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(do you take this jerk to be) your one and only

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When Sokka storms into Katara’s room, he’s already shouting. When he storms out again only a second later, he’s still shouting, but for a different reason entirely.

“You’re disgusting,” he calls irately from outside the door. “Both of you.”

“It’s my room,” Katara barks back at him. “I can kiss my boyfriend if I want to.”

“We’re not doing that anymore, though,” Aang’s far calmer voice chimes in, “so you can come back in, if you want.”

Sokka doesn’t really want to. He’d kind of like to rinse his eyes out with arctic otter squid venom, actually, but he needs someone to vent to, and Katara needs to know about this anyways, and Aang had said it was safe to enter. If Sokka can’t trust the avatar, who can he trust?

(Not the High Council, a vile little voice in the back of his head whispers. Not the Chief of the Northern Water Tribes, not Fire Nation royalty, and apparently not my own dad.)

He pushes the door back open, this time with a hand over his eyes, and peaks cautiously through his fingers at Aang and Katara, who are now sitting at least four inches apart (thank Tui) on Katara’s bed.

Aang looks as pleasant as ever, if a little embarrassed, but Katara is sitting with her arms crossed, obviously annoyed.

“What are you screaming about now?” she demands.

Sokka decides to forgive her petulance, just this once; she doesn’t know how serious this is, yet. “Yue is getting married,” he tells them. “To the prince of the Fire Nation.”

That does the trick. Katara’s mouth falls open in shock, and she forgoes her glare to spend a moment staring at him blankly. “Wh— Why would you think that?” she asks doubtfully, once she recovers herself.

“Because dad just told me,” Sokka says. He throws himself down into the stuffed chair by her desk and crosses his arms over his chest. “Apparently it’s all a part of some trade deal they’ve been working on since Yue came of age. I guess they couldn’t match Prince Jerkface up with you, because you’re very publically the avatar’s girlfriend, so Yue got stuck with him instead.”

“Oh,” Katara says, sitting up a little straighter, “so it would have been better if had been forced to marry someone I’d never met?”

“Uh, yes! No offense, Aang.”

Aang grimaces, glancing between Sokka and Katara, whose eyes have narrowed dangerously. “Uh…I don’t think it’s me that you’re offending, Sokka.”

Sokka rolls his eyes. “Look, I just mean that you’d keep anyone on their toes. You can take care of yourself.”

“So can Yue,” Katara counters.

“She can,” Sokka agrees, leaning back further into the chair, "but she doesn’t. Not like you would. You know what I mean.” He knows she does. Katara challenged Master Pakku to a waterbending duel when she thirteen because he’d said he thought women made better healers than fighters. Even if she and Aang weren’t pretty much a sure thing, Sokka doubts she would have been considered for something like this, if only because anyone who knows her knows she’d never agree to being married off to someone she doesn’t love, let alone someone she doesn’t know. Yue, though…Yue has always cared more about rules and duty than nearly anything, up to and including her own happiness.

Katara’s face softens, the way he’d known it would. “What does Yue think about it?” she asks.

Sokka shrugs. “Ask her yourself. She’s apparently on her way to the South Pole as we speak.”

“Yue’s coming?” Katara asks, clearly surprised. “She’s coming here?”

“Yes,” Sokka answers, clenching his teeth involuntarily at the reminder. “She’ll be here within the week, according to dad. The prince is scheduled to arrive only a few days after that.”

Katara frowns. “Shouldn’t you be excited? I love Yue, but we both know you were always closer to her than I was.”

“I’m trying to be excited,” Sokka groans, “but it’s kind of difficult to be happy that she’s visiting when it means that her flame retardant fiancé is going be here, too.”

“I don’t actually think firebenders are flame retardant,” Aang says.

Spirits,” Sokka grinds out, “it doesn’t matter! What matters is that Yue is being forced into a marriage with some bratty prince that she’s never even met! A bratty Fire Nation prince!”

Aang and Katara look at each other, and then back at him.

“I think that’s the point, Sokka,” Katara says. “The Tribes are trying foster peace with the Fire Nation –”

“So that means we should trust them?” Sokka demands, standing up again. “That means it’s okay for the Council to trade Yue over to them like she’s something that can be bought and sold?”

“No!” Katara snaps. “That’s not what I meant, and you know it. You’re just being a jerk because you’re bitter that –”

“That what?” snarls Sokka, almost daring her to say it.

Katara takes a deep breath before replying; Sokka can see the moment the aggression leaves her, and he spares a moment to think that maybe Aang has been a good influence, despite what Sokka’s eyes have recently been subjected to. “She’s always known that her marriage was probably going to be arranged,” Katara says delicately. “So have you. So have we all.”

“But not to someone from the Fire Nation! They almost completely wiped out the Southern Tribes during the war, and that’s not even mentioning what they did to the rest of the world. How can they think it’s okay to chain her to the family responsible for that?”

“I don’t think a chain is what they have in mind,” Aang says gently. “It sounds like they’re after something more like a union.”

“With the country that nearly destroyed the world. To the great-grandson of the man responsible for the slaughter.”

“The war has been over for thirty years, Sokka,” Katara says softly.

“Thirty years is not that long! We know people who fought them! We know people who are still mourning because of them. Dad was only a few years from being sent to the front lines when the war was called off.” He clenches his jaw and wills himself to relax. “Just because you and I didn’t grow up in the middle of the war doesn’t mean we should forget what they’ve done.”

“You’ve been spending too much time listening to old war stories,” Katara retorts. “The world has changed. Why is it so hard to believe that the Fire Nation has, too?”

“No one has forgotten what the Fire Nation did during the war,” Aang interjects calmly. “We’re not saying anyone should forget what we’ve lost to the Fire Nation, but we can’t withhold our forgiveness forever – especially not when they’re trying so hard to earn it.”

“They’ve held true to their side of treaties since the war ended,” Katara adds. “They’ve gotten rid of their weapons, and their armada. They’re still providing relief to the most war torn areas of the Earth Kingdom.”

Sokka knows all of that as well as Katara does – they learned about it together, after all.

“They spend the first day of spring, every year, mourning the airbenders,” Aang says quietly. It’s easy to forget, sometimes, who Aang is, and what he’s lost. The heaviness in his voice now is a reminder. “The day is marked in every calendar made in the Fire Nation.”

Aang has more of a right to be distrustful than anyone. Sokka knows his own grievances seem paltry in comparison, but he can’t stop himself from being upset about it. “That doesn’t fix what they’ve done,” Sokka says after a long pause.

“No,” says Aang, as frustratingly patient as always. “It doesn’t. But it shows that they’re trying to be better than they were. We can’t hold the sins of the father to the son. We can’t keep putting the blame for what happened during the war on the Fire Nation as it exists now. A lot of people don’t understand that, and it’s because they’ve been hurt, but that lack of understanding only leads to more pain. This is how we can end that cycle.”

Sokka huffs and crosses his arms, throwing himself back down into the stuffed chair. “You’re, like, twelve,” he says. “You shouldn’t make so much sense.”

Aang rolls his eyes, but he's smiling. It makes him look, once again, like the child he is. “I know you know I’m fifteen, Sokka,” he chuckles. “You were at my last birthday party. You made the cake.”

 

*

 

When Yue arrives in the Southern Water Tribe, Sokka makes sure he is the first to see her. He pushes past his father as she makes her way down the gangplank, and is rewarded by her bright smile. He only gets a glimpse of it before she’s throwing herself into his arms.

“Sokka!” she exclaims, laughing as he twirls her in the air. “It’s so good to see you!”

He sets her down, grinning as he does.

“Not as good as it is to see you,” he replies, winking exaggeratedly.

She giggles behind her hand and a familiar fondness swells in his chest at the sight.

Dad coughs from behind them, then, and Sokka gives an exaggerated sigh, rolling his eyes and releasing her so that she can greet his father. He knows that no one who sees him will think he means anything by the expression – he’s still smiling much too widely for any ire he may display to be taken seriously.

“Chief Hakoda,” Yue says, bowing before him. “Thank you for honoring the Northern Tribes by agreeing to host myself and my entourage during the ceremonies which will precede my engagement.”

Hakoda bows back, and his smile, though more restrained than Sokka’s had been, is just as sincere.

“We’re honored to have you here, Princess Yue – and happy to see you again. Katara can’t be with us this afternoon, as she’s filling in for a water bending instructor who has fallen ill, but she and Sokka have been especially excited to see you. As I’m sure you could tell.”

“And I, them,” she says warmly, her eyes flicking fondly towards Sokka.

She’s radiant, as he had known that she would be. Seeing her in person after so long is like stepping outside into the first light of the morning, when your eyes are still used to the dark and the sun glints most keenly off the snow: blinding, but worth it.

She deserves better, he thinks, not for the first time, and tries not to let his sudden sourness show on his face. His father doesn’t look too disapproving, so he must do an alright job.

“It’s been a while since you’ve been back,” Dad says. “Why doesn’t Sokka take you on a tour of the city? Show you what’s changed before the real work starts.”

Yue glances back at Sokka. “I’d like that very much,” she says, and her eyes are large and her smile is eager and really, what other choice does he have?

 

*

 

He takes her to see all of the things he knows didn’t exist the last time she was here, and all of the things he remembers her loving. She holds on to his arm as they walk, just the way she used to, and it grounds something in him that he hadn’t even realized was up in the air.

“It must be easier for you to get around in the South,” she teases as they make their way down one of the busier streets, “without any canals to fall into.”

“That was one time,” Sokka protests.

“Three times, actually,” she corrects.

Sokka rolls his eyes, nudging her in the side with his elbow. “One time, three times, what’s the difference?”

She laughs again. He’s lost count of how many times he’s heard it, just in the last hour alone. She’s as giddy to be here as he is to have her here. He wonders if that delight will hold up once the prince arrives, and the impending engagement becomes impossible to ignore.

She turns pensive, suddenly, as if reading his mind. “I’m glad you’re able to show me around the city now,” she says. “We may not have so much time together once my…betrothed arrives.”

She says the word “betrothed” like she has to force it up her throat; like it carries with it a rotten taste she’s only starting to get used to.

He wants to be angry about the situation, but he wants to make her feel better more. Instead of ranting at her the way he had at Aang and Katara, he just nods.

“I’m sure he’ll be…lovely,” he forces out, and hopes it comes across as sincere. “The prince they’re sending you, I mean. I’m sure he’ll be…able to pass the trials, at least.”

She laughs, but it’s far quieter than it had been before. “Well, he’ll have to be, before he can propose,” she says, looking sidelong at him. “It may be difficult for someone not accustomed to our ways to manage, but I’m sure he’ll learn in due time. You’ll be the one training him, after all.”

Sokka skids to a stop so quickly he would have fallen face first into the snow, had Yue not caught his arm.

He stares at her, and it is not, for the first time since she had arrived, in admiration. “I’ll be the what?”

 

*

 

“Princess Yue was correct,” Dad tells him when Sokka corners him in his office at the Citadel that night after dropping Yue off in her chambers. “The Council has assigned you the duty of familiarizing Prince Zuko with our culture and helping him develop the skills he needs to complete the courtship rituals and prove himself worthy of the princess’s hand.”

Sokka shakes his head so adamantly he becomes dizzy from it, but the vertigo isn’t enough to disrupt his indignation.  “This is – it’s stupid!” He exclaims, “And so unfair –”

“Sokka –”

“And I already thought that when this was just you forcing Yue into a marriage she had no say in –”

“Sokka –”

“But making me responsible– ”

Sokka!” Dad barks, raising his voice in a rare display of genuine irritation. It’s so uncharacteristic that Sokka is, for once, shocked into silence. “I understand that you’re upset about this,” Dad continues after a moment, once he is sure that Sokka will let him, “but there’s nothing to be done. This isn’t something I can change. Once Princess Yue reached marrying age, the Fire Nation reached out regarding a potential match, and the tribes responded. This isn’t something anyone has taken lightly, son – it took us over a year to settle on an agreement that all parties were amenable to.”

“You’ve known this was going to happen for a year,” Sokka says incredulously, “and you didn’t tell me?”

Hakoda sighs. “It wasn’t a done deal until nearly a month ago. When I told you about it, I had only just received confirmation that the courtship would officially be taking place in the South Pole. It’s a great honor to be hosting the princess of our sister tribe and the prince of the Fire Nation.”

“An honor,” Sokka scoffs. “Yue—”

“The Southern Water Tribe was decided upon as the cite of the pre-engagement ceremonies because of its ability to act as a mostly neutral ground," Dad interrupts. “It’s not Yue’s homeland, but it is familiar to her, and it’s a place where Prince Zuko can learn what he needs to learn in order to be considered our culture’s approximation of a capable spouse. Our role as host also means that our tribe is symbolically included in the ratification of the treaty, even if neither party involved in the marriage is technically one of ours.”

“Oh,” Sokka says bitingly. “Well, as long as he’s a capable spouse.”

“I understand your concerns, son,” Dad says. Sokka would be angry at the placation if it were coming from anyone else, but he knows that his father means what he says. There aren’t many men as understanding as Hakoda, just as there aren’t many who are stronger or braver, more intelligent or more noble. It’s why he’s the High Chief. Sokka understands that, but that doesn’t mean he has to like what’s being said.

“This isn’t just about trade deals,” Hakoda continues. “It’s about fostering peace between nations.” He sounds disgustingly like Katara, and Sokka only barely manages to keep himself from rolling his eyes. “It’s about presenting a united front to the rest of the world. This will be the first union of its kind in recorded history. The impact will be felt for generations. I know you don’t like it, but I do hope that you’ll come to understand the importance of it.”

Sokka grits his teeth. “And you decided – without even bothering to tell me about it – that had to be involved.”

Hakoda sighs, looking, for the first time, almost uneasy. “In the name of paying respect to our culture, a part of the official agreement is that the Fire Nation’s Prince will adhere to the formal Water Tribe engagement traditions in full. That’s why the Council has decided – and I agree – that you will be in charge of his training. In accordance with our traditions,” Hakoda says, raising his voice over Sokka’s attempts to protest, “the fiancé of the princess of the Northern Water Tribe must prove himself worthy to be named as such. As my son, and as a son of the Southern Water Tribe, you have been tasked with ensuring that he is able to do so.”

“But why me?”

“Who better?” Dad asks. “You’re a good man, and a more than capable teacher. It will do the South proud to know that one of our own was responsible for making a man out of the princess’s fiancé, and it will do me proud, as your father, to see your dedication not only to our traditions, but to aiding in the fulfillment of a union that will help facilitate peace across the world.”

Sokka glares, but doesn’t argue. “I hate it when you use the fatherly approval card on me. It’s super below the belt.”

Dad raises a playful eyebrow. “Is it working?”

Sokka heaves out a beleaguered sigh, but lets his arms drop from where he’d been keeping them folded tightly across his chest. “I wish you’d told me earlier.”

“Well,” Dad says, “If you hadn’t stormed off before I could finish, I would have.”

 

*

 

Prince Zuko arrives at the port on a ship that is so distinctly Fire Nation it makes Sokka want to retch.

The vessel itself is large and metal, dark and foreign and cold looking, somehow, even compared to the icy landscape around them. Soulless is the word, Sokka thinks, and hates the entire arrangement just a little bit more.

The prince steps off the boat to cheering and applause from the gathered crowd, and he is followed closely by a procession of servants. All of them are dressed in Fire Nation reds and golds, though their clothes, thick and lined with furs from animals Sokka is sure can’t be found on the equator, have obviously been made specially for this trip.

Aang was right, Sokka thinks dimly as the prince and his accompaniment march forwards. Fire benders really aren’t flame retardant, and here’s the proof: an enormous, angry looking scar mars half of the prince’s face. It stands out starkly against his fair (and otherwise smooth) skin, and it only becomes more pronounced as he and his entourage come ever closer.

Beside him, Yue is as still and silent as ever. Her demeanor betrays nothing, and Sokka is angry on her behalf.

The prince’s hair is gathered into a top knot that does nothing to hide his scar, and the golden hairpiece that marks him as a member of the royal family does nothing to distract from it. Sokka can see, even from a distance, the way the masses ogle at the deformity. The prince must know what’s catching their attention, but he keeps his head held high. Something like respect ignites in Sokka’s chest. It’s not enough to burn away the resentment. 

Once the prince has reached the pavilion that the highest ranking members of the Tribe await him on, Sokka’s father begins his speech. This is for the people; a shorter version of the speech he will give at the private banquet tonight.

When it is over, the prince bows to Hakoda, and then to each of the members of the Council in turn. He bows to Katara, who reciprocates accordingly, and then to Sokka. Sokka bows back, just deeply enough that he can’t technically be scolded for it, and he knows he’s not imagining the well-hidden grimace on his father’s face, or his sister’s disapproving frown.

Finally, the prince bows to Yue. Yue bows back with all of the grace Sokka would expect from her, and when she holds out her hand to him, the prince bows even lower, pressing his lips chastely and politely to her knuckles before releasing her and standing once again. Every part of the motion is stiff and practiced; a gesture performed by someone who does so not because they mean it, but because it is expected of them. A formality, not a kindness.

Up close, the prince is even more striking than he had appeared from far off. His skin is as pale as any Sokka’s ever seen, and his hair darker than a winter’s night in the arctic. He is draped in vivid reds and golds the likes of which anyone who has never left the Water Tribes is unlikely to have ever seen, and he is as poised and refined as he is rigid and out of place.

Sokka watches as they finally head inside, and the Prince and his men are escorted to their rooms. He does not smile, and he does not laugh. He speaks only when spoken to, and he does not look at anyone who was not looking at him first. Sokka feels any hatred he may have harbored for the prince turn to rot. He is not worth hating. He is barely human, cold and dark and as soulless as the ship he arrived on.

This is what Yue is being given, Sokka thinks bitterly: an unfeeling, disfigured prince who will never belong here, and who will never be one of them.

Chapter Text

The ceremony with which the Prince’s arrival had been treated was, first and foremost, a display for the common people. The welcome banquet, to be held that night, is where Prince Zuko and his attending advisors will be formally introduced to the Southern Tribe’s more influential residents.

Sokka is unfortunately included in that particular subsect of Water Tribe citizenry, and he spends his first quarter of an hour at the banquet watching as the prince – followed closely by members of his entourage – makes his rounds. He spends a few minutes speaking stiffly with Aang (who looks both confused and endeared by the prince’s stilted conversation), and interacts only briefly with Yue before being whisked away to shake hands and make shallow conversation with Council members and other high ranking nobles. When the bugle horns are blown and people begin taking their seats, the expression on the prince’s face resembles something like gratitude.

Sokka does not share his relief. In fact, other than the prince’s actual arrival, this is the part of the evening that Sokka had most been dreading: the reminder that this is, first and foremost, a political affair. Each member of the High Council of Elders stands up in turn to give a speech praising the wisdom of the union, and the prosperity and peace it will bring. The speeches are so similar to one another that Sokka wouldn’t be surprised if they had each taken a copy of one original speech and just moved a few words around, hoping no one would notice. Sokka had thought he was prepared, but it’s still somehow so terribly dull that he finds himself, only halfway through the second speech, fantasizing about shoving his own head straight down into the snow. (Dad would be upset, he knows, and Katara would be embarrassed, but Yue and Aang would laugh.)

Instead of listening as the Elder on stage recites what sounds like a watered-down replica of one of Katara’s more impassioned rants, Sokka scans the room around him for familiar faces. Yue, as expected, is looking dutifully on, though Sokka would bet money she’s not listening to a word. Katara is visibly bored, but still doing her best to look respectful, and Aang is watching with rapt attention, actually seeming to hang onto every cheesy word.

Sokka glances in the direction of Prince Zuko, wondering vaguely whether he’ll find him rapt with attention or completely glassy-eyed, only to see that the prince is staring back. He startles when Sokka looks at him, and his skin is so fair that even from across the room, Sokka can see the way the blood rushes to his cheeks. The prince turns away immediately, but not quickly enough that Sokka doesn’t know exactly what he saw.

Sokka turns his attention back towards the elevated stage the Elders and his father are sitting at just in time watch as his father stand up and walk over to the podium.

Although Sokka isn't paying as close attention to Dad as he knows should be, he is, thankfully, alert enough to stand obligingly when Dad calls out his name and gestures towards his table. The rest of the attendees cheer and clap for him like he’d known they would, and he flashes them his best smile. It’s strained, but he’s confident that only those sitting closest to him are near enough to tell.

The clapping dies down after a moment, and Hakoda continues. “My son has been tasked with educating Prince Zuko on Water Tribe traditions and practices, and with providing the prince with the skills necessary to complete the traditional engagement rights and prove to the Tribe, and to the Princess’s family, that he is worthy of her hand. In this way, my son will play an integral part in making this union possible.”

The audience cheers again. Once the clamor dies down, Dad moves on, and Sokka is free to sit.

Dad finishes by calling for a toast – a proposal which is met with excitement from the crowd, mostly because they know that his speech is the last: now the real festivities can begin. The food is served, and people all around begin leaving their tables to converse and dance once again.

It’s less an hour into the celebration that Sokka is confronted with Prince Zuko.

“My son,” Hakoda says, clapping a proud hand on Sokka’s shoulder. He knows who I am, Sokka almost says, just to be snide. We were introduced at the port – not to mention I caught him staring at me during the Council's speeches. Before he can respond, though, the prince is bowing.

“It’s an honor to meet you,” he says, but Sokka isn’t fooled. The prince knows as well as everyone else here that the timeliness of his marriage to Yue is essentially up to Sokka’s discretion. It doesn’t matter how genuine he seems – everything he does, he’s doing for his own interest.

The Prince holds out his hand, apparently unaware that shaking hands isn’t how people typically greet one another in the Water Tribes. Another thing Sokka will have to teach him, then. Sokka stares at it for a moment, and only takes it just as it looks as if the prince is about to give up and put it down. The Prince’s hands are warm, and Sokka finds, to his surprise, that they aren’t as baby soft as he had thought they would be.

“And you,” Sokka replies after just long enough that it’s gotten awkward, but not long enough to be considered rude. He releases the prince’s hand and bows his head as an afterthought. He knows he doesn’t imagine the way dad’s hand tightens on his shoulder.

He and Prince Zuko are almost exactly the same height, Sokka notices, which makes it difficult for him to look anywhere other than directly into the prince’s eyes. They’re a color Sokka has seen only rarely: a deep, molten gold that might be found occasionally in the sky during a particularly vivid sunrise. Looking into someone’s eyes shouldn’t feel so intimate, or so much like a violation of privacy. Still, Sokka feels the urge to look away.

“He’ll be showing you around the city tomorrow and answering any questions you might have,” Dad says, once again exercising his fatherly right to volunteer Sokka for activities that he has no interest in. “To help you settle in. You’ll start in on your training the day after that.”

“I look forward to it,” says the prince. He keeps his eyes down and his shoulders stiff. There is, despite his obvious discomfort, a note of sincerity in his voice so genuine that Sokka is almost tempted to believe him.

 

*

 

Sokka arrives at the prince’s rooms first thing after breakfast the next morning, hoping, perhaps a little maliciously, for the chance to wake him early enough to be irritating, and maybe make him feel just a little bad for not being ready on time. This doesn’t happen. Sokka only has to knock once before the prince is pulling open the door, as if he’d been waiting for Sokka to arrive. There are bags under the prince’s eyes that indicate a night of very little sleep, but he’s fully dressed, and his hair is pristinely styled.

“Your highness,” Sokka says, surprised enough that he only manages to insert the faintest bit of scorn into his tone. “Are you ready?”

“I am. And you can just call me Zuko.” The prince – Zuko– doesn’t wait for Sokka to reply. He steps out of the room and closes the door behind him, moving past Sokka and down the hall without once looking back. Sokka has no choice but to follow.

It’s the second tour Sokka’s given in a week, and while the company this time around is less than ideal, Sokka isn’t tired of playing tour guide quite yet. He loves his tribe and he loves this city, and though he would prefer that Zuko weren’t here at all, it is fun to see the way his face changes (however minutely) every time they turn a corner. Yue had been comforted by the familiarity of the Southern Water Tribe. For Zuko, every fresh sight is an entirely new world.

Zuko’s fascination with the city is subtle; his discomfort is not. It doesn’t seem to be the scenery that’s off-putting to him, so much as the people. Sokka would have thought that a prince would be used to garnering so much attention, but Zuko seems to shrink away from it, even when it’s not directed at him. With each person that waves or calls out to Sokka as they walk by, Zuko seems to hold himself a little more tautly, to purse his lips just the slightest bit more.

Sokka has heard that social hierarchy is of greater consequence in the Fire Nation than it is in other parts of the world – that royal life, especially, is more secluded. If that’s true, then Zuko may not be used to the constant throng of people. If he’s spent his life interacting primarily with nobles of a similar status and household staff paid to be seen and not heard, then it makes sense that he doesn’t know quite how to act, here, surrounded by people who greet the leader of their nation and his children by their first names. Still, Sokka has to hide his sneer at the way Zuko seems so unwilling to interact with the residents of the nation he will soon – in name, at least – be a part of.

Zuko seems either unwilling or unable to start a conversation. Sokka’s first reflex in the face of an uncomfortable silence – for better or for worse – has always been to break it.

“So,” he says, glancing sideways at Zuko, “No one in the Fire Nation wanted to marry the next Fire Lord?” (If Katara were here, she’d slap him. He thanks Tui and La that she’s not.)

Zuko cuts him a sharp look. “I’m sure there are plenty of people who would be eager for the opportunity,” he says. “But he’s not in any hurry to get engaged, and there’s not yet any need for it.”

Sokka looks at him blankly. “He? He who? I’m talking about you.”

Zuko stares. “You think –” he cuts himself off and exhales harshly. “I’m a prince,” he says slowly, like he’s talking to a child, “but I’m not the heir. That’s the Crown Prince – my cousin Lu Ten. He’ll become the Fire Lord after the current Fire Lord – my Uncle – retires.”

“Right.” Sokka lets out a stunted, bitter half-laugh, unable to stop himself. “Of course. They couldn’t even get Yue a real prince.”

Zuko’s eyes go wide for just a moment, but he doesn’t argue. He just glares, and looks away. “Sorry to disappoint,” he says.

Sokka doesn’t expect it, the shame that wells up inside of him. He opens his mouth to say something – to apologize, to take it back – but nothing comes out.

He stays silent.

They keep walking.

 

*

 

Sokka spends the next few hours pointing out buildings and landmarks to a silent audience. He feels like his surprise is justified, therefore, when it’s Zuko who initiates the next attempt at conversation.

“So,” he begins stiltedly, just as they’ve finished their exploration of the lower town. “How, uh… how worried should I be?”

Sokka raises an eyebrow. “That depends on what you’re talking about.”

“Right,” Zuko says stiltedly, like he’s nervous, but also like he’s had showing nervousness trained out of him. “I meant…how difficult do you think learning all of the…stuff will be?”

All of the stuff,” Sokka repeats mockingly. “Does it matter? You’re going to have to do it anyways.”

“I—yes. Of course.”

“You don’t sound very excited. It kind of seems like you’d prefer not to be here, actually.”

Zuko stops walking. “That’s not what I said.”

Sokka stops in front of Zuko and puts his hands up innocently. “Hey, I’m just making an observation, here. Yue’s an incredible girl. Forgive me for wanting to make sure that the person who gets to marry her knows how lucky they are.”

“It…seems like you care a lot about her,” Zuko says, a strange look in his eye.

Sokka narrows is own eyes in return, lowering his arms and crossing them over his chest. “I just don’t like the idea of her being used as a pawn.”

 “We’re both pawns,” Zuko snaps, truly irate for the first time. “It’s not like I want this either.”

“Then why did you agree?”

“For the same reasons the princess did, I’m sure,” Zuko says, with more frost in his voice than a fire bender should reasonably be able to conjure. “Maybe you should ask her.”

He starts walking again. Sokka spends half a moment contemplating whether losing him in the crowd would be worth his father’s anger. Maybe, he thinks, but definitely not worth Katara’s, if she found out. (Not worth Yue's disappointment, either.) He catches up to Zuko.

Zuko is silent as they make their way back through the main city. Sokka doesn’t feel guilty – he doesn’t– but he does decide to take pity on him.

“The only real test is ice-dodging,” Sokka says, in response to Zuko’s original question. “That’s how all Water Tribe citizens officially come of age – you can’t get married without doing it. That will be public. It’s not normally, but because your engagement is so high profile, anyone who wants to attend is welcome to watch.”

“Oh,” Zuko says, still visibly irritated, but now also looking slightly sick. “Excellent. I love being a public spectacle.” (Sokka has to hold back a smirk, at that – half a day with the prince, and he already knows how far from true it is.) “Anything else I should know about?”

Sokka shrugs. “My dad pretty much said it all during his speech. I report directly to the Council about your training. Once you’ve learned everything you need to learn in order to be considered just as capable as any Water Tribe citizen about to come of age, I tell them you’re ready, and you complete the traditional Water Tribe coming of age trial.”

“Ice-dodging.”

“Right.”

“So if you tell your Council that I’m not ready…”

“That won’t happen,” Sokka says, waving his hand as if to banish the idea from the air in front of them. “There’s no real timeline, here. I mean, of course the Council wants things to progress as quickly as possible, but I’m not here to tell them when you’re not ready – just when you are. Once I give the word that you know enough about our culture to please the Council and that you’re skilled enough to pass the test, they’ll set a time for you to complete your trial, and that will be it. Other than the actual proposal, I mean.”

“So you’re my judge and my jury.”

“And your teacher,” Sokka reminds him. He stops abruptly, bringing them both to a halt in front of a colorfully decorated food cart. “All I’m here to do,” Sokka continues as he exchanges money with the vendor, “is make sure you’re on the same level as anyone else who the princess might be matched up with, if she was marrying within the Water Tribes. Of course, most Water Tribesmen spend their lives learning to sail in preparation for their ice-dodging trials,” he says haughtily, “so who knows how a delicate Fire Nation prince will fair?”

“So there’s an eighty percent chance I’ll die, then,” Zuko replies drily. “Good.”

Sokka can’t help the laugh that punches its way out of him at that. He shoves an eel-on-a-stick into Zuko’s hand, and walks ahead so that Zuko won’t see the amusement on his face.

The vendor sends them off with a friendly wave, which Sokka returns. Several store owners call out to him fondly as he and Zuko go by, and another man across the shouts a greeting to Sokka as they pass him.

“A lot of people seem to know you,” Zuko notes after the man is gone.

“I’m the High Chief’s son,” Sokka says around a mouthful of eel. “It would be more surprising if they didn’t.”

“None of them call you ‘prince.’”

“No,” Sokka agrees, taking a moment to swallow. “They don’t.”

“You and your sister share a rank with Princess Yue. But…not the title?” It’s clearly a question, but Sokka can’t help but notice how reluctant Zuko seems to ask it – as if he’s afraid he might be making some kind of error by doing so.

Sokka shrugs, and hopes his nonchalance helps put Zuko at ease. “The Southern Water Tribe hasn’t always existed,” he says. “We’re an offshoot of the Northern Tribe. When we split off from them hundreds of years ago, the structure of their monarchy wasn’t something we took with us. How do you like the eel?”

Zuko stares.

“Your eel,” Sokka says again, looking pointedly down at the stick in Zuko’s hand.

“My – oh. It’s…fine. Thank you.” As if to prove it, he takes a small bite.

“Right,” Sokka says, and hopes that the reflexive disdain in his voice is mild enough that Zuko doesn’t notice. “No problem. Anyways, you’re right that our ranks are functionally the same as Yue’s, but the South isn’t ruled unilaterally by one chief in the same way the North is. It’s structured like your basic monarchy up there: one guy makes the decisions, pretty much uncontested, and the title of Chief typically passes through one family. That’s why Yue holds the title of princess. Katara and I aren’t royalty in the same way, but we’re about as close as the Southern Water Tribe has got.”

“I thought lessons weren’t supposed to start until tomorrow,” Zuko says wryly, and his voice is so low that Sokka has to strain to hear him over the sound of the city around them. He moves closer to Zuko, who stiffens, but doesn’t move away.

“Hey,” Sokka says, almost certain that Zuko was trying to make a joke. “You’re the one who asked. Consider this a primer.”

Zuko nods, and tilts his head towards Sokka to show that he’s listening.

“The Southern Water Tribe is actually made up of dozens of smaller tribes and villages. Most of those have their own chieftain, and each of them falls into one of the five recognized regions of the South Pole. Each of the regions gets to elect one member of the High Council to represent them here in the capital. The Council helps to make decisions alongside the High Chief, and is responsible for appointing a new High Chief when the current one dies or steps down.”

“And the High Chief is your father,” Zuko says. “He must have been popular.”

“He’s a good leader,” says Sokka. “A lot of villages on our side of the Pole struggled with food the winter before the last High Chief decided to retire, and he spent months traveling between settlements and meeting with other chieftains to make sure people had what they needed.”

“He sounds like a good man.”

“He is.”

“You’re lucky to have him. The Tribe, I mean,” Zuko clarifies hurriedly. “The Tribe is lucky. Not that – I just mean that he sounds like a good leader. And a good dad. So you’re lucky.”

“I am,” Sokka agrees simply.

They keep walking, and the quiet that falls between them is different from the other silences that came before it. There is no aggression in it, and if there is any resentment, it is a frail version of the monster that had hung over them initially. It’s peaceful, almost, and Sokka finds himself reluctant to break it.

“Anything else you’d like to see?” Sokka asks eventually. "Or do?"

Zuko hesitates. “Uh—well.” He looks down, and a few stray pieces of hair, escaped from his top knot, fall forward into his face.

Cute, Sokka’s brain thinks without his permission. “Don’t be shy, now,” Sokka says. He nudges Zuko’s side with his elbow, and is, himself, surprised by how gently he does it.

“That thing you gave me earlier? The…eel? That was…pretty good, actually. Not that you – it’s fine if –”

Sokka rolls his eyes and grabs Zuko by the arm. “Come on,” he says, pulling Zuko along behind him. “I know where we can get more.”

Sokka leads them into a more densely populated area, and manoeuvers them through the crowded streets until they come to a large city square especially popular among food vendors and street performers during this time of evening. “Stay here,” he tells Zuko, already retreating back into the throng of people. “I’ll be right back.”

Zuko nods, though he looks uncertain. Ironically, although Sokka had considered losing Zuko on purpose earlier in the day, he finds himself hoping, as he makes his way over to a familiar vendor, that Zuko actually follows Sokka’s directions, and stays where Sokka can find him.

He needn’t have worried. When he returns, an eel-on-a-stick for each of them in hand, it is to Zuko exactly where Sokka had left him – except now, he has found something to keep him occupied: he stares at the dancers as they spin and twist their bodies and the water they bend in time with the pulsating music, and in time with one another. Zuko watches them with undisguised admiration, and Sokka watches Zuko.

The transition from evening to night has already begun. Zuko is illuminated almost entirely by the hanging street lamps, and by the incandescent algae, frozen into the walls of the buildings, that lights the city all year round. He gazes openly at the wonders before him, and from this angle, Sokka can’t see Zuko’s scar – only his fair, smooth skin, and his sharply elegant features. Like this, cradled in the glow of the setting sun, Zuko doesn’t look at all like someone born from treachery, or like the manufactured, soulless boy Sokka had first taken him for. At the sight of him, untroubled and unblemished, Sokka’s only thought is a traitorous one: here, in this light, Zuko doesn’t really seem so terrible, after all.

Chapter Text

Sokka isn’t trying to scare Zuko away, exactly, but he figures starting with the hard and boring stuff isn’t a terrible idea. This way, Zuko knows exactly what he’s getting into. (And if he decides himself that he can’t make the cut? Well, that’s not Sokka’s problem).

That’s why Sokka is awake and knocking insistently on Zuko’s door the next morning, early enough that the sun hasn’t even begun to peek up over the horizon. Zuko’s face when he swings the door open – baffled and irritated under a head of dark, disheveled hair – makes the vileness of the hour more than worth it. Sokka feels just a little satisfied by the way Zuko’s eyes widen at the sight of him.

“What are you doing here?” Zuko asks, voice hoarse from disuse. Now that he knows who’s on the other side of the door, he’s gone from looking aggravated to genuinely confused.

Sokka steps forwards to lean against the door frame, and Zuko staggers backwards away from him, rubbing at his good eye with the back of his hand. “You didn’t have a problem waking up early yesterday.”

“Fire benders rise with the sun,” Zuko growls. “Not before it.”

“Well, hunters rise with the prey,” Sokka retorts, “or they don’t get to eat.”

He looks Zuko up and down. His highness looks worse than Sokka had expected him to, even considering he’d apparently woken up only a few moments ago. “Did you sleep, like, at all last night?”

Zuko shrugs half-heartedly. Sokka tries to hide his irritation — he’s supposed to be acting as an ambassador of sorts, as well as a teacher. That means he has to make sure the prince is comfortable, even if he’s annoying.

“Is there something wrong with the room?” he asks. “If there’s an issue…”

Zuko shakes his head vigorously, looking truly awake for the first time. “No,” he says. “No issues. The room is fine. Everything has been perfect. I’m grateful for the Southern Water Tribe’s generous hospitality.”

The line is obviously practiced: likely trained into him via years of the sort of royalty lessons Sokka’s heard they’re really serious about in other parts of the world, and especially in the Fire Nation. Even so, it doesn’t sound like a lie.

“What’s the problem, then?” Sokka asks.

Zuko hesitates. “Just…sleeping in a new place can be difficult. You know.”

Sokka doesn’t know. His traveling experience is mostly limited to a few yearly trips to Kiyoshi Island, and brief stops in ports on the way to and from the North Pole. He’s certainly never been expected to stay so long in a place so different from what he’s used to.

He nods anyways, like he understands. “Let me know if I can help,” he says, and Zuko nods back.

Sokka knows, somehow, that if Zuko gets his way, this will be the last they speak of it.

 

*

 

“We probably won’t be doing any actual hunting today,” Sokka tells him on their way up the mountain. The black sky is beginning to fade into gray, and when he glances to his side, he can just barely make out the foggy puffs of warm air that mark Zuko’s breathing. “This will be less like a hunting trip, and more like a…pre-hunting trip. An educational field trip, really.”

“You couldn’t have educated me inside?” Zuko asks, though it doesn’t escape Sokka’s notice that he looks a bit relieved at the news. “At a decent hour, when the sun was actually out?”

Sokka shrugs, and tries not to look too smug. “You have to get used to the weather sometime. Plus, this way you can practice your map-reading skills.”

“I can read a map,” Zuko grumbles.

“Then you shouldn’t have a problem with it, should you? Anyways, I figured it would be helpful for you to get a look at the landscape and a few of the more common animals, so you at least have a basic understanding of what I’m talking about when I explain how we hunt them and what we use them for.”

Zuko frowns. “You—you use them for eating, don’t you?”

“Well, yeah,” Sokka says, rolling his eyes, “but you can’t eat all of anything. What do you think we do with the other stuff?”

“The…other stuff.” It’s another one of those not-questions that means Zuko is curious, but doesn’t know how to ask.

“We don’t just eat the meat and then throw the rest of the animal away,” Sokka explains. “We use every part of the animal. Bones can be used in about a million different ways, depending on how big they are – like, the little ones can be used for things like small tools and jewelry, but larger bones and teeth are most often used for weapons and construction materials. We use their bones and skins to make our sleds and boats, and the leathers and furs for our clothing and crafting. We even save the blood, when we can, to catch some of the larger underwater predators.”

Sokka pauses. When he looks over at Zuko (dressed all in red, a crimson stain on the white mountain top), there is a strange, almost unsettled look on his face. 

“What?” Sokka smirks. “Too graphic for you?”

No,” Zuko protests immediately. “It just – doesn’t it seem a little...” Zuko trails off, as if unable to find the right word.

“Wouldn’t it be worse to take a life for nothing?” Sokka asks. “We use everything we’re given. To do anything else would be a waste, and disrespectful to the animals that give their lives so that we can live.”

Zuko doesn’t do anything except nod. Sokka carries on.

He leads them around the north side of the mountain, and as they walk, he describes animals to steer clear of, and how the best hunting methods vary depending on the terrain and type of game. He teaches Zuko about stalking versus striking versus trapping, and which weapons work best for each. He points out unique features on the map as they hike up and down the snowy drifts, and explains the different habitats and the best places stake out prey.

It’s just past noon when they reach the mountain’s first and largest plateau, which Sokka decides is as good a place for a break as any.

“Okay,” he says. “We can rest here for a while.” Zuko nods, but he waits until Sokka is sitting to do so himself. “Here.” Sokka pulls a small pouch out of his bag and holds it out to Zuko. “Seal-jerky. Don’t be picky,” he chastises when he sees the look on Zuko’s face. “It’s good – and we just hiked, like, eight miles uphill in the snow. You need to keep your energy up, because I’m not carrying you back down the mountain.”

Zuko snorts, but takes the bag. He eats a few pieces, looking pleasantly surprised at the flavor, and then stands up, wandering a little ways away while Sokka indulges in a few himself.

It’s a few minutes before either of them speaks again.

“Hey—Sokka!” Zuko whisper-shouts. Sokka looks up to see that he’s moved all the way to the edge of the cliff that they’ve made their temporary camp on and is peeking over the ledge, where it drops off into the sea beneath them. “I think I found one of those things you were talking about earlier – a polar-bear dog?”

Sokka looks up from the map he’s got unfolded on his lap. “In the water? On this side of the fjord? That doesn’t make sense.”

“Well,” Zuko says, “There’s something down there, and I – oh, shit.”

Sokka’s head snaps up. “What? What did you do?”

Zuko’s face screws up indignantly. “I was just talking. I think it heard me, but I didn’t– oh, shit,” he says again, more urgently this time. “Sokka – Sokka, what kind of animals can climb sheer, vertical surfaces?”

Sokka feels his eyes widen as he shoves the map back in his bag and scrambles towards the precipice Zuko is looking off of.

“What do you mean, cli – Oh, fuck.” Sokka jumps away from the ledge, using his momentum to grab  Zuko by the hood of his coat and yanking him up as well, because Zuko has attracted the attention of a fucking mammoth squid, and they need to go.

“That’s a fucking mammoth squid!” Sokka barks as he tears away from the cliff’s edge, Zuko in tow.

“A what?” Zuko demands. He stumbles behind Sokka, clearly not used to running through snow.

“Don’t make me say it again,” Sokka half yells, half begs, as he drags Zuko along behind him, inwards towards the mountain.

They’re barely halfway across the plateau when Sokka looks back and sees the mammoth squid finally pulling itself up over the edge of the cliff, tentacles and tusks and claws digging into the ice and dragging it upwards and towards them. He doesn’t look for long enough to see what it does next – he just urges Zuko faster.

“Fuck,” Sokka gasps as they sprint through the snow. He glances back at it, at its snarling maw and grotesque figure, and promptly decides never to do that again. “That is not a regular – there’s something wrong with that mammoth squid. It’s faster than it should be. I think it might be rabid, or something.”

“It’s what?!” Zuko demands. He’s not having any trouble keeping pace with Sokka, but he’s just as out of breath. “Why would it be rabid?”

“Why would you try and talk to me when you were right above a mammoth squid?!”

“How was supposed to know what it was?”  Zuko shouts frantically.

“I drew pictures in the snow!”

“Your pictures were garbage!”

Sokka wants to yell something back about common sense, but he knows he needs to save his breath. He just focuses on going faster.

They’ve been running for too long, though, and as slow as mammoth squids tend to be on land, Zuko and Sokka are tiring out; this one is gaining on them. They’ve reached the opposite end of the plateau and are running along the bottom of the cliff’s edge when Sokka grabs Zuko by the arm and flings the both of them into a small, well-hidden alcove in the ice. They move backwards into the narrow cavern until there is no more room for them, and then further still.

The mammoth squid surges by them, and then back the other way. It can smell them, Sokka knows. He raises one finger and places it over his lips, urging Zuko to be quiet. He needn’t have worried – Zuko’s face is even paler than usual, almost blue under the reflected light of the ice, and his lips are pressed together so tightly Sokka wonders if they aren’t stuck together like that.

Maybe Zuko could try firebending at it, Sokka thinks. To scare it off. Would that work? Is Zuko a good firebender? Is this particular mammoth squid of sound enough mind to recognize danger and run away from it? He makes a mental note to tell Dad to send a hunting party over this way sometime in the next few days to put the thing out of its misery, and to make sure it doesn’t waylay any other unlucky idiots who might happen across its path.

The creature doesn’t stop pacing, and Sokka only grows more certain that he had been right: it’s rabid, or something similar. Mammoth squids are not endurance hunters. Any other mammoth squid – any other animal of that size, really – would have at least lain down by now, if not given up completely. The beast right outside the entrance of the crevice they’ve squeezed themselves into never does. It just keeps marching, back and forth, twitching and jerking, swiveling its  head and making loud, keening noises every once in a while. Despite its constant movement, it never strays far from their hiding place.

There’s no way out without going by it, which means there’s no way out, period. It will have to leave eventually, Sokka knows. Mammoth squids might breathe air, but they can only stay out of water for a couple of hours before their skin starts to dry up. The only question is how long this particular brute will be able to wait it out.

 

*

 

It’s maybe half an hour later that Zuko starts shivering. It’s barely noticeable, at first, even with how firmly Sokka’s body is pressed against his, but as time passes it obviously becomes harder for him to control. His breathing gets louder, and his teeth even start to chatter a few times, before he remembers to clench his jaw hard enough to put a stop to it.

The mammoth squid looks up sharply the second time this happens, and Sokka hisses, grabbing Zuko by the front of his jacket. Zuko looks alarmed for a moment, even more so than he had looked when they’d actually been running for their lives, and then Sokka can’t see what he looks like at all because he’s pulled Zuko right into his chest, wrapping his arms around him and keeping there.

“Stop shivering,” Sokka breathes directly into Zuko’s ear, praying that it’s quiet enough that the third member of their party won’t hear. Zuko’s entire form shudders again, and it doesn’t feel quite the same as it had before, but Sokka still holds him tighter, and tries to will a transfer of body heat between them. “Stop,” he hisses lowly. “It’s too cramped in here. It’ll hear you.”

They’re close enough, pressed together from knee to hip to chest to the place where Zuko’s face is pressed right into the junction of Sokka’s neck and shoulder, that Sokka can feel the several deep breathes Zuko takes, like he’s trying to calm himself.  

Sokka puts his hands on Zuko’s shoulders to hold him steady (and even that small movement is a struggle, with how tightly they’ve packed themselves into this corner). When that doesn’t work, he drags them up Zuko’s neck to cup his jaw and hold his face in his hands, forcing Zuko to look at him.

“Zuko,” he whispers harshly. “Zuko, Breathe.”

Zuko levels him with an absolutely venomous look, as if to say, what in Agni’s fucking name do you think I’ve been doing? He narrows his eyes and glances towards the slivered opening in the ice that marks their exit and entrance, and then down at the boomerang strapped to Sokka’s hip: the only weapon Sokka had brought, and which he had honestly grabbed mostly as a reflex this morning, when he had still thought today would be nothing more than a long, cold hike and a few hours lecturing a foreign prince on topics Sokka’s been an expert in since he was a child.

He’s wondering if we can fight it, Sokka, realizes, and has to stifle an incredulous laugh. Sokka shakes his head. Not with only two of us, he means to say. Not with only one long-range weapon. He only gets through about three and a half words before the mammoth squid lets out another screaming, snuffling growl. Sokka snaps his mouth shut.

Zuko reaches up and grabs Sokka’s wrists, but does not pull Sokka’s hands away from where they are still clutching his face, cupping his jaw, almost wrapped around the back of his head.  After a few moments, he moves one of his hands to Sokka’s chest and keeps it there. He bends his head forward again, and his breath is hot against Sokka’s throat, and it is so distracting that it takes Sokka nearly a full minute to realize that Zuko is using the rise and fall of Sokka’s chest to try and align his breath with Sokka’s. Sokka slows his breathing once he realizes, and Zuko slows his, in turn.

Sokka abruptly feels guilty. He, at least, knows that the mammoth squid will have to head back to the water eventually, and that mammoth squids hate small spaces; unless they try to leave while it’s still standing guard, it won’t get to them. They’ll probably be back in the city before it’s completely dark, honestly. Zuko doesn’t know any of that, though, and Sokka can’t talk to him right now to explain.

The cavern is lower on Zuko’s side, just enough that he has to hunch over a little more than Sokka does; just enough that he has to keep his upper body bent in Sokka’s direction or risk hitting his head on the ice. Sokka’s hands had drifted down to rest on Zuko’s shoulders at some point, and he loosens his grip, just a bit. He’s rewarded by the way Zuko relaxes just slightly and leans even further into Sokka’s chest, relieving some of the pressure that Sokka would bet a boat has built up in his back. He’s even stopped shivering now, which at least means that, even if everything else has gone to shit today, at least Sokka’s plan for sharing body heat worked.

They stay that way for hours: standing, not moving, not talking, barely breathing.

Eventually, it has been so long that Sokka realizes without quite remembering when it started that he aches all over, his calves and thighs and back and neck all tight with pain. Zuko’s probably just as sore, Sokka thinks, if not more so. At some point, Sokka’s arms had fallen to rest around Zuko’s waist. With Zuko leaning into him almost entirely, now, there is not an inch of Sokka that is not touching either the icy wall behind him or Zuko’s own body.

The sun is low in the sky when the mammoth squid finally – finally – leaves its post to return to the ocean, as Sokka had known that it would. They emerge when it’s gone, tired and tender-bodied. It’s a two-and-a-half hour trudge through the snow back to the city. This time, they walk in silence.

 

*

 

The streets are mostly clear, and just as well-lit as always, even considering the time. Still, they do get a few teasing comments for coming back so late, and empty handed, at that.

“Weren’t you two supposed to be out hunting?” One stall owner chortles as he packs up for the day.

Zuko, in his quiet exhaustion, doesn’t seem to notice. Sokka doesn’t even bother responding; he just aims a rude gesture behind him for the man to see, and tries not to wince when the motion sends a jolt of pain up his arm. He must not do a very good job at hiding it, because the man just laughs even harder.

As soon as they’ve entered the privacy of the palace’s wing of private quarters, Zuko falls backwards against a wall. “That was terrible,” he says emphatically. “I hate hunting.

“How would you know?” Sokka asks. “We didn’t actually hunt anything. Which means we’re going to have to go out again, by the way – you still have more to learn.”

Zuko’s groan is startlingly similar to some of the noises the mammoth squid had made, and Sokka has to choke back a laugh at the sound of it.

“It could be worse,” Sokka says after a moment, clutching at his sore abdomen and ignoring the part of his brain that wants very badly to lie down right here on the floor of this very public hallway and fall sleep.

“How?” Zuko asks. “How could it be worse?”

“Well, it could actually have gotten us. Then we’d be dinner right now, instead of about to eat dinner.”

“I’m starving,” Zuko admits, “but I don’t think I can stay awake long enough to eat a meal in the dining hall right now.”

“Oh, Spirits, me neither,” Sokka says. “But it’s not a problem. Follow me.” Zuko doesn’t question him, and Sokka leads them on wobbly legs the long way back to his rooms, hoping they’ll run into someone – and they do.

“Hi, excuse me,” Sokka calls, flagging down a vaguely familiar kitchen-aide on the other side of the hall. She stop and turns towards him, bowing slightly. “The prince and I just got back from being out on the mountain all day. I know dinner’s over, but could you stop by the kitchens and grab a plate of… uh, everything, probably, and just bring it up to my rooms?”

“Of course,” the girl says, bowing again. “It’ll only be a minute.”

“Thank you!” he calls after her as she hurries off. He turns to walk away, and makes it halfway down the hall before he notices that there aren’t any footsteps following him. He turns back around to see Zuko, leaning up against the wall with his eyes closed, apparently not having noticed Sokka’s departure.

“Zuko? Zuko!” Sokka calls, snapping his fingers.

Zuko’s eyes fly open, and his head jerks up. He looks at Sokka, but his stare is glassy. He hadn’t slept last night, Sokka remembers. Sokka wonders if he’s slept at all since he arrived. He’s probably been running off of nothing but residual adrenaline for at least the last few hours. It’s a miracle he hasn’t crashed yet – but the miracle is wearing off.

Sokka sighs. “Come on, buddy. We’ve got to at least get to my room.”

“Right,” Zuko says. “Your room.” He doesn’t move.

Sokka sighs, then walks back over to Zuko, taking him by the arm and leading him through the halls. Zuko follows without complaint, apparently too exhausted to protest.

It’s slow going, and when they do get to Sokka’s room, the serving girl has already come and gone, leaving a large platter of hot food in her wake. Sokka pulls Zuko inside, then pushes him through the door and towards the table in the center of the room, where he collapses into a chair.

The plate is empty in a matter of minutes.

“How do you feel?” Sokka asks afterwards.

“Fine,” Zuko says. Sokka narrows his eyes. “Sore,” Zuko amends. “Really sore. And tired.”

Sokka huffs out a laugh. “Yeah. I guessed that, actually.”

Sokka stands. Zuko follows his lead, and then looks around blankly, as if he hadn’t thought quite far enough ahead to know what he means to do next. Sokka snorts.

“I’m going to get ready for bed,” he says slowly.

“Good idea,” Zuko replies vacantly. He sits down heavily on the bed and begins to unlace boots, though it’s obvious he’s finding the task difficult: his fingers are stiff and clumsy and shaking, and his eyes are half closed. He’s frowning, and Sokka feels a sudden, absurd urge to push his thumb between Zuko’s eyebrows and smooth away the wrinkle. He ignores the impulse, but finds it far more difficult to ignore Zuko’s (honestly, pretty pathetic) struggling. 

“Okay,” says Sokka. “Alright, no.” He kneels on the floor, grimacing in pain as he does, and pulls one of Zuko’s feet into his lap. “This is a one-time thing, you hear me? Next lesson is going to be me teaching you how to untie your own shoes.”

“I can,” Zuko hisses petulantly. Sokka doesn’t miss the slur in his voice. He tries to pull his foot away, but Sokka rolls his eyes and tightens his grip. It’s no wonder Zuko’s having such a hard time, Sokka thinks – these are Fire Nation made. Whoever crafted them obviously had no idea what a functional snow boot looks like, or how to make one.

It takes a little while, but Sokka eventually manages to loosen the boot enough that pulling it off is only a little troublesome. He grabs Zuko’s other foot and begins the process again. Zuko slumps back against the wall, apparently haven given up both fighting Sokka and sitting up on his own.

Once Sokka’s finished, he stands up (which hurts even more than sitting down had) and steps into the bathroom to change into his own sleeping clothes. He returns to see that Zuko has hardly moved at all.  The only difference is his hair: sometime while Sokka had been gone, Zuko had removed his golden hairpiece and the tie that had kept his topknot contained, and placed both of them on the side table next to him. His hair, inky black and shorter than Sokka had thought it would be, is shaggy and soft and just long enough to fall over his ears and brush the bridge of his nose. Other than that small change, Zuko appears to be in much the same position Sokka had left him in: slouched on the bed, leaning up against the wall, as likely to move on his own as the East Mountain is.

“C’mon,” Sokka says, feeling his own eyelids start to droop, “you gotta…” he gives up halfway through the sentence. It’s not as if Zuko was listening anyways. The prince is barely lucid, as close to asleep as it’s possible to get without actually being there.

Maybe if Sokka himself weren’t so tired, he’d think twice about this. Maybe he’d care. He is tired, though. He doesn’t care. He doubts he’ll be able to get any real response from Zuko until the guy’s gotten a good night’s sleep, and he doesn’t think he’s capable of walking himself across the compound to Zuko’s room right now; carting Zuko’s body all the way over is out of the question. There might be other options, but Sokka is too exhausted to think of any.

Sokka sighs. He strips off Zuko’s outer layers, dirty and damp with snow and sweat, and replaces them with the clothes he’d laid out — just barely too tight around Zuko’s chest and shoulders, which Sokka does his best to ignore, but the right length. Zuko doesn’t even seem to notice.

Once they’re both in their underclothes, Sokka pushes Zuko into bed and under the blankets. Zuko, just barely conscious, goes willingly, and Sokka follows him in, already half asleep. His eyes are closed before his head even hits the pillow, and his last thought before he’s completely dead to the world is that he can imagine of no greater relief. He will remember, in the morning, the unexpected, blissful warmth that embraces him now, but he won’t remember this: the way his body curls, inwards, without his permission, towards the center of the bed; towards the source of the heat; towards Zuko.

Chapter Text

“Katara!” Sokka calls, standing outside her door and knocking, this time, because he’s learned his lesson. “Are you being gross in there?”

“I shouldn’t even dignify that with an answer,” she replies, and the door muffles her voice, but not her irritation (and not Aang’s airy laughter, either).

“Come on, baby sister, haven’t you wondered why it’s been so long since you’ve seen me?”

“It’s been two days, Sokka.”

Kataraaaa,” he whines. “I need healing.”

She huffs, and Sokka can tell just from the pitch of it that she’s crossing her arms. “Shouldn’t you be with the prince?”

“He’s at one of the dumb bi-weekly tea parties he and Yue have to go to so that they can ‘get acquainted,’ or whatever,” Sokka sniffs. “Let me in.”

There’s a loud sigh, and then the door swings open. “What did you do?”

“Oh, good,” he says, brushing past her into the room and collapsing face first onto her bed. He's careful to avoid Aang, who’s sitting cross-legged near the bed’s bottom corner. “I’m dying.”

Aang reaches over and pats his head sympathetically. “You look great to me,” he chirps.

“Well, I’m not,” Sokka says into the mattress. “I spent literally all day yesterday recovering from being trapped in a cave with his royal highness because he managed to piss off a rabid mammoth squid. I hiked up the East Mountain, got chased half a mile through the snow by a nightmare monster, and then hunched under a glacier like some crazy Earth Kingdom contortionist for, like, six hours. And then I had to hike back home!”

“I hope you were nice to him,” Katara tuts.

Sokka twists his head to look at her. “That’s what you’re concerned about!?” he demands, and then rolls his eyes at Katara’s severe look. “Ugh, fine. I was a model citizen. I even had a jar of muscle relaxer sent to his room.”

It’s the truth, but only sort of. When he says he’d had a jar sent to Zuko’s room, what he really means is that Zuko had taken it with him, when he’d left. If he tells them that, though, it means he’ll have to tell them why Zuko had been there in the first place. He’ll have to tell them about waking up to Zuko, so tense against Sokka’s side that he’d barely been breathing. He’ll have to tell them that he’d made the split-second decision to let Zuko believe that his unnatural stillness had really fooled Sokka into thinking he was still asleep, and that Sokka either didn’t notice or didn’t care about their proximity, to spare them both the embarrassment.

He’d groaned and rolled over, retracting his arm from where it had been fallen across Zuko’s chest as they slept, and sat up to stretch, only to almost immediately double over in pain. Zuko has stayed still and silent next to him as Sokka had heaved himself up from the bed and arduously limped his way over to the door. He’d opened it only a crack, positioning his body so as to block the anyone’s view to the inside of his room, and flagged down a passing member of the household staff, trying not to wince as he did so.

Bring two jars, he’d said, and he had given the second jar to Zuko before sending him on his way – though that hadn’t been until over an hour later, after they’d both painstakingly applied the thick salve to their most sensitive areas and let it soak in. Twice. You’ll be fine in a few days, he’d told Zuko. This will help. Just apply it when you need to.

Okay. Zuko had said, nodding at the floor.

We’ll take tomorrow off, Sokka had told him. I think we both deserve it, after yesterday. He’d given a weak laugh to accompany his own feeble attempt at a joke, and then wondered why his stomach felt so sour when it still wasn’t enough get Zuko to look at him. He’d held out the jar for Zuko, and Zuko had taken it from him gently, carefully, as if determined not to let their fingers touch.

Thank you, Sokka, he’d said softly, before slipping out the door, and Sokka had stared at it, shut behind him, for nearly a full minute before slowly pulling himself into bed. He’d spent the next day and a half determinedly not thinking about why the memory made his breath catch.

None of that matters, though, not really. There’s no reason to mention it, so Sokka doesn’t. Instead, he says, “I had them bring Gran Gran’s recipe. The one she makes out of jelly-anemone venom.”

Katara raises her eyebrows. “You were that sore?”

“I was ready for the spirits to take me,” Sokka groans, and then adds, mostly just for show, “and it was all his fault.”

“Don’t be mean. I think he’s very kind,” Katara says, probably just to be contrary.

“He’s not a demon,” Sokka is willing to admit, “but he’s still so… I don’t know. He’s something.”

“I thought he was pretty nice, when I talked to him,” Aang says thoughtfully. “At the arrival feast, and at the Council meeting this morning. He seems like he’s trying really hard. I think he’s probably just nervous about being in such an unfamiliar place. He’s surrounded by strangers all the time – I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s not comfortable yet.”

“That’s part of your job, you know,” Katara says, looking pointedly at Sokka. “To help make him comfortable.”

Sokka glares at her. “I came here to vent and have you work your water magic on me,” he says. “I didn’t realize I was coming during your ‘make-Sokka-feel-even-worse-than-he-already-does’ hours.”

“Sorry, Sokka,” Aang says, even as Katara rolls her eyes. “But maybe you should think about it. I mean, you would know best, since you see him more than anyone else –”

“That’s right,” Sokka says. “I would.”

“—but everything here is so different from what he’s used to, and I don’t just mean the people. The customs and the food, and especially the weather – I doubt he’s ever experienced anything like it, and now he’s surrounded by it, all the time.” Aang would know about what it’s like to find yourself alone in unfamiliar territory. Sokka suddenly feels incredibly stupid for complaining to Aang, of all people, about something like this. “For someone who’s probably super uncomfortable and maybe even a little scared,” Aang continues blithely, apparently unaware of Sokka’s sudden bout of shame, “I think he’s coping pretty well. And I think he’s nice. Kind of funny, too.”

That catches Sokka off guard – of course he’d known that Zuko could be funny, but he hadn’t considered that other people might have noticed. He hadn’t considered it might even have been on purpose.

“He knew a lot about some of the herbs the healers use,” Katara says approvingly. “More than some of the students, even, and a lot more than I would expect from someone who wasn’t a healer at all.”

“Watch out, Aang,” Sokka drawls, for lack of anything better to say. “Looks like Katara’s found a new boy toy.”

Aang laughs, even as Katara’s thoughtful look turns irritated. “You are such a jerk, Sokka, I swear.”

Aang shrugs. “Maybe the more comfortable he gets in the South Pole, the more comfortable you’ll get around him. Or if he gets more comfortable around you, it will…go the other way. Maybe.”

“Wow,” Sokka deadpans. “So wise.”

Despite the obvious sarcasm, Aang still looks proud.

 

*

 

The day Sokka finally decides they’ve both recovered from their mammoth squid experience sufficiently enough to try for something more taxing than history lessons is also the day he discovers that Zuko has been holding out on him. There’s an unfamiliar but wonderful aroma filling the hallway that leads to Zuko’s room, and it only gets stronger the closer Sokka gets.

“What is that?” Sokka demands when Zuko opens the door, and Sokka is hit full in the face with it.

“What?” Zuko asks, turning immediately around and casting an intent eye across his room, like he thinks he might find a criminal hiding in a corner somewhere.

“That smell,” Sokka clarifies. “Is that tea?"

“Oh,” Zuko says. “Yes.” He steps aside so that Sokka has a clear view of the table behind Zuko, where a pot and a set of cups is sitting. “Would you…like some?”

Sokka would.

“You should be fine to drink it now,” Zuko says as he pours Sokka a careful cup. “I made sure it wasn’t too hot.”

“Thanks, man,” Sokka says, raising the cup to his lips. He takes a sip, and then another sip, and then a third. He looks up at Zuko with wide eyes. “What kind of tea is this?” Sokka asks incredulously. “Did you have it delivered from the kitchens?”

“Uh – no,” Zuko says, looking surprised. “I made it, actually.”

Sokka frowns. “You? How? You don’t have a –”

Zuko raises an eyebrow.

“Oh,” Sokka says. “Right.”

Zuko smiles, just a little, just barely, and it lights up his entire face.

Sokka tilts his head back and drains the rest of his cup, just to give himself an excuse to look away. “Okay,” he says, already mourning the loss of flavor. He places the cup on table and stands. “Let’s go.” He’s moving towards the door, herding Zuko along as he does so, when he looks down and sees the shoes Zuko is wearing.

“Tui and La,” he groans, gesturing down towards Zuko’s feet. “Not those again.”

Zuko backs away from him, looking indignant. “My shoes,” he says tartly. “What’s wrong with them?”

“Well, they suck, first of all.”

Zuko crosses his arms defensively. “They’ve been working for me just fine.”

“They’re barely insulated, and impossible to get off. They’re a waterproof fashion statement. Even putting aside how they function in the snow, though, we’re sailing today, and you absolutely cannot wear those on a boat. They don’t have any grip. You’ll slip and fall right off the side.”

“They worked fine on the journey here,” Zuko says mulishly.

“Yeah,” Sokka agrees, “On an enormous metal boat with a deck dozens of feet above the ocean, where you probably weren’t doing much running around. Put something else on.”

Zuko stares down at his feet, though Sokka can’t tell whether he’s actually examining his boots, or just avoiding eye contact. “All of the shoes I brought are like this.”

Sokka sighs. “Okay,” he says. “Come with me.” Before Zuko can move or protest, Sokka is already grabbed him by the shoulder and steering him down the hall.

“Wha – where are we going?” Zuko demands.

“My room,” Sokka says. “I’m giving you some boots to borrow.”

Zuko stands awkwardly in the doorway once they get there, and watches silently as Sokka digs his second favorite pair out from under his bed.

“How are they?” Sokka asks, once Zuko has finished lacing them up.

“Fine,” says Zuko.

“Fine, fine, fine,” Sokka mimics, rolling his eyes. “I’ve known you for a week and I already know that the word fine is like, a third of your vocabulary. Let’s learn to use some words with actual meaning okay? Are they too big, or too small? Or do they actually fit you?”

Zuko hesitates. “They’re a little big.” He admits.

Sokka nods. “I can work with big. Here,” he says, turning to sift through one of the drawers in his dresser. “Take those off and put these socks on over the ones you’re wearing. It’ll do for now.”

 

*

 

After the disaster that their first trip outside the city turned into, Sokka decides not to tempt fate any further. The goal for their first day of sailing, he decides, is just getting Zuko used to being on the water in a boat that isn’t made of metal, or the size of a large building. He doubts Zuko has experience with much else, and he’s proven right by Zuko’s reaction to the icescapes around them, once they’ve cleared the harbor.

“I’ve never been in a boat that I can touch the water in before,” he says, an expression on his face similar to the one Sokka had become familiar with the first full day they’d spent in each other’s company, when they had toured the city. “And it’s so clear – you can actually see the fish from here.”

“You’re lucky you came close to summer,” Sokka snorts. “In the winter, this side of the Pole is normally frosted over. We have to break through the ice to catch anything.”

“Still. How far down do you think those are?”

Sokka leans over the edge of the boat to peer down into the water. “Well, those are arctic salmon crab. They’re bigger than they look, actually – they typically stay about forty to fifty feet down.”

“Fifty feet,” Zuko repeats like he can’t quite believe it. “We don’t have anything like this in the Fire Nation.”

Sokka looks at him speculatively, and props himself up with his elbows on the guard rail. “What do you have?”

So Zuko tells Sokka about what it’s like to sail the seas in the Fire Nation, and about the animals they have there, and doesn’t quite manage to hide his cautious amusement when Sokka tells him about the time he almost lost a fight to a koalaotter.

Sokka sails them out past the west side of the fjord, narrating the process for Zuko as he does so. It’s peaceful out here, even despite the ocean’s lurching and the occasional pitching of the boat – more peaceful than it’s been in the city, at least, ever since Zuko’s arrival.

“So,” Sokka says, after long stretch of silence during which they’d let the boat drift on its own with the waves. “How are you getting along with Yue?” He finds himself honestly wanting to know. Although the time they spend together is always chaperoned, they’ve spent enough time in one another’s company to have each formed at least some opinion of the other. Sokka hasn’t been able to talk to Yue about it, which means that in terms of options, Zuko is the only one he has.

“Fine,” says Zuko, as succinct as ever. “She’s…very kind.”

“Right,” Sokka says. He toys with the rope in his hand. “So you…like her?”

“There isn’t anything to dislike,” Zuko says, which, while true, doesn’t actually answer Sokka’s question. Sokka, out of the goodness of his heart, decides to let it go. For Zuko’s sake, obviously, and not for the sake of his own cowardice.

Zuko leans even further over the edge of the boat, then, ostensibly to looks for more arctic salmon crab, but more likely because he’s trying to avoid Sokka’s gaze. Maybe that makes it Sokka’s fault, what happens next, or maybe it’s just Zuko’s natural bad luck that makes the wind pick up suddenly, catching the sail at just the wrong angle and rocking the boat fiercely to one side. For anyone used to sailing like this, in these conditions, it would only have been a matter of adjusting their footing. For Zuko, who Sokka imagines has never set foot on a ship smaller than the one he arrived on, and who has certainly never had to sail one, staying upright isn’t an option.

He shouts in surprise and scrambles for purchase as the boat tips, but his momentum works against him, knocking him towards the starboard side and nearly flinging him off the boat entirely. Sokka doesn’t even think before he’s moving, lunging across the deck and grabbing onto the back of Zuko’s coat, dragging him away from the edge and into Sokka’s own body, and holding him steady there. Sacrificing his own footing to catch Zuko means that he has to brace them both up against the mast. With his back to the wooden pillar and one arm wrapped tightly around Zuko’s middle, he uses the hand that’s still holding onto the rope to steady the sail.

By the time the boat is stable and the sea has calmed beneath them, Zuko’s hands are fisted in Sokka’s coat, and he’s gone completely pink in the face. He looks at Sokka, and Sokka looks back, and they are so close together that Sokka is reminded, suddenly, forcefully, of the morning after their disastrous day on the East Mountain, and the way Zuko had looked in Sokka’s bed, in Sokka’s clothes, with his long dark eyelashes feathered out and prominent against his pale cheeks.

“We’ve been out here for hours and you haven’t got your sea legs yet,” Sokka snickers, breaking the silence.

Zuko blushes even deeper and finally jerks himself out of Sokka’s grip. “My sea legs are fine,” he hisses. “Mind your own business.”

“Making sure you can sail well enough to pass your ice-dodging trial is my business, your highness,” Sokka snarks back, tacking on the formal address just to see the way it makes Zuko’s face twist in quiet indignation. “Part one of that is making sure you can actually stay on the boat.”

Zuko’s jaw clenches. “Then you’d better get back to doing your job.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Sokka says, turning away to begin the process of furling the jib. “Y’know, most people in the Water Tribes learn to sail with their fathers.”

Zuko stiffens. “Maybe you haven’t noticed,” he says tersely, “but my father isn’t actually here.”

“Calm down,” Sokka says, “I didn’t – I was just making an observation. I didn’t learn to sail from my dad, either.”

There is a pause before Zuko replies. “Really?”

Sokka shakes his head. “I mean, I’ve learned a lot from him, but he was so busy when I was really young. He was just starting out as High Chief, and getting the hang of everything that comes with that, so my mom was the first person who really taught me.”

“She must be very good,” Zuko says.

Sokka swallows. “She was.”

Zuko’s good eye widens. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t realize –”

“It’s fine,” Sokka interrupts. “It happened a long time ago. It was an accident. She and a team went to try and dismantle one of the old Fire Nation ships on the Northern coast,” he says, and he hasn’t talked about it in so long, doesn’t know why he’s talking about it with Zuko, of all people, but the words are spilling out of him faster than he can think to stop them. “It was from one of their first invasions, and it had been there forever, and with all of the new changes Fire Lord Iroh was making, I guess people started thinking that maybe we didn’t need the reminder of…of what the Fire Nation used to be. She was one of the first on board, and got caught in some decades old trap that shouldn’t even have been functional, anymore, and –” he cuts himself off with an unsteady gulp.

When he looks up, Zuko’s eyes and mouth are wide, and his expression is open and horrified.

“Sokka,” he breathes. “I’m so sorry.”

Sokka shakes his head. “It’s not your fault. I know that.” And he does know it, even if he knows just as well that a huge part of the betrayal he’d felt when his father had announced who Yue was to marry had come from this: the knowledge that if not for the Fire Nation’s crimes – if not for his own people’s determination to forget them – Sokka would still have a mother.

“Still,” Zuko says. “I’m sorry.” He hesitates. “My mom died when I was young, too. I know it’s not the same, but…” he trails off. He’s looking not at Sokka but into the sea below them, as if it might give him a gift, or tell him a secret, if only he looks long enough.

Sokka thinks of the cavern on the East Mountain, and gentle strength of Zuko’s hand, splayed out just above Sokka’s heart, measuring his breathing by the rise and fall of his chest. He thinks of Zuko’s smile, forever cautious, but always sincere, and of the simple tin pot he uses to brew tea, and of the look of wonder that had adorned his face that night in the city, unabashedly in awe of this strange new world. However Sokka may have felt about the Fire Nation in the past – however he might still feel about them now – it’s completely separate from the way he feels about Zuko. Zuko is more than, is better than, all of the terrible things the Fire Nation has done.

Sokka doesn’t know how to say any of that, though – not without sounding like an idiot, at least – so he says nothing at all.

He puts a hand on Zuko’s shoulder, instead, and Zuko’s head snaps up at the unexpected contact. The color of his eyes alone is warmer than anything found naturally in the South Pole, and Sokka spends a moment wondering if everyone in the Fire Nation has eyes this color; if everyone in the Fire Nation looks the way Zuko does now, shining in the low light as if all of the sun’s dying rays had chosen him to touch down on. Somehow, he doubts it.

“Come on,” Sokka says after a moment.  “I’ve still got to teach you how to get back to shore.” Zuko nods. They both stand, and Sokka finally releases his grip on Zuko’s shoulder.

They don’t touch again on their way back to the port, but Sokka feels the heat of it for a long time after.

Chapter Text

Alright, Sokka thinks as he watches the prince expertly twirl the knife in his hand, one-two-three times, so deftly and easily he may very well have been born with the blade clutched between his fingers. Maybe Zuko isn’t entirely hopeless after all. He’s midway through skinning one of the puff-rabbits they’d caught the day before on their first successful hunt, and his technique is flawless, despite his insistence that he’s never done this before.

“I just watched you do it,” Zuko says, almost defensively, when he notices Sokka’s astonished stare.

Sokka shakes his head. “That is not something you can pick up perfectly just by watching someone else do it once. That takes practice.”

“I’ve never done anything like skin an animal,” Zuko says, looking self-conscious for a reason that Sokka honestly can’t fathom, “but I know my way around a blade. I’ve been training with dual broadswords nearly all my life.”

Sokka frowns. “Why? I mean, don’t get me wrong, that is seriously cool – but why?”

Zuko shrugs. “Why did you learn to use a boomerang?”

Sokka rolls his eyes. “To hunt with,” he says, “which you don’t do. Even if you did, though…my sister is a water bender, and she’s never learned to use a weapon. Neither have any of the other water bending masters that I know of. And you’re a fire bender.”

“Yes?” Zuko asks, so seriously that Sokka can’t tell if he’s honestly confused, or just screwing with him.

So,” Sokka says, “You already have a weapon, and it happens to be literally built into your body. Why would you have bothered learning another one?”

“A lot of people back in the Fire Nation asked me that, actually, back when I first started learning.”

“And?”

“And it’s good to have more than one trick up your sleeve.” He turns back to the puff-rabbit.

“And…?” Sokka prompts. “That’s the only reason?”

Zuko stays silent.

“Come on,” Sokka says, nudging Zuko’s ankle with his foot. “Spill.”

Zuko sighs, but puts the knife down. “I wasn’t very good at fire bending, as a child. Or, at least, I didn’t think I was. My uncle might tell you different, but he’s always been biased. I used to get…frustrated. With myself. My cousin noticed, and suggested sword fighting as a potential outlet. I just ended up liking it, so I stuck with it.”

“It’s easier to like things you’re good at.”

“Maybe,” Zuko admits, “but I didn’t start out good. I didn’t like it because it came easily to me, I don’t think – it was more that I wasn’t so afraid of messing up. When I was practicing with my swords, it wasn’t about how much better or worse I was than someone else, or how good someone else thought I should be. Not the way fire bending was.” He brings knees up, wrapping his arms around them and hugging them to his chest. “I got really invested for a while when I was thirteen. I was put off of firebending for a couple of years, after…” he pauses here, as if unsure, before continuing. “After my father left the throne.”

The knife Sokka had been holding drops form his hand, and lands in the snow with a soft crunching sound that he doesn’t hear. “Your – what do you mean, your father? I thought you said you weren’t crown prince.”

“I’m not.”

“Then…”

Zuko purses his lips, glancing away from Sokka. “When my grandfather retired from the throne, my uncle, the eldest son, was crowned Fire Lord. A few years after that, my cousin Lu Ten – the current Crown Prince – was injured during reparation efforts in the Earth Kingdom colonies. They couldn’t bring him across the sea because of how serious his injuries were, so Uncle left to care for him. My father was appointed regent in his place.”

“Temporarily,” Sokka says, understanding.

“Right.”

“Okay,” Sokka says slowly. “Why would that stop you from firebending, though?”

“Eventually Lu Ten got better. He and Uncle returned home, and Uncle was restored to the throne. My father’s position was temporary, like you said. Everyone knew it.”

A cold sort of comprehension creeps its way up Sokka’s spine. “Everyone except him.”

“Right,” Zuko agrees tightly. “Everyone except him. He was always jealous of the way my grandfather favored my uncle, and when Lu Ten got hurt, I think he saw it as his chance to show grandfather what a good Fire Lord he could be. Then my grandfather died while Uncle was away, and…I guess my father thought maybe he could stay in power.

“He couldn’t, obviously, because he was only regent – my uncle hadn’t abdicated. Even if he’d proven himself to my grandfather, it wouldn’t have made a difference, because Uncle had already been crowned. None of it mattered. Uncle came home, and he returned to the throne, and my father was pushed to the side again. Eventually he became too aggressive, and Uncle had to have him sent away from the court.”

“Sent away?”

“Incarcerated,” Zuko says shortly. “My father has been in prison since I was thirteen years old.”

“So he was your fire bending master,” Sokka surmises, “and you didn’t really like fire bending that much anyways, so you didn’t feel comfortable learning from anyone else for a while.”

The muscle in Zuko’s jaw clenches, just slightly. “Yes,” he says without looking at Sokka. “Something like that.”

They sit silently for a while, after that, but it’s not the good, peaceful kind of quiet that Sokka has become used to sharing with Zuko. Eventually, eager to break the silence and escape from thoughts of how quick Zuko had been to praise Hakoda, how cautious but sincere he had been in his admiration, Sokka leans over and nudges the prince’s shoulder with his own.  “So,” he says, “are you any good with them? The swords?”

Zuko peers slyly at Sokka out of the corner of his eye, and something in his gaze makes Sokka’s breath catch. “I’m okay,” he says. “I, uh – brought them with me, actually. If you’d like a… demonstration.”

Sokka jumps at the chance, almost literally. “Yes,” he says emphatically. “Absolutely. Tomorrow.”

Zuko raises an eyebrow. “What about my training?”

“Cancelled until further notice!” Sokka declares. “This takes precedent over literally everything, up to and including another world war, I don’t care who causes it.”

Zuko tilts his head back and laughs. It’s the first time Sokka’s seen him do it, and that’s probably a good thing – Sokka thinks he’d have gone blind, by now, if he were exposed to that kind of brightness regularly.

“Okay,” says Zuko, still smiling. He scrubs at his good eye with his fist, and Sokka forces himself to look away before Zuko can catch him staring. “Okay. Tomorrow, then.”

 

*

 

True to his word, Zuko has a pair of twin broadswords strapped to his back when Sokka comes by his rooms the next morning to collect him.

He leads Zuko deep into the palace grounds, which, inaccessible to the public and of little use to any of the staff, are rarely occupied There had been one courtyard in particular, with high walls and a well-hidden gate, that he and Katara – and Yue, when she visited – had often played in as children. The low level of foot traffic and the promise of seclusion makes it the perfect place for Zuko to demonstrate without interruption, or the intrusion of an unwanted audience.

It’s been so long since he’s visited that the details had begun to blur in Sokka’s mind, so much so that he finds himself surprised by what they find, even as he’s overwhelmed by the familiarity. Statues, each demonstrating a different bending form, are dotted along the frost covered walls that make up the perimeter of the enclosure. In the center of the courtyard is an enormous circular dais, raised several feet above the ground and accessible by means of the stairs that run seamlessly around its edge. Intricately carved pillars have been constructed around the platform’s circumference,  as if it were originally meant to be some sort of enormous gazebo, but no one ever got around to putting a roof on it.

“People don’t really come here,” Sokka explains as he leads Zuko inside the enclosure and closes the gate behind them, “so we shouldn’t be bothered.”

Zuko spends a few moments examining the new environment. His gaze lingers on the statues, and then trails up the walls, which end so high above their heads that they block out the view of everything but the sky above them. “It’s beautiful,” he says, and it sounds like he means it.

“It’s…mostly snow and ice,” Sokka says. “Just like pretty much everything else in the South Pole.”

Zuko shrugs. “It reminds me of home. Obviously it’s not the same,” he says when he sees Sokka’s raised eyebrows. “We have gardens at the palace, with trees and flowers, and a turtleduck pond… but I think if it had ever snowed, it might have looked a lot like this.”

He follows Sokka over to the central dais. Sokka sits with the bags, stretching out on the steps as Zuko removes his golden headpiece and unravels his top knot, letting his hair fall loosely around his face.

He draws his swords and starts with a few basic movements – rudimentary forms, he explains –  before moving on to more complicated ones. When Sokka starts throwing snowballs at him, he cuts through them with ease, never missing one.

“That is not natural,” Sokka says, after a particularly jaw dropping maneuver. “That spinning, twisty thing – how do you even get your body that high in the air without bending? And how is it that you can do that, but not stay upright while we’re sailing?”

Sokka tries not to feel too satisfied by the knowledge that the light flush that stains Zuko’s cheeks isn’t entirely a result of the cold. Though he tries to hide it, Sokka can see the way Zuko blooms under the praise, even followed, as it had been, by Sokka’s teasing.

Instead of responding, Zuko turns away and begins cycling through a few new movements that are simpler than before, but slightly quicker. His shirt is long sleeved, but he’s shed a sufficient number of layers by now that Sokka can see the way his muscles flex and strain under the fabric as he moves.

“This is why you’re so ripped,” Sokka mutters under his breath.

Zuko’s body grinds to a halt, mid-movement, and it nearly throws him off balance. He only manages to stabilize himself by plunging one of his blades point first into the snow and grabbing firmly onto the pommel.

What?” Zuko asks. His eyes are a little wider than usual, and Sokka hopes it’s a result of the shock that comes from nearly face-planting into the snow, and not because he actually heard what Sokka said.

“Nothing.” Sokka shakes his head vigorously. “I was just — your form,” he says, because how do you explain to someone that you’ve been staring at their arms and the tendons in their neck and the way the muscles in their shoulders shift with their every motion in a way that doesn’t make you sound like a gigantic creep? “It’s… good. I think. I don’t actually know that much about sword fighting,” he admits.

“Uh – okay,” Zuko says, sounding unsure. “Right. I could…show you, if you want.”

“You just did.”

“No,” Zuko says, extracting his sword from where he’d imbedded it in the snow and twirling it by his side in a looping, dizzying move. “I mean, I could show you how. I could teach you a few forms. If you’d like.”

Sokka sits up immediately. “Dude, seriously? Yes! Obviously yes.”

“Okay,” Zuko says, a smile ghosting across his features. Sokka has just enough time to pump his fist in the air before Zuko sheathes his sword and continues: “Find a stick.”

Sokka stops, arm still raised up above his head. “A stick.”

Zuko snorts. “I’m not going to teach you to sword fight with actual swords. We need sticks.”

“Just when I started thinking you were going to let me have some fun,” Sokka groans, but he stands obligingly, and begins searching.

Zuko begins by teaching the very first forms he had demonstrated, and, after he’s accepted that Sokka knows the basics well enough that a match between them will be more than just Sokka waving his stick around with aimlessly aggression, he acquiesces to a light spar.

Well, spar is the term Zuko uses, but Sokka think a better word for it might be massacre. Sokka loses their first match more soundly than he’s lost any fight in years, and he loses more times in a row that day that he has since he was a child, still learning how to hold a spear.

During their sixth or seventh round, the longest one so far, there’s a split second of time where Sokka thinks that maybe he’s actually got the drop on Zuko. His left side is open, and his stance is infirm, and Sokka is just frustrated enough by his string of losses and just excited enough by the prospect of actually winning that he doesn’t think so much as he just goes for it, springing forwards and swinging his stick in a tight arc towards Zuko’s side.

He should have known better. He’s barely even begun to move when Zuko smirks, and Sokka’s heart skips a beat. He blames it on adrenalin, and on the knowledge of what that smirk means: that Sokka has done exactly what Zuko wanted him to do, and he’s already lost because of it. It’s too late to change his trajectory, though, and Zuko side steps him easily. He catches Sokka’s arm with his free hand and uses the momentum to yank Sokka forwards, towards him and then past him entirely. He grabs Sokka’s stick on the way by, and Sokka is sent sprawling behind Zuko, empty handed and face first into the snow.

“This is nothing like fighting with a spear,” he groans, though he doubts Zuko can hear him through the slush of ice and dirt in his mouth.

Regardless, Zuko lets out a breathless half laugh. “Learned your lesson?” he asks, and Sokka doesn’t need to see him to picture the satisfied expression that is sure to have snuck its way on to his face.

Sokka grunts, and rolls over. “Sure – I learned that you fight dirty. I want a rematch.”

“Again?”

“Again,” Sokka demands.

He’s got more to learn, and Zuko has more to teach. He’s certain of that, and of this, too: Zuko had lied to him, yesterday — he’s not okay with swords. He’s brilliant.

Sokka is panting on his back, more bruise than boy, by the end of it, though he supposes it’s only really the end for him; Zuko doesn’t look tired at all.

“This is revenge,” Sokka says, from the ground. Zuko sits cross-legged beside him, as smug as Sokka’s ever seen him. “You’re just trying to get back at me for taking you on another hunting trip.”

“You did well,” Zuko says charitably. “Especially for your first time with a sword.”

Sokka snorts. “It was a stick.”

“But you were handling it like a sword. You’d never had to do that before, and you still managed to get in a few hits, towards the end.”

“Yeah, well, I think the number of hits you got in pretty much cancels those out. I feel like I just got hit by a boat.”

Zuko pushes his sweat-heavy hair back away from his face and shrugs innocently. “Sometimes lessons can be painful,” he says, “but that’s what makes them last.” Sokka stares. Zuko looks away, the way Sokka has learned he always does when he gets embarrassed, which is fairly often. “My uncle says that,” Zuko admits after a moment, gaze still trained on the ground. “Or…something like that. I don’t know. I thought it was annoying when I was younger, but it makes me feel better, now.”

“Better?” Sokka asks. He sits up, groaning as he does so. “About what?”

Zuko seems to freeze up for a moment, but it’s so minute that Sokka thinks he must have imagined it – especially when, only a second later, Zuko is looking at him again, this time with an almost playful half-smile.

“About losing,” Zuko says, “which you just did.” He brushes his hair out of his face again, and Sokka’s mouth abruptly goes dry. He feels, suddenly, like a child caught doing something they have the vague notion they shouldn’t be, without quite knowing why it’s wrong. He’s tempted, but he doesn’t know by what.

He ignores it.

Hey,” Sokka protests, “how about you and I go fight out in the tundra and see who survives that.”

“I’d probably still win,” Zuko replies easily. “I can regulate my temperature. Any fire bender with training can.”

Sokka gapes. Zuko turns to look at him when there’s no answer, and abruptly goes rigid when he spots the look of shock on Sokka’s face.

“You can what?” Sokka demands, but doesn’t wait for Zuko to reply before he continues. “Why didn’t you do that in the cave when we were trapped by the mammoth squid? I thought I was going to have to explain to my dad how the prince of the Fire Nation lost all of his toes on his first day outside the city.”

“Oh. Uh, I–”

“Well,” Sokka continues, barely hearing him. “Actually, it might have been better that you didn’t, since we were literally surrounded by ice. Any kind of fire bending might have melted the whole thing down around us. If we hadn’t been crushed under ice, we’d have lost our hiding place and been dinner for the mammoth squid.”

Zuko squirms. “That was…one of the reasons. Yes.”

Sokka tilts his head contemplatively. “Only one? What were the others?”

Zuko winces. “The cave was… in a tight space like that, with – I mean, with everything that was happening…”

“Being hunted by a rabid mammoth squid, you mean.”

“…Right,” Zuko agrees, though is mouth twists as he says it. “That. I didn’t think – I mean. I didn’t want to risk losing control and hurting you.”

“Is that something that happens a lot?”

Never.” Zuko says, intense for just a moment before shifting back into discomfort, which Sokka is starting to suspect might be his natural state. “But it was… a tense situation. Not that I don’t have the control for it –”

“Is it difficult?” Sokka asks, genuinely curious. “Regulating your body temperature?”

“Not usually,” Zuko admits, “but to maintain it for that long I’d need to breath fire, and that’s something a lot of people don’t have the control for.”

“But you do.”

“Mostly.”

Sokka thinks of the brittleness of Zuko’s voice only the day before, soft and hesitant, saying I wasn’t very good at fire bending, as a child, and I used to get frustrated with myself. He reaches out with his foot and taps the toe of his boot lightly against Zuko’s ankle. “You must be a pretty good bender.”

Zuko shrugs guardedly. “I got better. And I learned form the best.”

“Oh, right,” drawls Sokka. “Royal tutors. Only the best for our esteemed prince.”

A few weeks ago, a comment like that would have shut Zuko down. Sokka is almost proud when Zuko only rolls his eyes. “I learned most of what I know from my uncle, actually,” he says. “He became my teacher, after my father was…” he pauses, pursing his lips. “After. Even before Uncle became the Fire Lord, he was most famously known as The Dragon of the West. They say he’s one of the greatest firebenders to have ever lived.”

Sokka pictures Zuko – thirteen, maybe fourteen – being shown for perhaps the first time that the fire that burns inside of him is more than someone else’s tool, or an adversary he was born to struggle against. He thinks of a king who takes the time to teach a young boy how to understand and value the gift he’s been given, and finds himself appreciating Fire Lord Iroh all the more.

“He must have been good,” Sokka says, “if he got a nickname that cool out of it.”

The lines of Zuko’s face go soft again, and Sokka counts it as a win. “Firebenders learned bending from dragons, but my uncle has invented and perfected so many new forms and techniques that people started saying he was the closest to a dragon you could get in human form. They took it as more proof that the Fire Lord and his family really are descendants of Agni.”

“Descendants of Agni,” Sokka repeats blankly. “Okay, let’s stick a pin in that for later. I’m not done with that, yet, but I’m not letting you change the subject, either. We’re in the South Pole – I know the day we spent in that cave wasn’t the only time you’ve ever been cold – like, what about on the boat? You could have warmed yourself up, then.”

Zuko shifts, looks uncomfortable at the reminder. “I know. I just…didn’t want to make you uncomfortable.”  

Sokka pauses. “Listen, Zuko –”

“It’s fine,” Zuko says hurriedly. “I get it. I know how a lot of the world still views fire benders, and I didn’t think you’d want another reminder that I’m one of them.”

“Oh,” Sokka says weakly. He understands, but he wishes he didn’t. Zuko’s right, is the thing – a few weeks ago, his fire bending would have been a point against him in Sokka’s eyes. It’s something he would have side eyed and tried to gossip about with Aang and Katara. This isn’t some random fire bender, though – or, at least, it’s not anymore. This is Zuko. Sokka doesn’t have to be afraid of him. He isn’t.

He reaches out and wraps his hand almost unconsciously around the part of Zuko that’s closest to him, which end up being his ankle. Zuko stiffens under the touch, but only just. Surprised, but not uncomfortable. He doesn’t move away.  

“Hey,” Sokka says softly. He doesn’t look at Zuko, but he knows just from the stillness of Zuko’s body under his hand that he’s listening. “You don’t have to do that. Hide that part of yourself, I mean.” He pauses. “Well, maybe be careful in the city, I guess – most of our buildings areliterally made of ice.” Zuko exhales sharply at that, just once, but it’s close enough to a laugh that Sokka feel something like proud.

“That’s nice of you to say, but I’m sure there are still plenty of people in the Southern Water Tribe who might not like the idea of someone firebending right in front of them.”

Sokka winces, because he knows it’s true. He would have been one of them, before. Now, just the thought of it makes him feel guilty.

“Okay,” Sokka says. “Maybe just in front of me then, for now? Until you’re more comfortable here, around everyone else. We can make it a deal,” he adds, when Zuko looks hesitant. “I know I don’t have to be afraid of you firebending, and you don’t have to be afraid of doing it around me. You can make all the tea you want,” he jokes, and is rewarded by one of Zuko’s fond eye rolls. “Plus, that way you can keep yourself warm, like the delicate little flower you are.”

“Shut up,” Zuko says, but Sokka sees the way the corner of his mouth ticks up in response to Sokka’s own grin.

Zuko clears his throat. “I can regulate temperatures other than just mine. So I could, you know....keep both of us warm. If you want.” He seems regretful as soon as he says it, but Sokka latches onto the idea immediately.  

“You can do what?” he demands, releasing his grip on Zuko’s ankle so that he can sit up properly.

In response, Zuko closes his eyes, and inhales deeply. When he exhales, a flood of hot air fills the space around them, so thickly that Sokka feels it through the layers that he’d kept on while sword fighting. It warms him right down into his bones.

Sokka isn’t thinking when he throws himself at Zuko, wrapping his arms around Zuko’s torso and burying his face in the spot between Zuko’s neck and shoulder. By the time he’s realized what he’s done, Zuko has already relaxed into it, the way he’s started to do whenever Sokka initiates physical contact lately.

Tui and La,” Sokka moans. “If you tell people you can do this, no one will ever have a problem with you fire bending, I swear to the moon and Aang.”

Zuko laughs, and Sokka can feel the way it vibrates through his body. Something goes warm in his chest at the sensation, and it’s not from Zuko’s heat. One of Zuko’s arms wraps itself around Sokka’s back in something startlingly close to a hug, and Sokka’s not stupid enough to think he’d be comfortable doing this with anyone else, but he also doesn’t feel like there’s anything wrong with it. Being close to Zuko doesn’t feel any different than being in his own bed. Under the weight of Zuko’s arm and the heat he’s giving off, it feels only natural to lean forward and cling to him entirely.

It’s a while before Sokka speaks again. “I picked something easy for your training today, because I knew we’d both be tired.”

“You’re the only one who’s tired,” Zuko quips, though his grip on Sokka loosens. “What happened to being a mighty warrior?”

Sokka sits up, and Zuko’s arm drops away from him completely. He finds himself missing the comfort of it. “Even the greatest of warriors must fall, if they are to truly learn,” he says sagely.

Zuko snickers, bumping Sokka’s shoulder with his. “You sound like my uncle.”

“Then your uncle must be very wise. Maybe even almost as wise as I am,” Sokka says, wishing he had a fake beard to stroke.

Zuko rolls his eyes. “Sure,” he snorts. “Maybe. I thought you said lessons were cancelled, though.”

Training is cancelled,” Sokka corrects. “Not lessons. Besides, I think you’ll be good at this.”

Zuko tilts his head. “What did you have in mind?”

“Betrothal necklaces.”

“I…don’t know what that means.”

“It’s how engagements are indicated in the Water Tribes,” Sokka explains. “You’ll need one for when you officially propose to Yue. Because you’re marrying her?” He adds when Zuko still looks confused.

“Right,” Zuko says, his face going abruptly blank. “Of course.”

There’s something off about him, suddenly, his demeanor different by leagues than it had been only a minute ago. He gets like this, sometimes, Sokka is learning. There’s not much to do about it but move on, so he doesn’t pry; he just pulls out the bag of supplies he’d brought with him and walks Zuko through the process.

“I have some examples here,” Sokka says, “but each design is unique, so you don’t have to worry too much about what other necklaces look like. Remember that Princess Yue will have to wear it for the rest of her life, though. So, y’know—try and make it good.”

“No pressure.”

“No pressure if you practice. Here,” Sokka says, handing Zuko a small carving knife and pulling a small lump wood from the bag he’d brought with him. “Start with this – it’s easier.”

Zuko takes the wood without looking at Sokka, and they begin their work silently.

“Do you remember the jeweler I introduced you to your first night here?” Sokka asks as they carve. “When we toured the city?”

“I do,” Zuko replies, though his focus never strays from his lump of wood or the knife in his hand. “Why?”

“Once you’ve decided on a pattern and a material, you can go to him for whatever you need. I already took care of the payment, so you don’t need to worry about money.”

“Oh,” says Zuko. He looks up at Sokka for the first time since they’d begun, genuinely surprised. “Thank you. I…you didn’t need to do that.”

Sokka shrugs. “It’s not a big deal,” he says. “It’s the Council’s money, anyways. I just made sure he knew who was allowed to use it.”

“Ah,” says Zuko. “Well, in that case, get lost.”

Sokka laughs so hard his hand slips, and he has to start over.

“Does everyone know how to make betrothal necklaces?” Zuko asks a few minutes later, still whittling slowly away.

Sokka looks up from his own slightly larger block, from which he appears to carving some sort of animal. “Most people learn, eventually. Well, most men, and a few women, probably. Once they decide they want to get married.”

“But they don’t learn until then?”

“Most people understand the basic process,” Sokka says, “but unless you’re some kind of carver or artisan’s apprentice, most people don’t really have a reason to know until they have to learn how to make one themselves. Usually people learn from a family member who’s made one before. A father, or an older brother or uncle – someone like that.” Sokka shrugs. “Since no one from the Fire Nation actually knows how to make a traditional betrothal necklace, though, and since I’m already teaching you everything else, I guess the Council thought it would be best if I just taught you this, too.”

“So why do you know?”

Sokka stops carving. “What?”

“You said most people don’t learn until they’re getting married, but you’re not married.” Zuko leans back, looking alarmed. “Are you?”

“No!” Sokka says. “I mean…” he sighs. “Look, I don’t want to make things weird for you.”

Zuko squints at him. “Why would you knowing how to make a necklace be weird for me?”

“No, it’s just – Yue and I…” He trails off. He almost doesn’t want to say anything, but…he and Zuko are friends, now. He thinks they are, at least. He hopes. He owes Zuko the truth. “When we were younger, a lot of people thought the two of us would – you know. Get married, one day. Including us, for a while,” Sokka explains, watching Zuko carefully. “My dad taught me how to make a betrothal necklace so that if I ever had to go up to the North Pole to complete the courtship, I wouldn’t have to rely on someone who wasn’t him to show me.”

In a city made of ice, Zuko has somehow managed to freeze more thoroughly than anything around them. “You and… Yue? You were…”

“Sort of,” Sokka says reluctantly. “Not really, and definitely not anymore.”

“But – you would have,” Zuko says, his tone somewhere between brusque and urgent.

“Look,” Sokka says honestly, “I’m not saying you shouldn’t be worried about anything, but you shouldn’t be worried about this. I love Yue, and I always will, but it’s not like that anymore. For either of us. Whatever we might have had at one point, it doesn’t matter now. It’s barely even worth mentioning. She’s my friend, and I’m hers, and that’s it.”

He’s telling the truth. Whatever he may have felt for Yue, it’s only significant because of the memory that remains; it’s the shadow of an infatuation, if it’s anything at all. He might feel traces of it from time to time, like a phantom pain felt by an amputee, but he knows it’s not really there.

“Right,” says Zuko, focusing again on his own piece of wood. “Good to know. Could I get another piece? I think I messed this one up.”

Sokka looks down at the mangled chunk of wood in Zuko’s hand, and has to cough to keep from laughing. From the sour, stony look on Zuko’s face, he does a bad job at hiding his amusement.

“Sure thing, buddy,” Sokka says, trading Zuko for a new, clean lump.

“Hang on,” he says, before Zuko can actually touch his tool to the wood. “Do you mind if I…”

Zuko shakes his head, so Sokka scoots closer. “Here,” he says. He maneuvers his body so that he’s sitting across from Zuko, and then takes each of Zuko’s hands in his, so that they both have a grip on the whittle and the wood block. “You were trying to get to the pattern too fast – it looks like you were just gouging chunks out of it and praying.”

“Isn’t that what carving is?” Zuko asks. His voice, Sokka notices, is a bit more gruff than it usually is. He wonders if Zuko’s really that worked up about it.

“No,” Sokka snorts, “That’s not what carving is. Look, you want slow, smooth strokes with the flat side until the block is the shape you want. You can work on your design after you get to that point, but you need a canvas for it first.”

Zuko’s hands are stiff under Sokka’s, and Sokka silently wills him to relax. It doesn’t work the way it had in the cave, though, so he retreats a few inches, gesturing for Zuko to do it the way Sokka had shown him. He’d thought Zuko would be good at this, considering how well he handled the knife when Sokka was showing him how to skin their catch from the hunt, but every part of him is drawn and distracted.

Sokka finds himself reaching his hand out towards Zuko without knowing quite what he plans to do when it gets there. What he really wants, he knows, is to hold Zuko’s hand; to thread their fingers together and run his thumb over Zuko’s knuckles and say, hey, what’s the matter? You can tell me. That’s a stupid thing to want, though, and it really doesn’t even make any sense, and he doubts that Zuko, in his current state, would react very well.

Instead, Sokka finds himself placing his hand carefully over Zuko’s wrist. He doesn’t grasp or grab at it, or do anything else that might restrict Zuko’s movement. He just rests it there, atop the delicate bones. Zuko goes immediately still at the touch, and Sokka can’t help but notice that he’s trembling.

“Maybe we shouldn’t have done this outside,” Sokka says mildly, already tugging the carving knife gently from Zuko’s hand. “You’re getting too cold – you can’t carve with stiff fingers. I told you it was okay for you to fire bend in front of me, remember?”

“I – oh,” Zuko says, a little wildly. “Right. I forgot.” He doesn’t move, though, and the air around them doesn’t get any warmer. Sokka shrugs, and stands up.

“It’s fine. We should be getting back, anyways.” He extends a hand downwards, and tries to believe he only imagines that Zuko hesitates before taking it. He can’t blame his imagination for the way Zuko avoids his gaze, though, or for how quickly Zuko pulls his hand away from Sokka’s, turning to grab his swords and coat without another word. He doesn’t bump Sokka’s shoulder on their way back through the grounds the way he normally does when they walk together, and the laugh he offers at Sokka’s single, weak attempt at a joke is forced and emaciated at best.

“Take this,” Sokka says when they reach Zuko’s rooms, and pushes the bag of wood blocks into Zuko’s hands. Zuko takes it from him, and is either unable or unwilling to hide his flinch when their  fingers brush. “For practice,” Sokka explains around the rock in his throat. “I put a few pieces of soapstone in there too, for when you think you’re ready to move on from wood. Uh. Say hi to Yue, for me. When you see her tomorrow.”

“Right,” Zuko says. “I will. Thank you, Sokka.” He closes the door without saying goodbye.

Sokka spends the rest of the evening resolutely not thinking about how badly it had stung, that Zuko had seemed hardly able to bear touching him. He does not think about the tremor under Zuko’s skin, or the detached note in his voice, and he and does not wonder why, on the entire way back from the courtyard, Zuko had not, even once, been able to look him in the eye.

Chapter Text

Sokka knocks on the door of Zuko’s rooms one morning with a plate of food and nothing else.

“Hey,” he says, pushing past Zuko and making his way inside.

Zuko steps aside and closes the door behind him. “Uh...hey.”

“I thought we’d stay in today,” Sokka explains. “I brought breakfast.” He lowers himself to the floor and sets the plate down beside him so that he can pull a small parcel from his pocket. “And flashcards.” He tosses the bundle to Zuko, who catches it reflexively. It’s a stack of small parchment pieces, each with its own inscription.

“Flashcards,” Zuko echoes as he scrutinizes them.

“Yep,” Sokka says, a baked sea prune already in hand and halfway to his mouth. “To help you memorize all that dumb Water Tribe nobility etiquette. I figured you could use an easy day.”

Zuko snorts, but sits down and starts pulling off his boots — Sokka’s boots, Sokka notes. The ones Zuko has taken to wearing daily, apparently having officially recognized that the Water Tribe really does make them better.

Zuko seems to be in a good mood today, for which Sokka is grateful. Whatever had seemed to trouble Zuko that day in the courtyard, he seems to have mostly gotten over it. They seem to come at random, the moments when Zuko retreats in on himself, putting a distance that feels more than just physical between them. Sokka has yet to figure out why it happens; he only knows that he hates it, so he’s gotten into the habit of pushing, just a little, every time he feels Zuko start to pull away. Zuko still freezes up, sometimes – still goes tense at strange moments in a way that makes Sokka feel a little helpless and a lot confused – but he always recovers quickly enough, and he always has a small smile ready for Sokka when he does.

“Honestly,” Sokka drawls, relaxing into the plush fur pelt he’d settled down on, “I thought you’d be better at all this manners stuff.”

Zuko looks at him skeptically. “Why would you think that?”

“Because you’re so uptight,” Sokka replies easily.

Zuko throws his shoe at him. “I am not!”

“Ow, dude —” Sokka says, but he’s laughing, even as he rubs his thigh where the boot had hit him. “You are too. So uptight. In a great way!” he adds hurriedly when Zuko raises his other shoe threateningly. “A totally cool and fun way. A way that almost makes it easy to forget what a nerd you are.”

“Really.”

“Yep.”

“I’ll make sure to add that to my list of accomplishments,” Zuko deadpans. “Uptight, but in a way that is totally cool and fun. And also a nerd.”

“It’s not an insult!” Sokka insists.

“It sounds like one,” Zuko says. He doesn’t sound too upset, though, so Sokka decides it’s okay to keep teasing.

“I mean — look at this.” He gestures to the room around them.

“Look at what?” Zuko asks, wrinkling his nose. “The room decorated specifically according to the Water Tribe traditional style?”

“All of these books,” Sokka says. “Like, why?”

“I like to read,” Zuko says defensively. “Some of us know how.”

Ouch. You know, being mean to people is not in the flashcards.”

“You’re the one making fun of me.”

“Uh, when? I just wouldn’t have expected you – or anyone, really – to travel with so many books, seeing as how they’re, you know, pretty heavy? And when people are traveling between countries they tend to pack light. Actually,” Sokka says contemplatively, “between the books and the swords and the teapot –”

“You like the teapot.”

“I like what comes out of the teapot,” Sokka argues, “but that’s not the point. We have tea pots here, and books, and weapons if you need them. You didn’t actually have to pack half the Fire Nation with you.”

Zuko leans back against the bed. “Maybe not. I thought it might nice to have a few familiar things, though,” he admits, more easily than Sokka knows he ever would have done when he’d first arrived. “It makes me feel less like…well. Less alone, I guess.”

Sokka props himself up on his elbow and knocks his foot against Zuko’s thigh. “Hey,” he says. “I’m right here.” You’re not alone, is what he means.

Zuko smiles, and reaches down to pat Sokka’s ankle. “Yeah,” he says. “I know.” I understand, it sounds like, and thank you.

Sokka lays back down, but keeps his foot where it is. “Okay,” he relents, “but still – the books. It’s not really a problem of you having them as much as it is a problem of how you’ll use them.”

Zuko raises an eyebrow. “I’ll use them to read.”

Haha. You’re very funny. Seriously, though, are you actually planning on reading all of these? I’m not a slave driver, but I know you can’t have that much free time.”

Zuko shrugs, and uses the hand that isn’t still wrapped around Sokka’s ankle to pluck one of the spiced anemone-crab truffles from the tray between them. Sokka looks on approvingly; he doesn’t like spicy food or anemone-crab, but he’d picked up a few anyways because he knows that Zuko does.

“It’s something to do, I guess,” Zuko says once he’s polished off the truffle. “Better than sitting around and staring at walls, waiting to be called in to a Council meeting, or eat a chaperoned meal with the princess, or for you to come and whisk me away for Water Tribe lessons, or whatever.”

Whisk you away,” Sokka repeats. “Like you’re a damsel in some romance novel. Is that what I’m doing?”

Zuko turns red. “That’s not –”

Sokka laughs. “See,” he says, “now I’m making fun of you.” He scans the room around them. “You should read me one of these.”

“One of the books?”

“No, the stars. I’m looking to get my future told,” Sokka snorts. “Yes one of the books.”

“Right now?”

“Sure. You brought, like, a million of them, and I’d be willing to bet I haven’t even heard of most of them, if they’re all from the Fire Nation. Maybe I want to see what all the fuss is about.”

“The fuss,” Zuko repeats. He doesn’t ask why Sokka doesn’t read it himself, and Sokka is glad, because it would mean telling Zuko how much he likes listening to his voice. “I thought we were practicing manners today,” Zuko says.

“Easily postponed,” Sokka says with a shrug. “C’mon, your highness. Read to me.”

Zuko rolls his eyes, but he grabs a book and does exactly that.

 

*

 

It doesn’t take nearly as long as Sokka had thought it would for Zuko to become…not an expert, necessarily, but still surprisingly good at sailing.

“We’re going around to the other side of the fjord today,” Sokka had told him that morning. “The conditions are pretty similar to what you’ve seen before, but the water will be a little icier. I want to make sure there aren’t any surprises when you’re out there on your own.”

Not that he thinks Zuko wouldn't be able to handle a few surprises - he's is a quick learner, and he’s making more progress today than Sokka had thought he would. By midday, he and Zuko are sprinting up and down the deck with practiced ease, and when the sun is high in the sky and they’ve shed most of their layers, Sokka decides they could both use a break.

“I thought it’d be harder for you,” Sokka admits, leaning back against the mast as they allow their boat to drift further out into the open water before them.

“Andthought you got over thinking I was some kind of priss when I kicked your ass the other day,” Zuko retorts.

Sokka coughs to hide his own embarrassment – not at his defeat, but at how deeply he’d misjudged Zuko.

If he’s being honest, he’s not nearly as self-conscious about how easily Zuko had beaten him as he might have been, had it been anyone else. Sword fighting is a traditionally Fire Nation skill, after all, and Sokka is proficient with plenty of other weapons – his loss to Zuko doesn’t make him any less of a warrior.

That’s what Sokka would tell anyone who asked, at least, but it’s mostly an excuse, and Sokka knows it. The real reason he isn’t really embarrassed by his memories of Zuko’s skill with a blade is because he’s too fond of them. Zuko had looked so content with a sword in his hand, as comfortable as Sokka had even seen him. He can’t really begrudge Zuko a few wins if it keeps that look on his face, and the weight he seems so used to carrying off of his shoulders.

“That’s not what I meant,” Sokka says. “You just…took to the boat really well.”

“It’s not like this is my first time out here with you.”

“Still. It normally takes people a while to get the hang of it as well as you have. I know I made fun of you before, but you’re doing better than I would have expected from anyone so new at this.”

“Well,” Zuko admits, “It took a little while to get used to this kind of boat, but I’ve sailed before. Not like this, obviously, but I have.”

Sokka stares. “You…have?”

Zuko rolls his eyes. “The Fire Nation is an island nation. How do you think we get around?”

Sokka opens his mouth, and then closes it. “That’s… a good point,” he says finally.

Zuko shrugs. “I’ve been on sailing vessels less often than I’ve been on traditional Fire Nation ships, but I’m not completely clueless. I know the basics, it’s just that I’ve never had to do everything myself, before. The Fire Nation doesn’t build boats that are small enough that there isn’t a need for a crew of at least six or seven people. Not any that I’ve been on, at least. And I’ve never had to navigate anything like that before, either,” he says, gesturing towards the ice-ridden expanse of ocean they’ve left behind them.

“So you almost fell off the side of the boat like four times on our first day out because…”

“Because these boats are a lot less sturdy than the ships they build in the Fire Nation.”

“They’re not less sturdy if you actually know what you’re doing,” Sokka scoffs. “Sorry we require our deckhands to actually have some skill.”

“You’ve already said I’ve gotten good, and I’ve only been here a few weeks. It can’t be that hard.”

Sokka laughs. “Alright, fair.” It probably helps that Zuko is one of the most determined workers and fastest learners Sokka has ever met, but he doesn’t say that. “Still, I didn’t think you’d have had to learn, being a fancy prince and all.” He smirks so Zuko can tell he’s joking, and Zuko snorts, elbowing him.

“I had to learn because I’m a prince. You know the Fire Nation used to have—” he cuts himself off abruptly, looking uneasy.

Sokka turns to look at him fully. “What?”

“Nothing.”

Sokka frowns, and pushes. “Seriously, what?”

Zuko clenches his jaw. “I was just going to say,” he begins carefully, holding himself stiffly, the way he hasn’t around Sokka in weeks, “that the Fire Nation used to have…during the war, I mean, we’d built up the largest navy in the world. The royal family has always been traditionally involved in–”

“I thought the Fire Nation didn’t have a standing army, anymore,” Sokka interrupts. He may not know a lot about history, but he knows this as well as anyone else does: when Fire Lord Azulon officially called an end to the war, all of the Fire Nation’s troops were called home, and conscription practices were put to an end. When Fire Lord Iroh took the throne over a decade later and began implementing new foreign relations policies and treaties, one of the very first of the agreed upon reparations was that the Fire Nation would dissolve all formal military operations, and a vast majority of their weapons manufacturing.

He feels dizzy and numb and angry, imagining what the Fire Nation Navy must have look liked at the height of its power, an entire fleet of ships like the one that used to blight the northern horizon – like the one that took his mother away.

Zuko shakes his head, stricken. “We don’t! I swear. I mean, we have defensive troops –”

“That sounds like an army to me.”

“It’s not. It’s – there’s no draft, anymore, and they’re only based in Caldera.” That’s the Fire Nation’s capital city, Sokka knows. “It’s – they’re more like security for the royal family than anything. That’s what I was trying to say, before – the royal family has always been heavily involved in running the military, but now that we don’t have a military, that’s obviously not feasible. We never get rid of tradition in the Fire Nation, though,” he continues almost bitterly. “Not really. So members of the royal family since the war ended have gained the traditional military experience through spending time with the defensive forces, and in boating excursions around the coast.  

“Sokka,” he says, obviously seeing the doubt on Sokka’s face, “I promise, I’m not – we’re not…” He blows the hair that had fallen from his topknot earlier in the day away from his face. “The Fire Nation wants to make up for the things we’ve done in the past,” he says. “There’s still a lot of animosity directed towards us –”

Sokka opens his mouth to interject, but Zuko rushes on.

“—and a lot of it is deserved. Even after thirty years, the world is still healing. The Fire Nation understands that, and we want to make things right again. That’s why I’m here. Joining the Fire Nation and the Water Tribes like this is about more than just trade deals. It’s about peace. It’s about healing what we’ve hurt, and showing the people of the world that we’re sorry, and that we mean them no harm, and that we want to fix what we’ve broken. It’s for what’s left of the nations – and if I'm being honest, it’s for us, too.

“My family forced the people of the Fire Nation into a war they didn’t need, and that many of them didn’t want, and for nearly three-quarters of a century we sent them away to die and convinced them that it was for the glory of our nation. This treaty is about making it up to them, too, so that they don’t have to keep carrying our legacy of destruction on their backs. It’s about becoming a part of the world again. There’s nothing we would do to jeopardize that,” he says, looking at Sokka almost desperately, now, “and there’s nothing we wouldn’t do to preserve it, either. This won’t fix everything, and we know that – but it’s a start.”

A breeze rocks the boat unevenly, but Zuko doesn’t even seem to notice. He sits back, apparently out of words. He deserves a break, honestly – Sokka does think he’s ever heard Zuko say so much at once. He wonders if spontaneous speech-giving is a skill drilled into all Fire Nation nobles, or if it’s just something that comes naturally to Zuko, when the inspiration manages to strike him just right. 

Sokka isn’t sure how long it takes him to respond, but he does his best to keep his voice even when he does. “I didn’t know you cared so much about this.”

“You think I’m here because I don’t care?”

“I thought you were here because the Fire Lord demanded it.”

Zuko shakes his head. “My Uncle was reluctant to let me come at all. Not because he doesn’t care about the treaty,” he hurries to say, “but because he was…worried. About me. About what it meant for me.”

Sokka doesn’t have to ask what that means. He’d felt the same for Yue. “It sounds like he cares a lot about you.”

“He does. But he also cares about the Fire Nation, and about our legacy – and so do I. I recognize the importance of what I’m here to do. A union like this…” he sighs. “It’s not rectification, but it could be forgiveness.”

Sokka nods, and lets out a breath it feels like he’s spent forever holding. “I’m sorry,” he says, and tries not to feel even worse at the shocked look Zuko gives him. “I shouldn’t have assumed the worst.”

“It’s fine—” Zuko starts to say, but Sokka cuts him off with a remorseful shake of his head.

“It’s not, though,” he says. “I know you better than that.”

“You’ve known me for barely a month. That’s not very long.”

“It feels long,” Sokka says, because it does. It feels like he’s known Zuko all his life. “It’s long enough to know that I should have trusted you. I’m sorry for being a jerk.”

Zuko shakes his head. “You weren’t.”

“I was. But I don’t just mean now. I mean when we first met, too. I gave you a hard time, and I shouldn’t have. I was a jerk, actually, even though you were nothing but polite. You didn’t deserve it any more than Yue would have. I’m lucky – the whole world is lucky, honestly – that you were willing to put up with me and stay committed to seeing the treaty through, even though I was such a massive dick about it.”

“You weren’t that bad,” Zuko says after a moment. “I won’t say it didn’t make it…harder, at first, but…I’m glad you know me better now. And that I know you.”

Sokka wants to reply in kind, but there aren’t any words that seem to want to fit in his mouth. All he can think of is the pleading note in Zuko’s voice, and the earnest look in his eyes, as he had tried convince Sokka of the Fire Nation’s innocence. All he can think of is a scar that he sometimes has to stop himself from reaching out to touch, and numb fingers pulling at unyielding boots, and a room full of books that Sokka finds himself almost desperate to explore, if it will mean one more thing he gets to share with Zuko.

Zuko would have begged Sokka to believe him, if it had come down to that, but only because he doesn’t know what Sokka knows: that Zuko doesn’t need to beg him for anything. Not ever.

It’s a revelation, that Sokka would give Zuko anything he asked for, but not a massive one. Not one that surprises him, really. He only wishes he knew what Zuko wanted. He only wishes he could believe that Zuko would tell him, if he asked.

Zuko is looking away now, back out towards the open sea, evidently having given up on waiting for an answer that won’t come. It’s obvious just from the tight line of his body that he’s embarrassed by what he said – by how much he’d revealed – but he doesn’t need to be. Not when Sokka agrees. I’m glad we know each other, too, he thinks, but he can’t bring himself to say it aloud. Not because it isn’t true, but because it isn’t enough.

There are a million thoughts rattling around in Sokka’s head, and a million words building up under his tongue, but not a single one of them is good enough. Not for Zuko, who is wind-blown and pink-cheeked and more beautiful than he has any right to be, so lovely that it sends something unnamable inside of Sokka aching. They aren’t enough, so Sokka stays silent, and wonders, to himself and to the moon and to the sea, what could be.

 

*

 

Sokka finds her on the bridge that night. It’s long after dark, but he has no trouble seeing her; just as it had when they were children, the light of the moon seems to follow her wherever she goes. 

“I feel like we haven’t seen each other recently,” he says, leaning beside her against the handrail.

Yue smiles, and moves closer. “I know,” she says. “I feel bad.”

“You shouldn’t. It’s not your fault.”

“Still. We’re in the same place for the first time in years, and we’ve barely even spoken.  I’ve been so busy going over the treaty and preparations for…” she pauses, swallowing. “For my journey to the Fire Nation.”

Sokka had forgotten, until now, about that part of the agreement: after the engagement is made official, Yue will travel with Zuko back to the Fire Nation, where the actual wedding ceremony will take place. They’ll spend a year there while she learns Fire Nation customs and becomes acquainted with the court, and then she and Zuko will make the journey to the Northern Water Tribe, where they’ll make a more permanent home. When he’d thought of it before, it had pained him almost beyond measure to think of her gone. Now, inexplicably, he aches for both of them.

“And you’ve been so busy with Prince Zuko,” she continues, gathering herself. “It seems that neither of us have had much time lately. But I have missed you,” she says sincerely, and he doesn’t have to look at her to know she’s telling the truth.

“I’ve missed you, too,” Sokka says, and then sighs. “Yue,” he asks, hesitant, “are you happy?”

“Of course,” she replies easily.

Sokka huffs out a breath. “I mean – do you want this?”

“I want what’s best for my people, Sokka,” she says, “and Prince Zuko is…kind. He’ll make a good husband.”

Her voice echoes in his head: Prince Zuko. Prince Zuko. Sokka doesn’t remember the last time he called Zuko Prince.

“He’ll make a fine husband,” Sokka allows, “but will he make a husband that you would want to marry? Would you still have him it weren’t for this treaty?”

“Sokka,” she says, tightly but not sharply, “that doesn’t matter.”

“It does!”

“It doesn’t. I’m a princess. Making sacrifices comes with the station. I know that, and so does Prince Zuko. Do you think he wants this?”

“He should,” Sokka mutters. “You’re amazing.”

She laughs a little, at that, but it doesn’t sound too happy. “I’m sure there’s someone back in the Fire Nation who thinks he’s amazing too. Maybe someone in the Earth Kingdom, even.”

“He doesn’t love you,” Sokka tries, though he doesn’t know exactly what he’s trying for. “And you don’t love him.”

Yue turns towards him fully, now, and for the first time, she looks truly upset. “Love has nothing to do with this,” she says, “and you know it. We are both doing what is right for our people.”

“That doesn’t make it good.”

“It makes it honorable. That’s what matters.”

Sokka shakes his head. He looks away from the water, turning his gaze onto her, only to find that she’s already looking at him. Her eyes at night are somehow just as blue they are during the day, and her hair glows almost ethereally under the light of the moon. Once upon a time, just the sight of her had been enough to send him spiraling.

This isn’t like that. This is a new kind of falling. This is suffocation. It’s separate from the way he had once felt about Yue, but it’s different, too, from the anger and disgust that had taken hold of him when her marriage had first been announced. He knows that if anything, he should feel better; he should take comfort in the knowledge that Yue isn’t being handed over to some nasty old man, or to the psychotic great grandson of a genocidal king. She’ll be treated well. She’ll be treated the way she deserves.

The thought of it, though – of them married, of them gone – is like a knife to the stomach.  He’d thought he was getting used to the idea, but the pain of it has only gotten worse, and he can’t figure out why. It’s like the heart and breath are being choked out of him, so slowly that he’s gotten used to it, now; so slowly that it almost seems natural, until he remembers how living used to feel, free from that constant, crippling weight, and he knows all over again that whatever this is, it’s killing him.

Before, when the marriage had first been announced, he could at least identify the source of his distress. Now, he has nothing at all; no explanation, and nothing to cling to. There is only a desperate hole where relief should be, and Sokka has been surrounded by water his entire life, but he’s never felt so much like he’s drowning.

“You know,” Yue says, apparently deciding that the silence has stretched far enough, or perhaps sensing that Sokka could use a distraction, “we end up talking about you, most of the time.”

It’s not much, but it works. Sokka’s head snaps towards her of its own accord.

“Me?”

The left corner of her mouth pulls her lips upwards into a smile that, though uneven, could only be described as perfect. “You. There’s…not a great deal that we’ve found to discuss other than the treaty,” she admits, “but one thing we do have in common is how highly we think of you.”

Sokka exhales roughly. For the first time he can remember, he closes his eyes to the sight of her. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I know Zuko’s a good guy.”

“Then this conversation is over,” Yue says, kindly but firmly. “You were concerned about me, and now you don’t have to be.”

“Knowing you won’t have to live your life bound to some random asshole isn’t the same as knowing you’ll be happy. You deserve love, Princess.”

She rolls her eyes in a rare breach of decorum, but she’s smiling softly as she does so. “You haven’t called me that in ages,” she says.

“Not since we were kids,” he agrees, nudging her gently with his elbow. “It was the only way I could tease you without actually getting in trouble.”

“You used it later, too,” she says. “When we got older. When we were…”

Sokka can’t help the way he flinches at the reminder. “Yeah. I did. Guess I forgot about that part.”

“Sokka,” she begins delicately, “this isn’t…you’re not –”

“Whatever you’re thinking,” Sokka interrupts, “that’s not it. You’re my friend. You’ll always be my friend, and that’s all I need from you. That’s all I want.”

“Then why are you still so upset about this?”

Her eyes, as round and as bright as the moon, bore straight through him, the way they always have. A lot has changed since they were kids, but he knows that this, at least, never will.

He wonders if she can see how close he is to an answer. If he let her look long enough, could she figure it out herself? It’s not like it’s hiding. It sits just on the edge of his mind, like a word on the tip of his tongue. It’s something he won’t be able to let go of once he’s grasped it, is the thing, and that feels dangerous. It feels like something he’s not ready for.

“I don’t know,” Sokka says eventually, and wishes he had a better answer for her. More than that, he wishes he had an answer for himself.

 

*

 

“Hi,” Zuko says, looking startled and subtly delighted when Sokka stops by his room the next night. He steps aside to let Sokka in, and closes the door behind him. “I didn’t think I’d see you today.”

His hair is undone, Sokka can’t help but notice, and falling loosely around his face. His gaze is so keenly fixed on Sokka that he doesn’t even seem to notice that Sokka is holding something out to him until it’s being pushed directly under his nose.

Sokka thrusts the pair of boots – brand new and still bound together – into Zuko’s chest. “Here. I had them specially made,” he explains, when Zuko does nothing but stare. “They’re your size and everything.” Even if Sokka hadn’t said it, he’s certain Zuko would have been able to tell. They’re red with gold trim, just like all of Zuko’s other clothes. They won’t clash so much, the way the ones Sokka lent him always did. “Not that I mind you borrowing mine, but I figured you might like to have something of your own – genuine Water Tribe craft.”

“They’re for me?” Zuko asks lowly, and Sokka snorts.

“Of course they are. Have you ever seen anyone who didn’t literally arrive on that ship with you wearing this shade of red? It took me a while to find a craftsman who could do it, actually,” he admits, rubbing the back of his neck. “Most don’t make clothes in this color because there’s so little demand for it. We can’t all pull it off the way you can, your highness,” he adds playfully, when Zuko stays silent.

Sokka had thought Zuko would tease him back, as has become their habit. He doesn’t.

“I think you’d look nice in red,” he says instead, so softly that Sokka almost doesn’t hear it. He looks up when Sokka doesn’t respond, and Sokka doesn’t know what his own face is doing, but Zuko breathes in sharply, as if only just realizing what he had said. He doesn’t take it back, though. He just looks away, back down at the boots, his face flushed a pale shade of pink Sokka has only recently become accustomed to seeing.

It’s just as striking now as it had been that first day out on the ocean, when Sokka had pulled Zuko firmly against his own body to prevent them both from falling right off the edge of the boat. Then, Sokka had been close enough to feel the heat coming off of Zuko. He wants that again. He wants to hold Zuko’s face in his hands and find out if his cheeks are as warm as they look; to know whether it has anything to do with Zuko’s bending, or if it’s just Zuko: warm from the inside out.

Sokka coughs and pushes the thought down, as he has become used to doing. “I thought you could wear them during your trial.”

“Thank you,” Zuko says sincerely. “Really,” he insists when Sokka starts to wave it off, “I mean it. Thank you.”

Sokka can’t help it; he looks away. “Yeah,” he says. “No problem. It’s good timing, anyways.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Zuko freeze.

“Good timing,” Zuko repeats. “For what?”

“I…spoke to the Council, today,” Sokka says around the breath that has lodged itself in his throat. “I told them you were ready.”

He looks back up in time to see Zuko’s eyes go wide. “You – am I?” he asks, his voice colored with something like panic.

Sokka nods. “You are,” he says, hoping and knowing at the same time that he’s right. He’d agonized over the decision for most of the morning before finally asking his father to send word to the Council. He’d spent the rest of the afternoon at the Citadel, describing the finer points of Zuko’s training and the progress he’s made mastering what Sokka can teach him about their traditions and rites of passage. He’d wanted to give Zuko more time – had intended to give Zuko more time – but Zuko is ready, and the moment Sokka had caught himself wishing Zuko wasn’t was the moment he’d known that this needs to end.

Zuko sits down heavily on the bed. When he looks up at Sokka, there is something in his eyes almost like fear. He licks his lips, and Sokka can hardly breathe.

“When?” he asks, his voice scarcely more than a rasp.

“Tomorrow.”

Tomorrow?” Zuko demands. “That soon?”

“They’ve decided, in honor of your heritage, to start the trial when the sun is highest in the sky,” Sokka tells him. “To give you extra strength.”

Zuko nods, but his body is stiff, and his breathing has become quick and shallow.

“Are you nervous?” Sokka asks, and then feels stupid as soon as the question is out of his mouth. “You don’t have to be,” he hurries to say. “I wouldn’t have told them you were ready if you weren’t.”

Zuko looks at him a little wildly. “Nervous about – being ready. For ice-dodging. Right. Yes. I’m… just anxious, I guess. About that.” He looks away from Sokka, and his breathing seems to relax, but he’s holding himself as tensely as Sokka’s ever seen.

“Traditionally,” Sokka says quietly, breaking through the clench of his own jaw to get the words out, “on the eve before a man comes of age, he’s supposed to undergo a ritual cleansing by some of the Tribe’s spiritual leaders. In preparation for the big day.”

Zuko’s head snaps towards the door like he expects someone has been standing just beyond it all this time, waiting for Sokka to call them in.

“But,” Sokka continues before Zuko can say anything, “I told them I’d handle it.”

The Council had asked Sokka several times if he was sure, when he’d said this was what he wanted. I’m positive, he’d said, putting on his best ‘son-of-the-High-Chief’ voice. I’ve completed all the rest of his training up until now. It only makes sense that I do this, too.

It had been his conviction that won them over, he knows, but only because they hadn’t known from where it stemmed. A part of it had come from empathy: he’d known how Zuko would feel, surrounded by strangers, the lone subject of an intimate and unfamiliar ceremony. Sokka had wanted to be there to help him, the way he has been for all the rest of it. He’d wanted to finish what he started.

The other part, though – that part was selfish. The thought of readying Zuko for this makes something tighten in his chest, clench up and expand and weave its way through his ribs. It hurts, but the thought of letting someone else do it hurts even more. The truth is that he doesn’t want to give this to anyone else. The truth is, he doesn’t think anyone else deserves it. Sokka knows like he knows the beauty of the Northern Lights and the location of his mother’s grave that to have Zuko – to see him, and to touch him, and to be trusted by him – is a privilege. It’s a privilege none of them have earned.

None of them but Sokka.

He remembers his conversation with Yue, and the answer he could not give her. Here is your answer, he thinks. Take it from me. Tell me what it means, because I don’t know.

Here is what he does know: even as he had lamented Zuko’s periodic bouts of taciturnity, Sokka had been, himself, preserving the distance between them. He has been so careful, hoarding his touches and looking away and practicing a stumbling kind of ignorance to ease his own mind. For the longest time, he hadn’t even realized he was doing it. Now that he has, he is tired of it. He doesn’t want to, anymore.

Just this once, he tells himself. Just for tonight, he won’t.

Sokka kneels before Zuko, deferential in a way Zuko may be used to from other people, but not from Sokka. Neither of them speak as he unlaces Zuko’s boots (Sokka’s boots, still) with nimble fingers, a reenactment of the night after their trip to the East Mountain – except now, Zuko is wide awake. It is not an act born of necessity, this time, but an act of service, willingly performed. Sokka moves his hand up and rests it on Zuko’s leg over his pants, just above the knee, and holds Zuko steady as he pulls the boots off one at a time.  

Sokka stands, then, and begins working on the clasps that run up the front of Zuko’s thick coat. When the coat is completely unfastened Sokka slides his hands underneath the heavy lining, and his hands brush against Zuko’s chest and collarbones as he slides the garment back, down off of Zuko’s shoulders. It collapses behind him into a heap on the floor. Neither of them move to pick it up.

Sokka unlaces Zuko’s outer tunic and lets that drop to the floor behind Zuko, too. The only move Zuko makes is to lift his arms when Sokka goes to slip his under-shirt over his head, and Sokka cannot help the way his knuckles skim, for just a moment, against the smooth skin of Zuko’s ribcage as he does so, just as surely as Zuko cannot help the way he trembles in response.

Throughout it all, Zuko’s gaze never once leaves him. He tracks Sokka’s movements with his eyes the way a starving animal might watch its prey, or an artist might trace the lines of a thing they long to paint.

The silence is broken only briefly in the washroom, when Sokka directs Zuko to heat the water in the basin.

“Why do I doubt that having a firebender heat your water is a part of the ritual?” Zuko asks.

“Maybe it’s not,” Sokka says, letting a thin smile catch at the corners of his mouth, “but it’s much easier. I won’t tell if you don’t.”

He turns around as Zuko moves towards the bath, and busies himself with removing his own coat and outer tunics, though he keeps his pants and lighter layers on. He stays facing away from Zuko not to avoid thinking of him, but for the same reason his fingers had, just minutes ago in the bedroom, hovered over the belt of Zuko’s pants before retreating: there is a difference between allowing himself this intimacy and invading Zuko’s privacy, and that is a line he has no desire to cross.

When he turns back around, Zuko has sunk himself into the water almost completely, so that he is only visible from the bridge of his nose, up. His eyes are open, and trained on Sokka. He does not flinch from Sokka’s gaze.

He does not flinch when Sokka approaches him, either, or when Sokka kneels by the basin and rolls the thin sleeves of his undershirt up to his elbows to avoid getting them wet. He just sits up a little straighter, so that his entire face is above the waterline, and waits. Sokka does not know what he expects to happen, when he dips a cloth into the steaming water and brings it up to swipe gently across Zuko’s face, but it is not for Zuko to close his eyes and lean into it. Sokka is careful, especially around the uneven edges of his scar, but Zuko never pulls away. He doesn’t react as Sokka drags the cloth down his neck and arms. He never moves at all, actually, unless Sokka moves him first.

Sokka applies a soft pressure to Zuko’s shoulder blade, and Zuko leans forward. A feather-light touch to his collarbone, and he leans back. A steady hand tugging gently at his bicep, and Zuko knows to sit up straighter, pull his body farther from the water, and bare more of his skin to Sokka. He tilts his head back when Sokka pushes his hair back from his face, and Sokka uses the position to scrub the pads of his fingers leisurely across Zuko’s scalp, washing his hair as thoroughly as he had done the rest of him. The only reaction Zuko gives is to exhale so deeply that it releases a burst of steam through his nose and sends the water sizzling.

This is meant in part to be a spiritual experience, and tradition calls for prayer; a song to go with the ceremony. It is a breach in his duties to leave the ritual and Zuko’s knowledge of them incomplete, but Sokka has already made a home in the fragile peace they’ve constructed, and a small, foolish part of him is afraid that if the silence is broken too soon, he’ll break with it.  

Still, he cannot bring himself to leave the ceremony unfinished. He recites the benedictions in his head instead of out loud, and hopes that it counts for enough.

Sokka does not rush. He goes slowly. Time will run out for them eventually, but here, now, he takes his time with Zuko.

 

*

 

Zuko stands when Sokka motions for him to do so, and remains still as Sokka presses the towels to his body and spreads floral smelling oils and serums carefully across his shoulders and neck and chest. He takes each of Zuko’s hands in his, one at a time, and massages the excess oil into the skin of his palms. He is as gentle as he knows how to be, and Zuko’s skin is as soft and electric all at once, and Sokka is in agony, and he doesn’t even know why.

It hurts, but he does not do what he has done a thousand times before: he does not look away. He had been doing it, he realizes now, to spare himself the pain of beholding. He does not know why it hurts to look at Zuko, but tonight, at least, it is something he will endure. He will not make himself avert his gaze unless Zuko asks. He will not rescind his touch. He will not relinquish this peace. He will let himself have this.

Zuko is the one who will be facing the trials tomorrow, Sokka reminds himself, fruitlessly trying to dispel the curdling in own his gut. Zuko is the one being tested, and he knows what he’s doing. He’s more than competent, and Sokka’s a good teacher. There is nothing to worry about, Sokka knows, which is why it makes no sense at all that every part of him feels so heavy.

He leads them back into the bedroom, where he hands Zuko a pair of soft sleep pants and slips a loosely fitting shirt over Zuko’s head. He laces it carefully up over Zuko’s chest, going slowly but still finishing too soon. His hands hover there, clutching at the shirt’s cords, even after he’s tied the final knot. He must be tired. That’s the only explanation for why he allows himself to linger for so long. It’s the only explanation for why he doesn’t quite manage to pull away when Zuko raises his own hand, deliberate and cautious and slow, and rests it over top of Sokka’s.

(Who is Sokka kidding, anymore? He sees it coming. He lets it happen. He wonders when his fingers started shaking.)

When Sokka finally looks up, it is to find that Zuko is watching him intently – not with any kind of question in his eyes, but with a single-minded focus, like he’s trying to commit the moment to memory. Sokka looks at Zuko and feels the heat of his gaze just as keenly as he feels the weight of Zuko’s hand wrapped around his. Zuko doesn’t say anything. He does nothing at all, except look steadily back.

“I should go,” Sokka says eventually. He keeps his voice low, but they’re close enough that Zuko’s eyelashes still flutter when Sokka’s warm breath skates across his face.

“You don’t have to,” Zuko says, and his hand tightens around Sokka’s, still pressed against Zuko’s chest. “Not if you don’t want to.”

“You need sleep."

Zuko gives a sardonic huff, but he closes his eyes as if obeying an order. “I doubt I’ll be getting much sleep tonight anyways.”

“Do you want me to stay?”

There is a pause, and then Zuko’s eyes open. “I’ll be fine. I…you’ve done a great deal for me already. I don’t mean to keep you. You’re free to leave.”

Sokka nods, but not in acquiescence. He nods because he recognizes this: Zuko, wanting something but refusing to ask for it – though whether it’s because he doesn’t know how or because he’s ashamed of his own desire, Sokka doesn’t know. What he does know is that he would give Zuko anything – even the things he’s not willing to ask for.

It’s possible that he’s taking a few more liberties than tradition requires, but nothing about this arrangement is traditional. Nothing about Zuko being here at all is traditional, and the only thing that really matters in this moment is that Zuko is here, but he might not be for much longer, and Sokka is starting to think that any space at all between them is far too much.

He takes Zuko’s hand, and pulls the both of them over to the bed.

“What are you doing?” Zuko asks, even as he follows easily.

Sokka sits, and Zuko sits with him.

“You slept easier like this,” Sokka says. “Before.”

Zuko’s voice is so low it’s almost a whisper, but it pierces through the isolated quiet of the bedroom as clearly as a bell. “That was different.”

Sokka shakes his head, and, for the very first time, tells Zuko a lie:

“It wasn’t.”

Sokka is sure that Zuko sees right through him, but he doesn’t protest again. He falls into the bed when Sokka presses him down into it, and he adjusts himself willingly when Sokka pulls Zuko close and presses up behind him. He is silent when Sokka wraps an arm around him, except for the great, shuddering breath that escapes him.

“You don’t have to do this,” Zuko says.

“Do you want me to go?”

Zuko turns so that he and Sokka are lying face-to-face, but he doesn’t move away, or displace Sokka’s arm from where it’s still wrapped around him. He doesn’t seem to want to look at Sokka, but he keeps the same amount of distance between them – which is to say, none at all. When he speaks, it’s muffled by Sokka’s chest.

“I don’t want to inconvenience you.”

Sokka brings his hand up over the back of Zuko’s neck and squeezes, just slightly. Zuko melts into the pressure.

“What if I tell you that I’ll sleep better here?”

Zuko seems to consider this. “Will you?”

“Mm-hm,” Sokka hums. He tightens his grip around Zuko. “My own personal fire place.”

Zuko huffs out a sarcastic breath, but relaxes minutely. He reaches out, slowly, and presses his hand against Sokka’s fluttering ribcage. His long fingers curl almost timidly around Sokka’s waist.

“Oh,” he says, cautious but softly teasing and so, so warm. “I see. You’re just using me.”

“We’re using each other,” Sokka murmurs. “It’s a symbiotic relationship.”

He runs his thumb slowly back and forth across the nape of Zuko’s neck. Zuko shivers, and presses in closer.

“Tomorrow…” he starts, but Sokka shakes his head, ruffling Zuko’s hair where his head is tucked under Sokka’s chin.

“Don’t worry about tomorrow,” Sokka whispers. “It’ll be okay. I promise.”

It’s the last thing he says before he falls asleep, and he means it. Whatever Sokka’s own mysterious hang-ups regarding the matter might be, Zuko knows everything he needs to know – can do everything he needs to do – to pass his trials with flying colors. Sokka was right when he said as much to the Council. 

(He hadn’t known for sure that he would be, but he was right about this, too: like this, slumber does what it would have failed to do otherwise, and claims the both of them with ease. Here, in Sokka’s arms, Zuko falls asleep in minutes.)

Chapter Text

Sokka wakes up slowly.

As soon as he’s aware enough to know where he is and who he’s with, he knows that Zuko is awake, too. They had not moved even an inch away from each other while they slept; it seems as though every part of Sokka is touching a part of Zuko, and although Zuko’s hand (which had made its way under Sokka’s sleep shirt sometime during the night, and is resting against the skin of Sokka’s lower back) is gentle, it’s far too stiff to belong to a sleeping boy. Zuko’s breathing, too, is unnaturally even, and Sokka wonders how long he’s been laying liked this, unable or unwilling to leave the sanctuary of Sokka’s arms.

They’re facing each other, still, just as they had been when they’d fallen asleep. Zuko’s face is buried in Sokka’s chest, his arm thrown over Sokka’s waist in a mirror of the hold Sokka has on him.

Unlike the first time they’d woken up like this, Sokka doesn’t think Zuko is pretending to sleep out of embarrassment. It feels more like an attempt at preservation – like he’s trying to savor the moment the same way Sokka is. The way Sokka has been trying to do since he knocked on Zuko’s door last night.

Or maybe Sokka is just projecting. Either way, he doesn’t move. He doesn’t want to be the person to disturb this – to put an end to what might be the last time he’ll ever have Zuko this close.

Zuko is the one who eventually breaks the peace, unable to stay still for long under a sun that has already risen. He pulls himself smoothly out from under Sokka’s arm and swings his feet over the edge of the bed. Instead of standing right away, though, he spends a few moments just sitting there.

He stares at the floor beneath his feet. Sokka stares at his back, and feels something in him soften in a way that he thinks is probably left over from last night – except he knows before he’s even finished the thought that it’s wrong. It’s not just leftovers. Not really. It doesn’t feel like the traces of something already gone. It doesn’t feel like something new either, though. It feels more like something that’s existed for a while, and has finally been given the chance to grow.

Eventually, Zuko stands, and makes his way to the dresser in the corner. Sokka watches him go. He’s mostly dressed, working on lacing up the front of his shirt, when Sokka finally yawns and sits up himself.

Zuko freezes at the noise and looks over at Sokka, who is still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

“Sorry,” he says. “I was trying to be quiet.”

Sokka waves him off. “S’fine. How did you sleep?”

“Uh—well. Really well, actually.”

“Good,” Sokka says, standing up and rolling his shoulders back. He’d slept soundly, too; far better than he’d thought he would. He reaches his arms high up above his head and yawns again. He squeezes his eyes shut as he stretches, only barely registering the chill on his lower abdomen where his shirt has ridden up and exposed his skin to the frigid air.

When he opens his eyes again, Zuko is staring at him with wide eyes. When he notices Sokka looking back, his gaze snaps towards the floor. His fingers are still clutching his shirt’s drawstring.

Sokka moves forward and takes the string from his hands, just as he had done last night. “You’re doing it wrong,” he says, before he can think of a reason not to. Zuko stiffens under his touch in a way that he absolutely had not done last night, but he doesn’t move away. “Maybe I told the council you were ready too soon.”

Zuko lets out a breath that might be a laugh, but he doesn’t say anything. It only takes a few moments for Sokka to finish lacing the shirt up properly; even once he’s done, though, he doesn’t move away. He can’t stop himself from running his hands across Zuko’s chest, smoothing out the shirt that is the single degree of separation between them, and trying not to feel guilty for it. There’s no reason to be guilty. There’s no reason for the leaden weight that buries itself in the flesh of his stomach. He isn’t doing anything he shouldn’t be doing, or anything he hasn’t already done. They know what it is to be close to one another. They’ve been here before.

It’s different, somehow, in the light of day, and Sokka wishes he didn’t know it.

Sokka covers his sudden trepidation by moving his hands up towards Zuko’s shoulders and squeezing. “I have to help my dad with preparations for tonight’s feasts,” he says, still holding on, “so I won’t see you until after the trial. But I’ll be there. You’re going to do great, okay?”

Zuko moves like he wants to shake his head, but catches himself before he can.

“You don’t have to do that.”

“Do what?”

“That – that thing, where you tell me that everything’s going to be okay because you think that’s what I want to hear. I don’t need you treating me like I’m made of glass, too.”

Part of Sokka wants to argue. The other part wonders. “Too?”

Zuko’s eyes go a little wide for a moment, and then he looks away from Sokka and glares at the ground, crossing his arms in front him.  Not so long ago, Sokka would have huffed and puffed and gone to complain to Katara about petulant, spoiled princes. Sokka has gotten good at reading this prince, though, and he knows that glaring may as well be Zuko’s default expression, and it doesn’t always mean anger. This one is frustrated, and maybe even a little vulnerable.

“My uncle and cousin…” Zuko says eventually.  “They’ve always loved me, but they’ve treated me differently, since my father was sent away. They already think…”

“Think what?”

“That I’m too fragile. For this, I mean. All of it.”

“Ice-dodging isn’t really the easiest thing to get a hang of,” Sokka allows. “It would make sense if they were worried.”

“Not the ice dodging,” Zuko says. “The marriage. They know how necessary it is,” Zuko continues, “and how important, but it still almost didn’t happen because they didn’t think I could handle it. I had to convince them that I was fine with it, and that this was something that I wanted, and none of that should have even mattered, but they coddle me, and I know it’s because they feel responsible for what my father did, even though it’s not their fault. Even though was the one who…”

“It wasn’t your fault either,” Sokka says before Zuko can finish the thought. “You were a kid. No one could have expected you to stop your dad from following through on whatever bullshit mutiny he cooked up while your uncle was out of town.”

Zuko rolls his eyes, but he looks something close to fond as he does it. “That’s what Uncle says. Not in those exact words, but that’s the general sentiment, I think. He’s…kind of difficult to understand sometimes.”

“It sounds like he wants you to be happy.” Maybe the Fire Lord and I have something in common, he doesn’t say. “Look,” he continues when Zuko stays silent, “when I say you’ll do great, I’m not just trying to make you feel better. I’m saying it because it’s the truth.”

Zuko gives a rough laugh. “Sure.”

Sokka squeezes Zuko’s shoulders again, giving him a little shake. He wants to draw Zuko in towards him, but he doesn’t. “How could you not,” Sokka asks, fixing what he hopes his a confident smile on his face, “with me as a teacher?”

“I’m doomed,” Zuko says, smiling genuinely for the first time that morning, and Sokka can’t help the small grin that breaks out across his own face.

“I’ll see you after,” he says. “Okay?”

“Okay,” says Zuko.

Sokka nods, clapping Zuko once more on the shoulders before releasing him. He feels Zuko’s eyes on him as he leaves, and it takes everything in his power not to turn around and look back. Still, it’s a near thing.

 

 

*

 

 

It seems as if the entire tribe and then some has gathered to watch.

They’ve congregated along the cliff face and down on the beach and all along the edges of the northern-most glacier, hoping to catch a glimpse of the prince before he sails out towards where the icebergs are most numerous and the current is most violent.

It is not the atmosphere of any regular ice-dodging trial. Even Sokka’s trial had not been so widely attended. The people who had come – friends and strangers alike – had come to support him, and to witness the first son of their tribe enter formally into manhood. They had come as a show of camaraderie.

The same people now watch Zuko like they might watch a wild animal, or a particularly interesting pet. They come not to watch the ocean judge him, but to judge him on their own terms. You’re my judge and my jury, Zuko had said that first day in the city. Some of the people who have gathered today look like they would not much mind if the ocean proves to be his executioner. They arrive in droves, and Sokka finds himself wanting to turn them all away.

When the time comes, Sokka stands at the pier with Katara and the Council. Only a short distance away is Zuko, who kneels before Sokka’s father as the Chief recites the ceremonial rites.

Hakoda paints the symbol onto Zuko’s face as he would for any other man, but the ink is so dark against his porcelain skin that it may as well have been carved there. Zuko stands, and in a world made of ice and light and snow, he is still the brightest thing Sokka has ever seen.

Drummers start up the beat. The horns chime in, and from the overlook Sokka and all of the rest of the tribe can see Zuko’s boat as it sets out. Sokka isn’t afraid. He has no reason to be; he knows what Zuko is capable of. He knows that Zuko can and will succeed. He knows this, but something that feels an awful lot like terror begins to build in his chest as the dark spot that is Zuko’s vessel becomes smaller and smaller.

Sokka pushes it down, and cheers with the crowd.

 

 

*

 

 

Sokka had meant it that morning, when he’d told Zuko he had to leave to help with preparations.

The celebratory feast that takes place that night is even larger than the one that had greeted Zuko when he arrived. The music is loud and jovial and the decorations are intricate, and everyone is dressed in their best clothes. The engagement will be official soon, after all – as soon as Zuko actually proposes. There is much to celebrate.

This feast is different from the first one in more than just size and tone. This time, Zuko is not such a stranger. This time he is prepared, and Sokka gets to watch him in action.

Zuko interacts fluidly with the Tribesmen he had been so stiff around before. Sokka feels a surge of pride swell in his chest as he watches Zuko converse with a member of the Council and one of the Tribe’s lead exporters. Zuko doesn’t try to shake hands with any of them, the way he had when he first arrived; instead, he clasps his hand around the upper arm of the tribesman greeting him and lets his own be clasped in return, just like someone born to the Tribes would. Just the way Sokka taught him.

The Zuko who had come to the Southern Water Tribe, grim-faced and silent and stiff as a board, is not the same Zuko that stands before them now.

He may not look like one of them, but he acts like he is. It feels like he is, to Sokka, and Sokka finds himself wondering what he’ll do when Zuko goes, and what he’ll use to fill the hole that Zuko leaves - because there will be a hole. That much, Sokka is sure of.

Zuko slips in and out of view as Sokka fulfills his own social obligations, shaking hands and telling jokes and enduring pinched cheeks and slightly too-hard slaps on the back. Eventually, perhaps inevitably, he loses sight of Zuko entirely. When another hour passes and Sokka hasn’t seen him, he makes his excuses, slips quietly away, and goes to find him.

 

 

*

 

 

He doesn’t search for long. Zuko is in the first place Sokka looks, actually: the closed off courtyard where they had first practiced fighting with swords, and where Sokka had first walked Zuko through the basics of carving a betrothal necklace.

He’s sitting at the foot of the stairs leading up to the dais, and Sokka sits down beside him.

“Hey,” he says, and winces at the way Zuko visibly startles — Sokka hadn’t meant to scare him. “You alright?”

“Yeah,” Zuko says, very obviously lying. “I’m fine. It’s just… a lot. A lot is going on in general.”

Zuko’s attending staff had dressed him especially well for the feast, but the thick, high collared cloak had looked far more regal actually on Zuko than it does now, flung to the ground beside him in a pool of gold and scarlet.

A lot,” Sokka snorts. “Yeah, I’ll say. You passed the test!” He leans into Zuko, pressing their shoulders together good naturedly, and then leaving them like that when Zuko doesn’t move away. “Thanks to my phenomenal instruction, of course.”

“Of course,” Zuko says dryly, snorting when Sokka preens.

It’s an act, mostly. Sokka is running almost entirely on instinct, only faintly aware of what he’s saying. When he tries to put a name to what he’s feeling, the best he can come up with is murky. His brain feels foggy, like he’s had too much to drink – except he hasn’t had a drop. It’s just Zuko, and his thigh pressed up against Sokka’s, more intoxicating than any alcohol could be.

“People are expecting you to propose any day now,” Sokka says, mostly to distract himself, and then wonders why saying it out loud makes something turn in his stomach. He had always known that this arrangement would end in marriage, but it had seemed so far away, before. Now it feels imminent and suffocating, like Sokka is being pulled underwater by the force of it.

“Right,” Zuko says, and Sokka prods him more.

“As soon as you finish your betrothal necklace, honestly.” The words feel like ash in his mouth, and he can’t figure out why. He is annoyed, suddenly, with himself and with Zuko, for a reason he can’t quite grasp.

“I’ve finished it,” Zuko says dully.

“Oh,” Sokka says, unable to hide his surprise. He forces himself to smile, and wonders why it takes so much effort. “Good! That’s great, buddy. What material did you settle on?”

Zuko doesn’t answer. Instead, he thrusts a hand inside his pocket and pulls out a necklace, which he shoves indelicately at Sokka.

Sokka manages to grab hold of it before it can fall into the snow, and brings it up closer to his face to examine.

(The last time they had spoken about betrothal necklace had been in Zuko’s room, nearly a week ago, now.

Sokka had been lying on the floor, waiting for Zuko to finish his tea-making magic, when he had noticed an lump of rock about half the size of an arctic-hen’s egg on the rug near Zuko’s bed. He’d reached out reflexively to pick it up, and hadn’t even finished wondering how it had gotten there in the first place when he realized what it was: a half finished betrothal necklace, carved from one of the dark practice stones Sokka had given to Zuko the day they’d visited the courtyard.

“Is this — did you make this?” Sokka had asked incredulously, sitting up.

“Uh, yeah? I was practicing,” Zuko had said, glancing up from the teapot he’d been watching like a messenger-hawk up until that moment. “Like you told me to? I messed up on that one, though.”

“You messed—” Sokka had stopped, shaking his head. “I mean, the edges are a little ragged, maybe, but this is really good,” he’d said. “I know I said I thought you would be good at making your betrothal necklace, but this is impressive.”

“It’s not.”

“It is,” Sokka had insisted, a little irritated despite himself. “Are you sure you’ve never done this before, or are you actually just good at everything? Like, do you just wake up and decide you’re going to be good at something and then just be good at it? What the fuck?”

“No?” Zuko had said it unsurely, as if wasn’t quite sure what Sokka was asking. Sokka had been able to tell just from the tone of his voice that he was embarrassed, the way he always seemed to get whenever anyone directed any sort of praise at him. He’d made a mental note to compliment Zuko more often, if only to get him to stop freezing up every time it happened.

“Unbelievable,” Sokka had said, falling onto his back. “You don’t even know.”

“Know what?” Zuko had asked, but Sokka had just shaken his head.)

However fine-looking Sokka had thought that necklace had been, the one in his hand now blows it away.

It’s gorgeous: the buttery leather of the band is so dark brown it’s almost black, and the three interlocking circles that make up the pendant are carved of a stone so pale blue it’s nearly silver, shaped so delicately and finely it could have been done by a master. Sokka turns it in his hand, and the meager remnants of the day’s light glints off of the waves Zuko had etched into the stone’s surface, giving it the appearance of moving water.

“It’s beautiful,” he says quietly.

“It’s fine,” says Zuko, and Sokka turns to see that Zuko is staring at him, a look in his eyes almost like he’s in pain.

The necklace is more than fine, though, and Zuko seems to be the opposite of fine, and Sokka has spent all day feeling like he’s about to split open for no reason he can name. He feels like he’s on a precipice, looking off the edge of a cliff at something impossible to make out and far more terrifying than a rabid mammoth squid.

“Stop saying things are fine,” he snaps. “Everything should be fine, but it’s obviously not. Why do you look so upset?”

Zuko doesn’t even try to deflect, the way Sokka half expects him to.

“This is… so important,” he says, like Sokka doesn’t already know that; like he hasn’t been told a million times by every single person in his life how important it is that Yue and Zuko tie the knot as soon as possible, even though they barely know each other. Even though there are other options. Even though they should get to choose.

“I know it is,” Sokka replies. “And I know it’s important to you, especially. I just don’t understand why you’re – like this,” he says, gesturing up and down at Zuko.

“You don’t know why it’s important to me,” Zuko hisses, and Sokka understands, suddenly, that it’s not sadness that Zuko is exuding – or at least, not just that. It’s anger, too, searing hot and near to boiling over. “Me, specifically– not just the Fire Nation.”

Sokka has always been good at puzzles, but he suddenly feels like he might not have all the pieces to this one.

He keeps his voice careful. “What do you mean, you specifically?”

“I meanUGH!” A small wisp of flame curls out of Zuko’s mouth with his shout. He lurches to his feet and kicks at the snow in front of him before whirling back around to face Sokka, though he keeps his gaze on a point just beyond Sokka’s shoulder rather than actually looking at him directly. The snow beneath him begins melting rapidly, as if recoiling from the heat of his fury. “I told you about my father.”

Sokka does not follow the snow’s lead; he stays right where he is. “About how he’s in prison for trying to overthrow your uncle? Yeah. You told me.”

“I lied. Well – no, I didn’t. It wasn’t a lie. I…mislead you.”

“You – what?” Sokka asks, trying and probably failing to keep the hurt and confusion off of his face.

“My father is in prison,” Zuko allows. “That part was the truth. And he did try to overthrow my uncle – but that’s not why he was imprisoned.”

“Then… why?”

Zuko sits back down so suddenly it’s almost like he’s fallen. He wraps his arms around his knees and stares at the snow on the ground like it’s playing out a scene in front of him. When he speaks again, it’s like Sokka’s not even there.

“You have to understand, my father was… he was a lot of things, but a good man wasn’t one of them. He didn’t want the throne just so that he could rule over the Fire Nation. He wanted everything.”

Sokka can practically feel the idiotic expression taking shape on his face, just as he can feel his brain trying to connect the dots that have suddenly been thrust before him.

“I don’t – what are you saying?”

“He wanted to start the war again. To spread the glory of the Fire Nation.” Zuko spits the word ‘glory’ like a curse. It drips from his tongue like acid, so harsh that even from a foot away, Sokka can feel the burn of it.

He feels his eyes go wide, his entire body recoiling at the very thought. “And that’s why he was arrested.”

Zuko lets out a breath so deep it brings steam with it. “No.”

No? Then what? Is advocating for a new genocide not illegal in the Fire Nation?”

“In public, sure. But there aren’t any actual laws that prohibit people from talking about the war, or even supporting it, as long as they’re doing it within their own home.”

“And your home just happened to be the center of your government,” Sokka says.

Zuko closes his eyes and nods. “Yeah.”

“So…what was your father punished for, then? If it wasn’t for trying to overthrow your uncle, and it wasn’t for trying to instigate another war?”

Zuko flinches so minutely that Sokka almost doesn’t catch it. “He committed a different kind of treason.”

Sokka shakes his head – not a refusal of anything, but a desperate effort to get the buzzing in his ears to quiet. “He — what does that mean, Zuko? You keep saying things, but you’re not telling me anything. What did he do?”

Zuko is as stiff as any of the statues surrounding them when he replies. “It is against the laws of the Fire Nation to inflict grievous harm unto any member of the royal family, even if you yourself are a part of that family.” He says it evenly, as if reciting a text from memory. “By doing so, my father forfeit his status and his place in the court. That was the crime he was imprisoned for.”

There is something terrible bubbling up in Sokka’s chest, something wretched and foul forming in the back of his mind – but he can’t think it. He won’t. “I don’t understand,” he says, desperate to be wrong about a thought he can’t even bear to finish. “Who did he hurt?”

For the first time since Sokka had entered the courtyard, Zuko looks him in the eyes. He turns his body fully so that Sokka can see his entire face: one side perfect, smooth like porcelain, delicate and strong in equal measure, the kind of face people see in their dreams, and the other side — the other side, which is…which has…

“Me,” Zuko says. “He hurt me.”

Sokka feels his own eyes widen. Against his will, one of his hands reaches out towards Zuko, towards his face, towards – but it never gets there. Zuko flinches away.

“It was because I spoke out against him,” says Zuko, once again avoiding Sokka’s gaze. “I told him that the war was cruel, and that it was wrong. I told him that there was no honor in it. I should have known better – I did know better,” he says, almost angrily. “But I still – and he –” Zuko cuts himself off. He’s shaking – but not, Sokka thinks, from the cold.

Sokka’s hand is still partially outstretched. He aches to touch Zuko in any capacity, to pull him in, to wrap his arms around him – but Zuko doesn’t want it. Zuko had pulled away. Sokka puts his hand down.

“Zuko,” he says instead, as if saying the name can compare to holding its owner in his arms, and he’s not even embarrassed by the way his voice breaks on the word.

“I was his heir,” Zuko says bitterly. “I was supposed to finish what he started and hand him the world. I wasn’t just born into a legacy of war, I was born to continue it. I was meant to cause suffering. I was made for it.”

Sokka can’t do much more than shake his head, dizzy like he’s been struck. “You weren’t. You’re not.”

“I was,” Zuko insists, a little desperately, “but I don’t want to be. I decided that I wouldn’t let myself be. That’s why I agreed to do this. Of course it’s for the Fire Nation, and for the Water Tribes, and for the rest of the world, but…I can’t be like my father.” He clenches his fists so tightly in his lap that it’s a wonder the bones don’t snap. “My uncle told me I could say no, but I knew that if there was anything I could do to help bring peace to the nations, then I had to do it. I didn’t have any other choice.” He looks up again at Sokka, and his eyes are as riddled with pain as his voice had been. “I still don’t have a choice, not really, but I – fuck. I can’t.”

Sokka knows that he is not imagining the wetness of Zuko’s voice, or, to his horror, the tears gathering in Zuko’s one good eye.

“I can’t,” he says again, not quite crying, but close. “I thought I could do it, but you–” he cuts himself off, and his voice breaks on what Sokka thinks might have been a sob.

Sokka reels back. “What about me?”

“I tried to pull back,” Zuko says, helpless and a little wild, more to himself than to Sokka. “I tried, but now it’s too late, and everything is ruined, and you—”

What’s ruined?” Sokka demands. “And how is it my fault?”

“It’s not,” Zuko says forcefully, even though he had just said exactly the opposite. “It’s not your fault, it’s mine. It’s me, and this whole situation is absolutely fucked and I know that, and I thought I could handle it, but that was before –” he cuts himself off.

“Before what?”

Zuko shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, because I can’t do this.”

Something inside of Sokka ruptures, flips itself inside out, swoops in his stomach and roars in his ears. He doesn’t know what it is, but it feels like grief. It feels like rage.

“Would it really be so bad to stay?” he demands. “Are the Water Tribes really so repulsive—”

“No!” Zuko exclaims immediately.

“Then what is your problem?”

Zuko’s eyes go wide and he scoots back, away from Sokka. He opens his mouth and starts to stutter out an answer, but if he gets anything coherent out, Sokka doesn’t hear it.

“Yue’s getting a bad deal too,” Sokka spits, “but she’s not crying about it. I’ve been against this since the beginning, because I was the only one who understood that Yue deserves better than this – that she should marry for love, instead of being traded off to some prince who won’t ever appreciate her like she deserves. She’s making all of the same sacrifices you are, and you’re sitting here like you’re too good for her, still?”

He hates the words coming his mouth almost as much as he hates the idea of Zuko and Yue married, which he hates almost as much as he hates the idea of Zuko leaving, forever, and never coming back.

Zuko’s face is paler than Sokka has ever seen it. He’s looking at Sokka like he’s just witnessed a tragedy in real time; like his heart’s just been broken right in front of him.

Sokka waits, but Zuko doesn’t say anything. He just looks guilty.

Sokka shakes his head. “I know this is all about duty to you, but that’s what it is to her too. Anyone would be lucky to marry Yue. She deserves everything, and that’s not what she’s getting, but she’s trying to make the best of it, anyways – so why can’t you?”

Every inch of Zuko is bleeding misery, and he has no right to look like that, not when Sokka is the one who feels about a moment away from collapsing, from sinking to the ground and letting the black hole in his chest devour him.

Zuko stands abruptly. “I’m sorry,” he says, with a look on his face like he knows even as he says it that it’s not good enough.

He is trembling, and Sokka wants a lot of things. One of them is to reel Zuko in, and make the trembling stop. Another is to finally get an answer to the question he’s only just begun asking himself; to know why he is so angry, and why it hurts so much. Yet another is to stop thinking of Zuko entirely; to forget all about him, and that Sokka ever felt like this at all.

Zuko saves Sokka from having to choose. He takes a step back, and then another, and then, almost faster than Sokka’s molasses-slow mind can comprehend, he’s turning around and running away, leaving his discarded formal robes, now heavy with snow, on the ground behind him.

They had been such nice robes, Sokka thinks absently in the moment he realizes that Zuko is leaving them behind, and then he blinks, and Zuko is gone completely. He blinks again, and the sky is dark. He blinks a third time, and finds that the sounds of the festivities (which had been muffled, before, but still present) have died out almost completely.

Sokka doesn’t know how long he sits there – cold and angry and sad and alone – before he finally stands up and makes the trek back into the palace.

He doesn’t meet anyone on the way. There may have been people, and they may even have tried to talk to him, but he doesn’t hear them, and he doesn’t see them. The empty courtyard around him becomes the city streets becomes the palace becomes the walls of his bedroom (blink, blink, blink), but every step he takes all he can see is Zuko in front of him, pale and frigid and close to breaking. All he can hear is Zuko’s voice, saying my father and I can’t and I’m sorry, and Sokka wonders if he will ever be able to hear anything else, or if he will spend the rest of his life with this echoing in his ears: Zuko, telling him that it doesn’t matter what has been offered – he cannot bear to stay.

Sokka comes back to himself in fits and starts. He had collapsed on top of his blankets without bothering to ready himself for bed, and he takes stock of the stiffness in his back and weight in his chest and lump in his throat as they become apparent to him. It's still dark outside, likely not even past midnight, and he is in his bed, still fully clothed.

It is some time before he realizes that the dull ache in palm is the result of some foreign object digging into the skin there, and not the fault of his own miserable brain. He unclenches his fist for what feels like the first time in hours, and remembers as soon as he does why he’d closed it in the first place. Zuko’s words were evidently not the only things Sokka had held onto, because there, still in his hand after all this time, is the betrothal necklace.

It is a treasure that does not belong with Sokka, and he knows it. He should almost definitely get up right now and return it. He doesn't do that. He wants to throw it at a wall, or maybe into the ocean, or maybe into a volcano, if he can find one. He doesn’t do any of those things, either, nor does he slip it into a drawer or a pocket for safe keeping, or let it drop to the floor.

Instead, Sokka closes his hand. He will keep the necklace for now, and hope that when the time does come for him to return it, he will be forgiven for keeping it so long past due. 

The skin of his palm is still tender, but he pays the sensation no mind. Despite the sharpness of the pendant's edges, he cannot bring himself to hate it, or to let go. The sting would abate if he loosened his grip, but he never once considers it. For all of the pain that it brings, it is still a privilege to hold.

Chapter Text

Sokka tosses and turns so incessantly throughout the night that he wakes in the morning wondering if the meager, fitful hours he spent in bed really count as sleep.

He lies there immobile for what is probably far too long, still in the clothes he’d worn to the feast. His head pounds and his chest throbs, but the world around him feels oddly still. He stands, eventually, (a feat in itself, considering how heavy his body feels) and heads into the bathroom. He moves methodically, guided more by habit than any real purpose as he washes his face and re-ties his hair and exchanges his tunic for a clean one. Once he’s as tidy as he has the energy to make himself, he leaves, hardly realizing that he intends to go at all until he’s already halfway out the door.

The palace is mostly silent, for which Sokka grateful. He doubts he could pronounce the word ‘conversation’ right now, let alone have one, and if he looks anywhere near as dreadful as he feels, it’s probably best that he keeps out of sight.  

With most of the city likely still hungover and Sokka’s training with Zuko officially completed, there’s nowhere he really needs to be. He certainly hadn’t left his room with any particular destination in mind. Still, though his wandering had started out aimless, he’s not at all surprised to find his feet leading him through the halls to the place he had always gone, as a child, when he’d needed someone to comfort him.

Sokka hopes distantly as he makes his way towards Katara’s room that Aang won’t be there, for once. He loves Aang like a brother, but he doesn’t know if he could bear to let anyone but Katara see him like this.

He enters without knocking, as per usual. Katara is sitting at her desk and sorting through a stack of scrolls, but she whirls to face him when he pushes the door open.

“Sokka – what are you doing here? You have to stop bursting in like that!”

Sokka steps inside, and closes the door behind him. “Is Aang around?”

“He left for Kyoshi Island after the party to visit Appa, but he’ll be back tonight – but that’s not the point! You’re lucky I wasn’t changing, or –”

“Katara,” he says, and then stops. He wants to fall onto her bed face first, but he’s too far away. He’d also settle for falling onto the ground, or out the window, or into the ocean, maybe, but he doesn’t quiet have the will power to make it happen.

He must look at least as bad as he feels, because the irritation drops from Katara’s face immediately. She stands up and moves towards him, steadily but slowly – like she’s afraid he’ll collapse, and doesn’t want to scare him away before she’s near enough to catch him.

“Sokka,” she says, her voice turning gentle, “what’s wrong?”

“I don’t – nothing. Not with me,” he says, almost defiantly. He crosses his arms over his chest, but it feels more like a futile effort at holding himself together than any kind of defense.

The moment she’s close enough, Katara puts her hands on his shoulders and guides him over to sit on her bed. Sokka tries to speak again, but something in his throat closes up. For the first time in a very long time, Katara doesn’t feel like enough. He wants his mom, he realizes, and scoffs inwardly. Another entry on the list of things he wants, but can never have.

“There’s nothing wrong with you,” she repeats doubtfully. She moves to sit next to him on the bed, but keeps a hand on his shoulder. “But something is wrong.”

He opens his mouth, and then closes it again, nodding.

“Sokka,” she says again, more urgently this time, “you’re scaring me. What’s going on?”

He shrugs weakly, and clenches his teeth to stop his jaw from trembling. “I ruined it, Katara. I – Tui and La, I ruined everything.”

She shakes her head. “I’m sure that’s not true.”

“It is.”

Katara is silent for a moment; cautious, but thoughtful. “Is it a person? Because if it is, I could probably…you know. Do something about it.”

Sokka looks up at her sharply. “Do somethi — what are you talking about?”

“Well, I could, y’know…” She wiggles her fingers in the air between them and trails off without finishing, but she’s his sister. He’s grown up reading between Katara’s lines, which means that he unfortunately does know. 

“We’re not committing any crimes here, Katara,” he says severely, and he means it, even if he can’t stop the way his mouth quirks upwards at the corners.

“I know,” Katara placates, “I know. But — I mean, I’m a pretty good water bender.”

“The best in the tribe,” he agrees. “What about it?”

“I’m pretty good in a fight.”

Katara—”

“I’m just saying—”

“I don’t need you to fight anyone,” he says. The words feel clumsy on his tongue, like he’s talking around a mouthful mud, and his eyes are still burning and his chest is still hollow, but he’s laughing now, too: at the absurdity of it, and at the look in Katara’s eyes that tells him she’s joking, but only mostly, and at how stupidly grateful he is to have her, even if he doesn’t have anyone else.

“It’s…Zuko,” he says finally.

“Zuko?” she asks encouragingly.

“Zuko’s not going through with it.”

Immediately, Katara stiffens. “With what?” she asks, though he’s sure she already knows.

“With the treaty,” he answers anyways. “With the marriage. He told me last night – he said he can’t do it, that he won’t –” he cuts himself off before he can finish choking on the words.

“Are you sure?” Katara asks, her grip tightening on Sokka’s shoulder. “Are you sure that’s what he said? You didn’t misunderstand, or –”

“I’m positive,” he snaps, ripping himself from her grasp and standing up to face her. “I was there. I know what he said.”

Katara is quiet. Her hand hovers in the air where his shoulder had been. She moves, after a few moments, but she doesn’t lower her arm; instead, she reaches out to him.

He hesitates, but only briefly. He doesn’t have the energy to be angry with her. He doesn’t want to be. He takes her hand and lets her pull him back to the bed. Once he’s sitting, she wraps both of her hands around his one, and holds firmly on.

There must be something seriously wrong with his face – or maybe just with all of him – because Katara doesn’t say anything about his outburst.

“That… sounds bad,” she admits, squeezing his hand between hers. “Really bad, politically speaking. We were fine before, though. We don’t need that treaty to keep being fine.”

“I know that, but – it’s not just about trade, Katara,” he says, not quite knowing where the words are coming from. “It’s not about money, or influence, or consolidating power, or any of that other ostrich horse shit I thought before. You were right. You, and Dad, and Aang, and everyone. It’s about peace, and bringing nations and people together, and helping fix all of the things that the war broke. It’s about proving that we can move on, and be better, and that we can do it together.”

Horribly, humiliatingly, Sokka feels the sting of tears beginning to prick at his eyes.

“I thought you didn’t believe in that,” Katara says softly. “I thought you didn’t even want this to happen.”

“I didn’t,” he says, and she squeezes his hand between hers when his voice cracks on the word. “I thought I never would, but…”

“But?”

“I didn’t understand.”

“And now you do.”

“And now I do,” he repeats. “It’s stupid. I know it’s stupid, that it took me meeting him to realize, but…”

Katara shakes her head. “It’s not stupid,” she says. She doesn’t have to ask who he means. “You met someone who helped you grow.” She leans her head on his shoulder. “I was so angry with the Fire Nation for so long after what happened to mom. I spent years hating them.”

“You got over it eventually, though. Sooner than I did.”

“I did,” Katara agrees, “but I didn’t do it all by myself.” She lets out a small, contented sigh, like someone recalling a particularly pleasant memory. “It’s kind of impossible not to believe in rebirth when you have the Avatar standing right in front of you. Even before I was actually with Aang… being that close to someone who believes so much in redemption, and forgiveness, and new beginnings – it changed things for me. It took a while, but it did.”

He looks down at her. “How?”

Katara smiles fondly. “That’s what love is, Sokka. It’s letting someone become so much a part of you that it’s almost like you’re living in an entirely new world – except it’s not the world that’s changed. The thing that changes is the way you see yourself – the way you see everything– and the way you decide you want to live when you realize how different things are from the way you always thought they were. Aang isn’t the reason I forgave the Fire Nation, but he’s the reason I realized I should, and that maybe I even could. Just like Zuko isn’t the reason you believe in this treaty, but he’s the one who helped you understand what it stands for. It’s okay that it took loving him to help you realize how important it is.”

Sokka reels back. “Love? I don’t – I never said anything about love.”

“You didn’t have to,” Katara says, sounding almost sorry for it.

He doesn’t respond.

“Sokka,” she says carefully, “It’s okay if you have feelings for Zuko.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Sokka says instead of what he’s actually thinking, which is, it’s not. It’s really, really not.

The look Katara gives him is measured. “You know,” she says, “that…I mean, a few of the Kyoshi warriors…”

“Yeah?”

“You’ve…met Suki’s girlfriend. And Mian? And – and Akari, and –”

“Yes,” Sokka interjects before she can run through the entire roster. “So have you.”

“And it’s fine. They’re fine. They’re great. You know that, right?”

She looks at him beseechingly, like she’s waiting for something he’s not sure he knows how to give her – and then he does know, and he’s irritated and perplexed and embarrassed all at once.  “I – Katara,” he sputters, “that’s not –” 

“You know that,” Katara says again, a little more urgently this time. “Right?

Yes. Yes, I know it’s fine, and great, and all of the other positive adjectives, but that's - it’s not relevant.”

She tilts her head speculatively. “Isn’t it?”

“It…” he shakes his head. Swallows. “Even if it was, that’s not the problem.”

“Then what is?”

“He’s marrying Yue. Or — he was supposed be.”

Katara tugs lightly on his hand, bringing his attention back to her. “And?”

“And what?”

“Pretend that doesn’t matter.”

“That’s – I’m not playing your weird, pointless games,” he tells her, completely aware of how petulant he sounds. “Of course it matters. Pretending it doesn’t would be – I mean, marrying Yue is the whole reason he’s here. He was never an option. Not for me.”

“But if he was…”

“But he’s not,” Sokka tells her, because he’s logical. He’s practical. He knows better than to want impossible things. “Even if I did have feelings for him, it wouldn’t change anything.”

“I think it would change things for you,” Katara says. “And maybe for him, too.”

It’s not stupid, she’d said, only a few minutes ago. It’s love, she’s saying now, like it means the same thing.

Sokka looks away. “Even if you were right – which I’m not saying you are – it wouldn’t make any difference. However important this treaty is, it’s not enough for Zuko. Nothing is enough for him,” Sokka says, his voice near a snarl, and it’s only Katara’s hands wrapped around his, anchoring him to her, that keeps him from leaping away again. “Not his duty, not this treaty, not the most perfect girl who’s ever lived, and not me.”

It’s that last one that hurts the most; saying it feels like spitting knives. He doesn’t tell Katara, but he’s sure she know anyways.

She frowns minutely. “What do you mean, not enough?”

“That’s the whole reason he’s leaving,” Sokka says, trying and failing to keep his breathing steady. “He cares about the treaty, I know he does, but he just kept saying that he couldn’t marry her, that he couldn’t go through with it, and he was – he said it wasn’t my fault, but he kept acting like it was. Like somehow I’m to blame for the fact that he’s apparently the pickiest son of a saber-toothed wolf seal in the four nations.”

When he looks at her, Katara is staring at him with an expression that hovers somewhere between pity and understanding.

“I have a question for you, dumb-dumb,” she says. “Did you ever consider that maybe Yue’s not… you know, his type?”

“Don’t call me dumb-dumb,” Sokka says. “I’m in distress.” And then, registering the rest of her sentence, “Why wouldn’t she be his type? She’s flawless. She’s, like, the textbook definition of the perfect princess.”

“Alright,” Katara says with strained delicacy, “but what if Zuko isn’t interested in princesses?”

“Who doesn’t like princesses?” Sokka demands. “And what right does he have to judge? He’s a prince, and also just as –”

“Sokka!” Katara cuts him off. “What I’m trying to say is that maybe his type isn’t princesses because it’s princes. Maybe his type is one very specific prince.”

Sokka’s first instinct is to pull away and call his sister crazy. He’ll stand up and storm out and be angry at her for not taking this seriously, but come back when she’s gone and leave one of those miniature cakes she likes so much as an apology.

He knows what she’s saying, but she’s wrong. She has to be, because if she’s not, that means – it means a lot of things. It means Sokka is an even bigger idiot than he thought, and that Zuko is an idiot, too, but maybe also in terrible pain – pain that Sokka played a part in causing. It means that even if the treaty is doomed, maybe Sokka and Zuko don’t have to be.

Beneath Sokka’s feet, the world shifts.

(He recognizes the sensation.

It’s been less than half a decade since the day Katara burst into Sokka’s room the way she always chastises him for doing, though it feels, some days, more like half a lifetime. She’d been rosy-cheeked and wild-eyed and out of breath when she’d thrown his door open, and hadn’t waited a moment before storming across the room and hauling him up by the wrist, insisting with a fervor he had rarely seen from her that you have to come with me, right now, and see what I found in this iceberg!

Sokka hadn’t known, then, what – or rather, who – she had discovered. He hadn’t known what could possibly have gone so wrong to put her in such a state, and he especially hadn’t known what could have gone so right. All he’d known was the nauseating, exhilarating terror which had risen up in him, and which had somehow felt like a trap and like freedom, both. He had believed, when he’d thought of it later, that it had stemmed from the abrupt, unexplainable certainty that something was about to change, immeasurably and irrevocably.

He hadn’t been wrong, exactly, but he hadn’t been quite right, either. What he had felt within him then was not the knowledge that something was about to change, but that something already had – and that it was only waiting for Sokka to discover it, and see for himself what it might mean.)

So maybe it’s not that the world shifts. Maybe it’s that the world has been shifting, and Sokka had just been stumbling along, too frightened and stubborn and blind to notice. Now, though… now it’s as if a veil has been lifted, and Sokka is suddenly able to see in excruciating detail all of the things he had been so determined to ignore before.

He thinks of Zuko’s smiles, and how difficult they were to earn, at first; how they gradually became more and more common, until Sokka could count on seeing the soft upwards curl of Zuko’s lips every time they were together. He thinks of the red stain that creeps across Zuko’s face whenever Sokka throws a compliment his way, and the way the sight of it never fails to make Sokka’s breath catch. He thinks of the way Zuko so rarely initiates contact, but always, always, always, leans into Sokka’s touch, and of the warmth that makes its home in Sokka, spreading from deep in his chest to the tips of his fingers, every single time it happens. He thinks of the terrible, miserable look on Zuko’s face last night in the courtyard, and of Zuko’s hand in his around a betrothal necklace. He thinks of the night before the trials, and of how easily Zuko had gone, when Sokka pulled him down to bed.

It is an epiphany in two parts. First: the realization that maybe it’s okay if he loves Zuko. Second: the realization that Zuko might very well love him, too.

“Oh,” Sokka says numbly. “Maybe I really am a dumb-dumb.”

“Go talk to him,” Katara says, rolling her eyes. “He’s probably freaking out right now.”

“Spirits,” Sokka says, even more weakly than before. “He’s absolutely freaking out right now.” He stands up hastily. This time, Katara lets him go. “I owe you the moon, baby sister,” he says, and then he’s running, out the door and down the hall before he can even hear Katara’s reply.

 

 

*

 

 

As soon as Sokka enters the private hallway that has been housing their Fire Nation guests, he hears it: a cacophony of noise, the source of which seems to be Zuko’s room at the very end of the hall. It’s the sound of drawers opening and shutting, books and bags and clothing being thrown to the ground, and voices, several of them at once, jumbled and irate and all talking over one another.

It grows louder as Sokka moves closer. He skids to a halt in front of Zuko’s door and hesitates only a moment before pressing a hand against the wood. Whoever had last entered had apparently been too preoccupied to bother closing it properly; it swings open at his touch, and he is greeted by a frenzy.

It seems like half of the people Zuko had brought with him from the Fire Nation are gathered inside. There must be nearly a dozen of them, all dressed in Fire Nation reds and golds, pacing around the room, waving their hands in the air and arguing with one another. Most of the drawers are hanging open, and all of the shelves are either empty or halfway there; the entirety of the room’s contents seems to have exploded out onto the floor, which is so littered with various odds and ends that it’s almost completely obscured.

At the center of it all is Zuko: clearly the source of the chaos, and the only person in the room who seems to be doing something other than waving his arms around and squawking like an arctic hen. He navigates through the room with purpose, weaving between his advisors, grabbing up his assorted belongings by the handful and throwing them haphazardly into a bag at the foot of his bed. He’s packing, Sokka realizes, though he’s doing an extraordinarily poor job at it. As prince, the duty really should have fallen to Zuko’s staff; right now, though, it seems like they’re doing everything in their power to stop him.

The members of his entourage that aren’t busy shouting each other down are obviously trying to stall Zuko’s progress. Sokka watches as they scurry around the room, making fervent attempts to block his path and calling for his attention as if the volume of their protests is what will make him see reason. Zuko, for his, part, seems to be having no trouble neatly avoiding all of their attempts at obstruction.

“I’m sorry,” he’s saying distractedly as he clears out a shelf of leather bound notebooks, “but I can’t. I’ll tell them all before I go – the Council, and the Chief, and the Princess.”

“Prince Zuko,” an older man says desperately, grabbing one of the notebooks and holding it against his chest like a hostage, “please reconsider. The accords have already been signed by the Water Tribe leaders and by the Fire Lord. None of us here have the authority to break such a contract, and if we leave without telling them why –”

“I’ve already said, I’ll tell them myself,” Zuko says, moving around the man and heading for the book shelf. “I’ll apologize profusely, and explain things to them –”

“And how are you going to ‘explain things to them,’” a stern looking woman demands, “when you won’t even explain them to us?”

Look,” Zuko says, finally stopped in his tracks, “we can maintain our current relationship with the Water Tribes –”

“As if they’ll want anything to do with us at all after this,” a short man retorts viciously. “Even if your little flight of fancy doesn’t cause another war –”

Zuko glares. “The Water Tribes are a peaceful, rational people.”

“They’re a proud people—”

“And they have every right to be!” Zuko barks back. He closes his eyes and takes a long, deep breath. When he opens them again, he looks almost composed. “I’ll do what I can to make sure we don’t have to worry about any of the trade deals falling through—”

The trade is dependent on the marriage!” one of the advisors cries at a pitch that is very nearly a shriek.

“It doesn’t have to be!” Zuko snaps. “I promise, when we get back to the Fire Nation, I’ll explain everything to my uncle, and I’ll take full responsibility. None of this will fall onto you. The Fire Lord will understand that you did what you could. He’ll know that what happened here was my fault.”

He turns back around, and continues packing.

“Your majesty,” one of the men begs, following closely behind Zuko as he zig-zags through the room, looking for another bag to fill now that his first is full. “Please think this though.”

“I’ve been doing nothing but think about this,” Zuko snarls, whirling on the man, “and I have made my decision!” The man stumbles back, half confused, half terrified. Sokka doesn’t blame him. There is a sudden brutality to Zuko that Sokka has never seen before, and he wonders if he is seeing the remnants of Ozai in his son; the person Zuko might have been, if Ozai had been given more time to break him down and tear away all of the things that make Zuko kind, and noble, and good.

But Zuko stops. He takes a deep breath, and a step back. He bows, and Sokka knows that given ten or twenty or one hundred years, Ozai could never have carved away the honor that Zuko has forged for himself. 

“I’m sorry for raising my voice at you,” Zuko says, “but I won’t be convinced. I’ll write my uncle myself if you’d prefer not to, but we have to—”

He turns, then, and stops. His mouth falls open and his eyes go wide. He staggers backwards, nearly tripping over his own robes as his formerly restless gaze falls and sticks onto the figure filling the doorway; he has finally, finally, spotted Sokka.

The rest of the room turns, almost as one, to see what has so abruptly seized their prince’s attention. If Sokka were to look at them, he would see the way their faces pale and their jaws go slack at the sight of the Chief’s son, here bearing witness to the breaking of a treaty a year in the making.

Sokka doesn’t look, though. He stares straight past all of them at Zuko: hair down, half-dressed, and gaping at Sokka with a look of mounting horror.

“Zuko,” Sokka says, just to feel the name in his mouth. The word rings loud as a bell against the sudden silence. “What’s going on?”

Zuko stares. “I’m leaving,” he says after a long pause, and Sokka doesn’t miss the quick rise and fall of his chest, or the tremor in his voice. “I’m sorry, Sokka, but I told you last night. I can’t marry Yue. I won’t do that to you, or her, or me. I have to go back.”

Sokka looks to the nearest advisor, who has begun glancing rapidly between the two of them. “Can you give us the room for a minute?” he asks. “Please?”

The man’s eyes flicker from Sokka to a few of the room’s other inhabitants, and then to Zuko.

“Zuko,” Sokka says when no one answers. “Please.”

Zuko exhales sharply, but stands a little straighter. He tilts his head up so that he is can look Sokka full in the eyes, and Sokka is reminded forcefully of Zuko’s arrival in the Southern Water Tribe, and the scrutiny that had followed him as he’d walked the length of the port, and the way he had borne it, unflinching, with his head held high.

“Go,” Zuko finally says. “All of you.”

There is a moment of hesitation. Just when Sokka thinks one of the advisors will gather up the courage to refuse, the stillness is broken. The room’s occupants move all at once, as if by some silent agreement, and begin to file wordlessly out.

The door has only barely closed behind the last of them when Sokka starts talking.

“I’m sorry,” he says, teetering on the edge of desperate and not caring in the slightest. “I’m so, so sorry, and I know that doesn’t make up for how awful I was, but it’s true. I didn’t – I know what kind of person you are. I never should have –”

“Sokka,” Zuko interrupts. He looks surprised by how quickly Sokka’s mouth snaps shut, but he doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of it. “I know this isn’t…I know it’s not ideal. But you’re my friend. You and Yue are both my friends, but…” his mouth twists in something that might be called a smile if it didn’t look so painful. “It was different with you. Sorry, that’s – I know that’s not the point. The point is, I just…I want you to be happy. And if that’s – if that’s with her,” he says softly, like the words will hurt less if he’s gentle with them, “then I won’t be what gets in the way.”

“Zuko,” Sokka says, still sick with shame but also bewildered, now, “I don’t –”

“But I want you to know –” Zuko continues hurriedly, like he needs to get the words out and isn’t sure he’ll be able to if he stops, “ – I want you to know that I’m grateful. I’m grateful that I met you, and for everything that you’ve done for me, and I won’t — I won’t ever forget it. Or you.”

Zuko,” Sokka says again, taking a step farther into the room, “You don’t have to go. I don’t want you to go. That’s kind of the opposite of what I want, actually.”

“Sokka, I understand—”

“No,” Sokka says. “I don’t think you do. Not that it’s your fault!” he rushes to add. “I didn’t understand either, not at first. But I do now. I think I do, at least. I hope I do.”

Zuko closes his eyes, just for a moment. When he opens them again, his face is pinched and his jaw is set. “Sokka,” he says, obviously struggling to keep his voice steady, “why are you here?”

Sokka takes another step closer. “Because I realized – well, Katara helped, but don’t tell her I told you –”

Sokka—”

Wait,” Sokka pleads, “I’m getting to it, I swear. What I mean is, I realized that maybe the reason you don’t want to marry Yue isn’t just that you don’t like her enough. That…” he pauses, but only for a moment. “That maybe it’s because you can’t like her. Not in the way a husband should like his wife, at least. Not in a way that would let you love her.”

A harsh noise punches itself out of Zuko. Sokka is tempted to label it laughter, but it’s too fragile and wounded and bitter to make the cut.

“That’s –” Zuko cuts himself off, shaking his head sharply. “If that were it, this wouldn’t be – wouldn’t be acting so stupidly. Or so selfishly. It’s my duty as a prince of the Fire Nation to do whatever I can to bring honor to my country, and to my people. I’ve known my whole life that my marriage would almost definitely be arranged, and that it would be to a woman. I was prepared to live with that. I thought I was prepared to do anything.” He releases a breath that would make an airbender shake, but he doesn’t look away from Sokka. “Then I met you.”

All of the air seems to leave Sokka’s body at once. “Me?”

You,” Zuko repeats, sounding almost resentful. “At first, I thought…” he sighs. Looks away. “It doesn’t matter. You told me about the necklaces, and about what you and Yue used to be, and it all made so much sense, when I realized that you’re still in love with her.”

Sokka stares.

“I was never happy about the engagement,” Zuko continues hollowly, “but this was never about what I wanted. I knew that, and I was fine with it – until I realized what me marrying Yue would mean to you. The thought of that – of being the thing that stood between you and your happiness…it hurt too much. More than I could bear.”

“More than knowing you’re going to spend the rest of your life bound to someone you’ll never really love?” Sokka asks, and although he tries his utmost to be delicate, he’s never claimed to be an actor; he cannot hide his incredulity.

Yes,” Zuko says, but it is more a breath than a word. “So much more than that.”

“Zuko…Spirits. Maybe you and Yue are more alike than I thought.”

The gentle anguish that leaks into Zuko’s expression makes Sokka wish he’d stayed silent.

“Not alike enough, unfortunately,” Zuko says, looking away. “You said it yourself last night.” He sighs, and inclines his head towards the dresser. “Look, I need to get as much packing done as I can before those lion vultures get back in here and try to stop me. I know you don’t owe it to me, but if you could – I’m not saying you can’t tell anyone about this, but if you could just wait –”

“You’re wrong,” Sokka blurts.

Zuko stills. “I –Wrong?”

“About Yue and I,” Sokka clarifies. “I told you before, there’s nothing like that between us. It’s been so long since there was, I barely remember it.”

Slowly, Zuko turns to face him. “You love her.”

“Not the way you think I do.”

Zuko narrows his eyes. “You don’t have to deny it,” he says, though he sounds less sure of himself, now. “You’re always talking about how beautiful, and kind, and smart, and amazing she is. She’s important to you, and you’ve said yourself that she deserves the world. The two of you were basically engaged at one point, before I came along. Anyone who spent any time at all with you would think you were in love.”

Sokka gapes at him. “I don’t – Spirits. It’s all those girly romance plays, isn’t it?”

Love Amongst the Dragons is not girly—” Zuko starts indignantly, but Sokka cuts him off.

“They put ideas into your head,” he insists, “like that I’m in love with Yue, even though I’ve already told you I’m not. I’m not,” he says again, when Zuko still seems doubtful. “We’re just friends, and that’s all either of us wants to be.”

At first, Zuko doesn’t respond. Sokka takes a moment to examine him, and finds, to his displeasure, that Zuko doesn’t look pleased or even encouraged, the way Sokka had hoped he would. If anything, he looks almost devastated.

“Alright,” Zuko finally says. He sits down heavily in a nearby chair, and Sokka gets the feeling that if it hadn’t been so conveniently placed, Zuko would have fallen right to the floor.

“You…believe me?”

Zuko puts his head in his hands, and the flame of the candle on the bedside table begins to flicker erratically. “I do,” he says, though his voice is muffled. “I – fuck. Fuck.”

“Zuko,” Sokka says cautiously, “are you okay?”

“No,” Zuko bites out, his head snapping up at the sound of Sokka’s voice. “I’m not, actually.” He stands again. Moves for the door, then stops. Turns back around, so that he’s facing away from both the door and Sokka. Takes a few steps in that direction, and then stops again. He mutters something that sounds an awful lot like couldn’t have made this easy for me, but it’s obviously not meant for Sokka to hear, so Sokka doesn’t ask.

“Okay,” Zuko says again after a minute. He turns around, and Sokka can see even from a distance the way his eyes have gone red and glassy. The devastation Sokka had observed before, though still present, seems to have faded into a weary kind of acceptance. “I apologize for my outburst. Thank –” he falters. Takes a breath. “Thank you for telling me. That information… changes things.”

He nods once, as if to himself, then steps around Sokka and heads for the door.

“Wait,” Sokka calls, reaching out before he can stop himself and grasping the silken material of Zuko’s sleeve. “Where are you going?”

Zuko freezes at the touch. He still doesn’t turn to look at Sokka, but he doesn’t shake him off, either.

“I have to find my advisors before they do anything rash,” Zuko says with a forced sort of evenness. “I have tell them that the wedding is back on.”

Sokka draws back, releasing his hold. Still, Zuko doesn’t move.

“I thought you said –”

“Forget what I said. If you’re not in love with Yue, then there’s nothing stopping me from marrying her.”

“Nothing? Really?”

“Nothing that matters.”

“You don’t love her,” Sokka says. “You’ve already said you don’t want–”

Zuko spins swiftly around and claps his hand over Sokka’s mouth before he can finish. “Like I said,” he enunciates forcefully. “Nothing that matters. I was going to call off the marriage because I thought I was hurting you. If you’re not in love with Yue, then there’s no reason for me not to marry her.”

“No reason?” Sokka repeats, grabbing Zuko’s wrist so that he can pull the hand away from his mouth. “This is going kill you, and you know it. You’re going to let the rest of your life feel like a slow death because – because you think it’s what you deserve, or something. But it’s not.”

“Don’t talk about things you don’t understand,” Zuko snarls venomously.

“Don’t tell me what I understand!” Sokka snaps back, his disbelief swelling into something almost like rage. “I understand perfectly. I know you, Zuko. You think that this is your penance, or whatever, for having a shit-head father and a shit-head great-grandfather. You think you have to suffer for the terrible things they did, and now the thought of actually getting something you want just makes you feel guilty. You think any choice that ends in you being happy must be the wrong one.”

Zuko glares so fiercely at him that Sokka is a little surprised neither of them catch fire. “I don’t know why you’re making such a big deal out of this. You said yourself that Yue’s in the same position I am.”

“Yue gets to go home!” Sokka shouts, louder than he means to and surprised at his own cold fury. Zuko’s lips go white with anger, but he doesn’t flinch, and he doesn’t back down. “After all of this is over, Yue gets to be with her family again, and with her people! Even if she never gets to be in love, she won’t have to live without it. Not the way you will.”

“I’ll get used it,” Zuko says, though his jaw is so tight it’s a wonder he can open his mouth to say anything at all. “I’ll have to. I can’t let everything our people have worked for be thrown out for nothing.”

The words are like a punch to the gut; it takes all of Sokka’s willpower not to recoil from them.

“You’re not nothing,” he says vehemently. He’s still holding Zuko by the wrist, he realizes. He had never let go, and Zuko had never tried to pull away. He shifts his grip, lacing their fingers together, and raises their now-joined hands up between them so that he can press his lips to the delicate bones of Zuko’s knuckles. “You’re – spirits, you’re everything, Zuko. You deserve everything, and you especially deserve more than this.”

For a moment, the world is still. Sokka wants to kiss him. It’s a new thought, but not a surprising one.

Zuko is the one who breaks the silence. His spine snaps suddenly upright, rigid as an elephant rhino’s tusk, and he rips his hand away, glaring at it and then at Sokka like they’ve both just insulted his mother.

Agni,” he hisses, holding his clenched fist to his chest like he’s trying to protect it. “Can you stop? Just – for five minutes, please.”

Sokka reels back. “I don’t – stop what?”

“Stop making me think this is something I can have!” Zuko snaps, his voice suddenly rough. “I know – I know I shouldn’t. I tried to ignore it, and when that didn’t work I tried to get over it, but you made it impossible. You keep making it impossible, because you keep doing things like that.”

“I – I’m sorry,” Sokka says. He means it genuinely, but the words feel inadequate. “I didn’t know.”

“You—” Zuko shakes his head, exhaling sharply. “Of course you didn’t. It’s not your fault. I’m the one who should be sorry. I’m just being stupid. Again.”

“You’re not stupid.”

“I am,” Zuko says. “I know it, and so do my advisors, and so will the entire world, soon enough. You will, too. You just…don’t understand yet.”

Resisting the urge to reach out to him is a chore, but Sokka is used to rotten work; he manages. “Explain it to me then.”

“Explain all the ways I’ve been an idiot?”

“Try at least, so I can prove you wrong.”

Zuko gives a bitter half-shrug. “Where do you want me to start? Thinking you were in love with Yue? Convincing myself that marrying her was something I could be okay with in the first place? Or maybe with all of this.” He gestures almost violently around the room, at the bare book shelves and near-empty dressers and half-full suitcases surrounding them. “You were right, you know, when you said I didn’t have to pack half the Fire Nation with me. I only brought so much because – because I was afraid, I guess. Of being lonely. I thought it would make me feel like I wasn’t so far away from home, but I didn’t actually end up needing any of it. I could have left it all behind and it wouldn’t have made any difference, because –” he doesn’t finish, cutting the words off like he thinks silencing the thought will spare him the pain of it.

“Because?” Sokka asks softly.

“Because you were here,” Zuko admits quietly. “And I’ve never felt more at home than I do when I’m with you. That’s the stupid part. Only an idiot wants something they know they can never have, but even now, knowing that I have to leave, all I can think about is – is how when you’re around, I’m happier than I think I’ve ever been.”

(It’s not stupid, Katara had said. It’s love.)

Sokka takes a step forward.

“You can have it,” he says.

Zuko stares. “I – what?”

“You said – you told me to stop making you think this is something you can have. But you can have it. Whatever it is you want, Zuko, I swear to Tui and La that I’ll find a way to give it to you. I just need you to tell me what it is.”

“You can’t mean that,” Zuko says, sounding incredibly certain for someone so completely wrong.

“I can, actually,” Sokka tells him, “and I do. I’ll even put it in writing, if you want.”

“In writing.”

“Sure. ‘I’ll give you everything you want, forever. Signed, Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe.’”  Zuko doesn’t reply, and Sokka sighs. “Look, I know I messed up. More than once.”

“You didn’t,” Zuko says, painfully sincere even now. “You’ve been great. You’ve been perfect.”

Sokka shakes his head. “I really haven’t been. I want to be better, though. I want to get it right from now on, but that means you have tell me how. Or…at least let me know if I’m getting it wrong, okay?”

Zuko doesn’t say anything. He just looks at Sokka doubtfully, resigned, like he’s waiting for a punchline.

“Okay,” Sokka murmurs. He takes another step. “Okay. I’ll make it easy for you.” He’s more than close enough now that he can reach out to Zuko, so he does, cupping one hand around Zuko’s jaw. “Is this alright?”

Zuko’s mouth falls slightly open in shock. He nods mutely.

Sokka curls his other hand around Zuko’s waist, holds on to the soft area just under his ribs.

“And this?”

Zuko’s doesn’t respond. He doesn’t do anything at all, really, except start to breathe a little faster.

Sokka hums. “I’ll wait.”

There a beat, and then Zuko’s voice, so quiet as to be almost inaudible, whispering: “Yes.”

Sokka smiles. He presses his thumb to the corner of Zuko’s mouth, and Zuko lets out a ragged breath.

“I got distracted earlier,” Sokka tells him. “I didn’t get to say everything I meant to. Would you ask me again why I’m here?”

In a low, rasping voice, Zuko obeys. “Why are you here?”

“Because I love you,” Sokka answers, sweet and easy and sure as the sunrise.

Zuko’s mouth falls open. For a few seconds he just stares, as if Sokka has told a joke he doesn’t quite understand. “You…love me,” he repeats blankly, like he can’t quite believe it.

“I fucking adore you,” Sokka says earnestly, releasing his hold on Zuko’s waist so that he can take Zuko’s face in both of his hands. “And I love you, too. I’m in love with you, and I want to be with you, and I want you to stay. Please stay. Or – if you have to go, let me come with you. Think about it, at least.”

Slowly, like he’s not sure if he can or what will happen if he does, Zuko reaches out and presses a deliberate hand to the center of Sokka’s chest. He spreads his fingers apart like he’s trying to cover as much area as possible; like he will only believe that Sokka is real for as long as he is able to touch.

They are so close that there is hardly any room between them for Zuko’s hand to fit; to close that their noses nearly brush; so close that Sokka feels the heat of foreign breath against his own mouth when Zuko whispers, “Maybe I don’t have to go right now.”

“Then don’t,” Sokka whispers back. He slides one of his hands up to cradle the back of Zuko’s head. “Is this okay?”

“Sokka,” Zuko says, raw and blown open and wanting. “Please.”

That’s all it takes, really. Sokka’s eyes slip closed, and he imagines that Zuko’s do the same. He doesn’t know which of them leans in first, or if there’s any kind of ‘first’ to it all. It doesn’t matter. However it began, the result is the same: they’re kissing.

Zuko’s lips are warm and soft against Sokka’s. He parts them tentatively, testing the waters, and Sokka responds by sucking lightly at Zuko’s bottom lip. Zuko’s breathing stutters, and the hand he had pressed to Sokka’s chest clenches at the fabric of Sokka’s shirt.

Zuko kisses with an intensity that burns. He kisses like he’s aching for it; like Sokka’s mouth on his is the thing he’s been waiting for; like it’s taking him apart and putting him back together all at once. One of his hands finds Sokka’s waist and the other makes its way to the back of Sokka’s neck, and Zuko makes a weak sound halfway between a gasp and a moan in the back of his throat when Sokka drags his own hands down to grip Zuko’s hips.

He can’t help the groan that escapes him, ripping itself from his mouth and into Zuko’s. Zuko makes another small, desperate noise, tightening his hold on the nape of Sokka’s neck, and for a while it is bliss — right up until the moment Sokka makes himself pull away.

He opens his mouth to speak, but is caught instantly like a fly in a wolf-spider’s web by the half-lidded gaze Zuko has trained on him. His lips are a darker pink than usual and possibly a little swollen, and Sokka finds himself staring, no thoughts in his head except for how bare he feels without Zuko’s mouth on his. He raises one of his hands and presses the pad of his thumb against Zuko’s kiss-bruised bottom lip. Zuko makes a small, wrecked sound, and everything about him is devastating, and Sokka is weak, weak, weak.

He leans in again, unable to help himself. Zuko is already there, sealing their lips together again in an open-mouthed kiss. He traces his tongue across the roof of Sokka’s mouth, and Sokka forgets for a minute what he needed to say; that he needed to say anything at all; that there exists anything beyond the two of them. There is only Zuko’s mouth on his and Zuko’s hands on Sokka’s body and Zuko’s body under Sokka’s hands and their breath, which by now is one and the same.

This is the answer, Sokka thinks again. This is what he’d been after all along, what he had been craving before he knew he craved anything at all: to be here, like this, with Zuko. Not just to kiss, or touch, but to hold Zuko in his arms and have it mean something.

“Zuko,” Sokka whispers against Zuko’s now-slick mouth and hating himself for it. “This is – spirits, this nice, but we have to – we need to talk about this.”

Zuko’s eyes flutter open. He blinks several times, as if adjusting to the light.

“Talk?”

“Talk,” Sokka repeats apologetically, still trying to catch his own breath. “I’m not exactly a saint, but kissing someone else’s fiancé is pretty questionable no matter how you spin it. Even if the engagement is a massively flawed and unjust arrangement.”

Zuko looks at him for a long moment before letting his head fall forward to rest on Sokka’s shoulder.

“Spirits,” he says weakly. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Sokka advises, squeezing Zuko’s upper arm lightly. “I said it was morally gray, not that I regret it.”

“Well, I do. I have to. Spirits, I – what am I doing?” He looks up, pulling back far enough that Sokka is able to see the furrow between his brows and the formidable wetness gathering in his good eye, but not so far that he risks leaving the circle of Sokka’s arms. “This isn’t some stupid peasant wedding! This isn’t just a trade deal, or some passive dead-letter document. This means something – something huge – to so many people. I can’t throw away everything our nations have worked for just because I’m – because I –” he falters; tries to get the words out; chokes on them every time.

Sokka guides Zuko’s head back to his shoulder, and doesn’t say anything about how quickly the fabric there grows damp with silent tears.

(Sokka doesn’t believe in fortune telling, but in that moment, he sees Zuko’s future clear as day. It’s five, ten, fifty years from now, and Zuko is at Yue’s side, dressed all in Water Tribe blues. He will be the perfect husband: caring and kind and polite to a fault, standing stiffly and smiling politely and wasting away in a world that is not his. He will be more statue than man: beautiful and untouchable and wretched and empty; surrounded by people, and still entirely alone.)

“The Fire Nation did so much bad,” Zuko rasps eventually. “We’re trying to make it better. We’ve been trying. How can I be what stands in the way of an alliance that could help make up for seventy years of sorrow?”

“You don’t have to be,” Sokka says, soft but sure. “You won’t be.”

“If I don’t marry Yue, how could I be anything else? I can’t let the Fire Nation stray from the path we’re on now just for my sake. If I can’t do the one thing my people have ever asked of me – the one thing that I can do to help restore balance to the world – then I may as well have joined my father.”

“You’re not a bad person because you don’t want to give your life away to someone you don’t love.”

Zuko shakes his head against Sokka’s collarbone. “I know you’re trying to help,” he says in a wet, wavering voice, “but you’re really making this so much worse.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You should be,” Zuko says, raising his red-rimmed eyes again to glare at Sokka half-heartedly. “You know, I used to think I could at least be content. That even if I wasn’t exactly happy, maybe I could still live in peace, knowing I had done the world some good.”

“That…sounds like a terrible way to live.”

“It would have been an honorable way to live, and better than what awaits me now. You’ve made sure that even if the world knows peace, I never will. I’ll spend the rest of my life thinking about – wondering if…” Zuko exhales harshly, and gives a short, mirthless laugh. “Everyone who ever said love makes you stronger is full of dragon shit. This wouldn’t be a problem if I’d never met you.”

Sokka presses a kiss to Zuko’s temple, and lets it linger. “I think,” he says, “that sometimes you can realize something that makes you think you’ve discovered a new problem, but you haven’t. I mean – there might be problem, but it might not be new. Sometimes the problem has always been there, and you just think it’s new because you’re seeing it for the first time.”

“Maybe,” Zuko allows. “Or maybe you’ve just ruined me.”

Sokka hums. “Maybe,” he agrees. “If it makes you felt any better, you’ve definitely ruined me, too.”

“It does, a little,” Zuko says, choking out a damp laugh. “I’m forever in your debt.”

“Normally I’d hold you to that,” Sokka says, running his fingers idly through Zuko’s hair, “but I’m feeling very benevolent today.”

Zuko sighs, and presses his forehead more firmly against Sokka’s collarbone.

“You were right,” he says, voice muffled against Sokka’s chest. “I don’t want to marry her.”

“Then don’t. I know how it sounds,” he adds before Zuko can object, “but – you almost didn’t, before. When you thought I was in love with her.”

“That was an excuse. A terrible one. A way to feel better about what I was doing by telling myself that even if I was destroying the future of my country, at least you’d be happier for it. Now I don’t even have that.” Zuko shudders, leaning further into Sokka. “I wish you didn’t love me. Or that you hadn’t told me. It would have made things easier.”

“Easier, maybe,” Sokka agrees. “But not better.”

Zuko is silent. On the bedside table, the candle’s flame flickers and dies.

Again, Sokka wants to kiss him.

Instead, Sokka leads them both over to the bed. He pushes a pile of clothes out of the way and sits, winding one arm around Zuko’s waist and pulling him down onto Sokka’s lap. Zuko goes easily, pressing his face to Sokka’s neck and letting Sokka take his hand.

He had apologized for kissing Sokka before, and yet he allows this: a gesture that to Sokka feels nearly as intimate. Probably because he knows that once he leaves this room, they won’t ever be like this again. Probably because he knows that this is the end.

That’s the real reason Sokka is here, though, isn’t it? Because he knows that this isn’t the end – or, at least, that it doesn’t have to be. It could be a beginning. It could be anything they decide to make it. The future isn’t set in stone, but neither is it completely up in the air. It’s a void, ready to be filled – ready to take whatever you have to give, and to become whatever your gifts allow. It’s a sea of possibility, wide open before them, and Sokka knows just what he wants from it.

“I won’t stop you if you still want to go,” Sokka says, rubbing a gentle circle into Zuko’s hip. “But can I ask you a favor?”

He feels it when Zuko nods.

(I’ve never felt more at home than I do when I’m with you, Zuko had said. I just want you to be happy. When you’re around, I’m happier than I think I’ve ever been. This wouldn’t be a problem if I’d never met you. You’ve ruined me.

Sokka could call up a thousand more examples, but he doesn’t need to. In the end, they all boil down to the same thing: love.

Zuko loves him, even if he hasn’t said it in so many words. He’s not always great with words, but it’s alright; with Sokka, he doesn’t always need to be.)

“Let me tell you what I’m thinking. If you don’t like it…well, that’ll be it, I guess. I won’t ask you for anything else.”

Zuko’s hand tightens around his, and Sokka allows his thumb to run itself slowly back and forth across Zuko’s knuckles.

“What you’re thinking?”

“Mm-hm,” Sokka confirms. “See, I’ve been told that I’m pretty good at coming up with ideas. They even call me the idea guy, in some circles.”

“Yeah?”

“I mean, maybe don’t try and fact check that with Katara, but yeah.”

Zuko laughs hoarsely. “Okay. Lay it on me, Idea Guy.”

Sokka smiles. “You’ll bend the treaty,” he declares, tightening his grip on Zuko gently. “But not a lot. Not in a way we can’t fix. There will still be a marriage.”

Zuko stiffens, instantly skeptical. “I thought you said —”

“No – listen. I’m not talking about Yue, right now,” Sokka says, leaning back so that he can look Zuko right in the eye. “I’m talking about me, and I’m talking about you. I’m talking about a marriage between a prince of the Fire Nation and the firstborn child of a Water Tribe High Chief.”

Zuko’s eyes are wide. “Sokka –”

“Marry me,” Sokka says, and the words fall from his mouth like rain from the sky; like light from the sun. It feels natural. It feels inevitable. It’s the easiest thing he’s ever said. “Don’t break the treaty. Don’t marry Yue. Marry me.”

Chapter Text

When they finally emerge from Zuko’s rooms, they find themselves alone. Zuko’s advisors are gone, and he pales at the sight of the empty corridor.

“They’re — Agni,” he says, the relief and elation that had painted his visage only moments ago draining away. He looks around frantically, as if he might find the group of them hiding under a rug, or behind a curtain. “Where did they go?”

“We were in there for a while. Maybe back to their rooms?” Sokka suggests hopefully, though without much faith. The look on Zuko’s face says that he isn’t convinced, either.

“If they start telling people what I said – what I was going to do–”

“Then there will be a few more rough edges to smooth over,” Sokka admits. “But — look,” he says when Zuko’s expression starts to descend into something like panic, “it’s better this way, right? We don’t have to convince them of anything, or deal with another freak out, or deal with them at all, yet. We can just… take it step by step.”

“Right,” Zuko agrees. “Step by step.” He still looks a little distant, though, and more than a little on edge.

Sokka takes his hand. “Hey. You with me?”

Zuko looks up. His face is still pallid, but his eyes find Sokka’s and he smiles, warm and sincere, before squeezing Sokka’s hand. “Of course,” he says, and there is more trust in the words than Sokka knows what to do with. “Always.”

 

 

*

 

 

The first step, they agree, is finding Yue.

Their make their way quickly through the palace, and Sokka is reminded that although it feels like an eternity has passed since Sokka roused his resentful body from bed this morning, it’s really only been a few hours. It is still early, and the palace is still quieter than usual – most of its residents likely recovering from the previous night’s festivities, Sokka guesses. They pass a few people – palace staff, mostly – on their way to Yue’s rooms, but they aren’t paid much mind; sometime between Zuko’s arrival and now, it had become more common to see Zuko and Sokka together than to see them apart. If Sokka were to reach out and take Zuko’s hand, or wrap an arm around his waist the way he wants to, it might be a different story – but even like this, still caught up in his own euphoria and only half sure that he isn’t dreaming, Sokka knows better than to give in so publically to his own impulses. Zuko, perhaps thinking the same, doesn’t reach out, either. As they walk, he sticks only a little more closely to Sokka’s side than usual: not so close that it garners any extra attention, but close enough that Sokka is occasionally graced with the sensation of Zuko’s knuckles grazing briefly against his own; close enough that fabrics of their sleeves brush together with every step.

There is silence again when they finally reach Yue’s chambers. They falter in front of the door to Yue's chambers, but only for as long as it takes Sokka to brace himself. Before he can give himself too much time to rethink it, he reaches out and knocks.

One of Yue’s handmaidens answers the door.

“Your Highnesses,” she says, bowing when she sees who they are. “I did not know the Princess was scheduled to meet with you this morning. Either of you,” she adds uncertainly, her eyes flicking briefly over Zuko.

“Hello,” Zuko says, stepping forward and bowing his head courteously. “It’s not anything official, but we were wondering if we might seek audience with Princess Yue.”

“Ah,” the girl says. “Unfortunately that won’t be possible. Her Highness was summoned away by a messenger not half an hour ago.”

Sokka frowns. “Summoned? For what?”

“I’m sorry, Your Highness,” she says – and honestly, what is it with these Northerners and their insistence on titles – “but that’s Her Highness’s private business.”

Sokka’s mouth drops open. “I’m the son of the High Chief,” he argues, “and Yue and I have known each other since we were children. I know you know that. I can almost guarantee that wherever it was the messenger took her, she wouldn’t mind me hearing about it.”

Unfortunately,” the handmaiden says again, unimpressed and markedly less gracious than before, “‘almost’ isn’t good enough. I am not permitted to disclose information regarding the Princess’s correspondence with anyone. I can’t help you.”

She moves to shut the door on them, but Sokka is quicker: he shoves his foot inside before she can close it completely, and ignores the way both she and Zuko stare, horrified and embarrassed respectively, at his lack of decorum.

“I’m sorry,” Sokka says, “but is there anything else you can tell us? Do you know who she was meant to be meeting?”

“I’m sorry,” the handmaiden says testily, “but I’ve already given you my answer.”

“I… look,” Sokka blurts, thinking fast, “the thing is – this is really embarrassing, but I was supposed to tell her and Prince Zuko, here,” he gestures towards Zuko behind him, “about a High Council meeting that’s being held later today. I meant to let them know last night, but, well…” he gives a flippant little laugh and shrugs in a way that he hopes looks innocent. “I’m sure you’ve seen how things can get a little… out of hand at parties as like that, if you know what I mean.” Sokka shakes his head ruefully. “I just really don’t want to embarrass my father – especially in front of the delegates from the Fire Nation,” he says lowly, leaning a little closer as if to tell her a secret and inclining his head not very subtly towards Zuko.

The girl still doesn’t look as sympathetic as he’d like, but her mouth does lose some of its tightness. She glances back at Zuko for a moment before returning her gaze to Sokka.

“If there’s anything you could tell us so that I can get Yue to that meeting,” Sokka continues, putting on his best pleading face (which has been known to break even Katara), “I’d really, really appreciate it. You’d be doing me a huge favor.”

She looks at him for a second longer, then sighs. “Alright,” she says. “I guess you are technically the Prince.” Sokka nods eagerly, and she sighs again. “There’s good news and bad news. The good news is you don’t have to worry about Her Highness getting to the meeting, because she’s probably already there.”

Sokka’s jaw drops. “She — sorry, she’s what?” he asks in a voice that’s a few pitches higher than usual.

Yue’s handmaiden nods. “The messenger was sent directly from the High Council. He said something about Fire Nation Delegation as well, but I don’t make a habit on eavesdropping on Her Highness’s private conversations, so that’s all I heard. Considering you and Prince Zuko aren’t there yet and they had to send someone for Princess Yue, I’d wager the Council already knows you forgot to deliver the message. That’s the bad news. I’m sorry, Your Highness,” she says almost sympathetically.

Sokka swallows, nodding. “Uh – okay. Darn. Thank you.”

The girl nods back, and this time when she goes to close the door, Sokka lets her. He turns slowly to face Zuko, whose eyes have gone wide.

“We were supposed to tell her first,” Zuko says.

“I know,” Sokka says, trying and probably failing to keep his voice level.

He spares a look around, and seeing that the corridor is still empty of anyone but them, he reaches out to Zuko, who steps forward into Sokka’s arms as if he’d been waiting for the chance. Sokka closes his eyes as Zuko’s breathing falls steady against his neck, and tries very, very hard to stop feeling like the stitches holding his psyche together aren’t one more piece of bad news from ripping themselves apart.

“I have an idea,” Zuko says after a minute. “I don’t…I’m not sure if it’s any good, though. My cousin tells me I don’t always think things through. My Uncle says I’m just spontaneous, but…”

“Well,” Sokka says to fill the silence, “my idea is eloping to the Earth Kingdom, so I’m open to suggestions.”

Sokka feels the smile Zuko hides against his collarbone. “Maybe that can be our backup plan.”

“Sure,” Sokka says. “If your plan doesn’t work out.”

“Well,” Zuko admits a little nervously, “it’s… it’s not really a plan. It’s kind of the opposite of a plan, actually.”

“Uh-huh,” Sokka says, trying to sound more encouraging than doubtful.

“I know how it sounds,” Zuko says, pulling back a little to look at Sokka seriously, “and I know it’s not the most diplomatic approach, but why bother sitting around to strategize? We know the Council is in the middle of a meeting. We know my advisors are probably there, so it’s almost definitely about the treaty, and we know Yue is there, so it’s almost definitely about the marriage. I know we wanted to try and get her support before we told the Council, but how much would that have really changed? I say we just… go in. I say we just tell them.”

“Just tell them,” Sokka repeats, but he’s smiling. It’s not a plan he would have come up with himself – not intricate or strategic or meticulously designed – but it’s good. It’s simple, and beautiful in its simplicity, and it has the potential to be effective, if Sokka and Zuko can prove themselves convincing enough (and if they can’t, well – there’s always the Earth Kingdom).

Zuko nods, all of his uncertainty washed away in the face of Sokka’s approval. “Not to live up to my family’s reputation, or anything,” he says, “but I’m thinking it’s time we storm the Citadel.”

 

 

*

 

 

Storming the Citadel turns out to be far less adventurous and daring than it sounds. In fact, Sokka and Zuko don’t storm the Citadel so much as they walk there very quickly, with enough urgency in their step that they get a few odd looks on the way, but not so much that anyone tries to follow or stop them.

As soon as they’re within the halls of the massive building that houses the High Council’s chambers, Sokka hears it: the muted clamor of arguing voices, emanating directly from the very room they’re headed for. It grows louder as they venture further in, and they stop just outside of the Council Room to share an apprehensive glance. Zuko nods, just a slight tilt of his head, and the gesture is more comforting than it has any right to be. Sokka nods back; steels himself. He pushes open the large double doors, and it becomes instantly and exactly clear why it had sounded so frenzied from the outside.

Out of all of the room’s occupants, only Dad is sitting in his usual seat at the head of the long, rectangular table that stands on the raised platform in the center of the room. The rest of the Council has crowded together on one side of the table, displaced by eight of Zuko’s advisors, who have situated themselves on the table’s other side, across from the Council. Sokka and Zuko step forward into the room, and not a single person seems to notice, too busy shouting amongst themselves.

Sokka’s eyes catch almost immediately on Yue, who stands out amidst the chaos as the single passive figure in the room. She sits with her fellow tribesmen, appearing somehow smaller than usual, and stares quietly down at the table before her. Her arms are folded carefully into her sleeves, and her is expression cold and unreadable. Alone in her stillness and in her silence, she is beautiful like a statue is beautiful: utterly perfect, and the most lifeless thing in the room.

As someone shouts about trade agreements and grain tariffs, Councilwoman Amka looks up from one of the many scrolls laid out before her to ask, “Has the Fire Lord approved of this? Of your going back on your word – going back on his word – on your own behalf?”

“It is not our intention to ‘go back’ on anything,” one of Zuko’s advisors - a small man with a nasally voice - retorts sharply. “We only wanted to communicate that the schedule may have to be revised in order to – ”

Councilman Iqaluk – the most ornery of all the Councilmembers, according to Dad – slap his hand down hard on the table. “We’d be a little more understanding if you could give us a reason –

They are, all of them, evidently too engrossed in the dispute to notice that they are no longer alone, and Sokka is starting to doubt they’ll notice at all without some kind of assistance. Zuko, perhaps thinking the same, raises his hand up to his face, and before Sokka even has time to wonder what he’s doing, he coughs loudly, just once, into his clenched fist.

Every head in the room snaps towards the open door. Sokka stays where he is, but Zuko takes another step forward.

Earlier this morning, when Zuko and his advisors had become aware of Sokka’s presence in Zuko’s chambers, the room had gone instantly, deathly silent. This time, that is not at all what happens. This time, the voices become immediately louder, and conversation becomes even more agitated.

“My Prince,” one of Zuko’s advisors calls out, “what are you doing here?”

“Your presence isn’t required here, Your Highness,” another insists.

Yet another looks ready to beg when he says, “Please permit us to handle –”

Councilmen Kanak and Iqaluk seem to disregard them completely, calling out to reclaim the attention of the advisors, but Councilman Nanook and Councilwoman Amka look over in interest, and Councilwoman Parsa, upon catching sight of Zuko, calls out, “Your Highness, please explain what your advisors mean by –”

“That will not be necessary,” a fourth advisor exclaims shrilly before she can finish, and then they’re arguing again, somehow even more ferociously than before.

Yue’s head had snapped up with the rest of them when Sokka and Zuko had made themselves known, and rather than returning her attention to the conversation the way everyone else seems to have done, she watches them now. There is no happiness in her gaze, or relief, but neither is there any anger or sadness that Sokka can see; in fact, she is entirely expressionless, blank beyond even what her usually demure and restrained demeanor calls for. Sokka has never seen an expression of it’s like on her face, and it alarms him more than fury or misery or even terror would have. He doesn’t get the chance to examine her more closely, though; when she notices Sokka looking, she turns away.

It’s Dad’s voice that ultimately breaks through the din. He holds a hand up and says, his voice ringing through the room, “Prince Zuko. We were informed that you wouldn’t be available to meet with us today, or we would have sent for you.”

“We were not, however, told why,” Councilman Kanak growls, and a few of the other Councilmembers nod in agreement. “Perhaps the Prince would care to enlighten us himself?”

“That will not be necessary,” one of Zuko’s advisors — the short, shrill one — is quick to assert, but Dad shakes his head.

“I’m sorry, Minister Yao, but I must disagree. The most you’ve been able to tell us was that due to unforeseen circumstances,” he says, enunciating the words like they are tiresome, gaudy things, “the engagement would have to be postponed. Indefinitely.”

“Precisely! It is to be postponed only– not cancelled.”

“That’s hardly better,” Councilwoman Amka snaps, “when we were promised an engagement posthaste. Though perhaps it’s what we should have expected, when we made a deal with –”

A man with a thin mustache goes nearly purple in the face and cuts her off with a splutter of, “I hardly thinks that’s –”

“It’s of no matter,” Dad interjects, successfully cutting off what Sokka suspects might have eventually escalated into an all-out brawl. “I’m sure that our guests from the Fire Nation have a valid reason for requesting this…postponement. Now that the Prince is here, he can tell us himself why it’s necessary.” He turns to Zuko, and his face and voice both soften. “I don’t mean to put you on the spot, Your Highness, but we’re all just a little confused.”

Zuko takes another step forward. Sokka follows suit, keeping behind Zuko, but only by a small distance.

“That’s perfectly understandable,” Zuko says, straightening his back and lifting his chin and looking every bit like the Prince he is. “I apologize for the confusion, and ask that you do not hold it against my advisors, or allow this misunderstanding to taint your opinion of the Fire Nation itself. I did not know that my advisors intended to speak with you so soon, but I can assure you that they are only attempting to mitigate the inevitable fallout of my own actions. Regrettably,” he announces, casting a glance towards the rather nervous-looking panel of advisors, “their knowledge of my intentions is incomplete, which I’m sure is one of the reasons for the confusion between our parties.”

“Excellent,” Dad says, clapping his hands together. “If you would be so kind as to enlighten us?”

“Ah –” Zuko hesitates, looking suddenly less sure of himself. “Right. The problem – ”

“There shouldn’t be a problem,” Councilman Iqaluk cuts him off. “This agreement was meticulously drafted –”

Excuse me,” Zuko interjects. He says the words with of all the authority his birth allows, and Councilman Iqaluk falls accordingly silent (though whether he does so out of genuine respect or just pure astonishment, Sokka couldn’t say). “I mean no disrespect,” Zuko says, “but I have more to say – and I intend be heard.” He looks slowly around the room, as if challenging someone to oppose him. No one does. “I believe,” he continues when it becomes clear that no one will, “we can all acknowledge that despite the work that has gone into the planning of this agreement, it is not a perfect document. There has rarely in history been any document that could be called perfect, but I have come to realize that the deficiencies of thisparticular text are…” he falters. Swallows. “More than I have it within me to endure.”

“Prince Zuko,” one of the advisors says, standing abruptly, “I apologize for interrupting, but I must ask that you allow us to – ”

“Minister Murata,” Zuko says firmly, “please take a seat. I was not finished.” Murata’s face spasms, but he does not argue. He sits back down, looking more defeated than chastised, and Zuko turns back to the Council.

“All of that being said,” Zuko continues, “I recognize that this treaty is one of the most culturally and historically significant accords ever drafted. I believe wholeheartedly in its importance, and, as such, my intention is not to break it. Instead, I have elected to change it in a way that will allow me to fulfill my obligations to my nation – and to the world – without reservation.”

“Change it?” Councilwoman Amka leans forward, tentatively interested. “What aspects would you suggest be changed?”

“Only one,” Zuko says, “and it is not a suggestion. I will not be marrying Princess Yue.”

“By whose authority!?” Councilman Kanak demands.

“The ratification of the treaty is conditional on the marriage!” another man shouts.

“The grain tariffs have already gone into effect!” someone cries.

Please,” Zuko calls out over the noise, ignoring all of them, “allow me to explain.”

Councilman Iqaluk, who had only just opened his mouth to express his own outrage, crosses his arms and sits back begrudgingly. The others follow suit.

“Although I won’t be marrying Princess Yue,” Zuko continues only a little nervously when he is sure he has their attention, “I have settled on what I believe to be a plausible alternative.”

“An…alternative?” one of Zuko’s advisors asks carefully – the man Dad had called ‘Minister Yao.’

“Yes, Minister,” Zuko says, standing up a little straighter. “Sokka, son of the High Chief of the Southern Water Tribe, has offered me his own hand in place of Princess Yue’s.”

Minister Yao’s eyes go wide. “He –”

“He asked me to marry him,” Zuko confirms before the man can finish. “And I said yes.”

(It’s only a little bit a lie.

What Zuko had actually said, when Sokka first asked him, was, You can’t be serious.

I am, Sokka had sworn. Completely serious. I might never make another joke again.

I’m not kidding, Sokka, Zuko had snapped. I need you to understand what you’re doing. It might not happen today, or tomorrow, or a year from now, but one day — one day you’ll regret this. You’ll be stuck with me, and you’ll wish you had let me talk you out of it. 

I don’t understand any of that, Sokka had told him, because it’s not true. I’m in love with you. I’ve been in love with you, even if it took me way too long to realize it, and I’m going to keep being in love with you no matter what happens after this. As long as you want me — as long as you’ll have me — I’m not going anywhere.

You’re giving up a future with anyone else. Zuko had it said like a warning, but Sokka had only shaken his head.

I’m not giving up anything.

That part of the story isn’t for other people, though. That part is just for them, and nobody else needs to know anything but this: Sokka said marry me, and eventually Zuko smiled, tentative but sure, and said yes.)

The reaction to Zuko’s declaration is surprisingly tame. There is no shouting, this time; no great swell of noise; no shaking of heads or fists. The room stays quiet. Even Zuko’s advisors seem too stunned to speak, though their expressions range from horrified to incredulous to angry.

“Sokka…” Dad starts eventually, sounding strained and looking only slightly less dumbfounded than everyone else at the table. “This was your idea?”

Though Sokka had been mostly ignored up until this point, every head in the room turns at once to him – some looking dumbfounded, some livid, and some perhaps a little impressed. Dad looks concerned, and a little wary. Yue’s eyes focused somewhere over Sokka’s head, but her lips are pressed into a thin line.

“It was,” Sokka confirms, finally stepping forward to stand next to Zuko. “It makes sense, and it works. Or – it will work. My rank is essentially the same as Princess Yue’s, so the marriage would carry the same political significance. Nothing has to change, really – we’re not proposing the eradication of the marriage clause. There will still be a marriage. Just… not the one we expected.”

“Frankly,” Councilman Kanak says severely, “I find myself wondering if this treaty is still worth pursuing. If the Fire Nation is not as committed to reaching an accord as they have led us to believe –”

“We are!” Zuko insists brashly, his carefully maintained pretense of decorum slipping. “am, but –”

“You have indicated plainly you would find a marriage to Princess Yue an intolerable fate,” Councilman Kanak spits back. “This is a grave insult both to Her Highness and to our sister tribe in the North – and it is the shame of the Southern Water Tribe,” he says, glaring at Sokka, “to think that one of our own could have taken part in such a betrayal, brewing all this time behind her back – ”

“Kanuk –” Dad starts sharply, but Sokka gets there first.

“Excuse me, Councilman,” he snaps before he can think better of it, “but we never went behind anyone’s back. Everything leading up to the trials was fully in accordance with our traditions.” (Well, he thinks. Almost fully.) “I did everything just the way I was meant to, and so did Zuko. This decision – this whole idea – was something that we only came up with today.”

“An eleventh hour intervention,” Councilman Iqaluk drawls. “How inspired.”

“It’s all very moving,” Councilwoman Parsa permits, “but there are other things to consider. You know as well as anyone that the Northern and Southern Water Tribes are not interchangeable,” she says, peering at Sokka over the top of her small glasses, “and the terms delineated in the treaty were written specifically with a union between the Fire Nation and the Northern Water Tribe in mind. Many of the Earth Kingdom provisions were also tribe specific…”

She keeps talking, but Sokka stops listening. He focuses instead on Yue, who has returned her gaze to the table. Her eyes are hard and her jaw is tight and her back is as straight and stiff as if she’d modeled her posture off of the mountains. She looks, for all the world, like a particularly prideful prisoner – but that’s the opposite of what she is, isn’t it? Especially now. She must have realized that Sokka’s engagement to Zuko means that she is free from any obligation to him – free to go home, free to choose love, the way Sokka always said she should be. So why, Sokka wonders, does she look like that? Why are her eyes glassy and unblinking? Why does she refuse to look at Sokka now, when they have always found comfort in each other before? What does it mean, the furrow in her brow? The thinness of her pursed lips?

“What about Princess Yue?” he interrupts.

Councilman Nanook, who had apparently started speaking sometime while Sokka was distracted, furrows his brow. “What about the Princess?”

“This is about her, too, isn’t it? Shouldn’t we be asking what she thinks?”

“As the Princess is not the party from which the issue stems, I hardly think that –”

“That’s the whole problem, though!” Sokka insists. “That’s always been the problem! You’re so focused on – on grain tariffs and political agendas that you never stopped to think about what Zuko or Yue might want. You’re talking about trade deals when you should be talking about them. When you should be talking to them.”

Dad taps his knuckles thoughtfully against the tabletop. “My son raises an excellent point. I can hardly imagine that it would hurt to consider their perspectives, and we’ve already heard from Prince Zuko – it seems only fair that Princess Yue be allowed to offer her own insight. Your Highness,” he says, turning to Yue, “do you have any thoughts on the matter you’d like to share?”

For a long moment, Yue says nothing.

“I mean no disrespect, Chief Hakoda,” she says at length, finally looking up from the table, “but my thoughts have not factored into a word of this treaty so far. I struggle to see how they could be relevant now.”

Sokka’s breath catches in his throat. Dad’s face twists with something like regret.

“You see,” Councilman Nanook says, “the Princess understands that this is a matter of politics in which her perspective in unneeded.”

“I did not say that,” Princess Yue says, her voice taking on an edge for what might be the first time in her life. “I said only that I have a hard time believing, after all of this, that there is a single person in this room who genuinely cares about what I have to say on the matter.” She looks at Sokka as she says it.

Not even you, she doesn’t say, but Sokka hears it anyways, and understanding hits him like a club to the head: so abruptly that he goes dizzy from it.

Yue had never wanted to marry Zuko, but she’d been determined to do what was best for her people, and she’d trusted that Sokka respected her enough to let her make that decision. She’d trusted that he wouldn’t try to make her choices for her, the way the rest of the world has spent her entire life doing – but now it looks like Sokka has done exactly that. Whatever relief Yue might feel at the prospect of ending the engagement has been ruined by this: the thought that Sokka, who she had trusted to know better – to bebetter – has taken her life into his own hands.

Sokka hadn’t had the words to describe Yue’s expression before, but they find him now: the look on her face is nothing more or less than complete and utter betrayal – and Sokka is the one who put it there.

“Yue,” he calls desperately over whichever one of Zuko’s advisors is speaking now, uncaring of propriety or etiquette or anything but the hurt that is suddenly so evident in Yue’s eyes, “it’s not what you think. I swear to Tui and La it’s not.”

“Pardon me, young man –” The advisor begins testily, but Sokka cuts him off.

“She has to know,” he says vehemently, and the advisor puffs up indignantly at his rudeness. Dad sends him a warning look, but Sokka doesn’t pay either of them any mind – he just keeps his eyes on Yue. “You have to know,” he repeats, tracking the way the corners of her mouth tighten. “I wasn’t trying to – to save you from yourself, or take on your burden, or whatever it is you’re thinking.”

“Sokka,” she says evenly, “I’m perfectly aware of how people see me. I’m perfectly aware of how you see me. I know you were concerned that I was being taken advantage of, and I know that you think you know what’s best for me –”

Yue–”

But,” she continues pointedly, her voice taking on that same edge he had first heard from her only a few moments ago, “I can assure you that am perfectly capable of making my own decisions. My priorities might be different from yours, but I know my place, and I know my duty, and I do not need you or anyone else to tell me when or how I am allowed to follow through on that. I knew you didn’t agree with me, but I thought – out of everyone, I thought I could count on you, at least, to trust that I could make my own choices –”

“This was never about that!”

“Then what is it about, Sokka?” she demands. Her voice breaks on his name, and something in his chest fractures with it. “What else could this possibly be about?”

“It’s about him!” Sokka exclaims, gesturing a little desperately towards Zuko beside him. “It’s about Zuko. It’s about Zuko, and – and it’s about me loving him.” He hadn’t actually said so before, he realizes – not in front of Yue, and certainly not in front of the Council – but now the words feel heavy and hot in his mouth, like they might burn a hole through Sokka’s tongue if he doesn’t spit them out. “I love him,” he pronounces carefully. “This isn’t about trade deals or politics or even you, and it never has been, and I know how selfish that sounds, but it’s the truth. I just love him,” Sokka says again, hoping he doesn’t sound as fragile to everyone else as he does to his own ears. “It was never about anything else but that.”

There is warmth at Sokka’s side as Zuko takes Sokka’s hand in his. He doesn’t miss the way the eyes of every person in the room zero in on the point of contact, but he doesn’t pay them any mind.

Instead, he looks over at Zuko, and is taken aback by the softest, sweetest smile he’s ever seen painted on Zuko’s face. He looks like he doesn’t even know he’s smiling; like he doesn’t even realize there’s anyone around to see the way he’s looking at Sokka.

Sokka weaves his fingers through Zuko’s, and turns back to their audience.

The first person he sees is Dad, who looks shocked, but not displeased. It’s a sentiment most everyone else at the table seems to share, upon quick inspection, and Sokka notices that a few of the less cantankerous Councilmembers look almost amused.

Yue, though – Yue has a look on her face like a spirit has just touched down in front of her. “You love him,” she says, her voice so low it’s almost a whisper. It’s not a question. “And – Prince Zuko,” she says, almost urgently, “You love him, too?”

Zuko squeezes Sokka’s hand in his. “I do.”

Yue nods slowly. “Then…then I do have something to say on the matter of the treaty,” she says. “If the Council will permit it.”

“Please,” Dad says, waving a bemused hand in her direction, “speak freely.”

Yue nods at him gratefully, and stands. “Prince Zuko and I,” she starts slowly, “agreed to be wed in the name of peace, and duty, and honor. I believed for a long time, as I’m sure many of you do, that our dedication to those virtues would be enough to sustain the treaty upon which our marriage would have been founded. Duty and honor are undoubtedly important, but I realize now… that is to say, I believe it will take more than that to heal our wounds. It will take this,” she says gesturing to Sokka and Zuko and their joined hands. “It will take love.

“This union should not be about the ratification of a passionless treaty, or a dutiful agreement between two parties. Our nations shouldn’t be pursuing peace because it seems like the next step, or because it’s what’s expected of us — we should be doing so because we care about one another, and about harmony, and about restoring the balance that was lost from the world during the war. A marriage of convenience won’t facilitate that — not half so well as a marriage born of love would. Love is how we’re going to fix the world,” Yue says, and though her voice wavers slightly, she is no less strong for it. “I can’t think of a way to better symbolize the legacy that this treaty was written to build than with a marriage that signifies that.”

She bows politely, and sits.

The room is quiet for a long moment.

Dad is the one who breaks the silence. “I think I speak for all of us when I say ‘well put,’ Your Highness.” He turns to Zuko’s advisors. “May I ask what our guests from the Fire Nation have to say about it?”

The tall woman – Minister Imai, Sokka thinks he has heard her called – presses her lips together into a thin line. She looks to the man next to her, who leans over and mutters something in her ear. The woman on the other side of her leans in as well, and so do a few of the other advisors, and even from halfway across the room, Sokka can make out the words “Lord — lenient — favored — nephew.”

Minister Imai stares piercingly at the advisor next to her for a long moment, and then looks past him to lock eyes with a stern looking man sitting at the end of the table. He narrows his eyes at her, but turns to face Zuko.

“Is it true, your highness?” he asks Zuko in a deep, gravelly voice, leaning over the table to peer at the two of them. “That you and he are…in love?”

“It is,” Zuko says. Sokka doesn’t miss the smile in his voice. “Very much so.”

“And you would be amenable to this marriage?” A different man – Minister Yao – asks, looking almost hopeful.

“I would be,” Zuko says, and this time the smile is not hidden in his words, but plain on his face for all the world to see.

“Then,” Minister Imai says, nodding at the two advisors who had spoken, “this panel has no objections. It’s unorthodox, to be sure, and a proposal to a member of the royal family would usually need to be approved by the Fire Lord himself, but…” she looks to the man with the gravelly voice, who bobs his head and leans forward.

“We cannot speak on the Fire Lord’s behalf,” he says, “but we would offer a tentative prediction that His Majesty would be made more enthusiastic about his nephew’s betrothal if it were known to him that His Highness Prince Zuko had chosen his partner for himself.”

Dad nods. He turns away from them, and instead of addressing the entire room the way Sokka had expected, he fixes his gaze on Sokka. “And Sokka – son. You really want this?”

“I do,” Sokka says, and it feels like a vow. “I really, really do.”

Dad studies him for a long moment before turning back to the Council and Zuko’s Ministers.

“I believe,” Dad says, “that Princess Yue has shown impressive wisdom, today. She will be a great leader one day — but I don’t think that it will be with Prince Zuko by her side.”

Sokka stops breathing, but his heart begins to flutter madly in his chest, wild with something that feels a lot like hope.

“This marriage, “ Dad continues, “is meant to symbolize a bond between nations. I, for one, can’t think of a better representation of that symbol than two people who are doing this not because they have to, or because they believe they should, but because they love each other. If the world is to truly heal, then it needs people to make that choice because they believe in it – because they want it – more than it needs people to make the choice because they feel obligated to do so.” He smiles. “As far as I’m concerned, Her Highness is entirely correct. There could be no better outcome than this.”

He looks at Sokka again, and his eyes and voice are soft when he says, “You have my blessing.”

Sokka doesn’t say anything; he just nods gratefully, and tries to choke back his own burgeoning tears.

Dad turns towards the Council. “I move to put it to a vote. All in favor of amending the treaty as such?”

There is a pause that feels like a thousand years, and then, and then, and then –

Councilwoman Parsa says “Aye.”

“Aye,” Councilman Nanook agrees, and then the last three Councilmembers are saying it in unison, and Zuko’s advisors are nodding politely and murmuring amongst themselves, already debating on how best to deliver the news to the Fire Nation.

Sokka is smiling. He turns to Zuko, and Zuko smiles back, and it feels like the greatest privilege and triumph of Sokka’s life to see it.

“Of course, the decision is not ours alone to make,” Dad says. “We’ll need to discuss this further with our sister tribe, and, I expect, with the Fire Lord and his advisors – but that’s for us to worry about.” He gestures to the rest of the table, where the Councilmembers and Zuko’s advisors look indulging and disbelieving and relieved in equal measure. “The Council will have to write up some letters to send out regarding the redrafting of the treaty. Hopefully Your Highness’s royal advisors will be amenable to helping us,” he says to Zuko, who nods mechanically, still halfway between overjoyed and stunned.

Sokka squeezes Zuko’s hand even more firmly. Zuko steps closer so that they’re touching, side by side, shoulder to elbow, hip to knee. Sokka looks back at his father, and sees that the man is smiling proudly.

“I’ll walk my son out,” he says, stepping away from the table. “Prince Zuko, Princess Yue. You are, of course, welcome to stay if you’d like, but you’re under no obligation.”

Zuko does not move from Sokka’s side. Yue rises gracefully, as she does everything, and follows them out.

“Dad,” Sokka says when the doors have closed behind them and they’re a safe distance away from the Council’s Chambers, “are you crying?”

Dad just smiles, as widely as Sokka’s ever seen, and doesn’t try to hide for even a moment the dew that has sprung up in his eyes.

“What has the world come to if a proud father can’t shed a few tears?” he asks. He slows to a stop, then, and turns when Sokka stops with him. “More than anything in the world — and I do mean anything — I want you and your sister to be happy. I didn’t expect you to find happiness like this, but I’m glad –  so glad – that you did.”

“That is…the cheesiest thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” Sokka says so that he doesn’t start crying, too, “and I grew up with Katara.”

Dad raises a playful eyebrow. “And where do you think she learned it from?”

Sokka laughs, and Dad, still smiling fondly, turns to Yue. “I meant what I said, Your Highness,” he tells her. “You showed great wisdom today. The Northern Water Tribe is lucky to have you as one of its leaders, and we in the South are lucky to have you as one of our allies – and as one of our friends.”

“Thank you, Chief Hakoda,” Yue says, bowing graciously, “but the credit should go to you. I’ve learned more about friendship from the time I’ve spent in the Southern Water Tribe than anything else in my life. It’s an honor to be counted among those you consider your own.”

Dad smiles, and returns her bow. He turns to Zuko, who goes immediately stiff.

“Prince Zuko,” Dad says. “You’ve already fulfilled all of our requirements in accordance with our traditions, so there won’t be any need for you to prove yourself further. There is a bit of political finagling to be done, of course, but that’s not something I think you need to be too worried about. Whenever the betrothal necklaces are ready and the two of you feel so inclined, the engagement can be made official.”

“Right,” Zuko says. “Yes, sir. Of course.”

Dad clasps a hand on Zuko’s shoulder, and smiles down at him with enough fatherly pride that Sokka feels it from a foot away. “You’re a good man. Your nation is lucky to have you – and so is Sokka. I’m excited to see what the future has in store for you and my son.”

“Thank you, sir,” Zuko says, bowing lower than courtesy dictates, though Sokka is sure it’s mostly an effort to hide the ferocious blush that has risen up. “I – I will endeavor to earn that compliment.”

Dad only laughs. “As far as I’m concerned, son, you already have.” He releases Zuko’s shoulder, and bows one last time. “You three go relax,” he says. “You’ve more than earned it. I’ll see you at dinner, after I’ve drafted a letter to the Fire Lord.”

 

 

*

 

 

They return to the palace together. Though no one mentions a destination, they find themselves in silent, mutual agreement making their way towards Yue’s rooms.

“Yue,” Sokka says when they’ve nearly reached her door, “I just – I want you to know that we wanted to tell you, first.”

“We meant to tell you first,” Zuko adds. “We came here to find you, but you weren’t in. That’s how we ended up at the Council meeting – we heard that was where you’d gone.”

“You did what you could,” Yue says, more generously than Sokka thinks he deserves. “What happened after that wasn’t your fault. I know you never meant any harm.”

“I never meant any harm,” Sokka stresses, “but that doesn’t mean I didn’t do any. I’m – Spirits, Yue, I’m so sorry that’s how you found out. I swear we weren’t trying to – to blindside you, or go behind your back, or anything like that. It just sort of…happened. And I of course I wanted to tell you, but I didn’t even think about what not telling you might make it look like.” He looks down at his feet, feeling abruptly childish. “You should have been the first to know. I’m sorry you weren’t.”

“I believe you,” Yue says easily, a faint, sweet smile taking over her features, “and I forgive you. And I’m sorry, too.” She puts a gentle hand on Sokka’s arm, and he raises his head back up to look at her. “I know what kind of person you are. I should have known better than to think you would treat me like…like the way I accused you of doing.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Sokka says, and Zuko nods earnestly beside him.

“I was tired,” Yue says, “and I let it cloud my judgment.”

“Tired?” Sokka asks. She certainly doesn’t look like she’s not getting enough sleep.

Yue heaves a little sigh. “That’s the word I use,” she admits. “When I’m trying to put a name to it. Tired of people thinking I need to be taken care of. Tired of them acting like I can’t think for myself – like they know what’s best for me better than I do. I’m still tired of it,” she confesses, “but I’ve always known that you respect me too much to act like that. I shouldn’t have doubted you in the first place.”

“Yue,” Sokka says gently, “You shouldn’t have to live like that.”

“It was better today,” Yue assures him, and her smile grows a little more genuine. “It was…nice. Telling people what thought, for a change. And I have a feeling it’ll keep getting better from here. I still stand by what I said before – there is nothing more important to me than my people. That will always be true, but...maybe somewhere in between honor and duty, there’s a little room to find my own happiness. I might have to fight for it,” she says with a glint in her eye, “but you’ve shown me – you’ve both shown me – that there are some changes worth fighting for.”

“I don’t know if we can take credit for that,” Sokka says, squeezing Zuko’s hand in his, “but you know I’m always happy to help.”

Yue nods, and her smile widens. “I didn’t get to say it before,” she tells them, “but I’m so happy for you both.”

“I’m happy, too,” Sokka says, grinning so hard it almost hurts. “Spirits,” he laughs a little roughly, “you wouldn’t believe how happy.”

“I think I might,” Yue says softly, glancing down again at Sokka and Zuko’s interlaced fingers. Her eyes are bright when they flick back up towards Sokka, and her smile wobbles. She gives a shaky, embarrassed laugh. “I’m sorry,” she says. “Please don’t mind me, I’m just…” she giggles, and Sokka is shocked to see that her eyes are wet.

“Are you alright, Princess?” Zuko asks, slightly alarmed.

“Call me Yue,” she says. “And I’m better than alright. I’m amazing. Everything is amazing.” She laughs again, and those are definitely tears.

Sokka releases his grip on Zuko’s hand so that he can step forward and grasp Yue’s shoulders. “Are you okay?” he asks, inspecting her a little anxiously. “Do we need to take you to see someone, or –”

“Sokka,” she interjects, smiling so genuinely that she glows with it. “Nothing is wrong. I’m not upset.”

“You’re crying.” And she is, now – it’s almost alarming how quickly it had come on, a stream of tears from each eye running down her face and dripping past her chin. 

“I’m happy,” Yue insists. She takes his hands from her shoulders and holds them both in front of her, one of his hands in each of her own.  So happy, for you, and for Zuko, and for the fact that you get to choose.” She says the word reverently, holding it in her mouth like’s it’s something precious. “You get to choose, and you’re choosing love, and if I had spent my whole life imagining, I don’t think I could ever have dreamed up anything as beautiful as that.”

“You deserve to do more than dream about it,” Sokka tells her, squeezing her hands in his. “And I’m not saying that because I’m trying to tell you what to do, I just – you’re my best friend, you know?”

“And you’re mine,” Yue says, grinning through her tears. “And you’re getting married. My best friend is getting married.” She laughs, and hugs him, and she never once stops crying, and he loves her so much, but he’s starting to realize just how different this love is – how different it’s always been – compared to what he feels for Zuko. (As if anything could compare to that. As if anything could come close.)

She pulls one of her hands away to rub inelegantly at her damp cheeks with her edge of her sleeve. “I don’t care what my father, or the Fire Nation, or the Earth Kingdoms, or anyone else says,” she tells them. “This is the way things were meant to be. I know it.” And she looks so sure, so stubborn, so radiant in her conviction, that Sokka can’t even imagine doubting her. Her eyes and her voice and the curve of her smile are all tender and good-natured and so utterly sincere that it leaves no room for argument.

“Thank you,” Sokka says, even as his own eyes start to burn. “I mean it, Yue. Just – thank you.”

She giggles wetly again, then holds out a hand to Zuko, who’s been watching them fondly all this time. “Come over here, Prince Zuko. I want to hug best friend’s fiancé.”

Zuko goes a little pink, but doesn’t protest. “You can just call me Zuko,” he says, even as he steps forward. He stands next to Sokka, shoulder to shoulder, and when Yue to wrap her arms around the both of them, he leans into the embrace.

 

 

*

 

 

They linger in the corridor for only a few minutes longer before Yue retires to her rooms. (To write a letter to my father, she tells them.To prepare him for what’s to come).

Sokka and Zuko watch her go. When the door has closed behind her, they turn, and begin the short trek back to their own side of the palace.

Sokka laces their fingers together between them, and basks in the stares they collect on their way.

“I’m totally going to finish my betrothal necklace before you do,” he tells Zuko as they walk. “Just so you know.”

Zuko hums. “If we both started now,” he allows, “you’d probably would. Considering you already have yours, though…” he trails off, grimacing delicately. “Unless you threw it away?”

Sokka’s feet freeze beneath him. He comes to a halt in the middle of the corridor – empty, thankfully, of anyone but them – and Zuko, still holding his hand, is forced to stop with him.

“It’s okay if you did,” Zuko says into the sudden silence. He sounds like he means it. “You were…pretty upset with me. I’d understand.”

“You –” Sokka struggles to get the words out, feeling like half of his brain has just been disconnected from the rest of him. “How could I have…”

“I left it with you,” Zuko tells him, looking more than a little self-conscious. “In the courtyard, after the trials? I didn’t mean to, but…I guess I had other things on my mind.” He laughs, a little sheepishly. “It’s okay if you don’t –”

“No,” Sokka says, “I – I still have it, but that’s – there are no copouts, with this. Betrothal necklaces are supposed to be… you know. Personalized. You can’t just give me Yue’s necklace, you have to make one that’s actually for me.”

“Sokka,” Zuko says, quiet and almost confused, like he can’t believe he has to say it out loud, “it was for you. Of course it was. You have to have known that.”

Sokka stares. “For – but you didn’t…”

Zuko shakes his head. “When I was making that necklace,” he says, turning to face Sokka entirely, “you were the only person I was thinking of. It was always yours, from the very beginning.” He presses his hand against Sokka’s chest; drags it up to cradle the back of his head. “It was always you.”

Sokka sucks in a deep breath. He exhales slowly, counting the seconds as they go by, but it does nothing to slow the rapid pounding in his chest. “Okay,” he says. He takes a another deep breath and leans in, pressing his forehead to Zuko’s. “We need to go back to my room right now so that I can kiss you. A lot.”

Zuko’s eyes go wide, and his cheeks go pink. “Okay,” he says, but he doesn’t move.

“And so that you can put my – my betrothal necklace on me.” Sokka says, the pitch of his voice rising embarrassingly high. “The one that you made for me. We need to go do that right now.”

“Okay,” Zuko says again, nodding this time, and then he’s pulling on Sokka’s hand, leading them down the hall.

The betrothal necklace is waiting for them, right there on Sokka’s bed where it must have finally fallen from his grip sometime during the night. Sokka bends his head forward so that Zuko can stand behind him and fasten it around his throat. He turns around as soon as it’s done, gathering Zuko into his arms and drawing them both down onto the bed.

He pulls Zuko on top of him and places his hand over the warm back of Zuko’s neck. He imagines what it would be like to repeat the motion and feel a necklace there; to see the thick band of leather pressed against that smooth, pale skin. A design of his own making, created by his own hand, nestled in the hollow of that throat and marking Zuko as his, forever, for everyone to see. The same way that he is Zuko’s, he remembers, and is nearly overwhelmed by the joy that the thought brings with it.

He reaches up and brushes the pads of his fingers against the smooth leather of his own necklace. It doesn’t feel like a restraint, the way he had always imagined it might. I don’t think a chain is what they have in mind, Aang had said an eternity ago. It sounds like they’re after something more like a union.

That’s exactly what this is, Sokka thinks: the promise of a union, and the beginning of one. Aang was right. Somehow, he always is.

Zuko pushes himself up on his elbows so that he’s hovering over Sokka, and settles his hand just along the curve of Sokka’s jaw. He traces Sokka’s face reverently, like he can’t quite believe he’s allowed to touch, and lets his thumb skim along the of Sokka’s cheekbone. Sokka reaches up and curls his hand loosely around Zuko’s wrist – not to pull him away, but not really to keep him there, either. He does it just to hold him; just to feel the proof that he can.

Zuko is staring, gaze flickering between Sokka’s eyes and Sokka’s mouth and the betrothal necklace around Sokka’s neck.

“I love you,” he says quietly, leaning down to press a quick, soft kiss to the bow of Sokka’s upper lip. “So much.”

“I know,” Sokka tells him. “I love you, too. I’m — spirits, Zuko,” he breathes, suddenly overwhelmed. “I’m going to make you so happy.”

He kisses up the side of Zuko’s neck and drags his mouth up Zuko’s jaw; lets his lips linger at the corner of Zuko’s mouth, so that he feels it when Zuko smiles.

“I’ll start tomorrow,” Sokka murmurs. “As soon as it’s finished, it’s yours.”

Zuko doesn’t have to ask to know what Sokka’s talking about. “It’s not fair that you get two proposals and I don’t get any,” he says. “Doesn’t seem right.”

“Well,” Sokka says, smirking a little even though Zuko can’t see it, “I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely counting the time you threw a betrothal necklace at me and then ran away as a proposal, so really it’s more like two to one.”

Ugh,” Zuko grumbles, hiding his face in Sokka’s neck even as his body literally heats up in embarrassment at the memory. “You’re not funny.”

Sokka snickers into Zuko’s hair. “Good thing I’m not joking, then,” he chirps. “If it makes you feel any better,” he adds after a moment, his voice going a little softer than before, “I’ll let you pick how I do it this time. Whatever you want.”

“Mm. Yeah?”

“Yeah. I know how you love that romantic stuff. I can make it fancy – get the whole tribe in on it, maybe. We’ll do a choreographed interpretive dance, representing my love for you.”

Spirits,” Zuko says, tucking his face into the curve of Sokka’s neck and laughing. “No.”

“No?” Sokka asks. “What about a parade?“

“You’re the worst,” Zuko says, sounding incredibly content.

“Oh – a play! You love plays. I could write one for you, put it on in front of the entire tribe. I could take it on the road, even, perform in all the big Earth Kingdom cities…it could be a musical,” Sokka says almost gleefully, though he keeps his voice low.  “Think of the songs I could write about us.”

Zuko groans halfheartedly, but he doesn’t really protest. He presses a kiss to Sokka’s neck instead, and Sokka is able to forget, in this moment, about politics and treaties and international incidents. There are conversations to be had, and deals to be made, and world leaders – entire governments– that will have to be notified and convinced to agree to let Sokka take Yue’s place.

For now, Sokka closes his eyes, and remembers what Katara had said about love: it’s almost like you’re living in an entirely new world – except it’s not the world that’s changed.

She was right, Sokka thinks. Everything does feel different, in the light of this love — even the things that have been true for a long, long time. The war is over. The Avatar is returned after a century-long absence, and every day is a new beginning. Sokka’s family is safe and happy, and his people are beginning to thrive again in a world that is still growing to fit them. Sokka loves, and he is loved in return.

The world has been at peace for thirty years, but it is only now, with Zuko in his arms, that Sokka would swear it was a perfect place.

 

Chapter Text

It’s a winter wedding.

A winter wedding in the Fire Nation, though, which Sokka is sure comes as a relief to their many, many guests. The evening air is temperate – practically warm – and the droves of people who have gathered to celebrate them are dressed for the occasion.

They’ve been living in the Fire Nation for a few months now; long enough to verify that Sokka does, as Zuko had once predicted, look good in red. It suits him, even if he wasn’t born for it the way Zuko was – but it’s not what he wears today.

Sokka’s wedding robes, like most of the clothing he’s accumulated since he arrived in the Fire Nation, had been made specifically with him in mind: the breathable, lightweight fabrics are all Fire Nation made, but the cut and color is distinctly Water Tribe. He is a spot of blue in a sea of reds and golds, but standing at Zuko’s side, he never once questions his place.

(“Agni, you’re beautiful,” Zuko had whispered when Sokka had joined him at the altar. It had been appreciated, but unnecessary; the look in Zuko’s eyes – the awe and the reverence there on his face – had told Sokka what he thought more convincingly than any words could have.)

The wedding itself is the most widely-attended event in a decade. It seems like half the world has come to witness it: the union of two nations, together as one for the first time.

The Fire Lord (who had insisted, upon meeting him, that Sokka call him Uncle) presides over the ceremony.

(Zuko – along with half of the royal advisors – had reminded Uncle several times that it is usually the job of the High Fire Sage – not the Fire Lord – to officiate royal weddings. Uncle had suggested, with a twinkle in his eye, that maybe it was time for a break in tradition.)

The value the Fire Nation places on tradition, immense though it may be, is apparently no match for the will of the Fire Lord. Interesting, but not exactly surprising given that the Fire Lord’s family is supposedly descended directly from Agni. (Sokka had learned all about it during his crash course on Fire Nation culture — which he had excelled in, thank you very much. Zuko can claim to be the better student all he wants, but he hadn’t been trying to learn while dealing with the many distractions that come from being tutored by your incredibly beautiful and endearing fiancé.)

Sokka had raised an eyebrow when Zuko explained it to him. “So you’re telling me that your family literally has a divine right to rule over the people of the Fire Nation. Like, for real.”

“We’re supposed to,” Zuko had shrugged. “It’s what we’re taught. I don’t know if I believe it.” 

Sokka had thought it sounded ridiculous, at the time. Now, looking at Zuko, he’s not so sure.

The sun is setting at Zuko’s back, and it paints his edges in gold. The glow blurs the lines of his body until he and the light are one and the same, and if not for the way their hands are joined between them, it would be impossible to tell where Zuko stops and the rest of the world begins. He burns as bright as any star, and it is easy to believe, here and now, that he is of the sun. Zuko isn’t a spirit, Sokka knows, or even probably the descendant of one; he’s just a boy, the same as Sokka – but when Sokka looks at him, he feels like maybe Zuko was made to be worshipped anyways.

Zuko had looked at Sokka at the start of the ceremony, full of wonder and weak at the knees, and Sokka had understood. He’d felt the same. He still feels the same, and he is sure without knowing quite where his certainty comes from that although the day may turn to night and the years may come and go, this is something that won’t ever change.

“We are gathered here today,” Fire Lord Iroh announces to the crowd before them, “to celebrate the beginning of a new world.”

Uncle turns to the Fire Sage kneeling beside him. He lifts the hairpiece carefully from the pillow in the Sage’s hands and raises it into the air above their heads, where it gleams under the day’s dying light. “This ornament,” he says, his voice deep and slow and steady like the tides, “normally cast in gold, has been forged with silver to symbolize the heritage of the Water Tribes, and to act as a reflection and a reminder of the light of the moon, and all that she gives us; may this union provide even more, and may it remain a symbol for ages to come of the legacy we endeavor to leave behind.”

He brings the ornament down and fits it neatly into Sokka’s wolf-tail. It is identical to the one Zuko wears in all but color. They are each other’s mirror image, now: the sun and moon; two halves of a whole; the tie that will bind their nations together in harmony.

Uncle takes a step back and holds his arms out in a grand, victorious gesture, as if inviting all the world into his embrace. Cheers ring out from the crowd. Somewhere behind them, the choir begins to sing. Zuko smiles, squeezing Sokka’s hands in his, and the warmth that settles over Sokka has nothing at all to do with firebending. Sokka smiles back, and thinks: so this is what it’s like to know you’ll never be cold again.

The sun sinks below the horizon, and like that they are married: with the blessings of the Fire Lord, and the sea of people gathered before them, and all the rest of the world, and the spirits by which it was made.

 

*

 

As many people as there had been to witness the ceremony, Sokka thinks that there must be nearly as many at the reception, despite the palace staff’s assurances that it was an invitation-only affair.

There are only a few people Sokka recognizes: Zuko’s family, Sokka’s father, and a few Water Tribe delegates (including Bato, who Sokka hasn’t seen in months, but is determined to speak to at some point during the night). Aang and Katara are there, of course, and Yue and her father had arrived with several other high-ranking members of the Northern Water Tribe. He had probably been most surprised to see Suki in attendance as a representative of Kyoshi Island, accompanied by a few of her fellow warriors. She and Zuko had bonded immediately over teasing Sokka, to Sokka’s own horror and delight. He had pouted about it for show, of course, but had been unable to keep the smile off of his face for long, watching two of his favorite people laugh with each other (even if they were laughing at him).

“We should introduce her to Yue,” Zuko had murmured when she was called away. Sokka had tightened the arm he had wrapped around Zuko’s waist, and hummed in agreement.

Behind Zuko, Sokka catches sight of an approaching Lu Ten. He opens his mouth to warn Zuko, but Lu Ten catches his eye and winks. Sokka nods, biting his lip to keep from smiling. He doesn’t have to hold himself back for long – Lu Ten is on them in seconds, announcing his presence with a hand on each of their shoulders and a cheerful, if slightly booming, ‘hello.’ Zuko jumps, obviously wary of being accosted by another old noble woman come to pinch his cheeks, and glares half-heartedly when Sokka laughs.

“I have a few guests over there,” Lu Ten says, smiling at the both of them and gesturing over towards a group of Earth Kingdom nobles gathered over by the windows, “that are very eager to speak to you, cousin, before the dancing starts and they lose the opportunity. I thought it best I let you know early, so that one of them didn’t drag you off without warning.”

Zuko nods gratefully. “You can tell them I’ll be over in just a minute,” he says. “Thank you.”

“Not a problem,” Lu Ten says, squeezing Zuko’s shoulder once and then letting go. “I’ll let them know you’re on your way.”

“You knew he was sneaking up on me,” Zuko says accusingly once Lu Ten is gone, but his feigned ire can’t drown out the fondness in his voice.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Sokka says, shrugging innocently.

Zuko leans in close. “That’s no way to treat your husband,” he murmurs.

Sokka shivers, just a little. He wants to play along, but he knows himself well enough to know that the elation he feels at hearing the word ‘husband’ will leak into his expression and his voice no matter what he says.

“It was just Lu Ten,” he says unrepentantly, grinning like an idiot. “We like Lu Ten. I would have pulled you away if it was one of those old court ladies coming to swoon over you again.”

Zuko snorts. “I guess you’re forgiven then,” he says. “For now. I’ll let you know how I feel when they’re finished with me.”

“I’ll be waiting,” Sokka says with a smile. He’s still smiling when Zuko presses a warm kiss to the corner of his mouth, and when Zuko leaves him to go play nice with foreign nobility. He’s been smiling all day, actually, and he isn’t sure there’s anything that could make him stop.

Savoring the temporary peace as best as he can before he’s summoned away to make nice and kiss proverbial babies, Sokka looks around the hall. Near the doors that lead out into the garden pavilion, Katara is conversing with a pair of young Fire Nation noblewomen (one of them dressed entirely in pink, and the other discreetly showing off a well concealed set of knives). Yue seems to have found the Kyoshi Warriors all on her own, and looks absolutely enthralled by them already. Over by the buffet table, Sokka’s father is laughing with Fire Lord Iroh and, curiously, a young woman dressed in the latest Earth Kingdom fashions, who despite the finery of her clothing does not appear to be wearing any shoes.

Greens and reds and blues and golds mingle together all throughout the room; Sokka doubts he has ever seen so much color in one place. This is what the world was always meant to be, he knows. This is what this treaty – this marriage – was always meant to give them.

Love is how we’re going to fix the world, Yue had said, and she’d been right. This is how you heal what a war breaks: by making the choice to love one another, and to let that love be heard. By building something new from the ashes the war left behind. By creating love in a world that went for so long without.

Sokka catches Zuko’s eye from across the room and waves. Zuko smiles back so warmly that Sokka is sure it could make spring come early to the South Pole.

If love is what the world needs, Sokka thinks, smiling helplessly back, let them have it. More love exists in this room – in just the space between he and Zuko – than he could ever have imagined. If Sokka is sure of anything, it is that these wells will never run dry; this love will always flow freely, and there will always be plenty to go around.