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?”