It is currently 2:32 in the morning, and Sokka is very much awake. This is only the first of his problems.
Namely, his project partner has decided to conveniently “forget” about the half of the proposal that he had been meant to write, and he hasn’t even opened any of Sokka’s eleven separate texts, sent with increasing levels of desperation as the hours dragged by. Sokka’s sure that he’ll come into class tomorrow with a smarmy excuse all ready, but that doesn’t change the fact that this project is worth 40% of their final grade and if the proposal isn’t finished now, they’ll be so behind that they’ll never be able to catch up. When 11pm had rolled around, he’d made the executive decision to tell Jet to go fuck himself and started the missing half himself. Whether that decision had involved a little bit of screaming into his pillow and a lot of curse words is between him and the gods. Days like this are when he’s very, very glad he’d sprung for a single room.
That had been three hours, a generous travel mug of coffee, and six pages of a Word document ago. He considers taking Jet’s name off the cover page out of pure spite, but doesn’t particularly want to have the awkward conversation with his professor that that would inevitably result in. Jet already hates him enough.
Zuko would’ve taken Jet’s name off the page and probably yelled at him in full view of the whole class. Honestly, the contrast between him trying to have conversations with people and him being down to fight someone is astounding, and Sokka will tease him about it for the rest of time. For now, he settles with teasing Katara about the crush she’d had on Jet for a solid month of her first year.
<<to: katara, 02:33. literally how did u have a crush on this guy ive spent the last 3hrs writing his half of the project bc he “”””forgot””””>>
She won’t respond until the morning, because she sleeps at relatively normal hours, but it’s still satisfying. Of course, every time she sees Jet these days she glares hard enough to plausibly set him on fire - and that’s another reason Sokka and Jet don’t get along. He’ll never forgive him for breaking his little sister’s heart, even though she claims to be over it.
It’s still funny to tease her about, though, if only to see steam practically rise from her ears, so he still comes back to it every now and then.
Sokka sets his phone down on the desk and drains the rest of his mug - ugh, cold coffee. Which leads to the next of his problems: it is now 2:35 in the morning, and he isn’t tired in the least. While that isn’t entirely out of the ordinary, he likes getting eight hours of sleep, and he can feel the buzzing in his veins of too much caffeine on too little food that means that he isn’t getting to bed anytime in the near future.
He’s just decided to cut his losses and settle in for a long - well, longer - night, when there’s a dull Tock noise from outside his window. He freezes halfway through digging through the bins under his bed for a snack and listens intently. It’s probably just some drunk frat boys or something; that’s the curse of living this close to the frat quad, and honestly, why is the engineering building on this side of campus? Suki is always complaining about how the walk from the sorority quad is ten minutes on a good day, while Sokka literally just has to walk across the street, and their entire friend group has sworn an oath to fight the guy who designed the campus if they ever get the chance.
“Ugh,” Sokka groans, and pushes himself to his feet, sadly snackless. He yanks at the pull cord on the blinds and pushes the sash of the window up, preparing to give whoever is apparently throwing literal rocks at his window at nearly 3 in the morning a piece of his mind.
A rock sails past his nose and thunks to the ground, muffled by the rug he’s laid down in the center of the room.
“Shit,” says a very familiar voice.
“Zuko?” Sokka boggles, sticking his head out the window to see his best friend with a sheepish look on his face and one hand still raised from his last throw.
“Sorry! I didn’t expect you to open the window right then!”
“You could’ve killed me, you jerk!” he yells back. “Your very own best friend, murdered by your hand. How does that make you feel?”
“Fine,” Zuko says, dropping the rocks in a pile by his feet and walking towards the building, lifting his head to keep looking at Sokka where he’s leaning out from the second floor. “If a little rock can kill you, then maybe you deserved it.”
“Cold, Zuko, cold. Anyway, why’re you throwing rocks at my window at 3 am? You have a phone, dude. I don’t remember stumbling into Romeo and Juliet while working on this fucking engineering project.” Zuko fidgets a little with the hem of his sweatshirt, and it’s too dark for him to see quite properly, but Sokka thinks he might be blushing.
“Uh, I was wondering if you wanted to go somewhere with me?” At Sokka’s look, Zuko fidgets more and looks away. “If you wanna sleep that’s okay, but you know the earth lab I’m in right now? Well, I’ve got keys to the lab and I kinda always wanted to go there at 3am and I thought you might wanna come with me but-”
“Zuko, shut up.” Zuko shuts up. “Of course I’m coming with you. Aren’t 3am field trips what we’ve agreed college was about?” He looks down at himself and realizes he’s already in pajamas. “Gimme a moment to change and I’ll be right down.”
Zuko fairly lights up, and Sokka knows he never would’ve thought about not going with him, even if he had been sleepy.
“Thanks, Sokka.” Sokka grins at him.
“What are friends for?” He slides the window shut and scrambles to change into jeans and a sweater, shoving his phone into his back pocket and grabbing a hat that’ll probably end up being for Zuko, because even though Zuko gives off warmth like a space heater, he also refuses to wear warm clothes and then gripes about being cold of all things. He also sticks a couple snacks in his pockets, because he really did want to eat something, and god knows Zuko probably hasn’t eaten in twelve hours or something because he’s truly atrocious at taking care of himself. Satisfied with his preparations, he pulls on shoes and slips out the door of his dorm room, trying his best to avoid the creaky parts of the floor as he heads down the hallway and to the staircase to the first floor. Zuko is waiting for him outside the front door, flipping a key ring from hand to hand.
“Hey,” he says, smiling slightly at Sokka and nearly dropping the key at the same time. “Oh, shit.”
“Shut up.” Sokka snickers and tosses an arm over Zuko’s shoulders.
“Take me to your lab, then, Mr. Mad Scientist.”
“Please never say that again. It probably won’t be that interesting for you, really. It’s just a lot of looking at rocks.”
“I’ll decide that for myself, yeah? C’mon, lemme complain about this project.” Zuko groans a little bit, but he doesn’t put up that much of a fight as Sokka starts babbling away about the mistake he’d found in his draft code earlier in the afternoon, linking their arms together as they start walking.
The earth science building is only a little further down campus than the engineering one, so it only takes them a few minutes and a bit of jaywalking to make it there. Most of the lights in the hallway are dimmed as they let themselves in, the sound of the door closing behind them echoing strangely in the silent hallway.
“This way,” Zuko whispers, tugging him towards the staircase.
“Why’re we whispering?” Sokka whispers back.
“You try talking loud, see how you feel about it.” Sokka opens his mouth to do just that, pauses, and closes it again. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
They emerge onto the second floor, and Sokka’s eyes pop wide.
“Woah,” he whispers.
“This is just the lobby,” Zuko says, practically radiating pride. Just the lobby, huh? Sokka thinks, tipping his head back to look up at the high ceiling where the rafters disappear into pools of darkness. The only sources of light in the otherwise dark room puddle around the wooden bases of rows of glass cases, effectively spotlighting each display. Sokka only holds out for another moment before succumbing to the lure of shiny objects. He’ll realize later that up until then, he’d never let go of Zuko’s hand.
“That’s a stromatolite,” Zuko says of the lumpy object that’s caught Sokka’s attention. “Those are-”
“The thingies with the rocks and the microbes, right?” Zuko looks surprised.
“Um, yeah? How do you know that?” Sokka gives him a look.
“You talk about these things all the time, dude, I hate to break it to you, but you’re kinda a rock nerd.” The look of surprised gratification that Zuko gets - he was listening? he remembered that? practically written in glowing letters above his head - will never not make Sokka’s heart melt a little bit. And want to punch Zuko’s dad in the face, but that’s neither here nor there.
“Uh,” Zuko says. “I didn’t know you were listening when I did that.” Sokka bites his lip in indecision, and then reaches out to gently pull Zuko into a hug.
“Of course I was listening,” he says. Zuko hesitates, then drops his head onto Sokka’s shoulder with a sigh. They stand there in the glow of the display lights for long minutes, Zuko’s soft hair pressed against Sokka’s cheek and tickling where strands have escaped from his mess of a bun. Sokka silently vows, as he always does, that if he ever gets the chance to come face-to-face with the people who’ve made Zuko, who soaks up touch like a sponge when it comes from the people he trusts, fear asking for it so much, he will not be held responsible for his actions.
“Thanks for coming with me, Sokka,” Zuko says, half-muffled into Sokka’s sweater. Sokka gives in to his impulse and squeezes him closer.
Sokka presses his nose into Zuko’s hair and wonders what they might look like, to anyone else passing by - close enough to look like one person from a distance, the lights casting their shadows in long swathes across the floor.
“C’mon,” Zuko says, after an unidentifiable stretch of time. “We haven’t even gotten to the good part yet.”
“Oh, so it gets better?” Sokka says, releasing him and ruffling a hand through his hair, pulling it out of its already-messy bun. Zuko yelps and slaps at him, trying to grab his hairtie back, but Sokka holds it out of his reach with a smirk.
“Nope, not happening, shorty. Your hair looks nice down, how many times do I need to say it?”
“It’s all in my face, Sokka, give it back,” Zuko hisses.
“Nope!” Zuko seems to debate something - jumping for it, probably - before deciding it isn’t worth the humiliation, glaring half-heartedly at Sokka with the slightest hint of a pout tugging at his lower lip, hair falling messily around his face. Sokka’s mouth goes oddly dry, but he loops the hairtie around his own wrist and links his other arm through Zuko’s again.
“So? You were gonna show me the good part?”
“You’re the worst,” Zuko grumbles, but obligingly leads him past the display cases and towards the door at the back of the room. He releases Sokka to fish in his pocket for the key, sketching an ironic bow as he pulls the door open.
“After you,” he says. The room beyond is dark besides the square of dim light from the display cases, and Sokka pulls his phone from his pocket and taps the flashlight on, holding it out in front of him like a candle. Zuko slips into the room behind him, sliding a doorstop between the door and the jamb to prevent it from closing all the way and then turning on his flashlight as well. Together, the twin cones of light illuminate a set of floor-to-ceiling gunmetal-grey shelves, each emblazoned with a tiny, peeling label and a handwritten scribble of black ink.
“Dude,” Sokka whispers, looking around in awe.
“Right?” Zuko whispers back, face lit up with a grin. “C’mon.” He walks over to the nearest shelf, crazy shadows dancing across the room as the light in his hand bobs, and squats down to tug out a flat metal tray and prop it on his knee, beckoning Sokka over to kneel next to him.
“What is it?” Sokka asks, adding his light to Zuko’s over the tray of irregularly shaped, grey-green rocks.
“This is all olivine,” Zuko says, picking up Sokka’s free hand and pressing a chunk of rock into it. “You know those drawings of the layers of the earth where the mantle is red? It’s actually green. It’s all this stuff.”
“Damn.” Sokka raises the rock to eye level to get a closer look, turning it over in his hand and running a finger across the rough surface.
“Right? There’s no olivine that naturally occurs on the surface. It all has to rise and crystallize under the right circumstances and then get eroded away. What you’re holding used to be buried under thousands of years’ worth of rocks.” Sokka takes another look at the rock he’s holding, suddenly seeing it in a much different light than he had before. Then, he has a disturbing thought.
“It’s not, like, poisonous, is it?”
“All the things you could ask me about this, and that’s your question? No,” Zuko laughs, and then suddenly he’s hopping to his feet and leaving Sokka to support the full weight of the metal tray on his own. “But this,” he calls from a few shelves down, holding up a plastic bag, “is actinolite, and it’s got asbestos in it.” Sokka startles and nearly drops his chunk of olivine.
“Zuko! Put it down!” Zuko smirks, face cast half in shadow where he’s standing behind his phone flashlight.
“Sokka, I’ve handled this stuff a hundred times. It’s in a plastic bag for a reason. As long as you don’t eat it, you’ll be fine.” Sokka relaxes a little bit, but still throws a suspicious glance at Zuko where his light is temporarily dimmed as he returns his carcinogens to their rightful place. “Put that olivine tray back and come here, I’m gonna show you some more stuff.”
“No more poisons, though, dude,” Sokka says, obligingly pushing the tray back onto its shelf and getting to his feet.
“Remember what I just said about the plastic bag? Stop being paranoid,” Zuko replies, rolling his eyes and nudging his shoulder against Sokka’s when he comes to stand next to him. He leads them deeper into the shelves, pausing every few feet to shine his flashlight on a label and then pull something out to hand to Sokka, speaking in a soft voice about mineral properties and rock types and epochs as Sokka nods along.
“Here, lick this one,” he says, holding a clear rock up to Sokka’s face. Sokka raises an eyebrow at him, but obligingly sticks his tongue out and licks the rock.
“Salty?” he says tentatively, wrinkling his nose. Zuko laughs, tapping the rock with one finger.
“It’s halite. Table salt.” Sokka stares at him, and then at the rock, and then snickers, elbowing him in the side. “What? Sokka, stop that.”
“Rock salt. Get it? Rock salt?”
“You’re not funny,” Zuko groans, turning his face to the ceiling like he wants the spirits to take him, but Sokka can see the side of his mouth twitching.
“Yes I am, don’t deny it.”
The next thing Zuko pulls out, from a shelf near the very back of the lab, is a gallon-size plastic bag. Sokka braces for more poisonous things. Instead, Zuko takes his hands and forms them into a cup, pinching his phone and setting it facedown onto a nearby shelf. Sokka freezes, taken by the warmth of Zuko’s fingers against his own.
Zuko then dumps a dozen or so little circular stones into his hands.
“These are fossilized trilobites,” he says, picking one up and turning it over to show Sokka the imprint of a slightly oval, many-legged...thing. Sokka peers down at the ones in his hands, tilting them to better catch the light. “They’re little arthropods. These guys took over the world in the Cambrian - 541 million years ago.”
“Wait a second,” Sokka says. “These were alive?”
“Mhm.” Sokka’s mouth falls open.
“Shit,” he whispers, looking down at the trilobites again, and then up at Zuko. “What’d you say - 541 million years ago? These things were alive? Like. The ones I’m holding right now?”
“Mhm,” Zuko says again, looking down at his own trilobite and letting his hair fall into his eyes. Sokka suddenly feels inexplicably small, and younger than he has in years.
“All this stuff is, isn’t it? Millions of years old?” he asks, voice small. Zuko nods. “And it’s all dead. If it’s ever been alive.”
“I think rock is alive, in a way,” Zuko says, picking up the bag of trilobites and returning his to it. “It remembers history better than we do.” His voice is so soft, so reverent as he says those words that something twists low in Sokka’s chest.
“Does it feel like this all the time?”
Zuko looks up and meets Sokka’s questioning gaze, brown eyes almost black in the low light. Sokka feels caught, pinned in place by the strength of those eyes alone, the sole other reminder of humanity in this place.
“Like you’re the smallest thing on the planet? Yes.”
He smiles wryly then, holding out the bag. Dazed, Sokka dumps the trilobites back into it and watches as Zuko squeezes the air out and seals it.
“I will admit, it’s different when it’s three in the morning and you’re nearly alone in the building, though.” Sokka finally exhales in a huff of a laugh, shaking his head slightly and grinning weakly at Zuko.
“Honestly, dude, I think I just had a spiritual experience.”
“Look, so did I, and I’ve been in here a million times.” To be entirely honest, Sokka isn’t actually that interested in rocks, besides the ones he might come across in his materials science classes. When Zuko talks about them, though, it’s different. Zuko talks about them like they’re art, like they’re history frozen in little bits of stone, which Sokka supposes, now that he knows, that they kind of are. It makes Sokka’s chest hurt looking at him - now that he’s taken all the samples back, there’s nothing else to look at other than him, long hair spread across the shoulders of his flannel and casting shadows across his face, fingers handling the samples as delicately as he plays the piano.
“Zuko,” he says, taking a step towards where Zuko is putting the trilobites back into the cabinet. “I-”
“Someone’s here,” Zuko whispers.
“At three in the morning?”
“We are, aren’t we? Shh!” It’s quiet for a second, and then the sound of shoes on tile reaches them, clearly coming closer. “Shit. Okay. Uh, there’s only one exit from this lab and it’s the way we came in, which is also the way this person is coming.” He grabs his phone off the shelf he’s set it on and hip-checks the cabinet closed, rushing over to the door to pull the doorstop in and relock it from the outside. Sokka snatches up his phone and switches the light off, then hurries after Zuko, who’s stuck his head out the door and is looking around frantically.
“Closet,” he says, grabbing Sokka’s sleeve and dragging him towards a nondescript door on the adjacent wall of the lobby they came in through. The lab door clicks shut behind them.
“What?” Sokka yelps as Zuko shoves him through the door and he stumbles into a shelf of...cleaning supplies? As he grabs at the shelf to steady himself, knocking a few unidentifiable jugs to the ground, Zuko squishes in next to him and pulls the door shut, essentially plastering himself against Sokka’s side. Sokka freezes as Zuko’s nose comes to rest right above his collarbone, and shifts to try and make more space for him, which coincidentally results in the arm that isn’t pressed into a shelf ending up curled lightly around Zuko’s waist.
“Zuko,” he whispers, and if it comes out a little strangled, well, he’s just been shoved into a closet. As far as he’d known, once you’d come out of the closet, you couldn’t go back . He didn’t exactly expect to be yanked physically into one, by the boy he’s not-so-subtly had a crush on for over a year, nor to be essentially cuddling that boy while in the closet hiding from whatever idiot happens to also be wandering the earth science building at three in the morning. “Is this the janitor’s closet?”
“Yeah,” Zuko hisses. Sokka tries not to shiver as his breath puffs against his neck. If they were any closer, Zuko’s lips would literally be brushing his skin.
The sound of footsteps outside gets louder, even muffled by the door.
“I’d like you to know that this was your fault,” Sokka says. Zuko pinches him. “Ow! Okay, sorry!”
“Shhh!” Zuko’s hand lands across Sokka’s mouth, which is impressive given that the closet is completely dark except for the strip of light from under the door. His hand is very warm. “If we get caught,” he continues more quietly, “I’d argue it’s your fault, because you’re loud.”
I’m talking to distract myself from the fact that you are warm and also literally in my arms in a very small enclosed space, thank you, because if I don’t say this then I’m going to say something very ill-advised, Sokka thinks. He doesn’t say any of that, though. Instead, as subtly as he can, he drops his chin into Zuko’s hair. In the sudden silence that follows, he realizes that the footsteps have stopped.
“Zuko,” he whispers, loose strands of hair tickling his nose as they shift before his breath. “D’you hear anything?”
“No,” Zuko whispers back. “You think they’re gone?”
The door clicks. Sokka doesn’t register what’s happening until Zuko’s spun around, throwing Sokka’s arm off his waist and crowding Sokka even further into the corner of the closet like he’s trying to block him from view. Zuko is too short to do this particularly effectively, though, leaving Sokka to attempt to duck down behind him as the door swings open.
“Zuko?” Wait. Sokka knows that voice. He hears that voice every other weekday, and both days on the weekends.
“Professor Piandao? What are you doing here?” Sokka shuffles down further behind Zuko, because that’s his fucking swordsmanship instructor holy god how has Zuko not mentioned that Sokka’s swordsmanship instructor is his professor?
“Research,” Piandao says dryly. “I’d ask you the same?”
“Uh,” Zuko says. If Sokka could, he would slap his palm to his forehead. Zuko’s weakness has been and always will be the cover story. “Also...research? For, um, my thesis!”
“In the closet?” Sokka can’t see the eyebrow, but he can somehow feel it. As far as he knows, Zuko...isn’t writing a thesis.
“Uh, yeah! Someone told me there was a, um, sample in here and I was just trying to find it before I left.” The eyebrow vibes intensify. Sokka fights the urge to shuffle his feet.
“Okay,” Piandao says after a long pause. “Please don’t fall asleep in class tomorrow.” Zuko shakes his head hard enough for Sokka to feel it.
“I won’t, Professor.”
“It’s three in the morning, Zuko, I think we may be past ‘Professor’ for the time being.” Zuko is fundamentally incapable of addressing anyone without the correct term of respect, Sokka thinks wryly. “In any case, good luck finding your,” he pauses infinitesimally, “sample.”
“Goodnight, Professor,” Zuko says, a few notes higher than his normal voice. As the door swings shut, Sokka dares to poke his head out from behind Zuko’s back.
“Oh, hey, Sokka,” Piandao says, just before the door clicks closed.
“Hey, Master Piandao,” Sokka manages to get out.
“I didn’t know you two knew each other. Small world.” Sokka and Zuko nod together, even though it doesn’t seem like Piandao can actually see them. “Well, have a good rest of your night, boys.”
The door finally closes all the way, and Piandao’s footsteps recede into the distance. They wait, not even breathing, until they hear the door into the lab unlock and then shut, muffling the footsteps entirely.
And then they run. They don’t stop until they’ve thundered down the stairs and out of the building entirely, and then Zuko swerves sharply left and bolts for the small meadow between the earth science and engineering buildings. He comes to a halt in the middle of the grassy area, sitting down heavily and putting his head in his hands. The giddy adrenaline singing through Sokka’s veins drains away in an instant.
“Zuko?” he says quietly, kneeling down in the grass in front of him.
“Sokka,” Zuko exhales, but when Sokka reaches for his shoulder, making sure Zuko can see him coming, he jerks away, curling in on himself. Sokka’s heart cracks open, and he vows, not for the first time, that one day he will burn Zuko’s father to the ground.
“Sorry,” he says, settling both hands in his lap where Zuko can still see them.
“It’s fine, no, fuck,” Zuko rushes out. Sokka can see him shaking. “I shouldn’t-”
“Zuko. There’s nothing you shouldn’t do. If you don’t want me to touch you, then I won’t.”
“No, I, I want you to, but I can’t-” Sokka aches to touch, aches to reach out and pull Zuko into him and hold him tight until he understands that Sokka won’t ever be like his father, or his sister, that Sokka isn’t ever going to hurt him if he can help it, but he is hurting him just by being here, and Sokka has never understood more how life is unforgiving.
“Zuko,” he says, trying to remember the steps they’d gone through together, shortly after Zuko had first admitted to getting panic attacks when overwhelmed. “Breathe, okay?”
“Yeah,” Zuko grits out, inhaling, big and shaky. Sokka starts counting aloud, low and steady, in groups of fours the way Zuko had told him to the first time he’d panicked in front of him. Long minutes pass of Sokka counting one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four over and over as his voice goes hoarse, unwilling to stop even a second before he’s sure Zuko is alright, until Zuko’s breathing starts to even out. Finally, he takes one more deep breath, then looks up from the ground and meets Sokka’s eyes. “I’m okay. You can, um.” He stops, and reaches a hand out, palm up.
“You sure?” Zuko nods. Sokka bites down on his lip, wanting so desperately to put his arms around Zuko and never let go that it makes his chest physically ache, and reaches out. His hand settles into Zuko’s, palm to fingers, and at Zuko’s nod, he scoots around so they can sit next to each other, fingers intertwined and upper arms pressed together.
“I,” Zuko says, after a few minutes, squeezing Sokka’s hand. Sokka opens his mouth to say You don’t have to, but Zuko beats him to it. “No, I want to say it. You know I’m really only out to you and the rest of our friends, yeah?” Sokka nods. “I guess...I guess I’ve been thinking about coming out to Professor Piandao, like, I talked to Uncle about it yesterday after work, and it turns out they know each other from their Pai Sho club or whatever, and he said he’d be cool with it, and he talks about ‘my partner’ in class all the time.”
“Well, that’s...good, right?” Sokka says. “That you wanted to tell Piandao already and he happened to be the one that caught us?” He makes a mental note to ask Zuko later about why he hadn’t mentioned that Piandao as in Sokka’s swordfighting master was the same Piandao as in Zuko’s mineralogy professor.
“Yeah, I guess,” Zuko replies. “But he’s still gonna ask me about this tomorrow because I always go and sit in his office after class and like, he did not believe what I said, at all, and like, I guess I just wanted more control over coming out to him.”
“To be fair, it wasn’t the greatest excuse,” Sokka says, because he can’t help himself, and receives a pointy elbow to his side for his troubles. “Look, he seemed more confused than anything, right? I think it’s going to be alright. Just change the topic or something if he brings this up.”
“I’m only good at words on paper, remember?” Zuko replies, wiggling in the grass to press up further against Sokka’s side. “You’re the charmer.”
“And for good reason. Stop elbowing me, it’s not nice!” He hopes it’s dark enough out to mask his blush, because really, that was barely a compliment. His cheeks have no right to be on fire the way they are right now.
“When have I ever been nice?” The effect of Zuko’s sentence is broken by a long yawn, however, and he tips his head sideways onto Sokka’s shoulder. Sokka automatically slides down a little in the grass so that the top of Zuko’s head comes to rest in the space between his cheek and shoulder, shifting his free hand to prop himself up.
“All the time,” Sokka can’t help replying anyway, leaning his head on top of Zuko’s. “Like earlier, in the lab. That was nice.”
“It was,” Zuko says after a pause, sounding wistful. He yawns again and then goes quiet, staring off into the darkness at the edge of the meadow. Sokka turns to look down at the top of Zuko’s head and takes a breath, inhaling Zuko’s shampoo and cool night air together, and thinks that he might’ve always been a little bit in love with his best friend.
Here’s the thing. Sokka’s crush on Zuko is basically public knowledge among their friend group and at the same time entirely invisible to Zuko himself. Truth be told, Sokka’s probably known it since the day he’d purposefully picked the seat next to the cute boy in Lit 104 in freshman year and discovered in rapid succession that said cute boy was very cute when he stumbled over the name of his own major and then that he had very, very extensive thoughts on T. S. Eliot, which had basically sealed the ticket to Sokka’s heart. But Zuko hadn’t responded to any of Sokka’s attempts to flirt at first, and Sokka had just assumed he wasn’t gay and tried - and failed - to move on. Only after months, and an ill-advised mix of orange juice and vodka, had Zuko told them, in a shaking voice, about his father’s abuse, the homophobia he’d casually spill every day, how Zuko had tried for years to be silent and small and quiet until the day his vile fucking father had given him that scar and threw him out on the curb. Sokka doesn’t think any of the five of them had let go of Zuko for the rest of the night.
After all of that, for all that they are best friends, and by their own admission spend the majority of their free time together even without the rest of the friend group along, Sokka’s decided he’s just going to be the greatest friend Zuko’s ever had, because it’d sounded like he hadn’t had very many. If it means that every time he gets to put his arm around Zuko’s shoulders or link their elbows or let Zuko take a nap on his shoulder in the library, he wishes so hard it makes his chest hurt that he could follow it up with a kiss, well, that’s a price he’s willing to pay. Right now, with Zuko tucked into his side like a puzzle piece, the night breeze ruffling his hair, Sokka would gladly stay here forever.
“Alright, c’mon, sleepyhead,” Sokka says eventually, when Zuko’s breathing has gone so deep and even that for a moment Sokka thinks he’s actually fallen asleep. “Zuko, we can’t sleep out here, we have class tomorrow.”
“Y’sure?” Zuko nearly slurs, turning his face into Sokka’s side.
“Yeah,” Sokka replies, wishing desperately to say no. “If you fall asleep in Piandao’s class you’ll never hear the end of it.”
“Ugh,” Zuko grumbles, but he sighs and pushes away from Sokka, running his hands through his hair and sitting up. Sokka shivers, but not because of the cold. He misses Zuko’s warmth already.
Zuko lets out another long sigh and pushes himself gracefully to his feet, holding his hand out for Sokka to grab. Sokka does, and Zuko hauls him up, but he stumbles a little at the apex, closing his eyes on instinct and bracing for impact. When he doesn’t go tumbling to an ignominious landing, he cracks open one eye and finds himself nose-to-nose with an equally surprised Zuko.
“Sorry,” he says on instinct. Zuko’s eyes are very wide, and very brown, and they stay standing there, Zuko’s hands on Sokka’s biceps, for long moments. Zuko blinks once, eyelashes fanning across his pale cheeks, and Sokka thinks for one singular second that Zuko is about to kiss him.
And then Zuko looks away abruptly, rubbing at the back of his neck and setting Sokka back on his feet.
“It’s fine.” Sokka blinks, still reeling a little bit. “Let’s go?”
“Uh, yeah.” They’re quiet on the way back out to the street. Sokka isn’t sure what Zuko’s thinking about, isn’t sure if he really wants to know, assuming he hadn’t been imagining that they had been really abnormally close and that Zuko really had spooked. For himself, though, he can’t stop seeing Zuko’s eyes fluttering shut, over and over as if the image is tattooed on the back of his eyelids. He’s still thinking about it as they dart across the street, and immediately trips over the curb on the other side.
“Very graceful,” Zuko says, grabbing his arm to haul him back up, and Sokka is so relieved to hear the familiar banter that he nearly neglects to tell him to shut up. He doesn’t, of course, because he has a reputation to maintain, but it’s a close thing.
“So,” Sokka says when they reach the front steps of his dorm. It doesn’t miss him that this feels very much like the awkward ending of a date, and he pauses to wonder why in the world he keeps thinking about these things.
“So,” Zuko replies. “Thanks...for coming with me, Sokka.” Sokka grins.
“Anytime. I think my soul is still somewhere outside of my body, honestly. It’s back there with the rocks.”
“Now you know how I feel every day.”
“I think I’ve become a lot more scared of earth scientists now, just saying.”
“You should be.” Zuko steps towards him in the awkward way he has when he wants a hug, and Sokka willingly opens his arms and lets Zuko hook his chin over his shoulder.
“Terrified, truly. Hey, uh,” he pauses, trying to think of the best way to structure his question. “Are you gonna be okay with, like everything? With talking to Piandao tomorrow and stuff?”
“And stuff,” Zuko says dryly. Sokka pokes him. “Fine, fine. I’ll be okay, Sokka. Don’t worry about it.”
“If you say so.” Sokka will worry anyway. “Text me if you need anything, yeah?”
“I will. Goodnight, Sokka.”
“Goodnight,” Sokka says, releasing him with no small amount of reluctance. When he makes it back up the stairs and into his room and looks out the window that had started all of this, he sees Zuko walking away towards the other side of the quad, hands stuck in his pockets. Struck by the impulse for drama - he blames it on hanging out with Zuko too much, and ignores Katara when she says he’s been like that all his life - he yanks the window open and calls “Good luck!” after him. Zuko jumps and whips around, eyes finding Sokka leaning out the window with arrow-like accuracy.
“Go to sleep, Sokka!” he yells back, flipping him off, but Sokka sees him smiling as he turns back around.
“You first!” Sokka slides the window shut again and falls back against the wall between the window and his bed, grinning like an idiot.
As he slides his shoes off and starts changing back into pajamas, he realizes that he’s actually, finally tired.
“Yeah,” he cheers quietly, fist-pumping. He’s out almost as soon as he pulls the covers up to his chin.
It takes three snooze-button presses for Sokka to wake up all the way the next morning, and he immediately sets his contraband coffeemaker to drip. When he checks his phone as he’s brushing his teeth, the toothbrush almost falls out of his mouth in surprise.
<<from: zuko, 07:02. so I’m writing a thesis…?>>
“Excuse me?” Sokka says out loud, biting down on the toothbrush to free his other hand to type out a text in response.
<<to: zuko, 09:01. did u get ANY sleep??? and what do u mean ur “””writing a thesis””” ur a sophomore??????>>
<<from: zuko, 09:02. I got a bit, shut up. I’m writing a thesis on the olivine-sorosilicate-perovskite transition in the mantle I’ve been thinking about this for hours now and I think I’m actually gonna do it.>>
“Oh, god,” Sokka says aloud, lowering his forehead to his palm and letting out a long sigh. “What have we done?”
Zuko dashes through the doors of the mineralogy wing with his laptop tucked under one arm, glancing at the time on his phone and groaning aloud when it shows that he’s only two minutes early for class. For one thing, he usually gets to class five minutes early, because any later and he runs the risk of being late. For another, though, he isn’t entirely sure if his heart rate has returned to baseline over any and all of the hours starting from when Professor Piandao had...discovered him and Sokka in that closet, and he’s been dreading this class in particular all day. And on top of all of that, he’s incredibly sleep-deprived.
To be fair, he hadn’t lied to Sokka in his text from the morning - he’d gotten exactly one hour and forty-three minutes of sleep, which he supposes counts as “a bit.” He’d spent the rest of the time between when he’d gotten back to his room and when he’d fallen asleep quietly trying his utmost not to spiral, holding the hilts of his sheathed swords in his hands and trying to remember the sound of Sokka’s voice counting in his ear. Somewhere around 4:30 in the morning, bent over his mineralogy books to avoid thinking about his father - he can’t hurt him anymore he’s a thousand miles away and never cared anyway he can’t put a finger on him anymore and professor piandao is nothing like him - he’d decided that maybe he was going to write a thesis, because his father will be a sad, bitter old man forever and his opinion doesn’t matter to him anymore but he still wants to throw this final thing in his face. That he could make something of himself, he could be gay and successful and have people who love him and Ozai can never touch that.
He skids to a stop outside the door of the classroom, heart jackrabbiting hard enough that he can feel it in his fingertips, and squeezes his eyes shut briefly before shouldering his way through the door and stalking determinedly to his seat, wondering why in the world he’d decided to sit in the front. He can practically feel Professor Piandao’s eyes on him as he slaps his laptop onto the desk and bends down to retrieve his notebook and pen, but refuses to look up as he flips to a new page and scribbles the date and course title at the top.
“Ugh, fuck,” he hisses to himself, leaning over for his mug of coffee and knocking it over instead. This day just gets better and better.
He snatches it up before too much can spill out onto the carpeted floor, peering through the clear lid and resisting his desire to just lie down on the ground when he realizes he only has a quarter of a mug left, and he has to survive at least the coming 90 minutes before he can top up at the department kitchen. Great.
He tips the mug back for a sip, and as he does so, catches a glimpse of Professor Piandao’s shirt out of the corner of his eye, and barely keeps from doing an entire spit-take. While he’s still spluttering, his professor, who’s wearing a shirt with Queer Scientist written in two-inch letters across the front, raises an eyebrow and smiles at him.
Zuko stares. And then, tentatively, he smiles back, and finds that he can breathe.
From there, it’s almost like a plan falling into place. Professor Piandao is lecturing about the crystallization of minerals and Bowen’s reaction series, which just happens to be the very basis of what Zuko’s been thinking about all day. Between that and the fact that every time Zuko catches a glimpse of his professor’s shirt he wants to grin, he starts thinking that maybe, for once in his life, things might turn out okay this time.
Professor Jeong Jeong from down the hall pops into the lecture at one point, carrying three mugs of coffee and inexplicably dusted with dirt. He leaves one cup on the lectern and interrupts Professor Piandao in the middle of a sentence about igneous mineral compositions to ask the classroom “do you want to stop breathing?” and then walks out without waiting for a response, snickering. They all look after him with equally confused expressions, except Professor Piandao, who lets out a longsuffering sigh and chivvies them back to work. He catches Zuko’s eye and raises an eyebrow as he starts lecturing again, but Zuko just shrugs. Just because he’s friends with Toph doesn’t mean that he can understand her weird advisor.
Once class is over, Zuko goes up to the third floor to refill his coffee mug in the kitchen, stealing a couple bags of what Sokka calls ‘the good Earl Grey’ and sticking them in the side pocket of his backpack to give to him later. He pulls out his phone while the coffee drips, flicking open his last text thread with Sokka.
<<to: sokka, 16:53. got some of the earl grey for you, I’ll give it to you at dinner. going to Prof. Piandao’s now, will text when I’m done.>>
He gets a text back as he makes his way back down to Professor Piandao’s office on the second floor, sipping from his newly refilled coffee and swirling it to mix the milk in.
<<from: sokka, 16:56. ur the best zuko i just ran out yesterday tyyy>>
<<from: sokka, 16:57. good luck w/ p!! u got this he loves u>>
<<to: sokka, 16:58. thank you.>>
Zuko sticks his phone back into his pocket and knocks gently on the edge of the partially open office door, edging inside as he hears a faint noise of affirmation.
“Zuko,” Professor Piandao says as he pushes the door open all the way, typing a few last words on his desktop and then swinging around in his chair and propping his elbows on the desk.
“Hey, Professor,” Zuko replies, leaning his backpack against the wall and grabbing his laptop and planner before sitting down in one of the square wooden chairs. “How are you?”
“I’m good, thanks. Those new dao that I was talking about last week came in yesterday, so you can try those out the next time you’re in the studio if you’d like.” Zuko grins - he loves his old dao, they’ve been with him through getting out of Ozai’s house and through the whole time he’d lived with his uncle and he knows them perhaps better than he knows his own arms; they’re still the ones he prefers to practice with, but the temptation of new swords is one he can’t resist.
“I’ll come in probably Friday evening? I’ll let you know in class - lemme put it in my calendar so I’ll remember to check.”
“Sounds good, son. If you do end up coming, is it alright if I leave you to close up? I have somewhere to be right after closing on Friday, but you’ve closed before.”
“Closing up is fine with me, yes.” Zuko ducks his head a little lower as he scribbles the appointment into his planner to hide the stupid smile on his face that he gets whenever his professor calls him son - he’d never expected to have anything but bad memories to surround that word, and he’s pretty sure he’d actually cried the first time he’d heard Professor Piandao say it. He misses the smirk that darts across Piandao’s face at his agreement.
“So,” Professor Piandao says when Zuko has shut his planner and sat back in his chair, pulling the edges of his flannel closer around himself. “We’ve talked about me. How are you?”
“I’m alright, I guess. Got a Lit paper due Friday, otherwise I’d come in and practice earlier.” Zuko scratches at the back of his neck, feeling self-conscious and uncomfortable in a way that he hasn’t felt in this office for ages. Despite what he’s been telling himself, despite what he’d told Sokka, even the thought of coming out is making his heart jump up into his throat. He stuffs his hands into his pockets to hide the way they’re shaking, and clears his throat. “I’m, uh. I’m thinking about writing a thesis?”
“So you’ve mentioned,” Professor Piandao says without missing a beat. Zuko fights the urge to jump out the window - it’s right there, they’re on the second floor, he’d be fine.
“Uh. Yeah.” They stare at each other for a minute, Zuko wondering just how awkward he sounds. Then he decides - eh. Whatever. He may not be able to come out right now, but he sure as hell can talk about igneous rocks. “Right. So I was thinking last night about the transition zone between olivine to perovskite, and how the structure changes as you go deeper into the mantle.” He grins as Professor Piandao sits up a little straighter in his chair. “I thought you’d like this. ‘Cause - you know the Wang article, from ‘97? That study saw the transformation for up to 19 hours because that was as long as they could maintain the conditions in the diamond anvil cell, but what I was wondering was whether the oxygen framework stays intact in real life? Like, when a plate subducts?"
“Right, because the diamond anvil is the only way to mimic those conditions.” Zuko flips open his laptop and pulls up the word document he’d started compiling before he’d fallen asleep on top of it, spinning it around to face the other side of the desk.
“This is what I have so far, I know it isn’t much of a start for a full honours thesis and that I’d usually start something like this next year or even senior year, but after last night I, uh, just started thinking about it and I really would like to do it now, I mean, if you think it’s a good idea.” He clamps a hand over his own mouth and stares at Professor Piandao in mortification. He’s scrolling through Zuko’s document, making hmm-ing noises every few lines and a few times scribbling something down onto the pad of post-it notes at his elbow. Zuko watches him and tries not to be particularly obvious about attempting to read upside down, hoping to high heaven that those are good scribbles.
“Zuko,” Professor Piandao says eventually, capping his pen and offering Zuko back his laptop, completely straight-faced. He takes it, hoping it isn’t obvious how hard he’s shaking, and waits for the inevitable blow. “I haven’t seen a thesis proposal like this in years. ”
“I’m sorry, I know it’s bad - wait, what?”
“Zuko, this is impeccable. There are some sections I would move around, and of course this isn’t a finished outline either, but if you’re serious about pursuing this, I can look into getting you lab space and approval from the department.” Zuko opens his mouth. Closes it again. Professor Piandao’s eyes crinkle at the corners. “Take your time.”
Zuko swears he’d meant to say thank you, or yes please, or any other normal, polite human response. Instead, what comes out of his mouth is, “Are you serious?”
“Very. You have talent, son, and an impressive amount of dedication, and what kind of advisor would I be if I didn’t encourage it? Some of my seniors don’t even give me work like this.” Zuko doesn’t even try to hide the smile. He feels like he’s flying, and flying has always felt very much like falling but he thinks it might be different this time.
“Thank you, Professor Piandao,” he says, and the words come easily. “Thank you, so much.”
“You’re very welcome. And Zuko, really, it’s just Piandao.” Zuko shakes his head ruefully.
“Sorry, Professor, still can’t do that. That’d be like calling Uncle by his name.” Professor Piandao looks stunned for a second, and then his expression shifts into something uncannily like Uncle does when Zuko’s done something he approves of. Zuko, honestly confused, tries to play back his last few sentences in his head and - oh, shit.
The problem with his advisor knowing his uncle is that he knows how much Uncle means to him, and that Zuko’s just pulled his very own version of ‘accidentally called teacher mom’ - or uncle, in this case. He can already hear Sokka laughing at him.
Fuck, Zuko thinks. Then, fuck it. He’s come this far. Professor Piandao literally found him in a closet at three in the morning and barely batted an eye. He can come out as gay to a man wearing a shirt that says ‘queer scientist.’
Zuko takes a breath, training his eyes on a point slightly above Professor Piandao’s left shoulder.
“Alright, yeah, that just happened. There was one more thing though.”
He pauses, and breathes in. Piandao is not his father. Ozai can never touch him again.
“I guess you’re...like, the first adult I’ve said this to, besides Uncle obviously, but that’s different, you know, like, adults I’m not related to-” Stop rambling, Zuko, just say it. “What I’m trying to say is, uh, I’m...I’m gay.”
At some point he’d shut his eyes, sitting stiff as a board with his hands twisted in his lap. In the ensuing silence, he dares to crack his good eye open. On Professor Piandao’s face is the most enormous smile he’s ever seen.
“Zuko,” he says slowly, as Zuko opens both eyes, hardly daring to believe what he’s seeing. “Son, is it okay if I hug you?” Zuko nods mutely, and a second later finds himself out of his seat and being squeezed within an inch of his life. To his own surprise he finds his eyes welling with tears, and then suddenly he’s sort of sob-laughing into his advisor’s dress shirt, and this is possibly the most mortified he’s ever felt in his life, but also the most freed, and the thought just makes him cry harder.
He expected to be let go the moment he’d started crying, so he’s surprised when Professor Piandao just pats him on the back and keeps holding on. Only once his sobs finally start to subside does he let go and offer him a tissue from the box on the desk, which Zuko takes gladly and scrubs over his face, feeling drained to the core and on top of the world all at once.
“Sorry,” he says, looking away and pretending to be fascinated by the carpet pattern.
“Never,” Professor Piandao says, putting one hand on his shoulder to get Zuko to meet his gaze. His eyes look suspiciously watery as well. “Never feel like you need to apologize for something like this. I’m honoured that you chose me to come to with this, okay?” Zuko nods, still feeling wrung-out and fragile, and sits down heavily in his chair.
“Thanks,” he says lamely, but Professor Piandao gives him another smile in return, and he decides it’s alright, actually.
“Now,” Professor Piandao says, returning to his side of the desk. “Let me tell you about how my partner nearly burned down a $56 million building.”
Zuko is still snickering about the Hexagon story - the building in question is, or apparently nearly was, the earth department’s specialty lab on campus that they’d been begging for funding for over the course of nearly six years and had finally secured the year before Zuko’s first - when the office door swings open and admits Jeong Jeong, a gardening trowel in one hand and still covered in the light dusting of soil he’d had earlier.
“Pian - oh. Hello, Zuko.”
“Jeong Jeong,” Zuko returns - he’s the one exception to Zuko’s professionalism-only rule, because once you’d seen one of your best friends and the department’s most infamous cryptid eat dirt together, the address of Professor just kind of doesn’t work anymore. The three of them sit in silence for a few awkward moments, before Professor Piandao rises from his chair and grabs a long jacket from the coatrack in the corner.
“Well, Zuko, it looks like I have places to be. I’ll look into the lab space for you, and if you’d like to talk about your thesis more tomorrow, feel free to come by.”
“I’ll email if I think of something, and about the studio on Friday,” Zuko replies, also getting up and retrieving his backpack and returning his laptop and planner to their places.
“Sounds good. And Zuko, I’m proud of you.” Zuko feels himself go red, ducking his head and looking at his shoes.
“Thanks, Professor,” he says, starting to back towards the door.
“Oh, and one more thing?” Zuko stops and looks up questioningly. “Please go to sleep.”
“I make no promises,” he replies, grinning. “See you Friday, Professor.”
“Go on with you, then.”
Zuko goes. Once he’s outside, he leans heavily against the wall and sighs, shutting his eyes and taking a long sip of his coffee. He’s alright. He’s fine - better than fine.
<<to: sokka, 18:01. it went well. tell you more at dinner. south or north dining hall?>>
Sokka texts back almost immediately.
<<from: sokka, 18:01. !!!! zuko yay i love that for u! go downstairs>>
<<to: sokka, 18:02. what do you mean go downstairs? where do you want to eat?>>
<<from: sokka, 18:02. jus DO it >:0>>
Zuko squints suspiciously at his phone, then shrugs and heads for the stairs. He’s barely made it to the landing on the first floor when he’s knocked nearly off his feet as a beaming Sokka flies into him, throwing his arms around him and spinning him in a circle.
“Zuko I’m so proud of you!” he gushes, setting a slightly dazed Zuko back onto his feet only to yank him into another crushing hug.
“I mean, it wasn’t that big of a deal,” Zuko gets out, trying not to fidget and instead tentatively wrapping his arms around Sokka’s back.
“Uh, yes it was, don’t be like that. Isn’t he the first person you’ve told since your uncle?”
“I guess, yeah.” He thinks about Professor Piandao smiling at him, about him saying I’m proud of you, and sighs into Sokka’s shoulder. “It was...nice.”
“That’s what we like to hear!” Sokka cheers, and Zuko grins in spite of himself. Sokka releases him then, taking a step back and looking intently at him. “Zuko, honestly, I know what it took for you to get to the point where you could even think about doing something like this, and you are so strong, and so brave, for breaking the cycle that your bastard of a father started. I’m honestly so proud to call you my best friend.”
Zuko thinks he might be about to cry again, and that is not on the table for today. Instead, he drops his forehead onto Sokka’s shoulder again and breathes in.
“Thanks, Sokka,” he says quietly. Sokka doesn’t reply, but his hands rub circles on Zuko’s back before shifting up to gently free his hair from its half-up topknot, running cool fingers through it to untangle it and then starting to plait it into a queue down his back.
“Hey, dinner north? I think they have noodles tonight.” Sokka asks eventually, weaving the last couple inches together and tying off the braid.
“North sounds good, yeah. Also, let me give you those teabags before I forget,” Zuko replies, extracting himself from Sokka’s arms to rummage in his bag and hand over the little packets. “You know that Uncle would give you ones for free if you wanted, right?”
“Yeah, but these ones hit different. Don’t tell him I said that, though.”
“Oh, come on. He’s obsessed with boba right now, he probably wouldn’t even mind.”
“Look, it’s the principle of the thing.” They start making their way towards the side door of the building, Sokka tucking the teabags into a pocket of his denim jacket. “Hey, what were you saying earlier about a thesis?”
“Oh! Yeah, I mentioned it to Professor Piandao and he said that if I wanted, he’d get me lab space and stuff so I could work on it soon. He, um, he said he thought my idea was really good.”
“Woah, wait, you were serious?”
“Would I joke about something like this?” Sokka pauses, then grumbles a little to himself.
“Alright, rock boy, I guess not.” Zuko punches him lightly in the side. “Hey, ow! You love that nickname and you know it. Anyway, tell me more about this thesis of yours, then - that’s really cool that Piandao liked it.”
“Right, so, you know the olivine that I showed you last night?”
“Yeah, the green rock, right?” Sokka darts over to a display case on the other side of the hallway and points inside. “Like...this one?” Zuko follows, and blinks in surprise when he sees that Sokka’s identified the correct one.
“Y-yeah! Wait, how’d you know that?” Sokka looks at him like he’s an idiot, which Zuko thinks is a bit unfair.
“Uh, you showed it to me? Duh.”
“Yes, once, at three in the morning in the dark. Are you sure you weren’t destined to be a geologist? I think you’re in the wrong major.”
“I dunno, I’ve just got a good eye for colours. I’ll leave the rocks to you, buddy - I don’t think I can take that much contemplation of my own existence every day. That’s, like, your thing, so it’s perfect for you.” God, Zuko hates it when Sokka’s right about his ‘angst,’ as he likes to call it.
“Can we go back to you fearing earth science majors again? Anyway,” he says, dragging out the first syllable, “under certain conditions deep in the mantle, this mineral changes its structure, and becomes something called perovskite. You’ve taken mat sci, right? They’re both orthorhombic, but the atoms are just in different places. We don’t have any samples of it because it basically just reverts back to olivine when it’s taken out of its ideal conditions, though.”
“That’s hot,” Sokka mumbles absently. Zuko, mind already miles away adding bullet points to the skeleton of an outline he’s drawn up, gives him a weird look.
“Sokka, they’re igneous rocks. They need heat to form.” Absently, he wonders why Sokka looks like he wants to sink into the floor, but honestly, he does not have enough spare brain cells to consider why his best friend is acting strange. Professor Piandao approving his project seems to have opened the floodgates in his head, and he isn’t above talking Sokka’s ear off about it, whether he’s being weird or not. “Right, so-”
“When was the last time you ate?” Sokka interrupts. Zuko blinks in confusion at this non-sequitur.
“Uh, before Lit? I was working on the outline for this thing to bring to office hours the rest of the day.”
“Zuko,” Sokka groans, grabbing his arm and starting to drag him down the hallway. “Seriously. You haven’t eaten in eight hours, how are you not hungry?”
“Just because I don’t eat every three hours - I thought you wanted to hear about my thesis anyway?”
“And I can hear about it in the dining hall too, can’t I? I don’t need the visual aids, you explain them just fine yourself.”
“Ugh, fine. If you get confused, that’s your own fault.” Sokka keeps pulling him as Zuko hurries to catch up. “Sokka, let me go, I can walk on my own.”
“Oh. Sorry,” Sokka says, dropping his arm like it’s burned him. Zuko glances at him, feeling slightly hurt.
“Sokka, are you alright?” Sokka fumbles where he’s pulling out his phone, and Zuko grabs it out of the air and hands it back to him.
“Yeah! Yeah, I’m okay. Sorry,” he says, fiddling with the sleeve of his jacket. “Tired, I think - brain cell isn’t present right now.”
“Yeah, I guess you were up pretty late last night. Wonder what you were doing.”
“Hanging out with some nerd,” Sokka says, looking over at Zuko through his eyelashes. Zuko feels briefly like he’s missed a step on a staircase and has no idea why. “It’s okay, though. He’s actually pretty cool.” Zuko makes an unintelligible noise, cheeks heating in spite of himself.
“That makes no sense, Sokka, I can’t be both a nerd and cool.”
“Sure you can, if you try hard enough. And who says I was hanging out with you, anyway?” As they fall back into the familiar banter, the strange moment fades from Zuko’s head. He’s more than content to walk next to Sokka and debate the linguistic merits of the word cool and inundate him with his thesis ideas, and as they make their way over to the dining hall, he thinks, with conviction, that he’s good. He’s got Sokka and the rest of their friends, and Professor Piandao and Uncle, and they all know him, the real him, and they...they love him. He’s doing something he loves every day, and he has people who love him, and the universe be willing, it’ll stay that way for a long time.
Zuko spends the next two days alternating between writing his Lit paper and starting the literature review for his thesis. Sokka spends those days making jokes about different kinds of literature, which Zuko supposes he kind of set himself up for by being both a literature and STEM major, but that he makes sure to groan exaggeratedly at every time. He only has one minor breakdown while attempting to cut the paper down to the page limit, which is very likely a personal record for him, and it’s quickly resolved through the judicious application of some microwave ramen and a post-it note doodle of some crystal structures. He hands in his paper on Friday morning, successfully cut down to eight pages instead of the original fifteen and practically floats through the rest of his classes and his shift at Uncle’s boba shop, itching to get his hands on the new swords.
It’s pushing 7pm when he gets off work, hanging his apron on the hook in the back room and hugging Uncle goodbye before dashing out the door, practically running the whole way across town to make it to the studio as fast as he can. He’s breathless by the time he skids through the double doors, hurrying to the locker room to throw on a sleeveless tunic and loose pants and then heading out onto the floor to stretch. Master Piandao is already there, moving through the last of a set of forms with an unfamiliar set of blades that have Zuko’s mouth falling open the minute he catches a glimpse of them.
“Pro…ster. Uh, Master Piandao,” he says awkwardly as the man completes the routine and sheathes the swords, scrubbing a hand across his forehead and coming across the mats towards him.
“Zuko,” he returns, barely batting an eye at Zuko mixing up the titles again. To be fair, he’s had over a year and a half to get used to it. Zuko still hasn’t lived down the time early in freshman year when he’d first been trying to figure out what to call him outside of campus and “Mr.” had accidentally left his mouth. “I think you’ll like these,” he says simply, offering him the swords hilt-first. Zuko takes them reverently, running his hands over-
“Are these... rainbow tassels?” he asks, looking up at a very smug-looking Master Piandao.
“Holy shit.” He walks out into the center of the room and closes his hands around the black-lacquered hilts, the rainbow silk whispering across his hands as he draws and splits the swords. “The balance is a little different than my other ones,” he reports as he spins both swords in sweeping circles, then begins to move through a few basic katas. “A little lighter, too.”
“They’re thinner than your set, that’s why,” Master Piandao tells him. Zuko nods, eyes constantly drawn to the silk tassels, draping across his wrists and fluttering every time he moves.
“I like them. Honestly, I didn’t even bring my other ones today; I’m not going to give those up entirely, obviously, but...these ones are really nice.” He re-sheathes the swords and heads towards where he knows Master Piandao keeps the keys in his office, just so he doesn’t forget to grab them later. “Didn’t you have somewhere to be?”
“I do, just as soon as - oh, there he is now.” Zuko, rummaging in the desk drawer for the keys, only hears the doors open and then swing shut. He finds them under a stack of receipts and spins around to hold them up victoriously, only to stop in his tracks and stare.
“Jeong Jeong? What are you doing here?” The professor in question spins a key ring around his index finger and laughs, but it’s Master Piandao who answers, in the driest deadpan Zuko’s yet heard from him.
“I have to go home, Zuko, I don’t live here.” Zuko shakes his head, then blinks hard, wondering if he’s finally lost it.
“Uh, yeah, I know, but that doesn’t answer my question?” He thinks that the way both of them roll their eyes in perfect, clearly exasperated unison is rather uncalled for, and is just opening his mouth to say so when Master Piandao beats him to it.
“Enjoy the dao, Zuko,” he says, making his way to Jeong Jeong’s side and sliding their hands together - wait. What?
“What?” Zuko says dumbly, unable to tear his eyes away from where his calm, cool, rational advisor is very clearly holding hands with the permanently dirt-covered, possibly not entirely right in the head fieldwork hermit, who has apparently almost burned down the Hexagon and tried to fight a volcano, according to Piandao’s own stories. The key and the dao clatter to the ground one after another.
“So, he finally catches on,” Jeong Jeong says, snickering.
“Please don’t damage those,” Piandao chimes in.
“Wait, but you - and you - what?" Zuko thinks he might be going into cardiac arrest, which is frankly a very stupid way to die when you’re nineteen years old. He splutters a little more, and because life hates him, the first full sentence that gets out is “Does Toph know?”
“Ms. Beifong is extraordinarily perceptive, unlike you,” Jeong Jeong says. “So I would guess, yes.” What. Zuko is too stunned to even react to the insult.
“But-” Piandao and Jeong Jeong exchange a look, and then both lift their left hands to show matching grey-black bands on important fingers. “Shit. Wait a second. Is that what that thing on Wednesday was about?”
“What thing on Wednesday?” Two grown men who have been committing crimes against Zuko’s sanity for three straight - ha - days now should not be able to sound so innocent.
“The thing! With the - the coffee! And the eyebrow! And when you came in-” He’s nearly wheezing, pointing helplessly at Jeong Jeong. “You left together after I left, didn’t you?”
“Really, Zuko, it isn’t like it wasn’t obvious,” Piandao says, looking insufferably smug. “Why else would he be coming into my office ready to leave around five pm?”
“I can’t believe you’re going to let this kid play with million-dollar equipment,” Jeong Jeong mutters, rolling his eyes. “Perception, negative ten.”
“I heard that,” Zuko inserts by rote habit - too much hanging out with Sokka, he thinks - but honestly, he’s still processing the last five minutes. “Hang on. Jeong Jeong, I know about the Hexagon, that’s not fair.”
“You told him?” The incredulous look Jeong Jeong levels on Piandao would almost be funny, if Zuko’s brain weren’t still melting out of his ears.
“I’m sorry, dear,” Piandao replies, taking Jeong Jeong’s hand again, and okay, what the fuck, Zuko’s pretty sure he just saw Jeong Jeong’s face go soft, and that is all kinds of messed up . “Might I remind you that it was your idea to come into my class?”
“Oh, I think it’s very relevant.” Piandao levels a finger at Zuko. “You can just leave the dao in the wall rack when you’re done with them. Don’t burn down my studio, please.” Zuko nods weakly, leaning down to pick up the key and the swords and holding them up as if to prove he’s gotten the message. And then he goes right back to staring as he catches sight of Piandao and Jeong Jeong halfway to the doors, still holding hands and with their heads bent together, whispering - probably about him, to be honest. See? He can be perceptive.
He’s just about to unsheathe the swords when he hears his name again, and jerks his head up from where he’d been running his fingers over the stripes on the tassels. Piandao is mostly out the door already, leaning back to call to him.
“One more thing? Jay Jay, stop it, I have to do this. Zuko, there might be someone else coming in to practice, but he’s said he’ll leave whenever you do. See you Monday.” And then he’s gone, the bell over the door tinkling pleasantly behind him. Zuko shakes his head and rubs a hand across his eyes, squinting through the frosted glass to track their fuzzy figures as they walk across the parking lot to what he presumes is Jeong Jeong’s car. And - alright, they’re definitely kissing now, and Zuko whips around and fixes his eyes firmly on his sword scabbard, feeling like he’s intruding even over a hundred feet and a closed door.
“Zuko?” Okay, this day cannot get any weirder.
“Sokka?” Sure enough, Sokka walks out from behind one of the shelving units, dressed in a blue tank top and sweatpants and flipping the hilt of a black sword between his hands, hair tied up in his customary wolftail. Zuko’s swords go clattering to the ground for the second time in ten minutes. “What are you doing here?
“I go here?” Sokka comes over and bends down to pick up Zuko’s swords, offering them back to him and grinning. “I’d ask you the same thing? Piandao said I’d have company but he didn’t say who, and I definitely didn’t expect you.”
“Uh, I...also go here? That is, I mean, Master Piandao lets me practice after hours after they banned me from doing it in the dorms.”
“Wait, is that because of the time you stabbed a hole in your door?” Sokka exclaims, throwing his head back to laugh.
“You said we’d never speak of that again!” Zuko protests. Sokka jabs him in the side with the pommel of his sword.
“Sorry, it was just too good. I was gonna ask about that actually, after Piandao found us on Wednesday, because you never mentioned that your mineralogy professor was the same guy as my swordmaster, but I guess you didn’t know either? There’s not that many guys named Piandao out there, though, so...yeah, I think that one might be on you.”
“Hey,” Zuko says halfheartedly, but honestly, the thing with Master Piandao and Jeong Jeong still has him reeling and less impatient, for once, to defend his honour. “Hang on. Did you know about that?”
“About what?” Sokka asks quizzically, tipping his head to one side.
“Them!” Zuko gestures violently at the door, apparently still unable to think about it without shouting. “Did you not see? Master Piandao and Professor Jeong Jeong, you know, Toph’s advisor?”
“Oh, them! Yeah, did you not know? Jeong Jeong picks Piandao up here literally every time at closing?”
“What?” Sokka’s laughing at him again.
“Yeah, um, they aren’t particularly subtle about it. They’re pretty much joined at the hip all the time, at least when I’ve seen them.”
“Sokka, the department literally has a betting pool on the identity of Master Piandao’s ‘partner’ that he talks about in class all the time. No one knows.”
“Huh. Weird.” Sokka looks down at his hands, then back up at Zuko. “Anyway, they’re cute together, I think. Little odd, but as I now know, rock people are just kinda...like that.”
“I just...never would’ve guessed. Jeong Jeong, really? And apparently he says Toph probably knew, which means that every time she went with me to department stuff she was laughing at me, oh fuck.”
“Zuko, you know you’re like, my favourite person, but also, social situations aren’t really your thing. They probably could’ve held hands in front of you and you wouldn’t have noticed.” It’s Zuko’s turn to poke Sokka with the key he’s still holding.
“I’ll have you know that that’s how I figured it out, thanks.” Sokka grins down at him, and Zuko has a potentially questionable idea. “Hey, would you...like to spar with me?” Sokka’s face lights up.
“Dude, yes? What kind of a question is that? I’ve been dying to spar with you ever since you mentioned your dao.” He practically dashes off to the other side of the room, unsheathing his sword and dropping the scabbard on the ground in the corner. Zuko nods, slightly dazed, and does the same. “Hey, wait a second, are those tassels rainbow?”
“Yeah,” Zuko calls back, grinning as he spins the swords to make the silk whirl out in half-circles. “They’re Master Piandao’s new set; he’s letting me borrow them tonight. I can bring my other set - the ones over my desk, you’ve seen them - next time.” He stiffens as he registers what he’s just said - assuming that this isn’t a one-off thing, and that he and Sokka might start doing this regularly - but Sokka is already nodding excitedly.
“Yeah! But, since you’re using new swords...maybe it’ll make you easier to beat.” Zuko scoffs.
“As if. I’ve been working with these since I was seven. I’m gonna kick your ass.”
“Famous last words, sword boy. Let’s test that assumption out.”
“Sword boy? Really? Do you only have one nickname choice?”
“Hey,” Sokka says, holding his hands up. “Can’t knock it if it’s true.”
“Minus two points for lack of creativity,” Zuko replies, putting his hands together and bowing over them; Sokka mimics opposite him.
Sokka attacks first, bearing down on Zuko’s left, but the long hours Zuko had put in retraining himself in Uncle’s backyard after his scar had fully healed mean that his impaired vision on that side barely impacts the way he fights anymore, and he blocks Sokka’s strike easily. His followthrough puts him on Sokka’s other side, forcing Sokka to swivel and dance backwards to parry.
“Still zero, sword boy,” he laughs. And so it goes, back and forth, their swords glinting silver under the fluorescent lights. Zuko wins the first round, slipping an ankle behind Sokka’s as he leans too far into a swing and using his own momentum to send him to the ground. Sokka smushes his face into the floor for a second, breathing hard, and then pops back to his feet, swiping sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand, and Zuko chokes a little on his sip of water.
“Beginner’s luck. Best of three?”
“Beginner’s?” Zuko splutters, still trying to get water out of his airway. “I’ve been training longer than you.”
“Beginner’s,” Sokka repeats smugly, and oh, it’s on now .
To Sokka’s credit, he doesn’t fall for the same trick twice, keeping his swings tighter and his center of mass anchored so Zuko doesn’t have the opportunity to trip him again. Zuko finally gets him with a well-placed strike that slips right past the guard of Sokka’s sword and ends two inches above his exposed throat. Sokka freezes, head tilted slightly upwards, and puts his hands up in surrender, looking down at Zuko through long eyelashes. Zuko swallows hard and looks away, cursing his complexion - it’s just the heat in the studio, really, that’s turning his cheeks so red. It has nothing to do with Sokka’s clear blue eyes looking back at him down the length of his own sword.
“I win again,” he says, dropping his sword arm to his side. Sokka narrows his eyes at him.
“Uh, I’ve already won two, haven’t I? Aren’t you supposed to be good at math?”
“I know that, but come on, just one more? I’ll even say you win the two out of three.” He pauses. “Also, I am good at math, especially if you look at it compared to you.”
“I’m an earth scientist for a reason, Sokka. No math.” Sokka gives him a pleading face. Zuko valiantly holds out for all of ten seconds in the face of those wide eyes before groaning and readjusting his grip on his swords. “Fine, one more. But we’re done after that.”
“Yeah!” Sokka cheers, and Zuko smiles in spite of himself, returning to the opposite side of the room and taking up his stance again. As soon as Sokka’s blade comes down against his, though, he decides that he’s made a crucial miscalculation. Sokka’s changed the way he’s moving, laying down a series of quick strikes that, at first glance, seem more suited for a lighter sword and put Zuko on his back foot, parrying instead of returning. It’s slightly embarrassing how quickly Sokka backs him into a corner, grinning smugly as he brings his sword down against Zuko’s crossed ones. Zuko glances quickly over his shoulder, judging his distance to the wall, and makes a decision. Bringing his swords straight down, he leaps up, kicks off the wall, and somersaults directly over Sokka’s head. He loses one sword in the landing, clattering away across the floor, but it’s worth it to see the surprised look on Sokka’s face as he whirls around to face him.
“Bet you weren’t expecting that,” he taunts.
“Alright, I wasn’t,” Sokka concedes, his raised eyebrows saying it all. “But, I bet you weren’t expecting this!” Zuko barely has time to blink before Sokka - Sokka uses his own trick against him, sliding in to kick his legs out from under him. They’re still so close to the corner, though, that when Zuko falls, he comes to an abrupt stop with his back against the wall and Sokka leaning over him, the edge of his sword pressed to his throat.
Zuko blinks up at him, stunned. Sokka blinks back. Both of them are panting with the exertion, the only cool surface the wall and the flat of Sokka’s sword on his skin.
“Zuko,” Sokka says, voice low. Zuko shivers, eyes flickering closed for a second. They’re close enough that Zuko can feel it when Sokka puffs out a breath. “Gods, please don’t hate me.” Wait, what?
“Wha - why would I-”
Sokka kisses him.
Distantly, Zuko hears the sounds of swords clattering against the floor, and thinks that Master Piandao is probably disappointed in him for dropping the damn things again. And then he decides that that isn’t the most important thing he has to be thinking about right now, because Sokka is kissing him, sweetly, almost, just a press of lips, and Zuko’s just standing there, frozen, and just as he starts processing what’s happening, he’s pulling away and he looks...he looks devastated and he tries to hide it with a shaky smile and oh god Zuko’s fucked up.
“Sokka,” he chokes out, and reaches for him, “no, no wait, come back-”
“It’s fine, Zuko,” Sokka says quietly, looking away and shifting his hand off of Zuko’s unscarred cheek where it had landed at some point. “I understand.”
“No you don’t,” Zuko rushes out, because he’s desperate to save this desperate to get Sokka’s mouth back on his because he’s been thinking about this ever since that night in the lab and somewhere deeper he’s been thinking about this ever since he’d stuttered over his own major because the cute boy sitting next to him in Lit 104 had smiled at him, and he thinks about Master Piandao taking Jeong Jeong’s hand and he thinks about him saying enjoy your night and he thinks about nearly falling asleep on Sokka’s shoulder in the grass and he thinks that maybe he’s been in love with his best friend for a long time. “Sokka, I-”
“Zuko. I get it. You don’t want to kiss me and that’s alright and - mph.”
“You idiot,” Zuko says fondly, cupping Sokka’s cheek, “I do want to kiss you. A lot, actually. You just surprised me.”
“O-oh.” Sokka stares at him, and then a smile slowly curves across his face. “Oh.”
“Oh is right.” Sokka’s hands settle onto Zuko’s hips, and Zuko follows, like waves breaking on the shore, and it’s not fireworks but tides, pulling him in and then sweeping him away. He’d gladly drown in this, in Sokka making quiet noises into his mouth and his hand sliding into his hair and mussing his ponytail and pulling him gently but firmly closer.
“Hey,” Sokka whispers as he pulls away, but he doesn’t go far, leaning their foreheads together and reaching up to playfully boop Zuko’s nose.
“Hi,” Zuko whispers back, smiling so hard his cheeks hurt. “So, you’re-”
“A little in love with you, yeah,” Sokka says, smiling back equally as brightly. Zuko’s heart clenches in his chest, and he can no more stop himself from kissing Sokka again, quick and sweet, than he could stop the earth from turning.
“I’m a little in love with you, too,” he says, and Sokka kisses his forehead.
And then they’re laughing, suddenly, gleefully, and Sokka lets him go so he can pick up their swords and return them to their racks, and it feels only natural to twine their fingers together as they walk out the door, bags slung over their shoulders. Sokka waits patiently for him to lock the door and return the key to his pocket and then spins him around and presses him up against it to kiss him, and Zuko laughs into it, and thinks to himself, I’m happy.
“I’m happy,” he repeats aloud, as they make their meandering way home. Sokka smiles, sweet and slow.
“Then I am, too,” he says, and Zuko looks sideways at Sokka, in the dark between the streetlamps, and thinks, I get to have him. I get this, for myself.
He takes Sokka’s hand, and he breathes in, and he smiles.