“Ugh.” Zuko groaned and slouched on the couch.
The emergency alert flashed onto Katara’s phone too. Due to the COVID-19 emergency, the city will be placed on lockdown starting Monday. All non-essential business and activities should be closed. Citizens are advised to remain at their residence as much as possible.
“I’m not going to survive,” Zuko grumbled.
“Come on, staying home isn’t that bad.”
“No. You don’t get it. The university’s closing and my dorm is kicking me out. I’ll have to move in with Azula and her friends.”
“Have you ever tried to live with Azula? She’s a psycho. She tried to stab me last week.”
“Okay well it was mostly an accident but I’m not going to last 24 hours stuck inside with her.”
Katara grimaced. She and Zuko had been dating for nearly 3 years now, but she had yet to meet his family. The horror stories he told her were enough.
“Why don’t you move in with me?” she suggested.
He glanced at her. “Really?”
“Yeah. I mean, we’ve been serious for a long time now. We were already planning to get an apartment together. It shouldn’t be a problem.”
Zuko grinned at her, ecstatic for the chance to escape his crazy sister. Then his face fell. “Sokka won’t like it.”
Katara shrugged. Her brother and roommate had never really gotten along with Zuko, but she couldn’t imagine it would be a serious issue. “I’ll just run it by him tomorrow morning. It should be fine.”
Turns out, it was a serious issue.
Sokka stared at her for a good minute after she suggested it tomorrow at breakfast, his mouth hanging open, the milk he was pouring into his cereal starting to overflow. “No. No way.”
“No! Sorry, but your boyfriend’s weird. He’s all...shifty….and, and intense…”
Katara narrowed her eyes. “He is not! You’re so immature sometimes.”
Sokka scowled at her. “Can Suki move in too then?”
Katara ticked off the obvious reasons on her fingers. “She has her own place to stay. You guys have only been dating for a few months. And we’re not turning this into a constant house party, that defeats the purpose.”
Sokka pouted. Katara never lost an argument. He just grumbled complaints into his soggy cereal.
Katara got up to put her plate in the sink and nearly tripped. “Stop leaving your stuff everywhere!” She picked up the thin plastic box and frowned at it “What is this, Wii Sports? Do you even use your Wii anymore?”
“It’s boring when there’s no one to play with.”
“Well, I’ll try to find you a playdate soon, dear brother, but otherwise can you throw some of this out?”
“You’ve got everything?”
Zuko patted the duffel bag slung at his side. “Yeah. I didn’t grab much. Just some clothes and toiletries and stuff.” He entered the apartment and tried a half-hearted greeting. “Hey, Sokka.”
Sokka was sulking on the couch and didn’t answer. He kept his eyes fixed on the TV in front of him.
“Ignore him,” Katara muttered to Zuko. “He’s being a jerk again.” Sokka briefly acknowledged their existence to stick his tongue out at her.
“Tell Zuko to do it.”
“What? I washed the dishes yesterday so you do it today. That’s how we’ve always done it.”
“Yeah, well since Zuko decided to park his butt here, seems like he should be pulling his weight as our new roomie.”
Katara pinched the bridge of her nose. She thought eating together would get Zuko and Sokka used to each other, but it clearly wasn’t working.
“Look, I don’t really want to be here either, buddy,” Zuko snapped.
“Oh, no! Poor Zuko! Unfortunately for me, if I don’t want to be around my sister I don’t have someone else’s place I can just invade.”
“What is your problem with me!?”
“Gee, I wonder, Mr. walks-around-like-I-own-the-place. Mr. my-dad-is-a-millionaire-and-he-paid-for-me-to-go-to-an-Ivy-League-school.”
“Hey, having my parents isn’t all fun and games. You don’t know them.”
“Aw yeah that must really suck while you sit on your gold toilet.”
“Sokka! Enough!” Katara shouted.
“Thanks for taking his side again, sis.”
“I’m not taking anyone’s side! There are no sides!”
“Sure. I’ll be in my room in time-out, Mom .” Sokka stalked off and slammed his door, leaving his plate untouched. Katara gritted her teeth and attacked her string beans with renewed ferocity.
It only got worse. Whenever Sokka and Zuko were within ten feet of each other, they couldn’t resist sniping and taking jabs. Katara learned that it was best to just keep them apart. Unfortunately, she couldn’t do that all day.
Her job at a local marketing firm could still be done from home, and she spent her days drawing up designs and sending emails. But Zuko’s grad school had decided to just close early for the summer, and Sokka certainly couldn’t teach swimming lessons online. They mostly stayed away from each other while Katara worked, but she still had to suffer through sudden brief spats as she read client inquiries.
She was in the middle of a Zoom call when the worst argument happened yet. Katara cringed and quickly muted herself before her boss could hear Sokka shriek get out of my room. Sometimes Katara didn’t know if she was actually living with two hormonal preteens or not. Just as she was about to go tell the two of them to shut! up! the argument died quickly. It felt odd. Usually fights were punctuated by a door slammed or a wall kicked. But Katara didn’t really have the time to figure out the intricacies of Sokka and Zuko’s hissy fits, and she returned to her work with relief.
At 5:13, she finally sent her last email. Katara leaned back and groaned. Pakku had been so annoying today, and she needed someone to complain to.
“Zuko?” Weird. He wasn’t in her room, or the bathroom, or the kitchen. There were weird noises coming from behind Sokka’s closed door, whatever the hell he was doing.
As she rounded the corner again, she finally found Zuko slipping out of Sokka’s room. “What were you doing?”
Zuko’s eyes widened and his face reddened, like he’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “Um. Wiiiii…..WiFi password. Yeah.”
“You know the WiFi password, Zuko. You set up the router after Sokka almost fried off his eyebrows trying to do it.”
“Right. Just remembered.”
Katara sighed. “You know, if you don’t bother him he’ll probably leave you alone too.”
“Right. I’ll do that. Or, you know, not do that.”
Katara frowned. “Why are you so sweaty?”
“Uh, no I’m not.”
“Oh, I think the AC is broken. Anyway I gotta go.”
“You don’t have anywhere to go!” But Zuko was already gone, and the AC definitely wasn’t broken. Katara stood there, absolutely confused. What the hell was that?
It took a couple rings before he picked up. “Where are you?”
“Oh. Hi. You’re up already.”
“Yeah, I have to call a client in another time zone.” Katara looked down at Zuko’s side of the bed, cold and empty. “What are you doing? It’s still dark out.”
“Uh. I went out.”
“Clearly. Why?” Katara walked through the still dark apartment. Sokka’s bed was empty too. “Wait, are you with Sokka?”
Katara listened closely. She had played hide and seek with her brother too often for her to not recognize the weird strained breathing he did when he was trying to be quiet. “Uh huh. I can hear the car, and we only have Sokka’s. So someone else came by and picked you up?”
“And if I called Sokka now, I wouldn’t hear his phone ringing?” She couldn’t help smiling at the sounds of scuffling as Sokka hurriedly silenced his phone.
“Whatever. Have fun.” It was too early to deal with the two of them. The sky was barely tinging orange now. “You guys gonna go on a date and watch the sunrise or something?”
There was a suspiciously long pause before Zuko answered a strangled no.
“Good morning.” Zuko sat down at the table, his hair still a little spiky from his shower. Katara couldn’t resist reaching over and playing with it a little, and Zuko smirked.
Katara frowned. “Wait, are you wearing Sokka’s shirt?”
Zuko turned bright red again. “No.”
“Yes you are. I’ve seen Sokka wear that a million times.”
“I, um. Have the same shirt.”
“Zuko, you do laundry every week because you only packed like five shirts.”
“I thought I would only have to be here for a few weeks!”
Sokka walked in, eyes on his phone. “Oh, by the way, buddy, the tag on that one is kind of scratchy, but if you just—“
He glanced up and somehow both he and Zuko turned even redder. “Hey...Katara. You’re um...here too.”
“Yes. I live here too.” Katara smiled. “You were saying something?”
“Nope!” Sokka let out a high-pitched laugh. “Wasn’t saying anything. I never say anything. Wasn’t letting Zuko borrow...anything.”
“You know what, I actually forgot something!”
“To eat breakfast?”
“Yep. I need a, uh, fork. And I keep the forks in my room. Yup. Gotta go get a fork.” Sokka turned and practically sprinted away.
Katara turned to Zuko. “Buddy?” Zuko shrugged and very determinedly did not look at her.
“Alright, what is going on? I thought you two hated each other. But you’ve been spending all your time together when I’m not around. And now you guys are sharing clothes?”
“Nothing!” Zuko’s voice had miraculously risen an octave. “There’s nothing going on!”
“You do know that the both of you are very bad liars, right?”
Zuko was now as scarlet as the luxury cars his dad manufactured. He mumbled something about needing a fork too and made his escape. Katara groaned and dropped her head into her arms.
The digital clock on Katara’s bedside table read 3:21 AM. She wanted to know why the hell she was looking at it right now.
It didn’t take long for her to figure out what had woken her up. Zuko was lying next to her, shaking in silent laughter, his face bathed in white light.
“What...are you texting someone?”
Katara leaned over and snatched his phone. The contact name was...Buddy.
“Oh my God are you texting Sokka?”
But a new message from “Buddy” arrived, and it was the stupidest meme she had ever seen. Katara knew only one person in the world had a sense of humor that abysmal.
GO TO BED SOKKA she typed out, and yelled it loud enough for him to hear for good measure. She threw Zuko’s phone at his face and buried her head in the pillows. “Go sleep in his bed if you want to talk all night!” she screamed, muffled.
“Um. Hi. About last night--”
Katara shook her head. “I don’t want to hear it.”
It took all of her willpower to not throw her coffee in Zuko’s face. “Save it for your secret texting.” She hadn’t slept well for the rest of the night, and now she was tired and irritable. “You know what, I’m going.”
“Where are you going?”
She snatched the car keys from the counter. “Away from you two!”
Katara was desperate to get out of the apartment and just drove around aimlessly, with no particular destination. Which is how she found herself stranded in the middle of a random parking lot in the tank top and sweatpants she slept in, the gas tank empty. Sokka always was very bad at making sure the tank was filled. Silently cursing him, Katara decided to call Aang and ask him to pick her up.
“Uh. You look like hell,” was his way of greeting her.
“Gee, thanks, good to see you too,” she grumbled as she got into his car and slammed the door.
“No, seriously, you okay?”
Katara rubbed her forehead. “No. I don’t know. Sokka and Zuko are being...I feel like they’re…”
Katara shook her head. The idea was too weird to say aloud. Aang let her sit in silence for the rest of the way back to her apartment.
“Crap. I forgot my apartment keys,” Katara said, searching her pockets.
“You could call Sokka or Zuko and get one of them to open the door for you.”
“The last thing I want to do right now is beg one of those idiots to let me inside my own damn place. There’s a fire escape that leads up to a window we keep unlocked. I’ll just use that.
Aang frowned. “Isn’t that a security issue?”
“Well, you can come by and install a burglar alarm whenever you’re free.”
Katara climbed up the fire escape and managed to nudge the window open. She pulled herself through, ending up in the hallway outside the bedrooms. There were weird noises coming from Sokka’s room again. Bedsprings creaking and grunting. Oh no.
Before her heart could dissolve in her stomach, Katara flung the door open. Sokka and Zuko were in a tangle of limbs on Sokka’s bed, very sweaty but...fully clothed. They looked at her and quickly pulled apart, the look of boyish glee that both had quickly fading. The three of them stared at each other in awkward silence.
Sokka finally broke it. “Okay, obviously Zuko and I have become best friends, and now you know.”
Katara laughed a little in relief and at the sheer absurdity of it. They had been wrestling like third graders. Her suspicions dissolved like smoke. “But why did you keep lying to me about it?”
Zuko shrugged. “We just...we just act like kids with each other. We play Wii Sports.” He pointed the plastic controller in his hand at the old TV, which flickered with tiny virtual avatars dancing across the screen. “We send each other bad memes. We go on midnight car rides to do stupid shit at night and talk about the deaths of our mothers.”
“You’re always telling me to grow up and stop acting like a child, Katara,” Sokka said, “and you’re right. But sometimes I need to just be dumb. I just didn’t think you’d understand.”
“No, I do understand.” Katara shook her head. “Sorry if I’ve been overbearing, or motherly, or…”
“It’s okay. I know you’re just trying to take care of me.’
Katara smiled. “Well, don’t let me interrupt your game.” She turned to go, and her phone buzzed. She pulled it out and smirked.
Zuko knew that look all too well after he had worn it for weeks. “Wait, who are you texting?”
“Azula!?” Zuko spluttered.
“Yeah, I can have secret friends too,” Katara smirked. “Talking with her has been very eye-opening, Zuzu .”
Sokka laughed as shock and horror dawned on Zuko’s face.
“Don’t get too comfortable, brother,” Katara said. “Suki’s in our new group chat too.”
“Wait. You haven’t been sending her embarrassing photos of me.”
Katara just smiled, and ran as Zuko and Sokka chased her.