Sokka hasn't really been back to the Fire Nation since he helped lead a revolution that tore it to pieces. It surprises him to see how much has changed in just a few years.
“Was it always this busy?” he asks, leaning over the side of Appa’s saddle to watch the flow of the streets below, bustling with familiar shades of red and gold.
“It was when I knew it the first time,” Aang says from where he’s guiding them gently through the sky. “It’s good to see some of that come back.”
Sokka glances down again. They’re low enough that he can see the people pointing and staring, gossiping excitedly with each other as if this is a fresh sight and not a trip Aang makes every few months to check in on their favorite Fire Lord. Although intellectually Sokka knows they couldn’t be safer, he can’t help but shy back and out of sight. Even after all this time, he half expects somebody to lob a fireball at him any moment.
A rational fear? Maybe not, but Sokka’s found most fears aren’t.
“Oh, look!” Aang says, pointing excitedly in the vague direction of the ground. “The dumplings there are to die for, Sokka!”
“Oh yeah, I see,” Sokka lies.
Aang twists, shooting him a disappointed glance over his shoulder. “You didn’t even look.”
“Sure I did. You just didn’t see it.”
Aang isn’t fooled for one second. “You know, maybe if you’d come with me to visit Zuko more than once or twice, you wouldn’t be this skittish.”
“Excuse me for wanting to keep both my feet on the ground, just for a bit,” Sokka grouses, leaning back and folding his arms over his chest. “After all the time I spent stuck up here, I think I’m more than entitled. No offense, Appa buddy,” he adds, leaning over to pat Appa’s side reassuringly.
Aang snorts and turns away. “Better start getting used to it again,” he says. “After all, you’re going to be stuck here a while.”
And that’s just it, isn’t it? The last time he so much as stepped foot past where the Earth Kingdom borders end and the Fire Nation’s began had been two whole years ago. Even then, he’d only stayed long enough to really say ‘hi-Zuko-bye-Zuko’ and then he was gone, legging it back to the Water Tribe like the ice caps might see fit to melt if he wasn’t there to hold them upright.
He likes the place fine enough, all things considered, but it’s not home. It was never meant to be home. And yet here he fucking sits, watching as Appa gracefully swirls down from the skyline at the foot of the Royal Palace, about to be stuck here for fuck knows how long.
Really, hasn’t Sokka been through enough at this point? Isn’t he due some kind of karmic avalanche of good fortune? What has he done wrong?
“Here we go,” Aang says cheerfully as Appa circles the perfectly maintained grass just in front of the looming palace gates before he settles down with all the ease of a ten ton flying bison. Aang clambers down enthusiastically, and Sokka bemoans the fact that somehow Aang is as graceful now as he’d been at twelve. “C’mon, slowpoke. Zuko’s going to think we stood him up.”
“I’m fine here, actually,” Sokka says. “I don’t need to climb down. I think I’m gonna bunk with Appa from now on.”
“Sokka,” Aang groans. “It’s really not such a big deal, you know?”
Sokka stares at him incredulously. “Not such a big deal? Not such a big deal? Let’s see how you like it when -”
Appa - the goddamn traitor - tips to the side, and Sokka tumbles from the saddle without a single ounce of grace. Aang catches him before he hits the ground, hauling him upright. “Are you done complaining yet? I’m starving.”
“No, I am not done ‘complaining’,” Sokka sputters, but he might as well be talking to a wall, because Aang guides them cheerfully towards the gates with the familiarity of somebody who pays visits to royalty regularly and has no qualms about forgoing any deference. Water beats fire - Avatar trumps royalty. Just the natural order of things, Sokka supposes.
There’s a set of guards waiting for them, and Aang greets them both by name, even though those awful Fire Nation masks are hiding their stupid faces. Sokka doesn’t even realize they’re looking at him, until one of them asks, “Is this him?”
“Sokka? Yeah!” Aang jostles him with an arm around his shoulder, positively beaming.
He thinks the guards exchange a look, but he can’t be sure. He hopes they hadn’t seen him fall out of the saddle like a fucking idiot. Sokka is a war hero, dammit; that’s the last first impression he needs.
“The Fire Lord is waiting for you,” one of them says, and just like that they’re being escorted up the fancy staircase and into the palace. Sokka can’t help but stare, wide-eyed, as they pass by priceless statues and impeccable paintings. Sokka thinks if he manages to stuff just one of those fancy urns under his shirt, he could afford that new sword he’s been eyeing off for the better part of a year. Surely Zuko wouldn’t even miss it?
“Zuko really lives here, huh?” he whispers under his breath.
Aang has his arms folded behind his head, strolling beside him without a care in the world. “Well, yeah. He is the Fire Lord, you know?”
Sokka does know. Well, he thought he knew, at any rate. He’s starting to think knowing and understanding might be two very, very different things.
They pass by a portrait of a man that has Zuko’s eyes and Ozai’s awful hair. Sokka wonders why, in a palace full of firebenders, nobody’s thought to ‘accidentally’ burn some of the more offensive and temptingly flammable decor before. Maybe he’ll pitch it to Iroh if he ever gets the chance to see him again.
They’re taken down a long winding corridor and then another one after that. Sokka is just beginning to sweat a little under the collar when he sees another set of guards standing impassively before an impressive door. They come to a stop, and Aang says, “Hey Mayu, hey Azuma!”
“Seriously, do you know everyone in this place?” Sokka asks.
One of the guards inclines their head and steps back, gesturing to the door.
“Thanks,” Aang says brightly, and steps forward to throw the door open, Sokka right on his heels, eager to be out from beneath the tepid, watchful gazes that prickle along his skin.
The room the doors open to is large and sprawling; a bay of windows scatters natural light in artful shadows, and looming shelves line the walls, stuffed thick with books and scrolls and other such things that make Sokka’s mouth water to consider getting his grimy, travel-worn hands all over. He’s so distracted that it takes him a second to register the beautiful desk dominating the center of the room and then the even more beautiful man rising from behind it.
“Aang,” Zuko says, smiling. And then, turning that expression his way, “Sokka.”
It’s not like Sokka hasn’t seen him since he became Fire Lord, but he’s struck fresh every time with just how good he looks. The heavy robes hang off him like he was born to wear them, and his hair is pulled tight at the top of his head, a gleaming pin holding it together. The haunted, sallow look from their teenage years is gone from his face, and what remains is the expression of a tired but ultimately happy man.
It looks good on him. Sokka had resigned himself to that thought the very first time he passed by on a flying visit.
“Zuko!” Aang crosses the room to pull him into a hug easy enough that Sokka almost envies it. The years have shrunk the height difference between them considerably, and it’s almost unnerving when they step apart and Sokka realizes it won’t be long before Aang is actually taller. “I don’t suppose you’ve got food around here, do you? I’m so hungry I could eat that old man’s entire cabbage cart.”
“Please don’t try it,” Zuko says. “I think he’s one more cabbage incident away from filing a lawsuit, and I’ve only just started organizing an actual judicial process.”
“What did you do with criminals before that?” Sokka asks.
Zuko sends him a rueful look. “Banish them to the ocean to look for the Avatar at thirteen years old, I suppose.”
“Yeah, I suppose that’s kind of an outdated system at this point,” Sokka says, and before he can talk himself out of it he closes the distance between them and pulls Zuko into a brief but incredibly warm hug. He pats him heavily on the back before he pulls away. “Good to see you again, buddy. Even if the circumstances blow.”
Zuko’s smile is enough to melt the tension bundled tight in Sokka’s gut. He kind of misses the days back when Zuko’s only expressions were ‘pissed at you’ and ‘pissed at myself’. At least Sokka had felt like he could stand to look at his face for more than a moment at a time without being blinded. “Aang said you were overreacting about this,” Zuko says. “I see he wasn’t exaggerating.”
Sokka pulls back and pokes him in the chest hard enough that he’s surprised one of the guards doesn’t draw their sword. “I’m not overreacting, okay? The rest of you are underreacting if anything.”
“Sokka,” Zuko says, “it’s firebending, not a death sentence.”
Two weeks. Two whole weeks since Sokka stared first at the puddle that was once a house and then at his own palms and thought oh fuck, did I do that? Two whole damn weeks, and it still doesn’t sound any less surreal to hear the words aloud.
Firebending. Sokka. He, Sokka, from the Southern Water Tribe, the Guy With a Boomerang, is a goddamn firebender. It’s the least funny cosmic joke the universe has ever played, and boy, has it played a few.
He doesn’t say any of that though because he’s tried a dozen times by now and nobody seems to get it. Instead, he says, “Zuko, I live in the South Pole. I promise you, when your whole world is made of snow and you find out you can, like, breathe fire, it’s a little bit of a death sentence.”
Aang gives Zuko a very pointed look. See what I have to put up with? it says. He’s your problem now. Sokka both understands and deeply resents their apparent disregard for his ongoing and potentially endless meltdown.
“I’ve got the cooks preparing a meal already,” Zuko says, as if Sokka can be distracted by the mere mention of food, and Sokka hates that he’s right. “I’ve got to check on a few more things before then, but I can have the guards show you to your rooms if you’d like to get settled in.”
“Wait, here?” Sokka asks. “As in the palace? You want me to stay here?”
Zuko looks at him. “Where did you think you were staying? On the streets?”
“I don’t know! I just assumed it’d be, like… somewhere not here. Aang never said!”
Aang throws up his hands as Zuko looks at him. “I didn’t think I needed to! We were coming all the way here to see you and get Sokka set up with a proper teacher; I thought he was smart enough to put two and two together.”
Sokka resents that too. “Is there somewhere that isn’t the palace I can just, ya’know, stay for a while?”
“What’s wrong with my palace?” Zuko asks, and Sokka wonders at the fact that he’s reached the point in his life where one of his friends can just casually say my palace like it’s no big deal, and it kind of isn’t.
“Nothing!” Sokka says, instead of the truth, which is everything. “It’s just… a lot.”
Zuko rolls his eyes. “You’re not going to be like that the whole time, are you?”
“That depends,” Sokka says. “How long am I going to be stuck here?”
Zuko sighs, but his expression is daringly fond if a little exasperated. “Let Mayu show you to your room, Sokka. You can complain all you want over dinner.”
Sokka narrows his eyes. “You better believe I’m holding you to it,” he says, but he turns, obediently heading to the door where the guards from before are waiting.
Behind him, he hears Aang say, “I’m sorry. This is probably going to be a long stay for you.”
The door’s already closing behind him, but he just manages to catch Zuko’s reply.
“Not at all. Sokka’s always welcome here for as long as he wants to stay.”
The room is everything Sokka had feared it would be; larger than his whole damn house had been, and set with an ornate bed in one corner and an equally ornate desk in the other. If he didn’t know better, he’d have assumed the Fire Lord himself slept here, and not some lowly guest.
He leans his sword against the wall and sets his boomerang gently upon the desk. He pauses, considers, tilts his head, and moves it to the shelf. The clothes he’d brought hang pitifully in an overlarge wardrobe.
“Seriously,” Sokka mutters. “What does he expect me to do with all this space? Start a friggin’ club?”
There’s a knock at the door and Aang pokes his head in. “How’s settling in going?”
“Aang,” Sokka begs, “you can’t leave me here. I’ll do anything, take me back with you.”
Aang laughs, like Sokka is at all joking. “It’s not so bad,” he says. “Besides, it’s good to try new things every once in a while, you know? Get out of your comfort zone?”
Sokka stares. “I’m a firebender. I don’t think I could get any more outside of my comfort zone if I tried.”
“Guess you’ll find out,” Aang says cheerfully, seizing him by the wrist and dragging him out and back into the hall to be escorted by their little entourage of guards. “C’mon. Let’s eat!”
Sokka will give the Fire Nation this much, at least - the food here? Pretty damn good.
“How’d you find your room?” Zuko asks as Sokka tries to be discreet about stuffing his face with everything in grabbing range. Zuko has his hands folded below his chin, looking every bit the regal lord, and somehow utterly disinterested in the feast spread out on the sprawling table before them. “Everything up to standard?”
“Uh huh,” Sokka says, swallowing thickly, then frowns, pointing sharply at Zuko with his chopsticks. “Actually, can you tell me why the heck my room needs to be that big? You could fit Appa in there.”
“Only if you wanted to sleep outside in his place,” Zuko says. “It’s not that big, Sokka.”
“Of course you’d say that; you’re the Fire Lord. I don’t think you realize how intimidating this place is, buddy.” To Aang, Sokka says, “Aang, tell him.”
“Huh?” Aang says, looking up from where he’s sneaking Momo a leaf of lettuce. “I mean, it is a little extravagant, but it could be worse, I guess.”
Sokka looks back at Zuko with a raised brow. “See?”
“Scathing critique from the Avatar,” Zuko says wryly. “I suppose I’ll tend to the issue immediately.”
“Your sarcasm isn’t appreciated. Oh man, this is good. What is it? Aang, you gotta try this.”
“Vegetarian,” Aang reminds him with a remarkable amount of patience.
Zuko seems amused. “If the room isn’t going to win you over, maybe the food will.”
Sokka hates to admit that he’s right. The notion of spending the next several months stuck in the Fire Nation seems ever so slightly less terrible when he considers the fact that he might get to eat like this every day. He’s a simple man, deep down, and he’s not ashamed of it.
“Depends,” Sokka says, reaching for his glass of water. “Are you going to make us eat in this stuffy old dining room every time?”
‘Dining room’ is perhaps too vague a term for where they are, truthfully. It’s at least three times the size of Sokka’s bedroom with a table fit to seat at least a dozen more people than are actually present. At least Zuko hadn’t insisted on spreading them out; instead, they’re bunched together at one end, dishes between them, and when Sokka swings his feet he manages to just faintly clip Zuko’s ankle.
“Stop that,” Zuko scolds, sliding his chair a step closer to Aang. Sokka takes another swing and misses. “If you hate it in here so much, we could always eat in the formal dining area.”
Sokka nearly chokes on his water. “This isn’t the formal dining area? Who needs two dining areas anyway?”
“I think you should start picking your battles,” Aang says, with more wisdom than Sokka knows he possesses.
“What’s wrong with your study?” Sokka moans. “Can’t we just eat there?”
“That’s where I work, Sokka, a concept I know you’re unfamiliar with.”
“You’re the Fire Lord! You can eat wherever you want.”
Zuko nods thoughtfully. “Excellent point,” he says. “I think I want to eat right here.”
Aang laughs, a bubble of bright warmth, and Sokka groans, throwing himself down against the tabletop. “You’re such a smartass.”
Zuko daintily spears a rogue piece of cabbage. “Thank you, I’ve missed you too.”
Afterwards, Zuko takes them on a grand tour of the palace. Aang, who’s seen it many times before, is appropriately underwhelmed. There’s so many pointless rooms that Sokka feels like he might combust, which, you know, is something that he could feasibly do now that he’s a firebender and all.
(“Technically, you’ve always been a firebender,” Katara had argued the first time she and Sokka had gone over the whole fiasco. “You were just too dumb to notice.”
“Excuse the fuck out of me for not realizing that a guy raised in the South Pole might be a firebender.”
“Whenever I think about how much easier life would have been if you’d realized this during the war, I want to strangle you.”)
Zuko’s a terrible tour guide too, listing rooms as they pass without stopping for any kind of explanation, but Sokka had never expected him to be good at it, and it’s kind of endearing. Over the years Zuko’s grown less uptight, developed something that might passably be called a personality, but that homegrown awkwardness of his? That was all Zuko, baby.
At one point they pass by a wing with heavy boards hammered over the imperial archways; obvious and jarring. Zuko pauses for a moment, eyes sucked towards it like he can’t possibly help it, but after little more than a second he turns on his heel and keeps walking. He doesn’t say a word, and Sokka doesn’t think he even needs to ask.
They finish their tour in a private garden; turtle ducks swim lazily through a pond, and flowering trees brush at their shoulders as they walk past. It seems so out of place when compared to the grandness of the palace that Sokka can’t help but stare, pleasantly surprised.
“You like it?” Zuko asks, sinking down onto a bench by the pond. “It was my mother’s.”
“She had good taste,” Aang says admiringly, squatting down to gently reach for one of the turtle ducks. It scampers out of the way of his hands with a splash.
“Who feeds the turtle ducks?” Sokka asks.
“I do,” Zuko says, and then, before Sokka can process that, he turns to Aang and asks, “are you sure you don’t want to stay longer? It’s not a short trip to begin with.”
Aang rocks back on his heels with a sigh. “I’d love to,” he says, “but I’m meant to be visiting the Southern Air Temple. As it is, Sokka’s whole thing kind of knocked some stuff around.”
“Well sorry,” Sokka sniffs. “Very sorry to inconvenience you, your Lordship, Sir Avatar.”
Aang rolls his eyes and looks to Zuko. “He’s been sulking ever since Katara said I couldn’t train him. She was right, though. He needs to be somewhere better suited to learning to firebend, and I can’t just drop all my responsibilities to make sure he doesn’t melt the South Pole.”
“What’s the point of having the Avatar for your best friend if he won’t even teach you how to bend?” Sokka says. “I’ve been swindled.”
“Yeah, because getting taught by the man who taught the actual Fire Lord how to bend is such a consolation prize,” Aang says. “You really just got the short end of the stick here.”
“At the very least, you won’t be able to burn much down here,” Zuko says. “And if you do, there’s dozens of trained firebenders to fix it.”
Sokka sighs, flopping onto the bench beside Zuko. “I know, I know,” he says. “I get it. You’re lucky, Sokka. Shut up, Sokka.”
“Well, I wasn’t going to say that last part aloud,” Aang says generously.
“I was,” Zuko says without missing a beat, and Sokka elbows him sharply in the ribs.
“If you think I’m at Peak Annoying now, just you wait,” Sokka says. “You better watch yourself, asshole.”
Zuko flashes him a smile, in that small, shy way he has. “I do have the power to just kick you out of the whole kingdom if I want to.”
“And cause an international incident?” Sokka shakes his head. “For shame, Lord Zuko.”
Aang pokes one more time at the turtle ducks before getting to his feet. “I think I’m going to get some sleep,” he says. “I want to get up early tomorrow to start the journey back. Besides, it’s been ages since you two last saw each other. You should catch up!”
The look he sends Sokka isn’t subtle in the slightest, and Sokka feels his cheeks burn even as he makes a swift cutting motion behind Zuko’s back. He has a let of regrets in his life, but nothing quite as bad as the mistake he made when he - both drunk and in confidence - wistfully told Aang that it seemed unfair that he only seemed to get crushes on people waaay out of his league, ticking names of his clumsy fingers. Suki, Yue, Zuko - no, fuck, forget that last one -
“I’ll come see you off in the morning,” Zuko says, and Aang grins, waving one last time before ducking back the way they came, leaving the two of them alone in the quiet little oasis.
Sokka reclines, hands planted on smooth stone, and watches the turtle ducks idly swim about the pond. They look fat and happy. The fact that Zuko has apparently been the one to make them that way is really more than he can comprehend.
There’s the faint swish of movement beside him and Zuko says, “So. Firebender.”
Sokka groans, tilting his head back to stare at the sky. “Apparently. Believe me, I thought it was a bad joke too.”
“Aang’s letter about the situation wasn’t… detailed.”
“You mean how can I be a firebender when my sister’s a waterbender, and also I come from an isolated tribe who lives in the South Pole?”
“Well,” Zuko says diplomatically, “I wasn’t going to put it like that.”
Sokka laughs, straightening up and tugging a knee up to the bench to lean on. “Yeah, well, it was a shock to me too. I don’t know if we ever told you this, but our Grandmother is actually from the Northern Water Tribe. She left to escape an arranged marriage when she was young. Of course, she never told us that.”
“No, I didn’t know.”
“Well, you know what else she didn’t tell us? That our grandfather was apparently a firebender that she met in passing before she even settled in the south. She kept a lid on that for a long, long time.”
Beside him, Zuko winces. “She didn’t worry that somewhere down the line a firebender would be born?”
“When I, you know, burnt down the house, you know what she did? She looked me dead in the eye and said ‘I should have known it was going to be you; you were always the troublemaker who couldn’t keep a secret’.” Sokka shakes his head, both fond and amazed. “She was so blasé about the whole thing that I thought maybe I was imagining things.”
“She sounds like an impressive woman,” Zuko says.
Sokka snorts. “That’s one way to put it. Anyway. Yeah, firebender. How I didn’t figure it out before now is a mystery I’ll never know.”
“Not so mysterious,” Zuko says. “Even regular firebender children can often take a while to learn they can bend. Of all the elements, fire is by far the one that requires the most intention, and the most difficult.”
“Yeah, Aang said something similar,” Sokka says.
“Then if you won’t believe me, believe Aang.”
That draws a smile out of Sokka and he rocks to the side, nudging Zuko’s shoulder with his own. “Why do you think I won’t believe you? You might be a jerk, but I guess you know a little about this kind of stuff.”
“Well, I’m glad the Fire Lord knows a little about firebending,” Zuko says, wry as ever, and Sokka’s suddenly struck by how much he’s missed him. Zuko’s really grown into himself the last couple of years, and Sokka’s starting to feel a bit sad he wasn’t here to see it.
Sokka coughs and gets to his feet, taking care to stretch theatrically. “Well, if we’re going to be getting up at the crack of dawn to see Aang off, I probably shouldn’t be up too late either.”
“Probably not,” Zuko says.
“Are you coming with?”
Zuko shakes his head. “I think I’ll stay out here a little longer.”
Sokka shrugs. “Suit yourself. I’ll see you in the morning. Goodnight, Zuko.”
He turns, making to head back through the many winding corridors to his room, but he peeks over his shoulder one last time before he leaves the garden behind.
Zuko sits exactly where Sokka left him; face peaceful, and eyes following the fluttering wings of the circling turtle ducks. His shoulders are loose, and when one of the turtle ducks fumbles a jump from the water he actually cracks a smile; small, true, but present all the same.
Sokka’s throat is thick and he feels like he’s prying; seeing something he was never meant to see. He turns, hurrying back to his room, and if he gets lost once or twice and has to pause and ask for directions? Well, that’s for nobody but him to know.
Sokka manages to drag himself up bright and early to see Aang off, although he’ll admit it doesn’t come easy to him. For all his griping about the room, the bed itself is insanely comfortable.
“If I come back and find you used my absence as an excuse to finally pop the question to my sister, I’m going to be pissed,” Sokka warns, yawning widely as he leans against a pillar.
“I won’t!” Aang protests, flushing deeply as he throws the last of his renewed supplies into Appa’s saddle. “Stop being a jerk!”
“You’re abandoning me to the tender mercies of the Fire Nation - I think I get to be a jerk as much as I want,” Sokka says, but throws his arms around Aang’s skinny shoulders and hauls him in for a tight hug. “Please, please swing by next time you’re out this way.”
“You know I will,” Aang says, patting him on the back before he draws away. He turns to Zuko and opens his arms, wiggling his eyebrows, and Zuko obediently steps forward for his turn. “Take good care of him for me, will you?”
“I’ll keep him fed and watered at least, but everything else is on him,” Zuko says as he draws back.
“You know I’m standing right here - and I’m not a houseplant.”
“Tell Katara I said hello,” Zuko continues, ignoring him. “And she’s more than free to come visit whenever she’d like.”
Sokka and Zuko stand together, watching as Appa climbs the clouds. Aang waves the whole way, right up until he vanishes into a speck in the distance, and Sokka can’t help the slight pang in his chest. He’s not used to being on the other side of this; of watching somebody go, of being left behind. It kind of sucks, he finds.
Zuko claps him on the shoulder, hand warm and heavy. “Come on,” he says. “We’ll eat some breakfast, and then I’ll introduce you to your new teacher.”
They take their breakfast in Zuko’s study - a transparent attempt to cheer Sokka up if he’s ever seen one - and without the looming grandeur of the palace bearing down around him, Sokka finds himself relaxing, if only a bit.
Zuko shuffles through some report or another, making idle conversation, and Sokka walks around the room, looking through the shelves and stirring through the fancy, fruity porridge the flustered serving girl had delivered to him. He’d felt her curious gaze on him even though she’d barely lifted her eyes from the floor. He tries to convince himself it’d been his good looks, but he suspects it’s probably more likely that word has spread about the freak Water Tribe firebender cozying up to the Fire Lord.
Sokka sighs, flopping dramatically into the chair across from Zuko and dropping his bowl atop some probably very official documents. Zuko pauses in what he’s doing and looks up, eyebrow raised. “Is there a problem?”
Zuko looks back to his papers. “Uh huh.”
“Aren’t you going to ask me about it?”
“Why? I’m sure you’ll tell me regardless,” Zuko says, scribbling a note in the margin.
“I just don’t think I’m really cut out for this whole bender thing,” Sokka says. “This is probably going to be a waste of time.”
“Nobody’s saying you have to use your bending,” Zuko says, perfectly reasonable. “But at the very least you need to learn how to control it. Weren’t you the one saying you’re too dangerous to live in the South Pole?”
Sokka huffs and sinks lower in his chair. “Don’t quote me to me.”
“You give so few pearls of wisdom that I’ve got to make use of what you do,” Zuko says, pushing his own breakfast bowl away. “Are you finished eating? I should warn you, Yoh is an excellent teacher but not a patient man.”
Sokka reluctantly gets to his feet. “Alright,” he says. “No reason to start this off on the wrong foot.”
The man Zuko introduces him to is tall and white-haired, back iron rod straight and expression just about as readable. He reminds Sokka of Jeong Jeong something fierce, and he wonders if Fire Nation troops are all cut from the same mold like good little toy soldiers.
“This is General Yoh,” Zuko says. “He taught me and my sister both when we were young. He’s an accomplished and much respected teacher.”
It really shows how far Zuko has come that he doesn’t even wince at the mention of Azula, although it still makes Sokka instinctively want to cringe and look over his shoulder. If the mention of the banished princess has any impact on Yoh at all, it doesn’t show. Uncertain, Sokka sticks out of his hand. “It’s good to meet you, I guess?”
Yoh looks down to his palm, pauses, and then back to his face again. “It’s no wonder you lack control with that posture.”
Taken aback, Sokka asks, “What?”
“Stand up straight,” Yoh barks, and on instinct alone, Sokka does. “Shoulders steady, back even. Put your hand down, boy. Why are your feet so close together? Push them out. Further. Further,” he snaps, and Sokka trips over himself to obey. “Chest in, head high.”
From the corner of his mouth, Sokka whispers, “What is happening?”
Zuko folds his arms, face darkly amused. “Keep your focus.”
Yoh looks him up and down, and Sokka stays as still as he can. Yoh huffs. “Passable,” he says. “It’s a starting point at least. Do not,” he snaps as Sokka’s shoulders start to sag in relief, “slouch.”
“What does posture have to do with firebending?” Sokka asks before he can stop himself, and the look Yoh levels at him makes him wish his ability lay in bending time rather than elements. Maybe he could bend himself all the way back home, before he leveled his house, looked a furious Katara in the eyes, and blankly said, “whoopsie.”
“I see we have much work to do with you,” Yoh says. “No matter. I’ve risen to many impossible challenges before.”
Behind his back, Zuko grins. “Now that you’re acquainted, I’ll leave you two to it.”
“Zuko,” Sokka hisses. “Don’t you dare.”
Zuko turns, waving at him idly over his shoulder as he heads back inside. “Why don’t you tell me how easy jerkbending is over tea later? I’m sure we’ll have much to discuss.”
Sokka wants to flip off his retreating back but he doesn’t dare move an inch with Yoh’s impenetrable gaze on him. He does glare daggers though, and he hopes that Zuko can feel every single one of them stabbing him in his cowardly spine.
In front of him Yoh says, “Spread your feet out. I think we’ll start with learning rudimentary stances,” and Sokka knows he’s in for a long day.
His first session with Yoh goes about as well as can be expected, which is to say Sokka survives, and nothing gets burned down, which he thinks is a pretty solid starting point.
It’s been years since he’d watched Jeong Jeong and Zuko walk Aang through the baby steps of firebending, and he’d forgotten how much of it involved just standing around doing nothing. All his worries seem kind of silly in hindsight when the most stressful thing Yoh had him do was try to keep a leaf from burning itself out (he’d failed).
He returns to his room sometime in the mid afternoon and stumbles his way to his bed, face planting immediately. The fresh covers feel like heaven on his overwarm skin, and he wraps himself up tight. Never before has he enjoyed the feeling of cool sheets so damn much.
I’ll just stay here for a moment, Sokka thinks drowsily. Just for a second.
He doesn’t mean to fall asleep but evidently he does, because the next thing he knows he’s blinking awake to the sound of knuckles rapping softly on his door.
“Sokka? Are you in there?”
It’s Zuko, of course, because Sokka knows literally nobody else who would come looking for him. “Yeah,” he calls, voice hoarse from sleep. Clearing his throat, he says, “Sorry. Give me a minute.”
He unwinds from the sheets, stumbling more than once, and trips his way over to the door. When he opens it Zuko is outside, looking every bit as perfectly put together as always, and making Sokka all the more conscious of the mess of his clothes and the bird’s nest of his hair. Zuko takes in his appearance and snorts. “Long day?”
“Shut up,” Sokka huffs, running a hand through his hair, trying to get it into some semblance of order. “I was just… resting my eyes.”
“Uh huh,” Zuko says. “Well, would you like to rest them over tea considering you missed lunch?”
“I did?” Sokka says, disbelieving. “I never sleep through lunch.”
Zuko’s expression softens. “Bending is more tiring than you think,” he says. “Especially for a beginner.”
At this point, Sokka has been a warrior for literally half his life. He’s put many long hours into learning how to handle each and every weapon that crosses his palms, has run himself positively ragged with it. He’s not so sure that he enjoys the feeling of being thrown right back to the start all over again.
“Alright,” he sighs, closing the door behind him. “Far be it for me to turn down an invitation from the esteemed Fire Lord himself.”
He half expects Zuko to lead them to his study, but instead he takes them down a corridor thick with guards but nearly empty of passing servants and officials. He’s got an inkling of where they’re heading, and when Zuko stops before an intimidatingly tall door and tosses it carelessly open, it’s confirmed.
The room itself is an expansive sitting area, filled with a crackling fireplace and a set of chairs facing one another, an abandoned Pai Sho board on the table between them. It’s… not as ostentatious as Sokka had expected, truthfully speaking. Zuko’s broadswords hang over the fireplace, and he can see a set of polished armor upright in the corner. On the opposing wall is a doorway, and Sokka would bet actual money that it leads right to Zuko’s bedroom.
“Dude,” he says, as Zuko guides them to the chairs, “is this where you live?”
“This whole palace is where I live,” Zuko says. “But if you’re asking if this is my private living area, then yes, it is.”
Sokka whistles, plopping down into the spare chair and feeling the gentle give of the upholstery beneath him. “How many people get to see where the Fire Lord himself sleeps? Feel like I should be taking notes.”
Zuko rolls his eyes, reaching for a steaming teapot on the table that Sokka hadn’t noticed. “Be sure to pay attention to all the scandalous secrets just lying in the open,” he says dryly, pouring with expert precision. “I’m sure you’ll be able to make a hefty profit.”
Sokka grins, sitting back. “What use do I have for that? Didn’t you promise Aang that you were going to keep me watered and fed? I’m basically the Fire Lord’s prized pet.”
Zuko laughs, setting aside the pot and picking up his own cup. “I pity anybody who thinks you’re anyone’s pet,” he says. “Now, tell me how your first session with Yoh went.”
“Not much to tell,” Sokka admits. “There was a lot of standing around with my feet spread and being told I was breathing wrong. Then I had to hold a leaf and nearly singed my fingertips off more times than I can count.”
“Yeah, the leaf thing is pretty common,” Zuko says. “Good for teaching concentration and control. And the breathing is because -”
“Power in firebending comes from the breath, yes, I know,” Sokka says. “I think I only heard it about a hundred times, maybe more.”
Zuko smiles at him, positively warm in the firelight. “And you’ll probably hear it a thousand more times yet, so don’t go getting sick of it too soon.”
“Great,” Sokka says. “Something else to look forward to.” He raises his cup and takes a careful sip of his tea. A pleasant flavor blooms over his tongue; sharp, but hearty and warm. Surprised, he pulls the cup back and says, “This is good!”
“I’m glad,” Zuko says, still smiling. “I thought you might enjoy it.”
Sokka looks to him and then to the cup he’s holding. “You brewed this?”
“My uncle taught me,” he says, and sounds slightly embarrassed but still mostly pleased. “I had a suspicion you might like this blend.”
“Huh,” Sokka says. “Color me impressed. I never thought I’d be a tea guy, but I think you just made a convert of me.”
Zuko looks far more pleased than Sokka thinks such a flippant remark really deserves, but he thinks he kind of gets it, just a little. It’s how he looks when people compliment all the little things his dad taught him - this bone deep acknowledgement that if his father were there to hear it, he’d be proud of him.
He’d always thought that was something you’d grow out of eventually. These days, he’s starting to realize you never grow out of wanting to impress the people you love.
Sokka clears his throat and looks to board between them. “You wanna play some Pai Sho?”
Zuko raises a brow, surprised. “I was unaware you knew how to play.”
Sokka’s grin widens, reaching down to pluck a tile from the grid. He folds it into his hand easily, running it in and over his knuckles. “There’s a lot you don’t know about me, buddy,” he says. “And I’m pretty sure we were both taught by the same person.”
Zuko sighs. “Of course uncle taught you,” he says, setting aside his tea. “He’ll teach anybody who will stand still long enough to learn.”
“And several who won’t,” Sokka agrees. “Now, c’mon. I wanna kick your ass, your Lordship. If you’re not too busy, that is.”
A smile flits across Zuko’s face and he learns forward to begin resetting the board. “I’m sure I can arrange something,” he says. “So long as you’re not too attached to your pride.”
Sokka points at him with the lotus tile tucked between his fingers. “Big words for a man about to get his ass kicked by a lowly peasant,” he says, and Zuko gestures, letting him have the first move.
They play for a long, long time, and to Sokka’s surprise, he has fun.
Sokka’s first few days in the palace are… not rough, exactly, but certainly a learning experience.
He rises bright and early; sometimes, he takes his breakfast alone in his room, but often Zuko extends an invitation to join him in his study, and they start their day by bickering lightly while Zuko goes over whatever reports seem to magically appear in the middle of the night.
After, Zuko sweeps off to do whatever it is Fire Lords do when Sokka isn’t there to bother them, and Sokka reluctantly escorts himself to the stone courtyard where Yoh is waiting. For the next several hours, Sokka’s thighs burn - metaphorically - and his fingertips come close - literally - as Yoh puts him stubbornly through his paces, barely pausing to let Sokka catch his breath along the way.
“So,” Sokka wheezes one day as he just barely manages to keep the leaf in his hands from disintegrating. “Is there, like, a guide you guys follow for teaching firebending? Because this seems real similar to how I remember Jeong Jeong trying to train Aang back in the day.”
“Yes,” Yoh says, sitting imperiously several paces away, nursing a cup of tea. “Jeong Jeong did mention that he’d had the misfortune to spend some time attempting to beat some sense into the Avatar.”
Sokka refuses to lift his eyes from the hole burning in his leaf. He can feel sweat matting his hair to the back of his neck, and every inch of his skin feels hot. It didn’t look nearly this hard when he’d seen Aang doing it. “You guys are buddies?”
“I helped him leave the military,” Yoh says, blasé, and then, when Sokka’s head snaps up to look at him, “focus.”
“Right. Sorry.” Sokka looks back down to his hands. “So you were also a rebel? How does that work? Zuko said you’d helped train both him and Azula as kids, so you must have had a good in with the royal family.”
Yoh sips at his tea. “Do you imagine that I would still be within these walls if I were a loyalist to the old ways?”
Sokka hadn’t really thought of it. “I guess not.” He pauses for a moment, considering, and says, “You know, now that I think about it, you and Jeong Jeong are a lot alike.”
“Perhaps you will find out just how much so if you do not close your mouth and focus on your bending,” Yoh says, and Sokka hurries to do just that.
Like always, Yoh keeps him into the early afternoon, and then dismisses him with barely a glance. Sokka slinks his way back to his room with sore fingertips and even sorer calves. It’s not like pain is anything new to him - he’s a warrior, dammit - but there’s pain and then there’s whatever the heck this is. Some kind of torture. There’s no way anybody of Sokka’s kind of background could be expected to maintain a posture with so much flexibility.
He throws open his bedroom down, hobbling over the threshold, and freezes when he realizes it’s not empty.
“You know,” Zuko says, from where he’s examining Sokka’s boomerang. “You can decorate in here, if you want. It is your space.”
“If it’s my space, what are you doing lurking about like a pest?” Sokka says, but he’s grinning, elated. They’d skipped breakfast together this morning - Zuko called away for some important business - and Sokka had missed him a bizarre amount. Sitting in his own room, eating at his own desk; it just didn’t have the same appeal. At the very least, none of the servants or guards had tried to insist he take his meal in the dining room, for which Sokka had been infinitely glad.
Zuko sets down the boomerang. “I thought I’d ask if you wanted to go get some lunch.”
“Uh, yeah. Don’t we always go get lunch together?”
Zuko smiles, gold eyes flashing in the light. “No, Sokka. I mean, whether you would like to leave the palace. Eat somewhere else for a change.”
Sokka stares at him blankly before the words register and then he breaks into a grin so wide it makes his own eyes water. “Of course I do. Spirits, I’ve been stuck in this place for days now - I’d kill somebody to get some fresh air.”
“Don’t say that too loudly,” Zuko says mildly. “Somebody might think you mean to make an assassination attempt.”
Sokka scoffs, crossing the room to strip his sweaty shirt off and drop it on the foot of his bed as he goes searching for something clean to wear now that they’re going to be out in public. “What, do your people not think you can protect yourself? I’ve seen you fight, Zuko. It’d be a moron who makes the mistake of thinking you can’t kick the ass of anybody who even tries to come near you.”
“These days I pay people so I don’t have to be the one to kick their asses,” Zuko says as Sokka ruffles through the formidable wardrobe that contains about three different outfits. “That’s the good thing about being Fire Lord.”
Sokka plucks a shirt from its hanger. He can feel Zuko’s eyes on his back, and it’s nowhere near the first time he’s been in any state of undress in front of Zuko, but it’s been a long time since they were just dumb kids living in each other’s pockets, and he feels the weight of the gaze pressing on him keenly. He clears his throat, struggling into the shirt without turning around, and says, “So, what you’re telling me is you’re getting lazy? Getting complacent in your old age? Heck, maybe I ought to take a swing at you after all, make sure your reflexes haven’t gone rusty.”
“You’re more than welcome to try,” Zuko says, and he sounds much closer than before. Sokka turns around and finds him hovering only a few paces away, watching Sokka with an unreadable expression. The way his eyes flick up to Sokka’s face tells him that the gaze he’d felt on his back wasn’t just his imagination after all.
Sokka stamps down on a faint flush he feels crawling up the back of his neck and grins as wide as he can. “Well, there’s no point if you’re expecting it. Now, c’mon. Aang told me there was a place around here that made some good dumplings and I mean to eat every single one of them.”
He snags Zuko by his wrist, dragging him out of his room and into the corridor as if he’s just another friend and not the Fire Lord himself. Zuko obligingly lets himself be dragged, waving off one or two guards who look at them uncertainly as they pass, and Sokka cannot help the faint flicker of pride that chases on the heels of that trust.
They have to stop by Zuko’s room so he can rummage up something grim and depressing to wear over the top of his fancy, aristocratic clothes, and Sokka practically vibrates out of his skin when he realizes that Zuko means for this outing to be incognito - just the two of them, unbothered by the attention that Zuko’s position draws, however necessary that position may be.
“Please tell me you’re leaving your escort behind,” he says, as they head down the cavernous corridors.
Zuko smiles at him, flipping up his hood to hide the royal gold of his eyes, the dead giveaway of his scar. “Well, after the way you called me lazy earlier, I can hardly maintain my honor if I were to go out for a simple trip with a retinue, can I?”
Outside, the streets are crowded with late-noon shoppers; people jostling together in the narrow market walkways, laughing raucously in the gardens that border tea houses, friends meeting and parting in waves all over the place. Sokka sees Fire Nation red and Earth Kingdom green, and even catches a glimpse of somebody he is almost certain comes from that stupid swamp that once tried to kill him.
Zuko guides them easily and they find a quaint restaurant overflowing with patrons. Their table is out back, and Sokka looks around in wonder as Zuko orders for them with an ease that says he’s had much practice.
“I take it you come here often then?” Sokka says.
“Often enough,” Zuko says as their waitress returns with their tea. “Aang likes to explore the city when he visits. He’s found places I didn’t even know existed.”
Sokka can’t help but smile. “That sounds like Aang. I guess that’s half the purpose of being a nomad, huh?”
The dumplings, when they arrive, are exactly as good as Sokka had been promised; filled to bursting, and tangy and warm on his tongue. He actually moans as he swallows down his first mouthful, and across the table Zuko laughs at him.
“Shut up,” Sokka says, picking up the next dumpling. “You know it is. I don’t get to eat food like this often, let me enjoy myself.”
“I’ve never had Water Tribe food,” Zuko observes. “Is there much difference?”
“Oh, loads,” Sokka says. “Water Tribe food is all about taking things you would never think are edible and proving they are. Can’t waste anything when your home is a frozen block of ice, you know?”
“I… see.” Zuko does not look like he sees in the slightest. “Is it good?”
“Most of it,” Sokka says. “Same as any other place. Maybe if you came to visit some time you could find out for yourself.”
Zuko’s quiet for a second before saying, “I wasn’t sure I’d be welcome.”
Sokka pauses with half a dumpling hanging out of his mouth and his hand reaching for his cup. He frowns, swallowing with some effort, and says, “What for?”
“Would you like the list alphabetized or chronologically?” Zuko asks, not looking in his face as he picks at his food. “What’s been done to your tribe -”
“My tribe is fine,” Sokka says, firm as he can. “Did you head the invasion that killed my mom? No. Did you manage to do anything other than topple my guard tower the first time you tried to kidnap Aang? No. You know what you did do? Put an end to the war that nearly wiped my people out.” He pauses for a moment, bending down to catch Zuko’s gaze. “You’re a friend to Aang - you’re a friend to me. So that makes you a friend of my people, okay?”
“It’s not -”
“What’s that I hear?” Sokka cups a hand over his ear. “Of course, Sokka. You’re absolutely right, Sokka. I’ll make sure to come visit as soon as I can, Sokka.” He leans back, nodding. “That’s good to hear, glad we’re on the same page.”
Zuko scowls at him, but it’s the look he gets when he really wants to smile. He can’t fool Sokka by now, not after all this time. “You’re insufferable.”
Sokka grins. “And just think - you’ve got months left of me to put up with yet.”
“Possibly longer,” Zuko says, “if you don’t start putting more effort into your training.”
This time it’s Sokka’s face that drops into a frown. “Have you and Yoh been gossiping behind my back? Seems a little rude, Mr. Fire Lord.”
Zuko shrugs, unrepentant. “I asked him to keep me apprised of your progress. I knew you wouldn’t want to talk about it.”
Sokka sinks lower in his chair. “Yeah, well. Maybe I don’t.”
“Alright,” Zuko says, surprising him. He offers out his plate. “Dumpling?”
Sokka takes one, and the gratitude and affection that washes over him is positively overwhelming. Some people think that Zuko can’t understand the fine art of subtlety - what they seem to forget is that Zuko was raised with a warzone instead of a family, and nobody knows how to dodge landmines better than somebody who’s buried a hundred of his own.
They stay for a long while, even after the food runs out. The waitress breezes by twice to refill their cups, and Zuko quietly critiques their tea each time, as if he’s a gourmet enthusiast and not the ruler of the entire nation. When the waitress comes back for the third time and asks if they’d like another refill, Zuko looks her in the eye and says “no, thank you, I’d rather die” and Sokka laughs so hard that tea comes out his nose.
Afterwards, they waste time in the market, and although Sokka’s sure that Zuko has seen pretty much everything here a hundred times he seems content to go at whatever pace Sokka wants.
It’s hardly Sokka’s first time in a marketplace like this - after all, it used to be he and Aang and the others were in a new town every other day - but the thrill never wears off. The South Pole doesn’t have anything like it; they’re a society built on community, what’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is mine. It’s still strange, sometimes, seeing the intricate balances of the world outside his tiny village, but it’s also downright exhilarating.
They pass by stalls stacked tall with fruits and vegetables, freshly caught seafood, ornate jewelry and even finer clothes. Eventually, his eyes catch on a weapon stand thick with blades and swords and other equally dangerous looking things, and he snags Zuko’s sleeve, dragging him over before he can even think.
“You have the look of a man who knows quality when he sees it,” says the vendor as Sokka comes to a stop before her.
“Learnt to recognize it from the mirror,” Sokka says cheerfully, perusing some of the knives laid out on a cushion before him, and hears Zuko sigh behind his back.
The vendor laughs heartily, slapping him on the shoulder. “That’s the spirit,” she says. “Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.”
“Please don’t encourage him,” Zuko says, drawing closer. “His head is so big it barely fits through doorways as it is.”
Sokka ignores him, instead picking up a dagger with a wicked sharp blade, inset with a red jewel. It’s simple, but stunning, and he’s dying to see how it’d perform in practice. “How much is this?”
“More than you can afford, I’m afraid,” says the vendor, plucking it from his hands. “That’s the finest dagger I have, and it doesn’t come cheap. Besides, it’s best used in the hands of a firebender. The metal is an especially good channel for flames.”
Sokka feels both offended and let down all at once. He opens his mouth to say something, but Zuko beats him to it. “What a coincidence. He is a firebender, so that works out just fine.”
The vendor blinks in surprise, looking from Zuko’s shadowed face back to Sokka, dressed in Water Tribe blue, sticking out like a sore thumb. Back straight, Yoh snaps in his head, and Sokka hurries to do just that, trying his hardest to look less like a fool who’d somehow managed to stumble his way into the heart of the Fire Nation and more like an esteemed warrior.
“Is that right?” the vendor says. “My mistake, then. It’s just - well, regardless, it’s still out of your price range.”
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” Zuko says, reaching inside his cloak without missing a beat. “Let me -”
“It’s fine,” Sokka says, flushing, reaching out to try and stop Zuko before he can pay for the damn dagger that isn’t even all that good anyway, it’s not like Sokka needs it, he’s got his sword and his boomerang, and his - his firebending. He really doesn’t need another weapon. “Let it go, I’ll live.”
Predictably, Zuko ignores him. He pulls out his money pouch and hands it over to the vendor without so much as flinching. “I assume that should cover it?”
The vendor looks to the money in one of her hands and then to the dagger in the other. She gives it to Sokka immediately, pushing it into his reluctant grip. “I think that’ll just about do it.”
“You really don’t have to,” Sokka begins to protest, but Zuko just cups a hand over his ear.
“What’s that I hear?” he asks. “Thank you, Zuko. That was so kind of you, Zuko.”
Despite himself, Sokka cracks a smile. “I’m a bad influence on you,” he says. “But thank you. I really appreciate it.”
Zuko smiles at him, and Sokka’s stomach turns sharply. “You’re welcome,” he says. “Now, is there anything else that catches your eye?”
He knows Zuko’s talking about the market, but Sokka’s eyes are fixed on the way his black hair peeks out from beneath his hood, the gold of his eyes, the curve of his lips. It’s on the tip of his tongue to say yes, to say something dumb and not at all suave. But then Zuko’s gaze ticks back to him and Sokka manages to swallow it down.
“C’mon,” he says, reaching out to wrap his fingers around the warm pulse of Zuko’s wrist. The dagger in his free hand is a comforting weight. “I think I saw some place selling fire flakes.”
Technically speaking, Sokka never misses one of his sessions with Yoh.
He knows better than that. And he wants to live. But, well, sometimes he might be a little late. Just a tiny bit. It’s a large palace after all, and nobody could blame him if Sokka were to get lost, could they? He’s a simple peasant after all; his house back home is a hut made of ice. He’s not used to the grandeur of the palace here. There’s a learning curve.
Unfortunately, Yoh is not a dumb man, and after the first two or three times Sokka goes awal during training hours, he begins emerging like a wraith from dusty corridors to snag him by his ear, dragging him wincing back to the enormous training hall where Sokka’s lessons take place.
So Sokka learns to be sneakier. He learns that there are places in the palace that even Yoh, with his frightening reputation, will only tread as a last resort. Turns out people here have some kind of respect for their monarch, and refrain from smudging their dirty hands along his private spaces and times. Sokka has no such compunction.
It’s (mostly) Zuko’s fault he’s here at all. As far as Sokka’s concerned, he practically signed himself up for harboring a fugitive.
The ever-present guards outside of Zuko’s study look at him as he slinks down the corridor. Still, this is nowhere near his first visit, and nobody has thought to stop him yet, so he can only assume Zuko has more or less given him permission to be here. Or maybe they’ve seen him before. Sokka has no clue. He can’t recognize anybody with those fucking faceplates in place; he has no idea how Aang does it.
He knocks on the door and then throws it open before anybody can think to stop him, slithering inside and slamming it behind him just as quick.
“No, by all means, please come right in, thank you for asking,” Zuko says dryly, not looking up from his papers. “It’s not as if I have an entire kingdom I’m trying to run.”
“Thanks, buddy,” Sokka says, crossing the room and patting him on the shoulder. “I knew you’d be glad for some company.”
Zuko sighs, but when he looks up there’s a faint smile on his lips. “Aren’t you supposed to be training right about now?”
“Yoh gave me a break,” Sokka lies, and Zuko’s expression tells him he doesn’t buy it in the slightest.
“I’m sure he did. What are you doing here?”
Sokka can’t bring himself to admit that he is, maybe a little, hiding, so instead he plasters on a grin and crosses the room to continue his methodical exploration of Zuko’s bookshelves. He’s certain there’s probably a library somewhere in this big waste of space Zuko calls a home, but he’s equally sure that all the good stuff is probably squirreled away in the Fire Lord’s office. Also, the company would be lacking, but that’s neither here nor there.
“Just entertaining myself,” Sokka says. “You keep doing what you’re doing, I’m sure it’s important.”
“If you consider settling a minor dispute over turnip related tariffs important, then yes, it’s the most important thing I’ve had to do all day.”
Sokka whistles. “Wow. You know it’s not too late to retire from being Fire Lord and do something worthwhile with your life, right?”
Zuko’s pen scratches on the paper. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
It’s quiet for a moment, and Sokka lets all the tension coiled tight in his stomach slowly unwind beneath it. He hadn’t realized until he got here just how tense he was. It’s amazing what five minutes alone with somebody he actively trusts and likes will do for him. He’s always been a social creature at heart; feeding off the energy of the people around him, never content unless they were too.
Almost like he’s reading his mind, Zuko says, “You know you’re more than welcome to have visitors, right? You’re not a prisoner here.”
“I know that,” Sokka says, still pacing about, fingertip trailing along the shelf. “But who am I going to invite? Aang? Katara? They already know I’m here. They’ll come whenever they want. Probably without even warning us first, jerks.”
Zuko’s voice is studiously casual as he asks, “What about Suki?”
Sokka snags a book off the shelf, something about stuffy old architecture, and wanders back, propping his hip on the desk as he cracks it open. “Nah, I think she’s got better things to do than visit her ex in a city she hates anyway.”
It’s so quiet that Sokka glances up and when he does he discovers Zuko looking at him, confused. “Her ex?”
Revelation roles in. “Oh,” Sokka says, surprised. “Did you not know? She dumped me, man. I thought Aang would have told you.”
Zuko frowns. “No, he didn’t mention,” he says. “When did that happen?”
“Ages ago now,” Sokka says, smiling. “It’s cool though, we’re still friends. It’s just like… long term, it wasn’t going to work out.”
Sokka shrugs. “She lives for Kyoshi Island, you know? And I don’t wanna leave my tribe. I didn’t really mind the distance, but she did. Hard to find a middle ground on that.”
“That’s rough buddy,” Zuko says after a moment, and Sokka snorts, batting at him with his book.
“What about your girlfriend?” he retorts. “Mai, or whatever.”
“What about Mai?” Zuko quirks a brow.
“Are you two still…” Sokka flaps his hand vaguely at him. “Together?”
Zuko stares at him. He sets down his pen. “Sokka, Mai and I broke up years ago. I told you that last time you were here.”
Sokka looks at him blankly. “What? No, you didn’t! I’d remember that!”
He would have, too, because last time he was here was about the same time he’d had the uncomfortable realization that if Zuko had been an attractive teenager, he was something else as a young man. It’d been a short visit for a lot of reasons, but he’d be lying if he said that hadn’t played a part of it. A tactical retreat before he could embarrass himself.
But Zuko looks downright incredulous. “I did,” he insists. “I told you she had gone with Ty Lee back to the circus! What did you think I meant?”
“I thought you meant to visit! I didn’t realize we were using it as a synonym for eloping!” Sokka protests, and his cheeks feel flushed.
Zuko just stares at him for a moment longer, face unreadable, and then he leans forward, sighing, hand over his eyes. “That explains some things, I suppose,” he says, resigned.
Zuko looks up, peering past his hand. His eyes are soft, and the small smile at the corner of his mouth is positively wry. Sokka’s stomach does a funny little flip. “Don’t worry about it. Just… I feel like I’ve been enlightened. You can be exceptionally thick, you know that?”
Sokka throws down the book he’d been idly leafing through. “Well, if you’re just going to be mean to me, maybe I’ll just go, huh?”
Zuko reaches out to snag his wrist, dragging him back before Sokka can take more than a few playful steps towards the door. His hand feels warm on his skin, like always, and for the first time Sokka wonders if that’s a firebender thing - if maybe he feels like that too, like the early morning embers of a campfire come dawn.
“I thought you were hiding from Yoh,” Zuko teases.
“Maybe I’m willing to take my chances,” Sokka says. “At least he’s not a jerk. Just…”
“Frustrated with your inability to commit to learning not to burn down everything you touch?” Zuko suggests.
“Hey, excuse you, I haven’t done that in at least a week,” he says, snatching his hand from Zuko’s grip and pushing at his shoulder. “Show some respect.”
“By all means,” Zuko says, settling back into his chair. “Feel free to show yourself out. Take your chances out there. I certainly won’t be interfering.”
Sokka glances at the door. He imagines Yoh’s face when he finds out that Sokka’s been hiding out in the Fire Lord’s private study, and then he kicks out the spare chair across from Zuko’s desk, sinking into it. “You know what, maybe I’ll keep your company just a bit longer. Keep you from succumbing to loneliness and all.”
Zuko doesn’t look up from the document he’s turned back to. “Oh no,” he says, voice dry as a desert. “How ever will I cope on my own?”
Sokka snorts and reopens his abandoned book. It’s no more interesting than it’d seemed before, but he’s sure he can find something to catch his attention. “I knew you’d see it my way.”
They stay like that for a long time; Zuko working quietly, and Sokka aimlessly flipping through his book. He thinks he catches Zuko glancing at him with a contemplative expression a couple of times, but he says nothing, and Sokka is in loath to disturb the peaceful silence.
In the end, he stays there until Yoh eventually comes knocking, and even the wrathful look on his face as he pulls Sokka away is worth it.
Sokka’s first week in the Fire Nation passes largely without incident. He can now, more or less, find his way around the palace without asking for directions, and he’s made friends with some of the old grandmas who crowd the market several blocks away, pressing fruits into his hands and insisting he’s too skinny, much too skinny, and does the Fire Lord not feed you at all?
He eats most of his meals with Zuko, except on the occasions where work calls him away to do whatever it is he does - lord over fire, Sokka supposes. Sit in his big shiny throne and listen to the complaints of the common folks, read through report after report, and sign off on those turnip tariffs he seems to love so much.
Honestly speaking? Sokka might say, if pressed, that he’s enjoying his time here. He likes getting to finally see the ways in which the Fire Nation has begun to change for the better, a shift in the rocky foundations that hold it up, and he likes, more than any of that, to watch as Zuko’s guard is lowered and lowered and lowered - as he laughs more, and his smile becomes less fleeting when they’re together.
The Fire Nation has changed so much. Zuko has changed so much. Some days, Sokka can’t believe that a not insignificant part of both of those things was his doing.
The only catch - because there’s always a catch - is his fucking firebending.
Nine days after he hands Sokka a leaf and tells him to keep it from burning, Yoh strokes his beard and says, “Excellent. I think you’re ready for the next step.”
Sokka, who has been stuck in a half-squat trying to keep embers from singing his fingers, looks up sharply. “Wait, what?”
“You have made excellent progress. I had anticipated this would take more time, your patience being what it is, but I am glad to see you are not afraid to commit yourself to your training. We are ready to move on to bending now.”
Sokka looks to the leaf in his hands and then to Yoh, and, for lack of a better word, panics. “No,” he says. “Uh, I don’t think that’s right. Doesn’t sound like me at all. You know what? Why don’t you get me a fresh leaf and I’ll try this again. I think the hole’s gotten too big. See? I can stick my whole pinky through!” He does just that to prove the point, and it’s a tight squeeze but he makes it work. He can barely feel the prickling burn on his skin too!
Yoh shakes his head. “You are ready, Sokka. You will never learn how to bend fire if you never let me teach you.”
Maybe I’ll just never learn how to bend fire then, sounds good to me, Sokka thinks, but has enough common sense not to say. “What’s the next step then? A bigger leaf?”
“Today,” Yoh says, “you will bring out your fire.”
“Or,” Sokka suggests, “you bring out your fire, and I just stand here and watch. Get a feel for it and all, ya’know?”
The look Yoh gives him is not exactly disappointed, but it’s close enough to it that Sokka feel chided anyway. “Sokka,” he says, “you cannot put off the inevitable forever. What is it that upsets you so much?”
“I’m not upset!” Sokka protests. “Why would you think I’m upset?”
“Perhaps given your inclination to hide wherever you think I will not find you, and your general disregard for my teachings,” Yoh says, voice flat. “If you are not careful, I may begin to think you do not value me as a master.”
“What? No! Of course I do! You’re, uh, very good at this… this whole bending thing. This teaching thing.”
“Then the problem lies with you,” Yoh says, which is not where Sokka had been hoping this conversation would go. “Tell me, Sokka, why you dislike being a bender so much?”
Sokka looks to the half-burnt leaf in his hands and then up again. His stomach feels like it currently resides in his toes. “It’s not about whether I like being a firebender or not,” he says. “It’s just…”
“Do you begrudge your sister her water? Fire Lord Zuko his flames?” Yoh asks calmly, hands tucked out of sight in his sleeves.
“That’s not -”
“Then why do you begrudge yourself so much?”
Sokka doesn’t have an answer to that. The leaf crumples in his palm; hot and broken.
The silence hangs heavy for a moment and then Yoh says, voice almost kind, “I think for today we are done. I will not teach bending to somebody who has no will to learn it, nor the dedication to make sure he does not harm himself and others in the process. Tomorrow, we will try again, and I expect to find you here with a better attitude, whatever it takes.”
Yoh sweeps from the room, leaving Sokka alone with nothing but his thoughts and the burgeoning horror of disappointing somebody he admires.
That night, Zuko sends him a servant with dinner as well as his apologies that he won’t be able to join him. Something-something, Fire Lord duties, something-something important mediator meeting.
Sokka gets it, he really does. As it is, he has a sneaking suspicion that Zuko has been spending more time with him than he really has to waste. Really, Sokka should be the one apologizing to him.
He accepts the tray with a grin, reassures the servant that he’s fine, no, he does not want to eat in the dining room, no, he doesn’t need anything else, yes, he’ll let somebody know if he does - and then, once he’s finally alone, he crosses the room to dump the tray on his desk before beelining back to his bed and collapsing on it with a sigh.
He does get it. But he’d been kind-of-a-little looking forward to his chance to catch a moment with Zuko all day. Every time he closes his eyes he sees Yoh’s disappointed expression, and the guilt edges in just a little closer, chewing at his toes and dogging his every step. Maybe, it might have been nice to have somebody to just… discuss things with.
Zuko’s good at that. Listening. He’s awkward as fuck when it comes to comforting anyone, but he’s always been good at lending an ear. It makes Sokka stupidly fond, and he could use a bit of that tonight too.
After a long moment of wallowing, he pries himself off the bed and goes to pick at his dinner. It’s good. It always is. Even miserable, Sokka manages to eat everything on his plate. He leaves it on the desk to be collected later, fetches the pretty dagger Zuko had bought for him so he won’t feel so exposed, tucks it in his belt, and leaves his room.
At this time of evening, the palace is mostly quiet and empty. Guards linger about, but servants are scarce - most retired to their own homes or rooms for the evenings. Sokka passes approximately nobody on his way down the halls, and by the time he emerges into the cool, evening air, at least some of the tension has seeped from his shoulders.
Zuko’s mother’s garden is exactly as he remembered it; thick with sleepy turtle ducks and greenery, the clear pond water catching every glimmer of moonlight that sheets down from overhead. He squats down at the water’s edge, dipping a hand in and watching the ripples that branch out around it.
Katara would love this place. She’d gotten good lately at some of the more subtle, less war-inclined aspects of waterbending. She could make a mean whirlpool, and delightful little swirlies that caught and pulled at your fingertips. When Sokka tries to bend the water, bubbles pop and steam rises through the surface. A nearby turtle duck quacks at him, loud and indignant, and Sokka pulls his hand from the water with a sigh.
He jumps, looking up to see Zuko making his way towards him, decked out in full Fire Lord regalia. Every inch of him is impeccable and gorgeous, but his eyes are lined with a distinct lack of sleep.
“Hi,” Sokka says awkwardly. “Sorry, I didn’t realize you’d finished with… whatever it is you were doing.”
“Only just,” Zuko sighs, drawing nearer. “It’s been a long day. What are you doing out here?”
“Sorry,” Sokka says again. “Didn’t mean to, like, overstep.”
“That’s not what I mean. You know you’re more than welcome to go wherever you please. I just figured you’d be exhausted by now. Wasn’t Yoh moving up your training today?”
The stone Sokka had nearly forgotten was weighing down the pit of his stomach turns.
“Yeah, well, things didn’t really go according to plan.”
Zuko considers him for a moment and then he sits down beside him, utterly uncaring of the brush of his robes against the dewy grass, the water catching on his sleeve. Looking at him now, he looks more like a boy barely into his twenties, and less like a monarch of an entire nation. Sokka looks hurriedly back to the water.
“I do get it, you know,” Zuko says.
“Get what?” Sokka picks at the grass. “That I’m just a giant coward?”
“Why you don’t want to learn bending,” Zuko says. “I get it.”
Sokka scoffs. “Really?”
“You’re a warrior,” Zuko says. “Self-taught, mostly. And you’re good at it. You single handedly proved that you don’t need bending to know how to fight.” Zuko pauses, and then says, “I can’t count the amount of times you pissed me off by managing to keep up with my fire with nothing more than an axe and a boomerang.”
Sokka grins without quite meaning to. “Your hand-to-hand has always been sloppy.”
He expects Zuko to argue with him, but instead he says, “Yeah. Because I always relied on my bending. You were the one who taught me it took more than just that to win a fight.”
Sokka glances at him, surprised, but Zuko looks completely genuine, if mostly impassive. He’s watching the turtle ducks on the water, eyes bright in the nighttime gloom. “I don’t know if I won many of our fights, buddy.”
“I don’t think any of us did,” Zuko says, ruefully. “None of us were very good at fighting each other.”
“Except Toph,” Sokka amends. “She could have taken any and all of us.”
“Toph doesn’t count. That’s like comparing a rhino to a mouse.”
They lapse into silence for a second. Sokka glances at Zuko from the corner of his eye then away again, shoring up his failing nerves. “I don’t want to need bending,” he says. “I like where I am. Or where I was, anyway, before I… I’m good at how I fight. Just give me a sword and a boomerang, and I can hold my own against pretty much anybody, bender or not. But if I learn how to firebend, I’m going to want to use it, because it’ll be easier, ya’know? Why bother fighting with a sword when it’ll be so much quicker just to blast them with fire? I don’t want that.”
Zuko laughs. Actually laughs at him. “Sokka,” he says, “you’re a lot of things, but that isn’t one of them; I’ve never known you to do things the easy way once in your whole damn life.”
Sokka bristles, but before he can say anything, Zuko turns, his robes rustling as he holds out a hand. “Pass me your dagger.”
“What?” Sokka asks, taken aback.
Zuko snaps his fingers. “Your dagger.”
“You could say please,” Sokka says, but he obligingly slips it free from his belt. The jewel set into the handle catches in the light as he presses it into Zuko’s waiting palm. Before he can pull away, Zuko’s fingers fold over his. “Hey, what are you -”
“Shut up for a moment,” Zuko says. “Just watch, okay?”
Sokka eyes him apprehensively but doesn’t move. Zuko rewards him with a flickering smile, but then his attention turns down to their joined hands. The handle of the dagger feels strangely warm in his grip, or maybe that’s just the press of Zuko’s skin on his, and sweat prickles the nape of his neck despite the cool chill in the air.
Sokka clears his throat. “What am I watching -”
The heat in his hands explodes like a bomb, and the black blade of the dagger catches on fire. Sokka stares, feeling the heat of it brushing harmlessly against his knuckles, and tightens his grip on Zuko’s hands.
“There,” Zuko says, satisfied. “You see that?”
“Kind of hard not to,” Sokka says faintly. He can’t look away. The flame is so hot it’s almost white. The shadows it casts over Zuko’s face paint his scar black, his skin orange - he looks just as dangerous as the blade in Sokka’s hands and twice as gorgeous - smile wicked sharp.
“You said you don’t want to pick between being a warrior and a firebender,” Zuko says. “I don’t see why you can’t be both.”
Sokka stares - first at the flaming dagger in his hands and then at Zuko. “So your solution is that I just, what, set my weapons on fire?”
“My solution is that you find a way to meet in the middle,” Zuko says. “That you stop overthinking things. Learn to make your firebending work for you, not the other way around.”
It sounds so simple when Zuko puts it like that - like this isn’t something Sokka’s been thinking about for weeks now. As if Sokka’s whole world hasn’t been viciously uprooted and replanted upside down.
It takes a whole damn lot of concentration to put out the fire, but he manages. The air smells faintly smoky, and the dark creeps back in immediately. Sokka lets out a breath and leans forward, planting his forehead on his knees, working at calming down the rapid race of his heart.
A hand lands tentatively on his shoulder, and Zuko says, sounding uncertain, “Sokka?”
“I hate it when you do that,” Sokka says.
“... Say your name?”
“Make me feel like an idiot,” Sokka corrects, but it’s entirely without heat. He makes himself sit up, and when he does, he smiles. “Fine, you’ve convinced me. Maybe being a firebender isn’t the worst thing that could happen to me.”
Relief chases fondness across Zuko’s face. The hand on Sokka’s shoulder slips to his neck, and then Zuko drags him forward to bump their foreheads, firm but kind. “You’re not an idiot,” he says. “Sometimes you’re too smart. Makes you act dumb the rest of the time.”
“Hey,” Sokka says, shoving lightly at his shoulder, but Zuko doesn’t pull away.
They stay like that for a moment, warm skin pressed together, and Sokka lets his eyes close, enjoying it unselfconsciously, and then Zuko breaks apart. Up close like this, Sokka can see every line in his face, where the rough of his scar smoothes into skin. He wants to reach out, press his thumb along that seam, trace it down, down, down.
Sokka doesn’t pull away. He meets Zuko’s gaze and keeps perfectly still. For a second he is absolutely certain that Zuko is going to kiss him - wishes for it so hard it’s a wonder he’s not vibrating out of his skin.
Then there’s the splash from the water behind them and the quack of a turtle duck breaks the silence. Zuko leans back, clearing his throat, and Sokka bites back on the vicious disappointment that wells up in his gut.
“C’mon,” Zuko says, getting to his feet. “You’ve got training with Yoh tomorrow. You need to get some rest.”
“Says the guy who looks like he hasn’t seen his own bed in a week,” scoffs Sokka, but allows himself to be drawn back to his feet. He makes sure to squeeze Zuko’s hand before letting go, and the way Zuko glances over his shoulder at him and then away again makes up for the disruption earlier, if only a little.
“Are you free for breakfast tomorrow?” Sokka asks.
“Yes,” Zuko says, just a touch too quickly. He clears his throat again. Sokka doesn’t think he’s imagining the faint red on the back of his neck. “Yes, I’m free.”
“Good,” Sokka says, grinning, “me too.”
Zuko looks at him again, long and lingering, and when he looks away it feels as if he takes most of the breath in Sokka’s lungs with him. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” Zuko says, soft, and his brisk steps carry him away.
Sokka stays where he is, watching his back until it’s gone.
Tomorrow, Sokka thinks, almost dizzy, and starts to plan.
In the morning, they meet for breakfast and it’s not at all as awkward as Sokka had feared. He’s got Zuko’s dagger in his belt still, and more than once he sees Zuko’s gaze flicker to it before dancing away, and there’s a dark curl of satisfaction in his stomach.
Zuko wants to say something, Sokka can tell, but Sokka doesn’t let him; keeps the conversation light, flowing from one topic to the next, never brushing close to what happened the previous night. Zuko follows his lead, and the conflicted look on his face is a reward in and of itself.
Sokka reaches out, plucking the strawberry from atop Zuko’s porridge, and bites into it, smiling widely when Zuko looks up and frowns. It’s almost enough to make Sokka actually do something, but he holds back, if by the barest edge of his self-restraint.
Patience, he reminds himself, and excuses himself from Zuko’s study soon after.
Yoh is already in the training hall when Sokka arrives, and he looks taken off guard to see Sokka striding in not just on time but early. “Sokka,” he says. “I will admit, I am surprised to see you.”
Sokka pauses, steels himself, and gives a deep, respectful bow. “I’m sorry for my behavior,” he says sincerely. “If you’re still willing to teach me, I would be glad to learn from you.”
It’s silent for a moment. Sokka means to hold out, to wait until Yoh speaks first, but eventually he cracks. When he looks up, his breath catches.
Yoh is smiling at him. “That is what I was waiting to hear,” he says. “Now, get into your stance. Show me that what I’ve taught so far has not gone to waste.”
Sokka raises his shoulders, straightens his spine, and for the next several hours dedicates himself to learning how to bend.
It is disappointingly easy to sneak into the Fire Lord’s bedroom.
Honestly, regardless of how tonight goes, Sokka is going to be having words with someone in the morning. Sure, Sokka has a tactical advantage of knowing the palace and the guards and Zuko himself, but if Sokka can manage it, so can some nameless assassin, and Sokka did not spend the formative years of his youth tearing down a corrupt nation to watch it all go down the drain in some kind of preventable coup.
Also, it’d be seriously counterintuitive to his plans for Zuko to die, and he selfishly Does Not Want That.
When he slips inside, Zuko is asleep, curled in the positively overwhelmingly large bed across the room. The lights are out, and with the heavy rain clouds covering the moon it’s only the embers in the fireplace keeping the place alight, casting a faint golden hue over everything. Zuko doesn’t stir as Sokka gently sits down on the edge of his bed, and for a moment he lets himself just look at him.
In sleep, the pinch between Zuko’s brow is smoothed into pale skin. His scar itself is softer, somehow, without the tension of the waking world to draw it tight. He looks every bit like the sleeping prince - every bit the perfect Fire Lord. He looks a lot of things, honestly, and Sokka doesn’t have the self-restraint not to reach out, fingers cupping his ruined cheek.
Zuko’s eyes fly open immediately; tense for a second before he recognizes Sokka and then just bewildered. When he speaks, his voice is a sleepy slur. “Sokka?”
“Yeah,” Sokka says. His thumb dips over the high arch of Zuko’s cheekbone. The skin is rough; the press of the bone beneath it is not. “That’s me.”
“I don’t… what are you doing here?”
“What does it look like?”
Quiet for a second. “Truthfully? I have no clue.”
Sokka grins. “Then you’re not really all that bright,” he says, and he bends down, one hand crumpling the sheets, the other cupping Zuko’s face, and he kisses him.
Zuko’s mouth is sleep-soft, and the noise he makes is just as gentle. For a second he doesn’t so much as kiss back, but then he’s moving, arm breaking free from the covers to sling around Sokka’s shoulders, drawing him in closer, deeper, and Sokka smiles into the kiss.
It’s longer than Sokka planned and shorter than he’d like, but eventually Zuko draws back and Sokka lets him go.
“What,” Zuko says, sounding out of breath, “was that for?”
“You’re really gonna ask?” Sokka says, sinking down on the bed beside him, propped up on one elbow. “I got tired of waiting for you to do something, jackass, so I took it into my own hands.”
“Oh.” Zuko blinks. “I… I didn’t realize you wanted to.”
“I don’t believe that for a second,” Sokka says, flicking him on the forehead. “I wasn’t being subtle.”
Zuko looks appropriately chastised. “I mean, I thought maybe, but I didn’t want to presume, and you said -” he cuts himself off, mouth jamming closed, but Sokka has been waiting somewhere between weeks to years for the spark between them to ignite, and he’s not backing down now.
“You thought what?”
Zuko sighs, and there’s a trace of his old irritation in it. He hauls himself upright and Sokka doesn’t even pretend not to watch the flex of his impressive biceps as he moves. “The Water Tribe is your home, isn’t it?”
“Well, yeah, but I don’t see what that -”
“You said,” Zuko interrupts, “that you and Suki broke up because of the distance. Because you didn’t want to leave your home.”
Understanding clicks. “Oh,” Sokka says, surprised. “Oh. You thought…?” He can’t help but laugh, falling back against the spare pillow. “Spirits, Zuko, I was wondering why you were so weird about that conversation.”
“I couldn’t help it!” Zuko says peevishly, running a hand through his sleep mussed hair. It looks unbearably good on him. “In one breath you told me you were single – after I’ve spent years trying to figure out if this was just one sided – and then in the next you said you broke up because of the distance! Stop laughing!” he snaps. “I’m being serious, okay?”
“Zuko, were you listening to me at all?” Sokka says, rolling over to look at him properly. “We didn’t ‘break up’. Suki dumped me because she didn’t want to do the distance. I’m a pretty chill guy, I thought you knew that. I would have been happy to keep going like we were.”
Zuko stares at him. “So you and Suki -”
Sokka pokes him sharply in the chest. “There is no ‘me and Suki’. This is about you and me, buddy. Yeah, I want to stay with my tribe, but I also want to try my hand at this and I don’t see why I can’t have both.” Zuko’s still staring at him, gold eyes wide, and suddenly Sokka’s limitless well of confidence begins to run dry. “Unless I, uh, misunderstood, and you don’t want to -”
“No!” Zuko reaches out to hold Sokka’s wrist. “No, I do. I really, really do.”
Relief crashes over him. He smiles up at Zuko again, gently running his hand up Zuko’s chest until he can hold the back of his neck. “Then what is it?” he teases. “I like you! You like me! Great! What’s the problem?”
Zuko looks at him for a long moment. Outside, he can hear the faint patter of rain finally breaking free from the clouds. Then Zuko laughs; a surprised huff of a thing, teeth flashing white in the darkness, and eyes burning bright.
“Yeah,” he says, and he leans forward, pressing Sokka back into the sheets, and Sokka goes more than willingly, heart pounding in his throat. “I guess there’s no problem at all.”
It’s been a long time since Sokka has really, you know, been with anyone, and he’s never gotten this far with a guy, but Zuko’s hands seem just as unsure, fumbling but familiar, and Sokka can’t help but to sink into it greedily, threading his fingers in his hair, kissing him hard enough that it should bruise them both. There’s sweat trickling down the nape of his neck, pooling in the small of his back, and more than once he feels the pull of flames trying to break free from his iron grip, but Zuko soothes them away every time.
“Is that normal?” Sokka gasps, head tilted back as he stares at the billowing canopy over his head. “The… bending. In bed.”
His palm grows over-hot against Zuko’s shoulder, but Zuko plucks it away, pressing a kiss to the butterfly pulse in Sokka’s wrist, and the glowing embers beneath his skin burn themselves out beneath the opposing heat. “Sometimes,” he says. “Don’t worry. You won’t hurt me.”
Sokka looks at him; at his sex-messy hair, the crinkles at the corner of his eyes where he’s smiling - at the burn that marks him as somebody who’s been hurt before.
“No, not even if I wanted to,” Sokka says, and drags him back down.
Afterwards, Sokka experimentally rests his head on Zuko’s broad shoulder, still panting and sweaty and is positively delighted when after a moment of hesitation Zuko’s hand gently lands on his back, allowing Sokka to nestle in as close he pleases.
“C’mon,” Sokka says, elbowing him in his naked ribs. “Two minutes ago, you were going down on me. Don’t get shy now.”
“I’m not,” Zuko protests hotly, but the tips of his ears are flushed. “I just… you don’t have to cuddle if you don’t want to, you know?”
He says ‘cuddle’ like somebody who’s never so much as touched another human being below the belt before, which Sokka now had categorical proof is untrue. “Well what if I do want to, huh? What then, asshole?”
Zuko turns his face away. “Then it’s fine. Whatever.”
Sokka is quiet for a second before he can’t help but say, “Mai wasn’t a big cuddler, huh?”
He laughs, putting his head back down. He could use a moment to catch his breath anyway. He’s still reeling, and not just from the, you know, incredibly good sex, but also from… everything else. He’d been pretty confident when he crept in here, but things tended to go wrong for Sokka a lot, so he’d known better than to get his hopes up.
Too late for that now. Hopes? Sky high, possibly higher.
Zuko’s hand creeps up his back to his hair, gently brushing it out of his face. It’d come undone at some point, although Sokka’s memories are too hazy to pinpoint when, and it falls around his shoulders in a cascade. He’d been thinking about cutting it, but with the gentle pull of Zuko’s fingers combing through it, he thinks he can be persuaded to reconsider.
“How did you even get in here?”
Sokka pries his sleepy eyes open. “Huh?”
“There’s guards at the door,” Zuko says. “How’d you get in?”
“Oh. Through the window.”
Zuko’s fingers pause. He tilts his head, looking to where the rain is beating down outside. “The window.”
“Sokka. I’m four floors up.”
“Yeah. And I still managed to get in. You should really reconsider your security.”
Zuko sighs, but he’s smiling, just a little. “You could have just knocked.”
“Nah. I had a plan.” Sokka clumsily pats Zuko’s chest. “Worked out pretty well too. Don’t know what you’re complaining about.”
“I’m not complaining, believe me,” Zuko says. He’s quiet for a second before he asks, “Have you ever…? With a guy before?”
“Uh,” Sokka says, face still planted firmly in Zuko’s abs.
“Sorry,” Zuko says quickly. “You don’t have to answer that.”
“No, that’s not it,” Sokka says, just as quick. “It’s just… embarrassing.” He takes a deep breath to steel himself, pushing himself upright to look him in the eye. “It was just a kiss, but, uh. It was Jet, before I knew he was a raging psychopath.”
Zuko stares at him. “You kissed Jet?”
Sokka holds up a hand defensively. “Look, I’d known him for one day, and he was a jerk, but I also thought he was kinda hot and I knew Katara liked him, and I was feeling spiteful and also kinda curious, so when he made a move I just…” The more he talks the more mortified he feels. “I didn’t know he was like that, believe me. It was just -”
One of Zuko’s hands lands over his mouth, suffocating his stuttering explanation. “Sokka, that’s not what I meant.” He shakes his head, laughing quietly. “I guess I should have said ‘you kissed Jet too?’.”
Sokka’s mind is blank for a moment. Then he wrenches Zuko’s hand off his mouth. “Hold on, are you telling me -”
“Just like you said! I didn’t realize he was a psychopath!” Zuko says, but he’s laughing, they’re both laughing, and it’s so fucking dumb, and Sokka is absolutely going to pieces over it.
“Oh, geez,” Sokka wheezes. “What are the fucking chances?”
“I’ve got no clue,” Zuko says. “Maybe not so small. It sure seems like he gets around.”
Sokka drops his forehead against Zuko’s shoulder, smiling like a fool. He can feel Zuko’s arms circling him, hands pressing into his back. It’s stupid how safe that makes him feel. He didn’t realize how much he missed having this kind of casual intimacy with somebody he trusted until he had it again. “No more kissing Jet though,” he says. And then, before he can lose his nerve, “Or anybody else.”
Zuko goes still, and then says, voice soft, “Yeah. Nobody else.”
Sokka squeezes his eyes closed, pressing his smile into Zuko’s skin, and prays that if this is a stupid good dream, he never wakes.
As time goes on, Sokka really gets a handle on his bending.
He learns how to twist flames around him, and how to summon his own. He learns to keep his focus directed exactly where he needs it, and to keep his breath even and unwavering at all times. He learns that while bending looks a lot like magic from the outside, it’s a much closer to normal fighting than he would have thought - it hurts to keep going for too long, and he runs himself to the point of exhaustion more than once before he learns to recognize his own limits.
Zuko had been right - now that Sokka is willing to learn, Yoh is an excellent teacher, and when Sokka tentatively asks if there was a way to combine his bending with the training he’d already received as a warrior, he only nods thoughtfully.
“Most individuals struggle to balance the precision of bending alongside the flexibility of traditional fighting styles,” he says. “But it is certainly possible, if one knows what they’re doing.”
“I’ve got this,” Sokka says nervously, showing his dagger. “Supposedly, it’s supposed to channel fire well?”
Yoh plucks it from his hand and turns it over, considering. “It used to be that many weapons were made with the intentions of being a conduit for firebending, but it’s a practice that has fallen away with modernity.” He glances up. “You also fight with a sword and boomerang, correct?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
Yoh passes him the dagger back. “If you learn to control the temperature of your fire adequately, I see no reason why you shouldn’t be able to extend your bending to them too. So long as you keep in mind that metals not made by specialists require greater focus and maintenance not to melt.”
Sokka knows he ought to be intimidated by the ever-increasing load to his already full training schedule, but he can’t help but nod enthusiastically. It’s not as if he’s ever shied away from hard work before, and the revelation that he can still choose how to apply his skills has him positively giddy.
After, Sokka tracks Zuko down to his study, slapping his warm hands against Zuko’s cheeks and leaning over the desk to kiss him stupid. When he pulls away, Zuko blinks up at him, dazed, and asks, “What was that for?”
Sokka grins. “It’s nothing,” he says. “Just… I’m grateful.”
“Uh,” Zuko says, “you’re welcome?”
Sokka glances down at the report he’s leaning over. “How urgent is the work you’re doing?”
Zuko’s breath catches and his gaze flickers over Sokka’s shoulder to the locked door behind him. He clears his throat, calmly setting aside his pen. “Not so important.”
“Good,” Sokka says, and climbs clear over the table to sit in Zuko’s lap.
Later, they take their dinner in Zuko’s room; dishes spread over the low table by the fireplace and Pai Sho set retired to the floor. It’s nowhere even close to the first meal they’ve shared together, but somehow it feels strangely intimate - sitting adjacent to one another rather than across, knuckles bumping here and there as they pass bowls back and forth.
Sokka wonders what the guards will think when Sokka fails to return to his own room, and the thrill it sends down his spine is positively electrifying.
Once they're done eating, a servant sweeps in to take away their plates, leaving behind a steaming pot of tea in its wake. It’s not quite as good as Zuko’s, and Sokka makes sure to tell him as much, and the the way the very tips of his ears go pink in the firelight is immensely gratifying in a way Sokka doesn’t think he’ll be able to explain.
He stays the night, as he’s been doing more and more. They don’t even discuss it, it just happens naturally - migrating from the sitting area to his bedroom when the sun dips out of sight, and they begin to gravitate closer and closer to the edge of their seats until they’re pretty much bumping knees.
Honestly? It’s still a little surreal, but the way Sokka’s heart climbs his throat when Zuko slides his hands into his hair and kisses him fucking breathless is enough to make him believe that it’s happening - after all this time, it’s honestly happening.
Maybe this is where all that good karma he’d been worried about had wound up; waiting for Sokka to be brave enough to breach this final wall between them. He thinks it’s a pretty fair tradeoff. All the bullshit he’s been through seems more than worth it if this is the reward he gets.
Sokka’s so blissfully distracted, head resting on Zuko’s chest, that it takes him a moment to place the murmur by his ear as a voice. Yawning, he asks, “Hm?”
“I said your firebending has improved,” Zuko says. He’s not looking at Sokka, is flipping through some report or another that had been left on the bedside, but Sokka knows where his attention is. “It won’t be much longer and you’ll probably be ready to go home.”
He says it so casually - like it’s just another idle bedtime conversation for them to bicker over before sleep calls them. It takes Sokka’s sleep hazy mind a moment to even catch what he’d said and then a moment more than that to understand it. Frowning, he goes to prop himself upright, but the arm Zuko has around his shoulders tightens, holding him to his side.
“Zuko,” Sokka huffs, squirming.
“What?” Zuko asks, voice tense.
Sokka rolls his eyes and pushes himself free of Zuko’s grip, although it takes some effort. “You have the worst pillow talk, I swear.”
Zuko bristles, looking offended. “I’m not -”
“If you’re worried about something,” Sokka says, “you can just ask me, instead of being elusive and broody.”
“I’m not being elusive and broody,” Zuko snaps.
“Alright,” Sokka agrees. “You’re not being elusive and broody. Maybe I want to talk then.”
Zuko scowls, but it softens when Sokka reaches out, fingers underneath his chin to coax him into a kiss. Zuko breathes out against his mouth, deep and warm. “Sorry,” he says. “You’re right. I didn’t mean to…”
“Backtrack to acting like a fifteen-year-old all over again?” Sokka suggests, and the look Zuko gives him is less than impressed. He grins, tugging at a lock of his dark hair. “I’m not going back home. Not yet, anyway. I’ve still got a long way to go before I master anything, and I’m not gonna quit halfway just because you - ” he pokes Zuko in the chest “- are sick of me.”
“I’m not sick of you,” Zuko says, rolling his eyes and catching Sokka’s hand. “You know that.”
“Sure seems like it,” Sokka says. “What, are you in a hurry to rush me out the door or something?”
Zuko smiles, just a bit. His thumb is rubbing soothing circles on the back of Sokka’s hand. “I just want you to know that I don’t expect you to stay here longer than you want to,” he says. “I know you miss your tribe. I don’t - I’m not expecting you to give any of that up.”
Sokka had known that, of course, but it’s nice to hear it regardless. “I’ve got a long time before I’m going to be chief of my tribe,” he says. “And I’ve got a lot of time to kill between now and then. Yeah, I wanna go home at some point - but I don’t see why that means I won’t be kicking down your door just as often. Weren’t you the one who said I didn’t have to choose between two good things?”
“Am I a good thing then?” Zuko asks, but he’s staring at Sokka with such an unreadable look in his eyes that Sokka scarcely notices the teasing at all. It’s a little bit wondrous, and just a little confused - like Zuko isn’t sure what he did to get here, and whether he deserves it.
It’s a look Sokka knows intimately.
He reaches out, plucking the report from Zuko’s hand and dropping it to the floor. Before Zuko can protest, he pushes at his shoulders, laying him down against the bed as Sokka swings himself up to straddle his lap. Zuko’s hands land on his hips immediately.
“I dunno,” Sokka says, pressing his lips to Zuko’s throat. “Maybe you should convince me after all.”
Zuko laughs; quiet, but so very warm. One of his hands flutters to Sokka’s hair, gentle fingers running through it. “I guess I can be convinced,” he says, and when Sokka leans up to kiss him, he’s smiling; all the tension gone like wind to a candle.
Sokka stays in the Fire Nation for nearly six months.
It’s the longest time he’s been anywhere that’s not the South Pole in years, and by the time he’s ready to leave, he surprises himself by realizing how much he’s going to actually miss it. Not just Zuko, but the crowded market outside the palace, the faceless guards he thinks he’s beginning to learn the names of, the quiet pond area with its very unquiet turtle ducks.
He’s going to miss Yoh’s unwavering instructions, and the friendly grandmothers who want to fatten him up, and, more than anything, he will, of course, miss Zuko.
“Maybe I don’t have to go back yet,” Sokka says, the morning Aang is due to arrive. They’re settled in Zuko’s study, and there’s a hazardous pile of scrolls and books at his elbow, hoarded anxiously as the morning drags on. “What’s another six months here? An even year seems like a good number.”
“Sokka,” Zuko says, reaching out to still the anxious tapping of his fingertips on the table. “You know I would like nothing more, but your sister and your tribe are waiting for you. Go home.”
Sokka pulls a face. “Are you even going to miss me?”
“Less and less the longer your mouth keeps moving,” Zuko says, and snorts as Sokka manages to land an elbow in his gut. “It’s less than a month before I make the trip to visit your tribe, anyway.”
Yeah. Sokka still can’t wrap his head around that, either. It’d taken some work to really convince Zuko that yes, he really, really could come visit Sokka, but when he finally managed to break through Zuko’s iron willpower, it’d been like a switch had flipped. Apparently, if Zuko was going to come to the South Pole, he was going to visit right; a full ambassadorial visit from the leader of one nation to another, and if one of those leaders just happened to be Sokka’s boyfriend and the other his dad - well. He was trying his hardest not to think on it.
“I know,” Sokka says. “I’m not complaining, I’m just…”
Zuko smiles, a little teasing and a lot fond. He reaches out, cupping Sokka’s cheek to drag him in, knocking their foreheads together. “Over thinking again, more like it.”
“I’m not, if anything, you’re underthinking it,” Sokka insists, dizzy with déjà vu.
Zuko kisses him. It must be the hundredth time at this point, but Sokka is as helpless as always when it comes to the warmth of his mouth. He can feel fire underneath his own skin; the way it so badly wants to break free and race to meet the point where they’re joined. It’s an effort to smother it, but he manages, and when he leans forward to get a better angle the dagger at his waist jangles as it bumps against the desk.
Zuko pulls back. “A month,” he says again. “Besides, I can’t wait to see what new tricks you teach yourself in the meantime.”
Sokka grins. “Katara’s going to be pissed that she sent me away to learn how to not burn things down and instead I come back with the ability to set my sword on fire.”
Zuko laughs, thumb stroking along Sokka’s cheek. “Maybe when I see you next you’ll have learnt how to do it with your boomerang.”
“Maybe when I see you next I’ll throw it at your head, just like old times.”
“Can’t wait to find out.”
Outside, there’s the cheerful sound of Aang’s voice approaching, and Sokka reluctantly disentangles himself. Zuko’s hand lingers against his hip, fingertips brushing the hilt of the Sokka’s dagger - jewel red, and blade blade, just like the kingdom Zuko rules - before it pulls away.
“A month,” Sokka says again. “If you haven’t decided you’re sick of me by then.”
The smile Zuko flashes is both warm and hot in another way entirely. “Not a chance,” he says. Behind them, the door flies open and Aang barges in, barely batting an eye when he sees how close they’re sitting and immediately launching himself across the room to give Zuko a hearty hug.
Sokka watches as Zuko endure it long-sufferingly, feeling ridiculously fond in ways he can’t explain.
This time tomorrow, Sokka will be in the clouds, watching the Fire Nation disappear beneath him and leaving behind more than what he’d even arrived to. It’s strange, he thinks, to look forward to that. Saying goodbye is different when you know it’s not so much a farewell as it is a brief parting, the way waves may turn to giants but always come back to the ocean in the end.
“Sokka?” Aang asks, jerking his attention back, and Sokka claps him on the shoulder getting to his feet.
“C’mon,” he says. “You’ve been gone for ages and I’ve got so much to show you.” He grins. “Wanna see me set a sword on fire?”
Aang looks surprised first and then excited. “Yes. What kind of question is that?”
“We better go before Zuko rats me out to Yoh then,” Sokka says, hustling him to the door. “He doesn’t like it when I do it on his swords.”
“If you melt them you’re buying new ones,” Zuko hollers after them, but Sokka doesn’t slow his stride. He does, however, leave the study door open behind them; an invitation for Zuko to follow when he’s ready. The guards nod their heads at him when they pass by, and Sokka is almost certain that he maybe-sort-of knows their names.
Aang eyes him as they walk.
“What?” Sokka asks.
“Oh, nothing, nothing,” Aang says. “I was just going to ask how your firebending went, but it seems like I don’t need to after all.”
Sokka thinks of singeing his fingers on a hundred leaves, steaming water rising at his fingertips; he thinks of the way he’d felt the first time Zuko had pressed his dagger into his hands and shown him how to make it burn. He thinks, because he can’t help it, of Zuko’s lips against his wrist, chasing back the fire before it can break free.
Sokka slips his hands into his pockets. “I don’t think it’s really so bad after all.”
From the corner of his eye, he sees Aang smiling; that one he gets where he seems every one of his hundred-something years. “I’m glad,” Aang says.
Sokka glances over his shoulder. They’re not so far away that he can’t see Zuko through the ajar door. Even at this distance he makes Sokka’s stomach turn in the best way imaginable.
Quietly, Aang says, again, “I’m really, really glad, Sokka.”
Fuck. One month. After all the shit they’ve been through, that’s child’s play.
“You know what?” Sokka says, voice soft. “So am I.”