’t do it if I didn’t-”
“I would have eventually!” Zuko protested.
“Right.” Katara smirked. “And I’m lucky I ended up with a boyfriend who does stuff like this.”
“Hey, I only do it because I’m lucky to be with someone like you,” Zuko replied.
They paused for a moment, unsure what else to say. Then Katara piped up, her eyes on the ocean and not Zuko.
“What are we gonna do when you graduate?” she asked, her voice small.
He reached over and grabbed her hand as if to reassure her, though he knew he had no real way to do so. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I’ve thought about it too, and...I just don’t know.”
“I don’t want to think about it, but I’m going to have to eventually,” Katara said, staring at her shoes. “These past four months with you have been...”
“The best four months of my life,” he finished. “Seriously. I can’t believe how lucky I got.”
“-and I don’t want them to end,” Katara admitted. “But they have to.”
“But they have to,” Zuko repeated. “I wish they didn’t, but…”
“They do.” Katara squeezed his hand but wouldn’t look at him. “I’m scared, Zuko.”
(He wasn’t about to admit that he was just as terrified.)
“Of losing you. Losing us.”
“Leaving doesn’t have to mean saying goodbye,” he told her, pulling her into him until she reclined against his side. “Really. We can make this work.”
“Can we?” Katara finally met his eyes and he found they were swimming with tears. “I want to, Zuko, more than almost anything. But can we make this work? Are you willing to do long-distance?”
“I might not go out of state, Katara,” he reminded her. “I applied to ASU, remember.”
“Yeah, but you and I both know you’d hate it there.” He didn’t want to admit that she was entirely correct. “You at a party school? You’d be miserable.” Katara nuzzled against his neck. “I want you to be happy, Zuko, not just nearby.”
He sighed. “I know, Katara. And honestly, I want to leave. But...I hate the idea of not seeing you for three months.”
She wrapped her arms around his waist. “I do too,” she mumbled against his shoulder. “But you have a whole future to think about that might not even involve me-”
“Please don’t say that.”
“It’s true, Zuko,” she sighed. “As much as I hate thinking about it, it’s true.”
“But we can try.”
“That we can.” She smiled sadly. “We’ll see where things go, I guess.”
“You’re the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time, Katara,” Zuko told her. “I don’t want you to forget that. No matter…” he paused to breathe because it hurt to say it. “No matter where life takes us.”
“So are you,” she said softly. “Can you make me a promise, Zuko?”
“Anything, Katara,” he said, though truthfully he didn’t know what he could promise and what he couldn’t. “Anything at all.”
“Promise me that no matter what happens, you’ll remember me,” she said, curling even closer into his side. “Promise me I’ll always have a little piece of your heart that’s just mine, even if you give the rest of it to someone else.” She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to ignore the moisture leaking through the crease of her tightly-shut eyelids. “I know it’s selfish, but if I can’t have you forever, can I at least...stay with you like that?”
He barely knew what to say to that, bowled-over as he was by her request. How could he explain that he couldn’t imagine a scenario in which his entire heart didn’t belong to her? What would he say to convince her that he didn’t think what she was saying would ever come to pass - or at least hoped with everything he had that it wouldn’t?
But he couldn’t deny her, either.
“Of course, Katara,” he told her, and together, they watched the waves lap up against the sand.
Pertinent songs referenced:
-> "You love me with your bones" is from "Around" by NIKI, one of my all time favorites. TOTAL Zutara jam. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f1fLFWxCCbI
-> Katara's first song is "Best Part" by Daniel Caesar, which I TOTALLY DIDN'T dance to with my crush who actually didn't like me back at senior homecoming. Yeouch. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hKgl5-lkT8U
Chapter 21: Midnight, December 31st
*written by Sofia*
Some sappy New Year's Eve fun with the Gaang.
We're back! Sorry for the hiatus. Sarah here - I kinda needed a break after cranking out chapters 19 and 20 so quickly, so we had a little bit of a break. But we're back! Only eight chapters to go after tonight, two of which are actually written...AHHH! Hope you enjoy :)
"Come on!" Aang insisted, grabbing Katara’s hands and trying to pull her off the couch. "Dance with me!" He started to sway with the rhythm with his hand in a death-grip around hers, which made Zuko laugh beside her.
"No thanks, I’m okay.” She smirked. “Plus, I think one of toph's cousins is making eyes at you.” That got everyone’s attention, and they all glanced over. Sure enough, there was a little girl with black hair like Toph's staring at them, which made her friends burst into laughter.
Katara hadn't expected to spend New Year’s Eve at the Beifongs’ annual New Year’s Eve gala, goofing off with her friends on the huge balcony, surrounded by strangers, but here she was. She wasn’t sure how to feel about it.
"You can go dance with them if you want. I’ll be okay," Zuko told her.
Katara raised an eyebrow at him. “You sure?" Normally she would be off dancing with Aang or hanging out with Sokka and Suki somewhere else, but this time she was with her boyfriend, and everyone knew that Zuko and parties didn't mix. She could see how uncomfortable he was, with the loud music and loads of well dressed strangers. Zuko wasn't a people person.
"Just go already, Sugar Queen!” Toph insisted. “Then he gets to hang out with me.” She grabbed his arm possessively, which Zuko didn’t look too sure about. Toph wasn’t a fan of her family’s parties - or of dancing - so she was more than content to spend time with Zuko.
Reassured, Katara let Aang drag her to the makeshift dance floor, where they were playing some sort of playlist of pop songs that hadn’t aged particularly well, probably to appease the adults. She danced until her legs felt like giving out in the heels Suki had lent her, swaying to the music even when her feet were burning and her knees felt wobbly; she even got Toph and Zuko to dance with them too after an embarrassing of pleading. Finally, when a slow song played, he agreed to dance with her.
"You know what's crazy?” Zuko whispered into Katara’s ear later as they danced, not missing the way she shivered a little. “That we've only known each other for a few months. Not even a whole year."
"I know. It sounds really stupid, but I can't imagine not knowing you," she replied, and it was true. Her arms were around his neck and his notched at her waist, and she couldn't think of a better way to spend a night. She closed her eyes and leaned into his embrace; Zuko, a little surprised but not unpleasantly so, stiffened for a second before he relaxed and adjusted his grip to hold her closer.
Feeling nostalgic, Katara remembered her first day working at the tea shop, marveling at the way it all seemed so distant now. Everyone had grown so much. Even her brother, who hadn’t been too comfortable around “Zuko with the scar,” had wholeheartedly accepted her boyfriend - they were close now, and she couldn’t help but appreciate the social boost that friendship with Sokka had brought him.
"That's exactly what I mean. Without you and your ideas...I don't know where the tea shop would be. Or where I would be," Zuko said, and something melted inside her again as he awkwardly attempted to spin her.
Smiling up at him with nothing short of adoration in her eyes, Katara pressed a soft kiss to his lips and replied, “I don't know where I would be either.”
“Five!” Toph and Aang chanted, leaning forwards as if to be closer to the flat-screen TV currently tuned to the Times Square ball drop. It was now 2 A.M. in New York, two time zones away, but the Beifongs had tuned into the rerun for the midnight ball drop in Mountain Time. “Four!” They continued, following along with the countdown. “Three! Two! One!”
The ball dropped on the screen, and most of the guests clapped politely, while Aang and Toph shrieked. Some kissed, some didn’t - and Katara intended to be among them. She smiled as fireworks burst on the screen, lighting up a faraway sky as she leaned in to kiss Zuko. He tasted of the virgin cocktails they'd been drinking, and something deep inside her felt warm and giddy even after all this time. Fireworks burst inside her heart too, hope filling her with every passing second..
Please, she prayed, let me have a better year. Let things go well. Let me keep this boy.
Let me keep him for as long as I can.
When they broke apart, both grinning like idiots, she scanned the room. Aang and Toph were awkwardly trying to avoid looking at (Aang) or listening to (Toph) any of the couples still going at it; Sokka and Suki were the couple still going at it; and, beside her, Zuko burrowed under her arm as if he wanted to stay forever.
And maybe it was the party talking, or the late hour, or the glamor of the party, but something deep inside Katara told her that everything would be just fine.
Chapter 22: Startled
The Gaang hangs out at Iroh's in lieu of attending the Winter Formal Dance; Katara and Zuko have a much-needed heart-to-heart.
*written by Sarah*
This gets very real. It's a little personal, so I hope you like the realness, because it's going to be a little awkward if people are uncomfortable with that, whoops.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“I gotta say, this sure beats the stuffy gym!” Toph crowed, resting her feet on the arm of Iroh’s couch. Her head rested atop Zuko’s thigh, which was slung across Katara’s lap as they both leaned against the armrest. Aang sat on the opposite armrest, and even with Sokka and Suki curled up together in a different armchair across the living room, the sofa felt impossibly cramped.
But the good kind of cramped, Zuko decided. Sure, Toph’s positioning was a little bit unfortunate, but he liked snuggling with Katara like this, and the feeling of being both physically and metaphorically surrounded by friends left him warmer than any blanket could. He leaned over and pecked Katara’s cheek in silent thanks.
“What was that for?” she murmured, pushing herself up a few inches against the armrest to get even closer.
“Just...you,” Zuko said. “I mean, uh...sorry, I know that makes no sense. It’s just…”
“Zuko, baby. You don’t have to explain.” She smiled softly, gently pulling him in by the collar for a (relatively) chaste kiss, and the warmth he felt only grew. He rested his forehead against hers, smiling even as a blush crept up his cheek.”
“Ew,” Toph scoffed. “Need I remind you that there are children present?”
“Forget the children, none of us want to see that!” Sokka called from the armchair. 10 Things I Hate About You was still playing on the TV in front of them, but no one besides Aang was watching it anymore.
Katara crossed her arms. “You can’t possibly see us from that angle!” she protested. “And you” - she gestured to Toph - “can’t see us at all!”
“Yeah, but I have ears, dummy.” She rolled her eyes. “Honestly, you two are disgusting.”
“Doesn’t it beat a loud, dark room full of kids grinding on each other to bad hip-hop, though?” Katara offered. There was a reason they’d all declined to go to that night’s Winter Formal - the others couldn’t care less about it, and not even her role in student government could compel Katara to go to another school dance when the last one was still so disastrously fresh in her memory.
“Eh.” Toph shrugged, as much as she could shrug with her head in Zuko’s lap. “Aang, pass the Goldfish?”
He did, and for a moment all the group could hear was Toph’s crunching because someone had turned down the volume, which made for a rather awkward tableau. So the sound of Iroh’s voice calling “your pizza is here!” was as welcome a distraction as any.
“So, we obviously can’t focus on a movie for more than five minutes at a time,” Katara said after her third slice of Hawaiian pizza. (Zuko found her fondness for the flavor rather tragic, as it was disgusting, but that was a fight he knew he’d never win.) “So I propose we do something else.”
“Karaoke,” Suki suggested with a smirk, elbowing Sokka’s side. He almost choked on a bite of crust.
“You just want to watch me make a fool of myself again, don’t you?” Sokka crossed his arms with a glare; Suki met it with a smirk. “I’m wise to you, Miyahira.”
“This last name thing of yours has to be the only thing more disgusting than Katara’s ‘babe’ thing,” Toph scoffed. “You people and your pet names.”
This sort of complaining was normal and expected, and no one saw the need to respond, which suited Toph just fine. She knew they’d heard her.
“We should play some music and have our own dance!” Aang suggested after a moment, his eyes lighting up as he grabbed a slice.
“Ew, no. Isn’t that what we’re here to get away from?” Toph wrinkled her nose. “I think we should play a game.”
“Uno?” Aang, again, looked excited at the prospect.
“Oh, no, much more interesting than that.” Toph grinned wickedly.
Zuko stole a single glance at Katara in the silence that followed that pronouncement and, in a moment of single-minded resolve, both simultaneously cut in. “ No,” Katara said, while Zuko chimed in with “ absolutely not” at the exact same moment.
“Oh, come on, Boba Boy. You know you want to play Seven Minutes in Heaven with Sugar Queen,” Toph argued, not particularly fazed by that firm rejection.
“I do not,” Zuko protested, unlacing his fingers from Katara’s as a stiff blush shot to his cheeks.
(Juvenile as it was, the idea of it was not entirely unwelcome. But Toph didn’t need to know that.)
“I thought you hated it when we did couple-y stuff in front of you, hmm?” Katara teased. “What happened to that?”
“Oh, I do. I just wanted to see the look on Boba Boy’s face when I suggested it,” Toph cackled.
“Oh. Um.” Zuko scratched the back of his neck, and then it hit him. “Really, Toph? Was that really necessary?”
“You’re in one of your moods, aren’t you,” Sokka sighed. Evidently he’d been the only person more mortified by the idea of Katara and Zuko being locked in a closet together than Zuko himself.
“What moods?” Toph asked innocently.
“The ones where you feel like starting trouble for no reason,” Sokka said. “Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.”
“You know what would cool things off?” Katara cut in, suddenly frantic to change the subject. “A rousing game of Monopoly!”
Groans all around, but not a word of actual protest. Hanging out here instead of attending the dance had seemed like a great idea when they’d planned it, but what the group had failed to take into account was that without the adrenaline high - and crash - that came with attending a dance, there was nowhere for their pent-up, excited energy to go. Activities quickly grew boring, and soon more and more outrageous plans were proposed just to keep the group awake. So Katara had purposely suggested the dullest conceivable way to spend their time, knowing it’d at least keep Sokka from trying to convince them that they should egg someone’s house or Toph from locking anyone in a closet.
And it worked, somehow.
“I never thought such a boring game could be so exhausting,” Katara sighed, pressing her back to Zuko’s bedroom door to latch it closed.
“Right?” Zuko rummaged around in a drawer for a sweatshirt, his reason for suggesting they come up here after the game ended. “I almost fell asleep.”
“Mmm, sleep.” Katara grinned wearily. “That sounds amazing right about now.”
“I mean, be my guest.” A small smile tugged at Zuko’s lips. History repeats itself. “I just think the parallel is funny.”
“Parallel?” Katara glanced up at him, puzzled.
“Think about where we were after the last dance we went to,” he prompted.
Katara thought for a moment, then her eyes lit with recognition. “After the fight with your sister,” she realized, a smile playing at her features. “We came in here.”
“Yeah.” He shrugged the hoodie he’d found over his head. “Not a bad place to end up again, right?”
“And this time I didn’t have to get a black eye to do it,” she replied, approaching him and playing with the drawstrings on his hoodie. He knew this version of Katara all too well: looking up at him through heavy eyelids, hands at the level of his neck, foreheads close - this was as teasing (and as breathtaking) as she ever was. “So I call that a win.”
“Um, yeah. Exactly,” Zuko stammered, because their five-month relationship had not provided nearly enough causes for her to get like this for him to be anywhere near used to it. Still, though, he felt like he should do something, so he placed his hands on either side of his neck against the door.
Taking his cue, Katara leaned in to kiss him. True to form, it was short enough to tease and long enough to leave him wanting more. “But there is one thing about that night that I’d do again.”
“Your brother walking in on us almost kissing?” Zuko teased, though he was still so taken-aback that he sounded like he’d swallowed a bag of rocks as she leaned in for a longer kiss, this one drawn-out and languid. His heart thumped wildly in his chest, and not in an entirely pleasant way. Kissing was normal for them, safe and routine, but that didn’t feel like the gentle kisses they were used to. He knew how things usually went: Zuko kissed to show her how he felt about Katara, kissed reverently, slowly, carefully; Katara kissed to reassure him, to be close to Zuko or to show him how much she loved it that she was, kissed gently, lovingly, sometimes a little excitedly; both kissed because it felt like home. But this - teasing kisses, braced against a door, her arms around his neck and his pinning her where she stood - was nowhere within the bounds of their safe, accepted norm. You should be glad she wants you like that, he tried to tell himself, but it was a hard sell, and suddenly Zuko wasn’t quite sure if he liked this as much as he’d initially though he did.
But he knew he was supposed to - why else would he feel as attracted to Katara as he did in spite of his discomfort? how many times had he day dreamed of this moment,when no one was around to interrupt them? - and he pushed through. Katara swatted his arm.
“Okay, yeah, I deserved that,” he sighed, suppressing a shudder that had nothing to do with their closeness. “Um...my sweatshirt?”
“Zuko, I’m wearing your sweatshirt,” Katara sighed, holding out her arms to remind him that they were encased in soft red fabric. He couldn’t help but notice that her face was falling with every wrong answer.
“I’m sorry, I just…” Zuko stammered. Get a grip, Zuko! He tried to tell himself, but it had no effect. “Um...taking a nap together?”
“Zuko…” Katara’s teasing demeanor dropped, morphing into one of concern. “No. I’m talking about you insisting on carrying me everywhere, and now I’m worried, because you look really freaked out and a second ago you seemed like you were totally into this-”
“I’m sorry,” he rasped, running his hand through his hair as if it would make him less lightheaded somehow.His fingertips were starting to feel numb. “I’m sorry, Katara. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Hey, come here,” she said gently, laying one hand on his forearm and one on his back to guide him over to sit on the bed. Normally he’d melt into the touch, but now he stiffened under her hands, which he was certain she’d notice. Sure enough, Katara dropped her hands as soon as they’d sat down. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t even
Zuko admitted,attempting to regulate his breathing. “I just...didn’t know how to handle that-”
“You mean the whole…” she wouldn’t look at him. “The whole bedroom-eyes act?”
“Yeah.” He dipped his head in acknowledgement. “I’m really sorry. It’s not like you did anything wrong, I just-”
“Quit interrupting me!”
Katara flinched at his tone and Zuko immediately realized he’d gone too far. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to snap, it’s just that all of this happened so fast, and I love it, but sometimes I don’t know what to think, and I know I should like that kind of thing because I feel attracted to you when it happens but I’m also uncomfortable right now , and it’s just…”
Katara’s eyes widened with - regret? Sympathy? He wasn’t sure - and she looked as if she wanted to reach for him, but she didn’t. “I’m sorry, Zuko,” she said, her voice small. “I don’t know what came over me.”
“It’s not your fault, just…” he sighed. “I’m not sure I’m...ready for that kind of...thing...right now.”
“I’m glad you told me.” Katara couldn’t hide her disappointment that he hadn’t wanted this night to go the way she had, but he could tell she meant what she’d said. “And I’m sorry. I guess I just assumed that…” she trailed off, looking at her hands in her lap. He wanted to take one of them in his but didn’t; they sat a few inches apart, intentionally not touching.
“You assumed what?” he asked, trying to sound gentle when he suspected that he just sounded scared.
“That you felt the same way I did about you,” she murmured, wringing her hands.
“I do, Katara,” he said. That, at least, had never been in question. “You know that I love you and..I want you”
She finally raised her eyes to meet his. “No, I know that, and I love you too. I meant in other ways.” They dropped back to her lap. “Zuko, you make me feel things that no one ever has. Not any of my crushes, and definitely not Jet. I mean, a hug from you makes me feel more things than making out in the backseat of his car did.” She flushed crimson. “Crap, I really need to stop bringing that up. Anyway. I just meant that you…” she paused, composing herself. “You make me want more.”
He’d guessed as much, but Zuko still felt like he’d been hit by a van. “I understand,” he replied. “You don’t have to be embarrassed that you want things just because I’m not ready for them.”
“I just wish I’d known that you weren’t ready before I’d thrown myself at you like that,” she sighed. “I guess...remember open mic night?”
Now it was his turn to blush. “Yeah. And you didn’t throw yourself at me, Katara.”
“I guess that night, I just thought…” she ignored the latter part of his last sentence. “It sounds so dumb in hindsight, but I swear I saw you giving me I-want-you eyes across the shop.” She let out a tiny, choked chuckle. “Ridiculous, right?”
She saw that? Zuko’s face grew even hotter. “Um. No, actually, you were spot-on.” He couldn’t even look at her. “I am attracted to you, Katara, so much that it sometimes scares me. But it’s because it scares me that I feel like I’m not ready.”
“Okay.” Katara swallowed hard and nodded. “I never want to make you uncomfortable or anything, so...I’ll back off.”
“Hey, not completely,” Zuko whined, a little of the ease he felt around her returning as relief washed over him.
“Oh?” she looked lighter, too, and Zuko wondered what she’d been expecting him to say. “I mean, of course. I’m glad.”
“I don’t want things to change because of this,” Zuko said, shifting so he could prop himself up on the pillows. “I like us.”
“I like us too,” Katara said, pulling herself over to the pillows so she could sit beside him. Zuko almost immediately leaned over to rest his head in her lap, relishing the gentleness with which her fingers untangled the knots in his now-unkempt hair. “So I promise I’ll...keep it vanilla.”
“Vanilla’s the best flavor,” Zuko said, smiling up at her. “Even if I want to try a different flavor someday, it’s pretty hard to get sick of vanilla, right?”
Katara peered down at him quizzically before his words sank in and she began to laugh. “Oh, Zuko,” she gasped in between bouts of laughter. “You’re killing me with the euphemisms.”
Too relieved to be truly irritated, he took one of his pillows and weakly swung it at her side. It didn’t hit with much force, but the second she felt its weight collide with her arm, Katara yelped and armed herself with a pillow of her own. “Oh, so that’s how it’s going to be?” she challenged, swinging her pillow at his exposed chest as he struggled to sit up through his laughter. “It’s on, Boba Boy. It’s so on.”
He barely had time to land a glancing blow to her shoulder when the bedroom door swung open and both froze. “You’ve been gone a while. We figured you should come in and-”
Aang froze in the doorway when he saw them, crouching across from each other will pillows in their hands, and his eyes widened with delight when he realized what they were doing. “Are you guys…”
“Join me!” Katara shouted across the room, throwing Aang a pillow as she swung hers at Zuko. “We gotta take him down!”
“Hey, not fair!” Zuko yelped, holding his hands out in defense against the pillow she was aiming at his face. “I didn’t get to call for backup!”
“Well, we might as well make it even,” Aang said, glancing into the empty hallway. Katara caught his eyes and his drift immediately.
“Hey guys!” she yelled, hoping someone could hear her down the hallway. “Anyone down to get crushed in a pillow fight?”
The sound of running footsteps told her they’d heard, and soon Sokka, Suki, and Toph appeared, all carrying throw pillows from the sofa and ready to do battle.
Katara threw a teasing glance at Zuko, this one entirely welcome and entirely clear: prepare to get your butt kicked.
His was as clear: not on your life.
This chapter is a really important one to me because I rarely see fanfic - or any media about teenagers - that addresses certain fears and hurts that I, as a teenager, experience. One of those things is Real Talk about the physical side of romantic relationships. I have very complex feelings about this subject that I am trying to work through, and I feel as if those complexities and the reservations I have often get overlooked in teenager-centric media in favor of the idea that all high schoolers want to do is...well. As much as they possibly can. But that isn't everyone's reality! Some people just plain don't want that, others are scared because of a lack of experience or education (me), while still others religious beliefs that affect how they view such things (also me) or have trouble processing intimacy of all kinds because of past trauma or anxiety (which is how Zuko was portrayed here). Every teenager's experience is a little different, and BOUNDARIES ARE GOOD. I wanted to take this time to say that boundaries are important, and y'all high school students out there should never, ever feel bad for setting boundaries that are a little stricter than what you think is typical. (Is there really a 'typical'? Idk man.) Stay communicating, stay out of situations that make you uncomfortable! And just know that if you struggle with this the way I do, you're not alone. Much love. <3
Chapter 23: Sweethearts
The Gaang celebrates that greatest of high school rom-com clichés: Valentine's Day!
*Written by Sofi*
It's been a minute, but GUYS. WE'RE GETTING SO CLOSE TO THE END. Enjoy the fluff!
Katara was having trouble focusing in AP biology class.
It might have been sleep deprivation: she’d stayed up late finishing her homework after spending most of the previous evening making Valentine’s Day cards with Sokka and Aang. Beginning in elementary school, it had become a sort of tradition to make cards for all their friends every year; they’d never wanted to give it up. This year, it provided a moment of respite from Aang’s moping, which they’d all been dealing with all day because of an unfortunate failed math quiz.
Even in his dour mood, he’d gotten into it, and the card he'd given to Katara this year was ocean blue with a royal blue heart in tissue paper. The note he’d written inside, while sweet, left her wondering if he still had some kind of warm feelings for her, but that was an issue for another day. Preferably one when she wasn’t worrying about the card she’d made for Zuko, white with red hearts and ribbon and burning a hole in the bottom of her backpack. She still wasn't sure if he would like it, and she didn’t even know if she would give it to him; she hadn't seen Zuko yet, and maybe he would just find it childish.
(She knew it would hurt more than she wanted to admit if he did.)
Or maybe she wouldn't pay attention because she couldn’t help but look with dread to the busy day ahead of her: it was one of her "Katara is an incurable overachiever" days, with a swim team meet after school and a short shift at the jasmine dragon afterwards. She wasn't sure how she would get through it if she was having trouble keeping her eyes open in her first period. Or maybe it was because of her boyfriend’s baby sister, who was sitting behind her, quietly chatting with her friends and most likely scowling at her. Not even the overall cheerfulness of Valentine’s Day, the hallways decorated with heart confetti and the treats being passed around, could instill any sort of good cheer in Azula. Thankfully, their paths hadn't crossed that much in class since the homecoming fiasco from the previous year, but she wasn’t eager to put herself in line to repeat the incident.
In some ways, she could see the resemblance between the siblings. They had the same spark, a fiery determination and short fuse that made them as determined as they were irritable and snappy. But while Zuko at least tried to release that pent up anger through taekwondo and the countless breathing exercises Katara had seen him do at the Jasmine Dragon whenever a customer was being overly rude, azula seemed equally determined not to deal with her anger. She let it out freely, shooting verbal barbs at anyone with ears to hear them and picking on everyone under the sun.
She was, of course, doing that two seats behind her right now.
"Hey Mai, what do you think Zuzu will get his new girlfriend for Valentine's Day?"Azula snickered. Katara kept her head down, pretending not to have noticed.
"I don't know. Why does it matter again?" Mai asked, and for the first time in her life Katara was grateful for her infuriating indifference.
"Remember last year when he got you a box of chocolates and you weren't even dating? I doubt she'll get that joke of a girl he’s with now anything nicer than that.” Katara could almost see the smirk on her face, but she wouldn't give Azula the pleasure of confrontation again. She’d learned. Azula knew to hit where it hurt.
Azula always lies, Zuko had told her once. Maybe this was one of those times. And besides, she tried to tell herself, it didn't matter if she didn't get a Valentine's Day gift. It wasn't that big of a deal.
“Zuli, come on. Can’t you back off? She’s right there.” Ty Lee, as usual, tried to plead Katara’s case to no avail.
"Oh, Ty Lee…” Azula sighed patronizingly. “Come on. Don’t you know that that’s the whole point?”
Head still reeling, Katara ran into Zuko's arms as soon as she saw him, burying her head in his shoulder without giving a single passing thought to who saw them. Usually, this would be a flagrant violation of the no-PDA rule they’d set for themselves after realizing two weeks into their relationship that people, unerringly, talked when they saw couples clinging to each other in the hallways, but she figured she’d earned it after the day she’d had.
"Happy Valentine's Day!" she mumbled into his shirt before letting go and leading them to her locker where they wouldn't disturb the flock of students.
"Wait, that’s today? I thought they put hearts on the ceiling just because,” Zuko replied, tweaking her nose. He’d never been snarky, but he loved to make her laugh, and he’d learned early on that all he needed to do was lean into his natural dorkiness and she’d be smiling in no time. But today, it wasn’t quite enough, and she picked a bit of lint off his sweater with a smile that seemed a little too sad. “You're quiet today. What's wrong?”
“I'm just tired,” she sighed, because that, at least, was true. “And...your sister…”
Zuko winced, his golden eyes going soft. She didn’t have to finish that sentence. “I’m sorry, Kat. How can I make it up to you?"
"It’s okay, Zuko. You don’t have to do anything," she said, giving him a quick peck on the cheek before pulling the books she needed to stow in her locker from her backpack. For good measure, she fished out his card, knowing she had to do it before she could talk herself out of giving it to him. “Um. I have to get to calc now, but I made this for you.” Her cheeks burned and she couldn’t quite say why. “Um...I know it’s kind of childish, but...don’t laugh, okay?”
Zuko smiled softly, which was unexpected, but it made her heart flutter a little. "I’m not gonna laugh, Kat. This is...really sweet. You made me a card?"
"it's kind of a tradition for us. You’ll probably get one from Sokka too, something really sappy and embarrassing about the ‘sacred bonds of bro-dom’ or whatever it is guys say to express appreciation,” she said, turning away from him and anxious not to catch his reaction when he read her card. Zuko’s eyes locked on hers, though, and when she froze, he gently grabbed her wrist.
"I've got something for you too,” he said, a little nervous. “Um. Close your eyes?"
“Okay, then.” Katara closed her eyes, trying not to laugh at how adorably awkward he could be. “Should I be worried about this?”
“Not at all.” He placed a little velvet box in her hands. “I mean, I don’t think so? But, um. Open your eyes now. I, uh...I hope you like it.”
Her eyes narrowed, then widened with shock. Atop the white satin lining sat a blue gem - she wasn’t sure what kind, but it was bright and clear as the ocean on a summer afternoon - set in a simple backing of sterling silver, its delicate chain tucked behind the cardstock holding it in place. The necklace was stunningly beautiful, clearly expensive, and far nicer than anything she’d ever worn-
“Do you like it?” He interrupted her ramble of thoughts, looking sheepish. Katara flushed crimson. “Um. I know you always wear your mom’s” - her hand instinctively flew to the engagement ring strung on a silver chain that she’d worn since her mother’s death - “and I’d never want to replace it, but this one, um...I thought you might like it, and I know you like necklaces-”
“It’s beautiful,” Katara murmured, stroking the surface of the gem with disbelieving fingers. “But Zuko, I can´t accept this. It’s way too much.”
“No, I want you to have it,” he insisted, clumsily taking out the locket and placing it around her neck. “It, um...I picked it because the color reminded me of your eyes.
“Zuko…” she leaned in, cradling his face in shaky hands and pressing the softest kiss she could manage to his lips.
It was, quite frankly, the most romantic thing she’d ever been told, and she wasn’t about to let it go unrewarded.
“You didn't have to, you know that, right?” she said gently after she pulled back, hands moving down to rest on his shoulders. “But I love it. Thank you.”
“Of course, Kat.”
She left him with one last kiss and felt like she floated to Calculus rather than just walking. And the feeling didn’t abate, following her well into her lunch period: even after a lesson that made her want to beat her face against the desk, she felt lighter than ever, clinging to her boyfriend’s arm and laughing easily when Suki smeared cupcake frosting in her brother's face.
Every so often she’d press her hand to the pendant that had joined her mother’s around her neck (they were different lengths, both clearly visible when worn together - somehow that felt like fate, cliché as it sounded).
What have I done to deserve him?
Swim practice was usually the most relaxing part of Katara’s day. It was exhausting, and the pressure never let up as she was expected to have a slightly better record every day, but even so, her worries melted away as soon as she felt the muggy air of the pool deck on her skin, and slipped into the cool embrace of the water. Even the annoying chlorine smell had the power to soothe her on a really bad day.
But this day was different, because Zuko was there, silently and, apparently, uninterestedly sitting on the bleachers.
His gaze was fixed on the book on his lap, but every now and then she would come out of the water to stretch or hydrate, and she would find him watching her, his cheeks slightly red as he waved at her. She’d smile, ignoring the odd looks her teammates gave her, and more than once she thought about the locket he’d given her,that currently resting in a box in her locker so she wouldn't accidentally lose it or splash it with water. (The amount of chlorine they used in this pool could probably kill an elephant; she didn’t even want to think about what it would do to delicate sterling silver.)
“Focus, Katara! Four more laps!” Coach Pakku yelled from across the pool, shaking his head as he paced the length of the deck. “Your head’s in the clouds and I need it down here!”
Rolling her eyes at her coach’s typical melodramatics, she swam the extra laps and some, trying to ignore her frantic heartrate - and not just from the exercise - as she showed off. She was panting by the time she stepped out of the pool and grabbed her towel, making her way over to Zuko.
“What are you doing here?” she asked as she approached him, awkwardly trying to dry herself without removing her towel. Katara had been cautious about it, awkward in her desire not to be seen after their talk back in January, and she didn't miss the way Cuko's eyes looked at her up and down. He was visibly cowed, as if he'd never seen her in a bathing suit (he had), so she was shocked when he managed a coherent answer.
“Um. Giving you a ride to work?"
“Are you still upset?” Zuko asked as soon as she slid into the passenger seat. Zuko’s car was as neat as he was and smelled like him, and sometimes she felt like staying there forever.
“At you? I never was,” Katara replied as she carefully fished her necklace from its place in the box and fiddled with the clasp until it hung around her neck, aware of her boyfriend staring at her instead of the road ahead of them.
“You never told me what Azula did.”
“It doesn't matter.”
“What was she talking about?"
He wasn’t going to give up, that much was clear, and Katara groaned, hiding head head in his shoulder. It was probably a safety hazard, but right now she couldn't bring herself to care. He pulled into the Jasmine Dragon’s parking lot before she had to, though.
"I'm done talking about your sister, Zuko.” She flicked her lashes up and down a few times, feeling oddly bold. “Partly because she sucks and I’d rather not talk about it, but also because I’ve been waiting to do this all day.”
She answered his question with the kiss she couldn’t give him in the hallways, and he met her eagerly.
Seven months and he still melted under her fingertips - she smiled into the kiss and let herself get lost in the feeling of his hands tangling in her hair.
The Jasmine Dragon, as advertised in Katara’s impeccable handwriting on their streetside sign, was having a Valentine's Day promotion: buy one boba, get one free dessert - everything in pairs, perfect for a casual date. And the idea (which, though Katara was loath to give him credit, had been Sokka’s) had been a fantastic one: groups of friends and couples in search of something sweet had flocked in, forming a line out the door. Iroh was thrilled, and even Azula had reluctantly (and which many, many promises not to start trouble with her brother’s girlfriend) come by to help with the baked goods.
"I’m very sorry, but we’re out of raspberry. Is there something else you’d like?" Zuko's "talking to customers" voice pulled her out of her thoughts. He gave her a pleading look, which meant she had to go to the fridge to see if there was any of the raspberry syrup they needed in the back. Sighing, she pushed through the doors to the kitchen.
"Watch it, floozy," Azula snapped as soon as Katara pushed through the door, shoving her out of the way with one hand while the other held a precariously-balanced tray of macarons. Katara could feel blood rushing to her face with anger; Azula had a habit of calling people rude, old-fashioned insults that no one except her knew the meaning of. Privately, and perhaps to distract herself from her anger, Katara wondered where that habit had come from. She'd have to ask Zuko later.
"What did you just call me?" Katara snapped, rummaging through the industrial fridge in search of the syrup - none there, so that customer would have to settle for strawberry. "Never mind. You're not worth my time right now.”
She pretended not to hear Azula calling her a weirdo as she walked out.
By the end of the day, Katara was so tired she could’ve fallen asleep standing up. She nearly did, leaning into Zuko while they were waiting for Iroh to close up. Azula and their other coworker had left a few minutes ago, fortunately, so no one was around to see them, and she cuddled against his side.
"Are you still up for a movie?" he asked after a moment.
"In theaters or at your house?"
"My house. I kind of set something up.”
“Aww. Of course I’m down.” Katara kissed his cheek and sent a quick text to her brother : staying late at Zuko´s. Tell Gran-Gran not to worry.
He quickly replied: Fine. Have fun or whatever. Ask him if he liked the card I gave him.
Zuko hadn’t left a single stone unturned for their night: he'd turned his living room into a crash pad, pillows and blankets strewn everywhere without looking haphazard. A basket of snacks sat in the middle of the blanket nest.
"I know it's not much, but you're so busy I figured it would be better than a normal night out or whatever people usually do for Valentine's Day," he said, wringing his hands nervously. Zuko was right - life had been so hectic recently, and even though she normally loved the idea of dressing up and doing her makeup for a classic dinner date, the mere thought exhausted her right now.
(Of course, someday she intended to go for a night on the town with her boyfriend. But now…
Yes, snuggling in a nest of blankets sounded perfect.)
"I love it,” she reassured him, taking a seat next to the snacks and beckoning for him to join her. “I love you.”
“Love you back,” he replied, pulling her into his lap. She laughed, squirming, until he kissed her temple and she stilled.
"When did you set this up?"
"This morning. Uncle helped me."
Katara beamed at him and settled comfortably against his chest, letting his familiar warmth wrap around her. “This was so sweet of you,” she said softly, ripping open a box of M&Ms and beginning to empty it into a contained of popcorn.
"What are you doing ?” Zuko sounded as horrified as he probably looked.
"Nothing much,” Katara chuckled, pouring the rest of the candy into the bowl and mixing it in."I just like to have them with the popcorn. Sweet and salty, you know? "
Zuko shook his head. "You're crazy, babe.”
"Try it!” she shoved the bowl of popcorn at him until he reluctantly took a bite and she couldn’t help but laugh at the way he looked like he wanted to spit it out.
“Um. That tastes terrible.”
“You’re entitled to your own wrong opinion,” she said sweetly, kissing chocolate off his lip.
Moments later, when she was resting her head on Zuko chest and listening to his heartbeat instead of paying attention to the movie, Katara let her guard slip. She allowed herself to forget, even just for a minute, about the upcoming swim season, about the tests and projects coming up, about the fact that soon three of the people she loved the most in the world would be leaving her. She let herself focus on how warm she felt in his arms, how he looked at her with such softness whenever he turned from the movie to watch her instead.
She let herself stay here, mind stalled in the moment instead of racing off towards the future.
“Your hair smells so good,” Zuko whispered after a moment, and his tired rasp made her giggle. He pressed a kiss to her hair and she shifted happily, perching her chin atop his shoulder and hugging herself to his chest.
“Why are you smelling my hair?” she teased, leaning up to kiss him. She couldn’t imagine, right now, what it would be like not to be here with him every day, to live without the gentle comfort of his touch day-in and day-out for months at a time. It wasn’t a happy thought; for now, she chased it away, running her thumbs along the contours of his jaw as she kissed him.
“That’s classified,” he said, and they had to remind themselves that his uncle was sleeping upstairs to keep themselves from laughing too loudly.
“Zuko?”she said once the credits were rolling and they were both half asleep, curled into each other.
“Thank you for today.” Katara cuddled in closer. “You’re too good to me..I didn't even give you a gift, other than the card, and I…” she trailed off, her face burning.
He seemed surprised at her gratitude.
“Hey, no.” He rested his hand at the small of her back, pulling her in. “You deserve it. You…” he paused, searching for words.
“You’re going to make fun of me.”
“I’m not, Zuko, I promise.”
“You, um. Well, it’s cheesy, but…” he smiled against her hair. “You’re the only gift I need.”
“Hm. That was cheesy.” She leaned up to kiss him. “But I happen to like that sort of thing.”
Chapter 24: Acceptances
The elder members of the Gaang face a nerve-wracking milestone.
*Written by Sarah*
Dude. I'm so tired right now. I wrote this, like, two months ago, and whoa, I never thought I would be in college by the time I posted it, but here we are. Have fun...?
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Moment of truth!” Sokka whooped, holding up a grocery bag of mail as he and Suki burst through the Jasmine Dragon’s doors. “You ready, Zuko?”
Zuko poked his head out of the door leading to the kitchen - it had been impossible not to hear Sokka announce his arrival - and grimaced. “Not really,” he admitted. “I’ve got mine in my backpack.”
“Oh, come on, babe. You’ve got this,” Katara reassured him with a quick peck on the cheek as he disappeared into the back again.
“Thanks, but no,” he muttered, even though he knew she couldn’t hear him. Back in January, the three seniors in their group had made a pact to wait to open any of their college acceptance letters - even the e-mailed ones - until they’d all received letters from every single one of the schools they’d applied to, so they could find out where they had and hadn’t been accepted as a group. Zuko had welcomed the idea at the time, even asking Iroh to hide any college-related mail from him so the sizes of the envelopes (thick ones were acceptances, everyone knew) wouldn’t give anything away. But he was starting to wonder if it had been a good idea.
Who’s possibly going to want to take me? he thought, stirring the tapioca mixture with sweaty hands. He’d never been competitive about college acceptances the way Azula was, but he’d worked hard for what comparatively little he’d achieved, and he hated the idea of a pile of rejection letters. He’d done well in school, excelled in martial arts - but he’d heard a million horror stories from last year’s seniors about how nothing seemed to be enough for some colleges. He could only hope that, when he opened his letters, they’d begin with we are pleased to offer and not we regret to inform you .
“Hey, you okay?” Katara peeked into the kitchen. “Only twenty minutes left on this shift.”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he sighed. That was another issue. Acceptances meant that he could no longer ignore the reality that next year would probably take him far away from Katara, and he’d been doing his best not to face that. He wanted her close and he wanted that for as long as he could have it - and if that time was going to be short, he didn’t want to spend it thinking about how far from Katara he was going to be next year.
“No, babe, you’re not.” Katara crossed the kitchen in only a few strides and stood in front of him, not touching him - she’d been cautious about that lately, for which he was grateful - but meeting his eyes with a meaningful expression. “Are you worried?”
“A little,” Zuko admitted. “That I won’t get in anywhere.”
“Nonsense, Zuko.” This time Katara broke her no-unsolicited-touch rule (okay, so it was a little overkill, but Zuko was still touched by the obvious care she showed for him in doing so) to grab the hand that wasn’t stirring the tapioca, though she might as well have, as he dropped his stirring spoon into the saucepan at the contact. “You’re one of the smartest people I know.”
“Um. Have you met yourself?” Zuko narrowed his eyes. “I mean, that means the world, but you are a million times smarter than...like, everyone, so. Not sure how you can say that.”
“Well, you are,” she stubbornly continued. “And aren’t you a black belt in taekwondo?”
“Zuko, you’re gonna be good.” She squeezed his hand and then let go. “I gotta get back to the register, but I promise I’ll be here when you open them, ‘kay?”
“Okay.” He tried to smile at her as she left, but it was more of a grimace.
He went back to stirring the tapioca, lost in thought. They’d been together for seven months now, which didn’t seem like very long, but she’d become more important to him in that time than he possibly could’ve imagined. She’d been his confidant, his best friend, and the person he ran to when he was sad or confused or anxious; he’d tried to be the same for her. They’d spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to one-up each other’s grand gestures, not because they felt the need to compete but because no gesture seemed to be big enough to encapsulate the way they felt about each other - the way it felt for two lonely people with too much on their shoulders to have found someone to share life with. He’d never had anyone like her in his life, nor had she had anyone like him.
He loved her. Plainly and simply, he loved her. And he didn’t know what life was going to look like when he couldn’t show her that every day - didn’t want to imagine a life without running into her in the halls, lunches together, walking into the shop to see her already in her apron and Jasmine Dragon baseball cap, working the counter (she was always early).
But today was the day he had to face the fact that a few months from now, that would be his reality whether he wanted it to be or not.
Sighing to himself as he finished the boba, Zuko tried not to think - always an exercise in futility with him - and focused on the now. He tried to hone in on the familiar smell of the tapioca, the sound of Mr. Piandao humming to himself as he baked a batch of strawberry macarons, the bubbles bursting at the top of the mixture in the saucepan. He wasn’t sure why, but those little details seemed important now. He wanted to take them all in, memorize each one and keep them all in his mind forever.
Maybe it was a product of the circumstances, but he was sentimental today, liable to reminisce. And he remembered, glancing around the kitchen he’d spent so many years in, that someday this wouldn’t be his home.
“Guys, come on.” Suki crossed her arms. “Are we going to bicker all day or are we gonna find out where we got in?”
“But I don’t wanna go first!” Sokka whined, sending a pleading look in his girlfriend’s direction. “Tell Zuko that he should open one first.”
“Um, no.” Suki rolled her eyes, effortlessly ripping open a tellingly-thick envelope bearing the logo of Omashu Polytechnic University. “Since I’m pretty sure rejection letters aren’t this thick, I’m going to get us started” - she pulled out the first paper in the stack, a piece of letterhead, and grinned - “just to show you that it’s not that bad.” She unfolded the paper and Sokka read over her shoulder.
“You got in!” he crowed. “To the number-eighteen D1 volleyball school in the country!”
“That’s really not that high, Sokka,” Suki said, but her cheeks were tinged with a pleased flush. “But still, great team. I’m really happy I got in.”
“How do you even know that?” Zuko asked, happy for Suki but mystified by Sokka’s investment in the volleyball rankings of his girlfriend’s college options.
Katara, sitting beside him on the couch in the back corner with her feet in his lap, rolled her eyes. “He’s been obsessively researching every school they both applied to since, like, August,” she said. “Ask him what he doesn’t know.”
“What I don’t know is whether I got into BSST" - the Ba Sing Se Institute of Technology and its prestigious engineering program had been his dream since he was young - "and I really don’t want to know,” Sokka said pointedly. “Zuko?”
Well, no getting out of this one. He sighed and fished around blindly in the bag Uncle Iroh had been keeping his letters in until his fingers found a comfortably heavy packet. He almost laughed when he read the return address.
“Caldera State,” he said, nudging Katara. “I’m looking forward to the next month of you trying to convince me to commit.”
“Party school, Zuko.” Katara dug her heel into his thigh (probably the closest she could get to smacking his arm in her current position) and rolled her eyes, arms crossed. “But still, open it!”
He opened the packet to find the expected letter - “Caldera State University is proud to offer you…” - and smiled to himself. It had been a safety school, but it was nice to know he’d gotten in somewhere.
“You’re going to college!” Katara said, a soft smile fighting its way past the smirk on her face. She dug her heel into his thigh again and he knew exactly what she meant - reservations about the school aside, she was proud of him. It was a nice feeling.
“No. No!” whatever he’d been thinking was abruptly cut off when he heard Suki shriek from the armchair where she and Sokka were curled up, holding a letter in one hand and the other to her mouth. “No way!”
Katara looked concerned at first, but when she broke Zuko’s gaze, she saw the elated expression on Suki’s face and relaxed. “Where?” she cried. “ Wherewherewhere?”
Impulsively, Zuko reached for her ankle (the nearest accessible part of her that wasn’t covered in sweaty sock) and squeezed, because she was adorable like this and he felt the need to do something. It was, admittedly, a little strange, and she flushed an odd shade of tomato, but it got the point across.
“Kyoshi University!” Suki cried, and in a moment Katara had flown from her perch and grabbed Suki’s shoulders with such force that she almost fell over the armrest of the chair.
“Your top school?” Katara threw herself around Suki’s shoulders, as happy as her friend to find out that she’d gotten in.
“Top school!” Suki crowed. “I can’t believe it! I mean, out-of-state acceptance is so crazy, and I never thought I’d get in, and... wow.”
“I’m so proud of you,” Katara said, squeezing her shoulders once more with the same elated smile before drifting back to Zuko so Sokka could properly fawn over his girlfriend. As soon as she returned, Zuko handed her a slip of paper with a smile of disbelief. She snatched it a little too eagerly and her eyes widened.
“ Zuko,” she gasped. “You got into the University of Gaoling?”
“I guess,” he said, finally letting the face-splitting grin he’d been holding back escape. “Crazy, right?”
“ Zuko!” Katara pulled her feet back and fell forward to hug him with as much enthusiasm as she’d hugged Suki, pulling herself into his lap and holding on tight. He stayed still for a moment, relishing the feeling of sharing this with her. Dimly, he was aware of Suki laying a comforting hand on Sokka’s arm in his peripheral vision (later Katara told him he’d been rejected from BSST, which was unsurprising but crushing nonetheless), but he focused on the girl in his arms and the letter in his hands and the improbability of either of those things being where they were right then. She was quiet - Katara knew him well enough to know he wouldn’t react as well to the full force of her enthusiasm as Suki had - but he knew she was proud.
“That’s amazing, Zuko,” she said after a moment. “Anywhere else?”
“All of my safeties. Didn’t get into RCU" - Republic City University was notoriously difficult to get into out-of-state - "but, I mean, I wasn’t ever going to.” He shrugged. Katara moved back to her original position and he missed the warmth of her skin. “Sokka? Suki?”
“Mostly rejections,” Sokka sighed. “But I did get into the mechanical engineering program at Wan Shi Tong University, so that’s pretty cool. Not that we could ever afford it.”
“Hey, you never know!” Katara brightened. “Financial aid, right? That’s great!”
“Sure,” he sighed. He’d been in a bad mood since the rejections (and, Zuko later learned, there had been a lot of them) started coming in, and not even a good acceptance was likely to console him now. Katara looked a little worried, but snapped out of it when Suki found out that her fourth and last college had accepted her.
They were a bit of a motley group: Sokka, dejected at his many rejections (he’d had the best grades of the three but applied for engineering, which was a notoriously difficult major to be accepted for); Suki, pleasantly surprised; and Zuko, happy but conflicted.
Happy because he’d fared better than he thought he would, conflicted because accepting the best of his offers would mean the end of moments like this one.
*has to resist the urge to name a college Avatar State University*