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“You can’t just prop yourself up there as some kind of unreachable, righteous figurehead!” Sokka scowled. “I can’t believe you would even want to do anything like that, Zuko! Who the fuck are you?”

Zuko, stalking across the room like a caged goannatiger, whirled on him once more with a sharp hiss. “Who am I?” he said in a low, dangerous voice. His mouth twisted into a sneer. “Isn’t that something you should know, Sokka?”

“Holding yourself back? Putting that distance between you and your people? Between you and everything?” Sokka continued, clenching his jaw, shoulders so tense he felt like he might crack. “That’s not you!”

Sokka steeled himself not to flinch back as Zuko, drawn up to his full height, bared his teeth in a half-snarl. “Touch me, then!” he snapped. “I dare you.”

Sokka’s eyes narrowed and he felt his own temper thrumming like a plucked wire. He moved towards Zuko with a confident step and growled when Zuko’s furious eyes narrowed, the expression somehow highlighting their ember-like gleam.

“I,” Sokka began harshly, “am not afraid of you, you jackass, and I’m not going to be backed down!” Zuko lifted his jaw in an imperious gesture Sokka knew was instinctive rather than put on and had never been able to decide if it made him want to punch Zuko in his stupid aristocratic face or drag him down into a kiss.

Sokka raised a hand and Zuko not only didn’t flinch, he refused to so much as break away from their locked gaze to watch the movement. Sokka reached, rather than struck, however, brushing a hand over Zuko’s cheek in an almost feathery caress.

Golden eyes widened and Sokka didn’t smile - he was too angry for that - but he nodded slightly. He stroked again, then ran his fingers through the lock of hair framing Zuko’s face on that side. Zuko swallowed visibly, a muscle in his jaw throbbing.

“I’m sorry.” Zuko said quietly, his stiff posture easing a little, a small shudder running through him. Sokka held back a sigh as he wrapped his arms around Zuko in a gentle embrace, not quite willing to squeeze tight when Zuko was so on edge - and not entirely sure he wouldn’t squeeze too tight if he tried, because he was still rather angry himself.

Zuko took a quick breath, began to speak, then cut himself off without voicing even one full syllable. Sokka drew back, unwinding his arms from around Zuko but not pulling away entirely.

“You are so incredibly melodramatic.” Sokka said, resting their brows together and tugging at Zuko’s collar. “Snow and sea, Zuko, you aren’t untouchable and you’ve always been dangerous,” possibly an understatement, Sokka thought wryly, particularly for Zuko as he was now, “but that hardly ever made any of us leave you alone. We never would.”

Zuko trembled slightly, because Zuko’s melodrama had always been sincere, stemming directly from his battered and bleeding heart, and Sokka sighed, hugging him firmly. He nuzzled Zuko’s knife-sharp jaw as Zuko’s arms tentatively came up around Sokka in return, then kissed him softly. He ignored the breath of heat across Zuko’s lips - like leaning too close to the air shimmering off a campfire.

“You’re a mess, darling, but you’re not alone and you never will be.” Sokka said slowly, trying to let go of the spike of hurt and fury that first Zuko’s dismissiveness and then his rage had driven through him. “And,” he shook his head slightly, then brushed their lips together in another soft kiss, “your people love you, too. They don’t need you to be a perfect and untouchable figure above them, they only need you to be you - the you who cares about them, who wants the best for his Nation and the world, and tries, always.”

Zuko swallowed, then closed his eyes, more tension flowing out of his frame as he suddenly leaned on Sokka. “I’m sorry.” he breathed, expression pinching a little. He trembled again, his breath uneven, and Sokka guessed he might be fighting tears. “Sokka, I. . .”

“Yeah.” Sokka rubbed his back. “You really need to learn to step back before you get to this point. I know you hate to take breaks or slack off but seriously. Zuko. If you don’t take off some of the stress sometimes you’ll break.” he said as evenly as he could, though he could picture that all too well and it was a horrifying thought.

Zuko looked at him again, bright eyes soft this time. Sokka managed a crooked smile as Zuko bowed his head, murmuring further contrition and an agreement, hugging Sokka more tightly. He was going to need some time to come down himself, once they were completely settled, but at least things were calming again now.