Zuko is going to lose.
He knew it six moves ago from the telltale twinge at the center of his back, followed by a slip in his footing that Sokka was all too quick to take advantage of. Two mistakes in such rapid succession meant his strength was waning. The realization was met with a kind of muted surprise, though he should have seen it coming. Recent months have provided him little opportunity to engage in something other than the sedentary art of diplomacy; while he’s marginally improved at making small talk with women who look like they want to eat him alive, his combat skills have taken a hit.
Sokka’s clearly haven’t. He’s taller than Zuko these days, arms corded with hard-earned muscle. He spends much of his time training younger generations of warriors, or guarding the south from spirits, disasters, usurpers, and any other number of threats that can be fought off with a sword and boomerang. He was always good, but he’s only gotten better in the years since they first parted.
And boy does he know it, if the sharp curve of his mouth is any indication. He aims a swift kick at Zuko’s ankles. “Loser buys noodles!”
“Interesting you’re proposing that now,” Zuko huffs in annoyance.
“Giving up so soon, Fire Dweeb?”
“Maybe I’m just going easy on an old friend.”
Sokka laughs then, and their swords clang together with an awful, ear-ringing sound. He lifts his arms in a complicated twist that nearly disarms Zuko entirely. His face is infuriatingly smug, but Zuko’s attention has snagged on something just over his shoulder.
“You know, pal,” Sokka pants, twisting his wrist again to lock their swords together. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say your age has started getting the better of you.”
“I forgot how chatty you are.”
“Aaaall part of my ploy to distract you.”
“Am I the one who’s distracted?” Zuko hums, and puts the last of his strength into leveraging their crossed swords, hauling his opponent closer.
For a moment they’re nose to nose. Surprise flicks briefly across Sokka’s features, and he stumbles back in an effort to correct, landing right onto a patch of stray burlap left on the training room floor. Zuko plants his heel onto the corner of the fabric and kicks back with all his might. Sokka goes down with a loud thump, the metal of his sword clanging hard against the floor.
It’s a sword Zuko gave him many years ago. He came across it on a hunting trip through rough terrain of the Gifu highlands — forged in the most vicious volcano in the fire nation, it belonged to one of the greatest warriors to rise from the golden age, a man renowned as a strategist, a warrior, a gourmand, and a poet.
One of a kind, just like Sokka.
“You cheated,” Sokka groans.
Zuko offers him a hand. “I won alternatively.”
Sokka grips Zuko’s forearm and pulls himself up with a grunt. “Man, remember when you were honorable?”
“At least I’m not a twenty-five year old man who still calls people ‘dweeb’.”
“Fire Dweeb,” Sokka sighs, like he’s remembering his own stroke of brilliance. “Classic. I’ve still got it.”
Druk, who has been snoozing peacefully in a nest of their discarded robes and tunics, perks up at the sound of approaching voices. He lifts his little head — still hardly bigger than Zuko’s fist — and makes an inquisitive warbling sound. Sokka starts cooing back at him, a practice which began when Druk was still a freshly hatched whelp. Stop it, Zuko had said, you’ll precondition him to idiocy. Sokka responded by sucking on his pointer finger and sticking it in Zuko’s ear.
The faded yellow lights of the gym flicker. It’s been a while since Zuko trained in a facility this worn down. The owner is a friend of Sokka’s who retired in Republic City after both his children began a fellowship at the University in Ba Sing Se. He agreed to loan them the space for the night, keep the news of their presence under wraps.
It’s just as well. Zuko likes the westernmost borough of Republic City more than the gleaming central plazas— there’s something special about it, this maze of winding side-streets that teems with smells and sights and people from all four corners of their universe. It is excess and vivacity crammed in too small a space, a home to anyone brave enough to claim it. Though it’s one of the few elements of the city that came into existence apart from Zuko and Aang’s constructions, this is where the heart of their vision beats most strongly.
“Still hungry for noodles?” Zuko asks. He tosses the towel to Sokka, and begins the arduous task of unwinding the wraps around his forearms.
Sokka looks up from where he’s scratching Druk under the chin. “Do I actually have to buy them?”
“You’re the chieftain of the southern water tribe.”
“It doesn’t pay that well! I am a public servant!”
Zuko rolls his eyes, mouth twitching into a smile. “You’re an idiot,” he says shortly, and Sokka directs his affronted look at Druk, who chirrups in commiseration. “But dinner’s on me. I know a place.”
Druk curls up at the bottom of Sokka’s messenger bag, head peeking inconspicuously out of a hole near the top. There are too many people in Republic City to care what two heavily cloaked figures are up to at this time of night, and they get lost in the sea of preoccupied faces, all pursuing their respective tasks with singleminded focus.
“We’re almost there,” Zuko ducks his head, pressing his shoulder against Sokka’s. “It’s called Song’s.”
“How’d you even find it?”
“Showing Earth Kingdom royalty around the city. Have you met Princess Shou’an?”
“Uh, shyeah. She was super hot.”
Zuko doesn’t know about that, but she did have excellent taste in noodles.
“Here,” he grabs Sokka’s arm, tugs him out of the bustle of the street and into the small, crowded interior of Song’s. The air inside is muggy, thick with smoke and the mouth-watering smell of spiced meat.
“Hey,” Sokka says speculatively. He turns to look at Zuko with a smile that’s soft around the edges. “You frequenting a water tribe joint, Mister Fire Lord?”
Zuko's eyes dart away from his as they slide into one of the only available booths, right up by the counter. It’s easier to sit on the same side of the table, with the waitress trying to navigate the cramped space between crowded furniture. Sokka settles his bag between them, and Druk’s head snakes out to rest on his thigh.
“They prepare the meat water tribe-style,” Zuko tells him, voice rising to break over the noise of the restaurant. “But the noodles are made with a technique native to the easternmost villages of the earth kingdom. It’s owned by a couple who met and fell in love in Republic City. All the specials are named for local landmarks — the fountain where they first met, the borough where they had their first date, stuff like that. And everything tastes amazing.”
Sokka doesn’t say anything for an uncharacteristically long stretch of time.
“What?” Zuko asks defensively.
“Sheesh!” Sokka exclaims, directing his goofy grin at the table. “It’s just nice to see you get so excited, is all.”
Zuko’s cheeks are already flushed from the warmth of the restaurant, but they must get a shade redder. “Oh.”
“Especially about something like this. It’s just a testament to all the work you’ve done — the effort you put into making peace and bringing people together. We never imagined a place like this could even exist when we were kids. And now you’re buying me dinner here.”
That was the thing about Sokka. Every third thing he said was absolutely ridiculous, but once in a while he could knock the wind out of Zuko with nothing more than a couple of sentences.
“Aang helped,” Zuko says lamely. Sokka punches him in the arm.
The waitress finally circles around to their table, scribbling something on her notepad as she slows to a stop. Her cheeks are flushed and there’s a halo of frizz around her head, hair slipping out of the messy bun at her crown.
She wipes her palms on her tunic. “Sorry about the wait,” she says, mouth creasing in a tired smile. “You two been in here before?”
“He has,” Sokka smiles, stretching his arm along the back of the booth. “Conned him into buying me dinner.”
“‘Conned’ implies you pulled one over on me. Really you were just annoying until I gave in.”
“Whatever,” Sokka grins, mussing Zuko’s hair. “You love me.”
Zuko chances a fond look out of the corner of his eye, “Just order your noodles.”
“You guys are so cute,” the waitress says, and it’s like Zuko can hear his own brain come to an abrupt, staticky halt. “How long have you been together?”
A small silence descends over the table, and then Sokka starts laughing. Because of course he does.
(It would be another thing entirely if Zuko had never thought about it. In that world — the world where Zuko hasn’t imagined his friend’s breath against his pulse, hasn’t stared too long at Sokka laughing so hard there's lychee juice coming out of his nose, hasn’t thrown more than one fight because the agony of closeness became too much to bear—
In that world, he can be in on this joke. In that world, he can roll his eyes, elbow Sokka in the ribs, and hide his smile behind his water glass.)
In this one, he sits very still, frozen in mortification.
Sokka drops his arm down to rest across Zuko’s shoulders and tugs him close, jostling them both. Druk huffs a hot breath against their legs beneath the table. “Oh, thanks for noticing,” he starts petting Zuko’s head, like that’s a normal thing someone might do to their lover. The waitress, unfortunately, seems to take it in stride. “Sweetie, how long has it been now?”
“A long time” Zuko deadpans.
“Feels like forever when you’re smitten!”
“Oh my gosh,” the waitress says, holding her notepad to her chest. She glances between them with a look of latent admiration. “That’s the sweetest thing I’ve heard all day.”
It is incredibly hard to place their order after that and Zuko stumbles his way through the menu with the elegance of a saber-bull in a china shop. It doesn’t help that all the while Sokka is twirling a lock of Zuko’s hair around his pointer finger.
When the waitress finally bustles away and Zuko deems her well out of earshot, he bats waspishly at Sokka’s hand. He gets no response save for a full-bellied laugh. Sokka is one of those people that actually slaps his own knee when he thinks something is funny. Ninety percent of the time it’s just one of his own jokes. It’s far too difficult to be upset with him, and that’s really saying something, because being upset with things is basically Zuko’s resting state.
“This is the last time I’m going anywhere with you.”
“Your face! Fourteen different shades of red!”
“You’ve started a diplomatic incident between our nations. This can only mean war.”
“Oh, my vicious little tigerdillo. You’re so cute when you’re threatening military action.”
They rekindle their friendship over a bottle of rice wine.
More than one bottle of rice wine.
It’s not the most flattering look, for two global leaders to be stumbling up the stairs of the Grand Palace Hotel at two in the morning with a raucous baby dragon trilling in the bag between them, but it’s still pretty fun. The concierge shoots them a questioning look and Sokka tips his hat to her, except he’s not wearing a hat, so he’s just kind of gesturing strangely above his own head.
“You’re embarrassing me,” Zuko hiccups.
“Have I ever seen you this drunk before?” Sokka asks, pressing his grin against Zuko’s temple. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this drunk before!”
“Shhhh.” Zuko ignores the soft hum of Sokka’s laughter against his skin, ignores the way his pulse thuds a little harder in his throat. He shoves a hand into his pocket and fishes out the room key, which feels big and clumsy between his fingers.
Zuko didn’t really know how to drink, before Sokka. Mostly he’d gotten used to throwing back a bunch of ceremonial alcohol at political functions, and then getting really angry, and then heading straight to bed. It was only sitting on the floor of Sokka’s bedchamber in the South Pole, a bottle of sweet almond liqueur between them, that he learned the experience could be joyous. For Zuko, being drunk was like being thrown in a river with a particularly strong current — the route was free of danger, even fun, if you were in the right company, but succumbing to the powerless feeling of being swept along was half the battle.
A battle he might not have gotten to the other side of, without Sokka. Sometimes he thinks he wouldn’t know how to have fun at all, if he’d never met Sokka.
“You are so bad at this,” Sokka scoffs, snatching the key out of Zuko’s hands. He shoves it in the lock with a sound that’s so loud to Zuko’s ears, then wrenches the door open just wide enough for them both to stagger through. It closes with a soft click behind them.
It’s hot in the room. Zuko shucks off clothes until he’s down to his undershirt, and then pads over to the window, fumbling with the latch. Behind him, Sokka gingerly places his messenger bag on the bed and Druk slithers out of it, spreading his wings.
“He’s so cute,” Sokka says fondly. He’s rubbing the top of Druk’s head with his index finger. A gust of cold air comes in from the window, and Druk moves closer to Sokka, sidling up against his arm. “Can’t believe he’ll be big and scary, one day.”
“You got big and scary,” Zuko says, without thinking. He resists the urge to smack himself on the forehead.
Sokka glances up with a funny look on his face. “Did you just call me cute?”
Zuko ignores him in favor of guzzling water from the gold canteen at his bedside. He wordlessly passes the vessel to Sokka, who tips his chin back and takes an equally lengthy drink. Zuko watches water run down the line of his throat with far too much interest.
“You know,” Sokka says, wiping at his mouth. He lets the empty canteen drop to the floor with a soft thud. “I had a great time tonight.”
“Glad to entertain.”
Zuko falls back against the bed, the mattress dipping beneath his weight. Druk regards him with skeptical yellow eyes, a fierce competitor for Sokka’s attention. Zuko runs an idle hand along the sharp jut of Druk’s spine. His fingers brush against Sokka’s.
“I should visit more,” Sokka says, voice uncharacteristically pensive. “We should have more fun.”
“We don’t have time to have more fun.”
“Alright, jerk. I could still visit more.”
“I would like that,” Zuko says, because he’s still not thinking. He stares intently at the ceiling, at a pattern of golden swirls faintly lit by the moonlight coming through the window.
“I would.” Zuko gets quiet for a minute, then tilts his head to look at Sokka. His cheek presses into the soft red silk of the pillow. Sokka is watching him with wide eyes, and some scrap of poetry with the word ‘luminous’ in it comes to mind. “I miss you, sometimes.”
“I miss you sometimes, too.”
Quiet settles in the air between them. For a moment, Zuko thinks he might just drift off to sleep with Druk’s tail curled around his wrist and Sokka’s eyes still trained on him. It has been a good day. Zuko’s always a little afraid, when he reunites with one of his old friends, that they’ll have gone back to hating him or something. It’s nice to mark that as another one of the lies in his head. The thought makes his eyelids feel heavy, so he lets them fall closed.
They flutter back open when the bed beneath him suddenly shifts.
“What are you doing?”
Sokka is clumsily maneuvering up to the head of the bed. At first Zuko thinks he’ll just flop against the enclave of pillows and start snoring in that obnoxiously loud way of his, but instead he gets— really, really close — close like long leg pressed against his side, a hand on his chest, a face hovering over him.
“What are you doing,” Zuko says again, but it’s less of a question this time.
Sokka leans down and brings their mouths together. Zuko thinks this must be some sort of dream — a trick of moonlight, a cruel joke, a drunken hallucination. He’s never even let himself think about this, felt far too guilty to so much as fantasize. When he tilts his head up to meet Sokka, Sokka places a rough hand on his cheek, and it’s so real. Zuko can feel callouses against the puckered skin of his scar, and it’s the realest thing he’s ever felt in his life.
They break apart. Zuko doesn’t let him go far, keeps a hand locked around the back of Sokka’s neck. He’s looking down at Zuko with this smile, all pulled apart and sleep-soft and nostalgic.
“Hey,” Sokka says softly.
“Hey,” Zuko echoes back.
They look at each other for a long time. Sokka’s arm is still braced against Zuko’s chest. At some point Drunk wriggled out of the space between their bodies and found a less active corner of the room to sleep in. He’ll be mad at Zuko in the morning, for monopolizing Sokka.
Sokka is the one to break the silence, slow realization dawning on his features. “Holy shit. Tonight was totally a date!”
That teasing voice has Zuko by the throat and he abruptly starts spluttering like a moron. “I—No, it was not!”
“Yes it was! You were trying to romance me!”
“You’re delusional. Did you hit yourself in the head with your boomerang again?”
“Don’t be so grouchy, Zuko, things clearly turned out alright for you,” Sokka waggles his eyebrows, features contorting into an expression which Zuko assumes is meant to be enticingly suggestive, but realistically lands somewhere in the region of dorky.
It’s no small wound to Zuko’s pride that it still actually kind of works.
At enticing him.
He clutches Sokka’s forearm, jerking them both to a halt. “Hey,” he says again, and then promptly forgets what he was going to follow that up with. “I—…” Zuko chews on his lip.
“I’m messing with you, Fire Dweeb.” Sokka rolls off of Zuko, lays flat on his back next to him. He reaches down and twines their fingers together against the sheets. “Go to sleep. We can confess our undying love in the morning, or something.”
“Okay,” Zuko closes his eyes. He’s gripping Sokka’s fingers way too tight, but Sokka’s gripping him right back.
Sokka wakes to the feeling of something snuffing across his cheeks, then walking along his stomach. Consciousness drains into his brain at a glacial pace. His head is heavy and there’s definitely some dried drool at the corner of his mouth.
It feels like hell, but hell wrapped in sunlight and silk sheets.
“Druk,” Sokka whines, “I can’t play right now. My brain is very… explode-y.”
There’s a flutter of wings and then a responding scratchy chuckle at the other end of the room.
Sokka forces one eye open, then immediately regrets it, squinting against glare of the late morning. “Geez. What time did you get up?” he croaks.
Zuko is silent. Over the years Sokka had picked up on the acute ability to read Zuko’s silences. Some of them are comfortable, easily filled, easily maintained. Some of them are endless, deep and pensive in a way that used to be intimidating.
This one is distinctly broody. It’s a palpable weight on their easy morning.
With enormous effort, Sokka plants a hand on the slippery soft sheets and hauls himself out of the warmth of bed. He rubs at his eyes and then at his chapped lips. He can’t even resent Zuko for making him get up, because in a few minutes he will be on the receiving end of some seriously rank morning breath, which is frankly retribution enough.
Zuko is standing on the balcony with his hands braced on the rail. He’s still in sleep clothes — cotton pants and an open robe. Next to him is a small dish of dates and clarified butter.
“We don’t have to talk about it,” he says, voice drawn tight. The line of his shoulders is tense, like he’s bracing himself for an attack.
Sokka selects a date from the dish and dips it in the butter. He pops the entire thing in his mouth, then places a hand on the center of Zuko’s back, smoothing his palm over his shoulder, coming to rest carefully on his collar. A breeze flits between them, raising goosebumps on Zuko’s skin. When Zuko looks at him it’s like magic — a foxbell turning towards the light, hope peeking out from under that broody exterior.
“Good morning,” Sokka says simply, then swallows the rest of his date, and presses his lips against Zuko’s in a sticky kiss.