Zuko was early.
“You’re way too early,” Toph, the only member of their group who was at their designated pre-homecoming meeting spot before he was, took no time in telling him. “No one’s gonna be here until, like, seven.”
“But the dance starts at eight,” Zuko replied, loosening the tie his uncle had insisted he wear. The dance was being held in the conference room of a hotel near a lake, so they’d agreed to meet on the lake’s beach; usually it was cool near the water at night, but the day had been hot and it was still a little bit warm. He dreaded the thought of standing out in the heat for another hour. “We’re gonna be late if they don’t show up until seven and we have to get dinner.”
“Welcome to the club, kid.” Toph patted his shoulder in solidarity - well, tried to. She was a good foot shorter than him, and it wasn’t very effective, but he got the point. “Like my dress?”
“It’s...great.” Zuko almost laughed, for only now did it finally hit him that Toph wasn’t actually wearing one. She’d chosen to wear slacks with a white pinstriped blazer that wouldn’t have looked out-of-place on the leader of a barbershop quartet, but her smug confidence in her choice helped her pull it off, however unusual.
“I knew you’d agree.” She smirked. “Got all the pieces at thrift stores just to make my parents mad. They handed me $300 and told me to go buy a dress, and no way was I ever gonna spend that much money on a stupid dress that I can’t even see, so I took $30 of it to the Goodwill and boom. Homecoming look.”
“That’s...economical,” Zuko replied, rather unsure what else to say. Toph’s nonchalant allusions to both her family’s wealth and her blindness took a little getting used to.
“Yup. What time is it?”
“Uh...six-fifty-five,” Zuko told her, checking his phone. “So everyone else should be-”
“Hi, sorry we’re late!” a familiar voice rang out from the parking lot across from the lake. Suki. So everyone else must be here, Zuko realized. Thank God.
But “everyone else” meant “Katara” and the thought of facing her tonight, at an event he was only at because of her, with both of them dressed to the nines, made his head spin a little. As he watched the group approach - four of them, so the rest of the group must’ve driven over together - he felt a little warmer than he already had, though it was hot to begin with. Just play it cool, he told himself. You see her every day. It’s not hard! Just don’t-
He’d been a little too lost in thought to notice that the rest of their group had finally made its way down to the lake, the girls holding their heels so as not to sink in the sand. Katara stood in front of him, her made-up face flushed with something - excitement? Exertion? The heat? - that he couldn’t identify. She wore her hair in loose curls, and she was barefoot. The wind rippled through the maroon chiffon of her skirt, giving way to a fitted lace bodice with sleeves that barely hit her shoulders before dipping into a sweetheart neckline, and-
Zuko had been attempting to prepare himself for this in the hopes that seeing Katara in formalwear wouldn’t render him utterly incapable of speaking coherently. In the moment, it was a little bit unbelievable how completely he’d failed.
Katara laughed, a blush rising in her cheeks. “Thanks. You...don’t look bad yourself,” she told him, a little sheepish, as she took in his navy suit. “So…”
“Guys, it’s seven already!” Suki shouted over the wind that had picked up. “We gotta get these pictures done, like, now or we’re going to be late.”
“Oh, it is?” Katara checked her phone, snapping out of it. “Yikes. Yeah, we need to get on that. Uh...everyone get in position, I guess?”
“But who’s going to take the picture?” Aang asked. “If...we’re all in it, I mean?”
“I’ll do it,” Zuko offered a little too eagerly. He had no desire to be immortalized in the kind of awkward dance pictures he’d spent four years avoiding, so if he could get out of these ones, he’d much rather do that. “Who has a good phone camera?”
“Uh-uh, don’t even think about it.” Katara grabbed his wrist before he could walk off. “I didn’t make you come just to not be in the pictures.”
“ Fine,” he sighed. “But then who-”
“Oh, do you kids need a picture?” a woman in an oversized straw hat - probably a tourist - asked, stopping as she walked by. “You all look so lovely!”
“Thank you, yes!” Suki replied, passing her phone to the woman before rejoining the group, adjusting her green satin dress before falling back into the line. She and Sokka stood in the middle of the group, arms around each other’s shoulders, flanked by Aang and Toph on either side; Katara took the last spot on the left, and Zuko finished the line on the right.
“Okay, ready?” the woman asked. “Smile!”
She snapped the picture, and Zuko couldn’t help but think that the chances that it turned out well were borderline nonexistent, but he wasn’t complaining. They broke into groups to take individual or paired pictures after that, which Zuko spent the next ten minutes trying to dodge (only to be forced to take a paired photo with Katara wherein both of their faces were beet-red). When they finally finished and broke off into their cars - “hey, ‘Tara, why don’t you go with Zuko so no one has to get crammed into the middle seat?” Sokka suggested with an incredibly unsubtle wink - Zuko couldn’t help but let out a relieved sigh.
“What, are we really that unbearable?” Katara teased as they walked back to his car.
“No, I just hate having my picture taken,” Zuko told her. “Please tell me that’s the only time we’re going to have to do that?”
“I mean, there might be a photo booth at the dance, but you don’t have to do it unless you want to,” Katara said. “You should be okay.”
“Good. So...is this restaurant we’re going to any good?” he asked.
“Zuko, did you not read our group chat? Like, at all?”
“No, I had it on mute.”
“Well, ‘this restaurant’ is a Burger King drive-through, so I hope that meets your exacting standards.”
“Oh, it is?” Zuko grinned. “Actually...that sounds great.”
Katara returned his grin. “We thought so, too. We can just eat in our cars and head right over to the dance.”
“I thought you were going to go with something fancy. I like this better.”
Katara laughed. “Like any of us could afford that.” She paused. “Well, Toph could, but she would probably rather die.”
Zuko supposed he’d known all along that homecoming with this group wouldn’t be exactly as he expected, but at that moment, it hit him just how much this night wouldn’t go as he thought it would.
“Hey, kids, you all look-” Mr. Zhao, a math teacher who’d evidently gotten stuck chaperoning the dance, started but trailed off almost instantly when the group approached his table to check in. “ Zuko? Is that you? ”
Kill me now, Zuko thought, as he replied, “yes. Hi, Mr. Zhao.”
Suffice to say it the two hadn’t had much fondness for each other when Zuko took geometry as a freshman. Or Pre-Calculus as a junior. Or sat for detention almost every day of sophomore year.
“Which one of these is your date?” Mr. Zhao gestured to the group. “You gotta have come ‘cause someone made you, right?”
“Not mine,” Toph immediately said, and Suki held up her wrist, which held the corsage that Sokka had given her. Katara just turned red.
“He’s coming with all of us,” she said. “As friends.”
“Yeah, Suki has a date, Aang and Katara are single Pringles, and it can’t be me, ‘cause…” Toph fished around in the big leather bag she’d brought in and pulled out a bag of something. “I couldn’t pick just one date, so I brought a whole bag.”
“What?” Mr. Zhao asked, narrowing his eyes as he stared at the nutrition facts label on whatever Toph was holding up.
“It’s backwards,” Katara told her, reversing the bag. Oh. “It’s...a bag of dates. Like, the fruit.”
“Cute.” Mr. Zhao clearly did not think this was amusing. “You’re good. Go in.”
“Are you...actually going to carry a bag of dates around all night for a pun?” Zuko asked, unsure whether to be impressed or concerned.
Toph glared at him. “You doubt me?”
Zuko shook his head, laughing to himself. “Wouldn’t dare.” They made their way into the carpeted ballroom, the dance floor hemmed in by cloth-covered tables. Many of them were already crowded with jackets and bags; the group made a beeline for one that was still empty and set down their stuff. Toph took a seat - “don’t wanna dance,” she told them - but the rest of the group made their way to the dance floor, which was already in full swing with hip-hop blaring from the speakers. A ring of dancers had already formed in the middle of the floor, surrounded by more students crowding around the outsides.
“So this is what they do when some kid wants to twerk or whatever and not get caught,” Katara explained over the music. “They just make a huge circle around them and crowd in so tight that the chaperones can’t see them, so they won’t get kicked out for ‘suggestive’ dancing or whatever.”
“Okay…” well, that’s information I didn’t need.
“But you can stay away from that pretty easily,” Katara told him, grabbing Zuko’s hands and pulling him towards the rest of their group. Sokka and Suki were already dancing, her arms looped around his neck and his hands on her waist, totally lost in their own world; Aang was...well, no one really knew what (“one time he tried to break dance in the middle of the twerk circle,” Katara had told Zuko once before, and he didn’t doubt it); and Toph was sort of just standing in the middle of the circle, barely moving to the music. It was an odd little group, but soon Suki’s volleyball friends joined them, followed by Haru and a few of Katara’s friends from student government, and their circle grew a little more lively. Even Zuko couldn’t resist getting a little caught up in it, letting Katara take his hands to dance for a few minutes.
It was weird how normal that felt, after being nervous in her company the rest of the evening. He didn’t feel like he’d jumped off a cliff every time he caught her eye anymore; dancing with Katara just felt...fun. I’m having fun, he realized.
It was an odd feeling.
And then a wildly popular recent hit began to play, and a collective shriek rose from the crowd, which began to jump and flail in a dense cluster - it reminded Zuko of the schools of fish he’d seen on that “calming” nature channel they always played in waiting rooms - and Katara grabbed his hand and started running.
“Mosh pit!” she yelled over the crowd. “Might wanna move if you don’t want to get crushed.”
“All right, this one goes out to all the couples out on that floor!”
The music wound down as the DJ signalled the start of the first round of slower dances, and almost immediately, about half of the crowd shuffled off of the floor, uninterested. Sokka and Suki, obviously, stayed, but Aang and Toph disappeared (though Toph returned after a few moments), and Zuko wasn’t quite sure what to do. Katara motioned towards the table where they’d set down their stuff, and he followed, glad to be told what to do.
“If you wanted to ask someone to dance, you could,” Katara explained. “But if you don’t, you can just sit it out.”
“Right.” Zuko nodded, trying not to feel disappointed that she hadn’t wanted to dance. They sat back as Ed Sheeran’s voice began to pipe through the speakers, watching the dancers.
“Wait,” Katara piped up after a moment. “Is that Toph?”
“Where?” Zuko asked, trying to find the spot Katara was pointing to. “Who’s she dancing with? I didn’t know she-”
“She’s not,” Katara said, barely able to stop herself from laughing. “She’s holding her bag of dates.”
Zuko didn’t even try not to laugh. “You have to admire the commitment to that joke,” he said after he’d had a moment to collect himself. “Slow dancing with a bag?”
“I almost want to cut in on her,” Katara giggled. “Y’know, ask if I can dance with it.”
Zuko crossed his arms, mock-offended. “Katara, if you wanted to slow dance, you could’ve asked me-”
He stopped short. I said that out loud, didn’t I.
“Wait, you wanted me to?” her cheeks colored. “I had no idea that you...I thought…”
“I mean, do you want to? I don’t wanna dance if-”
“I thought you would be uncomfortable-”
“Do you wanna dance?” Zuko finally blurted out. “Like...the next song?”
Katara grinned. “Thought you’d never ask.”
They sat in satisfied silence for a few moments before the song faded out and the next one began. “I love this one,” Katara mumbled, a soft smile crossing her features before disappearing into a more neutral expression. “Shall we?”
“Uh. We shall?” Zuko wasn’t sure if that was how he was supposed to respond to that, so he just followed him onto the floor, placing his hands on the small of her back like he’d seen the other dancers do for their partners.
And they began to sway, and for a moment Zuko wondered if any of this was actually happening before Katara’s voice jarred him from his thoughts.
But she wasn’t saying anything. She’d started singing along.
“ ...and just stay here in this moment for all the rest of time!” she belted out, horribly off-key and totally unconcerned. Her eyes were closed, her arms laced around his neck, and Zuko had never wished with such urgency that her lips were on his.
But he also knew there was a good chance the blissful smile she was wearing now had more to do with the moment and the atmosphere than her dance partner, so he restrained himself and tried to focus, remember every detail of this perfect moment.
When she opened her eyes and met his with that same blissful smile, he had no doubt that she’d been doing the same.
Katara turned abruptly from the dessert table where she’d been examining a tray of brownies (if she wasn’t going to take the time to search for the one with the best powdered sugar-to-brownie ratio, what was the point?) at a tap on the shoulder.
“Yeah?” she asked before locking eyes with whoever had wanted to get her attention.
“Hey, Katara,” Ty Lee greeted her, and Katara nearly jumped out of her skin. Ty Lee had always been kind to her, but where she went, her friends were likely not far behind. And the last thing she wanted right now, on this night that was shaping up to be so close to perfect, was to have to deal with Azula. “I, uh...came to warn you about Azula.”
Great. Just what I needed. “What?” Katara asked, already looking for unblocked exits. “Why?”
“We saw you dancing with her brother,” Ty Lee tried to whisper (it didn’t work), “and she’s kinda pissed.”
“Extremely. I’d run if I were you.” Ty Lee squeezed her eyes shut. “I’ll even close my eyes while you find somewhere to go so I can’t tell them where you went if Azula asks me.”
Katara glanced back at Ty Lee with newfound respect. “Thanks, Ty Lee. That was really cool of you.”
“‘Course.” She nodded, eyes still closed. “I always feel bad that my friends are so mean to you. At least this way I can do something about it.”
With one last “thank you again,” Katara made her way over to Suki, who was dancing with her volleyball friends, and pulled her aside to explain what Ty Lee had told her.
“Are you sure it’s not a trap?” Suki asked when she’d heard the whole story. “She might just be trying to get you alone.”
“Suki, she literally closed her eyes so she couldn’t tell Azula where I went. I think she was being genuine.”
Suki sighed but relented. “Okay. So there aren’t a lot of places to hide here, obviously, but I would definitely not recommend the bathroom. Too few witnesses.”
“Well, where else am I supposed to go?” Katara threw up her hands. “She can’t exactly get me if I’m locked in a stall!”
“It’s Azula. I wouldn’t put that past her for a second.” Suki crossed her arms. “I think the best thing you can do is surround yourself with witnesses so she can’t try anything. I’ll go get Sokka. You find the rest of our-”
“Well, if it isn’t my brother’s new arm candy!”
Katara’s stomach dropped as Azula sauntered over and Suki finished, “...friends.” The volleyball girls - most of them close to six feet tall and muscular enough to kill a man with their thighs - cleared out, like fish fleeing at the appearance of a shark.
No one - not anyone - wanted to get on Azula’s bad side.
Suki grabbed Katara’s arm and held on tight, glaring across the room at Sokka in an attempt to get him to come and back up his sister. An ever-widening swath of empty floor formed around them as dancers skittered off to the sides in fear of the impending confrontation.
“I am not,” Katara said calmly, in her best effort to retain at least a modicum of composure, “his ‘arm candy.’”
“Oh, really?” Azula smirked. “Why else were you slow dancing with my pathetic excuse of a brother?”
“Because we were bored of watching everyone else dance,” Katara said flatly. Outwardly, she appeared composed, but she knew it was only a matter of time before her temper flared. It would be best for everyone if she could get away from Azula before that happened.
“Do you really think I’m that stupid?” Azula’s simpering tone couldn’t be a more clear signal of aggression. “My brother, who hates dances, shows up after the new employee tries to defend him from his sister and her horrible friends? Katara, that boy is whipped.” Now her tone turned openly nasty. “And I am not letting this happen!”
“Nothing is happening!” Katara snapped, dangerously close to throwing Azula into the chocolate fountain. “We aren’t a couple, he’s not in love with me, and you do not get to decide what we do with our lives, family or not!”
“Oh, but what kind of sister would I be if I didn’t protect my helpless brother from the high-minded, hotheaded, idiotic girl who’s spent the past three years trying to ruin my life?” Azula shouted. Half of the room was staring at them now, and Katara was amazed that none of the chaperones had jumped in to break it up yet. “You’re nothing but bad news, Katara. I’m not letting my own family be tainted by-”
“That is so rich coming from you!” Katara shot back,not caring about whether they were causing a scene because suddenly she was seeing red.“You make Zuko’s life miserable every single day, and then you waltz in here and pretend you care enough to feel the need to protect him from me?”
“He makes his own life miserable, honey.” Azula shrugged. “I just give him little nudges.”
“Fine, then what about me?” Katara challenged. “You accuse me of ruining your life, but I have done nothing to you. Nothing! It’s you who thinks mocking me is the greatest source of entertainment in the freaking universe. It’s you who-”
“Hey, hey, what’s going on here?” Katara felt a hand on her shoulder. Zuko. His grip on her shoulder tightened protectively. “Azula, what did you do to her?”
“Why is it always my fault?” Azula said, fluttering her eyelashes innocently. “It’s Katara who lost her temper. It’s not my fault she’s a hothead!”
“Azula,” he repeated, his voice a thousand kinds of warnings. “Say whatever you want about me, but leave her alone.”
“Aww, he’s defending his arm candy!” Azula crowed. “Isn’t that sweet? He’s so in love!”
“Azula, I’m not giving you any more warnings. Leave her alone or-”
“You’re in no position to threaten me, Zuko.” Azula crossed her arms and took a few steps to plant herself in front of Zuko and Katara, who stood in front of the dessert table. “You and I both know I could ruin you with the things I know-”
That was all Katara could take. “ leave him alone!” she shouted, lunging forwards to put a stop to whatever Azula was trying to do. But her fist never got far enough to wipe the smirk off Azula’s face. Zuko’s arms, firmly around her waist, held her back and her entire body felt like it was about to burst into flame with both the proximity and her anger.
“Don’t do this, Katara,” he said softly. “You’re gonna get suspended. Don’t do that for me.”
Katara jerked out of his grasp. “No, Zuko. Someone has to put her in her place.” She pulled herself to her feet and raised her fist, but Azula’s elbow connected with her eye before she could land the blow.
She stumbled backwards, shooting pain coursing through her head. Barely able to see through the pain, she was only slightly aware when her ankle slipped out from under her, betrayed by the strappy heels that had seemed so perfect for this night on the shelf. She didn’t notice when Sokka and Suki arrived, each taking one of her arms to hold her back while Zuko helped her stand. She didn’t see the dozens of students filming the showdown on their cell phones or the chaperoning teachers who bled out of the woodwork to drag away an irate but uninjured Azula.
All she felt was adrenaline, racing through her veins at breakneck speed.
“Katara, what were you thinking?” Sokka yelped. “Fighting Azula in front of five hundred people? Are you kidding me?”
“‘Tara, sweetie, are you okay?” Suki asked, slipping Katara’s arm over her shoulder to support her weight. “Is your ankle okay?”
“I don’t-” Katara glanced down at her ankle, already red and swelling in the prison of straps that encased it. “Oh, crap.”
“We need to get her out of here,” Zuko told the group.
“I’ll take her home,” Sokka offered,his grip tightening on katara's arm.
“No, don’t.” Katara shook her head, biting her lip against the pain. “You and Suki should stay. It’s your last homecoming, and if Gran-Gran saw me like this, she’d lock me in the house for weeks.”
“Yeah, you just got into a fight, so maybe she should!” Sokka shot back. “I’m taking you-”
“No, stay,” Zuko told them. “I can drive her back to Iroh’s to get cleaned up, and then she can spend the night at Toph’s like you all planned.”
“We can tell Gran-Gran I fell down the stairs leaving her house in the morning,” Katara suggested. She’d normally be horrified at the idea of lying to Gran-Gran, but the last thing she wanted to do right now was face her grandmother like this. And she had been looking forward to sleeping over with the group at Toph’s house that night…
“Okay, but if anything happens to her, I’m murdering both of you,” Sokka warned. “Be safe, Katara.”
“Right,” she groaned, squeezing her bruised eye shut tight as if it could keep the pain from spreading.
Leaning on Zuko’s shoulder for support, they made their way out of the ballroom and into the cold night air.
The ride back to Uncle Iroh’s house had been deathly silent, but once they got to the door, Zuko had many things to straighten out.
“Katara, what were you thinking?” he admonished, wanting to shake her shoulders for emphasis but choosing not to for fear of worsening any of her various injuries. “Getting into a fight with my sister over me?”
“I couldn’t stand the way she was talking about you.” Katara couldn’t meet Zuko’s eyes. “About me. About us. And I couldn’t stand that you were standing there telling me not to bother trying to stand up for you.”
“I told you not to stand up for me because you ended up with a black eye, Katara,” he said, his voice softening. “And now I have to live with knowing that I let you get hurt on my behalf.”
“It was my choice,” Katara said hollowly. “It’s fine.” She rang the doorbell, holding the shoe that had belonged to her injured foot in one hand, and crossed her arms across her chest protectively. Uncle Iroh was quick to answer.
“What are you two-” he stopped short when he saw Katara’s eye. “What happened? Come inside.” He ushered them in and, Katara leaning heavily into Zuko’s side, they stepped over the threshold.
“Azula happened,” Zuko said, his voice steely. “She needs to get cleaned up and rest until the dance ends and her brother can come get her. Where’s the first aid stuff?”
“Cabinet at the end of the hall. Do you need help walking?” he asked Katara.
“No, thank you,” she said, trying to bite back tears. “Where’s your bathroom? I need to clean up.”
“Just over there to the right,” Iroh told her. She disappeared as Zuko went off to fetch the first-aid kit; when he returned, his uncle shot him a questioning look.
“Azula saw me dancing with her and started goading her, I guess. I wasn’t there at first.” He closed his eyes, trying to ignore the guilt pushing down on him from all sides. I let this happen. “She started saying increasingly rude things - mostly about me, some about her - until Katara snapped. She would’ve punched her if I hadn’t tried to hold her back.”
“Why’d you do that? She deserved it.”
“Seriously, Uncle? I didn’t want her to get suspended!”
Uncle Iroh shook his head. “I know that, Zuko. You did the right thing. Anyway, how did she get a black eye?”
“Azula hit her before she could defend herself. She kinda fell backwards and I think she twisted her ankle.”
“So she took a black eye for you.”
“Yeah,” Zuko admitted, feeling the weight of the night’s events in full. “She did.”
Uncle Iroh disappeared after that and returned a moment later with an ice pack.
“What’s this for?” Zuko asked, even though he already knew perfectly well what Iroh was telling him.
“Two things. One. She got hurt trying to defend you. You owe her this, at very least.” He handed Zuko the ice pack. “And two. That girl spends enough time trying to take care of everyone else. After this, the least you can do is return the favor.”
“So you’re saying-”
“When she gets done cleaning up, make sure she gets whatever she needs.”
Katara winced as she shifted her weight onto her right ankle, pulling on the sweats she’d packed for Toph’s sleepover. It was nearly impossible to dress herself like this, but it was preferable to sitting for the next three hours - they’d only gotten in an hour at the dance before having to make a hasty exit, and it wouldn’t end until midnight - in a tight, restrictive dress. So she sucked in a breath and finished changing, cleaning the smudged makeup off her face and pulling the pins out of her hair.
In all that pain, she didn’t regret a second of this night, truly didn’t.
Well, maybe one: Katara regretted that she hadn’t been the one to throw the first punch.
Zuko was waiting in the hallway when Katara swung open the bathroom door, limping out into the hallway. “Here, let me help you,” he said, offering his arm again. Then he had another idea. “Wait, actually, no. Would it be better if I carried you?”
Katara shot him daggers with her glare. “I can walk just fine, thank you.”
“No, you can’t,” he protested. “Please, just let me make this easier for you. It’s the least I can do.”
“ Fine, but I’m gonna kill you if you drop me, ” she relented, allowing him to lift her, bridal-style, into his arms. “This is humiliating.”
“So was letting someone I care about take a black eye from my sister for me,” Zuko replied. He was struck by how tiny she felt in his arms - Katara wasn’t short by any means, but she felt like she barely weighed a thing.
“Hey, it was worth it.” A tiny grin played at Katara’s lips. “Did you see the look on her face?”
“No, it really wasn’t,” Zuko huffed. “Would you prefer the couch or a bed?”
“Mmm...bed,” Katara decided. “I should elevate my foot to keep the swelling down.”
“Yeah. I have an ice pack,” Zuko agreed, setting her down gently on his bed. (He wasn’t going to think about the fact that Katara was in his bedroom right now - he wasn’t.) He grabbed a few pillows and stacked them so she could set her foot atop them, adjusting the ones behind her so she could sit up. “Is anything else wrong, besides your foot and your eye?”
“Nope.” Katara sighed. “I do need to get my eye cleaned up, though. Do you have any ointment or anything?”
“Yeah, it should be in here,” Zuko said, fumbling with the clasp on the first aid kit. “Here!” he produced the tube and handed it to her.
“I can’t really put this on myself,” Katara told him, handing the tube back. “Can you…?”
Zuko’s stomach flipped. Oh. “Um...sure.” He uncapped the tube and squeezed a dollop onto his finger, dabbing it against her injured eye in case there were any cuts or scrapes to disinfect and wincing with every sharp intake of breath. She blinked her eyes open when he finished, locking them with his. He’d moved closer to her to administer the ointment, and their faces were so close-
No. Not now. Not thinking about that!
“Zuko,” Katara said, a little breathless. Her hand reached up to cup his cheek and he swore his heart stopped.
“Y-yes?” he asked.
“You’re staring again,” she said playfully, backing away.
“Oh.” Zuko felt a flush creep up his neck. “Sorry.”
“No, it’s kinda cute,” Katara said. “That...you like to look at me, I mean.”
Zuko felt like he’d swallowed a frog. “I-uh-wh-I didn’t…” he choked. “I-”
“Oh. Sorry.” Katara’s face fell.
“No, no, no, not that!” he rushed to correct himself. “I mean...I just didn’t really know what to say, that’s all. Is there, uh...anything else you need?” he asked. “It’s...gonna be a while until Sokka comes to get you.”
“Yeah, there is one thing,” Katara said, playing with the hem of her tank top.
“Well, um.” Katara looked at the ceiling, a little embarrassed. “I’m freezing. You guys have a blanket or something?”
“Right. I’m so sorry, I always forget that not everyone is used to Iroh turning the AC to sixty degrees every night.” Zuko walked to his closet and dug around for a moment. “This should help.”
Katara’s cheeks flushed when she saw what he’d handed her. “Is this yours?” she asked, unfolding the red sweatshirt in her hands. It was soft, worn and faded with years of use - he loved this thing, she could tell just by touching it.
“Mm-hm.” Now it was Zuko’s turn to blush. “It’s warm.”
“Thanks.” Katara slid the oversized sweatshirt over her head and settled into it with a contented sigh. “Ooh, you’re right. I’m never giving this back.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to.” Zuko couldn’t not smile at the sight, Katara snuggled up with his favorite sweatshirt. She pulled the hood down over her face and tied the drawstrings tight.
“You can’t see me. I’m invisible,” she declared.
“Hm. That’s a shame,” Zuko replied teasingly. “You said it yourself. I like looking at you.”
“Shut up,” she muttered into the fabric, before taking the hood off. “How long do we have?”
“Uh…” Zuko checked his phone. “It’s nine-twenty-five. So...a little over two and a half hours?”
“Okay. Mind if I take a nap?” Katara yawned. “Toph and Suki aren’t gonna let me get much sleep tonight.”
“Of course. Whatever you need.” Zuko nodded, almost disappointed to burst the bubble of whatever had just happened. “Do you want me to leave you alone?”
“No.” Katara caught his wrist, swinging her leg down from its perch on the pillows. “Join me.”
She took Zuko’s other hand in hers and pulled him down to her eye level. “Just stay here. It’s cold. You’re warm. Duh.”
“Okay,” he agreed, swallowing hard. Sliding the pillows out of the way to make room, he gingerly took a seat at the edge of the bed next to Katara, unsure whether she’d meant for him to be any closer. “Just...stay here?”
“No, not like that.” Katara moved over and patted the comforter next to her. “Next to me.”
He moved into position next to her, and Katara rested her head against his shoulder. Almost without thinking, he slipped his arm around her shoulders, and she snuggled into his offered embrace, nearly sitting in his lap.
“Yeah. That’s what I meant.” She looped her arms around his waist, her cheek pressed to his shoulder. Zuko thought his heart might burst at the tenderness of the moment, the smell of her perfume mingling with that of his favorite hoodie. “You make a good pillow.”
“I’m glad,” Zuko said softly, carding his fingers through her hair. She shifted again and then settled, and soon she was sleeping.
Zuko didn’t bother to keep track of the time they spent like that. He thought a little too much: about how soft her hair was, and how perfectly she fit under his arm, and how beautiful she’d looked that night. How it felt to dance with her in his arms, the entire room melting away around them. The collision of awe and anger in his mind when she realized how far Katara was willing to go to defend him. The black eye she’d carry for the next few weeks because of him.
I have to do something about this, he finally concluded. I can’t go on pretending I don’t need her like oxygen.
Maybe not tonight, but soon, I have to tell Katara how I feel.
The first thing Katara noticed when she stirred from her nap was how warm she was. She felt like she was cocooned in blankets with the sweatshirt she was wearing and-
The second thing Katara noticed when she stirred from her nap was that she was very nearly in Zuko’s lap.
His arms were around her, and her face was pressed against his shoulder. He’d pulled her close to him until she was nearly flush against him, snuggled cozily into the crook of his shoulder.
And it felt... perfect.
“Hey,” she mumbled, turning to look up at Zuko. “You awake?”
“Hm?” Zuko muttered, blinking awake. “Oh. Hey, Katara.”
Katara giggled, a little bit disgusted with herself for doing so but unable to stop herself. “Hey yourself.”
“I’m, uh...I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have,” Zuko said, hastily moving away from her. “I didn’t-”
“Hey.” Katara threw her arm over Zuko’s shoulder to stop him. “I asked you to.”
“Oh, okay.” He looked relieved to be asked to stay, snuggling back down under her arm. “You warm enough yet?”
“Yeah.” Katara leaned up to press her lips to his cheek. “Thank you.”
She had to take a moment to enjoy the look of total shock on his face, morphing into a tentative smile. He squeezed her shoulders a little tighter. “I owed you one, Katara.”
“Wow. You really do know how to suck all the romance out of a thing.”
Zuko’s face immediately reddened, and Katara chuckled. He was just too easy. “Who said anything about-”
“Zuko, we were just sleeping on each other.” Katara leaned in, ruffling his hair. “And you shouldn’t be surprised. I mean, I did take a black eye for you.”
“Yeah.” Katara smiled softly, cupping his chin again, thumb running along his cheekbone. "Don't know how you haven't figured it out yet, but I like you, Zuko."
"I, uh..." Zuko swallowed hard. "Same. I mean, me too. I like you too," he stammered.
Katara laughed and pressed her forehead to his. "You're so awkward," she said softly, tracing the contours of his face with her thumb. "It's adorable."
Zuko was certain he'd say something spectacularly moment-ruining if he spoke, so he didn't. He just leaned into her touch, closing his eyes and angling his face towards Katara's-
Then the door flew open. "Hey, ready to head over to-"
Sokka stopped short. He and Suki stood in the doorway, slack-jawed, and Katara nearly threw herself off the bed trying to get as far away from Zuko as she could. No one said anything for a moment. Then Sokka couldn’t take it anymore.
“Does either of you wanna tell us what was going on just now?”