DISCLAIMER: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender.
CHAPTER 31: Flu Season, Part 2
"Katara, this is amazing!" Suki yells, adjusting the paper crown on her head and crushing her empty beer can with one fist. "I never doubted your abilities, but man, this party! I can't thank you enough!"
"It's really no big deal," Katara smiles weakly, clutching her unopened beer tightly with one hand as she tries to get on the other girls' levels of enthusiasm over the bachelorette party while still remaining far enough away from them all. "I'm glad everyone's having fun."
"Hell yeah, we are!" interjects Jia, stumbling over to the makeshift drinks table in Katara's living room. "I gotta say, I've never had that many cock-like things in my mouth! Makes me wonder how many of the actual things I could handle in one go!"
"Well said, Giggles!" Toph calls out from one corner of the room, raising her beer can in a toast.
"I still think Koko cheated in the licking contest," complains Suki good-naturedly to Katara, gesturing at one of the girls from her squad. "You sure she didn't bite hers?"
"Hey, I captured the whole thing on my phone," retorts Ling, another college friend of Suki's. "Told you I'm gonna be a great judge. I got receipts, girl."
Katara slowly eases her way out of the group, settling down with a huge sigh on the edge of her couch. Her joints creak and her muscles ache from the effort, and she groans and covers her eyes with the cool metal of her beer can.
I can't believe I got the flu now.
She still hasn't told anyone about her botched almost-confession. It still feels too embarrassing to even think about. So, while she fights off this flu, Katara resigns herself to self-isolation as she regroups and formulates a way to tell Zuko how she feels.
She leans back against the cushions with a soft groan.
"You okay over there?" asks Koko from the other end of the couch, leaning over so she could be heard over the music. Katara tries to inconspicuously sidle away.
"Oh, I'm good," she lies with a laugh, "Just tired."
"Bit of a lightweight, huh?" the other girl comments with a smirk. Any other time, Katara would have been offended, but she is just too exhausted to contradict Koko.
"Everyone, I'd like to propose a toast!" calls Suki, tapping her beer can with her nail. "I love all so, so much, and I'd like to thank all of you for coming to this party and, in less than a month, to my wedding! You're the best friends a girl could ask for, and I hope all of you will be as happy as I am, in love and in life! Cheers!"
Exclamations of agreement follow her words, and she grins and holds up her beer once more.
"And, special mention to my amazing maid of honor and soon-to-be sister-in-law, Katara! Since you chose to give up your birthday celebration for little ol' me, let's at least spend this last round of drinks celebrating you! To Katara!"
Katara grins and waves away the hoots of appreciation from the girls, blushing.
"I'll be happier if you all just continue having fun, you guys!" she tells them, but Ty Lee enthusiastically drags her up from the couch and twirls her around.
Cold sweat forms on her brow and her stomach swoops.
She barely makes it to the kitchen sink before she's emptying out the contents of her belly. The rest of the party rushes in after her.
"Oh my god, Katara, I'm so sorry!" Ty Lee exclaims apologetically. "Are you drunk already?"
"No, no— I just— I feel dizzy," she replies, washing her mouth out with tap water. She groans and leans against the cold tiles of her counter.
"Holy hell! Are you pregnant?" Ling asks from somewhere near the living room.
"You have to have sex to get pregnant," states Toph blithely, shouldering her way to Katara's side. Together, she and Suki take ahold of her arms and sit her down at the kitchen table. Suki places her hand on Katara's forehead and whistles lowly.
"Oh shit, you're burning up!" she says, but Katara shakes her head.
"No, it's okay. I don't wanna ruin the party," she replies sluggishly, trying to wave Suki off.
"Then consider the party over since we've already had the funnest time of our lives," Suki retorts firmly. "Now it's time to take care of the host. Okay?"
"But— I still have to clean up—"
"Nonsense. We'll do it for you," says Suki, her tone getting closer and closer to her 'commanding officer' voice. "Right, girls?"
"Sure we will!" exclaims Ty Lee, and the others murmur in agreement.
"Lemme get ya to bed, first," suggests Toph, wrapping her arm around Katara's tightly and tapping the walls for guidance. "That way you won't try to run away and help 'em."
"I'm really sorry, you guys," Katara calls out weakly over her shoulder. The group choruses "It's okay!" just as she and Toph reach her bedroom door.
"I'm fine for now, Toph," she tells her. "Don't want you to catch the flu from me."
"Oh, please, Sugar Queen, I'm as hard as a rock," Toph replies, shoving the door open. "No flu can get me down."
"I should've seen this coming," complains Katara, fighting the sudden urge to cry. "I was already feeling pretty tired the other day and I still stayed up late just to make sure Zuko was okay—"
"Yeah, heard all about that 'eat and run' thing of yours," Toph says, rolling her eyes and depositing her on the bed with a grunt.
"It was so stupid," Katara kicks off her shoes and rubs a hand down her face, sighing. She doesn't even bother to get out of her jeans as she flops down on top of her comforter. "I did something stupid."
"What, did ya kiss him again and leave him hangin'?" guesses Toph, plunking herself down at the foot of the bed. Katara groans and drags her pillow over her head. The coolness of the fabric is a relief for her flushed skin.
"Yeah," she admits, too tired to fight her wounded pride. "And before that I was gonna tell him that I'm kinda… maybe… really in love with him. But then I sneezed in his face."
There's a very pregnant pause, then Toph bursts out laughing. And she keeps laughing, and laughing, until Katara throws her pillow at her.
"Don't make me kick you to the ground," she whines, but Toph is still howling and clutching her pillow as she rolls around in glee.
"Oh, dammit, Sweetness, Sparky's bad luck rubbed off on ya!" She cackles, slapping her mattress as she struggles for breath. Katara frowns at her and tugs the comforter from underneath Toph, making her tumble to the floor.
"I'm going to sleep," declares Katara, pulling the comforter over her head.
"Yeah, yeah, night, Sweetness," says Toph, still chuckling. "Sheesh, the one time you had the guts to tell a guy how you feel, and it blows up in your face."
Katara hears the door click shut, and she shakes her head.
"I'll tell him soon," she promises to herself, already half-asleep.
Katara wakes up to the sound of laughter filtering in through her open bedroom door.
She glances at the clock on her bedside table— midmorning, a little later than she would usually get up— then remembers with a jolt that she has classes today.
She sits up with a groan, her head swimming. She tucks her comforter around her shoulders and pads out into the living room. She finds Sokka and Suki watching TV, sharing a carton of takeout.
"What are you guys doing here?" she asks, her throat struggling to let her voice out. Sokka turns around and raises an eyebrow at her while he pops a fried shrimp in his mouth.
"You're sick, dummy," he says matter-of-factly. "We're taking care of you. Happy birthday, by the way."
"You have work," Katara mumbles, settling down on the armchair with a groan. "And I'm contagious."
"Your appreciation is noted," quips Sokka, shoving a spoonful of fried rice into his mouth before handing the carton to Suki. "Sis, c'mon. We're gonna make chicken soup and everything!"
"I have classes today," Katara counters weakly. She reaches into the TV cabinet and pulls out her backpack. "I still haven't finished my thesis proposal and I need to get some advice from the professor."
"You're already doing your thesis?" exclaims Suki. "It's your first year!"
"Well, it's nearly my second semester and I'm planning on doing summer classes," explains Katara, pulling out her notecards and sheafs of loose paper from her bag. "That way, I'll graduate earlier."
"Nerd," teases Sokka. Katara sticks her tongue out at him.
"Says the guy who was always at the top of his class," she retorts.
"That's because I was a natural genius!" shoots back Sokka, bits of rice flying from his mouth. Both Suki and Katara raise their eyebrows at him. He draws himself up and crosses his arms with a pout. "Hmph! Whatever, I still got better grades and I didn't have to work hard for 'em!"
"I could still beat you in a spar, you know," Suki reminds him.
"And your writing style is horrendous," adds Katara. She shrugs, just to get a rise out of him. "But sure, you're great with numbers and history."
"That's not all I'm good at! I—"
He's cut off by his ringing cellphone. Katara briefly sees Zuko's number on the screen before Sokka answers it and zips into the kitchen.
Katara looks at Suki questioningly. Her friend sighs and raises her hands.
"Okay, okay, we're not the ones making you chicken soup," she admits. "We're not the best cooks! And besides, Iroh volunteered when he found out you were sick."
"So Zuko's coming over?" Katara squeaks, clutching her comforter tighter around her shoulders. Suki grins mischievously at her.
"What? Iroh wasn't the only one who volunteered to do something for you."
"Suki!" Katara screeches, tucking her legs close to her chest and covering her head with the comforter. "Did Toph tell you what I did the last time he and I were alone together?"
"The sneezing thing?" Suki tilts her head to one side and slides closer to Katara. "It's not as bad as it sounds!"
"She laughed at me for a full minute when I told her," mumbles Katara, her voice muffled by the blanket. Suki giggles.
"Yeah, well, it was kinda funny," she confesses, to which Katara grumbles. "Oh, c'mon. It's not like Zuko knows what you were gonna tell him. And you two won't be alone today. So no need to be awkward."
"Does Sokka know?" whispers Katara.
"Nah," Suki waves dismissively. "What secrets are spilled during a bachelorette party stays at the bachelorette party."
"Ugh, so the other girls know?"
"Hard not to, when Toph came out of your room laughing her ass off," Suki pats her blanketed head sympathetically just as Sokka strides in with a cup of tea, which he shoves at Katara's bundled form.
"Soooo, Zuko's comin' over to check on ya, and I gave him my big brother permission," he informs Katara with an exaggerated shrug, before flinging himself on the couch and throwing an arm around Suki's shoulders. "Already told Captain Piandao we'd be out the rest of the afternoon, too. Told him it was more wedding stuff."
"Ha! As if he'd believe that," Suki rolls her eyes with a grin. "But he loves you too much that he probably doesn't care."
"Hell yeah, he doesn't," Sokka claps his hands together and looks at Katara, who has come out of her comforter slightly and is poring over her papers, hot tea completely ignored. Sokka frowns at the sight. "Katara! You're supposed to relax when you're sick! Don't make me get frozen frogs!"
"One, that's an old wives' tale, and two, where would you get frozen frogs in the Earth Kingdom? It's not like you could get them shipped or something," Katara says disinterestedly, still reading through her papers. "And three, you two shouldn't take time off work just to take care of me. As you can see, I'm fine."
"Bullshit you're fine," snarks Sokka. "I can see you shivering from here!"
Katara opens her mouth to respond but a knock on the door interrupts her.
"Come on in, bud!" calls Sokka.
"This is my apartment, you know," Katara frowns at him, if only to stop herself from looking at Zuko as he opens the door and walks in hesitantly.
"Why are you up?" He asks her by way of greeting, and she turns her frown on him.
"Because I'm fine," she says, wincing as her voice cracked on the last word. She swallows hard against her scratchy throat. "Tell Sokka I'm fine."
"Tell Katara that she's obviously not fine if she's shivering with this much heat up in her apartment," Sokka tells Zuko, who rolls his eyes and sets down a lidded bowl on the coffee table.
"I'm not your messenger hawk."
"Ugh, don't mind these dunderheads, Zuko," says Suki, standing up and taking the bowl to the kitchen. "I'm gonna get this soup ready to eat."
"There's really no need—" Katara starts again, but Zuko cuts her off with a strange look before turning to Sokka.
"Is she always this stubborn when she's sick?"
"Yeah, man," Sokka replies as though Katara is not in the room. "Next thing you know, she's passed out here and talking nonsense in her sleep."
"I didn't ask for your help," huffs Katara.
"Well, you're getting it," replies Zuko with a shrug. Katara narrows her eyes at him and scrunches up her face.
"Look, I have an important paper due, so fine, I'll eat the soup and drink some medicine, but I'm still going to catch that ferry to Ember Island."
Zuko exchanges a glance with Sokka, who rolls his eyes and nods patronizingly.
"Sure, sis, whatever you say."
"What is so important that you have to push yourself this hard?" asks Zuko, settling in on the couch beside Sokka. Katara sighs.
"It's my thesis proposal, okay?" She shuffles the loose paper in her hands until she finds the right one. "My entire academic future depends on this."
"Here we go," trills Suki, coming into the living room while holding a bowlful of soup with oven mitts. She carefully sets it down among Katara's stacks of papers. "Drink it while it's hot."
"Thank you, Suki."
"Hey, how come Suki gets a thank you when I don't?" complains Sokka.
"Because Suki didn't threaten me with frozen frogs, idiot," replies Katara.
"Frozen frogs?" asks Zuko bewilderedly.
"Don't ask," replies Suki with a roll of her eyes.
Katara laughs at the exchange and brings the spoon to her mouth, but realizes, much to her chagrin, that Sokka was right and she is shivering.
"I'm eating at the kitchen table," she tells them, taking the bowl, "I might make a mess here."
Zuko darts forward to help her up, and Sokka sniggers.
"Maybe Zuko can feed you the soup," he comments offhandedly.
Both Katara and Zuko sputter and nearly spill the soup all over the carpet.
"Sokka!" reprimands Katara, snatching the bowl from the blushing Zuko. "Don't make me throw this at your stupid head!"
She stalks off to the kitchen, nose in the air.
"Love ya too, sis!" Sokka calls out after her, before flailing his hands at Zuko's face. "Hey, bro, have you thought of a gift yet?"
"No," replies Zuko with a resigned sigh, dropping into the armchair that Katara vacated. "I still keep thinking of office supplies."
"What about a poem?" suggests Suki. Zuko looks between her and Sokka with a furrowed brow.
"You two really like poems," he comments wryly. Suki blushes.
"Well, I think they're romantic!" She says defensively. Sokka nods enthusiastically and plants a kiss on the side of his fiancée's head.
"Told ya, buddy," he says with an air of superiority. "Girls love poems."
"Well, I can't write one!" exclaims Zuko, throwing his hands up. "Besides, what use will she get out of that? At least if I got her some crayons and paper for her kids at the preschool—"
Zuko's eyes widen.
"That's it!" he exclaims, voice rising in excitement. "I have an idea!"
"Great!" says Sokka, clapping his hands conspiratorially. "What is it?"
Zuko glances toward the kitchen and lowers his voice.
"Katara hangs up her kids' works on her fridge, right?" He says, gesturing to the other room. "What if I got them to make birthday cards for her?"
"Aww, that's so cute!" squeals Suki.
"Alright, it's Suki-approved, bud!" Sokka says, putting his hand up for Zuko to high five. When he doesn't, Sokka coughs and lowers his hand with a pout, but his eyes still shine with excitement. "Y'know what, we can do that today. We can tell 'em Katara can't come into work tomorrow, too, so she has no excuse but to rest up."
Sokka silently bounds to the door on his tiptoes, index finger pressed to his lips. Zuko rolls his eyes and walks out normally after him, closing the door behind him.
"Oh… where did the guys go?" asks Katara, poking her head into the living room. Suki smiles and leads her to the couch, fluffing up the throw pillows so Katara could lie down.
"They went out to get your birthday gift," she tells her bluntly. Katara groans.
"Oh no, did Sokka get me a bucket of seal jerky again? 'Cause honestly, my stomach can't handle that right now. I can't even finish Iroh's soup, and that's saying something."
"You'll just have to find out," says Suki secretively. Katara sighs and sits back up.
"Well, I can't just sit around doing nothing, Suki. I'm gonna work on my paper a bit more."
"Fine, fine, not gonna stop you," Suki says, handing over the stacks of papers and the notecards. "What's your thesis proposal about, anyway?"
"I want to develop a community-based educational program for young children in poor communities," Katara explains, tapping her pen against her sheaf of paper. "I'm working on reviewing the literature but I'm still at a loss for the specifics of the program. I may need to observe some communities in rural areas nearby and take note of the best practices. I already found a mom— she has a community with a reach of about three thousand families."
"That's amazing, Katara," Suki squeezes her hand. "What made you think of all this?"
"I— There's this kid in my class, Korra. She's Southern Water Tribe, too," she explains to Suki. "Community-based learning is a big part of childhood in our tribe. Everyone has a role in shaping a child's mind, so everyone pitches in and takes care of every child— or, at least, that's how it was when we were growing up."
She tucks a lock of hair behind her ear, frowning at her notes.
"Now, though— well, Korra's mom tells me they just homeschool the kids until preschool or first grade. I'm not really a big fan of that change, but Korra's the best kid in her grade. So, it got me thinking— what if I could marry those two practices together?"
She shifts through her things until she finds a stack of blue note cards. She rifles through them as she speaks.
"I'm considering using homeschooling practices and principles as a basis or foundation for an educational program that could empower mothers in poor communities to teach their kids life skills and values." She pauses to massage her temples and closes her eyes. "Problem is, I have no idea how community-based programs work and which specific communities already have such programs in them. I would wanna get in-depth details on them."
Suki hums speculatively.
"You know what?" she says tentatively. "When Ty Lee and I were in that conference in the northern Earth Kingdom, someone mentioned a community-based program for at-risk youth in urban poor areas. I know it's not quite like your project, but maybe I can put you through one of my contacts there."
"Oh, Suki! That's awesome— thank you so much!"
"Hey, consider it my birthday present to you," chuckles Suki. "But I did get you a really cute bracelet— which I'm gonna bring over as soon as the guys come back."
"You guys are too much," Katara smiles and leans back against the cushions. "Alright, what can you tell me about that program in the northern Earth Kingdom?"
"My, my, it's very considerate of Katara to send you two here just to tell me she can't come in tomorrow," the old lady— Principal Yugoda— says with a smile.
"Well, you gotta love Katara's work ethic," Sokka grins, scratching at his undercut. He nudges Zuko with his elbow. "Right, buddy?"
"Oh, um. Yeah," mutters Zuko, looking around warily at the too-vibrant posters on the wall. He continues absently, "Although she pushes herself too hard sometimes."
"You must be the fiancé that her students keep talking about," Yugoda says, and Zuko steps back and blushes to the roots of his hair.
"No, no— no, we're not— no," he stammers. Both Sokka and Yugoda raise their eyebrows at him, and he rubs the back of his neck self-consciously. "We— we ran into some of her students ages ago, and— and they just learned that word and thought—"
"Oh! Silly me, what a mistake," laughs the principal. "Although Bolin and Mako often integrate 'Teacher Katara's fiance' into their games. You've made quite an impression."
"Uhh… thank you?" replies Zuko, glancing at Sokka from the corner of his eye. The other guy is bursting with barely-contained laughter. Zuko frowns and turns back to Yugoda. "A-anyway, we would like to, uh, borrow Katara's students for a bit, if— if it's not too much trouble, ma'am."
"Yeah, Zuko here had an amazing idea for a gift— the kids could make Katara birthday cards or get well soon drawings," Sokka says energetically, throwing his arm over Zuko's shoulders. "And I'm sure they would wanna do it, y'know, to show their appreciation. Or just to get a chance to draw something."
"That is a splendid idea!" Yugoda beams at Zuko, who shifts his feet uncertainly. "Katara's students sit in with Mikan on her days off. We can gather them together after recess."
Turns out, Katara's class is a mish-mash of less than twenty kids, most of whom only sit still for five seconds at a time.
"I'll leave you to it!" calls Yugoda by the door, already waving and walking away.
"It's Teacher Katara's fiancé!" screams one boy, and Zuko almost topples over when two unexpectedly heavy bodies crash against his legs. He is surprised to find out that only one of the siblings he ran into is clinging to his leg.
The other one is a tiny girl that resembles Sokka and Katara, with almost the same shade of blue eyes as they have.
"Uhh, hi… Bolin?" He guesses, and the boy grins gap-toothedly at him and grips his leg harder. The other kid looks up at him expectantly. Zuko swallows. "Um, you must be— uh, Korra?"
"Hi, Mister Fiancé!" shouts Korra, blinking big, clear eyes at him and grinning lopsidedly. "Whatcha doin' here? Where's Teacher Katara? Aren't we s'posed to be with Teacher Mikan?"
Zuko glances at Sokka, but he is busy trying to herd four chaotic toddlers back into their seats and guiding two away from eating their crayons. Zuko sighs.
"Um, Teacher Katara is… sick," he begins, not really sure how to explain. "So we're here because it would make her feel better if you drew your pictures for her. 'Cause she loves seeing them."
"Yay!" squeals Korra, grabbing Bolin's hand and dragging him to a nearby table. Bolin doesn't let go of Zuko's pant leg, so he's forced to stumble after them. "Bo, let's draw! C'mon!"
"'Kay," agrees Bolin easily, plunking himself down on a small, bright green chair. Korra haphazardly pushes a blue one closer to the table before sitting down and bouncing excitedly.
Zuko carefully sets down a couple of crayons between them, leaving them to fight over which colors they like. He walks over to Sokka, who is looking much more disheveled now than when they came in ten minutes ago.
"Look, I'm teaching you how to make art!" he screeches, but another kid stands up and raises his hand.
"I gotta pee!"
"Listen up!" Sokka gestures wildly. "When you grow up, you gotta know where you're needed the most, which right now is here, which means no potty breaks!"
"But I really gotta go," reasons the kid.
Sokka sighs dejectedly.
"Okay. Who else has to go?" he asks the room in general, and nearly half of the students stand up and raise their hands. Sokka looks helplessly at Zuko, who shrugs uncomfortably.
"Do we… help them?" He asks, scratching the back of his head.
"I guess," says Sokka, looking around. He points at a small room in the corner. "They have a bathroom here!"
They take turns helping the kids on the potty and settling them down at their tables while multiple children cling to their limbs with every movement. By the time Zuko is done helping the last of the kids, he'd been peed on thrice, his clothes drawn on with crayons, and screamed at for no reason countless times.
"Katara's a hero for putting up with this everyday," he mutters to Sokka, who is not so subtly wiping saliva and snot off himself. Sokka nods emphatically.
"The one other time I went here was for her 'What do you wanna be when you grow up' project and one kid bit me," Sokka recalls, holding his arm up and pointing at it. "It happened again, man! Do I need to get shots or something?"
"They're not rabid animals," replies Zuko tiredly, nodding absently at one kid who is proudly showing them his scribble.
There's a sudden shriek from the group of kids by the windows. Zuko and Sokka exchange panicked looks before bolting towards the group—
— only to find the children crowded around a huge white dog that is currently poking its head through the window, sniffing at the preschoolers and panting happily.
"They keep dogs here?" asks Sokka in a high, cracking voice.
"Naga!" squeals a voice from the other side of the room. A blue blur speeds through the crowd of kids and Zuko finally realizes why a dog popping up through the window didn't faze him.
"Jus' a couple a minutes more, 'kay, Naga?" Korra tells the dog, reaching up with stubby little hands to ruffle Naga's fur. "I gotta finish Teacher Katara's birthday card so she gets better!"
The dog huffs in response as though it understands what she is saying, and bounds away from the window and into the playground outside.
"Oh, riiight," Sokka slaps a hand to his forehead and proceeds to rub it over his face tiredly. "I forgot that Southern Water Tribe kid has a dog."
"How could you forget that?" asks Zuko, taking a finished drawing proudly presented by one of the preschoolers. Sokka throws his hands up.
"Well, it didn't pounce from the window last time I was here!" He exclaims, before shrugging and shaking his head. "Whatever, man, I'm exhausted. Let's just collect all these drawings and get the fuck outta here."
"What's 'fuck'?" repeats one kid, staring up at Sokka with big, curious eyes. Zuko smothers a snicker as Sokka's eyes widen in panic and starts waving his arms around.
"It's— it's—" he whirls on Zuko, who just smirks and shrugs at him. He gulps and attempts to adopt a stern voice while wagging his finger. "It's a very, very bad word that you shouldn't repeat to anyone. Ever."
The child grins at him widely and shouts, "FUCK!"
"Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!" chants the other children, and Sokka hangs on desperately to Zuko's shoulder.
"Oh, man, oh no no no!" he wails, "I'll have to tell Katara I did this, dude! Oh shi— oh man! She's gonna kill me!"
Zuko chuckles and pats his back lightly.
"That's rough, buddy."
Katara wakes up, disoriented, in her dark living room, still bundled in her comforter.
She doesn't know what woke her up at first, but then she sees a sliver of light coming in from her slightly ajar bedroom door.
She sits up slowly, her brain still groggy from sleeping almost the entire day, and makes her way to her room. She frowns in confusion when she sees Zuko standing by her nightstand.
"What are you still doing here?" she asks, pushing the door fully open. He jumps and tries to hide something behind his back.
"Katara! What are you— you shouldn't be up!"
"Well, I clearly should be, considering there's an uninvited guest in my bedroom," she replies teasingly. "What are you hiding?"
"I'm not hiding anything!" exclaims Zuko, almost toppling over her lamp when he waved his arm in panic. Katara just raises her eyebrow at him until he sighs and shrugs. "Alright, alright. I wasn't creeping around your room, I swear. Suki and Sokka were here earlier, too, and they helped me put everything up when you were asleep, but they left me in charge of the last ones 'cause they got a call from the precinct—"
"What are you talking about?" interrupts Katara, her sleepiness making her cranky and impatient.
Zuko blinks at her.
"Uh…" He gestures around her bedroom in genuine confusion. "This?"
Katara looks around the room and notices with a jolt that there are pieces of paper hung up all over the walls, each one filled with colorful doodles. Her jaw drops as she approaches the nearest ones— she studies them carefully, pinpointing which doodle was whose. She blinks back tears as she presses her fingers over the scrawled crayon lines.
"Are these my kids' drawings?" She murmurs in wonderment. "How did you— how did you even manage to pull this off?"
"It wasn't easy," admits Zuko. "I don't know how you do it. Sokka and I were only there for about an hour and we were losing our minds."
Katara chuckles at that, surreptitiously wiping at her eyes.
"The kids make everything worth it. This is—" she swallows with great difficulty, and not just because of her scratchy throat. She shakes her head. "This is amazing. It's like my room's a giant refrigerator."
Zuko snorts at that.
"I hope not," he says with a smirk. "Otherwise you'd freeze to death."
"Oh, you know that not what I meant," replies Katara with a good-natured eye roll. She tightens her comforter around her shoulders and bites her lip. "I can't believe you guys did this. Thank you."
"Yeah, well," Zuko shrugs, scratching the back of his neck shyly, "This was the only birthday present I could think of, so—"
"You thought of this?" asks Katara in disbelief. Zuko rubs the back of his neck self-consciously and nods.
"It, um, it was the only thing I could come up with, aside from school supplies," he blushes and looks at her uncertainly. "Do you— do you like it?"
"Zuko, I love it," Katara replies, slowly turning around in awe. So many emotions simmer in her that it's hard to pinpoint just one. She blinks back another onslaught of tears. "This has to be the best birthday gift ever."
"Really?" His tone is surprisingly innocent, almost boyish, that Katara turns back to him with an amused smile.
"Really. It's—" a yawn slips out of her before she could stop it. Zuko furrows his brows and steps forward, placing a hand tenderly on her forehead. Instinctively, she takes his wrist in her hand and leans her cheek against his palm.
"You're colder than usual," she mutters, her head feeling heavier than normal.
"That's because you're burning up," replies Zuko, a hard edge to his voice. "When was the last time you drank medicine?"
"Hmmm," hums Katara sleepily. "Before I fell asleep. Sometime after lunch?"
Zuko tsks in annoyance.
"I wouldn't have spent all my time on this if I knew you hadn't taken your medicine yet!" He exclaims, frustrated. Katara blinks blearily at him.
"I'm fine, Zuko," she tries to assure him, but Zuko leads her to sit on the bed none too gently and looms over her, the expressions on his face split equally between worry, annoyance, and guilt.
"I'm going to get you soup and flu medicine," he tells her firmly. "Don't fall asleep, okay?"
Katara simply nods and watches his retreating back. She hears him puttering around in her kitchen— for some reason, the sound makes her smile to herself— and she finds herself standing up despite her fatigue to examine the drawings that he'd hung up near her dresser.
She could recognize Bo's untidily drawn shapes— that boy couldn't sit long enough to combine the shapes and make them into actual objects, and he always, always fought for the green crayon, no matter what he was drawing. Right beside Bo's is Korra's— about a quarter of the page was dedicated to her own name, the only word she can write legibly, and surrounding it were hearts and stars. On the other half of the paper is something that Katara assumes is a birthday cake.
A memory resurfaces in her mind— her mother, smearing her birthday cake's frosting on her nose "for luck" and shoving a plate of seaweed noodles into her hands "for a long, happy life."
That was the last birthday Katara celebrated with her.
Suddenly, she doesn't feel like standing up anymore. She doesn't even feel like sitting down. When Zuko finds her, she's curled up in a ball on the floor, tears silently leaking out of her eyes.
"Katara!" He almost drops his tray in his rush to kneel beside her. He takes ahold of her shoulders and shakes her in his panic. "What happened? Are you hurt? Can you move?"
"I just wanna be a kid again," she says miserably, her lips trembling. More tears spill into her wooden floor. "I miss my mom. It's so silly, but I miss her touch. I miss her hugs. I miss everything about her right now and it just hurts so much."
Zuko is still for a moment, before gently peeling her off the floor and placing her head on the crook of his neck. Then he just holds her, silently rocking them both back and forth slowly, his hands rubbing soothing circles on her back.
"I get it," he murmurs into her hair. "Doesn't matter what age we are. When you're in pain, you just want your mom around."
Just like that, the dam bursts and Katara sobs into his shoulder, clutching the front of his shirt so tightly that in the back of her head she worries if she'd accidentally tear it— but there's nothing but tears now, tears and loneliness and that deep, aching pain to be cared for, to be held and to know that there's nothing more to worry about; this was the kind of vulnerability that she hasn't let herself feel ever since her mother passed, because she always had to be the caregiver, always had to be strong for her family and friends, always had to do the comforting, the mothering, never letting herself experience it for fear of failing those who need her.
She doesn't know how long she cried on his shoulder, how long it took for the wave of emotions to pass, but by the end of it all she feels so wrung out that she wouldn't be surprised if she just disappeared like dust in the wind. Zuko is lightly stroking her hair, still rocking back and forth.
She slowly unclenches her fingers from his shirt— the pain in her joints have come back tenfold— and when she pulls herself away her cheek grazes the leathery skin of Zuko's scar.
Suddenly, she's very aware of how close their faces are, close enough that their breaths mingle, that she could see the specks of honey and amber in his eyes— and suddenly, she's also very aware of how puffy her own eyes must be, and how much snot she must have smeared on his shirt. She blushes self-consciously and hurriedly wipes at her face with the back of her hands.
"Sorry," she croaks out, her nose and throat so congested that the word comes out in barely a whisper.
Zuko's hand in her hair stills, then shifts, tucking a lock of hair that was plastered to her cheek behind her ear.
"You've done the same thing for me more than once," he reminds her quietly, his knuckles softly brushing against her cheek before pulling away suddenly. "You need to eat and get some rest."
Then, before Katara could even respond, he shuffles back and scoops her up in his arms and stands up like she weighs next to nothing. It takes no more than two strides for him to deposit her gently on the bed, but the whole interaction still leaves Katara dizzy in a way that she knows isn't from the flu.
She barely has time to catch her breath when Zuko props her up on her headboard with a pillow behind her. He disappears for a few quick seconds then comes back with a kitchen chair, which he places just beside her bedside table, where he'd left his tray of soup and medicine.
"Oh, please don't— don't feed me the soup," she says hurriedly. His hands stop in midair between them, the bowl and the spoon held aloft.
"I just— I don't want to give Sokka the satisfaction," she says in one breath, feeling the blush creep to her cheeks.
Zuko's lips curl into a smirk.
"Alright," he says, handing her the bowl. She doesn't even bother with the spoon anymore and just gulps down the soup from the rim. Zuko silently takes the bowl from her once she's finished, then hands her the flu medicine and a glass of water, which he also loads onto the tray after she is done.
Katara leans heavily against her pillow with a sigh, the fatigue from her sickness and her crying settling in like lead in her bones.
"Hey, Zuko?" she whispers, her eyelids already fluttering shut in spite of herself, "I'm sorry you had to stay here so late."
She hears the chair creak under him; she knows without seeing that he's looking at her with that expression he gets when she's being unreasonable.
"I'm not just gonna leave you when you can barely take care of yourself," he says, almost defensively. "Not even when you're being stubborn about it."
Katara smiles to herself.
"You can get pretty stubborn, too, you know."
He huffs amusedly.
"You don't think I know that?"
Sleep finally takes her, and the last thing she remembers thinking is:
You don't know that I love you, though.
"You don't know that I love you, though."
Zuko's mind blanks at the same time his heart beats triple-time.
He stares at her, stock still, barely breathing, as though any movement would erase what she just said.
She breathes evenly, her lashes fluttering across her cheeks, a picture of calmness.
The exact opposite of him right now.
"What?" He squeaks out in a strange, high-pitched, strained voice that he could barely recognize.
She doesn't answer, and he's seized with the sudden urge to shake her awake, to ask her if it was real, to know for sure that he hadn't heard her wrong. It takes all of his self-control— he didn't even know he possessed so much until this very moment— to stop himself from shouting at her to wake up.
Stop it, he tells himself firmly, actively making himself take deep, measured breaths, the kind his mother used to make him do when he threw tantrums as a boy. Inhale, hold, exhale. You probably misheard her, anyway.
But no. She'd said it in the same way she says things that suddenly pop to her head, things she tells herself in moments when her emotions run high.
Zuko pulls at his hair and curses inwardly. He'd been so busy trying to convince himself he'd be okay if she doesn't love him back that he never even thought about how he should react if she does.
How the hell is he supposed to pretend he didn't hear those words come out of her mouth?
He looks at her desperately— he realizes with a jolt that she's the first person he wants to come to when he's faced with a dilemma— and, oddly, just by looking at her, he comes to a decision.
A/N: Katara's explanation of her thesis is taken almost word-for-word from my amazing soul sister, whose real-life adventures originally inspired this fic. Yes, she actually did that thesis project because she's an amazing human being!
And no, Katara doesn't have the coronavirus lol.
Srsly tho, whatever part of the world you're in right now, please stay safe and stay well! Take precautionary measures, keep yourself and your loved ones healthy, and remember to thank the frontliners when you can! They're the real heroes in this story.
As always, tell me what you think!