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“Pakku, hm?” Her tone was one of skepticism despite her mighty effort to remain neutral. Such a thing was nearly impossible for her, considering her first semester two years ago. The professor had, in no uncertain terms, announced that there was no place for women in the sciences.

Since, Katara had been hellbent on proving him wrong, going so far as to stretch herself thin over summer and winter breaks. She enrolled in every short course offered, studied hard and long, and learned well. She made straight A’s; she jumped ahead a year as far as degree hours went. Katara counted these things among her personal victories, although her pride smarted at the mention of the man.

It was a weakness of hers, holding grudges. And, it was something she couldn’t help. The slightest note of haughtiness lingered in her words. 

“If you ask me, Piandao is the superior chemistry professor, but perhaps I’m biased, given that his classes aren’t predominantly male.” Katara threw a petulant glance at her companion, a single brow arched high before she reigned in her attitude. There was no need to show off her… bitter feminism, as her ex would call it, not when this man had extended the kindness of driving her home. He was nothing but respectful, really. 

They rounded a corner together, and Katara shifted his books to her other hip, toying with the worn-out binding on one. Eager to return the conversation to something lighter, she brought up Piandao again. “He’s part of the reason I’m focusing on biochem. Forensics, specifically. He makes class so interesting. Some professors prattle on-and-on. I can’t learn that way. I need to…” she grabbed at the air, smiling, “touch things.” 

“It sounds like you get that,” Katara said, stepping smoothly off a curb into a packed parking lot. She spun on her heel on the asphalt, walking backward with just the right amount of sway to her hips. 

Smooth, she complimented herself, lips curled coyly. “That would make us great study partners, the hands-on thing.” 

This time Zuko did laugh at her condemnation of Pakku. “Hard not to notice, right? He’s actually been a lot better than when I first went through a couple years ago.” He shook his head. “I’m not sure what kind of backwater place he’s from, but whatever shook him out of that mindset did a lot of good for the class. Not that he’s easy to deal with even without that,” he added hurriedly, recalling several moments where he’d wanted to bang his head into the wall over the professor’s… unique teaching practices. “Not everyone takes insults as constructive criticism their freshman year.”

The exact moment she turned and moved her hips with what seemed like all the sinuous poise in the world was the same moment (and the reason) his foot missed the curb entirely and he stumbled, dropping his books and nearly colliding straight into her. Luckily, he managed to catch himself in a breakfall, before he ended up in a pile on the ground with her.

”Shit! Sorry—sorry,” he exclaimed, scrambling back to pick up the scattered textbooks. Rearranging them beneath his arm again, Zuko took a moment, still crouched, and let out a breath. Raking a hand through his hair (forgetting that his palms were now scraped with gravel), he looked up at her. Her head was haloed by a streetlamp and she stared down at him, concern tugging her eyebrows together. His heart hiccuped into his throat before he swallowed it resolutely back down. Several moments passed before he realized she was offering a hand to help him back up. He took it and tried not to notice the way that it fit into his, her skin cool and firm against his fingers.

“Yeah,” he echoed, his voice a quiet rasp as his brain tried desperately to catch up, “hands-on.”

He got back to his feet with her help, thinking better of keeping hold of her hand and withdrawing his, absently rubbing fingers against the palm she’d just held. She really had send forensics, hadn’t she? Mentioned Piandao, even. His luck was unbelievable.

”You did say forensics, right?” Why did he tempt the universe and make bets against himself when he should know by now he was always going to lose? It was just supposed to be an internal joke. A nervous laugh escaped him before he thought to stop it. “That’s… really… wow. Yeah.” He didn’t have to actually ask her out for drinks, he was just being facetious with himself–he didn’t actually expect her to really have the same goddamn concentration path as he did. Still, Zuko felt the compulsion to follow through, even though he’d only said the bet in his own mind. He was struck with the notion that he wouldn’t mind seeing if her face got flush with a couple drinks like it had when she was embarrassed.

Take it easy, some rational part of his mind cut in. You just took her up on the offer to compare study notes together. Maybe she won’t even want to have drinks with you, and then you’d just make things weird. Maybe find out her name first, at least.

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