DISCLAIMER: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender.
CHAPTER 30: Flu Season, Part 1
Zuko looks up from the cash register to see Sokka waving at him as he saunters into the tea shop and towards the counter.
"Your uncle's taste is impeccable," comments Sokka, giving the jewel-eyed monkey on the counter a friendly pat on the head. Zuko rolls his eyes at him.
"You only think that 'cause you both have horrible taste," he says, to which Sokka pouts and turns up his nose.
"My taste is refined," he insists. "Some people just don't have class."
"Says the guy who wanted to wear a cummerbund with a double-breasted jacket," mutters Zuko, sorting out some bills into the register.
"I've never worn a tux before!" exclaims Sokka, throwing his hands up. "I thought it was a mix and match thing, like with suits!"
"Suits aren't 'mix and match things' either," Zuko replies, plastering a hand to his forehead tiredly. "Why are you here, anyway?"
"Oh, right!" Sokka snaps his fingers and reaches across the counter excitedly, clapping Zuko on the shoulder. "I came by to let you know— Katara's birthday's coming up!"
"Yeah, I know," Zuko says, shrugging away Sokka's hand. "You came all the way here to tell me that?"
Sokka raises his hands appeasingly.
"Hey, I didn't know that you already knew, dude," he says. "And, well— I can't get your uncle's tea cakes outta my head. It's been months, man, but they've got this hold on me that I just can't shake!"
"Don't let Suki hear you say that," quips Zuko, writing up his order. Sokka dismisses him with a wave.
"Oh, Suki is awesome enough to approve of my love affair with food," he says, before leaning his forearms on the counter and grinning at Zuko. "So, what're you planning to get my lil sister for her birthday?"
Zuko taps his pen against his notepad anxiously.
"I don't really know. I'm not much for gift-giving."
"Oh, sure," scoffs Sokka with an exaggerated roll of his eyes. "So that whole ocean kumquat and fairytale book thing was, what, a business proposal?"
Zuko scowls at the other guy.
"She already said she's busy, anyway," he tells Sokka. "She's having Suki's bachelorette party the night before."
"Oh, hey, we gotta plan my bachelor party, man!" Sokka exclaims excitedly, before stopping himself with a cough and pointing a finger at Zuko. "But first things first, you gotta tell me if you're planning anything for Katara, 'cause so far, you're bombing this romance thing, dude!"
Zuko frowns at him and crosses his arms.
"I don't think I'm bombing anything," says Zuko. "What even gave you that idea?"
"Uh, let's see… aside from the fact that you're still not together?" cries Sokka, his voice rising and cracking. "You gotta up your game, buddy boy!"
"I—" Zuko glances around for his uncle and finds him sufficiently distracted by other customers. He clears his throat and lowers his voice. "Isn't it— isn't it enough that I'm not forcing her to make a decision right away?"
"Sure, sure, that's sweet and all, but Zuko, my man, if you keep this pace up, she'll end up forgetting you even said anything and you'll end up in the friendzone forever!" exclaims Sokka, flailing his arms at him.
Zuko just pins him with a deadpan stare.
"Do you really think your sister is the kind of person who could just forget something like that?" He asks flatly. Sokka scowls back at him.
"Your sense of urgency is very inspiring," he quips just as dryly. Zuko groans and leads him to an empty table.
"Look," he says agitatedly as soon as Sokka sits down, "I just— I just don't want to pressure her into anything, okay? I didn't even expect anything to come out of my confession in the first place! And I'm trying really hard to be fine with it if this leads nowhere— I just want her to be happy, okay? So just— just—"
"Okay! Okay. Breathe," Sokka says soothingly, splaying his hands. "If that's what you really wanna do, I won't push ya. But at least tell me you're getting her a gift or something, 'cause all of us are doing that and we're dropping them off on the weekend after her birthday. No exceptions."
Zuko scrubs a hand down his face resignedly.
"Alright. I'll figure something out," he grumbles. "I'm gonna go get your order."
"Thanks, bud!" Sokka calls out after him. "You're the best!"
"So... your dad's bringing his girlfriend," Suki starts hesitantly, peering over the piles of envelopes that crowded Katara's kitchen table. Katara hums noncommittally while taking a sip of her black tea.
"You can seat them wherever you want," Katara mutters, a little sullenly, as she pores over the incomplete seating chart. Suki looks at her in concern.
"It's been years, hon. You two are still not getting along?"
"As long as Dad's happy, I'm happy," she says with little conviction. "I just don't want to see them all over each other, that's all."
Suki drags her chair closer to the seating chart.
"Want me to sit Hakoda at the main table and just place Malina somewhere near the kitchen doors?" she asks flippantly. Katara laughs at that.
"Thanks, Suki, but no," she replies. "I know that Dad adores you, but maybe you shouldn't rock the boat too much. Besides, this is your wedding. Don't let my issues with Malina get in the way of that."
"Alright," Suki says, unconvinced, while she tucks her short hair behind her ear and pencils in Hakoda and Malina on the chart. "Still, how far away from Malina do you have to be?"
"Mmm, I think I'll just be at the bar the whole time," jokes Katara, finishing her tea and standing up. She looks over Suki's shoulder and points at a spot about two tables away from her father's girlfriend. "There, that shouldn't be a problem for me."
"You wanna be seated next to Chan and his bimbo?" asks Suki incredulously.
"I didn't read the surrounding seats," Katara groans and sets her mug on the counter. "Why did you have to agree with Sokka when he said you two should sit at a separate table?"
"Because it's my special day, and I wanna feel like a queen," Suki says, grinning impishly. "People lining up to wish me well and give me presents while I sit and eat? That's the dream."
"You scare me sometimes," chuckles Katara. She peers at the seating chart over Suki's shoulder and sighs and throws her hands up. "Okay, fine, you can put me in with the other bridesmaids, even if it's just one table away."
"Finally," says Suki, rolling her eyes playfully. "Alright, I think we're pretty much done. All the last minute RSVPs can just sit together in the back."
"What about the rooming situation?" asks Katara, flipping her binder to another page. "Remember, Sokka and Aang have to camp out and catch some fish. It's a Southern Water Tribe tradition."
"As long as Sokka's at the end of the aisle and doesn't smell like a can of worms, I'm fine with it," declares Suki. "Although, Aang was supposed to room with Zuko…"
"Ruon Jian has no roommate," Katara points out, sliding the binder across the table.
Suki frowns disgustedly.
"That's because Sokka said Ruon Jian has the tendency to hook up with just about anyone when he's drunk," she says, before turning mischievously to Katara. "Are you sure you don't want to room with Zuko?"
"Suki!" Katara flicks her arm and Suki giggles.
"Oh, c'mon, I'm kidding!" laughs Suki. "Well, mostly."
"Why are you all so impatient about me and Zuko getting together?" whines Katara.
"Uh, probably because none of us see the point in dragging something out that's totally meant to be?" counters Suki pointedly.
"Nothing is 'totally meant to be,'" replies Katara with a pout, crossing her arms over her chest. "Aang thought we were meant to be. I thought Jet and I were meant to be. Besides, what's wrong with having doubts at first? Hell, I remember when you were having doubts about Sokka because you thought he was still hung up on Yue!"
"Okay, touché," concedes Suki. "But, to be fair, it's not everyday you find a cute guy who apparently had a fairytale romance with an almost-princess who died of cancer."
"Sorry, Suki," murmurs Katara. Suki shrugs and sets down her pencil.
"It's okay," she says, smiling a tad sadly. She rests her chin on her hand and looks at Katara pensively. "But you know what? Sokka makes me happier than I ever thought was possible. He drives me insane sometimes, sure, but there's no one I'd rather be with at the end of the day. All I'm saying is, if you feel just a tiny bit of that with Zuko, it wouldn't hurt to give it a chance."
Katara twirls her pencil in her hands.
"I do feel that sometimes," she admits quietly. "Even when I was mad at him about the whole First Sozin thing, I still missed him, Suki. And that's the confusing part. What if we fight about something that huge again? I don't want to give up my principles just because I want him around!"
"And you totally shouldn't!" exclaims Suki emphatically. "I told Sokka off a hundred times about how cooking and doing housework aren't 'female' jobs when we started living together. Sure, he still complains a lot about doing the laundry even after all these years, but he's trying. It's all just about being open and honest with each other."
"I guess I just can't believe Zuko's actually in love with me," mutters Katara, tapping her pencil against her binder. "It was so sudden, and even if it's been weeks since he told me, I still can't quite wrap my head around it— like maybe my mind made it up somehow, I dunno. I mean, how long has this been going on? And why didn't I see it coming?"
"To be honest, I don't think he knows when it started," answers Suki with a shrug. "Sokka and I had a hunch that he liked you when he was trying so hard to win you back, but Sokka said you two were already giving him 'oogies' back when you were in Ember Island."
"We— we had a moment," says Katara, twisting a lock of her hair around her pencil uncertainly. She shrugs. "Okay, it was more than one moment. Then I threw all the stuff he confided in me at his face because I was mad at him. I really don't understand how he could still like me after that."
"Love doesn't make sense, Katara," replies Suki. "Maybe that's what's stopping you, you know. You think too much when it comes to dating. It's what stopped you from breaking up with Aang earlier than you did because you kept trying to convince yourself that you two were perfect on paper."
"That… that's probably true," agrees Katara, slumping her head down on her binder. "Ugh. What if I waited too long and now he's not interested anymore? Zuko doesn't strike me as a very patient guy."
"You'll never know unless you tell him, sweetie," says Suki matter-of-factly. "C'mon, it's not like it's the first time you told a guy you love him."
"But I don't know how to deal with this situation, Suki!" cried Katara, her voice rising in panic. "Aang just kissed me after he told me he loved me and started telling everyone we were dating— I said yes the minute Jet asked me out 'cause I had such a huge crush on him—"
"Just do what feels right," interrupts Suki, taking away the pencil that Katara was wielding around in her panic. "How 'bout this. The next time you see Zuko, try to feel out the situation. If it seems like the right time, tell him. Just make sure the poor guy won't pass out from shock."
"I can do that," exhales Katara, nodding determinedly. "Yeah. I can just— just go up to him and say— uh— um…"
"'Hey, Zuko, just so you know, I think I might be in love with you too, so if you don't mind, do you wanna get together?'" suggests Suki, smirking.
"Something like that, yeah," says Katara. She takes a deep breath and drums her fingers on her binder anxiously. "Can we talk about something else, please? All my conversations recently seem to circle back to Zuko."
"Okay, fine. And, just to finish things up, we can temporarily room Zuko and Ruon Jian together," Suki says, waving her hands dismissively. "So, what are you planning for your birthday?"
Katara lights up and clasps Suki's hands in her own.
"Oh, I was just gonna tell you! I want to have a birthday dinner here the night before my birthday!" She exclaims. "Could you come?"
"Oh, honey, I wouldn't miss it for the world!" Suki leans forward and hugs her, narrowly missing the pile of envelopes. "Why don't you want to do it on the day of your birthday?"
"Yeah, well, I'm only free the day before, and my birthday's on a school night," explains Katara breezily. "That way, I can welcome my birthday with you guys and I won't be tired and cranky during the celebration."
"You really think of everything," comments Suki. "Oh, I can't wait!"
"Me, too!" grins Katara.
"How 'bout a binder?" asks Zuko, tiredly massaging his temples. Sokka frowns at him, forcefully swallows a mouthful of Iroh's tea cakes, and wipes the crumbs away from his lips with the back of his hand.
"What a lovely, romantic gift," he quips dryly.
"Look, I'm trying, okay?" bursts out Zuko, leaning back on the cushions. "I told you I'm not one for gift-giving!"
"And man, you weren't kidding," sighs Sokka. He scratches at his undercut and looks around the empty tea shop. "What if you write her a poem? Poems are romantic as hell."
"Ugh, no. No way," groans Zuko. He pinches the bridge of his nose tiredly. "Can't we do this tomorrow? I gotta close up the shop."
"Fine, fine," Sokka waves at him with a roll of his eyes. "But you gotta have at least three suggestions that aren't office supplies."
"Yeah, okay," replies Zuko, pushing off the low couch and gathering up Sokka's used plates. Sokka yawns hugely and stretches as he stands up.
"Gotta get going, too," he says, heading for the door. "It's my turn to cook dinner tonight."
"Give Suki my condolences, then," responds Zuko. Sokka scowls and sticks his tongue out mockingly at him before exiting the shop.
Zuko sighs and balances the dirty plates on top of each other before ducking into the back room. He stops in his tracks when he sees his uncle sitting at the kitchen table.
"Uncle, I thought you already went to bed," chides Zuko, dumping the plates into the sink. "It's late. I already said I'd close up— it's no problem."
Iroh looks at him strangely before waving him over. Zuko dries his hands and sees that his uncle was reading the newspaper.
"There's something you should see, nephew," Iroh says gently, before pointing to a small article in the corner of the Overseas/Business section. He furrows his brows in confusion at his uncle before taking the paper and sitting down.
His breath stills as he reads the headline.
Advocacy group calls for First Sozin Dev't shutdown
CALDERA CITY— Human rights advocacy group Avatar Organization filed charges against real estate mogul Ozai and his company, First Sozin Development Corporation (FSDC), following reports of alleged violations of employees' rights in the workplace.
"The evidence is staggering, and several employees report all sorts of transgressions, from unpaid compensable time to minimum wage violations and workplace discrimination," said Avatar Organization spokesperson Aang. "Our findings showed that whistleblowers were threatened, blackmailed, or demoted."
FSDC has several international headquarters, including one in Central Omashu in the Earth Kingdom. In a press release, Avatar Organization reported that the alleged maltreatment of employees happened across the board.
The Fire Nation Labor Department had conducted an investigation into the company's operations three years prior, after an FSDC project in the North Pole earned the ire of residents and environmental rights groups. In a statement, FSDC said it had since halted the project and "dealt with pertinent issues internally."
FSDC representatives have yet to comment on the allegations as of writing.
Zuko looks up from the paper and gapes at his uncle. Iroh looks back at him with a guarded expression.
"What does this mean?" asks Zuko, his head spinning.
"It seems your father is… facing the consequences of his misdeeds," Iroh says carefully. "As he should, nephew."
"That's— I don't know what to think of this, Uncle!" cries Zuko, gesturing wildly with the newspaper in hand. "Why now? After all these years— did he— did he— what did he do this time?"
"I'm afraid I don't have the answer to that, Zuko," sighs Iroh, resting his clasped hands on the table. "But I'm sure you'd agree, it was long due."
"I don't understand," Zuko continues, hardly hearing his uncle's words. "They want to close down the company? Thousands of people will lose their jobs!"
"I'm sure the Labor Department will take care of those who will be affected," replies Iroh in a soothing voice. "You know as well as I do how the company operates under Ozai, Zuko. This is a welcome development."
"What's gonna happen next?" asks Zuko, a hint of desperation in his voice. "This is worse than the Spirit Oasis project, Uncle! What do I— do I call Mai and the others? What's the process for this? Can we still stop it?"
"I think it bears remembering, nephew," says Iroh in a firm voice, reaching out and placing a hand over Zuko's trembling fist, "That you are not the same man that you used to be."
Zuko takes a deep, shuddering breath. He nods shakily and hands the newspaper to his uncle.
"I know. Believe me, Uncle, I know that. It's just— I know I shouldn't care about the company anymore, Uncle, but— but I do care about the people there," he replies.
He remembers all the late night hours he spent with his team, all the times he woke up without Mai on the other side of the bed because she had fallen asleep at the office drafting one contract after another, all the nameless faces who had greeted him as he went about his day. He swallows thickly.
"Some of them worked really hard for their jobs, Uncle. Their families will suffer if this pushes through. You know that."
"I do, but I'm afraid there's nothing you and I can do, Zuko," Iroh replies gently. "I perfectly understand the need you feel to protect them, nephew, but something of this magnitude is out of our grasp. Yes, I admit I had been harsh as a leader when I was in your father's position, but I stuck to our code of conduct as closely as possible. I have made my fair share of grave mistakes, of course, but I fear the situation has worsened since Ozai's management."
"Wait! The spokesperson," Zuko says suddenly, standing up and pointing agitatedly at the paper. "If it's the same Aang— I know him. Do you think I could convince him to— to withdraw the charges?"
"The case has already been filed, nephew," Iroh says, standing up as well and placing his hands on Zuko's shoulders. "Now, why would you even want to do that?"
"I don't know!" exclaims Zuko, twisting away from his uncle and grasping at his hair. "I know what he did— I know how— how horrible he is, Uncle, but he's still my father! I can't just let him rot in jail! What am I— What am I supposed to do?"
"Zuko. You are stronger and wiser and freer than you have ever been," Iroh says, looking him squarely in the eye. "I ask you— look inside your heart. Do you still feel the need to validate yourself with the approval of a man who has caused you nothing but pain your whole life?"
Zuko swallows, his breath coming in sharp gasps. He slams his back against the wall and presses the heels of his hands hard against his eyes.
"I don't know, Uncle," he mutters, barely hearing himself over the rushing sound in his ears. "I don't know— I don't know what to think anymore. I don't know— I don't— I just don't know anything anymore! It's like I can't win with anything— I thought I was done with him but he keeps coming back—"
Iroh places a comforting hand on his head, and it takes Zuko a few moments to realize that he had crouched into a tight ball on the floor. Iroh eases him away from the wall and rubs his back soothingly.
"I'm sorry I showed you the article, nephew," he murmurs. "I did not know it would cause you this much pain."
"I— I had to know," Zuko chokes out, his breath still getting in the way of his words. "I just— I just didn't— didn't know it would be— this bad."
"Whatever Ozai does is no longer your concern, my son," says Iroh, and Zuko clenches his jaw as tears smart at the corner of his eyes. "He made his choices, and you have made yours. You owe him absolutely nothing, Zuko."
"I guess," mutters Zuko reluctantly, leaning back against the wall with a tired sigh. He swallows against the lump in his throat. "I think— I think it's best if— if I— if I just went home, Uncle."
"Alright," agrees Iroh, clambering to his feet and offering Zuko a hand up. Zuko ignores the gesture and pushes off the wall on his own.
He doesn't sleep that night.
The next day, Zuko finds himself unable and unwilling to leave his bed. He'd ignored all of Toph's insistent knocks and threats to break down his door. He'd turned off his phone after leaving his uncle a message that he wouldn't be able to come into work. And so far, he's been pretty successful in convincing himself that he doesn't need to eat.
He doesn't have the appetite, anyway. He's pretty certain he won't have much appetite for anything for the next few days.
So he lies in bed, his arm flung over his eyes, and recalls the article in morbid clarity.
He still cannot decide what to feel.
On one hand, he knows he shouldn't care about what his father is facing. Ozai had made his bed and he has to lie in it now. Logically, Zuko understands that the charges are long due.
Hell, his father should have faced the repercussions of his cruelty long before this.
He shuts his eyes tightly at the memories of seemingly pointless custody battles of his youth— the way his father's lawyer convinced everyone that separating them from their mother was crucial for their growth; the broken, desperate look in his mother's eyes when she was told she couldn't see him or Azula until they were of legal age; the court's disregard for the bruises blooming under her skin, simply because Ozai had coerced her into pleading psychological incapacity to take care of her own children.
But, on the other hand…
Closing down the company seems a little too extreme. Zuko knows firsthand how many mouths they feed; yes, the work benefits and legal compensations were subpar, nearly nonexistent, and he'd turned a blind eye to the situation when he was working there, but at least their workers and their families could lead decent lives with their paychecks. Sure, the Labor Department would take care of them after they're let off, just as Iroh said. And yes, they would perhaps be better off in other companies instead of one that blatantly bends the rules and skirts the law.
Truthfully, Zuko doesn't know why he's defending First Sozin to himself.
"Go away, Toph," he grumbles, turning to his side listlessly and covering his head with his pillow in case his roommate decides to ram through the door again.
"It's not Toph," Katara's voice calls out softly.
"Hey, are you still alive in there?" she continues, the mischief in her voice not quite masking the concern.
Zuko doesn't know what to do with that concern. Not yet. Not when he's like this and he can't fully explain anything to her because this hits too close to home and he can't keep relying on her to untangle the ungodly mess on his mind right now because there's no way she'd stick around someone as heavy and as complicated as him—
He wakes up, disoriented, still curled up on his side into a tight ball. He blinks. Of course. He's not surprised that he seemingly fell asleep in the middle of his indecisiveness— it isn't the first time that his body decided to shut down when things became too difficult.
He reaches out, muscles protesting, and pulls back the curtains slightly, trying to figure out how much time had passed.
It is dark and quiet outside. Zuko's stomach grumbles, disrupting the stillness. He flops back onto his bed and deliberates sleeping off the hunger.
His stomach growls louder in response.
Huffing in frustration, he listens at the door for any sign that Toph might be awake. When he decides that the coast is clear, he opens the door as silently as possible.
He finds Katara sitting on the couch, surrounded by stacks of papers, her shoes kicked off and her legs curled up underneath her.
"You're still here," he remarks, voice hoarse from disuse.
She jumps and cranes her neck around. She smiles at him, clearly relieved. Zuko averts his eyes.
"Took you long enough to answer the door," jokes Katara.
Zuko just shrugs, still looking at his bare feet. He vainly hopes he doesn't look as miserable as he feels, but he supposes that is a moot point now, since Katara clearly knows how long he's been holed up in his room.
"Toph told me you were sick, so I brought over some food— just, you know, to sort of… return the favor. From before," continues Katara haltingly. Zuko finally gathers the courage to meet her eyes.
"You didn't have to," he says, but Katara looks back at him with that stubborn tilt to her jaw. He sighs. "I'm not sick, anyway."
She gives him a once-over and he resists the urge to scowl and cross his arms over his chest.
"Well, either way, I know how long you haven't eaten, so you're not getting out of this," she tells him obstinately, shuffling the stacks of papers together and setting them down on the coffee table. She makes her way to the kitchen, but Zuko remains rooted on the spot, unsure of what to do.
"I didn't know what kind of comfort food you wanted, so I had to go to Iroh," she continues, even though he hasn't followed her yet. "I hope I got it right. There were a lot more spices than I'm used to."
He could hear her puttering about, setting down utensils and whatnot, and against his better judgement, he makes his way to the kitchen. He feels a strange weight in his chest when he sees the food Katara laid out.
"Komodo chicken," he murmurs, approaching the counter. "I used to bring that dish to him, after… after Lu Ten died. We'd eat it together and we'd tell each other stories of our family vacations on Ember Island."
Katara glances up at him, eyes filled with emotions he couldn't read. He looks away.
"They're right," he says out loud, not knowing whether it is to himself or to Katara, "My father has to be stopped."
"Zuko?" Katara appears in his line of sight, small hands reaching for his own. "What do you mean?"
He holds onto her hands tightly and shakes his head, not knowing what else to do.
"It's okay," whispers Katara. "You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to."
There's a lump in his throat again, making it very difficult to speak, so he just nods and moves away to sit down on a kitchen stool.
She clears her throat and reaches for the container of komodo chicken.
"I'm just gonna go heat this up, okay?" She tells him softly, before carding her hands lightly through his mussed hair. "I'll be right back. Don't sneak off to your room to hide again."
He nods listlessly, burying his face in his arms. The cold stone of the kitchen counter feels nice against his unwashed face, and he is able to calm himself enough to push himself up and watch Katara move over the stove.
Maybe it was because he is exhausted beyond belief, or maybe the smell of komodo chicken sizzling in a pan triggered something incredibly vulnerable in him, or maybe it was simply the sheer image of her here, he doesn't know, but Zuko finds himself walking up behind her and wrapping his arms around her middle. He buries his face in her hair and closes his eyes tightly.
She stills for a moment, too short for him to formulate any regret over his actions, before she places one hand over both of his and leans back against his chest.
He doesn't know how long they stand like that, but it was long enough for his thoughts to quiet and his knotted shoulders to relax. He pulls away and wipes his eyes, knowing there are some tears there.
"The chicken might burn," he croaks out, stepping out of Katara's way and handing her a plate. She smiles at him with that soft smile that never fails to stir his insides and scoops the food onto the plate.
They have their meal in relative silence, punctuated only by Katara's complaints that the dish is too spicy and Zuko's assertion that it is better to have a too spicy dish than a too salty one, like her favorite sea prunes.
By the time they are cleaning up, Zuko feels almost back to normal.
"Are you ready to talk about it now?" asks Katara half-teasingly. Zuko considers it for a moment before answering.
"What charity does Aang work with?" He asks in turn. Katara seems surprised at the question, but she replies anyway.
"Well, it's not technically a charity. It's an advocacy group called Avatar Organization," she answers, stowing the last of the plates in the dishwasher. She leans against the counter and peers at Zuko curiously. "What's that got to do with anything?"
He sighs and leans against the counter beside her, their arms close enough to almost touch.
"They wanna shut down First Sozin," he says simply, almost emotionlessly. "Something about violating workers' rights."
Katara grabs his hand, an action so quick that he is pretty sure it is borne out of instinct, and she whirls on him, her eyes wide.
"Oh, Zuko, that's—" she stops herself, and he could clearly see the conflicting emotions on her face. "How— how do you feel about it?"
"I don't know, honestly. But the part that agrees with my uncle is winning," he tells her frankly. "What Aang said in the article is just the tip of the shitty iceberg."
"Oh, so that's what Aang was working on," mutters Katara to herself. She shakes her head as though to clear it, and turns back to Zuko. "You know that what your father did was wrong, right? To your sister, your uncle— to you."
"I know," he assures her, his free hand automatically reaching for his scar. "I've been torturing myself thinking about it since yesterday, but it didn't really stick until I remembered Lu Ten. The people working for First Sozin have the chance to— to not end up like him. And that's what's important."
Katara cups his face in her hands, trapping his own underneath hers, and gazes at him searchingly, a spark of determination lighting up her blue, blue eyes. Zuko finds himself barely able to breathe.
"I just— I want you to know— I think I'm—"
She suddenly lets him go and turns away— then she sneezes so violently that Zuko is sure people next door heard her.
He stifles a laugh and Katara glares at him before covering her face with her hands and sneezing again.
"Don't get snot on me," warns Zuko jokingly, reaching for tissues in a supply cabinet overhead. Katara laughs weakly and accepts the box.
"I won't if you stop teasing me," she responds, then mutters to herself, "Ugh. This is just great timing."
"What were you—"
"It was nothing," she replies too quickly, waving her hands around frantically. "In fact, I've already forgotten what I was saying!"
Zuko looks her over suspiciously, but she just hurries back to the living room and starts stuffing her papers into her bag, rambling about getting up early and finishing three papers for grad school.
She hesitates slightly before standing on her tiptoes and kissing him briefly on the cheek before leaving him dumbfounded and alone in his apartment.
A/N: There's roughly another 5k-word chapter following this one, because it has gotten TOO LONG! I kept adding and adding more stuff in until it just ran away from me. This seemed like the best place to chop it up, sooo… How was this chapter? Tell me what you guys think!