It’s well past ten o’clock when the knock comes.
Zuko squints at the front door, reluctant to move from the couch. It’s probably a mistake, he thinks. They’ll stop eventually.
The knocking does not stop.
“Hey, Zuko! Open up!” a woman yells, her voice ever so slightly familiar. With a groan, Zuko pulls himself to his feet and shuffles over to the door, where whoever it is continues to knock like they’re trying out as a replacement drummer for Rush.
“I’m coming! I’m coming! Jesus,” he calls, unlatching the chain and yanking the door open—only to slam it shut once he sees who it is.
“Oh, come on, Zuko!” Katara calls from the hallways, she’s got to be drunk by the slurred edge in her voice.
“You’ve got the wrong apartment!” he snaps over his shoulder, pressing against the door like he’s trying to fend off a horde of zombies instead of one 23-year-old software engineer.
“Zuko, I promise I have a good reason to be here,” Katara is saying, still absently thudding her fist against the door.
He scoffs. “You’re here to be a life-destroying mess and embarrass me in front of the neighbours.”
“Well could you please let me in so I can at least explain why I’m embarrassing you in front of the neighbours?”
The absolute nerve of her to show up. “Isn’t it enough for you to have ruined my relationship? Do you have to rub it in now?” Zuko exhales through puffed cheeks. “It’s been a year, Katara. You won. I’m over it, I have no beef, I just genuinely never want to see you or Jet ever again.”
He groans exaggeratedly. “Okay, fine! What do you want—my blessing? Fine: you have my blessing. I hope you have lots of redheaded kids.”
There’s a strangled sob from the other side of the door, and something in Zuko’s chest lurches.
“That’s kind of the thing,” Katara sniffs, quieter now, as if she thinks he’s gone.
Zuko hangs his head. Don’t do this, man. Do not engage. You know it’ll only end badly.
He pulls the door open anyway.
Katara stumbles into the apartment, looking for all the world like a 90’s grunge music video model. She’s wearing a tank top and ripped jean shorts, along with a faded oversize flannel shirt that looks more than a little familiar.
“Woah,” Zuko recoils as she passes him. “Did you fall into an entire distillery?”
Katara raises the mostly-empty bottle of gin she’s holding without turning around. “I wish,” she slurs, swaying on her feet. “Hey, can I sit down?”
She doesn’t wait for him to say yes, traipsing to the living room and pitching face first onto the couch. Zuko folds his arms across his chest as he circles around to stand in front of the coffee table.
“So are you going to tell me what you’re doing here?”
Katara turns to face him and goes to take another drink, but hasn’t taken the cap off the bottle, so she just thunks it into her mouth. “Ow,” she grimaces.
Zuko rolls his eyes and takes the bottle from her, examining the label with a raised eyebrow. “Huh. I like this gin.” He opens the cap and downs the rest of it, grimacing as the warm alcohol burns down his throat. “It’s much nicer in a cocktail, though.”
Katara turns over onto her back. “You would know, if I recall,” she mumbles, her tone halfway between apologetic and snide.
He folds his arms across his chest, breathing slow and calm. “Why are you here, Katara?”
She sighs dramatically. “Okay, Zuko, I owe you an apology,” she blurts, just a hair too loud.
Zuko nearly bursts out laughing. “Oh, this is good ,” he seethes. “Okay, I accept your apology. Now get out of my apartment, and do me the favour of never contacting me again.”
Katara covers her face with her hands and groans. “Fuck, okay, well, yeah, I’m obviously sorry that I broke up you and Jet,” she sighs, dropping her hands and looking up at him with eyes like bright blue saucers. “I swear I didn’t realize how close you guys were until it was too late.”
“Bullshit,” Zuko retorts. “You could have asked . You could have checked. You could have done literally any due diligence.”
“I fucked up, okay?!” Katara cries. “You’re right about absolutely all of this. At some point I chose selective ignorance, and it was a royally shitty thing to do, and I swear I’ve never done anything like that before. I don’t know why it happened.” She covers her eyes with one arm. “Jet was just the guy across the hall, until he wasn’t.”
Zuko takes a deep breath, inhaling and exhaling on silent counts of five. “I’ve spent a lot of time getting over this, Katara,” he says evenly. “I’m in a good place right now. I reactivated my Tinder profile, I’ve established myself at the new bar, I’m reading Umberto Eco. I feel like I’ve pretty successfully closed the door on one of the most humiliating moments of my life, and I have no interest in reopening it.”
“Well, I’d like to know if you have any tips on getting to that good place,” Katara mutters thickly, “because he cheated on me too.”
Zuko freezes. “You’re joking.”
Katara scowls, leaping up and whirling to face him and only stumbling a little bit. “I am not a soulless harpy, Zuko! I made a mistake, and now I’m paying for it. What went around has officially come around.” she spins her fingers as if to demonstrate, and then bursts out crying, sinking back onto the couch and burying her face in the sleeves of the flannel.
Against his better judgement, Zuko crosses the room to his bar set and pours two shots of Hendrick’s Midsummer Solstice, carrying them back and handing one glass to Katara.
“Here,” he says. “This is real gin.”
Katara takes the shot and knocks it back effortlessly, setting the shot glass gently on the nearest coaster—a gesture that Zuko finds strangely touching, considering how drunk she is and how much animosity is clearly left between them. It knocks him off his guard just enough that he swallows the indignation at seeing the Solstice treated like bottom-shelf gin, finding that it’s replaced with a dangerous and irresponsible seed of curiosity.
Don’t ask, Zuko. Don’t do it.
He takes a proper sip of the Summer Solstice, but after a second thought he downs it in one go, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. “Fine. What happened?”
“He’s at a convention in Nashville, or at least that’s what I thought ,” Katara mumbles. “I went to use his computer to print something, and I saw some—messages.” Her face goes ashen, and for a second it looks like she might throw up, but instead she just cradles her head in her hands. “He’s pulling the same moves, Zuko. That he and I are just casual, that he’s just never felt this way about anyone— everything . He even got her to send him the same erotic selfie.”
He furrows his brow. “What erotic s—”
“—that’s not important!” Katara snaps, dissolving back into silent sobs buried in the sleeves of the shirt. “What is important is that he’s manipulating some girl the same way he manipulated me, and I’m being gaslit and lied to the same way you were. I don’t even think he’s rewritten some of those texts; I’m pretty sure he just copy-pasted them from our message history.”
Zuko sucks in air through his teeth, his throat suddenly tight. “Well,” he croaks, sinking onto the couch beside her, “at least it’s good to know it wasn’t personal?”
Katara shrugs. “See? I’m brightening the situation already.”
It’s been one year, three weeks, and six days since the second-worst experience of Zuko’s life so far. It’s been long enough that he’s achieved plenty of milestones that he can entirely call his own, free from the now-poisoned well of heartbreak and depression that drowned him for so many months. It’s been long enough that he’s stepped into the sunlight of a brand new chapter of his life. It’s been long enough that he’s almost— almost —stopped counting the days.
And, he realizes with a sinking feeling, it’s been long enough that he can empathize with what Katara’s going through.
The revelation drives him back to the bar, where he swipes a less expensive bottle of Hendricks and uncorks it, taking a nice long drink as he returns to the couch. “I’m sorry you’ve gone through that,” he says as he sits down beside her, offering her the bottle. “I know for a fact that it royally fucking sucks.”
Katara nods, reaching over and taking a swig. “‘Royally fucking sucks’ just barely describes it.”
Zuko takes another very long drink and then stares off into the distance, slowly opening the floodgate of memory to let a small stream through. “Let me guess: you’re thinking back on every promise he so easily made to you, and you’re starting to question all of them, even the ones that felt really really real.”
She responds with a heaving sob, and with a resigned huff Zuko reaches over and lightly pats her on the back. It’s so awkward that for a moment it feels like he’s sixteen again. He drinks some more, mentally steeling his resolve and his liver for the night to come.
“D-did you have this...this little seed of doubt in your mind for a while? And y-you don’t remember when it started, but it’s been itching at you, and you’ve thought—” Katara sniffs. “—that maybe you just need to spend m-more time together, and…”
“...and then things will go back to normal? Yeah,” Zuko sighs. “That one’s really rough to process. Honestly, I advise that you get a therapist sooner instead of later. I think I have Nina’s card around here somewhere—”
“Jet is a jerk ,” Katara proclaims, her tears suddenly replaced with slurred indignance—and either she’s sobering up, or Zuko’s finally caught up to her, and he can’t really tell which. When he nods, his head lolls a little bit.
“Extremely a jerk, yes,” he confirms, blinking as the gin hits.
“He’s unfaithful, he’s arrogant, he’s mean , he lies, he always thinks he knows what’s best,” Katara counts on her fingers, looking up at him with a furrowed brow. “God, why did I even fall for that guy?!”
Zuko sighs wistfully. “I mean, he was charming, he was determined, and...listen, he was—”
“— great in bed,” Katara finishes with him with a groan, flopping back against the couch. “Yeah.”
“There was that. I’m still mad at you for taking that away from me, by the way.”
“Listen, those good times didn’t last. Hence, y’know,” she gestures to herself. “And honestly, I’m part of the reason. I pushed him away.”
“Oh, I’m sure you didn’t do that,” Zuko recites, blinking in mild surprise at the modicum of honesty in his voice.
“Ah, but I did,” Katara mumbles. “I’m just barely drunk enough to be honest with you: I have lost sleep over what I did, and I was never able to trust Jet when I found out, and I just—ugh. I’m so sorry, Zuko.” She buries her face in her hands again, and for a moment there’s nothing but the sound of his heartbeat in his ears.
“To be honest, you never struck me as a homewrecker,” Zuko eventually says, exhaling as he feels the lift of invisible weights that he didn’t even know he’d been carrying. He fiddles with the rim of the bottle. “But then, I guess Jet and I were never really in a home to wreck in the first place. I think I hoped that would happen, but...I also think part of me knew it wasn’t going to.”
There’s a beat of silence—not awkward, but not amicable either—and then Katara sits up, wiping her eyes on her sleeves.
“I thought a lot about what I’d say to you, if—if I ever saw you again. And then I found out about Jet, and suddenly I was in an Uber on my way here and I realized I couldn’t remember any of them.”
Zuko swallows. “Wait, you literally just found out? Does anyone else know?”
She shakes her head. “Nope. Not yet. Jet gets home tonight, and I won’t be able to pretend I don’t know. So before my life goes to hell, I’m here to appeal to whatever heartbroken pettiness you might still be processing. Because I sure could use a buddy right now, and I don’t particularly feel like self-destructing around anyone who actually respects me.” Katara hiccups, grabbing the bottle from his hands and taking a swig. “So my question—more of an olive branch, really—is this.” She holds up a set of keys.
Zuko cocks his good eyebrow. “...keys?”
“Keys to Jet’s place, more specifically.”
He feels his heart rate increase. “He still has my good cocktail set,” he blurts.
Katara’s smile widens. “Wanna go get it back?”
“Obviously, but why come all the way downtown to ask me?”
She twirls the keys around her finger. “We both know that Jet’s apartment is, like, half the reason we wanted to hang out around him. I live across the hall and I still fell for it.”
Zuko exhales. “It’s so beautiful.”
“And we both know that it’s a den of iniquity and lies, and also happens to be his pride and joy. And I can’t really lie...I kinda want to trash the place.”
“ What ?”
Her eyes are sparkling, a smirk lifting the edge of her lip. “Yeah. Don’t you just want to destroy all his stupid stuff? Just for a little catharsis?”
Zuko purses his lips. “I feel like I just talked a whole lot about how I’ve finally moved on, but…” he exhales. “God, that does sound fun.”
“Yes! Yes. Yes. Let’s do it.” Katara grins. “ Jet isn’t expecting to come home to the wrath of one ex, let alone two, so this time let’s make the lesson stick.”
The elevator ride up to Jet’s apartment is like every surreal heartbroken dream Zuko ever had all rolled into one, compounded by his buzz. They snuck a flask of way smoother gin into the Uber, so he’s reached the point where everything feels like a pretty hilarious idea. Part of what had hurt so much about the breakup was that Katara had seemed like a pretty cool girl, the few times she attended Jet’s parties before it all went to hell. The fact that those parties turned into a pretense for sleeping with his boyfriend had soured those memories somewhat, but as she leads the way through the halls, Zuko has to admit that he doesn’t mind this version of Katara as much. She’s just as vulnerable and determined and charming and intelligent as she’d seemed back then, but they’re no longer opponents—and it’s pretty nice to be on the same team, especially against Jet.
Katara casts a furtive glance around before unlocking the door. “I don’t know why I’m doing that,” she mutters, “it’s not like anyone knows we’re broken up yet. I mean, I guess you do.” She stands aside to let Zuko inside.
Jet’s place looks basically the same; the couch has gotten a little rattier, and the antique French train poster is gone from the wall over the mantlepiece, but otherwise it’s as if no time has passed at all, and against his will Zuko feels a lump of emotion form in his throat.
“Your cocktail set is over there, in the cabinet,” Katara says, rolling up the sleeves of the flannel. She flicks on the overhead light and suddenly it hits him.
“Wait—that’s my shirt!”
She pauses, looking down at the flannel. “...are you sure?”
Zuko walks over and pulls up the collar, examining the laundry tag. “Yeah,” he says, “those are my initials.”
Katara turns to look over her shoulder, her cheek brushing against his hand. “Huh. Jet gave it to me.” She pulls away, tugging on the shirt. “Do you want it back?”
Zuko considers it, and then sighs. “It suits you.”
“Right?! I always thought so,” Katara grins, spreading her hands. “Now, what else do you want to keep or steal? Let’s make a pile, we can stash the stuff at my place before we get to work.”
He thinks for a moment. “He has a set of Boards of Canada vinyl that I technically bought for him, but I’m no longer in a giving mood. In fact…” he looks around. “I also gave him that Art Deco owl statue, and those crystal coasters. Oh, and the antique typewriter too.”
Katara cocks an eyebrow. “Jesus, you just pointed out all my favourite things in this room,” she chuckles awkwardly as she starts grabbing objects off various surfaces.
Zuko feels his cheeks burn. “Uh. Cool?” he turns around, stooping to gather his beloved cocktail set into his arms. That wretched jerk hasn’t dusted you in months, look at you poor things—
“So, um—” Katara stammers, shifting the pile of items in her arms. “Again, I’m so sorry about everything. I thought you were kinda cool, the few times we hung out—”
“—Katara, you don’t need to do this,” Zuko reaches over and takes the typewriter off the top of the pile, tucking it under his arm. “I’m here, I’m drunk, let’s fuck some shit up already.”
When she grins, her whole face lights up. That’s neat.
“Okay, let me take this stuff across the hall, I’ll just toss it behind the door for now.”
Zuko feels the blood drain from his face, and he recoils, nearly dropping the typewriter as he clutches the cocktail set protectively to his chest. “You’ll just toss —” he wheezes, but Katara rolls her eyes.
“Okay, fine , you diva, hang on, Jet’s got a huge stash of tote bags—” she disappears into the kitchen; there’s the sound of violent rummaging, and then she returns with about twenty canvas bags looped over her arms like a pair of demented eco-friendly wings.
Zuko snorts with laughter. “What the fuck is all of that nonsense? We had five bags, tops. Two people don’t need any more than that.”
“Thank god Jet couldn’t cook for shit,” she shrugs, depositing the bags on the floor in front of the couch. “He brought home Whole Foods all the time, and he never remembered to bring the bags back with him, so he just kept buying more.”
“Unbelievable,” Zuko exhales. “That’s because I did almost all of the cooking.”
Katara furrows her brow. “So, hang on—does that mean you made those amazing canapés at that party? The ones with the super sweet caramelized onions?”
He puffs out his chest. “Made the confit from scratch.”
Something flashes across Katara’s eyes—and then she shakes her head and starts stacking items in bags. “Come on,” she says, “I’ll gently set these things in my apartment and then we can get to the real work.”
While she slips across the hall with their hoard, Zuko wanders up the hall, and spends more time than he’d rather admit staring at the invitingly ajar bedroom door.
“Zuko? You ready?” Katara pops back in, locking the door behind her and rolling up the sleeves of the flannel a few times. “I don’t have a baseball bat or anything, so we’re gonna have to do this the old-fashioned way.”
He blinks. “The old-fashioned way?”
Katara purses her lips and turns to the massive basil plant on the table by the door. Once upon a time, Zuko had nursed the leaves back to life and made every kind of pesto dish imaginable; now he watches her pull the vase forward to the edge of the table, taking a dainty step back as it tips over and shatters onto the floor, sending soil and pottery everywhere.
Zuko realizes he’s gasped, and when Katara turns around her eyes are positively shining. They stare at each other in shock and terrified glee for a few seconds, and then Zuko takes a deep breath, nods to himself, and pulls the nearest photo off the wall and whips it onto the floor; it hits with a loud crack and splinters into a couple of pieces.
“We should keep our shoes on,” Katara observes somberly.
He hears himself cackle, and he breaks two more cheap frames over his knee, tossing the debris over his shoulder without looking back. Katara flashes him a smile that’s brighter than sunlight, and against his will Zuko can’t help but wonder if this side of her is what made Jet choose to walk away.
“It is a shame,” Katara sighs, “I do love this place.”
Zuko tips over a vase of glass pebbles, rolling his eyes. “I can’t believe I let Jet get away with this stuff,” he scoffs. “I was going to replace a whole bunch of this junk, once we got settled in together.”
He exhales in a huff as the emotions rise to his mind, mere scratches now instead of weeping wounds. “Last winter I declined to renew my lease so I could move in here, because I mean, ” he gestures around him, “obviously I was gonna move in here. I was already spending lots of time here anyway, and our stuff had started to mingle, and it all seemed to make sense. But then you moved in a month or two later, and then…” he trails off.
Katara’s face is unreadable, her eyes huge and shining. She opens the gorgeous antique cabinet that holds all of Jet’s grandmother’s fine china, pulls a stack of dinner plates off a shelf, and starts whipping them at the floor with increasing fervor. When she finishes with the plates, she grabs and smashes the soup bowls, then the saucers, then the teacups, stepping over the growing pile of shattered dishware beneath her feet. By the time her hands are empty, Katara’s shoulders are heaving as she breathes heavily.
Zuko surveys the damage. “Feel better?”
She sniffs, shaking a stray curl out of her face. “Yeah. Sorry. When I was six years old I used to imagine being Wonder Woman with a whip that compelled people to tell the truth, and now I’m just realizing the extent to which I ruined your life. It’s a rough before-and-after photo set.”
He chuckles bitterly as they pick their way through the debris to the CD stand. “Well, when I was six I planned to follow my father into the family business,” he says, pulling jewel cases off the shelves and snapping the discs one by one, “and now I use a completely different last name and sling Aperol Spritzes to white Beckys while I try in vain to wring some kind of happiness out of my predilection for the arts and crafts portion of functioning alcoholism, so.”
He considers the stack of board games stacked on an antique chair in the corner and pushes it all the way over, spilling cards and tokens across the floor.
Katara snorts. “That’s the spirit. Now, let’s get some goddamn catharsis.”
Zuko nods, suddenly lighting up with an idea. “Oh! I wonder if Jet still has his stash.”
“His stash?” she raises her eyebrows, a glint appearing in her eye.
“Yeah, come on,” Zuko leads them into the second bedroom, which Jet uses as an office. He finds the loose floorboard with practiced ease; it’s at the back corner of the walk-in closet, just under one of the low built-in shelves. He rummages around blindly, lying flat on his stomach and wrinkling his nose at the smell of mothballs.
“This apartment, ” Katara whines covetously behind him, and he snorts with laughter.
“It’s obscenely beautiful, isn’t it?” he replies, wrinkling his forehead as he tries to avoid cobwebs, and then—“Aha!” He sits up, pulling a fist-sized bag of marijuana out of the space and unfurling it. Katara gasps, her hands flying to her mouth too late to hide her delighted smile.
“Oh my ,” she breathes, kneeling to get a closer look. “That is a lot of weed.”
Zuko clambers to his feet, brushing dust off his jeans and shirt. “Does Jet still have that bong, by chance?”
“The huge one with the tentacles?” Katara’s eyes light up. “Oh. Yeah. Definitely.”
“He keeps his best lighter in the roll-top desk by the bay windows,” Zuko instructs. “His grinder should be there too—”
Katara rolls her eyes. “You say that as if I don’t know already.”
“Don’t want to assume anything,” he smirks at her, and she folds her arms across her chest, sitting back on one hip.
“I assume you’re about to tell me that the lighter belonged to you.”
He shrugs. “Nah, Jet bought that himself. But the mother-of-pearl inlaid tray he keeps all the weed stuff on? That belonged to me.”
“Right.” Katara’s eyes narrow, and he can all but see the mischievous cogs turning in her head. “Well. Meet you at the fire escape?”
“—and then Brandon Flowers realizes that Jet has his smoking jacket and he’s holding the Trappist beer!”
Katara sputters smoke, coughing as she hands over the bong. “What did you even do to get out of that?!” she gasps as soon as she’s regained her breath.
Zuko inhales the thick smoke and blows an effortless smoke ring. “I put him in touch with my oak barrel guy and all was forgiven.”
They both burst out laughing, and Katara holds her aching sides.
“Oh my god,” she croaks, her voice rough from the smoke, “what is with that guy? How does he keep getting into such ridiculous trouble? Why did we want to be around this person?!”
“Big dick energy,” Zuko replies around another mouthful of smoke, passing the bong back to her. They’re out on the fire escape, just barely big enough to lounge in; Katara’s bare legs are dangling over the side, and Zuko is sitting with his back to the railing.
The warm wind lifts Katara’s hair, and she flattens it down, rolling her eyes as she pulls it into a messy bun with the elastic she’s been wearing around her wrist.
“I had a phase where I wore a ponytail,” Zuko says, blinking as the words leave his mouth. Why would I tell her that? I didn’t even tell Jet that!
Katara, to her credit, does not laugh; instead she exhales smoke into the night, the flashing traffic lights reflecting brightly in her eyes. “Then you can appreciate the search for a good elastic that won’t snap on you.”
“Yeah, those were the times,” Zuko chuckles, taking the bong and pulling a column of thick smoke up into the neck before sucking it all into his lungs.
Katara narrows her eyes. “Can I make an observation?”
“Sure,” Zuko nods.
“You seem, how do I put this…” she presses her finger to her lips as she thinks, “too cool for Jet?”
He sighs out a cloud of smoke that temporarily obscures Katara from view. “Yeah, I know,” he mutters while he still can’t see her face. “It took me much longer to realize than I’d like to admit.”
Katara takes the bong. “Well, luckily I already know I’m too cool for Jet, so.”
Zuko snorts derisively. “I saw the way you looked at him at some of those parties. You were probably more lovesick than I was for the guy.”
She nods, French-inhaling smoke like a femme fatale . “Yup, I sure was,” she croaks, “but that’s because I thought he was the cool one, when it turns out he just has a really beautiful apartment and all the really great stuff inside it was because of you .” She frowns suddenly. “...I wonder if that’s why all your stuff is still around? He wanted me to think it all belonged to him.”
Zuko takes one last, very large rip from the bong, coughing until spots dance across his eyes.
“Call me crazy, but I’m starting to think you maybe did me a huge favour,” he says, pushing the window open and ducking back inside the kitchen.
“Is that so?” Katara grins, swinging daintily back inside. “Well, you’re welcome, I guess. Now: let’s kill two birds with one stone here and raid this entire place for munchies.”
A grin spreads across Zuko’s face. “Now you’re speaking my language,”
Jet doesn’t have much in the way of ingredients anymore—not since Zuko stopped shopping for him—so he and Katara amuse themselves by tipping every single perishable item they can find onto the floor in one increasingly ridiculous pile. Zuko empties an entire jumbo-sized bottle of olive oil onto the linoleum, followed by sugar, ancient stale panko breadcrumbs, and far too many boxes of Lucky Charms cereal thrown by Katara. Sitting on opposite counters, they raid the cabinets behind them and upend everything in reach; when they finally run out of things to toss on the floor, the muck has spread right out to the little metal strip that marks the end of the kitchen and the start of the gorgeous real hardwood floors that cover the rest of the apartment.
Zuko springs off his counter and lands just on the other side of the metal strip, balancing on the balls of his feet like a cat. He turns and covers his mouth as he sees Katara surveying the distance between them.
“I can’t jump that far,” she says. “Not even when I’m sober.”
“Can you get to the opposite counter? If you jump from there, I’ll catch you.”
Katara follows his suggestion, gently hopping from one counter to the other across the narrow span of linoleum. Then she shuffles to the edge of the countertop.
Zuko nods. “Yep.”
“You promise you’ll catch me?”
She exhales through puffed cheeks, then jumps for it. Zuko grabs her around the waist, pulling her close as she tries to catch her balance. Katara squeals as they thud into the wall.
“You almost dropped me!”
Zuko scoffs, reaching back into the kitchen for the mostly-full bottle of vodka he left on the stovetop. “I had you the whole time, you chicken,” he retorts, and then the most amazing thing happens: he and Katara freeze at exactly the same time, their eyes widening as they turn to each other—
Because Jet could never take a joke, he realizes.
“Boy, he sure has a type, huh?” Katara says, trying and failing to sound casual.
“Yeah,” Zuko nods, surprised at the depth of her brilliant blue eyes, “it appears he does.”
They swing back into the office, where Katara does something to Jet’s computer that involves rapid typing; Zuko can’t remotely track any of it, but soon there’s a smell of burnt plastic, and the monitor fizzles out abruptly.
Katara sits back. “Well, I’ve literally caused a hard drive meltdown, and by literally I mean literally , so this is basically a pile of tin cans now.”
“That is…terrifying,” Zuko whispers as she brushes past him.
“Oh, it is not, it’s just ones and zeroes,” she scoffs, her voice slightly slurred again from the vodka. When they pass by the bathroom, Katara ducks inside and drags Zuko in so abruptly that he yelps.
“Get in here,” she almost growls, whirling around to face him, and suddenly it seems very cramped.
He clears his throat. “Um.”
Katara doesn’t appear to have noticed, bending all the way over ( all the way over) to rummage through Jet’s medicine cabinet. The jean shorts just barely cover her ass, leaving tantalizingly little to the imagination; her thighs are solid and smooth, and with a shift in his gut Zuko realizes that the more time he spends with Katara, the more he starts to understand why Jet did what he did with her.
He’s not remotely sober enough to start processing that line of thought, so instead he turns and steps into the shower, exhaling as calmly as he can even as he begins unscrewing shampoo bottles and pouring various creams and gels all over the place.
“Okay, so, listen,” Katara’s voice echoes across the tiles, “...how does a guy like Jet have thirty different products for his face and body, and yet his pubes—”
“—look like they’re home to a sentient bug species like a Vernor Vinge novel? Yeah, that is weird, huh?” Zuko chokes out in a chuckle, staring intently at the plain white expanse of the shower until his cheeks no longer feel flushed.
“Yeah, it’s really weird, huh?” Katara is saying, and she catches his gaze far to casually out of the corner of her eye. “I made him wear condoms the whole time we were dating, even though I have an IUD and even though we both got tested, because like...that was just weird.”
That’s a piece of information I know now, Zuko realizes, and he clears his throat, stepping out of the shower to find that Katara has smeared every item in the cabinet across the mirrors, the walls, and the counter. He blinks.
“Wow,” he rasps. “That is...a lot of catharsis you’ve done there.”
Katara takes a swig of vodka and offers him the bottle, still warm from her lips.
“Oh, don’t tell me you’re already tapping out,” she grins, reaching past him to pull the door open and slip back out into the hall. “I don’t know about you, but I’ve still got some tension to resolve.”
They make quick work of the living room, destroying dozens of Jet’s most beloved and useless knick-knacks. They agree to leave the books on the shelves—it’s rude to the books, it’s not their fault their owner’s an asshole—but Zuko takes a great deal of pleasure crushing Jet’s mech figurines beneath his heel. Katara seems to be a fan of the fragile things, knocking over every glass thing she finds like a bored housecat. After a drunken game of frisbee with Jet’s vinyl records, Zuko slumps back against the couch, absently pulling stuffing out of the worn hole in the upholstery.
“Oh! I found his screenplay!” Katara straightens from where she’s been rummaging in the desk. Zuko’s jaw drops, and he jumps to his feet.
“Holy shit, he finished it?!”
Katara nods. “Yeah. Have you read any of this? It’s awful. ”
“Believe me, I remember,” Zuko replies. “Did Helena the Dead Witch end up with Volcano Boy in the end?”
She shakes her head. “Volcano Boy dies in a tragic act of self-sacrifice, and Helena runs off with her weird best friend who’s been leering at her the whole time. Y’know, the one who only communicates in Mountain Goats lyrics?”
“God. Of course that’s what he went with.” Zuko rolls his eyes. “Do you want to burn that piece of crap?”
Katara fans herself. “In this weather? Please.”
“ Early September.” she rolls her eyes. “I don’t even know how you’re not sweating buckets in that jacket.”
Zuko tugs at the collar. “This is vegan leather,” he rasps. “And you’re one to talk, you’re wearing Uggs .”
“I just found out I’m being cheated on! I pulled on the first shoes I saw!” Katara yells indignantly, waving her vodka around wildly and swiping an antique plate off its holder on the wall. It hits the floor with a loud clang , and she bursts into inebriated giggles.
“I always thought that was fragile,” Zuko frowns, picking up the plate. “Was there anything Jet didn’t lie about?”
Katara shrugs. “He’s a very creative person, he just uses it for all the worst reasons,” she replies.
“That’s…” Zuko exhales, flinging the plate out the open window where it sails across the street and lands on the roof of the jujitsu studio on the corner. “Yeah. That’s pretty much right.”
“Anyway,” Katara gathers the heavy stack of papers in her arms, “I think I’d like to rip it up into tiny little pieces and leave them on his pillow like that guy from The Godfather. ”
Zuko purses his lips, impressed. “That’ll work.”
“So I confess I’m curious,” Katara says as they sit on the floor of the hallway, ripping the screenplay into tiny little pieces page by page, “did you get together with Jet under similar circumstances? Was there a casual fling that he dramatically rejected in favor of falling into your arms?”
Zuko takes a swig of vodka before ripping a handful of pages. “I don’t know,” he admits, mildly surprised at the softness in his voice. “We met at the bar where I worked, two blocks away. Jet came in week after week, always reading something interesting, and he’d just ask me to make him whatever I felt like, so I got to experiment and be a little creative with his orders. That was how I started refining the first of my recipes, including the one that snagged me second place at the national competition two years ago.”
Katara whistles under her breath. “I can’t believe I destroyed any chance of you making me a good cocktail,” she sighs, tossing a handful of paper into the air and letting the bits flutter down around her. “I’ve tried making my own aviations, because I love them so much, but I’ve only ever used tablespoons to measure—what?! Don’t look at me like that!” she snaps as Zuko gawks.
“Okay, well you’re in luck, because now I have to make you an aviation, just to rectify the psychic wound you’ve inflicted on yourself by measuring a cocktail in tablespoons .”
She cocks an eyebrow. “I mean, your cocktail set is across the hall.”
Zuko actually goes to stand up for a second, but as he shifts the paper off his lap he catches a glimpse of the words ‘ burned by my father ’ and he stops.
“Y’know what? One thing at a time,” he mutters, pulling the page out of the stack for a closer look as his heart sinks to his toes.
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Katara slide across to sit next to him. “What is it?”
It’s a scene from what must be the last act of the movie. Volcano Boy, the stalwart hero, is explaining why he always wears his iconic cone-shaped mask.
“ I’m so ashamed of who I am, I couldn’t bear to tell you at first, ” Katara reads over his shoulder. “ I was burned by my father and cast out of the Fi— ”
Zuko suddenly crumples the paper in his hands, throwing the ball violently across the narrow hallway, where it bounces off the crown moulding and rolls back to his outstretched feet.
“We were together for five years,” he hears himself say, as the floodgates drop and a year’s worth of emotions claw their way up his throat all at once. “We stayed together long distance for a year and a half, when I had to go deal with some—some family stuff back home. I literally cried on his shoulder.” Zuko clears his throat, blinking back tears that have welled hot in his eyes. “He was a drama queen and a petty snob and so arrogant, and I really thought he was the one. And now I realize that I didn’t really know him at all; maybe he did cheat on someone when he met me, and I just didn’t know about it. Maybe you’re not the first person he’s done this with.”
Katara swallows. “I was just the one he left you for.”
Zuko gives the facial equivalent of a shrug. “Yeah. There was something about you, specifically.” His eyes meet hers, and the air seems velvety and thick, his spinning head suddenly brought to the calm eye of the storm.
“Why do you think he stayed with you so long?” Katara eventually asks in a murmur.
Zuko shrugs, taking another much-needed drink. “Maybe he was really in love. I know I was.” He sighs. “I knew about so much of all this nonsense, and I still loved him, and...I don’t know. My sister always accused me of being a dumb romantic.”
Katara shakes her head, resting her chin on her flannel—covered fist. “Nope,” she mumbles, her eyes half-lidded. “It’s good to be a dumb romantic. It means you believe the best things about people are true.”
Zuko laughs shakily. “You have absolutely no idea how many times that tendency has brought me pain.”
“And you think I haven’t had my heart broken dozens of times by now?” Katara tipping her head back to rest against the wall, the flannel falling off one shoulder. “It’s humiliating, Zuko. I fall for anyone who’s smart and charming, and unfortunately a lot of super shitty men are both of those things.”
There’s not a lot that Zuko can add to that, so they sit in silence for more than a few breaths, before Katara pulls the flannel back up and slowly climbs to her feet.
“Okay,” she hiccups, holding out her hand, “c’mon. Can’t put it off any longer.”
Jet’s room is just as filthy as ever, his king sized bed—a pride and joy—tucked into a nook to the left, and his grandmother’s antique dresser on the right is piled high with wrinkled clothing. The sheets are all twisted up in a ball on the bed, and there’s a plate with what looks like pizza grease beside one of the pillows.
“Charming,” Katara sighs. “Did you know he was like this?”
Zuko snorts. “You didn’t?”
She shakes her head. “No. He wasn’t Mr. Clean or anything, but…” she blushes. “Part of what attracted me to him was that he was a guy who seemed to have his shit together, you know?”
Zuko cracks up laughing. “Man, one of us definitely got duped. Maybe both of us.”
Katara is carrying all the screenplay bits using the bottom of her tank top as a container, and she spills them onto Jet’s pillow with a little thrusting motion of her hips that Zuko definitely doesn’t not notice. She tumbles around to the end of the bed, pitching ever so slightly into him as she stands.
“Start with the drawers?” she asks, already pulling one open. Zuko nods, and they set to work in relative silence. Katara moves faster and faster as the minutes stretch on, while Zuko’s focus narrows to a laser point, trying to identify clothes as he throws them over his shoulder—a pair of chinos here, a silk bowtie there—as memories of this room hit him in waves. When he walks into the closet, Zuko’s hands find one of Jet’s best linen shirts and he presses his face into it, breathing slow and steady as his face burns hot.
His hands curl into fists and he yanks the shirt off its hanger; there’s the sound of ripping cloth, but he doesn’t care. Blinded by the wavering tears in his eyes, Zuko moves through the dark, grabbing for everything he can reach. He pulls and rends and breaks and tears and smashes until he runs out of shelves, nearly colliding into Katara as she waits by the doorway.
“Hey, are you okay?” she asks as he shoves past her, grabbing Jet’s novelty sword-shaped letter opener on his way to the bed. Zuko watches his arm move of its own accord, arcing overhead to stab the dull metal blade deep into the mattress. He distantly hears Katara gasp behind him, but it’s lost under the sound of 800-count cotton being torn to shreds. Fluff and foam start to fly everywhere as Zuko drops the letter opener and tears open the mattress with his bare hands. Eventually the fury runs out of fuel and he sputters to a halt, blinking to find himself covered in bits of bedding. He’s sitting on the edge of the mattress, which looks like it recently birthed a California King-sized Xenomorph.
Katara gently sinks down next to him, wearing one of Jet’s more ridiculous ironic trucker hats. “So, uh,” she murmurs, offering the vodka bottle, “feel any better?”
Zuko grabs it and chugs it until it’s empty, throwing the bottle against the windows where it shatters into pieces that rattle against the ancient upright heater. He takes a very deep breath.
“Yeah,” he eventually breathes, running his hands through his hair, “I think so.”
Katara gingerly pats him on the back. “Do you...should I leave?”
“What? No,” Zuko turns and nearly knocks into her, their noses just barely brushing past each other. He hears Katara inhale sharply as she tilts her chin forward; the sound draws his gaze to her lips, and holy shit her lips are gorgeous—
There’s the sudden sound of a sharp buzzer, from the front hall, then a beep and a click. Katara goes ashen.
“Shit, that’s Jet!” she hisses, jumping to her feet. “Oh, fuck, he’s back early—”
Zuko reels back, his heart still caught in his throat even as adrenaline starts to race through his system. “What do you mean? How do you know?!”
“The building installed a newfangled buzzer system, it also sends the call to your cell phone, you know how he is—”
Zuko freezes, suddenly paralyzed by the idea of seeing him again. “I can’t—” he blurts, before words fail him.
Katara grabs his wrist and tugs him to his feet. “Come on, quick, we can hide in my place!”
“Won’t he check that you’re home?”
She shakes her head as they tiptoe down the hall, side-stepping the results of their spree. “I’m supposed to be visiting my brother and sister-in-law in Jersey this week, but they cancelled last minute—”
They hear the elevator ding as they’re closing Jet’s door behind them. Startled, Katara drops the keys; she stoops, grabbing for them wildly as Jet’s voice floats down the hall.
“...and then, dude, you won’t even believe it, fuckin’ Ezra walks in—yeah, that’s right, I just call him Ezra, we’re bros like that...”
“Shit, shit, find them, find them!” Zuko hisses. Katara waves him away.
“Would you just stop hovering—”
“...listen, once you’ve raised a SCOBY with another guy? That shit changes you, the gender binary just melts away, I swear…”
She jams the key into the lock and twists it, and all but shoves Zuko across the hall and into her thankfully unlocked apartment.
“Fuck, my hinges stick—” Katara presses flat against the door as it slowly wheezes shut; Zuko puts his hands on either side of her head as he helps her push, and the door clicks shut just as Jet’s shadow appears around the corner.
“Anyhow, Chan, I gotta bounce, I just snagged the red-eye from Atlantic City and I’m bushed , if you know what I mean,” he laughs, obnoxiously loud.
“ Jesus ,” Zuko mutters under his breath. “What did I ever see in that guy?”
“Shhh,” Katara whispers, her breath tickling his neck. Across the hall, the deadbolt slides open with a click , and Katara gasps so loud that Zuko’s hand flies to cover her mouth before they give themselves away.
There’s a creak of the floorboards, and the clinking of shattered pottery underfoot. Jet gasps. “...what the—”
Katara is gasping for breath and trembling all over as she tries to keep from laughing. Zuko is shaking from the effort, and he presses his finger against his lips.
“Planty, what happened to you?!” Jet shrieks. Katara stamps her feet, silently hyperventilating into her hands as tear tracks shine silver in the moonlight streaming in from the picture windows.
“Shhh,” he dissolves into silent laughter too, leaning closer to the door and waiting as Jet’s footsteps retreat further into the apartment.
“Oh my GOD—” the door abruptly slams shut, and they can hear muffled shrieking fading away as Jet takes in the damage.
Katara bursts out into wheezing laughter, the flannel falling off her shoulders as she sags against the door. “That was perfect ,” she whispers.
Zuko hangs his head, shoulders heaving with laughter as months of paralyzing anguish finally dissolves, leaving him feeling looser and lighter than he has in months. When he looks back up, he sees Katara’s eyes shining in the moonlight, and it’s as if she’s got her own magnetic pull. She doesn’t notice at first, still giggling as Jet begins sobbing across the hall; then she realizes he isn’t laughing anymore, and when their eyes meet it all seems to blaze perfectly clear. Zuko ducks his head to kiss her, and his whole body sparks to life like a flame. It’s the first time he’s kissed anyone in one year, three weeks, and—
Katara grabs Zuko’s face in her hands, pulling him closer until she’s pinned completely against the door by his weight. A needy sound resonates through the lump in his throat and down to the coiling pit of his stomach, and he fists his hands into her hair, ripping out the elastic and tossing it over his shoulder as he pushes her up against the door and shoves his thigh between her legs. Katara gasps, and he takes the opportunity to bite her lower lip and let it rake slowly through his teeth. She pushes his leather jacket off his shoulders, and Zuko rips his hands out of the sleeves and tosses it aside as he kisses her again and again and again, his hands slipping under the hem of her tank top to grab at her narrow waist. Katara’s skin is smooth and cool, and she shivers as his fingers creep along the curve of her spine.
“I should get this off—” she struggles with the flannel, but Zuko shakes his head.
“Keep it on,” he growls, and she makes a strangled needy noise, her hands already busy undoing his jeans. She reaches in and grabs his cock, her eyes widening, and Zuko can’t suppress his groan as she starts to stroke him.
“Wow,” Katara breathes as he presses closer to her.
Zuko grins wolfishly. “You like that?” he whispers roughly as his hand slides into her waistband. He pushes her underwear aside to find she’s already wet, and he slips a finger inside of her smoothly, curling it to just the right angle. Katara writhes against his hand, her breath hot at his collar as they stroke each other in rhythm until they’re both panting and weak-kneed. Across the hall, they can hear muffled yelling.
Katara exhales in a cascading shudder, pulling her hand out of Zuko’s pants. She fixes him with a mischievous look, licking her lips; and before he can move a muscle, she silently drops to her knees and pulls his boxers down just enough to free his cock.
Sweet mother of god. Zuko exhales open-mouthed, balling his hands into fists against the door as she swallows him without hesitation. Katara hollows out her cheeks, sucking so strongly that he has to do a few times tables to avoid coming right away, and sweat breaks across his brow as he resists the urge to grab her hair.
Eventually she pulls off him with an obscene pop . “God, this explains so much about Jet’s inferiority complex,” she whispers.
Zuko’s witty rejoinder melts into a puddle as she starts blowing him again, swallowing him like she’s starving for it. As his cock slides effortlessly down the back of her throat, Zuko presses his forehead against the door and bites his lip until he tastes copper, distantly aware of the sounds of general chaos still rattling across the hall.
“Stop—” he finally chokes out, his legs trembling as she pulls away.
Katara stands up, wiping her lips with a grin. Then her brow arches and she puts her hands on Zuko’s chest, shoving him backwards; he stumbles, still weak-kneed, and lets himself fall back onto the thin hallway rug.
“Perfect,” he hears Katara growl as she climbs on top of Zuko like a cat, her weight braced on her arms on either side of his head as she leans down to kiss him. Zuko lets his hands wander up and down every part of her body he can reach, a groan escaping him as he realizes that Katara hasn’t been wearing a bra all night; she shivers as his hands find her breasts, her hips grinding shamelessly against him.
Finally Katara pulls away, straddling his waist as she straightens and pulls at the sleeves of the flannel shirt. “Let me take this thing o—” she’s cut off as Zuko sits up, takes her by the lapels, and yanks her mouth back to his.
“I told you,” he rasps between kisses, “keep it on.”
She makes a soft whining sound at the back of her throat, grinding down on his lap with an increasingly frantic rhythm. Her fingers pull at the hem of his T-shirt, and Zuko whips it off, tossing it away just as carelessly as his jacket and diving back in to kiss her ravenously as her nails rake across his back.
“ Please fuck me,” Katara begs as she grinds down against his cock, and Zuko grins, placing one hand on the small of her back before he flips her over in a single swift move. Katara squeaks with surprise as Zuko slithers down her torso until he can nip at the skin of her thigh; she gasps, arching her back off the floor, and he takes the opportunity to slide her shorts off her hips, snagging the waistband in his teeth so they rake across her skin. As soon as Katara has kicked them away, Zuko presses his tongue against her, grinning as he feels her entire body shudder.
“Be quiet,” he murmurs against her inner thigh, catching the sensitive skin lightly between his teeth before returning to work. He explores every inch of her, taking note of every gasp and quiver, gently sucking and licking at her clit until he finds the rhythm that has her gasping. Then he gently teases a finger inside her, thrusting in time with his tongue’s movements.
“You are good at this,” Katara gasps.
He hums, letting the vibrations tickle at her delicate skin, and relishes the sound she makes as she claps her hand over her mouth to muffle a scream. He continues until she contracts tightly around his finger, and then without warning he pulls his hand away and licks up and inside her, craning his neck to reach as deep as he possibly can. Katara bites back a cry, her thighs squeezing against his ears as he thrusts his tongue in and out of her.
“Oh my god ,” she pants. “How do you— hhhnnn —” she clenches tight around him and he makes a hungry sound as he quickens his pace, relentless and unyielding, until Katara’s breaths come short and sharp. She buries one hand in his hair and pulls him even closer, grinding down on his face until she’s trembling all over.
“I’m coming, fuck, I—” Katara arches off the floor, stuffing her fist against her mouth to muffle her screams as he buries his face between her thighs, luxuriating in the taste of her arousal until he’s positively dripping with it. Eventually Zuko pulls away, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand as he crawls back up to face her. Katara’s cheeks are flushed, and he licks at the thin sheen of sweat along her collarbone as he guides himself between her legs, choking back a strangled sound as the head of his cock slides against her entrance.
“Zuko, please, just—yeah, yeah yeah yeah —” she cuts herself off, nodding rapidly as he pushes inside in one smooth movement, her breath escaping hot against his ear.
“ God —” Zuko rakes his teeth against the line of her jaw, his other hand pulling at her hair as she tilts her hips and buries him to the hilt. He thrusts shallowly, digging his hand into her thigh for leverage; the angle isn’t the best, but she’s hot and wet and tight and absolutely quivering around him.
“ Fuck ,” Katara pants, “how did— why would he ever—you’re incredible—”
“—shhhh,” Zuko kisses her open mouth. “He’ll hear us.”
“Then we—we should probably move—” she gives a high pitched yelp, stretching her arms over her head as one of her legs curls around his waist.
“Yeah,” Zuko nods, even as he keeps thrusting.
“—I don’t want to stop, you feel so good—”
But she’s not wrong, so Zuko pulls out of her with no small amount of reluctance, clambering to his feet and holding out his hand to pull her up and into his arms, pressing open-mouthed kisses to her neck and nibbling on her earlobes as they stumble further into the apartment. Katara pulls his pants down past his knees and he nearly trips as he tries to shake himself loose from them, falling into her waiting arms to kiss and nip and chase every muffled sound from her lips that he can. With fire roaring through his veins, Zuko presses Katara up against a wall, nearly lifting her off her feet as he curls two fingers inside her, stroking her G-spot mercilessly until she shudders and clenches around him, her full body quivering as the orgasm ripples through her. Zuko drops to his knees and plunges his tongue back inside her, lifting one thigh over his shoulder as he laps at her juices.
“Has it occurred to you,” Katara pants, “that maybe—”
“—Jet’s not the only one who’s good in bed?” Zuko finishes, as he presses open-mouthed kisses to the inside of her thigh. “Yeah. That seems to check out.” He sets her down and rises to his feet, kissing her as his cock slides tantalizingly between her folds. Katara pushes him away from the wall, and as he stumbles backwards Zuko bumps into something large and solid—the tall console table that sits against her couch. Without hesitating, Katara shoves the assorted papers off to the side and pulls him into a kiss; Zuko wraps his hands around her thighs and lifts her up onto the edge of the table, sinking back into her smooth and deep.
Katara’s eyes roll back in her head. “Oh, god , I should have seduced you instead, you are so much bigger—”
“—I know,” Zuko growls, yanking her hair back as he thrusts sharply, spurred by the way her heels dig into the small of his back and the tiny noises she breathes into his ear. “You really—missed—out—”
Katara braces her weight on her hands, grinding against him until he sees stars, and it’s all he can do to keep up with her pace.
“Harder,” she orders in a whisper, and Zuko is all too happy to oblige, his hips snapping against her as he rips the flannel off one shoulder and bites at her roughly. Katara comes with a shuddering cry, and as she convulses around him Zuko feels himself plummet over the edge right after her.
“Fuck, Katara, I’m—” the words dissolve into a gutteral sound as he pulses inside her, his ears ringing as he shudders through the last waves of pleasure. He pitches forward, burying his face in her sweat-dampened tank top as she falls back against the couch, and for a few moments there’s nothing but the sound of heavy breathing as they both come down from the high.
“Well,” Katara eventually exhales, absently throwing one arm across his back, “was that cathartic enough?”
Zuko buries his laughter into the crook of her neck. “Yeah,” he whispers, “I think that was exactly what I needed.”