Author's Note: For the sake of the story, there are some changes that I've made to the characters. Toph, Katara, and Suki are all twenty years old. Zuko and Aang are both a year older. Sokka is twenty-two. The girls are entering their junior year while the boys, their senior year. Let me know if anything is confusing, because sometimes it is hard to decipher AU fictions.
The girl in his Energy Anatomy class. Big eyes and a smile as even as piano keys.
It was the first thing he thought when he walked in the door and it stuck for the rest of the lecture, replayed over and over until he couldn't take it anymore – he became hard, and as he pulled up the desktop from the side of the chair to cover his pants, he hated that his body had deceived him. Was it his fault that the memory grew more and more perverse with each revision? Maybe this was the culture shock Gyatso was talking about.
He felt someone elbow his side, and turned to find Sokka grinning big at him. "How you holdin' up, buddy?" he whispered. "Bored out of your mind yet?"
"Doing okay so far."
"You sure? Because I'm thinking of ducking out." The older boy shot a glance at the door, strategically placed at the back of the room. While Sokka's head was turned, Aang started scanning for the girl again. His search was fruitless, and he sighed.
Aang said, "We only have a few minutes left anyway."
"Why don't you take notes?" Sokka asked. "If you want to stay. Might as well learn something."
"I don't have any supplies yet."
"I can hook you up later." Sokka slumped in his chair, the monotone of the lecturer drowning out his own sighs and mumbles. He rolled his eyes. "I don't know why I can't ever focus," he confessed to Aang. "I might have something."
"I don't know."
"You should see a doctor."
"Gentlemen! It's strange – usually the girls are the ones chattering in the back." The boys snapped their necks forward to find the lecturer directing his speech at them. Aang felt the back of his neck burn up. The man crossed his arms as the entire hall turned to look at the offending duo. There was a faint brush of giggling and hoots. Sokka smiled appreciatively.
"Your second year in this class, Sokka, and you still indulge in banter during the most important lectures of the semester?"
"Conversation helps stimulate the brain, Professor Lei!" Sokka called back.
The man turned to the diagrams on the blackboard and began to erase them with a jittery hand. "One cannot stimulate what one never had, my boy," he answered drily.
Their professor continued to chastise them, but Aang couldn't hold his attention – one of the students staring at him and Sokka was the girl he had run into before class. She looked uneasy, her eyes resting on Sokka. She pressed her fingers to the bridge of her nose and shook her head. Aang saw Sokka shrug from the corner of his eye. It became clear that they knew one another, and that she was embarrassed for him. The thought of having Sokka introduce him to the girl crossed Aang's mind, but he already had an idea of Sokka's reputation. Somehow Aang felt that the scenario wouldn't play out well. Moments passed, and when the lecturer dismissed them, Aang stayed glued to his seat.
"Hey, let's go!" Sokka called out. He pulled his backpack around his shoulders. "I'm starving. We have an entire half hour before we have to be at the gym. We can grab sea prunes or something."
Aang stood up and stretched his arms over his head. He craned his neck to where the girl was sitting just a minute before, but she had disappeared. "I'm not really hungry," he said nervously. "And sea prunes before the gym sounds like a bad idea."
"Not hungry! Are you serious?"
"Yeah," Aang replied. "Feeling a little sick. I don't know. Isn't there a flu going around?"
Sokka had pulled Aang up by the hood of his sweatshirt and now they both walked out, the older boy pushing the glass doors that led to the main courtyard on campus. "There's always something going around," Sokka said. "This place is a mess."
Aang pulled out the campus map from his back pants pocket. He was glad he had met Sokka before starting at Four Nations University. But the rush and business of the first day had exhausted him – and that girl had winded him. He slumped alongside Sokka with heavy feet, the optimism he had felt this morning slowly leaving him. He focused on walking evenly and stared at the sky. The first two days had been rocky, albeit promising. Appa had flown into a car upon landing at the university. Shortly after, Aang's luggage fell victim to birds on telephone wires. He spent the evening tending to Appa's scratched arm and cleaning off bird poo from his bags. But that girl… Aang felt that things were beginning to get better.
"Since you're not hungry, will you go with me to give my sister the car keys?"
"Didn't know you had a car," Aang admitted. More students flooded into the courtyard as classes were dismissed. Aang found himself searching the crowds desperately. Suddenly it occurred to him that he could find the girl – and speak with her and meet her – if Sokka wasn't glued to his side, nagging to find food and giving "experienced" advise. The airbender said with a smile, "Go one without me. I'll meet you at the gym."
"You sure?" Sokka asked quizzically. "You haven't met my sister yet. She's probably in a lot of your classes. And she's a genius. She can help you out."
"It's cool," Aang promised. "I'll just relax here and meet you up later. Plus I have a whole year to meet your sister. No big deal."
His companion shrugged and punched his shoulder. "Stay out of trouble, alright?" He turned around and started walking away. "Meet some ladies!" he advised over his shoulder.
"He's late," Zuko said. "We're probably not going to make the show." He wasn't particularly annoyed, but his voice gave him away. Katara dropped her book and looked at him over the table.
"You complain like a pregnant lady," she said, her eyes locked on his. "I don't even know why I'm taking you. You don't want to go."
Zuko walked over and sat next to her. He put his arm around her shoulder and squeezed her close to him. She smiled. In their five months together, he had discovered the shortcut to her heart – questionless surrender and admittance. It was the only way Zuko knew to appease the waterbender, who often complained of his inability to be romantic or expressive. Despite the aloof face he wore for her, he made it a goal to begin learning what she liked.
"I do want to go," he said. "I want to go everywhere with you. I just hate waiting for Sokka."
"We wouldn't have to if you hadn't totaled your car yesterday," she reminded him. "I don't know what I would have done if I was with you."
"It was that stupid flying bison," he said, suddenly animated. "The thing swooped in out of nowhere!" The rise in his voice amused her, and she laughed, turning to him and catching his lips. He returned the kiss happily, and – as if on cue – Sokka pounded both palms on the table.
"Nasty! I came to give you the keys, not watch a free show!"
Katara pulled away but Zuko kept his arm around her, his eyes narrowed on her expressive brother. Katara had warned him several times not to respond to Sokka's commentary. Both boys had tempers and both boys could hardly stand one another. It was a blessing, Katara often reminded Zuko, that her brother had agreed to keep the 'boyfriend news' from their grandmother. Yet Zuko knew that he had done this for Katara's happiness, and Sokka's idea of the firebender was not a good one. He had tried to talk his baby sister out of dating Zuko the entire duration of their relationship.
"You're late," Katara said calmly. Sokka tossed the keys on the table and Zuko caught them.
"It's not my fault. I had an orientation thing. New kid in his senior year."
"Introduce me later," Katara said. She and Zuko stood up, their fingers intertwined. Zuko tossed the keys in his free hand and caught them again. Up and down. He and Sokka stared at one another.
"You'd like him," Sokka answered, his eyes not leaving Zuko although he was speaking to his sister. "He's a great guy. Probably in most of your classes. And he's an airbender."
"Sounds cool," she said. "We'll see you later. We're heading to Public Square for the comedy show."
"Nice. If Zuko laughs, I'll refund you for your tickets." Her brother kissed her cheek and watched the young couple make their way to the sidewalk along campus. He didn't know why he still couldn't accept Zuko, but his feelings hadn't changed for five months. The tension was worse now, actually. He had been certain that it was a fling, something Katara would eventually outgrow in a few weeks. Clearly she had been disillusioned by Zuko, some attractive, older bender, top of his class and head of the Pro-Bending team. But they were still together five months after meeting. And the idea that the relationship was getting serious disturbed Sokka deeply.
It was his little sister, and she was growing up. As long as she was happy, thought Sokka, there was nothing he could do – nothing he should do. "Keep telling yourself that, big guy," Sokka mumbled to himself. He watched them turn the corner and disappear. He put his hands in his pockets and set a course for the gym.