Being in a long-distance relationship was tough, sometimes. Sokka missed Zuko during their six months apart, reaching for empty air on particularly hazy mornings. But he kept himself busy expanding the Southern Water Tribe and negotiating connections with the North and the other nations.
The bitter loneliness would catch up to him some nights, though. He would curl up in his furs and pretend Zuko was there, holding Sokka in his strong arms and telling him he was doing enough, telling him he wasn’t disappointing anyone, telling him he was important. But those feelings would dissipate with the dawn and he poured only optimism and jokes into his letters to the Fire Nation palace.
The bitterness of being apart also served to sweeten their reunions.
Seeing Zuko bundled up in many layers of Water Tribe clothing, scowling and muttering under his breath, filled Sokka with a warmth only the firebender could bring. Sokka loved nothing more than seeing Zuko’s face soften into a smile when he swept the shorter man up in a tight hug and kissed the tip of his reddened nose.
“Ambassador, is this how you greet all of your guests?” Zuko teased, stepping backwards slightly but keeping his gloved hands on Sokka’s large biceps.
“It’s protocol, yes,” Sokka replied, proud of his husband’s evolving sense of humour, “But I must apologize, your highness. The kiss on the nose is for Northern Water Tribe Representatives. The Fire Lord, of course, receives a special greeting.” He closed the space between them, capturing Zuko’s mouth in a sweet but urgent kiss.
They were interrupted by someone clearing her throat.
“Can I say hi to my brother-in-law or are you going to do this all day?”
Zuko pulled away, a blush matching his cheeks to his cold nose. “Hi, Katara.”
“Good to see you, Zuko,” Katara said, pushing her brother aside to hug the Fire Lord. “You look nice in blue.”
“Thanks.” His teeth were chattering a little bit. “Is it colder than usual this year?”
“No, you’re just getting soft.” Katara replied mercilessly.
Zuko’s face returned to a familiar scowl. “Well, next time you’re sweltering in the palace gardens I won’t bring you any watermelon. Then we’ll see who’s soft.”
“Alright, Fire Lord. Maybe I’ll just waterbend it to me.”
“Watermelon-bend!” Sokka triumphantly interrupted.
Both Katara and Zuko seemed caught between laughing and rolling their eyes. Aang chose that moment to exit his igloo and join them. “Zuko! Druk! Great to see you!”
At the mention of the dragon, Sokka looked around. He saw Druk chasing Appa, crashing into snowbanks while the sky bison grumbled and easily avoided him. Druk was still recovering from his eye injury about six months ago, and he got a little uncoordinated when he was excited. And Druk was always excited by Appa.
Aang followed his line of sight and laughed. “He treats Appa kind of like an older brother. It’s cute.”
“He’s too big for his own good,” Zuko mumbled, but he had a small smile on his face. Sokka couldn’t help but wrap his arm around his husband’s waist. Zuko called out to his dragon, “Druk! Come here. Say hi to Sokka.”
Druk shook some snow off of his wings and bounded over. He skidded to a stop in front of them, but he still almost knocked Sokka off of his feet. “By the grace of Yue, you really are big, aren’t you?” Even though Druk was the size of a large ship, he was only seven years old, and Sokka couldn’t help but kiss him on the nose.
The dragon’s arrival resulted in everyone being covered in snow. Appa curled up in the ice nearby, relieved to see Druk distracted. Aang and Katara were laughing but Zuko was fuming. Sokka fondly brushed the snow off of his husband’s shoulders and head. “Come on, Ice Lord, let’s warm you up.”
*** *** ***
The Fire Lord wasn’t here only to visit his husband, and after a short lunch of stewed sea prunes (one of the few vegetarian dishes available) and seal jerky, the rest of the afternoon was taken up by meetings with chiefs from surrounding villages. Zuko had been leading the Fire Nation for a little over a decade now, but there was still much to be done to repair the destruction of the past. Sokka sometimes heard whispers that his people didn’t think he was impartial enough to be the Ambassador for the entire Southern Water Tribe. He did his best to show them that his loyalty lay with his people first and foremost, and he never justified any of the Fire Nation’s previous atrocities. Although sometimes he felt utterly torn, trapped between defending his husband and validating the Water Tribe’s distrust.
The day’s meetings concluded, and everyone was restless for a break. Sokka had been planning to catch some fish for supper, so he invited everyone along. Zuko and Katara readily agreed, but Aang had letters to write so he stayed behind. Zuko and Sokka took their places in Druk’s saddle while Katara called Appa. Soon enough they were landed in a clearing surrounded by snowy walls, enjoying the fresh air and the light of the sun.
Sokka gathered his fishing rod and drill in his arms and set off to find the perfect patch of ice. Behind him, Katara instructed Zuko to light the fire. “The faster you firebend, the faster you’ll warm up.”
“I know that! These gloves are ridiculous.”
“Maybe they’re sticking to your sweaty hands.”
Sokka chuckled to himself. He felt a little bad that Zuko was being picked on, but mostly he was happy to see Katara treating his husband like a brother. Sokka thought about asking Zuko to join him ice fishing, but he knew that the Fire Lord would be too cold and grumpy. And although Sokka loved to tease him, he also wanted his husband to be comfortable.
He should have listened to his instincts.
There was a flurry of movement to Sokka’s left. From behind the mounds of snow he saw a flash of blue. That colour was indicative of the Quaqtaq village, light like the sky in the morning. Sokka’s village wore blues dark like the depths of the ocean. He wondered why they were hiding, but moved forward to greet them, nonetheless.
His heart stopped when he heard a sickeningly familiar cry of pain. Sokka’s and Katara’s voices overlapped, “Zuko!” Sokka whirled around, but a blow ricocheted off the back of his head and he felt himself falling into the snowbank.
Sounds enveloped his mind like a cloud, a few loud shouts piercing through like knives. His vision was swimming and all he could feel was the snow against his face. But something pulled at him like marionette strings, and he forced himself to rise onto his elbows. He had to protect his family.
When he shoved himself onto his knees, his vision was clearing a bit. He blinked against the bright sun. Not even a head injury could cause him to mistake the sight in front of him. Druk was a monstrous, red figure on the horizon, his wings outstretched threateningly. He was snarling at an enemy… No – he was snarling at Katara.
“Druk,” Sokka tried to call, but his voice trickled out of his mouth like sand. He stumbled to his feet.
It sounded like Katara was speaking from underwater, but he could tell that she was pleading with the dragon. Druk’s hackles were raised, his teeth were bared, and his tail was swiping back and forth on the ice. Katara had a significant amount of water floating in front of her, and it seemed as if she was readying herself to freeze the dragon in ice. “Druk, please,” she said, a little desperately.
Sokka thought about the kidnapping earlier this year, seeing poor Druk bound and beaten. Something cold clutched onto his lungs and he called out to his sister. “Katara, no!”
Katara’s hair whipped around her as she turned. There was a chilling mixture of relief and panic in her blue eyes. It was in that moment that Sokka understood why the dragon and the waterbender were facing off.
Behind Druk’s widely planted feet, Sokka caught a glimpse of long black hair and a pool of blood creeping its way across the ice. He stumbled closer, ignoring the pain in his head and the warning growl from Druk. Zuko was unmoving. There was an arrow sticking out of his left shoulder.
For a few moments, Sokka felt like cold chains were tightening around his chest. He was overwhelmed by terror, shock, and guilt. He should have been there, protecting his husband’s blind side.
Sokka nearly collapsed in relief when he saw Zuko’s chest rise and fall.
“Sokka, I don’t want to trap him, but I have to get to Zuko now!” Katara’s voice was low but strained.
“I’ve got this.” This time, Sokka’s voice was stronger. “Be ready.”
Sokka made sure to approach Druk from the dragon’s left side so that he could see him clearly. He began speaking in a calming voice, similar to the one he had used to comfort Druk through his recovery. “It’s okay, baby. You’ve done such a good job protecting Zuko. We’re here to help. It’s just me. It’s alright, sweetie.” Druk’s wings began to relax and the flash of his large teeth disappeared.
Seeing this, Katara moved forward, but Druk responded to the sound by stomping his foot toward her – a warning. Sokka drew the dragon’s focus again. “Let her pass, Druk. She’s here to help. You’re safe. We’re going to help Zuko.” This time, Druk allowed Katara to approach.
Sokka had a job to do, and he let the task consume him. He made himself think of only Druk while his aching head fought away thoughts of Zuko. He knew that if he let himself worry he was going to fall apart.
Seeing that Druk had been calmed, Appa approached. He nuzzled the dragon’s long neck and Druk accepted the comfort.
Sokka allowed himself a glance. Katara met his eyes and saw a drowning man. The white fur on her gloves and boots were stained red. “He’ll be okay,” she said, reassuring him the way he had just spoken to the dragon. A ball of glowing water encompassed Zuko’s shoulder where the arrow was still embedded. Zuko was almost as pale as the snow around him. Sokka focused on the rise and fall of his chest. “I’ve got him stabilized, but we need to get him to the other healers.”
“Take him on Appa. I’ll fly with Druk.” There was nothing Sokka wanted more than to hold Zuko, feel his warmth, keep him safe, but he knew that Druk needed a familiar presence right now and Katara needed to be with Zuko.
As they lifted off, Sokka noticed the snow walls around the enclosed area were melted, decimated by a huge, arching blast of fire. He didn’t know whether that was from Zuko or the dragon.
Both Sokka and Druk wanted to keep an eye on Zuko, so the dragon flew as close to Appa’s right side as physically possible. Everyone saw Aang’s bald head from above as he approached them from the community centre. The Avatar noticed immediately that Zuko wasn’t with his dragon, and he knew something was wrong.
Katara shouted orders to her husband as soon as everyone landed. Aang used his airbending to gently move Zuko from Appa’s saddle. Sokka ran a comforting hand along Druk’s neck. He wanted nothing more than to go with Katara into the healing hut. He hadn’t been able to even touch his husband since the attack and a small, dark part of his mind worried he would never get the chance again.
“What happened?” Aang asked. His grey eyes were wide and filled with worry.
Sokka looked up at the tall man and told him everything that had happened and everything he suspected. “I should probably talk to the chief of Quaqtaq,” Sokka said, feeling an ache settle in his bones.
Aang was a very helpful combination of perceptive and empathetic. That was one of the reasons he was such a great Avatar. “No. I’ll go,” he said, giving his friend a tight hug, “You stay here with Zuko.”
“I don’t want them to think that –”
Aang interrupted him. “I’ll handle it, Sokka. He’s your husband. Stay.”
“Alright,” Sokka conceded. “But can you tell them… It’s important that they know they’re not going to be punished. I want to speak to them about their intentions and their perspectives. But they have my word that they will not be punished. Okay?”
“Okay.” With one more sympathetic smile, Aang used his airbending to fly up onto Appa’s back. “Yip yip!”
Sokka sunk into the snow, leaned on Druk’s leg, and tried not to get lost in the spiral of his thoughts.
About twenty minutes passed and suddenly Katara was sitting next to him. Druk grumbled a low greeting. “Zuko’s resting. The other healers are watching him.”
Sokka thought he would be relieved at the news. And he was. But he found himself fighting back a wave of misery. He wiped his eyes with his thick gloves, turning away from his sister shamefully. She noticed. “Sokka?” She shifted so that she sat facing him and he couldn’t hide.
“I don’t know –” Sokka began, but his words were blocked somewhere in his throat. He took a shaking breath and tried again, avoiding his sister’s concerned eyes. “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”
“You’re not doing anything wrong! No one could have predicted this.”
“If I were a good Ambassador, I would have known! I know that the Water Tribe still doesn’t trust the Fire Nation and I’m trying so hard to do what’s best for my people, but how could I not know that they felt strong enough to try and…” The more Sokka wiped away his tears and aggressively tried to calm his breathing, the worse everything felt. Druk rested his large head next to Sokka’s legs, switching roles to now comfort him. “They don’t know him like I do. They don’t know he’s not Ozai. I don’t…I don’t blame them for trying to take things into their own hands. But I want them to know that we have control! The voice of the Water Tribe is being heard at every meeting. But they obviously don’t know that, and I don’t know how to fix it and my husband could have died –”
Katara interrupted him, pulling the collar of his coat until her brother’s face was buried in her shoulder. “Come here.” With his face hidden, Sokka felt less embarrassed to cry. Katara rubbed his back until he stopped shaking. Then she pulled away and took off her gloves. A few hairs had escaped from Sokka’s wolf tail and were sticking to his tear-stained face. Katara gently removed the leather tie before pushing his hair back again, adding a few braids. Sokka felt himself relax under his sister’s hands, feeling like they were young again.
“It’s a good thing you’ve filled out so much these past ten years,” Katara commented.
She finished tying his hair and placed her hands on his arms. “Because you’re carrying a lot on those big shoulders of yours.”
Sokka’s chuckle was more of a sigh. “I just…I feel like I have two jobs in my life, you know? Be a good leader and protect my family.” He shrugged dejectedly. “I failed at both today.”
“Sokka –” Katara was interrupted by a commotion in the healer’s hut. They both rose to their feet.
Zuko stumbled out of the doorway, a fur thrown over his bare shoulders. Sokka thought about how seeing Zuko like this – wounded and bandaged, hardly able to stand – wasn’t an unfamiliar sight. His heart ached. Two healers surrounded the Fire Lord, ushering him back, but he lashed out with his right arm and they retreated from the warning flame. “Get away from me,” Zuko snarled, “Where’s Sokka?”
“Stubborn idiot,” Katara mumbled before rushing forward. She got to Zuko’s side just before he fell over, and he allowed her to support his weight. It was a good thing he had extra support because Druk might have knocked him over. The dragon barreled over, stopping just in front of the healing hut. The breath from his nostrils ruffled Zuko’s long hair. Zuko’s left arm was in a sling, so he removed his right from around Katara’s shoulders. He placed his warm hand on Druk’s nose and said something fond that Sokka couldn’t hear.
When Zuko looked up and met his gaze, Sokka felt himself shatter. “Get over here,” Zuko said. Sokka ran forward and wrapped Zuko in his arms as gently as he could.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he whispered into Zuko’s undamaged ear.
“Stop that,” Zuko replied sternly. He kissed Sokka on the cheek. “You did nothing wrong.” Sokka admonished himself for the fact that Zuko, a man who had recently accrued yet another huge scar, was the one comforting him. But holding his husband close was making the turbulent feelings subside, and Sokka couldn’t find the energy to argue.
They were too young to have this many scars.