Sokka expects the drive through New Mexico to be moody or broody or quiet, but it’s not. Something in Zuko seems to have settled itself in Texas. He’s less anxious and more balanced, almost mellow. Not that Zuko’s ever been truly mellow in his life.
He still nearly has a meltdown when he realizes that Sokka posted a photo of him wearing Sokka’s hat to his Instagram, made worse by the fact that there are over a hundred comments left on that photo alone.
“People like you!” Sokka insists. “They think you’re cute.”
“They don’t even know me.”
“Well, I like you, and I think that you’re cute. Photos are a window to the heart, you know.”
Zuko goes pink and mumbles something unintelligible under his breath, and breaks his own rule about not stopping anywhere else on the way home.
Technically, Carlsbad Caverns are on their way, and technically they do have a little extra time from Zuko being bad at sleeping and doing more night driving that Sokka is entirely comfortable with. It’s worth the visit, though; they end up walking both of the self-guided cave trails and it takes way longer than the estimated times that Zuko looks up before they get there.
It’s like looking up at the night sky but in a different, more alien sort of way. Every so often Zuko has to stop and take a picture of a particularly mesmerizing stalagmite, and at one point sits straight down in the middle of the trail, stares up at the ceiling, and breathes. The fact that the caverns are chilly enough that he’s wearing his Sasquatch hoodie from Colorado is both hilarious and annoying, because Zuko has yet to let Sokka forget how much he made fun of him for buying it in the first place.
(Sokka takes at least a hundred photos that day, and doesn’t even post his favorite. It’s a photo of Zuko, sitting cross-legged on the ground and looking serene as a monk, framed on all sides by spires of rock. His hands are folded in his lap and he’s staring upwards with an unreadable expression on his face. It’s such a good photo that it makes Sokka’s heart hurt, and he doesn't want the rest of the world to see it.)
(The one that eventually goes up is just as good but way less personal. There’s no cell reception in the caves, of course, but Zuko made a point of renting an audio guide from the bookstore, because of course he did, the absolute nerd. The photo is candid and precious, because Zuko’s terrible at talking to people he doesn’t know but for some reason he’s like catnip to little kids and they all immediately love him, and when Sokka sees him kneel down on the ground in front of someone’s escaped child and start talking to them about bats, he has to take the shot.
Zuko complains the moment he sees it.
“I look so stupid. What the hell am I even doing with my hands?”
“I’m pretty sure that was when you were talking about how technically, bats have hands and fingers. Why do you even know that?”
“Why does anyone talk to me?” Zuko buries his face in his hands and groans a little. Sokka can’t kiss him right then, because he’s driving and that would be irresponsible as shit, but god, he wants to.
“Because you’re adorable. See? Tonystank420 said so. They also say that I hope I’m getting it.”
“Whether you’re ever going to get it again is an excellent question.”
That’s also adorable, and a total lie.)
Arizona is huge and boring and hot as hell.
It’s a pretty enough drive for the first few hours—all rock formations and cacti and everything that anyone thinks of when they think of Arizona.
“It’s for the aesthetic,” he tells Zuko as he takes his fifth, slightly different photo of his feet out the window, framed against the backdrop of sunset and shadow. Zuko rolls his eyes but slows to a crawl when the road is empty enough that it’s safe to do it; Sokka makes sure to catch his indulgent side-eye in the corner of his next selfie.
“Hey,” Zuko says, and pulls off the road completely. “Can I take a picture of you? You know, for the aesthetic.”
That has to be bullshit but Zuko looks serious about it. For all the hundreds of photos that Sokka’s taken on this trip, and out of the sizable amount of selfies, Zuko has never asked to take one of him before. They’ve taken plenty together, weird ones and goofy ones and serious ones, but this feels different.
“Do you, uh, want to be in it?”
Zuko shakes his head. It’s so hot that he’s tied his hair up in a messy bun, and he manages to look so casually, accidentally gorgeous even with a sheen of sweat on his forehead that Sokka would hate him a little for it if he didn’t like him so damn much.
“No. Just you. Can I?”
“Um.” Sokka unclicks his seatbelt and shifts, suddenly self-conscious in the open window. “Sure. Why not? Do you want me to do anything specific?”
Zuko shakes his head again and rejects Sokka’s offer to use his phone, taking out his own to use instead.
“No. Just be as you are.”
Sokka’s used to posing or being the one behind the camera—definitely not being the subject of someone else’s photo. It’s different and a little uncomfortable, especially to watch Zuko focus hard on his screen the way he does when he takes a picture of anything. Sokka takes a lot at a time and deletes the ones that suck, keeping only the good ones; Zuko uses the little patience he has to try and get it on the first try.
“You know,” Sokka says, “You’ve seen, like, all of mine. You haven’t shown me very many of yours, though. You don’t post them anywhere.”
“Should I post them?”
“If you wanted to,” Sokka replies. “Instagram would love you.”
Zuko makes a considering little hum under his breath, and Sokka forgets, just for a moment, that he’s under Zuko’s photographic scrutiny until he hears the digital snap of a shutter.
“Oh, shit, you got it?”
(Later, Sokka will remember that he hasn’t seen very many of Zuko’s photos from their trip, and ask to see them. It’s late and Zuko’s already mostly asleep, but he fishes his phone out anyway.
“Don’t judge me,” he mumbles tiredly when he hands it over. Sokka knows his password and unlocks it.
Zuko’s photos are organized, because of course they are. Sokka’s been so busy taking his own pictures that he hasn’t realized just how many that Zuko has taken. There are a ton— of the scenery and pretty, picturesque landscapes framed nicely through the car window that Sokka remembers seeing during long stretches when it was his turn to drive. There are several hundred just from Yellowstone. There’s photos of birds, and rabbits, and the black snake that slithered out from under a bush in front of their sketchy motel in Virginia. There is an embarrassing number just of his lobster roll.
And there are photos of Sokka, too.
There’s plenty of selfies, because Sokka is a good friend who doesn’t have to be asked to text them over as soon as they’re taken, but there are a lot of candids, too. There’s a photo of Sokka in Oregon, barking at a sea lion and a few from Maine. There’s a particularly good one from the day Zuko buried him in the sand, pre-castle, where he’d simply piled sand on top of him to make it look like Sokka had a pair of tits.
There are enough photos, taken with such care and affection that Sokka wants to fucking cry.)
Zuko examines the photo he’s just taken with an unreadable look on his face. He looks at it for a very long time, and Sokka both very much wants to see it and is also, suddenly, very afraid of it.
“...Is it good?” Sokka asks. Zuko hands him the phone without a word, and Sokka goes very still as he looks it over.
Objectively, it’s a great photo. The lighting is excellent, with just enough light behind Sokka’s head to form a halo without obscuring his face with shadow. Sokka hasn’t ever seen his face do what it’s doing in that frozen second—he’s been caught in the space between word and thought and he’s wearing the softest, sappiest smile he’s ever seen on anyone ever. It’s not a big, huge smile but it’s a look straight out of a romance film.
He didn’t even know that his face could do that.
“Are you a fucking wizard? There’s no way that I look like that.” For a split second, Zuko looks almost like he’s gotten his feelings hurt, until he realizes that Sokka’s mostly kidding and completely incredulous. “Who the hell looks like that?”
“You do,” Zuko answers very quietly. Part of his hair is coming out of his bun and Sokka doesn’t think twice about reaching out to tuck it back behind his ear. “You look like that.”
“Lies!” Sokka scoffs. He doesn’t expect Zuko to grab him by the collar, tug him across the center console, and kiss him soundly. “That’s cheating! You can’t just win everything by kissing your way out of it—“ Whatever was going to come after that is lost in Zuko’s lips on his once more and a hand rifling through his hair to pull it out of its tie.
“Admit that that’s what you look like,” Zuko demands.
“No! I’ll admit that you’re magical before that fucking happens.”
Zuko, in one fluid motion that should one hundred percent be illegal, yanks hard on the bar at the edge of his seat to let it slam all the way back and manages to haul Sokka by the waist all the way across the console so that he’s practically in his lap. Far from being annoyed, his grin is bright and sharp.
“Yer a wizard, Sokka.”
“You ridiculous—ow! “ his head slams into the roof and clearly, the best option that Sokka has is to lower his face and kiss the smirk right off of Zuko’s annoying, smug face. “This doesn’t mean that you win.” Teeth nipping into his lower lip and a tongue licking into his mouth say plainly that Zuko thinks otherwise. Sokka pulls back to speak again and this time a hand braces the back of his head before he can whack himself again. “You’re so annoying. You can’t just let me win?”
Zuko’s fingers on his head card through Sokka’s wolftail in a way that’s way too distracting for its own good.
“No,” he says.
“Come on.” Sokka is not above whining. “Just let me have this.”
“No,” Zuko insists stubbornly. The hilarity of this is not lost on Sokka, parked on the side of the road in the middle of Buttfuck Nowhere, Arizona, hotter than shit and somehow managing to muster up the energy to kiss-fuss out of sheer obstinance. Sokka can think of way worse ways to die, even if it’s probably going to be from heat stroke.
“Sweetie.” Sokka slips his fingers down the neck of Zuko’s t-shirt and twists so that he can properly straddle his lap without the steering wheel digging into his back. “Sweetie.”
By all accounts, Zuko should be used to hearing it, but the pet name still makes his ears go pink.
“You—“ Sokka ducks down and kisses Zuko right in the middle of his forehead, “Are really fucking cute, and really fucking annoying. Do you want me to die here in this car? I’m dramatic enough to do it. You’ll have to drive all the way back to California with my dead body and tell my dad that I died because you wouldn’t let me win and wanted to make out in your car like we’re horny teenagers instead.”
“Sokka.” Zuko sighs and uses both of his hands to frame Sokka’s cheeks, pulling him closer until their foreheads touch. “First of all, we are horny teenagers, so I don't know what you’re talking about. Second, shut up.” The kiss that follows is sweet and lazy and full of so much unmistakable care that Sokka feels like he’s either going to explode or cry.
“You’re such a brat.”
Sokka knows from the start that he’s going to lose his argument here and may never win another one again, but has such a good time in the process that he doesn’t even care.
Zuko nearly crashes the car when Sokka sees the sign for California and screeches loudly at him to pull over.
“Why? It’s just a sign.”
“Do it, do it, do it!”
Realizing the futility in protest, Zuko obeys but in the most purposefully irritating way he knows how: carefully and like a half-blind grandma. Sokka scrambles out of the car and bounds over to the sign. It’s not one of the really big, fancy ones, but one of the smaller ones that’s low to the ground and just a little bit taller than Sokka’s head, and it begs for a photo.
Welcome To California.
Sokka expects to be a little sad or melancholic over being so close to home but the joy is a little more startling.
“Hey, hey, come here!” He beckons Zuko over, out of the car. “Let’s take a selfie together.”
“Do I have to?”
“Yes. Shut up and quit pretending you don’t love taking pictures with me.” Zuko stomps his way over and when he’s close enough, Sokka loops his arm around his shoulders to reel him in close, making sure to catch the Welcome To California framed just above their heads. “Say cheese, babe.”
Zuko does not say cheese. Zuko, instead of saying cheese, waits until Sokka’s finger is on the button and at the last second tilts his head, closes his eyes, and lays a kiss on him right there in the sunshine on the side of the highway.
(It’s a ridiculous photo.
Zuko looks great, the absolute asshole, but Sokka’s a mess of surprise and wide eyes and a horrible, obvious blush blooming high on his cheekbones.
It’s an excellent photo and Sokka is furious about it. He also low key makes it the wallpaper on his lock screen.)
They eat lunch on the side of the road, cobbled together from the snacks and other nonperishables that have been living in Zuko’s backpack: some diy trail mix because someone on this trip is a pain who hates raisins and it isn’t Sokka, two overpriced gas station bananas, and a sandwich and a half of peanut butter and fluff using the last of the bread because Zuko won’t eat raisins but has no problem eating the bread ends.
They’ve had plenty of practice eating in the back of Zuko’s car. Weirdly, it’s something that Sokka thinks he’s going to miss a little bit.
“Hey,” he says, breaking through the quiet that comes from the determination to finish a jar of peanut butter come hell or high water, even if they end up having to chew like Mr. Ed, “We should keep doing this in the fall.”
“What, run away from the state and all our responsibilities on a cross country joyride? Sign me up.”
Sokka swats harmlessly at Zuko’s shoulder for his sass.
“No,” he grumbles, “Just, like, pick a day and drive somewhere and do lunch like this. It doesn’t have to be anywhere special.” It sounds stupid to actually say it. It doesn’t make sense, really. Eating out of the car isn’t particularly comfortable or practical, but Sokka likes it. He likes the quiet and the warm, solid line of Zuko’s body pressed up against his. “Or not, if you don’t want to,” he amends when Zuko just stares at him.
“No.” Zuko sways a little and bumps Sokka’s shoulder with his own. “I like it. I want to.”
Idly, Sokka scrolls through the photos on his camera roll and stops, as he knew he always would, on the sign selfie.
He’s posted at least one photo every day of this trip. Sometimes more but always at least one. There have been a lot of selfies, plenty of scenery, candids, and just as many of Zuko, doing Zuko things. The point is that, despite regularly getting comments and questions about his cute boyfriend, and never once denying it even before it was true, he has yet to post any real confirmation of their relationship.
It feels like a big deal.
It’s nobody’s business, really, especially not randos on the Internet, but Sokka kind of wants to confirm it. More specifically, he wants to scream about it from the rooftops until he loses his voice. He doesn’t realize how long he’s been staring at it until Zuko bumps him again.
“Hey. You okay?”
“Yeah! I’m great.”
“Found the secrets of the universe in there?”
Sokka turns his phone around to show Zuko the photo he’s looking at, and has the still-unbelievable experience of watching his best friend’s face soften right before his eyes.
“Would you be upset if I posted this one? To my Insta, I mean.”
Zuko’s not big on social media in general, and probably would never find out even if Sokka went ahead and posted it without asking. It doesn’t feel right, though, to not ask him first, even if he would never see it.
“Do you want to post it?”
Sokka smiles, crooked and a little embarrassed.
“Yeah, I wanna post it. It feels like I’m keeping you a secret and I don’t want to. I want to brag about you.”
“Then post it,” he says firmly. “And send it to me, too. I want a copy.”
When Sokka posts his photo, sitting in the driver’s seat and getting ready to go, he doesn’t touch it up. He doesn’t add a filter or any fun effects, or even any hashtags. It barely even gets a caption, just a single, yellow emoji heart. Almost immediately, his phone starts blowing up with notifications. Sokka catches Zuko’s raised, questioning eyebrow, and makes a show of turning off his phone and tossing it into the backseat.
“Let’s go,” he says, and starts the car.
(Later, alone in his room for the first time in what feels like forever, Sokka’s phone will buzz with a text from Zuko.
Check my facebook, is all it says. Zuko didn’t use his social media very much before everything went down in the courts, and Sokka knows that he hasn’t posted anything in almost a year. Only old people use Facebook, Sokka’s teased for years. Sokka checks anyway, and has to bury his face in his pillow to keep from screaming.
Zuko’s changed his profile picture.
Sokka stares at it for a very long time until he’s sure that he’s not hallucinating that Zuko’s profile picture is a very loud declaration of intent. Sokka stares at his own face reflected back at him, startled and surprised in the moment of being kissed unexpectedly. He hasn’t said the word love yet, not where Zuko could really hear him, but he texts him the heart emoji anyway.
It’s not the same, but he’ll know.)
“You know,” Sokka says, less than an hour away from home, “We could just...keep driving?” For all that he’s happy to be back, he doesn’t want this to end. He wants to stay in this car, with Zuko, forever.
Zuko reaches across the center console and takes his hand.
“No,” he says, very softly. “No. We have to go home.”
Sokka gives his hand a squeeze.
“I know. I just wanted to make sure.”