perfect places





( past )

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.


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 vy 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.

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