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and my heart went (boom)

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Zuko lets the breakup email sit in his inbox for three months.

It’s not like he means to. Every time he gets a new email from Mai—three or four lines about how bored she is and how horrible the world is—his eyes dart to Drafts (1) tab. And he means to send it. Really, he does.

Uncle’d be disappointed in him. That’s what Zuko tells himself as he hovers over the Send button. For breaking up with someone via email. For not breaking up with someone when he stopped loving her so long ago that he thinks now he loves the memories more than he ever loved her. For...well, a lot of things, probably.

“Zuko, man, we’re going to get shitfaced!”

Breathing out a sound that’s not quite relief, Zuko closes his laptop, then looks over his shoulder. Just in time to see Sokka skid through the doorway. His roommate looks tipsy already: dark cheeks flushed, manbun tangled, button down shirt halfway untucked. While funny it doesn’t bode well.

“Why’re we getting shitfaced?” Zuko asks as he turns to face Sokka properly.

Normally this question stumps his roommate. If only for a few minutes. This time, Sokka doesn’t miss a beat. “Three reasons, man. One, it’s New Years Eve. Two, it’s half off drinks at Four Nations.”

“That’s only two reasons.” But Zuko’s already given in. Anything to keep from sitting miserably in his room contemplating the ethics of a fucking breakup email. Grabbing a shirt off the floor, he gives it the sniff test, which it passes, and then yanks it on.

It’s when the shirt’s caught on his bad ear, giving him a momentary twinge of pain, that Sokka says, “Three, you’re gonna start a fucking bar fight with that asshat Jet."


 

“What.” It’s either a testament to how much Sokka’s become his bro or how much Zuko wants to avoid that accusatory Drafts (1) tab that Zuko keeps getting dressed. Wallet shoved into the back pocket of his jeans, phone in hand, he figures he’s ready.

Sokka looks him over. “Dude, d’you own anything that’s not black or red? Could you do a nice blue, maybe?” It’s an old argument. Drunk Sokka loves to have that argument. Sober Zuko does not.

“No,” Zuko says. He shoulders past his roommate and heads for their main living area. It’s easy to hear Sokka coming after him. Guy sounds like a herd of elephants at the best of times. “Seriously, Sokka, why’re we getting into a bar fight with Jet?”

“Didn’t say I was going to,” Sokka says. “I already got my one-two punches in.” There’s a thud behind Zuko, a few muttered fucks, and Zuko knows without looking that Sokka attempted to demonstrate his boxing technique on the walls. Depth perception’s always the first thing to go. Or is it judgment?


 

Zuko remembers being eight. Or maybe nine. Those years blended together a lot, in his memories, and he’s never bothered to sort them out. But definitely it was before his mother left. Because she’s in this memory.

In this memory, he’s sitting on the edge of the bathtub. Mom crouches in front of him, holding tweezers, as she plucks the bits of crystal from his palm. Someone had broken a priceless vase. Zuko’d been the one to pay. Sometimes he thinks he was protecting Azula. Most times he thinks otherwise.

“Does Father drink? Is that why he does what he does?” Zuko asks. Maybe he’d asked before, but Zuko doesn’t think so.

Mom raises her eyes—hazel so pure it’s almost bronze—and says, “Oh, Zuko. Alcohol doesn’t always make a person bad. It just...it makes people more of what they already are.”

Even then, the explanation feels...wrong. Not untrue. Because when Mom drinks she is sadder, and when Uncle drinks he is funnier, and when Grandfather drinks he is crueler. So not untrue, but still wrong. It takes him until he’s seventeen and clutching a toilet while he throws up four beers, a vodka soda, and something mixed with a filthy name to realize why.


 

Katara finds him while he’s nursing his second Old Fashioned and contemplating the breakup email on his phone.

And he knows its her even before he sees her. It’s the way she slides her arms around his waist and props her chin on his shoulder. It’s the way she slips her fingertips under his shirt to graze against his stomach because her hands are always cold and he’s always warm. It’s the thump of her heart where she pressed against his back. It’s her. Full stop.

“Hey,” she says. “How’re you?”

“Been better,” he says. Lifting one of his arms so it can clear her head, he turns on the barstool, then drops the arm back down around her waist. Katara fits against his side immediately. “How’re you?” he asks.

Instead of answering, Katara tucks her face into the curve of his neck. Zuko’s more used to this than he should be, considering, and he just strokes his fingers through the bottom six inches of her waterfall hair. Waits her out. No one back home’d believe it but when it comes to her...

“Can we...?” she says finally.

Zuko’s a little concerned, sure, but it’s loud in Four Nations and crowded. Not to mention that the local indie band Freedom Fighters is supposed to be up any minute with more hipster rock. That’s always good for losing feeling in one’s eardrums. Probably all the regulars are gonna be deaf by thirty.

“Yeah, c’mon,” he says. Keeping his arm hooked around her waist, he shoves his phone back in his pocket but leaves the Old Fashioned on the counter with a couple dollar bills.

They make it outside. Zuko’s feeling a little bruised, mostly because he’d been the one shouldering people out of the way and keeping them from stepping on Katara, but he doesn’t care. Not so long as she’s okay. To his surprise, she doesn’t step away from him, even once they start to get some whistles from people passing by.

“What’s going on, ‘tara?” he asks.

Katara bites her lower lip. Like she’s trying to muster up some courage. “I... I broke up with Jet,” she says.

Huh. Zuko blinks, tilts his head, squints. Sure, between him and Sokka there’s just enough tolerance of Katara’s (ex?) boyfriend to fill maybe a thimble. But she’d seemed crazy about the guy. Thought his band was "authentic” and his philosophy major was “defiant” and so on. And Zuko could see she enjoyed talking revolutions with the jackass.

Can only mean one thing. “What’d he do?”


 

"You motherfucker,” Zuko roars. That’s the only warning Jet gets. Then Zuko’s up on the stage with a fist drawn back. Jet has time to drop his microphone, which hits the ground with a static-y shriek from the feedback loop, before Zuko’s fist hits him straight in the stomach at the same time his knee comes up right between Jet’s skinny-jean clad legs.

Someone in the crowd hollers, “Below the belt!”

The voice that answers is definitely Sokka’s: “Not close enough to the belt!”

Zuko laughs, ragged, and thinks he’ll need to ask Sokka tomorrow just how much he raked in laying bets on this fight. Then he grabs Jet’s collar and hauls the guy up to face level from where he’d been hunched over.

It’s clear that Jet’s thinking about the last time they’d fought. It’d been over something stupid. Probably, in retrospect, something Sokka’d said. But they both know that Katara is anything but stupid. They both know that Zuko’d do worse than a suckerpunch to the solar plexus over her, if it came down to it.

“You talk to her again, you call her, you show up at her job, you look at her funny, you so much as breathe her air, and I will fucking end you,” Zuko snarls. He gives Jet a firm shake, just to punctuate his point, and then shoves.

Jet’s eyes are murderous, but he’s not quite brave enough to come for the fight. Maybe later, when he can get the jump on Zuko, with a few of his bully boys. This means watching his back for the next six months, at least.

But when Zuko turns and hops off the stage, and Katara’s there with his jacket draped over her shoulders, and she rolls her eyes and gives him that half smile that’s always been reserved just for him, and he can sling an arm around her waist to lead her out of this shithole, and she pinches his side and tells him he’s kind of a overprotective melodramatic dick... When all that happens, all he think is: fucking worth it.