They meet by the buffet table. No. That’s a lie.
They meet when she’s steadily eating through all the guacamole on the buffet table and he’s sitting under the buffet table. They meet because she steps on his hand. They meet, in short, like the best kind of Christmas folly.
“Ow, Jesus!” he snaps at the same time she goes, “What the—?” And she lifts her foot up slightly at the same time he yanks his hand out from under her high heel. And he discovers a bruised divot forming just above his knuckles from the press of her stiletto at the same she lifts the Christmas-themed tablecloth to figure out who exactly she just stepped on.
It’s she who recovers first. Maybe because she doesn’t have to shake feeling back into her hand the way he does. “I’m sorry,” she says. "It’s just I’ve never had to worry about stepping on someone hiding under a buffet table before. Are you alright?”
“Not hiding,” he says. It occurs to him that shaking his hand like this a) won’t help the bruise, and b) makes him look like a loser. Hell, he can practically hear the sneer in his girlfriend’s—ex-girlfriend’s—voice: god, could you look more like a dog? Even now, two months after their breakup, it makes his shoulders hunch up a little toward his ears.
The girl tilts her head. It’s a slight movement but it causes her hair to sway over one shoulder. Zuko’s transfixed by the way that light seems to catch in those dark curls. They’re pretty in a wild way that’s utterly at odds with everyone else he’s had to interact with tonight.
“Well, that’s nice,” she says. The corners of her mouth tighten like she’s holding back a smile. “But you still haven’t answered if you’re okay. Or why you’re under there at all.”
It takes him a minute to catch up with the conversation. Right. Why he’s hiding—no, not hiding—under the table. “Uhm...” he says. “I...uhm...” In his mouth, his tongue feels thick, clumsy. Frustration builds as she just continues to watch him.
Voices interrupt whatever he was (not) going to say.
Zuko doesn’t even have time to react before the girl drops to her knees and crawls in beside him. “Budge over,” she whispers. One of her knees slams into his shin like punctuation to her demand.
For a moment he’s kind of tempted to shove her out. This is his hiding space that she just invaded. Plus, she’s already bruised him once. Maybe twice, given that she just kneed him in the shin again. Not to mention he doesn’t even know her name.
Only the voices have gotten louder and closer. They’re distinctly feminine and he’s pretty sure he’s not imagining the droll monotone of his ex-girlfriend. Pushing this girl out now would mean that he’d blown his own cover.
And, maybe, a little bit, he’s tempted by the way that the girl’s letting out these breathy half-giggles as she tries to arrange herself under the table with him.
Whatever the reasoning, Zuko budges over. The girl manages to find a spot where none of her limbs poke out to give away their position. Just in time, too, because there’s the click of high heels as three girls enter the room. When Zuko’s eyes catch hers in the dim light that filters through the tablecloth, she mouths “success” at him, and he has to bite his lip to keep from laughing.
All his laughter dies at the sound of Azula’s slick voice. “So, Mai, have you seen my brother?”
“Ugh, no, why would I?” Mai sounds blandly disgusted. The way she does about cranberry sauce, and the color yellow, and now Zuko. Somehow it’s worse than when she used to scream at him.
Ty Lee’s laugh—too bright, too cheerful, too everything—splits the air then. “Oh, Mai, you know that this is Zuko’s party too!”
“Doesn’t mean I have to look at him,” Mai says. Now even the bland disgust has gone. “Pass me the fire flakes, would you, Ty Lee? Anyway, can we go now? I’m bored.”
But they don’t leave.
They stay, hovering over the table, for long minutes while Zuko tries not to feel the curdling in the pit of his stomach. When he broke up with Mai, he thought it’d feel like freedom and most times it does, just not when he realizes that he spent a year loving her when she clearly didn’t ever love him back. Without really thinking about it, Zuko hunches into himself again, shoulders curling toward his chest.
Fingertips graze against his jaw. He turns his head a fraction. The girl’s there. Eyes wide. Lips soft. Part of him wants to growl because he doesn’t need her fucking pity. The rest of him wants to take the offered comfort.
In the end he doesn’t have to decide. Those moments of frozen indecision cause her to slip closer to him. Until she’s in his space, legs hooking over his own, arms wrapping around his shoulders and pulling him into her like the moon pulls the tides. “I’m sorry,” she breathes, “I’m sorry they’re so awful.” Beneath his cheek her heart beats a little fast but steady just the same.
Zuko turns his head again, presses his face into the warm curve of her neck, lets himself be hidden in the fall of her hair that smells like coconut and girl. “Don’t be,” he manages to say. “Don’t be.”
Some boys, assholes from Azula’s private school, show up maybe two minutes later. Zuko sighs. Azula’s been trying to bag one of them—just to prove she can—so they’ve settled in for the long haul. Shit.
Now he needs to disentangle himself from the girl, but they can’t actually get away from one another, and this is just... Awkward. That’s the best word for it. Awkward, like his sister’s flirting style. Awkward, like his uncle’s advice. Awkward, like the blush crawling up his neck.
Zuko pulls out of the girl’s arms. But he kind of likes being tangled up in her, in the warm press of her skin and the slide of her dark hair, so he gets up just enough courage to settle a hand on one delicate ankle. Just so she’ll stay, he tells himself, even as his thumb smooths over the soft skin of her inner ankle. When he dares to look at her she’s smiling.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Katara,” she says. “And you’re Zuko, right?”
There’s a burst of laughter from somewhere outside the confines of their little world. It reminds them that they’re not really alone. But they don’t stop talking. Instead: Their voices go quieter. They lean closer together. Their breath mingles and their foreheads brush.
According to Zuko’s phone, it takes almost forty minutes for his sister and his ex-girlfriend and the small court they’ve accumulated to leave. He’d pulled it out about halfway through that so he and Katara could play Angry Birds on silent. So even though his butt’s numb, Zuko can’t remember having more fun at one of his mother’s Christmas parties. Ever.
But once the court leaves, it’s just them, and he’s suddenly entirely too aware of how she’s somehow made it almost entirely into his lap. How one of his arms is slung loosely around her waist. How her red dress slid up (down?) her dark thighs and revealed the edge of a surprisingly practical set of boyshorts that make his mouth go dry.
Moments like this really, really remind him that he’s a seventeen year old boy and that his hormones work just fine.
And he knows, with the intrinsic knowledge of a seventeen year old boy who’s hormones work just fine, that he’s going to get a boner if he keeps staring at that dark blue fabric stretched over the top of her thighs.
“Yeah?” It’s more a confirmation that he heard her than anything. Mostly because he’s trying to figure out how he can shift her off his lap before she realizes that he’s getting hard.
“I have an idea,” she says. “Well, maybe not so much an idea. I guess it depends on if you want to piss off your ex-girlfriend or not.”
"Uh huh?” Maybe he can play it off as needing to steal some food off the table before more people come in. That might work. And then he can get something for her too, which would make her smile at him, which is something he wants with even greater fervency than he wants to touch the soft skin of her thighs.
“You see,” she goes on. “I have a plan. It’s a plan that’s kind of like invading Russia in winter. But it’s a plan.”
“Okay?” God though, she just shifted her legs, and her thigh pressed against his stomach. If she were anyone else he’d almost figure this is on purpose.
“We should make out under the mistletoe.”
For the first time, she seems off balance. Not uncomfortable, really, but embarrassed. Unsure. “I...I’m sorry. Should we...I mean... I just thought...”
One of her hands comes up to push back her hair. Even when he ducks his head a little, she won’t quite meet his gaze, which makes him realize.
Well, it makes him realize that maybe she doesn’t go crawling under buffet tables with just anyone. That maybe this was special. That maybe he should stop being such a fucking idiot.
“No,” he says. Then grimaces when she flinches and starts to pull her legs off his lap. Tightening his arm around her waist, he says, “Wait. Just...just give me a minute.”
Katara goes still but chews on her lower lip and watches him warily. Almost like she expects him to make fun of her. Zuko knows from experience that you only give people that look when someone’s given you reason to. That makes him want to punch someone and he makes a mental note to figure that out later.
In the meantime, he rapidly punches in a search on Google and talks about as fast as he dares. “Mai was an awful girlfriend. I think she tried, you know, but she just never cared that much about me or my feelings or...or anything.” There. Perfect. Zuko presses his thumb to the picture. “But we’re over.”
Feeling like his heart’s going to pound out of his chest, he holds up his phone, the screen filled with a picture of mistletoe. Glossy green leaves, white berries, and a perfectly tied red ribbon. “I want to kiss you, and I want it to be because you’re sweet and funny and wear cute underwear not because of my stupid ex-girlfriend.”
There’s a long, long pause.
Long enough that Zuko thinks maybe he’s miscalculated. Long enough that he actually starts coming up with an apology. Long enough that he starts to wonder if he can actually die from embarrassment.
Then Katara smiles, and tangles her fingers in the hair at the nape of his neck, and whispers, “Okay, so kiss me.”
And he does.