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“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.”
      
“You’re sure?”
      
“Yes.”
      
“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.

Chapter Text

If he were being absolutely honest with himself, and while he most definitely heard everything she said, Zuko wouldn’t be able to remember any of the movie options she listed off for him if she quizzed him on them. He very politely sipped his vodka and watched her fuss about her entertainment center over the rim of his glass while he held hers in his other hand, and allowed his eyes to wander. Just a little. He had no intentions of taking advantage of her, of course, but he was still alive, and couldn’t help a little ogling. She had been sending him flirty looks now and again over the evening; he didn’t think it’d be too out of line.
      
By the time she tossed him a look over her shoulder, he’d managed to compose himself with a respectable propriety, and gave her a smile once she settled back on the couch with a blanket–a lot closer to him, he noticed. He couldn’t not notice that, with her folded knee nearly brushing against his thigh. It was all hidden now, beneath their shared blanket, and he found himself wondering at the course of events that had led him here.
      
She must have really meant that she’d like him to stay, nestling back against the cushions as she was. It was… nice. She wasn’t using him as a shield, he wasn’t lugging books back to his car and driving her home, they were just… being. And a swell of contentment rose in him at not only how relaxed both he and this felt, but also that she seemed to be relaxed and comfortable enough to slap in a movie to pass the time. Zuko supposed that she could have put it on to cover up any remaining nerves or uncomfortableness, but he didn’t get the sense that was the case. It seemed like she just wanted… to watch a movie with him.
      
Unbidden, Zuko was suddenly glad that he was sitting leaning against his left side and she was on his right. She hadn’t said anything or even looked askance–that he’d noticed, anyway–at his scar, but sitting in such close proximity to her with no real agenda… it made him all at once self-conscious about it. He’d long ago made his peace with it, not too long after he disavowed his father and left home, but Zuko knew that it wasn’t… the most attractive thing. There were some guys that joked about women loving a good scar, but somehow Zuko didn’t think that his kind of scar was what the kind they meant.
      
Instead of commenting on how she might not have needed a blanket if she’d worn something warmer, or the fact that he should at least get the books he only had for that evening instead of watching a movie–things his sixteen year-old self would have blurted awkwardly–he shifted more comfortably and leaned against the arm of her couch. It was already a lot warmer under the blanket than not–though the weather was on the cusp of spring, the nights were still chilly, and Katara didn’t seem to keep her apartment on the overly warm side.
      
Putting a smile back on his face, he tilted his head to the side and looked down at her. “You might not believe me, but I’ve actually never seen this,” he admitted as the movie began. His smile widened. “I hope that doesn’t diminish your opinion of me, Katara.” If he wondered whether he’d enjoy the roll of her name in his mouth, the answer was that yes, he did.


 

Katara.
      
Her eyes flicked back to him, surprise in them. He’d said her name.
      
It only just occurred to her that he hadn’t before this, that he’d somehow avoided it, despite her using his twice. As much as she liked the sounds of his name in her mouth, Katara found his tongue moving around the light syllables in hers to be all the better. That rasp, that slight shift in pitch— Zuko made her name melodic.
      
And… she definitely was affected.
      
A blush tinted her cheeks and her lips were slightly parted. Katara caught herself staring up at him for at least a few seconds. Her brain was short-circuiting; did he say he’s never seen it? Her eyes drifted from his to the movie’s opening scene and she squeaked, “You haven’t?”
      
Lovely. Next to his beauty of a voice, hers came out with all the conviction of a mouse. Katara forced a swallow, forced herself to sound like a grown woman.
      
“It’s, um— it’s a classic,” she said, laughing with a slight shake of her head. Her neurons only now seemed to be firing. Katara drew her thumb and forefinger together above her brow, like she could pluck intelligence from her brain instead of the lesser: “It’s so beautiful. I love it.”
      
No shit. Why would she have watched a movie enough times to nearly memorize the script if she hated it?
      
Maybe she was too self-conscious in her responses to Zuko, but Katara slumped into the couch anyway, utterly annoyed with her less than insightful summation. Jet always found it annoying about her, her difficulty articulating the why’s and how’s of her love for things. He’d make her explain every detail. If she couldn’t, if her interest was as superficial as it’s wonderful, Jet would steal if from her. He’d berate her, barrage whatever she thought until Katara tucked it away or gave it up.
      
Sharing pieces of herself, even a movie as simple as Pride and Prejudice— yeah, it made the knots in her stomach twist. Would Zuko like it? Would Zuko be okay sitting through it? Did he actually wish to leave? Was he only staying to keep her at ease? Katara’s next breath was a petulant sigh that she hid within the rim of her cup.
      
It wasn’t until Zuko snorted with the antics of Lydia and Kitty at the public ball that Katara’s attention focused again. She’d missed the first several scenes of the movie, caught up in her own world of worries.
      
Blinking away the scowl on her brow, Katara perked up in time to say Jane’s line out loud:  "One day, Lizzie, a man will catch your eye and then you will have to hold your tongue.“ A chuckle tickled her throat and she glanced to her right, eyes bright above a small smile. “I told you I could quote it. I’m holding back just for you, Jane Austen newbie.”
      
She nudged Zuko’s shoulder with hers, then polished off her vodka. The cup was set on the floor and Katara nestled back, inadvertently closer than she was before. Had he moved? Had he shifted off the armrest? She was acutely aware of the warmth radiating from him. Her hands rested on top of the blanket in her lap, and whenever Zuko exhaled, the smell of vodka came with a hint of his cologne, tickling across her fingers.
      
Whoever it was that changed positions, she didn’t mind. Sure, she couldn’t focus on the film to save her life. She had to deliberately restrain herself from flexing her hands, because that would draw his attention to them. And, no, she did not wonder if his palms were calloused or if his fingers were strong. She had to resolutely refuse her legs any stretching room, because with her knees already tilted towards him, the only feasible position was her legs tangling with his. And, how ridiculous to assume she wanted to feel the rough scrape of his jeans against her bare skin.
      
But, no… no matter who had made the change, Katara absolutely did not mind it.

Because, eventually, she found her chance to shift closer. When Mr. Collins took it upon himself to propose to Lizzie and Katara quietly muttered Lizzie’s entire, enraged speech. When she snuck her elbow under Zuko’s arm to bump his ribs in boastful pride and he lifted it, spreading his hand out flat on the cushion behind her. That was her chance, her opening. His entire side was exposed to her and there was the briefest glance exchanged between them— gold meeting blue, heat flaring on her skin. Katara looked down, then back at the TV. She told herself if Zuko pulled away or never, ever wanted to see her again, that she could blame the slightly fuddled state the alcohol had created, and leaned against him.


She really did know the movie by heart, and he caught himself smiling every time he heard her murmur lines. Zuko wondered if she quoted her favorite parts more, or if it was just the ones the stood out slightly more in her memory. He suspected the former, as he noticed after a bit that she quoted Elizabeth’s character far more than any of the others.
      
The surprise that filled him when she pressed into his side sent a flutter through his stomach. Okay, so that’s what he’d been privately hoping might happen when he moved his arm, but he hadn’t held his breath for it. Zuko wasn’t really very good at the whole ‘smooth flirting’ thing, so when it actually worked the way he had wanted it to, he… had no idea what to do next.
      
Exhaling quietly so as not to alert her of his apprehension, he reasoned with himself. It didn’t have to be anything other than harmless flirting, and he really didn’t have to have a plan on what he should be doing. Katara seemed utterly unperturbed, so he took his cue from her and relaxed, letting himself just enjoy the warm press of her. She did fit very nicely against his side, nestled comfortably beneath his arm and on his hip. Heat filled his face and crept down his neck, and he was glad she was focused on the movie. Which he should also be doing.
      
In addition to quoting select lines, every so often she glanced up at him and gave him a bit of context to the movie that wasn’t readily apparent, or answered a question he had about someone’s backstory or motivations. She really did know the story inside and out, and it was… well, it was actually really cute. He murmured a soft apology when he leaned forward during one of the dinner scenes to place his long-empty glass on the floor to join her own. When he resettled, Katara hesitated in resting back against him, as if she were suddenly unsure she should be doing so. With a gentle press of his fingers on the shoulder furthest from him, he guided her back to his side, smiling above her head when she let him do so. His hand didn’t leave her shoulder.
      
Despite her encyclopedic knowledge, Katara still gasped and laughed softly as they watched, as if this were her first time seeing it. When they watched Mr. Darcy declare his affection to Elizabeth in the rain, Zuko felt Katara still and tense against him, and he glanced at her to see her eyes wide and enraptured by the scene. The fingers still resting on her shoulder gave a little squeeze, and he relished the smooth warmth of her skin beneath his hand, and the pleasant scent of… perfume? Lotion? He wasn’t sure, but it was light and made him think of the sea.
      
Everything combined made him acutely aware of her, the expanding of her ribcage as she breathed, the folded curl of her legs now fully pressed against his thigh, the heat that radiated from her and combined with his beneath the blanket. If he’d been told yesterday that he would be watching a movie with someone he’d only met a few hours before, nestled beneath a blanket together as if they really were dating, Zuko would have laughed. He hadn’t had an actual date in over a year–despite his uncle’s attempts–and the ones he’d been on had always had something go awry. Even with Mai, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to pinpoint a time in the five years they had dated that they had been so relaxed and comfortable as to curl up on the couch and do something as simple as watch a movie together with no other pretense or worry.
      
Zuko frowned. He’d always been concerned that she wasn’t happy–Mai had always been an expert at hiding her feelings, even from him (perhaps especially from him)–and as such, something as unassuming as popping in a movie classic and enjoying it had always felt like he should be doing more for her. He flexed the hand of his that wasn’t resting on Katara’s shoulder and banished the thoughts of his ex. It certainly wasn’t his place to be responsible for Katara’s moods, and anyway, she’d already declared her love of this movie, so he wouldn’t have had to concern himself even if he was. The thought struck him that she’d so casually and easily told him how much she loved Pride and Prejudice, and it was confirmed by her quoting and trivia. He didn’t need to guess if she was enjoying herself or not, and that thought was… liberating.
      
A quiet tenseness eased a little from his frame, and he tightened his arm around her minutely. The revelation that he could spend time with someone and enjoy what they were doing–even something this simple–without worrying had the ghost of a smile lingering on his mouth. Zuko turned his attention back to the movie proper and found he could allow himself to be sucked in by the story, and he didn’t have to feel bad about it.


Don’t think about it. Don’t you dare bite your lip. A slow breath came and went through her nose; Katara tried to talk herself out of dying. It’s just a hand. A guy’s hand. A very hot guy’s hand on her shoulder. Touching her shoulder.
      
It wasn’t working.
      
Her skin tickled under his touch, sending goosebumps down her arms, and her heart jumped to a new pace. Here, this close to him, she caught a hint of his shampoo and the soap he used. She could feel his lungs expanding and retracting. With stolen glances, she studied the shadow of stubble on his jaw, the aristocratic slope of his nose, the—
      
Katara had to force her eyes to the television. She’d never been sly. Zuko would inevitably catch her staring and what business did she have eyeing the kind stranger who’d saved her? The last thing she wanted to do was make an awkward mess of this. Zuko wanted her beneath the crook of his arm, right against his side, and that felt… good. It felt like something she liked.
      
She wasn’t having to vie for his affection over his phone or computer. She didn’t have to cringe every time she giggled or sighed, fearing he’d snap. She was relaxed, free. And, more than that, Zuko liked how her reactions came and went with the emotions on-screen. He laughed with her, smiled down at her, squeezed her shoulder a little tighter or rubbed her comfortingly when he sensed tension. He was as drawn into the story as her, made evident by a confused grunt that drew her attention.
      
“Darcy fixed the scandal of Lydia’s elopement,” Katara explained, murmuring low in his ear. “He paid Mr. Wickham to marry her, so the family’s honor wouldn’t be ruined.” Her eyes drifted from the handsome angle of Zuko’s cheekbone to the screen. In their bed, Lizzie was very unconvincingly telling Jane she had no feelings for Mr. Darcy. Katara chuckled quietly and laid her head on Zuko’s shoulder. “Lizzie’s just realized she’s wrong about him.”
      
It was simple, natural, after that— she let her weight press into Zuko more, let her legs fall further into his lap. His thigh warmed her skin and he felt strong, like he could pick her up or hold her with ease. She tried not to think about that… her thoughts would certainly leave a decent path. But, all of him was warm, coaxing her closer, and she liked how she could settle under his arm, how easily she fit beside him. Katara couldn’t get enough of it.
      
So, when the film ended, a selfish part of her didn’t want to move. There was a physical comfort in being close to someone after Jet left her a touch shaken up; Katara wasn’t sure she was ready to let her company go. And that was the other side of it. It being past eleven, Zuko was, at this point, either staying or leaving. Fortunately, his impending departure wasn’t dire. He seemed content to sit with her until half the credits had scrolled by.
      
Finally lifting her head, a sigh hummed through Katara’s lips at the change in position. Her legs uncurled, stretching out over his. Before Katara could help herself, she leaned away, laying flat out on the couch with her arms above her head. For a long, held breath, every muscle flexed. The gym had left her sore, and sitting in such a tight position for one-hundred-and-twenty minutes made stretching better than sex. Her back curved above the cushion slightly, then Katara relaxed her taut body with a moaned breath.
      
She found Zuko’s gaze from where she lay, and smiled lazily. “Well, that’s it… I hope you enjoyed it.”
      
Propping up on her elbow, Katara fished around the floor for the blanket. It’d fallen when she untucked herself from Zuko’s ribcage, taking the remote with it. Finding it, Katara hit Stop. The TV flashed back the DVD menu, where images of Lizzie and Darcy faded in and out to the film’s main theme.
      
A hundred and one views and it’s still my favorite,” Katara said. “It’ll always be one of my favorites.” She grabbed a pillow and stretched out on her back again, her legs still draped over his lap. “Mr. Darcy is… probably one of the best love interests in film and I just really love Lizzie. You might’ve noticed, considering my memorization of all her lines.”


 

Zuko really did intend to say something complimentary about the film, or maybe even some witty comment about the characters or plot, but the moment Katara stretched out against him and he felt the slide of her bare legs across his lap, anything intelligent he might have come up with no longer existed in his head.
      
The camisole she wore rode up as she arched her back, baring her stomach and sending heat roiling about in Zuko’s own. He felt her legs tense against him as she flexed all the way from her hands to her feet, and he very quietly drew in a deep breath. It didn’t help–the slide of the blanket off her lap from her shifting released a captured pocket of air that carried the light sea scent and something headier with it. The combination hit his senses a moment before she released a breathy sound from his side, and he could not have stopped his eyes from wandering over to her and along the line of her body had his life depended on it.
      
Yup. It had definitely been far too long since the last time he’d been laid, and it was becoming evident. Very carefully, very gently, as nonchalantly as he could, Zuko placed his hands on her calves (thank whatever providence it wasn’t her thighs) and moved them a few inches toward his knees. Thankfully, it was about that time that she replaced the blanket over both their laps and while he could still very much feel everything–the curve of the backs of her legs now pressed against his outer thigh, the smoothness of her legs beneath his palms–at least it wasn’t in plain view anymore for him to become more embarrassed over. He leaned his head back against her couch and let out a breath as he stared at the ceiling and tried to think about very un-arousing things. Potatoes. The seam of drywall tape right above him. His uncle brewing tea. A dog taking a piss on the sidewalk.
      
Her voice brought him back to the moment–considerably more composed, thankfully–and he lifted his head up again to look at the menu screen. “Yeah… I can see why you like it so much. I’m not sure I would have been able to follow half as well if I’d just watched it alone.” Of its own accord, his mouth curved up in a smile. It was so easy to do that around her.
      
Off to the side, the blinds were still open over one of her windows, and the night sky was black. It occurred to him that it was getting pretty late–he wasn’t entirely certain how late, but it might upset their configuration if he were to dig into his pocket to check his phone. With a mental shrug, he let it go. It didn’t matter how late it was; when he made up his mind to stay (and she’d agreed), he intended to stay as late as she let him. Though… his pulse quickened a little and he felt a bit guilty at the thought, but making sure her ex didn’t come busting in through one of the windows had somehow become a secondary reason he wanted to stay. Somehow–that was a lie; he knew exactly how. For some random person he’d just met that night, he immediately enjoyed her company.
      
He was even able to forget the unpleasant set of circumstances that set everything into motion, and while Zuko wished she’d never had to deal with it, he couldn’t say that he wasn’t glad he was sitting on her couch with her legs stretched out over his lap.
      
With the vodka was warm in his belly, mixing pleasantly with the coils of attraction that had settled there, a yawn crept up on Zuko, making him lean back in his own partial stretch. One hand lifted from her leg to cover his mouth with the back of it, and then returned to settle in the same place. “Sorry,” he said, casting her a look, then went on. “Did you want to watch another movie, or go to bed…?” He trailed off, giving a questioning glance around her small apartment, and landing on the bed frame that still rested against one wall, unassembled.


 

She considered herself to be a decent read on body language. She’d spent a fair share of hours studying it, how to know when someone was lying, how to judge erratic behavior or pick up on danger and other motivations. When she wasn’t flustered, when her blood was more than molten lava in her veins, she was better at it. 
      
But, as hot as her skin felt, as bright pink as her cheeks had to be, there were always… obvious tells: the dilation of the pupils, the strain in the neck, a rapid pulse.
      
From where she lay, Katara could see the quick-fire beat right below Zuko’s jaw. And her first thought… her very, first thought, when his hands settled on her calves and his head tilted back, was how he’d smell right there. How would he react if she kissed him there? If she slid her fingers into his hair and sought his lips?
      
A guess said it might be welcome. There was no mistaking the look in his gaze. Even after a moment spent staring at the ceiling, Zuko’s eyes were still more pupil than iris. The thin sliver of gold flashed with something she was… almost scared to name, because doing so would mean naming the same wanting look in her own.
      
She’d been fighting to suppress it ever since Zuko touched his fingers to her skin, fighting this… heat. But, the smell of it on her was palpable. And, it got worse; so much worse— It turned to a wildfire in her belly, prickling her skin with the faintest sheen of sweat, sending her breath out in with a light, fluttery sigh— the longer he touched her, the longer his hands rested on her leg, the longer he looked at her. He yawned and stretched, flexing his hips up as he did, trailing off with the question of bed. 
      
Her mouth fell open with a nearly inaudible whine. “Um. Bed’s fine. We can- can go to bed.”
      
Katara had to physically repress the urge throw herself at him; her body tensed, again. She was already halfway in his lap, with her legs strewn across him. It’d be easy, a simple matter of slipping one knee on either side of him. And denying herself the privilege of friction against the lap of his jeans (god, where had her better sense gone?) only made the fire between her thighs burn brighter, made her ache. 
      
How had it been since she’d had sex? Good sex. Hot sex. The kind that left her sore for days. The kind that had her begging for more, and more. Zuko… she could see it with him. She could…
      
Fuck. Unbidden, her lungs expanded with a sharp, short breath. Katara closed her eyes and crossed her legs at the ankle, squeezed her thighs together. Her hips pressed down into the couch of their own accord, like she could somehow find relief from the pressure between them. She had to stop. She had to pull herself together. She was going to fall apart without any stimulation at all and lord, would that be a way to scare a guy away.

Her eyes flicked open. Bless whatever god there was, Zuko wasn’t looking at her. Maybe he hadn’t noticed the way she was reacting to him. His gaze was cast across her apartment, focused on—
      
Katara sat up, arms braced behind her, legs no longer crossed but still draped over him, and followed his line of sight. The bed frame. 
      
“You don’t have set it up,” she murmured, shrugging like faux indifference could make her heart slow down. The strap of her camisole fell off her shoulder. “Not unless you…”
      
Katara turned back to him, trailing off. Her bare collarbone now had Zuko’s undivided attention. His eyes followed the swoop of it across her chest, traveled up her throat until he was looking at her again. Her breath caught. He was closer than she remembered him, their noses close enough that she’d hardly have to move to bump his. For a full three seconds, Katara couldn’t remember her train of thought.
      
“Unless you’d sleep better on a put-together bed, but…” Her tongue flicked out over her lips as she studied his. They looked soft, delicious. “I can assure you, the mattress will function just fine.”


 

Everything he had done had been in vain. He felt her wriggle her legs a bit and had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep himself steady. The vodka he’d drank–a bit too quickly–seemed to be catching up to him, because he felt like he was teetering on the cusp of doing something he really, really oughtn’t.
      
Especially when he could feel the ghost of her breath against his mouth. When had she gotten so close? he thought frantically. The staccato of his heart filled his ears and thudded in his chest. She wet her lips and it was all Zuko could do to remember to breathe. He let out a ragged breath and watched her eyes fall to his mouth.
      
The mattress will function just fine.

      
It’d been a long while since he’d found someone he wanted to do anything with, but his eyes fell again to the shadow along her collarbone. His lips parted slightly as he raised his hand to her shoulder, lightly brushing the bare skin there with callused fingers and watching the spread of goosebumps that followed his wake.
      
“I’m sure it does,” he heard himself murmuring, his focus now intently on where he placed his thumb at the juncture of her clavicle. He could feel the echo of her pulse beneath the pad of his thumb–or maybe it was his? He didn’t know for sure, but the soft intake of her breath at his touch emboldened him. Even as his cheeks burned with their own heat, he turned to face her more, his other hand remaining on her bare calf. It slid up, feather-light, as he moved, but stopped just below the knee with a shaky sort of trepidation. The very tips of his long fingers just barely brushed the beginning of the back of her knee.
      
Though he had no conscious thought to do so, he leaned closer to her; she was a flame and he but a doomed moth. Her back mirrored the curve of his spine and they maintained a tremulous distance with his thumb skimming along her collarbone and one of her hands now come up to press lightly against his ribcage. He would have stopped if she had put any real kind of resistance against him, and as it was he hesitated even still; the rush of his blood demanded he keep going, but he exhaled and forced patience upon himself.
      
All thoughts of sleep or putting a bed frame together were completely gone from his mind, with Katara as his sole focus. He spared no thoughts for seams on the ceiling now. The alcohol in his system made him braver, the way her head had fallen against his shoulder earlier made him breathless, and the blue blaze of her eyes made him ache. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been this attracted to someone this quickly. Turned now as he was to face her better, he could easily press her back into the cushions on the couch, and if the heat coming from the juncture of her hips was any indication, he thought she just might let him. His hand drifted up to encapsulate her knee, fingers now finding her thigh and the muscles beneath her skin. His grip tightened a little, just to see, just to test–and when she flexed her leg back against his hand, he bit back a pleased growl when he found it strong. He immediately wondered if she would wrap them around his waist or if he could sling one up onto his shoulder.
      
Her hand fisted in his shirt where it lay on his ribs, and he thought for sure she would feel the thunder of his heart beneath. His only saving grace from bearing down flush against her was the twist of his hips and the sweep of both her legs still collected in his lap.


 

The moment he brushed her shoulder, she knew she was doomed.
      
Electricity sparked across her skin. Her heart beat so wildly, Katara swore he could see it: the fast, hard rhythm beneath her breast. Her breath, too, slipped from her control— so quick, so shallow. If he couldn’t see it, he could feel it in her pulse. It thundered, almost painfully, when his fingertips brushed the curve of her neck. It set a tremor in her limbs, muscles shaking and tensing under his hands.
      
She was a mess. She was falling apart so quickly. He tickled behind her knee, pulling a sharp sigh from her, a little exhalation that accompanied fresh tension in her hips. Katara squeezed her legs again, her eyes flicking to his. Maybe that’s what melted her, ignited her— watching gold come alive as his hand settled on the muscular curve of her thigh.
      
He stopped. Right there. Far enough from the damp heat between her legs to feign propriety, yet close enough that there was no mistaking his caress for innocence. She flexed, eyes begging him. His body was a taut line; hers was on edge. He was fire, eating up all the oxygen, and she was lightheaded, dizzy.
        
“Zuko…”
      
She wasn’t sure what she meant by it, by that desperate whisper of his name. A warning? Possibly. If he didn’t stop looking at her like that, she’d whither away. An invitation? Just as likely. If he didn’t keep looking at her like that, didn’ttouch her like that, she’d burst into flames.
      
Did that make his name a plea…? Katara said his name again, testing it, tempting him. “Zuko.”
      
For a moment, just a moment, a thread of indecision stretched between them. She didn’t wait for him to make up his mind. Her hand tightened in his shirt. Her other found Zuko’s where it dug into her thigh, and Katara followed his arm up to his neck. She twisted her fingers into his dark hair, tilting her head, holding the back his. They were so close… close enough, now, that her nose nudged his. Her breath tickled his lips.
      
And, that was all it took. If there was any, any resistance at all — There wasn’t. She gave him just a beat to pull back, but he was rushing into it all the same. — It vanished.
      
Their lips collided like they’d been starved of each other. Katara closed her eyes, humming approval from low in her chest.  She was immediately pliant, following his lead. His mouth was soft and insistent; warm and demanding. She let her lips open partway, granting Zuko the access he seemed to want. His tongue found hers and suddenly, Katara was overwhelmed by the lingering taste of vodka, the taste of lust. She moaned— moaned, when the fingers on her collarbone ghosted up her neck, when the hand on her thigh slid further up, gripping the thick of the muscle right at the junction of her leg and hip.
      
Could he feel it? The energy beneath her skin? Could he sense it? Surely, he could smell it on her, the smell of sweat and the scent of sex. Her blood thrummed with the unrelenting need to feel his weight on her, to have his hips flush with hers.
      
She wasn’t sure who did it. If Katara had to guess, the answer would be her. She was… greedy. For this. For him.
      
The leg closest to Zuko’s waist, the one barring him from coming closer, from bearing down on her, hips-to-hips, shifted. Katara pulled it from his lap, gave him the space he needed. Her fingers tugged his hair and his shirt, tugged him down with her as she fell back on the couch.
      
Another moan. Louder this time. And, swallowed by him.
      
Their kiss turned feverish as her legs parted for him. She’d found that friction she wanted, the feel of calloused palms on her hips, the rough scrape of denim against sensitive skin. She whimpered with it, the sounds in her throat hungry. Zuko drank them in. Zuko made sounds of his own.
      
And, if Katara had to guess again— Though, was it really a guess? When she knew? When she could feel him, the hard, thick length pressing against her through tight jeans and wet satin? — She’d guess that he wanted her as much as she did him. 


 

Zuko was going to lose his mind.
      
That was it. It was a simple as that.
      
Katara tasted of vodka and something a little sour, and it was an intoxicating mix that drove him careening to the edge of rational thought. Then, he tasted his name in her mouth and decided losing his mind was worth it.
      
Her hips rolled beneath his hand and he was flush against her, the only barriers between them agonizingly, frustratingly thin. The throb of his heart dropped to nestle itself between her legs, driving his need, his want to a singular head. Zuko rolled his own hips in automatic response against her, acutely able to feel her damp even through the thickness of his jeans. Some distant part of his mind registered that he couldn’t do much more clothed as he was, but a more prominent instinct kept him succumbing to a daringly slow rhythm against her.
      
Her camisole rode up beneath the spread of his fingers, and her side shuddered warm and smooth beneath them. The desire to snag the bones of her hips bruisingly tight flashed through his mind, but Zuko somehow kept his hands under control; gripping but not clutching, strong but not quite gentle.
      
She sighed against his mouth again and he captured it, forgetting for a moment everything else but the focal point of how her lips felt and tasted against his own. Katara made him feel like he was drowning mouthful by mouthful, and happily, he gasped for more.
      
Somehow he dragged his lips from hers and buried his nose against the hinge of her jaw. Sweat and the sea and her skin’s own scent engulfed him and made his breath flare out hot against her throat. He heard her suck in a sharp breath and he tested his lips against her skin there. She shuddered beneath him, prompting another small roll of his hips and a soft groan against her neck. His skin burned wherever her hands roamed over him, even when they weren’t directly touching it. The hand that had lingered on her collarbone skated down her side, his thumb tracing the outer curve of her breast. Where his fingers came to rest just beneath, on her ribs, he could feel the shaking beat of her heart. Zuko was going to come undone with no virtually no effort on her part.
      
It’d been too long, some part of his mind suddenly hissed. She was going to unzip his jeans and would only have to run a single stroke along him before he came. Zuko was plunging headfirst and he was going to embarrass himself and leave her woefully unsatisfied. He had to pull back, make sure this was drawn out as long as she wanted it–it would take so very little to get him ready again, and he desperately wanted to explore her before letting himself unravel.
      
Drawing in a ragged breath, he could not find the immediate motivation to separate himself from her; she was supple and firm in ways and places that were driving him wild, why would he ever want to drag himself away from that?
      
Katara threaded her fingers through his hair again and pulled him back to kiss him. Unbidden, unwanted, her dark hands trembling against the white of her apartment door flashed through his mind. Zuko tasted vodka on her tongue and the reason why it flooded his senses made his own mouth suddenly become bitter. His lungs protested as he peeled back, bracing himself up with arms on either side of her, his heart still pounding at the apex of her thighs.
      
“Katara,” he said, nearly breathless. The syllables of her name made him want to taste more of her, but he bit that thought back. He’d just learned it not more than a handful of hours ago, and here he was, ready to fuck her like he didn’t even care who she was? Especially after how they met in the first place, why he didn’t learn her name from the get-go, it felt more than a little disingenuous to keep with his current trajectory.
      
With a great deal of effort and self control, Zuko forced himself to back away from her, to sit with the small of his back jammed hard against the arm of her couch. The skin down to his chest was hot, and he only stopped himself from dragging her against him now by scrubbing a hand roughly over his face. Even then he couldn’t dismiss the sight of her from his memory (and wagered he wouldn’t be able to for quite some time): both straps of her camisole were hanging off her shoulders, her lips were swollen from kissing him, her eyes dark and hooded with desire. It was almost enough to send him crashing back into her, but he bit down on his tongue to distract himself from the insistent pulse in his cock honing in on her like a dowsing rod.
      
“Katara,” he tried again, swallowing thickly and feeling like his mouth was full of sandpaper. “I… I don’t…” God it was difficult to think when he could still smell her, so close to him even still, when he wanted her so badly.
      
Confusion warred with arousal across her face, and it was enough to send a lump of despair plummeting into his stomach. An entirely different kind of desperation clawed at his insides. “I just… fuck. I don’t feel so well.” He unfolded himself from the couch, blurting the first thing that came to his head, and bolted to her bathroom. With any luck, she would think he was going to go throw up or something from the alcohol.
      
Zuko hoped he had a sliver of luck, for once in his life.
      
Shutting the door a little too quickly behind him, he pressed his back and tipped his head against it, unsuccessfully trying to will away the throb against the fly of his jeans. He’d nearly just blithely fucked a girl he barely knew, and he never did that. She’d trusted him, a complete stranger, enough to step in-between her and Jet, and he’d nearly just fucked her, wham-bam-thank you-ma’am, without so much as a flyaway thought spared. Zuko clenched his teeth even as the thought well now you may never get to flit through his mind, and he hated that he gave it weight. He wanted to, oh he had wanted to sink himself deep into that dampness of her until he forgot his own name, but was that really worth taking advantage of her in an arguably compromised state? Adrenaline and alcohol were dangerous bedfellows, this he knew, and more than he wanted her, Zuko knew he would have never forgiven himself if he would have ignored that combination and continued.
      
“Shit,” he said softly to her bathroom ceiling.


 

 She couldn’t imagine what she must look like to him.
      
Well… she probably looked similar him: wide-eyed and panting, a pink flush on her cheeks, pulse thundering. Her gaze tracked him to the other end of the couch; Katara lifted her head to look at him, confused by the sudden shift and half expecting Zuko to invite her into his lap. She’d go so willingly, unzip his pants and pull them past his hips; his boxers, too. She’d sink down on him slowly, whining his name again. She’d wait for him to beg, then she’d—
      
His eyes left her, darkening with… disgust? He looked sick. Then, he said he was sick.
      
Abandoning her on the couch, Zuko was up and bolting across her little apartment before Katara could blink. The bathroom door closed fast and hard, rattling in its frame. In his absence, the room went dead silent, a stark contrast to the hot, heavy breaths he’d moaned into her neck.
      
Embarrassment bulldozed her, made her shaky, and not in a good way. Katara fell back on the cushions, drawing her knees together and covering her mouth with both her hands. What the fuck was she thinking? What the fuck was she doing? Zuko had… god, she’d only known him as Zuko for a few hours and she was ready, willing, to fuck him? She studied the ceiling like it had the answers for her, because she had none of her own. She’d never been the type to—  
      
‘Hey, bro! I hit it first!’

      
Jet’s snide remark flickered through her head. Did that… was that part of Zuko’s motivation to come up with her? Maybe he didn’t feel protective; maybe he assumed she’d be an easy lay if he stepped in as her hero. Or was that comment, the ease with which Zuko found her under him, what made him pull back? Maybe his mind jumped to how many other men she’d let hit it just like that—just like Jet–-but then again, Jet always said she was a stupid slut.
      
Tears burned in her eyes, blurring the lines she searched on the ceiling. Her breath hissed out through her nose, carrying a small whimper that she tried to bury, and Katara bit the inside of her lip hard enough to taste iron. The pain did nothing for the insistent ache between her legs, and as she slipped to her feet (she couldn’t very well be in the same spot when he returned) it’s made obvious by the wet warmth inside her shorts, the damp arousal on her thighs, how badly she wanted him.
      
And she just… laid there, frozen in confusion, legs spread for him as he stared at her. Like a stupid slut. No wonder Zuko darted off, muttering about being sick.
      
Dragging her fingers through her hair, Katara shoved aside the boiling insecurities and turned the TV off. She collected their empty glasses, taking them to the kitchen, and dumped them in the sink. As she put the vodka back in the fridge, her eyes slid over a bottle of Pepto Bismol and Katara had the immediate that that she was being selfish. Zuko could actually be sick, having had three doubles on an empty stomach. It was unfair of her to assume otherwise, to assume it was solely her, no matter how Jet made her feel in the past. She would never–-ever—be the type of woman to guilt a man for withdrawing consent. Katara knew what that felt like; Jet did it to her all the time, ‘til she eventually stopped putting a fight and just found the mood.
      
She couldn’t, absolutely could not, make Zuko feel bad if, even though he seemed willing physically, something had changed internally. It was probably best they stopped, anyway. They hadn’t had a single discussion about birth control or condoms or STD testing, so maybe… yeah, it was better.
      
A sigh came up with another bubble of uncertainty, but Katara ignored it. She took the Pepto Bismol from the fridge and rummaged through her shelves some more, finding what she wanted: a pack of crackers and some ginger ale. Katara left the items on the counter where Zuko could easily see them, assuming he ventured out of her bathroom.
      
Maybe he’s so turned off now, that he’s planning to stay in— No. No.
      
With a shake of her head, Katara dispelled the depreciating thought. There was no reason to worry. She… was attracted to him, obviously. She liked his company. But, it didn’t mean anything was specifically wrong with her if the whole night went to shit. She had to keep telling herself that.
      
Besides, she was in the bathroom for twenty minutes herself and Zuko didn’t complain. His delay gave her time to strip the bed of its sheets and throw on a clean set. Katara smoothed the edges before laying the comforter over the mattress, again. She hesitated, though, when the chore was done and the bathroom door was still closed. Light from inside outlined the frame, and she thought she could make out Zuko’s shadow on the floor, but Katara wasn’t sure.
      
Hoping it wasn’t weird, she decided to make the invitation to sleep beside her obvious, without putting any pressure on him to actually do so. Katara folded the comforter down on one side, then fluffed his pillow, too. She made sure the couch was tidied up, with the blanket they’d used during the movie, just in case he wanted to sleep there. After, she clicked off the lamp by the couch, leaving the kitchen light on for him, and settled on her side of the mattress with her phone, flipping through missed notifications to kill time.


 

Zuko couldn’t hear much through the bathroom door, which he counted as a blessing, since that meant she couldn’t hear much through it either.
      
Not that he was being particularly loud, taking deep, steady breaths to try and calm down. Every time he thought he was making progress, he’d remember the hooded looks Katara gave him ten minutes ago, or the feel of her bare side beneath his palm, or the smell of her infiltrating his nose, or the taste of her mouth–
      
A frustrated exhale marked the rise in his arousal–again. This was becoming an annoyance. It was time for his failsafe.
      
Dragging himself away from the door, Zuko eyed her sink. It wasn’t quite large enough for him to fit his entire head under the faucet, but he also didn’t want to resort to using her tub. That… would probably come across as a touch odd. So, the sink it was.
      
Gripping the sides of the basin, Zuko leaned forward and stared at the drain for a while before looking up at the mirror at himself. The scar on the left side of his face seemed brighter red than usual, and it made him wonder if it flushed with color when his unmarred cheek did. The rest of him was in disarray. The top few buttons of his shirt were undone, and it was somewhat rumpled from the day in general, and from her hand fisting in it. His hair was disheveled, even short as it was, and there were faint red marks beneath his jaw from her mouth.
      
Thoughts of Katara beneath him swelled in his mind when his eyes alighted on the marks on his neck, and so he shut them and drew in another deep breath. He needed to be able to function like a normal person again before he could head back out there. What would she think if he went back out with a hard on still raging in his pants? Zuko was pretty damn sure he’d thoroughly killed whatever mood had been between them, so it’d be inappropriate at best, and disgusting at worst. He really didn’t want Katara disgusted at–or with–him if he wanted to get to know her more. And that was something he did want to do.
      
Raking fingers back through his hair, Zuko exhaled again. Turning the cold water on, he let it run for several seconds, occasionally testing the temperature with a few fingers. Once it got icy, he cupped his hands beneath it, sucking in a sharp breath at the chill, then leaned his face over the sink and unrepentantly doused his face with the water. Several times. It was so cold it made him gasp, and by the fourth time, though he was starting to adjust to the cold, his arousal finally began to go down.
      
“Thank god,” he muttered into the sink, water dripping down from his hair.
      
He turned the faucet off and scrubbed hands over his face again, keeping his breathing even and focusing on the chill of the air against his face. The few stray rivulets that snuck beneath his shirt and trailed down his chest and back after he straightened helped in regaining his composure. Once he felt normal again, he glanced at the singular towel she had, slung over a rung on the wall. He couldn’t use her towel to dry his hair, and he didn’t want to go back out with a wet head. That could lead down an embarrassing line of questions he didn’t particularly want to field at the moment.
      
Zuko ended up taking off his button-down, leaving him in his white undershirt, and dried his head and face as best he could with that. It wasn’t ideal, but he looked almost put together again. A few quick swipes of his hand to somewhat style his hair how it had once been, and he felt ready to face her again.
      
When he went to open the door and go back out, however, his hand hovered above the knob. Would she want to kick him out, after all that? He wouldn’t blame her in the least if she did. He’d never had any intention of overstepping boundaries, and then he’d fucking dove headfirst past them. A quiet groan slipped out of him, and his hand lifted to cover his eyes and scar in humiliation at himself. He’d really shown himself to be a fucking gentleman, hadn’t he? What must she think of him?
      
Steeling himself against her scorn, or admonishment–or even ridicule that he didn’t follow through when she’d obviously been wanting him–Zuko opened the door, for better or worse.
      
At first, he couldn’t find her. Christ, what if she’d used the time he’d panicked and fled to her bathroom to leave? No, no, his reason told him. That wouldn’t make any sense, her leaving him in her apartment. Resisting the urge to call out for her, instead he scanned the room and found her already on her mattress. The couch had been tidied, the blanket folded neatly and placed with a throw pillow placed beside it in a manner that was obvious was for him to use. Well–at least she wasn’t screaming at him to leave after his behavior. He stepped out further into the room and suddenly noticed that half the comforter was turned down, and a proper pillow sat next to its twin that she was using.
      
Did… had she left it turned down for… him? His mind reeled.
      
For several beats of his heart, he was rooted to the floor, struck dumb by not only the notion that she apparently still didn’t mind him staying like he had offered, but that she seemed like she wanted him to… get in bed next to her? Zuko didn’t understand.
      
Katara lay still where she was, and he briefly wondered if she had already fallen asleep. No–he hadn’t hid in the bathroom quite that long. Finally finding control over his legs again, he took a shaky step forward. His first instinct was to ask her if she still wanted him to stay, but he had the presence of mind enough to piece together the obvious evidence that she did. Then, he wanted to ask her if she wanted him to sleep with her, but those words wouldn’t quite form in his throat, with their secondary implications hitting too close to what he’d bolted from for comfort currently.
      
“Do you… still want company?”


 

Blankets pulled up to her nose and eyes on her phone, Katara didn’t hear Zuko behind her until his voice, soft and tentative, whispered with a question. Her stomach clenched slightly—fresh nerves—and she lifted her head to find him near the bathroom, hands shoved halfway in his pockets, bare arms— 
      
Bare arms. The tight pull in her belly dropped lower, settling between her legs like a hot coal, and Katara cursed herself for the time spent mourning his departure when she could’ve pulled herself up and over the edge on her own. It would make this easier, this… part where she was supposed to tear her gaze away from the muscular grooves in his forearms and not gawk at his biceps. 
      
But, such modesty was impossible, with her brain short-circuiting and replaying the image of his arms wrapped around her waist while she fucked him. And after… after, her fingers could follow veins up to his shoulders, up to his face. 
      
His face. Zuko was looking at her, wearing a look of curiosity with hints of humor in it. 
      
Fuck. She’d been staring. For how long? Clicking her phone off and taking a short breath, Katara propped herself up on her elbows, praying she didn’t sound… eager. “Yeah, I…” 
      
Confidence, that’s what she’d been aiming for. That’s the mark she missed when she trailed off, her tone too breathy, too light. She could’ve cleared her throat, maybe played around it, but her mind was quicker than her mouth, flooding her with the doubts she’d battled and beat. Or, thought she beat. It was a little presumptuous of her to think he’d want to stay, wasn’t it? The circumstances landing him here were resolved. He obviously wasn’t going to fuck her and she was still behaving like a freak. Why would he stay?
      
Katara amended her statement, her smile faltering. “If you want, Zuko. It’s your choice, and either way, I don’t mind. I’ve heard I’m a good sleepover buddy, not a snorer and all that, but… I doubt Jet’s still out there, so—”
      
Dammit. She wished she’d just spit it out. She’d like it if he stayed. She liked him… as much as one could like a near stranger. He was interesting and a little dorky… sexy, definitely. Impromptu date? hang-out? and all, he’d been fun, easy-going. He seemed respectful of her, as far as she could tell (there was only so much she could know, before true colors came out), which, honestly, was refreshing.
      
Did she risk ruining it by saying she wanted him here? The closer she was getting to—mostly—sober, the stupider that seemed. Her lips pursed into a terse line.
      
“—So, um…” Katara pulled her eyes from his and sat up all the way, the blanket pooling on top of her folded legs. “I left some things out for you,” she nodded towards the counter, “for your stomach, if—“
      
Her words stalled. Don’t you dare say if it’s really upset, you nitwit. Zuko might’ve looked flushed and flustered when he left, and he may’ve still had that pink tint to his cheeks, but she couldn’t very well assume he’d made up an excuse to avoid sleeping with her. That was his decision, his business. And it probably wouldn’t do anything for her self-confidence to hear that he was, in fact, sick to his stomach from the prospect of fucking her, so medicine wouldn’t do any good.  
      
She furrowed her brow, and quickly picked new phrasing: “If you want it, I mean. If not…” Katara shrugged. Tucking her hands in her lap, unsure eyes drifted back to him. “The couch is comfortable, but you’re more than welcome next to me. You’ll be able to stretch out your legs, and I promise I don’t hog the blankets.”

Chapter Text

The way she looked at him should have been admonishing, or withering, or disappointed–but somehow, it was none of those things. Zuko thought he was imagining the heat in her eyes, the way she lingered on his now-bare arms, the breadth of his chest, before finally reaching his face. She was… ogling him. Something taut and painful uncoiled a little in his chest, and it softened him. She looked and sounded just as off-kilter as he did. Not that he blamed her, but it did serve to make him feel just a bit better.

When she pointed out the stuff on her counter, he stared at it blankly for a few seconds before his memory caught up. Wincing internally, he now recalled the flimsy excuse. The fact that she’d actually… at least pretended to believe him and put things out for him was… it was really nice. Really nice of her. A faint thread began wrapping around the bottom of his heart, and he gave her a smile.

“Thanks,” he said distantly, and stepped over to the counter to look over the array. He cracked open a ginger ale and picked up a few crackers, then looked up at her, listening with mild amusement to her start to ramble a little.

He still couldn’t believe she was inviting him to sleep next to her–it was like his mind had gotten stuck on that and had to keep coming back to it, to keep reminding him just how novel a thing that was for him.

The first thought that crossed his mind was of course he would take the couch. But then he caught her eyes with his own and saw the uncertainty and nervousness there. The thread around his heart tightened a little. So, he balanced another ginger beer in the same hand as his, popped the few crackers he’d already picked up into his mouth and took the pack in hand, then made his way over to her.

“The couch would be a bit cramped,” he said when he reached the mattress, pausing to very noticeably drag his eyes from her to the frame leaning on the wall, “even if this was put together.”

Holding out the hand that held both ginger beers, he canted his head a bit, expression soft. “In case you need it after all that vodka, too.”

When she tentatively took it from him, watching every move he made and making him feel a little self-conscious, he sat down on the exposed portion of her mattress. It sank a little beneath his weight, and instead of glancing back at her, he busied himself with setting his open drink and the crackers off to the side on the floor and taking off his shoes and belt. He emptied his pockets–keys and phone and wallet all went into one of his shoes so he wouldn’t forget them in the morning–and Zuko realized that his heart was beginning to pound again. The idea to sleep in his boxers crossed his mind, but he dismissed it as soon as it had. He could see that escalating quickly in some half-asleep state.

Before turning back to her, he drew in a breath and released it slowly, quietly. He shifted and settled himself on her mattress, still sitting and feeling about three kinds of awkward–her proximity again most certainly being one of them.

Get a grip, Zuko.Act like a normal human being

He tucked his chin a bit and angled his head to glance over at her. “I’m pretty sure I don’t snore either, and I promise I’ll do my best to keep to one side.” He meant it as a joke, but realizing that he was used to sleeping alone in a bed, Zuko really wasn’t sure if he actually could keep that promise. Especially since his heart was already fluttering back up in his throat just from sitting near her again. Maybe he wasn’t as calm as he’d thought.


 

“If you… if you can’t…” Her brain was short-circuiting, replaying the playful lilt to his voice and the I’ll do my best to keep to one side. Nothing– not the pop of her soda can’s top, not the satisfying hiss that followed– could keep her from the edge of impropriety. She slipped, with his tiny smile, with the shift in balance as he swung his legs onto her bed.

With: “I wouldn’t mind… if you end up on my side.”

Color spread across her cheeks in an instant. Zuko’s eyes flew wide, gold flashing in surprise, and her heart jumped into her throat, beating wildly. Katara bit her lip like it’d keep her from thinking about his. Willfully, forcefully, she drew air into her lungs, but her eyes were already sliding over him, following the trajectory in her head that ended with his mouth marking up her neck.

Over his chest, down to his hips— want coiled tight and hot when she remembered the scrape of rough denim on her skin. She barely had the willpower to look away, to ignore that insistent ache between her legs and the overwhelming wish for him to leave bruises on her waist. She could say she was more than willing to pick up where they left things. If he wasn’t sure, if he pulled back because he needed her explicit permission, she’d tell him yes. God, she’d say it over and over, again. She could point him in the direction of condoms beneath her bathroom sink, pull him down on top of her…

…or, she could reign in her fucking imagination.

How much time had slipped by? She’d been silent for too long, ogling the shape of his hipbones and thighs. Of course, it wasn’t entirely her fault. Katara had yet to recover from the feel of his mouth and his hands and his cock. But, fuck, she couldn’t sit here and gawk at him.

Painting her face to be aloof, Katara stammered— for the umpteenth time that night— as warmth flared across her skin. “I mean, I… I can just give you a shove. It’s not a deal breaker or anything.”

She felt his eyes on the side of her face, even as a flighty, nervous laugh tickled her mouth and she looked away. Her fingers made circles around the lip of her untouched soda, then Katara forced a sip down her throat and left the bed.

Better to do something, right? Than sit there giggling like a deranged idiot?

Ditching the ginger ale on the floor beside her mattress, Katara rummaged through the box where she’d found her sleep set. A mix of t-shirts and sweats filled it, but she didn’t stop her search until she found a pair of grey pants with a worn-out NAVY written down the side.

“Even if you don’t bother me, your jeans will bother you,” Katara said. She tossed the sweats to him, providing him the chance to change by going to the kitchen. “If they’re too big, I can find a pair of my brother’s,” she called over her shoulder. “It’s just… you stand less of a chance being pummeled by my dad since he’s overseas until May.”

She collected the items on her countertop, talking as she put them away. “He leaves for two months every year, whenever he can take the time off.” There was really no need for her to explain, but she did, finding it tamped down on her jitteriness to ramble aimlessly. “My mom had this bucket list of countries she wanted to visit. Since she died, my dad’s been finishing it, as best he can. I go with him sometimes… when I can afford it. We went to Munich last year. So far, it’s my favorite.”

Smiling back at him, Katara let the fridge door swing hut and flicked off the kitchen lights. Darkness shrouded them, and she tiptoed lightly towards her bed. Most of her apartment she had memorized, despite the short time she’d been living there, but Katara still managed to stub her toe and stumbled.

“Fuck me…” The curse hissed into the air as she tumbled onto her side of the mattress, nursing her offended foot. “I’ve been so smooth all night and a box screws it up.” Katara chuckled lightly. Her eyes had adjusted by then, and she found Zuko smirking at her from his place on the bed.

She rolled her eyes and flopped down on her pillow. “Asshole,” she grumbled, feigning annoyance, “finding amusement at my pain.” Katara pulled the blankets up to her chest and rolled onto her side, scowling in Zuko’s direction. “I just moved in! Maybe you could click on your phone’s light next time. Save me the embarrassment of tripping over more than just my words, hmm?”


 

“Oh–I didn’t realize you needed a light,” Zuko apologized, his jeans bunched up somewhere around his knees, too late reaching out for his phone and fishing it out of his shoe. He flicked up on the screen with his thumb and tapped the flashlight function, sending a beam of light up toward the ceiling between them. “Too little too late, huh?”

Zuko cracked a smile at her. “At least you’d be in good company. In dying from embarrassment, and all.”

Instead of changing quickly while she was in the kitchen, he’d been listening to what she was saying about her father and mother, thinking that it was sweet of her to accompany her dad on her mother’s bucket list. He wondered if there had ever been a time when his father cared enough to have done that if his mother had left behind something like that.

Once she’d turned the light off, he figured he had a second chance to get into the sweats without seeming indecent–sure he was keeping his boxers on, but they weren’t always reliable on what they would or would not accidentally show. He really didn’t need her to turn around and be surprised by him unwittingly flashing her. Zuko would probably die from embarrassment at that point. He’d already nearly done that tonight, and didn’t care for a repeat.

He quickly pulled off his jeans the rest of the way, and tugged on the sweats. Admittedly, it felt a little strange wearing her… father’s sweatpants at a completely impromptu sleepover situation in which he had nearly fucked her half an hour ago, but at least they were as comfortable as Zuko’s own. And about the same size, too. His hips were a little leaner, so he tied the ties in the dark to keep them from slipping off in the middle of the night.

She shimmied back up to her previous spot on the bed and pulled up the covers, and he felt the mattress shift just a little from her movements. It didn’t bounce as sensitively as it would have normally on a frame, but there still was a little give with a body’s shifting. The thought of her splayed out on the mattress, legs wide and hair fanned out flit through his mind and send his pulse dropping straight to his cock like a stone to the bottom of a lake.

His face and neck burned with heat, and he felt for sure she would be able to hear the thundering of his heart an arm’s length away. What she’d said only minutes before replayed through his mind–I wouldn’t mind if you ended up on my side. An old knee-jerk reaction made his first fleeting thought one of passive-aggressiveness: was this her way of telling him she thought he was stupid for stopping? But, time was a good balm on that old wound, and he quickly dismissed the worry of accusation. She’d sounded a little breathless and a little nervous, but not condescending or miffed. His pulse skipped a little in his throat. The explanation that she could just give him a shove to get back to “his” side, such as it was, did nothing to even it out.

Beneath the covers with her again, Zuko’s thoughts went immediately back to when they were on the couch earlier, and the blanket there had slipped off their laps. If he slipped his head and shoulders beneath the comforter here, would her scent be headier than it was before? If he ran his hands along both her knees and up the outside of her thighs, would she part them for him? He could let them crook over his shoulders and splay his palms across her hips and belly, then nose against the satin junction of her until he was drunk off her smell and then he would slowly inch her shorts to one side and let himself taste her and–

He let out a breath.

That was getting him nowhere good really fast.

Even though Zuko was pretty damn sure he could do all that and more, and that she’d encourage him, he’d made his decision. After everything that’d happened earlier in the evening, he didn’t feel right doing any of it. It felt too much like a pity fuck and too-long-ignored hormones in his head, and if he was going to do anything, he didn’t want it to be a quick lay with an almost stranger. Well–that was a lie; he did want it, but only with his cock. He wasn’t about to give in to its demands just because he hadn’t fucked in a long while. Despite how difficult it was to bite back the urge.

Switching off the phone light, he set it back into his shoe and leaned back on the pillow. After a moment’s hesitation, he shifted so he was on his side as well, facing her in the dark. “My mom had a thing for growing all kinds of things,” he said, quietly. “In the backyard, she had a big garden with a pond we used to sit at when I was a kid. It’s not quite as fancy as going to a bunch of different places, but whenever I see a little plant that reminds me of her in a store, I pick it up and keep it in my kitchen.”


Had. 

She didn’t miss that word, and how it mirrored hers. The same language was steeped in everything she said, touching any and every story about her mother because… because it was all in the past. 

Unbidden, and unexpected, empathy pooled in her chest and Katara forgot the lingering tension between them. He’d lost someone, like her. He knew the hurt of a broken family and she couldn’t help it; she slid her hand across the bed, searching for him the dark. Her fingers found his arm, and Katara felt her way down to his wrist. 

With a tender squeeze, she broke their momentary silence. “I would’ve loved to meet her. Anyone with a green thumb is special, I think… especially to those of us who kill everything we touch,” Katara let a slight laugh slip into her tone, hoping she hadn’t turned his mood heavy. “Even cacti.” 

“My mom tried with me…” She pulled her hand back and tucked in beneath her cheek, following a content sigh. “But, I was never one for gardening. We did a lot of baking. I probably could’ve been good at that, but she— she died when I was eight and I haven’t so much as touched flour since. It’s funny, the things that end up bothering you after someone’s gone.” 

A tired smile went his direction. The alcohol was settling in her blood, making her sleepy, making her talk too much. Katara supposed it was an improvement over the hot mess she’d been a half hour prior, but she berated herself inwardly at the damper she was becoming. For a girl with a respectful—attractive—man in her bed, she sure had a way of ruining even the best of atmospheres. Then again, that’d been the whole night for him— her crashing his study time, using him as a human shield, then as her fake boyfriend. Worst of all, she’d tried to fuck him. On her couch. 

Katara found it difficult to hold his gaze after that. Her eyes slipped down him, to the cut of her blue comforter across his waist, and she snuggled further beneath her portion of it as heat blossomed on her skin. “Well…” 

What did she say to him? Did she bid him goodnight? All her talk of her dead mom, the least she could do was inflect some humor into her tone. She tried for cheery.

“I hope you sleep alright… Zuko. Just wake me up if you need anything. And, uh,” Katara scoffed under her breath, “we can fake a break-up in the morning, unless you’re up for a fake proposal and fake wedding down the line.” 


“Only if you bake the fake cake for it,” he joked, without thinking. The moment the words left his mouth, Zuko winced, sending his gaze up above her head in the darkness. “I mean, I could be the one to do it. I kind of like cooking, so I could definitely fake baking pretty well. I just…” He exhaled, closing his eyes against his own inconsiderateness.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured. “That was a really stupid thing to say.” He rolled onto his back and looked up toward the ceiling. Here she had reached out to him–literally–and he’d made a dumb joke. His mouth always got him in more trouble than he was worth. His sister had only been a year younger when their mother vanished, and he a year older; he knew pretty well how she must have felt, by how much affection still threaded through her voice when she mentioned baking with her mother. He opened his mouth to say more, but decided against it. He’d ruined the moment with his ill-timed joke.

“Good night, Katara,” he said instead, taking the conversational out she provided him. For some time after that, Zuko lay awake, still staring up into the dark and listening to the way Katara’s breathing evened out as she fell asleep.

The brief thought of slipping out while she was asleep crossed his mind, but he stamped that down as soon as he had it. He wasn’t in a relationship where she could hold shit like his insensitive joke over his head five months from now, drawing it out like a little dart to throw at him when she was displeased, and he hadn’t been in that situation for nearly five years. Old habits died hard, he supposed, and his flight instinct had kicked in without warning. Zuko reminded himself that one thing didn’t mean the end of the world, and if nothing else, he might be able to chalk it up to alcohol and tiredness. It was pretty late, after all.

The thought of the time brought out a yawn, and blurred his vision. Beside him, Katara seemed to be solidly asleep. The adrenaline drop and alcohol could really knock a person out, he knew. Besides, she’d invited him to stay and he said he would. What kind of person would do all that and then slip out in the middle of the night anyway? Zuko didn’t want to be that person. He rolled onto his side, facing away from her, and steadied his breathing to closely match hers. It was a trick he used to use to calm himself down, or to help himself fall asleep when he couldn’t. While he wasn’t agitated, and was pretty sure he wouldn’t have any trouble falling asleep, it was comforting. Zuko hadn’t slept next to anyone for a while, so it was a little strange and exhilarating–he was really way more attracted to her than he thought he had any right to be–but it was nice, too.

Her mattress was also pretty comfortable, all things considered, and it smelled good. It made him think of a warm day at the ocean as he drifted off.

Chapter Text

Warmth wrapped around her, enveloped her.

It was unexpected, being tangled up with someone— the mornings she’d woken up alone were countless and the night was foggy, weighed down by liquor and the late hour. But, someone had her. Someone held her. She was too sleepy to process much more than the feel of cotton against her nose, but Katara remembered smiling, laughing… blushing too much.

Her eyes fluttered open, adjusting to the light, to the color. Or lack of.

Everything was white; warm and white.

Her thoughts stuttered. Then, slowly, lazily, a languid sigh hummed from her lips, bringing with it memories of library books and smooth vodka, of heated tension and impassioned kisses. Zuko. Katara smiled. The satisfying weight of his arm hung over her waist; the other… well, he had to have lost all feeling in his hand by now, threaded beneath her as it was, holding her close. She thought of moving, maybe waking him… the idea was fleeting.

She didn’t want to. In fact, she refused. Nestled happily between a sunny dream and the coolness of the late morning, Katara curled closer, slipping a leg between his and tucking her head under his chin. Her fingers twisted in the hem of his shirt; it’d drifted up around his ribs while he slept, affording her the opportunity to trace his spine, skin to skin. Eyelids heavy and heart content, she promised herself she’d keep her touch modest: just her fingertips, just the subtle curve along the small of his back. She listened to his breath come and go, tried to name the notes hidden in his cologne– gentle amber and a touch of bamboo; maybe that was his soap. Beneath it, as her fingers moved to his hip and she shifted the angle of her head, she caught something richer, like woodsmoke, in the hollow of his throat. Woodsmoke and sweat… his neck had tasted like sex.

Focusing her attention just below his jaw, it was easy to find memories of their kiss. Her lips had left marks over his pulse. Her teeth had scraped down to his collarbone. She would’ve liked to explore more of him, search his body for spots that made him gasp. He’d found a few places on her: her shoulders, her hips, the edge of her breast. Katara diverted her thoughts before they traveled any further down the path his mouth had taken. There wasn’t a point. He’d backed away, and despite the initial ache, she figured he was right to, anyway.

But— the hand memorizing the slope of his ribs stalled and Katara readjusted enough to look at him— she did hope they might have more mornings like this. Or, at least, nights like last.

He’d been… sweet. He was careful with her and respectful of boundaries, and Katara knew it was a little presumptive to think it meant anything; it didn’t. Zuko stayed because of Jet. He kissed her because they were drunk. He’d migrated to her side of the bed because he wasn’t used to sharing and he’d probably dart back to his the moment he woke up. She was being stupid, truthfully. Stupid and naive, crushing on the first nice guy she met. Whatever. A girl could dream.

Or, watch him dream.

His face was peaceful, any remnant of the prior evening’s tension erased from his mouth. Instead, his lips were soft now, like they were after his third glass of vodka, and his breath puffed quietly between them. She could see his pulse thumping in his neck. Katara, finding her position advantageous, slid her hand up and flattened it on his chest; his heartbeat matched, firm and comforting. Then, her fingers ventured further, breaking her private promise to only explore his back: she brushed her thumb up his jaw, then traveled around the curve of his ear until her fingertips circled his eye.

This was the ruined side… and only ruined in the sense that whatever’d happened to him was likely irreparable, at the time. Today, maybe, something could’ve been done, but this scar was old, pink around the edges, faded and soft. Is this what had made him so kind? So quick to stay at her side?

Katara followed the divide between burned skin and smooth ivory. She sensed a change in his breathing, and although she would’ve been happy with another hour of simply studying him, Katara remembered the dazzling gold of his eyes and was happy to have awakened him. Her hand settled on his neck just before Zuko’s dark lashes fluttered open halfway.

She smiled, sheepish. “Sorry… Zuko. I didn’t mean to act as your alarm.” If all her touching had pulled him from sleep, she owed him an explanation. “It’s… hard not to admire you.” 


Sweet, sleep-thick words—his name, the harsh consonants of it somehow sounding soft and wanteddrifted through the air to him, coming from beneath a set of brilliant blue eyes that were watching him. He was comfortable and warm, and the light diffusing in around them was soft and smelled vaguely of sweat, and the sea. That’s how Zuko knew he was dreaming. There was no way he had actually fallen asleep and become entwined with the stunning woman he’d met yesterday—Katara, his memory supplied. In this dream, his own return smile was sleepy. The dream-girl’s apology was shy but still so straightforward—so different from what he’d been used to in a bedfellow. Of course his mind would meld together how ridiculously attractive Katara was to him and the soft kind of affection he’d always wanted from someone else.

He hummed softly in response and furtively wished he wouldn’t ever wake up. If he could press his nose beneath the junction of her jaw and exist within this dream state for the rest of his life, he’d be just fine with that. “Not even my best side,” he murmured half into the pillow.

The weight of her hand against the pulse in his neck felt very real, however, and not typically something that his mind would have conjured for a dream. Especially since it was just resting there, content, rather than roaming as he would expect a dream to turn. His right arm protested somewhat, nerves trying and failing to jump back to life as Katara shifted a little. All at once, he became aware of the rest of everything—his left hand draped down her waist, a pressure between his knees that he was pretty sure was her leg and not an extra pillow, and that he wasn’t warm as he first thought; he was closer to hot.

Zuko blinked a few times, the last remnants of dreamy fog clearing. He wasn’t dreaming. Katara really was looking up at him and he really was curled more or less around her. With no conscious command, his gaze drifted down to her bared collarbone and shoulder, and the entire night came back to him in a heady rush. Nearly half a dozen vodkas on the rocks between the two of them, watching a movie on her couch—the smell of her driving him crazy—her legs on his lap, his hand on her neck, the way she tasted—the way she tasted. Christ, they’d nearly fucked on her couch. And he’d bolted. He swallowed an embarrassed noise in the back in his throat.

The very first instinct he had after all that they’d done and almost done hit him was to draw back and do his best to sink into the floor and vanish. But… she still was smiling up at him. That meant that either she didn’t remember exactly what had happened, or she wasn’t pissed at him. The thought that she could be pretending to be fine with everything so she could brandish it at some point later crossed his mind, but he tamped that down quickly. Though, that particular line of thinking, which he recognized as his own cognitive distortion, also made him realize that he did want there to be a later time with her.

Zuko drew in a breath and turned his face into the pillow beneath his head—which he was fairly certain was not the one he’d fallen asleep on and was instead the one she’d used—when it turned into a yawn. When he resettled, Katara was still smiling at him, her cheeks just the slightest bit dusky from a flush. The curve of her mouth and the way her hair spilled back away from her face and cushioned her cheek against the pillow in wild waves made him relax. If she woke up with him all up in her personal space—he definitely hadn’t kept to his side of the bed, and had migrated to wrap around her while he slept—looked straight in the face of his unsightly scar, and still smiled up at him so disarmingly…

Within in his chest, Zuko’s heart beat a little faster. He moved his left hand to skim lightly against her back, hoping that as small a gesture as that was wouldn’t be stepping over any more boundaries than waking up entangled with her had already.

“Sorry for taking over your whole bed,” he told her.

He tried to wiggle the fingers of his right hand, but couldn’t really tell if he was succeeding or not. She must have noticed what he was attempting, because she shifted enough to release his arm, which he withdrew to nestle between them. Of course, her doing so highlighted just how the camisole she wore exposed the entirety of her shoulders down to the soft curve of her breasts. Zuko felt himself stir in response and heat crept along his neck beneath where her hand still rested. He was sure she could feel the skips in his pulse there. After a moment of looking at his hand and slowly flexing the feeling back into his fingers, Zuko lifted his gaze to meet hers again. Immediately, he was caught by the blue of her eyes. The one thing he was sure of, was that he wasn’t ready to leave her just yet.

“Hey,” he heard himself saying, “what do you say about getting some breakfast?”


“Breakfast?”

She was more than a little surprised. After making a fool of herself all night and nearly being caught with her hands all over him, Katara expected him to go reeling back. It showed on her face, in the slight pinch of her brows. Even cupping his neck, as understated as the gesture could be, she felt she was pushing one or more boundaries. They’d only just met. She’d learned his name… what? twelve hours prior? She almost pulled away, almost sat up and slipped from her bed, but Zuko’s fingers whispered up her back— again, and again; he was tracing some pattern. And, unbeknownst to him, he was soothing her. The taut line stretching down her spine snapped and Katara relaxed.

“I’d like breakfast. I love waffles,” she hinted, now smiling and trying to cover the rush of giddiness that tangled her tongue. “Especially with strawberries. And, whipped cream. I still drown everything syrup, but…” A quiet laugh cut her off. Thank god. Oversharing, especially trivial facts, was something she excelled at when a man made her nervous. And— well, she’d proven herself to be enough of a mess as it was. There was no need to make it all worse.

Katara quickly reigned herself in, chewing her bottom lip in the moment it took to compose her thoughts. “I- I’d like breakfast,” she repeated, far too breathy for her taste, but at least she didn’t sound like a startled mouse. Her eyes left his, settling on the hand he flexed between them. She wished for the guts to hold it, or simply brush the inside of his wrist, but she kept her hand where it was, fingers tensing a little on his neck. His pulse rivaled hers, her hummingbird heartbeat.

Something warm unfurled in her stomach, and Katara found a sudden burst of confidence. As casual as he seemed, Zuko was just as easily thrown off his game, would just as easily lose his cool if she smiled flirtatiously or touched him just right. 

“It is the least you could do,” she teased, pulling her gaze back to his, “satiating my appetite.” Katara chuckled quietly. His eyes widened ever so slightly at her wording, and she found she liked surprising him. “After all, you stole my pillow and… didn’t you promise to keep to your side of the bed?” Nudging her leg further between his, she made a point of showing how entangled they’d become. Her foot slide up the back of his calf before Katara pressed her toes to his overheated skin, drawing a quiet gasp from him. 

Of course, the sound made her attention jump to his lips, which promptly derailed her train of thought and left her drowning in the memory of how they’d felt on hers. God, she wanted to kiss him again. All she really had to do was curl her fingers around the back of his neck and pull him in… but, she always did this, jumped into things too quickly. Everything with Jet happened (over and over again) because she never stopped to think. Half her pain could’ve been avoided if she’d focused more on her senior prom and less on the bad boy who’d dropped out of the local college. 

Swallowing, Katara’s breath followed in a short puff, and she took her hand from Zuko’s neck, tucking it under her chin. “I should probably shower before we leave,” she mused aloud. “I smell like vodka and…” She watched Zuko’s gaze flick to her neck. Or maybe he was looking at her chest. The way she was laying did accentuate things. Her cheeks colored in the brief pause and Katara adamantly kept herself from wondering if he was wondering if the scent from last night still clung to her skin. 

Naturally, his question— if it was his question— was answered when she reluctantly untangled herself and pushed the comforter off her body. It wasn’t as strong as the night before, that heady scent, but it was still there, sustained by her less than appropriate thoughts before Zuko awakened and the frustration that lingered until she fell asleep. She prayed he didn’t notice; and, if he did, she prayed she’d left her bed so quickly he couldn’t place it. 

But, when Katara pulled a thin, floral robe around her shoulders and turned back to him, Zuko was propped up his elbow, his one ink-colored brow arched with… amusement? If he was hoping she’d look embarrassed, Katara didn’t give it to him, despite the flush heating her skin. Instead, she found her box of towels and set one out for him.

“You’re welcome to shower, too,” she offered, patting the soft cotton. “Not that you stink… you’re fine, actually.” A little smile threatened her cool. Katara grabbed a towel for herself to hide it, then padded towards her bathroom. She paused, however, just outside the door, and glanced back at him. “And, you don’t have a best side, Zuko.” 


He stared at her closed bathroom door.

Did she…? Yeah. Yeah, she did.

She’d looked at his scar very first thing in the morning and… didn’t seem to be bothered by it. If he was being honest with himself, it was definitely a big factor in not trying to date around much. Mai had never said anything about it, and she’d been the only one who knew him before… it happened. Then again, she didn’t say much of anything with regards to her opinion on things. Zuko decided she wasn’t a good point of reference. Jin hadn’t said anything, but he could tell she didn’t quite feel comfortable making eye contact with him. The only person he might have felt comfortable around was Song, because she had a burn scar of her own. Hers was well out of sight if she wanted to hide it, though, not prominently on display regardless of what he wished. In the end, she had just been a short non-fling where nothing even happened. Katara on the other hand… Zuko didn’t detect any kind of hesitation or uncomfortableness when she looked at him–not last night, and not this morning. 

Don’t be an idiot, a nasty voice said in his head that sounded suspiciously like his father. She’s just being nice, like everyone else.

That insidious voice that fed his self-doubt and worth managed to put a damper on his mood. Nine years since he last saw his father and he could still hold things over Zuko’s head. Even when he was just the echo of disappointment in Zuko’s thoughts.

He collapsed back on the mattress, arms splayed across the width of it, and stared up at the ceiling. 

Zuko didn’t think she was pretending not to notice it. It was a pretty difficult thing to ignore, and he’d had plenty of years to figure out when someone was avoiding looking at his face because of it. She had met his looks boldly throughout the night, and didn’t shy away when he’d woken to find her nearly nose to nose with him not long ago. Then again, she could feasibly just be really good at hiding things, Zuko didn’t know. Will you ever really know? his father’s voice asked again. 

The sound of the shower turning on in the bathroom cut through Zuko’s spiraling thoughts, and the image of her naked beneath the water immediately shoved out the creeping doubt in his head. Sure, he hadn’t seen everything, but it didn’t take much for his imagination to fill in the blanks. Her scent still lingered amid the blankets bunched up around his waist, and he had to clench his hands into fists to remind himself that it would be entirely inappropriate to start doing anything about his wayward thoughts.

Breakfast first. One step at a time. After that, he could go home and get some release, so he could think about something other than the way her mouth had tasted.

Yeah. He was definitely going to take her up on that offer to use her shower. To cool off, to cool off. He absolutely wasn’t going to jerk off in the shower of a girl he’d only just met last night. Zuko wasn’t that desperate.

He wasn’t sure how long he lay in her bed, but it was enough to start dozing again. Katara’s bed, for all that it was just a stacked mattress and boxspring on the floor, was comfortable, and it was warm. And, it smelled nicely of her and just a bit of sex. The perfect combination to lull Zuko, still somewhat sleepy, back to a drifting state between consciousness. It was unusual for him to go back to bed–he was one of the few people he knew who actually enjoyed getting up in the mornings and doing something. Even though he hadn’t checked the time, it felt like it was sometime around nine or ten, judging by the filtered light that streamed in between the blinds of Katara’s apartment.

Nine or ten– “Shit,” he said softly his eyes opening again. It was Saturday, wasn’t it? It was. The muay thai class he normally went to was already underway if it was past as late as ten. “Suki’s gonna give me hell,” Zuko groaned to the ceiling. He expected at least one message from her giving him grief about being lazy after the class was done and she got back to her phone.

Letting out a soft noise, Zuko rolled onto his stomach, shifting both arms beneath the pillow he was using. It was the one he’d woken up on, that Katara had used, and it smelled strongly of whatever shampoo she used. He took a deep breath in and decided a little teasing from Suki was worth it.

Zuko closed his eyes and rummaged through the short list of breakfast joints he knew that he might take Katara. Someplace that had a variety of waffles; the way her eyes lit up when she talked was something he very much enjoyed, and he could definitely stand to see it again. If waffles were a gateway to that, then he’d take her for waffles. She was still in the bathroom, though, and his thoughts soon slowed and he dozed once more, ruminating lazily that this was something he wouldn’t mind happening again.


Not for the first time, Katara stood with both her feet over the drain and watched the water pool around her in the shower basin. She tried to calm herself, tried to focus on nothing more than the soothing beat of the water stream against her back and the warm steam, but a flicker of nervous heat unfurled in her stomach once more.

Just knowing he was out there, in her bed or, perhaps, musing over the things in her apartment, made her heart thump harder.

The bathroom door was unlocked. Katara didn’t expect him to, but should Zuko try it, he’d have no trouble peaking in, no resistance from her should he notice her camisole and shorts on the rug and leave his clothes beside them. Picturing his bare skin, her mind conjured up that sweet mix of spice and musk in the hollow of his throat. Was all of him as intoxicating? Would she find that same, mouth-watering scent if she kissed down his chest? If she dropped to her knees in front of him?

Katara rinsed conditioner from her hair, then rested her hands on her shoulders, rubbing at the tension lingering there. It was Zuko’s fault… sort of. She couldn’t stop thinking about him— or, daydreaming, really.

How would he touch her? If he did ditch his jeans, pull back the curtain, and step beneath the hot stream?

She bit her lip, imagining his warm hands and soft kisses and how delicious his tongue had been, chasing hers and swiping over her lips. Her fingers slipped down her chest; Katara mimicked the path his thumbs made around the swells of her breasts. She wouldn’t have stopped him. She couldn’t say how she might’ve felt after, but, hell… she wouldn’t have stopped him. 

So, why stop now? She was alone… and her body never seemed to have calmed from last night. Forgetting any sense of decency, Katara played with her nipples until they pebbled up under her touch, until the ache between her legs was too much to ignore and she had to slide a finger over her clit. It was only a matter of minutes. Her blood still thrummed from the memory of Zuko’s weight. She was painfully sensitive, blissfully responsive. Katara caught the moan that came with her climax against her shoulder, biting into her skin until her pulse stopped thundering.

And, eventually, she was able to gather herself enough to rinse her hand and her thighs, before shutting the water off and collecting her towel. Her steps were shaky and fatigued, but she’d been in the bathroom too long to sit on top of the closed toilet seat and bask in the afterglow of that… much needed orgasm. Honestly, she could go for another. Maybe later.

Tossing her hair up in the towel, Katara ran quickly through her routine of toner, concealer, and mascara. After, she pursed her lips at her reflection, then topped the whole look off with red-tinted chapstick. It wasn’t too much, hopefully… she did like how it pulled the attention to her mouth, as opposed to her too bright, too wide eyes. Blinking—like that could make her look sane—Katara rubbed lotion into her skin, then redressed in her silky robe and pulled the towel off her head.

The ends of her hair had already left wet spots on her chest when she opened the bathroom door, clutching her pajamas and damp towel. A cloud of steam followed her out, curling lazily in the sunlight that slanted across her bed. Zuko was dozing in the middle of it, sprawled out on his stomach with her pillow clutched under his head.

She smiled, going to him quietly, and patted his back.

“Sleeping Beauty…” A soft laugh greeted the confusion in his gold eyes. “I guess I took too long in the shower, hm? The bathroom’s yours, if you want it.” Katara straightened and gestured towards the open door with a nod. “I’ve got a-million-n-one soaps to choose from, so feel free to use anything.”

He scrubbed his face with a lazy yawn, but stretched out and swung his legs off the bed, taking up her offer. Left to herself, Katara fished through her dresser for a pair of panties, and found her favorite boyfriend jeans, too. Ditching her robe, Katara pulled both items on, then tore through a different drawer until she’d located a ribbed tank top. Perfect; as soon as she tugged the shirt over her head, sans bra, and checked her outfit in the mirror, she was sure she wouldn’t be the only one suffering through breakfast.

Her chest looked good, with its full, natural shape. And, not that his opinion mattered, but Jet always said the braless look was as good as sex on her. Her breasts bounced whenever she moved, and if that wasn’t enough to draw someone’s eye, the little barbell through her left nipple would. And, that was only fair, considering Zuko’s sharp jawline and strong biceps and firm a—

Katara startled at his reflection in the mirror. He was behind her, coming out of the bathroom with a towel over his head, roughly drying his dark hair. His undershirt clung to him, sticking to damp skin, and, as she turned around to steal a better look at him, her gaze slid down his hips and legs to the hem of his jeans and bare feet.

Zuko pulled the towel off his head.

“Um.” Crap. So much for the impact she wanted to have. Met with those pretty, gold eyes and a light flush on his cheeks, Katara couldn’t think. There was no witty line, no smile; she couldn’t even remember how to close her mouth, how to stop gawking, until Zuko cleared his throat.

She mimicked the sound, then spun back around on her heel, deciding this was the opportune time to occupy herself by braiding her hair. “I’m… ready to go whenever you are,” she said, finding her voice again. “Just, uh—” Katara spotted a hair tie on her dresser and twisted it around the end of her braid. “Yep. There. All ready.” Swallowing to collect herself, Katara tucked her hands in her back pockets and faced him. “Any thoughts on where you want to go?” 


He couldn’t help it. When she turned, his eyes swept up her, catching on her chest at a little odd bump on the left side that confused him for about a split second before he realized—

—and she was talking to him. Asking him a question. How was that fair, when she obviously wasn’t wearing anything underneath her tank? Zuko gathered himself mentally and focused on what she was saying.

“I do have a place in mind, actually,” he said, happy that he managed a somewhat intelligible sentence. The fact that was mostly possible because she’d spun around away from him again did not escape him. How was he supposed to make it through breakfast?

Leaving that bridge alone until he had to cross it—in about fifteen minutes, a small voice in his brain unhelpfully reminded him—Zuko followed Katara’s suit and went to het bed, sitting on the mattresses again to tug on his boots. He surreptitiously checked his phone as he pulled it out of the boot he’d stuck it in last night; no new messages. It was also almost ten-thirty, which meant he would probably hear from Suki while they were at breakfast.

Zuko cast Katara a glance over his shoulder, and she was finishing up the braid over her shoulder. Worth it, he decided instantly.

He stood and slipped the rest of his belongings back into their respective pockets, then raked his hair back. There wasn’t much to do to style it without product, and of course he didn’t have any with him. It didn’t really matter, in any case

“You ready?” he asked as she faced him again and he determinedly kept his eyes on her face (nevermind his peripheral). At her nod he gathered his keys from her counter and followed her out of the small apartment. It was a nice little place, he thought, even if she hadn’t had time to put it all together yet. It’d look even better once she did. He could tell immediately from how she kept her bathroom that she was a normally tidy person, despite what all the boxes littering the rest of the studio indicated. No small part of him was hopeful that he’d be able to come back and see it after she got to the rest of it.

They chatted lightly about how nice a day it was on their way to his jeep. Once they got in, she asked him where they were going.

“It’s nothing fancy—just a little spot I like to go to sometimes on Sundays. You probably have been there before, honestly, but they have great croissant sandwiches.” His gaze flicked back over to her, a smile pulling at his mouth. “And waffles.”

The conversation in the car was easy, relaxed. It was like it’d been before her ex had come along last night, but with a little less awkwardness. Which, in of itself, was surprising to Zuko. After what they’d… almost did on her couch and after sleeping in the same bed together, waking up nose-to-nose, Zuko would have thought he’d been a mess of awkward, tripping over sentences and unable to handle the situation like a normal human being. But, instead, everything felt comfortable with her. It was like what had happened was okay, and that they didn’t have to worry about it so much. There was something about Katara that put Zuko at ease, and he couldn’t place his finger on it.

He had to loop around the diner twice before snatching up a spot on the street that another person pulled out of. Katara commented on how smoothly—and quickly—he parallel parked into the space, and he couldn’t quite keep a smug little smile off his face.

“Lots of practice, coming into the city proper. I live a bit further out, and my place happens to have its own driveway,” he told her with a shrug. Okay, so he wasshowing off a bit. He liked the way she reacted when she liked what he did; she was so very open with expressing if something pleased her, and it made Zuko’s chest fill with a lightness that almost made him feel giddy.

That giddiness followed him out of the car and onto the sidewalk again with her, walking side by side as they approached the diner. As they neared, he gestured. The neon sign in the window greeted them.

“The Village Cafe. Welcome to my Sunday spot.”

Chapter Text

Fuck. He was hot. She was definitely in trouble.

Every time he touched the console, shifted gears, turned the steering wheel, her attention shot straight to his arms. There was no hiding how she appreciated him— the way his forearms flexed with the slightest application of strength, the assured grip of his hands. Her heart jumped to her throat when she thought of those hands on her waist.

Yep. Trouble.

It was ridiculous that she liked watching him drive; idiotic that she smiled at his confidence and felt her stomach flip as he picked a spot, mentioned his house, walked and welcomed her to his Sunday spot with a gorgeous smile.

“You come here often, then?” Katara teased, dipping her shoulder with a playful laugh. “Every Sunday?” 

She enjoyed the color that blossomed on his cheeks, how it spread to his ears. She made herself swear on all that was sacred that she would not randomly, accidentally, or coincidentally bump into him here. Ever.

As they entered—with Zuko very respectfully holding the door and letting her pass in front of him—a chipper waitress greeted them and led them to 70s-style booth against the windows. It was sunny out, filling the spot with a warm glow. Zuko’s eyes flashed a pretty, honeyed color and Katara flipped her menu up in front of her face before she got caught staring.

“So, you live out in the country…” she prompted, wondering if she’d ever have the chance to see his place. “…or just far enough to have a bit of space and a driveway?” Katara’s blue eyes peeked over the menu at him. “Any roommates?”


Zuko looked up in time to catch the flash of her eyes, and the answer that had been forming in his mind fled momentarily. She was so easy. No ulterior motive to conversations, no hidden agendas, no subtly prodding to try and get him to slip up so she could hold information over his head later. She just… made conversation. Like a normal person. Conversation to which he should answer soon.

“Ah—my family has a house in the country,” he admitted. “But I don’t live there. Haven’t lived with them for years, actually. I live further out to the edge of the city.”

He lowered his gaze back down to the menu in his hands, though he didn’t need to look at it; he already knew what he wanted. A fond smile tugged up one corner of his mouth. “No roommates, luckily. It’s my uncle’s old place. He has a cafe not too far from here and moved into an apartment above it. But, he’s owned the other place for years now, so he let me move into it.” It wasn’t a fancy affair, just a small, single story rancher with two bedrooms, but it was all his and he didn’t have to owe anything to his father to live there.

A young waitress different than the one who seated them came by. She had volumes of dark hair pulled haphazardly into two thick braids on either side of her head, and a tattoo of a white deer with a few words in simple Hanjul script running down her arm.

“Your usual?” she asked Zuko brightly, not even bothering to look up as she was already writing it down.

“You know me, Ming,” he replied. “Thanks.”

She nodded, then finally looked up and spotted Katara. “Oh! I almost didn’t see you there,” she said, laughing. “I’m not used to seeing Zuko come in with anybody anymore.”

Zuko slid his gaze over toward the wall, feeling embarrassed heat rise in his cheeks. “Come on…”

Ming grinned and waved vaguely at him. “You know I think it was for the best, anyway. We’ve talked that to death. But! What can I get you?” Her pen hovered over the order booklet as she looked at Katara, expectant.


“You… didn’t see me?” Something uncomfortable settled in Katara’s stomach, but she swallowed it quickly. 

There was history here. Clearly. She didn’t think it was between Zuko and Ming, and it wasn’t any of her business. She didn’t want to pry… even though it put her in the incredibly awkward position of wondering if she was forcing herself on Zuko. 

She did all but force him to sleep over.

Katara folded her menu shut and handed it off to Ming. “Coffee’s fine,” she said. “A little cream and sugar to go with it.” If there was a figurative cloud having over Zuko’s love life, she certainly didn’t want to make the assumption that this was a date… or have Zuko feel obligated to pay. And, with only about $3 to her name, she’d have to wait ‘til she was home to eat. 

After watching Ming go, her attention drifted back to Zuko. The topic of his house came back to her. It seemed a harmless enough subject to dance around. 

“So… your uncle’s place, no roommates.” Katara folded her arms on the table. “Any pets? Or… hobbies?” 


 “No pets, either,” Zuko said. “But I’ve got a nice pond within walking distance where there’s always lots of ducks and old people.” A wry smile teased across his mouth, remembering when his uncle first showed him the place and took him for a walk around the grounds and nearby places. He hadn’t cared much at the time, circumstances being what they were, but now he’d come to appreciate them more.

“I don’t know if you’d really call it a hobby, but… I train and teach at Combat Sports a lot. It’s mixed martial arts, and some extra. What about you? You just moved in, but anything you do to pass the time—other than Pride and Prejudice?” The wryness of his smile turned into something more genuine and teasing. It was then he noticed her bowed shoulders, the way she was slightly hunched in on herself. He hesitated a beat, trying to read her. Something had shifted in her demeanor between them walking in and her ordering, and he tried to figure out exactly what.

“Hey,” he said suddenly, leaning his arms on the table in an almost mirror to her. “I thought you would have liked waffles?”


She kept her shrug slow and lazy. “I changed my mind about being hungry. The coffee will keep me full until it’s time to run.” Managing a smile, Katara attempted to brush off her mood. In any case, it was… extremely out of place for her to be affected by his friends or story. 

“That’s something I like to do,” she addressed his question. “Running. Clears the mind… I used to train in martial arts, too, but I haven’t found a gym I like, though my friend runs one, so I could try that out…” She was rambling. Katara bit her lip as color flooded her cheeks. 

And, fortunately, Ming saved her from rambling any more of her whole life story by bring her coffee, the order complete with a saucer of cream and some sugar packets. 

She dumped a packet in, poured in some cream too, and stirred it absently. The spoon clinked against the ceramic, covering her silence until she went on. “I also like dancing. I’ve learned a lot of different styles. I’m hoping to take that up again soon, but I need real work first.” Katara looked up thoughtfully, “Unless work could involve dancing… I don’t know. We’ll see.” 


“Dance? Really? That’s not a typical hand-and-hand with forensics.” She stirred her coffee and Zuko added two packets of sugar to his, but with no cream.

He watched her most closely now—not that he was having difficulty keeping his eyes on her to begin with—but something was still clearly off. Zuko wracked his brain for anything he could have said that would have deflated the moment so much. The ride here was pleasant, and she seemed so enthusiastic about having waffles, about having breakfast with him. The thought had stirred a nervous fluttering in his stomach he had to work to quash. It wasn’t as if they’d done… much. But, she’d smiled so sleepily at him and it was as if his whole world focus zeroed in on the curve of her mouth, and the sweetness of her eyes. He couldn’t have left then, couldn’t tear himself away.

Now, though, the atmosphere had shifted. It was less like an airy spring morning and more like the vague pressure of a storm that couldn’t decide if it truly wanted to build or not. At least, that’s how it felt in the booth where they sat. Unspoken tension that lingered between people was not something Zuko had been naturally inclined to notice, but he certainly had learned to become attuned to it, between his father and his ex. He wanted to press her again about the waffles—there was something there about them, beneath her surface dismissal, but he couldn’t think of a tactful way to broach it. And, he suspected his instinct to simply and bluntly ask would not be very well received.

Well, he had her for at least a cup of coffee. Maybe an opening would present itself, or he could convince her to actually eat. Especially after how much they’d had to drink the night before. He chewed on his bottom lip quickly to suppress the frown that wanted to form. He lifted his gaze back up from his coffee to her, alighting on the blue of her eyes; he was struck again momentarily by their clarity. Yeah, a corner of his mind mused, he could get used to breakfast with her real easy.

So the smile he gave her was easy and subdued. “What kind of dance do you like? Or would like to get into?”

Chapter Text

“I don’t know.” She huffed noncommittally, leaning over her coffee cup and watching the brown liquid ripple any time either of them shifted. 

“I’ve done ballroom. And, hip-hop. Ballet when I was a kid. You can’t really earn a… Oh! Stripping.” A derisive snort made her coffee splutter. “I could make enough money with that. I took some pole-dancing lessons Freshman year.” 

Katara looked up in time to see a flush of pink wash down his cheeks and neck, and quickly enough, color spread across her face, as well. Her heart sank into a sea of embarrassment, sending her gaze away and out the window. 

“That was a joke.” 

Sort of; but, she wasn’t about to let him onto that. Now that the idea was there, it was something Katara thought she could do… and probably be successful at. That, however, was an entirely inappropriate breakfast conversation to have with her noncommittal, almost one-night-stand, which left her to heave a desperate sigh of relief when Ming interrupted  again  with Zuko’s food. 

She followed the waitress’s return to the kitchen, slowly bringing her focus back to her companion with what she hoped was a better topic. “How often are you at your gym? Combat Sports?”


 

He felt the heat rush across his face, and after her cheeks flushed to match, he wanted to say something. It wasn’t that he was judging her, which is what he assumed her quick glance out the window implied she thought, but that he was trying to not imagine her. At the slightest mention of titillating activity involving her and his mind supplied the appropriate mental display. Or, rather, inappropriate mental display. Still, he readily recalled the rich brown curve of her shoulder, the swell of her breast, the warmth of her collarbone and throat beneath his mouth. Zuko shifted.

Fortunately, he was saved (again) by Ming. She set his food down and glanced at their coffees, obviously gauging whether either of them needed a refill. She topped his off, while Katara declined. Once she left, Zuko felt awkward again, sitting there and being the only one with food in front of him.

Just as he was debating how he could gracefully share his food with her, Katara brought him out of his thoughts, asking about his gym time.

“Almost every day,” he replied, taking the moment to add a bit more cream into his coffee until its shade was almost the same as Katara’s skin. “I teach a few classes there, around my own training. My focus is on muay thai, but recently I’ve been branching out into a few other things. We’ve got a really great Akido program, so I’ve been picking up some classes of that to help teach it as we get more interest.”

He wanted to ask her more about her dancing, to shift the conversation back to that. Or ask her if there were any other Jane Austen movies she liked second to Pride and Prejudice. It was also partly because he was a bit self conscious, talking about himself, but Zuko suspected that was also due to the tension he still felt lingering. If it was because he’d said something wrong, he certainly didn’t want to allow for more opportunity to mess things up more. Mess things up, he echoed silently. Does that mean this is a thing? He hoped so.

Instead, he carefully cut his eggs in half, separating them before taking a forkful from just one of the sides. “I’ve heard that dancing can help with some martial arts, and vice versa.”


 

“Oh? Is it?” Her smile was slow to spread, but it formed. Was that… some sort of subtle invitation? Her head warned her not to hope — the feelings of doubt lingered heavily, like the sugar sludge at the bottom of her coffee. But, her heart was another matter, and it pattered restlessly. 
Rather than ask, and risk imposing, she put the question back on him. 

“Is that your way of saying you want some pole-dancing lessons to better your fighting skills?” She shot a brow up. “Granted, I’ll have to ask the landlord if installing a pole in my living room is frowned upon, but I am an excellent teacher.” 

Katara shrugged, pretending for a moment that her offer was perfectly nonchalant, perfectly serious, before a giggle burst from her. She quickly hid the sound in her coffee. As stupid as her joking may’ve been, she felt she’d made up for the comment about stripping, at least. Zuko’s blush seemed related to her forwardness now, and held less of an opinion on the subject of her throwing her clothes around a stage. 

Not that she should care so much, what he thought. They weren’t a thing. 

Were they?

She finished the last of her coffee and frowned at it, letting silence stew as he took a bite. Then it occurred to her, that with his gym, her dancing, and her history with martial arts, she may have a way to keep seeing him without actually seeing him— “They wouldn’t be looked for any instructors at Combat Sports, would they? I- I’d obviously have to get certified, but…” Katara bit her lip, tucking her chin to her shoulder with uncertainty. “Maybe I could teach?” 


 

His thoughts raced to keep up, having got stuck on installing a pole in my living room. It was a good thing he wasn’t taking a sip of his coffee then, because he surely would have choked on it. A whole slew of questions cascaded through him—did she know pole dancing, then? Was she just teasing him? Was she inviting him back to her apartment?

No, no, it was just a joke, and her laughter was a least infectious enough to make him smile through the heat in his cheeks. He really was as gullible as Azula and Mai always accused him of being.

Finally, his brain caught up with where she took the conversation, and he rolled her idea around in his head. The heat receded from his face and neck back to normal.

“Actually…” His eye flicked up from his eggs to meet hers. “I think that’s a great idea. We’re not actively looking for dance instructors, but that’s more because no one’s ever thought of the idea. There was talk about looking for a yoga instructor to help with flexibility and stabilization, so I don’t see why some sort of dance… fusion type of thing would be turned away without consideration, at least.”

God, she was cute. The way she dipped her head a little to the side from being unsure, the way her fingers curled around her coffee cup almost protectively. His heart fluttered and he allowed himself a smile.

“Kinda last minute but… I was gonna head there anyway after we were done here. You could… come along with me? See the place, at least, maybe talk with someone?” Zuko’s eyes widened a bit at his own assumption, and he lowered his gaze. “I mean, if—if you’re not already busy. It’s really last minute, I know, so if you’re busy today then we can schedule another time when you’re not.”

Great, now he was babbling. He picked up his coffee and downed a few gulps of it, to shut himself up before he made an even bigger fool of himself.


 

She shrugged at first. 

It seemed clingy to her, maybe even a little desperate to jump at more time with him, and that was the last impression Katara wanted to leave. However,  as her attention flicked to the display cases at the counter, she decided why the hell not? 

“Okay,” Katara said.

Obviously, she’d have an empty stomach to contend with now, but it beat going home and possibly running into Jet alone.

She managed to quit salivating over a piece of cheesecake and look at him, a flush on her cheeks. “As long as no one there minds the tag along… I’d like to see it… and talk about, you know, whatever they’re looking for. I’m sure I can come up with something to fit the needs. Do you think I should change?” 

She ran her fingers up into her hair, glancing down at her outfit. The jeans weren’t necessarily an issue, but she’d probably shy away from any physical feats— hopefully that wouldn’t cost her a job, if the visit turned to that.


 

Even though he’d wanted her to agree, nervousness now quickened in his stomach now that she actually had. The gym was an important place for him---at first, he’d found solace in martial arts, in finding something he could actually be good at away from his father. In time, he’d learned to take pride in it, and had found peace and kind of humbleness in being both student and teacher the last decade. Combat Sports was almost like a second home to him, and taking someone there he’d just met---and maybe, probably,  definitely  had an interest in---made his insides jittery.

Ming walked by and he caught her attention, asking for the check and a box. He gave her some cash for the check and then scraped half of his eggs he’d separated earlier into the to-go box. After he was done and they got up to head out, Zuko cast a look over Katara, his eyes lingering probably a little too long on the vague outline of her piercing through the tank. He had to remind himself to come back to the present. He cleared his throat quietly and dragged his gaze back up to hers. 

“If you want?” It probably didn’t really matter; the gym was a pretty open place, and if they were interested in the stuff Katara offered to teach, they would probably schedule a more formal interview.

“I probably should, though, since, uh, I didn’t get the chance to this morning.” Despite himself, he grinned, a little sheepish and a little cheeky all at once. He had a gym bag in his car, but it was all used stuff that needed washing.

“My place is a bit closer to the gym, so if you want to change we can swing by your apartment first, then mine.”

Chapter Text

Katara agreed to his offer and ended up in a pair of black Nike tights and a sports bra, which she covered with a light blue windbreaker that matched her shoes before darting back outside to meet Zuko in the car. 

So far, there was no sign of Jet. Either Zuko scared him off or he’d been hit by a bus; she didn’t care either way. She took the little relief she felt and let out a deep sigh, buckling up in the front seat of Zuko’s Jeep. 

“All ready,” she said, tossing him a smile as he pulled out. 

Zuko took a left out of her apartment complex. Katara let her eyes wander over him, from the hand draped over the steering wheel to the flex of his forearm when he shifted gears, before resolutely fixing her gaze on the street ahead. She both loved and hated the heat pooling in her belly. 

Fortunately, the twenty-or-so minute drive offered enough distraction. A song she loved came on the radio; Zuko let her turn it up and sing-along. The host that followed was funny — or maybe it was the endorphins and nerves sending her into bursts of laughter over his comments. Katara rubbed her hands on her thighs as Zuko took a final turn and pulled into the driveway of a small, ranch-style house. 

It was cute, almost romantic (though, she tucked that thought away quickly), and somehow exactly what she expected when he mentioned he lived on the edge of town. Large oak trees dominated the picket-fenced lawn, bushes framed the front door, and a rope swing swayed in the slight breeze. She took her time observing as she followed Zuko from the Jeep to the door, then thanked him as he let her inside, seemingly as nervous and breathless as she. 

Katara exhaled carefully, taking in the front room overall, then the details. He had an eye for organization. Everything was simple, neat. Bookshelves framed a fireplace. A comfortable looking sofa sat across from it, a lamp on one end.  He had an armchair, a coffee table, a blanket she could picture him napping with. It was all painfully normal; painful, because she figured this would be the one and only room she ever saw, and the one and only time she saw it. 

Her gaze slipped away, trailing over the rug in a path towards her feet. 

“Oh my god, you have hardwoods,” she blurted, gawking at the light oak planks. “The original hardwoods?” Her voice came out like a whine. “I’m sold, I’m moving in.”  


He laughed, feeling a simultaneous easing of one kind of nervousness in him and the cinching of another. “Actually, yeah, they are. This house used to be my uncle’s—which is the only reason why I can afford to not have roommates. He had it built.” Zuko knew he was definitely lucky in that, even if it did get a little lonely sometimes. Normally that didn’t bother him, but after spending the last eighteen hours or so in her company, he had a creeping suspicion that he’d feel her absence more acutely than he probably should at this point.

“You’re welcome to come over whenever you like,” he blurted before he thought better of it. He quickly tried to recover. “I know we just met but… I like talking with you?” Great, that sounded really pathetic. Maybe, if he were lucky enough after all this verbal stumbling, she’d still give him the time of day across campus. “And, if you need to get away from Jet. Whenever.”

Of course bringing up her ex soured the mood, and he watched her face darken for a moment, then school into careful neutrality. It wasn’t a drastic shift, but still not as subtle as Mai’s expressions had been, so Zuko was well-versed in reading minute changes to body language.

He waited half a beat too long, and the silence became a little awkward between them. “Do you… want the nickel tour?”

That seems to do the trick a bit. She doesn’t exactly brighten, but she does seem to relax again somewhat. “Sure.”

Trying to ignore the warning tickling in the back of his mind saying you’ve fucked it all up again, Zuko flashes her a small smile and motions to the room they’re in. “So, this is the living room. You probably guessed that already. Through that door is the kitchen,” he pointed to an open doorway behind them to the right, then shifted to the left, “and down that short hallway is the bathroom, and the bedrooms. I’ve got two.” He’d stayed in the room he’d slept in as a teenager when his uncle still lived here. It wasn’t quite as big as the master bedroom, but they were near enough in size that it didn’t really matter to him.

“And, I’ve got a yard out back with a standalone cabin. It doesn’t have much in it—I’m really not sure what to do with it, to be honest.” Zuko glanced back at her, trying to gauge her mood. “Feel free to make yourself at home; I’m gonna go get changed.”


Fuck. 

Fuck, fuck, fuck, Jet was going to haunt her forever, wasn’t he? In the second or so it took to school her reaction, to shut down the swelling disappointment in her chest — he just saw her as the girl with the shitty ex, didn’t he? — Katara barely registered Zuko asking her another question, and when she responded, it fell flat.

Great. The girl with the shitty ex and a total bitch, too. She chewed her bottom lip sourly and followed, finding herself less than focused on what she was seeing and more on how to properly stamp a smile on her face. 

She hated this. She was terrible at this. Dating or hanging out or— what were they doing? Katara followed his gesture down the hall, observing two open doors and a bathroom at the end, then turned to look out a window facing the backyard. 

“You could always make it a gym,” she suggested. “You’d need a treadmill or a punching bag, but… I don’t know, that’s what I would do with it.” Katara glanced sideways, sensing Zuko searching her. 

She must still be off, because he ducked for cover and darted to his room. She was ruining all of this; or, Jet was. 

In Zuko’s absence, Katara picked a spot on the couch and sank down. It was as comfortable as it looked. The blanket was as soft as she guessed. A part of her, the sad, aching part, contemplated curling into a ball beneath it, but the rest of her was agitated and… well, she whirled on Zuko when he returned. 

“Can I… Can I tell you about Jet?” Katara despised the way her voice trembled at the end, but anything to do with Jet, even mentioning him, had her skin crawling. 

She rubbed at her forearm. “I don’t need any place to hide, okay? I appreciate the offer, I really do, but I’m not weak and I’m afraid of him.” She was met with a clearly confused, shocked expression, but Katara didn’t let up. “He was following me last night. He called me, very angrily, because I wasn’t at home and then he found me on campus. I ducked behind you knowing my odds were better with a decent looking around guy my age, than alone, in the dark, with a fifteen minute run home and no one but Jet knowing I was out that night.” 


God, he wanted to reach out and touch her, to have some sort of physical reassurance, but she looked as if she might storm off from her place on his couch if he did. Or, maybe shatter. Zuko didn’t want either. Dammit, why did he have to bring up Jet again? He knew as much as anyone how sore a shitty ex could be, and he’d just blurted out whatever words came into his head without a second thought. What a fucking idiot he was, and apparently always would be.

His father was right.

Zuko forced those thoughts down with a tight swallow, and held Katara’s gaze. He couldn’t know exactly how she felt, but he’d been in similar shoes throughout his life. He shook his head.

“It’s not because I think you need to hide,” he said gently. “But… I know sometimes it helps to know you can go somewhere you don’t have to worry. I worded that… really badly. I’m sorry.” A pause stretched between them before Zuko spoke up again. “Have you thought about blocking him? So he can’t contact you anymore?” His eyebrow scrunched downward in thought, eyes drifting down to where her hands rested on her legs. “A restraining order won’t actually do much to physically stop him from trying to find you, but it would give you more legal standing when he does. I can talk to one of my professors who still has contacts with the city police if you want some more information.”

Zuko’s hands still itched to hold hers, so he ran one of them through his hair. Like her, he’d changed into better workout clothes—a pair of running pants and a t-shirt with his gym’s logo across the front, so when he sank down with her on his couch, it looked as they could have simply been lounging about his house, were it not for the heavy conversation.

“Jet’s an asshole,” he said abruptly, catching her eyes again with his own. “And he only gives a shit about what he wants, and what other people can do for him. I know his type, and I know how hard it is to break away from people like that.”

Her eyes widened at his sudden vehemence; he had to look away. He looked to his right, fully exposing the scar on that side of his face to her. It was an unconscious decision on his part, as his thoughts turned flitted from Mai, to his sister, to finally his father.

She remained quiet all this while, and the knowledge that he’d still said all the wrong things welled up in him until it threatened to burst from his chest. When he spoke again, his voice was subdued, a soft scrape against his throat.

“I just… wanted you to know that my door’s always open. I don’t have a spare bed right now but… at least my bed frame’s built.” He chanced a look back at her, hopeful that his little attempt at teasing wasn’t too off the mark.


She smiled, a little snorting laugh coming with it. “Hey now, we managed just fine on the floor.” 

Her eyes trailed the scar up to his left ear before falling away. It seemed something he was self-conscious of, or… at least conscious of the questions it may conjure up. Not a small piece of her wanted to know the story — she could sense something from how he talked about Jet — but Katara vowed right then, she’d never ask.

It was his business: his scar, his past, his history with Jet. She chose to share a bit of hers; he wasn’t required to do the same, certainly not outside his own timing.

But… he was right there. His legs. His face. His hands. In a bid to calm him, and make up for her mood, Katara pulled his left into her lap. 

“If I need you, I’ll call,” she promised, and promised herself that she’d look into more options to free herself of Jet, “which is my not-so-sly way of asking for your number.” She freed a hand to fish in her pocket, pulling out her phone and handing it to him. It was so bold, but she was proud of her move. It sent a thrill right through her. 

“This way you’ll have at least a thirty minute warning before I show up to hog your blankets and your bed.” 


Deftly, she managed to turn the tone of the conversation on its head, and bring his full attention out of the depths he’d sunk to and back to her. Zuko wasn’t sure which was more surprising—when she took his hand, or when she offered him her phone. Taking a chance of his own while his heart sped up, he laced his fingers with hers and took her phone with his free hand. A shy smile spread across his face as he entered his name and number into her contacts, before handing it back. He made no move to extract his hand.

“At least with your mattress on the floor, I wouldn’t have far to fall, once you take over and kick me out.”

He smiled at her for a moment, probably a bit dumbly if he were being honest, before realizing— “Oh—here.” A bit of fishing into his shorts’ pocket produced his own phone. He unlocked it, then handed it over. “Your turn.”

And that definitely set his heart to racing more. When was the last time he’d exchanged numbers with a girl? Hell, when was the last time he’d wanted to? Now his stomach was fluttering at the thought of when she might call him. He’d say he felt like a teenager again, but those years weren’t filled much with thoughts of relationships like most others’ were. Mai’d been around then, and they’d dated, but it had always seemed like they’d date eventually. An inevitability, especially with Azula pushing them together when they were all kids.

That though sobered him a little. She’d told him about Jet; he felt he should tell her about Mai. But… Maybe that was too much. They weren’t… a thing, that he should be dredging up his own Big Bad Ex. Besides, she’d lightened the mood and he didn’t want to ruin that. Again.

He watched her tap onto his phone. “Whenever you’re ready, we can head out to the gym.” Wait, that sounded like he was trying to get rid of her. “I mean—we don’t have to go right away. If you wanted to hang out more. I can show you the yard and the cabin? Or if you’re hungry now I can make you something. I’m not super at waffles but I can give them a whirl.” You’re trying too hard, Zuzu, a voice suspiciously like his sister’s said in his mind. He probably was.


“I, uh—” She laughed as her face heated with embarrassment. “I am a little hungry, but you don’t have to go to the lengths of waffles.” As she said it, her stomach growled. Katara put a hand over the sound and flashed a sheepish grin. “I’m not sure I can wait for waffles.” 

Fortunately, her smile was met with one of his own, all cute and lopsided and shy. He had to know he was insanely hot, right? There was no way he didn’t have girls and guys fawning over him.

Katara stuttered out her acceptance of cereal, too caught up by the flicker of gold in his eyes, and soon enough, she had a bowl of Fruit Loops and he had her in the backyard. She was going to hate leaving him. She knew it right then, watching him putter around, kicking at leaves in the grass and rambling about getting a dog at some point.

“You’re a retriever,” she announced, interrupting him. It earned her a curious look, so Katara went on. “Come on, everyone has a spirit dog. You’re a retriever, a golden, to be exact: well-mannered, smart. You seem like you’d be good with kids, given how well you adapt to strangers and strange situations… not that I’m thinking about— about kids.” She blanched suddenly, contemplated the benefits of dropping the bowl and running, and worked her jaw before blurting. “They make shitty guard dogs, though, so, that’s- that’s one fault.”  

God, she could wither away. The wind could pick her up and take her to Timbuktu and she’d be fine with it. A dog? Really? And kids?! She could hear Suki shrieking in delight over this. 

Huffing out her nose, Katara figured she could do nothing but commit to it. “My brother says I’m a chihuahua. Annoying and yappy, with a mean streak.” She frowned. “I can see how it would fit, but I like to think I have more in common with cats.”


His heart felt light in his chest and he laughed. It wasn’t just the amused laughter they’d shared in the short time they knew one another, but a face-scrunching, eye-watering laugh. One hand came up to cover his eyes until he regained control of himself enough to look up at her again, a grin still splitting his face. Whatever providence had shone on him in the moment she decided to duck behind him in the library, he wasn’t sure he’d ever done anything to deserve it. Katara was a delight, and Zuko was definitely not looking forward to parting company with her.

“You just said everyone’s got a spirit dog, so you’ve got to have one of those, as well. I think your brother’s got you wrong---you’re definitely a husky. Quick as a whip and amazingly ridiculous. The blue eyes just seal the deal.”

It was as if him saying it was a command to himself, and Zuko found himself standing in his back yard, a wayward tree branch in hand, looking up the few steps to the deck at her, utterly transfixed by her eyes. He’d swear he was drowning except for the stirring of heat in his belly, the way he was keenly aware of every breath he took and every beat of his heart.

Fuck he wanted her, still. Looking at her standing in workout leggings and a loose windbreaker that only seemed to emphasize the curves of her legs didn’t help any; it just made him want them wrapped around him. The memory of her resurfaced again, the way she smelled and tasted and felt beneath him.

A sharp rustle of leaves to his right snapped his attention back to the present, and a breath rushed out of him. He had to get a hold of himself. Zuko was pretty sure staring at her like he wanted to eat her would probably freak her out.

“Uh,” he began, tearing his eyes away from her and wrestling his thoughts back to some semblance of coherency. “Do you... want to see the cabin?” He glanced back over his shoulder at it, not too far from where he stood at the other end of the yard, butted up against the fence. “The inside, I mean. Obviously you can see it from there. But, turning into a gym isn’t a bad idea? Though I kinda don’t want it cluttered up with weights. I don’t know,” Zuko rambled, working to quash his fluster. “I think it’d be kinda neat as a studio, but I don’t... really... art.”