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Closer

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“I’m watching you, I’m watching her, I’ll take no pity from your friends.”

There was a loud, frantic knocking at the door and Zuko groaned, covering his face with his hand. He stayed still on the worn, faded couch in the apartment his Uncle paid for hoping whoever was knocking would get tired and leave him alone.

The knocking continued, louder this time.

He spread his fingers over the large mark on his face, cursing the pain he received from doing so.

‘I swear to God, if that’s Azula…’ He thought to himself, still making no move from the couch.

Ever since the accident occurred a little over two weeks ago, the calls from Azula and Co., have been insistent, driving him on more than one occasion to take his wall phone off the receiver hoping that would stop the incessant ringing at least somewhat. And now she - or one of them - was trying to visit him? Ridiculous. He didn’t even know how they got his number, let alone the address to the apartment he was staying at.

There was no cease to the knocking, and he finally lifted up his head and proceeded to yell, “Whoever is out there, go away! I’m not interested.” Of course, the yelling in combination with the loud knocking caused another headache to start forming behind his eyes.

The knocking stopped momentarily and Zuko relaxed briefly. Hopefully whoever it was got the message that he was not interested.

Suddenly a soft voice from behind the door said, “It’s me, nephew.”

Iroh. Well, at least that was better than his annoying sister and her even more annoying friends.

“Nephew, can you let me in?” His Uncle’s soft, yet rumbly voice asked.

Zuko hesitated, not really in the mood to talk to anyone, even Iroh. However, Iroh was the one paying for the apartment, so he figured he had to let him.

Slowly getting up from the couch, he kept one hand lightly over the left side of his face, as he used his free hand to guide him toward the door. The apartment was pitch black, as Zuko had kept it since he moved in. Even the windows were blocked by the large shades, as bright light of any kind caused massive migraines to form. Another great side-effect from the accident!

He brushed his hands over the backside of the couch as he slowly moved to the door. Bracing himself for the inevitable light of the hallway, he closed his swollen left eye and opened the door to see Iroh.

“Oh, nephew,” Iroh said sadly at the pitiful sight of Zuko. Feeling a rush of anger swell inside him, Zuko turned away from the sad expression on his Uncle’s face. He hated pity of any kind, as his Father drove it into his mind at a young age that being pitied was a fate worse than death.

“What, Uncle?” Zuko asked, hating the bitter tone in his voice. He owed Iroh everything nowadays, yet he couldn’t help to be pissed at everyone he saw, even his kind and caring Uncle.

Zuko walked away from the door, slowly guiding himself back over to the couch and sitting down on it once more.

He kept his face turned away from his Uncle, he didn’t want to see Iroh’s sad expression as he took in the pitch blackness of the apartment. While his Uncle had been keeping in touch with him over the phone, the whole aftermath of the accident had kept Uncle too busy to actually come and see Zuko in person. Until now.

Iroh closed the door softly behind him, before walking into the apartment. He stood in the center of the small kitchen and living room and made no move to sit down.

“Sitting in darkness will not help you, nephew.” He spoke softly, keeping his voice low.

“The brightness gives me migraines,” Zuko growled, his hand still spread over the left side of his face.

“Why are you here, Uncle?” He asked, keeping his open eye down to avoid the hurt look that passed over Iroh’s face.

“I’m worried about you,” Iroh moved over to stand directly in front of Zuko’s place on the couch. “Dr. Jee told me you haven’t been to any of the scheduled therapist sessions.”

Zuko groaned, annoyed that the therapist had told Iroh this. He’s not a minor anymore for God’s sake! Shouldn’t the therapist not be telling Iroh this stuff? It’s his business.

Almost as if reading Zuko’s thoughts, Iroh said quietly, “He told me because I am paying for these scheduled sessions. And he and I both think it’ll do you good to get out of the apartment for a little while.”

Another flare of guilt welled its way into Zuko’s heart. While he was grateful for Iroh for taking care of… all this, he hated spending the poor man’s money. It made him feel weak. Another emotion that was drilled into him to never express.

“Uncle, if I step into bright sunlight I get an immediate migraine. I can’t leave.” He replied lamely. While this was partly true, he also had no desire to attend a therapy session and talk about his weak, pitiful feelings.

“Zuko, you know Dr. Jee has offered to meet you here in order to avoid any discomfort going outside may cause you.” Iroh replied, somewhat sternly yet still gentle at the same time.

Zuko bit back another groan. He did know this, as Dr. Jee left a voicemail saying the exact thing. Yet, he had ignored it, as he annoyed all of the therapist’s calls. His father forced him to understand that a man does not show weakness. And talking to a therapist about his issues? That was the biggest sign of weakness of all.

“Tell me, honestly, why you are avoiding him.” Iroh replied, walking back over to the small kitchen nook at the side of the apartment.

Zuko followed Iroh’s movements with his eyes, noting as Iroh rifled through the cabinets looking for… something.

“I’m ashamed,” He muttered softly. Even though he didn’t want to tell Iroh any of this, he knew the man wouldn’t leave until he admitted something.

“Ashamed of what?” Iroh asked as he put a kettle on the stove Zuko never used, apparently finding what he was looking for.

“Of everything!” Zuko snapped, his voice raising as the pounding behind his eyes increased. “Of what happened to me! The fact that people found out! I was handling myself fine, and it’s not like it was the first time something like this happened,” His voice trailed off at the end.

“Zuko,” Iroh said softly as he walked back over to the couch with two cups of tea in his hand. “If you had not gone to the hospital, you would have died! And just because it’s happened before, albeit not to this extent, does not make it okay.”

Zuko took the outstretched cup of tea from his Uncle, and Iroh sat on the lumpy chair opposite him. He kept his eyes focused on the dark color of the tea as he said quietly, “Father told me if anyone ever found out, he’d kill me. I’m ashamed that I told someone, and I’m afraid of what he’s going to do! If he finds me, I’m-I…” He stuttered, his voice cutting off, not able to finish the sentence.

“Zuko, your Father is not going to find you.” Iroh responded, his eyes willing Zuko to meet his gaze. “I have already implemented a restraining order against him. Even though he was able to get out of any prison sentence from the accident, if he violates this order he will go to jail. I will see to it myself.”

Zuko hung his head, “Thank you, Uncle.” He whispered, annoyed once more that his Uncle has to do everything for him. “Are you mad at me?” He asked, a tone of fear in his voice.

“Mad at you? Why would I be mad at you?” Iroh questioned, astonished.

“Because you have to pay and deal with all of this! You pay for my apartment, you paid for the hospital expenses and the therapist, and if I go to college next month, you’ll have to pay for that too! And I didn’t even tell the police the full extent of what Father did.” Zuko responded. How was Uncle not mad at him? Or upset? His Uncle had done so much for him and Zuko hasn’t repaid him at all.

“Zuko,” His Uncle said sternly, “I am happy to pay for all of this. I’ve offered to take you out of that house for years. I am not mad at you. And I understand why you didn’t - why you couldn’t - tell the police everything.”

Zuko looked up at Iroh, finally meeting his gaze. “You’re not mad at me?” He repeated.

“I’m not mad at you.” Uncle agreed, confidently. “I am only worried for you.”

Zuko nodded, focusing his eyes again on the still warm tea in his hand.

“How about this,” Iroh started. “You go to one therapist meeting,” He focused his attention on the wall calendar in the kitchen. “On Tuesday. If you hate it, you don’t have to go anymore. And Dr. Jee can meet you here.” Iroh finished.

Zuko hesitated, then nodded. Even though Iroh had insisted Zuko didn’t owe him anything, he still felt like he had to do this. He still felt the guilt and the desire to pay back Iroh somehow for all he’s done. “Alright.” He finished.

“Great. I’ll call him after I leave. Everything will be okay, Zuko, I promise. Now,” And here Iroh’s voice took on a tone of happiness. “Drink your tea!”

Zuko offered a weak smile, before doing just that. Tuesday. That was only three days away.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The therapist - Dr. Jee - was not as horrid as he thought. But it was still pretty annoying.

“And have you been taking the medication the hospital has given you?” Dr. Jee asked, a notepad resting on his lap as he sat on the couch in the apartment.

“Yes.” Zuko said curtly.

Dr. Jee nodded, writing this down. “And have the migraines receded, at all?”

“Somewhat,” Zuko replied honestly. “I can go outside or leave the lights on and it doesn’t bother me like it used to. But loud noises still hurt a lot.”

Dr. Jee wrote this down, before hesitating. “And how do you deal with… people?”

“People?” Zuko asked, confused.

“Being around people. Does it bother you?”

Zuko grimaced. It did. Even when he walked the few steps down to the lobby of the apartment building, he could feel the astonished and pitiful gazes of the people looking at the giant mark on his face.

“Zuko?” Dr. Jee prompted.

“I hate it!” Zuko snapped. “They all stare at me and at the mark of my face. I’m not asking for pity. Why can’t they just look away and leave me alone?”

Dr. Jee looked at him sympathetically, “People are always confused by what they don’t understand.”

“Yeah, well, it sucks! I hate it. I hate my face.”

Dr. Jee noted this, before changing the subject. “And are you still planning on attending college in a few weeks?”

College. Before the accident, Zuko was thrilled to be attending school. New York University, his top choice, accepted him as an undecided major to start as a freshman this fall. Now, with all that happened, he couldn’t imagine being around so many people in class, all of them staring at him. But what other choice did he have? If he got a job, it would be the same way. And Iroh was paying his tuition. If he didn’t go to college, his Uncle would be paying for everything unnecessarily. And he hated that more than anything.

“I-I don’t know.” He said in a soft voice to the Doctor. “I don’t want them all to be staring at me. But I can’t keep freeloading off my Uncle.”

“Do you want to attend college?” Dr. Jee asked slowly.

After a moment’s hesitation, Zuke replied. “Yeah, I mean I think I do. When I was in High School, it was all I thought about. To be away from my father and my sister and her friends. To start over somewhere new. Of course, with the scar.” He waved his hand around the left side of his face. “I won’t really be over to start anew, now.”

“Well,” Dr. Jee started, glancing at his watch. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“What you can do?” Zuko asked, guardingly.

“About the scar. If you want to attend school - and I think it’d be good for you to go - I’ll talk to your Uncle and the other doctors to see if there is any way we can make college more comfortable for you.”

Zuko had no idea what Dr. Jee was getting at, but he hesitantly nodded. “Okay.”

“Unfortunately,” Dr. Jee said, glancing at his watch and closing his notepad. “It’s the end of our session. But I think we have made good progress here, Zuko. I’ll be in touch.” He held out his hand and Zuko shook it carefully.

As the doctor made his way out of the apartment, Zuko flopped back onto the couch. He had no idea what Dr. Jee was planning to ‘make college easier for him’ and he almost didn’t want to know.
---------------------------------------------

The next day, Zuko kept his hand over the left side of his face and headphones on as he sat on the subway. It was his first time riding the subway in over a month, and even though most New York people would leave you alone, he still didn’t want any sideways looks at his scar. He kept his right eye focused down on the cassette in his hand, listening to Joy Division's “Unknown Pleasures.”

He couldn’t believe he agreed to this. Meeting Iroh at a small diner in mid Manhattan. It was the farthest he’s been outside the apartment since the accident, yet when Iroh asked to meet for lunch, he couldn’t say no. Not after everything Iroh has done. Even though Uncle insisted over and over that he didn’t want Zuko to repay him in any way, he still felt a burning desire that he had to. Of course, that was the leftover emotions his Father had ingrained in him.

At the thought of his Father, he closed his eyes tighter, trying to keep his mind focused on the music in his ears. He couldn’t think of his Father. There was no way he could deal with a flashback on a subway for God’s sake. ‘You’re fine.’ He thought to himself over and over in a mantra. ‘You’re fine, you’re fine, you’re fine.’

The subway screeched to a halt, and he opened his eyes, praying that he arrived at his destination. But he hadn’t. There was no platform anyway nearby.

He pulled one ear of the headphone off his head to listen to what was happening.

Over the intercom, a crackling voice said, “We have been stopped momentarily. We apologize for the delay.” And then abruptly shut off.

The other riders on the subway groaned out loud.

He slipped the headphone back over his ear. A subway halt. Fan-fucking-tastic. This was just what he needed.

Zuko turned the volume up on his cassette, praying that the thundering volume could drown out his runaway thoughts.

‘Don’t think about it. You’re fine, you’re fine, you’re fine.’ He said, slowly mouthing the words, not caring what the other passengers thought.

But as the subway stayed still, he couldn’t help but to remember the last time a subway halted.

Even though he did all he could to resist thinking about it, the memory slipped in folded, sideways, and upside down.
------------------------------------

It was May, only two months before the accident had occurred. It was his last week before High School ended, and as he rode the subway home from school to his Father’s house, the subway halted.

‘No,’ Zuko thought, his eyes open in horror, ‘Please God, no.’

Ozai was strict about the time Zuko and Azula were required to be home from school. Even though Azula always avoided the brunt of it, by calling from Ty Lee’s Nokia and saying she was going over to her house after school, Zuko had no one to go to. And if he was late…

“Fuck.” He said softly. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Ozai was going to kill him.

He felt his breathing accelerate as he prayed to a God he didn’t believe in for the subway to start again.

Zuko was required to be home by 3:30. Even if he was only one minute late, he would still get it.

He checked his watch as he tapped his foot anxiously. 3:20. There was no way he was going to be home in time.

After a groaning noise, the subway started moving again as those around him cheered. But he couldn’t. The momentary stop has ruined any hope for him to get into his house quietly and without an incident.

The minute the subway pulled up to the stop, Zuko jumped up running between the other passengers as they cursed and shouted obscenities to him. He ran as fast as he could out of the subway stop, his breath tightening in his chest.

The outside air was hot, even with all the coverage from the skyscrapers, but he couldn’t stop running. As he pushed through people on the street, they all glared at him and shouted.

‘Please God, please God, please God.’ Was the only thing he could think as he ran, anxiety pushing him forwards.

He paused outside the monumental brownstone his family lived in on the Upper West Side. Zuko checked his watch. 3:32. Oh, fuck.

Zuko felt an overwhelming desire to keep running. To not stop and keep going until he was in downtown Manhattan in his Uncle Iroh’s apartment. But staying away even longer, especially by going to Iroh’s, would only result in an even bigger punishment.

Remembering what his Uncle always said whenever he had an attack, “Keep your breathing even, nephew. Focus. Calm breaths.” Zuko took a moment to breathe. In, out. In, out. He could do this, he thought. But his shaking hands gave him away.

He slowly entered his key in the door of the house, going in slowly.

At first, his eyes had to become adjusted to the darkness of the foyer, a sharp contrast to the outside brightness. Maybe he was in luck. Maybe Ozai had to stay longer at his office for some reason. Maybe he could go to his room unseen. Maybe-

All of his hopeful thoughts were broken off as his gaze focused on his Father, sitting in a stiff armchair in the foyer, his piercing golden gaze focused on Zuko.

“Close the door, Zuko.” Ozai said calmingly.

Zuko felt his hands shaking as he closed the door slowly behind him. Don’t give away fear, that’ll only make it worse.

“Father, I’m-” Zuko started, before being cut off.

“What time did I tell you to be home by?” Ozai asked, his voice still eerily calm.

“3:30.” Zuko gulped.

“And what time is it?”

Zuko glanced at his watch. “3:35.” He whispered.

Before Ozai could speak again, Zuko rushed his words. “Father I’m sorry, the-the subway halted, I didn’t-”

He couldn’t finish, Ozai had stood up and grabbed him by the collar of his shirt. Ozai’s eyes were unfeeling, cold, calculated.

“You can’t do anything I ask.” His father hissed, his free hand winding back. “I pay the bills for you to live here. I pay for the private school you attend. I bring home food. Yet you still can’t do anything I ask.”

“I’m sorry-” Zuko started again, the tremble in his voice giving him away.

The slap came harder and it wasn’t until he felt the hot-red heat on his face that he realized it happened.

“You’re pathetic.” Ozai growled, pushing Zuko backwards, “A weak excuse of a man. Get out of my sight.”

Zuko knew better than to respond. He silently picked himself up and walked slowly up to his room.

It wasn’t until he sat on his bed that the hot tears came down his face.
----------------------------------------------------

The subway started up again and Zuko blinked out of the memory.

His hands were trembling, and he sat on them to try to keep himself calm. ‘It’s okay, you’re okay.’ He repeated to himself again and again. ‘Focus on your breathing.’

Zuko took long calm breaths. He wasn’t seeing Ozai. He was seeing Iroh. Iroh wouldn’t mind if he was late. Iroh wouldn’t do anything. He was fine, he was fine, he was fine.

The subway groaned to a halt outside the train stop. Zuko kept his breathing even, his pace calm as he walked out of the train and out of the underground. As he walked, he saw New Yorkers give passing glances to his scar. Some widened their eyes in horror. Some looked away. But the ones he hated the most were the glances of pity he got.

He returned his hand to the left side of his face, as he walked evenly and calmly to the diner he was meeting Iroh at. Zuko was fine. He was fine.
----------------------------

“Nephew!” Iroh called excitedly as Zuko made his way into the diner.

Iroh moved his arms out to hug Zuko, and Zuko flinched at the approach. He hated being touched even more than he hated being looked at.

Iroh seemed to realize what had happened and he lowered his arms, looking apologetic. “Sit,” He said pointing towards one of the chairs. “I already ordered for us, I hope you don’t mind.”

Zuko nodded. He couldn’t mind. It was Iroh’s money paying for it, after all.

“So, why did you want to meet, Uncle?” Zuko asked after they both sat down.

“I was on the phone with Dr. Jee and some of the doctors. They agreed the progress you’ve made in recovery has been phenomenal!” Iroh smiled, and Zuko returned a weak one.

“Now, nephew,” Iroh said, picking up his cup of tea. “Dr. Jee mentioned you still have an interest in attending New York University when school starts next week.”

Zuko shrugged slightly. “I guess. I mean it’s all I thought about for so long… But with the accident...” He trailed off, his hand gesturing to his face.

“Dr. Jee mentioned that. I understand your concern around so many people, so we came up with an idea.” Iroh lowered and picked up something from under his chair.

He handed the object to Zuko who looked at it confusingly. It looked like a Halloween costume. It was a white mask, fitted for the left side of Zuko’s face. He put it on cautiously. It went from the top of the left side of his forehead to right above the left side of his mouth. “A mask?” He asked.

Iroh nodded. “It was Dr. Jee’s idea. And the doctors who treated you said it might be a good idea to cover your scar for at least a month or so to keep germs out and allow it to heal properly. What do you think?”

Zuko hesitated. A mask. The other students at school would probably think he was so strange. But most people in High School thought he was weird anyway, for not having any friends. Seeming weird to people would be better than them seeing his scar and giving him pity. Besides, maybe it would keep people from asking about his face.

“Okay.” He replied, lifting the mask up and fitting it in place.

Chapter Text

“I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar
I am the son and heir of nothing in particular”

Zuko sat on the floor of the small bathroom to the left of his apartment, wiping vomit off his mouth. His stomach was tightened into a thick ball as he tried to breathe. ‘Calm down,’ He thought to himself breathing in and out. After a few moments of deep concentration, he felt the overwhelming nausea subside slightly.


Once he figured he could stand up without heaving, he took slow unsteady steps towards the small sink and mirror. Cupping his hands under the spout of the sink, he lifted water to his mouth and spit out the aftertaste of vomit. Then he finally looked at the mirror.


Since the accident in mid-July, he avoided looking at himself as much as possible. Sure, that meant that he had to brush his hair in the dark - but before the accident he kept his hair short and cropped close to the top of his head. Nowadays, his hair was shaggy, falling to the middle of his neck and covering the top of his eyes and since containing your hair was hard without a mirror, it more or less usually stuck up in some places.


He curled his hands around the edge of the sink, forcing himself to look into the mirror. Really, although he would never admit it out loud, it was the therapist, Dr. Jee, who encouraged him to look in the mirror. Oh, he still hated therapy and talking about his useless emotions, but Dr. Jee had encouraged and helped him in some way. He focused his eyes on the scar on the left side of his face and tried his best to memorize the way it looked.


It was red searing skin, stretching from the top of his left forehead and going all the way to the top of the left side of his mouth. The skin was badly scarred, but it was the mess of his left eye that was the hardest to accept. He had lost the entirety of his left eyebrow, the hospital doctors admitted that it would probably never grow back. His once golden left eye was now always stuck in a squint, and even though he could see it out of it still somewhat, the color of the eye was cloudy. His left ear was completely slashed, but at least that he could cover that with his now semi-long hair. God, his face was a mess. Zuko was never particularly vain, even though he knew some girls at his old High School found him attractive. Of course, his weird socially awkward shyness and the rumors that plagued him kept any girl from actually talking to him, but he would see the intrigued glances they sent his way. Now though… Now he was a complete mess. At least the mask Uncle and the other doctors encouraged him to wear kept the pitiful glances away, yet people still looked at him strangely. Well, whatever, he was used to that.


He moved his gaze away from the mirror, hating his appearance, hating himself, but most of all hating his Father. His cruel, calculating Father who ruined his face for merely speaking out in turn. Zuko loathed his Father, he hated his Father, he feared his Father, but there was a small part of him that he would never admit to anyone, not even Iroh, that still craved acceptance from his Father. But that didn’t matter, he reminded himself shutting those thoughts down again, after he spoke out of turn his Father would never accept him again.


Zuko left the bathroom, checking the clock on the wall as he headed back to his room. It was 2 A.M. Great. The nerves inside him were a wreathing, writhing mess of anxiety and he knew he would never be able to fall asleep. Heaving a loud sigh, he grabbed the crumpled pack of Marlboros off his bedside table and walked out to the tiny balcony connected to his bedroom.


The view of the balcony was admittedly breathtaking, making up for its overall small, dingy appearance. It overlooked the entirety of Manhattan and the streets below him. Even though it was the middle of the night, the skyscrapers still blinked with lights and cars rushed below him. Good to know he wasn’t the only insomniac in the city.


Zuko took a cigarette out of his pack and lit up. Iroh loathed the idea of smoking, so Zuko only did so in private or when he desperately needed one, and tonight he absolutely did.
He moved the cigarette out of his mouth, blowing out a stream of smoke. The reason his nerves were so intense was due to the impending doom of tomorrow. His first day of college.


After he admitted to Iroh in the diner that he did want to go to school, his Uncle had rushed around setting up his schedule and paying all the fees so that Zuko could attend the first day. As always, he was grateful for Iroh and all he did, but the feeling of uselessness that filled Zuko could never dissipate.


At 9 A.M. tomorrow, he’d be attending his first course of the semester - Introduction to Literature. Of course, it was Iroh’s idea - “You loved literature in High School! You should take this class” - but he couldn’t deny the logistics of it. Even though he was an undecided major, he had always loved the arts. When his Mother was still around, she privately taught him about novels and poetry, constantly dragging him to whatever Broadway play was showing.


But thinking about his Mother was almost worse than thinking about his Father. Almost.


Zuko shook his head, forcing those thoughts away, as he took another drag of the cigarette. His heart threatened to clutch at the thought of his Mother, and Zuko wished he was like smoke. Smoke, hanging in the air for only a few moments, before vanishing completely. If only that was him. He kept these thoughts to himself, as he always kept the darker thoughts in. He could never tell Iroh or Dr. Jee, who would undoubtedly tell Iroh about it - patient privacy be damned, about the black wave that threatened to overwhelm him when he thought about his pitiful, miserable life. Zuko was skilled at keeping the black wave at bay, but at night with the swirl of fear and anxiety in his stomach, he wished again and again that his life could simply be done. He didn’t want any more of this - he was only eighteen and already burned out to the core. Sometimes, all he wanted was to do whatever fantastic thing he was supposed to do in life and be done with it. Go to sleep.


His fingers trembled as he took a final drag of the cigarette before stubbing it out and throwing it off the balcony. He was already fearful of tomorrow, he didn’t need to add more anxiety on top of it.


Zuko took another long sigh, spreading his calloused fingers over his face. He was fine. Everything was fine.


---------------------------------------------------

8 A.M, the next morning, Zuko stood in front of his closet nervously flipping through the hangers. He knew his clothes didn’t really matter that much - he was going to be wearing a half-mask to college for God’s sake - but he couldn’t stop himself from at least trying to look nice and approachable. He stopped flipping as he spotted a red t-shirt and the older biker jacket he used to wear constantly. After hesitating for a moment, he grabbed both out of the closet along with a pair of black jeans and went into the bathroom to get ready.


A half-hour later, he was walking down Greene Street, his hands shoved in his pockets. The scuffed Doc Martens he typically frequented were walking slowly along the sidewalk, and he ignored the passing glances he got from other New Yorkers. The white half-mask was fitted firmly on the left side of his face. God, he stuck out like a sore thumb. Zuko still didn’t have a great cover story if one of his classmates or professors asked about it. At the moment, he was bordering on saying he served in the Gulf War or was involved in a social experiment - yeah like that was believable. Whatever, at least the mask stopped at the top of the left side of his mouth. Most likely he would give his old-school glare and scowl to anyone who asked.


He kept his headphones over his head, the cassette shoved in his back pocket. It was just a class, he thought to himself, no one was going to talk to him. They’d be too busy paying attention. Hopefully.


Zuko clutched the flimsy red notebook he brought with him, his pencil stuck behind his right ear as he approached the Tisch School of the Arts. This was it. Taking a steadying breath, he gripped the door handle as he walked into the building.


The inside of the building was gorgeous, with long sweeping brick-red arches settled at a measured distance down the hall. On either side of him was ubiquitous gray lockers, he wondered who actually used them. The hall itself was quiet; there were only a few people milling around. Zuko swept his jacket sleeve away from his wrist and glanced at his watch, 8:45, he was early.


Stopping in front of the room number that was marked on his schedule, he braced his shoulders and walked in.


It was completely empty. The professor wasn’t even there yet. Huh. He didn’t realize how early he was.


Well, he thought, it was probably better this way. Definitely better than being late and having to walk into a completely filled room with everyone staring at him.


Zuko settled himself into a seat closer to the back of the room. He closed his eyes listening to the cassette play and readying himself for his first day.


---------------------------------------------

Twenty minutes later, the room was completely filled and the professor was at the front writing on the sweeping chalkboard. Zuko had kept his eyes shut and his headphones firmly on as classmates swept past him, not wanting to see their expressions.


After a few moments, when the volume in the room dropped to a quiet murmur, he opened his eyes.


The room was packed. He had never seen 200 classmates all in one lecture hall before. Hell, there were only 200 people in his graduating class in High School. It was honestly overwhelming.


Yet, even though the room was packed full, the seat on the side of him (as he sat at the aisle seat) was empty. How predictable.


The professor was moving his arms in a “settle down” way as he approached the podium at the front of the room.


“Now,” The professor began speaking, “You will address me as Dr. Roku. Not Mr. Roku. Not Roku. Dr. Roku. Are we clear?”


There was a murmuring acquiescence from the room as they nodded.


“Fantastic,” The professor said, his hard set mouth spreading into a small smile. “Welcome to-”


Dr. Roku was interrupted as the front door banged open and a short, dark-skinned girl came rushing in.


The girl was wearing a black t-shirt stuffed into a pair of denim distressed jeans. Her hair was sticking up in every direction as it was clear she had most likely run the entire way here. She had on high-top gray converse, the laces flopping on the ground, and on top of the black t-shirt she had an oversized red flannel tied sloppily at her waist. The flannel was so large it was clear it wasn’t hers.


The professor looked slightly surprised before resuming his strict expression and turning to face the red-faced girl who ran in.


“I’m so sorry I’m late. Is this-” The girl squinted at her schedule, “Introduction to literature?”


There was a slight sprinkle of amusement in the professor’s eyes as he gestured one hand towards the chalkboard where ‘Introduction to Literature’ was written.


“Does that answer your question, Miss?” Dr. Roku asked, raising his eyebrows.


The girl flushed darker, which Zuko hadn’t thought was possible.


The professor put on a pair of bifocals, as if he needed to see the short girl clearly in order to reprimand her.


“What’s your name?” Dr. Roku asked.


“Katara,” She answered, her hand clutching the backpack she was holding.


“Katara…?”


“Katara Ayek.” The girl gulped, looking terrified. Zuko couldn’t blame her.


“Well, Miss Ayek,” The professor said coolly. “I do not tolerate lateness in this class. However, since it is the first day and you are a freshman I will excuse this once. Do not make a habit of it. Do you understand me?”


The girl nodded quickly and Dr. Roku raised an eyebrow.


“Yes, professor.” She squeaked.


“Very well.” Dr. Roku glanced out toward the large assembled class, where so many were smirking at Katara’s discomfort. “There’s a free seat near that young man in the back. Please sit quickly so I can resume teaching.”


Katara nodded again, moving quickly as she walked up the sloping ramps of the lecture hall to the free seat next to Zuko.


Her hand was still clenching her backpack and her eyes were down as she slipped past Zuko and settled beside him.


“Well, then,” Dr. Roku said, “Now that the amusement is over, please open your notebooks.”


The class groaned and did just that.


----------------------------------------------------------

Twenty minutes later, Zuko’s sympathy towards the girl next to him was quickly vanished and replaced by annoyance.


As Dr. Roku began instructing the class on what was in store for them this fall, Katara wrote every word down. That wasn’t the annoying part - Zuko was doing the same. The annoying part was how she had to murmur every word she was writing down.


Seriously, he didn’t understand it. The girl had the whole late thing and now she was talking to herself as she took notes? She was lucky they were too far back for the professor to see her.


Zuko tried to drown out the noise next to him as he paid attention. Which was probably why he didn’t realize she was trying to get his attention.


The girl was poking the side of him. After a moment he glanced up, keeping the left side of his face hidden as he cast an eye in her direction.


Katara pointed to her pencil on the other side of Zuko. She must have dropped it as she was talking to herself.


Zuko groaned inwardly as he leaned down and picked the yellow pencil off the floor. Unwittingly, as he turned around to give her the pencil, he turned his whole head towards her.
Katara took the pencil from his hands and then looked at his face. He could pinpoint the exact moment she noticed the half mask. Her eyes widened in surprise and she looked shocked at his appearance.


Zuko scowled and adjusted his face so that she no longer could see the left side. He was helping her out, and she had to look at him like a freak? God, people had no manners.


He resumed taking notes, studiously ignoring the small girl next to him.


After another moment, she poked his side again. He bit back a nasty remark, as he raised his right eyebrow.


“Thanks,” The girl said, smiling at him with the largest blue eyes he’s ever seen.


Zuko nodded in her direction then returned to writing in his notebook. Why was she constantly talking?


---------------------------------------------------------------

An hour and a half later, Dr. Roku dismissed the class for the day, reminding them to read the first chapter of the “Norton - Introduction to Literature” textbook they were all required to purchase prior to class starting.


As the rest of his classmates began talking amongst themselves and gathering their things to leave the room, Zuko flipped his notebook shut and brought out his headphones again.


The girl next to him was struggling to fit all her notebook into her backpack, Zuko wondered how much shit she was carrying in it.


It was probably because he was watching the small girl try to fit everything into her backpack that he didn’t realize the rest of the class besides the two of them had left.


Zuko flipped his cassette on as he stood up, picking up his notebook and sticking his pencil behind his right ear again.


The girl apparently had finally managed to stuff everything into her backpack as she stood up as well.


Her mouth was moving, yet his music turned on to full volume made it impossible to hear her. He shifted one of the headphone covers off his ear and he gestured to them to make it clear he hadn’t heard.


Now that the girl was standing up and pointed toward his direction, he could make out what the black t-shirt said. It was clearly hand-made. It had four odd swirly patterns decorated on it and at the top in jagged green writing it read “Elementals”.


The girl was speaking again and he blinked.


“You’re listening to The Smiths?” She asked, those big blue eyes blinking at him again. God, he didn’t realize how loud he had his music. Before he could even respond, she gave him a grin, “I love The Smiths.”


Zuko didn’t respond. He was too stunned to respond. A girl - a pretty girl, the back of his mind thought before he pushed it away - was talking to him. He couldn’t remember the last time a non-family member or non-doctor actually talked to him.


The girl looked a little taken back at his expression and his non-response. Before he could even fathom putting words together, she had hefted the bag over her shoulder and started down the slope to the door of the room.


‘Idiot.’ He thought to himself. ‘The first time someone talks to you about something not related to your failure of a life and you can’t even speak?’


He cursed his shyness. The girl had spoken to him, and all he did was stare at her like a fish. By now the girl had reached the door of the room and was pulling it open.


As Zuko watched her walk away he felt a swirl of sadness in his chest. He had never really had friends and the loneliness he was experiencing now was enormous.


After a moment’s hesitation, he did something that was either incredibly stupid or incredibly brave. He felt his chest clench with anxiety before quickly following the girl down the slope and out of the room.


The minute he opened the door leading into the hall, he spotted the small girl with her head down shuffling down the hall.


“Wait!” Zuko called out, his face red-hot.

Chapter Text

“Phew, for a minute there
I lost myself, I lost myself”

The girl hadn’t heard him. Or she was ignoring him. Zuko couldn’t blame her if she was ignoring him, he hadn’t responded to her first. By the time he was halfway down the hall of the Tisch School of Arts, she had already left the building, her long brown hair swaying behind her as she exited. Zuko picked up his pace, running down the hall of the building towards the exit. However, he wasn’t particularly running fast - a month spent basically locked in the apartment building had put him badly out of shape, and Doc Martens weren’t the best choice for running shoes. He was already puffing hard, one hand holding the mask in place as he went as fast as he could.


He finally succeeded in reaching the end of the building and pulling open the exit door. Zuko walked outside and whipped his head back and forth to see if he could spot where the girl had disappeared to. But she wasn’t there.


He let out a heavy sigh as he realized he had missed her and resumed his normal walking place. Well, he thought, maybe he’ll see her Wednesday.


After he thought this to himself, he paused. Was he actually hoping to see someone? That wasn’t particularly Zuko. Besides, he knew this better than anyone, getting close to someone was always an awful idea - at least for him. Other than Iroh, anytime he tried to trust someone or get close to them they always left him or turned against him. Hell, he had a whole list of people like that.


Zuko fixed his headphones so they fit directly over his ears. His next class started in an hour, so there was no point going home just to come right back. Maybe he’d mill around the campus for sometime before class begins again.


---------------------------------

Forty-five minutes later, Zuko was situated in another lecture hall inside of the Tisch School of Arts. This lecture hall had the same layout to the previous one in his earlier class - hundreds of seats with a large slope leading up to them, a podium at the front, and a giant chalkboard. He had already seated himself in the last row of seats at the aisle once more.
If he was being honest, most of his classmates barely paid attention to his mask if they noticed it in the first place. He wasn’t surprised that their eyes flitted over him - he was used to being invisible.


The class he was currently seated in was “Women and Gender Studies”, an elective course available to any student at New York University. Iroh had suggested it and Zuko agreed it would be enlightening.


Zuko smiled as he thought of Iroh’s words when he saw the course - “The best way to understand one’s place in the world is to understand the causes of suffering for others.” Besides, Zuko knew his Mother would have wanted him to take it as well, so he readily agreed.


As the other students walked in and found a seat, Zuko was startled to see he was one of the only males in the class. Although, as he thought it over, he figured it wasn’t particularly that surprising. He hadn’t talked to anyone back in High School, but he knew from overhearing that a lot of the males in his grade thought lowly of the females. Whenever he’d hear them describing the disgusting things they would do to the other girls in the grade, he’d affix them with his typical scowl and glare until they stopped speaking and walked away. And, well, the way his Father had treated his Mother… yeah, he wasn’t all that surprised there weren’t that many males in this class.


After ten minutes, the professor walked in. She was tall, at least six foot. Zuko hadn’t seen that many girls who were the same height as him. The professor was dressed in all green with heavy makeup and short brown hair cut into a modest bob. She had a stern expression and calculating green eyes.


Dr. Roku and now her, were all professors scary?


The professor stepped up to the podium, “Class, I am Professor Kyoshi. It is always a delight to see this many students interested in Women Studies. Now, would someone like to tell me why they picked this class?”


A muscular girl in the front with medium-length brown hair raised her hand, “So that I can understand my place in the world better.”


The professor nodded. “Women Studies is a fantastic way to understand yourself and your fellow peers better in this traditionally masculine fixated world.”


She turned to the chalkboard and began writing. Once she stepped away, the board read “Violence Against Women.”


“To begin our class,” The professor spoke, “We will start with a heavy topic - Violence against women. Now, who in this class has either had violence against them or someone they knew?”


A smattering of Zuko’s classmates raised their hands, but Zuko was too fixated on controlling his breathing to raise his hand as well.


There was no way in hell he was going to have a flashback during class.


‘Calm down, calm down, calm down.’ He repeated mentally. Out of everything, God why did they have to start with this topic?


He gripped the armrests of his seats and could feel his breathing hitch.


The professor nodded, looking sad at the amount of hands raised. “Violence against women has sadly become a fixture throughout history and within our society today. The most common type of violence against women is sexual assault, however the numbers of domestic abuse done by a spouse have been steadily rising, as well.”


Domestic abuse. Zuko wondered if it wouldn’t be too distracting if he left the classroom. Considering he was seated at the back of the room and would have to pass everyone as he left, he figured it would be. God fucking damn it.


The panic attacks and flashbacks weren’t uncommon to him, even before the accident. But before the accident, he could control them better. They wouldn’t sneak up on him out of nowhere in the middle of public, no they usually happened when he was home and locked in his room. If he was able to get out of this class unscathed, he thought to himself, maybe he’d have to tell Dr. Jee about this. Maybe the therapist could get him medication or something to stop these flashbacks from sneaking up on him in public spaces.


Professor Kyoshi continued speaking, “In a recent survey, it was calculated that 25% of the women surveyed had dealt with a form of domestic abuse.”


Even though he was doing all he could to avoid the memories, they finally snuck their way into his mind.


-------------------------------------

He was eight years old the first time he saw it happen.


It was three years before his Mother had decided to leave his Father.


He had finished his first day of third grade and had returned home, excited to tell his Mother about all of the new friends he made and the teachers he liked.
But when he opened the door to the brownstone, he could immediately tell something was off.


The house was too dark and too quiet. His Mother always kept the lights on, saying that she’d rather pay a higher electric bill then come home to a cold, dark house. Ursa always kept music on when she was home too. It was mainly classical music, but every once in a while there would be heavier rock-type music if Ozai wasn’t home or was on a business trip.


A loud bang ran out from the kitchen.


Zuko hesitated, glancing behind him to where Azula stood. Azula was a year younger than Zuko, and even though she hated being babied, he couldn’t resist the urge he had to protect his younger sister.


Another louder sound came from the direction of the kitchen.


Azula tugged on his sleeve, “Zuzu, what’s going on?”


Zuko shook his head slowly, “I don’t know ‘Zula.”


A cry came from the kitchen.


"Mommy?” Azula asked, sounding like she was on the verge of tears.


“Azula,” Zuko started, knowing even at eight years old that he had to do something. But he had to protect his sister first, “Can you go upstairs and hide in your room?”


Azula whimpered, “But what about Mommy?”


“Please, Azula.” Zuko begged, trying not to let fear into his voice, “Just hide in your room. I’ll go find Mom.”


After a moment, Azula nodded, and moved slowly up their grand staircase to her bedroom.


Zuko waited until he heard the soft click of her door shutting, before he dropped his backpack near the front door and walked down the hall.

“Mom?” He asked, trying to keep his voice level, “Dad?”


Zuko approached the door to the kitchen. There were still loud noises emanating from it, as if someone was trying to cook and failing.


He took a deep breath, before slowly turning the knob to the kitchen door.


At first, all he saw was the floor of the kitchen. It was a mess. There were dozens of cooking utensils strung out, as if someone had been throwing them.


He moved his gaze from the floor, trying to see if there was anyone in there.


Ursa was cowering against a kitchen cabinet.


Her hair was mussed, a far-cry from the normal glossy, long hair his Mother usually wore. Her shirt was torn and her makeup was messed up.


She noticed Zuko at the same time he noticed the tears running down her face.


“Mommy?” Zuko asked, his voice scared.


“Zuko, baby,” She said, her voice low, “Please just go upstairs, okay?”


Zuko didn’t want to. His Mother never left him when he cut himself playing outside. She always stayed with him and fixed his wound and then rocked him until he stopped crying.


“Mommy, what’s going on?” He questioned, tears brimming in his eyes.


“Zuko-” Ursa started again, but she was cut off as Ozai stood in front of her.


Zuko was too focused on his Mother to even notice his Father had approached Ursa again.


Even from the distance he was at, Zuko could notice the smell wafting off of Ozai - it smelled vile, like hand sanitizer.


Ozai had clearly worked himself into a fit of madness. He hadn’t even noticed Zuko standing at the door, all of his focus was on Ursa.


Zuko stepped back, all of his ‘danger’ senses going off.


Ozai towered over Ursa, and raised a heavy hand to slap Ursa across the face.


“You’re a slut,” Ozai had started speaking, his voice still cold and mean.


Tears streamed down Ursa’s eyes, as she fixed her gaze on Zuko, mouthing the world ‘Please.’


Zuko couldn’t bear to witness anymore. He wanted to stop his Father from hurting his Mother, but Zuko was too small and skinny to stop Ozai. Ozai was over six foot tall and completely made of muscle.


So, taking Ursa’s advice, Zuko ran out of the kitchen as quietly as he could and ran up the staircase to his room.


Thank God Azula hadn’t witnessed that, Zuko thought, as he locked the door to his room and curled up on his bed, clutching the stuffed dragon Ursa had given him when he was a baby.


An agonizing hour passed, Zuko knew because he watched his small alarm clock tick as loud noises continued downstairs.


Finally, after another ten minutes, a knock came at his door.


Zuko curled into himself further, terrified it would be Ozai.


“Zuko?” His Mother’s soft voice whispered, “Honey, are you in there?’


Zuko got up as fast as he could and ran to unlock his door.


Ursa stood in front of him, her mascara pooling underneath her eyes.


“Mommy, what’s going on?” Zuko asked as he stared at her terrified.


Ursa took his hand and walked into his room, locking the door behind her as she went inside.


“Why is Daddy hurting you?” Zuko pleaded, as she sat down on his bed and took Zuko into her arms.


Zuko pressed himself against her mother. The comforting smell of her lily perfume remained, although it was tinged with the sour smell that came off of Ozai earlier.


“Daddy was mad,” Ursa started slowly, “I was talking to someone I shouldn’t have.”


“But why did he hurt you?”


Ursa ruffled his hair, “Oh, honey… He didn’t mean to. It won’t happen again.”


“Promise?” Zuko asked, tears staining his cheeks.


“I promise, baby.” She responded softly, as she pulled her into his lap and began rocking him slowly.


But she had lied.


---------------------------------------------

Zuko fought himself out of his thoughts.


He took a refocusing breath, as he ruffled his hair with his hand.
The professor was still speaking, but to Zuko it sounded like she was talking underwater.


Zuko pressed one hand to the right side of his face, and it came away wet.
Tears. He had been crying.


He cast a quick glance around the room to see if anyone had noticed him silently weeping, but it appeared all their focus was on Professor Kyoshi. Thank God.
Zuko tried to stop himself from crying, but it was impossible. Domestic abuse.
He never blamed Ursa for leaving them, but why couldn’t she have taken Zuko and Azula with her?
After Ursa left, Azula had been taken more and more under Ozai’s wing. Maybe it was because she was more like him - she had the same cold, calculating emotions Ozai did.
But Zuko was too much like his Mother for Ozai to ever like him.
Zuko hadn’t received the red-hot slaps or the stinging pulls and pushes until Ursa left.
Once she was gone, everything he did was wrong. He was too emotional, too kind, too compassionate. And it all bubbled over, leading to the accident.


He hadn’t realized class was ending, he was too focused on the thoughts running through his mind.
There were a few girls standing up and passing around some glossy flyer as the professor erased the chalkboard.
One of the girls - the one who answered the question Professor Kyoshi asked - had reached Zuko and handed one of the papers to him.
He picked it up and looked at it. It was a flyer on what to do if you or someone you loved was in a violent situation.
He glanced up at the girl. She had emerald green eyes and a thoughtful expression on her face.
There was something about her eyes that seemed like they could analyze anything you did.


“You okay?” She asked Zuko.


Zuko pressed his hand to his face again. Great, there were still tears running down his face.
“Um, yeah.” He said slowly.


The girl didn’t even seem to notice the mask - or if she did notice she kept her expression to herself. “What’s your name?” She asked.


“Zuko.” He replied, finally able to even out his breathing.


She nodded, “I’m Suki.” And she stuck out her free hand for him to shake.


The minute she stuck her hand out, Zuko flinched.


Suki seemed to notice this as well, and she dropped her hand back to her side.


“Uh, sorry-” He started, but she cut him off.


“I’m going to my friend’s house to hang out and discuss the first day of college. Do you want to come?”


Was she seriously inviting him to something? Even with the mask, the tears, and the annoying flinch he did? The “No” and excuses were on his tongue, already prepared to be said. When he started High School, he had been invited to stuff - parties, football games, get-togethers. But he always avoided them, for fear of what Ozai would do if he wasn’t home on time. But Ozai wasn’t here anymore, he reminded himself. And he already screwed up one chance of friendship earlier.


After a long silence, he said hesitatingly, “Okay.”


-----------------------------------------------------------------------

Thirty minutes later he was definitely regretting agreeing to this.


Suki had taken him to some large mansion-like house on the Upper East Side. The subway ride over to the house with her hadn’t been too bad, they stuck to innocuous subjects like music or the other classes they were taking. Thankfully, she didn’t question the mask or his odd behavior earlier.


“Your friend lives here?” He breathed. While his old brownstone was extravagant to most people, and extremely expensive in Manhattan, this house was at least two times the size of it. He wondered what Suki’s friend’s parents did for a living.


“Yep!” Suki replied, already unlocking the door with some key she had kept in her back pocket.


She walked into the mansion, and then turned to Zuko, an eyebrow raised.


Zuko gulped and followed her inside.


The inside of the house was as massive as the outside, hundred of what were probably expensive antiques littered the foyer. There was a huge white grand piano off to one corner, dazzling lush carpets, and emerald green vases.


Suki went through the house as if she wasn’t worried about damaging something in the slightest - Zuko wasn’t the same. He moved carefully, trying to keep his gangly frame from hitting anything.


As they walked through the house, Zuko noticed the strain of music playing. It was something hard and thrashing. He had not expected that kind of music to play in this kind of house.


Suki opened a small brown door, exposing a staircase that led to the downstairs of the house.


Zuko followed her downstairs, the strain of music down here was much louder. It pounded against his head as he went down the stairs, bringing up a headache.


“Suki!” A loud chorus of voices yelled as they saw her, and the volume of the music turned down slightly.


Zuko hesitated, glancing longingly up to the door. He could leave now and nobody would notice.


Suki seemed to notice that Zuko hadn’t come all the way down; she turned back to the stairs and gestured to him to come down to meet everyone.


After a moment’s pause, he relented and followed her into the basement.


The basement was a far cry from the rest of the house; there were dozens of records piled around the blaring record player in the corner, on one side of the brick-exposed wall sat a collection of instruments - guitars, drums, keyboards, bass guitars, and on the other side sat a small loft bed, a few dressers and tables, a long glass coffee table, and a few beanbags.


As Zuko glanced around the people assembled; he noticed a short girl with shaggy black hair and cloudy eyes, she wore a pair of bleached jeans with a wide assortment of holes and an oversized t-shirt, next to the girl stood a short kid (because he was definitely not old enough to be called a man) who was oddly enough bald and wearing an orange sweater overtop denim, finally a tall guy was flicking through the mess of records, he had short black hair pulled into a ponytail and was wearing a blue muscle-tee.


Suki put her arms out towards Zuko as if she was a game show presenter, “Guys! This is Zuko. He’s in that amazing women studies class I was talking about.”


Zuko tugged at his long front hair. After Suki made a noise, he realized he was supposed to introduce himself, “Uh, hi. Zuko here.”


The three people were staring at him now, and he felt his face flush again. Now he remembered why he never really talked to people.


The bald kid seemed startled at his mask, then blinked and raised his hand in a gesture of friendship, “Hi, I’m Aang.”


The ponytail dude was staring at him as if he was sizing him up. Then finally he said bluntly, “What’s up with the mask? Are you preparing for Halloween or something?”


Zuko turned a darker shade. If only he had left when he had the chance.


Suki nudged the guy, “Sokka!” She reprimanded.


“What? It’s a genuine question.”


“Uh, no.” Zuko said quietly, God if only he had a cigarette. “I just… like it?”


The guy - Sokka? - seemed to be pondering this response. “Alright. But don’t get any serial killer ideas.”


Serial killer ideas? Zuko wished he could vanish into thin air.


“Isn’t someone going to introduce me to mask guy?” The short girl in the corner complained.


The other three turned to look at her.


“What? I don’t have anything else to go by.”


“I said my name was Zuko!” Zuko groaned, exasperated.


“Calm down, sparky.” She waved her hand over her face. “I can’t even see the mask anyway, if it makes you feel better?”


The way she spoke, the cloudy eyes… Oh, Zuko realized, she was blind.


“Why did you call me sparky?” He asked, because really that was the most pressing question.


The blind girl shrugged, “You seem like you have a temper. And your heartbeat is going really fast. My name’s Toph.”


Zuko blinked, “You can feel my heartbeat?”


“Sure can. I see with my feet, I’m really good at detecting stuff.” She responded, lying back on the bed.


“Okay…” He trailed off. Alright, these people were kinda… strange. Not in a bad way! Just that Zuko had no experience talking to people and these people sure as hell weren’t making it easier.


After an awkward silence, the bald kid - Aang he remembered - said, “So, where’s Katara?”


Katara. That was the girl he sat next to earlier. Or at least, it probably was. Zuko doubted Katara was a common name.


Suki shrugged. “I called her from a payphone before class and she said she’d be late. Probably studying or something.”


“We should start practice anyway.” Sokka replied, turning over to one of the bass guitars in the corner, “Katara is only backing vocals anyway.”


“Are you guys in a band?” Zuko questioned, then immediately regretted it, as they all turned to look at him.


“Trying to be.” Suki sighed, “It’s a work in progress.”


Zuko nodded, trying to think of something else to talk about. Even though these people were a little strange, he still didn’t want them to think he was a socially awkward freak or something.


Before he could come up with something to say, the door to the basement opened a girl skittered down the steps.


“Sorry, I’m late!” She called, throwing her backpack over the banister and onto one of the seats below.


It was Katara, the girl from class.


Katara glanced around the room, until she noticed Zuko.


“Oh,” She said, stonily.

Chapter Text

“It better work out, I hope it works out my way
‘Cause it’s getting kinda quiet in my city’s head
It takes a teenage riot to get me out of bed
Right now”

The tension between Zuko and Katara was stifling, it felt as if all the air had been sucked out of the room. The others watched with renewed interest, their faces all showing different expressions; Toph seemed bored, Aang looked nervous, and Suki and Sokka were looking at each other with raised eyebrows.


After a long uncomfortable silence, Katara finally spoke, “What are you doing here?” She folded her arms across her chest.


Zuko pulled at his hair uncomfortably. If his experience with having friends was minimal, his experience at having non-family members pissed at him was downright nonexistent. “Uhhh…” He started, trying to keep the nerves out of his voice, “Suki invited me?” He phrased the last part as a question unwittingly.


Katara snorted, “Oh really? Suki invited me too, but she didn’t mention you being here.”


Zuko felt as if all his nerve endings were standing on edge, “Maybe it’d be better if I left?” He hated how he kept positioning everything he was saying as a question.


Suki elbowed Sokka quickly. He jumped, rubbing his stomach. “Ouch, what was that for?” Sokka grumbled, annoyed. Suki shot him a quick glare and he finally got on. “Oh, um, no stay Zuko! It’s fine.”


Suki rolled her eyes at Sokka, “Katara, can we talk for a minute?” Suki asked.
Katara kept her expression cold as she examined Zuko, but after a moment she acquiesced.


As the two headed back up the stairs toward the main house, Zuko hesitated looking at the remaining three. “Am I doing something wrong?”


“Not to us,” Toph snorted, “But clearly you upset Sugar Queen.”


“Katara? I mean, I kinda accidentally ignored her in class earlier. I guess.” Zuko responded, sheepishly.


“So? Apologize.” Toph rolled her eyes.


“How do I apologize? She looks like she wants to kill me!” Zuko exclaimed.


Sokka walked over and put his arm around Zuko’s shoulders. Zuko was immediately uncomfortable. “Man to man,” Sokka began and Toph groaned, “Katara’s my sister and she can be pretty… prickly when someone hurts her pride. Just give her time to cool down.”


“Are you sure?” Zuko questioned, nervously.


“Positive!” Sokka replied letting go of Zuko and turning back to where the instruments sat.


Aang hadn’t removed the worried expression from his face, “Sokka, I don’t know. Maybe it’d be best if Zuko left.” Great, Zuko thought, he didn’t even know this kid and the kid already disliked him.


“Please,” Sokka rolled his eyes at Aang, “I don’t know about you but I’d rather Katara stay pissed for a little than have Suki get pissed at all of us.”


“You’re just saying that because she’s your girlfriend.”


“Exactly! Anyway, Katara can’t hold a grudge for long. Suki on the other hand…” Sokka shivered.


Toph stood up. After a moment’s pause with her head tilted, she walked carefully over to the drum set. “If we’re done with the drama,” She stated as she sat down on the drum stool, “It would be beneficial if, you know, we actually practiced.”


Aang was still staring at the direction where Katara and Suki disappeared, “I don’t know…” He trailed off.


“Aren’t you over your crush on her Aang?” Toph responded, her tone bored.


“Katara? I’m-” Aang’s entire face turned red, “I don’t have a crush on her!” He groaned, but he reluctantly went over to the electric guitar.


“Sure you don’t, Twinkle Toes!” Toph replied and Sokka snorted.


“I don’t!”


“Yeah, that’s why your heartbeat always increases when she’s around.” Toph gripped the drumsticks in her hands.


“Uh, not to get off topic, but how can you feel heartbeats?” Zuko questioned.


“Same way you can see.” Toph answered. “I was born blind. The doctors told my parents I would have better senses to make up for it, particularly hearing. But I don’t, not with hearing. My hearing sense is probably equal to yours. Anyway, when it was clear I didn’t have fantastic hearing, it made my parents more anxious. They never let me out of the house, always insisting I stay with someone while they went to work. During those days when I was alone and left to my own devices, we had an old dog. He was both blind and deaf. My babysitters were insanely dull, so I spent most of my time playing with our dog. Even though he couldn’t see or hear, he made up for it with his sense of touch. I copied what he did and refined it for years. Now my sense of feeling is incredibly honed, although I never told my parents.”


“Why didn’t you tell your parents?”


“That I had a fantastic sense of touch?” Toph shrugged, “It would make them more nervous. Everything makes them nervous. But now my sense of feeling is good enough that I can even pick up on the pattern of someone’s heartbeats. It’s pretty cool, not going to lie.”


Zuko nodded, before realizing Toph couldn’t see him doing that. “That is really cool.” He responded. Next to Toph, Zuko felt pretty wimpy for not being able to deal with his accident without a multitude of doctors. Although, he knew she didn’t mean it like that. No one even knew about his scar or the accident.


The loud thundering of the steps distracted all four of them. Suki and Katara came back downstairs - Suki looking pleased with herself and Katara looking slightly less pissed off. But only slightly.


Suki clapped her hands together, “So, Katara and I had a talk. And Katara agrees you can stay!” She smiled at Zuko.


Zuko glanced at Katara confused, “Really?”


Katara sighed, sounding defeated. “Yeah. Suki convinced me that it wouldn’t kill me.”


Jesus, all Zuko did was not respond to her. How did that piss her off this much?
“Oh. Um, okay.” He cursed himself silently. Why couldn’t he get through more than three sentences without stuttering awkwardly?


“Suki?” Sokka gestured to the microphone, “If we ever want a shot at getting a record deal, we should practice for next week’s performance.”


“Oh, right.” Suki headed towards the microphone.


Zuko was slightly impressed, “You guys have a show?”


“Yeah. Next week at The Studio at Webster Hall. It’s our first actually big performance. It might even give us a shot at impressing some studio bigwigs.” Toph played out a small beat on the drums.


“Actually, Zuko watch us.” Sokka interrupted thoughtfully, “You can let us know if we suck.”


“We don’t suck.” Aang grumbled.


“We might not, but you do.” Toph retorted in her now familiar-blunt tone.


“Shut up Toph,” Aang mumbled. Even though Zuko didn’t know Aang that well, it was clear that saying “Shut up” was the equivalent of cursing for him.


Zuko shrugged at Sokka and sat down on one of the bean bag chairs.
He watched as the five of them got into positions. Toph was still gripping her drumsticks steadily, Aang had one of the two electric guitars slung over his chest, the size of the guitar almost the size of Aang, Suki stood in front of the lead microphone, her eyes closed, Sokka was looking intently at the bass guitar in his hands, and Katara was at the slightly smaller microphone in the back.


Once it seemed everyone was settled, Toph rang out a quick, “One, two, three.” And the group began playing.


Zuko listened to them curiously. They weren’t bad. Before the accident, Zuko used to play electric guitar whenever Ozai wasn’t home - Iroh bought it for him on his fourteenth birthday. He never played in a band, nor had he played since the accident, but from listening to the group he detected they had a somewhat grunge, Sonic Youth sound. Suki had a good voice, deep and raspy, which mingled nicely with Katara’s higher pitch. Sokka played the bass excellently, as if he played for years, and Toph’s punk-like style on the drums tied it all together.
If he was being honest though, Toph was right about Aang. The kid wasn’t awful at the guitar, but it was clear he struggled compared to the rest of them. He wasn’t a great guitar lead, probably better at playing back-up rhythm, but it wasn’t like Zuko was going to admit this and offend him.


After a few more songs played out, Suki let out a, “Thank you Webster Hall!” And the sound abruptly cut off.


“So?” Sokka said, placing his bass guitar back on its stand, “What did you think?”


“Well…” Zuko began, wondering what exactly to say.


“We suck?” Sokka asked, dejectedly.


“No!” Zuko half-yelled. He wasn’t trying to offend two siblings today. “No.” He repeated, calmer. “You’re actually really good. The mix of grunge and punk works well together, and it would definitely set you apart from the other indie acts.” Zuko could feel himself slipping into what Azula used to call ‘pretentious rock critic’. “Although, Sokka, I think if you kept a continuous bass line throughout the last song it would sound a lot better.”


Sokka looked mildly impressed. “Alright, let’s try it.”


They went through the last song one more time, adding in the continuous bass line Zuko had recommended. Once the song was over, it was silent for a moment. Zuko hesitated, worried they hated his suggestion.


“That was a lot better.” Toph remarked.
The others, even Katara and Aang although grudgingly, nodded in agreement.


“You seem to know a lot about music,” Suki said, glancing at Sokka as if they were having a silent conversation with their facial expressions.


Zuko shrugged, running a hand through his hair. “I played guitar for a while.”


“Really?” Sokka asked.


“Uh, yeah. Not in a band or anything, but I have played since I was fourteen.”


“How old are you now?”


“Eighteen.” Zuko responded, feeling somewhat nervous as to where this was going.


“Makes sense. You’re a freshman at NYU with Suki and Katara right?” Sokka replied.


“Yeah?”


“Ah, I’m a sophomore there. Aang and Toph are seniors.”


“In college?” Zuko was astounded. Toph had a somewhat hardass attitude, but still, she looked younger than the rest of them. And, well, Aang looked like he hadn’t hit puberty yet.


Suki laughed, “No, they’re still in high school.” Well, that made more sense.


“Why don’t you play something for us?” Toph asked.


“Play for you?” Zuko felt his heart beat a little faster. Even though he used to be pretty talented at guitar - at least that’s what Iroh said on the rare occasion Zuko played for him - he was pretty out of practice now.


Sokka shrugged, “Yeah, why not? You can use the guitar Aang is holding.”


One look over at Aang and Zuko thought it was a pretty bad idea. The kid looked annoyed at the thought of Zuko touching his guitar.
“Um, that’s okay. I haven’t played in like two months.”


“If you suck, you suck.” Toph flipped her drumstick in the air. “But most people are better at guitar than Aang is, anyway.”


“Toph!” Katara spoke up for the first time. “Aang does not suck.”


“Yeah, and I’m not blind.”


“Thanks, Katara.” Aang mumbled, his cheeks red. Even Zuko could tell this kid had a crush on her.


“I don’t want to infringe on anything-” Zuko started to say, feeling somewhat bad for Aang even though he wasn’t the best at lead guitar.


“No, seriously. Just let us hear.” Sokka took the guitar from Aang’s hands and handed it to Zuko.


Zuko figured he couldn’t decline again. Declining once was fine, two was usually okay, but three and you looked like an asshole. He really didn’t want these people to hate him. Besides, he’s been out of practice for so long, he probably did suck anyway.


As his hands took the electric guitar, he felt an old fondness swirl inside him. He really did miss playing. Maybe when he got home, he could call Iroh and see if he could get his old guitar back. He hesitated, his hands posed over the strings. Zuko closed his eyes, thinking of a song to play. Keeping his eyes closed, he started to play “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix.
Zuko thought he would be drastically out of tune and unable to play guitar after a decent break not playing, but it was almost as if his muscles remembered every part of the guitar. He wasn’t even paying attention to the others in the room, all his thoughts were on the guitar and the song he was playing. It was almost like he was shedding all of his insecurities as he played - it was that calming.
Once he finished the final note, he opened his eyes.
They were all staring at them, eyes bulging.
He blushed, setting the guitar gently on the ground. Was he that bad? Iroh used to say he was a prodigy, but he was out of practice…


Finally, Sokka blurted, “Holy shit. Mask dude, you need to be in our band.”


“What?”


“You’re good.” Suki added, “Like, really good.”


“A lot better than Aang.” Toph pointed a drumstick at him.


Even Katara begrudgingly mumurred, “Yeah, you are pretty good.”


“I don’t know,” Zuko started, not wanting Aang to murder him, “I’m pretty out of practice.”


Toph laughed, “If you’re out of practice, then we’re awful.”


“You’re not awful!” Zuko rushed to correct her pleadingly, “You’re really good.”


“Yeah, and we’d be better if you were in our band.” Sokka crossed his arms.


Zuko tugged at the collar of his shirt, “I, I don’t want to infringe on Aang.”


Toph rolled her eyes, “Twinkle Toes will be fine. He can play rhythm guitar. We need you for lead guitar.”


“Look,” Katara interrupted. She glanced at Zuko, her expression unreadable. “You’re extremely good, I’ll give you that. But let’s take a five-minute band meeting to discuss this.”
Aang brightened as she said this. For fuck’s sake, Zuko felt awful at potentially taking the kid’s slot.


Sokka thought this over. “Alright. Band meeting!” He yelled, as if the entire band wasn’t already standing two feet apart from him.


“I’ll, uh, go upstairs.” Zuko said, standing up and heading out of the basement.


Once the door shut behind him, he could hear the murmuring of the group down below. Zuko glanced around the still impeccable living room, wondering if there was anything he could sit on. After a quick lookover of the decadent couches and pristine chairs, he decided it was better if he stood, worried he’d somehow accidentally stain the furniture.
He fiddled with his fingers as he waited to be called back downstairs. God, what was he thinking? Katara didn’t like him, and even though he knew he could take the short, ninety-pound Aang in a fight if needed, he really didn’t want the kid to hate him. But there was something about music that called to him, the same way literature and poetry did. He knew that in his old room in Ozai’s house, his leather bound song and poetry journal was most likely still stuck underneath his mattress. Of course, the passages he wrote in it were probably embarrassingly bad, but it reminded him of the way he used to play guitar continuously. Music was always a release to the world around him, even now.


Zuko was so lost in thought, he didn’t realize Sokka had bounded up the stairs. Blinking himself back to awareness, he looked at Sokka impassively. Sokka was clearly not skilled at hiding his emotions the way Katara was, he was trying to fight back a grin and failing.
“Come on!” Sokka half-shouted, waving him back down to the basement.


Zuko followed behind him, watching as Katara and Suki were still engaged in a semi-heated discussion.
Sokka cleared his throat and they all turned to look at him and Zuko. “We have decided,” Sokka spoke in the impersonation of a television show host, “That you are in our band!”


Zuko paused in shock as Toph and Suki whooped. “Seriously?” He was astonished.


“Sparky, with you in our band we will definitely have a shot at a record deal.” Toph said grinning.


“Are you sure?” He asked, as Aang was sitting scowling and plucking at a few guitar strings.


“It was a unanimous decision.” Suki admitted, “And for the good of our group.”


“If you want to join,” Katara added, still not looking at Zuko, “It’s up to you.”


Zuko didn’t want to say no, but he was also unsure of saying yes. The pleasure in playing guitar again had ignited something inside him, and he didn’t want to lose it. “If you’re sure…”


Toph groaned, “Just say yes.”


“Okay,” He took a deep breath, “Okay, I’ll join.”


Suki clapped her hands and Sokka grabbed his arm and dragged him over to where the rest were standing. “Welcome to Elemental.”


-------------------------------------------------------------

An hour after Zuko’s acceptance, they were drunk.
Well, they as in the rest of the group, Zuko was still holding the first cup they had given him.


After he agreed to join Elemental, Toph had pulled out a bottle of vodka from one of the dressers in the basement.
She had a sneaky grin on her face as she took out a couple of cups and poured the vodka into them, “For the celebration.” She added.
The others cheered, and the five of them had gotten drunk pretty fast. Even Aang, which surprised Zuko, the kid didn’t seem like much of a partier.


Now, sitting in the basement, Zuko felt uncomfortable being the only sober one. He had never actually gotten drunk in his life, even though he used to be around Azula and her friends when they did. He always begged off around them, saying someone had to stay sober if Ozai came home unannounced.


Sokka’s eyes were glassy as he turned to Zuko, slightly slurring, “Why aren’t you drinking?”


“Well,” Zuko looked down at the still full cup in his hands. He turned to Toph, “Wouldn’t your parents be mad?”


Toph giggled, a sound coming from her that was odd to hear, “They’re on a business trip. It’s just us.”


“Chug it!” Suki called, Sokka's arm around her as they sat on the couch.


Zuko hesitated again. Seeing his Father drunk when he was a kid always made him nervous of drinking. He was worried that if he drank he would get his Father’s anger, his Father’s temper. But Azula drank pretty often with Ty Lee and Mai at their house, and she never became like Ozai. In fact, it actually seemed to do the opposite to her, it calmed her down and made her more human-like.


“It’s not going to kill you!” Toph laughed, her head on the ground and her feet propped on the table.


“Yeah,” Katara added, sitting on one of the bean bag chairs, “Toph drinks plenty and she’s still alive.”
Toph hit her in the arm and Katara laughed again.


That laugh did something to Zuko. He still felt awful for the way he treated Katara earlier, and if drinking would make her like him… He knew he shouldn’t consider that, but he desperately wanted to fit in their group.
“Alright,” He brought the cup to his mouth and began drinking.


And, as always, the others cheered.


---------------------------------------------------------------

Another thirty minutes passed, and Zuko realized he definitely drank way too much way too fast. But how was he supposed to know? He never drank before!


Time seemed to pass both slowly and quickly at the exact same time. It was as if he was both part of the room and observing it from an outside perspective. Sure, he watched as the rest got drunker and drunker, talking and laughing hysterically. But he didn’t feel like he was participating, he felt like he was only observing from far above.
Sokka and Suki had both seemed to taper off the alcohol, he figured that they both knew the limit of tipsy versus completely fucked. Aang, Toph, and Katara, on the other hand, had stopped using the cups twenty minutes ago and were now passing around the bottle amongst themselves.


He wasn’t following their conversation, but he could tell from the bits and pieces he was hearing that they were discussing high school.


“High school was the worst time in my life,” Katara groaned as she tipped the bottle back to her mouth.


“Way to make me and Twinkle Toes feel good!” Toph responded, swaying slightly as Aang snorted.


“Senior year was fun.” Suki put in, a bottle of water in her hand.


“How was high school for you?” Katara rested her gaze on Zuko.


It took Zuko a moment to even realize she was talking to him. Her eyes were the deepest blue he’s ever seen, it felt like he could swim in them. Once he noticed her eyes were on him, he waited for the familiar blush and feeling of embarrassment to arrive. It didn’t. Maybe alcohol did make you loosen up.
“I hated high school.” He blurted out.


“Amen to that.” Sokka said, attempting to give Zuko a high five, which Zuko missed miserably.
The others laughed at Zuko’s lack of coordination, and once more Zuko waited for the familiar feeling of fear and shyness. Again, nothing came. In fact, he felt bold and more comfortable in his skin than he ever had in life.


“What were your friends like?” Katara asked, her attention still inexplicably focused on him.


“I didn’t have any friends.” He responded, before he could stop himself. Damn the vodka.


The group looked startled at that. It took a moment for them to respond, as if his admission had stopped the alcohol running through their veins.
“You’re our friend now.” Sokka said, breaking the silence and raising his empty cup in a toast.


Even beneath the alcohol, Zuko felt his heart stirring at what they said. He was their friend. He had friends.
Suki raised her cup as well, and Aang and Katara mimed holding an invisible cup. Toph held up the almost empty vodka bottle.


“To Zuko, our new friend.” Sokka grinned.


“To Zuko!” The others responded, laughing.


But it wasn’t the four new friends he was focused on. He watched Katara as she laughed with the rest, and turned her brilliant blue eyes and her fantastic smile back on him. He wondered if after the feeling of drunkenness faded, he would still be her friend. God, he hoped so. Making a drunken resolution to himself, he promised that he would make up his failure of not speaking to her. He would apologize, and hopefully become her actual friend.

Chapter Text

“And I still find it so hard
To say what I need to say
But I’m quite sure that you’ll tell me
Just how I should feel today”

Zuko woke up the next morning with a pounding headache. He groaned as he kept his eyes closed, reaching one hand up to rub at his temple. What the fuck happened last night? He thought. He hadn’t had a headache this bad since the weeks following his accident.

As he lay in bed, ruminating on what occurred to cause a headache this awful - it all came flashing back to him. The drinking, his honest confession on how he had no friends, and the drunken toast the rest of them gave him saying he was their friend now. Even though the pounding in his head had not abided, he felt a small smile come on thinking about what they said. He hoped it was truthful, and not just an accidental drunk rambling.

Zuko groaned as he stood up off his small bed. He pulled a Joy Division shirt on as he headed towards the kitchen. His mouth was extremely parched and he needed ibuprofen to relieve the headache somewhat. So this is what a hangover was like. He always heard them described, mostly by Azula, but he’s never experienced one himself. Azula was right; it was fucking hell.
He went over to the small sink in the kitchen nook, quickly filling up a glass of water and drinking it down within seconds. As he was filling up the glass again, he heard a loud knocking at the door.

Jesus Christ, did people always have to knock loudly when he was in the middle of a headache?

He swallowed down four ibuprofen before he decided he might as well answer the door. Hopefully it was a neighbor or something and he could get the conversation over fast.

Zuko hesitated before deciding to fit the mask over his face - in the off occasion it might be someone he knew, he definitely didn’t want to answer the door with his scar showing.

Making sure the mask was fitted correctly over the left side of his face, he groaned and opened the door.
Standing in the hallway was Azula and her two friends.

What the fuck?

Zuko was shocked into silence as Azula narrowed her eyes at him. She looked the exact same she always did - black hair straightened into perfection, similar golden eyes narrowed in annoyance, and wearing a ‘Bikini Kill’ shirt over a pair of designer ripped jeans. So Azula was still into her riot grrrl phase. Behind her stood Mai and Ty Lee, both looking the same as they used to. Ty Lee was still outfitted in a pink ‘Hello Kitty’ shirt and a pink tutu - Zuko had no idea how she got away with wearing that stuff when she was seventeen. And Mai still had her black buns and long black bangs hiding her eyes, for some reason she never looked at Zuko straight on, even when they were kids.

Azula pushed past him into the tiny living room of his apartment, Mai and Ty Lee following.

Zuko was immensely glad he decided to put on the mask. He rubbed his hair in confusion, “Azula, how do you know where I live?”

“Because I know everything, Zuzu.” She replied flippantly, bolstering herself up on his kitchen counter. “Do you have a light?” Mai and Ty Lee stood on either side of her. Mai had her arms crossed and focused her gaze on the door, still not meeting Zuko’s eyes. Ty Lee was looking around his apartment enthusiastically.

“Azula, you shouldn’t be smoking.” Zuko groaned.

“So, do you have a light? Yes or no?” She pulled out a cigarette from her pocket and held it out waiting.

Zuko figured he had to give her his lighter if he wanted any hope in figuring out why she was here.
He grabbed the lighter off his coffee table and threw it to her.

As she lit her cigarette, Zuko went around and opened up some of the windows around the apartment. He only smoked outside since the one time he did it inside he accidentally set off his smoke detector. Of course, Azula didn’t care about that.

“Why are you here, Azula?” He asked as she released a plume of smoke from her mouth.

“To figure out why the fuck you left home. Dad’s pissed, but he won’t tell me what happened.” Mai and Ty Lee nodded as if she needed witnesses to her statement.

Zuko snorted, but before he could respond, Azula continued. “Also what the fuck is with the mask? Are you trying to be all Friday the 13th, now?”

Zuko groaned again, “In Friday the 13th, he wears a full mask! This is a half mask!”

“Yeah, whatever, Jason.” She replied.

"Shut up, Azula. How did you even know where I lived?”

“I put on my pity act for Iroh. I think you forget he’s my Uncle too. Even though he doesn’t like me half as much as he loves you.” She said this breezily, though there was a tone of sadness underneath.

“Iroh told you where I lived?” He really had to talk to Iroh about that. There was no way he wanted Uncle going around telling people where he lived.

“I just said that. Keep up, Zuzu.” She flipped her hand at him and put the cigarette back to her mouth.

“Why did you bring Mai and Ty Lee?” He questioned. He had nothing against them, even though Mai was always weird around him. But still. He didn’t really know why they had to be here.

“What is this, an interrogation?” Azula laughed mirthlessly. “They wanted to come. Mai has been so worried about you, weren’t you Mai?”

Mai replied in her constant bored tone, “Shut up, Azula.”

“Oh, touchy subject!” Azula laughed again. “Now it’s my turn to ask questions.”

Zuko really didn’t want to talk about the accident with her, but the faster he answered her questions the faster he could kick her out. “Fine, Azula. But be quick, I have class soon.” As he said that he realized neither Azula nor her friends were in class, “Why aren’t you in class?”

Azula shrugged, “There’s nothing wrong in skipping the second day of senior year.”

“Yes, there is! You can’t skip school for fun.”

"So, now you want to lecture me? My dear brother who left me alone with Dad?” She responded to this in her same arrogant tone, but he knew her too well. He could detect the sense of fear behind her words.

“Did he do anything to you?” Zuko asked, already on alert.

“No. You know Dad loves me more than he loves you.” She was right, of course. Ozai always cared more about Azula than about Zuko, but she didn’t have to bring it up.

“Whatever. Why are you harassing me?” His mouth titled down in his constant scowl.

“Because, Iroh wouldn’t tell me why you’re here.” She pitched her voice lower, doing a bad imitation of Uncle. “Azula, I cannot tell you what happened to Zuko. Those with sadness must figure out how to tell one themselves.” Her voice responded to normal, “What the fuck does that even mean?”

Zuko really needed to have a talk with Iroh later, but he had to get rid of Azula first. “Azula, I have class in thirty minutes. Stop with the distractions, and just tell me why you’re here.”

“Why did you leave home?” She asked abruptly.

“I didn’t want to! I had to. Besides I was always going to leave for college, anyway.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t even say goodbye to me.” Suddenly, he could see how hurt she was. Azula was skilled in hiding her emotions, but as she said this line it was clear how much Zuko had hurt her by leaving.

“Father hated me.” He responded, trying to keep from talking about the accident, “I couldn’t stay there, anymore.”

“You could have at least told me, Zuzu.” There was sadness hidden in her eyes. “It’s hard to deal with Dad without you.”

Zuko felt the same familiar desire to protect Azula. It was odd, he hadn’t tried to protect Azula since they were kids. After Ursa left, him and Azula grew in different directions. She succeeded in gaining Ozai’s love, he the opposite.
“If he ever does anything to you, you can always stay here.” Zuko grumbled gruffly. He started lacing up his Doc Martens. There was no way he was going to be late to Dr. Roku’s class after what happened with Katara.

“Whatever, Zuko.” It was one of the only times she ever called him by his actual name and not the stupid nickname she’s been using since she was a kid. Hearing her call him ‘Zuko’ was alarming, to say the least. She only used it when she was upset. “Why are you wearing that mask?”

“Azula, I can’t talk about it!” He raised his voice as he began lacing up the other shoe. Ty Lee shrunk back. After noticing how loud his voice had gotten, he took a breath before continuing. “Look, I have to get to class. I’ll tell you eventually, I promise.”

Azula seemed to realize she wasn’t going to get any of her answers out of him now. She jumped off the counter and headed toward the door, the smell of smoke wafting off her.
“Whatever, brother.” She murmured again as Mai and Ty Lee followed her out of the apartment.

“Please, go to class, Azula.” Zuko straightened up and grabbed his literature notebook.

“Hmmm. We’ll see.” Azula laughed again as she left the apartment, Mai following her silently, as usual.

“Bye, Zuko!” Ty Lee called, waving at him, “I like your apartment!”

“Thanks, Ty Lee.” He muttered, giving her a slight wave back.

He waited until he was sure Azula and Co. had left the floor, before leaving to go to class, himself. On his mental check-list, he made some notes. Talk to Iroh about him talking to Azula, figure out a way to make sure Azula was going to high school, and make sure Iroh was in contact with Azula enough that he would find out if Ozai was hurting her like he used to hurt him.

------------------------------------------

Zuko settled into his seat in “Introduction to Literature”. Due to Azula’s harassment, he was only a minute early to class. But at least he wasn’t late.

He settled himself into the same seat he used yesterday, looking over to see if Katara was still sitting next to him. She was. He felt a small sliver of happiness as he realized this, he figured she would have picked somewhere else to sit.

He hesitated, maybe he should say something to her? But Dr. Roku was already talking…

Zuko tried to pay attention what Dr. Roku was teaching, but it was difficult. He could feel Katara moving around besides him. She was still talking to herself as she took notes, and now he found it kind of cute in a nerdy way - not that he thought she was cute! - more than annoying.

After a moment’s pause, he ripped out a piece of paper from his notebook and wrote, “Hey, sorry.” He crumpled up the paper and dropped it on her notebook.

She flickered a curious glance at him, but he kept his gaze focused on Dr. Roku. After it was clear he wasn’t going to give her any indication of what the note read, she opened it and read it herself.

Zuko wasn’t expecting any response from her, but after a minute passed, she dropped the crumpled paper back on his notebook.

He didn’t want to open it right away, God he didn’t want to seem creepily desperate. He waited an agonizingly long three minutes, before he opened the paper. “Sorry, for what? Your sloppy handwriting?” She wrote back in perfect penmanship. At first he felt a flush of embarrassment about his handwriting, before he realized she was joking. Huh. He knew she had a sense of humor from how she annoyed Toph last night, but he didn’t realize she would joke around with him.

He wrote back slowly, trying to make his handwriting easier to understand. Not that he cared what she thought! But he wanted to make it easier for her to read, “No… For ignoring you yesterday. I didn’t mean to.” He pushed the paper back at her again.

Katara raised an eyebrow as she wrote back. Instead of dropping the paper on his notebook, she merely pushed it in his direction. It read, “So, you weren’t trying to make me feel like an idiot?”

“Of course not!” He wrote back fast, “I was just surprised you were talking to me.”

“Why wouldn’t I talk to you?” She replied. God she wrote a lot of questions.

Instead of writing back, he slowly gestured towards his mask.

She looked surprised, before adding on the paper, “So, you thought I was shallow enough to care about your half-mask?”

He felt a rush of fear again. Great, now he accidentally offended her. He looked at her and was about to respond, before he noticed she was silently laughing. She wrote on the paper again, “I’m just kidding. Look, I might have been fucked up last night, but I remember what you said about never having friends. I understand why you didn’t respond, now.”

Zuko’s face flushed red. He was hoping none of them remembered that. He was about to respond before a bleating noise came from the front room.

Dr. Roku had stopped talking as he pulled out a tiny, blocky cell phone from his pocket. He looked at the screen, before slipping it open. “Sorry, class.” He said, “This will take just a moment.” He walked to the furthest corner of the room and quietly began talking on the cell.

The rest of the class paused, before they began to talk amongst themselves.

Zuko eyed Katara wearily, “So, you remember what I said last night?” He asked her.

She laughed. She had a nice laugh. “I wasn’t that drunk! Although clearly you were hammered.” She teased him.

He tugged at his longish hair. “It was the first time I drank,” He admitted.

“I could tell.” Katara giggled.

“You could?” God, why did he always feel so embarrassed when he talked to her.

“Duh,” She pulled one of the two braids in her hair forward and began redoing it. “You hesitated so long before you drank! Do you have strict parents or something?”

“Or something,” He muttered in response.

She looked at him thoughtfully, her fingers pausing in her hair. As she continued to redo the braid, she said quietly. “I should apologize too. I’m sorry for how mean I was to you, yesterday.”


“It’s okay,” Zuko shrugged. “I probably deserved it.”

“No, you didn’t!” She responded, her eyes narrowing. “I was being a bitch. And I’m sorry, it wasn’t you. I had a lot of other stuff going on, yesterday.”

Zuko could hear a twinge of sadness beneath her words, “Do you… Do you want to talk about it?” He asked.

“Well…” Her voice trailed off. Before she could continue her thought, however, Dr. Roku had strode back to the podium.

“Class, I apologize for the interruption.” Dr. Roku said, his tone strict once more. “I have to dismiss class for the day due to a family emergency. But this does not mean you get out of homework.”

The class groaned, but they all flipped their notebooks back open before taking notes on the assignment tonight.

Katara did it silently, although once she finished writing, she said to Zuko, “I hope everything’s okay.”

“With his family?” Zuko raised his right eyebrow.

“Yeah,” Katara responded, not adding anything more. Zuko wondered what that meant. Sure, he hoped Dr. Roku’s family was fine, but Katara was talking about it like she knew his family. Whatever. Maybe she was just a constantly concerned person.

As Dr. Roku left the room and the class was dismissed, Zuko picked up his notebook and wondered if he should ask Katara about what she was talking of earlier. But she had already fitted headphones over his ears.

He paused, seeing an opening. The music was playing loudly, and it took him a moment before he could detect the song. He poked her arm.
She looked surprised, before taking one of the headphone muffs off her ear, she raised her eyebrows in question.

Zuko took a breath before saying, “New Order?” He didn’t wait for her response, as she hadn’t waited for his yesterday, “I love New Order.”

A smile spread over Katara’s face as she understood what he was referencing. “Me too.” She replied, pulling her headphones off completely. “I have class in an hour, but do you want to get coffee beforehand?”

He tried not to act too enthusiastic, “Sure.” He smiled back at her.

--------------------------------------------------

Twenty minutes later, he sat at a small wood coffee table in the dim coffee shop Katara had brought him to. He drank the black coffee he ordered quickly, hoping it would calm his nerves.

Katara sat opposite the chair to him in a huff, “Can you believe they were out of vanilla syrup?”

“I… can’t?” He replied, not sure what she was talking about. He didn’t really drink coffee - Iroh obviously preferred tea.

She rolled her eyes, “I had to order a cappuccino, instead.” She nodded toward the cup she had sat down.

“Are they good?” He asked.

“You’ve never had one?”

“I don’t really drink coffee.” He shrugged.

The coffee shop they were sitting in - aptly named “The Brew” - was dark in an odd vintage way. The lights were turned to a dim setting, and the room was filled with college students sitting on the velvet couches in the back or the various brown tables scattered around.

“Fair.” She took a sip of her drink, “You know what they say, ‘Coffee is the drug of the 90s.’”

“They say that?”

“You don’t read the New York Times?”

“Uh, not really.” Zuko responded. He wasn’t a fan of the New York Times, not since the article he read that inadvertently caused his accident.

She laughed, “I mainly read it for the crossword puzzle.”

“Let me guess,” Zuko asked, trying to go for a lighthearted tone, “You complete the crossword puzzle in ink?”

Katara wrapped her hands around her coffee cup, a smile playing on her lips, “I seem like a perfectionist?”

“Not a perfectionist,” Zuko thought for a moment, trying to think of what to say, “You just don’t seem like you make a lot of mistakes. Sokka mentioned you always study.”

Katara smiled, “Well, I am studying in biomed. It’s hard to make mistakes in that field.”

Zuko was impressed, “So, you want to be a doctor?”

She still had a smile on her face, although her eyes turned sad as she responded, “Yeah. My mom was.”

Zuko noticed how she said ‘was’. He wondered if he should ask about that, but then decided against it. She didn’t ask him why he wore the half-mask; He figured she would tell him about her mom when she was ready.

“So, what are you majoring in?” She asked, changing the subject.

“Uh, I’m not sure,” He felt himself blush. She had her whole life figured out; He felt like a loser compared to her.
He braced himself, waiting for the snide comment coming. Ozai was always making hurtful comments about Zuko’s lack of drive, Zuko’s inability to be good at something that mattered, Zuko being a ‘total slacker.’

Katara didn’t say any of that, in fact she didn’t even look annoyed at his response. “That’s okay. The point of college is to figure out what you want to do!”

Zuko felt himself let go of a breath he didn’t realize he was holding, “So, you don’t think I’m a failure?”

Her expression turned puzzled, “Why would I think you’re a failure?”

Zuko muttered a non-response, really not wanting to get into his family life in such a public setting.

Katara checked her watch and groaned, “I have to get to Chemistry.” She stood up, slinging a backpack over her shoulder. She hadn’t pushed him on what he said. No one’s really done that before.

She bit her lip as she studied him, “Do you want to work on tonight’s assignment together?” She asked.

Zuko tried not to respond too eagerly, “Sure,” He replied in a casual tone, “I’ll need your address though.”

Katara pulled out a slip of paper and wrote an address on it, “Meet me at 7 pm?”

“Okay.” He clutched the slip she gave him.

She smiled at him and said, “See you later, Zuko.” Before she left the building.

Zuko felt his heart patter fast. God, he thought, he could not get a crush on this girl.

Chapter Text

“Because maybe, you’re going to be the one that saves me.”

Seven and a half hours later, Zuko was pacing in front of his bathroom mirror. It’s not a date, he reminded himself, of course it’s not. There was no way anyone would ever want to date him now, when he looks like this. Besides, Katara just got over hating him. So, yes, this was not a date.

But it didn’t ease his nerves in the slightest.

He ran a brush through his hair, trying to get the stubborn parts to actually lay down straight. After a few moments, he dropped the brush back on the counter, and stepped back to get a good look of himself.

There was nothing he could do about his face for the most part and besides he’d be wearing the half-mask. His black hair was flattened down over his head - finally long enough to cover his eyes. He had changed his outfit a few times earlier, eventually deciding on wearing a “Sex Pistols” shirt over a pair of his ubiquitous black jeans. He looked fine, he was fine.

As he exited the bathroom, he checked the clock on the wall: 6:35. He had to get going.

He laced up his favorite Doc Martens and slipped the half-mask on in place. After a moment of hesitation, he pulled out a cigarette from the crumpled pack on the counter and lit up. He needed all the relaxation he could get. Zuko checked the piece of paper she had given him earlier; a dorm in Brittany Hall, on the corner of Broadway and East Tenth Street.

Zuko headed out of his apartment, deciding to walk to her dorm. Perhaps the walking would ease his nerves; he had always enjoyed exercise. Back in High School he was part of the track team all the way up until senior year. Running always calmed him down, and besides he was faster than Azula - the only thing he was better at than her. As he walked towards Broadway, he tried not to think of quitting track, but when these thoughts came to him, well, they were almost impossible to get rid of.

He had joined the track team freshman year. Actually, “joined” wasn’t the right word - the coach had recruited him. Back then he always ran a few laps on the High School track before heading home, as it calmed him down and gave him a precious peace of mind before he had to see Ozai again. It was the start of second semester when the Track Coach noticed him running laps outside in thirty degree weather, and begged him to join the track team.

After that, he was in love with the sport. Iroh was the only one to ever show up to his meets, cheering Zuko on as he went for the gold. Being part of the track team didn’t give Zuko friends - nothing could - but he could sense respect from the other members of the team. They congratulated him on every race he won, and when he joined varsity sophomore year they all cheered for him. Until now, it was the closest he ever got to actual friends.

Of course, everything changed senior year.

When Zuko started senior year, he had already been running miles every day in the summer - it was the only way he could keep himself out of his house. But then…. Ozai’s mood changed for the worst.

Zuko wasn’t entirely sure what brought on the almost daily occurring hits and pushes when he started senior year. Perhaps Ozai was trying to keep him from going to college, perhaps Ozai wanted to ruin the only thing in the world that made Zuko happy, but it’s not like he ever asked. All he knew was that the occasional abuse he received from Ozai became almost daily during senior year, and suddenly he was covered in marks that went all up and down his arms. Zuko could wear long-sleeve shirts to school to cover them up, but he could no longer compete in track. The required track uniform was a pair of shorts and a tank top and he wasn’t allowed to wear longer sleeves underneath it. And suddenly, the only activity that gave him release from his home life, he had to quit.

The coach was devastated, he begged Zuko to change his mind, asking what happened to make him decide to quit. All Zuko could say was that he had to focus on school, he had to get his college applications in on time. After a few discussions with this lame excuse, the track coach left him alone and stopped asking.

Zuko reached up with one hand and put it underneath his shirt, to the faded bruise on the top of his right shoulder. It was the last mark he had received from Ozai before the accident, and even now it was drastically fading. Well, at least he could wear short sleeves now.

Zuko paused in front of the building labeled “Brittany Hall”, taking one last drag of his cigarette before tossing it down. He could not think about Ozai, now. His Father had taken everything from him, he wouldn’t allow Ozai to continue to invade his thoughts and maybe ruin his chances of having friends. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t allow this.

Zuko checked the slip of paper again before heading inside the dorm. Katara had written her dorm number down in her achingly perfect script. Everything was fine, he thought to himself, they were just working on the literature project. At least it gave them something to talk about.

Zuko headed up the stairs to the third floor, stopping in front of the fourth door down. He hesitated briefly before knocking.

No one answered.

Zuko frowned and checked the slip again - he was in front of the room she wrote down. Could he have gotten the time wrong? He knocked again, softer this time.

A few minutes passed and Zuko was about to leave, figuring she had gotten caught up with something and wasn’t home.

As he started to head back towards the stairs, the door opened and Katara poked her head out, her dark hair wet.

“Hey!” She called, stopping Zuko in his tracks, “What, did you think I set you up?”

“Um, no.” Zuko blushed, heading back towards the room. “I just thought I got the time wrong or something.”

She laughed and moved aside, gesturing to him to come inside, “No, sorry, I was just in the shower.”

Zuko nodded, keeping his expression neutral, trying not to think at all about Katara being in the shower. He walked into her dorm and she shut the door behind them.

The dorm was small, a one-person room by the looks of it. She had a small twin bed set up in the corner, a tiny TV on a stand directly in front of it. There was a coffee table in the middle of the room, and a desk and chair at one end. A small wardrobe sat at the other side, and there was a small door at the end leading to a bathroom, Zuko assumed. But the most surprising part was that everything was covered in stuff. Clothes lay strewn on the bed, books and papers were littered on the desk and coffee table, and note cards were taped all over the walls.

“Sorry about the mess,” Katara said flushing, as she watched Zuko take her room in.

“Oh no, it’s fine.” Zuko gave her a small smile, “My apartment is just this messy.”

She smiled back at him and sat down on the floor in front of the coffee table.

Zuko followed suit, and after a moment racking his brain for something to say, added, “So you have a one-bedroom and a private bath?”

“Yep.” Katara replied, pulling out a giant slab of cardboard that was sitting under the coffee table, “I’m lucky. Extenuating circumstances.”

“Extenuating circumstances?” He asked, confused.

“Yeah.” She answered softly, setting the cardboard on the table. After a moment’s pause, she cleared her throat and changed the subject, “So, for our project I was thinking about doing “The Waves” by Virginia Woolf. You read that, right?”

“Oh, yeah I have.” The project in question was simple - create a presentation about a specific book on their syllabus and turn it into the professor.

He watched as she picked up a thick black marker and wrote “The Waves” at the top of the cardboard.

“So, what’s your favorite quote from it?” Katara asked.

“I’m sorry?”

“From the novel. Do you have a favorite quote?”

“Um,” Zuko paused, running a hand through his hair.

“Mine is, “Alone, I often fall down into nothingness. I must push my foot stealthily lest I should fall off the edge of the world into nothingness. I have to bang my head against some hard door to call myself back to the body.”’ She said when he didn’t answer, writing the quote on the cardboard.

Zuko was impressed by her ability to quote that exactly word for word. “I guess I like…” He hesitated trying to remember it exactly, ““I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me.”’

Katara smiled at him, looking surprised by his admission, ““And you wish to be a poet; and you wish to be a lover.”’

It took Zuko a minute to realize she was quoting from the novel again. He blushed, “My Mom loved “The Waves”,” He said softly, “She used to read it constantly. After she left, I read it over and over again thinking of her.”

Besides admitting he had no friends when he was drunk, this was one of the most honest confessions he ever told someone besides Iroh.

“Your mom left?” Katara turned and looked at him, her expression sad.

“Yeah.” He swallowed, “When I was thirteen.”

“I’m sorry.” She hesitated for a moment, before resting her hand on his shoulder.

“It’s okay.” Zuko didn’t want to make her pity him, he didn’t even know why he admitted that, “It’s actually because of her that my Uncle convinced me to take a decent amount of literature courses along with my GenED. She loved the arts.”

Katara smiled, her attention once more on the cardboard as she moved her marker along slowly, “That’s really sweet.”

“Yeah.” Zuko let out a breath, “I’m actually thinking about majoring in English Literature.” He admitted.

“You should!”

“I don’t know.” Zuko shrugged, “I want to… but my Father wouldn’t approve.”

Katara frowned as she wrote, “Why wouldn’t he approve?”

“He thinks literature and the arts are a waste of time.” After a moment of silence, he added, “He’s the CEO of Sozin Corporations. Anything that isn’t business is a waste of time to him.”

“Sozin Corporations?” Her mouth was open in surprise, “Isn’t that like the company that bought out Walmart?”

“Yep.”

“Wow.” Her expression flickered to one of deep thought, “Didn’t he… Wasn’t that company the one involved in the giant strike and union bust this summer?”

Great. This is what Zuko got for mentioning his Ozai’s corporation. The strike this summer was the last thing he wanted to talk about.

Zuko cleared his throat, “Yeah. He was.” He said curtly, before turning his attention back to the project, “Should we continue working on this?”

“Oh!” Katara’s expression was still one of thoughtfulness, but she resumed writing.

----------------------------------------------------------

An hour and a half later, the project was finally finished. Zuko’s hand was cramping from the writing he had done for his part, and he shook it out as Katara put the finishing touches on the cardboard.

“Perfect!” She smiled at him, her eyes big, “There’s no way Dr. Roku won’t like this.”

“Let’s hope for an A.” He added, trying to indulge her more after he cut her off about his Father.

She opened her mouth about to speak, when the wall telephone began bleating loudly.
“Sorry,” Katara said to him apologetically, “Give me a minute.”

She stood up and walked over to the phone as Zuko put his hands behind him and stretched himself out. His entire body was aching from sitting cross-legged for almost two hours.
He tried not to listen to her conversation, but she was only a few feet away from him.

“Toph?” Katara asked as she put the telephone to her ear, “What’s up?”

The response on the telephone was loud, and Zuko watched as Katara pulled the phone away from her ear, wincing.

“Okay, okay. You want to practice tonight? Like, right now?”

There was another loud agitated response.

“Yeah, Zuko’s here.” She replied, looking at him and rolling her eyes.

The noise on the telephone changed to one of snickering.

“No! We were working on a project together.” A pause, “Yeah, well some of us actually do our homework.”
Zuko busied himself fiddling with the half-mask on his face, trying not to guess what Toph had said.

“Fine. I’ll ask him. I’ll be there soon.” Katara hung up the phone and then blew air out of her mouth, annoyed.

Zuko looked up as she walked back over, standing in front of him.
“So, Toph wants to practice for our show this week. Tonight.” Katara fiddled with a piece of her hair. “She wanted to know if you could come over, too.”

“Tonight?” Zuko glanced at the digital alarm clock on Katara’s bedside table. It was almost 9 P.M.

“Yeah.” Katara rolled her eyes again, “Toph’s worried you aren’t going to know the songs well. And the show’s in a few days… She’s just freaking out that we aren’t ready.”
Freaking out? That didn’t seem like the Toph he had seen last night.

“But if it’s too late for you to go, I understand.” Katara added.

Zuko thought about it for a moment. It’s not like he ever slept well, anyway. After Ursa left he had almost developed a case of insomnia, always too nervous to fall asleep soundly. He reckoned it was because Ursa had left while he was sleeping… but no matter.
“No it’s fine.” Zuko realized his voice had cracked slightly, and he winced before continuing, “I’m down.”

“Great!” She exclaimed, smiling.

-----------------------------------------------------

Twenty minutes later they were once again in Toph’s basement.
Suki, Sokka, and Aang were also there. Suki looked the same as always, Sokka was downing a Red Bull like it was water, and Aang was rubbing his eyes as if he had just woken up.
Zuko stood in the corner of the basement, the electric guitar strapped over his body as he quietly tuned it.

When they had walked in moments earlier, Katara had waved “hello” to Aang and he had smiled up at her, beaming.
Zuko wondered why Katara seemed almost oblivious to Aang’s obvious infatuation.

Toph was clapping her hands loudly, gesturing for the rest to pick up the instruments.
“We have a show in like three days!” Toph exclaimed, “And yeah, Sparky’s a fantastic guitar player, but we need to make sure he knows our songs.”

“Our songs aren’t exactly rocket science,” Sokka grumbled as he picked up his bass.

Toph snorted, “You’re just mad that I broke up you and Suki’s make-out session.”

Suki flushed, “Shut up, Toph.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m breaking up all the couples so that we can actually be half-decent for our show.” Toph sat down on the drum stool, her drumsticks posed.

Sokka raised an eyebrow, “‘All’ the couples?”

Toph snickered, “I broke up Zuko and Katara’s date tonight.”

Zuko and Katara blushed brightly in unison.
Aang looked wide awake, as he turned to Zuko accusingly, “You two were on a date?”

“No!” Katara groaned, “We were working on a project for class.”

“Oh.” But the suspicious look Aang was fixing Zuko with did not disappear.
Zuko really would have to ask one of them if they ever did anything about Aang’s obvious crush on Katara. God, the kid hated him for no reason.

“Can we start?” Toph urged.
The others made grumbling noises but after a few moments they all began playing

--------------------------------------------------------------

An hour later, Toph was finally pleased with them.
“Great job!” Toph said in a surprising burst of actual good intentions, “Sparky, you’ll be our secret to maybe getting a record deal.”

Zuko shrugged, “I’m not that good.”
The others groaned.

“Zuko, that was one of the only compliments I’ve ever heard Toph give.” Suki laughed, “You might as well accept it.”

“Uh, thanks, Toph.”

Toph waved her hand at him, “Yeah, yeah. Can you all get out of my house, now?”

“You’re the one who made us come over!” Sokka pointed out.

“And now I’m kicking you out.” Toph pointed towards the staircase.

The others sat down their instruments as they began to file up the stairs and out of the Beifong mansion.
As Zuko headed down the street towards the subway stop after saying ‘Bye’ to the others, Katara caught up to him.

“Hey,” She said, walking in time. Sokka, Suki, and Aang all had headed in the opposite direction.

“Hey.” Zuko responded.

“Do you want to share the subway back?” She asked as they approached the train stop. “You live near my dorm, right?”

“Oh, yeah, I do.” The corners of his mouth turned up in a smile, “Sure, we can share the subway back.”

Zuko stepped back, waving one hand toward the turnstile, “Ladies first.”
Katara laughed as she placed her hands on either side of the turnstile and vaulted over it.

Zuko was impressed as he swiped his card through and walked into the platform like a normal person, “What, you don’t pay for the subway?” He asked, trying to go for a joking tone.

Katara giggled, “Of course not! I’m a broke college student.”

Zuko ran his hand through his hair, “Never would have pegged you for a rule breaker.”

“I’m full of surprises.”

That, Zuko believed.

As the subway came hammering up and screeching loudly as it stopped on their platform, Zuko again nodded to her to go first.

“Are you this chivalrous with everyone?” She questioned as she got on the train which was blessedly almost empty. Katara sat down on one of the seats and patted next to her for him to join.

Zuko sat down next to her, keeping a small distance apart so he wouldn’t accidentally brush against her or anything. “Chivalry’s dead.” He responded.

“Clearly not.”

Zuko snorted, “My Mother told me to always let the lady go first.”

Katara smiled up at him, “You talk about your Mother a lot.”

“Oh,” Were all friends this confusing? “Is it weird?”

“No, I think it’s sweet.”

They sat in comfortable silence for a few moments as the subway continued on. After a couple minutes, Zuko had to ask.
“So, uh… Do you know that Aang has a crush on you?” Sure, maybe he shouldn’t have ratted the kid out, but God it was painstakingly obvious.

Katara groaned, “Not you, too.”

“Excuse me?”

“Toph is always going around telling people Aang has a crush on me.” She rolled her eyes in annoyance.

Zuko hesitated, “Um, because he does?”

“What?”

“I just mean… I could be wrong, but it definitely seems like he likes you.”

Katara scrunched her face up, “Even if he does, that’s weird.”

“Why?”

“Because I’ve known him forever! He’s like my little brother. He knows nothing is going to happen between us.” She sighed and put her head in her hands.

Zuko automatically felt bad for bringing it up, “Sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything.”

Katara turned her face up towards him, “You apologize a lot.”

“Oh. Sorry-” He broke off and fiddled with his mask again in embarrassment.

Katara looked at him thoughtfully for a minute. “Look, I’m not going to ask what happened to make you that way, but you don’t have to apologize to me. I mean, unless you actually fuck up.” She grinned and bumped her knee with his, “I’m glad we’re friends.”

Zuko’s heart swelled and he looked away quickly so she wouldn’t see his red-face, “I’m glad we’re friends, too.” He responded.

The subway screeched to a halt and they both stood up and got off.
They walked in silence through the platform and down the street together. It was odd. Whenever there were silences with people in the past, Zuko always thought it was his fault for the quietness. His fault that he made the other person uncomfortable. With Katara it wasn’t like that. He didn’t have a need to fill the silence with words, they were both happy enough to enjoy a companionable silence.

Katara stopped as their walk reached a crossroads - she going left, him right.
“Thanks for helping me with the project tonight.” She said.

“No problem.” He stuffed his hands into his jeans.

“And you’re going to kill it in our show Saturday.” She paused, thinking, “Come back over to Toph’s house, early Saturday. We always get our clothes and stuff ready for performances together.”

Zuko raised an eyebrow, “Are we wearing matching costumes?”

“No,” She laughed, “But we do coordinate colors.”

He ran a hand through his hair, “Alright.” He relented. “See you in class tomorrow?”

“Of course! Save a seat for me.” She grinned at him brightly as she waved and began heading in the direction of her dorm.

Zuko watched her walk away until he could no longer see her. “Always.” He said to the empty air, before keeping his hands in his pockets and starting his own way back.