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stalling only goes so far (when you've got a head start)

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i.

Katara isn’t sure when she starts to notice it.

 

It has to be some time after they all move in together, in a big old loft in a building called Western Air, that none of them could afford on their own, but when the five of them split the rent up amongst themselves, it actually manages to cost less than the two bedroom apartment that Katara used to share with Toph. It’s got four good-sized bedrooms, a nice kitchen, and a living room that’s big enough for their epic movie nights, with a big picture window that looks out across the Ba Sing Se skyline. 

 

The best part of living with her friends, Katara thinks, is that she gets to wake up every morning in Aang’s arms, and then go out to the kitchen and make tea with Zuko, and then start on breakfast while Sokka and Toph make their way out of their bedrooms, rubbing sleep out of their eyes. (They tried to get Suki to move in with them, insisting that Sokka and Zuko could just share a bedroom, but she had been thinking about moving in with her girlfriend for a while, and that decision ended up coinciding with the initial lease of their apartment.)

 

Maybe, the beginning of Katara’s realization comes one morning, about two months into their Adventures In Living Together. 

 

It’s early, early enough that it’s just her and Aang awake, early enough for the sun to be just barely peeking up over the horizon. Aang is sitting in the living room, palms open on his knees, meditating in the silence of the morning. Katara fills up the electric kettle with water and turns it on (Zuko doesn’t like traditional kettles, although he’s never told them why), and then adds more water to the coffee maker and turns that on as well. Then, she leaves the kitchen, sneaking a glance at Aang’s shirtless form in the living room as she goes, and heads for the bathroom down the hall.

 

The way that their apartment is laid out makes it so that Zuko’s bedroom shares a wall with their one and only bathroom. The bathroom is quite large, almost the size of Toph’s bedroom, which is the smallest, but having to share a bathroom between the five of them has been quite the point of annoyance in these first few months of living together. One of the reasons that Katara wakes up so early is so that she can have plenty of time in the bathroom, to get ready, or take a shower if she wants to, or use the bigger mirror in there to braid her hair. 

 

On this particular morning, Katara is halfway through parting out bits of hair for her hair-loopies when she hears voices coming from the other side of the (unfortunately thin) wall.

 

“Sleep well?” Zuko’s voice murmurs, rough with sleep. 

 

Someone hums in response, and Katara’s about to pound on the wall and make fun of Zuko for having someone in bed with him, when the person speaks up.

 

“Pretty good, yeah,” Sokka says. Katara’s fist pauses halfway through it’s trek to the wall, held up in mid air.

 

Are Sokka and Zuko…? No, that’s not possible. If they are , then why would they keep it a secret? Sokka tells Katara everything, she’s sure of that. He told her he was bi when he was sixteen, and Zuko has been out to all of them for years, so theoretically, they could be together, but it wouldn’t make sense for them to keep it a secret.

 

Katara thinks back to a couple of weeks ago, when she’d gone into Sokka’s room to gather his laundry into the next load, and found the two of them curled up together on the ground. When she’d asked Sokka about it later, he just said that they’d fallen asleep watching a movie together, and that was the end of that. This was probably the same thing, Katara reasons. Just two friends, hanging out, and then accidentally falling asleep.

 

Their conversation on the other side of the wall quiets to a volume that Katara can’t hear, and she goes back to doing her hair, squinting at herself in the mirror.

 

They’d tell her if they were dating, she’s sure of it.

 

So, Katara ties off her hair and leaves the bathroom, shutting off the lights behind her. She goes back to the kitchen and sees that the coffee has finished brewing and the kettle has boiled while she was gone, so she takes both the kettle and the pitcher of coffee out of their respective spots and places them down onto the kitchen island, ready for whoever wants to use them. The sun is rising steadily now, and Katara can hear Aang’s footsteps behind her before his arms wrap around her middle, his chin resting atop her head.

 

“Morning, beautiful,” he murmurs, voice husky in the way that only Katara gets to hear.

 

She melts back into the contact. “Good morning, sweetie,” she says. “What’s it gonna be this morning? Coffee or tea?”

 

Aang hums in consideration for a moment, his breath puffing across her neck. “Coffee, I think,” he says. “I had a great meditation session earlier, and I think that this day is gonna be amazing, so a little bit of extra energy can’t hurt.

 

Katara nods and breaks free from his hold, pulling a mug out of the cabinet and grabbing the bottle of oat milk out of the fridge that Aang already has propped open, reaching for the carton of eggs. She pours just the right amount of coffee into his mug, adds a liberal amount of the oat milk, and turns around to put it back into the fridge just as Aang is pulling it open to put the egg carton back. Katara hands him his coffee and he smiles at her, tilting his head up for a kiss. She smiles and obliges, nuzzling her nose against his just as-

 

“Oh, God, I’m blind and even I can tell that you two are being gross right now,” Toph announces as she enters the kitchen, Appa by her side. The service dog leads her to the leftmost barstool, where she always sits, and Katara’s already pouring her a cup of coffee as she sits, plain black, just as Toph likes it. “Thanks, Sweetness,” Toph murmurs, accepting the mug when Katara presses it into her hands and taking a sip right away, seemingly not caring about the scorching temperature.

 

Katara pours herself a cup of hot water and reaches for a teabag. Green, she decides, feels right for this morning. As the tea steeps, Aang cracks eggs into the frying pan that’s been heating up on the stove for a while now, occasionally taking sips from his coffee.

 

It’s quiet. It’s nice. It’s good.

 

That is, until the door to Zuko’s room opens, and he and Sokka come stumbling out, giggling about something and still wearing their pajamas, Sokka’s arm around Zuko’s waist. Katara raises an unimpressed eyebrow at the disruption to her Calm Morning, and Toph takes a loud sip of coffee to drown out their laughter.

 

“Good morning, lovebirds,” Toph deadpans, making both Sokka and Zuko go red, even though she can’t see either of them.

 

It’s Sokka who recovers first, grumbling out an, “Oh, har har,” before taking his seat at the counter, next to Toph. Zuko settles in next to him, reaching for one of the mugs that Katara has set out onto the counter in preparation for their appearance, filling it with hot water and then catching the tea bag that Katara throws at him. Jasmine. He smiles, placing it down into the water, and then grabbing the last empty mug on the counter to fill it with coffee for Sokka who, like Toph, drinks it black. (The monster.)

 

“Morning,” Zuko mumbles out after he’s taken a few sips of tea.

Aang turns off the stove as Katara hands him a stack of plates, and he carefully places a fried egg on each one of them, his hands steady. Slices of bread pop up from the toaster, and he grabs them out and then slides two new slices into the now-empty slots, pulling them down. Katara takes Aang’s place in front of the plates as he heads for the fridge, opening it and passing her the butter before she has to ask. As Katara slathers butter onto the toast, the two remaining slices pop up and she pulls them out of the toaster, buttering them as well. Aang pulls a cup of yogurt from the fridge and slides it across the counter to Katara, who accepts it gratefully and pulls a spoon from the drawer where they keep their utensils. The two of them pass the plates out to their sleepy friends and take their own places at the island, settling down for the morning.

 

As she swallows her first spoonful of yogurt, Katara thinks back to the bathroom, and the conversation that she overheard. With a deft lick to the back of her spoon, she decides to keep an eye out for any more Context, and lets go of that train of thought for the moment, instead turning her attention to Toph, as she starts talking about the dream that she’d had last night.

 

***

ii.

The next time that Katara takes note of Zuko and Sokka’s Closeness is a month and a half after the Bathroom Incident, when she’s swamped in her last year of pre-med. It’s stupid late at night, and she’s sitting at the kitchen table, staring blankly at her textbook, because what the hell does a phytoplankton have to do with anything?

 

A door creaks open down the hallway, and Zuko steps out of his bedroom, looking disheveled. His hair is in a ponytail at the nape of his neck, but there are a couple of strands hanging down in front of his face, and he’s wearing-

 

Is that Sokka’s sweatshirt? And nothing else?

 

“Katara?” Zuko croaks, stepping into the low light of the kitchen. “What the hell are you doing awake?”

 

Katara rubs a tired hand over her face and sets her pencil down atop her textbook, sighing. “I could ask you the same thing,” she murmurs, squinting up at her friend. 

 

Lucky for Katara, Zuko seems to be wearing boxers underneath Sokka’s sweatshirt, saving her eyes from the bleach that would’ve been poured into them had the situation been otherwise. 

 

I’m just getting a cup of tea,” Zuko insists. He goes to the sink and fills up the kettle, then places it down onto it’s electric burner. “I was thinking some loose-leaf camomile,” he muses, going to the cabinet to grab a mug. “Do you want some?”

 

Katara slips off her reading glasses and yawns, nodding her head. “Maybe it’ll help me fall asleep quicker,” she says through the yawn. Zuko nods and bustles around the kitchen, pulling two mugs and tea-strainers out of the cabinet, and grabbing out their small tin of camomile tea leaves. “Can’t sleep?” Katara asks.

 

Zuko snorts. “With your brother’s snoring?” he chuckles. “Oh, God no.”

 

Katara quirks up a brow. “Can you really hear him through the walls?” she asks, her mouth twisting into a frown. 

 

The kettle switches off as it boils, and Zuko grabs it to pour the water over the tea leaves, passing a mug to Katara across the counter. He moves to sit next to her, gathering up her textbooks into a neat pile on the edge of the kitchen island. 

 

“I don’t know, I mean, can you hear him through the walls?” he questions, taking the strainer out of his mug and placing it down onto the counter. As Zuko takes his first sip of tea, Katara removes the strainer from her own mug and blows on it, her breath making ripples across the surface.

 

“Well, my bedroom isn’t right next to his, so I wouldn’t be the person to ask,” she says after a moment. Then, “Does he really snore that loudly?”

 

Zuko chuckles quietly and rolls his eyes fondly, leaning back into his chair. “Yes,” he insists, “yes he does. Especially when he’s sick, my God. Sokka with a cold snores like an old man with respiratory problems.”

 

Katara lets out a dry laugh and takes another sip of her tea, considering. “That certainly sounds like Sokka,” she says. “Although you seem to have a pretty good amount of experience with his snoring tendencies.”

 

“Of course I do!” Zuko exclaims. “I mean, we’ve been living together for almost six years now, of course I’d know his snoring tendencies.”

 

Katara shifts her weight to one side, thinking about this. Zuko does have a point; he and Sokka were matched up by the random roommate program at Boiling Rock University when they were both in their freshman year of college, and they got close enough over that year that they both opted to stay roommates the next year. A year or so ago, (almost two years ago now, where has the time gone?) the two of them had moved in together with Suki after they graduated, while Sokka had started a paid internship program at Northern Air Tech and Zuko had started his EMT certification course, after majoring in pre-med like Katara is now, and deciding that medical school wasn’t for him. Zuko had gotten his certification a few months before they all moved in together, and Sokka had moved to a management position at Northern Air, so by the time that they were living in the apartment, they had both moved comfortably into the Adult Life section of their twenties. 

 

“I guess you have a point,” Katara hums after a while, taking another sip of her tea. She sets her mug down onto the counter and stretches her arms above her head, wincing when a few joints pop alongside the movement. “I think I might take this tea back to bed,” she says, rolling her neck from one side to the other.

 

“Me too,” Zuko sighs, standing from his chair and grabbing his tea off of the counter. “G’night, ‘Tara.”

 

“Good night, Zuko,” she replies, waving as he heads off down the dark hallway and back to his bedroom.

 

And maybe it’s Katara's sleep-ridden mind making things up, but she could swear that Zuko ducks into Sokka’s room instead of his own, a soft smile curling on his lips as he lingers in the doorway for a moment, before slipping inside.

 

No, she tells herself, it must just be a trick of the light.

 

***

iii. 

The next time that Katara notices that something’s Up is a month or so after the Sweatshirt Incident, as she has started to refer to it in her mind. This particular Sunday is clear and bright, a light autumn breeze flowing in through the kitchen window that she leaves open, but for some reason that she just can’t pin down, it feels weighed down with sorrow. 

 

When she wakes up, she feels stiff and sleepy from tossing and turning. Aang is already gone from bed, but when she slides her hand across the covers to where he was resting, she finds the sheets still warm, which tells her that he hasn’t been awake for too long. Katara hauls herself out of bed and into the kitchen, goes through the motions of filling up the kettle and turning on the coffee machine, before heading to the bathroom to brush her teeth. When she heads back out to the kitchen, Aang and Toph are already sitting at the counter, seemingly weighed down by the same cloud that’s hanging over Katara’s head. They’re both nursing cups of coffee, Aang’s smelling sugary and sweet, Toph’s black as always. There are no eggs on the stove, and no toast in the toaster, and Katara finds that it fits the mood.

 

She pours herself coffee instead of tea for once, sure that she’s going to need it. Then, she picks up her phone, and drops it nearly instantly, after taking a look at the date on the screen.

 

It’s Yue’s anniversary. God, how did she not realise it earlier?

 

Katara sets her phone down onto the counter with a thunk, and takes a long pull of coffee, a sense of grief settling on top of her chest. She doesn’t know how she didn’t notice it earlier; there have been signs all week. Sokka’s short temper, the faraway look in his eyes, the fact that he hardly ever came out of his room if he didn’t have too.

 

She misses Yue, of course she does- they were friends too- but the way that she misses her doesn’t compare in the slightest to the way that Sokka misses her. When she died, it was quick and almost painless for her, but so, so painful for those around her. And Sokka- no matter the fact that he was just sixteen, he was in love with her. Even Suki, Toph and Zuko, who they didn’t know in high school, grieve for Yue on this day, because they feel like they know her, just through Sokka’s stories.

 

Katara, Toph, and Aang drink their coffee in silence for a few minutes, not questioning Sokka’s absence from their usual morning banter. Although, Katara notices the lack of Zuko’s presence, before realising with a pang that he was probably with her brother.

 

Katara is ten minutes into her second cup of coffee when a door creaks open, and Zuko comes padding down the hallway, his eyes rimmed with red. Katara has a flashback to that night, a few weeks ago, when Zuko and her shared their cups of tea, but instead of a neat ponytail behind his neck and a small smile on his face, Zuko’s hair is tucked up into a messy bun, and his lips are drawn tight. He’s wearing a blue sweatshirt that Sokka got him while they were both still in college, and a pair of flannel pajama pants, and Katara’s eyes stick to his shoulder, where his sweatshirt is dampened with tears.

 

Wordlessly, Zuko enters the kitchen and grabs the kettle off of the burner, pulling out two mugs from the cabinet and the tin of jasmine tea leaves from atop the counter. He takes the bowl of sugar that sits on the counter for mornings like these, and dumps a hefty spoonful into each mug, before placing a strainer atop them and spooning the leaves into it. The sound of the water swirling around in the mug makes Katara ache for her brother, and she’s about to open her mouth and ask how he is, when Toph beats her to the punch.

 

“How’s he doing, Sparky?” she asks, her voice uncharacteristically soft.

 

Zuko sighs, reaching up and pulling out his hair tie so that raven strands fall in a curtain around his face. “Not good,” he whispers. “But he’ll be okay.” He reaches out across the counter to grab Katara’s hand, squeezing it tightly. “I’ll take care of him, okay? You take as much time as you need to grieve.”

 

Katara nods, and then Zuko’s off down the hall, mugs of tea balanced precariously in his hands.

 

Hours later, when dusk is descending upon the city, Sokka still hasn’t come out of his room. Zuko’s been in and out, a few times, bringing in food and tea and bringing out dirty dishes. He tells them that he made Sokka get dressed and out of bed, and that he’s at least sitting in the beanbag chair in the corner of his room, rather than in his bed. Katara takes some time to cry with Aang, and then she takes a deep breath and tells herself to be strong, if not for Sokka than for herself.

 

She’s coming out of the bathroom when she notices that the door to Sokka’s bedroom is cracked open, just slightly. She only approaches it so that she can close it, or at least that’s what she tells herself, but when she catches sight of what’s inside, she has to hold in a little gasp.

 

Zuko wasn’t lying. Sokka is in his beanbag chair, but he’s also sitting fully on Zuko’s lap, sobbing into his shoulder. Zuko has his chin propped up on Sokka’s head, and he’s rubbing gentle circles into his back, shushing him.

 

Zuko doesn’t seem to be saying anything at all, as if this moment has no need for words.

 

Quietly, Katara pulls the door shut and finds herself thinking that it doesn’t.

 

***

iv.

A few weeks later, the sound of retching wakes Katara at some unknowable hour of the morning. Her brows knit together and she wiggles her way out of Aang’s arms, the clock on the nightstand telling her that it’s 3:27 AM. Carefully, she gets up out of bed and closes the door behind herself, making her way silently down the hallway.

 

The bathroom door is ajar when Katara reaches it, and she pulls it closed behind her when she steps into the room, making a noise of sympathy at the scene before her. Zuko, poor Zuko, is hunched over in front of the toilet, looking absolutely miserable, while Sokka sits behind him, Zuko’s long hair gathered in one of his hands while the other rubs gently up and down his back.

 

Katara busies herself with getting a glass from atop the counter and filling it at the sink, trying not to intrude on what is an- admittedly very rare- show of vulnerability from Zuko. After a few minutes of retching, he tapers off into painful-sounding dry heaving, and then slumps backwards into Sokka’s chest, looking defeated. Katara steps forward and gently pulls down the toilet lid, and then flushes, before sneaking a look at her brother and their friend. 

 

Zuko’s a mess, sweaty, his eyes red-rimmed, hair hanging messily around his head. He tucks his face up into the crook of Sokka’s neck and sniffles. Sokka makes a sympathetic noise and gathers his hair up into a loose bun on the top of his head, smoothing a hand over his trembling back. 

 

Katara nudges the glass of water into Sokka’s head, whispers to him, “Just let him rinse his mouth,” and then slips out of the bathroom, down the hallway to the kitchen, where they keep the first aid kit. She pulls out the thermometer and then heads back towards the bathroom, opening the door to find Sokka and Zuko in the exact same position that she left them in, except this time half of the water in the glass is gone.

 

Zuko looks to be about half asleep, dozing in Sokka’s arms, so Katara sits down on the closed toilet lid and crouches down to place the thermometer in Zuko’s mouth. He doesn’t protest, so she just waits until it beeps, and then takes it out.

 

“He’s got a low fever,” she tells Sokka. “It’s not worrying, it’s probably just his body trying to fight off the infection. Do you know if it might be a bug? Or maybe food poisoning?”

 

“It’s probably a bug,” Sokka whispers, holding tighter to Zuko when he starts to stir from all the noise. “Maybe something that he picked up at work.”

 

Katara nods, her lips drawn tight. “Okay,” she says. “He should be fine, but he needs rest and lots of fluids, okay?”

 

“Yeah,” Sokka agrees. He moves his hand from Zuko’s back to rest under his thighs, and leans down so that his mouth is level with Zuko’s ear. “Zu?” he murmurs, reaching up with his free hand to tuck a strand of hair behind Zuko’s ear. Zuko hums weakly in response to Sokka, curling up tighter against his side. “I’m gonna take you back to bed, okay?”

 

Zuko nods slightly against his neck, and Katara winces for him. His arms go up around Sokka’s neck and Sokka stands up slowly, keeping his hands under Zuko’s knees and around his waist. Katara opens the door for them, and Sokka shoots her a tired smile as he walks down the hallway, carefully opens Zuko’s bedroom door, and then slips inside, letting the door click shut behind him. Katara washes her hands before she goes back to bed, lest she get sick too, and when she slides under the covers and lets out a grateful sigh, Aang’s hand seeks her’s across the bedsheets.

 

“What was that all about?” he slurs, voice heavy with sleep.

 

“Zuko’s got a stomach bug,” Katara yawns, flipping over to face her boyfriend. He smiles tiredly at her, and she returns the sentiment, squeezing his hand.

 

“Is he gonna be alright?” Aang asks, lifting his free hand up to rub his eyes.

 

“He’ll be fine,” Katara whispers, moving to nestle up against Aang’s side. “Sokka’s got it covered.”

 

***

v.

Katara deserves this vacation, but the timing could not be worse.

 

Her philosophy class (a class that she takes just so that she can occasionally understand what Aang is talking about, and a class that happens to be her only class on Fridays this semester) got cancelled this week, because the professor is on her honeymoon, which means that she finally has three consecutive days without any classes or responsibilities, and she’s going to take advantage of that, thank you very much. The minute that she gets the email about class being cancelled, she texts Aang about his schedule over the weekend, and once she knows it’s clear she books two nights at the nicest hotel in her budget, a sort of spa resort two hours away in Omashu.

 

The only issue with going away this weekend, she realises after she’s paid for the- non refundable- hotel room, is that Toph is visiting her parents in Gaoling this weekend. And that means that Sokka and Zuko will be alone in the apartment.

 

“Please, just don’t break anything,” she pleads one last time, already halfway out the door.

 

“We won’t!” Sokka calls from the kitchen. “I promise, Kat, everything will be just fine!”

 

Katara wants to respond, but she can’t, because Aang is tugging her out the door, the lock latching with a click behind her. 

 

Later that night, after a day of sitting by the pool and sipping virgin cocktails with Aang, Katara falls into the lavish hotel room bed, sighing. Somewhere far away, she can hear the shower turn on, which means she’s got at least fifteen minutes to snoop on Sokka and Zuko while Aang basks in the luxury of shower jets. 

 

Katara grabs her phone off of the nightstand and opens up the app that she downloaded some time ago, the one that connects to the security camera that she has set up in the living room, mostly as a joke. She scrolls through the home page until she gets to the option bar, and then selects ‘live footage’.

 

The feed that shows up on her phone is grainy, and the audio is horrible, but the slightly blurry figures depicted in the video are enough to distract her from the poor quality.

 

Sokka and Zuko are in the living room, swaying slightly in what could only be described as slow dancing. There’s light music playing in the background, coming from one of their phones, and as the two revolve in circles, Katara catches sight of Zuko’s content face, his chin resting on Sokka’s shoulder. Sokka’s got a hand on Zuko’s back, and Zuko has one hand on Sokka’s shoulder, their other hands clasped in the air beside them. 

 

They look happy. Calm. They look in love. 

 

Don’t jump to conclusions, Katara tells herself. Remember when you got drunk with Toph and ended up waltzing with her for a good half an hour? Yeah, they’re probably just drunk, she thinks. 

 

That night with Toph, they’d leaned heavily on each other and spun lazily around the room to the soundtrack of The Princess and The Frog, but they most certainly hadn’t looked at each other like Sokka and Zuko are looking at each other now. Zuko moves his head from Sokka’s shoulder to nestle his forehead against the hollow of Sokka’s throat, leaning his weight onto the other boy, and Sokka smiles gently at him, presses a kiss to the crown of his head like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

 

“Are you falling asleep on me?” Sokka’s crackly voice asks over the security feed. He sounds so fond, it almost makes Katara feel like she’s intruding on a personal moment, but she just can’t put her phone down.

 

“No,” Zuko yawns against Sokka’s adam's apple, his eyelashes fluttering against his cheeks. “What in the world would make you think that?”

 

Sokka grins softly into Zuko’s hair, and then adjusts his hold on him, wrapping his arms around Zuko’s waist. Mindlessly, Zuko’s arms go up around Sokka’s neck, and Sokka uses that moment of weakness to his advantage and lifts Zuko up off the ground, his hands resting comfortably underneath Zuko’s thighs. Zuko huffs slightly, but says nothing, instead wrapping his legs around Sokka’s waist and letting his head drop down onto Sokka’s shoulder.

 

“C’mon, pretty boy, let’s get you to bed.”

 

Katara watches as they disappear down the hallway, listens to the sound of a door opening and closing, and then turns off her phone and flops back against the pillows as she contemplates everything she’s ever known.

 

***

+1.

It’s late, late enough that they should all be asleep, but none of them are. 

 

Katara is sitting at the kitchen counter, pouring over her notes in a last minute attempt to prepare for her exam tomorrow. Toph and Aang are sitting on the living room floor, playing some sort of card game that they made up. And Sokka- 

 

Sokka is pacing restlessly by the door, his hands in his pockets.

 

“Sokka,” Katara snaps after a few minutes of getting steadily more annoyed by the creaking of the floorboards, “for God’s sake, what is it?”

Sokka stops his pacing- to the benefit of Katara’s eardrums, thank everything- and leans against the wall, putting his head in his hands. “Zuko’s late,” he says after a moment, the words slightly muffled into his hands.

 

Katara quirks up an eyebrow. “I thought you said he’d texted you to tell you that he’d miss dinner?”

 

“Yeah,” Sokka agrees, “but that was hours ago. That was before lunch. And now, it’s- it’s almost midnight, and it’s not like him to be this late. What if something happened?”

 

“Sokka,” Katara sighs. “I’m sure everything is just fine.”

 

Just then, the sound of a key in the lock shatters the silence that fell momentarily over the apartment, and Zuko nearly falls into the apartment, looking so, so tired. 

 

“Zuko?” Sokka gets out, before Zuko walks straight into his chest and sobs. Sokka’s eyes go wide, but he doesn’t hesitate to wrap his arms tightly around Zuko, shushing him sweetly. Zuko’s hands wrap around his biceps, and Sokka doesn’t complain when he digs his nails into the muscle, almost hard enough to break the skin, but not quite.

 

On the floor, Aang is whispering into Toph’s ear, explaining what’s happening around them. Katara is still sitting at the counter, but her attention is as far from her notes as it’s ever been, instead focused on the two men standing in the living room.

 

“Zuko, baby, what happened?” Sokka whispers, just loud enough for the rest of them to hear.

 

Zuko shudders out a breath and presses his face firmly against Sokka’s chest, still sobbing slightly. “We got a c-c-call from police who were pursuing a report on child a-abuse, and when they got there, the- the kids’ injuries were t-t-too severe for them to handle on their own, and m-my unit was closest, so we went, but the kids wouldn’t talk to anyone, and they kept flinching whenever anyone t-touched them, so I-” he breaks off here, sobbing heavily. Sokka reaches up and pulls his hair out of the topknot that he always keeps it in for work, then runs his fingers gently through the inky black strands, careful not to let them snag on any knots.

 

Zuko takes a breath, and starts to talk again. “So I went up to them, and I- I said that my father hurt me too, and one of them, the little g-girl, she asked, if he gave me my s-scar, and I said yes, and then she said that her father gave her a scar t-too, and she lifted up her shirt, and there was a- a burn scar there, Sokka, and it was huge, so much bigger than mine, and she was only seven, and her brother was nine, and they let me treat them, but they wouldn’t talk to anyone else. So I w-went to the hospital with them, and I- I talked to the doctors for them, and then they- they had to get interviewed for the case, and the little girl- she- she asked me if I’d go with them, and I wasn’t gonna say no-”

 

“Hey, hey, you need to breathe,” Sokka interrupts him, taking his hand out of Zuko’s hair and using it to tilt his chin upwards so that they can make eye contact. “I get it, sweetheart, you don’t need to keep talking about it if you don’t want to. I get it,” he repeats, voice unbearably soft. Katara wants to look away, just like she did all those weeks ago, when she was watching the two of them on her phone, but finds- again- that she can’t. 

 

Zuko closes his eyes, tears heavy on his lashes, but keeps his chin tilted up, almost as if asking for- 

 

But before Katara can follow that train of thought, Sokka is leaning down and pressing the softest of kisses to Zuko’s forehead, then each of his cheeks, the tip of his nose, and, finally, his lips.


“What the hell do you mean, ‘they’re kissing’?!” Toph demands after Aang narrates the scene to her, shooting up from her seat on the carpet and making Appa startle awake where he’s been napping on the couch. 

 

“I mean exactly that!” Aang exclaims. “They’re kissing.”

 

“But- but what- when did that happen?” Toph stutters, turning expectantly to the Sokka and Zuko, who look very overtaken by the sudden change in subject.

 

Sokka’s eyebrows knit together, his arms still around Zuko, who sighs and settles in against the warm chest of his boyfriend, waiting for the conversation to play out around him. “What do you mean, ‘when did this happen’?” Sokka asks.

 

“The two of you!” Toph yells. “Kissing! When the hell did that start!?”

 

Sokka, despite everything that has gone down in the last ten minutes, starts to laugh.

 

Katara watches as her brother’s chuckles turn into giggles, and then spread to Zuko, who’s still tearful and leaning against his chest. Sokka turns his head to muffle his laughter in Zuko’s hair, and Katara can see Zuko’s smile against her brother’s neck.

 

“Jesus,” Sokka wheezes, “all our friends are idiots.”

 

He and Zuko giggle for a minute more, while all of their friends stare at them curiously. Katara wonders, not for the first time, if Sokka has finally cracked.

 

When he can finally breathe without laughing, Sokka lifts his head up from Zuko’s hair. “You guys,” he says, voice surprisingly firm. “Zuko and I have been together since our freshman year of college.”

 

Katara’s mind goes blank, for a moment, and then it all comes rushing back to her.

 

The Bathroom Incident. The Sweatshirt Incident. The Yue Incident. The Stomach Bug Incident. The Slow Dancing Incident. Every incident that came before that, all of the little touches and looks, the hands brushing between that, the fact that Katara could never really tell the difference between Sokka’s room and Zuko’s, the fact that they always called Wednesday nights ‘Date Night’ (Seriously, how did she think that was a friend thing?)- all of it. It makes so much sense, now that she’s thinking about it.

 

“Oh,” she breathes. “Shit.”

 

Zuko’s eyes are soft with concern, his brows knit. “Did you guys really not know?”

 

Toph shakes her head. “We really didn’t.”

 

“Damn,” Sokka sighs. “I thought we were being obvious.”

 

“Wait,” Toph says suddenly, “how the hell have we never heard you?”

 

“Heard us what?” Zuko asks, then goes very red in the face and burrows his face back into Sokka’s chest.

 

Sokka just rolls his eyes. “C’mon, Toph, we’ve lived our entire relationship either with roommates or in student housing, do you really think we wouldn’t have learned how to be quiet? Besides,” he adds, looking down to where Zuko is still hanging tightly onto him. “This one likes it when I tell him to be quiet.”

 

Zuko lets out a mortified squeak, and the world is partially right again.

 

Later, after everyone has calmed down and Aang and Toph have cleaned up their cards and headed to bed, Katara stands in the kitchen and makes herself a cup of tea, watching Zuko and Sokka in the living room.

 

They’ve both changed into pajamas, and Zuko’s had a shower, and they’re curled up on the couch, nestled into one another. Sokka is braiding up a bunch of little strands of Zuko’s hair while Zuko more carefully explains what happened with the little kids. They look happy, at home with each other, and Katara berates herself once again for not noticing it sooner.

 

As Katara picks the strainer up off of her mug and dumps the tea leaves down the sink, she notices when Zuko stops talking and sighs, tilting his head up in the same way that he had earlier. Sokka smiles at him and leans down for a kiss, and Katara smiles despite herself.

 

Then, as is her duty as a younger sister, she says “Oogie,” just loud enough for them to hear, and heads off to bed for the night.