A/N: Sorry this one was so long in the works. Holidays hit! Thanksgiving, and then getting ready for Christmas. xD Until then I should be back on track to update weekly if not a little more. :) Thank you for those of you faithful enough to keep reading and reviewing and watching in the meantime! Enjoy~
Family: The Gift that Never Stops Giving
"Well, if it isn't Little Zuzu, back from lunch with his latest toy."
He wasn't sure what irked him more, that Azula had made herself at home at his desk while he was out, or that she knew his Tuesday and Thursday schedule. While disinfecting his chair would set him back on the stack of paperwork he still had to complete before the end of the day, ultimately he decided that knowing she was stalking him was just a little more disturbing.
"She's not a toy," he told her, mouth set in a grim line. He didn't bother saying anymore. She'd just twist it in her usual way.
"Nice hips, perky breasts, cute little smile? She looks like she'd be a lot of fun… That's what toys are, right?" she said with her saccharin smile.
He was boiling. It was a wonder the briefcase still in his hand didn't light on fire. But he knew better than to get into a battle with his sister, so in the end, he settled for an expletive so low under his breath he didn't think she'd hear it.
She did. And she simply laughed. "Why would I do that when I have so many people willing to do the hard work for me?"
The very thought of his sister in bed with anyone made his stomach churn. He was sure he must have been green, if the increased cackling was any indication.
"Don't worry, Zuzu, I won't grace you with the details. Besides, you've always had a thing for monogamy. I knew it was only a matter of time before you went back to it. You're so predictable."
His temper was only rising further. He managed to ask, through tightly clenched teeth, "Why are you even here?"
That seemed to spur her into action. Arms overhead, she stretched like a cat before standing and leaving his chair in a spin when she circled around the desk. "What, not happy to see your only sister? And here I was trying to do you a favor."
"Cut to the chase." And get out of my office.
"Fine. I just wanted to make sure your affairs are in order. Literally." That grin he knew all too well came out in full force, the one that had secretly haunted some of his worst nightmares as a child. "Mai's coming to the Christmas party this weekend. Hopefully your new plaything's up for an introduction."
He struggled. For three days he was in agony. She knew about his past but vaguely; he'd mentioned a serious relationship that lasted through college and she'd done the same. They had left it at that. No need to go drudging up the past, right?
His other option was to try and find a way to get out of the party—but that wasn't about to happen in a million years. Besides it being part of his penance for their fight in the card shop, it was Katara's first opportunity to meet his entire family, and his mother was spear-heading the whole operation. They were not only expected to be there, but front and center and under whatever gaudy mistletoe they hung in the doorways.
So he was left dreading and worrying and panicking. Because he knew his sister, and while there was usually some slim chance in the universe he might avoid his ex at a crammed holiday party, Azula was not about to let him play the odds and win.
It was finally the day of, and he was in even more agony. A different kind of agony. Katara was leaning over the sink putting the last touches on her make-up and that velvet dress was riding up just enough to remind him that it had been awhile.
A long while.
"Let's ditch the party. We can stay in tonight." He was entitled one last-ditch effort, at least. And pitching against the back of her neck with his hands wrapped around her waist was his best chance of success.
"Zuko, you know how I feel about that," she laughed when she shimmied away, and oh, he was betting she knew just how alluring she looked with that impish grin on her face as she did it.
He did. He was painfully aware of how she felt. She didn't want to go too fast, or rush into things, and believed in some perfect moment or some girly thing. And he suspected that once upon a time she'd probably made a mistake or two—like everyone had.
"Besides," she continued, turning back toward the mirror to put her earrings in. "You hate this place."
But he hated trying to remain celibate with such a gorgeous woman nearby all the time, too.
The closest he'd gotten to sating that ache was Thanksgiving Eve. They'd been watching movies at her place, and while he still hated the hodge-podge of mismatched furniture and claustrophobia-inducing spaces, her couch was good for a snuggle—and then some. He'd just gotten his hands under her shirt, worked that insufferable little hook of her bra at her back…
…Only for her phone to ring. It was her grandmother. Talk about a mood killer.
Thinking about it now was a mood killer. He was beginning to wonder if he'd ever get that close again. Since their 'fight' he'd had to make do with some extended goodnight kiss sessions and that was it.
After tonight, he doubted he might even get those.
"Katara, I should mention—"
"Can it wait? We're already running late. We should get on the road if we want to beat the rush."
When she smiled like that, like nothing in the world would ever go wrong again, he couldn't refuse. "Sure. Let's get going."
Azula cornered them right away. Cornered probably wasn't the best word, as he'd have preferred she keep them tucked out of sight as she wore that fake smile and lavished fake compliments on Katara's hair, dress, and shoes. Instead, she saw fit to link her arm through his girlfriend's and give her the 'tour.'
And, of course, that tour included introductions.
First stop: his father. Surprisingly, he didn't dread that meeting much. Ozai didn't believe in 'social' functions. The party was as much a business opportunity as a board room meeting. True to form, the patriarch barely even glanced Katara's way before he told Azula to lead them along so he could corner her date for some back room dealing. Leave it to her to sleep with the competition just to make a buck.
His mother, on the other hand, was ever the social butterfly. She cooed over Katara to an uncomfortable level – to Zuko, at least – before inviting her to a family dinner after the holidays were over. He had to give his girlfriend credit; she actually seemed sincere and sweet when she told the older woman that it would be "wonderful."
Of course, immediately afterward she shot him that look that asked whether they were always like this… and all he could do was shrug. She'd get used to it, he hoped. He had.
Azula, unfortunately for both of them, knew exactly what she was doing. She was too crafty to go straight for the kill. No, she took her time, knowing he would squirm. It was over an hour into their stay before she even brought them to a halt in front of the last face he wanted to see.
"Mai," he managed before Azula got a word in edgewise. That, at least, he counted a marginal victory.
"Ah, so you do remember. Have the holidays made you sentimental, Zuzu?"
"Mai? As in…?" Katara looked at him questioningly. All he managed was a slight nod before Azula cut in again.
"Right, sweetie. The only woman Zuko ever thought seriously enough to marry. That is, assuming he hasn't proposed to you already and has just been keeping it one big secret," she said, with that same falsely sweet smile fixed so tackily in place.
Luckily for all of them, Mai had outgrown Azula's games right around the same time she outgrew Zuko—or that's how he thought of it. "Azula, don't you have other guests to patronize?" was delivered in her usual monotone.
Even Azula was smart enough to take a hint. "Fine, fine. I'll go find Ty Lee. She's always fun."
As soon as they were alone – comparatively – Mai took it upon herself to initiate. "So you must be Katara."
"Yes," Katara recovered admirably, extending a hand for a polite shake. "It's nice to finally meet you."
"Don't lie." Zuko almost winced. Leave it to Mai to cut through the pretenses.
But it did surprise him when, after a moment of his ex scrutinizing his current flame, she ventured, "Actually, I don't think you're lying." Not like Azula, her pinched expression said.
"Uh, thank you," Katara said, looking at him questioningly again. Clearly, this wasn't what she'd expected meeting his ex for the first time.
Truth be told, it wasn't what he'd expected either. There were still hard feelings in the break-up, and the way he couldn't meet Mai's eyes for more than two seconds at a time told any onlooker that much. He wouldn't have blamed her if the claws had come out.
"Well, I know how awkward this ex thing can get so let's make it short," she intoned, still sizing up the much shorter woman before tossing him a sidelong glance. "Zuko can be a royal jerk sometimes. I just hope you know what you're getting yourself into."
With a shrug, Mai took her leave—and Zuko suspected she was leaving the party entirely. Why she'd been there in the first place was something he'd have to take up with his mother.
At least he could breathe a sigh of relief. All the fire and brimstone he had worried about had passed, and just as he was about to suggest they get the heck out of there before anything else could step in to fill those 'shoes,' Katara turned on him. "What did you do to her?"
Gulp. "I'll… tell you in the car."
They fully intended on staying the whole time—at least Zuko did. It bought him another hour or two before he'd have to spill the beans. He wasn't even sure how to tell the story. It was all one big convoluted mess.
But it seemed fate could take another twist in their favor… sort of. With the preponderance of rum in that eggnog they were serving, it was only a matter of time before things got out of hand. He had chosen to refrain – as had Katara – but his coworkers, well, they were a different story.
And when his secretary, Jin, decided to commandeer the microphone from the live band so she could announce her years-long and undying love for him, it was clearly time for them to leave.
"Oh my god, we are never doing that again."
He was just glad Katara said it. Then he could agree with it. (This was, of course, after she forced him to promise he'd get a new secretary after the holidays.)
"Now, tell me about Mai."
Damn. He knew it was a bit too optimistic to harbor any hope that the 'incident' might throw her off that trail.
Still, she deserved to know. If only he could articulate… Who was he kidding? He could never articulate. "I just really screwed up," about summed it all up.
The look she gave him clued him in that she was waiting for elaboration. Probably a lot of it.
"Okay, well, Mai and I grew up together. Her dad's one of our partners. Our company invests a lot of money in his business."
All she did was nod. He took the opportunity to ease the car out of the parking lot. Once they got into traffic, he'd have an excuse not to look at her while he told the rest of the miserable tale.
"So we dated through high school and college. Everyone just expected us to get married. I proposed when I graduated. She still had a year left and I had my MBA to get…"
He saw more nodding out of the corner of his eye. At least she was following along… "She did this study abroad thing in Europe, and got invited to do some graduate work there. And I kind of… told her she shouldn't do it."
To her credit, he didn't hear a gasp—but he did see her frown. She still didn't say anything.
"It was stupid, and I was being selfish. I loved her. I wanted to be with her. But I had my job by then, and school, and she just wanted a lot more than what our parents had 'planned' for us."
"That's understandable," Katara finally chimed in, her tone unreadable. He guessed she was upset, but on what level and to what degree was impossible to know.
"I know. I don't blame her. But when she picked Europe over me I just… lost it. I told her she should just stay over there because there'd be nothing for her here if she ever came back."
He hated the silence that followed. They went through at least three intersections before he even dared to glance her way and she asked, "Is that it?"
Full disclosure, he had to tell himself. His sister was just vindictive enough that she might exaggerate any details he left out. "I might have told her that she was nothing more than a business connection with benefits."
Before she could berate him for being a total douchebag like he knew he was, he went on, "I know it was awful. She's never forgiven me, and I know that's exactly what I deserve. I was just hurt and I lost my temper and I've never been good at talking anyway—"
"Zuko," she cut in, even going so far as to put her hand over his on the gear shift. "I know. You do suck at talking."
"Anyway." He expelled a sigh out of the corner of his mouth and chanced another look her way as they rolled to a stop at a red light. "My sister, her friends, Mai, they just don't think I can ever not be, you know, that guy. And for awhile, I believed them."
Her hand hadn't left his. That was almost more promising than her slight quirk of a smile. "So what changed?"
"I met you." Again, he didn't give her a chance to interject when he hurried on to say, "You're just the first girl that I've dated that doesn't want something from me. I feel like I can finally be myself. And if I make mistakes, it's not the end of the world."
She continued to stay quiet, although he could see her smile shift toward something he couldn't put a name on. Her thumb brushed the back of his palm after another moment, prompting him to blurt out, "I don't know, I'm not good at explaining things." Like he'd just admitted.
"I think you did a great job explaining," and he believed her when she continued to wear that smile.
They continued to ride in silence, but it felt comfortable, and much more like usual. It was only at her doorstep that she spoke again, that smile still clinging to her mouth as she adjusted the corner of his collar and tipped her chin back for their typical goodnight kiss.
Before he could place it, however, she told him, "I like you, Zuko. I don't want anything from you except for you to be yourself." He was just about to lean in again when she added, "But if you tell me I'm anything 'with benefits' I'll smack you so hard across the face you'll think my hand was a block of ice."
After all they'd been through that evening, he had to laugh. "I think that's fair," he replied, as he reached to tuck a strand of hair from her face. "Now can I kiss—"
But she didn't even let him finish.