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curriculum + instruction

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At the end of the day, this wasn’t the weirdest part of this past year in a half. Arguably, the most bizarre part was the very beginning, when he and Katara found a boy stuck in an iceberg. You can’t really top that level of weirdness.

 

This could all be blamed on that ridiculous visit to the swamp. While Katara and Sokka had visions related to the past, Aang had been given visions of the two people destined to help him master all four elements. Sokka at first thought it was all cow-horse shit, but then they’d randomly found Toph, the earthbender from the vision, and Sokka had to contend that maybe the spirits knew something. 

 

They could’ve stayed in the Earth Kingdom, or hell, even the North Pole. But Aang felt drawn to the Fire Nation and insisted that they go now . Sokka didn’t know much about how the Avatar’s mastered the elements, but he thought that this might be an unconventional method. 

 

“Can we go over the plan again?” Sokka asked, watching Caldera City grow larger as they approached, some anxiety beginning to build in his stomach.  “Or are we just gonna land in the palace courtyard on a flying bison with the Avatar, with a master waterbender and an earthbending prodigy, and hope for the best?”

 

Katara looked over at him, an eyebrow arched. “Seems like a good plan to me. I mean, you’re the plan guy. What do you think we should do?”

 

Sokka scowled. “Well, showing up at a world leader's palace unannounced normally isn’t part of my plan, but I guess this will have to do.”

 

It wasn’t like Sokka was worried about the group being killed on sight or anything like that. The war had ended almost thirty-five years ago. Sure, Fire Nationals were more than a bit condescending at times, but the open hostility (and warfare) was over. 

 

Even still, arriving at a palace to pursue a firebender that Aang saw in a vision in some creepy swamp had to be slightly crazy. He’d of course tried, prior to them even taking off earlier in the day, to get the fellow children to develop some sort of plan . But now here they were, and he was still being brushed off. Truly, no one respected the value of planning.

 

From atop Appa’s head, Sokka could hear Aang’s distinctive laugh. “It’ll be fun! I’m the Avatar, what’s the worst that could happen?”

 

The war may be over, but Sokka’s head immediately went back to the war stories he’d heard. Of the brutality the Fire Nation bestowed on the rest of the world. He shivered. It had been over for a generation. “Right. It’s not like this isn’t the nation that went on a murder spree for seventy years, or anything.”

 

Katara snorted. “You’re being paranoid.”

 

“Maybe so,” Sokka said, crossing his arms defensively. “Or maybe I’m the only one thinking these things through.” She rolled her eyes at him. “I’m just saying! I’m the oldest, which means I’m the wisest, which means my paranoia is valid.”

 

“Whatever makes you feel better,” Katara said, her voice monotone.

 

Sokka glared, letting out an offended hmph . They’ll just have to see, then. 

 

They approached the harbor, and even from their great height, Sokka could see the Fire Nation soldiers looking up at the bison, and a hawk taking off in flight towards the caldera’s top. He didn’t know much about the Fire Nation, but he knew that was their primary communication method. The hawks were pretty infamous in terms of a national communication system, and he’d seen some fly down to the South Pole to deliver correspondence with his father. (Okay, and maybe there was one time where Sokka had tried to kidnap make a pet out of a hawk that belonged to the late Fire Lord Azulon.) 

 

Undoubtedly someone had just informed the Fire Lord of the incoming Avatar. The thought made his stomach do a small flip.

 

After the group made it over the fiery gate without incident, Sokka’s anxiety cooled a little. So, everyone was right, and they weren’t going to be chased down by the Fire Nation. Good. 

 

(Yes, Sokka could admit the chances were low. But still. Horror stories.)

 

Well, his anxiety was cooled until he caught sight of the imposing palace, which seemed to dwarf everything in the city. 

 

Even Katara let out a surprised gasp. 

 

Beside him, Toph snorted. “You guys are ridiculous. It’s the Fire Nation, they’re obnoxious. It’s not that impressive.”

 

Katara shot her a glare. “You can’t even see it, Toph,” she said. 

 

Toph grinned. “Doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”

 

They were approaching the palace quickly now, and it just seemed to grow larger and larger. Sokka could see the citizens looking up at them, and he was overwhelmed by the amount of red in the streets. Interestingly enough, though, he noticed spatters of blue and green amongst the crowds. He may be biased, but the blue definitely made the place seem livelier. 

 

Finally, they flew over the palace walls, completely bypassing the gates. They were closer to the ground, and Sokka could see the startled faces on the guards. “Uh, should we have stopped at the gate? You know, properly announce ourselves?” he asked, his voice a bit hesitant. Sokka was no expert in bureaucracy, but he was pretty sure an Avatar visiting involved some sort of paperwork. Not that it mattered, though, since Aang was already landing Appa on the ground in a plaza. 

 

“I’m sure it’s fine,” Katara said, getting ready to dismount. 

 

“It’s just rude, no big deal,” Toph said. Katara shot her another glare. In fact, Sokka thought he’d never seen Katara look at Toph with anything that wasn’t a glare. 

 

“Right, great,” he said. Appa was now firmly on the ground, and Aang had already jumped off, waiting for his friends to dismount. Or waiting to be greeted, it was hard to say. Honestly, Sokka was surprised that the thirteen-year-old didn’t just barge into the palace and find the Fire Lord himself. 

 

Katara shot one last look at them, a look that screamed behave , which Sokka felt was completely unwarranted, before dismounting and joining Aang on the plaza ground. More and more guards were arriving, though none were approaching. They didn’t seem hostile, so with a sigh, Sokka dismounted, followed by Toph. 

 

The two of them joined their companions, and they all stood there, waiting for… something. Sokka shifted uneasily. 

 

“Are we waiting for something in particular?” Katara asked, her voice gentle. 

 

Aang smiled at her. “The Fire Lord will be here soon. You can tell by the guards that he’s on his way.”

 

Sokka looked around at the guards, trying to figure out how Aang could discern that. He knew the kid had interacted with the Fire Nation before, but how did he know guard customs? Was this information even still in date? Honestly, the kid was born before tanks were even a thing. Sokka quickly made a mental note to ask Aang what in the hell they even taught the kids in the Air Temples, because this seemed like some pretty advanced knowledge. They all looked the same to him— faceless, covered in red, foreboding. 

 

That is until he looked harder at the ones closest to the exit from the palace and closest to them. There seemed to be an extra gold insignia on the uniform. Huh, Sokka thought, he definitely needs to get some clarification on the Air Temple curriculum. 

 

After another minute of waiting, though, Sokka was beginning to doubt Aang’s Fire Nation knowledge. The kid did need help finding his bag of clothes just this morning. It’s not like he really had everything in life figured out. Just before he was about to voice this, the palace doors swung open. 

 

And there, before him, was the Fire Lord

 

Okay, sure. Conceptually, Sokka knew that seeking an audience with the Fire Lord was the entire goal of this trip. Aang had it in his head the firebender he was seeking was a noble. Something about the robes he was wearing and a hairpiece. Apparently, Aang’s old friend, Kuzon, had been from some noble family in the Fire Nation. Something like that.

 

Sokka can’t really be expected to keep up with all of this.

 

But to actually see him ( Iroh, his brain supplied) in person? One of the most influential people in the world, standing before him? More than a little intimidating. Or terrifying. Both words worked. 

 

Iroh approached them slowly, his face serious. Sokka didn’t know much about him, but stories came out about the Fire Nation royal family. He knew he had a crazy brother, his son, Lu Ten, died, and he’d adopted his niece and nephew after their dad was executed for… well, for killing Lu Ten. It had been an international scandal, and had definitely made his dad a bit hesitant in dealings with the Fire Nation royal family for a while after. Family was important in the Southern Water Tribe, and murdering one's own relatives was unheard of. But after meeting with the Fire Lord a few times, he seemed to have come to terms with the tragedy. Sokka was still a bit cautious, but even he knew that power can easily corrupt any mind. 

 

And that was about all he knew. The man approaching looked the part; his hair was in the traditional top knot, the crown secured within, and heavy gowns adorned his stout frame. There was no denying that this man was raised to be the Fire Lord. 

 

Katara looked less intimidated than Sokka felt, but he could tell she was analyzing the risks. There was no denying she was on edge. 

 

And somehow, it looked like Toph was enjoying this. Sokka was starting to wonder if he’d ever understand the girl who he had started to view as a second little sister. Albeit, a surprisingly much more chaotic younger sister. And that’s really, really saying something. 

 

Iroh made it to just about six feet from the group, before dropping into a strange bow, his hands making the flame. “Avatar Aang,” he said, his voice strong and demanding respect, “it is a pleasure to welcome you, although I must admit it’s quite a surprise.” Up close, the regality of the man was still evident, but it seemed obvious that he’d been interrupted. There was an ink stain on his hand, as if he’d swiped the side against a parchment in his haste to get to the courtyard. 

 

Aang smiled as well, dropping into a similar bow. “Fire Lord Iroh, it’s so nice to meet you! Sorry for the surprise visit, but I felt called to come as soon as possible.”

 

Iroh’s face lit up at that statement, and some of the seriousness receded. “Ah, what good words to hear! The spirits have guided you here, and I am happy to aid you.” His eyes wandered over to the rest of their little group. “And may I inquire about who your guests might be?”

 

“Oh!” Aang said, “these are my friends! Katara, my waterbending master, and her brother Sokka, and then there’s-“

 

“Well, well,” a voice said behind Iroh from the palace doors, interrupting anything Aang was about to say. They all turned to look at the girl who’d just exited the building. She was still standing on the steps, leaning a bit on the railing. Her face held a smirk, and she looked regal. The princess, Sokka guessed. “If it isn’t Lady Beifong.”

 

The three teens quickly turned to look at Toph, surprise evident on their faces. Toph, the little rascal, looked unduly satisfied. “Well, well. If it isn’t Princess Azula. Huh, I guess the rumors about your awful haircut aren’t true,” she said. 

 

The Princess sighed. “I know you can’t see my hair, imbecile. Though, I’m a bit surprised you’re here. The latest Earth Kingdom gossip had said you’d run off to join the underground bending competition.”

 

Toph laughed. “Well, you know that’s just a little bit true,” Then, to her friends, she rolled her eyes. “You all knew I was rich.”

 

Katara sputtered. “We didn’t know you were rich enough to know the princess of the Fire Nation !”

 

Toph shrugged, obviously unabashed. “Well, now you know.”

 

Azula had approached the group now, standing to her Uncle’s left, the smirk still plastered onto her face. Iroh cast her a reprimanding look, and cleared his throat, causing Azula to roll her eyes before she bowed in the same way he had towards Aang. “Avatar Aang, glad you’re here. I’m Princess Azula, though I’m sure you knew that by now.”

 

Sokka quickly analyzed her. She certainly gave off the vibe of a princess. Not that he had that much experience with princesses, but compared to Yue, there was something more… distant about her. Something that seemed to hold her above everyone else. Whether it was her posture, or the way her clothes sat on her, or the precise styling of her hair. There was an air of entitlement. An air of superiority. 

 

Or maybe, she just seemed a bit pretentious. 

 

Aang once again bowed. Sokka was starting to think the people in this country bowed too much. “Princess Azula, glad to meet you.”

 

She narrowed her eyes a bit at him, analyzing him. It seemed like she could read his every intention. Her gaze was sharp. Sokka was very, very glad that he wasn’t the Avatar. He does not want that glance on him. “I’m sure.”

 

Sokka didn’t have time to unpack all of that, and even Katara shifted a bit beside him, looking ready to attack if needed. Aang chuckled nervously, while Toph straight up laughed

 

“Have you been practicing, princess? Or am I going to kick your ass again?”

 

Katara gasped, opening her mouth to admonish the thirteen-year-old, but Azula merely laughed. “Oh, Lady Beifong. I did miss our spars. Maybe we can meet up tomorrow afternoon? If you aren’t too scared?”

 

Toph smiled, showing all her teeth. “Deal. Hope you’ve improved.”

 

Sokka had the sinking realization that every woman who surrounded him right now was absolutely deadly. Not for the first time, he really wished he’d stayed in the South Pole. 

 

Iroh cleared his throat again, and the princess straightened up. Everyone turned their attention back to the world leader, who they probably should’ve been paying attention to in the first place. “Lady Beifong, I almost didn't recognize you. It’s been quite a while since I last visited Gaoling, though I know Azula enjoyed her visit there last year.” He paused, looking at everyone, searching for something. What, Sokka didn’t know. “Should we head inside and have some tea? I’m sure Avatar Aang would like to discuss the spirit journey he’s been sent on.”

 

Aang’s face lit up. “Please! Tea sounds great!”

 

Iroh turned then, instructing one set of guards to find someone to take their belongings to the guest quarters, another set to find water for Appa, one to inform some ministers that the meeting would be postponed, and another to locate the prince and send him to the dining room. Sokka couldn’t help but be jealous of everyone actually listening to him. If only the kids he traveled with listened

 

Spirits, he was starting to sound like Katara. 

 

They wound their way through the palace, no one speaking. Some passing servants seemed aghast at Toph’s bare feet, but no one dared to say anything. In no time at all, they arrived at an ornate pair of doors, and a guard opened them to reveal a quaint, if not gaudy, dining room. 

 

“We don’t need the formal dining room for just a few people,” Iroh said, taking his seat at the head of the table. Everyone else followed, and a servant quickly bustled in, bringing a tea set and leaves. Iroh waved her off. “I like to make the tea myself, especially for such honored guests.”

 

Sokka watched him heat the water, his eyes widening as he processed what exactly was happening. He’d never seen firebending used for something like boiling water for tea. He didn’t even think firebending could be used for something so domestic! His eyes darted over to Aang, and he had to resist the urge to roll his eyes. The young teen looked like he was in love, with his mouth hanging open in awe, and his eyes wide. If it were possible, it’d seem his pupils had become heart-shaped.

 

As Iroh prepared the tea, the doors slammed open, and a boy about Sokka’s age rushed in. His topknot was messy, and he was straightening his robes as he walked. They were loose and deep red, with gold threads weaved throughout, creating unique designs. As was proper for his station, they dragged a bit on the floor. Or, Sokka assumed they were for his station and not just because the poor guy was in a rush and had just tossed them on improperly. There was still some sweat on his forehead, and he’d obviously been interrupted in the middle of something. 

 

He quickly bowed to the Fire Lord before taking a seat. “Apologies for my tardiness, I was training.” His voice was raspy and smooth at the same time, and something in Sokka fluttered. Oh no .

 

Of course, Sokka knew this was the prince. He didn’t miss the giant scar covering the left half of the boy’s face. The prince was infamous, though the story of how he acquired the scar varied from storyteller to storyteller. From the stories he’d heard, he expected it to be unattractive and grotesque. Which, sure, it was a tragic injury. But if anything, it enhanced the prince’s features. 

 

How did he get so lucky to be both the heir to the throne and breathtakingly attractive? Sokka thought it was terribly unfair. 

 

Sokka didn’t notice his breath quickening, but a quick jab to his elbows from Katara had him return back to his body. He arched an eyebrow at her, silently asking what? She just rolled her eyes.

 

Iroh smiled at his nephew before beginning to pour the tea into the cups in front of him. “It is no issue, Prince Zuko. Though I think I should introduce our guests.” The Fire Lord motioned his head towards Aang. “This is the Avatar.”

 

The prince’s eyes widened. “Oh sh- I mean, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Avatar Aang.” The prince did a bit of a seated bow, with the same hand symbol that his Uncle and sister had done before. 

 

Sokka glanced over at Aang, expecting to see some amusement on his face after the prince’s almost slip up (which, unfortunately, only added to his attractiveness.) Instead, he found Aang’s eyes widened with absolute, pure shock. It looked as if he’d seen a ghost. Sokka opened his mouth, ready to ask what was wrong, but the prince interrupted him when he noticed the other noble at the table.

 

“Holy crap, Toph?!” the prince said, his voice laced with pure joy. Sokka couldn’t even be surprised at this point. Why did it seem like Toph knew every rich person on this planet? What, did they have a club or something? Monthly newsletters?

 

Toph, once again, smirked. “Hey, Sparky. I wondered how long it’d take you to notice.” She cocked her head to the side. “Though, I guess you are blind in one eye.”

 

Azula choked on her next sip of tea.

 

Zuko only laughed. “You know I’m as observant as you.” Toph snorted. “Okay, almost as observant.”

 

From the head of the table, Iroh laughed. “The Avatar has brought so much with him for this visit! A friend of my niece and nephew, and words of a mission from the spirits themselves!” Right, Sokka thought. The reason they were here - the spirits. Iroh turned to the Avatar, who still looked a bit shell shocked. “Please, young Avatar. Tell us what you’ve been guided to.”

 

Aang tore his eyes away from the prince, looking back at the Fire Lord. He gently cleared his throat. “Right. Well, uh…” he paused, searching for the right words. “You know of the Foggy Swamp? Maybe?”

 

Iroh’s eyes lightened, excitement crossing his face. “Oh, yes! I’ve heard many tales of this swamp. I’ve always desired to go, though I’ve been told it’s slightly unbecoming of a Fire Lord to visit a swamp. I’m sure I’ll have my way in the end, though.” 

 

Aang smiled. There was no way to not match Iroh’s excitement. He was the king of charisma, it seemed. “Right, well, the swamp shows you things. The past and the future! Though the two are deeply intertwined. It showed me Toph, who is now my earthbending teacher. But, it also showed me a firebender, the one who should be my master.”

 

The Fire Lord leaned forward, his face showing nothing but pure interest. “And you believe I can guide you to this firebender?”

 

Aang nodded. “Yes. I remembered that the Fire Nation has different robes depending on status, and these were the robes of a noble. But-“ Aang paused, nervously biting his lip. “I think I already found him.”

 

“Oh?” Iroh asked, leaning back a bit. He had a knowing glint in his eye. Was Sokka missing something? “And who do you think it might be?”

 

Aang paused before nodding his head down the table to where the unnamed prince sat. “Your nephew, Fire Lord Iroh.”

 

A teacup promptly dropped to the table, a loud clatter signifying its fall near where the prince sat, and Azula once again choked on her drink. Sokka himself couldn’t help but gasp. He knew they were looking for a noble but the crown prince

 

Iroh, though, only smiled, the expression filling his entire face. He couldn’t look more delighted. “Oh, now this.” He picked his cup up, nursing it close to his chest, “this is excellent news.”

 

At the opposite end of the table, the prince groaned. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he murmured.

 

Next to him, Azula was staring with a frazzled expression. “ Zuko ? As in, not-as-good-as-me Zuko?”

 

“Azula, please,” Iroh said.

 

“No, no, for once, she has an absolutely valid point,” Zuko said, his voice a bit frantic. “She is definitely better and would be better suited. Maybe you just got us mixed up. We’re related. Look similar.”

 

Azula nodded. “Yes, definitely. Must’ve just gotten us confused.”

 

Aang frowned. “Well, I mean, no offense, but Zuko is pretty obviously Zuko.”

 

“Azula and I are practically twins,” Zuko deadpanned. The table was a bit silent for that, except for a snort from Toph. 

 

“What, did Princess get a scar, too?”

 

“Toph!” Katara said, her voice rising in horror.

 

“Without the scar, we’re definitely the same person. Totally the same. Maybe spirit, dream swamp-me doesn’t have the scar,” Zuko said, not even looking distressed at the comment about his face.

 

Sokka was in awe at this entire exchange. Iroh looked like a migraine was slowly starting to form. Aang looked terrified.

 

“Um, well,” Aang said, his voice cautious. “The scar was there?” It sounded like a question.

 

The Fire Lord clapped his hands together. “Excellent, so it’s settled! Zuko is meant to be the teacher!”

 

“This is bullshit,” Azula grumbled, holding her tea close to her chest, glaring at the table in front of her.

 

Zuko nodded in agreement. “Complete bullshit.”

 

Iroh quickly changed the conversation, moving to much safer topics while his heirs sulked. Sokka, unfortunately, was still processing that entire conversation. Why didn’t Zuko want to teach the Avatar? Isn’t that some sort of honor? 

 

And why did the siblings acting like siblings weird him out so much?

 

He took a sip of his (obnoxiously) good tea, and sighed. This place was weird. 

 

 

They were shown to the guest quarters after the adventurous tea time with the Fire Lord and his family. They each had their own room, which was a pretty rare thing these days. Sokka wasn’t going to complain, though. As a sixteen-year-old boy, he more than appreciated the privacy. 

 

He was still going over that entire conversation. It had been a weird realization to come to that most people didn’t want to teach the Avatar. Or maybe, it was because Aang had somehow been destined to have two youths teach him the ways of bending and all that. Toph hadn’t been too psyched either. It wasn’t until she realized she got to run away from home that she was really on board. 

 

Even after Iroh had changed the subject, Zuko had continued his case to maybe get some of the firebending masters to come to teach Aang. But Zuko’s Uncle had proclaimed that the spirits’ will could not be ignored, and thus, Aang would have his first firebending lesson bright and early at dawn. Sokka had never been more glad that he wasn’t a firebender. Waking up at dawn? Gross.

 

Sokka looked around the room he’d been shown. It was as auspicious and over the top as the rest of the palace, but he couldn’t deny that the bed looked enticing. Quickly glancing around to ensure that no one could see him, he did a quick running start before dive-bombing the bed. It was definitely as soft as promised. 

 

With a happy sigh, Sokka snuggled into the pillows. It wasn’t even mid-afternoon yet, but he was more than ready to nap. Or maybe, if no one disturbed him, he could sleep for the next fifteen hours. He hadn’t had a room to himself in months. This was about to be a fantastic night of sleep. 

 

He snuggled further into the bed and thanked his lucky stars that his window didn’t face the afternoon sun. Of course, he’d heard about the brutality that was the Fire Nation heat, but experiencing it for himself was something else. 

 

Though he wanted to nap, his mind couldn’t stop returning to Zuko’s face. Honestly, Sokka had never seen someone so handsome. It destabilized him a bit. 

 

It wasn’t weird or anything that Sokka found a man attractive, of course. Sokka had known he was bisexual from a young age, even if he didn’t even know a word like that existed. But he’d never met too many men that really caught his eye. The real question was: was Sokka really developing a crush on Zuko, who he barely even knew, or had he just not interacted with a boy his age in months? There had been Haru and Teo, but that was very early on in their travels.

 

And his last crushes had been Suki and Yue. Who, of course, while great, were also so far out of Sokka’s league that it wasn’t even funny. Though, most likely, a prince was also super far out of Sokka’s league. Which then, of course, begs the question on why Sokka keeps falling for people who he has absolutely zero chance with? 

 

After about two seconds of trying to psychoanalyze himself, Sokka shook his head. He didn’t have the mental energy for this right now. If ever. 

 

After another few minutes of trying to get his mind to rest enough to take a well-deserved nap, Sokka gave up. He didn’t really want to just sit around his bedroom, though. And dinner wouldn’t be for another few hours. And anyways, Iroh had given them free rein of (most) of the palace, and when else would Sokka get a chance to explore one of the most famous buildings in the world?

 

Just as he’d excitedly leapt into bed just minutes before, he jumped out with the same vigor, pausing briefly in front of the mirror to ensure that his hair wasn’t too disorderly. He didn’t want to look like a bum. The Fire Nation already thought the Southern Water Tribe required aid, might as well not help that line of thinking.

 

With an excited bounce in his step, Sokka made his way throughout the palace’s halls, no destination really in mind. Even though the architecture itself was totally obnoxious and just a bit gaudy, Sokka had to admit there was a kind of beauty to it at the same time. He hadn’t really seen too much of Fire Nation architecture before, but the overhanging eaves, gold inscriptions on the walls, and the various shades of reds and yellows scattered throughout were something of beauty. The architects knew what they were doing. 

 

His journey found him in a corridor on the first floor, which was open to a courtyard. It was honestly one of the most beautiful courtyards he’d seen, and he was immediately drawn to it. As he walked amongst the plants and the trees that filled the space, he was stopped by a feminine voice. Thankfully, Sokka realized he was hidden by a large bush. Also, thankfully, the bush had a small opening where Sokka could see who was speaking.

 

In front of him was a group of people; three girls, one boy…and the boy was Zuko. He was leaning against a girl with bangs, and the girl talking was placing flowers into Zuko’s hair, which was down instead of the topknot he was wearing earlier. In front of them, Princess Azula was practicing her firebending. Sokka realized with a sudden shock that her fire was blue

 

Oh, she could definitely kill him.

 

Zuko’s eyes were closed as another flower was placed near his scar. He seemed so comfortable with the girl, and it melted Sokka’s heart. Something about the vulnerability on his face, or really, the vulnerability of the scene in front of him, made him stay and watch. Being a spy wasn’t really his M.O., but no one can blame him for wanting to watch some wholesomeness on display. Right?

 

Sokka finally began to tune into the conversation, starting to listen in the middle of the story. 

 

“She, however, thinks that skincare is a one size fits all thing, which even Zuko knows is wrong! Right, Zuko?”

 

The boy in question just hummed in response. 

 

Azula shot off a particularly strong blast of fire. Sokka jerked back, but none of the other three teens so much as flinched. 

 

“I don’t know what you expected, Ty Lee. She refuses to acknowledge that she might not know as much as you,” Azula said. 

 

Ty Lee, the girl who was speaking, placed another flower in Zuko’s hair. “I just wish she didn’t have to fight me on everything . It messes with my aura.”

 

Zuko sighed a bit, but his eyes stayed closed. “That’s just how sisters are. Trust me.”

 

Azula shot him a glare, which he didn’t see. Sokka had to agree with him, though. That’s definitely how sisters are. 

 

The girl who the prince was leaning against rolled her eyes at them. “This is why I’m glad I’m an only child.”

 

“You literally have a younger brother, Mai,” Zuko said. 

 

Mai shoved him a bit, though not off of her shoulder. “What’s Tom-Tom going to do? Babble at me?”

 

As Sokka watched them all talk, he started to realize that there was really no good reason for him to be spying. They were just hanging out in the sun, which apparently they didn’t find unbearable. Must be some weird Fire Nation thing. With one last wistful glance at Zuko’s face, his eyes now open, and a small smile on his face, Sokka snuck back into the corridor he’d come from. 

 

Only to run right into Toph. 

 

She was standing in the middle of the corridor, a wide smile on her face. “Didn’t realize you were trying to become a spy, Snoozles.”

 

Sokka blushed. “How’d you know I was out there?” Toph just pointed at her feet, eliciting a resigned sigh out of the older teen. “Right. Your feet sight.”

 

“Any particular reason you’re spying on the Prince of the Fire Nation?” she asked. Sokka was unhappy to note that she didn’t bother to keep her voice down.

 

He quickly shushed her, ignoring when she bleched as some accidental spit landed on her face, and started hustling her away from the courtyard’s opening and deeper into the palace. “Could you try to keep that under wraps? I’d been doing a pretty good job at being, you know, a spy , before you decided to yell it out for the whole Fire Nation to hear.”

 

Toph snorted. “Whatever. They didn’t hear anything.”

 

Sokka just sighed in response. Luckily, he found an alcove that he quickly pulled Toph in. “Maybe I should be concerned about you spying on me,” he said, making sure to lower his voice. Like a normal person does.

 

She made a scoffing sound. “Sure, because I was definitely spying on you and not on my way to hang out with them.”

 

Sokka sputtered. “You were going to hang out with the prince and princess?” 

 

“Of course, I am! I’ve known them for years,” she said. “Their dad used to visit us for trade purposes, and he started to bring Zuko and Azula eventually. After the whole… well, you know, the two of them would occasionally come to visit whenever they were passing through the Earth Kingdom.”

 

“Oh,” Sokka said. “So you like… really know them.”

 

Toph sighed. “Yes, Snoozles. I really know them.” She gave him a light punch on the arm. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go hang out with the upper class teens for a while.”

 

With that, Toph turned on her feet and marched back to the courtyard. Sokka, as it seemed he was after every encounter with Toph, was left both speechless and offended.

 

--

 

Dinner that night was a casual affair, with just the four of them and, apparently, the prince. Azula had a prior engagement and the Fire Lord was having to catch up on meetings from earlier. 

 

Considering the shock on Zuko’s face when he opened the door to just see them sitting there, it seemed no one had bothered to tell him this. 

 

“Oh,” he said, blinking a few times, before slowly walking towards the table. “Well. Um,” he rubbed the back of his neck for a moment, before sitting down, folding his legs beneath him. “Hi?”

 

Aang had a wide smile on his face, with every tooth visible. “Hi! I’m so glad you came!”

 

“Right,” Zuko said, before clearing his throat. “Glad to be dining with you all, as well. Toph, I take it you knew it’d just be me?”

 

Toph was smirking, with no remorse on her face. “I absolutely did know, thanks for asking.”

 

“You’re such a good friend,” Zuko said, voice flat. 

 

Katara snorted. “Glad she treats all of her friends the same.”

 

“Why would you think you’re special, sweetness?” Toph asked, infusing her voice with dramatic innocence. Katara began sputtering, her mouth working, offense evident on her face. 

 

Sokka sighed. “Can we please eat? I heard this place was known for its meat.”

 

Zuko gave a nod, waving towards a servant. Just a minute later, the doors opened, with plates and plates and plates of food being brought in. As the servants placed the goods down on the table, Sokka realized that a lot of these dishes were new to him, which only made him more excited. 

 

After everything was situated, Sokka looked up at Zuko, arching an eyebrow. “Wanna give us the tour, Your Highness?”

 

Zuko blushed, the red filling his cheeks in the most delightful way. The sight made Sokka’s stomach flip, but he pushed that down. Developing a crush on the cute prince would have to wait until after dinner. “You can just call me Zuko,” he mumbled. 

 

“Okay Zuko ,” Katara said. “What’s what?”

 

“Well,” he said, looking up a bit to get a better look. “we have some braised pork balls in gravy, dumplings, um, looks like some vegetarian chow mein-“

 

“Yes!” Aang interrupted, already reaching over to grab some. 

 

Zuko blinked for a moment. “Right. Air Nomads are vegetarian. Glad the cooks remembered that. Um. There’s also some, um, roasted duck, fried shrimp with cashews, and you know, rice. Some broccoli.”

 

Sokka’s mouth was watering. And yeah, of course, his mouth was watering because of the beautiful, meat filled dishes right within reach, but also, there was just… something about hearing the food names said in Zuko’s raspy voice. 

 

No thinking about the crush at dinner , Sokka reminded himself. With a small nod to himself, he dug in. 

 

The table was silent for a bit as everyone ate. The food was amazing, and Sokka hadn’t had such a happy stomach in a while. While the flavor wasn’t exactly what he was used to, and a bit of that stereotypical Fire Nation spice had found its way in, he wasn’t too overwhelmed. 

 

Of course, now dinner was over. Which meant it was time to flex some of his flirting skills. 

 

Listen, Sokka didn’t think he was an expert by any means. But he did know that there was a very beautiful boy in front of him, he was currently satiated, and, okay he had some food puns he wanted to flex. 

 

“So,” Sokka started, leaning back a bit. Zuko looked up from his plate, the chopstick about halfway to his mouth, which was wide open and eagerly awaiting its delivery of braised pork. Sokka saw the opportunity. “What the pork is up with the weather here?”

 

Zuko blinked a few times, before slowly lowering his chopsticks. He was staring at Sokka as if he had grown another head. “Huh?”

 

Katara let out a long-suffering sigh. “I’m so sorry for what’s about to happen, Zuko.”

 

He looked at her, eyes wide. Sokka hissed. “ Shut up, Katara.

 

Sokka turned back to him, his grin widening. “Did I mein tion how good your hair looks today?”

 

Zuko choked on air. 

 

Toph started cackling, dropping her utensils to hold her belly. “Is that what you’ve been practicing, Snoozles?”

 

Sokka pouted. “I thought these were good.”

 

Aang joined in on the laughter, while Katara turned her eyes towards the ceiling. “Tui and La, give us strength.”

 

Zuko had finally finished coughing, beating his chest a few times. “Right. Um, thanks?”

 

His face was red again, though if it was from the near-death experience or from embarrassment, Sokka didn’t know. But he was definitely enjoying the view. 

 

Zuko cocked his head to the side. “Though, I do have to admit, they could use some more practice.” And with that, he plopped the pork ball into his mouth, somehow developing a smirk whilst chewing. 

 

The table erupted into laughter again, and Sokka dropped his mouth in feigned offense. 

 

Was this Zuko flirting back? Were they flirting? Suddenly, Sokka’s brain caught up to him, and he realized the post-dinner confidence had brought him to literally flirting with the prince

 

“Let me see what you’ve got, Prince Zuko,” Sokka challenged, arching an eyebrow. He’ll deal with the breakdown over his decision to flirt-via-puns later. 

 

Zuko shook his head. “Oh no, Sokka. I’m not brave enough to challenge you, an obvious wordsmith, to this challenge.” He lifted a dumpling, perfectly folded, and held it up near his face. “I’d fold over too easily.”

 

Laughter filled the room, and with a self-satisfied smile, Zuko popped the dumpling into his mouth, raising his eyebrow back. 

 

Oh, yeah, this boy was going to cause some trouble for Sokka’s heart. 

 

--

 

Sokka was not an early riser. Not by any stretch of the imagination. But it seemed like the sun here rose especially early, and not only that, his windows faced east.

 

He groaned, trying to hide his face between the pillows. But with the early rising of the sun, the heat followed. In just a few minutes, Sokka was already miserable underneath the blankets, and the pillow itself was warming up. With another self-pitying noise of distress, Sokka rose from the bed and stumbled to the restroom, dressing for the day.

 

Sokka had never been more thankful for their travels around the Earth Kingdom than he was at this moment. If it hadn’t been for that, he wouldn’t have clothes better suited for warm weather.

 

But, as he quickly found out when he began to wander aimlessly through the palace halls in pursuit of breakfast, clothes made for Earth Kingdom heat didn’t hold up to the stifling, humid air in the archipelago nation. He’d never quite felt heat as oppressive as this. He was sweating, but due to the absolutely ridiculous amount of humidity, his sweat stubbornly clung to his skin and clothes, refusing to evaporate and provide him with that sweet, sweet release. Why, Sokka thought, would people live in a place where their bodies can’t even properly regulate themselves?

 

His mind began wandering to thoughts of cold pools of water and then from there to the icy tundras at the South Pole. Oh, what Sokka would give to be cold right now. Cold, he’d always argued, was doable. You can bundle up for warmth, or gather with your family around a fire, or stack furs upon furs on top of your body as you sleep. But heat? What, were you supposed to just walk around naked? You can’t do anything if you’re hot. You just suffer. It should be illegal.

 

After a few minutes of wandering, and a few questioning glances from guards, he decided he should maybe have a destination in mind. Luckily, given that the sun was up, he knew that there had to be a certain Avatar training somewhere in this complex. Now, the mission was to find said Avatar.

 

Which was easier said than done. Eventually, after passing by a set of double doors three times, Sokka finally gave in and asked a guard, who pointed him in the right direction. Five minutes later, he was blessed by the sound of Aang’s laughter. He quickened his pace, following the noise.

 

In just a couple of turns, he found himself in front of another large courtyard, except this one was void of any sort of plant life. It was completely covered in stone, which looked like it had been scorched a few hundred times. It was an ornate space, lower than the rest of the palace, and had some areas for seating. Or, Sokka thought that was its purpose, given Princess Azula and Fire Lord Iroh’s presence in that section.

 

Sokka approached the courtyard and could see Zuko and Aang in the middle.

 

Nice.

 

He slowly began to approach the training ground, trying not to bring attention to himself. It was all for naught, though, when the haughty voice of the princess called out. “Water Tribe boy. What a pleasant surprise.”

 

Sokka stopped his approach, his eyes wide. He cringed internally when he realized the entire Fire Nation royal family and the Avatar had turned to look at him. 

 

“You know his name, Azula,” Zuko said. “Good morning, Sokka.”

 

“Not all of us memorize a boy’s name just because they’re nice to look at, Zuzu,” Azula quipped back. A blush formed on both Zuko and Sokka’s cheeks.

 

In this spirit of his youthful ignorance, Aang ignored the interaction, instead eagerly turning his head to look at him. “Sokka! Are you here to watch?”

 

“Uh,” Sokka said, shifting a bit. He looked at Zuko’s face, which was about as indifferent as someone could be. “If, uh, that’s okay?” He directed that at Zuko, who shrugged.

 

“Just don’t distract Aang. More than he already distracts himself that is.” Zuko said and waved a hand in Uncle and sister’s general direction, directing Sokka to sit with them.

 

Sokka nervously looked over at the two other persons present and was just slightly shocked when Iroh cheerfully waved him over. After one more moment of hesitation, Sokka approached, before gently sitting to the Fire Lord’s left. 

 

The older man smiled at him. “How wonderful that you could join us, Sokka! I didn’t know you were an early riser. Tea?” He gestured towards the tea set sitting near him. 

 

Sokka had never been a tea person, but if the taste of the tea yesterday was any indication of the high quality of leaf juice that existed within these walls, then Sokka may be converting. 

 

“Yes, please,” he said and sat silently as Iroh prepared him a cup. As he was passed a cup, he gave a quiet thanks before taking a small sip. Oh, this was fantastic. “What type of tea is this?” he asked.

 

“Jasmine,” the Fire Lord answered. “Zuko’s favorite. I figured he’d need the pick-me-up.” Iroh looked over at him with a conspiratorial glint. “My nephew never has enjoyed teaching, but I think he’s doing rather well. I have to admit, I’m surprised you’re here. Azula and I just came to watch, purely out of curiosity. But like all firebenders, we are early risers. Do you usually wake up this early?”

 

Sokka shook his head. “Uh, not normally? Just, uh, you know. The sun is so bright here.”

 

Iroh let out a small laugh. “Unfortunately for most, the Fire Nation’s location on the equator brings some discomfort at first. Hopefully, you’ll be able to adjust soon.”

 

Azula gave a small snort from Iroh’s other side. Sokka had to agree with her on that one.

 

Another burst of laughter caused the three of them to look back at the training grounds. It seemed like every time Zuko tried to center them, Aang would once again start chuckling. The two were still sitting in meditative poses on the ground, though Zuko kept reaching out to try and adjust Aang’s posture. Which would just lead to more laughter. Which would cause Zuko to groan. Which would cause Aang to lose his posture again. 

 

Even from up here, he could hear the prince mumble, “ I thought Air Nomads were good at meditating? ” Which, of course, only prompted more laughter from Aang.

 

“He’s ticklish,” Sokka supplied, calling down to the arena.

 

Zuko groaned. “Of course he’s ticklish. Is he ticklish everywhere?”

 

Sokka nodded, his face solemn. “Everywhere.”

 

“Fantastic.”

 

“I thought Avatars didn’t begin their training until sixteen,” Azula said, her voice mild and disinterested, though, with a quick glance, Sokka could see a bit of inquisitiveness painting her features.

 

Iroh sighed, pouring himself some more tea. “Well, Avatar Aang has an interesting background. The rules can hardly apply in this situation.”

 

Azula hummed a bit, though she didn’t press the issue. Sokka wondered what they learned about the Air Nomads. Surely they knew about the genocide, and Zuko seemed to know of at least the monks’ meditative practices. But Sokka knew that the Fire Nation education was tightly controlled and regulated by the central government, and couldn’t help but be curious about what propaganda was infused within the system. He’d been surprised at the propaganda evident in the Earth Kingdom and was sure the Fire Nation had its own version. 

 

Maybe that could be his little side project while he’s here. Learning about propaganda sounds fun. Kind of. Or maybe it’s depressing. Sokka shook his head. It was really too early to be making decisions like this.

 

Sokka looked back out at the two teens. Zuko had apparently given up any sort of meditation and was trying to get Aang to do… something with a leaf, all the while repeating the word breathe. 

 

Azula sighed before standing and stretching. “I’ll come back to watch when I can actually see the Avatar fight. Or fight with the Avatar myself. It’d be nice to be able to add ‘defeated the Avatar’ to my skill set. See you at breakfast, Uncle.” And with that, she was off, disappearing back into the palace. Sokka watched her go with a wary eye. She hadn’t even done anything threatening, and he was still intimidated by her. The princess walked like a predator hunting after a prey. 

 

Next to him, the Fire Lord sighed. “If it’s not immediately gratifying, she’s not satisfied. Though I guess that’s my fault, with how much I spoil her.” He laughed, and Sokka looked back at him. With the man’s demeanor, it was easy to forget his position. 

 

Sokka thought about that. Immediately gratifying? There are so few things that are immediately gratifying. Though, there was that time in that spirit library, when he’d found the information on-

 

His eyes widened. A library . He didn’t know too much about the Fire Nation, but one thing he knew for sure was that somewhere in this city, there was a library that was the dream of every scholar. And while Sokka himself wasn’t necessarily a scholar , he was still too curious for his own good. 

 

“Uh, Fire Lord Iroh?” The man looked over, an eyebrow raised. “I was wondering if you could point me in the direction of the library? It’s just, well, I’ve heard such great things about it.”

 

Iroh’s face erupted into a large smile. “Oh yes, the palace’s library is second only to Ba Sing Se university’s! Let me have Zuko show you. Today doesn’t seem like it’ll be too productive, anyways.” The laughter down in the arena was only getting stronger. And now Zuko’s own chuckles were starting to join in.

 

Sokka’s eyes widened in panic. “Uh, no it’s really o-“

 

He couldn’t finish the sentence before Iroh was already yelling over into the training yard. “Nephew! I think the Avatar has done well for his first lesson. Why don’t you show our esteemed guest Sokka to the library?”

 

Zuko’s eyes wandered over to Sokka, analyzing him for a moment, before he sighed and stood, stretching for a moment. Sokka’s eyes widened as he noticed the muscle evident through the thin tunic. So the prince had a beautiful face, breathtaking voice, and he was absolutely ripped? He’d better have a bad personality. 

 

“Of course, Uncle, I’d be happy to.” he looked down at Aang, who eagerly stood up as well. “We’ll meet here every morning. Work on your breathing. I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s the most important part of firebending.”

 

Aang bowed to Zuko. “Of course, Sifu Hotman.”

 

The prince groaned, and next to Sokka, Iroh let out a small chuckle. 

 

“I told you not to call me that,” Zuko complained. But he gave Aang’s shoulder a small squeeze before making his way over to Sokka. “Are you ready?”

 

Sokka nodded before belatedly realizing that he was still sitting. He quickly jumped up, blushing a bit, but Zuko didn’t seem to notice, already heading back indoors. With a quick, small bow to Iroh, Sokka quickly followed him. 

 

“Uh,” Sokka said when he caught up, “Thanks for showing me the way! This place is massive.”

 

Zuko shrugged, but a small smile grew on his face. “It’s no problem. Is there anything in particular you're looking for there?” He sounded genuinely curious. 

 

“Well, I’ve, uh, just always been curious? And, uh, wanted to learn more about, um, stuff?” Real smooth, Sokka. “And I’ve heard it’s a great library, so, um…”

 

Zuko gave him a quick, fond glance. “Yeah, it’s pretty great. Do you have something you’re wanting to learn more about? It’s just that, well, it is large, so I usually have to go in with a game plan.”

 

Huh. “Have you done a lot of research? I mean, I’m sure you have, but, you know…” Sokka trailed off.

 

Zuko didn’t seem to notice. “A few research projects here and there. I had an, uh, kind of weird fascination with the Avatar when I was a kid. So I read, um, a lot about them. The Avatars, you know. Kyoshi has a lot of books about her. I mean, she was alive for a long time, so that’s not too surprising. But, yeah. You know. I’d just, um, read books for fun? And write essays? About the Avatars. Never tell Aang that.”

 

Sokka smirked. “No promises.”

 

Zuko sighed. “Mostly, though, just research stuff for different proposals. I’ve started working with the council recently. On just a few small things, nothing big.” He paused for a moment. “Well, that’s not super true. I’ve been in meetings in regards to updating our curriculum,” he said.

 

“You’re revamping the curriculum?” he asked.

 

Zuko nodded. “Yeah, it’s… ridiculously outdated. My Grandfather-- Fire Lord Azulon-- was, well, pretty bigoted. Even if he did stop the war. And my Uncle has tried to update things here and there, tried a few different lessons out on Azula and me, but the main priority has been the economy and international relations. But, you know, even if I didn’t go to public school, I still know that what’s being taught is probably wrong and most likely very insulting. So, well, since I’m Crown Prince, I decided to maybe try and change that.” 

 

Sokka had to admit that he was impressed. This was, really, truly not what he expected from the heir to the Fire Nation throne. He didn’t know what he necessarily expected. Maybe some condescension? Some attitude? Okay, he also didn’t expect Zuko to be this hot. 

 

He really hoped his attractiveness wasn’t clouding his judgement of this guy. Because Zuko seemed sweet and caring, and obviously cared about his people.

 

But at the end of the day, Sokka knew his weakness was hot people, and hot people definitely made him sometimes see traits that weren’t there. Though, to be fair, most hot people he met didn’t have inspiring monologues about undoing the harm caused by their homicidal ancestors.

 

The bastard was trying to get Sokka to fall in love with him.

 

Zuko seemed to notice him staring, and his eyes quickly darted over to him. “Um, are you okay?” he asked.

 

Sokka startled a bit, before moving his eyes back to the hall in front of them. He swore most halls in this palace looked the same. Spirits know how he’ll ever figure this place out. “Right, yeah, sorry about that.” Should he compliment him? Would that be shooting his shot too early? Should he shoot his shot at all? Why does he keep falling in love with royalty? This was getting ridiculous. “That’s just, uh, really impressive. That you’re willing to, uh, acknowledge all of that. The past and everything.”

 

Zuko stopped outside of an ornate set of doors, and Sokka stumbled a bit at the suddenness. He blushed a bit, embarrassed at his clumsiness. But when he looked at Zuko’s face, his cheeks were also red. Huh.

 

“Well,” Zuko started, before pausing, taking a quick breath like he was trying to recenter himself. He reacted like that to a compliment? Oh, Sokka was going to have too much fun with that piece of information. “I love my people, and with that means I want them to be the best they can be. And they can’t really do that if they, you know, think all of these awful things about other cultures. Ignorance shouldn’t be what we’re known for.”

 

Sokka considered this. To be honest, ignorance was kind of what the Fire Nation was known for. At least in the Southern Water Tribe. Though, honestly, the Earth Kingdom wasn’t really viewed much better. But, hey, if the guy wants to try and undo that stereotype, and actually help his people with any sort of interaction outside of their own nation, kudos to him.

 

“I think that’s great. And, uh, I think it says a lot about you. In a good way. It says a lot of good things about you,” Sokka said. Spirits, would he ever be able to speak without rambling?

 

Zuko’s blush deepened, but he looked at Sokka through his eyelashes, analyzing his face. If Sokka thought about it, it was almost as if Zuko was looking for the sincerity in his words. Sokka ensured that it was evident on his face, not breaking eye contact, his lips slightly upturned.

 

“I do,” he said. They stood in silence for a moment, before the prince cleared his throat, looking away from Sokka’s face. “Well, um, this is it.” He looked around awkwardly for a moment before opening the door. Sokka’s mouth dropped when he saw what laid within.

 

From the outside, he wouldn’t have expected the gargantuan room that was the palace library. It couldn’t compare to the spirit library (and luckily, the terrifying owl seemed to be missing), but it was definitely the most extensive library he’d been in that actually belonged in this dimension.

 

Subtle natural light flowed in through windows on the back wall, the panes consisting of stained glass depicting what he could only presume were old Fire Nation tales. In the middle was a row of tables and couches, and a few people sat in these spots, poring over scrolls. All eyes turned to the two men as they walked in, and as they passed the patrons, they each gave a small bow to Zuko.

 

He was escorted to a desk where an older woman sat. She looked up as they approached, and quickly dropped into a bow. “Prince Zuko, a pleasure to see you again.”

 

Zuko smiled. “The pleasure is all mine, Lady Yuma. May I introduce Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe, and companion to Avatar Aang?”  He gestured to Sokka, who gave what he hoped was a small bow, which Yuma returned with a smile. “He wishes to do some research on, um, well…”

 

“On the Fire Nation’s public education program! We’re looking into improving ours, and you have a well-established system,” Sokka said. He didn’t know what brought that on, but it wasn’t necessarily a lie. Currently, the Southern Water Tribe’s system was too broken up, and they’d been trying to find a way to unify the curriculum. And, well, it just seemed a bit rude to say ‘ Hey, how do you instill propaganda into your youth?

 

Zuko looked over at him, an eyebrow arched. “Right, the education system.”

 

Yuma smiled. “I would be honored!”

 

Zuko turned to Sokka then, his lips still upturned. “Lady Yuma is one of the best the Fire Nation has to offer. You’ll be in good hands.”

 

Sokka smiled. “Thanks, Zuko. I appreciate it.”

 

He gave a nod and started to leave the library before he stopped and turned back to Sokka. He paused for a moment -as if considering what to say next- before taking a breath and looking him in the eye. “Toph and Azula are sparring this afternoon. Would you be interested in coming with me? To, uh, watch? It’s usually pretty fun.”

 

“A spar?” Sokka said, his smile transforming into a massive grin. “Oh, I wouldn’t miss that for the world.”

 

--

 

Yuma was intense but in a good way. She spent two hours showing Sokka different scrolls and resources that covered the Fire Nation’s education system, both modern and historical, books about the Southern Water Tribe, as well as the current notes from ongoing council meetings about desired or potential curriculum updates. All of the material had been stacked high, and after flipping through some, the content seemed interesting. Sure, this was just a little pet project for him to pass the time, and probably a bit out of spite, but he was starting to think he might actually get some good information from this that he could take back home. It was a bit overwhelming, but Yuma put the materials in a special spot for Sokka, promising she’d hold onto them as long as he needed.

 

Sokka decided Yuma was his favorite person.

 

Afterwards, he was just slightly exhausted and wandered back to his room for a quick nap. He was awoken by a knock on his door, groaning as his body started to take in the boiling temperature.

 

“Come in!” he called after a second knock. The door cracked open, and Zuko popped his head in.

 

“Hello, Zuko here,” he said, before fully stepping into the room. Sokka smirked a bit as the prince shuffled his feet. “Though I guess you already knew that...”

 

Sokka decided to be merciful. Just this once. “Is it time for the spar?”

 

Zuko nodded, “Yes, and I thought, you know, since this place is a bit of a maze, I’d, um, walk with you there? But if you don’t want to go anymore-”

 

“No,” Sokka interrupted, standing up from the bed. “No, I wouldn’t want to miss this for the world.”

 

The other boy smiled. “You really don’t. I assume you’ve seen Toph fight?”

 

“Oh yeah. Earth Rumble?”

 

Zuko smirked. “Absolutely. Azula always gets mad that she can’t participate.”

 

Sokka laughed, straightening his clothes before clasping Zuko on the shoulder. Both boys pause at the touch, Zuko tensing, just the slightest, and Sokka’s mind began to race. Why did I touch him, oh my--

 

After a moment, Zuko relaxed a bit, his shoulders untensing, exhaling almost silently. He looked Sokka in the eye, and he returned the gaze. They look at each other for a moment, though Sokka can’t discern exactly what it is either of them is looking for. 

 

Finally, a small smile quirked at Zuko’s lips. “Shall we?” he asks, gesturing to the open door behind him.

 

The walk to the sparring room is filled with idle chatter, Zuko pointing out random architectural features around the palace. Sokka has a million questions, both about the inscriptions on the walls, about who designed the building, and the age of some of the artifacts. With each question, Zuko got more and more animated, obviously getting into the discussion. When he gets to the carving of a dragon, installed during Sozin’s reign, he pauses. 

 

“There’s quite a bit here from…Sozin’s time. There’s the argument that any remembrance of him should be removed, like how my Uncle had all of Sozin’s statues taken down a couple of years ago. But then, there’s the other argument that these pieces are still a part of our history.”

 

Sokka considered the prince, eyeing him. “What’s your opinion?” he asks. He tries to keep his voice as neutral as possible, not hinting at what he hopes the answer is. At what the only acceptable answer is.

 

Zuko pauses his steps, turning to fully face Sokka. “They should be removed and thrown in the garbage. There’s no point in remembering him. His actions will forever be in the minds of the world.”

 

And with that, he continued the walk. Sokka stood back for a moment, considering. He didn’t know what he wanted for an answer, but the one given was definitely exceeding expectations. Zuko pointed out an interesting art piece installed by a much less controversial ancestor of his, and Sokka rushed to catch up, falling back into step with the prince.

 

Eventually, they arrived at a set of doors. Sokka arched an eyebrow. “Not on the training grounds?”

 

Zuko shook his head. “Oh, no. Azula likes to put on a performance. And, well, this room is designed for just that.”

 

With that, he pushed open the doors, revealing a room that was marbled entirely from the floor to the pillars and the spectator seats. Not that there were very many spectators. In fact, Sokka just saw the two girls from yesterday sitting in the crowd, who’s names he couldn’t remember. Azula and Toph were nowhere to be seen.

 

As if he read his mind, Zuko shook his head. “They do always like to make an entrance.”

 

Sokka snorted. “I don’t know your sister, but I know that’s true for Toph.”

 

Zuko sighed, “You’ll see.” And he started to make his way over to the two girls, and after a moment, Sokka followed suit.

 

One girl, the one who had been decorating Zuko’s hair the day before, looked up at them as they approached, and a large smile graced her face. “Zuko! I didn’t know you had a cute friend!” she said, causing Sokka to blush.

 

“Ty Lee, please ,” he responded, before dramatically sitting next to the other girl, who’s face held a barely-there smirk.

 

“I feel like we never get to hang out with new people! You can’t blame me for being excited,” she said, sticking her tongue out a bit. She looked at Sokka. “I’m Ty Lee! This is Mai, but she’s super quiet, so don’t worry if she doesn’t talk to you.”

 

Sokka blinked a bit. “Uh, right.” He looked back at Mai, who’s smirk grew a little more. “I’m Sokka.”

 

Ty Lee let out a dreamy sigh. “ Sokka ,” she said.

 

Zuko groaned. 

 

Before Sokka could even process what just happened, the flames in the room began to flicker. His eyes darted around, trying to process what was happening. He quickly looked over at the prince, but if anything, he looked bored. Zuko seemed to notice him staring, and he gave an indulgent roll of his eyes. Azula , he mouthed.

 

Ah.

 

After another few moments of wavering flames, the lights abruptly blew out, and Sokka unconsciously found himself scooting closer to Zuko. He felt the man stiffen for just a moment, just like he had in the bedroom earlier, before relaxing and even shifting closer to Sokka. 

 

“She does this every time,” he whispers. 

 

Sokka nods, though he knows Zuko can’t see him. It’s seriously pitch black in here. “You’re right; she and Toph were made to battle each other. They’re both ridiculously over-the-top.”

 

Abruptly, the chandelier in the middle of the arena lit up, and beneath its light, you could see Toph and Azula, facing each other. Next to Zuko, he heard Mai whisper, “Is this a fucking play or a spar?”

 

Sokka could feel Zuko shrug. “This is already better than the Ember Island Players,” he whispered back.

 

“Shh,” Ty Lee interrupted, “They’re about to start!”

 

And then, just when it was beginning to get awkward, someone began to walk towards the center.

 

That someone was… Aang ?

 

“Oh, Agni, you have got to be kidding me,” Zuko said.

 

Sokka gave him a light shove with his arm. “This is probably the most exciting thing Aang has done in the last year, let him have it.”

 

He could almost feel Zuko’s bewildered look. “You all must have had a terrible year.”

 

The Avatar cleared his throat. “If we can have your attention, please.”

 

Mai let out an audible sigh.

 

“We are gathered here to witness the spar of the century - the battle between two prodigies, one of the Earth Kingdom, one of the Fire Nation. Two young women who have mastered their art, have perfected the craft, and have been unmatched innovators. This is the duel of Azula, Princess of the Fire Nation, and Toph Beifong, heiress to the Beifong estate.”

 

Aang paused then. Perhaps for dramatic effects, or possibly waiting for applause that he wasn’t going to be getting, considering the entire audience was ridiculously confused. Instead, the four audience members were staring blankly ahead. That’s all they would’ve done if it wasn’t for Azula shooting a glare their way. 

 

“Go, Azula!” Ty Lee yelled.

 

“Wooh! Go, Toph!” Sokka screamed, not one to be outdone.

 

“Can I turn some more lights on?” Zuko called out. Azula’s glare strengthened. “Fine, whatever, never mind.”

 

Aang’s face was glowing. Sokka knew this was his element: getting to watch a spar that didn’t have someone’s life on the line, getting to pretend to be the referee, and… well, being able to act like the kid he is.

 

He bowed. “Let the spar… begin!”

 

Aang jumped on an airscooter, quickly rolling away into the dark, and in the blink of an eye, Azula and Toph had also disappeared back into the darkness. The chandelier stayed lit, casting an eerie glow onto the platform. The apprehension and tension, the constricting of the air that seemed to come before a fight, filled itself into the dark spaces. 

 

And then, a blue flame shot out, and the sound and quick image of it colliding with a rock.

 

“Do we get to actually watch this?” Mai asked.

 

Sokka was leaning forward in his seat, enraptured. “This is so fascinating.” He’d never seen a spar so focussed on the performance aspect.

 

“How do you know it’s fascinating, you literally can’t see anything ?” Mai grumbled.

 

Zuko let out a snort. “It’s the thematics that make it fascinating.”

 

“I do love a good show,” Ty Lee said. “This makes me miss the circus.”

 

“The circus?” Sokka asked, a bit bewildered. “Were you in the circus?”

 

“Yes! I did it for a couple of years, but then-” A burst of fire towards them interrupted the conversation. Sokka shrieked, hiding behind Zuko, who let out a long-suffering sigh.

 

“I guess we’re supposed to be silent,” Mai said. 

 

Sokka nodded, and quickly turned his attention back to the spar in front of him.

 

More flames burst out, and they were all met with stone, causing the blue fire to spread throughout the space, lighting up the room and casting shadows. At one point, Sokka could see Toph in her shield of rock (where did she even get rock? Sokka hoped she wasn’t destroying the marble in this room), meeting the flames head-on. 

 

Needless to say, the entire show, performance, duel, whatever the hell this was , was the most amazing thing he’d ever seen. The blast of heat, the flash of blue, the shots of rock flying. There were hardly any words to describe what he was witnessing. Even the rest of the audience, who had been critical and talkative only moments prior, were quiet, and he could feel Zuko leaning forward a bit as well. The light from Azula’s fire was lighting up the scene better than most stage lights would for a play. 

 

In the end, the two came together in the middle of the arena once again, a bright flame in Azula’s raised fist, poised to hit Toph square in the chest; a rock floating right above the princess’s head, ready to drop at a moment's notice.

 

“A tie!” Aang’s voice calls from the dark, and he approaches the two of them, the everpresent large smile still plastered on his face. 

 

The two benders’ dispersed their weapons, and Azula lit the light once again. 

 

“You’ve improved, Beifong,” Azula said, giving a small bow. “Usually I kick your ass.”

 

Toph smirked. “I gotta keep you on your toes. Think knife girl could beat me?”

 

Knife girl ? Sukka thought, looking around.

 

Next to Zuko, Mai snorted. “Wouldn’t even be a challenge, dirt gremlin.”

 

Laughter erupted in the room. 

 

“To make it fair, it should be Mai and me against a bender. You know, since we’re non-benders and all that,” Ty Lee said.

 

Azula snorted. “Ridiculous. We all know you would cheat by chi blocking.”

 

“That’s not cheating!” Ty Lee said, offended.

 

The argument continued, centered around the semantics of a hypothetical spar. Aang was watching with wide, excited eyes, and Zuko observed with a small, content smile on his face.

 

Sokka leaned his head over to Zuko’s ear, lowering his voice to a whisper. “Knife girl?” he asked.

 

Zuko chuckled, turning his head to whisper back. “Mai carries over fifty knives on her person at all times. And is ridiculously skilled with them.”

 

Sokka’s eyes widened, and he looked back at the non-bending girl with fresh eyes. Was everyone in this place dangerously skilled?

 

“Is Ty Lee normal?” he asked.

 

Zuko shook his head. “Scarily good fighter and acrobat. Can also chi block.”

 

Spirits ,” Sokka whispered. 

 

Right. He was avoiding all of the girls here. For once, he was glad Suki hadn’t travelled with him. Though, he had to be sure not to mention the girls in his next letter to her. Spirits knows she’d make her way here just to kick some ass.

 

--

 

That night, there was a feast to honor the Avatar’s visit, and it seemed every noble in the city came. Sokka also learned, after only about three minutes, that “feast” was a loose term. This was, in fact, a party. A very hot, very sweaty party. How this nation could stand to gather together in this weather was truly beyond Sokka.

 

He stood next to Katara, looking apprehensively at the alcohol in front of him. “Am I allowed to drink this?”

 

She cocked her head to the side, also looking at the admittedly beautifully stacked pyramid of the finest Earth Kingdom sparkling wine. “I don’t know.” She paused, frowning. “Wait, are you asking if you’re allowed to drink from this display, or allowed to drink in general? You know dad said we couldn’t drink if he’s not here. Not until we’re seventeen.”

 

“Both?”

 

She pursed her lips, “No.”

 

“What? You don’t know that!”

 

“You’re right,” Katara said, crossing her arms. “I don’t know. But I said no, so no.”

 

Sokka opened and closed his mouth a few times, trying to figure out what he was supposed to even say to that. After a few more floundering moments, waving his hands nonsensically in front of his face, trying to make a point, any point , before he eventually sputtered out: “Y-you can’t just say no!”

 

Her eyes narrowed. “Are you going to drink?”

 

“I’m almost seventeen!” he said instead.

 

“Almost,” she said, “but not.”

 

He glared and resisted the urge to stomp his foot. That wouldn’t be the best response to being told no by his little sister. Well, it might be the best response, but not the most mature response. And Sokka was Super Mature. Definitely.

 

“Fine, but I’m going to go hang out with--” he quickly looked around the room, trying to find someone else that he knew. Aang was being roped into conversations with nobles, Toph was just gone, and the royal family hadn’t made an appearance yet. Except, he spotted two familiar faces in the back corner. “With Mai!”

 

Katara looked startled. “With who?”

 

“Mai! And Ty Lee. My friends .” He turned to walk away, only to pause and throw a quick ha over his shoulder.

 

“Sokka, get back-”, but he quickly lost himself in the crowd, no longer able to hear her voice. He headed towards the back corner where the two girls were standing. As he approached, he began to question his decision to mingle with them. He hardly even knew them, and yet here he was. For a brief moment, he paused, shifting a bit on his feet, his front teeth biting his bottom lip. The minor bout of social awkwardness he possessed was slowly beginning to take over.

 

Before he could really begin to regret his choice, Ty Lee spotted him and quickly waved her hands. “Oh, Sokka! Sokka, over here!”

 

He gave a bashful smile, finally getting close enough to them to greet. “Funny seeing you two here.”

 

Mai scoffed. “If only I could avoid these. What a snooze fest.”

 

“At least you aren’t dating Zuko anymore,” Ty Lee said, giving her friend a small squeeze. “Now, you don’t have to get dragged around to speak with all of the nobles!”

 

Sokka frowned. “You dated Zuko?” He had no idea why this was shocking to him, nor why he felt suddenly jealous. He could feel the envy brewing in his stomach, and he tried to squish it down. There was no reason to feel like this, he still barely knew the guy. Zuko was just the cute, seemingly sweet, stranger he’d had a few conversations with. Nothing more. Nothing at all. Nope.

 

Mai nodded, taking a sip of a non-alcoholic drink, given its similar appearance to pineapple juice. Sokka guessed that answered his question about the drinking age. Or she just didn’t drink. He decided to table the idea of drinking for a later date. “Yeah, for a couple of years. Didn’t work out. We’re much better friends.”

 

“Don’t tell her parents that, though,” Ty Lee said, a conspiratorial glint in her eye. “They’re still absolutely determined to have the two of them married.”

 

“Ah,” Sokka said. “I understand. Power-hungry?”

 

Mai rolled her eyes. “You have no idea.”

 

“You can’t be Fire Nation nobility without some greed,” Ty Lee said.

 

Sokka arches an eyebrow. “Does that mean you’re greedy?”

 

“Of course,” Mai responded, her eyes narrowed. “You haven’t figured that out yet? We’re all greedy.”

 

A snort inadvertently escaped from him, but he tried to cough to cover it, though he knew that was unsuccessful Sokka opened his mouth, wanting to ask what she meant by that when suddenly, a hush fell over the room. His back was currently towards the door, and he noticed that’s where his two companions' eyes had wandered over.

 

“I wonder what they have him in tonight?” Ty Lee asks in a whisper, and Sokka whips around to face the now open door. “My sister said he’s been letting them get creative recently.”

 

In the door stood a royal page. Once it was sufficiently quiet, he took a few steps to the right, before sucking in a deep breath. “His Royal Majesty, Fire Lord Iroh, accompanied by His Royal Highness Crown Prince Zuko and Her Royal Highness Princess Azula.” And with that, they entered.

 

Fire Lord Iroh entered first, a gentle smile on his face. Sokka was sure that these weren’t his most formal robes, but they were definitely a step up from the plain robes Sokka had seen him in so far. He was once again glad that he’d finally purchased a set of nicer clothes before arriving to the Fire Nation. For some reason, he had a bit of an inkling that, with his prior wardrobe, he’d end up being underdressed at some point. Once again, Sokka was grateful for his love of planning.

 

Behind him, Azula and Zuko entered side by side, and there were audible gasps around the room. 

 

The makeup around Azula’s  eyes made her look like a weapon, with sharp edges and a mixture of black and dark reds. The design itself made her golden eyes practically glow. She looked lethal. He thanked his lucky stars that he didn’t have to worry about fighting her as an enemy.

 

But Zuko --how could anyone even care about the Avatar when the prince looked how he did? His red and gold robes glimmered in the low light, and they trailed behind him like a river-- long, wavy, strong. His hair flowed down his back, with his small topknot adorned with its traditional hair piece,wrapped in gold and maroon strands of ribbon. On his right eye, gold eyeshadow heavily contrasted the scar on the left. 

 

Sokka didn’t know much about the Spirit who the Fire Nation gave reverence to, but he went ahead and gave thanks to Agni for Zuko right then and there. 

 

The three royals made their way towards the dais in the middle of the room. As they stepped into their places, Iroh gestured his hands out towards the crowd, a gentle, paternal smile on his face. 

 

“Friends! We are so honored to be here with you today! What a pleasure it is to gather again and drink and dine together. And with our most esteemed guest, the Avatar himself!” He gave a small hand wave towards Aang, who enthusiastically waved to the applauding crowd. Iroh’s smile grew. “His earthbending and waterbending masters are visiting as well, and the son of the Chief of the Southern Water Tribe.”

 

“That’s me!” Sokka whisper-yelled, turning quickly to address Mai and Ty Lee.

 

Mai gave a small smile. “Congrats, buddy.”

 

He smiled widely in response, turning back towards the Fire Lord.

 

“And with that, I am proud to announce that my nephew, Prince Zuko, will be the Avatar’s firebending instructor! What an honor it is, for the grandson of Avatar Roku, and a member of the blessed royal family, to guide the Avatar on this important journey.” More applause greeted this announcement, and Zuko was glaring at the ground, a blush sneaking onto his skin.

 

With that, Iroh waved his hands, and a small flame lit in both palms. “Now, let us eat and be merry!” The flames burst forth, and Sokka then noticed that these weren’t normal flames. These flames were colorful-- greens, purples, yellows, and reds danced from the Fire Lord’s palm. It was almost unnatural to see. 

 

It looked like dragon fire.

 

Servants swept into the room, carrying tray upon tray of Fire Nation delicacies. Pot stickers, crab rangoons, lettuce wraps, and shrimp toast. Among many, many other dishes that had Sokka’s mouth watering. Even better, there seemed to be an abundance of meat. When everyone’s attention turned towards the upcoming feast, Sokka noticed that Zuko used their distraction to make his way towards their little trio. How Zuko found them that easily in the crowd was beyond Sokka. Maybe he, Mai, and Ty Lee had a dedicated spot?

 

Zuko arrived there in no time and threw a small smile in Sokka’s direction when he noticed him. Sokka smiled back, but with Zuko so close now, he could really see how  the gold on his robes, in his hair, and on his face seemed to glitter tenfold,  faint pink painting his lips. And here, Sokka could see the way his waist was shaped by the ornate clothes.

 

Oh, Sokka would have to thank Ty Lee’s sister for this get-up.

 

“You look good,” Mai said, reaching over and giving Zuko’s hand a small squeeze. Zuko’s smile grew.

 

“As do you, Lady Mai.”

 

The jealousy from earlier began to once again fester, and Sokka worked to push that down. He shouldn’t be jealous of two friends. It’s not like he and Suki didn’t act exactly like this.

 

Ty Lee hugged him enthusiastically like she hadn’t just seen him a few hours ago. “Did Azula take the first shift?” she asks.

 

Zuko nodded, and Sokka cocked his head a bit. “First shift?”

 

“Azula and I split our time at these events into shifts. There’s four, and we alternate between the two. If you’re on shift, you have to mingle with the partygoers. If you’re off shift, you get to hang out with Mai and Ty Lee.”

 

Mai smirked. “We aren’t important enough, so we get ignored. But, the nobles also know if they interrupt us, they’re dead.”

 

“Benefit of being friends with Azula!” Ty Lee said. “Sorry, Zuko, you just aren’t as scary.”

 

“Hence why I’m the heir,” he said with a small shrug.

 

A servant walked by then, carrying a tray of food. Zuko groaned with enthusiasm. “Oh, you’re the best, Takibi.”

 

The servant, Takibi, smiled. “I made sure to get your favorites.” He looked at Sokka then. “Prince Zuko told me you’re from the Southern Water Tribe. My sister-in-law is from the Northern Water Tribe, but I picked some of her favorite dishes for you.”

 

Sokka blinked in response. “Uh, thank you so much! Sokka, by the way.”

 

Takibi nodded, “Pleasure, sir.” He then bowed to Zuko, and then to Ty Lee and Mai. “You know where to find me, Prince Zuko.”

 

“Thanks, Tabiki!” Ty Lee said, before reaching over to grab… something. She took a bite of it and moaned. “I love palace chefs.”

 

Zuko laughed, grabbing another food item. “You should go tell them that.”

 

Mai glared at him. “Don’t tell her that.” She looked sharply at Ty Lee. “They’ll think you’re trying to weasel food out of them and chase you out with a spoon.”

 

Ty Lee stuck her tongue out at Zuko. “Rude.”

 

He laughed, taking a bite of his food before turning to Sokka. “The two dishes on the left shouldn’t be too spicy.”

 

Sokka narrowed his eyes at him. “What, you think I can’t handle spice?”

 

Zuko’s eyes widened. “What? No! I mean, I just know that spice isn’t as common in the Water Tribes and-”

 

Sokka laughed then, breaking the tension. “I’m just playing, dude. Thanks. I definitely can’t take spice.” And Sokka knew that for a fact. Even the Earth Kingdom was too spicy for him. He grabbed something to the far left, glancing at Zuko’s confirmation. At his nod, he snatched it up and took a bite.

 

Only to have to quickly start gasping for air. “Spirits! This is not spicy ? The food wasn’t this spicy yesterday!”

 

“They always up the spice level for events like this,” Zuko said, his voice apologetic. 

 

“Do you guys like burning off your taste buds?” Sokka asked.

 

The other three teens giggled. “It’s not that bad when you’re used to it,” Ty Lee said. “Just think, if you stay for a few months, you’ll be able to eat spicy food like a pro!”

 

Sokka shook his head. “I don’t even know if that’s possible.”

 

Zuko looked at Sokka for a moment, his eyes narrowed. Sokka turned to him, narrowing his eyes in return. “What?”

 

“Well,” Zuko said, his voice a bit quiet. He leaned in closer to Sokka, obviously wanting to keep the conversation between the two of them. “I heard from one of the guards that a new Water Tribe restaurant opened in town. It’s Northern Water Tribe cuisine, but, well, if you’d like, we can go there? Tomorrow night, maybe? I can have someone call ahead to ensure we’ll get a table, because tomorrow night is the end of the workweek, and I know people like to go out to eat. Not that I go that often, but-”

 

“Zuko,” Sokka interrupted. He was aware of the two girls’ eyes on them. “I’d love to go.”

 

A smile erupted on Zuko’s face, and his eyes twinkled. “Really? I mean, great! I’m so excited— I mean, uh, awesome!” A blush had quickly filled out underneath Zuko’s cheeks, and with each stumbling word, Sokka found himself just a little more in love. 

 

Oh, this boy was dangerous. Once again, Sokka was falling head over heels for a royal. Spirits, he really was a bisexual disaster.

 

 

The party had lasted well into the night. Sokka had watched Zuko morph into the ideal prince as he took his turn mingling with the nobles. Zuko’s easy, carefree smile had changed into a small, stilted one, and the rasp seemed to be toned down. On the other hand, he had gotten to witness the beautiful act of Toph and Zuko taking over the dance floor, dancing with such energy that even the band had hyped up the music to match the spirit, with the two teens’ laughs echoing throughout the room. 

 

He’d also bonded a lot with Ty Lee and Mai, watching them do the most intimidating verbal spar and even giving it a few go’s himself. 

 

They completely kicked his ass. 

 

Overall, Sokka would say it had been a great night. He hadn’t expected to enjoy his time in the Fire Nation, or to make friends, but being around the other teens, even if it was just for the past 24 hours, provided so much joy to him. For the first time in a while, he really felt like a teenager. 

 

As he laid in bed that night, his mind wandered back to when Aang had emerged from the iceberg, and when Sokka had agreed to leave his home to travel with him and Katara. At first, he’d just been hoping for some more excitement. Like any fifteen year old, he was excited to leave his hometown and see the world; he was ready to assert his independence in any way possible. There’s only so much experimenting he could do with his dad looking over his shoulder. But sometimes, especially at night, he missed home. He missed his dad and mom, he missed Bato, and he missed Gran-Gran. He wondered why he’d let himself be gone this long. Away from his home and his culture. 

 

And at the end of the day, he didn’t know if he had an answer for that. But, after days like this where he got to hang out with nobility and drink fancy juice, he realized that maybe being away from home wasn’t too bad. Hell, maybe even at the next party, he’d get to try the sparkling wine! His dad isn’t here to witness that particular misdeed. 

 

He’d slept in the next morning, and taken a late lunch with Katara and Toph, before going back to the library to read some more. 

 

The materials he’d gathered were dense . There had been no holding back, and he realized pretty early on that he truly had no idea what he was getting into. He learned that the Fire Nation was the first nation to provide public education, and from the notes from Zuko’s reform meetings, he gathered that Zuko was trying to extend the free public education to their university and vocational schools, with the desire to open up higher education to the masses. Currently, it was almost exclusively closed off to the noble class. 

 

But of course, Zuko had to try to amend decades, if not centuries, of outdated curriculum.

 

This, of course, explained how they were easily able to indoctrinate all of the masses. It was a bit shocking to see something as benign as education be used to cause harm. But, Sokka thought a bit bitterly, at least they were trying to fix it now. 

 

After a few hours of reading, he headed to his quarters to begin getting ready for his…date? Was that what this was? Sokka liked to think so. It certainly seemed like it, especially considering how nervous Zuko was when asking. Maybe Sokka should’ve confirmed what this was prior to the actual event. 

 

He wasn’t even sure why he was nervous. This was so new. So fresh. This seemed to be his issue, that he always threw himself into these dates (of which he’s had very few) without really getting to know the person. Was he making a mistake with this? Was this going to come back and bite him in the ass?

 

But also, even from the few conversations, he felt drawn to Zuko in a way he hadn’t really ever felt. And that was saying something, considering how much he’d yearned after Yue.

 

In the midst of getting ready while simultaneously angsting, his door slammed open, causing Sokka to jump about three feet in the air. Standing in his doorway, with a smirk on her lips, was Katara.

 

“Well, don’t you look nice,” she said, closing the door before coming to sit on his bed.

 

Sokka sighed. “Please, I’m already nervous.”

 

She rolled her eyes. “I don’t see why. He’s the one who asked you. Obviously, he’s interested.”

 

“I don’t even know if this is a date!” Sokka exclaimed, throwing his hands in the air, and coming to lay next to her, dramatically throwing himself down. “I’m an idiot.”

 

“Get up, you’re going to wrinkle your clothes,” she said.

 

“Make me,” he grumbled into the comforter.

 

She flicked him. “Up.”

 

He let out a long suffering sigh, slowly rising himself onto his elbows, shooting her a glare. “I’m bad at dates.”

 

“Well, yeah. You’ve been on, like, three.”

 

Sokka frowned. “Two.”

 

“That’s even worse.”

 

He glared at her, before popping off the bed, heading back over to the mirror. “Do I look good?”

 

“Ew, why would I answer that?” she said. He turned towards her, a scowl on his face. Katara laughed. “You look great, Sokka. I really don’t see why you’re nervous.”

 

“He’s a prince! I’m going on a… on a maybe date with a prince!” 

 

Sokka hadn’t been on a date since Yue, and he didn’t even know if that counted. The last time he’d seen Suki, they’d exchanged a few kisses, but they hadn’t done anything like going to dinner. In fact, Sokka realized with increasing dread, he had never been on a date like this before. A dinner date. Where someone would pay. A dinner date with royalty. Why did he always have to date royalty?

“Why is this happening?” he asked, misery evident in his voice. “This is like a grown-up date.”

 

“You’re both only teenagers, so I think it’s still a teenage date,” she replied, finally standing off the bed and walking over to him. “I know you’re going to have a lot of fun, Sokka. Don’t overthink it.”

 

“I barely know him,” he whispered, looking at her now with pleading eyes. “What if I say something dumb?”

 

“The first date is the chance to get to know someone. That’s the whole point. Or, at least, that’s what dad said. And he’s as clueless as you. But he somehow managed to marry mom.”

 

Sokka had to concede that that was a very, very fair point.

 

She reached over and gave him a small squeeze on the shoulder. “You’re a great person, Sokka. Any person would be lucky to have you.”

 

He put his hand atop hers, giving it a squeeze. “Thanks, Katara.”

 

She gave one more squeeze, before turning to leave the room, closing the door quietly behind her. For a moment, Sokka tried to feel the confidence she wanted him to have. But instead, he stared in the mirror, dread pooling inside of him, for who knows how long, before a knock on the door finally shook him from his thoughts. Sokka turned to look over just as a guard was entering. 

 

The guard bowed quickly. “Prince Zuko wanted me to inform you that he is running just a few minutes behind. His meeting with the Minister of Education went on longer than expected. His Highness sends his apologies.”

 

Sokka gave a small nod of his head in thanks, and the guard left. He could only imagine that ‘went on longer than expected’ was an euphemism for ‘a fight’. Sokka might not be the Crown Prince of a nation known for their tempers, but he was the son of the Chief of the Southern Water Tribe. He’d seen his fair share of screaming matches. 

 

Not even three minutes later, barely enough time for Sokka to work himself back into a panic, there was another knock on the door. After Sokka gave his permission to enter, Zuko quickly walked in, looking frazzled. 

 

“I’m so sorry about that,” he said, walking quickly to Sokka’s side. “One of my ministers was being exceedingly difficult, something about how the pledge is super important and a cultural necessity and all of this other absolute garbage, and then, of course, his aide had to pipe in with their opinion- not that aide’s opinions are unwanted, just that this was not necessary at the time, and, well…” he trailed off for a second. “I’m so sorry for dumping this on you. This isn’t really the best start to the night, is it?”

 

Sokka just smiled, reaching over to give Zuko’s arm a squeeze. “It’s no problem! I get it— politics suck.”

 

Zuko gave a small smile. “It really does suck. I have no idea what I did wrong to deserve being stuck with this job.”

 

Sokka shrugged. “Being born rich was probably your first mistake.”

 

The prince laughed at that— a deep, rasping laugh that Sokka thought he could listen to for hours. It made his ears tingle pleasantly, and his heart beat faster. There was a wide smile on Zuko’s face, wider than Sokka had ever seen. With the sun rays streaming in through the window, illuminating Zuko’s skin… well frankly, Zuko looked stunning. Sokka might be hallucinating it, but he could swear the prince was sparkling. 

 

Sokka was beginning to worry how he was supposed to hold a conversation with someone who looked this good. He couldn’t even speak with Yue without embarrassing himself. 

 

Zuko stopped laughing, slowing down to a chuckle, before apparently (hopefully, maybe?) holding his arm out for Sokka to take. When their arms touched, he swore he felt a jolt of electricity. He couldn’t tell if Zuko felt it too, though he hoped. The more romantic side of him was convinced this was some sign of their mutual compatibility.

 

(The more scientific side of him just thought it was static.)

 

(Sokka was going to ignore that side tonight.)

 

Zuko gave no sign, though, and began to lead them out of the room.

 

“Our reservation is in half an hour, which is just enough time to walk there.” He paused then, looking over at him. “I hope you don’t mind that we aren’t taking a palanquin.”

 

Sokka arched an eyebrow. “Palanquin?”

 

The prince groaned a bit. “It’s obnoxious, but it’s how the royal family is expected to get around. I hate them.”

 

Sokka still had no idea what a palanquin even was, but decided to drop it. Considering how much Zuko hated them, he thought his chances of needing to worry about it was slim to none. 

 

They made their way to the gates, engaging in some mindless chatter on the way. Sokka asked some more questions about his meeting with the Minister of Education, which Zuko enthusiastically answered. Apparently, Zuko was vying to get the man fired. Given what Sokka had heard, in regards to the reluctance the man had towards any growth, he had to agree with that.

 

When they made it, and as they were waiting for a guard to open them, Zuko looked over a little apologetically. “Sorry if it gets a bit crazy. I guess the one benefit to the palanquin is avoiding this.”

 

“This? What’s this?” Sokka asked, confused for the second time of the night. 

 

He didn’t have time to receive an answer, as the gates opened and he realized that there was a gigantic crowd of Fire Nationals waiting and cheering for their prince. Next to him, Zuko gave a wave. 

 

“Well you’re certainly popular,” Sokka said to him, leaning forward so he was saying it right into Zuko’s ear. 

 

He blushed a bit. “Well, there’s some… mythology around me.”

 

Sokka raised his eyebrows. “Mythology?”

 

“I’ll tell you at the restaurant,” Zuko said, before leading Sokka forward and towards the crowd. Sokka realized that their arms were still entwined. Now it was his turn to blush. 

 

They weaved their way through the crowds, some guards following close behind. Citizens bowed and called Zuko’s name, and most looked at Sokka with either awe or confusion. He was happy to note that none were looking on in disgust. 

 

Unfortunately, they didn’t really have much time to talk, given the constant crowds. Sokka didn’t really mind, though. He was enjoying watching Zuko interact with his people— his soft demeanor, his kindness towards the children who ran up to them, and how he’d accept the small gifts they provided, even though he’d hand it off to one of the guards silently following behind. It was pleasant, and though Sokka didn’t find much time to talk, he was happy to observe. After the thirty minute walk, Sokka realized why that much time was needed. The walk wasn’t too far, but they had to stop every few seconds. 

 

After they finally made it to the restaurant, a hostess eagerly opened the door for them, causing Zuko to flush a beautiful, intoxicating red. 

 

“Sorry about all of this,” he murmured. “I try to keep stuff low-key, but, you know. It can be a bit difficult.”

 

Sokka just smiled at him. “It’s honestly no problem, Zuko. I thought it was sweet.”

 

They were sat at a private table and handed their menus. Even after just a short cursory glance, Sokka could already feel his mouth salivating. 

 

Zuko, however, looked a bit confused. Sokka couldn’t help but laugh at his baffled expression. “Would you like me to order for us?” he asked. 

 

He looked thankful. “Oh, Agni, please do.”

 

Sokka ordered some classics, including a classic hot drink, the tea brewed from a plant grown in the southeastern regions of the Northern Water Tribe, and that he hadn’t had in years. The cuisines between the Northern and Southern Water Tribes were pretty similar, with some small differences regarding the available fish and animals. Of course, there were some differences due to the distance that had grown between them in the fallout of the war, though his father was actively working to repair the relationship.

 

After the server left, Sokka turned to Zuko, an eyebrow arched. “So, mythology?”

 

Zuko sighed a bit, placing his chin in his hand. “I’m sure you know the basics of what happened with my father, right?”

 

Sokka’s brows furrowed. “The very basics, yes.”

 

“Well, before he was, um, you know,” he cleared his throat a bit, averting his eyes, “executed, he…” Zuko trailed off a bit, before taking a few deep breaths. “This is public knowledge, really, I don’t know why I’m so nervous to share this. Anyways, um. He came into my room while I was sleeping, and…” At this, Zuko just waved in the general direction of his left eye. 

 

Sokka felt his stomach drop. His own son? While he was sleeping? He knew that Zuko’s dad was garbage. The man killed his own nephew. But to do that to his son? It was unthinkable. 

 

Zuko took another deep breath before continuing. “Anyways, I fought back. I was panicking, and didn’t really know who was in front of me. I couldn’t see. And while, you know, nothing out of this world, you know, really happened, I managed to get him off of me and knock him out. The legend, however, is that Agni himself possessed me and defeated my father.”

 

Sokka waited a moment, ensuring there was nothing more to be said, before reaching over and gently taking one of Zuko’s hands. After a brief moment, he squeezed, ensuring it was gentle. 

 

“Sorry,” Zuko murmured, squeezing back. “This isn’t really the best first-date conversation piece, huh?”

 

Sokka smiled, though there was a part of his brain screaming in joy at the confirmation that this was a date , and gave one more squeeze before removing his hand. “I brought it up. And anyways, it’s an important story.”

 

Zuko nodded, seeming satisfied. The server came by with their appetizer, some bannock and berries, placing them on the table before scurrying off. Zuko looked at them a bit apprehensively, but followed Sokka’s movements as he tried a bite. “Oh, this is really good.”

 

Sokka chuckled. “Listen, we know how to cook in the Water Tribe.”

 

Zuko nodded enthusiastically. “I completely believe you. Holy shit.” He took another bite. “Anyways, I guess I should finish the story.”

 

Sokka took a bite and swallowed before responding. “If you’d like.”

 

He nodded, finishing the last bite. “Right, well. Obviously, Agni did not possess me. Well, at least, I don’t think he did. But anyway, I somehow completely knocked my father out? And made enough of a noise that the guards came running in. I mean, everyone was a bit confused, you know. About how he was even here? He’d been banished, after, you know, murdering my cousin. But apparently he never left and decided to take his anger out on me? I don’t know, really. I mean, I have an idea, but I just-” he stopped himself abruptly, snapping his mouth shut. “I don’t mean to ramble this much about this.”

 

“It’s really okay,” Sokka said, ensuring his voice remained calm. Comforting.

 

Zuko shook his head. “You just asked why people are obsessed with me. It’s really just that they think Agni blessed me that night. That that’s how I survived. I don’t know who even started that rumor. But they think Azula is the same… or, like, that’s why they think she’s so powerful. Because Agni is using us to better the Fire Nation or something like that.”

 

Sokka arched an eyebrow. “Sounds like that could give you an ego.”

 

He snorted. “I wish. If anything, it makes me feel like a fake.” He frowned a bit. “Also, it’s a little condescending. What, just because I kicked my dad’s ass, it means I was possessed by Agni? Makes me sound weak.”

 

Sokka stared at him for a moment, before letting out a loud laugh. “That’s one way to look at it, I guess.” 

 

The server came over then, taking their appetizer plates and refilling their waters, before disappearing back into the crowded restaurant.

 

Zuko watched her for a moment, before turning back to Sokka. “So, what about you? You’re the Chief’s son, right?”

 

Sokka hummed a bit, nodding his head. “Yeah, but it’s nothing like the Northern Water Tribe. I’m not like a prince or anything. In the Southern Water Tribe, we elect our Chiefs. They’re elected for a lifelong term, yeah, but still elected.”

 

Zuko cocked his head a bit, his eyes alight with curiosity. “That’s actually super interesting. Could you try to become Chief?”

 

He nodded again, leaning back a bit in his chair. “Technically, yes.” A small frown formed. “I just don’t know if I want to, though.”

 

The prince shrugged. “Fair. I don’t know if I even want to be Fire Lord. Not that I have too much of a choice.” He also leaned back then, becoming a fair imitation of Sokka. “You have a long time to decide, though. What would you want to do instead?”

 

Sokka considered this. He’d never really given much thought to what he’d do after he was done travelling with Aang. He knew, of course, that eventually the travelling would have to end. Aang would become a fully realized Avatar and have to go and do… whatever it is that Avatars do. And Katara would probably go with him, seeing how close the two of them were. But him? Who even knew?

 

He sighed. “I honestly don’t know. I like to build things. You know the Northern Air Temple?”

 

Zuko nodded. “Yeah, one of the men who lives there built the hot air balloon, right?”

 

Sokka smiled. “I helped design that, actually.”

 

Zuko’s eyes widened. “ Really ?” That’s amazing, Sokka!”

 

A small blush grew on Sokka’s cheeks. “Thanks… it’s not that impressive, though.”

 

“How could you say that?” Zuko exclaimed, his voice going up a pitch. “That invention changed the world! Sokka,” he leaned forward for this, looking Sokka in the eye, his own golden eyes intense. “You could change the world even more as an… I don’t know the title, engineer? Builder? Machinist? Whatever it is, you could do so much.”

 

Sokka’s blush grew. “You really think so?”

 

Zuko smiled, a soft, gentle smile. “Absolutely.”

 

--

 

Their dinner date lasted for hours. After eating (a truly amazing meal, Sokka had no idea Water Tribe cuisine this good could exist outside of the Water Tribe), the two of them walked around the night market. It had been an impromptu sort of tour, though Zuko had apologized that he wasn’t exactly an expert on Caldera nightlife. 

 

Zuko continued to get stopped every few feet, but Sokka was finally able to see the Fire Nation as… normal. The markets were alive at night, with people bouncing around, stalls selling street food, music playing in the streets, young people going out to bars and nighttime establishments. It was absolutely wild to see, and something he realized he hadn’t really gotten to experience. Maybe, someday, when he wasn’t accompanying the portal to the Spirit World on a journey around the planet, he’d have time to go get a drink at a bar.

 

At the end, they’d made it back to the palace gates. They’d seen more than their fair share of the city, and it was late in the night. Later than they expected to get home. Even the guards seemed exhausted.

 

They’d held hands, and after a quick kiss to his knuckles, Zuko had warned him that he’d be a bit busy with his Prince duties for the next few days, but that he’d love to plan something else for them to do. A second date.

 

Sokka was in love .

 

Okay, that was ridiculous. But for once, his love life didn’t seem to be in absolute shambles. 

 

He didn’t mean to always go back to Yue when thinking about Zuko, but compared to his date with her, this had been an absolute masterpiece. Him and Yue had only lasted that one time, before she’d gently let him know that it wasn’t going to work like that. Which was fine.

 

But now, there was someone who was making him swoon in ways he didn’t think possible. Sokka couldn’t believe he was falling for someone this fast. He didn’t know why he was surprised-- he’d been attracted to Zuko since first laying eyes on him. Yet, this was still an experience that left him both a bit terrified, and absolutely over the moon.

 

So while Zuko was off doing prince stuff, and Aang was busy getting trained in his bending, he, Katara or Toph, whoever was less busy at the time, would go into the city for some more exploring. He’d been to more markets than he could count, and had probably blown all of his money on street food. The artisan scene in the Caldera was phenomenal, and he’d purchased some trinkets to send back home to his parents. 

 

This may or may not have been an excuse to use one of the messenger hawks. 

 

Three days after his first date with Zuko, Sokka was heading back to the library to continue reading up on the education system. He was making his way past one of the dozens of courtyards that existed within the palace, when he saw two people who caught his eye.

 

In the courtyard, Zuko sat on the ground, his back leaning against a woman. Probably, if Sokka was being honest, one of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen. She was in her late thirties, if he had to guess, and had long, midnight black hair that was swept into a half-up, half-down style. She was combing out Zuko’s long hair, and her face held so much contentment at the action, so much love towards Zuko, that Sokka couldn’t help but stare.

 

Reverting back to his first days at the palace, Sokka hid behind bushes. Just for a moment. It wasn’t really spying. It was just witnessing another wholesome moment.

 

He was close enough to hear now. “... And then the Minister tried to argue about the pledge. I think it’s creepy, but he said it instilled honor or whatever. Which, like, how?” Zuko was saying.

 

The older woman hummed a bit. “And what did you say in response?”

 

Zuko looked a bit contrite, but the woman couldn’t even see his face. “Uh, well…”

 

“Zuko,” the woman chastised. “I told you not to be rude to them.”

 

“But mom ,” he whined. 

 

Sokka completely zoned out then. Mom? He guessed he shouldn’t be too surprised. He knew that, logically, Zuko had to have a mom. But after everything with his dad…well, Sokka was admittedly a little confused. Where had she been the whole week?

 

He shook his head a bit to clear his thoughts. A little part of him felt a bit guilty for even eavesdropping in on this clearly private conversation between mother and son. Sokka went to leave, and give the two of them the privacy they deserved, when a bit of their conversation caught his attention.

 

“And what about the date Azula said you went on?” Zuko’s mother asked.

 

Zuko sighed. “She told you about it?”

 

“She did. Is there a reason you didn’t want to tell me?”

 

He shook his head. “No, I just… I don’t know. I was nervous, and then it went well, and I guess I just…you know, didn’t want to jinx anything.”

 

Sokka smiled. He smiled so widely he could feel his cheeks hurting. Zuko thought the date went well? Of course he did. Why wouldn’t he? They spent hours together. But it still felt pretty freaking phenomenal to hear that. Sokka was floating on a cloud as he finally slipped away and made his way to the palace library.

 

--

 

He decided that night to try and wake up early to catch Aang’s practice with Zuko. He hadn’t been since the initial training the week before. Sokka made sure to politely ask a servant to wake him at sunrise, and was pleasantly surprised when they did just that. For some reason, he’d thought that he’d just be ignored. Though, to be fair, that was probably a ridiculous assumption. But you can’t blame Sokka for not really understanding the job of a servant. 

 

He dressed and made his way down to the training courtyard, luckily still remembering the way. No one else was present today, just Zuko and Aang in the training yard. When they saw him, they both smiled.

 

“Sokka!” Aang exclaimed, waving enthusiastically. “Are you going to watch me train?”

 

Sokka smiled in return, sitting down on the steps. “That’s the plan, bud.”

 

Aang let out a little whoop , and Zuko crinkled his eyes a bit, a fond look developing on his face. “Alright, alright. Let’s show Sokka what we’ve gone over so far, huh?”

 

They ran through some drills, and Sokka couldn’t help but be entranced by Zuko’s firebending. He realized he’d never really seen him in this element. The way he handled his flames seemed so natural; it was as if the flames were an extension of his very being. Like his uncle, Zuko had golds, purples, and whites. It was ethereal. There seemed to be the rays from a star flying from his fingertips.

 

He didn’t even notice Azula approaching until she’d sat down right next to him. At this point, the two boys in the ring were entirely focussed on each other and their bending.

 

Sokka jumped a bit at her presence. 

 

“Uh, hi,” he said, cringing a bit at the awkwardness in his tone. 

 

She arched an eyebrow at him, and pursed her lips. “You’re an eloquent one.”

 

He paused, trying to decide how to take that. “Thanks?”

 

“Hmm,” she responded. She tapped her long nails against her knees, her sharp eyes analyzing him. “I take it you enjoyed your date with my brother?”

 

Oh shit, is this a shovel talk? Sokka cleared his throat, trying to disperse the tension that had just formed in his chest. “Yes. Uh, yes. Yep. Very much.” He smiled. She was glaring. “Right, yeah. Your brother is great. Zuko, that is.”

 

“Yes, Zuko,” she replied. Her gaze was sharpening. “My only brother, Zuko. Who I am very protective of.” She glanced over at him. He barely even noticed he was there, so focussed on his duty to teach Aang. “We weren’t always close. Our father was an ass.”

 

Sokka let out a surprised snort, and quickly tried to cover it up with a cough. Unsuccessfully cover it up with a cough, that is. “Yeah, he’s, uh, told me a bit about him.”

 

Azula rolled her eyes. “I’m sure whatever he told you was only half of it. Regardless, Zuko has been through a lot, and I’m not very fond of him ever being hurt. Obviously, I can’t prevent all harm from falling upon him. Sadly, I haven’t developed the capability of being everywhere at once, and Zuzu does hate to be followed around. But,” and with this, she turned so her entire body was facing him, her face severe. “I can at least let the people in his life know that he is not to be trifled with, and any intentional or severe harm - physical or emotional - will be dealt with swiftly and discretely. Am I clear, Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe?”

 

Sokka gulped, fear flooding his body. What was it with sisters and being absolute terrors? “Clear.” She continued to glare. “Your Highness?”

 

She smiled, her posture relaxing just the slightest. “Excellent. I’m so glad we understand each other.”

 

“Azula!” Zuko called up from the ring, and the two audience members turned to stare at him. He looked annoyed. “Stop torturing Sokka.”

 

Azula pressed her perfectly manicured hand to her chest, looking affronted. “Zuzu! I would never stoop to torture! Sokka and I were merely getting to know each other. Isn’t that right, Sokka?”

 

He looked between the two siblings, trying to decide if he should tell Zuko that his sister was an absolute terror, or not risk his life and agree with Azula. He decided the latter was very much safer. “Yep, just bonding. We’re the best of friends now. Right, best bud?” He gave a gentle elbow nudge to the princess, and decidedly didn’t cower away when she turned to glare at him.

 

“Right,” she stood then, straightening her robes. Zuko was giving her a disbelieving look, though there was fondness on his face as well. “I do have my own training to see to. I’ll see you later, brother dear.” And with that, she glided away. 

 

Sokka had quite literally never met anyone as frightening as her.

 

From further down, he heard Zuko sigh. “Sorry about her. She can be intense.”

 

Aang chuckled. “Have you met Katara? I bet the two of them together could take over the world.”

 

Sokka’s face blanched. “Let’s not give them any ideas.”

 

Zuko nodded his furtively in agreement. “Please, Agni, no. The last thing Azula needs is power over the world.”

 

Aang just laughed, and the two brothers shared a look of pure fear. If only Aang knew how scary and powerful and intimidating sisters were. Then he’d really understand.

 

Zuko shook his head a bit, turning back to the Avatar. “Let’s finish your training. I have a meeting with a Minister in an hour.” He paused then, before turning to Sokka, a shy look coming across his face. “Actually, I was meaning to find you. Would you, if you have time that is, maybe like to have tea this afternoon? At midday? Only if you’d like. You know, like to have tea with me.” During his rambling speech, his cheeks had gone from a light pink to almost cherry shade.

 

At the end of the babble, Sokka was beaming. “I’d love to have tea with you, Zuko.”

 

Zuko returned a small, shy grin. Next to him, Aang was practically vibrating with excitement, his eyes darting between the two older boys. “Great!” Zuko said. “That’s great! Um… I’ll meet you by the courtyard with the pond? Have you seen it?”

 

Sokka nodded. “Yep, great. Perfect. I’ll see you there then? Midday?”

 

“Uh huh.”

 

Aang continued to look back and forth between them, before springing up in the air, his laughter tinged with excitement. “This is so amazing!” He stopped his excited jumping, looking at the bewildered stares of both Sokka and Zuko, before the airbender let out a content sigh. “I just love love.”

 

--

 

Sokka arrived in the courtyard right on time, and was pleasantly surprised to see Zuko already sitting there atop a plush cushion in front of a table with a tea set and some light snacks. He was reading a scroll, his brow furrowed in concentration.

 

He looked adorable.

 

Sokka approached the table, sitting down across from the prince. Zuko looked up as he sat, and a large smile spread across his face. 

 

“Hi,” Zuko said, his rasping voice soft.

 

Sokka was grinning from ear to ear. “Hi,” he replied.

 

Zuko reached over and began pouring the tea, and Sokka noticed that he slightly warmed the kettle with his hands. “Sorry for being so absent the past couple of days. We’re in the middle of the educational reforms… I think I told you about them?”

 

Sokka nodded, “A bit. I’ve enjoyed reading about them in the library.”

 

He smiled. “I’m glad. How are you finding the Fire Nation?”

 

Sokka hummed a bit, picking up his tea to take a small sip. “Honestly? A lot better than I thought. No offense, of course, but I was a bit… hesitant.”

 

Zuko looked at him over his own cup of tea. “That’s very understandable.”

 

“But regardless, I’ve enjoyed my time here.” He reached over for Zuko’s hand, and the man eagerly took it. “Meeting you was a nice touch.” Zuko blushed.

 

Spirits, Sokka would never get over how easy it was to make the prince blush. Any sort of compliment brought heat to the boy’s cheeks, and Sokka was absolutely obsessed. 

 

“Well, meeting you was a very nice surprise as well. I thought meeting the Avatar would be boring.”

 

Sokka let out a small chuckle. “Well, I’m sure you never expected to be the Avatar’s teacher.”

 

Zuko laughed as well. “I absolutely did not. I’m hardly the best firebender out there. Azula surpassed me ages ago, and there’s many reputable firebending teachers out there.” He sighed a bit, before giving a small shrug. “But who am I to argue with the spirits?”

 

Sokka looked at Zuko consideringly. He had noticed the other boy’s affinity for self-deprecation, but had no idea where it spawned from. From the little he’d seen of Fire Lord Iroh, the man was nothing but encouraging to his nephew. In the back of his mind, he wondered if it was from his father. 

 

But that was a topic for later, when they knew each other better.

 

For now, Sokka gave his hand a squeeze, and took another sip of his tea. “Would you like to tell me about the education reforms?”

 

Zuko’s face lit up, and he eagerly began a tirade on his new policy proposals, fights with ministers, and everything in between. Sokka listened, though his mind began to wander as he let his voice wash over him.

 

It had only been about ten days since they touched down in the Fire Nation, and yet everything about Zuko kept sucking Sokka in. His smile, his voice, his personality, his awkwardness. Just his existence itself was enticing. Sokka hadn’t felt a connection like this since Suki, and even that was less intense. And that was saying something. He felt as if he’d known Zuko forever, and the thought of not being with him hurt. It was ridiculous, that after just a short amount of time, he could feel this connected to the prince. But here he was.

 

And what does he even do with a crush on the crown prince of a nation? What are the next steps for that? What does the future look like for the two of them? Where are they expected to take this?

 

Spirits, all he wants to do is kiss him. What do his lips feel like? Would the connection Sokka feels translate to Zuko via physical touch? Is that how this works? The romantic side of Sokka’s brain began to imagine fireworks exploding the moment their lips touched.

 

“I want to kiss you,” Sokka said abruptly, interrupting Zuko’s spiel. 

 

Zuko blinked, looking a bit confused. “... huh?”

 

Sokka blushed, looking down at the table for a moment, before lifting his eyes to meet Zuko’s. “I’d like to kiss you. If you’re alright with that.”

 

Zuko paused, his mouth opening and closing, his eyes blinking rapidly, before he gave a slow nod. “Yeah. Yeah, I’d, uh, I’d really like that.”

 

Sokka nodded, and leaned forward until their noses were touching. “I’m going to kiss you now, then. Alright?”

 

“Alright,” Zuko whispered.

 

And with that, Sokka gently pressed his lips against Zuko’s, and after just a brief moment, Zuko returned the motion, moving his lips just slightly against Sokka’s.

 

It wasn’t a passionate kiss by any means. It was slow, sweet, and oddly, familiar. As if they’d kissed a hundred times. As if they were meant to be kissing each other.

 

And in that moment, as their lips touched, it felt as if their souls were meeting each other, as if they were morphing together into one.

 

In that moment, Sokka wasn’t too worried about the future and what it meant to date the crown prince of a nation. He’d figure that out later.

 

At that moment, he just wanted to continue kissing and exploring Zuko, learning about Zuko, and for Zuko to learn and explore him.

 

He wanted them to slowly become together. To become one.

 

They could worry about the specifics later.