Sokka cast a harried glance at the clock as he sifted through the mess of documents on his desk. He’d been off-kilter all morning. He’d overslept, and then barely had enough time to grab a quick breakfast with Zuko before his morning meetings began. In his haste to not be late, he’d forgotten to grab the notes he’d need for the rest of the afternoon.
Earth Kingdom politics were very convoluted, and Sokka really needed a map to keep all of the minor, somewhat self-appointed kings and queens of the major cities and provinces straight. Today’s meeting was with the liaison of one of the many Earth queens. She had taken to peace like a turtleduck to water—which was to say, she’d immediately started grabbing for previously Fire Nation occupied land almost as soon as the ink on their peace treaty with the Fire Nation was dry.
It was unfortunate for her that the Earth King of the neighboring territory had the same plan, and unfortunate for Zuko that they’d both decided that, as a neutral party, it was absolutely his business to play arbitrator. Technically, this had nothing to do with the Water Tribes, but Sokka wanted to go, if only to back Zuko up. He shuffled all of his notes into a pile and turned to leave. He paused.
There was an unopened letter sitting on the edge of his desk. It must have been delivered sometime during his morning meeting, arranged carefully where he would be sure to spot it. The bright blue wax seal at the top marked it plainly as correspondence from the Southern Water Tribe. Sokka grinned as he grabbed it, sliding his thumb under the seal. He carried it with him to the door, skimming over the top of the letter.
Sokka stood in the doorway for a moment, reading, and then slowly backed up toward his desk. Then he tucked his meeting notes away again, still hovering beside the desk as he read on.
Sokka, I wanted to warn you of a conversation I’ve been having with Chief Arnook over the past few months, regarding the alliance and their support of the Southern Reconstruction Project.
Chief Arnook has suggested an union through marriage between our tribes. He speaks highly of both you and Katara, but since your sister is dating Aang, he’s been asking after you.
I would never force an arrangement on you, but I would like you to meet the man, if you’re open to it. It seems like it could be a favorable match. He’s a non-bender, but Chief Arnook tells me he’s one of their most respected warriors, and participated in the defense during the Northern Invasion—
Oh, Sokka did not like where this was going. He skimmed to the end, and—
He’ll be accompanying Chief Arnook to the harvest festival in Ba Sing Se. His name is Hahn.
Sokka threw himself into the desk chair and scrubbed a brush so furiously over his inkstone that he had to pause to straighten the bristles. No way am I marrying that self-centered jerk— he started writing, and then… and then he paused, as the opening of his dad’s letter started to sink in. He glanced back up to the top of the page.
...regarding the alliance, and their support of the Southern Reconstruction Project...
Sokka balled up the paper and started again.
The quiet clink of a plate set at his elbow was enough to startle Sokka out of his focus, and he accidentally smeared ink over the top half of his most recent draft. Which was fine. He balled the page up and nudged it to join his growing pile of scraps. He wasn’t wording this right, anyway.
Sokka grabbed a fresh sheet of paper and glanced up. Zuko was standing at the corner of his desk, looking torn between amusement and genuine concern.
“Oh, shit,” Sokka said.
He turned toward the window and realized how long the shadows peeking through the office curtains had grown. As though in response to that thought, Zuko reached over and pinched the wick of the candle at the edge of Sokka’s desk, lighting a little flame between his thumb and forefinger. “Did I miss—?”
“An entire afternoon’s meetings, and also dinner?” Zuko asked. “Yes.” He paused, and then with a little less amusement, and a little more concern, he glanced over the surface of Sokka’s desk, which was accumulating a growing mound of furiously crumpled rejections. “Everything okay?”
Sokka hesitated, and then sighed and slid his dad’s letter across the desk.
The plate Zuko had brought him was piled up with his favorite fire picken, which Sokka still maintained was the best food the Fire Nation had to offer. Weird... they usually didn’t make it in the palace, since the cooks insisted it wasn’t fancy enough to serve the Fire Lord and the other snooty nobles. Sokka would have been devastated if he’d missed the only time the kitchens ever decided to make it. He grinned. This was why Zuko was his best friend, thinking of him even though he’d completely flaked on an entire afternoon of meetings.
Sokka kept only half his attention on the food as Zuko dragged a chair over and unfolded the letter to read. He could pinpoint the moment Zuko reached the marriage bit in the letter. Sokka might have laughed at his expression, if he wasn’t finding it so frustrating himself.
Zuko looked up from the letter. He hesitated, looking conflicted, and then set the letter down again with delicate care.
“So the problem is…?” Zuko asked. Sokka sputtered.
“The problem is Hahn is a jerk,” Sokka said, “and I don’t want to marry him!”
Zuko’s shoulders relaxed, slightly, maybe relieved that it was—compared to his usual—a very low-stakes problem to have. Zuko glanced down at the letter again, very pointedly, and Sokka sighed.
“Okay, look. Before you tell me to just tell them no… it’s not that simple,” Sokka said. “I know Dad said that he’s not going to force a marriage on me, but the Northern Water Tribe cares more about that stuff. Katara is dating Aang, so she has a good excuse to turn them down, but everyone knows that Suki and I broke up years ago. How am I supposed to tell Chief Arnook, ‘Hey, I know you thought Hahn was good enough for your very own daughter, but actually he’s garbage and I want nothing to do with him,’ without them taking offense?”
“Well,” Zuko said. “I wouldn’t... use those words.”
“It doesn’t matter what words I use!” Sokka yelled, exasperated. He swiped the pile of failed replies off the desk and into the trash to emphasize the point. “They’re going to take it as an insult, and that’s going to hurt the Southern Water Tribe’s relationship with the North, which we need, because there aren’t nearly enough waterbenders in the South Pole to handle the reconstruction efforts.” Sokka dropped his head onto the desk and groaned. “Why did it have to be Hahn? Maybe if Dad suggests someone else—”
“No,” Zuko interrupted. Sokka glanced at him, in time to catch the tail-end of a grimace. “I mean. Do you really want an arranged marriage?”
“...No,” Sokka admitted.
Honestly, Sokka wasn’t sure why the idea sat so poorly with him. Dating was fun, and he liked meeting new people, but he couldn’t imagine courting any of the other people his age that he’d met at the North Pole, even the ones that weren’t stuck up jerks like Hahn.
“Why don’t...” Zuko faltered. He stared at Sokka, but it was apparent that he wasn’t going to continue.
“Why don’t… what?” Sokka prompted.
Zuko frowned at the letter in his hands, although it didn’t look like he was really reading it. He let out a tiny sigh, and then glanced up to meet Sokka’s eyes.
“You could tell them we’re together,” Zuko said.
Sokka stared at him. Zuko looked a bit like he was expecting Sokka to laugh him out of the room.
“Nevermind, it’s a stupid—” Zuko said quickly, just as Sokka shouted:
Zuko blinked at him, and started to smile a little, as Sokka continued, “Oh, Zuko, why didn’t I think of that? Katara got out of it because she’s dating Aang, so if we just pretend until after the harvest festival in Ba Sing Se—”
Zuko’s smile twitched, just slightly, and Sokka hastily clarified.
“I mean, I know a few weeks is a long time,” Sokka said. “But I think people would get suspicious if I said I was dating the Fire Lord but no one ever saw us like, actually going on dates, or doing couple stuff—”
Sokka paused, a thought catching up with him.
“Hey, this isn’t going to get you in trouble, is it?” Sokka asked. “I mean, I know you’re the one that offered, but I don’t want to trade avoiding a conflict with the Northern Water Tribe with a conflict for you, here. Will they care that I’m an Ambassador? Or… that I’m not Fire Nation?”
“Some people will probably care,” Zuko said, after a hesitant moment considering. “But I’m the Fire Lord. There’s only so much they can do.”
“Yeah, but I don’t want to cause you problems—”
“Sokka, I wouldn’t have offered if I hadn’t already thought it through,” Zuko said, which sounded like a blatant lie. First of all, this was Zuko, and Zuko never thought things through. And second, how long could Zuko have possibly had to consider the consequences of dating him, when he’d only known about his dad’s letter for a few minutes? And even if he’d considered the possible political consequences...
Sokka squinted at him.
“And you’re not interested in anyone?” he asked.
Zuko was giving him a very deadpan look, so that must have been a dumb question. Okay, fair, they were close enough friends that Zuko would have mentioned it. Sokka threw his hands up.
“Hey, I just wanted to ask!” he said. “I don’t want you to regret it when the suitors stop coming.”
“I want them to stop. I’m only twenty, I don’t need an heir yet, and...” Zuko held Sokka’s gaze for a second, opened his mouth, and hesitated. He let out a tiny sigh and looked away. “It’s really not a problem.”
“Well… great!” Sokka said. “You can help me out with this, and I’ll keep your advisors from bothering you about an heir—for a few weeks anyway. It’s a win-win.”
Sokka pressed a knuckle to his mouth, thinking. If they were going to make it seem real, they’d probably want to pretend it had been going on for a while, but that they’d been keeping things private, and that the only reason they were mentioning it now was the marriage proposal.
It was a good enough excuse. Sokka would probably even believe it. This could totally work.
“Okay,” Sokka said, pulling over a fresh piece of paper. “Help me write this letter to my dad.”
The next morning, Sokka paused in the door to Zuko’s study and shifted the vase into his other hand to knock. He’d spent most of last night in his room planning how best to reveal their relationship to the palace.
The size of the flower arrangement was really just ridiculous, which meant that it was perfect, and totally worth waking up before his early morning meeting to go order from a florist in Caldera City midtown. They’d been absolutely delighted to upsell him, until he ended up with a vase of fire lilies the size of his torso, all bright orange and swishing jauntily as he carried it to Zuko’s study. A few of the petals brushed against his cheek, leaving a dusty little streak of pollen that he scrubbed off on his shoulder. He’d been subtly gawked at during the whole walk over, by curious servants and ministers and advisory staff roaming the halls during their breaks, but the look he received from Zuko was definitely the best, baffled and suspicious and a little mortified all at once.
Sokka grinned. Zuko stared.
“Who are those for?” Zuko asked after a long moment.
“Who are—who do you think?” Sokka swept around the table to place them in front of Zuko’s chair, fluffing the petals lightly so they fell just-so. He glanced back at him and summoned a teasing grin. A little muscle on Zuko’s temple began to twitch, and on impulse Sokka soothed the tension with his thumb. He let his hand linger there for show. “They’re for you!”
Across the table, the Minister of Foreign Affairs was doing a very poor job of hiding her absolute delight. Her gaze darted between them and the flowers like this was the best day of her life, mouth very firmly pinched to hide the startled grin threatening to take over her face.
Minister Inoko was an incorrigible gossip. At least, she was for the sort of gossip that was removed enough from her position to be fun for her, like fashion blunders and relationship drama. Any time some fresh gossip crossed her path, the whole palace would have heard whisperings by the end of the workday. Sokka knew this. It was in fact his own main source of gossip, which was exactly why he’d selected her meeting to interrupt. Of everyone Zuko was scheduled to meet today, she’d get the job done quickest.
Sokka darted a quick glance between her and the flowers before meeting Zuko’s gaze. Come on man, play along, he said with his eyes, and his eyebrows, and a quiet click of his tongue. That seemed to finally urge Zuko into reacting beyond giving him that startled rabbit-deer stare.
“Right,” Zuko said slowly. “I forgot about our—date?”
Spirits, he was a bad liar. They were going to have to work on that. Sokka mentally added it to his to-do list.
“I promised you lunch,” Sokka said. He hesitated then, and glanced back at Minister Inoko like he was just realizing she was there. “Ah. I’m sorry to interrupt. Do you mind if we...?”
“Not at all, Ambassador,” she said quickly. Minister Inoko hastily swept the papers in front of her into a pile, heedless of the fresh ink on the page she’d been writing on, now smudged across the flat of her palm. She bit the side of her cheek and added, “Please, enjoy your lunch.”
She turned to Zuko and bowed hastily, and then she was off so quickly that two of the pages from her stack fluttered to the ground in her wake. Sokka watched her go with the satisfaction of a plan in motion. Then he stooped to pick the stray pages up from the floor and set them neatly on the corner of Zuko’s desk.
“So,” Sokka said, smoothing the edge of one page. Zuko’s expression had twisted into something between tolerant amusement and annoyance, which was basically right where Sokka normally landed, and it did absolutely nothing to slow him down. “Lunch?”
It was barely past noon, and they still technically had a full workday ahead of them, so it felt a little strange to be going anywhere too fancy... especially because this wasn’t a real date. But Sokka didn’t do anything by halves, and spirits above, their first official public date was going to be a nice one. Sokka was great at dates and romance, and he had a reputation to uphold.
The server smiled warmly at Sokka as he ducked through the sunny entryway of the restaurant. The inside smelled strongly of spices and seafood. He’d found this place a couple of weeks ago and nearly cried over their clay pot fish head stew. He’d come back a couple times since then, and the food seemed better every time. Sokka hadn’t shared it with anyone yet—he’d felt a little bit like it was his secret, or maybe like he was saving it for something, but a date with the Fire Lord seemed like as good of an opportunity as any.
The owner recognized him, and she nodded a quick greeting. A beat passed, and then she did a double-take and nearly dropped her knife in surprise. Her face absolutely lit up when she realized who was following behind him.
And maybe that would be a nice little bonus to this whole fake dating thing, Sokka mused. He was always seated at restaurants much, much faster with Zuko around than he ever was alone, and usually in a nice sunny table near the window so that anyone passing on the street could see the sort of customers the restaurant’s food was able to draw. Zuko tolerated this phenomenon with mild embarrassment, and his guards tolerated it with mild disapproval, having to then pay a little more attention to the street as well.
“You know the festival isn’t for another few weeks, right?” Zuko asked, after Sokka had ordered for them both, and their server had stepped out of earshot.
“I mean, yeah, but we can’t have the day I’m supposed to be meeting a marriage match be the first time anyone hears about us,” Sokka said. “That would be super suspicious.”
“But did you have to be so… over the top?”
“I’m an over the top guy,” Sokka said.
“I guess,” Zuko allowed after a long pause. For a moment there he looked like he was going to say something else, but before he could their server was back with a plate of appetizers, which she insisted was on the house, as though the Fire Lord’s very deep pockets needed anything given to him for free. Sokka smiled and thanked her, and could practically see Zuko plotting to add the cost of it to their bill.
“Zuko,” he said quietly. Sokka reached across the table and laid his hand overtop his slender fingers, and Zuko’s hand jumped under his for half a moment before he relaxed. Over Zuko’s shoulder the waitress did a double-take, and Zuko’s guards very pointedly looked elsewhere.
Sokka lowered his voice slightly, leaning in, “This’ll go smoother with a well-thought out plan, and then we can get this over with and break up again. And you know me. I love a well-thought-out plan.”
Zuko shifted uncomfortably, glanced aside, and licked his lips. For a second Sokka wondered if maybe he’d gone too far, and Zuko was getting second thoughts about pretending to be dating him if it meant everyone actually, you know, knowing they were dating.
But then he straightened a little, like he was gearing himself up. Zuko nodded, and Sokka let out a relieved sigh.
“Good, because we need to go over some ground rules,” Sokka said.
“Like what?” Zuko asked.
“You know, like, what you’re comfortable with,” Sokka said. “Like… like hand holding, or touching, or kissing—” Zuko was turning a little red. Maybe he hadn’t thought this all the way through, when he’d offered to pretend to date him.
Well… this was Zuko, so he definitely hadn’t thought it through. Still.
“We don’t have to do any of that if you don’t want to,” Sokka said reassuringly. “Whatever you’re cool with. I mean it.”
“I don’t want to do anything you don’t want to, either,” Zuko said after a long moment, which was such a cop-out answer, but Sokka was a good friend, so he was going to let him get away with it.
“Honestly, if you do something I don’t like, I’ll just tell you,” Sokka said. “I’d do that if we were really dating, anyway. But I’m cool with anything.”
“Okay,” Zuko said. “I think all of those things would be... fine.” He looked a little pained to be saying it, hesitating on the last word, but then again this topic was pretty awkward.
“Even kissing?” Sokka asked.
“I think… people would probably be suspicious, if we didn’t. You’re already a pretty touchy person,” Zuko said. “And I really don’t mind,” he added, when Sokka opened his mouth to insist, but are you sure?
Zuko still didn’t look totally sold on the idea, but… Sokka didn’t want to push him, or make him feel like he was pressuring him, and anyway, Sokka didn’t want Zuko to think that he was uncomfortable.
“Okay. Cool,” Sokka said.
Sokka picked up a spicy water cucumber from his plate and held it up to Zuko’s lips, his smile going a little mischievous. Zuko squinted at him, then rolled his eyes and picked up a water cucumber of his own. Zuko popped it stubbornly into his mouth, so Sokka gave up on trying to feed it to him and ate the other one himself. He chewed thoughtfully.
“So I think,” Sokka said after a moment, “that we should go on a handful of dates here in the Fire Nation, at least. Publicly, to sell the lie. That part shouldn’t be too hard. The really tricky bit is going to be when we get to Ba Sing Se.”
They were going to have to be obvious, to make it clear that the relationship was serious and Sokka was off the market. Maybe if they were really over the top, Sokka would get left alone for a while after their fake breakup, too. Being over the top meant that if everything went according to plan, the rest of their friends and family were definitely going to find out. Sokka could just tell them the truth, but… they weren’t the most subtle bunch. The more people who knew, the more likely they were to get caught in a lie, and they were really trying to avoid causing an international incident, here.
Now that he thought about it, they’d have to come up with answers for all the typical, couple-y questions, too, like how they got together and how long they’d been seeing each other. Sokka frowned, thinking about Zuko’s less-than-stellar lying abilities when he was flustered. Maybe some half-truths would be better, to make it easier to keep their story straight. They’d have to brainstorm later.
“Katara is going to be mad that I’ve been keeping secrets from her,” Sokka said. “She might be a little suspicious, actually. We’ll make sure we tell her when Aang’s around. Aang loves love. He’ll be super excited.”
Zuko nodded in agreement, so Sokka pressed on.
“We have to be careful what we say around Toph, since she can tell when we’re lying,” Sokka said. “So just—try to avoid her as much as you can. But not in an obvious way. And if she asks you any hard questions, just… deflect.”
Sokka tapped his chopsticks against the edge of his plate, smearing little drops of spicy sauce from the water cucumbers over the porcelain. He traced aimless little patterns while he gathered his thoughts. Then he sighed.
“My dad will probably want to meet you,” Sokka said after a moment. He frowned apologetically. “I mean—you’ve met, obviously. But he’ll want to meet you again, as a boyfriend.”
“And my uncle will… yeah,” Zuko said. He straightened a little, looking much more anxious than one little conversation with Sokka’s dad warranted. He took a hasty sip of his tea and cleared his throat. “I mean. It’s fine. I can… pretend.”
“You don’t have to worry,” Sokka assured him. “He likes you. If anything, he’ll be happy for us.”
“Okay,” Zuko said, though he still sounded a little uncertain. Sokka wasn’t sure if there was any way to reassure him, but before he could get the chance to try, their server returned with an entire row of plates balanced on one arm and their tea on the other arm.
Sokka reached out to help her with one of the plates, and Zuko smacked his hand. Sokka scoffed, and tried to kick him under the table, but Zuko just pulled his foot back.
“Don’t touch,” Zuko said, “you’ll mess up her balance. Unless you want to wear our lunch.”
The waitress looked—surprised, and a little grateful, so maybe Zuko was right. Sokka put his hands up in surrender, and let her unload plate after plate in front of them.
Sokka should probably pour the tea, considering he was eating with the Fire Lord. He dragged the basket of curry puffs over, instead, and stuffed one into his mouth whole.
“Was that a ‘Lee from the teashop’ thing?” Sokka asked. Zuko wrinkled his nose at Sokka’s manners. “Be honest with me, have you ever dumped tea in some poor soul’s lap?”
“Would you like to be the first?” Zuko asked, and pushed his now-full teacup toward him. “Chew your food before you speak, you animal.”
“My boyfriend loves me despite my flaws,” Sokka said, after dutifully washing the next bite down with tea. Zuko rolled his eyes, but he wasn’t… completely terrible at acting, when he smiled at him, or when he pulled out the plates to start dividing food, and put the best-looking pieces onto the plate he handed to Sokka. Or maybe it was just easy, to make a fondness for friends look like plain old romantic fondness.
Sokka took another sip of tea.
“So, how long have we been together?” Sokka asked. “It has to have started before I got the letter.”
“A few months?” Zuko asked. “We can say we’re not… sure? It happened gradually?”
“The fewer details the better, anyway,” he agreed.
“How about: you missed a meeting, and I asked you out when I brought your dinner to your room?” Zuko suggested. Sokka let out an exaggerated sigh.
“That’s so boring,” Sokka said. He sighed again. “But I guess we should pick something easy to remember. Okay. We’ve been dating a few months. You asked me out in the most boring way possible. You think I’m the most handsome man you’ve ever met.” He ticked each item off on his fingers.
Zuko nodded, very earnestly, and Sokka couldn’t help but laugh.
“Bring that energy to the rest of your terrible lying, and maybe we can pull this off,” Sokka laughed.
“I’m not a terrible liar,” Zuko lied.
Sokka reached mournfully across the table and gave his hand a grave pat. “It’s okay, Zuko, not everyone is cut out for quick thinking—”
“Okay, Wang Fire—”
“—and genius improv like I am,” Sokka said, ignoring him. “Honestly, you’re an open book. I don’t think you could hide your feelings from anyone.”
“Unless they were an idiot,” Zuko said. Sokka pulled the condiment tray closer, so he could spoon pickled vegetables onto his rice with one hand, the other still patting Zuko’s in reassurance.
“Unless they were an idiot,” Sokka agreed, and for some reason that made Zuko smile. “But we’ll practice!”
They’d have a few weeks to get ready. Zuko could practice his lies-by-omission. Sokka was already incredible at it, so he could help Zuko there. Then, Sokka would have to get him ready to talk to his dad and Chief Arnook, just in case they wanted to vet him.
Between that, and doing their actual duties to prepare for the harvest festival, they were going to have a pretty full couple of weeks. At least people would see them spending a lot of time together.
This was totally going to work.
They didn’t actually have to change their schedules all that much in the days leading up to the festival. Zuko was his best friend, so they already spent a lot of time together. They sparred together at least twice a week. Most evenings they ate dinner together, or unwound in each other’s chambers, or just sat together while they worked. It really wasn’t that much effort to add in a few extra lingering touches, or toss out a few obnoxious nicknames for Zuko that earned him hilarious glares, or more mild pet names that just got him indulgent huffs of protest.
They were already kinda nailing this fake dating thing.
Which, Sokka maintained, was the only reason he was so surprised when Zuko came and found him the day before they were set to leave for the Earth Kingdom, all the way in the Southern Water Tribe embassy, and settled his hands on the edge of Sokka’s desk like he was hoping to burrow through the wood if only he pressed hard enough.
“Do you want to,” Zuko asked, painfully slowly, “...go out?”
“Out?” Sokka said.
“You know,” Zuko said. He flicked a glance at the embassy staff seated at the other side of the room. Sokka followed his gaze, even though none of them seemed to be paying them any mind, and Zuko’s meaning clicked, “Out.”
“Oh,” Sokka said. He cast a glance over his shoulder, but Zuko’s offer hadn’t raised a single head, voice too low to carry across the room. He sat up straighter and said, loudly, with a hint of teasing in his tone, “Are you asking me on a date?”
Zuko went a little red in the face, but it definitely had the desired effect, earning him a few curious glances from the other embassy staff.
“I guess I am,” Zuko said. A little smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “But of course, if you’re busy...”
“No!” Sokka said quickly. A solid ninety percent of his schedule today was reviewing extremely niche budget proposals, and he could think of literally nothing he wanted to do less when hanging out with his best friend was on the table as an alternative. It was almost lunch time, anyway—if he neglected his work for the sake of building their alibi for the harvest festival, he could always make up for it later tonight. Sokka swept the scroll he was reading into a drawer and shut it with a little too much force, which earned him a chuckle from Zuko. “Lead the way.”
The Caldera downtown marketplace was bustling this time of day, but even with the throngs of eager shoppers, there was a bit of a buffer around the Fire Lord as he made his way through. It didn’t annoy Zuko, per se, but Sokka had definitely noticed that it made him a bit self-conscious, to watch the startled looks flicker across the other shoppers’ faces as they parted to let Zuko pass by.
He may not love the attention, but it was definitely helpful in other ways. Sokka clung close to Zuko’s side as they walked, and watched the interested gazes dart toward them and away as they made their way down the street. Zuko saw them, too, and shrunk a little. Then he glanced at Sokka, and seemed to remember that this was the reaction that they wanted, people gawking at them and spreading the word, and he huffed a steadying breath and walked with his head held a little bit higher.
Zuko didn’t seem to have any particular destination in mind, content to just let Sokka wander and shop, which he was absolutely more than happy to do. They combed up and down the market streets for a few minutes, ducking into whatever shops caught their eye, grazing past the pop-up stalls lining the streets with their wares, and all the while walking just close enough to touch. After a moment of hesitation Zuko reached out to rest a hand on Sokka’s back, and they walked like that the rest of the way down the street with the heavy interest of the crowd following them.
Zuko trailed after Sokka as he dragged him toward another jewelry shop, with only a vaguely exasperated look as they stepped inside. Sokka ignored him, because Zuko had no right to judge, after how long he’s stood staring at the three incredibly similar novel adaptations of the same play settled on the corner of a bookseller’s stall, grumbling at the inaccuracies, completely oblivious to the vendor’s increasingly desperate attempts to find something that suited Zuko’s tastes.
It was Sokka’s turn to oggle stuff he didn’t need, thank you very much.
Just from a quick glance at his wares, Sokka recognized the craftsmanship of an Earth Kingdom style jade artisan, the sort of thing he’d seen in passing in the Ba Sing Se Upper Ring during their time in the city years ago. There was a case filled with the most precious of the man’s designs at the back of the stall. He took one look at Zuko and went to fetch it, setting it very pointedly within reach. Sokka grinned and ducked over to take a peek.
One hairpiece did catch his eye—it was carved from Earth Kingdom white jade, the bottom of the hairpiece curling upward like wisps of smoke, coming together at the top to a lotus flower in full bloom, nestled atop a spindling cage of jade pins to fasten the hair in place. He ran his thumb over the edge of the design. The top of the hairpiece was so delicately carved that sunlight shone through the finest details of the petals, glittering like arctic ice. It really was beautiful—but also much too expensive to justify buying, considering that Sokka rarely wore his hair in the Fire Nation topknot style that would suit the hairpiece best. He set it down and shuffled over to have a look at some of the bracelets the artisan had set out, instead.
These were a bit more his speed. He picked one made of interlocking jasper beads, strung through with onyx spacers, and tried it on. Nice. He shuffled it off his wrist again, glanced at the price tag, and tried not to balk. Ah, well. He didn’t actually own that many bracelets, and this one really was nice…
“Oh, what the hell,” Sokka muttered, mostly to himself. He glanced over at Zuko, who was leaning over the case with the sort of indulgent impatience he reserved for Sokka’s many shopping sprees. Sokka laid the bracelet out in his palm. “What do you think? I think I’m getting it.”
“It’s nice,” Zuko said, with the sort of tone that said he very much did not care one way or the other. Sokka chuckled a little, considered the bracelet again, and shrugged.
He gave the shop one more quick sweep, just in case anything else piqued his interest. Then, purse a little lighter and bracelet on his wrist, he sidled up to Zuko where he was hovering by the teller and threaded their fingers together.
“Ready?” he asked. Zuko nodded.
After a while Sokka steered them away from the vendors and back toward where the street food stalls had set up. The whole market smelled of spice, sweet and cloying scents mingling with the sharp bite of chilis wafting off the cooking fires of the street food stalls. Sokka followed his nose to a stall selling some kind of kebabs with an appealingly orange sauce.
He bought two, and offered one to Zuko, partly because it was a little fun to watch people gawk at their very dignified Fire Lord eating heavily spiced meat off a stick, and even more so because Zuko wasn’t the least bit self conscious about it, in his fancy Fire Palace robes, eating street food Sokka couldn’t even identify because he’d forgotten to ask the vendor what it was called. Sokka bought a little boat of fire flakes, too, wrapped up in paper, and salad greens for them to split. With his hands full, he offered his elbow up to Zuko, who rolled his eyes but threaded his arm through Sokka’s anyway.
Zuko led the way as they worked their way down through the market toward the docks. It was a warm day, but the breeze off the water was nice enough to chase the heat away. They settled on one of the low stone walls overlooking the pier, and Sokka could almost forget the guards hovering a few feet down the boardwalk as he turned to prop his knee up on the wall so he could face Zuko.
They ate with the sun on their backs and the wind off the water buffered by their knees, turned slightly inward to face one another. For a moment Sokka watched a few of the people wandering up the pier, and just from the way they were walking, he could tell they were trying very hard not to openly stare at them.
This was working… pretty well, actually, and it was kind of nice to get to do all the fun dating stuff, even without any of the dating dating stuff. Sokka leaned in slightly to say as much to Zuko, quiet so the guards couldn’t hear. Zuko’s face was sun-warmed and a little flushed from the heat, the ocean breeze whipping the loose strands of hair off his shoulder, and Sokka had the irrational impulse to reach out and tuck it back behind his ear. Zuko had set the food aside and shifted forward a little closer, so that their knees were almost touching now.
“Here,” Zuko said. He held out a little brown parcel in his palm. Sokka took one look at it and knew what it was, because he had the torn packaging of his bracelet from the same stall stuffed into his pocket. “It’s—I saw you were looking.”
“Oh,” Sokka said. He picked at the edge of the paper, and pulled the hairpiece free. The artistry was even more breathtaking in the full sun, where all the intricately sculpted details were more easily seen. He traced his thumb over the top of one of the petals, along the thready veins of white crystal glittering in the light. “Thank you,” he said, and really meant it, a little surprised by the thrill of emotion that settled in his chest.
Zuko glanced away, rosy-cheeked, and shrugged.
Sokka started to smile at his bashful dismissal—but then he caught sight of the guards, standing at a careful distance from the pier and staring resolutely up the boardwalk, and out to sea, and generally anywhere other than right at them, and… right. The warmth that had settled in his chest dimmed, narrowing into something dangerously like disappointment. Embarrassment washed into its place. Zuko hadn’t meant it like that, so why should he be disappointed?
And gift giving was… was a couple-y thing, so that was good thinking.
Never mind that it was… thoughtful. Zuko was a thoughtful guy, when he wasn’t too busy being completely impulsive and awkward. So of course he paid attention, and of course he was generous, or fake-generous, or whatever. Sokka’s stomach felt strangely tight, which he was firmly going to attribute to the excitement of new and expensive-looking stuff, and nothing else. He held the hairpiece up to where his topknot would sit and smiled.
“What do you think?” Sokka asked.
“I think—it’s good. Nice,” Zuko said, which was as high of praise as any. Sokka beamed and set the hairpiece down next to his knee, carefully balanced on the paper wrapping it came in to keep it safe.
Today was… actually kind of his ideal date, with shopping, and meat on a stick, lazily watching the waves crash against the shore with the breeze on his face, and the warm autumn sun on his back. Sokka stewed in that for a moment, and then turned back out to watch a fishing trawler crawl across the mouth of the bay, headed toward the docks. Sokka’s fingers flexed around the hairpiece, barely, before wrapping it up again and sliding it into his pocket. He very pointedly resisted the urge to glance at Zuko, or the guards watching their every movement, as he reached tentatively over the stone wall and rested his fingers on top of Zuko’s slack hand.
It really… Well. It was kind of a shame that none of this was real.
The lights in Zuko’s chambers were low, save for the candle set on the desk. Sokka had a stack of reports the width of his palm settled into his lap, which he prayed to the spirits was mostly stuffed with filler pages he wouldn’t have to read. Somewhere on the table in the pile of papers he’d propped his feet on was a new prototype schematic sent by the Mechanist, but even that wasn’t enough to entice his slippery focus today. He had a much more confusing puzzle to mull over.
Sokka was a reasonable guy. A reasonable, logical guy. He took the facts as he saw them. He liked his evidence. He liked—okay he was definitely, maybe even a bit over the top about it, which was why no matter how hard he tried to focus on the stupid budget reports he’d been putting off since Zuko had sprung a date on him, his focus just wouldn’t come.
Because he’d been… thinking. He cast what must have been his hundredth glance of the night over at Zuko, where he was settled comfortably on the other side of the couch, close enough for Sokka to reach out and touch—
Zuko heaved an enormous, long suffering sigh, and set his own scroll down in his lap.
“Should I ask why you’re staring at me?” he asked. “Do I want to know?”
“What, I can’t stare at my boyfriend?” Sokka asked, a little too quickly, and okay, that was kind of a dumb answer, because they were alone in Zuko’s chambers and they weren’t actually dating, but—
Zuko rolled his eyes, and turned back to his scroll.
Sokka stared at the side of his head.
And, well. He’d just started thinking, about how they were leaving for Ba Sing Se soon—Sokka already had his bags packed and waiting for him in his own room—and how they’d have to put on a good show for people that knew them a lot better than Zuko’s ministers, or their waitress at the restaurant...
And he’d been thinking: it would be strange, if they showed up at the harvest festival acting like teenagers who’d never done more than holding hands. So.
“We should kiss,” Sokka blurted out. Zuko’s gaze snapped up to meet his own, the scroll in his hands abruptly forgotten. Sokka could feel the tips of his ears burning, at the scrutiny, and at the completely unconvincing way he’d broached the subject. “I mean—what if someone asks us to kiss, and it’s really obvious we’ve never done it before, and then they’ll wonder why we’ve never done it before—”
“You think someone is going to ask us to kiss?” Zuko asked. Sokka valiantly resisted the urge to bristle at his doubtful tone, and only because Zuko was looking the tiniest bit worried by the possibility.
“No. Well, maybe,” Sokka said. “It was just an idea. It’s fine. We can just tell them you’re a private person, maybe, and you’re the Fire Lord, so they won’t question it—”
“Okay,” Zuko said, cutting him off. He clarified, “Okay, let’s practice. It’d be bad for both of us if we got caught in the lie.”
Sokka nodded, grasping onto the excuse immediately.
“Right. I don’t want to make the Fire Nation look bad,” Sokka said, angling his knees a little closer to Zuko’s on the sofa. “You’re already doing me a big favor.”
Zuko nodded, sliding just a bit closer. Sokka leaned in slightly. His plan was a quick brush of lips, just to get Zuko used to the idea...
Sokka hesitated, suddenly nervous, searching Zuko’s expression for any hint of reluctance. Zuko was the one who closed the distance between them, his breath feather light over his skin for a moment before their lips brushed softly, then almost immediately firmer as Zuko leaned in. Zuko’s mouth was very warm, which he’d expected—he was a firebender, after all—and also very open, which he absolutely had not expected. Because… Sokka had kind of thought Zuko would be awkward about this, or uncertain.
Instead, Zuko cupped Sokka’s jaw and kissed him with the confidence of someone who knew what he wanted, or, or maybe someone who didn’t have enough stake to be nervous in the first place. His palms were rough, but—no, that wasn’t surprising. Zuko had never been afraid of hard work, hands calloused from hours of sword training and sparring matches.
Sokka could feel the flush rising up his neck. He gripped the edge of Zuko’s robe, the first thing he could reach, and then they were really kissing, dizzyingly slow, and langid, and no Zuko absolutely did not need the practice. Sokka didn’t know why he even suggested this, except…
Except he did, the little moments he’d pushed to the back of his mind, the warm autumn sun on his back, their fingers barely brushing, long nights sitting quietly, not talking, together with a comfortable silence stretching on and on—
—and through all of it, that tiny ache, a nervousness he couldn’t explain, a feeling he’d been, without realizing it, trying not to examine too closely.
He was in love with Zuko.
The thought slotted into place like the final gear in one of his prototypes, and his mind began to whir. He was kissing Zuko, and he liked it, and not just because Zuko was handsome and kissing was fun—
Sokka leaned back, until there was enough space to breathe a quick sigh between them. He had shifted closer, and at some point Zuko had put a hand on his thigh, his palm firepit-warm even through the thick fabric.
Suddenly, this plan was a not a genius way to squirm out of an awkward political situation, it was—oh spirits, it was so stupid, it was a slow and painful torture. They were going to have to pretend to date. Hold hands, maybe, and kiss, and convince all their friends and family that they were together…
And then they were going to break up, because it wasn’t real.
“Okay?” Zuko asked.
He was still so close, lips still parted and looking so, so soft. He was close enough that Sokka thought maybe he could make out the lightest flush rising in his cheeks, but his eyes were dark and focused. Focused on Sokka’s reaction, because they’d been practicing. It wasn’t supposed to make Sokka’s breath catch in his chest, or warm pleasure crawl over his back, like the sun had on the pier, their fingers brushing—
He forced himself to swallow and leaned back, desperately hoping that Zuko wouldn’t notice the heat that had risen in his own cheeks.
“Yup!” Sokka said. It came out a little too high pitched. Sokka clapped Zuko on the shoulder, and then immediately cringed internally. “Very convincing, I don’t think we have anything to worry about.”
Sokka only just, just managed to clamp down on the urge to thank him. His heart was hammering, and this was mortifying enough.
Zuko nodded slowly, and when he leaned back a little to turn back to his scrolls, Sokka realized with dawning dread that the little pang that he felt curling in his stomach was disappointment.
Oh, he was in trouble. No, no... this was terrible.
“Have you packed yet?” Sokka asked, and then barely waited for Zuko to shake his head no—he already knew he hadn’t, he could see that he hadn’t gathered his bags yet—before he started sliding off the couch. “Me neither! I should go get started. Don’t want to be up all night—”
“Oh… yeah,” Zuko said, blessedly making no move to follow him, as Sokka absolutely did not make a run for it. “Okay. Goodnight.”