I actually don’t usually go for modern AU for Zutara for some reason (Perfect Places is an exception, obviously), but I will do my best for you, anon
He was always there in the mornings.
She’d first noticed him a few weeks ago, after the start of the semester and her somewhat questionable choice of an early class every Tuesday and Thursday. Katara had never quite been a true morning person, but with the help of some coffee to spur motivation, she got into the swing of it without too much difficulty. Not like her brother, whom she was fairly certain could sleep through a helicopter landing outside his window if it was before nine a.m.
The first time she saw him, she’d really only been killing time until her next class, wandering through the sections of the library with her coffee without really perusing. There wasn’t anyone else on the floor aside from one wayward librarian all the way at the other end, so Katara was a bit surprised to see someone sitting with a stack of books on the table. His dark head was bowed over a notebook–another surprising thing to see. Most of her friends used their laptops for everything, but here this guy was, sitting with a couple books open and overlapping one another, hand writing everything out.
She’d paused for a moment, watching him and listening to the quiet scratching of his pen across the paper, then continued on her meandering.
Somehow, every time she walked the library in the morning after that, she always came across him.
After a few more times, she made it into a little game with herself. Would he be there today? How many books would he have stacked up this time? Would he be at the same table, or the one a few shelves down?
When it continued even after that, she started to feel a bit weird about it. Had he noticed her at all? Would he think she was stalking him or something? Maybe she should say something.
But how would she even start that particular conversation? Hi, I’ve been watching you take notes for a couple weeks now, what’s your name? Yeah. She rolled her eyes at herself. That’d go over well. She should just mind her own business and let the poor guy study. Midterms were quickly approaching, anyway, so she should take a page out of his book and focus on her own work, not some stranger in the library. Even if he did seem pretty handsome.
Katara was a Health Sciences major, but had recently been thinking about different possible career options in it, and as such had started picking up a few International Relations classes. She though she might double major eventually. For now, though, she had picked up an armful of books based off of the extra readings suggested in her classes. Her brother ceaselessly teased her about being a workaholic, but she really enjoyed and took pride in her ability to dedicate herself.
Walking on autopilot through the rows of shelves, Katara deposited her books with a loud exhale on the first table she reached. She straightened, standing above her haphazard pile and grinned determinedly at the top book, The Great Transformation.
“Alright, Mr. Polanyi, let’s spend some nice quality time–” With a sudden, audible gasp, Katara cut herself off, eyes wide and hands flying up to cover her mouth.
Sitting two seats down from where she had unceremoniously dumped her books, sat the young man she’d spied several times hunched over his own notes. He was staring at her, wide-eyed and nearly gaping.
“Oh–I–I’m so sorry” Katara stammered. “I didn’t know–I didn’t see you there.” When he didn’t immediately say anything, she blushed furiously and looked down at her stack of books. “I’ll just grab these and go.”
His voice was a curious rasp, and it stopped her in her tracks. She lifted her gaze to his face and found she was instantly caught by the bright honey gold of his eyes. Her heart leapt to her throat, then plummeted immediately to her stomach, where it fluttered like a cluster of moths.
The man’s face softened from surprise to an amused smile. He motioned to the book she’d previously been addressing. “That’s a good read. Are you PoliSci?”
Katara relaxed and returned his smile, though her stomach did a few more flips in the process. “No. I’m actually majoring in Health Sciences, but I’m interested in International Relations, too.”
The single lampblack eyebrow he had lifted with what she suddenly and desperately hoped was interest. “That’s not a usual combination.”
“Well,” Katara began, leaning her hands on the back of a chair and resisting the urge to drum her fingers along the edge of it, “I’d like to try and do something with both of them, eventually. Maybe something with the WHO eventually.”
“That’s quite a goal,” he said, leaning forward to rest his chin on one hand.
“Yeah,” she agreed, feeling a little awkward. She drummed her fingers a bit along the edge of the chair’s back. “Are you an International Relations major?”
He shook his head. “Nah. I’m breaking away from family tradition and going into Political Science.” At her questioning look, he added, “My family owns a couple of businesses, so it was kind of always expected of me to eventually take over. I’m not particularly interested in that, though.” His smile reached his eyes and warmed them. “I’m Zuko, by the way.”
Her stomach fluttered again. “I’m Katara,” she said, a little breathlessly.
It was surprising how easy a conversation they fell into after the initial awkwardness of her unintentional intrusion passed. She learned he was in his senior year, that his uncle had a cafe not too far off campus, and that he worked part-time as a teacher at a local gym. She’d finally sat in the chair and told him about all the things she’d like to have a chance to work on–primarily access to education starting at the grade school level, and initiatives to help people connect with better access to health care regardless of age, financial status, or pre-existing conditions.
It was… nice. Katara hadn’t really voiced any of her ideas out loud to anyone, for fear that they’d think she was too idealistic, or that they’d tell her there was no way for her to do all the things she wanted to do. Zuko seemed not only genuinely interested in all she said, but asked pertinent questions that made her consider details she hadn’t before. He seemed to take her passions seriously.
Before she knew it, the entire morning had gone by between them talking. His phone buzzed and he took it out of his pocket to peer at it. She caught sight of the time on the screen and balked.
“Shit! I didn’t know it was that late!” Katara’s eyes flew back up to his. “I didn’t mean to keep you like that.”
Much to her surprise, he slipped his phone back in his pocket and laughed softly. She felt her heart skip a beat at the sound of it, how it was somehow sweet and rough at the same time.
“Hey,” he said instead. “You want to grab some lunch with me?”
Heat blossomed across her cheeks. “I… sure. I’d like that.”
He stood and held out his hand. She took it, a delightful tremor rippling through her chest at the warm strength of his hand. Her blush deepened and she tried to hide it by glancing down at her pile of books. “Uh… should I just leave these here?”
“I’ve got some copies you can borrow,” he offered.
There was nothing she could do to hide the color on her cheeks when she turned back to him, but he had a dusting of pink across his own face. Giving his hand a little squeeze, she grinned up at him.
“I’d like that, too.”