DISCLAIMER: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender.
CHAPTER 20: Open Eyes
His phone rings just after Katara leaves to freshen up. Zuko glares at the screen as it lights up with an unknown number— he normally wouldn't take it, but what if it's an emergency? What if something happened to his uncle? Zuko picks up hesitantly.
"Heeeey, Scarface! You gotta join us at this seaside bar, man, this place is hopping! Oh, no, ma'am, she's not a minor— go give her your ID, Toph—"
"Sokka?" Zuko says in disbelief. "What the hell is happening back there?"
"Dude, Toph and I found this place on the baywalk— oops, sorry, I forgot— that's your gym membership card, Toph, here, lemme—"
"You're not making sense," he grumbles, pinching the bridge of his nose in annoyance. Why do these people always feel the need to call him instead of just texting like a normal person? He doesn't have the energy for this.
"Oh, right! You and Katara meet us up here, it's beside this awesome antique shop and this surfboard rental place—"
"Why didn't you just call Katara?" Zuko almost whines.
"'Cause she's not picking up! I've been trying to reach her for like an hour. For a sec there I really thought she'd killed you and had to outrun the cops or something—"
Katara emerges from her room, having changed out of her semi-formal clothes, and Zuko all but shoves his phone in her hands, Sokka's voice still filtering through the speakers.
She looks at him with her eyebrows raised and taps the button for speakerphone.
"Sis! Hey, great to hear from ya. Finally! Did you throw a fit and broke your phone or something? Anyway, Toph and I found this awesome seaside bar, you gotta meet us here, alright? Someone said they had the best Ember Island Sunrise here—"
"Sokka, slow down—"
"Oh damn, Toph's challenging this huge dude to an arm-wrestling match— I gotta go! See ya!"
The rambling stops and Katara stares at the phone in disbelief.
"What?" she asks dumbfoundedly.
"I guess we have to 'meet them there,'" Zuko repeats dryly. "He mentioned something about the bar being near an antiques shop and a surfboard rental place."
"Do you have any idea where that is?" Katara says bemusedly, waving his phone around. Zuko shrugs.
"This is a beach town. There are tons of surfboard rental places. But I only know one antiques shop on this side of town, so that could be it."
Katara looks over at him thoughtfully and her gaze softens.
"Do you feel like going?"
Zuko stiffens, suddenly reminded of how awfully pathetic and vulnerable he'd made himself in front of her, and dear Agni almighty, did he really unload all of his trauma on her? Why is she still here, why hasn't she run away yet—
"Zuko?" Katara's voice filters through his thoughts. "We can just stay here, if it's too much for you."
He finds his voice and shakes his head.
"No, I'm okay. Really," he adds at her incredulous look. "I need a drink, anyway."
Katara grins, and he finds himself distracted by the way her eyes sparkle with mischief.
"Same here. It's been a long day, and I think it's about time I treat this trip as a vacation and have fun."
Zuko raises an eyebrow at that.
"I didn't know you knew how to have fun."
Her jaw drops in indignation.
"Hey!" she plants one of her hands on her hip and points his phone at him. "I do too know how to have fun! I had fun at that benefit concert that Haru took me to, and I have fun sparring with Ty Lee and Suki at the gym and going to the spa with Toph— and I had fun at the Pride March, so there!"
Then she sticks out her tongue at him like a petulant little kid, and Zuko suddenly wants to burst into laughter and pull her into his arms and kiss her senseless—
Wait, what? That can't be right.
But she had kissed him earlier.
It was just on the cheek, Zuko thinks. It doesn't mean anything.
"Something wrong?" she asks, loosening her defensive stance in favor of her earlier, softer one, and he feels heat rise up to his cheeks.
"No, uh," he scrambles for an excuse, but was never much of a liar. "I just remembered— something from, uh, earlier."
"Zuko," she murmurs his name like a gentle reprimand. "You don't have to tough it out if you don't have the energy for it, alright?"
"I'm fine," he replies automatically.
She furrows her eyebrows and steps closer to him, raising a hand to rest on his scarred cheek.
"I know you're not. And it's okay if you're not. I understand. I'll stay with you until you're okay again, if you want me to."
He fights the instinct to lean into her hand and graze his lips against the delicate skin of her wrist.
She smiles at him again with that soft smile that feels like sunlight on his skin, her eyes so wonderfully honest that Zuko had no doubt that if he asked her to stay, she truly would—
"O-okay," he swallows. "Yeah, I'd like that."
Something shifts in her expression, and Zuko cannot pinpoint what it means, but the air is thick with that something and his heart is racing in his chest. She's so close, close enough that if he just dips down a few inches, he would be able to meet her lips—
No, stop that. You don't want to kiss her.
But why does it feel so wrong to want to kiss her? She's smart, funny, kind, sweet and caring, and so beautiful and radiant. He'd poured his heart out to her, opened up every wound he had, told her things he'd never told anyone— not Uncle, not Toph, not even himself, really— and she hasn't turned away nor looked at him in disgust. Instead, she'd held him through it all, and her eyes merely reflected the pain he'd gone through, like the ocean reflecting the sunset and transforming it into something new and breathtaking.
Even so… why does it feel so dishonorable to want her lips on his? It's not like she is with Haru anymore, and—
"Oh no!" He staggers backwards, almost cracking his head on the low cupboard behind him.
He lets out the breath he didn't know he was holding and runs a hand through his hair in panic.
"I forgot Jin's birthday!"
"Jin?" Katara blinks at him, hand still raised to where his face had been. Then she slaps that same hand to her forehead. "Right! Jin! Your girlfriend!"
"Yes! I have a girlfriend! It's my girlfriend's birthday! And I forgot!"
"Yeah! So— um! You should go kiss her— I mean, greet her! Greet her! Right now!"
"Right! I was just gonna do that!" He stumbles to the beach, face flushed from every possible emotion in the world. He hears Katara's voice from a few paces away and his heart thunders in his ears.
"Zuko! You left your phone!"
"Right! Yeah! My phone!"
Their fingers touch when she tries to hand it to him and they both jump backwards as though electrocuted. She almost tosses it to him in her panic and he scrambles to catch it before it falls to the floor. He waves awkwardly as he walks away, not trusting himself to look at her. He flinches at the ghost of her touch on his scar, at the memory of her blue eyes threatening to drown him.
I can't believe that almost happened.
Oh, how he hated it when Toph was right.
Katara steadies herself on the kitchen counter, still a little bit dazed and a little bit disappointed at what just happened.
"It didn't mean anything," she mutters to herself, her heart pounding in her chest. "You were just caught up in trying to comfort him. It didn't mean anything."
She exhales slowly, patting her still-flaming cheeks.
"It's not like you like him like that," she tells herself firmly. "You don't. You've only just started being actual friends. He just opened up to you about the worst days of his life. You cannot be attracted to him because of that. That's just wrong. Plain wrong."
And yet she could still feel the heat of his gaze, the way his eyes lingered on her lips, the feel of his pulse thundering in his jaw, almost in sync with hers.
"Stop it, Katara! That's how Jet got you to date him." She rushes to the sink to splash her face with tap water. It is lukewarm at best, and does little to quell her blush. She covers her face with her hands and groans. "Maybe I do have a type."
Stupid Toph for putting that idea in her head.
"No, Toph is absolutely wrong. Aang is nothing like Jet, and I dated Aang longer than him," she mumbles into her hands, her voice muffled.
Aang's an orphan who was getting picked on by the big kids when you first met him, her brain traitorously whispers.
"Okay, but look at Haru!" she tells herself. "I didn't want to stick around Haru even when his family was going through problems."
That's because you weren't attracted to him.
"Well, that just makes me a horrible person, then," she says, dropping her hands from her face. "And I am not attracted to Zuko."
She could almost hear Toph's singsong voice telling her that she's lying, and suddenly she doesn't feel like arguing with herself anymore.
She busies herself with cleaning the kitchen— not that anything has to be cleaned, so she just opened drawers and shelves only to slam them shut; she just needs a distraction from burning amber eyes and soft crooked smiles and that stupid smoldering voice—
She hears a weird, strangled-sounding cough from the patio and she turns to find Zuko there. There's an awkward pause as the two of them look at anything but the other. Finally, Zuko clears his throat again.
"Wanna go grab something to eat?"
Still red in the face, Katara shrugs.
"Sure, why not."
She flinches at how high and breathy her voice seems.
"Great!" His voice is almost at the same pitch as hers. He groans and pinches the bridge of his nose. "I mean, I know a great place. By the beach."
Katara pictures the two of them eating dinner by the sea as the sun sets in the horizon and her breath hitches in her throat. She mentally shakes herself off of the image, but Zuko reads her expression before she could hide it and he coughs in that awkward way again.
"Or, uh—" the tips of his ears redden as he casts his gaze around, as though an alternative would pop out of the shelves. He rubs the back of his neck self-consciously. "We could, I dunno—"
"We could eat at the bar!" Katara blurts out. "Sokka and Toph are probably still cheating money out of strangers' hands, so it'll be easier to hide from them— not that we're hiding! 'Cause we've got nothing to hide!"
Zuko nods furiously, too mortified for words. It would have been comical if Katara didn't feel as mortified as he did.
"So! Then! Let's go!" Katara says, punctuating her words with flailing gestures that would make Sokka proud.
"Right, yeah! Let's go!"
Zuko somehow manages to reach the door before she does, and she catches herself before she could stumble into his back— but not before she catches a whiff of him, a refreshing scent that somehow reminds her of cloudy mornings and summer rain showers.
She pushes herself through the gap between him and the doorway, cheeks ablaze yet again, and picks a random direction to walk to, before she realizes she doesn't know where she was supposed to be going. She turns around and almost bumps into Zuko again.
"You have to stop doing that!" she practically shrieks, and he stumbles away from her.
"I'm not doing anything!"
"Well, just— just go and lead the way, because I don't know where we're going!"
"I was just about to do that!"
"Then why are we standing around here shouting?"
"I don't know! You started it!"
"Well, this is me finishing it!"
The rest of their walk— which couldn't have been more than ten minutes, but to Katara it felt like ten days— is made in silence.
"Maybe this will get better with an Ember Island Sunrise," she mutters to herself as they reach the entrance of the bar, and Zuko huffs in agreement in front of her.
She doesn't even pretend to be bothered that she spoke out loud.
A/N: Can you spell unresolved sexual tension because I hope this chapter has it written all over it lol tell me what you think of this!