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by the stars above, i knew we were in love

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The summer air on Ember Island was hot and sticky, even by the Fire Nation’s standards. Zuko had survived far worse, having felt the hot brush of fire on his skin dozens of times, but it didn’t mean he liked feeling as though someone had slathered him and Sokka in glue before they’d fallen asleep the previous night. The sun was rising over the horizon of the balcony, the sky a summery orange, and he knew it would only get hotter as the day progressed.

He tried to peel the clinging Water Tribesman away from him, but Sokka just snuggled closer, wrapping his arms around his boyfriend like a purple pentapus. “Sokka,” Zuko tried, voice still heavy from sleep, but the man just snored louder. His face was buried in the crook of Zuko’s neck, morning stubble tickling his collarbone. Sokka’s hand, previously gripping at Zuko’s side, slid down to the red, puckered scar on his abdomen, the gift from his sister all those years ago.

Zuko sighed and tried again. “Sokka.” He nudged at the sleeping man, who began to groan and peel himself away from Zuko.

“Watizit,” Sokka mumbled sleepily, his hair spilling down over his face. “Are we late to fighting Fire Lord Ozai?”

Zuko shoved him, to Sokka’s soft laughter. “That’s not funny. It's never been funny.”

“Sure it is, Hotman,” Sokka said, eyes peeking open through a curtain of hair. “I’ve been making the same joke for the past ten years, every time we come back here, and you haven’t killed me yet.”

“There’s still time,” Zuko grumbled, but couldn’t help the fond smile on his face as Sokka grinned back at him. “Come here,” he said, reaching for Sokka. He couldn’t resist the man. Sokka pulled himself up and yawned, wide, as the sheets pooled at his waist. They weren’t completely naked, but only because that would have been more skin to stick together in the humid evening.

“Nuh-uh,” Sokka said, pointing his finger at Zuko. “Keep your freakish fire magic body heat away from me.” He flopped on his back at the foot of the bed, where Zuko was sure the sheets would be cooler, untouched. “It’s at times like these I miss home,” Sokka said with a longing sigh. “Ice… cold water… I should have dated a waterbender. Or just married Suki. She always has a fan with her,” Sokka mused. Zuko snorted. He knew Sokka didn’t mean it.

“You won’t be complaining about my body heat when we go visit your father in a few weeks,” Zuko said, climbing down on top of Sokka, who didn’t push him away this time. Sokka only hummed in agreement when Zuko kissed him. Sokka’s mouth opened under Zuko’s, warm and gentle and sleepy. He smelled like the clean linen sheets they’d slept on, and like the saltwater from their late-night swim.

Zuko threaded his hand into Sokka’s hair as they kissed lazily, mouths pliant against each other. He felt Sokka’s hand snake around him, pulling him closer, a heavy weight on Sokka’s chest. “You need to shave,” Zuko said, his warm breath on Sokka’s mouth. He could feel the rapid beat of Sokka’s heart under his hand, the swell of his chest as he breathed.

“You’re one to talk, Mr. Fire Lord,” Sokka said, with a huff of laughter. “I saw that horrible beard you tried to grow after you and Mai broke up, you looked just like your uncle.”

“What do you mean, tried to grow?” Zuko said, offended. He did grow a beard. Sure, it did make him look a little like a catgator, and made him want to shave it off immediately, but he grew one.

This time, Sokka threw his head back, laughing. Zuko could feel the rumbling through Sokka’s chest, and Zuko couldn’t help grinning back. “Try again in sixty years, man.”

Rather than replying, Zuko surged forward to kiss Sokka again, claiming his mouth with fervency this time. Sokka moaned into his mouth, and he felt a hand clasp onto the back of his neck before he suddenly found himself on his back, flipped over. He felt the air leave his lungs as he hit the mattress, and he could practically hear Sokka in his head. You take my breath away, baby.

Above him, Sokka smirked, and for a second, he was sure Sokka had said it aloud. Instead, he felt one of Sokka’s muscular legs between his thighs, pushing them apart. He’d extracted himself from around Zuko’s body just enough to bracket his head with his thick arms, hovering over him, just parted enough so they weren’t touching. And yeah, for a moment, Zuko did find Sokka taking his breath away. Zuko’s tongue jabbed out to wet his lips. His amber eyes met Sokka’s blue, and they were kissing again. Zuko clutched at Sokka’s arms, pulling him closer until Sokka’s full weight was on him.

Sokka’s soft lips dragged against his, teasing. Their mouths moved against each other, softly, sweetly. Whenever he would open his mouth under Sokka’s, Sokka would pull away, if only just. “Stop teasing,” Zuko rasped.

“Make me,” Sokka said against his lips. Zuko released Sokka’s bicep to throw his arm over the back of Sokka’s neck to pull him down by the crook of his elbow and lock him in place. The rumble of a pleased moan escaped his throat at the slide of their mouths. They’d done this a hundred, maybe a thousand times, and he’d never grow used to it. He never wanted to. Waking up beside Sokka was the one thing he could count on these days.

He’d loved Mai, sure, but like a teenager loves the first girl they ever kissed. They’d loved each other just because they’d been together for so long, and Sokka— Sokka was different. He’d been someone that Zuko hadn’t seen coming— literally, Sokka liked to throw boomerangs at his head and yell, “Surprise attack!”— but had been there the whole time, just out of reach, uncertain if he could touch. They’d come together like the crash of thunder.

“Fuck, I love you,” Zuko said, voice still rough from sleep. Sokka deepened the kiss, joining in Zuko’s moaning as Zuko rubbed up against his thigh. He could feel himself stiffening in his undergarments, and he reached for Sokka’s sarashi, but stilled when he heard the footsteps. Above him, Sokka stilled too, and their eyes met.

There was a knock on the door, and a man cleared his throat. Zuko let out a faint sigh of relief— he recognized the voice as a member of his Royal Procession.

“What?” Zuko snapped, breathing steaming air from his nose. He was glad it wasn’t someone there to assassinate him, but really, what could they need this early?

“Your Majesty,” the Imperial Firebender at the door said. “This is your wake up knock, requested by Ambassador Sokka. It is seven-thirty in the morning.” He glared at Sokka, who had the gall not look even a little bit apologetic. The man just shrugged against him. “Breakfast has already been prepared, and can be brought to your room when you request it.”

“Thanks,” Zuko groaned. “Dismissed.”

“Oh, good!” Sokka said, suddenly sitting up on his heels, breaking Zuko’s hold on him. He sat back, resting his hips on Zuko’s. “Thanks, Kyzo!” he called out to the guard. Zuko threw an arm over his eyes, and a moment later, he felt the pressure of Sokka resting on him lift, and the bed beside him dip.

He heard the rustling of Sokka reaching for something on the bedside table, and then the soft fwunk of a scroll dropping open. And that was where he was, wasn’t he? He recognized the sound of a scroll falling open on the bed.

He peeled his eyes open underneath his arm to see Sokka tying up his wolf tail, the ribbon dangling from his sealed lips. He was looking intently down at the scroll across his lap, and Zuko thought, I’m so stupidly, madly in love with him.

What he said was, “Is that a schedule?”

“Obviously,” Sokka mumbled, ribbon still in his mouth. Zuko watched as he finished tying off his hair, and reached down for the scroll. “It’s even color-coded, see?” Sokka held it up and grinned widely, peering over the top of the parchment.

“We’re only going to be here a day and a half, Sokka, do we really need a schedule?” Zuko sat up, rubbing his face. His hair, having grown out the past few years, had fallen free while he slept. He pushed it back from his eyes, tucking it behind his ears for now.

“That’s precisely why we need a schedule, your royal jerkness.” Zuko looked over at the man, but he wasn’t paying Zuko any attention. He sighed, swinging his legs over the side of the bed, reaching for the red silk robe hanging by the bedside. He wrapped it around himself before walking over to the balcony and into the fresh hair.

He leaned on the wooden railing, looking down below. There were several dozen Imperial Firebenders around the property— patrolling, watching. They stood guard in the plaza below, and he could see the tiny dots of their helmets as far down as the beach. Sometimes he longed to return to a simpler time, when they were all just children enjoying a day at the beach. When he could slip away without a dozen pairs of eyes on him.

“I don’t remember there being quite so many guards with us when I was a child,” Zuko mused aloud.

“Yeah, well, that was before people were out to kill you and your family and all your friends,” Sokka said absentmindedly.

Zuko snorted, “There were definitely people out to kill me, and my family, and all of my friends— we were in the middle of a war. I mean, we deserved it,” he said with a shrug, “but there were definitely people trying.”

“Yeah, but now there are people like the New Ozai Society who pop out of the woodwork every couple of years and try to murder you personally. Not that I’d know what that was like, or anything,” Sokka said stiffly, but clearly joking.

“I can take care of myself,” Zuko said, huffing. He leaned forward into the sun, but closed his eyes. If he focused on the sound of Sokka’s voice he might be able to pretend that it was just the two of them, on a family vacation, having slipped away by themselves. “I did it for three years. I just— I hate being babysat.”

“You’re not being babysat,” Sokka said, clearly distracted. “Think of it as peace of mind while we’re relaxing on Ember Island. No one is going to interrupt us, that’s for sure.” He could feel Sokka’s eyes on him, but he didn’t turn around. “It’s not like we couldn’t slip past them, if we wanted to.” The, we’ve done it before, evident in his tone.

“I could defeat them all single-handedly,” he grumbled, opening his eyes.

“It’s a good thing you aren’t hunting us anymore, huh? Huh?” Sokka goaded, and Zuko whipped around to glare at him. Sokka was lounging back on the amassed pillows, holding the scroll in the air as if letting light shine through it might let slip some secret.

Zuko glowered at him, “Are you ever gonna let that go?”

“Nah,” Sokka smirked, not looking at him, “you love it.”

He padded back over to the bed. He knelt, plucking the scroll from Sokka’s hands, ignoring his objection. He leaned forward and kissed the man. “I love you.”

“Yeah, yeah, I love you too, now gimme back my schedule,” Sokka said, elbowing him to get at the scroll in his extended hand. Sokka was just a few inches taller than him now, having hit a growth spurt at seventeen. They all had— Zuko had enjoyed taunting his height over his friends until Aang shot up like a weed and surpassed them all. Even little Toph, who’s punches hit harder than a komodo rhino, had grown up. When had it all happened? When had they stopped being children, and become people?

Zuko let him have it. “Aren’t you the one who wanted to relax?”

“This is relaxing!” He spread out the schedule so that Zuko could see it. “I have a full day planned for us. We have another thirty minutes for breakfast, and then we have a tour of the fire crystal caves on the northern side of the island. Then we—”

“Please just tell me we don’t have to see the Ember Island Players tonight. It’s going to be terrible.”

“I’m sure it’ll be funny this time,” Sokka hummed.

“That’s what you’ve said the last four times we’ve been here. And it never is.”

Sokka laughed, “Alright, but I’m hoping this year. They’ve made it about us, again.” Zuko raised an eyebrow at him. “Well, not us-us,” he said, “but the invasion during the Great Comet, and your coronation and stuff,” he waved his hand. His other hand he brought to his chin, “I hope they got someone really buff to play me this year. Like that guy who played Toph in the original!” He looked thoughtful for a moment. “I just hope they don’t leave me out of this one. I mean, I didn’t have that big a role in the invasion after all…”

“If they do, I’m having all of them banished for treason.”

Sokka threw back his head and laughed, making Zuko crack a smile. “That can’t be your answer to everything, Zuko.”

“Yeah it can, watch me.” He sat up, puffing out his chest, deepening his voice a ridiculous amount. He pointed to a corner of the room, “You! Imperial Firebender! Leave my presence or be banished for treason! You! Playwright! Include my boyfriend’s heroic actions during the Great Comet in your play or be banished for treason!” He turned his finger on Sokka, “You! Fire Nation citizen! Kiss your Fire Lord or be banished for treason!”

He reached for Sokka, who playfully pushed him away, laughing. “You can’t banish me for treason, I’m not one of your citizens,” he said, sitting up and wiping a tear of laughter from his eye.

“Do you wanna be?” he found himself asking, far too eagerly. That wasn’t how this was supposed to go, not at all. He hadn’t even made the necklace yet, or asked for Hakoda’s blessing, or—

“What? So you could banish me? No thanks,” Sokka laughed it off, none the wiser. Zuko sighed a little bit internally, relieved. This wasn’t how he’d planned the proposal, but— spirits, sometimes he couldn’t help it. Like fire, he was rash, and his passions burned all-consuming. It had gotten him in trouble more than a few times. Before Sokka, he’d thought he’d had it under control. But that heat flared up inside him around the man, untamed like wildfire. “Of course, before then, we have that dinner with Admiral Wen and his new wife.” He sighed dreamily, and Zuko looked up, sharply. Sokka was clutching the bunched up scroll to his chest. “I hope they serve that superspicy souffle that Kirachu is famous for…”

“You know,” Zuko said, lifting his head from where he’d fallen to dangle his head, upside down, from the bed, “if you want a souffle, you can just order one. That’s what the servants are for.”

Sokka’s face fell comically, a sure sign he wasn’t actually disappointed, but about to poke at Zuko. “Not all of us are comfortable with ordering servants around, Zuko.”

“You should be,” he said, instead of, you will be. “We’ve been together for four years now. When are you gonna get it in your head you belong here?” Sokka shrugged noncommittally. “Mai never minded. In fact, she liked ordering servants around.”

Sokka rolled his eyes. “Well Mai probably never had to hunt for her dinner a day in her life.”

That was fair. When he’d been with Mai, shortly after returning to the Fire Nation as a celebrated prince, he’d found that he didn’t enjoy ordering people around as much as he previously had. The happiness he’d found there was all about making her happy.

“Anyway, before dinner with the admiral, we have— hey!” Sokka shouted as Zuko yanked the schedule out of his hands, tossing it to the floor, pulling Sokka down into a kiss. A flick of his wrist and the parchment was going up in flames, curling in on itself on the tile floor. “My schedule!” he cried, voice muffled by the kiss. He didn’t seem to mind though, as he pulled Zuko in by his robe and melted into the kiss.

Between kisses, Sokka said, “You know this is gonna throw my schedule off by at least half an hour.”

“Make it an hour,” Zuko smirked, pushing Sokka onto his back and slotting between his thighs.

“I can’t believe we missed the dragon migration!” Sokka said, throwing his sleeved arms in the air. It had cooled down enough, now that it was dark, to wear something other than short-sleeved tunics. They were walking to the theater from Admiral Wen’s beach house, alone, though the Wens were also coming to the theater that evening. Zuko hated the palanquins that everyone important in the government liked to take, he couldn’t understand why they couldn’t just walk the mile down to the theater like everyone else.

“We’ve seen the migration before, Sokka! They do it every year! That’s why it’s called migration!”

“Yeah, but that’s why we come every year!” Sokka whined. Zuko shook his head. Maybe it had been exciting the first few years after the dragons had started returning, but they came every summer for it. Sokka had missed a few summers due to duties in his tribe, and like this year, everyone else occasionally had other obligations, but Sokka had seen dragons far more often than anyone else in the world, save for the Sun Warriors.

Zuko rolled his eyes, but watched Sokka fondly.

“And why did we have to wear these outfits again?” Sokka asked, picking at his sleeves. He was wearing a set of formal Fire Nation layered tunics in alternating red, black, and gold. The tunic, though mainly red, sported black cinched sleeves, layered under the pointed cloth pauldrons adorned with the Fire Nation symbol. It nearly matched Zuko’s own robes, though his own had flared, pointed red sleeves, and the pointed apron that hung down his front was stitched with the Fire Nation symbol. Though not Zuko’s fanciest robes by any means, they were formal robes, meant for state functions. Sokka had several sets for this very reason.

“Because you were the one who put on the schedule that we had to do Fire Lord duties on our day off,” he said.

“I never thought I’d be wearing this many Fire Nation outfits after we stopped having to disguise ourselves as ‘citizens from the Earth Kingdom colonies,’ when we were fifteen,” Sokka said with air quotes. Sokka slowed down just enough to fall in line beside Zuko. He’d been doing the thing again where he walked just on the side of too fast when he got worked up about something. He seemed to have noticed, falling back to Zuko’s side so the backs of their hands touched.

It was such a visceral feeling, like a spark shot through him, pulling him back to the days before they started dating. Back when they’d both used any excuse to touch each other casually, when the brush of a hand was like an electrical current. Zuko threaded their hands together. He could do that now.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” Sokka asked suspiciously. He whipped around, not letting go of Zuko’s hand. “Do I have something on me? Did I step in something? You have to tell me, Zuko.”

Zuko shook his head, just looking at Sokka in his colors. They’d come to a halt. The theater was just down the hill, he could see the orange glow of firelight illuminating the area, rather than the blue of the moon. “You look— you look really good in my colors, Sokka.” I like it when you wear them. They mark you as mine. Sokka’s jaw went slack for a moment, allowing Zuko to pull him close. “Now, c’mon, why don’t we get out of here and do something about it?” he practically whispered into Sokka’s ear. He could hear Sokka’s breath stutter, and could practically feel the rapid flutter of his boyfriend’s heart through his clothes.

And then Sokka jerked back. “No! I can’t believe I’m—” he shook his head, covering his face in a sign of defeat. “I can’t believe I’m saying no to my hot, royal boyfriend’s suggestion that we skip the Ember Island Players to just go home and bone, but— stop looking at me like that, Zuko—”

“What am I doing?” Zuko smirked, knowing full well what he was doing.

“You’re— with your face! No! Stop it!” he said, flailing his hands in the air. “We already missed the dragon migration, and we were late to the cave tours, we can’t miss the Players, you’ve already agreed to meet the playwright and the actors as part of your tour!”

Zuko threw his head back and groaned. “When this is terrible, and we have to lie to their faces about how terrible it was, I’m not picking up the slack. I’ll give the official Fire Lord seal of approval or whatever, and you can write the glowing review.”

The play, terribly named Zuko’s Comet, was not quite as bad as the last nine he was forced to see at the hands of his friends, but that wasn’t saying much. The play, like Sokka had told him that morning, was a reenactment of the fateful day, just over ten years ago, when Aang stopped Zuko’s father during the Great Comet. The play, of course, got nearly everything wrong. Zuko, watching with a permanent grimace on his face, wasn’t sure if it was intentional pro-Zuko propaganda, or if they were just terrible storytellers. It was probably both, if the wild grin on Sokka’s face said anything. They had cast a much better actor for him this time, and they had gotten Zuko’s scar on the correct side, but Sokka’s outrageous laughter at the poor jokes was something else entirely. It almost made it worth it. Almost.

Zuko’s Comet was a poorly rendered tale of how Zuko saved the Fire Nation from a coup at the hands of his own father— who, in reality, had already been Fire Lord for years by the time of the Great Comet. Aang seemed to just be back up for Zuko while he dueled his father in Agni Kai, and by the end, the play seemed to have dissolved into a strange love triangle— love hexagon?— involving all of the women and men involved in helping Aang save the world, but this time… for the apparently highly coveted position of Fire Princess. There was a six-way Agni Kai at the end, which was won by the surprise return of Mai, who was returning to claim what was hers… or something. Zuko was half asleep through the whole thing, so he couldn’t be blamed for any inaccurate reports.

When the curtain came down, Zuko was blinking awake, just in time for the director to scoot out on stage, bowing. The applause was loud and uproarious, even from where the two of them were sitting in the front seats that remained reserved for the royal family. Around them, patrons stood to clap, Sokka joining them.

The director bowed once more, but gestured for the audience to quiet and take a seat. “Thank you, thank you. Today we have a special guest with us, our esteemed Fire Lord himself, Fire Lord Zuko!” Zuko groaned into his hand as the applause started, intending to stay well away from the attention, but Sokka nudged him.

“They want you to stand up,” he hissed, elbowing him in the shoulder. “Zuko!”

“Fine, fine!” he hissed back. He stood abruptly, made his nod at the director, waved at the citizens, and returned to his seat in under thirty seconds. The clapping ended slowly, in an almost confused manner, as the director commenced with the remainder of his cast introductions. When he was finished, and the remainder of the torches were lit, Zuko was the first to leave. He wasn’t about to stick around to wait for all the gossiping social climbers to get enough courage to talk to him.

He felt instantly better when he stepped out into the fresh island air and onto the balcony over the water. Beside him, Sokka leaned against the railing. He turned to face Zuko. “Thanks for coming with me.”

“Did I have a choice?” Zuko asked, then winced at how harsh it sounded.

Sokka didn’t seem offended, though, and just scoffed. “Uh, yeah. Nobody can make you do anything, you’re the Fire Lord. There’s like, two people on this planet who can tell you what to do and you’d listen— the Avatar and your uncle.”

“Three,” Zuko corrected.


“Three people who can make me do stuff I don’t want to,” Zuko said, meeting his eye. They’d turned to face each other, still leaning on the balcony. “The Avatar, my uncle, and you,” he said softly. Even in the dim light of the far-off torches, he could see Sokka blush.

Sokka reached for him, pulling him close by his collar to kiss him. When they parted he was smiling. “I know you didn’t like it,” Sokka said, still holding onto his collar. Zuko tried to protest, but could only grimace.

“It just— it pretends like my father was solely responsible for this war,” he said, frustrated. He balled his hands at his sides because he could feel the heat crawling across his fingers, itching to be released. “Like— like the Fire Nation wasn’t culpable for the last hundred years of the war!” They were rewriting history, and Zuko couldn’t stand it. It was more than just the fact Aang wasn’t being credited for everything he did during the day of the Great Comet, but also that Zuko was being painted as a hero. He wasn’t a hero. He was barely even a good man. His nails dug into the palms of his hand until he could feel the sting of blood.

As if sensing Zuko’s need to burn things, Sokka reached for his hands. It’s easier to ignore the itch when his hands were full of something precious. “Hey, I’m right here. You’re okay,” Sokka said, soothingly. He closed his eyes for a moment to focus on his breathing. Around him he could feel the rise and fall of the torches with each breath, dying out when he breathed in, and flaring up as he exhaled. Sokka’s touch grounded him, wiping the pinpricks of blood on his palms.

“Sometimes it amazes me that you’re still willing to hold my hand, even when I get like this,” Zuko said, gently flipping their hands so Sokka’s scarred and calloused hands were under his own. His thumb traced the white scars across Sokka’s hands. More than a few of them had been created by his own hands, lashing out at the people he loved.

“What are a couple of scars for true love?” Sokka joked. But there was a serious look in his eye as he leaned forward to cup Zuko’s cheek, and to press another soft kiss to his lips. “I think you’ve been tortured enough for one day. Wanna get out of here?”

The public monorail into the inner walls of Ba Sing Se moved swiftly between the rings of the city as Zuko looked from the paper windows. The wind ruffled his hair, but he did little to contain it. They had no formal meetings in the city until the following day so there was no need for Zuko to attempt to look like a proper Fire Lord. He and Sokka had donned light green Earth Kingdom tunics, and though it had been Zuko that had lived there for weeks with his uncle, the man beside him looked quite at ease in the flowing robes.

Though they were dressed in Earth Kingdom tunics, there would be no mistaking him as anything but Fire Nation royalty, with the two Imperial Firebenders that had been assigned to accompany them, though he’d insisted they were unnecessary as he was just going to visit his uncle in the great city. Nevertheless, they’d insisted on coming. Zuko was trying his best to ignore them.

The other passengers on the monorail, who had been giving the couple and the Royal Procession space to begin with, slowly dwindled down to a few passengers in Earth Kingdom finery as they got closer to the Upper Ring, where his uncle’s tea shop sat.

“Look’s like we’re here,” Sokka said, turning from the window. The monorail had come slowly to a stop as the earthbenders stopped the stone car. Sokka stood, stretching from the long journey from the outer ring where they’d landed the airship. Zuko took another glance out the window at the watery morning light and joined him as the doors to the car were opened.

The Royal Procession gave them a wide berth as they stepped out into the station, and Zuko scanned the horizon for the escort to the carriage that had surely been sent to fetch them. Before he could spot their escort, he heard Sokka gasp beside him. His boyfriend’s eyes opened comically wide, and his dropped jaw transformed into a wide grin.

“Suki!” Sokka yelled, throwing his hands into the air. Zuko followed his lover’s eyeline across the platform, beyond the second monorail line, where a young couple stood. Around them, several Upper Ring citizens looked perturbed at the sudden shouting.

The young woman cupped her hands around her mouth, yelling out, “Sokka! Zuko! Stay there! We’re coming to you!”

There was a woosh as another monorail sailed into the station, but she didn’t let an incoming train stop her. The man beside her took a sturdy stance, and with an outward thrust of his arms, an earth ramp shot from the ground and over the incoming monorail. Suki launched forward in a run and catapulted off the ramp and over the monorail by her hands. She landed the fall in a tumble, righting herself in a kneeling position, primed to head directly towards them. Zuko’s mouth turned upwards in a smile. He recognized that move. Ty Lee’s years of serving in the Kyoshi Warriors with Suki had apparently rubbed off on the woman.

Zuko could hear the movement of the feet of the Imperial Firebenders behind him as they slid into an offensive stance, ready to attack the couple coming directly towards their Fire Lord. Zuko simply sighed and held up his hand in a gesture of halt. He heard the snap of his guards returning to resting position, but before he could turn back to the couple coming towards them, he felt the whoosh of air as Suki sailed directly into Sokka, colliding in a hug.

Slower, and with less of an acrobatic flair, Suki’s husband launched himself over the earth ramp with a few earthbending moves, landing where Suki had. Another stance and the earth ramp sank back into the earth with a loud rumbling that made the citizens on that side of the platform jump. Haru righted himself, and joined the group, offering a hand to Zuko. “Your Majesty,” Haru said. Zuko took it, and as they shook, looked at Sokka and Suki fondly, but with a hint of exasperation.

“You know, we’ve known each other for ten years, Haru,” Zuko said. “You were at my coronation. I was at your wedding. You can just call me Zuko.”

Haru smiled, making the whiskers on his face twitch. “I’ve just gotten used to formalities since starting work at the University, and with Suki’s duties at the palace, we’re around far more nobility than I ever thought I would be.”

Beside them, Suki and Sokka were still wrapped in a tight hug, the pair almost determined to squeeze the life out of each other. “What are you doing here, Suki?” Sokka said as they separated. Sokka still held on to her by her shoulders, the look of delight still on his face.

“We came to pick you up,” Haru said. Sokka grinned at him.

“We heard from Iroh that you two were coming to visit before the big party in a few weeks! We’re regulars at his shop, you know,” she said with a wink. She reached out to Zuko to squeeze his hand. “We wanted to see you while you were here. It’s been too long.”

Sokka rubbed the back of his head, “I know, I know. It’s just been so difficult to get the time between my duties in the South Pole and my responsibilities as ambassador in the Fire Nation. I haven’t even seen Aang and Katara in six months!” he complained, throwing up his arms.

Before they could commiserate further, a man shouted across the platform. He was wearing the green uniform of the non-bender police. “Hey! You two!” he pointed at Haru and Suki as he marched over. Behind Zuko, the guards once again took up a defensive stance. “There’s no earthbending on this platform without a permit!”

Suki turned to him, eyes sharp, “It’s okay, I’m a member of the police.” She held up her badge. “I’m here on official police business. I’m here to escort the Fire Lord, and Ambassador Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe into the city.”

The officer looked queasily between Zuko’s guards and Suki, bowing first to him, and then to her. “Of course,” he said, and backed away, as if afraid to turn his back on them. Zuko sighed and shook his head.

“Nothing like abusing your power of authority, Suki,” Sokka said with a wink, and the two of them burst out laughing.

She dropped her hand back on Sokka’s shoulder, and said, “It’s good to see you. Both of you.” She met Zuko’s eye with an easy smile. They’d come a long way since he’d burned down her village all those years ago. It had helped that he’d sent a legion of imperial builders to rebuild it all after the war, and they’d grown close over the years that she and the Kyoshi Warriors had acted as his protection. “C’mon, we don’t want to leave everyone waiting.”

Zuko and Haru followed behind the two of them as they chattered like a pair of hog monkeys. They took the long stone staircase down to the lower city where a carriage led by an ostrich horse waited for them. Zuko slammed the door on the faces of the Imperial Firebenders, and ordered the carriage to move before they could catch up. He leaned back in the seat trying not to seem too pleased with himself, but the glint in Sokka’s eye when their eyes met across the carriage made him sure he had failed.

“So how’s the royal tour going?” Suki asked, nudging Zuko’s ankle with her foot. “Try to kill anybody yet?”

Zuko crossed his arms and rolled his eyes. He had a much better temper now, thanks. Sokka answered for him, leaning forward in his seat till his knees knocked with Suki’s, “Nah, but I think the constant babysitting is getting to him,” he thumbed over his shoulder. Zuko elbowed him. “We’ve already been around the north of the Fire Nation, and we just visited the three easternmost islands.” Sokka waved his arms animatedly when he talked, and Haru and Suki watched with rapt attention. “Those were a long two weeks,” Sokka said, and Zuko agreed. Six cities in two weeks filled with parades, state dinners, and more ass-kissing than Zuko liked in a year from governors and mayors.

“I don’t think I would have been able to do it without you,” Zuko said, taking Sokka’s hand and meeting his eye.

“Aww,” Suki said, clasping her hands together under her chin. “I don’t think we were ever as cute as the two of you,” she said of her and Sokka. “And I know we aren’t,” she winked at Haru who just shook his head at his wife.

“Who has time to be cute when defending the Earth King from any and all threats?” Haru said, but he looked at his wife fondly. She reached for his hand anyway, and planted a kiss on his cheek as the carriage swayed on the cobblestone streets. Outside the window, wide green gardens rolled by.

“Anyway,” Sokka said, waving their clasped hands around. “We flew by Shu Jing, the home of my master, Piandao, but we weren’t able to stop and say hello,” he said dejectedly. “Next time I get a little time off I’m flying right there. Man, sometimes I miss having a flying bison to take us everywhere.”

Suki sighed, leaning into Haru’s shoulder. “That was pretty convenient, wasn’t it? I miss Appa.”

“Oh! Did you know Piandao was Zuko’s master too? That’s where he learned all those crazy double sword moves,” Sokka dropped their clasped hands to make slashing movements with both of his hands, complete with sound effects. Zuko crossed his arms again.

Just then, the carriage skidded to a halt. Sokka ducked his head out the window. “We’re here! The Jasmine Dragon!” He fiddled with the door handle, and threw it open. Before Sokka could hop out, Suki grabbed him by the back of his tunic and pulled him back in.

“Wait, Sokka!” Suki said, “Aren’t you coming with us today?”

“Oh, right!” Sokka said, smacking himself in the forehead. “I just smelled that tea and forgot about anything else,” he said, practically drooling. “It’s been too long since I’ve had any.”

“You had Fire Nation tea this morning on the airship!” Zuko said, reaching for his own door handle.

“Yeah, but your tea is just hot leaf juice,” Sokka said, as he pulled his door shut. Zuko shot him a glare over his shoulder as he dropped onto the cobblestone street.

All tea is just hot leaf juice.”

“Don’t let your uncle hear you say that, Zuko,” Suki winked at him. “And we’ll get lunch, don’t worry about it,” she told Sokka, rolling her eyes as she let go of Sokka’s collar to let him collapse back onto the carriage seat. Zuko shut his own door behind him. “Are you sure you don’t want to come with us, Zuko?” Suki asked, nearly leaning out of the carriage window. “The rest of the girls would love to see you!”

“No, thanks,” he said, shaking his head. His hand rested on the doorframe, but he looked back towards the tea shop. “I’ve got some catching up to do with my uncle.” The three of them waved at him from the windows as the carriage sped away.

“You know,” Zuko heard a voice behind him say, “a few years ago you would be steaming with jealousy seeing someone you loved with their ex-girlfriend like that. You’ve certainly grown as a man, my nephew.”

“Uncle!” Zuko said, spinning around to face his uncle. Uncle opened his arms, and Zuko embraced him. He glanced back towards the carriage, which was rapidly fading in the distance, and knew his uncle was right. Suki and Sokka had grown apart on their separate postings after the war, and had parted amicably a few years before his own break up with Mai. Suki had been well into dating Haru by the time he and Sokka had gotten together, but the two of them were always a force to be reckoned with when they came back together as friends.

“Come in, come in,” his uncle said, patting him on his back. “How’s my favorite Water Tribe warrior?”

“Sokka’s great.”

“Haven’t made an honest man out of him yet, have you?” Uncle said, and Zuko could feel himself blush as his uncle chuckled. “That’s a no, I see. When you came to me for advice a year ago, I had assumed you would act on it.”

“I’m working on it,” he grumbled. When they crossed the threshold of the Jasmine Dragon, his uncle tossed him a cloth bundle, hitting his stomach with an oomph. “What is this?”

“An apron,” his uncle called over his shoulder, heading towards the back of the tea shop. The patrons sitting around drinking tea were looking at him discreetly, trying to pretend as if they weren’t. It was something he’d grown used to over the years.

“Don’t you think I’m a little old to be playing tea servant boy?” he called out, but began unfolding the apron.

“You’re never too old for hard work, nephew,” his uncle chuckled.

Zuko sighed, but tied the apron around his waist and grabbed the clearing tray from the table by the door. There were a few people who he recognized as regulars in the shop who didn’t bat an eye at the Fire Lord donning an apron and picking up their dishes, but a few weary eyes looked his way as he made his way around the shop.

Tomorrow, he’d be the Fire Lord, and he’d stand in the Royal Palace to pay his respects to the Earth King. Then, in two days, he and Sokka would head back to the Fire Nation to continue the ten-year anniversary tour. But tonight, he was just Lee, nephew of the Jasmine Dragon’s owner.

It wasn’t yet dark when the doors to the tea shop were thrown open, and a small army of Kyoshi Warriors tumbled into the shop. His uncle stuck his head out from the kitchen and let out a big laugh, “My favorite customers!”

“Iroh!” they yelled when they spotted his uncle. Zuko could see Sokka’s head towering over the girls at the back of the group, Suki and Haru at his side. Haru tried to wave, but he was quickly obscured by the girls trying to be the first to get through to be served. His uncle’s latest menu option, boba tea, hadn’t gone over well with him and Aang, but the girls all really liked it. “Fire Lord Zuko,” they said with a bow as they passed him, but all filed in towards their favorite member of the royal family.

“Suki, Haru,” Zuko greeted, propping the broom up by the door. “Are you staying with the, uh,” he looked over his shoulder at the girls, “party?”

“No,” Suki said, shaking her head. “Haru has a class tonight, and I’ve got an early shift,” she thumbed over her shoulder. “Trade-off for getting the day off with this guy,” she punched Sokka’s arm. “It was nice to see you, though.” She turned to Sokka, “See you tomorrow at the palace, or sooner if you get into any trouble,” she said with a wink. She patted him on the shoulder and then took Haru’s hand, closing the door behind him.

“Uncle!” Zuko called, “I’m taking a break! We’ll be back later.” He untied his apron and dropped it by the door.

“Where are we going?” Sokka asked curiously.

“It’s a surprise,” he said, turning Sokka around and pushing him towards the door. “Head outside, I’ll meet you there.”

“Here,” he heard his uncle say behind him. When he turned, Uncle handed him a lily-patterned picnic basket. He winked at Zuko’s surprise, and said, “Hard to have a romantic sunset picnic without a picnic.”

“How did you—”

“I have my ways,” he chuckled.

Thank you, Zuko mouthed to his uncle as he backed out of the shop.

Twenty minutes later they’d snuck their way onto the top of the upper wall, finding a secluded area where they could spread out the picnic. Sokka was already digging in, but Zuko was taking time to enjoy the sunset. The sky was streaked with pinks and yellows, and the moon had begun to rise in the darkened purple sky.

“Someone once told me the sunset at Ba Sing Se was the most beautiful in the world,” he said aloud.

“Well, someone’s being a romantic today,” Sokka said, pausing. He dropped the apple back into the basket.

“Hey, I can be romantic,” he protested.

“Sure, sure,” Sokka said, “I know. I’m just teasing. Come ‘ere.” He leaned in and puckered his lips. Zuko kissed him anyway. When Sokka pulled away, he looked down at the cloth-wrapped bean curd puffs in his hands. He seemed a little hesitant, but he looked off into the sun when he spoke. “What’s gotten into you lately?”

“What do you mean?”

Sokka sighed, but Zuko could only tell because he was looking at the man. “I don’t know, it’s hard to describe, but…” he picked at the cloth wrapping. “You’ve just been a little different. A little more in your head. And weirdly more romantic,” he said with a huff of laughter.

“What, I can’t take the love of my life out on a date?” Zuko said, crawling over to him. He tried to kiss him, but Sokka pushed him away.

“Wait, first, I gotta know,” Sokka said, oddly serious. “You don’t bring me out here to tell me something, did you? Break any bad news?”

Zuko laughed. “Am I that terrible of a boyfriend that you think a date is a precursor to bad news?” But when he looked over at Sokka, the laughter died in his chest. “Sokka—”

Sokka’s eyes were closed and he breathed in. When he opened them, his eyes were back to their normal light. “Ok, you can kiss me now.”

“Spirits, you had me worried there for a second,” Zuko rolled his eyes. “And they say I’m the dramatic one.” He kissed Sokka and scooted closer so they were pressed side by side as they munched on the dishes his uncle had packed.

As the sun died in front of them, Zuko kissed him again with a hand on the side of his face. Sokka leaned into it, opening his mouth to deepen the kiss. Sokka wound his hand around the back of Zuko’s neck, pulling him closer.

“Hey!” they heard behind them. Zuko sighed, and turned around. Every time. An earthbending wall guard was pointing at them. “How did you two get up here?” the guard called.

They exchanged glances. A second later they both jumped to their feet, and were on the move. Zuko tossed the basket back at the guard where it hit its mark, and the guard fell back with a cry.

“This way!” Sokka said, taking his hand. He jumped over the edge to land on the partial staircase they’d climbed up to get there, and Zuko followed him.

They could hear the guard yelling after them. Instead of running down all those stairs, Sokka perched on the smooth edge of the stairs and when it seemed to hold, jumped, sliding down on the arches of his feet. Zuko jumped after him.

“Think they’d believe me if I told them I was the Fire Lord?” Zuko called as they slid down the staircase.

“You could try!” Sokka laughed, “But I wouldn’t wanna try reasoning with that guy,” he nodded upwards at the earthbender who was sliding down the side of the wall. “Jump!” he said, jumping to the next broken staircase. An earthbender would have been able to affix the two together, but as neither of them were earthbenders, they were stuck climbing the old fashioned way.

“Gotta climb from here!” Zuko said, nodding to the notches in the stone they’d used to climb up in the first place.

“Good thing I’m a great climber!” Sokka said, and began swinging down, hopping from one notch to the next.

When their feet hit the ground, Zuko grabbed Sokka’s hand again and pulled him along, keeping him upright even as he stumbled. They weaved between the streets, ducking down alleys until they no longer heard the guard chasing after them.

“I’d missed this,” Sokka said, collapsing against him, breathing heavy.

“Getting chased by city guards?” Zuko asked, but he had to grin.

“Yes,” Sokka wheezed. “I missed getting in trouble with you. Going on life-changing adventures where we almost die. The last few years have been too quiet.”

“Not sure ‘peace and prosperity’ is too quiet,” Zuko said, laying his head atop Sokka’s. “But, you know, my offer still stands, you know.”

“Which offer?” he asked, looking up at Zuko where he leaned against him.

“The one where I can chase you around for a while and try to capture you,” he shrugged. “You can throw your boomerang at me— and don’t think I don’t know you’re carrying it on you right now.” He reached for Sokka, patting him down through the layers of unfamiliar clothing. Sokka squirmed away from him.

“Kinky,” Sokka laughed. “Maybe some other time. Don’t wanna get run out of the city again. Didn’t you have something else you wanted to show me?”

“Yeah,” he said, grabbing Sokka’s arm and pulling them along. “Should be around here somewhere, it’s been a while since I’ve been here, though.” He pulled Sokka along with him as he weaved through the streets, his hand dropping from Sokka’s bicep to hold his hand.

They only had to back out of a few streets before they found it.

“Oh,” Sokka said, stopping.

He breathed a sigh of relief. This time, the lanterns were lit already. “This is the Firelight Fountain. Someone brought me here, once, and they seemed to think it was the most romantic spot in the city.”

“Trust a firebender to think a bunch of lit candles is romantic.”

“What, you don’t like it?” Zuko asked, affronted. “It was a stupid idea to bring you here—”

“No, Zuko—” Sokka grabbed his hand. “That’s not what I meant. You’ve seen my ideas about romance, first hand I might add—” Zuko winced. Zuko’s attempts at romance may have been bad, but his boyfriend’s attempts sneak into his room only to nearly get burned by startling him… “It is romantic. Thank you for showing me this spot.”

They stood in silence for a few minutes, watching the soft glow of the lanterns with their hands entwined. The firelight flickered off the water where sleeping turtleducks floated, and the soft glow echoed around the plaza. It bounced off Sokka’s tanned face and made his eyes glint with orange. Zuko had never loved him more.

A few other people stopped by to admire the lights, but they were mostly left alone, and Zuko appreciated it. He wondered what happened to Jin, the girl who’d shown him the fountain years ago. He hoped that she found someone who deserved her, because he had.

Eventually they made their way back to the tea shop, which still had lights flickering inside. Zuko wasn’t really sure what time it was as he pushed inside.

“Welcome back, nephew. And Sokka!” Uncle said pleasantly from where he stood in front of a young couple. “Good to see you again.”

“Iroh!” Sokka said, bounding forward to greet Zuko’s uncle. “It’s good to see you again, as well.” He stopped just before the man and bowed in Fire Nation fashion, a sign of great respect to his uncle.

Uncle chuckled, “How many times have I told you to call me Uncle?”

“Oh, alright, Uncle!” he said, and latched onto the man in an embrace. Uncle met Zuko’s eye over Sokka’s shoulder and winked at him.

When they parted, Uncle looked around suspiciously. “What happened to my picnic basket?” he asked.

They exchanged looks, grimacing. “Look, I’ll buy you another one— I’ll buy you five?” Zuko tried.

Uncle just shook his head. “I never should have loaned you my good basket!” he lamented. “It was my best one! It had been hand-painted.”

“Sorry Uncle, it’s my fault,” Sokka said, winking at Zuko from behind his back. “We got in a little tussle with a guard.”

“And you had to use my picnic basket as a weapon? It’s a miracle you three managed to avoid us for so long,” he shook his head with a sigh, turning away from them. The young couple he’d been serving weren’t trying too hard to look like they weren’t eavesdropping by the way they were looking at each other over their cups of steaming tea.

“That’s what I’ve been saying for years!” Zuko said. Sokka mouthed at him, you owe me.

“Who’s up for a game of Pai Sho?” Sokka said instead, rubbing his hands together. “I’ve been practicing. I think I can finally beat you, old man.”

“Hey!” Uncle said, turning to Sokka, “Watch who you’re calling an old man! I could still firebend you under a table.”

Sokka rolled his eyes, “A table could firebend me under a table. Are we playing or not?”

“Of course,” Uncle bowed his head. His eyes flicked to Zuko. “If you’re not gonna join us, get back to work,” he said, tossing him the apron. Zuko sighed, but tied it around his waist. The shop was nearly empty, just a few dwindling customers.

After clearing a few tables, Zuko stopped to watch the game unfold before him. Sokka rarely played back home in the Fire Nation. Zuko didn’t have the patience for the game, so after the one or two times Sokka had asked Zuko to play with him, he’d only really seen Sokka play with his uncle. Though Sokka usually just slept in Zuko’s chambers in the Royal Palace, he did actually have his own villa outside the grounds where the other members of the royal family lived, and Zuko supposed he could spend free time practicing there when he wasn’t with Zuko.

His uncle had once told him it was a game of chance and strategy, and Sokka loved strategy and winning things, so he supposed he understood why the other man liked playing it, even if it was the most boring game in existence. Sokka’d gotten better at it over the years, too. He used to get mad when he lost, easily fooled by Uncle’s expert strategies, but as the years passed and his temper cooled in his twenties, he became more watchful and more grateful at the opportunity to practice.

Zuko pulled his legs onto the table with him so he could wrap his arms around them, watching as Sokka began the game. He began by placing the white lotus tile. He didn’t always, Zuko knew, as it was an underrated and unusual strategy to play with, but most of the games he’d watched Sokka play started that way. Zuko watched with a critical eye as the game began in earnest. His eyes flicked from Sokka’s hands to his focused face, to the narrowed eyes of his uncle. Patterns began to form on the board, but it wasn’t anything recognizable, at least not yet.

His eyes flicked back to Sokka, who placed another piece. Sokka hadn’t told him as such, but Zuko highly suspected that Sokka had been initiated into the Order of the White Lotus sometime after the war. It made sense. Sokka was a brilliant leader, and he was involved— though unintentionally— in the lives of most of the world’s great leaders. He wondered if Sokka would tell him if he asked, but he shook the thought from his head. It didn’t really matter. He rested his chin on his knees.

“Are you sure you don’t want to join, Fire Lord Zuko?” Uncle asked, startling him. He wrinkled his nose. It had been ten years since his uncle had called him Prince Zuko, but hearing the formal address of Fire Lord from the man almost seemed wrong.

“No. It’s a boring game.”

“You find strategy meetings boring,” Sokka said, placing another tile.

“They are boring,” Zuko said, exasperated. They’d had this conversation before. “That’s why I have you.” Misappropriating his boyfriend away from his ambassador duties to sit in his place at strategy meetings was probably not the best use of Sokka’s time, but Zuko was the Fire Lord, he could do what he wanted.

Sokka rolled his eyes, but he was smiling. “Why do you always watch us play, then?”

“I like to watch you,” he said. Sokka’s eyes flicked to him, but he focused back on the game. Zuko slipped off the table to collect the coins from the last customer, and delivered the used teapot to the kitchen staff. By the time he’d wiped down all the tables, the game had finished, and Sokka was bowing to his uncle.

“Thank you for the lesson, Uncle,” Sokka said. He helped Uncle clear the board and pack it away while Uncle dismissed the staff for the evening, and then Uncle locked up the shop.

“I hope the monorail hasn’t closed for the evening,” Uncle hummed as they headed towards the platform. “It wouldn’t be the first time I’d missed the last train over a good game of Pai Sho,” he chuckled.

“You know, you can afford a much nicer place in the Upper Ring now, Uncle,” Zuko reminded him as they climbed the stairs to the monorail, which announced one last train for the evening. “Your shop has been doing well for years, and you have access to the royal purse—”

His uncle waved his hand, dismissively. “I like the middle ring. My friends live there!”

Zuko just sighed. His uncle was a stubborn man, there was no changing that.

When they stepped over the threshold into the small apartment, which had changed little since Zuko had lived there with the man, he did have to admit that, after all these years, it still felt like home. But maybe that was just Sokka.

Sokka groaned and collapsed on the bed in Zuko’s room without even bothering to change. Zuko nudged his booted foot with his own. “Hey, clothes off in bed. We don’t live in the woods.”

He groaned again, but Zuko had no sympathy. He’d been working for Uncle all day, and Sokka had gotten to goof off with his friends. Zuko stripped down and dropped into bed. It wasn’t nearly as hot as in the Fire Nation, but it was still warm enough that he didn’t want to sleep in much. A cool breeze slipped in through the window, rustling the paper in the frame.

“As much as I love watching you undress,” Zuko said, admiring Sokka’s sculpted chest in the moonlight as he peeled off his last outer layer, “I’m gonna need you to come down here immediately.”

“Is that an order?” Sokka said, as he tucked his thumbs into his trousers and pushed them down.

“It can be,” he said, propping himself up on his elbow. Sokka wiggled his eyebrows at him. He kicked off the trousers and crawled onto the bed. Zuko pulled him down into a filthy, open-mouthed kiss. Sokka was leaning into it, rutting against Zuko with a moan when he pulled away.

Sokka covered his mouth, and he hissed at Zuko through his fingers. “Your uncle is on the other side of the wall!” He pointed at the thin wood-and-paper wall the rich citizens liked here.

“I feel like we haven’t gotten any alone time in weeks,” Zuko said with a shrug. “And besides, can’t you hear that snoring? He’s already asleep. I lived with him for a long time, he’s a heavy sleeper.”

“He’s still right there!” Sokka complained, still dogging Zuko’s attempts to pull him back down. “I don’t think that counts as alone time.”

“Better be quiet then.”

“Zuko!” Sokka hissed, but Zuko was already slinking down to the foot of the bed.

He looked up at Sokka from his toned stomach, licking a stripe down the trail of hair that disappeared into his sarashi. He pressed kisses into the V of his pelvis. Sokka groaned, biting down on his hand to muffle the sound. He could already see the dark bead of precome spotting through the pale fabric.

“You’re not allowed to say one word when I want to bone in my dad’s igloo when we visit him in a few weeks,” Sokka said. Zuko swallowed as the thought went straight to his dick. They were most definitely gonna celebrate all over the South Pole. He’d managed to get Sokka a full week off with his family by cutting most of the other stops short, he just hadn’t told Sokka yet.

He hummed noncommittally, and then hooked his fingers in Sokka’s undergarments, pulling them down. Sokka’s cock sprang free, but Zuko ignored it in favor of peppering more kisses down Sokka’s thighs. When he reached the jut of Sokka’s hip, he reached for his cock, wrapping a hand around it and squeezing. Sokka’s hips thrust upwards, chasing the touch. Zuko’s eyes flicked upwards, watching Sokka’s eyes squeeze closed.

Determined he’d done enough teasing, Zuko leaned forward to engulf Sokka’s cock with his hot mouth. Sokka swore, twisting his hands in the sheets. Zuko continued to suck on him, working his way down. He couldn’t quite fit all of Sokka in his mouth at once, but he could try.

He pulled off Sokka, a string of saliva connecting his mouth to Sokka’s cock. He took Sokka in hand and licked a long stripe from the base to the head before taking him in his mouth again.

Sokka groaned again, but looked down at Zuko. “You know this is my weakness, right?” he said, reaching down to Zuko, freeing his topknot and tugging on his hair. “You could tell me to do anything for you like this, and I’d do it. No questions asked. None.”

Zuko chuckled, and he was sure Sokka could feel it through his throat. He pulled off with a pop. “That’s a lot of power,” he said, his voice rough.

“Yeah, well, you seem like a good guy. You’d do well in power.”

Zuko full-on laughed, and tugged at Sokka a few more times before sucking him down. It wasn’t long before Sokka was coming in his mouth. He’d tried to warn Zuko with a tug on his hair, but the man didn’t care, and swallowed it down. He licked one last stripe down Sokka’s cock, and let the man pull him up. He even let Zuko kiss him, which probably said something about how much Sokka loved him.

And then Sokka was reaching down and squeezing him through his undergarments. Zuko kissed him, hot and heavy, open-mouthed and filthy. Sokka’s hands were in his hair, just on the right side of too tight. “Touch me, you coward,” Zuko said into his mouth. Sokka huffed, but did as he was told, reaching into his undergarments to take hold of Zuko.

He tugged on him one but removed his hand. Zuko whined, rutting up against him. Sokka huffed again, “Hold on. Has anyone ever told you you were impatient?” Sokka licked down his hand, wetting it, and it shouldn’t have been as hot as it was, Sokka’s eyes heavy and dark in the moonlight looking at him.

He reached down into Zuko’s undergarments again, calloused hands working him over with a slick, warm hand. His thumb ran over the head, and he was coming with a gasp into Sokka’s mouth. Sokka pulled his hand away, and rather than wiping it on his own undergarments, or Zuko’s, he licked his hand clean without breaking eye contact with him.

Zuko groaned again, throwing his head back. Sokka rolled on top of him, pushing his loose hair away from his face. “Yeah. For sure. You’re my weakness.”

“Why is it,” Sokka said, between bites of roasted komodo chicken leg, “that it seems like we’ve visited almost every place we almost got killed during the war on this tour?”

Zuko laughed, throwing his arm around Sokka’s neck as they walked between stalls at the bazaar. “I was the one trying to kill you most of the time, you should be safe now.”

“I’m just saying,” Sokka said as he stopped to inspect a stall of festival masks, “it would be nice to visit some part of the Fire Nation I don’t have a knee-jerk fear reaction to.” He looked up at the shopkeeper who was smiling just a little too widely at the two of them. The parade had been that morning, so there was absolutely no chance of the two of them going incognito unless they bought a pair of masks and ditched the Royal Procession. “You don’t happen to have any blue spirit masks, do you?” Sokka asked.

“Well, name somewhere you aren’t instinctively afraid to visit, and we’ll go there.”

“I’m not afraid—” he stopped to look at the masks the vendor had pulled out for him. “Ooh, Zuko, what about these? I think they look pretty realistic.”

“My mask was an antique,” he said, crossing his arms. “Those are flimsy paper copies.”

“Hmm,” Sokka said, grabbing one of the masks and holding it up to Zuko’s face. He switched it to another one. “Yeah, that one looks right. Maybe we should have picked up the mask they used in the play on Ember Island while we were there.”

“They just reused it from the Love amongst the Dragons play they butcher every year.”

“Is that where yours came from?” Sokka asked, lowering the mask.

Zuko’s eyes flicked up to the mid-afternoon sun. He hated feeling this exposed in public. There were people milling around the bazaar, far less interested in them than they had been the previous day when he and Sokka arrived, but he could feel the eyes of the two Imperial Firebenders on him, and the merchant was right there. But Sokka never cared what anybody thought about him.

“Yeah,” he admitted. “Not the Ember Island Players’ version but— the one my mom was in, in Hira’a. She saved it even after she married my father. It was just— a reminder of her.”

“We don’t have to get it,” Sokka said, putting the mask down on the tray the merchant had pulled out. “I just thought it would be fun, since we’re revisiting all our old haunts anyway.”

Zuko shrugged. “It doesn’t matter as much anymore, since my mother is back. And like you said, it's just fun.”

“Can I have a couple of copper pieces then?” Sokka said, patting himself down and turning out his pockets. “I’m all out.”

He rolled his eyes. “I told you you shouldn’t have bought that last purse— and now you don’t have anything to put in it!” Zuko gestured to the red and gold bag hanging off Sokka’s side. Sokka’s favorite hobby— after making plans, eating meat, and annoying Zuko— was shopping. He supposed that they really all tied into the shopping thing, especially since Zuko’s role was usually to hold things and pay, which he found annoying. “Why don’t you go scam some people, huh?” But he was already reaching for his own wallet when the merchant protested, waving his hands.

“Oh no,” the merchant said, “for the Fire Lord, this mask is free.”

Zuko sighed, shaking his head. “No, I insist on paying.” He fished out a couple of copper pieces, laying them down on the stall as Sokka happily tucked the mask into his new bag. He’d stolen enough in his years on the run, and his government had stolen so much from its own people.

“And it’s not a purse, Zuko. It's a satchel,” he said, patting the side. “Ooh!” he cried, running to the next stall of miscellaneous weapons.

He rolled his eyes, following his lover. “I’m pretty sure you’re just with me for the royal purse,” he murmured.

“Nah,” Sokka said, taking another bite of his komodo dragon leg. “I’m also with you for your royal body.” Sokka winked through the snickers.

They made another pass through the stalls, stopping to watch a fire dancer perform on stage before stopping for lunch at a restaurant. Sokka absentmindedly watched as the fire dancer continued to dance around dragon-shaped fire across the plaza.

“Do we really have to go to Fire Fountain City next? I mean, I know they replaced that statue of Ozai,” he shuttered, “with one of Avatar Roku, but I’m pretty sure Toph is still wanted by the authorities there for scamming all those scammers. They probably have her wanted poster framed in the police station.”

“You know, you don’t actually have to come with me,” Zuko said, sipping from his watermelon juice. “You’re not obligated to do any of this— just me,” he said with a sigh. “It's not the ten-year anniversary of your coronation. You could head home to the capital and when this leg is over, meet me at the South Pole. I know you had to miss out on some of your duties in the city by coming with me.”

Sokka reached across the table to squeeze his hand. “Nah. I’m just complaining, you know I like to do that.” Zuko nodded his head. They both liked complaining, it was what had fueled their friendship when they were young, before it had unfolded into something else. “I told you I’d be with you the whole way. Someone has to be the comic relief when someone says the wrong thing,” he shrugged like it was no big deal. But it was, Zuko thought.

It was nearly midnight when the Water Tribe cutter ship hit the ice dock at the South Pole. They’d landed their airship at the foot of the Patola Mountains, on Jongmu Island, where the small harbor town that served as a bridge between the Air Acolytes and the Southern Water Tribe settled. The black snow created by Fire Nation ships was a traumatic and visceral memory for the people of the Water Tribe, and after the war, Zuko had made an effort not to repeat that trauma in the future. All Fire Nation ships were required to dock on Jongmu Island and charter a Water Tribe ship from the port, including the Fire Lord’s own personal airship.

Though it was the middle of the night when they dropped their bags from the ship, rocking against the dock, it was still as bright outside as dusk in the Fire Nation this time of year. Sokka hopped over the side of the cutter, not waiting for the captain to fully dock the ship or lower the rail. Zuko tossed the captain the sack of yuan and jumped over the rail after Sokka.

His boyfriend stood on the dock, stretching from the several-hour sea journey. He reached down to touch his toes, back up to crack his sore back, and then twisted his torso. Zuko watched, rubbing his hands together.

“How am I still this cold?” Zuko asked, throwing his pack over his shoulder. The heavy, fur-lined coat did little to cut the biting wind. The Midnight Sun in the antarctic was deceptive— it was neither daytime nor warm. He closed his eyes to focus on his breathing. In and out. He breathed through his nose until the feeling returned to his fingers in his gloves. When he opened his eyes again, Sokka was watching him.

“You’re doing that thing again where you breathe fire,” Sokka said, patting his shoulder, turning him to steer him towards the city. It had changed much since Zuko had first been there, and had changed since the first time he’d been welcomed back as a guest of the Water Tribe, especially due to the Southern Reconstruction Project. The small collection of huts and tents was now a sprawling city of a hundred or so igloos, though it still couldn’t compare to the centuries of ice architecture of the North Pole. Nevertheless, Zuko preferred the Southern Water Tribe. It was Sokka’s home.

Sokka pushed him through the open snow gates, waving up at the night watchman in the tower. It was late, so few people were still out, but a few igloos still had the telltale yellow glow from a fire in their hearths. Zuko had been back a dozen times since the war ended, but the city layout changed every time he visited. Still, the large igloo that belonged to the chief stood looming in the center of the city, unchanged.

The main dome of the chief’s igloo was primarily for official Water Tribe duties, or for personal use by the chief in the mornings and evenings, but the three smaller domes on the north, east, and west sides were for personal use by the chief’s family. Sokka steered them towards the easternmost igloo to the right, ducking inside.

Zuko followed him, pushing aside the sealskin flap that hung over the doorway to stop drafts. The igloo still held the bone-deep chill of the antarctic, but at least it was sheltered from the wind. They dropped their packs on the bamboo rush mats by the doorway, and Sokka started tossing firewood onto the hearth.

“Can you get the fire started to warm up the place? I’ll get our furs put out,” Sokka said.

Zuko nodded, crouching by the fire. He removed his gloves and rubbed his hands together to warm them up. When they weren’t quite so stiff with the cold, he took a deep breath and opened his hand to the hearth. The flames that cast from his palm caught the kindling, lighting up the meager fire. He grabbed more of the logs from the stack by the doorway as Sokka dismantled their packs to toss their furs onto the cot. Kneeling by the fire, Zuko held out his hands to warm them, but the heat from the fire barely permeated the room.

“Hey, Sokka, stand back a little, will you?” he said, standing. Sokka looked back at him over his shoulder, and dropped the pillow he’d been fluffing. He’d seen the drill before, and leaned back against the wall. Zuko held out his hands to either side of his body and began to rotate as flames extended from his hands until it was a full circle around him. Sokka’s eyes glinted orange as he watched the flames consume the room, not enough to actually catch anything on fire, but enough to warm the room. He stopped, extinguishing the flames when he began to see a hint of steam rising from the walls.

The sealskin tapestries on the walls and the rush mats on the floor would keep the heat contained overnight if they were lucky, and then maybe Sokka wouldn’t probe him at four in the morning to light the fire again. When Sokka pushed off the wall he shed his outer coat, dropping it on the floor at the foot of the cot. “What?” he said as Zuko stared. “It's hot in here now.”

“It is definitely not,” Zuko mumbled.

Sokka barely toed out of his shoes before he was collapsing backward on the bed, tucking his arms under the back of his head to use as a pillow. “Ah, home. I missed you.” He closed his eyes and breathed in the cold air. “Never thought I’d miss buildings that melt quite this much.” He cracked open his eye and opened his arms. “Coming to bed, my personal igloo warmer?”

Zuko collapsed on top of him, not taking off a single layer.

He was out like a light. Usually the Midnight Sun bothered Zuko, not used to the all-day and all-night sunlight at this time of the year, but after spending hours on a sailing vessel from Jongmu Island he didn’t have the constitution to stay awake any longer.

He could have slept another few hours when he was awoken by a voice calling into their igloo. “Hello, boys!”

There was a rush of cold air into the room, and Zuko groaned. “Dad!” Sokka said, sitting up suddenly, throwing off the furs they’d piled around them. Zuko pulled them closer as Sokka hoped from the bed, not bothering to grab his outer clothes as he embraced his father.

“Sokka!” Chief Hakoda said, his arms wide. “I knew you two were coming soon, but when I saw the smoke coming from your igloo I knew you’d already arrived!”

“We got in last night!” Sokka said into the, and then stifled a yawn. “Didn’t want to wake you guys up, so we headed straight to bed.”

“Well, don’t let me interrupt your rest, though we have breakfast in the main building,” Hakoda said.

“Too late,” Zuko groaned, sitting up. With the mention of breakfast, Sokka was surely not coming back to bed anytime soon. He shivered, and then leaned forward to shoot another flame into the dying fire. It roared back to life. “I know, I know,” he said, rubbing his face. “We’ll have to put it out before we leave, but I can’t change in a cold igloo.”

“We’ll see you in a few, Dad,” Sokka said, letting his father duck out of the room. Sokka began stretching, unusually energetic for the morning.

“What’s got you so excited?” Zuko asked, yawning. He stuck one foot out of bed to pull on his boot, and then the other. He contemplated taking the furs with him, but thought it was probably rude, and Sokka would probably just be taking off his coat again when they went inside, so Zuko could steal that if he got cold.

“Just happy to be home,” he said with a final stretch. Zuko could hear his joints pop. He hopped around, pulling on his boots as Zuko watched.

“Do you miss it?” Zuko asked, hands dangling between his thighs.

“What? Home?” Sokka asked halfway through stuffing his arm through a sleeve. “I mean, yeah, it’s my home, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but… I missed home when I was banished for three years, and then I left it again the first chance I got. Do you wish you’re here when you’re in the Fire Nation? Do you want to stay here, permanently?” Zuko was almost nervous to hear the answer. Sokka had spent most of the last seven years in the Fire Nation capital, away from his home. Would he be willing to make it his home, forever?

Sokka looked thoughtful, holding the overcoat aloft. His gaze was distant, though his eyes had settled on a tapestry on the wall. “I don’t know, honestly. Growing up, I didn’t know anything but here. I always thought I’d grow up and become chief like my dad, and do all that stuff you’re supposed to do when you come from a tribe of fifty people. But then Aang happened, and we saw the world, and it was so much bigger than we could have ever imagined. And this place is so different now— I don’t know if I could be happy just staying here forever. I’m not, like, in a rush to move back here if that’s what you’re asking.”

Zuko nodded. He wasn’t sure if that was what he’d been wanting to hear, but it was something. He followed Sokka out of the igloo and around the side of the main building. Now that it was morning, the city was lively with people. Following the Southern Reconstruction Project, many Northern Water Tribesmen and women moved south and now there was an abundance of people their age, as well as elders and young children.

Some of them called out Sokka’s name, waving, and Sokka greeted each one of them by name. On a previous visit, Sokka had lamented how since he’d left, all of the little kids he used to know had grown up, and with so many people migrating in and out, it was hard to keep up with all the new faces when he only came back a few times a year. Still, he seemed to be doing fine, and Zuko felt a warm pride in his chest.

As his boyfriend greeted his fellow tribesmen, Zuko stayed off to the side, watching. Sokka bowed to the elders, hugged his old friends, and ruffled the little wolf tail haircuts the children sported. Sokka was a natural with people in a way Zuko could never be. For all Sokka talked about overthinking things, he was outgoing and people liked him.

Though, overall, everyone had accepted that the change of power in the Fire Nation was a good thing, and it was because of that change in power that the war ended, there were still so many that still looked at Zuko and saw the enemy. And he didn’t blame them, even when he stood alongside their favorite son, wearing their colors.

The memory of what Zuko’s nation had done to the Water Tribes still ran deep through its people, but his most staunch opposers weren’t necessarily the oldest among the tribes, who remembered a time before the raids. Zuko watched as Sokka greeted Master Pakku with a bow and then a hug for his step-grandfather. He chuckled a little to himself as the man very reluctantly accepted the hug. He saw Sokka speak animatedly to the man and gesture back to Zuko. Zuko waved awkwardly, and Pakku nodded back respectfully. Sokka’s Gran Gran had passed a few years back, but not before Zuko had been able to apologize to her for his actions towards her and the village.

It seemed his apology had warmed her and some of the other elderly villagers towards him, because, as Sokka joked, seeing the reigning Fire Lord on his knees was kind of a spiritual experience. Of course, Sokka had been talking about something else entirely.

The rest of the tribe had been a lot harder. He still hadn’t won over many of the people their parents’ age, and on more than one occasion, mothers and fathers had steered their children clear of him, even in Sokka’s presence. He’d manage to gain the affection of the children, though, young enough not to yet understand the war, with a few firelight shows at festivals. He tried his best, with Sokka’s help as ambassador, to pay reparations for the wrong his nation had done, but it wasn’t as simple as sending in builders to fix a few burned huts.

“Fire Lord Zuko!” he heard a voice call out, jarring him out of his thoughts. He looked up for the source of the voice. Most of the southerners called him by his given name, picking it up from Sokka, which he didn’t really mind— it further dissociated him from the destruction caused by Fire Nation raids and the hatred they shared.

Zuko spotted a waving man not twenty yards from him. The man was dressed in Water Tribe blues, and he wore his hair in the wolf tail style that most of the men in Sokka’s tribe wore, but when he approached, Zuko could see the man’s eyes were a shocking honeyed amber.

“Oh, Ambassador Zahnt,” Zuko greeted the man. “I almost didn’t recognize you! You’ve managed to look enough like a local to fool even someone who’s known you as long as I have.”

“Your Majesty,” the ambassador said, bowing in the Fire Nation fashion. “It’s nice to see you again, even… here.” Zahnt, by Zuko’s quick calculations, had probably surpassed his mid-thirties by now.

“I hope your position here is treating you well,” Zuko said. The first two ambassadors they had sent to the Southern Water Tribe had only lasted two years each, and had practically been begging to return to the homeland by the end of their appointment.

“Well,” Zahnt laughed, “I spent my first two years freezing my ass off before I found someone willing to share her body heat and her life with me.” He chuckled fondly to himself. “Customs are a little different here than back home, but after a few attempts, I got the betrothal necklace down. She seems to like it,” he said, turning to point to a woman off in the distance, standing between a few people their age. She was heavily pregnant, one hand resting on her stomach. When she saw her husband she smiled, waving.

“Congratulations,” he nodded towards Zahnt’s wife.

“We’re hoping they’re not a firebender,” the ambassador said, rubbing the back of his head as he waved to his wife. Realizing who he was speaking to, the man paled and righted himself. “Uh, I mean, Your Majesty—”

Zuko raised a hand, chuckling. “I understand. As a firebender here, I can appreciate how difficult it might be to raise a child capable of melting your house.” Still, the man looked rather sheepish. “That, and the, well, resentment,” Zuko said with a sigh, “is why I didn’t appoint a firebender to this position. Sokka— Ambassador Sokka— and I agreed that there should be no show of power or oppression over the Water Tribe people.”

“Ah,” Zahnt said. “And here I thought it was my years serving aboard your ship that made you choose me.”

“Well,” he admitted, “your loyalty was the reason I chose you. It wasn’t a punishment,” he said. “Though, maybe a bit of reparation for the time we destroyed part of their village.” He smiled to himself.

Zahnt bowed in the Fire Nation fashion, and Zuko repeated the gesture. But before he could turn away, the ambassador spoke up again. “Your Majesty,” he said, almost hesitantly. “What you said about them, resenting me—” he looked off towards the city. “They did, at first. I was given all the difficult jobs no one else wanted to do— gutting and cleaning the fish, the all-night watches in the pitch black of winter, hauling piles of snow until I became too sweaty to wear my outer coats, and then freezing when I took them off—” he spoke fondly, with no hint of resentment. “But I showed up. I was there. And they respect that. You just have to show them that you’re willing to do what you have to.”

He swiftly bowed again, and then he was off. Zuko watched him return to his wife and friends, throwing his arms around them. Watching the couple, with a few glances towards Sokka and his step-grandfather, Zuko wondered what it was that had these people willing to spend the rest of their lives in their lover’s homeland, even after they’d passed in Pakku’s case. Was it their lingering love for the person they’d lost, or had they grown to love this place as much as their lover had?

Zuko knew he would do almost anything for Sokka, but he wasn’t sure if retiring to the Southern Water Tribe was on that list. But, he supposed, he was asking Sokka to do the same thing, wasn’t he? Wouldn’t it be a fair trade-off to promise to spend their twilight years in the place of Sokka’s birth?

He felt a hand on his shoulder, nearly startling him, but he had better composure over himself than that. Sokka looked apologetic, his breath blooming white in the frosty air. “Sorry, got a little caught up,” he said, and Zuko nodded. “Breakfast?” he asked, but was already ducking past the sealskin door flap and into the igloo, not waiting for Zuko. He rolled his eyes.

The chief’s igloo looked much the same as the last time Zuko had been there. Hakoda’s own personal igloo was on the opposite side of his and Sokka’s igloo, while this main room existed for mainly ceremonial and representative tasks among the council. On a day-to-day basis, it served mostly as an informal meeting and dining room. The walls were adorned with carefully-preserved tapestries, smuggled away and hidden to preserve their culture even in the face of genocide. There were crossed bone spears, ceremonial headdresses, and painted shields proudly showing off their history.

The hearth already had a veritable feast laid out on it, steamed dumplings piled high, bowls of seaweed noodles and kale cookies across several plates. Hakoda was already sitting by the hearth when Sokka joined him on a cushion. “Where’s Bato?” Sokka asked while reaching for the puffin-seal sausages. “Is he not joining us this morning?”

“No,” Hakoda said, shaking his head. “He had to head out early to help with the fishing nets, but he’ll be back before this evening.” Zuko took a seat beside the two men, crossing his legs to sit low on the ground. “He told me he’s planning a puffin-seal hunt tomorrow, though. You coming?”

For a moment, Sokka’s face lit up, but it fell to carefully contained interest. “I’d love to, Dad, but I’m not sure how long we’re staying. Usually we only get a day or two off between Fire Nation cities, and we sorta have a packed schedule, don’t we, Zuko?”

“Oh,” Zuko said. “I meant to tell you last night— I moved some stuff around, we’ve got a week off. We might have to miss a few cities closer to the capital, but if that’s not too much of a hardship for you—” He was interrupted by a kiss that tasted a little too briney for his tastes, but he smiled into it anyway. “Surprise?”

Sokka was grinning as he turned back to his dad. “Did you get all that, Dad?”

His father looked a little exasperated at the affection, but he said, “Yeah, Son, I got it.”

Breakfast was pleasant, listening to the two men catch up after months apart. Watching them reminded Zuko how much Sokka had changed over the last few years. He’d surpassed his father in height, but other than that, it was as though they were looking into a mirror distorted only by time.

“What?” Sokka asked when he saw Zuko staring. “Do I have something on my face?” He rapidly wiped at his mouth, but Zuko shook his head.

“No, I was just noticing how much you look like your dad now,” Zuko admitted. Sokka preened at that— he’d always greatly admired his father. Over the years they’d grown out of their lanky teenage bodies, though it hadn’t happened overnight, and Zuko had scarcely noticed it happening at all until he found the official portrait he’d commissioned of them all after the war. They’d had round faces and skinny limbs and wide smiles. The smiles hadn’t changed much over the years, but they’d all grown out of the other things. And Zuko had surely appreciated Sokka’s chiseled abs that matched the sharper lines of his jaw. “Even if you’re a little taller than him now.”

Hakoda rubbed his chin. “Huh, I guess that’s true, isn’t it? I wonder when that happened. I look away for a minute and all you kids aren’t kids anymore.” Though Sokka’s father’s tone was light, there was a certain pride that Zuko recognized in the man’s eyes. “I think your sister might even be as tall as I am, now that I think about it.”

Before they could say another word, the sound of shrieking rang out from the streets. All three men jumped to their feet, reaching for weapons, but before they could grab them, the telltale sound of a sky bison roaring echoed through the room. The three physically relaxed, Sokka grabbing at his chest as he sighed in relief. “Whooh,” Sokka said. “Someday they’re gonna give me a heart attack with that act.”

Rather than waiting for his father and boyfriend to follow him, Sokka ducked out of the tent.

“You know, this is the first time I think he’s ever forgotten his breakfast,” Hakoda said, patting Zuko on the back. “Let's go see what havoc my daughter and the Avatar have wreaked upon our city this time.”

Outside, Appa had already landed outside the city’s walls. Even that far off in the distance, Zuko could see Aang— tall and gangly as ever— floating down to a crowd of adoring eight-year-olds. Still in Appa’s saddle, Katara waved at the three of them. “Dad! Sokka! Zuko!” she called, and then slid down Appa’s tail. She beat Aang to them, wrapping her arms around both her father and Sokka at the same time. “It’s been too long!”

“How are the Air Acolytes treating you, Katara?” Sokka said, pulling away from the hug. “Or are they just Air Acquaintances these days? Huh? Huh?” He laughed and she punched him in the shoulder, not dignifying it with a response as she pushed him away.

“You know, honey,” Hakoda said to his daughter, “we’re just half a day’s ride from the Southern Air Temple.”

She smiled fondly, but there was familiar exhaustion in her face, “I know, Dad. And I’ve been meaning to come more often, but you know how it is when we get really busy. Since I’ve taken on documenting Southern Water Tribe bending traditions as well as helping Aang recover Air Nomad history it’s been a lot harder to find the time.”

“I imagine it’s a lot harder to find waterbenders outside the Water Tribe too,” Hakoda said, but shook his head, pulling her close. “I know, I know, the rest of the world is where our history is written down. And I’m really proud of you, Katara, for being the one to recover it for us.”

“Thanks Dad,” she said, muffled into his coat, taking in his familiar scent. She gave him one last squeeze before letting him go, turning to Zuko.

He found himself reaching for her just as quickly as she reached for him. The feel of her strong arms wrapped around his chest was another comfort he’d forgotten— it always felt a little bit like home, another unquantifiable aspect of the concept he was still searching for. This, he supposed, was what Sokka missed when he was away from home, not buildings that melted. Breakfasts with his father. Hugs from his sister. All of the parts of his culture that had built him into the man he was today.

“I’m glad to see you, Zuko,” she said, just barely audible through the plush of his coat. He gripped the back of her coat, holding her close. “I hope my brother isn’t annoying you too much on your trip.”

“Nah,” Zuko said. “He’s just annoying enough.” She huffed softly.

“Alright, enough with the hugs, he’s my boyfriend,” Sokka said, stepping over to pry the two of them apart. Spirits, he’d missed this, Zuko thought as Sokka pushed them apart. Katara rolled her eyes, and suddenly the three of them were confined in another hug, this time by long, spindly arms.

“Hi guys!” Aang said, hugging them all close to him, lifting them off the ground so that their feet dangled just a few inches off the ice. “What did I miss?”

How have you gotten taller, Aang?” Sokka said, when Aang deposited them back on the solid ground. “You should have stopped growing by now! Katara, what have you been feeding him?” he accused. “I would have thought all those vegetables would have stunted your growth.”

“Who says I’m the one feeding him?” Katara squabbled. “Just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I’m the one who does all the cooking and cleaning and washing your dirty socks!”

“Ok, settle down kids,” Hakoda said with his hands on his hips. “You’re all here for a few days, so let’s not get into another city-shattering argument. I don’t think Harbor City can take another one so soon.”

“Sorry, Dad,” both of Hakoda’s children repeated. He looked at them fondly.

It was light out when Zuko awoke the next morning. That wasn’t saying much, with the Midnight Sun casting light at all hours of the day, but Sokka was still asleep in his arms, so it wasn’t early enough for the puffin-seal hunt. They wouldn’t have left without him. Sokka was snoring loudly, and unlike Zuko, was a pretty heavy sleeper, so extracting himself from the sleeping man wasn’t hard. He stopped to write a note before leaving, having to heat up the bottle of ink that had frozen solid overnight in his bag.

Zuko felt his heart beating rapidly in his chest as he stood outside the main dome of the igloo. He closed his eyes to focus his breathing and settle his nerves, which were feeling as frayed as when lightning passed through his body. Zuko was rarely nervous. It had been a long time since he last let his emotions overcome him like this, and it was— it was probably when he’d told Sokka that he’d loved him for the first time. His nerves always built up into nervous energy he was bad at expelling properly, resulting in explosive displays of fire or embarrassing emotional outbursts.

He was trying very hard not to do either of those things when he asked for his future father-in-law’s blessing.

When his hands no longer shook, he pushed the flap aside and ducked into the igloo. Hakoda and Bato were already up and chatting by the fire, raised knees brushing as they drank tea. They looked up and nodded in greeting.

“You’re up early, Your Majesty,” Bato said. “I thought you weren’t coming on the puffin-seal hunt this morning?”

“I’m not,” he said. Sokka had presumably already made excuses for him— he knew Zuko hated being out on the ice. “I came to speak with Chief Hakoda about something else. Something… personal.”

The two seated men exchanged knowing looks, and Bato stood. “I’ll go round up the men,” Bato said. Looking towards Zuko, he added, “Sokka included.” He squeezed Hakoda’s shoulder, “I’ll see you later.”

Hakoda watched Zuko over his steaming cup of tea. The man had the same look in his eye he’d had during the war— he was assessing the situation and waiting for the opportunity to strike. Zuko swallowed.

He bowed to the man, and then sank to his knees, bowing deeper before the man in a sign of respect. Though Zuko technically outranked the man, Zuko had a deep respect for Hakoda, both as a warrior and as Sokka’s father. He could feel the man’s unyielding eyes on him as he bowed his head. When he looked up, he met the chief’s gaze. Smoke left his lungs. “I’ve come to ask for your blessing to ask Sokka to marry me.”

Hakoda’s eyes widened almost imperceptibly. There was a slight darkening to his eyes, a hint of conflict, but he nodded in acknowledgment. “Do you love him?”

“Of course,” he said instantly, his palms on his thighs.

The man placed his cup of tea on the side of the hearth. And then he nodded again. Zuko breathed a sigh of relief, visibly relaxing. Hakoda leaned forward and clasped him on the shoulder. “That’s all you can really ask for your children, isn’t it?” He smiled, and Zuko could see the hint of Sokka in it. He wished, not for the first time, that he’d been able to meet Sokka’s mother.

Zuko nodded. He hesitated, and then said, “Can I ask one more thing?” Hakoda raised his eyebrow, but didn’t stop his question. “How do I, uh, make a betrothal necklace?”

Hakoda laughed, unfolding his legs. When he pulled himself up off the ground he offered a hand to Zuko. “You know, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone look as determined or as frightened to ask their future father-in-law that since I asked Kya’s father for his blessing. Of course, Kya was hiding in the next room to berate him for not giving it immediately,” he chuckled. “Anyway,” he clasped Zuko on the shoulder, “the betrothal necklace is an important part of our culture signifying that someone is spoken for. Acceptance of the necklace doesn’t signify the proposal has been accepted— only when the necklace is worn does it mean that they’ve agreed to marry you.”

Zuko nodded, almost feeling as though he should be taking notes. Hakoda stood facing away from him, looking at an old tapestry adorning one of the walls. It had singe marks in one of the corners.

“The north still practices arranged marriage, but we stopped that practice years before I was born. Here it’s more important to show both your love for the individual, and your worthiness as a potential spouse.” Hakoda sighed, “Usually, part of the test of worthiness as a provider involves gathering the materials yourself, the blue sealskin band, the stones from the otter-penguin love nests, and so on,” he waved his hands. “But I’m sensing you’re on a little bit of a time crunch. And besides, I think going out and doing what you just told Sokka you were too busy to do might tip him off a bit about the surprise.”

“Yeah,” Zuko said, rubbing his palms on his clothes. This was all sounding a little intimidating. He’d heard some of this before, on long nights with Katara lecturing him about why her necklace was so important to her. “I have to do it before everyone leaves. I want everyone to be here for him— you, Katara, Aang. The community.”

“It’s a big change, marriage,” Hakoda said, turning back to him. “Marriage is telling the world that you’re not just two people who like each other. You’re a team. And that team comes first— over all the little stuff.”

“I mean, you did it,” Zuko said and cringed. “Not that I think what you do is easy, but—” he backtracked. “I’m ready for it,” he said instead. “I’ve wanted this for a long time, and Sokka is— he’s the guy I want to back me up.”

Hakoda nodded, and knelt before a large decorative chest to the east side of the room.

“You’re lucky some of our new distinguished Northern Water Tribe citizens are a little picky about their materials,” he said, pulling out a small chest. “They leave quite a few remnants and scraps behind just because something isn’t perfect. Personally, I find that the more flaws something has, the more unique it is. Just like the person who wears it.”

“Do people come to you often for help with these?” Zuko asked, taking the box and setting it down on the low table. He pulled out a carving knife from his pocket, one he’d borrowed from Sokka’s pack. He couldn’t imagine Sokka would need it out on the ice that day, so he imagined Sokka wouldn’t notice it was missing.

“Help? No, but privacy, yes.” There was a glimmer in his eye as he said, “No one interrupts the chief. Usually.”

“Sorry,” Zuko said. “I was gonna ask for a private meeting last night but Aang wanted to go penguin sledding again and wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

“That boy does have the constitution of an honorary Water Tribe member if I’ve ever seen one,” Hakoda shook his head. “I can only imagine what chaos their children will bring someday.”

“You seem pretty confident that Aang’s gonna propose,” Zuko said, opening the box. It was filled to the brim with long pieces of blue cloth, and flat, circular stones rattling between them.

Hakoda laughed. “I’m actually a little surprised he hasn’t already. He’s been in love with her since he was twelve.”

“That’s… fair,” Zuko agreed. He pulled out a few scraps hesitantly. “What… should I be looking for?”

“For that… you must look inside yourself,” Hakoda said, looking serious. “The stone represents the moon, while the ribbon represents the spirits, tying you together.” Zuko looked down at two pieces of different cloth, feeling queasy. Which represented him and Sokka? The one with leopard spots, or the one that had already been cut thinly? And which of the identical stones rattling around looked the most like the moon? He was about to drop his head into his hands when Hakoda laughed, “I’m just kidding. You should have seen your face, though. I get why Sokka likes to tease you so much. It’s a little more straightforward than that, none of that symbolism stuff. Find one that fits his neck, for starters.”

“I get where Sokka gets that from,” Zuko grumbled. He pulled out a piece of blue cloth. It had already been cut once, and when Zuko tried to wrap it around his own neck, it touched but wouldn’t tie. “Not that one, then.” He pulled out a few more and measured it out so he could comfortably tie the necklace around his own neck. Sokka was a little taller than he was, but they fit roughly the same size clothing, even if Sokka had to squeeze a little to get his muscular torso in Zuko’s slimmer pieces. He added an extra inch to be sure. He folded it in half to mark the middle.

“For the stones, try to find a flat, smooth one no bigger than the tissue in your neck, here,” he said, pointing to his own neck. Zuko reached up and felt his own before digging around in the box. He pulled out a few before finding one he liked. It had a scratch down the back that looked a little bit like the curve of a boomerang. He figured Sokka would appreciate that.

“Like this?” he asked, holding up the stone.

Hakoda shrugged. “It’s your choice, you’re gonna be the one who’s going to have to look at it for the rest of your life.”

Well, Zuko thought, here goes nothing. “Alright, yes, this one. Any tips on what I should put on it?”

Again, Hakoda shrugged. “Usually people put something that represents them as a couple— a flower, the moon cycle when they met— I even had one very uncreative fellow in here a few weeks ago who simply wrote his girlfriend’s name on it.”

Zuko snorted. “I think I can do better than that.” He had been thinking about it for a while. He’d even sketched it out once on a piece of paper. He’d burned it immediately so no one would see, but the image of a wolf consuming the flame had been burned into his memory.

He had just pressed the point of the carving knife down onto the stone when the sealskin flap to the igloo flew open. Startled, Zuko dropped the stone, clattering on the table. Standing in the doorway was one very oblivious airbender.

“Hi guys, have you seen—” Aang started, and then took in the room— Zuko’s slightly startled look, Hakoda peering over him. In an instant, Aang was by their side, a flush of steam in the air from his feet moving so quickly on the padded ice floor. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing!” Zuko instinctively said, reaching to cover the materials with his hands.

“No, let me see!” Aang said, and there was a great whoosh of air that forced his arms back up.

“Can’t win against the Avatar, kid,” Hakoda laughed, and Zuko shot him a glare.

Aang gasped, “You’re making a betrothal necklace for Sokka aren’t you?”

“Yes, what does it look like I’m doing? Arts and crafts?”

“Ooh,” Aang said, eyes wide. For a moment, Zuko was thrown by how young he looked. For all his wisdom, Aang was just twenty-two. “Can I join? I want to make Katara a necklace worthy of her.” Hakoda just sighed and shrugged. Aang dropped down opposite Zuko, and from the sleeve of his yellow monk robes he pulled out a blue necklace.

“Uh,” Zuko asked, looking at the poorly carved necklace. “How long have you been carrying that on you?”

Aang thought about it for a moment, and then shrugged. “Since I was twelve.” Over Aang’s shoulder, Hakoda gave Zuko a knowing look. Aang pulled the box towards him and began tossing out half-carved stones and cloth, cringing at touching the animal flesh. Zuko was pretty sure Aang was mentally apologizing to each seal in his head, but what could he do? They were already dead. He tossed the dingy little necklace onto the table, which even Zuko had to cringe at. It looked like Momo, but was probably Katara’s hair loops.

Zuko just sighed, setting back to work. He’d always been a fair artist, having been classically educated as a child in various forms of art and calligraphy befitting a prince. He dragged the knife across the stone, creating the general outline of a wolf head with it’s mouth wide open, reminiscent of the Water Tribe warrior helmets he’d seen Sokka and the others wear.

He saw Aang watching him out of the corner of his eye as he started on the Fire Nation flame. When he finished, he held it out at a distance to examine it. It wasn’t too bad, he thought, though he knew he would have to go over it a few more times to deepen the cuts and smooth the edges. He could at least tell what shape it was supposed to be, unlike Aang’s discarded necklace on the table.

“When are you proposing?” Aang asked, startling Zuko again.

“Stop doing that,” he gritted out. “And it’s private.”

“That’s fair,” Aang said, leaning back. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while. It’s kinda hard to ask for help when you’re the Avatar. Anything you do gets reported on pretty heavily. I figured that out with Katara’s last birthday surprise.” He looked over at Zuko, “I figure you understand as the Fire Lord.”

Zuko nodded, “I told my uncle a year ago, but he was the only one who knew before now. I needed his advice. And, uh, his blessing.”

Aang sat up, looking over at Hakoda. “Oh, should I have asked permission? Or— for your blessing? Sokka usually tells me these things but I didn’t want to ruin the surprise.” He smacked himself in the face.

Hakoda sighed, but it sounded more fond than exasperated. Zuko looked up from the stone in his hand as the man spoke, “I’m not sure I have the power to deny two of the men that saved the world anything, much less the hands of my two children.”

Aang beamed. “Great! I wanted to do it where we first met—”

“In an iceberg in the middle of the ocean?” Zuko asked, even though that was essentially, unintentionally, his plan with Sokka. It was just about as romantic, he supposed, as proposing in virtually the same spot where he crashed his ship into their village to look for the man sitting across from him.

“Oh,” Aang said, freezing. “Maybe not exactly where we first met. Maybe on Appa, flying over the ocean.” He looked thoughtful, grasping onto his chin. “Though if I really want to go all out, Sokka would have to be there. And you,” he said. “Double proposal?” he asked brightly.

“I am not having a double proposal with you, Aang.”

“Let the man have his moment, son,” Hakoda said, patting Aang’s shoulder. Zuko tried not to feel the slight bitter prickling at never having been called son by his boyfriend’s father.

Aang was unusually quiet for a moment. Zuko looked up sharply. He’d said far worse things that had simply bounced off the man like water on a turtleduck, surely that hadn’t hurt his feelings. But instead of a hurt look, there was a shining light in his eyes, as though he’d discovered something important.

“What?” Zuko asked at the annoying look. “You look like you just reached the Avatar State but they forgot to turn on the lights.”

“This is a rock,” Aang said excitedly. “Which means I can earthbend it, can’t I?” He looked between them with an excited grin. “Is that cheating? Does that count?”

“I suppose… that does fit who you are as a couple,” Hakoda admitted. “I’ve seen waterbenders slice at the rock until it was withered to their desired shape, but the rest of us fellows have to make do with a knife.” He thumbed over at Zuko.

Aang picked up one of the discarded stones and curled his hand around it. When he opened his hand, there was the perfect imprint of a gust of wind meeting the water. Zuko almost groaned in despair.

“That’s not fair—” he started, but the door flap burst open, and all three men’s heads snapped to the entrance again, their hands flying behind their backs.

“What’s not fair?” Katara said, ducking under the flap. “What are you three doing?” She looked around the room, and opened her mouth in an ‘o’ shape. Before Zuko could say anything, Aang was throwing him under the bison.

“Zuko is proposing to Sokka!” Aang shouted. Zuko kicked him under the table.

“Oh wow, Zuko,” Katara said with something like uneasiness slipping into her smile. “I didn’t know you and Sokka were that serious.”

“Why is everyone so surprised?” Zuko shouted, throwing his hands in the air. “We’ve been together for four years!”

“I’m sorry,” Katara said, “I didn’t mean to sound dismissive.” She crossed the room to look down at the table. “It’s just… it’s nothing,” she smiled, shaking her head. “Congratulations. Can I see what you’ve done so far?”

“It’s not finished,” he said, shooting a glare at Aang, who was whistling nonchalantly. He placed the unfinished stone on the table beside the cloth band.

“That’s very good craftsmanship, Zuko,” Hakoda said, looking over him. The other two nodded in agreement. “It’s a good thing Sokka wasn’t the one to come to me for help, that boy has no artistic talent,” he laughed. The two others joined in the laughter, but Zuko just stared down at the nearly-finished necklace. Just a little smoothing on the carving, and then he’d need to fold the clasp over onto the band with the butt of the knife to complete the necklace.

But their laughter was ringing in his ears. Everyone seemed so surprised he was proposing, even Hakoda, though he’d tried not to show it. Had he not made his intentions clear enough? Was Sokka not as serious about them as he was? He closed his eyes, breathing carefully. When he opened them again he reminded himself that he shouldn’t overthink it too much. He knew Sokka loved him. And besides— he was more serious about everything than Sokka.

He continued carving until he couldn’t take it anymore. “Don’t you three have anything better to do?” he asked, fuming, as they jumped back.

“Sorry!” Katara said at the same time her father said, “Best leave him be. Both of you,” he eyed Aang.

“This is one of the most important coming of age rituals of a young Water Tribe man’s life,” Hakoda warned both of them. “While Zuko may not have been born here, he shares his spirit with someone who does. Let him finish. Go on,” he said, waving at Aang and Katara, who both reluctantly stood up.

“We’ll keep Sokka busy until we see you around the city,” Aang said, pulling Katara along by their joined hands. Katara craned her neck to keep watching until Aang physically dragged her out of the tent

When they were gone, Hakoda made himself busy cleaning up the remaining supplies, and made another pot of tea for himself. “Don’t let them discourage you,” he said, sitting down on the cushion Aang had previously occupied. “Even love seems like the end of the world when you’re young.”

Zuko sighed, brushing the final pieces of stone from the surface, he looked down at it. “I’ve faced the end of the world. I fought every member of my family, and most members of yours,” Hakoda barked out a laugh, “yet this feels like the scariest thing I’ve ever done.”

“Just wait until you have kids,” Hakoda smiled over his teacup. “And their boyfriends are knocking down your door to try and marry them.”

Zuko couldn’t help but meet the man’s smile.

The rest of the necklace was fairly simple to complete, taking the small gold clasp and affixing the stone to the band, and then holding it up to the light. He was already slipping the completed betrothal necklace in his pocket when there was a shout from the door. “I’m coming in!” Bato yelled, and the older man was pushing aside the flap.

“Our seafaring heroes have returned,” Hakoda said, raising his cup. “Did you bring Sokka with you?”

“Well, I brought him home if that’s what you’re asking. But he’s not with me. The Avatar and Katara grabbed him as soon as he stepped off the boat. They’re going penguin sledding again,” he said. “Leaves us with unloading everything off the boat. You two up for helping?”

Recalling what Zahnt had said, Zuko nodded and stood, following the two men down to the docks. The trio met with the other three hunters that had gone on the trip that morning, and between the six of them, easily unloaded the day’s haul from the cutter ship to the ice carts on the dock. When the boat was empty they pushed the heavy ice carts, two people per cart, to various buildings across the city. Hakoda and one of the other men took the job of delivering the ice carts to the smokehouse, while Zuko and Bato delivered carts to the communal kitchen in preparation for that evening’s feast.

It had gotten later than he’d realized, Zuko thought, spotting the sun where it had dipped low over the horizon. This time of year in the antarctic the sun would never fully set, leaving the sky a painted orange until morning when the world brightened again. He was getting better at telling the time the more often he visited, though if pressed, he wouldn’t have been able to give a better answer than late afternoon.

“I still think a feast in my honor is unnecessary,” Zuko told Bato as the last ice cart was pushed into the kitchen. “I’ve been to enough feasts in this month alone to last a whole lifetime.”

“You only hit the tenth anniversary of your rule once, you know,” Bato said, but then shook his head. “It’s more than just about you, you must know that by now.”

“I do,” he said, looking over the horizon as the waves pushed gently against the ice.

“These people have had a hard lifetime, and if it takes a visiting lord to get things rolling, how can we say no to that?” Zuko nodded, and Bato squeezed his shoulder. “Thanks for the help, kid. Your boy should be back in a little while, they know there’s a feast in a few hours. Better get going before someone tries to rope you into cooking with that firebending of yours. I’ve seen the sorry excuse for cooking you do in the Fire Nation.”

“Well I’ve seen the… uh… cooking you do here,” Zuko finished lamely. He shook his head. “If you see Sokka tell him I’ll be outside the north gate in the dunes.”

He took the long way around the walled city. He’d always liked to walk, and despite the cold temperatures, the South Pole was actually quite beautiful. He couldn’t see the stars or the southern lights this time of year, but the autumnal orange of the setting sun across the ice dunes reminded him of home, in a way.

Passing the western guard tower, he spotted a single warrior watching out the snow window. The guard was either asleep or nearly there by the way his head was propped up on his arm, his wolf-like helmet sliding off, and his bone staff leaning against him. He’d have to mention it to Sokka when he got back— the man still liked to personally take care of the city’s protection even though he wasn’t the only warrior over the age of eight anymore. The northern watchtowers were both entirely empty, he noted when he passed them.

The north gate had been sealed off by waterbenders prior to their arrival, which he thought was smart if they wanted to ensure that all visitors funneled in through the southern gate. Not that a good sneak attack would be prevented by a snow wall— he could see five ways he could climb over it now, even armed with only the carving knife in his pocket, his firebending, and his wits.

He could feel the chill setting in as he stood in the shadow of the wall, so he stepped out into the sunlight, closing his eyes to feel the warmth on his face. He stood there, basking in the sun for a few minutes when he recognized the familiar crunch of snow beneath boots, so he didn’t startle when he felt strong arms wrap around him from behind.

“Is my favorite fire-lizard sunning himself this evening?”

“When did you get back?” Zuko asked, opening his eyes and leaning into the embrace.

“Just now,” Sokka huffed in his ear. “Why? Did you miss me?”

“You were only gone a few hours.”

“Well I missed you,” Sokka said, burying his face in Zuko’s neck. His cold nose nudged just below Zuko’s ear, and he pressed a kiss to the pulse point there.

“You’re cold,” Zuko said, shying away from the kisses. Sokka just held on tighter.

“I know one way you can warm me up,” he hummed against Zuko’s neck. One of his hands slipped between the front flap of Zuko’s outer coat, reaching down to squeeze Zuko’s dick through his pants. It was almost embarrassing how quickly his dick took interest.

“Sokka! What are you doing?” Zuko hissed, squirming. His face was already flushed. “The city is right there!”

“So? The guards aren’t in their towers, I checked on the way here.” Sokka rubbed his palm against Zuko’s quickly hardening cock, feeling the outline in his trousers.

“I thought you would have more issues with that, honestly,” Zuko said, finding himself leaning into Sokka’s touch.

Sokka shrugged, leaning forward to press his cold cheek against Zuko’s flushed, warm one. He let go of Zuko’s cock, but only long enough to pull his glove off by his teeth, and stick it down Zuko’s trousers entirely. “I like it when you wear my colors,” he whispered.

His cold hand closed around Zuko’s dick, making him hiss. Sokka just chuckled, and Zuko pushed his hips back against the man. He could feel Sokka’s cock, hard in his pants, even through the layers. After a few flushed strokes— and spirits, Sokka’s hand was cold, everything here was cold— Sokka removed his hand from Zuko’s pants. He whined at the loss of touch, but Sokka was turning him around and consuming his mouth.

Sokka’s arms wrapped tightly around him, one of his arms circling around his waist, the other clenched in his hair. Sokka moaned into the open-mouth kiss, and Zuko was sure he could feel the matching flutter of their heartbeats as he felt the pounding desire rush through him. The kiss was desperate, urgent. His mouth opened to allow Sokka’s tongue inside, the slick wet heat making him moan. The sounds of Sokka’s pleasure went straight to his dick, and he began rubbing against Sokka.

They stayed connected by their mouths and bodies, flush together, as Sokka pushed him down onto the snowbank. Zuko was, once again, grateful for the layers of the fur-lined sealskin flaps of his outer coat acting as a barrier between him and the icy snow. Sokka’s thigh slid between his legs as he melted against Zuko, and Zuko thrust up against it with what little leeway the heavy body on top of him allowed.

This time, Zuko was pushing aside his glove the best he could with one free hand, and threading it up under Sokka’s tunic to press against his skin. Sokka sucked in a breath as the cold hand spread against his ribs, but didn’t break the kiss. Sokka shifted, and then his other leg was between Zuko’s thighs, spreading them apart.

Sokka was grinding down on him when Zuko asked, “Do you have any oil or something?” Sokka pushed himself up on his elbows, and dug around in his pocket for a moment. He pulled out a small clay vial, smirking. Zuko groaned and dropped his head back into the snow. “Of course you planned this, didn’t you?”

“I like to be prepared,” Sokka said, ducking down for a quick kiss. He reached down between them to hook his fingers in Zuko’s trousers to pull them down. It was a little difficult with the angle, so Zuko scrambled to help him until they’d pushed them down over his hips.

Zuko sucked in a breath to regulate his body temperature, even if he could still feel the icy wind chill across his bare skin. But then Sokka was on him, again, kissing him as he reached for his cock with a slicked hand. Zuko’s hips thrust up into the tight fist around him. He moaned into Sokka’s mouth, feeling as Sokka’s hand left his cock and felt between Zuko’s cheeks. A slick finger traced across his rim, and then the finger pushed into him. A second joined the first, working him open as Sokka kept him distracted with his mouth.

There was a rustle of the wind, and Sokka swore, dropping and spilling the vial in the snow. He pulled off Zuko just enough to push his own trousers down, taking himself in hand. One, two strokes with his slick hand, and he was lining himself up with Zuko and pushing inside. Zuko threw his head back, rapidly inhaling cold air like a punch to the gut.

Sokka hissed with pleasure, “Fuck, you’re so hot.”

“Come on,” Zuko huffed, “are you going to fuck me or not?”

Sokka leaned down to capture his mouth, and Zuko wrapped his legs around Sokka, pulling him closer. Sokka shifted, finding a better angle, and then he was thrusting. For a moment there was nothing between them but the wet sound of Sokka thrusting, and their heavy breathing.

“Baby, you feel so good,” Sokka said, hands coming to cup Zuko’s cheeks, pulling them farther apart. Zuko groaned, Sokka was always chatty when they fucked. Well, Sokka was chatty all of the time. Zuko rolled his own hips, coming to meet Sokka’s, and he reached forward to grasp his own cock in hand, under the flap of his tunic.

Sokka’s hand moved up Zuko’s thigh to hoist his bare leg against him, and the other reached forward to bat Zuko’s hand away from his cock. “I love you, I love this,” Sokka said, rubbing his thumb over the head, spreading precome across his cock. Zuko bent up to lock onto Sokka’s mouth, the man groaning into him. He followed Zuko back down as he fucked him into the snow.

With a twist of Sokka’s wrist, Zuko was coming all over Sokka’s hand. Another few thrusts, Zuko clenching around him, and Sokka was coming too. For a moment, they lay there in the snow. Even cooling down, Zuko was feeling overheated. He shoved Sokka, “Get off.” The man huffed, rolling off him. He wiped his hand in the snow. Zuko winced, and reached for his trousers, pulling them back up.

On his knees beside him, Sokka was tucking himself back into his own trousers. When he met Zuko’s eyes there was a hint of mischief, and he didn’t have any time to prepare before Sokka was practically tackling him for another kiss. Zuko was laughing despite himself, and pushing Sokka away. “We just fucked, Sokka, aren’t you tired of me?”

“No,” Sokka said between kisses. His hand cupped Zuko’s face, and his thumb brushed against the angry red scar on the side of his face. Zuko closed his eyes and leaned into the kiss again before finally pushing Sokka away. “Oh, fine,” Sokka said, rolling off him again. He jumped up, and offered Zuko a hand, pulling him up as well. “We’re gonna be late if we take much longer anyway.”

“How can you tell?” Zuko said, squinting over the horizon. “The sun looks exactly the same.”

“You get used to it,” Sokka said with a shrug. He reached for Zuko, patting him down to make sure he looked presentable for dinner. It wasn’t their first quickie before some important event, and they’d gotten the routine down, but Zuko shied away from the touch.

“You should fix yourself first,” he said as an excuse, pointing at Sokka’s lopsided wolf tail. Zuko patted himself down, feeling the now-familiar bulge in his pocket, and grabbed his discarded glove from where it had fallen into the snow. He shook out the back of his hood, now filled with snow, and combed through his hair with his fingers. Beside him, Sokka was poorly trying to empty his own coat full of snow. “Here, let me help.” He reached for Sokka, who went still under Zuko’s ministrations. He stepped back and looked Sokka over. Despite their flushed faces, they were presentable enough.

Sokka offered Zuko his gloved hand, and he took it, leading them towards the feast laid out in the middle of the city. Down the main street, fires were lit in the pits, making the igloos glow orange. People had already begun congregating around the large soup pots hoisted over some of the fires, and children ran screaming around them. Even by the city gate, Zuko could recognize the large pots of five-flavor soup, already being handed out by grandmothers, and plates of arctic hen and blubbered seal jerky were piled high beside them. As they joined the crowd, Zuko stuck his gloved hand in his pocket, protectively curling around the necklace there.

Sokka waved at his father across the crowd, and expertly pulled Zuko along with him until they stood before the man.

“Nice of you boys to join us,” Hakoda said with a knowing look. Zuko fought back a blush. He wasn’t sixteen anymore, caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to. Sokka didn’t look perturbed, or even like he’d noticed at all, so Zuko tried to ignore his own embarrassment. He leaned into Sokka’s side as Sokka spoke with his father, and let himself enjoy the feast. He knew the day wasn’t really about him, but instead an excuse for Sokka’s tribe— and by extension, his family— to spend time together.

The sky got noticeably darker as the feast continued into the night until the guests started to taper off. Earlier in the evening he and Aang had been goaded by the youngest children into giving a reprise of the dancing dragon fire show they’d performed at the last Glacier Spirit Festival, and then Katara and some of the other waterbenders did a traditional southern water tribe bending dance. By the time the instruments had been brought out, the children were rubbing their eyes and protesting sleep, unable to resist their parents carrying them away.

When even the young parents, who had returned to the celebration after their children had been put down, began to yawn and watch the drummers sleepily, Chief Hakoda called an end to the festivities. The fires were extinguished by the only two firebenders in attendance, and the pots were cleaned out by the team of waterbenders swirling heated water through them. Even Sokka yawned, covering his hand with his mouth to hide it.

After all the chores were finished, and everyone began separating, Sokka began to head back towards their igloo.

“Wait, Sokka,” Zuko grabbed Sokka’s arm. “Can we take a walk?”

Sokka looked surprised, but agreed, and let Zuko take the lead as he led them outside the southern gates. He could see the glint of the guard’s helmet in the tower, alert despite the time. Zuko didn’t exactly have a plan, he never really did for these sorts of big decisions. He always had a vague understanding of what he needed to do, and knew he’d figure out the rest on the way.

But he did know he wanted to do it here, now. He’d nearly blurted it out half a dozen times already, and this was a sacred place for Sokka, for his people. He led them over along the shore, past the ice docks and the gently rocking ships. He stopped some distance past the ice docks, overlooking the water and the low-hanging sun.

“And here I was, thinking you didn’t like sneaking around to make out in my village,” Sokka said, teasing. He was looking out over the orange water.

“That’s not why I asked you out here,” Zuko said, tone serious. Sokka turned back to look at him, face blank. “Sokka, I love you,” Zuko started, wincing. His fingers curled around the necklace in his pocket. He knew he should have planned this out ahead of time. He’d tried rehearsing it earlier, but he was such an awkward turtleduck it never went right. “Over these four years I— I really appreciate you coming with me on this trip, by my side as always, and I—” Sokka was staring. He balled his fists, clearly he wasn’t doing a very good job at this. Sokka would have done so much better. “I love you, and being able to spend this time with you and your family has made me feel really included in something I haven’t had much of since I was a child, that is, family—”

“Zuko,” Sokka said, peering at him with his head tilted just a little bit. He smiled at Zuko, almost encouragingly. He seemed way too calm about this, which meant Zuko was doing a terrible job at proposing. “What are you trying to say?”

Zuko felt his face heat, and curled his fingers around the betrothal necklace. He pulled the necklace from his pocket, shoving it out in front of him. “I’m trying to ask you to marry me. But as usual, I’m messing it all up.” Sokka froze, the easy smile sliding off his face. Zuko’s fingers uncurled around the stone of the necklace, and the long fabric strings swayed in the wind.

Sokka’s eyes locked on the necklace, but he didn’t move.

“It’s probably not as good as it would have been if I’d been raised in the Water Tribe,” Zuko said, apologizing for the poor quality of the necklace, but his voice died in his throat when he saw the look on Sokka’s face. It was more than disappointment— it was confusion and upset.

The tiredness he’d felt earlier washed away from him with the adrenaline running through him, and he could see Sokka, too, was wide awake.

Sokka looked dismayed, and speechless. Another time, Zuko might have teased him about being caught speechless, but his heart was clenching in his chest. Sokka opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He tried again, and winced when he spoke, “I thought you were going to marry Mai.”

Zuko’s jaw dropped open, and his hand fell to his side. Of all the things Sokka could have said— “Why on earth would I marry my ex-girlfriend of five years?”

Sokka threw up his arms, turning away from Zuko. “Or, I don’t know, some other Fire Nation girl! You just mention her a lot, and you used to date, so she seemed like the obvious choice!”

“An obvious choice for what?” Zuko asked, confused, and more than a little upset. He mentioned Mai a lot because she was his friend, she’d known him since he was eight, not because he wanted Sokka to… to what? Be jealous?

“The mother of your children, obviously!” Sokka said, as though it were obvious. He looked almost defeated.

The mother of my… he mouthed. He looked up in confusion at Sokka. “What?

“You’ve been Fire Lord for ten years, and do you know how many people have tried to kill you in that time? Dozens of people! Including Azula! She’s still out there somewhere, and do you know what happens if you get murdered by one of her crazy cult followers before you have heirs? She murders your uncle and claims the Fire Nation throne and we all go to war again.” Sokka sighed, dragging a hand down his face. “So yeah, I had assumed that eventually, you were gonna marry some Fire Nation girl and make little firebending babies.”

Zuko stared, speechless. He tried to wrap his head around what Sokka was saying, but it all just became tangled in his mind before he could even begin to make sense of it. “But we’ve been together for four years. Four years.”

Sokka wasn’t looking at him.

“And you were under the impression, during the last four years, that I was going to… leave you and go marry... Mai? Or some… any other girl? This whole time?”

Sokka sighed again, rubbing the back of his head. “... Yeah?” He turned back towards Zuko. “I honestly kinda thought that’s what you were trying to do this whole time. You were acting really weird these past few weeks. I thought you were trying to figure out how to break up with me.”

But Zuko wasn’t really listening anymore. He was suddenly furious, seeing red. It felt like he was breathing fire when he spit, “You weren’t taking our relationship seriously this whole time?”

“I don’t— of course I took us seriously, but I didn’t think that you considered us… marriage serious,” Sokka said, wincing. “I just… I honestly didn’t expect to get this far. I was just really in love with you, and didn’t… look beyond the horizon.”

“How can you even say that after what you just told me?” he snapped. He felt his fingers itching to burn. When he looked up, he could see the devastation in Sokka’s eyes, his hands hovering above his thighs like he wanted to reach out and take Zuko’s to keep them from bursting into flames. But his lips were pressed together and he kept his hands to himself. Zuko wished it didn’t hurt so much to have Sokka standing just a few feet away from him, but at a far greater distance than either of them could cross.

“One of us has to be the pragmatist here, Zuko, and apparently it's me,” Sokka said with a sigh. He sounded defeated, and all Zuko could think was good. He tried reaching for Zuko’s shoulder, but Zuko shrugged him off. Sokka’s hands dropped to his sides and balled into fists, his own frustration clearly rising. “And…” Sokka said, apparently unfinished, “what about me?”

“What about you, Sokka?” Zuko said. Because apparently this wasn’t about either of them at all.

“I’ve always planned on becoming the chief of my tribe someday! And that could never happen if we were still together! It would be like another Fire Nation takeover, this time from the inside.” Sokka looked off towards the city. “Am I just supposed to give up my own dreams? My birthright?”

“No! Yes— maybe! I don’t know, Sokka, okay?” He had known that Sokka had always wanted to be chief, just like his father, but in truth, Zuko had never even considered what it might mean for the two of them.

“You never do, do you?” Sokka said bitterly, and Zuko realized he must have said it out loud. “I bet you didn’t even consult anyone about this decision, did you?”

“What’s that supposed to mean? Why would I have to consult anybody? The decision isn’t up to anyone else!”

“But it affects everyone else, Zuko! Your actions have bigger repercussions now than ever before.” Sokka spoke, angrily, “I can’t believe I always have to be the voice of reason! If not with Mai, then with—”

“Are you seriously still on that?” Zuko barked.

“You can’t risk the Fire Nation— and the world— falling into disarray again.” Sokka sighed. “Over what— this?”

Zuko stepped back, eyes widening. He felt like he’d been slapped, the sting of it still ringing in his ears. The heat died down in his chest, ice sliding into its place. He spoke calmly, too calmly by the way Sokka’s eyes widened. “I see now what you’ve thought of our relationship.” He looked down at the necklace in his hand. He raised his arm and threw it far into the snowcaps, where it disappeared into freshly fallen snow.

Sokka was eerily quiet as Zuko turned his back to him. “Don’t wait up for me. If you’re even coming to bed.”

He stalked away from Sokka until he was sure the man was nothing but a dot in the distance. He climbed over the hard-packed snowbanks north of the city, sitting atop one, facing away from where he had left Sokka. He pulled his legs to his chest and wrapped his arms around himself, looking off into the orange sky until he felt tears collect in his right eye and spill down his cheek. He brushed at it with the back of his glove, but the tears still fell.

He couldn’t think of anything except the all-encompassing, crushing disappointment in his chest. He didn’t know how long he stared off into the landscape, and cursed at himself for not being able to tell the time, because he didn’t know how late it was when he eventually dragged himself into their— Sokka’s igloo.

Sokka wasn’t there. Zuko didn’t know what he expected. He sighed, collapsing back on the bed without bothering to light the fire. He fell asleep thinking about how it wasn’t supposed to go like this. He woke up alone.

He stumbled out of bed the following morning, not having bothered to undress the previous night, heading directly to the chief’s igloo in the watery sunlight. He rubbed his eyes before he pushed aside the flap into the igloo. Breakfast had apparently already been prepared, based on the dishes placed on the table in front of the chief. Sitting beside Chief Hakoda was… Sokka. Sokka had dark bags under his eyes that surely matched Zuko’s, but when he looked over at the Water Tribesman, Sokka avoided his gaze. So that’s how they were going to play this, then. He sat down on the opposite end of the table, offset from Sokka.

Hakoda’s eyes flicked between them, but didn’t say anything. By the way he assessed the distance between them, and didn't say a word, Zuko was sure Hakoda knew. Who else would Sokka have gone to?

He felt humiliated to have spent all those hours, at the very table they sat at, carving a stupid necklace for Sokka, who apparently didn’t even want to marry him. As if sensing his distress, Hakoda pushed the pot of tea toward Zuko, who took it gratefully. He let the moon peach tea steam fill his lungs, ignoring the tension in the room.

He finished off his cup of tea easily, letting it settle his stomach before he reached for the leftover soup from the previous evening. When he was reaching for the soup the flap of the igloo opened, and Bato stepped inside. “Morning, everyone,” he said, and took his place at Hakoda’s side. He seemed oblivious to the tension in the room, which, in a way, Zuko was grateful for.

A few minutes later they were joined by Aang and Katara. Aang was stretching his long limbs while Katara chatted at him, greeting everyone with a warm smile. Aang sat beside Sokka, elbowing him and poking at him till he joined the conversation. Zuko just looked down at his second cup of tea. Katara gently asked him to pass a plate, speaking as though he might break, and in that moment, he knew that she knew. She’d probably known the whole time, based on her reaction the previous day. Had everyone known? Had he been the only one not to know that Sokka had considered their relationship temporary?

When he handed her the plate, she didn’t even take anything from it. He wanted to duck his head under the table. Before he could do so, there was another minor interruption as Master Pakku joined them, apologizing for being late, as some of his young waterbending students had melted half his igloo that morning, he told them with a chuckle. The tension seemed to melt from the room with each addition, until Zuko was sure it was only him who felt the overwhelming weight of it all. Sokka was looking everywhere but at him.

He lasted another twenty minutes before it boiled to a head. The thought that all of them knew that Sokka had never considered marrying him, that his time spent with Zuko was just… a stepping stone on his journey in life, a path that ended with Zuko married to some nameless, faceless Fire Nation woman and with Sokka as the Head Chieftain of the Southern Water Tribe? It was too much for him to overlook, especially as Sokka avoided his gaze, laughing hollowly.

He stood and bowed in the water tribe fashion, made his excuses, and left igloo in a hurry. He didn’t know where he was going, only that he couldn’t be there anymore. He wandered around the city for a while, eventually stopping to watch a group of young children, both boys and girls, learning basic self-defense from one of the warriors Zuko vaguely recognized. They didn’t pay him any attention when he sat down and watched.

“Zuko,” he heard a voice behind him. She placed a hand on his shoulder, startling him. He wasn’t often surprised, but he’d fallen so far into his own head that he hadn’t even heard Katara coming. “Sorry,” she said, “I didn’t mean to startle you.” He just shrugged. “I’m going out on the water to practice my bending,” she said, which was as flimsy an excuse as any. “Do you want to come with me?”

Out on the ice was the last place he wanted to be right now. Second last. “Yeah,” he said, standing up.

She led him out to the canoe house where they grabbed one of the flimsy bone-and-hide canoes and carried it out to the water. She hopped inside easily, but he looked at it uneasily. “Don’t be a baby,” she said, waving him in. He sighed and joined her.

She’d brought paddles into the boat with them, but didn’t need them. She waved her arms in a back and forth motion until she’d created a current to carry them away from shore. He leaned on the rim of the canoe, watching his own reflection in the water as they were carried farther and farther out. When he looked up, there was so much ice and distance between them and the city that he could no longer pinpoint where it was.

Katara stopped the canoe in the middle of a softly-bobbing ice field. The canoe continued to rock gently, washing ripples through his reflection on the water. Katara looked off in the distance towards a pod of whale-walruses breaching the surface, not even pretending to practice her waterbending.

He trailed his gloveless hand through his reflection in the water. “So you know, huh?”

She sighed sympathetically. “I ran into Sokka last night, after.”

“You weren’t really surprised though, were you?”

“I’m really sorry, Zuko,” she shook her head. “It’s just… he never mentioned marriage to me, and honestly, we were really surprised when you two started dating. I mean, we shouldn’t have been! You two were— are— great together.” He could see her wincing in her reflection on the water.

“Did you bring me out here to reiterate my failings as a partner and a leader? Because Sokka did that just fine last night.”

“No, I’m sorry,” Katara said. “I don’t know why I brought you out here, actually. I just saw you sitting there, looking all pitiful, and couldn’t let you keep bumming out the kids like that,” she teased, lightly pushing him. The boat rocked. “Honestly, I was really happy for you when you told me yesterday. I thought, maybe, Sokka was just keeping this close to his chest. He’s been like that since we were kids, you know?” She looked up towards the looming icebergs floating around them. “He always kept his feelings hidden away,” she placed her curled fist over her chest, “because he thought he had to keep it together for the rest of us.”

They sat in silence for a while, until Katara spoke up again. “I think I brought you out here because I was hoping it would cheer you up, like it does me. I used to escape out here to practice my bending because it felt safe where no one could see me. I felt at home on the water. It's not the same, of course,” she said, gesturing to him. “I know you don’t like the ice because it’s like, your polar opposite, but it’s still pretty nice out here, isn’t it?”

The pod of whale-walruses was still breaching in the distance, and he could feel the warmth of the sun on him as they drifted out from behind the shade of an iceberg. The water was fairly calm, and if he closed his eyes and ignored all the ice, he could see how it might be considered peaceful.

He watched the whale-walruses for a while as Katara propelled them around with a little waterbending. It distracted him for a little while, but it wasn’t enough. He found himself thinking about the remainder of his Fire Nation tour. While it was nice to see Aang and Katara again, he wasn’t sure he wanted another repeat of that morning— the overwhelming feeling of needing to be anywhere but there. He didn’t want to be surrounded by Sokka’s culture, his family, when all he could think about was that stupid necklace and the fight.

“You know,” Katara said, “if you’re getting bored over there, we can attempt to ice dodge like a real Water Tribe boy.” She nudged the paddle with her foot. He eyed the ice uneasily, and she laughed. “I’m just teasing, though I’m sure Bato would take you out like he did us and Aang.”

“No thanks,” he told her.

Eventually she carried them back to shore. He wasn’t sure how to thank her, but she pulled him into a hug and he was pretty sure she understood. This was not quite his worst moment in life— nor hers— but Katara was the one person he wanted by his side when it came to facing his demons. Especially when it involved the one person he always wanted by his side.

Sokka was nowhere to be seen when he got back. He wasn’t really surprised. He stood inside the igloo and looked around. The igloo belonged to Sokka, as a member of Hakoda’s family and as one of their ambassadors, but the two of them had considered it theirs the past few years. Sokka rarely spent more than a few months a year in it, spending the rest of the year in the Fire Nation capital with him. Consequently, there were few personal touches. There were Water Tribe weapons piled opposite the bed, and a collection of wanted posters from the war, but it wasn’t like Zuko’s— like their— suite in the royal palace, decorated in a mismatch of Water Tribe artifacts and Fire Nation art, and the usual disarray of life.

Zuko began packing his things.

He tugged a few of the furs off the bed and re-rolled them to stuff them into his pack, and he gathered up the brushes and combs he’d pulled out the previous day to fix his hair. There wasn’t much else he’d brought with him from the airship. He paused in the doorway, wondering if he should leave a note, but ultimately decided not to. He was tired of thinking.

He tossed the bag over his shoulder and headed towards the docks.

It wasn’t hard to book passage on one of the cutter ships heading towards Jongmu, especially with a few gold pieces. He stood on the bow of the ship, waiting for the fisherman to return, when he saw Sokka heading towards the dock. He had his own bag thrown over his shoulder. Zuko’s heart fluttered in his chest before he stamped it back down.

When Sokka stopped on the dock, he looked up at Zuko. There was an ache in Zuko’s chest when he looked at Sokka, like he was already gone, even though he was standing right there. His eyes flicked to the bag. “You’re coming?”

“Yeah,” Sokka said, meeting his eyes for what felt like the first time in days. “I did promise I’d keep you company through all the boring Fire Lord stuff.” He tossed the bag onto the ship and grabbed hold of the side to pull himself up. Zuko grabbed his arm and hauled him on board. He dropped their hands as soon as Sokka was steady on his feet. “Were you going to leave without me? Without telling me?” Sokka asked.

“Yes,” Zuko said. Sokka sighed, looking out over the water. It wasn’t exactly his finest moment, and he could admit that he hadn’t fully thought it through, but at least Sokka could have spent another few days with his family in peace. “Well, if you’re coming,” Zuko said, rubbing the back of his head, “we could probably just stay the extra couple of days. It seems like we just got here, and that’s not much time with your dad.”

“No,” Sokka shifted, looking off towards the city, “it’s probably best if we don’t stay.”

They didn’t talk about it.

Sokka came to bed with him that night, and every night after, but it was as if there was a canyon between them, not just a few inches. But the easy touches were gone. Most touches were gone, except the accidental brushes that had one of them pulling away as if they’d been burned— and they both had been burned before, so Zuko could say with confidence that this felt far worse.

They arrived several days early for their tour of the central Fire Nation, so travel time was far less hurried and rushed, but some of the magic had disappeared into the chasm between them. Sokka had started to wear his ceremonial Water Tribe robes instead of the Fire Nation ones he’d often worn out of solidarity with Zuko. He’d always planned on switching back to them at some point, Zuko knew, but the timing left something to be desired. It left him feeling the divide between them like never before.

In Crescent Valley, Sokka introduced himself as Ambassador Sokka of the Water Tribe. It shouldn’t have felt like a punch to the gut, because that was Sokka’s title, but— he’d always introduced himself as the Fire Lord’s companion, Ambassador Sokka, or Ambassador Sokka, companion to the Fire Lord. It was petty on Zuko’s part to take offense to it, but they’d been friends before anything, and then colleagues, and then lovers. Now he didn’t know where they stood at all. It felt like with that simple turn of phrase, Sokka was distancing himself from Zuko.

Maybe he was the only one overthinking everything, but he couldn’t say how relieved he felt when they touched down outside the Beifong Metalbending Academy.

Toph was already standing outside when Zuko dropped down from the extended ladder. “You’re not keeping that thing there are you?” she called out over the sound of the engines. “It’s ruining my view!” Zuko couldn’t help grinning. He’d missed her humor.

“I was thinking about getting you one for your next birthday!” Zuko yelled. “I know how much you love flying!”

“Ha-ha,” she said, crossing her arms. She stood at the foot of the long stairs leading up to the green-roofed building that Zuko recognized as the main building to the academy. He hadn’t been able to step away from his duties to come to see the academy since right after it had opened. He was glad to see that it was apparently going well— the earth tents that had originally housed students had been transformed into small bunkhouses, and he could see the windows along the mountainside where rooms had been carved out.

“Toph!” he heard Sokka call. He saw the man drop off the ladder and head towards Toph, arms wide. Zuko already knew it wasn’t going to go well. She shifted her feet, and just before he could reach her to envelop her in a hug, a rock rose up from the earth, tripping him. Zuko was just close enough to catch him before he fell on his face. Sokka hopped up, glaring at her. She just laughed.

“No time for hugs,” she said. “I don’t want you to embarrass me in front of my students. Come on,” she said, waving them on, “I wanna show you around the place. It’s gotten much bigger since we got that expanded funding from the Republic City Police.”

“Hard to do when you can’t even see the place,” Sokka said, snickering. Another rock shot up, but he managed to avoid it this time. Zuko snickered.

They climbed the steps up to the main building, the green-tiled roof standing out against all the earth. She pushed the doors open, showing off the new entrance. The original dojo had been transformed into an all-purpose room that seemed to serve as a trophy room for Toph herself, her metal and earthbending awards spanning the back wall, and as a gathering space for students between their lessons.

Several students were gathered in the entrance, watching one of them perform a trick with a metal marble, spinning it in his hand. The other students watched in delight, standing right in front of one of the several doorways. Toph stopped, raising her fist to signal to Zuko and Sokka her intent.

“You!” Toph said, pointing at one of the students. The man who had been spinning the marble stopped, and pointed at himself. Toph tore their bags away from them, and tossed them into the arms of the student, her aim true. “Drop their stuff in one of the guest villas. And do it fast!” she called. The man scrambled away, edging around them. “There’s a new addition for you: we have guest rooms now! You two don’t have to sleep in the same room as ten police officers.”

“Do you always abuse your power like that?” Sokka asked, his gaze following the student as he hustled out of the main building.

“Pretty much,” she shrugged. “Perks of being in charge.”

Toph gave them the abridged tour of the facilities. She showed off some of her better students, then berated the rest. A few minutes into the tour she stopped in one of the practice rooms full of uniformed police officers from Republic City. The three of them watched as the officers practiced taking each other down with metal cuffs, and clapped politely when they finished, bowing before Sifu Toph.

Though it was fairly impressive, Zuko was glad to leave the presence of the police officers— they reminded him a little too much of the Dai Li with their clay hands.

“This is impressive, Toph,” Zuko said as he followed her down towards the cafeteria. She’d located it deep underground to keep the distracting smells away from her students. “I’m sorry I haven’t been back since you opened the place, my duties are much more time consuming than I ever realized.”

She shrugged, “It’s no big deal. I am glad you both could stop by before I left this place.”

“You’re what?” Sokka said, stopping so suddenly Zuko nearly ran into him in the narrow underground hallway. He skirted back. “You’re giving this place up? We just fought for your rights to keep it!”

“Keep your voice down, Sokka!” she said. “It’s not that big of a deal, but I’m still negotiating with the Republic Police Department. They don’t know I’ve decided to accept the position.”

“Oh,” Sokka said, as they stepped out into the cafeteria. A few students were eating, and there was an elderly woman in the kitchen. He watched her through the carved earth window as she set out another dish of pan-fried noodles on the window. “That’s not so bad, I guess. You could do some good there. It can be a rough place, and there’s no one tougher than you.”

“They’ve been begging me to join them for years, but it wasn’t until I felt what terrible shape they were in as a police force that I really considered it,” she said. “Someone’s gotta whip them into shape,” she said, smashing her fist into the center of her palm, “and it might as well be me.”

“You’ve come a long way from highway robbery, haven’t you?” Zuko said, reaching over to ruffle her hair. She swatted his hand away, but she didn’t tell him off, so he figured she wasn’t that mad.

They helped themselves to the remainder of the roast duck that had been offered, and sat down at one of the tables that had clearly just been earthbent up from the ground. Toph shrugged when Sokka asked about it, “What? Not pretty enough for you?” She leaned back propping her feet up on the table.

“Speaking of which…” Zuko said. “You are coming to the celebration in three weeks, aren’t you?” He’d sent a few messenger hawks, but none of them had returned with messages. He honestly wasn’t sure if she hadn’t gotten anyone to read them to her, or if she just didn’t care enough to have anyone write a reply.

“Of course!” she said, “I love fancy parties and having to dress up!” She swooned, and then slammed her fist on the table. She leaned across the table to punch Sokka’s arm.

“Hey!” Sokka said, rubbing his arm. “You hit the wrong person!”

“I know what I did,” she said, leaning back. “I am coming, but if anyone forces me to wear shoes they are going through your roof.”

“That’s fair,” Zuko said, glancing over at Sokka.

“Something’s different about you two,” she said. Both of them froze. “There!” she said. “Like that!” She narrowed her frosted eyes, and said, “You two are acting weird. Did you two break up or something?”

“No!” they both shouted at the same time. Zuko crossed his arms, and when he glanced over, he found Sokka in the same position. He unfolded his arms.

“Sure,” Toph said, leaning back. “You know I can tell when you’re lying, right?” Zuko sighed. “Neither of you were telling the truth right there. I don’t get it. Neither of you are really lying either.”

“Toph—” Sokka said, but Toph held up her hand.

“I don’t do romance, remember?” she said. “I don’t want to get into the middle of whatever this is.” Toph stood up. “I have a few more classes this afternoon before I can keep hanging out with you two blockheads, and then we can head to the arm wrestling competition. Try not to be in the way.” She stepped over to the wall, and with a shift of her feet, the wall fell open, showing a corridor.

Zuko sighed. He pointedly didn’t look at Sokka, who pointedly didn’t look at him. They were in a sort of limbo, weren’t they?

That evening, they laid beside each other in bed as they had for the past two weeks, neither of them sleeping. The moonlight from the window flooded in, dancing on the ceiling. Zuko sometimes wondered if Sokka still thought about the moon spirit he’d fallen in love with when he was sixteen. He wondered if Sokka would still think of him like that someday.

“We can’t keep going on like this, can we?” he finally said. He was wide awake, staring at the ceiling. Sokka was doing the same, his arms folded on his chest.

“No,” Sokka said, his voice cracking.

They laid there in silence.

Eventually, Sokka spoke. “I’m sorry,” he said. “What I said in Harbor City… it was harsh.”

“No,” Zuko said, running his hand through his hair. “You were right. I hadn’t been thinking it through. I never do.” And he— he hadn’t thought through all of that other stuff Sokka had said. But he had thought the two of them through. And the math worked, except—

“Okay,” Sokka said, and it was silent again.

“What did you mean,” Zuko asked, “when you said you didn’t expect us to last so long?”

“I was, um,” Sokka said, almost uncomfortably, and Zuko hated to hear him like that, “really in love with you. For a long time.” They’d had some version of this conversation before, but it had never been this hollow. Or this deafening. “Probably even before Suki and I broke up, which is really bad, and don’t ever tell her I said that.” Zuko choked. He wasn’t sure how many more conversations he’d have with Suki about Sokka after this. “And you seemed— pretty happy with Mai, and you were really… upset when you two broke up that last time.” Zuko winced. He hadn’t been upset about Mai then. He’d been hopelessly in love with his best friend. “And it wasn’t the first time. You guys had a pretty on-and-off relationship for a few years after the war. I always kinda just thought that I was happening in the off period.”

“All that time?” Zuko choked. He rolled onto his side to see Sokka.

“No, not that part, not the whole time,” Sokka shrugged, still looking up at the ceiling though he could surely feel Zuko’s eyes on him. “I figured out pretty quick that this wasn’t one of your two-months-off, two-months-on things with her, but, well. The other stuff.” Zuko traced his outline in the moonlight. “Like I said,” he cracked a smile, but it didn’t reach his eyes, “one of us has to be pragmatic, here.”

Zuko wanted nothing more than to fix all of this, but it felt like he was trying to fix a clay pot that was crumbling in his hands. He wanted to ask again, even without the necklace. But it was pretty clear that this was Sokka saying goodbye to this part of their relationship.

“I’ll always love you, you know that, right?” Sokka said, turning his head to look over at Zuko.

Zuko wasn’t sure he could speak. What would he even say? Sokka swallowed. Zuko tried not to feel bitter and torn up inside.

“I think I might go visit Master Piandao in Shu Jing for a little while,” Sokka said in the silence. Zuko froze. “I’m not… leaving,” he winced. What did it matter, if he did? They didn’t owe each other anything anymore. “I just need to… clear my head.” He sighed. “That doesn’t really sound much better, does it? It means I’m breaking my promise to stick with you this whole time.”

“It’s fine, Sokka,” he finally said, even though it wasn’t.

“I’ll leave from here, so don’t worry about… me. I’ll be back in the capital in time for the celebration. Wouldn’t miss it.”

“Okay,” he said, and sat up.

“Where are you going?” Sokka asked, a hint of panic in his voice. He was sitting up as Zuko pulled on his boots.

“I’m going to head back to the airship,” Zuko said. “Tell Toph goodbye for me, and that I’m sorry I couldn’t stay till tomorrow to see their metalbending competition.”

“You don’t have to go,” Sokka said, his fingers curling in the sheets. Zuko stood up and didn’t look back. He knew he couldn’t stay.

The following week was one of the loneliest Zuko had experienced in his reign, even surrounded by fellow Fire Nation citizens. He’d wake up in the middle of the night to the creaking and groaning of the airship to find himself in an empty bed, reaching for someone who wasn’t there. It had never been like that with Mai, or any of the other people he briefly dated before Sokka. And that was a real kicker, wasn’t it? There was now a before-Sokka and an after-Sokka, and at least in the before-Sokka, Sokka was there.

He sleep-walked through meetings and celebrations for a week, messenger-hawking it in, even as the airship passed over the village of Yon Rha, the man who had killed Sokka’s mother. He watched the small village from the airship, thinking about the Water Tribesman. He hoped he was doing well, and that he’d made it to Shu Jing. He hadn’t received any word about it either way, and he told himself he was going to let it lie, and wouldn’t write to any of his officials in the area asking about it.

As he watched the little wooden village disappear past the mountains, he heard the screech of a messenger hawk, and saw a flash of gold ribbon, denoting it as personal communication for the Fire Lord. For a moment, his heart leaped in his chest, hoping it was from Sokka, but that hope was quickly extinguished when he took in the neat handwriting. His disappointment was only lessened by seeing the signature at the bottom of the letter.

He quickly wrote a reply, swapping the messenger hawk for a fresh, rested one, and sent the hawk back towards Kyoshi Island. When he saw the hawk disappear in the direction of the sun, he ordered the airship to reroute towards the island, and to have his officers write letters to the officials in the towns he was visiting to push back the celebrations by two days. They’d still arrive in the capital before the celebrations on the anniversary, but they wouldn’t have a whole week to prepare for it as planned— not that it mattered much, Zuko wouldn’t be the one doing any of the preparations.

They arrived at Kyoshi Island the following afternoon, hovering in the sky over the island like an ominous cloud. As the ladder was being dropped down, Zuko watched the villagers filter from their huts, small children coming to gawk at the Fire Nation ship. With them came the Kyoshi Warriors, immediately recognizable in their green armor and white face paint, standing between the village and the extended ladder.

He hoped Ty Lee had warned them he was coming, or this was going to be a very awkward encounter.

Zuko nodded at his men, “I won’t be longer than an hour, so be prepared to leave when I come back on board with my friends.”

Without waiting for them to reply, he climbed onto the ladder, and holding on to the outer bars, began to rapidly slide down it. He stopped himself on the last few rungs, and then dropped into the dirt. Before him, the band of Kyoshi Warriors stood. It was hard to tell them apart in their uniforms, but none of them were the girls he knew well. Most of the women who had acted as his protection shortly after the war had returned to their villages, or like Suki, had sought bodyguard employment elsewhere.

These women, save for their leader, were significantly younger, probably mostly consisting of the young girls he had first encountered there while searching for the Avatar. They stood in an arrowhead formation with their leader at the point. She stood with her fan folded, pointing at him. “Halt, Fire Lord.”

“Uh,” Zuko said. “I wrote that I was coming? Ty Lee sent me a letter a few days ago— did she not warn you I was coming?”

“Who is this ‘Ty Lee’?” the centered warrior said. “We have no one here by that name.”

“Uh,” he said again. Had he somehow landed in the wrong village? The warrior narrowed her eyes at him, and then her feet shifted, and she extended her fan. In an instant, the other warriors mirrored her fighting stance, and he was so not prepared for that. He curled his fists, ready to defend himself, when the leader’s fearsome look cracked, and she broke out into a giggle. The other warriors followed suit, falling all over themselves. Zuko stood stiffly, his arms still at his side, as he watched in confusion.

“You’re so fun to tease, Zuko,” the leader said, brightening. She stood up on her toes, and then tucked her fan into her belt. His eyes widened.

“Ty Lee?”

She winked at him, and before he could do anything about it, she threw her arms around him. “I’m so happy you’re here!” He sighed, but accepted the hug.

“Can you please… cool it with the pranks in the future?” he said into the hug. The other girls were straightening themselves out and heading off towards their building by Kyoshi’s shrine.

She pulled away. “I can try,” she said, but didn’t sound incredibly convincing. “I’ve got to go change before we leave, but Mai is around here somewhere. I’ll meet you on the ship!” She stepped back, and then fell backward into a backbend. When she righted herself onto her hands, she began cartwheeling away. He sighed in relief.

“You know,” he heard a voice say behind him, “when we sent the messenger hawk telling you we were coming to your stupid party, we didn’t expect a personal escort from the Fire Lord himself.”

He whirled around to see Mai leaning against one of the small huts that composed most of the village. “Mai!” he said, genuinely happy to see her.

“Zuko,” she drawled. She uncrossed her arms and pushed off the building. “You must really be bored if you wanted our company.”

“I like your company,” he said defensively.

“The company of your ex-girlfriend and your sister’s old best friend?” she said, an eyebrow raised.

“I thought you were my friends,” he said, crossing his arms. They had known him his whole life, and had been privy to everything before it all changed. In some ways, he supposed Sokka was right, there were always going to be pieces of him that belonged exclusively to Mai, but they weren’t pieces of his heart as Sokka had assumed. They were just fragments of his broken childhood, shared with the only three people who were ever there to witness it. Maybe that was why he had always wanted so badly to get along with Azula, despite everything.

“Come on,” she said. “I have to say goodbye to Oyaji, or whatever. He’s been letting me stay, which is nice of him, I guess.”

He followed her up to the main building, where an older man was standing on the porch, watching the airship with clouded eyes. He turned his gaze on them when they stepped up to the porch. Mai bowed first, and Oyaji repeated the gesture, before she embraced him in a hug. “Thank you for your hospitality,” she said rather warmly for Mai.

“Your company has been a delight,” he said good-naturedly. Mai’s company? Zuko stared. When they parted, he stepped forward.

“I wanted to apologize, again, for how I acted years ago on your island,” Zuko said with a bow. “And I would like to thank you,” he said, straightening up, “for once again allowing me the services of one of your village’s protectors.”

Oyaji sighed, resigned, but he bowed in agreement. “These things are really not up to me, but…” he looked around the village. “We did appreciate the builders and supplies after the war. I hope that Ty Lee has not scared you off from returning entirely with her little display.” Next to him, Mai snickered behind her hand.

Zuko bowed again, and turned to Mai. “Come on, where’s your stuff? I’ll carry it.”

“Gentlemanly,” she said. “Don’t you have servants for that?”

“I don’t need servants to carry a bag for me,” he said.

She waved her hand dismissively, “Ty Lee will get them. She’s probably already on board.” She nodded up towards the ladder, where a pink dot was waving to them.

The two of them climbed up after her, where they were joined by the captain. “Sir,” he said, bowing to Zuko. “We’ve charted a course towards Hira’a. We already received word concerning the adjusted schedule. They have accepted and planned accordingly.” Zuko nodded.

Before he could give the captain more instructions, Ty Lee swung down from the slanted roof of the lower compartment that led to the control room. She dropped down to the railing, perching on it like a winged lemur. “This is a nice ship, Zuko. The captain even said he’d let me steer it, if I wanted.” The captain looked a little green at that, but she smiled, oblivious. Beside him, Mai was rolling her eyes. “You two took so long I went looking around.”

“We were only gone for ten minutes,” Zuko said. How did she have the time to change, collect their things, and explore the ship in that time?

Ty Lee shrugged. “What happened to Sokka?” she asked, looking around, as if she expected him to appear out of thin air. Zuko gritted his teeth. He should have expected that Ty Lee would ask personal questions. “Mai told me that he was coming with you! Why did he have to leave early?”

“Ty Lee!” Mai said, shooting a glare in the other girl’s direction.

“What?” she said, looking between Mai and Zuko. “Is there something wrong in the capital? There isn’t another assassin out to get you, is there?” She hopped down onto the platform, and did a series of quick punches. “Is that why you needed two of the Fire Nation’s best by your side?”

“No,” Zuko said through his gritted teeth. He wasn’t about to tell her that he was lonely enough to call on his ex-girlfriend and her friend to keep him company, though. “He had to go visit his old master before returning to the capital.”

She seemed satisfied with this answer, locking her hands behind her back as she turned to the captain. “Can we go explore more of the ship, now?” The captain looked at Zuko over her shoulder, frozen in place.

Zuko waved his hand at them. “Can you please show my guests to their quarters? I’d like to get moving as soon as possible.” As soon as he’d said that, the airship creaked and groaned, rocking them on their fee. Ty Lee easily balanced herself, scooping up the black and pink bags she’d tossed by the door to the ship’s compartments at some point. Both Zuko and the captain took steadying stances, but Mai was thrown back against the railing.

Holding onto it tightly as they ascended, she glowered, “I hate airships.”

“Yes, sir,” the captain said to him. Mai looked over to Ty Lee, who nodded.

Ty Lee turned her back on them. “I’m ready to go now!”

The captain stood by the door, waiting for Mai to follow, but she shook her head. She straightened herself up, patting down her wrinkled dress. “I need some fresh air from all this flying,” she stated, though she looked perfectly fine, and had just gotten on the ship. She flicked her hand dismissively at the captain. “Ty Lee will tell me where to sleep.”

The captain bowed, and opened the door for Ty Lee. Then, it was just the two of them. Zuko turned towards the island, watching as it slowly disappeared over the horizon. He leaned against the railing, letting his hair blow around him in the wind. Mai joined him at his side, and then slipped down to sit between the bars with her legs hanging off the side.

He stood there for some time until he sighed, and sat down beside her.

After a while, she asked, “What’s got you so down? You almost seem like me.”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said, staring off over the water.

“Fine, suit yourself,” she said with a shrug.

“You seem like you’re in better spirits than me,” he found himself saying anyway. Below them, the ocean seemed like a big black pool. “You even thanked Oyaji.”

“Ty Lee does that too you,” she said lightly. When he looked over, there was something like a hint of a blush on her cheeks.

“Oh,” he said, and a few things suddenly made sense. “I didn’t realize.”

Mai shrugged. “You were never the observant type. Not about these things anyway.” Her legs dangled off the airship, while he held his right leg close to his chest.

“So—” he tried. “Ty Lee?”

She was looking off into the darkening, starlit sky. “I should have realized years ago.” She pulled one of her legs up to mirror him. Her hands were splayed out behind her to hold her in place. “When she chi-blocked Azula to save me. Nobody ever dared step out of line against your sister unless it was for love.” She wasn’t looking at him, but he knew that at the time, she’d done that for him.

He winced. He’d never thanked her for it. “About that—”

She waved a gloved hand at him. “It’s in the past. We never would have worked out, anyway. We’re too similar.” He winced again. She was right, but he hated the way she said it. It was why they’d gotten along so well as teenagers, but as adults they would have just kept bringing each other down. She needed someone like Ty Lee, just like he thought he’d needed someone like Sokka.

“Still, I feel like I need to say thank you.”

The air was quiet between them except for the whirring of the engines and the buzz of the propellers. “So what really happened with pretty boy?” Mai asked.

Zuko jerked his head up. “How do you know something happened with him?”

“Because I know you, idiot,” she said. “So, spill. I won’t ask again.”

He sighed, throwing his head back. “We broke up. I tried to propose, but he thought I was going to break up with him to go off and marry— some Fire Nation girl.” He winced, but he wasn’t about to tell her that his ex-boyfriend had secretly thought they might get back together someday.

“That’s rough,” she drawled, “but I’m not all that surprised.”

“Why?” he snapped.

She looked over at him lazily. “I dated you, remember? You were never any good at romance or telling anyone important. You broke up with me once by writing me a letter and leaving it in my bedroom. After breaking into my house.”


“Save it,” she said, holding up a hand.

“I tried to do it right this time,” he said, frustrated. “I tried to do all the normal steps, and it all just got fucked up anyway. I’m not sure what to do anymore.”

She shrugged beside him. “I can’t help you with that, I haven’t gotten that far yet.”

They sat together in the silence. It didn’t fill the gap in his soul, but it helped soften the blow a little bit, knowing that there was someone else out there that knew what he was feeling. They’d always been great at wallowing together.

“Come on,” Mai said, “let's go watch Ty Lee take down some of your Imperial Firebenders. That should cheer you up.” She was already pulling herself up on the railing when he looked up. She offered him her hand, and he took it.

He was sitting by the turtleduck pond when he saw her shadow loom over him. The turtleducks quacked happily when they saw her, as if the memories of the ducks she’d loved years ago had been passed on. Or, he supposed, she could have kept coming back to feed them over the past few years.

“I hear that you went to see Love amongst the Dragons in Hira’a,” his mother said, sitting down beside him. He tore up a piece of the grass, tossing it into the water.

“Ty Lee wanted to see it, so Mai made me come too,” Zuko said, almost petulantly. The Hira’a Acting Troupe was much better than the Ember Island Players, but he hadn’t particularly been in the mood to see a play about love overcoming everything when he felt so low. At least he’d gotten to sit around in his formal Fire Lord robes and look displeased with everything. Most people tended to leave him alone when he was dressed in them. Not his mother, apparently.

“I’m glad that you’re still friends with those girls,” she said. “I worried so much when I left that they’d grow up to be just like Azula.” She looked over the water sadly, and he knew she was thinking about his sister, wherever she was.

He hummed noncommittally.

“You always used to love coming out here as a child, it was always your favorite place,” she tried again.

“It wasn’t,” he said. “I loved it because it was your favorite place.”

“You were always such a sweet boy,” she said, reaching for his hand. He couldn’t find it in himself to deny her. “Kiyi is growing up to be just like you.”

“She shouldn’t,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m apparently going to turn out just like him.”

“Zuko!” she said harshly, and he turned to her surprised. She rarely used harsh tones with him. “Just because some things don’t go your way doesn’t mean you’re going to turn out anything like your father.” He wanted to bite back that he was already slated to end up in a loveless marriage like his father, but he knew that he would be lashing out at her loveless marriage too.

“I’ve already managed to mess everything up. Dozens of times,” he said, shaking his head. “With my rule, with Sokka— and I’m expected to walk in there and be celebrated for ten years of peace. It hasn’t felt very peaceful.”

She hummed, letting him continue.

“He’s been back two days and I haven’t seen him. He hasn’t come to visit me.” He’d asked the guards to tell him when they saw Sokka returning to his villa on the property, but that had been days ago. Sokka hadn’t spoken to him at all in that time, not even to ask for the Water Tribe tapestries that still adorned Zuko’s chambers.

“Is that why you’re sitting out here again? You’re hoping you might see him?” she asked gently.

“No— yes. Maybe.” He pulled the little tufts of grass and threw them towards the pond. The hint of wind picked up, sweeping them back towards him. “He said it wasn’t… the end,” of what? Their friendship? “but it sure feels like the end.”

“Zuko, my love,” she said gently, “sometimes things end. And you have to let them go. You can’t cage a tigerdillo that doesn’t wish to be caught.”

“You sound like Uncle,” he said, pulling up more grass.

“He was always my favorite member of the family,” she said thoughtfully. “It was such a shame he was already married when we’d met.”

“Mom!” Zuko said, his face going red.

She laughed, and it sounded far too like his own. “I’m just teasing, darling. Your uncle is a good friend and brother to me, and he is very often right about a lot of things.”

“I know,” he fell backward, laying in the grass. He looked up at the blooming tree above him as it shed petals in the wind. He knew he was probably messing up his formal robes, and certainly his hair, even after the servants had spent nearly an hour dressing him for that evening.

“It’s getting late. You don’t want to be late to your own party,” she said gently. How was it that he was nearly thirty and having his mother chide him still made him feel guilty? “Because I’ll always be your mother, Zuko.”

He stared up at the tree a little longer. Why was it that he’d spent so long out here in the gardens just for a chance to see Sokka, but when he knew he had somewhere to be where he would certainly see Sokka, he didn’t want to go? “I’m nervous,” he said.

“Why are you nervous?” she asked, standing up. She looked down at him, and it was like he was eight all over again.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe I’m afraid of seeing him again. Like it’ll really be over when I do.”

“I’m sure he’s afraid of the same things.”

He huffed, “Sokka? Not a chance.”

She smiled down at him, and offered a hand. “Come on, let's go see. And if the Water Tribe boy is mean to you, your mother will be there to protect you.”

He flushed, hissing, “Mother.”

He followed her to the banquet hall. Outside the doors, he closed his eyes, regulating his breathing to calm his nerves. His stomach was churning, but he steeled his features into the imposing Fire Lord he knew he could be sometimes. When he opened his eyes again, he nodded at the guards, who opened the doors for him.

The party quieted down when the doors were pushed open. The room was awash with red and gold, like most of the royal palace, but the guests were as colorful as the nations from whence they came. Pockets of yellows and oranges, familiar greens, and striking blues met with the Fire Nation reds. He could already see familiar faces. But not the one he was looking for.

As the room quieted, faces turned to him, waiting. The servant by the door cleared his throat, and spoke. “Please welcome Fire Lord Zuko and his mother, Lady Ursa.”

Polite clapping roused the room when he stepped fully inside. He raised his hand to quiet them. “Ten years ago, with the help of my friends,” he gestured towards some of the familiar faces, “we ended the war and the tyranny of my family. With this, we entered a period of peace and prosperity that I hope continues into the next ten years of my reign.” The clapping commenced again, and Zuko breathed out. Each one of these speeches got easier, and he supposed that someday he wouldn’t think anything of them at all. “Now, please continue to enjoy the festivities, they’ll continue into the night with fireworks.”

The party slowly regained its traction. He parted from his mother and made his rounds about the room, greeting the individual groups that had only just begun intermingling. By the time he’d greeted most of his own officials, some of his friends started to seek him out.

He was waving to Aang among the Air Acolytes when Suki slid up beside him. She was wearing her Kyoshi Warrior uniform. “How are you?” she asked, putting her hand on his arm. “I was so sorry to hear about you and Sokka.”

“How did you know?” he winced. Her eyes slid over to a group of Water Tribesmen in ceremonial outfits. Standing there, in his sleeveless blue tunic, was Sokka. He was laughing, with his hand on another man’s shoulder. Seeing him felt like a punch to the gut. He missed Sokka. He’d tried not to think too hard about it since getting back, but he hadn’t been very good at ignoring it. “Oh.”

“Oh,” Suki said, facing him, “is it not…”

“Common knowledge?” he said, and shrugged. “I don’t know. He hasn’t exactly spoken to me since.”

“Oh,” she said again, eyes flicking back to Sokka. “He just came out and told me when I got here earlier.” He closed his eyes for a brief moment. When he opened them, Suki was still staring at Sokka’s back. And as if he could tell that eyes were on him, Sokka turned around, and their eyes caught.

Zuko tore his eyes away.

“Thank you, Warrior Suki,” he said, bowing to her. “You must excuse me, I have several people I must speak with.”

“Zuko…” she said, her hand still raised and reaching for him. He turned on his heels and weaved around the crowd. He breathed a sigh of relief when he could no longer see her. He leaned up against the back wall of the room, just out of sight of most of the crowd. There was a large pillar between where he stood and where Suki had been a few minutes before. He felt bad running off, but that’s what he was good at, wasn’t it? Running off?

“Here,” he heard Toph say beside him. When he turned, she was holding out a glass of watermelon wine. “You should have some of this.”

“How do you know I haven’t had some already?” he asked, almost wearily, but he took it. It tasted too sweet, like the syrups they filled fruit pies with in the Air Nation.

“Because I know what you’re like sloshed, and this isn’t it,” she said. She was holding her own cup of the pink wine, and he had a feeling it wasn’t her first. “How do you like my new outfit?”

He honestly hadn’t noticed it. He looked down at it and found he recognized it. “It's the uniform of the Republic City Police, isn’t it?”

“I figured I might as well start dressing the part,” she said proudly. “You’re looking at their new chief of police.”

“They made you chief already? They didn’t have anyone, you know, older? Taller?”

“Ha-ha,” she said. “Sokka already beat you to that joke. He even tried it on my new lieutenant.”

“He went with you to Republic City?”

“Yeah, had to catch an airship somewhere,” she said. “But I can physically feel you mopping, you know that right? Do you have any idea how physically nauseating that is? Ugh, you’re almost as bad as Katara,” she said, reaching out to take the cup from his hand and downing it in one go.

He froze, “Did something happen to Katara?”

“No, just with the whole—” she waved her hand dismissively. “Lovesick thing. It’s gross. Cut it out,” she punched his arm, hard enough to bruise, right below the decorative armor pauldrons.

He inspected the crowd that was like a wall between them and the rest of the party. He’d retreated far against the wall for a reason, but of course Toph could find him with those feet of hers.

“He’s not here,” she said, incorrectly guessing what he was thinking about. His head jerked up. “I mean— he’s around, he’s just not within hearing distance or anything. The party’s kinda loud.”

“Sorry,” he said.

“You know, we could run away,” Toph said. “It’s easy to slip out of these parties unnoticed, there’s too many people to keep track of just one or two.”

He laughed, “Like, together?”

She shrugged. “I’m still waiting on that life-changing field trip I was promised. I’d bring you back. Probably.”

“Still thinking about declaring yourself the Melon Lord?”

She grinned, “Every day.”

“Listen,” Zuko said, “I’m sorry about Yu Dao. That was really shitty of me to run off like that when I’d just arrived. I should have stuck around longer, especially seeing how hard you worked on the academy.”

Toph shrugged. “It’s okay,” she said, unusually serious. Her clouded eyes were pointed towards the crowd though she couldn’t see them. “I’m sorry about what happened.”

“Did he talk about it?” he asked, trying not to let his voice crack. He was almost thirty— he should be able to hold himself together better than this.

“You know Sokka, never shuts up,” she said lightly, which was enough of a confirmation. But her mouth turned down, serious again. “I’m self-sufficient,” she said, “I don’t need anyone to complete me. But you guys showed me that sometimes it’s okay to rely on other people.” Zuko nodded in agreement. They’d shown him that too. He knew, despite how little she liked to talk about feelings, Toph would be willing to do almost anything for him, should he call on her. “I can’t imagine wanting to spend my life so dependent on one other person, but… I get it.”

She sighed again. She leaned against the wall behind her, letting one of her fists hit the wooden plating.

“I grew up really lonely, and so sometimes I get the appeal of having other people around. I tried relationships and they didn’t really work out for me,” she said with a shrug. “But… I liked you and Sokka. I thought you guys were really gonna make it or whatever.”

“Thank you, Toph,” Zuko said sincerely. “That means a lot, coming from you.”

She nodded, as if growing uncomfortable with the conversation. Her cheeks were a little pink, and she pushed off the wall. “Haru is here. I have to go make fun of his new mustache.”

“But you can’t even see it,” he pointed out.

“Sure, but I can feel how horrible it looks. I have to go warn Suki that she can do better.”

“I think it’s a little late for that,” he laughed gently.

“Nah,” she said, stopping in front of him. “It’s never too late.” And then she was gone. He breathed in, for a moment he’d felt centered again. Not enough, but enough to feel like rejoining society.

He made a few more rounds of the room when he saw a familiar shade of blue. It shouldn’t have made him freeze up, but it did. When she turned, though, he saw it was just Katara. She waved across the room, and before he could move, she was pushing her way through the crowd. She greeted him with a hug, never minding the imposing outfit.

“How are you holding up?” So another one of those conversations, was it? He wished everyone could just go back to enjoying the party instead of taking pity on him.

“Do I really look that pathetic?” he asked instead.

She shook her head, eyes sympathetic. “No, I didn’t mean that. You look very nice, handsome, even.”

The flickering lanterns lighting the room caught her necklace, and he reached forward to grab her arm, before she could move. “Your necklace, it’s different.” He should know, he’d spent a few weeks with it.

She reached up to touch it instinctively, blushing. “Yeah it is, isn’t it?” It was the one Aang had carved with his earthbending when he’d been carving his for Sokka. “Aang proposed?” she said sheepishly.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked, but already knew the answer. And he hated— he hated feeling as if everyone was walking on eggshells around him.

“I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it because, you know,” she waved her hand.

“No, it is a big deal, Katara, I’m really happy for you.” He pulled her forward into a hug. “Tell Aang congratulations from me, if I don’t see him before you do.” When they pulled apart, he asked, “Iceberg proposal?”

Her face split into a wide grin, but she shook her head, “Appa proposal. He went through the list with you, didn’t he?”

He was grinning back at her, his hand still on her shoulder keeping them grounded, when he made the mistake of looking over her shoulder. The easy grin fell from his face. Not twenty feet away, Sokka was standing there looking at him. His eyes were sad, and if Zuko was right, almost longing.

The loud intake of his breath was enough for Katara to whirl around, breaking his hold on her arm, but he couldn’t look away. Sokka looked almost lost, even standing there among the members of his own tribe. Chief Hakoda and Bato had both been unable to make it, but Sokka stood among warriors their age, as well as some of the northern officials Zuko was familiar with.

“I have to— go,” he said, stepping back away from Katara.

From behind him, he heard Sokka call out, “Zuko, wait—”

But the room had suddenly become too much, like the morning after the disastrous proposal. He ignored Sokka’s call, and stepped around his people, parting the crowds as only the Fire Lord could. When he reached the balcony he stepped outside through the open doors. A few people stood outside, enjoying the unusually cool summer air, but one look from him had them scurrying inside.

He leaned against the balcony, feeling a headache coming over him. The sound of the party was muffled, but still loud enough to bother him. There was a creak of someone stepping out onto the wooden platform.

“Zuko,” he heard a soft voice say behind him. “I need to talk to you.”

“What more is there to say?” he said tiredly. When he stood up, straightening himself against the balcony, he turned to look at Sokka. He was wincing.

“I deserve that,” he said, and joined Zuko at the railing. He looked up at the sky. “I came to the parade today.”

“Oh,” Zuko said lamely. “I didn’t see you.”

“It looked nice,” Sokka said. “I liked the firebending.”

“Yeah, it was very well done,” Zuko said, wincing. He hated this— awkward small talk between them. It had never been like this, not even during the war. Sokka had always just jumped into every conversation like he belonged there. This was… weird. Unfamiliar. “How was Shu Jing?” he asked.

“Piandao is well, he says hello,” Sokka said, waving it off. “But I actually only had time to stop in for a day on the way back. I ended up heading to the Northern Air Temple to visit the Mechanist for most of two weeks. We’ve been trading letters for months, since my previous visit to the Southern Water Tribe, on how we can bring my tribe up to par with our sister tribe,” he said, talking animatedly. Zuko always liked to watch him talk about this sort of thing, even if he wasn’t privy to all the details. “The work is going to need a lot of supervision,” Sokka chuckled to himself, and Zuko froze.

Was this what Sokka had wanted to tell him? Had he already been in talks about his next position well before Zuko had even gotten around to the proposal? He knew it was incredibly selfish of him, but he wasn’t ready to lose Sokka, not yet. “Don’t leave,” he said, almost desperately. “I know your talents are needed elsewhere— Republic City with Toph, in the Southern Water Tribe, but— don’t leave. Not yet.”

Sokka was staring at him, surprised. “What?”

Zuko couldn’t help himself, his nervous energy was spilling out of him faster than he could stop it, “You just— I know you’re an incredibly talented inventor and your mind is probably being wasted here serving as an ambassador between your tribe and the Fire Nation, especially since we’ve gotten past needing to tiptoe around each other—”

“Hey!” Sokka protested. “We worked really hard to get our nations to a place where they no longer had to tiptoe around each other.”

“—but spirits, don’t leave.”

Sokka stopped him with a hand over his own. “Zuko, what are you talking about?”

Zuko closed his eyes, cursing himself. “This is the part where you tell me you’re leaving, isn’t it?” He opened his eyes, his gaze falling on Sokka beside him. “I saw you talking to the other Water Tribesmen, and I know you can’t do everything you want to do from my court, and I know that things are…” he swallowed, “a little stilted between us now, but—”

“Wait,” Sokka said, “you think I came to tell you I was leaving the Fire Nation?”

“Yes?” Zuko said, still not entirely certain he was incorrect.

“Boy, you are so stupid,” Sokka groaned, dropping his head into his hands. “I’m in love with an idiot.”

Zuko froze. Of course Sokka was still in love with him, he was still in love with Sokka, three weeks hadn’t changed any of that. It hadn’t changed anything. But, he realized, he had drifted closer to Sokka than he’d intended in his outburst. They were just a few inches apart.

Sokka looked up, dropping his hands to the balcony between them, and a simple brush of his hands shouldn’t have been that distracting. “I’m not leaving, Zuko, I just… needed to sort stuff out. I do have to go back to the Southern Water Tribe in a few weeks with some of the other men, but that’s just to find someone to take over the project from the Mechanist.” He sighed, “Construction in the South Pole isn’t easy, I have to find waterbenders willing to work with the builders so that if they accidentally cause any structural damage to the ice it can be fixed before it reaches the city. And the Mechanist is sending one of his assistants, and…” he looked over at Zuko, and then smiled sheepishly. “I’m getting away from myself, aren’t I?”

“No,” Zuko said, though he knew Sokka was. He’d missed listening to him talk about his passion projects. It had been like this for months with Republic City before he’d had to hand the project off to someone else. “So you aren’t leaving?”

“No,” Sokka said, “it would take a lot more than a few construction projects to tempt me away from you.” Oh.

He was smiling, and it was— Zuko had missed it. He felt his lips part, and Sokka’s eyes flicked down. Sokka slipped his hand away from Zuko’s, and he looked down, unaware Sokka had still been brushing up against him. He suddenly felt its loss. Sokka looked down at their hands as well, and while Zuko watched, threaded their fingers back together. Zuko stood frozen as Sokka moved closer, closing the gap between them till the sides of their arms brushed.

His heart beat quickly in his chest, and he could feel the roaring heat of Sokka’s body against him, even through the layers. Sokka was looking at him. He turned his body towards Zuko, reaching his hand up to brush the left side of his face, just under the scar. Zuko’s eyes fluttered closed, and then he felt warm lips press on his.

He leaned into the kiss for a moment before coming to his senses. He jerked back, separating them. “Sokka,” he said, his voice rough. “You can’t do that anymore!” He stepped back further, running a hand through his hair, surely messing it up farther. “Not when I am just coming to terms with the fact we aren’t together anymore.” He hated how heartbroken he sounded.

“Sorry,” Sokka said, looking down at his hands on the balcony. “That’s the last time, I promise.” Zuko hated that it stung.

He leaned on the balcony a safe distance away from Sokka and looked up at the stars.

“I heard you arrived with Mai and Ty Lee,” Sokka said.

“We’re not together,” he said abruptly. He felt stupid saying it. Even stupider that he had to finish the thought. “Mai and I— she and Ty Lee are together now.”

Sokka just hummed and looked down at the garden. “Yeah, I— saw them together at the party.”

“Is this what you wanted to talk about?” Zuko asked him, suddenly tired. He rubbed at his eyes. When he opened them, Sokka still wasn’t looking at him.

“No,” Sokka laughed, and it was humorless. He spoke, “You really did want to marry me, didn’t you?”

This time, it was Zuko who laughed, equally humorless. “What the fuck, Sokka? Haven’t we gone over this enough?” He pushed off the balcony, intent to go back inside and enjoy the party.

Sokka grabbed his arm. “Wait, please, Zuko. This is the last time. I promise. Just hear me out.”

“Fine,” he said. He leaned his back against the balcony, almost as if he was saying he had one foot out the door. “I did. Want to marry you,” he said, not elaborating.

“Why did you think it was a good idea?” Sokka asked, and he was back to looking down at the garden.

“Why does anyone think it’s a good idea to marry someone?” he said. “They love them and want to spend the rest of their life with them by their side.”

“Yeah,” Sokka said, “That’s a fair reason, but I— I always, always think things through,” Sokka said, sounding a little sad. “Always. Too much.”

When Zuko looked over at him, there was a distant look in his eye. He was so incredibly handsome Zuko couldn’t tear his eyes away. “I know,” Zuko croaked.

“I always think things through, and they never go the way I want them to,” he had balled his fists up. “And you, you never think anything through.” The way he said it didn’t sound angry. Maybe fond, or a little sad.

“I know,” he repeated.

“And so I,” Sokka sighed, looking over at him. “So I have to do the thinking for both of us sometimes. Which is really— really hard, Zuko, because I’m not—” he dropped his head into his hands. “I came from a village of fifty people and you rule millions—”

“That’s exactly what I need in a partner,” he swallowed, forcing himself to look away from Sokka. Even though he wasn’t looking at the man head-on, he could see that he’d raised his head from his hands. “You’re an incredible leader, and public speaker, and— spirits— person, Sokka!” His own hands itched, but for once, not to burn. He knew if he didn’t control them, they would reach for Sokka. “You have all the people skills that I could never have, never even imagine having, because you grew up knowing every single face that you had to protect, and—”

“But I’m not— I’m not even remotely what a Fire Lord’s consort is supposed to be! I’m not even from the Fire Nation!” There was a passion burning in Sokka’s eyes as he spoke. “I’m not all prim and proper! I mean, look at what I’m wearing!” he gestured down at himself.

Zuko stopped, confused. “But I like what you’re wearing.” It looked like what he wore every day, with just a few extra patches of fur he wouldn’t normally wear on account of the heat.

“Exactly!” Sokka said. “Because it’s what I wear every day. I’ve seen what your mother wears, what you have to wear to look the part, and I’m not that guy! I’m the meat and sarcasm guy!”

“Well maybe that’s what the Fire Nation needs!” Zuko said. And then more quietly, “That’s what I need.”

“Just... stop trying to— talk me into marrying you, for like five minutes,” Sokka said, his head falling back into his hands.

Zuko jerked back. “I— didn’t realize that’s what I was doing.”

Sokka sighed, talking up through his hands. “If I married you I’d have to give up my chance of ever being chief of the Southern Water Tribe.” Zuko was quiet. That had been Sokka’s dream for as long as he’d known him. “I talked it over with my father and the council of elders in my tribe, and they said I could stay on as the ambassador between our two nations.”

Zuko balled his fists. Sokka didn’t need to— say all that just to say that nothing was going to change, because it had, all of it. “I get it, I get it!”

“No, you don’t!” Sokka said, grabbing both of his wrists and forcing him to look at him. “I’m sorry I acted this way. I’m sorry I wasn’t more considerate of your feelings as— as an individual person and my boyfriend, rather than the head of state.” Sokka’s blue eyes were burning. “I love you, okay? I love you even if you’ve changed your mind because of all of this.”

“I don’t— Sokka, I don’t understand.”

Sokka released his arms, his wrists feeling like they had been burned, and Sokka was reaching for something in his pocket. His fingers curled around something, and then he was prying open Zuko’s hand to place it in his palm.

When he looked down, he stopped breathing. He looked between Sokka and the necklace in his palm. “You kept it,” he breathed. “How? I threw it into the ice,” he said, looking back down at the betrothal necklace that he’d carved for Sokka weeks back.

“I went back for it later. When I cooled off,” he admitted, rubbing the back of his head. “Spent most of the night looking for it, and then I didn’t know if I was welcome back.”

Zuko croaked, “You were.” He had to refrain from saying, you are. “But I don’t— I don’t want it back, Sokka.” For a moment, Sokka looked devastated. “It was a gift. I don’t care what you do with it. Throw it away. Give it to your children like your mother gave it to Katara.”

“That’s not what I wanted to give it back to you for,” Sokka said, taking a deep breath, like he was preparing for something. “I know it’s crazy presumptuous of me to think that just because you let me kiss you once, that you might still want me at all after my massive fuckup, and I—” he shook his head at Zuko’s open mouth. “Don’t interrupt— but I was hoping that you might… hold onto it for now. And we could maybe try it again some other time. When you trust me again.”

“Try it again?” Zuko asked, not quite understanding— or believing— Sokka’s speech.

“Um,” Sokka said. “I was hoping that… you might be willing to take me back. And if— at some point in the future— you might decide that I’m still all of those things you wanted in a partner, we could try the proposal part again.”

Zuko looked down at the necklace in his hand. He swallowed, and then wet his lips. “Okay.”

Sokka let out a relieved sigh, sinking back against the balcony in a boneless slouch. “Okay,” he said, closing his eyes.

Zuko leaned forward, capturing Sokka’s mouth with his own. It was all that he’d wanted to do since Sokka had kissed him— all he’d wanted to do since the South Pole. He cupped Sokka’s cheek with one hand, and wound the other around the back of Sokka’s neck as Sokka leaned into the kiss. Zuko’s finger found the latch on Sokka’s bone-and-tooth choker, and in a quick motion, he unlatched it. It fell quickly, Sokka’s eyes flying open as he reached for it. “Hey, what are you doing?” he asked, catching the choker in his hands.

He looked into Zuko’s eyes, his own wide, as Zuko wound the betrothal necklace in his hands around Sokka’s neck. “Trying again,” he said as he tied the knot on the betrothal necklace.

Sokka swallowed, reaching up to touch it.

“So,” Zuko said, looking into his eyes, “Sokka of the Water Tribe, do you consent to marry me and becoming the royal consort of the Fire Nation?”

Sokka lunged forward and kissed him, throwing his arms around Zuko’s neck. He heard the beginnings of fireworks in the background, or maybe that was just in his head.

They married the following month.

The three-day traditional ceremony commenced with fireworks and firecrackers, and ended with a feast of the four nations. They were joined by their allies, their friends, their families— and half of the Fire Nation that came to watch the celebrations through the gates of the royal palace.

They wore panda-lilies pinned to their traditional wedding clothes, each from their own nations to symbolize the joining of more than just two families, but two nations. Before the ceremony, in a private moment, Sokka presented Zuko a betrothal necklace of his own, one tied with a red ribbon.

And for once, neither of them worried about anything.