"Sokka! Get up, you need to come and help us pack,"
Sokka groaned and sat up in his tent, rubbing his eyes. It took him a few moments to realize that the voice was coming from Aang, who was currently standing just outside the swordsman's ocean blue tent. Sokka stretched, and smoothed out his hair, pulling it back into a small ponytail. He struggled into his boots before crawling to the entrance of the tent and gently pushing away the flaps. He stepped outside into the small forest clearing, standing fully and stretching, his back arching and eyes squeezing tightly. He looked around and took a few seconds to admire the trees and various other plants that surrounded the campsite. The morning light engulfed him in a sweet, golden embrace, gently kissing his exposed skin and warming his body. The sun was barely out. It was early early.
"Good morning, sleeping beauty!" Toph's sarcastic comment came from the right side of him, and he turned to see the small earthbender walking towards him with a few bags in her hand. He offered a smile, a little too sleepy to make up something witty to say back, before realizing that she couldn't see his expression and decided to reply with a simple hum of acknowledgment. "There's been a change of plans, by the way. You and Zuko are going to stay here while the rest of us run those spiritual errands in the village. Don't worry, though," Toph punched Sokka's arm, which was her special way of showing affection. "I'll bring you back a souvenir!"
At this, Sokka's brow furrowed in confusion and slight frustration. Nobody had told him this. Originally, the Gaang was supposed to head down to a small village, fix a few spiritual problems, and then move on in the direction of Southern Water Tribe. He turned towards Katara, who was walking towards him, greeting him with a smile. He didn't return it, but instead arched an eyebrow and cocked his head.
"Why aren't I coming with you?" He asked. "We're supposed to meet Dad and the others in less than three days, and we already have this spiritual mumbo-jumbo to deal with. If I stay behind, that'd just stall us all more!" He didn't mean to sound angry, but he did, and truth be told, he was. They had been moving so slowly as of late, and they couldn't afford to be any later than they already were. He noticed Katara's guilty expression as her eyes dropped, and his stomach churned. He knew what was coming, though he still hoped that it wasn't the case.
"Sokka... Um... Here's the thing," She began, her ears turning red from shame, the toe of her boot digging into the soft earth below. "We have to go to the Southern Water Tribe without you." She met his gaze, eyes pleading. "All we're doing is gathering a bit of information that will help us out in the long run, it's not like we'll be planning anything! In fact, probably only one of us really needs to go, but uh, we need as many benders as we can. Winter is getting closer, and there's more ice than ever in the poles, so we need lots of help to get rid of any ice in the water."
"I thought we would be flying there," Toph butted in, putting both hands on her hips.
"So did we, but Appa can't fly the whole way there. He'll need to swim a bit, and that's where the benders will come in handy." Katara explained. "I'm really sorry, Sokka, but Zuko needs you to be here while we're gone. We can't take him with us, and he certainly can't be alon--"
"Why does Zuko need me?!" Sokka cut her off, moving his arms around for emphasis. "Why can't he just come with us?" Sokka was truly dumbfounded. He wouldn't be able to see his dad for this stupid reason? What, was the prince of the fire nation afraid of the cold or something?
"Oh, right! I forgot to tell you!" Toph suddenly said, and Sokka looked over at her. "Our little prince got himself sick yesterday while you were out hunting. He's running a high fever, and can't travel right now." Toph explained. The swordsman slowly turned towards Katara, cheeks red with frustration.
"You expect me to stay behind and play doctor with Zuko while you're off seeing Dad?!" He yelled, a twinge of sadness in his voice. Katara looked downright ashamed of herself, not meeting her brother's gaze and fiddling with her hands as if she didn't quite know what to do with them at this moment.
"I'm so sorry Sokka, I know how much you want to see everyone at the tribe, and if I could take your place I would, but I need to help with the whole ice situation!" Tears were welling up in her eyes, and she fumbled with her words. "Please don't be too upset. You have to understand, the information that Dad has is important, and we need it as soon as possible, but Zuko isn't fit to travel. He needs someone to take care of him. If this were about anything else, we would wait, but..." Sokka put up his hand to stop her, his expression softening. He would have plenty of time to see his dad later, he decided.
"It's okay, I understand. It's not your fault." Katara looked up at him, and he smiled. She returned it, a bit of relief in her gaze. "Tell everyone I said hi though, okay?" She nodded.
"Hey, guys, it's time for us to get going!" Aang called from where he sat on Appa, Momo on his shoulder. He reached his hand up to give the flying lemur a little scritch behind the ears before gesturing for Toph and Katara to get a move on. Sokka quickly pulled his sister and Toph into a small hug before they went towards the flying bison and struggled on to the saddle.
"Good luck, Captain Boomerang!" Sokka heard Toph yell as Appa ascended into the sky. He waved at them until they were out of sight, then let out a sigh and went over to fire pit. He sat down in front of it, gazing at the ashes and bits of wood that hadn't been completely burned. He pressed his face into his hands and let out a little groan. He wasn't mad anymore, just a little disappointed. He had been looking forward to this trip for a while now, and though it wasn't quite Zuko's fault that he couldn't go, it also kind of was...
No, that wasn't right. Sokka shook his head, deciding that this wasn't anyone's fault. These things are bound to happen now and again. So, instead of being bitter and upset, Sokka got up and headed into the forest surrounding the campsite to gather firewood.
A few hours had passed since the others had left, and Sokka had managed to successfully build a fire, which was now crackling and popping cheerfully, the flames dancing about and little embers floating in the air around it. The swordsman hadn't really had time to appreciate the beauty of fire, but now that he suddenly had all the time in the world, he was able to soak it all in. For the longest time, he thought that fire meant nothing but destruction, but it was so much more than that. It was light and warmth and life. It really was beautiful, Sokka thought. This thought was suddenly chased out of his mind, however, when he heard rustling in the direction of Zuko's tent. A few moments later, a sleepy, bed-headed prince emerged, barefoot and shivering despite the fact that it was now midday, and the sun was shining warmly overhead. He stumbled over to where Sokka was sitting, and plopped down right next to him, groaning a little as he did so. He looked miserable.
"How ya feelin', buddy?" Sokka asked gently, placing a hand on his friend's back and moving it in a soft, circular motion, hoping to somewhat soothe him.
"Shitty." Was Zuko's quiet response, and he turned towards Sokka. The swordsman took note of the deep bags and dark circles under his warm amber eyes, and how he curled up into a ball. Gooseflesh lined his arms and neck, his brow was glistening with sweat, and his cheeks were flushed red. Not a pretty sight. Sokka removed his hand from the prince's back and cupped it against his cheek instead to check his temperature. Zuko closed his eyes and leaned into the warmth, almost nuzzling into Sokka's palm. For unknown reasons, this caused Sokka's cheeks to become tinted with a warm shade of red, and he quickly withdrew his hand.
"Yeah, you're burning up, dude." He chuckled awkwardly. "Why don't you go back to your tent. I'll make you some tea if you'd like," He suggested, but the firebender only shook his head.
"No, that's okay. I guess I'll just go back to bed and try to sleep this off." He stood and began to leave, but paused for a moment. "I'm sorry, Sokka. I feel awful for you; you shouldn't have to stay behind for my sake." He looked over at the swordsman, expression soft and apologetic, lips drawn into a small frown.
"It's not your fault that you got sick. You're just a wimp, I guess," Sokka grinned at his friend, who chuckled in return. "Now go to bed, I'll check in on you later this afternoon." He waved Zuko off, who shuffled back to his tent and slid inside. As soon as he was out of sight, Sokka pressed a hand to his heart, which was hammering against his ribcage. What happened? He had only touched Zuko's face-- that was it! Yet for some reason, that small portion of contact had him going absolutely crazy. Other than the scar that plagued him, Zuko's skin was so incredibly soft, and his cheek fit so perfectly in the palm of the swordsman's hand. Sokka pushed these thoughts away, hoping that he was just sleep-deprived or something that could explain the feelings that were bubbling up inside of his chest.
These feelings, however, could not be stopped, Sokka soon realized. That afternoon, he went inside Zuko's tent with a bucket of cold water and a washcloth, only to find him fast asleep. He was on his side in a fetal position, one hand under his pillow, the other under his chin. His boots and shirt were left on the floor, leaving him gloriously bare-chested. His blanket rested over his hip and was bunched up around his legs, his feet sticking out, toes slightly curled. His hair was spread out across his pillow, all messy and soft, and his lips just barely parted as he inhaled and exhaled rhythmically. Sokka swallowed hard and gingerly reached down, grabbing the edge of the blanket and pulling it up over the firebender's shivering body. He knelt beside his head, placing the water next to him and soaking the washcloth with it. He wrung it out and reached over to brush a few strands of hair off of Zuko's burning forehead before placing the washcloth on his skin, hopefully cooling him down a little bit. Beads of water slipped down his face, rolling over the bridge of his nose and drip drip dripping down to the pillow underneath.
"Sokka...?" The soft rumble of a voice made the swordsman jolt.
"Oh! You're awake. Sorry, I was just..." His voice trailed off.
"Thank you." Zuko managed, keeping his eyes closed. Sokka nodded and continued to pat down his sick friend's face with the washcloth, cheeks blazing.
He continued this for a few hours, occasionally engaging in a lighthearted conversation with the sick firebender. Soon, however, it got late, and he decided to retire for the night. He took the water and cloth and then left with one last over-the-shoulder glance at Zuko. He slipped out of the tent and sighed, silently cursing the butterflies that swarmed inside his stomach. He emptied out the bucket onto the fire, letting it sizzle and smolder away, before going back to his own tent. He kicked off his boots and dove under the covers, too tired and stressed to care about anything else. He buried his head into the plush pillow and groaned. What was happening to him? He wasn't developing a crush on Zuko, was he?
The next few days were just as bad as the last, if not worse. Aang, Katara, Toph, Momo, and Appa wouldn't be returning for another week or so, and Sokka was stuck with a crush on the guy he had to take care of. Every single moment with him was like torture, Sokka thought. It wasn't fair how just a single glance from Zuko could demolish him. Annihilate him. Absolutely fucking obliterate him. And no matter what the poor water tribe boy did, nothing could calm the pounding of his heart when the other was around.
He'd just have to deal with it until the others came back.
"Do you think your fever has gone down a little bit?" Sokka asked one warm afternoon as he came into Zuko's tent, who was currently sitting up trying to eat some fruit. The cicadas sang their song outside, and the light shone through the sick boy's tent, filling it with a buttery gold light. It was soothing and warm and seemed to calm the tension that had arisen between the two.
"I'm not sure," Zuko groaned. "I don't feel better, that's for sure." At this, Sokka sighed and sat next to his friend. "Sorry for being such a burden, Sokka," Zuko said quietly, finishing the berries that he was munching on. "I still feel guilty that you can't see your dad... I know it must be painful."
"Zuko, it's fine, this isn't your fault. I can always see my dad another day. Besides, this gives me some time to relax." He smiled quietly. His smile was returned shyly by the firebender. Sokka's expression suddenly melted into something more than a friendly grin. His face slackened, and his eyes widened slightly. His lips parted as if to speak, but they closed soon after. He turned away, cheeks flushed, a timid smile tugging at his lips. "I'm gonna get a fire going for tonight. You're welcome to join me if you'd like." Zuko nodded and Sokka left the tent, slapping his forehead with his palm, wishing that just once he could talk to his friend normally.
The fire that Sokka started was... Disappointing, to say the least. It would often burn out, and he would have to blow furiously on it just to get a small flame back up. It was incredibly useless, as far as fires go, and didn't do much to keep him warm. But Sokka was lonely and tired and he couldn't sleep, and truth be told, he didn't want to go back to the isolation of his tent. The first few stars were starting to come in, and the sky was darkening from soft pinks and frothy apricot shades to navy blues and pastel purples. Sokka sighed and poked at his sad little fire, hoping that it would somehow magically burst into a huge flame, keeping him shrouded in light and incredibly warm.
Much to his surprise, it did.
"You're really bad at this," A voice said from behind him. Sokka whipped his head around at breakneck speed.
"Zuko! Hey, so you decided to come out after all. Thanks for fixing my fire." He laughed, and Zuko smiled, sitting down next to Sokka, their arms pressing together.
"I had a hard time sleeping. I honestly just wanted to spend some time with you, it's so boring in that tent." He smiled, looking down shyly.
"Feeling any better?"
"Worse, actually. I needed some fresh air. My head was pounding in that tent." Zuko sighed, and Sokka nodded. The sky was almost completely black now, and the stars were burning their mellow light overhead. The two suddenly locked eyes, and Sokka felt as though he was in desperate need of breath, but he couldn't even move, let alone find the strength to breathe. It felt as if his insides had been reduced to jelly.
They were awfully close to each other.
Face flushed, heart throbbing in his chest, Sokka started to really soak in the details of Zuko's face. How his nose curved, and how the apples of his cheeks were soft and rounded out, contrary to his sharp jaw. The natural droop of his eyes was similar to a puppy's as they hid beneath his heavy lids and soft lashes. His lips, despite him being sick, were still soft and sweet looking. Sokka loved the way they curved and rounded and fit so perfectly on his face. He wondered what they would feel like on his own lips. Wondered what they tasted like.
Sokka noticed that he wasn't the only one staring, admiring. Zuko's eyes were set on Sokka's lips, his face hot with both fever as well as blush. Sokka swallowed and inched his face closer, closer, closer until their noses bumped. He felt Zuko's shaky breath on his mouth, and a chill shot up and down his spine. The firelight flickered across their faces and enveloped them in warmth as they finally closed the gap between them.
The kiss was sweet and slow, the two pairs of lips grinding against each other, working together, providing just enough friction for it to be soft but also a little bit rough. Sokka reached up and tangled his fingers into Zuko's soft hair, sometimes pulling, sometimes massaging his scalp, sometimes just sifting through. Zuko's hand was on Sokka's waist, gently applying pressure so that the other would move closer. The two parted after what seemed like eons, both breathing slowly, their eyes heavy-lidded. Zuko dimmed the fire until it was reduced to glowing embers, and stood, his fingers intertwined with Sokka's. They quietly walked to one of the two tents that were left standing; it didn't matter which one it was. Inside, they continued to kiss, sinking onto the sleeping bag under them. Sokka was now lying comfortably on Zuko's waist, arms draped around him, lips roaming his face and neck. Zuko hummed contentedly before wrapping his arms around the swordsman and gently rolling him to the side. Now, they were both facing each other, the firebender's leg draped over Sokka's side, nose pressed in the cranny between the neck and shoulder. Their breathing was slow and synchronized as they lay there, a mess of tangled limbs and blushing faces.
Sokka woke up the next day, a body pressed against his. He opened his eyes and looked down to see a mop of black hair resting under his chin. He smiled, nuzzling his nose into the top of Zuko's head. It was so warm in the tent. Really warm. Hot, even. Sokka was sweating, head swimming. He coughed a bit, which seemed to wake up his cuddling partner, who sat up and stretched, skin glowing, amber eyes looking refreshed and new.
"Morning, sleepyhead." Zuko chuckled as he lay back down, bumping his own forehead with Sokka's.
"You're an asshole," Sokka groaned, smiling despite his words. "You got me sick." Zuko laughed at this and apologized half-heartedly before pulling the other boy closer. "I guess it was worth it, though." The swordsman said quietly. And it was.