“So how are you going to do this on crutches?” Toph asked. “Seems like it’d be pretty rough to manage a crowd like this.”
“Yeah, shouldn’t you be resting?” Aang echoed. He’d been the most worried of their friends after she’d been injured.
“Guys, it’ll be fine,” Katara sighed, slipping easily into her familiar role as the mother of the group. She wanted to cross her arms, but her crutches stopped her. “I know it’s gonna take adjusting, but it’s not like I have to do much.” At first, Katara refused to use the old crutches - they’d been Gran-Gran’s after a bad fall a few years ago - when Sokka found them, but had decided that it was easier than making someone else help her get around for the next few days.
“Fair point.” Toph snagged one of the macarons that the Jasmine Dragon team had set out on tables scattered throughout the shop, providing light refreshments - and great advertising - to the patrons who’d come to sing karaoke. “Gotta say, that Azula’s a piece of work, but she makes a mean macaron.”
“Oh, Azula made these?” Aang looked at the red velvet macaron in his hand with newfound distaste. “I take it back. They’re not all that great after all.”
“Aang, you’ve eaten six of them,” Katara pointed out. “It’s okay. I don’t like her either, but I’m not one to withhold praise where it’s due.” She grabbed a matcha macaron to make the point. “And I’m really not exaggerating when I say that these things are like the cookie version of crack cocaine.”
“Yeah, maybe you should leave a few for the other customers?” Sokka suggested, popping a chocolate macaron in his mouth.
“You’re one to talk.” Suki nudged him, pointing to the plate of macarons he was polishing off.
“Hey, I got everyone I could talk into coming to show up tonight, so I think I earned a little compensation!” he protested a little too loudly. Jasmine Dragon Tea & Treats’ first-ever Community Karaoke Night wouldn’t start for another fifteen minutes, but the few patrons who’d trickled in to get drinks and desserts before the night’s activities began glanced over at his volume. It drew Zuko’s eye, too, and though he’d been steering clear of Katara, he made his way over to the group warily.
Of course, he’d wanted to approach the group the moment they walked in. Katara had been out of work for a couple days at Iroh’s insistence (“she needs a few days to rest,” he had insisted), and their paths rarely crossed at school, so it had been days since he’d seen her, and Zuko was amazed how much he’d missed her in that short time. Work was infinitely duller without her; there was so much he hadn’t realized he’d missed.
He missed her easy smile and willingness to deal with the customers he didn’t know how to talk to.
He missed her enthusiasm.
He missed seeing her belting out the classic rock that Iroh had added to his “To Play In the Shop” playlist at Zuko’s request after he’d learned that she liked it while washing up at the end of her shifts.
He missed her. And he’d be lying if he denied that his heart stopped for a second when she walked (crutched?) in. As one of the event’s emcees, she’d gone all out: her normal sweatshirt-and-jeans look had been upgraded to a different pair of skinny jeans (not her usual ripped ones), a gauzy white button-up, and a black leather jacket, and she was...well, stunning. Even as he approached the group, Zuko had to make a concerted effort not to stare.
(Knowing that both Aang and Sokka were probably mad at him helped with that.)
“Hey, so, uh, Iroh’s been looking for you,” he told Katara as he approached, forgoing a greeting. “We’re starting in a few.”
“Got it.” Katara gave him a quick smile - all she could really do in front of her friends and brother - and followed.
“Can I, uh...can I carry something for you?” Zuko offered, eyeing the tiny leather backpack she’d brought in lieu of a purse to carry her stuff on crutches.
“No, I’m okay,” she replied. “But I do, uh...wanna talk later. When we get a minute.”
“Of course.” He hoped that was a good thing, or at least a neutral one. “You sure you don’t want Iroh to emcee by himself?”
“No, I’m okay, I promise.” When she got to the stairs that led up to the riser that was acting as a stage for the night, she took her crutches under one arm and hobbled up the two small steps. “But thanks.”
Zuko wanted to linger there, being around her to make up for lost time, but he’d been put in charge of running the cash register for customers who wanted to buy drinks throughout the night, so he had to make his way back over to the counter to serve the line of beginning to form. But he was a little distracted as he took their orders, watching Katara and Iroh explain how the night would work. Though injured and frazzled, Katara was bubbling over with enthusiasm, and he couldn’t help but stare.
“Um...one brown sugar boba?” the customer in the front of the line repeated, snapping Zuko out of his distraction.
“Right, sorry,” he muttered, ringing up the customer. The line was growing rapidly now as more people began to trickle in, and the first singers, a pair of regular customers who’d known Iroh for years, took the stage to butcher The B-52’s “Love Shack.”
Zuko sighed and turned back to his customers, trying not to think about the conversation he was about to have with Katara.
All Katara had to do was introduce each singer, so during songs, she could relax and enjoy (if that was the word for it…) the performances. True to his word, Sokka had brought his friends along, and aside from eating every macaron they had in stock, a few had even heckled each other into singing. Two of them, whose names Katara couldn’t recall, had performed an off-key duet that had the whole place in stitches; another had purposely botched “Careless Whisper” to entertain a cute girl in the front row. (Katara smirked when she saw him walk up onstage, because that woman, though she looked young, was a regular customer who she happened to know was twenty-three. Good luck with that one, she almost told him.) But, though the turnout was good, none of the gang had performed yet, and Katara intended to remedy that.
“Hey, Aang, why don’t you sing?” she suggested, knowing that Aang had the confidence to get up there if he so chose.
“Only if you sing with me,” he’d said, though, and she wasn’t about to let him rope her into a duet (he’d pick something embarrassing on purpose), so he was a lost cause.
“Toph?” she tried next. Toph just glared at her.
“Oh, come on,” she sighed. “Guys! You gotta-”
“Hey Sokka!” Toph cut her off, calling him over from the group he was standing with. “I’ll give you twenty bucks if you serenade Suki!”
“Twenty bucks?” Sokka’s eyes bugged out. “What song?”
“Anything you want,” she said with what Katara assumed was supposed to be an “aren’t-I-generous” expression. “There’s one person in front of you, but after she goes, I wanna see you up there.”
“You’re on, little dude.” Sokka patted Toph’s shoulder. “Easiest twenty bucks I’ve ever made!”
Katara rolled her eyes, but she couldn’t pretend she wasn’t looking forward to this.
“ And I! Ee-I! Ee-I! Will allll-ways love youuuuuuu!”
Even Suki looked about ready to jam in a pair of earplugs and call it a night by the time Sokka belted out the final chorus of “I Will Always Love You,” throwing one arm out to gesture towards his girlfriend with the theatrical flair of a drunk musical theater major. Toph actually was covering her ears, Katara would have retreated to a back room long ago if she hadn’t been filming the blackmail footage of the century, and Aang looked extremely uncomfortable. Suki, though, had a slightly lovestruck expression in spite of the obvious pain on her face that Katara swore she would never understand.
When the song was finally over, Sokka stepped off the stage to the enthusiastic shouts of his teammates, who’d inexplicably but wholeheartedly embraced the idea of karaoke night for all it was worth. (They’d also ordered countless drinks, which had to have been great for business.) It was weird, but Katara had to admit that it warmed her heart to see this event bringing people together. The shop, though crowded, felt cozy like this, full of people enjoying each other’s company along with their boba and macarons. Crutches aside, it was exactly what Katara had envisioned, and she briefly wondered if Zuko was thinking the same thing-
In her excitement, she’d forgotten that she had told Zuko they were going to talk. They hadn’t seen a lot of each other, since he’d been manning the register all night, but with a lull in drink purchases as the night wound down, she thought this would be as good a time as any to have this conversation. Not wanting to crutch across the whole store, she opted to text him.
Hey, can we talk now? Back room?
He caught her eye across the room a few seconds later and nodded, and they made their way to the back. A pair of older couples who’d come together were singing The Crystals’ “And Then He Kissed Me” as they left, a choice so apropos that it made Katara wish she could blend into the walls and stay there for a while where no one would see her, but their voices got further and further away as they walked. Zuko shut the door behind them when they reached the back and for a moment they just stood there, facing each other and not saying a word.
Then Katara couldn’t take it anymore. “I’m not in trouble,” she blurted out. “Gran-Gran bought what I said about falling down the stairs, and Sokka doesn’t hate you, and everything is fine. I’m not mad. You don’t have to think-”
“Katara, it’s okay.” He tried to smile reassuringly, but he looked a little too nervous to pull it off. “I wasn’t worried.”
(This was a blatant lie.)
“Oh, right. I’m not either!” Katara said a little too brightly.
(This was also a blatant lie.)
They froze again. Zuko stared at Katara, and Katara stared at the wall. Neither knew quite where to go from there.
“I guess I just wanna know if you meant it,” Katara finally told him. “What you said that night. Before we...you know.”
Zuko nodded. “I did. All of it.” A stiff blush rose in his cheeks.
“I did too,” Katara said shyly, staring at a different wall this time. “In case you were wondering.” She finally found the wherewithal to look back up at him. “So...what now?”
“I don’t know.” Zuko shrugged helplessly. “I don’t get how this is supposed to work.”
“Do we date? Do we pretend Saturday night never happened?” Katara asked. “Like...where do we go from here?”
“I, um.” Zuko looked down at his shoes, so adorably bashful that Katara would’ve kissed him on the spot if they were anywhere else. “Well, I don’t want to pretend it didn’t happen…”
“Good,” Katara said. “I don’t either. So...do you wanna…”
Zuko nodded. “Yeah. I’d like that.”
Katara’s face shone like sunlight through the clouds. “I would too!” she said. “I mean. We don’t have to be like Suki and Sokka-”
“But...I do want to be with you,” Katara admitted, meeting his eyes. They shared a small, tentative smile. “So what would you say to trying it?”
“You’re sure your brother won’t kill me?”
Katara rolled her eyes. “Zuko, he wants me to be happy. As long as I don’t get into any more fights over you” - Zuko cringed and Katara wished she hadn’t mentioned it - “he’s gonna support us.”
“And you don’t care that I’m graduating?” Zuko asked.
“Are you trying to convince me not to date you, Zuko?”
“No! No, I’m sorry, just... gaah. I’m so bad at this!” Zuko rubbed his palm across his forehead. “Of course I want to be with you, Katara. But I’m not used to good things just... happening like this.”
Katara couldn’t speak for a moment. She’d never heard him speak so openly about his feelings, or for that long, and she was really rather floored, but she had to come up with something to say, so she went with “well, you deserve them,” before staring at the floor again.
“So...um. Am I supposed to ask you to be my girlfriend now?” Zuko asked, a little embarrassed at his own outburst.
“You can.” Katara smiled shyly. “If you want.”
“Okay, then.” Zuko cleared his throat. “Uh-”
Katara knew this would be painfully awkward and stepped in. Realizing she’d recovered a little bit of brain function, she decided to go the extra mile. “So, if we’re gonna make it official, wanna make it official- official?”
“Explain, please.” Zuko caught the hint of teasing in his tone and followed suit, crossing her arms.
“So, if you wanna be my boyfriend, raise your right hand and repeat after me.”
Zuko obediently raised his hand.
“That’s your left hand,” Katara pointed out, rolling her eyes. “You’re such a dork.”
“You love it,” he teased, wondering where this sudden smoothness was coming from when he’d been too awkward to string together coherent sentences just a few moments before.
“Perhaps.” Katara smirked and raised her right hand. “Okay, repeat after me. I, Zuko, want to be Katara’s boyfriend-”
Zuko switched hands. “I, Zuko, want to be Katara’s boyfriend.”
Katara grinned - no guileful smirk this time, just pure elation - and continued. “And swear to uphold said relationship for as long as is possible.”
“And swear to uphold said relationship for as long as possible,” he repeated. “So, uh...are we a thing now?”
“Again. Dork.” She rolled her eyes fondly. “Yeah, I...guess we are. Which brings me to my next question.”
“Yeah?” Zuko was right back to staring at the floor.
“On Saturday...were you actually going to kiss me?”
“Were you actually going to kiss me?” Zuko asked. She’d never seen him look more mortified, and for a guy who’d just sworn a ‘legally-binding’ oath to date her, that was...actually rather impressive.
“I mean, yeah, I think so,” Katara admitted. “Did I...were you...did I misread?”
Zuko swallowed hard. “No, uh...you didn’t.”
“So you were going to kiss me. Just to confirm? Yes or no?” Katara said, wishing she could stay quiet for once in her life. Her heart was kicking insistently at her ribcage and she was sure Zuko could hear it.
Zuko paused for a moment, wondering if there was a way out of this and quickly realizing that there wasn’t. “Um. Yeah. I mean, yes, I was going to kiss you.”
“Um.” Katara “Do you wanna…”
“Do I…” Zuko took a moment to get it. “Oh! Um. Sure?”
“Uh...cool!” Katara shrugged. “So, do you-”
“I’ve never kissed anyone,” Zuko admitted. “You?”
“Yeah, but it sucked, so.” Katara stubbed the toe of her ballet flat against the concrete floor. “Not sure if we want to go by that.”
“It’s okay. We can figure it out.” Zuko smiled reassuringly, taking a few steps towards her to bridge the distance between them. “So, what do I do with my hands?”
“Yeah.” Katara looked down at the floor, then took his hand. “So, um, I’ve always loved that thing they do in movies where the guy, like, puts his hand in the girl’s hair” - she moved his hand to place it behind her ear, tucked into her hair near the nape of her neck. “Like this. Is that, um. Is that okay?”
“Like this?” Zuko shifted his hand to bury it in her hair, cradling her neck. “Yeah, um...that’s good. Both hands or just this one?”
“Uh...just do whatever you want with the other hand,” Katara said, her cheeks flushing crimson. “Do you want me to do anything?”
“Uh...no, just whatever works. You’re the one with all the experience.”
“Zuko, making out with Jet in the backseat of his car after a football game does not count-”
Zuko looked mildly ill. “Um. I’m gonna try my best to forget you told me that.”
“Good idea.” Katara cringed. “Anyway. Do you want me to, like…” she looped her arms around his waist. “That?”
“Yeah. Yeah, that’d be perfect.” Zuko cupped her chin in his free hand to raise her face to his. “Ready?”
She nodded. “Ready.”
For a moment, they didn’t move. They could faintly hear the sounds of a customer’s smoky voice belting out a love song that neither of them had ever heard, and both were frozen in the moment.
But something shifted in the millisecond they stayed that way, and Katara leaned forwards and brushed her lips against his, barely a peck, before she pulled away. A panicked expression crossed her face - why did I do that so badly? - just as an elated expression crossed Zuko’s, and, using the hand he’d raised to her chin to pull her back in, he kissed her again, clumsy and slow but undeniably sweet. Her arms tightened around his waist and he threaded his fingers through her hair, moving his free hand back to cradle her head on the other side.
It was slow and careful, too new to risk overstepping any boundaries, but to Katara, it felt electric. More than any of the past kisses she’d been too eager to forget, she felt the touch of his lips in every inch of her body, lighting up at his touch like he’d flipped a switch. It felt right, exhilarating, knowing she could languish in this moment forever without having to worry that it’d come back to hurt her. She knew she was giving him her heart along with that kiss, that she could trust him with it, and the knowledge was intoxicating. She shifted her right hand from his waist to his shoulder, pulling him in closer.
Kissing Zuko was perfection.
Even as the intensity of the kiss grew, Zuko felt more comfort than anything. Katara’s touch was feather-light and impossibly gentle, her lips soft with what tasted like strawberry Chapstik. As much as Zuko had thought he’d feel like he was on fire whenever he’d pictured his first kiss, the fire he felt was more of a comforting blaze in a fireplace on a winter’s day than the raging wildfire he’d expected. It was safety and belonging, challenge and victory. It was easy but thrilling, exciting and solacing. It was hunger and fulfilment, adventure and homecoming. He freed one hand to stroke his thumb along her jawline.
Kissing Katara was everything.
They pulled away after three minutes of eternity, shaken and elated all at once.
“You’re good at that” was all a dazed, breathless Katara could manage.
(This was a blatant truth.)
“Only because I’m kissing the right person,” Zuko replied.
(This was also a blatant truth.)