“Are you trying to hide behind me?"
“Are you going to be an ass about it?” Katara shot back, a touch too harsh, but the man’s gravely voice grated against her frayed nerves.
All she wanted was some goddamn peace. Katara thought leaving her isolated little town in the middle of America’s armpit would give her that, but lo-and-behold, trouble seemed to have it out for her. Her gaze drifted from the scowling golden eyes peering down at her. It proved to be a mistake, as her rift-raft ex still stood in the center of the university library, scanning the various tables and computer pods for her.
Katara ducked behind her stranger again, making sure his shoulders hid her from Jet’s line of sight. He’d been pissed on the phone; there was no telling what he’d do if he caught her here, alone and facing a walk in the dark back to her apartment.
“I’m just standing here, okay?” She hated her pleading tone. “Turn back around and pretend I’m not.”
The tone of the young woman before him made his remaining eyebrow go up in surprise. He didn’t think he was particularly rude to someone who’d darted in front of him with no warning, but he wasn’t really in a mood to judge. “Okay,” he said slowly, looking down at her, trying to figure out if he’d seen her before.
She was vaguely familiar, but Zuko couldn’t place her. Rather, he felt he might have been able to figure out where he knew her from if he wasn’t nearly dead on his feet. He’d agreed to help his uncle run the shop this year, so between that and a full load of classes, there weren’t enough hours left in the night for him to get as much sleep as he should. He shifted the stack of books he held beneath one arm, feeling the limb start to ache a little.
It was because of that creeping exhaustion that he let out a resigned breath. It was obvious that she didn’t want to be seen by someone from the darting of her gaze beyond him, but Zuko didn’t feel like beating around the bush that evening.
“Listen,” he told her once her attention came back to him. “I’ve got to check out these books for the evening, and they’re not getting any lighter. Why don’t you keep ‘just standing’ behind me while I do that, and then we can both get out of here?”
“Right… sorry.” Katara’s gaze drifted from his once again, but this time, she focused on the stack of one, two— six books under his arm. They all bore titles related to organic chemistry. No wonder he looked barely three seconds away from chucking the stack across the library.
Her head titled to the left and she held her hands out with an offer. “I can help carry some, if you’d like?”
“Come on.” Her empty fingers wiggled, waiting for him to hand at least half to her. “It’d probably look more natural than me hovering a few inches behind or in front of you. And, it’s only fair… since you’re harboring me from an angry ex.”
And there it was. He couldn’t say he was surprised–probably everybody had that ex that they could go the rest of their lives without seeing again. Zuko’s own had been particularly rough, since they’d known each other from kids on up; it was no easy task extricating oneself from someone whose family were close to one’s own. Luckily, Zuko wasn’t particularly close to the main stem of his family nowadays either.
But, that was neither here nor there, and honestly her offer to help him carry the veritable tomes his major required was an offer he wasn’t about to refuse. This was definitely one of the nights he regretted wanting to go into forensics. “Thanks,” he said, barely even hesitating before handing her a couple of the books, then motioned with his head for her to walk with him to the circulation desk, almost as if that’d been what he was going to do all along.
As he took a checkout sheet and filled in his information and each book’s information for the librarian, in a quiet voice Zuko asked her without lifting his eyes from the paper, “Are you within walking distance, or do you want a ride?”
After dumping his books on the counter, Katara had a handful of uninterrupted seconds to study him, seconds she took full advantage of. The few, fleeting glances she’d stolen while hiding among musty textbooks afforded her the knowledge that he wasn’t unattractive, and now, she had the chance to confirm said assessment.
His face was relaxed, handsome, with slender features and a full pout. His eyes slid across the paperwork in time with his neat, black script. They were a pretty gold color, like honey or amber, and they seemed to flicker with whatever emotion he felt at any given moment. As if she needed that to read him— his one ink-colored brow was more expressive than both of hers combined.
It crooked upwards now, with his question. Katara blinked, a tell-tale flush spreading across her cheeks. He wasn’t looking at her, though; she hadn’t been caught staring.
“I’m, um…” Katara cleared her throat as her attention slid away, gathering herself into what she hoped was a poised young woman, not the abrasive mess he’d met minutes earlier.
“I’m about ten minutes from here, maybe fifteen,” she said, a casual shrug accompanying her answer. “It’s not too far to walk, and I don’t—” Katara paused, scanning the library’s main floor one last time. “I don’t see him anymore. No need for me to keep inconveniencing you.”
Zuko slid the paper back across the counter for the librarian to input his information in the system and used the same motion to turn and look at her. A flush dusted her dark cheeks and though it was attractive, it was more surprising than anything. It was like a switch had flipped and the brash young woman who’d stepped definitively–and literally–in his path had suddenly been replaced by someone else. He wondered at that, watching her startlingly blue eyes move from him and back across the library.
He gave as casual a shrug as he could muster. Zuko knew himself well enough that in a tight spot that called for decisive action, he was a good choice, but in a regular social situation, he came up sorely lacking. Especially now that he’d noticed the way her hair curled to frame her face, and how attractive the dark blue of her necklace looked against the hollow of collarbone. He could cut their interaction off now–she’d given him an ample chance to do just that, but…
Maybe it was the sleep deprivation, but Zuko didn’t want to part ways with her just yet. He wasn’t quite sure just how much of that was noble–she’d literally used him as a human wall to duck away from an angry ex–and how much was him simply wanting to know her name. So, against his better judgement he threw caution to the wind.
“I mean, if you want. I won’t keep you. But, I don’t mind giving you a ride,” he added, then hesitated, realizing how that might come out. “Or just walk you where you need to go.” No that didn’t come out quite right either. Letting out a soft, deflated noise, he briefly closed his eyes to will away his foot-in-mouth syndrome. Just spit it out Zuko. “What I’m trying to say is I wouldn’t mind having some help with these books to my car, and it’s a nice night either way?” And to make sure said angry ex doesn’t creep on you, he neglected to say out loud, which was the bigger reason behind him offering, but by that point he felt that tacking on more things would just make him seem creepy. Or an idiot. Either way, both were bad and if he’d learned anything by this point in his life, it was to shut up before his mouth got him into more trouble. That was a lesson he was intimately familiar with, and he did not care for any kind of repeat of it.
Katara couldn’t help but smile. It was… cute, the way he fumbled over his words. The exasperation in his eyes and frustration in his voice only added to his endearing— and clearly accidental— nature. He’d struck her as someone cool, collected; someone she tried to be in her best moments. But, now she was thinking his calm demeanor was more of a put-on, perhaps a learned behavior. This… flabbergasted stammering was closer to the real—
Katara still didn’t know his name. A part of her wanted to ask for it. Another part was too shy. After all, they hardly stood a chance at crossing paths again.
Glancing over him quickly, Katara searched for a student pass or a name tag or anything else even slightly revealing on the front of him. She came up short, except for an off-handed thought that he had a very dapper style and could probably model for Banana Republic. Maybe Nordstrom, if he wanted to go department store.
She pursed her lips, a sigh accompanying her wish that she’d worn something else, anything else. Her gym clothes didn’t exactly cut a sharp image next to his rolled sleeves and tailored jeans. Maybe it was better she didn’t have his name, and he didn’t have hers. He’d never be able to find her after this horribly embarrassing and all too ridiculous meeting.
But, Katara wasn’t one to wallow forever in self pity, and the poor stranger was pinching the bridge of his nose. After all his help, she owed it to him. She took three books from the clerk’s desk, nestling them on her hip to end his suffering.
“Which way is it to your car?”
He missed her smile in his attempt to not embarrass himself further, but her question brought his attention back. Zuko had half expected her to tell him to forget both of his offers, but what had actually come out of her mouth was the opposite of that. It threw him off guard.
“Oh! It–I couldn’t park–there weren’t any spots really close by. It’s about a five minute walk from here,” he managed to explain, finding his verbal footing again. Maybe, just maybe, if he managed to behave like a normal, socially active person, he might get her name by the end of this. He wouldn’t hold his breath.
Scooping up the remaining books, he cast her a surreptitious glance as they walked out of the library. He hadn’t had much time before to look at her, but now that they were headed in the same direction, he had opportunity to. It was impossible to tell what her major was, dressed for the gym as she was, and he couldn’t think of a good segue into asking her. Resisting the urge to scrub a free hand over his face, Zuko glanced up at the ceiling of the hallway as if to find something to say there. It also provided a decent distraction from the way her workout shirt shifted across her hips as she walked. It was pretty easy to tell she was in good shape, and on top of reminding him that he needed to carve out his own time at the gym, it was also pretty obvious that she was definitely good-looking from more than one angle.
Whoa, okay. Take it easy there. You don’t even know her name, so please stop ogling her ass.
“So,” he began, letting the space after trail out a touch too long. His good cheek burned with heat and he hoped the angle of him looking up hid his face from her view. “You… were at the gym?” Brilliant. “Obviously, I came to get some books. Were you studying, or killing time, or…?” He hadn’t noticed her before she darted in front of him, so she could have just been walking through for all he knew.
“I had to reply to a few emails and turn in an essay,” Katara replied, a quick glance thrown over her shoulder. Her stranger was staring at the ceiling… as if he were very purposefully not staring at her. She smiled privately, her attention returning to the mostly empty hall.
“My laptop decided to die on me last week,” she went on. “The Genius Bar currently has it and I’m left at university with… well, with nothing.” A little shrug made her hair fall off her shoulders, sending a chocolate waterful down to her waist. At least she’d styled it down; that was one thing she’d done right.
As she walked, Katara wondered if he was admiring the silky curls or her ass. That had to be why her skin was on fire, right? That had to be why she could feel his gaze. He was checking her out.
She turned around, trying to see for herself. His eyes met hers almost immediately, stubbornly focused, cheeks red. She quirked a brow. “Do you have any idea how exhausting it is to write flashcards for chemistry by hand, stranger?”
Her gaze dropped to the few books in his arms. “I mean, maybe you do. If you learn better by physically writing. I had to write out everything when I took that class last semester…” she smiled at him. “I can help, if you’re having trouble.”
Katara flushed when she recognized how forward that was, eyes going wide.
“I, um—” She looked away. Goddammit.
The door was two steps from her. Katara shoved through it, focusing on the sweeping spring breeze and the chill that filled her lungs. She was not at all wondering what he’d say, what he was doing after this, if he’d maybe want to see her this weekend. The blush on her cheeks spread to her neck and Katara made fists by her side, stomping onto the sidewalk.
But, somehow, she gathered herself. Maybe it was the full thirty seconds of silence that finally brought an explanation to her tongue. Or, maybe her brain had simply reminded itself that fuckwits don’t get names and phone numbers.
And tutoring was as good an excuse as any.
She licked her lips and gestured to the books in hand. “I meant I’m a student tu tor. It’s my little gig on the side. So… if you want professional, university-sponsored help, I’m your girl.” Katara stole a look at him, being sure to throw in a flirty smile. “It’s free, too.”
Zuko was definitely caught looking at her, that was clear. He was made even guiltier by the fact that his cheeks were still hot when she tossed him a look over her shoulder, almost like she was daring him to look at her. You know, just like he had been.
Well, he would not be a creep, so he kept his eyes resolutely on her face or the way ahead. Or, he would have, except she kept catching the corner of his eye with some small movement—some smooth shift of her gait as she walked, a tilt of her head, or the way she gesticulated with her free hand—and he found his eyes drifting back along her form again.
Her skin was dark, her face strong and finely boned. The blue of her eyes was startling, and once he’d noticed just how bright they were, he had to quell the urge to lean in and see just how many flecks of different ocean colors they contained. That definitely would have been weird to do, and he was trying to avoid that. Instead, he privately weighed options in his head. Her background was hard to place at first glance—she could be anything from ethnic Chinese, to Mongolian, to Inuit, to Polynesian. There was no trace of an accent to place her, and with the warm undertones of her skin and slightest almond tilt to her eyes that he noticed, he wasn’t quite sure.
Her cheeks dusted with embarrassment again and she stumbled over her words, and it was all at once immediately endearing and reassuring. Zuko felt somewhat better now about his own stammering, and let out a subdued laugh.
“Actually, I do learn pretty well by being hands-on; kinesthetic learner, through and through, here,” he told her, immensely more at ease now that he was no longer the only awkward one.
His eyebrow crooked upward again at her offer, sparing a glance at the Organic Chemistry III book she had motioned to. It was the last non-major specific chemistry class he was taking before picking up forensic chemistry courses next year. “You took this last semester?” Zuko had thought she was a bit younger than him, but maybe he was wrong. He was taking an extra year, sure, but that was mostly because of having to juggle working enough to pay for living necessities. It wasn’t that he had a lot of difficulty with any particular class, but… was a study partner ever a bad idea?
“I wouldn’t turn down comparing notes, if you still have them,” he told her, ducking under a low branch from a tree along the sidewalk. She was several inches shorter than him, and breezed right beneath the offending limb. The flirty smile she sent him made a wash of warmth curl into his belly, and his relative collectedness crumbled away again. “You don’t—I’m not really having a lot of trouble, but it never hurts to go over things? Unofficially—I don’t want to take money out of your tutoring pocket, I know how tight things can be. So, I can provide food and tea? Or coffee, if you prefer,” he blurted, not realizing until the words were out of his mouth that it had run away from him again. Her smile was doing funny things to him, like making his carefully constructed verbal sluice completely falter.
Mildly desperate to regain his composure, Zuko steered back onto safer, more familiar ground. “What sort of chemistry are you focusing on? I actually TA for the Intro to Chem class Professor Pakku teaches.” Organic Chem III wasn’t usually the type of class people in non-chemistry majors took. Maybe she wanted to be a scientist or a researcher—though if she said anything about the forensics program he was in as well, he really might have to ask her out for a drink. Maybe even in a non-study related capacity if he was feeling brave enough.
“Pakku, hm?” Her tone was one of skepticism despite her mighty effort to remain neutral. Such a thing was nearly impossible for her, considering her first semester two years ago. The professor had, in no uncertain terms, announced that there was no place for women in the sciences.
Since, Katara had been hellbent on proving him wrong, going so far as to stretch herself thin over summer and winter breaks. She enrolled in every short course offered, studied hard and long, and learned well. She made straight A’s; she jumped ahead a year as far as degree hours went. Katara counted these things among her personal victories, although her pride smarted at the mention of the man.
It was a weakness of hers, holding grudges. And, it was something she couldn’t help. The slightest note of haughtiness lingered in her words.
“If you ask me, Piandao is the superior chemistry professor, but perhaps I’m biased, given that his classes aren’t predominantly male.” Katara threw a petulant glance at her companion, a single brow arched high before she reigned in her attitude. There was no need to show off her… bitter feminism, as her ex would call it, not when this man had extended the kindness of driving her home. He was nothing but respectful, really.
They rounded a corner together, and Katara shifted his books to her other hip, toying with the worn-out binding on one. Eager to return the conversation to something lighter, she brought up Piandao again. “He’s part of the reason I’m focusing on biochem. Forensics, specifically. He makes class so interesting. Some professors prattle on-and-on. I can’t learn that way. I need to…” she grabbed at the air, smiling, “touch things.”
“It sounds like you get that,” Katara said, stepping smoothly off a curb into a packed parking lot. She spun on her heel on the asphalt, walking backward with just the right amount of sway to her hips.
Smooth, she complimented herself, lips curled coyly. “That would make us great study partners, the hands-on thing.”
This time Zuko did laugh at her condemnation of Pakku. “Hard not to notice, right? He’s actually been a lot better than when I first went through a couple years ago.” He shook his head. “I’m not sure what kind of backwater place he’s from, but whatever shook him out of that mindset did a lot of good for the class. Not that he’s easy to deal with even without that,” he added hurriedly, recalling several moments where he’d wanted to bang his head into the wall over the professor’s… unique teaching practices. “Not everyone takes insults as constructive criticism their freshman year.”
The exact moment she turned and moved her hips with what seemed like all the sinuous poise in the world was the same moment (and the reason) his foot missed the curb entirely and he stumbled, dropping his books and nearly colliding straight into her. Luckily, he managed to catch himself in a breakfall, before he ended up in a pile on the ground with her.
”Shit! Sorry—sorry,” he exclaimed, scrambling back to pick up the scattered textbooks. Rearranging them beneath his arm again, Zuko took a moment, still crouched, and let out a breath. Raking a hand through his hair (forgetting that his palms were now scraped with gravel), he looked up at her. Her head was haloed by a streetlamp and she stared down at him, concern tugging her eyebrows together. His heart hiccuped into his throat before he swallowed it resolutely back down. Several moments passed before he realized she was offering a hand to help him back up. He took it and tried not to notice the way that it fit into his, her skin cool and firm against his fingers.
“Yeah,” he echoed, his voice a quiet rasp as his brain tried desperately to catch up, “hands-on.”
He got back to his feet with her help, thinking better of keeping hold of her hand and withdrawing his, absently rubbing fingers against the palm she’d just held. She really had said forensics, hadn’t she? Mentioned Piandao, even. His luck was unbelievable.
”You did say forensics, right?” Why did he tempt the universe and make bets against himself when he should know by now he was always going to lose? It was just supposed to be an internal joke. A nervous laugh escaped him before he thought to stop it. “That’s… really… wow. Yeah.” He didn’t have to actually ask her out for drinks, he was just being facetious with himself–he didn’t actually expect her to really have the same goddamn concentration path as he did. Still, Zuko felt the compulsion to follow through, even though he’d only said the bet in his own mind. He was struck with the notion that he wouldn’t mind seeing if her face got flush with a couple drinks like it had when she was embarrassed.
Take it easy, some rational part of his mind cut in. You just took her up on the offer to compare study notes together. Maybe she won’t even want to have drinks with you, and then you’d just make things weird. Maybe find out her name first, at least.
“Did that fall rattle your memory, too? Or just your cool?” Katara smiled, a touch too widely, too breathlessly. Her hand tingled where he’d touched her. She wondered if he had the same electric reaction to her and fought the urge to make a fist. He couldn’t know that she wasrattled, too. God, she’d just met him!
She rolled her eyes inwardly, steadfastly ignoring the flutter of attraction in her stomach. How was she supposed to help it, though? All one had to do was look at him. Or, gawk, in her case.
His cheeks were bright pink; the gold in his eyes practically glittered. She could see it, even in the washed-out, fluorescent light raining down from the street lamps. And she liked it: his flustered, flushed look. It made her think of how he’d look if she’d been the one to throw him down— of course, within the controlled, consenting environment of her local Krav Maga gym. Would he wear this same expression? Would there be some shock and awe mixed into it, too?
Katara wondered if she could convince him to join her for a class (praying it’d be a day they went over mounting and bucking), but just as she worked up the nerve to ask his name— that was the best place to start, wasn’t it?— a car beeped behind her.
Startled, Katara blinked, switched his books from hip to hip in the span of two seconds, and turned towards the sound. A Jeep. A black Jeep, probably late 90s. It was different than what she expected, but somehow, it fit him. It was sexy, honestly.
“Your car?” she asked, stupidly. Duh, Katara. She cleared her throat loudly, tried again, this time without giving away the draw she felt towards him. “I’m guessing that’s your car?”
When her stranger nodded (and it was his turn to smirk now), Katara collected what was left of her dignity and marched towards it. His books went into the Wrangler’s backseat, set carefully beside a gym bag and leather briefcase. She made her way into the front, buckling in and folding her hands in her lap as he settled behind the wheel.
The car turned over and roared to life. Katara forced herself to stop staring at the muscles in his forearm when he gripped the gear shift. But, god, what she’d give to feel her way up to his biceps. Her gaze drifted over him, appreciative, wanting.
He was staring at her.
For the second time that night, Katara jumped. “Oh! Right, um— damn, you’d think I’d catch onto cues better, being interested in forensics and all,” she threw him an apologetic smile. “I’m in Liberty Park, on the corner of 36th and Perry.”
It was a little selfish of him, but it felt good to throw her off her perfect groove a couple times, when he felt like he’d been fumbling his way through the entire conversation. Zuko couldn’t remember the last time–if there ever was a first time–he’d been so flustered by a single person so quickly.
“A little more than a short walk away,” he noted evenly, eyebrow raised when she told him her address. He twisted in his seat to back up out of the parking spot, hand bracing against the back of her seat. A moment later they were rolling out onto the street. Zuko shifted leisurely, telling himself he wasn’t showing off (but he’d seen her looking at him and he was definitely showing off), driving at a pace perhaps a bit slower than he’d normally go. So what if he wanted to prolong the last leg of their time together? She was good company. He liked good company.
Eyes on the road and resisting the urge to look over at her every five seconds (damn, but he liked the way she’d settled into his car; was that an odd thing to appreciate?), he said, “We might be seeing more of each other, actually.” That hung in the air until he realized it was probably not the best place to stop. “Er–I’m in the forensics program, too. Kinda funny, in a way.” Now he did send her a glance. “Who would have thought of all the people to use me as a human shield would be a fellow forensic-er.”
Okay, that was a lame way of saying it just to get the alliteration, but it was too late to take it back now. He stopped at a light and, not for the first time that hour, wished he would think a little before he opened his mouth.
When she giggled–giggled–in clear amusement, he smiled crookedly, feeling a coil of heat winch tight in his groin at the sound. If his lame jokes made her laugh like that again, it would make them all worth it. The light turned green.
“Good thing social cues aren’t really the focus in a lab,” he remarked, more than a little self-deprecatingly. “I definitely would have failed out a while ago if they were. I mean, I hope you have some, like, you’re able to tell I’m not just gonna keep driving with you out to the middle of nowhere. Which I’m not going to do!” he amended quickly, inwardly groaning. This thing he was doing, rambling around this strange woman in his car whose name he still didn’t know, he was pretty sure he needed to figure out how to stop it. It was definitely going to get him in trouble sooner or later. That’s what happened with Mai, after all–just couldn’t keep his mouth shut when he should have.
Convenience saved him from further embarrassing conversational pitfalls, and after only a few more streets, he pulled up to the apartment building that had a worn sign reading Liberty Park out front. He pulled into an open spot nearby and debated cutting the engine. For what? Did he expect her to invite him up? What a ridiculous idea. He let it idle and shifted in his seat to look at her full-on.
“Thanks for the help carrying my books. And for the study offer–oh! I should, uh, get you my number…” He reached to the backseat for something to write on and with. It was only happenstance that he looked up to see someone walking toward the passenger side of the car.
The ride was… enjoyable. It took Katara by surprise, honestly; any other closed quarters with an unknown man and she’d clam up. But, he was funny. She actually giggled, like a silly little school girl, but it was a real, unadulterated giggle.
Her eyes shot across the center console at that, meeting his. His smile was wide, but hers had to be wider, and Katara could only shake her head, laughing more when he stumbled over his words, again. How fucking nice it was, to spend less than an hour around someone, and feel more like herself than she had in relationships past.
Not that this was a relationship. Shit. God— shit. Katara scolded herself, still smiling, definitely fighting off laughter. I mean, if he wanted it to be… something, she thought.
Her heart flip-flopped when he parked the car in front of her building. It stopped when he turned towards her, long, lean arms draped across the steering wheel and his seat, respectively. Then, it restarted, fast and thundering, she could feel it against her sternum, when he offered his number and reached towards the back.
A whiff of his cologne almost left her breathless, Katara sounded slightly faint, undoubtedly dizzy and needy, when she said, “And maybe your na—”
Her attention averted with his. He might’ve thought the approaching figure was just another stranger, like him. A visitor. Someone’s guest. A harmless passerby. Katara recognized the mess of hair and instantly, she knew better.
“Fuck,” she whimpered. “Oh, fuck. No… no, no, no.”
If it was possible for her heart to fall any further into the pit of her stomach, it did. Her fingers began to shake almost immediately. She tried to hide it by combing them into her hair, a pathetic, apologetic look cast in her ride’s direction as she told him, “You should leave. Okay?”
Katara had seen Jet break windows in a fit of jealous fury before; she scrambled from the Jeep onto the cracked asphalt quickly, hoping that wouldn’t happen.
“Go. I’m serious,” she hissed as she closed the door. Her stranger was still watching, his one, perfect eyebrow hooked upward in careful curiosity. Katara gave a terse shake of her head, then turned. “Jet—”
Her hands spread out in front of her, defensive, yet passive; the tremor in them was obvious. She locked out her knees to stay on her feet. “Jet, why are you here? What do you want?”
“Goddamn, Katara.” He titled his chin up, eyes raking down her frame. “You can’t help being uptight, can you? Maybe if you got that stick outta your firm little ass…” His tone carried a demeaning sneer, one that curled his upper lip into an ugly grimace. “I could help with that, you know… for old time’s sake.”
She chewed her lip, nostrils flared with every breath. Stay calm, she told herself.
“You can help yourself by leaving, Jet.”
“Oh, okay. Sure. I’m not gonna do that, but if you wanna make this night miserable by being a bitch…” He shrugged, gesturing over her shoulder. “Does your little friend know what a tight ass you are? Or that what he likes about you?” Jet laughed mockingly, then raised his voice. “Hey, bro! I hit it first!”
Shame colored her cheeks when Katara peeked back. The Wrangler hadn’t moved. The engine was still running and the watchful eyes staring back at her were cold. Confusion flickered on her face— why didn’t he just leave, save her this embarrassment— before Katara growled under breath and whirled on Jet.
“You need to go,” she stated, mustering all the authority she could. It’s what Toph told her to do: assess, then de-escalate. Get out of the situation before it turned violent. “Get off my front porch, Jet. Or I’m calling the police.”
It was that voice. Zuko would have recognized that voice anywhere.
As soon as his passenger recognized the person approaching, every warning light in Zuko’s head went haywire at her reaction. Eyes lingering on her hands as she got out of the car—the scrap of paper with his name and number lying forgotten in her seat—he felt a stony calmness settle over him.
When she told him to leave with desperation threaded through her voice and closed the door without waiting for him to say anything, when she pressed her back to the side of his Jeep as if she could melt into it, there really was no other choice he could make.
And then, he heard that voice. The cocky asshole who’d befriended him in anthropology a few years ago, only to turn around and start a fight with him when he found out Zuko’s family name. University police had intervened before either of them had done any real damage or gotten the upper hand, but it had done nothing to ingratiate him toward Jet. The fact that he was the ex who sent girls running behind the first thing they could find didn’t surprise him at all.
Even before she threatened Jet with calling the police, Zuko knew he was going to step in. Then Jet opened his mouth to address him, in the car and still unknown, and it was all Zuko could do not to run over and deck him.
I hit it first!
Zuko felt the anger boil and condense in him until it felt like a single, iron-dense ember lodged between his lungs. He cut the engine and got out, making his way around the Jeep and preparing himself for an altercation.
His mystery woman still leaned against the passenger door, hands partially raised and balled into shaking fists so tight her knuckles paled. Something taut in him threatened to snap into sharp, frayed pieces.
When he spoke, though his voice was rough along the edges, it was calm and hard. “I’m surprised she still remembers you, if you fuck anything like the way you throw a punch.”
Recognition flashed across Jet’s face and was swiftly overtaken by anger, his eyebrows disappearing beneath the mess of his hair they lifted so high. “You want a rematch, daddy’s boy?” The feral grin that slashed across Jet’s mouth was as much a challenge as his words.
A sneer curled up Zuko’s lip and he gave Jet the most aristocratic and condescending look he could muster. “Not really.” He stepped up to his impromptu evening companion and slid an easy arm low around her waist, his hand coming to rest protectively against her opposite hip, hoping she’d play along and not knee him in the nuts or something. He made sure to put an arrogant smirk on both his face and weave it smooth as silk into his tone. “We’ve already made plans for the evening. You’ll just have to go home unsatisfied.”
Don’t hit him. Don’t hit him. Don’t. Hit. Him.
It remained unclear to her with whom she was pleading. Yet, her mind set the words to a staccato beat, quick and stuttering, rattling around the inside of her skull like nails tapping glass.
Katara did not want an altercation; that was her last resort, a knee to the groin or fist to the nose. Jet would-maybe-walk away if she did it. The alternative was him hitting her back, something he wasn’t entirely against. But, she knew beyond any doubt, if mystery man popped off when he made it around the Jeep, Jet would press charges just to maintain his grip on her life.
Much to her relief, Daddy’s Boy slipped an arm around her waist instead, defensive, protective. She hadn’t expected that. Her resulting sigh was nearly audible.
Katara sagged back and to her left, right into him. Her shoulder wedged into the crook of his arm and her ribs lined his. The strong hand settled on her hip gripped tighter, offering a modicum of support, as much as was acceptable towards a-mostly-stranger.
And, as opposed to maintaining her awkward, nervous stance (something Jet would read in a second), Katara mimicked the man beside her: angling her hips toward him, one leg bent at the knee, an arm draped around his back with familiarity. Her fingers brushed midway down his spine. Katara wrapped them in his shirt with a silent plea— keep playing along, her thoughts screamed— as she slid her right hand across the front of him.
It was a simple matter of pretending, after that.
Smiling, she titled her head back, tucking her fears behind a facade of blushing girlfriend. “Don’t tell me I’ll be left unsatisfied.” A giggle; another light, flirty giggle. Katara even went so far as to tip up on her toes and nuzzle the man’s cheek. Her lips brushed his ear, fingers forgoing his shirt to scrape the back of his neck. “Of course, if you keep me waiting any longer… are you ready to go up, babe?”
A look was all she needed. His eyes, bless those soft, gold eyes, said he’d do whatever she needed. Katara nodded slightly, her permission for him to come up, and Daddy’s Boy skirted around Jet in a single, smooth motion.
Subtly, because it wouldn’t do for Jet to know this was her visitor’s first time here, she pointed out the correct staircase and they trudged up to the third floor. Well, Katara trudged.
Dejection made her foot falls heavy; fear made her legs weak. When she let her savior go, her expression taut and motions jerky, Katara fumbled in her steps. The adrenaline had worn off. She shut her eyes, centered the last of her waning energy on ‘turn the key, open the door, close it behind you, throw dead bolt.’
Darkness shrouded them. She slumped against the inside of her front door and blinked, focusing. The stranger in her apartment wore a look of concern.
“Sorry, I just—“ There was no way she wasn’t scaring him now, with her little shit show of a life.
Even her apartment, a cozy studio with plenty of windows and a small kitchen, was a mess. Half-unpacked boxes scattered the 700 square feet that she had. Packing paper littered the floor around them. Her bed frame was propped against the wall beside the unceremonious heap of bed clothes and a mattress.
“I- I moved in over spring break,” she stammered. “I haven’t had a real chance to do much with the place.” Katara’s only saving grace was her general level of neatness; she didn’t have to hurriedly hide dirty panties or other discarded garments. Not that she could move, anyway.
She was glued to her front door, her back flat against it. She clutched her keys so tight beneath her chin that her knuckles bled white. “God. I’m sorry. I’m— If you weren’t—” Her voice was tiny, hallow. “I… guess I should- should just be thankful I didn’t walk.”
Katara met the man’s gaze again, gulping down panic at the same time. She had to gather herself. She had a guest now, and as generous as he was, if she started crying or hyperventilating, his patience would surely run dry.
Giving up her defensive post near the door, Katara went to the refrigerator, forcing herself through a round of deliberate, even breaths.
“Anything to drink?” she asked, sounding remarkably calmer. “I have water, juice? Vodka— don’t tell the campus police.” Katara attempted a smirk, letting the refrigerator swing shut, but it fell flat.
She set the frosted glass of Absolut on the counter and stared at it. “You… really didn’t have to step in out there. And you… do you know Jet?” A confused laugh bubbled up. “I mean, it- it doesn’t matter if you do, I just… I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m not the first girl you saved from him.”
All he could do for the first few ragged breaths of being in her apartment was watch her. Zuko knew that for all his adrenaline had risen, it was nowhere near where hers probably had been—probably still was.
He trailed after her to the kitchen, keeping a modest distance between them, giving her whatever space she might need to steady herself. The memory of her tense against him wouldn’t soon leave him. (Neither would the feeling of her mouth against his jaw and cheek and ear, but that was hardly appropriate right then.)
Knowing that the offer for something to drink came mostly from the demand of nerves to do something with the dump of adrenaline into her system, Zuko smiled a little. There was no humor in the situation, but he understood it. He knew his face was perhaps a little too revealing in its expressiveness, but he could stop that about as easily as he could stop his heart from beating—not when he intimately knew about being in this kind of a situation. The urge to reach out and take her hand in his was nearly overwhelming, but Zuko also understood that physical touch might very well be unwelcome to her. He settled for putting a hand on the frosted vodka bottle.
The cold gave him a bit more room to organize his thoughts rationally. “I don’t really know him,” Zuko told her. “He picked a fight with me a couple years ago. This is the first time I’ve seen him since.” He paused, thinking back on the hair-trigger violence that had Jet swinging the first punch at him.
Dragging his eyes away from the vodka and up to her face again, his heart wrenched when he saw how tense she still was. Her voice was more even, but her shoulders were taut and her hands worried along her wrists and forearms absently. That was expected, but he still immediately and vitriolically hated it. The fact that the kinds of people who would do this shit to someone else existed in the world was exactly why he was pursuing his chosen field. “Do you want me to stay awhile?”
“If you want,” she said. “I’d hate to keep you any longer…”
Katara prayed her face didn’t give away the pure rush of relief in her veins. Half of her tension melted instantly with the offer, with the knowledge that she wouldn’t be alone. Not yet, at least; not until she’d had the chance to pump her blood full of alcohol so she could sleep.
Aiming for an even expression, one that didn’t reveal too much, Katara dropped her shoulders. A small, hesitant smile dawned on her lips when she tacked on, “I would be really grateful if you did.”
It took exactly three seconds for Katara to tear her eyes from him. She couldn’t stand there staring at him all night. Reaching for the chilled vodka— Daddy’s Boy slid it closer to her with a motion that he had to have designed around showing off his forearms— her head nodded towards the couch.
“Fortunately, that didn’t take too much unpacking or set-up,” she said, the faintest trace of humor entering her tone. Katara still felt shaken, but she was trying. “Make yourself comfortable.“
As he took her up on the suggestion, she turned away. Both hands scrubbed down her face, trying to dissolve the strain she felt in her temples and her jaw. She dropped them back to her sides, making tight fists and letting the tension go completely.
Katara quickly filled two tumblers with ice and what she guessed was about two shots of vodka before venturing towards the couch. His fingers brushed hers when she offered him the drink. Katara resolutely ignored the warmth of his skin and settled on the end opposite to him, legs folded under her body like she could somehow appear smaller.
That’d be nice, she thought darkly, to fold up and disappear. Or, she could become so tiny and light that she’d float away from the complete disaster she’d made out of this man’s night.
Katara stole a simultaneous sip and glance. Her companion looked at ease, somehow. One hand rested on the arm of the couch, the other held the vodka in his lap. His fingers gripped the glass with a certain amount of strength, strength that she’d find comfort in should he brush her wrist or palm her back again. Licking the smooth burn from her lips, she shifted so her position was more open to him and said, “I’m Katara, by the way. You might’ve heard Jet say that, though… among other things.” A light blush, accompanied by a disbelieving laugh, colored her cheeks. She looked away.
“I am sorry I’ve completely ruined your night,” she murmured. “You really, really don’t have to stay. I can call the police and they’ll park an officer outside for a while. They already know about everything.”
They already knew about everything.
The implications of that simple statement ricocheted around in his chest like someone had kicked a scattering of hot ash at him. More than that, the casual ease with which she said it made his fingers wrap tighter around the glass of vodka he held.
With her legs tucked beneath her, she looked almost diminutive, and it was in a tense manner even still, that very likely wouldn’t go away for at least a little while. Zuko was suddenly gripped by the desire to place his hands on her shoulders and knead out every knot he found there. It caught him off guard–he wasn’t a very tactile person with most of his friends, let alone people he barely knew. He took a mouthful of vodka, appreciating the cold burn as it ran along his tongue and down his throat.
Long fingers rubbed at the texture of her couch as he rested the glass back on his lap and looked over at her. Katara. He wanted to say it, to see if it tasted any different than other names in his mouth. “It’s nice to formally meet you,” he told her, inclining his head a little. He didn’t bother making a comment about Jet, though there were plenty he could probably come up with, none of them complimentary. “I’m Zuko. And I’ve had plenty of ruined nights in my life, and this doesn’t fall under that list.”
He tried to make his voice light, but felt like it fell short. Dropping his eyes to the glass and fiddling with the rim of it with his thumb, he added, “I’m sorry it went the way it did.” A fragile silence settled on the couch between them, quivering and threatening to shatter at the slightest noise. Being the one to make it, Zuko broke it, lifting his chin again to find her eyes with his own. “I’m happy to stay. Really.”
Katara’s entire body shifted as she drew in a breath to say something, her eyebrows drawn together in consternation, but he continued before she could. “I know I don’t know you, and this may seem like overkill, but, I’d… like to make sure nothing will happen. If you’re alright with me doing that.
All at once, he couldn’t keep holding her gaze, fearing that his own was too raw. He averted his eyes down to her floor, finding a random seam between two boards of hardwood and lingering there. Memories threatened to drag themselves to the surface–his mother, vanishing. That reporter trying to schedule an interview with his father about the disappearance turning up dead. Finding a concealer of dermablend in his sister’s bathroom he was pretty sure wasn’t for some embarrassing tattoo. There seemed to always have been too many things he couldn’t do, people he couldn’t make sure were safe when they weren’t. Maybe he could do better here, with her. Even if he hadn’t like Katara so immediately, he’d want some assurance someone was looking after her.
He took a longer drink of vodka–nearly all of it–to banish the memories from his head. “Besides,” he said, a rueful smile tugging at one side of his mouth, “what kind of fake boyfriend would I be if I left so soon after coming up with you?
He wanted to stay. Her first thought was how long? Overnight? Surely, this wasn’t what Suki meant when she teased about Katara’s newly single life and the waiting sleepovers. Katara shifted towards him further, one leg unfolding, her foot brushing the floor. Her lips stalled part way open, questions-why? what for? i’ll be fine-hovering silently between them. She wasn’t used to someone caring.
But, he—Zuko—caught her gaze and within it, Katara glimpsed the ragged edges of buried emotion. It kept her quiet, that depth in the gold, the earnest furrow in his bow. She tucked her chin, mouth pursed into a plump pout. He’d been through this before, hadn’t he? Or something similar to this: praying the days were boring and uneventful, hoping the nights passed quickly. And no matter the hour or the location, there was always that icy prickle of fear, like someone was watching, waiting.
Her eyes flicked to his, soft beneath soft lashes; the flicker in his was gone. A tug on the corner of his mouth, and Zuko’s throat tightened around a laugh and the last of his vodka. Katara polished off her own, burning away her private worries.
“A poor boyfriend, I suppose,” she jibed. A touch of shyness colored her face. Katara pretended to find particular interest in the wooden whorls on the floor.
Whatever heaviness that clung to the silence, it was all but gone. A smile slipped into place. She fought it— a lot of good that did, considering the warmth in her blood and the inhibitions it melted away. The vodka sat like a hot coal in her belly, buzzed around her head like dizzy butterflies. She gave into it, letting Zuko see her smile as she stood with lazy fluidity, teasing, “And I’d be a terrible, fake girlfriend if I didn’t make you feel at home.”
Katara gestured at the empty drink in his lap, her bottom lip caught between her teeth as she took and returned to the fridge. Refilling both hers and his, she balanced the chilled vodkas in one hand and grabbed a bag of chips, too.
“In case you’re hungry,” she offered, along with his drink. “I’ve got other food, as well, ramen and cheap-college-student shit.” her laugh was playful. “Take whatever you want. Stay as long as you like. I… am going to change… these clothes stink.”
She drifted towards the TV console, peeking into boxes. Finding the one she wanted, Katara sipped her drink before settling on her knees. She rifled through the mix of clothes and shoes (she’d been living out of boxes and was, quite frankly, sick of it, but life was too busy to worry about the state of her wardrobe for the time being). Her search ended when it produced a pair of silky sleep shorts and the matching cami.
Standing with the garments and her drink, she nodded towards another box, “I have more… like, comfy clothes. My- my dad’s clothes, big t-shirts…” Katara stammered, heat on her cheeks.
God, the alcohol was going to her head. He hadn’t breathed a word about spending the night. He was only staying. For a while. That implied… maybe midnight, at the latest. However long Jet hung around outside, he wouldn’t hover for more than a couple of hours. Hell, Zuko could easily leave at ten without any issue and here she was offering him clothes like they were having a fucking sleepover.
Katara let out a frustrated snort. It registered somewhere that Zuko had cleared his throat. She was staring. Her drink was halfway to her mouth and her mouth was halfway open. How long was she staring?
“Uh… Right, I…” Katara shook her head, trying to play it off like she was tired or tipsy. “I’m going to change.” As if she needed to announce it again. She was already a dithering idiot. “Dig around if you want. I’ll be back…Zuko.”
He watched her vanish into the bathroom with change of clothes in hand, and was immediately glad she hadn’t looked back and caught him gaping like a fish.
Zuko had always been more or less ambivalent about his name–and then she said it and he found himself wanting to hear her say it again. He let out a controlled breath, bringing sudden wayward–and entirely inappropriate–thoughts to heel. She’d definitely had a panic attack once they’d entered her apartment, and here he was thinking that he liked the way his name fell across her lips. He brought the glass to his mouth and drank.
No sooner had he admonished himself, than his mind focused on another realization.
Clothes. She was offering him… clothes. She must have assumed he meant he would stay the night, and he… well it was his first thought, but he hadn’t specifically said a time frame. He wanted to leave it up to her. It would come across as a little strange, he’d thought, to invite himself over and spend the night in her apartment only just now getting her name. Zuko stared at the freshly poured vodka back in his hands.
Did she want him to stay the night? His heart beat a little faster, and he tried to calm it with another healthy swig of his drink. It didn’t do much other than make his mouth tingle.
This was certainly the most eventful library trip of his entire life.
Get a grip, Zuko. She was set off-kilter; he didn’t even have to know her for that to be evident. It was probably the first thing that came to her mind when he offered to stay–that’s what people usually mean, after all. What was wrong with him, anyway? An attractive face (and body, let him be honest here) and a surprisingly pleasant company for half an hour, and all of a sudden he’s tripping all over himself. He hadn’t given any girls much thought since everything with Mai ended–aside from one disastrous date. After that, Zuko decided he really didn’t need the stress and drama of a relationship or trying to date around (which he was miserable at). Then he’d started his graduate program, and between that and helping his uncle with his business, there hadn’t been time to bother with finding someone to see. He’d been fine with that.
And then Katara had planted herself in front of him and it was like he was a ridiculous teenager with all gangle and no tact all over again.
When he got up to refill his glass, it occurred to him that she’d been in the bathroom for at least a good ten minutes already. A small part of him flared with concern and warning, but he stemmed it from growing any further. She was entitled to take however much time she needed; god knew that Zuko understood the need to decompress after spikes in stress and adrenaline like she seemed to have experienced.
So he resettled back on the couch, nestled the glass between his legs and pulled up a few articles on his phone he’d been meaning to read.
It was as if being in Zuko’s presence had a calming effect. Still inside an hour of knowing him, five minutes of having his name, and she felt… safe. But, the further she moved from him, the weaker her grip became on reality, until she was strangling a sob that lodged itself in her throat and rushing forward and closing the bathroom door just a touch too hard.
The cry tearing up her chest built, burst, then burned in hot streaks down her cheeks. She couldn’t see the small bathroom anymore. She saw— if Zuko hadn’t been there, if she’d walked from the library and bumped into Jet alone— Katara tried to shut out the possibilities, but this wasn’t the first time Jet had waited outside her door. He’d try again. He’d be angrier, maybe even violent.
And, she wouldn’t have her valiant stranger to save her ass by playing fake boyfriend.
Katara held her breath for a second and listened. She heard footsteps, rattling, glass against linoleum. Zuko was pouring another drink. Maybe he intended to stay…? Fake boyfriend meant fake sleepover meant… he had to commit to the charade for the night and sleep on her couch?
He wouldn’t though, if she didn’t collect herself.
Gripping her drink tighter, Katara found her reflection in the mirror. She looked a mess. Mascara smeared her cheeks. Her eyes were bloodshot from crying and far too wide. She wore the expression of a spooked deer; felt like one, too. This was all crazy… and new, someone respectful and caring and— What did Zuko even expect from her? They weren’t together. Katara understood the idea of hooking up, but even before Jet forced them both inside, the night’s trajectory didn’t scream let’s go have sex.
It was more of a let’s have sex on another day type of feeling, based on the easy flirting and friendly banter they had. Katara swallowed a gulp of vodka and took her phone from her waistband. Three seconds later, she had Suki on the phone, and she hushed her friend with a quiet hiss. “Shh… shh… I’m kind of hiding.”
“Okay…?” Suki was worried. “What’s going on?”
Katara flipped the faucet on to cover her voice. “There’s a ridiculously hot man in my apartment and I’m pretty sure I’m acting like an idiot.”
A pause extended on Suki’s end. Then, “Well, let’s start with this. Why are you hiding?”
Sighing, Katara sped through a quiet rundown of the events, starting with the library and ending with the last thing she heard: Zuko walking by the bathroom door and back to the couch. By then, she was rambling. “…I thought there was some potential with this guy, but, of course, Jet had to show up and Daddy’s Boy is now my fake boyfriend and—”
Suki laughed, “So, you’re calling me because Prince Charming is hanging out on your couch?”
“No, I’m calling because I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what he wants to do.”
“Katara, hun…” Suki let out a breath. “I think you’re worrying too much. To me, it sounds like he’s trying to be nice. He knows you’re shaken up and he’s offering his company in case Jet comes back. Honestly, it’s something Sokka would do. I don’t think Daddy’s Boy expects any reciprocation from you.”
“So, I just go back out there?”
“Wash your face and make it seem like you’ve had a productive fifteen minutes, but yeah… go sit by him on the couch.” Katara could hear the smile in Suki’s voice, then her friend squealed. “You have to text me tomorrow! Tell me how this goes! And I want details!”
Katara hung up.
It was still quiet outside the bathroom, and the water pouring from the faucet was steaming hot. She decided on giving Suki’s advice a try. She changed out of her gym clothes and into her silky pajama set, then rushed through her routine of face wash, night cream, and lotion all over her arms and legs. Katara was quick, but by the time she re-opened the door, a full twenty minutes has gone by.
Slightly shy, mostly apologetic, Katara smiled. “Sorry, Zuko… I didn’t… I didn’t mean to keep you waiting so long.”
When the faucet in the bathroom shut off and she opened the door again, Zuko felt a spool of something tight in his chest unwind a little. There was a certain worry that he had, not knowing quite how she handled stress, and he felt simultaneously awkward and wanting to hover in case… Well, in case he needed to administer first aid. Zuko would say she didn’t strike him as the sort, but not only did he not know her, he knew as well as anyone that looks weren’t always a good hallmark of bad habits.
”It’s no trouble,” he said, eyes still lingering on the last sentence of an article on non-verbal language he was finishing up. “It’s not like we were on a…” Words and rational thought flew completely out of his head when he finally lifted his attention to her. An immediate surge of heat coiled in his belly and tugged insistently at his groin.
Katara stood on the other side of the room, just outside the open bathroom door, wearing a matching camisole and short set that sent electric signals through him and straight down to his cock, skipping his brain entirely. Surreptitiously, he shifted his seated position under guise of putting his phone back in his pocket. The fabric looked almost like satin the way the shadows fell on it as she moved—wait, wait, she was moving toward him now, one of her dark eyebrows arched in question.
Oh, right. He’d stopped short mid-sentence like an idiot. Zuko’s brain sputtered into motion like an old engine coughing back to life. “Not on a schedule,” he finished, giving in to the compulsion to swallow. “We don’t have a schedule.”
For the second time within the space of two hours, Zuko resolutely kept his eyes on her face, trying his damnedest to not process the lengths of bared leg she had as she refilled her own drink and deposited herself again on the couch. She took up residence at the opposite end like she had before, and Zuko was grateful for small mercies. He was pretty sure he’d forget how to get home if she’d sat pressed up against him with the expanse of collarbone right under his nose. He wondered if she smelled nice.
Mentally taking a firm hold on his thoughts, he steered them back onto safe territory.
“Thanks for the drinks,” he said, not quite attempting at levity, but searching for something easy to work with, at least to start. It was a tricky situation, handling the topic of what was clearly an abusive ex, and he didn’t want to overstep any bounds. “It’s been a while since I had vodka. It’s a nice… change of pace.”
When she stepped out of the bathroom, the look on Zuko’s face was almost enough to send her darting right back in. He seemed stunned. His voice trailed off; his eyes trailed her body. With a bright blush spilling across her skin, Katara gathered enough courage to refill her drink and settle herself beside him.
Well… not right beside him.
Suki may have emboldened her, but the— appetite in Zuko’s eyes made Katara noticeably jittery. She kept to her spot on the opposite end, sitting sideways so she could see him without turning. Her back was wedged against the armrest and her knees, drawn up to her chest. Katara rested her vodka on her stomach. The ice clinked musically against the glass with each of her breaths. They were light, fluttery.
A quick inventory of her emotions, however, and she found her nerves to be far less related to Jet and more so, to Zuko throwing-–what he thought were—sly glances her way. Katara didn’t know gold could look so hungry. She fought a swell of heat in her belly and brought her drink to her lips, hoping the alcohol would somehow douse it.
“It’s not my usual libation, either,” Katara said upon swallowing. “I’m a cocktail kind of girl when I do go out and drink.” A little shrug lifted her shoulders. “But, I like a change of pace, too. It’s good. This is good.”
Another blush warmed her cheeks. She hadn’t specified what she meant by that, by good. It could be innocent, just the vodka or his offer to keep Jet at bay. Katara did appreciate his protective nature. It wasn’t something she was used to, having a… friend who cared so immediately and so immensely. Especially, a friend who was male. Or, she could’ve meant him.
Katara found she liked Zuko’s company, even more now than she had in his car. She liked the smooth rasp in his voice and the confidence in his posture. She liked how he sipped his vodka and gripped the glass while it burned down his throat. She liked how he threw a surreptitious glance in her direction, only to smile when he caught her looking back.
More butterflies leapt to life in her stomach, but Katara thought the moment felt natural. She felt natural. The adrenaline high was wearing away; the alcohol was slowing her down. She could take a deep breath and smile at him and silently admit to herself that yes… she’d like it if he stayed. She had a chance at that, didn’t she? All the drama, and he hadn’t left. All the drama, and… he was here, making sure she felt at ease.
Something akin to a chuckle made its way out on her next breath. Katara bit her bottom lip, her eyes darting from his, to the TV console, and back. She really only had one way to determine what he was thinking, if he was staying or going.
“Do you like movies?” she asked, unfolding from her position. “I can put one on, if you want.” Katara leaned towards him, silently requesting that he hold her drink, then slipped casually from the couch.
“I have a lot things… all categorized by genre…” She went to the TV console and opened a cabinet, a hip popped out as she stooped slightly to rattle off some options. “There’s… Disney, some Broadway things, horror… probably not a good choice tonight…” Katara muttered absently.
Bending over further, she skimmed a few DVD covers on the lower shelf. “Harry Potter? Lord of the Rings? Pirates of— No, Johnny Depp is problematic of late.” She peeked over her shoulder for a second, her smile coy. “Well, if you really have no input, Zuko… Mr. Darcy has never caused a problem.”
Katara straightened up with a laugh and turned her attention to the DVD player. She plucked the disk in question from its case and clicked it into place, then grabbed the necessary remotes and a blanket from the floor. Pride and Prejudice’s theme began playing as she returned to the couch.
“I’m sorry if I quote the entire movie,” she teased, sitting down at his side. “I’ve seen it about a hundred times and I still cry.”
For the first time since returning home, Katara felt a giddy excitement, something she attributed to Zuko, to his proximity. She hadn’t mean to sit like this, just a few inches away from his thigh, but she did. It’d be too weird if she moved, wouldn’t it? She couldn’t just… scoot down the couch.
Oh, what the hell did it matter? She could hear Suki scolding her in the morning if she didn’t, at least, try to be a functional human being. And functional human beings did this sort of thing. All the time.
So, Katara spread the blanket over her lap and his, telling him, “I’d offer you your own blanket, but I’ve only found one in all these boxes, so I hope you don’t mind sharing…” and taking her drink back when he offered it. She relaxed against the couch cushions, a shy smile finding him, then hit Play.