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.
"The Boulder does not want fights in his club.” Katara squares up her shoulders and juts out her jaw as she tries—and honestly kind of fails—to imitate the musclebound bouncer of Four Nations. “The Boulder throws you out of the club until the New Year!”
Zuko rolls his eyes and laughs. Under his arm, her shoulders slump back to her normal slouch. Bumping his hip against her side, he says, “You’re hilarious. We could find a comedy club.”
Honestly, he kind of figures they’ll head home. Or at least to the flat he shares with Sokka. Which is home. They’ll watch shitty sci-fi movies and she’ll drink at least half the soda in their fridge and he’ll end up with her feet on his lap at some point. On movie two or three, Katara’ll crash for the night. Zuko’ll finish the movie. Then he’ll pick her up, and fumble his way into Sokka’s room, and tuck her in. And it’ll be the best night he’s had in weeks.
Only then Katara bumps his thigh with her hip. “You’re ridiculous. Comedy clubs aren’t how the story goes.”
Can’t help it. He raises his eyebrow—the only one he’s got—and dares to ask, “What story, exactly?”
“This,” Katara says, “is the part of the quirky romcom where the heartbroken but plucky heroine takes on New York and meets the love of her life.” And she says it with such conviction that Zuko doesn’t have the heart to point out that they’re not in New York or a quirky romcom.
“Okay,” he says. “So where does that leave us?”
“How about River Street?”
Before Katara, Zuko never really thought about danger. Because he’s six foot something of muscle bound male, because he’s trained in martial arts since he could walk, because he’s got a scar over half his face that scares off even gang bangers, because he’s always had a thing for testing himself against the whole fucking universe. But nowadays, danger’s sometimes all he can think about.
Pulling her closer on instinct, he says, “It’s New Year’s Eve, ‘tara.” River Street’ll be flooded with drunk packs looking for easy prey. It goes without saying.
“C’mon, we could take anyone,” she says. Which also goes without saying. Even Sokka’s given up on stepping into the ring with either one of them, never mind both of them working in concert. Fucking brutal, Sokka always says. To which his girlfriend, who owns the dojo, goes, Brutally efficient.
Zuko already knows he’s going to go along with her.
Katara can be reasoned with but she can’t be commanded. And, based on the defiant inflection to her, “I want to touch the river and no stupid drunk frat dicks are gonna stop me,” she’s made up her mind already.
“Fine,” he says. “Fine. Let’s do this.”
They do it. Katara drags him by the wrist under the keep out chain on the dock for the Riverboat Experience. Then she gets on her stomach—just lays out flat in her new blouse that she’d bought only two days ago—and plunges her hands into the icy water of the Savannah River. Zuko sits beside her and watches as the muscles of her back unlock.
Out of pure habit, he reaches for her and brushes a hand along the column of her spine. Katara lets out a quiet sigh. “Better?” he asks.
“I guess,” she says. Almost reluctant, she pulls her hands out of the river and rolls onto her back in a single, smooth movement. When she holds her hands up to the neon light coming off the nearby bars Zuko sees them tremble faintly from the cold.
Normally he’d wait for her to grab for him. Maybe even make her work for it by trying to dodge her. Tonight, he waits only the space of four heartbeats. Then he grabs her hands and presses them between his own.
Katara tilts her head, looks at him, even though she can’t possibly see much in the shitty lighting. Zuko ignores the question he knows lurks in her eyes because, he’ll say if she asks, he needs to focus on getting some warmth back into her skin before she becomes the first person ever to get frostbite in the goddamn South.
“You’re too good for her.”
That actually makes him pause. “What?” It’s all he can get out. A fumbling response after the silence has drawn on too long and she’s trying to pull her hands out from his. Funny, how the instinct to hold her tighter comes without thought while the attempt to speak comes hard.
But she’s still tugging. Zuko lets her go and feels like a fucking idiot. Crossing him arms and resting them on his knees, he waits for what comes next. Because he sure as hell doesn’t know.
Now she won’t look at him, even as she sits up and wraps her arms around her jean-clad knees. “It’s nothing.” Katara darts a look at him, then looks away just as quickly. “No, it’s not nothing. It’s the end of the year, so I should be honest, right? You’d want me to be honest.”
Zuko feels like she’s not really talking to him so much as some version of him that exists in her own mind. That’s okay. Sometimes he talks to her like that too.
“Look, okay, being honest? You’re too good for her, Zuko. For that girl back in Boston. Mai.” There’s unfamiliar acid in her voice. Zuko’s doesn’t quite know what to make of that. “I wish you’d just send that stupid email.”
“You’ve seen that?” he asks. More because it seems like a good placeholder than because he cares about the answer.
Again, she looks at him. This time, her gaze holds. Part of him wonders what it is she sees there. “Yeah. That time you and Sokka got drunk on Yue’s...” Here she fumbles, trying to find a word, and isn’t it absurd that this trainwreck conversation is held up by the lack of an English word for the day of someone’s death? “...anniversary,” she settles for.
“Okay,” he says. Tries to make sense of it. Doesn’t quite make sense of it. Realizes that if he’s been waiting for a sign from the universe, this is probably it, anyways. “Give me a minute.”
Katara’s slow to react. Maybe because she doesn’t quite connect when he pulls his phone from his back pocket and unlocks it. Then, when she sees him open up the Gmail app on his phone, she immediately lunges for his arm. Nails dig into his inner wrist as she yelps, “Wait, no, don’t send it now!” It hurts like a motherfucker, but Zuko just transfers his phone to his other hand and taps his way to Drafts (1). “Zuko, no, seriously, don’t...you’ll regret it if you do it because you’re drunk or whatever. Like, c’mon, you already beat up Jet on stage at your favorite bar because of me! Don’t—”
“‘tara, I’m not doing this for you,” Zuko says. For a moment, his thumb hovers over the Send button. Then he hits it, and watches the little animation that follows, and feels a smile pull at his lips when the screen finally declares it Sent.
Shifting his gaze to Katara’s face—slack jawed, wide eyed, vaguely horrified—he lets the smile go wider. “I’ve been meaning to do it for three months,” he says. “Maybe longer.” Slowly, her mouth shuts. The look of vague horror remains.
Honestly, he wouldn’t mind it. With his phone still in his hand he’s got an excellent chance of snapping a picture of her looking so ridiculous. But then she lets out a low moan that sounds suspiciously like noooo.
Zuko blinks. “Did I...miss something?”
Nails dig into his wrist briefly and then release. Katara puts her hands over her face and lets out another one of those not-really-moans. Then she says, just loud enough for him to hear over the shouting of drunk people, “Now I have to actually deal with my feelings.” Which, okay, not what he was expecting. Katara spreads her fingers so she can peek through them like a small kid. Another aborted not-really-moan.
“Did you drink too much?” he asks. It seems unlikely, but hey, maybe. “Are you feeling sick? Probably. Lightweight.” Easy teasing, the kind of thing that’ll coax her out of embarrassment every time. “Let’s go back to the flat. You can have some Advil and water. I’ll even get you a puke bucket.” Something that it seems she might need, given the way she’s looking now that she’s lowered her hands.
“Zuko, I think I’m in love with you!”
Above them, fireworks burst in glorious, riotous color. Katara’s face lights up in glorious technicolor. People, drunk and not, scream Happy New Year. But too late to drown out her confession.
Without thinking about the consequences, Zuko cups the back of her neck, tilts his head just so, and presses a kiss to her slightly open mouth. And she lets out a soft noise that’s not quite a whimper, and reaches out to fist his shirt in her hands, and kisses him back with the taste of something fruity alcoholic on her breath. And he pulls back, just a touch, and whispers, “I know I’m in love with you, Katara.”
Sokka [10:23:01] if u hurt kat ill murder u
Sokka [10:23:49] bacons on
Zuko rolls his eyes. That’s close to a tearful blessing, in Sokka’s world, so he’ll take it. Tossing his phone,which is nearly dead anyway, into the pile of dirty laundry by his hamper, he buries his face against the curve of Katara’s bare shoulder. Murmuring sleepily, she rolls onto her side and slings one of her legs over his hips.
Tangled up like this, it doesn’t matter that he’ll have to deal with Mai’s pissed off emails or Sokka’s relentless only half-joking murder schemes or even Jet’s actual murder attempts, because he’s got Katara.
And Zuko, well, all he can think as he presses a kiss into Katara’s wild curls is: fucking worth it.