Zuko calls at three in the morning and says, tears in his voice and rage through his teeth, “I want to run away.”
It’s Sokka’s turn to carry the brain cell in his household but he doesn’t waste a second before he’s saying, “Tell me when and where—I’m coming too.”
Where turns out to be a block away from Sokka’s driveway, and when turns out to be approximately fifteen minutes after Sokka hangs up the phone.
Sokka’s car is bigger and a little more comfortable, but Zuko’s gets better gas mileage. They’re too young and too broke to think about renting a car but even if they weren’t, Sokka doesn’t think that he’d want to.
I’m here, Zuko texts, Come to the other end of the street.
Dad’s gonna kill them both for this, Sokka thinks, and ultimately decides that he doesn’t care. He’s eighteen years old and has just graduated and starting college in the fall—everyone should take one badly planned road trip before the onset of adulthood, right? It won’t be longer than a day or two, anyway.
It’s easy to throw a few sets of clothes, his phone charger, his Switch, and a few other doodads into the backpack he’d used for school only a week ago. Dad sleeps like the dead so he doesn’t hesitate to stop in the kitchen and gather up some snacks and a few cans of cola and the last unopened bag of Cheetos (sorry, Katara).
Sokka leaves a note on Dad’s forehead that promises to call him in the morning, when he’s far enough away to not be murdered on sight.
Zuko’s waiting in his car at the other end of the street.
Sokka throws himself into the passenger seat and chucks his bag in the back.
“Where are we going?” He asks, and gets a thick stack of pamphlets tossed into his lap.
“You pick,” Zuko says, just a little bit wild around the eyes and looking seconds away from bolting. Sokka gets it. He’s had a hard year—more of a hard life, if Sokka’s being honest. They’ve finally gotten enough hard evidence to put Ozai away, thank god, and Zuko was a mess for the entire month leading up to graduation. Unfortunately, having a verdict isn’t the same thing as having a sentence, and now Sokka’s best friend has something new to obsess over: having to show up in court for sentencing before classes start in the fall.
Sokka thought that he’d been doing better.
Zuko has not been doing better.
Sokka hands Zuko a cold coke without being asked for it and flips through the pamphlets. He doesn’t know where they came from—there’s a few from what seems to be every state.
Finally, he pulls one out of the stack and opens it.
“Let’s start with the redwoods,” he says, “And see where we go from there.”
Sokka does not die by way of his father.
It’s a close call, but this is what Dad deserves for being so determined, throughout Sokka’s eighteen years of life, to be The Cool Dad. Maybe if he’d been a little tougher, Sokka wouldn't have swanned off for a road trip in the middle of the night. Dad just doesn’t get that sometimes it’s just way better to apologize than ask permission.
When the sun begins to crack over the horizon, Zuko asks Sokka to look up the nearest open grocery. They don’t buy a lot, mostly just snacks and stuff that doesn’t require refrigeration that Zuko stuffs into an empty duffel bag.
A few hours past nine in the morning, Sokka asks Zuko if he told Iroh about leaving.
“He knows,” the other boy says quietly, focused on the road and occasionally checking the gps to make sure they’re still going the right way, “He’s fine with it.”
“Is he really?”
Dad is cool as shit but he’s nowhere near that cool. Sokka would not have pegged Zuko’s Uncle Iroh for being that cool.
“Maybe fine’s not a great word,” Zuko amends. “But he knows and he told me I could. I just—I have to be back for sentencing. And he told me I have to call or text every day. He’ll probably check in with you too—I gave him your number.”
That won’t be hard. Zuko is ridiculously attached to his uncle, and Iroh is swiftly taking Dad’s place as Coolest Adult Sokka Knows.
It’s not quite ten when Sokka has Zuko pull over and switch seats so he can drive the rest of the way. Zuko’s a careful driver, but Sokka can see him getting tired, and neither of them are willing to risk an accident. Zuko passes out five minutes after Sokka restarts the car and doesn’t wake up until they get to the park and Sokka has to gently shake him awake.
Sokka’s never seen such massive trees in his entire goddamned life. He’s glad he packed walking shoes for this, because if he couldn’t properly do the trails because of improper footwear he’s pretty sure he’d cry. Zuko’s prepared enough, at least, carrying a backpack with his own, reusable metal water bottle and an extra plastic one for Sokka, a few ziploc baggies of cashews and dried cranberries, and sunscreen.
It’s a quiet walk.
Sokka offers to be in charge of the map, and Zuko lets him. Sokka fills the void with enough chatter to keep it from total silence but Zuko’s not really in a talking mood. He’s never chatty , not the way that Sokka is, but he’s still holding tension in his shoulders and in the space between his eyes.
Sokka can’t resist taking plenty of photos—a photo of the trees here, a selfie where all you can see in the background is trunk, and his favorite doesn’t even have him in it at all.
Sokka catches it by complete chance.
Maybe Zuko’s tired, maybe it’s only coincidence. Maybe the feeling of smallness—something that Sokka feels fully every time he looks up, finally hits him. If Sokka hadn’t been watching (because Zuko’s in a weird mood and needs looking after), he wouldn’t have caught it. It only lasts a moment but that moment is enough.
One second, Zuko standing very still next to one of the giant redwoods, the next he’s got both hands planted on the trunk, and he leans forward to press his forehead to cool, russet bark.
Maybe it’s because the lighting is great, or because aesthetically it’s a great photo, but Sokka takes the shot.
Later that evening, when they’re heading back to the car and Sokka’s trying to figure out which photos he wants to post to his Instagram, he knows which one is going to go up.
“Are you ready to go home?” Sokka asks.
Zuko’s already flipping through his stack of travel pamphlets.
“How do you feel about sea lions?” Zuko ignores his question entirely. “Oregon’s got a cave of sea lions. And a lighthouse.”
Sokka moves going home to the back of the stack.
Dinner consists of peanut butter and honey sandwiches and fruit cups of diced peaches thrown back like shots.
It’s late by the time they reach the outskirts of Florence and instead of getting a motel, they end up sleeping in the car in the parking lot of a Walmart. Sokka points out the sign that says no overnight parking and Zuko looks at him like he’s stupid.
Zuko’s back seats fold down and while it’s not the comfiest night’s sleep that Sokka’s ever had, it’s far from the worst. Zuko, ever prepared for apparently anything except the tribulations of his own existence, has a stolen sofa pillow for each of them and a king-size comforter, which takes sleeping comfort from a two up to a solid five.
It’s not perfect, though.
Sokka wakes up more than once and every time, Zuko’s still awake and staring up at the sky through the sunroof. It’s still a parking lot at Walmart, though, and there’s too much light pollution to see any but the very brightest stars.
“Hey,” Sokka whispers at two am, “Why aren’t you sleeping?”
“You’re gonna be too tired to enjoy the sea lions.”
“No such thing,” Zuko retorts with a crooked tilt of his lips, but it slips right off his face and soon as he stops actively trying to hold it.
“Can I help? You won’t be any good to drive at all if you don’t rest.”
Zuko shrugs again and returns to staring out the sunroof. He’s searching for something, and Sokka doesn’t know if he’s looking for stars or something else entirely.
After what takes way too long with all the lights in the lot, Sokka manages to find Sirius in the inky stretch of sky above them.
“Hey, look where I’m pointing,” Sokka points to Sirius out the roof of the car, “You see that star? The really bright one? That’s Sirius A, the dog star. You know, people only ever talk about that one because it’s the brightest, but it’s actually a binary star? There’s a second star that you can’t really see. People always say that to find your way, you should look for Polaris, but that’s bullshit. Look for Sirius instead, and it’ll show you where south is. And over there, by Sirius?” Sokka shifts his hand. “That’s Orion, it’s easy to find him because of his belt. Over there—you can barely see it, fuck these lights—there’s a cluster of stars called the Pleiades, the seven sisters.”
Thanks to Dad, Sokka practically grew up on the water and knows the stars like he knows his own heart. He can recite this in his sleep.
As he talks, he lowers his voice to a soft, easy lecture. The more Sokka talks, the more Zuko relaxes until he’s curled in a graceful ‘c’ shape. He’s not so close that he’s touching but he’s close enough that Sokka can feel the warmth of his breath as he slides into sleep.
Zuko starts blinking very, very slowly right around the time that Sokka starts talking about Vega in the constellation Lyra, and Deneb and Albireo in Cygnus. Sokka rolls over to tell him about how to use the Northern Cross to tell the seasons, Zuko, finally asleep as he should be, rolls into him to fit himself into the space between them. Sokka’s too drowsy to think too hard about how easy it is to wrap his arms around his friend and curl around him.
The backseat, once hard and uncomfortable in it’s folded-seat glory, is now unspeakably cozy, and it’s so easy to fall back asleep.
Sokka knows that Zuko is awake because there’s a hard thud from the backseat of a body rolling in between the still-folded seats and the front ones when he brakes for a stoplight and a lot of swearing.
“Son of a bitch motherfucker—“
“If you can unwedge yourself without making me crash your car, I have breakfast for you.” Sokka keeps his eyes on the road and shakes the McDonalds bag. “I got you extra hash browns.”
Zuko manages to pry himself out of the space between the seats with a minimum of kicking and a whole lot of profanity. He makes a solid attempt to climb back over the seat, but Sokka screeches loudly enough that he gives up and settles back down in the remnants of last night’s blanket nest.
At the next stoplight, Sokka hands him the bag.
“Also, good morning.”
Zuko’s reply is muffled into his sausage biscuit, but Sokka understands him anyway.
“You could have gotten me up,” Zuko says when his mouth is empty.
“Nah, I ain’t that mean. You were sleeping like a baby. You’re just in time for the fun part—we’re about ten minutes out.”
“Pull over so I can climb up front? Anyone pulls us over, we’re screwed if I’m not wearing a seatbelt. And by we, I mean I.”
“Nope! You can either chill in your burrito or put the seat up. I stop when we park and not a moment before.”
Katara wouldn’t think twice about flipping the seat up and putting on her seat belt. Neither would Aang. Zuko, however, despite his protests, curls back up in his nest and pretends to be luggage every time they pass a cop car.
The sea lions are loud and annoying, and Sokka loves them.
Look, it’s you! He texts Katara with a photo of one that looks like it’s yelling.
She immediately sends back a frowny face and a surly wish I’d gotten an end of the year road trip. Dad is so mad at you.
Sokka doesn’t know how to tell her that even though he’s having fun, he’s pretty sure that this trip isn’t just for fun.
There’s a kitschy little gift shop that Zuko spends what feels like a thousand years picking out the perfect, sea lion-themed tchotchke to bring home to his uncle, and Sokka thinks hard about what he wants for lunch.
In between thinking about lunch, he snaps a photo of Zuko thinking way too hard about whether Iroh would prefer a sea lion Christmas ornament or a sea lion incense holder (both are tacky as hell and Iroh will love either of them), and posts it to his Instagram.
He also finds a plastic sea lion snapper toy and, after having way too much fun bothering Zuko with it, decides to buy it for Katara. She can use it on Aang; he’ll love it.
“Are you ready to go home, yet?”
Zuko doesn’t have to answer for Sokka to know what his answer is.
“You know,” Sokka continues as if he’d never spoken in the first place, “There’s an Air Bnb in Idaho that’s been built out of a giant potato? Dunno how much it costs but we could give it a look-see.”
The first sketchy hotel room happens, ironically, right after the potato Air Bnb.
Sokka, personally, attests that sleeping in a giant potato is the best thing he could have done with two hundred bucks, and insists that it was worth it even if it means that now he’s broke as hell. Zuko, on the other hand, claims that he can smell potato even after getting back in the car, which is a total lie.
Zuko decided, the night that they sleep in the giant potato, that he wants to go to Montana.
“What’s in Montana?” Sokka asks.
“Mountains,” Zuko replies, “And nothing else.”
That also turns out to be a total lie. There’s plenty to do in Montana, but Zuko wants mountains, and this is mostly his road trip. If Zuko wants mountains, then he deserves to get mountains. Not that there weren’t some mountains in Idaho or in Oregon, where they just were , but mountains in Montana are supposed to be special, Zuko insists. The damned state is named after them, after all.
The sketchy motel in Montana is what brings up a subject that Sokka’s been staunchly avoiding, mostly in the spirit of youthful tomfoolery.
“Not to bring down the mood here, buddy, but, uh, how exactly are you affording this?” Sokka insisted, on his pride and after the amount of shit talking that Zuko did about the potato, on paying for that himself, but that’s been his main contribution.
Zuko’s paid for everything else.
“Oh.” Zuko reaches into his wallet and pulls out a credit card. It’s not his, Sokka knows, because he knows what Zuko’s debit card looks like and it definitely isn’t a smooth, matte black. Zuko’s debit card also doesn’t say ‘Ozai’ on it. “I thought I told you. This is the first good thing that being my father’s son has done for me.”
“...Does he know that you have that?”
“What do I care?” Zuko’s voice goes sharp, “He’s in fucking prison where he belongs. Uncle’s taking control of the company this week and told me I could use it but not to go crazy. So here I am.” He grins, all teeth. “Definitely not going crazy.”
It figures that a man like Ozai can brutalize his kids for their entire lives and then get sent to jail primarily for tax evasion. It’s an old subject, but that won’t stop Sokka from being filled with rage that a lifetime of child abuse comes secondary to money. Zuko’s a realist about it, and routinely claims that jail is jail, and I don’t care why the courts make him rot as long as he never comes out.
Sokka thinks that it’s because he doesn’t know how to handle it any other way.
“So...your dad is paying for your vacation?”
“And your vacation!” Zuko adds with a gleeful, borderline diabolical grin. “He’ll hate it.”
Ozai had hated everything about Sokka’s existence from the moment he’d met him, when he and Zuko were twelve years old. He’d always been huge and looming and awful, like a spectre hanging over Zuko’s head even though he was hardly ever around. Sokka had known immediately that the hatred was mutual from the moment he’d seen how blatantly terrified Zuko was of him.
He’d looked a hell of a lot smaller being handcuffed and shoved into a cop car. Sokka had seen it happening on tv, and had waved a vindictive goodbye to the man anyway.
“I’ve been way too cheap of a date, then,” Sokka jokes, “If I’d known this whole time that your dad was buying, I’d have been way more pricey.”
That’s a lie and they both know it, even though it does make Sokka feel better to know that he’s not going to inadvertently bankrupt his best friend.
The motel they stay at is sketchy as shit.
It’s sketchy as shit and there’s only one bed.
“You take the bed,” Sokka says immediately.
“No, you take it,” is Zuko’s insistent reply, “You drove most of today.”
“You didn’t sleep for shit last night. And you—don’t feed me bullshit, it’s semantics and you know it—you paid for the room. So you should get it.”
“Take the stupid bed, Sokka.”
“No! You have it.”
Sokka has fussed with Zuko over a lot of dumb, dumb things, but this might be the dumbest.
Sokka glares at Zuko, who glares right back, stubborn as anything.
“Fine,” Sokka grits out, “Be stubborn about it. I’ll take the bed on one condition.”
Sokka bolts forward without warning and loops an arm around Zuko’s waist, yanking hard enough to throw him onto the mattress with an undignified yelp. Sokka throws himself into the bed as well.
“We’ll just share, then.”
Hopefully, that’ll teach Zuko to be so stubborn. Sokka has it on good authority that he’s a fairly horrible bedmate, clingy and smothering by turn. Also, according to Katara, he kicks. Next time, Zuko will know better than to challenge Sokka for the dubious honor of floor sleeping.
Or, at least, it’ll teach him to double check for two beds on check in.
Zuko sputters for words for a few moments, red-cheeked from exertion, and then stops struggling.
“Fine,” he grits out, “The next time you throw me, I’m throwing you back. Probably out a window.”
That’s also a lie and they both know it, but Sokka indulges him enough to let it go.
“So, when are you coming home?”
Zuko’s taking a shower and Sokka’s taking the moment to call home and talk to Dad.
“Hmmm. Maybe in a couple of days?”
“Sokka. Something a bit more solid than ‘maybe in a couple of days’, please?”
“I don’t know! We’re just...going with the flow? You know that Zuko’s...you know. He’s working through some shit.”
Dad’s silent on the other end for a moment. Sokka waits him out.
“Just—couldn’t he work things out and stay in the state, at least?”
“That’s just no fun! Come on, Dad. You’re always talking about all the dumb shit you and Bato did when you were my age. All that coming of age and figuring out who you are garbage. Why’s it any different?”
“Me and Bato weren’t—“ Dad cuts himself off. “Never mind. Don’t worry about it.”
“You and Bato weren’t what, exactly?”
“I said don’t worry about it, you horrible brat.” Despite the bravado, Sokka can hear a smile in his voice, a part of him that he didn’t realize had been tightly wound loosens up. “Tell me about the sea lions. Your sister showed me the photos you sent her. You had fun?”
“So much fun.”
“You’re helping Zuko with the driving, right?”
“Yes, I’m helping Zuko with the driving. Who do you think I am?”
“I don’t know sometimes, who do you think you are?”
“Your horrible, terrible son who you miss dearly?”
“Ugh, I guess. If I have to.”
The water shuts off from the bathroom.
“Okay, Dad, I’ve gotta go. Greetings from Montana and all that shit. Tomorrow we’ve got a date with a mountain and some wildflowers. Allegedly.”
“You know, it’s like, sometimes we pick a place and then end up somewhere else?”
“Send me pictures, and tell Zuko I said hi.”
“Yup! Bye, love you!”
Sokka hangs up just as Zuko comes out of the bathroom, toweling off his hair and already in pajamas. Very familiar pajamas.
“Is that my…?”
Zuko glances down at his shirt and then smirks. That shirt should be familiar, because it’s Sokka’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shirt that Sokka has thought lost for at least six months.
“You left it at my house,” Zuko informs him, “Finders keepers.”
“You didn’t find shit! I left it.”
“Should have thought of that before the statute of limitations ran out on it, then.”
“Ha ha.” Sokka glowers at him. “We’ll see how long you keep a hold of your Florence concert hoodie, how about that?”
“Put a hand on my baby and you’re a dead man.” Zuko talks a big game but he doesn’t mean it. He might seem like he’s all edges but Sokka sees the softness in him like a neon sign in the dark. “How’s your dad?”
“He’s good. Still a little salty at me, but you know. He’ll get over it. He says hi, by the way.” Sokka will never get used to how easily Zuko gets thrown off by casual care. Passing on Dad’s message isn’t hard, but there’s always that little moment where Zuko looks so shocked that somebody thought about him. “Are you tired?”
“Well, come on then.” Sokka pats the section of bed next to him. “Time to take your punishment.”
Zuko takes a step forward and then hesitates at the last second. He looks, very suddenly, extremely uncomfortable.
“It’s, um. I really can sleep on the floor. I don’t mind.”
“Nope. If you sleep on the floor, we both sleep on the floor.” Sokka pats the mattress again. “Come on, buttercup. I’m tired, and I don’t bite. Hustle.”
Zuko does not hustle but approaches slowly, like Sokka and their sketchy motel bed are some wild animal that will attack on sight. Sokka would have expected him to look annoyed about it but he’s nervous instead. Well, he probably just isn’t used to sharing a bed with anyone else. He’s sure as hell gonna learn, and maybe next time he won’t fight so hard to keep Sokka off the floor.
Zuko slides underneath the comforter like it’s going to bite him and lays there, rigid and statue-stiff.
“Oh my god,” Sokka grumbles, “At least pretend to relax. It’s fine. It’s just me. Chill out or I’m gonna spoon you.”
“Too late,” Sokka rolls right over all over Zuko’s protests and scoots closer to his friend, curling around him back to chest and hauling him into his arms, “Now suffer.”
He fully expects to get swatted or smacked for his audacity, but it never comes.
Zuko stays tense and coiled for a moment that’s agonizingly long, and then, very suddenly, he’s...not. All of Zuko’s tension drains out of him, and he goes loose and warm and pliant in Sokka’s hold. It’s easy to hold him and Sokka’s a cuddly shithead by nature anyway, and if he happens to tuck his head down to brush his nose against the nape of Zuko’s neck, that’s between him and the cosmos.
“Shit, are you cold?”
“Shut up!” Zuko snaps and rolls over to face Sokka’s chest, out of proper spooning position but remaining in the circle of his arms, pressing his nose hard into Sokka’s collarbone. “Just...just shut up.”
“I said shut up.”
Sokka shuts up. Zuko stays quiet and still.
Sokka shuts up but only for a moment.
“You know you can—if you wanted, you could hold me back.” Sokka keeps his voice low but feels like he’s shouting into the silence of their motel room. Zuko doesn’t so much as breathe. “Do you want me to let go?” Zuko’s weird about touching sometimes, like he needs it but doesn’t know how to ask for it, or if he even wants it in the first place.
Just one more thing that Sokka hopes that Ozai pays for in prison.
Sokka’s about to ask again, but stops when Zuko answers, not with words but with an arm looped over his waist instead that pulls tight until the space between their bodies has been crowded out. It’s a relief, because Sokka likes to tease and he likes to touch and it’s fun to do both at the same time, but not at Zuko’s expense. Sokka gives his best friend a full body squeeze, tries to put every drop of the warmth and love in his soul that he has for him into it, like that can erase for a second what Ozai did to him.
It’s not enough. It won’t ever be enough. Sokka remembers being thirteen and scared to death when Zuko’s out of school for a month. Sokka remembers being thirteen the day that Zuko comes back to school, hard and sharp with bandages still covering his eye. Sokka wanted to hold him, then.
He wanted to hold him last year, when Zuko had been having panic attacks every time he or Uncle had to give testimony and when he lived in absolute terror that the man would be found not guilty.
He wants to hold him now.
“Two bros, chillin’ in a motel, no feet apart because it’s 2020 and they’re secure in their masculinity.”
“Sokka.” Zuko’s voice finally comes, shirty and mortified and annoyed from somewhere around his neck, “Shut up.” Tough words from someone currently wrapped around Sokka like an octopus, but Sokka lets him have it.
He means to stay awake for a bit longer, but Zuko passes out almost immediately and is way too warm and soft and cuddly for Sokka’s resistance to stand a chance. He’ll definitely regret this in the morning, when Sokka’s spent all night kicking him and rolling around.
He’ll definitely regret it.
Zuko, in fact, does not regret it.
Zuko, in fact, has one of the best nights’ sleep of his life.
Zuko was right about the mountains. They are special, and the hike makes Sokka want to die but in a good way. Zuko insists that eating lunch in a field of wildflowers on the side of the highway doesn’t count as having a picnic, but Sokka staunchly disagrees.
“You’re not gonna win on this one. Even Google says I’m right.”
“Google can suck my—“
“Be quiet and like it. You want the rest of these almonds?”
After Montana, it’s a visit to Yellowstone in Wyoming, because Sokka’s basic as hell and has wanted to see Old Faithful for his entire life. After Wyoming it’s the official Sasquatch Outpost in Colorado (Zuko’s pick, for the record) and Junkrassic Park, also in Colorado (Sokka’s). Zuko buys a Sasquatch hoodie despite it being summertime and boiling and wears it because he’s stubborn and Sokka says that he won’t. Sokka gets some matching stickers instead and plasters them onto both his and Zuko’s water bottles.
Sokka takes so many photos of the metal sculptures in Junkrassic Park, and even more of Zuko taking photos of them like the artsy fartsy nerd that he is. He feels like a wildlife photographer, capturing the true essence of his best friend on digital film...and the true essence of his best friend is nerd.
People look at Zuko and think that he’s so cool and cold and sharp, and so rarely see that all that’s just the awkward he’s suffered from his whole life. Zuko cries at ASPCA commercials and refuses to watch animal movies until he knows for sure that the dog doesn’t die, for goodness’ sake. Zuko spends a thousand years methodically peeling tangerines because he hates the bitter taste of the pith, and Sokka makes fun of him endlessly for it even though the segments he shares with him are the best he’s ever eaten. Zuko showers at night because he likes to feel like he’s going to bed clean and listens to way too much indie pop the moment he has control of the aux, and manages, somehow, to sing along to instrumentals.
There’s absolutely no part of Zuko that’s cold or hard.
Zuko stops finding places to hole himself up to talk to his uncle alone, and starts putting him on speakerphone so that Sokka can say hello and interject as necessary. And it is necessary, sometimes, because Zuko doesn’t always know what the best parts of a story are and needs Sokka to keep him on track. Apparently, Iroh and Dad keep each other updated on their respective kids, and Sokka’s not totally sure how he feels about it.
The next motel room (after three nights of sleeping on Zuko’s folded down back seats at truck stops and waking up every morning, somehow, curled up around each other like cats) has two beds. Only one of them ends up being used, because Sokka falls asleep playing Animal Crossing on Zuko’s bed while he looks over a physical map like the fucking nerd he is. Sokka wakes up the next morning plastered to Zuko’s back and with his Switch carefully set aside on the nightstand, and then says nothing more about it.
If every room after that contains just one bed, that’s nobody’s business and nobody’s asking.
Dad keeps asking when he’s coming home, and Sokka is running out of ways to say that he doesn’t know.
He’s also running out of ways to tell himself that it’s all for Zuko’s sake, because now it feels like a lie.
In theory, it’s supposed to be a straight shot to Maine because Zuko decides (somewhere in between overeating cheese curds in Wisconsin and wanting to die and getting legitimately lost in a corn maze in Indiana) that if he doesn’t eat real, actual Maine Lobster that he’s going to die alone and unfulfilled. What a drama queen. That straight shot decidedly does not happen, because at most and with minimum traffic it’s still an entire day’s drive without breaks or sleep, and Sokka is not here for that. Eventually, he whines and complains Zuko into compromise.
Maine can be a goal, certainly—Sokka’s never been to Maine, and Zuko in a mood of impulse can lead to amazing things. So Sokka grabs a pack of sticky notes the next time they’re getting nonperishable groceries, rips into it the moment they’re in the car, and writes MAINE on it in giant red letters, sticks it on the center console.
Zuko’s very determined that even if Sokka finds places to stop at, he’ll keep his eyes on the prize. That is a filthy lie.
Maybe Sokka’s the one who sees Grandpa’s Cheesebarn in Ohio and demands that they stop, but somewhere in Kentucky, Zuko swallows his pride and admits that he saw an ad for a donkey rescue a few days back and wouldn’t mind stopping to take a tour. Taking a tour is way less taking a tour and way more volunteering for a day, but Sokka doesn’t complain about it. The donkeys are cute as shit, and Zuko is living his best life. The photos he puts up on his Instagram get more engagement and comments than anything else he’s ever posted. Sokka’s not sure if it’s the donkeys that the people love or if it’s Zuko—but he’s not complaining about that, either.
The more the world gets to see of his soft-hearted, consistently misunderstood best friend, the better the world will be.
They stop in Pennsylvania because Sokka wants to show Zuko the stars the way that they should be seen. It’s not as good as the view from a boat on the open ocean, but it’s still a hell of a lot better than a well-lit parking lot. Zuko brings the comforter from the car and feels extremely vindicated in his Sasquatch hoodie, which Sokka pretends that he doesn’t notice. They lay on their backs on the ground. Sokka points out constellations and recites Dad’s astronomy talks verbatim from memory until he goes quiet because he’s distracted, suddenly, by the look on Zuko’s face. It’s not a face that Sokka sees very often, sitting somewhere between enchanted and overwhelmed, and even with the stunning view above them, Sokka finds himself watching his friend instead.
“Doing okay there, good buddy?” He asks gently, because Zuko looks horrifyingly close to tears.
“I’m good,” Zuko replies after way too long and a telling sniffle. “Just...they’re beautiful. I’ve never seen them like this before. You always think, like, they can’t ever actually look like that, you know? When you’re watching documentaries and stuff.”
Sokka does know, which is why this was his pick.
“I’d be out on the boat with Dad when I was little,” Sokka says softly, “And I’d always fucking cry. Because there’s no way to see that and not feel small as hell, you know? Katara never cried but I did every single time.”
“You’re not crying now.”
“Nope.” Sokka tears his gaze away from Zuko before he feels the universe start to judge him for staring. “All that up there, you know, and we’re so small. It’s okay to be small as long as you’re not alone, right?”
Zuko sniffles again and stays quiet, even when Sokka bumps his shoulder with his own.
“You’re not alone, okay? We’re tiny fucking people on our tiny fucking planet, but you’re not alone, ‘cause I’m here with you, looking at the stars with you.”
The silence that follows is a comfortable one, not an awkward one.
Sokka thinks, at first, that he imagines Zuko’s quiet thanks until he turns his head and looks at him, sees warm golden eyes watching him out of his soft, serious face.
Zuko’s smile is crooked and secretive.
“For being here right now, with me, and looking at the stars. For coming with me in the first place. I know…” he trails off for a moment to gather his thoughts. Sokka’s so grateful that there aren’t a lot of other groups out tonight. This feels special, like a secret, and he doesn’t want to share it with anyone else. Even if they don’t know or care. “I know that I haven’t really made things easy for you. No one would have blamed you if you hadn’t come with me at all. I wouldn’t have. But you did, and I’m grateful, and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Sokka’s heart flies into his throat and hovers there until he’s sure that he’s going to stop breathing. Zuko’s been his best friend for years, ever since he helped Sokka fight Hahn behind the IHOP in seventh grade for being a dickhead in algebra for the last time. Sokka’s never seen him look quite like this before. Maybe it’s the starlight, or the quiet singing of the crickets, or the slight chill in the mountain air that calls for jackets even in the summer. Maybe it’s that Zuko didn’t ask if Sokka wanted any before buying them both cocoa for the hike, or that he looked up to see the stars as they are for the first time and wanted to cry.
Maybe it’s the inherent romance that comes along with stargazing.
Whatever it is, Sokka doesn’t know. Whatever it is, he looks at Zuko right then, really looks at him, and his huge, soft heart pounds out a hard vibrato inside his body. Whatever it is, he looks at Zuko looking up at the stars and thinks,
Sokka buys the ugliest sunglasses in existence when he discovers that he left his old pair somewhere in Pennsylvania. They’re lime green, plastic aviators and the lenses are blue and purple and mirrored; they're the most hideous things he’s ever seen in his life. Consequently, every single photo he takes that day contains those glasses, until Zuko gets fed up with him and steals them. His plan was calculated but man is he bad at math, because if Zuko thinks that that’s going to stop him, he’s got another thing coming.
No, the only thing that happens is that Sokka changes his planned photo upload, which was going to be of himself wearing those horrible glasses to Zuko, who can’t do anything about it to stop him because he’s driving.
Here’s a photo of Sokka’s feet hanging out the window, a perfectly aesthetic backdrop of a country road in sunset behind them. Here’s a photo of the smoked salami that Sokka bought from a little Amish farmer’s market. And here’s Zuko wearing the most horrible sunglasses in the world.
“You could just, you know, give them back.”
“No,” Zuko insists, “I like them. Maybe I’ll keep them forever.”
“Enjoy being an internet sensation, then.”
Zuko isn’t big on social media. He knows about it but doesn’t really have the oomf to commit to more than a very rarely-updated Facebook page, which shifted to never-updated ever since his lawyer advised him to not post anything during the trial, so he doesn’t really know that he kind of already is a sensation. At least on Sokka’s Instagram, anyway.
Sokka steadfastly doesn’t say a word about how many comments from strangers reference his cute boyfriend, but he knows that Katara is home and running her mouth about it to Dad. Last night when they were talking, Dad actually asked him to put Zuko on the phone. Without him. Sokka doesn’t know what they talked about but apparently nothing too traumatizing because Sokka doesn’t get abandoned at the closest bus stop the moment Zuko gets a chance.
Sokka’s newly-discovered crush on his best friend is...inconvenient.
It adds a whole new layer to things because the idea that Zuko could feel the same way about him is laughable. And also horrible. Zuko is Sokka’s best friend who needs his best friend, who now apparently has an extremely inconvenient crush that’s come to the surface at a borderline Love Of My Life level, and Sokka just cannot.
It’s excruciating, now, to see a single bed in those cheap motel rooms.
It’s excruciating, now, because Sokka set a precedent and he likes it, and now he wants more. He wants everything that Zuko wants to give him and more, and he doesn’t know how to just stop. He doesn’t know how to pull back and he doesn't know how to stop wanting more than he deserves, and he doesn’t know how to stop falling in dumb, stupid love.
The lobster is one hundred percent worth it.
Sokka’s eaten shellfish before, of course he has, he’s not a heathen, but this is the real shit.
Zuko asks him to finish the drive to Maine so that he can properly decide on where he wants to get his first impression and watches a frankly embarrassing number of YouTube videos on how to eat them. Sokka wants to make fun of him for it but can’t find the heart to do it when he’s going to be so determined about it.
In the end, the very first lobster isn’t a whole one, but stuffed into a griddled bun.
“It’s iconic,” Zuko tells him while they wait in line outside Red’s in Wiscasset. It’s a serious line so, hopefully, that means it has to be worth it, or Sokka is gonna be sad as hell.
The lobster roll does not disappoint, and Sokka decides that it’s what he wants to eat for every meal for the rest of his life. It’s the most expensive sandwich of Sokka’s life. They don’t go on Zuko’s pilfered credit card because it’s cash only, and in the end, Zuko glares at him for ten straight minutes before Sokka gives up and puts his money back in his wallet.
“This is my pick, and I’ll buy what I want.”
“Yeah, okay, but this isn’t your dad’s money, it’s yours, let me buy my own damn sandwich—“
“This is my pick,” Zuko repeats, louder as if Sokka’s gone deaf, and dangerous close to the level of bratty shouty that he’d been at fourteen, “And I’ll buy what I want.”
“So help me, I will order by myself if I have to.”
“Then I’ll have to figure out how the hell to eat two lobster rolls by myself, then.”
In the end, Sokka caves to Zuko’s stubborn nature, like he usually does when it’s not cosmically important. He’ll slip his twenty into one of Zuko’s pockets or something while he’s sleeping.
It’s hot as crap and the line is long and Sokka is hungry, but eventually, Zuko forks over a ridiculous amount of cash at the window in exchange for the heaviest, butteriest, lobsteriest sandwich of Sokka’s short life. There’s no available seating and they end up opening the hatchback, eating their sandwiches tailgate-style out the back of Zuko’s car and facing the water.
“How the hell do I even eat this?” Sokka’s question goes to the wind because Zuko’s mouth is already full of bread and lobster and expecting him to speak at all until he’s finished is out of the question. Sokka just goes for it and regrets absolutely nothing, splitting the cup of coleslaw without complaint and gleefully taking the pickle spear that Zuko offers with a grimace.
“Your pickle hate is proof that there’s something wrong with you,” Sokka tells him. It’s an old, safe subject to fuss about, and it’s distracting enough that he manages to not ogle how cute his best friend looks demolishing an entire crustacean that’s been put in a bread roll.
Zuko scowls at him.
“I don’t know what you’re complaining about,” he replies. “It means that you always get an extra pickle. Unless you’d rather the seagulls get to eat it.”
Sokka stuffs the entire thing into his mouth and nearly chokes on it and dies. Zuko has to put down his sandwich to slam him on the back until he stops coughing.
It’s not the only lobster they eat in Maine but Sokka thinks that it’s the best. Maybe it’s because it’s the first time that it’s so good but even when they’re together in a somewhat decent restaurant later that evening, bibbed appropriately and ready to crack some claws, Sokka wishes that he was in the wayback of Zuko’s car with that first sandwich instead.
“Are you ready to go home?”
Sokka hasn’t asked in a while, but it’s dark and his stomach is full but not to the point of discomfort, and Zuko’s curled up quietly in his arms in a way that makes Sokka’s heart hurt. They haven’t talked about anything after Maine. Zuko has to be back for sentencing in a little over two weeks and he knows it, because he took his phone call with Uncle outside in the parking lot and came back in with his face like a thundercloud.
It’s hard to talk to him when he’s like this, so Sokka doesn’t really try. He lets him pace for a while, anxious and agitated, until he can’t take it anymore, and then flips up the side of the comforter in invitation. Zuko, despite his determination to be miserable, still takes him up on it. Sokka doesn’t even comment on the fact that he’s wearing his Ninja Turtles shirt again.
“I don’t want to.” Zuko’s voice is quiet and hurt in a way that Sokka can’t fix, no matter how badly he wants to.
“You know we have to—“
“I know,” Zuko snaps, so sharply that Sokka flinches, and then immediately looks like he regrets it. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be nasty.” And he doesn’t, he really doesn’t. Zuko’s stress always comes out with sharp edges until he makes the effort to sand them down smooth. “I just...I want to enjoy myself for the time we have left before we have to go back. Otherwise, all I have to do is think, and I don’t want to.”
“...You know it’s going to be okay, right?”
Zuko definitely does not know that it’s going to be okay, and neither does Sokka, not really, but somebody has to be the glass-half-full guy, and it’s his turn.
“He’s not getting out and if he is, you’ll be so grown up and cool by the time he does that he can’t do shit to you.” Zuko breaks eye contact but Sokka doesn’t take offense at it. “This isn’t like when it was still in court, okay? He’s guilty, Zuko, and everyone knows it. That’s not going to change.”
“But what if—“
Sokka cuts Zuko’s anxious snowballing with a physical squeeze. Zuko goes quiet so quickly that it’s like pressing an off switch.
“He’s guilty. Sentencing is the easy part. All you have to do is show up, and then it’ll be done.”
Sokka doesn’t really think that there are any easy parts. All of it was hard—Zuko’s slow, heartbreaking reveal of his history of abuse, to his sister’s breakdown, the trial itself. He’d thought, when they got the verdict they wanted, that things would get easier, but even in prison on the other side of the country, Ozai’s a specter that hangs over his son when he lets his guard down.
It’s a dangerous thing to do, especially with how hard Sokka’s heart pounds in his head, to reach out with both hands to frame Zuko’s face. He wants so badly to kiss him until he stops looking so trapped, until he’s back here with Sokka instead of wherever the memories of his father brought him. Sokka does not kiss him, but the weight of Zuko’s face in his hands brands itself into his brain.
This is what it feels like, he reminds himself. This is what you can have, but no more than this.
Zuko doesn’t need Sokka messing him up any more than he’s already been messed up. He’s Sokka’s best friend who needs his best friend. He doesn’t need Sokka’s squishy feelings and less squishy libido getting in the way of that, as much as Sokka’s stupid heart wants to touch him and kiss him and love him, like an idiot.
“Let's get some sleep,” Sokka says into the silence, reaching out to slap the light off. The room goes dark but not completely because this motel is shitty and cheap and hasn’t even bothered to put up curtains in the windows. “We’ll figure out where we’re going in the morning.”
It’s easy to fall asleep when his arms and heart are full, if not satisfied.
Sokka sits up and blinks bearily into the darkness, disoriented and kind of confused.
There’s no reason for him to be awake, except for the streaks of light streaming into the room. He’s not sure if it’s moonlight or from a streetlamp, but it’s lighting up Zuko’s face something fierce. Zuko’s still asleep next to him, his leg tucked casually in between both of Sokka’s like that’s something that normal people do. It’s the most relaxed he’s looked all night.
And then Sokka’s treacherous, treacherous hand reaches out to touch the smooth, pale side of his cheek, cupping it in his palm and running his thumb feather-light over Zuko’s lower lip.
At the touch, however, Zuko begins to stir almost immediately. His gold eyes open and blink, slowly and sleepily, and then they land on Sokka. A wide, soft smile splits his face, and he mumbles something.
He’s so pretty that Sokka’s heart feels like it stops beating.
“What was that?” Sokka asks, very quietly.
Zuko’s smile on his face only gets bigger. He doesn’t repeat what he said but tilts his head instead to press his lips to the skin of Sokka’s palm, contentedly closing his eyes and putting weight into Sokka’s hand. This is how Sokka dies. He’s forgotten how to breathe and, in fact, has forgotten how to do anything other than drink in Zuko’s face and desperately want.
“I like this dream,” Zuko whispers. “I usually wake up before this happens.”
Sokka feels like he’s going to start crying.
“You...you dream about me?” The words come out before he can stop them. Sokka finds himself laying back down and scooting closer, underneath the blankets. Hopefully, if he tries to look Zuko in the eyes and not at the sensitive set of his mouth, it’ll be easier to get himself together.
It’s not easier. At all.
“Mmmm. I dream about you all the time.”
Maybe Sokka’s the one who’s dreaming. Maybe he’s sleeping right now, and this is the kind of beautiful, delicious punishment that his brain deigns to give him. If it’s a dream, maybe he’s allowed to have this.
If this is a dream, and Sokka wakes up before he gets to kiss him, he’ll die.
Zuko’s eyes open again, slowly.
“Do I ever kiss you?”
“Sometimes,” Zuko replies. He’s so tired that his eyes are beginning to slip shut again. Sokka knows that this has to be his dream, because he feels wide awake and ready to jump out of his skin.
“Can I do it now? Please?”
If he’s dreaming, it’s okay.
If he’s dreaming, then Sokka can keep this memory to himself and hold onto it.
The smile that makes a home on Zuko’s face is so pleased and blatantly sappy that Sokka almost doesn’t need the nod of consent that he’s given, or the way that Zuko’s hands reach to tuck themselves down the back of Sokka’s shirt. Sokka’s going to remember what Zuko’s fingertips pressing into the bare skin of his shoulders for the rest of his life, even if it’s all just something that his brain’s made up. It’s real enough right now and he hopes that he remembers it in the morning.
Sokka could no more disobey than he could stop his own breath.
It’s easy, so easy, to reach out and hold Zuko’s face in both of his hands, lean forward, and kiss him. It’s soft and sleepy and a little clumsy, and the absolute best kiss of Sokka’s life. He can feel Zuko smiling against his lips.
And then Zuko goes absolutely still, and stiff in Sokka’s hold.
Sokka opens his eyes and sees Zuko’s gold ones, huge and wide and very sharply awake. The smile’s gone, and all Sokka can see in his face is terror.
“Oh, oh no.” Even the scar on his face has gone pale. “Oh, god.” Sokka doesn’t have time to do anything at all to reassure him before Zuko’s expression shatters into something that looks like despair and takes Sokka’s heart right along with it. “Oh, god, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean—I just—I thought—I wanted—“
Sokka’s familiar, now, with the stages of Zuko’s panic attacks.
“Stop,” he says firmly, voice hard enough to startle Zuko out of his spiral. “Breathe and take a second.” He doesn’t let go of him.
Sokka feels like he should be way more afraid than he is. He should be terrified that he’s ruined everything, but he’s not. Zuko’s clearly the one in charge of that, and in the wake of his best friend’s emotional fallout, all Sokka can feel is calm.
It’s not a dream. Sokka kissed him because he wanted to, and Zuko kissed him back.
Neither of them were dreaming, and Sokka is not afraid anymore.
“It’s okay,” Sokka says, “It’s okay.” He leans in and presses his lips to the space between Zuko’s eyes, right where he knows that his best friend gets headaches. “You want to, right? Because I want to, too. I want to, so bad.”
The look on Zuko’s face is so bewildered and lost that it hurts. He hesitates, like he’s waiting for Sokka to take it back or give him an out. Sokka does not take it back. Sokka waits him out, however long it takes for an answer. A real answer, not something that’s been fed to him by someone else’s expectations.
Finally, Zuko breathes out a single, trembling breath.
“Yeah,” he says. His voice is soft and a little bit resigned. “I want to.”
“Okay,” Sokka says. “Okay.”
He kisses him again, with intent, and wanting so badly for it to be good for him, to show him that it’s real and that he’s not making it up. That Sokka wants, wants everything that Zuko wants to give him right now, as long as he means it. Zuko sighs into his mouth.
“Put your hands back where they were?” Sokka asks. “I liked it a lot.”
Zuko shivers and sticks his hands back down Sokka’s collar. For a long while, all there is in the entire world is contained in this bed and in the hot, wet slide of lips on lips, and in the quiet, breathy sighs that Sokka can’t tell are coming from him or Zuko.
Zuko’s a careful, tentative kisser. It contrasts with Sokka, who’s had a bit more practice with it, but not in a bad way. It’s fun and it’s sweet to coax him into being more bold by showing him how he likes it, and it’s fun to feel contained between the spaces of Zuko’s hands on his back. It’s even more fun to pull away just long enough to tuck his face into Zuko’s throat and see what kind of noises he can pull out of him with his tongue and a graze of teeth.
Sokka relishes in the lack of urgency. It feels like they have forever to waste in this dark, moonlit motel room. Maybe if Sokka could spend forever here, it would be long enough.
“Come here, please come here,” Sokka whispers when he has enough breath to do it.
“I’m already here.”
“No, no, up, come up here,” Sokka lets go of Zuko’s face, grabs him around the waist instead, and rolls so that Zuko’s straddling his hips. “God, you’re pretty.” Zuko looks wrecked, and Sokka can’t look away from him. “Do you think I’m pretty?”
Sokka’s stolen t-shirt is off-kilter and shows off some of the pale skin of Zuko’s shoulder. In the moonlight, it’s easy to see the other boy start to color. Sokka wants to put his mouth on every inch of swiftly reddening skin.
“Fuck off, you already know that you are,” Zuko grumbles, hiding his face in his hands. Sokka finds him endearing even in his embarrassment.
“Maybe I just wanna hear you say it. Maybe I wanna hear you say that you like me. Because I like you. You know that, right? I like you so fucking much.”
Zuko swallows hard and leans down, presses his forehead to Sokka’s.
“I like you,” he whispers.
Sokka answers him with a kiss, one so gentle that makes his own heart quake.
“Tell me again?”
“I like you.”
“I like you.” Zuko’s words come up choked and hoarse like he’s being strangled by his own emotions, and his hands bury themselves in Sokka’s hair, hanging loose around his ears. He’s breathless and gorgeous, and Sokka wants to look at him forever.
“One more time?”
Zuko still answers with his mouth but not his words, and Sokka drowns anything else he might have said with skin and teeth and touch until they both go under.
In the morning, Sokka wakes up to Zuko propped up on his elbows, scrolling quietly on his phone with one hand and running the other through Sokka’s hair. He looks so relaxed and content that Sokka can only beam stupidly upwards at him.
“Good morning, boyfriend,” he greets cheerfully, and soaks in the look of shocked delight that flickers over Zuko’s face. “That’s okay with you, right?”
“Yeah,” he replies. “That’s okay with me.” Zuko hesitates for a second to chew on his lip. “Boyfriend.”
Sokka likes the way that sounds and the way the word rattles around in his head. He realizes at the last second that he doesn’t have to resist the increasingly familiar urge to touch just because, and gives Zuko’s collar a gentle tug to bring him close enough to kiss.
“Dude, you’re fucking cute.”
Zuko makes a valiant but ultimately failed attempt at smothering Sokka with a pillow, that starts a tickle war that neither of them win and ends with a noise complaint and early checkout. Which, considering how sketchy this place is, rude.
Zuko’s still grumbling about it, even as he throws his backpack into the backseat of his car.
Sokk clicks his seatbelt.
“So,” he says with a stupid grin, “Where are we going?”
Zuko hums a little under his breath, then shoots Sokka a sly side-eye.
“I was thinking that we haven’t been to a really good beach yet.”
Zuko’s really good beach isn’t in Maine. It’s not in North Carolina or Virginia or Maryland.
Zuko’s really good beach is about as far as they can get from Maine and still be on the East Coast. The Florida Keys are gorgeous with their clear, bluer-than-blue ocean that Sokka takes a ton of photos of as they’re driving over the bridge to Key Largo, palm trees every couple of feet, and absolutely horrible traffic that neither of them even mind at all.
“You’re not dying.”
“I’m dying,” Sokka insists. “I need a beach now, or I’m going to die.”
Zuko stares at him, all exasperated affection, and turns back to the concierge to finish making arrangements for their room. It’s by far the most expensive lodging to date but, like everything else, Zuko doesn’t blink twice at handing over his card and booking a room for five nights and an absolutely insane amount of money. It’s also the longest they’ve stayed anywhere, too, but Sokka’s not complaining about that either.
Oh, no, whatever will he do?
A week in a tropical paradise with his beautiful, ridiculous boyfriend and his horrible dad’s credit card? What absolute torture.
While Zuko’s signing a few papers, Sokka takes his free hand and gives it a squeeze.
“I love how we’ve been crashing at the local Motel 4 this whole time but now you decide to be bougie? What’s up with that? Did you really just want to snuggle me that bad?”
Zuko doesn’t answer or even look at him but two spots of pink blossom high up on his cheeks.
Sokka chants beach, beach, beach the entire way to their room, which is huge and ridiculous and the exact opposite of anywhere else they’ve stayed. It’s not a room so much as it is a bungalow, which isn’t so much a bungalow as it is a tiny, unexpected palace.
“You are ridiculous,” Sokka informs him.
Zuko’s facedown in the bed and looks like he’s growing roots into it.
“Don’t you dare think about taking a nap right now. Beach. Now.”
Zuko moans and groans and complains but nevertheless allows himself to be dragged out of bed.
“You know I've been driving since two this morning while you slept in the back, right? Respect me.”
“I’ll respect you plenty on the beach. Go put on a bathing suit and give me what I want. Chop-chop.”
“I give you what you want all the time! Half of this trip is giving you what you want,” Zuko protests but digs his bathing suit out of his bag anyway. It’s plain and understated black, unlike Sokka’s which is day-glo yellow with blue flames. Sokka shoos him into the bathroom to change and takes the opportunity to put on his own, barely giving Zuko a chance to grab the complimentary resort beach towels, sunscreen, and their water bottles before he’s dragging him out the door.
The first thing Sokka does, while Zuko spreads out the towels underneath a beach umbrella, is throw himself into the sea. When he comes up and looks to shore, Zuko’s already flat on his back and half asleep.
That won’t do.
“What?” Zuko grumbles, squinting up at Sokka looming over him. “You said I could take a nap once you got beach. Here. Beach. Let me sleep so I won’t be useless all day.”
Sokka huffs at him but can’t hold back the smile.
“You didn’t put on sunscreen. You’ll roast.”
Zuko groans and covers his eyes.
“Oh, stop it, you big drama queen.” Sokka rustles for the bottle of sunscreen and sits down next to Zuko on the sand. “I’ll do it for you.”
“You really don’t have to—“
“I wanna,” Sokka insists aggressively with all of the love in his heart. He maintains dedicated eye contact even when the bottle makes a fart noise squeezing sunblock out into his palm.
Despite his complaints, Zuko keeps still and allows sunscreen to be spread over his nose, cheeks, and forehead, makes muffled noises of contentment when Sokka rubs it into his chest, shoulders, and over his ribs and stomach.
“Roll over, sweetie, so I can get your back.” Sokka realizes instantly what just came out of his mouth and freezes. Zuko just makes a sleepy noise of confirmation and rolls himself over. “Um. Sorry.” They’ve never talked about pet names or anything, and Zuko’s way softer and squishier than he seems but Sokka has a feeling that they’re something he probably doesn’t like.
And Sokka is wrong. Sokka is so wrong, because Zuko’s watching him with a look on his face so warm and indulgent that Sokka’s not sure what to do with it.
“S’cute,” Zuko mumbles, pillowing his face on his arms. “You can call me stuff like that if you want. I don’t mind.”
Sokka’s heart feels way too big to fit inside his body and the only thing he knows how to do is lean down and kiss Zuko on the top of his dark head.
“You’ve gotta make sure you drink water, too. I’m not gonna babysit you.”
“Don’t mmmm me,” Sokka scolds, squeezing out more sunblock and rubbing a thick layer onto Zuko’s pale, smooth back. “If you get heat stroke, I’m not taking care of you.” That’s a lie and they both know it. Zuko doesn’t even dignify it with an answer, and it could be because he doesn’t want to, or it could be because he’s been put to sleep by the repetitive motions of Sokka’s hands on his back.
If a photo of Zuko, sleeping like a baby in the sand and sunshine, is the first and only photo that Sokka uploads that day, he will neither confirm nor deny that it was on purpose. If, in that particular photo, one can see one of Sokka’s hands stroking over Zuko’s hair, he’s not saying shit about it.
“I need a daiquiri.”
Sokka boggles at him.
“You’re an eighteen year old boy and you have a babyface. Who the hell do you think is going to sell you a daiquiri?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Sokka worries about it. At least, he worries about it until Zuko slides into his lap and tugs his hair out of its tie, and manages to be such a distraction that Sokka proceeds to not worry about anything at all.
Zuko procures daiquiris.
His audacity is unbelievable and Sokka can’t believe he pulls it off and in broad daylight. They’re picking up some extra snacks in Publix, and then Zuko looks up, a look of diabolical inspiration on his face, and then marches up to a dude in a pink polo with a popped collar and lilac cargo shorts. He can’t hear what they say but Zuko makes a point of shaking his hand like he’s pretending to be an upstanding citizen before walking away.
“What did you just do?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Sokka worries about it. Sokka worries about it throughout the rest of the shopping trip and he worries through paying, and he worries all the way up to the point that they put the bags into the car and click the seatbelts.
Zuko doesn’t drive away, though.
They wait in the car for a good five minutes until there’s a tap on the window. The guy from inside is outside the car; Zuko rolls down the window and takes the offered bag, handing it to Sokka.
“Pleasure doing business,” the guy says, tips an imaginary hat, and walks away. Zuko rolls the window back up and Sokka looks inside the bag. There’s at least ten of what Dad calls grown-up Capri Sun pouches in various flavors.
Zuko peers over, examines the lot of it, and grins.
“Way to come through, Kyle.”
Sokka is impressed despite himself, and tilts his face obligingly for the kiss on the cheek that Zuko offers before he’s starting the car to make their getaway.
“You’re not dying. You’re just hungover.”
Sokka’s dying and Zuko is an unsympathetic dickhead. Maybe dickhead is a strong word, but he’s definitely unsympathetic. Sokka buries his face in the pillow and prays for sweet death to come and take him away.
“I can’t be hungover,” he mumbles. “All we drank was bitch booze.”
Zuko remains unsympathetic but reaches out to stroke Sokka’s hair out of his face. Despite the marching band going on in his head right now, the gentle, careful touch feels good.
“You still drank six of them,” Zuko points out. “And half of my last. That much of anything’s going to mess up your stomach no matter much alcohol there is, so be grateful it was only bitch booze.”
“Why did you let me?”
“I tried to stop you, but...how did you put it? Oh, right. You insisted that, and this is a direct quote, ‘quitting is for quitters’ and you ‘ain’t a chicken little’.”
Ugh. That definitely sounds like something that drunk Sokka would say. Hell, it sounds like something that sober Sokka would say. Not that he gives Zuko the satisfaction of telling him that.
“Kill me, please.”
Zuko pretends to consider it, then shakes his head.
“No can do.”
Sokka whines into his pillow.
“Are you missing any time?” Zuko asks softly.
“If you’re asking whether I remember puking my guts out at three am, then yes.”
“I also remember telling you that I wanted to suck your dick, too.” Zuko goes a mortified red but nods anyway. Sokka wants to die . “...you told me no.”
“You were drunk,” Zuko replies very quietly. Carefully. “It wouldn’t have been right.”
“You were drunk, too.” The hand carding through Sokka’s hair stops it’s movement, briefly, before continuing.”
“But you were drunker, and I was sober enough to know better. What did you want me to do, take advantage of you?” Zuko’s plainly upset, now, his carefully maintained composure falling apart with every word out of his mouth. Sokka scrambles to try and fix it.
“No, that’s not—I did want it. I do want it. I promise.” Sokka’s stomach twists and not because of his hangover. “It wouldn’t have been—“
Zuko cuts him off by leaning over and pressing a kiss into his hair. He reaches underneath the blanket to search out Sokka’s hand, finds it, and gives it a firm squeeze.
“But I didn’t know that, and I didn’t have a way to be sure. I didn’t want to find out because you woke up a-and—and regretted it. Okay?” Zuko’s voice cracks, just a tiny bit. “I want it, too, but not like that. I don’t think I’d be able to live with myself if you regretted me, so please don’t...I don’t want that to be something I worry about. Okay?”
Sokka wants to curl up into a ball and die. Zuko’s face is soft and serious and a little bit guilty, even though he didn’t even do anything. He doesn’t look like he’s disappointed in Sokka, but Sokka is a little disappointed in Sokka.
There’s a long, long moment of silence. Not a bad one but a serious one nonetheless.
“You’re probably not feeling up to going out with me today, hmm?”
The idea of missing out on a day hurts but not as much as the thought of walking outside and facing the sun. Or even just walking. Walking seems hard and unpleasant. Sokka makes another attempt at smothering himself in his pillow.
“Or would...would you rather I stayed here and took care of you? You feel that bad?”
Sokka feels like total garbage. His head hurts, his stomach hurts, and it tastes like something died in his mouth. The only thing he wants to do is do is go back to sleep and brush his teeth. Possibly in that order, possibly not.
He’s definitely not going to be good company.
“No, sweetie, no. Just because I’m not good today doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go have fun. I just wanna lay here and wait for death anyway.” Sokka squeezes at Zuko’s hand, lets it go, and reaches up to pat at his cheek. “Go out and do something fun in honor of me.”
Zuko slides off the bed and looks like he’s going to start getting dressed, then hesitates.
“....Are you sure? I can stay.”
Sokka flaps a hand at him and throws the blanket back over his head. Because Zuko apparently enjoys his suffering, it immediately gets wrenched off.
“You’re not even gonna kiss me goodbye?” Zuko grumbles, pouting with his arms crossed firmly over his chest. God, Sokka is weak.
“You don’t wanna kiss this. I taste like I ate a dead squirrel.”
“Fine, get over here,” Sokka gives in, like he knew he was always going to, because he’s a weak piece of shit who could never deny Zuko anything. “But you’re not allowed to complain that I taste bad.”
“I would never.”
And the funny thing is that Sokka believes him. Zuko’s picky, prickly, and likes things just-so, but Sokka one hundred percent believes him. Zuko gets his kiss, doesn’t say a word about tasting roadkill, and leaves Sokka to his suffering in peace.
Sokka wakes up and feels almost human again.
He doesn’t open his eyes, but he knows that Zuko’s back without even looking, because his head is pillowed in a lap that feels more comfy than what’s on the bed and he can smell sand and saltwater and sunscreen, and underneath that something that he recognizes intimately as his best friend. He blindly reaches out to bat around for a hand, and after a few failed attempts, warm and calloused fingers curl around his and hold.
“Oh good, you’re awake and alive.”
Sokka stubbornly keeps his eyes shut.
“You didn’t even check to see if I was breathing? You could have been laying with a dead man this whole time?”
He hears Zuko snort.
“A dead man would be less clingy.”
Sokka slaps around for Zuko’s thigh and is rewarded with a quiet chuckle of laughter. The hand holding his lets go and scrubs gently at the peach fuzz growth behind Sokka’s ears.
“You talk a whole awful lot for someone who wanted cuddles before I was even your boyfriend. You’re a loose man.”
“Keep talking shit and I’ll take back the lie I told your dad about how you got sick.”
If Sokka listens hard, he can hear the distinctive tap-tap-tap of fingertips texting on a smartphone, and a quick spike of ice goes down his spine. His eyes snap open.
“Are you texting my dad right now?”
The look Zuko gives him is so unbelievably sweet, amused, and fond that Sokka’s heart turns to jello, even cutting through the abstract horror that Zuko has been cahoots with his father for some uncertain amount of time.
“What?” Zuko asks. “I needed his help picking out a present, anyway. I saw it and I couldn’t resist. He’s surprisingly helpful.”
“A present for who?” Sokka can’t help his own curiosity. Zuko’s been picking up little trinkets everywhere they stop, from weirdo mugs to little animals made out of hot glued seashells. A plastic lobster keychain here, a fuzzy Sasquatch socks from Colorado there. They’re all silly and stupid and Iroh will love them, but Zuko hasn’t had any sort of trouble deciding what he wanted so far, and definitely not enough that he’d need to enlist Dad’s help with it. Maybe he wanted to get something for Katara and wasn’t sure what she’d like?
“For you, dumbass.”
Sokka doesn’t have time to do anything other than stare at him and be overcome with feelings before Zuko’s learning over the side of the bed and grabbing something off of the floor. It’s a shopping bag with something squishy inside, wrapped up in tissue paper.
It looks...fancy. Sokka likes fancy.
“Can I open it now?”
“Yeah. Go for it.”
Sokka rips open the paper and picks up what’s inside, staring at it and feeling like he’s going to burst with love.
It’s a shirt. Not just any shirt, though; it’s a Hawaiian-style shirt and it’s the most delightfully obnoxious thing that Sokka’s ever seen in his life. The pattern is pineapples on a highlighter pink background, and it’s sleeveless, and it’s so ugly and so tacky that Sokka wants to wear it for the rest of his life.
“Oh my god. Oh my god.”
“Is...is that a good ‘oh my god’?”
Sokka whips around to stare Zuko in the eyes, incredulous that he could have doubts, for even a second, that this is the greatest thing that Sokka has ever been given.
“Listen,” he says seriously, shaking the shirt a little in Zuko’s direction. “Listen. I don’t think I’ve ever been more attracted to anyone in my life.”
The crack of laughter that comes out of Zuko is bright and startled and delighted, and Sokka with his brushed teeth has no other option left but to grab him by the collar and kiss him senseless until neither of them know how to breathe.
Bahia Honda is the most beautiful beach in the world and Sokka wants to live here.
“Right here? In the sand?”
“Right here in the sand,” Sokka confirms, spreading himself out in the sun like a basking alligator. “I’m never leaving. You’ll never take me alive.”
“I’m telling your dad.”
“Don’t you say shit to my dad. He’s annoying enough. Don’t give him any high-falutin’ standards to hold me to.”
Zuko sticks his tongue out, and Sokka rolls over, directly into Zuko’s ocean-wet leg, and sprinkles enough sand on it to stick.
“Gonna change your name to Sandsquatch.”
Zuko grumbles a smart-mouthed comment in his general direction and throws himself into the water instead. Sokka watches him for a while—watching, ogling, it’s all kind of the same for him right now, and enjoys the feeling of warm sunshine on his shoulders. As he keeps an eye on Zuko’s dark head in the water, Sokka finds himself breathing with the tempo of the waves upon the shore, and before he knows it, he’s falling asleep.
It can’t be Zuko—the dude is ridiculous but he draws the line at giggling, even when being tickled, which is cosmically unfair in every single way. Sokka cracks an eye open and sees the world in blue and purple. His sunglasses? Sokka was not wearing those before.
He feels heavy, and the reason why is obvious as soon as he opens his eyes.
Sokka is covered in a veritable mountain of sand and the reason for that mountain is using a watering can clearly stolen from a child to wet the sand and pack it down.
“What in the actual—“
“Watch your profanity,” Zuko singsongs, like a jackass, and from somewhere behind him there’s a chorus of giggles.
Zuko’s not building a sand castle on top of Sokka by himself. He has help in the form of at least six little kids under the age of eight. One of them is using a bucket of wet sand to build a turret on top of Sokka’s thigh, and a little girl who can’t be more than four keeps handing Zuko seashells, scampering off to find more and bringing them back to him. If Sokka really cranes his head, he can catch sight of at least two sets of parents smirking at him from across the beach.
“Zuko. Zuko, sweetie.”
“Yes?” Zuko’s very focused on making sure that the seashells he’s placing are evenly spaced for windows.
“Why am I buried under a thousand pounds of sand? I mean, I’m not mad about it. Just curious.”
Zuko meets his eyes for a split second and then looks away. There’s a little extra color in his cheeks and it could be from the sun or it could be a blush. Sokka would put money on the latter.
“...You were going to burn,” Zuko mumbles finally, when Sokka keeps waiting for an answer. “You needed to reapply your sunscreen, but you were sleeping.”
“So you buried me. To keep me from getting a sunburn.”
That sounds very much like a question and not an answer. Sokka knows that the smile on his face is incredibly stupid and incredibly sappy.
“I mean, for future reference, you can probably just put it on me yourself.”
Zuko nods but not like he means it, and Sokka has a feeling that if he decides on another beach nap, he’ll wake up buried again.
On the fifth and final night in the Keys, Sokka rolls over and smacks his nose into Zuko’s shoulder. Zuko’s staring up at the ceiling, an unreadable expression on his face.
“Are you okay?” Sokka asks, still half asleep but quickly waking up. “It’s late.”
“I think I’m ready to go home,” Zuko whispers after a long pause.
“Okay.” Sokka wraps his arms around him and buries his face in the soft hollow of Zuko’s throat. “Okay.”
“I don’t know if I can sleep,” Zuko mumbles, hands going up the back of Sokka’s t-shirt and tangling in fabric, twisting just enough until Sokka take the hint and peels it off to give him more access to warm, dark skin. Sokka pulls back enough to give Zuko the room to roll back over onto his back, and takes the opportunity he’s given to slot himself between Zuko’s thighs.
Even just with this, his heart’s pounding.
Zuko’s smile in the dark is bright and sharp, and Sokka gives in to his need to kiss it off of him until they’re both breathless.
“Is this your way of asking me to wear you out?”
“Are you offering?”
Zuko’s grinning at him again, crooked and a little bit shy and more than a little bit awkward, but doesn’t follow it up with kidding. He waits for Sokka to realize that he’s not bluffing, and the moment that he does, Sokka feels like he’s going to pass out.
“Um. Yeah. Yeah, I guess I am.”
Zuko cranes his face up in the way that Sokka is quickly learning means he wants to be kissed, and it would take way more than every drop of blood in his body rushing to his dick to keep from giving him what he wants. Zuko sighs into his mouth and drags his teeth very gently over Sokka’s lower lip. His hands on Sokka’s back are warm and easy, but burn like a brand.
“Oh, shit—“ Sokka pulls back abruptly, so suddenly that the look on Zuko’s face goes openly alarmed. “You, uh, you meant in a sexy way, right?”
“...Oh my god.” Zuko covers his face with his hands, and Sokka can see him beginning to go red through the spaces between his fingers. “Yes. Oh my god. Yes, I mean in a sexy way.”
“Oh,” Sokka says, a little too loudly over the drumming of his heart inside his head. “Okay. Good.”
The next morning, Zuko drags Sokka out of bed while it’s still dark outside, and they sit on the beach and watch the sun come up. Even though it was his idea in the first place, Zuko dozes off for a few minutes cuddled up underneath Sokka’s arm like the beautiful hypocrite that he is. Sokka hears love on his lips and on his heart, and keeps them to himself until he can’t stand it, and whispers them under his breath into the top of Zuko’s head.
Sokka tells himself that it’s way too soon to be in love yet, even though he knows, in his heart of hearts, that it’s a pointless effort. He tells himself that it’s because he’s easy but the truth is that he was already mostly there before he even noticed.
It’s a gorgeous and kind of melancholy sunrise.
Even when Zuko wakes up enough to appreciate it, he’s quiet.
“Are you okay?” It’s not the first time that Sokka’s asked and it won’t be the last. Zuko doesn’t immediately tell him yes, and makes a considering little humming sound under his breath. “Talk to me. What are you thinking about?”
“...I feel like I’ve been in a dream this whole time,” Zuko admits, finally, like it hurts. “This whole trip has been better than I ever could have imagined, and I know that when we go home, everything’s going to change. I don’t want it to. I don’t want to wake up.”
He sounds lost and the way that Zuko tucks his nose into Sokka’s throat when he speaks makes his heart hurt. This is more than just anxiety over his dad’s trial.
“Yeah, but like...you know that this isn’t gonna be one of the things that changes, right?” Sokka squeezes his arm around Zuko’s shoulders and kisses the top of his head. “This is real, man. I’m real, and I’m not going away.”
“Not. Going. Away.” Sokka emphasizes his words with another squeeze. “You know we’re going to get ribbed all to hell, going on a life changing field trip and coming back dating? My dad’s gonna have a fucking field day when I tell him.” Zuko goes incredibly, suspiciously still next to him. “What. What did you do?”
“Uh. He...probably already knows.”
“He talks to Uncle!” Zuko defends himself in the wake of Sokka’s mounting horror, “And I told Uncle! ...why didn’t you tell your dad?” That last bit comes out way quieter than the rest, and Sokka is suddenly very aware of why Zuko would definitely not have told his own father.
“No, it’s not that—ugh, god. It’s not bad bad. What, you think I’m embarrassed of you or something? You are, like, at the very bottom of the list of Most Embarrassing Things I’ve Ever Done.” Sokka deserves the smack that Zuko delivers to his shoulder and takes it gracefully. “No, he’s just gonna tease the shit out of me. And invite you to, like, family dinners and shit.”
“...He already does that?” Zuko blinks in confusion, looking startled when Sokka whips around to gape at him.
“Sokka.” Zuko’s voice is tight and strained. “I’ve been coming over to your house for dinner every Friday night for three years. The fuck did you think those were?”
Sokka stares at him.
“I...I thought you were just getting really comfortable.”
“Oh my god.” Zuko sounds exasperated but affectionate, a huge improvement from lost and morose or worse, insecure. “When have you ever known me to be comfortable around father-y types? And don’t say Uncle, because he doesn’t count. He’s Uncle. It’s different.”
“You could have said something. Dad could have said something.”
Zuko looks away and starts digging his bare feet into the cool, dry sand. Sokka doesn’t push him, still tired and heavy in the early hour and calmed by the sounds of water on the shore.
“I wouldn’t have liked it, if he had,” Zuko answers eventually. “He’s a lot like you.” Sokka blinks, suddenly thrown, long enough that Zuko has to continue. “He sees me a little more than I want him to. Not that I don’t want you to see me!” He elaborates. “But...I was fifteen and furious and for some reason you were still friends with me even though I was kind of an asshole and didn’t really deserve it, and I wasn’t ready to have my skeletons aired out to the world, but there they were. And every time I left your house, your dad saw me as I was. I didn’t want him to say anything to you, so he didn’t. I liked you, even then, and he saw me. It helped, even though I didn’t want it to. I’m sorry. I’m not making any sense.”
Sokka is suddenly so choked up with emotions that he can barely breathe, much less speak, and all he knows how to do is pull Zuko into a proper hug, one arm tight around his shoulders and the other around his waist. It probably looks unspeakably romantic to anyone seeing them from the outside, but Sokka is so filled to the brim with gratitude that he doesn’t even care.
“It helped?” He finally manages to squeak out, face buried in Zuko’s dark hair. “He helped you?”
“Yeah, he helped me.”
Somehow, the prospect of merciless teasing feels a lot less annoying and a lot more like something he can handle.
Zuko says fuck Texas, so they don’t drive through Texas, even though Sokka complains intermittently throughout the span of several hours that he wanted to buy a cowboy hat and eat a rattlesnake.
“With your luck, the rattlesnake’ll be the one to eat you,” Zuko insists, and turns on the child safety locks after Sokka pretends to open the door on the highway. As a joke. It was one hundred percent a joke and he would never have actually done it, and Zuko is a buzzkill for refusing to drive through Texas. “Next time we do this, you can drive through Texas, then.”
Sokka sticks his tongue out at him but has to cover up his smile with his hands at the idea of there being a next time.
He gets back some of his own when Zuko starts complaining about wanting Whataburger, and Sokka can say, snidely and with glee, that they should have driven through Texas.
There are no more motels on the drive back. Sokka doesn’t question it, mostly because it’s not his money anyway but also because there’s something he really likes about sleeping in the car. It’s definitely not about the level of comfort or quality of sleep, because the former is negligible and the latter is laughable.
Maybe it’s that he knows that Zuko kind of likes it too. He has to, because it’s not a lack of lodging that leads to pillowing atop each other every night. Twice, Sokka wakes up in the middle of the night to the sight of street lights flash by and cuddling an armful of comforter.
“What the fuck, sweetie?”
“Oh, hey—sorry, Uncle, Sokka just woke up.”
“The fuck are you talking to Uncle for at this godforsaken hour?” Sokka groans from his nest. “Uncle! Tell your kid to pull over and go to sleep.”
“Fat chance, he tried that already.” Zuko sounds too awake to be human. “Check your GPS.”
This had better be good or Sokka is going to chuck a pillow at him. Nevertheless, he pulls his phone out and brings up the map.
“...We’re in Texas?”
”I couldn’t stop thinking about Whataburger.”
“Whataburger,” Sokka says incredulously. “You drove to Texas for Whataburger.”
From the front seat, Zuko shrugs, keeping his eyes on the road. The smudges under his eyes are telling.
“There’s also a place next to Whataburger called Cowboy Depot that looks tacky as shit,” he replies, like that entire sentence out of his mouth wasn’t completely ludicrous, “You still want a cowboy hat, right?”
Sokka is one hundred percent, stupidly, ride-or-die, end of the line in love with this idiot.
“Hell yes, I still want a cowboy hat.” Before Zuko can complain that his impression of luggage is terrible and that they’re going to get got by the cops for it, Sokka leans forward through the seats and kisses him on the cheek. “You are great, and amazing. But you need to pull over and go to sleep . I will drive the rest of the way in the morning but please, and I mean with this all the sincerity I can find at—“ he checks the time, “2:35 in the goddamned morning, pull over and get some sleep.”
Zuko grumbles about it but gives in after another mile or so down the highway. He finishes his phone call and pulls off into a rest stop, parking underneath a light pole.
“Very,” Sokka tells him. “Go get comfy, and I’ll be right back. I want a Reese’s.”
“At—“ Zuko makes an overdramatic show out of checking his phone, “2:43 in the goddamned morning?”
“You’re not cute,” Sokka lies. Despite his complaining, Zuko gets out of the driver’s seat without protest. Sokka catches him as he’s clambering into the hatchback and loops him into a hug. “I lied, you’re adorable.”
“Yeah-huh times infinity, and I will not be accepting criticism at this time.”
“Are you six?” Zuko’s already wrapped himself up in the comforter so that the only part of him that can really be seen is the top of his head.
“I’d better not be six,” Sokka replies with a salacious little waggle of his eyebrows. Zuko muffles some profanity into his pillow. Mission accomplished.
When Sokka gets back with his candy, Zuko’s curled up in a ball and hogging all the blanket.
“You are a pain in the ass,” he says, “But you’re awfully fucking cute.”
Zuko mumbles something unintelligible and makes grabby hands at him from inside his blanket cocoon. It’s easy to scramble back into the wayback, shut the hatch, and maneuver his way into making Zuko’s comforter a burrito for two. Zuko presses himself into the spaces between them and sighs a little, going relaxed and boneless as if he’s just gotten everything he wanted.
It’s so unexpectedly charming and Sokka has no defenses against it.
“Are you happy?” Zuko’s question almost goes unheard in the rustling of Sokka’s ‘getting comfy’ process. He does hear it, though, and sputters a little at the ridiculousness of it.
“Of course I’m happy. Why wouldn’t I be happy?”
Zuko shrugs silently and noses into Sokka’s throat with a huffing sigh. Sokka squeezes.
“Oh, no. You started it; you don’t get to be emotionally constipated when I want to finish it. Why wouldn’t you think I’d be happy?”
“Going hours out of your way to do something you didn’t want to do for a burger and a cowboy hat is stupid. Try again.”
“I just—“ Zuko cuts himself off, the way he always does when he’s feeling vulnerable, or worried about being teased. “I have a hard time telling, sometimes. Okay? Not just with you but people in general. Even myself. If I can’t even tell if I’m happy, how can I be sure that anyone else is, either? Like, sometimes I worry that you’re just indulging me and you’re acting happy when you’re not, and I’m just making shit up? It’s not that I think that you would,” he amends, when Sokka’s face matches the feeling of his heart getting kicked, “I just. I wanted to make sure. Okay?”
Sokka tends to say whatever pops into his head, but calling his boyfriend a neurotic idiot when he’s feeling insecure is probably not the best thing he could do. So instead of doing that, he mulls over his words in his head, silent for long enough that Zuko twists in his grip.
“You’re quiet. It’s freaky, and I don’t like it,” he complains but with enough genuine concern that Sokka has to tell him something.
“I’m trying to think of a good way to say that your family really fucked you up without, like, triggering you.”
“... Wow, Sokka.”
“I didn’t want to lie to you! Like, I straight up wanna go fight your dad in jail right now. What the fuck.”
“Sorry for being too busy being fucked up to help you, I guess.” Zuko, a stiff and coiled contrast to the relaxed puddle he’d just been, makes a solid attempt to scoot away from him. Sokka doesn’t let him go, throwing his leg over Zuko’s hip and holding onto him with both hands.
“Stop, stop, stop— just give me a second. God.” Zuko doesn’t fight him that hard but there’s still not that much room to roll around in the back of his car, and Sokka’s not looking forward to trying to treat a head injury if one of them ( Zuko ) is too impulsive and stressed out to keep from braining himself on his own car. “Sorry, I fucked that up. This is what happens when you rush me. Give me a second.”
Zuko huffs a little and doesn’t relax, but allows Sokka to bury his nose in his hair and press a kiss behind his ear.
“It makes sense that you’d feel like that. Okay? I didn’t mean to make you feel like there was something wrong with you.” Sokka’s struck gold, because Zuko goes dead silent. “There’s nothing wrong with you. But that asshole hurt you, and lied to you, and used everything he knew about you to get what he wanted, so it makes sense that you’d have some trouble being able to tell. That’s all I meant. You’re not fucked up.”
The moment Zuko forgives him is a physical one. The tension drains out of his body and he sags. His hands come around to rest at the small of Sokka’s back, fingertips tucking into his waistband. For all that Zuko snaps and snarls, his words are the only things in him that ever really bite, and he doesn’t hold grudges well. For better or for worse, despite how hard he tries.
“Not fucked up, huh?”
“Not fucked up,” Sokka says firmly with an extra squeeze for good measure. Zuko’s the kind of person who can use a little extra squeezing. “If I’m unhappy, dude, you’ll know it. I haven’t come all this way to lie to you about it.”
“...but you are happy, right?”
“I’m so happy. I’m happy on this trip with you and I’ll be happy at home with you, and I’ll be happy at college with you, too. You don’t have to do any crazy shit to make me happy. I already told you, this isn’t the thing that’s going to change. ...Are you happy?”
Zuko’s answer comes with a gentle scrape of teeth along Sokka’s jawline. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I think I might be.”
There’s a lot that Sokka wants to say to that.
Don’t be so afraid all the time. Trust that I won’t lead you astray. All you have to do to make me happy is to be happy with me.
In the end, he doesn’t say any of it. In the end, Zuko rolls over to let Sokka plaster himself against his back. Zuko was the one who was shaky but in the end, it’s Sokka who feels stabilized.
Whataburger is great but not as great as the cowboy hat that Sokka ends up with.
It’s huge and made of dark, soft leather, with a band looped around the crown that’s patterned in classic black and white cow print and a huge, shiny buckle. Sokka’s bowlegged, cigar-smoking, stick-em-up cowboy impression in the store makes Zuko laugh so hard that he cries.
We’ve reached the end! Are you proud of me? It’s been a while since I’ve written and completed a legitimate chaptered fic. Ahem. Anyway.
If you liked this, please leave a comment and let me know! If you’d rather screech at me on tumblr, my ask box is always open @sword-and-stars.
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.”