Zuko always had his phone on him. It was as much of a habit as a matter of convenience. The ping of a text message came through and interrupted his music as he rode the train into work. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and saw the notification.
Katara 💙🌙 (8:23am): ughhhh i’m dying
He texted back immediately,
Z (8:23am): what’s wrong?!?!
Z (8:25am): ?!!
Z (8:32am): katara??
Z (8:33am): kat i s2g you’re the worst texter ever
Z (8:36am): you better not be dead. i like you.
Katara never had her phone on her. It was like she would text him and then throw her phone in a ditch. Even if he responded immediately. She was honestly the worst texter ever.
Which made no sense. Because she was the best listener ever. In person, she was attentive and genuine. She was kind. And funny. And confident. And the best friend he had ever had.
And…and…and…not texting him back.
Katara 💙🌙 (8:37am): not dead. just dying
Z (8:38am): are you actually gonna tell me what’s wrong
K (8:39am): sick
Z (8:40am): what kind of sick?
K (8:43am): head hurts. can’t breathe.
Z (8:44am): sounds like a cold.
K (8:45am): 🤧
Z (8:45am): can you call out of work?
K (8:46am): already did
Z (8:46am): take some cold medicine?
K (8:50am): already did 💊
Z (8:51am): go back to bed
K (9:00am): can’t sleep because i can’t breathe
Z (9:01am): use a few drops of eucalyptus essential oil in a hot shower. i can stop by after work to check on you
K (9:01am): i don’t want to get you sick too
Z (9:02am): i’ll be fine 😷 now go get in the shower and then go to sleep
K (9:02am): ur bossy
Z (9:02am): shower. sleep. go.
K (9:26am): 😴
He imagined tucking her into bed. He imagined putting a humidifier on with some of that eucalyptus oil. He imagined putting a box of tissues and a glass of water by her bedside. He imagined the way her hair would fan across the pillow and the way her eyes would flutter closed. He imagined placing a gentle kiss on her forehead as she drifted off to sleep.
How much of that he was allowed to do as her best friend he didn’t know anymore. There was no single lightning-strike moment that made him realize that he was in love with her. The feeling came slowly, weaving its way into his life and settling around him like it was always meant to be there. It never felt intrusive or burdensome. It lived in the way she jumped into his arms every time she saw him. It lived in the warmth of her smile and the ring of her voice. It lived in the tiny moments when her name popped up in his notifications or when she clung to his arm as they walked or when he hid behind her when they watched a scary movie.
But no matter how it had crept up on him, it was a part of him now. He could deny it, ignore it, shove it into a dark closet (and he had tried each of those), but nevertheless it persisted.
The day passed surprisingly quickly. Knowing that Katara was asleep meant that Zuko didn’t check his phone every five minutes. He did, however, keep it on loud, on his desk, right next to him. You know – just in case.
It pinged during lunch. He had just finished eating when her message came through.
Katara 💙🌙 (12:41pm): morning
Z (12:41pm): afternoon
K (12:43pm): time is a construct. i refuse to bend to its will.
Z (12:44pm): feeling philosophical, huh? must be good cold medicine
K (12:45pm): double dose babyyyyyy ✌🏽😁
Z (12:45pm): how are you feeling?
K (12:46pm): a bit better after my nap
Z (12:46pm): glad to hear it. get some fluids.
K (12:55pm): yeesh. okay doc.
Z (12:56pm): i just want you to feel better
K (12:56pm): ty ❤️
Zuko stared at that little red heart longer than he should have. Much, much, much longer than he should have. He stared at it as he walked back to his desk. He stared at it until he convinced himself it was nothing more than pixels on a screen. He stared at it until he reminded himself that she was his best friend and nothing in the world was worth messing that up.
Z (1:16pm): so do you want me to bring anything when i come by? need anything?
K (1:16pm): just some vitamin z
When did tissues stop being just tissues? Why were there at least ten different varieties of tissues? And why did some of them have lotion and aloe and Vick’s vapor rub infused in them? How was that even possible? How do you infuse liquid into tissue? Does that mean that they’re all sticky and drippy when they come out of the box? That’s how they’re supposed to be after you’ve used the tissue, not before.
These were the questions that haunted Zuko as he grumbled in frustration in the tissue aisle of the pharmacy. He grabbed one box of regular and one box of bourgeoisie tissues and added them to his growing sickie-care-basket.
When he got to her apartment, he knocked to announce his arrival but didn’t bother to wait for her to let him in. They’d long since foregone such formalities.
Zuko kicked off his shoes and made his way down the hall to her bedroom, flicking on a few lights as he went.
“Katara?” he asked the mound of blankets on her bed.
“Mmmmmph,” the pile of blankets responded. The pile moved slightly and made a distinct sniffling sound.
“Are you alive under there?”
Katara’s head popped out at the foot of her bed. That was not where he had been expecting her, but he crouched down to the floor to be eye-level with her.
“Whatcha doing down here?” he asked, laughing lightly.
“Not sure,” she answered, looking around as if genuinely perplexed by her current position. “I texted you, took some more meds, fell asleep and now I’m down here and you’re here.” She looked up at him with glassy eyes. “Hi.”
“Help me up.” She offered up her hand and Zuko took it, pulling her to stand. Katara swayed a little on her feet, pitching forward slightly toward him. Zuko reflexively caught her and wrapped a hand around her waist to steady her.
“I’m fine,” she said. “Just a little dizzy.”
“Probably because you haven’t had anything to eat or drink all day.”
“Yeah, oopsies,” he sassed. “Let’s get you back in bed and I’ll heat you up some soup.”
Katara protested weakly. “I’ve been in bed all day. At least let me go sit on the couch.”
“Deal,” he said, grabbing a blanket from the bed and wrapping it around her shoulders. Even like this – hair frizzy and untamed, nose red from irritation, wearing nothing but raggedy pajamas, and a blanket clutched around her shoulders like a cape – she was beautiful.
Zuko set the soup to heat on the stove while Katara settled herself on the sofa. She poked in the plastic bag from the pharmacy.
“What didja bring me?”
“There’s a Gatorade in there. I figured you’d be dehydrated. Because I figured you wouldn’t listen to me.”
“Oooh,” she said happily, ignoring his last sentence. “Light blue! My favorite.”
“Your favorite,” he agreed, sitting beside her.
“And tissues.” She pulled both boxes out. “Why two boxes?”
“Apparently, they make these fancy tissues now. They’re supposed to be soothing on your nose. But I didn’t know if you’d like that. So, I got both.”
Katara chuckled as she opened the box and took out one of the aloe-lotion-Vicks vapor rub $5.99/box tissues. Ah, so they weren’t wet or sticky. Actually, they were kind of soft. That was kind of nice. Zuko was suddenly grateful to the inventors of fancy tissues as he watched Katara get up to blow her nose and wash her hands. When she came back her nose was the tiniest bit less red.
“You’re sweet,” she said, cuddling up to him as she reclaimed her spot on the couch. “You know that?”
It wasn’t like they didn’t touch. It wasn’t like he hadn’t hugged her a thousand times or spent a hundred nights on this very couch with her head against his chest as they watched a movie. It wasn’t like this was any different than any other day, he reminded himself.
“I thought I was bossy,” he quipped, in an attempt to disguise the fact that he was melting beside her.
“You are. But bossy in the ‘I’m trying to take care of you’ kind of way.”
“Someone has to.”
“Well,” she said, leaning against him, “I’m glad it’s you.”
The sound of bubbling liquid interrupted their peace and Zuko disappeared briefly into the kitchen.
“Here.” He handed the soup and the Gatorade to her. “Want to watch something?”
Katara nodded and he turned on the first thing in her Netflix “Continue watching.” Zuko laughed as he clicked on it and the opening title flashed across the screen and blared through the speakers.
“A cartoon, Katara? Aren’t we a little old for that?”
Katara rolled her eyes and mumbled, “It’s got some really dark themes.”
Zuko tried to keep his eyes forward and pretended not to notice the way Katara drew her blanket over her head like a hood or how cute she looked like that. He had almost convinced himself to focus on the plotline of the show when a rhythmic tapping sound caught his attention. He looked over to the blanket-creature that was Katara and saw her shaking.
“Kat,” he asked, scooting over to her, “are your teeth chattering?”
“’M’cold.” She gravitated toward him.
“I’ll get you another blanket.”
“No, dummy. Stay. You’re warm.”
He shifted slightly, trying to give her enough space to be comfortable. But every inch that he pulled away, she followed. “Am I just a space heater to you?”
“Not just that. But it’s a perk.”
Zuko bit his tongue before incriminating words like “what else?” or “can I be more?” could bubble out.
He had no idea where that line between them was. Or where it was supposed to be. He didn’t even know which side of it he was standing on at the moment. All he knew was that in his own mind, there was no line. In his mind they were exactly as they were in reality – just two people who enjoyed each other’s company. The Katara who lived in his mind was the exact same as the real Katara – that Katara even teased him like the real one did. The Katara in his mind did everything that the real Katara did – she was free with her words and freer with her touches. She was unafraid to call him out when she thought he deserved it and in the next moment lay her head in his lap and demand that he play with her hair. The difference – the only difference – was that the Katara who lived in his head loved him.
He cleared his throat and shoved the thoughts away. Katara was here, now, in his arms, and that was enough.
After not too long, her breathing evened out, punctuated by occasional sniffles and coughs. She sounded miserable. He glanced over at the clock – 9pm – time for some more medicine. Zuko gathered her in his arms and lifted her to carry her back to bed. She groaned at the jostling and her eyes fluttered open. They locked eyes for a moment and Zuko was about to apologize when she wrapped her arms around his neck and nuzzled into his shoulder. The words died on his tongue and he carried her down the hall in silence.
When he set her down on the bed, her hands lingered a moment before she disentangled herself from him. He felt her eyes on him as he turned to retrieve the medicine.
When he came back to her, he presented her with a few pills – some NyQuil to help with her congestion and some zinc supplements.
Katara plucked the green pills from his hand and swallowed them with a mouthful of water. She pointed to what remained. “What’s that?”
She looked at him, confused.
“Zinc?” he said, again. “To help fight the cold?” When her look of confusion didn’t dissipate, he added, “You asked for vitamin Z.”
Katara fell back and threw a pillow across her face. A muffled moan came from below that sounded a lot like his name.
“Kat?” Zuko plucked the pillow from her.
She surged up and then she was only inches away. Her face was flushed, not with fever, but frustration.
Zuko froze physically and mentally, pinned in place by the intensity of her glare. Maybe he shouldn’t have carried her to bed. Maybe he should go? Maybe he should apologize? But for what he didn’t know. He searched her face, looking for the answer or at least some indication of what she wanted from him.
The moment devolved into a stalemate – who would speak first? Who would break first?
And break she did. She broke into a fit of laughter that devolved into a coughing spell.
“You’re not—” she said between coughs, “—this dumb, Zuko.”
“Yes I am.”
Katara shook her head sadly. She was still close – so close – to him.
“When have you ever known zinc to do anything for a cold?”
“Well, the research is mixed,” he answered in earnest. “Older studies suggested that it could reduce duration of symptoms, but more recent meta-analyses—”
“Zuko,” she sighed, and he stopped short. She sagged forward and the space between them was gone. She laid her forehead against his shoulder and spoke quietly, “Zuko, who’s the first person I text when I need something?”
He had a feeling this question was rhetorical. But he wasn’t sure. He tried, “Suki?”
She sighed again. Okay, so it was rhetorical then. He should shut up.
“Who do I spend every Friday night with?”
Netflix and a bottle of wine. Most of the time Zuko was there too.
“What’s the first thing I want when I get home after a long day?”
Ooh! He knew this one!
“Ice cream,” he said.
Katara huffed a laugh. “Alright. I can’t fault you for that one.” She lifted her head from his shoulder and pulled back to look him in the eyes.
“Who’s the only person I want to see when I’m sick?” she said softly.
“Me?” he guessed, a lump of hopeful anxiety forming in his throat.
“You,” she whispered. Her gaze dropped to his lips and she leaned forward. Closer, closer, so close.
Zuko sucked in a breath in anticipation and Katara stopped suddenly.
“If I weren’t sick…”
Zuko thought he had heard every intonation of Katara’s voice — anger, fear, joy, astonishment, love, and loss — they’d experienced them all together because although the years between them were many, they were not all rosy. They’d held each other through heartbreak and happiness alike.
He thought he had every lift and lilt of her musical voice committed to memory. But these words made of longing, this tone built on hushed hope — this was something he’d never known before.
“You’d do this?” He cupped her face with both hands and pressed his lips softly to hers. He kissed her tenderly and told her the story of how he loved her. She responded in kind, fisting her hands in his shirt and dragging him back when he threatened to pull away. She kissed him feverishly and told him the story of how she’d been waiting for him.
When she eventually let him go, they were both breathless.
“You,” she panted, “have no idea how long I have been waiting for that.”
“You’re right,” he admitted. There was never a point in lying to Katara. She’d have him pinned within a second. “I had no idea.”
“You didn’t notice all the flirting?”
“You’ve been flirting with me?”
Katara smacked a hand to her forehead. “Have been for a year now. Thanks for noticing.”
“Oops?” Zuko offered, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear.
“Yeah oops,” she said, leaning into the warmth of his touch. She shivered lightly but tried to hide it.
Zuko didn’t miss it. He tsked. “Let’s get you to bed, sickie.”
“No, wait. Don’t go yet. I feel better,” she said all in one breath. “I think the vitamin Z is helping.”
Zuko chuckled. “Oh, is it?”
“Yes. Give me more."