“You know, you’re a surprisingly hard dude to track down, uh – being the Fire Lord and all.”
Zuko isn’t used to hearing that title here. He looks up from the teapot in his hands, and tightens his grip as not to drop it.
“Oh,” Iroh smiles, slowly moving his Pai Sho tile. “Now this is unexpected. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
“Sokka,” Zuko exhales, almost in disbelief.
Sokka grins at him and plants his hands on his hips, taking a glance around the tea shop.
“So this is where you’ve been hiding. Playing hooky as a waiter seems like kind of a downgrade from Fire Lord.”
Zuko rounds the counter and almost laughs, pressing a finger to his lips and gesturing to the questioning patrons.
“What, not even a hug?!”
Zuko grabs him and squeezes. Sokka hugs back harder, enough that Zuko feels it in his ribs.
“Man. It’s been forever.”
“No shit, your hair is so long!”
Zuko steps back, and looks at Sokka’s long wolftail. It’s almost to his shoulders now, and he’s grown taller, just about eye level with Zuko.
“So is yours. What are you doing in Ba Sing Se?”
Sokka pokes him hard in the sternum, “Looking for you! Kinda’ backwards, isn’t it? Almost brings back memories.”
“Me?” Zuko blinks.
“Uh, yeah,” Sokka says like he’s stupid, and Zuko is almost distracted by how deep his voice has dropped. “Mister Sifu hotman, have you forgotten about a very important job you’re supposed to be doing?”
Zuko rubs his neck sheepishly, and steps back towards the counter to do something with his hands.
“My advisers know where I am.”
“Well, it would’ve been nice to have a heads up before I took a flight all the way to the fire nation capital,” Sokka huffs.
Zuko heats a cup of tea and offers an apologetic look, “Uh yeah. Sorry about that, didn’t know you were coming to visit. What has it been, two years?”
“Two and a half,” Sokka corrects.
What does that make him? Twenty-one? Shit. That means Zuko turns twenty-three this year. Double shit.
Zuko sets the cup of tea at a customer’s elbow, and lowers his voice. “Is Aang with you?”
“Nah, he and Katara are still busy with their first kid.”
“That’s right,” Iroh interjects, tapping his chin. “Last I heard Katara was pregnant.” Iroh looks to Zuko, “Your move, nephew.”
“I got letters,” Zuko agrees, moving a random Pai Sho tile to satisfy his uncle. “But Aang hasn’t brought the child by yet.”
“He probably won’t for a while,” Sokka laughs. “He’s been freaking out over every little thing. It’s driving my sister up a wall.”
Zuko snorts, “Does Bumi look like him?”
“Not at all. That kid’s got a head of hair like a hogmonkey on a bad day.”
Zuko pauses to think about it, and then hums, “Well. That’s a picture.” He looks to Sokka, who is leaning over one of the chairs to study the Pai Sho board. “But I’m assuming you didn’t come all the way here to talk to me about Aang’s baby.”
Iroh moves a tile, and Sokka analyzes the board before making a move for Zuko. Iroh hums a surprised sound, and Sokka stands up straight, smiling.
“Yeah, but we can talk about that later.” He pushes up his arm bands, “Need help with the dishes?”
Zuko rolls his eyes, and sweeps his uncle’s empty cup into the washbin.
“You don’t have to.”
“And obviously – neither do you Lord Zuko.”
The patrons perk up like a flock of nosy lizard crows, and Zuko elbows him right in the ribs. Sokka sputters and laughs, but grabs a sponge and gets to scrubbing.
Sokka graciously helps them finish out the night’s service, which is hardly an accomplishment. Like usual, it takes time to wave out the last few old bats clutching to their tea, and Zuko has to usher uncle back towards his home before it gets ridiculously late.
“Dang,” Sokka curses, wiping his hands on his pants. “How do you keep the lemons from burning the shit out of your hands?”
Zuko can see old weapon callouses and open cuts that mirror his own.
“You don’t,” Zuko replies. He locks the door to the Jasmine Dragon and pockets the spare key. “Take a walk with me?”
“Oh my, a romantic stroll through Ba Sing Se with the king of the fire nation?” Sokka presses a hand to his chest and hops down the front steps. “I’m going to swoon.”
“Romantic isn’t really the word I’d use,” Zuko says, stepping in line with him. “Watch your pockets.”
Sokka straightens a little, and Zuko starts down the path that leads to the center circle. Sokka follows behind him, looking up to the lanterns that burn past the road. He isn’t wearing his typical water-tribe fur, likely because Ba Sing Se is quickly approaching spring, and the rock gets hot out here. Instead he’s wearing neutrals; browns, and creams, as if he’s trying to hide his heritage. If that’s the truth, then he’s doing a piss poor job at it, because the beads and the braids and the water-tribe choker are a dead giveaway.
“Why are you here?” Zuko asks.
“What? I can’t just hunt you down across the planet for good times sakes?”
“You love sending a hawk so much, I figured I’d never see your ass around here again.”
“Hawkie is a very good and loyal operative of the Southern Water Tribe,” Sokka lifts a finger. “But some things are best done in person.”
“Creative name,” Zuko says flatly.
“Hey! Don’t slander Hawkie’s good reputation like that.”
“Seriously,” Zuko cuts past the teasing. “Is everything okay?”
“Oh, yeah!” Sokka reaches into his shirt and pulls out a scroll. “Delivery for the grouch.” Zuko takes it and lights a small flame on his fingers to read as they stroll.
“Surprise!” Sokka wiggles his fingers. “Your water tribe ambassador is having a baby.”
“Oh,” Zuko blinks. Nuvua is pregnant? Zuko had no idea.
“Crazy, I know. Damn kids are popping up left and right around here since the peace started. The dad is a fire nation peon, kinda’ scandalous, right?” Sokka kicks at a rock and watches it skip down the road. “Anyways, she’s traveling back home for six months of maternity leave.”
“I see.” Zuko closes the scroll. “Is the Water Tribe sending a replacement?”
“Uh yeah,” Sokka gestures to himself dramatically. “You’re looking at him.”
“Oh,” Zuko says, and then startles in shock. “Wait what??”
“My room better be the peak of fire nation luxury, or I’m going to make your life a living hell,” Sokka continues. “Oh! Oh! I am so excited to get some of those popping candies. There are like, no traders that come down to the poles.”
“Hold on,” Zuko stops walking, and tries to process everything at once. He grabs Sokka by the shoulder to pull him back. “Sokka, you’re supposed to be the next chief of your tribe. You can’t live in the fire nation.”
Sokka looks at him strangely and says, “Hey, that title is my dad’s for at least another five years, ten if we have it my way.”
Zuko gives him an equally skeptical look, “Becoming chief is all you ever talk about. I thought…”
“Yeah, me too,” Sokka nods, and keeps walking. Zuko falls in step with him again. “But I realized that it just wasn’t right for me yet. My dad is an amazing chief – and the water tribe doesn’t need me right now.” Sokka looks at him, and it’s like he’s being seen right through. “You do.”
Shit. Zuko sighs, and rubs along the back of his neck. His hair is silky around his shoulders and down to his back, and Zuko sweeps back his bangs as they fall in his face.
“So you’ve heard.”
“That you’re stressed out of your hot and spicy brains?” Sokka huffs, and Zuko is surprised to find him angry. “Yeah, I’ve heard. It sounds like some people aren’t doing their fucking jobs.”
Zuko folds his hands into his haori, and sits on the lip of the center fountain. It’s so late, that even the homeless have left to find refuge and sleep. The torches are burning tonight, and the yellow light clashes with the blue half-moon. Sokka sits next to him, and Zuko sighs.
“I’m not running away.”
“I know,” Sokka nods. “So why are you here?”
Zuko stares at the fountain pool. Common koi fish swim in circles, and it reminds him of more fire nation sins. Sokka doesn’t complain when Zuko takes a while to answer.
“Sometimes,” he starts, scratchy and low. “When I’m wearing that stupid robe…” Zuko swallows. “I look in the mirror and see my father.”
Sokka’s tight features soften, and he reaches over for Zuko’s elbow.
Zuko keeps to himself, and dips his fingers into the fountain, watching the koi scatter. “My biggest fear is losing my connection to the people. I get stuck in that palace for months at a time, constantly arguing for a better world, with people who want to live the way they always have.” Zuko sizzles the water off his hand, and Sokka watches intently. “When it feels like I’m losing myself, I come back here. To remember what I’m fighting for. To feel human again.”
Sokka clenches his fingers and turns away, bending over to balance his elbows on his knees.
“Spirits, you shouldn’t fucking have to,” Sokka snaps. Zuko looks to him in surprise, but Sokka just grits his teeth and continues, “Some stuff is going to change over there, whether your council likes it or not – those crotchety old lizards can spit on me all they want.”
Zuko breathes a laugh out of his nose, and tries for a joking tone, even if it sounds flat anyways.
“You know, I haven’t approved your transfer yet.”
Sokka perks, “Oh? Are you seriously going to reject the son of the chief? You really are starved for drama.”
“I could say no,” Zuko teases. “Could request someone without such a big mouth.”
“That’s boring. I’m going to kick my boot in there and tell ‘em what’s what.” Sokka surprises him by placing a hand on his knee, and Zuko is even more startled at how at ease it makes him. “Zuko. I’m sorry team Avatar has been AWOL, but I’m not going to let you keep fighting this by yourself anymore.”
Zuko carefully plucks his hand off his lap.
“That’s technically not in your job description.”
“Yeah, but if you look under my best friend credentials, you’ll see it’s all written in ink,” Sokka offers up his palm like a scroll. “See? Right in the fine print.”
“You’re ridiculous,” Zuko says.
“We leave at dawn?” Sokka offers.
For once, Zuko doesn’t feel sick about returning home.
“We’ll take my ride,” Zuko stands. “It’s quicker than any air balloon.”
“Uhhhhhhh,” Sokka drawls, looking up in the air. “Was anyone going to tell me about the dragon??”
“I told Aang,” Zuko placates.
“Aang is now on my shit list,” Sokka says. Druk lowers his head and breathes out a cloud of steam, and Sokka squeals and jerks backwards. “H-Hey! Don’t eat me! I’m not delicious at all.”
Zuko pets his hand along Druk’s neck, and the scales feel thick and leathery under his hand. Druk leans into him, and the muscle is strong, like metal. Druk has a calmer temperance for a dragon, and the way he’s looking at Sokka is kind of hilarious. If a dragon could fuck with someone, he’s definitely doing it now, slithering into Sokka’s face just to watch him scramble in fear.
“He won’t eat you.” Zuko hesitates. “As long as he’s well fed.” Another huff of steam, thick and ashy. Sokka hides behind his arm, and Druk begins to snarl as Sokka hovers over his sword hilt. “Uh, don’t do that,” Zuko adds, climbing on his back. “He hates weapons.”
“Good to know,” Sokka swallows. “Hey, where are you going?!”
“Are you for real?”
“Do I look like I’m joking?”
Zuko has led them outside the wall, hopefully far away from any onlookers. It’s not that Zuko actively hides Druk, he’d just prefer not to start a panic. Sokka carefully climbs onto Druk’s back, and settles in the back of the saddle.
“If I die, you have to break the news to my sister.”
“Don’t be dramatic,” Zuko says, and then Sokka screeches as Druk takes off into the air. Zuko rolls his eyes and catches Sokka by the waist before he flies off the saddle. “Seriously? You used to live on that sky bison’s back.”
“He was soft!” Sokka argues, getting his balance again. “And there was a bigass basket on his back, and he never flew this fast – fuck!”
The wind whips past them, and Druk flies in a slithery circle, up and down with the wind. It does take a little getting used to, and Zuko almost laughs when he sees Sokka’s death grip on the saddle.
“I’m going to tell Katara that you were a huge wimp about this,” Zuko says.
“This is ridiculous,” Sokka huffs, red in the face. “I thought there were only like, two dragons left. Where’d you get one? Some sun warrior black market?”
Zuko turns to straddle Druk backwards, and watches Sokka have a small crisis about it. He settles his hands between them for balance and says, “I was working on conservation efforts at the time. It took a couple months to fully outlaw the hunting of certain endangered species and whatnot. It was…you know how some people feel about change.”
“Druk found me in a time I needed him,” Zuko says. Sokka seems to forget about his terror for a moment, because interest suddenly crosses his face.
“No shit? Wow, Zuko the dragon tamer. Who woulda’ thought?”
“Not me,” Zuko agrees, and turns back around in the saddle. “The old masters only tolerate those they find worthy. If you don’t pass judgement, then you’re lunch.”
Sokka sputters, “It sure is nice of you to tell me that now!!!”
“I knew he’d like you.”
Sokka makes a series of sputtering sounds, but becomes quickly distracted by the sea of clouds Druk passes into. Zuko keeps sneaking looks, just to watch his face.
Why are you really here? Zuko thinks.
Sokka points to a cloud and laughs.
“That one looks like a butt.”
“Hey uncle,” Zuko whispered, kneeled at Iroh’s bedside. “I’m returning to the fire nation.”
Iroh has lost some of the muscle he once had, but his eyes still hold a strong keenness in these seven years later. He rolled on his bed and sat up to cup the side of Zuko’s face.
“I knew you’d return when the time was right.”
“I’ll miss you.”
Iroh took one look at him, and read his soul like usual.
“Follow your heart,” Iroh said. “It will never lead you astray.”
“What if I can’t trust my own heart?”
“When the time comes, you’ll know what to do.”
Zuko scowled, because it’s the exact answer he expected, and never the one he wants, but he still accepted Iroh’s hug anyways.
Sokka settles into his quarters easily. It seems he’s had more than enough time to wrap his head around the whole ambassador thing, but Zuko is still trying to keep up.
The Fire Lord is bombarded with work the moment he steps back in the palace. The people are unaware that he ever left, and he knows it’s taxing on his court to keep up appearances, but Zuko needed to get away. He was making decisions he wasn’t proud of. He was becoming cold.
Zuko is unable to meet with Sokka for a week and a half. He sends a guard for a wellness check, but that’s the best he can do. Zuko is on the throne for two days straight, and it makes him so edgy and exhausted, that he can’t even sleep when he tries. He hears out the issues that arose while he was gone, attempts to get caught back up on his paperwork, but falls more and more behind.
He doesn’t even open the curtains – there is no time to bathe, and his eyes are red with exhaustion, and the candle at his elbow keeps flickering in the most infuriating way, and Zuko snuffs it out angrily.
New technology patents are being made, and requests have been filed to pave new roads in the fire nation. Aang is still working on the treaties of Republic City even while in maternity leave, and Zuko has about a dozen missed letters from him. All his old legislature still needs to be reviewed and presented to the council and permits for the sun festival need to be completed by the end of the week and this room is too stuffy, too hot – he can’t breathe –
Zuko is too enraptured in his scrolls to register the noise at the door. When it persists, he starts to listen in.
“—old you, this is the Fire Lord’s royal study. You cannot enter without a permit.”
“Dude, I don’t give a shit about your permits. That’s my friend in there.”
“Then please make an appointment with his secretary.”
“His ‘secretary’ is a bunch of bullshit! He’s booked out for the next YEAR.”
“Then you will have to return in –”
Zuko alerts to a heavy grunt, and the sound of metal hitting the floor. The door handle jiggles, and Zuko turns as Sokka sheepishly steps into the study and closes the door behind him.
“Did you just knock out my guards?” Zuko asks, humored.
“Uhhh, they’ll come to in like, an hour,” Sokka rubs his head. His sheepish expression quickly changes into fury. “But you. You mister, we need to have a talk.”
Zuko dully presses a finger to his chest, “Me?”
“Yeah, you dumbass.” Sokka counts off his pinky. “First of all, I haven’t seen you in two weeks. Second, you look like shit.”
“Third, you’ve got some serious organizational issues, because you should NOT have a year long waiting list to meet with your own ambassadors.”
Zuko sighs, rubbing his eyes.
“I know, okay? There’s just so many people I have to meet with right now –”
“What are you working on?” Sokka points.
“Um. New curriculum for the schools. I tried to pass this a year ago but the pushback is insane. There is no way I’m going to let my dad’s old propaganda stay in our schools. We’re poisoning our own children with bigotry, and it makes me sick.”
Sokka’s anger shifts into something else. He looks around at the piles and piles of parchment and scrolls and heavy books, and he crosses his arms in disbelief. “Wow, Tui and La help you. Look at this damn place. You’re going to bury yourself alive.”
Zuko grits his teeth and drags his nails through his hair, squeezing his eyes shut and barking, “You don’t think I know that!”
Sokka’s eyes widen, and he slowly approaches Zuko at his chair. He kneads a hand into his shoulder; a strong, certain grip.
“Hey. It doesn’t have to be like this. What you need is some help.”
Zuko exhales. He can feel embers in his mouth, so he breathes them out before they catch fire.
“Do you honestly expect me to trust anyone to read these propositions before they reach me? I want to trust my own people, I really do – but there are too many snakes in my council, even after I replaced most of my father’s old loyalists.”
Sokka hums in thought. Once again he kneads into the knots of Zuko’s shoulders, and Zuko hasn’t been touched by someone since – well, Mai, probably – and it’s embarrassing that he’s allowing this, but Sokka’s presence is friendly, and Zuko permits his eyes to close as Sokka digs into a sore spot. Agni, that feels so good.
“I’m going to think on this,” Sokka says.
“You don’t have to.”
“No way dude. You’re going to kill yourself like this – then where will we be?”
“Come on, grouchy.” Sokka hauls him up from under his elbows, and Zuko goes stiff like a ferret cat. “You need to go to bed.”
“Oh spirits, you stink.”
“That is so rude.”
“It’s the truth!” Sokka is able to coddle him out the door, and there Zuko sees his two guards crumpled on the floor. “Alright, baths first. Uhh, this way! You know I had to learn this place all by myself? I got lost three times, Zuko.”
“Sorry about that.”
“You’ll make it up to me,” Sokka says. “By using soap, goddamn.”
“When I wake back up I’m going to kick your ass,” Zuko mumbles sleepily. As badly as he probably smells, Sokka actually smells good. Zuko can walk fine, but Sokka is insistent about keeping an arm around his shoulders, and he smells like lavender soap and washed cotton and pen ink.
Zuko wakes up an entire day later. He is absolutely stunned that anyone let him sleep this long. His assistant Lien approaches him with breakfast, and informs him that it is the thirteenth day of spring.
“Shit,” Zuko curses, and the covers his mouth briefly, sitting up in bed. “I mean – shoot, sorry. I have to complete the sun festival paperwork by tomorrow.”
“Actually, you don’t,” Sokka says, strolling right into his bedroom like he’s been here a thousand times. “Hey Lien! Good morning.”
“Hello, Ambassador Sokka,” she bows.
“See, I’m learning names!” Sokka beams proudly. “Thanks miss, I’ll take it from here.”
Lien nods, “I have left your itinerary with Ambassador Sokka as per your request.”
Zuko lifts his eyebrow, but allows her to exit before giving Sokka a look.
“Per my request?”
“It’s easier this way,” Sokka flops his hand around and sits on the corner of his bed. Zuko is aware that he is very shirtless right now, but Sokka doesn’t seem to care. “So, Lien told me all about your little sun festival. Well – big from what it sounds like – but anyways, it’s complete bullshit that they have you doing all the work – ”
“I requested it,” Zuko interrupts, taking his tea from the tray. “Remember?”
“Then you’re also an idiot,” Sokka says easily, and Zuko blinks through the insult. “Anyways, I did some snooping around last night and uh – might’ve come up with a plan in your place. What you need are some legitimate legal secretaries to read through and write your summaries. But like you said, you can’t trust everyone, right?” Sokka talks with his hands, “So what about a checks and balances system? Get a manager you trust to oversee your departments, and then all you have to do is see the final product and give it the yay or nay. We just have to find a selected few that you do trust.”
“That’s my problem, Sokka,” Zuko sips. “As much as I want to believe in my people, I just can’t trust them to not pull the rug out from under me.” Zuko snarls to himself, “Nothing is worse than an ignorant leader.”
“That’s why we’re going to pick some civilians you do trust.” Sokka waves around a scroll. “I’ve got some candidates, and a few names of good people already in your court. Did you know Wenyan went to a legal school in the earth kingdom? Well-traveled, levelheaded; he wants peace just as you do.” Sokka reads, “Hui was born a carpenter. She became the fire nation’s first female judge by dressing as a man for six years. Uhhh, you should fire Tama though. He’s definitely racist as hell.”
“Agreed, but Tama is the only man on my court that has the colony jurisdiction license,” Zuko pinches his nose. He then looks up and stares. “Wait, how do you know all this?”
Sokka rolls his eyes, and stands to begin hunting through Zuko’s closet.
“I’ve had nothing to do for the last two weeks while you were reading yourself blind. You can get places by like, actually talking to people you know.”
“Like I have time for that,” Zuko mutters beneath his breath.
“I know, that’s why we’re going to have some interviews today,” Sokka says, tossing him his robes. “And then you’re going to hire some little ducklings, and I’m going to play warden until you hire someone better for the job.”
It’s a handful to process, but unfortunately, Sokka is making sense. Zuko continues to stare long enough that Sokka gives him a what??? look.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say the water tribe was trying to take over my country from the inside.”
“Oh please,” Sokka rolls his eyes. “Like I’d want this crapshoot. Your interior design is like, so two hundred years ago.”
Zuko pulls his arm into a clean sleeve, and ties the sash around his waist. His hair spools over his shoulder, and Sokka watches him intensely as he ties it up in a knot. A pause swells in the room’s atmosphere; Zuko takes in Sokka’s fire-nation attire, with his water-tribe accessories. His skin looks especially tan in those robes.
“Sokka,” Zuko calls. “You really don’t have to do any of this.”
Sokka’s eyes are sharp and ocean like. He looks Zuko over without a hint of humor, and turns towards the window nonchalantly.
“Don’t think I’m being completely charitable. The world relies on the fire nation’s reform. If our supposed ‘peace’ gets corrupted along the way, then it was all for nothing.”
Zuko knows this. It plays in circles around his brain, like a mandolin with a broken string, off key and sharp in his ears.
He looks in the mirror as he sets in his fire lord hairpin, and for a moment, it’s his father’s face staring back at him, and Zuko has to do his best not to flinch.
“Right,” Zuko says. Sokka watches him – but says nothing. He grabs the scroll off the bed and points with it like a sword.
“Onward, to victory!”
In the end, the only paperwork that requires Zuko’s signature is a single stack of permits for the sun festival. It’s been written and refined to key points, and Zuko is able to read through the checklist before agreeing to hire on the usual performers and street vendors.
“I checked it all over,” Sokka assures, sitting up on his desk like he belongs there. “Pretty solid, if I say so. It actually sounds fun as shit – maybe we could get the rest of the gang to come.”
“I haven’t attended in a couple years,” Zuko admits. “I just make an appearance to start off the festivities.”
Sokka frowns, thumbing through a stack on his desk. “That’s not right, man.”
Zuko shrugs, and continues to play with the fire in his fingers as he reads. It’s silent for a bit longer, before Lien is at his door.
“Fire Lord Zuko,” she bows. “Your appointment with the duchess is at the end of the hour.”
“Nuh huh,” Sokka interjects, holding up a hand before Lien can exit. “Hold on a sec. What about?”
“Um,” Lien looks at her parchment pad. She’s a young thing, and she does her best, so Zuko doesn’t hark on her much. They’re both figuring this out as they go. Lien skims her notes and looks back to Sokka, “About the silk trade with the outer earth cities.”
“And?” Sokka prods. Zuko looks up in interest.
Lien swallows, “And…what?”
“Has Lord Zuko already met with this Duchess of whatever?”
Zuko cringes, because he hates when his friends call him that. Lien skims her notes again and nods, “This is a follow up meeting.”
“Then let Takeo take care of it,” Sokka waves. “He worked as the head of the salt trade for fifteen years. If there are any problems, let him present it to the Fire Lord in his reports.”
Lien looks a little bewildered, but quickly takes note and nods.
“Yes. I will oversee the meeting, Ambassador.”
Sokka winks, “Thanks! Make sure you eat lunch.”
Lien ducks out the door quickly with Zuko’s approval. Zuko then sets his head in his hand, and looks up at Sokka still sitting on his desk.
“You’re making me look like an idiot,” Zuko says lightly. Sokka gapes, a stunned look on his face, before he whips his head back and laughs.
“Shit, this is what I do, you know? I’m kind of a strategist.” Sokka pokes his arm. “And you are too. You’re just spread too fuckin’ thin, you can’t think right.” Zuko feels a little hot as Sokka’s stare grows more intense. “I don’t know if you see it, but the fire nation has already come a long way. You’re kind of amazing, you know that right?”
Zuko’s eyes widen; he stares back at a loss for words. Sokka looks to the stacked library wall and hums.
“You’ve taken this all on yourself. For so long I didn’t even know…” Sokka trails off. “Everything sounded so normal in your letters.” For a moment, he almost looks guilty. Zuko can’t let that stand.
“This isn’t your burden,” Zuko says gruffly. “My ancestors put us in this mess. I need to make it right, even if it takes the rest of my life.”
Sokka looks to him. His constant mood swings between high energy teasing and sudden seriousness is enough to give Zuko whiplash.
“That’s what makes you a good Fire Lord,” Sokka says, and then proves his point by hopping off the desk and skipping over towards a crate of paperwork. “Ooh! These look like new legislation drafts!”
Zuko shakes off the weird tingling in his chest, and waves his hand around.
“Knock yourself out. I’ve been too busy to finish any of the propositions.”
Sokka rubs his hands like he’s about to indulge in a good meal.
“I think I will.”
Thanks to Zuko’s new schedule, he’s able to meet with his ambassadors more frequently. He feels more informed about the worlds’ affairs, which does some to eliminate the constant blanket of dread that falls on his back.
Sokka keeps on top of his water-tribe duties, but also works as Zuko’s right hand. He’s a frequent visitor to his study now, reading through parliament on one of the floor pillows, tongue between his teeth and ink all over his face, and he’s a massive distraction that Zuko can’t bring himself to get rid of.
For the first time this year, Zuko is able to take a walk through his mother’s garden. The turtleduck chicks have already grown, and they waddle around and eat the flowers, much to the palace gardener’s dismay.
One duckling has decided that his sandal is a good snack, so Zuko picks it up by the shell and sets it back in the pond. The trees bring good shade from the heat; Zuko leans against the trunk and watches the turtleducks dip up and under the water.
This place no longer hurts his heart like it used to. The breeze feels good on his skin, and Zuko closes his eyes against it.
He doesn’t feel dread when Lien enters the garden.
“Lord Zuko,” Lien bows. “The education board has gathered for your meeting.”
Zuko straightens, and tucks a few wily strands into his bun.
“If you hate it so much, why not wear it down?”
Zuko nearly has a freaking heart attack when Sokka appears behind him in the hall mirror. Zuko clenches his fist into his robe before he can firebend.
“Spirits, Sokka. I almost fried your ass.”
“You could try,” Sokka says. He gestures to Zuko’s reflection. “You always flinch when you pass yourself in the mirror. Why don’t you just leave your hair down?”
Zuko burns a little with embarrassment. If Sokka has noticed in his short time here, does his staff just turn the other way?
“I can’t,” Zuko says. “Then I’d look even more like him.”
Sokka squints, and then shakes his head.
“I don’t see it. I’ve seen that bastard in the flesh, and you look nothing like him.” Sokka squints further. “I mean, the eyes, maybe, but his were so full of hate. You’re just pretty.”
Zuko lifts the only eyebrow he has, “Is that so.”
“I mean,” Sokka flushes. “You’re the Fire Lord. Who’s going to give you shit about not wearing a crown?”
Zuko looks back to his reflection, and reaches up to the combs of the gold hairpin.
Sokka steps up behind him. They really are eye level now. Sokka reaches up as well, and leans around his shoulder to watch as he pulls out the pin. Zuko’s top knot unravels, and with it goes the twist in his chest. “Make a new one.”
If Zuko wasn’t so broad, so built and marked and war torn, he’d almost say…he looks like his mother. His eyes widen, and Sokka pins the comb to the front of his robes.
“This definitely looks more like you,” Sokka nods. “The fire nation could use a little more informality don’t you think?”
Zuko half smiles, and turns to look him in the eye, “A little more you?”
Sokka blinks away and folds his hands behind his back, meandering back down the hall.
“You’re going to be late for the court hearing, mister Fire Lord sir.”
Zuko hums, and carefully watches Sokka as he scurries off, the tips of his ears all red.
After the first spring month has passed, Sokka’s presence in his study becomes a normal one. He’s pretty sure the guards never forgave Sokka for the breaking and entering incident, but they’re definitely not going to mention anything in front of the Fire Lord, so Sokka gets away with his bratty little teasing whenever he enters the room.
Zuko is reading through a tax report when he realizes that the office has gone a little too quiet. He turns, and studies Sokka’s shadow out of the corner of his eye. It’s dark on that side of the room, and he looks completely enveloped in a scroll. Strands are slipping out of his wolf tail, and he’s frowning with concentration.
Zuko stands up to stretch, groaning when his back pops. The sun set an hour ago, which is likely why his eyes hurt so bad. He steps over book piles to light the lamps by hand, reaching up with a flame and illuminating the room.
“What’s got you?” Zuko asks.
Sokka looks up through his lashes, and unfortunately, Zuko’s chest flutters with it. His face is dead serious, a change from the man that was giggling in his office not an hour before.
“Did you write a proposal to annul the homosexuality ban?”
Zuko freezes. His throat swallows dry, and he immediately curses himself for ever opening his mouth. He looks away, towards the last lamp as he ignites the oil. Sokka’s gaze is burning holes into his back, and Zuko is slow to find his words.
Jeez. Zuko sits on the edge of his chair and folds his fingers together. He’s hesitant to look in Sokka’s direction, afraid to find disgust written on his face.
“It’s something not taught in schools anymore,” Zuko starts. “I only learned the truth from my uncle. The fire nation used to be accepting of all types of people – until Sozin took power and declared that same-sex relationships were against Agni’s law.”
Sokka frowns, “Then what is it doing back here?”
“I’ve spent these years trying to unfuck my family’s mess,” Zuko scratches his scar idly. “I wrote up the draft, but it got put on the backburner when more important matters came up.”
Sokka raises a dark eyebrow and looks back at the parchment.
“Seems pretty important to me,” Sokka says. Zuko lets go of a breath he didn’t know he was holding. Then, Sokka winds him again by asking, “Do you like men, Zuko?”
He chokes on air, coughing for a moment and tapping his chest.
“Wh-what? Where did you get that idea?”
Sokka strokes his scruffy chin, “No? Or maybe…a friend was…?”
“Do I need a reason to support human rights?” Zuko argues, growing a little angry.
“No,” Sokka shrugs. He lifts up several more scrolls. “I just – I’ve been reading through your shitty handwriting for weeks now. You wouldn’t have put so much love and care into writing up a proposal you weren’t passionate about.” Sokka points to a spot on the paper, “I mean, you didn’t even shorthand this. Which is infuriating, by the way – a lord should have neater handwriting.”
Panicking, Zuko looks to the dark window, hoping to appear indifferent. He has no prior knowledge on what the water tribes are tolerant of. For all he knows, Zuko could throw their friendship out the door right now.
“It doesn’t matter,” Zuko mumbles. “A hundred years of bigotry won’t go away with a single law.”
“But it’ll help,” Sokka shrugs. “You didn’t answer my question.”
Do you like men?
“Yes,” Zuko answers, straight faced. “Happy?”
Sokka stares, confused for a moment, before his brain runs back the conversation, and his eyes widen.
It’s Sokka’s turn to look away. Zuko almost feels a little sick with it. Sokka rubs his arms and stares off into the corner. His voice sounds unsure.
“Back home, nobody ever talks about that stuff. If you’re, um…different…you’re just supposed to keep it to yourself.”
That leaves a bad taste in Zuko’s mouth. He scowls, and shuffles his papers back into a forced pile.
“Well, now you know. Happy?” Zuko scowls, “Rip that up, throw it away, I don’t care –”
Sokka hugs it to his chest protectively and shoots to his feet.
“What?? No way!”
“Well if it makes you uncomfortable –”
“Don’t put words in my mouth!” Sokka shouts roughly, and it shocks Zuko still. A very loud silence follows. Sokka looks uneasy, but furious at the same time. When he realizes that he’s crushing the scroll, he carefully rolls it back up and slides it into the tube. “I’m going to look this over,” Sokka says quieter. “Reword a couple things.”
Zuko inhales, and stomps down his surprise.
Sokka licks across his lower lip. He looks pretty here, under the study firelight. Chiseled and handsome, but ultimately… yeah. Pretty.
“I was never able to…” Sokka starts, and then shakes his head. “No. I never allowed myself to entertain any thoughts like that. You know I really, really like girls. A lot. Like, so much.”
“Uh huh,” Zuko replies flatly.
Sokka sinks back down onto the pillow, and suddenly that tall, six-foot man of a water tribe warrior is small again, setting his chin on his knees. His earrings jingle against the solid line of his jaw.
“I thought it was gross that I saw guys like that. I thought there was no way I was gay – I love women way too much. But…”
Zuko inhales when he figures out where Sokka is going with this. He looks lost, so Zuko crosses the room and sits down next to him on the nearby cushion.
“I know,” Zuko says. “Everything you’re feeling – I’ve been through it already.”
“Sorry,” Sokka laughs dryly, turning his head. “It’s probably not the time to be having a sexuality crisis.”
“I’d say it’s the perfect time,” Zuko shrugs. “Better late than never.”
“When did you know?”
“How old were you, I mean.”
Zuko scratches at his scar again and hums in thought.
“What!” Sokka sits up. “That long ago?”
Zuko breathes a laugh out of his nose, and mirrors Sokka’s position.
“Mmm. It was one more trigger to all my teen angst – something I definitely didn’t need while I was trying to regain my honor. But here we are, I guess.”
“Damn…” Sokka whispers. “Did you meet someone?”
The sudden gentle atmosphere makes Zuko want to be honest. Still, he holds onto certain memories like they’re sacred.
“I…became well-traveled in the earth nation,” Zuko mumbles. “I learned much about myself.”
“Ah.” Sokka offers a smile, and then looks away. “I want to wear that part of myself proudly, one day.”
“Me too,” Zuko says.
Sokka’s eyes snap back. They remind him of the ice caves up north, chilling black-blue and crystal clear at the surface. He’s really grown into his face – even the stubble on his chin.
“I’m rewriting this,” Sokka says, gesturing with the tube. “Let’s meet next week on it.”
Zuko squirms, sitting back on his hands.
“Are you sure now is the time? I mean – with United Republic as fresh as it is – our hands are really full with –”
“Now is the perfect time,” Sokka barks. “The fire nation is going to set an example for the world. Isn’t that what you want?”
“A good influence?” A pause. “You know the world won’t see it that way.”
“But the history books will.”
And that’s enough.
“Thank you for gathering on such short notice,” Zuko begins, elevated on the throne. “And I thank and acknowledge the scribes that will be delivering my message to the Fire Nation.”
Twenty people are gathered in the room – twenty-one, plus Sokka in the back.
With Sokka’s help, Zuko was able to rewrite the proclamation quickly. It will go into practice immediately, without any legal loopholes.
“After today, another sin of the Fire Nation will be wiped clean,” Zuko says. His newer council members perk up with interest, while the elders seem to stare skeptically. “We’re a strong and proud country,” Zuko says, “One that will be inciting peace and kindness into the world. But we have many offenses to acknowledge and atone for, and one of those will begin today.”
Sokka nods excitedly from the back of the room. Zuko keeps his head raised and his resolve firm.
“I am declaring the ninetieth decree as formally abolished.”
There are no outbursts, but there might as well be. Tight body language, surprised side-eyes, straight backs and an obvious discomfort. Not all, but some, and Zuko sees them from his throne.
“If you have an issue with this, you are within your rights to challenge me to an Angi Kai,” Zuko says. A dead silence falls on the room and yeah, that’s what he thought. Zuko sums up the meeting by saying, “Any acts of violence towards these people will no longer be tolerated. Thank you for your time today.”
“Are you prepared for the backlash?” Sokka asks later, when he catches up with him in the hall.
“It will be nothing I haven’t faced before,” Zuko admits.
“Good answer,” Sokka grins, and slaps him on the back. “Loved that bit about the Agni Kai. I think you had them shitting their pants.”
Sokka doesn’t treat him any differently since their little heart to heart in his study, but Zuko has continually felt stranger. Sokka squeezes into his shoulder and sways his weight and he still smells really good and no. We are not doing this.
Sokka looks at him, expecting a reply to something he must’ve said but all Zuko hears is eyes, eyes, eyes – lashes, knees, lips parted hands in his mouth aaan~d that’s not a good sign, is it? Probably not. Dang.
“Mm,” Zuko answers to something.
“That’s the spirit!” Sokka pats his back. “Grab a robe and I’ll meet you at the back entrance.”
In his moment of weakness, Sokka convinces him to throw on a hooded robe and sneak out to the cart vendors, where they sell roasted peanuts and popping candy. Sokka keeps opening his mouth to hear the sizzle, and laughing when he can still hear it past his lips.
“This stuff is the best,” Sokka fizzles.
Zuko slips a candied cashew into his mouth, and is careful to keep his scar hidden behind his hair.
“If I get spotted here, all hell is going to break loose.”
“Psssh, it’s fine,” Sokka drags him to a booth of jewelry. “No one is going to anticipate the Fire Lord walking around a street market.”
The seller looks up, and Zuko shifts aside, whispering.
“Holy shit Sokka, can you be any louder?”
Zuko sighs, and bites a cashew in half with his teeth.
“We have an entire room full of work we need to be doing.”
“Hey, Sokka Word of Wisdom number three-oh-five,” Sokka jabs his finger in his arm. “Take a break before you have a mental breakdown, and you won’t have one.”
Zuko scowls and slaps his hand away.
“Know it all.”
“Stuck up,” Sokka counters. He holds up a pair of beaded earrings adorned in fire nation colors. “How do I look?”
Zuko looks him over, and then says truthfully, “It clashes with your eyes.”
Sokka scoffs and sets down the earrings.
“Rude. Now I’m not going to share any of my candy with you.”
“The candy I bought?”
“I paid for it!”
“And I pay you,” Zuko says, sticking his hand in Sokka’s bag before he can yank it away. Sokka is fast but Zuko is faster, and then Sokka is looking scandalized as Zuko opens his mouth to show off the noise of the candy. “Ha.”
“Bad fire lord, bad!” Sokka wags his finger like an animal. Zuko continues to open and close his mouth from the candy like fsssss, fssss – and hey, this is actually kind of –
No. This is not fun. Zuko is not having fun. He’s having a terrible time.
“Wait!” Sokka yanks him by the wrist, “Those are feather arrows.”
Sokka bounces up to the stall, not at all appropriate for a man of his size or stature, and it’s cute.
“Excuse me? Are you water tribe?”
The man at the stall looks confused for a moment, before he looks Sokka over and grins, gesturing to his pendant.
“Yes sir. I have permits to sell in the city.”
“Me too! My father is Hakoda.”
“Oh! It’s an honor to meet you, sir.”
“Sokka is fine!” He points to a row of arrows and beams, “Zuko, look! These are traditional arrowheads, like they have back home.”
Zuko flinches at the sound of his name, and the shop owner looks him over, but decides to keep his mouth shut. Zuko sighs internally. Sokka shows him an arrow, and Zuko studies the adornments.
“These are beautiful.”
“Right?” Sokka tips his head, “How do you fare selling when metal arrows are so popular over here?”
The owner shrugs, “It’s mostly a keepsake. Fire nation folk haven’t traveled much out of the country, unless you’re a solider. They find our traditions interesting.”
Sokka seems a little disappointed at the answer, but his smile doesn’t wane. Zuko hasn’t put much thought into how homesick he must be, so he lets Sokka talk as long as he wants, and against his own judgement, he doesn’t wander off either.
Sokka’s face lights up when he’s excited about something. Zuko can’t look away.
He’s busy for seven days, but rests on the eighth. Zuko bathes that morning, combs his hair and walks to his mother’s garden without thinking. His brain is full of too many thoughts, and he welcomes the distraction.
Yesterday he asked for a light summary on the public’s reaction to the new law. Opinions were mixed, which is probably the best Zuko could ask for. Maybe it’ll distract them from the entirely new school curriculum.
At times like these, Zuko wishes he could call his uncle. Whispers of a new technology catch his ear from time to time, but after hearing the patents, Zuko estimates that it will be years until that kind of technology is fully functioning. For now, hawks will do.
Zuko pauses past one of the windows. A silhouette catches his eye, and he backpedals when he spots Sokka sitting on the veranda, staring at the ocean.
His hair is down. It’s layered, a little wavy from the summer humidity, and it doesn’t look right to see him be…alone.
Zuko opens the door silently. Sokka twitches, immediately aware of his presence.
“My lord,” Sokka bows his head, mocking.
“Stop that,” Zuko snaps, and then sits.
You can taste the sea salt up here; not always, only in monsoon season when the heat brings water off the ocean. Heat and water are two elements that always appear to be at odds – but without their cooperation, there would be no rain, no flowers or trees. It was a wisdom that uncle always tried to instill in him, but the dragons really proved at last.
“Feels nice up here,” Sokka says, closing his eyes. “We’ve been nonstop lately.”
“Eh?” Sokka shrugs. “Not really. I mean, I’ve left home for years at a time.”
“But you were always on the move,” Zuko says. “You don’t come off as the kind of person that likes to be tied down.”
Sokka grins toothily, “Am I that obvious?”
“You know – you don’t have to stay. If you asked to leave, I’d end your contract…”
“Things are changing,” Sokka says, eyes trained on the ocean. “That’s why I like it here.”
Zuko isn’t sure how to respond to that. He watches the wind blow Sokka’s hair away from his tan, unmarked nape, and blurts without thinking.
“Want to spar?”
Sokka looks at him skeptically.
Sokka thinks it through, and then hops to his feet with no reserve.
“Alright, but no cheating.”
“I would never,” Zuko says, scandalized, and then throws Sokka flat on his back in the middle of the training room.
“You are literally such a cheater!” Sokka pants, winded. His practice sword has been kicked across the room, and Zuko plants his dual swords into the wood by Sokka’s head. “If I had my boomerang you’d be dead!”
“Concussed, maybe,” Zuko admits, sitting on his thighs. “Mildly inconvenienced at the most.”
Sokka twists a leg and an arm around him and flips Zuko with his core strength. Zuko grunts as his shoulders hit the mat, and all of Sokka’s weight hovers over him.
“Don’t underestimate the power of my boomerang.” Strands of hair are falling out of his hair-tie, and this isn’t a situation Zuko should be in right now, so Zuko reaches up to pull on a strand.
“Come on, let’s go again.”
Sokka wields the sword with a two-handed refinement. Zuko is faster, because his swords are lightweight and two halves of a whole, but Sokka’s hits hurt more (when he does land them). They’re dull swords after all; couldn’t much cut paper, let alone skin, but Zuko feels the intent behind it.
Sokka is interesting to watch. He’s long been aware that Sokka trained under Master Piandao as well – but Sokka took his lessons and added his own style to it. He might’ve been sloppy in his younger years, but he’s grown now, battle hardened and more confident in his strikes. Here – in this training room –they’re not a fire lord and an ambassador; they’re equals.
Zuko still wins.
“You are infuriating!” Sokka wails.
Zuko sits on his back and holds him down by the neck.
“Do you yield?”
Sokka squirms, and Zuko tests his hold, shifting more of his weight on his hips. Sokka freezes, and then goes limp entirely.
“Yes yes yes, I yield – let go.”
Zuko hums and sits off his back. Sokka rolls over and coughs into his elbow.
“I’m gonna’ get you next time,” Sokka threatens. His face is red from the exertion, and it makes Zuko feel things he shouldn’t.
“Mmm. You got me good with that sweep.”
“Oh don’t treat me like a kid,” Sokka points with his sword, but quickly turns away again. “I’m taking a bath, shit.”
“Hey,” Zuko calls, frowning. “You’re not actually mad, are you?”
Sokka hesitates at the door of the dojo, and turns partway with a smile.
“Of course not, stupid. My shoulder fuckin’ hurts though, I’m mad about that for sure.”
“Sorry,” Zuko rises, dusting off his pants. “And you probably shouldn’t call the fire lord stupid. There are guards around.”
Sokka deeply rolls his eyes, “Oh now you’re pulling rank?”
“When it’s convenient to me,” Zuko smiles toothily.
Sokka stares at him. A moment passes by, almost uncomfortably, but Zuko can’t bring himself to look away. Sokka is looking into him, like he’s a puzzle he can’t solve. Sokka breaks the moment by shaking his head, mumbling something to himself and turning back down the hallway.
“You owe me dinner!” Sokka calls.
Zuko sheaths his sword and raises his voice so Sokka will hear him.
“If you bother to show up.”
He does, and for once, Zuko doesn’t have to eat alone.
Druk is free to come and go as he pleases. They have a connection that Zuko can’t explain yet – and it sounds dumb on paper, but Zuko knows when his dragon is near. His neck tingles, and he feels antsy, and he can hear the shift of the roof as Druk lands.
So Zuko forgoes an evening of paperwork to sit on the hill outside the palace; he run his hands up and down the sides of Druk’s heavy muzzle, and it’s comforting. Druk’s purring is more of a small tremble than a purr, but Zuko can hear it anyways.
“If I asked you to pass on a message to uncle, would you do that for me?” Zuko asks.
Druk looks through him. Zuko knows he understands, so he closes his eyes and rests his head against Druk’s jaw.
“I never feel like I’m doing the right thing,” Zuko says, slipping a letter into the gap in one of Druk’s scales. “But with this…with Sokka…” Zuko sighs. “I just keep digging a bigger hole. Whatever I’m hoping for – it won’t work out. I know it, but I can’t stop myself either way.”
Druk shifts his wings, spreads them out and open, stretches and then folds them again. Zuko pats along his horn, and a massive eye blinks open at him.
“Human problems,” Zuko explains. “Trivial, I know.”
Druk can’t speak, but Zuko understands him somehow. It’s not words, but a feeling he’s trying to project.
Comfort comfort comfort.
“Thank you,” Zuko says. When it’s time for him to leave, Druk lets steam fall from his mouth, and wind picks up as his mighty red wings carry him off towards the earth kingdom.
It really is a sinking feeling; something that gets worse and worse with these passing weeks, like a snowball rolling down a hill. He must be sick.
Zuko sits on the grass of the hill and presses his knuckles into his eyes.
I like Sokka.
“What is this?” Sokka asks.
One look, and then Zuko turns back to his desk.
“Uhh, dude,” Sokka waves the parchment around. “This is a marriage proposal.”
“Garbage,” Zuko repeats.
Sokka frowns at the fine writing and leans his hip up against the desk. He braided his hair today, threaded it with fire nation beads and blue string, and it looks masculine and feminine at the same time – and it’s so distracting, that Zuko can’t stop staring at the nape of his neck.
“Is your council already trying to marry you off?”
Ughhh. This isn’t the conversation Zuko wanted to have today. He forcefully pushes away from his desk and scowls.
“Yes. Technically I should have married two years ago, but I’m stalling for time right now because I really don’t have the mind to think about a family.”
“A family,” Sokka repeats, looking a little pale. “That’s right. You have to make like, little fire babies.”
“If my council had it their way, yeah,” Zuko huffs.
“When…do you think your deadline is?”
“Uh, I dunno’. Max a year, before I really start causing problems.”
Sokka stares at the paper, and then rolls it up neatly and sticks it back in the tube.
“I’m going for a walk.”
Zuko tips his head.
“Are you okay?”
“Fine,” Sokka waves flippantly. “Don’t forget about your three-o-clock.”
“I won’t,” Zuko says. The door slams a little too loudly, and Zuko is left feeling strange. He shifts the tube off his desk and into the waste bin. He’ll tell Lein to send a letter of rejection later.
Zuko passes Sokka in the dojo that night, on his way to the baths. He’s going at a wooden dummy with a great amount of concentration, sword flipping around his hands in a way that’s almost methodical, and Zuko chooses not to bother him.
“Knock knock, pep pep, cheerio,” Sokka greets first thing in the morning, throwing open his door with vigor.
“You have a Republic council meeting this morning.”
Zuko yawns, “Aang?”
“Nah, he sent a messenger with a letter,” Sokka waves a paper.
“Are you sitting in?”
“We’re building a self-functioning colony without single nation jurisdiction,” Sokka says. “Of course I’m going to be there! This is history.”
Zuko sighs and rubs the sleep out of his eyes, “Then you get to answer all the stupid questions.”
“Sorry man, unfortunately that’s your job.” Sokka looks at him a moment, and then tips his head, “Didn’t sleep?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I need to look at your itinerary,” Sokka mumbles, systematically grabbing Zuko’s robe and helping him dress without thinking. “There’s something I’m over looking…”
Zuko sticks in an arm and stops Sokka by the shoulder.
“It’s nothing you’re doing,” Zuko says. Sokka stares, and Zuko drops his hand quickly. “Come on, lets go.”
If Zuko is spread too thin, then Sokka is a different species completely. He listens and contributes actively through the meeting, but he’s always writing down separate notes and reading scrolls entirely unrelated to the conversation.
Sokka is a hard worker. Zuko always knew this – but to see it up close is different. Is this how Sokka acts back home? Does he work six times harder to please his own father?
Zuko’s line of thought flows into one inevitable place; Sokka really will be a great chief one day.
The meeting is long over, but Sokka is still reading through a stack of papers with dramatic intensity. Zuko crosses one leg over the other, and leans on the arm of the throne.
“You look like you’re trying to firebend with your eyes.”
“Hm,” Sokka answers. His head then jerks up, “Wait, can you do that?!”
“I’m not going to tell you. What are you reading?”
“I found your secret stash,” Sokka frowns, waving a pile of papers. “It’s taken me an entire week to sort through these – thanks to you, sneaky pants.”
“Yeah,” Sokka huffs. “All the marriage proposals you’ve been shoving behind the bookcase.”
“Ah,” Zuko blinks. “That stash.”
“I know you said they’ve been urging you to marry…” Sokka gestures to the pile in his lap, “But this is ridiculous! Why haven’t you told me about this?”
“I told you the other day.”
“Yeah! The other day!” Sokka barks. Zuko isn’t quite following, and Sokka yanks on the back of his ponytail in frustration, before looking back to Zuko at the end of the meeting table. “Your council has courted hundreds, literally hundreds, of women for you to marry. They’ve even entertained the thought of a harem just to preserve your bloodline.”
“Throw those away,” Zuko stands. “It’s not my concern right now.”
“How the hell is it not your concern?”
Zuko studies his expression, and answers with another question, “Are there no arranged marriages in the water tribe?”
“I mean…in the north, but not where I come from.”
“I have other duties to attend to,” Zuko says. “In case you weren’t listening, we’re moving forward with the construction of a meeting house in Republic City.”
“I know, I heard,” Sokka grits. “But Zuko, what about your happiness?”
That’s what Sokka is worked up about?
The expression on his face is earnest – and maybe…maybe a little naïve, in the good kind of way. It makes Zuko’s heart ache, makes him want to reach forward and grab his face in his hands. He thinks of wolf face paint, wonders what it’d be like to smear it around those blue eyes.
“My happiness isn’t important,” Zuko says. “And it’s not your concern. Let’s focus on our current projects before we get involved in anything else.”
Sokka seems to deflate before his eyes. The openness in his expression walls away, and his answer is professional and curt.
Zuko is weak, so he squeezes Sokka’s shoulder as he passes by.
“Thank you for your hard work.”
Sokka doesn’t reply. He doesn’t throw out the scrolls, either.
Mother’s garden glows purple at night. It must have something to do with the blue reflection of the moon, the green grass and the white lilies – but it feels more sacred than that.
“You’re supposed to be sleeping.”
Zuko heard the footsteps, so he doesn’t startle when Sokka sits next to him. He sent the guards away for a sense of peace, but Zuko’s heart is in turmoil all the same.
“Wasn’t tired,” Zuko replies.
Sokka is in white sleeping attire, and they look blue and purple with the rest of the garden – usually full of pinks and greens, it’s a quiet atmosphere.
“You just got back from Republic City,” Sokka points out. His voice is rough.
“It was only a day trip.” Zuko looks him over, “What’s wrong with you?”
Sokka snorts, “You have such a way with words, Zuko.”
Zuko rolls his eyes, “I’m just saying you look tired.”
“Now you’re insulting my good looks? That’s no way to treat a lady.”
Zuko pushes at his shoulder, and Sokka sways over and back with a laugh.
“Same as you, probably,” Sokka answers, leaning up against the same tree. “Thinking.”
“Hmm. So you are capable.”
“I will karate chop you.”
“Good luck,” Zuko replies. Sokka puffs another laugh, and an easy silence follows.
If you were to press him, really, between a rock and a hard place – Zuko would say he missed these moments. He was never the lone wolf he took claim to; be it mother, uncle, or the avatar gang, Zuko has never truly been alone. These years as the Fire Lord have been full of progress, but lonely all the same. He misses the tea shop again.
“Stop that,” Sokka says. Zuko pauses, his fingers scratching at his scar.
“Stop scratching that.” Sokka takes his hand and pulls it down to his lap. “You just make it all puffy the next day.”
“Oh,” Zuko stares at the sleeping ducks on the pond. “Do I?”
“Yes. So stop.” Sokka’s expression is unreadable in this light. Zuko’s face still itches, so he rubs his shoulder along his cheek, and it kind of helps. Sokka watches him, and asks, “After all these years, it still bugs you?”
“It gets tight,” Zuko explains. “The burn was all the way to the bone. I was supposed to lose this eye, but...it’s mostly blind anyways.”
Sokka’s soft inhale is barely audible. He lets it go, and folds a leg up, the other stretching outwards.
Zuko stares. His stomach churns with anxiety.
“You don’t know?”
“I guess that makes sense,” Zuko mumbles, thunking his head back on the tree trunk. “It was shameful to the fire nation.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“The burn was a punishment from my father,” Zuko explains. Sokka jerks to look at him, face fallen in surprise; his voice cracks.
“What?! Are you serious?”
“Yes?” Zuko lifts his eyebrow. “I was invited to a war meeting. I spoke out against a general’s suggestion to sacrifice our own people, and in doing so, I dishonored my father.” Zuko’s voice gets a little tight, and he clears his throat. “I was reprimanded in an Angi Kai.”
Sokka’s eyes don’t look like his own; they are wild with anger and dark, furious.
“Your father challenged you to an Angi Kai.”
“I begged for forgiveness,” Zuko explains. “I refused to fight and tarnished the family name.”
Sokka swallows, and his head clunks back on the tree also.
“What prison is he at?”
Zuko laughs under his breath, “I’m not going to tell you.”
“Hey, I’m just looking for a friendly conversation,” Sokka says, and while his words are light, his tone is irate. “With my boot.”
“I found my peace with it,” says Zuko. “But not before hunting the avatar halfway around the world and taking out my aggression on every poor soul who passed my way.”
“You just wanted your family’s acceptance,” Sokka mumbles. “Banished at what, thirteen? Damn, I want to fucking kill that guy.”
“Me too, sometimes.”
Another silence follows, but this one is different. Zuko can almost hear Sokka thinking, can see him chewing on his lips and his knuckles. His mouth looks soft. Zuko turns the other way.
“You know…” Sokka starts. “It wasn’t always easy. The fire nation made my tribe’s life hell.”
“But I’ve been happy,” Sokka explains. “I’ve met people – friends, partners and whatever. And I always had my dad and my sister, even in the war. Even when we were apart, you know?” Zuko nods, and Sokka continues in a voice too soft for him. “I used to think you were a spoiled prince, but I had it all wrong. Now the nation wants to marry you off to some – some random girl! Just to pump out heirs!”
Zuko flinches, and combs through his hair with his fingers.
“I told you not to think about that stuff anymore.”
“I can’t help it,” Sokka turns, and Zuko is surprised to suddenly find him up in his face. “I don’t care what anyone says. You deserve to be happy!”
Zuko’s eyes are round like dinner plates. He feels like a fist has punched through his chest.
“Sokka…” He starts. “It’s – I know I haven’t thanked you much, but things are already better because of you. When you return to the southern water tribe I don’t want you to worry –”
“But I will,” Sokka barks, his fingers tightening in Zuko’s sleeves. “Because you work and you work and you never see how far you’ve come because you’re always staring five steps ahead, tripping over your own damn feet.” Sokka swallows, and then strengthens his resolve. “Zuko, I’ve been here for four months.”
“I’m not useless without you,” Zuko argues. “I’m not a child anymore.”
“I know,” Sokka grits, and fists his grip into the front of Zuko’s robe. “That’s why I don’t want you to marry some fire nation girl. I want you to be with me!”
All the arguments Zuko had on his tongue are now gone. It’s as if he’s been knocked upside the head. Zuko blinks quickly, and asks in a whisper,
“I-It’s bullshit! You shouldn’t be forced to be with someone just to – ”
Zuko’s brain pieces it all together at once. He catches Sokka’s hand and pulls it out of his robes.
“I understand your concern,” Zuko says, forcefully calm. “But even if I was to marry a woman, I would choose not to have my own children anyways. The throne being passed by blood is what put us in this situation to begin with.” Sokka’s eyes widen, and Zuko lets go of his wrist. “If that’s the reason for your confession, then I don’t want it.”
“You idiot. That’s not just – ugh! You don’t get it!”
Sokka smells like jasmine tea, is the last coherent thought Zuko has.
Sokka’s hands clap at his cheeks, and Zuko is dragged into a hot, smothering kiss. He jerks away at first, but Sokka is insistent, his lips moving like he’s trying to tell him something, and Zuko gets caught in it by nature. His stubble is rough but his lips are soft, and it’s the most overwhelming kiss Zuko has ever had. Just as Zuko’s eyes slide shut, they slam back open with some common sense. He pulls away as far as the tree will allow him, and he grabs Sokka by the neck.
“Sokka wait,” Zuko pants. “You don’t want this.”
“Shit,” Sokka curses, wiping his mouth. “Don’t you see it? We’re better together. I’m better! It’s all – a fuckin’ crapshoot but – don’t you think we could be more?”
Zuko’s heart squeezes painfully. Sokka is in his lap, and his expression is vulnerable and hard to look at. Zuko chooses his words carefully, and delivers them with intent.
“I’m sorry. But I’m not going to be your experiment.”
Sokka looks hurt; then, the anger follows. Fingers squeeze his arms again and Zuko stiffens, ready for a fight, but Sokka conks their foreheads hard enough to sting, and it stuns him momentarily.
“Don’t ever,” Sokka growls, “Ever. Accuse that of me again.”
“Well what am I to think?” Zuko winces, as Sokka presses harder against his new bruise. “That you like me?”
“YES! You stupid firecracker!”
Sokka’s eyes are watery, and all the air sucks out of Zuko’s lungs, like Aang is bending it himself.
And like the snap of a twig; like a single, loud crack – Zuko’s resolve breaks down the middle. He flips Sokka onto his back, pins him down and presses an arm across his chest to keep him still. Sokka twists and fights instinctually, and Zuko lowers himself into his personal space.
“We. Can’t. Do. This.”
“Why not?” Sokka squirms, determined as ever. “You a coward?”
Sokka’s hair has slipped out of his wolf tail and is a tangled mess in the grass. His cheeks are red, his neck is sweaty, and worst of all, his eyes are that wild and furious sea storm.
Zuko speaks so close, they share the same air. His tone is rough and deliberate.
“I don’t like you.”
“Then why are you always looking at me?”
Zuko crushes their mouths together to shut him up. Sokka is able wiggle an arm around and pull him closer, and Zuko curls a hand in the grass to steady himself. Sokka has a wicked tongue, a wicked mouth – he’s just a sin Zuko shouldn’t have, and he tastes better for it. Their kisses are wet and messy because they’re not aiming for charm, just senseless, needy decadence. They move together like they know exactly where the other will be (and Zuko can feel exactly where he bites his lip, exactly how sharp his teeth are--). And then the kiss parts mutually.
“Bad liar,” Sokka tells him.
“I know,” Zuko says.
Sokka curls a hand up in his long hair and Zuko lays over his top half, squirms an arm between Sokka and the grass just to pull his waist closer to him, and Sokka arches up like molten clay. They align perfectly; muscle on muscle, Zuko’s long hair indistinguishable from Sokka’s spilled on the ground. Kissing Sokka isn’t like a girl. He’s not shy, he’s not placid, and Zuko has to throw his weight into it just to keep Sokka from taking complete control.
Zuko pulls back to stare at him, and Sokka’s hand is heavy on the back of his head. His breathing is labored, and he stares right back.
“I love when you look at me,” Sokka says outright. Zuko’s stomach does a flip, but Sokka keeps talking. “You’re always – always just working so hard, staring at your books so intensely. I feel like I have to work just as hard to get you to see me that way.”
Zuko wets his lips. “What way?”
“Any.” Sokka feels up his bare cheek. “I’m going to say something gay as shit. Your eyes are fucking beautiful.”
Zuko groans and presses his forehead into Sokka’s chest.
“Dammit. Listen to me.”
“I’m going to invite you back to my room, and you’re going to be the better person and say no.”
“Yeah, I’m not going to do that.”
Zuko just can’t stop kissing him. Once they get started they just can’t stop, and Zuko doesn’t care how many clothes there are, what position they’re in or what Sokka is doing with his hands – he just needs that stupid mouth.
“Fuck that feels weird,” Sokka gasps.
“You’ve never done this to yourself?”
“Of course not! What would my dad think if he walked in on me with three fingers up my aaaahhh—” Sokka whines and rolls his head back into the pillows.
“Yeah, I’m going to ask you to put a pin in that,” Zuko says.
Sokka is a vice around his fingers, tight and hot but giving way with time, and Zuko finds his mouth again and kisses until his tongue hurts. Sokka groans when he presses deep up his ass, and thick fingers grab at Zuko’s hair.
“Ohh fuck. Okay, yeah, I’m riding the shit out of you. Take your robe off.”
Zuko pulls away long enough to yank his arms out of the sleeves and toss the sash somewhere. Sokka is butt naked on his sheets, and Zuko can’t stop looking at him; little pink scars are pricked here and there, strong abdominals, and his hips are defined and his cock is thick and flushed and he looks like a painting to be hung up somewhere. Also, great ass.
Zuko startles when Sokka presses a hand flat to the scar on his chest.
“It looks so different,” Sokka mumbles. His eyelashes are long. Zuko wants to suck his cock so goddamn bad. He forces himself to focus, and lets Sokka do as he pleases.
“Lightning,” Zuko explains.
“The scarring is lighter.”
“That’s because Katara healed it.”
Sokka hums thoughtfully, and then makes a face.
“Okay, let’s not talk about my sister while we’re doing this. Roll over.”
Zuko does as he says, and holds Sokka by the hips as he settles on top.
“You sure? Might hurt.”
Sokka gives him a look.
“What, like you know?”
Zuko coughs, “Uh. Maybe.”
Sokka stares intently as he yanks Zuko’s pants down. He doesn’t hesitate to fondle him, and Zuko inhales sharp and quiet as he squeezes his erection.
“Huh,” Sokka mumbles. “I guess not so different.”
“Same shit you’ve got.” Zuko feels over Sokka’s veiny hipbones and the V between his legs. “Freaking out yet?”
“Oh please, that is so like, two months ago when I jacked off furiously into your bathtub,” Sokka says quickly, squeezing his balls. “Uhh, sorry about that by the way.”
Zuko snickers, and bats Sokka’s hand away to find lube and line himself up.
“You should be apologizing to the maids.”
“Hmm, maybe I’ll just die instead.”
Zuko catches him by the jaw and pulls his face close enough to kiss. Sokka hums happily, and Zuko breathes in through his nose before letting it go.
“Did you think about this?”
“I’ve thought about a lot of things,” Sokka says. “Many, many positions with your long ass legs. Fuck you are thick, what the hell dude.”
“Slow,” Zuko warns.
Sokka is only able to bounce a couple times before he’s too overwhelmed by the stretch – but that alone was worth it’s own weight in gold, so Zuko doesn’t mind rolling him over and folding their hands together in the sheets. It gets easier with more oil, and Sokka goes from tight, restrained grunts to opened mouthed moaning and insistent squirming.
Zuko smacks his ass and forces him face down in the pillows, “Stop that, I keep slipping out.”
“Feels so good,” Sokka muffles into the pillow. “You’re so, ngh, hot. And your mouth tastes like ash but it’s like, really sexy. Just the sound of your breathing turns me on — I didn’t think it was unnh possible.”
“And you are loud,” Zuko grunts against his ear, and has to squeeze his eyes shut and concentrate when Sokka’s ass clamps down around him. “Fuck, Sokka. Stop that.”
“Oohh so that’s it.”
Zuko screws him harder, and he has to flick his sweaty bangs out of his eyes, and everything is excruciatingly hot (sex in summer, sex in summer), but every sound Sokka makes just drives Zuko to thrust harder, makes him want to be better – yes, so very selfish – but his common sense is gone, and Sokka’s body is dangerously addictive.
There’s no doubt about it, they are both men. Fuzzy legs, scratchy late-night shadow – Zuko rocks Sokka into the sheets so his cock will rub against the pillows, and Sokka comes so loud he screams, and there’s no way the front guards didn’t hear it. Ah well.
“Fuck me, fuck me,” Sokka curses, trembling. Zuko flips him over and Sokka shifts his hips and kisses into his mouth and Zuko has to plant his hands in the sheets so he won’t burn him by accident. The tightness in his stomach is a dead giveaway, and Zuko pulls out and silently finishes along the sweaty, slippery muscle of Sokka’s hip-flexor.
“That is easily the hottest thing I’ve ever seen,” Sokka replies. Zuko grinds into him for the aftershocks and groans through his teeth.
“You’re still hard?”
“Best stamina in the south,” Sokka teases, and then reaches down to stroke Zuko further. He’s way too sensitive, and Zuko trembles heavy. “Also uh yeah. Gay sex? Pretty awesome. Nobody told me that, should’ve come with a warning.”
Zuko pats his hand away and crawls up to take his mouth. Sokka moans more pretty noises, and like all his precious things, Zuko takes good care of him.
“You’re not as hot as I thought you’d be,” Sokka says in afterthought.
“Gee, thanks,” Zuko mumbles. “Go to sleep.”
“That’s not what I meant, weirdo! I just mean…” A hand drags up his back, and Zuko all but melts. “You’re like. Normal.”
“What. You thought I kept fire in my skin?”
“Well – you breathe it out sometimes!”
“Because firebending is in the breath,” Zuko enunciates, and turns his head to exhale steam and blow it over at Sokka. He makes a disgusted face, and then a thoughtful one.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen another firebender do that.”
“My uncle,” Zuko explains sleepily. “And the dragons. S’ where I learned it.”
Damn Sokka’s hands. Fingers knead into his back, and Zuko drifts in and out as Sokka talks.
“That’s crazy, you deserve to be a teacher. You were kinda’ a dick to Aang but like, a good dick. Hm…good dick…hey, you still up?”
“Hate you,” Zuko mumbles. He clasps the back of Sokka’s head and forces him into the pillows. “Sleep.”
Sokka snickers, and shifts onto his side. He’s finally gone quiet, but his hand hasn’t stopped its circles at his spine.
Sokka hesitates, and then says. “You know what, nevermind. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
Fingers trace the nape of his neck, and Zuko falls asleep with another warm body, and he can’t remember why this was a bad idea.
Oh hey. Zuko remembers why this was a bad idea.
He wakes up into the biggest crisis of his life. The sun has warmed the windows and the sheets are twisted at the end of the bed, and Sokka is sprawled out naked and dead to the world, thighs spread, head tucked in his arms, hair pooled down his back, and Zuko’s heart jumps out of his freaking chest.
He flies out of the bed, hovers by the end and slaps a hand over his mouth.
Shit. Shit shit shit.
There are no doubts. Zuko was stone cold sober, and he slept with the next to be chief of the southern Water Tribe; his best friend, his very male, very good best friend.
Agni forgive me.
“Good morning buttercups,” Sokka greets the study guards. “Hope the rain hasn’t been too rough on your delicate baby skin.”
The guards tense, but can’t rebuttal with the Fire Lord so close. Sokka waves, and Zuko doesn’t turn around as he slams the door behind him.
“I’ve got Lien’s notes from the trade meeting,” Sokka shows off a scroll. “They’re trying to hackle down tariffs which I know you’re pretty lenient about but if you give ‘em an inch you give ‘em a mile, you know?” Zuko tenses as Sokka sits at the corner of his desk. “Also, thanks for making me do the walk of shame today. Real classy of you.”
Zuko rises; he wordlessly hands Sokka a scroll and crosses towards the library wall.
“What’s this?” Sokka asks.
“Your contract,” Zuko answers. “I’m requesting a new ambassador.”
Sokka goes very, very still. His hands tighten on the scroll.
“Uh. Sorry. What was that?”
Zuko looks him in the eye, and pulls out a law book.
“Sokka, you need to go home.”
Sokka tosses the scroll off the desk.
“Are you being fucking serious right now?”
“Do I sound like I’m joking?”
“But last night we were – I thought – ” Sokka’s heart breaks, all over his face. “What did I do wrong?”
Zuko’s soul hurts so bad, he could throw up.
“You didn’t do anything. I just…made a bad call.”
“A bad call,” Sokka echoes.
Zuko sighs, rubbing a hand over his eyes.
“Sokka, what did you think was going to happen? That we’d hook up and hold hands and sprint into the sunset?”
“I mean, it sounds stupid when you put it that way!” Sokka exasperates. “But yeah! Fucking maybe!”
“I’m saying this because you’re one of my closest friends, and I care about you,” Zuko says. “Go home and take care of your own people.”
“Because you care…” Sokka laughs dryly. “Real funny way of showing it. Why are you running away from this?”
“I’m not running away!” Zuko argues. “I’m trying to prevent a coup! If we walked out on that street right now, both our nations would lose their collective minds.”
“Zuko you are such a thick pain in the ass, but I adore you,” Sokka hisses, walking closer, and he’s puffed up to his full stature, and Zuko’s heart races like he’s about to go to war. “I thought we really connected. Why are you so afraid to take what you want?!”
“I never said I wanted you,” Zuko replies cruelly. Sokka opens his mouth to argue, but pauses on an exhale. Zuko can almost see the memory flicker through his eyes, before he coils back into himself.
“You’re the worst,” Sokka mutters, cold and hurt.
Zuko has to actively work to keep his voice from cracking. “You’re blinded by your feelings. I of all people should know. Come back to me in a couple weeks, and we’ll talk.”
Sokka’s expression is walled and detached as he squats down to pick up the scroll.
“Tch, asshole. Making all the decisions without giving a damn to anyone’s feelings.” Sokka rises slowly and turn his back. “You’re just like your dad.” Sokka slams the door after him, and Zuko slides to the floor.
He stares at the wall; stares and stares until it burns.
Zuko flips to his back, looks to the ceiling, but doesn’t receive an answer there either. His heart still feels like it’s coiled and shrunken and buried in the pit of his stomach, and every time he swallows he almost wants to cry. Zuko can remember the exact moment he last cried, and let’s just say it was a long, long time ago.
The palace is eerie and quiet at night. Zuko crawls out of bed and traverses the halls, hopeful that a walk will tire out his brain.
Sokka is leaving tomorrow, his mind repeats. Sokka is leaving tomorrow.
Zuko walks past his old childhood bedroom. The original fire lord’s quarters have long been boarded up, because Zuko can’t stand to step a foot in there. Azula’s room is untouched. Zuko has no desire to go in there, either.
One of the candles flicker. Zuko continues down the hall, but his eye snaps to a shadow behind the pillar. Then, Zuko is hauling an arm over his back, slamming a masked body to the ground and firebending towards the second shadow.
His attack is nulled, and Zuko’s brain works through the combat on instinct.
Zuko cuts through a fireball, dodges a second and leg sweeps the attacker. He can hear more footsteps, and Zuko shouts, “Hey!” But a third attacker is knocked out by a boomerang.
Zuko whips around. Sokka grabs a third intruder by the throat and hauls them up the wall one handed; boomerang comes back, and Sokka grabs it with his left.
“You brought that here?” Zuko sighs.
“It’s a superior weapon,” Sokka argues. The masked figure struggles and chokes in his grip, and Sokka squeezes tighter. Zuko uses the opportunity to disarm the last person dressed in black; he twists their arm behind their back.
“You,” Zuko growls. “Who sent you?”
A squeak echoes in the hall, and Zuko turns to see Lien with a candle.
“Lien, go get the guards!” Sokka calls. Lien looks at the people on the floor, and nods shakily.
“Y-yes! Guards! Guards! We have intruders!”
“One more time,” Zuko repeats. “Who sent you?”
Sokka lets go of the man’s throat in favor of throwing him up against the wall by his skull.
“No answer? Alright, you’re coming with us, buddy.”
With six masks removed and their wrists in chains, Zuko doesn’t recognize a single one of them.
Sokka is obviously still pissed at him, but it’s clear that a more important situation has arose. His shoulders are tense, and he won’t look in Zuko’s direction longer than he has to, but he’s still here.
“Alright, we’re going to play good cop bad cop,” Sokka says. “I’m the good cop. Which means, if you lie to me, I’m only going to crush one of your nuts. While this guy?” Sokka points. “He’s the Fire Lord. So if you lie to him, you’re going to wish you and I had come to terms.”
The intruders look uneasy. A stubborn one on the end refuses to cooperate, but the others might talk.
“This is the last time I’ll ask,” Zuko warns. “Who are you?”
“Look, we’re just assassins for hire,” a man says quickly. The stubborn one begins to shout, but Zuko waves to the guards, and they gag him.
“Who hired you?”
“Loyalists up north,” another grumbles. “Look, I got no problem wit’ politics, but these guys – they like your father a helluva’ lot more than they like yous, kid.”
Sokka eyes him over the accent, and Zuko nods.
“Damn, if you’re assassins, then you’re pretty shit at your job,” Sokka says.
The ninjas’ eyes widen in surprise, but Zuko continues.
“These loyalists. What is their goal?”
“We’ve told you enough.”
“Have you ever heard of a nutcracker?” Sokka asks lightly. “If you’re real good, you can use the end of a sword instead.”
“Th-they want to destroy you and return your father to the throne!”
“Fuck,” Zuko irritably sighs. “I knew they were out there, but to think they’d go so far.”
The talkative one grins. He seems like the type of madman that wants to watch the world burn. Zuko’s seen enough of them.
“Oh, this is only the beginning. That little decree you made about the homos last month reeeally pushed ‘em over the edge. They’re just rarin’ to have your neck.”
Zuko doesn’t allow any emotion to cross his face. Sokka keeps a cool lid, but his hands tighten so hard his knuckles pop.
“Well that’s nice,” Zuko answers. He waves towards the guards. “Throw them in jail.”
“Hey!! We told you everything we know!”
“Dude, you tried to kill the Fire Lord,” Sokka snorts. “You should count yourselves lucky that you’re not eating lava soup at the bottom of a volcano.”
The intruders shout and struggle as the guards haul them off. Zuko crosses his arms, and stares at the wall in frustration.
“This is fucking crazy,” Sokka shakes his head.
“I know.” Zuko eyes him. “Now do you understand why you need to leave?”
“This is exactly why I’m going to stay!”
“Sokka – ”
“At least until the end of the week,” Sokka argues. The fight in his eyes deflates a little. “Look. I won’t – I won’t come near you, or anything. I just…I’m not going until I know you’re okay.”
I want you near me, Zuko thinks. I want to kiss you until my mouth goes numb.
“I can take care of myself.”
“Then please tolerate it for me,” Sokka begs, and Zuko feels like he’s going to die.
“Whatever,” Zuko snaps, and returns to an empty bed, officially doomed to restless night.
You’re just like your dad.
Zuko shoots upwards at the throne.
He didn’t realize that he had dozed off. Really, this is a meeting that Zuko should be paying attention to, especially because it concerns the newly formed United Republic of Nations, but Zuko just can’t keep his head in it today.
He knows Sokka saw, because he’s staring right at him. Zuko stares back at the map center on the table, and an officiant clears her throat.
“Um, Fire Lord Zuko. Would you prefer if we reconvened at a future time?”
Zuko rubs his eyes and sighs, “Actually, yes. If Aang is visiting for the festival, then it might be best to wait for his opinion.”
Mumbling in the room confirms the end of their meeting, and Sokka avoids Zuko’s gaze as he rises from the table, shakes hands and leaves without a further word. No hugs, no laughing down the hall, no lunch afterwards.
There are no more assassination attempts for the rest of the week. That, at least, is a small mercy. It doesn’t make Zuko feel any better. Doesn’t stop him from running his hand over the far side of his bed, as if the cool cotton will give him all his answers.
Zuko hates this; hates that he has created this terrible awkwardness between he and Sokka. It’s miserable to be in the study alone. It’s like he can’t think straight, like a fog has fallen over his mind.
He can’t bear to see Sokka off. It’s unprofessional, he’s a terrible friend, but Zuko thinks – he won’t be able to do it a second time. If Sokka looked at him all broken like that again, Zuko would fall to his knees like a child.
A knock raps at his door. It is gentle.
“Lien,” Zuko greets.
Lien peeks in the door and clears her throat.
“Lord Zuko. I am alerting you that Ambassador Sokka is departing by balloon.”
“Thank you. Dismissed.”
Lien looks at him strangely, but she is quick to bow and duck out the door. Zuko rubs his eyes and forces away his feelings.
A tap on his window nearly scares him out of his skin. Zuko extinguishes his lit fire dagger, and sighs as a messenger hawk taps once more.
The hawk is grey and white, and Zuko immediately recognizes it as uncle’s. He quickly unhitches the latch and takes the small scroll from the hawk’s pouch.
“Thank you,” Zuko mumbles. The hawk flies off, and Zuko closes the window and unrolls the letter, his hands not as steady as he would prefer them to be.
The letter is written in his uncle’s crappy handwriting. Zuko hesitates when he remembers the last letter he sent. So many weeks have passed – he almost feels like whatever advice his uncle is about to give, it’s long outdated. Zuko steadies himself and reads it anyways.
The Jasmine Dragon is prospering, thank you for asking! I have made good friends with the sencha traders from the west, and now I am given first pick of their produce! My tea has never tasted better, you must try it on your next visit.
I am also pleased to hear about the various improvements within the palace. Change will not come unless you incite it first. My dear Zuko, I must confess something to you these many months later. There was no coincidence that your friend has come to you; it was I that reached out to your old teammates in the Water Tribe, and asked them to assist you.
I know you might see it as betrayal. But nephew, I could no longer stand to see you return so broken to me each year. As much as I would love to attribute to your rule over the Fire Nation, I know this is something your generation must overcome if peace is to truly succeed.
I did not foresee your feelings for your close friend, but I must say the news makes me very happy! Zuko, your decisions are your own, but you know I will give my own words of wisdom anyways;
Your ancestors began ‘traditions’ to take power and invoke fear. So then, what will the nation think, if their fire lord breaks tradition for true love? I think the power that holds is immeasurable.
In regards to your question; I will not give you the answer myself. But your heart will know, I’m sure of it.
All my love,
Zuko stares at the parchment longer than he should. The tip of the letter is stained with tea, and the bottom is chewed from the hawk, and Zuko hugs it to his chest like his uncle is here in the flesh.
Sokka, Zuko thinks, with butterflies in his stomach. Then, panic runs down his back. Shit, Sokka!
He bolts out of the study. The guards startle as he throws open the doors, sprinting through the hall and out towards the balloon docks.
“At ease!” He calls back, and surfs down the railing stairs. The guards share baffled looks, but Zuko is too busy huffing it across the courtyard. These stupid formal slippers are slowing him down, so he kicks them off and runs barefoot.
Zuko spots the balloon at near take off.
“Stop!!!!” He shouts.
Sokka whips his head around in the basket, and his escort pauses mid-firebend.
“Don’t go!” Zuko shouts, skidding along the deck. The balloon is a good fifteen feet in the air, but Sokka easily hops the basket and lands with a heavy thud. Sokka races towards him, face lit with panic.
“Zuko? What happened? Are you okay?!”
Sokka grabs his shoulders and Zuko clasps him back, his breath racing as fast as his heart.
“Stay,” Zuko demands, taking in shaky inhales to catch his breath. “Sokka I’m sorry – just – stay. Please.”
Multiple emotions cross Sokka’s face; concern, confusion, anger.
“You’re the one that kicked my ass out the door. Now you don’t want me to leave? What the hell is wrong with you?”
“I don’t care if everyone hates me,” Zuko explains. “I don’t care if they try to kill me. I just – I just wanted to keep you out of it.”
Sokka frowns, but listens.
“Zuko, people have tried to kill me all my life.”
“I know,” Zuko says. “Stay, please.”
Sokka sighs, and holds Zuko tighter by the arms.
“I need to know what you want from me.”
Zuko takes one of Sokka’s hands and places it over his heart. Sokka startles at first, and then his eyes go wide when he feels how quickly Zuko’s heart is beating.
“I’m falling in love with you,” Zuko explains.
Sokka’s breath catches. The nearby guards pointedly turn away, but Zuko doesn’t bother to care. He’s already made up his mind.
Sokka swallows, and then leads him by the arm. “Come on. Let’s talk about this somewhere else.” He waves to the balloon saying, “Uh, sorry Xao! Ride cancelled! Thanks for uh – anyway, bye!”
Sokka kisses him deeply as soon as the door shuts. Zuko’s back hits the wood, and he cradles Sokka’s face as he returns the kiss feverishly. Sokka pulls them apart.
“Dammit,” Sokka curses. “Why do you keep breaking my heart?”
“I’ve given up a lot of things for the throne,” Zuko says. “But I don’t want to give up you. I couldn’t do it, I’m sorry.”
Sokka’s face crumples, and he presses his forehead into Zuko’s shoulder.
“This is all new for me too, okay?! I…for so long I wasn’t sure if you even tolerated me. And then – you kissed me back and, and I thought…”
Zuko prods him upright so he can sweep Sokka’s bangs out of his face. His ponytail is loose, so Zuko just pulls it out entirely.
“Duty and heart have always been a mess for me,” Zuko explains. “I’ve always looked at you this way. These months with you here...” He pets Sokka’s stubbly jaw the way he’s wanted to. “You amaze me with how sharp your mind is, and how unbelievably stupid you can be.” Sokka opens his mouth to argue, but Zuko continues, “You’re beautiful. I’m sorry I never told you.”
Sokka looks like he wants to say lot of things, but he settles on an amazed, “R…Really?”
“Yes.” Zuko sighs. “There are repercussions to us being together. You’re aware of that, right?”
“Yeah. I don’t know what’ll happen to my chief nomination.”
Zuko swallows, heart racing. “You knew, and you still…”
“The world is changing, Zuko,” Sokka stares into him, sharp sharp blue. “The colonies are uniting. Soon we’re going to have more than just four nations. I don’t know where my place in the world is yet, but I know I’m going to find it with you.”
Zuko slips his hand to the back of his neck, and tips his head so he can kiss him. It’s easy being the same height, and Sokka’s hands grab him by the middle to haul him closer. They fit good together, all their sharp edges.
“Really though,” Zuko interrupts. “You can’t be my ambassador if we get involved.”
“I know,” Sokka says. “Nuvua was never pregnant.”
“…Are you fucking s– hey! Put me down!”
This time is different. Zuko leads Sokka’s hand between his legs and shows him what to do, and then Sokka sits up against the headboard and lets him ride.
Zuko presses their hands together as he grinds back and forth – and all their callouses align perfectly. Right at the tops of their palms, over their thumbs and beneath the second knuckle. Sokka’s fingers are thicker, but Zuko’s are longer, and Zuko lays them flat just to measure.
Sokka licks hotly into the side of his neck, and Zuko curls with it, biting down silently.
“You’re getting distracted.”
Zuko sits up and slides back down slowly, Sokka’s length rutting into him until their thighs touch.
“Does it hurt?”
“No.” Zuko sighs contently when Sokka wraps a hand around his cock. “You feel good.”
Sokka groans from the throat, and his hands slip up his outer thighs and around to his ass. Zuko’s stomach clenches when Sokka squeezes, and he rocks up and forward to chase the feeling. Their breathing sounds lewd; the lanterns in the room are flickering to Zuko’s heartbeat, but Sokka doesn’t know that yet.
“You’re so quiet,” Sokka mumbles. Zuko is actually so hard his balls hurt, but he doesn’t say that.
Sokka sits back to look him over – zig sag lightning scars, sweat sticking his hair to his neck; Sokka tips his head back and mouths across the lump in his throat.
“Still really fucking hot. Can I roll you over?”
Zuko thinks about it. His thighs are starting to burn, not that he’ll ever admit it.
Sokka pulls out and Zuko slides to his back, and he white-knuckles the sheets when Sokka spreads his thighs and slips back in him. The room smells like sex and oil, and Zuko claws at Sokka’s wide back to get him closer.
“Gah, fuck,” Sokka winces, taking a moment to get that slow rhythm back. “You’re tighter than a girl.”
“No shit,” Zuko mumbles. Sokka grinds real, real slow, full of slippery heat and power, and Zuko doesn’t realize he’s made a sound until Sokka is sitting up on his elbows to stare down at him.
“Wow,” Sokka exhales, with sparkles in his eyes. Zuko bats his face away.
“You’re so annoying.”
“Please moan again.”
“No—ghh!” Zuko bites, and knees into Sokka’s hip to keep rolling with the pace he’s set.
“That’s it, wow,” Sokka rambles, hair dripping between them. “You’re so pretty, like, mmm, one of those glass dolls.” Sokka tests a harder thrust and Zuko doesn’t budge, and Sokka laughs a little, and it’s really sexy. “But you’re crazy strong, damn. I don’t even know what my type is anymore.”
Zuko feels into the shaved undercut of Sokka’s hair, and tastes his lips for a moment, before replying.
“I’ve seen your girlfriends. I don’t think your type has changed.”
Sokka laughs steamy against his cheek, “You know. You’re not wrong.”
No matter how he sees it, Zuko has formed a very unfortunate attachment to this man. Top, bottom, upside down and sideways, Zuko wishes he could stich them together thread by thread. He may not ever admit it out loud, but he sure does think it.
Sokka licks wetly into his mouth, and Zuko’s face heats when he makes another sound, but Sokka just echoes it back even louder, so his embarrassment is forgotten.
Sokka doesn’t give up on fucking him slowly into the downy pillows, and Zuko stops breathing when his stomach begins to twist and coil, and he chokes and shivers and squeezes at Sokka’s shoulder to say don’t stop, don’t – and Sokka figures out that he likes to have his neck played with, and it’s over as soon as he bites down and sucks. It’s like redirecting lightning, like an uncontrollable force passing through his entire body.
“Ah shit, ah shit that’s hot,” Sokka rambles, and he pulls out quick so Zuko can sloppily finish him off into his hand. The muscles in Sokka’s stomach twitch as he dips chin and moans, and Zuko throbs in sympathy.
“Sorry,” Zuko pants, his head falling back onto the pillows. “I can’t, ngh.” Sokka licks one final line from his sternum to the base of his neck, and Zuko bats him off. “Sokka.”
Sokka’s hair is sticky and sweaty just like Zuko’s, but it looks lewd rather than gross. Well, maybe it’s a little gross. Zuko finds it attractive anyways. Sokka fingers through the mess on Zuko’s stomach and mumbles, “Sheesh, you look obscene. Really wish I was a water bender right now.”
“Eeww you’re disgusting.”
Sokka sticks his fingers in his mouth, and Zuko’s entire body flushes.
“Don’t,” Zuko croaks, kneeing him away. “Don’t do that if you don’t wanna’ go again.”
Sokka grins wolfish and climbs up his body to try and kiss him, and Zuko squirms to avoid his mouth, and Sokka laughs as he kisses his chin and his jaw and the corner of his lips, and Zuko groans when Sokka finally lands one on him.
“You’re banished,” Zuko says, wiping his mouth.
Sokka snickers, and slaps him heavy on the thigh where the muscle is thickest. “You’re a priss. I kind of dig it.”
For some reason, Zuko wants to laugh. He’s never felt so light, so tingly all the way to his toes. Zuko just stares him, his eyes going all hazy, and Sokka hovers over him carefully.
“Hey guess what.”
“I’m falling in love with you too.”
When Zuko wakes again, it’s to fingers in his hair. It takes embarrassingly long for him to realize that Sokka is giving him water tribe braids.
Sokka is working at the spot next to his ear, pulling and twisting ever so lightly. Zuko peeps open his good eye, and Sokka pauses.
“Mmm.” Zuko reaches over and pulls Sokka’s thigh over his own. “What’s that one mean?”
“Taken,” Sokka grins. Zuko rolls his eyes, but lets Sokka resume his work. When he reaches the end of the small braid, he pulls out one of his own beads and ties off the end. “There. Very pretty.”
Zuko closes his eyes again as Sokka fusses with the braid. His fingers reach up to his ear, and it’s the first time Sokka has ever touched this scar, so Zuko lays very still. Sokka thumbs over the texture beneath his cheek, and when Zuko opens his eyes again, he sees Sokka frowning.
“Too weird?” Zuko asks. He knows it’s ugly, but at this point, he’s had the scar longer than he hasn’t.
“No!” Sokka gasps. “Not at all. I was just thinking, um…I need to apologize.”
“Huh? What for?”
Sokka clenches his jaw and turns serious.
“Zuko, you are nothing like your father.”
Zuko doesn’t know what face he makes. His breath catches somewhere, and everything just goes fuzzy and numb. The natural rasp in his voice nearly doubles.
“You – you don’t have to – I mean. Look, I know I had it coming…”
Sokka shakes his head. “No. I never should’ve said that. I didn’t mean it, you hear me? You’re already a thousand times the man he is, so don’t you ever let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Zuko doesn’t realize he’s crying until water slides sideways down his cheek and across his nose. Sokka jolts, gasping as he grabs Zuko’s face and hauls him to his chest.
“No no no-! Don’t cry baby, I’m so sorry.”
“Shut up,” Zuko croaks, hugging him back. “Just stop talking.”
“Okay. I, um, okay.” Pause. Sniffle. Pause. “You smell really good.”
“Agni,” Zuko laughs wetly, and smacks the back of his head. Sokka’s laugh is deep and annoying and cute, so Zuko wipes his nose on the front of his shirt and watches him screech.
He hasn’t felt so at ease with another person in a long time.
The sun festival is here.
Lanterns illuminate the streets in gold and red and orange. Dragon-dancers parade in circles, firebenders juggling fireballs on stilts; everything is covered in sun symbols to honor the spirit of Agni, and the capital smells like barbeque and fresh food.
Both Sokka and Zuko have agreed to wait until the festival passes to seek approval from the avatar before making any public appearances together as a couple. It is what it is.
Reluctant to remove his braid, Zuko hides it behind his ear during the ceremony. He carries the first flame of the festival up the stairs and into the bonfire; thousands are gathered to watch, ready for the festivities to begin.
“This week, we honor the life and power Agni has given us,” Zuko says ritually. The bonfire ignites, and Zuko lowers his hands into a resting firebender stance. “May our new year be sunny and prosperous.”
Cheering erupts from the crowd, and firebenders begin to dance on the stage. Zuko takes his leave, and Sokka steps out from behind one of the banisters.
“So, are you actually going to participate this year?” Sokka winks. Zuko wants to hold his fingers in his own, but keeps his hands carefully to himself.
“I’ll think about it. Go get me some peanuts.”
“Needy,” Sokka rolls his eyes. “I’ll drag you out sooner or later.”
“Can’t wait,” Zuko replies flatly, and doesn’t smile until Sokka has descended into the crowd. Musicians beat on hand drums, flute players and singers chanting traditional songs once forgotten.
“Great speech, sparky,” a voice says.
Zuko spins on his heel, and immediately smiles.
“Aang!” Arms wrap around him, and Zuko hugs Aang back. “What are you doing here?” Zuko pulls back to see Aang’s smiling face. “I thought you weren’t coming for two more days.”
“Katara was antsy,” Aang laughs. “You look good. I hope everything’s been alright in my absence.”
Aang is dressed in his air nomad colors, and it looks like he’s grown out the start of a beard.
“Sokka has been a big help,” Zuko admits, trying to keep his tone flat. “We’ll wait to talk business. Where is Bumi?”
Aang nods towards the foot of the stairs, where Katara is passing a chubby baby to a very excited uncle Sokka. Zuko physically feels his insides go squishy. Aang tucks his hands behind his back and grins.
“So how long have you two been together?”
Zuko’s eyes nearly pop out of his head. He eloquently flounders,
“Wuh – what?”
“Oh, come on,” Aang laughs. “I’m not that big of an airhead.”
“Are you using some Avatar trick on me?”
“Just my eyeballs,” Aang points, goofy. “I married a water bender. I know what that braid means.”
Zuko sighs, and resists the urge to unprofessionally rub his face.
“We…were going to wait to tell you.” Zuko looks to him – this tall, bearded man. “You’re not mad?”
The drums get louder, and cheering erupts from the crowd. Aang blinks at him owlishly.
“You were afraid to tell me?”
“Well… it’s not like anything good can come from this. And, um.” Zuko rubs his mouth. “We’re both men.”
Aang frowns, and for a moment Zuko wonders if he’s about to get lectured – but Aang’s face softens with understanding.
“All love was cherished in the air temples. The way I was raised – it wasn’t strange or taboo to the monks. Gender and sexuality were a loose concept.”
“That’s…kind of neat,” Zuko mulls. Aang giggles.
“This is going to be a real tornado. But you guys are my friends, so I’ve got your backs.”
Zuko grabs his shoulder and squeezes his thanks. He turns his head when he hears Katara and Sokka approaching past the guards.
“Hey!” Sokka calls, “I didn’t bring peanuts, but I got something better!”
Sokka passes him the baby, and Zuko cradles him in his arm.
“He’s big,” Zuko observes, pulling Bumi’s fat fingers out of his mouth.
“They grow pretty fast,” Katara smiles. Zuko hugs her with his free arm, and looks back to Bumi, who’s now babbling.
“You,” Zuko points, “—are all your mother.”
Bumi giggles, and Aang pouts.
“Huh, you think so?”
“Look at this hair!” Sokka ruffles the mop of hair on Bumi’s head.
“I’m not bald! I shave my head! Come on, you guys know this!”
“The eyes,” Zuko interrupts, and squeezes Bumi’s nose. “And this nose. Sorry Aang.”
“Dang,” Aang sighs.
Sokka is looking at him very intensely. Zuko raises his eyebrow, and Sokka just stares.
“Sorry,” Sokka blurts, and flushes red. “You’re uh – nevermind.”
Aang snorts, and Katara rolls her eyes.
“They know,” Zuko explains.
“Know what?” Sokka questions. Zuko gestures between them, and Sokka’s eyes bug, “Hold on – seriously?!”
Bumi begins to fuss, so Katara takes him back into her arms.
“Yeah. It’s kind of weird,” Katara admits, “But cute. You’re like star crossed lovers.”
Zuko and Sokka both make the exact same ick face, and Aang laughs heartily.
“Maybe I should’ve seen this coming.”
“This sucks,” Sokka pouts. “I can’t even surprise my own sister.”
“Woah woah woah, you two fucked?”
And then there were five.
“Toph!!” Katara gasps.
“Not you too!” Sokka wails.
Toph steps up the stairs and plants her fists on her hips. She is wearing her earth kingdom police uniform, and she looks as broad and strong as ever.
“Now why the hell wasn’t I invited to the party?”
“You were invited,” Zuko points out.
“I can’t read, stupid!”
More hugs go around, and Sokka brushes his fingers against Zuko’s as a sign of affection.
“Well well, look at this,” Sokka grins. “The gang’s all here.”
“Minus Suki,” Katara points. “How’s she been?”
“Great. Having the time of her life with the Kyoshi warriors.”
“What’s that thing?” Toph points in the general direction of Bumi.
“That’s our son.”
“Woah. That’s a big baby.”
“He’s six month’s old, Toph.”
“Oh. What’s he look like?”
“Adorable,” Aang interjects.
“Squishy,” Katara confirms.
“Damn, a lot really has changed around h-” Toph starts, but cuts off quickly. Her bare feet shift on the metal platform, and she whips her head around as if listening for something. Zuko tenses instinctually, right before Toph can shout, “Look out!!”
A rain of fire falls their way. Aang is already bending against it, as Toph peels up the ground to create a shield.
“Katara!” Aang shouts, but Katara is already sheltering Bumi in her arms, making a mad dash towards Appa.
The crowd is in chaos. Countless firebenders explode out of the dragon costumes, and people begin to scramble in a panic. Zuko breaks a second fireball, and Aang sends a burst of wind back.
“What the heck is going on?!” Aang shouts over the noise. The royal guards begin to create a blockade, running to evacuate civilians and stop the intruders, but a bolt of lightning cuts through their defenses.
“Shit,” Sokka curses, and peeks beyond the barricade. “The masks. Zuko, it’s more assassins.”
“There was a failed assassination attempt on my life last week,” Zuko explains quickly. Toph rapid-fires a wave of sharp metal, and Sokka yanks her back before she can get singed.
“Well, they made a serious tactical blunder,” Toph grins. “Good thing we came early.”
“Fire Lord! You must evacuate!” A guard calls.
“No. Protect the civilians,” Zuko commands, ripping off the sleeves of his robe. “We’ve got it.”
“Alright!” Sokka yanks the sword off a soldier’s hip, “Team avatar is back in business!”
A wave of water douses the fire, and the team darts out from behind Toph’s barricade.
It’s an easy fight. His biggest concern is a lava-bender who rolls out a wall of magma – which is definitely bad, because it means his father’s loyalists really are enlisting in fire and earth nation ninjas – but Aang’s eyes glow, and the magma cools into rock, and the threat is contained.
“We can’t even enjoy one festival,” Aang sighs, floating back towards the ground. Toph builds an earth prison for each of the traitors, and Zuko shakes the fire off his hands. Guards rush to support and arrest, but it’s already over.
“Someone paid you a lot of money for this,” Zuko muses, ripping off a mask. The woman squirms in the rock, turning her head to spit, and Toph cracks her knuckles and builds the prison higher.
“Is everyone okay?” Katara approaches.
“Yeah. Where’s Bumi?”
“Safe. Did someone really just try to kill the Fire Lord?”
“Yup.” Sokka pokes a man’s forehead with the hilt of his sword. “Real buncha’ geniuses.”
Aang frowns, and turns to Zuko. “It looks like we have a lot to talk about.”
Zuko half smiles in agreement, and Sokka grabs him by the waist and squeezes him snug to his hip.
“Hey, there ain’t nothing team Avatar can’t do!”
“Fire Lord Ozai will rise again,” the traitor hisses. Toph flicks her wrist and wraps a piece of metal around his mouth.
“Yeah yeah yeah. Keep crying, little baby.”
All the windows are open, and the festival music is distantly audible from the plaza. After a quick apology and an announcement of the Avatar’s arrival, the Fire Nation civilians slowly resumed their partying.
“Wow, look at us – one big happy family again,” Aang smiles.
The palace dining hall is so illuminated, it might as well be day.
“Ugh,” Katara coughs politely into her napkin, and takes a sip of water. “Why does all Fire Nation food have to be so spicy? I mean – thank you for the meal, but wow.”
“You get used to it,” Sokka shrugs.
“My asshole won’t,” Toph says, and Zuko honestly loses it.
“Toph!” Katara gasps, laughing but scandalized.
“Holy spirits,” Sokka cackles, and pats Zuko on the back as he wheezes. “I’ve never seen him laugh this hard.”
“Congratulations, you broke the Fire Lord.”
“Sorry,” Zuko clears his throat and tries again. “I can ask the cooks to make it less spicy.”
“Nah, I’m not a bitch.” Toph sucks up her noodles, and Aang laughs behind his hand.
“Is it really that bad?”
“Yes,” everyone answers.
“We don’t get many spices in the poles,” Katara explains. “We mostly hunt animals and freeze the meat.”
Zuko frowns. “Maybe we need to rework our spice trade.”
“Oh no no no. You’ll send the tribe into culture shock.”
“Yeah. Sounds like you’ll be doing enough of that as it is.”
Zuko and Sokka share a look, and innocently resume their meal.
“Here comes the flying bison!” Aang beams, and airbends a spoon of baby food into Bumi’s mouth.
With the cover of fireworks, Sokka takes his hand and holds it.
Tonight marks the end of the week-long festival. Team Avatar has spent the last four days discussing business as a group, and to Zuko, his friends’ advice has been invaluable. Each of them view the world a different way – through the eyes of the Avatar, the hands of a healer, or the feet of a metal-bending policewoman. After this, Zuko has a pretty good grasp on his goals for the Fire Nation.
New, non-murderous dragon dancers circle the plaza.
“Dancing used to be outlawed,” Sokka notes, his face brightened with random bursts of fireworks. “When did you change it?”
From up here, Zuko can see children dancing to folk music. Some are so young, they’ve never known a single war in their life. That’s the kind of future Zuko strives to keep.
“When I restored the sun festival,” Zuko explains.
“Why’d you do it?”
Zuko thumbs over the built-up callouses on Sokka’s palm; the mark of a swordsman.
“I didn’t know such a festival existed, until I found a history book buried at the back of the library. I asked Aang about it, and he said he remembered a time when the Fire Nation had some of the best dancers in the world. A time where people were always smiling.” Zuko pauses as a yellow firework lights the sky. “I wanted that world back.”
Sokka seems to think about that. He watches the sky, and then asks, “Do you dance?”
“Come on, show me that sun warrior tango!”
“Sokka,” Zuko exasperates, and Sokka laughs and turns to hold his face in his hands.
“You’re so cute sometimes, I can’t even take it.”
Boom! The firework rains down red and white crystals.
Zuko’s heart beats safely in his chest, behind a wall of muscle and scar and hope.
“Kiss me like I’m water tribe,” Zuko demands. Sokka’s eyes widen, and this time they light up green and blue. Cheering and music and fireworks sound off below, but it all tunes out to nothing as Sokka steps up to him, and slides his hands to cradle Zuko’s neck.
“Kunik is more affectionate than romantic,” Sokka warns.
“I want it anyways.”
Sokka brings their foreheads together, and purposefully bumps their noses. He breathes in – as if he’s trying to memorize Zuko’s scent – and tingles roll all the way to his toes. Sokka nuzzles his nose, then his cheek, and ends with a soft kiss to his forehead. Zuko opens his eyes, and Sokka’s face is flushed red.
Sokka steps back, stammering, “Um… yeah. So, t-there.”
Zuko snatches Sokka by the waist, and hauls him in to kiss the Fire Nation way.
Your advice was more valuable than you’ll ever know. I guess we’ll see where it goes from here. See you soon.
At first, Zuko and King Kuei clashed over the fire nation colonies spread throughout the Earth kingdom – but Aang’s suggestion to create the United Republic was the best possible outcome that Zuko never foresaw.
Republic City just feels like the future. When he sees an earth kingdom woman chatting happily with her friends dressed in fire-nation red, Zuko starts to really have hope for this place.
“It’s kind of surreal, isn’t it?” Sokka peeks out from the carriage window. “The buildings are so tall here.”
Zuko spits out Sokka’s hair, and hauls him in his lap just so Sokka will stop leaning over him. He turns around cheekily, and fans his face.
“Oh my, mister lord. What would the people think?”
Zuko rolls his eyes, leaning back in the carriage.
“I’m not bringing you places if you’re going to act like this.”
Sokka sticks out his tongue, and Zuko tries to grab it, but Sokka dodges and laughs.
“As the official Water Tribe representative of the United Republic Council, I must say I’m scandalized.”
Zuko holds him at the ribs and kisses him. Sokka kisses back, open mouthed and gentle. Their lips are sticky from the bay humidity.
“You’re going to be spending a lot of time here,” Zuko points out.
“No more than you. Oh look! Cabbage guy has a shop here! Wow that’s a lot of cabbages…”
“Hm. Cabbage Corp? Sounds like a stupid name.”
Peace doesn’t come easily. But they’re getting there. Zuko wants to create a world that feels just as serene as mother’s garden. It might be just a pipe dream; but they’ve come too far to stop now.
After a long, long struggle on Sokka’s part, Zuko is finally convinced to crawl in the bath with him.
This love is not accepted by many. But those who disagreed with his lifestyle were free to leave the palace, and now Zuko’s council is filled with open-minded opportunists and hopeful dreamers – and that’s what matters.
It’s hard to get Sokka this quiet. He’s always talking about something, (even if it’s nothing), and in these passing years Zuko has grown used to the background noise. If anything, he looks forward to it.
But Sokka is quiet behind him, head lulled back on the tub, Zuko pulled tight to his chest. They’re just skin on skin on skin, sticky and clean and relaxed. Both of them have their hair tied up high, but strands still stick to their cheeks from the steam.
Zuko uses his hands to heat the water further. Sokka makes a happy noise behind him.
“Sooo useful,” he coos. Zuko gets his hands to a safe temperature, and kneads them into Sokka’s bad leg, where he once broke it during the invasion. The sound Sokka makes is near pornographic.
“You’re just using me,” Zuko teases. Sokka makes a contemplative noise, and might’ve mumbled an argument, but it sounds too sleepy to understand. It’s okay. After everything Sokka has done for him, Zuko will heat all the baths he wants.
Sokka hates eating alone. It’s lonely, it sucks, the food doesn’t taste as good, and there’s no sexy distraction from the fire nation spices trying to fry your brain through your sinuses.
In fact, there is a very specific sexy distraction that Sokka is missing.
“The Fire Lord isn’t taking any visitors – ” the guard starts to say, but when Sokka removes his hood, the guard backpedals. “Forgive me, sir. Please enter.”
“That’s what I thought.”
The door swings open, and Sokka sneaks into the main hall.
Agh, that dumbass.
Zuko is half asleep on the throne. His head is lulled in his hand, and the dark circles under his eyes are at least two days old, and Sokka is so going to wring his attractive little neck.
“Oh darling,” Sokka calls sweetly, approaching the foot of the throne. “You’re missing dinner.”
Zuko jolts upright.
“Shit. What time is it?”
“Sorry,” Zuko rubs his eyes. “I’m waiting on one last appointment.”
“Well they’re fucking late, and you look like hell.”
Well – it’s part of the truth. Sokka knows what Zuko looks like at full health; but no matter what, Zuko looks sexy on that dumb throne. Legs spread, eyes downturned, hair long over his shoulder. Whenever Sokka spots the braid at his temple, he feels like he needs a dip in the arctic.
Sokka kneels at his feet, and Zuko’s eyes snap to him.
“I leave for one week, and you’re already like this…” Sokka pets up his firm outer thighs, and looks up at Zuko through his lashes. “I’m right to worry about you.”
Zuko’s face is unreadable to most, but Sokka sees the interest in his eyes.
“Sorry. I wanted to get this done all at once so I’d have more time with you.”
Awwwww. Sokka’s heart does a little cartwheel, and he smiles cheekily.
“That’s really sweet. I feel like good behavior should get rewarded.”
Zuko’s eyes widen fractionally, and he stops Sokka by the wrist before he can reach for his sash.
“I’m still waiting on that last meeting. Just eat without me, and we can do whatever you want tomorrow.”
Sokka pouts. He takes that hand and presses his lips to Zuko’s fingertips.
“But I’m here tonight.” Sokka folds his fingers and kisses his knuckles. “I’m right in front of you. Don’t you want me?” He watches Zuko swallow heavily, before he takes Zuko’s fingers into his mouth and sucks.
“Sokka,” Zuko rasps, and it’s beautiful like always. He has this grainy tone – this bass he gets when he’s interested, and it always rolls down Sokka’s spine all tingly-like.
Sokka takes him deep enough to spin his wedding ring with his tongue, before pulling back and pressing Zuko’s wet hand to his neck, where the black and red betrothal necklace stays tight around his throat.
“Are you really going to make your husband beg?”
Zuko’s expression is blank for a moment longer, before he grabs Sokka roughly by the neck and hauls him into his lap. Sokka goes up laughing, meeting his furious kisses with sweeter ones.
“You’re supposed to encourage me to work,” Zuko reminds.
“No, I’m supposed to encourage you to let me blow you in this throne.”
“The spirits would absolutely curse us for that.”
“If they haven’t already the last dozen times,” Sokka mulls. Zuko sighs in defeat, and Sokka beams, nuzzling his nose and his cheek and breathing in happily. Zuko meets his kisses, and Sokka can’t help but repeat, “I love you, I love you,” because it’s true. It’s sooo fucking true, it’s embarrassing.
Zuko noses over an old scar on his shoulder. Sokka loves the feeling of Zuko’s hands up his back. It gives him goosebumps whenever Zuko decides to chase after something he wants.
“Love you too.”
“When are you going to get me a baby?”
“Soon,” Zuko promises.
Sokka hums skeptically, and he taps Zuko’s round lower lip with his finger as he teases.
“Then I guess we should get started on making one.”
“Ha-ha,” Zuko replies sarcastically, but they really do their damndest to try.
Oh, this man. This absolute death of him.
“You know,” Iroh says. “It’s a national crime for you to keep my great-niece away from me for so long.”
Izumi is a quiet girl, but she runs straight into Iroh’s arms.
“Is that right?” Sokka laughs.
“Must be a new rule,” Zuko muses, automatically righting one of the tea shop chairs, and grabbing an apron off the wall.
Izumi beams as Iroh lifts her in his arms.
“Now Zuko, you know you don’t have to work every time,” Iroh chuckles. Zuko gives him a hug, as does Sokka.
“He likes to do it,” Sokka says. “You know he insists on making all our own tea now?”
“You said you weren’t going to tell him!”
“Ahhh, I see that good taste does run in the family,” Iroh smiles. He squeezes Izumi’s cheek, and she shyly hides in his neck. “Well then, please prepare me something exquisite!”
“Grab the board, old man,” Sokka yanks out a chair and straddles it backwards. “I’ve got a new strategy that’s going to blow your sweaty sandals off.”
“Daddy,” Izumi frowns, slipping out of Iroh’s arms. “I want to warm the tea.”
“Come here darling,” Zuko calls. Sokka gets a dreamy look in his eye, and Zuko rolls his own, before collecting his daughter and showing her the pot.
“Firebender?” Iroh asks.
“No,” Sokka smiles. “She just wants to do everything Zuko does. He’s her hero right now.”
Iroh sets the board, and while his face has grown more wrinkles, his hands are no less steady.
“Don’t be dismayed. One day, she will realize that you are her hero as well.”
“Oh, I know,” Sokka chirps. “I’m the best at fighting the bed monsters, isn’t that right baby?”
Izumi nods with the teacup in her hand, “Mmhm!!”
Zuko covers her hands in his own, and the teapot heats gently. Sokka can see him bend down to whisper in her ear and point, and Izumi comes running with the tea.
“Careful,” Zuko warns, and Izumi slows her step. Iroh eats it up completely – between Zuko’s mother henning, and Izumi’s eagerness to please, he makes a dramatic show of enjoying the tea.
Sokka scoops Izumi up into his lap and lets her move the Pai Sho tiles, and it’s a short memory in the book of life, but it sure is a good one.
When uncle is ushered back in bed, and Izumi is conked out long past her bedtime, Zuko finds Sokka’s fingers in the hall and asks, “Take a walk with me?”
Sokka laughs, muffling it with a short kiss to keep quiet.
“Oh my, a romantic stroll through Ba Sing Se? I’m going to swoon.”
Zuko swats his ass.
“Watch your pockets.”