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Zuko had been receiving pressure about producing an heir long before he and Sokka were married.

From the moment he was back in the palace he had to think about the consequences of his death and who would be left in charge. There were weekly ‘meetings’ that turned out to be lunches with the parents of potential suitors, daily comments about finding ‘love’ and ‘starting a new family’. Even after he insisted he was gay, the meetings with young women continued, and when Iroh (finally) managed to convince the advisors that Zuko could be the first Firelord with a husband, the lunches and tea parties with young men and their parents were somehow more frequent than it had been before.

When he and Sokka were married, the officials and the Fire Sages made them go through the process of organising contracts in regards to Zuko’s plans to create an heir, needing a ‘viable’ heir of royal blood and insisting that this be signed and agreed upon.

Of course, once it was agreed upon in a contract that Mai would bear them a child when the time came, the pressure suddenly became so much more intense.

Being married also increased the pressure, with most of the people attempting to convince them to squish Sokka into the house-wife role. Once they were married, Zuko couldn’t use the ‘gotta try and put a country back together, no time for toddlers’ excuse, with most people now making glances at Sokka whenever Zuko tried that excuse out.

Immediately assuming that he wasn’t doing anything in the palace. Like. You know. Being an ambassador to both Water Tribes. And reforming the entire education system.

They were in their early twenties (very early twenties) and had survived three attempted assassinations in a short month when Zuko finally lost it at one of his advisors.

“We have contingency plans in place for my death, Ma Lee!” Zuko had stood suddenly, smoke rippling out his nose. “Don’t you dare- don’t you dare lecture me about the ‘sanctity of royal blood’, that’s bullshit and you know it!”

Sokka decided it was time to call the meeting off and pull Zuko out of the room when the young Firelord started asking Ma Lee where he was at the Angi Kai between Zuko and Ozai, and where his loyalties lied.

Because here’s the thing about pressuring a survivor of intergenerational trauma and extensive child abuse to have children: you shouldn’t.

You really, really, really shouldn’t.

Sokka had sat up with Zuko for many long, long nights, convincing him that showing a bit of frustration is normal, healthy, and that he wasn’t going to become his father.

And Sokka felt sick to think it, but sometimes that assurance was only a half truth.

Zuko’s temper was still so prevalent and burning hot on some days. He got frustrated all of the time, and was pushed to anger most days – especially after hot afternoons full of pouring over his great-grandfather’s laws and trying to find ways to fix them with the slimy words of Ozai-sympathisers on his council slipping over his ears.

A lot of the time when he got angry it was, honestly, a little bit hilarious. At least to Sokka and other people outside of the direction of his temper. Because when Zuko got angry he was loud and all-consuming in the room, his voice got hoarse sometimes because he had been through so much that at this point he couldn’t be bothered sitting quietly and politely when dealing with the wrinkled old bags on his council.

But sometimes, every so often, he slipped into that dangerous wrath that reminded Sokka of Ozai in a sickening, painful way.

The difference, and this is key, is that Zuko didn’t slip into wrath at his own defense the way that Ozai had, Azulon had, Sozin had, Azula did. Sokka had watched him sit through week-long peace summits of snotty old men questioning his leadership, his experience, his skills, his husband, and only watched Zuko slip into his usual frustration and lack of filter between his brain and his mouth. Once he rolled his eyes a little.

But when someone he cared about was threatened, when someone vulnerable was being defamed or hurt, that’s when it happened.

Before their wedding, Sokka had only seen it once.

While making their way through the halls, Zuko and Sokka had been behind a couple of visiting officials, who hadn’t noticed his presence – maybe assuming he was a guard as they hadn’t spared a glance yet – and had walked into a conversation they were having. A conversation about them, their marriage, and more specifically about how one of the officials was tempted to kidnap his own Water Tribe consort. This was followed by a few other unpleasant comments about the people of the South Pole, referring to Sokka and his people as sub-human the entire time.

Sokka barely had a moment to roll his eyes – it certainly wasn’t the first time he had caught a Fire Nation citizen unawares talking in such a blatantly racist way – before suddenly Zuko wasn’t at his side anymore.

Zuko had seized one of the officials by his throat, pressed against the wall, gripping the other by his collar. When he snarled out a threat there was fire on his tongue and Sokka, forcing himself out of his frozen state of horror, had grabbed Zuko around the waist and pulled him away.

Zuko had cleared his schedule for the next week and spent the entire time in their room in a state of guilt and panic.

And Sokka had been comforting and supportive and all the things a best friend and good fiancé should be, but his stomach hadn’t stopped curdling since he looked up in the hallway and thought for a moment he was standing next to Ozai, not Zuko.

It was after years of marriage, in their late twenties, when Zuko finally crawled into bed in the early hours of the morning – drained and limbless, still in his royal robes – and whispered, “We can’t bring a child into this world just to shut Ma Lee up, can we?”

Sokka, barely awake, had murmured, “No, that’s very unethical,” and they had slept for a few hours before the sun rose and responsibilities came knocking at the door again.

 

~*~

 

Sokka’s pretty sure it was Aang and Katara visiting the palace that did it.

 

~*~

 

Appa had hit the ground softly, Sokka and Zuko standing nearby to greet them, when Bumi had popped his little head over the edge of the saddle.

Sokka’s jaw had dropped – the last time he saw Aang and Katara, Bumi was only a baby, barely able to walk. Now, he was a child, with fully formed limbs and torso and he could definitely walk, the little gremlin practically flung himself over the edge of the saddle to run into Sokka’s arms.

Aang had helped Katara over the edge of Appa’s saddle – which Sokka found suspicious – and they were barely on the ground for a minute before Aang blurted out that they were pregnant again.

Sokka tried very hard not to look at Zuko, but he could feel his husband’s energy change.

Only shortly after they left, Zuko had looked at Sokka in a strange way, and Sokka knew what he was going to say before the words even formed on his tongue.

Izumi came screaming into the world just over a year later, healthy and alert.

Mai had agreed to carry her but made it clear that she didn’t have any intention to raise the baby, and when she was born, Mai let the baby feed and kissed her little head and looked at Zuko and said,

“Don’t you ever make me do that again.”

In the months that followed, Zuko was tempted many times to ask for a forgery nearby to make a small plaque for Sokka that read ‘Most Paranoid Father Ever’, and told him so just as often. He wasn’t much better though, and he knew that.

Sokka had been insistent, in Izumi’s first two weeks, that she had as much skin-on-skin contact with them as possible, and when he finally cracked and told Zuko about Water Tribe mothers keeping the baby on their bodies at all times for the first few weeks to establish a bond, Zuko finally stopped teasing him about it.

It wasn’t like he minded that much, anyway. He barely had any chest hair when she was born and anything that was there she ripped out on her first day, so it was only uphill from there.

(At least, he thought so, until he discovered that babies can and will leak out of their diapers all over your chest.)

(But she was so damn cute, so he couldn’t even be that mad about it.)

And Sokka watched it happen. With Zuko, and within himself. He watched Izumi become the most important thing in the world for the both of them. Not a single other thing mattered except for her.

(And, privately, Sokka confirmed within himself that Zuko would never become like his father and the fathers before him. Because absolutely nothing mattered more to Zuko in the entire world than Izumi did, probably including Sokka, and he knew that Zuko would do everything he could to spoil that little girl for the rest of his damn life. He was physically incapable of laying a harming hand on her.)

Sokka was a little bit relieved when they discovered Izumi wasn’t a firebender, because he had spent her first few months having most of his hair pulled out by her ridiculously strong grasp-instinct grip, and didn’t feel like having to deal with a toddler spitting flame around at random because she couldn’t control it.

He knew Zuko was an incredibly powerful bender – one of the only firebenders in the world, apparently, who could breathe flame, bend from his feet, and used his bending outside of fighting – and Sokka had the misfortune of seeing first hand just how powerful Azula and Ozai were as well. He knew that the genetic pool was capable of, that Zuko’s blood carried the ability to not only wield fire more powerful than most of the country, but also the ability to bend lightning.

It had been scary enough when Katara started accidently flinging the snow off their roof when they were kids, he didn’t feel like having his tiny baby girl suddenly start throwing blue flame around.

The officials and council members who had been pushing for Zuko to provide an heir nearly regretted it, most of them suddenly becoming very offended at Zuko’s parenting style. Izumi became a common part of official meetings with the Firelord, and she also often featured in Sokka’s meetings with the education systems and monthly ambassador consultations.

In her first year, Zuko would often have her cradled against his chest, feeding her and keeping her comfortable and sleeping while he gently negotiated around the table. Half the time she served as a good incentive to keep the meetings calm, but she also often derailed them, especially early on when the men around the room were insisting that it wasn’t the Firelord’s place to be forced to carry the baby around.

(This of course, was met with a harsh look and a reminder that they were the ones insisting on Zuko becoming a father, and that they shouldn’t be upset that he was a better father than they anticipated.)

(Behind closed doors, Sokka was incredibly uncomfortable leaving his baby in the hands of anyone other than himself or Zuko. He didn’t care how tired they were, or how much Zuko praised his own nannies from childhood, there had been so many attacks around the palace that Sokka would melt into a puddle of anxiety every time he left Izumi in a room that didn’t have Zuko in it.)

They brought Izumi to the South Pole when she was six months old, and made a pact that they would go back again no later than a year after that. Sokka tried to bring her on his trips as an ambassador, but the three opportunities that came up in that year were not child-appropriate, and Zuko refused to let Sokka take her. (The ship was not clean, they wouldn’t have fresh food for weeks, Izumi was teething, and Zuko wasn’t ready to let his baby go on a month-round trip without him.)

Just as they were planning to clear their schedules for a trip to the South Pole, Sokka received a letter from his father. Hakoda was retiring and since neither of his children were taking over as chief, tradition stated that the new contender for chief would have to fight Sokka or Katara in a ritual combat.

(Sokka knew Izumi was only sixteen months old but a part of him did want to impress his daughter with his strength and cunning in combat.)

Upon their arrival to the Pole, Izumi immediately became the star of the show. It was inevitable; she was swaddled in one of Sokka’s old anoraks they had cut up and tailored for her, chubby little face peeking out around the fur-lined hood, she was constantly babbling at this point, she giggled at everything, and her eyes were gold.

Some of people in the village still weren’t quite comfortable with Sokka being married to the Firelord of the country that systemically decimated their population, or with Zuko being the particular captain that arrived here and ordered them around in his younger years (or the fact that he fought and defeated their only soldier at that point, and that lone soldier was now his husband), so Sokka stuck Zuko with Izumi for most of their trip in the hopes that her cuteness would win everyone over for Zuko.

Sokka had greeted his father with open arms and a look of incredulous curiosity. Hakoda was meant to remain chief until he died, technically, and the guy was barely brushing his late fifties.

Hakoda had waved a hand and scoffed, noted that he had been the Chief of the Southern Water Tribe throughout the end of the Hundred Years War, and had grown the village into a small city, and that he was done now. He had fought to take up the mantle in his younger years, and he had done his bit to help the tribe. He wanted to sit down and relax.

The ritual combat had been a curious affair for Zuko. Sokka had mentioned it to him, when they married, that the Southern Water Tribe was not a monarchy and wouldn’t fall into shambles if neither Sokka nor Katara took up the mantle as chief. He had briefly explained that anyone could step forward to take over as chief, either because there were no heirs, the heirs were unsuitable, or they found the current chief unsuitable. To take over, though, they had to fight in a ritual combat with the current chief or next heir to assume the position properly; something about proving their honour.

The whole village was gathered in large space out in the snow, some villagers up on rocks or dunes of snow to watch the fight from above. A large circle had been made in the snow by Katara – who they had decided would not fight the contender because weapons weren’t allowed in the combat and the village had collectively ruled that waterbending counted as a weapon – that designated the fighting space.

The rules were pretty clear – lose by death or by forfeit, no one can intervene until the fight is over.

Sokka and the new contender both had removed their top layers, fighting in only boots and thick snow pants, Sokka’s belt lined with fur.

(Zuko was not blushing, no way, he was too old for that.)

(Zuko was blushing a little bit.)

Zuko had settled in next to Katara, who cooed at Izumi and swapped their babies for the chance to cuddle her niece. Zuko smiled at Kya and couldn’t believe how much she looked like Aang – but she had Sokka’s eyes. Not Katara’s, hers were a deeper blue, Kya had Sokka’s icy blue colour.

The two of them watched the fight together, babies in their laps, and even though it was over shortly after it began, it felt like eternity to watch.

Sokka was fantastic at dodging, and was using his opponent’s strength against him, almost taking on an airbending style of combat – but Zuko still winced and held his breath when Sokka took a few hits.

Sokka was tossed to the ground at one point and Zuko nearly got up when he saw the amount of force his back hit the ground with, but in only an instant Sokka had flipped them and immediately took the upper hand.

Zuko had felt a hand clap on his back and jumped, noticing a beat after that it was Hakoda chuckling at him.

“Kya had the same look on her face when I did this,” he smiled, and Zuko huffed, letting Hakoda ruffle his hair before the man moved back to his place at the edge of the circle.

Katara had laughed at him, cooing gently to Izumi that her dads were dorks.

In a flash the fight was over, Sokka letting himself be thrown down and yielding.

The contender, Zuko didn’t remember his name, had smiled and helped Sokka up like a worthy champion, and it appeared that Hakoda was shaking the guy’s hand and naming him chief but Sokka was already coming over to Zuko and Katara and reaching for the baby-shaped bundle of fur and cloth in Zuko’s lap.

Sokka was cradling Kya before he realised it wasn’t his baby, and looked slyly at Zuko.

“You know, you should be careful about who you give our baby to. Katara might realise that Izumi is infinitely cuter and decide to steal her.”

Katara had squawked at this, just before Zuko managed to comment-

“That’s okay, Kya’s nearly as cute.”

Katara had sighed, shook her head, and murmured, “Kya’s a waterbender.”

Sokka made a face at Zuko and informed the group, “Nope, that’s my limit. No bending babies, please. Zuko’s temper tantrums are enough for me.”

Followed shortly by-

“Can she heal yet? My back is killing me.”

For the rest of their trip, Izumi was mostly in the arms of her grandfather or her aunt, and Zuko was pleased to know that Sokka was okay with this, pulling Zuko along with him when he took Bumi out into the inland to show them both some traditional Water Tribe hunting.

(It was the first time that Zuko had seen a boomerang used for its intended purpose – hunting in a wide-open space – and he was a little bit impressed.)

Bumi, nearly ten years old, was incredibly impressed and bombarded Sokka with as many questions as he could think of, latching himself to his uncle’s side and not letting go.

(Zuko, later, when the young boy got cold, used his bending to keep him warm, and suddenly Bumi was attached to his other uncle’s side and wasn’t letting go.)

When they got back, Izumi was crying and Sokka immediately cooed and scooped her up, able to soothe her in an instant like magic. She had been fixated on writing brushes recently, attempting to scribble like her dads did, and she was trying to attain the brush and paper across the room.

As she got older, Izumi remained a staple of Zuko’s official Firelord business. He would have her in his lap for most meetings, and she was a well-behaved child, so even as she grew old enough to walk and talk she would stay cuddled into her father and keep mostly quiet.

(She was only really well-behaved in the meetings, and Zuko’s convinced it’s because of the praise and cooing she gets. Outside of official business, it was abundantly clear that she was Zuko and Sokka’s child, and Sokka had sent apologies by letter to his father in the South Pole when he realised how much of a handful he must have been.)

When Izumi was five years old, she no longer attended Zuko’s meetings with him, except for a few less intensive ones, where tea and cookies were involved and the whole thing was over in an hour or so. She would go with Sokka on more trips to other countries, and Zuko was struggling with letting his daughter go away for so long out on the open sea. He had enough trouble with Sokka leaving him for month-long round trips, let alone the both of them.

But, Sokka was getting Republic City off its feet and he liked to remind Zuko that Izumi was the future Firelord, and should grow up having a neutral place like Republic City normalised to her.

(It was entirely an excuse to bring his daughter with him when he went away for long trips but he wasn’t going to tell Zuko that.)

 

~*~

 

It was when Izumi was five that it happened, and Sokka saw two sides of Zuko come out that he thought were long dead.

 

~*~

 

“No, it’s-” Sokka pressed a finger against his temple, swiping Zuko’s cup of tea to sip at. “Apparently, the Hami tribe isn’t exclusively here, though, their tribe isn’t in one singular point, that’s the issue.”

“But that-”

Zuko was interrupted by the door swinging open, a terrified guard standing in the entry way.

“Sirs,” he made a minimal effort at a quick bow, chest heaving, “Princess Izumi, she’s missing.”

A cold wave washed over Sokka that infected his insides like mercury in his veins, and he didn’t realise he was moving until he was.

Zuko was marching with a fury at his heels that Sokka had never seen before, led by the guard that greeted them to a small gathering in the gardens.

It was dark out, moon three-quarters full, and the cool autumn air should have chilled Sokka’s exposed skin if he weren’t too wrapped up in the panic of this moment to notice it. The gardens were awash with the darkness of the night, lights along the palace walls lit where guards were patrolling, but the grounds still invisible in the shadows.

Just off the path, in the grass, was a circle of guards, all standing around one of the nannies, who kneeling on the ground in tears. She had a note clenched in her hands that she was refusing to give over, whole body wracked with sobs.

Zuko pushed the guards around her aside and held her shoulder, gripping just a fraction too tight for it to be compassionate.

“What happened?”

It wasn’t a question, it was an order.

The woman gulped and pushed the note into his hands.

“I don’t know how they got in, we were on our way to the pond-” the woman sobbed again, “Your Majesty, please, believe me, I only waved to Aiko on the tower, and when I looked back she w-was gone. They left this.”

Zuko let the woman go, breathing so hard and fast that his chest was visibly heaving. He flicked the piece of paper open and scowled.

“Ransom note,” he choked, looking up at Sokka, who was somewhere between vomiting and killing someone.

Someone else in the group, one of the higher advisors, took the note from Zuko’s weak grip and began ordering the guards into different positions. Cover the Firelord’s room, as they may be taking her as a diversion for an assassination; scour the area for any evidence of intrusion, look for anything or anyone suspicious; initiate a lockdown at the docks, no one in or out.

Sokka put his head in his heads, shaking, as the people around him started reading out the demands the note outlined, and where they were willing to negotiate.

Where they willing to negotiate the life of his daughter, his five-year-old daughter.

He felt a familiar warm hand on his shoulder just as he raised his head.

“Listen, we’re willing to pay anything to have her back, unharmed,” Sokka practically shouted, all heads turning towards him. “I will bankrupt the Fire Nation and the Water Tribes before I let my baby girl go.”

The official’s face was sour and shameful as he hung his head.

“Sirs,” the man started. “These demands are mostly political. They’re asking for law reform, not money. I don’t know if we can budge some of these, certainly not in the time frame we’ve been given. We have to be realistic about re-negotiating with these people.”

Sokka nearly lunged at the man before reminding himself that this poor official wasn’t the one who kidnapped his daughter, and that it wasn’t worth the fallout for losing his temper at him.

If the decision was going to be political then they would need to gather a team of council members, since Zuko revoked the law many years ago now that the Firelord could wave the say of the councils to pass law.

Sokka turned his head and scanned the area.

Ten guards, three officials, two advisors, the nanny who was still on the ground in tears, being comforted by another nanny and two of the housemaids. Others were rushing about, carrying out orders, but all of them were officers, uniforms distinct even in the darkness.

Zuko wasn’t here.

Sokka’s brows furrowed, panic rising.

“Jiaying!” he called out. The guard turned her head, standing at attention immediately.

“Did you see Zuko leave?” he asked, voice hardened.

Everyone else around him seemed to suddenly notice that their Firelord was missing, and Sokka’s panic was apparently a shared panic.

Officer Jiaying was a hardened woman, and Sokka liked her and her no-bullshit attitude. She was often quiet, observant, and never pandered around with them. She told it how it was, and never showed fear.

For the first time in his life, he saw a glint of sweat on her forehead as she bowed to him.

“I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t see anything.”

Sokka let himself kneel slowly down into the grass, trying desperately to steady his breathing, face in his hands. He was visibly shaking at this point, unable to stop his brain from running through all of the worst possible outcomes.

This couldn’t be the one. This couldn’t be the one that was finally successful, rather than an attempt. They had survived so much together, long before Zuko was even crowned, something as simple as this couldn’t be what finally struck them. They had been poisoned, beaten, shot with arrows through a slit in a window, and survived.

He tried to convince himself that Zuko had run off, that he wouldn’t go quietly, but neither would Izumi. Tranquilisers, sedatives in their food, any of it was possible.

The guards were scouring the grounds for another note, which Sokka thought was unlikely, Izumi was probably a tactic to get to Zuko.

They had slipped in and out, silently, like a shadow in the night. It shouldn’t be possible, the palace was so heavily guarded after all of the attempts that this kind of thing didn’t happen.

Sokka was honestly and genuinely contemplating if this was a spirit-related thing and how that could possibly work given the ransom note, when-

“Maybe the scourge of the Fire Nation has returned,” one of the guards made a hollow joke somewhere behind Sokka, soft enough that they thought he couldn’t hear. “My wife is going to lose it if the Blue Spirit really has returned.”

Sokka’s hands dropped from his face and he fell backwards onto his ass.

“Shit,” he whispered under his breath, pushing himself up off the grass and breaking out into a jog. “Jiaying! I need your help!”

She was immediately at his heels and Sokka took that as permission to break out into a sprint to their room.

Sokka quickly explained through hurried breaths that he had a theory on where Zuko had gone, but he needed to make sure before he announced anything.

“Did that note have an address on it? A meeting place?” he asked, skidding to a halt in front of their bedroom and throwing the doors open, storming in and heading to Zuko’s giant, ornate desk.

“Yes, the Eastern Dockyards,” Jiaying gasped out, watching Sokka with wide, worried eyes, gaze never settling as she continually assessed the room for danger.

Sokka got to the desk and sighed a breath of relief when he noticed it had already been pulled away from the wall that night, scuff marks on the tiles and a discolouration on the wall where it hadn’t been put back correctly.

He yanked the desk away, just to be sure, and surely enough there was a hole in the wall that was now empty, and the ornate blue mask that usually resided on their wall was missing.

Sokka turned to Jiaying.

“Zuko hasn’t been kidnapped,” he almost smiled, then stopped. “Shit.”

The relief at Zuko’s safety (or, relative safety) was short-lived, and permanently deadened by the ever-present panic about his daughter, and he was quickly overcome with the realisation that they had to go, now, before his husband committed first degree murder.

“We have to get to the docks,” he barely managed to choke out. Jiaying nodded, but wouldn’t move until Sokka came with her, and even though he didn’t feel it was necessary, he knew it wasn’t worth the argument.

He grabbed his sword that they had hung on the wall under Zuko’s dual swords – which Sokka now noticed were replicas that Zuko had swapped out at some point – and his boomerang from the bedside table, Jiaying rushing him out the door as soon as his hands were full of weapons.

Guards followed in carriages and mounted on various animals, but Sokka barely took notice, numbly leading Jiaying to the Eastern Docks as they rode on separate eel-hounds.

He couldn’t make his brain stop thinking.

What if Izumi was hurt or dead? What if they had put their filthy hands on his precious baby? What if Zuko had bitten off more than he could chew and had been hurt, or killed? What if his body had been tossed off the docks and into the water? What if they had shipped out to sea and his stupid husband had tried to swim after them? What if Izumi had tried to escape and gotten stuck somewhere?

By the time they finally reached the docks, Sokka was ready to single-handedly take on an entire army.

(He had already taken on an entire army, on the day of a power-enhancing comet, with only two other people, at the age of sixteen, and his daughter wasn’t even in trouble then.)

Sokka slid off the eel-hound and hit the ground softly, kneeling to absorb the impact force and the sound. He held a hand to the guards around them and crept forward, breathing halted.

In the dark cover of the night, where all the shadows were completely black, the first things to register in his senses were the glint of the moon off the inky waves, the smell of salt, the clunk-clunk-clunk of heavy boots smacking against the water-soaked-wood of the fourth dock.

The second thing he noticed was a trail of bodies all around the dock, at least a dozen if not more, sprawled out like fish washed ashore.

Sokka leant down to check for pulses, a sick curdling in his stomach. The closest man to him had a bruise blossoming at the top of his forehead, a distinct red mark on his cheek from being hit in the jaw.

The sick curdling in Sokka’s stomach was replaced with pleasant surprise to find that all of the bodies were alive and breathing fine, just knocked out.

Sokka hung back as a team of guards signalled to one another, instructing to move towards the wooden shack at the end of the dock. They broke through the doors, as quietly as possible, and when they did the found much of the same. An empty shipyard shed, and more unconscious bodies.

No Zuko. No Izumi.

Sokka pressed two fingers to his temple and groaned, some of the officers looking to him for guidance like he was an expert on Zuko and Izumi.

(He was, actually, the closest thing to an expert on Zuko and Izumi so he guessed that was pretty fair of them.)

“I need the quickest eel-hound back to the palace,” Sokka muttered, pushing into his eyeballs to try and relieve the slowly growing headache.

“No need for an escort,” he mused, gesturing to the bodies around them, some of the officers beginning to clip handcuffs to the unconscious individuals.

The ride back home had none of the panic that the trip to the docks had. The wind whipping against his cheeks was nearly comforting, because despite the anxiety that had been ever-deepening in his chest, he knew with perfect clarity what had happened to his family.

His heart still pounded, mind still racing through the what-ifs and could-bes, but deep in his heart he knew what he was going to find when he eventually reached the palace.

Like perfect poetry, like a story where you already know the ending but get jerked around enough that it’s still a relief to hear it, when Sokka burst through the doors to his and Zuko’s room, he found them.

Zuko was curled up against the bay window in their bedroom, Izumi cradled against his chest, sleeping. He was still in all black, his clothing loose and flexible, blue mask gently tossed aside.

He was brushing her hair out of her face, gently kissing her forehead every few breaths, and whispering to Izumi in the softest voice that he would never let anyone hurt her. That she was safe, and that he would always protect her.

Sokka nearly fell over as he entered the room. He tossed the sword and boomerang aside, letting them clatter to the ground in relief. As he moved he pulled his cloak off, and his boots, and tumbled onto their bodies as quickly as possible, like they’d run off again if he didn’t hold them down.

(He only punched Zuko’s arm once for running off without telling him, after that he crawled into his lap and cradled Izumi from Zuko’s side, wrapping her up in the both of them.)

Sokka brushed at Izumi’s hair and held his hand steady against the side of her head, just to feel the warmth and know she was okay. He pressed his lips against his daughter’s soft hair, gently murmuring against her head that he was there, and that he loved her, and that she was safe with them.

She was humming soft breaths, asleep against Zuko’s chest, blissfully unaware of the bad in the world that had come for her that night.

“She’s never leaving my sight again,” Sokka murmured, ducking his head into Zuko’s shoulder. “And neither are you.”

Zuko snorted, enjoying the fantasy for a moment that he and Sokka could spend the rest of their lives never leaving each other alone. He was seriously contemplating bringing Izumi’s bed into their room, just so he could keep her close at times. Maybe she would be joining him on the meetings again. He could spend entire meetings with his hands over her ears, right?

They both sighed and settled in, not planning on moving for the rest of the night. Sokka briefly unwrapped himself to take the blanket off their bed, just as quickly diving back in against Zuko’s side and wrapping their little family up tight.

(The reports of the night concluded that an anonymous vigilante saved the princess.)

(Everyone in the police force and around the palace suddenly gained a newfound respect and a bit of revered fear for their Firelord.)

(No one touches Izumi.)

 

~~~

 

zuko and izumi curled up in the bay window, izumi is asleep against zuko's chest while he pats her back, the window behind them has ornate wrought iron design all over it and the city lights are visible through the window, moonlight streaming in.