The South Pole is exactly as Katara remembers it—the same house, the same neighbors, the same sad strength in the way her father carries himself. It is surreal as ever, being slotted into her childhood twin bed as an adult—maybe even more so now that Sokka is here, too, hollering at her through the wall between their rooms like they are kids again. The place is a time capsule, or maybe a relic, and she hates how being there makes her feel like she is the same helpless little girl she was when this was fully her home.
Even so, it’s not all bad. She has missed seeing Sokka as often as she did when they were both at BU—though sharing a bathroom is a little more closeness than she feels is strictly necessary—and the clinic staff are thrilled to see her. The retired doctor who treats patients there two days a week likes to teach her as much as she can, and the nursing team keeps the plain rooms bright and cheery. Some patients are difficult, but most are so grateful and kind that she has no trouble remembering why she does this work.
She takes a dozen Polaroids in the first few days, documenting the office and her smiling coworkers and Sokka giving the camera a thumbs-up on their front porch. She writes little notes on the back of each photo and swings by the post office on her way into work to send the batch to Zuko.
He calls her every night. Sometimes they only talk for a few minutes, but more often they trade narratives of their days or ramble idly, Katara soaking up the rich intonation of his voice. He tells her about the symposium coming up, about his next research committee meeting, about running into Suki at the grocery store and catching up over their carts. He is her tether, her reminder that she will not be swallowed up by a drift of South Pole snow and lost forever. She misses him with an unwavering ache deep in her chest, but most of the time, it is livable.
Sometimes it seems as though it is not. A few weeks in, Dr. Hama isn’t feeling well, and they have to cancel clinic for that day. She spends the morning calling patients to reschedule and ends up getting screamed at by one man until she is nearly in tears. She sends Zuko a frustrated, expletive-ridden text, and even though it is the middle of the day, he answers her immediately.
Z: I’m really sorry, Kat. That sounds awful.
Z: Good timing, then—I sent you something in the mail, and the tracking says it’s at the post office now.
She is intrigued. Once she can finally leave the office, she picks up the package on her way home.
K: I just got it!
Z: If I were you, I wouldn’t open it until later.
Oh. A very specific kind of package, then.
K: What is it?
Z: You’ll have to wait and see.
Z: In fact, don’t open it up until I call you tonight.
In spite of her irate patients, she grins to herself.
K: Yes sir
Dinner is an uncomfortable affair that evening as she waits for the earliest acceptable time to excuse herself upstairs and lock her door. Finally, her father stands up to take his dishes to the sink. She scurries to follow suit and bolt to her room, ignoring Sokka’s snort of laughter behind her.
K: Ready when you are.
Z: Give me a second
She pouts, not convinced he isn’t dragging this out on purpose. Pouting doesn’t have quite the effect it used to, though, him not being able to see her and all, so she is stuck tapping her fingers against her thigh and shifting against the growing heat between her legs.
Finally he calls her. “Hey, Kitty Kat,” he purrs. “Sorry you had a rough day.”
“That’s okay,” she answers, already a little breathless. “How was your day?”
“Fine. About to get a lot better.”
She rubs her thighs together unconsciously. “Can I open the box now?”
He laughs, low and hot. “Eager, are we?”
“It’s been almost a month,” she protests, though it comes out more like a whine.
“Three weeks and two days,” he corrects. Her heart squeezes painfully in her chest, at both his count and how long it’s been. She misses the warmth of him, the security of his arm around her, not to mention that the few orgasms she’s had by her own hand have been resoundingly disappointing. “Go on, then. Open it.”
She rips at the tape and pulls a sleek black box out of the shipping package. She doesn’t have an inkling of what it could be, though when she opens the smaller box, it is instantly clear.
And of course she knows what a vibrator is. It’s not like she’s never laid eyes on one before. She’s just never used one. It’s not a totally foreign concept or anything.
So she’s not sure why her lungs suck in a harsh breath without her conscious thought, why she suddenly feels dirty and aroused in equal and dizzying measure.
“I thought you might make that noise,” he muses, sounding very, very pleased with himself.
“Whatever,” she mutters, cheeks flaring hot, and pulls the device out of the box. It has a charging cord and little else—in fact, she doesn’t see any way of operating it at all. “Um,” she starts, embarrassed now by her inexperience. “How do I turn it on?”
His smirk is audible. “You don’t.”
Now she frowns. This is not how she was fairly sure vibrators worked.
Then he says, “I do,” and her heart slams into overdrive.
“How—” she breathes, the idea suddenly coming together in her mind. He controls it—from a continent away, no less.
“There’s an app and Bluetooth and all that,” he says. “I’ll explain later. Right now, I want you to take your clothes off. All of them.” When she doesn’t immediately respond, he reiterates, “Now.”
“Just—give me a second—” She fumbles with her blouse and pants, stripping away her underwear until she is stretched out on her twin bed, yearning for the heat of his body on hers so intensely it feels like she could jump out of her skin.
“Are you done?”
“Yes,” she whispers.
His voice verges on dangerous. “Yes, what?”
He tsks. “Three weeks and two days and you’ve forgotten your manners.”
“No, I’ll be good,” she protests, suddenly desperate to please him.
“Yeah. Yeah, of course you will be. You always are.” There is shuffling from his end of the line that must be him undressing, too. When he seems to be settled in, he orders her, “Touch yourself—just with your fingers first.”
She obeys, trailing her hands down her body, shifting her legs wider to ghost her fingertips over her center. Little moans fall from her lips without conscious thought; he growls in response. “Are you wet for me already, Kitten?”
“Yes,” she whimpers. “Sir.”
“Good,” he breathes. “There’s my good girl.”
Her hand falls into rhythm, familiar and yet new with Zuko’s rasping voice in her ear reaching out to her from across the ocean. “Miss you, Zuko,” she sighs. “So, so much.”
He hums in agreement. “I know, sweetheart. I miss you, too.” His breath hitches and stutters. “Miss your pretty face, miss watching you come undone for me—wish I could see you now, wish I could touch you.”
She makes a pained noise she didn’t know lived in her, something needy that earns a gritted-out curse from Zuko in response.
“Pick up the vibrator.”
The plastic is cool to the touch and perfectly smooth, the weight of it foreign in her hand. She tries to swallow back her uncertainty but finds his name spilling out of her mouth in a plea for reassurance, comfort, something.
“What is it, love?” His voice is strained; she can practically hear his efforts to school it into gentleness. “Are you alright?”
“Nervous,” she admits.
“I’ve got you. It’s okay, sweetheart. You’re going to like this; it’s going to feel good. I’m going to make you feel good—you like for me to do that, don’t you?”
“And if you don’t like it, we’ll stop, okay? You’ll say ‘stop,’ and I’ll shut it off right away. You have to tell me, though, ‘cause I can’t see your face, and I won’t know. Can you do that for me?”
“I can.” Affection rolls over her in waves, for him and from him, washing away her worry. In its wake her body responds, reminding her of how long it’s been since his hot hands drew pleasure out of her every cell.
“Tell me what you’ll say,” he prompts.
“I’ll say ‘stop.’”
“Good.” He takes a long breath. “You want to keep going?”
She does. “Yes sir.”
Her inhale catches in her throat. “Please.”
“Please, what? You’ll have to be more specific, sweetheart.”
Blood rushes to her face. “Please turn it on.” She brings the device hesitantly between her legs, skimming it through the moisture there before she rests it lightly over her clit. “Please make me feel good, please tell me what to do, please—”
The rest of whatever she was going to say is lost when sensation explodes over her. Little rhythmic pulses of vibration travel all the way up her spine, soft but unrelenting; she has to clap her other hand over her mouth to keep from letting the whole house know what’s going on in her bed.
Zuko’s voice has gone wicked. “What do you think, baby girl? You want me to stop?”
“No!” she gasps through her fingers. “Don’t stop, please—”
That must be the magic word today, because in response the vibrations grow more powerful, still in that same steady pattern, driving her out of her mind in what is surely mere seconds but feels like hours. Her arousal ratchets up, spiraling higher and higher and—
The intensity falls and the pulses grow farther apart. A whine stutters out of her without her permission. “What—”
“I didn’t tell you to come,” Zuko scolds. “I want you begging for it, wrecked and desperate and mine.”
She’s not far from wrecked and desperate as it is, and—“Already yours.”
He gives a groan from low in his throat. “Such a good girl.” In reward he dials the vibrator back up, and in no time she is bucking her hips against it in a scrambling search for more.
“Yes,” she hisses, “yes yes yes—”
She has to bite back a scream, and not from pleasure—Zuko has turned it down again, the bastard.
“Zuko!” She is nearly crying, blinded by need and frustration.
“Beg,” he snarls.
Her lust-fogged brain takes a minute to piece together what he wants. Then the realization swallows her up, at once comforting and thrilling; she gives herself over to it gladly. “Please let me come,” she whimpers. “Please, please, I wanna…”
“Are you wrecked yet? Are you desperate?”
“Yes, sir. Yes, Zuko, please, I—I want it, want you, miss you—I wish it was you, here, making me beg, I—”
The vibrator jacks up. Katara sees stars.
In her post-coital haze she hears the control in Zuko’s voice wear thin. “You’re mine,” he grits out, and she can tell he is close to his own orgasm.
“Yours,” she coos. “All yours, Zuko—love being yours, wanna be your good girl, wanna make you feel good.” The words tumble out, no conscious thought between their inception and her lips. She keeps up the litany until he gives a shuddering gasp; then, she pitches her voice down, soothing instead of enticing, while he catches his breath. “You’re so good to me. I love you so, so much.”
“Fuck,” he says faintly after a minute. “Spirits, you are incredible.”
She’s regained enough wherewithal to tease him. “I certainly think so.”
He snorts. “You just wait until I get my hands on you.”
“I can’t. Wait, that is.”
Wait she does, though; the summer stretches on. She spends her faithful two days a week in clinic, coming in early and staying late—if the doors are open, she is there; usually she is the one who unlocks them. It is sometimes rewarding, often grueling work, which seems to be the theme of the entire continent—when she isn’t at the clinic, she helps her father work on Habitat for Humanity projects, simultaneously stunned at and all-too-familiar with what her people endure.
At the house she reminds her father about his own leaky roof and cooks him the three square meals a day she suspects he doesn’t get when he is home by himself. She and Sokka end up fixing the roof with Hakoda’s instructions shouted from the safety of the ground; he is not as young as he used to be, and neither sibling wants him on a ladder. Katara doesn’t want herself on a ladder overmuch, either, and she takes particular care to tell everyone she loves them before bed that night, having recently seen her life flash before her eyes.
There are bright spots—she buys a hand-carved box of teas from the farmer’s market and sends it to Zuko for his uncle; her across-the-street neighbor who must be 115 by now knits her a set of matching hats for her and the nice young man her brother has been telling her about when he brings up the mail. Katara teases him endlessly for it, but she is not-so-secretly touched that Sokka thinks so highly of Zuko. It seems to be rubbing off on her father, too; he starts to ask thoughtful questions about what Zuko does or thinks or likes. He is particularly interested in Zuko’s work with Iroh and eventually exhausts Katara’s admittedly limited ability to explain electrical engineering. She tells him slyly then that he’d have to ask Zuko himself, and rather than acting horrified at the very idea he seems pleased as punch.
On her best days, she tells herself it’s not so bad, maybe even not bad at all. More often, though, the exhaustion of taking care of everyone but herself slinks back into its usual place in the marrow of her bones. Here she yearns for Zuko more than ever. If only he were with her to say I’ve got you, quiet and kind, in her ear. If only he could slip an arm around her waist and draw her close when she feels too tired to stand on her own two feet.
Then he mentions Iroh’s plan to take him to The Jasmine Dragon for his birthday, and she realizes that she has been so busy feeling sorry for herself that she has completely forgotten. His birthday is on the summer solstice, and it is coming up fast. Guiltily she searches for a suitable present, knowing it might already be too late to have it shipped to the Earth Kingdom in time.
Soon his birthday is less than a week away, and she had been hoping to leave clinic early in a last-ditch attempt to find him a gift, but the schedule that day is packed. It is a perfect storm—they are down a nurse; there are double the usual number of walk-ins and half the usual number of no-shows—and she is running ragged all day. On top of that, she has to contemplate—conclude, really—that she is the world’s worst girlfriend. She has scarcely heard from Zuko all day, which further confirms her fears that she leaves much to be desired as a partner. How could she have lost track of his birthday? What kind of person would do that?
It is well after what is supposed to be closing time when Dr. Hama is seeing her last scheduled patient and, to Katara’s endless frustration, the door chimes. Again.
“Welcome,” she says tiredly without looking up. She scans through the schedule to double-check that no one else is waiting while she tells the patient, “I’ll have to ask if Dr. Hama is still able to take walk-ins. I’m so sorry; it’s just technically after hours, and we’ve been so busy—”
“Actually,” a familiar voice rumbles, “I’m here to see you.”
Her head snaps up.
Zuko’s hands are shoved into the pockets of his jacket, and he is half-smirking, half-smiling at her through the fringe of his hair, and she nearly vaults over the counter in her haste to fling herself into his arms.
“Hi, sweetheart—I missed you, too,” he laughs, gathering her against him.
“Zuko,” she hums against his chest. He smells like woodsmoke and jasmine and home; she decides right then that someone will have to pry her off him with a crowbar before she lets him go again. “Zuko, Zuko.”
He tips her chin up and kisses her sweetly, ardently. She cups his face in her hands and revels in the warmth of him all over.
“I can’t believe you’re here,” she says breathlessly when they break apart. “You’re here, you’re real…” She skims her fingers over the sharp lines of his cheekbones and tucks the silken curtain of his hair behind his ear. “I missed you so much.”
His lips brush her hairline. “I’m here now.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Uncle needed to visit the plant in Raava. He thought we could take a little detour.”
She looks around the waiting room. “Is your uncle with you?”
Zuko grins. “No. He’s at your house.”
She blinks. “What?”
“Sokka and your father have generously invited us to stay with you tonight.”
Her mouth falls open. Zuko laughs.
“You—you planned this with Sokka? With my dad?”
“He’s taken a real liking to me, if I may say so myself. He called me a couple weeks ago, out of the blue, wanting to know how our sites in the South Pole are financially sustainable.”
She cocks her head. “They aren’t, are they? You’re running them at a loss, like hospitals.”
“Yes and no. The North Pole puts up enough money now that we break even. For the first few years, though, we were in the red. Your father seemed to find this very...honorable.”
It is precisely the sort of thing her father would ask and precisely the sort of conclusion he would draw. “I’m sure he does. It is. It is honorable and noble and generous and kind.” She pops onto her tiptoes to kiss him again, sweet and soft. It’s not that any of this is new to her, but it feels like a revelation all the same. How has she earned this man with eyes and heart of gold, especially when she… “I forgot your birthday,” she blurts, shame coloring her face.
“You can be my present,” he murmurs.
She snorts and shakes her head. “I’ll get you something while you’re here.”
He leans in to tell her, “But I want you.”
Joy and lust thrum in her veins. “You can have me,” she whispers back. “But not because it’s your birthday.”
Zuko walks her home from the clinic when it finally closes for the night, his fingers laced with hers. Katara is practically skipping with excitement, though it occurs to her to ask the dreaded question of, “How long are you staying?”
He shoots her an apologetic look. “Just tonight. In the morning we have to head out. I’m sorry it’s not longer.”
She tries to hide her disappointment. Of course they have work to do. “I can make breakfast in the morning before you go,” she offers tentatively. “Do you have time?”
“Of course. Can breakfast be pancakes?”
She grins while she unlocks the door. “Breakfast can be whatever you like.”
Inside, Hakoda and Iroh are talking in the living room while Sokka interjects excitedly over them. They all swivel to look at the front door when it opens; Sokka is the first to react, jumping up with a grin. “You’re here! Did Zuko surprise you? We planned it, like when you helped me plan to surprise Suki!”
Katara laughs and puts her arms around her brother. “Yes. Your plan worked perfectly.”
“Great!” he exclaims. “And Iroh has been telling me and dad about his projects down here—did you know that accessing the Raava facility requires a trip by snowmobile?”
She casts an inquiring look at Zuko. “No, I didn’t know that.”
“It really does,” Zuko answers, though she’s not entirely sure she believes him.
Before she can cross-examine him, though, Iroh pipes up, “Katara, Zuko, would you like some tea?”
With a jolt, she realizes Iroh has dusted off her mother’s tea set and is assembling each of them a cup and spoon and saucer. No one has used it since her mother died, and for a terrible moment the room spins—
Zuko settles a warm hand on the small of her back. “Are you okay?” he asks her softly.
She remembers how to breathe after that, in and out, until her heart slows back down. Her eyes focus and land on the way Hakoda, Sokka, and Iroh are already nursing their own cups; the bright blue china looks cheerful in the lamplight with steam floating gently upward. Her life now is thrown into sharp relief against her life when her mother was alive. Nothing could be more different—and yet, the china is the same, and the living room is full of happy chatter and the people she loves, and home feels real and in her grasp for the first time in a very long time. “I would love some,” she says, and her voice only shakes a tiny bit. Zuko lays a fleeting kiss on her cheek, right there in front of everybody, and even her father doesn’t protest.
Katara fusses with the guest room before she will let Iroh inside; it has been ages since anyone used it, and the pillows could use a little fluffing to say the least. Hakoda offers his own bed up to Zuko, but Zuko won’t have it, insisting he is just fine on the couch. Katara pulls down extra blankets and pillows from the linen closet, setting up the couch nicely while Zuko smirks at her every time he catches her eye.
Everyone bids their goodnights and closes their respective doors, except, of course, Zuko, who cuts off the living room lights with similar finality. She knows it is a farce and is not the least bit surprised when, less than ten minutes later, her door opens quietly and Zuko slips inside.
“I don’t think,” she whispers into the dark, “that we fooled anybody.”
He climbs onto the bed, caging her beneath him. “I don’t care,” he whispers back, and kisses her hard.
She melts under him instantly, parting her lips to his probing bites and licks. Her body sings to feel his touch again after so long without it.
Neither of them is capable of teasing; she yanks at his clothes and he undresses her with the same urgency. Their movements are frenzied and desperate with weeks of pent-up longing; when he reaches between them, he groans to find her already wet and open. He plunges into her without another second of delay, muffling a cry into her shoulder while she bites back a scream.
“Zuko,” she gasps, shoving up her hips to meet him thrust for thrust. “Spirits, I missed this, missed you.”
His mouth drags hotly over her neck, though he is careful not to leave any marks this time. “Katara, Katara,” he murmurs against her skin. “Fuck, you feel so good.” He hitches one of her legs around his waist, driving deeper with this new angle while her body bows and trembles. “Mine, you’re mine, my sweet Kitten—” His breath goes unsteady; his hand finds her clit and rubs tight circles that make her eyes squeeze shut. “Come for me, love,” he gasps, and she does, her face buried in his neck. Her release triggers his, the familiar liquid heat of it warming her from the inside out.
She lets out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding.
“Love you.” She twines her arms around his neck, clinging to him. “So much, Zuko.”
He clutches her against him. “Love you, Kat.”
They fall asleep, tangled together, Katara thinking that her childhood twin bed suddenly isn’t so bad after all.
Katara sends Iroh and Zuko on their way with pancakes, as requested. She slips an envelope into Zuko’s suitcase and tells him, grinning slyly, not to open it until he is back in his apartment.
After she sees them off, waving from the front porch alongside her father and brother, it dawns on her exactly what to get Zuko for his birthday.
Though she misses him desperately after they are gone, even the memory of his presence seems to soothe the sting. Now she can picture him at her work, in her house, in her bed. She doesn’t feel quite so remote here at the literal ends of the Earth; she is not so far away that she can never be reached. Besides, the first week without him is the worst, and she has the envelope to look forward to, plus the present she had shipped him the same day he left her house. It’s definitely late for his birthday, but at least it arrives at his apartment in time to be there when he gets back from the South Pole.
He calls her when he is finally locked safely away in his bedroom, both gifts in hand. “Open the package first,” she instructs.
“Yes ma’am,” he quips. There is the sound of ripping tape and cardboard, and then a quiet inhale. “This is like the one you put up here when you moved in.”
“Yes. It’s a rite of passage,” she explains. “When Water Tribe children come of age, a village elder paints the seascape on that day—the icebergs drift over time, so no two scenes are alike. Then the parents choose the Mark they feel their child has earned, and the father adds it to the top. The finished product is something to be treasured, proof that you belong. Traditionally the frame is hung over the head of the bed. Mine used to be in my apartment, and now it’s in yours—ours.”
“The marks aren’t the same.” She can picture the way his brow is furrowed, the way he is looking between her painting on the wall and his in his hands.
“No,” she says softly. “My father gave me the Mark of the Brave. Sokka has the Mark of the Wise. He gave you the Mark of the Trusted.”
“Your father—he made this one? For me?”
“Yes, he did. Obviously you’ve already come of age, but the ceremony can be honorary, too—a sign that an outsider has been made to belong.”
The idea had crashed over her as Zuko and Iroh left, at once shocking and obvious. Bestowing a Mark on an outsider is not taken lightly, least of all by her father. It is both a privilege and a responsibility to be made part of the tribe, something she had kept in mind when she had broached the idea with her father on their porch. “Don’t you think,” she had asked Hakoda, “that he and Iroh have been shouldering their responsibility since they first built the plants in Raava and Vaatu? Isn’t it time we extend them the commensurate privilege?”
Hakoda had regarded his daughter quietly for a long moment. “Iroh has more than earned his honor among our people. Zuko, too. But belonging to the Water Tribe is the least of the privilege you are asking of me on this young man’s behalf.”
Her stomach had plummeted through the floorboards.
“You are asking me,” he had continued, “to trust him not only with the sacred honor of our people, but also with you.” Then the corners of his eyes had crinkled with a teasing smile. “Did you think it would be lost on me that the ritual of marriage can only be honored by our elders between a Tribeswoman and an outsider if the outsider has been given a Mark?”
“That’s not what this is about,” she had mumbled, studying her feet. “They have fled much pain and suffering in their own land, living now almost as refugees in the Earth Kingdom. You and Sokka saw fit to invite them into our home, and they have given much to our people. It seems only fair to offer them what belonging we can.”
“Very well. I will send Iroh the Talisman of the Elders and Zuko the Ceremonial Painting.”
She had thrown her arms around him, her heart soaring. “Thank you, Dad.”
He had hugged her tightly. “Do you love this young man, Katara? And he, you?”
“Then,” Hakoda had said, “I will bestow upon him the Mark of the Trusted.”
Zuko’s voice trembles. “Katara, this is—I don’t even know what to say.”
“Happy Birthday,” she offers gently.
He gives a quiet laugh. “This might be the most wonderful birthday gift I’ve ever gotten.”
She is suddenly blinking back tears. “You deserve it. Put it up over your side of the bed.”
Zuko takes a few steadying breaths. Then he is teasing her, “Does your father know I’ll be putting it up over the bed we share? Surely by Water Tribe custom, we are living in sin.”
She snorts. “I’m sure he’s figured it out. Besides, we pick and choose which customs we carry forward. I think I’m also breaking ceremonial law by going to college instead of providing my father an heir.”
Zuko hums in amusement. “You just say the word, Kitty Kat—no reason we can’t do both.”
“Oh, hush,” she snips, even as blood rushes to her cheeks. For once, she is glad he can’t see her. “Don’t make me regret either present.”
She hasn’t thought about that before, although she is certainly thinking about it now. It is not the time for a baby, won’t be for many years, but suddenly she is picturing what it would be like—Zuko’s seed spilling into her fertile womb, her belly growing round with their child, Hakoda and Iroh competing for who can spoil the baby the most. She tries to shove the thought aside, knowing she will have to shelve it for nearly a decade, but her heart races all the same.
“Kat,” Zuko is saying. “Kat, are you there?”
“What? Sorry, I’m here.”
Zuko laughs that hot, tantalizing laugh. “We’ll have to revisit that, hm?”
“Shut up and open your envelope,” she mutters.
She hears him ripping at the paper. A beat later, he lets loose a string of cursing that would make Sokka blush.
She has given him a collection of Polaroids, taken over the course of several weeks. The one on top is from right after the first time Zuko had used the vibrator on her—already a delicious memory, more erotic than any of the pictures she’s texted him before—and this one has her face.
Ah, how the tables have finally turned. “I get nervous about having my face in cell phone pictures,” she explains, not even trying to keep the smirk out of her voice. “Just a habit—they’re so easily shared. Polaroids, though...you have the only copies.”
“You,” he accuses hoarsely, “are trying to kill me.”
“I will if you don’t keep those pictures safe,” she threatens.
He barks out a laugh. “Are you kidding me? As if I would share you, especially looking like this, good enough to eat—” His words devolve into muttered curses again as he shuffles through the deck. “Spirits. Fuck. Fuck, Katara, these are…”
She’s more than a little proud of her ameteur boudoir shoot. It had taken some serious finagling to get the hang of selfies with a Polaroid, especially since her first attempt had been after the most mind-blowing orgasm of the summer. She had gradually added to the portfolio after that, posing in various states of undress, always making eye contact with the camera.
“You are the most incredible woman I have ever met,” he says finally. “I don’t know if I should punish you for this, or reward you.”
“I think,” she purrs, pitching her voice low, “that at this point, they’re the same thing.”
As the summer draws to a close, Katara finds herself surprisingly calm about starting medical school in the fall. It is normally the sort of thing that would make her nervous, except maybe it isn’t anymore. Maybe she has spent enough time in the clinic by now to know this is her purpose. Maybe she has lived through enough hard things by now to know she can survive a few more. Maybe she has seen her childhood home filled with her family, by blood and by choice, and now she can begin to let go of what she had so desperately wanted—a life without the loss of her mother—and hold tight to what she has—a life marked with grief and yet filled with joy. A life with her father and brother, with Suki and Toph and Haru and Jin, with Iroh, with Zuko. A life different from what she had pictured but wonderful nonetheless.
She and Sokka fly back to Ba Sing Se together the week before classes start—business school for him, medical school for her. Before they go, they make their father promise to visit at least once a month, and faced with their unified and formidable front, he agrees.
Suki and Zuko wait for them side-by-side in the airport. Katara is sure that Suki and Sokka have a lovely reunion, but she doesn’t see a second of it. She only has eyes for Zuko, who yanks her into a bruising kiss the moment he gets his hands on her. Even when he lets them up for air, he keeps her close with his arms tight around her waist, as if he can't bear to let her get a centimeter further away.
“I love you,” she whispers.
“I love you, too.” He kisses her again, softly this time, and then tells her, “No more summers apart.”
She grins. “Yes, sir.”