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 wanted—drifted 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?”
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.