No one expects an awkwardly misplaced teenage kiss to be the last straw for the meat and sarcasm guy. Nevertheless, Zuko can't doubt his sincerity.
"You assaulted my sister!" This is, at a minimum, the fifth time Sokka has repeated that phrase since they returned from the play. Zuko hadn't kept count on the walk home.
Zuko only half understands the subtext here, and it makes him nervous. The fire prince is not great at participating in conversations but he's usually pretty adept at following them, even with all the parts that don't get said out loud. There's an intensity in Sokka's reaction that's something beyond protective older brother. There's tension in the air that's more than the inherent awkwardness of a 12-year-old getting rejected by his crush, reacting like a 12-year-old idiot, and then getting yelled at by her brother in front of a crowd.
"There will be no excusing, minimizing, or coddling about this. You violated her bodily autonomy and it is not okay." Sokka has been half-shouting for a while now, hands clenching and waving furiously. His wolftail is askew from the exertions of his frustrated hands.
Katara tries to cut in.
"No, Katara. No. I know you want to make Aang feel better, and that's why you're the wrong person to explain this. Feeling better isn't enough, he has to do better!" He softens a little looking at his sister. "And, Katara, you don't— Women shouldn't have to do all the explaining anyway. Men need to hear it straight, from other men."
Suki's gaze has been softly fixed on Sokka; now she looks to Katara. Zuko thinks he can read their unspoken conversation. Katara tilts her head a fraction toward the older girl with a wry little smile. Well done. Then she cuts Aang a pitying look, which then sweeps the deflated group before returning to Suki with the facial equivalent of a shrug. We're all tired and upset and this isn't helping anymore.
Suki rolls her eyes but squares up her shoulders: Yes, I can be the grownup. The warrior reaches softly toward Sokka. "Babe, you've made your point and everyone's tired. This was a strong start, but it isn't something you can teach him in one conversation anyway."
Sokka turns to Suki and a great many things Zuko can't read pass quickly between them. Suki smiles and ruffles a hand through his disheveled wolftail.
"Bed." She says fondly with a tug at his shirt. Sokka smiles and follows without argument, looking a little relieved himself.
By tacit agreement no one says anything after Sokka and Suki leave. Aang looks wrecked and near tears. Katara looks conflicted and sad. Toph looks how Zuko feels: exhausted and thoroughly done with people. They all file off to their respective rooms in heavy silence.
At the next morning's firebending practice Aang is downright timid. Zuko tries to be patient. His bending tutors never went easy on him when he was upset— certainly not over something as trivial as being yelled at. On reflection, maybe he'd have been a better firebender sooner if he hadn't spent so many of those lessons trying to maintain a brave face. So this morning he leaves aside combat forms and guides Aang to focus on breathing, precision and control.
They finish with a long calming meditation. When Zuko opens his eyes, he finds Aang looking at him speculatively.
"Sifu Hotman, uh, could you… You had a girlfriend, right?"
Zuko keeps the rest of his expression flat as his eyebrow rises. Aang appears to take this as confirmation.
"How am I supposed to kiss a girl? How do you know when it's okay?"
That really does not seem like the thing to focus on right now. His face must say as much, because Aang gets huffy.
"It's important! Sokka said I need to do better! And if I can learn to do it right then maybe at least something good can come out of this" —the kid's eyes turn pleading— "Katara said I have to stop apologizing, but I haven't made it better yet and I don't know how and if all I can think about is killing the Fire Lord and how I violated Katara I'm going to explode before the comet ever gets here."
There's a halfway reasonable point in that stream of babble. Even if there wasn't, Zuko can't leave the Avatar to become some kind of emotional pressure cooker over a stupid kiss.
"Okay. Yeah. We can talk about how to approach kissing." Zuko sighs. He tries to dig up some kind of useful insight. A smile tugs his lips as memories surface. "For starters, a kiss should never be a surprise. Ever. That's just asking to get stabbed."
The younger boy's eyes widen dramatically, as if he had never considered that the object of his affections might be armed and irritable. On reflection, this may not be a universal consideration. It ought to be.
"So, you can ask." This seems like the obvious answer. Maybe it will be enough.
"That seems really hard."
Zuko can't deny that. "Well. Um. Still… you can. It's good."
"So you just say, 'Is it okay for me to kiss you now,' every time? That doesn't seem very romantic. Is that what you did with your girlfriend?"
"Okay, truthfully, no. Mai told me to stop asking."
"So how did you know?"
It dawns on Zuko that despite his relatively limited experience kissing anyone, he may actually not be the worst person to give this lesson. Mai isn't every girl, of course —there's no one quite like Mai— but months of parsing her body language like his life depended on it probably taught him things that apply to less cryptic women.
"You pay attention to her, see what signals she's giving you."
"Signals? Like a code!? That's so much easier." Aang looks relieved.
"Well, no. It's not a code. More like indicators. You sort of... notice if she's comfortable? If she seems… okay with you being there?" Aang stares at him, face hopefully blank. Not for the first time, Zuko wishes words came easily to him.
He tries a different tack. "You know when you want to approach an animal? Not Appa, like a wild animal…"
Aang's eyes light up. "Wild animals love me! Did I tell you about riding the Elephant Koi?"
"Bad metaphor, never mind." Zuko reconsiders. "If you don't want to ask in words, then you have to be very, very sure the person you want to kiss also wants to kiss you. You basically have to put yourself out there and give them every chance to walk away."
He is not explaining this well.
"Maybe you could… show me?"
"Sure, why not, this is already weird." Zuko props an arm up against the fountain and tries to imagine he is flirting with the twelve-year-old Avatar. Aang chews one lip nervously.
Never mind, Zuko tries to imagine flirting with Mai. "So—"
"Wait! Am I the girl here?" Aang sounds suddenly nervous. Zuko pinches the bridge of his nose, trying to figure out where to even start with that question. Obviously the play is still bothering the kid.
He's saved from figuring out whether to correct the world's last great hope for peace on confidence in one's manhood, the possibility of kissing without girls involved, or how demonstrations even work when he becomes aware of stifled giggles which turn into loud peals of laughter as he looks for their source.
Squinting, Zuko makes out three familiar figures in the deep shade of the lanai. Saved may be the wrong word.
"Oh no, don't stop on our account," Katara sing-songs through giggles.
"Doin' great, Sparky!" Toph cracks.
"Oh, for this I think we definitely call him Sifu Hotman," Suki chimes in.
Zuko's face burns. Aang looks a little embarrassed, but brighter for the attention. The younger boy tugs his shirt on; Zuko wishes his own were closer at hand. All three girls continue giggling.
Suki takes pity on him and joins them in the open courtyard. Not without a look that clearly says he needs it, but that's fine. He can owe her one.
"I think it's great that you're trying to learn how to approach a woman respectfully, Aang. You can try out your moves on me." She's at least suppressing the giggles now.
Aang grins and bounces closer to her, clapping one hand on her shoulder. "That's perfect, Suki!"
Watching this, Zuko thinks maybe Aang needs a conversation about boundaries that starts way before kissing. But what does he know? They all touch each other —touch him— a lot, as if it's uncomplicated.
Before he can say anything there's a loud, strangled, distinctly Sokka sound from the direction of the house.
"WHAT? What is going on here?" The Water Tribe boy zeroes in on Aang, now guilty-faced and edging behind Suki's skirts. "Aang, no! This is not— You can't— Argh! You assaulted my sister and now you're practically groping Suki?"
Aang starts to mumble something quiet about an arm not really being a grope, then seems to think better of it. Zuko tries to express with his face that none of this was his idea. Suki quirks an eyebrow and regards Sokka with amused curiosity. Noticing her attention, Sokka halts his pitched march toward Aang and visibly composes himself to address her.
"Suki, beautiful, love of my life, queen of my heart, you are a formidable warrior and more than capable of taking care of yourself." His eyes soften as he continues, frustration fading from his voice. "I respect your autonomy too much to try to ever control you or tell you what to do. You know I would never force anything on you or try to take away your choices. Not that I could anyway. Honestly, you're the strongest person I know, and…" Sokka trails off, perhaps remembering they have an audience. He seems to realize his focus has drifted.
Meanwhile, Suki's face has gone softer than Zuko has ever seen it; impressive, considering how abidingly sweet and open the Kyoshi Warrior is with everyone in their little group. There's a pang of emotion as the firebender realizes no one has ever looked at him like that and it's very likely no one ever will.
Sokka continues in a somewhat less misty tone, "Anyway, I love you and I want to protect you but I know I'm not the boss of you. Obviously. Just saying it so you know that I know."
That pronouncement finished, Sokka refocuses his attention, face severe again. "Aang! You are twelve years old and have the judgement skills of a gnat-fly, so you have to listen to me. Don't touch my girlfriend, okay? Or my sister. Just no."
Aang's answering nod is vigorous and earnest, eyes the size of moon peaches.
Suki chuckles and shares a brief side-eye with Katara before taking Sokka's hand.
"Babe, what did you come out here for?"
Sokka lights up at the question. "I was looking for you! I found this book about historical combat styles... " Already caught up in the next thing, he draws her toward the house talking animatedly. Suki tosses Zuko a mildly apologetic look over her shoulder as they go. Sokka flips Aang a last dramatic warning glare.
In the wake of their exit the Avatar crumples. Zuko pushes down a familiar sense of rising panic at the thought of this sweet, fragile child facing his father. He can't think about that. He has to focus on doing everything in his power to prepare the kid for battle. If today that means holding his hand through deeply awkward adolescent turmoil, then that is what Zuko will do. He still doesn't know where to start with that despairing face.
Fortunately Katara intervenes, coming to face Aang with a devastatingly kind little smile. (Another pang. Katara may have forgiven him, but Zuko knows he'll never merit that kind of smile from her.)
"Look Aang, Sokka isn't wrong, but he's being... overprotective. Kissing someone who doesn't want to be kissed can be a really bad thing; I think you already know that. But honestly you didn't assault me and you didn't scare me. I'm not violated, and I still know you would never hurt me."
Aang looks immeasurably relieved. Zuko quirks an eyebrow at the waterbender, knowing she recognizes the look well enough when he catches her going easy on the Avatar in training. She recognizes it now too, and sighs before continuing.
"But Aang, you did put me in a very uncomfortable position. We were all upset about the play, and you startled me and you forced something you knew I wasn't ready for. I know you didn't mean to do anything out of line, but I am still kind of upset with you."
Aang looks like he might cry. Katara sighs and opens her arms to offer a hug. It's the harshest he's ever seen her be with the Avatar, and now she's right back to encouraging smiles and open arms. Zuko knows he's scowling.
Aang just shakes his head, expression penitent. "No Katara, I don't deserve a hug right now. And I don't want to make Sokka madder. But I'm going to try to be better, I promise." He brightens. "Sifu Hotman is giving me lessons!"
"That's great, Aang!" She's back to nice teacher mode.
"I'm sure Sweetness doesn't mind stepping in to help with the demonstrations," Toph pipes up.
Zuko's stomach drops. This is not better. He has worked so hard for the barest shreds of acceptance from Katara; doing anything with her nearby makes him fumble for words and second-guess even simple actions. Now he's supposed to do this with her?
Katara blushes. Aang blushes. Zuko may never stop blushing again.
Toph cackles. Can she sense blushes? No; more likely it's the silence and his traitorously erratic heartbeat.
"Sure! Of course I want to help," Katara says.
After a long moment, Zuko shifts toward Katara, thinking he'll find a conversational distance so they can pretend to talk to each other. As people who might kiss each other do.
Still looking at Aang, Katara catches his movement out of the corner of her eye and flinches back a half step. Apparently the distrust still runs deep. He knows he shouldn't be disappointed but he is, and it must show because Katara gives him a look as she deliberately shifts back toward him.
Zuko pushes ahead with Aang's lesson. "So! What happened there is an easy way to tell a girl does not want you to get any closer." He tries a little laugh.
"Zuko, I was just startled." She looks both apologetic and a little exasperated.
He checks that Aang is following the point: "I moved towards her and she moved away, so I backed up too: no kissing here. That's, uh, how that works," he finishes lamely. Katara is still looking at him.
"It's okay, I'll move slower." He edges a little closer to her. "Try to pretend you don't mind?"
It's meant as a joke, sort of, but there's something in her giant blue eyes he's afraid might be pity. She nods. Silence stretches between them. Zuko is not sure he could move toward her if he tried.
"Smooth start, Hot Pants. Don't stop now," Toph encourages.
Now there are three people looking at him to make the next move. This is almost exactly as awkward as trying to kiss Mai the first time. Less scary, at least; he would have to really screw this up for Katara to stab him.
"So. Um. You're talking. Like you do." He looks at Katara as if for agreement and finds nothing. Then at Aang, who is likewise blank and waiting on him.
"Then you maybe move a little bit closer. Slowly. And hope she doesn't flinch. Heh."
He does, and she doesn't.
"You can, um, touch her a little bit, like maybe on the arm, just casually." He looks at Katara for permission; her eyes widen and she nods. So now Zuko is supposed to just casually touch her. He swallows.
"Maybe this would be easier if we... uh, actually talk?"
"Sure," Katara seems a little relieved too. "So, Zuko! How was firebending practice this morning?"
Zuko is abjectly grateful that she has picked a topic; he almost certainly could not have thought of one.
"Thank you for asking, Katara. It was good. Um. We worked on focus and technique. Meditation." He knows he sounds stiff, even for him. He knows he's supposed to casually touch her now, but— Maybe if they both get a little more comfortable fake-conversing first.
"So, uh, do you use meditation in waterbending at all?" he tries.
"Not in the same way, I think. But I'd love to learn more about it if you ever have a moment to show me." Katara is laying it on kind of thick with the flirting, but it's helping. Maybe.
"Uh, yeah, I could do that. Sometime."
"Thanks, Zuko," she says, gently resting a hand on his upper arm.
"Oh. Um, no problem, Katara." He turns to Aang. "Or, uh, she can touch you. That's a good signal that it's okay to move closer. Especially if she doesn't take her hand back," he says, noticing that Katara indeed has not moved her hand from the bare skin of his deltoid.
With effort Zuko manages a small step closer, noticing she doesn't tense at his presence. He tries to ignore the nagging thought that he really should have found his shirt before letting any of this get this far.
"So, watch my face…" he says to Aang without looking away. He makes eye contact then tries to obviously shift his gaze down to Katara's lips and back up to her eyes. Consciously or not, Katara does the same. Consciously, of course—she's demonstrating too.
She leans slightly into the hand on his shoulder and tilts her head up to him. He in turn leans in toward her, an instinctive progression of mirrored movements. They didn't talk about this part. He should say something. She felt bad about flinching before; will she be insulted if he pulls away now?
Katara's eyes are so bright this close; he's never noticed the darker blue ring at the edge of her irises. She's still flicking her gaze down to his lips and back, but now much closer. She angles her head a little to the side and he's still slowly tilting toward her like gravity has changed direction. Even as he vaguely scrambles to think better of it, they gently collide.
Everything disappears but the warm press of closed lips, soft and sudden and sweet. It's quickly followed by two small startled gasps; Zuko jolts upright and their eyes meet again. Katara's are just fluttering open. Had she closed her eyes? Had he? He must have, for at least a moment.
The kiss lasts barely more than a heartbeat, but in that space Zuko's awareness seems to have changed. He has utterly forgotten how to worry, but his entire attention lives for the waterbender's next movements, for the catch in her breath and the tilt of her chin.
Katara stares up at him, softly expressionless, looking half-stunned as he feels. Her lips are parted and her eyes darker than usual; she keeps blinking against the sunlight, even though it isn't really hitting her directly. Her cheeks flush pink as she gives Zuko a little squeeze on the shoulder, her hand still lingering there. The whole effect is astonishingly lovely.
"That was great!" Aang beams at them. Toph cackles again.
Then, still perilously close, Katara focuses her eyes on his and smiles. Zuko is transfixed. The kindness on her face splits something in his chest wide open, starts a spreading sunlight feeling that lights up every part of him. The smile is not quite the same one she gives Aang; there's something breathlessly else to it, something he doesn't quite recognize on her. In the glow of that smile some tightly wrapped emotion begins to unfurl in his chest.
It takes Zuko another half-dazed moment to realize he is staring, still nearly close enough to the waterbender to kiss her again, and smiling openly himself. Aang is talking, somewhere.
Before he can step back, worry finds its accustomed home in his consciousness, freezing him in place. He did not, in point of fact, ask to kiss Katara. She had been acting. They were both just acting and actually kissing wasn't really the plan. It would be the worst kind of irony if he has overstepped here, in what was meant to be a lesson on respecting boundaries. She doesn't look upset, but he still has to ask.
"Was that, uh, okay?" he whispers.
Katara nods minutely and her smile broadens a reassuring fraction before she looks bashfully down, eyes tracing his torso before she also seems to remember they don't usually stand so close to each other. She meets his eyes again, looking flustered, then breaks eye contact more decisively. They both step back and turn to Aang, who is grinning at them. Her hand stays, warm and apparently forgotten, on his arm.
"I think I see what you mean about 'the signals' now! Do you think you could show me—"
"Uh. No, Aang, I just remembered I have to go and, um, check on Momo," Katara says in a rush.
Zuko briefly recognizes a muddle of exhilaration and embarrassment on her face that is not dissimilar to his own.
"Good lesson, glad I could help!" Her voice squeaks a little and with a final pat to Zuko's shoulder she's off like a shot towards the house.
"Thanks Katara!" Aang calls after her. "That explained a lot!"
"Yeah. Thanks, Katara. Very... educational." Zuko mumbles, more to himself than her retreating back. He's still recovering from the radiance of her smile. He blinks as if to clear its afterimage from his vision and tries to make sense of the last few minutes. He kissed Katara. No, he and Katara had kissed each other. It had just happened so naturally. And she wasn't mad at him. She said he hadn't overstepped and he believed her.
Toph calls out to Aang, something about earthbending practice. The boy looks to him for permission, and Zuko releases him with a nod. Belatedly realizing he should shore up the kid's confidence, he mumbles something encouraging without much attention to the words.
As he towels off and shrugs his way back into a shirt his mind turns over a thousand details of Katara, tries to understand what it was he saw in her soft gestures. That reassuring nod, her sunrise smile, the heat in her cheeks and the flutter of her too-dark eyes. The pressure of her hand against his arm as she leaned in to him, and how it lingered there; how she hadn't rushed to pull away from his skin even after their lips had pressed and parted.
Zuko knows a barely-intended kiss like that can't mean anything, but can't shake the delicate, fluttering sense of potential unfolding alongside his heartbeat. It's almost unimaginable that Katara could ever feel anything better than tolerance for him, but as he replays the scene in his head, he can't deny that there was more than grudging acceptance written in her features, that he saw something like affection sketched in her expressions.
For a bright moment he allows himself the thought that Katara's sunlit smile might truly have been for him, that the emotion taking root behind his ribs might not be entirely his alone.
No one could expect an awkwardly unplanned playacting kiss to spark something new between two people with such a thorny and complicated history, and he knows better than to assume anything about Katara's emotions. Nevertheless, Zuko dares to hope.