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Katara has never, ever struggled in a class before.

She’s made it all the way to the fall semester of her senior year at BU with her shiny 4.0 intact, and, sure, her biochemistry program has involved some challenging material, but she’s always redoubled her efforts and come out with an A. She’s proud of her record, and she’s never feared for it. At least, not until now.

Even the first half of Organic Chemistry II wasn’t so bad. It took her more studying than usual—something like re-tripling her efforts—but she secured high marks on the first two exams. Now it is November, her other classes are kicking into high gear, and the Advanced Synthesis unit is kicking her ass.

She lugs her books and binders to the Chemistry building study room, her Monday-Wednesday-Friday habit since August. The TA, Haru, holds office hours those afternoons, and she works with him every chance she gets. Sometimes she can make her way through the assignments without stopping to ask him more than a handful of questions; other times, he helps her through nearly every problem. She has a feeling today is going to be more of the latter, and she dumps her stuff on one of the tables with a sigh. “Haru, I think I’m—”

Haru’s desk is occupied, but not by him. A dark-haired guy with sharp golden eyes and a nasty scar on one side of his face has the chair tipped back onto two legs, his boots crossed on the normally pristine desk.

“You’re not Haru.”

His lips curl into a lazy smirk. “No, I’m not.” His voice is low and deep.

“Who are you?” she demands. “Where’s Haru?”

He answers her questions out of order. “Haru is sick. I’m Zuko. I’m his roommate.”

“And this makes you qualified to TA organic chemistry?” She knows she’s being rude, but every inch of this asshole screams superiority complex, not to mention that she really, really needs help with today’s homework.

His smirk deepens. “It doesn’t, but I did make an A in the class, which was good enough for the electrical engineering PhD program.”

She flushes. “Oh.” Shit, she really is being rude.

“Oh,” he agrees, swinging his feet off the desk and letting the chair bang down. When he stands, she sees he is tall and lanky, wearing tight black jeans and a plaid shirt unbuttoned over his vee-neck. He crosses the room until he is at her table and swings an empty chair around to straddle it. “You must be Katara.”

You must definitely be an asshole, she thinks, eying the cliché Bad Boy pose and shaggy black hair. She tries to breathe through her frustration. “Yes. Nice to meet you.”

He doesn’t return the nicety. “Haru told me about you, said you’d be here for sure.” He taps her textbook. “Well, let’s see it.”

Spreading out her notes and papers, she shows him today’s topic and her progress so far (which is not much progress to speak of). “I’m just not very good at synthesis,” she explains quietly.

Zuko props his chin in one hand and points to her current problem with the other. “This part is right,” he says, “so I know you are good at it. You’re just stuck somewhere in here.” He hms and twists his mouth thoughtfully. “Walk me through your process.”

She does, and he pinpoints her issue immediately. It only takes him a few minutes to explain the concept before it clicks in her brain. Soon she is scribbling reactions as fast as she can write and flying through the assignment. He watches her work closely, eyes roving the pages, and leans in to correct her here and there, but mostly she gets it now.

“Wow,” she says, sagging back in her chair after she checks the last problem. “I think that’s the fastest I’ve ever gotten through the homework.” She breathes a sigh of relief and studies her new savior.

The way he’s sitting, she can’t see the scar on his left side. What she can see of his chiseled face is handsome in a devilish sort of way, if you’re into the bad boy thing, which she’s not. Still, the span of his biceps is visible even through the long-sleeved flannel, and he’s close enough to her that she can feel the heat of him, and it turns out he’s a really good organic chemistry tutor. Maybe she was too harsh when she deemed him a jerk.

“Thank you,” she tells him with a smile. “You’re a really talented teacher.”

He laces his fingers behind his head and tips his chair back, a satisfied smile playing over his face. “I know.”

Nope, he’s definitely an asshole.

***

By Wednesday, Katara is lost in class again and running low on sleep. She trudges up the stairs to the study room and finds a few other students there already—at least she’s not the only one confused. Any comfort that provides turns cold when she spots Zuko leaning over a guy’s notebook, elbows propped on the desk. She’s so pissed to see him and not Haru that she can’t even appreciate her admittedly nice view of his ass from her place in the doorway.

Ok, maybe she can appreciate it a little bit.

She drops her stuff by a table in the back of the room and collapses into the chair, hand on the bridge of her nose. She’d be happy to see him—she could definitely use another of his brilliantly intuitive explanations—if he wasn’t such a jackass.

Just breathe, Katara, she tells herself. You can deal with one guy’s bad attitude for one more day.

Zuko finishes with the other student and pulls the same move as Monday, crossing the room and dragging over a chair to straddle. Katara barely resists the urge to roll her eyes.

“Kat,” he says, by way of what she guesses is a greeting. “Do people call you Kat?”

She fixes him with a glare. “No.”

His answering smile shows off sharp white teeth. “Great.”

Ugh.

She opens her textbook with a little more force than necessary and stabs at the offending page. “This reaction. It doesn’t make sense.”

He studies it for a moment, then studies her. His gaze is intense, and she feels herself flush under the scrutiny. It’s like he can see right through her skull, right into her brain, and if that’s how he can pinpoint her O-Chem struggles, she’s not sure the vulnerability is worth the trade-off.

After a few more excruciating seconds, he looks back at the page and without preamble walks her through the reaction. Just as before, his explanation clicks, and in no time she has the assignment well underway.

While she is working, the other students call Zuko over, and he spends a few minutes with them intermittently, offering quiet corrections and assistance. Curiously, though, he returns to her desk when he’s done each time, as though he’s checking on her progress. She’s nearing the end of the chapter when he finishes helping another girl and sits back down so close his knee bumps into hers. He doesn’t pull away, leaving the warm press of his leg to make her stomach flip, and she gulps.

She’s really not into the whole early-2000’s emo thing he’s got going on, even with the few modern elements splashed in, like the way he’s twisted his long hair up into a bun today, which coincidently reveals the corded muscle of his neck and shoulder. The punk-rock wannabe thing aside, she can admit that he is handsome, but that sharp striking face is wasted on such a condescending guy.

She chalks up the butterfly feeling to delirious exhaustion and writes out the last problem. When she checks her answer in the back, it’s correct, and she lets the book fall shut with relief.

He arches an eyebrow when she starts packing up. “No thank-you today?” he drawls. “No compliment?”

She ignores him. “Please tell me Haru will be back on Friday.”

“Come on,” he chides. “Haru tells me you’re a nice girl. Tells me nonstop, actually.”

And that’s a problem, because she’s pretty sure Haru has a little crush on her, and this piece of information is more of the same. If it makes him more attentive to her in office hours, she could certainly use the help, but she doesn’t mean to lead him on. Haru is nice, and he’s even her type (if you ignore her fling with Jet, which she does, because that would mean she was into the Bad Boy type, which she isn’t). She’s just so overwhelmed with school right now, so worn out, there’s no way she has time to strike up a relationship. She feels bad. He really is a sweet guy.

“Is he okay?” she asks quietly, ignoring Zuko’s pointed remark.

He relents, gives her a real answer. “Yeah, he’s getting there. He thinks Friday he’ll be ok, maybe Monday.”

She grimaces. “We’ll hope Friday. There’s a test Monday morning.”

His teasing smirk is back. “You mean I’m not good enough to help you study for your test?”

She rolls her eyes and zips up her backpack. “Bye, Zuko.”

“Bye, Kat,” he grins.

Over her shoulder on her way out of the room, she yells, “Don’t call me that!”

Asshole.

***

When she finds Zuko scrolling through his phone at Haru’s desk on Friday, she nearly bangs her head against the wall. She does at least let her textbook drop loudly onto the table, and Zuko looks up with that feral grin she’s coming to know so well.

“Nice to see you, Kat,” he purrs, rising to cross the room.

She grinds her teeth. “Don’t call me that.”

He swoops in next to her. “Now, now. Shouldn’t you be a little nicer to the person who’s going to help you get your precious A?”

She puts her elbows on the table and her head in her hands. “I think it’s too late for an A,” she mutters bitterly.

He shrugs one shoulder. “You could take it now and get a C. You’ll pass the class one way or the other. It’s not a big deal—only neurotic people care about getting an A every time.”

She glares at him. “Also people who need a 3.7 to keep their scholarship and a 4.0 to have a prayer of getting into med school.”

This deflates him a little. “Oh.”

He doesn’t apologize, but he does spend as much time as he can helping her for the next few hours. It’s not much time—the room is full of students cramming for Monday’s test, and they keep Zuko busy. By the end of office hours, Katara is a lot closer to tears than she is to any kind of organic chemistry enlightenment.

This is it, she thinks. My chances of being a doctor, blown to bits by a class I’d never even use. She puts her head on her desk and listens to the others zipping up their bags and filing out of the room.

Black boots enter her field of vision. “Hey,” Zuko rumbles. “It’s going to be okay.” The kindness in his voice surprises her, and she looks up at him. “Listen, if you want more help—I’ll be up here tomorrow.”

She blinks. “Tomorrow’s Saturday.”

He huffs something like a laugh. “I know.”

Her tired brain pieces together that he is offering to come to campus on a Saturday, when there are no scheduled office hours, just to help her. This does not compute with her understanding of him as an overconfident SOB, and she worries the incongruity will push her right over the edge.

“Thank you,” she tells him earnestly.

The corner of his mouth curls up. “There are those nice-girl manners.”

She drops her head back down.

Asshole.

***

She heads for the study room bright and early Saturday morning, swinging by the coffee shop on her way. After some hemming and hawing—he’s a jackass, but he’s helping her—she buys him a cup along with her own. She arrives at the Chemistry building a little after 7:30, and Zuko is already there, typing away on his laptop.

“Hey, Kat,” he says absently, eyes on the screen. “Sorry, let me finish this real quick.”

She doesn’t bother to correct the nickname, just sets down the steaming coffee cups and pulls out her books.

“Is this for me?” he asks after a few minutes, indicating the coffee, and she nods. He looks between it and her and murmurs, almost too quiet to hear, “Sweet girl.”

It’s a strange thing to say, and she doesn’t think she was meant to catch it. Even stranger is the jolt it sends through her.

She doesn’t have time to examine that, though, and Zuko is already paging through her textbook. “This is where we left off, right?” he asks.

He spends the next several hours alternating between his computer and her notes, tapping at the keyboard while she ponders a problem and returning to her when she has questions. By lunchtime, she feels so much better than she considers an actual lunch break.

“I’m going to walk over to the student center and get some food,” she tells him, standing up to stretch. “Can I bring you something?”

He’s absorbed in his laptop for the moment, chin in hand. “No, I’m good,” he says through his fingers.

“Let me,” she insists. “As a thank-you for helping me. Please.”

This breaks him away from his computer, and he meets her eyes. A look she can’t decipher flickers across his face. “Well,” he says finally, “since you asked nicely.”

He walks over with her, and she pays for sandwiches for both of them. They eat at a little outside table, and Zuko zips his jacket against the late-November chill. “Aren’t you cold?” he complains.

She smiles. “I’m from the South Pole. This is balmy.”

He considers this. “Ba Sing Se is a long way from the South Pole.”

“Ba Sing Se has the best university in the world,” she counters. “It’s a long way from the Fire Nation, too.” His pale skin and yellow eyes are a dead giveaway.

“I don’t mind the distance.” It’s a cryptic answer, but she doesn’t press. She has a sinking suspicion it has something to do with the angry scar over his left eye and cheek, and she’s not about to pry into whatever awful thing happened to leave such a prominent mark. She knows that modern medical techniques have come a long way in repairing burns, and he doesn’t look so old that the injury could predate the widespread use of skin grafts, even if it happened when he was a kid. Someone didn’t take him to a doctor, or at least not to a very good one, and that is too horrific to contemplate.

She decides to change the subject. “So, electrical engineering. How far along are you in your PhD?”

“Only in my second year. I’ve got a ways to go.” So he’s only a few years older than she is.

“What was your bachelor’s degree in? Is it from here?”

He nods. “I did mechanical engineering, and then I got really interested in electrical grounding systems.”

She tilts her head. “Like, when something gets struck by lightning?”

He grimaces. “Exactly.”

She bypasses the grimace, files it away with scar and distance. “Hey, you must know my brother Sokka! He graduated last year from the mechanical engineering program.”

Zuko stares at her in disbelief. “Sokka is your brother?”

“Yep. He’s back in the South Pole now, but he keeps talking about coming back for an MBA. I hope he does.”

“Sokka,” Zuko repeats. “Man, that guy was a genius. Life of the party, too. I can’t believe you’re his little sister.”

She drops her head back. “Thanks.” Every time she thinks he might have some non-asshole characteristics…

He laughs. “No, sorry, that’s not what I meant.” He has a nice laugh. “He used to talk about you all the time. He had a habit of saying how great you were and then threatening to strangle anyone who went near you.”

Fondness spreads through her. “That does sound like him.” She really does hope he’ll get an MBA, for his sake, and if it means they can live close together again, all the better. The South Pole is a long way away, and her first year so far from home would have been unbearable without him checking in on her constantly.

Zuko’s face slips into his familiar smirk. “And all this time he should’ve been threatening Haru.”

It's her turn to grimace. “I don’t think that’ll be necessary.”

“He’s pretty into you.” Zuko rocks his chair back. She wonders if he’s ever fallen out of one that way.

“He’s nice,” she sighs. “Just not for me. Not right now.”

“Maybe later?” Zuko guesses.

She shrugs. “Maybe. Probably not. There’s not really any spark there, you know? But I don’t want to hurt his feelings.” Why is she telling him all this?

“Haru’s a big boy.” Zuko stands up, as if that’s all there is to say on the matter. “Better get back to it.”

She nods, and they return to their work. Katara gathers that Zuko is writing his dissertation proposal, and he tells her a little about it when she takes study breaks. It sounds interesting, although by the evening he is tugging on his hair in frustration. She feels bad taking his time away from the project, and she almost offers to buy him dinner to make up for it, but that feels too much like a date.

And she just told him she didn’t have time for dates.

And she doesn’t want to date him, anyway.

Finally, they call it a night. Katara feels better about O-Chem than she has all semester, and she beams at Zuko even though she knows it’ll go to his head. “You saved my GPA. Maybe my sanity.”

He shrugs. “Haru will be back Monday—although, please don’t come to office hours after your exam.”

“We covered new material on Friday,” she reminds him.

“Overachiever,” he mutters.

She shoulders her backpack. “Night, Zuko.”

“Night, Kat.”

***

She spends all day Sunday reviewing for her exam, and studying is breeze now that Zuko has made all the concepts slot neatly into place in her mind. It’s almost strange, doing O-Chem without him; she has to remind herself he’s only been subbing for Haru for a week.

And what a strange week it’s been. She feels lighter, less burdened by the specter of failing chemistry, but some part of her feels heavier, warmth and weight settled low in her belly. When she gets into her twin bed for the night, her fingers creep under the elastic of her panties. She could use the stress relief, she reasons with herself. She lets her mind wander while her hand works, and when her orgasm shudders through her, she swallows back Zuko’s name.

Chapter Text

When Katara leaves her test the next morning, feeling confident for the first time all semester, she turns her phone back on to find two messages. One is from her brother’s girlfriend Suki:

S: Hey!! Small world!! Zuko just texted me asking for your number—says he’s your O-Chem tutor!

Katara frowns, texts back:

K: That’s weird. He was in Sokka’s program—why wouldn’t Zuko just ask him?

Why wouldn’t he just ask her?

Suki answers immediately:

S: Uh, can you imagine Sokka giving your number to a guy???

S: Especially a guy that hot

Katara groans.

K: He’s just helping me with O-Chem.

S: He can be hot while he’s doing that ;););)

K: He’s mostly a jerk while he’s doing that

There’s a pause before Suki’s next message, but Katara can see the little bubbles indicating she’s typing the whole time.

S: He’s got a lot going on underneath the jerk exterior. Give him a chance.

Even weirder.

K: There’s no chance to give—he’s just my substitute TA.

S:Just saying

Katara shakes her head and opens her other unread message. It’s from an unfamiliar number that, based on her conversation with Suki, must be Zuko.

Z: How was the test?

She’s not surprised he doesn’t bother to identify himself, but she is surprised he cares enough to ask. She answers:

K: Really good.

Z: Thanks to me

Typical. She sends back a slew of eye-rolling emojis.

The rest of the morning is taken up by Bio II lab and a quick lunch. After that, it’s time for office hours, and she goes in spite of Zuko’s advice.

Haru is back in his normal place, and while she’s happy to see him doing alright, she feels a twinge of something like disappointment. She thinks grimly that she must really be losing it if she’s missing that asshole.

She and Haru work cheerfully through her assignment, but she can’t help but notice that he isn’t the gifted instructor Zuko is. She feels bad comparing them, especially when Haru is always so kind, but she’s frustrated.

Maybe that’s why she misses Zuko, she tells herself. What she misses is his teaching. She doesn’t miss him, with his infuriating arrogance and his silken hair and his tight jeans and—

She has got to get a grip.

She doesn’t, though, because her phone buzzes and her heart leaps with the fierce hope that it’s Zuko.

It is.

Z: You better not be in office hours.

She giggles in spite of herself.

K: Guilty.

Z: Bad girl.

It’s as strange as “sweet girl,” and it makes her feel just as shivery.

She is really, definitely losing it.

She takes a breath, tries again to get a grip. She still has work to do, and even though it looks like Haru is packing up, she resolves to stay until her assignment is finished.

“See you later, Katara,” Haru says a few minutes later.

“Bye, Haru. Thank you!”

“No problem!” he calls.

She scratches out a few more problems before she hears heavy footsteps approaching the room. She wonders who it could be after hours, and she definitely does not hope the sound goes with familiar black boots, except she totally does and her stomach somersaults when Zuko props himself in the doorway.

“What are you doing here?” she asks him, fighting to squash the excitement she fears is plain in her voice.

He’s smirking, but he would be doing that whether or not he could tell how happy she is to see him. “Rescuing you from office hours.”

She gestures around the empty room. “I’m afraid you’re too late.”

He points to her open books. “Somehow, I’m not.”

What is he doing here, this guy she barely knows who has given her hours of his time and bummed her number from Suki? And what is she doing, grinning at him through the butterflies in her stomach, missing him like she hadn’t met him precisely one week ago?

“Well, since you’re here, I actually need help with number—”

“Oh, no,” he groans. “I’m here to make you not do your homework.”

That’s puzzling. All they do together is homework. “What do you mean?”

“You just took a huge test, which I’m sure you aced, and you’ve been studying nonstop for a week. You need to get out of this room, take a break, maybe even have some fun. When was the last time you ate real food?”

She thinks about cereal for breakfast, granola bars for lunch, and her dwindling supply of noodles for dinner. She can’t actually remember when she ate anything else, except—“We ate sandwiches on Saturday!”

He arches an eyebrow. “While studying.”

“In between studying,” she protests.

“Pack up your shit,” he tells her. “We’re going to that sushi place down the street.”

She does love Osaka. And she is hungry. And she has been working nonstop.

Except, is this a date? Because she doesn’t have time for dates. And she doesn’t date assholes, not even when they have on ripped skinny jeans and red flannel button-ups and gray bomber jackets that are snug over their broad shoulders. Especially not then.

Zuko pushes off the doorframe and comes to close her books and binders. “Come on, Kat.”

And when did she start liking that nickname? She hates when people call her anything but Katara. Especially when, up close, those people smell like woodsmoke and jasmine, and they grab her hand and pull her out of her chair, and even when they drop her hand her skin feels burned but in a good way.

“Fine,” she mutters, shoving her books in her backpack. Before she can pick it up, he does, and it’s such a sweet gesture that she almost forgets he’s herding her to dinner practically against her will.

Except nobody has ever made her do anything against her will. She trots down the stairs after him, and he holds the door open and laughs his warm laugh at something dumb she says, and she is very, very willing.

***

Seated in the red pleather booth across from Zuko, Katara orders and then asks him, “How’s your dissertation proposal going?”

The restaurant is warm and cheery; under the table, Zuko’s feet bump hers.

“It’s good. One part was giving me trouble, but I figured it out this morning.”

“That’s good.” She twists her hands in her lap, realizing she doesn’t know what else to say. Spirits, is she always this awkward?

He saves her (again). “Since I’m sure you’re already thinking about it, when’s your next O-Chem test?”

“The next exam is the final.”

“Do you have a lot of finals?”

She blows out a breath. Bio II, Bio II lab, Anatomy I, Anatomy II lab, Anthropology, all on top of O-Chem II and the lab practical.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

She smiles thinly and nods. “Do you have finals?”

“I have one. It’s for my last class I have to take; after that, it’s just working on my dissertation.”

“You’re just two years in, right? How long will your dissertation take?”

He shrugs one shoulder. “Three or four years. Maybe five. Hopefully not five.”

She laughs. “I feel your pain.”

“Yeah, med school.” He sighs this time. “That’s a lot of work for a long time.”

“I know. I think it’s worth it, though.”

“Do you think you’ll go here? Have you already applied?”

The waitress brings their food, and Katara nods while she breaks apart her chopsticks. “Yes to both. BU lets some students early-commit, but their requirements are really strict. I’ve been provisionally accepted, but I have to finish my degree and meet all their standards, or they won’t let me in.”

“Hence the 4.0,” Zuko says before digging into his dinner.

“Hence the 4.0,” she agrees.

They fall quiet to eat their sushi, but it feels less awkward this time. Katara catches him looking at her, and when she offers him a little smile, he smiles back. He has a handsome smile, she thinks. A handsome everything, when he isn’t smirking. And when he is.

“What do you want to do after you finish your PhD?” she asks when she’s finished. “I know that’s a long way off.”

“There’s this company, Dragon West, that makes state-of-the-art grounding systems and deploys them all over the world. They make sure power surges don’t bring down hospitals or transportation systems, that sort of thing. And they specialize in challenging settings, like remote areas where traditional systems are impossible to install.”

She thinks about (hopefully) working in a hospital one day, about how catastrophic it would be to lose power, even with backup generators. She thinks about the outskirts of her South Pole village, where “challenging setting” is an understatement. “Wow. That’s really cool. Where is it?”

“They’re headquartered here in Ba Sing Se, but they have offices all over the world. A lot of their engineers travel.”

“Sounds like you’re pretty set on it.”

He nods. “What about you—what kind of doctor do you want to be?”

“Family physician,” is her automatic answer.

He laughs. “Sounds like you’re pretty set on it.”

She is. “Where I grew up, there wasn’t much access to healthcare. You could take a boat to the southern part of the Earth Kingdom, but people don’t do that until they’re really sick, and by then, a lot of times, it’s too late. I want to catch problems early, help people stay healthy for a long time. Hopefully, my patients will never have to make a life-or-death voyage.”

“So you want to go back to your hometown?”

“That, I’m not sure about.” She goes back and forth, wanting to help her people, wanting to see the world. “I would be okay helping any group of people who need it, whether that’s in the South Pole or not.” She always gets a warm welcome when she returns to her cold homeland, but nothing ever seems to change. They treat her like she hasn’t changed, either, at least not since she turned about 12. She likes the freedom she has at BU to be anything, anyone she wants to be.

Zuko sits back in his side of the booth and studies her with that same searching intensity she felt in the Chem building.

“What?” she says uncomfortably, feeling herself flush.

“That’s just…” He seems to cast around for the right words. She realizes this is the first time she’s ever seen him anything less than confident—overconfident, really. “Your plan is very…it’s kind.”

She blushes in earnest. “No, it’s just…everybody deserves healthcare. Your plan helps with that, too. Protecting hospitals, extending your service to remote areas…it’s the same idea.”

She swears his pale cheeks go the faintest shade of pink, but the waitress brings the check before she can pry further. Zuko flips open his wallet and hands her his card in a flash; the waitress sweeps away with it before Katara can even unzip her bag.

“Oh, no,” she protests. “You don’t have to—”

“I want to,” he interrupts. He says it without preamble, without explanation, without bumbling around it.

“Oh.” She fidgets. “Thank you.”

There’s his smirk, his cocky drawl. “My pleasure.”

He insists on walking her home, and she doesn’t bother to argue this time, considering how far it got her before and during dinner. He shoulders her backpack again without comment while they walk the short distance to her off-campus apartment. It’s tiny, and kind of crappy, but he doesn’t say anything when he sets her bag down inside the door.

Standing on the threshold with him, Katara’s nerves suddenly lurch into overdrive. She still doesn’t know if dinner was a date, or just dinner, and she doesn’t know which she wants it to be or which he wants it to be. If it were a date, this would be the goodnight kiss, but she has barely even touched him before. She thinks a kiss might electrocute her, and she wonders dimly if he could build a system to protect her from that.

He doesn’t really linger long enough for it to be a question, just trots down the steps and yells, “Night, Kat!”

“Night,” she calls back as she shuts the door. She tells herself she’s not disappointed.

***

In the middle of Tuesday’s Anthropology lecture, Katara gets a text from Suki. She usually doesn’t check her phone during class, but she is half-hoping it’s Zuko, and lying to herself about the other half.

S:Sooooo, how was Osaka?

Katara’s eyes go wide.

K:How did you know I was at Osaka?

S:A certain someone asked me what your favorite restaurant was.

Her breath catches in her throat. This is…new information. New information that strongly suggests Zuko, well, likes her. Is pursuing her. Something like that.

She should just tell him she’d trade sex for O-Chem help.

No, she should definitely not tell him that.

S:Well??? I’m dying to know.

S:Is this your first date, or do you count all the study sessions?

S:I didn’t text you last night just in case you got lucky

S:So, did you get lucky?

Katara smacks her forehead. A few of her classmates shoot her weird looks, and she slides down in her seat a little.

K:None of the above. We just had dinner.

Suki sends her a string of angry red faces.

K:What??? I just met him like a week ago!

S:Yeah, and then you went to dinner with a guy you just met a week ago. Which is very unlike you.

S:And Toph says you’re glowing.

She snorts. Toph is a materials engineering student, but they’ve taken several core classes together, and this semester they sit together in biology. Katara always sends Toph her notes to put through her text-to-voice program—Toph is blind.

K:How would Toph know?

S:She says she knows. I don’t question it.

It is true that Toph is uncannily perceptive. Katara wouldn’t question it, either, except she had caught sight of herself in the mirror after their date-not-date the night before and nearly died.

K:Well, I went out in sweats and no makeup, so maybe the glowing is just because I can’t remember when I last washed my hair.

S:Girl, get a grip.

Indeed.

***

She feels jangly all day, nervously checking her phone every minute. Zuko hasn’t texted her, and why would he? So far, they’ve interacted almost exclusively about O-Chem, and there’s nothing to say about it on a Tuesday. There won’t really be anything to say about it at all now that Haru is back and her test is over.

She tries not to think about how sad that makes her.

She steps into the shower that night to shampoo her hair—she wasn’t lying when she said she really couldn’t remember the last time she’d done it—and wonders what in the world is wrong with her. She doesn’t like Zuko, not like that, but say she did—just for argument’s sake. She’s never had a problem with being up-front about her feelings before. She knows how to flirt, how to lean in and laugh, how to bat her eyelashes. She doesn’t believe in playing hard-to-get, and she’s perfectly willing to text first.

So, theoretically, if she wants to talk to Zuko, which she doesn’t, she could just text him. She would. If she wanted to.

She steps out of the shower, looks at herself in the mirror.

She wants to.

Her hands shake the tiniest bit as she wraps a towel around herself and sits on the bed. She picks up her phone, and effervescence bubbles through her.

She has a message from Zuko.

Z:Are you going to office hours tomorrow?

K:Every MWF for the rest of my life

K:Or at least the rest of the semester

Z:What do you think of Haru’s teaching compared to mine?

She rolls her eyes. What a jerk.

K:I don’t think your ego needs another compliment from me

He shoots back:

Z:So you were going to compliment me

Ok, maybe he has her there.

Z:Come to my office tomorrow and I’ll help you

She chews her thumbnail. It’s not so much an offer as it is an order, and that rankles her. Somehow, though, she doesn’t think he means it to be rude. After all, he is volunteering his time to teach her, and heaven knows she could use the help.

And she wants to see him.

Z:Engineering building, 334B.

Z:You’re welcome.

Asshole.

She sends him a thumbs-up.

***

Wednesday afternoon finds her standing in front of the closed door to office 334B, chewing her thumbnail and eying the standard nameplate:

Z. Sozin
PhD Candidate
EE Dept.

She’s nervous. She wants to see him, and she doesn’t know why she wants to see him, except of course it’s because she has a crush on him the size of Omashu, and after Jet she swore to herself she would never do the Bad Boy thing again.

Except Jet never gave two shits about her schoolwork. He did a few suave things, like hold doors and pay for dinner, but he never spent his time helping her, not like Zuko has. And Jet wasn’t exactly a PhD candidate.

And here she is, wearing makeup for effing study hall.

She steels herself and knocks on the door.

“Come in!” he calls.

When she steps into his tiny office, it’s like she gets a little glimpse inside Zuko. His desk is neat, stacked with pens and papers and a calculator. A whiteboard on one wall is covered in equations, and a neighboring bulletin board holds a calendar and a dozen sticky notes. He has a second chair wedged in a corner with a little table, where a candle is flickering—that’s where his jasmine smell comes from. A few pictures hang on the wall above the table; one is a landscape of an island volcano that she’s sure is somewhere in the Fire Nation, and next to it is a photo of Zuko and a portly older man, both of them smiling. Below those is a picture of a group of people in robes; she recognizes it as the same kind of graduation photo Sokka has, although Sokka’s is from a year later.

Altogether, it’s a cozy little space, and of course, she likes it because it is so very Zuko, and it has him in it.

He’s sprawled in his desk chair with his laptop plugged into two more monitors, spreadsheets on every screen. He has on his typical jeans-boots-and-flannel, his hair twisted up into a topknot again. It’s a familiar sight now, but no less handsome, and warmth unfurls through her.

This does not bode well for concentrating on chemistry.

“Hey, Kat.” He swivels his chair toward her and takes in her makeup, her loose hair, her jeans and sweater. “Aren’t you pretty.”

Instantly, blood rushes to her face, and he gives her a wicked grin.

“Hi,” she ekes out.

He waves a hand at the little table and chair. “Sit, sit. Sorry there’s not much space. Grad student life, you know?”

She nods and folds herself into the corner. Zuko rolls his chair across the foot of space that separates his desk and the table while she unpacks her books, and suddenly he is very close and she can’t quite breathe normally.

He seems to pick up on all of this with that same uncanny way of looking right through her skull. It is comforting and terrifying all at once, to be seen this way.

“When do you get your test score?” he asks her while he studies the problem set she’s working on.

“Friday. The waiting is the worst part.”

He nods. “I’m sure you did well. Let me know, ok?”

And this isn’t him being smug; he isn’t smirking, just asking, and she gives him a little smile. “Definitely.”

They start in on what has become their routine; Zuko sets her straight on the concepts and then returns to his own work, rolling his chair back to her when she has questions. For all he makes her thrum with excitement and nerves and she-doesn’t-know-what, they pass the hours in easy silence and low conversation. The afternoon goes quickly and far less stressfully than afternoons with O-Chem usually go; the clock is ticking toward six-thirty before she knows it. She shuts her book triumphantly, and Zuko chuckles, stretching back in his chair.

“Look at that,” he yawns. “You’re an expert.”

“Uh huh,” she mumbles, distracted completely by the expanse of skin revealed by his shirt when he puts his arms over his head. It’s as alabaster as the rest of him, taut muscle pulling underneath, and his jeans are low enough that she can see a hipbone peeking out. She wonders what it would be like to put her mouth there, to taste him, and he laughs low and hot like he can hear her thinking it.

She’s sure she’s crimson as she packs up her books with shaky hands. She pleads silently with him not to call her on her blush, not yet, not when this is so new and terrifying and she feels shy and uncertain in a way she never has with a boy before. He must hear her, because he doesn’t say anything, just shrugs on his jacket and picks up her bag for her.

“Come on, Kat,” is all he says when he does speak. “Let’s get you home.”

She realizes as he locks his office behind them that he means to walk her home again. “Oh, you don’t have to—”

Echoing their conversation about dinner that weekend, he says, “I want to.”

This does not make her less crimson.

When they get outside, the cold air slaps her hot cheeks and renders her slightly more able to make human words. “The pictures in your office,” she asks as they cross the dark campus, “is that island in the Fire Nation?”

“Yeah,” he answers. “Crescent Island. A lot of Fire Nation myth and lore is centered around it. I just think it’s beautiful.”

“And the picture of you with—is that your dad?”

It is quiet enough for her to hear his breath catch. “That’s—that’s my uncle.”

“Oh.” That’s another piece of the puzzle that is Zuko, and she won’t fiddle with it, not right now. “What does he do?”

“He actually—” Zuko clears his throat. “He runs the company I was telling you about, Dragon West.” He sounds uncomfortable for the first time ever. “But it’s not—it’s not like I just want to work for family. I really believe in what he’s doing. And he won’t just give me a job because I’m his nephew. He doesn’t even—I haven’t even told him I want to work for him. Ok, he probably would give me a job because I’m his nephew, but really because he’s very generous. I want to apply when I have my PhD, when I’ve earned the position.”

Katara is surprised that all of this is pouring out, surprised that he is trying to explain himself. “Zuko, you don’t have to justify yourself to me. I know how hard our engineering program is from when Sokka was in it—and that’s just undergrad. BU wouldn’t let you into the PhD program if you hadn’t earned it.”

He’s looking down at his feet. “I just—I don't want you to think that I’m some spoiled brat, trying to skate by as the boss’s kid.”

The boss’s nephew, she thinks but doesn’t say. Instead, she bumps her shoulder into his gently and says, “I would never think that.”

She’s starting to get an inkling of what Suki had called a lot going on under the jerk exterior. It gets stranger and stranger, her time with Zuko, but she doesn’t mind.

Too soon, she is fumbling with the keys to her apartment, and Zuko lets her bag slide off his shoulder.

“Good night,” he says when she steps inside and cuts on the light.

“Night,” she says back. Stay, she wants to say. Kiss me.

Chapter Text

Thursday crawls by. Katara blames it on waiting for her O-Chem score, and that’s part of it, but mostly she is in Zuko limbo. Tuesdays and Thursdays – those are the days without office hours, official or otherwise, leaving her without an excuse to see him. She has no indication of what will happen on Friday, either. Should she go back to Haru? Does Zuko expect her to come see him? Is he going to invite her? Should she invite herself?

The uncertainty is killing her. This is why she doesn’t dance around emotions, why she likes to be up-front about her feelings. They are two adults, and they like each other (she thinks), and they should be able to just say so.

Every time she starts to type out a message, though, her fingers freeze up. In spite of herself, she is hesitant. Really, she is scared.

Scared to disturb this fragile thing between them. Scared of the force of her attraction to him. Scared of whatever lurks beneath his impenetrable surface.

At the same time, he is all she can think about, and it’s really starting to make sitting through Anthro lecture impossible.

This is ridiculous, she tells herself. It’s been two weeks. She knows nothing about his past, nothing about his family except for his uncle. She doesn’t know what about him is so magnetizing or how he can make her feel shy and bold all at once. She barely knows anything at all.

She runs through what she does know. She knows he is cocky, arrogant, always smug and smirking—except when he’s not, when he is tender and kind. She knows he is whip-smart, smarter than she is, and willing to help her. She knows Sokka likes him, and Suki is rooting for this (whatever this is) to happen. She knows he wants to build safer hospitals and work for his uncle, but not in a spoiled-kid way, which, of course, could be a lie for show—but she doesn’t think it is. Even though the sum total of what she doesn’t know dwarfs what she does know, she trusts him.

Maybe she shouldn’t. Maybe she’s crazy to be daydreaming about him, imagining what he looks like under the flannel, wishing for the halfway-fuzzy feeling she gets when he fixes his golden eyes on her. She’s sick with it, the wishing, and she has never been this gone for a guy before, not ever.

By the time she crawls into bed Thursday night, she’s exhausted from vacillating between run away and show up at his office naked. She doesn’t think either one is really a good idea, but they both have strong appeal.

Her phone buzzes on her bedside table.

She snatches it up.

Z: Prof brought candy to class today. Thought of you.

He’s sent her a picture of a Kit Kat. She slaps her hand over her face.

K: Now you know exactly why I hate “Kat.”

His response is immediate:

Z: You always smile when I say it.

Her stomach flip-flops.

K: You must be imagining that.

Z: Trust me, I’m well aware of what I have and have not imagined about you.

Heat flares in her belly. He’s out-and-out coming onto her now, and she feels briefly annoyed that it’s taken this long, that he’s been teasing her for two weeks, not to mention passing up on all his opportunities to kiss her.

K: Is that so?

She imagines him imagining her, and it’s not hard to suss out what he means. She flicks on the light on her bedside table, can’t believe what she’s contemplating.

Z: Don’t be coy, Kitty Kat.

Oh, she’s being coy? That fucking does it.

She yanks back the sheets and strips off the loose tee-shirt she wears to sleep. Her light blue bralette doesn’t match her panties, but she doesn’t care, just poses herself and opens the front-facing camera. She angles the shot so that her hipbones are barely visible at the bottom and the curl of her lips shows at the top. Arching her back just so, she snaps the picture and hits send before she can lose her nerve.

A minute passes, then two, and her heart pounds harder with every second. Maybe she’s made a huge mistake, a miscalculation, and now he thinks she’s cheap. Even worse, the pause gives her time to contemplate how they got from Kat to Kitty Kat, and why it makes her toes curl—

Z: I can’t decide if that makes you a very good girl or a very, very bad one.

Z: Either way, you’re the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen.

Her vision goes blurry around the edges.

Z: You better be in my office tomorrow.

She taps out a response that is supposed to be joking, tongue-in-cheek, but after she hits Send, she realizes it was anything but.

K: Yes, sir.

***

She doesn’t know how she makes it through O-Chem lecture the next morning, not when she is floating somewhere between embarrassed over her clumsy sexting and excited to see Zuko now that things have shifted. Arousal licks at the base of her spine all day, and she drifts around her apartment after class, to nervous to eat.

Just as she is getting ready to head for Zuko’s office, an email pings on her laptop to let her know her exam grade is posted. She bites her nails while she opens the class web site. It’s loading, loading, loading…

97

“Yes!” she crows. This is the best grade she’s made in O-Chem all semester, and it gives her some wiggle room going into the final. She relaxes minutely and opens her phone to text Zuko. He answers right away:

Z: That’s great! You did it!

K: Don’t you mean your teaching did it?

Z: Seriously, you worked really hard, and I’m really proud of you.

It is the kindest thing he’s said so far, and it makes her heart flutter.

K: Seriously, I couldn’t have done it without you. I don’t know how to thank you enough.

If she’s teeing him up for something, she wouldn’t admit it under oath.

Z: I can think of a few ways.

The smoldering flame in her belly climbs higher.

She spends a minute tousling her hair, then flips on her phone camera and pulls at the already-low neck of her sweater, revealing her favorite black lace bra. She splays the fingers of her free hand over her open mouth, slicked with bloodred lipstick.

K: Is this one of them?

She’s pretty pleased with herself, thinks maybe she’s getting the hang of the whole sexting thing, or at least the pictures.

Except several minutes tick by without an answer. This happened last night, she reminds herself. There are plenty of reasons why a person might not answer a text message right away.

Or after five minutes.

Or ten.

She types out Hello? and then erases it. What the fuck??? comes next. Are you okay?

Did I do something wrong?

She doesn’t send anything, just stares at the screen until it blurs and fades. It’s nearly an hour later when she gets a message from him:

Z: Something came up. I can’t see you today.

She whips the phone across the room.

“Fuck!”

***

After several glasses of wine have carried her late into the night, she texts Suki.

K: Your precious fucking Zuko just stood me up

S: What???

Her text is followed immediately by a call. Katara stabs the green button with more force than necessary.

“This is your fault,” she snaps. “You had to tell him I liked Osaka.”

Suki’s voice is slightly tinny over the speaker. “Slow down, there, cowgirl. Are you drunk?”

Katara’s voice wavers, and she curses its betrayal. “A lil.”

A heavy sigh. “Well, that is what a girl has to do when she gets her heart broken.”

“I’m not heartbroken,” she insists. “I’m pissed.”

“You can be both.”

She ignores Suki’s very valid point and instead wishes they could get drunk together. “I don’t suppose,” Katara grumbles, “your stupid internship in stupid Omashu is over yet.”

“No, honey,” Suki sighs. “But I miss you, too. Why don’t you tell me what happened?”

It takes her two more glasses of wine to get through the whole story, which is no longer the sexy boy-meets-girl tale she thought it was. Mostly, it’s humiliating.

“Have you considered,” Suki says drily, “that something really did come up?”

“What the fuck,” she slurs back, “kinda stupid explanation was that text?”

“The kind someone sends in an emergency?” Suki suggests.

“I’sbeen, like, nine hours.” She squints at the clock on her phone. “Maybe six. I dunno. Enough time to fucking call me.”

“Why don’t we give him the benefit of the doubt?”

“Why you gotta be reasonable?”

Suki laughs. “You need to take as aspirin and go to bed. We’ll decide if Zuko is irredeemable trash tomorrow.”

***

The ringing is, she assumes, specifically sent from hell to punish her for getting drunk instead of studying for O-Chem. When it doesn’t stop, she tacks on yelling at Suki; really, that was uncalled-for. This does not, however, appease the gods, and jangly music continues to assault her hungover brain.

Also, her sheets are buzzing. That’s unusual. She hunts around for the origin of the buzzing and is rewarded with the cursed source of the ringing.

Oh. It’s her phone.

“What fucking time is it?” she mumbles.

“It’s 8 o’clock. Well, I guess it’s 6 where you are. Sorry about that,” Zuko says.

Wait.

It’s Zuko.

“Hey,” she snaps, wide awake now, “what the fuck?” She stumbles out of bed to hunt around for Suki’s wisely-recommended aspirin.

“Ok, clearly I woke you up.” He sounds amused, and it pisses her off.

“Clearly black lingerie is a turn-off for you,” she snarls. “Could’ve just said so.”

A long sigh. “No, sweetheart. Look, I—I’m in Caldera City.”

That throws her. “In the Fire Nation? Why?”

“It’s…kind of a long story. The short version is, my sister called me yesterday and said there was an emergency and I had to come home right away. So I found a red-eye flight, which was much less enjoyable than your very pretty black lingerie, and now I’m here, and it’s Sozin family bullshit as usual.”

She tries to process this. “You…are in the Fire Nation.”

“Yes.”

“Because of an emergency.”

“Yes.”

“Not because you didn’t want to see me.”

He huffs a tired laugh. “I always want to see you. Trust me.”

Suddenly, her hangover doesn’t bother her at all.

“Well,” she sniffs, “I rescind some of my earlier…yelling.”

A more genuine laugh. “I deserved some of it. I’m really sorry, Kat. For not explaining sooner, for canceling on you at the last minute. I’m flying back tomorrow—let me make it up to you.”

She should probably make him work for it a little here, but she’s so relieved she blurts out, “Ok!”

“My plane lands at 4. Can I pick you up at 6?”

She smiles even though he can’t see her. “Ok.”

“Ok. I’ve got to go deal with…all of this. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Bye, Zuko.”

“Bye, Kitty Kat.”

She flops back onto the bed and lets the happy butterflies consume her.

***

Later that morning, she remembers to update Suki.

K: Zuko called me this morning and explained everything. You were right, I was wrong, etc.

K: And I’m sorry I said it was your fault because of Osaka

Her phone buzzes insistently. Suki is calling her.

“Hey, Suki. You were totally right; it was an actual emergency. He had to fly to Caldera City and everything—”

“I know.”

This is puzzling. “You know?”

“Look, after we talked, I did some digging. This girl in my kickboxing class, Ty Lee, is actually from Caldera, and she’s friends with Zuko’s sister, and one time her friend Mai visited, and she was really terrible at kickboxing actually—”

“Suki.”

“Right. Long story short, I’m going to…send you something.”

Katara opens the text she gets from Suki with a sinking feeling in her stomach. It’s a screenshot of an Instagram post from somebody with the handle maiko, which has to be the Mai Suki was talking about. The post is from late last night, with the location tagged as Caldera City, and the caption is a single black heart emoji.

It’s a picture of Zuko.

Specifically, it is a picture of Zuko looking away from the camera—she can still tell it’s him because his scar is in the frame—and the other thing in the frame is his hand laced with a smaller, decidedly female hand with black nail polish.

“I don’t suppose that’s his sister,” Katara says weakly.

“I checked with Ty Lee. Apparently, Mai has this on-again, off-again thing with him, and now it’s…”

“On again,” Katara finishes. The sinking feeling in her stomach has drowned all her butterflies.

“Katara, I am so sorry.”

She hangs up and goes back to bed.

Later, Zuko texts her. She doesn’t even read it, just sends him the screenshot and turns off her phone.

He bangs on her door at 6 the next day. Right on time. When she doesn’t answer, he tries the doorknob. Try all you want, she thinks grimly. It’s bolted shut.

Chapter Text

This is what she gets. She knows better than to fall hard for the Bad Boy type; she’s been burned before. She is trusting and hopeful and stupid, and this is what she gets—heartbroken, and stuck in study hall with Haru three lectures behind.

She’s not sure which is worse.

She spent all weekend moping and all week trudging through her classes like a zombie. Now it is Wednesday, finals start next week, and she can’t think about O-Chem without crying.

She’s screwed.

Poor Haru does his best, but when she leaves office hours on Wednesday, she’s more confused than before. He seems to know something is up, and she wonders what Zuko has told him. He doesn’t even try to capitalize on any potential rebound; he’s given up flirting with her altogether since Zuko’s week filling in for him. Now he watches her with pity, mostly from a safe distance, while she struggles through her homework. She hates the pity almost as much as she hates Zuko.

When she gets home, Zuko is perched on the top step of her apartment stairs. Speak of the fucking devil.

“Move,” she snaps. The sight of him, looking as haggard as she feels, twists in her chest. She hurts, partly for him—he looks awful. She won’t abide it, though, this empathy for him; she has other things to do. Like hating him. And crying.

He staggers to his feet. “Kat,” he says tiredly, “please. Let me explain.”

“What’s there to explain?” she hisses, furious, a millimeter from crying—and she won’t cry in front of him, absolutely not. “I trusted you, and you—you stood me up, and then you lied about it, made up your stupid family emergency—and I was worried about you while you were—were traipsing around with your Fire Nation girlfriend. Do you have one in every city?”

He flinches like he’s been hit. “No, of course not. And I didn’t make up the emergency—if you’ll just let me explain—”

“Why the fuck,” she says coldly, “would I believe you now?” With that, she shoulders past him to unlock her door with trembling hands. She just needs to get inside so she can burst into tears, and she does, dropping her backpack and kicking the door shut just before the dam breaks and she is sobbing.

Except he catches the door with one hand and follows her inside.

Fuck.

She covers her face and turns away. “Get—out—” she chokes.

His rubs soothing circles on her back. “No,” he says softly.

She wants to be mad, she really does. She wants to jerk away, maybe hit him, but she’s so fucking tired. When his other hand touches her shoulder and he draws her gently to him, she doesn’t have the energy to resist. “I hate you,” she sobs into his chest.

His arms are warm and steady around her. “I know, sweetheart. I know.”

“And I’m going to fail O-Chem and lose my scholarship and not get into med school.”

He huffs a little, and she feels it against her temple. “No, you’re not. I’m going to help you.”

“I don’t want your help,” she says, though it doesn’t sound very convincing, even to her. “You ruined everything.” That part is true.

“Yeah.” His voice is muffled against her hair. “I know I did.”

She’s imagined this so many times, him stepping into her apartment and taking her into his arms. She’s imagined the heat of his touch, even his mouth in her hair, but none of those scenes go this way, not even close.

After a few minutes, she is all cried out, eyes sticky with salt and throat raw. He doesn’t budge until her breathing steadies. “I’m so sorry, Kat,” he whispers. “I’m so, so sorry. I swear I can explain, and I swear I’ll make it up to you—whatever I have to do, I’ll do it. I know you hate me, and I deserve that, but…please.”

He sounds so genuine, so remorseful, that she is almost tempted to trust him. Almost.

They sit on her worn futon, and she crosses her arms, fixing him with a glare. He takes that as his cue to start, and he does, absently worrying his hands through his hair. “My dad is in prison.”

She is so surprised by this beginning that she blurts out, “For what?”

Zuko smiles grimly. “All sorts of fun things. This, for one.” He points to his scar.

Oh, shit.

She doesn’t even notice the scar anymore, just takes it in as part of his striking face. She had figured, though, that it wasn’t anything good, even had some inkling that his parents must have been less-than-great since they hadn’t taken him to a doctor, but she’d never dreamed one of them had done it to him.

“Murdering my mom, for another.”

She can’t speak.

“The thing is, her body was never recovered, and sometimes he…he hints that she’s really still alive, hidden away somewhere.” Spirits, she can’t imagine. “He’s manipulative, even from his cell, and I…I know that. I know that, and he still pulls my strings, him and my sister Azula. She’s always been his favorite, always maintained his innocence. Says Mom just ran away because she didn’t want us anymore.”

“Oh, Zuko,” she whispers.

He squeezes his eyes closed. “I haven’t been back in years. I’ve managed to resist every crazy scheme they hatch just to jerk me around. Then Azula called me, and I answered without thinking, and she said Dad was ready to tell us where to find Mom, but only…only if I was there.”

She blinks back tears for an entirely different reason. He is crying quietly, too, and she puts her hand on his shoulder against her better judgement. You’re stupid, she tells herself, but there’s no way the anguish on his face isn’t real.

“I just—I wanted it to be true. So I went. I went, and it was nothing, just another of Azula’s sick little schemes. Being around her and my dad, it brings back…a lot, and it brings out the worst in me. I hate going back because it…it’s hard not to slip back into the person I was when I lived there.” He scrubs angrily at his face. “I’m not that guy anymore. But Azula brought along Mai—they’re thick as thieves—and I—I haven’t even spoken to her for I don’t know how long. But she was there, and I was so upset and confused and lost, and—it used to be that Mai was my only comfort. I know now that it was…unhealthy, that we were just clinging to each other when we were teenagers because it was the least bad option. She’s not good for me, and I don’t even think I’m good for her, but…old habits and all that.” He sighs. “And I just slipped right back into Old Zuko, even though I hate him, even though every time the fallout is catastrophic.”

He risks a sideways look at her. “This time was even worse, because in the fallout, I dragged you down with me.” He laughs bitterly. “I know it’s no excuse. And I like you so, so much. And I ruined it, like I ruin everything.”

“You don’t ruin everything,” she says, almost reflexively.

“No?” He arches an eyebrow.

“Ok,” she admits, “so I feel, right now, that you do. But that’s probably not the truth. Everyone is capable of good.”

He’s staring at her. “You are too perfect to be real,” he mutters.

The tiniest flutter makes an appearance in her belly.

She grimaces and squashes it.

“I need…time,” she says finally.

“I understand.” He stands up, heads for the door. “I…” He’s looking down, the tangled curtain of his hair hiding his face. “Thank you, Katara. For hearing me out. You don’t have to believe me, or trust me, or anything—you’ve already given me more than I could’ve asked for.”

Her heart aches for him, but she’s once-bitten now, so she stays on the couch.

“I know it’s not the same, but I still want to help you study, as much as you’ll let me. I know your final is soon.”

“Next Friday,” she tells him. He nods.

“You tell me,” he says. “Tell me what you need. I’ll do it.” He turns the doorknob. “I’ll see you later, Kat. I hope.”

“Bye,” she says hollowly. He closes the door. She starts to cry again.

Later, when she can’t sleep, she opens her laptop and types in “Zuko Sozin.” Scrolling through the headlines is like something out of a bad dream.

FIRST LADY MISSING, PRESUMED DEAD

PRESIDENT SOZIN ARRESTED FOR DISAPPEARANCE OF WIFE

SHOCKING NEW DOMESTIC ABUSE ALLEGATIONS IN SOZIN TRIAL

ZUKO SOZIN TESTISFIES AGAINST FATHER, AZULA SOZIN REFUSES

EX-PRESIDENT SOZIN CONVICTED, SON FLEES

She remembers seeing bits and pieces of the trial on the news back when she was still in high school. Her father always turned the TV off, muttering, “How could a man do that to his own family?” He said it made him sick to watch, and now she understands why. She can’t believe she never made the connection, didn’t even recognize his name.

The only thing she can think of worse than going through what Zuko told her on her couch is going through it all very publicly, having your picture in the newspaper when you take the witness stand against your only remaining parent. It’s the most awful thing she can imagine, and the bravest.

She texts Suki.

K: Did you know about Zuko’s family?

S: Yeah. Unfortunately.

K: Why didn’t you tell me?

S: Not my story to tell.

As much as she wants to be pissed at them both, she gets it. After all, she hasn’t told him about her mother’s death, not even when she found out they had that in common. She doesn’t want anyone’s pity, so she doesn’t talk about it.

Besides, it’s still painful.

So it’s no wonder he doesn’t lead with this. This isn’t really what professors have in mind when they make a new class play “Name, Major, and a Fun Fact about Yourself!”

Hi, I’m Katara, Biochemistry. My mother died protecting me when I was three. I don’t always remember her face. I’ve been the woman of my household ever since.

Zuko here, Electrical Engineering. My dad used to be the president of the Fire Nation until he got thrown in prison for abusing me and murdering my mom. Sometimes he pretends like he didn’t murder her, just for kicks.

Yeah. She wouldn’t tell people, either.

***

She sleepwalks through Thursday and is hopelessly lost in organic lecture on Friday. She checks her phone approximately one thousand times an hour even though she knows the ball is in her court. You tell me, he’d said. Tell me what you need and I’ll do it.

She would tell him, if she knew. What does she need? More time? Probably, but she doesn’t want it. She wants to go back to the, what, 15 hours in which she’d been blindingly happy, in between the first picture she sent to him and the second. It would be comically short if it wasn’t already a tragedy.

She needs to get a grip. She needs to focus on school, not Zuko. Whatever she needs, it can’t be him. It’s not an option.

She drags herself into study hall Friday afternoon. It’s t-minus one week to her final, and she doesn’t have a prayer. Why am I even here, she wonders. No way Haru can catch her up on a week of material, not this late in the game.

Haru offers her a wan smile. “Hey, Katara. You look terrible.”

She bares her teeth. “Thanks a lot.”

“Look, I don’t mean to get in your personal life—”

“But you’re going to do it anyway—”

“And goodness knows I don’t have any idea what’s going on between you and Zuko—”

“Not a fucking thing, that’s what—”

“But I want you to know he’s a really good guy.”

She gives him an incredulous look.

“He is. I know he can be tough to get close to. There’s a lot going on under the surface.”

She thinks of Suki’s earliest text.

“I’ve never seen him this upset. I gather that he made some kind of mistake—”

“I’ll say,” she growls.

“But I really think he deserves a second chance. You should go see him.” When she doesn’t budge, he adds, “Now.”

“Are you throwing me out of study hall?”

Haru chuckles. “Uh, kind of, yeah.”

“You can’t throw me out of study hall!”

“You guys are stressing me out at work and at home,” he says wryly. “You need to make up. Also, you need his help or you’re going to fail the final.”

“You’re throwing me out of study hall,” she repeats. He looks at her pointedly. “Fine, fine. I’m going. Only because you gave up on me as a student.”

“You’ll thank me later,” he calls after her.

Campus is cold and gray between Chemistry and Engineering. It’s winter in earnest, and she types out a text with frozen fingers.

K: Are you in your office?

Maybe one entire millisecond later, Zuko answers her.

Z: Yes

K: Are you busy?

Z: Not for you

He’s waiting for her with the door open. “Hi.” He looks only marginally better than last time; his gray Henley is wrinkled, and his topknot is unraveling.

“Hi,” she says weakly. “Haru threw me out of study hall.”

His mouth twists into a shadow of a smirk. “Did he, now?”

She puts her fists on her hips. “Did you put him up to this?”

“No!” Zuko throws up his hands in a gesture of innocence. “Definitely not. He did just text me and tell me about it, though.”

“He said I was a lost cause,” she snips.

“Those are not the exact words he used with me.”

“It may have been slightly different,” she allows. “But he did say unequivocally that I would fail without you.”

His lips twitch again. She has got to stop watching his mouth so closely. “I don’t think that’s exactly true, either,” he says, amused. “But I’d be happy to help you.”

She drops her bag on the floor. “I’m still mad at you,” she tells him.

This takes him down a peg. “I know.”

“And I’m a week behind on lecture.”

“I know.”

“And it’s your fault.”

“I know.”

She’s not exactly inexperienced at the tirade of righteous indignation she’s giving him, but usually Sokka fights back more. “Well, some of it’s my fault,” she relents, and he snorts.

“Why don’t you show me where you got lost?” he says, tapping her textbook.

She doesn’t say, when I met you.

***

They work together until she is too tired and hungry to concentrate. Zuko locks his office and them looks at her, hesitating. “Can I…walk you home?” His voice is small, so different from the overflowing confidence he usually has. She is starting to wonder if the whole psychotic-family thing is punishment enough.

“Ok,” she says. You are an idiot, she tells herself. He reaches for her backpack, and she lets him take it. Like an idiot.

He hands it back to her at the foot of the stairs to her apartment, won’t go a step further. She looks down at him from the top step. His message is clear: I won’t push you.

But, she thinks. But I like it when you push me.

“Why didn’t you tell me your dad is the president?”

“Was,” he corrects. “I see you did the required reading.”

She winces. “Sorry.”

He waves his hand. “No, no. I’d do the same thing. I didn’t bring it up because it doesn’t matter, and throwing his name around makes me sound like an asshole. Or at least it did, before his name was a curse.”

“It does matter.” She clears her throat. “It makes it worse.”

He looks up at her, tilts his head. “What do you mean?”

She can’t look at him, can barely even clip out the words. “My mom died when I was little. There was a trial then, too. You have to get up there and recount the worst day of your life. I can’t imagine doing it on international news.”

He is staring at her; she can’t see it, but she can feel it, his eyes on her.

“So now you know,” she says softly, “that we have something in common.” She unlocks the door. “Night, Zuko.”

“Night, Kat.”

***

She wakes up to a text from Zuko.

Z: I’ll be in my office today.

Z: If you want help.

Z: No pressure.

They’ve come a long way from You better be in my office tomorrow. She appreciates what he’s trying to do and all, but a small part of her misses the orders. Maybe a big part.

Maybe all of her.

She zips her coat over her sweater and braves the cold long enough to detour by the coffee shop, then heads for Zuko’s office. He seems surprised to see her when he answers the door, more surprised still when she hands him one of her coffee cups. “Don’t get any ideas,” she says primly. “I’m still mad at you.”

“Uh huh,” he says.

“I am!”

“Okay.”

“I just need help with O-Chem.”

“Okay.”

“Well?”

He blinks at her. “Well, what?”

“Come help me!”

He laughs and drags his chair over to her little table. The morning zips by, and she almost forgets anything is different. They work through lunch, through the afternoon, and soon evening finds her marginally more prepared.

Zuko drags his hands over her face. “How much material is left?”

She thumbs through her notes. “Three more chapters.”

“And we have until Friday?”

She doesn’t miss the we, but she doesn’t call him on it, either. “Kind of. Monday is the last day of class, Tuesday is reading day, Wednesday I have Bio plus my Anthropology paper due, Thursday I have Anatomy, and then Friday I have O-Chem.”

“Yikes.”

“Yeah.”

“You can do it.”

“Maybe.”

“Definitely.”

She offers him the tiniest of smiles. “Thanks.”

He walks her home again, and she scuffs her feet in the dark. He comes to the same halt at the bottom of her stairs as if there is some kind of force field. She turns back to look at him after the climbs the first step.

“With Mai,” she begins, and he stiffens. “Are you still…together?”

He shakes his head. “Not since we were kids.”

“What happened…” She isn’t sure how to ask, what about this latest visit? Were you together?

He seems to understand her vague intonations. “More than what you can see on Instagram,” he says quietly. “It was a mistake. It was…habit. Or some attempt to numb out everything I was feeling. Or something.”

She asks the question that has been gnawing at her since Wednesday. “Why didn’t you just call me?”

His shoulders sag. “I wanted to go as long as I could without you knowing I was the evil president’s screw-up son.”

Only part of this surprises her. “You’re not a screw-up.”

“He thinks I am.”

“Why?”

“He wants me to be as ruthless and cunning as he is. Power-hungry, like my sister. I tried to be—my whole life, I tried to be the son he wanted. But every time I got his approval, I hated myself a little more. When he got arrested and they asked me to testify against him, I knew I had to make a choice. There was no going back.”

“You did the right thing,” she tells him quietly. “That makes you the opposite of a screw-up.”

He shrugs. She’s been in his position—something awful and public happens to you, and people try to say nice things. They can only go so far.

“Zuko?”

“Hm?”

“Same thing tomorrow?”

He smiles at her. “Okay.”

***

By midmorning the next day, she is knee-deep in her Anthropology paper, and not even Zuko can save her. They’ve taken a break from O-Chem for her to write her outline and Zuko to study for his one exam (which she has sheepishly forgotten until now). Her phone buzzes, and she scoops it up as a welcome distraction from her mostly-empty Word document. It’s a message from Suki. Actually, it’s a lot of them.

S: So I talked to Zuko last night

S: And he relayed to me some very interesting information

S: For example, that he did have an actual family emergency

S: And that you now know the true depths of this horror that is his family

S: And that he did have a one-night stand with his ex

S: During a very traumatic time

S: During which the two of you were NOT DATING

S: And in fact HAD NOT EVEN KISSED

S: So I just wanted to verify all that with you

S: Before I fly back from Omashu to KICK YOUR ASS

She doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“What on earth?” Zuko asks her about the racket her phone is making.

“Suki,” she groans. He laughs, then puts a hand over his mouth.

“Sorry.”

The onslaught has paused, so she types fast to get in:

K: How is it that you are mad at ME now?

S: I’m gonna come right out and say it

S: It is possible that we reacted too soon with not enough information

Katara grudgingly considers that this may be the case.

S: To conclude my presentation, you need to forgive that poor boy

“Spirits,” she mutters. She turns to glare at Zuko. “You got me in trouble with Suki.”

He puts up his hands. “Not on purpose. I just tell the woman what she wants to know.”

K: It’s too late for a tearful reconciliation. It’s finals.

S: You better celebrate your last final by jumping into bed with him.

K: Taken under advisement

When they make it back to her apartment that night, she is all the way through her O-Chem notes and feeling more optimistic about not repeating the class next semester. “Thank you,” she tells Zuko, and means it.

“Happy to do it.” He shoves his hands into his pockets.

“I, uh, I’ll be pretty busy the next few days. With finals.”

“Of course.” He peeks at her hopefully. “Let me know how it goes?”

“I will.”

Chapter Text

“I am,” she tells herself sternly, “a good student.” It is Monday afternoon, and she has been looking at the blinking cursor on her Word document ever since she got out of her last organic lecture ever, which was—she checks the clock—five hours ago.

“I’m a good student,” she repeats. “I will write my Anthropology paper now so I will not have to turn it in at the last possible minute. Because I’m a good student.”

Her cursor does not reply.

“Ugh!”

She can’t think about anthropology, or biology or anatomy or chemistry, or anything else. She can only think about Zuko, about what to do when the excuse of exams is over and she has to contend with weeks of winter break, either with him or without him—equally terrifying prospects.

On the one hand, as Suki made clear, Zuko gets the benefit of some major extenuating circumstances as well as the absence of any official relationship between them.

On the other hand, she’d offered him some vulnerability when she sent him those photos, which he’d repaid by planning a date with her the morning after he hooked up with his ex—not to mention that it was clear he had no intention of telling her about said hookup or said ex until he was found out. Maybe she is overreacting or maybe she isn’t; either way, the hurt is real, and she still feels bruised and twice-shy.

She thinks about him crying on her couch, about the careful way he has kept his distance ever since. She thinks about how, when he looks at her or touches her, warmth blooms in her chest; how, when she found out about Mai, it was like ice in her veins.

She thinks about how she hasn’t gone more than a few days without talking to him since they met. Her heart leaps when she sees a message from him, even now, even after the hurt and the ice. She thinks about how important he has become to her in just a few weeks, far more important than this one mistake. She thinks about how she really has no choice—and how even if she did, she would choose him every time.

***

By Tuesday night, she has a passable Anthro paper written, which she turns in early with no small amount of satisfaction. She is paging through her Biology notes when her phone buzzes, and she lets herself smile in the privacy of her apartment, lets the tingle zip down her spine.

Z: How’s your paper coming?

K: Just turned it in!

Z: Good. Bio tomorrow?

K: Yep. Shouldn’t be too bad.

K: Your test is tomorrow, too, right?

Z: Yes. Then I’m officially on winter break.

K: Must be nice

Z: You’ll be there soon. Good luck on your test, but I’m sure you don’t need it.

Z: Get some sleep.

K: Thanks, Zuko. Good night.

Z: Good night, Kat.

***

Biology isn’t bad; anatomy probably won’t be, either, but she spends Wednesday night reviewing just in case. She’s only about halfway through her study guide when she gets a text from Zuko.

Z: How was bio

K: Pretty easy. I feel good about it. How was your test?

Z: Good

Z: Multpile choce

Z: Made a A

She stifles a giggle.

K: You aren’t by any chance celebrating right now? With alcohol?

Z: Harus last test was today to. H bougt beer.

K: And how many beers in are you and Haru?

Z: Jus 3

Z: Mayb 5

She laughs outright.

K: Drink plenty of water, kids

Z: Yes

Rolling her eyes, she tries to go back to studying instead of picturing tipsy (drunk) Zuko, who is apparently not too different from regular Zuko, just a much worse speller. She gets a few more messages from him, all increasingly incoherent, as the night goes on.

Z: Haru is a lghweight

Z: He fel aslep

Z: After 2 shot

Z: Im a lil dunk

Z: Alot druK

She is finished studying for anatomy and about to get into bed when he calls her. Frowning, she picks up. “Zuko? Are you ok?”

“Kitty Kat,” he slurs, and she laughs even as the pet name sends a fizzle of electricity through her.

“Are you ok?” she repeats. She’s pretty sure this is a drunk dial, can’t wait to make fun of him for it later.

“Yeah.” He sighs, then is silent for a long minute.

“Zuko?” she prompts. “Did you need something?”

“What? Oh. No. Jus missed you.”

The electricity ratchets up. He’s drunk, she reminds herself. “You just saw me on Sunday.”

“So long ago,” he huffs. “It’s Friday.”

“It’s Wednesday.”

This does not faze him. “It’s Wednesday.”

“I’ll see you after my last final,” she promises, then kicks herself for it. Sober Zuko hasn’t made any subsequent plans with her; for all she knows, he could be jetting off somewhere for winter break, long gone by Friday.

“Too long,” he mutters darkly. A pause, then he repeats, “Miss you.”

He sounds heartbreakingly earnest and also completely wasted. She placates him—he won’t remember it anyway. “I miss you too. I’ll see you really soon, ok?”

“No,” he whines, and she’s confused. “I messed up. Never see you again.”

“What are you talking about?”

“With Mai.” His breath catches; so does hers. “So stupid. Stupid, and now you never wanna see me again.”

“No, Zuko,” she soothes. “It’s ok. I do want to see you again. I actually already have seen you since Mai.”

“Really?”

She giggles. “Yes, really.”

“Oh.” More hopefully, “I can see you again?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” Some rustling, and then what sounds like him flopping onto something. “’Cause I miss you.”

“I know.” This is going to be a long conversation. “Zuko, I have to go to sleep. My anatomy exam is tomorrow morning. You need to go to sleep, too.”

“Don’t go,” he pleads. “Don’t wanna sleep. Wanna see you.”

“Soon. Not tonight.”

She can practically see him grimacing. “Fine.” To himself, “’Cause you hate me.”

“I don’t hate you, Zuko. I can’t see you tonight because I have an exam in the morning, and it’s—” she checks the time “—almost one in the morning.”

“You don’ hate me,” he repeats.

“No.”

“Don’ love me, either,” he says mournfully.

Her stomach flips. “What?”

“So stupid. Messed up. Now you’ll never love me.”

“Zuko…” She chants at herself, he’s drunk, he’s drunk, he’s drunk. None of this is real. He won’t even remember it because he’s drunk out of his mind.

“And it sucks, ‘cause I think I’m in love with you, and I fucked it up.”

He is absolutely, spectacularly, falling-down, blackout drunk.

“And now you’ll never love me,” he insists again.

“Zuko, that’s not true,” she says quietly. She just needs to pacify him until he falls asleep, and if she’s going to freak out about this, it’s going to have to be after exams.

“Yes ittiz,” he slurs faintly. “Never.”

“Zuko, go to bed.”

“I’m in bed,” he says, petulant. “Wish you were here.”

“Soon.”

“Soon,” he sighs. His voice is getting heavier, and she wills herself to keep it together for just a minute longer. “Soon you’ll be here.”

She has a strong suspicion he thinks here means in bed, but she’s not trying to parse the details. “Yes. Go to sleep.”

“Don’t wanna.” Then, grudgingly, “Am a lil tired.”

“Good night, Zuko.”

“Good night, Kitty Kat,” he sighs.

His breath goes long and even, and after she’s satisfied he’s asleep, she hangs up.

She barely sleeps a wink.

***

She’s lucky her anatomy exam isn’t too hard, because she got maybe two hours of sleep last night, and she feels like shit. She trudges home afterwards, dreading the last-minute cramming she knows she has to do for O-Chem, dreading what happens after.

The phone call keeps playing over and over again in her head, which is stupid. She already knew he felt bad about the whole Mai debacle, and she already decided to forgive him. It’s true that she doesn’t hate him, though he won’t remember being told, and the whole I think I’m in love with you bit—that was just the alcohol talking. It doesn’t mean anything.

Maybe it was the intimacy of Zuko with no inhibitions. Maybe it was the sweetness in his voice, the way, even when he couldn’t tell which way was up, he still aimed himself at her. Maybe it’s the careful line he’s toeing, not pushing her, but not letting her go, either. Whatever it is, she can’t stop thinking about him, and it’s worse than usual. How long is she supposed to give him this half-hearted cold shoulder? She’s still skittish, still scared to trust him; at the same time, she yearns for their easy give-and-take, for his cocky smirk, for this space between them to shrink back to nothing. They had been right on the cusp of something when it all fell apart, and she knows they can’t go back to that exact moment, but she wonders if there is some new moment out there for them. If there is, she hopes it’s soon.

Inside her apartment, she curls up on the couch with her chemistry notes and tries to pay attention. Every page she reads, though, conjures the memory of Zuko’s explanations, shot through with the phantom nudge of his knee against hers or the weight of his golden eyes trained unblinking on her face. Finally, it’s nearly two o’clock and she can’t concentrate and she’s mildly worried he’s still passed out in his apartment.

K: Are you alive?

She is relieved to get an answer.

Z: Barely

K: Take a Tylenol or something

Z: Took two

Z: Still feel like I got hit by a train

K: You have been in college way too long to do this to yourself

Z: Haru is a bad influence

K: Sounded like you were drinking long after he was out for the night

Z: You can’t prove that

A few minutes later, he texts her again.

Z: Sorry if I said anything weird

She pinches the bridge of her nose.

K: No worries

At least, she thinks, a girl can lie over text.

Z: Studying for O-Chem?

K: Unfortunately

Z: Need any last-minute help?

She contemplates this. No such thing as over-prepared where organic chemistry is involved.

K: You wouldn’t happen to be in your office?

Z: Afraid not. That would require me to get out of bed.

K: Don’t worry about it then. I’m good.

Z: You can come here if you want. Haru’s gone for the break.

Z: Even hungover, I’m a pretty good teacher

The uptick in her pulse catches her by surprise. She’s not sure if it’s because of his invitation or because this is her first glimpse of his cocky overconfidence since the whole Mai debacle.

He sends her his address, and when she pulls it up in Maps, it’s only a ten-minute walk away. She chews her nails, considering whether to go. She could always use the help, but she’s not sure she’ll be able to concentrate on studying alone with him in his apartment. Not that she’s currently concentrating much better in her own.

K: I’m on my way.

***

She knocks on the door of a brick townhome, part of a row of units side-by-side, and he swings the door open. He still looks bleary-eyed, but his hair is damp like he just got out of the shower. He’s wearing a tee shirt and plaid pajama pants that ride low on his narrow hips, and when he steps aside to let her in, she notices he’s barefoot. It feels strangely intimate, seeing him like this. It’s almost like she woke up in his apartment, in his bed.

“Hi,” she says, unzipping her coat. She hangs it by the door and looks around; the apartment is neat, if sparse, and she wanders through the kitchen into the living room to drop her bag on a low-slung gray couch.

“Hey, Kat.” He ruffles his hand through his hair, and it sticks up crazily. “How was your test today? Anatomy, right?” He sounds pretty good considering how hungover he must be.

She nods. “It was straightforward.”

She fidgets, twisting her fingers together and hovering awkwardly in the middle of the room. Meeting here is new, and it seems to shift something between them, but she’s not exactly sure what. It puts her on unsteady ground—not that she wasn’t there already—but this is some new stage, some new moment, and she wonders if it will be the moment, the cusp of something.

Zuko wanders slowly into the living room and plunks himself down on the couch. “You wanna sit?” he asks her, so she does, with a feeling not unlike watching herself from outside her body. Unsteady ground indeed, teetering on the brink of the end of the semester, the uncharted span of winter break ahead of her, the open question of how exactly forgiving him is supposed to work.

Mechanically, she pulls her notebook out of her backpack and opens it across her lap. He leans over to look at it, his leg pressing into hers, and she sucks in an involuntary breath that he has to have heard. He doesn’t say anything, though, just asks her, “What do you want to work on?”

She manages to focus on her notes—a herculean task, really, because he is still touching her, and a few brave butterflies are starting to flit through her body—but runs out of questions after a few hours. They’ve already been over it all before, some of it twice, and she is actually, truly prepared for her exam.

At least if this all goes to hell, she’ll still come out of O-Chem with an A.

Zuko sits back and pulls out his phone. “I’m going to order pizza,” he says without looking up at her. “You want some?”

She’s briefly taken aback. This is hardly a date, but it’s an invitation that isn’t related to studying, which is more than he’s risked until now.

But maybe that’s how the whole forgiveness thing is supposed to go—incrementally, one evening at a time.

“Sure,” she says, scooting closer to look at the menu. He gives her some shit for ordering a veggie pizza, gets a meat lover’s for himself possibly just to spite her, and they laugh and the knot of tension in her shoulders eases ever-so-slightly.

“So,” he says when he has hit Submit on their order, “I would normally offer you a beer, but if I smell alcohol right now I think I might puke.”

She snickers at him behind her hand. “That’s ok. My exam is at 8 a.m. anyway.”

“Then you’re finally free,” he points out.

“I am.”

“Plans for Winter Break?”

She shakes her head. “Nothing beyond a lot of novels I haven’t had time to read during the semester.”

He seems surprised by this. “You aren’t going to see your family?”

“Flights are really expensive,” she tells him. “Besides, going home is kind of…weird.”

“I can relate,” he deadpans, and she giggles in spite of herself.

“I just meant that everyone still thinks of me as a little girl. All our family friends, my dad, and—well, you’ve heard Sokka. They all treat me like I’m a kid.”

Zuko nods. “He didn’t exactly say you were still a kid, but he definitely did not convey how hot you are.”

She chokes on whatever response she might have had, and his mouth curls into a smirk. To think that only a month ago she was convinced that wicked expression made him a jerk; now, it just makes warmth unfurl in her veins.

“And, if he were here,” Zuko adds, “he’d kill me for saying that.”

“Maybe,” she manages to croak, which does nothing to diminish his smug look.

“Despite the murder part, I’d love to see him again. It’s been ages.” He cocks his head. “What about Suki—when does she get back? Is she going down to see him?”

“That’s a good question.” Katara tries to think back; through the haze of being this close to him, it’s a challenge. “She flies back on Sunday. Usually she doesn’t go down there; he’ll come up here. But I haven’t heard of any plans.”

“She’s met the family, though?”

“Oh, yeah. Dad’s a big fan. Everyone is.” Unbidden, the thought of introducing Zuko to her dad pops into her mind. He would get past the scar, maybe even the troubled past, but the skinny jeans would be a sticking point. Also the infidelity. He doesn’t have to know about that part, she reasons with herself, then realizes just how far out ahead of herself she’s gotten. Time to change the subject. “What about you—plans for winter break?”

He grimaces. “I definitely won’t be visiting family.”

“Oh—that’s not what I—” She cuts herself off, embarrassed.

“No, I know. I’ll be here. I want to do some work on my dissertation. Nothing exciting.” He glances at her. “I’m not going to see my family ever again—you know that, right?”

She flinches. Ever again is a long time to go with no family. “That’s not what anyone is asking of you,” she tells him quietly.

“I’m asking it.” His voice turns a shade bitter, and his hands are flexing and tightening into fists. “You saw what happened the last time. I can’t let it happen again.”

She lays a hesitant hand on his shoulder, and his whole body freezes, every muscle strung tight. “With family—it’s hard. It’s impossible not to get it wrong sometimes.” She swallows against the twisting in the pit of her stomach so she can say what she wants to say next. “I can’t begin to imagine what you’ve been through—it’s not the same as what I’ve experienced—but after my mom died, I did some pretty nasty things. I lashed out at my dad; once I told Sokka he must not have loved our mom like I did. I get it. They forgave me, and I had to learn to forgive myself.” She looks at the profile of his face, turned rigidly down.

He digs the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Can you learn to forgive me?” he asks, so quiet she barely hears him.

She traces circles on his shoulder, the mirror image of him in her apartment weeks ago, and tells him the truth: “I already have.”

She can feel him relax, just a little, and she does, too, another millimeter of anxiety bleeding out of her. She keeps up the pattern of her touch on his back, and they stay like that while time stretches and bends, and she doesn’t know if this is the moment, but it’s at least a moment, the one where she says out loud, if not in so many words, Let’s try this again.

The trancelike tableau is broken up by the sound of Zuko’s doorbell; Katara feels a jolt like she is slamming back into her body from her outside vantage point. They both shoot to their feet, startled, and Zuko’s mouth quirks up at one corner.

“Pizza’s here,” he explains, and she scowls.

“I know,” she huffs, and he chuckles at her while he answers the door and talks to the delivery guy. He brings the boxes into the kitchen and rummages through the fridge for a couple of sodas.

They eat propped against the counter, talking idly, and when they’re done Zuko grabs his coat and hers from their place by the door.

“Come on,” he says, shrugging into the sleeves. “I’ll walk you home.”

Reflexively, she protests, “You don’t have—” His arched eyebrow stops her mid-sentence. “Ok, fine.”

“I think,” he ventures, “that nice girls say ‘Thank you.’” His eyes are glued to her, cataloging her response, and she recognizes this first foray into familiar territory. Here is steadier ground—even if it makes her knees a little wobbly—and she feels herself flush and watches a satisfied expression settle over his face.

She zips up her coat and reaches for her bag, but he’s already snatched it up, so she looks right at him and says, “Thank you.”

His grin turns wolfish. “My pleasure.”

They brave the cold for the short distance to her apartment. After she trots up the stairs to unlock the door, she expects to turn back and find him frozen to the pavement, but he’s right behind her, leaning against the railing. He leans past her to drop her backpack inside, then shoves his hands into his pockets.

“You feel good about your test?”

She nods.

His voice catches a little on his next words. “You want to get lunch when it’s over? To celebrate?”

She looks at his wide yellow eyes, takes in the fact that he’s holding his breath. How he does this, flip from playful to earnest, is beyond her, and it’s dizzying. But maybe the dizziness is more from how close he is, how she can feel the heat of him, how the wind has stained his unmarred cheek red. If she’s learned anything this semester, it’s not organic chemistry so much as it’s that she can live through uncertainty, unsteadiness, and come out ok, maybe even come out with something good. Something like Zuko.

“I’d love to,” she tells him, and it earns her a smile bright as the sun.

***

At precisely twelve o’clock the next day, she walks out of her last final, out of O-Chem forever, out of the weirdest, longest, hardest semester of her life, and right into Zuko waiting for her just outside the door with his collar turned up against the chill.

“Hi,” she says, giddy with relief, with the sight of him. “What are you doing here?”

“Picking you up for lunch,” he says, as though it’s obvious.

“You’ve been waiting for me in the cold?” She frowns, tugging her own jacket tighter.

He snorts. “No. I got here ten seconds ago. I knew you’d take the whole time even though you don’t need it.”

She resents several implications there. “How do you know any of that?”

“Because I know you.”

And she’ll be damned if that isn’t the truth.

She hates to give him the satisfaction, though, so she sniffs, “Well, are we just going to stand here and freeze to death?”

He rolls his eyes and grabs her arm, pulling her around the side of the building to where a sleek black sports car is parked, and, yeah, that seems about right. He opens the passenger side door for her, then gets in and cranks the engine so he can put the heat on full blast.

“Where are we going?” she asks him as he shifts the car into gear.

“Pao’s,” he answers. “Have you ever been?”

She thinks back. “No, but maybe Toph’s mentioned it before?”

“Maybe. It’s my uncle’s favorite lunch place, and she interned for him a while ago.”

“Oh!” She hadn’t put it together until now, but she does remember Toph working at a nearby firm for a kindly old man. “I didn’t realize that was him. She loved working there, talked about—” More pieces fit together in her mind.

“Talked about what?” Zuko shoots her a glance at a stoplight.

“She talked about the owner all the time, said he doted on his nephew—asked if she had any nice young lady friends who were a little older than she was—”

Zuko’s face flares red. “That sounds like him,” he mumbles, ducking his head.

She bursts out laughing, and Zuko goes redder, which she hadn’t thought was possible. “I can’t believe I never made the connection! It was you! And your uncle is the sweetest man on Earth—at least according to Toph.”

“He is.” Zuko smiles fondly. “He’s generous and kind and really, really into tea.”

Katara giggles. “He sounds wonderful.”

“You’re welcome to meet him,” Zuko deadpans, “but he will definitely arrange our marriage the second he sees you.”

She laughs again but feels her face heat up to match his. She’s saved from debating the pros and cons of this particular scenario by Zuko pulling up to Pao’s and killing the engine. By the time she’s unclicked her seatbelt, he’s opening her door and offering her a hand up, which she takes while she mutters, “How do you do that so fast?”

He doesn’t answer, just pushes open the restaurant door for her, too, and she’s charmed in spite of everything. The hostess seats them at a little table by the front window, where the pale winter sunlight filters in and casts Zuko’s face into sharp relief. She’s frozen for a minute, because he is stunning and their knees are nearly touching under the table and she is on a date with him. A long-overdue date, and a date where she isn’t wearing makeup and hasn’t done her hair in a week, but a date with him, this man who is kind and sly at once, who has hurt her and they have both lived with it and through it because that’s how it goes outside fairy tales and one-night stands.

“This is nice,” she says, looking around the little café. “I see why your uncle likes to come here.”

“Just wait,” he tells her, scanning the specials. “I’ll take you to The Jasmine Dragon, his favorite place of all time. White tablecloth, good food, excellent tea—or so I’m told. It all tastes the same to me.”

She nudges his foot under the table, teases him, “Already planning the second date?”

He smirks at her. “Well, you’ve been staring at me for the last five minutes, so I figured it was a safe bet.”

She gasps, claps her hand over her mouth, turns fire-engine red.

“Besides,” he continues, “it’s more of a third-date place, maybe fourth. You can pick the second, if you want.” He nudges her foot in return. “Or, you know. I can pick.”

“We’ll see,” she mumbles, trying not to look at his sharp teeth and imagine them on her skin.

She isn’t entirely successful in keeping the idea out of her brain, but mostly she talks easily with him—he is still Zuko, even if things keep shifting, and he is smart and funny in his dry way and somehow simultaneously sweet and smug when he slips the waitress his card before Katara even sees it.

“You don’t have to do that,” she tells him.

“I want to,” he counters. “And you don’t have to keep objecting.”

On their way out of the restaurant, he feathers his hand against the small of her back, just for a second, just when they slip through the door, but it turns out a second is long enough to make the butterflies come back in earnest.

“How much work do you have to do on your dissertation over the break?” she asks him in the car.

“Maybe a few hours a day, a few days a week. Nothing major, just work that needs to be done. I can do it from home.”

“When is Haru coming back?”

“Not until the day before the semester starts. He always goes to visit his family way out in the country somewhere.”

In retrospect, she walks right into it. “You aren’t lonely stuck in your apartment by yourself?” Maybe she’s trying to walk into it.

He shoots her a predatory smile. “Well, I was hoping you would keep me company.”

She flushes, stammers something unintelligible, and then he settles his hand on her leg and she shuts her mouth with a click before she can say anything else.

She’s a little disappointed when he pulls up to her apartment, but she could use a hot shower and some extra sleep, not to mention the chance to wash her hair before she sees him next. Then she panics a bit, because they don’t have plans for when to see each other next, and maybe he hadn’t enjoyed lunch and this was all—

“Kat.” He is standing in her open car door; she hadn’t seen him move.

“Oh. Sorry.” She scrambles out of the car, ignoring his amused expression, and unlocks her unit with trembling fingers. When she turns back to him, he is close on her heels again, and he reaches out to tuck a wayward curl of hair behind her ear.

“Come over for dinner tonight,” he says. “I’ll pick you up. It’s too cold to walk.”

None of these are questions, but she nods anyway, pulse drumming in her ears. He grins, lets his fingers skim down her cheek.

“See you soon, Kitty.”

It isn’t until she gets inside and takes full stock of how all her joints have turned to liquid that she realizes he’s switched pet names again.

Chapter Text

After a deliciously long, hot shower, Katara wraps herself in a towel and flops down on her bed. At one point, she had some intention of grabbing a few hours’ sleep before Zuko picks her up for dinner, but she is jangly with nerves and anticipation and the little tendril of heat that coiled at the base of her spine when Zuko feathered his fingers along her face, which hasn’t gone away since. She gives up any hope of drifting off and grabs her phone instead, where she finds an unexpected text from Sokka.

S: Do you know when Suki lands back in Ba Sing Se?

She knows it’s sometime Sunday, but she shoots Suki a quick message so she can answer him about the specifics. She has a feeling Sokka is planning something, and she’s all for it, whatever it is. Maybe he was kind of a pain when they were kids, but now Sokka is one of the people she admires most in the whole world, maybe second only to Suki herself, and she is 100% down for anything that brings the two of them together.

K: Sunday at 3

S: Perfect. I need you to do me a favor.

K: Hit me

S: I’m flying in late Saturday and I want to surprise her. Can you pick me up at the airport, and then when Suki lands, offer to pick her up so I can come with you? Also, can I stay with you Saturday night?

She smothers a laugh. Always a scheme with Sokka.

K: That’s like three favors, and you know I don’t have a car up here.

His answer is immediate and makes her clap a hand over her mouth in surprise.

S: Zuko has a car

K: So??????

S: Suki told me you shacked up with him. At least let me use it to my advantage.

She blushes crimson and texts him back furiously.

K: We have NOT ‘shacked up’!!!!

A pause, and then:

K: But you’re ok with it?

K: I mean, we HAVEN’T. But you’re saying you wouldn’t care if we had.

She hadn’t quite formulated a plan for how to tell her big brother that she is dating one of his best friends. Since they aren’t technically datingyet, she was hoping to kick that problem down the road as long as possible, but she should’ve known Suki would out her.

S: Oh, you and I are going to have words when I get up there. More importantly, Zuko and I are going to have words.

She gulps.

K: What exactly has Suki told you?

S: Everything. I might kill him. It depends on what you have to say.

S: I mean, don’t get me wrong. He’s a great guy, and I’m pumped to see him again. But I still might have to kill him. Such is life, you know?

She rolls her eyes, but she can’t stop the fond smile spreading across her face.

K: You’re a good brother. Please come get your MBA.

S: That’s another thing I was going to talk to you about. Guess who got accepted for the fall?

She squeals out loud.

K: Oh my gosh! Congratulations!!! This is so exciting!

S: It all kind of hinges on you helping me with my plan, though. Unless you want me to live with you for a year.

So there’s more to the scheme. She lets that lie and texts Zuko.

K: I don’t suppose you could give me a ride to the airport tomorrow night. Also Sunday.

Z: Going somewhere?

K: It’s a long story. I’ll explain later.

Z: Maybe if you ask nicely.

She bites her lip.

K: Please? I’ll make it up to you.

Z: Aren’t you sweet

Z: I’ll drive you as long as neither of the trips involve you flying away.

The tendril of heat flares up her spine, affection and arousal in equal measure.

K: I’m not going anywhere.

She means it.

***

Zuko’s car door slams outside her apartment at around 5:30, and she’s ready. She and Sokka have hashed out the details of his plan, and Zuko is on board, if brimming with questions. She has dried her hair so it curls loose over her shoulders, spent approximately half an hour winging her eyeliner just so, and wriggled into her favorite skintight black jeans and low-cut black sweater. The overall effect is pretty hot, if she does say so herself. And she does.

She answers the door when he knocks, takes in his maroon cable-knit sweater in place of his usual flannel and the careful way he’s pulled back just the top part of his hair and most of all the rake of his eyes down her from head to toe.

“You,” he tells her, and his tone is predatory, “are the loveliest thing I’ve ever seen.”

It’s an echo of a text from a lifetime ago, and it nearly takes her knees out from under her even more than the first time.

“Thank you,” she stammers, which does absolutely nothing to diminish his feral grin. He offers her his hand, and it’s not like she can’t walk down steps by herself, but she takes it anyway, feels the crackle of electricity shoot up her arm and meet with the flame already in coiled low in her belly.

Zuko bundles her into the car, and when he gets in, he says, “Please tell me why on earth you need to go to the airport two days in a row but not fly anywhere.”

She laughs as he puts the car in gear. “It’s a hairbrained scheme of my brother’s.”

If he goes a little paler than usual, she doesn’t call him on it.

“He’s flying in Saturday to surprise Suki, who’s flying in Sunday. He wants me to pick him up, house him for the night, and then pick up Suki with him tagging along.”

Zuko’s right eyebrow goes up. “He doesn’t know you don’t have a car?”

It’s her turn to grin. “He knows I don’t. He also knows you do.”

Zuko swallows audibly. “What else does he know?”

“Apparently, everything Suki knows. Which is everything.”

“Well,” Zuko mutters, “this is probably what I’d be doing anyway if I’d known I had 24 hours left to live.”

She dissolves into giggles, and he glares at her.

“You laugh,” he says, “but Sokka was very specific when we were classmates. Nobody touches you.”

She’s pushing it, pushing him, but she can’t help herself. “Well, you hardly have.”

They’re already at his house, and he slams his door a little harder than necessary before he walks around to get her. He yanks her up, growls, “You’re on thin ice, Kitten.”

She picks up the shift this time, and finally she asks him about it as he lets her in to the apartment. “How did we get here from me telling you I don’t like to be called ‘Kat’?”

He smirks and tosses his keys on the kitchen counter. He starts rifling through the fridge, pulling out vegetables and a package of chicken, and from behind the door his muffled voice floats to her. “You like it when I call you Kat.” His head pops up, and he nudges the fridge closed. “You like all of it.”

“Ok, first of all,” she counts on her fingers, “you started it—”

“Well obviously I like it, too—”

“And you don’t know I like it—”

“You turn the prettiest shade of pink whenever I—”

“And that maybe explains Kat, but Kitten?”

He swoops in, crowding her against the edge of the counter. “You haven’t figured it out? You’re cute, and sharp, and I want to make you purr.”

And she is totally, completely flummoxed, can only feel her face blaze and her heart leap and the heat in her spine turn abruptly south, but he peels himself away to snag a wok from the cabinet by the stove and cut on a burner.

“Something the matter?” he asks innocently when she is quiet for several minutes.

“You—I—how can—” She ekes out a few more sounds that don’t resemble words very closely, and he chuckles while he goes about chopping up the vegetables and tossing them into the pan.

“Not quite a purr,” he remarks at her stammering, “but I’ll take it.”

She puts her fists on her hips and finds her tongue. “You are the worst.”

He clutches his heart in mock hurt. “On the contrary, I’m pretty sure I’m the best thing that’s ever happened to you.”

She stabs her finger at him. “I’m pretty sure you’re an asshole.”

He catches her hand and presses a kiss to her palm. “You’re just not used to being kept on your toes.”

The kiss melts her, and she can’t breathe for a hot second, too busy imaging his mouth on hers, on places other than her hand.

And he’s kind of right. She’s always been the smartest kid in class, always been the one doing the most and working the hardest and taking all the initiative. It has bled into her personal life—Aang was sweet but passive, and there was no spark, no heat between them; Jet had certainly pursued her, but he turned out to be someone she couldn’t trust. She’s been alone since freshman year, and it hasn’t been bad—she has focused on school and on herself, has enjoyed the space to be the person she wants to be.

But that’s not to say it’s never been lonely, not to say she hasn’t hoped for someone to chase her, to want her, to challenge her. And maybe she had hoped for something a little smoother than their disastrous start, but she couldn’t hope for someone better, not if she’s honest with herself. Zuko does keep her on her toes; he is living proof that she’s not the smartest kid in class anymore. She finds she doesn’t even mind—it’s not so bad, getting help from someone else, not when the someone else is him. Zuko pushes her, but he catches her, too, and he is an expert at the balance, at playing this—playing her—just right. It’s not like anything she’s ever felt before, the flame and the way her world goes a little fuzzy around the edges when he teases her like this, flirts with her, chases her.

And it’s not that she doesn’t like the chase. It’s just that she is starting to really like the idea of getting caught.

Zuko drops her hand to return to the simmering vegetables before they burn, and she takes the reprieve to catch her breath. She watches him sauté with an experienced flick of his wrist, props her elbows on the counter to look up at him. “You want some help?”

He nods at the chicken on the counter. “Can you cut that up?”

“Yeah, sure.” She rolls up her sleeves, and he directs her to the knife drawer and the cutting boards. They work side-by-side, chattering back and forth, while she tosses chicken cutlets into the pan. When they are finishing up, she remarks, “You’re good at this.”

He smiles and switches off the burner. “My mom taught me.”

“Oh.” She winces. “Sorry.”

“It’s ok,” he says, washing up and leaving the water on for her. “It used to be hard to talk about her—I mean, it still is sometimes—but now I’m in a place where I can remember the happy times. She was a wonderful mother, and just because she’s gone now doesn’t mean I lose the past.”

She pauses in the middle of drying her hands. “I’m glad you’re in that place.” It had taken her years longer to get there with her own mother’s death, and she has precious few happy memories to draw on. She’s strangely proud of him, and a smidge envious.

He busies himself setting the table, plating the food, pouring them each a glass of red wine. Without looking up from it all, he asks her carefully, “Sokka always said you took care of everyone after your mom died—is that right?”

She would very much like to go back to the flirting and the chasing, but this is probably a conversation they should have, so she snags a wine glass and takes a breath.

“Sokka and my dad, it’s not that they didn’t take care of me, of us. My dad threw himself into his work, and I think it was partly out of grief, but also providing for us was his way of loving us. Sokka followed my dad everywhere, and I think he was trying to learn how to be a man, how to be strong. They both did their best—still are, and their best was very, very good. But none of it was caretaking. None of it was meals or keeping the house livable or trying to suss out everyone’s emotions. That was what my mom did when she was alive, and no one was doing it, so I started.”

“And never stopped.”

She swallows. “And maybe never stopped.”

Zuko’s eyes are heavy on her from across the kitchen table. “That must be hard,” he says quietly. He slides into a chair, then gestures for her to sit, too. “For me it was different. My dad ruled everything with an iron grip; I had no agency. And we were wealthy, until we weren’t, so I didn’t really work at anything except getting him to love me.” He barks a humorless little laugh. “Which never worked at all. And then everything fell apart and we moved here and went from being practically royalty to totally insignificant overnight.”

Katara runs her finger around the rim of her wineglass. “That must be hard,” she echoes. “You’re not insignificant, though. And you have agency now.”

“And you don’t have to do all the work now,” he counters. “Sokka’s not a lost kid anymore, and neither are you, and you have Suki and Toph and—and me.”

She smiles shyly at him, tips her glass against his with a clink. “You’re right. I’m glad.”

Zuko picks up his silverware. “Please, eat. Before it gets cold. Sorry to, uh, darken the mood with all that.”

She cuts into the stir-fry. “No, it’s ok. Actually—would you tell me more about your mom?” It’s a risk, maybe an overstep, but Zuko perks right up and launches into a story about a little duck pond on their old family property. She giggles and awws at the details, and the time passes, quick and easy, until Zuko gets up to refill their wine glasses.

“Hey,” she says, catching sight of the label, “this is my favorite cab sav.”

Zuko grins at her. “Suki knows all.”

It’s unaccountably moving, the way he has checked every detail with her best friend, and she makes herself a mental note to thank Suki later. Of course, Suki will remind her of their plan for her to jump into bed with Zuko the moment finals are over, and she’s not quite sure about that part yet.

Between his excellent cooking and the sweet way he recalls his mother and the red stain of the wine on his lips, though, she’s getting surer by the minute.

She fidgets in her chair, downs the rest of her drink. “You want help with the dishes?”

He’s watching her with amusement written lazily across his face, but he nods, and they get up to take their plates to the sink. She sets them down with trembling fingers, because once they clean up they are out of prescribed activities, and she can think of a few others she might like but not yet. She just needs a little more time, though her body hasn’t gotten the memo—he is hovering close behind her, and her pulse is ticking up, up, up, and maybe she needs time but she also needs him.

She turns to look at him, and he is closer than she thought, effectively pinning her between himself and the counter. His face has gone predatory again. “I’ll tell you a secret,” he murmurs, and he splays his hands across her hipbones, a tender cradling and a controlling grip all at once, a combination that threatens to immolate her. “I didn’t really want help with the dishes.” He has the gall to wink at her before he leans in and finally finally finally kisses her.

His mouth is hot and so is the rest of him, pressing closer to her while he drags his teeth over her bottom lip, and fuck has she had far more explicit thoughts about those sharp canines. She slides her hands up his chest and over his shoulders to loop her arms around his neck, to pull him closer, and she sighs sweet and soft into his mouth when he wraps himself around her in return. She melts into him, gives herself over to the forest fire of her wanting, and he is steady and solid and the only thing keeping her upright in the moment. She thinks in fragments about how she does everything all the time, except he said she didn’t have to anymore, so she lets him do everything instead, lets him tangle one hand in her hair and slip the other under the hem of her sweater to press against the skin of her back. She lets him lick into her mouth, lets him nip at her jaw, lets him graze his lips over her ear. The only thing she does is let herself sigh and moan and maybe admit to something not unlike a purr when he scrapes his teeth down her neck.

“I’d leave you with some pretty bruises,” he murmurs into her throat, “but I don’t want your brother to kill me.”

The thought wrings a whimper from her throat, and she can feel him smirking against her skin. She has never been so—so submissive, that’s the word, she knows—with a partner before, but then again, she’s never had a partner quite like Zuko. He is her equal on every front—maybe her superior, at O-chem at least—and when he makes her world goes pleasantly hazy, she doesn’t mind the way it makes her vulnerable, because she trusts him.

She cards her fingers through the silken length of his hair, something she has been wanting to do since day one, and angles her face up so he can kiss her again and again and again. Her hands find their way to cradle his face, and she forgets his scar is there until her palm scrapes over it, and Zuko jerks backward.

“Does it hurt?” she asks, pulling away a centimeter.

“No,” he whispers, but something like anguish flits across his face under her touch. “It’s just…I know it’s a part of me, and I’ve accepted it, but I don’t…”

She strokes her hand over his cheek again. “It is part of you. And I, uh, think it might go without saying that I like you a lot. All of you.”

She thinks maybe she has ruined the moment, but he turns his face into her palm, lashes fluttering. Then his eyes snap back open, his pupils huge and dark, and he kisses her hard, his grip on her waist so tight it could bruise.

When he lets them up for air, they are both breathing raggedly, and he gentles his hands on her. “You’re the only person,” he tells her softly, “who has never flinched away from the boy with the scar.”

Surely not, she thinks. Surely others can see past it, or at least have the decency to keep a straight face.

As if he can hear her, he adds, “You’d be surprised at how people react. I know I was.”

She sighs, skims her thumb over his marred cheekbone. On impulse, she leans up on her tiptoes and kisses the ridged skin just below his eye. He lets out a shuddering breath, fingers flexing into her waist before they relax again.

They stay like that for a while longer, clinging to each other in the middle of his kitchen, and she thinks, this. This is the moment.

***

They do eventually do the dishes, although Katara isn’t exactly as efficient as usual, not while he keeps her feeling fuzzy and dazed with light little touches every time he crosses the kitchen to put something away. He slides his hands up her back, leans in to kiss her quickly when he takes a clean pan from her, palms her ass when he reaches around her to grab a dishtowel. He is, generally speaking, a huge tease, and if she thought their first kiss was the end of the chase, she was sorely mistaken.

When the kitchen is spotless and he has reduced to her nothing but the slam of her pulse and the desperate heat between her legs, he cocks his head at her. “I guess I should take you home now.”

That is absolutely, positively the last thing she wants, but she’s also one more touch away from taking her clothes off right then and there, so she nods. It has been a long day, too, and she is starting to feel it, limbs and eyes growing heavy. He gathers up his keys and his coat and tells her, “Tomorrow I should work on my dissertation, but I can pick you up in the morning—you can bring those novels you were talking about reading and keep me company.”

As per usual, it’s not a question, but she nods anyway.

His eyes glitter. “I was going to tell you to bring a toothbrush, too, but Sokka staying with you tomorrow night ruined that plan—” He stops to laugh roughly at the whine that staggers out of her. He reaches for her, and she drifts to him like a moth to flame, and he curls his arm around her waist to walk her to the car. Their boots crunch on the frozen grass; she wonders idly if they’ll get some snow this winter.

Zuko drives her home with one hand on her thigh again. Normally, that would make her heart flutter, but she has finally tipped over the balance of being more tired than aroused, and she leans her head against the cold glass of the window while she fights to keep her eyes open.

When he gives her a hand up out of the car and up the stairs, she could use it this time. He takes the keys from her clumsy fingers and unlocks the door for her, urging her inside and reaching around the flip on the light. Straddling the threshold, he cradles her face and kisses her so gently she thinks it might break her heart.

“Good night, Kitten,” he whispers against her lips.

“Good night, Zuko,” she whispers back as he reluctantly pulls away. She watches him trot back down the steps, crank the car, and drive away before she closes the door. With her hand still on the knob, she wishes, not for the first time, that he would stay.

Chapter Text

Zuko picks her up bright and early the next morning, so early she isn’t all the way awake and may or may not mutter some less-than-kind words at him when he lets himself in her front door. He just laughs and scoops her into his arms to kiss the frown off her face, and she thinks that of all the ways to deal with an insufferably early riser, this is the best.

She makes him wait until she has poured some coffee into a travel mug and selected a paperback from her overflowing bookshelf before she starts out to his car.

“Kat, wait—” he starts, grabbing her hand and pulling her back inside.

“What?” she says, somewhat sourly, and he slings her winter coat over her shoulders. “Oh. Thanks.”

He snorts at her. “That’s the saddest ‘thanks’ I’ve ever heard.”

“It’s, like, 4 a.m.,” she grumbles, drawing the coat around herself against the cold when they step outside.

“It’s 8 a.m.,” he corrects, helping her into the car. “I didn’t know you weren’t a morning person.”

“Is that a deal-breaker?” She takes a swig of her coffee with one hand and buckles her seatbelt with the other.

“Probably more for you than for me,” he answers drily, splaying his fingers over her leg, which effectively shuts her up until they get to his apartment.

He ushers her inside and settles her on the couch, bustling around to fetch his computer and his own coffee mug before he joins her.

That’s how they stay for hours, her with her book open against her knees and him typing away at his dissertation. Katara finds herself re-reading the same page over and over again, which is annoying, considering she’s been waiting all semester to have a chance to read something—anything—not related to upper-level biochemistry.

But she can’t concentrate for a second, not with him so close, not with this comfortable warmth suffusing her limbs. It’s not exactly like the flame he can conjure at the base of her spine, but it is made from the same stuff, from the bloom of affection for him that she feels open in her chest. The warmth blankets her, soothes her nerves, and she likes the lived-in way they are here, together. She likes the way he is careful with her, fussing with her coat and walking her home and driving her around; she likes the way he isn’t careful at all, the way he had caged her against the counter the night before, the unspoken promise that he will bite bruises into her flesh later.

She hopes later is soon.

Abandoning her book, she tips her head against his shoulder and scans his screen. He’s writing about something called ‘Downconductor Routing Strategy,’ which she gives up on understanding immediately.

“What are you doing?” he asks her, and she can’t see his face from this angle but can practically hear the way one side of his mouth tugs into a smirk.

“Nothing,” she murmurs, nuzzling closer. “Carry on; don’t mind me.”

He slips an arm around her shoulders and kisses the top of her head. “That’s going to be pretty difficult,” he says into her hair.

She grins to herself, leans up to press a kiss to the sliver of collarbone revealed by his Henley. “Sorry,” she says demurely, not sorry at all. “Am I distracting you?”

His voice is verging on a growl, his arm tightening around her. “You’re being coy is what you’re doing.”

“Oh, I see.” She wriggles even closer, kisses up his throat. “And I know how you don’t like that.”

He shoves his computer to the side and hauls her into his lap, hands digging into her waist. His eyes are blown with desire when she looks down at his face, and she ducks in to kiss him, finds herself pinned there by his hand fisted tightly in her hair. The pull against her scalp and the way he bites at her lips has her gasping unevenly, clinging to his shirt and leaning into him.

“What am I going to do with you?” he murmurs against her mouth.

She resists the urge to answer whatever you want.

It’s not an urge she’s had before, not with any other partners, but it’s not unfamiliar with Zuko. The more she comes to trust him—the more distance she puts between now and his trip to the Fire Nation—the more she is willing to give herself over to him, to let him lead. In some ways it’s a relief. He’s sure of himself, sure of her, and she, the consummate over-achiever, gets to sit back.

Really, she could get used to it.

Instead of saying all of that out loud, she melts into him, presses her palms flat against the plane of his chest and lets him bruise her mouth while her eyelids flutter in time with her heart.

Even without words, she’s pretty sure he understands her.

He tugs them apart, breathing raggedly. “You’re going to be the death of me,” he groans. “I have a plan, you know.”

“Do you?” she asks, breathless herself. “A plan?”

“A plan,” he repeats. “First Sokka delayed it, and now you’re tempting me to get ahead of it.”

Shivering, she realizes he is talking about a plan to take her to bed, and, yeah, she can get behind that. They have already done the hard parts, the painful conversations and the hurt and the forgiveness, not to mention final exams, and she would like very much to get to the easy parts, so she buries her face against his neck and hugs him tightly.

His hands stroke patterns against her back. She feels the thump of his heart slow, and hers follows. She decides to let him have his plan, at least for now, so she doesn’t rock her hips against his even though she can feel the hot length of him through his jeans.

He sighs, ruffling her hair. “You want lunch?”

“Sure.” She doesn’t move.

“Osaka?”

“Sure.”

“Kat?”

“Hm?”

“You want to get up?”

She burrows closer. “Not really.”

He huffs a laugh. “Come on, Kitty Kat.”

Her stomach flips. “You’re not helping.”

His arms tighten around her, and he shifts forward and then he is standing up, taking her with him and setting her on her feet. She shudders at how easy it is for him to move her, how light she feels in his grip, and files that information away. For later.

They decide to walk to lunch, and she laughs at the way he grumbles about the cold. “That’s one good thing about the Fire Nation,” he mutters. “Always warm.”

She thinks about how he would fare in the South Pole. “Is this the coldest place you’ve been?”

He shakes his head. “I usually spend summers and holidays traveling with Uncle to his remote sites. We’ve been to both poles.”

Imaging him bundled up to his eyeballs makes her dissolve into giggles, and he elbows her gently. “What’s so funny?”

“Picturing you in fur and still shivering,” she teases. He rolls his eyes, pulls out his phone, hunts through it for a minute. As they walk into Osaka, he shows her the screen, where he has pulled up a picture of himself with his uncle standing in front of a complicated-looking industrial structure flanked by white expanses of ice. He is, indeed, zipped up to his eyes, as is his uncle, although the older man’s are crinkled with laughter. “You look miserable.”

Zuko frowns, sliding into a booth. “Not because of the cold.”

She cocks her head. “No?”

His frown deepens. “I used to be, uh. Less well-adjusted.”

“Well,” she says back wryly, “yeah. I’m scowling in every picture from age 3 to 15. That’s how it goes.”

It’s his turn to cock his head. “Really? You’re so…sunny. Now.”

“Lot of therapy,” she sighs. It’s not that she’s ashamed of it—on the contrary, she tries to help normalize it when she can—but it isn’t her favorite topic.

“Yeah.” His mouth twists. “It took Uncle a long time to bring me around to that.”

She isn’t surprised by this information, considering how well-adjusted he is now. “It’s harder for men, I think,” she says softly. “And it’s hard for everyone. I hope, one day, I can refer patients to mental health services without the stigma. Healthcare is healthcare.”

He offers her an earnest smile, and it makes her heart ache. “You will. I’m sure of it.”

She blushes, lowers her eyes to the menu like she doesn’t know it by heart. “I have to live through next semester first. And medical school. And residency.”

He bumps his foot against hers under the table. “No worrying about that. It’s winter break. You’re supposed to, you know. Take a break.”

She cocks an eyebrow. “What were we doing all morning, then?”

“You were being a tease,” he says, voice low, mouth curled.

She tries to tamp down the heat in her belly. He has his plan, whatever it may be, and they are in a restaurant, for crying out loud. “I meant you working on your dissertation.”

He shrugs one shoulder. “Oh. Well. I’ve probably done enough for today.”

Their waitress appears, so they pause to order and let her whisk away their menus. Katara curls her hands around the steaming mug of coffee the waitress has poured her. “Well, then we have the afternoon to take a break. Sokka is supposed to land at 9.”

Zuko checks his watch. “So I have 8 hours to live.”

She snorts. “He hasn’t killed any of my past boyfriends.”

He smirks at her until she realizes what she’s said.

“I, uh,” she stammers, feeling her face heat. “I meant, um.” What had she meant, exactly?

He nudges her foot again, hooks his ankle around hers. “And have any of your past boyfriends been as bad as this one?”

She struggles to formulate a reply in the midst of his little game of footsie—which is far more distracting than she would have anticipated after seeing it in bad rom-coms—and scrambles to figure out if this one means he’s ok with the term. “Um.”

“Use your words, Kitty Kat,” he prompts, smirk deepening.

“Now who’s a tease?” she mumbles darkly, and he laughs, smug as ever.

“Patience,” he instructs imperiously.

“Never has been my strong suit.”

He relents, keeps his hands and feet to himself. “Past boyfriends?” he asks again as their food arrives.

Katara breaks apart her chopsticks and scowls at her plate. “One was pretty bad. But you don’t want to hear about my failed romantic history.”

He stabs at an egg roll. “You know mine. Please, enlighten me.”

She takes a bite of her sushi and swallows past the lump in her throat. “I dated this guy in high school, Aang. Sweet kid, and we’re still friends. Turns out we make better friends than lovers, anyway. Sokka’s close with him, too, and Suki and Toph.”

“Yeah, I think I remember him hanging with Sokka every now and then. Air Tribe guy, right?”

She nods. “He bounces around. Only spent a year at our school.”

“Doesn’t sound like he was the bad one.”

“No.”

Silence stretches between them. “You don’t have to talk about him if you don’t want to.” She looks up to meet his eyes, and they are gentle. “But you can tell me anything, you know.”

She smiles wanly at him. “I know.” She takes a few more bites before she speaks again. This isn’t her favorite topic, either, and unlike counseling, discussing it has little in the way of redeeming value. “Jet. He, uh. He lost his parents when he was a kid, and that’s how he…got close to me. Because we had that in common. But he wasn’t…a very kind person.”

When she looks up at Zuko again, he is the one scowling. “I’ve had the displeasure.”

She remembers Jet’s brief stint in engineering before he dropped out. “Oh, yeah. I guess you have.”

Zuko breathes out slowly. “You mean to tell me Sokka didn’t try to kill him? Because I wanted to, and I only met him, like, twice.”

She thinks back with some fondness to Sokka’s red-faced rage when she had stumbled, sobbing, into his apartment. “I think he did try. He just didn’t succeed, for better or worse.”

“Worse,” Zuko says decisively, and she grins, rolling her eyes.

“So, Jet set the bar pretty low. I think you’re safe.”

“We’ll see.” Zuko’s face falls. “I’m not sure I’ve treated you much better.”

“Hey,” she protests, reaching for his hand across the table. “That’s not true.”

He squeezes her fingers but runs his other hand frustratedly through his hair. “I’m sorry, Kat.”

“No more apologies,” she scolds. “Everybody screws up.”

His eyes are glued to the table. “Maybe it’s more that I’m a screw-up.”

“Zuko,” she admonishes. “What would your uncle say?”

This wins her a little smile and a glimpse of his face. “Something indecipherable about tea and forgiveness, probably.”

She giggles. “I think I do need to meet this man.”

He squeezes her hand again. “What I hear you saying is you’re ready to get married.”

She gasps, flushes, yanks her hand back to cross her arms. “That’s not what I’m saying!”

He gives her a mock pout. “Suit yourself. He’s dying to meet you so he can say something mortifying, probably related to grandchildren.”

She doesn’t voice her surprise that he’s told his uncle about her. Instead, she retorts, “Tell him to pick something else embarrassing, because I have an IUD.”

He leers at her. “Good to know.”

She blushes for the millionth time, points at him with her chopsticks. “Eat your food.”

***

They spend the rest of the day lazing around watching Netflix, and Katara likes the quiet feel of it, doing nothing with him. She nestles into his side and doesn’t pay much attention to what flickers on the TV screen, just breathes in the smell of him and basks in the sensation of his fingers stroking her hair. They eat leftover pizza for dinner, and soon it is time to head to the airport to pick up Sokka.

In the car, she is grinning in the passenger seat, thrilled to see her brother after nearly a year apart. Zuko seems less than thrilled, so she kisses his cheek at stoplights, and his jaw and his neck until she can feel his pulse in his throat.

“You’re being coy again,” he murmurs, knuckles white on the steering wheel.

“Am I?” she asks innocently, turning wide eyes on him when he puts the car in park.

He is reaching for her, his face predatory, when her phone rings and flashes Sokka’s name. Zuko sits back and groans while she answers.

“Where are you guys?” Sokka’s voice is tinny.

“We just parked,” she tells him, unbuckling her seatbelt and finding Zuko somehow already opening her door for her. “We’ll be right there.”

She hangs up and gets out of the car, ducking under Zuko’s arms caging her in. “Come on,” she giggles at his disapproving expression. “Sokka’s already landed.”

“Tease,” he mutters darkly, but he lets her grab his hand and drag him toward the terminal, practically skipping with excitement.

They find Sokka just inside the door, backpack slung over his shoulder, ponytail longer than she remembers, and Katara drops Zuko’s hand so she can throw her arms around her brother.

“Hey, Katara,” Sokka laughs, hugging her back. “Good to see you, too.”

“How was your flight?” she asks him. “How are you? Does Suki suspect anything? How’s Dad?”

“Slow down.” Sokka grins. “Good, good, no, and good. I think I did that right.” He waggles his eyebrows at his sister. “You want to introduce me to your boyfriend?”

She rolls her eyes but feels herself turn pink. “You already know each other.”

Sokka looks over her shoulder at Zuko, who is hanging back, hands in his pockets, looking shier than Katara has ever seen him. “Hey, man.”

“Hey,” Zuko mumbles. “Good to see you. Been a while.”

Sokka looks amused. “Thanks for driving.”

“Yeah. No problem.” Zuko is staring rigidly at his boots. It’s kind of cute, the way he seems nervous around Sokka, and Katara is seized by a bolt of affection for him. She breaks away from Sokka to loop her arm through Zuko’s, and he shoots her a little smile.

“You ready?” Katara asks Sokka, who nods, so they head back to the parking lot, where Zuko pops the trunk for Sokka’s bag and then gets silently behind the wheel.

“Sokka is coming for his MBA in the fall,” Katara tells Zuko proudly.

“Oh? Cool.”

She giggles, fast realizing that Zuko isn’t nearly as talkative when he isn’t alone with her—or maybe he’s just terrified of her brother.

“So how are you, little sister?” Sokka asks from the backseat.

Katara twists around to look at him. “I’m great. I survived O-Chem—at least I think I did—final grades come out Wednesday—and Suki will be back soon and you’re here and—” She stops before she can say and Zuko is taking care of me in a way no one else ever has because, really, that would be a little much for Sokka’s first night in town. “Have you talked to Suki today?”

Sokka smiles wistfully. “Yeah, but I told her I had to work some overtime so she wouldn’t be suspicious I couldn’t text her on the flight.”

“This is a very elaborate plan,” Katara tells him.

“So far, so good.”

They are all quiet for a few minutes, and Sokka seems fine, but she can practically feel the tension radiating off Zuko. She reaches over and puts her hand on his leg, the mirror image of what he usually does to her, and he relaxes minutely.

He pulls up to Katara’s apartment and kills the engine, walks around to open Katara’s door automatically. She doesn’t miss Sokka’s raised eyebrow when she takes Zuko’s proffered hand up, but she does it anyway, turning to smile up at Zuko.

She trots up the steps and unlocks the door for Sokka to go inside; when she looks back for Zuko, he has one foot on the bottom step but won’t come any further.

She walks back down. “Hey.” She cups his face, picking the scarred side on purpose. “Thank you for driving us.”

“No problem.” He still won’t meet her eyes.

“What is it?” She strokes his cheekbone with her thumb.

He turns his face into her touch, and with his eyes closed, answers, “Your family isn’t going to like me.”

Katara frowns. “Sokka already likes you.”

“He liked me,” Zuko corrects, finally looking at her. “As his classmate. As his sister’s boyfriend, I’m not much of a catch.”

He looks so serious and concerned that she tries to ignore the flutter in her rib cage at his casual reference to himself as her boyfriend. She’s not worried with labels, but hearing it is nice, but also not the point. “Stop being down on yourself,” she scolds gently. “We had this conversation at lunch, and we can have it as many times as you like until you believe me.” She pops onto her tiptoes to kiss him quickly. “You are smart and thoughtful and good,” she whispers. “And you need to stop worrying.”

His lips quirk into a faint little smile. “You’re the kindest person in the world, you know that?”

She grins. “You’re flattering me.”

He catches her waist in his hot grip and leans down to kiss her. She is sighing against his mouth, leaning into him when Sokka’s voice startles them apart.

“Come on, guys!” he yells, fists on his hips in the frame of her doorway. “Seriously? I’m right here.”

Katara glares up at him. “You could be right inside instead.”

For his part, Zuko looks torn between being mortified and terrified, gaze fixed firmly on the six feet of pavement he has put between himself and Katara. “I should go,” he mumbles.

“Good night,” she calls after him as he beats a hasty retreat. “See you tomorrow.”

“Night,” he calls back, slipping into his car.

Katara turns to cross her arms at Sokka. “Was that really necessary?”

“Yes!” he squawks. “My friend dating my sister is bad enough—I don’t want to see you two sucking face—”

“Oh, shut up,” she snips, pushing past him into the apartment. She busies herself fetching a blanket and a pillow for Sokka to set up on the couch while he brushes his teeth in her tiny bathroom. “We should leave at, what, 2:30 tomorrow?” she asks when he emerges in pajama pants and a sweatshirt, his shaggy hair free from its wolf-tail.

“Yeah, that should work,” he yawns. “And when did you want to talk about Zuko?”

She sighs. “What’s there to talk about?”

“Suki told me about his stint with Mai.” Sokka’s face grows serious. “Look, I have to hassle whoever you’re dating—it’s a requirement of big-brotherhood—but I do have real concerns about Zuko. He’s had a rough life.”

“So?” she says, feeling suddenly protective of him. “That’s not his fault. He’s survived a lot of terrible things and come out a sweet guy.”

“Except for when he cheated on you,” Sokka says drily.

“We weren’t dating then—”

“You know what I mean!”

She deflates a little. “I know. It wasn’t great. But Suki thought I should forgive him, and he kept his distance until I was ready to, and I did. Everybody messes up.”

“Not everybody gets to mess up at the expense of my baby sister,” Sokka threatens.

Katara smiles and plops down next to him on the couch to put her arms around his shoulders. “You’re a good brother,” she tells him, giving him a squeeze. “And Zuko’s a good man. If something else bad happens, I give you permission to intervene, but unless and until then, will you please cut him some slack? He’s terrified.”

“Good,” Sokka harrumphs, then relents. “Yeah, yeah. I’ll go easy on him.”

“Thank you.”

“No more sucking face in front of me, though,” he warns, and Katara rolls her eyes.

“Will you stop calling it that?”

“If you stop doing it, I won’t have to call it anything!”

She gets up and heads to her room. “Good night, Sokka.”

“Night, Katara.”

Safely shut in her room, she pulls out her phone to text Zuko.

K: Sokka has formally agreed not to murder you.

He texts right back, and she grins at the idea that he must have been waiting to hear from her.

Z: Can I get that in writing?

K: I’ll see what I can do.

K: He wants to head to the airport at 2:30 tomorrow.

Z: Ok

She fidgets. The plan for tomorrow doesn’t involve seeing him until the afternoon, and she finds that very displeasing, but she can’t very well leave Sokka alone all morning. She wants to spend time with him, too, not to mention the fit he would throw that she was likely sucking face with him.

Sokka’s voice carries through the door. “Katara?”

“What?” she yells back before she gets back up and sticks her head into the living room. “What?” she says again, at a normal volume this time.

“Will you ask Zuko if he and Haru still have that PlayStation?” Sokka looks hopeful, and Katara laughs at him while she taps out the message.

“Haru is with his family for the break,” she informs Sokka while she waits for Zuko’s answer. “He says it’s still there, though,” she confirms when Zuko texts her back. “He also says you can come play tomorrow if you want.”

Sokka pumps his fist. “Sweet!” He settles back on the couch. “Does he still live close by?”

“I wouldn’t know,” she tells him innocently. “I certainly haven’t been to his apartment.”

“Great,” he chirps. “I’ll chaperone you.”

“Thanks,” she says drily. “Anything else?”

He waves his hand. “No, no. Carry on.”

She shuts herself back in her room and strips out of her clothes, hunting through her drawers for her warmest pajamas. With one foot in the leg of her flannel pants, she has an idea.

She dives onto the bed, pajamas forgotten, and frames the lace of her bra and panties in her phone camera. She leaves her face out of it as always, but this time she hooks the thumb of her free hand into the waist of her panties, tugging them down enough to expose one hipbone. Pushing past the flicker of hesitation that lodges in her throat—the last time she had sent him a picture, things had gone abruptly sideways, even though she knows it had nothing to do with her text—she sends him the shot, adding: I did say I’d make the driving up to you.

There’s no delay this time.

Z: Fuck, you are gorgeous

She feels the compliment all the way down to her toes.

***

When she and Sokka start out for Zuko’s apartment the next morning, Sokka is carrying his bag—presumably so he can stay with Suki the moment she gets back in town—and Katara is carrying hers.

“Whatcha got there?” he asks her, eyebrow cocked.

“I brought pancake mix,” she says, ever-innocent. “I thought I’d make breakfast while you guys play video games.”

“Hm.”

“You’re welcome.”

If there’s a toothbrush and some extra clothes tucked in the bottom, Sokka doesn’t have to know that.

Zuko answers the door in ripped black jeans and a flannel the same red as his mouth, and Katara resists the urge to jump him. She sees his eyes flicker over Sokka, then her, lingering on her backpack. He doesn’t say anything, though, just lets them in and messes with the cords on the PlayStation while Sokka chatters excitedly about Madden.

Katara rummages around the kitchen, pulling a mixing bowl and a pan from where she remembers seeing Zuko put them away a few nights ago. She finds butter, milk, and eggs in the fridge, which is surprisingly well-stocked for a bachelor pad, and she wonders what else Zuko’s mom taught him to make.

She opens and shuts several drawers looking for utensils before Zuko calls out, “What are you looking for?”

“A whisk,” she calls back.

Zuko leaves the remote with Sokka and crosses the living room to help her. “I think it’s under the sink,” he mutters, crouching down to open the cabinet. “Yeah, here it is.”

“Why is it under the sink?” she asks him with some amusement.

He hands her the whisk and props himself against the counter. “I don’t know. That’s where Haru keeps it.” He surveys her ingredients. “What are you making?”

She points to the box of mix. “Pancakes. You guys go play whatever, though. I got it.”

He nods at the TV, where Sokka has started a game already. “I think I can give you a hand.”

So she finds herself working side-by-side with him again, measuring ingredients while he heats the skillet and whisks everything together. She watches him pour the batter into the pan without spilling a drop and, a moment later, flip the pancake expertly.

“Your mom?” she asks him, wiping the flour off her hands.

“Yeah.” He smiles at her. “She loved brunch. My uncle, too. I make it for him on the weekends sometimes.”

“Oh.” Katara tips her head. “Are we keeping you from him?”

“No, it’s fine. I’m supposed to see him for lunch tomorrow.” His grin turns sly. “Besides, he wouldn’t dream of getting between me and the future mother of his—hey!”

Katara had snapped him with the dishtowel. “Sokka’s going to hear you and go back on his promise not to kill you,” she hisses.

“Sokka’s not going to be here forever,” he hums, smirking at her. Without warning, he snatches the dishtowel from her and lands a hit across the backs of her thighs.

She gasps, jumping back. “Hey! What was that for? You deserved yours—oh—” He lunges after her, catching her around the waist and reeling her back in, grinning wickedly.

“That was for the look on your face,” he purrs, tugging her close.

“Is something burning?” Sokka yells over his shoulder.

They jump apart so Zuko can yank the smoking skillet off the stove and dump the ruined pancake in the sink.

“Damn,” he mutters, waving the smoke away. Katara snickers, and when he glares at her, it only makes her laugh outright at his indignant expression.

“What are you looking at me for? It was your fault.” She edges him out of the way and pours the next pancake herself.

“It was not,” he huffs, crossing his arms.

“Go play.” She shoos him away. “You’ve done enough damage.”

He grumbles, but he goes, plunking down on the couch and harassing Sokka into starting over so they can have a two-player game. Katara listens to them bicker good-naturedly while she finishes the rest of the batter, and she is glad, for her own sake and for theirs. Their twin top-knots visible over the back of the couch make them look almost like brothers, and she nearly sends Suki a picture before she remembers Sokka’s presence is still a secret. She texts her instead.

K: Have a good flight! Can’t wait to see you!

S: Thank you! I’m supposed to board soon. And thanks again for offering to pick me up.

S: I can totally Uber so Zuko can spend his time doing other things.

S: Like you.

Katara rolls her eyes, physically and with emojis.

K: We’re not there quite yet.

She glances at her bag, kicked under the kitchen table where Sokka will hopefully forget about it.

K: But I think it'll be soon.

S: Did finals go okay?

K: Yeah, I should get grades next week, but I feel good about it.

S: Good. Sorry everything kind of exploded in the middle of exams.

K: It ended up being ok. Zuko still helped, and we talked and everything. We’re all good now.

S: He told me. I’m glad for you guys.

K: Does he tell you everything?

S: Pretty much

S: You’re welcome for making sure he always does your favorite things

K: You are truly the world’s best wing-woman

S: I know. They’re calling for my flight! See you soon!

“Suki’s boarding,” Katara calls to the boys. “And pancakes are ready.”

They scramble up and into the kitchen, wolfing down the food, and she laughs at the familiar sight of Sokka trying to cut through a stack of five pancakes at once. Without a word, Zuko starts on the dishes, letting Sokka play without him for the few minutes it takes, and Katara hugs him tightly in response.

Katara curls up on one couch with her paperback while the boys occupy the other, trash-talking non-stop. She thinks that if Suki were here, it would be all her very favorite people under one roof, and she counts down the minutes until it’s time to pile into Zuko’s car and head for the airport.

Zuko seems more relaxed behind the wheel this time, but Katara can hear Sokka drumming his fingers on his knee from the front seat.

“What are you planning?” she finally asks, twisting around. “Are you going to propose?”

“No!” Sokka cries, looking stricken. “Oh, shit, does she want me to propose?”

“No, no, calm down,” Katara laughs. “I was kidding. Trust me, she and I have not discussed that.”

Sokka breathes out. “Right. No, I was just, uh. I was going to ask to move in together when I’m here in the fall.”

“Oh.” Katara considers this. “Didn’t you guys practically live together while you were both here?”

“Yeah, but practically isn’t the same as sign a lease.” Sokka swallows hard. “I don’t know what she’s going to say.”

“Are you going to ask her in the airport?”

He gives her a withering look. “No, of course not.”

“Then why are you nervous now?”

“Just, you know. What if she…what if she met somebody in Omashu?”

“Sokka. Don’t be ridiculous. Suki is crazy about you.”

“You think?” He looks at her hopefully.

“I know,” she reassures. “Stop worrying.”

He’s still drumming his fingers, though, when they park and walk in. No one is at the terminal yet, and the board on the wall tells them Suki’s flight is a few minutes behind.

“Ugh!” Sokka groans and flops into the middle of a set of three seats. “This is going to take forever.”

“It’s an extra ten minutes,” Katara says. She looks pointedly at the two seats on either side of him and raises her eyebrow.

“I’m chaperoning. Sit.”

Rolling her eyes, she plunks down and pulls out her phone.

K: Sorry Sokka is being obnoxious.

She watches Zuko sit down on Sokka’s other side, check his phone, then type out an answer.

Z: It’s ok. Not exactly unexpected. I planned for it.

She bites her lip against the smile that rises on her face.

K: Are you referring to THE plan?

Z: Maybe I am.

A shiver zips up and down her spine. She is prepared for this, though, given all his past teasing, and she pulls up a picture she had taken that morning. It’s the same black lingerie he’d called pretty from the Fire Nation; as much as that memory stings, it’s her favorite set, and she is determined to put it to good use. Besides, he never saw the matching panties, which are so skimpy it borders on obscene, and they are definitely in this shot, which she sends him without preamble.

She can actually hear his choked-off intake of breath, and she lets herself smirk when he shifts uncomfortably in his seat. Sexting her brother’s friend while sitting next to her brother is by far the most scandalous thing she’s ever attempted, but she’s pretty sure Suki would be proud.

Z: You’re going to pay for this later.

Her heart flutters. She certainly hopes so.

It’s a few more long minutes before Suki’s flight lands, and longer still before she appears with luggage in tow. Katara jumps up when she spots her, waving wildly, and Suki meets her eyes and waves back. Then she shifts her gaze to Sokka, and her face splits into a grin.

Sokka dashes across the terminal to snatch Suki off the ground and spin her in a giddy circle. Katara giggles when Sokka sets Suki back on her feet and kisses her. Soon Suki is beckoning to her, dragging her into a hug with one arm while the other is still clinging to Sokka.

“You, too, Zuko!” Suki calls. Zuko drifts over, his cheeks pink, as Suki informs him, “We do group hugs here. You’ll have to get used to it.”

They take Suki’s luggage to the car, and Suki gives Zuko directions to her apartment in between dreamy sighs from Sokka. Katara is brimming with happiness at having all her people together, laughing at the ridiculous love-struck look on Sokka’s face.

“Suki, what are you doing tomorrow?” she asks.

“Hanging out with me!” Sokka interjects indignantly.

“Well, yes. I was going to see if you both wanted to get lunch.”

“Sure,” Suki says over Sokka’s melodramatic protests. “Zuko, you want to come?”

“I’m meeting Uncle,” he says over his shoulder. A beat later and more quietly, “But thank you.”

“Oh! Tell him hello for me.”

Katara glances at Zuko. “Does everybody know your uncle except for me?”

Suki answers for him. “I’ve only met him a couple of times. I think I was driving Toph to work. He’s really sweet!”

“So I’ve been told.”

“I can’t believe you haven’t met him, though,” Suki muses. “He would love you. Toph was always telling me he was trying to set Zuko up with one of her friends—”

“That’s enough,” Zuko protests. “He tries to embarrass me plenty; I don’t need you doing it, too.”

Suki and Katara giggle at him. He groans. “I didn’t think about dealing with the two of you together.”

“We make a pretty good team,” Suki says, and Katara twists around to grin at her.

Before long, Zuko is pulling up to Suki’s apartment complex, and Sokka jumps out to fetch Suki’s bags from the trunk.

“Thanks again for the ride!” Suki says as she swings her legs out of the car. “See you tomorrow, Katara!”

“See you!” Katara calls before Suki shuts the door. She and Zuko watch Suki and Sokka traipse up the walkway and get safely inside her unit before Zuko puts the car in reverse.

“Seriously, it’s really nice of you to ferry us around,” Katara tells Zuko earnestly.

The intermittent flashes of the streetlights over his face reveal his familiar smirk laced with something new, something like hunger. “Well, you did promise to make it up to me,” he murmurs.

“The pictures weren’t enough?” she teases, feeling her pulse jerk into overdrive.

“Oh, they never are.” It is hunger in his voice, and her body answers, arousal spiking through her blood. “The one you sent me in the airport—you planned ahead for that?”

“Maybe,” she says, trying for coy, but she finds that her playful tone has evaporated, leaving something akin to desperation in its wake. She’s been waiting for this for weeks now, and she isn’t sure exactly what his plan entails, but she sorely hopes it culminates tonight.

“Answer me,” he orders.

“Yes,” she breathes. “I took it this morning.”

She’s never been great at following orders, but with Zuko, she wants to in a way that is new and little terrifying and a lot thrilling. She wants to please him, she realizes with a start, wants desperately to earn his low-voiced praise.

“You’re pushing it, you know that?”

And she wants that, too, wants to see how far he can be pushed, wants to see what happens when his self-control snaps. The idea that she can wear on his restraint is intoxicating, makes her feel wanted. She’s not sure how she is supposed to please him and push him at the same time, but she’s figuring this out as she goes along, following instinct as much as anything else, following whatever makes her body thrum and Zuko’s voice go feral.

She hasn’t answered him, but she doesn’t think she can, and Zuko doesn’t make her this time. He seems to know that she is speechless and wound tight, and that’s something, too, the way he can see inside her and intuit what she is feeling. He drives them the rest of the way in silence, thick with tension, and helps her out of the car without a word.

When they get inside, though, the silence breaks and so does he. He whirls her around and shoves her hard against the inside of the door, flipping the lock behind her and pinning her there with the length of his body.

“You’re a filthy little tease,” he growls, breath hot against her ear. “Tell me why I shouldn’t abandon my plan and fuck you right here.”

The thought short-circuits her brain. Her hands clutch at his flannel, pulling as if he could get any closer.

“Answer me,” he orders again, voice low and dangerous. “What do you want?”

She struggles for words, a task made much harder when he rucks up her sweater to seize her waist with his hands on her bare skin. “That isn’t fair,” she protests, and she is shocked to hear how wrecked she sounds already, voice high and breathy.

“Neither was your little stunt in the airport,” he counters. “Tell me what you want, Kitten.”

She closes her eyes against the pet name, against his fingers digging into her flesh. She can only think of one answer. “Whatever you want.”

He curses. “You are absolutely going to be the death of me.”

With that, he crushes his mouth to hers, kissing her hard and rough, all teeth and tongue, and she loves it, loves his desperation that matches hers. She would never let herself be manhandled, not by anyone else, but she trusts him, knows he will keep her upright when her joints go loose and she molds her body to his.

He does her one better, shifting his grip to the backs of her thighs and hauling her off the ground. She gasps into his mouth, scrambling to lock her arms around his neck and her legs around his hips as he walks them through the apartment toward what must be his bedroom. The way she clings to him brings her damp core against the hot length of him, and they both groan at the contact, Zuko’s steps faltering a bit.

He tosses her on the bed and looks down at her, a predatory gleam in his dark eyes. She props herself up on her elbows, breathing hard.

“Was that the wrong answer?” she asks haltingly.

“It was perfect,” he says roughly. “You’re perfect.”

She preens with the praise and reaches for the hem of her shirt, but he is on her in a flash, knocking her hands away.

“Uh-uh,” he growls. “Let me.”

She does.

“Sit up,” he orders, and she does that, too, so he can pull her sweater over her head. He traces his fingers over the swell of her breasts just above the lacy border of her bra, and she itches to take it off but doesn’t dare. “Even prettier in person,” he murmurs, thumbing one nipple through the fabric, wringing a whine out of her.

He trails his hands down her stomach until he hooks his fingers in her pants. His eyes flicker to hers then, seeking permission, and she answers by lifting her hips up so he can tug the jeans off. He skims his fingers over the hem of her panties, strokes her through the lace, and she mewls at the touch. “Please,” she whispers.

He grins wickedly. “Please, what?” He thumbs at her hipbones, and she writhes, aching for him.

“Please touch me.” She flushes at how wanton she sounds.

“Well,” he hums, and yanks her panties down. “Since you asked nicely.”

Her breathing dissolves into unsteady gasps when he slinks down her body and nudges her legs apart. He presses his mouth to the inside of her thigh, kissing and sucking and then biting down hard on the sensitive skin there. She whimpers, imagines the mark he will leave, loves the pleasure-pain singing through her veins.

“So good,” he murmurs against her. His fingers find her center, stroking lightly, parting her soaked folds to graze over her clit, and she keens. “So responsive.”

She can’t find it in herself to be embarrassed, not when he praises her for it and especially not when he puts his mouth against her and she moans low and long.

He licks into her, laves over her clit and then scrapes gently with his teeth, and she is seeing stars even before he slides two fingers into her. He works her over expertly, methodically taking her apart, and she winds trembling fingers through his hair and tries to buck her hips into his touch.

“Patience,” he admonishes, pinning her down with his other hand. He curls his fingers in her, stroking her just right, and she is panting and nearly there, heat coiling tighter and tighter in her belly, and then he is pulling back, standing up.

“What?” she whines, eyes flying open, her body clenching around nothing.

Zuko is unbuttoning his shirt and shrugging out of it, sliding his belt off, shucking his jeans. “Don’t worry,” he smirks. “I’ll let you come. I just want it to be while I’m fucking you.”

She barely gets the time to appreciate all the alabaster skin he is revealing before he dives back onto her, working a hand underneath her to pop the clasp on her bra and then kissing her while his fingers tease the hard buds of her nipples. She traces her hands down the bunched muscle of his back and wraps her legs around him, moaning when it brings her center in contact with his cock. He groans, too, and she feels a spark of pride that she can affect him half as much as he is affecting her; emboldened, she rolls her hips into his, grinding against him.

“Katara,” he gasps, abandoning her mouth to kiss down her throat. “Katara, fuck, I—” It’s the first time all night his voice has faltered, and in what she suspects is retaliation he bites into the flesh of her shoulder. She pushes her luck, reaching between them to wrap a hand around his swollen cock.

She doesn’t know, exactly, if she had been hoping for further retaliation, but she gets it when he growls and snatches both of her wrists to pin them above her head in one hand. With his other hand, he positions himself against her dripping slit.

“Tell me what you want,” he commands, voice uneven and as desperate as she feels.

“I want you to fuck me,” she whimpers, and his breath stutters.

He meets her eyes; she can hardly see the gold in his for how huge and dark his pupils are. “That wasn’t very polite,” he scolds.

She feels her face go crimson, but she knows what he is after, and there’s no way she’s not going to give it to him. “Please fuck me,” she begs, voice small, and she follows blind instinct and tacks on, “Sir,” for good measure.

That’s what does it, then, because he thrusts into her in one smooth motion, and she keens, loving the stretch and the burn and the way his breath comes out like a snarl.

He doesn’t let go of her wrists, setting a punishing pace. She can only let him, can only rock up to meet him and bask in the wicked praise he showers over her.

“Fuck, you feel so good.” His free hand scrabbles over her hip, gripping hard enough to bruise, moving her in time with him. “I’ve been waiting for this since the first time I saw your pretty face.” She moans at that and at the way his fingers slip between them to rub circles over her clit. “You’re so good for me, Kat, look at you.”

His voice pushes her over the edge as much as anything else; she can’t do anything but obey him when he tells her, “Come for me, Kitten, let go, I’ve got you, come on—” His words dissolve into a groan when her orgasm breaks over her, flashing white behind her eyelids, and she feels his hips stutter and jerk along with her.

They lay tangled together and breathing hard; it’s a few minutes until Katara floats down off the high and has the presence of mind to smooth Zuko’s hair back from his sweaty forehead. He stirs, wincing when he pulls out of her, and pushes himself up. Her heart clenches at the fondness in his face, at the way he leans back down to drop a kiss on her mouth before he steps into the bathroom and returns with a damp washcloth. He cleans her off carefully, lingering over the blooming bruises on her skin. “So pretty,” he murmurs, and she smiles sleepily.

“I brought a toothbrush,” she mumbles. He laughs warmly.

“Good girl,” he grins.

She studies him through half-lidded eyes. “Was that the plan?”

He scoffs. “You think the plan was only for one night?” He presses a kiss to the hollow of her throat. “There are so many more things I want to do to you.”

Even though she is sated and half-asleep, the promise sends a frisson of heat through her limbs.

Zuko gets back up, and she sits up to watch him rummage through his dresser and come out with an armful of fabric. He steps into pajama pants and then sits on the edge of the bed. “Here.” She lifts her arms and lets him pull a loose tee shirt over her head before he tucks her under the covers and cuts off the light.

He slides into bed behind her and draws her into the warm circle of his arms. “You need anything?” he asks her, mouth against her hair. She shakes her head no, sleep tugging on the edges of her mind, and hums something akin to “Good night” through the haze.

He nuzzles closer, breath going long and even. “Sleep tight,” he murmurs.

And she does.

Chapter Text

Morning finds Katara tangled in Zuko’s red sheets, stretching lazily in the weak winter sun filtering through the blinds. A warm presence shifts on the bed beside her, and then she is opening her eyes to find Zuko sitting up with his computer in his lap, looking very awake despite the mussed tangle of his hair and the fact he is still shirtless.

“How long have you been up?” she mumbles, scrubbing at her face.

Amusement plays over Zuko’s lips. “It’s 11,” he answers, reaching over to comb her tangled curls out of her eyes. “So, 5 hours.”

“Ugh,” she groans, yanking the covers back over her head. She’s going to have to reevaluate her whole relationship with him if he always gets up at 6 a.m.

Then she processes the pleasant soreness settled in her whole body, remembers him saying let go, I’ve got you and, yeah, no amount of his early-morning peppiness is going to drag her away.

Then she processes the time. “Shit!” She bolts upright. “Lunch!”

Zuko is unconcerned. “Suki texted me. I told her I’d drop you when I go to meet Uncle at 1.”

“Oh.” She relaxes minutely, decides not to comment on him running her schedule. “Still, I should get in the shower.”

He licks his lips. “You want help?”

Laughing, she dodges his grab at her and dances out of bed. “Do we have that kind of time?” She snags her backpack from the kitchen before she ducks into the bathroom so she can brush her teeth and try to work at least a few of the snarls out of her hair. Zuko sighs dramatically in response and starts to tidy up the bedroom.

When she is marginally more presentable, she tugs down the collar of her borrowed sleep-shirt and looks in the mirror to assess the smudge of purple at the juncture of her neck and shoulder. She’s grateful it is easily hidden, because there’s no pretending the mark is anything but what it is—she can see the individual divots of his teeth in her skin.

“You okay?” She startles at Zuko’s voice, turning to find him propped in the doorway, watching her closely with his arms crossed over his bare chest.

“Yeah.” She is temporarily distracted by the first good look she’s gotten at him yet. He is all pale skin over rippled muscle, as if he is carved from marble.

“Kat.”

“Huh?” She snaps to attention again, sensing she maybe missed a few words while she was drooling at the sight of him. “Sorry, what?”

His face is an unreadable mix of amusement and concern. “I said, did I hurt you?”

“Oh.” She twists the hem of her shirt. “No. I mean, kind of, obviously.” She gestures vaguely at her collarbone. “But not in a bad way.”

This is new to her, this particular way of sleeping with someone, but she doesn’t feel bad about it, not at all. She isn’t hurt; in fact, she feels more taken care of than she can remember.

“You would tell me if it’s too much,” he says quietly, “right?”

“Of course.” She blinks at him. “You’d know anyway. Somehow you always know.”

That seems to mollify him; his expression shifts into a self-satisfied smile. “I just know you.” He pushes off the doorframe, steps closer to her. “Can I see?”

She lets him pull at her shirt, and even if she didn’t like the bruise—and she does, she realizes all at once, she likes wearing the badge of his desire—it would be worth it for the way his measured exhale is almost a growl.

He reaches down to catch the back of her knee, angling it out to reveal the matching mark on the inside of her thigh. How had she possibly forgotten that one?

“Beautiful,” he breathes, and the wanting in his voice makes her vision go blurry around the edges.

So that’s how she ends up the shower with him, crowded against the wall while he works his fingers in and out of her.

“Zuko.” Her nails dig into his back. “Please.”

His thumb finds her clit, and she has a hard time forming words when he asks her, “Is that what you want?”

“Yes,” she manages, grinding against his palm. His other hand grips her jaw, forcing her face toward his. His fingers slow inside her, drawing a pathetic whine from deep in her chest.

“Yes, what?”

“Yes, sir,” she whimpers.

His wicked smile, his whispered, “Good girl,” tip her into orgasm, and she spends several minutes clinging to him under the spray while she catches her breath. She presses her mouth to what she can reach, peppering kisses over his chest, and he hums happily.

“You’re a dream,” he murmurs, petting down her trembling sides.

The praise makes her feel giddy, bold, so she sinks to her knees, pulls at his hip to make his body block most of the water, and swallows down the hot length of him.

“Fuck,” he grits out, hands flying to her hair. Spurred on by his reaction, she curls her tongue around his cock, lapping at the head. She sucks and licks, chasing the hitch of his breath, the bitten-off groans that fall through his teeth. His grip tightens and relaxes against her scalp, and she realizes slowly that he is holding back, trying to control himself.

Well, she thinks. Can’t have that.

So she relaxes her jaw as much as she can and stills, looking up at him through wet lashes.

“Kat,” he gasps, “what—”

She can see it dawn on him, can feel it in the way his hands fist in her hair and don’t let up. He flexes his hips experimentally, thrusting shallowly into her mouth. He does it again when she doesn’t object, and again and again until she is swallowing around his cock bumping the back of her throat.

It isn’t terribly comfortable; her jaw is starting to ache, and she can breathe but not without some distinctly un-ladylike gagging. She hopes she’ll get better at it, because it will definitely be happening again—the discomfort is absolutely worth the wrecked, babbling monologue she’s getting out of Zuko.

“Fuck, you are so good, so warm and wet and—Spirits, I could fuck your pretty face for the rest of my life—love to hear you choke for me—wanna keep you on your knees forever—”

The movement of his hips falters then, but his grip doesn’t; with a ragged groan he floods her mouth. She swallows what she can, though when he pulls back strings of spit and come stretch between them. Grimacing, she goes to wipe her face, but Zuko stops her with a shaking hand.

“Just give me a minute,” he rasps, “to commit this to memory.” He tips her chin up and skims his thumb over her lips, smearing her mouth with his come. “So pretty.” Normally, she wouldn’t care for the mess, but like the bruises it is another emblem of his wanting her, and like the bruises it would be worth it just for the praise and the enraptured expression on his face.

After a few moments, he helps her carefully to her feet so they can actually shower, then wraps her snugly in a towel when they are done. They go about getting ready in amiable silence.

She is dressed and braiding her damp hair in the kitchen when he emerges from the bedroom in gray slacks and a blue sweater. “You look nice.”

He ducks his head. “Uncle always wants to go somewhere…well, nice.” He sits at the table to lace up his shoes. “We should probably go soon.”

She nods and ties off her hair. She is hunting around for her own shoes when there is a smart rap on the front door, and then she freezes.

“Who is that?” she whispers to Zuko, who is equally frozen, wide eyes fixed on the door.

He starts to say, “I don’t know,” when the knob turns and his voice is drowned out by a hearty cry of, “Nephew! I hope you don’t mind, I was on this side of—”

Katara realizes at once that the stout man paused over the threshold is Zuko’s fabled uncle. If the broad smile and knowing look on his face are any indication, he has figured out who she is, too.

“Uncle,” Zuko splutters, leaping up. “Wasn’t I supposed to meet you?”

“Yes,” he says without looking away from Katara. “But I was on this side of town and I thought I would just pick you up. My deepest apologies—I didn’t know you had company.”

Between Zuko and Katara, it’s a toss-up which of them is redder in the face.

“Well,” drawls the older man, clearly delighted by this development. “Aren’t you going to introduce me, Zuko?”

Zuko sucks in a breath. “Katara,” he says weakly, “this is my Uncle Iroh. Uncle, Katara.”

Iroh gives a little bow. “Pleased to meet you, Katara,” he says, eyes twinkling. “Very pleased.”

She tries to stand up straight. “You as well,” she manages.

“You must join us for lunch,” he says, clapping his hands together.

“Oh, thank you, but I’m meeting some friends,” she says, with some relief.

“And I’m dropping her off,” Zuko cuts in. “So why don’t I just meet you—”

“Nonsense! I would be happy to drop you off, my dear. Where are you going?”

She shoots Zuko a questioning look. “The Pho place down the street,” he supplies.

“Wonderful! Shall we be off, then?”

“Wonderful,” echoes Zuko, his voice thin. “You ready, Kat?”

“I just need my boots,” she mumbles, looking around. Where the fuck are they?

“Oh, they’re in the—” Zuko stops, clears his throat. “The bedroom,” he finishes quietly.

Of course they are.

Cheeks burning, she zips up her boots and trails after the men to Iroh’s sedan, where Zuko strands her in the front seat with a shrug and a whispered, “It’s what’s polite!”

“So, Katara,” Iroh begins as he pulls away from the curb, “Zuko tells me you’re from the South Pole.”

“Yes.” She starts to say yes sir but finds she now absolutely cannot, not without bursting into flames.

“A lovely place! We’ve been many times.”

In spite of her mortification, she’s curious. “Where in the South are your installments?”

“Both are integrated with the hydroelectric plants there, in Raava and Vaatu.”

She recognizes the names. “They supply almost all the power in the South, don’t they?”

Iroh nods. “Many years ago, a storm damaged the plant in Raava, and huge swaths of the nation were without electricity for weeks. When I started my company here, they were one of my first customers. I am proud to say they have had no issues since.”

“That’s wonderful.” She thinks about what else Zuko has told her of his uncle’s company. “You provide services to hospitals, too, right?”

“Yes, all over. None in the South Pole, though.”

She sighs. “That’s because we don’t have any—not to speak of, anyway, just a few small clinics.”

Before Iroh can answer, Katara spots Suki and Sokka through the windshield. “Oh, there are my friends.”

“It was lovely to meet you, my dear,” Iroh beams, pulling over as she unbuckles her seatbelt. “You must come to a meal with us some other time.”

“I’d love to,” she finds herself promising sincerely. “Thank you for the ride.”

Zuko gives her a hand down so he can trade places with her, and she waves goodbye to them both before turning to her brother and Suki.

“So,” Suki says slyly, “you met Uncle.”

“Yeah,” Katara sighs. “It’s a long story.”

Sokka looks cross. “It would have to be, since he ran into you at your apartment, which is where you sleep—”

“Oh, cut it out,” Suki laughs, smacking his arm. “Katara’s a big girl.”

“No, she’s not,” he grouses, which gets him a dual eye roll from both women. “Geez, I forgot what it was like when you two are together.”

Katara grins and links her arm with Suki’s. “I’m really glad you’re back from Omashu.”

Inside the restaurant, Katara grills Suki for all the details about her internship and about what the city is like. Sokka interjects with questions, mostly about the food there, but sometimes about Suki’s work with refugees as part of Omashu’s Social Services Department. Katara smiles to herself when he asks all the right things. It is easy to remember Sokka as her goofy brother from their childhood; really, he’s grown into a thoughtful man, keenly perceptive and frequently ingenious. Despite his loud protests about her maturation past age 12, she is excited to have him back in Ba Sing Se.

When Suki slips off to the bathroom, Katara stage-whispers at Sokka. “Did you tell her about the MBA? Are you moving in together?”

“Not yet,” Sokka whispers back. “I’m waiting for the right moment.”

She starts to warn him that he doesn’t have unlimited time but thinks better of it. “Let me know if I can help, ok?”

“Thanks, Katara.” He fiddles with his napkin. “I have a plan.”

“Of course you do,” she says fondly.

Suki returns, cutting them off, and when she sits back down she props her chin in her hands and turns the spotlight on Katara. “So,” she says, “tell me about Zuko.”

“Sitting right here,” Sokka grumbles. Suki hushes him.

“Not much to tell,” Katara demurs, feeling her face warm.

“They were kissing outside of her apartment the other night,” Sokka huffs.

“Oh, no.” Suki rolls her eyes. “Not kissing.”

“I can, um.” She coughs. “I can tell you the details later. But we’re…dating. I guess.”

Suki’s eyebrows go up. “You guess?”

“Well,” she hedges, “we haven’t really talked about it. But I accidentally called him my boyfriend, and sometimes he refers to himself that way, so I would say…that’s where we are.”

Suki pinches the bridge of her nose. “Just going right on past you accidentally calling him your boyfriend—how did you end up in Iroh’s car?”

“So Zuko was supposed to meet him for lunch and drop me off here on his way—you know all this, you coordinated with him. Thanks for that, by the way, I was not awake—”

Suki says “I figured” at the same time Sokka bangs his head on the table. The girls both ignore him.

“But it turns out Iroh was nearby and thought he would just pick up Zuko, and he let himself in and then he insisted on dropping me off and here we are.” Katara narrows her eyes. “Wait, you didn’t coordinate this with him, did you?”

Suki bursts out laughing. “No, of course not, but I couldn’t have planned it better if I had tried. Oh, man, what I would give to have seen Zuko’s face.”

“I thought he was going to explode,” Katara admits. “But then again, I was, too. Iroh seemed very pleased with himself all around.”

“Did he ask you about grandchildren?” Suki asks with a suggestive smile.

“Oh, come on!” Sokka whines.

Katara blushes in earnest. “No, but I’m sure it’s in the works.”

Suki’s expression shifts to kindness. “Are you happy?”

The question catches her off guard. “Yeah, but I was already happy.”

“You were always stressed,” Suki and Sokka say in near-perfect unison. Katara lifts one eyebrow at Sokka as if to say I told you so.

“I mean,” Sokka clarifies, looking mildly peeved, “you seem happier now. With Zuko.” At the girls’ incredulous looks, he hastens to add, “I’m not happy about it! But, you know. I want you to be happy. And I want Zuko to be happy. Obviously, I wasn’t clear enough when we were classmates that you were strictly off-limits, and the beginning could have gone better, but you both seem good now.”

Suki throws her arms around Sokka’s shoulders and squeezes while Katara beams at her brother. He never fails to surprise her. She gets the credit for being the nurturing sibling, but Sokka is always empathic, too. She doesn’t need him on board, but she wants him there, and his tacit, grudging approval of Zuko fills her up with light.

When they are done with their food, they all pile into Suki’s hatchback and go back to her apartment. Katara spends the afternoon looking at Suki’s pictures from Omashu, getting Sokka to fill her in on the happenings in the South, and listening to the two of them bicker good-naturedly over what to watch from their Netflix queue. She also fields increasingly, amusingly, adorably put-out texts from Zuko about when she’ll be back at his apartment. By the evening, Sokka and Suki start to snuggle closer and closer on the couch, which she takes as her cute to leave, promising to catch up with them tomorrow.

Outside, a few precious snowflakes are starting to fall, and Katara turns her face up to the cloudy sky. She doesn’t miss the endless tundra of the South Pole, but she still loves the snow, and she lets it melt against her cheeks for a peaceful moment before she texts Zuko that she is on her way.

Immediately, he calls her. “Are you walking?” he demands when she picks up.

She smothers a laugh. “Yeah. It’s, what, seven blocks?”

“It’s snowing! And dark!”

Even though she teases him for it, his concern makes her feel warm all over. “What do you think I did for the three-plus years I’ve been in college before I met you?”

“Got lucky?” he counters. “At least stay on the phone with me.”

She smiles to herself. “Okay. How was lunch?”

A static-y sigh on Zuko’s end of the line. “Almost entirely taken up by how delighted Uncle was to meet you and how soon he can start planning for grandchildren.”

She remembers, early on, hearing Zuko talk about Iroh as a father; now she knows why. Still, she is touched by grandchildren. It is heartbreakingly sweet, if comical, and she asks, “Did you tell him about the IUD?”

“I’ll let you explain it,” he says drily. “He’s absolutely adamant that you come with us next time.”

“I really would love to,” she offers. “He’s very kind. I mean, if—if you want me to come with you.”

“Of course I do.” He sounds somewhat offended she would suggest otherwise. “Don’t get me wrong—it’ll be mortifying from start to finish, but I couldn’t keep him away if I tried. He’s nearly as taken with you as I am.”

She scuffs her boots on the pavement. “He just barely met me,” she protests, as if the affection in his voice doesn’t thrill her.

“He says he has a sense about these things. I’m not going to argue with him.”

Ahead of her through the fine flurry of snow, a tall figure is walking toward her with a phone to its ear. “There you are.” She hears his voice echo through the air and the speaker, and then Zuko hangs up and she makes out the figure’s face to be his.

“What are you doing out here?” she asks when he is close enough to hear properly.

“Coming to get you,” he answers, and she is so moved she seizes his jacket collar and drags him down to kiss him.

“You don’t have to do this, you know,” she tells him when the break apart. “Ba Sing Se is perfectly safe.”

“Well, now it’s a little safer.” He smiles down at her and wraps an arm around her. “Besides, how many times am I going to tell you I want to before you stop reminding me I don’t have to?”

She blushes, ducks her head against his shoulder. “Just making sure,” she mumbles.

It’s really not a long walk before they are stamping the snow off their boots and making their way inside the warmth of his apartment. “How were Suki and your brother?” Zuko asks as they shed their coats and shoes in the entryway.

“Suki wanted to know every detail of everything that happened while she was gone. Sokka wanted to hide under the table, I’m sure.”

Zuko chuckles and moves into the kitchen. “You want some tea?”

“Is that your uncle’s influence?”

He nods, filling up an electric kettle. “He always says tea is the only way to warm up when it’s snowy outside.”

She smiles. “Well, then I’d love some.”

She watches him methodically heat the kettle, fetch a box of tea from the cabinet, arrange cups and saucers and spoons. He pours the water over the tea bags with a practiced motion she finds oddly endearing. She curls her fingers around the steaming mug when he slides it across the counter to her, feeling the heat seep into her bones.

“So,” he says between sips from his own mug, “Uncle invited me to go with him to his site in Kyoshi Island later this week. We’d be gone for a few days.”

“You mentioned you used to spend holidays and summers traveling with him. I was going to ask why you stopped.”

He turns faintly pink. “I didn’t stop. I just haven’t asked to go yet this winter.”

“Oh.” She thinks she can guess why. “No, I mean, you should go. This is what you want to do when you graduate, right? It’s a perfect opportunity.”

“I wasn’t sure,” he mumbles, “if you would be mad.”

“Why would I be mad?” Even as she asks, it starts to make sense.

“It didn’t go super well the last time I traveled,” he explains.

“Do you have a girlfriend in Kyoshi Island?” she can’t resist asking him with a little smirk.

“No, of course not!” he says hotly.

She throws her hands up, palms out, in response. “I’m sorry, I was kidding!” Wincing, she realizes the joke hadn’t exactly landed. “I’m sorry,” she repeats, more quietly this time. “I won’t be mad—not unless you start turning down good things because of me. Please, go.”

“We would leave early on Wednesday and fly back Saturday.” He stills look unsure, so she crosses the kitchen to put her hand on his arm.

“Go,” she says. “Please. Send me pictures. I’ve always heard Kyoshi Island is beautiful.”

“You’ve never been?” He seems surprised.

“I’ve been to Ba Sing Se and the town I was born in. That’s it.”

“Oh.” He considers this. “Maybe you can come the next time we make the trip.”

“I don’t want to intrude.” The chance to see more of the world, though—it’s tempting.

“I’ll talk to him about it,” Zuko promises. “I bet he would be overjoyed to have you.”

“Thank you. You’re both very kind.”

They finish their tea, and Zuko drifts to the kitchen table to open his laptop.

“You can’t work on your dissertation,” Katara protests when she sees him start typing. “You’re the one telling me to take a break.”

“It’s not my dissertation,” he says, sliding into his chair. “When Uncle wasn’t talking about how lovely you are, he was telling me he’s having trouble with the plans for a new system in Omashu. He wanted me to look at it.”

Katara smiles to herself. Zuko might be determined to be finish his PhD before he applies to work for Dragon West, but there’s no way Iroh hasn’t figured out his nephew’s intentions, and he clearly already values Zuko’s input. Zuko pulls up an intricate diagram and then digs a folded-up napkin out of his pocket. Smoothing it out to reveal scribbled numbers, he explains, “We talked through some of the math. Uncle says the numbers aren’t working out.”

Katara walks to the table and peers over his shoulder. “Am I allowed to look at it?”

Zuko smiles up at her and drags a chair close to his. “Not technically, but unless you’re planning to sell the plans to our competitors, I’m sure Uncle wouldn’t mind.”

“Do you have competitors?” She thought they specialized in challenging applications; it sounded, when Iroh talked about it, like they were the only option for a lot of places.

“No,” he laughs. “So I think we’re safe.” He angles his computer towards her when she sits down. While she reads, he copies down some figures onto a notepad and starts frowning at the equations. “See, this doesn’t work out here.” He taps the page.

“Let me see.” Katara slides the pad over to herself. “Do you have a calculator?”

He supplies her with one, and she taps away at it for a few minutes, stealing his pen to re-write the numbers she gets. “Is this on the right track?”

He stares at the paper, then at her. “Yes. It is.”

She laughs. “Don’t look so surprised! I’m good at things that aren’t organic chemistry.”

“No, I know that,” he interjects quickly. “I just—this is upper-level engineering.”

“Well, I don’t know what the numbers mean. I just know how to do calculus.”

“Uncle is going to lose his mind,” Zuko mutters. She laughs again.

They work together for a while, and Katara is reminded of doing O-chem homework with him, though this is considerably less frustrating. Zuko’s teaching gifts apparently extend handily to upper-level engineering, and he explains the plans to her here and there so the math makes more sense.

She realizes when Zuko starts to yawn that it has gotten late. “I should go.” It comes out more like a question, which he dismisses immediately.

“Stay here.” He strokes a hand down her spine, turning her instantly pliant.

“Okay.” She probably agrees too fast, but she doesn’t care, not when he smiles lazily at her.

Especially not when he tells her, voice warm and rich and low, “Good girl.”

Chapter Text

Katara sleeps through most of the morning and then works quietly with Zuko on Iroh’s project for several hours. They call it quits mid-afternoon when Sokka texts Katara about her plans for the rest of the day, hinting heavily that he might appreciate if those plans involved video games. Zuko snorts and gives him an open invitation, so in no time Sokka is bounding gleefully through the door with Suki in tow. The girls talk in the kitchen over cups of Zuko’s meticulously-brewed tea while the boys yell and curse from the living room, and Katara thinks she could get used to this.

Sokka wheedles them into ordering takeout for dinner, which they eat sprawled in the living room while they laugh and talk over each other. Zuko doesn’t say much—that is what he is like when he isn’t alone with her, Katara knows now—but he interjects here and there, and he looks happy to have his apartment filled up with sound. Katara sits tucked up against his side stealing bites of his dinner, and Sokka doesn’t make a peep, which she counts as a victory.

When they finish eating, Zuko mentions with some regret his early-morning flight the next day, so Suki and Sokka don their shoes and coats to leave. With his hand on the doorknob, Sokka quips, “Hey Katara, we can give you a ride back home!”

“Shut up,” Katara and Suki say at once. They both dissolve into giggles while Sokka rolls his eyes and ducks out the door.

“See you later, Katara,” Suki laughs, trailing after him. “Bye, Zuko—have a safe flight.”

“Thanks,” he calls before he locks up behind them.

“You’re sweet to let Sokka invite himself,” Katara tells him.

“Any time,” he shrugs. “It’s nice to have people around.”

This gives her pause. “What did you do before—before me?”

He shrugs again. “Spent a lot of time with Uncle. Spent a lot of time alone.”

The twinge of sadness in his voice makes her throw her arms around him and squeeze tight.

He hugs her back, nuzzles his face into her hair. “It’s ok,” he says, like she isn’t the one trying to comfort him. “I don’t mind being alone.”

“You shouldn’t have to be,” she whispers fiercely into his shoulder.

“Well,” he murmurs. “Well, now I’m not.”

She catches sight of the clock on the stove and breaks away reluctantly. “What time are you leaving for the airport?”

“Uncle’s assistant is picking me up at 5.”

She groans. “That’s not even a real time!”

He snorts at her theatrics and moves toward the bedroom, unbuttoning his flannel as he goes. She realizes as she follows him that she won’t see him again for several days. The knowledge settles in her stomach uncomfortably, and she feels a little foolish. It’s not like she hasn’t gone that long without seeing him before, and it isn’t long at all, not really. Still, she looks with a tug of longing at the sharp lines of his shoulder blades, at the way the falling-out strands of his messy topknot brush his collarbone, and finds herself venturing, “Does Kyoshi Island have cell service?”

He turns to look at her, and his lazy, content expression shifts in a way that has become very, very familiar. “Yes, it does.” He crosses the bedroom, and she catches the flash of his teeth, the darkening of his eyes. “Why do you ask?”

She gravitates to him, winds her arms around his neck. “Just curious.”

He slides his hands under her shirt and pulls her flush against him. “You going to miss me?”

She shouldn’t keep him up. He has to leave so obscenely early tomorrow—he needs to get some rest now. Even if the bare expanse of his chest is tempting, even if he is gazing down at her like he is already mapping out what to do with her, she should be responsible. She should make sure he has enough sleep.

Well, she reasons. He can sleep on the plane.

And so her voice is a purr when she looks up at him through her eyelashes and answers, “Yes, sir.”

For a millisecond, she sees his face go slack-jawed. Then he recovers and yanks her shirt over her head. There is a brief scuffle as he undresses her as fast as possible while she tries to help and undress him the rest of the way at the same time. She tumbles onto the mattress and admires the vee of his hips, the swell of his erection, and then he is gripping her ankles and dragging her to the edge of the bed.

“Get over here,” he growls, sinking down to the floor. There is no teasing this time, nothing new bitten into her flesh, just his hands on her thighs spreading her legs wide and then his mouth on her. Shock and pleasure mingle in her veins as he laps at her opening, and she doesn’t even try to stop the gasping moans that tumble out of her mouth.

“Zuko,” she whimpers when he flicks his tongue over her clit. She is empty and aching for his fingers or his cock, but he doesn’t answer her, just sucks and licks at her steadily. “Please, want you inside me, please,” she pants, and then he obliges, shoving two fingers in her and working her open as heat builds and coils and then flares and—“Oh, fuck,” she wails as she clenches down around his fingers.

“So good,” he murmurs, still stroking in and out of her slowly as she trembles and steadies her breathing.

It is almost too much, and she feels twitchy and over-sensitized when he finally withdraws his hand. She starts to push herself up and reach for him, but he stops her with his hand on her chest. She gives him a quizzical look, but she goes back down, propped on her elbows this time. He climbs to his feet and surveys her possessively, which makes her shiver in a way that has nothing to do with the aftershocks of her orgasm still rattling through her.

“Turn over,” he rasps. When she doesn’t move immediately, he gives the outside of her thigh a light slap and then she is scrambling to obey, shocked at how much she likes the sting.

He grabs her hips and pulls her back until her feet touch the floor. She keeps her elbows underneath her, dropping her head to the mattress, and she is shocked, too, at how vulnerable she feels, legs spread and back arched. Zuko runs his hands over her ass and parts her folds, and then the head of his cock is poised at her entrance. He slides one palm down the curve of her spine and begins thrusting shallowly into her.

“Yes,” she hisses when he is fully seated. He rocks in and out, slow deep thrusts that she feels all the way to her fingertips. “Yes yes yes.”

“You like that?” he snarls, picking up the pace, his hips slapping against her with every thrust. She moans in response, but that apparently isn’t a satisfactory answer, because he shifts the hand on her back into her hair and pulls. “I asked you—” his other hand curls around her and rubs circles on her clit “—a question. You like having your ass up, spread open for me?”

She gasps and fists her hands in the blanket. “Yes,” she whimpers, and he tugs harder on her hair and she chokes out, “Yes, sir!” The hand between her legs is insistent, and it is turning her brain into slush. “Zuko,” she tries to explain in between heaving breaths, “I already—”

“Yeah,” he growls, “and you’re going to come again on my cock.”

“Fuck,” she says faintly, her brain going totally offline. She gives herself over to the feel of him pounding into her, hoping she can follow his order, because Jet had been an asshole but he had been really good in bed and he had never made her come twice in one night, not ever.

But Zuko is persistent, and she loses track of time. His voice blankets her with praise, filthy and reassuring all at once. “You’re perfect, you’re my pretty little kitten, aren’t you, sweetheart? You’re so good for me, you’re going to do what I tell you, you always do. Look at your ass, bouncing on my cock—” Here he lets go of her hair to deliver another light smack, this time on the curve of her ass, and her breath staggers out in a whine that has him groaning in response. She drops her head down, sucking in air, and he pops her again once, twice, and then he is stroking down her back again and telling her, “Come on, Kitten, come for me, want to feel you—you can do it, I’ve got you, be a good girl for me—”

It catches her almost by surprise, the second orgasm, and she is too exhausted to cry out. Her whole body goes limp; fortunately, Zuko is only a few seconds behind her, coming with a grunt that may have started out as her name.

Zuko collapses onto the bed beside her. With some maneuvering, he turns them right way around and draws her to his chest, stroking her sweaty hair while they both catch their breath.

“You okay?” he asks, pressing little kisses to her forehead. She tries to remember how to form words, doesn’t quite make it, hums an affirmative instead. He chuckles, quiet and fond, and then he cleans them both up and tucks her under the covers.

Through half-closed eyes, she watches him pack a carry-on suitcase for his trip, puttering around the room getting ready for tomorrow. She is almost asleep when he burrows under the blankets with her. The last thing she hears is, “Good night, sweetheart.”

***

It’s almost ridiculously late when she wakes up the next day; Zuko is long gone. She must have slept right through him leaving at that ungodly hour.

She drags herself out of bed and into the shower, pausing to peer into the mirror at her twin bruises, which are already fading to bluish-yellow. She blushes to think about the night before; though he hadn’t left any evidence, she won’t forget it anytime soon. It would be a red-letter day for the two orgasms alone, not to mention the surprisingly delicious sting of his open palm.

She is toweling off when she checks her phone and finds that Zuko has sent her a half-dozen messages, starting at 5:24 a.m.

Z: Hope I didn’t wake you. I left my keys on the counter in case you want to come and go.

Z: Ugh, our plane is delayed. Miss your pretty face already.

Z: We just boarded. Uncle says hi.

Z: Uncle also says you ‘simply must accompany us’ next time we take a trip.

Z: I think he might be mad I didn’t jump on the opportunity to bring you this time.

Z: Ok, we’re about to take off. Talk to you later.

She laughs, imagining his jovial uncle scolding him for not bringing her along. Zuko has also sent her a screenshot of his itinerary, so she does the math for the different time zones and figures he will be landing in another hour. Even then, she is sure he will be busy with Iroh, so she gets busy herself, making the bed neatly and tidying up around the apartment.

She snags his keys off the counter and locks up behind herself when she leaves to walk to her own apartment, which could use some tidying, too. She spends the rest of the day there, cleaning up and reading happily. It isn’t bad to spend some time alone, curled up with a good book, though she does make the trek to Suki’s when Sokka texts to invite her for dinner. She is walking back when Zuko calls her.

“Hey, Zuko.”

“Hey, Kat. You busy?”

She smiles at the sound of his voice. “No, I’m walking back from Suki’s. How’s Kyoshi?”

“It’s great! Uncle loves to try new places to eat every time we go somewhere, so we went to this amazing restaurant…” He tells her brightly about their dinner and the bed-and-breakfast Iroh always stays at when he visits the island, then back-tracks and describes the system installed at the Kyoshi hydroelectric plant. Here he launches into some technical jargon, some of which she recognizes from working with him but most of which is gibberish to her. She doesn’t mind—he is so enthusiastic, it’s almost uncharacteristic, even considering what he will say to her away from a crowd. She is more convinced than ever that he belongs with Iroh’s company, and he is still chattering when she reaches her apartment and toes off her boots.

“Sorry,” he says sheepishly after a few more minutes. “I didn’t mean to ramble. What did you do today?”

“Don’t apologize! I like hearing about what you do. It’s really cool, and you sound really happy.”

“Thanks, Kat. Still—you talk now.”

“My day wasn’t nearly as exciting. I cleaned up at your apartment, I cleaned up at my apartment, I read, I made noodles with Suki and Sokka. Now I’m home.”

“What are you going to do the next couple of days?”

“Probably more of the same. I think Sokka is leaving the day you get back, so I’ll try to spend as much time with him as I can between now and then.”

“Oh.” He sounds surprised. “Sokka isn’t staying for the Winter Solstice?”

“No. I’m sure he doesn’t want our dad to be alone.” She hasn’t asked him this year, but that’s been Sokka’s reasoning every Soltice since he left for college.

“Doesn’t that mean you’ll be alone?”

“Yeah, but I’m used to it. I’ve never flown home for winter break.” She could scrape together the money if she really wanted to, she supposes, but she always spends the entire summer freezing her ass off and being patronized, so she can’t bring herself to do it in the winter, too. It isn’t her dad’s fault, though, and she feels bad. “I usually FaceTime with my dad and Sokka.”

Zuko hesitates, like he is deciding what to say. He settles on, “I’m impressed your dad knows how to FaceTime. Uncle had a flip phone until last month.”

“Oh, no, Sokka does it. My dad still has a flip phone.”

They talk until he starts to sound sleepy. She asks, “Do you guys have an early start tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” he says, sounding distinctly like he is smothering a yawn. “I should probably go to bed. Somebody kept me up last night.”

“I did think about that. I hoped you could sleep on the plane.”

“I could have, except I made the mistake of showing Uncle your math while we were waiting to board and he spent practically the entire flight trying to get me to get you to come work for him.”

She laughs. “I’m pretty set on med school, but I appreciate the offer.”

He yawns outright. “Night. I’ll send you some pictures tomorrow.”

“Night, Zuko.”

***

The next day, Sokka wants to go see some action movie, so Suki drives the three of them to the mall. They wander around afterwards, Suki and Katara ducking into stores to admire some dresses while Sokka groans good-naturedly about girls and their clothes. Katara grabs some more novels from the bookstore, and she and Sokka go in together on a set of history books for a Solstice gift for their dad. It is snowing when they leave, so Suki drops her at her apartment, and she waves at them as she lets herself inside. She is eating some ramen and reading one of her new books when Sokka texts her an hour later.

S: Mission complete!

She snorts.

K: By ‘mission’ do you mean you asked your girlfriend to move in together?

S: That sounds so much less badass.

S: But, yes. We’re renewing this lease. So we’ll be walking distance from you! And Zuko! And Zuko’s PlayStation!

Despite her ribbing and his goofiness, she is thrilled for them.

K: That’s awesome, Sokka! It’ll be great to have you close.

She sends Suki a text, too.

K: Just FYI, living with Sokka isn’t too bad, but his socks are lethal.

Suki shoots her back a bunch of laughing emojis.

Zuko calls her shortly after that, bursting with more mostly unintelligible information about the plant, and she listens snuggled up in bed with her book forgotten beside her. He sends her pictures throughout the call so he can explain them, and they are all beautiful—a sunset over the industrial site, a stand of trees blooming despite the cold, the silvery expanse of the river that powers the plant.

“Wish you were here, Kitty Kat,” he sighs when he runs out of news, and she wriggles happily.

“Me, too. It’s ok, though—maybe next trip.”

“Definitely next trip, or Uncle will disown me.”

She giggles. “Noted. What’s on the agenda for tomorrow?”

“Oh! That’s what I meant to tell you. We have some meetings in the morning, but in the afternoon we’re driving out to this little tiny hospital that they built on the island. It’s just for emergencies that can’t wait to be medevaced to the mainland, but they don’t have any electrical grounding in place, and Uncle is scouting it out to see which one of our systems would work best.”

“That’s great!” She pauses, frowning. “Rural clinics, though—they usually don’t have a lot of money…”

“Don’t worry.” He lowers his voice. “We don’t advertise this, but with hospitals, we just ask them to pay whatever they can. We’ll probably end up doing this one for free.”

She knew Iroh was generous, but she hadn’t known he was that generous. “Wow, that’s…that’s got to be a huge hit for you guys.”

“We still come out in the black.” She can practically hear him shrugging. “You’ve met Uncle. He’s never told anyone ‘no’ in his life, not for something they need.”

Even though she’s only met Iroh once, that does seem perfectly consistent with everything she knows. “You’re wonderful. Both of you.”

“That’s sweet, Kat, but Uncle is too old for you,” he jokes, and she rolls her eyes even though he can’t see her. “What did you do today?”

She tells him about the movie, the books for her father. “Also, Sokka just texted me—he finally asked Suki to move in together, and they’re doing it! Well, really he’s moving in with her—they’re staying in that same apartment.”

“That’s great! You’ve got to stop walking back from there in the dark, though.”

“Oh, please. It’s less than a mile. It’s fine.”

“This is why I can’t leave you in Ba Sing Se by yourself.”

“I’ve been doing this by myself for three years, Zuko.”

“Well, now you don’t have to.”

It’s an echo of what she has said to him, and it makes her feel warm all over.

“Hey, uh, speaking of which,” he adds, “are you really going to be all by yourself on the Winter Solstice? Do you go see Suki or something?”

“Suki usually goes to see her family—actually, they’re close to Kyoshi Island, now that I think about it. Anyway, yeah, I just stay home and drink hot chocolate. It’s not bad.” It’s a little bad, but it is what it is. She is fortunate to have a father and a sibling who love her—she is all the more aware of that now that she knows Zuko has neither—and she’s the one who chose to go to school far away.

He makes a thoughtful noise but doesn’t press any further. “I’m about to turn in.”

“Night, Zuko. Oh, send me pictures of the hospital if you can!”

“I will. Goodnight, sweetheart.”

***

She spends most of the next day with Sokka and Suki again. It is her last chance to see Sokka before he leaves for the South Pole the following morning, so she hugs him tightly before she heads home to give Suki some uninterrupted time with him. She reads into the evening until Zuko calls her, as is their little routine.

“I’m about to send you a ton of pictures—so the first one is the front of the hospital, and then the next one is the wiring panel in the…” He dives right into everything he knows about the hospital, and she understands a little more this time, fascinated by the way the system Zuko and Iroh have settled on has numerous failsafes to make sure the hospital is always protected.

“I wish you could have seen it,” he says after he has finally taken a breath. “I mean, I think the engineering is cool, but really what I think you would like is that this is Kyoshi’s solution to the same problem you were describing in the South Pole. Before they built this, there wasn’t a lot of access to healthcare, and people were too sick by the time they got to the mainland.”

She is floored that he remembers her little ramble about access in her home country. That was from their very first venture to Osaka nearly two months ago.

“Kat? You there?”

“Yeah,” she says quickly. “I’m just…surprised you remembered all that stuff about the South.”

“Of course I remembered.” He sounds mildly offended.

“No, I just mean, it’s not really important to you.”

“It’s important to you,” he says back.

She grins. “You’re the best.”

“I know,” he sniffs, and she laughs.

“What time are you landing tomorrow?”

“Noon, your time. I’m afraid you’ll have to let me into my apartment since I left you the keys.”

“Yeah, no problem.”

“Hm, I don’t suppose you’d greet me naked at the door—”

“Zuko!” she gasps, mortified.

He gives a low laugh. “Well, at least send me something pretty. I’ve sent you lots of pictures.”

“You want me to find you a nice landscape?” she teases.

“You know what I want.” Desire starts to thrum in her veins, but before she can formulate a sufficiently coy answer, she hears what sounds like a distant knock on his end of the line, then a shuffle of blankets. “Dammit. That must be Uncle at the door.” He mutters a few more choice words. “I’ll be right back, Kat, I’m sorry.”

“It’s ok,” she says, voice a little high.

“Hey—I mean it. Send me something,” he adds, and she shivers.

“Yes, sir,” she breathes, and he hangs up.

She strips to her bra and panties and twists herself artfully in the sheets, framing her splayed legs and parted mouth. She sends the shot to him, but she doesn’t know how long Iroh will keep him. She fidgets impatiently, but it is only a few minutes until her phone buzzes.

Z: More.

Her stomach flip-flops. She feels a little nervous, but it’s nothing he hasn’t seen before, and she always keeps her face out of the pictures just in case. Besides, she aches to please him in a way she never expected, so she unhooks her bra and slides it off. With her free hand, she toys with one nipple, moaning softly at the sensation. Her other hand shakes slightly when she takes the picture. His response is immediate.

Z: Touching yourself already? I don’t remember telling you to do that.

She whines quietly. She had never understood the appeal of phone sex, had never gone further than teasing Zuko with lingerie shots before, but now she thinks she gets it. She can imagine his voice, rough and taunting, can see the predatory look on his face. She thinks about the heat of his hands, the press of his body, and her pulse flutters.

Z: Let me see all of you.

She doesn’t even think this time, just shimmies out of her panties, one hand creeping down between her legs. She isn’t sure how a picture like this is supposed to work, so she does her best, shifting her thighs open for the camera and then sending the image before she can think too hard about how wanton it looks. Her chest is flushed, and her fingers between her legs are damp enough to flash wet in the light of her bedside lamp. She’s never been so turned on when she was doing the job herself.

Z: If you want to touch yourself, you better ask nicely.

That’s how she ends up with her phone on speaker on the pillow by her head, listening to the unmistakable sound of Zuko stroking himself while he tells her to put another finger inside her.

“This is why I made you come twice before I left,” he pants. “But it still wasn’t enough for you, was it?”

“Miss you,” she whimpers. “I wish--ah--you were touching me instead.”

“Yeah?” His voice goes unsteady. “You wish those were my fingers instead of yours inside of you?”

Her head is fuzzy with arousal, so she doesn’t hesitate before she says, “Or your cock.”

“Fuck,” he grunts. “You close?”

“Yeah,” she breathes, shuddering at how desperate he sounds.

“Do whatever you want as long as you come for me,” he commands. She starts to rub circles against her clit, hanging on his every word. “You’re so gorgeous, all wet and ready in those pictures—what I wouldn’t give to have you here—it’s been three days and you want more, pretty little slut, aren’t you—” And she has never cared for slut even as a pet name, not until right this second, when it makes her legs seize up as she chokes on his name. If his broken cry of, “Oh, fuck, Katara—” is any indication, he has followed her off the edge.

For a long minute, there is just the sound of them both breathing harshly into the phone.

“Spirits,” Zuko mutters, and she huffs out a laugh. “You alright?”

“Yeah,” she sighs dreamily, blinking away the stars behind her eyelids. “Sleepy.”

“Go to sleep, sweetheart,” he says gently. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Okay,” she mumbles, nestling under the blankets. “G’night.”

“Good night.”

***

She walks to Zuko’s apartment the next morning carrying her backpack with her toothbrush and more changes of clothes than she would care to admit. She lets herself in and drifts around the empty unit, straightening things here and there and mostly waiting for Zuko to get back with a jangly kind of energy. It’s silly, she knows, to be this excited to see him after not even four full days, but she can’t help jumping up when she hears a car in the driveway.

She opens the front door to find Zuko with his suitcase in tow. When he sees her, his face breaks into a smile that makes her a little lightheaded. He drops the handle of the suitcase to sweep her off the threshold, and she squeals with her toes a few inches above the ground.

“Hi,” she grins once he has set her back on her feet.

“Hi, yourself.” Zuko turns to wave at the young woman behind the wheel of the car—she must be Iroh’s assistant—as she reverses onto the street. He retrieves his bag from the ground and steps inside, pulling her after him by the hand.

“How was the flight?” She’s sure she has a dopey grin on her face, watching him shuck his coat and boots and carry his suitcase to the bedroom.

“It was fine.” He starts to unpack neatly folded sweaters and slacks until he gets to a rectangular box tucked between the clothes. “Here—I brought you something.”

“What’s this?” She perches on the edge of the bed and opens the box. Beneath carefully creased tissue paper is a cobalt blue scarf that feels suspiciously like cashmere when she picks it up. “Oh! It’s beautiful!”

He grins at her almost shyly. “I saw this, and…” He ducks his head. “You look so pretty in blue.”

Automatically, she starts to say, “You didn’t—”

“Don’t start,” he groans. “I wanted to.”

“Right,” she says, abashed. “Thank you, Zuko. I love it.”

He sits down on the bed next to her, still looking uncharacteristically shy. “I also wanted to…” He trails off, then starts again. “Uncle was asking me about you, and it came up that you don’t have any family close by for the Solstice, and…” He clears his throat. “I think his exact words were ‘entirely unacceptable.’”

She’s pretty sure she knows where this is going, and she tries not to laugh at his hemming and hawing.

“Look,” he is saying, “I know it’s a lot, and you can absolutely say no, but he insisted—rather forcefully, actually—that I invite you to spend the holiday with us.” The last words come out all in a rush, and she bites her lip to keep from giggling.

“That’s very kind,” she says. “I couldn’t put you out like that, but please thank him for me.”

“It’s no trouble,” Zuko says quickly. “His house is just across town, and there’s plenty of room. We always cook too much food, and Spirits know there’s more than enough tea.”

It is tempting, especially compared to her hot-chocolate-alone tradition, but she doesn’t want to overstep. “I would hate to intrude,” she demurs. “It’s a very generous offer.”

His eyes search her face. “Kat, you couldn’t possibly intrude.” His warm hand finds its way onto her knee. “If you don’t want to come, that’s fine. But if you want to, you’re more than welcome.”

“Well…” She hesitates, twisting her hands together in her lap. “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. I know he made you ask.”

He scoffs at that. “I was going to ask anyway.”

She snaps her head up. “You were?”

“Everywhere we went on Kyoshi Island, I wanted to show you stuff or ask what you thought about something.” His unmarked cheek is almost as red as the scarred one; as much as she adores cocky, confident Zuko, this is unbearably cute. “If we spend a couple of days apart for Winter Solstice, I’m just going to have to give you the blow-by-blow anyway. You might as well be there—it’ll save us both a lot of time.”

“You want me to come for efficiency?” she teases.

He loops his arm around her shoulders and presses a kiss to her hair. “I want you to come because I like being with you,” he murmurs.

She feels her heartbeat ratchet up as she leans into him. “Well, how could I possibly say no to that?”

Chapter Text

She spends the next couple of days dashing around Ba Sing Se trying to get ready for the holiday. It has snuck up on her this year—she never feels festive until exams are over, but even after that she had been so preoccupied with Sokka’s visit and the newness of everything with Zuko that she has barely registered the date.

Now she is in full swing, though, and she commandeers Zuko’s kitchen table for her gift-wrapping headquarters. He just watches her with amusement from the couch, where he has taken to working since he’s been displaced from his usual spot by a mountain of bows and ribbons.

She thinks she’s done all right with the presents this year—a bottle of Suki’s favorite wine, a new PlayStation game for Sokka at Zuko’s recommendation, the history books for her dad—but when it comes to Zuko himself, and Iroh, she’s stumped.

When she asks Zuko what Iroh might like, he looks up from his computer in surprise. “You don’t have to get him anything,” he says. “You just met him a week ago.”

“My Gran-Gran did not raise me to go to someone’s house for the Solstice empty-handed,” she says imperiously, and he snorts.

“You can put your name on my gift, then.”

“That’s cheating!”

He considers this. “You can wrap it for me. You’d do a much better job, anyway.”

Gran-Gran might not have been thrilled, but Katara supposes it will have to do. Zuko brings her a wooden box of specialty teas, and as she sets about carefully folding it into red-and-white striped paper, she asks him, “What about you?”

“What about me?”

She shoots him an exasperated look. “What would you like for the Winter Solstice?”

He shakes his head. “You don’t have to get me anything, either—and don’t start with your grandmother; you aren’t going to my house for the Solstice.”

“I’m already at your house.”

He blinks. “Well, you still don’t have to get me anything.”

“What is it you’re always saying?” She puts her finger on her chin in mock concentration. “I want to?”

He studies her for a moment, then leans across the table. “How about you, wearing just a bow?” His mouth pulls into his wicked smirk. “Or just that ribbon, tied up nice and pretty?”

The air staggers out of her lungs. “Something you can unwrap in front of your uncle,” is her retort, but the waver in her voice rather diminishes the effect.

He goes back to the couch and his computer, tossing over his shoulder, “I’ll think about it.”

That leaves her with something to think about, too.

***

Katara starts in on her usual winter break routine of refreshing the student portal every hour to see if spring classes have been loaded yet (they haven’t). She unearths her lone box of decorations and finishes wrapping all the presents and catches up on her stack of books, just like every year.

Except this year, things are different. Zuko drags her away from her computer when she spirals into worry about the coming semester, which is usually after the third or fourth refresh of the page. She strings up white lights around the door, only it’s Zuko’s door, not hers, and instead of nearly breaking her neck standing on a desk chair to reach the top of the doorframe, she asks Zuko sweetly for help and he is on the front porch in an instant. She pauses her progress on the novels in favor of a well-worn copy of Introduction to Electrical Grounding from Zuko’s bookshelf. It seems like she has to look up every other word, but it’s worth it when she overhears Zuko talk on the phone with his uncle and halfway understands what he’s saying.

She looks up other things, too. Zuko’s words echo in her mind: tied up nice and pretty. She doesn’t have any idea if he was serious, but she figures it is high time one way or the other for her to refresh her memory on the vocabulary words she knows apply here: dominant, submissive, bondage.

And it’s not like she’s never been on the Internet before. She knows the words, knows some people are in it for the whips and chains, and that’s fine, but it has never appealed to her. She had stumbled across it ages ago and simply filed it away in her brain in case it ever came up in a medical context, and that was that.

Except that wasn’t that, after all. She and Zuko are a far cry from whips and chains, and she hopes it stays that way. But she can’t stop thinking about the ribbon, which makes it impossible to deny any longer that some of the same concepts are at play here.

And it seems stupid, that she might be the submissive in any scenario, because Sokka’s favorite word for her is bossy. She’s not sure it isn’t accurate. She’s sure it is, in fact; she has never let someone else be in charge of so much as a group project. It’s not the trait she’s proudest of, but she likes to think it means she can get shit done when it matters. Likes to think it means she is responsible, independent, self-sufficient. Capable. Strong. After all, she has been carrying her family since she was a child, and it wasn’t perfect but nobody starved or even went without clean laundry. She is proud of that, proud of the way she has always taken care of the people who need her.

And, yet. She does her research--she is a good student, no matter what--and she is entranced. Turns out there are any number of ways to give yourself over to your partner, many of which have no whips or chains in sight. She finds artful photos of women looking into the camera, their eyes huge with desire, their hands bound above their heads or behind their backs with silk cord.

She wonders what it would be like, being helpless, at another’s mercy, and it makes wet heat rush between her legs.

She wonders if ribbon would work.

She can’t get it out of her head, none of it, so the night before the Solstice when she is tucked under the covers with Zuko, she rolls over and nudges him in the dark. “Zuko?”

“Hm?” He shifts in the bed, voice muzzy like he had already been drifting off.

Even if he had, she has spent a half-hour psyching herself up, so there’s no stopping now. Words tumble out all at once. “Were you joking about tying me up with ribbon?”

There is a brief, excruciating pause, and then he props himself up on one elbow and says, “I don’t actually think ribbon would work very well.”

It is not a denial--it is a tacit admission--and she can’t breathe for a hot minute.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” he adds, his voice gentle. “I should have had this conversation with you a lot sooner.”

She manages to squeak, “What conversation?”

He reaches for her and strokes her hair back from her face. “The conversation about what I like, and what you like, and what’s okay and what isn’t.”

“Oh.” She’s still trying to process his roundabout yes on the bondage, but she has read about The Conversation, too, and she isn’t worried about that. “I like everything we’ve done so far.”

“Do you?” His fingers slip into her hair and tug, just a little. “You like me to pull your hair? Spank your pretty ass?”

Heat is creeping into his voice and into her bones. She doesn’t have to think about the answer. “Yes.”

He leans in to kiss her, slow and scorching, and she sighs when he pulls back. His fingers find her lips, trace along them, and he asks, “Did you like when I fucked your face?”

He taps her mouth when she can’t answer for a moment, and she nods in the dark, not trusting her voice. He inches closer and drags his teeth along her jaw. “What about when I marked you up?” He bites gently at her throat, not nearly hard enough to bruise, but his voice is rough when he adds, “Did you like that, being branded as my pretty little slut?”

Her “Yes” is a whimper that he swallows off her lips while his hands pull her flush against him, sliding under her shirt.

“So good,” he murmurs into her mouth. “You’re so good for me, sweetheart. Spirits, you’re a dream come true.”

She can’t stop herself from wriggling happily at the praise, feeling him smile.

“So you want me to truss you up, is that right?” He slides his thigh between hers, and she is momentarily distracted from answering by the press of him into her center.

“I think so,” she gasps, and he pulls back from kissing her, his movements slowing.

“Katara,” he says, gently, seriously, “we don’t have to do anything you aren’t sure about--we won’t do anything you’re not sure about.”

“How can I be sure if I’ve never done it?” she protests, and he huffs in amusement.

“All right,” he amends, “but you have to promise to tell me if something feels wrong--you have to tell me as soon as you realize.”

“I promise.”

He cups her breasts, and she rocks her hips greedily against his leg. “What else do you want to try, Kitty Kat?”

“Whatever you want to try,” she breathes, and he groans.

“You can’t say that!”

“Why not?” She reaches between him to palm his cock, and he hisses in pleasure.

“Because,” he grits out, “you might hate something, or not be okay with me even trying it.”

“We can’t just talk about it as we go? I’m not worried. I know you’ll stop if I ask. I trust you.”

She hears his breath catch, and then he is kissing her desperately, rolling her onto her back and grinding against her until they are both panting. She thinks--hopes--maybe he will make good on his plans tonight, but he doesn’t. Instead he is slow, peeling her clothes off and caressing every inch of her. She arches into him when he slips his fingers between her legs, stroking and rubbing, coaxing her to her release.

Even before she can breathe properly again, she shoves a hand down his pants to pump the hot length of him, relishing in the jagged moan she gets in response.

“Katara--” He thrusts into her hand, his arms trembling where they are braced on either side of her. His head drops down so he can suck and nibble at her throat, though far more gently than he ever has before. “Katara, can I--”

She turns her head to catch his mouth, trying to press through the kiss the answer to what she suspects he is really asking.

Do you really trust me?

She spreads her legs, urges him closer, mewls when the tip of him slides against her entrance.

“Sweetheart, fuck, I want--can I--”

Can I really have this?

“Yes,” she tells him, and again when he finally presses into her, “yes, yes, you can, I want you, yes--”

She hadn’t expected this to be the outcome of The Conversation, but maybe she should have. She has seen him uncertain before, has heard him ask, Can I walk you home like he hadn’t told her that before. Like she was going to reject him.

Like she didn’t trust him.

She can’t say her trust has never wavered, can’t say it wasn’t looking pretty bad there for a while. But she can say, now, you won me back over, you have my trust, you have me. She says it by cinching her arms around him, by kissing him sloppily, by meeting his hips with hers, thrust for thrust.

It isn’t long before his rhythm stutters and fails, and he is spilling inside her with something like a choked-off sob. She doesn’t let go of him as they breathe harshly together, their bodies sticky and hot. She strokes his back slowly as his chest heaves, and if some of the dampness on her neck and shoulder is more tears than sweat, no one needs to know.

***

The morning of the Solstice dawns cold and heavy with the promise of snow in the thick gray clouds. It’s the one day per year Katara doesn’t mind being up early, and she bounds out of bed when Zuko wakes, darting into the kitchen to start the coffee.

“What’s gotten into you?” he asks, amused, over his steaming cup.

“I love the Winter Solstice!”

She is ready in record time, zipped into her boots and wearing a black skirt and top and the beautiful blue scarf Zuko brought her from Kyoshi. He emerges soon after in a deep red sweater that picks up the warmth in his golden eyes, and she reels him in for a kiss as soon as she sees him. He rewards her with a hand skimming up her thigh, palming her ass under her skirt, and she yelps.

“No playing grab-ass in front of your uncle,” she says with mock affront.

He just smirks back lazily. “He wants grandchildren; he won’t mind.” His fingers stroke her face and hair as he takes in the sight of her. “Aren’t you lovely in blue.”

She flushes, predictably, and pops onto her toes to kiss him quickly again. “Let’s go!” She pulls him by the hand out the door, and he laughs as he follows.

In the car, he asks her, “The Winter Solstice is your favorite holiday, and you spend it alone?”

Her grin falters just a bit. “It is what it is. Sokka will call me sometime today, and I’ll see my dad that way.”

He purses his lips but doesn’t respond, just traces little circles on her leg with his thumb. She watches the buildings of downtown Ba Sing Se flit past, still dark and empty in the early-morning light. They cross town and wind through a nice neighborhood full of sprawling houses until they reach a sweet little cottage tucked in amongst the mansions. Puffs of smoke emit from the brick chimney, and Zuko gives her a hand up out of the car to escort her to the front door, which is painted a cheerful red.

The door opens before they can knock, framing Iroh’s equally cheerful face as he exclaims, “A very happy Solstice to my nephew and his lovely companion!”

Katara laughs, too delighted to be embarrassed, and returns Iroh’s polite bow while Zuko flushes red as his sweater and the hastens to bow along with them.

“Come in, come in!” Iroh insists. Zuko ushers her through the entryway into a living room that is mercifully warm, the fire blazing merrily in the hearth, and parks her on an overstuffed couch. He sets their gifts on the coffee table and sweeps into the kitchen without a word, returning shortly with his uncle. They are carrying a tea service, Zuko with a tray of delicate cups and Iroh with the gently steaming teapot.

“Oh!” Katara leans in to study the intricate red designs swirling across the china. “How lovely!”

Zuko comes to sit beside her as Iroh sets about pouring the tea. “The tea set is the only thing we brought with us from the Fire Nation,” Zuko tells her quietly.

She tries to swallow back her surprise--he hasn’t mentioned their flight from their homeland since the whole miserable story had come out weeks ago.

“Of course, tea is best served with good company,” Iroh says sagely, “but a beautiful tea set is nice, too.”

They chat while the tea steeps, and Zuko relaxes next to her, the blush falling out of his face. He drapes one arm over the back of the couch, and after a few minutes, his fingers toy idly with the ends of her hair. She’s not sure he even realizes he is doing it. It is such a familiar, easy gesture that it makes her heart melt, and she smiles softly up at him. Iroh watches them with amusement dancing in his eyes as he asks her about her family and her classes.

She tells him about Sokka and her father, about sledding among the penguins in the South Pole, and she ticks off next semester’s classes.

“Goodness, that seems like a great many challenging courses,” he says in response. “Are you sure you are getting enough rest?”

It is her turn to look abashed, and Zuko smirks down at her. “Maybe not in the past,” he answers for her, “but this semester, I’ll make sure she doesn’t work herself to the bone.”

“I’m not sure you’ll be as much help in Human Geography II as you were in chemistry,” she quips, and he rolls his eyes.

“You don’t need help in Human Geography II. You didn’t even really need help in chemistry--your professor just sucked at explaining things.”

“Well, you’re really good at explaining things, so it worked out okay, didn’t it?”

“Yes,” he agrees. “It did.”

They finish their tea, and Iroh announces with a clap of his hands that it is time for presents. He is thrilled with his specialty teas, but, it seems, not nearly as thrilled as when he remarks slyly, “Why, nephew, your gift-wrapping skills have improved greatly since last year.”

Zuko looks exasperated. “Katara did it.”

“Ah, yes.” He is positively twinkling. “Of course.”

Zuko hands her a box next, and Iroh pipes up, “I hope you don’t mind, my dear--my nephew and I took the liberty of collaborating on your gift.”

“I don’t mind at all,” she says, slightly puzzled. When she opens the box, she finds a hat and gloves in the same cobalt wool as her scarf. She picks them up to appreciate the softness of the cashmere--underneath them is a slip of paper.

“It’s a plane ticket,” Zuko explains. “In a few days, we’re flying out to the Northern Air Temple Historical Site to make plans for a new system. You’re invited.”

She thinks through a whirlwind of things at once--how much the ticket must have cost, how generous and kind they both are, how she has always wanted to visit the museum in the ruins of the Northern Air Temple--and throws her arms around Zuko.

“Thank you!” She squeezes him tight, and he chuckles, encircling her in his arms in return.

“It’s nearly as cold up in the mountains as it is in the South Pole, so you’ll need the hat and gloves,” he adds. She kisses him on the cheek without thinking, without registering that it is the scarred one, and he doesn’t seem to register it, either.

“Thank you so much,” she says eagerly, turning to Iroh, who is watching them with a suddenly strange look on his face.

He appears to shake himself out of it. “You are most welcome, my dear,” he says warmly.

Zuko opens his presents next. Iroh has gotten him a stack of electrical engineering books, which she thinks at first might be textbooks, but he explains that these are the references they use at Iroh’s company. “I’ve been stealing my Uncle’s set for years,” he says with a grin. “I guess he got tired of finding them missing.”

“Not at all, my nephew. It is simply time for you to have your own. Should you wish to use mine instead, you are still quite welcome.”

Zuko beams at his uncle, more open than she has ever seen him. He starts in on her gift, turning the full force of that earnest smile on her when he does. She has gotten him a hodgepodge of little items that she associates with him: a set of the silk ties he uses to pull his long hair back; a pack of the ultra-fine blue pens he always carries for his work; a bag of coffee beans from the shop she swings by when she brings him something; another of the jasmine candles always burning in his office.

“I know it isn’t much,” she demurs, feeling a little outclassed by their gifts to her, but Zuko swoops in to kiss her before she can go on, kisses her on the mouth, right in front of his uncle, like he’s no longer embarrassed at all.

“It’s wonderful,” he tells her earnestly. “Thank you, Kat.”

“You’re welcome,” she murmurs as butterflies take flight in her rib cage.

Zuko checks his watch then and jumps up. “I’d better get started on lunch,” he says, heading for the kitchen.

Before she can get up to follow him, Iroh looks at her seriously and says, “Thank you very much for spending your holiday with us, my dear.”

“Oh, of course! Thank you for letting me intrude on your family event.”

“No intrusion,” he assures her. “My nephew is very fond of you, you know.”

She flushes but can’t keep the smile off her face. “I’m very fond of him, too.” It seems like a very personal thing to say to someone she doesn’t know very well, but he has made her feel so at ease. It is obvious he cares for Zuko deeply, and it seems he has decided to extend that care to her as well.

“I know he has made some mistakes,” Iroh adds quietly, “but he is a good man. I hope that is clear to you.”

She thinks about their admittedly rocky beginnings. “We all make mistakes, don’t we?”

“He has endured much pain.” Iroh’s face is somber. “With you, he is happier than I have seen him in some time. Forgive the intrusion, but--I have never known him to allow anyone to touch the site of his injury.”

She starts. She supposes she had just kissed his marred cheek. “Oh. I didn’t even think about it.”

“Yes. I know. That is what I find so amazing.” His expression breaks into a smile. “He would be mortified to hear me say this, but I hope you will stay with him for a long time, my dear.”

She offers him a tentative smile in response. “I don’t have any plans otherwise.”

They both go into the kitchen then, Katara still pondering this exchange. She has been hesitant to ask Zuko what the long-term plan is, but now she has discussed it with his uncle, so she should probably discuss it with him, too. She truly doesn’t have any plans not to stay with him as long as he’ll have her, though it is difficult to think too far into the future--medical school will be far more demanding, and residency is an open question--she could get matched anywhere. She isn’t even sure what will happen when the spring semester starts and they are both busy again, when Haru is back and Zuko can no longer make out with her in the kitchen any old time.

She resolves to speak honestly with him later, but in the meantime, he has donned a ridiculous red-and-white checkered apron to sauté some vegetables, and she can’t possibly miss out on the opportunity to tease him about that. He snaps her with the dish towel in retaliation, and she shrieks and laughs, dancing away from him.

“Get over here and help me,” he orders with a grin, and even though it isn’t a real order, she obeys anyway. They work together to prepare lunch, Iroh sipping his second cup of tea at the table and interjecting every now and then, chiefly to embarrass Zuko.

“Zuko has always loved yellow squash,” Iroh remarks when Katara starts to cut up some for the frying pan. “So much so that when he was a boy, I bought him one at a farmer’s market, and he was so excited he tried to take a bite out of it right away. Lost two teeth.”

Katara bursts into giggles while Zuko glowers at both of them. “I was five years old,” he protests while Katara wipes at her eyes.

“Please tell me there are more stories like this,” she says to Iroh, who sits up in his seat with a keen look.

“Oh, yes, my dear.”

Zuko smacks a hand over his face.

Iroh regales them over lunch and goes on as Katara starts in on the dishes, Zuko coming to help her despite her protests. They are maybe halfway done when Katara’s phone trills from her purse in the entryway.

“That must be Sokka!” She grabs the dish towel from Zuko and rushes to dig out her phone. Sure enough, Sokka’s smiling face is on the screen, and she answers the video call.

“Happy Solstice, baby sister!” Sokka hollers, and she laughs.

“Happy Solstice to you, too. Where’s Dad?”

“Right here,” her father’s voice filters in. There is a brief jostling, like he and Sokka are grappling over the phone, and then her father’s face is edging out Sokka’s. Now she can see one eye each, and she can’t stop laughing. “Happy Solstice, Katara.”

“Hi, Dad. Happy Solstice. How is everything?”

Before he can answer, Sokka’s eye gets closer to the screen. “Where are you? That isn’t your apartment or Zuko’s apartment.”

She supposes, as an afterthought, that the grandfather clock in the background gives it away.

“Who’s Zuko?” he father cuts in. “That’s a funny name for a girl.”

She snorts. “Dad, I’m an adult.” She glances up to find Zuko propped in the doorway, watching her with some amusement. She mouths an apology to him, but he waves a hand. “Zuko is one of Sokka’s classmates.”

Sokka’s one visible eye rolls. “He’s also Katara’s boyfriend.”

“You didn’t tell me you had a boyfriend,” her father exclaims. “And you’re not an adult. You’re--you’re--” He seems briefly at loss for words.

She rolls her eyes back at them both. “Zuko’s uncle lives here in Ba Sing Se and generously invited me to spend the holiday with them.”

“What?” Sokka squawks. At the same time, her father says sternly, “Well, where is he, then?”

“Oh--” Uncertainty settles in her stomach. She hadn’t planned on this at all. “We can’t put him on the spot, Dad--”

But Zuko is already crossing the entryway, feathering one hand across the small of her back as he ducks into the frame. “Hi, Sokka. Hi, Mr. Kanna--I’m Zuko Sozin. Nice to meet you.”

“Please, call me Hakoda,” her dad says, but Katara knows it is more habit than anything, because he is studying them with narrowed eyes--well, the one eye she can see.

Zuko inclines his head. “Happy Solstice to you both.”

They echo the pleasantry, and Sokka whispers something to their father, who relaxes minutely. “Well, thank your uncle for hosting my daughter,” he adds in a fractionally nicer voice. “Of course, we miss her here.”

“I miss you guys, too,” Katara says, smiling sadly. “How is Bato doing?”

Sokka and Hakoda talk over each other to tell her about all their friends and neighbors--which is to say the whole town--and Zuko slips away to let them talk. Sokka asks after Suki, and her dad wants to know if her class load this semester is such that she will still be able to take care of herself. It is so much like Iroh’s questions that she blinks back tears, wishing that her family was closer, that they could have this conversation in person.

“I’ll be fine, Dad,” she promises him.

“And this Zuko fellow,” he says sternly, “he better be taking good care of you, too.”

“He is.”

Her father grumbles in response, but he seems satisfied enough. “Good to see you, Katara. I love you.”

“Love you too, Dad.”

“What about me?” Sokka demands.

“I love you, too, Sokka,” she adds, grinning.

“Love you. Talk to you later, okay?”

“Okay.”

Sokka and her dad say their goodbyes in chorus, and then Sokka hangs up. She shoots him a quick text before she heads back into the kitchen:

K: What did you say to Dad?

“Sorry about that,” she says to Zuko and Iroh, who have finished up the dishes in her absence and are talking at the table.

“Do not apologize, my dear! I am pleased you are able to speak with your family.”

“They send their thanks to you for hosting me,” she tells him.

“The pleasure is all mine,” he replies.

“Sorry to spring my dad on you,” she says to Zuko. “I guess I should have expected that.”

Zuko looks wryly at his uncle. “Seems only fair, since my family ambushed you.”

Her phone buzzes to indicate Sokka has texted her back. She reads the message with a smile.

S: I told him Zuko wasn’t half bad.

***

Iroh insists they stay for an early dinner to help him eat the leftovers from their decadent lunch, so of course they talk long after the meal over freshly brewed tea. It is late when they get back in Zuko’s car, and to Katara’s delight, snow has started to drift down in flurries.

“Sorry again about Sokka and my dad,” she says after a few minutes of quiet.

Zuko is driving with one hand on the wheel and the other laced with hers, and he squeezes her fingers. “It’s not a problem.”

She hesitates, thinking about her conversation with Iroh. “Sokka, he, uh--he told Dad that you were my boyfriend.”

Zuko seems to be waiting for a question.

“Is that--is that right?” Her voice goes a little high-pitched at the end.

He bites back a laugh. “Yes, Katara. That’s right.”

“Well, you never asked,” she protests hotly. “I think, traditionally, people ask.”

“Maybe so.” He shrugs, his face sly. “But I’m not so much asking you as telling you.”

Warmth and ease wash over her, some of her anxiety ebbing away. But there is still the future, long and uncertain and starting very soon. “What about next semester?”

“What about it?”

“I’ll be busy with classes, and you’ll be working full-time on your dissertation, and Haru will be back, and…” Her voice fades as they turn into Zuko’s complex, and he pulls her out of the passenger seat to kiss her soundly amidst the falling snow.

“Katara,” he says softly, “stop worrying.”

“It’s just--I get stressed sometimes--and--”

“Hush.” Somehow he is gentle and stern at the same time. “Whatever happens next semester, we’ll handle it. Okay?”

She grabs his hand. “Okay.”

Chapter Text

They spend three days at the Northern Air Temple, Zuko and Iroh in meetings and Katara turned loose to explore the ruins and the little tourist town at the base of the mountain. Zuko slips out early the first morning to find her a guide book before they start the day, and Katara kisses him for it, right in front of his uncle and the entire lobby of their hotel. He seems pleased with himself, a shy little smile on his face, and she laughs at how much more reserved he is when they aren’t alone.

Not too reserved, though, to keep his hand on her thigh under the table when they reconvene for dinner. He and Iroh tell her in overlapping, excited voices about their first day until their food comes. At that point, Zuko needs both hands, and the warm, low thrum in her belly ratchets down enough for her to tell them about her winding path through the remnants of the Temple.

After dinner, Iroh teaches her to play Pai Sho. Zuko watches in amusement as she gets thoroughly trounced, though Iroh tells her in a stage whisper, “Don’t worry, my dear--I have been teaching Zuko since he was a boy, and he still always loses.”

Zuko grumbles good-naturedly and gets to his feet. “Alright, alright. Clearly, it’s past your bedtime, Uncle.” He offers Katara a hand up off the cushion on the floor. “Come on, Kat, I’ll walk you to your room.”

They bid Iroh good night and step into the hall. “Are you really going to walk me to my room?” she teases him. In return, he gives her a toe-curling kiss against the wall, pulling back with a devilish grin when she has melted against him.

“How about this,” he hums, pulling her along by the hand, “I’ll walk you to where you belong.”

***

She wakes up in his bed, in his clothes, breathing in the jasmine scent of him, the next morning and the next. By their last night, she has been over every inch of the Northern Air Temple, lost at Pai Sho a half-dozen more times, and managed to forget entirely about the looming spring semester.

Once they are back in Ba Sing Se, though--sitting at Zuko’s kitchen table, she opens her laptop to find spring classes have been posted, and the lovely lazy days of winter break start to evaporate. Zuko is unpacking in his bedroom, so he can’t scold her for worrying, but she knows he would if he could. He seems so easily confident, so sure that this fragile thing could survive the reality of a busy, hard semester.

She wants to believe him. But she is afraid that what they have is a vacation fling, a cozy interlude from real life, and now real life is back, with deadlines and roommates and no free time. Anxiety squeezes her chest.

She is making a concerningly long list of textbooks to buy when he emerges from his room, stopping short at the look on her face. “What’s the matter?”

“They posted spring classes,” she mumbles without looking up.

Zuko sighs and pulls a chair from around the table so he can sit down eye-to-eye with her, tugging gently on her jaw to turn her face toward him. “I told you not to worry,” he says softly. “We’ll handle it.”

“I know.” She casts her gaze down. “I’m just…”

“You’re worrying anyway, hm?” He traces his thumb over her bottom lips and tsks. “You’re usually so good at doing what I say, too.” Something in his tone makes her snap her head up. He has that predatory look on his face, his teeth bared, and it sends a shiver down her spine. He hasn’t let go of her jaw. She is suddenly very conscious of his grip holding her steady.

“I’m just,” she tries again, trails off again. “I think--”

He cuts her off this time, leaning in to kiss her, slow and dirty, still keeping her in place with one hand while the other slides up her thigh. She sighs and parts her lips, welcoming the warmth of him licking into her mouth. He had kissed her the first evening in the hotel hallway, had snuggled up with her every night, but he hadn’t really touched her in days, not like this.

“I think you need to get out of your own head,” he counters when he pulls back, smirking at her flushed face and swollen lips.

She blinks. “How do I do that?”

“Oh,” he breathes, “I have a few ideas.”

He yanks her up, pausing to pin her against the table and give her a bruising kiss, then pulls her into the bedroom. “Strip,” he tells her.

“What are your ideas?” She loses her clothes with shaking hands. He makes no move to get undressed himself, just watches her with dark, hungry eyes. The sight makes desire smolder and flare in her chest.

“Well, I was thinking it’s time for me to tie you up.”

For a second, her heart stops. He chuckles at her sharp intake of breath. “Unless,” he adds, “you don’t want me to.”

“No,” she blurts, “I mean, yes, I mean--”

He walks her backwards to the bed, and she scrambles onto it, pulling him after her with hands fisted in his shirt. His clothes scrape over her bare flesh, tantalizing and not nearly enough friction.

“Tell me what you want,” he says against her lips. “You want me to tie you up, Kitty Kat?”

She nods, but he draws back, watching her expectantly. “What do you say?” he prompts, eyes flashing gold.

Heat suffuses her, every cell in her body yearning for this, for him, so it feels easy to purr, “Yes sir,” while she looks up at him through her lashes.

He curses. “When did you get so good at that?” he rasps while he rifles through the bedside table.

“What do you mean?” She smiles, happy to have affected him, but her face goes slack when he retrieves a crimson cord for the drawer.

“Hands up,” he orders. “That—that thing with your eyelashes. It’s--it’s so…” He seems to give up on finding the right words in favor of reaching up to loop the cord around her wrists.

The cord feels like silk, smooth and cool against her skin, and when he pulls it carefully snug, something settles into place warm and calm and heavy in her stomach. It is like being wrapped in a blanket on a snowy day, like curling up in his arms at night, and she lets out a breathy, ”Oh.”

“Yeah.” Zuko is poised above her, looking predatory and overcome all at once, his eyes raking down the length of her body. “Yeah, you like being spread out for me? Look at you, you’re so fucking gorgeous--the things I want to do to you.” He pets down her shaking sides, dips his fingers between her legs, and she moans softly. “You’re so good, you go down so easy for me--fuck, I’m going to make you scream.”

He sets about driving her out of her mind, cupping her breasts and teasing her nipples with his fingers and his tongue. The hot, hard length of him presses against her thigh, still trapped in his jeans, and he ruts against her as he bites up her throat. When he finally makes his way to her mouth, she opens up for him, wrapping one leg around his narrow hips and rocking desperately.

He draws back, eyes wicked, and palms her thigh where it is hitched around him. “Careful, baby girl,” he breathes, “or I’ll have to tie down your legs next.”

She gathers up enough presence of mind to shoot back, “Promise?”

The taunt pays off when his caress of her thigh turns to a smack, loud and stinging and so, so good. She is breathless, stretched out under him, the object of his desire, and it’s the best thing she’s ever felt. She’ll be at his mercy any time he wants, she thinks, so long as he keeps looking at her like this, like he could eat her up.

And he does, slinking back down her body to settle between her legs. He ghosts kisses up her inner thighs and then spreads her open, carefully, gently, and she is so exposed she can feel his breath on this most intimate part of her.

Then she can feel his mouth, and she nearly bucks off the bed—would have, except her wrists are tied up and her hips are pinned down with his hands faster than she can process him doing it. He smirks up at her and then dives back in, his tongue doing unspeakable things to her, and she wishes she could fist her hands in his hair, which is inky and unraveling against her legs.

He works his fingers in, pushing and pulling and curling just right, and she is spiraling higher and higher and higher. “Zuko,” she whimpers when he won’t pick up the pace, when he keeps her right on the edge for several exquisite, excruciating minutes. “Zuko, Zuko, please--” And he sucks hard on her clit and has her coming apart, spasming around his fingers, keening high and breathy.

When she comes down, breathing shakily, he pulls his fingers away and stands up to take off his clothes. She watches him, loving the inch after inch of pale skin over taut muscle revealed with each button he undoes, eyeing his cock hungrily when it bobs free, the tip glistening. He catches her gaze and grins with sharp teeth.

“See something you want?” he asks, giving himself a few languid strokes.

“Yeah,” she gasps, missing the heat of him, the weight of his body, “want you, want you to fuck me, please, Zuko, please--”

He is on her, kissing her with the taste of herself on his tongue, holding her in place with a fist in her hair, grinding hard against her. “Since you asked so nicely,” he tells her as he lines himself up.

He slams into her, and she does nearly scream as he does it again, brutal and so good she could cry. Maybe she is crying--she isn’t sure--what she’s sure of is this is the part she loves, the part where he doesn’t seem to know what he’s saying and it’s always praise, filthy and sweet and her favorite fucking thing on earth.

“You are so good,” he snarls, hauling up her legs so her knees are crooked over his arms, “you ask so nice and pretty, you always do what I tell you--fuck, you are my perfect little kitten, aren’t you? You’re mine, I should keep you like this, tied up for me, wet and ready and--” His words dissolve into a choking gasp when she rolls her hips against him, his fingers digging into the backs of her thighs.

She can feel his thrusts rattling up her spine, and she strains against the rope for the first time, aching to touch him. “Zuko,” she begs, but she isn’t sure what for.

“Yeah,” he says raggedly, “yeah, I got you, hang on.” He reaches up blindly and fumbles with the cord until he can pull it free, and then she is wrapping arms and legs around him, kissing him desperately, raking her nails down his back. “Fuck, Kat--”

She buries her face in his shoulder, tastes salt, doesn’t know if it’s tears or sweat. He moves in her for a few more thrusts, and then he is cursing and coming, every muscle twitching with his release.

“Fuck,” he says quietly after a minute, and a laugh burbles out of her chest.

He extracts himself carefully from her arms and legs to fetch a washcloth from her bathroom. When he has them cleaned up, he smooths her sweaty hair back from her forehead and looks into her face.

“You did so good,” he says, voice low and soothing. “Did I hurt you?” He prods tentatively at her shoulders and arms, but she shakes her head.

“No. No, I’m okay.” Her voice is almost a slur.

He nuzzles against her temple and rains gentle kisses over her face. “So, what did you think?”

Think is a generous term for what’s going on in her brain right now. She gives him a dazed smile. “Feel all fuzzy.”

“Yeah.” He sucks her bottom lip between his teeth. “That feel good?”

“Yeah.” His arms fold around her, and she burrows into his chest, sighing happy against his shoulder. “What do you think?”

He strokes her hair, his touch soothing and rhythmic. “I think you’re lucky I untied you.”

She snorts even as his words play over in her head: I should keep you like this, tied up for me. For the first time, she lets herself think he might really keep her. This might really work. It’s not so hard to believe while she is sated and tucked away in his embrace. He feels warm and solid and safe. The new semester’s anxiety feels a million miles away.

***

Haru returns the day before classes start, whistling jovially as he unloads his car. He seems neither surprised nor displeased to see her, greeting her in the same breath as Zuko when he walks in the door.

“Hey, Haru,” Katara says, slightly taken aback. “How was your break?”

Haru smothers a yawn. “Good. Long drive back, though. What about you guys?”

“Good,” she answers when it becomes apparent that Reserved Zuko has made his reappearance, hardly looking up from his computer. They have both been working at the kitchen table, Zuko typing away and Katara mapping out her schedule and test dates.

Haru nods and heads for his room. “Well, I’m beat. See you guys later.”

Katara swivels her gaze to Zuko. “What was that?”

He still hardly looks up. “What was what?”

“He’s not mad I’m here?” She tries to keep her voice low in case he can hear them through his closed door.

“I told him you probably would be.” Zuko keeps typing. “You know that other people’s girlfriends spend the night with them, right? Roommates are not a contraindication.”

Of course she knows that. It just...hadn’t quite occurred to her that Haru would be okay with it. “But he’s...he’s not...I mean, I’m pretty sure he used to…didn’t he…”

Zuko’s mouth tugs up into a familiar smirk. “I think Haru has long since accepted that his crush was unrequited. He sent you to me, remember?”

Now she does remember. “When he threw me out of study hall. Are you sure you didn’t plan that?”

“I really didn’t. That was all him.” Zuko nudges her foot under the table, finally looking up at her. “Have you been worried this whole time that I would throw you out once Haru got back?”

“Yes,” she says hotly, crossing her arms. “I thought it would be rude for me to be here, considering--well, you know.”

“And here I thought you were just disappointed it would be harder for me to fuck you in the kitchen.” His eyes glint with mischief when she blushes, but he sobers after a beat and adds, “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I didn’t realize.”

“It’s okay.” She chews at her nails, trying to process this new information. She won’t have to go back to her apartment by herself, at least not all the time. And it sounds like a silly worry now, anyway--she has lived alone for a couple of years. It’s not bad--sometimes the quiet is nice--and it’s not as if she has any right to expect to move in with Zuko after barely two months.

Zuko glances at his watch. “You have an 8am, right? Actually, will you send me your schedule? Then we both need to get to sleep.”

She emails him the spreadsheet she has been building with all the semester’s information.

“You have a class in the engineering building,” he says in surprise a moment later.

“Yeah, Calculus II. Math classes are almost always in Engineering. I think the actual Math building is really small and 200 years old.”

He snorts. “I’ve been in the Math building, and you’re right on both counts. But this means you’ll be in my building three days a week. You can come work in my office when you get out of class.”

Of course, he’s not asking. “I won’t be in your way?”

He fixes her with a look. “You were in my office practically every day at the end of last semester.”

“It was, like, 4 days,” she protests.

“Whatever. Come to my office.”

She grins, her heart fluttering. “Yes sir.”

***

She has Biochemistry III at 8 am, because in eight semesters of college she has never managed to avoid an early class, and Zuko is always up at sunrise anyway, so they walk to campus together the next morning. He peels off when they get to engineering, but not before he kisses her soundly on the sidewalk, leaving her dizzy and grinning and hot under the collar despite the cold.

Biochemistry is not as bad as she fears--the professor is a friendly woman, relatively young, and she lays out a plan for the semester that covers a lot of information Katara thinks will actually be useful in medical school. Next up is Biochem recitation, though they don’t do much the first day beyond going around the group to introduce themselves. When the semester is in full swing, though, her whole morning Monday-Wednesday-Friday will be Biochem, leaving her just a few minutes to cross campus and scarf down some lunch before Calculus starts. Calculus, it seems, will be more of a problem--the professor assigns homework on syllabus day--but the end of class means it is time to go downstairs to Zuko’s office, which considerably brightens the prospect of spending her afternoon doing math problems.

Zuko’s door is cracked when she gets there, so she taps and sticks her head in. “Hey.”

Zuko spins around in his chair to look at her. “Hey. Come in.” He looks rather more frazzled than she left him, his messy hair the telltale sign he has been running his hands through it. She reaches out to smooth it down, working a few tangles out with her fingers, and Zuko sags into her touch.

“What is it?” She lets her hand wander down to his neck, pressing gently on the muscle there where it is knotted with tension.

A groan slips out of his parted lips; his eyes flutter closed. “Just a stupid meeting,” he mumbles. “Fuck, that feels good.”

She almost laughs--this being a phrase he usually reserves for sex--but the furrow in his face hasn’t relaxed, and she doesn’t care for that, not at all. “Just?” she prompts, applying a little more pressure.

A heavy sigh, and his head is lolling forward. “If I tell you, will you keep doing that?”

She allows herself a huffed laugh at that. “Yes.”

“My thesis committee--my adviser has liked all my work so far, but there’s this one guy on the committee, Zhao, who thinks everything I do is subpar. I mean, I think he’s an asshole to everybody, not just me, but it still feels personal.”

“I’m sure it’s not. There always has to be an asshole in every group.”

“Yeah. You’re right. He just--he told me after the meeting that my whole project was pointless, and…” He trails off; Katara contemplates murder.

“Excuse me?” she demands. “Where is this guy’s office?”

Zuko laughs and catches her hand before she whirls off to track down Zhao, pulling her back to him. “Slow down, Kat, it’s fine. I’m checking in with my adviser later today; I can take it up with him.”

His smile is somewhat gratifying, but still. How dare some jackass tell Zuko his project was pointless? “What an unprofessional, misinformed, downright rude piece of--”

“Kat,” Zuko snorts. “Why don’t you tell me about your classes?”

Reluctantly, she takes her chair and starts opening her notebook and laptop. “Biochem is good--I have this really nice professor--but in Calculus, somehow I already have homework.”

“Ah. You must have Pakku.”

“Yeah, how did you know?”

“I had him, too. A long time ago, though--I don’t think I’ll be much help this time around. You’re better at calculus than I am.”

She rolls her eyes and starts on her assignment. They have been working quietly for an hour or so when someone taps on Zuko’s half-open door.

“Zuko, did you want to--oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you had another meeting.”

A pleasant-looking man with a dark topknot and a precise goatee is standing in Zuko’s doorway.

“Oh, no,” Zuko says, standing up quickly. “This is Katara. Katara, this is my adviser, Dr. Piandao.”

“Ah.” The man smiles and gives a little bow. “Pleased to meet you, Katara. I was wondering when I would run into you.”

“Pleased to meet you,” she echos. “Zuko, I can step out—“

“I was going to invite you to my office, actually,” Dr. Piandao says to Zuko. Zuko nods and heads after him, skimming his fingers over Katara’s shoulder on his way out.

Katara sits, briefly dumbstruck, alone in Zuko’s office after they leave. How does his adviser know who she is? Worse, has she put Zuko in an uncomfortable position, hanging around his office when she has no right to be there? She chews the end of her pen and tries to go back to her work, bouncing her knee nervously.

Zuko returns a half-hour later looking considerably happier. “Dr. Piandao says Zhao is an idiot,” he reports after the door clicks shut.

“Oh, good. Listen, if I’m not supposed to be in here—“

“Will you quit coming up with things to be worried about?” Zuko rolls his chair over so that their knees bump together when he sits down. “Don’t you have anything better to do with your overachieving brain? Calculus homework, maybe?”

“I just want to be sure,” she mumbles. “I don’t want to embarrass you with your advisor, or get you in trouble, or…”

Zuko is shaking his head before she’s finished talking. “Dr. Piandao asked me what I was doing here on the weekends last semester,” he says with a grin. “I told him I was doing my best to win over a girl who’s way out of my league. He’s been hounding me to meet you ever since.”

“I’m not ‘out of your league’!”

“You totally are, but that’s not the point. I’ve spent most of my life pretending I didn’t have any feelings at all. Now, I’m happy you’re here, and I’m happy my adviser is interested in me as a human being, and I’d like you to be visible in my office as much as possible.”

She does something she wouldn’t have dreamed of thirty minutes ago—leans half out of her chair to grab his collar and yank his mouth against hers. Zuko makes a little noise of surprise somewhere in his throat, but he wastes no time tangling his fingers in her hair, keeping her in place until he has his fill. When he lets her go, she sinks back down and fans at her flushed cheeks. “Is that something you want visible in your office?” she teases.

His answering grin is wolffish. “As much as possible.”

Chapter Text

In some ways, the semester is just as she feared. Dr. Pakku, though an excellent instructor, seems to take perverse pleasure in assigning every problem in the textbook, plus a few of his own devious design. Biochemistry eats her entire morning three days a week; Human Geography involves far more writing than she has had to do since she was finishing core classes. She spends hours poring over Vertebrate Physiology diagrams, trying to commit each system to memory. Zuko spends the same hours with a white-knuckled hand in his hair, cursing Zhao and sometimes every other member of his committee every time he gets a multi-page list of revisions for his dissertation.

In other ways, though--in other ways it is better than her most fragile hopes. Nearly every afternoon finds her posted up in Zuko’s office, working quietly alongside him. In the evenings, he walks her home, which has come to mean his apartment rather than hers. Haru doesn’t make a peep even though she should probably be paying rent at this point, having spent only a scant handful of nights at her own apartment since this all began. Now that Suki is back, they pick up their old routine of running together after class, and Suki must let it slip to Sokka that Katara has all but moved in, because Sokka texts her that she ought to make it official from a purely economic standpoint. The fact that he had been with Suki for actual years before asking her to move in together appears to be entirely lost on him, despite her pointing it out every chance she gets.

By the time midterms are looming, Katara has to admit that even she can no longer fret about losing Zuko to the monotony of real life. Her worries were sort of right--it doesn’t feel exactly the same now as it did during winter break. The newness wears off a little, and he does regrettably spend less time making out with her in his kitchen, but the novelty is replaced with a comfortable familiarity that Katara likes just as much--maybe more. Zuko doesn’t seem bored with her, and she certainly isn’t bored with him, not when she gets to watch him make real progress on his dissertation and get taken to task at Pai Sho by his uncle and especially not when he smiles bright and genuine every time she slips into his office.

She thinks about Sokka and Suki asking her if she was happy with Zuko. She had deflected that she was happy before, and in return she had gotten their chorus of protest that she was always stressed out. Sokka had, however grudgingly, observed that she seemed happier with Zuko.

She decides he was right.

***

Since Zuko is done with graduate-level classes, he doesn’t have any midterms, but he does have an engineering conference in Omashu the same week. He is slated to give a brief presentation on a portion of his research, which seems all well and good to Katara, at least until the day before he flies out finds her perched on his bed making soothing noises while he paces the room with an anxious hand running through his already-wild hair. It is a rare show of concern for him, but his fretting is giving her a run for her money even as she is doing her best to reassure him.

“I thought you practiced your presentation with Dr. Piandao, and he said it was good,” she points out. “He would tell you the truth, I’m sure.”

“I did,” he says absently, “and he did, and he would. I just--that was just him--and I--there will an audience, and a podium, and I…”

And so that’s how she finds out Zuko hates public speaking.

“Have you had to speak in front of an audience before?” she asks him softly.

His hands flex and tighten. “Yes,” he answers shortly.

This is not a good sign. Her heart clenches in her chest.

“Zuko.” On his next pass by the bed, she reaches for him, locking her fingers around his wrist. He looks for a second like he is going to snatch his arm away, but then the anger written in the tight lines of his body gives way to exhaustion, and he slumps onto the mattress next to her. “Zuko, you don’t have to tell me,” she murmurs, letting go of his wrist so she can run her hand up and down his spine. “You can always tell me whatever you want, but you don’t have to.”

They sit in silence for a few long minutes. Katara waits, still stroking his back, humming softly as she tips her head against his shoulder.

“I used to have an audience all the time,” he says finally. “When my dad was president, everything I said made it into the papers some way or another.” She keeps up the motion of her hand while he takes a shuddering breath. “And according to him, everything I said was wrong.”

“No,” she breathes. “No, Zuko, you were a kid. Even if somehow everything you said was wrong, which is impossible, you can’t be expected to speak for the president when you’re twelve.”

“Azula always did it right,” he mumbles, hanging his head. “He never yelled at her.”

She puts both arms around his shoulders, drawing him closer, and he buries his face against her neck. “Your dad was the one who was wrong,” she murmurs into his messy hair. His hands find her waist, pulling her into his lap, and they stay wrapped up in each other tightly while Zuko’s breathing evens out. “You’re going to do a great job,” she tells him. “It’ll be just like teaching, and I know for certain that you’re a really good teacher.” She risks a joke, pressing a kiss to his temple, “Try to resist all the women in the audience who spread their legs for your tutoring skills, okay?”

He barks out a little laugh, but when he picks up his head to look at her, his face is still creased with worry. She kisses the lines on his brow until he softens, then moves to his eyelids, his cheekbones, his lips. “Stop worrying,” she murmurs against his mouth. “Isn’t that what you’re always telling me?”

“Mm, you never listen,” he murmurs back, but he doesn’t pull away. He opens up for her when she licks at the seam of his mouth, and she slides her tongue along his, relishing the quiet groan he makes low in his throat.

“I listen!” She trails her lips down his jaw to his neck, sucking lightly while her fingers make quick work of the buttons on his shirt.

“You don’t listen until I--” He breaks off to groan, louder this time, when she splays her hands over the bare skin of his chest and grinds her hips against his.

“Until I what?” she giggles, sliding off his lap to sink down to her knees between his legs. She palms the obvious bulge in his jeans, gratified that he seems to like this role reversal.

“Until I fuck you,” he gasps. He shifts to help her pull off his jeans and boxers, and she wraps a hand around his swollen cock as he drops his head back. “Oh, fuck.”

“Well,” she hums, stroking him, “I guess that’s what I’ll have to do to you.” She doesn’t give him the chance to reply, because she laves her tongue over the head of his cock, and the only words he makes after that are quiet curses. She swallows him down, sucking and curling her tongue around him, bobbing her head in time with his harsh breathing. His hands fly to her hair, but he doesn’t grab tight like usual, just threads his fingers into the thick curls and lets her set the pace.

It’s definitely different, her taking the lead. She doesn’t think she’ll ever get tired of giving herself over to him, but this is exhilarating, too, seeing him come undone at her touch, and she slides one hand into her own jeans. She works on them both until he is writhing and she is wet and ready and aching, and then he whines, “Please, Kat,” and her brain short-circuits.

She pulls off his cock with a lewd noise and stands up, shedding her clothes while Zuko eases back against the pillows, pumping himself a few times while his dark eyes track her every move. She crawls across the bed until she is straddling his hips, gasping when the tip of him brushes her wet slit, and then she is sinking down on him ever-so-slowly, loving the fullness and heat of him.

“Yes,” Zuko hisses when she bottoms out. He is still watching her, desire plain on his face, and it makes her heart quicken to be the object of that look. She starts to move up and down on his cock, chasing the perfect angle that makes her cry out with every downstroke. He helps her with one hand on her hip, but the other wanders, reaching up to toy with her breasts and then down to press circles against her clit.

Soon her breath is coming hard and fast, her arms trembling where they are braced on either side of Zuko. He lets go of her hip to reach up and curl his hand around the back of her neck, tugging her down to kiss her desperately. He ruts up into her, and that and the new angle and his teeth on her bottom lip are enough. She shudders and keens as her orgasm breaks over her, and Zuko follows, pulsing in her with a groan.

They lie tangled together catching their breath. “So, are you going to listen to me now?” she quips, easing off him.

He picks his head up and squints at her. “Listen about what?”

She claps a hand over her mouth to keep from laughing out loud at the dazed, fucked-out quality of his voice. “Nothing, never mind.”

She cleans them up and steals some of his clothes for pajamas. When she slides back under the covers, Zuko is already dozing off, but even in sleep he shifts and reaches for her. She snuggles up and smiles when he sighs contentedly, his arms draped around her, his breathing long and even.

The next morning, about the time his flight is supposed to land in Omashu, she gets a text from him.

Z: Thank you.

K: Any time.

***

Zuko’s presentation goes well, and Katara lords it over him that she was right until he tells her no one likes a know-it-all, to which she responds that obviously, he does. He tells her to watch her mouth, so naturally she asks him, or what? And his reply is how she finds herself trying to study for her calculus midterm with no blood in her brain.

Z: Or I’ll gag you.

She stares at her phone in the middle of the library. Of course she has come across this before; of course many of the elegant photos of women tied up featured gags as well. Of course she has thought about it. It’s just that she is nervous to mention it, and he never has.

Until now.

K: Is that something you want?

She knows she has ruined the teasing tone, but he shifts smoothly, somehow always knowing how to meet her where she is.

Z: Not unless it’s something you want.

She swallows.

K: What if I’m not sure?

Z: That’s okay, sweetheart. We’ll talk about it when I get back, okay?

She counts down the days.

***

Zuko returns to Ba Sing Se the Saturday after midterms are over, the first day of Spring Break, and he barely makes it in the door of his apartment before Katara launches herself at him.

“Hi, Kitty Kat,” he laughs, dropping his bag to wrap his arms around her. “I missed you, too.”

She basks in the warmth of his embrace and leans up to kiss him. He threads his fingers through her hair and kisses her back, humming his approval when she molds her body to his. He breaks away from her mouth to press hot kisses and sharp bites to her throat, whispering in between, “You’re eager--something on your mind?”

The sound of the front door opening startles them apart. “Oh, good--you’re both here!” It is Haru, cheerful as ever, if a little worn-looking. “We finally finished grading the O-Chem midterms, and Jin wants to go out!”

Jin is Haru’s new girlfriend of a couple of months, and Katara does want to get to know her, but maybe not right now. Right now, she wants to have a conversation with Zuko, preferably while naked, so she nods her agreement when he mumbles something about jet lag and the price of drinks at bars.

“Come on,” Haru wheedles. “Suki and Toph are coming, and Jin is dying to meet you guys. Plus, she knows this bar that the locals like, so it won’t be as crazy.”

Katara vaguely remembers that Jin has lived here since she was young, so she probably does know a bar off the beaten path of rowdy undergraduates. She exchanges a reluctant look with Zuko. They haven’t seen any of their friends in the last few weeks, caught up in their work and the rush of midterms and travel.

“Sure,” she says finally. “We’d love to come.”

***

Haru gives them a few minutes to change clothes, and then he is practically towing them out the door, chattering excitedly on the short walk over. They meet Jin and Suki and Toph there, and Katara has to admit that Jin has made a good choice. The bar is quieter than the ones she is used to frequenting with Suki, typically against her better judgement, and she finds she is actually enjoying herself a good bit. They all jam into a corner booth, talking and laughing, until everyone is a few drinks in and Suki and Toph decide the dance floor is their highest calling. They cajole Jin, and by extension Haru, leaving Katara and Zuko by themselves for a precious moment.

“Sorry for volunteering us for this,” she says a little sheepishly. She is nursing a glass of cab sav, having already downed a couple of rather strong mixed drinks on Jin’s recommendation. She is pleasantly buzzed, leaning against Zuko, who has his arm around her in a rare display of public affection that she’s pretty sure is the result of the whiskey he and Haru had settled on.

“No, this is good. This place is nice.” His leans in, his breath hot in her ear, and adds, “Plenty of time later for me to gag that pretty mouth.”

A blush climbs up her face as heat pools between her legs. “It’s a trade-off, really,” he continues, keeping his voice low, “because there are so many good reasons to leave your mouth free. But this way, I can make you scream no matter who’s in the apartment. And you’d look so pretty…” He knocks back the rest of his drink--his third, maybe? she’s lost count--and gives her a smile that is all predatory teeth. “It’s no problem if you don’t want me to. Plenty of other ways to make you speechless.”

She can hear her pulse drumming in her ears, drowning out the music. She hasn’t been able to get the idea out of her head since his text, but she wants to actually talk about it first, and if he keeps this up she’s going to combust before they get the chance. “Is this the best place for this conversation?” She glances at their friends, but they are oblivious, absorbed in the thumping bass and swaying bodies.

“Probably not,” he admits. “Sorry.”

She hadn’t meant to sound so snippy, but she must have, because he looks abashed, averting his eyes. “No, it’s okay.” She casts about for some way to put a smile back on his face. “Do you want to dance?”

He looks back at her. “Usually, no. But with you? Yes.”

She grins and tugs him out of their booth onto the dance floor. This was always her favorite part when she gets conned into going out with Suki--she can feel the music pulsing in her chest, and she is too tipsy to care if she looks a bit silly. Having a partner, though--that is new, and a whole new level of exhilarating, especially when she starts to move and Zuko looks at her with something like awe.

“How are you so good at this?” He lets her guide his hands to her hips and groans softly when her ass brushes the front of his jeans.

She giggles at the wonder in his voice. “Suki taught me. Come on, it’s not hard.” With that, she rolls her body to the beat, luxuriating in the way Zuko’s fingers tighten on her when she grinds back against him. He catches on quick, giving as good as he gets the next time she rocks her hips, and the press of his erection against her ass doesn’t do anything to help the tingling in her core.

“Tease,” he growls when she drags her hands up her body, intentionally exposing a strip of skin above the waistband of her jeans.

“You’re one to talk,” she shoots back. “All that in the booth…” She trails off into a moan when he skims his fingers along her flesh, dipping tantalizingly into her waistband. Between the alcohol and the lust pounding in her veins, she doesn’t hesitate to turn her head and murmur in his ear, “You made me so wet.”

His grip goes bruisingly tight. “Pretty little slut.”

“Only for you,” she purrs. He gives a choked-off groan and drops his face to her neck, laying hot kisses along her skin and biting down when she grinds against him especially hard.

“You are something else,” he grits out. “Spirits, you drive me insane.”

The bass thumps in time with her heart. She reaches up, sliding one hand into his hair, tipping her head to the side to give him more access to her throat. The music swells, and she moves with it, rocking deliciously against him.

“You keep that up,” he slurs, “and I’ll fuck you right here.”

Something sparks in the back of her brain, distantly familiar, but he is inching one hand up her shirt, and that chases away all conscious thought. “Keep that up,” she slurs back, “and I’ll let you.” She turns to face him, and he wastes no time shoving his thigh between her legs. She grinds against it shamelessly.

“Love the way you feel,” he groans, palming her ass. He sounds wrecked, and the same flicker nags at her memory, but she is pretty wrecked, too, and preoccupied with the friction she is getting from him.

When she leans up to kiss him, he breaks. “That’s it,” he snarls, grabbing her hand and dragging her to the door. She stumbles after him, typing a text to Suki with her other hand, and then they are outside and it is quiet save for the slam of her pulse and the hitch of her breath.

The short walk home is a blur of his hand on her waist and his hungry gaze on her everything else. That they make it back to the apartment is a miracle; Katara sends up a prayer of thanks to whoever is listening. Not a long one, though, because as soon as they get inside Zuko pins her against the counter and kisses her hard and rough, one hand tight in her hair and the other fumbling with her jeans. She helps him, shoving them down along with her panties and then he is slotting two fingers easily up into her.

“Oh,” she gasps. She kicks the rest of the way out of her pants so she can spread her legs for him, whimpering as he works her open. It doesn’t take long for her to be ready, and not much longer for her to be impatient. “Zuko, please.” She has been keyed up for hours--days, really--and suddenly she can’t wait another second for him to take her.

“Please, what?” he growls, pulling his fingers away. He turns her around with his hands on her hips, and she gets the idea, leaning over the counter and arching her back.

She looks over her shoulder and locks eyes with him. “Please fuck me.”

She doesn’t even see him unzip his jeans, just feels him line up and press in with a shuddering groan. The rhythm he sets is brutal, and she loves it, loves knowing that she is what breaks his careful self-control. He skims a scorching hand down her ass and then smacks her, hard, and she makes a needy sound that earns her another.

“I love the sweet little sounds you make,” he breathes. He hauls her up so her back is pressed against his chest, still slamming into her. She cries out when he reaches between her legs, feeling his grin against her neck. “Good girl. You’re going to come for me, aren’t you, because I’ve been gone for, what, four days? And you’re desperate for it, you’re my pretty little slut, you’re mine.” He sinks his teeth into her shoulder, pitching her over the edge, and then she goes limp and boneless against him. A few more thrusts and he is spilling in her with a half-slurred, ”Fuck.”

She floats happily in her post-coital haze while he cleans them up, then shrieks when he sweeps her off the ground with an arm behind her knees. “What are you doing?” she laughs, clinging to his neck.

He dumps her on the bed and sheds his clothes in a flash. “Can’t leave you naked in the kitchen, can I?” he asks, still looking dazed and drunk and very pleased with himself. He climbs onto the bed with her and pulls the covers over both of them. “Night, Kat. Love you.”

That’s what she remembers.

“Zuko?” She turns over and nudges his knee with hers. “Zuko.” Her pulse has picked back up, and, really, that can’t be good for her heart from a purely biological standpoint.

“Hm? What?” He picks his head up, blinking like he has been asleep for hours instead of ten seconds, like he hasn’t left the light on and probably her clothes on the kitchen floor.

“Do you remember getting drunk with Haru after finals?”

His brow wrinkles. “I...remember getting drunk with Haru now.”

She snorts. “In December.”

“I remember being really hungover in December.” He winces. “So, yeah, I guess I kind of do. Why?”

“You called me that night.”

He throws an arm over his eyes. “Shit. I did.” In the heavy silence that follows, he peeks at her out from under his arm. “Why? What did I say? You said I didn’t say any stupid shit.”

Electricity zips down her spine. She hasn’t brought this up, not for months, and now… “You said you thought you were in love with me.”

She sees the rise and fall of his chest stop for a few seconds, and then he moves his arm so he can prop himself up on his elbows. His golden eyes search her face. “And you thought of this because I’m drunk now?”

“Also because you just said it again.”

He huffs a laugh and collapses back down, staring at the ceiling. “Well, it was true both times,” he says finally. “Do with that what you will.”

She snorts again. “What does that mean?”

He still doesn’t look at her. “It means you don’t have to feel obligated to say it back.”

She has been deliberately putting that night out of her mind--he was too trashed, it was too soon--and then it was too much to hope for that he had been serious. She has felt afraid, vulnerable, anxious, but never obligated. This is partially because she knows he would never push her that way, but mostly because it isn’t possible to be forced to feel something she already feels.

She reaches for him, turning his face toward hers with her fingers on his cheek--the scarred one, just by happenstance, or maybe by fate--and kisses him sweet and gentle. “I love you,” she murmurs against his lips, and then he is surging forward, pulling her tightly against him, kissing her with an open, desperate longing.

When both their hearts have slowed to something resembling normal, Katara retrieves her clothes from the kitchen floor and switches off the bedroom light, laughing at the disgruntled noises Zuko is making from the bed.

“Come back here,” he pouts. She does, and he snatches her up, holding her against his chest and burying his face in her hair. “Remind me,” he sighs, “to thank Haru for inviting us out.”

Chapter Text

Katara wakes still snug in Zuko’s embrace, which is unusual, given that he is usually up about six hours before she is. Shifting carefully, she disentangles herself and sits up and ow does her head hurt. That must be why he is still asleep. “Spirits,” she mutters, pressing her fingers against her throbbing temples.

Zuko stirs next to her with a pained groan. She laughs when he yanks the covers back over himself, hiding his face from the sunlight seeping through the blinds. Then the laughing makes her head hurt worse.

She takes a breath to steel herself, then swings her legs out of bed and gets shakily to her feet. “Do you have any painkillers?” she whispers to the lump of blankets that is her boyfriend.

“Kitchen,” is his muffled answer.

Of course they’re in the kitchen, and of course she’s naked, she thinks sourly. When exactly after saying I love you does one get to move in with one’s significant other and dispense with the roommates?

With that, last night’s conversation comes rushing back to her, and she has to catch herself with a hand on his dresser.

He said I love you. She said it back.

Happiness bubbles up in her chest.

A shard of anxiety pokes through her ribcage along with it--what about residency, what about when med school means working nights and she doesn’t see him for weeks--but she knows he would say stop worrying if he weren’t currently trying not to throw up. But, what about this summer in the South Pole--fuck, what about her dad?

She takes a few more deep breaths and hunts through his drawers for a shirt, then pads barefoot into the kitchen and opens cabinets until she finds some Advil. She can think-slash- worry about this when thinking doesn’t hurt. Mercifully, she doesn’t run into Haru before she slips back into Zuko’s bedroom with a glass of water and their medicine.

“Here,” she tells him, nudging approximately where his shoulder might be. “Take this.”

He emerges gradually from the covers, his hair sticking up crazily, and gulps his Advil and the rest of the water. She goes to brush her teeth, and before long he stumbles in after her to do the same. She admires him while he does, raking her gaze over all that alabaster skin and rippling muscle. He smiles lazily at her and pulls her back into bed, folding her into his arms.

His fingers ghost over her throat. “You have some pretty bruises,” he murmurs.

“Do I?” She hadn’t noticed them in the mirror, but she certainly remembers his teeth from last night. “Are they going to be easily hidden?”

“No,” he grins. “Sorry.”

“I don’t think you’re really sorry,” she mumbles into his chest.

“I’m not,” he admits. More quietly, “Was I too rough?”

“No, of course not.” Not when she had said please fuck me, not when she had played her part in purposefully winding up them both on the dance floor, not when she had loved every second of his desire with his self-control stripped away. “At the bar, was I...too much?”

He scoffs. “Never.” A pause, and then, “I, uh--the rest of last night--are you, um--we…”

For crying out loud, how is it that this man will crow about biting ownership into her flesh in one sentence, and then in the next tread lightly around--

It occurs to her then that probably not many people have said I love you to him, at least not since his mother died. Certainly not his father or his sister--maybe his uncle, she could see that, but to have just one person in the whole world…

She thinks of how easily she and her father and Sokka say they love each other, how Suki will say it while laughing hard at something she does that is very Katara, how her Gran-Gran, when she was alive, never missed an opportunity.

She throws her arms around Zuko’s neck and hugs him fiercely. “I love you,” she whispers. “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

She resolves to tell him as often as she can, especially when he gives a breathless, joyful laugh and tucks his face against her hair. “I love you,” he murmurs, and the fire he has lit inside her crackles like a hearth and fills her up with light.

***

When Katara wakes up again, she feels less like her brain got run over by a truck. Zuko is out of bed, but she can smell coffee brewing, so she wanders into the kitchen and finds him at the table with two steaming mugs. He smiles and nudges one toward her, which she takes gratefully leaning against the counter.

The blessed coffee hits her system, and the whole brain-truck feeling recedes a little more. “Do we know if Haru is alive?”

He nods his head toward the couch, where Jin’s purse and what looks distinctly like the shirt she was wearing last night have been hastily discarded.

“Ah,” she says knowingly. “What about Suki and Toph?”

“I’m not sure, but your phone keeps going off.”

Dimly, she remembers texting Suki that she and Zuko were leaving. She fetches her phone from the pocket of her jeans where they are crumpled on Zuko’s floor and walks back into the kitchen while she opens a message from Suki.

“Oh, man,” she groans.

“What?” She goes to show Zuko her phone; he takes the opportunity to pull her into his lap and read over her shoulder. Her message from last night is at the top:

K: Ging hom gonna get fcked b safe

He dissolves into laughter that he muffles against her back.

Suki had texted her back equally drunkenly soon after:

S: Yas grl get it

This morning has a few messages with better spelling:

S: Sweet Spirits above, Jin is a bad influence.

S: Did you guys get home okay?

S: Did you get fucked?

S: Just kidding, I know the answer to those questions is the same.

S: Toph crashed with me, and hopefully Jin and Haru are with you guys.

Zuko is still laughing while she texts Suki back.

K: Yes to all of the above. Glad you and Toph are good. I haven’t seen Haru or Jin, but her clothes are definitely in the living room, so I’m assuming we’re all happy.

K: Sorry that I give you too much information when I’m drunk

S: Nah, what are friends for?

A minute later:

S: Toph and I want food. You guys wanna come?

She turns to look at Zuko, who shrugs.

K: Sure. We can meet you in an hour?

Suki texts her back a thumbs up, so Katara finishes the rest of her coffee and heads for the shower. She can hear Zuko banging around the room, tidying up, and then he trades places with her, though not before running his eyes appreciatively up her body. She winks at him and dances out of his reach. “Hurry up,” she calls, “we’re going to be late!”

They catch Haru and Jin tiptoeing out of Haru’s bedroom, seeming like nothing so much as two teenagers hiding from somebody’s parents. Katara bursts into peals of laughter while they look chagrined, and Zuko elbows her and invites them to brunch.

For the second time in two days, Katara finds herself wedged in a booth amid the overlapping voices of her friends, though thankfully there is coffee instead of booze, and no dance floor. Suki takes one look at her and adopts a smirk to rival Zuko’s. Katara reads her instantaneous text under the table:

S: Nice hickeys

She tips the screen toward Zuko, who gives her a predatory grin and slings his arm around her shoulders, even though he isn’t drunk and it makes Suki smirk even wider.

They talk and laugh and breathe a collective sigh of relief at another semester halfway done, the last ever for Suki and Toph, the last of undergrad for Katara. Job applications and interviews dominate the conversation for a while; then there is good-natured complaining from Zuko and Haru about summers stuck working on their research and going to more conferences; then, Jin asks Katara what she will do for the summer.

“Oh, I always go back to the South Pole to be with my family,” she answers. “There’s a rural health clinic in my hometown, so I volunteer there, and I help my dad and our family friends with whatever they need. And my brother Sokka is down there right now.”

“I’ve never been to the South Pole,” Jin says. “I hear it’s lovely.”

“It’s beautiful. It’s also really fucking cold.”

Everyone laughs; Katara smiles overtop the pang in her chest. It is always bittersweet, going back. The people of her hometown are kind, and they love her, but they are also isolated, stuck in the past. The rural health clinic is just a few leased rooms next to the post office, always understaffed and only open two days a week and perpetually almost bankrupt, barely scraping by on funding from the Northern Water Tribe’s more prosperous government.

And now, there is Zuko.

Now there is Zuko with his strong arm around her, his warmth seeping into her, his flashing golden eyes and long raven hair and low rasping voice telling her she is good and beautiful and his.

It’s silly. She knows it’s silly to be genuinely upset that she will not see him for more than two months. Two months is nothing, not compared to Suki’s year apart from Sokka, not compared to the twenty-two she has lived without Zuko just fine. Just fine, maybe more stressed, maybe less happy, according to Sokka and Suki. But fine.

Still, she presses closer to him while she can, turning her face against his shoulder. His fingers tighten on her, his thumb rubbing slow circles against her arm, and she knows he gets it without her saying anything. He always does.

***

They spend spring break watching movies and working on projects and seeing their friends. Zuko takes a day trip with his uncle to a work site outside the city, so Katara rounds up Toph and Suki and, for the first time, Jin for a visit to the spa. It is a nice little reprieve from the bustle of the semester, feeling not unlike the winter holiday, and Katara relaxes inch by inch. Still, they haven’t talked about the summer, or the gag, and she wonders what Zuko is thinking, because there is no way he’s forgotten.

On the last night of Spring Break, Zuko is sitting up in bed reading some frighteningly technical engineering articles and Katara is on her stomach beside him staring at her physiology textbook. His fingers find their way into her hair, stroking softly, and she nearly purrs at the easy fondness of it. She abandons her book to wriggle closer, basking in the heat of his body. He smirks and shoves his computer aside and pulls her into his lap.

“Hi,” she whispers. “Didn’t mean to interrupt your reading.”

His lips curve up. “That’s okay. I meant to interrupt yours.”

He kisses her, his hands spanning her ribs, and she melts against him with her knees on either side of his legs. His mouth works down while his hands work up, leaving fire in their wake; he peels her out of her shirt and kisses the swell of her breasts. “Wanted to talk to you,” he murmurs against her skin.

“Not making it easy for me to talk,” she gasps when he pops the clasp on her bra and takes a nipple into his mouth, sucking and grazing his teeth over her sensitive flesh.

“I actually wanted to make it harder.”

Oh. “How does…” She swallows back the nerves that crowd her throat. “How would it work?”

Zuko’s face softens. His hands still, though he keeps them on her waist, steady and grounding. “We don’t have to, sweetheart. Forget I mentioned it.”

“No, I--I want to. I do. Just--what if I need to say something, and I can’t?”

He nods. “Snap your fingers for me.” She does. “If you need to talk, or something is wrong, or whatever the reason, do that and I’ll stop. Always.”

Her nerves recede a little. “That makes sense.”

“I also didn’t intend on doing anything you couldn’t undo yourself. I think a necktie is the easiest thing--you could just pull it off.”

“Right. Okay.”

One hand moves up to cup her face, and he kisses her gently. “Why don’t you think about it for a while, hm? It’s nothing you have to decide right now, and you can always change your mind.”

She chews at her bottom lip. This is something she wants--frightening and electrifying all at once--and it is clearly something he wants, and the thought of disappointing him is unbearable.

He uses his thumb to tug her lip from between her teeth. “You’re worrying in there.”

“I’m not--” He cocks a sardonic eyebrow. “--okay, I am, I just--you want--”

“What I want,” he cuts in, “is to make you feel as good as you make me feel. That decidedly does not include anything that makes you make the face you’re making right now.”

She sags against him and hides her incriminating face against his shoulder. “I want to,” she protests. “I want to let--to let you--I want to be--” She huffs a frustrated sigh. How can she put into words the way she aches to please him, to give herself over to him, to stay anchored under his hands? “I want to be good for you,” is what tumbles out of her mouth. “I want to be yours.”

In the span of a breath he is pinning her down and claiming her lips, a growl rumbling from his chest. The warmth between her thighs flares when he grinds into her, already hard inside his jeans. “My sweet little kitten,” he hums between bites to her throat, “if you don’t already know--” He tugs off her leggings, and she is bare beneath him. “--that you are all mine--” His fingers slide into her where she is wet and waiting. “--maybe I haven’t been doing my job very well.” He grins with all his teeth. “Don’t worry. I’ll start fixing that right now.”

He takes her apart, methodically and easily, with his fingers and his tongue and his wicked murmured praise. She is crying out, high and needy, when he draws back, getting to his feet beside the bed. “You want to come?” She nods feverishly. “Get on your knees. You’re going to earn it.”

She scrambles to obey, quivering all over at his sharp tone. She is no stranger to taking orders from him, but this is the most authoritative he has ever been, and it drives all thought from her mind besides earning his praise. Kneeling before him, she runs her tongue up the underside of his cock, relishing the gritted-out moan she gets in response.

“Yeah,” he rasps, head tipped back, when she swallows the length of him. “Yeah, that’s a good girl.” She bobs her head, laps at him, hollows her cheeks, until he fists a hand in her hair and she doesn’t have to come up with the choreography anymore. He pushes into her mouth, slow and deep, a little rougher with each thrust. “Fuck, you make me feel so good. So gorgeous on your knees for me.” Soon the muscle of his thighs is taut and trembling under her hands, the telltale sign that he is close, and she wonders if he will finish in her mouth or pull her off so he can fuck her.

She hopes it’s the second one.

He does pull her off, but he keeps her on her knees with one hand tight in her hair. His other hand wraps around his cock, and a few strokes later he is spilling across her face with a shuddering breath, and oh. Oh, this is better than the time in the shower, this is far more erotic than she would have guessed even before she looks up at him and sees the fiercely possessive look on his face, and then she does and a whimper escapes her parted lips.

“You like that?” He strips off his tee-shirt and hunkers down, skims his thumb over the mess on her, makes an appreciative noise. “You like my come on your pretty face?” He uses the hem of his shirt to clean her off, and she lets him, trying to think past the desperate pulsing between her legs. “Yeah, you do like it,” he murmurs when he reaches there and finds her dripping. “What made you so wet, sweetheart, was it sucking my cock, or getting marked as mine?” He pushes his fingers into her, curling them just right. Her hands fly out and clutch his shoulders as her shaking thighs threaten to give out under her; he hauls her closer with an arm around her waist. “Answer me,” he breathes, his fingers working faster, his thumb swiping over her clit. “Which is it?”

It is all so good that her reply is nearly a sob. “Both, it’s both, Zuko, fuck.”

“Yeah. Yeah, of course it’s both, because you’re perfect, you’re made for this, for me. You are mine, and any time you need a reminder--” He shoves his fingers up into her, hard, and she whimpers with her face buried against his neck. “Come on, baby girl, come for me, I’ve got you. You’re so good, so sweet for me, you’re going to do as you’re told, you always do.”

She always does, only for him, and this is no different. Her release breaks over her, wracking her body, and he holds her steady through it, whispering praise into her hair until she is still in his arms. Then he pulls her carefully to her feet and bundles her back into bed, never letting her far out of his grasp as he arranges them under the covers.

“Tell me how you feel,” he murmurs, stroking her hair.

“Fuzzy. Good.”

“Too much?”

“No.” She blinks sleepily at him. “How do you feel?”

He kisses her forehead. “Perfect.”

His touch makes her heart flutter, and then a little aftershock makes her fingertips tingle when she thinks about being on her knees for him, his come on her face. She thinks about being separated from that feeling, even for a second, and sighs. “I won’t be here this summer. I’ll be in the South Pole.”

“I know.”

“I should ask, I guess, if you’re willing to do the distance, and when I get back school will be a hundred times harder, so if you don’t want to deal--”

“Kat,” he cuts in, “not that I’m not happy to repeat the lesson, but what part of mine did you not understand?”

She feels the heat of him all over, and she thinks maybe that will help her survive the cold.

“You leave the summer to me, sweetheart. As much as I feel like two months without you will be the death of me, I have a few tricks up my sleeve.”

She’s intrigued. “Tricks?”

“You’ll have to wait and see.” He laughs at her frustrated huff. “I know you’re worried, Kat, but please believe me when I say that the only way I’d ever let you go is if you wanted to leave.”

She scoffs. “Well, that’s not going to happen.”

He grins. “Good. Then it’s settled. You’re all mine, no matter what.”

Chapter Text

The semester returns with a vengeance after Spring Break is over. Somehow, Katara doesn’t mind.

Somehow, things are different now that she can say I love you and watch Zuko’s face light up like the breaking dawn. Things are different now that she has given voice to her every worry, and in response Zuko has engraved on her heart You’re all mine, no matter what. Somehow, that sends all her concerns about the uncertain future up in smoke.

She doesn’t ever need a reminder--all the ways he has made her his are seared into her memory--but sometimes she wants one. She wouldn’t admit to it, but she might be guilty of, occasionally, once in a while, making it seem as though she really is anxious, just to have him prove her wrong. He sees right through her, of course, but she’s pretty confident that he is just as happy to have a reason to go over that particular lesson again and again.

A few weeks after spring break ends, for example, she has to give a presentation in Human Geography, and it’s not so much that she minds public speaking as it is that the project is worth a third of her final grade. For a week, she practices over and over in Zuko’s living room. By the night before the big day, Haru has heard her presentation quite a few times; Zuko himself has sat through a dozen iterations.

“Sweetheart,” he says firmly after the thirteenth, “the last six have been perfect, and identical. You need to stop.”

It sounds tantalizingly like a command, and suddenly her focus is less on the presentation and more on the fact that they have both been too busy to do anything in bed but sleep for over a week now. She doesn’t know if he meant the order that way, though, so she tests the waters, tilting her head at him with wide eyes. “I just need to do it one more time.”

His teeth show when he says, “You’re done.”

“I’m just worried about the section on--”

“Stop worrying.” He casts a look at Haru’s closed door and pitches his voice low. “Do as you’re told.”

She licks her lips. “Or what?”

He is on his feet so fast she doesn’t see him move, crowding her against the wall, snatching her notes out of her hands. “Or I’ll put you over my knee.”

Her stomach bottoms out. “You wouldn’t.”

She hopes he would.

“Try me.”

“Give me my notes back.”

“You can have them back after I’m done with you.”

He all but drags her to his bedroom, kicking the door shut behind them. “Take your clothes off.”

She does, and then in a heartbeat she finds herself sprawled over his lap, face-down and ass-up, with his fist in her hair holding her in place. He rubs a hot hand over her bare hip, caressing her ass, dipping his fingers between her legs. She releases a quiet moan at his touch, a half-formed plea for more.

“What was that?” he taunts, stroking her slit. “Are you enjoying this? You want to get punished?”

She writhes, pushing her hips back against his fingers, but he won’t put them inside her, won’t touch her where she wants it most. Spirits, she hadn’t expected to be this desperate this fast. Being spread out like this, vulnerable, at his mercy--it’s the same feeling as having her wrists bound or her face fucked, the same easy surrender. Letting go, letting him have his way, knowing that what he wants is what she wants, too, knowing he will keep her safe and sated--it makes her head spin in the best way, and she has long forgotten her presentation by the time his hand comes down on her rear.

Oh!” she gasps, jerking over his legs, and he rubs soothingly over where he has just made her skin smart. His fingers dip over her entrance again, swiping through her arousal.

“Oh,” he agrees. She can hear his smirk rather than see it. He switches sides, spanks her again, the sting and then the slide of his hand and the barest brush of his fingertips over her swollen clit. He does it again, and again, always just this side of truly painful. How does he know what is too much, know how to keep her right on the edge? She squirms and whimpers under his expert ministrations, biting her lip against the wanton moans that threaten to spill out of her throat, and somehow he knows that, too. “Let me hear you.” His next two hits land at the juncture of her thighs and ass; she keens. “That’s it. Good. Even when you’re begging to get punished, you can’t help but be my good girl, can you?” He pushes two fingers into her sopping pussy. “You’re so wet, such a sweet little slut for me, you’re desperate for it, aren’t you?”

He is desperate for it, too; she can tell from the pulsing length of him digging into her stomach, from the tension in his voice, ready to snap.

She wants him to snap, so she gives him an answer. “Yes, sir.”

He curses. “Get on your hands and knees.”

She clambers off his lap, probably without much grace, but she doesn’t care, just gets into position on the bed as quickly as possible, offering herself up to him.

He doesn’t need any further invitation; he strips hastily out of his clothes and enters her with a long, vicious thrust. She feels her eyes roll back as his hips slap against her already-red ass, pounding into her over and over.

“You weren’t,” he grunts, “actually worried, were you?”

She drops to her elbows, arching her back the way she knows he likes, and admits, “No.”

“This is what you were after.” She feels every thrust in the back of her throat.

“Ye—ah—yes—“

His voice dissolves into a groan. She would feel satisfied that she has robbed him of words, except she can’t speak, either, awash in the sensation of him all around her, encompassing her, filling her up. Somewhere in the litany of her moans and squeaks and gasps, she says Zuko and please, and he braces one hand on the headboard so he can reach around with the other and thumb at her clit.

“You’re so good,” he murmurs in her ear. “Even when you’re bad, when you’re pushing me, trying to get in trouble--it’s so you can go down easy and sweet for me, so you can do what I say, so you can be my good girl.” He bites roughly at her shoulder, his fingers relentless between her legs; pleasure coils and builds in her, tighter and tighter. “Spirits, you are perfect, couldn’t be better if I made you myself--you feel so good, so wet--want to feel you, Kitten, want you to come for me--”

She does, with a choked-off scream, her walls fluttering around him. Her face drops to the sheets while Zuko ruts into her for a few more unsteady strokes, and then is he muffling a shout in her hair and spilling inside her.

After he cleans them up, he drapes his arm around her waist and kisses across her face and throat. “How come you always do the work after?” she mumbles through the haze of his gentle touch. “Doesn’t seem fair.”

He chuckles. “You’re in no condition to do anything.”

She lifts a hand to protest, but it drifts back down before she can make any real motion, which sort of proves his point. “Wanna take care of you, though.”

He kisses the corner of her mouth. “You do. It just looks a little different. I like taking care of you this way, and even if I didn’t, it’s a small price to pay to have you like this.”

She doesn’t know if by this he means the way she is soft and pliant in his arms now or the way she was spread open for him earlier. Either one is okay with her.

“Thanks for listening to my presentation.” Her words run together a little, sleep tugging at her mind.

“You’re welcome.”

“And for not listening to my presentation.”

She feels his mouth curl into a smirk. “My pleasure.”

***

There are still frustrating things, of course; school is still stressful for them both. As finals approach, Katara spends more and more time with her textbooks, and Zuko has a slew of deadlines that loom ever-closer. He gets stuck in an endless cycle of revisions on a section of his thesis that is due for presentation at a symposium over the summer, and Katara comes to dread the ping of his email that seems to always mean another round of edits from one of his committee members.

“I’m just changing shit back and forth now,” he mutters angrily every time he opens the document. “Why do I even have a committee? I hate committees.”

It goes on for two weeks until he finally gets official approval from Dr. Piandao, late on the Friday before the Saturday deadline. They both breathe a little easier and crawl into bed, but in the dark Zuko murmurs, “Let’s go out tomorrow night to celebrate.”

“Okay,” she murmurs back.

“Wanna see you in something pretty.”

He is half-asleep and not very authoritative, but she grins anyway and answers, “Yes, sir.”

She goes shopping the next afternoon with Suki, who helps her pick out a navy sundress that makes her umber skin glow and then steers her, smirking, into a lingerie boutique.

When she steps into the living room that evening, her hair loose and her mouth slicked with red, Zuko gives her a low whistle. She flushes even though it’s the millionth time he has given her that look, like he wants to devour her, and his mouth tugs into a smirk.

“You ready?”

She nods, and Zuko threads their fingers together and leads her out the door, heading downtown in the warm spring evening.

Halfway through their walk, his phone goes ping.

They both freeze. “Could be anything,” Zuko says, fishing his phone out of his pocket. “Anything from my work email makes that noise.”

“Mhm,” she says, unconvinced.

Zuko’s golden eyes scan his phone. “Fuck.”

Against her will, her shoulders sag in disappointment. “More edits?”

“Zhao,” he seethes. “Even though he knows I got final approval, even though he knows the deadline is in six hours. Asshole.” He thumbs through the email quickly. “It’s not that many changes. Can we just swing by my office? It’ll only take a few minutes.” He looks at her, catches the slope of her shoulders, and his slump to match. “I’m so sorry, Kat.”

“No, it’s okay, don’t worry.” She puts her arms around him, holds him close. “I know it’s not your fault. Take all the time you need.”

He puts his arms around her in return and sighs against her hair. “Fucking Zhao,” he mutters, and she giggles into his shirt.

“Come on, then. I left some reading in your office anyway.” She pulls him by the hand toward campus, talking over his repeated apologies until he stops trying and smiles warmly down at her.

Her stack of articles is right where she left it on Zuko’s office table. She settles in with a pilfered highlighter while Zuko grumbles under his breath and stabs at the keyboard. More than a few minutes go by, and she tries to focus on her own reading, but Zuko keeps making little frustrated noises. When she looks up at him his whole body is wound tight, his knuckles white in his hair. She puts her work aside and stands behind his chair so she can press her fingers into the knotted muscle of his neck. As soon as she touches him, he sighs heavily and flutters his eyes closed.

“Thank you,” he says after a moment.

She kisses his silken hair. “I’ve got you.”

“I ruined our date,” he says sadly. “First one in months.”

“You didn’t. This isn’t your fault, and nothing is ruined.” She leans down to press soft kisses over his cheek. “I fell in love with you in this office. As long as this is where you are, this is where I want to be.” It’s cheesy, but it’s true, and she feels his face crease into a smile under her lips.

“Did you really?”

“Fall in love with you here? Yes. The first time you had me over.”

He makes a thoughtful noise. “Not that first Saturday I studied with you?”

She cocks her head, then realizes he can’t see her. “No. Why?”

“That was when I knew I had you.”

Her face goes hot. “Don’t you have work to do?”

He laughs, but he does straighten up and go back to typing. She keeps gentle pressure on his neck and shoulders, feeling him relax under her hands bit by bit. Before too much longer, he sits back in his chair and squints at the screen. “I think I’m done,” he says finally. “But also none of these look like words anymore.”

She can’t help but laugh. “Do you want me to proofread it?”

“Please.”

She walks around his chair to lean over his desk, and then gives a little yelp of surprise when he pulls her into his lap.

“No need for you to stand,” he says innocently.

Her concentration suffers, but she loves the way his arms encircle her waist, so she fights the familiar haze and gets to work. A few typos here and there catch her eye, and she corrects them while Zuko watches with his chin on her shoulder.

She isn’t even halfway through when he turns his face against her neck, nuzzling softly, and then one of his hands smooths down her thigh over the skirt of her dress. “If you don’t let me finish this, don’t come crying to me when it has mistakes,” she threatens in a totally un-threatening whimper.

His fingers creep under the hem and along the inside of her thigh. “Of course I’ll let you,” he says with an innocence she knows to be entirely feigned. “Finish, that is.”

She swallows back a groan as his touch moves up and up and up until his fingers graze the lace of her panties.

He hums appreciatively. “Are these new?”

“They’re for later,” she hisses.

“Oh, I don’t know about that.” He strokes her firmly through the fabric, and she can’t help but shift on his lap, canting her hips into his hand. “I’m enjoying them right now.”

“Zuko,” she whimpers.

“What is it, love?” He lays hot, wet kisses up her throat.

“What if—ah—what if someone—“

“The door is locked,” he murmurs. He tugs her legs further apart, hooking her knees over his so he can keep her spread open.

“You never lock the door—“

“There is, though,” he continues as though she hasn’t spoken, “the problem of how loud you can be…” His hands trail up, cupping her breasts. “If anyone is here, you’d certainly get their attention.” His touch whispers, feather-light, over her jaw. His presses two fingers between her lips, tentative, and she opens up for him without thinking. The hitch in his breath spurs her on; she laps and sucks at his fingers, letting her eyes fall closed, letting him take over.

“There’s my good girl,” he croons. His teeth scrape over her neck, nipping and sucking where bruises will bloom later, as he thrusts his fingers in and out of her mouth in a promise of what’s to come. She can feel his cock straining through their clothes, pressed into her ass, and she grinds back against him until he muffles a groan into her shoulder. His fingers slide out of her mouth and trail back down, down to where she is wet and clenching around nothing. He pulls her panties aside and dips his fingertips into her entrance, petting, teasing. “You want it?” He taunts, breath hot in her ear. “Beg.”

“Please,” she gasps, “please, please, Zuko, I need—“

He shoves his fingers into her. “Always gonna give you what you need.”

She tips her head back against his shoulder and rocks her hips into his touch, wound tighter and tighter until she can’t take it. “Please fuck me,” she whimpers, “please, please.”

“Since you asked so nicely.” He rucks up her dress and then cups her ass. “Lift up for me? Yeah…” She raises her hips a few inches, giving him room to fumble with his zipper. She feels his length spring free and graze her folds. They both gasp at the slide of him through her arousal, shifting until the angle is right and she is sinking down on his cock.

“Oh—“ She starts to cry out and finds herself with Zuko’s hand clapped over her mouth.

“Not that I don’t appreciate the feedback—“ His other hand directs her hips up and down in long, slow, languid strokes. “—but you have got to keep quiet, Kitten.”

She mumbles a half-hearted protest into his palm, but mostly this is one step short of a gag and it is overloading her brain with exhilaration.

They move together, him rutting up into her every downstroke, his fingers tight over her mouth. He devours her throat, sucks her earlobe between his lips, slips deft fingers between her legs. “You going to come for me?” His voice is unsteady, rasping and rough. “You have no idea how many times I’ve imagined fucking you in this office—wanna take you bent over my desk, want to gag that pretty mouth so I can spread you across the table and eat you out until you scream—“

It’s too much, his fingers against her clit and his cock deep within her and his filthy mouth at her ear. Pleasure builds and crests and breaks over her; she arches under his grip. He barely keeps his hand over her mouth, groaning raggedly as she spasms over and around him. A half-dozen more thrusts into her oversensitized body, and he is coming, too, with his teeth in her shoulder where there will definitely be a mark later.

They breathe hard together, Katara slumped against him. “Hey,” he rumbles after who knows how long. “You okay?”

She nods. “That was...wow.”

He huffs a laugh. “Wow, yourself.”

She twists around in his lap so she can put her arms around his neck. “You planned this,” she accuses. “You never lock the door.”

“I didn’t,” he insists. “I fully intended to take you out. Once I realized we would have to go to my office, though, I may have...taken advantage of the situation.”

“You actually locked the door, right?”

“Of course. I have no intention of doing anything but keeping you all to myself.”

She sighs contentedly, burrowing into him. “I love you.”

“Love you too, Kitten.” His lips brush her temple. “You still want to go to dinner?”

“Well…” She pulls back to look pointedly at her rumpled dress, hiked up to her waist. Her panties are still pulled to the side, and some of Zuko’s come is smeared on one thigh.

A very wicked idea enters her mind.

She reaches down and swipes her fingers over the mess, then pops them into her mouth, licking them clean while Zuko’s eyes go wide. “Sure,” she chirps when she’s done. “I’m ready to go.”

“Oh, no,” he growls. “We’re going back to the apartment.”

“To do what?”

”Something,” he says hoarsely. “Something to punish you for…that. I don’t know what it is yet, but I’m going to figure it out between here and there, and then you’ll be sorry.”

She doesn’t think she’ll be sorry at all.

She slides off his lap and smooths down her dress. When she goes to open the door, it is, thankfully, locked. Zuko gets up as if to follow her out, and she turns to him with a barely-hidden smirk. “Zuko?” she says sweetly.

“What?”

“Shouldn’t you submit your paper before we go?”

He curses.

***

As finals creep closer with graduation right on their heels, Katara is gripped with emotions she can’t quite name. She never expected graduation to be bittersweet, or really much of anything—she’s just coming right back for med school. It’s not as if her time at BU will be over when they hand her a Bachelor’s Degree, and she doesn’t even anticipate missing that many people—Suki and Toph have been her closest friends, and they are both staying in Ba Sing Se for work after graduation. She has always hated summers away from them, stuck in the South Pole with no one close to her age but Sokka, so the summer after graduation is nothing new.

There is the problem of missing Zuko, which she suspects will be akin to missing a limb, but he has whatever tricks he is planning, and she can’t do anything to prevent their temporary separation, anyway.

Then there is her dad, who is flying up with Sokka the night before graduation. Normally pretty stoic, he has started to get a little choked-up on the phone, talking about milestones and how proud he is and, one heart-rending time, how proud her mom would be.

In contrast, Iroh has never been stoic for a second in his life, and every time she and Zuko see him for the three months leading up to graduation he gets watery-eyed and pulls them both into a hug.

Not to mention that her dad has started making little remarks here and there about meeting this Zuko fellow, and she has no idea how that will go or what Sokka has told him.

Add this to the mounting pressure of exams and projects, and it is just barely tolerable. Then, the evening before her first final--calculus, of course--she gets an email about her lease coming due, which she had totally forgotten about, and she promptly bursts into tears.

Zuko startles up from his own computer. “Kat?”

“It’s nothing--just another thing on my to-do list that I forgot about.”

“What is it?”

“My lease.” She takes a shuddering breath, trying to get a grip. People do not cry over leases, she tells herself. “I have to go to the office and sign it for next year. I just hadn’t planned on it, and I have to make time to go when the office is open, and…” She trails off, unsure of what else is lingering on the tip of her tongue.

He finishes the sentence for her. “And you should just let your lease lapse.”

She sniffles and says, “What?”

“When was the last time you slept there?”

“Um.”

“Just economically speaking, you should stay here.”

“Now you sound like Sokka,” she mutters. “Wait, did you just ask me to move in with you?”

“That’s because I talked to Sokka about it.” He gives her a sly grin. “And I’m pretty sure I told you more so than asked you.”

“You talked to Sokka about it?” She ignores the asking-telling dichotomy, because that’s nothing new. “Is economics your only motivator?”

“Of course not. I want you as close to me as possible, as often as possible.” He’s openly smirking now, watching her stutter over her response. “I asked Sokka how pissed your father would be. He took that opportunity to bring up the advantageous cost-savings aspect of the situation.”

“I don’t think that’s going to sway my dad.”

“Sokka is moving in with Suki! How is this different?”

She snorts. “I’ll tell you how. I’m the youngest, and a girl. You get used to a double standard.”

“Well, you should think about it anyway. Before you sign for another year.”

She tries to process this turn of events. “What about Haru?”

“He’s fine with it.”

“You already talked to him?”

“Of course.”

“How long have you been planning this?”

He shrugs one shoulder. “March, maybe?”

She is stunned. He laughs a little at the look on her face.

“Just think about it, okay?”

“Okay.”

***

Katara lets her lease lapse, because of course she does, and she doesn’t keep it a secret from her father so much as she simply fails to mention it to him. There’s no telling how long Sokka can keep his mouth shut, but there’s also no need to cross that bridge until they have to.

Zuko eases her through finals with his steady presence and his uncanny way of seeing right through her. When she gets worked up, he always seems to know if she needs help studying or help not studying. In the case of the former, he is a perfect gentleman; in the latter, he pulls her into the bedroom and takes her mind off school entirely.

Sokka and her father arrive in Ba Sing Se the day before graduation, and Zuko’s enduring steadiness takes a hit. Katara is used to the way he retreats into himself when they are around a group--she rather likes getting to see parts of him no one else can glimpse--but he is downright nervous when they meet her family and Suki at The Jasmine Dragon for a celebratory dinner.

“Relax,” she whispers to him, trying and failing to loosen the death grip he has on her hand.

“What makes you think I’m not relaxed?” he whispers back, and she has to bite her tongue to keep from laughing.

He is handsome as ever in slacks and a dark gray sport coat--at least she won’t hear any complaints about skinny jeans at this particular gathering--but his striking face is tight with worry. He only lets go of her hand to shake her father’s, giving a respectful half-bow along with the gesture, and he still greets him as Mr. Kanna even though Katara distinctly remembers him being told otherwise.

Hakoda regards Zuko not unkindly and asks polite questions about his schoolwork and career prospects. Some of the tension falls out of Zuko’s shoulders as the night goes on, for which Katara is grateful. She keeps her hand on his leg under the table, squeezing gently in reassurance. He gives her such earnest, affectionate looks in return that her heart breaks and mends for him all at once. Suki and Sokka are on their side, too, keeping the conversation flowing, never letting Hakoda’s ice-blue stare linger on Zuko for very long. They talk about Suki’s new job with Ba Sing Se Social Services, about Sokka’s fall classes, about how proud they all are of the girls’ accomplishments. All her tangled emotions swell in her chest until she is looking at everyone she loves through a sheen of tears.

She keeps it together through the rest of dinner, through her father’s gruff, “Nice to finally meet you, son,” to Zuko at the end of the night, through the slow walk home hand-in-hand with him. She keeps it together until Zuko closes the door to their room and rummages under the bed for a neatly-wrapped box.

“I got you something,” he says, almost shyly. “For graduation, and for a going-away present. Going away for now, I mean.”

She peels back the silver paper and lifts out an old-school Polaroid camera along with several packages of film.

“I thought you could send me some pictures,” he explains, ducking his head. “I haven’t been to the South Pole in years. Obviously I know everyone has a camera on their phone, but this way, I thought maybe it would be…” He pauses, clears his throat. “Maybe it would be a little more like I was there with you.”

That is the exact moment at which she can’t keep it together any longer.

“Oh, Katara,” Zuko murmurs. He takes the camera and the box from her, setting them aside, and wraps his arms around her. “I know, sweetheart. I know.”

For a few minutes, the only sounds are her crying against his shoulder and him whispering soothing words into her hair. He holds her, solid and immovable, until her breathing slows along with her tears. He doesn’t let go until she straightens up and wipes the back of her hand across her eyes.

“I’m sorry I’m so emotional lately,” she sniffs, but Zuko shakes his head.

“Don’t be.” He tucks her tangled hair behind her ear as best he can. “There’s a lot going on.”

She picks up the camera again, fiddling with the buttons until it turns on. “Thank you for this, Zuko. It’s incredibly thoughtful.” Offering him a tentative smile, she holds the camera up. “Can I take your picture?”

***

The ocean is a brilliant, beautiful blue on the other side of her airplane window. Katara has a book open on her lap, but she has spent most of the flight back to the South Pole watching the scenery go by while Sokka dozes slumped against her. On his other side, their dad is asleep, too, leaving her alone with her thoughts and her novel and the Polaroid she has tucked between the pages. It is Zuko, his mouth tugged into a half-smile that doesn’t quite cover his sadness. Sometime in between her taking the picture and the whirlwind of the graduation ceremony and Suki dropping them off at the airport, Zuko found the print and wrote Love you, Kat on the back in his familiar, precise hand. She didn’t notice until she took it out of her bag on the plane, and then she almost started crying all over again.

The expanse of the water, though, soothes the ache. A few hours into the flight, she can reach through the pang of missing him to grasp the sweetness of the gesture. A few hours more, and she is busy thinking of all the Polaroids she wants to send him in return--her childhood home, the clinic, the towering tree in their neighbors’ backyard that she and Sokka had played in for years.

She starts to drift off herself, dreaming of other, more creative ways she might use the camera.

Chapter Text

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?”

“Yes sir.”

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?”

“Yes sir.”

“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.”

“Ask nicely.”

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?”

“Yes.”

“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.”