Katara couldn’t help but smile. It was… cute, the way he fumbled over his words. The exasperation in his eyes and frustration in his voice only added to his endearing— and clearly accidental— nature.
He’d struck her as someone cool, collected; someone she tried to be in her best moments. But, now she was thinking his calm demeanor was more of a put-on, perhaps a learned behavior. This… flabbergasted stammering was closer to the real—
Katara still didn’t know his name. A part of her wanted to ask for it. Another part was too shy. After all, they hardly stood a chance at crossing paths again.
Glancing over him quickly, Katara searched for a student pass or a name tag or anything else even slightly revealing on the front of him. She came up short, except for an off-handed thought that he had a very dapper style and could probably model for Banana Republic. Maybe Nordstrom, if he wanted to go department store.
She pursed her lips, a sigh accompanying her wish that she’d worn something else, anything else. Her gym clothes didn’t exactly cut a sharp image next to his rolled sleeves and tailored jeans. Maybe it was better she didn’t have his name, and he didn’t have hers. He’d never be able to find her after this horribly embarrassing and all too ridiculous meeting.
But, Katara wasn’t one to wallow forever in self pity, and the poor stranger was pinching the bridge of his nose. After all his help, she owed it to him. She took three books from the clerk’s desk, nestling them on her hip to end his suffering.
“Which way is it to your car?”
He missed her smile in his attempt to not embarrass himself further, but her question brought his attention back. Zuko had half expected her to tell him to forget both of his offers, but what had actually come out of her mouth was the opposite of that. It threw him off guard.
“Oh! It–I couldn’t park–there weren’t any spots really close by. It’s about a five minute walk from here,” he managed to explain, finding his verbal footing again. Maybe, just maybe, if he managed to behave like a normal, socially active person, he might get her name by the end of this. He wouldn’t hold his breath.
Scooping up the remaining books, he cast her a surreptitious glance as they walked out of the library. He hadn’t had much time before to look at her, but now that they were headed in the same direction, he had opportunity to. It was impossible to tell what her major was, dressed for the gym as she was, and he couldn’t think of a good segue into asking her. Resisting the urge to scrub a free hand over his face, Zuko glanced up at the ceiling of the hallway as if to find something to say there. It also provided a decent distraction from the way her workout shirt shifted across her hips as she walked. It was pretty easy to tell she was in good shape, and on top of reminding him that he needed to carve out his own time at the gym, it was also pretty obvious that she was definitely good-looking from more than one angle.
Whoa, okay. Take it easy there. You don’t even know her name, so please stop ogling her ass.
“So,” he began, letting the space after trail out a touch too long. His good cheek burned with heat and he hoped the angle of him looking up hid his face from her view. “You… were at the gym?” Brilliant. “Obviously, I came to get some books. Were you studying, or killing time, or…?” He hadn’t noticed her before she darted in front of him, so she could have just been walking through for all he knew.
“I had to reply to a few emails and turn in an essay,” Katara replied, a quick glance thrown over her shoulder. Her stranger was staring at the ceiling… as if he were very purposefully not staring at her. She smiled privately, her attention returning to the mostly empty hall.
“My laptop decided to die on me last week,” she went on. “The Genius Bar currently has it and I’m left at university with… well, with nothing.” A little shrug made her hair fall off her shoulders, sending a chocolate waterful down to her waist. At least she’d styled it down; that was one thing she’d done right.
As she walked, Katara wondered if he was admiring the silky curls or her ass. That had to be why her skin was on fire, right? That had to be why she could feel his gaze. He was checking her out.
She turned around, trying to see for herself. His eyes met hers almost immediately, stubbornly focused, cheeks red. She quirked a brow. “Do you have any idea how exhausting it is to write flashcards for chemistry by hand, stranger?”
Her gaze dropped to the few books in his arms. “I mean, maybe you do. If you learn better by physically writing. I had to write out everything when I took that class last semester…” she smiled at him. “I can help, if you’re having trouble.”
Katara flushed when she recognized how forward that was, eyes going wide.
“I, um—” She looked away. Goddammit.
The door was two steps from her. Katara shoved through it, focusing on the sweeping spring breeze and the chill that filled her lungs. She was not at all wondering what he’d say, what he was doing after this, if he’d maybe want to see her this weekend. The blush on her cheeks spread to her neck and Katara made fists by her side, stomping onto the sidewalk.
But, somehow, she gathered herself. Maybe it was the full thirty seconds of silence that finally brought an explanation to her tongue. Or, maybe her brain had simply reminded itself that fuckwits don’t get names and phone numbers.
And tutoring was as good an excuse as any.
She licked her lips and gestured to the books in hand. “I meant I’m a student tutor. It’s my little gig on the side. So… if you want professional, university-sponsored help, I’m your girl.” Katara stole a look at him, being sure to throw in a flirty smile. “It’s free, too.”
Zuko was definitely caught looking at her, that was clear. He was made even guiltier by the fact that his cheeks were still hot when she tossed him a look over her shoulder, almost like she was daring him to look at her. You know, just like he had been.
Well, he would not be a creep, so he kept his eyes resolutely on her face or the way ahead. Or, he would have, except she kept catching the corner of his eye with some small movement—some smooth shift of her gait as she walked, a tilt of her head, or the way she gesticulated with her free hand—and he found his eyes drifting back along her form again.
Her skin was dark, her face strong and finely boned. The blue of her eyes was startling, and once he’d noticed just how bright they were, he had to quell the urge to lean in and see just how many flecks of different ocean colors they contained. That definitely would have been weird to do, and he was trying to avoid that. Instead, he privately weighed options in his head. Her background was hard to place at first glance—she could be anything from ethnic Chinese, to Mongolian, to Inuit, to Polynesian. There was no trace of an accent to place her, and with the warm undertones of her skin and slightest almond tilt to her eyes that he noticed, he wasn’t quite sure.
Her cheeks dusted with embarrassment again and she stumbled over her words, and it was all at once immediately endearing and reassuring. Zuko felt somewhat better now about his own stammering, and let out a subdued laugh.
“Actually, I do learn pretty well by being hands-on; kinesthetic learner, through and through, here,” he told her, immensely more at ease now that he was no longer the only awkward one.
His eyebrow crooked upward again at her offer, sparing a glance at the Organic Chemistry III book she had motioned to. It was the last non-major specific chemistry class he was taking before picking up forensic chemistry courses next year. “You took this last semester?” Zuko had thought she was a bit younger than him, but maybe he was wrong. He was taking an extra year, sure, but that was mostly because of having to juggle working enough to pay for living necessities. It wasn’t that he had a lot of difficulty with any particular class, but… was a study partner ever a bad idea?
“I wouldn’t turn down comparing notes, if you still have them,” he told her, ducking under a low branch from a tree along the sidewalk. She was several inches shorter than him, and breezed right beneath the offending limb. The flirty smile she sent him made a wash of warmth curl into his belly, and his relative collectedness crumbled away again. “You don’t—I’m not really having a lot of trouble, but it never hurts to go over things? Unofficially—I don’t want to take money out of your tutoring pocket, I know how tight things can be. So, I can provide food and tea? Or coffee, if you prefer,” he blurted, not realizing until the words were out of his mouth that it had run away from him again. Her smile was doing funny things to him, like making his carefully constructed verbal sluice completely falter.
Mildly desperate to regain his composure, Zuko steered back onto safer, more familiar ground. “What sort of chemistry are you focusing on? I actually TA for the Intro to Chem class Professor Pakku teaches.” Organic Chem III wasn’t usually the type of class people in non-chemistry majors took. Maybe she wanted to be a scientist or a researcher—though if she said anything about the forensics program he was in as well, he really might have to ask her out for a drink. Maybe even in a non-study related capacity if he was feeling brave enough.