( 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 like Katara so immediately, he’d want some assurance someone was looking after her.
He took a longer drink of vodka–nearly all of it–to banish the memories from his head. “Besides,” he said, a rueful smile tugging at one side of his mouth, “what kind of fake boyfriend would I be if I left so soon after coming up with you?
He wanted to stay. Her first thought was how long? Overnight? Surely, this wasn’t what Suki meant when she teased about Katara’s newly single life and the waiting sleepovers. Katara shifted towards him further, one leg unfolding, her foot brushing the floor. Her lips stalled part way open, questions-why? what for? i’ll be fine-hovering silently between them. She wasn’t used to someone caring.
But, he—Zuko—caught her gaze and within it, Katara glimpsed the ragged edges of buried emotion. It kept her quiet, that depth in the gold, the earnest furrow in his bow. She tucked her chin, mouth pursed into a plump pout. He’d been through this before, hadn’t he? Or something similar to this: praying the days were boring and uneventful, hoping the nights passed quickly. And no matter the hour or the location, there was always that icy prickle of fear, like someone was watching, waiting.
Her eyes flicked to his, soft beneath soft lashes; the flicker in his was gone. A tug on the corner of his mouth, and Zuko’s throat tightened around a laugh and the last of his vodka. Katara polished off her own, burning away her private worries.
“A poor boyfriend, I suppose,” she jibed. A touch of shyness colored her face. Katara pretended to find particular interest in the wooden whorls on the floor.
Whatever heaviness that clung to the silence, it was all but gone. A smile slipped into place. She fought it— a lot of good that did, considering the warmth in her blood and the inhibitions it melted away. The vodka sat like a hot coal in her belly, buzzed around her head like dizzy butterflies.
She gave into it, letting Zuko see her smile as she stood with lazy fluidity, teasing, “And I’d be a terrible, fake girlfriend if I didn’t make you feel at home.”
Katara gestured at the empty drink in his lap, her bottom lip caught between her teeth as she took and returned to the fridge. Refilling both hers and his, she balanced the chilled vodkas in one hand and grabbed a bag of chips, too.
“In case you’re hungry,” she offered, along with his drink. “I’ve got other food, as well, ramen and cheap-college-student shit.” her laugh was playful. “Take whatever you want. Stay as long as you like. I… am going to change… these clothes stink.”
She drifted towards the TV console, peeking into boxes. Finding the one she wanted, Katara sipped her drink before settling on her knees. She rifled through the mix of clothes and shoes (she’d been living out of boxes and was, quite frankly, sick of it, but life was too busy to worry about the state of her wardrobe for the time being). Her search ended when it produced a pair of silky sleep shorts and the matching cami.
Standing with the garments and her drink, she nodded towards another box, “I have more… like, comfy clothes. My- my dad’s clothes, big t-shirts…” Katara stammered, heat on her cheeks.
God, the alcohol was going to her head. He hadn’t breathed a word about spending the night. He was only staying. For a while. That implied… maybe midnight, at the latest. However long Jet hung around outside, he wouldn’t hover for more than a couple of hours. Hell, Zuko could easily leave at ten without any issue and here she was offering him clothes like they were having a fucking sleepover.
Katara let out a frustrated snort. It registered somewhere that Zuko had cleared his throat. She was staring. Her drink was halfway to her mouth and her mouth was halfway open. How long was she staring?
“Uh… Right, I…” Katara shook her head, trying to play it off like she was tired or tipsy. “I’m going to change.” As if she needed to announce it again. She was already a dithering idiot. “Dig around if you want. I’ll be back… Zuko.”
He watched her vanish into the bathroom with change of clothes in hand, and was immediately glad she hadn’t looked back and caught him gaping like a fish.
Zuko had always been more or less ambivalent about his name–and then she said it and he found himself wanting to hear her say it again. He let out a controlled breath, bringing sudden wayward–and entirely inappropriate–thoughts to heel. She’d definitely had a panic attack once they’d entered her apartment, and here he was thinking that he liked the way his name fell across her lips. He brought the glass to his mouth and drank.
No sooner had he admonished himself, than his mind focused on another realization.
Clothes. She was offering him… clothes. She must have assumed he meant he would stay the night, and he… well it was his first thought, but he hadn’t specifically said a time frame. He wanted to leave it up to her. It would come across as a little strange, he’d thought, to invite himself over and spend the night in her apartment only just now getting her name. Zuko stared at the freshly poured vodka back in his hands.
Did she want him to stay the night? His heart beat a little faster, and he tried to calm it with another healthy swig of his drink. It didn’t do much other than make his mouth tingle.
This was certainly the most eventful library trip of his entire life.
Get a grip, Zuko. She was set off-kilter; he didn’t even have to know her for that to be evident. It was probably the first thing that came to her mind when he offered to stay–that’s what people usually mean, after all. What was wrong with him, anyway? An attractive face (and body, let him be honest here) and a surprisingly pleasant company for half an hour, and all of a sudden he’s tripping all over himself. He hadn’t given any girls much thought since everything with Mai ended–aside from one disastrous date. After that, Zuko decided he really didn’t need the stress and drama of a relationship or trying to date around (which he was miserable at). Then he’d started his graduate program, and between that and helping his uncle with his business, there hadn’t been time to bother with finding someone to see. He’d been fine with that.
And then Katara had planted herself in front of him and it was like he was a ridiculous teenager with all gangle and no tact all over again.
When he got up to refill his glass, it occurred to him that she’d been in the bathroom for at least a good ten minutes already. A small part of him flared with concern and warning, but he stemmed it from growing any further. She was entitled to take however much time she needed; god knew that Zuko understood the need to decompress after spikes in stress and adrenaline like she seemed to have experienced.
So he resettled back on the couch, nestled the glass between his legs and pulled up a few articles on his phone he’d been meaning to read.
It was as if being in Zuko’s presence had a calming effect. Still inside an hour of knowing him, five minutes of having his name, and she felt… safe. But, the further she moved from him, the weaker her grip became on reality, until she was strangling a sob that lodged itself in her throat and rushing forward and closing the bathroom door just a touch too hard.
The cry tearing up her chest built, burst, then burned in hot streaks down her cheeks. She couldn’t see the small bathroom anymore. She saw— if Zuko hadn’t been there, if she’d walked from the library and bumped into Jet alone— Katara tried to shut out the possibilities, but this wasn’t the first time Jet had waited outside her door. He’d try again. He’d be angrier, maybe even violent.
And, she wouldn’t have her valiant stranger to save her ass by playing fake boyfriend.
Katara held her breath for a second and listened. She heard footsteps, rattling, glass against linoleum. Zuko was pouring another drink. Maybe he intended to stay…? Fake boyfriend meant fake sleepover meant… he had to commit to the charade for the night and sleep on her couch?
He wouldn’t though, if she didn’t collect herself.
Gripping her drink tighter, Katara found her reflection in the mirror. She looked a mess. Mascara smeared her cheeks. Her eyes were bloodshot from crying and far too wide. She wore the expression of a spooked deer; felt like one, too. This was all crazy… and new, someone respectful and caring and— What did Zuko even expect from her? They weren’t together. Katara understood the idea of hooking up, but even before Jet forced them both inside, the night’s trajectory didn’t scream let’s go have sex.
It was more of a let’s have sex on another day type of feeling, based on the easy flirting and friendly banter they had.
Katara swallowed a gulp of vodka and took her phone from her waistband. Three seconds later, she had Suki on the phone, and she hushed her friend with a quiet hiss.
“Shh… shh… I’m kind of hiding.”
“Okay…?” Suki was worried. “What’s going on?”
Katara flipped the faucet on to cover her voice. “There’s a ridiculously hot man in my apartment and I’m pretty sure I’m acting like an idiot.”
A pause extended on Suki’s end. Then, “Well, let’s start with this. Why are you hiding?”
Sighing, Katara sped through a quiet rundown of the events, starting with the library and ending with the last thing she heard: Zuko walking by the bathroom door and back to the couch. By then, she was rambling. “…I thought there was some potential with this guy, but, of course, Jet had to show up and Daddy’s Boy is now my fake boyfriend and—”
Suki laughed, “So, you’re calling me because Prince Charming is hanging out on your couch?”
“No, I’m calling because I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what he wants to do.”
“Katara, hun…” Suki let out a breath. “I think you’re worrying too much. To me, it sounds like he’s trying to be nice. He knows you’re shaken up and he’s offering his company in case Jet comes back. Honestly, it’s something Sokka would do. I don’t think Daddy’s Boy expects any reciprocation from you.”
“So, I just go back out there?”
“Wash your face and make it seem like you’ve had a productive fifteen minutes, but yeah… go sit by him on the couch.” Katara could hear the smile in Suki’s voice, then her friend squealed. “You have to text me tomorrow! Tell me how this goes! And I want details!”
Katara hung up.
It was still quiet outside the bathroom, and the water pouring from the faucet was steaming hot. She decided on giving Suki’s advice a try. She changed out of her gym clothes and into her silky pajama set, then rushed through her routine of face wash, night cream, and lotion all over her arms and legs. Katara was quick, but by the time she re-opened the door, a full twenty minutes has gone by.
Slightly shy, mostly apologetic, Katara smiled. “Sorry, Zuko… I didn’t… I didn’t mean to keep you waiting so long.”
When the faucet in the bathroom shut off and she opened the door again, Zuko felt a spool of something tight in his chest unwind a little. There was a certain worry that he had, not knowing quite how she handled stress, and he felt simultaneously awkward and wanting to hover in case… Well, in case he needed to administer first aid. Zuko would say she didn’t strike him as the sort, but not only did he not know her, he knew as well as anyone that looks weren’t always a good hallmark of bad habits.
”It’s no trouble,” he said, eyes still lingering on the last sentence of an article on non-verbal language he was finishing up. “It’s not like we were on a…” Words and rational thought flew completely out of his head when he finally lifted his attention to her. An immediate surge of heat coiled in his belly and tugged insistently at his groin.
Katara stood on the other side of the room, just outside the open bathroom door, wearing a matching camisole and short set that sent electric signals through him and straight down to his cock, skipping his brain entirely. Surreptitiously, he shifted his seated position under guise of putting his phone back in his pocket. The fabric looked almost like satin the way the shadows fell on it as she moved—wait, wait, she was moving toward him now, one of her dark eyebrows arched in question.
Oh, right. He’d stopped short mid-sentence like an idiot. Zuko’s brain sputtered into motion like an old engine coughing back to life. “Not on a schedule,” he finished, giving in to the compulsion to swallow. “We don’t have a schedule.”
For the second time within the space of two hours, Zuko resolutely kept his eyes on her face, trying his damnedest to not process the lengths of bared leg she had as she refilled her own drink and deposited herself again on the couch. She took up residence at the opposite end like she had before, and Zuko was grateful for small mercies. He was pretty sure he’d forget how to get home if she’d sat pressed up against him with the expanse of collarbone right under his nose. He wondered if she smelled nice.
Mentally taking a firm hold on his thoughts, he steered them back onto safe territory.
“Thanks for the drinks,” he said, not quite attempting at levity, but searching for something easy to work with, at least to start. It was a tricky situation, handling the topic of what was clearly an abusive ex, and he didn’t want to overstep any bounds. “It’s been a while since I had vodka. It’s a nice… change of pace.”