perfect places

( past )

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 liked 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?

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