continued from here

“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.

“Did that fall rattle your memory, too? Or just your cool?” Katara smiled, a touch too widely, too breathlessly. Her hand tingled where he’d touched her. She wondered if he had the same electric reaction to her and fought the urge to make a fist. He couldn’t know that she was rattled, too. God, she’d just met him! 

She rolled her eyes inwardly, steadfastly ignoring the flutter of attraction in her stomach. How was she supposed to help it, though? All one had to do was look at him. Or, gawk, in her case. 

His cheeks were bright pink; the gold in his eyes practically glittered. She could see it, even in the washed-out, fluorescent light raining down from the street lamps. And she liked it: his flustered, flushed look. It made her think of how he’d look if she’d been the one to throw him down— of course, within the controlled, consenting environment of her local Krav Maga gym. Would he wear this same expression? Would there be some shock and awe mixed into it, too? 

Katara wondered if she could convince him to join her for a class (praying it’d be a day they went over mounting and bucking), but just as she worked up the nerve to ask his name— that was the best place to start, wasn’t it?— a car beeped behind her. 

Startled, Katara blinked, switched his books from hip to hip in the span of two seconds, and turned towards the sound. A Jeep. A black Jeep, probably late 90s. It was different than what she expected, but somehow, it fit him. It was sexy, honestly.

“Your car?” she asked, stupidly. Duh, Katara. She cleared her throat loudly, tried again, this time without giving away the draw she felt towards him. “I’m guessing that’s your car?” 

When her stranger nodded (and it was his turn to smirk now), Katara collected what was left of her dignity and marched towards it. His books went into the Wrangler’s backseat, set carefully beside a gym bag and leather briefcase. She made her way into the front, buckling in and folding her hands in her lap as he settled behind the wheel. 

The car turned over and roared to life. Katara forced herself to stop staring at the muscles in his forearm when he gripped the gear shift. But, god, what she’d give to feel her way up to his biceps. Her gaze drifted over him, appreciative, wanting. 

He was staring at her. 

For the second time that night, Katara jumped. “Oh! Right, um— damn, you’d think I’d catch onto cues better, being interested in forensics and all,” she threw him an apologetic smile. “I’m in Liberty Park, on the corner of 36th and Perry.” 

It was a little selfish of him, but it felt good to throw her off her perfect groove a couple times, when he felt like he’d been fumbling his way through the entire conversation. Zuko couldn’t remember the last time–if there ever was a first time–he’d been so flustered by a single person so quickly.

“A little more than a short walk away,” he noted evenly, eyebrow raised when she told him her address. He twisted in his seat to back up out of the parking spot, hand bracing against the back of her seat. A moment later they were rolling out onto the street. Zuko shifted leisurely, telling himself he wasn’t showing off (but he’d seen her looking at him and he was definitely showing off), driving at a pace perhaps a bit slower than he’d normally go. So what if he wanted to prolong the last leg of their time together? She was good company. He liked good company.

Eyes on the road and resisting the urge to look over at her every five seconds (damn, but he liked the way she’d settled into his car; was that an odd thing to appreciate?), he said, “We might be seeing more of each other, actually.” That hung in the air until he realized it was probably not the best place to stop. “Er–I’m in the forensics program, too. Kinda funny, in a way.” Now he did send her a glance. “Who would have thought of all the people to use me as a human shield would be a fellow forensic-er.”

Okay, that was a lame way of saying it just to get the alliteration, but it was too late to take it back now. He stopped at a light and, not for the first time that hour, wished he would think a little before he opened his mouth.

When she giggled–giggled–in clear amusement, he smiled crookedly, feeling a coil of heat winch tight in his groin at the sound. If his lame jokes made her laugh like that again, it would make them all worth it. The light turned green.

“Good thing social cues aren’t really the focus in a lab,” he remarked, more than a little self-deprecatingly. “I definitely would have failed out a while ago if they were. I mean, I hope you have some, like, you’re able to tell I’m not just gonna keep driving with you out to the middle of nowhere. Which I’m not going to do!” he amended quickly, inwardly groaning. This thing he was doing, rambling around this strange woman in his car whose name he still didn’t know, he was pretty sure he needed to figure out how to stop it. It was definitely going to get him in trouble sooner or later. That’s what happened with Mai, after all–just couldn’t keep his mouth shut when he should have.

Convenience saved him from further embarrassing conversational pitfalls, and after only a few more streets, he pulled up to the apartment building that had a worn sign reading Liberty Park out front. He pulled into an open spot nearby and debated cutting the engine. For what? Did he expect her to invite him up? What a ridiculous idea. He let it idle and shifted in his seat to look at her full-on.

“Thanks for the help carrying my books. And for the study offer–oh! I should, uh, get you my number…” He reached to the backseat for something to write on and with. It was only happenstance that he looked up to see someone walking toward the passenger side of the car.

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