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feels like we only go backwards

Chapter Text

It’s the Day of Black Sun, and Sokka has never felt more helpless.

The savage heat of the Fire Nation sun, no longer shielded by the eclipse, scorches his feet as he rushes out to where the others are gathered. Toph and Aang flank his side, faces grim. They all know what this retreat will cost them.

The invasion was a failure.

His plans were a failure, and everyone else will pay for his mistakes. He doesn’t even want to think about the look on his Dad’s face when he tells him he failed. They never even got close to the Fire Lord.

Sokka rages with futile misery. Azula’s cruel laughter rings in his ears, his mind a constant chant of Suki Suki Suki. He can feel his heart in his throat, choking him.

They reach the point where the others have regrouped, and suddenly it isn’t just Suki he has failed. Their ships are being destroyed by the Fire Nation troops, leaving them with no choice but to escape on Appa.

Objectively, Sokka knows that this is for the greater good. It gives Aang a chance to escape; it gives their last and only hope the opportunity to get stronger, to get better. To live and fight another day.

But—and here Sokka’s brain stutters to a painful halt— this means they have to abandon all the adults in enemy territory.

They have to leave Hakoda behind.

The look on Katara’s face shatters him. Not again, he thinks desperately, not him toooh Spirits, we’ve lost too much already—

The Duke is bawling, and Teo and Haru are clutching at their own fathers, babbling promises through wet eyes—promises of reunions that are hopeful at best and delusional at worst, and Sokka can’t bear it.

He turns away.

Tui and La, they’re all just children, they should never have thought they could accomplish this. What were they thinking? What was he thinking?

He closes his eyes against the sudden burn of tears, and then—

And then—               

                                                 


 

“—three days, Sokka, I can’t—” the voice breaks off, choked with emotion. “The healer said the wound is completely healed, but you just won’t wake up.”

A shaky sigh, so close that Sokka feels the warm breath blow across his face. “Agni knows I’ve never been so— I need you to be alright. Come back to me."

Fingertips, brushed light as a feather across his cheekbone. "Please wake up, Sokka. Please.”

Sokka’s head is spinning. He is lying on something soft— a bed? Smooth cotton shifts under his hand as his fingers twitch imperceptibly.

Where is he?

There is a heavy rustling of fabric next to him, as whoever was sat there slowly stands up. Sokka tenses where he lays, awareness sluggishly flooding his limbs.

Slowly, he clenches one fist.

“This is all my fault,” the person continues, unaware. He (and it is a he, voice raspy and distinctly male, almost…familiar?) sounds further away than he did a minute ago. Sokka narrowly cracks open one eye, trying to take stock of his surroundings.

He is almost blinded by the red and gold that adorn the room, his heart suddenly hammering against his ribs.

He’s still in the Fire Nation.

Was he captured? The last thing he remembers was—was—

The invasion. Running. Azula. Lightning. Screaming. Fire. Suki. Dad. Dad. Dad.

His breath hitches. He struggles to control it, trying not to alert his captors to the fact that he’s awake; if he wants to escape from wherever the hell this is, the element of surprise is all he has.

Even now, having barely reached consciousness, his mind has started working overtime to compensate. A quick glance confirms that the raspy-voiced man is the only person in the room. He has his back to Sokka, shoulders hunched. His regal-looking red robes look rumpled, as if he has slept in them, and half of his hair is held up in a messy topknot.

The light from the windows catches on something on his head, shining amidst the black. Sokka squints, trying to get his blurry vision to co-operate.

The golden prongs in his hair look almost like—

Oh, Spirits above, thinks Sokka a little hysterically as he casts his eyes around the room, desperately looking for a weapon. I’ve been captured by the Fire Lord himself.

He tunes out the Fire Lord’s voice as he quickly takes stock. Now that his vision is clearing up, he realises he is in what seems to be the infirmary. Rolls of bandages and a water jug are the only things within arm’s reach of his bed. At least he hasn’t been tied down, which seems…odd.

What happened? If he’s been captured, why isn’t he currently on his way to some dingy Fire Nation prison, or worse, being executed? Why hasn’t he been restrained?

Where are the others?

His fingers, which had been surreptitiously reaching for the glass jug at his bedside for need of a weapon, freeze as the Fire Lord’s words interrupt his rambling thoughts.

“—she finally replied, thank heavens, so at least Katara will be here soo—”

Time passes oddly. Between one second and the next, Sokka has the Fire Lord pinned to the wall with his hands around the bastard’s throat. Golden eyes (one gold eye, his mind whispers) widen in shock.

“Sokka?” he chokes out. And then he smiles.

What the fuck?

“Sokka, I—”

Sokka slams his head against the wall, once, twice, and the smile wipes off his face. Good.

What,” Sokka bites out, “have you done to my sister?”

The Fire Lord shakes his head, tries to say something. Sokka abruptly realises he’s gripping the man’s throat hard enough to strangle him, which is slightly counterproductive to his goal of getting answers. He reluctantly loosens his hold.

(He doesn’t register the confusion in the Fire Lord’s eyes, or the way the man grips Sokka’s biceps in a gentle grasp, more in an attempt to hold Sokka up than to free himself.

The Fire Lord is said to be a master firebender. His hands are cool against Sokka’s skin.)

Fire Lord Ozai coughs weakly. His eyes flick between Sokka’s, as if he is the one looking for answers. 

“Katara’s fine, she’ll be here in three days,” he rasps, rubbing at his throat. “She’s taking the nearest balloon here. When I told her what happened, she was really worried. She—”

He stops at whatever he must see on Sokka’s face.

“Sokka,” he breathes, reaching out a hand to Sokka’s face. Sokka flinches, and Ozai jerks his hand back as if burned. “What— what do you remember?”

But Sokka is no longer listening. His eyes have finally registered the man’s face.

Or, rather, the scar that mars half of it.

It is a distinctive scar, and as alarm bells begin adding to the cacophony inside Sokka’s head, he vaguely thinks that Zuko’s hair couldn’t have grown this long since the last time he faced the prince in the catacombs below Ba Sing Se.

Because it is Zuko, not Ozai, standing before him. Somehow, he looks older— his jaw is sharper, shoulders broader. But he also looks terrible. His skin is stretched sallow across his face, his unscarred eye red-rimmed and shadowed with tiredness as he stares at Sokka. The distinctive scar permanently pulls half his face into a grimace, mocking and derisory.

“You,” Sokka starts, unsure of where he’s going with this sentence. And then abandons it completely. One hand comes up to grip his own throat.

Either he swallowed a bunch of badger-frogs while being unconscious, or the Spirits decided to mess with him by dropkicking him through the final stages of puberty all in the space of a few hours, because there is no other reason his voice should be that deep.

Tui and La, he sounds like Hakoda.

Sokka blinks, fighting against the sudden urge to lay down and pass the fuck back out. Or maybe wake the fuck up.

This has to be a dream. There is no other way this, any of this, is real.

Zuko is watching him warily. They mirror each other, both with one hand at their necks, but now Zuko drops his to tentatively reach out once more towards Sokka. Sokka doesn’t stop him, and Zuko gently cradles Sokka’s arm. “Let’s get you back in bed,” he says, and isn’t that the craziest thing. That he sounds like he cares about Sokka. 

Sokka jerks his arm out of Zuko’s grasp, growing more confused by the second. The sudden motion jolts something at the firebender’s collar.

The light glints off something tied to his neck. Something blue.

Sokka doesn’t even know what he’s doing until his fingers are already clawing at Zuko’s throat, ripping off the ribbon in one sharp movement.

He stares at the betrothal necklace in his hand. The keening loss of the last few hours hits him like a boulder.

Losing the invasion. Failing Suki and his Dad. Getting captured by the Fire Nation.

And now—

Sokka looks at the betrothal necklace in his palm, and sees his sister crying out for the loss of her mother’s last memory. He looks at Zuko and remembers a time not long ago when he held this same necklace hostage, taunting them with a cruel golden gaze and even crueller words. He looks at Zuko, and imagines him plucking this necklace off his sister’s unresisting body, only to flaunt it like a trophy on his own neck.

Something in him snaps. He sees red.

Katara.

 

Once again, he loses time.

His forearm pressed against Zuko’s neck, throwing him against the wall.

The firebender choking something out, eyes wild like a rabaroo led to the slaughter.

Sokka’s other hand, swinging out wildly.

 

Someone is screaming.

You liar! You took this from her! What did you do to her? What did you do!

Zuko doesn’t even attempt to fight back as Sokka rains blow upon blow on him, hunching into himself defensively.

“Tell me, you coward!

There is shouting, and the sound of doors being flung open. Hands are pulling him off Zuko, and Sokka knows he’s screeching like a banshee but he can’t stop himself, he can’t, not until he finds out what’s happened to his baby sister. 

Oh Spirits, Katara, what did they do to you?

Writhing and twisting and screaming, he is dragged back to the bed. His arms are restrained next to his head—took them long enough, the strategist in his mind whispers— and multiple guards press on his legs to stop their thrashing.

He thinks he hears someone yell don’t hurt him in a choked, ruined voice, but then hands are pressing his mouth open and a foul-tasting liquid is forced into his throat, and he quickly stops paying attention to anything other than his own futile struggles. He chokes and tries to spit the liquid out, but they hold his nose closed and he swallows against his will, coughing and retching and blinking away tears.

His ears are ringing and his head hurts and fuck, he’s so tired, but still he clutches Katara’s necklace in his fist and utters a prayer to whoever’s listening: please save my sister.

His body gives a weak shudder, exhausted limbs finally giving up on him, and his head lolls to the side. The last thing he sees before the greyness turns to black is Zuko’s bloodied face from where he’s sprawled out on the floor.

The sheer devastation in his eyes follows Sokka into the darkness.

Chapter Text

Long black hair pushed off a shoulder. A slender neck, exposed. Warm kisses softly pressed into pale skin. His fingers, knotting a ribbon. Gentle laughter, shy smiles.

A single word breathed out with adoration. With reverence.

“Yes.”

 

Sokka gasps as he comes back to himself, eyes fluttering open. Already, the thin wisps of his dreams are dissipating like mist through grasping fingers.

A lingering sense of calm keeps him from immediately perceiving his surroundings. But then he blinks, and it all comes crashing back.

The failed invasion.

Being kept prisoner in the Fire Nation.

Zuko, the… Fire Lord?

His sister’s necklace.

He jerks up, hands flailing against restraints that- aren’t there. Huh.

He’s still in the infirmary, but once again he hasn’t been tied down. For a nation that conquered most of the planet, the Fire Nation sure don’t seem the smartest.

But when he looks towards the door (towards escape), there are now two guards standing stiffly at attention. Their clunky red helmets obscure their faces, but he imagines them staring at their solitary Water Tribe prisoner with revulsion. He glares right back at their eye holes.

Those spears sure look pointy, though. He gulps.

Gulping is a bad idea; he’s parched, and his throat feels like it’s been rubbed raw with sandpaper. Screaming hysterically does tend to have that effect, he reminds himself, and has to choke down the fear that immediately rises in his chest.

Katara.

Just thinking about his sister, about the fear and pain she might be experiencing at the cruel hands of Fire Nation soldiers, is enough to drive sharp spikes of pain through his already throbbing head.

It’s no use trying to help others if you can’t help yourself first, he can almost hear his dad say, and forces himself to breathe. Corralling his thoughts in order is harder, but  he manages eventually.

Water. Right. Hydration is important for planning jailbreaks. He looks around for the jug from earlier, this time for its intended purpose rather than as an ill-conceived weapon against a firebender. Spirits, how is he still alive.

A hand brandishes a glass full of water from his periphery, interrupting his thoughts, and he jumps.

“Looking for this?”

Sokka is already pulling his fist back to throw a punch when the familiar cadence of the voice stops him in his tracks.

Standing at the foot of his bed, as if having appeared out of thin air, is the recognizable figure of a Kyoshi Warrior. But the deep blue eyes that gaze out of the intricate make-up can only belong to one person.

“You look real thirsty,” says Suki, and Sokka wants to cry. Instead, he settles for throwing off his sheets and hurling himself into her arms. The guards can go fuck themselves.

Suki,” he gasps, pondering for a second about the state of his mental health. Quite possibly, he’s imagining his kind-of-girlfriend, the one probably being tortured in some Fire Nation prison if Azula is to be believed, to have come to his rescue at whichever prison he’s currently being kept in.

But then strong arms come up to hug him tightly back. Her hair tickles his nose from where he’s pressing his face in her shoulder, and her armour digs into his ribs uncomfortably, but she’s here and she’s real and that’s all that matters.

He wants to remain in her embrace for a million years, but reluctantly pulls back and looks into her concerned eyes.

They’re on borrowed time.

“Sokka,” she starts, eyes worried, but he steamrolls over whatever she was about to say.

“I can’t believe you’re here, I thought Azula—did you come to rescue me?” But that can’t be right; the guards from the door make no move to stop her. If anything, they look…bored. “Or did they capture you too? Never mind that, we have to get out of here, like, right the fuck now, I have to find my Dad and Katara-”

Suki claps a hand over his mouth, effectively startling him into silence.

“Sokka!”

He wrenches it off, annoyed. Can’t she see the danger they’re in? Why does she look so alarmed?

“You need to sit down,” she says as she presses him back into the bed, and oh. His legs are shaking.

“You look like you’re going to pass out. Here,” she presses the glass she’s still holding into his hands, and he takes a long drag of water. It feels heavenly against his abused throat, but Suki tugs it out of his hands before he’s finished with it. He lets out a small whine.

“You’re going to make yourself sick if you drink it too fast, calm down.” Setting the glass on his bedside table, she turns back to him.

Though his head is still pounding, the water helps dissipate the lingering haziness at the edges of his thoughts. Sokka turns back to Suki, who is now studying him with an indecipherable gaze.

“Why aren’t we running?” he says.

“Running from what, Sokka?”

He gestures vaguely at the guards, at the red coating the wall, at everything foreign and wrong, wrong, wrong around him. “From here,” he hisses, getting more frustrated by the second. “From our enemies? You know, the Fire Nation? We need to go now, Suki, before they come for us. They probably haven’t tied us up because we’re not benders, but if you help me look for Boomerang…” he tapers off at the distraught look on Suki’s face.

“Sokka…” she breathes. “What day do you think this is?”

He blinks at her. Doesn’t she know?

“It’s the Day of Black Sun?” he asks slowly, like it’s a trick question.

Suki stares at him, speechless. Suddenly, there are tears in her eyes.

Sokka jolts up in alarm, back straightening. “Suki?” Sprits, how long has he been unconscious? It can’t have been that long.

“Oh, Sokka,” she says, face crumpling. 

“Hey, hey,” he says, desperately trying to console her. From what, he still doesn’t fucking know. “It’s okay-”

“No it’s not,” she yells, “and—and it’s on me. If I’d just gotten to you both faster, you wouldn’t—”

She cuts herself off with a shaky breath, then visibly pulls herself together. “I need to go find the physician.”

Sokka knows he probably looks as confused as he feels. “What, why? Did I get hurt?”

“You did.” Suki looks away. “But Sokka… I need to tell you something first. Don’t freak out.”

“I won’t,” he promises.

She looks back into his eyes and smiles. Despite his confusion, its familiarity soothes him. It really is such a lovely smile, he thinks a little dreamily.

“We stopped the war.”

And then Suki is yelling something, grabbing at him as he goes down the side of the bed like a sack of potatoes.

Man, he’s getting really tired of passing out.

 


 

This time when he wakes up, the left side of his body throbs in time to the drums beating in his head. He groans.

The noise rouses Suki, who is slumped over in the chair next to his bed.

“Thank Spirits you’re awake,” she sighs in relief, before pulling back and calling out to someone standing outside his periphery. “Kustaa, he woke up!”

A man appears from behind her, dressed in plain white robes trimmed with blue. He carries a tray in his hands, which he deposits on Sokka’s bedside. As Sokka blinks fuzzily, the man comes closer and peers at his face with narrowed, clinical eyes.

Eyes, Sokka realises abruptly, which are Water Tribe blue.

“Wha-” says Sokka elegantly.

“Please don’t try to move just yet, Amb—Sokka,” hastily corrects the man. “I’m just going to give you a quick look-over to see how your cognitive abilities are faring.”

The man—Kustaa, his brain supplies helpfully—leans back and picks up something from the tray. It glints metallic in the light, and Sokka rears back, wincing as the sudden movement jars his aching head.

Whoa, what are you doing?”

Kustaa raises an eyebrow. “Cutting off your bandages, of course.”

“My-” Sokka raises his hands to his head. There are, indeed, bandages wrapped around his forehead. “Oh.”

After slicing off the bandages, the physician pokes and prods at him gently. He peels back Sokka’s eyelids to peer into his irises and also possibly his soul, such is the intensity of his gaze. His breath smells vaguely of fire flakes and sea prunes, and Tui, Sokka feels a sudden pang of homesickness.

Suki peeks worriedly at Sokka from behind the physician.

“As I told the Fi—as I’d said earlier, the injury really has healed up nicely,” says Kustaa, “but I’d wager it’s the cause of the remaining memory problems plaguing you.”

“The memory problems plaguing me,” Sokka repeats, very smart-like. “What memory problems plaguing me?”

Suki sits down heavily at the edge of his bed. “Sokka—”

Kustaa cuts her off. “No, I’m afraid we can’t say any more than that at the moment. As Suki has told me, the last time you were given any more information, you happened to take a dive off the side of your bed.”

Sokka scowls. “It’s not like it was on purpose!”

“Regardless,” continues Kustaa, ignoring Sokka’s pout. Suki pats his knee magnanimously. “We’ll have to bring you back up to speed slowly. We can’t risk triggering your head injury, and possibly making it worse, without knowing more about what’s wrong with you.”

Soka opens his mouth to protest that, no, there was nothing wrong with him, it was just the rest of the world that had gone gibbon-batshit crazy while he’d been passed out. But then he remembers the look in Suki’s eyes, and he forces his mouth shut.

“You said we stopped the war,” he says eventually, turning to Suki. She winces. “How?”

Suki sighs. “For now, just know that we did. Fire Lord Ozai was defeated by Aang, and everyone we love is safe. Everything’s okay now, Sokka.”

Sokka waits for the punchline, maybe for the guards at the door to start guffawing and yell ‘Surprise! Now put on these chains.’ But Suki looks earnestly into his eyes, and he knows deep down that she’s telling the truth.

If she isn’t, it would be a very cruel lie.

The war… over. It’s almost unthinkable. Everything he has been fighting for, everything that had been taken from him in the process—it was all worth it, in the end. If they’ve truly won.

If it’s really over.

Sokka lets out a heavy sigh, closing his eyes against the sudden burn of tears. A weight he hadn’t even known he had been carrying lifts off his shoulder; Sokka feels like he could float away.

He jerks himself back to the present, but it is difficult. From the look in Kustaa’s eyes, it hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“I think that’s enough excitement for today,” he says, picking up his tray and standing up. “I’ll send Suki to get you something light to eat, but then you should try and get some more rest. Both your mind and body need to recuperate if you wish to get better.”

As he watches Kustaa arrange his little physician-y things on the tray, something niggles at the back of his mind.

“Wait,” Sokka says, eyes widening. “I just need to know one more thing.”

Kustaa and Suki exchange a cryptic glance. “Yes?” prompts the physician.

“Obviously, a lot is going on that I don’t currently understand. I believe that you’re telling me the truth, otherwise Suki wouldn’t be here, and you,” here Sokka pauses in his rambling to make a vague, flappy gesture towards Kustaa, at his blue eyes and brown skin and blue-beaded hair. “You wouldn’t be either. That’s fine. That’s great! War’s over, time to pack up, everyone go home.”

“Sokka,” interrupts Suki gently. Sokka’s really beginning to hate the way she says his name like that. Like she’s looking at a broken version of him. Something to be coddled.

Sokka bites his lip. “Just tell me this,” he says, looking pleadingly into their eyes. “Are my dad and Katara okay?”

“Oh, of course they are,” Suki breathes, smiling softly. “Chief Hakoda is back at the South Pole, and Katara’s on her way here to see you. She’s really worried, Sokka, but she’s absolutely okay. Aang and Toph too. They all are.”

“But,” Sokka says, and remembers the feel of a necklace in his hand. He jerks around, eyes roving the room for it desperately. There. At his bedside sits the necklace, innocuous and unsuspecting.

He picks it up, brandishing it as proof. “Then why was Zuko wearing Katara’s necklace?”

Suki’s eyes are very, very sad. Before he can say a word, she spins on her heels. “I’m going to go get you something to eat,” she announces over her shoulder, a forced smile on her face, as she practically runs out of the room. Her posture is stiff, and the guards step to the side to let her through the door.

Sokka is left staring blankly at his hand, still outstretched with the necklace clasped tightly in his grip.

His knuckles are bruised.

“Perhaps,” begins Kustaa delicately, “you should wait for your sister’s return to get your answer to that particular question.”

With that, he bows (bows) at Sokka, and follows Suki out the door. Leaving Sokka to his thoughts.

His brain is a maelstrom of emotion. Relief is the strongest; confusion follows suit, but the others are tangled too tightly for Sokka to even begin parsing through them.

He looks back at the necklace in his hands and winces as he remembers how he got hold of it.

Zuko hasn’t returned to the infirmary.

Despite himself, despite how much he hates the sight of the Fire Nation boy who chased them across half the globe, Sokka hopes he is okay. He doesn’t remember much of what happened after he snatched the necklace off him, but he looks at his own split knuckles and knows it probably didn’t go very well. Sokka still doesn’t know what came over him when he saw the blue ribbon around Zuko’s neck.  

But why was Zuko even wearing the—Sokka involuntarily gasps, eyes watering as a sharp pain rips through his head. Okay, let’s shelve that train of thought, he thinks, gingerly rubbing at his temples.

But try as he might, he just can’t stop thinking. There’s nothing else to distract him, and the guards don’t look very willing to talk, even if they’re not actually holding him prisoner like he originally thought.

Nothing makes sense anymore.

His brain starts pacing relentlessly, trying to fit the puzzle pieces into place, but every time he starts thinking too hard about the necklace his ears start ringing, and he has to stop and take shallow, panting breaths.

As he tries to organise his thoughts, he rolls the carved stone of the necklace back and forth in his hands. His really big, kind of veiny hands. Oh, cool, even his callouses are bigger now. Guess the end of the war didn’t let him update his skincare routine. And… is that a scar on his left palm? Huh, badass.

Sokka closes his eyes and tries not to hyperventilate. Spirits, even his breathing sounds deeper and lower than it used to.

Just how much time has passed, exactly?

Chapter Text

The next morning, Kustaa finally allows Sokka to leave the infirmary. Sokka is informed that this is due to Kustaa deeming him well enough to stretch his legs for a bit. From the way Kustaa’s left eye has begun twitching every time Sokka opens his mouth to ask another question, it is obvious to everyone present that the true reason for this outing is to stop Kustaa from possibly inflicting another head injury upon his patient.

So, after Sokka promises to behave and not prod anyone for any information that hasn’t passed through Kustaa’s strict approval first, lest he passes out once again, he’s escorted out to the gardens by a pair of Kyoshi Warriors. One of them is Suki, of course—for some reason, she’s not meeting his eyes, which makes something in his chest ache—and the other one is… strangely familiar.

“Hey, do I know you from somewhere?” he asks her as they shuffle along the aggressively red hallways. Yue above, it’s like these people have never even heard of a colour scheme that doesn’t immediately assault the eyes.

The Not-Suki Kyoshi Warrior jumps a little, her greyish-brown eyes widening under the make-up. She fiddles with her braid. “Umm.”

“She’s new,” says Suki quickly.

“What she said,” agrees Not-Suki just as hastily.

“Oo-kay,” says Sokka, and promptly puts it out of his mind. After all, it’s not like this interaction is any weirder than, oh, literally everything else that’s happened since he woke up.

The servants they encounter on their way all bow to Sokka as they pass. It’s more than a little disconcerting. He’s not really sure what he should do in response—the Water Tribe doesn’t really do bowing. He tries to bow back once, but quickly withdraws at the sheer dumbfounded look in the servants’ eyes.

“Just keep moving,” mutters Kustaa from behind him, and Sokka obediently complies.

 


 

When they reach the gardens, Sokka blinks in the late morning light, looking at the scene in front of him. The wide expanse of lush green grass looks well maintained, and the sunshine glints off the pond invitingly. A family of turtle-ducks float serenely on the surface, quietly grooming themselves in the gentle breeze.

The heat is oppressive. Sokka is dressed in a sleeveless Water Tribe tunic, which he feels immensely grateful for; he’s been out in the sun for less than a minute, and already his armpits feel suspiciously sticky. He quashes down the urge to take a running leap into the water to cool down. Kustaa would probably have words to say about that.

Grumbling to himself, Sokka pulls free of Suki’s gentle grasp and heads towards one of the benches situated near the water. A turtle-duck quacks gently as it waddles past him, and Sokka experiences a split-second of what feels like déjà vu.

 

Grass under his hands. The distant quacking of turtle-ducks. A quiet voice, introspective: “They remind me of happier times.”

A smile, tinged at the edges with remembered heartache. It is still breath-taking in its beauty.

 

Sokka doesn’t realise he’s sat down on the bench until wood hits the back of his legs heavily. The snippet of memory—if that is even what that was—fades between one blink and the next, leaving him with nothing but the pounding in his head. He tries to control his breathing, willing the headache to subside. Luckily, none of the others seem to have noticed his little… moment. Suki and Not-Suki are cooing at the turtle-ducks, throwing them a handful of seeds from their pockets, and Kustaa is fiddling with his tray again.

Sokka lets out a shaky breath, turning back to the pond.

A leaf falls from one of the nearby trees, drifting slowly through the air until it meets its reflection on the pond’s surface. Sokka narrows his eyes as an idea pops into his head.

He still doesn’t know what he looks like, what his body looks like, but he knows enough to be sure that it’s probably very different from the way it looked like from the last time he saw himself in a mirror. He’s connected enough dots to know a significant enough time has passed. Maybe not a decade, considering how familiar Suki still looks, but perhaps enough for him to no longer be a teenager anymore. His voice hasn’t cracked once since he woke up.

Slowly, slowly, he edges himself off the bench. Kustaa is still engrossed in his equipment, surreptitiously sniffing what looks like a salve. Suki and Not-Suki—seriously, he needs to ask for the other Warrior’s name soon—are lying on the grass a few feet away, though he knows from their postures that they’re anything but unguarded. Suki says something with a wry twist of her mouth, and Not-Suki giggles. Tui bless them, they seem to be so friendly with each other. What a cute pair of gals being pals, he thinks with a smile.

Confirming that the coast is clear, Sokka shuffle-crawls towards the pond. He peers down into the water, and a stranger looks back at him.

Alright, that may have been a little dramatic even for him. The man has Sokka’s Tribe-blue eyes and dark brown skin, but his jaw is very…square. He didn’t know jaws could get that square. And is that stubble?

Hakoda definitely has some dominant genes it seems, because Sokka has also inherited his father’s prominent cheekbones. His hair is the same shaggy mess that it forms whenever he lets it out of its customary wolftail, but it’s slightly longer than he remembers, curling at the ends from the heat and humidity. There’s a scar cutting through his left eyebrow, giving him a rugged sort of look. He decides he likes it.

There’s also a small, star-shaped scar on his left temple. It looks puffy and irritated, but well on its way to healing. Sokka elects to ignore its presence entirely.

Also, he’s ripped. Sokka can only lean so far into the pond without risking imminent death via drowning, but from what he can see, his shoulders are like. So broad. And man, oh man, he has biceps now. No more twiggy-armed Sokka, no sir. He’s been eating good.

The exaggerated clearing of a throat distracts Sokka from his preening, and he startles, falling forwards in the pond water. Spluttering and choking, he pushes himself back up onto the grass.

At least the impromptu swim helped him cool down.

Kustaa gives him a bemused and very judgy look from where he’s now situated on the bench.

“Like what you see?” he drawls, and Suki lets out a snort from where she’s practically lying in Not-Suki’s lap.

“It’s incredible what puberty and a few good meals can do for boys,” she says, and Sokka preens some more. But then she ruins it by adding, “I almost forgot how skinny you used to be back then, Sokka. I sort of expected you to pass out again when you saw your reflection.”

Sokka harumphs and sits up, wringing pond water out of his tunic. It gives him a good opportunity to flex his biceps. “Who you calling skinny, huh?” He forms a pose, mouth scrunched up in an exaggerated pout.

“Agni help us,” mutters Not-Suki.

Suki laughs, shaking her head. “It’s good to know some things never change.” She stands up, brushing down her uniform. “Anyway, I think we should get back inside. It’s almost time for-”

“Lunch!” yells Sokka, springing upright.

Suki smiles at him, but her eyes are sad. When he looks at her questioningly, she just shrugs. “The injury may have taken your memories, but you’re still so—so Sokka. I keep forgetting that you aren’t—” she struggles, hesitating. “You know.”

Sokka stares at his feet, appetite momentarily forgotten. “I don’t know, though. That’s the whole problem. I still feel like the same old me.” He looks up at her, and then at Kustaa, who’s watching him quietly.

“How many years have I lost?”

Kustaa says nothing for a moment, eyes considering. Then:

“Five years.”

Sokka closes his eyes, waits for the dizziness to overtake him. When nothing happens, he opens them again. Both Suki and Not-Suki are standing close to him, arms outstretched to catch him if he falls. He smiles at them, letting them know that he’s okay.

But he’s not, not really. At Kustaa’s words, something inside him trips and stumbles into freefall.

 


 

After lunch (which is a delightful assortment of thin broth and a salad that suspiciously resembles rabaroo food), he grabs Suki’s arm as she’s about to leave. He tugs at her and she relents, coming to perch at the edge of his bed. Her gaze is expectant, patient, but when Sokka opens his mouth he realises he doesn’t know how to put into words what he wants to say. He stares at his hands instead. At the bruises blooming blue and yellow across his knuckles.

After a solid few minutes of silence, he gives up on eloquence. “Do you think Zuko’s going to flambé me in my sleep?” he blurts out, rubbing at the back of his neck sheepishly. He’s still more than a little confused about the circumstances in which he woke up, but he’s not stupid. Assaulting the Fire Lord in his own palace is bound to have severe consequences, and Sokka needs to prepare himself mentally (and start making multiple escape plans post-haste) if he’s going to be thrown into a dungeon the minute he is declared fully recovered.

Suki rolls her eyes, but there is something brittle in her expression. “He won’t hurt you, Sokka. Ever. I promise you that.”

Sokka nods, but it’s obvious to both of them that he doesn’t believe her. He automatically reaches for the necklace that he’d left under his pillow. Fiddling with it gives him something to do as he organises his thoughts, and the weight already feels strangely familiar in his hands. “Can I ask you a few questions, actually? About him?”

For some reason, Suki looks profoundly uncomfortable again. “Sure, but no guarantees that I’ll answer. You know what Kustaa said.”

He shakes off her words with the wave of a hand. “Yeah, yeah. I’ll be fine.”

From the look Suki levels at him, he’s not sure she believes him. Tui, he’s not sure he believes himself, but he’s not going to admit that. He still has some shreds of dignity remaining, even after his whole fainting ordeal.

“Well,” he starts. “Zuko’s Fire Lord now? Like, one we don’t actively want to murder?”

She frowns. “I know it probably sounds crazy to you, but Zuko’s one of the good guys. Had been, even before we defeated his dad actually.”

Sokka snorts. “Forgive me if I find that hard to believe. Didn’t the guy, like, burn down your entire village that one time?”

Now Suki’s the one to wave her hand in a blasé manner. “Alright, fine, so he made some mistakes. But me and him got even at Boiling—” she breaks off, snapping her mouth shut.

“What did you boil,” says Sokka, thoroughly confused.

“Never mind. Point being, he’s actually a pretty decent guy once you get to know him. And he’s a really good leader to the Fire Nation. The people love him, Sokka.” She says people in a really odd tone while looking rather intensely at the necklace in his hands, but Sokka doesn’t get a chance to question it before she’s moved on. “Next question.”

“Alright.” He pauses. “…That was my only question. I just want to be prepared, in case he’s actually secretly evil and planning to use us as bait to draw out Aang, or something.”

Suki smiles sadly, looking away. “I promise you,” she repeats. “He won’t hurt you.”

It’s not reassuring in the least.

Right before she leaves, a sudden and slightly terrifying thought occurs to him. “Oh. Wait! What happened to Azula?”

Suki pauses, fingers clenching white around the door. “Nothing she doesn’t deserve.”

Well, that’s just cryptic.

Suki seems to realise this. “She was neutralised the same day Ozai was,” she says. “You don’t need to worry about her anymore.” She smiles at him—it doesn’t reach her eyes. Then she’s gone.

“No,” he says bitterly to himself. The ribbon wrinkles in his clenched fist. “I just need to worry about Zuko, I guess.”

 


 

Sokka doesn’t remember having had these many naps since he was, like, seven. Maybe eight.

When Kustaa wakes him up in time for his evening meal, the sun is already setting beyond the infirmary windows, painting the sky in orange and violet hues. Flaming torches have been set up at intermediate spots in the room where they flicker gently, casting a warm glow over the occupants. There are no guards at the doors tonight, and Sokka couldn’t be more glad. Their masks with their judgy little eyeholes felt like they were constantly watching his every move. Even when he went to the toilet, and Spirits, wasn’t that a fun experience.

Suki sets his food tray on his bedside table. When Sokka spots what lies next to the customary rabaroo salad, he feels like he could faint again.

“Sea prunes!” exclaims Sokka, making grabby hands towards the food.

“Nuh-uh,” says Suki, pushing the tray out of his reach. Sokka feels his lower lip wobble. “Let Kustaa check up on you first, then you get the sea prunes. As a treat.”

“I’m not a polar dog,” he says, grumbling a little. But he concedes to Kustaa’s ministrations, letting the physician poke and prod at him to his heart’s satisfaction. When Kustaa finally declares him completely healthy and recovered (physically, at least), the man has the gall to ruffle Sokka’s hair like he’s a particularly agreeable pup. Sokka bats his hands away—no one messes with his hair without permission. Judging by the amused smirk on Kustaa’s face, that’s exactly the reaction he was expecting.

Sokka wonders if he knew Kustaa. Before.

He pushes those thoughts from his mind when Suki finally dumps the bowl of sea prune stew in his lap.

“Careful now,” says Kustaa wryly as Sokka shovels prune after prune into his mouth. “Wouldn’t want you to waste all my efforts by choking on the first bit of solid food that passes through your mouth.”

Sokka, cheeks stuffed to the brim on either side, ignores him and continues munching happily. He waves a cheerful goodbye to Kustaa, who rolls his eyes heavenwards as he leaves.

Absently, Sokka wonders how sea prunes have even been made available in the Fire Nation. Sea prunes, being mostly native to the Water Tribes, were notoriously hard to transport over long distances—though a hardy fruit, they had a tendency to go off if kept too long in warm environments. The Fire Nation’s cloying heat should have been a sure-fire (heh) way to ensure mouldy sea prunes. But here he is, eating his favourite meal with gusto. Someone must have gone through a lot of trouble to transport them fresh.

The stew is also suspiciously similar in taste to the way his Mom and Gran-Gran used to make it, with the prunes just this side of chewy and heavily seasoned. But thinking of his family makes his chest go tight with longing and salt-tinged nostalgia, so he stops thinking altogether and just focuses on enjoying his food.

Suki waits until he’s finished licking the bowl clean, then says casually: “I thought we could go meet Zuko. Clear the air, so to speak.”

Sokka resists the urge to immediately hurl each and every prune back up.

“Umm,” he stammers, “sure. Yeah! Yeah. Let’s go.”

She raises an eyebrow. “You don’t sound very sure.”

“What makes you say that?” he says, pasting on an exceedingly fake grin.

The eyebrow inches slightly higher.

Sokka drops the smile, rubbing at his face with one hand. “I know that you think he really has changed. But Suki, the last time I saw him, he and his sister nearly murdered Aang.”

“Can’t believe I almost forgot that happened,” she mutters to herself.

“See!” Sokka crosses his arms over his chest, huffing. “Zuko’s always been bad news, Sooks. You weren’t around when he was chasing us across half the world, screaming about his honour and needing to capture Aang. One time his flames got so close to me, they singed off all the hair on my left arm. And now you expect me to believe he’s suddenly sane enough to run a whole Spirits-damned country?”

Suki pinches her nose, looking exceedingly tired. “Look, I get that he’s done a lot of dumb shit in the past. But over the last five years he’s done so much good, too. He pulled all the Fire Nation troops back nearly immediately after Ozai was taken down, and spent years weeding out imperialists in his government and making reparations to the other nations. He’s really trying to make the world a better place.”

Sokka eyes her suspiciously. “You sound awfully fond of him.”

A sudden thought crosses his mind, and he jerks up, grabbing at her in alarm. “He didn’t set the Dai Li on you, did he?” He pulls her in close, staring into her eyes intensely. “Suki, what do the words ‘Lake Laogai’ mean to you? Think carefully, now.”

She pushes him off, angrily getting to her feet. “For Spirit’s sakes, Sokka! I don’t know why you’re being so difficult about this! Why is it so hard for you to believe he’s changed?”

Somehow, he also ends up on his feet, towering over her. His head has begun to pound again.

“Why are you being so insistent in trying to make me like him?”

“Because,” she flounders, “you—you both are—”

“We’re what, exactly?”

“—such good friends?” she finishes weakly.

Something strange and unpleasant claws up his throat and lodges itself there, tightening his every breath. He barks out a mocking laugh, and Suki flinches at the sound.

The door to the infirmary creaks open quietly. Neither of them notice.

“I don’t know how he’s gotten in your head,” he sneers, voice rising with every word. “But Zuko and his fucked-up family are the reason why half the world was on fire in the first place. All those months he spent chasing us? Hunting us?”

Suki blanches, eyes catching on something over his shoulder, but Sokka’s too far gone in his rant to care. Anger loosens his tongue, fuelled by leftover frustration from the failed invasion. Anger helps to mask the fear that rushes through him every time he opens his eyes and sees red when he expects anything but.

Anger helps fill in the gap that is left in the wake of losing five years’ worth of memories.

“Katara barely slept for months,” he spits, “she was that scared that he’d pop up out of nowhere and try to take Aang away from us. We had to scrape by like animals, eating whatever we could scavenge from around us while he paraded around in that fancy, ugly ship of his. Like a prince.”

Suki shakes her head and grabs at his arm, eyes frantic. He shakes her off, stumbling away. “And now you expect me to believe—what? That we’re best buds? That I care about him?” He scoffs. “He disgusts me, Suki. Him and everything he stands for. It doesn’t matter what good he’s done to save face after Aang kicked his dad’s ass—he’s hurt everyone I’ve ever cared about. He hurt you. I’ll never forgive him for that. I hate him.”

The sound of shattering glass startles Sokka out of his tirade. Moon peaches tumble on the ground near his feet as he whirls around.

Behind him, face flickering white in the sudden flaring of torchlight, stands Fire Lord Zuko.

Chapter Text

Harsh panting fills the sudden silence.

It takes Sokka a moment to realise that it is coming from his own heaving chest, the aftermath of his angry outburst.

Besides, Zuko looks like he’s barely breathing.

He stands still, a statue wreathed in royal silks and golden finery. Tonight, he wears no crown. The torchlight has dimmed just as suddenly as it flared, too weak to illuminate his expression, though his face seems strangely shadowed in the flickering light. His hands are slightly outstretched, still grasping the air where they must have carried the fruit bowl that now lies shattered at his feet.

With the fear of a sudden fireball-based tantrum cutting through his anger, Sokka takes a quick step back. This breaks the uneasy, unspoken trance that holds them all in place, and several things happen at once:

Zuko also backs up a step, angling himself so that only his scarred side faces Sokka. His hands come to rest behind his back, hidden from view.
Suki rushes past Sokka, coming to stand between him and the Fire Lord.
Sokka, jarred by the sudden movement, clumsily falls ass-backwards on his bed.

“Zuko,” starts Suki, softly. Her stance shifts subtly where she’s standing. From Sokka’s position on the bed, it almost looks like she’s protecting Zuko from him. Almost.

If possible, Zuko seems to stiffen even more at her tone. He shakes his head at her, the movement slight, but Sokka interprets it as dismissive. It irks something in Sokka, and his temper flares again.

“What do you want?” he snaps because clearly, Sokka has a death wish. Suki seems to think so too, because she shoots him a withering glare that would send a lesser man to his knees.

Fortunately, Sokka is already sitting.

“I—” The sound that comes out of Zuko’s mouth is hoarse, like the scratching of nails on chalkboard. Both Suki and Sokka jump. Zuko clears his throat, but there is little improvement when he tries again.

“I didn’t mean to intrude. I just came by to see how you were doing,” he says, voice carefully neutral despite its abrasive quality. “Kustaa informed me about your… condition.”

“Did he, now,” says Sokka bitterly, unable to stop himself. “Because he barely even told me.”

“It’s not his fault,” says Zuko, and is his tone defensive? Before Sokka can react, the tightly controlled neutrality returns. “He really is trying his best, but your injury is beyond his expertise. I’ve sent summons to healers from the Northern Water Tribe. They should be here within the fortnight.”

Sokka is surprised, but doesn’t let it show on his face. The Northern Water Tribe, responding to summons from the Fire Nation—even the thought alone seems ludicrous. A hundred years’ worth of bloodshed, resolved in a mere five? Especially after their last conflict had cost them the Chief’s daughter?  

Thinking about Yue causes bitter scepticism to rear its head once again in Sokka, but he holds his tongue. Just this once, he thinks, and hides his wince when he remembers the harsh words his tongue had spilled mere minutes ago.

Just because he meant them didn’t mean he wanted Zuko to hear them, for Spirits’ sakes.

“And you know Katara’s coming sooner than that,” adds Suki, clearly trying to lighten the heavy tension in the room. “We’ll have her take a look at you too. Trust me, Sokka, things will be back to normal before you know it.” Though she is speaking to Sokka, her eyes flick over to Zuko at this last statement.

Zuko shifts slightly where he stands, not meeting anyone’s gaze. An awkward silence descends upon the infirmary’s occupants once again.

At the mention of his sister’s name, Sokka’s fingers had automatically sought out the betrothal necklace hidden under his pillow. His eyes now stray to Zuko’s neck, but the Fire Lord is wearing a high collar that reaches his chin. Still, from the rough sound of his voice, Sokka knows he probably inflicted some lasting damage to Zuko’s throat.

At the thought, his anger drains away as suddenly as it rose within him, leaving him with a hollow sense of discomfiture.

He wants to chalk it up to Suki’s presence in the room, but so far, Zuko hasn’t even looked in Sokka’s direction, much less made any moves to attack him. Despite his wariness at the firebender’s presence in the room, Sokka may or may not have begun feeling a little terrible at his own behaviour.

In an attempt to remedy this, Sokka opens his mouth—but can’t seem to find the words within him to respond.

Not after everything he’s already said.

(Suddenly, he misses Katara’s presence terribly. The ache burrows into his ribs and carves into his heart.

She’d know what to say, he thinks. She always knew.)

Instead, his eyes land on the fruit scattered on the floor, bruised from their fall.

“Moon peaches?” he asks, deflecting.

Zuko’s scar makes for an impenetrable mask, but the tight line of his lips relaxes slightly. “I thought you’d… appreciate something sweet. The last few days probably haven’t been the easiest for you, I’m sure.” Now Sokka feels even shittier, if that were possible. The guy brought him fruit, for Spirits’ sakes, and his favourite ones at that.  

“I—” The quip on his tongue about the moon peaches being poisoned comes automatically to Sokka, but Suki shoots him another glare as if she knows exactly what he’s thinking. This time Sokka wilts under it.

“Thanks?” he says instead.

Zuko doesn’t respond. His robes rustle as he bends to pick up the moon peaches. His hair is loose tonight, and some of it falls forward with the movement, hiding his face.

“They’re your favourites,” he adds quietly, more to himself than to anyone else in the room. Suki turns her head away, looking pained.

Something clenches in Sokka’s chest.

How does—why does Zuko, Fire Lord to the Fire Nation, enemy of the Avatar, possibly know what fruit Sokka likes best?

Before Sokka can ask, Zuko lets out a small hiss of pain as his hand catches on a shard of glass. Blood taints the pink skin of the moon peach held in his grasp. His head is lowered enough that Sokka still can’t see his expression, but his fingers are trembling.

The basic manners ingrained in Sokka drive him to his feet, and he crouches across Zuko, reaching for the fruit wordlessly. He ignores how Zuko stills before him. Ignores the wariness in the air between them.

When Sokka’s got the last one cradled in the bracket of his arms, he finally looks up. His breath stutters at the sight. A single moon peach slips back out of his grasp.

Through his hair, what little is visible of Zuko’s face is a mosaic of blues and purples.

What Sokka had thought were shadows are, in fact, bruises that mar his otherwise pale skin. Up this close, Sokka can see his split lip, the way his right eye is nearly swollen shut to match the narrow slit of the left. Where they hold Sokka’s gaze, they hold none of their customary arrogance or the accompanied anger.

Instead, they flicker with a strange sort of pain, wretched in its intensity.

(Is he—is Zuko afraid? Of him?

Sokka feels his bruised knuckles throb, and fights the urge to throw up on the Fire Lord’s robes.)

He realises he’s been staring for too long. Zuko must see something shift in his face because he flinches, standing quickly upright. His robes rustle the air as he puts distance between himself and Sokka, turning his face to the side once more.

For once, Sokka is grateful to see the scar.

“I should go,” Zuko says to the wall, then hesitates. “It’s…good to see you looking well. Please accept my apologies for the mess.” He looks at Suki, who has been spectating silently with pursed lips. Sokka had almost forgotten she was there. “I’ll send someone to clean up the rest.”

“Zuko,” she says, voice strangely tight. “Wait—”

Once again, Zuko shakes his head, but this time Sokka sees it for what it is. Not a dismissal, but a reassurance. He smiles at her, but there is something wrong about it.

Something broken about it.  

With a quietly imparted “Goodnight, he’s gone. The door swings in his wake.

Sokka is left crouching on the floor. His hand is sticky with juice where he has involuntarily crushed a moon peach in his grip. He drops them all on the floor unceremoniously. It’s not like I can eat them now, he thinks distantly. His stomach churns.

Suki’s face is inscrutable as she stares after Zuko.

“I’ll be right back,” she says, making to follow Zuko out the door, but Sokka barely hears her leave over the roaring in his head.

Numbly, he wipes his hands on his tunic, but the cloying redness clings to his skin; no matter how hard he tries, it won’t come off.

 


 

That night, he dreams of fire and blood and haunted golden eyes. Wakes up choking on cinders and screams.

He does not go back to sleep for a long, long time.

 


 

“And these are your quarters, Sokka,” announces Kustaa as he, Suki and Not-Suki (Tui and La, what is her name—at this point he’s almost too scared to ask) lead Sokka through an ornate set of double doors.

Sokka, who until now had been mindlessly lugging himself behind the others, freezes mid-way through a yawn. Suki gently pushes up his lower jaw, and his mouth shuts with a click of teeth.

He feels his exhaustion melt away at the sight of what can only be described as an apartment, almost as spacious as the house he and the others had stayed during their stint at Ba Sing Se. It’s lavishly decorated in white and blue, the furniture clearly constructed with the Water Tribe aesthetic in mind—every piece of wood is carved with intricate Tribe designs, lined with rich furs that beckon to be touched.

“When you said I was an ambassador, I didn’t know you meant that came with all of,” he twirls his arms around, spinning slowly on his heels to admire the view, “this.”

Somebody in the Fire Nation must have royally fucked up, if they’ve given Sokka what seem to be the fanciest quarters in all of Caldera.

“Not all ambassadors get the full royal treatment, you know,” says Not-Suki with a sly wink. Suki elbows her in the ribs. “Ow! All I’m saying is, you should see the rooms some of the other ambassadors are given. I heard Ambassador Chenguang’s quarters are basically a glorified broom closet.”

“That man just likes complaining,” says Suki dismissively. “Besides, it’s more the size of two broom closets.”

Sokka tunes out their subsequent discussion about the relative sizes of broom closets and how big such a closet would have to be to comfortably fit Ambassador Chenguang’s ego in there. Instead, he chooses to have a wander around to better inspect his quarters-slash-apartment.

Doors lead out from the main living area. Sokka almost floats past an amused Kustaa to one cracked slightly ajar, revealing a four-poster bed adorned with blue silk sheets and what look to be the fluffiest pillows imaginable to man. He is about to take a flying leap into them when the glint of something metallic catches his eyes.

The walls here are lined with various weapons, from arrowheads made of pearl-white bone to a tiny set of daggers displayed in a glass set. The ones that draw him like a moth to flame, however, are set apart from the rest, mounted within easy reach of the bed. It is these that he skids in front of, almost losing his balance as he comes to a stop.

Space Sword gleams darkly in the morning sunlight streaming through high windows, blade oiled and sharp. And next to it, held innocuously within wall clasps, is—

“Boomerang!” His fingers reach out reverently, gliding them over the polished metal like lovers reunited. The sight of his trusty sidekick soothes his soul the same way the sea prunes had. He hears Suki and Not-Suki stifle laughs behind his back but ignores them in favour of tugging Boomerang out of its holdings, cradling it gently to his chest. “Oh, how I’ve missed you!”

But even as the words leave his mouth, Sokka’s face falls. Boomerang feels curiously light in his hands.

Space Sword, when he gives in to the urge to tug it out of the wall, is similarly dissimilar.

“They feel,” he pauses, twirling the sword through the air, “different? Was Boomerang always this light? Space Sword’s handle is bigger, too. And I swear the pointy bit is pointier, somehow.”

“Oh,” says Suki, smiling sheepishly. “You may have… lost the originals. The day we stopped the war.”

I lost them?”

“Are you going to pass out again?” asks Not-Suki, eying him worriedly.

“How did I lose them?” he asks, trying his best to ignore Not-Suki from where she’s steadily creeping towards him. “I’m fine!” he snaps at her, waving the sword dangerously in her direction. She doesn’t even blink.

Suki winces at his tone. She’s been treating him weirdly ever since she came back from wherever she had followed Zuko to. Sokka’s felt a strange sort of distance between them ever since he woke up, but the events of the previous night have deepened the distance into a chasm.

“You kind of dropped them from a war balloon somewhere over the Earth Kingdom. But!” She holds her hands out placatingly. “Your dad got you a new boomerang, and Piandao helped Z—you make a new sword from the same meteorite. They’re practically the same things!”

Sokka sighs and turns to place the sword back on the wall, pausing when his reflection blinks back at him from across the room. In the full-length mirror stands a man with a sword as long as his arm. He looks exhausted, and his eyes are very, very lost.

How can he explain to Suki that it’s not the same thing at all?

Here are his possessions: a sword and a boomerang, two weapons intrinsically linked to his past. Two solid anchors to his identity, when everything else about him has changed. But they are no longer what he thought they were—somehow, between one blink and the next, they too have warped into something beyond his recognition. The feeling is jarring, like walking up a familiar set of stairs in the dark, only to stumble when your foot encounters air where you had thought the final step to be.

Sokka has been stumbling ever since he woke up in the infirmary bed, alone and afraid.

But he hadn’t been alone, had he?

Zuko had been there, keeping him company for whatever reason. Sokka didn’t remember much from that one-sided conversation apart from his sister’s name. But Zuko’s tone had not been antagonistic in any way—quite the opposite, actually, now that he thinks about it. Good friends, Suki had called them.

And then Sokka had— what. Attacked him? Nearly strangled him half to death?

His own words ring in his ears. I hate him.

It’s not a lie. Never once has Zuko’s appearance in his life led to anything but pain and loss.

Then why does he wince at the thought of the bruises adorning Zuko’s face? Of the strange look in his eyes when Sokka had caught him staring? Of his shaking hands, grasping at moon peaches like a lifeline?

But then he remembers the betrothal necklace, its presence burning a hole in his pocket.

Spirits, nothing makes sense.

Sokka, lost in his thoughts, takes a moment to spot it. But as he finishes putting the sword away, the light from the windows catches on the blade at a certain angle.

’ Never give up without a fight,’” he reads, fingers running across the inscription. The sharp edge nicks his finger, and he stares at the bead of blood welling up on his skin.

 

Gratitude, filling him with the warm glow of a thousand lanterns. “How did you—”

A small shrug, equal parts bashful and pleased. “Do you like it?”

Golden sunlight reflecting off a blade’s surface, etched with a simple inscription. “I love it.” His eyes coming up to rest on a gaze equally as golden, crinkling in the corners.

Words tumbling unbidden out of his mouth, flowing and free and right.

(Spilling forth as if spoken for the first time. Holding steady as if declared a million times already.)

“I love y—”

 

“—ou okay there, Sokka?”

Suki’s voice drifts to him through a haze, and he blinks as he comes back to himself. Somehow, he’s ended up sitting on the bed as Kustaa, Suki and Not-Suki peer down at him worriedly.

His smile is shaky. “Me? I’m great!”

Three pairs of eyes roll at him with varying degrees of severity.

Kustaa lowers himself onto the bed next to Sokka. Today, his hands carry no tray; he fiddles with the blue trim on his robes instead.

“You went away somewhere in your head just then,” he says quietly, looking at Sokka. “Did you remember something?”

There is something hopeful in the solemnness of his gaze.

“No,” Sokka sighs, averting his eyes to avoid the inevitable disappointment.

It’s the truth—the memories, if he can call them that, have a tendency to disappear as soon as he thinks too hard about the details. Instead, he’s left with abstract pieces of emotion that morph and meld far too quickly with one another, leaving nothing but a thumping ache in his head and a bitterness in his mouth.

A hand comes to rest on his shoulder, and he looks back into Kustaa’s gently smiling face. “Don’t worry too much about it,” he says. “They’ll all come back, eventually. I'm sure of it.”

“Yeah,” agrees Sokka, not believing a single word. His tongue tastes like ash. “Yeah, they will.”

Chapter Text

When Sokka was five, he’d lost his first tooth.

It had happened rather unconventionally. One minute, he had been following a happily tottering Katara around as she’d chased after baby penguins—such were the strenuous duties of older brothers— when he had tripped over his own feet and planted face-first into solid ice. His wailing had startled Katara, who flumped down into the snow next to him and joined in with earnest.

By the time a frantic Kya had located her two children, the wailing had reduced to muffled, exhausted hiccups. Then Sokka had noticed the tiny off-white nib sticking out of the ice, linked it to the blood pouring out of the literal hole in his gums, and reinstated his efforts to howl louder than an Arctic wolf. Katara, growing tired of the whole affair, had passed out in their mother’s arms while said mother had grown increasingly exasperated in trying to convince Sokka that no, honey, you’re not dying. Yes, this happens to every brave boy when they grow up! No, you can’t break all your other teeth to grow up faster, that’s not how this works Sokka please put down the club.

For the next few weeks, his tongue would constantly run over the spot where his tooth once used to be. Sometimes he’d even forget that he was missing it, but noticing the gap would always bring him up short.

He’d be eating his breakfast of seal jerky, or giving Bato an increasingly convoluted explanation of what his drawings meant, or trying to go to sleep snuggled up next to Katara. And whenever his tongue would slip over the strangely bereft space where his tooth once used to be, he’d pause and feel his thoughts skip, rewind, and remember its loss.

It is this sensation that accosts Sokka the longer he spends in his ambassadorial quarters. After much cajoling, he’d convinced the others to let him ‘reacquaint’ himself with his room alone as long as he promised to sit and stay, that’s a good boy.

Kustaa had left first, muttering something about his tray—seriously, the man has a serious obsession with that thing—and Suki had followed suit, calling over her shoulder that she and “Ty Lee” were going to go do some official Kyoshi Warrior training. The relief Sokka had felt at finally knowing the other Warrior’s name had been slightly tinged with suspicion (he could swear he’d heard that name before), but he’d let it go on the account that he was finally going to be allowed to exist without supervision for the first time in three days.

He regrets it now, just a bit. There’s nothing to distract him from his own thoughts when he opens the wardrobe and nearly falls back on his ass at the sight of decadent silks and furs, in blues and whites but also reds and golds. His brain encounters the sight before him, skips to a stop, says no fucking way, tries to go back in his memories to make sense of what his eyes were transmitting to it, fails, tries again, tries again, tries again.

In the South Pole, he had owned maybe five outfits in total, and three of them had been identical. Now, he’s faced with over three dozen tunics (mostly stitched in the traditional Fire Nation design but in Water Tribe colours), around twenty pairs of trousers (who even needs these many trousers, what a waste of coin) and a whole hanging rack of expensive-looking robes (Tui and La, is…is one of them stained with blood?).

After gaping with bulging eyes for what feels like a minute but is probably closer to ten, he quietly shuts the wardrobe door and proceeds to not freak the fuck out.

When he finally admits to himself that yes, he is freaking the fuck out, he flops face-down on the bed and muffles his screams into the pillows. Hyperventilating against silk sheets feels much nicer than doing so against the cold stone floor would.

These last few days have been… a lot.

With his face smushed up against a pillow, he realises he hasn’t had the chance to just process things. So he lies there, and he processes.

And swiftly comes to the conclusion that there just… isn’t a lot for him to currently process. The others really have been taking it slow with the amount of information they have been drip-feeding him. He was only made aware of his ambassadorial status after a servant had accidentally referred to him as “Ambassador Sokka” whilst serving him breakfast, and he’d whipped his neck around in time to catch Suki’s eyes going alarmingly wide. After consoling the hysterically sobbing servant that they weren’t at an imminent threat of being fired, Sokka had waggled his eyebrows at Suki until she had sighed defeatedly and informed him that yes, he was a big deal around here. A residing foreign dignitary, no less.

Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe, Ambassador to the Fire Nation. He rolls the title around his mouth, still unsure of how he feels about it.

For so long now, he’d hated the Fire Nation with every fibre of his being. And with good reason, too— they had taken his mother from him. They had taken his and his sister’s childhood. They had taken the spark from his father’s eyes, the smile from his grandmother’s face, the joy from their little fishing village. They had taken so much, and now they were giving him things: a fancy title, even fancier clothes, and the fanciest quarters. They’d even given him weapons, and lots of them. He just can’t figure out why.

In the privacy this room affords him, Sokka admits to himself that he hadn’t thought much about what he would do when the war ended. He hadn’t allowed himself to think—to hope—that far ahead. But the obvious choice would have been to go back home to the South Pole where he belongs. Back where everything wasn’t an ugly shade of red, and the sun wasn’t out to kill him through sheer intensity, and where he owned a normal amount of clothing for one person. Back where life made sense.

Then why had this Sokka chosen to stay in the nation that has, for all intents and purposes, ruined his life?

Every question leads him back to the hole in his memories, the gap that isn’t a gap because he can’t feel it’s presence. His brain laps over it constantly, poking and prodding and begging it to yield some answers, but there’s nothing currently forthcoming.

Sokka groans and presses his head further into the pillow.

Faint floral scents distract him from his very loud thoughts. He sits up, hugging the pillow to his face, and sniffs.

Two distinct notes, interwoven. One smells sharp, still floral but with a heavy warmth that he can’t identify. But the other is familiar, bright and calming. Almost sweet.

Jasmine.

 

A teapot, gently steaming. Porcelain cups filled by porcelain hands—not a drop spilled.

The taste of honeyed jasmine; first in tea, then on lips as they press against his own.

 

A violent sneeze jerks Sokka out of his reverie. He is left clutching the pillow with nothing but a faint tingling sensation on his lips and disturbed motes of dust floating in the sunlight. Oh, and the beginnings of a migraine thumping through his head.

He hurls the pillow to the floor.

 


 

Sneaking out of his quarters unsupervised is probably not one of his smartest ideas, but Sokka doesn’t think he has it in him to stay in there any longer. Not when he is surrounded by memories both his own and not.

So, he ties his hair up into a neater wolftail, and changes out of his simple tunic into something with a bit more finery from the wardrobe. Taking the clothes still feels uncomfortably close to stealing, despite knowing that he supposedly owns them. He tries not to think about it too hard as he wiggles his head through the shirt’s neckline. After checking himself out in the mirror—hot damn he looks good—he sets out to get some answers. Or maybe just lunch, depending on what he encounters first.

The servants he passes all stare at him a little nervously, but after he flashes them his most charming smile (the one with the dimples) they bow and carry on their way. Sending a quick prayer up to the Spirits that none of them rat him out to Kustaa—or worse, Suki—he strides down the hallways purposefully, like he has somewhere to be.

The third time he passes the wonky little statute of a tsungi horn, Sokka admits to himself that he may be a teeny tiny bit lost. He tries doubling back, but after walking for five minutes he somehow still ends up at the tsungi horn. He glares at it.

Obviously, the palace is a labyrinth deliberately designed to entrap unsuspecting Water Tribesmen. Any minute now a tapestry is going to come to life and drag Sokka into the walls, swallowing him whole.

Something taps him on his shoulder, making him jump. “Aah!” he shrieks.

Then he realises it is a person and not a tapestry, clears his throat and says, with as much dignity as he can muster, “Aah. Yes?”

The not-tapestry-definitely-a-man smiles at him guilelessly, as if nothing is amiss. He towers over Sokka, brown arms straining to escape from his short-sleeved tunic. Sokka is startled to discover that the man’s eyes are the same blue as his own.

Yue above, how many Water Tribe members are casually walking around the Fire Nation palace?

“Ambassador Sokka, are you alright?” The man peers down at Sokka, who is discreetly trying to catch his breath, then turns proudly to the tsungi horn statue. “Admiring the arts, I see? You’ve always been a cultured one, so I can’t say I’m surprised.”

“Yes,” says Sokka, nodding. “Yes, that’s exactly what I was doing. Admiring! The arts. So many arts, just strewn about the place. Gotta admire them all, pay my respect to the artists, yes?”

They stand there for a few moments, both staring silently at the statute in all its shoddy glory.

From the corner of his eyes, Sokka sees the man’s shoulders starting to droop.

“…You don’t remember us making that together, do you?” he says dejectedly.

“No,” admits Sokka, wincing.

“So, it’s true what Ty Lee said. You really have lost your memories.” The man turns forlorn eyes on Sokka, who blinks back. Then he puffs out his chest, slapping a massive hand on Sokka’s back. Sokka nearly stumbles into the tsungi horn statue. “That’s okay! My grandfather always said we should look to the future anyway, not the past, so I guess memories don’t really matter that much. Or, well, they do sometimes, especially the nice ones. My favourite memory is of going ice-sledding with Shila, my polar bear-dog! I’d be super bummed out of I ever lost that memory.”

Sokka… doesn’t really know what to say to that.

Seemingly remembering that Sokka is still next to him, the man smiles sheepishly. “Oh, sorry. Should I re-introduce myself? Seeing as, you know, you probably don’t remember who I am anymore?”

Sokka nods.

“Wait, so you do remember?”

Sokka shakes his head.

“Oh. I’m so confused.”

Sokka guesses this is not out of the norm for whoever this man is. “I genuinely don’t remember anything from the last five years,” he says, pointing to the scar on his temple where it is still shiny and pink. “Got boinked on the head pretty hard, I guess.”

“That’s okay!” The man puts out a hand. Sokka takes it in the traditional Water Tribe style, forearm to forearm, and is given the most vigorously enthusiastic arm-shaking of his life. “I’m Taktuq, the Northern Water Tribe Ambassador!”

“Aah,” says Sokka intelligently, trying not to look like he’s lost all sensation in his right hand. “Well, lovely to re-meet you, I guess.”

Taktuq beams at him. “This is the start of a beautiful re-friendship—I can just feel it.”

Sokka actively wishes for the tapestries to swallow him whole.

 


 

Convincing Taktuq to not take him immediately to Kustaa takes a bit of work (“Healer Kustaa said you weren’t to be disturbed until further notice… are you sure you’re allowed to be wandering the palace hallways like this, Ambassador Sokka?”). It is a lot easier to convince the man to take him to lunch, instead. With the way Taktuq’s eyes light up at the request, Sokka knows he’s been successful in his brilliant distraction tactics.

But as Taktuq leads him through the winding palace corridors, keeping up a constant stream of excited chatter that Sokka lets wash over him, he begins to think he’s made an error of judgement. They seem to be walking deeper into the heart of the palace, with nervous servants eying Sokka at every step. Judging from the concern in their eyes and the way their gaze flicks to the scar on his head, Kustaa has apparently spread word of his little escape. He studiously avoids making eye-contact with anyone, hurrying alongside Taktuq until they reach an ornate set of doors.

The room they step into is smaller than he expected but no less opulent for it. The rounded dining table that takes up the majority of space is finished with a glossy veneer, and plump cushions are situated at the designated seating spaces. A light breeze drifts in through the high windows, ruffling Sokka’s hair. Instead of the usual Fire Nation red, the walls here are painted a gentle yellow. It helps his headache recede slightly, and he almost sighs in relief.

The setting is practically cosy, and with the afternoon sun draping itself Sokka’s back as he situates himself next to Taktuq, he feels almost at peace.

Because Sokka can’t have nice things, the peace is shattered almost immediately by the doors flinging open, slamming into the walls ominously. This heralds the arrival of Ty Lee, who narrows her eyes at him as soon as she steps into the room.

“You!” She marches over to where Sokka is now cowering, jabbing him with her fan. “We’ve been looking everywhere for you! Suki was this close,” here, her thumb and index finger form a pinch held dangerously close to his nose, “this close to alerting the guards to hunt you down, she was that freaked out. Where have you been, you idiot?”

“Umm,” says Sokka.

“He was admiring the arts,” inputs Taktuq helpfully.

Ty Lee’s left eye twitches under her make-up. “I’m going to go send a message to Suki and let her know you haven’t been kidnapped from your quarters or murdered behind a bush somewhere.” By her tone, it’s obvious that she wishes he had.

Then she smiles—oh, what lovely teeth she has. Sokka gulps. “Don’t move.”

They watch her leave in a huff.

“If she wasn’t taken already, I’d ask her to go out with me,” Taktuq says, with his chin propped up on the heel of his hand and a dreamy look in his eyes.

“Yeah, well, I prefer my balls exactly where they’re currently attached to my body,” says Sokka a little distantly, “but you do you, pal.”

Taktuq blinks. “Come to think of it, the head chef did mention that there would be komodo-chicken meatball soup for lunch today!”

Sokka lets his forehead thump against the table with a sigh.

He doesn’t raise it when Ty Lee comes back in, apparently in a much better mood than when she’d left. She is chattering to someone, her voice back to its cheery self, and the rustling of their robes comes steadily closer to where Sokka is bonelessly slumped.

“—and then Ambassador Chengueng said, ‘what if the Fire Lord stops by and I’ve still got my face in a bowl of melted butter?’”

There is a hoarse chuckle in response. Sokka stiffens.

“Hey, Fire Lord Zuko!” Taktuq sounds absolutely delighted. “Didn’t know you’d be dining here today. What a pleasant surprise!”

Chapter Text

Sokka regrets every moment of his life that has led him to be here. What a pleasant surprise, indeed.

“Ambassador Taktuq, it’s good to see you,” says Zuko. The level of fondness in his raspy voice makes the gears in Sokka’s panicked brain grind to a halt. “I wasn’t planning on having lunch just yet, but someone—” here, Ty Lee lets out a chime of laughter, “—said I had no choice in the matter.”

He doesn’t sound like he’s spotted Sokka yet. Head still on the table, Sokka edges a little closer to Taktuq, hoping the man’s sheer girth would be enough for him to hide behind.

(It’s slightly reminiscent of how a baby polar bear-dog would hide behind its mother. Sokka immediately dismisses the comparison.

Traitor, he hisses at his own brain.)

“Hey,” Ty Lee is saying, “you skipped out on breakfast too! Don’t think I didn’t see you sneak out of your quarters empty-handed.”

“I— ah, just haven’t been feeling all that hungry lately, I guess,” Zuko says, sounding petulant and a little bit guilty, like a child caught doing something they know they shouldn’t be. “But I wasn’t empty-handed! I took an apple with me to my meeting.”

There is a short silence.

“… I took a slice of apple with me to my meeting?”

“Agni above,” mutters Ty Lee.

There is a dull thwack, not dissimilar to the sound of a metal fan hitting a head.

Hey!” yelps Zuko, confirming Sokka’s theory.

“I’ve heard apples are super healthy,” says Taktuq seriously. “We didn’t get much fresh fruit at the North Pole, due to it being cold and all— you guys know the North Pole is really cold, right?”

“Yes, Taktuq,” chorus Zuko and Ty Lee. It sounds like this is a familiarly established routine.

“Super cold, brrr.” He rubs his arm up and down, simulating a shiver. The motion nearly sends Sokka flying. “Nothing like the weather here. Anyway, I heard Niko and Aoi talking about them the other day. Apples, that is. Apparently, they’re really good for— umm.”

“Yes?” prompts Zuko. By this point, Sokka would have been politely zoned out of the story. But far from being annoyed, Zuko sounds genuinely interested in Taktuq’s ramblings.

Taktuq’s voice drops to a hush. “Niko said they really help with… digestion. You know.” He makes a hand gesture Sokka can’t interpret from sound alone, but it draws an amused snort from Zuko. The sound is… oddly endearing.

Sokka feels his eyebrows rise against the table, which they’re still firmly pressed to. Where had that thought come from?

“Guess it’s all the fibre,” finishes Taktuq, sounding very pleased with himself.

“Thank you, Taktuq. I’ll keep that in mind,” says Zuko, voice filled with fond amusement. “Might even take two slices with me next time. You know. For digestive purposes.”

There is another dull thwack.

Ow! What was that for?”

“I’ll let the Chef know we’re ready to eat,” says Ty Lee sweetly, ignoring Zuko’s grumblings. “Four dishes of komodo-chicken soup?”

“Four?” asks Zuko.

Busted. Sokka raises his head from the table, feeling much like a man walking willingly to his own execution. Sheepishly, he bends forward until he’s out of Taktuq’s shadow.  

Ty Lee winks at Zuko, a conspiratorial smile on her face. “Four.”

Zuko draws in a sharp intake of breath.

In the afternoon light, his face looks better than it had the previous night. In fact, it looks far better. Though the split lip is still visible, his skin looks almost unblemished. With a start, Sokka realises he must be wearing a thin layer of flesh-coloured face-paint, the kind the girls in Ba Sing Se’s upper ring wore to cover their blemishes. If he concentrates, he can just about spot mottled patches of discolouration on his right cheekbone, with the corresponding eye still slightly swollen. It widens now, to the best of its ability.

Ty Lee coughs discreetly, and Sokka realises he’s been staring for far too long.

“’ Sup?” he says, hand rising in a weak wave.

The cheery camaraderie in the room disappears as quickly as it had arrived.

Ty Lee seems to sense the change in mood, smile fading. She looks between the two, brows furrowing with concern. Taktuq, however, remains cheerfully oblivious.

“Do you think you could ask the Chef for two, maybe three servings of those little stuffed dough-boys on the side?” he asks hopefully, batting his eyelashes at the Kyoshi Warrior.

“…Do you mean dumplings?” she asks, nonplussed.

“Yeah! Dough-plings!”

La have mercy, who allowed this man to become an ambassador?

Ty Lee seems to be entertaining the same thought. “Coming right up,” she says, rolling her eyes, but her lips twitch at the ends.

After shooting another worried look in Zuko’s direction, she disappears through the door once more. Sokka also wants to disappear, but maybe through the floor instead. What he wouldn’t give for the sudden development of earthbending powers just about now.

“I should… go,” he says, rubbing at the back of his neck. He makes to stand up.

“No!” Zuko throws out a hand, then seems to remember himself. He looks away, his fancy hairpiece glinting in the light. “I mean, you don’t have to. You were here first. If anything, I should—”

“You can’t!” blurts Sokka. Zuko blinks at him from across the table. Sokka racks his brain for something smart to say. Something sensible that allows him to leave the room with his nose in the air, decorum firmly maintained. He opens his mouth.

“You— apple. No breakfast?”

Zuko blinks again, and Sokka resists the urge to smack his hand against his forehead. It probably wouldn’t help with the whole memory situation, but it would act as a useful lesson next time he’s tempted to act like a dumbass.

Taqtuk nods sagely. “No breakfast. Bad Fire Lord.”

Zuko looks like he’s two seconds away from throwing himself out the nearest window. Sokka can’t hold it against him, really.

“Thank you for the input, Ambassador Taktuq,” says Sokka through clenched teeth. Taqtuk beams at him.

Before Sokka can attempt to leave, Ty Lee skips back into the room. “Food’s here!”

Taktuq claps his hands together. “Ball soup!”

Ty Lee, noticing Sokka is trying to stand up, shoots him a look. He gingerly takes a seat again.

Yeah, he really does regret everything.

 


 

Lunch is… an interesting affair.

Sokka expects his mouth to be in agony the second he takes a delicate sip, but the soup is surprisingly un-spicy. One could even go so far as to call it delicious, with the komodo-chicken (which really is shaped into little balls) cooked to tender perfection.

His stomach rumbles, making him realise how long it has been since he’d had breakfast with Suki in the infirmary. Within moments, he is slurping down the last of it. He immediately reaches out to ladle in some more.

Taktuq is already on his third helping. It’s impressive, considering how he’s kept up a near-constant chatter with Ty Lee. To Sokka, it seems like they’ve discussed everything under the sun; from the latest Fire Nation fashion (“I hear flared sleeves are making a come-back.”
“Agni, I hope not. They make it really hard to eat food without having to flap your arms like a turtle-duck every two seconds.”), to the juiciest palace gossip (“And then Niko said she wouldn’t take Daichi back unless he apologised for what he did.”
“I mean, he was pretty drunk at the time, but I guess even I’d be mad if my boyfriend peed all over my pillow and then used it to wipe down my room.”
“He says he was doing it to protect her from evil spirits, though.”
“Yeah, but what about evil smells?”
Sokka chokes on his soup).

Throughout it all, Zuko and Sokka remain steadfastly silent. Sokka, because he has nothing to input on account of not remembering literally anyone or anything the other two are discussing. Zuko, because he seems to be very interested in picking at a bandage on his hand and staring into his soup bowl, despite not taking more than three sips. (Bites? Does one bite a soup? Sokka munches on some komodo-chicken, momentarily distracted by the thought.)

His eyes keep catching on Zuko’s hair. He can’t blame himself, really— it’s a far cry from the hideous ponytail from their earlier confrontations. Now, his half-topknot gleams in the sunlight, so black it’s almost blue. A few tendrils have escaped from the hold; they soften the sharp lines of his face, making him look strangely young. The rest of it cascades down his shoulders, a dark waterfall.

A loud belch makes both Sokka and Zuko jump. Startled, Zuko looks up and catches Sokka staring at him. Sokka flinches, averting his gaze. When he dares to look back a minute later, Zuko’s shoulders are hunched, mouth pinched.

Taktuq belches again, then reaches for a dumpling. He spears it with a single chopstick and a quiet ‘Aha!’, triumphant in his catch.

“Anyone want one?” he asks, waving it in the air.

Everyone else shakes their head.

“Okay.” In it goes.

From where Sokka has been resumed sneaking quiet looks at the Zuko, he sees him bite back a smile, hiding it behind his spoon.

He looks nothing like the crazed, power-hungry dictator Sokka was half expecting him to be. Instead, there is an air of awkwardness about him, seeming slightly at odds with the crown resting in his hair. With every moment that passes in his company, Sokka is finding it difficult to reconcile the image of the Zuko in his mind, who raged and yelled and destroyed everything in his path, with the one who sits before him quietly, looking at Taqtuk with undisguised warmth.

Sokka finds himself relaxing, just a little. Maybe staying for lunch wasn’t an awful idea after all, he thinks, turning back to his meal.

And then Zuko picks up his napkin, absently wiping at his face, and it all goes rather wrong rather fast.

Taktuq wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “Oh, Fire Lord Zuko—”

“Just Zuko, please.” His lips twitch slightly, and Sokka guesses they’ve had this conversation before. “You know there’s no need for formality outside the council rooms, Taktuq.”

“Zuko,” he agrees, then belches again. “Sorry, I keep forgetting. Anyway—" He pokes his cheek using his chopstick. “What’s wrong with your face?”

Zuko’s spoon splashes back into his soup.

Next to him, Ty Lee has frozen in place. Half a pilfered dumpling sticks out of her mouth. It would be funny, Sokka thinks, if his own stomach hadn’t started a sudden revolt against him.

Zuko’s hand flies to his face. The purple and yellow peek out from where he’s wiped the face-paint off, blossoming stark against his suddenly ashen pallor.

“I—" His voice cracks, and he winces, fiddling with his high collar. He pushes his bowl away, meeting no one’s eyes. “Nothing. It was an accident.”

“Oh. Doesn’t look like it.” Taktuq’s words are muffled around a mouthful of dumpling. Ty Lee is making subtle slashing motions at him, eyes wide. “You look really badass, though. Did you fight someone? I bet you fought someone. I saw you practicing with your swords the other day. You’re, like, super good with them! The other guy probably didn’t even know what hit him. I bet you won, too. Did you win?”

Sokka stares into his nearly empty bowl, wondering if it were possible to drown in a mouthful of soup.

“Taktuq,” Ty Lee’s voice is a hiss, “for once in your life, please shut up.”

“What’d I say?” Taktuq whines. “I’m just asking why he looks like he went two rounds with an Arctic hippo.”

“Excuse me,” says Sokka, pushing back from the table. He stands up on slightly shaky legs. “I just remembered I had a… thing. That I’ll be late for. Gotta go, sorry.”

He scrounges up a smile from somewhere within himself, turning to Taktuq. “Thank you for inviting me to the meal, Ambassador Taktuq.”

Taktuq, who really should know how to chew with his mouth closed, beams at him. “Anytime, Ambassador Sokka! Let me know if you want to build another sculpture together someday!”

“Sure,” lies Sokka through clenched teeth.

He turns to the other two occupants, hesitating. Should he bow? That was a thing they did here, right? He fumbles his hands together, bending awkwardly at the waist. When he raises his head, his eyes inadvertently go to Zuko.

Zuko’s knuckles clench white around a napkin. The bandage on his hand is spotting with fresh blood.

But when his eyes meet Sokka’s, there is no anger in them. No resentment over the ugly words Sokka had hurled at him the previous night, or for the bruises marring his face.

Instead, he looks at Sokka with a politely guarded distance, and Sokka has to swallow against the sudden, inexplicable rise of guilt in his throat.

“Thank you for your company, Ambassador Sokka,” Zuko says. His voice is steady, betraying no emotion. “Please feel free to join us for lunch again, anytime you wish to.”

His eyes are uncomfortably gold. For the briefest of seconds, the guarded look drops from his gaze; something in Sokka feels seen. His breath catches.

But then Zuko’s eyes track to Sokka’s temple, at the spot that still feels slightly tender, and something unreadable flashes across his face.

The strange moment passes as quickly as it came, leaving Sokka reeling. He isn’t sure who looks away first.

The Fire Lord bows courteously back at Sokka from across a table that feels much larger than it did a moment ago. “We’d be happy to have you back.” Though his face remains blank, there is a sincerity in Zuko’s voice that Sokka wasn’t expecting. It sends a fresh stab of pain through his already aching head.

“Sure,” Sokka chokes out again, but this time he’s not sure who he’s lying to. His fingers automatically reach for the betrothal necklace in his pocket, a paradoxical talisman of both comfort and uncertainty.

Then, feeling all of his fifteen years of age, he does the most mature thing possible in the situation.

He turns and flees.

 


 

The sun has nearly finished setting by the time an unusually sombre Ty Lee finds him, streaking fiery waves of red and orange across the sky’s darkening canvass. She watches him throw seeds at the turtle-ducks huddled at the edge of the pond, her face aglow with Agni’s last golden rays before twilight beckons the stars and heralds Yue’s arrival.

A not uncomfortable silence envelops them for a few minutes, broken only by the gentle splashing of webbed feet and the quiet clacking of impatient beaks. Then:

“You don’t have to pretend to be okay, you know.”

Sokka finally turns to look at her, unable to tamp down on the surprise that must be blooming across his face.

“It’s your aura,” says Ty Lee simply, as if that explains everything. “It’s been all dark and gloomy and… depress-y. Ever since you woke up.”

“My aura?” Sokka deadpans.

Ty Lee elbows him. “Your scepticism offends me, Ambassador.” But she’s smiling, so he knows she’s not really mad.

“This must all be so strange for you,” she continues. Sokka closes his eyes. “Five years isn’t a short period of time, and so much has happened since— since your last memories. Sokka, I can’t even imagine—” She breaks off, sighing.  “Spirits, I’m not very good at this, am I?”

This time Sokka attempts a smile, but it is a struggle to dredge it up and across his face. Instead, he settles for gently nudging at her shoulder with his own, and they lapse back into silence. The evening breeze swirls around them, rustling the grass.

“You’re my friend,” she says finally, leaning to rest her head against his side. Her braid brushes against his hand. “I know you don’t remember it, and that’s not your fault. But I care about you. We all do.” She pauses, and her voice goes very small. “And we all just want you to get better.”

Without the Warrior face-paint, she looks much younger. And suddenly very familiar. He takes a closer look at her, and something slots into place.

Ty Lee. The acrobat. He remembers her now— remembers her glaringly pink outfits, and her slightly terrifying ability to chi-block both non-benders and benders into submission.

He remembers how she stood next to Azula. Flanking her right.

But then he remembers her giggling with Suki as she played with her hair in the grass, pausing to toss seeds to the turtle-ducks every few minutes. Remembers the way she and Kustaa had cracked jokes as they’d escorted Sokka to his quarters, snipping at each other fondly.

Sitting here, curled up on the bench next to him, she feels nothing like the sort of threat she is capable of posing. Instead, she feels warm, comforting. Familiar.

“I know,” he says, and somehow knows that it’s the truth. He curls his arm through hers. “I know.”

Together, they watch the moon rise slowly over the horizon, welcoming it like an old friend.

 




Wet cloth resting on his brow, tacky and uncomfortable against his skin.

A glass held patiently against his lips. The trickle of cool water down his throat, hushing his weak protests.

A hand, pushing his sweaty locks away from his face. “Please, Sokka. Let me take care of you.”

His own arm reaching up, snagging a pale wrist in its grasp. His voice, wrecked from the fever: “I don’t deserve you.”

A sharp breath. The wrist, twisting until a hand is entwined in his own. “Don’t say that.” A fierce tone. “Don’t you ever say that again.”

The other hand coming to cup his cheek, cool against the fire burning under his skin. The fleeting press of lips against his temple.

“You deserve the world and more, my love.”

Fingers on his scalp, soft and soothing, brushing through—

 

—his hair.

His eyes snap open.

It feels far too long before the ache of the memories fades with them, the accompanying pain a familiar sensation by now.

Awareness returns slowly. He’s in his ambassadorial quarters, bundled up under the sheets. His windows are shuttered, and the darkness envelops him like a shroud.

There is a hand running through his hair.

Sokka stiffens, and the hand pauses. He jerks away from it on instinct, scrambling backwards until he hits his head on the wooden headboard. “Ow!”

“Sokka!”

He freezes, fingers curled around Boomerang Junior from where he’d stashed it under his pillow, and blinks rapidly to adjust against the darkness of the room. That voice—

There comes the distinctive sound of spark rocks being struck against one another. A lantern flares up, making Sokka flinch.

“Oh, sorry! Here—”

The lantern dims enough for Sokka to peer through cracked lids.

Katara smiles at him from the edge of his bed, wet eyes twinkling in the lantern’s glow. “Hey, sleepyhead. Sorry I’m late.”

Chapter Text

There is a certain kind of agony, he thinks, that comes from looking into eyes more familiar to you than your own, and seeing a stranger gaze back at you out of their depths.

There is a certain kind of misery that comes with sitting metres across from the person who you’ve given yourself to, heart and soul, and knowing that the distance between you may as well be that of an ocean’s length, for all that you can reach across and touch.

There is a certain kind of grief that comes only at night, as you lay with your fingers splayed wide over the other side of the bed, grazing the edge of a pillow that has been cool to the touch only for days, yet already feels longer than an entire eternity.

There is a certain kind of ache that comes from jerking up alone from nightmares old and new, with no hands to steady you through the hurt. No arms to bury your thoughts in. No heartbeat to soothe your breath with.

There is a certain kind of loss, a void that sits between your ribs and burrows into your lungs, that comes with reaching up with shaking fingers to the hollow of your throat—to the place where the weight of your belonging used to hang, solid and sure, tied with a ribbon of the softest silk and promises of the softest words— and feeling nothing. Nothing but the aching, ageing marks of fingerprints pressed roughly into your skin, leaving behind a different circle of blue.

Chapter Text

Sokka sits propped up against the headboard, mouth agape.

Katara’s smile dims. “Are you alri— oomph.” She’s thrown back against the bed as Sokka leaps at her, tangling his limbs around her like an octophant. He’s laughing, he realises, the sound wild and untamed as it wrenches itself from his throat.

She’s okay, chants his brain. She’s okay she’s here she came she’s here she’s okay. He’s so relieved he could scream.

Katara hugs him back just as tightly, hands warm against his back. His face is buried in her hair, and all he can smell is home.

He hadn’t realised how heavy the burden of worry had weighed on his soul until its sudden disappearance; it unanchors him. He grasps at her, trying to use her solid weight to moor himself back, and suddenly his laughs are turning choked.

“Sokka?” Her voice is worried. It’s the exact same way she’s called his name hundreds, if not thousands, of times, but something about the way it sounds in this moment is just—

A tear slips from his eye, then another, then another; suddenly, it’s like a dam is bursting open from somewhere within him, and with it sweeps away his control. He tries to heave in a breath, tries to mumble something like I missed you or why did you leave me behind or even Spirits, how embarrassing, but he can’t quite get enough air into his lungs.

“Oh, Sokka.” She rubs circles on his back, rhythmic and soothing. “It’s okay,” she says, her voice brimming with endless love. “I’m here.”

Her embrace is not a memory he has lost— it is as familiar to him as his own heartbeat. But right now, there is a safety in the way her hand grips the back of his neck, thumb rubbing gently against his skin, up and down and up and down.

It reminds him of his childhood, of skinned knees and bruised elbows; of tumbling down and being scooped up, wailing, into gentle arms; of a hand against his nape, providing him with the quiet comfort of being held. Thumb running up and down, up and down, until the pain was a distant memory. It’s alright, Sokka, she’d always say, when he’d quieten down, tiny fists rubbing against his eyes. I’m here.

Until it hadn’t been. Until she hadn’t been.

But now, with the lantern’s soft glow illuminating little more than silhouettes, it is easy to allow himself to forget. After all, didn’t he always think it strange— how, when he closed his eyes and tried to remember his mother, Kya and Katara almost seemed one and the same?

And it is this treacherous thought that pushes him over the edge, granting him the permission to shatter at the bottom.

He clings to Katara with bruising desperation, sobbing into his baby sister’s arms, and finally, finally falls apart.

 


 

Sokka groans into wakefulness. Blinking blearily at the sunlight streaming from his windows, he rubs the crust from his eyes. Five more minutes of sleep wouldn’t hurt anyone, would it?

Decision made, he rolls back over on his side, eyes already slipping shut.

Then his brain catches up with the rest of his body, rusty gears grinding into action, and he jolts up immediately.

There is no one else in the room.

For a second, Sokka panics. He hadn’t dreamt Katara’s arrival, had he? Would his subconsciousness be that cruel?

But then he spots the note on his bedside table. Running out for a bit, be back soon. Love you— Katara.

Sokka slumps back into the pillows, weak with relief.

Then he groans again. Tui and La, he’d had a full breakdown in front of his little sister. Granted, the little sister may not be so little anymore, but it was the principle of the matter. He was the one that was supposed to provide her comfort, not the other way around. And yet.

And yet, it had felt so freeing to allow himself to just… let go. He hadn’t let himself cry like that, not since— not since Mom. But Katara had held him tight even as he shook apart, her lips pressed steadily to his temple. Right over the new scar.

Stay, he’d whispered, and Katara had smiled through her own tears. Always, she’d replied, and cradled his head in her lap until he’d fallen into an exhausted, dreamless slumber.

When he extends his arm over it, the other side of his mattress is still warm, and he knows she kept her promise.

Unfortunately, his bladder picks that moment to make itself known, and he groans a third time. Groaning is very cathartic, he’s learning. Rolling out of bed, he lumbers to the bathroom.

When he’s showered and dressed, he returns to his bedside table and picks up the note. He knows he should probably wait for her return, but already he feels a vague, unfounded anxiety gnawing at his ribs at the separation. He’s only just gotten her back and now she’s disappeared again, off somewhere in the bowels of the Fire Nation palace.

Absently, he reaches under his pillow, hand curling around the betrothal necklace for comfort. The feel of the stone jolts him with the realisation that he still hasn’t given it back to her.

She must be missing it desperately, he thinks. That won’t do. So, he shoves both the necklace and the note in his pocket and sets off, determined to find her and return what was rightfully hers.  

He spots neither Suki nor Ty Lee outside his door. The Kyoshi Warrior standing there is unfamiliar to him. She gives him a look laced with boredom, not moving an inch from where she’s shining her fan with the edge of her robes.

“Good morning, Ambassador Sokka.”

“Where’s Katara?” he asks in a rush, then remembers his manners. “Sorry, I mean—good morning. Umm—”

“It’s Miura,” she says, voice utterly monotonous. “And Master Katara went to the guest quarters to freshen up. She assumed you’d be asleep for a while yet. Something about ‘out like the dead’.”

Ouch. “Ah, Katara. Such a jester she is, that one.” Sokka flashes her the most charming of smiles from his repertoire. “But I’ll have you know, I’ve always been a morning person.”

Immediately, he cracks a yawn so wide that it’s a wonder he doesn’t dislocate his jaw.

“Uh-huh.”

“Anyway,” he says, ignoring her not-inconspicuous rolling of eyes. “Would you be so kind as to escort me to her?” He drops the smile, widening his eyes and letting his lower lip wobble out for full effect. “It’s a sibling emergency.”

She stares back, unimpressed. He doesn’t budge.

After a full minute of his relentless polar-puppy dog stare, she sighs. “Just— follow me.” With that, she turns from the wall, tucking the fan into her robes as she goes.

Sokka hides a triumphant fist-pump behind her back.

“I don’t get paid enough for this,” he thinks he hears her mutter.

They walk for a few short minutes, Sokka ambling beside her, until they reach a nondescript hallway.  Miura points to a set of doors at the end of it. “Just through there.”

“Tha—anks?” By the time he looks back, she’s already disappeared. He shrugs, then heads towards the doors she’d directed him to.

Unlike the other parts of the palace he’s wandered through so far, there aren’t any servants walking about, nor any guards stationed anywhere. Part of him chafes; why does he need to be under surveillance at all hours of the day? He knows he’s fully healed at this point, and it’s not like he enjoys being under constant watch.

But then he realises that Katara, who was already a master waterbender by the Day of Black Sun, would no doubt be able to look after herself. Unlike Sokka, who’d apparently lost both his weapons in one day and somehow managed to later lose a good chunk of his memories to boot.

Grumbling to himself, he is halfway to reaching for the doors when he realises they’re already slightly ajar. Katara’s voice spills out into the hallway, as easily recognisable to him as his own pulse.

Sokka’s hand is just circling the doorknob when another voice joins her, muffled and low, and he has to actively resist the urge to fling the doors open and charge inside.

Instead, he angles himself so that he can peer through the cracked doors unseen. All the better to run reconnaissance on where his sister is lounging on the edge of a bed, casually sipping tea and eating dainty little biscuits with the Fire Lord.

Tui have mercy, the man is haunting Sokka like a particularly stubborn fart.

“…seems physically fine,” Katara is saying, “but I’m worried about him. He…”

Sokka is definitely not eavesdropping when leans in further, straining his ear to catch all snippets of the conversation. He’s just making sure his sister is okay, that’s all.

Katara’s voice has a clinical tone to it, but he can hear the underlying worry. With a start, Sokka realises she’s talking about him.

“… try healing his head today, see where that gets us.” She places the cup down on its saucer, reaching for another biscuit. Her hair is open and wet, the latter presumably from a shower, and it covers her neck and chest like a shawl. “And if that doesn’t work, then hopefully the Northern Water Tribe’s healers can work their magic on him. Taktuq says Yugoda couldn’t make it down herself, but she’s sending her best students in her stead.”

From where he’s standing, Sokka watches Zuko hunch further into his chair. He’s angled away from the door, only a pale sliver of his face visible to Sokka. The teacup in front of him sits untouched, steam drifting lazily into the air.

When he speaks, his voice is too quiet for Sokka to hear.

Katara’s eyes soften. “Oh, Zuko.”

Sokka nearly stumbles through the door. He, never in a million years, would have expected her to level that look on Zuko— the one normally reserved for hurt animals and very young children, neither of which Zuko is. Even Sokka has never been privy to that look, like, ever. He has to tamp down on the sudden rise of irrational jealousy in his throat.

He watches Katara push the plate of biscuits towards Zuko, his own stomach rumbling at the sight. Great, Fire Jerk gets all the snacks too. Meanwhile, Sokka has to stand here and starve. He may or may not be pouting.

Zuko, ungrateful that he is, ignores the biscuits in favour of clutching at his teacup. He mutters something, gesturing so emphatically that he nearly spills tea on his lap. Sokka snorts quietly.

From across the room, Katara snorts as well.

“Stop worrying,” she says. “Spirits, you’re going to give yourself an ulcer. Are you forgetting that my brother’s as hard-headed as an armadillo-bear, and twice as stubborn?” She smiles, though from where Sokka’s standing, it doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “We both know he’s bounced back stronger from worse. Just you wait, he’ll be back to his old self in no time. Who knows— you might even end up begging me to give him another whack on the head, just to shut him up.”

Sokka swallows an indignant, ‘Hey!’ which would have definitely blown his cover. He doesn’t want to risk imminent death via fratricide so early in the morning.

Zuko drops his head in his hands, grasping at his hair. If anything, he looks even more miserable than before.

Whatever he says makes Katara look at him sharply.

“Stand up,” she snaps, dropping her half-eaten biscuit onto the table. Sokka can see Zuko startle, head jerking up as he looks at Katara.

She folds her arms across her chest, tapping her foot on the floor impatiently. “I said,” and, oh boy, that’s her take-no-prisoners-take-no-shit voice, “stand up.”

She stalks in front of where he’s sitting, a grim expression on her face. Sokka idly wonders if he’s about to see Zuko get his ass handed to him. Though he knows Katara can more than handle herself in a fight, he still feels himself tense, ready to run to his sister’s aid at a moment’s notice.

By the time Zuko does eventually get to his feet, arms raised warily in front of him, Sokka has liberated a vase from a nearby table and armed himself with it, prepared for a fight.

What he isn’t prepared for is to see Katara, standing a full foot shorter than Zuko, grab him by the front of his robes and yank him into her arms. Zuko lets out a quiet, “Oof.”

Sokka nearly drops the vase. Then sets it down, just in case. He rubs at his eyes, blinks through the resulting blur— but no, his sister is definitely still hugging the Fire Lord.

What the fuck.

“You can’t keep doing this,” she says in a fierce tone. She tightens her arms around Zuko’s stiffened back. “You can’t keep taking on the weight of everything that goes wrong. It’ll crush you. This wasn’t your fault, Zuko, no matter what you’ve convinced yourself.”

Her next words are muffled into his collar. Though Zuko has his back to Sokka, he can still see the way Zuko slowly slumps forward, resting his head on Katara’s shoulder.

His voice comes out wet, but finally audible. “Agni, I’ve missed you Katara.”

“Me too,” she says, and then they just stand there. Holding each other.

What the fuck.

Sokka’s fingers clench on the door’s edge. It’s clear he’s missing far too many puzzle pieces, but he’ll be damned if he just— if he just lets Zuko do whatever he’s currently doing to his sister. Obviously, he has to have drugged her tea with cactus juice or something. That’s why he didn’t drink any of his own! Sokka nods, mentally patting himself on the back for his brilliant deductions (and steadily ignoring the glaring flaws in his logic). It’s the only possible explanation for what his eyes are currently seeing. Right?

Katara slowly pulls back from the embrace, oblivious to Sokka’s minor breakdown. She wipes at her eyes with the back of one hand, then peers critically at Zuko.

“Your face looks weird. Are you—” Her hand inches towards his face. “Are you wearing make-up?”

Zuko takes a step back. “Nuh-uh,” he says, and it’s such a childish response that Sokka is forced to drop his, admittedly groundless and kind of unfair, irritation. For a man politically responsible for a whole nation, Zuko makes for a terrible liar.

Katara seems to think so too, for she narrows her eyes.

“Zuko,” she says, drawing his name out like a warning.

Zuko holds his hands out again, this time placatingly. From this position, Sokka still can’t see his face, but the sheer apprehension in his voice surprises Sokka all the same.

“I had to! Suki helped me with it. It was for the council meetings. I couldn’t go in there looking like—” He hesitates, clearly searching for the right words. Sokka feels something lurch in his gut. “Just— don’t freak out.” He grabs a napkin from the table, bringing it towards his face.

Katara and Zuko clearly aren’t the mortal enemies Sokka had been expecting them to be. The last time Katara had spoken about Zuko, she’d spat his name out like a curse, Aang’s limp body clutched close to her chest.

But now, all he can see is the growing horror on Katara’s face as she watches Zuko clean his own. It draws up the same heavy guilt from within him that he’d felt yesterday at the dining table.

He’s beginning to regret his little espionage session.

“What,” she says when he finally puts the napkin down, “the fuck, Zuko?”

Zuko bows his head. He does not reply.

(Sokka’s guilt sharpens into a tangible thing, piercing at his sternum. Why won’t Zuko—)

There is the familiar pop of her waterskin bag’s cork coming off. A floating trail of water surrounds Zuko’s head, glowing gently as it settles against his face.

“You need to stop getting yourself in fights,” she finally says, brows furrowed in concentration. “I’m pretty sure that, as Fire Lord, you’re allowed to pay people to beat others up for you.”

“Yep,” says Zuko through what sounds like gritted teeth, “that’s definitely in the official handbook.”

Within moments, the water disappears back into the bag. Katara reaches for Zuko’s chin, and Sokka watches her tug his face this way and that, assessing her work.

“There, now you’re back to your old handsome self,” she teases half-heartedly, patting at his cheek before letting him go. And it’s this, out of anything that’s happened so far, that almost floors Sokka.

It’s the familiarity in her tone, the one he’s heard her use with no one other than those she considers family. The thought drives little shards of uneasiness into his chest.

Once again, he’s forced to ask himself: what exactly has he missed, these last five years?

If anyone here has the highest chance of being on cactus juice right now, he thinks a little faintly, it’s probably me.

Zuko rubs at the back of his high collar, ducking his head. “Thanks, Katara. It feels a lot better.”

“Yeah,” she drawls. “I bet it does. Any other injuries you’re hiding from me?”

Zuko's stiffens. “Not that I’m aware of,” he says, hoarse voice carefully modulated, his hand frozen around his neck. The betrothal necklace burns in Sokka’s pocket as he shifts uncomfortably, remembering his own fingers wrapped, vice-like, around a pale throat.

Katara smiles sweetly at him. “Good.”

She shoves Zuko hard and he yelps, falling back into his chair.

Katara looms over him. “You can be such a dunderhead sometimes, you know that? Why didn’t you just call me to heal you when I got here last night?”

There is a small pause. “You had more important things to do,” says Zuko softly.

Zuko,” says Katara, voice tight, but Sokka doesn’t catch the rest of her sentence on account of diving behind the closest floor-length tapestry.

The footsteps he’d heard ringing out from down the hallway get both louder and slower until they come to a stop right in front of the tapestry, behind which Sokka is trying his best to become part of the wall.

I wonder what the punishment is for spying on the Fire Lord in his palace, he thinks, trying not to panic. Probably something painful and pointy. And then— wow, do I always breathe so loud.

There is a beat of very judgemental silence.

“I really don’t get paid enough for this,” mutters a female voice.

The footsteps resume their pace past his hiding place. Sokka muffles his sigh of relief into the dusty cloth.

There is a knock on Katara’s door.

“Fire Lord Zuko,” says the person, nothing but professionalism exuding from her tone. “The council meeting regarding the colonial agricultural policies begins in ten minutes.”

“Thank you, Miura,” comes the reply from within. “Please go on ahead, I’ll be just a moment.”

“Very well.”

Footsteps, halting once again in front of Sokka. “You know,” Miura says, as if casual conversation with a tapestry is a normal occurrence for her, “I can see your feet.”

“Oh,” says the tapestry. “Thanks.” It rearranges itself to cover brown Water Tribe boots.

“Whatever, mouthbreather.” Her footsteps fade away.

Before Sokka can gulp in a steady breath and thank his ancestors for saving his head from the chopping block, there is the heavy scrape of doors opening. He peeks out from the edge of the cloth.

Though the hallway isn’t particularly brightly lit, there is enough light for Sokka to see Katara with her arms crossed over her chest, leaning against the doorway. Zuko stands a metre apart, fiddling with the cuffs of his robe.

At this angle, Sokka can see the entirety of his face. Without the face-paint, his skin looks almost translucent with exhaustion, the bag under his eye even more pronounced. But apart from his scar, it looks completely healed.

Something finally loosens in Sokka’s chest.

“… get yourself settled,” Zuko is saying.

His sister sighs. “Yeah, yeah. I can see you itching to off you go to your duties, Sifu Hotman.”

Sokka chokes on his spit. Sifu what?

Zuko doesn’t even blink at the nickname, which only serves to drive the surrealness of the situation into Sokka’s very bewildered head. “You know only Aang is allowed to call me that.”

(And, once more with feeling, what the fuck.)

Katara waves him off, but she’s smiling all the same. “I should be getting back to Sokka. He’s probably still out cold, but—” She shrugs, smile fading.

“But you don’t want to leave him alone in this state anyway.” Sokka doesn’t know Zuko well enough to be able to read the emotions flitting across his face with any fluency, but even a badger-mole would find it hard to miss the sorrow in his eyes. “I understand.”

And Sokka remembers, with a sinking feeling, just who had been at his bedside that first time he had woken up in the infirmary.

Suki’s voice rings in his head once more: such good friends.

Like embers dying in a cold hearth, the last of the rage he had held in his heart against Zuko dissipates. The emotion that takes its place there is nameless, but not shapeless; the spikes it dredges with it make it hard for Sokka to breathe.

Determination tightens the set of Katara’s mouth, but her eyes remain soft with worry. “Zuko… I meant what I said. This can’t have been easy for you— any of this. You don’t have to pretend. Not with me.”

She reaches out a hand, wraps it loosely around his wrist. “You can come see me any time. You know that, right? I’ll be here if you want to talk.”

For a second, there is a struggle across Zuko’s face, what looks like gratitude warring with discomfort. He opens his mouth, lips coming together around the start of a word, but then he exhales, and they press into a thin, bloodless line. In the end, he settles for a rough, “Thanks, Katara.”

With one final tilt of his head in her direction, he sweeps off down the hallway. Sokka presses himself back against the wall, but Zuko doesn’t even look up as he walks by, eyes trained on the floor. His hand rises absently, clutching at his collar. Almost like he’s reaching for something there.

When Sokka is sure Zuko’s gone, he steps out from behind the tapestry and walks into Katara’s quarters, not even bothering to knock as he strides inside.

Katara has her back to him, reaching for something on the bed. Her hair has begun drying at the ends, forming soft waves against her tunic. She’s gathering it up in her hands, beginning to tie it back in her usual braid.

Sokka tries to keep his voice light-hearted and casual, to contain his inner confusion at what he had just witnessed. He fails. “Since when are you and Zuko so buddy-buddy?” he asks, wincing at the accidentally accusatory nature of his tone.

Surprised, Katara whirls around. But anything she says gets lost in the sudden rushing of blood in Sokka’s head, loud and furious.

On her neck, gleaming brightly as if new, as if it never left, sits her betrothal necklace.

“When did you get here? Sokka—”

Sokka doesn’t reply. With numb fingers, he reaches into his pocket.

Katara’s voice comes to him as if from underwater, distant and thin. “Sokka?”

She’s closed the distance between them, hand coming up to grasp at his shoulder. Together as one, they stare at Sokka’s fist as it unfurls like a flower, revealing the necklace inside.

He realises he hadn’t looked at it closely before, in all these days; it had hurt too much, to have Katara’s memento so close at hand, and yet be so distant from Katara herself. But from the heft of the stone to the ribbon attached to it, he had never once doubted that it was his sister’s. After all, who else did he know outside of the Northern Water Tribe who wore one?

Now, standing across from the original itself, the similarity is striking. Both pendants are the same shade of blue, almost iridescent in the early morning sunlight. Both are carved with the symbol of the ocean, three waves engraved deep into the bottom half of the stone. But where Katara’s pendant carries its three distinct spirals, marking it as the waterbending emblem, the stone in Sokka’s palm finally differs; three tiny flames are etched above the waves, each shaped like a teardrop.

His ears fill with static, swelling like waves in a stormy sea.

 

Waves crashing over a rocky shoreline, long and white-fringed. Stones shifting under his fingers— too dark, too small, too flat, too wrong. Edges where there weren’t supposed to be. Brittle, where he needed strength.

“You won’t find what you’re looking for here.”

Her knowing smile as he struggles to his feet, flailing for balance, his feet slipping over the wet rocks. “Wha— I don’t know what you mean.”

A gentle rolling of eyes. “Follow me, snow-for-brains.”

“Hey, I resent that.”

A tugging of his arm. Walking, walking— a cave. The flare of torchlight.

Stones of the deepest blue, shimmering and splendid. The softest of gasps, escaping unbidden from his open mouth. “Katara— how did you—”

A smug smile. “You’re welcome.”

His hands rummaging amongst piles of stone, picking and sorting until his fingers curl around one that feels just right. “This one.”

“Oh, Sokka.” Her eyes, shining brighter than the stone around her neck, brighter than the stone in his palm. “It’s perfect.”

 

The static shifts to a high-pitched ringing piercing through his skull, getting louder and louder until it reaches its final crescendo. His knees buckle. He thinks he sees Katara reaching out for him, her face frozen in a rictus of panic, and then he sees nothing at all.

 


 

When he resurfaces, it’s once again to the sensation of fingers in his hair. Only this time, they are trembling.

Voices drift in and out as Sokka struggles to open his eyes. It’s nice, he thinks as slowly comes back to himself, that he’s never once woken up on the floor after one of these episodes. The Fire Nation may be home to imperialistic bastards, but they sure do know how to make fluffy pillows.

“… done this before,” someone is saying. Suki? “Last time he—”

“What do you mean,” oh, that whisper-screech definitely belongs to Katara (and ouch, she’s loud), “he’s done this before?

“Shh! You’ll wake him up!”

Sokka succeeds in prying open one eyelid. “Too late,” he grumbles, groaning as he tries to heave himself upright. Two sets of hands help prop him up against the headboard.

Katara eyes him fretfully as he blinks himself awake, one hand poised over her waterskin bag. She looks frazzled, hair loose and all over the place, and for a second, he hates himself with a debilitatingly strong intensity for causing her to worry. Suki stands beside Katara, face expressionless under her Warrior face-paint.

“Welcome back,” she says dryly, but Sokka can hear the concern in her voice.

Sokka takes a moment to gather his bearings. He’s still in the guest quarters, half-splayed out on the bed.

“How long was I out this time,” he asks finally, wincing as he rubs at his temple.

“Only a few minutes. Stop that!” Katara bats his hand away, popping open her waterskin bag. “You scared me half to death when you went down. I barely managed to grab you before you brained yourself on the table. Thank Spirits for Suki; she was coming in right as you passed out. She’s the one who helped me get you into bed.” She mutters to herself something that suspiciously sounds a lot like ‘big hunk of meat’.

Sokka turns to Suki. “You carried me?”

She raises an eyebrow. “What, like it’s hard?”

“That’s hot,” he says, grinning.

Katara smacks him on his arm. “Focus, you idiot.”

Water rushes out of her bag, surrounding his head with a glowing coolness, and he sighs as the last of his headache evaporates.

Katara, however, looks even more troubled than before.

He sobers up at the worry in her eyes. “Hey,” he says, laying what he hopes to be soothing hands on her shoulders. “I’m okay. Honest. Your little water-doctor trick fixed my headache right up.”

She shrugs out of his grasp. “That’s not what I’m worried about. Sokka,” she turns to him, but doesn’t meet his eyes. “This might be more serious than I originally thought.”

 “What do you mean?” he asks, frowning.

“I mean—” She hesitates. “Do you… remember anything new? After my water-healing?” She pushes her hair off her neck absently, and Sokka’s eyes catch once again on her necklace.

There is a sudden silence. This time, he’s the one who struggles to meet her eyes. “I— I don’t think so,” he says. He can’t stop looking away from the design etched onto the stone. “Katara, is that— that’s your necklace, isn’t it? Not a new one, or something? You didn’t lose it somewhere?”

Katara opens her mouth, looking confused. “What? No, I—”

“Katara,” interrupts Suki quietly, eyes shadowed. “Can I speak with you for a second?”

As Katara is tugged to one side by Suki, Sokka takes a few moments to breathe. The near-constant headache he’d been battling is completely gone; his head feels clearer than it has in days. The clarity, however, comes at a cost, bringing with it a looming sense of uneasiness. This grows and festers as he fumbles furtively around on the bed, trying to find it, because surely there’s been a mistake— surely he didn’t—

“Oh, Sokka,” says Katara, and when he turns around, his throat tightens at the stricken look on her face. Her fingers are tangled with the ribbon of the necklace, the stone swinging side to side like a pendulum. “What did you do?”

Chapter Text

Katara pinches the bridge of her nose, eyes closed in horrified exasperation. “So, you decided the best course of action was to— what? Rip it off his neck and beat the absolute crap out of him?”

“In Sokka’s defence,” says Suki, when it becomes clear that Sokka isn’t going to raise his head from where he’s buried it in his hands, mortified right down to his bones, “he’d woken up after a very traumatic head injury, having just lost five years’ worth of memories that put him smack-bang in the middle of the Day of Black Sun’s chaos, and found himself in the Fire Nation face to face with Zuko as Fire Lord. Who he assumed had stolen your betrothal necklace—you know, the last memory of your mom, her one and only memento—and was wearing it as a trophy, in what seemed to Sokka to be in exceptionally poor taste, as you can probably imagine.”

“Thanks, Suki,” Sokka says, voice muffled against his palms. He drags his hands over his face, pulling roughly at his cheeks.

“Having said all that,” continues Suki, voice drier than the Si Wong Desert. Sokka winces. “Had he just looked a tiny bit closer—”

“Can we all just take a moment to agree that they,” here, Sokka waves a hand between the necklace on Katara’s neck and the one clutched in her fingers, “look incredibly similar? How was I supposed to know? And no one said a word.” He turns a mournful glare in Suki’s direction. “Not you, not Kustaa, not Ty Lee, not Zuko himself. Why didn’t any of you just tell me?”

Suki’s eyes flash with barely suppressed anger. “Gee, let me think,” she says, tone caustic. Sokka stops glaring. Gulps, instead. “Remember that time I told you the war had ended, and you replied by passing out cold?”

Katara levels a worried look in Sokka’s direction.

“I… may recall,” says Sokka.

“Told you about the five years memory-loss, you went paler than a goat-dog’s furry asscheek,” she continues, ticking it off on her finger. “Told you about you losing your weapons, you disappeared somewhere in your head for a full ten minutes. Kustaa was ready to break out the smelling salts to bring you back. And now? Just the sight of Katara’s necklace knocked you out on your ass.”

Her fan glints in her hand as she takes it out, punctuating every word with a pointy stab at Sokka’s bicep. “So. You. Tell. Me. Why. No. One. Told. You.”

“Ow ow ow,” yelps Sokka, rubbing at his arm when she’s finished. “Okay! I get it! I’m sorry,” he says, contrite. His eyes widen at the way Suki’s lips have tightened, at the glimmer of wetness in the corner of her eyes. “I didn’t—”

“No,” she says, sighing. “It’s not your fault. I get it. It’s just— I hate feeling so— so helpless.” She wipes her eyes discreetly. “You’re one of my closest friends, Sokka; trust me when I say that I’ve gotten so used to telling you everything. It’s just been so hard to talk to you like this, to pretend like it’s just like old times— like the last five years haven’t even happened. And I can’t do anything to fix it.” Katara lays a soothing hand on Suki’s shoulder, who breathes out in a slow exhale.

Suki visibly gathers herself. “Kustaa was right,” she says. “We just didn’t know what we could tell you safely. What if we accidentally triggered something that made your condition worse? If anything happened to you because of me, Sokka, I’d never be able to forgive myself.” Her voice, which had begun wavering, slowly steadies out. “So I had to force myself to wait until Katara got here, before even thinking of telling you about—” She waves an all-encompassing hand through the air, doesn’t finish her sentence.

Sokka sits back, the heft of her words weighing heavily on his chest. He hadn’t even realised, prior to this point, how everyone else must have been feeling at his condition. How they must have been forced to walk on eggshells around him.

He’d cultivated a life here in the Fire Nation, that much was becoming clear. Made bonds with people like Kustaa and Ty Lee (and maybe even with—with Zuko). And now he’d lost it all, all those memories and friendships and experiences, in one fell swoop. Become a wholly different person overnight to everyone.

He sags forward, ladled with a heavy cloud of guilt.

A snap of fingers jerks him out of his misery. “Hey,” says Suki, shifting so she could sit down on the bed beside him and look him in the eyes. “Did you miss the part where I explicitly said none of this is on you? You weren’t exactly asking to be hit on the head, Sokka.” She gives him a small smile. “No matter how much you might deserve it, sometimes.”

“She’s right,” Katara chimes in. “You’re the victim in this whole mess, not the cause. Spirits, sometimes you’re no better than—” She cuts herself off, cursing, but not before Sokka is suddenly reminded of what he’d overheard.

“You were going to say Zuko, weren’t you?” he asks. Katara startles, then narrows her eyes.

“How did you—”

“And also, come to think of it,” he says in a rush, trying to distract her from discovering the fact that he’d been eavesdropping on what, in hindsight, seems like a very personal conversation. He’s already been knocked out once today, he doesn’t feel like suffering through it again. “Why does Zuko, of all people, even have a betrothal necklace? What’s that even all about? Is he betrothed to someone from the North?”

A sudden, terrifying thought occurs to him. “Oh, Spirits, is he—and—and—wow, I can’t even say it—him and Taktuq?”

“No!” blurts out Katara, then immediately slaps a hand over her mouth.

“Nope, not Taktuq,” adds Suki, more than a little hysterically. “Definitely not Taktuq, thank Oma and Shu.”

“Oh,” he says, oddly relieved—surely for Taktuq’s sake. “Then who?”

An uncomfortable silence descends upon the room. Katara and Suki exchange matching, cryptic glances. Sokka can feel the weight of that particular unspoken conversation even from where he’s slumped over on the bed, and somehow knows they won’t tell him anything of import. He back to glaring, this time at the both of them.

Finally, Katara sighs. “When I said that this might be more serious than I originally thought, I meant it.” She looks at him with troubled eyes, reaching out to gently touch the scar at his temple. “Sokka, do you remember when I helped Jet get some of his memories back, under Lake Laogai?”

Sokka nods at the non sequitur. He probably remembers that day even better than her; his memories of Ba Sing Se are fresh in his mind, as if they’d only happened a few months ago. Not half a decade.

“Well,” she pauses, trying to put her thoughts into words. “Think of it like this— memories are like a wall full of paintings, right? Filled with snapshots of your life: who you’re supposed to be, the people you know, all the things you’ve experienced. A wall filled with colours. When the Dai Li brainwashed him, it was like they painted over all those colours with white paint. They covered his reality until he was a blank slate, so that they could write over that wall with whatever they wanted him to believe in. When I used my healing on him, it helped peel some of the paint off to reveal his true memories underneath. Make sense?”

Sokka nods again. He subtly reaches for a few biscuits on the tray by the bed. It’s not like he’s had the chance to have breakfast between all this commotion, and the biscuits look tasty, golden brown and dotted with little flecks of nuts and fruit. He shoves a few into his mouth, cheeks bulging out like a frog-chipmunk.

“With you, it’s a little… different,” Katara says, hesitant. There’s an odd tone to her words.

“Diff’ur’a ‘ow?” he mumbles around the biscuits, spraying out crumbs on the bedsheet. Suki smacks him on the shoulder. Why do the women in his life like to hurt him so? “Ow’f!”

“Spirits, Sokka. Say it, don’t spray it.”

“Different,” continues Katara in a slightly louder tone, “in that your memories haven’t been painted over by anything. They’re just…”

Sokka feels a chill creep down his back. He swallows the last remnants of the biscuits. They go down like sand, dry and gritty. “Katara?” he asks roughly, trying and failing to suppress the apprehension in his voice.

“Here, let me try again actually,” she says, hurrying forward with her waterskin bag. Glowing water surrounds his head once more, swirling around for a tense few moments.

Sokka feels nothing change.

Katara scowls, pulling the water back into the bag. “It’s just not working, and I don’t know why,” she mutters, almost to herself.

“Katara, you’re scaring him,” says Suki quietly. Katara jerks, looking at Sokka with an apologetic expression.

“What I mean is, your wall is still there, it’s just…” she pauses, visibly struggling to find words that will help him visualise it. “It’s missing some bricks. Well,” she says in a rush, hurrying to wipe away the panic that must be splashed across his face. “Not missing, per se. They’re just not where they’re supposed to be. It’s almost like they’ve been pushed deep inside the wall, somehow, and my healing isn’t able to reach them.”

Sokka is barely able to digest this information before Katara joins him from the other side of the bed, so that he is bracketed between the two women. “There’s more,” she adds with a grimace.

Sokka lets out a broken laugh. “More? You mean it gets worse than this?”

His sister bows her head, hand clenching on his knee. “It’s just a theory, but… do you trust me?”

He doesn’t even need to think about it; the answer drops automatically from his mouth. “Of course.”

Katara smiles at him, gaze soft. “Close your eyes,” she says, and he obeys.

The cool sensation of her healing water surrounds his head once more. “Okay,” says Katara, “brace yourself.”

“Wha—” he starts, frowning, but then:

“Aang and I got engaged.”

What?

A split-second shock, and then his head screams with pain.

 

A rain of white petals drifting through the air; tumbling and swaying, managing to never once hit the snowy ground before they are ushered upwards once more, floating to the top in a constant cycle—a snow-globe of epic proportions surrounding a sea of happy faces, who cheer as two become closer to one.

Moisture threatening his eyes, a grin splitting his lips. His heart, filled with unadulterated happiness as he watches them smile shyly at each other, robes dancing in the icy breeze; blue and orange, a vibrant dawn—a new beginning.

A hand clasped in his, squeezing as the tears finally fall. His laughter echoing with another, warm eyes meeting his wet ones; gold and blue, a glorious sunset— not an ending, no, but perhaps a call for transformation.

His gaze falling to a pale neck, unadorned but for a few tendrils of black hair.

Maybe, he thinks, it is time for new beginnings of his own.

 

Sokka cries out, darkness pulling him down into the murky depths of his mind. But a pair of hands grab him through the dark, gripping at his shoulders. They anchor him to his body, helping him guide his way back to the present. Slowly, slowly, the pain recedes.

He opens his eyes dazedly, just in time to catch the sight of Suki hovering above him, her fingers now clasped loosely around his arms. Katara is finishing putting away her waterskin bag, frustration lining her features.

“Shit,” she says, with force.

Sokka shakes his head, willing away the last of the lingering fuzziness. He clears his throat. “Umm, Katara, don’t think I’m not going to ask you so many questions about the Aang thing—congratulations, by the way—but, like. What just happened.”

Katara sighs again, looking completely exhausted. “Sometimes I really hate it when I’m right.”

Katara.

“I wasn’t expecting it to be such a strong reaction! Sorry, Sokka,” she smiles ruefully. “I thought maybe you’d see that one coming.”

“I mean, I guess,” he says, rubbing at his aching head. “I was just surprised, that’s all. You’re still so young.”

“Mom got engaged to Dad at 17,” she says, sniffing like they’ve argued over this before (which, knowing them, they probably have). She fiddles with her betrothal necklace. “I waited a whole extra year before proposing.”

“Hey.” He slings his arm over her shoulder. “I’m happy for you— no, really, I truly am. Aang’s a good kid; I don’t need my memories to know that he’ll do right by you, no matter what.” He smiles warmly at her, and she returns it for a moment, bright and effusive. Then it dims, as sudden as the moon hiding behind a cloud. She stares at a spot over her shoulder, and Sokka follows her gaze to the bedside table.

On it lies Zuko’s betrothal necklace.

“Your… memory bricks,” she starts slowly, “for lack of a better word, are definitely still there. I felt them when I dropped the news about my engagement on you.”

Sokka’s heart soars. “That’s great, right? I can get my memories back?”

Katara hesitates, just enough for Sokka’s hope to begin wilting. “Potentially, yes. But there’s a problem.” She lowers her eyes to avoid his. “Whenever you get a shock to your system, through a deliberately triggered memory, these bricks get shoved further inside. What I told you just now… it gave you that shock. It wasn’t massive, but it was still enough to push your memories just slightly further out of reach.”

“Oh.” It’s all he can say, all he’s capable of saying at that moment. He sits back, head spinning.

Suki rubs at his arm, eyes sympathetic. “That doesn’t sound like they won’t come back, Sokka. We’ll just have to be extra careful about avoiding any triggering memories, that’s all.”

“Yeah,” he agrees faintly, “that’s all.”

“Suki’s right.” Katara hugs him from his other side. “For now, we’ll just have to wait for them to come back organically. That’s not so bad, right? Plus, the Northern Water Tribe healers will be here soon enough. Hopefully they’ll have better answers than I do. Yugoda’s been training them for years— they’ll be, like, pros at healing. I’m sure they’ll figure something out.”

“Yeah,” he says again, trying to inject a little strength into his voice. “I guess there’s no point worrying about it now.”

Katara and Suki give him twin smiles of reliefs. He lets his cheeks pull up with a mechanical grin, even as he begins preparing his heart for disappointment.

 


 

After Suki cajoles a passing guard to bring them all some breakfast, Sokka sits up straighter in bed. He pushes away his plates, all but wiped clean, and clears his throat.

“I want to go see Zuko,” he says, and watches with bemusement as Katara drops her teacup. It shatters with a dainty little tinkling sound, porcelain chips littering the floor.

“… Why?”

Sokka reaches for the betrothal necklace by the bedside. “I need to give this back,” he says, watching the light shine off the surface of the stone. The carved little flames flicker, almost as if they’re coming to life between his fingers. “And— I want to apologise to him.”

“About time,” mutters Suki.

“Umm,” starts Katara, eyes flicking nervously between the necklace in his hand and his face, “maybe you should wait until the healers—”

“Katara,” he says, voice serious. Katara’s mouth clicks shut. “You know I need to do this. I can’t keep putting it off forever. Besides,” he puts the necklace to the side, unable to look at it a moment longer, “remember how awful you felt when you lost your necklace at the prison rig?”

She grimaces at the memory. “Yeah. I’d have done anything to get it back.”

“Well, there you go. That’s probably how Zuko feels too, right?” He’s pushing it, but he knows he’s won when Katara’s eyes begin to soften, though there is an odd sadness in them too. “I’ve kept it from him long enough. And he didn’t— he didn’t even ask for it back. Not even once.” His voice cracks with guilt. “He let me keep it, all these days. He deserves to have it back.”

For a moment, she stands absolutely stock-still, studying his face. Whatever she finds there must have reassured her, for she lets out a slow exhale. “Alright. But I’m coming with you.”

“Oh, thank La, yes please,” he says in a rush, relieved beyond measure. “I was hoping you’d say that. This was gonna get so awkward otherwise.”

“Never pegged you as a coward, Sokka,” says Suki, in a faux-thoughtful manner.

Sokka gapes, then throws a pillow at her. Suki slams him in the face with another.

“Children, children,” sighs Katara, ever-suffering, as downy feathers begin raining down around her.

Sokka spits out a feather, gagging. He points at Suki, who still looks as unfairly put together as ever. “She started it!”

Katara turns to Suki. “We both know he’s currently regressed to the mental age of fifteen, though one could argue he never really passed twelve,” she says in a mildly disapproving tone, ignoring Sokka’s squawk of protest. “What’s your excuse?”

Suki shrugs. “Looked fun.”

A beat of silence. “Don’t you have a job to do?”

Suki slips off the bed, dusting off her robes as she goes. “Maybe.” She begins heading for the door. “Maybe not.”

She hesitates with her foot on the threshold, then turns around to look at Sokka. “Listen,” she says, “I know this must be difficult, apologising to the guy who was a massive pain in your ass”—she coughs; Katara throws the final undamaged pillow at her—"for so long, but I’m proud of you for this. You’re doing the right thing.”

Sokka is… oddly touched. He chooses to blame the tightness in his throat to the pillow feathers still floating around. “Thanks,” he chokes out.

Suki nods at him. “Try not to kill him this time,” she says. Though her tone is light, the hard glint in her eyes tells him she’s not joking. “You can probably imagine the death penalty for murdering the nation’s favourite Fire Lord in a hundred years. Spoiler: it’s pretty painful.”

With a flippant wave, she disappears around the door. Her voice echoes out from the hallway. “And fiery!”

In the sudden silence, Katara reaches out to pluck a feather from her brother’s hair. She sighs. “What did I do to deserve this?”

Chapter Text

Miura doesn’t budge. “The Fire Lord is not to be disturbed at this time,” she says. Picks at a non-existent hangnail without looking up. The set of doors behind her remain steadily shut.

Katara’s smile doesn’t twitch, though her left eye does. “Yes, you said that already. But. Consider this.” She glances back at Sokka, who is nonchalantly slumped against a nearby vase stand, then leans in closer to Miura. She lowers her voice, speaking in what she probably assumes to be a conspiratorial, inconspicuous tone. Sokka rolls his eyes.

“This is important.” Katara waggles her eyebrows to fully convey the seriousness of the situation.

Miura does not look interested. “The Fire Lord is not—”

“—to be disturbed, yes, I know, that’s what you’ve said for the past two days,” grinds out Katara, voice back to its normal volume. “Funny how he’s always busy, or in a meeting, or not to be disturbed, only when we show up. But he somehow found time for Minister Ena, or Councilman Shu, or even that awful, shouty little Ambassador from the Earth Kingdom—”

“Ugh, Ambassador Chenguang,” mutters Miura, impenetrable mask cracking to allow a scowl through.

“Oh, good, you remember.” Katara’s smile is sickly saccharine. “Well, you’ll also remember how you allowed all of them through to our dear, esteemed Fire Lord’s office mere moments after you refused to let us through. Hilarious, right?”

Miura exhales, the sound barely audible in the hallway.

There is a long stretch of silence. Sokka scratches his nose.

Then: “The Fire Lord—”

That’s it!

Katara’s hand goes to her waterskin bag. “Zuko, I know you’re in there! Let me in or I’m blasting down these doors, you know I won’t hesitate!” The unspoken ‘bitch’ hangs heavy in the air.

Miura casually swipes out her fan. She flips it open, fanning herself with narrowed eyes.

“Umm, Katara,” Sokka says, edging back from the scene. “Maybe we should—"

“You’ve got five seconds, Zuko! One!”

Miura takes out her second fan.

“Two!”

Sokka backs up even further, using the vase stand as a shield.

“Thr—”

“Miura, please let them in,” a weary voice calls out, nearly completely muted from behind the heavyset doors.

Sokka gingerly steps out from behind the stand. “Damn, that was some serious Mom energy,” he whispers to a smug Katara as Miura sighs, putting away her fan and gesturing for them to follow her inside. “Guess all that yelling at Toph paid off.”

“Didn’t work all that well on her, though, did it?” says Katara absently as she steps through the door. “Considering how she still ended up in prison.”

Sokka pauses at the threshold, mouth agape. Katara, noting his absence, turns back. Her eyes widen at his expression. “It’s not like that! She got herself arrested as a joke, but she accidentally started this metalbending cult with a few of the inmates, and then she obviously didn’t want to leave, and— you know what.” She pats his arm. “Let’s not have this conversation right now.”

“Good idea,” he replies weakly, clutching at the doorframe.

“Sokka,” she starts, hesitant. “We don’t have to do this right now. If you want, we can come back tomorrow—”

Sokka huffs. “And get turned away again? Nah, I’m fine. Honest.” He shakes himself off, aims what he hopes to be a steady smile in Katara’s direction. “Let’s get this over with.”

Katara gives him another one of her trademark worried looks, then nods.

“Just so you know,” says Miura from beside them, where she’s been watching this whole scene. “He hasn’t slept in a while. You,” she nods at Katara here, “know how dramatic he gets when he’s tired.” Though the words are flippant, there is a hard edge in the gaze she levels upon them. “So try not to give him a tough time. I’ll be right outside.”

“Is that a threat?—ow!”

“Thanks, Miura, we’ll keep that in mind,” says Katara, smiling at the Warrior and putting away her dangerously pointy elbow.

And with that, they step into the Fire Lord’s office.

It… isn’t as red as Sokka was expecting it to be. Sure, there are the typical red curtains, pulled apart by golden sashes to let in the late afternoon sunshine, and the carpet has intricate patterns weaved through in burgundy and gold. But the pale-yellow walls lend the space some warmth and tranquillity, making the large room seem a lot less intimidating. The furniture is all made of the same lacquered mahogany, dark and sleek and quietly expensive, with little dragons carved into the wood.

This includes the desk, behind which Zuko is currently hunched over, and the two armchairs arranged in front of it. He looks rather uncomfortable as they walk in, not making eye contact with either of them as they come to stand just behind the chairs. The desk is bare apart from a stack of paperwork (which Zuko seems suddenly engrossed in), a jug of water and three glasses.  

“Good afternoon,” he says, though from the way he says it, it seems like anything but.

“Thanks for the warm welcome,” says Katara dryly, arms crossing over her chest.

Zuko disappears further into his chair. “I, ah—you see—”

“It’s okay, just— you weren’t avoiding us, were you?”

“What? No,” says Lying Lord Zuko. “Of course not. I was just really… busy. Doing stuff. You know, Fire Lord duties. There’s just— ah, so many.”

Katara raises one eyebrow. “Uh-huh.”

“Plus, I thought you’d like some time to spend with your brother,” he continues, still not looking either of them in the eye. “I didn’t want to intrude on his healing.”

Sokka winces, remembering what had happened the last time Zuko had ‘intruded’.

Katara exchanges a glance with Sokka, urging him forward with her eyes. “Yes, thank you for that,” she says, turning back to Zuko with a warm smile. “But we’ve been wanting to see you. Specifically, Sokka, who has something to say. To you.”

Zuko finally raises his eyes from where they’ve been trained on the desk. He blinks at Sokka.

There is a pointed moment of silence. Katara clears her throat.

“I—yes,” Sokka says.

Another long pause.

Sokka is here to—”

Sokka shoves at his sister. “Yes. Hi.”

Zuko looks more apprehensive by the second. “Hello.”

“Hi,” Sokka says again, floundering. He aims for a polite smile; it feels more like a grimace. “So. Umm. I just wanted to— I mean, I came here to, like, tell you that I, uhh, you know.” He gestures loosely at himself. “What I mean to say is that I—you were—and I kind of, like—”

“Tui give me strength,” says Katara, pouring herself into one of the chairs opposite Zuko. “He’s here to apologise.”

Zuko looks at her sharply. “Apologise? Why?”

Both siblings stare at him. “Dude,” says Sokka, tone incredulous as he finally finds it within him to string together proper sentences. “You can’t be serious.”

From the blank look on Zuko’s face, it’s clear that Zuko is, indeed, serious.

“I hurt you,” says Sokka, blunt. Zuko recoils. “That day, when I woke up. I practically strangled you—”

“You what?” interrupts Katara. “You didn’t tell me that!”

“—and then I stole your necklace. Your necklace,” he says, taking out said necklace from his pocket, “that I took because I thought it was my sister’s. Plus all the stuff I said the other day, that was kind of rude too, now that I think about it. I never meant for you to hear it, though that’s not really an excuse. So.” He places the necklace, carving side down, on Zuko’s desk. “I’m sorry.”

Zuko inhales quietly, looking shell-shocked. He reaches out for the necklace, fingers trembling very slightly, then draws his hand back without touching it.

When he speaks, his voice is flat. Emotionless. “Thank you for returning it to me,” he says without lifting his gaze from the necklace. “You’re free to leave.”

Katara leans forward in her chair, brows furrowed with concern. “Zuko—”

“You can leave,” he says, raising his voice. It cracks at the end. “Please.”

Though he tries not to take it personally, a part of Sokka stings at the abject lack of acceptance of his apology. Well, he tried. “Katara, let’s go.”  

He’s just turning around to leave when Katara says, “At least let me heal the injuries you’re probably hiding under that collar first.”

There is the crash of a chair falling backwards, followed by a harsh, “No.”

Sokka whirls around to find Zuko backed up into the wall behind his desk, breathing hard. His hands are curled around his neck, whole body almost vibrating with tension.

Katara is also on her feet, hands outstretched, frozen in shock.

“No, thank you,” he repeats curtly, straightening himself out so that his fists come to clench by his sides. “I’m fine. Drop it.”

“Zuko—”

Drop it.”

“Listen,” she starts, almost pleading, but Sokka doesn’t give her a chance to finish.

“What’s your problem, dude?” he asks, irritation sharpening his words. “She’s just trying to help you, so don’t take that tone with her. I get if you don’t want to accept my apology—”

Zuko barks out an incredulous laugh, eyes wild. “I don’t need your apology.”

Sokka rears back, stung. “Well, fuck you too, then.”

“No, wait, that’s not what I meant—”

“You mean you didn’t mean to sound like a complete asshole? Newsflash: you’re kind of good at it.”

“Sokka!” Katara shoves herself in front of him, blocking his path. He hadn’t even realised he’d taken a step forward until now. “That’s enough.”

Sokka scoffs. “Whatever. I’m out of here.”

He grabs Katara’s arm, intending to tow her away by force if necessary, when Zuko’s voice stops him in his tracks.

“I don’t need your apology because I don’t deserve it!”

Sokka slowly turns back to look at him.

Zuko leans heavily on the back of his chair, fingers clenching white over the headrest. Not for the first time, Sokka is struck by just how exhausted he looks— eyes sunken, skin wan. A shadow of the proud boy who’d once chased them across oceans.

“I don’t deserve your apology, Sokka. Because you were right, that night in the infirmary. I’ve hurt you more than you’ve ever had a chance to hurt me.” He lowers his head, almost stooping over the chair. His hair falls to either side of his face, shielding it from view. “I don’t blame you for your actions, or your words. If I did, I’d be the biggest hypocrite around. And you weren’t even in your right mind when you—when you—”

Zuko raises his head, and Sokka almost takes a step back at the awful, empty look on his face. “You weren’t in your right mind,” he repeats, “but even so, after all I’d done to you, I’m surprised you didn’t do worse. That I’d probably have deserved.”

“Zuko!” Katara shouts, looking stricken. “Stop it!”

“At this point the scales are tipped so far against me, that this?” Zuko gestures to his face, his throat. Doesn’t acknowledge the necklace lying between them. “This wasn’t even a drop in the ocean in comparison. And I’m trying, Agni,” Zuko huffs out a broken laugh, “I’m trying. I’ve been trying, these last few years. But—” He breaks off, breathing hard.

“Hey, man, maybe you should sit down,” says Sokka, because Zuko has started to sway a little where he’s standing, and it wouldn’t do anyone any good if the Fire Lord collapsed in his own office in the presence of two Water Tribe members. He can’t imagine it’ll be easy explaining how that happened to the guards.

Oh, Spirits— Miura’s going to murder them. Sokka swallows, his throat suddenly dry.

“Katara, maybe we should call in Miura.”

At this, Zuko stiffens further. “Don’t.”

“No, dude, I really think we should—”

“Did you know,” says Zuko, and the hollow casualness of his voice raises the hairs on Sokka’s arm, “that I broke Miura’s arm?”

Stunned silence descends upon the room.

“It was when I attacked you guys at Kyoshi Island. You know, back when my life’s mission was to capture Aang and take him to Ozai?” He laughs again, the sound bitter as it bounces off the walls. His eyes are dull, a flat gold. “You probably remember it better than me. It was her first week as a fully-fledged Kyoshi Warrior, and all she was doing was defending her home. But I was so blinded by my arrogance and my anger, by my need to regain my honour, that I stopped listening to my morals. How many did I harm, in my obsession? How many others were the casualties of my senseless violence, carried out in the name of a duty I was too weak to question?”

His voice drops to a whisper, a confession almost too painful to be said aloud. “You know, I don’t even remember hurting her. She was just another face in my way.”

Katara reaches out for him, unshed tears pooling in her eyes. “Zuko, please. You’re not that person anymore, you can’t still believe—”

He shies away from her touch, haunted gaze never once leaving Sokka’s. “So, no,” he says. “You’re well within your right to hate me. Not when you don’t even remember that—” His fingers clench and unclench by his sides. “I don’t deserve your apology. Not yet. Not like this. Not when I still have so much to apologise for.”

Sokka does not speak. He just looks at Zuko, who is shaking, gripping the chair for support. Looks at the taut line of his shoulders, at the guilt radiating off him in waves.

He’s suddenly reminded of Aang, that day he had accidentally burned Katara’s palms. The kid had looked so flooded with shame, almost drooping with remorse about what he had done. When he’d finally sucked up the guts to face Katara, wrecked with the awful realisation that he’d hurt her, he had stood in front of her the same way Zuko stands now; defeated, right down to the bone. The similarity is kind of uncanny.

And then he thinks of Miura, of the respect in her voice when she’d spoken to Zuko in Katara’s quarters. The protective stance she had taken outside the doors when Katara had threatened to break them down. The badly hidden concern in her eyes when she’d told them to take it easy on Zuko. It is not the behaviour of a person who has been caused undue pain by the one they are being forced to guard.

The wheels turn in his head. Abruptly, he thinks: something doesn’t add up. And he thinks he knows what the common variable is.

All of a sudden, Sokka’s had enough.

He reaches out for the jug of water, sitting innocuously on the desk, and splashes it in Zuko’s face.

Both Katara and Zuko gape at him, the latter spluttering like a drowned cat-owl.

“Yeah, no, bad Fire Lord,” Sokka says, echoing Taktuq from a few days ago. He places the empty jug back down on the desk. “Hmm. For some reason, this wasn’t as satisfying as I was imagining it to be.”

“Sokka, what are you doing?” hisses Katara.

“Miura was right, you know.” Sokka slides into a seat, next to the chair Katara had been occupying. He kicks his feet up on the desk. “You do get dramatic when you’re tired. Maybe you should rethink your career choice. Ever considered auditioning for the theatre?”

Zuko looks lost for words, blinking water out of his eyes.

Sokka gestures for both of them to sit down. They both comply, albeit warily, Zuko’s hair dripping onto the desk below as he sags into his chair like a mannequin with cut strings.

“Here’s the deal,” Sokka says. “Sure, you were an ass for a long time. You had some anger issues, probably some daddy issues,”—Zuko flinches imperceptibly— "and a whole host of other, let’s call them ‘flame first, ask questions later’ issues. But it’s been five years since then.” He pauses. “That’s a long time to feel sorry for yourself.”

There is a flash of something in Zuko’s eyes, a welcome change from the lifelessness previously occupying them. Finally.

Sokka puts his feet down, slumping forward in his chair in as aggravating a way he knows how, coming to rest with his elbows on the desk instead. “Do you do that a lot? Sit here all alone, in this big, shiny office, and brood about your past? You do look like the brooding type, I guess. Is that one of your 'official' duties?”

A muscle jumps in Zuko’s jaw.

Katara eyes the both of them, growing more nervous by the second. “Sokka, what are you—”

“So you feel bad, huh?” Sokka continues, shining his nails against his tunic, then admiring them in the light. “Boo hoo. Let me be the first to play the world’s smallest violin for you.” He mimes holding one, drawing a tiny invisible bow across his hand. “Sad little Fire Lord, pretending he has feelings like the rest of the commoners.”

“Enough!” roars Zuko, slamming his hands on the desk. He pushes himself upright, steam escaping from flared nostrils. “Just— go! Leave!”

Sokka gets to his feet at a leisurely pace, ignoring Zuko’s white-faced fury. Tui and La, how did he ever think this guy used to be scary?

“Did you mean it?” he asks, crossing his arms over his chest.

Zuko seems thrown off by the question, confusion replacing anger. “I— what?”

“Did you mean to break her arm?”

The instant horror that crosses Zuko’s face answers for him. “No, of course not! I just wanted to—”

“Or to steal Katara’s necklace?”

“I never stole it! I found it on—”

Sokka hardens his voice. “What about burning down Suki’s village?”

Zuko’s eyes flood with guilt. “I— That was never intentional, I swear—”

“Did you,” he asks, deliberate and slow, “want Aang to get hit by lightning? For him to die at your sister’s hands?”

Zuko jerks back, as if slapped.

The puddles of water on Zuko’s desk rise up suddenly, slamming into Sokka’s face with such force that his cheeks sting.

“That’s enough,” says Katara, voice dangerously low. Her arms are raised in front of her. “Time to go, Sokka.”

“Wait.” Zuko grips the edge of his desk, head hanging low on his neck.

Sokka wipes off the water from his face and does as he’s asked.

“I— I should never have betrayed you, in Ba Sing Se. That was the worst mistake of my life.” The misery that drips from Zuko’s voice is a testament to his words. He looks drained by his earlier outburst. “And I’ve regretted it every day since. I know you don't believe me, but... I truly am sorry.”

“Hmm.” Sokka pretends to absorb that for a moment, hand held thoughtfully under his chin. “Okay.”

Katara throws up her hands and spins around, clearly washing her hands of the situation.

“Okay?” repeats Zuko, dumbfounded.

“Sure,” says Sokka. “I’m assuming you had a change of heart and helped us win the war?”

“I—yeah, pretty much.”

“Cool. Guessed as much. Tell me something else, though— why didn’t you stop me?”

“What?” says Zuko, the sound closer to a "Wha’h” as he flaps his jaw open and closed, looking whiplashed.

“When I attacked you in the infirmary.” Sokka taps his chin, squinting at Zuko. “You could have stopped me at any point. We both know you could have. I mean, the first time we met, you knocked me on my ass within seconds. So why didn’t you?”

When it becomes clear that Zuko isn’t going to reply, Sokka changes tack.

“Are you a masochist?”

What?” Zuko stares at him, aghast. The guy looks like he’s in desperate need of a nap. Spirits, Katara looks like she’s in desperate need of a nap at this point. She also looks slightly green at the question.

Sokka drawls out his words, like he’s talking to a particularly slow child. “Do you enjoy getting hurt? Is that what you’re into? Are you turned on by—”

“No!” My, how flustered Zuko looks.

“Then why did you—”

Zuko sweeps his hand out. The glass jug slams into the wall, shattering on impact. “Because I didn’t want to hurt you!” he yells, chest heaving. “Because I care about you! Because I— I—”

His eyes flick to Katara’s, who shakes her head minutely. Zuko’s shoulders slump as he visibly loses all his steam. “Just because,” he finishes, defeated.

“I think I know why.” Sokka’s smile is sagacious. Both Katara and Zuko whip their heads around and stare at him, the latter’s eyes filling with what looks like stunned disbelief.

“You do?” There is a hopeful note in his voice. His lips lift up in the smallest of smiles.

“Yeah. Because I’m your friend?” He chuckles. Zuko’s smile freezes. “Suki told me. Who’d have thought, right?”

Sokka feels more than sees Katara drop into her chair by his side, head in her hands. He guesses she’s finally tired of all the melodrama.

“Yeah,” breathes out Zuko, a strange look on his face. “Who’d have thought.”

“But that tells me all it needs to. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, actually, these last few days.” And he had— all that loitering outside Zuko’s office, trying to avoid Miura’s glare, had given him plenty of time to go over the puzzle pieces; at last, he was able to put them together.

“We could only have been friends if I’d already forgiven you for everything you’d done.” Sokka takes a step forward. “And that tells me that you must obviously have changed for the better.”

He’s not blind; the fondness in Suki and Katara’s voice when they speak of Zuko? The schoolboy adoration that Taktuq carries for him despite Zuko’s position as Fire Lord, the leader of the nation that nearly decimated the Water Tribes? The way Miura stands vigilant even now outside his door, dispensing words of concern for the man who thinks he deserves nothing but her hatred? It all points to one inevitable conclusion, and one that Sokka doesn’t struggle to accept as much as he might have thought he would.

Another step forward until his legs hit the desk, the necklace laying forgotten between them. “Like I said— five years is a long time to feel sorry for yourself. So, I guess the real question is: why haven’t you forgiven yourself, Zuko?”

Zuko looks very, very lost. He takes a step back, adding more to the distance Sokka is trying to end. “I don’t know how,” he finally says, voice small.

Sokka smiles at him. It should feel strange, smiling at the one whom he once considered his nemesis, but somehow its as easy as breathing. “Well, again, you’re under no obligation to accept my apology. But you could let Katara heal you, for starters.”

Zuko stands there for a moment, just looking at Sokka. The afternoon sun shines on the scarred half his face, casting the other half with shadows. It makes it difficult to see his expression.

“Alright.”

Sokka suppresses a fist-pump. “Katara?”

Katara crosses to the other side of the desk, bringing up her hands. Her voice is gentle, like she’s talking to a skittish animal. “Open your collar for me, Zuko?”

Zuko reaches for his neck, movements wooden. He unties the string on his collar, pulls them apart.

Katara gasps.

Though days have passed, the ring of bruises around Zuko’s neck remains a dark, ugly band. Purpling yellow smudges bloom against his skin— fingerprints.

Sokka feels his gorge rise at the sight. “Fuck, Zuko— I— oh, Spirits—”

 

A stone in one hand, a small knife in the other. Shaved pieces of rock slipping down the side of his fingers. A picture emerging, slowly at first, then all at once— the carved lines smoothing into little waves, fanning out into three identical shapes etched deeper with every cut. Then a little space at the top, perfect for a simple steel clasp.

Finally, a ribbon threaded through— the darkest of blues, gleaming against his skin. (Oh, to think how soon it will be gleaming around his neck—)

 

He comes back to the present on his knees, held in between two sets of hands.

“What,” he murmurs. One set disappears.

He rubs at his eyes, and Katara appears in front of him. “It happened again,” she says, grim.

Sokka pushes one shaking hand through his hair, kneading at his aching head. “Ugh, why can’t I remember—”

“I’m sorry.”

“Huh?” Sokka swings his head around, wincing at the effort it takes.

Zuko sits on Sokka’s left, legs splayed ungracefully out in front of him. He looks terrified, eyes wide with anguish. “I didn’t know that was going to happen, I’m so sorry, I—”

Sokka holds up one hand, and Zuko immediately silences. His collar is still open, displaying the horrific bruises, and Sokka… Sokka suddenly needs some space.

“You didn’t do anything,” he says, voice rough, as he pushes himself off the floor. Katara holds him up, steadying him as he stands, and he leans into her gratefully. “But I did.”

He looks at her and she nods, depositing him into his chair. With her hands free, she directs the water out of her bag. It circles Zuko’s throat, glowing and blue. After a few moments, the bruises fade like the last petals of summer, leaving behind unblemished skin. At a small gesture from Katara, the water winds its way through the air to Sokka’s head. He sighs as the pain dissipates.

“There,” says Katara, popping the cork back on. “No need to thank me or anything. I’m fine with being underappreciated, as always.”

Her wry tone cuts through the tension, relaxing Sokka’s shoulders. “Thanks, Katara, oh dearest sister of mine, great Killer of Pain.”

She sniffs, hiding her pleased look behind her hand as she flips him off.

He pulls himself to his feet, then reaches a hand down to where Zuko is still slumped on the floor.

Zuko stares at his hand for just a second too long. Just as Sokka is thinking about pulling it away, a little miffed, he grabs it with his own. Sokka pulls him up.

Zuko’s hands are soft, he notes with absent curiosity, except for a few calluses dotted at his fingertips and palm. It makes for a strange contrast.

“I’m sor—”

“Do not,” interrupts Sokka, looking… down? For Zuko is standing at his full height, but he still ends up a little below Sokka. Not a lot, but enough to be noticeable— a few inches at most. Huh, when did that happen? (He can’t say he’s not a little pleased with this development. Finally! Something to lord over the… Fire Lord. Hmm, maybe not.)

He realises he’s still holding on to Zuko’s hand, and immediately lets go, cheeks flushing. “As far as I’m concerned,” he says, sobering, “we’re more than even. What I did to you… fuck, Zuko. Maybe I wasn’t in my right mind, sure, but that doesn’t excuse this. I’m sorry.”

“Do not,” says Zuko, parroting his words back at him. He pulls at his collar, revealing his unmarked neck. He gives Sokka a look filled with earnest sincerity, and Sokka is struck once again at how different this Zuko is in comparison to the one in his memories; it’s almost like he’s standing next to a completely new person. “Like you said: we’re even.”

The slam of a door against the wall makes all three of them jump. “My Lord, with all due respect— what the fuck,” says Miura, marching into the room, fans open to their full deadly span, “is going on in here? Who’s dying? Who do I hurt and or maim?”

“Miura,” says Zuko, more than a little bemused. “Please stand down. Everything’s fine.”

Mura eyes him— assessing him for injuries, probably. Satisfied that he’s still in one piece, she turns to Sokka, her gaze suddenly laden with suspicion.

Sokka glares at her. “I didn’t do anything!” Katara muffles a cough into her fist. “… This time,” he amends, more than a little guiltily.

Miura harrumphs, then exits the room with a little glare of her own.

“Thank you, Miura,” calls out Zuko as the door shuts once more. “I owe you a raise!”

The tinge of fondness in his voice furthers Sokka’s determination to do this well, and to do it right. “Listen,” he says, turning back to Zuko. “I don't really know what's going on with my head right now, and I don't know if I'll ever get my memories back. But I'm willing to put the past behind me if you are. So, let's start afresh.” He puts out his hand. “Friends?”

Zuko doesn’t move. He just looks at Sokka, eyes ringed with shadows. There seems to be a strange sadness in his gaze, which is odd because all Sokka is offering is a handshake.

Once again, Sokka wavers at the pause, but then Zuko casts his eyes to the desk. His expression clears into something decisive. Instead of taking the proffered hand, he grabs Sokka’s forearm with a firm grip, clasping it in the Water Tribe style. Sokka is… more than a little impressed at his technique. Clearly, he’s had some practice at this.

And then, like the sun coming out from behind a cloud, Zuko smiles. It’s a little small and unsure, but it’s determined, and that’s all that matters. “Friends.”

Chapter Text

“Thought I told you to hold still.”

“I am.”

“No, you’re not. I swear, Sokka if you so much as twitch again—”

“What, so now I can’t even breathe—”

Not if you don’t want to stop breathing altogether.”

“Guys,” interrupts Suki, eyeing the razor held in Katara’s hands as it descends menacingly towards Sokka’s neck, “maybe you should consider taking a little break.”

“Also, blood is super hard to get off clothes,” chimes in Ty Lee from where she’s leaning over Suki, her arm slung across her shoulder. She looks highly entertained by the scene in front of her, while Suki just tosses up her hands, exasperated. “Just throwing that out there.”

Katara sighs, lowering the razor. Just as Sokka’s about to relax, she grabs his chin and dives in again, scraping off the last bit of hair from his cheek. “There we go,” she says, patting his indignant, and now hairless, face. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

“You monster,” gasps Sokka. “You didn’t even say ‘sneak attack’!”

His sister doesn’t even spare him a second glance as she finishes wiping the blade clean. “I thought we’d already established that sneak attacks work best when you don’t yell about them out loud beforehand.”

She reaches for his chin again, though this time her touch is gentler as she turns his face towards the bathroom mirror. “Well, what do you think?”

Sokka stares at his twenty-year-old face through his fifteen-year-old eyes. With his jaw and sides freshly shaved and hair up in its customary wolftail, it’s the closest he’s looked to his younger self since he’s woken up. Even so, it’s not quite the same, and the small differences add up to a much different picture than what he’s used to. Though the dissonance between how he thinks he looks and the actual reality of it gets smaller with each passing day, it’s still enough to make his breath go a little tight when he thinks about it too hard.

“It looks good. Thanks, Katara,” he says a little roughly, aware that too much time has passed in between her question and his answer. He swallows, tries to inject some humour into his voice. “And thanks for not slitting my throat when you had the chance. I’m sure it must’ve been really difficult to hold yourself back like that.”

Kata smiles at him in the mirror, eyes soft and full of understanding. She always was too good at reading him. “Wasn’t as difficult as you seem to think, actually.” And he knows she’s not just talking about helping him shave. He smiles back at her, a wavering little thing, but real all the same.

“Plus, I’ve done this for Aang a few times too, so I’d like to think I’m halfway decent at it by now,” she continues, setting the blade aside and picking up an opaque bottle—aftershave, Sokka assumes. The fancy kind, too, from the looks of it. Got to love being friends with the Fire Lord—it sure came with its perks. “Not that Aang moves around as much as you do. Spirits, Sokka, it’s like you’ve got beetle-ants in your pants.”

“Aang can’t have gotten facial hair yet. He’s, like, five,” Sokka says, sanctimoniously ignoring Katara’s jab at him. He grins at her when she opens her mouth, no doubt intending to tell him off, and she chooses to roll her eyes at him instead.

“Speaking of Aang, why didn’t he come with you?” he asks.

Sokka’s not upset, not really, but he can’t say he doesn’t miss him. After travelling with him for so long, he’s gotten used to Aang’s infectious enthusiasm and boundless energy. He’d been looking forward to seeing him, taking in the changes that five years would have wrought upon the shortstack. Though trying to imagine Aang with a beard hurts his brain, just a little. It’s a bit like trying to imagine Momo tapdancing—not impossible altogether, but really weird if it happened, nonetheless.

Katara stills with her back to him, but Sokka can see her expression in the mirror anyway. She’s frowning, but her eyes are wistful. “He’s somewhere in the remote parts of the Earth Kingdom, off doing his Avatar duties. He’s been pretty busy since the war ended,” she replies, popping open the bottle in her hands. She takes a sniff and recoils, eyes watering. “Eugh. Anyway, he’s hard to reach by messenger hawk, but he manages to send a letter once or twice a month. I haven’t had a chance to tell him about… you know.” Sokka nods to himself— he doesn’t need to ask what she means by that. “But he’s okay. Had a growth spurt before he left, actually. Pretty sure he’ll be taller than even you soon.”

“He can try,” Sokka says, trying to curb his smirk. Considering how he’s even taller than even Zuko now, he highly doubts that Aang, of all people, will be able to beat that record. Though for some reason, Katara looks pretty smug in the mirror, like she knows something he doesn’t.

“You know, Sokka,” says Ty Lee, pouting slightly at the apparent lack of bloodshed. “When you asked Katara to help you shave, I didn’t expect it to take you nearly an hour to get it done.”

“Yeah, well, you can’t rush art, y’know?” He flashes her a winning smile.

All three women groan.

“C’mon,” says Suki, rolling her eyes. She tugs at Ty Lee’s wrist. “It’s nearly lunchtime. Taktuq’s probably at the dining room already. And you know how much he hates waiting.”

Katara dabs a little aftershave onto her hands, then slaps her palms against Sokka’s cheeks without warning. “Wait for us,” she says over Sokka’s loud yowling, “we’re just about finished here.” She waits until he quietens down, rubbing at his stinging cheeks with a petulant expression on his face.

Then, she bestows upon him the sweetest of smiles. “Sneak attack.”

 


 

Over the last few days, lunchtimes have become the highlight of Sokka’s day.

For starters, the food. For all the Fire Nation’s (many, many) faults, their food is not one of them. Steaming plates of dumplings? Inhaled within seconds. Platters of perfectly seasoned komodo-rhino sausages? Yes, please. Skewers of hippo-ox tail, glistening with fat? Already making their way down his throat. Bowls ladled to the brim with fire noodle soup? … Depends on the level of spices, actually.

And that’s not even mentioning the dessert: soft bundles of mochi filled with the most delicate of flavours, ranging from mango to pink berry and everything in between; freshly baked hotcakes, served with lashings of syrup; and his new favourite thing in the whole world— ice cream. Sokka has, on more than one occasion, contemplated asking the kitchen staff to just fill a bathtub with scoops of the stuff so that he can spend his day alternating between floating in the creamy goodness to escape the heat, and also maybe swimming in it with his mouth open. Hey, he’s a supposed war hero—surely it wouldn’t be too big an ask, right?

Today, the menu consists of piles of lemon-steamed fish, garnished with herbs and flecks of pepper and accompanied with generous helpings of steamed rice and buns. Sokka’s just finished setting his plate, batting away Taktuq’s hands as he reaches for one of his buns—“Get your own! There’s literally piles of the stuff.” “But, Sokka, you took the best one!” “They all look the exact same!”— when the dining room doors swing open once more.

Sokka looks up from the fierce protection of his buns to Kustaa and Zuko standing in the doorway, the latter of whom gives Sokka an awkward little wave as they step inside the room. Sokka waves back, slightly distracted from where Taktuq is still trying to sneak Sokka’s bun out from under his nose, the sneaky little shit. Kustaa clears his throat from where he stands beside Zuko, poking Zuko in the arm to gain back his attention.

“As I was saying,” says Kustaa, “I’ve made preparations for the Northern Water Tribe healers to stay in the west wing, as per your request, but I just need you to sign off on a few more things prior to their arrival.”

“Whatever you need, Kustaa,” answers Zuko as he takes his place at the table, crossing his legs with a regal grace that Sokka wouldn’t be able to emulate in a million years. Since their chat in Zuko’s office, his face has regained some of its colour, even if the bag under his eye seems to have made a permanent home there. He’s lost his outer layer of robes, looking much more comfortable in the thin tunic and loose trousers that he seems to prefer for their informal group lunches, though his collar is still done up tight.

(Sokka briefly wonders if he’s wearing his betrothal necklace under there, then banishes the thought. It’s none of his business, after all.)

Zuko gives Suki an absent nod as he settles next to her. “Just have the papers sent to my chambers after the meal, please.”

Kustaa nods as he helps himself to a serving of fish. “Excellent, dear nephew.”

Sokka’s spoon, heaped with rice, pauses halfway to his mouth.

“Katara,” whispers Sokka to his left, where his sister is picking apart her fish and eying the bones as if they’ve personally offended her. “Did Kustaa and General Iroh happen to get married in the last five years?”

Zuko chokes on his plum wine from across the table.

“No,” says Kustaa dryly, raising his voice over the sounds of Suki thumping Zuko on the back. “Why ever would you think that? Although,” and here his eyes get a contemplative gleam as he taps his chin, “the man does make the most excellent tea. Say, Zuko, is your other uncle currently single?”

“Yes,” says Ty Lee immediately from Suki’s right, even as Zuko shouts out a hoarse, “No!

He jabs a chopstick in both Kustaa and Ty Lee’s direction, eyes narrowed. “Stay away from my uncle!”

Ty Lee sticks her tongue out at him. “You’re no fun.”

Sokka bursts out laughing at the murderous expression on Zuko’s face, and then Katara joins in, and suddenly the whole table is laughing, loud and free at the expense of the Fire Lord. Eventually, even Zuko’s lips begin twitching at the ends; he rubs at the back of his head, abashed, his cheeks flaring pink. He gives a helpless little smile to Sokka, who returns it with ease. Something soft flickers through Zuko’s eyes, but it’s too quick to catch, and by the time Sokka blinks Zuko is already looking away.  

Soon they all turn to their meals, the table filling with chatter. Kustaa and Ty Lee begin arguing about how accurate auras are in determining the state of someone’s health. Katara chides Zuko on not eating enough, who proceeds to shove a whole bun in his mouth in protest, cheeks bulging, which makes Katara laugh. Suki and Taktuq debate the merits of getting drunk via plum wine versus sorghum liquor—apparently, the latter (according to Taktuq, with Ty Lee solemnly nodding in the background) provides a much more efficient way to get absolutely plastered, though the subsequent hangover is supposed to be a bitch.

Sokka looks around the room, at the smiling faces of his sister and his friends, both old and new, as they chat and eat and fill the room with sounds of comfortable familiarity. And he finds himself thinking, unprompted, I could get used to this.

Then he realises that, amongst the hubbub, Taktuq has successfully nabbed the bun off his plate. His smile drops off his face.

Hey!

 


 

Things fall into an easy routine.

Sokka wakes up, gets dressed, waits for Katara to come by with breakfast. Sometimes Suki accompanies her, sometimes it’s Ty Lee who comes bearing platters of pastries and biscuits and a dainty little teapot. This morning it is Miura who dumps the tray on Sokka’s bedside table without a word, all the while staring him in the eye until she’s left the room to take up her post just outside the door.

When she’s well out of earshot, Sokka eyes the tray suspiciously. “What if she’s poisoned the tea?”

Katara glares at him, unimpressed. “Considering she’s saved your life on more than once occasion, it’d probably slightly counterproductive of her to do so.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure,” Sokka mutters under his breath. “…Wait. Saved me from what?”

There is a flash of panic on her face, there and gone within a second. She flaps a vague hand around. “Oh, you know. The usual. Tripping in front of a moving carriage. Choking on a grape.” A cough. “Assassination attempts.”

“I don’t even like grapes,” says Sokka, and then the last part of her sentence catches up with him. “Did you say assassination… attempts? As in, multiple?”

When Katara nods, a little apprehensive, he breaks out into a wide grin. “That’s so cool! Guess I must be super important then, if I’ve nearly been murdered a few times for it. Hmm, how many? Three? Five? I bet it’s closer to ten—"

Katara responds by bending the tea out of his cup and splashing it onto his face. When he finishes wiping lukewarm leaf juice from his eyes, he finds her face thunderous.

“Not funny, Sokka!” she snaps. Pushing herself to her feet, she strides to the window.

He follows her there, laying a tentative hand on her shoulder. “Hey, I was just goofing around. I didn’t mean to upset you.” He nudges at her until she turns to face him, and silently curses himself at the distraught look on her face. “But obviously, I survived! That’s gotta mean something, right? It’ll take more than one dumb assassin to get rid of me.”

But his sister continues to look away, unwilling to meet his eyes, and he knows there’s something he’s missing. The feeling has begun to become annoyingly familiar. “Katara—”

“It’s how it happened,” she whispers, sweeping a hand over his temple. “It’s how you lost your memories.”

“How I— oh.”

And she’s right. It really isn’t that funny.

“You were… Zuko’s letter said that you were ambushed, in the private royal gardens. He and you were taking a stroll or something, and he’d dismissed the Kyoshi Warriors for the afternoon. That’s why Suki— that’s why she and Zuko feel so awful about it. I keep telling them it’s not their fault, but.” She pauses, wringing her hands.

Sokka tries to keep his breathing steady. There is a familiar pain building at the back of his head, grey tinging the edges of his sight (not now), but he fights it (not now), and somehow… somehow it recedes, just a little bit.

“He said they came out of nowhere,” continues Katara, eyes far away. Sokka’s vision wavers.

 

Unsheathing his sword at the last second. The sudden clashing of steel. But, oh Spirits— he’s the only one who’s armed.

“Watch out!”

 

Sokka blinks. He’s in his bedroom. Was he somewhere else, just then?

Katara doesn’t seem to see the struggle on Sokka’s face as he fights his mind, and he’s distantly grateful for it. “There were five of them. You both fought most of them off, but one managed to—”

 

Heat along his side, at once protective and destructive. The scream of the last attacker as they are caught in the flames, the others lying felled around them.

 

“—hit you on the head while your back was turned. You—”

 

Turning. Scanning the other top to bottom, looking for injuries, bruises—nothing. Knees going weak with relief.

Eyes meeting a relieved golden gaze that is suddenly sharpening with panic, their lips forming around a name, a warning that comes far too late.

“Sokka!”

And then—

 

The echo of his name rings in his ears.

“What?” he asks, interrupting her. He looks around the room, towards the door.

Katara pauses, takes a closer look at him. “What, what?”

“… Nothing. Thought I heard— anyway. You were saying?”

Katara looks as if she’s going to call him out on it, but he sees it in her eyes when she lets it go.

Her voice had been wavering, he thinks, but when she lays her hand on his, hers is not the one that is shaking. She leads him back towards the chairs. “The whole way here, I was scared out of my mind. You’d already been unconscious for a day by the time Zuko had sent for me, and Kustaa couldn’t figure out what was wrong with you, and—Tui and La, Sokka, all I could think of was that I couldn’t lose you too. Not you, not after everything.”

Sokka’s head is spinning too much to reply, but Katara seems to understand his silence anyway, even if she doesn’t know the cause of it. She grips his hand tighter, tugging him in the direction of the washroom instead. “Let’s go start the session,” she says gently.

 


 

The healing sessions, as they had been for the past few days, involve Sokka lying fully clothed in his gargantuan bathtub. He rests his head on Katara’s lap as she fills up the tub from the taps, closing his eyes as the water rises around him. When it submerges all but his nose, he feels Katara lay her hands on either side of his head. He can see the glow of the water even from behind his closed lids. “Remember to concentrate,” he thinks he hears her say, though the water surrounding his ears muffles her words.

In the previous sessions, he’d accidentally fallen asleep in this position; surrounded by the gentle lull of the water, and the warmth of his sister’s presence, it had been easy for him to slip away into the comforting darkness. He’d woken up spluttering on water more than once, Katara glaring at him as she pushed him off her lap.

Today he has no such luck. His mind swirls and swirls, trying to think, to remember. He concentrates harder than he ever has, keeping his breathing measured even as his forehead scrunches with the effort of throwing himself into his memories, the water lapping at his sides.

Someone had called his name. He knows this, even if he knows nothing else from the brief static that had occupied his thoughts when Katara had spoken of the attack. They’d called out to him, and their voice had been terrified.

But behind his eyes, all he sees is more of the same, a familiar and unwelcome refrain. Running Azula lightning screaming fire Suki Dad. The invasion. The gaping sense of loss in his chest, the sharp sting of failure in his eyes.

And then, like the jagged edges of pages missing from a book, his memories skip ahead. To gold eyes widening in shock. To fingers tightening around a throat.

He jerks up from Katara’s lap, sending water flying everywhere.

“It’s not working,” he snaps, chest heaving. “We’ve been at it for days. Why isn’t it working?”

Katara looks back without flinching, compassion filling her gaze. It makes him scowl even harder. “We need to give it time, Sokka. You know it’s not that simple—”

“Maybe you’re just not trying hard enough!”

But as soon as the words leave his mouth, regret takes their place. He grasps for Katara’s hands, ducking his head with shame. “I’m sorry. I know you’re doing your best. But—”

“It’s okay. You’re frustrated; I get it.” She reaches forward to tuck his wet locks behind his ear, her fingers cool against his skin. But there is a downcast tilt to her eyes, and for a second he hates himself with a fierce intensity, aching with the knowledge that he is the reason behind her pain. “I just wish…”

“What?” he asks, voice as gentle as he can make it.

A tear slips down her cheek. “I know the Northern Water Tribe healers will be able to help you better than I can, but I just wish I knew how to fix this for you. I wish I was enough to help you.”

It’s an echo of Suki’s words from the other day, but that doesn’t stop his heart from feeling like it could splinter in two. “Oh, Katara,” he says, then tugs her into her arms. She comes willingly, and the two sit in the middle of the tub, surrounded by gentle wisps of steam. “You’re more than enough. It’s not your fault that you’re struggling with my sausage of a brain. Who knows what’s going on up there?” He taps at his head, pasting on a grin at the meaty thunk of it. But when it fails to elicit a smile from her, he drops his hand back into the water with a splash.

He pulls her forward to rest his chin atop her head and feels her sniffle against his chest. Eww, against his wet tunic. He can’t imagine that being comfortable for her, but she doesn’t seem to mind.

“You know,” he says faux-thoughtfully, “maybe Jeong Jeong was right.”

“Hmm? About what?”

“Maybe I really am an oaf. That would explain a lot, wouldn’t it?”

He feels her giggle against his chest. “I almost forgot he said that. It feels so long ago, now.” There is a pause, as they both think back to times that seem much simpler than now. Who’d have known that trying to find Aang a firebending teacher would have been the least of their worries? He wonders if they went back to Jeong Jeong for that, or found someone else instead.

“You do project an oafish kind of energy, sometimes,” she agrees after a while, pulling him out of his thoughts, and he mock-gasps.

“Hey! Only I’m allowed to be mean to myself! Take that back!”

This time she laughs outright, and he smiles against her hair, knowing he’s forgiven.

(He doesn’t see Katara’s eyes well up once more, his tunic doing an effective job of hiding her tears. Her lips press against the material as she mouths the words she dare not say to his face.

I miss you. Come back.)

 


 

Having abandoned the healing session for the day, Sokka waits for Katara to bend the water out of their clothes—he has to love the convenience of it—before walking back into his room.

His eyes widen with delight as he catches sight of the person lounging on the bed. “Suki!”

“Why are you yelling,” deadpans Suki, munching on a pastry. There is a strangely distant expression on her face, but it drops the moment he grins at her.

“Old habit, I guess,” he says, shrugging, as he walks towards her. She doesn’t even blink as he plops himself on the bed beside her.

Though she’s wearing her armoured green kimono, she doesn’t have her headdress on, and her face is bare in the morning light. “You guys are done early,” she remarks, looking over at the washroom door. “Any luck?”

Sokka shakes his head, grin wilting.

Suki sighs. “Well, it’s worth a try anyway, right?”

She smiles encouragingly at him, bright eyes filled with warmth. The sunlight shines through the window, setting her auburn hair aflame. He’s suddenly struck by just how timeless her beauty is, unchanged from his memories.

He remembers their encounter at the Serpent’s Pass, the soft press of her lips against his own, and feels himself flush.

“Suki,” he starts, hesitant with the weight of the questions he wants to ask. She turns to him, gaze inquisitive, and the words disappear from his tongue.

He doesn’t know much about dating, given the lack of experience with his first relationship, but he was pretty sure that what he and Suki had shared before arriving at Ba Sing Se counted as the beginning of their relationship. But even so, it has been five years since then—who knows what’s happened in that time? And she hasn’t brought up the topic herself. Maybe she’s waiting for him to say something? But that doesn’t make any sense, considering that he doesn’t even remember anything that’s happened in the interim, and— ugh, his head hurts from overthinking.

How should he even phrase this? Hey, Suki, quick question— do we still smooch? 

He can practically feel the slap of a fan against his face. No, this is dangerous territory. He’ll have to be careful. C’mon Sokka, he thinks, psyching himself up. Man of the ladies, wooer of royalty. You got this.

But by the time he opens his mouth again, Katara has walked out of the washroom, causing Suki to look away. The moment is lost.

He resolves to ask Suki another time, and probably soon. And then they can get back to smooching. He smiles dopily to himself at the thought.

“Oh, hi, Suki,” says Katara. “I thought Miura was supposed to be on Sokka-duty today.”

“Ha ha,” Sokka grumbles, “I already told you guys I don’t need a babysitter.”

“Sure, Sokka,” Suki says, winking at him. He feels something in his chest flutter, face flushing once more, and Katara gives him a weird look. “But Miura got pulled away.”

Her gaze darkens, smile disappearing, and Sokka snaps himself out of the lovestruck expression that must undoubtedly be blooming across his face. “Wait, what happened?”

Suki clearly hesitates, then glances over to Katara as if asking for permission. And with that, all the warmth dissipates from his chest, leaving him cold and hollow.

“I’m not going to shatter if you tell me,” he says through clenched teeth. “So stop treating me like I’m made of glass. I can handle it.”

Suki just gives him a long look. Then she sighs, apparently having made up her mind. She pulls out a crumpled piece of paper from her pocket, passing it to Katara.

“Security threat,” is all she says as Katara unfolds the paper.

His sister inhales sharply. “Is he okay? Did anything happen?” From her frantic tone, Sokka knows that the matter must be grievous. His stomach swoops.

“He’s fine,” says Suki. “Just a little shaken up, while making a valiant effort to pretend he isn’t. You know how he is.” She sighs again. “It’s barely been two weeks since the last attempt, and now a bunch of these were found scattered all over the courtyard by some asshole. It’s probably nothing, but we'll have to be careful anyway. Miura’s tightening up security as we speak.”

Sokka sidles in close to Katara, leaning over to peek at the page. Katara doesn’t pull away, so he assumes he’s allowed to look.

He almost wishes he hadn’t. The paper is littered with a messy script, repeating the same two lines over and over, right to the yellowing edges of the page where Katara’s fingers clutch at it. The words are written in a rusty brown. Judging by the little splatters smudging the letters, he suspects that ordinary ink was not the medium used by the writer to convey their message.

“What does it mean?” he asks finally, unease rippling down his spine. He feels cold again, but for a much different reason this time.

Suki shrugs, but her shoulders are tight with suppressed tension as she watches Katara angrily hurl the paper away from herself.

“Nothing good,” she says, and the three of them watch the page flutter through the air, landing face-up on the ground.

 

death to the usurper. long live the true dragon.

Chapter Text

This time when Sokka and Katara storm Zuko’s office, Miura does not stop them. In fact, she pushes open the doors herself, inclining her head at Suki who strides inside with the siblings trailing in her wake.

Zuko stands behind his desk with his back to them, a muted silhouette against the cheery mid-morning rays shining through the window. At the noise of their entry he shifts, turning to face them, but it is obvious that his mind is somewhere else entirely; his eyes have an unfocused, faraway look to them, hands fiddling with a misshapen wooden object that he turns over and over, fingers running over the surface in repetitive motions.

Sokka can tell the exact moment Zuko realises he has company; he stiffens, his hold on the object faltering, and it slips from his grasp. He flails, barely saving it from its downfall, then shoves it on his desk and drops a wad of papers on top.

For a moment he just stares at them. Then he leans to the side, peering behind them at Miura standing at the doorway.

“Did Miura just… let you in?” Zuko asks, disbelief etched into every word.

Miura chooses that moment to slam the doors closed, leaving the four of them in the expansive room. A faint voice rings out from behind the heavy wood: “Stop being an idiot!”

“You’re not allowed to call me that on duty!” he yells back, then seemingly remembers he has company. He rakes his fingers through his hair sheepishly. “I don’t know what she means,” he says, in a much more reasonable volume. “But you guys should probably go. Now’s not a good time.”

He gazes at the three of them in turn, eyes lingering on Sokka. Then he looks away again, turning back to face the window, obviously dismissing them.

“This is probably why Miura thinks you’re being an idiot, Zuko,” says Katara, voice patient.

“Or she just likes being mean,” Sokka thinks he hears Zuko mutter under his breath.

Suki takes out the crumpled piece of paper with the creepy message on it and lays it flat on Zuko’s desk. When Zuko glowers at it and then her, she shrugs as a response. “They got curious.”

“You okay?” Sokka asks. He can see now just how rattled Zuko looks— locks of hair escaping from his messy half-topknot, his pronged crown sitting askew— and is surprised by the depth of his own concern for him.

“Oh,” says Zuko, like he hadn’t expected Sokka to ask him that, which. Rude. They’re buds now, aren’t they? “Oh, yeah, I’m fine.” He waves a hand over the desk dismissively, like they’re discussing the weather instead of death threats against his person written in blood. His crown shifts further sideways at the movement, looking close to tumbling out. “Nothing I haven’t seen before.”

“Man, what is your life,” says Sokka.

Zuko huffs out a laugh, but there is little humour in it. His right hand makes an aborted movement towards the haphazardly placed papers, then pulls back at the last second, choosing to cross his arms instead. Sokka feels his curiosity pique, but he doesn’t ask— Zuko already looks frazzled enough, and he’s not sure he wants to add to that by asking about the wooden object, especially as Zuko clearly doesn’t feel comfortable with it on display.

“Did they catch whoever wrote these?” Katara asks, looking between Suki and Zuko.

Suki shakes her head. “They were in and out before the guards realised. Whoever did this somehow knew our blind spots.”

Katara’s brow furrows deeper. “Well, that’s not good.”

“Master of understatements, as always,” says Sokka, and graciously accepts the subsequent whack to the back of his head.

“Considering you said you’ve been threatened before,” this, he directs to Zuko, who rubs a hand over his face tiredly, “do you have any suspicions about which whack-job might be behind this?”

Suki answers for him. “There used to be near-monthly threats by this group calling themselves the New Ozai Society”—she, Zuko and Katara all pull a face—“who pulled a few stunts right after Zuko’s coronation, but they’ve been pretty quiet for the last few years. We thought they might have disbanded, but maybe they’d just gone into hiding till now.”

Sokka really, truly wants to ask about these stunts, because it sounds like there’s a lot of history there of the fun kind, but Katara shoots him down with a glare as if she knows exactly what he’s thinking. Damn it.

“What do you think it even means?” he asks instead. “Who’s the ‘true dragon’?”

“I don’t know.” Zuko reaches for the note, holding it up to the light. A shadow passes over his face; the paper goes up in flames, ash scattering through the air. “Doesn’t matter. If it becomes an issue, it’ll be dealt with.”

“In the meantime,” says Suki, voice brooking no arguments, “you’ll have at least one Kyoshi Warrior posted near you at all times. For your protection, of course.” She raises a finger before she’s even finished speaking, holding it an inch away from Zuko’s face. “No buts.”

“I’m more than capable of defending myself just fine,” complains Zuko anyway, pouting mulishly.

He crosses his arms over his chest, and his crown chooses that moment to give up its fight with gravity and topple to the ground. “Shit,” he says, bending down to grab it. His head hits the edge of his desk on the way down, bouncing off the wood with a painful sounding thud that makes Sokka wince. “Fuck!

“Very capable indeed,” says Suki dryly, as Katara pops open her waterskin with a sigh.

 


 

“You got this, Sokka! Just one more!”

Sokka grunts as he does one final push-up, arms trembling underneath him, then collapses on his mat in a puddle of his own sweat.

“And… you said,” he pants to a beaming Taktuq, who’s flashing him two thumbs up from where he’s sitting cross-legged on his own mat, “I… did this… every other… day?”

“Yep,” says Taktuq, throwing Sokka a towel from beside him. Sokka hopes it’s not the one he saw Taktuq using a few minutes ago, but he’s doesn’t care much either way at this point. Everything hurts. “Well, we worked out together once or twice a week. I think you had your own thing going with Fi—”

“Ahem,” says Katara mildly from where she’s sitting on a nearby bench under the windows, pretending to be engrossed in some healing scrolls she’d borrowed from Kustaa.

“—with some other people, on the other days.”

Sokka’s too tired to question the interruption. He finishes mopping his forehead, then curls into a foetal position. “Well, I guess I could have eased myself back into it a little slower.”

They’re in one of the training rooms situated away from the main halls, sequestered near the open gardens at the back of the palace. Taktuq had offhandedly mentioned that the two of them used to work out together, and Sokka had lit up at the knowledge; considering the girth of his biceps (of which there is a lot) Sokka knows he probably used to work out regularly before the assassins-make-memories-go-whoosh situation. But at this current moment, he regrets being so enthusiastic about this whole exercise thing.

“Told you so,” says Katara, flipping through another scroll. “Did you really expect to go back to your normal routine after nearly two weeks of barely moving from your bed?”

“You didn’t have to be here, you know,” grumbles Sokka. He knows she’s got a point, but still.

“Oh, I know. I just like watching you make a fool of yourself.”

Sokka rolls onto his back to glare at her. “Ow.” Okay, so maybe moving so fast wasn’t such a good idea. He’s going be feeling this tomorrow, isn’t he?

“Yep,” Taktuq says again as he stands up, and Sokka realises belatedly that he’s spoken that last part out loud. “Wanna go grab a glass of lychee juice?”

Sokka hauls himself up to his feet, groaning the whole time. “Yes, please.”

“I’d offer to heal you,” muses Katara from where she’s gathering her scrolls, clearly intending to accompany them, “but I kinda think you deserve to be a little sore after insisting on dragging poor Taktuq through all this.”

Sokka lets himself go boneless, slumping back against Taktuq’s chest. “Oh, I feel faint all of a sudden. Think… I’m gonna…” He pretends to swoon, counting on Taktuq to catch him.

“Ambassador Sokka!” Taktuq cries out, and Sokka realises two seconds too late that he should have thought this through a little better when his legs are swept out from underneath him. Taktuq hugs him close to his chest, cradling him like a newlywed bride. “Master Katara, help! I think he’s dying!”

Sokka snaps his eyes open to the sight of Taktuq’s nose an inch away from his face. He shrieks, limbs wriggling like a fish out of water, and Taktuq drops him in alarm. He does not land on his mat.

Oof.

After blinking away the stars, he looks up to two pairs of Tribe-blue eyes looking down upon him, one deeply concerned and one extremely smug. “Go away,” he mutters, rolling over so that his cheek comes to rest against the cool wooden floor. “Just leave me here to become one with the earth.”

“Is he—” starts a new voice, and Sokka startles. He hadn’t even heard anyone else come in. “Katara?”

“He’s just being a giant baby, as usual,” says Katara as Sokka rolls back over, but he’s a touch too overzealous in the action. He comes to rest against a third pair of feet, staring up into amused golden eyes.

“Hey there, Sokka,” says Zuko. “Everything okay down there?”

“Just peachy,” says Sokka faintly. “What are you doing here?”

Zuko gestures to his back, where a thick leather-clad hilt is sticking up over his shoulders. “Training.” He’s dressed in a long-sleeved tunic sashed at the waist, and his trousers are tucked into the weird curly-toed boots preferred by the Fire Nation. Sokka’s eyes flick to his empty neck, then to his hair tied up in a high ponytail, sans crown. “Need any help?”

Sokka gingerly gets to his feet, accepting a hand off Zuko. “Thanks, man. Hey, you know how to swordfight?”

“Doesn’t he ever!” gushes Taktuq, eyes sparkling. “He’s the best swordsman I’ve ever seen! He’s all like,” here Taktuq raises both arms and twirls them around aggressively, slashing them through the air. “Swish! Swoosh! Take that, asshole! Yeah! Swish—”

“Thank you, Taktuq,” interrupts Zuko, unscarred cheek flaring a red bright enough to rival his tunic. “I don’t think I’m quite that good—”

“Ah-ah,” interrupts Sokka, “this I wanna see.” He stifles a grin when Zuko’s blush deepens. “Mind if we watch you practice?”

He adds a little swagger as he makes his way to the benches lining the room, ignoring the burn in his stretched leg muscles and pretending he’s not just a giant patch of sweat all over. “I mean, being a swordsman myself and all, I just wanna see if I could give you any pointers. You know how it is.”

He hears Katara cough obnoxiously into her palm as she joins him on the bench. Taktuq comes to sit by his other side, and they all turn expectant eyes on Zuko, standing alone and awkward in the middle of the room.

“Umm,” says Zuko. He looks a bit like a rabaroo caught in torchlight, good eye wide. It flicks between his audience and the nearest door.

“Taktuq, why don’t you go help Zuko out,” suggests Katara kindly, and Zuko shoots Katara a grateful smile.

Taktuq whoops, running to grab a spear from the nearby weapons rack, not looking even a little bit tired from his session with Sokka. Sokka wants to be jealous, but he’s really just in awe of Taktuq’s stamina at this point.

“You sure about this, Taktuq?” Zuko reaches back to grab the hilt of his sword, the blade sliding soundlessly out of its sheath. He brings it to his front and makes a strange jerking movement with his hands, and the sword splits in two. Sokka feels his jaw drop open.

Dual broadswords— dao. Sokka recognises them from where he’d seen a similar pair in Piandao’s (very impressive) sword collection. When he’d asked Piandao if he could have a go at them, Piandao had waved him off, saying that it was more important for him to master using one sword first without losing his head in the process.

Of course Zuko would know how to use them. Show off.

Taktuq assumes his stance, face sobering. “I was born ready,” he intones, voice grave. Then a wide grin splits his face. “Man, I can’t believe I’m doing this! Isn’t this exciting?”

Zuko's lips quirk in a little smile. “Try to take it easy on me.”

A change seems to come over Zuko; he shifts his weight, his body becoming almost relaxed in contrast with Taktuq’s locked stance, his expression steady. For a long moment, neither of them move. In the sunlight shining through the high windows, little motes of dust glitter between them, effervescent.

Then Taktuq steps forward, shattering the stillness. And Sokka finds that he cannot tear his eyes away.

Training with Piandao had been an incredible experience, but he had been too busy avoiding being sliced open by the swordmaster’s blade to really appreciate what their swordplay had actually looked like to those watching. And even then, being able to sit back and observe had been a luxury they hadn’t been able to afford in the narrow timescale they’d had before the eclipse. But now, watching the sparks fly from where steel meets steel, he can see why swordplay is often compared to dancing.

The dao move fluidly, acting as extensions of Zuko’s arms that he brings down upon Taktuq’s spear. Taktuq deflects and jabs, and there is a clash of metal as the spear bounces off Zuko’s crisscrossed blades.

Zuko’s hair is a comet trail to his momentum as he throws himself in the air, whirling as he brings down his dao on Taktuq from above. Taktuq grunts under his weight, using the spear’s handle to throw Zuko off. Zuko lands on the balls of his feet and immediately takes off again, tackling Taktuq from the side.

“How’s Zuko so good at this,” Sokka finds himself saying to Katara, mesmerised by the way the light glints off Zuko’s dao as he ducks and weaves in lithe movements around Taktuq, who’s holding his own surprisingly well. “I thought Taktuq was exaggerating.”

Katara hums to herself, smirking into her scroll.

 “I mean,” he continues, digging in his heels, “he’s a firebender. Why did he have to muscle his way into this too?” He slumps, chin resting dejectedly in his hands as he leans on his sister. “It’s not fair! Why does he get to be good at everything?

“Oh, quit your whining,” says Katara, pushing him off her.

“You’re so mean, you know that,” says Sokka. He pouts, sticking his lower lip out and letting it wobble. “You’ve really changed, Katara.”

For a second, Katara’s expression falters. But Taktuq’s yelp draws his attention back to the fight, and he watches as Zuko hooks his foot under a spear-less Taktuq’s ankle, sweeping his feet out from underneath him. Taktuq lands on his back with a grunt, blinking owlishly at the dao pointed inches from his face.

“You okay?” Zuko asks, barely out of breath. Some hair has escaped from his ponytail, and he blows it out of his face impatiently. Sokka swallows, his mouth suddenly dry. Maybe he needs that lychee juice more than he’d realised.

“That,” pants Taktuq, “was awesome! Can we spar again, Fire Lord Zuko? One more round?”

“I told you, it’s just Zuko,” Zuko corrects with a smile, putting away his dao.

Taktuq grabs Zuko’s outstretched hand with a little too much enthusiasm. As he tries to stand, his foot slips from underneath him. Zuko, still attached to Taktuq’s hand, unbalances, and Sokka watches with unmitigated glee as he flails, none of his earlier grace present as he lands in a heap of limbs on top of Taktuq. The universe giveth, the universe taketh away.

Taktuq splutters on Zuko’s hair, who sighs, rolling off of his human-shaped mat. “Maybe some other time, buddy.”

 


 

Sokka wants some fresh air after that demonstration, and Katara volunteers for Zuko to join them in the open gardens without even consulting with him first, which. Rude.

Sokka glares at his sister; he’d planned to slip away and have a shower afterwards, clean away all the sweat currently crusting his clothes to his skin. But then Zuko turns and looks at him with a tiny expectant smile, and Sokka feels his reluctance melt away along with his tiredness.

Taktuq disappears immediately after the sparring session, citing his need for lychee juice and maybe a snack, but Sokka personally thinks it’s more to do with how he kept stammering in Zuko’s presence after their little mishap, cheeks darkly flushed. He couldn’t blame the guy, really— Sokka had long ago realised that he himself danced on both sides of the campfire, so to speak (he jerks his mind away from a sprig of wheat held between arrogantly quirked lips, mentally gagging), and Zuko makes for a striking figure even without adding swords (two, to be exact) to the mix.

But Zuko is taken, even if he isn’t currently wearing his betrothal necklace, and Sokka has Suki, so it’s a moot point either way.

Even so, with the breeze ruffling their tunics as they make their way down the cobblestoned path, Sokka can’t help the sideway glances he keeps giving Zuko. He gestures to the dao strapped to Zuko’s back instead, trying to divert his own attention.

“You were pretty decent with those,” he says, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible. Katara, who’d fallen a few steps behind them with her nose buried in yet another scroll, snorts. Sokka ignores her.

“Oh. Thank you,” says Zuko, stumbling over the words. His right cheek is still tinged a bit pink— probably leftover from the earlier exertion, Sokka guesses.

“Who taught you?” he asks.

Sokka thinks he sees Zuko hide a smile as he turns to his side, facing the flowers lining the path. “You know who.”

“What does that even m— wait.” He gapes. “Piandao? You too?”

“The one and only.”

“Whoa. Small world, huh.”

“Not really,” says Zuko, “considering how he’s the best swordmaster in the nation.”

“True.” Sokka nudges him playfully with his elbow. “Only the best for the prince of the Fire Nation, right?”

Zuko’s smile goes a bit tight. “I guess.”

“Well,” continues Sokka, “I didn’t actually spend that much time with him, but he seemed like a pretty decent guy, even if he is from the Fire Nation.”

Zuko raises his singular eyebrow at him, and Sokka freezes, stumbling over his feet as he jerks to a stop. “That’s not— I mean, obviously, not all Fire Nation— you know what I—” He sighs, smacking a hand over his forehead, then edges away from Zuko. “Please don’t set me on fire for treason or something.”

“It’s not really treason if you’re just being a dick,” Zuko points out, which startles a laugh out of Sokka. But when he looks over, he finds no judgement in Zuko’s eyes. Only fond amusement, though it is tinged by a little heaviness. “And being a dick doesn’t really carry a punishment, though I could probably figure something out.”

He pretends to think, hand raised thoughtfully to his chin. “Hmm, how does a two-week ban on ice cream sound?”

Sokka gasps. “You wouldn’t dare.”

“Try me.” But then his amusement fades. The heaviness bleeds over instead, drawing the rest of his expression down, and Sokka wants to kick himself with the same foot he so often puts in his mouth.

“I can’t really blame you for feeling that way, though,” says Zuko, gaze distant. “The Fire Nation still has a long way to go in repairing our relationships with the rest of the world. A hundred years of tyranny can’t exactly be wiped away so easily, no matter how much I might wish otherwise sometimes.”

“Hey, that’s not fair,” says Sokka, his voice softening of its own accord. “I know the Fire Nation wasn’t completely filled with war-mongering assholes. Even during the war, most of them were just regular people trying to go on with their lives, make a living, feed their families. Survive. Just like the rest of us.”

He puts a hand on Zuko’s shoulder, who blinks up at him. “From what I’ve heard so far, I think you’re doing a pretty good job of mending bridges. True, there’s a lot of work to be done, but no one’s expecting you to be able to fix everything that your nation did wrong overnight. Or even in five years. If they are, then they’re the dicks.” Sokka pauses, then adds, “And this isn’t just me sucking up to you so you don’t take away my ice cream.”

Zuko hums unconvincingly, but his eyes look less troubled. He pokes Zuko in the side again, and this time Zuko laughs a little, making Sokka feel lighter for it. It’s a nice laugh, he finds himself thinking, and it doesn’t even cross his mind to feel odd about thinking so.

They continue to walk down the path, Katara catching up to them after putting away her scrolls. The wind seems to be picking up slightly, carrying with it the earthy scent of recently ploughed dirt. Then it shifts, bringing with it a strangely familiar floral fragrance, and Sokka stops with no warning. Katara bumps into him.

“What?” she asks, annoyed, but Sokka doesn’t answer. He finds his feet dragging him off the path and to the side.

“Sokka?” he hears Zuko call out to him. The floral scent he’d encountered, subtly sweet and distinctively… something, draws him to a grassy area hidden between a natural fence of bristly bushes, looking less maintained than the surrounding areas of greenery Sokka has encountered so far. But what draws his eyes are the bed of flowers blooming bright amongst the grass, swaying gently in the breeze. They look oddly similar to the panda lilies he and Aang had gone to find up on Mount Makapu, except these are a vibrant red, the colour of freshly spilled blood.

Sokka finds himself kneeling on the ground, reaching out a hand to the closest flower—

 

“Got you something.”

A quick glance, morphing into a sigh. The scratching of a brush against paper, an ever-present sound. “Not now, Sokka. I have to get these grain reports signed by tonight.”

“Aww, c’mon! You’re always so busy. Maybe this will cheer you up.” His hands reaching out, tucking the crimson flower’s stem into black hair. “There. A fire lily for my fire lily.”

An instant scowl offset by the creeping blush, almost as red as the lily itself. “Don’t call me that!”

“Sheesh, fine.” A pause. “Well, good luck with those reports, Fire Lily Zuko.”

“Thank y— Sokka!”

Even so, through the darkening of the sky outside and the lighting of torches on the wall and the continuous scratching of the brush, the flower remains unmoved— undisturbed, save for the light touch of pale fingers, reaching up every so often in a soft caress; as gentle as lover touching lover.

 

“—called, Katara?” His mouth is moving, but he can’t remember making it do so.

He comes back to himself all at once; the wind through his hair, the grass rustling against his legs. A few petals are crushed between his forefinger and thumb, bleeding red against his skin.

He can hear Ty Lee in the background, saying something in a bright tone. When did she get here? Did he lose time again?

But when he looks at Katara, she doesn’t seem to be acting like anything out of the ordinary has happened. She’s come to sit beside him on the grass, bag of scrolls lying forgotten by her side, fingers running over the red petals.

“Oh, you don’t remember?” she asks, brows furrowed. “I thought you still had your memories about our time in the Fire Nation before the eclipse? The time we stayed at Hama’s place?” Though the words are spoken easily, the corners of her eyes still tighten.

“No, I do remember that.” He does; he also remembers how wrecked Katara had been afterwards, burdened with a gift she had never asked for, a curse bestowed on her against her will. He doesn’t particularly want to delve into that right now, and from the look on Katara’s face, neither does she. “But what do these flowers have to do with her?”

“They’re the ones that were growing on the field near her house,” she says. “Though I guess you weren’t there for my— for the lessons.”

Ty Lee’s sudden bout of giggles makes them both jump. When Sokka looks back, he finds Zuko murmuring something to her. Stood a few feet away from the siblings, they look deep in discussion about something, hands moving animatedly.

“Suki really knows how to pick ‘em,” says Katara, and he’s glad she’s smiling again. Then her words catch up to him.

“Huh?”

She looks back at him, and her eyes widen. “Oh, you don’t— oh.” She chuckles nervously, tucking her hair behind her ear, then turns back to the flowers. “Never mind. These flowers?”

She hurriedly reaches out and picks one, holding it out to him to smell. Up close, the heavy sweetness hits him with a punch, so much so that he can almost taste it at the back of his throat. Again, he’s reminded of how familiar the fragrance seems. His brain itches with it, making him want to reach inside his skull and scratch, but the knowledge remains tantalizingly out of reach.

“This is a fire lily. It’s native to the Fire Nation. You’re pretty lucky to catch it, actually; it only blooms at certain times of the year.”

He’s definitely sure he’s never heard that name before, though, which makes sense, given his limited knowledge of the Fire Nation’s local fauna. “Fire lily,” he repeats anyway, rolling it over his tongue.

“Yes, Sokka?” says Zuko a little absently from behind him. This is followed by a sudden choking noise.

Sokka turns around in confusion. “I didn’t—”

“For the love of La,” he hears Katara mutter beside him, but he’s too distracted by the sight of Zuko’s rapidly retreating back.

“Where are you guys going?” he calls out to Ty Lee, who’s being dragged alongside Zuko. She waves cheerily at him from the arm that doesn’t have Zuko’s hand clamped around its wrist.

“We’re just… going to check out the security perimeter! Of the open gardens! Right, Zuko?”

“Yep,” comes the strangled reply.

“Is it just me,” says Sokka, turning back to Katara after the two round a corner and disappear from view, “or is Zuko just… really weird, sometimes?”

She isn’t looking at him, her eyes fixed steadily to the flower in her hand. There’s an odd flush to her skin— strange, since it’s not even that hot today. “It’s not just you,” she says finally, voice strained, and doesn’t elaborate.

 


 

By the time Katara and Sokka meet back with Zuko on the pain path, the clouds have begun rolling in, heavy and grey. The wind is picking up, making his trousers flap against his legs. At least he’s not sweaty anymore.

“Everything okay?” Sokka asks Zuko, who nods without meeting his eyes.

A whistle from ahead interrupts them. “All clear!” Ty Lee says, cartwheeling into view. She clears her throat, donning a professional tone that would have worked better had she not been upside down. “You may proceed to the gardens, my Lord.”

“You sure you’ve checked them all for teeny tiny little assassins?” Sokka jokes, pointing to the knee-tall hedges ahead.

“Actually, there was that one time with the—”

“Hey Suki,” says Zuko rather loudly, startling Sokka. The Kyoshi Warrior in question approaches from behind Ty Lee. Sokka sends a dopey little grin her way, waving at her.

Suki waves back in response, not even fazed at the sight of Ty Lee now balancing on one hand. “No stabby circus clown assassins in the hedges, boss.”

Zuko grimaces, dragging a hand down his face even as Sokka mouths ‘stabby circus clown assassins’ to himself. “It was just one time,” says Zuko as he turns to Sokka, looking like he’d just sucked on a lemon, “and they weren’t even in the hedges, they—”

“—were wearing disguises covered in leaves, and you have poor depth perception, yeah, yeah.” Suki waves a flippant hand. “Details.”

“Aren’t we, like, not supposed to discuss stuff like this in front of Sokka?” Zuko asks a little desperately.

“He wasn’t here when it happened, remember?” Suki says, as Ty Lee finally flips upright. “It happened in the six months he was away, last time. I don’t think you even told him what happened, did you?”

There is something slightly accusatory in her voice, but Sokka is still caught on the earlier part of her sentence. “I was away?”

Suki stares at him, then at Katara, who shrugs back at her. “You— ah. Yeah, you’re normally only ever here for six months of the year. The rest of the time you spend back in the South Pole, or going travelling and stuff. I think you visited Toph in prison at some point?”

The joy that unfurls in his chest is as sudden as it is unexpected, almost making his breath catch; he’d gone home. He’d gone home.

Between everything that has happened, Sokka had forgotten to consider the possibility of whether he’d been able to go back to the South Pole after the war, see Gran-Gran and his village and everything else he’s so dearly missed. But it does make sense— he isn’t a prisoner here, after all. And as an ambassador, of course he’d have his own duties to attend to in the South Pole. Even so, having confirmation of the fact soothes something in him that he hadn’t even realised had needed soothing.

But his relieved grin falters at the sight of the others. Suki and Katara are looking at him with downcast eyes. Zuko is staring off into the distance, expression unreadable.

Sokka gives Ty Lee a questioning nudge, and the smile she gives him is burdened with a soft sort of unhappiness.

“You’d just come back to the Fire Nation, actually,” she explains, “a few days before you— you know.”

“Oh.” Before the assassination attempt.

“Yeah.”

Sokka can’t help but wonder if every conversation involving his past is bound to fizzle out and die a sad death. He’s getting kind of tired of it.

Well, this won’t do. He raises a hand, grasping at an attempt to change the topic— hopefully to something less gloomy. “So— wait. Question number one: what, exactly, are circus clown assassins? Like, how does one even define that? Question number two: why would circus clowns even have a problem with Zuko in the first place?”

Ty Lee brightens, throwing her braid over her shoulder. “Assassins whose day job is to be a circus clown, duh. And honestly, even when they got caught, I still don’t think we ever found out. They just stabbed him in the shin and ran off.”

“Well, that wasn’t very murderous of them.”

“The knife was poisoned,” adds Suki, and Sokka splutters.

He turns to Zuko, who hunches his shoulders almost immediately as if he knows what’s coming. “Why wouldn’t you tell me about you getting poisoned?”

“It wasn’t a big deal!” Zuko stammers out, blatantly lying. “Just— forget this entire thing happened.”

“Don't worry, I'll add it to the rest,” Sokka replies wryly, tapping the side of his head. When Zuko looks absolutely crushed at this, Sokka hurries to add, “I'm kidding! But seriously though. Not cool, man.”

“It wasn’t even that bad,” Zuko insists again, pushing past the two Kyoshi Warriors into the entrance of the gardens. The wind whips his hair in his face, and he pushes it aside impatiently. “I just got a little sick for a few days and then I was fine again.”

“Translation: ‘I nearly died and then I didn’t.’” Katara slings an arm over Zuko’s shoulder, who scowls as he’s dragged down to her level. “Wasn’t it awfully lucky that I happened to be visiting? You’re welcome, by the way, for saving your life. Again. How many times did that one make it?”

Zuko mumbles something indistinct.

Katara cups a hand over her ear, leaning in dramatically. “What was that?”

“Twenty-two,” he forces out. Katara pats his head, and he shoves her away.

“Dude,” says Sokka, dimly horrified. “How are you still alive?”

“Sheer spite at this point, I’d say,” says Suki, and Ty Lee hums in agreement. They begin walking ahead slightly, scanning the edges of the garden, Katara trailing in their wake.

“I— you know what? I can’t even argue with that,” says Zuko. He nods, toeing at the ground absently. “It’s a simple enough reason to live.”

Sokka comes to a stop in front of Zuko, blocking his path. “You’re a real funny guy, you know that?” he says. Zuko scrunches his nose at him, clearly done with the topic. And Sokka wants to drop it that that, but something makes him continue. “But seriously, though— it might be a simple reason, but it’s not enough. Besides Aang, you’re pretty much the most powerful person in the world. You could have almost anything you can ask for. That sounds pretty cool to me.”

Zuko doesn’t answer straight away, the toe of his boot still dragging lines through the dirt. “Not everything,” he finally says, and when he looks up at Sokka there is a small, sad smile on his face.

“Maybe not everything,” Sokka amends, thinking of all the people he’s lost to the war. Because Zuko must have lost loved ones too, right? The war left no-one unscathed. Didn’t Katara say something about Zuko’s mom, after the catacombs?

“But,” Zuko continues, “there’s a lot I do have to be grateful for, I guess. And I’m glad for it.” And his smile grows just a touch brighter, good eye crinkling at the corner.

Sokka smiles wide back at him. Then he spots Suki, who has begun to circle back to them, and he can’t help the soft look he shoots her way. “Me too.”

Suki stops dead in her tracks, Katara right behind her. Ty Lee has already wandered ahead, backflipping between the hedges lining the garden path. “C’mon, slowpokes!”

“Coming, Ty Lee!” But when he looks back, Zuko’s smile has disappeared somewhere, his face wiped clean of expression. “You coming?”

Katara frowns, eyes flicking between Zuko and him.

A gust of wind blows Zuko’s hair into his face again, but he makes no attempt to push it aside this time. “That okay. I’m— I have to go.” He gestures at the garden path in front of them, his gaze flat. “You guys have fun.”

With that, he turns and starts walking back the way they came, hands clenched by his sides.

“Huh,” says Sokka. “Wonder what’s his deal— wait, where are you going?”

“Duty calls,” says Suki as she passes by him, voice stilted. “Tell Ty Lee I’ll meet her back at the palace.”

“But— Sooks!”

She does not turn around, doesn’t give any indication that she’s heard him as she walks away. The sky chooses this moment to open up; he feels the first few drops land cool on his skin as he watches the two of them get smaller and smaller in the distance, their figures blurry in the rain.

Chapter Text

He doesn’t see Zuko at lunch the next day. Ty Lee shrugs when he asks her about him. She shrugs again when he asks where Suki is, her smile uncharacteristically distant as she looks over at him. “Busy,” is all she says, then goes back to her conversation with Miura.

Sokka turns back to his food, the noodles suddenly tasteless in his mouth.

 


 

The letter arrives in the early evening, the hawk carrying it bedraggled and waterlogged as it drags itself through the heavy rain and into the royal aviary.

Sokka is there by chance, sending off a letter of his own to his dad. He’d wanted to delay it a little further, on the off-chance that his memories would return before then, but Katara had convinced him to write one anyway— apparently, the ‘other’ Sokka normally wrote to Hakoda every week when he was away, filling him in on anything and everything he thought his dad and Bato would enjoy.

(“Wait, does Bato normally read my letters too?” Sokka had asked, confused. “Oh yeah, Bato and Dad— you know how they’re, like, super close,” Katara had stammered, then immediately changed the topic.)

As it’s been over two weeks since his last letter to their father, she’d reasoned, of course Hakoda would probably be worried by now. Better to let him know what happened sooner rather than later, if only to avoid causing him (and Bato?) needless anxiety.

Well, Sokka thinks as he drops off the letter, sealed in a waterproof pouch to survive the journey, if this doesn’t cause him needless anxiety then I don’t know what will. He’d tried his best to be as vague on the details as possible, assuring his father that he’s fine, no, he really is, and how he isn’t too upset about forgetting how he’d fared through the latter stage of puberty, and that Katara is trying her best to fix whatever was wrong with him. And that Sokka misses him very, very much.

“Oh, Ambassador Sokka,” says the old man at the desk, his kiwicrow’s feet crinkling deeper with his smile. He wipes off the water from the little package attached to the hawk’s leg. “I think your sister will be wanting this. It’s from the Northern Water Tribe.”

The hawk chooses that moment to vigorously flap the rainwater off itself, splattering everyone in its vicinity. This happens to be just Sokka and the old man.

“Thank you,” Sokka says as he takes the package with one hand, wiping at his face with the other. The hawk squawks at him.

“I think he’s saying, ‘you’re welcome’.”

“I wasn’t saying it to—” Sokka sighs. “Never mind.”

As he walks back to his quarters, absently turning the package over in his hands, he wonders what Suki is doing right at this moment. Probably still on duty, he muses. Perfect. More time for him to set up what he needs to.

He smiles to himself as he pats the pocket holding his checklist. His full-proof plan is bound to work; he’d spent five hours drafting it up, leaving nothing to chance. And if everything goes right, by tonight he’ll be getting all the smooches.

Either that, he thinks, smile fading, or it’s all about to blow up in my face spectacularly.

Well, today’s the day he finds out either way. Sokka had detested Aunt Wu and her crackpot predictions, but right now he might just pay a pricy coin or two for someone to let him know what to expect. He’d been prodding Katara for details about him and Suki since yesterday, but she’d clammed up every time, changing the subject with blinding speed. It had made him want to claw his hair out with frustration, but he knows her reasoning behind it. And, honestly, that makes it all even worse.

He knows how careful the others are being with the details they’re sharing with him. He knows how much Katara and Suki both want him to get better, taking care not to say anything that might push the trigger on the Sokka-goes-night-night button in his brain. But he’s quickly reaching the end of his tether with it all, the secrecy and the shadowed looks and the cryptic glances, so much so that he feels like he’s one step away from screaming at all waking hours of the day.

His mind slips back to when he’d passed out in Katara’s guest quarters, the tears in Suki’s eyes when she’d looked at him.

It’s just been so hard to talk to you like this, to pretend like it’s just like old times— like the last five years haven’t even happened.

But to him, they haven’t happened. That’s the whole problem.

And he’s so tired of living in stasis. It’s exhausting, pretending that it’s a surety that his memories will return, or that it doesn’t hurt when yet another healing session fails and the hope in Katara’s eyes dims even further. Of pretending he’s okay with being treated as a placeholder for someone who might never come back.

All he wants is some semblance of normalcy back, and arranging this evening with Suki is the best way he can come up with to achieve it. And if nothing else works out, at least they’ll be able to enjoy a nice meal together. If she doesn’t fan-slap him into oblivion, that is.

He’s so caught up in his thoughts that he doesn’t notice the errant carpet corner sticking up until he stumbles over it, wincing as he catches himself against the nearest wall. He leans down, rubbing at his left leg.

His knee had begun throbbing sometime yesterday, sending dull bursts of pain down his nerves at random intervals. At first he’d blamed it on overstretching himself during his exercise session with Taktuq, but the lingering ache in the rest of his body has dissipated long since. He shakes it off, trying not to limp as he makes it the rest of the way to his quarters.

Katara glances up at him as he pushes open his doors, waving distractedly at him. She’s perched in the sitting area by the windows, surrounded by what looks like a dozen unfurled scrolls. A reading lamp is placed on the table, its flame dancing cheerily against the creeping darkness. Rain splatters incessantly against the panes while the wind howls in the distance, and he pities the poor souls stuck outside in this weather.

Katara pushes away the scrolls with a dissatisfied sigh, clearly done with them for the day. “Did you send it off okay?” she asks as he walks up to her, sagging in her chair.

Sokka nods as a response, handing her the package. When she shoots him a questioning glance, he shrugs. She tears it open in deft movements, revealing a folded note and a tiny metal tin that clatters onto the table.

The light from her lamp casts shadows on her face as she scans the page, making her look older than she is. He means to ask her to take a look at his leg, but something in her expression makes him pause.

“What’s it say,” he asks instead, when the silence gets too long.

She takes a long moment to reply. “The healers have been delayed,” she says, clearly trying to modulate her tone, though some frustration still manages to spill over. “It’s the weather; it’s too dangerous for them to travel, so they’ve had to stop in the Earth Kingdom for the time being. They say they’ll have to wait until the rain clears up before they can continue.”

Sokka feels his stomach begin to churn uneasily. “How long might that be?”

“Days. Maybe a week or so.” She pushes away the letter with the rest of the scrolls, her fingers bumping into the metal tin she’d dropped. “They’ve sent some herbs they think might be useful in the meantime, to drink as tea,” she says, scoffing. “Tea. Like that’ll fix anything.”

“Hey,” Sokka says. “Don’t be like that. What’s a few more days when I’ve already waited this long? It’s fine.”

It’s not fine!” Her chair screeches as she pushes away from the table. “Sokka, it’s— I’ve looked through every medical scroll I could get my hands on! I’ve tried every healing technique I was ever taught. There’s nothing there. Nothing’s worked, and you’re still like that, and I don’t know how much longer—” She breaks off, voice choked.

“How much longer what?” he asks, suddenly feeling very cold. “How much longer you can stand being around this version of me?”

Her eyes go wide. “Sokka, that’s not fair, I didn’t—”

“But you’ve been thinking it, right?” His smile is bitter when she flinches, looking away. “You and everyone else. I know. I’m not stupid, Katara, and I’m not blind, either.” His hands curl into fists, fingernails digging into his palms. “You think I haven’t noticed the way you look at me sometimes? How sad your eyes get, like I’m not the person you expect me to be? Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about; I know you want him back.”

“Sokka,” she breathes, sounding completely distraught. But his chest is tight with hurt, and it makes it hard for him to care very much right now. “It’s not like that. You’re still my brother, and I’ll love you no matter what. Every version of you. Because you’re still you.” She reaches out a hand, but he turns away. “I’m so sorry if— Sokka, all I want is for you to get better. That’s all.”

“What if I don’t get better, though,” he says, finally mustering up the courage to ask what has been bothering him for days now, what keeps him tossing and turning through the night. “If my memories don’t come back… then what?”

“We’ll keep trying,” she says firmly, immediately, as if there’s not even another option.

Oh, he thinks, eyes stinging, she doesn’t get it.

For a moment, the only sound is the rain battering the windows, sharp and relentless. “You know,” he says, the words difficult to get past the lump in his throat, “it’s such a weird feeling, being jealous of yourself.”

Katara makes a wounded noise from behind him. “Sokka—”

“I don’t want to talk about it, Katara. I think I… maybe you should go.”

Thunder booms in the distance. He hears the rustle of paper as she gathers her scrolls, the clank of the lamp’s handle as she picks it up from the table. She pauses in front of him, trying to meet his eyes, but he looks determinedly at a spot above her head.

“I’m going to Caldera library tomorrow,” she tries, hesitant. “Kustaa recommended it, for— anyway. With this weather, I’ll probably be gone all day. I was going to ask if you wanted to come?” She attempts a smile. “We can make a daytrip out of it. Go shopping on the way back, get some food. Just like old times.”

And, Spirits, he wants to say yes, because hasn’t this been what he wanted all along? To spend time with the people he loves without the weight of his missing past hanging over him?

But she’s undoubtedly going to the library to look at more medical scrolls. And if nothing turns up, they’ll both have to pretend with each other. Katara, pretending that this is just another hiccup, that she isn’t disappointed by her failure to bring back the brother she knows. Sokka, pretending that he doesn’t see this disappointment, that it doesn’t ache when it lingers in her every look, every line of her posture. Pretending that it’s not a reminder that he’s incomplete, that some integral part of him has been ripped away, leaving a jagged line at his edges that cuts through all those who reach out for a Sokka that is no longer here.

He doesn’t think he has it in him to pretend anymore.

At his continued stony silence, she slowly exhales. “I’ll see you tomorrow night, then,” she says, and he takes care to keep his gaze trained on the windows as she passes him by if, only so he isn’t tempted to stop her, and apologise, and force himself to begin pretending anew.

Instead, he watches lightning crack open the sky, searing its imprint on the back of his eyes. The thunder soon follows, masking the sound of doors closing shut in her wake.

 


 

“You asked to see me?”

“Yeah! Come on in,” Sokka says, opening the door wider with a smile that’s only a little bit forced. Though his mood is still slightly sour from earlier, setting up the room has given him a chance to burn off a lot of the restlessness that had plagued him after Katara had left.

Plus, if everything goes according to plan, his night is about to get a whole lot better.

“Sorry I’m late, I was helping Ty Lee with the…” Suki’s voice trails off as she comes to a stop a few steps into the room.

Sokka bows with a flourish, arm extended in the direction of the table he’d dragged to the middle of the room, the platters of food he’d set out steaming gently. The fireplace crackles in the background, lending the room a warm, golden glow. “Ta-da! Dinner for the lovely lady? Thought you might be hungry after work.”

When he rises back up, she still hasn’t moved. Her eyes are fixed to the centre of the table where stands the vase he’d filled with fire lilies, painstakingly gathered and arranged as best he could. True, a few of them are drooping, and some are missing the odd petal or two, but he thinks he’s done a fine job of it. Little tealights surround the vase, the reflections of their tiny flames twinkling against the glass.

“Sokka,” Suki starts, sounding a little strangled. “This is— I don’t know what to say.”

He rubs at the back of his head, chuckling nervously. “It’s the flowers, isn’t it? I mean, do you even like flowers? You probably do. Unless you’re allergic? Oh, Spirits, I hope not.” He breaks off his rambling, taking a deep breath to steady himself. “The fire lilies— they remind me of your eye paint,” he explains. “They’re the same red.”

She’s not wearing it now, face wiped clean of the elaborate Kyoshi Warrior make-up. But her expression is just as blank without it, unreadable to him.

“Shall we?” He gestures to the chairs, walking ahead to pull one back for her, ignoring the way his leg throbs with every step. When she doesn’t follow, he looks back with furrowed brows. “Suki?”

“I’m just… going to go to the bathroom first,” she says without looking at him, already heading in the direction of his bedroom.

“I’ll be right here!” he yells back, trying his best to sound as nonchalant as possible. There’s no response from beyond the doors.

Sokka wrings his hands on the back of his chair, suddenly filled with uncertainty. He’s followed his checklist to the letter, and yet this is… not going the way he’d thought it would.

Though, what had he thought? That she’d smile at him when she came into the room, at least. That she’d be surprised, and maybe a little happy that he’d put in all this effort. That he’d pull her chair out for her, smooth and casual like he hadn’t practiced the move five times already this evening. That they’d eat, and talk, and her eyes would look bright and warm in the firelight, and he’d lean across the table, cover her hand with his, and keep leaning in, and—

That could still happen, he reassures himself. Girls always had to pee, right? Tui only knew the amount of toilet breaks Katara had made them take when they’d been travelling through the Earth Kingdom on Appa.

But the more he thinks about it, the more it begins to niggle at the back of his head. Little seeds of doubt, springing up when he casts his mind back to their interactions since he’d woken. How they haven’t been the same as they used to be, not like Before. Because it’s Before and After, now, the distinction of his lost memories carved clear as glass in his mind. And the Suki from After is… different.

And she should be, of course. Five years is a long time for someone to change, to grow and evolve and mature. But that’s not quite right, is it? It’s not that she’s different, but that she’s different with him. All this time, he’s been chalking up this newfound distance to his lack of memories and her busy schedule as a Kyoshi Warrior. And he’d thought they’d begun bridging that distance, getting closer with every moment they spent together.

But Suki hadn’t looked at him once since coming in, and his bedroom door is still shut, and now the food’s getting cold. Sokka groans, rubbing at his face. He’s just beginning to work himself into a panic when there is a sharp rap against the main doors. Scowling, he pushes away the chair in his hold.

“Katara, I thought I told you—” he starts, wrenching open the door. “Zuko?”

“Hey,” says Zuko. He’s drenched, dark travelling robes dripping onto the floor below. His hair is falling out of its knot, plastered to his face, and his good eye crinkles as he looks at Sokka.

There are water droplets trapped in his lashes, Sokka notes in an absent sort of way; they catch the firelight, glittering with every blink.

He realises he’s stepped in too close, taking a hasty step back. “What are you doing here?”

There is a tentative smile on Zuko’s face. “Can I come in?”

“Uhh, now’s not really a good time,” says Sokka, glancing nervously back at the room. “I’m kinda in the middle of something important?”

“Oh. That’s fine, I just wanted to—” He holds out his hands. “These are for you.”

Sokka accepts the offerings with confusion— a flask, and a bag.

At Sokka’s questioning look, his smile grows sheepish. “It’s medicinal tea, and a warm compress. For.” Zuko gestures to Sokka’s left leg. “I know it always gives you trouble, in this type of weather. The kitchen had forgotten to stock the tea, so I went and got some from the market.”

“You went… in this weather,” Sokka says a little dumbly, completely forgetting to ask what’s wrong with his leg in the first place, “to get me… tea?”

“And a compress,” Zuko reminds him, cheeks reddening. “That’s from the infirmary, though. And it’s no big—” He sneezes, rubbing at his nose with the back of his hand, “—deal, honestly. I’d have sent the guards, but they can never tell which one’s the right type. To be honest, it’s only because of Uncle that I even know—"

“I— you know what’s weird? This is the second time I’ve been given tea today,” Sokka tells him, because he doesn’t know what else to say. This is definitely not how his checklist predicted his evening to go. “Just thought I’d tell you that. I never really considered tea as medicine before. But then, I never considered sucking on frozen wood frogs as a treatment for the common cold either, so what do I know, huh?”

A beat of silence. “You know, Aang never did explain what those frogs were for,” Zuko says, nodding like something has just clicked into place for him. He adds, with a little quirk of his mouth, “Though I’d consider tea to be a lot more palatable, even if this one is a bit of an acquired taste.”

Sokka snorts, and Zuko’s smile gets a little wider. “Trust me. This’ll fix your leg right up. You’ll have to heat it in a pot over the fireplace first, though. Or I could just heat it up for you with my—”

He breaks off, eyes moving over Sokka’s shoulder to where Sokka’s bedroom door has just creaked open. Slowly, Zuko steps aside, pushing the rest of the door open to see Suki standing next to the table.

“Dude, I told you,” Sokka gives an embarrassed little laugh. “Little busy.”

He follows Zuko’s gaze from where it flits between a wide-eyed Suki and the table, finally coming to rest at the vase. “I see,” he says, voice small. The fireplace flares up, then dims just as suddenly, casting the whole room in shadows.

“Thank you, though,” Sokka continues, jiggling his hands. The tea splashes against the side of the flask. “This is… I really appreciate it. You’re a good friend.”

“Zuko…” Suki starts, hands clenching and unclenching by her sides, but she doesn’t seem to be able to get the words out. And it takes an embarrassingly long moment for Sokka to realise, with a start, that this is her boss, not just her friend. No wonder Suki looks so mortified; she’s one of the most professional individuals he knows. Spirits, the Kyoshi Warriors don’t have any anti-fraternization codes, do they?

“She’s not on the clock,” Sokka rushes to explain, trying to salvage the situation. “Her shift was over when she came here, and I was the one to call her over, I set this all up, and—”

“It’s no problem,” says Zuko quietly, never once looking away from the table. His hair drips over his eye, water trailing down his cheek. “Suki. It’s okay. I— I understand. Remember what we talked about?”

She nods, and though her face slowly smoothes out, her eyes remain stormy. “But—"

“So don’t worry about it,” he continues, finally looking at her, and Sokka can't interpret what passes between them at that moment.

Whatever it is, it causes Suki’s shoulders to slump before she looks away, muttering something to herself.

Zuko takes a step back, then another, and when he looks at Sokka his eyes seem oddly vacant, like he’s looking straight through him. “I think I’m going to retire for the night,” he says, the words barely audible in the gap that yawns between them. “Enjoy your evening.” The shadows rush to engulf him as he turns and walks away, the scones on the corridor walls flickering weakly as he passes by.

“Phew. That was kinda awkward, huh?” Sokka closes the door behind him with his hip. “Though it’s crazy how nice he is now. I mean, he—”

“Sokka.”

“Hmm?”

The expression on Suki’s face wavers, a conflicted look in her eyes, before it settles into something determined. She takes a deep breath, like she’s bracing herself for something. “You should sit down for this.”

“Suki,” he says, nervous laughter bubbling out of his throat. “You’re scaring me. What’s up?”

“Spirits, I wish there was a better way to do this.” And then, rather nonsensically, she adds under her breath, “He's going to kill me when he finds out I told you all this, after everything.”

“Who?” he asks, frowning now. “Tell me what?”

“Sokka… we broke up.”

The bag drops to the ground, the flask nearly slipping out of his other hand too. All other questions flee out of his mind, until he’s left with just the one: “What?”

Suki falls into her chair like her own legs have suddenly failed her, head in her hands. “After the war. We weren’t— we realised we were better as friends. I wanted to tell you straight after you woke up, when I realised you didn’t remember, but—” She pauses, groaning, as she takes off her headdress to run her fingers through her hair. “I didn’t want to hurt you. Honestly, I thought that you’d remember everything in a few days anyway. And then, when Katara got here and nothing changed, I thought I could wait until the healers came.”

She takes her hands away from her face, and Sokka sees how wet her eyes are. “I’m so sorry. I thought I’d have a better way to tell you, but I just can’t— I can’t take it anymore.”

They stare at each other for a long moment, the crackling of the fireplace drowned out by the static rising through Sokka’s head. Then his feet shuffle forward, dragging the rest of him to the chair opposite hers, if only so his legs don’t give out from under him.

“Sokka,” she says, and he hates the way her voice breaks on his name. “Please tell me you’re okay. How do you feel?”

He feels— he doesn’t know how he feels. He wishes he felt different to however he does feel.

“I’m okay,” he finds himself saying anyway, the words as hollow as his chest. “How did we. I mean. What happened to us?”

The smile she gives him is soft and careful, and he wishes he could hate that too. “The time we spent together, it was good. It was really good, Sokka. But I think, deep down, we always knew it wasn’t meant to last. After that, ending it just seemed… natural. We both walked away happy, and as closer friends than before. When you remember, you’ll know.”

“If,” Sokka corrects her dully. “If I remember.”

“You have to,” Suki says, a desperate tone to her voice. She rakes her hands through her hair again, turning it messier than he’s ever seen it. “And I’m not saying it just for your sake. You— there’s so much you don’t know, Sokka—”

The modicum of control he’d carefully maintained all evening finally snaps, a part of him surprised that it lasted this long. “Then tell me!” he roars, slamming his fists against the table, making the cutlery jump. Pain blooms dull through his hands, adding to the ache in his leg; he welcomes it. “I’m so sick and tired of being kept in the dark! Fuck!”

Tears spill down her cheeks. “You know I can’t do that,” she whispers. “Spirits, I want to, more than anything. It would make everything so easy. But I can’t, Sokka. We can’t. It might only make things worse for you in the long run, and none of us can risk that. You wouldn’t understand it like this, anyway, and there’s some things that— they’re not my place to tell. I’m sorry.”

A long silence passes, interspersed with the thunder rumbling outside.

“I’m okay,” he says again, exhausted all of a sudden. All he wants is to do is crawl into bed and hide there forever. “You don’t have to stay. My head’s fine.”

“That’s not the only thing I’m worried about.” The chair scrapes as Suki stands up. Instead of leaving, she drags the chair closer to him until they’re sitting side by side.

“The other day, I wasn’t lying when I said you’re one of my best friends,” she says, turning to face him. This close, he can see the flicker of the tealights in her eyes, and the earnestness that flares even brighter. “I really care about you, Sokka; that’s never going to change. I need you to believe that. I still love you; I’m just not in love with you anymore. And from what I know— knew,” she corrects, “of you, from before… I’m very sure you felt the same way.”

And though the words hurt, he doesn’t have anything to say to that; she would know more than him, wouldn’t she? It’s almost funny, in a way, that the only one who doesn’t know how he felt about all this is himself.

At first he sits there, rigid and still, and he wants to let the anger rise up again like it did with Katara. The bitterness of it would be a cool balm against the ache in his chest, almost icy. Maybe it would let him grow numb to the unfairness of it all.

But he’s tired, and his leg is hurting something fierce, and he’s already hurt one person he loves today. With how close she is, he can almost feel the warmth of her through her robes, and all he wants at that moment is to shift just a little to the side, just enough that he can lean against her, let her take his weight and thaw him out.

So he does. She lets him tuck his head against his neck, and puts her arms around him until he slumps bonelessly against her, and he shudders as he lets the hurt wash over him and through him until it’s gone altogether, leaving him all the lighter for it.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbles into her collar, when his breathing is finally steady. “For yelling, earlier. Shouldn’t have done that.”

“No, you shouldn’t have,” she says, and he doesn’t have to look at her to know she’s smiling. “But it’s okay. You’ve gone through a lot recently.”

“How long am I allowed to use that as an excuse, though?” he asks. Shame pulls at him, making him scrunch his eyes shut against the sudden burn of tears. “Some good friend I am.”

She shakes him a little and he jolts with the movement, nearly displaced from his chair. “But you are, Sokka,” she says, pulling back to look him in the eyes. “You’re taking all this in stride so much better than you think you are. And you’re trying so hard to make it all seem normal, but I know how much it’s costing you to pretend. But you still keep on trying, for our sakes. Because you think it’ll make us feel better, somehow.” She wipes away an errant tear that has slipped unnoticed down his cheek. “I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to. Everything you’re feeling right now, you’re allowed to. You don’t have to hide it. It doesn’t make you any different in our eyes. You’re still Sokka.”

She clasps her hand over his, her grip tight, and a part of him wants to laugh at the irony of it all— he’d imagined this moment to be going a lot differently in his mind. But a greater part is fighting against the need to violently burst into tears, because this is all he’d wanted to hear from Katara, and he hadn’t, and that hurts more than he thought it would have.

“I’m glad you told me, about us,” he gets out, his voice watery. “And I’m glad I still have you in my life.”

“As you should be,” she says airily, flipping back her hair. And if the laughter that escapes him is a touch hysterical, neither of them comment on it.

They do end up eating the food, sitting side by side as they pick at the now-cold platters. And they talk about nothing and everything, with Suki regaling him with the more interesting aspects of her role as a Kyoshi Warrior in the Fire Nation, though she is careful to avoid any topic that she thinks the “other” Sokka might have known. Still, Sokka finds that he doesn’t mind; it’s nice to just sit with someone who accepts this version of him without searching out the missing pieces.

But then she brings up Ty Lee a few times, and isn’t fast enough to mask the blush that creeps up her unpainted cheeks.

Sokka whistles. “Ty Lee, huh?” he asks, eyebrows wagging, and grins at the way she chokes on her water. “So that’s what Katara meant yesterday. Little surprised, though; I didn’t think someone like her would be your type.”

Suki raises an eyebrow, having quickly recovered from her coughing fit. “Someone like her?” she asks, a dangerous lilt to her voice.

He throws up his hands. “Bubbly! And giggly! And very pink. Just… didn’t think you’d be into that.”

“You know, she’s more dangerous than most of the benders I’ve come across.” Suki taps her chin with the end of her chopstick, and he can almost see the love-hearts in her eyes. Has he really been so wilfully blind, all this time? “She knows seventy-eight different ways to kill a man. Once, she took an assassin down with nothing but her left pinkie and a smile.”

Sokka gulps. “That makes a lot more sense, somehow.”

Suki smiles, but then it fades with hesitance once more. “And you're... okay with this?”

“Why wouldn't I be?” he answers, and is surprised by his own honesty. “You don't owe me anything, Sooks. I'm just glad you're happy.”

A sudden thought occurs to him, making him groan. “You know, I thought it was odd, the way Ty Lee was looking at me at lunch. She probably thinks I’ve been blatantly flirting with her girl this entire time.” He shudders. “To think I came so close to being murdered today.”

Suki laughs, and he smiles at how easy it comes to her, now that she isn’t being weighed down by the knowledge that she’d thought would cause him pain. But then it’s time for her to leave, and he can no longer pretend (always pretending, always pretending) that there isn’t a steadily growing ache in his chest, growing and festering as he closes his doors behind her, as he cleans up the table, as he stares at the wilting fire lilies in their vase, fallen petals scattered on the table. And as he sits in front of the fire, it takes him a while to pinpoint the name of this ache.

Odd, he thinks, for loneliness to carry such barbs in its wake, piercing him from within with every breath.

 


 

After everything, it’s the first sip of the medicinal tea that undoes him this time.

 

It’s bitter, acrid, the taste lingering in his mouth as he chokes and coughs. “And he says this is supposed to help?”

A small shrug from across the bed. “Just… hold your nose and choke it down?”

A beat of silence. Then he snickers, muffling the sound against his palm. “That’s what he said.”

Affronted gold eyes, the mattress creaking as weight shifts across it. A sudden whack to the back of his head. “Sokka! This is my Uncle we’re talking about. Agni, I think I’m going to be sick.”

“Hey! If anything, I’m the sick one here.”

“Well,” a pointed look directed his way, “you wouldn’t be if you finished the tea.”

“Ugh. The things I do for love.” But he does, throat burning as he throws it back, gagging slightly on the aftertaste.

Warmth spreading through him slowly but steadily, the pain in his knee dulling further and further until it dissipates entirely.

“Well? Any better?” Anxious hands on his leg, fretting over the exposed skin with a touch so gentle it could have been imagined.

“Hmm, not quite.”

“Should I get more tea from—”

His hand shooting out, grabbing a pale wrist. “I think,” the words uttered deliberately slow, a smile curving his mouth, “that a kiss would make it alllllll better.”

A huffed laugh. “Tough luck.”

“How could you be so rude to me, as I lie here, on my deathbed—”

“Spirits, how can anyone be so annoying.” But then: “You’ll have to close your eyes.”

“Done,” he says, complying immediately.

A warm breath mingling with his. Jasmine and fire lilies, featherlight against his lips, just barely pressing in before retreating. “Hey, no fair, that wasn’t a proper— oh.”

The soft, hot press of a mouth against his knee, and it’s almost like the pain was never there.

 

His leg throbs in time with the beat of his heart, fast as a jackalope. As he opens his eyes, he sees the way his cup shakes in his hands, the surface of the liquid disturbed by the tears dripping down his face.

When it hits, the thunder is too close. It jerks him out of his thoughts, making him lose the threads of his memories; they unravel as he reaches out for them, desperate for anything, everything. No, no, wait, he thinks, grasping onto the ghosts receding into his mind, please stay, just this once.

They’re gone before he can finish the thought.

Tea spills across his table, the cup knocked over with a careless swipe of his hand as he hurries to his bedroom. He doesn’t really know what he’s doing as he opens the first drawer, spilling the contents on the floor. Then he opens the next, then the next, and then he’s rummaging through his cupboard, hands clawing at the clothes like a madman because that’s what he is, that’s what I am, he thinks, thoughts wild and in disarray like the possessions scattered on the floor, I’ve finally gone mad.

Because there’s nothing here; there’s nothing to indicate anything beyond what he already knows about himself, and that’s nothing in of itself. It’s just things, meaningless items another version of him has gathered over time. The bare bones of him, with nothing attached. And maybe he can use them to build a skeleton of the person he’s supposed to be, but it’ll never be enough to give him substance. Where is he supposed to harvest the flesh from, the sinew to hold him together? Whose skin does he pull taut over him to make him whole again?

Is this who he is now— hollow, and destined to remain so? Familiarity slipping through his skeletal grasp, until he’s left clutching nothing but his aching head and empty air?

It feels like he can’t breathe. Like someone is stealing all his air. Like the room is three sizes too small.

He looks at the mess on the floor, and suddenly he can’t see much of anything at all; everything goes sort of hazy, and it’s all he can do to throw himself on his bed and force himself to choke down lungfuls of air. He curls up, every part of him trembling, and presses his face into the sheets.

It’s easy, then, to let himself drift like an unmoored ship in a stormy sea; the thunder outside is the only constant to the ebb and flow of him, his only anchor the pillow clutched tightly to his chest.

Wait. His pillow.

He sits up straight, back going rigid as he casts his mind back to when he’d first come to this room after waking up. He’d smelled something floral on the pillows, he remembers, and thought it strange. Jasmine, and something else. He presses his nose into the pillow again, but the covers have all been washed multiple times by now, smelling of nothing but the generic soap used in the palace for the washing. But he’d smelled it again, somewhere, and recently too. Where— oh.

He gets to his feet again, cursing as something cracks under his feet. He stumbles over it, rushing back to the living area in his quarters. His hands shake as they reach for the vase, the flowers’ scent weakened by their time spent wilting in front of the fireplace, but still strong enough to confirm it for him.

Fire lilies. Jasmine and fire lilies.

And now— what? Sokka stares at the flowers as if they’ll suddenly come to life and spill everything his heart yearns to know. But of course, nothing happens because nothing is ever that simple. Benders, giant flying bisons, prepubescent Avatars with powers to change the destiny of the world; but no, talking flowers are a touch too far. He shakes the vase anyway, squinting suspiciously. 

Silence. As expected. Because, oh, Spirits, he’s—

“I’m not going crazy,” he mutters, shuffling back to his bedroom with the vase held firmly against his chest. The scattered belongings on the floor seem to mock him, then, and he buries his nose in the flowers to ignore them. “I’m not.”

As he flops back onto his pillows, staring up with unseeing eyes at the cloth draped over his four-poster bed, the lightning flashes right outside his window. He blinks, then blinks again.

There, at the right-hand corner. Something is tucked into the fabric, revealed only by the shadow it leaves in the wake of the lightning.

He stands up on the bed, the fire lilies spilling out of the vase and onto his sheets. They’re crushed under his feet as he reaches up with shaky fingers.

It’s a piece of paper, folded up tight, giving way to a note that’s well-worn at the edges. The words are written in sharp, unfamiliar lines, almost regal in their elegance and nothing like his own komodo-chicken scratch.

Sokka kneels back down on the bed, hurriedly lighting the lamp placed on his bedside desk. He smooths out the surface of the paper against sheets now stained with faint patches of crimson.

There are only three short lines; he recognises the structure, what it symbolises, but he still finds himself reading it once, twice, thrice, because his head still hurts and he can’t— he doesn’t know what to make of it, what it means. All he can do is let the pain wash over him; it fills the hollow ache where his heart is supposed to be, if only for a little while.

you have kindled me
heap of ashes that I am
into fire; ablaze

(Is this proof, then, that the skeleton was once a person?)

Chapter Text

“Sorry, haven’t seen her all morning.”

“You sure?” asks Sokka. His hand involuntarily flies to the pocket holding the poem, tucked in safe.

Saaya nods, wiping rainwater off her fans. “Ty Lee will probably know, though. That girl’s got some kind of sixth sense when it comes to Suki. It’s freaky, actually, the way those two always know the other’s location,” she says, scowling faintly at the smudge still present on the yellow metal. “Ugh, I hate this weather.”

“Me too,” mutters Sokka as his leg gives another dull twinge of pain. He’d knocked over most of the tea Zuko had left him, and though there had been some left in the flask, he hadn’t been able to bear another sip. Not after—

“Anyway,” says Saaya, jarring him out of his thoughts. She checks her reflection in one of the fans, adjusting her headdress. “Think I saw Ty Lee near the Fire Lord’s office as I was coming here. Might wanna check there first.”

“Thanks, Saaya,” he says, already heading off. He waves back at her. “Owe you one!”

“Anytime, Water Tribe.”

By the time he makes it to Zuko’s office, he’s already worked himself into a slight frenzy. He needs to find Suki, needs to ask her what she knows about the poem— what it means, who the writer is, why it was in his room. Why it was hidden in a spot only visible to him. If there are others like it, somewhere.

He’s barely slept; tossing and turning all night as the storm had raged on outside, tangled and sweaty in his sheets, the thunder adding to the cacophony inside his head, and had caught a few scant hours of sleep before he’d been up again. But the adrenaline currently rushing through him makes him feel more alive than he’s felt in weeks, washing away his tiredness.

There’s no one standing guard at the doors. Ah, how serendipitous. This allows Sokka to barge in without stopping, eyes zeroed in on Ty Lee and Zuko’s startled faces.

“Sokka,” Ty Lee starts, coming up to stand in front of Zuko’s desk, blocking him from view, “what are you—”

“Where’s Suki,” he interrupts, looking around the room as if he expects her to pop out from behind the curtains.

Ty Lee scowls at him. “Good morning to you, too. As you can clearly see, she isn’t here.”

From the corner of his eye, Sokka sees Zuko slump a little behind his desk, but all his attention is focused on Ty Lee and the way she’s glaring at him. He suddenly remembers what Suki had said about her the night before— she knows seventy-eight different ways to kill a man. And something about Ty Lee’s fingers?

Sokka tugs at his collar. “… Any chance you know where she might be? I kinda need to ask her about something.” He eyes her fingers apprehensively, gaze caught on her murder pinkies. “That’s all, I swear!”

Fortunately, the pinkies remain by her side with the rest of her hands while she looks at him with knitted brows. “She went with Katara,” she says, “to Caldera library. I thought you already knew this? Didn’t Katara tell you? I swear she said something about taking you along with her.”

“Ah,” he says, and doesn’t quite manage to hide his wince. “Yeah. Guess I forgot about that.”

Ty Lee watches him for a moment, her eyes softening. “What did you want to ask her? Maybe I can help you with whatever it is.”

Sokka wavers, hand itching to whip out the poem. But though the parchment feels like it’s burning a hole through his pocket, he decides against it. The only people who’d probably know anything about it are Katara and Suki, neither of whom are currently here. Since he’s waited all night, what’s a few more hours? “No, it’s okay,” he says, sheepish. “I’ll wait for her to come back. Sorry for barging in like this.”

She waves him off, and he sighs, more relieved than he’d like to admit. Good to know he’s not in imminent danger of being murdered by his ex-girlfriend’s current girlfriend, then.

What is my life, he thinks.

“And thanks for the compress and tea yesterday, Zuko,” he says, twisting to his side to glance behind her. Even if Sokka didn’t really end up using either of them, it’s only common courtesy to thank the guy after he went through all that effort. “I wanted to ask you about that tea, actually. I don’t know why, but it tasted— uh, Zuko?”

“Hmm?” Zuko blinks up at him owlishly.

“You okay, dude?” Sokka asks, concerned at the way Zuko’s eyes don’t quite meet his own. He looks paler than usual, unscarred cheek oddly flushed. 

“I’m fine,” says Zuko tonelessly. “Just,” he flaps a hand vaguely, “didn’t get much sleep. Storm was loud.”

“Tell me about it,” Sokka says, gearing up to rant about crazy Fire Nation weather and weaponized lightning that only seemed to crack right outside his window, but then suddenly Ty Lee is in front of him again.

“If that’s all,” she says, smiling toothily at him, “you should probably go back to your quarters. Zuko’s got a meeting to go prepare for.”

“Doesn’t he always?” Sokka mutters. “Hey, speaking of meetings,” he drags his heels in as Ty Lee tries to push him towards the door, “can I come to one sometime? I mean, I’m supposed to be an ambassador, right? Pretty sure I’ve probably missed a few important meetings by now. Actually, let me check my schedule real quick— oh, would you look at that? I’m free all day!” He gives his best polar puppy-dog stare to Zuko, pouting when it seems to have no response. “What d’ya say? Can I tag along?”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Sokka,” Zuko says, absently rubbing at his chest. “You should concentrate on getting better, first.”

Sokka comes to a complete stop, Ty Lee grunting as she tries and fails to tug him the rest of the way. “That’s all I’ve been doing,” he says, and he can’t help the bite that accompanies the words. Spirits, but he’s so sick of everyone telling him to ‘get better’, like he has any say in the matter. “Now I wanna do something else, like, oh I don’t know, my job?”

Zuko narrows his eyes, finally meeting Sokka’s gaze head-on. “You know as well as I do that there’s no point in you going to any meetings like this.”

“I’ve still got a brain, haven’t I?”

“Sure doesn’t seem like it, somedays,” Ty Lee sing-songs, then immediately looks away when Sokka glowers at her.

“Plus,” Sokka continues, choosing to ignore her for the sake of Suki (and Ty Lee’s murder pinkies), “don’t tell Katara I said this, but I don’t think my memory is coming back anytime soon. I mean, she’s the best waterbending healer I know, and even she didn’t manage to make anything budge up here.” He raps his knuckles against his head. “I should probably start from scratch. I don’t mind, really; I’m sure it won’t take me too long to get to grips with the content of the meetings again, and—”

“I said,” Zuko slams his hands flat against his desk, “no.”

Sokka opens his mouth to protest, when Zuko says, “Ty Lee?” And suddenly Sokka can’t feel any of his limbs.

“Hey!” he yells, as he’s slung over Ty Lee’s shoulder like a sack of potatoes. His arms flop uselessly against her back. “You can’t treat me like this!”

“Like what?” Ty Lee asks, innocent as anything. She tilts a little as they come out of the door, the wall clipping Sokka in the ear. “Oops.”

“You did that on purpose,” he sulks, ear stinging along with his pride.

Ty Lee pauses halfway down the corridor, and Sokka sees nothing but a sea of green, intercepted with the odd upside-down snapshot of servants giving them a wide berth as they pass. “I did what on purpose,” she says, and from the way she says it, quiet and low, Sokka knows it’s not a question.

He swallows, his throat suddenly dry, but soon discovers that swallowing is kind of hard when one is upside down. “Nothing.”

There is a very ominous moment of silence. Then, “Alright then, if you’re sure,” she chirps, voice back to its cheery self. And they’re heading off again.

His ear clips three more doorways before he’s finally deposited just inside his quarters (on the carpet, thank Tui for small mercies), but he doesn’t dare say another word the entire way.

 


 

He’s still sulking half an hour later, shaking out the pins and needles in his limbs as he stumbles out of the door.

“Oh, hi again,” says Saaya, standing exactly where he last saw her. “Saw you take a ride on Ty Lee’s shoulder earlier. You good?”

“Do I look like I’m good,” he snaps, then makes himself take a deep breath. “Sorry.”

Saaya raises both hands placatingly, an amused look dancing on her face. “All good, my man. Did you end up finding Suki, then?”

“No,” he grumbles. Ugh, what a waste of a morning. “She went to Caldera library with my sister.”

“Ah. Bummer. Well, hopefully she’ll be back soon,” nods Saaya, adjusting her stance against the wall. “You couldn’t pay me to go to one of those again, though.”

“What, a library?”

“Dusty shelves, quiet as death, nothing but the sound of your own harsh, panting breaths as you hide from the librarian? No, thanks.”

He side-eyes her. “That sounds like an extremely specific experience.”

She shrugs. “I snuck into one of those to fool around with a girl, once. University student from a neighbouring colony. Crazy big brains.” She gives a long exhale, dark eyes wistful. “Come to think of it, her brain wasn’t the only crazy big thing about her. Oh, man, did she have a massive honking pair of—”

“Anyway!” Sokka squeaks loudly, face burning. “Could we maybe go back to… Spirits, what were we even talking about? Libraries?”

“Not so bad as a make-out location,” Saaya agrees, making grabby hands, “’ racks between the stacks’, if you catch my drift. But apart from that, they’re on thin fucking ice.”

Sokka’s brain still feels a little frazzled at the very strange direction this conversation has taken, when it latches onto something she’d said earlier. “Snuck in, huh? How’d you manage that?”

“All I needed was a pair of lensless spectacles, and they let me waltz right in the door. Guess that’s all you need to look like a student.” She sniffs. “For a bunch of uppity smarty-pants, they sure were easy to fool.” 

“Say, Saaya,” he asks, an idea making its way into his head. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure, bud.”

“Any idea where a guy might get his hands on a wig and, oh, maybe a fake beard around here somewhere?”

 


 

“And you said your name was…”

“Fire. Wang Fire.” Sokka surreptitiously adjusts his beard with the back of one hand, trying to keep the handle from slipping off his ear. “Ambassador from the colonies.”

“He’s legit,” says Saaya, nodding to the guard. “Saw his papers and everything.”

For some reason, the guard still seems sceptical. “Which colony, specifically,” he asks, and ah, shit. Sokka feels a bead of sweat trickle down his hairline, dripping onto his red robes. “Let me see those papers, actually—”

“Slip o’ the old tongue!” chuckles Sokka, voice slightly high-pitched. He exchanges a wide-eyed glance with Saaya, who shrugs apologetically. “Mind’s getting scattered with age, I swear. No, I’m from the er, whatsitsname—”

“Fishcrane Town,” inputs Saaya helpfully.

“… Do you mean Cranefish Town?”

“Yes!” they chorus, nodding vigorously. “That,” adds Sokka, twirling his moustache, “is exactly right, my good fellow.”

“We already have an ambassador from Cranefish Town here, don’t we?” asks the guard, frowning.

Saaya stares down the guard. She crosses her arms, muscles flexing taut under her green uniform. “You sure about that?”

“Um. Yes?”

Sokka elbows her from where the guard can’t see. “You’re absolutely right! I’m his stand-in, actually. He, uh, got a bad case of… pentapox.”

The guard winces in sympathy. “Ooh, I think I’ve heard about that. Nasty stuff.”

“Very,” Sokka says.

“He’s probably going to die,” says Saaya, and both Sokka and the guard gape at her.

“She jests! The lady jests,” Sokka chortles, shooting her a glare. “I’m sure he’ll be fine, right as rain soon enough. Hardy fellow, that one.” He clears his throat. “So, I’m good to go?”

The guard waves him through, still staring warily at Saaya.

Sokka turns slightly to face her, winking subtly at a job well done.

“You got something in your eye?” the guard asks him, looking at him with concern.

Sokka freezes, brain whirring. “Only the insatiable need to see things done right,” he says finally, puffing up his chest. Saaya groans.

“I—” The guard seems at a loss for words. “Alright, then.”

Still got it, Sokka thinks as he enters the chambers, immediately engulfed by the throng of people milling around the space, chatting amongst one another.

This is going to be so worth it.

 


 

Sokka has never been so bored in his life.

It’s not that the meeting isn’t… interesting, exactly. From where he’s seated between two burly-looking ambassadors from neighbouring Hu Xin Provinces, he’s got a good view of the whole room. Unfortunately, most of it is just more ambassadors in overly regal outfits going over various trade reports in the most monotonous tones imaginable. Currently, it’s a man in Earth Kingdom green droning on about grain tariffs and the importance of yield estimates. With the rain pattering gently against the high windows, the soft warmth of his robes, and his brain in its current sleep-deprived state, it’s becoming more and more difficult for Sokka to keep his eyes open.

It looks like he’s not the only one having trouble paying attention. Across from him, a woman in green is blinking drowsily, chin propped up in her hand. Taktuq is a few seats away from her, doodling what seem to be stick figures on a piece of parchment. A red-robed ambassador next to him is peeking over at the parchment intermittently, looking more and more entertained with every glance.

Zuko himself is sitting rigidly in his seat, eyes fixed on the speaking ambassador. Sokka had kept his head ducked for the first few minutes of the meeting, but it had been unnecessary; Zuko rarely looks away from whoever is standing to speak, giving them the full force of his attention as if he can’t afford to look away for even a second, and Sokka slowly finds himself relaxing. Miura stands a few feet behind Zuko, face impassive, though Sokka catches her glancing at Zuko every so often with slightly furrowed brows.

“Thank you, Ambassador Chenguang,” says Zuko when the Earth Kingdom ambassador pauses for breath. “Please send these reports to my office at this meeting’s conclusion. Alright, Ambassador Sita, if you’d like to—”

“Oh, but I wasn’t quite done, Lord Zuko,” sniffles Ambassador Chenguang, beady eyes narrowing with perceived affront. A few muffled groans arise from around the room.

Zuko exhales slowly. “My apologies, Ambassador,” he replies, gesturing for the man to continue.

Ambassador Chenguang clears his throat, drawing himself up haughtily. He looks back down at the scroll in his hands. “As I was saying, regarding the domestic milling premiums…”

“Every time. Every time he pulls the same shit,” mutters the ambassador to Sokka’s right, jerking him out of his daydream. He’d just gotten to the good part too—his father cheering as Sokka effortlessly commands his ship, dodging icebergs with finesse as his sister and friends obey his every instruction to steer them to success. He blinks away images of Toph erecting a Sokka-statue in his honour, the Mark of the Wise engraved above his toothy stone grin.

“Tell me about it,” replies the man to Sokka’s left, voice pitched low. “It’s been, what, twenty minutes now? Literally all of this could have gone into a written report.”

“Asshole just likes the sound of his voice.”

“Why doesn’t anyone tell him to shut up, then?” muses Sokka out loud as he rubs at his aching knee, only realising the out loud part when the two men look over at him incredulously.

“We can't just say that! Not in front of the Fire Lord. What, you new here?” Left Ambassador asks.

Sokka tries not to shrivel under their combined stares. “First day,” he says, hoping they take pity on him.

Right Ambassador scoffs. “Meetings have been in session for nearly three weeks now. Where’ve you been all that time, Ambassador…”

“Wang Fire,” Sokka supplies, and sees two pairs of eyebrows disappear into their respective hairlines.

Right Ambassador narrows his eyes at Sokka. “Say, wasn’t there a Private Wang Fire who died in the war? Any relation of yours?”

“I heard he got murdered by an earthbender spy called the Blind Bandit,” says Left Ambassador, voice choked with emotion. He wipes away a tear from the corner of his eyes. “My brother was in the same boot camp as him. He said Private Fire saved the lives of everyone in his camp that night. A true unsung hero, that man was.”

“Ah, shit,” mutters Sokka under his breath, finally remembering the days he’d spent shovelling moo-sow droppings as Private Fire, hoping to get crumbs of Fire Nation intel to help them on the Day of Black Sun. It hadn’t been one of his best plans— he hadn’t learned much of import, and the smell of dung had haunted him for days afterwards, no matter how many times he’d washed his nostrils out with soap. He’d put the whole debacle out of his mind as soon as he’d climbed onto Appa’s back, Toph collapsing the cave behind him.

To think it would come back and bite him in the ass now, of all times.

“You know,” Left Ambassador leans in very close to Sokka, his every exhale making Sokka’s moustache quiver. “I’ve seen Private Fire’s memorial picture; you look kinda like him.” He draws in even nearer, bringing his eyeballs on level with Sokka’s nose. “Just like him, if only a little older. Uncanny resemblance, now that I think about it.”

“Ahh, Private Fire, yes,” Sokka stammers, “my twin brother!” He leans back to get away from Left Ambassador’s komodo-chicken sausagey breath, slapping his hands over his face to hide his panicked expression. His makes his shoulders heave, his voice warbling with distraught emotion. “Such a tragedy for our family. My father is still broken up over his loss, and my mother— well. She won’t speak his name in the house, even to this day.”

“Don’t you both have the same name?” asks Right Ambassador, sounding very perplexed.

“I—oh,” Sokka guffaws, throwing back his head. “You must have misheard me. No, my name is, umm,” he casts his mind like a desperate net, hoping to wrangle in a vaguely Fire Nation-y sounding name, “Hwang Fire. I can see now why you’d be confused, especially as my brother and I shared the same dashing looks. Spirits, but I do miss him so.”

“Gentlemen,” a snooty voice interrupts them, “your volume indicates that perhaps you wish to contribute your thoughts towards the matter at hand?”

Thank La, Sokka thinks fervently, as the two men straighten up from where they’d been crowding Sokka. “Apologies, Ambassador Chengueng,” says Right Ambassador, sheepish. “We were just… discussing how enlightening your report is.”

So enlightening,” adds Left Ambassador. “We’re all just sitting here rapt with wonder at the details.”

“Of which there are many,” mumbles Sokka, and gets jostled from both sides for his trouble.

“I see,” Ambassador Chengueng simpers. “Well, you may carry on, gentlemen, but do try to be a bit quieter, if you could. I have so much to get through, and we wouldn’t want the Fire Lord to get distracted now, would we?” He brings a scandalised hand to his mouth. “In which case, why, I’d be forced to start from the beginning!”

“No!” Left and Right blurt out immediately, along with perhaps half the room. The glares levelled in their direction could have flayed Sokka whole. “Please, Agni, no,” Left adds in a whimper.

“That won’t be necessary,” Zuko says from the front. Is it just Sokka, or does Zuko look like he’s sweating, just a little? “If you could conclude your report, Ambassador.”

“But, Lord Zuko—”

Miura takes half a step forward, then, eyes trained on Chengueng. Her hands twitch by her sides, bringing them an almost imperceptible distance closer to her fans.

Chengueng gulps. He straightens out the scroll with tremoring hands, rustling the paper. “Very well,” he says, eyes darting between the parchment and Miura’s vaguely threatening stare.

Sokka breaths out a sigh of relief as Chengueng begins wrapping up his report. To think, this is what he snuck in for. Should’ve just gone back to bed, he thinks, sullen, and barely manages to avoid yawning. But then his thoughts begin drifting back to the poem, now tucked away into his bedside drawer for safekeeping, and he knows that sleep would have eluded him anyway.

There comes a prickling sensation at the back of his neck, steadily growing, and he freezes as he recognises what it means; he’s being watched. Slowly, he shifts in place, trying to pinpoint the source. If Zuko’s managed to recognise him, he’s going to be in a deep pile of moo-sow droppings, or worse.

But Zuko isn’t looking anywhere near him. In fact, Zuko’s eyes seem glazed over again like they had been this morning, dark bruises pressed under his unscarred eye. Maybe he really is just as tired as Sokka.

But behind Zuko, two brown eyes are narrowed in Sokka’s direction.

Uh-oh, he thinks, hurriedly looking away from Miura’s piercing stare. He tries his best to feign extreme interest in Chengueng’s finishing remarks.

“One final thing, Lord Zuko,” says Chengueng, rolling up his scroll. “I was wondering if you knew where Ambassador Sokka has been, these last few meetings.”

Sokka jolts in his seat, prompting Left and Right to give him odd looks; he hadn’t been expecting to hear his actual name, especially not coming from Chengueng’s mouth. Zuko also straightens up, gaze clearing immediately.

“You see,” Chengueng continues, “I’ve been wishing to discuss a topic he’d raised in last year’s sessions. Regarding the unification of the former Fire Nation colonies, if you remember? The collapse of the Harmony Restoration Movement was truly tragic, in my opinion, and he raised some very interesting points about—”

“I’m afraid Ambassador Sokka will not be joining us anytime soon,” Zuko interrupts, expression closing off.

“May I ask why?”

“You may not,” says Zuko, and murmurs rise amongst the room. Sokka frowns.

“But I’m sure I saw him the other day, in the open gardens,” presses Chengueng, ignoring the way Zuko’s face grows darker. “So at least he’s here, in the palace. Is he wilfully shirking his duties? Why is he not—”

Zuko cuts him off, dangerously quiet. “That’s quite enough, Ambassador.”

A hush seems to fall upon the room, and even Sokka finds himself holding his breath.

After a few tense moments Zuko sighs, pinching his nose. When he finally speaks, he does so with the sharp authority of a steel-spined leader, words ringing clear as a bell throughout the chambers. “Ambassador Sokka was a victim of a recent assassination attempt. He is currently still recovering, and the physicians have recommended for him to not be disturbed in any event.” His eyes rove around the room, piercing through each person. Sokka ducks his head again. “Do not approach him. Do not talk to him. He will re-join these meetings when I say so. Do I make myself clear?”

Chengueng nods, clearly shocked. Sokka looks around to a few more wide-eyed looks being exchanged around the room, his own frown growing deeper. Why would Zuko hide the full details of Sokka’s condition from the others?

“I think we’ll call it a day, then.” Zuko stands, bowing to the room. Sokka thinks he sees him sway slightly as he straightens up, hand rising to his chest, but Zuko’s voice remains steady. “I shall send missives regarding when the next meeting will be held; they’ll be delivered to your quarters. Good day.”

“Fucking Chengueng,” mutters Right Ambassador as he gets up from beside Sokka, “didn’t even let me get to my report. And I had things to say. Important things. Really interesting, really important things. More important than fucking grain tariffs from two years ago.”

“Want to help me lock him up his quarters before the next meeting?” asks Left Ambassador, and they both bump fists. “See you around, Hwang,” he adds as they begin making their way to the exit, disappearing amongst the throng of ambassadors. “I’m sorry about your brother!”

Sokka stands up as well, trying to look as non-suspicious as possible as he makes his way to the door. Unfortunately for him, Zuko is standing right next to it, Miura by his side. Taktuq’s already there, proudly showing off his doodles to Zuko, who smiles wearily at the parchment being thrust in his face.

Miura crosses her arms over her chest as he approaches, dashing all his hopes of making a quick escape. “Well, well,” she says, tone dry as sand. “Just as I suspected. My Lord, look what the catgator dragged in.”

Zuko looks away from Taktuq with a puzzled frown, eyes widening as they land on Sokka. “What do you— Sokka?”

“It’s Hwang, actually,” Sokka says weakly. The chambers have emptied out by now, leaving just the four of them in the cavernous space. This leaves Sokka with very few options to hide.

“Is that a fake beard? How did you even get your hands on a— please get out from behind Taktuq,” Zuko says, burying his face in his hands.

“Do I know you?” Taktuq asks. “You look really familiar.” He twists his head to take a closer look at Sokka, then gasps. “Private Wang Fire?”

Sokka rolls his eyes, ripping off his wig and beard in one swift movement. “Ambassador Sokka?” gasps Taktuq in the exact same tone.

“I got curious, okay!” Sokka peeks out from behind Taktuq’s shoulder. “Is curiosity a crime now?”

“No, but impersonating an ambassador to the Fire Nation is,” says Miura.

“Technically, I’m still an ambassador to the Fire Nation,” Sokka points out. Miura reaches for her fan.

Hands raised placatingly, he hurries to add, “But! I can see where I may have made some mistakes.”

“You shouldn’t be here.” The words are said quietly, but the anger behind them is still loud enough to be heard; Zuko’s eyes flash with it. His right cheek is ruddy, standing out stark against the rest of his skin. “Even after I specifically told you—”

“Well, guess what, Zuko,” Sokka says, his own irritation rising to match. “You don’t get to tell me what to do. You’re not the boss of me.”

“Didn’t you just admit to the fact that you’re still an ambassador?” he points out, and Sokka wants to grind his teeth at his own words being used against him. “So, technically, I am.”

“Aren’t ambassadors public servants?” Sokka asks dourly.

Zuko groans. This close, Sokka can see the thin sheen of sweat on Zuko’s brows. That’s what he gets for wearing the stuffiest-looking robes known to man. “Sokka, I’m just trying to look out for you.”

It's hard for Sokka not to roll his eyes at this. “You don’t get to have it both ways! You don’t get to keep me away from these meetings, then act like you still have any control over me!” His leg is aching again, and the pain doesn’t help his growing temper. “And why wouldn’t you tell the other ambassadors about me? It’s not like it needs to be some big secret, what happened to my memories.”

Zuko steps back, knuckles white where they grip the back of his chair. “They don’t need to know anything,” he says. “It’s pointless to tell them, anyway. The healers will be here soon, and then everything will go back to normal, and—”

“You don’t know that!” Sokka stabs a finger in Zuko’s direction. It pokes his chest, and Zuko flinches back like he’s been stabbed, but all Sokka can see is Katara’s devastated face, Katara’s voice saying nothing’s worked, and you’re still like that, saying it’s not fine, saying we’ll keep trying, disappointment brimming in her voice and her eyes and every line of her face and Sokka is so fucking tired.

“What if this is the new normal?” he bites out, and he doesn’t quite know who he’s saying it to, exactly— Zuko, or the spectre of Katara whose words had haunted him all night as he’d trembled against the sheets, the poem clutched tight in his grasp the only thing keeping the shadows at bay. “Who knows if anything the healers do will even make a difference? Maybe this is how I’m going to be now. Maybe there’s no treatment, or healing miracles, or whatever the fuck it is that you all seem to think they can do. I’ve accepted that possibility; why can’t you?”

“Ambassador Sokka, step away from him,” Miura says quietly from right beside them, and Sokka startles, just a little. He hadn’t realised how close he’s gotten to Zuko, standing mere inches away from him.

Taktuq is staring at them both, wide-eyed. As for Zuko himself, he’s gone frighteningly pale, his scar the only remaining colour on his face.

Sokka takes a step back, but Zuko seems to follow as if tugged by rope. His hands flutter in between them, like he’s doesn’t quite know what to do with them.

“I— I can’t,” Zuko says, sounding almost breathless. His pupils are blown wide, a thin ring of gold surrounding a sea of black. “You can’t. You shouldn’t. Sokka,” and it is just like Katara all over again, down to the same pleading hope that’s just waiting to be dashed against the sharp rocks of reality; Spirits, Sokka would laugh if he didn’t want to scream, “you can’t give up. The healers are coming, you just have to wait, they’ll fix it, they have to—”

But Zuko isn’t Katara, isn’t like her at all, not in the way that matters, and Sokka has reached the end of his remaining patience. Even so, the words that leave his mouth are sharper than he intends them to be. “Who are you to tell me what I can and can’t do?”

Duh, he’s the Fire Lord, comes the immediate response in his mind, but Zuko doesn’t play that card again. And then comes: he’s your friend. But Zuko doesn’t say that either. In fact, he says nothing at all, and the silence that follows is heavy. Far heavier than Sokka’s words should have warranted.

He wants to soften the blow, then, wants to meet Zuko’s eyes and offer a wordless apology, a hey that was kind of mean, I’m just tired, you get it right? glance, and then they can move past this, and Sokka can slink back to his quarters, maybe take a nap before Suki comes back.

But Zuko isn’t looking at him anymore, and Miura stands stone-faced, and Sokka had almost forgotten Taktuq was still there, and even he won’t meet Sokka’s eyes. And something in Sokka’s chest lurches.

“Hey, Zuko,” he starts, but Zuko shakes his head, gaze trained on the floor.

“You’re right,” Zuko finally says, voice barely more than a whisper. “I’m not— I shouldn’t have. It wasn’t my place to say anything. I’m sorry for forgetting that.”

And Zuko may not be Katara, but it is the same hurt splashed on his face that Katara had walked out with, a stark reminder of all of Sokka’s failings. Can’t they see that he’s trying his best, just like them? That he wants his memories back too, if only to stop feeling like he’s a puzzle piece constantly being jammed in the wrong space, his edges misaligning with the gap they’re trying to fit him into?

Can’t they see that all he wants to be is enough?

“It’s alright,” Sokka says, just as quiet. “I’m sorry, too. I didn’t mean that.” And he hopes Zuko knows that, knows that this Sokka is just a child masquerading as a man, clumsy and wrong-footed even before he was thrust five years too far ahead in time.

But Zuko doesn’t reply, still doesn’t look at him. His eyes are closed. The dismissal is clear.

Sokka’s own exhaustion is creeping up on him, tendrils of tiredness wrapping around his shoulders and threatening to bring him to his knees. He feels empty, wrung out; sleep sounds like a welcome release from consciousness just about now, if only so he can stop thinking for a little while. “I’m gonna go back to my quarters. Miura, if you could let me know when Suki gets back, please.”

He doesn’t look back as he turns to walk away.

And he would have kept walking, if not for the crash that sounds from behind him.

“Zuko!” cries Taktuq. Sokka whirls around.

Zuko lies crumpled in Taktuq’s arms. He’s white as a sheet, eyelids fluttering, chest heaving silently.

Taktuq’s shaking him, something like panic scrawled across his face, but Zuko does not respond. “What’s wrong with him?”

Miura drops to her knees beside them. She places a hand against Zuko’s forehead, jerks it back with a hiss. “Fuck,” she says. “He’s burning up.” She turns to Sokka, any doubts Sokka may have had about the seriousness of the situation disappear instantly; Miura looks scared. “Sokka, get Kustaa. Tell him to come to Zuko’s quarters immediately.”

“Is he,” Sokka breathes, unable to finish the sentence. He wavers, feet moving of their own accord towards them.

“Now!” she yells, voice cracking, and the sight of her composure breaking is enough to jolt Sokka into action. He looks back one last time at Zuko, whose head lolls as Taktuq stands with him cradled against his chest, heavy robes tangled around his limp body.

Sokka runs.

 

Chapter Text

He’s been pacing the entire length of Zuko’s outer chambers for what feels like hours, close to wearing holes in the carpet before Kustaa finally cracks open the door. Two healers exit, hands laden with trays of medical supplies.

Kustaa looks at the four of them for one silent moment before he sighs, wearily gesturing for them to come in.

Sokka’s the first one through the door. “How is he,” he rushes to ask, his feet coming to stop a few steps into the room.

The others come to stand beside him, but Sokka’s eyes are fixed on the figure lying prone on the bed. Zuko looks so small like this, he finds himself thinking, nestled amongst the sheets. His hair has come undone from his knot, tangled in a dark starburst around his face. Beads of sweat line his forehead, his flushed cheeks. Even in unconsciousness his brows are faintly furrowed, eyes roving restlessly under closed lids.

“I’ve managed to get the fever down for now,” Kustaa replies, walking over to the bedside table, “but he’s going to be out of it for a while.” He wrings out a cloth from the bowl resting on his tray, places it on Zuko’s forehead with gentle fingers. Zuko murmurs something at the touch, shifting to push into the physician’s hand, and Kustaa clucks sadly as he pushes a sweaty lock of hair away from Zuko’s cheek.

“I knew he was sick!” Ty Lee whispers furiously. She pushes past Sokka, stomping to the edge of the bed where she scowls down at Zuko. “I knew it, and he still had the audacity to deny it. Lied and told me he was fine to my face.” But the gentleness of her hand reaching out to grip Zuko’s belies her tone.

“It’s because of that stupid errand he said he had to run,” Miura says, voice barely audible. She hadn’t said a word the entire time they’d all spent waiting, standing withdrawn in the corner. Even now, she doesn’t quite look at Zuko, keeping her eyes averted from the bed. “I told him it was a bad idea to go outside in this weather, but he insisted. Said it was important.”

“Miura, c’mon,” Ty Lee says, exasperated. She perches herself at the edge of the bed, still holding onto Zuko’s hand. “Zuko does what he wants, you know that. This isn’t your fault, so stop being an idiot. There’s only room for one of those in this room, and he’s passed out on this bed. Well,” and here her eyes flick to Sokka’s, unimpressed, “maybe two, actually.”

“Hey!” Taktuq says from beside Sokka. “What’d I do?”

“Errand,” Sokka says numbly, mind whirring. “What errand?”

“Something about tea,” Miura says, and. Oh.

“All those years spent with Iroh,” Ty Lee wails, “it’s ruined him! Going out in a thunderstorm for some Spiritforsaken leaf juice, of all things.”

“It was for me.” Four pairs of eyes swivel in Sokka’s direction. “He— the tea was for me,” Sokka gets out, wishing the ground would swallow him whole. “For my leg.”

A pause. Then, “Of course it was,” Miura says, and her shoulders seem to relax a little from the stiff line they’d bunched up into.

Sokka throws up his hands. “What does that even—”

“If you’re just here to cause a commotion,” Kustaa cuts in, “feel free to leave, all of you. He needs to rest, not for you all to sound like escaped hyena-dillos from a circus.”

“As a former circus dweller, I resent that,” Ty Lee huffs.

“Besides,” Kustaa continues. “The Fire Lord’s sudden bout of ill health isn’t so sudden, if you consider all the other ways he hasn’t been looking after himself lately. If you add in his proclivity to catch infections easily, then this foolhardy jaunt in the rain was just the final nail in a very dilapidated coffin.”

“Like I said,” says Ty Lee, before Sokka has a chance to question all that, “idiot.” But her eyes soften as she looks over at Zuko once more, her thumb rubbing circles into his palm. “He’s going to be okay, right?”

“I’ve given him some tincture,” Kustaa says, “but I’ll need to keep an eye on him until the fever breaks. When that’ll be? I don’t know, exactly. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

“Should we call Master Katara back from wherever she’s gone? She’ll be able to help him, right?” Taktuq asks, and blinks when they all turn to look at him. “What? I know things. Sometimes.”

“No, Taktuq, that’s actually pretty smart,” Sokka says, turning back to Kustaa. “Can we send her a hawk or something?”

Kustaa sighs. “I’m afraid it’s not as easy as that,” he says. “While water healing is good for treating external wounds, its power is, unfortunately, more limited when it comes to curing internal illnesses and fevers. There’s little point in calling her back early. Plus, this is no weather for anyone to be rushing in either way.”

Taktuq deflates. “Oh.”

Miura awkwardly pats him on the back.

Ty Lee stands up from the bed, dusting off her uniform as she does. “Well, I wish I could stay, but I really need to get back to duty, especially because Suki’s not here,” she says, face apologetic. “We’re still on high alert after those death threats. Agni, this really would be the perfect time to take out the Fire Lord.”

Sokka stiffens, remembering the note— Death to the usurper. Even Taktuq grows serious at that, eyes flicking over to Zuko with something unreadable on his normally expressive face.

Ty Lee reaches back to gently ruffle Zuko’s hair, her hand lingering. “Sometimes I wonder if he wants to make it easy for them,” she says quietly. “Dumbass.”

“While I completely agree with the sentiment,” says Miura, “you know it’s not as much fun calling him names when he can’t reply. Also, I’m still on guard duty, so I’ll stay.”

“Me too,” Sokka finds himself saying, surprising himself. Everyone turns to look at him again and he represses the urge to scowl. "What?"

Ty Lee just looks at him for a moment, gaze evaluating. Then she shrugs. “Suit yourself. Taktuq, you coming?”

“Bye, Fire Lord Zuko,” Taktuq says sadly, waving to the bed. “Feel better soon!”

When the door closes behind the two, and Miura steps outside to guard it, Sokka somewhat regrets the decision of not leaving with them. What does he think he’s going to achieve by staying?

“Sokka,” calls out Kustaa, “I could use your help, actually.”

Well, that’s convenient.

“He’s soaked through his tunic,” Kustaa explains, peeling away the sheets from Zuko’s body. “If you wouldn’t mind holding him while I change him out of it?”

Sokka almost wrinkles his nose at the sight of Zuko’s sweaty clothes plastered to his body. But then he remembers why Zuko is in this state, to begin with, and his guilt almost bowls him over. Suck it up, Sokka, he thinks, and comes over from the other side of the bed without complaint, straddling the sheets on his knees until he’s right next to Zuko.

Kustaa drags Zuko upright and manoeuvres the tunic off him, raising it over his floppy arms, and Sokka tries his best to hold him steady from behind as the physician levers Zuko’s torso into the clean sleepshirt he’s grabbed from a cupboard.

Zuko’s skin is clammy and soft, stretched over corded muscle and covered in a surprising litany of scars. It burns against Sokka’s hands, feeling just shy of boiling, and he almost forgets to be grossed out by the sweat. Makes sense, he thinks; Zuko’s a firebender, and firebenders probably run hot most days— with a fever added to the mix, Sokka’s half-surprised Zuko hasn’t already set the sheets on fire.

Trying to manoeuvre an unconscious body is harder than it looks; Zuko slumps back, complete deadweight in Sokka’s arms. His hair tickles Sokka’s nose and Sokka struggles not to sneeze, though his eyes water with the effort.

When he’s blinked away the tears, though, he finds himself taking a bigger sniff, which. Weird of him, he realises too late, but something about the smell, the floral notes of it…

“Fire lilies,” he says quietly, once it clicks. His hands tighten against Zuko’s sides, making Zuko mumble something against his ear, a soft puff of air that Sokka can’t discern. “Why does his hair smell like fire lilies?”

“Fancy nobles and their fancy shampoos,” Kustaa mutters, halfway through a fight between Zuko’s right arm and a sleeve. “It’s a Fire Nation thing, I’m guessing.”

“Huh.” Back home, the soap had been made from tiger-seal fat with nothing to scent it with, produced for practicality and little else. He’d been shocked, then, the first time he’d bathed in this new reality; the shampoo in Sokka’s quarters smells like orange citrus, and he’d marvelled at the novelty of it, that people in the Fire Nation would be so bothered as to make themselves smell fruity on purpose.

But though the scent is faint now, between the fever-soured smell of Zuko and the herbal tincture, his thoughts still begin to stray to the night before— to his pillow, to forgotten scents and unravelled memories. And he forgets himself, losing his careful hold on Zuko’s sides, so that when his hand brushes against Zuko’s abdomen and Zuko jerks in his hold, Sokka nearly drops him. “Whoa! What’d I do?”

“Ah,” Kustaa says, pausing in trying to lower the sleepshirt over Zuko’s unresisting body. “I see. His scar’s acting up again.”

“Scar?” Sokka asks with a frown; his hands hadn’t gone anywhere near Zuko’s face, and he’d taken care to avoid touching some of the bigger scars on Zuko’s back.

Kustaa stands, leaning over to his tray to grab a small pot. “Lay him back down,” he instructs, and Sokka complies, trying not to drop Zuko immediately against the pillows. His breath catches in his throat at the sight of Zuko’s uncovered stomach, the sleepshirt rucked up under his armpits.

This scar is big, bigger than the one on Zuko’s face or any of the ones on his back. Unnaturally shiny skin that’s puckered up at the edges, spreading out over his lower abdomen— an aged firework of reds and browns.

It looks like Aang’s lightning scar, he thinks. Azula’s parting gift. Could it be—

No, surely not. He’s her brother. Even she wouldn’t go so far. Right?

(Lightning benders were rare, Aang had told him once.)

(Zuko has two in his family. At least.)

The skin around the scar looks tender to the touch. Sokka remembers how Zuko had flinched when Sokka had jabbed at him while making his point, and feels his gorge rise. He’s so caught up in contrition that he doesn’t realise when his fingers begin drifting towards the scar, only catching himself at the very last second.

Thankfully, Kustaa seems not to have noticed, too busy digging his fingers in the pot. Zuko’s whole body grows rigid as Kustaa applies the salve, muscles tensing from head to toe, but he relaxes almost immediately after Kustaa takes his hand away, sinking back into the sheets with a quiet exhale.

“I do wish he’d tell me when it bothers him,” Kustaa says almost to himself as he straightens Zuko’s sleepshirt out, the material loose enough to not brush against the scar underneath.

Sokka finds himself looking over Zuko’s sleeping face, now smooth of all the furrows that had previously occupied it. His eyes linger over the left side. “He’s been through a lot, hasn’t he?”

“More than most,” Kustaa agrees, reaching over to put the pot back on the tray, “but then, the war left no one untouched. It just so happens that some scars are more visible than others.”

When Kustaa’s Tribe-blue eyes land on Sokka’s, full of some quiet sort of understanding, Sokka cannot help but look away, out the windows to where the darkness has begun creeping in.

And though he can almost imagine its presence in the sky, it is not yet time for the moon to appear.

Sokka rolls off the bed, still avoiding Kustaa’s gaze, and walks to the bathroom to wash his hands, the sweat and the guilt all mingled up against his skin. He scrubs it off, lets the water rush cold over his palms. Watches the suds drain away and wishes absolution were that easy.

(He very specifically does not look at the toiletries dotted around an ostentatiously large bathtub. Does not pick them up and take a sniff of each. Does not pause at the one that smells familiar familiar familiar, fingers clenching around the glass container. Does not stare at it for a few moments too long, before quietly putting it back in place, as if it had never been moved.)

By the time he exits the bathroom, Kustaa has dragged an armchair close to Zuko’s side.

“You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to,” Kustaa reminds him, pulling out his spectacles from his pocket. He perches them on his nose, squinting down at some scrolls he’s procured out of seemingly nowhere. The rain batters the window behind him, though the clouds are mercifully silent this evening. “Nothing particularly exciting is going to happen here for a while. Well, hopefully, anyway.”

“Got nothing better to do,” Sokka shrugs. It’s true; with the weather outside being what it is, Suki and Katara gone, and Ty Lee on duty, there’s very little for him to entertain himself with. And though there is a sort of restlessness that plagues him, he can’t quite bring himself to leave, to go back to his empty quarters and his empty bedroom where the detritus of last night still lies scattered on the floor.

(He thinks of the poem again. He hasn’t quite stopped thinking about it, all this time.)

So Sokka begins walking around the room to alleviate any potential boredom, letting his thoughts drift as his fingers trail over the wall. The room is surprisingly sparse, considering it’s the Fire Lord’s bedroom. There’s the usual furniture, made of the same wood that populates his office, and though everything is very clean and tidy, there’s not much here to indicate Zuko’s personality. Knowing how busy Zuko keeps, it’s not that surprising a fact to learn, though Sokka does feel oddly sorry for him. What good is having everything if you end up with time for nothing?

If Sokka was Fire Lord, oh, man— this place would be littered with shiny things. Clearly, somebody needs to teach Zuko how to live a little.

The only sign of Zuko that Sokka spots are the dao hanging over the fireplace. He walks closer to inspect them, and maybe to sneak a closer look without the sheaths. But as he gets closer, his eyes land on a misshapen wooden object lying on the mantle, distracting him from the allure of the blades. It’s the same object that Zuko had been fiddling with in his office the other day, he guesses.

Because Sokka’s never been one to not let his curiosity get the better of him, he picks it up, rolling it around his hands.

While it is badly carved, its surface is sanded smooth, leaving no possibility for splinters. The main body of it is an oval lump with spaced-apart, uneven grooves dug on the top half, as if someone had hacked into it with a knife while blindfolded. A thick stick-like appendage sticks out of one side of the oval, curving out and fattening before it abruptly juts out into a thinner, flat wedge at the end. Two asymmetrical holes are bored into either side at the top— eyes, Sokka guesses, though they’re unevenly spaced enough that they could be something else entirely.

It’s ugly as all hells, but there’s something familiar about its shape. Is it supposed to be an animal? Something with a beak, maybe, if that’s what the wedge is supposed to be?

Huh. If Sokka squints, he’d almost think it looks like— it looks like—

 

A day spent in the sun, heat flushing the back of his neck. Splinter after splinter pricking his fingers, curses escaping his mouth in a constant hiss.

“What’cha got there?”

Startling, dropping the knife and the wood, then kicking them both swiftly under his bench. The indignant squawking of birds in the distance, flapping their wings against the pond at the sudden interruption.

“Umm,” his eyes darting to the closest thing at hand. There. “A smoothie,” said smoothly. He takes a sip. Ugh, it’s all melted in the heat.

“Uh-huh. Cool of you for inventing that, by the way. Ty Lee’s been drinking four of them a day.” A body draping itself alongside his on the bench, pressing in flush. A hand coming to rest on his thigh, gently brushing aside the wooden shavings littering his tunic. “Though, you sure that’s the only thing you’ve got?”

“Never been surer about anything in my life.”

“Well,” the same hand reaching underneath the bench. Busted. “What’s this, then?”

“That, my dearest, is, er—”

Golden eyes peering incredulously at the wooden lump. “Sokka, is this… supposed to be a turtle-duck?”

“Her name is Tucky,” he mumbles. “Y’know. For turtle-ducky.” A sheepish hand rubbed over the back of his neck. “But she’s not finished yet!”

“I see.” A smile dancing on lips, full of fond amusement. “And who’s Tucky destined for, once she finishes making her perilous journey into our world?”

“It’s cute when you act stupid, it really is,” he deadpans. “Tucky’s yours, duh. Happy early birthday, I guess.” A pause, filled with a jittering sort of anxiety at the pit of his stomach. “Well, what do you think? Do you like her?”

A choked sound from beside him, very much like strangled laughter.  Gentle hands turning over the wooden lump, thumb brushing over one of the eyeholes.

“Spirits, she’s hideous.” Warm eyes shining into his own, and a smile brighter than the sun’s reflection sparkling off the pond’s surface, throwing glittering shards of light every which way. “I love her.”

 

“You should put that back.” Kustaa’s quiet voice nearly makes him drop the turtle-duck carving, jarring him out of wherever he’d gone. “He’s quite fond of it. I imagine he won’t be too happy if it’s misplaced.”

Sokka turns it over and over in his hands, slowly coming back to himself. It never gets easy— his mind leaving it all behind until it disappears like dust, blown away by invisible forces until no trace remains. Heap of ashes that I am, he thinks, remembering the poem. How apt; after these moments he barely feels like a person, sometimes, like there’s less and less of him each time he comes back to himself. Like he could fall apart with a single breath.

“I made this, didn’t I,” he asks softly, staring at the carving.

There’s a screech of a chair being pushed back.

“You—” Kustaa sounds breathless, confirming his suspicion. A hand spins Sokka around by his shoulder. “You remember?”

“No.” And it shouldn’t hurt, the way Kustaa’s face falls, but he rushes to explain, “It’s just that— I’ve made something like this before, for someone else.”

“I see.”

“I’m trying my best,” Sokka calls out to Kustaa’s retreating back, desperate to make at least him understand. “But every time I think I’m getting close to remembering, it all just”—he clenches the fist not holding the carving, then lets go, showing Kustaa his empty palm—“slips away. And no one’s allowed to tell me anything, and I get that, I do. But they all still expect me to be someone I’m not, and I don’t know who that is because no one will tell me!” He grips the carving with both hands, now, if only to stop Kustaa from seeing them shaking. “Whenever I try to think back, I just end up at the day of the invasion again. It’s like I blinked, and everything changed. They all grew up and left me behind, and no matter what I do, I can’t seem to catch up.”

“Sokka.” Kustaa comes to stand before him, tilting his chin up with gentle hands, and looks firmly into his eyes. “My boy, no one expects you to be anything but yourself. You have to understand, this is as hard for them as it is for you. After all,” and here Kustaa smiles at him, but it’s tinged with sadness all the way through, “it is a lonely feeling, when someone you care about becomes a stranger.”

“But I’m not a stranger,” Sokka whispers, eyes stinging. “I still know who I am. And I know them, but they don’t know me, not anymore, and I don’t know how to bridge that gap. I’m trying; can’t they see that?” He takes in a deep breath, but it doesn’t stop his chest from aching like he’d hoped it would. “I want my memories back too, probably more than anyone else, but what if they don’t come back? What if this is how I stay forever? I have to be prepared for that, don’t I? Is it wrong of me to try to be?”

Kustaa just looks at him for a second, and something in his gaze clicks. “Ahh, I see. Sokka, I think you underestimate their love for you,” he says, placing a hand on Sokka’s shoulder. “Five years is not a very long time, in the grand scheme of things. The others… the loss of your memories has hit them harder than you realise. In their grief for what they’ve lost, perhaps they have become blinded to what is still in front of them. Try not to fault them for this, if you can. It is human nature to mourn what slips away from our grasp, but it is also human nature to adjust to the new way of things.”

He gives Sokka a reassuring smile, so warm and filled with understanding that Sokka can’t help but miss Hakoda, his heart yearning for another set of blue eyes so many miles away. “Give them time. They’ll come around.”

Kustaa gently pulls the carving from Sokka’s fingers. “When you get to my age, you begin to realise that so much of life is cyclical. History tends to repeat itself because we’re drawn to the same things over and over again.” He gives Sokka’s shoulder one final pat before walking back to the bed and tucking the turtle-duck carving in the crook of Zuko’s elbow. “No matter what happens, things will work themselves out. You just need to have faith— both in yourself, and in those around you.”

Sokka doesn’t reply for a moment, content to let himself absorb the words. They soothe him in a way he hadn’t realised he’d needed— a salve for all the hurt, raised parts of his soul, smoothing them out just a little.  

His eyes drift back to the bed, and he watches Zuko shift in his sleep, arm tightening around the turtle-duck. “We must have been close, for me to have carved him that. For him to get tea for my leg, even in the rain.”

Kustaa must recognise the change in subject for what it is, but he doesn’t falter. “Oh yes, you two were tight as two coats of paint.”

“I have never heard anyone say that, ever, in my life,” says Sokka, and is rewarded by Kustaa chuckling.

As Kustaa sits back down in his armchair, Sokka comes to sit on the end of the bed. “I saw it in his office, too, you know,” he tells Kustaa, who continues to unfold another scroll across his lap. Sokka grabs it out of his hand. “Hey, can I read this? I’m kinda bored.”

“No, please, help yourself, why don’t you,” Kustaa grumbles. “Saw what in whose office?”

“Zuko. He was holding onto Tucky when we came in, but then he put her away somewhere,” Sokka explains absently, already engrossed in the scroll. “He must really like her, to keep her around. What even is this— ‘lumbago’, huh? Sounds like a quirky little medical condition to have.”

When Kustaa doesn’t answer, Sokka looks up from the parchment. “I was kidding, I know it probably sucks massive butt. Oh, Spirits, you don’t have lumbago, do you? Is it untreatable?” Sokka mock-gasps. “Kustaa, how much time do you have left? Do you need help getting your affairs in order?”

Kustaa’s eyebrows pucker in the middle, hand frozen around the wire of his spectacles. “It’s just backache, you fool. But never mind that— Sokka, who told you its name was Tucky?”

“I— you did.” Sokka squints at him. “Didn’t you? Just now?”

Kustaa opens his mouth like he’s on the cusp of saying something, but then closes it without a word. He stares at Sokka for a second too long, eyes flickering over his face.

“Hmm,” he says finally, “must have.”

And though he grabs another scroll from somewhere behind him, Sokka swears he can feel Kustaa glance at him every so often, gaze considering.

 


 

Kustaa’s snores slowly pierce through the haze in Sokka’s skull. He blinks as he raises his eyes from the scroll, thoughts still swirling around spinal abnormalities and birth defects.

He hadn’t realised how late it had gotten. Night has ushered in without fanfare, the evening giving way from a haze of grey to inky blackness outside the windows. The fireplace crackles with heat, sparks flying from the burning wood, and everything is a soft sort of dim, hazy and tinged orange from the flamelight.

Kustaa’s neck is bent at an awkward angle, his mouth open. The force of his snores shake the whole armchair he’s slumped in— a self-contained earthquake. Sokka he wishes he could draw better, if only so he could capture this scene forever; Katara would be the first one with a copy, he thinks, grinning to himself.

Then his thoughts stray to his sister, and his smile fades. Would Katara be back by now, he wonders. Would she come see him? Would they talk about what had fallen apart between them, or would it be another one of those things they didn’t discuss, both content to pretend it had never happened if they never brought it up?

He sighs, rubbing tiredly at his eyes as he puts the scroll away. Spirits, if he isn’t exhausted down to the bone. His mind and body ache with it, though at least his leg seems to have quietened its call for attention.  

He should leave. He should go find Suki. No, he needs to go to his room first, grab the poem, then find Suki, if only so he doesn’t look like a madman raving about hidden poetry and bed canopies and fiery ashes. Maybe a shower would be nice, too, first. And a nap. And a meal. Maybe the poem can wait a little longer?

No, he’s already stalled long enough. What he needs are answers.

Zuko will be alright with Kustaa here—there’s been little change in his condition, though Sokka remembers Kustaa saying something earlier about being hopeful that Zuko’s fever would break soon.

Sokka debates on whether he should wake Kustaa before leaving, but then decides against it. They’ve all had a long day, and even Kustaa deserves to get a little rest while he can.

Sokka even steals a cushion from Zuko’s bed, gently tucking it under Kustaa’s chin because he’s nice like that.

He’s just about to leave when he hears the rustle of sheets from behind him, a shifting on the mattress, and a small, “Sokka?”

When he turns, he finds hazy, fever-bright eyes staring into his own.

“Yeah,” Sokka finds himself saying. He steps back from the door, comes to sit on the edge of the bed.

“What happ’nd?” Zuko mumbles, and it’s clear he’s not completely here— he’s struggling to keep his eyes open, lids fluttering shut every few seconds. Tucky is still grasped tight in his arms. At this moment, Zuko reminds him a little of the children in his village, clutching at their little carved toys for comfort. It brings a strange pang of fondness to his chest, warming him from within, and he smiles at Zuko.

“You’re sick,” Sokka explains, trying to channel his sister’s patient energy, “so you need to rest. Go back to sleep. Kustaa’s here— he’ll look after you.”

“Oh, okay,” comes the reply, and Sokka thinks that’s the end of that. But then a hand shoots out, clammy fingers circling his wrist weakly.

“Had a nightmare,” Zuko whispers. “Thought you’d gone. Left me.”

“No, I’m— I’m still here,” Sokka says with confusion. He awkwardly pats Zuko’s arm, trying to break his hold in the nicest way possible.

Zuko still doesn’t let go, though his hand begins to grow limp around Sokka’s. “Hmm. M’ glad. Stay?”

It’s barely a breath of a question, just an exhale, really; Sokka could so easily pretend he never heard.

But even though Zuko’s breathing steadies out into that of deep slumber, his fingers sliding off Sokka’s wrist, Sokka finds himself held in place by some unnameable force.

Perhaps it’s the way Zuko looks just now— curled up, hair mussed, all his sharp edges worn away by sleep. Perhaps it’s because of the remembered sting of his own words, the hurt flashing across Zuko’s face before he ducked it away from Sokka. Or that he feels partly responsible for Zuko’s condition, even if he hadn’t been the direct cause, had never asked for the sacrifice Zuko had so easily given— all in the name of Sokka’s comfort.

Or perhaps it’s the way the moonlight chooses to break through the clouds just then, Yue’s gentle touch trailing its way over Zuko’s eyelids, his fever-painted cheeks. Setting him aglow.

Whatever it is, it gives Sokka that moment of pause. And when Zuko hums in his sleep, shifts, hand reaching for Sokka’s once more, he doesn’t pull away. Instead, he leans back against the headboard, pulling his legs over and onto the bed, and lets Zuko’s fingers remain a soft heat against his.

Maybe everything else can wait, he thinks as he looks up at the moon through the window, feeling the pull of her to the tides of his soul, a constant ebb to the flow of him. He’s no waterbender, but it’s there anyway— her presence, her reassurance, just as the day always turns to night, and the night always returns to day. An unspoken, binding promise stretched across the sky, catching him in its beams; it always feels like coming home.

Maybe it can all wait, just a little while more.

Zuko sleeps. Yue shines. Sokka stays.

Chapter Text

He’s warm.

He’s so warm, and it’s nice.

So nice, he decides sleepily, nuzzling into the cushion, which is soft and smells like flowers. That’s also very nice. Much nicer than his sweaty sleeping bag, or Appa’s hay-filled breath steaming over him. His nose appreciates it a lot. Thanks, cushion.

Everything is nice and soft and warm and good. He feels swaddled in comfort. He could stay like this forever. He could die like this with a smile on his face, and it would be the easiest thing he’s ever done.

Tightening his arms around the cushion, he nuzzles in some more with a content sigh. The cushion even nuzzles back, which, honestly? So nice of it to do.

And then his nice warm soft cushion isn’t so soft anymore. It’s gone stiff in his arms, which is weird because how does a cushion even— and then suddenly it’s too hot, the cushion is on fire, which is so very not nice.

Sokka, thoroughly disoriented, jerks his arms back with a hiss. He rolls away, cursing his cushion’s sudden but inevitable betrayal and wondering why can’t he have good things, just this once?

The mattress shifts. There is a dull thump from somewhere to his left, followed by a tiny, “Ow.”

Sokka blinks open his bleary eyes, rubbing the crust out of them. He sits up with a yawn, runs his fingers through mussed hair as the sunlight shines directly in his face. That’s odd— he never leaves his curtains open before going to bed.

And then he looks around, at the very red pillows on the very red sheets, sunlight pouring through the window to land on a very empty bed (well, empty apart from Tucky, whose eyeholes stare lopsidedly at Sokka in silent judgement). And Sokka goes very still.

He takes a deep breath to fortify himself before he rolls over to the edge of the bed, peering down at the bedraggled figure curled up on the floor, hands clamped tight over a slowly reddening face. Relatable; Sokka’s own entire face feels like it’s been set alight.

“Morning,” Sokka offers, because he has nothing else to offer at this point in time.

“Morning,” says Kustaa genially from the armchair on the other side of the bed, where he’s apparently been sat sipping his tea this entire time.

“Nghh,” comes the muffled reply from the floor, and really— Sokka can’t argue with that.

 


 

“And how are we feeling, this lovely sunny day?” Kustaa asks, eyes twinkling.

Zuko glares at him from the bed, arms crossed over his chest. The effect of Big Scary Fire Lord is a little ruined by the way his hair is sticking up all over the place, giving him the appearance of a beleaguered cat-owl. “Fine.”

“Oh, don’t be like that,” Kustaa admonishes as he finishes Zuko’s check-up. “Now, one last thing. Open wide and say ‘aah’, there’s a good lad.”

“I’m fine.”

“ ’uko,” Sokka says from the armchair, content to stuff his face. He’d been embarrassed for a hot minute before his hunger had taken over at the sight of the food laid out on the table, shoving every other emotion out of its way. “C’mon. It’f noff tha’f har’.”

He opens his mouth to demonstrate, letting the room get a good view of the squelched-up pastry on his tongue. “Aaaaaghh.”

Zuko wrinkles his face. “That’s so gross,” he says, though there is a hint of a smile at the corners of his mouth. Sokka’s mouth opens even wider.

Zuko rolls his eyes at him, then complies.

“Like Sokka said, or rather attempted to say— that wasn’t so hard, now, was it,” says Kustaa, and Sokka throws a smug grin at Zuko from behind Kustaa’s back. “Well, the fever’s definitely broken, which is a relief.”

“Great. Now that we’ve confirmed what we all know, which is that I’m fine, can everyone just… leave?” And with that, Zuko pulls his sheets up over himself and rolls away in a cocoon of silk. “I need to get ready for my meetings.”

Kustaa grabs the edge of the sheets, tugging them and the human lump within them back to the edge of the bed. “Ah-ah,” he says. “No meetings for you today. Just because the fever’s gone doesn’t mean you’re well enough to be walking around. You still need rest and lots of it.”

The lump groans. “But Kustaa—”

“No buts.” A beat. “Or I’ll set Miura on you. She’s outside the door right now, sharpening those fans of hers. I can call her in if you want.”

“No, thank you,” says the lump, growing still.

“Glad to see we’re on the same page.”

There comes a knock on the door, before it cracks open to admit Suki’s head. “Zuko? Can I come in?”

“He’s decent,” Sokka calls out, finally swallowing his pastry. Zuko’s head pops up out of the sheets with the sole purpose of glowering at Sokka.

“Sokka? What are you doing here?” Suki asks, pushing the rest of the door open. She comes in with Ty Lee trailing just behind her, two sets of eyes darting between the bed and the armchair.

Sokka puffs his chest out. “Well, I took on the onerous duty of making sure our dear Drama Lord survived the night.”

“He passed out in Zuko’s bed because he was too much of an idiot to realise how sleep deprived he was,” Kustaa says from beside Sokka, reaching out to swipe a roll from his plate. “And he looked such a sorry sight that I couldn’t quite bring myself to wake him up, so I left him there. Between the two of them, I worry for the future of our nations sometimes.”

“You slept—” Suki starts.

“—in Zuko’s bed,” finishes Ty Lee. Both of them have very odd looks on their faces.

Zuko’s head rapidly retreats back into its red cocoon.

“I mean,” says Sokka, deflating, “I didn’t mean to?”

“Sometimes, I really hate it here,” comes Miura’s voice from outside the door, and Kustaa, Suki and Ty Lee all nod inexplicably wearily.

 


 

After Zuko’s finally had enough and banished them all from his quarters (“So touchy,” Ty Lee had cooed as she’d left, blowing a kiss to his scowling face, “glad to see you’re feeling better!”), Sokka catches up to Suki and Ty Lee as they’re leaving for their posts.

“Hey, can I talk to you?” he asks, and Suki gives Ty Lee one long glance before nodding, following Sokka to his quarters.

Sokka opens his doors with a wince, remembering the last time Suki had been inside. From the look on Suki’s face, he knows it’s not just him probably imagining the awkwardness that still lingers between them, though it is a lot more tempered than he’d thought it would have been.

“Everything okay, Sokka?”

“Just— wait here a sec,” he tells her, leaving her in the living area of his quarters. She doesn’t need to see the scattered explosion of belongings on his bedroom floor, the havoc wreaked in the midst of his teensy little breakdown.

When he returns, poem in hand, she raises an eyebrow. “Uh-oh. Is this the part where you tell me you’ve written me a letter about how I’ve taken your feelings, hopes and dreams and dashed them all against very spiky rocks?”

Sokka stares at her.

She shrugs. “I’ve dated some weirdos.”

“I— no, this isn’t… any of that,” Sokka says, flipping open the paper. “Also, why would you even assume—”

She grabs it from Sokka’s hand. “Of course I didn’t, I was just… kidding…" Her smile slides off her face as soon as she begins reading. “Oh.”

Sokka studies her carefully blank expression. “I knew it.”

“Knew what?”

“Don’t even try it.” He takes the poem back. “Who wrote this, Suki?”

“I don’t…”

“Please don’t lie to me,” he says, and he doesn’t mean for his voice to crack at the end, but it does so anyway. Suki’s eyes soften, impenetrable mask giving way to something closer to remorse.

“Sokka, I’m telling you the truth when I say I’ve never seen that before,” she says, gesturing to the paper in his hand.

“But you know something about it. Suki, I just—I need to know. I need to know who wrote this,” he says. “I need to know why it was hidden in the canopy above my bed, in a place only I’d be able to see. I need to know why my pillows smelled like someone else, that first day I went back to my quarters after the infirmary.”

He looks at her, takes a stab in the dark. Watches it land its mark when she barely represses her flinch. “I need to know whose belongings you cleared out of my room before I came here, after I lost my— after the assassination attempt, so I wouldn’t find out about them and me. About us, together. There is someone, isn’t there?”

For a long minute there is nothing but a guilty silence between them, weighing the very air down. Then she sighs, looking up at him with a seriousness that unsettles him. “Sokka, tell me this. What were you planning to do if I told you who it was?”

“I’d,” he starts, mind already racing with the elation that he’s right, he knew it. Then stops. Thinks for a second. “I’d… go say hi?”

“Sokka,” she says, exasperated.

He throws his hands up in response. “I don’t know, okay? I didn’t think that far ahead!”

“Have you maybe considered the fact that they don’t want to meet you like this?”

The thought makes Sokka freeze, something painful tightening in his gut. Suki sees his face and falters, grabbing his arm. “Not like that! I mean, of course they want to see you! But think about how painful it must be for them, to have you not remember them the way they remember you. For them to not be able to tell you anything for the sake of those very memories. Do you think it’d be any easier for them if you found out about everything like this? About them?”

She keeps her hold on his arm, guides them both to the chairs at the edge of the room. “Put yourself in their shoes, just for a moment. How would you feel if someone you cared about, who cared about you, just… forgot it all, even if it wasn’t their fault?”

Sokka tries. He tries imagining Hakoda’s eyes sliding over him, as if he were just another person in a crowd. He tries imagining Katara’s face growing blank as he rushes up to her, as he tries to explain their bond and his love for her, only for her to turn away as if he doesn’t mean anything to her. Shatter his heart in the process.

Kustaa’s words ring in his ears. It is a lonely feeling, when someone you care about becomes a stranger.

“Awful,” he whispers. “I’d feel awful.”

Suki’s hand is a comforting weight on his shoulder. “This isn’t something you can approach without your memories,” she says, and he knows she’s right. It doesn’t take away the sting of her words. “You’ll just end up hurting the both of you in the end. Maybe it’s better to wait, just this once.”

She hesitates. “I can hold onto the poem for now if you want. Keep it somewhere safe, until— well.”

“No,” he says immediately. Then, “Please, Suki. I— please don’t.”

“Okay,” she says, simple as that. Her smile is gentle, careful. “Alright, Sokka.” She gets up to leave, then, and he tries to fight the words rushing up his throat. They win, as they always do.

“If you know them,” he says, “do you think… they’re willing to wait for me? To get better and remember?” To be myself again, he wants to say. To remember them as they deserve to be remembered.

So much flits across Suki’s face that Sokka struggles to put a name to it all. But what it eventually lands on is a hopeful sort of grief, so bright that her eyes burn with it. “Yes,” she says. “Sokka, I think they’re willing to wait until the end of time, if only for the chance that you’ll come back to them.”

 


 

After Suki leaves with a soft goodbye, Sokka returns to his bedroom. He cleans it methodically, mechanically, jamming things back in places where he thinks they might belong, even if it is not the place they were ripped from by his desperate hands while the storm raged outside and his thoughts stormed inside.

It doesn’t matter much, in the end, whether they fit or not— all that does is that they need to be put back, need to be set to rights, and it is only his hands that hold the power to do so. Otherwise, he’s bound to just keep tripping over them, leaving them cracked and broken in his careless wake. And though he may not feel much for their loss now, he knows that the Sokka-that-was, the Sokka-who-is-supposed-to-be, might feel very differently one day.

This Sokka won’t take that risk. Not anymore.

It is by chance that he stumbles across the little tin of tea the Northern Water Tribe had sent, forgotten amidst everything that had happened since that evening. He sets a pot of water to boil over his fireplace as he finishes clearing everything away until the room has been left neat and tidy and just as unknowable to him as it had that first day he had walked in, full of what is his and isn’t his at all.

By the time the tea is done, Sokka has been sitting on the rug in the middle of his room for a while just staring at the poem in his lap. He’d memorised the words to it the first night, and now they beat in his mind to the drums of his heart, fast and frantic.

Breathing in the wisps of the tea helps to calm him. It smells bitter, which doesn’t herald great things about its taste, really, but Sokka finds that he doesn’t care enough to care. He takes a massive gulp— wildly inadvisable, with its current temperature being close to that of the surface of the fucking sun, but the burn on his tongue and down his throat helps ground him a little. Also, the heat helps with the flavour, in that his tastebuds are now too charred to taste much of anything.

He finishes the cup and sets it aside. Goes back to staring at the three lines. Wills for something— Spirits, anything— to change. Wills for something to slot into place in his mind, for a choir of flying lemurs to begin singing in the background as the words shift in front of his eyes, take on new meanings and old memories and give him something to grasp onto as he hauls himself out of the recesses of his brain. Wills himself free from the confines of the past, to walk right back into the present where he belongs as if he never really left.

But the seconds tick by, blurring into minutes into hours, and his legs grow sore even through the rug, and his eyes grow dry even though he blinks more than he’s ever blinked before, if only with the hope that something will shift in that small space between unseeing and seeing, unknowing and knowing.

But of course, nothing changes. It can never be that simple.

For Sokka, when has it ever been?

 


 

He ends up wandering the palace hallways for a long while. Doesn’t really have a destination in mind, apart from away— from his quarters and the poem and his thoughts that cycle between the same seventeen words, over and over—until his feet drag him to a set of doors that aren’t quite familiar. And yet.

Miura raises one eyebrow at him. “Did you leave something behind?”

Everything, he doesn’t say. “No, I— I just wanted to check up on him. See how he’s doing.”

“Same as this morning,” she says. “If that’s all.” She tilts her chin at him, an obvious dismissal.

The words leave his mouth before he’s consciously thought them through. “Miura, why don’t you like me?”

Miura blinks at him. “What makes you say that?”

“So… you do like me?” Sokka tries.

“I never said that, either.”

Sokka’s right eyeball gives an involuntary twitch. “Well, which one is it?”

The door behind her swings open before she can reply.

“Everything okay out here?” asks Zuko, casually leaning against the door as if his knuckles aren’t white where they’re gripping the wood for support. He looks marginally more put together than earlier; his hair is tied back in a loose bun, a few wisps escaping from the hold, and he’s dressed in light robes that seem much more comfortable than his usual Fire Lord attire.

“Peachy,” says Miura. “Hwang here was just looking for some validation from the wrong place.”

“You’re never letting the Hwang thing go, are you,” asks Sokka.

“Nope.”

“Ah, good,” says Zuko, completely steamrolling over them both with a seemingly practiced ease. “Glad you’re both getting along. Anyway, I just remembered a very important thing I had to—”

Miura’s fan opens with a snick. “Get your ass back in bed. Sir.”

“Miura,” Zuko says in a voice that sounds like it very much wishes to be a whine, but is too afraid of the consequences, “I’ve been stuck in there all day. If I stay in there any longer, I’m going to start climbing the walls. Please.”

“Bold of you to assume you’d be able to climb much of anything right now, with the state you’re currently in.”

“I’m surrounded by dissidents,” Zuko announces, “traitors to the throne.” He begins to shuffle back inside, head hanging low. “Agni, why must you forsake me so.”

“I’ll go with him,” Sokka says in a rush, before he even knows what he’s saying. Both Zuko and Miura turn to stare at him. “Whatever he needs to do. The more the merrier, right? Between me and you, I’m sure we could take on a few assassins.” He bunches his biceps to give them both a winning pose. “Plus, look at these bad boys. They could form a royal guard of their own.”

Miura smacks her hand against her face, while Zuko has gone an interesting shade of red.

“Where do you even need to be right now, my Lord?” she asks through her fingers. “All your meetings were cancelled.”

“I, um—” Zuko shakes himself slightly, blush creeping higher. “… Alright, I might have lied. I just wanted to get some fresh air and sunlight, okay?”

“You have windows.”

“It’s just not the same, Miura, you know this.”

“You have large, safe, assassin-proof windows.”

“I’m taking away your annual bonus.”

Miura’s eyes narrow. “Try it, and you won’t ever feel the sun against your skin again.”

“Okay, now that’s treasonous talk,” Sokka interjects.

She waves an unaffected hand. “He’s used to it.”

“Unfortunately,” sighs Zuko.

Sokka looks over at Zuko and blinks in what he hopes to be a reassuring ‘just go along with what I say’ signal at him. Zuko blinks back, then nods slightly.

“What’s the harm in a bit of sunshine? I mean, just look at the poor firebender,” Sokka says to Miura, gesturing at Zuko. “He’s wilting.”

Zuko slumps his shoulders, tries to make a face that starts off as woe-is-me but somehow loses its way, ending up more as constipated-is me.

“Practically withering away before our very eyes. Aren’t you ashamed, Miura?” Sokka injects a subtle amount of emotion into his voice. Just a little warble. “Doesn’t your heart tear at the sight? Are you so cruel as to—”

“Alright, fine,” she snaps, tapping her foot against the ground as her gaze flicks between them both. “But no wandering off on your own, and you come back inside when I tell you to.”

Both Zuko and Sokka sigh in relief. “Done,” Zuko says solemnly, already stepping out of his room.

A hand shoots out to bar his way. “My Lord,” says Miura a little delicately, “if you wouldn’t mind putting on some shoes first?”

They all peer down at Zuko’s bare toes, sticking out from below his loose trousers.

“I’m already having second thoughts about this outing,” says Sokka, and Miura nods, which might be the first time they’ve ever agreed about anything, ever. It’s a historical moment. Someone should note down the date.

“Shut up,” mutters Zuko, already heading back inside. “No takesie-backsies.”

“Hey, that’s what I say!” Sokka calls out, irrationally pleased with this discovery.

Zuko shuffles inside faster.

 


 

After Sokka returns from a quick trip to his quarters (“You can never be too careful with assassins around,” Sokka had said, Boomerang Junior now tucked firmly in its strap at his back, “and besides, it’s been a while since any boomerang of mine has tasted blood.” Both Miura and Zuko had both sighed. Rude.), they set off, Zuko's feet now decently covered. The turtle-duck pond is the closest sunshine-y spot, so there they head.

Sokka ambles next to Zuko, deliberately setting a slow pace so Zuko doesn’t have to struggle to keep up, while Miura brings up the rear. Zuko still begins to flag halfway through the journey, though he’s clearly trying not to show it; he keeps his shoulders straight, eyes straight ahead, and Sokka would almost want to roll his own at the display if he didn’t understand it so well himself.

“Hey,” he says quietly, waiting for Zuko to turn to him. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry. Again.”

Zuko’s singular eyebrow rises. “What for?”

“Well, for starters, not listening to you when you told me not to do something.” Sokka scratches the back of his head sheepishly. “I thought I’d learn something more about my ambassadorial role at the meeting, but it was, umm.”

“Boring?” supplies Zuko, lips quirked.

“Boring,” Sokka agrees, and Zuko shakes his head.

“Ah, the joys of grain tariff reports,” he jokes, before his face grows serious once again. “No, that one’s all on me. I know you’ve been feeling restless lately, and I also know how much you like getting involved. I mean, what kind of… friend would I be if I didn’t? I just,” Zuko pauses, clearly struggling for the right words. “I didn’t want to expose you to anything that might have hurt you. Your head, I mean. Your memories.”

He looks at Sokka, expression rueful. “But I realise that I probably came across as overbearing, more than anything. Plus, getting Ty Lee to chi-block you was kind of a dick move, now that I think about it.”

Sokka sniffs. “A little, yeah.”

“So, there we go. All even.”

“I’m also sorry about poking you right in that gnarly looking scar of yours,” Sokka says, and Zuko’s mouth drops open.

“How did you—do you remember—”

No.” And now it’s Sokka’s turn to flush. “I, uh.”

Zuko’s eyes narrow. “You, uh?”

“I… kindofhelpedKustaachangeyouandIsaw.”

“You did what?” Sokka has half a second of bewilderment that Zuko understood his rushed mumbling at all before Zuko continues with, “That’s it. I’m sending him back to the South Pole.”

“Sir, no,” says Miura from behind them.

“Sir, yes,” hisses Zuko.

“You know, I’ve been wondering why Kustaa’s even here,” says Sokka. Now that he thinks about it, it is a little odd that a Water Tribe physician is casually wandering the Fire Palace halls. “Not that you should fire him or whatever, that’s— he saved your ass, you should be grateful, if anything, actually.”

“True,” pipes up Miura. “He’s right. For once.”

“Spirits, what is happening,” Sokka says faintly. “Miura, maybe we should get checked out for a fever. I don’t think we’ve ever agreed on a single thing before today.”

The familiar snick shuts Sokka up very fast.

“No, you’re both right,” says Zuko, looking chagrined. “I am grateful to Kustaa for his help. He didn’t have to stay all night.” Then, more quietly: “Neither did you.”

Zuko moves on before Sokka can say anything to that. “I thought you knew about Kustaa, though. He’s here with the Water Tribe delegation.”

Sokka looks at Zuko with confusion. “Delegation?”

“You and Taktuq.” Zuko rubs at the back of his neck. “I, er, thought it would be a good idea to send for a Water Tribe physician whenever you two would come to the Fire Nation. Just in case either of you got sick or anything. I thought you’d be happier to see a familiar face taking care of you, using medical techniques more common to the Tribes.” Zuko shrugs. “Plus, he volunteers to come every time. Says the heat’s good for his bones or something.”

“I—”

“Yeah, me too, but I don’t know enough about bones to dispute his claims,” continues Zuko, as if Sokka hasn’t just stopped in his tracks to stare at Zuko, gobsmacked.

“Oh, would you look at that,” says Miura, pushing past them both. “We’re finally here.” She mutters something suspiciously like Koh’s tits, these idiots as she passes by.

Zuko finally notices Sokka has fallen behind. “You coming?” he asks with an easy smile.

Sokka smiles back, a helpless little thing that feels tugged out of him. Zuko’s grin widens for a second, but then his eyes track from Sokka’s mouth to his left temple. His lips slowly fall flat.

“What?” asks Sokka, suddenly concerned. “Something on my face?”

“No, I—” Zuko turns his back on him as he walks to where Miura is waiting. His hand rises to his neck for a moment before falling back to his side. “You just reminded me of someone, then.”

(Unbeknownst to him, some cog in the back of Sokka’s mind, rusty and cobwebbed, begins creaking.

As Sokka watches the back of Zuko’s head get smaller, it slowly grinds into action.)

 


 

It’s a fairly sunny day, though thankfully the air is still cooler than it had been before the thunderstorms. The breeze is blowing gently, rustling the grass. The pondwater reflects the sky, rippling blue and clear. There is a child loose in the turtle-duck garden.

Sokka feels like he should point out this last little detail to the others. “There’s a child loose—”

“Yes, Ambassador Sokka, we see it,” says Miura, pinching the bridge of her nose.

“Why is there a child loose in the garden?” Sokka looks around for parental figures of any sort, of which there are none. The child is here all alone, frolicking in the bushes near the pond with absent delight. A turtle-duck quacks at it in disdain, shuffling her children away from the pint-sized human menace.

“Maybe we should just ask her,” says Zuko, and how does he even know it’s a girl? All Sokka sees is a little gremlin of indiscriminate gender dressed in a shapeless red tunic, looking all of six and very dishevelled.

The child wanders closer to the pond with every second, and Sokka is suddenly reminded of his own little dip into the water a few weeks ago. The deep water. Deep enough to swallow a child that size whole.

“Hey,” he says, sweeping in. The child squawks as its (she’s?) lifted off its (her?) feet and deposited a safe distance away. “There we go. That’s better, isn’t it?”

The child does not look like she agrees. In fact, the child’s lower lip begins to wobble a little precariously.

“Uh, Sokka,” says Zuko, just as the child begins wailing. Oh no.

“I’m going to go look for her guardian,” says Miura, face defeated in a manner that makes it looks like she regrets the day she was born. “Try not to die before I come back.”

Zuko and Sokka stare at each other, then down at the child’s purpling face.

“Hello,” says Zuko awkwardly. “What’s your name?”

The child wails even louder, which. Impressive, actually, coming from such a tiny set of lungs. Zuko obviously doesn’t think so, judging from the way his eyes widen in alarm. He shoots Sokka a helpless look.

“Oh, uh—” Sokka racks his mind for anything filed under Children: small. “Do you want to see a cool trick?”

The child stops crying almost instantly. “Okay,” she says, wiping at her face with small fists. “I like tricks.”

“Huh,” says Sokka, trying not to look like he’s internally panicking. Zuko and the child watch him, expectant, and Sokka begins to sweat a little. He pats his pockets surreptitiously, hand snagging on Boomerang Junior.

Inspiration strikes.

“Ha!” He pulls it free and presents it to the child, who goes, “ooh” at the way the sun glints off the metal surface.

“Impressive huh? Well, watch this.” Sokka pulls his arm back and hurls Boomerang Junior with calculated force. Three sets of eyes watch Boomerang Junior disappear into the distance.

A few seconds tick by. The child scratches her nose. “That’s not a trick.”

“Just wait,” says Sokka, smiling through gritted teeth. “Any moment now.”

A few turtle-ducklings pass by, gently quacking as they waddle to the pond.

“Trick,” insists the child.

“I’m working on it,” snaps Sokka. The brat’s mouth goes pinched. “Wait, now hold on a second—”

“Great job, Sokka,” says Zuko, as the child begins bawling again.

Sokka huffs dourly. “Well, why don’t you try something, then.”

Boomerang Junior chooses that moment to make its return, slashing through the air towards them. “Hey, kid! Look!” He grabs it out of the air with a triumphant hand, waving it around. “See? Cool trick, huh?”

Unfortunately, the child has her eyes screwed shut too tightly to witness Sokka’s amazingness. Tears continue to dribble down her cheeks. “I want my Papa!”

“Me too, kid,” sighs Sokka, desperately wishing for Hakoda’s fatherly presence as he puts Boomerang Junior away. His dad always knew how to handle crying children. Obviously, that particular gene hasn’t gotten passed down to Sokka.

“I thought that was a cool trick,” says Zuko in a desperately cheery voice, mouth pulled up in a grimace of a smile. Is he trying to scare the kid?

The child sniffs tearfully. “Not a trick. Not cool.

“Why, you little—”

“Maybe we can show you another one,” cuts in Zuko, throwing Sokka a glare over the child’s head. “But you’ll have to tell us your name first.”

Amber eyes peer up at Zuko through wet lashes. “H-Hina,” she hiccups.

“Nice to meet you, Hina.” Zuko kneels on the grass in front of her, smiling warmly. “Do you know the Avatar?”

“Av’tar Aang?” Hina’s face lights up, tears stopping momentarily. “Yeah! He’s cool! And blue!”

“I’m cool and blue,” mutters Sokka, “but noooo. It’s always all about Avatar Aaaaang.”

“Well,” Zuko continues, firmly ignoring Sokka, “me and my friend Avatar Aang went to this really cool temple, and I learnt this trick from a real-life dragon. Wanna see?”

Hina looks at him suspiciously. “Dragons aren’t real. That’s what Papa said, and Papa’s always right.”

“How about I show you my trick, and you can tell your Papa all about it. Maybe it’ll help change his mind?”

“Okay,” Hina says, clearly not believing him. To be honest, Sokka’s kind of sceptical too. Dragons? Hadn’t the last one been wiped out by Zuko’s uncle? And when had Zuko and Aang found the time to go on a trip together?

Then Zuko raises both hands, bringing them together between him and Hina. He closes his eyes, taking in a deep breath. And Sokka’s thoughts sweep clean away.

Hina claps with awe at the eruption of flames from Zuko’ skin. It is yellow, yes, orange too, but there is purple in the fire, and green, and red, blue, white, pink and more, all dazzling and brilliant as they burst from Zuko’s palms.

“Cool!” she yells, but Sokka hears her as if from a distance, finds his heart catching somewhere between his throat and mouth at the sight of Zuko’s shy smile, the rainbow reflected in his eyes. The light flickers over both their faces, vibrant and ethereal.

Sokka has never before considered fire as something other than either necessity or danger. But now, as he looks at Hina’s joyous face, chubby cheeks pulled wide in a delighted grin, at Zuko’s skin painted an ever-changing canvass of colours, he thinks there just might be something beautiful about it, too.

Zuko moves his hands and the flames dance higher, twirling and twisting through the air. They swirl out around them, circling all three in a vividly shifting ring. “Do you like it?”

“Yeah!” Hina screeches, jumping up and down on the spot. “Dragon fire!”

Sokka turns on his heels slowly, awestruck at the colourful warmth surrounding them. Zuko’s taken care to keep the flames a safe distance away, but Sokka can still feel the gentle heat of the fire flowing around him. It sinks into his skin, pushes all the way through to some unknown, untouched part of him that resides deep within his chest, making it unfurl until its blossoms peek out like the first buds of spring. And when he comes to a stop right back where he started—staring at Zuko’s cupped hands, his upturned mouth, his hair shimmering a thousand different shades, the way he looks up at Sokka just then with his unscarred eye squinting at its corner, bright and effusive and striking— the blossoms spread wide in his chest, trailing up and down and throughout him, catching at his seams. Coming alive.

And he thinks, oh.

And he thinks, oh shit.

“Hina!”

The fire extinguishes immediately. Zuko looks up, startled, and Sokka heaves his eyes away from Zuko’s face to the man standing next to Miura, dressed in a typical servant’s attire.

“Hina,” repeats the man, aghast, as Hina runs into his arms.

“Papa!” she yells excitedly, hands crushing the man’s tunic to wrinkles. She points at Zuko. “That man is a dragon.”

“I— no,” starts Zuko, standing up. He bites back a hiss as he straightens, hand going to his chest, and Sokka is there without a second thought to lend him a hand, arm reaching out to steady. Zuko looks up at him for the briefest of seconds, something inscrutable passing through his gaze, before he gives a small shake of his head.

Still outstretched, Sokka’s empty palm aches. He lowers it back to his side.

“Hina, that is the Fire Lord,” the man says. He spins Hina around by the shoulders so that they’re both facing Zuko. “Bow like I taught you.”

“Please,” interrupts Zuko, a hard edge to his tone, “that won’t be necessary.” He nods at Hina, the tight line of his mouth softening once more. “You have a lovely daughter.”

“Papa, he called me lovely,” says Hina, hushed. Her eyes sparkle. “Can I marry him?”

Hina,” hisses the father. “Learn to think before you speak!” He turns to Zuko, one hand gripping Hina’s arm with force. Sokka frowns, and Zuko looks no more pleased with the sight. “My Lord, forgive me. Her mother has been sick, these last few days. There was no school today to keep Hina occupied, and no one else at home to look after her, so I brought her here with the strictest of instructions,” here, Hina’s eyes lose some of their shine, lowering to the ground with the shame that comes so easily to children, “to stay near me at all times. I don’t know when or how—”

Zuko raises a hand, and the man chokes on his next word. “Hina was no trouble,” Zuko says evenly. “Were you, Hina?”

“No, sir,” mumbles Hina, still not looking up. Something pained crosses Zuko’s face.

Hina’s father pales as Zuko stalks up to them, losing his grip on his daughter, but all Zuko does is crouch in front of Hina. “Hey,” he says, voice quiet and private. “You liked my rainbow fire trick?”

Hina nods, tentatively meeting Zuko’s eyes once more. “It was really pretty. I liked the pink fire best. Mama’s favourite colour is pink.”

Zuko looks around, gaze catching on one of the flower bushes nearby. Sokka understands his meaning immediately; before Zuko can move, Sokka walks towards the bush with pink flowers. He picks a few and gathers them in a bunch before handing them with a flourish to Hina, who accepts shyly.

Zuko throws him a surprised, grateful look before turning back to Hina. “Well, I’m glad you liked the trick. I only show it to very, very special people.” He reaches out and lightly boops Hina’s nose, who scrunches it in shocked delight. “You can keep the flowers Ambassador Sokka’s given you as a memory of it, and give them to your Mama when you see her next, alright? Maybe they’ll help her feel a little better.”

Suddenly, Zuko has an armful of grubby child. Her father gasps, reaching out to pull her away, but Miura’s hand yanks him back.

“Thank you, Dragon Lord,” Hina says, muffled into Zuko’s tunic.

Zuko’s arms gingerly circle around her. “Call me Zuko. And it was my pleasure,” he says, sounding like he means every word.

While Hina pulls her arms from around Zuko, Miura drags Hina’s father slightly off to the side. “Punish your child for today’s events in any manner,” Sokka hears her say, quietly sincere, her hand gripping his collar, “and you’ll face the personal wrath of both me and the Fire Lord. Are we clear?”

The man gulps. “Crystal.”

Miura stares into his eyes once more, like she’s evaluating his soul and finding it wanting. Then she lets go, one hand straightening out his tunic. “Glad to hear it. Now, off you go.”

Sokka turns back to Zuko, who’s discreetly attempting to stand once again. This time when Sokka offers his hand, Zuko accepts, something thawing in his expression.

And where their hands touch, it feels like the briefest of fires.

“You may take the next few days off,” Zuko says as he turns to Hina’s father, blissfully unaware of Sokka’s internal breakdown a few feet away, “and please, let Niko know if a situation like this arises again. I’m sure she’ll be able to rearrange your shifts as necessary. Now, Hina,” he smiles down at her again, “your father’s going to take you to the palace kitchens. Tell them I sent you, and to let you have any flavour of ice cream you want. Sound good?”

Hina toes the ground, almost vibrating with excitement. “Thank you, Zuko.”

Her father aims an aborted bow Zuko’s way. “Yes, well. Thank you, my Lord. I’ll… do that now. Yes. Come along, Hina.”

“Bye, A’bassador Sock! Bye, Zuko!” Hina waves wildly as she’s escorted away, one hand clutching the bunch of flowers like her life depends on it. She turns to her father to loudly whisper, “Papa, I’m so going to marry him when I grow up.”

Zuko chokes back a laugh. “Cute kid,” he says. “She actually reminds me a little of Az—”

He cuts himself off, smile drooping a little. “Cute kid,” he repeats more quietly.

Miura, who’s been eying Sokka for the last few minutes in a very disquieting manner, says, “My Lord, I think that was enough excitement for the day. Maybe we should—”

“Miura.”

She sighs. “A little longer, then.” Unexpectedly, she turns to Sokka. “Ambassador, if I could have a word?”

“Uh,” says Sokka.

Zuko’s eyebrow rises in a confused uptick. “Everything okay?”

“Yes, yes,” she waves him off. “Why don’t you be a good little Fire Lord and go sit under that tree near the pond. I just wanted to discuss something with the Ambassador.”

Sokka represses the urge to run, though his feet itch with the need.

Zuko looks between the two of them. “…Alright,” he says, which is the opposite of what Sokka was hoping for. “Just… sure, yeah, why not.”

Sokka watches him go with a feeling of trepidation. There’s no one else around apart from the guards stationed near the edge of the garden. When Miura finally kills him, will they intervene? Or will they just help dispose of the body?

“Relax,” says Miura, as if she knows exactly what he’s thinking. Great, she’s a mind reader too. Bodes well for Sokka’s chances of escape. “Follow me.”

She leads him to the edge of the pond, taking a seat on one of the benches.

“If you’re about to drown me or something,” starts Sokka, hands rising in a protective stance in front of him, “I will start screaming.”

“For Shu’s sake, will you just sit down?”

Sokka plops cautiously next to her, though he takes care to maintain a safe distance between them.

Miura looks out over the surface of the water. Sokka follows her gaze.

On the far side of the pond, Zuko is leaning with his back against the bark, already surrounded by tiny fluffy blobs as he reaches into his pockets for seeds. Sokka’s too far away to see his expression, but there is a contentedness in the line of Zuko’s body that he rarely remembers seeing. Something about it causes his heart to thud against his ribcage just a bit harder, beating out a rhythm unfamiliar to him.

“When I was seven,” Miura says, as casually as if they were discussing the weather, “firebenders burned down my home.”

Sokka jerks his head towards her. “What—”

“I never found out why they did it, but they did it at night. I wasn’t supposed to be up, but for whatever reason I just couldn’t sleep. I remember tossing and turning for hours, watching the moon get higher in the night sky. When I saw the smoke coming through the bottom of my door, I grabbed my baby sister and jumped out the window, but by the time I screamed for enough people from the village to come help, it was too late for my parents. And for my brother. He was eleven.”

Though her face is eerily blank, Miura’s hands are clenched into fists at her side. “There was a woman passing by who heard what happened. She came to me the next evening, as I sat outside the burnt husk of my family home with nothing but the clothes on my back and a crying toddler in my lap. She said she hailed from Kyoshi Island, and that she’d come to the mainland for supplies. She offered to take me and my sister with her, in exchange for doing daily chores around her house. Of course I said yes. It was better than being yet another begging waif on the street, waiting for winter to come and finally finish the job the fire had started.”

“Miura,” says Sokka softly, but she continues as if she hasn’t even heard him.

“Her house was modest, and it was easy for me to keep it relatively clean. She offered to look after my sister for me. Said she’d lost her child a few years back, so she knew what she was doing. It was far too kind of her, and I was grateful, I suppose; I had no idea how to even begin looking after my sister on my own. But it left me with too many spare hours during the day. Time that was spent thinking about what had happened, what I’d lost. I began wandering the island just for something to do. That’s when I first stumbled across the Kyoshi Warriors.

“They were fierce and fearless and powerful— everything I wasn’t. I used to hide outside their dojo everyday, watching. Sometimes I’d try out a few moves, just to prove that I could. And then I began to practice every night before going to sleep, every morning after waking up. I spent more and more hours outside their door. They caught me, obviously,” she says, her fingers finally loosening at her sides. “But instead of sending me away, they invited me inside. Said I had potential. Training with them— it was the first time I’d felt alive in months.”

The sun reflects off the water’s surface, glinting off Miura’s headdress. “They gave me an identity. With them, I didn’t have to be the poor orphan, or the servant girl, or just another nameless victim caught in the war’s crossfires. I was a Warrior, and I was proud. But despite the discipline they taught me, there was an anger in me. Anger at the world that had taken so much from me. Anger at the nation who ripped apart my family, who made it so that my sister would never know the sweetness of my mother’s singing, or get to ride on my father’s shoulders until she’d be breathless with laughter, or sneak away with my brother to get tenkasu from the vendor down the street right before dinner, even when we weren’t supposed to. I was so full of rage at the ashmakers who’d stolen my childhood from me, and I channelled it all into my training. I practiced harder than the other girls, longer than we were required to. I perfected every move, every technique, until I could do them all in my sleep. I was prepared. I was ready.”

She turns to look at Sokka. “So when the prince of the Fire Nation came to the island, I knew he would die by my hand.”

Her eyes remind him of frozen earth, deep in the middle of winter. Unyielding and hard, covered in frost. “But as the smoke started to rise around me, I froze. I couldn’t help it; my mind was thrown back to that night, to hearing my family’s cries for help get drowned out by the roar of the fire. But my body was still stuck in place. I only snapped out of it when he kicked me into the wall, the pain of my broken arm jarring me back into the present. By the time I finally got back up, he was long gone, leaving nothing but ashes in his wake.”

“He followed us,” Sokka says uselessly, as if this detail is relevant to anything. “I— I know Aang felt awful, having led Zuko to Kyoshi Island.”

“I know. Doesn’t matter, really,” she says. “The Fire Nation was always bound to come knocking on our door one day or the other. But when you left us, we were still picking up the pieces. And this time, I wasn’t just angry at the Fire Nation. I was angry at myself, for being so weak as to let them win. For being as helpless as I’d been that night. So, I vowed to take them down, every last one. I told myself I wouldn’t falter the next time. I stayed behind on the island to recover while Suki took the other Warriors to the mainland, and I practiced some more. I got better. Stronger. And when news came, of the Warriors being captured by the Crown Princess and sent to prisons across the Earth Kingdom, I set off alone to help them escape. But by the time I got to the first one, the war had already ended. And suddenly, we were to be assigned as the new Fire Lord’s personal security detail.”

Miura snorts. “I thought it was a bad joke at first. But Suki didn’t laugh. That’s when I realised she was being serious. I lashed out at her. I told her I would rather quit, would rather die, than help protect the same ashmaker who’d reduced our island to rubble.”

“Then why did you stay?” asks Sokka. He doesn’t know why she’s telling him all this, doesn’t know why she’s chosen now to do so.

“Because I owed the Warriors of Kyoshi everything,” she answers. “They gave me a purpose, nurtured my potential. They gave me a reason to live. So, I agreed to it.” She pauses. “But I’d already decided that, were the Fire Lord to ever be attacked, I would not step in the assassins’ path. Instead, I’d watch from the sidelines and let them do their job.”

Sokka inhales sharply.

“And for months,” she continues, “that’s exactly what I did. There were a lot of attacks, that first year after the war. In daylight, by moonlight. From the windows, from beneath travelling carriages, from over supposedly unclimbable rooftops. Every time, I put in just enough effort to make it look like I’d done my part, then wait with bated breath. But he survived each one, much to my annoyance.” She huffs out a laugh. “I thought him some kind of beetle-roach, the way he’d always manage to squirm his way out of whatever trap was laid for him. Honestly, a part of me was impressed. Here was someone who knew how to scrape out by the skin of his teeth, no matter how large the odds were stacked against him. I knew what that felt like.”

Her face darkens. “Then came the trip to the Earth Kingdom.”

A turtle-duck shuffles by the bench, waddling towards the water. It jumps in with a splash, causing ripples to spread along the surface.

“My sister decided to visit unannounced. She hadn’t seen me since I’d set out for the prisons, and had heard we’d be in the mainland for some political trip. Dropped by the monorail just as we were about to get on. I was furious,” she says, a half-smile pulling at her face, “but I’d missed her so much that I didn’t even care. She asked if she could spend the day by my side, and before I could tell her no, the Fire Lord agreed. It pissed me off to no end, of course, the way they got along. Don’t you know who that is, I wanted to scream at her. Can’t you tell from his yellow eyes? He is of the people who stole everything from us. But she didn’t remember the horrors we’d been through. I’d always been so grateful for that, but for the first time in my life I wanted her to know the suffering I’d experienced. Just so she could share in the hate that burned its way through my veins at every waking moment.”

A series of quacking interrupts her, and Sokka watches as the turtle-duck flaps its wings, speeding through the water to where Zuko is sitting.

He turns to face her again, and this time, something akin to guilt pinches her features. “When the assassins attacked, none of us saw it coming. They surrounded us as we were heading home for the day, down the steps of the monorail. A few more minutes and my sister would have already left, would have been safe. But they overwhelmed us quickly, three to one.

“I’d never been more terrified in my life; she was the last bit of family I had left in the world, and now she was in danger because of me. If I’d lost her—” She takes in a shaky breath, the second time Sokka has ever seen her lose her composure. “I tried my best to protect her. I fought harder than I’d ever fought before. And yet, I still wasn’t fast enough to stop the arrow notched in her direction, aimed directly at her heart.”

A beat. “But he was.”

Dread, which had begun to climb steadily up his throat in the last few minutes, now threatens to choke him. “What happened?”

“He stepped in her way,” she says simply, “as if it were nothing. I saw him go down in a heap, and for a second I was… almost at peace. Finally, I thought, took them long enough. And then my sister started screaming, her hands red with the blood pouring out of him, and I realised what had happened.”

Sokka’s head moves involuntarily to look at Zuko, who sits hale and whole in the distance. A few turtle-ducks are perched in his lap now; he looks like he’s stroking them.

“He was still awake when we took him to the nearest healer. Kept asking for my sister, if she was okay. Even when he finally passed out, my sister’s name was the last word on his lips. Kira.” She wipes at the tear that has slipped down her cheek, smudging a line of red through the perfect white. “It was then that I realised the true extent of what the Fire Nation had done that night, all those years ago. A part of me had died in that fire along with my family, and what had survived had become warped— a crucible, perhaps, but one that was filled with nothing but hatred and anger. I’d allowed them to mould me for so long that I couldn’t even remember who I’d been before then.

“But the sight of Kira’s yellow dress, stained red with the lifeblood of the man whose birthright was borne from war... it cracked something in me. Something vital that had kept me upright for nearly half my life, driven me to put one step after another, even on days when all I’d wanted to do was walk into the sea without another backwards look.” Her eyes are haunted, filled with something that Sokka can’t bear to look at for too long. “The only other thing that had stopped me, those days, was the thought of my sister’s face when she’d realise I’d left her too. And in one fell swoop, this man—this ashmaker—turned my entire world upside down once again. Saving Kira when he’d known her for barely a day, his life for hers so easily exchanged.”

At some point, she’d pulled one fan free from her waist. She toys with it now, no longer meeting his gaze. “He was unconscious for two days. You came, after the first. You’d been planning to visit Suki, and had rushed over as soon as you’d heard.”

Sokka blinks, his feet pressed tight into the grass.

 

His feet, rushing over a tiled path. Doors giving way to frantic pushes, striding inside with wild eyes.

“Where is he?”

An aide’s bored look, not even bothering to look up from his scroll. “The Fire Lord is not taking visitors at this time.”

His clenched fist, landing heavily on top of a desk. “My name is Ambassador Sokka. I am his friend. I need to see him.” A cracked, desperate plea: “Please.”

The aide finally looking up at him, eying Boomerang Junior sticking over his back. “I— alright. Let me check with the physician.”

What feels like hours later, the same aide beckoning him to a quiet room, drapes pulled over the windows. A physician standing by a raised pallet with two figures on it— one lying prone against the sheets, the other’s frizzy curls pillowed on folded arms at the edge of the pallet, the rest of their body bundled on the small chair pulled close.

The sight of a bandaged chest, its steady rise and fall, finally loosening the tight coil around his ribcage. “How’s he doing?”

“A lot better than yesterday.” A physician turns to him.

 

Miura is turned to him. She frowns, eyes drifting over his face. “Ambassador Sokka?”

 

“Ambassador Sokka, the arrow barely missed his left lung. A few inches more, and it would have been a completely different story. He barely survived as is; the blood loss was extensive.”

A shudder passing through him, horror intermingling with relief. “How did this happen,” he asks instead, eyes never straying from an unnaturally pale face, from lids closed as if simply in slumber. “He— how was this allowed to happen? Where were the Kyoshi Warriors?”

 

Where is he?

 

A shadow peeling itself away from the corner of the room. Golden headdress, perfectly applied face-paint— red and white, though it looks more grey in the dim light, robbed of its vibrance. “I assure you, Ambassador,” comes the voice, solemn and low, “the events of today will never be repeated. I will not let harm of any sort come to him again.” Dark eyes drifting over the two silent figures, gaze tight. “This, I promise.”

 

He’s on the bench.

 

He’s in the healing room.

 

There is a pond in front of him.

 

Zuko lies in front of him. He is still, so still. But he breathes.

For now, that is enough.

 

 

“You were there,” he says quietly.

Miura’s frown grows deeper. “What—”

“You were there,” he repeats, conviction strengthening his voice. “In the room. I… I remember. Zuko was on the bed, and there was a girl asleep on a chair— Kira? And the curtains—” He clutches at his head as pain rips through the back of it, threatening to scatter his thoughts. But he grasps on tightly, and this time a few of them stay clutched in his hold. “The curtains were pulled over the window, and I was scared.” He breaks off, breathing tightly as he scrunches his eyes shut. “I was scared, and angry? But I don’t remember who at. But when I saw him, it got less. The fear. I wasn’t so scared anymore.”

The pain thankfully dims, allowing him to pull his hands away. “That’s— ugh, nothing else is coming to me. But, Miura,” he looks at her with shining eyes, a wide grin threatening to split his face in half, “I remember. I remember something, at least. I need to go find Kustaa. Wait, I should tell Zuko first, he’s right there—”

A hand shoots out, grabbing at his shoulder. He looks at it in confusion, then at Miura. Her eyes are inscrutable.

“I’d never told anyone this, what I’ve just told you. And I’m telling you now because… because Fire Lord Zuko is a good man,” she says finally, as he settles back against the bench. “A great man when compared to his father, and his father before him, and his before him. They were leaders of their people, yes, but they never cared much their needs, whereas he leads for them. Considers their needs before every step he takes, sometimes even above his own. And it took me a long time to see it, but his heart is filled with kindness despite the scars that mar it— in spite of them. I vowed to protect him, that day; that I’d let nothing ever scar him again, as long as I’m by his side. I won’t allow anything that hurts him to cross his path.”

It’s regret, he realises, that swims in her eyes. Her next words squeeze all the air from his lungs. “You hurt him.”

He shakes his head, denying it even before they register. “No, I—”

“You do,” she says, lips tugged down mournfully, like the words are costing her something on their way out of her mouth. “You hurt him, that first day you woke up, with your fingers around his throat. You’ve hurt him every day since, with your thoughtless words and your actions. Even yesterday, you—” She stops, her grip loosening on his arm. It doesn’t make much difference; he doesn’t think his legs have it in him to stand just now, anyway. “And the thing is, I don’t blame you. How can I?  He’s not innocent in any of this; his past is littered with deeds that have caused many to suffer. You were right, in your mind, to take retribution for the hurt he’d caused you in turn. Hells, I would have been right there with you a few years earlier. But now—”

She blows out a breath, shoulders slumping. “Now, I can’t let you hurt him more than you already have. Frankly, I don’t think he can take much more of it.”

She takes her hand away from his arm; his skin feels branded at the spot.

“Miura,” he croaks out, but cannot find the words within him to finish his sentence.

“Do you remember anything else? Anything apart from that day?”

He shakes his head.

She sighs. “I hold high hopes that they will return, Ambassador. And it's a good sign that you've finally begun to recall things. But until more of them come back, I just ask you for one thing. Do not tantalize him with unfounded hope,” she says, “not until you have reason to believe the rest of your memories will return intact. It’ll crush him.”

(The cog turns, and turns, and turns.)

His mouth, when he opens it to speak, feels gritty and dry. “I won’t. I— I’ll wait.”

She looks at him then, her eyes piercing, like she can see through him. All the way down to his flayed spirit, raked over the coals of her words. “I’m sorry about this, Sokka,” she says, voice gentler than he’s ever heard it. “I really am. I know you’re a good man, too. Just as kind as him, if not more. You asked me earlier, if I liked you. You don’t remember this yet, but we’re good friends, you and I. But there is a debt I owe that is worth greater to me than our friendship. Until it has been repaid, I’m afraid there are certain steps I must take in the name of my duty, even if they cause me much regret along the way.”

Her hand comes to rest on his arm again, much lighter this time. “But I do know this— one day, if your memories were to return, you’ll understand the need for these steps. I pray that you’ll forgive me for them, then. I’m just afraid you won’t forgive yourself.”

Sokka’s head is spinning. Who is he to me, he wants to scream. Who am I to him?

(The cog spins faster.)

But Miura is clearly finished with this conversation, arms folded across her chest. He knows she won’t say another word.

Sokka stands up slowly. His feet feel laden as he makes his way across the garden, rubbing the back of his hand over burning eyes.

The blossoms that had unfurled through him feel shrivelled now, husks of their former selves. They retreat somewhere back inside him as he walks, tightening and sinking into something small until it disappears just out of reach; it takes all the warmth with it, leaving him cold under the Fire Nation sun. Even the elation of having regained some of his memories, snippets of his past self he’d nearly driven himself desperate to clutch onto, is not enough to lighten the load that presses down on his shoulders, that hunches his back.  

He tries to compose himself as he gets closer to the tree, but soon realises it is a moot point anyway. He’d come to say goodbye to Zuko out of courtesy, intent on going back and hiding out in his quarters until the day turns to night, and he can use sleep as an excuse not to think.

But Zuko is slumped against the tree, fast asleep. A few turtle-ducks are curled over his lap, bleary eyes blinking up as Sokka stops a few feet away.

His bun had unravelled at some point, a few dark locks slipping across his face. Sokka’s hand reaches out before he realises its moving, gently brushing them aside and tucking them behind his unscarred ear. The action reveals the shadows under Zuko’s eye, the unhealthy pallor of his skin. And though his features are relaxed in sleep, Sokka knows that it is a temporary state of peace.

Then Sokka’s eyes fall to where Zuko’s tunic has slipped to the side, revealing his neck. Once adorned with the blue of silk, then of bruises— now empty of both.

You hurt him.

(The cog screeches to a halt— goes silent, once more.)

Sokka flinches back, his hand jerking away. What am I doing, he thinks, appalled with himself. How has he let himself forget that Zuko belongs to another? How has Sokka let himself forget that he does, too— to fire lilies and jasmines and words spilled across paper, their yearning reaching out to him from between the lines?

How has he already forgotten the tightness of his fingers around Zuko’s neck, squeezing closer with every struggling breath?

It’s not fair, he thinks as Zuko shifts at the movement, eyes drifting open, it’s not fair it’s not fair it’s not fair.

“Sokka?” he asks, voice rough with sleep. He shifts himself upright against the bark, causing the nuzzling turtle-ducks to slip off his lap with affronted squawks. “Huh. I swear I didn’t mean to fall asleep—”

He’s interrupted by a voice calling out from behind them, feet pounding against the grass. “Zuko!”

Sokka turns, grateful for the distraction from Zuko’s enquiring gaze, to find Katara racing up to them, rolled parchment clutched tight in her fist. She comes to a halt in front of them, looking like she’s trying not to gasp for breath but failing miserably.

Zuko pushes himself off the ground with a small grimace. Sokka stays where he is, arms held tight against his side so they can’t disobey him again.

“It’s—” Katara pants, hands on her knees. She straightens up then, eyes flicking over to Sokka then away just as fast, a tinge of guilt at their corners. It is overshadowed by the small smile that pulls at her mouth, growing in size as she looks at Zuko. “It’s the healers. They’ve just sent word— the weather’s improved enough for them to travel. They’ll be here by tomorrow.”

 

Chapter Text

When the knock comes on his door that evening, Sokka is tempted to ignore it.

Then knuckles rap sharp against the wood again, a familiar one-two-one-one pattern.

A groan escapes him. “Coming!”

He cracks the door open a few inches, revealing expected blue eyes.

“Can I come in?” asks Katara, a hesitant smile on her face. She brings her hands out from behind her back, revealing a basket covered in cloth. Steam wafts gently from the top. “I brought snacks.”

Sokka opens the door a bit wider.

She follows him into his bedroom. “You ran off from the turtle-duck pond pretty quick,” she says lightly, placing the basket on his desk. “Huh, your room looks different. Did you redecorate?”

Sokka doesn’t respond. He goes back to what he’d been doing prior to her arrival— curling up in bed, with the poem tucked under his pillow. He ignores the way her eyebrows rise in concern as he burrows under the sheets. “Tired,” is all he says, knees coming up to his chest.

“Sokka,” she says, voice soft. There is silence for a moment, before his mattress dips at the edge. “Can I?”

Sokka sighs, wordlessly raising the corner of his sheets. Katara crawls in within seconds, just like when they were kids— it feels like both decades and seconds since the last time they’d done this, with Katara’s hair tickling his nose, her arms wrapping gently around his.

With the sheets blocking out the fading light, and the only sound that of their quiet breathing, it’s easy to imagine himself back home under familiar stars. They’d spent many a night whispering and giggling to under one quilt, one-upping each other with increasingly whimsical stories with each in the starring role, trying to keep their voices down to avoid waking up their parents and getting into trouble. And later, they’d spent many a night huddled up, hushed, Sokka brushing Katara’s hair back as she stifled her sobs after yet another nightmare, trying not to disturb their father’s scant few hours of sleep on his newly barren sleeping mat.

Katara’s the one to run her fingers through his hair now, pushing the strands away from his face. His wolftail must have come undone at some point; he hadn’t even noticed or realised or cared. He can feel the apology in her touch, in the gentle way she smooths out the tangled locks and tucks them behind his ear. He gives his own in the way he lets his fingers tighten on her other arm, folding himself small next to her.

Their silence is an easy thing, born of years spent being the only confidante the other had known. It speaks of forgiveness, and they let it flow over them. Eventually, he breaks it with a question.

“When did you realise that you loved Aang?”

Her fingers grow still in his hair.

“I mean,” he says, “how long did it take you before… you know. Feelings and stuff.”

“Feelings and stuff,” she echoes.

“… mushy ones.”

She makes an odd noise. “Mushy.”

There is a brief pause before the dam, swollen from days of tension and avoidance, finally bursts; they both erupt into uncontrolled giggles that stretch on for long minutes, broken by interspersed snickers.

“You know what I mean,” Sokka finally wheezes, rubbing at his face. It’s the first time he’s laughed in days; his cheeks hurt, unused to this pull and stretch.

He can feel Katara grow serious once again next to him. “What’s brought this on?” she asks, maddeningly gentle, and it wipes the last of his smile off his face.

He twists away from her, trying not to scowl. “Just… answer the question.”

“Hmm.” She tugs him back by his hair, ignoring his whine of pain, until he turns to face her again. “I don’t know. How long was it before you realised you liked Yue? Or Suki?”

Sokka thinks for a second. “Yue— I think I fell for her at first sight.”

“Literally, if I remember correctly.”

He shoves at her with light hands, making her snort.

But then his mouth flattens once more. “I never really got to find out if what I had for her was love or not,” he says, a quiet confession. “She was gone before I had a chance to— yeah.”

Katara stays quiet, encouraging him to continue finding his words.

“And with Suki,” he says, then pauses, growing sheepish. “Did she tell you what happened?”

She blows out a slow breath. “Kind of. But I didn’t push her for details. All she said was that you guys had a misunderstanding, and that it was fixed now.”

He leans back a little, trying to meet her gaze in the soft darkness. “You knew.”

“Well,” she says, “you’re a bit… obvious, when you have a crush on someone.”

Sokka groans. “Would it have killed you to tell me she and Ty Lee had a thing going on?”

Katara gawps at him. “Sokka. They held hands in front of you. They cuddled in public multiple times. Ty Lee fed Suki dumplings at lunch, and Suki giggled. Suki. Giggling. You even turned to me and said ‘aww Katara, look, how cute’. I thought you knew.”

“I kind of thought that’s just how girls are?” Sokka says weakly. “Y’know. Feeding each other stuff and… hugging.”

“You are so painfully oblivious sometimes, I swear.”

“It’s not like I mean to be!”

“Well,” says Katara, “I would have definitely said something, had I known you were going to plan a whole date night—”

Sokka clamps his hands over his ears. “La-la-la-la, I can’t hear you,” he yells, face burning, and this time she’s the one to shove him until he takes his hands off his ears.

“In hindsight, maybe that… wasn’t my finest moment?” he admits after a while.

“You think?”

There is another beat of silence, before they both start cackling again.

“Katara, I—” Sokka gasps for breath. “I made a whole checklist and everything. The only thing I forgot to check on there was whether she was single.”

“Spirits, how are you still alive.” Katara snickers again, wiping at the corner of her eyes. “I’m surprised Ty Lee hasn’t murdered you in your sleep yet.”

“Oh, she tried her best,” says Sokka, thinking about how much his ear had throbbed after clipping various doorways. “Maybe she left me breathing because she felt sorry for me.”

“Gotta say, this whole thing does sound like it would have been pretty pitiful. Oh, to be a spider-fly on the wall during that conversation.”

He swats at her. “To be honest,” he says, sobering up a little, “when Suki told me we’d broken up, I got over it faster than I thought I would have. I don’t know, something about it just… sounded right. Like a part of me knew it wasn’t the way things were supposed to be, even if I didn’t remember them being that way.”

“I see.”

He can hear her thinking from here. She takes a minute before she begins speaking. “For me, I think I fell for Aang somewhere along the way,” she says. “His easy kindness, the way he had so much love to give to the world. The way he never compromised on his morals, no matter what it cost him. But it took a long time for me to see it. When he—”

She falters. Takes a deep breath. “When the— in Ba Sing Se. When he got hurt. I think that’s when I realised how much he meant to me. When I nearly lost him.”

Sokka thinks of Yue clutched in his hold, the life fading from her body before her body faded from his arms.

He thinks of Zuko, sleeping, bathed in her light. The unexpected panic that had pulled at him when he’d seen Zuko crumpled on the council chamber’s floor. The warmth of their hands touching on cold sheets.

He thinks of the poem tucked under his pillow.

At once, all mirth escapes him. “Katara,” he whispers. “I want my memories back.”

Katara pulls the sheets off both their heads, exposing them to the growing darkness in his bedroom. “Talk to me.”

“I—” Sokka sits back against his headboard, tries to string his emotions into sentences. “I’m scared,” he admits. “That I’m missing a life I really treasured. Where I had someone who meant something to me, like Aang does to you.” He pauses briefly, struggling to look her in the eyes. “I’m scared that I might replace them without even realising.”

He brings out the paper from under his pillow. Waits for her to light the lamp on his bedside table with spark rocks before handing it to her.

She reads it silently. A tear slips down her cheek.

“You know them,” he says. It’s not a guess.

“Yes,” she says, simple as that.

He swallows. “And I… loved them?”

It is the same look Suki had given him earlier that day that graces her face now; hopeful and devastated, all at once.

His heart catches his breath, holds it a second too long inside his chest. “Then—”

“But,” she continues, “Sokka, you— I was wrong, that day. I was pushing you so hard to be someone you’re not, and I didn’t even realise that I was pushing you away. It’s just so strange,” she says, voice cracking, “when I look at you and forget, sometimes, what’s happened. It caught me off-guard, those first few days. But just because I miss the version of you that was familiar to me, doesn’t mean that you don’t deserve love and compassion and patience like this. I’m sorry it took me so long to realise that, and for hurting you the way I did.”

“Katara,” he says, but her hand on his cheek stops him.

“No matter what happens with the healers,” she says firmly, “the responsibility for getting your memories back isn’t on you. You didn’t choose any of this. And this—” she grips the poem in her grasp “—doesn’t change anything. Use it as motivation, yes, sure, but don’t let it be another weight you pull across your shoulders if they don’t come back.”

“I can’t let them down, Katara,” he says, choked. “They’re waiting for me.”

She drops the poem to grip his arms, manhandling him until he looks at her. “Listen to me. I know them well, and I know what’s most important to them. It’s you, Sokka,” she says, shaking him lightly. “It’s your happiness and wellbeing. If you punish yourself in their name, it’ll crush them tenfold. Losing your memories doesn’t mean that you should force yourself to dwell in the past. You have to live, for them and yourself. If that means moving forward with your life without them—” She scrubs the tears off her cheek. “Well, I’m sure they’ll understand.”

“But you don’t know that for sure,” he says, something desperate clawing at his chest. “They— Katara, you’ve just read this.” He flaps the poem in front of her face. “Does this really make you think they’d be okay with me forgetting them, easy as that? Forgetting us? Tell me what this sounds like to you.”

Katara’s eyes are full of a soft pity he doesn’t want. “What ‘us’, Sokka? What does it mean to you?”

That sends him reeling, because to that he has no answer. And that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? He can guess, sure; he can sit here and pick apart each word, each character crafted so carefully across the page, put them together in amalgamations of what he thinks they signify to him and still come up with something completely wrong, so far off the mark from its intended message. Without context, without his memories, he’s—

Wait.

“Katara,” he breathes, sudden hope flaring in his chest, “I remembered something today.”

Katara stares at him.

Next thing he knows, there’s a pillow slamming into his face.

“And you wait until now,” she screeches, as Sokka tries to crawl away to safety, “to tell me this?”

“I’m sorry!” he yells back. “I got distracted!”

“What could have possibly been more important—”

“I had other things on my mind, okay?”

“Like what!”

Like Zuko!

An avalanche of silence crashes down on them.

“I mean,” Sokka stutters, when Katara continues with the shell-shocked face, “he was. Sick. And stuff. You know? And I was. Worried. About him. Um.”

“Sometimes I wonder which Spirits I pissed off,” Katara says lowly, “to have this inflicted on me twice.”

“What did you—”

“Memory,” she interrupts. “Now.”

“It was, uh.” Sokka racks his brain for all the details.

Katara listens patiently as he describes the fractured scenes that had come to him on that bench. He doesn’t tell her about Miura, because he figures it’s not his place to say. He doesn’t tell her about the heart-stopping fear that had accompanied the memory, either, but he thinks Katara figures that one out on her own when his voice starts shaking at the part about Zuko lying on that pallet, ever so still. But she doesn’t acknowledge it, for which he is grateful.

“That must have been frightening,” Katara says, when he finishes. She wraps a loose arm around his shoulders. “To just— have all that thrust in your mind with no warning.”

“I think it’s happened before,” he replies, brows scrunched. “A few times now. Remember in the garden with the fire lilies? I swear I remembered something then, but it was gone too fast. And yesterday, with—” Tucky, he thinks, and remembers Kustaa’s expression when he’d spoken the name.

“Katara,” he says, and can’t help the small smile that breaks out. “I really think they’re coming back.”

Katara still looks pensive, though, biting at her lower lip. “Don’t get me wrong, this is definitely a good sign,” she says.

“Why do I feel like there’s a ‘but’ coming?”

“But,” she says, shooting him an exasperated half-glare, “we still have to be careful, Sokka. Don’t push yourself too hard just yet.”

She gets off the bed to grab the basket she’d placed on his desk. “I found a few scrolls on how memory works in Caldera library— there wasn’t a lot of information on it, but from what I’ve gathered, the brain is a finicky thing. It’s easy to slip up and cause irreparable damage if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

“But the healers will know,” Sokka says, already reaching out to grab a pastry. They’ve gone cold, but it doesn’t matter. He’ll take what he can get— anything is better than nothing. “Tomorrow, they’ll be here. They’ll fix whatever’s wrong, and things will go back to the way they used to be.”

Tomorrow, I’ll no longer be a stranger in my own mind, he thinks. Tomorrow, I’ll know who means what to me. It fills him with a bittersweet relief, coloured faintly with longing at the edges.

(If he gains them back, what does he stand to lose in their stead?)

A hand bats away his pastry from his mouth and his thoughts from his mind, before he gains a sudden armful of Katara.

“One more day,” she says, her heart beating against his. He hears her surety in its reverberations through her skin, her hope in the way her hands squeeze around his middle. “Then it’ll all be okay.”

“One day more,” he replies, trying to bury the singular, plaintive voice rising in the back of his mind, calling out a name he cannot have.

But it’s pointless; burying doesn’t help, when something has already taken root.

 


 

The next morning finds Sokka standing with Katara, Ty Lee and Suki on the edge of the ‘hot air balloon’ grounds, which is really just a flat field located at the back of the palace.

Sokka tries to hold in the urge, he really does. But. Come on.

“Just so you know—” he starts, smug smile already in place.

“Don’t,” says Ty Lee, squeezing her eyes shut.

“—I helped invent the balloons. Just a little bit of trivia for you.”

“Ugh, men and their egos.” She huffs at the wide smirk blooming across Suki’s face. “I should have seen this coming.”

“Pay up, now, don’t be shy,” says Suki.

Ty Lee throws her a small pouch with a grumble. It clinks as it lands in Suki’s outstretched palm. “It’s not fair. You dated him. Of course you’d know what he’s like.”

“You guys bet on this?” Katara raises one disapproving eyebrow at Suki.

“Ty Lee thought he’d wait at least ten minutes before he brought it up,” says Suki. “Fortunately—or, well, unfortunately for her— I knew better. Sokka and modesty? Please.”

Katara eyes the coin pouch in her hand. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier? We could have both robbed Ty Lee dry.”

“I hate all of you so much,” announces Sokka, folding his arms over his chest. “It’s a pretty big deal! There’s a whole section of the Fire Palace grounds dedicated to my invention! Me! Sokka of the Water Tribe!”

“I will literally pay you to shut up,” says Ty Lee.

“With what money?” asks Sokka, sotto-voice.

“Babe,” says Suki, arms firmly around Ty Lee’s waist as her girlfriend tries to hurl herself at Sokka. “Babe. C’mon, now.”

“Just you wait,” Ty Lee hisses, a demented smile showcasing all thirty of her pearly whites, “when the healers are done fixing your head, you’re going to want to keep them around for when I’m through with you.”

“And why is Ty Lee attempting to murder your brother so early in the morning, Master Katara?”

They all turn to see Miura descending down the grassy steps with bored grace. “Not that it isn’t a valid undertaking, of course.”

Her barely-teasing tone jars Sokka out of whatever’s overcome him at the sight of Zuko right behind her, dressed in full Fire Lord regalia. It’s the first time Sokka’s seen him since the turtle-duck garden yesterday, and he almost thumps at his chest to knock out the weird fluttering that starts behind his ribs when Zuko’s eyes land on him. Kustaa and Taktuq trail behind the two, heads close together in conversation, though Taktuq’s gesticulating hands come hazardously close to Kustaa’s face every few seconds.

“Um,” says Sokka, looking back at Miura. She nods at him, a fraction of a movement. It’s filled with a silent understanding of sorts, and Sokka knows neither of them will ever speak of what had passed between them the day before. Pretending is a game they’ve both had great practice at.

He raises both palms instead, pasting a guileless expression on his face. “I’m completely innocent in all of this. She is the aggressor,” he says, pointing to a newly-released Ty Lee, “as all witnesses will corroborate.”

“Sokka started it,” Katara says immediately, with Suki nodding in agreement.

“Suki I understand— she’s already signed over her morals along with her heart to the dark side,” says Sokka with a mock-gasp. “But my own flesh and blood? To think, I was going to name an invention after you.”

“Oh, please,” says Katara, waving an unaffected hand. “After the horror that was the kazoo-ko, I think we’re all—”

“The what?”

“I remember the kazoo-ko,” says Taktuq brightly. “Ambassador Sokka, truly one of your finest inventions. Remember when Avatar Aang played ‘Secret Tunnel’ on it for us? I couldn’t get it out of my head for days. Now, how did that one go?”

He thinks for a second. Takes a deep breath, before bellowing, “Two loverrrrrs—

“Now that I think about it,” Ty Lee says over Taktuq’s loud warbling. She aims a saccharine smile at Sokka. “Didn’t Sokka get so good at—” an obnoxious cough “—blowing the kazoo-ko, too? I bet you got a lot of practice in with your mou—”

“Oh, would you look at that,” says Zuko in a rush, pointing in the distance, his cheeks flushing crimson. Sokka takes a closer look at him. Zuko isn’t still sick, is he? He looked fine a minute ago.

But before Sokka can say anything, Zuko points again, prompting everyone to look. “I think that’s them.”

He’s right; in the time they’ve spent arguing, a war –hot air, he has to remind himself forcefully, there’s no more war— balloon has appeared in the distance, drifting ever closer.

Sokka nudges Katara with his elbow, curiosity still piqued. “Tell me more about this kazoo-ko,” he murmurs from the corner of his mouth.

“No, I don’t think I will,” she whispers back, just as the balloon begins to descend.

The wind whips at all their hair as the basket comes closer to the ground. The envelope itself is a moss green colour— so very different than the angry red of the ones that sometimes occupied Sokka’s nightmares. The balloon sinks into the trimmed grass a few hundred yards away with a hushed gravitas, and all those gathered on the ground are suddenly hit by the expectations that descend with it.

This is it, Sokka thinks as the burner’s flame peters out, making the envelope droop on the grass as it loses all its air. He thinks he can feel someone’s eyes on the side of his face, but he can’t tear his own from watching the door that swings open on the basket.

A figure in blue billows out through the opening, striding towards them. Katara grips Sokka’s arm tight in anticipation.

The person comes to a stop a few feet away from the basket, still too far away to see their face. Zuko steps forward, raising one hand in a regal wave.

The figure responds by sinking to their knees in the grass, where they begin to retch.

“Oh,” says Zuko, hand freezing mid-wave. “Um.”

“Well, that’s not standard protocol,” says Ty Lee faintly.

Three more people emerge from the basket, one of whom rushes to a crouch next to the person heaving on the ground, rubbing at their back in soothing motions.

Katara looks slightly alarmed at the sight. “Should we…”

“Maybe give them a moment,” replies Kustaa.

The person huddled on the grass is hauled up to their feet by the other. As they come closer, Sokka realises that they’re both middle-aged women, though the one providing support looks a little older, if the white streaked through her hair is any indication.

“Greetings,” calls out Zuko, only a little awkwardly. “Thank you for coming on such short notice. I’m deeply honoured to personally welcome you to the Fire Nation. How was the, er, journey?”

“Gee, how do you think it went, pal?” says the ashen-faced woman, swaying on her feet.

“Kirima,” admonishes the other, “no need to be rude.” She turns to Zuko with a smile, though it doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “I am Healer Ahnah, and this is Healer Kirima. Your gratitude is unnecessary, Fire Lord Zuko. We have come to help one of our own; it is only our duty.”

“After all,” chimes in a voice from behind her, “there’s only so many of us left, after the war. We have to look after our own whenever we can. Even if it means travelling to the nation that caused all our problems in the first place.”

Sokka barely has time to register Zuko growing rigid where he stands before Taktuq is rushing past them all with a whoop.

“Miki!” he yells, scooping up the newcomer. He twirls her around with a laugh before putting her down, then leans in to examine her. “I didn’t know you were coming! What a lovely surprise!”

Miki, who looks closer to Katara’s age than that of the other healers, flashes him a grin. It disappears as soon as she looks over to the rest of them, a scowl taking its place. “I wasn’t particularly planning to, but plans change.”

“And we’re very glad to have you here,” cuts in Kustaa smoothly. He puts forward his arm for Ahnah to grasp, Tribe-style, before his eyes move over the others. “I’m Healer Kustaa, as you’ll remember from our correspondences. I’d like to introduce Ambassador Sokka and Master Katara, fellow tribespeople from the South, as well as Kyoshi Warriors Suki, Ty Lee and Miura.”

“Greetings,” replies Ahnah, and her smile grows more genuine as she looks them over. “Forgive my apprentice for her words. It hasn’t been the easiest of journeys, and she’s not one for air travel.”

“Can you blame her,” mutters Kirima, though thankfully she looks less green than before.

Miki wrinkles her nose at Ahnah, but before she can say anything the last person off the balloon lumbers towards them. Quite possibly the tallest person Sokka has ever seen, he looks to be the same age as Ahnah, though his eyes are a dull green as opposed to the brilliant blue of the women.

“Oh, hello,” he says, coming to a stop in front of Zuko. Idly, he scratches at the back of his head. “Wasn’t expecting the full welcome committee. Say, you the Fire Lord?”

Zuko nods warily.

“Dunno why I thought you’d be…” The man’s eyes narrow, sizing Zuko up and down. Sokka finds himself taking a step closer to Zuko just as Miura does the same.

Then the man’s eyes light up. He reaches out to ruffle Zuko’s hair, whose face seems stuck between polite neutrality and utter bewilderment. “Thought you’d be older! Why, you’re just a kid. Who went and put a crown on you?”

“Sarwar,” sighs Ahnah. “Please.”

“Always been an odd sort, the Fire Nation, eh? Putting children on thrones and whatnot.” Sarwar gives Zuko’s head one final pat before stepping back. He grabs Kustaa’s arm with an easy grin, giving it an enthusiastic shake. “It’s my first time travelling here. Me and Balloony never been this far from home before.”

“Sarwar was the only hot air balloon operator we could find on such short notice,” Ahnah explains. “As stated in our letter, we had to make a small detour from the Earth Kingdom. Our ship was damaged in the storms, so we had to make do.”

Kirima groans, finally standing upright on her own. “Never. Again.”

“I see,” Zuko says, fixing his hair with a nonchalant hand. “You’ll be reimbursed for all travel costs, of course. Please accept my sincerest apologies for any trouble you may have encount—”

“Can we go in now,” interrupts Miki with an exaggerated yawn. She grabs Taktuq by the wrist, who flushes. “ ’m tired.”

Katara smiles thinly. “Of course,” she says, nodding to Taktuq, who tugs Miki along to take her inside.

“Off to a wonderful start, aren’t we?” mutters Suki.

“I’m sorry about her behaviour,” says Ahnah to Zuko, “but we had little choice.” She hesitates. “Despite Yugoda’s insistence, no one else apart from us would agree to come. Though trade has resumed between our nations, the war is still fresh enough in our people’s minds to dissuade them from setting foot in the Fire Nation, if they can help it. Miki was… affected more than others, during the last skirmish in the North.”

“Then why’d she come?” asks Sokka, and is rewarded by Katara stepping on his foot. “Ow!”

From her side, Kirima flashes them a conspiratorial grin, though her eyes remain politely blank. “Personally, I suspect that the chance to see Taktuq swayed her decision. She seems a little sweet on him— that girl’s been moping ever since he volunteered to become Ambassador.”

“Miki is bright, and incredibly intuitive,” says Ahnah, clearly trying to steer the conversation back, “and her assistance will be of invaluable help to us with Ambassador Sokka’s memories, I’m sure.”

“That’s alright,” says Zuko, and though he says it neutrally, there is something in the set of his shoulders, in the way they hunch in on themselves just a little more than before, that tells Sokka exactly how alright Zuko is. “It’s completely understandable. We’re just grateful you could come to help Ambassador Sokka. It was a tall ask, I realise that, and—”

Kustaa lays one hand on Zuko’s shoulder, who silences himself with a clack of his teeth.

“We appreciate the fact that this must not be easy,” Kustaa says. “But I can vouch for Fire Lord Zuko when I say that you will be treated with nothing but the uttermost respect throughout your stay.”

Ahnah says nothing, just looks up at Zuko. Despite her short stature, there is a gravity to the way she stands, a quiet confidence that adds weight to her stance.

Finally, she extends her arm as well as a smile, the latter saturating ever warmer when Zuko clasps the former with practiced ease. “We accept your welcome, Fire Lord Zuko.”

She looks over at Sokka, who tilts his head with the respect that is owed to his elders. “And we vow to do everything in our power to help Ambassador Sokka regain his memories,” she continues.

Sarwar raises a hand, fidgeting where he stands. “This is all very touching, and I’m not trying to be rude, but, er— my bladder’s about to burst. Drank a lot of water on the way, you see. Rookie mistake, I know, but what can you do. Could I get a tree to do my business behind, or…”

“Let’s get you inside,” says Ty Lee hurriedly, ushering Sarwar towards the palace.

“Bushes work fine too!” he calls out as he goes. “Super absorbent!”

 


 

Once the healers (and Sarwar) are shown to their rooms to freshen up before lunch, Sokka turns to head back to his own quarters.

A light brush against his arm stops him. “Sokka?”

Zuko stands in the empty corridor, looking at him with uncertain eyes. “Are you okay?”

“I— me?” asks Sokka with a frown. “I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You seem… on edge, somehow,” Zuko says with slight hesitance, like he’s afraid of overstepping but deciding to do so anyway.

Sokka is oddly touched for a second—he is on edge, damnit, and he’d thought he’d done a better job of hiding it; how is Zuko able to see through him so easily?—before he realises one of the factors contributing to his current stress levels is standing right in front of him.

“I’m great!” he answers in as chirpy a voice he can muster. He takes a few steps backwards, trying to avoid looking at Zuko. “Just— you know. Excited and all, for,” he flaps a hand towards the healers’ rooms, “things to finally get rolling.”

“You don’t have to pretend,” says Zuko quietly, and the shock of this statement halts Sokka in his tracks. He briefly loses control of the expression on his face, and whatever must show on there softens Zuko’s own.

“I mean,” Zuko continues, choosing his words carefully once more, “you— I can tell. Something’s troubling you. You don’t have to talk to me about it if you’re not comfortable—”

“That’s not— Zuko, I’m fine, honestly,” Sokka says, trying to laugh it off. It comes out more awkward than at ease, and he immediately regrets it when he spots Zuko’s face dipping into a frown of its own.

“Just— talk to someone? Somebody once told me that,” here, something briefly twists Zuko’s features before they smooth themselves out again, so fast that Sokka thinks he might have imagined it, “that a problem shared is a problem halved. And they’re one of the smartest people I know, so. Must have some truth to it, right?”

“That’s funny,” Sokka says, “my dad used to say that to me all the time. He’d pull it out whenever he thought I’d messed up and was trying to hide it. Thought he could get me to confess. Someone do the same to you?”

Zuko’s lips quirk at one end. “Something like that,” he says, before a twinge of worry tightens them once more. “Is it your leg?”

“My,” Sokka’s eyebrows scrunch in confusion, before he realises. “My leg! Oh, no, it’s been fine since yesterday.” He tries to grab onto something polite to reply with. “Thanks for asking. Um, how’s your… everything, I guess?”

“My ‘everything’ is a lot better today.” Now Zuko is smiling fully at him, something fond crossing his face. It makes Sokka’s stomach lurch. Hey, maybe he’s just hungry? “After I got back from the garden, I don’t remember anything from the moment my head hit the pillows. Definitely got the rest I needed. But this isn’t about me. Sokka—”

He pauses, a little furrow appearing on his forehead. Sokka’s fingertips itch with the need to reach out and smooth it back into flatness. Maybe run his thumb over that expanse of skin until he reaches the edge of the scar. Trace it. What would it feel like, he wonders distantly. Rough and textured? Like Zuko himself, an odd blend of softness and jagged edges, maybe, and— whoa. Where had that thought come from?

“The other day,” says Zuko, not quite meeting Sokka’s eyes, which is good because Sokka can’t do the same for some fucking reason, “in the council chambers. What you said. I’ve been thinking about it.”

Sokka fights back the urge to groan. “You know I didn’t mean it, man,” he says, “I know I was out of line, I—”

“No. You weren’t.”

Sokka turns to him sharply. “What do you mean?”

Zuko sighs, rubbing a hand over the bridge of his nose. “I mean, while I— while we’ve all been hoping that the healers will be able to fix whatever went wrong with your memories, I have to admit I’ve been somewhat… in denial, about this whole situation,” he says, sounding more than a little rueful. “I’ve been told I have a bad habit of sticking my head in the sand when it comes to things I have difficulty dealing with. I guess it’s easier to ignore the truth if you don’t look at it head-on.”

His gaze finally catches Sokka’s, and Sokka feels a little cold at the bleak acceptance he finds there. “I think I’m ready to start looking,” he says softly.

“Zuko,” says Sokka, but Zuko just shakes his head.

“Know that, regardless of how it goes with the healers— I don’t consider you any less for what you’ve lost, or who you are now. I should have been clearer about that earlier.” And the smile Zuko gives him is full of something Sokka can’t quite interpret. “You will always be enough.”

It’s the second time in just as many minutes that Sokka feels rocked to his core. His feet nearly drag him back, to put some distance between him and this uncanny ability of Zuko’s to pinpoint exactly what’s been needling at Sokka. How does he know?

But before he can do anything other than gape at Zuko, feeling just on the wrong side of breathless, there is the sound of something small crashing to the floor nearby, followed by muffled curses.

Zuko’s eyebrow shoots up. “What was that?”

He starts moving towards the source of the noise, breaking Sokka out of his stupor.

Grabbing Zuko by the arm, Sokka jerks him back and pushes him into the wall. “Are you crazy?” he hisses, crowding Zuko in. “Have you forgotten the part where literal assassins have been threatening your life? Why would you willingly go to where the suspicious noises are coming from, Sifu Deathwish?”

“Hey! Miura was right around the…” The protest trails off into nothing.

Zuko gazes up at him with depthless pools of molten gold. The sconces around them flare a little brighter, their reflection lambent in his eyes, and Sokka realises far too late how close they are: breaths mingling; one hand on the wall next to Zuko’s head, the other splayed on his chest; the fluttering thumps of Zuko’s beetle-hummingbird's heartbeat against Sokka’s palm, fast and unsteady.

And Sokka can’t— he can’t help it when his eyes fall to Zuko’s lips, at the swipe of his tongue as it wets the soft pink of them, a nervous gesture that strikes spark rocks behind Sokka’s ribs.

The space between them smells of fire lilies.

“Sokka,” breathes Zuko. His heart kicks up a notch under Sokka’s hand, and Sokka finds himself leaning in to— to hear him better, to catch the words escaping his mouth (his name on Zuko’s tongue— has it always sounded this way? Like fingers over the richest velvet?), to close the distance between them and—

There is a larger, more deafening crashing sound, and Sokka recoils with a yelp. He flails for a second before gravity stakes its claim and drags him ass-backwards onto the ground.

If butts have bones, his definitely feel at least a little broken.

A booming female voice shakes Sokka out of his pained daze. “What’s going on here?”

Saaya comes around the corner, hastily wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. She looks between Sokka, flopped on the floor with his limbs akimbo, and Zuko, who stands with his back pressed so tight to the wall that it looks like he’s trying to convince it to absorb him whole.

Both her eyebrows rise, one after the other. “My Lord? Ambassador? Everything alright?”

“Yep,” says Zuko, sounding extremely strangled.

“Absolutely peachy,” grinds out Sokka from the ground. Saaya reaches out one hand and hauls him to his feet without so much as breathing harder, catching him as he stumbles.

“My ass,” he moans, rubbing at the tender meat of it.

Saaya wrinkles her nose. “I don’t want to hear about whatever you two were doing.”

Zuko starts coughing, hard.

“What? No,” gawps Sokka, trying not to choke on his spit. His hopes his face isn’t as red as he feels it to be. “I literally fell two seconds before you got here. There is no way that you could interpret this as anything other than—”

“Saaya?” calls out another voice, and the three of them swivel to see Miura walking towards them, adjusting her headdress as she comes. The white of her face-paint has been smudged to pink around her mouth.

Between the throbbing of his buttcheeks and the confused jumble of thoughts still revolving around Zuko’s lips, it takes an additional two seconds for Sokka to connect the very obvious, low-hanging dots.

“You,” he splutters, pointing to Saaya, then turns his accusing finger towards an unimpressed Miura, “and you?”

“Got a problem with that?” Miura says, just as Saaya guffaws and says, “Us, what? We were just—examining the walls. For spies.”

They break off and stare at each other. A silent conversation takes place between them, filled with subtle flicks of eyebrows and a few blinks, before Saaya turns back to Sokka with a shrug to casually proclaim, “Yeah, we fuckin’.”

Saaya,” Miura chokes out, burying her face in both hands.

The bottom of Zuko’s jaw unhinges itself from the top. Sokka’s isn’t far behind.

“Wait, is that not what you meant?” asks Saaya. “I thought that’s what your face was telling me to say.”

“Not. Exactly in those terms.”

“… Oops?”

Through the gaps between her fingers, Miura mumbles, “If you both disappear within the next ten seconds, we can all pretend nothing ever happened here. One.”

Sokka silently rips his hand out of Saaya’s grasp, waddling away from the scene as fast as his achy-breaky butt allows.

(He tries to ignore the heatless burn of a gaze trained at the back of his head as he goes.)

 


 

Lunch is an understandably awkward affair.

For one, Zuko won’t even look at him.

He, Kustaa and Ahnah remain engaged in polite conversation for the majority of it, while Taktuq bats his eyelids at a coy Miki sitting next to him. Katara manages to find some common ground with Kirima (apparently, while stuck waiting for the storms to abate, the healers had whiled away the time at Earth Rumble tournaments; Kirima raves at length about the size of The Boulder’s boulders while Katara nods along agreeably, eyes slightly glazed), while Ty Lee and Suki sit shoulder to shoulder, feeding each other a morsel here and there. At one point Katara pokes Sokka in the ribs and points towards the two with a wink, whispering, “Just girls being girls, huh?”

Sokka, who at that moment is attempting to swallow some sea prunes, abruptly remembers Saaya’s declaration about another pair of “girls being girls” from a mere hour ago. This has the effect of sending the prunes down the wrong pipe, and all conversation halts for an excruciating few moments as Sokka gets vigorously thumped on the back by Suki until he hacks them back up.

Now his back hurts as well as his ass. Sokka briefly wonders if the healers would be amenable to giving him a full-body healing bath at some point. Maybe do him a bigger mercy and drown him, actually.

“Everything seems so much more exciting in the Fire Nation,” remarks Miki in the silent aftermath, taking dainty sips of her own seaweed stew. “Lunch and a show.”

“Glad you found that entertaining,” croaks out Sokka. Everyone hastily turns back to their food.

Conversation resumes around him, but when Sokka looks up from wiping his mouth with a napkin, he catches Zuko watching him with concern, who quickly turns back to Kustaa when he realises he’s been caught. The sun shines bright through the window behind him, glinting off his crown. Sokka blames the sunlight for almost making it hurt to look at him for too long.

A funny sort of twisting feeling makes Sokka’s insides squirm; he grinds down on a sea prune with renewed vengeance, crushing them between his molars as revenge against their brethren who dared choke him.

“Want some more pickled fish, Miki?” Taktuq drags the dish closer to her for easier access. “Don’t they taste just like the sort we’d have at home?”

“They’re alright,” says Miki a little begrudgingly. Then her face lights up. “Hey, do you remember the time when—”

“With the pickled fish and the turtle-seal? Yeah! Oh, man, it was so funny when the—”

“La, the way she grabbed the fish out of its mouth and hurled it to you—”

“I didn’t mean to fall over when it started chasing me! That stupid ice patch—”

“Remember what she said?”

They both crack up, ending with a simultaneously wheezed out, “’There’s a fish in your sound hole!’

Miki wipes at her eyes, the last of her giggles dying away. It leaves her face softened, though a touch mournful. “I miss her,” she says, muted all of a sudden.

Taktuq grows uncharacteristically sombre, hand reaching out to grip Miki’s forearm. “Me too.”

At Katara’s questioning look, he shrugs. His face is more withdrawn than Sokka ever remembers it being. “Our friend. Her name was Yue.”

Sokka’s spoon clatters into his bowl. “You— you knew Yue?”

The rest of the table goes quiet around them.

Miki picks at her fish, gaze distant. “She was my best friend,” she says, then looks over at Taktuq. “Our best friend. We all grew up together.”

“Taktuq, I never knew,” says Katara, looking shocked.

Taktuq’s jaw clenches. “I don’t like to talk about her,” he says, turning his face away.

“Princess Yue’s loss was felt keenly by most members of the Tribe,” says Ahnah, bittersweet nostalgia tingeing her tone. “She was a well-loved figure in our community.”

“She always had a smile ready for everyone, that girl,” adds Kirima. In this light, she looks older than she did earlier; sorrow deepens the lines of her face. “Finding her without one was as rare as finding stars on a stormy night.”

Ahnah lays one hand over Kirima’s. “Her kindness knew no bounds. She had so much love to give.”

“And give she did,” says Miki. Her fingers clench against her bowl. “All she did was give. It wasn’t fair.”

“No, it wasn’t.” Sokka’s voice rings hoarse across the room. Miki twists to look at him, eyebrows furrowed. “She deserved so much more than what she got in return.”

“I forget that you were there, that night,” says Ahnah after a moment. Under her perceptive gaze, Sokka struggles not to shrink away. “Though I thought you’d forgotten that. Your memories—”

“She’s unforgettable,” Sokka says dully. He hears someone take in a sharp breath from his left, but he can’t quite find it in himself to drag his eyes away from the table. “I remember everything about her.”

But she’s the one I wish I’d lost from my memories. How often has he caught himself thinking that, lying in his quarters in the dead of night, with nothing but the moonlight and his guilt for company?

Katara wraps her fingers around Sokka’s wrist, her touch both comforting and grounding. “We only knew her for a few days,” she tells Ahnah, “but in that time, she still managed to touch our lives irrevocably.”

Ahnah’s eyes soften, then soften some more at whatever expression must be on his face. “We’ve all had half a decade to get used to her absence,” she says, “but to you, Ambassador Sokka, it must feel so recent.”

“It helps that I don’t really think of her as gone,” he replies, turning to look out the window. Daylight streams in, cheerful and bright, but as always, he finds himself wishing for the night.

A faint smile ghosts Miki’s face. “I feel her presence, too,” she says. “When I look up at the moon.”

“I wish I’d had the chance to get to know her better,” he tells her, and watches that smile bloom brighter across her face.

“I have so many stories of her that I could tell you,” she says excitedly, “like that one time when me, her and Taktuq got lost in the fish markets—”

Taktuq, who still has his hand on her forearm, jerks it away abruptly. Grief crosses his face, sudden and severe, before it disappears somewhere behind a blank mask. He mutters a quick, “Excuse me,” before unfolding himself from his position on the floor. They all watch him leave with his hands clenched at his sides.

“Some other time,” Miki tells Sokka, shoulders drooping.

“I don’t think he ever really got over her loss,” Ahnah tells them quietly. Her mouth curls in apology. “Childhood friends rarely make for easily forgettable memories. And those two were closer than most.”

Zuko clears his throat. “I never personally got a chance to speak to Princess Yue properly,” he says, “but my Uncle told me of her bravery at the Spirit Oasis. Her sacrifice is one that saved not just the tribes, but the whole world. We all owe her a great debt.”

“Forgive me, Fire Lord,” says Kirima, the sharp edge of her words cutting through the politeness of his, “but she wouldn’t have had to be brave if the Fire Nation hadn’t set foot in the North in the first place.”

Zuko blanches, freezing in place.

The atmosphere in the room drops a few degrees, raising goosebumps over Sokka’s arms.

Ahnah’s lips flatten. “Now is not the place, nor the time—”

Kirima holds up one hand. “We know that you were not personally responsible for the events that lead to Yue’s sacrifice,” she says to Zuko, “and we do appreciate your kind words, pretty platitudes that they may be.”

“Kirima,” Ahnah says sharply, “enough—”

“I practically raised her,” Kirima snarls, eyes blazing and wet and so very icy, all at the same time. “I was the one she’d come to when she needed a mother’s touch, after her own left this world. I was the one who taught her the ways of our people. That must give me some right to air my grievances.”

The air swims muggy and thick, crackling with tension. Sokka exchanges a helpless glance with Katara, who looks just as stunned as him at this turn of events. Ty Lee, Suki and Miki sit still as carved marble.

Kustaa has his eyes closed, turned away from the scene, though one hand comes to land gently on Zuko’s knee.

“Zhao’s actions and motives cannot be contributed to you,” says Kirima after a few moments. Though her voice is steadier, her trembling lips betray the force of her grief as she stares Zuko down. “And I acknowledge that you were nothing more than a child with misguided notions of honour at the time. But it was your act of stealing away Avatar Aang that led to the Oasis being left defenceless, allowing that— that murderer to do what he did. And it is the system of oppression that led him to feel entitled in doing so— the same system that you continue to benefit from, even now, as we sit here in the palace funded by the tyranny of your forefathers.”

Zuko remains wordless. Just continues to meet her gaze head-on, unflinching. But from where he’s sitting, Sokka can read his emotions in the way his fingernails dig into his leg, in the forced blankness of his face, in the air of contrition that rises in waves around him, so visceral that Sokka can almost taste it from here.

“So, forgive me if I say that your words provide little solace to the ache that fills me whenever I look up at night, to see the price of what Yue paid with her spirit. That which benefits you, too, along with your people.” Kirima finally looks away, pushing her bowl across the table. “Perhaps your silence at this time would have proven more valuable to us. Do not speak to me of bravery— you haven’t earned that particular right, just yet.”

Sokka’s stomach roils. Objectively, he knows this— he knows Zuko wasn’t entirely blameless when it came to that night. Knows that his actions contributed to the chaos, leaving their defences spread thin. Knows that there is a chance Yue might have lived, if not for—

But the anguished guilt in Zuko’s eyes speaks volumes, even if his mouth does not. And Sokka is tired, all of a sudden, of thinking about what-if’s. They won’t bring her back.

Katara leans forward in the heavy silence. “Healer Kirima,” she says. “I understand your pain; believe me, I do. Me and Sokka, we lost our mother in a raid, and it’s a loss that shaped us and continues to do so to this very day. But you have to know, Zuko was only trying to—”

“Katara,” says Zuko. Just her name. And Katara throws him a pleading glance, but all he does is shake his head.

He turns to Kirima again. Stands up, pulling his crown free from his hair, then bows low, lower than what Sokka understands his station would ever demand. His hands fold on themselves in the sign of the flame, the prongs of his headpiece glinting like fire in his fist.

Kirima’s eyes widen, ever so slightly.

“I am very aware of the devastation my nation has wreaked upon yours,” Zuko starts. “I am not asking for forgiveness on their behalf. That would only ring hollow; words cannot erase the loss you have suffered. While reparations may go a little further in easing the suffering of your people, no amount of money can bring back those who are gone. This, I am painfully aware of. And as we sit here, as you said, in the palace built by my forefathers— the very same who had a hand in starting and stoking this war— I realise the place of privilege I speak from.”

He rises slowly from his bow. Sinks back to his seat, though his back remains rigid as steel one could cut themselves on. “I cannot take back any of the atrocities that were committed upon your people by mine, no matter how much I may wish otherwise. But what I can do is ensure our future actions reflect the repentance that weighs heavy upon us, that pushes me to atone for the multitude of sins committed on my family’s behalf. It is no small undertaking, and I realise this. Only five years have passed since the end of the war. Healing has barely begun. All I hope to do at this point in time is to prove myself different to the legacy that precedes me, and to show my willingness to do whatever it takes to make amends— no matter the cost.”

Sokka’s heart clenches at the guilt that finally breaks through the carefully controlled neutrality of his tone, as Zuko’s eyes drop to the ground, his knuckles white around the gilded metal. “And while I cannot speak for the past actions of my people, know that I will regret mine— the ones that contributed to the loss of Princess Yue, and the ones that caused harm to others in the name of the same misguided honour you spoke of— for life. Going forward, all I wish for is peace, and my title is nothing but a means to achieve that. That is the legacy for which I hope to pave the way, for both my people and yours; not in the name of obligation, but of true honour.”

He stops, then, and seems to stop breathing as well, like the wind-up dolls Sokka had seen in Ba Sing Se finally running out of energy. The speech has cost him; he’s gone wan, his scar standing out stark against his face— an ever-present reminder of fire’s destructive power, branding the ruler of a nation defined by its flames. ‘Ironic’ doesn’t quite seem to cut it.

(And Sokka finds himself wondering, not for the first time, what it would have taken to leave such a mark on a firebender’s skin. He wonders what price Zuko has already paid.)

Kirima’s lips remain pursed for a moment more. Then she sighs, running a hand over her braids in an exhausted fashion.

She gathers herself together before standing, turning her eyes to Sokka, who represses a flinch at the sudden, full force of her attention.

“I will see you in the afternoon for the healing session, Ambassador Sokka. Until then.”

But before she goes, she turns one final time to Zuko. Waits until his mismatched eyes meet hers before nodding to him just once, a curt movement. Zuko’s whole body slumps imperceptibly, easing the tightly strung tension of it. He breathes out, deep, before righting himself once more to nod back.

In the wake of Kirima’s departure, the very air seems to exhale around the room’s occupants. Ahnah, who had sat quietly observing the scene these last tense minutes, also stands up to leave. “Please accept our humblest gratitude for this lunch,” she says to Zuko. Miki comes in tow, shooting an indiscernible glance at Zuko as she ducks behind Ahnah. “And for allowing Kirima to speak her mind, blunt as her words may have been.”

“It’s the least I could do,” answers Zuko, painfully honest as always. His crown lies on the table, abandoned for now. Sokka thinks he looks all that much lighter for its absence.

He wants to reach out, wants to say something to Zuko, but the whiplash of this conversation has left him feeling staggered; he doesn’t quite trust what will leave his mouth if he opens it, just now.

As they reach the doors, Ahnah turns around once more. “You reminded me a little of someone else, just then,” she says, tone musing. “Someone who wasn’t afraid to take responsibility of burdens they were never meant to bear, who carried the entire future of their people on their shoulders with determination and poise. A child born in the midst of a war they had no hand in crafting, yet who was still compelled by an unabating sense of duty to aid its resolution.”

This time, Zuko truly looks lost for words. “I— I'm sorry, I don’t know who you mean.”

Next to him, Sokka hears Katara’s breath catch. And somehow, he too already knows the answer.

Maybe that’s why he suddenly can’t tear his eyes away from where Zuko sits regal and resplendent, haloed by the sun.

The smile Ahnah levels at him from the doorway is mingled with equal parts sorrow and warmth. “Why, Yue, of course.”

Chapter Text

“Everything?” 

“Everything,” confirms Ahnah, while Miki hides a smirk behind her palm.

Sokka looks down at his clothes. Looks up at the four sets of female eyes watching him. Looks down at his clothes again, this time with a renewed sense of desperation.

“When you say ‘everything’, do you mean—”

“Birthday suit,” says Kirima curtly. Her mood seems to have improved marginally in the hours following lunch, in that there isn’t the imminent threat of frost forming around every surface in her vicinity anymore. “Quickly, now, we haven’t got all day.”

Sokka gulps.

They’re gathered in the royal family baths, a spacious area located deep in the bowels of the palace. It’s more than a little ostentatious, but it definitely fits the bill of what the healers had asked for: a large, contained body of water that could be enough to submerge Sokka from head to toe, with room to spare for them to move around.

“No one’s going to sneak a peek, Sokka,” says Katara. She’s lounging on a nearby bench, looking wholly unbothered at the way Sokka glares at her.

Miki snorts. “No one’s going to want to.”

“Doubtful,” mutters Sokka, only for Katara to swat him with a towel.

“Doesn’t your neck ever ache from holding up that fat, ego-stuffed head of yours?”

“How about this,” says Ahnah before Sokka can rip the towel out of his sister’s hand and strangle her with it, “we’ll all close our eyes until you get in the water. Alright?”

Sokka grumbles for a few more moments, even as his hands start reaching for the sash around his waist.

“Wait,” says Miki.

Sokka sighs in relief, dropping his hands. “Thank La, I knew this all seemed wildly unnecessary for healing just my head—”

“Um. No.” Miki thrusts a steaming cup of something dark and odious-smelling into his hands. “I just forgot to give you this first. Drink up, then get naked.”

Sokka stares at her for a second. She doesn’t blink.

He sighs, then knocks back the tea. It has the same herbal bitterness as the tea he’d brewed himself the day before, and his mouth scrunches automatically. “Bleugh. Gross.”

“You said your brother’s regressed to the mental age of fifteen,” Miki says to Katara with a wry twist of her mouth. “I didn’t know you meant fifteen months as opposed to years.”

The pout that automatically forms on his face probably isn’t helping matters. “Gotta say, I’m really not a fan of the gentle bullying thing everyone’s got going on here,” he says. “I’m the patient. Aren’t you all, like, ethically required to be nice to me?”

“Strip,” says Kirima.

“Yes, ma’am,” says Sokka, hurrying to obey.

As promised, all women turn to face the wall as the pile of clothing next to him gets larger. Finally, he reaches for his bone choker.

“You can leave that on, if you want,” says Kirima.

“Okay, that’s— wait, you. How did you know what I was—”

“Just get in the tub, Ambassador,” sighs Ahnah as Sokka tries to valiantly cover his crown jewels with both hands, cheeks burning. Face cheeks, not— Spirits, the stress of the last few days really seems to be taking its toll on him.

“I’m so deeply uncomfortable right now, I hope you all know that,” he hisses as he pushes himself into the water.

The bath itself is a wide rectangle cut into the floor, deep enough that Sokka’s feet don’t reach the tiles below even when he’s fully submerged. He pushes away from the edge to float around in the water for a bit, allowing himself a moment of tranquillity as he lets the ripples settle around him.

It’s not as warm as he expected it to be— the water is a comfortable heat, close enough to his body temperature that he barely feels it lap at his shoulders.

“Safe for us to turn around?” calls out Kirima. “Or are you still at risk of spontaneously combusting if we catch a glimpse of your bashful manhood?”

“Why do you have to phrase it like that?” asks Sokka despairingly. “Yeah, I’m— you can turn around now.”

“Nothing we haven’t seen before,” says Ahnah, tone light, as she comes close to the bath.

“Well, I’m sorry for wanting mine to stay unseen—”

“Shall we get started?” Katara asks over Sokka’s indignant spluttering.

The mood shifts in a subtle wave as all four women gather around each edge of the bath, settling the air into something heavier.

“Now, Ambassador Sokka— a word of warning before we start.” Ahnah looks down at him with sombre eyes. “While Kirima and I have trained for decades in the art of water healing, even we can only do so much when it comes to repairing injuries of the internal kind.”

Sokka nods, chin dipping into the water. “I know. Kustaa said something similar a few days ago.”

“You have to understand, this is uncharted territory for us. We’ve never quite seen a case like yours before,” adds Kirima, “and so we can only guess at the associated risks with what we’re about to do. Everything is very experimental.”

Her expression grows more severe if that were even possible. “Then there’s another matter to contend with— injuries to the brain should ideally be worked on as soon as they occur. As it’s been nearly a month since your injury occurred, that might complicate things further.”

The water suddenly feels a lot colder around him. “But,” he says, trying to speak around the sudden dryness of his throat, “Katara tried healing me when she first got here. That must have made some difference, right?”

Ahnah exchanges a glance with Kirima, then hums. “You might be right,” Ahnah says, voice a lot gentler than before. “All we ask is that you keep your hopes adjusted accordingly. Now, Ambassador Sokka—”

“Just Sokka, please,” he says. “I think we should be allowed to drop the formalities when one of us is naked.”

The sound of Katara slapping her forehead in exasperation reverberates throughout the room.

“Sokka,” Ahnah continues without missing a beat, “while the herbal tea provides a good foundation with which to tether your emotional self with, you must do the majority of the work when it comes to your mental self. When you submerge yourself in the water, try to imagine a light at the end of a tunnel. As you reach for it, you must leave all your other thoughts by the wayside, until the light is all you can focus on. You might start seeing things, hearing things, that you feel like you’ve never seen before. If you do, then know that this is a good sign; these will be your memories coming back to you. But it is imperative that you must not go chasing after them.”

He frowns. “Why not? Isn’t it a good thing, if I start remembering?”

“Think of it this way: you want to cast as wide a net as possible, instead of throwing a singular hook. Latch onto any one memory, and you’re at risk of losing the others in the process— not permanently, but it might cause unknown complications. To catch and absorb as many memories as possible, you must ignore their presence by emptying your mind and focusing on the light. Maintain this mental state throughout the process, or until we bring you back up. Does that sound alright?”

“I don’t think Sokka will have too much of an issue with emptying his mind,” says Katara. “Not much rolling around up there on a good day.”

Sokka shoots her a half-hearted glare, but it does the trick; he feels more relaxed for the quip. From Katara’s small smile, she knows it too. “Yeah, I think I can do that,” he says. How hard can it be, right?

Kirima sinks to her knees at her edge, and the other three follow suit. She lowers her hands into the water. “Whenever you’re ready, Sokka.”

Sokka takes a deep breath before closing his eyes. Tries to picture a beacon of light, shining bright in the distance even as darkness surrounds it.

He lets himself sink.

For a few moments, nothing happens. His body floats in place, limbs weightless. He feels more than hears the thud-thud of his heart in his ears, the sound muffled by the press of the water.

Then, the water begins to glow around him, pressing against his eyelids and pushing through to the back of his skull, sharp and blinding.

Tunnel. Light. He tries to keep his thoughts focused, streamlined. Light at the end of the tunnel. Reach for the light.  

Bright light from the sun. Sunlight. Golden sunlight. Golden eyes.

No, no. Focus.

Tunnel. Light. Reaching, reaching— his hand reaching out for the light.

(running appa temple rubble plans balloon lake metal boiling guards dad island sand sea ships—)

Images flash through his head, too fast to catch. There is a bright flare of joy within his chest—he’s remembering!— before he remembers what Ahnah told him to do.   

Right. Tunnel with light. Reach for it. Hand out, reaching for sunlight. The touch of it dappled golden and soft on his skin. Warm sunlight (warm touch warm hands warm lips—)

Wait. What was that?

Warm sunlight. Warm and golden (warm hands pale skin gold eyes dark hair blue necklace red sheets red balloons red sky red blood red—)

Stop, go back—

(red sky grey smoke coughing fighting falling screaming hand in his boomerang gone hold on toph hold on hold on—)

He tries to wrench his thoughts back on track, but it’s too late; they scatter, latching onto the sensations bombarding his mind, and he feels himself come unmoored, pulled every which way.

(red clothes red lips red helmets gold eyes black snow burning smoke mom gone katara screaming suki falling toph hold on don’t let go smoke kindled fire ablaze ashes ashes ashes—)

And then comes the pain.

The agony spikes through his head, flinging thorns against every inch of the inside of his skull. He forgets to concentrate, forgets to do anything he’s supposed to. Begins to thrash, his mouth opening in a cry that bubbles away from his mouth along with his breath. Water rushes to take its place.

The light disappears from around him, plunging him into darkness.

He flounders for a few long seconds before he’s caught in a large wave and flung like a ragdoll over the side of the bath, right onto cold tiles. The impact jars water from his lungs but also the last of his breath. He lies there curled and retching and trying to remember a time before everything hurt.

“Sokka!” A large sheet of something is thrown over his body, and he opens his eyes to find Katara looming over him, face drawn and worried.

“S-Sorry,” he gasps, shivers wracking his frame, but she shushes him immediately.

“It’s okay, just breathe,” she says. Her hands are warm on his face, pushing back wet hair from where it’s plastered to his cheeks.

“That was… unexpected,” comes Ahnah’s voice from a distance away.

You think? Sokka wants to say, but he doesn’t have the energy to do so. All he can do is lie there in a graceless heap, mouth gaping open and shut like a fish out of water.

“Was it? I’m personally not surprised that we had to abort the session,” says Kirima, frowning. “Do you remember anything new?”

Sokka gathers the last of his reserves to shake his head. Everything he saw was ripped away from him as soon as he left the water.

Kirima tuts. “Of course you didn’t. You began chasing the memories, didn’t you? Your thoughts felt scattered all over the place.” She turns to Ahnah, disapproval clear over her face. “He needs to learn how to control them better, otherwise this will never work.”

“Hush, Kirima,” says Ahnah, as Sokka burrows further under the sheet, shame dripping off him along with the water. “You know as well as I that it’s not so easy to corral one’s thoughts, especially if they’ve had little practice at it.” She pauses. “Did you also feel the…”

“Yes,” says Kirima grimly.

“Well.”

Katara looks between the two of them. “Feel the what?”

“One problem at a time.” Ahnah wipes a tired hand over her face. “Sokka, while you need to practice clearing your thoughts for a little longer before we try again, try again we will. Do not lose hope just yet.”

“Try, and pray for better results,” adds Miki.

“Isn’t it ‘hope for better results’?” croaks out Sokka, coughing the last bit of water still trapped somewhere in his lungs.

“I have a feeling you’re going to need divine intervention,” she says a little regretfully.

Sokka groans, slumping against the tiles. “Great.”

Katara waves her hand, and the last of the water flies off his body from under the sheet, leaving him dry. Her brow furrows in thought. “Controlling your mind— like meditation, right?”

Ahnah comes over, a faint look of concern in her eyes as she examines Sokka. “Indeed. Is there any way you could teach him the basics of the technique? Just enough to help him rein in his thoughts?”

“Not me,” Katara says, turning back to Sokka with an inscrutable look. “But I know someone who’s good at meditation. Has to be, considering all the practice he’s probably had at it.”

She pats Sokka’s head ruefully. “You’re not going to like this,” she tells him.

 


 

“I don’t like this at all,” he hisses, as Katara drags his (thankfully clothed) body through the palace.

“Look,” she says, pausing in the middle of a corridor. “Do you want your memories back or not?”

Sokka mumbles under his breath.

“What’s that?” Katara cups her hand over her ear. “I don’t speak ‘stubborn dumbass’.”

“Yes,” he repeats, louder this time. His voice is close to a whine. “But, Katara—”

“No buts,” she says, cinching her hand over his wrist again.

“You’re a butt,” he mutters.

Katara turns back with a retort ready on her lips when someone turns the corner from the opposite direction, sending her flying into Sokka.

“Master Katara!” Taktuq grabs at them both before they can topple to the ground. “I am so sorry, I didn’t see you there! You’re just so—”

Sokka makes a frantic swiping motion across his neck.

“—tiny,” Taktuq finishes, completely missing the way Katara’s eyebrows begin dipping downwards. “So easy to miss!”

Sokka discreetly pushes down Katara’s hand from where its automatically lunging for her waterskin.

“Well,” Taktuq says obliviously, trying to edge past them, “nice ‘bumping’ into you anyway, haha. I’ll see you both around.”

“Wait.” Sokka steps in his path. He frowns at the bags under Taktuq’s eyes, at the way his smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “Taktuq,” he says quietly, “are you alright?”

“Who? Me?” Taktuq laughs again, but this time Sokka hears the strain in it. “Why wouldn’t I be? Just in a bit of a hurry, though, gotta go do this thing, ambassador stuff, you know how it is—”

“Hey, man, it’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it,” says Sokka. He hesitates, then reaches out for Taktuq’s shoulder. It’s stiff under his hand. “She meant a lot to me too. I get it.”

The glimmer of grief in Taktuq’s eyes, hidden behind forced levity, is as familiar to Sokka as looking in the mirror. But there’s something else there, too, that Sokka doesn’t get a chance to identify before Taktuq turns his head away.

Taktuq’s throat bobs as he swallows. “Thank you,” he says finally, no trace of humour in his voice.

“We’re here for you, Taktuq,” says Katara, her mouth softened with a sad smile. “Loss is never easy to contend with, especially alone. You might be from the North, but know that we consider you family all the same.”

Taktuq nods jerkily. “That means a lot. I have trouble, sometimes, with… talking. About. Feelings, you know? Never really did it, much, back home. We— the men, I mean— we were supposed to be strong, all the time. I— when I think about her,” here, his breathing goes a little shaky, “I don’t feel so strong anymore.”

“Oh, Taktuq.” Katara pulls him into a hug. “I’m so sorry. You don’t have to be strong around us. You can just be you.”

Taktuq’s face contorts briefly behind Katara’s back. “Thank you,” he says again, choked with emotion. “Means a lot.” He pulls back, clears his throat. “Um, I do really have to go, though. Ambassador Chengueng says I’m not allowed to doodle in council meetings anymore—which, first of all, they’re not doodles, they’re pictorial illustrations of the meetings’ crucial highlights, duh— so I’m going to go sort it out.”

“Good luck talking to that brick wall,” says Sokka.

“Talk?” Taktuq blinks at him. “Oh, no. I’m not gonna talk to him. I’m going to break into his quarters and put mouldy fish oil in his shoes.”

Sokka nods sagely. “Well I, personally, think that’s a fin-tastic idea.”

Katara groans. “Taktuq, while I don’t disagree, maybe breaking and entering as an ambassador isn’t the best of ideas.”

“Don’t worry, Master Katara,” says Taktuq with what he clearly attempts to be a devious grin, but which looks more like a sabre-tooth-moose-lion baby asking for treats. “I can be very sneaky when I want to be.”

He blinks at them with exaggerated force.

“What are you doing,” asks Sokka.

“I’m winking,” says Taktuq, and blinks with both eyes again.

Katara pats him on the back. “Good job.”

“Thanks,” says Taktuq. “I’ve been practicing. Anyway, I’m hoping the fish oil keeps Ambassador Chengueng’s nose occupied enough that he doesn’t have time to stick it into anyone else’s business.”

“Yeah, he bait-er not,” says Katara with a sly wink, nudging Sokka with her elbow. “Huh? Huh?”

“Six out of ten,” says Sokka. “Delivery was slightly off.”

“You’re just jealous.”

“Why would I be jealous of mediocracy?”

“Next time you’re in the water with the healers, I’m going to let you drown like you deserve to.”

“Oh!” says Taktuq. “That reminds me— Ambassador Sokka, you had the session with the healers today, right? How’d it go?”

“Not… great,” says Sokka. “Bleugh, my mouth still tastes off from the tea they gave me.”

“Hmm.” Taktuq looks at him consideringly, before his eyes light up. “Want a snack to get rid of the taste?”

He rummages around his pockets, coming up with a vial filled with a murky yellow liquid. “Oops, think all I’ve got on me right now is the fish oil.” He brings it close to one eye. “Probably tastes better than it smells.”

“I’m good,” says Sokka hastily.

“Don’t be so koi, Sokka, try a little,” says Katara.

“I genuinely wish I was an only child.”

“I always wanted a sibling,” says Taktuq, the pun flying over his head and missing him by a wide mile. “It’s just not as fun playing hide-and-seek with a polar-bear dog. They always win, somehow.”

Katara shoots Sokka a look that says, you ever wonder who dropped him as a child?

Sokka’s shrug replies, beats me. He thinks for a second, shrugs again: they probably dropped him a couple times, considering how thick his skull looks.

“Best of luck with the memories thing!” Taktuq waves at them both, his steps a lot lighter as he passes them by. “Hope they come back soon!”

“Well, that went swimmingly,” says Katara when he’s gone.

Sokka represses the urge to smack his head into the wall. “I promise to never make another pun in my whole entire life if you stop right now.”

“You started it.”

“If you don’t end it, I’ll end myself.”

Katara bats her eyelids. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

She grabs his arm again, which heralds the continuation of his dragging to a familiar set of doors, guarded by a figure who begins shifting on her feet as soon as she spots them. Of all the people to be on duty right now—

“Master Katara, Ambassador Sokka,” says Saaya. She breathes out a little huff of air. “Hey.”

“Hey,” he repeats back, dragging out the word. They both try very hard not to meet each other’s eyes.

Katara looks away from frowning at Sokka to frown at Saaya. “… You’re both being weird. Why are you both being weird?”

“Not being weird,” they say in unison. Sokka winces. Saaya scratches at her ear sheepishly.

Katara stares at Sokka for a few judgemental moments. Then she throws up her hands in exasperation. “You know what, there’s only so many odd interactions I can handle in a day. Let us through, Saaya, if you would. We need to speak to him.”

Saaya pushes open the door without protest. “My Lord,” she calls out, “it’s You Know Who.”

There’s a distant crashing sound from inside, like a stack of something falling to the floor.

“La help us,” mutters Katara as Sokka follows her through. “Idiots, idiots everywhere.”

 


 

“So,” starts Sokka, the tree bark rough against his back.

“So,” says Zuko, sitting ramrod straight on the ground. The early morning sun is peeking through the clouds, catching the dew on the grass and making it twinkle like tiny diamonds scattered in the green.

For the record, Sokka still doesn’t like this very much. Mandated morning meditation at the ass-crack of dawn with Zuko seemed like a bad idea on paper, but in theory it’s so much worse. If it hadn’t been for Katara glaring them both down in Zuko’s office, Sokka knows he’d have never agreed.

As it is, he keeps trying to blink away the tears watering his eyes from continuously suppressing yawns, while also sneaking peeks at Zuko, while also making it look like he’s decidedly not sneaking peeks at Zuko— which, altogether, are tricky tasks on their own and monumentally difficult when combined.

In his defence, Zuko looks like a particularly lovely, if somewhat constipated, statue in the pale sunshine. The awkwardness radiating off him is screaming something loud, but it’s too early for Sokka to even begin trying to interpret it, let alone parse out the markedly blank expression he’s maintained from the moment he sat down across from Sokka on their little not-picnic-definitely-meditation blanket. For one thing, had this been a picnic, Sokka might have liked this situation a little more. Considering how, y’kno, there’d have been food.

But, alas. Unless he counts Zuko as a snack, which— shut up, shut up, he hisses to himself, cheeks flushing. His eyes flick to Zuko’s face, unbidden, landing on his mouth. He thinks he can smell something lightly floral in the air (that might just be the flowers from the nearby bushes, but still). His palm feels sweaty, but if he concentrates, he can almost feel the phantom beat of a pulse belonging to another underneath it—

No. Bad Sokka. He tries to shake himself out of it. This is why early mornings and Sokka do not get along.

The silence between them stretches out for a few more uncomfortable moments before Sokka clears his throat. He searches for something to say to break the ice sitting atop this very awkward body of water, so that they can both plunge into this whole meditation thing and get it over with.

He looks around for inspiration. Oh shit don’t look at him directly— nothing. Looks down. Grass? Looks up.

“Pretty clouds,” he says, then immediately winces. Pretty clouds? Really?

A voice, suspiciously sounding like Katara’s, begins cackling at him from the back of his head.

But Zuko doesn’t laugh at him, or glare at him, or even just look at him like the idiot he so clearly is. If anything, his eyes snag on Sokka’s with an odd, surprised sort of look, before they soften with a fondness his words should not have warranted.

“Yeah,” says Zuko, a small smile flickering on his lips, “fluffy.”

And the ice doesn’t break so much as melt between them. Sokka has no idea how he’s done this but he’s not complaining at the way Zuko’s body begins relaxing on the blanket.

This time, it’s Zuko’s turn to clear his throat. “Meditation,” he starts, then pauses. “I have to be honest, I’m kind of out of my depth here. Uncle’s usually the one who does the explaining for this kind of stuff.”

Sokka holds his hand slanted over his brows, pretending to peer exaggeratedly into the distance on his left, then right. “Nope,” he says over Zuko’s near-silent snort, “no Uncle here. Guess I’ll just have to make do with what I’ve got.”

“Alright, smartass,” says Zuko, and Sokka enjoys the easy camaraderie that falls between them once more. It seems they’re both more than content to forget yesterday’s… eventful happenings, or leave them unaddressed just for the moment anyway. Sokka’s more than alright with that.

“Is your uncle the one who taught you how to meditate?” he asks.

Zuko nods, then stops. Something dims in his eyes. “Actually,” he says, “it was, um, my father who taught me first.”

“Oh,” says Sokka. The awkwardness returns between them in full force.

It’s easy to forget, sometimes, whose blood runs in Zuko’s veins. Maybe it’s a credit to Zuko himself, just how easy he makes it.

Zuko fiddles with the corner of the blanket. “The power in firebending comes from the breath. All firebenders are taught the basic breathing techniques as part of their early training.”

Sokka thinks back to the time Aang spent a whole day trying to master his breathing (and failing terribly) with Jeong Jeong. “I know that. Doesn’t seem all that difficult, if you ask me,” he says flippantly. “Breathing? I do it all day. You could even say it’s so easy, I can do it in my sleep.”

“True— you’ve always been a quick learner.” Zuko’s mouth stretches mechanically, pulling at his scar. “Guess I was a terrible student, then, if I couldn’t even learn that right. Or maybe he was just a terrible teacher. Patience was never a virtue that came easy to either of us.” His hand rises absently to his face. “That’s something we’ve always had in common.”

Sokka doesn’t quite know what to say to that. He doesn’t want to think about what else Zuko might have learned from his father. What he might have had to unlearn.

But then he remembers the patience Zuko had shown Hina, with the rainbow fire and the flowers and the gentle words, and knows instinctively that Zuko gives himself less credit than he deserves for many, many things. He also wants to fight Ozai a little bit. Alright, a lot bit. Like a whole fucking lot bit.

Zuko’s gaze remains distant for a moment longer, before it clears. “But Uncle— he’s the one who taught me the true meaning of finding one’s breath; it comes from control, not power. You can’t force it. You have to let it flow out from within, like a river of energy pouring through you, and direct it down the path you want it to go.”

“Um,” says Sokka. “What does that mean, in, like, non-flameo terms?”

Zuko’s expression relaxes into something more natural. “Get comfortable,” he says.

Sokka folds his legs to match Zuko’s stance, folding his hands loosely between his knees.

“Focus on your breath,” says Zuko. “Where’s it coming from?”

“My lungs. Duh.”

Zuko rolls his eyes. “I mean, where do you feel your breath most? In your chest? Your nose?”

Sokka concentrates for a few seconds. “My nose, I guess? I feel like this is a trick question. Is this a trick question?”

“Insufferable, as always,” muses Zuko, though his lips tug up a little. When Sokka mock-scowls at him, it grows into a full smile. Sokka’s heart flutters. “For now, just close your eyes and follow your breath— see where it takes you. Try to keep your attention on your inhale and exhale.”

Sokka does as he’s told, albeit with a slight frown. He tries to keep his breathing steady, inhaling and exhaling with forced normality, though he feels more than a little ridiculous— especially since he can feel Zuko’s eyes on him. His thoughts begin to stray almost immediately, and he’s not surprised at who they turn to.

“Alright, you can stop now.”

Sokka opens his eyes to find Zuko examining him. “How did that feel like?” Zuko asks.

“Like breathing,” Sokka deadpans.

“Good,” says Zuko nonsensically. He must see the look that crosses Sokka’s face, because he hurries to suppress a grin. “No, really! It’s good to have a frame of reference before we move on.”

“This is stupid,” mutters Sokka, only for a hand to slap at his knee. “Hey!”

“Are you calling my Uncle’s methods stupid?” asks Zuko with an odd seriousness.

“…I’m not not saying that,” Sokka hedges, but scowls again when he sees the twinkle in Zuko’s eyes. “Stop messing around, man! I’m here to learn! This is serious business.”

Zuko snorts again. It has no right to sound as adorable as it does. “Alright, super serious business it is. You’ll be glad to know we’re moving on.”

He waits until Sokka finishes his huffing and puffing before continuing. “Now, this time you want to stabilize your awareness by counting your breaths. Count each inhale and exhale up to ten, then come back to one and start again. Breathe as deep as is comfortable, both in and out.”

“Not that I don’t appreciate this—because I do!— but. Why am I learning how to breathe,” asks Sokka, “when this whole healing thing’s happening underwater, anyway? Like—”

“The breathing technique is only part of the process, but it’s a good starting place to gather your thoughts.” Zuko pinches the bridge of his nose. “Or do you have any other ideas on how you want to go about the whole ‘emptying your mind’ thing Ahnah told me about?”

Head lowered, Sokka scratches at the picnic blanket.

“Sokka,” Zuko says. When Sokka looks up, he finds Zuko watching him with knitted brows (brow?). “I just want to help. If you don’t want to do this—”

“No!” Sokka shakes his head vehemently. “No, I’m— it’s just.” He sighs. “Everyone’s got so many expectations with this, you know? I just don’t want to fuck it up and disappoint them.”

“Hey.” Zuko closes one hand over Sokka’s knee. The warmth is startling— Sokka’s breath grows choppy for a split second before he remembers to exhale.

“Don’t worry about that,” Zuko says, looking earnestly in Sokka’s eyes. “Remember that this is optional. You should be doing this because you want to, not because of what anyone else expects from you.”

The smile dips, twists, falls away. “So, what do you want, Sokka?”

 You, comes the automatic answer. Them, follows swiftly with the mental image of the poem, alongside a heaping helping of guilt.

Me, says the little plaintive voice at the back of his mind.

“I want to do this right,” Sokka says, as firmly as he can muster.

Zuko removes his hand, and Sokka wants to chase the warmth as it dispels in the breeze. “Close your eyes,” he says.

Sokka does as he’s asked, letting Zuko’s raspy voice wash over him. It’s oddly soothing, the way it blends with the rustling of the grass around them. “You have to let your attention be focused on your breath,” Zuko continues, “by letting the counting help you to stay aware and mindful. It’s natural for the mind to wander, but when your attention drifts away from your breathing to a thought or memory, don’t fight it. Instead, try to just… let it go, like water through your fingers. Then redirect your attention back to your counts. Focus on what’s around you to help keep you grounded in the moment. Let all thoughts go.”

Sokka nods, then inhales deep. One. Thinks about the sun, shining warm against his skin. Two.

Thinks about how warm Zuko’s skin would feel against his own, no clothing between them this time. Three. Exhales deeper than before, mentally kicking himself as he does. Four.

Remembers the feel of a heartbeat thrumming unsteadily under his hand. Five. Focuses on the ground instead, steady under his legs. Six.

Thinks of the poem. Wonders what’s hidden between those straight, neat lines. Seven. Wonders what those fingers felt as they pushed brush against paper. What those fingers would feel like if he ever got the chance to hold them again. Does the body remember even when the mind doesn’t? Would his know the touch of another instinctively, even without his memories? Eight.

Feels the tightness of his chest when he thinks of all he’s lost. Nine. Thinks about what he’ll gain, if—when he remembers. Lets the pain wash through him, until it disappears like the early morning mist, leaving nothing but the memory of an ache behind and the warm glow of hope ahead. Ten.

It’s easy to lose track of everything, then, the numbers blurring with his breaths. His limbs feel light, untethered as they had been in the water, but this time he’s not at risk of floating away. Instead, he feels grounded in a way he hasn’t felt in a long time, the constant cacophony of his thoughts reduced to a soft whisper at the back of his mind.

He doesn’t know how long he sits there. Eventually, he comes back to himself, quiet awareness returning to his body. There is an ache in his legs from being folded for so long, and when he opens his eyes, it is to find the sun much higher in the sky than it was before.

Zuko is watching him again. But this time, there is an odd sadness to the way his eyes linger on Sokka’s face, though his lips are curved in a smile.

“How’d I do,” asks Sokka, surprised by the hoarseness of his own voice.

For a second, Zuko says nothing. Just continues watching Sokka with the intensity of the sun that shines above them. But something clouds Zuko’s gaze before he looks away, leaving Sokka strangely chilled even in the heat.

“You did it,” says Zuko softly. The wind blows through his hair, ruffling it to the side. It almost snatches his next words away with it. “You let go.”

 


 

Of course, Sokka’s newfound aptitude at meditation doesn’t immediately solve all his problems.

For one, the healers are reluctant to repeat the procedure in the royal bath.

“It’s just not big enough,” says Kirima.

Sokka looks down at the gaping maw of the bath, filled to the brim with gallons of water. “Uh.”

“Healing is a dynamic process,” explains Ahnah. “The next time we try to heal you, I’d prefer it if we were less restricted in our movements. A bigger body of water ought to do the trick— preferably somewhere more open as well.”

“But where would we find anything bigger than,” Sokka gestures, once again, to the very nice, very very large bath, “this?”

“I’ve spoken to Fire Lord Zuko,” says Ahnah, and Sokka can’t help it when his eyes automatically go to Kirima, who has a neutral, almost bored expression on her face. Much better than disgust or murderous rage; Sokka’ll take it. “He’s agreed to arrange something at the Fire Temple for us. Hopefully, it fits our needs better.”

Something niggles at the back of Sokka’s mind. “Wait a minute,” he says, frowning as he turns to Katara. “The Fire Temple? Didn’t Aang, like, wreck it that one time we were in the Fire Nation? On the winter solstice?”

“Apparently six years is long enough for them to rebuild,” says Katara.

Sokka harumphs, crossing his arms over his chest. “Well, excuse me for forgetting. Oh, haha, wait, that’s the whole reason why we’re doing this whole thing, right?”

A bored flick of her wrist sends some water from the bath splashing onto Sokka’s face.

Five seconds and a scuffle later, Sokka is still the one to end up in the bath, albeit fully clothed this time.

He sputters as he emerges from the water, blinking to clear his sight. “I hate you.”

Katara hides a smirk behind one demure hand, while Miki and Kirima both give her vaguely impressed looks.

“Why don’t you try some more meditation and maybe you’ll calm down,” says Katara with a strange gleam in her eye. “By the way, how are those sessions with Zuko going?”

Despite himself, Sokka feels his cheeks warm. “They’re going fine. Just— help me out the water.” He makes a few floundering movements. “My clothes are dragging me down. Please.”

Katara pretends to think for a moment, before letting out an exaggerated sigh. “Alright. Only because you look so pathetic.”

She kneels at the edge and reaches out a magnanimous hand. Sokka waits until he’s got a firm grasp of her arm before yanking her in with one sharp tug.

“I’ll go finalize the arrangements now,” says Ahnah with a sigh, raising her voice to be heard over the shouting and splashing that’s commenced in the water. “Miki?”

“Can I stay here for a bit?” Sokka thinks he hears Miki say, chewing on some seal jerky she’s procured out of seemingly nowhere, before he’s dragged down by a particularly large wave to his watery almost-grave. “I want to see how this ends.”

 


 

The new Fire Temple is a half day’s journey away, which still puts it at a closer distance to the palace than where the old one used to stand at Crescent Island.

By the time they reach the temple, Sokka is itching to get out of the carriage anyway. He stumbles out as soon as it comes to a stop, groaning as he stretches his cramped muscles.

“Can’t believe I’m saying this, but I miss Appa so much,” he says around another groan, as Katara joins him outside. “These carriages are so stuffy.”

Katara rolls her eyes. “All you know how to do is eat and complain.” She gestures at Zuko, who’s emerging from his own carriage with two Kyoshi Warriors Sokka only passingly knows in tow. Then she gestures towards Sokka’s sleeveless arms. “He’s wearing, like, three times as many layers as you. See him complaining about being hot?”

He is hot, though, thinks Sokka automatically. Katara takes one look at whatever’s on his face, grimaces, then spins on her heels. “Hey, Katara, wait up!” he calls out, trotting behind her.

They join Zuko, the Warriors and the healers at the outer gates. From what Sokka remembers of the old Fire Temple, it was a tall, imposing structure that had loomed above them like a tombstone. This newer version seems to have done away with that architectural design— the pagoda is still tiered and spiky-looking, but is spread wide across the land rather than concentrated in sheer height, giving it a more approachable appearance. When Sokka cranes his neck, he can just about spot the hot springs steaming gently in the breeze just behind the pagoda.

The gates swing open, then, revealing a trio of Fire Sages dressed in their pointy-hatted, violently red garbs. The one standing at their immediate front sports a familiar bushy goatee, and a very wide smile.

“Shyu!” says Sokka, mouth dropping open. “Wha— how?”

The last he’d seen of the man was on the disastrous day on the winter solstice, when he’d urged Sokka and Katara to flee the temple before Roku’s spirit destroyed it. If he were being completely honest, a part of Sokka had thought the man hadn’t made it. He’s more than pleasantly surprised to find their earliest Fire Nation ally against Ozai standing before them, hearty and whole. And with a newer, taller hat, too— extra pointy and everything.

“The one and only,” says Shyu. “You’ll be pleased to know I got promoted, no less! Great Sage Shyu they call me now, if you can believe it.”

“No other person is as deserving of the title, Great Sage,” says Zuko warmly.

Shyu tilts his head at him, then turns to Sokka and Katara.

“He’s much nicer without all the shouting and the yelling, isn’t he?” he whispers behind one hand at them. “Teenagers. All angst, no manners.”

Zuko looks like he’s barely repressing a dramatic sigh as Katara jostles him with her elbow. “And this particular one was sooo angsty,” she says, grinning.

Shyu loses the easy smile in favour of a more serious expression. “Fire Lord Zuko,” he says, then turns to the others, “and esteemed companions. Welcome to the Fire Temple. We are humbled to have you among us.”

Shyu leads the group inside and up the meandering path to the temple. Lush grass covers the ground around the path, and the air is filled with the gentle buzzing of insects flying from flower to flower. The two sages flanking Shyu are introduced as Fire Sages Goto, a grizzled old man near to Shyu’s age, and Kurai, who looks much younger than the two, with a neatly trimmed beard and pale eyes. Sokka isn’t sure if he remembers either of them from Crescent Island, but they seem nice and non-evil enough as they bow to the group.

“We were just making the final preparations for the ceremony,” says Shyu, nodding to the healers. “Fire Lord Zuko has informed me that there are specific Water Tribe provisions you wish to make to the healing spring we’ll be using?”

“Just a few herbs for consolidation,” replies Ahnah, patting the pouch at her hip. “I know the Fire Nation does something similar for traditional healing practices. Thought we’d try it out as well, seeing as you’ve so graciously given us the permission to use such a sacred area for our own purposes. Can’t hurt, can it?”

Shyu gives her an appreciative smile. “Healer Ahnah, you are correct. We believe that integrating nature and spirit in one setting this way can elevate the healing that occurs. Very well. Sage Goto will take you three to the spring now, and the others can join you whenever you’re ready.”

Ahnah, Kirima and Miki disappear in the distance with Goto. Shyu turns to the rest of them, a small grin on his face.

“It truly is good to see you both,” he says to Katara and Sokka, “and especially you, Ambassador Sokka. The last time I saw you, we played Pai Sho together in General Iroh’s teashop in Ba Sing Se, many moons ago now. What a lovely time we had over tea and a chat with old friends! Why, I almost felt bad at besting you at the game.”

“From how I remember it, he beat you fair and square,” says Zuko. “Twice.”

“What’s a Pai Sho?” asks Sokka.

Zuko’s smile slips.

“I wish this get-together could have taken place in better circumstances,” says Shyu. He glances once at Zuko, then at Sokka, an indecipherable look passing over his face. “Fire Lord Zuko, from what you’ve told me, Ambassador Sokka truly does not remember anything from the last five years?”

When Zuko shakes his head, Shyu’s brow furrows. “Then he doesn’t remember your—”

“No, nothing,” interrupts Zuko, lips tight, and Shyu’s face softens.

“What an unfortunate situation, indeed,” says Shyu, one hand landing on Sokka’s shoulders. “Though I’m hopeful that we just might rectify that today.”

Sokka drudges up a smile from somewhere deep within. “Me too.”

Sage Kurai clears his throat. “And how did this situation happen, exactly? Fire Lord Zuko was not exactly clear in his correspondence to us about the specifics of the event.” When Shyu shoots him a look, he raises apologetic hands. “Purely from a standpoint of mere curiosity. Feel free not to answer if it is a sensitive topic, of course.”

“It was an assassination attempt,” supplies Katara. Her eyes track to the scar on Sokka’s temple. “He and Zuko were attacked on palace grounds. Sokka suffered a blow to his head, and…” she trails off, looking away. “And now we’re here.”

“Terrible,” says Kurai, bowing his head. “Do you have any suspicions as to who could have been behind it?”

When Katara shakes her head, he turns to Sokka. “Well, either way, I’m so sorry for your loss, Ambassador.”

“Hey, it’s not like I’m dead,” says Sokka, trying to lighten the mood. From the way both Zuko and Katara frown at him, he knows he’s been unsuccessful. So he doubles down, as usual. “I’m just saying, it could have been worse! I could have lost even more years than this. Imagine me regressing to, like, a baby. Do you know how to take care of a baby, Katara? Do you?”

“You’re already the biggest baby I know,” huffs Katara.

“I don't know anything about infant care,” says Zuko distantly. “Oh, Agni, I could have killed him.”

“Even so,” says Shyu, “we will try our best today to help you regain all that you’ve lost.” He smiles at them all, lingering on Zuko, who musters a half-hearted one in response.

“Thank you, Great Sage,” says Zuko. “We really appreciate it.”

“Great Sage Shyu,” says Goto as he lumbers back into the room, “everything is ready for the ceremony to commence.”

Sokka feels lady-butterflies flit around his stomach as they begin following him down.

“The temple was cleared of visitors prior to your arrival,” Kurai says. “All for your comfort, of course, Fire Lord Zuko. We understand the need for—” he pauses delicately “—discretion, in these matters.”

“And it was no small task,” adds Shyu. “The temple is busiest at this time of year. As you’d know, if you ever visited.” This last part is clearly aimed at Zuko, who looks away with an abashed look.

“I— being a Fire Lord is a full-time job, you know,” he says, rubbing at the back of his neck, a gesture Sokka has come to know means he’s feeling guilty and trying not to show it.

Shyu hums good-naturedly. “Yes, yes, I understand, but one must also make time for one’s spiritual needs when one can.”

“One is busy,” mutters Zuko.

Sokka raises a hand. “Um, thank you for organising the private swimming session,” he says, ignoring Katara’s sigh, “but if I could ask— why is the temple so busy currently? I know that, as Ambassador, I should probably know these things, but, uh.” He points to his head, as self-explanatory a gesture as any.

“Why, we’re only weeks away from the summer solstice, of course,” replies Shyu. “One of the two most sacred times of the year!”

His voice drops into a quavering tone, as if he’s reciting some great speech. “When the veil between the Spirit World and ours grows thinnest— when Agni’s blessings grow strongest! Pilgrims from all over the Fire Nation make their way to the temple to pay their respects and prostrate in worship, because they clearly,” he side-eyes Zuko again, “understand the importance of keeping in touch with one’s spirituality. As my grandfather, Fire Sage Kaja—Agni rest his blessed soul— used to say: the busier we are, the more attention we must pay to our interior life—

“I’ll mark down the date on the calendar,” concedes Zuko defeatedly. “And try my best to visit on the day of the solstice, alright?”

“Very,” says Shyu, a smug grin on his face. Sokka mouths ‘interior life’ to Katara, who shrugs back at him.

“We’ll be happy to have you here on such an auspicious date, Fire Lord,” says Kurai with a little bow. Sokka wonders how ripped an average Fire Nation citizen’s back must be, what with all the bowing they do. “Your presence will make all the difference.”

Zuko tilts his head in acknowledgement, looking like he already regrets agreeing to it.

They turn one last corner, and Sokka feels his eyes widen.

This particular hot spring is definitely bigger than Zuko’s fancy royal bath. Looking around, Sokka now sees that the temple has been constructed as to work in tandem with nature; the spring is not fully contained by the walls of the room, but still enclosed enough to give some semblance of privacy.

As they descend down the steps of the temple, the air grows humid and thick. Large, jagged rocks circle the perimeter of the spring, and vibrant greenery erupts around their edges. Steam bubbles up from the frothing water, which reflects the gold and cobalt of the sky in its constant ripples. There is no red here; no sign that proclaims the spring as part of the tenets of the Fire Nation. Just water, warm and welcoming, thrumming with life.

Then what can explain the steady uneasiness that begins to plague Sokka with every step he takes towards it?

He looks around, but everyone is busy in their preparations. The Kyoshi Warriors have taken up positions near the exit, looking quietly professional in their stance. Shyu has gone over to talk to Ahnah and Kirima, gesturing to the leafy herbs roiling along the surface of the spring. Katara and Zuko are speaking in hushed whispers, heads bowed together.

Something prickles at the back of his neck. Sokka twists his head, searching for the source.

Kurai stands to the side with Goto, inscrutably bland expressions on both their faces. They continue staring at Sokka, apparently unperturbed that he’s caught them in the act. As he watches, Kurai levels a genial smile his way before turning back to Goto.

Though there are no more eyes on him, the prickling sensation doesn’t quite leave Sokka completely.

“Here.” A steaming mug, as well as the hand holding it, comes at him from his periphery. It startles Sokka out of his thoughts. “You know the drill.”

Miki taps her feet impatiently as he takes the mug from her hand. He blows at the tea to cool it down, even as her foot starts tapping harder against the stone floor.

“It’s hot,” he whines.

“You know, I really regret not poisoning it,” she says lightly. Sokka throws the tea back before she can change her mind.

It tastes different than the last two times he’s had it, coating his mouth and the back of his tongue with a weirdly sour tang before leaving an ashy aftertaste.

“Did you change the recipe?” he asks, trying to take a sniff at the residue left behind at the bottom.

“Stop stalling,” she says, whisking the mug out of his hand. Then she winks at him. “Time to bare it all again, Sokka. Larger audience than before, too. Good thing you work out, huh?”

Sokka glances around the room. Realises all sets of eyes are on him. Tries to pretend the heat in his cheeks is a result of the steam around him.

“You know, you don’t all need to be here,” he calls out as he steps closer to the edge of the spring.

From the corner of his eyes, Sokka spots Zuko making an aborted movement towards the exit, before Katara’s arm tugs him back to her side.

“The Sages must supervise the use of the spring,” Ahnah tells him. “And the Fire Lord is currently authorising the private use of it.”

She gives him a sympathetic look. “Is this another case of the bashful—”

“Don’t say it,” Sokka begs.

“—manhood?”

Sokka thinks he hears the Kyoshi Warriors hide strangled laughs behind their hands. “Now you’re just doing this on purpose,” he mumbles at Ahnah, who shrugs politely.

“Get on with it, Sokka,” says Katara.

To their credit, everyone shields their eyes as soon as he begins reaching for his clothes. Zuko even turns his back completely, though not before Sokka thinks he sees his good cheek flare pink. Then Sokka’s wolftail comes loose, spreading a curtain of his hair around him, and all he can see is the hot spring beckoning him closer.

For all his apprehension leading up to this, stepping into the water is an experience. It churns around him— hot but not scalding, it leeches all the stiffness out of his body so fast that Sokka turns into a limp noodle almost immediately, sinking up to his neck without conscious thought. The steam is so thick that he can barely see anything through it; between the white wall it creates and the gentle bubbling sound of the spring, he can almost pretend he’s alone. Almost.

“Alright, Sokka,” comes Kirima’s disembodied voice, no-nonsense as usual. “Remember to use the meditation techniques you’ve learnt with the Fire Lord to corral your thoughts. Empty your mind. Focus on the light at the end of the tunnel and leave everything else behind. It is of vital importance that you stay in this state throughout.”

Sokka nods. Realises they probably can’t see him through the steam. Feels very briefly like more of an idiot than usual. “No thoughts,” he calls back. “Head empty. I understand.”

Ahnah’s voice floats to him from beyond the veil of the steam. “Again, whenever you’re ready.”

This time, Sokka takes a moment to gather himself. Oddly, he feels a little nauseous. His gut churns a little as he begins employing the breathing technique taught to him by Zuko. By the tenth breath, he feels himself in a steadier state of mind, though something still feels off within him. Must be the nerves of the big audience, he thinks, and puts it out of his mind along with everything else.

Inhaling deeply one last time, he closes his eyes and goes down.

The water feels alive against his skin, pushing and pulling at him. He allows himself to go with its motions until he feels as one with it, part of the flow, and he’s so lost in it that he barely notices when the water presses luminant against his eyelids.

Tunnel. Light. Reach for the light.

Let go.

Reach.

Let go.

The light.

He lets go.

 

running appa temple duke pipsqueak children they’re just children toph “hello zuko here” rubble trust aang “jerkbending still got it” field-trips dancing plans balloon lake “silver sandwich” metal boiling guards “have to try every time… can’t quit because you think you might fail” dad gondola blue flames katara island mom sand sea ships melon lord stinky sandal shirshu iroh white lotus piandao eel-hounds war its war its war its

(fire)

 

The water glows brighter.

 

hair shoulder neck ribbon “yes” grass (red) under hands beautiful inscription blade (don’t let go) gratitude “I love you” honeyed jasmine lips cloth fever (burning) fingers “let me take care of you” heat under skin (fire)

 

It glows too bright.

 

(fire) carving waves neck (bruises) protection safe relief (“—too late! the fleet’s already taking off!”) paper brush fire lily (“–that’s a lot of fire isn’t it—") black hair gold eyes (fire) (fire) (fire)—

 

Like staring directly at the sun.

Like staring into fire.

 

(fire) bitter taste tea “the things I do for love” (hate this hate ozai hate fear loss desperation pain) rain leg ache hurt (falling slam impact agony “–my leg! hang on toph!” hang on don’t let go please) warm breath hot mouth (sweaty fingers slipping no no no “–I don’t think boomerang’s coming back toph—”) pond wood turtle-ducks splinters (pain splintering leg hold on hold on) fond amusement laughter tucky (defeat resignation toph crying please let me protect her save her couldn’t save yue couldn’t save suki couldn’t protect any of them can’t protect toph please I’m trying don’t let go don’t—)

 

The water burns.

 

waves shore blue stone white petals gold (ashes) sunset (red horizon smoke fire) never had something this good (this is bad this is so bad)

hand in his (hold on toph)

eyes so gold (there’s so much fire)

their love burns bright (going to burn just like mom)

to new beginnings (“–it looks like

–it looks like this is the end—

–like this is the end—

–the end—

–the—”)

 

 

There’s water in his mouth up his nose down his throat he’s drowning can’t breathe more water gone dark doesn’t know where he is who he is hurts hurts everything hurts—

Arms around his waist holding tight pulling him up up up breaking the surface still hurts coughing choking can’t breathe can’t breathe can’t—

“Sokka! Sokka, hold on! I’ve got you, Sokka— Sokka, stop, please!

Kicking thrashing fighting against whoever’s dragging him away (the enemy it’s the enemy don’t let them win don’t let go hold on hold on) out of the water still choking can’t breathe hurts so bad so bad his chest his head

Suddenly being pulled to shore splayed on his back hands holding him down forcing open his mouth water ripped from his chest upwards outwards and he can breathe and now he can scream and he screams and screams and screams—

“Help him!” Hands tight on his face. Someone is sobbing. “Help him! Stop this! It’s killing him, please, stop it, Katara!

“I’m trying!” A hysterical female voice. “I’m trying! He won’t— Sokka!

Another voice, older, curt. “Both of you, out of my way. Now!”

And then there are hands on his temples and things glow bright again (no no no more fire no please no) and

and

everything goes blessedly, blessedly dark.

 


 

Time passes. For a lot of it, it’s a struggle to do anything but lie there and breathe. Air rattles through his lungs, in and out, and it is all he knows. But then sensations begin returning to him one by one.

He’s wet. His head hurts. His throat feels scraped raw. His chest is tight, and every breath burns.

But there’s other stuff, too. He’s lying weirdly, slumped against something warm. It’s wet, too, just like him, and shaking lightly with little tremors that get passed onto him. Something fleshy is pressed against his forehead, and something hot drips onto his cheeks in little pit-pat droplets from above, and something else entirely falls around his face, tickling his nose and making him want to sneeze. Hair?

When he opens his eyes, it is to the deepest gold staring back.

Fire.

He yelps and tries to scramble away, but there’s very little energy currently left in his limbs and his leg aches and his head feels like it's going to explode any second. Even so, the animal part of his brain is a constant screech of run run run and he’s trying to get away but the eyes follow him and they’re so yellow like burning

And then someone else comes before him, hands outstretched like they’re approaching a wild animal. Blue replaces gold, the colour familiar and soothing like the ocean. Like home.

“Sokka, it’s okay,” says the person, and their eyes bleed their blueness down dark cheeks, hands coming to rest on his shoulders, and he breathes and lets them touch him, and.

“It’s just me. Sokka, it’s just me.” And he knows them, he thinks. He knows her.

“Katara,” he croaks out.

His sister lets out a small wail before falling forwards, pulling him into her arms.

“Sokka,” she sobs. “I was so s-scared, you—you wouldn’t stop screaming, and I couldn’t make it stop, and you s-sounded like you were d-dying, I’m so sorry, Spirits, I’m so, so sorry—"

“It’s—” okay, he wants to say, but his tongue feels too thick in his mouth, his thoughts too thin in his head, and he doesn’t know what he’s saying okay to. For now, all he can do is sag into her arms and let himself be held.

He can hear voices murmuring around him, but when he makes a questioning noise Katara just pulls him closer together and tugs up the robe falling off his shoulders. He hadn’t even noticed he was wearing it. He notices it now, the sticky cloth-feel of it dragging against his wet skin.

It’s red.

He pushes Katara away with a cry before trying to rip it off. Katara grabs at his hands.

“Sokka! What’re you doing, it’s— it’s okay, Sokka, stop, it’s just Zuko’s—”

Zuko. That name—

He finally looks around, catching a hazy black-white-red-gold form slowly come towards him, before it sharpens with abrupt coalescence into a person into him into Zuko, and Sokka knows him too.

He barely realises the snarl that erupts from his mouth. Zuko freezes where he is, the only motion to him the water dripping from his sopping clothes onto the stone floor below.

“He—” Sokka turns desperate eyes to Katara, trying to weakly push her behind him. Words are still difficult, but he has to warn her, he has to stop him, has to— “Katara, he— enemy.

But Katara’s shaking her head, fresh tears falling down her face. “No, no, Sokka,” she says, then turns to someone behind him, chest heaving. “Ahnah, it’s all gone wrong, I can’t— he doesn’t remember, this wasn’t supposed to happen, what—"

“Hold him still.”

Katara grabs his arms, pressing them tight against his side. He struggles instinctively, but her grip is strong. Water flows cool around his head, swirling so bright that he’s forced to press his eyes shut. The pain swells, making him flinch, and it gets louder and louder and he’s opening his mouth to scream again— before it dissipates like mist, leaving him so suddenly empty that he feels himself beginning to fall forward, only for Katara’s hands to hold him somewhat upright.

Slowly, slowly, things start coming back in shattered fragments, their edges piecing themselves together bit by agonising bit. The war. Aang, falling. Eclipses and plans. Waking up in a different time.

Zuko.

His eyes snap open. They catch on red, and this time his heart doesn’t pound with a desperate frenzy at the sight.

“Zuko?” he calls out with a gasping breath. Pulls one arm free of Katara’s grasp to reach towards it.

But it’s not Zuko.

Shyu steps forward, a sombre look on his face. “He’s just outside,” he says gently. “We cleared the room. It’s just been me, the healers and you for a while now.”

Sokka lets his hand fall back. His knees feel sore. How long has he been sitting here, falling apart and pulling himself back together? Wasn’t he supposed to be done with that by now?

Shyu hesitates. “Sokka, I know this probably doesn’t mean much right now, but I need you to know… you’re safe here. You must know that. The Fire Nation is your enemy no more. You are safe.”

I know, part of him wants to say. I would crawl out of my skin to leave if I could, says another.

“Katara,” he whispers instead. Pulls the wet robe tighter around himself.

Katara folds him back into her arms. He goes with them until he’s curled against her, breath hitching against her neck. “I didn’t mean it,” he says brokenly, “I didn’t, he has to know that, I just—I forgot, again, I didn’t mean to—”

“Shh,” she says, “he knows, don’t worry.”

But the ache in her voice matches that in his chest, and something in the air feels more broken than before.

Chapter Text

It takes a while for the shaking to subside into shivers, for his legs to feel like they won’t give up on him at his first step, for his breathing to even out. For the nausea roiling in his gut to abate, somewhat. For him to feel like he won’t disappear again if he lets himself dwell on the smoke in his mind, seeping into every crevice of his being.

The robe has dried in soft wrinkles around him, creasing against his skin. It smells more like the herbs from the water than anything else, but a faint flowery scent rises every time Sokka moves. He catches a whiff of it now as he scrubs at the salt tracks dried on his face, before folding his trembling hands in between the sleeves— trying, very firmly, to avoid putting a name to the feeling that claws ugly at his ribs at the thought of Zuko’s tearstained cheeks above him.

They’ve gathered in the antechamber just at the side of the main hall, close enough that Sokka can still hear the hot spring water frothing away. He never wants to look at it ever again. Never wants to step into a hot spring even if his life ever depended on it.

“What,” Sokka says, the first words out his mouth in over half an hour, “the fuck happened back there?”

The silence that follows his question descends oppressive upon the room. Katara’s grip tightens on his arm.

Alongside the healers, the sages stand sombre, heads bowed low. Zuko sits near Shyu, eyes red-rimmed and haunted, and Sokka can’t bring himself to look at him for more than five seconds without wanting to scream. But his throat his still hoarse from his last screaming session, so he settles for avoidance.

Ahnah steeples her fingers in front of herself. “To be completely honest,” she says after a moment, “I’m not too sure myself. That was, quite possibly, the worst reaction to any healing procedure I’ve ever seen in my life.”

“We knew there was a risk, going into this,” says Kirima. She’s slumped back in her seat, exhaustion pulling at the lines of her face. “But this was beyond extreme. Nothing we were attempting called for—” She gestures at Sokka. “– this to happen. Sure, the last healing session also produced some… unexpectedly painful results for you, but even so, for things to go so drastically wrong now—”

“You’re telling me this has happened before?” The words are spoken low and dangerous, echoing throughout the antechamber.

The healers exchange looks. “Fire Lord Zuko,” says Ahnah, standing up, “you have to understand—”

At his sides, Zuko’s clenched knuckles are bone white, gaze trained on his lap. “With all due respect, Healer Ahnah, I think I’ve finally understood exactly what I needed to. This is the first I’m finding out about these sessions hurting him—having a precedent of doing so— and for you still going ahead with it, despite being aware of the risks.” He finally raises his head, levelling a cold glare at Ahnah. “After the last time, you should never have attempted it again. You knew it hurt him, trying to remember like this. You knew.”

An uncomfortable silence fills the room. Ahnah frowns. “I assure you, none of us truly ever thought that—”

“You should have!” Zuko stands up from his chair in one stiff movement, fists smoking faintly at his sides. “It’s your job to consider the consequences and repercussions of actions that can cause harm to another! You’re healers, aren’t you?”

“Zuko,” says Katara, standing up from Sokka’s side to reach for him, but he shrugs her off.

“None of this was worth what he just went through,” he says. “His memories aren’t worth it, our—his past isn’t worth it, nothing is worth it of it if it makes him—” He breaks off heavily, pushing a hand through his hair until it snags on his crown. “None of it is worth it,” he repeats, and there’s a sheen to his eyes that sends a stab of something through Sokka. “Not if it hurts him.”

His next words are weighted by the force of the order lining it. “This stops now.”

Kirima exchanges a terse glance with Ahnah.

This is the part where Sokka would normally have piped up. Would have told Zuko to stuff it, because Sokka is more than capable of deciding for himself whatever decision needs to be made regarding his body and his mind.

But even the thought of going through another session like this is enough to break Sokka out into a cold sweat, despite the heat of the spring nearby.

“Sokka,” says Miki quietly from the other side of the room. Everyone turns to look at her, but the only eyes she meets are his. “What did you see, in the water?”

It takes Sokka a moment to gather his thoughts enough to speak. “It’s all a jumble,” he says, trying not to let on how much it costs him to revisit that place in his mind. “But I think it was stuff from after the Day of Black Sun? It’s things I don’t remember happening— like, we were at this temple. Different from the others I’ve visited with Aang, and—” He looks up, but Zuko is looking away from him, expression unfathomable. “And Zuko was there, and he was… training Aang? There was something about a prison, and my Dad was there, and Suki—”

But the prison leads to red, so much red, and his brain stops short so fast that his whole body reels from the impact. His head’s begun to hurt again.

Katara’s eyes shine with hope. That hurts too.

“Go on,” encourages Ahnah, but Sokka shakes his head.

“I— after that it just becomes—” Too much. Not enough. “Every time I feel like I’m getting close to something, I— it disappears behind red. There’s— a lot of red.” He rubs at his forehead, hoping it jogs something even as his mind shies away with all from what he’s forcing it to recall.

“Red,” says Shyu, gripping his beard in deep thought. “There’s too much red in the Fire Nation to pinpoint what it is, exactly, that’s giving your memories so much grief. Do you remember anything specific about the colour? What was red, exactly?”

“The sky,” Sokka replies immediately. “And there was smoke, and— and war balloons? Those were red too.” He swallows. “And fire. Lots of it. Red and gold. That’s… that’s pretty much all I get to, before everything goes—” He waves one hand in a squiggly line, succinctly displaying the mess of his memories in their current state. “Every time, I kept coming back to that. I don’t know what it is.”

“You’re remembering the day of Sozin’s Comet,” says Zuko quietly. From the side, Sage Kurai shifts in his seat. “The day we stopped the war.”

“Oh.” But— “But that doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “We won the war. It was a good day, right? Then why did I feel so—”

His breath hitches, breaking him off.

“Sokka?” Katara asks gently.

He swallows again, choking down the sand in his throat. “Terrified.”

Zuko flinches minutely where he stands.

“I see,” says Ahnah after a long moment. “This might just be a theory, but… I have a suspicion we know what went wrong in the water.”

Kirima clears her throat. Her voice, when she speaks, is the softest Sokka has ever heard it. “Sokka. What do you know about trauma of the mind?”

Sokka stiffens. “What are you implying?”

“We all grew up with the war around us,” says Ahnah. “It was a pervasive entity in our lives, no matter which side we were on. Katara, tell me this: before it ended, did you ever go a day without thinking about the war?”

Katara shakes her head, even as she looks uncertainly at Zuko. “You know none of us ever had that luxury. But what does this—”

“Even after the Avatar defeated Ozai, how long did it take you to let it sink in that the war was finally over?”

“A long time,” she says finally. “Sometimes… sometimes I wake up, and it still takes me a moment to remember.”

Ahnah nods. “Trauma is something none of us escaped unscathed from. And most of it has a tangential link to the war, if not a direct one,” she says. Her eyes drift across the room to land on each of them in turn, lingering on Zuko’s face. “But we found ways to adjust. It took us time, yes, and probably a lot of work on some of our parts. Maybe there are still things that haunt us. Interrupt our sleep. Disturb the steadiness of our breath when we think about them on a bad day. But on the whole, we moved on. We made progress. We made peace with it all, as much as peace was possible to have had.”

Her gaze finally lands on Sokka. “Unfortunately, Sokka’s injury seems to have ripped all that progress from him— and with it, his peace.”

“The first time we attempted to heal your mind,” says Kirima, “I felt a disturbance, for lack of a better word, in your mind. It seemed circumventable at the time, so I didn’t pay it much attention—the bigger issue then was for you to learn how to control your thoughts. But for some reason, that disturbance seems to have coalesced into a… mental block, of sorts.”

“And though you don’t remember the direct events, this block seems linked in your memories to the day the war finally ended,” continues Ahnah. “You probably experienced severe distress on that day, which is to be expected— I don’t envision the war having ended without all parties involved suffering heavy sacrifices, one way or the other.”

“I wasn’t with him, where he went on the day of the comet,” says Katara. “But he broke his leg in a fall. Do you think that might have something to do with—”

(falling impact trying not to scream hurts hurts—)

“Katara,” Sokka gasps, one hand flying to his head as fresh pain rips through it, “stop.

“Sokka, hey, hey.” Gentle hands guide his own away from where they’re clutching his head. “Breathe. It’s okay.”

He looks up with wet eyes to see Katara’s scared ones, Zuko hovering close by.

“I’m okay,” he gets out, trying to breathe as evenly as possible. “But I can’t— I don’t want to think about it anymore. I don’t want to remember— no, wait, I mean—”

“You don’t have to explain yourself,” says Ahnah. Regret pulls at her face. “And you’re right, in a way. Water healing can only do so much, and it seems we’ve reached the limits of what it can do for you.”

She turns to Katara. “As we’ve seen from today’s events, the risks far exceed the benefits of trying to heal your brother’s mind any further. I suspect the rest of his memories will remain closed off from his reach until his trauma is resolved— unfortunately, I cannot currently say what would be the best way to proceed from here. While we’ll continue looking for ways to help him, we also need to ensure that no further unintended damage is brought about to his person.”

Kirima and Miki stand up to flank her now. All three bow their heads. “I am so sorry, Sokka,” Ahnah says, “but I have to agree with the Fire Lord on this. We cannot in good conscience continue with these sessions, at least for the foreseeable future.”

He doesn’t want to see Katara’s tears. He doesn’t want to see the pity in the healers’ eyes. He doesn’t want to look at whatever expression must be on Zuko’s face— disappointment, perhaps, or more pity. Maybe even disgust at how weak this Sokka must seem to him, compared to the one he’s lost.

So, instead, Sokka turns to the window. The mid-afternoon sun shines cheerily, not a cloud in sight, but its warmth never quite seems to reach Sokka’s skin through the glass. He’d almost welcome the way it blinds him, if only red didn’t burn behind his lids with every blink.

 


 

He falls asleep in the carriage on the journey back. Wakes up to Katara shaking him, anxious and frightened.

“You were screaming again,” she whispers.

Sokka lets her hold him close until he stops trembling. He does not dare close his eyes again.

 


 

The next few days go by in a daze.

The sunlit hours seem to disappear within one blink and the next, even if the individual minutes stretch out like strands of molasses, trapping him within their hold. Katara tries talking to him, but it soon becomes evident to the both of them that she’s talking more at him—Sokka just doesn’t have the energy to do more than let her words wash over him, let alone reply. She gives up soon enough, but doesn’t let it deter her into leaving him on his own.

Instead, she brings him food even when he says he isn’t hungry. Pushes him into the shower. Drags him to the gardens to get some air, despite his feeble protests of wanting to stay inside. Guides him to bed when it gets dark and tucks him in with gentle hands.

He wants her to leave. He’s never been more grateful for her presence.

But the nights are his and his alone. Well, not quite.

Long after Katara’s left, he digs out Zuko’s robe from under his mattress and wraps it around himself, finding a foreign comfort in the silk, before crawling out of bed to his windows. There, he sits under Yue’s light. He spends countless hours staring up at her, trying to correspond the shadows of her celestial face to the contours of her human one.

They never quite fit, no matter how much he wills it so; she’s as lost to him as everything else, it seems.

Still, when the burn of his tired eyes gets too much, her soft glow soothes him like nothing else. Better her and the fading floral scent of the robe around him than the canopy that hangs, shroud-like, above his bed, suffocating him within its four corners.

But despite Yue’s best efforts, he still cannot sleep; the chasm between wakefulness and slumber lies filled with shadowy whispers that call out to him every time he lets his eyes drift shut.

So, after the third night of continuously jerking awake, heart racing and palms sweaty, he gives up entirely. Finds himself slipping out of his quarters and wandering the palace halls, ducking out of sight of guards and the odd Kyoshi Warrior, and away from the flames dancing merrily in the sconces lining the walls.

He doesn’t quite know when it happens, but finds himself not the least bit surprised when his feet drag him to a familiar set of doors.

Miura does not look surprised to find him there, either; instead, resignation paints her face under the red and white. She says nothing, but her eyes speak volumes as she lets them rove over him, taking in his crumpled appearance with something akin to worry.

Finally, she sighs, her hand already reaching behind her to knock on the doors. It takes barely a few seconds before they open.

If Sokka feels like he’s been hit and subsequently dragged along a cobbled path by a moving carriage, Zuko looks the part. He’s dressed in the sleep-tunic Sokka remembers pulling over his fevered, dead-weight body. The sconces cast their flickering light over sheet-pale cheeks and loose, mussed hair, and the bag beneath his good eye could have made a purple hammock for small children.

As Zuko stares at him, Sokka, belatedly, realises that it’s far too late to be making unannounced visits, especially to heads of powerful nations. He’s also becoming increasingly conscious of the fact that this is the first time they’ve seen one another since that disastrous day at the temple. But Zuko drops his eyes to the floor before tilting his head towards the open doors.

Miura’s gaze burns against the back of his neck long after the doors slip shut behind them.

As they stand in Zuko’s outer chambers, neither of them speak for a long, tense moment. On Sokka’s part, it is mostly because all words seem to have fled him. But when the silence begins pressing upon them heavily, Sokka’s mouth decides that it can’t take it anymore.

“Sorry if I— woke you up, or anything,” it blurts out, while his hand tries to mitigate the self-inflicted mortification by rubbing itself against the bristles at the back of his head.

Zuko shakes his head, gaze still trained on the floor. “Couldn’t sleep,” he says. His voice sounds raspier than normal, but its pleasing friction calms something in Sokka the same way Yue’s light had earlier.

“Me neither,” he says. And it’s a dumb idea, but he’s here now. What’s he got left to lose? “Do you want to… meditate? Together? I know you like doing it in the morning, but maybe it’ll help get us relaxed enough to knock us out. Worth a try, right?”

“You— what?” A dumbfounded look passes over Zuko’s face, startling him into looking up. But his eyes do not meet Sokka’s. Instead, they catch somewhere around Sokka’s shoulders, and. Shit.

Sokka never took off Zuko’s robe.

Cheeks burning, Sokka tries shrugging it off, as if that could lessen the damage. “Oh! Yeah, I forgot to give this back, uh—”

“Keep it.”

Though Sokka lowers his hands, they itch with the need to rip it off anyway. This has the unintended consequence of reminding him of the last time he’d tried to do the very same in front of Zuko, and— “This was stupid,” he says, sheepish. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

He turns around to leave. “Sorry for disturbing you. Goodnight.”

“Sokka, just—” Quick footsteps. The lightest brush of a hand skimming his shoulder. “Wait.”

When Sokka looks back, Zuko’s tired face is softened by the ghost of a smile. “We can meditate.”

And what can Sokka do but smile back?

Zuko clears his throat before grabbing a candle-lamp off a nearby table and, unexpectedly, folding himself down right there in the middle of the room. Sokka follows more slowly, eying the rigidity of Zuko’s back as he places the lamp in between them.

“This is another method I used to use for meditation, back on the Wani. My ship,” he clarifies, before Sokka can ask. “It’s, uh, something I struggled with for a long time. Back then, I wasn’t so… well.” The candle’s flame flares up against the glass clutched in his hands. Sokka struggles to hide his flinch. “You remember how I used to be like.”

This time, Sokka can’t help the way he winces, his own words flinging themselves through his mind to land in the space between them with sharp accuracy. Enemy. “Zuko—”

“Anyway,” Zuko says, eyes focused on the lamp. “This helped with my— with that.” His voice goes quieter, if that were even possible. “Especially on days when it felt hard to breathe.”

I know how that feels, Sokka wants to say. But the streak of cowardice that runs through him chokes those words out. “Show me,” he says instead, softer than he intends.

Zuko’s eyes flick to him before dropping back to the lamp again. “This won’t work as well for you since you’re not a firebender, but the theory should still hold,” he says. “I’m going to sync the candlelight to my breathing— try to do the same. Breathe in when it grows. Out when it shrinks. The rest should be the same from our other meditation sessions— focus on clearing your mind. Let all thoughts go.”

He closes his eyes, settling himself. “Watch the flame.”

The lamp flickers once, twice, before dwindling to a tiny flame, casting shadows upon Zuko’s still face. Then it flares again, dancing up to meet the metal casing holding it captive.

Sokka is glad that Zuko can’t see the way his hands have begun shaking at his sides. But, despite the effort he exerts over it, his breath still grows a little choppy every time the fire licks at the glass barrier, beckoning him closer.

“Sokka?” Zuko’s brow furrows, though his eyes remain closed. The candle’s fire evens out into one steady flame. “Want me to keep going?”

“Yes,” he replies. And he must manage to hide the strain in his voice well enough, or perhaps Zuko is too tired to notice, because the flame starts shifting again.

Sokka wrenches his mind away from what it threatens to trip on. Away from the golds of enemy fires, the reds of blood spilled across the sky and on the ground and over the war balloons and—

Instead, he fists his hands into the red softly encompassing his body. Watches the gold flicker against pale skin, isolating every jagged edge of Zuko until it hones them all to diamond facets, just as capable of cutting to ribbons as they are of casting rainbows.

After days of feeling his breath catch at every too-bright flicker of lamps, at sconces placed too close on the walls threatening to close in on him, at the fireplace that burns its imprint on the back of Sokka’s eyes until all he can see are flames— after days of losing himself to the shadows of his mind, Sokka watches the light grow and ebb across Zuko’s face. And he teaches himself to breathe again.

 


 

Sokka doesn’t realise when it becomes a thing, but it does.

He still spends the days avoiding the others. Taktuq comes by with Miki, twin looks of concern etched onto their faces. Sokka woodenly takes the northern-style seal jerky they offer him and shuts the door in their faces. Suki and Ty Lee guard his doors, silent sentinels, though sometimes he thinks he hears Suki in quiet conversation with Katara, his name the only thing he can pick out from the hushed words exchanged between them. And he knows that Kustaa and the healers are alternating their days between Caldera library and the palace archives, looking for any crumb of information that could still help him.

At this point, Sokka isn’t holding out much hope for anything. He doesn’t think he has it in him to prepare for disappointment once again.

But after that first night of meditation, when he manages to stumble back to his quarters and manage a scant few hours of blissful, dreamless sleep, he finds himself at Zuko’s doors every time the sun goes down. And, without fail, Zuko always opens them within seconds of Sokka’s knocking to let him in.

They don’t talk, most nights. Breathing to the same beats forms enough of a conversation, as does the little smile Zuko graces him with at the end that seems to grow with each passing day.

But the fourth time they sit across from one another, the silence starts chafing at Sokka.

“Noticed there was no Kyoshi Warrior posted on your door again today,” he starts, groping for a neutral topic. “You give them a few nights off or something?”

Zuko’s eyes open slowly, eyelashes fluttering as he focuses on Sokka. The relaxed, languid heat of his gaze warms Sokka to his core.

“Kind of,” says Zuko, before closing his eyes again. Huh.

Sokka reaches across to nudge him on the shoulder, poking at it until Zuko sighs and opens them again. “Seriously, though,” Sokka says, “don’t think I’ve forgotten about those creepy notes or whatever. Why the sudden lax in security? Can’t afford to pay the Warriors’ salary anymore?”

Zuko grabs at Sokka’s finger, pushing it and its pointiness gently away. “No one’s made good on the threat in weeks,” he says. “Normally, if someone says they want to kill me, they’d have had a good go by now.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Sokka points out. “Being a whackjob doesn’t mean you can’t have endless streams of patience when required.”

“Sokka, I can’t have the Kyoshi Warriors guarding my door all night when they have better things to be doing,” says Zuko, exasperated. “Plus, I still have my guards for that. You know, actual guards? To do the guarding? I mean, it’s in their name and everything.”

“Ha ha,” says Sokka. “Hilarious. Think I cracked a rib from laughing too hard.”

“Considering how you’ve already managed to achieve that feat,” says Zuko, raising one wry eyebrow, “I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Sokka’s own eyebrows shoot up. “How’d I manage that?”

“Well,” Zuko draws out the word. “Technically, you fell down the stairs. But you were laughing! Enough to not see where you were going, apparently. Suki loves telling that story. Says her jokes were funny enough to nearly kill a man.”

“As opposed to her fans, which have definitely killed one or two.” Sokka shakes his head, chuckling. “Man, no wonder she broke up with me. She’s, like, ten times cooler than I could ever hope to be.”

“I don’t think that was quite it,” says Zuko. His smile fades as he looks at Sokka, gaze earnest all of a sudden. “I think you’re cool.”

“Oh.” Sokka swallows. “Thanks, man. Appreciate the vote of confidence.”

Zuko blinks at him before flushing, as if he’d just realised what he’d said. “Yeah, well,” he says, stuttering slightly as he looks away. “Don’t let it go to your head. It’s big enough as is.” He huffs. “Now be quiet. You’re distracting me.”

“Alright, your Fieriness,” says Sokka, snorting when Zuko makes a face at this.

They lapse back into comfortable quietness, something lighter in the air than before. But now that they’ve started talking, Sokka doesn’t want to stop. On nights like this, Zuko’s voice could be a meditation of its own.

So, he lets the silence drag out for a few more minutes before clearing his throat once more.

“You know that balloon ride we took,” he says. “To Boiling Rock?”

Zuko opens one eye cautiously. At his nod, Sokka continues. “I remember you mentioned your… girlfriend?” His eyes drop to Zuko’s bare neck. Well, ex now, surely, considering the— Yeah. “Moody Mai?”

“Ex-girlfriend,” Zuko clarifies, confirming what Sokka already knows to be true.

“Where is she, now? I don’t think I’ve seen her once since I was here.” A sudden, horrifying thought occurs to Sokka. “Did she— in the war?”

“Wha— no!” Zuko’s hands flap out in a manner he probably thinks is reassuring, but makes him more like a turtle-duck drying its wings. “No, no, she’s absolutely fine. She’s at Ba Sing Se University.”

Sokka must have heard wrong. “University? As a… student?”

“Turns out, her brain is really good at quickly crunching numbers and angles when she’s not contemplating murder,” says Zuko dryly, like he anticipated Sokka’s disbelief. “Last I heard from her, she was finishing her dissertation. Something about how to alter a shuriken’s design to better optimise its throwing potential? Pretty neat stuff, but it goes straight over my head. I hear the staff is already frothing at the mouth to offer her a teaching position, if she wants it.”

“Huh.” Sokka ponders on it for a second. “You know what? I was fully prepared to think you were pulling my leg, but that makes a weird amount of sense, actually.”

“Yeah,” says Zuko, sounding more than a little proud. “She comes back from time to time. Mostly to see her family, but she drops by the palace sometimes.”

“To… menace you with her extra deadly shurikens?”

“No, why would you— to visit. She’s still my best friend.” Zuko pauses, hand going back over the lamp resting between them. “Plus,” he says, “I’m pretty sure she’s got a thing going on with Suki and Ty Lee.”

Sokka feels his jaw drop. “No.

“Yes,” says Zuko, nodding sagely. “I’ve seen them disappear behind closed doors often enough. And there’s also the… noises.”

“The noises,” repeats Sokka, dumbfounded.

“Mostly giggling,” says Zuko. His good cheek flares pink. “Though there was that one time I went looking for Ty Lee, and I— um. Yeah.”

A beat passes. “Well.” Sokka feels his mouth flap his mouth open and shut. “Well. Good for them! Good for them.”

Zuko just shrugs, though one corner of his mouth quirks up. “Good for them,” he agrees.

The lamplight begins to dim and brighten beneath Zuko’s hands once again. But when Sokka finds his eyes straying to Zuko’s neck every other second, he knows there will be no more meditation for him tonight.

“What about you?”

“Hmm?” Zuko’s eyes open again. “What about me?”

Sokka swallows, throat suddenly dry. “You’re with someone, right?”

The candle flares, making Sokka recoil. Then it snuffs out completely, leaving nothing but a wisp of smoke winding its way through air that suddenly seems too charged.

“I was wondering when you’d ask,” Zuko says quietly. “Yes.”

“From the Water Tribe?” Sokka gestures to his own neck. “I mean, I’m guessing, from the—” Maybe starting this line of conversation was a mistake, after all. “Do I know them?”

Zuko says nothing for a long moment. Goes so still that Sokka wonders if he’s even breathing. Then: “Not anymore.”

“Oh.”

A chill has grown in the air between them sometime when Sokka wasn’t looking. It’s gotten darker, too; the wall sconces have dimmed, casting everything in grey tinges.

Sokka pulls Zuko’s robe tighter around himself. He’s almost afraid to ask the next question lining his mind, but knows that if he doesn’t ask now, he probably won’t have the courage to do so ever again. “Where are they now?”

Zuko’s eyes almost look black in this light. When he speaks, the word falls from his lips to land like a stone in Sokka’s guts. “Gone.”

All at once, Sokka wants to leave. He wishes he’d never opened his mouth. He wishes he’d never come here in the first place. He wishes that wishes were real, if only so he'd have the power to wish away the horror twining its vines up his gullet, as well as the wretchedness that’s made its home on Zuko’s face. “Spirits, Zuko, I’m— I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”

Zuko’s hand rises to his neck to clutch the emptiness at the notch between his collarbones. “I’ve… come to terms with it,” he says haltingly. “Some days are easier than others.”

His hand drops away, the words spilling out like they have nowhere else to go. “But some days, I wake up and it’s like… like he never even left. Until I remember. And then it's like I’m losing him all over again.”

He. “I’m sorry,” repeats Sokka, for lack of anything else to say. Because what does anyone even say to that?

Zuko shakes his head. “Don’t be,” he says, and there’s something immeasurably sad in his voice. “It’s not like it’s your fault.”

“But I—” Ripped away possibly the strongest memory of him from you, he thinks.

(Why don’t you wear it anymore?)

He swallows down the words. Asks, instead, “How long has it been, since he— since you lost him?"

“Too long.” The candle’s flame springs back to life under Zuko’s hands. It flickers shadows across the hollows of Zuko’s face. “Someone always leaves first.”

“What?”

“It's something my uncle said, when Aunt Ilah died. ‘Someone always leaves first, Zuko. That’s just the way things go.’ It was a tidy enough explanation for a five-year-old, even if I didn’t really fully understand what he meant back then,” says Zuko, staring somewhere above Sokka’s shoulder. “But then, Uncle’s proverbs have this thing of making sense in hindsight. I just thought— ”

He breaks off, throat bobbing.

“You thought what?” prompts Sokka, gentle as he can.

Zuko’s eyes fall back down to meet Sokka’s. “I just thought we’d have more time.”

At the grief lining every inch of Zuko's posture, the words start coming, unbidden, to Sokka mouth. “With loss,” he starts, “part of the pain comes from the fact that it's so unpredictable. You can't see it coming until it's there, and by then it’s too late. When my—”

And now it's his turn to pause, collecting his words carefully. Breathing through the old pain, over a scar that’s never fully healed. “The day my mom died, it was sunny. Just another normal day. We did what we always did: woke up, had breakfast. The women worked inside. The men left to go hunting, and us kids went off to play.” Another deep breath. “Then the Fire Nation ships came. She died. And my whole world felt like it turned upside down, inside out; everything felt like it went sort of grey, you know? Or at least, it should have done. She took all the colour with her.”

He smiles, though there is no mirth in it. “But outside, it was still sunny.”

“Sokka,” says Zuko softly.

Sokka stares down at where his hands are wringing themselves in his lap, before turning to look out the window. “You'd think that would have made it easier to accept when Yue died in my arms. But if anything, it was worse. Because with Yue— I saw it coming. She was always going to choose duty over me—over everything, really— and I thought I’d accepted that. But when she— when she stopped breathing, a part of me stopped, too. In here.” He rubs at his chest, right above his heart. “And I don’t think it’ll ever go away.”

“Tell me about her,” says Zuko.

“I think,” says Sokka, hazarding a guess, “that I probably already have.”

Zuko’s soft smile confirms what he already knows. “Tell me again.”

“Well, if you’re sure,” he says ruefully. “You know, when I met her, I always thought she was larger than life. There was just something about her that marked her as different. Not just her hair, though I guess that was part of it all, in hindsight. But something more, too. In her spirit.”

And the smile that comes to his lips now is a lot softer. “I guess it’s kind of fitting, then, that she became immortalised in the sky as, like, an actual Spirit. And I know that, with her, it's easy for me to look outside at night and feel like a part of her is still around, still looking out for me and those I love. But with my mom… for the longest time, I didn’t have anything of hers. Katara had her necklace”— his eyes fall to Zuko’s neck again, before he forces them to look away—“and my dad had the hair bead she made for him when they first started courting. But all I had were my memories of her. And they never felt like they were enough, you know?”

“I know,” murmurs Zuko, almost imperceptibly.

“But then Gran-Gran told me something,” says Sokka. “She said my mom's name, Kya, means ‘diamond in the sky’.”

He turns to the window again. “So now, whenever I find myself missing her more than normal, I just look for the brightest star. And it might just be fanciful thinking, but it always seems to wink at me. Just like she used to, when I’d catch her sneaking a bite off Dad’s plate at dinner, or when she’d give me sweets even when I wasn’t technically supposed to have them— usually right before bed.”

Sokka’s gaze catches on what it’s looking for. He feels a grin tug at his lips when it twinkles at him now. “Look, see? That’s her. Right next to Yue, shining bright as anything.”

A strange sort of bravery overtakes him; he finds himself reaching over to take one of Zuko's hands.

Zuko inhales sharply, but doesn't pull away.

“What I'm trying to say is,” says Sokka, looking down at their clasped hands, palm against heated palm, “those who leave us are never really gone. They leave pieces of themselves behind for us to find.”

Zuko’s fingers tighten around Sokka’s hand. “How are you supposed to do that? To… find your piece of them?”

“It’s easy,” says Sokka, nodding at the moon’s crescent smile. “All you have to do is look.”

It’s probably more wishful thinking on his part, but if he squints, he can almost pretend that Yue seems to be shining a little brighter than usual tonight. But when he turns back, he finds Zuko looking not out the window but at him, eyes roving over Sokka’s face.

“I’ll try,” says Zuko, pulling back his hand from Sokka’s. The sudden absence of heat makes Sokka’s hand feel empty. “I’ll look.”

“I hope you find your piece of him,” says Sokka honestly.

Zuko’s eyes glimmer in the moonlight, right before he closes them. “Me too.”

 


 

Of course, much like the uneasy calm before a storm, it can't last.

All it takes is one careless hand. One candle placed too close to the curtains. One moment of shock, as the fire catches, before there’s a wall against his back and Katara’s arms gripped in his as he yanks her away, his brain all the while screaming danger danger danger.

And Katara’s voice is too far away and too close all at once, telling him to let me go Sokka it’s okay I’m okay we’re both safe hey hey look at me breathe Sokka breathe it’s okay I put it out I’m sorry I wasn’t looking hey Sokka hey look at me please breathe c’mon there we go that’s it keep going I’m sorry I’m so sorry.

He should have seen the look in Katara’s eyes then. Should have realised what it meant. But he was too busy choking in gasping breaths of cloth-charred smoke, trying to drown out the flames in his mind. And that night, he’s too busy being smothered by Katara’s worry to go meditate with Zuko, leaving him even more on edge the next day.

All in all, it’s less than a day before he’s summoned to the council chambers.

“A decision has been made,” says Kirima.

Her voice echoes through the nearly empty room. The benches have been moved so that the healers are all seated on one together, with Kustaa, Zuko and Suki sitting adjacent on another. Katara stands close by, hovering near Suki.

Sokka, on a single seat facing the others, feels boxed in on all sides. He wants to turn his heel and run at the tension that clouds the room, but they’re all looking at him with various degrees of concern—apart from Zuko, who seems content to stare at his hands clasped on his lap— and he doesn’t want to prove them right. He doesn’t need their concern. He just needs— well, maybe another hit to the head would be nice, actually.

“What sort of decision?” he asks, too weary to be suspicious.

“One that seeks to benefit you in all regards,” assures Kustaa. “…Though you may not like it.”

It might just be the sheer level of exhaustion currently permeating every fibre of Sokka’s being, but he’s suddenly very fucking done with all of this. “Just tell me.”

“We’re going back to the South Pole,” says Katara. She won’t quite look him in the eyes. “Me and you.”

Sokka stares at her. Suddenly, he feels very wide awake. “For how long?”

Katara says nothing for a moment. Then: “However long we need to.”

“Katara’s told us about the difficulty you’ve been having with sleep recently,” says Ahnah delicately. How kind of her to phrase it that way, instead of you look like shit. “It seems that unintended consequences of our last healing session include aggravation of the trauma buried deep within your memories.”

“I’m fine,” Sokka says immediately.

“How about this. Look me in the eye,” says Kirima, “and tell me that the nightmares are getting any better. Tell me that your breath doesn’t catch every time you look at the colours adorning the palace walls. Tell me,” here, her voice softens, “that your reaction to the fire that started in your quarters seemed proportional to the threat it posed to your life, or Katara’s.”

Sokka doesn’t even have it in him to shoot a glare at Katara, who still isn’t looking directly at him.

At his silence, Kirima just shakes her head. “This is not an attack on you of any sort. Rather, it is an acknowledgement to all that you’ve been through. It’s okay to admit that you’re struggling.”

“I’m fine,” he bites out again, pushing back his chair as he stands. “I just need— I’ll tell you what I don’t need, actually.”

He waves over at all of them with one hand he pretends isn’t shaking. “A fucking intervention.”

“You remember Boiling Rock now, don’t you,” says Suki quietly from where she’s sat.

“I—” Sokka pauses, thrown off his impending rant. “What does that have to— yeah, I pieced together most of what happened.”

Some details are still fuzzy, but he remembers the balloon ride there (notwithstanding that whole conversation about Moody Mai, he can’t believe his brain is dumb enough to supply him with “pretty clouds” twice; he’s glad Zuko isn’t looking at him, if only so he can’t see the sheer fucking mortification that smacks Sokka in the face every time he thinks about it). He remembers wearing the guard disguises with Zuko, and finding Suki, and some dude called… Sit Chang?

The relief at finding his Dad overshadows everything else after that, though something had still managed to cut through it, right near the end; that sharp moment of panic on the gondola when Zuko had jumped, reaching out with one desperate hand—

(Last night, after Katara had all but dragged him to her own quarters and pushed him into bed, something had shifted in his nightmares. Instead of Toph’s face staring up at him amidst all the smoke and the fire waiting for her below, it had been Zuko whose fingers had begun slipping from his grasp; Zuko, whose eyes had flashed through terror then resignation then bleak acceptance, tears trailing tracks through soot-covered cheeks as sweat lost them the traction between their grip; Zuko, who Sokka had begged and pleaded with to hold on I’ve got you please hold on until Zuko had looked at him, ever so soft and full of an emotion too big to name, and said Sokka, it’s okay. Let go.

And suddenly, his hand had been far too light and far too empty, and Sokka had never been more grateful for the shards in his throat as he’d screamed himself awake.)

“I was there for four months,” says Suki, and Sokka tethers himself to the present by the stone that flints her gaze. “Four months in a prison full of the worst the Fire Nation had to offer. I’d never had to watch my own back before— I’d always had my girls with me, and we covered for each other at every waking moment. Even when we were asleep, actually. But here I was, all alone. Sleeping with one eye open and a sharpened piece of broken steel in my fist.”

Her hand forms such a fist now, green gloves closing over one unopened fan. “Do you really think I got over those four months so easily? That I brushed aside the terror of knowing every night could have been my last, either by someone else’s hand or my own if they’d ever—” She cuts herself off, breathing hard, and Sokka feels like he’d been punched in the gut by the horror that rises within him at the thought.

“Suki—” he says, but she just shakes her head.

Zuko’s hand rises to Suki’s shoulder, and Suki drops the fan to close hers over it.

“You can’t get over things like that on your own,” she tells Sokka. “I tried to hold on until the end of the war, hoping I’d just… go back to normal, now that I was finally free. But I wasn’t free, not really. I’d brought the prison walls with me. And when the threat of the war passed, they began closing in on me.” Her hand tightens over Zuko’s. “When Ty Lee found me collapsed outside my room after three nights of no sleep, pointing my fan at shadows, I knew something had to give— either my need to fight through it alone, or my sanity.”

She stands up, now, coming over to stand next to Sokka. “Being strong doesn’t mean isolating yourself to the point of self-destruction, Sokka. Being strong means accepting that, sometimes, we need to accept the help that’s being offered to us. Unload that weight off yourself. Just because you carry it well, doesn’t mean it isn’t heavy.”

The tears that prick at his eyes come with no warning.

“I just— I don’t want to let you down,” he says to them around the lump in his throat. “Any of you. I know what you want from me, and I can’t even give it to you. I can’t— I can’t be him.”

I don’t even know how to be me anymore, he wants to add, but the chambers are too big to give weight to words so exposing. So, he keeps them to the confines of his mind, where there is no echo to come haunt him.

“It is not on you to give and keep on giving,” says Kirima. “This struggle within you now, between your past and present selves, is what is keeping you from achieving true peace. It is also what we suspect to be strengthening your mental block. As long as you remain here, you risk further tainting your memories with the fear that holds you captive, pushing them away from your reach.”

“And going back will, what?” Sokka gestures to himself. “Fix everything?”

“There is much we do not know about your predicament,” Ahnah says, smoothing out wrinkles where her tunic has gathered at her lap. “So, take our advice as a suggestion, rather than prescription. But we do believe that returning home to the South will provide your mind with the solace it so desperately needs.”

“You must go to where your past is a familiar blanket,” says Kirima, “and not a shroud threatening to smother you. I acknowledge that the Fire Nation has come a long way in strengthening their relationship with us,” here, her eyes flit to Zuko, “and with you, personally. But continuing to stay here in this state will do you more harm than good.”

Sokka also finds his eyes straying to Zuko, who’s finally looking up at him. “And can I— will I be able to come back, someday?”

It takes Zuko a moment to speak. When he does, his voice is scratchy. “The Fire Nation will always be ready to welcome you back with open arms,” he says, eyes brimming with something nameless.

For a moment, it feels like it’s just the two of them in the chamber, threaded together by their gazes. The same bleak acceptance from his nightmare is stroked across Zuko’s face now— Sokka wants to reach out and wipe it away. If only his fingers would stop shaking. “We’ll be here, waiting, for when you’re better. As long as it takes.”

A gloved hand at his cheek brings him back. “You’ve been holding on for so long,” Suki says, wiping away tears. His eyes close at the touch— when had he started crying? “It’s time to let go, Sokka.”

He’s so tired. The warmth from Suki’s palm is the only thing stopping him from sinking to his knees right there and then, all strength having fled his body. Instead, he forces himself to open his eyes, looking with reluctant resolve at Zuko, and then Katara.

“When do we leave?”

 


 

Packing everything takes him much less time than expected.

Most of his clothes are too thin for the South Pole, and he doesn’t have any real attachment to the trinkets lining his shelves— or if he did, he doesn’t remember anymore.

Same goes for the weapons lining the walls, barring Boomerang Junior and Space Sword the Second. After packing the former, he takes a step towards the dark, gleaming metal, running his fingers lightly over the inscription.

Does this count, he wonders, as giving up without a fight? Or are some fights destined to be lost?

Maybe he’s just been delaying the inevitable all this time, by refusing to accept the hand that fate has dealt him. Maybe he should have given up from the start.

He’s so lost in thought that it takes him a second to hear the knocking.

“Sorry to disturb you,” says Ahnah, when he opens his door, “but I came to give you this.”

She holds up a small cloth bag. At Sokka’s questioning look, she smiles hesitantly. “It’s the rest of the herbs we brought with us. For the tea.”

“But I’m not doing any more healing sessions with you,” says Sokka, confused.

“I thought you might want to keep some on hand, just in case you ever— well.”

Ahnah walks further into his quarters. “When we received the initial summons from the Fire Lord, there wasn’t a lot of detail to go on. All we knew was that you’d received a blow to the head, leading to the loss of some of your memories. We prepared as best we could, but even so, we knew that there was a high possibility we wouldn’t be able to help you. Injuries to the brain are some of the most volatile of them all, even with hundreds of years of water healing knowledge.”

Sokka feels his mouth tighten. “Then why did you come?”

Ahnah places the bag on the table by the window, the one Katara liked to use to read her scrolls. It’s covered in an embarrassing jumble of dirtied crockery— he hadn’t felt like eating lunch with the others today. “Chief Arnook came to me personally. He said that healing you would be of critical importance for the continued unity of the nations.” She shakes her head, as if in disbelief. “I was highly sceptical, of course. One ordinary ambassador’s well-being, holding such import as to call for the most highly trained healers from across the world? But then he showed me the summons. And I knew we had to at least try.”

At Sokka’s frown, she taps at the table with one nail. “Official correspondence between nations tends to be rather dry. But this one— it seemed desperate, somehow. Like more than one life was at stake. And Arnook knew you, personally. Said that you were… special. To many people, actually. Including the Avatar.” She pauses briefly. “And the Fire Lord.”

So special, Sokka thinks bitterly, that he hasn’t come to see me even once since the chambers. For all their bonding and their meditation sessions and Zuko’s pretty words in front of the others, there’s been little to show for it. Sokka had thought that he might have— well, Sokka doesn’t know what he’d thought. He’d thought he might have meant something to Zuko, the way Zuko’s come to mean a whole lot of something to him. Does Zuko even care that Sokka’s leaving?

Ahnah smiles at him, sadness tinged at the edges as if she knows exactly what he’s thinking. “There are a great many people who care about you, here in the Fire Nation,” she says. “You’ve made your place here; I can see why you feel so torn about leaving it. But I hold high hope that returning to the South Pole just might be what you need to get your memories back. The tea is there to help with that.”

“I can’t say I’m a fan of the taste,” he says, quashing down the hope rising in his chest. He’s drunk enough tea to last a lifetime, with nothing yet to show for it. “Of either one, actually.”

Ahnah’s brow wrinkles. “It’s just the one blend,” she says. “What do you mean?”

“At the temple. The tea Miki gave me—it tasted…” Off.

But did it, really? Or was it just his imagination, twisting up his senses between the nervousness and anticipation?

Can he really trust anything from his memories?

“Never mind,” he says finally. “Just… guess my palate just isn’t refined enough for it yet.”

Ahnah chuckles lightly. “Sadly, the things that are good for us don’t always feel like they initially are. Brew it every few days— I’ll have some more sent with the official shipments from the North.”

He pokes at the bag. “What’s so special about it anyway?”

“It acts as an emotional tether, of a sort,” says Ahnah. “It used to be prescribed to those returning from the front lines of the war, though now it is given to anyone who has trouble reconnecting with their emotions after traumatic events. We were hoping it would set a good foundation for us to build upon with the healing sessions.”

“Didn’t do me much good, did it?” says Sokka, trying very hard not to sound as cynical as he feels.

“I think you’d be surprised,” she replies. “When we sent some by messenger hawk, did you happen to drink it like we asked?”

At Sokka’s nod, she continues, “And did you feel anything different that day? Any emotion brought to the forefront that seemed unusual?” She takes a closer look at him. “Did you seek something out? Almost compulsively?”

(Somewhere, deep in the recesses of his mind, something creaks and groans.

The cog, dormant for so long, begins to turn once more.)

“Not really, I—”

Sokka’s eyes widen.

(It catches at the teeth of another, pulling it along with its momentum.)

“You did, didn’t you?” asks Ahnah, and her voice seems to be coming from very far away as he stares at one of the cups sitting innocuously on his table.

The same cup he’d first brewed the healers’ tea in, right before his feet had taken him to Zuko.

(And more and more cogs catch at one another, all of them spinning and grinding and turning, until the pieces start falling into place, and—)

Ahnah, when he looks back over to her, meets his eyes understandingly. “The first dose is always the most potent. It unearths emotions that may have been buried for a long time, bringing them to the forefront.”

“My… emotions?” he chokes out. “From before the…?”

“Yes,” says Ahnah as she steps towards his door. “From before your memory loss. Over time, the effects consolidate themselves and tend to fade into the background. But most people, on their first dose, tend to gravitate towards that which the older versions of themselves felt strongest, before trauma lost them that connection. Sometimes it’s linked to a goal they had, or personal motivations. Some have even described having their feet wanting to draw them back to the frontlines, showing them the anger that had driven them there in the first place.”

She comes over, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Oftentimes, it’s love that pulls strongest, driving them to the previous object of their affections. Whatever emotion it may be, these herbs have a good way of re-establishing that emotional connection with what’s been lost.”

“I—” Sokka looks down as she presses the bag into his hand.

“Whatever you felt then was real, Sokka,” says Ahnah. “I hope you, too, find whatever it is you’ve lost.”

(And something finally shifts.)

The door swings shut in her wake, but something in Sokka’s head feels ripped open.

Zuko.

He drops the bag on the table, stumbling to the mantle to fumble for some charcoal and paper. He needs to write this down. He needs to figure it out, to— he needs to know.

With every hastily scribbled word, he attempts to put some semblance of order to the chaos raging inside his skull.

 

REASONS WHY ZUKO COULD BE MY PRE-MEMORY LOSS MYSTERY LOVER

  • Kept me company in the infirmary for days

Such good friends, Suki had said. But what if—

  • Knows moon peaches are my favourites

Could be the friendship thing again, he reasons.

  • Gave me nicer quarters than what the other ambassadors have been allocated

Like, so much nicer. Like, unreasonably nicer. He’d seen Taktuq’s quarters once, and they barely been half the size of Sokka’s.

Could… still be the friendship… thing?

  • Got tea for my knee, even in the rain

Zuko’s fevered grip, holding him in place. Thought you’d gone. Stay. 

And Sokka had. Why?

  • Tucky

The last person he’d carved something like that for had been Yue.

Sokka’s grip tightens on the charcoal, pressing it into the paper.

  • Everyone knows something I don’t

All the little quips. All the moments where it felt like everyone around him was in on the secret, the unaddressed camel-elephant in the room trumpeting away so loud that the windows were shaking.

And still, Sokka hadn’t—

  • The way he looks at me sometimes

Like Sokka was something precious. Like Sokka was something lost to him.

Like this was definitely not just a friendship thing.

  • Fire lily smell on my pillow. His shampoo smells like fire lilies

Sokka had— he’d suspected that it had to have been someone from the Fire Nation. Hadn’t Kustaa said something about Fire Nation nobility using those shampoos?

Could it be?

  • The poem

‘Kindled’? ‘Fire’? ‘Ablaze’?

Spirits, how could Sokka have been so blind.

  • Herbal tea draws drinker towards that which is felt strongest


The charcoal begins shaking, leaving smudged scratches across the page.

He remembers how compulsion-like it had felt, the way his legs had dragged him to Zuko’s doors.

He feels that same compulsion now, because his heart is soaring, leaping, bounding to run to the very same doors. And with every word, isn’t it becoming clear, now, what it’s known for so long? That what it yearned for has been a three-and-a-half-minute walk away, after all this time?

That it’s always been him, always been Zuko?

Sokka’s lost five years and so much along with them, but has somehow managed to gain back this one beautiful thing. And all he wants to do now is run to him, fuck the packing and the leaving and the nightmares because none of it matters, abso-fucking-lutely nothing, because he’s Zuko’s just like Zuko’s his, and he has proof now, proof with this list, and with everything that sits unspoken between them every time they’re in the same room but sings so loudly in Sokka’s chest with every passing moment spent in his company, and with the blue around Zuko’s—

  • The betrothal necklace

The charcoal snaps in two. The pieces fall to the floor, the paper fluttering down to meet them.

Sokka follows, sinking to his knees next to the fireplace. The heat of the flames does nothing to melt the ice spreading throughout his chest.

He brings his hands forward. Stares at the foreign largeness of them, the only familiarity the lines running across his palms. How cruel, he thinks distantly, this twist of fate.

Who could have foreseen this? That with these very same hands— hands capable of carving flames into stone, it seems, of threading silk through it and clasping it in the hopes that it would stay where it was made to belong, forever and ever— are also hands capable of wrapping themselves around—

Of pressing, until—

“Your future is full of struggle and anguish. Most of it self-inflicted.”

He buries his face in them. Almost starts laughing, right there and then, if only for something to free itself from his lungs, full of this awful tightness as they are. Who’d have thought crazy old Aunt Wu would have been onto something?

Do I know them? Not anymore.
Where are they now? Gone.


Oh, how he’d ached to know. Oh, how he ached to forget.

He pulls his hands away from his face. With numb fingers, he rips the paper in half, then half again and again and again. Scatters the pieces in the hearth without flinching. Watches them set on fire, until nothing is left to go back from. Nothing left to recover. Nothing left but ashes.

 


 

But Sokka has always known of the weakness that plagues his spirit, just as he knows he cannot deny himself this one, final thing.

“Sokka?” Zuko looks startled when he opens the door. He looks sleep-rumpled and soft, though his eyes are wide awake. “I wasn’t expecting you tonight. Aren’t you supposed to be packing for tomorrow?”

When Sokka doesn’t answer, he frowns. “Are you alright?”

“Never better,” Sokka lies, the words coming easy as breathing. It’s just as easy to pull at the strings attached to his facial muscles, tugging them up. “Can’t I come see my favourite firebender before leaving?”

Something unhappy pulls at Zuko’s face for the briefest of seconds, before it smooths itself away. “Of course,” he says. “You know my door’s always open to you.”

There is a strange howling that has begun somewhere behind Sokka’s ribcage, but he smiles through his teeth again before asking, “Well, then, one final meditation session? For the road?”

He almost wishes Zuko would say no, just this once. Shut the door on Sokka’s face like he deserves. But even though Zuko wavers, clearly reluctant, the answer is predictable.

After all, in all this time, when has Zuko ever denied him?

“Come in,” says Zuko finally.

The bottomless pit of loathing and misery in Sokka’s guts, sludge-like and sticky as tar, bubbles thickly as he follows Zuko to their normal spot. Zuko reaches for the lamp, before curling his hand back.

“Let’s try something different tonight?”

“Anything,” says Sokka, and something must have spilled through his voice because Zuko turns to him sharply.

It takes more effort than Sokka is comfortable with to school his expression back to a neutral mask. He can’t afford to ruin this. Not now, when this is all he may have left. “What,” he asks, speaking past the stone in his throat, “something on my face?”

It works. Zuko looks away, abashed, before turning towards his bedroom. “Sorry. Follow me.”

And how could Sokka have ever thought to deny him in turn?

Zuko’s bedroom is just as bare as he remembers. The fire burns low in the hearth, dying embers on their last breath, but Zuko makes no move to stoke them. Instead, they walk to a low table at the other end of the room, where Zuko gestures for Sokka to take a seat.

Zuko disappears somewhere for a second, before returning with a small tray. On it is a teapot, gently steaming, and two small cups. He pours one out before passing it to Sokka. “Here. Thought you might like some tea before we start.”

And Sokka wants to laugh, he truly does. Because the only other alternative is to cry, or perhaps scream and throw the cup and its contents against a wall. Maybe upend the entire table.

But he does none of this. Instead, he lets the jasmine tea burn his tongue on the way down and wishes he could drown in the rest of it. “Thanks,” he manages to get out. “It’s lovely.”

Zuko’s small, pleased smile is hidden behind his own cup, though Sokka can still spot the curve of it in his eyes. He throws the rest of the tea back, perfectly sweetened to his taste, and tries not to choke on the bitterness coating the back of his throat.

No matter how hard he swallows, the jasmine still lingers.

When Zuko’s put the teacups away, he places his hands flat against the table. “Thought we could go back to the breathing exercises for tonight,” he says, the words oddly hesitant.

It takes a second for their meaning to click in Sokka’s mind. “If this is about— about my freakout with the curtains the other day, or whatever—”

Zuko’s already shaking his head, though he won’t look at Sokka. “That’s not it.”

“I’m not scared,” says Sokka, and he hates how, despite the iron-fisted control he thought he currently has over himself, his voice still manages to crack on the last word.

“I know you’re not,” says Zuko, and Sokka wishes he could hate how soft his voice is. “I just want you to be comfortable.”

He takes a deep breath, and it takes Sokka a second to realise how it shakes on the exhale. “I’m sorry I didn’t notice you struggling with it,” he says. “With the fire. I should have realised sooner, I should have seen—”

“What? No. It’s not like it’s your fault.” Sokka scoffs, though this time he’s the one to bow his head. “I know the bump knocked me back a few years, but imagine still being afraid of fire at fifteen. I wish I could just fucking get over myself.”

“I was afraid of fire at fifteen,” says Zuko.

Startled, Sokka looks up from the table. Zuko’s gaze is trained on him, though his eyes seem far away. “And sixteen, and seventeen. I’m still a little bit afraid of it now, to be honest.”

“You’re a firebender,” says Sokka, flummoxed. “Why would you ever be—”

“Of all the elements, fire may not be the most powerful, but it is arguably the most destructive.” His hand rises to his face, tracing the edge of his scar. “What fire touches,” he says quietly, “cannot be untouched. Your fear isn’t unfounded.”

And isn’t that the most awful thing? That, in the long line of people who have hurt Zuko, Sokka doesn’t even know where he stands.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “You— sometimes, I don’t even see it anymore.” It’s true— the scar is as intrinsic a part of Zuko as his voice or his hair or the gold of his eyes, and though Sokka wishes Zuko had never been touched by fire or its pain, it marks him as him. It makes him Zuko. And he is all the more beautiful for it.

 Zuko’s hand drops back to the table. “I,” he says, eyes widening just a little. “Oh.”

And though Sokka has so much more to say, this is a dangerous line of conversation to stumble down right now. He just might reveal his hand, spilling his discovery across the table until it taints Zuko. Sokka’s already left his unwanted marks on him once— he’s not going to do it again.

So, he clears his throat, flushing. “Yeah. Anyway, I— does it ever get better? The fear, I mean,” he clarifies. “How do you make yourself get over it?”

Zuko thinks for a moment. “You don’t,” he says, like it’s an apology. “It stays. But I will say this: it does get better. Maybe not now, maybe not for a long while. But you learn to live with it.”

“How?”

“My uncle once told me, ‘fear has a large shadow, but he himself is small’,” says Zuko. “Fear takes you by the hand to the things you keep and guard as precious, the things most important to you. You can’t run from it, but you can try and understand it. Where’s it coming from? What’s it trying to tell you?”

“Fire scary,” Sokka deadpans. “Makes hurty, go ouchy.”

But Zuko just continues to look at him, and Sokka relaxes his shoulders from where they’ve bunched up at his neck. “Two people I loved have already been taken away from me by fire,” he says, voice almost a whisper. “I couldn’t protect either of them. And I’m scared it’ll happen again. It can’t happen again, Zuko. It’ll break me.”

A hand closes over his on the table between them. He looks up into Zuko’s eyes, twin pools of molten gold. “Sokka,” says Zuko, just as quiet, “I can’t promise you that anything like that won’t happen again. I can’t tell you how to feel. But what I can tell you is that your fear does not diminish you in any way. If anything, it makes you stronger.”

Sokka’s eyes burn. He scrubs at them. “I don’t feel very strong right now.”

“But you are,” says Zuko. His thumb rubs over the soft skin at the back of Sokka’s hand, in an almost absent manner. “Sokka, you’ve been through so much. And even now, you’re more afraid for the sake of others than yourself. Don’t you see? This fear of yours, it’s showing you the way of your true self. It’s showing the brightness of your soul that shines through in everything about you.”

His grip loosens around Sokka’s hand as he pulls it back. “And when you do find yourself—as I’m sure you will— you’ll learn to overcome that fear, and master it until it has no hold over you.”

“How did you master yours?” asks Sokka.

“I surrounded myself with those who loved me,” says Zuko simply. “And who I loved in turn. Love strong enough to fade the fear a little. Love strong enough to forget.”

That’s easy, then, Sokka thinks. I love you.

I love you I love you I love you.

The words pour out from his heart, singing their sweet, bright notes as they drop into his soul. Their ripples fan into waves throughout him, flowing to every inch of his being until he’s drowning in the enormity of his desire.

But then they begin rising up his throat, threatening to bubble out into the space between them.

You don’t get to have this, he reminds himself forcefully. This isn’t for you. Not anymore.

So, with a heavy heart, he kills them. Suffocates their song into silence. Feels them wither away until there is nothing left but a graveyard in his mouth, filled with these soft words that have died on his lips.

“Let’s meditate,” he chokes out around their brittle bones.

He watches Zuko close his eyes, chest expanding with the breath he takes. One.

Memorises the planes of his face, the curve of his lips. Two. Traces the edges of his scar with his eyes. Three.

Thinks about how his hand had felt over Sokka’s, imbuing him with easy warmth. Four. Thinks about the taste of honeyed jasmine still playing across his tongue. Commits this to memory, too. Five.

Thinks about how, this time tomorrow, there will be the beginnings of an ocean between them. Six.

Slowly begins to choke out his desire to reach out, to touch, to hold. Seven. To have. Eight.

Wishes, one last time, that he could have been enough. Nine.

Lets go. Ten.



“Ready?” Suki shields her eyes from the early morning sun, peering up at the fastened sails of their ship.

Katara puts a hand on Sokka’s shoulder. She waits until he gives her a mechanical smile before nodding. “As we’ll ever be,” she says.

Suki brings her fingers to her lips, letting out a shrill whistle.

A large shadow falls upon those gathered at the docks as they watch the sails unfurl, flapping taut in the breeze. The ship destined to take Sokka and Katara back to the South Pole is of Water Tribe make, though modifications seem to have been made to lend it increased speed over the water.

Suki steps back off the gangplank, twining her fingers with Ty Lee’s as she comes to stand beside her. Right behind them are the healers, who have come to see him off along with Kustaa and Sarwar. Sokka’s not too sure why Sarwar is even here, because all he’s done since coming is to stare in awe at Saaya’s muscles as she drags the last of Sokka’s luggage off the carriage to hand to the porters.

“You know,” Sarwar says to her, “I always used to want to be a Kyoshi Warrior when I was younger. Well. Until I found out that you were all women.”

“That’s nice,” says Saaya distractedly, grunting as she hauls another bag over her shoulder.

“There’s nothing wrong with women, of course! I love women.” Sarwar swipes a hand over his hair, patting it back into place with what he probably thinks is a suave smile. Kirima shoots him a disgruntled look. “Sometimes a little too much. Not in a creepy way, just more of a respectful appreciation. I think it’s great that there is an elite force of women warriors. It’s about time."

“We’ve been around for a few hundred years now,” points out Ty Lee, voice drier than the desert.

“Semantics,” he says, unflapped.

“I wish waterbenders could drown,” Miki says, sighing. “Kinda want to throw myself off the edge of the pier right about now.”

“I could make something happen,” says Taktuq guilelessly from next to her.

“Oh, Taktuq, you’re so funny!” Miki lets out a high-pitched laugh, slapping at his bicep before snaking the same hand around it. “I have to say, I’m looking forward to spending more time with you here.”

“Still can’t believe you guys decided to stay,” says Sokka.

Miki shrugs. “It’s a good chance to learn the healing styles of other nations,” she says. “There’s a wealth of information to be found here. Even if,” here, her voice drops down to a conspiratorial whisper, “our techniques are still obviously the best.”

She and Kustaa share a discreet fist-bump, while Ahnah looks like she’s struggling not to roll her eyes.

“Well, Sokka?” Katara pats his arm, drawing back his attention. “The captain says we need to leave soon.”

“Just a few more minutes,” he says, turning back to scan the road.

Katara’s eyes soften. “Alright.”

“Wait, I think I see them now!” Ty Lee points in the distance. “There!”

She’s right. A carriage draws up from the end of the gravel road, the dragon-moose trudging to a stop a few feet away.

Miura steps out first, straightening out her uniform as her feet hit the dirt. She’s followed by Zuko, who descends down the steps with regal grace, robes billowing around him. His crown glints in the sunshine, almost too bright.

But nothing could have made Sokka look away from him now. He’s well aware that he’s on borrowed time, and he wants to make each moment count.

“You made it,” he says, when Zuko’s within hearing distance.

Zuko smiles at him, though there is something off about it. “Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

“Well, Ambassador Sokka,” says Miura, stepping up to clasp his arm, Water Tribe-style. “It’s been a pleasure, though I do wish we were parting in better circumstances. Look after yourself out there.”

Sokka nods, before jerking his chin at Zuko. “And I hope you do the same for him, here.”

“Perfectly fine at looking after myself, thank you,” mutters Zuko, eliciting simultaneous snorts from at least five people.

Sokka turns to him now, putting out his arm. “I’m going to miss you,” he says, dropping his voice so that his words remain private between the two of them.

Zuko’s smile softens into something more natural. “Me too,” he says.

Their arms clasp together. And Sokka thinks he’s content with this—thinks he can pretend to be content with it— right before Zuko’s arm tugs him forward, and he’s embraced in a sudden cloud of silks and the soft fragrance of fire lilies.

“I hope we see each other again, someday,” Zuko says with his face buried in Sokka’s neck, chest rumbling flush against his.

And now, basking in the warmth of Zuko, Sokka cannot pretend anymore. Every inch of contact between them burns like a match in oil, blazing him from the inside out.

He wants to pull away, put some distance between them and hope that the treacherous skip of his heart hasn’t yet been felt by Zuko, giving him away. And still, there is nothing he wants more than to stay here like this forever, until they’re stitched together and turned to stone.

“I hope so too,” he manages to get out, taking in one last breath of Zuko, all the floral scents of him tinged by the salt of the sea-breeze.

Zuko’s arms slip off his shoulders. When Sokka takes a step back, he catches Zuko blinking rapidly, turning his head to face the sun.

“Take care of yourself, Sokka,” he says, and Sokka wonders how he never caught it before— the way Zuko says his name, like a prayer.

It’s all he can do to swallow away the salt burning his own throat. “You too, Zuko,” he says, and hopes Zuko hears the benediction in his voice.

Katara steps in for her own hug. Zuko wraps his arms around her, and Sokka takes that moment to gather himself as he walks towards the gangplank. He thinks he hears hushed words between them, and when he turns around, he catches Zuko pressing something into Katara’s hands. Katara shakes her head, but then Zuko says something again, and she seems to acquiesce, putting whatever it is into her pocket with a sigh. She rubs at her eyes once, before stepping in to press a soft kiss on his cheek.

“Goodbye, Zuko,” she says, reaching out to tuck a lock of his hair back behind his ear. “Stay safe, you hear me? I better not hear of any more assassination attempts, or I’m turning this ship around.”

Zuko huffs out a tired laugh. “You have my word,” he says. “I’ll tell those assassins to lay off. I’m sure they’ll listen. Hey, we might even make friendship bracelets while we’re at it. I’ll make mine spell ‘best’, and theirs can spell ‘frien—' ouch!

“That’s what you get for being a sarky little shit,” says Miura approvingly, as Zuko rubs at the spot on his head where Katara’s taken a swat at it. “Don’t worry, Master Katara. I won’t let him out of my sight.”

“Who needs assassins when your friends are willing to do the work for them,” mutters Zuko.

Sokka looks at the scene before him, something warm growing in his chest. Here is a family he’d never, in a million years, have ever thought he’d have built. Standing under the Fire Nation sun, dressed in an assortment of blues and greens and reds, smiles on their faces and softness in their eyes and camaraderie in the air around them.

And he’s leaving it all behind. All at once, the warmth dissipates with one sharp blow of the ocean wind from behind him.

“Katara,” he calls out. “I’m ready.”

Katara turns to him, smile slipping. “Alright, then. Let’s go.”

He’s already said his goodbyes to the others, but he shoots them all a smile one by one anyway, lingering on Zuko’s face. One last memory to tide him by.

As he walks up the gangplank, he feels the heat of Zuko’s gaze on his neck. Already, the distance between them grows to sit in the gaping ache where his heart used to be.

Katara’s hand comes to rest on his back as the ship pushes away from the dock. Together, they watch the little family they’ve accumulated get smaller and smaller in the distance. Taktuq’s waving wildly, jostling Miki standing next to him. Ahnah and Kirima wave more sedately, while Ty Lee flutters her fingers, swinging the arm clasped with Suki’s as she does. Kustaa nods at them once, while Miura and Saaya are walking towards Zuko, probably to flank him.

Zuko raises one hand. He waves once, then lets it stay in the air, almost like he’s reaching out towards the sea.

And all Sokka wants to do is to reach back. No, scratch that. What he wants to do is jump aboard, swim frantically to shore and sweep him into his arms. Tell him that he knows, he knows, and he’s so sorry, and that he’s sure he’s not what Zuko wants but he’s here now, and isn’t that all that matters, in the end? That some part of him came back to Zuko, will always come back to Zuko? And right now, it feels like he’s left some vital part of himself behind, and he’ll do anything to get it back because with every passing second he’s getting further away from it and the distance is ripping him apart, and it hurts

But he can’t do that. Won’t do that. Won’t subject Zuko to live with some spectre of the man he once knew, a ghost who lives and talks and breathes but will never be enough to replace what he’s lost.

And so, Sokka doesn’t wave back.

Heartbroken, and so in love with Zuko, and tremendously sorry, he turns away.

Chapter Text

His dreams are red, and gold, and black.

Red blood. Gold fire. Black snow.

He runs from his dreams. An exercise in futility; they follow him into wakefulness.

 


 

“And you’re sure you don’t want to come on the hunting trip?”

Sokka doesn’t bother lifting his head from his pillow. “Yup.”

He hears Katara tap her foot frustratedly against the floor. “This is the third trip you’ve turned down. You love hunting! Bato even dug out his extra-super-lucky spear for this one.” There is a conspiratorial little pause. “Bet I could convince him to let you use it. And you know how he doesn’t let anyone come close to that spear. C’mon, what do you say?”

Sokka would roll his eyes if he had the energy. Instead, he just clutches the bundle in his arms closer to this chest. “Nope.”

“Sokka.”

He groans. “Just because Bato’s boning dad now, or whatever,” he says, ignoring Katara’s choked spluttering, “doesn’t mean he’s going to let his kid use his extra-super-lucky spear. That thing’s probably worth more to him than my weight in gold. I might have lost my memories, but I didn’t lose my brain cells.”

“Never change, do you?” he thinks he hears Katara mutter. He doesn’t humour her, but does make a show of pulling his pillow closer and burying his face in it.

“Besides,” comes out his muffled voice, “I don’t even want to go. Just… tell them I’m sick or something. Close enough to the truth, anyway.”

Katara’s voice starts drifting closer to where he’s curled up under the furs. Discreetly, he tucks the bundle away; its colour is too distinctive to do anything but give him away.

“Sokka,” Katara is saying, “you’re going to have to come out of your room at some point. You know dad’s getting worried about you.”

This is nothing new. Dad’s face has been pulled into an almost-permanent frown since Sokka had stepped off the ship almost two weeks ago now. He’s getting tired of pretending the concern doesn’t chafe. “Well, tell him not to be.”

“You know that’s not how it works!” But Katara’s hand is gentle when it brushes the back of his head. “I’m worried about you, too,” she admits. “Tell me how to help you.”

You’ve already tried and failed, he thinks, but is not cruel enough to say. Don’t you know I’m too broken to fix?

“Go away, Katara,” he says instead. “I don’t need your help.”

“Sokka—” There’s a tug at his furs. He panics.

“Just leave me alone!”

Her hand stills, and his breath stills with it. But a sigh follows, the pressure on his furs releasing.

And Sokka thinks that’s the end of it, bitter relief rushing through him, before Katara’s voice rings out from near the doorway.

“You might have given up on yourself,” she says firmly, though the odd tremor slips out, “but I’m not going to. You can’t push me away, Sokka.”

“I don’t need your pity, either,” he says, and hears her inhale sharply.

It’s all the warning he gets before she starts yelling. “Just because someone cares about you and your wellbeing doesn’t mean that they pity you! It means they love you, you idiot!”

Sokka tamps down on the urge to hurl a pillow in her direction. Probably wouldn’t end well. He settles for grunting as he pulls the furs over his head, hoping she gets the message.

The furs aren’t enough to muffle the frustrated huff she makes, nor the flap of the sealskin as she pushes through it to leave. But the silence that comes after is deafening.

Unfurling himself, he brings the robe up to his face. Rubs the material between his fingers, silky smooth and so very red.

He wants to be alone between the walls of his bones, but his guilt won't let him— it seeps through every empty crevice until he's filled to the brim, threatening to overflow.

 


 

The South Pole is nothing like he remembers leaving it. Gone are the homely huts and tents clustered close together, gathered in the arms of the wall of snow their fathers built to guard them. Gone is his makeshift watchtower, their last sentinel. Gone is their little village, crumbled by the hot touch of the raids that had marked them for devastation but somehow still standing, defiant and proud.

Well, it stands no longer. Instead, large, hulking buildings made of ice have taken its place, sprawling far as the eye can see. The Northern influence is clear in the architecture, far too sleek and polished to have been constructed by anything other than waterbending. There’s a real watchtower now, and fancy new docks that hold more than just shabbily-built canoes, and roads that lead off in directions unknown to him when he’d once prided himself on knowing the lay of the land like the back of his hand.

It’s growth, in all sense of the word. It’s— urban, in a way Sokka never expected to see in his lifetime. It’s a step towards the future, long overdue.

It doesn’t feel like home.

He should have been used to this, by now— this feeling of the rug being pulled out from under his feet until he’s left desperately scrambling for purchase. But as he makes his way through the bustling promenade, pushing past throngs of people—more people than he ever remembers there being, with faces unlined and steps unburdened like they’ve never even heard of a word ugly as war— passing merchants hawking wares and scents delicious enough to make his stomach turn, there is an unsteady thrum of resentment running through him at how different everything is.

Here is yet another familiarity that’s gotten up and shifted just slightly to the left, leaving him stumbling in its wake. He’s tired of being left behind.

He’s also tired of the looks he gets every time he steps into the shiny new town hall. Trudging up the icy steps, he tries to ignore the way conversations seem to hush around him, the weight of gazes resting heavy on his shoulders as he pushes through the door. An actual door, because good old sealskin is apparently too antiquated for whichever Northerner had a hand in designing this building.

Spirits, Sokka feels like an old man shaking his fist up at the clouds, complaining about the state of the world.

Speaking of actual old men—

“Hey, Chief,” he says, waving one weary hand. “Said you wanted to see me?”

“That’s Head Chief to you,” corrects Bato from the corner of the room, absently chewing on some seal jerky as he pushes a scroll flat against the table. Patches of shiny skin peek out from under his left sleeve, catching the light. “Chief’s his old title. Show your father some respect.”

From his chair, Hakoda rolls his eyes at both of them. He looks much the same as he did in Sokka’s memories, though there is considerably more white in his hair than before. “Don’t encourage him,” he tells Bato, who snorts into his scroll.

“No, no, he’s right. Sorry, Head Chief.” Sokka coughs into one hand. “I mean, it’s either that, or I start calling you Bato’s Boyfriend,” he says, making sure to enunciate the buhs. “Though that does have a nice ring to it. I can see it catching on with the rest of the tribe. Maybe if I start yelling it from the rooftop—”

“Twerp,” says Bato, with not a little amount of fondness.

Hakoda sighs. “You know, I really regret you finding out about us the way you did.”

“That’s on you for making out behind a hut like a pair of teenagers,” shrugs Sokka. Ugh, that particular mental image is going to haunt him until the end of his days.

“We weren’t making out,” lies his father over Bato’s sudden bark of laughter, the truth coming out in the way he flushes. “We were just—”

“Trying to eat each other’s face?” Sokka raises an eyebrow at the way Hakoda buries his face in one hand. “What, food supplies running low? It's probably because we have a couple hundred extra Northerners to feed."

Hakoda drops his hand, giving Sokka a sharp look.

“Still surprised over your lack of surprise, actually,” says Bato, completely engrossed in whatever he’s reading. “Or your lack of reaction, besides that, ‘umm, carry on!’ you stuttered out before running away.”

Sokka looks between him and his father. “How’d I react the first time you told me?”

“Well,” Bato drags out the word. “It was rough. You… nearly passed out from the shock? There was definitely some swaying. We had to get you some water. But then you tried to drag your dad away from me, yelling something about—” he taps at his forehead, “—Koda, what did he—”

“He told you to keep your ‘soft eyes and ruggedly manly wiles’ away from me,” supplies Hakoda wearily.

“That’s it!” says Bato. “Though, I’m still not quite sure what you meant by that.”

“I knew what he meant,” mutters Hakoda, flushing darker.

“Yeah, well,” says Sokka, “let’s just say you stop getting surprised about these kinds of things after one ex-girlfriend turns into the moon, and you find out that the other’s been getting in regular cahoots with two other women.”

His father blinks. “Cahoots.”

“You know.” Sokka gestures into the space between Hakoda and Bato. “Cahoots.”

“Huh,” says Hakoda. “Well.” There’s a slight pause. “Good for her!”

“That’s what I said!”

“And them,” Hakoda adds. “Good for the trio, actually.”

Sokka thinks he hears his father mumble to himself, “Or would it be ‘triangle’?” And then, with a triumphant little exhale, “Oh, ‘tri-an-gal’!”

“Wow,” says Bato. “The resemblance between you two is uncomfortably uncanny right now.”

“Guess that’s the only thing I can count on to not change,” Sokka says, and he doesn’t mean for the bitterness to slip out the way it does.

Hakoda frowns at him. “Sokka,” he starts, bringing out his Concerned Voice. 

Sokka’s already dreading this conversation. “Dad,” he says, trying to inject as much cheeriness as is humanly possible into the word.

Hakoda frowns harder.

“Bato,” says Bato, standing up from his chair to walk towards Hakoda. “What? I thought we were doing a thing here.”

“Funny,” says Sokka with the straightest of faces, pretending to clutch at his gut. “Ha-ha, tell me more.”

“Don’t be an ass,” says Bato affably, giving Hakoda a quick peck on the lips. Sokka averts his eyes, deciding against making obnoxious gagging noises. Probably wouldn’t help with whatever his dad had called him here to say. “See you at home?” asks Bato.

“Yeah.” Hakoda’s eyes soften, and despite the oogieness of it all, Sokka feels… glad, for his dad to have found these little drops of happiness after such a long drought. (Jealousy, at the way his own throat dries up, thinking about—) “See you there.”

Bato’s hand lands on Sokka’s head, ruffling his hair. Sokka bats it away, scowling at his retreating back. “Why?”

“Because I can,” Bato says, shooting Sokka a pointed look over his shoulder as he leaves. “And remember, you’re coming along with us to the next hunt whether you like it or not!”

“You know,” says Sokka, as they both watch the door swing shut behind Bato, “he might have gotten a little more annoying than I remember him being five years ago, but he really is ruggedly soft and everything. Good choice.”

“Thanks, son,” deadpans Hakoda, walking over to the hearth to stoke the embers. Sparks fly into the air, some getting perilously close to his father as the fire flares back to life. “Glad to have your approval twice in three years.”

When he looks back at Sokka, he sobers at whatever look he must catch on Sokka’s face. “Hey, you alright?”

“Never better,” says Sokka, gaze firmly fixed somewhere above his father’s head, away from the blazing hearth and its flames.

A gentle touch guides his face until he’s looking into eyes full of an understanding Sokka doesn’t deserve. “Walk with me?”

Despite the exertion, Sokka’s chest feels far less tight by the time they make it up to the rooftop. At this height, he can see the entirety of Capital City (named with an astounding lack of creativity, wow, whichever official had a hand in naming it thus deserves to be demoted and possibly also exiled) spread out before him.

The difference between before and after should be far starker from here, but he finds comfort in the familiarity of the horizon— in the way the mountains never stopped reaching for the clouds, and how the sky kisses the sea with the promise of infinity— and forces himself to stop mourning for something not lost. Home is home is home, and—

(Home is here but not. Home is the pull of gravity beneath his feet, yes, but it’s also the tug at his ribs, stretching taut from across the ocean. Home is the soft flurries of snow drifting around them, glittering like stars in the sunlight— but it is also the rustle of grass, the low drone of insects, the breeze brushing warm through his hair and tickling his nose with the sweet, heavy fragrance of flowers. Home is his father’s voice; his mother’s land; the innocence of a childhood spent under the cold sun. Home is the heat of a hand against his, painted luminous by the moonlight.

Home is the memories carved into his bones. Home is all he has forgotten.

He is home. He’s never felt more lost.)

“Never gets old, does it?” asks Hakoda, pulling Sokka out of his thoughts. His father spins on his heels to take in the view. “Still can’t believe how far we’ve come in such a short period of time.”

Sokka hums noncommittally.

Crossing his arms over his chest, Hakoda leans back against the icy balustrade. “Alright, spit it out.”

Five years, and his dad hasn’t changed a bit. Sokka almost smiles at this— good to know some things will always remain a constant.

“I don’t know what you mean.” At Hakoda’s unimpressed expression, Sokka twiddles his thumbs together. “Dad, I’m fine,” he says, a lot quieter.

“You may not be the same man I saw off to the docks a few months ago,” says Hakoda, “but you’re still my son. And I always know when one of my kids is lying.”

His father’s hand lands warm on his shoulder. Despite the iciness on the wind, Sokka’s eyes burn. He closes them, shutting out the world.

“Talk to me, Sokka. What’s been eating at you?”

Funny way of phrasing it. What’s he even supposed to say? Dad, there’s a hunger in me for something I don’t remember having; now I’m scared I’ll never feel full again. Dad, there’s crumbs of me trailing between here and the Fire Nation; I think I started falling apart the moment I stepped onto the ship here.

Dad, I never knew the bitterness of regret until I was choking on it; now it’s all I can taste.

He swallows down the words. “Just— adjusting to everything’s been harder than I thought since coming back,” he says, and it’s only partially a lie. “It’s all so… different.”

“I can imagine,” says Hakoda. “Actually, I can’t. Even attempting to get my head around it is— Sokka, what you’ve been through, and what you’re still going through… it’s a lot. This must all have been such a big shock to you.”

“You can say that again,” mutters Sokka.

“This must all have been such a big shock to you,” complies Hakoda, and it startles a laugh out of Sokka.

Hakoda smiles at him, then, and Sokka smiles back. For once, it comes naturally. And at this moment, Sokka is content to just stand there with his father, atop all that his people have built, and bask in the rare comfort of familiarity.

But there is an inquisitiveness to the silence around him. Sokka knows he’s going to have to get this over with sooner or later.

“I just—” He stares into the distance, trying to pluck the words out from wherever they’ve decided to hide within him. “I just wish things hadn’t changed so much, you know? Five years is— I mean, yeah, it’s long, but all this— isn’t it too much? I mean, parts of the city look exactly like the North Pole now.”

“Is that so bad?” asks Hakoda. “They’re our sister tribe.”

The words burst out of Sokka, unexpectedly vehement even to him. “Sister tribe? Please. They abandoned us! They left us behind when we needed them most to fend for ourselves, and now they want us to— what? Pretend it’s all water under the bridge while we let them come here and change the way we run things?”

Hakoda’s eyebrows shoot to his hairline. “Sokka, what—”

“We’re our own people, Dad! We have our own set of values and traditions, and— and, I know their healers came all the way to the Fire Nation to try and heal me, but it doesn’t take away from everything else the North had done before then. Do you even know how they treated Katara when we were there? Like she was lesser, somehow, for being a girl, even though she’s a better bender than all of them combined? And what about Gran-Gran? She literally ran halfway across the world to get away from all that! And all that duty bullshit Yue had to go through? I saw the way it chipped away at her. She didn’t even get to live her life the way she wanted before she—” Sokka cuts himself off, turning away. “And now we’re just… what? Completely okay with them bringing all that here?”

“Gran-Gran married Pakku anyway,” points out Hakoda mildly.

“Not the point! Though, terrible decision on her part.”

“Can’t say I don’t agree,” mutters Hakoda. “The man’s an uptight ass.”

“See!” Sokka has to stop himself from grabbing Hakoda by the arms and shaking him until he sees sense. Instead, his voice drops to something plaintive, and he hates how childish he sounds just then. “Do we really need their help that much? …Weren’t we fine? Before?”

“Oh, Sokka.” The hand on his shoulder squeezes tight once, before dropping away. “I think you already know the answer to that.”

And the truth is, he does. It had seemed almost inevitable at one point— had the war not ended, the North might have scraped by and survived, but the South would have almost certainly been sentenced to extinction.

Though Hakoda is still looking at him, his gaze seems miles away. “Sokka, I understand your concerns— trust me, I’ve had plenty of my own— but the North have shown their willingness to change. They’re the ones who approached us first about righting old wrongs, wanting to help us regain all that we’d lost and build unity between our tribes. We could have turned them away— I mean, plenty of our people are still deeply mistrustful of the North’s intentions. There are whole factions out here who think the North is out to subjugate us by turning us into their colony and wiping out the last of our traditions. Some of them are quite vocal about it, actually.”

“Really?” Sokka feels… not surprised, exactly, but it’s unexpecting to hear. “I didn’t know.”

Hakoda offers him a grim smile. “Trust me, it’s not been all sunshine and rainbows around here. I’ve heard from Arnook that not everyone in the North is too happy about this alliance, either. Some of them think they owe us nothing, and that we’re only going to be a drain on their resources. Others have… stranger theories about our motives. My personal favourite is the one about me usurping Arnook’s position as tribal chief, through some sort of an internal coup or something. As if I even have time to plan a nap in between my duties, let alone a coup!” He shakes his head in disbelief, eyes narrowing. “There’s even been calls for re-isolation of the North Pole.”

Sokka feels his jaw drop open. “Wow.”

“My point exactly. It took Arnook some time to show them the stupidity of that particular idea, but he’s never going to be able to convince them all. Just like I won’t be able to, here.”

Hakoda’s fingers tighten on the balustrade. “But isolation is never the answer— and we’ve all had plenty of time to learn that lesson. Besides, I think most of the dissenters here realised that, without the North’s help, there wouldn’t have been enough of our culture left to preserve. As it was, we were barely standing after the war ended.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, reparations from the Fire Nation took some time to sort out. Despite the new Fire Lord’s insistence to expedite the process—” Oh, how Sokka hates the way his heart falters at any reminder of him— “there was some opposition from his ministers about paying up. Too many Ozai sympathisers were still in the ranks; he had to dismantle the whole internal governmental structure before he could get anywhere with it. We were grateful for his intervention, but it just wasn’t happening fast enough. With our warriors returning home, injured and war-weary, most of our funds depleted by the war efforts, and winter coming…  we wouldn’t have survived on our own. So, we had to make do with what we had— the North offered their help. We accepted.”

Hakoda’s gaze is piercing. Sokka has to force himself not to look away. “And I’m glad we did. The survival of our people is more important than any grievances we still hold. Sometimes, we have to make sacrifices to honour what’s already been lost, if only so more doesn’t follow.”

“I know,” Sokka says, abashed. “Sorry, I know you had some tough decisions to make. I didn’t mean—”

“You have nothing to apologise for.” Hakoda turns to look out over the city spread out beneath them, the edges of the buildings catching the sunlight and throwing prisms of colour into the air. “But just think of it this way: the North never asked us to merge with them completely. We’re still an autonomous tribe, and on the whole— after a few hiccups I’d rather forget, too— they do defer to us when in our territory. And while it’s not a perfect solution, think of all the children who’ll grow up without the shadow of war hanging over them. Think about them seeing the tribes working together in harmony, trying to make the world a better place. A kinder place.”

Sokka thinks of all the kids he’d seen playing on the streets on the way here, full of unfettered laughter and joyous smiles. Children who might never know the pain of mothers being ripped from them, or the bitter acceptance of fathers never returning home from faraway lands, or the dread of black snow falling around them, heralding horrors yet to come.

“The rich chorus of our shared past can’t be muted with a mere hundred years of silence, Sokka,” says Hakoda. “And now, we can build a future together untouched by all of that. We can build peace.”

Sokka looks down at the city again. It almost feels like he’s seeing it all for the very first time. “I never thought about it like that.”

“I don’t blame you,” says Hakoda. “You’ve had a lot going on lately.”

His father hesitates. “But I do have to admit, I’m more than a little surprised by your reaction. The first time ‘round we had this conversation, you were a lot more… open, to the idea of us working with the North. You even encouraged the process along in parts, actually. A lot of the current designs for the new city had your input, and they’re all the better for it.”

“Spirits, tell me I wasn’t behind naming it ‘Capital City’.”

“Nope, that’s on Bato.”

“I take it back,” announces Sokka. “You’re breaking up with him immediately.”

“Not a chance,” says Hakoda, flippant. “Besides, it’s a good name! Very to-the-point. Makes it easy to remember, don’t you think? ‘Hey, what’s your capital city called?’ ‘Capital City.’ ‘Ah, makes sense, thank you.’”

“I’m disowning you.”

“Pretty sure that’s not how it works.”

Hakoda’s smile dips, mouth pursing in contemplation. “Sokka, while it pleases me no end that you’re still looking out for the betterment of our tribe, I have to ask… where’s all this coming from? Do you want to talk about why you’re feeling like this?”

“I just think it’s a bit too literal a name, don’t you?” says Sokka, pretending to be oblivious.

Judging from his father’s expression, he’s not fooling anyone.

“I...” Sokka looks away. “No. Not… particularly.”

“That’s alright,” says Hakoda easily, surprising Sokka. “I’m not going to keep asking if you’re not comfortable with me doing so.”

And now he just feels shitty. One parent left, and Sokka can’t even—

Hakoda pokes him in the side, making Sokka yelp. “None of that, now,” he says, tone light. “I can see you spiralling from here. Cut it out.”

“Ouchie,” whines Sokka.

“I barely touched you!”

“Yeah, well,” Sokka reaches out before his dad can react, sneaking a retaliatory poke to his tummy. Spirits, is that a six-pack? Still? “How’dya like them sea prunes?”

A huff of air is all the warning he gets before Hakoda tackles him around the middle, and then they’re grunting and ooft-ing as they wrestle against one another. It quickly devolves into a shoving match, with the both of them collapsing onto the little piles of snow cleared to the rooftop’s sides, shaking with laughter.

“Boy, we really haven’t done this in a while. I keep forgetting how strong you are now,” wheezes Hakoda, when he’s finally caught his breath. “Giving your old man a run for his money, huh?”

Sokka wipes at his eyes, chest light after what feels like forever. “You said it yourself, old man. I mean, check out the salt-and-pepper look you’ve got going on. You’re practically a grandpa now.”

But, Sokka realises after the words have left his mouth, he doesn’t want to think about his dad ageing. Doesn’t want to look at the white in his hair or the lines on his brow and be reminded of the relentless passage of time. What he does want is for them to stay like this forever, this moment encased in amber for him to hold onto, if only so he never forgets the sound of his father’s laughter, the warmth of his touch, the curve of his smile. Better yet, he wants to go back in time to when Hakoda’s arms felt wider than the span of the earth, and Sokka could burrow into his hold to hide from the world. Now there’s too much of Sokka to tuck away so easily.

“Not just yet.” Hakoda taps at his chin, breaking him out of his thoughts. “You’ve probably forgotten the talk I’ve had with you and Katara, but I’m more than happy to remind you again— no babies for my babies until they stop being babies themselves.”

“Dad,” says Sokka, mortified.

“Maybe Katara needs a little reminder as well, actually. Aang, too.”

“Dad!”

“I don’t care that he’s the Avatar,” continues Hakoda, though there’s a glint in his eyes that shows he knows exactly what he’s doing. “He might be the human embodiment of light and peace who saved the world that one time, but none of it’s going to matter when it comes to saving him from me if they aren’t practicing safety in the bedroom—"

Dad.” Sokka drops his face into his hands, cheeks burning. “Spirits, take me now.”

Hakoda just chuckles from beside him, and despite himself, Sokka cracks into giggles once again.

“I missed you, Dad,” he says quietly, when their laughter has petered out into comfortable silence. “And I’m sorry for hiding away ever since coming back. I just had some… things, to deal with.”

“Apology accepted,” says Hakoda, ruffling Sokka’s hair just as Bato had done earlier. From his dad, he can’t even pretend it feels anything less than comforting. He leans into the touch. “Remember what I’ve always told you kids, though. A problem shared is—”

“—a problem halved,” finishes Sokka. The last of his smile slips off his face, Zuko’s voice ringing in his ears.

“Just— talk to someone? Somebody once told me that… that a problem shared is a problem halved. And they’re one of the smartest people I know, so. Must have some truth to it, right?”

The realisation comes as painfully slowly to him as all the others, hitting him with the weight of a glacier. He was talking about me.

What would have happened, had Sokka connected the dots in that empty corridor? Would he have confronted Zuko there and then? Asked him to explain, then begged for forgiveness for his transgressions? Would they have ended up in the same position as they had anyway, with Zuko pressed to the wall and Sokka inching ever closer— hearts pounding, breaths mingling? If he’d known what he does now, would Sokka have dared to close the distance between them?

Or would Zuko have pushed him away without the need for Saaya’s untimely interruption? After all, he owed Sokka nothing. Not when Sokka wasn’t— not when Sokka had—

“You’re spiralling again.”

“No, I’m not,” says Sokka automatically.

Hakoda just raises one eyebrow in response.

“…Maybe just a little.”

His father nudges his shoulder against Sokka’s, jostling him slightly. “Halve your burden, son.”

It takes Sokka a moment to gather his thoughts. “I thought I’d started getting used to— to being like this, you know? Accepting this new reality for what it was. I mean, I’m fifteen again, with a body I don’t remember growing into, and a position I don’t remember earning. All this time, I’d been hoping that I’d learn to make up the difference eventually. But for that to happen, I think I needed everything else to stay the same as it was five years ago.”

Sokka looks down at his hands. “But that was unfair of me. I know that now. I mean, everyone built something for themselves after the war. Katara and Aang got engaged! You found your person in Bato— and I’m really happy for guys, Dad, you deserve this,” he says, watching Hakoda’s mouth tick up in a soft smile, “and— and Toph’s off doing her own thing, now! Sure, it’s in prison or whatever—”

“Wait, what—”

“—but she’s having tons of fun with her metal-bending cult, she sent me a letter just last week—”

“A cult?

Sokka waves a flippant hand. “Details. And back in the Fire Nation, Suki has Ty Lee now, and maybe even Mai? Everyone found their person. Even I—”

His hands curl up into fists. Irrelevant, now, what the other Sokka had, isn’t it? This one’s lost them both everything. “Point is, everyone moved on. And I know I can’t expect you all to pretend like you haven’t.

“But what I think I did sort of expect was for my childhood home to stay the same. Or at least, a little similar to how I’d left it when I went off with Aang and Katara. But I look around me now, and I barely recognise anything. I just wanted something to stay the same as it used to be, you know?”

He lets out a breath. Watches it steam in front of him, the wisps whipped away by the wind. “Sometimes, it almost feels like…  like I went backwards, while the world kept moving forwards. And I don’t know if I’ll ever catch up.”

Hakoda taps his fingers against the floor. “Let me let you in on a little secret,” he says. “You don’t have to catch up.”

Sokka’s brow furrows. “What does that mean?”

“Sokka, think about it this way. You’re right in that the world won’t ever stop moving forward— we don’t have a choice about that. But the individual people around us don’t move forward so much as… branch out. Wait, I think you might benefit from seeing this diagrammatically.”

Hakoda pats at his parka’s pocket. Then pats another. Then another. “Oh, come on. Don’t tell me Bato’s stolen it again? I bet he has. I’m going to have words with him if he has.”

“Dad, is this all really necess—”

Aha!” Hakoda’s hand emerges from some hidden inner pocket, wrapped around a small pocket-knife. “Don’t tell him what I said. Our relationship is built on a bedrock of mutual trust and respect.”

“Uh-huh,” says Sokka, watching with bemusement as his father begins scoring lines into the rooftop. “Hey, doesn’t this count as destruction of public property? The authorities aren’t going to be happy about this.”

I’m the authority here,” grumbles Hakoda distractedly. “Besides, I’ll fix it before we go. Now, look.”

Sokka obeys, turning to where his father’s scratched a dozen or so diagonal lines of varying sizes into the ice. Some of them are linked by one thicker vertical line running through them. “…What, exactly, am I supposed to be looking at here?”

Hakoda waves a hand over the scratches. “It’s very obviously a tree.”

Sokka peers down at the ice again. Squints. “Um.”

“Shut up. Anyway, see here?” Using his finger, Hakoda traces one of the lines. “This is our family. Me, you and Katara.”

He taps at one of the ‘branches’, where the line splits off into two. “And this is after I’d left to join the war efforts. See how it branches away? I went down my own path, and you guys went down yours. And while a part of me does wish that you’d stayed exactly the same as I’d left you until I came home, I knew in my heart that that’s not how it works.”

Hakoda sits back on his haunches, knife pointing down at the scratches. “Truth is, everyone diverges from you at some point or the other. We all carve our own path, but—” Here, his finger taps the area where the two lines are connected, “—it doesn’t mean that we aren’t still linked at the root.”

“I thought you said that was a branch.”

“Once a smartass, always a smartass, huh?”

Sokka pouts. “Hey.”

Hakoda just shakes his head, beaded braid swinging, though there’s no hiding the affection in his smile. “If you think about it, you and Katara went down your own separate paths too— her being involved with Aang and with the reconstruction here, while you went to the Fire Nation as an ambassador with Z—”

Something flashes quick and sharp over Hakoda’s face. It mirrors the sudden stab against Sokka’s sternum, pushing all the air out of his lungs.

“Anyway,” says Hakoda, and Sokka is glad that his father’s attention is still focused on the lines carved in the ice, if only so he can’t see the way Sokka has frozen next to him, lost for breath. “What I’m trying to say is— you can still find your own path, Sokka. At your own pace, in your own time. You haven’t gone backwards, so much as just… branched off in a new direction. Take this as a chance to start afresh.”

Sokka is silent for a moment, trying to breathe through the ache. “Wasn’t I… happy? In my old life?”

“You were,” Hakoda says finally, looking pained. “Very much so.”

“But then—”

“Sokka, you can’t force yourself to keep dwelling in the past. Sometimes,” he says, breath hitching almost imperceptibly, “what’s gone is gone, and no amount of wishing can ever bring it back.”

And Sokka knows, that no matter how happy Hakoda is with Bato now, the scar tissue on his heart will always spell his mother’s name.

(He wishes the weeping wound on his own would close soon, but the lines are carved too fresh for that.)

Hakoda pulls him into a hug, and Sokka curls into his side like he used to when he was little, legs splayed out in front of him. “If your memories come back, then I’ll be the happiest man in the world,” he tells him. “But if they don’t… it doesn’t matter that much, does it? You’ll still be my Sokka. And you’re so young!”

Hakoda rests his chin atop Sokka’s head, the weight a small comfort. “You still have your whole life ahead of you. Don’t throw it away over five years. Make new memories. Explore the world. Invent. You have so much potential in you, son— please don’t let it go to waste. But I also want you to know that I love you so very, very much, and I’ll always be here,” he taps at the join between two lines, “waiting for you at the root.”

“Branch,” Sokka corrects, though he’s trying not to sniffle. It’s no use; he can feel his eyes grow wet against Hakoda’s parka. “Thanks, Dad. Love you too.”

Hakoda just presses a kiss into Sokka’s hair, rubbing up and down one shoulder with familiar reassurance.

(And though Sokka may still feel lost, he knows he can always find part of himself in his father’s arms.)

 


 

His dreams are red, and gold, and black.

Red robes. Gold eyes. Black hair.

He chases his dreams, but they slip from his fingers, crumbling like ash in the breeze.

 


 

Sokka does end up going on that hunt. Bato doesn’t let him use the extra-super-lucky spear, though, no matter how many times Sokka sighs wistfully in its direction.

“Wish I had a spear like that.”

“Don’t they all, kid,” says Bato, not even sparing him a glance as they trudge back, their catch hauled over Bato’s shoulder. The others who’d come with them have long since left for their own homes, leaving the two of them alone to find their way back to Hakoda’s hut. “Damn fine piece of work, if I do say so myself.”

“As you should,” says Sokka. “Truly your finest. And it’s so pointy. Say, how’d you get it to be that pointy, Bato?”

Bato flashes his chompers at him. “Sharpened it with my teeth.”

He’s obviously going for faux-menacing, but the handsomeness of his face really contradicts with the vibe he’s trying to give off. Damn it.

“And that handle,” says Sokka, flapping his eyes at him. “What a grip. What skill must have gone into making it so… handle-y. Truly artful. I wonder what it must… feel like… to…”

His hand inches towards the spear, where it’s gripped in Bato’s stingy hand.

Bato, predictably, moves it away. “Don’t touch the shaft.”

“I bet you let Dad touch your shaft,” mutters Sokka petulantly.

There is a brief, blissful moment of ignorance before Sokka’s words sink into both of their minds.

“Wait, no,” says Sokka, as Bato looks to the skies for strength. “That’s not— Spirits, you know I didn’t mean—”

Bato sighs, ever weary and infinitely patient. “Here’s the deal. You may touch the spear. Once,” he clarifies, holding one finger up so close to Sokka’s face that he goes cross-eyed trying to look at it, “and no more.”

“Done,” he mumbles to Bato’s finger. The finger retreats with reluctance, before the spear’s handle takes its place.

Gingerly, Sokka accepts the offering. He strokes one reverent hand along the wood, admiring the heft of it. “Nice.”

Bato studies him for a moment, before shrugging. “Actually, might just be easier to let you hold onto it until we get to your father’s place. Saves me the effort.”

“Oh,” says Sokka, surprised. “If you’re sure.”

When he’s certain Bato’s not looking, Sokka waves it around a little to test it, being careful not to let the bottom scrape the ground. It really is a nice spear, expertly crafted and everything. Bato sure knows his stuff.

After a few minutes of companionable silence and subtle spear-jabbing, Bato clears his throat. “I noticed you haven’t spoken to your sister in a while.”

Sokka nearly drops the spear, prompting Bato to shoot him a look. “Sorry. I— what?”

“Hey, I know it’s none of my business. Just pointing out an observation.” Bato hesitates a little. “But you two both seem pretty miserable about it. Did you have a fight?”

“Not exactly,” hedges Sokka. “It’s… complicated.”

Bato shrugs again. “Fair enough. I’m only mentioning it now because I know it’s stressing your dad out a little. And I don’t like it when your dad’s stressed out. You know how grouchy he gets.”

Now it’s Sokka’s turn to study Bato, grabbing any chance to change the subject. “You really care about him, huh?”

Bato just smiles, a soft thing that more than answers Sokka’s question.

Sokka looks down at the spear in his hands, the tip still edged with crimson. “Bato,” he starts haltingly, “how did you know you liked Dad?”

Bato takes a long moment to mull over the question. “It’s not like I woke up one morning and decided that he was the one I wanted to spend the rest of my days with. I mean, I’ve known him for decades; he’s always going to be my best friend before anything else.”

Sokka nods. Bato’s been a permanent fixture in their lives since what feels like forever, looming like a friendly giant over him and Katara from when they were still in nappies.

“But we had a lot of shared history,” Bato continues. “Over time, that developed into a closeness that both of us desperately needed. After your mother… well, after she was gone, I don’t think he ever looked at another woman again. Which is fair; Kya was one of a kind. Irreplaceable.”

“Yeah,” murmurs Sokka, looking up at the sky. Still too light for the stars to show yet, but if he tries, he thinks he can see her twinkle through the blue. “Really was, wasn’t she?”

Bato pats Sokka on his back, the touch gentle. “She was. But your dad was lonely for such a long time after. I thought he’d made his peace with staying alone for the rest of his life. But when I got burned… it changed things between us. I didn’t think much of it at first; your father’s got a big heart, and he cared equally for all the men under his command. Maybe that’s why I was so surprised when he kissed me.”

Sokka blinks at him.

“That was probably my exact expression, too,” says Bato wryly. “I can’t believe I hadn’t seen the signs before then. The way he never let me out of his sight once I got back from the abbey? How he’d offer to change my bandages for me, night after night, no matter how exhausted he was? The panic in his eyes when we were separated on the Day of Black Sun, and the joy with which he hugged me when we were reunited at the end of the war?”

Amusement spills clear from his voice, though his face is nothing but fond. “It clicked for me in the second after he stopped kissing me. But I think he mistook my shock for anger, because he turned tail and ran away before I could say a word. I had to chase him down and kiss him back before he got it through his thick skull that I liked him too.”

“Wow,” says Sokka. “We really are a bunch of disasters in this family, huh?”

“Hey, your words, not mine,” says Bato, chuckling, before his expression settles back into something more serious. “But don’t for a moment ever think that I’m trying to take Kya’s place. She’s always going to be his first love, and the mother of his children. And she was my friend, too. I miss her every day.”

His eyes flick over Sokka’s face, heavy with a soft sort of sadness. “You look so much like her, you know?”

Sokka has to fight not to flinch. He doesn’t even remember what she looked like. Is that what Hakoda sees every time he looks at Sokka?

(And isn’t it the greatest twist of irony? That more than one person can look at him and see a ghost where a person should be?)

“But what me and your dad have,” Bato is saying, “it’s something completely different from the relationship they shared. I don’t really have a name for it. It just feels like it’s always been there, existing quietly in the background before we even noticed its presence.”

The setting sun gleams against his skin, painting it golden bronze. “But what I do know is this— I’d do anything to keep your dad happy, Sokka. When he laughs, I feel like the birds stop singing just to listen. And when he smiles,” he says, his own smile small and private and so full of love that something in Sokka pangs just looking at it, “well, it feels like the whole damn world stops turning just to watch.”

And Sokka has to turn away. “Oh,” he croaks out, throat so full of bittersweet longing that it hurts to swallow. His thoughts stray to the robe he left in his bed, hidden under the furs. “That’s…”

“’Oogie’, I think is the word you kids use?” Bato just shakes his head, chuckling. “At my age, you stop caring about things like that. One lifetime’s too short for letting the people you love know just how much you care about them. Hakoda and me… we’ve come closer than most to never seeing each other again. I don’t plan to let any more time slip out of my hands— not when I can spend it with him, making memories of our own.”

Sokka finally chokes the ache down. “Yeah,” he says, when he thinks he’s capable of speech again, “you’re right.”

“When am I not? Oh, we’re nearly at your dad’s. Hand me back the spear. We can’t let him see that I let you hold it.”

“Wait,” says Sokka, even as he swaps the spear for their catch, slinging the dead weight over his shoulder, “you— oof, this puffin-seal’s heavier than it looks— you confess your everlasting love for my dad and how you’d do anything for him and all that, but, like. You really don’t let him touch your spear?”

“Some things are too sacred to be shared with anyone,” intones Bato. “Plus, he’s gone through three spears in just as many months. I’m not trusting him with this one, ever.”

And Sokka can’t argue with that.

But when Hakoda comes out of the igloo, flashing a smile in Sokka’s direction before turning to Bato, Bato drops his spear in a nearby pile of snow like it’s nothing. He fills his arms with Hakoda instead, and Sokka watches his father’s smile grow the way the sun comes out, warm and effusive and so very bright.

Sokka steps back and lets the two men have their privacy. Looking at them now, it’s almost easy to believe that love isn’t supposed to hurt.

 


 

His dreams are blue.

Blue skies, blue seas, blue ice; an infinity of blue spread out in front of him.

He takes a step, and begins to fall.

 


 

Katara is hard to track down when she doesn’t want to be found. It takes Sokka nearly an hour— and a decent amount of his blubbered seal jerky stash as bribery to two snotty-nosed prepubescents— before he gets any clue of her whereabouts. “Don’t eat it all at once,” he calls out to their running backs, his pouch now depressingly empty. “It was expensive!”

Following their (admittedly vague) directions finds him at the edge of the city, where Katara has apparently taken up giving lessons in one of the new healers’ clinics.

The lesson is still running when he gets there, so he stands just outside the room, massaging his leg while he waits. It’s been throbbing on and off for a few days, but the idea of asking Katara for help after the way they’d left things hadn’t seemed like the brightest of ideas. His pride may also have had a pretty big hand in convincing him to grit his teeth and bear it.

Still, he isn’t here to get his leg looked at; bridges have to be mended before bones can have a go.

So, he leans back against the wall, content to just listen for now. He’d already known Katara was a good teacher, but here she is fully in her element— though her voice is not loud, she speaks with an authority that is wise beyond her years, weaving through instructions and encouragement like it comes intuitively to her. It probably does, too; her natural bossiness seems to lend itself well when commanding a room full of novice benders through the basics of waterhealing. At least she got all the yelling out of her system while teaching Aang.

It makes Sokka oddly pleased to think about how far his baby sister has come, all grown up into a woman so self-assured and confident that others come to her to learn, and can’t help the smile that when he thinks of how proud Kya would have been to see her daughter like this, passing on the art of healing to others.

When the class lets out, he waits until the room is empty before strolling in, trying not to limp as he does.

“You’re pretty good with them,” he says, putting on an air of casualness.

Katara says nothing, though her hands start putting away her scrolls a bit more aggressively than before.

“Teaching them, I mean,” he clarifies, hoping for a verbal response this time.

A scroll scrunches in her fist. “Yeah, well, I have a far easier time dealing with people who’re actually willing to listen to me.”

“I thought you said you weren’t going to give up on me,” Sokka says lightly, though his stomach churns with guilt.

Katara’s sigh is loud enough to echo through the room. “I’m not. I’m just… tired, Sokka. You don’t make it easy.”

It stings, but he can’t really blame her. “I know,” he says instead, coming up to put both hands on her shoulders. “I’m sorry. I’ve just been having a hard time of it lately.”

“By ‘lately’, do you mean the whole month and a bit since you lost your memories?” Katara deadpans. “Wow, I hadn’t noticed.”

“I— yes,” because she’s not wrong, “but also since— you know.”

Katara’s eyes soften. “I do.”

For a moment, it seems like she’s fighting with something. The words pour out like she can’t stop them. “And I’m sorry for my part in it.”

“What? No! You had nothing to do with—”

“I was the one to push you towards those healing sessions!”

She breaks his hold on her arms, turning away. “And I kept pushing and pushing, even when you told me you didn’t want to keep trying to remember! But then you went through with them, and— Sokka, it killed me to see you in so much pain, knowing I couldn’t even heal you. I can’t even stand thinking about it,” she says, voice breaking. “And then the fire in your quarters, with your curtains… Spirits, Sokka, you were terrified. I’d never seen you like that before. And knowing that I had a hand in it all—”

“Katara,” he says firmly, “listen to me. Neither of us saw any of this coming, and none of this is on you. You were just trying to help.”

“I’d probably have helped more if I’d stayed out of it,” she says, and there is nothing but bitterness in her tone. “Those sessions left their mark on you.”

And he can’t deny that, can he? But—

“I think… I’m getting better?”

Katara turns back to face him, something hopeful peeking through her shuttered expression. “What?”

“Coming back here has definitely helped. Honestly, I only really noticed it in the last few days that I wasn’t— you know my nightmares and stuff? They’re not as bad anymore. Kirima was right— whatever was triggered in my memories was making it really hard to be in the Fire Nation. Here, it’s… less.” He thinks for a second. “I think it’s also because I’ve started— I don’t know. Accepting it all, I guess?”

There’s encouragement in Katara’s silence, so he takes it as his cue to keep talking. “All that we went through… I think the other me never really got over it. I think he buried it somewhere deep in his mind, and it just—” He stops, trying to find a word for it.

“Festered,” supplies Katara quietly. “Like an infected wound.”

It’s probably the most apt description he’s going to get for it. “Yeah.”

“And trying to get healed without facing all you’d repressed first… it must have aggravated it somehow.” Katara’s face grows thoughtful. “You never really talked about that day. The other you, I mean. All I know about that day from your side of things was that you broke your leg in a bad fall while fighting Ozai’s forces. I didn’t even see you until the next day. By then, you seemed mostly fine— apart from your leg, obviously— but maybe I just hadn’t been paying enough attention. I was too busy trying to heal…”

“Heal who?” he asks, when Katara trails off. “I don’t remember much after the fall.”

“Doesn’t matter,” she says after a moment. Weird; why the evasiveness? “Anyway, when I finally did heal your leg, the bones had already started to set. I think that’s why it still hurts you sometimes.”

“Hey, stop that,” he says, when he sees the guilt swimming in her eyes. “I know you probably had your hands full, dealing with injuries more serious than mine. What’s a broken leg in comparison?”

“Sokka, you’re my brother! I should have tried harder. I should have— I don’t know. Done something more.” From the way she says it, all tired exasperation and old remorse, it sounds like an argument they’ve had many times before.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. It barely bothers me anymore,” he lies, trying not to wince as he shifts his weight to his good leg.

Thankfully, she doesn’t seem to notice, but her eyes still go a little shiny. “But your leg’s not even the worst of it, is it? All these years, I thought that was the only lasting damage you suffered from that day. I didn’t know you’d been hurting for so long, Sokka.”

A tear slips down her cheek, pushing all other thoughts out of his head. He’s always hated being the reason to make her cry. “I’m sorry.”

“Hey, we all know what a meathead I am,” he says, making Katara snort through her tears exactly the way he wanted. “I probably would never have told you if I thought I’d have gotten away with it.”

She wipes at her eyes. “True. Bet it's all just mincemeat in there instead of a brain. All mush.”

“The extra bonk on the head couldn’t have helped matters.”

Katara breaks into giggles, slapping her hand over her mouth to stifle them. “Sorry,” she says, aghast. “I shouldn’t be laughing.”

“No, no, it’s alright. I’ve been doing the whole ‘woe is me’ thing for a few weeks now. Kinda gets tiring after a while.”

“I mean, I’ve been trying to get you out of your room for ages,” Katara points out, “but nooo. You just had to stay in bed and wallow in your own depressing juices.”

“I’ll have you know, my juices are wanted by all the women in the land. Some of the men, too.”

Katara pretends to gag, prompting him to stick his tongue out at her.

Her smile fades a little as she looks him over. “Sokka,” she starts, a lot quieter than before. “Don’t do what the other you did. Don’t hide your pain from the ones who love you. Don’t push us away when you need us most.”

There’s been an ever-present lump in his throat for what feels like forever now. It makes its presence known again, rising to choke him. He works at it for a bit, trying to swallow it down, but it doesn’t really go away. “I don’t know how,” he admits around it.

“Why not?” she asks, and it’s a deceptively simple question; still, for all that it cuts, Katara cushions its blow with a gentle touch to his arm.

Why not, he asks himself. It’s no easier to find an answer this way. Still, he owes her some sort of response.

“I guess,” he says, slow and unsteady with the words fumbling their way through him, “there’s a part of me that’s always felt responsible for everyone, you know? I mean, with you it’s obviously because you’re family. But even when we were travelling with Aang, I was the oldest. I had to look out for everyone, because if anything happened to any of you, it was going to be on me. I had to protect all of you, and I was ready to do whatever it took to keep you safe. I didn’t have the luxury to— to sit around and think about everything that had happened, like losing Yue and Aang nearly dying and Suki getting captured and—” And dad getting sent to prison and Sokka breaking his leg and Suki falling from the airship and Toph nearly doing the same, slipping from his grasp down down down to a fiery death—

How does he tell her of the terror that’s hardened around his heart into a shell so thick, it feels like the chambers press up tight against its walls with every beat?

Katara presses one hand against his chest now, like she knows exactly where it hurts. “Sokka,” she asks, “who told you the weight of the world was meant for your shoulders and yours alone?”

The world did. Who was I to deny it?

But that’s not the answer she’s looking for. Still, it seems like she reads his mind with uncanny precision. “You’re more than just a protector,” she tells him. “You know that, right? You’re important to us because you’re you, and not because of some arbitrary role you’ve assigned yourself.”

He reels back, stung. “Arbitrary? Just because I’m not a bender—"

“Sokka,” she huffs, frustrated. “Stop putting words in my mouth. Being a non-bender didn’t make you any less valuable to us. Do you even know how many times you saved all our asses combined, with your weapons and your brain? And for all that I hated them, your schedules and plans were annoyingly well thought out.

“But more than that, you made us smile. You were the reason why we had what it took to keep going, even when we didn’t want to. You were always there for us when we needed you, even if your advice was… questionable at times.”

“Hey,” he says weakly, making her lips twitch. “I had to work with what I had, okay?”

“And you did a pretty good job,” says Katara, nothing but sincerity in her voice. “Believe me when I say that. But for all that you did for us, you rarely let us know when you were struggling, or when you needed us.”

She peers up at him, no judgement in her eyes. Only a strange understanding, mirroring the way Hakoda had looked at him in the town hall. “You shouldn’t shut us out because you think it makes you look weak, Sokka. You deserve the love and support you keep trying to give everyone else.”

When he doesn’t reply, she tugs him into a hug. How small she feels like this, pressed up tight against his chest, her head barely reaching his shoulders. But at this moment, her arms feel bigger around him than they’ve ever done. “Sometimes,” she says, “the strongest thing to do is to ask for help.”

He lets his arms come up to hug her back. “I’ll try,” he manages.

“Not good enough,” she says, letting go to poke him in the ribs. “Do or do not, there is no try.”

“Wow. You sound like Gran-Gran.”

She shoots him an affronted look. “Are you calling me old?

“Stop putting words in my mouth,” he says, parroting her from earlier.

“I don’t know why I bother,” she says, but she’s fighting a smile as she does so. Sokka’s going to count it as a win.

Katara presses back in, arms tightening around him. “You can come talk to me about anything. You know that, right?”

He does know that. Katara’s not just his sister but also his oldest friend, the one who knows him better than he knows himself. Probably even more now that he doesn’t know himself, having lost so much of him to his mind. So, he has to wrestle back the urge to make light of her words. It’s hard, allowing himself this vulnerability. He doesn’t do it often enough to be comfortable with it, but Katara makes it sound so easy.

Maybe it is that easy. Maybe he’s the one who’s been rolling a snowball up a hill long enough to make it an avalanche. When was the last time he didn’t feel crushed by the weight of it all?

Hakoda’s words come back to him: Halve your burden.

Is that the trick to it? Halving his burden still leaves him with half, less than before but still more than he thinks he can bear sometimes. But halving it again and again and again, with those ready and willing to take on the load… maybe that’s what they mean, when they say that love can move mountains.

“Yeah,” he says, when he means, thank you for never giving up on me.
“I will,” he says, when he means, my love for you would fill oceans.
“Promise,” he says, and this time, he means it. 

Katara’s smile is small but knowing. “I’m glad you’re doing better,” she says, wiping at her eyes. “I was getting really worried about you.”

“I don’t think you know how to do anything but worry,” he says, only to be rewarded by a swat on the arm. “Ow!”

“Alright. New rule: we’re not dwelling on the past any more than we absolutely have to. At least not tonight.”

He puts a hand over his heart. “My, so many decrees today, Lady Katara of the South Pole.”

“Shut up and help me with these scrolls.”

“Your wish is my comm— ow, can you stop with that?”

“No,” she says sweetly. 

Sokka huffs and puffs but still helps her put them all away. Even offers to carry the bags home, for which she gives him a grateful little smile.

And just like that, he knows they’re going to be alright.

 


 

They’re halfway through eating dinner, chatting about this and that, when the throbbing in Sokka’s leg starts getting too much.

“Yow,” he mumbles under his breath, making Katara look up from her meal.

“What’s wrong?”

Sokka smooths out his expression. “Nothing.”

Katara frowns, which tells Sokka just how good a job his face must be doing right now. “Sokka. We literally talked about this, like, three hours ago. Since I didn’t see you hit your head anywhere in the interim, I’m assuming you’ve still got all your memories of today.”

“One, I think it’s so cool that we’re reached the point where you’re okay with joking about this,” he says. “Two… it’s. My leg.”

Katara puts her bowl down so hard, some of the seaweed stew jumps out the side with a plop.

“This whole time?” she not-quite shouts.

It’s still enough to make Sokka shrink in on himself. “Kinda?”

She’s popping the cork on her waterskin before he finishes the word. “Bring it here.”

It never gets old, the sensation of cool water leaching the ache away. He sighs in relief, his shoulders finally relaxing from where they’d slowly bunched up from discomfort. “You’re the best, Katara,” he says, stretching his muscles and revelling at the lack of pain.

“Glad we can agree on that,” she says with a haughty sniff, putting her water away. Her mouth pinches. “Though if I’d just healed it in time—”

“Um. What were we not supposed to be doing tonight?” he asks, cupping his hand around his ear.

“Sokka,” she whines.

He tsks at her. “Katara.”

“We’re not dwelling on the past any more than we have to,” she says, rolling her eyes fondly.

“There we go.”

He’s just picking up his bowl again when he finally connects the dots.

“Wait. You said you were too busy healing someone to fix my leg after the war,” he says slowly. Katara freezes, spoon ladled with seaweed stew halfway to her mouth. “But you were off fighting Azula, on the day of the comet. With… Zuko.”

The lightning scar on his chest, snaking out like spiderwebs against pale skin.

“He got hurt,” he says, the thought making his gut twist. “Badly, right?”

Katara puts her bowl down again, this time to wrap her arms around herself. “Not as bad as Aang in the catacombs,” she says, something burdened in her tone, “but… it was still a lot. He would have redirected it had Azula attacked him directly, but she didn’t. She threw lightning at me. She knew I would have been powerless against it. He jumped in front of me to take the hit. He saved my life, Sokka.”

Unbidden, Sokka’s eyes slip shut.

More proof of Zuko’s goodness, the purity of his heart. Like he even needs it at this point. Like he doesn’t already know, down to his very atoms, of all the light that pours out of Zuko, rivalling that of a hundred golden suns.

How had the other Sokka basked in his radiance so easily? This one burns.

The words spill out before he can stop them. Why try, at this point? “He loved me, didn’t he?”

Katara goes still as the ice around them. “How?”

“I made a list,” he says, and then he’s laughing. It sounds hysterical even to him. “I needed a fucking list to tell me he loved me, Katara, because I was too blind to see it for myself. Isn’t that the funniest fucking thing you’ve ever heard?”

“Sokka,” says Katara, but Sokka just shakes his head, one hand clapped over his mouth as if that could stop the laugher from escaping. But between one second and the next, the laughter twists, turns, goes a little broken. By the time Katara wraps an arm around his shoulder, he’s already sobbing into his hands.

“Shh,” she says, running gentle fingers through his hair. “It’s alright.”

“No it’s— it’s not,” he says, breath hitching. “He— I— Katara, he l-loved me! But not me, because I’m n-not me anymore, a-and it’s so shitty because now I l-love him too and I couldn’t even t-tell him!”

Katara’s hand freezes, before it drops down to pry his fingers away from his face. “What?”

“I love him, Katara.” It’s a confession that comes far too late. “I love h-him, and it hurts.”

The disbelief on her face shifts into something else. “You love him… too. You…? Sokka, you—”

There is a moment of dead silence. Then she’s the one who begins to shake.

Sokka draws back in alarm, but Katara doubles over, slapping at her knees.

“I can’t believe this,” she wheezes out.

Sokka’s so flabbergasted by this sudden turn of events that he completely forgets to be upset anymore. Still, the tears and snot are going strong by the time he finally finds it in himself to stutter out, “Wh— why are you laughing at me?

Katara stops imitating a dying Arctic hippo long enough to choke in a few breaths. “Because you’re both idiots of the highest magnitude, that’s why.”

“I am very offended right now, I hope you know that,” he tells her, and is only slightly mollified when she wipes at his cheeks with the end of her tunic.

“Sometimes,” she says, the odd giggle still escaping her, “I genuinely feel like I was the one who hit her head. Who knows, maybe this whole thing’s going to turn out to be some sort of elaborate dream my brain-damaged head cooked up.”

Sokka watches her warily. “Okay, now I’m officially concerned about you.”

This cracks her up again. “Stop! You, concerned about— I can’t— oh, Spirits.” She takes in a few calming breaths. “Just— give me a second. Phew. I guess we’ve both reached the end of our tether with all this, huh.”

“I’m still not quite sure what just happened,” he says, when it’s clear she’s managed to gather herself, “but. Maybe explain? Before I get very mad at you, like I kind of deserve to?”

“Oh, don’t be so dramatic,” she says, flapping an unflapped hand. “La have mercy, you both really are so similar. No wonder you fell for him again— it’s like you’re practically made for each other.”

Sokka can feel his face fall. “If we were, I wouldn’t be here right now.”

The last of Katara’s smile slips away. “Sokka,” she says. “I’m really sorry for laughing. It’s just— you had such a similar freakout the first time you told me you were falling for him.”

Something shifts at the edge of his vision. All of a sudden, her voice seems to be coming from very far away. “Weirdly similar, actually.”

 

“Katara, I like-like him,” he sobs into her lap.

“Sokka, it’s not that I don’t care about what you’re going through right now,” she says, patting at his head, “but you’re nearly eighteen. Time to use your grown-up words.”

“Meanie.”

“Fine.” Her sigh ruffles his wolftail. “There, there, that’s it. Let it alllll out.”

“I have all these feelings, a-and some of them are mushy,” he wails. “Mushier than any ones I’ve ever had before! And for what? I can’t even do anything about them, b-because he’s—"

 

He comes back to himself with a vigorous shake of his head.

“I,” he starts, dazed, interrupting whatever Katara is in the middle of saying. “Whoa. That was weird.”

“What?”

“I think something just came back to me. A memory.”

Katara’s eyes widen. “What did you see?”

“You were there,” he says, shaking his head again as if that could sort out some semblance of order to the memories rattling around his head.

Unexpectedly, they do slot in place, and with a startling amount of clarity he doesn’t expect. “And I was… crying. Over a guy? You were patting my head, like, really condescendingly, but it was alright because I knew you meant well?”

“That’s the one,” breathes Katara, a huge smile splitting her face. “That’s what I was talking about just now! Sokka, I can’t believe—”

But her smile dims just as suddenly, apprehension taking its place. “Does your head hurt?”

Surprisingly, no. He tells her this, expecting her to be relieved, but something still seems to be bothering her. “But did you see anything else?” she asks. “Anything like…”

“Like what?”

“Like red?” she asks finally. “Like fire?”

Oh. He’s so caught up in the moment that it’s almost difficult to process her words. When he does, he almost stumbles over his own in trying to reassure her. “No! I swear there wasn’t any of that. But your tunic felt so scratchy against my cheek. And I could smell the perfume Aang got for you. Panda lilies, right? Spirits, Katara, it’s like I was there. Like this was real.”

Because there was no haziness to that memory. No dream-like quality or vagueness, no details fading as soon as he reached for them.

And he has to pause, because it’s almost too much to say the words out loud. But they demand to be breathed into existence, bringing with them the strangest of feelings: hope, pouring like warm sunshine through him. “Katara,” he says, “this just felt like remembering.”

Chapter Text

Contemplating life in absolute silence has never been one of Sokka’s strong suits, but he thinks he’s doing a good job of it. Well, as good a job anyone can do when perched on the floe edge, back splayed against the icy ground and feet skimming the top of the water.

Either way, the stars sure are taking their sweet time in revealing all of life’s mysteries to him; they wink merrily against the purple-black backdrop of the night sky, like they know something he doesn’t. 

He’s been finding himself coming to this particular area more and more often over the last few nights, Zuko’s robe tucked into his pocket, his feet tracking their way across the tundra until he’s standing at the edge, toes inching over the line that separates solid ice and dark, still ocean water. There he stands, and there he sits, and there he thinks of all that swirls in his brain, as muddy as the water is clear.

As usual, he tries to separate the strands of facts and nebulous spool of emotions from one another, trying to make sense of things in a way that makes, well, sense.

Fact #1: He’s Sokka, strapping meat and sarcasm twenty-something who’s apparently a Big Deal in two major nations.

Nebulous spool of emotions #1: He’s Sokka. Too big for his shadow, too small for his grief, and lonely in the skin that houses him.

Fact #2: He’s apparently married? Engaged? Betrothed, at least, to one previously-surly fire bender who is also a Big Deal in the nation that said fire bender runs. Wow, wooer of royalty indeed.

Nebulous spool of emotions #2: He’d only just gotten used to being haunted by moonlight. Where is he supposed to turn, when the sun’s golden rays now mock him too?

Fact #3: He’s the victim of an alleged assassination attempt, the result of which is the current lack of about, oh, half a decade’s worth of memories.

Nebulous spool of emotions #3: Sometimes it’s like he’s forgotten how to breathe, too.

Fact #4: He’s back in his homeland for some much-needed rest and recuperation, surrounded by his loved ones. Water Tribe for life, babey!

Nebulous spool of emotions #4: If only he could count the nights he’s lain in the furs of his family’s hut, the crackle of his hearth drowned out by the hollowness that rings ever-present in his chest, and yearned for home.

Fact #5: He can’t sleep.

Nebulous spool of emotions #5: He can’t fucking sleep.

Sokka sighs, feet swinging as he beats out a tempo with the back of his heels against the ice, absently picking at the fraying threads of the robe.

Maybe what pulls him to the water’s edge, night after night, is the longing that calls on him to swim back to where he left his heart— in the embrace of warm arms and gentle floral scents, ocean-salted wind whipping at his cheeks and stealing away the words he wishes he’d had the courage to say: 

I know. I’m sorry. I love you. Let me fix this.

Ask me to stay.

But Zuko didn’t, and Sokka hadn’t. 

And now he comes here night after night, eyes burning with tiredness and regret as he looks at the robe, and thinks of all that he is, and all that he has, and all that he’s lost.

And like every night, when Agni peeks over the horizon and bids Yue good morrow, Sokka drags himself upright and trudges back to his hut, as unfulfilled as always.

 


 

No letters have arrived from the Fire Nation in weeks.

There’d been a few exchanged when Sokka had first reached the South Pole. Some from Kustaa, asking about his well-being and a not-so-subtle request for more frequent shipments of sea prunes. Some from Suki and Ty Lee, filled with warm concern and extremely enthusiastic updates about the palace life, respectively. Even one from Taktuq, which was more of a scrambled ramble about all the sculptures he had planned for him and Sokka to make once Sokka got better. Sokka had shuffled that one under the pile immediately.

But from Zuko, there has been nothing but a few polite enquiries about the journey and general well-wishes for Sokka’s health. Just some sparse sentences each time, containing nothing between the lines— especially considering there was barely anything on the lines— the words distant and nothing that Sokka had been hoping for.

Still, he keeps them all stashed in his desk drawer. Trails his fingers over them sometimes, if only to imagine the touch of their writer, the indents and brushstrokes and little smudges of ink speaking louder than the words inscribed on parchment.

He’s sitting at his desk, staring blankly at the letters when Katara barges into his room.

“You can’t keep doing this,” she says, hands on hips.

Sokka waves a blasé hand at her without looking. “Hello to you, too.”

“Quit it,” she snaps, slamming her hand on his desk so hard that he jumps. “I know you’ve been sneaking out at night.”

“It’s not technically sneaking if I go through the front door,” he points out.

“Sokka,” she says, and he already knows he’s busted by the sardonic twist of her lip—common to smug little sisters everywhere— “I saw you tip-toe your way through the sealskin last night, like an unimpressive burglar. It took you, like, five minutes to get through it without making a sound. You looked like an idiot.”

He blinks at her. “You were awake?”

“I was literally staring at you the entire time. I even waved. But you were too busy being ‘sneaky’ to notice.”

“Oh.”

“Oh, indeed.”

She perches at the edge of his desk, stern expression softening into something more understanding as she catches sight of the letters. “This is about Zuko, isn’t it?” she asks, gentle.

There is a quiet moment, where they both stare down at the gathered parchment.

“Yes,” he admits.

She smooths back his hair like Mom used to do when he was a kid. Sighing, he leans into the touch.

“Halve your burden, Sokka,” she reminds him.

“There’ve been no new memories for over a week,” he says. “I thought I was finally getting better! I thought I was getting close to— something! Anything, you know? I thought I finally had the thread in my hand, and all I had to do was follow the trail to wherever it led to in my mind. Back to—” Him. “Back to my memories. But then nothing happened. And nothing keeps happening, and… ugh! I just—”

He slams the drawer shut, wishing he could hide his impotent hurt just as easily. “I just want all this to be over. For better or for worse.”

“But you told me yourself that your nightmares are gone,” Katara points out. “You said it was getting easier to accept things.”

“Accepting things is one thing. Making peace with them is another.”

Katara hums. “What do you think it’ll take for you to make peace with it all, then?”

“Well, Katara, if I knew, do you think I’d still be sitting here, trying to fight the urge to just bash my head into the desk and end it all?”

“Wow. I forgot how dramatic teenage-you used to be.”

“Katara,” he groans.

Her smile straightens into something more serious. “Tell me where you sneak off to,” she says.

“Not this again.”

“I’m serious! You look like you haven’t slept in days, Sokka.”

She peers at his face, critical eyes roving all over him. “Gotta say, it’s not a good look on you. But then,” she says, ruffling his hair, “what is?”

Sokka rolls his eyes so hard, it’s a miracle they don’t pop out of his skull. “Ha ha. Hilarious. You should invent a career where you go on stage and tell your funny little jokes to people.”

“If I thought people would pay good coin to see you being made fun of,” says Katara dryly, “I’d stand you up with Toph in front of an audience and rake in the money. Would probably make a fortune, actually.”

“Still wouldn’t be enough to buy some peace and quiet around here,” Sokka grumbles.

Instead of retorting, Katara just flops down in the chair next to him. “Sokka. Talk to me. Where do you keep disappearing off to at night?”

The earnest concern in her voice cuts through his urge to deflect. “Not that it’s really all that important how I spend my time,” he says, “but… you know the floe edge, right behind dad and Bato’s hut?”

“I see.”

“What,” he asks, suspicious at her sudden nonchalance.

“Nothing!” She pauses, face growing thoughtful. Before he can question her evasiveness, she says, “Wait. So, you’ve been going there… what, every night this past week?”

“Maybe.”

She cocks her head.

“Yes,” he admits, sullen.

Katara looks at him. Really looks at him, eyes piercing. No, not piercing… searching.

Then her gaze flicks to the desk, where his fist has tightened around the drawer’s knob, knuckles white. And she must find what she was looking for, for her expression sets into something determined.

“I don’t have your thread, Sokka,” she says, reaching into her pocket. “But I do have this.”

Her fist unfurls. On her palm sits, resplendent and damning in equal measures, a betrothal necklace.

Sokka’s break catches. “When…”

“On the docks,” she says softly. “Right before we left. He told me to take care of it, and you. Said to keep you both safe, until… well. Until forever, if needed.”

Sokka can’t quite seem to tear his eyes away from where the stone gleams in her hand. “I don’t want forever,” he says, and they both know what he really means: I don’t want this forever.

But wishes cannot change the past. His path has long diverged from where this necklace may have once led him, a fork in the road he doesn’t even remember starting on. And things seem to have been decided for Sokka without him ever realising there’d been a decision in the making. As usual.

(He also seems to not have a choice in taking back his hand when Katara reaches out for it.)

“I don’t want it,” he protests weakly, even as the necklace drops into his palm with the weight of an anvil, “he gave it to you.”

“It doesn’t belong with me.”

“What makes you think it belongs any better with me?”

Katara winces at the bitterness lacing his voice. “Just keep it.”

Her tone brooks no arguments, but he wants to argue anyway. Doesn’t she know what it embodies, now? No longer is it a token of their future—that other, splendid, glorious future— they were supposed to have, the permanence of their love carved into stone. No longer is it a symbol of everlasting belonging, of needing, of having, of being one and the same, tied together with promises and hung close to the pulse so that it could share with Sokka every beat of his lover’s heart.

Now, the necklace, blue as a bruise and just as painful to behold, is nothing more than a noose that Sokka wants to hang himself with.

“I know what you’re thinking,” says Katara, breaking Sokka out of his spiral. He looks up from the necklace into remorseful eyes. “But it wasn’t your fault, Sokka. You’d just woken up after suffering a traumatic head injury. Your last memories were of a failed invasion. If all you saw were enemy colours right after that, no one would blame you for trying to protect yourself.”

“But it wasn’t protection!” Sokka slams his free hand on the table. “I attacked him!”

“His country subjugated ours for a century. We were born in a war. It wasn’t your fault.” Katara taps him on the head. “I know this isn’t going to get through that thick skull of yours, but Zuko forgave you a long time ago for this.”

She closes his reluctant fist around the necklace. “It’s time for you to do the same.”

“You don’t know that he did,” he croaks out. “Not really.”

“Zuko can’t hide his emotions to save his life,” says Katara. A small half-smile plays at her lips, fond and so very sad. “I could see it in his eyes every time he looked at you. He probably forgave you the moment he found out that you’d lost your memories.”

She turns towards the door. “And that’s not the only thing I saw there.”

“What?” he calls out to her retreating back, even though he knows already.

“Love, Sokka. Even at the docks. Even as we left, and you never looked back. Maybe if you had,” she says over her shoulder, tone lightly accusing, “you’d have seen the way he still looked at you, like you personally hung all the stars in the sky and go back to shine them every night.”

Her eyes do not meet his when she adds, “Maybe if you had… you’d have considered telling him how you felt before you left. It would have been the kinder thing to do.”

“I couldn’t give him hope, Katara,” he says, fist tightening around the necklace. “I’ve hurt him a lot, but that? That would have been crueller than anything I’ve ever done to him.”

She’s silent for a moment. “I think you and I have very different definitions of cruelty. But either way… don’t set yourself on fire trying to keep others warm, Sokka. You might find the both of you ending up in ashes.”

 


 

It takes Sokka approximately another night and a half of sleeplessness to decide he’s had enough.

“That’s it!” he yells at the sky, startling a sleeping otter-penguin with his outburst. It clucks at him in disgruntlement before shuffling off, presumably to find another sleeping spot somewhere where pesky humans won’t bother it.

“Sorry,” says Sokka, waving it an awkward goodbye before turning back to the sky. Yue is there, as always, but this time the yearning to hear her voice is too much to bear. So, he looks away. Though the hint of dawn has begun peeking at the horizon, edges of pink creeping in as not-quite-night becomes not-quite-day, the stars continue to twinkle conspiratorially at him, making him feel no better.

Frustrated, he turns to the sea.

“That’s it,” he hisses at it, trying to avoid scaring any other animals sleeping nearby. Just because Sokka’s mind won’t let him rest, doesn’t mean that everyone else around him has to suffer the same fate. “I can’t take it anymore!”

He kicks a stray piece of ice off the floe edge, watching it disappear into the inky blackness below.

Something occurs to his sleep-deprived mind. Takes hold so fast that he doesn’t even question if it’s a good idea.

He roots around in his pocket, where he buried the betrothal necklace the moment Katara left his room. The feel of it in his hand is almost heavier than before, crushing him from the inside out.

Sokka doesn’t stop to look at it. Doesn’t stop to think of the consequences. All that he knows is that he’s exhausted, and more than a little heartbroken. He can’t seem to do anything about the former, but the necklace in his hand has played a very large part in causing the latter.

He’s had enough.

“I’ve had enough,” he says, deciding it merits being said out loud. Because it does, and he has. This has all gone on for far too long, and Sokka is done.

“I’m—” His arm pulls back, elbow wrenching as he swings as hard as he possibly can, “– done!”

The necklace flies off into the distance, the ribbon ends streaming behind it like comet trails.

It arcs through the sky before disappearing with a quiet, anticlimactic plop into the water.

Finally, thinks Sokka, dusting off his hands.

Good riddance.

He turns to walk back to his hut.

His feet slow down.

Wait.

He comes to a complete stop.

Oh no.

Twists back.

Ah, fuck, he thinks, and then he’s running back to the edge.

And then there’s no time to think because he’s too busy shrugging his outer coat off and throwing away his boots. “Shit, shit, shit,” he whispers frantically, watching the ripples disappear. “Katara’s going to kill me.” Whatever’s left of him to kill, that is.

With that optimistic thought, and a quick prayer to any deity still bothering to listen, he leaps into the water.

It’s frighteningly cold, as expected. He’d taken the moment to hold his breath, but the water punches it out of him anyway, streams of bubbles escaping his mouth. There’s just enough time for one last gasp of air before he’s twisting away and down into the watery abyss.

This was a monumentally stupid plan, he has the wherewithal to wonder as he swims towards where he thinks the necklace might be. For one, it’s far too dark to make out much of anything. Even with Yue’s light and the dawn’s fast approach, it’s barely enough to make his hands in front of him. But he knows that if he loses the necklace then it’ll just add to the tally of the things he’ll never forgive himself for— a long enough list already.

A faint ringing starts in his ears as he goes further and further down, but he barely has time to focus on how not-great that is before— is that— there!

The necklace, ribbons trailing above the stone as it sinks into the depths. He surges after it, pushing through the water with strokes as measured as he can manage when his limbs feel like they’re about to fall off from the cold.

He’s so focused on the necklace that he barely sees the flicker at the corner of his eye.

smiling sunlight grass crickets slumber

A memory. Or part of one, at least.

Bubbles escape his mouth as he takes a moment to shake his head, pressure building against the inside of his skull. Not now. It’s what he’s wanted for days— for something, anything to click— but he can’t afford to be distracted, or he’ll lose the necklace. The necklace that isn’t his to lose.

So, he pushes forward, past the snippet of memory, until

 

parchment scratching ink words

 

The images grow clearer as he swims deeper into the ocean depths, a mirage on either side of him.

 

hands touch skin soft laughter

 

Every snippet adds to the dam in his head, pushing uncomfortably against his skull as he swims. But if he stops to focus on them now, he knows he’ll drown. Once again, he tries to swim through the flickers of memories until his sole focus is on the necklace, and it helps, somehow, the pressure in his head lessening as he sets his sights on the sinking stone centre of the betrothal necklace.

He’s nearly there, the necklace right in front of—

 

running appa temple duke pipsqueak children they’re just children toph “hello zuko here” rubble trust aang “jerkbending still got it” field-trips dancing plans balloon lake “silver sandwich” metal boiling guards dad gondola blue flames azula island mom sand sea ships melonlord stinky sandal shirshu iroh white lotus piandao eel-hounds war its war its war its

over

 

His hand outstretched, reaching, reaching—

 

hair shoulder neck ribbon “yes” grass under hands beautiful inscription blade gratitude “i love you” honeyed jasmine lips cloth fever fingers “let me take care of you” heat under skin over skin held he’s held (he’s loved) he’s—

 

For a brief, brief moment, Sokka feels the swell of something in his skull.

 

carving waves neck protection safe relief paper brush fire lily black hair gold eyes (love) (he loved) bitter taste tea “the things I do for” (love) (love) (love) rain leg ache hurt warm breath hot mouth (yes yes yes) pond wood turtle-ducks splinters (i love you i’ll love you forever and even after that and even after that) fond amusement laughter tucky (let me love you until the stars come crashing down and all that’s left is my hand in yours this is a promise)

 

His hand curves around the necklace.

And the dam bursts open.

 

 

fighting fire red skies falling screaming silence blue beam victory crowds roaring it’s over it’s over it’s

 

just

 

a nightmare, he’s awake, gasping, suki’s hand on his back as he struggles to catch his breath and stifle his screams as she asks, “what’s

 

wrong

 

it’s all wrong,” katara says, eyes wet, her hands from his leg, “i’m so sorry, sokka,” and he wants to tell her it’s alright but it’s not because it

 

hurts,”

 

says aang, silhouetted against the falling dusk, his voice a whisper. “we won, but they’re still gone. nothing can bring back what’s lost.”

 

 

Images flit in front of his eyes, coalescing like fragmented pieces of a mosaic falling into place, faster and faster and faster until—

 

“If someone was captured by the Fire Nation, where would they be taken?”

He’s not a fan of this. Zuko may be good now, or whatever, but that doesn’t mean he likes relying on the guy for information. But Sokka has no other choice— not if he wants to free Dad.

And he likes it even less when Zuko shakes his head. His pity chafes. “Trust me. Knowing would just make you feel worse.”

Sokka doesn’t need pity. He needs answers.

But there is empathy in Zuko’s eyes, too, and Sokka is running very low on allies, so he ends up telling Zuko about his plan to find his father and break him out of wherever he’s being kept.

He never expects Zuko to figure out the details. Never expects him to show up on Appa’s back with arms crossed and an expression as doggedly determined as it is sullen, scaring Sokka onto his ass and half out of it, and tag along with Sokka to a high-security prison with absolutely no proof of whether Hakoda was even being kept there.

But they get through the crash-landing (which was so much easier to get through than the incredibly awkward balloon conversation preceding it) and the guards and the fact that, yeah, his father wasn’t being kept there (fuck), and finding Suki and Zuko getting busted and Hakoda somehow ending up at the prison, anyway? Sokka’s emotions are all over the place by the time they do end up escaping, which is a miracle all in itself.

And Sokka may grip Suki’s hand tight on the balloon ride back— hard enough that there’s no chance of losing her again, no matter what— but it’s Zuko’s eyes he finds himself seeking out. Zuko, whose sullenness now paints a thin veneer for his worry about his girlfriend (ex-girlfriend? Who knows. Certainly not Sokka), awkwardly sitting in the corner as if he doesn’t know what to do with himself now that he’s served his purpose. Well, that won’t do.

Thank you, Sokka mouths, and something in his chest tightens at how confused Zuko looks at the words.

It takes Zuko a moment to nod back, but when he does, some of the tension around his shoulder seems to evaporate. There’s even a hint of a smile at the corner of his lips, and Sokka feels oddly proud to have been the one to put it there.

 

 

Sokka gasps, both hands pressed against his forehead. More bubbles escape his mouth.

 

 

“Zuko, wait up!”

It’s easy to spot Zuko in his pointy Fire Lord shoulder pads, even from across the crowded room. It’s also easy to spot the disapproving eyebrow he levels at Sokka’s approach.

“Aren’t you supposed to be on bedrest?” asks Zuko when Sokka finally limps over, pushing through the throng with his cane and leaving noblemen and foreign dignitaries grumbling in his wake.

“Could say the same for you,” replies Sokka, raising his own eyebrow at how Zuko is hunched over imperceptibly, one hand close to his chest. He looks paler than Sokka is comfortable with.

Zuko waves him off. “It’ll probably send a mixed message to the people if their new Fire Lord disappears right after his coronation, don’t you think?”

“I think it’ll look worse if the new Fire Lord is found passed out in a corner somewhere,” says Sokka, grinning when Zuko scowls at him. “Now come on, don’t let Katara see you like this, or she’ll knock you out herself.”

“Sokka,” protests Zuko, but Sokka lalala can’t hear you’s over them until Zuko gives up and lets himself be dragged to his super-ostentatious bedroom, away from the various ass-kissing upper echelons of the Fire Nation.

But when it comes time for Sokka to leave, he feels a tug at his sleeve.

“You should… stay,” says Zuko, looking anywhere but at him. Without his shiny new crown, he looks much more comfortable in his skin, though there is a strange redness to his cheeks— what, is he getting sick or something? “Rest here with me. If you want, of course.”

“Nah. Suki’s waiting for me in my room,” says Sokka, waggling his eyebrows in (what he hopes is) a suggestive manner. “But thanks, man.”

“No problem,” mumbles Zuko, twisting until he’s facing the wall, away from Sokka. He squishes his face into one of the multitudes of pillows around him. “See you later, I guess.”

And that should be the end of that. So, why is it that Sokka finds himself at Zuko’s door twice in as many hours? Why does he feel the need to press a light hand against a sleeping Zuko’s forehead, checking for a fever?

It’s a mystery, really.

 

 

Wha—

 

 

A shadow falls across the room. “Done packing?”

Sokka, who’s currently waging an unsuccessful fight against the strings of his overstuffed bag, sighs.

“Kinda,” he says. “Could really use some help, though, what with the—” he nods at his leg, unwieldy cast and all.

As he helps Sokka fasten his final bag shut, Zuko coughs lightly. “So, um. You guys planning to come back anytime soon?”

“Probably not,” says Sokka without thinking.

“Fair enough,” says Zuko, and there’s something impossibly lonely in his voice. It makes Sokka stop short.

He looks up to see Zuko fiddling with the bag’s strings, eyes pensive. “Guess I got used to having you guys here.”

“I know. We did, too. Wish we could pack you up and take you with us, but—” Sokka gestures around him— “what with you being the leader of a nation and all—”

“Hmm, yeah. Can’t say my ministers would be okay with you kidnapping their Fire Lord.”

Sokka nods sagely. “You see my point.” But when Zuko’s smile wavers at the edges, Sokka finds himself rushing to add, “But of course we’ll visit when we can! I’ll be coming to see Suki at some point, anyway, and I’ll drag Katara and Aang with me. Can’t leave you unsupervised for long— gotta make sure you haven’t burned the place down after a tantrum or two.”

“I do not throw tantrums,” grumbles Zuko, stomping his feet.

“Sure, bud.”

Zuko rolls his eyes. “You’re so annoying. Thank Agni you’re leaving.” But, as Sokka is starting to realise, Zuko is a terrible liar.

So, he nudges Zuko with his shoulder. “I miss home, man. It’s been a long time since I’ve been back. But I know I’ll miss you, too.”

Zuko is silent for a moment, seemingly struggling with something. “Promise you’ll write?” he finally blurts out.

Sokka smiles, dropping his hand onto Zuko’s shoulder. “Was already planning to,” he says, squeezing—

 

 

—tighter, grip vice-like around his leg.

The ship rocks and heaves and groans, and with every jarring wave the pain crests that little bit more.

“The cost of being a hero,” the ship’s physician, Kustaa, says to him not unkindly, “does not seem to come cheap, I’m afraid.”

Sokka grits his teeth and nods. This, he knows.

He also knows he got off lightly; somehow, he always expected to pay more than just a shattered leg.

Trying to get comfortable is impossible, but try he does. Exhausted, he closes his eyes, but the weather must be worsening, the sea getting choppier for the ship jolts again, and this time Sokka can’t help the cry that escapes his lips, eyes snapping open to—

 

—see his father slam his bowl down on the table.

“They’ve been having some disagreement over the new Earth Kingdom trading routes,” explains Katara at dinnertime. Hakoda sniffs into his stew, while Bato, standing a full five metres away, snorts disgruntledly into whichever piece of parchment he’s pretending to read.

“It’s not a disagreement,” says Hakoda.

“No, just a row,” mutters Bato.

Hakoda glares at him. “Well, now it’s a scene.”

Gran-Gran, who’s been silently observing the scene for a while, winks at Sokka. “Ah, but the trading routes aren’t the problem,” she whispers conspiratorially at him. “I think these two have been so busy with the reconstruction efforts recently that they haven’t had a chance to be together in a while.”

Hakoda puts down his spoon. “What are you implying?”

Gran-Gran stares Hakoda down. “I’m saying you two need to bone.”

Everything seems to screech to a halt. Sokka whimpers.

Hakoda, through his dropped jaw, manages to stammer out, “Wh-wha?”

“That’s what the kids are calling it these days, yes?” Gran-Gran uses her fingers to tick off an imaginary list. “Getting dirty. Getting frisky. Bumping uglies. Knocking snow boots—”

“Gran-Gran!” gasps Katara. “Stop!”

“Oh, please. You’re old enough to know how it works.” Gran-Gran turns back to Hakoda, who’s turned a dark crimson. She stabs a finger in his chest, punctuating each poke with a word. “You. Two. Need. To. Bone.”

In the distance, Bato chokes on thin air.

Hakoda slams his hands on the table. “How dare you, Mother? I am— I am your Chief! And, more importantly, your son!”

He storms out, leaving behind three shocked—and one very smug— faces.

Returns ten minutes later, pushing aside the sealskin to bellow, “BONE?”

Bato has made himself scarce as Gran-Gran silently puts the dishes away, leaving Sokka and Katara to endure the rants of, “What happens in my bedroom, Mother, is none of your business,” and, “I can’t believe you’d say something like that in front of the children. The children, Mother! Have you no shame?” and, “BONE?

An indiscriminate amount of time later, when Sokka is quietly rocking himself in the corner and Katara has washed her hands of the situation by falling asleep, Hakoda finally seems to lose steam.

He walks up to Gran-Gran, who is now stitching a parka in front of the fireplace, and says, “Don't ever speak to me like that. Ever again.”

Gran-Gran raises one eyebrow.

“Please,” pleads Hakoda.

“Alright,” says Gran-Gran. “Now go find your man and apologise.”

“Yes, ma’am,” says Hakoda, already scarpering away.

Gran-Gran turns to Sokka. “Guess what they’ll be doing tonight.”

As Gran-Gran’s lips begin forming the words, Sokka claps—

 

 

—his hands over his ears, as Toph bellows, “What’s a girl gotta do to get some service over here!”

“Stop yelling, Toph,” Katara hisses, slapping a hand over Toph’s mouth. She whips it away just as fast, revealing Toph’s smug smile underneath. “Eww!”

Toph makes a show of licking her lips, unrepentant. “Hmm. Surprisingly salty hand you got there, Sugar Queen. Ever heard of this newfangled concept called personal hygiene?”

“Knock it off, Toph,” sighs Sokka, as Aang pulls a seething Katara away before she can reach for her waterskin.

Iroh chooses that moment to sidle up to their table, smoothly cutting through the bickering. “Ah, my friends! Truly a sight for sore eyes. I’ll send for someone to get your orders, and then we can all catch up over a nice pot of tea and sweet treats.”

“Sounds great, Iroh,” says Suki, as Sokka nods vigorously.

While Iroh joins them at the table (squeezing in between Katara and Toph in an admirably diplomatic manner), a server clears his throat from beside the table.

“What can I get you?”

“Zu—” Sokka’s exclaim is cut off by Suki’s rather swift elbow. “—oof! I mean, Lee!”

Zuko offers them a sheepish wave, hair tied back into a loose ponytail. It suits him. “Hey, guys.”

Many surreptitious group hugs (that fool none of the regulars) and exchanged pleasantries later, Iroh disappears to the backroom. Sokka is busy stuffing his face with delicious pastries when Katara says, “I haven’t seen Mai yet. Didn’t she come with you?”

Zuko’s spine snaps straight like a puppet’s strings pulled taut, arm jerking out and knocking into his teacup. “Erm,” he stammers, sopping up spilled tea with his apron. He exchanges a terse glance with Suki, who shrugs.

“Might as well tell them, Zuko,” she says.

“Uh oh. She dumped you, didn’t she, Sparky?” Toph asks, a rare note of sympathy in her voice.

“What! No!” Zuko coughs, avoiding eye contact. “No, she just, um. We decided—together! Mutually!— we decided that we could do with a break, you know?”

Katara looks at Suki, who subtly shakes her head. She turns back at Zuko. Raises an eyebrow.

Zuko slumps. “…Yeah, she dumped me.”

Aang pats his hand. “There, there.”

“Plenty of knife-wielding badasses in the sea,” says Toph.

“She said it was for my own good,” sighs Zuko. “Said I’ll thank her later. Something about me opening my eyes and seeing the forest for the trees? She said she didn’t realise how ‘interested in swords’ I was, and that it was okay because she ‘liked purses better anyway’.” He drops his head in his hands. “What does that even mean?”

“Oh, boy,” says Toph, as Suki and Katara exchange a Look. Twisting his index finger in the air, Aang just looks down into his own cup, where a miniature hurricane is now stirring his tea.

“Well, I like swords and purses,” says Sokka, only half listening, “but I don’t see why she’d break up with you over something as small as that. Suki, would you break up with me if I liked swords better?”

“Oh, boy,” says Toph with renewed fervour, as Suki wryly adds, “Nope. Swords and purses for me, too, babe.”

Zuko looks between them both, good eye going wide. “Wait—"

 “Listen, man.” Around a mouthful of sugary goodness, spraying crumbs everywhere, Sokka says, “Forget about Mai. We’ll help you find someone who’s perfect for you. Who knows? Maybe the love of your life is sitting right here in this teashop, and you don’t even know it yet.”

He gestures around them at the Jasmine Dragon’s clientele, which consists primarily of people over the average age of sixty-five playing Pai Sho and chattering about tea blends.

An old lady catches them staring. She blows Zuko a kiss and a wink.

“What am I missing?” asks Toph in the silence.

Suki snorts. “Zuko’s new paramour, apparently.”

As they all burst out laughing, Zuko drops his head onto the table and groans. “I hate you all.”

“Hey,” says Sokka, “we’re just trying to—

 

“—help, Dad?”

“I’m good, son,” says Hakoda distractedly, turning to discuss something with Amka. “Maybe check with Bato if he needs help with the expansion plans.”

Sokka sighs, using his cane to twist on his heel. When he finally finds Bato, he’s told to go help Nuniq, who sends him to Yutu, who waves him away to see if Silla needs anything.

“I feel more useless than fireproof kindling,” he complains to Katara, who stifles a laugh.

“I’m sure you’re not that useless.”

“Then why won’t anyone let me help!” Sokka knows he’s whining, but feels more than a little justified in doing so. He whacks at invisible targets with his cane, trying to burn off some of his frustration. “I nearly single-handedly won us the war!”

Katara stares at him.

“You know I’m exaggerating,” he quickly amends, and thanks the Spirits when she rolls her eyes.

“Practically one of the only things you’re good at,” she says. “I know how you’re feeling, though. Dad won’t let me help either.”

Sokka snorts. “Turns out we’re old enough to save the world, but not old enough to help run it, huh?”

“Exactly.” She taps at her chin. “Hmm. I saw a letter on Dad’s desk yesterday that might be of interest to you, actually. It was from the Fire Nation. They’re asking for an ambassador to represent the South Pole.”

“What, seriously?” When Katara gives him a confused look, he throws up his hands. “I don’t want to go to the Fire Nation, Katara. We’ve barely been back a year!”

“Oh, don’t give me that. I know you’re practically itching to leave.”

She must see the guilt in his face, for she adds, “I feel it too, sometimes. After spending all that time travelling with Aang, it’s difficult to stay in one place for long. And after seeing how big the world really is, home feels smaller than it used to.”

“I miss it, you know?” admits Sokka. “Despite all the dangers and the fear. I can’t remember the last time I felt…”

“Like you had a purpose?”

“Yeah.”

Katara pats his back in sympathy. “That’s why I think the ambassadorship will be a good change of pace for you. You don’t have to do it forever— take it one step at a time. Plus, it’s not a year-round position. You get to come back every six months.”

When he still doesn’t look convinced, she adds, “Plus. Suki.”

All protests die on his lips. “Suki,” he repeats dreamily. “Hmm. I guess it does sound like an important position. Someone’s gotta do the job, right? Plus, who here knows the Fire Nation better than us?”

Katara’s smile is knowing. “I’ll talk to Dad.”

 

 

Sokka writhes in the water, clawing at his temples.

It’s too much, it’s too fast, it’s—

 

 

—really not going to plan. Sokka should probably accept defeat at this point.

“You should accept defeat at this point, Ambassador,” says Zuko, smug grin half-hidden behind his crossed dao. He looms above Sokka, posture languid as he contemplates his pathetic opponent currently splayed spreadeagle-hawk on the mat. Again.

“Fuck, no,” says Sokka, tamping down on the automatic groan threatening to escape him as he rolls away. What’s the point of fighting on mats when they’re just as hard as the wooden floors beneath? Fucking ouch.

He brings up his sword, wincing at the strain on his arms. He’s yet to find a sword as lightweight as Space Sword— maybe he’d have had more of a fighting chance with it.

Or maybe not.

“Sokka, maybe we should call it a day,” says Zuko, and he looks less amused now. More pitying, really, and that’s enough to add fuel to the current fire waging across Sokka’s ego.

“We’ll call it when I say so.”

With that, he rushes Zuko. Who neatly sidesteps while extending one foot in Sokka’s path, sending him sprawling.

“Calling it,” mutters Sokka into a mouthful of mat.

“You’re getting better,” says Zuko, putting away his dao. He leans closer, reaching out a hand.

Sokka grabs it, rising halfway before pulling Zuko down and rolling on top of him in one swift movement, sword edge pressed firmly against his throat.

“Gotcha!”

“Sokka,” says Zuko faintly. “This is cheating.”

“Ah, but my friend, it is not,” proclaims Sokka. “Remember Master Piandao’s first lesson? Never let your guard down. Everything’s fair in a fight.”

“Oh, yeah?”

Zuko bucks his hips against him, and Sokka’s smirk disappears as soon as it came. The world whirls around Sokka, until his back slams into the mat with renewed fervour, this time with Zuko pressed along the length of him, a line of heat that ends with dao crisscrossing against his neck.

“Gotcha,” breathes Zuko. At some point, his hair must have slipped out of his topknot, falling like curtains on either side of Sokka’s face. It smells like some kind of citrusy flower, deep and rich, and Sokka can’t help but breathe it in as he stares up into Zuko’s eyes.

Eyes that go from triumphant to hesitant, depthless pools of warmth. Have they always been this gold? (Have they always been so soft?)

And then he’s rolling off Sokka, sheathing his dao as he stands. “I hope you won’t mind if I didn’t offer you another hand up,” he says, clearing his throat.

“Well,” Sokka says, feeling oddly winded. “Can’t say I don’t deserve that.”

A beat of silence, followed by a sigh from above. Then there are hands grabbing his, pulling him upright.

“You don’t,” says Zuko, soft, and Sokka’s barely had a moment to re-orient himself against gravity before he hears the training room doors shut in the distance.

He’s alone but for motes of dust, dancing in the light like—

 

—moths in the moonlight, fluttering their wings over the pond’s glimmering surface.

It’s a lovely night. If only it were anything but.

Sokka wishes for thunderstorms, for lightning to strike the ground, levelling dirt and stones in an upheaval that matches the one in his chest. Instead, he gets turtleducks quacking by his feet, trees swaying in the gentle breeze, and moonlight painting the pond in soft fractures of light.

Two years since Yue’s death. Two years since his first love was snatched from him, fading through his fingertips faster than a breath exhaled. Just as long since his heart, barely healed from a childhood filled with loss, split along familiar cracks.

He stares across the pond now, as footsteps approach him from behind. “Mind if I join you?”

“Sure,” says Sokka tonelessly.

Zuko settles beside him on the grass. Sokka expects him to speak, but Zuko seems content to remain silent, the only sound the frantic splashing and honking of turtleducks coming nearer when Zuko produces seeds out his pockets. When that, too, dies down, Sokka turns to him.

“How did you know?”

“I remembered the date,” says Zuko, looking up at the moon. “It’s kind of hard to forget, actually. I don’t think I’ve ever said this to you before, but… I’m sorry for your loss.”

Sokka turns back to the pond. “Yeah. Me too.”

“You know,” says Zuko, hesitant, “Uncle always said that talking about the people you lose helps. That remembering their stories helps keep their memory alive. You can tell me about her.” Then, quickly, “Only if you want, of course.”

And Sokka’s kneejerk reaction is a flat-out no. To snap at Zuko and tell him to go away, leaving Sokka to fester in his grief.

But there’s something so painfully earnest in Zuko’s tone. And when Sokka turns to him, he finds no pity in his eyes. Just an understanding that speaks the language of loss— and instinctively, Sokka knows that Zuko, too, carries cracks across his heart.

So, Sokka clears his throat. “She, umm,” he starts, his voice unsteady, but the words coming to him easier than he thought they would, “she was larger than life. I only knew her for a short period of time, but there was just something about her that marked her as different…”

They sit there for who knows how long, the night growing deeper around them. Sokka speaks, and Zuko listens, never once interrupting.

And it might just be his wishful thinking, but the reflection across the pond seems to grow just that little bit brighter; perhaps the moon is listening, too.

 

 

The necklace has slipped from his grasp. Wildly, he thrashes about to try and grab it, but the necklace wavers, contorts, turns into—

 

 

—a brush, rapidly scritch-scratching over parchment.

Halfway through writing up his thoughts for the next Council meeting, Sokka feels fingers brushing at his nape.

He grabs them absentmindedly, giving them a quick peck. “Hey, you. Shift over?”

Hand twined with his, Suki hums, before leaning in to kiss his cheek.

“I’m breaking up with you,” she says, as if they’re discussing the weather and not the end of a two-year relationship.

“Okay,” says Sokka stupidly. “Do you still want dinner?”

Suki pats his head. “Of course.”

Later, when Sokka can’t keep pretending to play with his fire noodles under the guise of eating them anymore, he finally gathers the courage to ask, “Why?”

Suki looks up from her own bowl. “Sokka,” she says, putting it away. “Why do you think?”

“I still love you,” he says, and the words come out slightly off.

She smiles, and he knows that she knows. “And I’ll always love you, too. But we both know we’re not in love with each other, anymore. At this point, it feels like we’re just going through the motions, doesn’t it?”

“I’m sorry,” he blurts out. “I can try and fix whatever’s wrong, I didn’t mean—"

She reaches out to cup his face in her hands, giving it a gentle shake. “Stop! Sokka, you were my first love. I’m so grateful for the time we’ve spent together; I wouldn’t change it for the world. But some things aren’t meant to last, and that’s okay.”

Sokka pulls back, taking a moment to digest this. “Alright,” he says. “Does this mean we’re not going to go see the new Ember Island Players production next week?”

“Don’t be silly,” she says, grabbing her chopsticks and diving back for more noodles. “I’ve heard Portrait of Kyoshi on Fire is their best work yet, even better than The Boy and The Boulder.”

“Pff, as if anything can beat The Boy and The Boulder. It’s a contemporary love story for the ages!”

“Then I guess we’ll just have to go and judge for ourselves.” For all the normalcy in her tone, she still hesitates when looking up at him. “Besides, we’re still us, even if we’re not together anymore. This doesn’t change anything... right?”

And Sokka knows, from the trepidation in her eyes, that what he says next will define their relationship going forward. Sure, a part of him feels winded at suddenly losing this— the easy companionship, her soft touch, their private smiles— but a greater part of him acknowledges that this is for the best.

So, he does his best to produce as genuine a grin as possible, reaching out to snag one of her noodles and slurp it obnoxiously into his mouth. “Of course,” he says around it, relieved to see her relief. “Can’t get rid of me that easily.”

The noodles aren’t going down easy. He reaches for some water, his hand—

 

—closing around his mug.

“And then, Chenguang was all like, ‘You underestimate me, Fire Lord’, and Zuko was like, ‘On the contrary, it’s—'”

“’—impossible to underestimate you’, yeah, I know, you told me,” sighs Aang, huddling into his snow coat.

“It was so badass! You should have been there, Aang. Chenguang’s face? Priceless. I should draw it and give it to Zuko. Actually,” Sokka pauses, already reaching for the charcoal he’s started keeping in his pockets, “that’s not a bad—"

“Hmm. Hey, Sokka— since when did you start drinking so much jasmine tea?”

Fully engrossed in scribbling out the details of Chenguang’s gobsmacked expression, Sokka slurps to a stop. “Huh?”

Aang’s raised eyebrow points from the teacup in Sokka’s un-charcoal-y hand to the way his pinky sticks outwards, crooked and very not proper. “The tea. You’ve drunk three cups since this morning.”

“So what? It’s cold out here,” says Sokka, oddly defensive. “Plus, part of my ambassadorial perks are all the tea I could ever drink. I’m not gonna say no to free stuff, you know that.”

Aang eyes the two trunks stacked against the wall. “I can see that.” Then, said so casually that Sokka almost misses it through his next slurp, “I think you’ve been spending too much time with Zuko.”

This time it’s Sokka’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “You’re not jealous, are you?”

“What! No! Pff, jealous? Me?” Aang huffs again, sending every single sheet of parchment flying off the table, including Sokka’s drawing. “Never.”

“Aang.” Sokka grips Aang’s shoulder, shaking him lightly. “You know you’re my best friend, right? No one can replace you in my life.”

Aang’s lower lip wobbles. “Really?”

“Yes, reall— oof!”

 Sokka had expected the hug, but not the force with which Aang throws himself on Sokka.

“I love you, Sokka,” says Aang, voice muffled from where his face is buried in Sokka’s neck.

“Love you too, buddy.” A beat of silence. “Aang, not that I’m not enjoying the hug, but… you have to let me up. You’re squishing my bladder.”

“All that tea… you gotta pee, don’t you?”

“Yeah.”

Aang dusts Sokka off. “Brr, it’s freezing in here.”

He turns to stoke the hearth, the flames fanning— 

 

 —up, with the crackling of fire logs the loudest sound in the infirmary.

A child is crying softly in the corner, yellow dress stained with blossoms of red and brown. Her head rests in the lap of a Kyoshi Warrior sitting strong and beside her, face an unreadable mask under the white and red paint.

But the focus of Sokka’s attention is the figure in the centre of the room, lying wrapped in gauze and ointment. Motionless but for his slow, laboured breathing. Colourless but for the blood speckling his bandages— that, and the spill of dark hair against white sheets, tangled and messy.

The ache in Sokka’s leg complains of the hours he’s spent sitting at Zuko’s bedside, but he can’t seem to gather enough of himself to move. Something in him feels punctured, steadily leaking out every scrap of emotion from him until he’s left numb and empty.

There is movement in his periphery. “Ambassador Sokka,” says Miura, speaking slowly, like she’s talking to a skittish animal, “you should get some rest. The physician says it’s unlikely he’s going to wake up before tomorrow morning.”

“I’m fine, Miura, thank you,” he replies, his voice almost unrecognisable to him for how lifeless it sounds.

To her credit, Miura doesn’t push the issue. “Very well. I’m taking my sister to get cleaned up, but Suki will be here shortly. There’s guards posted outside for your security,” she eyes Boomerang Junior sticking out over his back, “though something tells me the Fire Lord is already in safe hands.”

Sokka grunts in acknowledgement. A moment later, the doors shut behind them, leaving them alone.

Up. Down. Up. Down. If it weren’t for the rise and fall of Zuko’s chest, Sokka would think him dead already.

But he’s not, barely, and if Sokka were more of a believer, he’d be lying in prostration to whichever Spirit seems most likely to have a hand in sparing Zuko’s life. Instead, Sokka continues to sit on this uncomfortable little chair and tries to remember what it felt like to be whole.

Lost in abstract thought, his eyes wander towards Zuko’s face— specifically, to the aberrant lock of hair on Zuko’s cheek. It’s slipped free of the tangle the rest of Zuko’s bun used to be, and Sokka knows that, were Zuko awake, he’d have huffed it away ages ago.

Before Sokka knows what he’s doing, his hand is already moving. He pushes the lock away, tucks it against Zuko’s ear. Hesitates. Then thinks, fuck it, nobody’s here to judge.

His fingers splay against the crown of Zuko’s head, gently coaxing the rest of his hair out from underneath. He undoes the tie in the bun and holds it between his teeth, using both hands to comb through the strands until they’re unseparated and smooth. Zuko’s hair is different than Katara’s—thinner, silkier— but Sokka’s hands work from memory, twisting and looping until he’s left with a neat braid (minus the hair loopies). Finishing off with the tie, he leans back to inspect his handiwork.

Sometime during the braiding, Zuko’s face has lost the slackness that comes from unconsciousness, softening to that of sleep instead. His eyes flutter under closed lids.

Sokka tucks the sheet further up around Zuko, before falling heavily back into his chair. Dropping his head into his hands, he takes a shaky breath.

His palms smell like flowers.

 

 

He slams back into himself, more bubbles escaping his mouth. This has to be some cosmically sick joke, for him to be getting his memories back at the worst possible time.

But he’s not losing the necklace no matter what, so he braces himself before diving after it, down, down, do—

 

 

—wn clatters the paintbrush.

“There,” Sokka says with a flourish, stepping back to admire the view.

“You’re getting better at this,” says Suki approvingly, eyeing his handiwork.

Sokka takes a little bow. “Thank you, kind teacher.”

“You keep pumping his ego full of hot air like that, you’re going to send him into orbit like a war balloon,” muses Miura from the back, sending Ty Lee into hysterical cackles.

“Jealousy isn’t a good look on you, Miura,” says Sokka, too smug to be scared of the consequences.

Miura stalks over with the specific look she reserves only for Sokka pasted on her face— something between murderous, and a sort of affectionate she’s never going to acknowledge. “Jealous? You wish, water boy.”

“Hey, guys,” mumbles Zuko, face forcedly slack. “Is it over? Can I move now?”

Ty Lee somersaults over to the dressing table, grabbing a hand mirror off it. “Take a look!”

They watch Zuko bring the mirror up to his face. His good eye widens as he raises a hand to his face, stopping just shy of touching the face paint. “Wow. This is… me?”

“No, this is Lee,” deadpans Ty Lee.

“Wrong get-up for that,” Suki reminds her, as the two snicker.

Zuko seemingly doesn’t hear the two, busy as he is poking and prodding at his cheeks. “I look so—”

“Kyoshi?” asks Suki.

“Powerful?” suggests Miura.

“Badass?” offers Ty Lee.

“Pretty?” muses Sokka.

Four heads snap in his direction.

Sokka coughs. “Gritty! You just look so—” He clenches his fist. “—gritty.”

Zuko nods in confused acceptance. “I was going to say different,” he says, already turning back to the mirror.

Suki pats Sokka’s shoulder. “Good save,” she whispers, “though he does look pretty, doesn’t he?”

Sokka wants to argue with her, but the knowing look in her eyes stops him.

Because the truth is, Zuko does look pretty like this. In fact, he looks downright gorgeous. The white paint sharpens his features, highlighting the fine bone structure underneath, and while Sokka had taken great care not to hide his scar with the white paint, he hadn’t expected the asymmetrical slant of red to look this striking. The black lines across his lids accentuate the gold of his irises, giving him a feline, almost predatory look.

And when he looks over at Sokka, the rouge of his lips twisting into a small smile, Sokka feels like a rabaroo caught in a net.

Ty Lee whispers something to Suki, which sounds suspiciously like, “hope this doesn’t awaken anything in him.”

“Hey, Sokka,” Zuko says. “We match.”

Sokka smiles back helplessly.

“Ah, too late I see,” says Ty Lee.

Suki shoots Ty Lee a Look. “Well, yeah,” she says to Zuko, “that’s the point. After that last assassination attempt, we can’t have you looking like your usual Fire Lord-y self when you go outside the palace. Better you blend in with us than get more holes poked in you.”

“Though I know someone here who would love to do some poking to Zuko,” says Ty Lee with a saccharine grin, elbowing Suki. “Isn’t that right, Sokka?”

Sokka blinks. “Wh—"

The doors blow in. “No poking the Fire Lord!” bellows Saaya, fans out. “He’s hole-y enough! Who’s the assassin? Let me at ‘em!”

“Saaya, you’re supposed to be guarding the room, not eavesdropping,” chides Suki, while Ty Lee falls over in hysterics once more.

Saaya puts her fans away. “Sorry, Suki. But it’s not my fault— it’s boring out there! You guys sound like you’re having tons of fun. Plus, who’s going to attack a room full of Kyoshi Warriors?”

“Me,” says Miura. “Because if we don’t leave right this instant, I’m killing everyone in this room.”

Saaya mock-gasps. “Miura? You? After all this time? Though I should have known,” she muses. “Since you’ve got a killer smile and all.”

Miura stills completely. Sokka thinks he’s about to watch an actual murder happen, right here right now, when her lips begin to twitch.

“Ah, there it is!” crows Saaya.

“Oh, my Spirits,” says Ty Lee. “Miura, what’s happening to your face?”

“Guys, Saaya broke Miura,” says Sokka.

“Shut up, all of you,” mutters Miura, looking anywhere but at Saaya. “Fire Lord Zuko, we need to go now, or we’ll be late to the summit.”

“Wait,” says Zuko, already being ushered out of the room. “Who’s poking who, again?”

“Alright, time to bust some assassination attempts,” says Suki, clapping—

 

—his hands in excitement. “It’s a bonding exercise,” says Earth King Kuei. “Worked wonderfully with my own ministers, actually. And so, I thought, why not bring that success over to the Fire Nation? Diplomatic harmony and all that, right?”

Chenguang’s eyebrows disappear into his hairline. “You want us to do what?”

“King Kuei is a huge proponent of diplomatic harmony,” explains the Earth Kingdom aide, as Kuei beams at all the ambassadors gathered in the royal hall.

Sita waves away the explanation. “Yes, yes, but— you want to promote this harmony through having us all… make sculptures?”

“And then we’ll have a little presentation with your creations,” says Kuei, “with a democratic vote at the end for whichever statue looks best! Oh, you’ll all have a blast, trust me!”

Sokka doesn’t join in the grumbling with the rest of the ambassadors. Instead, he turns to Zuko, who shrugs apologetically at him.

“King Kuei is also a proponent of a more hands-on approach to things,” continues the aide.

Chenguang huffs. “This is ridiculous!”

Bosco the bear, who had until this moment been munching happily on a little pile of cakes, turns to growl at Chenguang.

“Ridiculously smart!” exclaims Chenguang, scurrying behind Fen. “Where do we begin?”

“Isn’t this fun,” says Taktuq a little while later, lobbing a glob of clay onto the stand in front of him. “Our tsungi horn’s coming along well. And I can feel the bonding already!”

“Yeah,” says Sokka, eyeing their creation in apprehension. He’s seen Iroh bash out a tune on his own tsungi horn plenty of times, which is why he knows that their clay statue looks less like a musical instrument and more like…

“That is a penis,” says the Earth Kingdom aide, materialising beside Sokka in a cloud of judgemental annoyance. “The brief said to make a musical instrument. Why are you two making a penis?”

“I don’t know,” admits Sokka, even as Taktuq says, “That’s the horn.”

“Well, you’re still doing better than the others,” says the aide, and as Sokka looks around the hall, he sees that it’s true. Sita is repeatedly stabbing her mass of clay with a tiny knife while her partner looks on in abject terror. Chenguang is slathered head to toe with the stuff, staring at his filthy hands in despair. Viraj and Fen are doing a little better; their luo sculpture looks a little like what the instrument is supposed to be, though Sokka has to really squint to see the resemblance. “But make sure to make it less… phallic, if you could.”

“We’re not gonna make a phallic,” says Taktuq earnestly. “I don’t even know what a phallic looks like, or how you play it. We’re supposed to be making a tsungi horn.” He points at the statue. “This is where you blow, see?”

The aide stares at him. “Good grief. You can’t be serious, right? No one this stupid could have ever been hired to be an ambassador. But then,” he looks Takuq up and down with a faint sneer, “you don’t look the sort to be particularly bright. I guess if you were any simpler, you’d have to be watered and kept in the sun, wouldn’t you?”

Sokka feels a sudden rush of protectiveness. He and Taktuq don’t really talk much, but he’ll be damned if he lets this little shit just stand there and insult his fellow Tribesman.

Before he can open his mouth and rip the man to verbal shreds, a hand drops on his shoulder.

“Could I ask what is going on here?” asks Zuko, voice dangerously soft.

“F-Fire Lord Z-Zuko,” stammers the aide. “I was just—"

“Insulting one of the Fire Nation’s esteemed ambassadors?”

The aide gulps, eyes darting about the room. “I’m sure you’ve misunderstood the situation. After all, I was merely giving them some advice regarding their sculpture that they so desperately need it.”

“I see a fine tsungi horn coming into existence,” says Zuko, as Taktuq sticks his tongue out at the aide. “Your advice seems unwarranted. As does your continued presence here.”

“I see that now,” says the aide, bowing low to the ground. “Please accept my sincerest apologies for any perceived slights, Ambassador.”

“Suck my tsungi horn,” says Taktuq.

Zuko pulls himself to his full height in front of the aide, eyes flashing. “Now, do take care to think before speaking next time, especially in front of those holding a higher office than yourself.”

The aide gulps. “I didn’t mean to—”

“Details of your inadequacy do not interest me,” says Zuko. “Leave.”

“Please excuse me,” mutters the aide, already scampering off.

“Thanks, Zuko,” says Sokka quietly, “but you didn’t need to do that. I could have handled it.”

“I know,” says Zuko, and there is nothing patronising in his voice. Only a deep sort of fury, directed in the direction of where the aide has disappeared, and Sokka is reminded of the angry boy who once chased them across oceans. “But I wanted to. You okay, Taktuq?”

Watching Zuko reassure Taktuq that, yes, what a lovely sculpture indeed they’ve got coming along, Sokka feels it again. That helpless fondness blooming in his chest, twining its way up until Sokka is filled with its warmth.

He drops his hands in the clay, if only to distract himself. Trying to straighten out the ‘horn’ into something less indecent, he says, “Hey, at least you think our horn looks like a horn.”

Zuko is suspiciously silent.

“Actually, Sokka,” says Taktuq, squinting at their sculpture. “I don’t know if I’m looking at it wrong, but, um. I think I see it now. We made a dick.”

But, dick or no dick, their finished sculpture wins the popular vote by a mile (naturally, Chenguang votes for himself), with Zuko declaring their tsungi horn good enough to be put in the main foyer alongside the other royal statues.

Walking by it on his way to Council meetings never fails to make Sokka smile.

 

 

Sokka swims deeper,

sinking into the water,

sinking

 

onto his knees.

“Iroh, I’m so sorry.”

The Dragon of the West looks down upon Sokka with disappointed eyes. “I’m afraid those words will not be enough. Sometimes it is easier to pull a knife out of a man than to ask him to forgiveness.”

“Wow,” says Toph. “Deep.”

“Not as deep as the pain young Sokka has inflicted upon me today,” says Iroh gravely, turning away. “To think, I thought of you as a son. And then you go and— and do the unimaginable! Oh, great Spirits, take me now! Must I continue to suffer? To be run ragged on this mortal coil?”

As Iroh begins walking away, Sokka grabs his ankles. “I’m sorry!” he cries again, as he’s slowly dragged across the floor of the Jasmine Dragon. “It just all got so out of hand and I just... I never meant for things to end up this way.”

“Uncle.” Zuko approaches Iroh from the side, hands outheld to facilitate peace. The patrons of the Jasmine Dragon continue watching with rapt attention, Pai Sho games lying abandoned and tea going cold. “You know he meant well.”

Iroh sighs, not ungently shaking Sokka off. “Intentions have no use when consequences come knocking at the door.”

“I never meant to hurt you,” says Sokka into the wooden floorboards.

“Well, you did.”

“Iroh,” says Toph flatly. “All he did was invent teabags.”

“Do not use that cursed word in this shop.” Iroh pinches his eyebrows together. “Sokka, teamaking is not just a process. It is an art. The skills one learns from making tea can be carried across as lessons for a good life: patience, reflection, mindfulness. To take this art, and—and— brutalize it with a soulless contraption, purely for the sake of speed and convenience… why, Sokka? What on earth made you invent such a thing—”

Muted mumbling comes from the floor.

“I can’t quite catch that,” says Mrs Chen from a few tables down, craning her neck. “Did you hear what he said, Xiuying? No, me neither. Speak up, dearie!”

“I said I was just trying to help,” says Sokka, peering up at Iroh. “It always takes ‘Lee’ so long to make tea properly.”

“What,” says Zuko.

“And he gets so angry when he gets it wrong.”

“I do not!”

“Last time he over-steeped, steam came out of his ears,” continues Sokka, ignoring the way Zuko sighs in exasperation. “And then he set the whole box of tealeaves on fire.”

“Is this true?” Iroh asks a spluttering Zuko. “Is this why you asked for an extra batch of ginseng when I came to visit you last month?”

“No!”

“The boy is obviously lying,” says Mrs Chen.

“Not now, Mrs Chen!” snaps Toph.

“I just wanted to make it a little easier for him,” Sokka tells Iroh.

“Hmm,” says Iroh. He strokes his beard, suddenly much calmer. “I see.”

“What did I tell you, Iroh,” says Toph. “It’s so obvious, it’s sickening.”

“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I happen to agree with that rude young lady,” sniffs Mrs Chen.

Sokka looks at Zuko, who shrugs.

“Sokka, though you’ve greatly displeased me with your… dubious creation,” starts Iroh, “I do believe you had my nephew’s best interests at heart.”

“My tea is fine!” cries Zuko. “I even make tea here sometimes. Customers like my tea. Don’t you, Mrs Chen?”

“Don’t bring me into this,” Mrs Chen says, while her wife, Xiuying, confesses, “It often tastes… unlucky, to me.”

Iroh reaches down to help Sokka up. He dusts off the front of Sokka’s shirt. “Very well. I forgive you.”

“Thank you, Iroh,” says Sokka, as Zuko huffs in the background.

“You’re still banned from the Jasmine Dragon for three months,” continues Iroh.

Sokka shrugs. “Fair.”

“And while you may never bring them here, you can keep making these teabags—” Here, Iroh makes a face “—for my nephew, should you wish.”

As Toph begins cackling, Zuko throws down his mop and storms into the back.

“He feels everything so strongly, that one,” muses Iroh. “Really takes after his—

 

—mother would have been proud of you.”

Hakoda’s brings his children close. “Both of you,” he says, kissing each atop their head. “So very much.”

Eyes closed, Katara grips her necklace with one hand. The other she reaches out to Sokka, who takes it.

Kya’s grave is a nondescript thing, the only sign of it a neat mound of rounded stones. Sokka knows each one was handpicked by Hakoda who, even in his grief, could not bear to let his wife have anything but the best he could provide. With every year that goes by, the mound grows more compact, the space between the rocks filling with lichen and moss, growing life over death.

There was a time when Sokka wanted to do nothing more than to crawl inside the dirt and let himself be buried with her. He’d imagine each rock piled on top, one by one, crushing his ribcage and squeezing out the last of his breath, and knowing it still wouldn’t have been as painful as the anguish of losing her.

But time has done what it always does— it has passed. And the sharp edges of his hurt have dulled with it. He still misses her, he truly does, but the ache comes and goes. It took him far too long to understand that Kya’s sacrifice was the embodiment of a mother’s love. And though it is harder to come to terms with it on days like today, when it is difficult not to imagine an alternative universe where she might have survived, and their little family celebrating the day of her birth together, with food and festivities and laughter, instead of huddling around a shallow grave covered in frost… even on such days, he can bear it. Because all that he has to do is look at his sister standing in front of him, hale and hearty, and he can press down on his wound hard enough to make it stop bleeding.

A faint smile appears on Hakoda’s face. “Hey, remember that time she put on that fake beard right before putting you two to sleep?”

“I remember crying my eyes out when I saw her like that,” says Katara, returning the smile. “It made me think all women grew beards when they were older.”

“Hey, I think you’d look pretty cool with a beard,” says Sokka, earning an arm smack from Katara. “Dad, what about that time when she and Gran-Gran went penguin sledding, but they didn’t see you walking across the slope and smashed straight into you?”

Katara looks between Sokka and Hakoda, wide-eyed. “I don’t remember that!”

Sheepishly, Hakoda chuckles. He runs a hand through his hair, stopping at the hair bead Kya gifted him when they were courting. “You were too young for that one. It was my own fault, really; I should have been looking where I was going. I woke up face-first in a snow pile, with your mother laughing so hard she could barely dig me out.”

“I still can’t believe Mom body-slammed you with an otter-penguin and I only just found out,” says Katara. “What else don’t I know?”

“Well,” says Hakoda, lowering himself into a cross-legged position next to Kya’s grave. “There was that one time—before either of you was born— when she nearly poisoned me and Bato after confusing sea prunes with sea urchins.”

“Is this why you did most of the cooking at home?” asks Sokka, sinking down next to him. When Hakoda shrugs, both Sokka and Katara dissolve into giggles.

As the sun sinks below the cloudless horizon, making the stones on Kya’s grave gleam gold, Sokka and Katara sit with their parents and laugh at decades-old tales. Hakoda’s breath steams as he tells them about the Kya they knew and the Kya they would have loved to meet, funny and mischievous and full of heart.

And when Sokka wipes his eyes dry of tears, bittersweet and very much needed, he glances up. The night sky has fallen like a tapestry of velvet embroidered with silver-stitched stars, and he finds himself looking at the brightest one. It winks at him, as it often does, and tonight he finds himself winking back, imagining its twinkle in the hearth of his mother’s eyes.

He lifts a hand to the sky, pretending that if he stretches it hard enough, he could almost reach—

 

—out a hand, pushing the doors open.

“Hey, Zuko, guess who’s bac— whoa, what happened to you?” asks Sokka as he barges into Zuko’s office, dumping his bags at his sides.

Zuko doesn’t bother lifting his head from the desk. “Nrgh.”

Sokka can’t help the disappointment that rises in him. It’s the first time he’s seeing Zuko in months; he’d barely been able to sleep the night before, so excited was he at the prospect of seeing his friend again. Some reciprocation wouldn’t be too much to ask for, would it?

“King Kuei sent over some shipments while you were away,” Ty Lee says from where she’s posted at the door. “Very special shipments.”

“Nrghhh,” groans Zuko again, with the addition of a hand flap in Ty Lee’s general direction. “Too loud.”

“Uh oh,” says Sokka. “What was it?”

Reaching behind him, Zuko drags his outer robe over his head until it covers both him and half the desk he’s splayed on. “I thought it was pear wine.”

“It was cactus juice,” Ty Lee tells Sokka matter-of-factly, whose jaw drops open. “There were cacti drawn on the bottles. It couldn’t have been more obvious.”

“They looked like pears!”

Ty Lee huffs. “When has a pear ever been prickly, Zuko?”

Some expletive-loaded mumbling emerges from the robed desk.

Sokka looks from Zuko to Ty Lee. “That can’t be it,” he says. “You have to tell me everything he got up to. I’m begging you.”

Zuko shoots up, the robe sliding off his head and onto the floor. He looks pale and clammy, his hair a bedraggled mess. “No,” he croaks. “Ty Lee, say one word and you’re fired.”

“Sorry, only Suki has that power,” Ty Lee says, mirth dripping from every pore. “Where do I start… Ooh, how about when he jumped into the palace pond and tried to hold a Council meeting with the turtleducks? He said they weren’t being represented on an ‘international stage’ and deserved to have their voices heard.”

“I’ll give you a raise,” says Zuko desperately. “Two raises.”

“How about when we chased him across three wings and found him holed up with a lantern he got from Spirit-knows-where,” continues Ty Lee with merciless abandon, “and when we tried to get him to come out, he hissed at us—hissed! —and told us we were disturbing his bonding time with the lantern. Or, as he referred to it, his ‘egg’.”

“His what now,” asks Sokka, as Zuko gives up and just crawls under his desk.

“He told us he was a mommy dragon, and we were stopping his ‘egg’ from hatching,” explains Ty Lee. “Then he burst into tears and blamed it on having a difficult childbirth.”

A sound erupts from Sokka’s mouth, and he doesn’t quite know whether to classify it as laughter or a choked gasp. “That doesn’t even make sense,” he wheezes, doubled over. “Does laying an egg even count as childbirth?”

 “You’re really trying to apply logic to this situation?”

“I hate you both,” mumbles the desk.

“And then,” says Ty Lee, eyes sparkling with mischief, “he got away from us again, but we caught him kissing a mop behind the curtains. Really interesting what he was saying to it in between smooches.”

“Ty Lee, n—!” There is a thump from under the desk, from where Zuko has presumably hit his head on the wood. “Ow!”

Ty Lee pretends to hug herself, making kissy noises as she rubs her hands up and down her arms. “’ I’m so glad you feel the same way,’ mwah mwah, ‘I’ve been waiting to tell you for so long,’ mwaahhhh, ‘your lips are so much rougher than I imagined but that’s kinda sexy, too,’ mwah mwah mwah—”

Something in his chest twists at the words, but before he can question it further the office slam open behind Sokka. The sudden gust of wind ruffling Sokka’s hair. “Get out from under there, loser,” says Mai, striding through the room.

“Oh, thank Agni,” Sokka hears Zuko mutter.

“How long have you been back?” Sokka asks, watching Mai slam a glass of something dark and odious-smelling onto the desk.

“Long enough,” she says flatly. “Zuko. Drink.”

A singular hand reaches up from under the desk and scrambles for the glass. It finally makes contact, dragging the glass slowly across the wood and down behind Sokka’s visible sightline. There’s a beat of silence, immediately followed by gagging noises.

“Mai, this is disgusting,” gasps Zuko, pushing himself up on his elbows until he’s back on his chair, the liquid lurching in his glass. Blinking at them with bloodshot eyes, he takes under swig. “Bleugh. I’m gonna throw up.”

“No, you’re not,” says Mai, and Sokka is only just noticing how red her own eyes are. “Finish it, or I’m going to make you finish it.”

“Wait. You drank cactus juice too?” Sokka asks her, as Zuko wordlessly drinks the rest.

Mai glares daggers at him, but it is Ty Lee who answers. “Oh, yeah. She only had a few sips, but it was enough for her to strip naked and—”

A knife flies through the air, shaving the end off one of Ty Lee’s braids.

“She slept it off,” finishes Ty Lee. “Nothing else happened.”

“At least I’m not legally married to a mop,” says Mai. “Or friends with a partially-hallucinated giant mushroom cloud.”

“Hey, who told you about th—"

“Zuko, how are you feeling?” asks Ty Lee, raising her voice to be heard over Sokka’s indignance.

“Like I’m slowly but surely dying,” says Zuko, peering blearily into the glass, “which would be a blessing right about now. Hey, Mai, I hope this was poisoned.”

“Mai’s only allowed to poison you when I’m not in the room,” Ty Lee tells him. “Otherwise, I’ll get it trouble. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

“That’s alright, because both of you are leaving anyway,” says Mai. “The Fire Lord needs his sleepy-byes.”

“Hang on a second,” says Sokka, just as Zuko says, “Sokka can stay, can’t he?”

“Three,” says Mai. “Two.”

Zuko squints at her. “What are you…” is all he gets out, before his head slumps back onto the desk.

“One,” finishes Mai.

Sokka gapes. “You actually poisoned him!”

“Very lightly,” says Mai, as Ty Lee begins dragging Sokka out the door. “It’s a sleeping draught. I got it from Kustaa. Zuko’ll be mostly back to normal when he wakes up. Now, shoo.”

As the doors slam shut, the last thing Sokka sees is the brief tenderness in Mai’s eyes as she goes to put a cushion under Zuko’s head, and the way Zuko responds to her touch even his sleep, nuzzling close without hesitation. It almost makes him want to ask Ty Lee for any remaining cactus juice. That, at least, would take the edge off whatever he’s currently feeling, this confusing jumble of discontent and nausea that he doesn’t know what to do with.

Maybe if he drank enough, he might forget this interaction completely. Wouldn’t be the worst thing, to forget, now, would it?

 

 

Deeper he goes.

 

 

“Man, I wish you could get sea prunes in the Fire Nation,” laments Sokka.

They’ve been holed up in Zuko’s office for Spirits-knows how long, poring over ancient-looking scrolls that detail trading relations between the Fire Nation and the Water Tribes prior to the Hundred Year War. Important work, yes, but also dreary, and reading about his homeland makes Sokka feels rising pangs of homesickness for his Gran-Gran’s cooking.

Zuko looks up from where he’s squinting through a magnifying glass at some tiny, illegible script. “What’s sea prunes?”

“They’re a South Pole fruit.”

Zuko nods in understanding.

“…That you make into a stew.”

Slowly, Zuko shakes his head.

“It’s an acquired taste,” Sokka explains, helpful as always. “But they’re delicious! Trust me.”

Zuko gives him one of those little half-smiles. Weird— Sokka’s chest feels a little funny looking at him, as it’s been doing often.

“I’ll take your word for it,” says Zuko, turning back to the scrolls.

A few weeks later, a fresh bowl of something steaming is placed in front of Sokka at lunch. When he looks up, Zuko’s nervous smile comes into view. He makes a ‘go on’ gesture at Sokka, picking up his own spoon.

The sea prune stew is probably delicious, but Sokka can’t even taste it over how full he feels— both from sheer gratitude, and the rising panic following its wake. The steam clears a little, and with it comes a sudden clarity.

A small part of Sokka’s brain—the part that isn’t currently preoccupied with hysterical shrieking— acknowledges how apt it is, that the way to Sokka’s heart is truly through his stomach.

The larger, shriekier, part feels like its currently on fire, belting out a constant refrain of shit, fuck, shitting fuck, shiiii

“Well?” asks Zuko.

“It’s perfect,” Sokka gets out. “Thank you.”

And if Sokka thought Zuko’s half-smiles made him feel strange, then it’s nothing compared to how a full beaming grin sends his heart cartwheeling around his ribcage.

Sokka turns back to the stew. Shovels it in his mouth like his life depends on it— or his sanity, at the very least.

He’s in trouble.

 

 

Deeper.

 

 

Sokka falls face-first into familiar arms.

“Katara, I like-like him,” he sobs into her lap.

“Sokka, it’s not that I don’t care about what you’re going through right now,” she says, patting his head, “but you’re nearly eighteen. Time to use your grown-up words.”

“Meanie.”

“Fine.” Her sigh ruffles his wolftail. “There, there, that’s it. Let it alllll out.”

“I have all these feelings, a-and some of them are mushy,” he wails. “Mushier than any ones I’ve ever had before! And for what? I can’t even do anything about them, b-because he’s already taken, and it’s not fair."

“Yeah, well, I wouldn’t count on that relationship to last very long.” She jostles him. “C’mon, I’m sure Haru will drop him like a hot potato once he realises he can do better. Like, so much better.”

“Huh?” He raises his head, bewilderment clear on his face. “Haru? What are you talking about?”

She raises an eyebrow. “You know, the guy you were making heart-eyes at all throughout the banquet yesterday? The one you danced with for all of ten seconds before his boyfriend swooped in and snatched him from your arms like a hissing Arctic hen? That Haru?”

“You thought…” Sokka’s own eyebrows have climbed so high, they’re practically at risk of vaulting clean off. “You thought I’ve been secretly pining for Haru this whole time? You think I’m jealous of Jet?”

“Aren’t you?”

“No!” And then: “Eww! No offence, Katara, but when I look at Haru, all I see is that caterpillar on his face. Jet can have him.”

Katara peers down at him. “I know you had a thing for Jet at some point, too.”

“Yeah, well,” he stutters out, cheeks flaming, “so did you!”

“Not the point!” She shoves him off her, making him land haphazardly on the ground, limbs akimbo. “We were all young and dumb once, Sokka!”

“I’m still young and dumb,” he groans at Katara’s feet in abject dejection. “Besides, I wasn’t even looking at Haru. I was looking at the guy standing behind him.”

“Who?"

“Does it even matter?”

“Sokka, if you don’t spit it out right—

He groans again. "Oh, for— it’s Zuko, alright! I have a thing for Zuko!”

Katara goes very quiet. Sokka manages to raise his head from the ground, just in time to see her turn her back on him. “Interesting.”

“Katara…” Sokka raises himself from the ground. “What aren’t you telling me?”

“Don’t sound so suspicious,” she says, sounding very suspicious-able. No, that doesn’t sound right. Suspect! That’s the word.

“You’re being very suspect right now,” he tells her back.

“First, tell me why you think falling for Zuko is a bad thing.”

“I already told you,” he says, remembering the reason he’d been so miserable in the first place. “He’s taken!”

“If by ‘taken’ you mean ‘taken by complete and utter idiocy’, then yeah. Zuko’s super taken. Other than that, he’s painfully single.”

“He’s back together with Mai,” says Sokka, loading all the vehemence he can into the one word.

“Sokka—”

Sokka crumples, sprawling on his back like a dead crab-starfish. “Shit, that was so mean of me. She’s actually so nice, you know?”

“Sokka, listen—"

“Made me a thigh-strap for my knives and everything. Why does she have to be so cool?”

“Sokka.”

“She can have him,” wails Sokka. “They can have each other. I won’t stand in the way of true love!”

“Sokka,” snaps Katara, “you idiot, she likes girls!”

Sokka sniffs. “So do I. What does that have to—”

“She likes only girls. Exclusively. She’s got a thing going on with Ty Lee. And maybe Suki. Who definitely has a thing going on with Ty Lee. How do you not know this?”

Sokka’s jaw swings up and down, though no words come out. Eventually, he manages to produce a small, pathetic, “Huengh?”

Sighing, Katara flops down next to him. “It’s so hard being both the brains and the beauty in the family, but someone’s gotta step up and do the job.”

It takes Sokka a good minute to finally recover the use of his tongue. “Well, that still doesn’t mean Zuko likes me back.”

“How are you gonna know,” asks Katara, not unkindly, “until you ask?”

Then, a second later: “Also, he laughs too hard at your jokes to not have a thing for you. It’s just not possible.”

 

 

Deeper.

Until—

 

 

There’s a knock at his door.

Rubbing blearily at his eyes, Sokka cracks it open. “It’s, like, the middle of the night. What are you doing here?”

“Are you decent?”

“I’m not naked, if that’s what you’re implying. What’s going on, Zuk— oh?” is all that he has time to say, before he’s grabbed by the cuff of his sleepshirt.

“It’s time,” Zuko is saying, and so obvious is his excitement that Sokka lets himself be dragged outside.

Still, Sokka’s not one to go against his inherent nature. “Couldn’t this wait?” he whines. “I’m tired.”

“It’ll be worth it,” says Zuko. He looks completely put-together and dressed for the day, unlike Sokka, whose hair probably looks like a bird’s nest that’s had a firework go off in its general vicinity.

Leaving behind a trail of grumbled mutterings, Zuko leads Sokka out of the palace and into the royal gardens. The sky is still dark, roiling with dense but patchy stretches of clouds, though edges of pink are just starting to peek through the horizon, bringing with it enough light that Sokka can see the neatly trimmed hedges and perfectly manicured bushes they pass by.

It’s not until they reach a grassy area that looks far less maintained, hidden between a natural fence of bristly bushes, that Zuko comes to a stop.

Sokka stifles a yawn. Thinks better of it, cracking his mouth open as wide as it can go. Zuko doesn’t deserve the courtesy of not seeing all of Sokka’s pearly whites.

But Zuko isn’t even looking at him. He’s staring at the knee-high length grass; more specifically, at the rows and rows of flower buds lining it, all covered in morning dew.

“You brought me here,” Sokka starts, “to… garden?”

Zuko finally turns to look at him. “Wh— no! Just watch. I promise it’ll be worth it.”

The ache in his leg tells Sokka that whatever it is they’re waiting for, they might not have time to enjoy. Thunder rumbles from the west, and the air feels charged. But the east glows with the promise of dawn, a pale spill of watercolours across the canvas of sky— yellow, orange, red. And, almost quicker than Sokka could have guessed, comes the first peek of the sun, pouring beams of light across the garden.

And sunrises are pretty, sure, but Sokka’s seen plenty of them. He’s not too sure what’s gotten into Zuko—is just about to voice his complaints again— when movement amongst the grass catches his eye. At the first touch of light, slowly, one by one, the small, pink buds are unfurling into crimson flowers, a wave of red coursing through the green as their petals spread in starburst bloom. And the scent follows, heady and bright and oh so familiar, and he turns, slack-jawed, to Zuko, who is not watching the display at all.

“Told you,” Zuko says, soft as a falling feather, the light catching his eyes and setting the gold on fire, incandescent. “Worth it, right?”

“What are they?”

Zuko picks one, holding it out to Sokka. “Fire lilies,” he says. “They only bloom for a few weeks.”

“It’s beautiful,” Sokka breathes, cradling the flower in his hand. Impulsively, he tucks it behind his ear.

“Yeah,” Zuko says, still looking at Sokka. “Sure is.”

 Just then, though the sun is still shining brightly, the first drops of rain begin pattering down, weaving fresh petrichor with floral fragrance.

“What are you doing?” yells Sokka from the shade of the tree he’s stumbled to, rubbing at his knee. Because Zuko is still standing there, eyes closed, face tilted towards the sky.

“First rain of the season,” Zuko calls out, smiling. “It’s my favourite time of year.”

As the rain grows heavier, Zuko lets out a laugh, spinning slowly amongst the grass, arms outstretched. The movement makes strands of wet hair catch across his cheeks. It’s the most carefree Sokka has ever seen him, and though his robes must be heavy with rain there is a lightness about him, lifting the weight so often found across his shoulders and the corners of his lips.

And Sokka’s knee aches, but the ache in his heart, ever-present these days, grows fiercer. It pulls him out of the shade, the rain falling in rivulets down his face as he nears Zuko, who, in turn, has stopped to watch Sokka approach from under lowered lids. Above them, a rainbow has unfurled across the sky, growing in intensity with every step Sokka takes.

Maybe it’s the lingering sleep, giving everything an ethereal quality— could this be a dream? But no, it is his hand rising against Zuko’s cheek, pushing away the wet strands of hair. His hand, lingering like it’s always wanted to, and Zuko’s hand now clasping over his, holding and being held, skin against skin against skin, warm and real as real is.

He’s close enough to see the way droplets of water catch in Zuko’s lashes, like tiny diamonds flickering in front of an open hearth.

It’s not close enough.

“Can I?” Sokka asks, the ache in his chest expanding to every inch of his being.

Zuko breathes out a laugh, pressing their foreheads together. “Thought you’d never ask,” he says, his breath fanning across Sokka’s cheeks, eyes slipping shut.

And when Sokka brings his lips close, he learns what it’s like to taste the sun.

 

 

He’s caught it.

 

“Moonpeaches!” exclaims Sokka. “My favourite!”

Leaning back against his bed, Zuko watches with indulgent eyes as Sokka munches his way through half a dozen right out of the crate. He catches Sokka’s wrist as Sokka goes to wipe the juice from the corner of his mouth.

“Ah, ah, not so fast,” Zuko says, smiling. “Let me.”

And Sokka already knows what’s coming, already has his lips tilted towards Zuko, and he can’t believe how easy it is, how easy he gets to have this. This, the way he hums into Zuko’s mouth, the flick of Zuko’s tongue catching the juice, deepening the kiss until Sokka feels warm to the marrow, hands tangled in hair and legs tangled with sheets, until Sokka grabs Zuko by the shoulders, pushing him down—

 

—the gangplank. “Stop being a baby,” Sokka tells Zuko, who scowls.

“It’s freezing,” Zuko says, stumbling onto the snow-cleared ground.

Sokka raises an arm, watching in amusement as Zuko immediately takes the invitation to huddle into his side like an otter-penguin. “I told you to pack a warmer coat.”

“I did!” Zuko burrows even closer. “This is the warmest the royal tailor could make on such short notice.”

“You’ve known about this trip for three months.”

“Cold,” Zuko insists, but Sokka can see the little smile playing on his lips.

Katara, who’s been watching this whole scene play out with an unamused glare, says, “Don’t firebenders self-regulate their core temp—”

“He’s freezing, Katara!” cries Sokka, as Zuko shivers pathetically. “Look at him, he’s practically an icicle!”

“Sweet Spirits, there’s two of them,” she mutters, stalking off ahead, where there’s—

 

—another satchel in the shop window.

“It’s so pretty,” gasps Sokka, starry-eyed. He traces its outline against the glass, admiring the gorgeous criss-cross pattern on the leather. Who knew straps and buckles could be used for aesthetics rather than pure functionality? “Zuko, can we get this one too?”

“Absolutely,” says Zuko, though his voice is a bit muffled, arms laden with so many boxes his head is barely visible. “Whatever you want.”

“You know,” says Sokka. “I can carry a few of—”

“Nope!” Zuko peeks out from behind the boxes. He flexes his arm muscles, bunching through his nondescript robes, and Sokka almost forgets about the satchel altogether. “I’m enjoying the exercise. Plus, it almost counts as camouflage for assassination attempts! You’re probably saving my life here.”

“I mean,” says Sokka magnanimously, walking backwards towards the shop, “if that's the case...”

Zuko winks at him. It’s very obvious that Zuko hasn’t had much practice with the whole winking thing, considering how he tends to blink both eyes rather than just the one, but Sokka finds it adorable enough to never want it corrected.

He’s on the verge of saying something disgustingly soppy, when he bumps into a large something, making smaller somethings fall onto the floor and roll away.

“My cabbages!” cries out a green-turbaned man, running after the mobile vegetables.

“Oops,” calls out Sokka. “My bad. Do you need—”

An unholy shriek pierces the air. “Do! Not! Touch! My cabbages!” The man snatches as many of his cabbages as he can. “Stop following me!” he screams, before lobbing one Sokka’s way.

Bewildered, Sokka sidesteps it neatly, though Zuko is not nearly as lucky— boxes go flying in the air, before tumbling down onto Zuko’s head.

As Sokka helps Zuko up, he realises the cabbage merchant has vanished in the commotion. “You okay, Zuko?”

Zuko winces, rubbing at his head. “Who knew shopping could be so exciting?”

“We should have brought Miura along,” laments Sokka. “We aren’t ready to be out on our own. Let’s go back.”

“Alright,” says Zuko, “you grab the rest of the boxes. I’ll be one moment.”

Later, when Sokka is putting away his shopping, he finds an unmarked bag on his bed. Upon opening it, all Sokka can do is let out a disbelieving laugh.

Staring back at him is the satchel, because of course it is. “Of fucking course it is,” whispers Sokka, clutching the satchel to his chest. He can’t stop smiling. “I’m in love. Oh, Tui, I’m in—"

 

 

“—sane,” says Zuko, rubbing at his eyes. “You’re insane. It’s so late, Sokka. Come to bed.”

“Just gotta… finish this…” Sokka scribbles down another part of an equation. “No, that won’t work,” he mutters to himself, crossing it out.

“Sokka,” whines Zuko. “’m tired.”

“I’ll be there in a minute, firecracker.”

Hunched over at his desk, Sokka barely feels it when Zuko snakes an arm around his waist. But the arm keeps going, followed by a foot curling around him, until he’s got a lapful of tired Firelord snuggling into his chest, legs splayed on either side of the chair.

“Um, Zuko,” he says, as Zuko pushes his face into the crook of Sokka’s neck, and Sokka briefly thinks, as he often does, how it seems like the space between his neck and shoulders was carved for Zuko’s head, as perfectly as it fits. “What are you—”

A finger smushes against Sokka’s lips. “Shh,” mumbles Zuko. “Sleepy.”

“Okay,” says Sokka. He presses a kiss against the dark mop of hair. “Goodnight.”

When he’s happy with his work—by which time Zuko is well and truly asleep, snoring softly into Sokka’s ear— he rises from the chair, carrying Zuko to the bed. Laying him down, he turns to blow out the candles at their bedside (Sokka’s bedside, but since Zuko’s apparently forsaken his own room for his, Sokka’s begun counting it as theirs). A hand grabs at his wrist.

“Stay?” says the voice, small and plaintive.

Sokka turns, lacing his fingers with Zuko’s. “Always,” he says. “Scooch over, pillow hogger.”

Laughing at the grumbling, he lets himself be tugged—

 

 —into the corner.

“Hide me!”

“Zuko, we’re late for the Council meeting,” says Sokka, exasperated.

Zuko huddles against Sokka’s back. “I’m in danger,” he whispers.

“Minister Sato is, like, a gazillion years old. He can barely chew his lunch, let alone be in any way dangerous to you.”

“He’s been cornering me all week. Something about how the nobles should stick together, and,” here, Zuko adopts a nasally cadence, “‘isn’t it time to settle down with a nice Fire Nation girl, Fire Lord Zuko? You know what you need are some heirs. I know the perfect girl, my granddaughter is such a gem— ‘”

“Sara? She’s barely thirteen, that’s so gross!” yells Sokka, only to be immediately shushed by Zuko. “Alright,” he says, quieter, “we can hide, but.”

He spins around, pushing Zuko against the wall. “Since we’re already late,” he says, pushing aside Zuko’s collar. He presses his lips against pale skin and is rewarded by a hitch in Zuko’s breath. “Might as well take our time. I mean, I can’t promise any heirs, but we can give it a good try.”

Zuko shudders out a laugh, eyelids fluttering. “Ever the opportunist. Actually, no, I take that—ah! Back, I take that back. You’re a menace. You’re—”

“Yours,” breathes Sokka, and he means it to sound sultry, but instead it comes out like a confession. “I’m yours.”

A brief pause. Then, just when Sokka feels like he’s about to combust from tension, he feels fingers curl into his nape, bringing his face up to Zuko’s. “Yes,” says Zuko simply, with an earnestness almost painful to behold, and Sokka would have to be blind not to see the affection in his eyes. “You are. And, for as long as you’ll have me, I’m—”

 

 

—“Yours,” he mouths, fingers curling around the necklace. He twists, kicking hard—

 

 

against their door.

“There we go,” says Sokka, dragging in a tipsy Zuko. “Let’s get you inside.”

“I can’t believe they butchered it again,” cries Zuko, shaking a fist at empty air. “Every year, I think, ‘oh, it can’t be that bad, can it?’ and every year it is. I’m going to have the Ember Island Players thrown into the dungeon for treason.”

“Well,” says Hakoda with the slightest of slurs, slumped against Bato’s shoulder as they stumble into the room, “I pershonally thought it was quite—hic!— romantic, acshually.”

“Yes, dear,” says Bato, patting Hakoda’s head. “If all the weeping was any indication, we know.”

“No, you don’t understand.” Zuko pushes away from Sokka, then instantly begins swaying. He brushes off any attempts to be steadied, more concerned with using his hands to fully illustrate how much they’ve been wronged. “They never give enough time to the Dark Water Spirit’s backstory. Where’s—” He smacks his palm with one closed fist, “the—” another smack, “motive?” Smack. “I mean, I really feel like they should have expanded on—”

“The plum wine was a terrible idea,” Sokka tells Bato, who shrugs.

“Now that I think about it,” says Hakoda, attempting to stroke his beard in a thoughtful manner, but, having missed by a wide mark, is currently caressing his nose. “They didn’t even give any dialogue to that lady, whatsherface, the Empress Dragoness—”

“Dragon Empress,” Zuko immediately corrects.

“Her,” agrees Hakoda. “I bet she could have been a real fun gal, too.”

Zuko smacks his palm again, more vehemently this time. “Exactly! Exactly, Dad. I can’t believe no one else wants to give any agency to the single female charac…”

He trails off. “Why is everyone staring at me?”

“You just called Hakoda ‘Dad’,” says Bato, fighting a smile. “You said, ‘Exactly, Dad’.”

“What? No, I didn’t,” says Zuko, scoffing. “I said, ‘exactly, man’. That’s what I said.”

Hakoda’s eyes are shiny with emotion, and a hint of drunkenness. “Do you see me as a father figure, Zuko?”

“No!” Arms crossed, Zuko looks around the room, focusing on everywhere but at their faces. “If anything, I see you as a bother figure, because you’re always bothering me.”

“Hey,” says Sokka, “show your father some respect.”

“I didn’t call him ‘dad’!” yells Zuko.

Hakoda walks towards Zuko, arm surprisingly steady as it lands on Zuko’s shoulder. “Zuko, I take it as a compliment. Truly.” He pauses, then says, with lilting hesitation, “Would you like a hug… son?”

“Yes, please,” whispers Zuko, and then there’s lots of tears and hugging and general acts of familial affection, and even Sokka has to wipe at his eyes.

“Beats Love Amongst the Dragons any day, doesn’t it?” says Bato.

 

 

Up he swims, one arm in front of the other, pushing against—

 

 

—the sheets, gasping.

“You’re alright,” says a voice, as Sokka struggles for air. Hands grasp his face, a grounding presence. “It’s alright, Sokka, you’re okay, you’re alright. Just a nightmare. You’re alright. Breathe, love.”

When he finally feels like he’s got a grip on himself, Sokka bats Zuko’s hands away. “I’m fine,” he says roughly. “Go back to sleep.”

Zuko brings his knees up to his chin, clasping his hands around folded legs. His eyes are filled with nothing but a gentle understanding. “You know it happens to me, too,” he says. “And what do we do then?”

When Sokka says nothing, Zuko pokes him on his foot. “Sokka?”

“We talk about it,” grinds out Sokka. “But I don’t wanna.”

Zuko raises an eyebrow.

“Fine,” says Sokka. “It was the… the warship again. When Toph was falling, and I hurt my,” he gestures to where he’s been unconsciously massaging his leg. “You know.”

He looks out the window, where Yue is hidden tonight, her light barely visible behind thick, dark clouds. “I don’t get it. I don’t get why I can’t get over it. It’s been years, but sometimes, when I close my eyes, it feels like it’s happening all over again. And I’m—”

He breaks off, shuddering, the words coming out in a flood. “I’m so scared, Zuko. I’m so scared of failing, of dying, of having all of it mean nothing. And I know we won, I know, but I never remember, in the dreams, and I can’t stop it, and sometimes it’s not Toph that’s falling, it’s you, and I try to catch you, but you slip through my fingers anyway, and you’re falling and falling—”

“Hey,” says Zuko, soft, wiping a tear from Sokka’s cheek; he hadn’t even realised when he’d started crying. “I’m right here. And so are you. Toph’s fine, and so are the others. Everyone made it. We won, Sokka. But that’s not what you need to hear.”

He takes Sokka’s hand, putting it against his facial scar. Sokka stiffens but doesn’t pull away. He’s never touched Zuko here, had never dared to, but with Zuko’s encouragement, he lets his fingers slowly explore the jagged edge where skin meets fused flesh, the unnatural smoothness of it underneath his hand.

“When my father—when the Fire Lord did this to me, I.” Zuko takes in a fortifying breath. “I was a mess. For months. I barely slept, barely ate. And even when I was finally healed— if you can call this healed— the nightmares didn’t stop. Soon as I closed my eyes, all I saw was his hand. When he did it, I thought he was going to… I don’t know. Help me up? Hold me? Tell me it was alright? I was the Crown Prince. I was his son. I thought I mattered, that I was enough. I thought I was worthy.” A bitter laugh. “Didn’t matter what I thought. He did it anyway.

“And for so long, I pretended they weren’t there. The nightmares, I mean. I slept as little as possible, I drank all sorts of draughts, I meditated. And still woke up screaming, night after night. For years. It was only after I allowed myself to accept the truth that they started to go away.”

“What truth?”

“I’m broken, Sokka,” says Zuko. Sokka flinches. “We all are. Some more than others. We were born into a war we had no hand in shaping, and we saw it all the way through to the end. All our losses, all our suffering, they lead to this,” he gestures to the room around them. “To peace. To us. It’s all part of a bigger whole. It all means something. And all our broken edges?”

He reaches for Sokka’s hands, holding them palm to palm. “Together, they fit. So, we have to accept them. Sure, that’s easier said than done. Spirits know—you know— I wake up enough nights, choking back those same screams. But it gets better, Sokka. It does.”

For some reason, Sokka can’t bear to look at Zuko anymore. “When,” he asks, staring at where his pyjama leg has ridden up. His own scars are faint, but they’re there, tracing out the pattern of shattered bone pressed up against flesh. “I just want it to stop. You know, when they say time heals all wounds, they never give you a timeline, do they?”

Pulling away, Zuko trails his hand over Sokka’s leg, a warm, fleeting touch. “I don’t think that’s quite true,” he says. “Uncle says that our grief, our pain, it shrinks over time. But what I’ve realised is that our grief doesn’t really shrink. It’s as big as it’s always been. We just grow around it. And you’ve grown so much, Sokka, come so far. I’m so proud of you.”

Closing his eyes, Zuko breathes out a stream of breath. It ignites at the end, flickering into multitudes of shades, and ropes of flame engulf Sokka’s leg. He gasps, but there is no pain, no burning heat or sizzling flesh; instead, a warmth blooms from the inside, like flowers in sunshine, and the constant, throbbing pain dissipates.

“It’s not a permanent solution,” Zuko admits sheepishly, rubbing at his neck as Sokka marvels at the lack of hurtyness. “I’ve talked to Uncle about getting you some healing tea. But it should help you sleep, hopefully.”

“I love you,” blurts out Sokka. Zuko freezes. “I love you. So much. And you don’t have to say it back, just— I just need you to know. That I do. That I love—mph!”

Lips pressed tight against his, Zuko lets out a wet laugh. “I love you, too,” he whispers. “I’ve loved you for so long, I could hardly bear it. I love every part of you. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me, you know that?”

Sokka shakes his head, smiling through his tears, as Zuko kisses his cheeks, his forehead, his lips again. “I love you, Sokka,” he says, “and I always will. Always, and forever.”

 

 

Faster and faster, he rises.

 

 

Zuko peers at the parchment. “What’s this meant to be?”

“Guess,” says Sokka, as Ty Lee and Suki gather around Zuko.

“That’s a trunk,” says Ty Lee definitively, “so this means this is a… camelephant?”

“No, no,” says Suki, pointing at another part of the parchment. “It’s too small to be a camelephant. Those things are huge.”

“But Sokka doesn’t know how to draw to scale,” argues Ty Lee.

“Um, guys,” says Sokka.

“Those are definitely eyes,” says Zuko, having grabbed a magnifying glass from who-knows-where. “Or it could be stab wounds. I don’t know.”

“Why does your mind immediately go to stab wounds?” Suki asks Zuko, who shrugs in response. “What is wrong with you?”

Zuko just looks at her. “Do you really want an answer to that?”

“We don’t have time to unpack all of Zuko’s issues, Suki,” says Ty Lee. “Shift starts soon. I say these are two camelephants, with a rainbow above them.”

“Oh, for the love of— it’s us!” Sokka grabs the parchment away, waving it in their faces. “It’s me and Zuko, holding hands! Look, I even drew his dao! And that’s me, holding Boomerang Junior.”

“So, it’s not a trunk after all,” says Ty Lee, tapping at the parchment. “Huh. Interesting.”

“Just…” Sokka starts walking away, head low. “Forget it. I know it’s shitty—”

“Not so fast.” The drawing is snatched out of his hands, and Sokka turns to see Zuko cradling it to his chest, looking at it like it’s priceless. “I love it,” he says, beaming at Sokka. “I’m gonna frame it and hang it on that wall. It’s going to look so good next to Tucky.”

“You mean that?”

“Of course!”

Suki wrinkles her nose. “Ugh, get a room, you two.”

“This is literally my office,” says Zuko.

 

 

Faster.

 

 

“Why did you bring me out here?”

Despite his firebending abilities, Zuko’s nose is still pink from the cold. Sokka focuses on it, if only to stop freaking out and subsequently backing out.

“Sokka,” asks Zuko again, the tiniest hint of impatience in his voice. “It’s already dark, and we’re so far away from your family. I don’t want to get eaten by a hungry polar bear-dog.”

“Do you remember,” says Sokka, “when I told you I was yours?”

Zuko falls silent. He pushes down his fur hood, blue-beaded hair whipping in the wind. “What?”

“When I told you I was yours,” Sokka says, clutching at his pocket. “Do you remember? We were hiding from Minister Sato, he was trying to steal your future babies—”

“That’s not what was happening, but yes, I remember,” says Zuko, brows furrowed. “Why?”

Sokka turns to look out over the floe edge. “It’s time. Look.”

Grasping for Zuko’s gloved hand, he points at the sky where green and purple light has begun to flicker over the still water, lighting the sea on fire.

“Whoa,” breathes Zuko. “What is that?”

“Spirit lights,” says Sokka, pulling out the contents of his pocket. “They’re not as strong as they used to be before the war, or so I’m told. But at least we still have something.”

Zuko twists on his feet, peering into the distance, before turning back. “They’re beautiful even as they are. This is incredible, Sokka. Thank you for bringing me out here to show… me…”

He stares at the necklace in Sokka’s hand, before slowly looking up into Sokka’s face. “I don’t understand,” he says, voice unsteady as moonlight over water. “You— what?”

“I told you I was yours,” says Sokka, voice equally wobbly. “Now I’m asking you to be mine.”

Seconds turn into eternity as Zuko stares at Sokka, eyes glimmering with dancing flames, and Sokka feels lost in their reflection. “I already told you,” Zuko says finally. “I’m yours, for as long as you’ll have me.”

“So, is that a…”

“Yes, Sokka,” laughs Zuko, with adoration, with reverence. “Yes.”

Trembling, Zuko’s hand rises to his neck, pushing aside his coat and hair until pale skin is revealed. He sinks to his knees, as Sokka comes behind him, pressing soft kisses into the line of Zuko’s throat, before typing the ribbon securely at the back. The stone sits in the hollow of his neck like it was made to fit where it belongs— always has done, and always will do.

Above, the Spirit lights continue to flow like a river of green through the midnight blue. Below, two lovers sit at the floe edge, hand in loveable hand and white breaths mingling, talking of the future they’ve already begun to build.

 

 

Faster.

 

 

“Sunshine, you can’t set Chenguang on fire,” whispers Sokka, as Zuko stalks up next to him.

“Not even a little?”

“Not even a little.”

“Shit,” says Zuko lowly. “There go my afternoon plans of ruining diplomatic relations one barbeque at a time.”

Sokka looks through the crowd, spotting the man in question as he simpers next to King Kuei. “What did he even say, anyway?”

If Zuko were a dragon, he’d be breathing fire right about now. “He told me I looked quite spry for my age, and then gave me tips on how to moisturise properly, to get rid of these ‘pesky wrinkles’ I’ve somehow developed between the ages of twenty and twenty-one.”

“Ooft,” says Sokka, “alright, maybe a little flame-charring wouldn’t go amiss. But I have a better idea. What do you say we get out of here?”

When Zuko’s eyes light up, Sokka continues, “Meet me at the fire lily garden in five minutes.”

Zuko nods, pushing away from the wall. A throng of people immediately envelop him, wishing him a happy birthday as he deftly weaves through nobility and diplomats alike, and it always amazes Sokka how quick the façade slips on, turning Zuko into Fire Lord Zuko within heartbeats.

Sokka begins making his own way out of the hall. He spots Katara in the corner, with an adoring Aang hanging off her arm, sipping on his moonpeach juice as Katara gesticulates wildly at the small crowd gathered around her. “… and I could see her coming towards me,” she’s telling them. “I knew I had very little time to save both me and Fire Lord Zuko. So, anyway, I started blasting…”

When he reaches the garden, he’s immediately treated to the sight of Zuko’s outer robe spilled across the grass. Zuko himself is sitting amongst the fire lilies, making a chain out of a few plucked flowers. The betrothal necklace gleams on his bare throat like a sunrise on water, bright and beautiful.

Sokka sidles in next to Zuko, who sighs, slumping onto his lap. He waits for a beat, before saying, “Hey, cradle-robber.”

Zuko sits up so fast, he almost smacks Sokka on the way up. “Not funny, Sokka,” he says, shoving him away.

“Hey, I turn twenty, like, next month,” says Sokka, already pulling Zuko back to his chest. He takes the fire lily chain from Zuko’s hands and begins weaving it into a braid down Zuko’s back. “We can be grumpy old men together. We already drink more tea than is probably good for us; let’s add ‘incessant complaining about the weather, regardless of season’ to that list, shall we?”

Zuko huffs. “You’re the one who plays Pai Sho with Uncle every few weeks. Mentally, you’re already ancient.”

Sokka snakes an arm around Zuko’s waist, twisting until they’re facing each other. “What about physically, huh?”

“Guess you’ll just have to show me that virile strength you young men possess,” says Zuko, eyes darkening. He lets himself be pushed down amongst the flowers, as Sokka climbs on top of him, going straight for Zuko’s neck like a man possessed—

“Oh, there you are, Ambassador Sokka!”

Yelping, Sokka falls off of Zuko, who curls into a ball, hands shielding his neck. “Yes,” Sokka calls out, scrambling to look like he wasn’t just in the midst of ravaging the local Fire Lord.

“Your sister has been looking all over for you,” says the gardener, Botan. “What are you even doing… here… um. Fire Lord Zuko, is that you?”

Sokka closes his eyes, trying not to despair as he feels the grass shuffle behind him. “At ease, Botan,” says Zuko, all business with his official Fire Lord voice. “Ambassador Sokka was just helping me… examine the fire lilies. For the upcoming festival.”

“Yep,” says Sokka, yanking out the nearest flower to hand. “This one passes the check. All seems to be in order, Fire Lord Zuko.”

“Excellent. Let Master Katara know we’re on our way, Botan,” says Zuko smoothly.

Botan bows. “Absolutely, my Lord. And can I just say, it’s great to see you fostering the bond between your nations. Never in all my life could I have imagined… but to see you two now, as such good friends—”

“Thank you, Botan,” says Zuko. “That will be all.”

Taking another bow, Botan disappears around the back.

It takes another second before Zuko and Sokka finally look at one another, before bursting into laughter. “That was so close,” says Sokka, wiping at his eyes. “’ Such good friends’, huh?”

“Yeah,” says Zuko, mirth dissipating. He clutches his necklace. “Sokka, why can’t we tell them about us?”

“I told you,” explains Sokka patiently, leaning in to kiss Zuko on the forehead. “I can’t be the Fire Nation’s Ambassador and your betrothed. It’s a massive conflict of interest. Just gotta get through a few more years of this, fire lily. Then we’re free to be who we want to be.”

Zuko doesn't respond, not even to tell Sokka off for the nickname—which Sokka knows he loves, but in the way he loves all of Sokka's annoyances, like he can't bear not to.

“I don’t think I can wait anymore,” Zuko says eventually, still not looking up. “I can’t keep pretending that I don’t know you the way I do.”

“What matters is the way we know each other,” says Sokka, nudging Zuko’s chin up until he’s staring into golden eyes. “And at the end of the day, that’s all that does, isn’t it?”

Bringing Zuko’s face close, he kisses one eyelid. “My love,” he says, before moving to the other. “My life. Just give it a little more time. Then we can be together for as long as you can stand me.”

“But I’m sitting,” says Zuko, mouth twitching.

“I’m leaving you for Botan,” says Sokka, making to stand up, before he’s pulled back down by a laughing Zuko.

“Stay,” Zuko says, pulling Sokka towards his mouth.

“Always,” breathes Sokka, pressing his lips against Zuko. And he wishes he could trap time in the space between this kiss, distil it, find some way of making it last forever. Because he’s here with Zuko, and they’re both alive here, together, their lungs breathing the same air, their feet upon the same earth.

And isn’t it wonderful—this, here, now? Of all the moments in the world, of which there have been many and will be many, these are what he’s been given? Of all the people in the world, this is the one he chose, and was chosen in return? Of all the eternities, this is the one he gets to keep? With the man who loves him, his smile brighter than any shade of sunlight and twice as warm? Who he loves back, the way the stars love the sky, and the moon loves the night— infinitely, unconditionally, endlessly.

Permanently.

 

He’s nearly there, the surface within arm’s reach. The water is set aflame with morning light, pinks and reds and gold like the brightest of fires. He stretches out his hand towards the sun, blue ribbons streaming behind it, and he’s almost close enough to—

 

—see gold eyes, glancing at him and immediately looking away. “I left a surprise for you, in your bedroom.”

They’re walking through the royal gardens, hands brushing against one another with every step. Close enough to touch, should they wish it so. But for fear of prying eyes, they keep their distance.

“What kind of surprise?” asks Sokka. “I hope it’s the food kind.”

“Better,” says Zuko, before his brows furrow. “Actually, knowing you, food definitely might have been the better surprise. But hopefully, this is just as good.”

Sokka cocks one eyebrow. “Just as good, huh? You’re setting the bar high there, sunbeam.” He lets his hand brush deliberately against Zuko’s thigh, enjoying the way it elicits a small, choked sound. “If it’s this kind of surprise—”

“I wrote you a haiku,” Zuko says in a rush. Sokka halts his steps, Space Sword the Second knocking against his back. “I just… I got so lonely, waiting for you to come back from the South Pole. And you know how words just don’t come as naturally to me, but I tried, I really did, but now that I’m thinking about it, it’s probably not as good as anything you’ve ever written for me, but it took me so long to write even a half-way decent one and it’s probably still stupid and dumb—”

Sokka grabs Zuko’s face, not even caring if anyone sees them anymore. “Hey, hey. Do you think my drawings are stupid and dumb?”

“What? No!”

“Objectively, they’re hideous,” continues Sokka. When Zuko tries to interject, Sokka claps a hand over his mouth. “Objectively. But you still frame and hang every single one in your office, don’t you?”

Zuko nods.

“Why?”

“Bkfff ey lvff tffm,” says Zuko.

“Oh, sorry.”

“Because I love them,” repeats Zuko, when Sokka’s removed his hand. “Because you’re the one who made them, and I can see the love you pour into each one.”

Sokka taps Zuko’s nose. “There you go. Then why would you think I wouldn’t like anything you made for me? Let’s go right now, actually. I want to read it.”

“I hid it,” says Zuko, his smile a small, shy thing. He reaches for his neck, where the necklace is hidden behind his robe, an unconscious gesture that Sokka sees him do often. “I didn’t want you to read it in front of me.”

“Lover,” insists Sokka, grabbing Zuko’s hand and kissing the knuckles, “take my hand, so that we may run towards the bedroom of words.”

“Show-off,” mutters Zuko, blushing. “Alright, let’s— Watch out!”

And then there is the clang of metal on metal, the kiss of flames as their attackers scream in agony, and Zuko’s face, eyes wide with panic, lips forming his name.

“Sokka!”

 

And

 

everything

 

goes

 

black.

 

 

Sokka opens his eyes, gasping for air as his head breaks the water.

 

He remembers.