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Leaning against the locker next to Aang's, Katara says, "Anyway, are you asking someone to Homecoming?"

"What makes you say that?" Aang says immediately, jerking his head out from behind his locker door.

Katara narrowly avoids being hit in the head by a passing student carrying what looks like a model sculpture of Ba Sing Se, and readjusts herself. "I don't know, you just seemed kind of lost in thought lately," she says, tilting her head.

Aang grabs his books and notebooks, tucking them under his chin. He closes his locker door. A piece of flyaway notebook paper sticks out. "I'm not lost in thought," he says, unconvincingly. "I'm always found in thought! Wait, no, I mean - "

Katara laughs. Aang pokes his tongue out and tries to adjusts the books in his arms. "You could always invest in a bigger bag," Katara says with amusement, as they make their way through the high school hallway.

"I'm fine like this," Aang says, shifting everything until they're a neat enough pile in his arms. "See? All - oof!"

The books in his hands cascade into the air before tumbling down gracefully at his feet, along with Aang himself, landing on the floor. "Oh, shoot," Aang says, at the same time a voice above him says, "I didn't see where I was - sorry - "

Aang's met face to face with Zuko, hair ruffled back, himself looking rumpled as he peers down at Aang on the floor.

Aang quickly picks himself up to avoid looking like an idiot. The back of his neck already feels warm; he bends down and begins picking up his books. "Hi Zuko," he says hurriedly, glancing up and then back down, not wanting to be caught staring. "I didn't see you there - "

"Yeah, I didn't see you either." Zuko lets out a little laugh. He bends down and helps Aang pick up his things, piling Aang's history textbook and math notebook into Aang's arms.

There's little brushes of contact from Zuko's fingers to Aang's tunic. Aang is consciously aware of them, and says, "You don't have to - "

"I do, I knocked you over." But Zuko sends him a smile, beneath his cloak of dark bangs, the eye in his scar crinkling in the corners. Aang reminds himself to breathe. "Sorry about that, by the way."

"It's fine." Aang gets to his feet again as soon as all his books are back in his arms. He tries to send Zuko a smile so he's not some expressionless freak who just stares at Zuko too much, but it might come off as too much since Zuko's expression turns bemused afterward. "Uh - thank you!" Aang calls over his shoulder, while walking away as quickly as possible.

Katara, who had watched the whole thing, comes up to catch up with him. "Who was that?" she asks curiously.

Aang doesn't meet her eyes when he answers, "That's Zuko. He's my chemistry partner."

"Oh." Katara hums thoughtfully. "He's that really rich prince, right?"

"He's not a prince." Aang had heard Zuko complain about this at length in chemistry - and okay, so maybe he eavesdropped a bit, too. "His sister just calls him that."

Katara rolls her eyes. "Whatever. He's still a spoiled rich kid," she says.

"He's not that bad," Aang tells her.

Katara raises an eyebrow at him, but merely adjusts one of the books in Aang's arms and sighs. "You really need a backpack," she says, hitching her own over her shoulder and clucking in disapproval at Aang's leather knapsack dangling at his waist.

*

Aang's a morning person by nature, and not just because he has chemistry second period. The next day, he slides into his seat next to Zuko, says hi like a normal person, and tries to pay attention in class while occasionally stealing glances to admire the curve of Zuko's jaw.

Zuko doesn't say much in class. Aang knows that he has his own posse, with his sister and a girl from the dance team; they're all rich and strut around school like they own the place. Or at least Zuko's sister does. Zuko just puts on his goggles when they're in chemistry together, passes Aang the bunsen burner, and they do their experiments with Aang trying desperately trying to make conversation and probably looking like an idiot, with the way that Zuko looks at him with confusion a lot and doesn't talk half as much as Aang does.

As goes another day in chemistry. Aang slumps through third and fourth period, until he's at lunch with Katara and Sokka, who are prodding their mashed potatoes. Aang brought his own lunch, as usual, and opens it despondently.

Katara looks at him with concern. "What's up with you?"

"Nothing," Aang says, before plopping his head on the table.

He feels a spoon poke his head. "I think he might be dead," Sokka says. "Will you help me bury the body?"

"Stop it." There's a whack that's probably Katara hitting her brother, and then Katara lifting Aang up by his shoulders. "What is it, Aang?"

"I need you guys to answer a question for me," Aang says.

Sokka says, "Is it about helping me bury a body?"

"Do I talk too much?" Aang says. "I mean, am I annoying?"

Katara immediately says, "Of course not, Aang! You're not annoying - "

"Though the talking too much part," Sokka says, munching on his potatoes. "I mean, you're not bad, but sometimes when you get nervous - remember public speaking last year?"

"I remember," Aang says darkly. He'd taken a public speaking class with Sokka; he'd mastered it, in the end, but the beginning of the semester was a lot of rambling that would make Sokka sink into his seat the more Aang spoke. Aang had seen it happen as he would give his speeches, Sokka disappearing under his desk, but Aang had been so anxious that he couldn't seem to stop himself from not rambling.

"Yeah, you talk a lot when you're nervous," Sokka says. "Why?"

"Are you thinking about asking someone to Homecoming?" Katara says eagerly.

Aang doesn't know how she can make intuitive leaps like that. "No," he says. Lies, maybe. "I just - I had an episode today."

"Who were you talking to?" Katara asks curiously.

"Does it matter?" Aang asks.

Katara perches a chin on her elbow and observes him. "I'm just wondering who can make you nervous these days, so we can help. Is it a teacher? I can always - "

"It's fine," Aang says, because he doesn't need Katara fighting his battles for him again. He'd once mentioned an offhand comment about Bumi playing favorites, and came into earth science a few periods later to see Katara with the principal trying to vet Bumi out. Aang probably should've mentioned that he was one of Bumi's favorites.

Sokka flicks a pea into Aang's rice, and Aang tosses it back into his potatoes. "Yeah, you'll be fine," Sokka says to him. "And hey, there's a chess club meeting today! We can crash that."

Aang brightens up. "I'm sure Toph will love that," he says.

*

"I can hear you breathing," Toph says, annoyed.

Aang pulls back from where he's hovering over the chessboard. "Sorry," he whispers, even though that probably doesn't do anything to help.

Toph's not staring at the chessboard, though it looks like she is. Aang wonders what goes through her mind, how she has such a good memory to know where the chess pieces are without being able to actually see them. Aang thinks that if he had half as good a memory as she does, he'd use it to memorize the planes of Zuko's face, the tight strain of his tunic around his shoulders, the way he gives Aang a vague smile of confusion when Aang laughs too loudly at his own joke.

Toph says, "I can hear you thinking from over there, you know."

Aang blushes darkly and is glad that at least she can't see that. "Oh," he says, thinking for a moment that she knows that he's thinking about Zuko. He says, "This game still confuses me."

"That much is obvious," says Toph's chess partner, Mai. They're really the only two people in the chess club, but both of their families are too powerful for the high school to actually try to shut a two-person club down. Aang doesn't quite get the politics of it all, since they're really just in high school.

Toph moves a piece. Aang doesn't know what, or what it does. He watches Mai's expression as her eyes rake over the board pauses, and then moves another piece.

The door to the classroom opens.

"Mai, when are you done?" Zuko asks. He startles to see Aang there - their eyes meet, and Aang's gaze quickly drops so he doesn't blush too hard again.

"Give me a bit, Zu-Zu," Mai says, waving him off.

Aang's fascinated at the way that a flush overtakes Zuko's face, from the neck up. "Don't call me that," he snaps, before glancing at Aang. "I didn't know you were in the chess club, Aang."

"I'm not!" Aang jumps off from where he had been perched on a nearby desk, and tries not to look too eager. "I'm just friends with Toph."

"It's a small world," Mai mutters, as Toph moves one of her pieces.

Zuko nods, looking between them all, before jerking his head back out of the classroom door. "I - We're Mai's ride," he explains to Aang. "Azula - My sister's done with judo, we're just waiting - "

"I said, give me a bit," Mai says harshly from where she and Toph are playing.

Toph adds over to them, "Yeah, give her a bit!"

"We're giving her a bit!" Zuko says, slightly hysterically. He pushes a hand into his hair and mutters, "Idiot," though Aang's not quite sure who he's talking to.

Aang slides his way past the door that Zuko's holding open and into the hallway, their bodies bumping slightly. He tries not to be too acutely aware of it. "So you are Mai are good friends?" he fishes, hoping he's not too obvious.

Zuko closes the door behind them. He shrugs. "Yeah, you know, family friends," he says. "Did you come out for something?"

"Oh, I - no," Aang says. He realizes how weird this is - he and Zuko really don't talk outside of chemistry. "I thought I'd leave them alone, you know," he says. "To concentrate. Since chess is such a serious sport and all. I mean, not a sport, a game. Which a sport can be. So I guess there are people who consider chess a sport too."

He exhales and glances away, feeling like an idiot. Zuko must think he's one, too; Aang wishes that his head was on right every time he opened his mouth in front of Zuko.

There's an awkward silence, before Zuko says, "I guess - uh, yeah, there are people who consider chess a sport."

"Do you do any sports?" Aang rushes to ask, even though he already knows the answer.

Zuko nods. "Kung fu - my dad wanted me to join the team." He shrugs. "I like it though. I think."

"Cool," Aang says. "At my temple we do baguazhang - I think you'd like it. Except it's less fight-y, and more like a dance." He ducks his head down, feeling his cheeks redden again.

Zuko glances at him. He apparently seems to know what's on Aang's mind, because he says, "That should be useful for Homecoming."

"Yeah," Aang says. His mind is reeling with so much - do you want to go with me? do you want to learn how? are you going with Mai? - that he decides, screw it, and lets himself blurt, "Are you going?"

"What?" Zuko says. "To Homecoming? I don't - " He shrugs, looking thoughtful. "I don't know yet. Knowing my sister, though, she'll probably drag me."

"It might be fun," Aang says hopefully.

And he's about to add, And I'm going, except that's when they round a corner and Zuko's scary sister is there, standing in front of the girls' locker room, arms folded and looking impatient. "Where's Mai?" she says immediately, when she spots them. She narrows her eyes at Aang. "And who's this?"

"This is Aang," Zuko says, gesturing to him. They look at each other - there's something comforting about it, and Aang swears he sees Zuko smile at him reassuringly before turning back away. "He's my chemistry partner."

"Well tell your chemistry partner to scurry off, because we need to get home," Zuko's sister snaps. "I need to shower, and then Ty Lee's coming over, and I need to make a phone call - "

"Okay, okay," Zuko says placatingly. His sister huffs again. "Let's go get her."

"I'll come with," Aang says, even though Zuko's sister narrows her eyes at him again.

They go back to the classroom that's the after school chess club room, and Zuko pesters Mai while Mai ignores him and Toph complains at length about how loud they're all being. Then Zuko's sister loses her patience and overturns the chessboard, and Aang's holding Toph back from lashing out at her as Zuko says over his shoulder as they escape, "See you in chemistry tomorrow!"

*

The next day at chemistry is kind of weird. Zuko gives Aang a half-smile when Aang walks in and sits next to him. Aang remembers that half-smile that he'd seen in the beginning of freshman year, when he'd glanced across the cafeteria and saw the boy with the scar smiling to himself, like there was a secret that he knew and that no one else did. Aang had been ecstatic when they'd been assigned chemistry partners this semester - a whole five months indulgently sitting next to Zuko.

Still, Aang tries to return it except doesn't feel like he can control his face so he probably uses too much teeth. Zuko blinks at him, but doesn't say anything.

They don't often say much to each other in the beginning of chemistry, only when the bunsen burner is going and Aang's making wild theories to fill the silence. But today, Zuko says, "So - you're going to Homecoming?"

"Uh," Aang says, thrown off.

Zuko shakes his head at himself. "Sorry, I meant - since we were talking about it yesterday - "

"Yeah, I remember," Aang says. His neck heats up, and he scratches the back of his head. "I'm going, yeah," he says. "With my friends, I - " He can't say that he doesn't have a date, because then that'll be too obvious - but he doesn't have a date, and maybe he wants Zuko to know. A little.

Zuko sighs. "Yeah, I'm going too. I asked my sister if she was going and she gave me a look like I was stupid."

"You're not stupid," Aang says immediately.

Zuko looks grateful, even though he shakes his head again. "No, she just does that a lot. And then she said, 'You're going too, aren't you?' and I was like, 'I hadn't been thinking about it,' and she gave me the look again."

"Sounds like having siblings is fun," Aang says.

Zuko lets out a surprised laugh. "It's Azula, it's fine," he says. "I don't mind going - should be fun, right, like you said?" He immediately shuts his mouth and looks embarrassed for some reason. Maybe it's his first dance.

Aang doesn't get a chance to ask, because that's when the bell rings and Jeong Jeong parades to the front of the room, telling them to shut up. Aang tells himself to ask Zuko if he's going with a date, or someone, but chickens out and then it's the end of class.

*

"So did you ask out who you wanted to ask out to Homecoming?" Katara asks, over lunch.

Aang splutters and puts down his veggie sandwich. A few flax seeds fall off the crust. "I never said I wanted to ask out - anyone - "

"I know you have a crush on someone," Katara says pointedly.

Aang decides not even to deny it. He doesn't know how, but somehow Katara just knows these things even though she's barely seen him and Zuko together. He supposes that's what happens when your best friend's known you since you were both five years old.

"Well, I'm not going to ask them out to Homecoming," he says, returning to his sandwich. "They're going, anyway - "

"Ooh, you know already?" Katara says with interest.

Sokka, who's poking at the mystery meat with the gusto of an experienced spelunker, says, "Oh, leave him to pine, Katara, Aang's clearly not getting anywhere with this."

"Like you and the leader of the karate club?" Katara says.

Sokka raises himself up indignantly. "Hey, Suki and I had a five minute conversation today. That is asking-out material right there - "

"Homecoming's this weekend," Katara reminds the both of them. "If either of you boys want to secure dates - "

"I don't need to secure a date," Aang interrupts. He spies Zuko at the other end of the cafeteria, then back to Katara, who's watching him intently. "Seriously. If I wanted to ask out anybody, I would've done it by now - "

"Would you?" Katara challenges.

Aang waves what's left of his sandwich at her before stuffing it into his mouth. "Yes," he says, as Sokka looks at him enviously. "Sokka's right, it's not going to get me anywhere - "

"Ah, the words I love to hear the most," Sokka says. "Sokka's right."

Katara elbows her brother, before regarding Aang seriously. "Aang, whoever you have a crush on - I'm sure it's not that hopeless, right?"

"More hopeless than me and Suki," Sokka says. "Which isn't saying much, since that's definitely happening in the future."

Katara elbows him again. Aang says, "It's not hopeless, I just - " Zuko's sitting with his sister and that girl from the dance team, and they've got a circle table to themselves unlike the end of the rectangular table that Aang, Katara, and Sokka are sitting at. Aang doubts Zuko's the type to welcome unexpected advances, and if things go wrong, it's certain to make chemistry hell for the rest of the semester.

Aang likes to be an optimist, but he doesn't want to ruin what they already have together - chemistry, bunsen burners, and Aang talking too much whenever Zuko smiles at him. He says to Katara, "I'll just see them there at Homecoming."

"You better introduce me," Katara says seriously.

*

Aang's in the library Friday morning when he feels someone look at the books on the shelf next to him. From the corner of his eye, he can see that it's Zuko's scary sister, Azula. Aang tenses immediately.

Azula looks at the books, fingers hovering. But then she says, without turning to Aang, "Tattoo boy, right?"

"That's what you know me as?" Aang says incredulously. "Didn't Zuko tell you my name last week? I was there, you know - "

Azula waves him off. "Can't be bothered to remember," she says airily, which Aang doubts. "But I'm glad you remember my brother's name."

"Of course," Aang says, offended. "We're partners in chemistry - "

"So I've heard." Azula takes a book down from the shelf and flips through it. "You should know," she says, without looking up from the book, "that my brother speaks highly of you."

Aang's heart skips. He immediately drops the few books he'd been holding - Bumi had had him out on an errand in the morning, since he's Aang's homeroom teacher - and turns to Azula. "Really?" he asks. "What did he say? Not that - I mean - " He scratches the back of his head. "We don't really talk much, I don't know what he'd say about me - "

"Oh, about how you're funny and talkative and confident and whatever." Azula makes a faint sound of disgust as she puts her book back. "Zu-Zu's kind of a coward."

"He isn't," Aang says. "He's just - quieter - and I'm, um, louder?"

Azula snorts. "You could say that."

Then she turns to Aang. They're not anywhere near each other, but it feels like her gaze is piercing him.

"If you hurt my brother," Azula says, "I will hurt you. And everyone you love."

Aang blinks at her. "We're in high school."

Making a sound of disgust, Azula turns away. "I knew he had bad taste," she mutters to herself. "Why am I even wasting my time - "

The girl Aang recognizes as the captain of the dance team comes up then, and wraps her arm around Azula's shoulders. "Azula! Are we done intimidating Zuko's boyfriend yet?" Then, noticing Aang, she giggles. "Oh, hi! I'm Ty Lee."

"I'm Aang," Aang says, bewildered. "What - huh - ?"

"We're going," Azula grumbles to Ty Lee, taking her hand.

Ty Lee says, "Okay!" and lets Azula begin to drag her away, as Wan Shi Tong flocks over to berate them for being loud. "Bye, Aang!" she calls, as they leave the library.

Aang stares after them. "Bye," he says to the empty air.

*

His head is swimming when he makes his way into chemistry that day. He's there before Zuko, and drums his fingers anxiously against his textbook. When Zuko arrives, Aang finds himself unable to look at him, cheeks immediately getting hot as he buries himself in his book, pretending to read.

Ty Lee's words echo in his mind. Zuko's boyfriend...

"Hey," Zuko says, some time later. Aang realizes that he'd missed the entirety of Jeong Jeong's explanation for today's experiment; Zuko's looking at him expectantly.

"Do you want me to get the test tubes?" Zuko asks.

"Uh, sure," Aang says, without thinking.

Zuko gets up from their table to get the test tubes from the front of the room, where their classmates are also grabbing the material that they need. Aang watches stupidly as Zuko carries the glass tubes delicately in his long, bony fingers back to their desk. Zuko's goggles are already on, and Aang hastily gets his own on as he starts up the bunsen burner.

He lets Zuko lead the experiment today, still lost in thought. Zuko glances at him once, and then twice, as they work on their experiment.

"You're being quiet today," Zuko says to him.

Aang's mind is still reeling. He says, "Your sister talked to me in the library this morning."

Zuko immediately freezes from where he's pouring one of their test tubes into their beaker. "Oh no," he says. "What did she say? I'm sorry in advance - "

"It's nothing, she just threatened to kill my family if I did something to you," Aang says.

Zuko impressively manages to put his head in his arms while still holding secure onto the test tubes. "Wow, I am so sorry - "

"It's fine," Aang assures him. "I've heard worse."

Zuko raises his head back up at him. His hair is mussed, and Aang kind of wants to tuck it back. "Have you really?" he says doubtfully.

"Okay, I haven't," Aang admits. "But then Ty Lee, her - friend - ?"

"Girlfriend."

" - said something about, um." Aang hesitates. He doesn't know if he wants to say it - if it's just an in-joke between Azula and Ty Lee, or even the three of them, that means nothing, that's teasing, that's -

"Called me your boyfriend," Aang says, in a rush. "She said, 'let's stop bothering Zuko's boyfriend,' or something like that, to me, and - "

"It was just a joke," Zuko says quickly. "I mean, I'm sure it was - "

"Is it?" Aang finds himself asking, looking up at Zuko. "I don't - I really don't mind if it wasn't."

Zuko stares at him.

And he doesn't say anything, so Aang does what he does best: he barrels on. "I mean, if it was a joke it wasn't a really good one, was it? and she said it in front of me, but I don't think she actually knew I was there, or meant for me to hear, and like, you know, I don't think it'd be a joke, being your boyfriend, because you're probably, um, a great one, and so if it was a joke - but if it wasn't, then it's pretty funny, like funny ha-ha, this doesn't have to be weird - "

"Do you want to go to Homecoming with me?" Zuko blurts.

Aang stops in his tracks. Zuko's visibly pink under his scar and hair, but there's a determined look on his face as he meets Aang's gaze.

Warmth creeps up Aang's ears and he - doesn't know what he wants to do, wants to launch himself at Zuko, or fastforward to tomorrow where they're already at Homecoming, or maybe come Monday when they'll shyly smile at each other across the bunsen burner and Zuko will offer to walk him to his next class and maybe hold his hand.

Time either moves too fast or too slow, because Aang's still talking and he's saying, "Yeah, of course, I would - I really want to go, my friend Katara's been bugging me about it - to go with you, I mean - "

"Aang," Zuko says, and Aang stops again. "You don't have to do that."

"Do what?" Aang's breathless. He hadn't even realized.

"Talk like you think I might take it back," Zuko says. He sets the test tube in the tube holder in front of them and reaches for Aang's hand now, palm firm and warm against Aang's. The rest of their classmates are busy with their classwork, but Aang feels sweaty and giddy underneath his goggles.

"Because I won't," Zuko says, and Aang can't wait for tomorrow.

*

"Heterosexuals," Azula says with disgust, from leaning against the wall with Ty Lee.

Aang looks on, as Sokka seems to be doing an interpretive dance of some sort, next to Suki, who's just smiling at him across the way.

Zuko says, "Yeah, he's kind of a bad dancer, isn't he?"

"Hey, don't say that about my brother," Katara says.

"Katara, you have to admit he could be doing better," Aang says pointedly, over the music.

"It's just how he dances," Katara says, and then sighs. "No, it's not very good."

"I'll just use my imagination, since you guys are all so descriptive," Toph says. "I don't even know why I'm here. The music's too loud for me."

"We can go play chess," Mai suggests to her.

"Did you really bring a chess set to a school dance?" Katara asks them.

Toph and Mai give her a look, before exiting the gym. Katara sighs, but she says, "Why are we here if none of us are dancing?"

"I was dancing earlier!" Aang says, because he was.

"But not now," Katara says pointedly. She glances at Zuko. "With your date."

"You've rubbed it in my face enough," Aang says; Katara had, since Zuko had asked him on Friday, and vetted Zuko out at lunch in a way that had much reminded Aang of how Azula had spoken to him. Zuko seemed scared of her, as he does now, inching closer to Aang at the look on Katara's face.

Or maybe it's because he just wants to be close to Aang.

"I know," Katara says smugly. She tosses her braids over her shoulder. "Anyway, time to dance at a school dance."

"We're coming!" Aang says indignantly, as she leaves.

Zuko says to him, once Katara's gone, "I'm not really much of a dancer."

"Oh, come on," Aang says, winding their hands together and tugging him away. Zuko goes, albeit reluctantly. "Everyone's a bit of a dancer."

"Really, I'm not," Zuko says.

Aang lets go of him once they're among the masses and says, "Aren't you supposed to be a prince?" He laughs when Zuko rolls his eyes at him, and begins moving. "Come on, Zuko, it's easy!"

And it is, even though Zuko's obviously not as good as Aang. Aang tells him this, which makes Zuko laugh; Aang takes takes Zuko in by the hands anyway and makes Zuko twirl with him. Aang's practiced dances at his temple, even though they're not as conventional as high school dances - but they still make Zuko go, "You are really good at this," when the music slows.

Zuko tugs him in so their bodies are closer together. They move to the music, and it's kind of weird but makes Aang's heart thump in his chest, pressed against Zuko.

He says, "I feel like we're a real couple now." Both of their hands are twined at their sides, tilting them into each other.

Zuko bumps his forehead against Aang's. "You don't know how weird this is for me," he says to Aang.

"Why?" Aang looks up.

"Because," Zuko says, "I've thought about this a lot. I thought about - you." He looks embarrassed. "For a long time. Since probably last year."

Aang beams up at him. He decides to be brave and close that gap between their lips - briefly, for a moment. "Me too," he says, when he pulls back.

The light in Zuko's eyes is so bright, so happy, that Aang doesn't know what to do with himself, so he just squeezes Zuko's hands, pushes himself against him. They rock back and forth together, a slow movement that they both know the rhythm to.