“Could you stop that, please?”
Zuko purses his lips but does as she requests, fingers gripping the wheel tightly rather than drumming against it anxiously. “Sorry.”
“No, no, it’s fine,” Katara’s quick to reply. “I just . . . I’m a bit nervous. I hope Sokka and Suki are okay in all this.” Her lips twist into a pretty frown, and she strains to see against the heavy snowfall out past the windshield. “And honestly, I hope that we’ll be okay in all this. The snow’s coming down hard now.”
Manually flicking on the wipers, Zuko leaves them running, blades cutting back and forth across the blurry glass. The world outside is a wintery haze, causing decreased visibility and slick, icy roads. “I think we’ll be okay — we’re only a couple miles away now, and even driving slowly, we’ll make it within the next hour or so.”
Sokka and Suki, on the other hand . . . they likely won’t make it until tomorrow, probably midday. Briefly, Zuko’s mind goes into a dark, terrible spiral, and he freezes at the thought of spending the night alone with Katara in his family’s cozy cabin.
Agni, how will he manage?
He glances over at her quickly, tucked into a little ball on the seat next to him. Her dark curls frame her face, and her small fingers encircle the now lukewarm cup of coffee she picked up at their last stop at a gas station. She’s not bundled up the same way Zuko is, far more used to the chilling cold than him. With those sharp blue eyes of hers, she studies him, just as carefully as he’s watching her.
Then she looks away with a blush, and Zuko feels something fuzzily warm stirring in the pit of his stomach, causing him to lurch forward and veer slightly off course.
“Watch the road,” she commands, focusing her attention back on her drink. “You don’t wanna have to explain getting into a wreck with me to Sokka.”
. . . Zuko thinks he’s already a little wrecked with her, but that’s something he definitely won’t be explaining to Sokka.
Choking slightly at the thought, Zuko’s relieved when he finally pulls them up beside the cabin, car rolling over the uneven earth and snapping stray tree branches. Tugging his coat more closely around him, he shifts the car into park as Katara slips into her oversized parka. Before she can reach for the door, though, Zuko is there, opening it for her.
The smile that she gives him in response shouldn’t cause little shivers to run down his spine, but it does, and it scares him. Tossing Katara the keys to the cabin, Zuko makes his way over to the trunk, lightly crunching over the freshly fallen snow and pulling out their bags.
The realization that they’re both at the cabin together, alone, really hits him then as Katara unlocks the door and pushes it open.
Sokka is going to kill him.
“What do you mean you won’t make it here today?” Katara hisses, eyebrows scrunched as she glares at the phone.
The sound of the faint padding of feet against the floor fills the too silent, too tense air. Zuko doesn’t need to look to know that Katara’s pacing, or to know that her lips are drawn into a thin line, or to know that she’s curling her fingers in frustration — but he looks anyway. Looking is how he learned her nervous habits to begin with.
There’s a huff, and then a sigh. Zuko forces himself not to fixate on the way her lips part when she does that—
No, he definitely should not fixate, nor should he crane his back at a twisted and jarring angle so he can wistfully stare at his friend. With newfound resolve, Zuko faces away from Katara and leans against the couch — and then maybe leans a bit more, even though he hates himself for it.
“Okay, fine—when can you be here, then?”
His ears catch onto the distorted nonsense that is Sokka’s voice over the phone, and then the much too adorable sound of distress that Katara lets slip. It warms him, for a moment.
Until he realizes what Sokka said.
“. . . Midday tomorrow?”
Inevitable as stars colliding, their eyes meet from across the room. Zuko grips on too tightly to the couch. Katara lowers her phone and hangs up on Sokka.
Looking back, he shouldn’t have worried so much about Sokka murdering him in cold blood — he’s sure he’ll die from awkwardness first.
“So Sokka and Suki aren’t getting here until tomorrow—”
“I know,” Zuko says too quickly.
“Oh, okay!” Katara glances away, running a fidgety hand through her hair before deciding to tuck it behind her ear. Zuko swallows.
“So . . .”
“So . . . ?”
Spirits, why is talking to Katara so difficult? They used to talk about everything together, and then do everything together, spending late nights staring at dark ceilings, thrown onto the warmth of their beds with the cool press of a phone against their cheeks, laughter ringing through. Conversation came with the same intricity as breathing; words ebbed and flowed as naturally as the tides. And through it all he felt like he was falling and he never wanted to stop and before he knew it gravity was tugging her up and him down and they were a heartbeat apart and—
He snaps back into the present. Katara is still looking away, the awkwardness is still suffocating, and he’s too desperate to endure it until midday tomorrow.
It’s not difficult, he reminds himself, to just say something. Anything—
“This cabin has some of the finest selection of liquor in the world, with wines imported from the best brewers in the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation.”
—but that. He sounds like an advertisement.
Just as he’s contemplating marching back to the car and driving as far away as possible, blizzard or no blizzard, a soft chiming laughter reaches him. Emboldened, he meets her eyes again.
“Alright, Zuko.” Katara smiles. “Let’s get wrecked.”
They don’t drink the alcohol they find in the basement.
It’s too pretentious, she tells him — aged and expensive and something that should be served in tall glasses at a fundraising gala for a car dealership. They’re in college. They aren’t worthy of drinking Pinot Noir or Cabernet Shav . . . .well, she won’t even try to pronounce it.
It’s probably gross, anyway. She isn’t stupid. She remembers the first time they snuck out in high school, when all they could find was the wine in her parent’s closet. It was disgusting. Bitter and sour and stale and like horseradish.
It was traumatizing. She gets stressed whenever she goes to salad bars. And yet . . .
Not nearly as traumatizing, of course, as what happened a couple years later—when the wine was cheaper and the party was dying and they were hours away from going off to college hungover, and surely, surely, there was no stupider goodbye than ambiguity, than messing things up on the night they had all been looking forward to — one last hurrah — with something stupid and romanticized, but —
Well. She’s never claimed to be smart.
It’s not like she’s suggesting cheap alcohol because she’s nostalgic , or anything. She definitely doesn’t want to repeat what had happened that night. It made things awkward and strange and weird and all these other synonyms that she can’t think of right now because her head is pounding and the bottle is spinning in front of her, and—
“I don’t think this game works with two people,” she says.
“It does,” Zuko says. “We’re playing it.”
She tilts her head to one side. It spins; she steadies it with her hand. “I don’t think we’re playing it right.”
“It’s a bottle. We’re spinning it.”
“But I think — there’s like — when you —” she sighs. “Nevermind.”
He flops back against the couch. “We can change the rules, if you want,” he says.
“We already did,” she says.
“No. This is how you play. I remember.”
She narrows her eyes. “You remember wrong. ”
“I remember Sokka getting angry, picking the bottle up, and chucking it against the wall.”
“You — ah.” She snorts. “Fine. You aren’t remembering that wrong, but you are remembering the rules wrong, because—”
“I’m not remembering anything wrong!”
She rolls her eyes. “Yes, you are, but—”
“I remember playing. It was fun. When it didn’t point to Suki, Sokka slammed it against the wall.”
“Well, yeah,” she says. “It’d landed on me. That would’ve been really awkward.”
His countenance changes: shoulders slumping, eyes dropping, lips twisting down. He’s always beautiful, of course — shining in a way that no one else does — but she’s always liked him drunk. He’s freer. He’s open. He lets the good sparkle through. Nothing anyone says influences him. He’s unabashed and vehement and she loves it.
Loves him, maybe.
She blushes crimson, because she isn’t supposed to have those thoughts.
Of course, he goes and makes it worse.
“Lucky,” he mutters, all envious petulance. He’s looking down like he’s forgotten that she’s there; he keeps talking and she wonders if he has. “I wish that had been me.”
The cup slips through her fingers.
She thanks La that she isn’t stupid enough to attend a gala—it isn’t tall and fancy glass, it’s plastic, but liquid still sloshes over its edges and onto her clothes and onto the floor.
She shoots to her feet, fingers mopping the drink away. It’s too quick a movement, though — she steadies herself against the couch.
He jerks his head up, confused. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” she lies. She starts backing out of the room. “Uh huh. Yes. Yeah. Uh, I’m gonna go and hop in the — or get clothing . . . I actually don’t have any clothing, so I’ll look for a . . . anyway. Okay. Yeah.”
She turns and hobbles away. She trips as soon as she enters the firelit hallway, because alcohol is a stupid, stupid thing and she should have listened to the thousands of warnings she’s gotten from every health teacher ever, even though they had surely partied in their hay day, and—
He slams into her.
Katara’s head is spinning, and she can’t tell if it’s because of the alcohol or because of how Zuko’s basically on top of her when they go crashing to the floor.
“Sorry,” Zuko says, pushing himself up and putting distance between their torsos. “I didn’t mean to—”
They’re stupid. Katara’s stupid. The warm light of the fire and how it makes Zuko’s gaze look molten is making her stupid.
“Can I kiss you?” she blurts. Zuko goes even redder than he was before.
“What?” he squeaks out. “I’m sorry? Do you feel pressured to . . . you know . . . ”
And it is so, absolutely, quintessentially Zuko to care about his honor while she’s pressed against him. Because yeah, she’s drunk, but he knows her, and he knows that just makes her honest.
“No one’s pressuring me to do anything,” Katara growls, and she winds a hand into his shaggy hair before propping herself up on one elbow and molding their mouths together.
It’s painful at first. Their noses crash together, and Katara hears their teeth make a distinctive clicking sound, but then Zuko tilts his head and it’s—
—it’s heaven. Heaven, or something like that, something snowy and dark and deep and mysterious and gorgeous. It’s a cold little cabin in the woods that sort of feels like finality.
She can taste the cheap beer they’d been drinking on his tongue as he curls it around her own — she can also taste something like victory and then terrible longing when she licks into his mouth, sighing contentedly as Zuko rolls them over so she’s laying on top of him.
While Katara wasn’t a hopeless romantic, she had still entertained the thought of kissing Zuko from time to time, a side effect to being in love with your best friend. It would have been easy to lean across the library table and kiss him during one of their multitudes of study sessions, or pull him in after he walked her to her dorm room post-friendly dinner.
Or maybe they’d go on a date. She imagined Zuko would try to pay for her because he was nice like that but then Katara would fight him until he agreed to split the check or let her pay for her own meal. Then he could drive her to the dorms in his Toyota before giving a goodnight kiss and driving off. Or he could give her a goodnight kiss and she could invite him up and they could —
There were so many possible scenarios and outcomes Katara thought had the potential to happen. They’d been destroyed and broken, that one day. And she has also imagined this moment, forgiveness and yearning, thousands upon thousands of ways . . .
But none of them involved practically dry humping Zuko on the floor of his family cabin, fiddling with the hem of his sweater as he nipped at her bottom lip.
“You’re so gorgeous,” he mumbles when they pull away to breathe. “I really like you Katara. I like you so, so—”
Zuko likes her? Zuko likes her?
It’s a scary thought. The idea is so novel, so unexpected that it causes Katara’s gut to churn and a swell of nausea to rise in her throat. Because that had been the problem last time, the way he’d jumped away from her. Sometimes she thinks she sees the signs of him, of something more, but she is Sokka’s sister, and they are best friends, and she had thought the attraction was something shallow, something that tends to come into being when you like to platonically sleep in the same bed as your best friend.
Or maybe it isn’t the epiphany of Zuko caring about her like they can be more than a friend that’s making her feel like she’s going to throw up.
“Wait,” Katara says, making some obscene breathy noise as Zuko moves to nip at the column of her throat, one hand firm against her waist while the other is buried in her hair. “Wait, Zuko . . . bathroom . . .”
“Mm?” He bites down and she keens, distantly realizing Zuko’s definitely leaving a mark and that Sokka will probably flip his shit before killing them both if he ever sees it.
The nausea hits again, stronger than before, and she pushes away from him, clapping a hand to her mouth.
“Katara?” Zuko asks, voice slightly laced with worry as she stumbles on her way to the bathroom.
The hallway seems to run forever as she locates the door Katara knows leads to the shower and toilet. She pushes it open with her shoulder and completely disregards the loud bang it makes against the wall before pulling the toilet seat up and kneeling in front of it.
“Are you crying?” Zuko asks plaintively. Katara looks at him with tear-streaked eyes, furiously rubbing at them until the liquid is mostly gone.
“Does it look like I’m crying?”
He has the expression of a man who knows that the wrong answer will doom him. “No?”
“You’re lying to me!”
“Oh. Oh, um, Katara . . .” he stares around at the empty bathroom, like the cold marble tile or hideous shower curtain will tell him, slightly buzzed as he is, the right thing to say. “Please don’t cry,” he settles on.
He has his hand around her hair, and she’s on her knees, and she just retched into the toilet. He has some dignity, but he also respects her, so he doesn’t look. When she wipes her hand over her mouth and leans back from the white rim, he reaches over and slams the lid down before flushing. He moves back, but she stays still, immobile, and he rests her shoulders against the wooden sink before running outside and grabbing a water bottle.
Zuko returns back to see that Katara hasn’t moved — in fact, she looks patently miserable. He’s stupid when he’s even slightly buzzed, and she’s always been his weakness, so he voices his fear. “Was kissing me that bad?”
It’s a joke they all have; that Zuko is stupid on the streets and smooth in the sheets. He hates the phrasing and the comparative, but he’s an emotional guy, and he finds it much easier to be confident when he’s making out with someone. Katara. This sucks a lot, too, because he’s wanted her forever, and he really wants her to want him.
Katara looks up at him like he’s insane. “Of course not,” she says, her tone dull. Even though the words partially placate him, they also draw him to his knees. He cradles his hand against her cheek as she drinks out of the water bottle, but she doesn’t follow through.
“I don’t want to make you cry.”
She finishes sipping and places the bottle aside, suddenly shakes her hair out from where it’s collected behind her, makes eye contact with him, and laughs. “Zuko,” she snorts. “I’ve made you cry hundreds of more times than you’ve made me cry.”
He slides his back against the sink and feels hopeful, because she isn’t taking his oddly warm hands off her face. “True,” he admits. Then he decides to venture further because she seems better now. “What happened?”
“I threw up,” she deadpans.
“You were sad,” he follows up, point-blank, and her eyebrows draw together.
“I was sad that I ruined it. Because I can’t mess up this time too.”
It’s a candid statement, and this is a conversation they both need to have. “You didn’t mess up last time. I did. I — I made it weird.”
Her eyes search his face, trace the contours of his sweaty, pale skin. “Do you like me?”
“I always have,” Zuko admits. “I was scared, though. I didn’t want to lose you, and I was the one who started it, and —”
“You’ll never lose me.”
“It’s us, Zuko.” Katara takes in a deep breath and stares him in the eyes. There is more to be said there, but they’re good at talking silently. Zuko’s scar pronounces his facial expressions. “I—”
“I’m going to kiss you,” he blurts out. “And there is only one bed in this cabin.”
“I just puked, buddy. Give me a second — wait,” she narrows her eyes at him. “This cabin has three bedrooms.”
Maybe this is him reaching, but he reaches for her hand and squeezes it, tightly. “Sokka and Suki haven’t been here before.”
That makes her lips twitch, and she gets up unsteady on her feet, downing the rest of the water, facing the sink. Katara throws cold water on herself, and then she looks back at him with a smirk.
“Midday, Zuko. You have twelve hours.”
They make the most of it.