Chapter 1: Chapter 1
Sleepless in Ba Sing Se
Zuko did not sleep. Hasn’t done so in years. Okay, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, because he does sleep sometimes. Whenever he can. He sleeps in the back of his car, or sometimes in the closet, sometimes in the library. Anywhere that is not his bed. He does not like to sleep on his bed. Beds bring back terrible memories. Memories he can do without. That is the same reason he has not looked at a mirror for years. The mirror in his room back in Caldera was shattered years ago and he has not even bothered to replace it.
Besides, he has not lived in Caldera for three years now. As soon as he could, he moved out of that gilded mansion, and has since then been living with the only person who gives a fuck about him. His Uncle Iroh. The old man is happy running the restaurant in Ba Sing Se. He is a culinary savant and can whip up any dish. But the man has no head for numbers. That is where Zuko has stepped in. In exchange for the boarding and lodging his Uncle was providing him, Zuko looks at the accounts. It is a mutually beneficial exchange. Besides, knowing his fucked up and almost nonexistent sleep-cycle, Iroh gave him the luxury of flexi time. It also gives him enough time to work on his thesis.
With a soft sigh, Zuko lowers himself on the ledge. His body is craving rest, but his mind has other plans. He gets out a cigarette pack and lighter from his pocket. He pulls a stick from the pack using his mouth, and flicks the dragon shaped lighter. Personally, he thinks it is tacky as hell, but it is the last thing that Lu Ten gave him. He is not going to get rid of it just because it doesn’t gel with his taste. He is not vain. He does not have that luxury.
Sitting under the canopy of stars, Zuko takes a deep drag. He both loves and hates his nights in the Upper Ring of Ba Sing Se. He loves the silence, the glittering stars overhead, the cool breeze that ruffles his hair. He loves it all. He just hates spending the nights alone. He can’t take it anymore.
In the distance he can hear faint sounds of the occasional car whizzing by or the rhythmic clacking of the goods train. Zuko breaths the air and realizes that it might rain some time later. He sighs, and leans back against the water tank, resting his elbow on his folded knee. Overhead, a shooting star zipped across the black sky. His mother used to believe that shooting star grated wishes. Sitting alone on the terrace of his two-story house, Zuko smirks. If stars granted wishes, Zuko’s star probably had gone supernova before he was even born.
“Is someone there?” A woman’s voice startles him, almost making him fall. He has to grab on to the pipe to stop the fall.
“The fuck! Who’s there?”
“Sorry,” the voice says. He can hear someone grunt and can vaguely make out a figure vaulting on to his roof.
“If you’re here to steal, I should warn you I’m trained in MMA.”
“I’m not a thief. I’m your neighbor,” she said walking up to him.
Zuko remembers seeing the moving truck last week. The house was empty for as long as he has lived in Ba Sing Se. He has become so used to being undisturbed at nights, that he is not sure how he feels seeing a stranger walk up to him like this. The woman, dressed in dark clothes, comes next to him, and says, “Can I get a smoke?”
Without a word, Zuko pulls his pack and lighter out and hands it to her. In the glow of the waning moon, he sees her put a cigarette on her lips and flicks the lighter on. From the angle he is looking at her now, her face is more shadow than light. She twirls the lighter in her hand for a bit before saying, “Fancy,” she hands it back to him. “I’m Katara.”
“Zuko,” he replies, pocketing the lighter and cigarettes.
She leans her elbows on the ledge and Zuko instinctively pulls his outstretched leg back. Silence falls on them, with the tiny embers of their respective cigarettes glowing occasionally. “Sorry for scaring you earlier,” she says after a while. “I have seen you sitting here often.”
Zuko does not know what to say, so he stays silent.
“Don’t you sleep?” she asks bluntly.
“Don’t you?” He snaps back. “It must be way past midnight.”
“It’s two forty in the morning,” she replies, tossing the ash from her cigarette.
“And you should be in bed,” Zuko says.
“I’m an insomniac,” Katara says. “I can’t sleep.”
For the second time, Zuko does not know what to say. He stubs the cigarette butt and tosses it in the bin he keeps in the terrace for just this purpose. “Me neither,” the words slip out before he can stop himself.
“I saw,” she says and drags on the cigarette. “I know coming over like this was weird, but… I just had to.”
Without being told, Zuko knows what she means. “Spending the nights alone are tough, aren’t they?”
“Yes. Once I knew there was someone else nearby, spending a sleepless night, I had to come and talk.”
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
This story means a lot to me personally. I have a type of insomnia myself. I relate to the exhaustion and the loneliness. Hope you enjoy this Zutara that is very different from my usual stuff.
Katara did not sleep. Has not done so in years. Okay, that may not be entirely true. She does catch on some sleep every now and then. On her desk, on the couch, on the bus. But the moment her head hits the pillow, sleep flees. She finds herself staring at the ceiling for hours on end. Time moves on, but Katara is stuck. In the tiny apartment that she shared with her father and brother in the Middle Ring, Katara rarely had the luxury to venture out. She had to endure the long nights, listening to the sounds of the others sleeping peace.
But now, in the Upper Ring, she can finally breathe easy. In the terrace, she can be by herself without subjecting herself to the agony of spending her nights cooped up in a bed, tossing and turning while the world around her slept. In the claustrophobic apartment in Middle Ring, the sound of her father and Sokka’s snores were sheer torture. Now, standing in the terrace, she is liberated. The silence is peaceful, and she can finally breathe. When she spots the steady burning of cigarette in the adjacent house, she squints her eyes. In the faint glow of streetlights, she can make out a man walking around. She hears him mutter to himself sometimes. It must be the same man she had seen on the day of moving in. She still remembers the black jaguar that had come to a stop in the next door, when she was in the moving truck. Behind her, Sokka whistled.
“What a beauty!” Sokka said.
A black-haired man of about Sokka’s age stepped out of the car. He was dressed in a rust-colored leather jacket and black jeans, began to make his way into the house. Always eager to make new friends, especially the ones he deemed ‘cool’ and this man, apparently, met his criteria of cool. Sokka raised his hand and yelled, “Hi there!”
The man gave a start and turned to look at them. A pair of expensive-looking sunglasses, and shock of shaggy black hair covered most of his face. He raised a hand in acknowledgement before walking in. Something about that sluggish walk, the slight stoop of his shoulders feels familiar to her. That’s how she walks when she hasn’t slept for a while. From the day she has moved in, she has seen him, spending the night on the terrace. It has taken her seven days to muster the courage to come and talk to the person who has been the unsuspecting companion of her lonely nights.
At that moment, standing there, sharing a smoke with the stranger, Katara does not feel alone. He has a nice voice. Slightly husky and he has the hint of a lisp in his words. Right from his car, to his clothes, to his sunglasses, to his lighter, and the brand of cigarette, everything about him screams money. Unsurprising, given that they are in the Upper Ring. Yet, he does not seem to be haughty, like some of the other people she knows.
“How did you know I was here?” Zuko asks.
“I have seen you here, smoking the night away. Since the day I came here.”
He gives a mirthless snort. “Aren’t you tired? You moved in about seven days ago, right?”
“I’m exhausted,” Katara responded. “But… I can’t sleep.”
“I hear you,” he says stretching his arms above his head. They sit silently for a while, each looking out at to the city. Finally, he breaks the silence, “How’s Ba Sing Se treating you otherwise?”
Finishing her cigarette and tosses it in the bin. “Oh, I’m just new to Upper Ring. Been in the city for six years.”
“I see. So, what brings you here?”
“Job. I’m the new HR at Beifong Estates,” Katara says. “My brother got a new job too as the Structural Engineer at Ba Sing Se’s railroad. So, we upgraded.”
“Welcome to the Upper Ring then.”
Zuko and Katara spend the next three nights together. They don’t talk much. Silence rules their nights, like it did before. But now, she has someone to share her silence with. They sit next to each other, sharing a smoke sometimes. Sometimes one of them breaks the quiet to speak about something mundane, but they lapse back into silence soon. She still has not seen his face, because he has made it a point to wear hoodies since the first night. Katara is curious as to why he wants to hide his face, but she does not press. Zuko does not talk much. But Katara likes his company. With him being around her, nights are no longer insurmountable.
“Toph, where are we going?” Katara asks.
“Lunch,” her old friend and new boss says. “You look terrible.”
Katara winces, knowing that she has not slept for ten days now, save for the two-hour nap that she catches in the morning before starting for work. “I know I have… wait a second.”
Her blind friend chuckles. “It’s been ten years! How you still fall for it, I don’t know.”
“I’m an idiot,” Katara says settling in Toph’s car. The chauffer is instructed to take them to a restaurant. Katara leans back and sighs, her aches and pains telling on her body.
“Not sleeping still?” Toph asked slowly.
“Hmmm,” Katara said slowly. “Been surviving on two-hour long naps for ten days now.”
Toph clicks her tongue, “This won’t do, Katara. Why don’t you take some medications or something?”
Katara sighs but does not elaborate. She does not say that sleep eludes her because of psychological reasons. And that her anxiety would not let her take pills. They pull in front of a beautiful building. Big, golden letters declared the name of the place, The Jasmine Dragon.
An old, portly man who Katara learns is the owner of the restaurant, welcomes them. “How ya doin’ gramps?”
“Well enough, Ms. Beifong. Thank you for accepting my lunch invitation,” the man says, “And this must be the friend you were talking about? Kamara, right?”
“Katara,” she corrects with a smile. Something about the man immediately puts her at ease.
“Do come, ladies, make yourself at home,” he leads Toph by her hand and takes them to a private booth. “Enjoy yourselves, ladies. Someone will be over shortly to take your orders.”
“Lunch invitation, Toph? You didn’t tell me you were invited for lunch.”
Toph cracks her knuckles and leans forward, “I have known Gramps and his nephew for ages. I keep coming here and bring all my friends here.”
“Ten years of knowing you and you have never once spoken of Gramps, his nephew or brought one of us here.”
“Ever heard of the saying don’t look a gift horse in the mouth? Just enjoy the damn meal.”
Katara rolls her eyes, an action lost on the blind girl. She takes a sip of her iced water and has to admit that this is a nice place. The cool air of the AC is easing her sore body. And the smell wafting from the kitchen is delicious. She finds her mouthwatering.
“Good afternoon, ladies,” says a voice she would recognize anywhere. “I’ll be your server for the day. What may I get you started with?”
Katara’s head whips up. “Zuko?”
Chapter 3: Chapter 3
This story is flowing out of my fingers. Hope you guys enjoy this little love story.
Zuko rolls his shoulders, the pain between his shoulder blades refusing to dislodge, leeching off the abysmal reserve of strength that he possesses. He takes a sip of the coffee and grimaces. Caffeine has long since lost its potency. There is a tingling feeling in his fingers, which he assumes is from exhaustion. He has not slept for more than three hours at a stretch in twelve days. He makes a notation on his thesis, only to delete it, and type it again. The pen dangling from his mouth bobs up and down as he moves his tongue against it.
“What the fuck am I even doing?” he mutters against the pen. “Why did I even think the thesis was a good idea? This is garbage.”
“Zuko,” his Uncle’s wizened voice pulls him from the dumpster fire that is his thesis.
“Handle the orders of table 24.”
Zuko frowns. “What? Why? What happened to the half a dozen waiters that we have?”
“This is a personal guest, son,” Uncle says. “Please will you do the honors?”
Zuko sighs. He knows exactly what this is. This is perhaps his Uncle’s seventy-fifth attempt at setting him up with a girl. What his Uncle does not understand is that Zuko does not want a relationship. He knows what he brings to the table. He is a scarred, foul-mouthed, ill-tempered, insomniac freak who comes from a family of freaks. No girl in her right mind wants to deal with that. In the past, a couple of girls have tried, primarily because he is loaded. But they leave soon because he is a black hole. But he does not say all that to Uncle. His Uncle does not like it when Zuko puts himself down and says things like that about himself. So, instead of objecting, Zuko simply shuts his laptop screen and picks up a notepad.
As he is walking from inside the office to the dining area, his eye catches his reflection on the mirror in the corridor. His hair is sticking out in all directions. Zuko smirks, if his scar and scowl does not scare this new girl away, maybe his porcupine-like hair will. Feeling a surge of savage pleasure, he walks to the table. As he navigates through the tables, he catches a few pointed looks in his direction. Zuko wants to get annoyed, but he is too tired to do so. He chooses to ignore them and walks over to the table. He spots two women sitting at the table. The one he could see was busy perusing the menu while the other one, the one whose back was to him, was tapping a rhythm on the table.
“Good afternoon, ladies. I’ll be your server for the day. What may I get you started with?”
The girl who had been studying the menu, jerks her head up and says, “Zuko?”
Zuko feels like his stomach has dropped thirty feet. He instantly recognizes that voice. No. No. No. No. This is not happening. She cannot be here. She should not see how hideous he looks. The person who is his companion in the solitary nights. The one person in this world who does not care how he looks or how he behaves. The only one who actually needs him. Just as much as he needs her. And she is here. No. No. No. How? What?
“You guys know each other?” With that Zuko registers the presence of Toph. Of course, Toph is here, the co-conspirator. He swallows the cold knot that has settled in his throat.
“Sh- she’s my neighbor,” he says, hating the way his voice sounds like a scratchy tape. With those words, he realizes how stupid his reaction his. She is his neighbor. Of course, she would see his face some day or the other. But he still wants to be angry. He turns to look at Katara, who is looking at him with her mouth agape. Of course, she sees him for the freak that he is. He takes a deep breath and takes the professional tone. “Your orders, ladies.”
Katara recovers from her shock and blinks. Only now, Zuko takes the time to actually see her. He has seen her face, yes, but only in bits. He knows she is pretty. But now, seeing her in broad daylight, he realizes that she is gorgeous. Her impossibly blue eyes are in stark contrast with her chocolate skin. Her dark brown hair is tied in a casual ponytail. He is amazed at how put together she is, given that she has not slept for ten days. The two women place their orders. Zuko quickly takes the order and marches out, feeling a thousand emotions swirling within him.
That night, Zuko does not go to the terrace.
For the next four nights, Zuko does not go to the terrace. Staying cooped in his room is driving him insane. But he does not have the balls to take the twelve steps that take him to the terrace. He hates the nights he spends alone, but at least he can work on his thesis. He is reading a paragraph when he hears it the first time.
He frowns, wondering what is making that noise. Figuring that it is probably a nocturnal bird, he goes back to reading the text, when that noise comes again.
Then again, more insistent this time. Now he realizes that it is coming from the window. Perplexed, he walks over and opens it. There, perched on the branch of the tree next to his window, is Katara, holding a stick with which she has been tapping his window.
“What the fuck? What are you doing here?”
She shrugs, “I figured since you are avoiding me, I might as well show up.”
“I – I – I’m not avoiding you.”
“Uh huh,” Katara says, making it clear that she does not buy his words. “Now will you let me in or am I supposed to keep sitting here.”
Zuko bites back the smile that wants to blossom on his lips as he opens the window further and holds out a hand. Katara leans over and grasps his hand. At the contact, he feels as though he has touched a live wire. With her tongue between her teeth, Katara slowly places one leg on the ledge. She lay her other hand on his shoulder and drags herself over. Just as she is about to shift her weight, her foot slips. Instinctively, his arms go around her as he braces himself for the impact. Together the two of them tumble to the floor. Stars wink in Zuko’s vision as his head hits the floor. It is only then he is aware that Katara is practically lying on top of him. The traitor that was his body reacts instantly. Zuko chides himself for behaving like fucking hormonal teenager, prays to his supernova that she did not notice. But, of course she does.
She raises her eyebrows, “Okay, so you’re happy to see me.”
“Shut up,” he grumbles and pushes her off himself, before standing up himself. “And… sorry about that.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she says, brushing off some dirt from her pant. “Happens.”
“What are you even doing here?” he asks, pointing her to a chair, while he resumes his place at the table.
Katara plops down on the chair and stretches her arms. “You were feeling awkward and embarrassed for some reason. So I came here to tell you that there is no reason to be embarrassed.”
Zuko raises his brow, “Who told you I’m embarrassed?”
“If you are not avoiding me, and are not embarrassed, then why haven’t you come upstairs for five days?”
Zuko hooks a thumb at his laptop and says, “Busy.”
“So busy that you couldn’t climb twelve stairs to tell me that you won’t come?”
Zuko looks away, feeling those blue eyes piercing him. He rubs his nose in embarrassment. He takes a deep breath and says, “I… I…”
When he is unable to continue, she cocks her head. “I can’t take the nights alone, Zuko.”
Zuko sighs, “Katara, this is… don’t do this.”
“Do what? We don’t actually do anything Zuko. We just sit. We hardly even talk.”
He runs a hand over his eyes, feeling the familiar burning from sleep deprivation in them. “This dependence. Don’t depend on me, Katara. It’s unhealthy.”
She gives him an icy stare. “Because subsisting on less than three hours of sleep for days together, smoking, and drinking gallons of coffee is very healthy.”
Zuko sighs, “But… I… See… A… “
“Can I ask you something?” Katara says, cutting through his stammering. “Are you avoiding me because of your scar?”
Zuko’s head snaps up. No one has every said something like this. No one directly addresses his scar. Ever. To buy some time, he pulls out a cigarette and lights one. He offers her one, but she declines with a shake of her head. He takes a deep pull, more to buy time than anything else. Finally, he says, “That is part of the reason, yes.”
“What’s the other reason?”
Zuko contemplates on how much to tell her. He decides to go for the truth. This, whatever this was between them, merited honesty. “Why do you think you were in the restaurant the other day?”
“Toph got an invitation?”
“My Uncle. He’s trying to… err… get us together.”
Her raises her eyebrows and opens her mouth to say something but yawns instead. Zuko stubs his cigarette and uses his legs to move his chair closer to her, thankful for the wheels in the bottom. Up close, he notices the redness of her eyes and the dark circles. Her lips are chapped, and her cheeks look sunken.
“Katara? When did you sleep last?”
She sighs, “Two days ago.”
His eyes widen, “You haven’t slept at all in forty-eight hours?”
She shakes her head.
“Not done,” Zuko says and walks up to his closet. He grabs a tatami mat, the thing he uses in lieu of bed, a pillow and a blanket. He spreads the mat on the floor, drops the pillow and the blanket. “Sleep. Now. I’ll wake you up before others wake up.”
She rubs her eyes and shakes her head, “No. I’ll go home and try to sleep.”
“Katara, you haven’t slept in two days. I need to know that you have slept.”
“Where’s your bed?”
“I don’t have one. Been seven years now.”
“Wow,” she says but lays down on the mattress, evidently too tired to argue. “What are you working on?”
“Oh, so you are the rare kind,” she says snuggling into the blanket. “Smart and cute. Good.”
Zuko does a double take, wondering if he has heard it right. Katara has her eyes closed but there is a smile no her lips. He shakes his head and decides to let her be. He turns his chair away from her and gets back to his thesis. The sound of her steady breathing fills the room, Zuko realizes she has fallen asleep. A smile blooms on his face and he can’t stop himself from thinking, Katara thinks I’m cute.
Chapter 4: Chapter 4
A number of people got back to me saying they related to the state the leads are in. It is flattering to know that I have portrayed the pain accurately. In this chapter, I deal with Katara’s angst and her thoughts about Zuzu.
Expect a Subterfuge update in a day or so.
As usual, read and review.
Wow. This is Zuko? Oh my! He is hot.
“Your order, ladies,” his voice cuts through the haze in Katara’s mind. She hastily orders something at random. All through the lunch, which is admittedly delicious, she finds her eyes going to Zuko. He has a sharp jawline, high cheek bones, a nose that looks like it has been drawn with geometrical precision, lips that makes Katara want to touch them. There is a large red scar on his face, which explains why he has been so keen to keep his face hidden. He does not come near the table after that.
Throughout the car ride back, Toph pointedly keeps asking what she thought about Zuko, but Katara does not want to talk about it. “Come on,” she whines in that tone that she does when she wants to press for more information. “Give me the deets, girl. Don’t make me become your boss and order you.”
Katara gives Toph a pointed look, which is useless on her, “Since when does a boss get to order their subordinates to disclose their love lives?”
“Love life?” Toph says, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. Katara wants to slap herself or die. Dying sounds like a good option. The blind woman continues, clearly enjoying the moment. “You’ve been in that apartment for how long now? Not even twelve days and you’re already having a love life with the neighbor?”
“That’s not what I meant,” Katara says, knowing full well that the damage has been done. Still, she wants to save face. “I’m talking about your obvious interest in knowing what I think of Zuko, not about what I thought of the place. Doesn’t take a genius to figure out what you’re getting at.”
Not bad, Katara, she thinks.
Toph, however, blows her bangs. “Nice try, Sugar Queen. Would work on anyone else. But me, being who I am, know that you went all googly eyes at him. I’ve heard he’s a rather scrumptious looking guy?”
Katara groans, wondering when this inquisition would stop. Luckily for her, the car pulls into the parking lot of their office and she can now get back to work and forget this mortifying exchange.
That night, Zuko does not come to the terrace.
Katara sits alone in her terrace, waiting for Zuko to show up. But he doesn’t and something inside her wants to break. His companionship, silent as it had been, had kept her misery away. But now, sitting in the dark, her monsters are growing larger and larger. The shadows dancing on the walls look like tentacles reaching out for her. Sitting with her back against the common wall between the houses, Katara pulls her legs closer to herself and rests her head on her knees. In broad daylight, it is easy to rubbish her dark, disturbing thoughts.
But at night, when the world around her slumbers, Katara finds herself losing her battle. The hoot of the goods train sounds like a shriek. The wind whispers in her ears the words that haunt her even today. In the creaking of the branches of a tree, Katara hears her monster opening the door.
Katara slaps her hands on her ears, sobbing, “Stop! Please stop.”
No one knows the anguish that nights bring for her. Before coming to this house, Katara had believed she was alone in her pain. Yes, Sokka had lost his mother too. But he had not gone through what she had. He has been able to move on. But she is stuck, lost in her own private hell. A drop of poison stuck in her throat that she can’t swallow nor can she spit out.
But then, after she met Zuko, everything changed. The four nights that she spent in his company have been the most memorable nights in the endless line of nights she has spent staring into the darkness. No longer was she alone in her agony. There was someone next to her, shouldering the burden. She senses that he is battling his own demons. And if the large, red scar is anything to go by, his demons are just as painful as her own. But together, they could stare down both their demons. Katara can tell.
But that night, Zuko does not come to the terrace. Nor the night after. Or the next. Or the night after. Or the night after that.
When Zuko opens the window, he takes her breath away. Seeing him again, looking at her with that wide-eyed confusion, feels as though she has been suddenly given a lifeline while she has been drowning. When he grabs her hand, Katara is about ready to cry with relief. Her demons are gone! For the first time in five days, she is not scared. He has brought light to her and she is saved.
It is exhaustion and lightheadedness that makes her foot slip. She did not expect him to support her or cushion her fall. Katara is a little surprised at the thrill that passes through her knowing that he likes having her on him. She brushes it off with a clever quip and pretends to brush dirt off her pants so that he does not see the blush that is setting her cheeks aflame.
When she sits down, she notices that he is wearing a brown tee shirt and black slacks. She realizes that he has a variety of black clothes in his wardrobe. When he comes up close, to study her, Katara can smell his aftershave and the smoke and she thinks the combination is downright intoxicating. She wants to both put distance between them and stick around him. But when he lays the mat out for her, she cannot resist. She is not surprised to know that in his company, sleep comes easy.
“Katara, wake up,” someone is tapping her shoulder. Katara jerks awake and is about to scream. But a hand covers her mouth, stifling the shriek. Staring back at her are a pair of asymmetrical golden eyes. It takes precious few seconds for her to cut through her panic and truly see.
“You recognize me now?” Zuko asks.
“You won’t scream if I move my hand?”
She shakes her head, indicating that she won’t. He sighs and drops his hand. “My Uncle will wake up in about forty minutes or so. I figured I should wake you up before that. I don’t fancy trying to explain why I have a girl in my room.”
Despite herself, Katara smiles. “How long did I sleep?”
“You fell asleep at around two, I think. It’s five now.”
Katara nods and gets up, her body protesting every move. “How do you sleep without a bed?”
“I don’t, remember?”
Katara gives a snort. She is stumbling to the window when he grabs her arm. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“To the window,” she replies in a groggy voice. “Go back the way I came.”
“No,” he says standing up. “I’m not letting you climb down a tree in this state.”
“Zuko, I can manage.”
“Tell that to someone who doesn’t know exactly what you’re feeling like right now,” he replies irritably. “Now come on, I’ll take you upstairs. You can go through the terrace. It’s easier to climb a ledge that has two feet drop than a tree.”
As they make their way up the stairs, Katara realizes that Zuko’s house is an exact mirror image of her own, with different colors. Her house was blue and white, while Zuko’s was red and pale gold. It was oddly comforting while being disconcerting at the same time. Zuko unlocks the door to the terrace and they step in together.
“I’ve been meaning to ask,” he says suddenly. “How did you know that was my room?”
“I walked around and saw the lights on. I figured it was you,” she stops walking and her eyes widen in realization, “Okay now that I have slept a bit, that sounds really creepy. Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Zuko chuckles, “Believe me, I know. You were sleep deprived, exhausted and irritable. Your head is buzzing. Everything hurts. I have made my share of stupid decisions in that state.”
“Scared. Add scared to the list.”
Now it is Zuko who pauses. “Scared? What are you scared of?”
Katara looks at the horizon that is turning orange. “I have to go now. Will you come tonight?”
“Did you sleep at all last night?”
“No. But I will sleep for an hour or so now.”
“How will I know you have slept?” she asks as she hoists herself to the ledge.
“Tell me your number, I’ll text you when I get up. With full details.”
Katara looks at him quizzically, “You have a pen on you?”
“No need. Just tell me the number, I’ll remember.”
She smiles and tells him the number. She then slides off the ledge and makes her way home. Before getting inside, she turns around to find Zuko still standing where she left him.
Chapter 5: Chapter 5
Thank-you so much lovely readers, for all the wonderful words that you have said. This chapter was fun to write. Here, Zuko’s story comes to light.
Not much else to say, except read and review.
Sneak Peek for Chapter 6: Zuko runs into Katara unexpectedly. Also, siblings come into the picture.
Zuko stares at his phone, his fingers poised over the keyboard. Why is he thinking so much, he wonders? All he has to do is just type out that he did not sleep. But he cannot. Because he knows that the next thing Katara will ask is why he did not sleep. How can he tell her that as soon as he lay down on the mat, he was enveloped by her smell? That a mere whiff of her was stronger and more potent than the finest whiskey? How could he say that her smell had driven all his blood down south without sounding like a creep? In the end, he settles for a two-word message.
No dice – Z.
Let her make of that what she will. Zuko puts his phone away. He will not look at it every five minutes to see if she has replied. He will not! To resist the temptation, he drops his phone in the drawer and goes for a shower. Once he is back in his room, he looks at the drawer. His fingers itch to open the drawer and check, but he shakes his head and walks the other way. As he opens his cupboard, the world darkens in front of his eyes for a moment, making him teeter on his feet. He sighs and leans his head against the cupboard door. He needs to sleep, but not on the mat. Not where he can feel her presence.
He chooses his clothes at random and throws on a pair of blue denims and a white pinstripe button-down shirt. His hair has a mind of its own and combing it is rather useless, because it returns to a shaggy crop as soon as it dries. Zuko runs a comb through it, just to take out the tangles. He is picking out a pair of socks when he hears his phone beep. He tells himself that he will not rush to the desk, but his words are in vain for he skids to a stop in front of the desk.
“You’re fucking hopeless, Zuko,” he chides himself as he pulls the phone out. On the screen, he can see the notification of three texts from Katara. His fingers have a tremble in them as he unlocks his phone.
Aww. Too bad. Been there – K
I’m impressed that you really remembered by number.
*my. Stupid typo.
Zuko smiles and heaves a sigh of relief. She does not ask why he did not sleep. Typical of him to overthink. Of course Katara has had those days where she wants to sleep but she can’t. She is not like the others, who do not know what it is like to be exhausted to the bone and yet, be unable to fall asleep. She knows. He does not need to explain. He types out a quick reply.
I have a head for numbers.
While true, that is not the whole story. Truth is, he would not forget Katara’s number. Almost immediately, his phone beeped.
You got big brains!
Zuko grins and types out yet another text. He wonders for a moment if he should send it to her or not. After a moment of deliberation, he decides to send it.
What were you scared of, Katara?
He is putting on his socks when his phone beeps again.
Long story. Will tell you some other time.
That night, it is Zuko who vaults across the common wall between the two houses at eleven-thirty. He knows he is early for Katara would not come here before midnight, but he wants to be there. He wants to apologize to her for abandoning her to the night. That is not done. Their connection goes beyond this crush he seems to have developed for her. He will not risk something so precious over a momentary attraction. Katara is the only one who really knows and understands what he feels like. She does not offer him unwelcome suggestions or advice. Nothing grates on Zuko’s nerves more than those goddamned well-meaning words. He understands that people offer him those suggestions from a place of concern. But the truth is, they just do not understand what it is like.
People seem to think there is some kind of quick fix to his problems. Pop a pill. Listen to calming music. Read a book. Do yoga. Drink hot milk before bed. He has tried all of that. And more. Nothing fucking works. Come night and he is lying awake, reliving the event that ruined half his face and stole his sleep. Zuko runs a hand through his hair and lights a smoke.
“You’re here early,” her voice comes from behind him.
He cannot stop the smile that spreads on his face, “I had to come. I owed you an apology.”
“Apology?” she says coming up to him and holds up a box. “Want some cookies?”
Zuko looks from her to the box and back to her, “Cookies?”
“I made them.”
“Really? Damn. Must try one then,” he says and picks one up. He takes a small bite and his eyes close at the explosion of taste in his mouth. The combination of vanilla and white chocolate would have been too sweet, if not for the hint of ginger. He takes a bigger bite and sighs in delight. “This is wonderful.”
“Oh really?” the happiness in her voice is evident. “I was… I wondered if you’d like it.”
“May I have one more?”
In the fain glow of the moon, he sees her smile widen as she holds the box up. “This box is for you.”
“A small gift from a friend.”
Grinning, he accepts the box. “Thank you. That’s very sweet of you. But I don’t have anything to give you in return.”
She waves her hand in a dismissive gesture, “I made a bunch of cookies this evening, and I thought of you. So I just got some of it for you.”
“Thank you,” Zuko says. He wants to give her a hug for that simple, sweet gesture. He even raises his arm but stops half-way though and ruffles her hair instead. “And I’m sorry.”
“What are you apologizing for?” Katara asks as she walks over to the edge of her terrace and hoists herself on the ledge. Zuko puts the box of cookies on the ledge and joins her.
“For abandoning you. I of all people should know better than to leave you alone to battle the nights. I let my fucking insecurities get the better of me.”
“Zuko,” she says, and he thinks his name has never sounded better coming from any one else’s lips. She reaches over and lays her hand on his, sending jolts of electricity through him. “Trust me, I understand. I’m not mad at you. I cannot even begin to imagine what it is like for you. I get the feeling you haven’t had many friends.”
He is taken aback at how easily she has read him. “No. I was a loner as a child. The only friends I had while growing up were really my sister’s friends. And after,” he points at the left side of his face. “I withdrew completely. If you’d come to my terrace two years ago, you would have met a very different person.”
“Well, I like the person I met,” she says. Zuko tells himself not to read too much into the statement. Or the fact that their hands are still joined.
He clears his throat and says, “You still haven’t told me what you were scared of.”
He can hear her smile, “You won’t let it go, will you?”
“I have not spoken about it to anyone,” she still has not withdrawn her hand. Zuko turns his hand over and wraps his fingers around her palm. “Please don’t mind, Zuko, I am not ready to talk about it yet. I will tell you. Some day. Not today.”
He nods in understanding. “Is it the reason you don’t sleep?”
“Yes,” she says. “Can I ask why you don’t sleep?”
He takes a deep breath and shuffles a bit. Unlike Katara, his story was known to many people. Given his family, it had been a much-publicized event. Even strangers knew about it. If Katara so much as googled his full name, she would find the truth. He sees no reason to keep it a secret, “My scar,” he says after a bit. “I was fourteen years old, when we had a house fire. My mother and I were the only ones in the house, when there was an electrical fire. While trying to reach my mom, I got burned. I have a scar here too,” he says pointing at his chest. “I passed out from the pain and the fire men rescued me. My mother never even managed to get up from the bed. The fire started in her room. She died of carbon -monoxide poisoning. She was burned in the bed.”
“Oh my God! Zuko!” Before he can understand what is happening, Katara slides down the ledge and throws her arms around his neck. “I’m so sorry to hear that.”
Zuko does not even realize when his eyes close, or when his arms go around her waist. He draws her closer and lays his head against her shoulders. A sob lodges itself in his throat, and Zuko breathes deeply.
Chapter 6: Chapter 6
Meet Azula, Suki and Sokka
This is mostly a filler chapter to introduce the siblings. We’ll be back to Zutara nightly chats back again soon. Thank you for all the love and support. A quick update on what’s happening with the other fics.
Broken Hearts and Shattered Breaths: Expect an update by the end of this week. I plan to finish this fic soon.
Subterfuge: On a brief hiatus. Will be back with book 2 soon.
Zuko climbs down the stairs and makes his way into the spacious kitchen. Pouring a glass of orange juice, he saunters into the living room, only to have his spirits dampened due to the sight that meets his eyes.
“What are you doing here?” He asks, flopping into a Lazy Boy chair.
“Well, hello to you too, brother,” Azula says, barely looking up from her phone.
“You didn’t answer my question,” he snaps.
“You don’t miss much, huh Zuzu?”
He huffs and picks up the remote to switch on the TV. After spending a wonderful night talking to Katara, Zuko lay down on his mat at three. Surprisingly, he slept almost immediately and stayed asleep till seven twenty. As a result, he woke up feeling more refreshed than he had in a long time. He helped himself to a couple of cookies, before heading down, only to have all the joy sucked out of him. He casts a glance at Azula, wondering what she wants. She is dressed in a red off-shoulder, midriff top, and a pair of black leather pants that sits on her like a second skin. Her hair is tied in a ponytail, with her trademark strands framing her face from both sides. She has gold hoop earrings and bangles. Her makeup is, as usual, flawless. Since she was almost always dressed to the nines, Zuko could not even begin to guess the reason she was here.
“Is he here?” Zuko asked, unable to stop himself.
“Nope,” she says, her red nails make a tapping noise as her fingers fly across her phone screen, typing out a text.
Zuko wants to shake her to ask what she is here for, but he knows from experience that all that would earn him is a raised eyebrow and a smirk. Instead Zuko asks again, “What are you doing here?”
Azula looks up and pointedly rolls her eyes. “You don’t give up, do you?”
“Can’t I come to visit my dumb brother and my fuddy duddy uncle?”
The answers, “Of course you can,” and, “No,” come at the same time from two different directions.
Iroh shoots an annoyed look at Zuko as he sits on a free chair, and then smiles at his niece. “Azula is here for a case.”
Zuko suppresses a groan. As a lawyer, Azula is fierce and unrelenting. A child prodigy, she is the youngest person to ever graduate from the Avatar Roku Law School and is well on her way to becoming a partner at their family’s law firm. Technically, so is Zuko, but he is more of a shareholder than a partner. But her being here for a case means that she can stay here for days. He feels like he has swallowed a lemon.
“Are you staying here for long?”
Azula gives a click of her tongue, “Nah. I’m headed back tomorrow evening. Just here for an arraignment.”
“Staying here tonight?” Zuko hopes he does not sound too eager to get rid of her. Azula, while not an insomniac, is a light sleeper. With her in the house, it would take him all his training to sneak out to the terrace. He has no intentions of letting Azula meet Katara. Ever.
“Can’t wait to get rid of me, huh? Too bad I am staying put tonight. Where else would a defenseless girl like me stay?”
Zuko is thankful he is not drinking his juice at that moment for he would have spray painted the table and have orange juice up his nose. A black belt in Taekwondo, trained in Krav Maga, and a master markswoman, Azula was anything but defenseless. In fact, Zuko pities the person idiotic enough to take her on. He is trained in MMA too, but he has to give it his everything to even stand a chance to spar with her, while she looks like she is barely trying. He makes a mental note to send a text to Katara that he most likely cannot come to the terrace tonight because a she-demon has descended on him.
Katara looks up in dismay as it appears that the sky has spung a hole, and the deluge wants to swallow the surroundings in its watery maw. Suki peers out of the shaded bus stop and pops a bubble with the gum she is chewing.
“Well fuck,” she says. “Now the bus will be delayed.”
“Maybe we should call Sokka?” Katara says. “He could come and pick us up?”
Suki shakes her head, “Sokka is in the train today, remember? Repairs and stuff. He is not allowed to have a phone there.”
Katara groans and wipes her eyes. “Oh yeah. Shit. What do we do now?”
“We just stay here,” Suki says and leans against the wall, crossing her arms across her chest. Katara looks at her friend, who is dressed in the yellow tank-top and denim shorts. Her copper hair is cut in a short bob, a golden colored fan is tattooed under her right collar bone. That this gorgeous girl is her goofy brother’s girlfriend, is the eight wonder of the world in Katara’s opinion. It doesn’t hurt that the two women get along like house on fire.
“I don’t mind. I love rains,” Katara says, “But you’re the one who has the party later today.”
“The one that I have zero intentions of attending,” Suki replies, grinning. “I have to actually put on a dress. Shudder.”
Katara smiles, “So what? You intend to tell them that you got stuck in the rain and that’s why you couldn’t come?”
“Bingo,” Suki replied. “Although, that black car might foil my plans.”
With a frown Katara turns around to see a familiar black car rear up to the bus stop. The window facing them lowers and he peers out, making Katara’s stomach do a lazy flipflop. She bends down to look at him, making sure she is still under the awning of the busstop to avoid getting wet.
“Katara? Need a lift?”
“Zuko! What are you doing here?”
“My sister needed a ride. I just dropped her,” he replies. Katara recalls the text he sent earlier about not being able to make it that night because his sister showed up unannounced. She was rather taken aback at the disappointment those words brought. Unaware that her stomach is doing loop-de-loops under his golden gaze, he asks, “Where are you headed?”
“Home,” she replies, curling her fingers to stop them from trembling. Katara is overwhelmed by the euphoria she is feeling at seeing him unexpectedly like this.
“Oh good, I’m going home too. Hop in.”
Getting into a closed space with him, is both scary and thrilling at the same time. Katara swallows, “I… I have a friend with me.”
“Your friend can join in,” he says easily.
Katara tells herself to stop being silly and asks Suki to join in. The girl winks at Katara before settling in the backseat while Katara gets into the front seat. In the terrace, the conversation they have flows easily. But here, in the presence of another, Katara finds herself at a loss for words. Zuko puts his foot to the pedal and the car zooms. His car smells like him, a heady mix of that aftershave and smoke. The smell does things to her. Things she is entirely unprepared for. The silence stretches as Katara tries to control her wayward thoughts and emotions. What is wrong with me? She curses herself. Why am I behaving like a love struck teen on having her first crush?
Suki pipes up suddenly to cut the awkward silence, “I’m Suki. Katara’s roommate from college.”
Katara cringes, realizing her lapse.
“Zuko,” he says, with a nod. “Katara’s neighbor.”
“Oh you are that richie rich guy Sokka told me about?”
Zuko’s eyebrow raises but he says, “I… I suppose.”
Suki frowns and taps her chin in a way that makes the alarm bells ring in Katara’s mind. She suspects something, Katara knows, “You know what’s funny? Sokka is planning to invite you guys over for dinner this weekend to for introductions. But looks like the idea is pointless, huh? You both obviously know each other.”
“Yeah, we’ve met,” Katara says hoping to get Suki off her back. It is not that her and Zuko are not doing anything wrong, but she does not want Suki to know about them. What they have feels like something private. Something she shares with just him and does not want the world to know yet.
Evidently, he is thinking along the same lines for he says, “Toph is a mutual friend.”
“Ah! That explains a lot,” Suky says. But Katara knows that the second they are alone a hundred questions will come her way.
“What were you here?” Zuko asks and nods at Katara, “I’d think you’d be at work.”
“It’s my day off,” she says. “I worked over the weekend, so comp day.”
“I work nearby. Not that you want to know about that,” Suki adds with a knowing grin.
Katara wants to kill herself.
Zuko’s lip twitches with a suppressed smile and he says, “Work? In denim shorts? When and where can I apply?”
Katara chuckles while Suki throws her head back in laughter. “I’m a marital arts instructor. I can wear whatever I want when not teaching.”
“Really? What do you teach?”
“Nice,” he says, nodding. “We should spar sometimes. I have not had a good sparring partner in a while.”
“MMA,” he replies.
The two of them lapse into an easy conversation about their shared interest, while Katara feels something nasty swirl within her. She does not like the effortless camaraderie that the two of them share. Katara grits her teeth and looks out of the window, keeping her head away from Zuko. When the car stops in front of their house, it is all Katara can do to not jump out of the car and run away. The rain has let up and she is just about stepping out of the car when she hears Suki say, “Why don’t you join us for a coffee, Zuko?”
“Uhhh… yeah, sure.”
Katara marches to the house and fishes out her keys. Before she can put it in the lock, however, the door is opened and Sokka grins.
“Welcome home, Sis.”
“Sokka? What are you doing home so soon?”
He shrugs, “Got done with work early so came home.”
Suki walks up to Sokka and does the introduction, “Sokka, this is Zuko. Zuko, this is Sokka.”
The two men shake their hands and Sokka says, “Come on in, buddy. You’re our neighbor right?”
“Well, come in for a coffee. I was just about starting.”
Something is wrong with Katara. Her shoulders are taut, her lips are thin, and her eyes have narrowed. She isn’t speaking, nor is she looking at him. Zuko does not like that, even though he is having a nice time with her brother and Suki, who he suspects is Sokka’s girlfriend, based on the looks the two are exchanging. But Katara is not here. At least not mentally. She has a frown on her face and is giving off an almost icy vibe. He wants those incredible blue eyes on him. But instead she is looking at nothing.
Zuko, on the other hand, is having a tough time keeping his eyes to himself. Dressed in a blue top and white lacy skirt, Katara is looking far too pretty. Giving himself a mental shake, Zuko concentrates on the conversation around him when he hears Sokka call his name. He has no idea what the man has asked and he licks his lips, wondering what to do.
“No,” he replies, hoping that answers the question. He is quickly proven wrong when Suki snickers and Sokka shakes his head, smiling.
“Zuko,” Sokka says leaning forward. “I mean I know you’re the expert, but I somehow doubt that your thesis subject is No.”
Despite himself, Zuko laughs. He wonders why he is not embarrassed or awkward. If Azula had said the same thing, he would have been furious. But this man, whom he just met, said it in a way that was truly funny.
“Sorry,” Zuko says, rubbing the back of his neck. “You caught me woolgathering.”
Sokka looks at Katara and back at him, grinning, “Yeah, I know the wool you were gathering.”
“What?” he says while in the background, he hears Suki’s palm meet her face.
Chapter 7: Chapter 7
This one should be done in another 4-5 chapters. I never intended for this one to be too long anyway. Just a tiny, lighthearted breezy romance.
I plan on updating BHASB by Friday/Saturday.
Subterfuge will be sometime next week.
What happened to you?
Katara glances at her phone, reading and rereading the text sent by Zuko. She types out a reply and deletes it, types it again, and then deletes it again. She does not know what to say to him. How can she tell him that she did not like the way he spoke with Suki? She is alone in the house, with Sokka and Suki at the party and her dad is at Omashu for some business. She is sitting in her room, trying to sort her thoughts, her cup of coffee is now cold and the cigarette she is supposedly smoking is resting on the ashtray, burning up slowly, leaving a stick of undisturbed ash. Her head is buzzing, both from her confusion and her lack of sleep. Last night, after talking to Zuko, she had slept deeper than ever for three and a half hours. But her body remains exhausted.
“What is wrong with you, Katara?” she mutters, drumming her fingers on the table, staring at the text. “He is free to like whoever he wants.”
But the problem is, by admitting that, she also must admit the one thing she has actively been trying to deny. “No. No. I don’t like Zuko. I’m just worried about Sokka and Suki’s relationship.”
The second she says that to herself, her face twists in disgust. Sokka and Suki are madly in love and they only have eyes for each other. Zuko liking Suki would not threaten their relationship in any way. Suki will not fall for Zuko.
“You’re projecting, Katara,” she says looking at herself in the mirror on her closet. “You are projecting your feelings on Suki. And there, I admitted it. I like Zuko. And I am jealous. Happy?” she says to her reflection, which does not answer the question, unsurprisingly.
Did I do something? Her phone beeps with Zuko’s text again.
I’m sorry if I offended you in some way.
Please tell me what I did wrong so I can apologize properly.
At that message, Katara feels a twinge of regret within her. She is the one who is burning up with jealousy and she is punishing him for it. So what if he liked Suki? Suki was a stunning woman and any man would like her. If Zuko does like her, she will have to accept that. She does not get to punish him. Katara licks her lips and types out a half-truth.
No. No. You didn’t do anything. I just have a headache from not sleeping well.
Moments later, he replies, Ah okay. Yes. That I definitely understand.
Katara smiles. This is why she likes him. He knows.
She’s lying. Zuko knows instinctively. He is not sure how but he knows she is. Something has bothered her and he cannot help but think he is the cause of it somehow. The high from his good sleep earlier in the day has worn off and he is seeing stars. He wants to lay down and sleep, but his mind will not let him be. He is worried that he has somehow messed up the one relationship that has come to mean so much to him in such a short time.
Maybe that is the reason he is on the terrace at night. He has tiptoed over to the terrace and jumps over the ledge. Waiting for her. He tells himself that the yellow roses that he has in his hands are for an apology. Nothing else. There is no deeper meaning. She gave him cookies yesterday, he is giving her roses today. That works, right?
He perches next to the water tank and lights a smoke, trying not to notice the tremble in his hands. “Fuck, Zuko,” he tells himself. “You caught it bad.”
Katara lets out a yelp of surprise when she comes into the terrace later. “You? I thought you wouldn’t come.”
“I had to,” he says, jumping off the ledge. “How’s your headache?”
It is because she has her phone in her hand and the light from the screen is illuminating her face that he sees the confused frown on her face that she quickly changes as she remembers her lie. “I… it’s fine.”
“Katara,” he says, crossing his arms. “Do me a favor and stop bullshitting.”
“Look, if I hurt you in some way, I want you to tell me that honestly. Don’t try to spare my feelings, okay? I’m a grown man, I can handle the truth.”
She turns off her phone and hits it on her forehead a couple of times before pocketing it. “It’s not you, Zuko. It’s me. I’m being stupid.”
Zuko picks up the flowers and holds it out to her, suddenly not sure of anything he is doing. “I… I think… thought… I owe you… I owe you an apology so…”
“Oh, Zuko! That’s so sweet!” She smells the flowers and beams up at him, “Thank you. I love roses.”
Not knowing what else to do, he pulls on his cigarette. Overhead, he can make out the Big Dipper or Ursa Major. Ursa. The pang that comes with that is still raw, but not as bad as it has been in the past. HE is pretty sure it’s not just time that has lessened the pain. The girl standing in front of him, with her face buried in the roses he has given her has something to do with it.
“Sorry if I made things strange today,” Katara said after a while. “I… I don’t know what got into me.”
“Care to elaborate?”
Katara sighs and runs her hand over the roses, “I… Can I be honest, Zuko? I am not good at keeping these things to myself.”
“I… I was jealous.”
Zuko blinked, not sure what to make of the information. “What? What were you jealous of?”
Katara takes a deep breath and said, “The way you hit it off with Suki… I didn’t like it. I know… I’m being out of line but… I like you, Zuko. Like… really like you.”
Wait, what? Shock robs him of his words and Zuko is staring at her. As he watches, dumbfounded, she cringes and turns around. “Sorry, I’ll go.”
It is only when she has left the terrace that he realizes that she is gone. With a muttered curse, he stubs his smoke and runs after her. He thanks his lucky stars that she hasn’t locked the terrace door after herself as he races into the house. Once in, however, he pauses. He has no idea what to do. He is in her house without an invitation and it is rather creepy. But then, he hears her mutter to herself and realizes that her room is right next to the stairs. As though pulled by a string, he runs down the stairs. He sends out a prayer to whoever might be listening that Sokka or her dad did not decide to go for a midnight bathroom trip because he knows that the bathroom on that floor is right next to Katara’s room.
He reaches Katara’s door and finds her room illuminated by a table lamp. The roses are on the table and she is standing there, with her back to the door and head in her hands. Licking his lips, he knocks on the door. With a squeak, she turns around to find him standing there.
“Wh… Zuko? What are you doing here?”
“You left,” he said stepping inside. “Without completing the conversation.”
Katara holds her hands up and says, “I’ve made enough of an ass of myself, today. I’ve exhausted the quota for the month, in fact. Now please, let me die in my embarrassment.”
“What makes you think you made an ass of yourself?”
She looks up at him, confusion replacing the mortification on her face. “What?”
“You didn’t make an ass of yourself, Katara. I like you too. Really like you.”
Chapter 8: Chapter 8
POVs of both Zuko and Katara.
People have been asking about updates on this story and I have not been getting this chapter right. Finally, I am good. This is a short but important chapter. I’m enjoying writing this Modern Au more than I thought, tbh. That’s why, my Zutara week story is also modern Au. At least one of them is. The other is… well you’ll see.
I’ll leave a trigger warning for this chapter because Katara describes her trauma here. It is a tough one. So yeah.
Trigger Warning: Home invasion, death, trauma.
As the silence stretches, Zuko’s confidence falters. Katara is looking at him blankly, her eyes red from lack of sleep.
“Okay, wow, this is awkward,” he says, shuffling on his feet. “I should go before your dad or Sokka see me in your room.”
Katara blinks as though waking up from a trance, and says, “Oh… Umm… They’re not home. Dad is at Omashu and Sokka’s gone to Suki’s from the party.”
Zuko frowns, “Wait. They left you alone? Knowing that you don’t sleep at night and that you are terrified of something, they left you alone in the house for all night?”
Katara sighs, “It’s not as bad as it sounds. Suki lives just five minutes away. I can always call them if things get bad. And of course, there’s you.”
“Right. Of course.” Zuko does not pause to think because he knows that if he does, he will lose his nerve. He closes the distance between them and places his lips on hers. She gasps in surprise but just as he is about to pull back, she opens her lips to him. A jolt of electricity passes through him and he wraps his arms around her. She is soft and tiny against him, and Zuko thinks this is the best moment of his life. Then, as if to prove him wrong, she runs her fingers through his hair, her nails scraping gently against his scalp and Zuko is lost. His eyes are closed when they pull apart. He lays his head against her and runs her thumb on her cheek.
“You’re beautiful,” his voice comes out in a whisper.
She blushes and tucks her head into the crook of his neck, clutching on to his shirt. The two of them stand there, locked in each other’s embrace for a long time.
“My mom,” she says suddenly.
He takes a step back so he can look at her, while his hands are still on her waist, “What?”
“Come, sit,” she leads him to the bed, but then pauses, “Wai, you don’t like beds, right.”
Zuko smiles, touched that she remembers and lowers himself on the bed. He pats the spot next him and says, “I don’t sleep on beds. I can sit.”
He manages to contain his whoop of joy when she settles next to him and curls into him. “When I was eight, my grandma reconnected with her old lover and they decided to get married. Dad and Sokka went to the marriage. Mom and I were supposed to go too, but I had a fever, so mom decided to hang back. Dad and Sokka were meant to return the next day. But that night, someone came into our house. A burglar. I don’t think he was expecting anyone to be home. When she realized someone was home, Mom shoved me into the brooms closet and told me not to step out unless dad or she called me. That was the last time I saw her. The guy killed her,” her voice trembles and she shivers as she talks. Zuko tightens his grasp around her, horrified. “I saw him kill her. From the slats. Thanks to the fever, I could not scream. My mom’s dead body lay less than ten feet away from me. The man… he called for me, several times. Kid, come on out. Let’s have fun!”
She is sobbing, hysterically. Zuko pulls her on to his lap, unable to wrap his mind around the horror he feels. “He called me over and over again. I still hear his words, you know. I don’t know when he left the house. I… I stayed in the closet, ten feet away from mom’s dead body, till dad came back next afternoon.”
“Oh my God!” Zuko pulls her tightly against himself. He cannot even imagine what it would have been like for the little girl to sit in the closet for a whole day, watching her mother bleed slowly to death.
“I had years of therapy,” Katara says against his chest. “But even today, I get scared.”
“That’s no surprise,” he replies. “In fact, I would say you are much better adjusted. All things considered.”
Katara gives a weak chuckle and wipes her tears. “I still go to a therapist. I’m much more in control of my emotions. Just… I can’t sleep.”
Stuck by a sudden thought, he says, “Tell you what, I am going to stay here with you, till you fall asleep.”
“Zuko, you don’t have to. Your sister is home and –“
“I don’t give a fuck about her anyway,” he says as he lowers her on the bed and stretches next to her. “Lie down, sleep. I am not leaving you alone.”
“Thank you, Zuko,” she says as she shuffles closer to him. She arches into him and kisses him again. Zuko thinks he can definitely get used to it.
“Hey, what time do you go to work tomorrow?” He asks, twisting a strand of her hair in his fingers.
“Eight thirty, why?”
“I’ll drop you off.”
“What? No, Zuko, you don’t have to.”
“No. But I want to. I’m dropping you off and that’s final.”
“Okay,” she says and burrows into him.
Zuko does not know when he falls asleep. When he wakes up, Katara is in his arms and the sky is a different color. This is the first time in years that he has slept on a bed, without any nightmares, and he cannot even complain that he is late. Very late.
Katara settles into the passenger seat of Zuko’s car and leans over to give him a quick peck on his cheeks. “Things go alright when you got home?”
Zuko shrugs. “Azula knew I wasn’t home all night.”
“Oh, ouch,” she says.
He waves a hand and starts to drive, “Eh, don’t worry about it. She was curious as to where I was. I just said I went out. She knows I don’t sleep so didn’t ask any more questions. Did kinda throw some shade during breakfast. How are you doing?”
Katara shrugs, trying not show the euphoria she feels at just sitting next to him. He likes me. He really likes me. She has been chanting those words like a mantra. When she woke up this morning, in his arms, feeling like she has slept better than ever before. Last night, telling him about what had happened to her, was an experience she had not been prepared for. Today she feels as though she can finally breathe.
The car comes to a halt in front of her office and Zuko squeezes her knee and brushes his lips under her earlobe. “I’ll pick you up later, okay?”
For the next ten days, Zuko comes to her room and they sleep. In each other’s arms. For the first time in years, Katara sleeps for six hours in the night, without being plagued by nightmares. She has never felt better. On the eleventh day, she is woken up from her sleep by a loud voice yelling, “What the fuck?”
She wakes up to find Sokka gaping at her and Zuko.
Chapter 9: Chapter 9
Zuko, Katara and Sokka have a conversation. Hakoda and Iroh chime in later.
Not much left here. Maybe one or two more chapters. What I wanted to do with this story has been achieved. This is a tiny little chapter, I know. But I wasn’t actually planning to upload anything this week. I have been a bit under the weather. But then, inspiration struck and I typed this all out in one sitting. Hope you have fun with this little, but fun chapter.
“Uh… Sokka… this… this isn’t what it looks like,” Zuko says, feeling his face heat up.
Sokka raises his brows and crosses his arms. “You mean to say you’re not sleeping with my sister?”
“Oi, Zuko!” Katara snaps. “We’re not sleeping together.”
“We technically are.”
“What does that even mean?” Sokka asks. “And how come you’re in Katara’s room?”
“I’m in her bed, which is kind of in her room.”
“What do you mean technically?” Sokka yells.
“Sokka! Why are you even in my room? Don’t you have anything else to do?” Katara shrieks.
Zuko runs a hand over his face, trying to think over the shouty siblings. “Stop!” he screams. “God, I can’t hear myself think! Katara, one second. Sokka, I’m in her room because we are both insomniac.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Sokka asks.
Zuko shakes his head, “Sokka… can I at least freshen up and drink a cup of coffee? I’ll explain when I’m a bit more awake?”
“Uh no. I want an explanation now.”
“No,” Katara says as she stands up. “Here’s what’s going to happen. You are going to go down and fix both of us nice steaming cups of coffee. We are going to freshen up and then come down. There we will talk. About boundaries. And then, if and only if you understand it properly, will we have a conversation about what’s happening here?”
“Boundaries? You’re talking about boundaries? You who reads my mails on a regular basis? That’s rich,” Sokka replies with narrowed eyes.
“Not my fault that you never sign out of a single computer and keep like a thousand tabs open at all times.”
“So just close the damn tabs!”
“Close the damn tabs!” Katara mimics, “You had porn going on in one of those tabs. I wanted to pour bleach on my computer that day.”
“Okay! TMI,” Zuko says, pushing himself off the bed and standing up. “You don’t discuss a guy’s porn in front of another guy, Katara.”
“Yes, thank you. But, you’re both dressed,” Sokka says, pointing at both.
“Astute observation,” sarcasm drips heavy from Katara’s voice.
“But Zuko said you guys were sleeping together?”
“Yes, sleeping,” Zuko replies. “Just sleeping. If you would stop thinking about the euphemism and think in literal terms, it would make sense to you.”
Katara looks heavenward, and throws her arms up, “Can we please have this conversation later? Sokka, down. Coffee. Now.”
“Whatever,” he says with a handwave and walks out.
“Sorry you had to see that,” Katara says. “Sokka is a weirdo.”
“It’s fine,” Zuko says, sniggering a little. “It was funny.”
“My interactions with my sibling are… strained. Azula and I don’t have a very good relationship. It is wonderful to see a normal sibling relationship.”
“Zuko,” Katara says, tying her hair into a bun, “Siblings are a pain in the ass.”
He simply chuckles. “So, what are we going to say downstairs?”
Sometime later, Zuko and Katara sit across Sokka, Hakoda, and Iroh with cups of coffee in their hands.
“What are you doing here, Uncle?” Zuko asks.
“Why don’t you tell me?” He asks. “Why were you in this young lady’s room?”
Zuko takes a deep breath. He can deflect everyone else, but not his Uncle. He needs to speak the truth. He casts a look at Katara, who gives a small nod, and then he begins, “We are both insomniacs. We have spent nights upon nights just staring into the dark. It gets lonely. Exhausting. And frankly, depressing.”
“Nights get even more oppressive when we can hear other people in the house sleeping,” Katara adds, “Which is why we both spent a lot of time in the terrace. That’s how we met each other.”
Zuko licks his lips and continues, “I won’t go into detail about what happened, but we ended up spending a lot of time together. It just so happens that we discovered that when we are together, we can sleep.”
“For the first time in years, we are sleeping,” Katara says, looking straight at her father. “I can’t explain what a relief it has been. For both of us.”
“I’m sleeping in a bed. For the first time in years,” Zuko adds. “She is not scared of the nights. For the first time in years. I’m not going to apologize for that.”
“Me neither,” Katara answers. “I like Zuko. We are dating and I’m not apologizing for that either.”
Their proclamation is met with silence. As the three stare on, Zuko feels his confidence falter.
“You guys totally rehearsed this speech, didn’t you?” Sokka says after a while.
Katara gives a half-smile, “Yes, we did.”
Hakoda gives a weary sigh, “Katara, I don’t have a problem with you dating anyone. And Zuko is a perfectly nice boy. I do have a problem with him coming into my house without me knowing about it, though.”
“But dad –“ Katara begins, but Zuko holds her hand, making her stop.
“You’re right, Sir. That was wrong of me. And for that, I would apologize. I am sorry.”
“As for you both dating,” Sokka says, “We’ve known about it for a while.”
“What?” the two of them echo.
“Nephew,” Iroh asks with a gleam in his eyes. “Did you forget about the security camera that you had installed in the terrace when you moved in with me?”
“Why do you think Katara was in Jasmine Dragon to begin with?” Hakoda asks.