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><> ♥ <><

“Are you sure you don’t want to come with us? I could really use your help.” Iroh asks over breakfast on Tuesday. “Those catfish won’t catch themselves.”

“No, I’m good.” Zuko barely looks up from his eggs. They’re a bit runny, just how he likes them, and he shovels another forkful into his mouth.

“Oh, Zuko. Stop fretting. You should come out once in a while,” Iroh cajoles his nephew. “Some fresh air and rushing water would do wonders for you and your complexion.”

“I’m okay, Uncle.” Zuko smiles blithely. “I think I’m going to do some reading today, maybe take a walk near the river. I’m not sure yet.”

“That sounds excellent,” his uncle claps his hands together, eyes twinkling with approval. “Meanwhile, I’ll be out on the river, seeking out the most elusive yet elegant catch of all—”

And he launches himself into a veritable monologue about the beauty and elegance of rivers. Zuko steadily tunes him out because, hey, it’s not like he’s heard this speech a thousand times before, both in-person and on-screen. Iroh is one of the world’s leading ichthyologists, after all, and with his show Tributary Terrors playing on Animal Planet at all hours, he’s the poster child for a middle-aged TV channel who somehow attracted an audience with his boisterous yet sagelike demeanor. Zuko’s been in quite a few of the episodes in his role as a long-suffering intern whose snarky offscreen commentary lands him into the category of fan favorite due to his deadpan humor. He’s been an intern for over six seasons, and it’s become a long-running gag to see if Zuko will ever be promoted, much to his frustration and Iroh’s amusement.

They’re currently staying at some place in Texas, at the house of one of Iroh’s friends while Iroh films some segments for a future episode about catfish noodling. Zuko doesn’t know much about this area other than the fact that they’re in the middle of buttfuck nowhere, surrounded by grass so brittle a match could set the whole place ablaze, except for the fact that it’s also so humid his face is on round three of a boxing match against hormonal acne and one punch away from a KO defeat.

Honestly, Zuko doesn’t even know how he was coerced into coming on this particular expedition, seeing as how his original summer plans involved staying at home and researching different colleges to apply to during his upcoming senior year. The entire college application process—the schools, the essays, everything, really—has been one of the most stress-inducing ordeals in Zuko’s entire existence, which, considering how most of his extracurriculars have centered around adrenaline-inducing activities involving the risk of bodily harm, really says a lot. He swears that if just one more person asks him what schools he’s hoping to apply to, he’ll yeet his spreadsheets and his notes out the window. His father’s been particularly pushy about the Ivies, something about the prestige and—oh, what was that awful five-letter word?—honor that Zuko would bring to his family. Yeah.

Sighing, Zuko finishes his eggs and takes his plate to the sink. He’ll deal with honor later. Right now, all he wants to do is take a nice, long walk while Iroh’s out. (Tuesday’s usually a long shoot day.) Hopefully he’ll find some inspiration for his personal statement.

><> ♥ <><

Inspiration comes in the form of a tall, thin guy who’s perched atop the sand near the culvert, brown hair tied in a tight ponytail. The glaring sunlight beats down on Zuko’s back, and he wishes that he put on a cap before he left the house. The sun makes his entire body itch, especially his scar, and he’s grateful that he remembered to slather on some sunscreen before leaving the house.

“Hey,” the guy says when he hears Zuko’s footsteps, placing a finger to his lips in the universal shushing gesture. He doesn’t seem to be much older than Zuko.

“This is my spot,” Zuko replies, because he did discover this little haven the first day of the trip after the raucous welcome party, trying to avoid the tipsy renditions of “Four Seasons” and “Girls from Ba Sing Se.” When Iroh pulled out his personalized tsungi horn, well, that was when Zuko made a mad dash out of the yard and into the surrounding grasslands, stumbling into the culvert to get away from his uncle’s drunken antics.

“Uh, last time I checked, there wasn’t a rule about that.” The guy turns his attention back to the water before him. “Shh. You’re bothering the fish.”

“The—” Zuko instantly bristles before slumping down, remembering what his therapist had told him about calming down and grounding himself in tense situations. Breathe in, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Breathe out, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. He tries again. “Fish?”

“Yeah, the fish.” The guy looks at him, his gleaming eyes as blue as the water before him. Zuko thinks they’re beautiful, like sapphires or something precious, and he can feel the back of his neck prickle with a silent admonishment of you’re staring! in Azula’s nasally voice echoing in his head. He can’t deny that this guy is pretty hot, as far as guys go.

A tense silence falls for a second before the guy asks, “You wanna see?”

Zuko’s stunned, mostly because the guy hasn’t said anything about, y’know, the whole gigantic-scar-on-the-left-side-of-my-face thing, the one thing that intimidates everyone and earns him lone-wolf status at school. (The fact that his uncle happens to be a world-class fish scientist also does wonders to cement his social status.) No one wants to talk to the guy with the weird scar… except this guy seems utterly unperturbed by Zuko’s appearance. Huh.

“Sure?” Zuko moves quietly towards the guy, his interest piqued. He squats down on the bank and peers into the culvert, eyes following the path of the guy’s outstretched hand.

There’s a kaleidoscope of rainbows in the water that sends droplets cascading into the air, and it takes Zuko a solid six seconds to realize the rainbow is actually fish, hundreds of them, swirling in the water with their scales blinking in the sunlight. He thinks back to the first time he snuck out of his house to look at fish in the creek behind their yard before his father caught him and dragged him back inside, his happiness of the memory swaddling his heart.

“Cool, right?” The guy catches on to Zuko’s quiet delight. “Hey, I don’t think I’ve seen you around before.”

“I’m not from here.”

“Oh yeah, that makes sense,” the guy remarks, sticking a blade of grass into the water and tugging it around lazily. The fish dart away from the grass in rivulets of silver. He reaches his other hand out towards Zuko. “I’m Sokka.”

Zuko grasps the proffered hand in a stiff handshake, just like how his father taught him. “And I’m Zuko. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Geez,” the guy—wait, no, Sokka—replies, rubbing his wrist. “You got quite a grip right there.”

“Yeah. Bad habit.”

“Nah, dude. I dig it,” Sokka says. “Dad always said a firm handshake conveys strength and respect.”

They sit in baited silence while the minnows flit back and forth in the water. Sokka speaks up after a while. “Mind telling me what you’re doing here?”

“At the culvert?”

“No, stupid.” Sokka rolls his eyes, and Zuko almost tenses up before relaxing again. “Out here. No sane person comes outside during midday unless they have a good reason to.”

“Well, you’re out here, aren’t you?” he fires back.

“Didn’t say I was sane.” Sokka grins, a flash of white teeth glinting behind pursed lips.

“Fair point,” Zuko mutters, letting out a quiet chuckle.

Sokka perks up. “Hey, wanna come check out a pond with me? I found some shiners there yesterday and they’re huge.” He stretches his arms out for maximum effect. “Like, I wanted to get Katara and Aang to come, but they’re both too busy with each other. Summer homework, my ass.”

Zuko hesitates, pondering his options. Yes, he could walk back to the house and take a nap with the A/C on full blast, or he could follow this Sokka guy, someone who’s practically a stranger, out into the unknown reaches to look at some tiny fish. (Shiners are so tiny they barely make a dent in Zuko’s fish lexicon.)

Sokka’s already scrambling from the bank. “You coming?”

Eh. What the hell.

“Why not,” Zuko says as he stands up, wiping the sweat from his forehead. He thinks that Sokka is one of the most enigmatic people he’s ever met, someone who doesn’t blink twice at his scar or make some sort of snide comment about his attitude. People like him are hard to come by, and Zuko has a feeling that he’s found something special.

It turns out that the shiners are pretty big, but the only thing that Zuko has eyes for is Sokka, eyes blazing and arms swinging as he enthusiastically points at a particularly gigantic specimen painting lazy circles of bubbles in the pond. And when the sun reaches its peak in the sky and Sokka mutters something about going home and making food and would you like to come by?, Zuko almost says yes—almost, because he feels his hands itching to grab Sokka, but also because he’s struggling to hang on to his college-apps nonsense and needing to write his personal statement. He declines Sokka’s offer with a sad smile and departs, but not before Sokka hands him a phone with a rushed “can I get your number, then?” accompanied by the faintest of grins.

Zuko swears that his blush is only from the sun.

><> ♥ <><

[unknown // 4:15 pm] Hello, Zuko here. Thanks for hanging out with me today.
[unknown // 4:17 pm] Hopefully I have the right number. This is Socka, right

[Socka // 4:21 PM] oh hey zuko!! lol i didn’t recognize your number :)) and it’s sokka not socka but that’s okay! lotsa people make that mistake dw
[Sokka // 4:23 PM] it was great hanging out today, i had lots of fun
[Sokka // 4:24 PM] been a while since i got to hang with someone like 

[zuko // 4:27 pm] Same here. I don’t really have many friends to hang out with in the first place.
[zuko // 4:29 pm] I spend most of my time studying or working for my uncle

[Sokka // 4:31 PM] no yeah totally get that
[Sokka // 4:32 PM] my gran gran is on my ass bout wasting time outside instead of working on college app essays
[Sokka // 4:33 PM] little does she know that i already finished them booyaaa

[zuko // 4:36 pm] … You’re applying to college this year, too?

[Sokka // 4:40 PM] yea i heard senioritis is a bitch so i wanted to get stuff done early
[Sokka // 4:41 PM] before i burn out or anything tbh
[Sokka // 4:42 PM] wait r u also a senior???
[Sokka // 4:43 PM] don’t ask me anything about colleges ok i don’t even know what i’m gonna have for breakfast tmrw

[zuko // 4:45 pm] I’m trying to work on my essays, but it’s a lot, honestly.
[zuko // 4:46 pm] And about colleges--I won’t ask if you won’t ask.

[Sokka // 4:47 PM] deal
[Sokka // 4:48 PM] hey lmk if u wanna hang soon or wanna leave your house
[Sokka // 4:49 PM] i wanna show u something

[zuko // 4:51 pm] Color me intrigued.

[Sokka // 4:54 PM] sure what color
[Sokka // 4:55 PM] jk i’ll see u at the culvert on friday
[Sokka // 4:55 PM] 8 am
[Sokka // 4:56 PM] it’s gonna be a pond party
[Sokka // 4:57 PM] bring sunscreen

><> ♥ <><

Zuko’s been to many parties in his life. You got your standard birthday parties with the artificial-tasting cakes complete with screaming children and your dinner parties where you plaster on an artificial smile as your family relatives find subtle ways to one-up each other using their kids as missiles. So when Sokka asks him to a pond party (whatever the hell that was), Zuko jumps on the opportunity because how often do you get invited to a pond party?

(And who the hell had parties at eight in the morning?)

On Friday morning, Zuko finds his way to the culvert, a bottle of Coppertone in one hand and a water bottle in the other. There are three people hovering near the culvert as he approaches, and he squints, vaguely recognizing a Sokka-shaped blob waving excitedly in his direction.

Sokka introduces the two other people as Katara, his sister, and Aang, Katara’s friend (although if the sideways glances and shy hand-holding tell Zuko anything, it’s that they're not just friends). Aang greets him with a friendly “hello!”, while Katara eyes him with a suspicious glare.

“Are you sure about this?” She looks at her brother. “You normally don’t invite people to your pond parties.”

Sokka makes a noise that apparently translates to something along the lines of yeah-he’s-good because Katara simply scoffs before readjusting the bag on her shoulder.

The four of them make their way through the tall grass, and Zuko quickly catches up to Sokka in front. Sokka grunts as he carries a heavy-looking cooler, sweat pooling down his neck. Zuko resists the urge to wipe away an errant droplet dangling from Sokka’s eyelash.

“Where are we going?” Zuko asks.

“You’ll see,” Sokka winks at him and the droplet falls, taking Zuko’s errant thoughts with it.

A few sweaty minutes later and they’re standing next to a large, shallow pond. It hasn’t rained in a while, and the water is clear and calm, flanked by floating duckweed and clowders of cattails swaying in the breeze. Sokka kneels down and opens the cooler, pulling out sliced watermelon, salad mix, and a box of mixed berries.

Confused, Zuko watches as Sokka pulls out a bag of small fish next, recognizing the fish as a type of shad. This doesn’t seem like any party he’d ever been to.

“What’s going on?” He looks towards Aang. The boy is fumbling around his own bag, pulling out a folded blanket.

“It’s a pond party!” Aang replies, unfolding the blanket with a whoosh and placing it on the ground. “Well, more like a picnic, but it’s literally whatever you wanna call it.”

“It’s mostly an excuse for Sokka to feed his fish,” Katara grumbles goodnaturedly. “Don’t worry, we bought actual food to eat, too.” She holds out a sandwich. “Want one?”

“I’m good.” As he looks around at everyone pulling things out of their bags, Zuko suddenly feels very, very awkward. He gingerly places his sunscreen and water bottle on the ground and sneaks towards Sokka.

“You didn’t tell me I had to bring anything,” he hisses quietly.

Sokka hums as he cuts up the shad with a pocketknife. “You brought sunscreen, right?”

“Yeah, but that’s, not, like—” Zuko gestures towards the spread of food that seemingly materialized out of nowhere and onto Aang’s blanket. “Like that! Food, and stuff.”

“Well, we kinda already prepped for this earlier,” Sokka looks sheepish. “We kinda ran out of sunscreen, so I thought I’d just ask you to bring some.”

“Oh,” and it’s Zuko’s turn to blush. “... Thanks.”

“Dude, it’s fine,” Sokka gathers the cut fish into a pile on the side and shakes out a few more shad. “You ever fed a catfish before?”

No, Zuko has never fed a fish before, something he finds wholly ironic due to the whole I’m-an-unpaid-intern-at-Tributary-Terrors part of his life. But he watches as Sokka dangles a shad over the water and slaps the surface, ripples cascading outwards. There’s a dark shadow that swims languidly towards them, and Zuko makes out the telltale whiskers of a mottled-looking catfish as it opens its mouth and gently tugs the fish away from Sokka’s grasp before swimming away.

Woah,” Zuko breathes, because he’s never seen something like this before. All he knows is hooks and rods and baits, and there’s something natural and soothing that seeps through his chest as he watches Sokka hand-feed another shad to the same catfish, even reaching out to pet the animal a few times.

“I know, right?” Sokka beams, and Zuko feels his body get all fuzzy again. “Took me a long time to get Momo to trust me, but here we are.”

“Momo?”

“Momo’s this one over here,” Sokka says as he wiggles his fingers in the water. The catfish pops up again, and he runs his fingers over his head. “He’s pretty skittish but he likes eating, so he’ll come up when I have food.”

“Ooh,” Aang chirps over Zuko’s shoulder, startling the teenager. “Has Appa shown up yet?”

Appa?

“No he hasn’t,” Sokka answers before turning to Zuko. “Appa’s actually Aang’s only other friend.”

“Hey!”

“Just kidding,” Sokka says. “He’s this ginormous catfish Aang found in the pond last year.” He reaches over to pull Zuko up. “Speaking of Appa, let’s go check out the other side of the pond!”

And later, when Appa surfaces from the water to poke at Zuko’s outstretched hand (the timid catfish is, indeed, ginormous), he wonders if it’s always been this easy, this whole making-friends thing, considering how long it takes for him to actually open up to people. Hell, it took his therapist multiple sessions to get him to open up about his childhood experiences and the inner resentment he holds towards his father. Zuko’s only met Sokka for a day and Katara and Aang for even less, but he feels like he’s known them for a lifetime. Sitting on the fringes of the pond and watching Katara and Aang feed bits of shad and fruit to the swarm of turtles loitering around, Zuko feels a sense of peace wash over his tired body for the first time in a long time.

(Sokka’s smile doesn’t hurt, either.)

(The sunscreen does come in handy when Aang starts yelling about the rash covering his arms.)

><> ♥ <><

[Sokka // 8:31 PM] hey thanks for coming out today!!!

[zuko // 8:35 pm] Of course. I had a lot of fun.

[Sokka // 8:40 PM] yay :DD
[Sokka // 8:41 PM] soooooo
[Sokka // 8:41 PM] how long r u gonna be here? in town of course

[zuko // 8:44 pm] I’m not sure, but probably a couple of weeks, depending on how long it takes for my uncle to finish his shoots.

[Sokka // 8:47 PM] woah way cool bro, what’s he shooting for?

[zuko // 8:50 pm] His television program.

[Sokka // 8:52 PM] :O what’s it called
[Sokka // 8:53 PM] i don’t watch a lot of tv but maybe i’ve seen it before

[zuko // 8:57 pm] Tributary Terrors? I don’t know if you’ve heard of it.

[Sokka // 8:59 PM] lkjsadfa;jfsjkldfjklasdf;
[Sokka // 9:00 PM] alsk;dfjklakljsefjklajkleflk
[Sokka // 9:01 PM] holy shit
[Sokka // 9:01 PM] HOLY SHIT
[Sokka // 9:01 PM] u have no idea how much i love that show omg
[Sokka // 9:02 PM] omg wait now i know why ur name sounds so familiar
[Sokka // 9:03 PM] omg omg omg
[Sokka // 9:04 PM] holy shit i’m gonna pass out
[Sokka // 9:04 PM] ur that zuko
[Sokka // 9:05 PM] THAT ZUKO
[Sokka // 9:06 PM] ZUKOOOO

[Sokka // 9:21 PM] … did i scare u off i’m sorry i didn’t mean to

[zuko // 9:23 pm] No, I’m fine, was taking a shower.

[Sokka // 9:24 PM] HE LIVES
[Sokka // 9:25 PM] omg
[Sokka // 9:26 PM] wait
[Sokka // 9:25 PM] if ur that zuko
[Sokka // 9:25 PM] that means

[zuko // 9:27 PM] Yes.
[zuko // 9:28 PM] I am Iroh’s “beloved nephew.”

[Sokka // 9:30 PM] holy
[Sokka // 9:30 PM] fucking
[Sokka // 9:31 PM] spirits
[Sokka // 9:32 PM] akjsdfjkadsf;adfadsf i can’t believe i met a literal celebrity
[Sokka // 9:33 PM] ur uncle is literally the whole reason i got interested in fish
[Sokka // 9:34 PM] and ur commentary literally sends me every time
[Sokka // 9:35 PM] omg
[Sokka // 9:36 PM] i have so many questions for u

><> ♥ <><

Sokka has a massive obsession over Tributary Terrors, a fact that Zuko learns during the pond party and dutifully stores into his mind as a potential conversation piece with his uncle over dinner. (Iroh would be so proud.) When he’s not gushing over the latest technological trends on WIRED, Sokka rambles about how cool it is to be paid to travel around the world and catch giant fish for a living.

Honestly, he’s not exactly wrong. Zuko does enjoy the time he’s spent trekking around different countries with Iroh and immersing himself into the local cultures, but the show has taken a massive toll on his free time, and he wonders how he’s going to write off his experience as an unpaid intern for Tributary Terrors into the Activities section of his Common App. Would Harvard even care about an applicant who’s spent massive amounts of time overseas reeling in big fish? How about Stanford? Zuko has no clue.

“—the episode where he caught the goonch in Nepal was balls, man! Like, I was almost screaming at the end! Katara had to physically restrain me,” Sokka sniggers as they hurry home from the pond. Katara and Aang have fallen behind so it’s just Zuko and Sokka hiking along the dirt path, the now-empty cooler bouncing over Zuko’s shoulder as Sokka continues rambling about Tributary Terrors.

Zuko doesn’t talk much about his time on the show, mostly due to the sheer embarrassment from all the “beloved nephew” and “restoring honor” memes that circulate around the internet from time to time. He’s only been on camera once or twice, mostly a background blur or a floating hand serving tea to his uncle, and Zuko prefers to keep it that way. So when he accidentally slips up to Sokka that one night, he expects it all to backfire spectacularly. Sokka will probably want to hang out with Iroh and ask him about the show, and Zuko will revert back to his menial floating-hand-duties of serving tea just out of frame. His heart thumps erratically at the thought.

Sokka's reply throws him for a loop. He doesn’t send Zuko any memes, for one (because most people do), and he seems genuinely interested in the material itself. And that’s what Zuko doesn’t understand. He’s grown up with the notion that people are always anticipating something from him, so when Sokka bumbles into his life with a blinding grin and a bagful of fresh shad, Zuko doesn’t know where to put him in his strictly-controlled paradigm.

The answer comes to him one Tuesday evening. It’s only been a few days after the pond party, and Zuko’s lying on the back porch of the house, eyes narrowing as he searches for stars in the cloudless sky. He’s finished writing most of his statement out on scraps of paper; the editing will come later. (And screw Harvard if they don’t like an essay about guppies.) A mosquito has been whining in tight loops around his head for a while, and he’s trying to think of the best way to slap the pest for once and for all.

“Hey there, stranger,” a voice whispers from above his head, and the sudden noise causes Zuko to leap up in alarm, slamming into something in the process—a warm and heart-pounding something.

“Ow!”

“Sokka?!”

“The one and only,” Sokka smirks. Zuko can make out that smile anywhere, even in the darkness.

“What’re you doing here?”

“Looking for you, of course!” There’s a click, and the porch is suddenly bathed in the soft, dim light of a lantern. “Your uncle told me that I could find you here.”

“I thought he was inside playing Pai Sho with Fung.” Zuko’s even more confused. Shouldn’t Sokka be inside, asking Iroh about Tributary Terrors and other niche things about fish?

“Yeah he is, but I said I wanna hang with you, so here I am.” Sokka sits down next to Zuko with a loud thump. “How’ve you been?”

Breathe in, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Breathe out, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. “Good. I think we’re leaving in about a week or so. Uncle got most of the scenes he wanted, but he’s still trying to find a giant catfish for the finale.”

“I could show him Appa,” Sokka shrugs.

“No, we should just leave Appa alone,” Zuko replies. What he really wants to say is, Appa’s our secret, and we don’t need the whole world knowing about him, but he doesn’t say that, because Zuko would never admit to being a sap in a million years.

“Someone’s getting defensive,” Sokka says wryly, giggling at the glare Zuko sends his way.

“Hmph,” Zuko snorts, leaning against Sokka’s broad shoulder. Sokka smells like mint with a hint of earth, a comforting scent that lingers in the air.

“So you’re leaving soon,” Sokka notes, a tinge of sadness tinting his words. “I honestly wish we could hang out more.”

“Same here.” Zuko buries his face into Sokka’s t-shirt. “I wish I could stay here forever.”

“Hey, don’t say that,” and Sokka is pulling him so that they’re facing each other. “We’ll still be friends, y’know?”

“Yeah, friends,” Zuko says, and he can feel himself drooping at the declaration, because he doesn’t know if Sokka means friend friends or friends like Katara and Aang are friends. The whole situation is confusing, really, because he does think Sokka is attractive (definitely a step up from all the people in his high school) and he really does want to kiss him right—

“Or do you mean more than friends?” and Sokka leans forward and kisses him gently.

Hngh,” Zuko moans, mostly because he’s never really had this nice of a kiss before, all tender and sweet, and also because his brain has short-circuited or something, smoke flying everywhere as his internal paradigm combusts. He kisses back desperately, conveying all of his thoughts into his lips as he whispers, “Oh, yes.”

And when Sokka laughs and murmurs a soft I love you against Zuko’s lips, well, that’s just between the two of them.

><> ♥ <><

[Sokka // 11:00 AM] when’s ur flight
[Sokka // 11:01 AM] spirits i miss you already
[Sokka // 11:01 AM] come backkk

[zuko // 11:03 am] We’re boarding at 11:30.
[zuko // 11:03 am] … I miss you, too.

[Sokka // 11:05 AM] aghhhhh
[Sokka // 11:05 AM] >:(
[Sokka // 11:06 AM] why do u have to live so far away

[zuko // 11:07 am] California’s not that far.
[zuko // 11:08 am] You can always come to visit ;)

[Sokka // 11:10 AM] did u just
[Sokka // 11:10 AM] emoji
[Sokka // 11:10 AM] be still my heart
[Sokka // 11:11 AM] also it’s 11:11 make a wish
[Sokka // 11:11 AM] i wish u were here

[zuko // 11:12 am] I wish you were here, too.
[zuko // 11:13 am] But hey, there’s always college tours.
[zuko // 11:13 am] Caltech has a pretty nice campus.
[zuko // 11:14 am] Or so I’ve heard :)

[Sokka // 11:17 AM] …
[Sokka // 11:18 AM] ur such a tease, did u know that

[zuko // 11:20 am] Anything for you xx.

[Sokka // 11:21 AM] right back atcha, babe