One of These Days
By Unwritten Bliss
Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Notes: It's been so long. A lot happened over the summer, real life stuff that demanded my attention, so I couldn't write. For example, my sister getting married and me being one of the maids of honor (I had a lot of things I needed to do for just that!). I've been waiting for an opening so I could write. It's "fall break" right now, so I had a little more time and motivation. I wonder how many devoted readers I still have for this. I'm so embarrassed by my long hiatuses. I'm sorry it's taken me this long. So so so sorry!! –U.B.
Zuko frowned as the tardy bell rang. She's late, he thought to himself. This is the third day in a row she hasn't come on time. His gaze turned to the large clock on the wall across the hall, and his frown deepened. Was she avoiding him? It was possible. It bugged him, though; why was she so confusing? They had been getting along great for the past week and a half!
He had been more than willing to listen to her complaints over classes and her long-distance relationship with her friend, despite her wary behavior when consulting with him.
And she, in turn, had seemed willing to talk to him. Maybe he had misjudged her? That made absolutely no sense, though, considering half the time she was the one starting the conversations! Zuko wanted to beat his head against a nice brick wall, but instead he set his chin in the palm of his hand and let out a sigh that sounded more like an irritated grunt.
He was aware Katara had much on her plate as of late, of course. Swim team, being one of them. From what she had been mentioning off-handedly, her grandmother – Gran-Gran, as Katara so affectionately called her – had been weaker recently, keeping Katara and Sokka nervous and worried. Zuko could imagine Katara fretting like a mother hen over her boisterous grandmother, just as she did with Sokka and Aang.
He worried that Katara wasn't getting enough sleep. When he did see her, which was rare lately, she had heavy bags under her eyes and she dozed off during her free period.
One day he had broached the subject, in a joking manner so that she wouldn't think he was actually anxious for her. "Hey, Sleeping Beauty, you're drooling on the table!" he had exclaimed, "Prick your finger lately?"
Katara had smiled sheepishly as she had attempted to push herself off the table, resting her face in her hands sleepily. She had been too tired to play along. "I've just been looking after Gran-Gran a lot. Sokka doesn't enjoy staying up too late on school nights, so I've been doing the rounds."
That had Zuko scowling, just thinking about it. He knew for a fact that Sokka did not go to sleep early on school nights. The little prick enjoyed texting him randomly throughout the night to annoy him! Sokka was just lazy. As always. The fool.
Sighing again, he lifted his gaze and spotted Katara turn down the hall, book bag swung over her shoulder. Straightening in his chair, he returned Katara's exhausted wave.
"Hi," she said as she dropped the bag beside her usual chair.
"Hm," he replied, studying her. She sat down heavily, leaning back into the chair with her eyes closed. "You look bad," he commented.
Katara's eyes snapped open and she gave him a hard, calculating stare, as if she was trying to decide if he was baiting her or not. "How sweet," she murmured, and left it at that. She was just too tired to bother with his fishing. She closed her eyes sleepily as a yawn parted her lips.
"I hope you weren't asleep standing up just now," he said, asking where she had been up until that moment in a round-about way that Katara recognized by now.
"I was e-mailing Suki in the library," she replied, her voice a low grumble. "She doesn't think she'll be back for another few weeks."
Zuko leaned back casually into his chair, pushing it back onto two legs, one hand coming up reflexively under the table to keep him balanced. "Her grandfather isn't any better, then?"
"No, he's getting better. Just slowly." Katara couldn't help but yawn, and Zuko's eyes narrowed.
"You're going to cause a chain reaction if you keep doing that," he remarked.
"Oh, shut it, Zuko," she grunted as she pushed herself upright. "I'm fine."
He frowned at her; she was that relaxed with him, then? Relaxed to the point of telling him to shut up, apparently. Somehow, that didn't bother him. Actually, he rather liked the fact that she was placating his worries and telling him things she would have told others like Haru any other time. The fact that she wanted to talk to him made him happier than it should.
"Alright," he said, lifting his free hand as if to ward off any more of her menace. "How's swimming going?"
"Terrible," she admitted. "I fell asleep on the bleachers yesterday and woke up with a mustache drawn on my face with a blue marker."
Zuko couldn't help the snort of laughter that escaped him and he tried to cover it up by coughing as he dropped his chair back onto all fours.
"It's not funny," she grouched.
"No, you're right," he amended, "I would have drawn a uni-brow, too, and written something on your forehead. That would have made it hilarious."
Katara looked at him oddly, and he wondered if he had gone too far. Was he being to free with her? Was he allowed to do that? But his surprisingly momentary doubts vanished as one of her bright, albeit drowsy, smiles flitted across her face.
"You would do that," she laughed. And, in fact, she didn't think he would but just picturing Zuko doing it made her snicker.
Their conversation lapsed into silence, as it was wont to do. Katara's eyes had drooped close, her chin in her hand, her elbow propped on the wood table. In a few minutes, she was asleep. And as the bell rang, she still refused to stir. Sighing, Zuko stood and, leaning across the table, shook her until she opened her eyes, and they were glassy with leftover, and much needed, sleep.
"The bell rang," he told her as he passed, and hoped that she would wake up enough to get to her next class.
Katara felt something shaking her, someone was calling her name, and for an instant his face flashed in her head. Why would she picture him of all people? But his lips moved to the sound of her name, that know-it-all smirk and the crinkle of his eyes. She murmured the name under her breath, and the sound of her name ceased to b called. Whatever was shaking her stopped. For a moment, she was not budged.
But then the shaking came back, this time harder, with a vengeance. "-tara! Katara!"
Katara shot up from where she lay sprawled out on the bleachers with an almost comedic speed. "I'm up, I'm up!" Aang was looking at her, an odd expression on his face. "What?"
Aang looked away quietly. "Nothing," he murmured. Katara frowned but then she noticed how everyone was filing out of the pool area. As she gathered her things, Aang started talking again. "It's nice of Coach Pakku to let you sleep the last thirty minutes of practice," he commented.
"He's just as worried about Gran-Gran as we are," Katara agreed, "He thinks I need my rest so I can nurse her back to health." Katara laughed tiredly.
Suddenly, Aang turned his gaze on Katara. "Zuko hasn't tried anything lately."
Katara paused in what she was doing, holding her towel against her chest tightly, but then she smiled and went back to work. "Yeah. It's nice, isn't it? We can almost relax." She laughed again, and it sounded strained to Aang's ears.
Frowning, Aang opened his mouth to continue but something slammed, echoing off the walls, startling both teenagers. Katara and Aang faced the doors leading outside and Katara sucked in a breath of fear.
Sokka stood there, his arms parting the double doors with desperate eyes.
Oh no, she thought.
"Gran-Gran's in the hospital!"
Katara stood outside the waiting room, sitting in one of the disgustingly pale blue chairs. Never in her life had she hated blue before, but for some reason, she hated the color when it was related to hospitals. She hadn't been here in years. But she could remember it clearly, the night it had all happened.
The night that had taken her mother away.
Sokka paced back and forth in front of her and Aang, who was sitting beside her with one arm draped across her shoulders, tried to talk Sokka into sitting down, too. "You're not helping anyone by doing that, Sokka," Aang pointed out, "Doctors and nurses need to get by and you're only blocking their way."
Sokka shot a rebellious glare in Aang's direction, silencing the young monk. Katara, in return, grabbed Sokka's arm in one of his passes and yanked him forcefully down into the chair on her other side. "Stop it! It's annoying!" her voice was high-pitched and choked, even to her ears. She looked away.
Sokka studied his sister for a minute before nodding. "Sorry," he said, "I'm sorry." Truth was, he didn't like being back in this waiting room any more than Katara did. It brought back memories he would much rather have had gone for good.
Katara didn't reply. She stared ahead, to the seat across from her. She remembered that seat. She had sat in that seat; it felt like yesterday but it was years ago. She had been crying then, gripping Sokka's arm like it was the only thing holding her together. She had been so young, and it had been such a scarring event. She could remember the smell of smoke as it suffocated her, and the terrifying scream that pierced her heart; her mother's scream, something that continued to haunt her to this day.
She hadn't realized that Sokka had gotten back up and that he was talking to a man in a white jacket. The doctor. He was explaining something to Sokka, and Sokka seemed to sag with relief. Katara wasn't listening – or maybe she was and she just couldn't hear – but it seemed like her Gran-Gran was alright.
The doctor left, and Aang leaned forward in his seat. Sokka turned on his heel, fell back into his chair, and slumped back into it. "Well?" Aang prodded, "How is she?"
"It was just a scare," he explained, "She just fainted, that's all. Bruised her hip real bad, though. They want to keep her over night and do some extra tests, just in case."
Aang nodded, "That's good. It wasn't anything serious."
Katara looked away from her brother. Thank goodness, she thought, but the thankfulness was short lived. The chair was still there, mocking her with terrible memories she didn't want to remember. She could have stopped them, but the energy was drained out of her.
Sokka stood. "Come on, I'll take you all home," he said.
That caught Katara's attention and she looked at Sokka curiously. It sounded like he wasn't going to be staying around. "What about you?"
"The doctor said it would be alright if I were to stay in the waiting room over night," he explained. "So I'll be taking you two home and coming back. I'll bring Gran some of her things, too."
Katara frowned but before she could get a complaint in, Sokka raised his hand. "I've been keeping you up for the past week, Katara. This is the least I could do." He helped her up and patted her arm affectionately, "Besides, you look like crap."
Ah, that's twice in one day, she thought, remembering Zuko's teasing comment earlier in the day. And then her eyes widened a fraction. Wow, was that really today? It feels like ages ago.
Night had already fallen by then, and as Katara checked her watch, she let out an exhausted grunt. It was past eleven, and by the time they got home, it would be close to midnight. "Will you be alright, driving back here by yourself?" she asked as Sokka started the car.
"Yeah," he said.
The car fell silent and Katara stared out the window at the blurring lights. But her mind was elsewhere, in the past.
It had been a normal day, a beautiful night. Clear with a full moon – Katara's mother had always loved the full moon, had always enjoyed going and dancing under its beams of light and dragging Katara with her. But that night, Katara's mother had fallen ill.
Katara felt her throat close up like she needed to cry, but nothing. She let out a shaky breath.
"Call us tomorrow morning," she said and Sokka nodded. She slammed the door and stepped away from the curb as her brother drove off. He had only stayed for a few minutes, to collect the few items for Gran and a pillow.
Katara turned to Aang – he looked like he was about to pass out right then and there. She gave him a tired smile and took his hand in hers. "Come on, let's get some sleep." She led him inside and locked the door behind her, releasing his hand.
When she didn't follow him upstairs, he turned in confusion. "Katara? Aren't you going to bed?"
Katara sighed heavily. "I'm just going to stay up awhile longer," she said. Aang looked at her anxiously before turning and going to his room.
Her father had thought it a good idea to get the kids out of the house. Sokka was getting impatient with Katara because she wouldn't stop whining. It had been making the boy anxious, and his anxiety had only made Katara unhappier. He had made sure his wife was comfortable before they left.
She waited until she was sure Aang was asleep before she picked up the phone. She was aware of the time – two in the morning – but she needed to get away from this house, these memories. She wanted happier memories. Her own exhaustion forgotten, she searched out the school directory and found the number she was looking for.
"Hello?" the voice on the other line was drowsy, and there was obvious irritation. Katara felt bad for calling for only a second, and then the feeling was gone. "Hello?" this time it came out angrily.
She let out a sigh. "I didn't know who else to call."
"Katara?" Zuko's tone changed almost immediately from the anger to surprise, but it was still lethargic. From where he was, Zuko glanced over to the clock on his bedside table and moaned mentally. He rubbed his forehead. "What's wrong? Are you okay?
"I'm fine…" even to Katara it sounded fake.
"Katara," it was drawn out, probing and anxious.
"Gran's in the hospital," she explained and added, "Sokka dropped me and Aang off before going back to stay there. But…I can't stay here. I need to get out of here!" She hated the pleading sound in her voice.
Zuko threw back his covers. "I'm on my way."
Zuko killed the engine of the bike and, putting one leg down on the pavement for balance, searched for Katara's familiar form, despite the darkness outside. He didn't have to look long; Katara was sitting on the porch swing, rocking back and forth. She hadn't seen him yet, even though he was right in front of her, basked in the light of a street lamp.
Zuko kicked the peg to hold his bike upright and followed the path up to the porch. He was walking up the steps when Katara finally stirred. Without looking at him, she said, "I'm sorry I woke you up like this."
I'm more worried about you right now. "Don't apologize," he murmured in a low voice, coming to sit hesitantly beside her.
For a long moment, they sat in companionable silence. Zuko wondered if Katara just wanted to sit and talk, or if she actually planned for him to take her somewhere. He didn't have much money. He couldn't take her too far – he was pretty sure that if Sokka came back and saw his sister gone, he'd freak out. And I'm pretty sure if he knew I was the one who had taken her out so late at night, he'd kill me with a spoon.
"You want…to talk about it?" he asked cautiously.
Suddenly Katara was up, forcing a smile on her face. She reached down, grabbed his hands, and pulled him up. "I want to take you somewhere," she said.
Zuko was startled. "I don't have much money on me," he admitted.
Her smile suddenly turned cunning. She led him back to his motorcycle and he handed her a helmet. She pulled it over her head before climbing on after him. "You won't need money," she said simply, before he started the engine. "I'll give you directions, you just follow them."
Zuko rolled his eyes as he pulled his own helmet on. After pulling down the glass mask, he grabbed her hands from where they rest behind him and wrapped them gingerly around his middle. "Hold on tight," he instructed.
"Katara?" Zuko moaned as he cut off the engine, "Where in the hell are we?"
Katara, who was already off the bike, breathed in deeply. The smell of moss and wood rot and damp and the outdoors filled her, the night air calmed her, and she let out the breath slowly. "We're not there yet," she replied instead of answering. She looked back at Zuko as he propped his bike against a tree. "I hope you brought your good hiking shoes."
Zuko looked down at his sandals and inwardly groaned. "You're kidding me."
Katara looked at him curiously. "Of course not. Come on." She had already started up the steep hill. Zuko could only see trees and weeds and tall grass but it seemed like Katara saw a clear trail, walking with a confidence that Zuko didn't have. But he followed anyways; he couldn't leave her alone, didn't want to.
Katara paused a little ways up, her hand resting on a boulder. Her smile was wide – She's enjoying the hike from hell?! – and she was hardly out of breath yet.
"How are you doing back there?" she asked, dragging out the words to make it seem like she was calling out to him from a distance.
Zuko rolled his eye at her teasing. "Just stay put and you'll find out!"
Katara laughed lightly. And of course she kept going the moment he managed to come a few feet of her, but she was slower now. Katara was quiet the rest of the way up, and Zuko managed to keep a constant distance between the two, although by the time they reached the top he was sweating up a storm.
Katara wasn't, but she was panting, out of breath.
She walked to the edge of the hill, raised her arms up to either side of her, and basked in the cool breeze that washed over her. "Here we are," she said, "Paradise."
Zuko put his hands on his knees – he had never been the "athletic" type – and looked around. Paradise? The only thing he saw were two trees, bare of any leaves, and a log that had been made into a bench. Remains of someone's fire pit and trash littered the dead grass. The only thing that seemed paradise-y was the old – very old – wooden swing that dangled from one of the branches of a tree.
Katara turned to face him and knew immediately what he was thinking. Walking back toward him, she said, "It's changed since I've last been here."
"How long has that been?" he asked as she took his hand in hers – a thrill ran up his wrist, his arm, down his spine and back again – and led him toward the edge of the hill.
"Years," she admitted. "But one thing hasn't changed." She lifted her free hand out toward the view – the stars that were clear and perfect and the moon that seemed close enough to touch, and the pale lights of the city in the distance. "This. This definitely has not changed."
Zuko released a breath he hadn't known he was holding. "How did you know this was here?" he asked.
Katara's awed smile turned sad. "My father used to take me and Sokka up here when we were kids," she answered, and with a short laugh, "it infuriated my mother to no end."
"Really?" Zuko glanced her way, "Why would it do that?" Anything to keep her talking, keep her mind off of her grandmother.
"This was where my father took my mom on their first date. See? Look!" Still holding his hand, she led him over to the tree with the old swing and ran the fingers of her free hand over the old bark, roaming over it until a slow smile spread across her lips. "Right here," taking Zuko's free hand in her own, she placed it over a certain area.
Zuko's fingers spread out over the bark and his eyes widened. He couldn't see it clearly, but it was there; someone had carved initials into the tree, claiming the memories of this hillside forever. Her previously free hand fell away from his.
"After a few years of dating, my dad asked her to marry him. She declined, but Dad wasn't one to give up. He brought her back here eventually and told her that she was his match, and that he had known from the moment he had met her that she was his match. After that, she had no choice but to say 'yes'." Katara smiled warmly up at Zuko.
"So, they signed their name on the trunk after that?" he guessed.
"Yup. Dad took us up here all the time, whenever he was able. Mom never came with us though, I think it embarrassed her." It was then that she realized she was still holding Zuko's hand and she released it quickly, blushing furiously.
She stepped away from the trunk, sitting in the swing and rocking back and forth only slightly. "We were here, when it happened, you know," she said. "When Mom died. She had been sick for days with pneumonia and Dad thought me and Sokka needed some fresh air."
Zuko came up behind her. "You don't have to talk about it," he told her as his hand wrapped around the ropes and he pushed her gently forward, swinging her.
"I know that," she said, "but, still, somehow I feel like I should tell you. Like I want to talk about it."
If that was the case, Zuko had no right to stop her, so she continued. "Dad had been boiling water before we left. It had been a spur of the moment thing to take us here, and he didn't usually just leave the house without turning everything off.
"He had checked on mom, and I stole a glance at her. I had never seen her so pale, so tired looking, so extremely weak. The doctor said she was getting better, Dad said she was getting better, but to me it looked like she was already gone. I got upset, and my Dad, who didn't know I had been in the room, took me out immediately. They hadn't wanted me to see Mom that way."
Katara sucked in a breath of air and rested her cheek against one of Zuko's hands. She didn't realize she was crying until Zuko's thumb swiped against her cheek, catching the tears there.
"In a rush, Dad took the water off the stove but I was screaming and crying and Mom needed her rest and Sokka wasn't helping him. Dad dropped the rag on the counter and took us here, to our secret place. We heard sirens and Dad had this feeling that something was wrong. He said he felt that a part of him was screaming in pain. We had jumped in the car and…"
Katara choked back a sob, hearing her mother's scream of terror and pain echo inside her head just as it had pierced the night so long ago. Zuko stopped swinging her, and instead came around in front of her. Katara didn't want him to see her crying! Not Zuko! She looked away, but Zuko placed his hands on either side of her face, turned her eyes back to his, and caught each tear that fell from her eyes.
Despite this, Katara took a shaky breath. "Well, you know the rest from there. Gran-Gran moved in with me and Sokka and Dad went off to war a few years later. For a while after Dad left, Sokka took me here and we played and imagined both our parents were with us; a loving family." Katara shrugged. "After a year or two, Sokka stopped coming with me entirely."
Zuko realized that this hill was an important thing to Katara – an important thing she was sharing with him. Extreme pleasure rose in his chest, and he idly wondered if she had ever brought Suki here.
They were silent a moment, Zuko's hands resting on Katara's face, tears falling from her eyes silently. Don't cry, he thought desperately. His thumbs couldn't catch all the tears! He slowly leaned forward – so hesitantly – and placed his lips against her cheek.
When he pulled away, her eyes were wide with shock but she didn't push him away when he leaned forward once more, this time to the other cheek.
Two, three tears.
Katara closed her eyes, willing her tears to stop as the blush crept into her face. She sucked in a breath when his thumb traced over her lips. "Please," he said softly, "don't cry." The softness in his voice caught her off guard, but she had no time to react.
His lips brushed hers gently, hesitantly and he pulled away slowly. Her eyes snapped open. "Zu—Zuko?" her voice was a whisper.
"Sorry," he said quickly, "I shoul—!"
Before he could turn away she leaned forward and pressed her lips against his, and time stopped.
P.S. Tah-dah! There you go everyone, the much anticipated first kiss. Haha, what will happen next?