Zuko was already gone by the time Sokka woke up. It was strange, waking up alone, which—really, it should be more strange that he’d gotten used to not being alone after only two nights. Clearly, it was just because he easily settled back into those old air temple habits—traveling together, falling asleep to the sound of quiet breathing, and waking up to the sounds of Katara cooking or Zuko forcing Aang through morning katas—and not for any other reason.
Zuko had left him a note, at least, warning him that he would be back later in the afternoon. Sokka should have known that Zuko, workaholic that he was, would try to sneak a few meetings the moment he realized that Sokka hadn’t planned anything for the day besides the Earth King’s banquet in the evening.
Sokka spent the day sprawled out on the balcony adjoining their room. He hadn’t brought any ambassador work with him, but plenty of his personal projects had been languishing under his lack of free time. The afternoon sun was turning buttery yellow by the time the door to their room opened again.
“How’s it look?” Sokka asked, when Zuko finally returned. He held up the diagram of his newly-revised designs for an airship rudder failsafe, based on some of the conversations he’d had with Toph about how to better fortify them, considering she’d made tissue paper of the last one she’d touched. Zuko’s face twisted when he looked at it—he probably didn’t understand it, that was fine, it was pretty complicated—but he sent Sokka an indulgent, pained smile anyway.
“Good?” he said. “It looks... interesting.”
“It’s a new airship rudder,” Sokka said, pointing to the edge of the fin for emphasis. Zuko nodded, like he’d known that all along, as Sokka started shuffling papers back into their bindings. He followed Zuko back inside to get ready for their last real trial of the trip.
Sokka was thanking every spirit he could name that the Southern Water Tribe’s formal wear was more complicated than the clothes he usually wore, and that he’d needed the bathroom mirror to fix his hair, because it had given him an excuse to flee like his life depended on it the moment Zuko started untying his robes to dress.
Sokka clutched the bathroom sink and stared into his own eyes. It... wasn’t as grounding as he’d fantasized it would be.
This was fine.
And, he could do this.
And, what the fuck was he thinking?
He had seen the formal robes Zuko had brought with him. Zuko wasn’t even wearing them yet, and Sokka already felt like he was going to combust.
Slowly, he unwound his fingers from the edge of the sink and picked up the jade headpiece. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, when he’d packed it into his bags with the rest of his formal wear, but now the idea of wearing the gift that Zuko had bought him made his heartbeat flutter, an uncomfortable flush creeping up his neck, which...
...which was stupid! Zuko had only bought the hairpiece to sell the lie, anyway, so there was no reason for him to get all worked up about wearing it.
He yanked the tie out of his wolf tail and tugged his hair all onto the top of his head. It took him a few stubborn minutes to figure out how to keep it in place without any flyaway strands escaping the top knot. Wolf tails were so much more practical, but…
Sokka inspected his work in the mirror. He had to admit it looked pretty good. He allowed himself another second to brace himself—stared himself right in the eye and willed his stupid heart to behave for just one more night—and then let himself back into the bedroom.
Zuko was sitting on the bed, putting his own hair up by feel. Sokka must have startled him, because his hand slipped when he stepped out, and the entire topknot fell loosely back onto his shoulders. Sokka smirked, and Zuko rolled his eyes and quickly went to gather it back up.
“Are you too spoiled to do your own hair, now? Should we have brought an attendant?” Sokka teased.
Zuko stuck the pin for his headpiece between his teeth, and Sokka definitely didn’t stare at the way it pressed against his bottom lip when Zuko smiled at him.
“Why would I need an attendant? Shouldn’t my boyfriend do it for me?” he said.
He said it so casually, teasing Sokka even as his nimble fingers worked to gather his hair back up into place. He wasn’t being serious, Sokka knew that, but something about hearing the word boyfriend from Zuko in private made Sokka’s stomach flip embarrassingly.
Zuko had a lot more practice than Sokka putting his hair into this style. He didn’t actually need Sokka’s help, but...
“Okay,” he said. Zuko glanced up, shooting him a quizzical look. Sokka clarified, “I’ll do your hair.”
“I was joking. You don’t have to,” he said, looking vaguely surprised by the offer. His fingers twisted against the dark strands, but after a second he let his hair down again, and set the pin and the hairpiece beside him on the bed.
Feeling bolder, Sokka crawled across the edge of the bed, until he was kneeling behind Zuko, so close they were almost touching. He hesitated, and then picked up the plain wooden comb that was sitting beside Zuko’s hand.
His advisors would probably grumble at the idea of Zuko wearing anything other than his crown, but they weren’t here, and Sokka wasn’t going to tell on him. The comb was the kind of thing that could have belonged in any of a thousand people’s bedrooms, old and a bit worn on the corner where one of the teeth was chipped, and so very Zuko.
Sokka kind of loved to get little pieces of him like this.
He didn’t bother with ornamentation unless he was forced to. He smelled like plum blossom. He ate intolerably-spicy food without batting an eye. He slept on his side. A hundred little details that Sokka had been collecting.
“Do you know how to do this?” Zuko asked. Sokka realized he’d just been running the comb and his fingers through the strands, instead of actually styling it. His hair was ridiculously soft under his fingers. Zuko had been a little tense at first, maybe dreading the possibility of Sokka messing it up, but he had been relaxing by degrees as he played with his hair.
Still, Sokka was getting distracted.
“I managed my own, didn’t I?” Sokka asked, and picked up the hairpiece. It actually was a little easier when he didn’t have to do things backward in a mirror, and Zuko’s hair was longer, so there were fewer stray hairs to manage. Sokka slipped the pin through the hairpiece to hold the whole thing in place, and then leaned back to inspect his work.
“Yup,” Sokka said with satisfaction. He crawled off the bed, so he could look at Zuko head-on. “You look great. I’m incredible at this.”
Zuko eyes flicked down and back up once, lightning quick.
“You look really nice, too,” Zuko said. Sokka felt like his entire soul was on fire as he resisted the impulse to do the same to Zuko, because it was not the same. Zuko was just being polite and returning the compliment. He was only looking because he’d never seen Sokka with this style of Water Tribe formalwear—he was usually wearing his Fire Nation ambassador’s getup at important events—and the white jade hairpiece was new and very expensive, so of course it drew the eye.
“Well, we can’t have the Fire Lord’s date looking like a mess, can we?” Sokka said. He cleared his throat and then hastily added, “Should we go?”
A comfortable quiet settled between them as they walked side by side to the stairs. Occasionally a servant would bustle past them, pausing only long enough to offer Zuko a quick bow before they disappeared again. As was often the case, Sokka was the first one to break the silence, catching Zuko’s eye just as they reached the relative privacy of the stairwell.
“So I was thinking,” Sokka said. He kept his voice down, mindful of possible eavesdroppers, but also just because the quiet had been kind of nice, and he was loath to break it. “I know it’s really inconvenient, but… we can’t break up right when we get back.”
“Because it will be suspicious,” Zuko guessed. He shrugged, with a casual glance aside, and said, “I don’t mind, so—”
“Right, so I was thinking—” Sokka said at the same time. They both stopped, and Zuko gestured for him to continue. “I think I’ll go home for a couple weeks.” Zuko faltered, missed a step. Sokka glanced at him sideways and added, “I haven’t visited in a while, and this way we don’t have to keep faking.”
Sokka had put a lot of thought into it, and his motivations were only a little selfish. If he went home for a few weeks, it would give everyone time to forget about their act before they’d left the Fire Nation. Once there was some distance between them, it would be easier to separate amicably and put the whole ordeal behind them. It wouldn’t be fair to Zuko, for Sokka to drag this out any longer than he needed to, just because… because he liked this, even if it wasn’t real.
Zuko had offered this arrangement to help him. He hadn’t agreed to Sokka’s feelings, and that was… it already felt dishonest, and Sokka was torturing himself, and that was with less than a day left before they could stop pretending. Any longer than that, and…
No. Some distance would be good.
“Oh,” Zuko said quietly. He looked caught off guard, like he’d expected Sokka to say something else. “That’s—yeah, that’s a good idea.”
Zuko agreeing shouldn’t have felt like a rejection, because it was his idea, but his heart still squeezed uncomfortably in his chest. He just had to keep reminding himself that the distance would make things easier. Stopping now, so Sokka wouldn’t have to put himself through any more of the agony of Zuko pretending to love him, was just a nice bonus.
(And really, it would have been more selfish to keep pretending, or to insist that Zuko go on a few more dates with him.
Sokka knew that it would be more selfish, because that was what he desperately wanted to do.)
Zuko frowned, like a thought had just occurred to him, and even more quietly he added, “And you’ll be coming back?”
Sokka smiled, and bumped their shoulders together, in the same friendly way they always did. The urge to lean further into the touch was barely an ache in his chest.
“Someone has to make sure the Southern Water Tribe gets ours,” Sokka said. “You can’t get rid of me that easily.”
He felt Zuko relax through the contact of their shoulders. Zuko smiled, and rolled his eyes, but he looked undeniably relieved to hear it. Sokka knew that he was a damn good ambassador, and it would be hard for the Fire Nation to replace him. He also knew that wasn’t why Zuko was smiling, and…
Yeah. Friendship could be enough. He may not be able to get exactly what he wanted, but he could still have this.
Sokka had just stuffed another turtle-crab puff into his mouth, when he caught sight of a familiar face in the crowd. He nearly choked, and that was enough to draw Zuko’s attention away from the woman he was politely listening to, at least long enough for Sokka to get a sympathetic pat on the back.
“Oh, no,” Sokka coughed, once he was safe from death by finger food. Now Zuko was really looking at him. His previous conversation partner didn’t even seem bothered—she just drifted back into the crowd. Sokka almost wanted to grab her and drag her back, as ineffectual a shield as she would probably be.
“What?” Zuko asked.
“It’s Hahn,” Sokka said. As though speaking his name had tempted the spirits, Hahn chose that moment to turn toward them. Sokka wheeled away, resisting the urge to hide his face behind his hand, and settling for half-hiding behind Zuko instead. He glanced back out of the corner of his eye and wilted a little. “And that’s just… great. He’s coming over here.”
Sokka had figured they were going to have to talk eventually, but he’d kind of been hoping it would be with the rest of the Northern Water Tribe delegation, maybe with his dad and the other warriors...
“Fire Lord Zuko,” Hahn said, tersely polite. He didn’t even try to bow in greeting, the proper way to greet a Fire Nation dignitary, let alone the Fire Lord. He at least offered a Water Tribe greeting, arm outstretched. Zuko’s guards watched them like a hawk as Zuko clasped his arm amicably. It was only when they were mid-handshake that Hahn turned Sokka’s way.
“Sokka. You look good,” he said, which, gross. Sokka thought that Zuko’s eyebrow might have twitched slightly, but he was perfectly poised as he extracted his hand from Hahn’s grip. “I was just speaking with Chief Hakoda about how the Southern Reconstruction Project is coming along.”
Sokka remembered very clearly how little Hahn had thought of the Southern Water Tribe when they were teenagers, and how little he’d thought of Sokka by extension, but he wasn’t certain if Hahn remembered.
From the way he was looking at him now, his opinion had apparently changed. Now that the North was looking to form an alliance with them, maybe Hahn had decided that a southern chief’s son was finally worthy of his time.
Sokka thought back to his comment about wanting to marry Yue for the perks of being related to the chief and, somehow, managed to not gag. Behave, he reminded himself. Maintaining their alliance with the North would only help them, giving them access to waterbenders to speed along construction, especially during the winter months. He wasn’t about to ruin that here.
“Yeah, well, Dad’s been doing a great job,” Sokka said. It had only been a few years since the end of the war, but the Southern Water Tribe was already barely recognizable compared to the village he’d grown up in.
“I’m surprised you’ve managed to find the time to see the progress for yourself,” Hahn said. “You seem like you’ve been... busy.”
From anyone else it might have been an innocuous comment, but coming from Hahn, it felt like a pointed barb toward Sokka’s living in the Fire Nation. Even though he was doing important work as ambassador, and was supporting his tribe in every way he could. As though frequently traveling to the South and working remotely between, rather than living there full time, somehow made him less dedicated to his people—
Oh, Sokka hated this guy. He got under his skin just as much as he had when they were teenagers, back when he was still engaged to Yue. Last time, his argument with Hahn had literally come to blows.
He was definitely too old for that now, but the thought was tempting. Instead Sokka just grit his teeth, but before he could say anything snappish he was stopped by a feather-light touch on his back.
“Sokka has been heavily involved in the reconstruction efforts,” Zuko said. There was the slightest edge of indignation in Zuko’s voice, but Sokka doubted anyone but him would hear it. Sokka glanced at him, touched but not surprised that Zuko was coming to his defense.
If Hahn noticed he’d offended them, he made no show of it. He flagged down one of the servers. Sokka was privately relieved for the distraction, so that he could pause to squash his annoyance down. The server was carrying a tray of amber colored honey wine balanced between her hand and her shoulder. Hahn helped himself. Remembering their conversation days ago in the restaurant, Sokka let the server hand him his glass.
The wine was probably the sweetest thing he’d ever tasted. Sokka watched Zuko take a sip out of the corner of his eye, amused by the flicker of disgust on his face before he rapidly blinked it away. Zuko wrapped both hands around his glass like the extra support might help keep it away from his mouth. Hahn seemed unbothered, draining half of his glass in one swallow—Sokka could give him the benefit of the doubt, that maybe he was nervous talking to them, but Hahn was a jerk, so he wouldn’t.
The glass did have the bonus of occupying Sokka’s hands, which was good, because he could use the gentle reminder not to try to strangle him.
“That sounds difficult, being so far away all the time,” Hahn said.
Sokka took a sip of his awful wine to keep from snapping. He was behaving, Sokka reminded himself. He was not going to cause an incident.
“Not really, if you know what you’re doing,” Zuko said without missing a beat, and Sokka nearly spit out his drink.
Hahn was looking at Zuko like he was trying to decide if there was an insult hiding behind Zuko’s deadpan. By the subtle tics in his expression he was definitely leaning toward yes—
“Mind if we interrupt?”
Sokka whirled around at the sound of his dad’s voice, beaming.
“Dad!” he said. Sokka let himself be pulled into a hug, grateful for the distraction. “There you are! I can’t believe you met with Zuko before me.”
“You were invited,” Dad pointed out. “It’s not my fault you had better places to be than saying hello to your old man.”
Over his dad’s shoulder, he could see a line of blue gathered in front of a very overwhelmed King Kuei. So, it looked like most of the Southern and Northern Water tribe attendees were still making their introductions with the Earth King.
Chief Arnook leaned in to say something to Hahn. Normally Sokka would have taken his distraction for the blessing it was and sprinted for safety, but he wasn’t quite so heartless as to abandon Zuko to both his dad and Chief Arnook without backup.
“I see you’ve met Hahn,” Dad said.
With what Sokka thought was truly incredible restraint, he managed a polite smile and said, “We’d met before, actually.”
...or maybe his smile wasn’t quite as polite as he was going for, because his dad’s expression flickered from surprise to something like amusement, barely noticeable. Zuko subtly pinched him, and Sokka tried on another expression that hopefully looked less like an Ember Island actor’s.
Chief Arnook and Hahn, at least, didn’t seem to have noticed. Sokka turned to Chief Arnook to change the subject.
“Chief. It’s been a while,” Sokka said.
“It has,” Chief Arnook said. “I hear congratulations are in order.” His attention flicked very briefly to Sokka’s hair, and he flushed as he remembered the extremely expensive crown he was wearing, as obvious as anything.
“Thank you,” Sokka said. “I’m sorry we couldn’t come to an arrangement, but I hope we can still work toward something mutually beneficial for our tribes.”
“Of course,” Chief Arnook said. He looked understanding, despite the proposal falling through before it had ever gotten off the ground. Sokka thought, with a hint of petty satisfaction, that he saw a muscle in Hahn’s jaw twitch.
He’d only been trying to avoid an arranged marriage, and spending so much time with Zuko had been as much fun as it was excruciating, but getting to shut down the guy who was probably trying to marry Sokka for the perks was so, so satisfying.
The chief continued, “We’ve already received your plans regarding the reconstruction project. It seems more than fair.”
Sokka certainly hoped so. He’d spent more than one sleepless night working out the details in a way that he thought Chief Arnook would actually agree to, without being so unfavorable to the Southern Tribe that it ruined the point of asking for aid at all.
(He’d ended up making a few promises on Zuko’s behalf, and then asked very nicely for him to sign off on them afterward—)
“I told Chief Hakoda this at our dinner already, but Sokka is incredible at what he does,” Zuko agreed easily.
Sokka smiled, embarrassed and also a little curious what, exactly, he and his dad had talked about. To be fair, he and Iroh had talked about Zuko too, but... he was definitely going to pester Zuko to find out what they’d said about him later.
Zuko slipped his hand behind Sokka’s back, pulled him in until they were just barely touching. Sokka started to lean into it, froze and then—and then remembered that he was allowed to lean into it, he was supposed to.
“I couldn’t ask for a better partner, truly,” Zuko said. Sokka glanced at Zuko, at the small tilt of his lips.
Wow, Zuko may not be the best liar at times, but that clearly didn’t extend to his acting skills. If Sokka hadn’t been in on the scam, he really would have thought Zuko meant it. Zuko was speaking to all of them, but it was his dad who caught Sokka’s eye.
I like him that look said, as plainly as anything.
And I’m happy for you, Katara had said earlier.
Sokka did not flush, but it was a near thing. He mustered his very best casual tone.
“Anyway,” he said, sounding actually very flustered, and not casual at all, damn it, “we should talk to more than just my dad, don’t you think, Zuko?”
Sokka grabbed Zuko’s arm, and pointedly ignored the way Dad’s eyes were twinkling in poorly-concealed amusement at his expense. He said goodbye to Chief Arnook, and not to Hahn, and definitely not to his dad, who was still laughing at him.
Zuko attempted an awkward bow as Sokka dragged him away, and then followed along after him.
“Was that okay?” Zuko asked, once they were out of earshot. “I didn’t—did I make you uncomfortable, or...?”
“No, you were great,” Sokka said. He pulled them up beside a table of finger food, and swapped his wine for a bite, just to occupy himself. “Really, I mean... thanks. For what you said.”
“It was the truth,” Zuko said firmly. He grimaced slightly. “And that guy was a jerk. I can see why you didn’t want to marry him.”
“I’m just glad Chief Arnook didn’t seem offended by the rejection,” Sokka sighed. He was also glad that no one had seemed to suspect anything, although Sokka was going to have to chalk that up to Zuko’s surprisingly good acting skills. “We should probably…” he glanced around. “Talk to some people? To sell the lie a little more.”
What he really needed was someone that didn’t know either of them, or maybe someone who wouldn’t care whether they were acting suspicious or not. Where was King Kuei? He was about as oblivious as they came, and he might keep anyone else from trying to talk to them—
“Do you want to dance?”
The question startled Sokka out of his thoughts.
“To—sell the story,” Zuko clarified. He pointed toward the dance floor, to the couples sweeping across the room, as the band behind them played out the last stanza of a slow song Sokka didn’t know. It… wasn’t a bad idea. No one could talk to them, if they were dancing.
Zuko offered Sokka his hand as the last few notes of the song trailed off. For the Fire Lord, he was perfectly poised, as he always was at these sorts of functions. But for Zuko, the offer was uncharacteristically bold.
Up close, Sokka could see the edge of nervousness in his expression as he slid his hand into Zuko’s. A couple weeks ago, Sokka might have teased him about it, but right now Sokka’s heart was trying very hard to beat out of his chest, and it was all he could do to swallow and nod and let Zuko lead him out to the dance floor.
The next song began to pick up, and Sokka could see the way the Earth Kingdom nobility perked up, so he assumed it was one they recognized. Sokka didn’t know this one, and Zuko wasn’t much of a dancer, either—the Fire Nation was not particularly well known for its dancing, in general, and despite the many courtly functions he was obligated to attend as Fire Lord, he’d never really had the time to dedicate to learning. But the tempo was slow, and though the song wasn’t a love song, the way the dancers swayed around each other made something warm and wistful rise in his chest.
Sokka might have made a mistake in letting Zuko lead, but still, between the two of them they were agile enough to sort of follow along with their neighbors until they got the hang of the steps.
The other party guests might have been watching their every move, or they might have been entirely alone in the room, and Sokka wouldn’t have known the difference. They turned, and their fingers brushed as the partners briefly separated to spin around the room, mingling with the other dancers. If that little parting touch felt electric, like Zuko had shot him straight through with lightning, coming back together again felt like stepping into a storm.
His arm tingled where it brushed Zuko’s shoulder.
Zuko’s hand was a brand on his waist.
Sokka dared to glance at Zuko’s face and saw that he wasn’t even looking at him—he was looking at his feet, and that alone was just so fucking endearing that Sokka had to squeeze his eyes shut, take a breath, and get ahold of himself—
Zuko stepped on his foot, and they stumbled, off a half-step now from the other dancers. He wanted to laugh, but then Zuko shook his head, cheeks flushed pink, and flashed him an apologetic smile, and suddenly Sokka could hardly breathe past the warm affection swelling in his chest.
The song was slowing down, but Sokka’s heart was beating faster and faster. Zuko was looking right at him now. He was—so fucking good at acting, the weight of his gaze was enormous. And, oh, what was Sokka doing? This was too much, and Zuko’s hand was still on his waist and it felt like the warmth of his fingers was burrowing down to his bones, boiling his blood, searing his skin.
What was he thinking, coming here, letting Zuko look at him like that, when he had no idea how Sokka felt—
He couldn’t breathe.
Zuko’s smile dipped just slightly, a hint of uncertainty flashing in his eyes.
“Sokka?” he asked.
“I’m just… excuse me,” Sokka said, a little breathlessly.
The song wasn’t quite over, but it was winding down enough. Pulling away from Zuko felt like dousing a fire in him, like wandering out into the dark. Zuko watched him go, looking lost, but Sokka’s head was swimming too much to reassure him. He tried to make some excuse, but the words died somewhere in his throat. He shook his head, managed a truly unconvincing smile, and fled.
Sokka spotted Toph across the room, very pointedly hovering with one of the service staff between her and the throng of Earth Kingdom nobility that seemed to be trying to politely catch her attention. She was obviously pretending to not notice them, which worked great for Sokka, because he absolutely could not wait.
She looked relieved when he caught her by the elbow, if only to have a good excuse to get away from the other guests. Katara had insisted on a no causing a scene rule at the start of the party. Toph had expertly haggled her down to a no causing a scene before the afterparty rule, which wouldn’t be starting for another hour at least.
Toph grinned at him for half a moment before he started dragging her out through the door.
“Snoozles, what...?” Toph tolerated another few feet of man-handling, enough to put the door to the service corridor between them and the rest of the ballroom, before she shook him roughly off. “Okay, okay, enough. What’s your deal?”
“Toph, I have a problem,” Sokka said. The look she gave him was decidedly not sympathetic. One might even call it pained. She scrunched her nose at him and crossed her arms.
“Is it the kind of problem I can throw a rock at?” she asked, sounding not at all hopeful.
“It’s an emotional problem,” Sokka said, “so not unless the rock is a metaphor—”
“Then why are you asking me?” Toph interrupted him.
“Because, it’s about Zuko,” Sokka said significantly, trusting her to get his meaning. They hadn’t exactly acknowledged that fact that Toph was in on their little ruse. In fact, she had been shockingly discreet—Sokka didn’t know she’d had it in her. She was the only one he could talk to.
“Okay, and...? What about him?” Toph asked finally. Sokka took a deep breath.
“I think I love him,” Sokka said. Toph had her face tilted toward a spot just over his shoulder, obviously waiting for more.
“Yes?” Toph said.
“No, I mean. I think I’m really in love with him. For real.” She was clearly not getting it. Sokka wanted to pull his hair out. “And I really appreciate you keeping the whole fake dating thing secret but—”
“The fake what!” Toph shouted.
Sokka flinched at the volume, imagining all the nosy Earth Kingdom nobility just on the other side of that door, and resisted the urge to slap a hand over her mouth only because he was pretty sure she’d crush him if he tried. He settled for shushing her, hastily, hands waving in front of her face wildly enough that she could sense the motion.
“Toph, keep it down! Do you want the whole Earth Kingdom to know?” Sokka said.
Sokka was expecting a lot of things, but he never would have prepared for how suddenly dangerous Toph’s expression went, as she snatched a fistful of his collar. She yanked him forward, hard, so that he almost stumbled into her.
“Does Zuko know you're faking?” she hissed at him.
“What? Of course he does! It was his idea!” Sokka said. “And anyway, the problem is that he knows. And... doesn’t know? But, it’s not really—ugh!”
“You’re not being super clear here,” Toph said, but she was relaxing by degrees, and looking significantly less murderous than she had a moment ago. Now she just looked deeply done with this conversation. “Maybe you should try explaining it to me. Preferably with complete sentences.”
“My dad and Chief Arnook were talking about arranged marriages,” Sokka said. “Zuko and I were just pretending so I could get out of it, but… I thought you knew already.”
“How was I supposed to know?” Toph asked.
“You...” Sokka said. “But. You can tell when people are lying. And when we were at the festival…”
He trailed off, because Toph was shaking her head, hands pressed together over the bridge of her nose. She heaved a sigh.
“Sparky was right. You have to be the dumbest smart person I know,” Toph said. “Because if either of you were lying, this is the first I’m hearing about it. And no offense, but you two are pretty terrible liars.”
“But our heartbeats…” Sokka said.
“I mean yeah, your heartbeats were a little...” She waved a hand, vaguely, as though the shape she drew in the air was supposed to mean anything. “But nothing weird. Aang and Katara’s heartbeats do that all the time, whenever they get… you know. Oogie.”
“Then why were you so weird when you left us at the festival?” Sokka asked. “I thought you were… hinting that you knew.”
“I left because I actually like festival food, and I wanted to keep it down,” Toph said. “You two are seriously cute to the point of being gross.”
This whole time, he’d thought that Toph was covering for them.
But she hadn’t even known, because according to Toph, Zuko was telling the truth.
But Zuko had said—
And that meant—
Oh… he’d just panicked and ditched Zuko in the middle of a party, in the middle of a dance, even, without a single explanation.
When he hazarded a peek back into the ballroom, he could see that Zuko was surrounded by people, all vying for his attention. They’d likely swooped in the moment Sokka left his side. He looked… tense, and unhappy, but like he was trying very hard to be polite enough that no one noticed, and Sokka hated that that was his fault.
He couldn’t just walk over there and drag Zuko somewhere private—he knew exactly what they’d assume he was doing, and Zuko didn’t need the scandal—but they couldn’t exactly have this conversation with a hundred curious ears around them, either.
“Will you help me get Zuko alone for a second?” Sokka asked. This conversation couldn’t wait.
“I reserve the right to mock you both about this forever,” Toph said. “You’re lucky I’m not shouting it from the rooftops right now.”
“We appreciate your discretion,” Sokka said.
“And I need you to understand that the next time you come to me with a stupid problem, I will be throwing a rock at it,” Toph said. “So make sure it’s something you actually want a rock thrown at, hm?”
“Fair and reasonable. You’re the best, Toph,” Sokka said.
Toph crossed her arms, thoughtful for a moment, and then nodded with satisfaction. She flicked the wrinkles out of her robes with one swift motion and spun on her heel toward the ballroom.
Sokka expected her to stomp into the conversation and drag Zuko away. Instead, she swept into the group of noblemen with a perfect bow. From where he stood by the opposite wall Toph’s voice was too quiet for Sokka to overhear, but after only a few short words she had their polite attention. She lightly touched Zuko’s arm, urging him back toward the exit, and Zuko’s face flickered with relief. By the time he had carefully edged out of the crowd, the Earth Kingdom nobles seemed more than happy to fold Lady Beifong into his place, without so much as a single crude word or complaint.
Huh. The woman contained multitudes.
Sokka waited about thirty seconds after Zuko had disappeared, and then he scurried after him.
Zuko looked a little lost when Sokka caught up to him, casting his gaze around the hallway curiously, so Toph must not have explained why she’d shuffled him in this direction. Then he caught sight of Sokka, and he shifted to looking distinctly annoyed.
Annoyed was not a great emotion to build a romantic confession on, but Sokka was going to work with what he had.
“I can’t believe you ditched me in the middle of a dance,” Zuko said grumpily. “Those ministers had been waiting to get me alone all night…”
Sokka grabbed his wrist. Zuko trailed off. He was looking less annoyed, more concerned really, which was also not a very romantic emotion, but was probably an upgrade.
This hallway was not private enough. Sokka stepped aside to allow a servant to squeeze past him with a tray full of empty glasses, and then gave Zuko’s arm a little tug.
“Can I talk to you?” he asked, effectively turning Zuko’s concern into poorly-concealed panic. He let Sokka tug him along a half-remembered series of turns until he found the hallway leading to the garden.
“Is everything okay?” Zuko asked, quietly so no one would overhear. “Did someone realize…?”
“No! I mean, kind of,” Sokka said. He took a deep breath. “I was talking to Toph.”
“And… what did she say?” Zuko asked, after a pause that Sokka was just now recognizing as suspicious. His face was so openly neutral. Yesterday Sokka might have thought he was just confused, but now he thought he recognized it for what it was, which was Zuko trying not to give himself away.
Sokka desperately hoped it was that, and not the other option that the anxious, overactive part of his brain kept wheeling back around to, which was that Zuko knew what Sokka was about to say, and he was bracing himself to have to turn him down.
“So, I haven’t been completely honest with you,” Sokka said, before he could lose his nerve. “And I should have been. I mean, I feel bad about it, although maybe its okay because you weren’t being honest either—”
“Sokka,” Zuko said, sounding strangled. “What are you talking about?”
Just say it.
“Zuko, do you like me?” Sokka asked. “As in, you’re not pretending?”
“Oh,” Zuko said. A conflicted expression flickered across Zuko’s face, almost too fast for Sokka to spot it before he’d mastered himself again. His shoulders tensed, the uncomfortable sort of stance he took when he was making an active effort to not fidget. “Did Toph…”
Sokka nodded. Zuko genuinely looked like Sokka had punched him. Sokka squinted at him, trying to parse the look in Zuko’s stunned silence. Was he making that face because Sokka was right, or because Toph was an idiot, and she was going to make Sokka look like an idiot, and make Zuko uncomfortable all at the same time—?
“I’m… sorry,” Zuko said, looking pained.
Sokka felt the last bit of hope he’d had melt into nothing. It sank straight through him, with an awful sweeping disappointment that clung heavy and uncomfortable to every part of him.
He flushed. This was—so humiliating, it was the wet-socks of feelings, and Sokka was never going to recover—
Zuko squared his shoulders and insisted, “I never meant to make you uncomfortable.”
Sokka paused, and pushed back on the impulse to start moping, just a bit, because that… that kind of sounded like...
“To make me...?” Sokka sucked in a breath. “Wait, so Toph was right? You really do like me like that?”
Zuko cringed. “Well, yes, but—”
Sokka surged forward and kissed him before he could second-guess himself. Zuko made a surprised sound, but he didn’t pull away, or even really hesitate. He just parted his lips and leaned in like it was the most natural thing in the world. They fit together so perfectly, Sokka’s hands framing Zuko’s face, Zuko’s arms wrapped around Sokka’s back. His left thumb brushed the soft hairs at Zuko’s temple, and he made a soft sound, tilting his head into his touch. Sokka pulled back slightly. Zuko was just staring at him in wide-eyed wonder. His chest hitched when Sokka slid his hands down and soothed his thumbs over the planes of his cheeks.
“Was that… are we practicing?” Zuko asked breathlessly.
“No,” Sokka laughed, giddy and light. “Zuko, trust me when I say you do not need to practice. This one’s for real.”
“Oh,” Zuko said, and flushed so deeply red that Sokka was going to lose his mind. Zuko leaned forward again slightly, and Sokka met him halfway. It was sweet and chaste and much too short, and when Zuko pulled away again, he looked almost embarrassed.
“I think—the first one was real, too,” Zuko admitted.
A bit of Zuko’s hair was tugging loose from his hair piece, a victim of Sokka’s enthusiasm as he leaned in to kiss him. He reached up and tucked it behind Zuko’s ear. He looked adorably flustered, a stark contrast to his severe and regal attire, and with the bright flush in his cheeks he looked the same as he had after talking to Toph on their way into the city. Sokka’s stomach flipped, because… Zuko had been talking about him, hadn’t he?
“What did you and Toph actually talk about on the monorail?” Sokka asked. “When we first got here?”
Zuko looked startled for exactly one moment, and then he just looked vaguely nervous, but not… not in a bad way. He was smiling, fingers curled absently around Sokka’s shoulders, like he’d forgotten they were there.
“She asked if I was serious about you,” Zuko said, looking faintly embarrassed. “I told her… that I was excited to spend the festival with you. That was true.”
“Is that all?” Sokka pressed.
“No,” Zuko admitted. “I told her that I was in love with you.”
Sokka grinned. He was aiming for teasing, but all he could manage was unbearably, embarrassingly fond. Zuko smiled at him and it felt like his first breath of air in days, all the weight of his worries and longing melting away. He slid his hands down from Zuko’s neck, gripped the fabric at his shoulders.
“We’re so stupid,” he said. “Zuko, I’m in love with you, too.”
Zuko swayed slightly with the words, as though they’d struck a physical blow, and the absolute awe-delight-relief that flashed across his face was the last straw. He couldn’t help it—he laughed, the sound ringing out too loud in the empty garden, because Sokka was feeling the same damn feelings and they were so stupid.
Sokka clapped a hand over his mouth to stifle the sound, shoulders shaking. The last thing he wanted was some servant getting curious and interrupting, but, spirits, he couldn’t stop laughing. He felt like he was going to float away. They’d been so worried, and all for nothing. Zuko was rubbing his hand in small circles on Sokka’s shoulder, smiling patiently, as Sokka finally got himself under control.
“Remember how I said I was going to go home for a couple of weeks?” Sokka asked. He waited for Zuko to nod, and said, “I’m still going to go.”
Zuko tensed, just slightly, and started to lean away. Sokka fingers flexed against the fabric of Zuko’s robe, and that gentle touch was enough to make him go still.
“You should come with me,” Sokka said. “We can go on dates, real ones, and we can hold hands like we’re a couple of dumb teenagers, and we can mean it this time. I can finally show you all the progress we’ve made in the South, and… and Dad already likes you, and Katara will be there. She already said I have to introduce you to Gran-Gran for real. We can get a do-over on the whole thing—”
Sokka was starting to ramble, he knew it, but the look on Zuko’s face was so soft he couldn’t even bring himself to feel self conscious. Zuko took Sokka’s hands in his own, warm and calloused and a perfect fit.
“Of course,” Zuko said, like there was nothing in the world that would dissuade him. His voice sounded so steady, his expression unbearably fond. “And then we’ll come back, together.”
“Yeah,” Sokka whispered, hardly able to breathe past the warmth swelling in his chest.
They had to go rejoin the party soon, before someone noticed they were gone. Knowing the Earth Kingdom nobility, tongues would be wagging, anyway. Even with Toph covering for them, stealing away into an empty garden—it was only a matter of time.
Well, Sokka thought, as he slid his hands up Zuko’s forearms, his biceps, around his back, pulling him close until their lips were just a breath apart…
They might as well give them something to talk about.