The ride back home is quiet except for the rain outside, because Sokka doesn’t say anything. Usually, after a party, he makes jokes about stuffy diplomats and comments extensively on the scant spread of hors d’oeuvres, but now, as Zuko watches him carefully in the back of the cab, Sokka only sits quietly with his arms crossed, his head turned to look out the window streaked with raindrops.
He is still quiet when they make it to their building in Ba Sing Se’s Middle Ring, and then when they walk up the three flights up stairs to their apartment. He doesn’t even turn on the light as he walks through the door and into the living room, pausing only to kick his shoes off on the way in.
Zuko watches after him, flicking the light on once Sokka’s passed by in his stormy wake. He loosens his tie and leans against the open doorway of the living room as he racks his brain for something to say.
“Do you want anything to eat?” he finally asks. “There wasn’t a lot of food at the party. You must be starving.”
“Not hungry,” Sokka replies with a huff. He sinks lower into the sofa.
Zuko widens his eyes. Something is really wrong, then. He ventures further into the living room, ready to work his subtle charms on his unsuspecting boyfriend.
“Is something wrong?” Zuko asks plainly.
“Nothing’s wrong,” Sokka says loudly. He huffs again and crosses his arms.
Zuko rubs the right side of his face before looking at Sokka once more. “You know, it’s pretty obvious when you’re in a bad mood,” he says.
Sokka gives a short, dry laugh. “Right, and you’re the king of subtlety,” he says sarcastically.
They painted the walls robin’s egg blue in the living room when they moved in because it reminded Sokka of home, and it reminded Zuko of everything but his own. The building is old, so, while the hot water never lasts long, their apartment is a vision made up of high ceilings and tall windows with original crown molding. Zuko looks at the living room walls. During the day, the way they stretch up toward the white of the molding evokes memories of blue skies dotted with curly clouds. But at night, like now, when the light fades, and the wind whistles, and the windows are barraged with rain, the walls go dark. Almost as if the room itself were overcast.
Zuko lets a breath out and leaves the room. Sokka can’t keep anything to himself for long, but he still needs time to stew. They might as well have food ready for when he finally lets it out.
Zuko reaches the kitchen and takes his suit jacket off, draping it over the back of a chair. The rice cooker sits on the countertop, a housewarming gift from Katara, ready for use. He takes out the pot and rinses rice in it, quickly, before measuring the water up to the first knuckle of his middle finger and placing it back in the cooker. He turns around from pressing the button to find Sokka shuffling in through the doorway, pulling a chair away from the kitchen table to settle heavily there instead. Zuko refrains from commenting on how he’ll wrinkle the jacket behind him, and instead grabs a packet of Sokka’s favorite seal jerky from the pantry and brings it with him to the table. He reaches over and takes Sokka’s hand.
“Do you want to tell me what’s wrong?” he asks.
Sokka pouts for another moment before he’s ready.
High-pitched, and a little whiny, he erupts, “Everyone at your work thinks I’m stupid!”
Zuko startles away before his eyes narrow and he draws closer to Sokka. “What?” he asks, disbelieving.
Sokka waves his arms helplessly in the air and throws his head back. “All those stupid lawyers and human rights dorks you work with! They think I’m an idiot.”
Zuko almost wants to laugh, but, with a glance at Sokka’s face, thinks better of it. “That doesn’t make any sense,” he instead says earnestly. “You’re the smartest person I know.”
Sokka scoffs and crosses his arms.
“Really, Sokka,” Zuko insists. “I don’t know anyone else getting their PhD in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Ba Sing Se, the best university in the world.”
“I do,” Sokka says, though the corner of his mouth is tugging up into something of a smug smile.
Zuko rolls his eyes. “Right, only everybody in your lab,” he deadpans. He pauses. “There’s all the other stuff, too. Like when you help me with my work. An engineer doesn’t have to be so good at economics, too.”
Zuko works as an associate expert at the United Council of Nations for Economics, Science, and Culture. He has spent many a night dragging briefings home and poring over them at the kitchen table, trying to make sense of some graph or diagram, when Sokka will take a break from his designs and calculations to glance over his shoulder.
“Whoa, Earth Kingdom agriculture’s gonna take a real hit next year,” he once said, pointing to a data point. “That’s way too big of a cabbage surplus.”
Zuko could only gape at him, and then buy Sokka the most expensive gym bag he could find when raising the point in a meeting the next day earned him a raise.
“It’s intuitive,” Sokka says almost humbly, looking down at the kitchen table.
“If it’s intuitive to you, you could replace everyone who was at the party tonight,” Zuko replies.
Sokka's expression turns doubtful, and he bites his lip. Zuko resists the urge to kiss it.
“They were all laughing at me,” Sokka says.
Zuko tilts his head at him. “You’re funny,” he supplies hopefully.
“I wasn’t telling any jokes,” Sokka says sadly.
The sound of his voice wrenches at Zuko’s heart, and he barely registers it when he rises and finds himself tilting Sokka’s face up by his chin, only able to get this angle when Sokka is sitting. He bends down and kisses him. It only lasts a second, and when he pulls back, Sokka looks no less upset. Zuko is about to try to drum up some more words of comfort for him when the rice cooker starts beeping.
Zuko smiles apologetically at Sokka and goes back to the counter, pressing the button and opening the rice cooker. A little puff of steam rises from beneath the lid and disappears on its way to the ceiling.
“I’m sorry,” he finally says, turning around to look at Sokka and leaning his back against the counter.
“Not your fault,” Sokka says with a shrug, though the dejection still reads clearly across his face.
The torrent outside only seems to have gotten stronger. The wet leaves of the maple tree outside their building slap against their windows, the sound so loud and forceful, they can hear it even in the kitchen.
“Jeez,” Sokka says, shifting forward to glance back at the archway that leads to the living room, “that’s loud.”
Zuko spies the jacket behind him, and he immediately brightens.
“Here,” he says, coming over to reach into the breast pocket. Sokka looks up at him in confusion as he pulls out the folded page of a newspaper and a pen. “Take this.”
Sokka takes the paper and unfolds it carefully. His brow immediately furrows in confusion. “What am I supposed to do with a crossword?” he asks. The question almost sounds like a whine. He eyes the paper once more before looking back up at Zuko like he might have gone insane. “And one you already finished?”
Zuko shakes his head. “But I didn’t finish it,” he says excitedly. He points to an area of the grid. “Look, I couldn’t figure these three out. And when I got into work, I asked everyone, and they couldn’t figure them out either.” He smiles. “If anyone can do it, it’s you, Sokka.”
Sokka looks doubtful once more, but he lays the crossword on the table. Zuko moves back to the counter and hears the click of a pen behind him. This is a good idea, he thinks, grabbing a carton of eggs from the fridge and placing a pan on the stove. Now Sokka will be occupied while he makes dinner, and they’ll have food ready just in time for when Sokka feels better, and he has time to fry eggs just the way Sokka likes them, yolks so runny they practically bleed onto the rice, and then they can watch one of his favorite history documentaries, and they’ll curl up on the sofa and fall asleep to the sound of the rain, or if they don’t feel like sleeping—
“Done!” Sokka says.
Zuko whirls around, two eggs in his hand, still uncracked, to find Sokka grinning smugly at him. “How?” he demands, genuinely surprised.
Sokka shrugs, the grin immovable. “Easy,” he says. Zuko puts the eggs down and goes back to the kitchen table, his hand landing on Sokka’s shoulder. Sokka grabs it as he explains, “‘A Northern delicacy’ is obviously roast duck. And then ‘failure to communicate,’ with the duck in mind, is that expression your uncle’s always saying: ‘Like a chicken talking to a duck.’ And then ‘skinny appendages?’” He looks up at Zuko before he cheers, barely able to contain himself, “Chicken legs!”
“Let me see that,” Zuko says, grabbing the paper with his free hand. He stares at it closely. A small scowl reaches his lips. “Are you kidding me? I spent a whole hour on the monorail trying to get these. I almost missed my stop! And it was just ‘roast duck’ the whole time?”
He looks up sharply when he hears Sokka laughing.
“I mean,” Zuko starts, a blush creeping into his cheeks as he smiles awkwardly, “I told you you were smart.”
“Actually, I think you called me the smartest person you know,” Sokka corrects jokingly.
“You are the smartest person I know,” Zuko insists.
He keeps smiling at the scratchy characters of Sokka’s writing on the crossword next to the careful strokes of his own when he feels Sokka pulling him by the hand. Once Zuko is standing in front of him, Sokka throws his arms around his boyfriend’s middle and hugs him tightly, burying his head into Zuko’s ribs.
“Thanks, Zuko,” he says quietly into the fabric of Zuko’s dress shirt.
One of Zuko’s hands lands on the top of Sokka’s head, stroking his hair till he reaches the end of his wolf tail. Then, Zuko wraps his arms around Sokka’s neck and shoulders and hugs him back fiercely, protectively.
“Love you,” he says, and he smiles when he feels Sokka nod against his chest. He rubs Sokka’s shoulders and upper back, trying to ease the tight muscle beneath his hands. “Do you think you might want something to eat now?”
Sokka pulls his face away from Zuko’s shirt to beam up at him. “I thought you’d never ask,” he says enthusiastically.
After their easy dinner of fried eggs and seal jerky on rice, Zuko ends up being right; they go back to the living room and watch a documentary on the construction of the ancient air temples. They lie on the couch with Sokka between Zuko’s legs, his head on Zuko’s chest. The rain has stopped outside, but Zuko hardly notices with Sokka pressed against him. From this angle, he can pull the tie out of Sokka’s hair and comb his fingers through the soft, brown tresses, as well as the fuzz of his undercut, while the narrator debunks a theory that aliens teleported the building materials up the Potola Mountain Range.
“What do you think, Sokka?” Zuko whispers near his ear. “Did aliens build the air temples?”
Sokka’s response is a light snore against his chest.
Zuko suppresses a laugh. There’s no way of getting Sokka to bed without waking him, so Zuko settles in behind him instead. He wraps one of his arms protectively around his boyfriend’s body, while the other stays in place to let his fingers keep playing with Sokka’s hair, enjoying the soft smile it coaxes onto his relaxed mouth. The clouds outside clear to make way for the nearly full moon, whose light spills through the towering windows into the apartment. The dark lifts from the room, the walls glow an otherworldly blue, and Zuko sinks beneath Sokka’s weight into the night’s quiet.