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Don't help me, I'm fine

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“You sure you have everything you need, Zuko?” Uncle Iroh asked as he pulled over to the curb.

“Geez, Uncle, you’re starting to sound like -” Zuko stopped himself from saying ‘my mother’, instead trying to affect a lighthearted laugh, but failing miserably. Looking out the window at the college campus they’d pulled up to, he tried to lose himself in the sea of faces passing in front of his window. It didn’t work.

“Look Zuko,” Uncle Iroh shut off the engine and turned in his seat to face Zuko. “I think it would do you some good to give college a chance.”

“I was doing fine without college in my life before, Uncle, I don’t see why I should be doing this now. Don’t you think twenty-one is a little old to be starting out?”

“No.” Zuko sighed loudly, looking up at the ceiling. He knew that would be the answer. “So, you’re all registered for your dorm room, and all the information you’ll need for your classes is in this letter,” here he slid an envelope under Zuko’s elbow where it rested on the armrest between them. “Do you want help carrying your bags in?”

“No, Uncle,” Zuko grumbled. Irritably he took the letter and tucked it into his coat pocket, determined not to look at it in front of his Uncle. Grabbing the straps of the backpack at his feet, he began to open the door, only to be stopped by a hand on his shoulder.

“Zuko, I know things have been hard, but I’m available on my cell anytime, ok?”

“Ok, Uncle. Can I go now?” Uncle Iroh sighed and let go of Zuko’s shoulder before turning to face forward.

Not paying attention to his surroundings in his desperation to get out of the car and the awkwardness inside it, Zuko swung open his door only to have it collide with a girl walking by on the sidewalk.

“Hey! Watch where you’re going!” He yelled at precisely the exact moment he noticed that the girl in question was blind.

“In case you didn’t notice, idiot, I’m blind!” The girl had black hair styled in a bob, the majority of it held off her forehead by a green hair band. Even so, a few pieces managed to float down onto her forehead, which she now brushed back with one hand. As she walked away, Zuko heard her grumble, “Asshole.”

He made a move to follow her, but stopped, knowing it wasn’t worth it. Taking a few calming breaths, he walked over to the back of the car, ignoring the look his uncle was giving him, and opened the trunk. He grabbed his suitcase, which now held all of his worldly possessions that he actually cared about, and began to walk toward the dorms.

He’d only gotten about five feet away from the car, though, when he heard a window being rolled down and his uncle calling after him, saying, “Zuko! You forgot your calming jasmine tea!”

Zuko waved this off and called back over his shoulder, “Goodbye, Uncle!”

 

Finding his dorm wasn’t hard. Getting around the kids and their parents? That was a battle. He’d refused to go up in the elevator, not wanting to be in close proximity to a bunch of teenagers and their overbearing parents. Instead, he’d started to make the treck up six flights of stairs that would deliver him to his floor of the dorm.

Unfortunately, many people had had the same idea. By the time he had made it to his floor, he was done being pleasant. Shoving through the crowds, he stopped outside of his door and felt himself involuntarily take a sharp intake of breath.

Well, here goes nothing, he thought, producing a key from his coat pocket. Fitting it into the lock, Zuko turned it and slid the door open.

Almost immediately, he was assaulted by orange and yellow. Everywhere. The bed in front of him was covered in a blanket of varying orange and yellow hues. All the trinkets cluttering one of the desks in the room matched the bed, and - Oh Lord - the boy sitting on the bed, who he hadn’t noticed until now, was (not even kidding) wearing a yellow sweater and bright orange pants. He actually had to blink a few times for his eyes to adjust.

In fact, he had to step back outside and check the number above the door with the one on his dorm registry information because he was almost one hundred percent positive he’d told Uncle Iroh to request a single bedroom.

Sure enough, the number above the door matched that on his form. Grumbling under his breath, he leaned against the door frame and checked his phone. There, he saw a message from his Uncle. Opening it, he saw that it read, Zuko, I forgot to tell you that I requested you get a roommate. Try to be nice ~ Iroh

Stuffing his phone back into his pocket, Zuko cursed his uncle and the dumb way he signed his text messages even though Zuko had his number saved to his contacts.

Ignoring the other guy, who was giving him curious looks over the top of the book he was reading - the book he was holding upside down as if he’d grabbed it when he heard the door opening - Zuko dragged his bags over to his side of the room.

Keeping his back turned, although he could feel the other guy’s stare boring through his shoulder blades, he stared down at his stuff, debating whether or not to unpack it. Instead, he decided that since this was clearly a big misunderstanding, no matter what Uncle Iroh said, it was useless to unpack.

Sighing, Zuko sat down on the bed, the wood framing audibly creaking underneath him, and started scrolling through his phone.

His - and he shuddered to think the word - roommate kept on moving around like he had ants in his pants. Finally, after ten minutes of moving around, Zuko saw him swing his legs over the side of his bed. He knew what was coming, but still winced when the boy said, way too cheerfully, “Hi! My name is Aang and I’ll be your roommate this year!”

“Oh you’ve got to be kidding me,” Zuko grumbled. Lowering his phone, he turned his head, his golden eyes meeting Aang’s grey ones and asked, “And?”

The smile on Aang’s face fell a bit. Zuko couldn’t help but smirk a bit as the other guy looked away from him. Zuko took that opportunity to take in Aang’s features, noting that he was about eighteen years old with strange blue, arrow shaped tattoos down the length of each arm. He could see more of the same type of tattoos poking out from the bottom of his orange jeans. He had big ears that poked out of his short, curly brown hair. Zuko could see the tip of what was probably another blue arrow tattoo on the boy’s forehead.

Standing up, Zuko tucked his phone into his back pocket, made sure he had the key to his room and his wallet, and started towards the door.

“Hey wait! Where are you going?” He heard Aang call after him, but he didn’t stop, instead letting the door click shut behind him.

 

“I don’t think I understand what you’re asking,” the woman was saying to him. She pushed up her glasses on the bridge of her nose, and not for the first time Zuko wished he could burn them. They were orange, and reminded him way too much of his annoying roommate.

“I’m asking you to check again.”

“I’ve checked your registration forms for you three times already. All I can tell you is that you requested a roommate. I’m sorry if there’s been some kind of confusion, but I don’t have all day and you’re kind of holding up the line…” Zuko glanced behind him and saw that, yes, there was indeed a line.

“So you’re saying I’m going to be stuck in a room with that guy?”

“I’m afraid so. Now, you can try to get a transfer to another room, but I’m afraid that could take a couple weeks,” she said as she shuffled some papers on her desk.

“No!” Zuko said. He’d been a bit harsh, but he was flustered and angry. He didn’t want someone invading on his personal space, and certainly not some overly friendly kid who looked like he was barely ready to leave home, let alone stay in a college dorm without adult supervision.

Sighing, he tacked on a half-hearted ‘thanks for your help’ before walking away.

 

The air was cold, making him glad he was wearing his sweater. He hadn’t gone back to his dorm, instead choosing to walk around and get his bearings. Eventually, he’d run out of places to go and had planted his sorry ass on a bench, spending the next couple hours messing around on his phone.

Now, four hours after leaving the dorms, he was bored out of his mind. He checked the time, noting that it was seven o’clock. He still had lots of time before he would be ready to turn in for the night, and he had no intention of wasting it.

Doing a quick search on his phone, he found the closest bar, something cheesy along the lines of “The Boomerang Bar”. The slogan underneath said, and Zuko couldn’t have made this up if he’d tried, “Even if we kick you out, you’ll keep coming back”.

Who thinks of this shit? He thought. It’s probably some low end place with bad music. The bar was the closest to the campus, though, which meant that he’d have less of a distance to stumble across on his way home later that night, so it wasn’t like Zuko was complaining. Pocketing his phone, he set off in search of the bar.

 

The bar sucked. Plain and simple. He hadn’t been wrong when he’d thought it sounded low end, and he certainly wasn’t wrong about the bad music. Still, the bar was already full when he got there. Showing his ID to the bartender, he sat down on one of the stools and ordered the first thing that came to mind.

Before he knew it, he was eight drinks in. His senses were starting to get a little fuzzy around the edges, and despite his earlier opinions about the music, it was now starting to sound good.

It was around drink number ten that he showed up. The bartender with the brown hair tied back in a bun at the back of his head and the wave-like tribal tattoos running down his right arm. He’d introduced himself as Sokka, and he hadn’t stopped talking since.

Now that Zuko was in more of a mood for conversation, he didn’t mind how friendly Sokka was. In fact, he hardly noticed when the guy’s fingers lingered on his for a little longer than strictly necessary while handing Zuko his drink. He even smiled at a few of Sokka’s bad jokes.

Business started to pick up around ten o’clock, which meant Zuko was left to watch the crowd by himself. A few people walking by did double takes to check out the scar that adorned the left side of his face, but other than that most people steered clear.

Their looks bothered him. He’d long since come to terms with the scar, but he had still not gotten over the affect it had had on the people around him. Their questioning eyes bothered him probably more than they should, as if the people who looked at his scar were trying to see past it to the secrets that lay inside his mind. He downed a few more drinks to get rid of this thought.

Finally, in a lull in business, Zuko found Sokka leaning towards him on the other side of the bar. They’d started talking, but Zuko couldn’t really remember what they were talking about. He thought he heard Sokka say something funny and laughed, probably louder than he should have, but he was too drunk to feel self-conscious about it.

Before he could think, he found himself blurting, “Ok, ok… so I’ve got to ask: who in the ever loving fuck thought of your bar’s slogan?”

He knew instantly he’d made a mistake by the way that Sokka’s smiled faded a bit. Oh shit, no way…. He mentally punched himself for opening his mouth, but instead of being offended, Sokka’s smiled returned, even wider than before, “I’m glad you had such a strong reaction to it!”

“That’s one way to put it,” Zuko mumbled, and then mentally slapped himself for saying it.

“No, no, see, that's the whole point. I mean, most people come for the bad slogan, and end up returning for the eye candy,” Sokka punctuated this by motioning to himself and raising his eyebrows.

“That was cheesy as hell, I hope you know that,” Zuko snorted.

“Yeah, well, what can I say? It works,” Sokka motioned to the crowded bar, people dancing to the music and clamoring for drinks. “I bet you ten bucks you’ll be back.”

Zuko looked down at the hand that was outstretched towards him. At first, he wanted to reject the hand that was being offered, but something in the way Sokka was looking at him made him reach forward and shake hands, saying, “Deal.”

Their hands stayed clasped together for a second longer before one of the other bartenders called out to Sokka and informed him that he needed to stop dicking around and get back to work. Sokka smiled apologetically at Zuko before busying himself with orders.

Smiling to himself, Zuko turned and felt the smile, and his stomach, instantly drop as he came face-to-face with the last person on earth he’d wanted to see here tonight. Mai.

“Zuko, um, hi,” she began, but he was already rising from his stool, anger bubbling up in his stomach.

“I thought I told you not to come near me ever again!” He yelled. Rather than looking startled, though, her expression turned to one of stony indifference, not changing as she said, “Look, I just came to say ‘hi’, ok?”

“After what you did, you think it’s ok for you to waltz up and say ‘hi’?”

“Look Zuko, I was trying to help you.”

“Yeah? Well, look how that turned out!” He gestured angrily towards his left eye, the scar that had been branded there.

“I cared about you Zuko,” Mai said, her tone steely and cold, completely at odds with her words.

“You know, that’s just the thing, Mai, because I never cared about you!”

It was like he’d slapped her. Her eyes widened and the stricken look on her face was so at odds with the stoic one she usually wore that Zuko was almost stunned enough to apologize, but he didn’t. Instead, he glared at her as she turned and pushed her way back into the crowd towards the group of friends that were waiting for her in a booth across the bar. Zuko caught a glare from one of them, a girl by the name of Ty Lee, before he turned back to the bar and quickly ordered more drinks.

 

The next morning, when Zuko woke up, he didn’t remember much, and what he did remember was hazy. Saying he felt like shit would have been a complete and utter understatement, especially because the last thing he remembered clearly was his encounter with Mai.

The very thought sent him running to the dorm bathrooms, where he spent the next ten minutes throwing up wave after wave of rancid smelling puke. When he was sure he would be able to stand without toppling over, he washed up and headed back to his dorm room on shaky legs.

He was still in the same clothes from last night, although they were now flecked with puke. Checking his phone, which was somehow still intact despite being left in the back pocket of his jeans overnight, he noted that it was three o’clock in the afternoon. Crap, I really slept in, he thought. Oh well, what’s another few hours?

He was just about to crawl back into bed when he noticed the note on his desk. The note was written in a flowing script and said, “Hey, so you were pretty drunk last night. Not sure how much you remember? You kind of passed out at the bar and I had to bring you back to your dorm. Lucky for you, your roommate was still up when I brought you back. Anyways, give me a call when you wake up so I know you’re ok. ~ Sokka.” At the bottom of the note was a phone number.

Zuko crinkled up the note, threw it in his trashcan, and went back to sleep.

Chapter Text

Zuko had no idea what he was doing at college. He wasn’t even sure why or how he’d let Uncle Iroh talk him into signing up for classes. In fact, he hadn’t even thought out his classes, simply applying for the ones that he could and hoping he’d get accepted.

No one had been as surprised as he’d been when he’d actually gotten accepted into quite a few of the courses he’d applied to. Uncle Iroh had acted like he’d known all along, but Zuko knew that, deep down, Uncle Iroh had been surprised as well.

Even though he had no idea what he was doing, his first week of classes passed without incident. To the teachers he was just a number and to the students he was invisible, or as much as possible considering his height and his scar, but that was fine by him. He wasn’t at college to make friends anyways.

The morning of the start of his second week at college, Zuko was woken by Aang’s alarm. Are you fucking kidding me? He thought angrily, rolling out of bed. He landed practically on his face, but managed to get up and slap the snooze button on the alarm a mere second before he heard Aang mumble, “Five more minutes Gyatso….” Looking at the clock, he groaned. Six o’clock in the morning and he didn’t have a class until noon. Grumbling, Zuko walked to the end of Aang’s bed and, in one decisive movement, ripped the sheets off of him before storming out of their dorm room and slamming the door behind him.

Heading in the direction of the bathrooms, he took a shower. When he got back to the dorm room, he found Aang sitting on the edge of his bed.

Aang jumped when Zuko opened the door and then immediately smiled sheepishly when he saw that it was him. Scratching the back of his head, he chuckled under his breath and said, way too cheerfully, “Sorry about that, I kind of forgot that I had my alarm set….”
“How could you forget that you had your alarm set for six o’clock in the morning? You know, most people are sleeping at this godforsaken hour!”

“Well, actually, six o’clock isn’t that early. I used to get up every day at six to train with Gyatso.”

Zuko threw up his hands in exasperation and fought against the urge to ask who Gyatso was and what Aang was training for. Instead, he rubbed a hand across his face and looked around the room. Now that he was up, he knew he’d have a hard time getting back to sleep. Grumbling, he began collecting things he would need for his lecture that day and put them in his bag.

“Hey, where are you going?” Aang chirped from his side of the room. Zuko cast a look over his shoulder to see Aang bouncing on the edge of his bed, trying to peer over Zuko’s shoulder.

“Out.”

“Mind if I come with you?” Before Zuko could answer, Aang was jumping up and grabbing clothes. Zuko watched in confusion as Aang rushed out of the room, calling back over his shoulder, “Wait up for me, I’m just going to take a shower!”

As soon as Zuko thought Aang was gone, he got up, slinging his backpack over his shoulder. He grabbed his keys and left the dorm room, leaving Aang behind.

 

Six hours passed and Zuko found himself stumbling into the lecture hall. Saying he was tired would have been an understatement, but he was hoping he’d be able to get some rest during the lecture. He took the stairs two at a time up to the last row and planted himself in the chair two seats over from the aisle. He plopped his bag down on the seat next to the aisle and then proceeded to spread out his notes on the seat on the other side of him.

Stifling a yawn, he silently cursed Aang and his alarm clock.

A couple minutes passed and students began to filter in, filling up the seats around him. Most of them looked just as tired as he felt, if not more so, and Zuko began to wonder what they would all look like by the end of the semester.

Just as the lecture was about to start, a girl with her black hair styled in a bob came up the stairs and stopped beside him. Zuko hardly cast her a glance in the hopes that she’d get the message and try to find a seat somewhere else, but then the girl was already asking, “Is someone sitting here?”

“Does it look like there’s someone sitting next to me?” Zuko grumbled.

The girl pulled down her black tinted glasses to reveal sea foam green eyes that were glazed over. Zuko instantly thought back to his first day on campus when he’d accidentally hit a blind girl with his car door. Oh shit, he thought.

“Are you just going to sit there staring at me? Or are you going to hit me with your car door again?” The girl asked, folding her glasses and propping them in the collar of her shirt.

Zuko was struck speechless, probably for the first time. He didn’t even try for a witty comeback, instead just moving his bag. The girl nodded at him and sat down, immediately letting out a loud belch which drew the stares of quite a few of the people around them. Without even flinching, she pointed her finger at Zuko, indicating that it was him who had belched. She then proceeded to slouch down in her chair, placing her hands behind her head, and propping one of her legs up on the other, resting the ankle of one leg on the knee of the other. Her foot knocked against Zuko’s and he shifted away from her.

He decided to ignore her for the rest of the lecture, but this was easier said than done. Within five minutes of the lecture starting, the girl had begun picking at her nails, flicking the dirt she picked out from under her nails in his direction. Finally, when he could no longer take it, he turned to her and growled, “What’s your problem?”

“What, besides being hit by a car door?”

“Look, I’m sorry, ok?” She crossed her arms over her chest and looked at him, eyebrows raised. Sighing, he said, “Ok… I’m sorry for hitting you with my car door.”

“And?” She asked, smirking.

“And jack shit. I don’t know what you want me to say. I’m sorry, ok? Isn’t that good enough for you?” He was practically shouting, already halfway out of his chair. Instead of saying anything, though, he saw that her head was slumped and her shoulders were shaking. For a split second, he thought he had made her cry, but then he realized she was laughing.

“What? What’s so funny?”

“Nothing. It’s just… reeeeally funny how easily you can get angry.”

Slouching in his chair, he felt himself cooling down. Crossing his arms, he shot back, “Yeah? You’re one to talk.”

“But at least I got angry after being hit by a car door. What’s your excuse? Blind girl bothering you?”

“Whatever. All I’m saying is that I don’t have an anger problem.”
“Never said that you did. Anyways, my name’s Toph,” at this the girl stuck out her hand in his direction, smirking. Zuko eyed her hand nervously, not sure whether or not to shake it, but then gave in and shook her hand, saying, “My name’s Zuko.”

“Well, Zuko, if you look like you sound, then I’m guessing you’re about six feet two inches of barely suppressed anger and quite a few problems. Unfortunately, you were right when you said that I’m in no place to judge.” Zuko almost said something to defend himself, but then conceded that she was right. He quickly decided that Toph was a lot more perceptive than he would have originally given her credit for.

“Anyways, can you tell me if I’m in the right lecture hall?” She asked, startling him.

“Wait, are you serious? You didn’t check to see if you were in the right lecture hall? Why didn’t you just ask someone outside before coming in?”

“Because I don’t like asking people for help,” she replied, a stubborn edge to voice.

“You just asked me for help, though,” Zuko pointed out.

“Yeah, that’s because you’re an asshole, which makes us two of a kind. I figure you’ll be less likely to judge me.”

“How does that make any sense?”

“Whatever. Now, is this lecture hall 105?”

“Yeah.”

“Ok cool. Anyways, what’s with the prof?” She asked, nodding towards the front of the lecture hall where the prof was perched on the edge of his desk.

He was a little taken aback by her question, so it took him a second to process it. Finally, he asked, “What do you mean?”

“Well, the guy is boring as hell for starters.” Zuko had to agree that she wasn’t wrong. The professor had been droning on in the same boring monotone for the past half an hour. Zuko hadn’t even realized he was still talking until Toph had pointed him out.

“I feel like he’s probably about fifty with barely any hair. Probably coloring the hair he still has left in an effort to look younger. Am I right?” Zuko looked at Toph in surprise and then back at the professor. She wasn’t actually that far off in her description. After a moment of silence, she asked impatiently, “Well? Am I?”

“You’re close. He’s actually completely bald.”

“Ok. Is he wearing a sweater vest?”

“What?”

“Answer the question. Is he wearing a sweater vest?”

“Um…. maybe?”

“Zuko,” Toph sighed, clearly growing impatient with him. “Either the man is wearing a sweater vest or he’s not. Try to keep up ok?”

Normally, Zuko would have gotten angry at someone for talking like that. In fact, he’d probably have punched that person, but Toph wasn’t just anyone. It was weird, but for the first time in a while Zuko felt like he could be comfortable around Toph, which was strange since he’d just met her. If it weren’t for the fact that he didn’t like being around people, he could see them becoming good friends.

“Yeah, he’s wearing a sweater vest.”

“Is it ugly as hell? Please tell me it’s ugly as hell,” Toph said with a smirk.

The sweater vest was plaid, oranges, greens, and yellows mixed in a combination that practically assaulted his eyes whenever he looked at it. Turning back to Toph, he chuckled and said, “Oh yeah, it’s ugly alright.”

“Can you describe it to me?” Toph asked. And just like that, Zuko found himself spending the rest of the lecture describing not only the professor, but various classmates to Toph. Each time he started in on a description of someone, she would make up some type of backstory for them. By the end of the class, both she and Zuko had pretty much been reduced to tears.

“Are you living on campus?” Zuko asked Toph as they descended the steps of the lecture hall and stepped out into the busy hallway.

“Yeah. How about you?” Toph asked, adjusting her bag on her back.

“I live on campus, but I’ve got this really annoying roommate.”

Just as he said this, a voice yelled from the crowd, “Hey, Toph! Toph over here!”

Both Toph and Zuko turned in the direction the voice was coming from. Zuko heard himself curse not so subtly under his breath. Speak of the devil, he thought. There, running through the crowd in a ridiculously bright orange jacket was none other than Aang. What was worse, Toph had raised her arm to wave at him and called out, “Hey, twinkle toes! How’s it going?”

“I didn’t know you and Zuko were in the same class!” Aang chirped when he got to them. The kid was practically bouncing with energy, bobbing on the balls of his feet as he smiled at the two of them.

“How do you know Zuko?” Toph asked, casting a suspicious glance from Aang back to Zuko. Zuko felt himself swallow and opened his mouth to say something, but was cut off when Aang said, “Zuko and I are roommates!”

“Is that so?” Toph mumbled, glaring at Zuko.

All Zuko could manage to think was, You’ve got to be fucking kidding me….

Chapter Text

Sokka liked people. A lot. He always found people to talk to, and even if he himself was somewhat sarcastic - ok, very sarcastic - he tried to make up for it by at least being entertaining. So, when he’d shown up to work at the bar and seen a very grumpy looking guy with black hair and a scar on one side of his face, he hadn’t even thought twice before going up and introducing himself.

 

He wasn’t surprised that, at first, the other guy’s expression had been one of annoyance when Sokka first introduced himself. Eventually, though, the other guy, who introduced himself as Zuko, warmed up after a few drinks and actually got into their conversation.

 

Despite his appearance - the scar making him seem like he was permanently scowling - Zuko was a nice guy. Nice enough that Sokka soon found himself wanting to talk to him not out of a general sense of friendliness, but because of something more. Not only that, but Sokka also found himself yearning to go back to their conversation whenever he was pulled away from it to make another customer a drink.

 

It was at such a time that it happened. Sokka was swamped by drunken customers all clamoring for more drinks. He was trying to get them their drinks as quickly as possible so he could get back to his conversation with Zuko, but this was proving rather difficult since his fellow bartender had decided that this was the best time to go take a smoke break.

 

After handing a customer a drink and then taking an order from another one, Sokka cast a quick look at Zuko out of the corner of his eye. He almost dropped the drink he was working on, though, when he saw that Zuko had turned, back to the bar, and was talking to a girl.

 

The girl was tall and her long, black hair was pulled back, two long braids hanging down on either side of her face. Sokka noted that she was also quite pretty, in a stern ‘I could beat your face in if I really needed to’ kind of way. Another quick look in their direction showed Sokka that they seemed to be in a very heated debate. He didn’t have time to worry about it, though, because at that moment a group of girls crowded up to the bar, forcing him to pull his attention away from Zuko and the girl.

 

By the time the rush ended, the other bartender had come back and started waiting on the end of the bar Zuko was sitting on, leaving Sokka with no good excuse to talk to him. Sokka spent the rest of the night cursing out his fellow bartender for having, quite possibly, the best/worst timing in the world.




A couple hours later, Sokka and the other bartender began to close. Last call had come and gone, and Sokka was more than ready to go home. He looked over at the spot that Zuko had occupied for most of the night, but had eventually vacated, heading out onto the dance floor.

 

Sokka was a little disappointed that Zuko hadn’t stay longer, or at least said ‘bye’ to him when he’d left, but then again the guy had been pretty hammered. Sokka hoped he’d gotten home safely.

 

Waving goodbye to his fellow bartender, he headed towards the men’s bathroom at the back of the bar. Pushing the door open, he was just about to use one of the urinals when he heard a low moan from behind him. Freezing in place, Sokka wondered if maybe he’d accidentally wandered in on a couple, but then he heard the voice murmur, “Sokka?”

 

Quickly turning, Sokka saw Zuko lying in the stall behind him. He was keeping himself somewhat upright due to his stranglehold on the toilet. Rushing over to him, Sokka crouched down and looked at the other man in concern.

 

“Wad er you stirrin’ at?” Zuko slurred, his eyes half lidded as he smiled goofily at Sokka.

 

“Shit, Zuko, are you ok?” Sokka asked, beginning to help Zuko to his feet. This was met by little protest, as Zuko switched his stranglehold from the toilet to Sokka’s shoulders. Slightly taken aback, Sokka asked him, “Are you good to walk?”

 

“Heh… wants t’know if I’m good to walk,” Zuko chuckled under his breath and smiled at Sokka.

 

“I’m going to take that as a ‘yes’,” it was infinitely harder to navigate the thin hallway that led to the employee entrance at the back of the bar with a drunken Zuko in tow, but somehow Sokka managed. Standing outside the bar, he realized that he had no idea as to where Zuko lived. When he asked, Zuko managed to slur out a reply about his dorm building and slapped a key into Sokka’s palm. Thankfully, the key had Zuko’s room number on it.

 

Half an hour later, Zuko and Sokka were standing outside Zuko’s dorm room door. Sokka wasn’t sure if he should help Zuko into his room, but figured that, since Zuko had been relatively fine walking back to the dorm, he’d be able to at least stumble into bed by himself. And, if not, he always had his roommate.

 

As Sokka was thinking about this, he realized that Zuko had his palm out and was looking at him expectantly.

 

“Key,” he managed to get out when Sokka looked at him.

 

“Uh, yeah, sure,” Sokka said, fumbling the key into Zuko’s outstretched palm. Zuko nodded at him and began to unlock his door, his hands surprisingly steady as he did so.

 

Seeing that Zuko had managed to get in safely, Sokka turned to leave, but was stopped by a hand on his shoulder. Turning back around, worried that Zuko was about to throw up, Sokka was duly surprised when, instead, Zuko stepped closer to him, leaned forward, and planted a kiss squarely on his mouth.

 

For a second, Sokka was surprised. He definitely hadn’t been expecting to get kissed. After the initial shock wore off, though, he found himself returning it. He pulled back sharply, though, when he felt Zuko’s hand firmly grip his butt. After all, he thought, Zuko may have been the one to make the first move, but he was way too drunk to consent to anything.

 

“Thnks fer walkin’ me home,” Zuko slurred, and then proceeded to exaggeratedly wink at Sokka. He then turned, walked into his dorm room, and closed the door behind him.

 

Sokka walked home in a daze.





Two weeks later, Sokka woke up the day after a gruelling work shift at the bar and stumbled to his creative writing class. He had every intention of sleeping through the class, but, unfortunately, it seemed fate had other plans for him.

 

Just as he was lowering his head onto the desk, he saw a girl walk in. She had most of her hair up, with two twin braids draped over either shoulder. Sokka felt a jolt of energy pass through him as he recognized her as the girl from the bar. The girl he’d seen Zuko talking to right before he’d gotten hammered out of his mind. Remembering the incident, Sokka blushed, but this was quickly replaced by a feeling of disappointment as he remembered that Zuko still hadn’t called him.

 

The girl took a seat a few rows below Sokka. He knew it was really none of his business, but Sokka couldn’t help but be curious as to how she knew Zuko. Just as he was about to get up and take a seat closer to her, the lecture started.

 

Throughout the lecture, Sokka was torn between the need to sleep and his curiosity with the girl. Curiosity won out.

 

Without even thinking, Sokka ripped a piece of paper out of the binder he’d brought to class for ‘note taking’ - aka doodling - wrote a quick note that said ‘Hey’, and tossed it at the back of Mai’s head when the professor had turned his back on them.

 

Predictably, he missed. Completely.

 

He hit the professor.

 

The professor, and most of the class, turned around and looked at Sokka who had frozen in place, arm still outstretched from the throw. How he’d managed to hit the professor with a ball of paper, he had no idea. Especially since the paper wasn’t even heavy enough to have gotten that far in the first place. Sokka chalked it down to his bad luck.

 

The professor stooped down and picked up the piece of paper, unfolding it. Reading it quickly, he looked back up at Sokka and said, sternly, “In the future, there are easier ways for you to get my attention.”

 

The class chuckled, and Sokka looked away sheepishly, scratching the back of his head. When the professor turned back to what he was writing on the board, Sokka cast a glance in the girl’s direction only to find that she was glaring at him. When she saw him looking at her, she quickly turned back around.

 

Sokka wasn’t going to let his minor blunder stop him though. Instead, he bided his time. No longer able to sleep now that his curiosity was piqued, he soon lost himself to daydreams of stealthily following the girl - ducking behind mailboxes, around corners, and hiding behind streetlamps - in order to get close enough to figure out how she knew Zuko. He was just getting to the part where he narrowly pulled her out of the way of a car and she, ever so grateful, spilled everything she knew about Zuko, when the lecture ended.

 

Too late, Sokka noticed the other students rising from their chairs around him and making their way towards the door. Standing up too quickly, he knocked his books to the ground and was forced to stop and pick them up.

 

By the time he had everything he needed, the girl was no longer in sight. Running out of the classroom, he looked left and right, only to spot her disappearing around a corner.

 

All thoughts of being stealthy thrown out the window, Sokka took off running down the hall, pushing people out of the way as he did so. Hardly paying attention to the people around him, he barrelled around the corner only to almost run into the girl.

 

Except she was not alone anymore. There was now another girl with her. He thought the second girl looked vaguely familiar, but decided it was probably because he’d seen her around campus. The girl he’d been following was talking animatedly to her friend, mouth pursed in a slight pout as she did so. Whatever they were talking about, she looked angry.

 

Both the appearance of the new girl and the fact that the one he needed to talk to seemed angry would pose a challenge, but Sokka wasn’t one to turn those down.

 

He was just running over possible conversation starters in his head when the girl’s friend looked up and saw him. As soon as she did, she elbowed the girl from the bar and pointed at Sokka. Glaring, the girl stalked over to him, her friend close behind. When she was a couple feet away, she crossed her arms over her chest and growled, “You again. What do you want?”

 

Before Sokka could reply, the girl’s friend cut in, saying apologetically, “Uh, oh! Sorry about Mai, she’s just in a bad mood.”

 

“Yeah, because this idiot has been following me!” The other girl placed a hand Mai’s shoulder. Mai seemed to relax a little at the other girl’s touch, but still kept her aggressive stance. Sokka figured he had about five seconds before he was punched. Thinking quickly, he replied with, “I haven’t been following you for that long.”

 

He internally punched himself in the face for saying that.

 

“Uh, what I mean to say is, I work at a bar and I, uh… recognized you from a couple weeks ago. I’m used to seeing a whole bunch of students at the bar, but I saw you talking to someone there. And then I had to walk that person home because they were really drunk. Just thought I’d let you know,” Sokka said quickly. Mai seemed to consider his words and then uncrossed her arms slowly. Dropping them to her sides, she looked at her friend knowingly, and said, in a tone totally different from the hostile one she’d been using before, “Hi, I’m Mai and this is Ty Lee.”

 

“Hi!” Ty Lee chirped, clasping her hands behind her back and nodding at him.

 

“Hi, I’m Sokka. I’m a bartender. Recognized you from a couple weeks ago…”

 

“Yeah, so you mentioned,” Mai replied in monotone, cutting him off before he could start rambling again. “So, you say you saw me talking to someone at the bar a couple weeks ago?”

 

“Yeah, and….” Mai held up her hand to stop him and asked, “Did he have a scar on the left side of his face?”

 

“He did, yeah.”

 

Mai sighed and looked away. Ty Lee reached out and took her hand, rubbing slow circles across the back of it. Sokka got the feeling that Mai no longer wanted to talk, but he couldn’t help but say, “Look, I’m not sure what kind of relationship the two of you had… I saw you fighting at the bar… but I just wanted to let you know that he’s ok.”

 

“And why would I want to know that?” Mai growled, angry once more.

 

Sokka was slightly taken aback by her fierceness, but wasn’t about to let that stop him. Bracing himself, he said, “I know it’s really none of my business, but I was wondering what you could tell me about him.”

 

“What? Zuko?” Mai was looking at Sokka now with interest. She still looked pissed off enough to punch him if he said the wrong thing, but at least she wasn’t yelling anymore.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Oh, well… I’ve known him since we were young.”

 

“They used to be best friends in elementary school!” Ty Lee chimed in.

 

“Yeah. Well, we used to be. Then we started dating.”

 

“Um, what?” Sokka wasn’t sure why, but he felt his mouth dry up. Had he really heard her correctly?


“You heard me,” Mai growled. Looking away, she mumbled, “At least we used to date, until everything fell apart.”

Chapter Text

“Stupid Aang... being all nice to people. Who does he think he is anyways? And what the hell, Toph? I thought you’d have better taste in friends.”

 

Zuko was monologuing to himself. Again. It was a recurring bad habit of his that usually drew a few confused looks from the people around him. When you were as unknowingly starved for human companionship like Zuko was, though, talking to yourself became the only solid outlet for fulfilling conversational needs.

 

Leaving yet another boring lecture that he’d nearly fallen asleep in, Zuko shoved his hands deep into his pockets, hunched his shoulders, and drifted down the hall.

 

Yeah, it sucked that Toph was friends with his super outgoing and annoying roommate, but she’d been the first person he’d really thought he could become friends with. She was sassy and didn’t take his crap, and even though they’d only talked once during that one class, he found himself wishing he hadn’t messed up so royally in front of her by insulting Aang.

 

What stood in his way of talking to her again was his pride. He didn’t really think he was in the wrong in this situation, mainly because he did think Aang was annoying, so his apology wouldn’t be genuine. On the other hand, he needed to regain his honour.

 

He was forming an attack strategy - a strategy as to how he would apologize in a way that was actually somewhat genuine - when he caught sight of a few familiar faces in the crowd. Unwelcome familiar faces.

 

Cursing under his breath, he turned around and began marching back the way he’d come, but it was too late.

 

“Zuko!” A voice called after him.

 

They’d spotted him.

 

Turning with the nastiest scowl he could muster plastered across his face, Zuko glared at Mai, Ty Lee and a guy who looked vaguely familiar.

 

He stood his ground, crossing his arms across his chest. After a couple minutes of this awkward staredown, the guy motioned to him and called out, “Hey Zuko!”

 

Where the hell do I know this guy from? Zuko thought.

 

The guy stopped in front of Zuko and smiled nervously. Instead of paying attention to him, though Zuko glanced over at Mai, quickly looking away when they made eye contact.  

 

Tuning back in, he realized the guy was talking. What was he saying? Something about Zuko looking good? Actually making a conscious effort to listen to what the guy was saying, Zuko heard him say, “So, I never heard back from you.”

 

“What? Where do I know you from? Wait, don’t answer that. I don’t actually care,” Zuko turned to storm off, but felt a hand on his shoulder. Brushing it off, he looked back at the other guy as he said, “It’s me, Sokka. From the Boomerang Bar.”

 

“What?” But as he said it, he remembered. He remembered drinking a lot and kind of flirting - had that been flirting? - with the guy that was now standing in front of him, looking at him expectantly. He remembered waking up and finding that note and trying to forget the whole night because of one reason, a reason that was glaring at him from down the hall. Mai.

 

“Shit,” he growled.

 

“Look, I’m sorry, I was just wondering how you were. I wasn’t snooping or anything, I swear!” Sokka raised up his hands as if he expected Zuko to take a swing at him. Instead, Zuko turned and started walking away.

 

After a couple seconds, Zuko heard Sokka behind him, having had to jog to catch up. Leaving the building they were in, Zuko headed over to a bench and sat down. Grumbling, he stared off into the distance as, after a second of contemplation, Sokka sat down on the bench a safe distance away from him.

 

“Has anyone ever told you that you exude angst?” Sokka asked, finally breaking the silence.

 

Before he could stop himself, before he could remind himself that he was supposed to be angry, Zuko found himself saying, “You’d be surprised.”

 

“You know, when I saw you at the bar, I was actually a little intimidated?” Zuko’s head snapped up to look at Sokka, but then he looked away. Sokka scratched the back of his neck, laughed nervously, and then continued. “Yeah, well, I mean… what with all that angst and everything… I don’t know, I figured you were having a rough day. Figured it would be worth a try to talk to you….”

 

“Look,” Zuko cut Sokka off and turned to face him. “I don’t go in for all this sappy stuff. And anyways, let’s cut to the chase. Why were you talking to Mai?”

 

“What do you remember about that night?”

 

“What?” Zuko was thrown by the change in topic. He wasn’t sure what that had to do with this guy talking with Mai.

 

“I mean, besides having an angry altercation with your ex-girlfriend.”

 

“How-”

 

“If you’re wondering how I knew about you and that girl, I was worried. You were pretty drunk that night, could barely even walk. I had to practically carry you back to your dorm. And-” Sokka paused as if contemplating saying something. He seemed to decide against it, though, which, truth be told, sparked Zuko’s curiosity. “Anyways, Mai is in one of my classes and I recognized her from the bar, figured I’d try asking her how you were.”

 

“That still doesn’t explain how you know she’s my ex-girlfriend. Or how that even came up in a conversation. And if you walked me home, couldn’t you have just swung by to ask me how I was doing?” Zuko was seeing some serious holes in this guy’s story.

 

“Are you saying you would have been okay with me hanging around your dorm in the off chance we were there at the same time so that I could ask you how you were doing?” Sokka raised his eyes, clearly challenging Zuko to tell him he was wrong.

 

“No, I would’ve probably told you to ‘fuck off’ for bothering me and then maybe tried to punch you in the face.”

 

“Knew it.”

 

Before Zuko could reply with a retort, he saw a blur of orange coming their way. He realized who it was almost a second before he heard an annoyingly happy voice say, “Hey Zuko! How’s it going?”

 

“Will you-” the words ‘stop bothering me’ died on his lips as he turned to see that Aang was not alone. Toph was with him, glaring in Zuko’s direction. Trying to sound a bit more relaxed, Zuko mumbled, “Hey, Aang. Toph.”

 

Toph grumbled, ‘sup?’ out of the corner of her mouth and then started picking at her nails.

 

Aang, seeing Sokka, said brightly, “Hi, I’m Aang. Are you one of Zuko’s friends?”

 

“More like an acquaintance,” Sokka stuck out his hand and said, “I’m Sokka. Are you a friend of Zuko’s?”

 

“I’m his roommate. So,” Zuko couldn’t believe he was being forced to listen to this asinine exchange. He wanted to rip his ears off, anything to get rid of Aang’s chirpy voice.“I was wondering if you wanted to come bowling with Toph, myself and our friend, Teo, this Friday. You’re welcome to come too, Sokka.”

 

Before Zuko could respond with his usual answer of ‘no’, his standard answer for whenever Aang asked him to hang out, Sokka was saying, “Sure, count us in!”

 

“Great!” Aang was bouncing with excitement. He and Sokka high fived, which made Zuko internally cringe.

 

“Wait, Aang,” Toph said sternly. Aang halted in his celebration to look from Toph to Zuko as Toph asked, “Zuko?”

 

Zuko wanted to say no. He didn’t want anything to do with Aang, but at the same time he wanted to make up with Toph. After all, she was pretty cool.

 

“You know what? Why not? Sure, I’m in.”


Toph smiled.

Chapter Text

When Friday rolled around, Sokka found himself becoming nervous. As a 21 year old freshman, it didn’t matter how many friends he made, they usually didn’t stick. They were all just too young, too full of life, and he was just himself. Old.

 

So, although Zuko wasn’t the first guy Sokka had walked home from the bar, Zuko was the only one he’d ever really seen again. Despite Zuko’s obvious lack of interest in anything remotely close to friendship, Sokka found himself getting pumped for the night ahead.

 

The plan was for Sokka to show up at Aang and Zuko’s dorm room at 6pm. From there, the three of them would meet up with Toph and Teo at the bowling alley. Sokka had no problem remembering where the dorm was, but finding the dorm room? That was a different question entirely.

 

Shit.

 

Sokka stood staring at the elevator doors. He couldn’t remember much from that night because he’d been too preoccupied with trying to make sure Zuko didn’t fall over. Finally, after about twenty minutes of standing around doing nothing, Sokka decided to just ask someone.

 

There weren’t many people milling about, which didn’t give Sokka a lot of options. Walking up to a guy who was leaning casually against the wall, Sokka said, “Hey, I’m looking for a guy.”

 

“Aren’t we all,” the guy said casually, eyeing Sokka up and down slowly as he did so.  

 

“No,” Sokka felt himself blush bright red. “I’m looking for a friend. He lives here.”

 

“You’re going to have to be more specific,” the guy said, quickly seeming to be losing interest with their conversation.

 

“He’s tall, has a big scar over the left side of his face -”

 

“Wait. That asshole?” The guy interrupted Sokka. The way he’d switched from bored to angry in an instant made Sokka think that Zuko must have done something really bad.

 

“Uh… yeah…?”

 

“Why would you be looking for him?”

 

“Because he’s a friend. Do you know what his room number is?”

 

“Yeah, sure. He lives across the hall from me. Look for room 413.”

 

“Uh… thanks,” Sokka said, quickly turning and walking away. He heard the guy mumble something about basic human rights, and, not for the last time, wondered what Zuko had done to piss this guy off.

 

When he found room 413, Sokka stood in front of it, staring at the number next to the door. He was about to knock on the door when he remembered the last time he’d stood outside this door, the time when he’d walked one very drunk Zuko home… and the kiss... . Pushing the thought from his mind, Sokka knocked loudly and heard the ever cheerful voice of Aang proclaiming that he’d get it.

 

Instead, when the door opened, it was Zuko who was standing there, a pouting Aang standing slightly behind him.

 

“Uh, hey, you guys ready to go?” Sokka asked after a couple seconds of awkward silence in which Zuko stood there glaring at him.

 

“Yeah! I’m ready! Let’s do this! So pumped!” Aang punched the air a few times, switching back into what Sokka was quickly realizing was his go-to, extremely outgoing, mood setting. Sokka was pretty sure he saw Zuko’s eye twitch.

 

Soon, the three of them were on their way to the bowling alley. They had made plans to meet Toph and Teo there at 6:30pm, but Aang had taken a long time trying to find everything he needed, so now they were behind schedule. As they were leaving the dorm, Sokka thought he heard Zuko grumble, “Let’s just hurry up and get this over with so that I can sleep.”

 

“Hey, Sokka!” Aang called from up ahead. “Look at this!”

 

Sokka pulled himself out of his thoughts and looked over at Aang just in time to see him execute a perfect backflip off of a park bench.

 

“Dude! That was awesome!” Sokka exclaimed, running over to where Aang was standing. “Do you have any more moves?”

 

“Yeah. I mean, normally I just do some flips, although Gyatso taught me some pretty cool stuff.”

 

“Gyatso?”

 

“Gyatso’s my legal guardian. He’s this really old, spiritual guy and he knows some martial arts. Ever heard of the Baguazhang style of martial arts?” Aang asked, hopefully.

 

“Uh… sorry, no….” Sokka felt bad about not knowing, although, to be fair, he’d never been much of a martial arts guy himself.

 

“Oh, well, that’s okay! Hey! Maybe some time you could meet Gyatso! Maybe he could teach you a few things!”

 

“Yeah, sounds awesome!”

 

Aang and Sokka high fived just as Zuko’s clearly impatient voice called back to them, “Hey, jackasses, you two have five seconds to hurry up before I make your life a living hell!”

 

Sokka and Aang sprinted to catch up.




The bowling alley was dark, lit up by fluorescent lighting that made the stars in the galaxy print carpet light up. It was fairly empty despite the fact that it was a Friday, and the guy working the front counter barely even looked up when they walked in. Instead, he just scratched at his beard, handed them three pairs of shoes, and took their money when they handed it to him.

 

There were two main sections to the bowling alley. The first was the actual bowling lanes, set out to the left of the doors. The other was a small restaurant with a bar and concession stand that was connected to the bowling alley by a door on the right.

 

“Where are Toph and Teo?” Aang asked, looking around for them.

 

“How should I know?” Zuko grumbled. Crouching down to put on his shoes, he said, “We might as well just start without them. They can join us when they get here.”

 

“No, wait! There they are!” Aang grabbed Zuko’s arm before he could walk away, pointing over to two people who were bowling at the very last lane.

 

Sokka knew who Toph was from the one time he’d met her, but he’d never seen Teo before. Teo had long brown hair that was held back from his face in a bun, as well as a mischievous grin that perfectly matched Aang’s. No wonder they’re friends , he thought.

 

When Teo saw them, he smiled and did a wheelie in his wheelchair. He and Aang then proceeded to execute a very complicated and quick handshake.

 

Sokka didn’t miss Zuko mumble, “Great, another overly enthusiastic eighteen year old.”

 

“Teo, this is Sokka, and this is Zuko,” Aang said, pointing at each of them respectively. “Sokka and Zuko, meet Teo.”

 

“Pleasure to meet you guys. Toph hasn’t stopped talking about you since she met you, Zuko. Quite a compliment,” Teo said, grinning wickedly as he moved quickly out of the way to avoid Toph’s hand.

 

“What Teo means to say is that I haven’t been able to stop talking about what a jerk you’ve been,” Toph said, slightly red. “Anyways, it was good of you guys to make it. Now, can we get this game going before I die of boredom?”

 

Aang and Sokka changed into their bowling shoes. Sokka noticed with interest that Toph wasn’t wearing any shoes.

 

“Isn’t that unsanitary?” He heard Zuko ask. It seemed that he had also noticed Toph’s lack of footwear.

 

Toph waved his question off and walked over to the lane. Grabbing a bowling ball, she stood for a second, seeming to anticipate something. As soon as the pins touched down at the other end of the lane, she released the ball straight down the middle, hitting a perfect strike.

 

Sokka felt his jaw drop open as Toph turned and high fived Aang and Teo. Looking over at Zuko, he noticed that he was wearing the same exact expression of shock that Sokka was sure was plastered across his own face.

 

“Shut your mouths, you two, or you’ll catch flies,” Toph said with a smirk, leaning back in her chair.

 

“Okay, Zuko, you’re up next!” Aang chirped. Sokka glanced over at Zuko just in time to see his face shift from utter astonishment to one of grim determination as he stood and made his way over to the lane and grabbed a ball.

 

“I’m going to get us some snacks! Anyone want anything?” Aang asked.

 

“No thanks, I’m good,” Sokka said, waving off the invitation.

 

“Oh! I’ll have a slushie! Red!” Toph exclaimed, throwing a five dollar bill at Aang. Turning her attention to Teo, who was just finishing up in adding everyone’s names on the scoreboard, she said, “Also, Teo, while you’re at it, can you change Aang’s name to ‘twinkle toes’? Thanks.”

 

Sokka had to hand it to her, Toph didn’t miss a thing.

 

Meanwhile, Zuko returned to his seat. Sokka saw that Zuko had only managed to hit down three pins. His third ball had gone into the gutter.

 

“Want us to put the guards up for you?” Toph asked jokingly.

 

“Shut up.”

 

Toph either didn’t notice the ferocity in Zuko’s reply or she didn’t care because she laughed it off and said, “Alright, Sokka, your turn.”

 

The rest of the night passed in much the same way. Sokka wasn’t really any good at bowling, but, then again, neither was Zuko. At one point, Teo told him that the three of them had been bowling together since they were little, so he and Zuko shouldn’t feel too bad about themselves, but Sokka suspected he was only saying so to make him feel better. He was having too much fun to care, though.

 

Here he was, out on a Friday night, not doing anything work or school related for once, and he was actually hanging out with a group of people. Granted, he hadn’t really known any of them up until he’d met them at the bowling alley, but they seemed nice enough. Aang kept on sharing the bowl of nachos he’d bought from the restaurant’s concession, and Teo had offered him the last of his drink, so all in all everything was going well. Also, Sokka wasn’t actually in last.

 

“Are you suuuuuuuuree you don’t want us to put the guards up for you?” Toph asked Zuko after taking a very long and leisurely sip of her slushie. Zuko had just lost another ball to the gutter, having only managed to hit two pins.

 

Zuko didn’t even reply, instead just stalking past her and sitting down in his seat.

 

Looking at the score, Sokka could see that there was no way Zuko would be able to catch up as that had been his second last shot. Toph was currently leading, with Aang and Teo jockeying for second place. Sokka was way behind them in fourth, but his score was still decent. Zuko’s though….


The match ended just as it had begun. Toph got a strike, this time followed by a spare to round out her points on her last shot. She cheered loudly, drawing the attention from a few people who were now playing nearby. Teo and Aang congratulated her, but all Sokka could pay attention to was the look on Zuko’s face.

Chapter Text

Zuko felt light headed. He’d lost. He’d lost to a blind girl.

 

You are nothing . You will amount to nothing . The angry voice of his father screamed. Zuko flinched. What kind of son have I raised? I don’t even recognize you! You make me sick .

 

“Shut up!” Zuko growled. He hadn’t realized he’d said it out loud until he noticed that Sokka was staring at him in concern.

 

“Hey, are you alright?” Sokka asked, reaching out a hand as if he was about to rest it on Zuko’s shoulder.

 

Stepping out of Sokka’s reach, Zuko turned quickly saying, “Yeah, I just need some air.”

 

Changing out of the bowling shoes quickly, he put on his own shoes and dropped the others off at the counter. The guy working it scratched his beard in reply, already returning to his comic book. Pushing through the front doors, Zuko allowed himself to take a few steadying breaths of cold, night air.

 

You fuck up ! Why won’t you die?! What good have you been to me? I hate you !

 

“SHUT UP!” Zuko screamed, his father’s yelling fading to white noise in his mind, bouncing around inside his skull.

 

A cough came from behind him. Eyes wide, Zuko whirled around, realizing he wasn’t alone. Trying to piece together his thoughts, he made eye contact with Sokka, trying to hide the panic in his eyes.

 

“What do you want?” It came out weak, quiet.

 

“Uh, so, I realized you were probably beat up over losing….” Sokka began, scratching his head as he took a step forward.

 

“Wow, no. What the hell?” Take one step back. Father still screaming.

 

“Do you want to talk about it?” One step forward. Hand held out slightly. What does he think I’m going to do? Hold his hand? Zuko managed to think through his swirling thoughts.

 

“Fuck no.” Another step back. He wanted to run.

 

“Zuko, I can tell something’s bothering you… oh shit! Watch out!” Sokka lunged forward and caught Zuko by the arm just as he was about to fall backwards, having tripped over the curb.

 

Teetering on the edge, Zuko heard nothing but silence. The moment stretched until he finally regained his footing. Looking into Sokka’s face, he searched the other man’s for any sign of judgement, of laughter. All he saw was concern.

 

“I failed.”

 

“What?”

 

The words bubbled out of him before he could stop them. Overwhelming in their ferocity.

 

“I failed . There is nothing worth it. How could I lose to her? She’s blind . How? If I can’t win, then why would I try in the first place? I’m such a loser . I’m a worthless piece of shit , do you understand that?” He wasn’t aware when his father’s voice had begun screaming right along with him. He wanted to rip out his hair, to tear at his eye, his arms. He couldn’t think of anything to do.

 

Zuko? Zuko!

 

Shut Up!

 

Zuko’s it’s me, Sokka. Open your eyes.

 

Opening eyes that he hadn’t been aware he’d closed, Zuko realized he’d dropped down to his knees. Sokka was crouching in front of him, hands on either side of his shoulders, staring him down. When he realized he’d got Zuko’s attention, Sokka said slowly, “Take a deep breath in. No, look at me. Breathe. Good. Now match my pace of breathing.”

 

Breathing in, Zuko matched Sokka. Beginning to calm down.

 

“Zuko, I don’t know you very well. The last time I saw you when you weren’t angry at me was when you were getting drunk, and I don’t think that will help in this situation…”

 

“Are you…” Breathe in. Laugh. Breathe out, “sure about that?”

 

“I’m positive. The last thing I need is for you to….” Sokka trailed off. “Zuko, if you ever want to talk to someone, I’m here.”

 

Sokka slid his hands down Zuko’s arms until they were holding hands. Any other time and Zuko would have pulled away from the touch, but this time was different. He wanted Sokka to tell him that everything would be all right. He fought the urge to cry into Sokka’s shoulder.

 

“Are you okay to walk?” Sokka asked.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Okay, then follow me,” Sokka said, pulling Zuko to his feet, leading him hand-in-hand, Sokka walked around the corner to the side of the building and sat down against the wall. Zuko sat down next to him and crossed his arms over his chest. He pulled his knees to himself and looked up at the sky. After Sokka texted Aang to tell him where they were - When did he and Aang exchange phone numbers? - Sokka began to talk. He talked about the most meaningless things like the first time he’d fallen off of a bike, or the time he’d tried to jump out of a tree as a kid to see if he could fly. To Zuko, though, these things were the most meaningful words in the world. He could feel himself pulling back from the edge as he allowed Sokka’s words to wash over him.

 

Together, the two of them stayed like that for an hour, Zuko listening and Sokka talking, until the others finished their second game and came looking for them.


When they did, though, Zuko was no longer worried. He was fine.

Chapter Text

Zuko was sitting on a bench in the quad. November was almost gone and the leaves from the trees were littering the ground in shades of red, yellow, brown, and orange. Feeling the cold wind biting at his nose, Zuko pulled his scarf up around his face and yanked his toque down over his ears. He could already tell it was going to be a cold winter.

The funny thing was, as cold as the air was that day, Zuko was feeling warm. For the first time in a long time he was happy. He had friends, friends who cared about him. He had grown closer to not only Sokka, but to Toph, Teo and, surprisingly enough, Aang. In fact, he was actually starting to appreciate his Uncle’s insistence that he attend College.

His phone buzzing in his pocket snapped Zuko out of his thoughts. Fumbling for it, he finally managed to pull the phone out. Speak of the devil, he thought, glancing at the screen. He hit the accept button.

“Hey, Uncle.”

“Oh, Zuko, how are things at school?” Uncle Iroh asked, his voice almost drowned out by noise in the background.

“Are you at work?” Zuko asked. He could hear the familiar sound of people talking and orders being called in the background. His Uncle was probably calling him from his tea shop.

“Yes. One second, I’m going to go outside.”

Zuko waited as his Uncle made the trek through the kitchen and out through the back door where the noise suddenly dropped away.

“So, what can I help you with, Uncle?” Zuko asked. It wasn’t often that his Uncle called him while he was at work. That was the thing about Uncle Iroh, he worried about Zuko, but he knew enough to let Zuko make his own life decisions, giving him his space.

“Well, I was wondering if you would want to catch up some time soon. It seems like it’s been so long since we talked! Plus, we need to figure out what you want to do for the Winter Holidays.”

“Uncle, I emailed you yesterday,” Zuko said, holding back a sigh.

“Yes, Zuko, but it’s not the same thing,” there was a pause. Zuko could imagine Iroh staring up at the back of the building behind the tea shop, kicking at some leaves in the alley. “Your emails are pretty short. There’s not much information there, so if you don’t want me calling I guess you’ll just have to write more.”

Iroh’s tone was stern, but Zuko’s well trained ears detected the humor underneath. He laughed and said, “Sure, Uncle. Your calls are bothersome anyways.”

“Is that any way to talk to your uncle?” Iroh laughed as well. “Is there a day that would work for us to meet?”

“Uuuuhhhh….” Zuko checked the notebook he carried. Looking through the list of assignments, and taking a quick look at his schedule, he asked, “Would November 20 work?”

There was a pause on the other end as Iroh thought about it, “Yes, I believe that would work. You can swing by the tea shop and we’ll have lunch. How does that sound?”

“That sounds great.”

“So have you made any friends?” Uncle Iroh asked out of nowhere.

“Uncle!”

“It’s just a question. So, have you?”

Zuko paused. Should he tell his Uncle about his new friends? He didn’t want to encourage his Uncle’s questions.

“Not yet, Uncle,” he finally said.

“Okay, well, try to talk to people. College is a good place to meet new friends!” A burst of noise behind Iroh almost drowned out his last words. Zuko thought he heard someone tell his Uncle that he was needed in the shop. Iroh’s muffled voice exchanged a few words with the person and then he was back, saying, “Sorry, Zuko, but I have to go now. The tea shop just got a large group of customers!”

“Okay, Uncle, have a good day and good luck!”

“Thanks. And just remember, Zuko, I love you.”

With those words, the line went dead. Zuko was glad his Uncle couldn’t see him. Even after all this time, his Uncle telling him he cared about him still brought tears to his eye.

Sighing, Zuko pocketed his phone.

Chapter Text

The buzzing of Aang’s annoyingly loud alarm clock woke Zuko from his sleep. Sighing loudly for dramatic effect, Zuko pulled his pillow down over his ears and rolled over so that he was facing the wall.   

 

After a couple minutes, though, the buzzing still hadn’t stopped. That’s odd, Zuko thought. Usually Aang turns off his alarm right away…. Just as he thought this, the buzzing stopped…… only to start up again ten seconds later. Realizing what was going on, despite his sleep-fogged mind, Zuko quickly rolled over and felt around on his bedside table until he found his phone. Hitting the accept button, he answered it, his tone filled with annoyance.

 

“Yes?”

 

“Oh, Zuko, I see you’re up,” Uncle Iroh’s voice was loud, louder than strictly necessary at such an early hour.

 

“What do you want?” Zuko was anything but pleased.

 

“Can you tell me what day it is?” The question was innocent enough, but there was something about it that put Zuko on edge. He decided to ignore it.

 

“You called me at…” Zuko checked the time. “7:30 am on a Sunday to ask me what day it is?”

 

“Yes. What day is it?”

 

“I just said it. Sunday,” now Zuko was getting irritated.

 

“Yes, but what day is it?”

 

“It’s Sunda-” Zuko noticed the date on his computer, which was sitting open on his bedside table. November 21. He was supposed to have met his Uncle at the tea shop yesterday. “Crap, Uncle, I’m sorry. I totally forgot.”

 

Silence. Zuko couldn’t tell if his Uncle had hung up the phone or if he was about to get angry. After 30 seconds, Zuko couldn’t stand the silence and asked, “Uncle?”

 

No answer.

 

“You’re fucking kidding me,” Zuko grumbled. “He hung up on me!”

 

Just as he said this, he thought he heard something on the other end of the line. It sounded a lot like someone crying. Worried, he asked, “Uncle? Are you okay?”

 

That’s when he figured it out. His Uncle wasn’t crying, he was laughing. Zuko swore profusely, holding the phone away from his ear as his Uncle’s raucous laughter hit his ear.

 

“Uncle, it’s not funny!”

 

“I’m laughing aren’t I?”

 

“Yeah, and that same logic can be applied to some serial killers,” Zuko shot back. “Anyways, sorry about yesterday. I guess I completely forgot.”

 

“Oh, really?” His Uncle’s tone was sly, as if he were plotting something. “A girl?”

 

“No,” Zuko tried to cut his Uncle off before he could really get rolling. He thought back to the day before when he and Sokka had met and gone for a walk before hanging out in a coffee shop for a few hours. It had been such a cliché outing, but Zuko had enjoyed every minute of it.

 

Zuko realized there was silence on the other end as his Uncle waited for him to elaborate on what had made him forget about their meeting. Zuko decided to just take the plunge and suffer the consequences later. With a sharp intake, he said, “Actually, Uncle Iroh, I am seeing someone right now….”

 

“Oh, really? Who are they? When can I meet them?” Iroh fired off the questions in rapid succession, amusement coloring his voice.

 

“Well, I mean, it’s not like we’re dating. I’ve been hanging out with - um… him… for - uh - a while now? He was actually kind of annoying at first. Oddly persistent. Actually, I felt bad for him if anything else. The guy seriously can’t take a hint… like one day he’s chasing me down in the hallway and the next he’s going out for coffee with me. And I’ve done everything possible to shake him, but there’s just no getting rid of him now that he’s set his mind to hanging out with me -- are you laughing at me again?!” Zuko yelled that last bit into the phone.

 

“Really now, Zuko, your rambling gives you away.”

 

Zuko hadn’t realized he’d been rambling. Feelings his cheeks flush, he tried not to laugh at a sudden image of Sokka attempting to lick whip cream off of his nose that had sprang, unbidden, into his mind.

 

“He sounds like a nice guy, though, Zuko. I’m happy for you.”

 

“Thanks, Uncle,” Zuko responded. Feeling himself losing his nerve, he asked, “Hey, Uncle?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“I’m glad you convinced me to come to College.”

 

Uncle Iroh chuckled in response and said, “Well, Zuko, I’m glad you’re enjoying College. Also, before I forget! There was one other reason why I called you today besides to poke fun at you for forgetting about yesterday.”

 

“What’s that?”

 

“Are you planning on coming back for the Winter Holidays?” His Uncle sounded so hopeful. Zuko, even if he had wanted to turn him down (which he didn’t), knew he would never have been able to.

 

“Definitely. You’ll have to make me some of your famous calming, jasmine tea!”

 

“That I will!” His Uncle laughed. “I still can’t believe you once told me that you didn’t need my calming, jasmine tea! It was right when you were pitching a fit, too!”

 

“Well, there’s a time and place for tea, and that just wasn’t the time,” Zuko joked.

 

“I’m pretty sure you mean that that was the perfect time,” Zuko could hear the grin in Iroh’s voice. “Anyways, Zuko, I have to go now, but email me when you get closer to the Winter Holidays!”

 

“Okay, I’ll do that. Love you, Uncle!”

 

“Love you too, Zuko!” Zuko hung up and put his phone back on his bedside table.

 

From that point on, he tried to go back to sleep, but it became increasingly more difficult. Once he was woken up, he had a very hard time getting back to sleep.

 

Resigning himself to his sleepless fate, Zuko got up, got ready, and left his dorm room.

 

Phone in hand, he texted Aang, asking, “Where are you?”

 

He waited. Ten minutes. Thirty minutes. Still no response.

 

Rising from the bench he had been sitting on, Zuko walked towards the nearest structure, a campus building. It was still fairly early, so he was surprised when he opened the door only to be hit with a blast of sound.

 

Looking around for the source of the noise, Zuko saw a large crowd gathered not too far from the entrance. Everyone was screaming and cheering, jumping up and down. A few guys were video taping. At first, he assumed it was a fight. Contemplating walking back out of the building to avoid getting caught up in the violence, he stopped when he heard a very familiar voice shout, “Take that, punk!”

 

“You’ve got to be kidding me…” Zuko growled, wiping a hand across his face as he let out a loud sigh.

 

Attempting to push his way through the crowd, which was definitely easier said than done, he eventually found himself stanning on the inside. What he saw there didn’t surprise him one bit.

 

Sokka playing another guy in a ping pong match.

 

This wasn’t any ping pong game, though. The ball was flying left and right, quicker than Zuko would think possible. Sweat was pouring off of the two guys in waves, and Sokka’s wave-like tribal tattoos rippled across his biceps. Zuko would have been lying if he said he wasn’t equal parts grossed out and distracted.

 

He watched, enthralled, as Sokka saved a shot with the edge of his racket, only to send the ball straight down the middle when it was returned to him, successfully scoring himself a point. Sokka jumped up, pumping his fist in victory, shouting loudly. Cheers erupted around them, almost deafening Zuko, while behind Sokka, two guys exchanged money, one looking slightly put out at having lost his bet. Before Sokka could notice him, Zuko tried to inch backwards into the crowd, but it was no use. He’d already been spotted.

 

Crap , Zuko thought as Sokka slung his arm around Zuko’s shoulders.

 

“Eh, Zuko! I see you came to see my play!” Sokka shouted. Zuko tried to duck out from under his arm - he didn’t want to get Sokka’s sweat all over his clean shirt - but that was proving harder than he’d originally thought.

 

“No, I just happened to be walking in the area,” he replied, trying to sound pissed off. If I can’t get away from him, I might as well tell him off properly .

 

Sokka seemed unphased by Zuko’s attempts to be rude to him. Instead, he chuckled and asked, “Would you like to go out for something to eat?”

 

Zuko blushed bright red, definitely aware of the stares that this question gained from a few of the guys standing nearby. Sokka was waiting for a reply, though, so Zuko managed to stammer out, “Uh… um - probably.... I - uh….”

 

“That’s okay,” Sokka interrupted him. “You’re probably busy.”

 

He took his arm off of Zuko’s shoulders, making Zuko wince at the prospect of having to go back to his dorm and change. Turning away from Sokka, who was wiping his face with the collar of his shirt, Zuko began to leave, but was stopped by a hand on his shoulder.

 

Turning, he was stopped short by the expectant smile on Sokka’s face as he asked, “Wait for me outside, okay?”

 

Grumbling under his breath, Zuko marched back out through the crowd and out of the building. Every part of the person he knew himself to be wanted to walk away from the building, leave Sokka behind, and not look back. For whatever reason, though, he stuck around.

 

Checking his phone, he saw that he’d gotten a few new messages from Aang. “ Hey Zuko!!” , “Zuko??” , and “Are you still there???” were the texts that met his eyes when he unlocked his phone. Sending back a reply, he told Aang that he and Sokka were going out for food, and, spur of the moment, invited Aang along. Soon, he received a reply from Aang asking if he could invite Toph because she didn’t have class that morning. Once they had agreed to meet back at their dorm room - Zuko wanted a chance to change - the four of them could go to lunch. As much as Zuko still found Aang to be annoyingly optimistic, he also found being alone with Sokka nerve wracking because he always found himself becoming tongue tied.

 

Hearing the door to the building open behind him, Zuko turned when he heard Sokka yell, “Thanks for waiting for me, Zuko!”

 

“No problem,” Zuko said, starting to walk, not waiting for Sokka to catch up. Pocketing his phone, he heard, rather than saw, Sokka jog to catch up to him. Falling into step beside him, Sokka asked, trying to sound nonchalant, “So, what’d you think of the game?”

 

“Weeelll… I was only there for the last bit, but I think I might be worried about your health. Pretty sure it’s not normal for people to get that sweaty over a little game of ping pong,” Zuko teased.

 

“A little game of ping pong? Zuko, that man insulted my honor! I mean, you would know all about honor, right? Anyways, I was fighting him in a test of strength and willpower! That’s not what I’d call a ‘little’ game of ping pong!” Sokka gestured wildly, adding a spring to his step.

 

“It didn’t look that dramatic to me.”

 

“You say that now, but if you had been there when it started then you’d be telling a different story!”

 

Zuko cast a disbelieving glance Sokka’s way, which only helped to encourage him.

 

“I’m serious!” Sokka grinned. “He insulted my honor by telling me that my tribal tattoos were lame!”

 

“Your point?”

 

“Dude! These tattoos are sick! How could you even say that?” Sokka bumped Zuko with his elbow while trying to show off the way his wave tattoos rippled when he flexed. Zuko elbowed him back and jogged ahead before Sokka could elbow him a second time. He heard him yell up to him, “You better be careful what you say or I might challenge you to a ping pong match!”

 

“As if!”

 

Sokka finally caught up to Zuko again and the two walked along in companionable silence, each lost in their own thoughts.

 

Finally, Sokka said, “So… in recognition of my glorious win against that dirt bag who obviously knows nothing about cool tattoos, you should totally go out to eat with me.”

 

The line seemed to have been delivered smoothly, but Zuko saw Sokka fidget nervously with his hands out of the corner of his eye. It was good to know that the other guy was also on edge.

 

“Already on it,” Zuko replied, keeping his eyes looking straight ahead. He knew if he looked at Sokka he’d turn into a blushing mess.

 

“Really?”

 

“Yeah, we’re going to my room so that I can change - you got your gross smelling sweat all over the shoulders of my shirt - and then Aang and Toph are going to swing by so that we can go out for coffee.”

 

“Oh,” Sokka sounded slightly crestfallen. The two of them walked along in silence before Sokka finally asked, “Where are we going for coffee? Because let me just say that the Boomerang Bar has some great coffee.”

 

Zuko scowled, “I’m not going out for coffee at the bar you work at. No. Not happening. If we’re going to do this, then we are going to do this right.”

 

“Do what right?” Sokka bumped elbows with Zuko before saying playfully,  “Last time I checked, this was just a super casual friend hang-out.”

 

“Seriously, I have no idea what you’re referring to….” If it was possible for Zuko to blush anymore, he was sure he would. Thankfully, his scar on the left side of his face covered up most of his blushing. It was also, coincidentally, the same side that Sokka was walking on.

 

Rather than talking, they spent the rest of the walk back to the dorms in companionable silence.




The atmosphere in the coffee shop was jovial. It was the same coffee shop that Zuko and Sokka had visited the day before, and Zuko tried to seem nonchalant about sliding into the same booth they’d sat at despite there being plenty of other tables open.

    

“Sorry I didn’t answer your calls earlier…” Aang said, scratching at the back of his head sheepishly. “I was training.”

 

“Training for what?” Sokka asked.

 

Both Zuko and Toph groaned. They knew that to ask Aang what he was training for was to unleash a storm of often unintelligible enthusiasm.

 

“Weeeellll…” Aang began. “If you really want to know!”

 

He then proceeded to launch into a 30 minute speech about how he and Gyatso were training for a father-son marathon. He went into excruciating detail about every bit of training he was putting himself through.

 

Five minutes in, Zuko was bored out of his mind, and he could tell that Toph had reached that point long before him. Turning to her, he said, “So, how are you doing in that assignment we got?”

 

“Haven’t even started.”

 

“Wait. Seriously?”

 

She took a sip of her drink, staring at him over the rim of her coffee cup. She blinked once and then smiled, lowering the cup so that it rested on the table. Cupping it in her hands, she said, “Have you finished the assignment?”

 

Knowing he’d been caught, he gulped and said, “Well… I mean, not exactly.”

 

She smiled slyly, “Didn’t think so.”

 

“It’s due soon, too…… Ugh - I’m going to fail….” Leaning forward conspiratorially, he whispered, “Do you think there’s a way you could do the assignment and I could copy off of you when you’re done?”

 

Toph leaned back in mock astonishment. “Why, Zuko!” She said. “Why would I ever allow you to do such a thing?”

 

“Because you think I’m the best friend you’ve ever had, and you’d do anything to help me out.”

 

“Yeah, good try there, but I’m not going to help you plagiarize your assignment even if you were as cool as me.”

 

He sighed. “Well, at least I tried.”

 

She laughed and turned, poking Aang in the face. He turned, mid-sentence, a look of shock on his face.

 

“Whhaa?” He managed to say. It didn’t help that he had half a cookie shoved in his mouth.

 

“Yo, twinkle-toes, didn’t you say you had to go meet Gyatso at three?” Toph asked, sliding out of the booth.

 

“Ummff…” Aang paused to swallow the last of the cookie in his mouth. Checking his phone, he jumped up suddenly, hit his legs on the table, and plopped right back down in the booth. “Oh yeah! Crap, I’m going to be late!”

 

“If you run, you’ll be there on time, right? You’re meeting him at the community centre. That’s only five minutes away, and knowing you, you’ll be there in three minutes.”

 

“Hopefully.” Aang shrugged on his jacket and called back over his shoulder. “See you guys later!”

 

The three of them waved goodbye. Toph, also putting on her jacket, said, “Well, I need to go start that assignment of mine, but I’ll see you in class, Zuko. See you around Sokka!”

 

Sokka waved goodbye before turning back to his phone. Quick as a snake, Toph leaned down and whispered in Zuko’s ear, motioning towards Sokka, “Make your move, will ya?”

 

Sputtering, Zuko protested, “I have no idea what you mean!”

 

“Yeah, okay,” she muttered. Straightening up, she waved to them one last time, leaving Zuko to sit there blushing. He was almost positive that he was beet red.

 

Zuko looked over a Sokka, who, predictably, was looking right at him, a smile on his face.

 

“What was that about?” Sokka asked slyly.

 

“Oh, you know. Toph things. Just… regular Toph things….” Oh gosh, he was so flustered.

 

Sokka just looked at him, eyebrows raised.

 

“Huh… yes, well, whatever you say….” Sokka trailed off. Running a hand through his own hair, he tousled it lightly and stood up. “So, where to next?”

 

“Oh, you want to leave already?” Zuko asked surprised.

 

“Well, I was thinking that maybe we could go for a walk.”

 

“Oh… ok, sure!”

 

Putting on their coats, they threw out their empty coffee cups and walked out into the cold, November air. Shivering, Zuko pulled his coat tighter around himself. As he did so, he felt an arm wrap around his shoulders.

 

Jumping away, he shrieked, “What are you doing?!”

 

“You looked cold?” Sokka said it as a question, trying to sound confused, but Zuko could see the mischievous gleam in his eyes. On edge, he began walking, making sure to keep an eye out for any more Sokka antics.

 

They walked in silence, Zuko wondering when Sokka was going to say something. Mind racing a mile a minute, he found that he could no longer stand the silence anymore and said, “So, I -” at the same time that Sokka said, “Zuko -”

 

“Oh, you go first,” Sokka stopped in his tracks, motioning at Zuko.

 

“No, you can.”

 

“Okay….” Zuko desperately tried to compose his thoughts. He knew what he wanted to say, had known what he’d wanted to say for quite some time, so he could wait to say it until after Sokka was done talking.

 

The only problem was, Sokka seemed to be taking an eternity, and Zuko was growing impatient.

 

What will happen if he says, “No”? Zuko thought, nervously. Meanwhile, Sokka was kicking at some dirt with his shoe.

 

Just as Zuko was about to open his mouth, to speak the words that would change things, maybe forever, Sokka looked up and said in a rush, “Zuko, I really like you. I would be honored if you would consider being my boyfriend. I know you probably don’t feel the same way about me, but I would like you to maybe take some time and consid-”

 

He stopped when he saw the look on Zuko’s face.

 

Zuko’s mind was blank.

 

He stepped forward.

 

He raised his hand.

 

Sokka shrank back, expecting to be slapped in the face or punched. Maybe both.

 

Instead, Zuko placed his hand lightly on Zuko’s cheek, leaned in, and kissed him.

 

He kissed him slowly, the way he’d wanted to do for weeks. He felt Sokka wrap his arms around his shoulders, and this time he definitely didn’t jump away.

 

Pulling away, he laughed, little clouds forming between them from his breath in the cold. Sokka laughed with him, pulling him in for a hug.

 

Sokka whispered in his ear, “You have no idea how long I’ve been wanting to do that.”

 

Zuko kissed him again.

Chapter Text

December 21st. The date came earlier than Zuko thought it would.

 

It was the day winter holidays began for the month of December, and Zuko was supposed to have packed a bag in preparation for the three weeks he’d be spending at his Uncle’s house. Unfortunately, he’d been a little too preoccupied with other things to focus and now he was scrambling to find all the stuff he would need.

 

“So, wait, why did you leave your packing to the last minute?” Aang asked. He was lying on his bed with his feet up against the wall and his arms dangling over the side of the bed. To put it plainly, he looked ridiculous, which was probably why Zuko found it easy not to snap at him.

 

“Because I was too busy.” He folded a pair of pants and put them into his bag.

 

“Yeah, ‘too busy,’” Aang said, making air quotes with his fingers. Zuko didn’t have to turn around to know that Aang was appraising him with a knowing smile.

 

“I’m not sure why you think it’s any of your business….” Zuko grumbled.

 

“Mmhhhhhmmmm… well, I mean, it’s not like I mind. Sokka’s a chill guy so I don’t care if he’s always over here. As long as you guys aren’t doing the nasty anywhere near my bed, I couldn’t care less!” Aang replied smugly. His voice was so chirpy and annoying that it made Zuko cringe.

 

“When I’m done packing I’ll make you wish you’d never said that!” He growled, but the threat was halfhearted at best.

 

Suddenly, the door blew open, stunning them both. Zuko wasn’t even surprised when Toph walked in, trailed by Sokka.

 

“Speak of the devil!” Aang laughed. Rolling off his bed, he managed to land on two feet. Grabbing his bag, he motioned at Toph and said, “Well, I’m going! Toph and I are driving together!”

 

“Yeah, whatever,” Zuko said, trying not to smile at the goofy face Sokka was pulling behind Aang’s back.

 

“Let’s get a move on, Twinkle Toes! I don’t want to be late!” Toph yelled, grabbing Aang’s other bag. She began making her way towards the door, throwing a ‘have a good winter holiday!’ over her shoulder.

 

Sokka, Aang, and Zuko also exchanged well-wishes, but before Zuko knew it, Aang was gone, leaving him and Sokka alone together.

 

The concept of being alone in his room with Sokka wasn’t a new one. Ever since the kiss more than a month before, Sokka had somehow managed to become a permanent fixture in Zuko’s life, but despite that Zuko was always on edge.

 

He was never sure if he was being too awkward, or if Sokka was even all that interested in him. After all, he had a humongous scar covering up half his face… and the way his last relationship had ended….

 

Zuko’s thoughts were dashed from his mind when a pair of arms wrapped around his waist from behind.

 

“I can’t believe you’ll be gone for three weeks….” Sokka mumbled into Zuko’s shoulder. Zuko, who had tensed at the unexpected closeness, softened a little. Resuming his packing, he said, “Well, I mean, you can always just call me.”

 

“Yeah, but it’s not the same, you know? I won’t be able to hug you,” Sokka squeezed Zuko around the middle, which tickled, “hold your hand,” Sokka’s hand trailed down Zuko’s arm until it was holding onto his hand, “or kiss you.”

 

He kissed Zuko lightly on the back of the neck, making him shiver.

 

“It’s only three weeks,” Zuko repeated. He put the last pair of socks into his bag and zipped it up. Turning, he tried to sidestep Sokka, who had still managed to retain a hold of his hips.

 

“Okay, but I’m worried that something’s going to happen to you. Or me. Or someone.”

 

Sokka said this all in a rush, making Zuko laugh. He found the concern amusing. At the same time, Sokka’s words struck a chord with him. What if something happens to you….

 

Those same words had been said to him before.

 

Trying his hardest to push the thought away, he said, “Don’t worry. Nothing is going to happen to me.”

 

 

Sokka huffed, and said, pouting, “Fine, okay, whatever you say.” Perking up, he asked, “Do you want some help carrying your stuff?”

 

“Sokka, it’s only one bag… I think I’m fine, but thank you,” Zuko smiled at Sokka, who reached out and placed his hand on Zuko’s cheek.

 

Before he could even really think about it, Zuko closed the distance between them and kissed Sokka, lacing his hands around his waist, pulling him in closer. He felt Sokka’s mouth smile against his own.

 

A knock at the door made Zuko jump back. Turning to the door, face white as a sheet, he saw Uncle Iroh standing there.

 

At first, he couldn’t read his Uncle’s expression, but then his Uncle’s face broke into a massive grin and he said, slyly, “Why, Zuko! If you’d told me you were busy I would have given you a few more minutes!”

 

“Oh - um - Uncle! What are you - uh - doing here…?” Zuko asked, inching away from Sokka so that there was slightly more distance between them.

 

Uncle Iroh pulled out his phone and waved it at Zuko, “Did you not check your phone? I texted and called you for ten minutes!”

 

Diving towards his phone, Zuko checked it, groaning. Sure enough, his Uncle had left him five messages, and had called him twice. Shit , Zuko thought.

 

Behind him, he heard his Uncle say, “Hi, I’m Zuko’s Uncle, Iroh. Nice to meet you!”

 

He turned and saw Sokka walk over and shake Uncle Iroh’s hand, replying with not a single trace of awkwardness, “Nice to meet you! I’m Sokka!”

 

Zuko could only watch in horror as the two began to converse.

 

“So, how long have you known my nephew?”

 

“How long have I known him? Or how long have I been seeing him?” Sokka enquired, casting Zuko a sideways, teasing look.

 

“Sokka -” Zuko tried to interject. It came out as a croak. The last thing I need is for Sokka to encourage Uncle Iroh…. Damnit.

 

“Both,” Iroh said, smiling broadly at Zuko over Sokka’s shoulder. Zuko glared at him. His glare only continued to darken when Sokka answered, “We’ve known each other since the day Zuko moved onto the campus. We only started seeing each other about a month ago.”

 

“Huh… the day he moved in, you say? Why, Zuko, I can’t believe you complained about school! Clearly it wasn’t as bad you made it out to be.”

 

Zuko could have given anything to sink into the floor.

 

Noticing the look of mortification on Zuko’s face, Iroh took pity on him and said, “Well, Sokka, it was very nice to meet you, but I’m afraid Zuko and I have to go. I have something planned for tonight, so we can’t be late.”

 

“It was nice to meet you too, Mr. Iroh! Hopefully we can meet again soon!” Sokka shook Iroh’s hand with probably more enthusiasm than was strictly necessary.

 

“You as well, Sokka,” Iroh replied. Turning to Zuko, he said, “I’ll be down in the car. Feel free to take all the time you need.”

 

Zuko watched his Uncle turn and walk towards the door. When he reached the open doorway, though, he turned, hand on the door handle, and said with a wink, “Just don’t take too long, alright Zuko?” He closed the door with a click .

 

Zuko didn’t think he’d ever been so relieved to see his Uncle leave a room than he did in that moment.

 

Pushing his bag onto the ground, he flopped down onto his bed. Groaning in embarrassment into his pillow, he mumbled, “Well… that was sufficiently awkward…. I think I might just die now….”

 

“There’s nothing to really be embarrassed about...?” Sokka sat down beside Zuko on the bed. He stared at the wall on the other side of the room, seemingly lost in thought.

 

“Yeah, but it wasn’t like it was your uncle who walked in on you kissing your b--” Zuko stopped, swallowing nervously. He still couldn’t find the courage to say the word ‘boyfriend’. He couldn’t even picture being anyone’s boyfriend.

 

Sokka nodded. Zuko had told him a while back, at the start of their relationship, that Iroh was okay with him dating whoever he wanted, but Zuko had made it clear that he had wanted to tell his Uncle about Sokka in his own way. Clearly Iroh walking in on them kissing wasn’t the way Zuko had wanted it to go. Sokka still hadn’t told his father yet. In fact, he wasn’t even sure how he was going to tell his father, so he could easily have imagined his own embarrassment if the roles were reversed.

 

Reaching out, he rested one hand on the small of Zuko’s back, rubbing comforting circles.

 

“Well, think of it this way, at least he knows now. And, hey, he wasn’t freaked out, so there’s that.”

 

“That’s what bothers me! He’s too chill!” Zuko smacked his face into the pillow a few times for emphasis and then rolled over, staring up at the ceiling.

 

“What’s wrong with that?” Sokka asked, scrunching his eyebrows. He wasn’t following Zuko’s reasoning.

 

“It’s just… I don’t know…. It’s hard to explain.”

 

Sokka sat in silence, unsure of how to respond. Finally, he lay down beside Zuko on the bed, his hand still resting on his back, and asked, “Is everything okay? Did your Uncle finding out really freak you out that much?”

 

“Everything’s okay. I just… I just really want to stay like this for a few minutes,” Zuko whispered into Sokka’s ear.

 

Sokka nodded and closed his eyes.

 

 

 

Final goodbyes were exchanged. Before Zuko knew it, he was watching Sokka’s waving form grow smaller and smaller in the passenger side window as Iroh drove them away from the campus.

 

“So, I was thinking we could go for sushi before going back to the shop,” Iroh took a left, officially leaving the campus limits. Zuko sighed. “What do you think about that?”

 

“Sushi’s fine.”

 

“You sure? You don’t sound too certain.”

 

Zuko straightened in his seat, picked at his fingernails. “Yeah, I’m sure.”

 

He saw Iroh nod out of the corner of his eye. Iroh patted him on the arm.

 

After about a half hour of them riding in silence - with Zuko feeling unbelievably awkward - he finally couldn’t take it anymore. He tried to break the silence, “So… about… um…….”

 

He’d failed miserably to break the silence.

 

“Zuko -” Iroh began.

 

“Uncle no, please. Just… just let me do this….” Zuko inhaled sharply, tried to steady his breathing. “So… you know about - uh… you know about… Sokka… my…. Shit .”

 

He stopped talking, letting another awkward silence come between them. With no idea as to where to start, he felt completely at a loss for words.

 

Zuko had known for a while that he was also interested in men, but he’d never had the opportunity to act on any of his feelings. He had also never thought about telling his Uncle. Okay, that was a lie. He’d thought about telling his Uncle regularly, but, again, he’d never acted on it. He hadn’t even thought his Uncle had suspected.

 

And now he was at a loss for words.

 

“You know, Zuko, it’s okay. You don’t have to tell me if you’re not ready.”

 

“It’s just… I feel so… I don’t know.” Zuko paused. “It’s not like I’m ashamed, but it’s more like… I wanted to believe that nobody else knew before I was ready to tell them. You always get those people who say things like, ‘I always knew’ or ‘I’ve known for a while,’ and they’re always so smug about it. Saying that makes it seem like I’ve changed somehow, but I’m still the same person I was before meeting Sokka, you know? I just find that people look at you differently.” A pause. “I don’t want you to look at me differently.”

 

His Uncle didn’t say anything. Instead, he pulled over to the side of the road.

 

A heavy silence fell between them. Zuko could almost hear the gears turning in Uncle Iroh’s head as he tried to think of how he was going to respond. For a second he was worried that Uncle Iroh actually was angry at him. He braced himself for his Uncle’s words.

 

Finally, “Look, I’m not going to look at you any differently now that I know about Sokka. And I promise I won’t do anything that makes you uncomfortable. All that matters to me, though, is that you’re happy, and if Sokka makes you happy then I don’t see anything the matter with that.”

 

Uncle Iroh turned to Zuko, a smile creeping onto his face, “Now, either we can continue to sit here having a deep, emotional discussion over something that has zero impact on our relationship or we can go for sushi.”

 

Zuko laughed, equal parts relief and amusement coloring his tone as he said, “Sure, let’s go for sushi.”

 

“Finally!” Iroh said loudly, smacking the steering wheel for emphasis, a big smile on his face. “I was beginning to wonder if I was going to die here on the side of the road while you exuded angst!” He chuckled to himself, muttered, “Heh, death by angst… good one, Iroh” and drove away.

 

 

 

The sushi was good - better than usual in fact - and Zuko couldn’t help but wonder if it was partially due to the weight that had been lifted from his shoulders, making him feel lighter, happier.

 

Whatever it was, the sushi was pretty damn good.

 

“Damn!” He laughed. “This sushi is fantastic!”

 

Iroh joined in his nephew’s laughter, drawing a few curious looks from the other restaurant patrons.

 

Uncle Iroh sobered up quickly, suddenly serious.

 

Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a small, wooden box. It was nothing fancy, just a simple oak box with no design of any kind. The way Iroh was holding it piqued Zuko’s interest, though. He was holding it with a sort of reverence, as if the box was of extreme importance.

 

Placing the box on the table between them, Iroh nodded at Zuko to open it. Shooting his Uncle a quizzical look, Zuko reached out a hand and pulled the box towards him. Pulling at the latch, he flicked the lid open, not taking his eyes off of Iroh’s face, trying to piece together what was in the box based off of his Uncle’s expression.

 

Inside was a necklace and it took his breath away.

 

The necklace was an orange topaz that looked like a fire had been captured and frozen in motion inside of it. The chain was golden and looked delicate, but when Zuko slowly raised it out of the box he could feel that the chain was sturdier than it had appeared.

 

Looking up at his uncle, Zuko asked, eyebrows raised, “Why a necklace?”

 

It had come out harsher than he had meant it, but Zuko had the feeling that his Uncle was about to tell him something he wasn’t fully prepared to hear.

 

“Zuko, I think you know.” Iroh raised his jasmine tea to his lips and took a long, slow sip, eyes maintaining contact with Zuko’s throughout.

 

“My mother.”

 

“Yes.”

 

Silence.

 

Zuko dropped the necklace into the wooden box and pushed it towards Iroh, not wanting it near him.

 

“Please take this back,” he whispered, suddenly feeling as if he had been punched in the stomach.

 

“Zuko-”

 

More silence. Finally, Iroh stood up and said, “I’ll go pay for our meal and bring the car aorund. Come out to the car when you’re ready.”

 

And then he was gone, leaving Zuko by himself at the table.

 

Zuko stared down at the box. If the box had had eyes, Zuko was sure that it would have stared back at him.

 

Before he could think about it, he picked up the box and slid it into the pocket of his jacket as he left the restaurant.

 

Iroh smiled at him when he got into the car.

 

 

 

The Winter Break passed by in a blur. Zuko could feel himself slipping away, sliding out of reality, but he didn’t know what to do to stop it. He spent most of his time sleeping. When he wasn’t sleeping, he was texting Sokka or Toph. Lately, though, he had found that he was having a harder time getting the motivation to do something as simple as send a text. Every action was exhausting. Getting up to go to the bathroom ended with him going back to his room and sleeping for two hours.

 

He knew the reason for this change.

 

His mother had disappeared on December 31st, eleven years ago. He had been ten years old.

 

What still made his blood boil to this day was that his mother had disappeared on New Year’s Eve. When everyone else was sitting in front of their TVs or crowding impatiently together in Time’s Square, counting down the seconds until the New Year, Zuko was stuck in his own head, wondering once again where his mother had gone and why she had left him alone.

 

Of course, he still had his theories - ‘conspiracy theories’ as his sister, Azula, called them. He couldn’t fully believe the story his father had told him. That his mother would have left him with that asshole was beyond him, especially considering all the things that Ozai had put her through. No, Zuko didn’t believe that his mother would have simply walked away.

 

Despite attempting to quiet his mind, he couldn’t stop himself from thinking that his father had something to do with his mother’s disappearance. Of course, he had never told anyone this. The one exception - and here he winced - had been when he’d told Mai.

 

Now, that was one train wreck he wished he could have looked away from.

 

 

 

“Zuko, are you sure you’re okay with me going to the New Year’s celebration at the Board Game Palace?” Iroh asked, his hand on the doorknob of the front door.

 

It was New Year’s Eve and Zuko’s Uncle, Iroh, had been invited to attend an event at the Board Game Palace, where his Pai Sho group met each Friday. The whole day, though, Iroh had been wrapped in worry, constantly asking Zuko if it was okay if he went.

 

Zuko could understand his Uncle’s concern. Every since he had come back for Winter Break, he had grown more and more distant, but he didn’t want his Uncle to miss out on the fun on his account. He knew how much his Uncle enjoyed playing Pai Sho. The game was right up there with his love of calming, jasmine tea.

 

“Yes, Uncle, I’m sure. Now go already.”

 

His Uncle made a humph noise, as if he didn’t believe Zuko, but opened the door anyway. “If you need anything, don’t forget to call. I’m only a ten minute drive away, and the weather isn’t even that bad tonight, so the roads will be clear. And I won’t be drinking anything, but tea, so you won’t have to worry about me not being able to drive.”

 

“Okay, Uncle, now please, please stop worrying and go have some fun,” Zuko practically had to hold the front door shut after his Uncle had left just to make sure his Uncle didn’t try to barge right back in under the pretence of having forgotten his invitation (all the workers at the Board Game Palace knew his Uncle by name, so the invitation had merely been a formality).

 

Going back upstairs, Zuko lay down on his bed and stared up at the ceiling. He could feel himself drifting in and out of consciousness, but couldn’t think of anything better to do than sleep.

 

A metallic ringing woke Zuko from his rest.

 

Realizing that he’d fallen asleep, he looked over at his clock and saw that it was 10:30pm. He’d fallen asleep for two and a half hours, not that he remembered having done so.

 

Looking around, it took him about a minute to adjust to being awake, by which time the ringing had stopped. About to fall back asleep, he sat back up when it began again.

 

This time he identified it as the metallic ringing of his cellphone.

 

Picking it up, he answered without a second thought, thinking that it was either Sokka, Aang, or Toph calling to wish him an early ‘Happy New Year.’

 

“Hello?”

 

“Zuko,” a voice said on the other end of the line. The voice was deep and raspy, and the sound of it instantly sent Zuko’s stomach singing through the floor.

 

“What do you want?” It came out as more of a growled statement than an actual question. The voice on the other end laughed.

 

“Let me guess, you’re spending your New Year’s like you always do?” The person asked sarcastically.

 

“I could ask the same of you. How’s the bourbon going by the way? Have you already finished your first bottle?” Zuko didn’t have to be there to know that the person on the other end smelled like a brewery. First hand experience had taught him that.

 

“Now, Zuko, is that any way to talk to your father? Your mother wouldn’t like that very much.”

 

Zuko almost threw up. Instead, tried to hold it back as he said, “Don’t you dare bring her into this.”

 

“Ooh, did I hit a nerve?” A chuckle and then, “Your mother was always a lying whore. Always running her mouth, poisoning that head of yours with her nonsense.”

 

“Stop,” Zuko felt like his insides were trying to crawl their way out of his body, but he couldn’t bring himself to hang up. He felt frozen in place, unable to escape his father’s words. “You have no right to talk about her like that.”

 

“I can say whatever I want about her. That fucking bitch left me for another man and you dare to tell me I can’t call her a lying whore?!” His father was practically roaring now. Zuko felt himself flinch despite knowing that he was separated from his father by more than a thousand miles.

 

“She didn’t leave you.”

 

He could practically hear the sneer in his Ozai’s voice as he said, “Oh, really? Because that note she left behind sure makes it seem like she left.”

 

“Go to hell.”

 

“What did you say to me?” His father’s voice was dangerously calm.

 

“Goodbye, father.”

 

Later, Zuko wouldn’t remember how he got to the river. He wouldn’t remember walking there or the sounds of drunk frat boys passing by screaming about going to a party. He wouldn’t remember dropping his cellphone on the ground, or even walking into the river.

 

What he would remember was that the cold, which should have taken his breath away, did nothing to even remotely numb the pain he was feeling.

 

As he let his body sink, weighed down by his wet clothing, he realized that he didn’t mind the feeling of floating. It was actually quite peaceful, really.