“Okay, so the fifty percent off couples discount will make your total…”
Sokka doesn’t hear how much the total actually is because he’s stuck on the words couples discount. Next to him, Zuko blinks exactly once and Sokka swears that he’s going to deny it, as if free crap comes along every day...and he doesn’t. Instead he covertly grabs Sokka by the hand and makes a show of twining their fingers together, smiling sweetly the whole while as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.
“Yes, yes, we’re very happily in love. Be a dear and pay the nice man, sweetie.”
Who the hell is this person and what’s he done with Zuko? Sokka’s about to say something about gow he never agreed to pay for this except that Zuko’s fingers tighten around his to the point that the bones in his hand grind a little. His smile never slips.
Sokka pays the nice man.
“What the fuck was that? Sweetie? Really?”
Zuko takes a moment to answer because he’s too busy popping a dairy pill and chugging approximately half of his milkshake to talk. Sokka digs his elbow into his ribs the moment he comes up for air.
“Okay, but listen,” Zuko says.
“Did you forget about the capitalist scam happening tomorrow?” He asks. “You know, patron saint of shitty teddy bears and pretending that a few flowers makes up for being emotionally constipated the rest of the year?” Zuko shrugs. “Not like I lied.”
“Sounds kind of like you lied.”
“He said couple,” Zuko points out, “We are a couple. A couple of people who want a discount.”
Zuko’s long-standing friendship with Toph is becoming a hazard.
“Who are you?”
“Don’t you want free stuff? You basically got a free milkshake.”
Sokka stares balefully at him.
“I paid, dipshit. You got a free milkshake.”
“No, not tomato tomahto. Next time, you pay.”
Zuko’s entire face lights up with a diabolical grin that Sokka can’t help but return. He can’t help it! Zuko’s propensity for casual crime is infectious and Sokka does like free stuff. He likes free stuff a lot. A victim-less crime, too!
“Next time?” Zuko asks.
“Next time,” Sokka replies.
Next time is within the span of a half hour, because Sokka sees a sign on the door of the shady little palm-reading place next to the shop that sells clothes for tiny dogs.
“Come on, man. Let’s get your love line read or whatever.”
Zuko digs in his heels.
“We should save it for things that we actually want, though. You’ve never gotten your palm read in your life. The last time Katara tried, you told her it was a load of nonsense and tried to absorb your chemistry book through your face.”
“That was before.”
“Before you were gonna pay for me to get my fortune told. I’ll take a free fortune. You promised me, boyfriend.”
Zuko trips over his own feet and Sokka grabs him by the hand.
“Get it together,” he scolds, “Don’t ruin this for me.” He bodily hauls Zuko into Aunt Wu’s Palmistry Emporium and right up to the desk. “Hi! Me and my boyfriend would like to get a reading. A couple’s reading! Right, honey?”
Zuko stares mournfully towards the door until Sokka pointedly steps on his foot.
“Y-yeah! Of course, honey. Anything for you. Um. Babe.”
So note to self: Zuko’s improv when he’s flustered needs work. It doesn’t seem to matter though, because the girl working the desk snaps her bubblegum and pencils them in.
“She’s free now. Go through that door.”
Throughout the entire interaction, she doesn’t so much as look at either of them. Sokka keeps holding onto Zuko’s hand anyway, if only so that he doesn’t try to escape. The whole shop smells like sage and patchouli, dimly lit for atmosphere. Little dangling crystals hang from the ceiling, barely avoiding whacking Zuko in his excessively tall, beanpole head. Sokka had been taller for maybe the span of a year before it was ripped away from him. Tragic.
The namesake of the shop herself is tucked away in the back, behind several curtains of beads in every doorway. The medicinal herby smell only gets stronger the closer they get, and Zuko stifles a slightly watery cough when they finally enter the right room. Aunt Wu is shrouded in gauzy shawls for an air of mysticism.
Sokka tries really hard not to regret this.
“Ahhh, the spirits told me of you. Lovers on a pilgrimage, I see.”
Sokka already regrets this and cannot look Zuko in the eyes right now. He can feel him glaring. He can feel it.
“That’s right!” He says anyway. “Lovers! On a pilgrimage.” He can’t even say it without it sounding like bullshit. “Pilgrimage for lovers.” Maybe if he says it again it’ll sound better. Zuko snorts. It doesn’t.
It also doesn’t seem to matter. Aunt Wu has them sit on some artfully scratchy bean bags in front of her little table. She takes Zuko’s hand first, turns it over and physically opens his fingers. She hems and haws over the whorls and patterns on his palms, writes down a few indecipherable symbols, does some...long division?
This is why Zuko is paying for this.
“You’ve had a lot of troubles in your past,” she mumbles to him, “Your heart line, here, do you see how it touches your life line, the way that it isn’t complete? You have a sensitive heart, young man. Broken easily and just as easily damaged—you must take care of it. Best with someone to make you feel safe, hmmm?”
Sokka wants to scoff under his breath except that he’s distracted by Zuko’s face. He looks openly startled but doesn’t deny any of it.
Sokka wishes, just a bit, that he would.
“Alright, young man. Your turn.”
And then it’s Zuko’s turn to sit and snicker while Sokka’s hands are examined, poked and squeezed. Palm reading isn’t a thing, it can’t be a thing. The stupid lines on your hands don’t mean anything.
“You are a resilient thing, aren’t you?” Aunt Wu asks with a cluck of her tongue. “Been through the wringer a bit, romantically speaking? Or maybe you’ve put others through it instead?” She doesn’t wait for an answer. “Oooh, aren’t you lucky? This curved head line...creative, are you? You must do some kind of art.”
“He paints,” Zuko offers unhelpfully. “They look like you dropped your dog in the bucket and let him loose.”
Which is rude but not wrong. Sokka may never be particularly skilled at painting but he doesn’t have to be good to enjoy it, and nobody’s complained yet. Zuko certainly hadn’t, not even when Sokka had painted him an assortment of snowflakes and taped them up all over his wall. They may have been crappy snowflakes but for the record, they’re still up there and that has to count for something.
Aunt Wu squeezes at the pads under his fingers and makes a considering hmmm.
“Hmmmm,” she says, “Hmmmm. Hmmmmmmm.”
What does all the hmmming mean???
Sokka squirms and resists the urge to yank his hands away.
“As a couple,” she announces with pomp, “The two of you are extremely well matched. You balance one another beautifully. You,” she gestures with a sweep of her hand towards Sokka, “Tend to take his ideas and run with them, don’t you? He has the ideas and you have the plans? I’m sure to varying degrees of success. It’s a privilege to read two people so clearly perfect for one another.”
Sokka resists the urge to start laughing. Perfectly matched with Zuko? Romantically? He snickers just a little and looks to Zuko for confirmation that it’s all a crock of nonsense, except that he’s not even looking at him. Zuko’s staring down at his hands, looking slightly baffled. Well, Sokka can understand that. He’d probably look like that too if he was the one paying for this.
In the end, Sokka never finds out if Zuko thinks it’s funny or not, because Aunt Wu is pressing two delicate pink beaded bracelets on them. Rose quartz, she says, to ensure that this love will continue to endure. Zuko slips his on without hesitation, a way better actor that Sokka gave him credit for.
Sokka means to ask him what he thinks about it, maybe laugh a little, except that Zuko’s already paying and looking up their next stop on his phone, and Sokka forgets all about it.
A gargantuan, heart-shaped soft pretzel later, Zuko finally insists that his stomach isn’t prepared for much more of this.
“You’re right,” Sokka says agreeable, “Totally right. The problem is that we didn’t plan properly for this. Time management, good buddy. We should have started scamming capitalism this morning instead. Tomorrow there’s going to be a plan, okay? There’s going to be—“
Zuko kisses him.
Out of absolutely fucking nowhere, Zuko’s unbuckling his seatbelt and leaning over his center console and kissing him, stopping Sokka’s brain in its tracks with a screeching halt.
“For practice!” Zuko’s flush and flustered when he pulls away and his ears are pink. Sokka’s hands are limp and slack in his lap. “We have to sell the couple thing, right? What if somebody doesn’t believe us? So. Um. We should practice.”
Sokka stares at him.
“You,” he says, “You are a goddamned genius. Of course we should practice! Why didn’t I think of that?” Sokka honestly feels a little high and he’s not sure if it’s from the afternoon of casual fraud or from unexpectedly having all of his air kissed out of him. “You have great ideas.”
Dismantling capitalism on the grounds of bullshit and kissing practice? Zuko is a genius.
Sokka fumbles for his own seatbelt and yanks on the lever on the side of the seat to send it dropping all the way back until it hits the backseat cushions.
“Practice?” He offers with a wiggle of his eyebrows. Zuko rolls his eyes but doesn’t tell him no, just slides over the center console to straddle Sokka’s hips. Now that it’s clear what he’s doing, he’s awkward about it and openly nervous. “Oh man. You’re gonna give up the jig like that. Calm down.” Sokka tips his head up and makes a fish face. “Give us a smoochie smooch.”
Zuko gives him a smoochie smooch. He gives Sokka one absolute hell of a smoochie smooch, cradles his face in his hands and everything. It’s a good kiss, a hell of a good kiss, and it pulls all of the air out of Sokka’s body. It’s not fair, he decides, that Zuko can kiss somebody he doesn’t even like this good. It’s not fair. It’s not right.
“That’s rude,” he complains the instant he has enough air in his lungs to do so. Zuko’s weight in his lap is unfamiliar but comfortable. “Who let you be so good at this?”
“It’s all the crime and lies,” Zuko mumbles, “I'm a bad boy; it’s in my nature.”
Sokka boggles at him.
“Bad boy? You are not. You make me change the channel every time a commercial for the animal shelter comes on.”
“That’s different,” Zuko says, and probably would have explained how it was different except that Sokka grips him around the nape of his neck and pulls him back in for another kiss. It’s not like Sokka’s never kissed a dude before, but kissing Zuko is a whole other story. He never really considered before that it would be nice to kiss him, but it is, because Zuko’s warm and heavy and his lips feel nice, and at the first bit of pressure he’s effectively melting into Sokka’s hold.
Vindication, Sokka decides. He’s going to win at pretend kissing practice.
“Okay, so, like,” he says the next time they separate, rubs the pads of his thumbs along the line of Zuko’s cheekbones, “I’m pretty sure if anyone asks, we can kiss realistically.”
Zuko’s eyes are huge and dark in his face and his mouth, wet and red and a little bitten, is serious. Sokka can’t stop looking at it.
“Yeah,” Zuko manages. His voice is breathy even as he twists his fingers in the collar of Sokka’s shirt. “Yeah, that was definitely realistic.”
Sokka should take his hands off of Zuko’s face. He really should.
“One more?” He asks. “Just to make sure.”
“Just to make sure,” Zuko agrees, and then Sokka doesn’t have anything else to think about except for Zuko’s pretty, talented mouth on his.
Sokka drives Zuko back to his apartment.
Zuko’s quiet the whole drive back but not necessarily an unhappy kind of quiet. The dude yells all the time but he goes a certain kind of quiet when he’s truly upset, and this isn’t it. His fingers tap a little on the door handle, and Sokka’s not sure whether he wants to tell him to stop, leave him alone about it, or just grab his hand so he doesn’t do it anymore. In the end, he lets him be.
He has to park on the other side of the complex, because guest parking is a bitch here, but it’s not a problem. It just means that he can walk Zuko to his building. Not that Zuko needs help walking to his building, it’s just that Sokka has plans.
Important plans for the next day.
“Be ready early,” Sokka tells him, “You know at least a brunch place or two is running a special tomorrow. Brunch means mimosas.”
“Uncle’s running a special tomorrow,” Zuko offers and Sokka stares at him in horror.
“We are not scamming your uncle. I’ve known that man since I was twelve.”
“I’m just saying.”
“You’re just saying nonsense. I’m gonna find a place that no one knows us.”
“Is Aang doing anything with Katara tomorrow?” They reach Zuko’s building. Zuko’s twisting his hands behind his back. “You know, so we don’t run into them.”
“Ooh, smart. Very smart. I’ll ask her. Anyway, listen, listen, my dude.” Sokka grabs Zuko by the collar and shakes him around a little bit. “Listen. Give me like...eight hours. Give me eight hours and we’re gonna get so much free shit. Fuck the man, okay? In eight hours, my guy, we’re gonna make capitalism our bitch.”
The look on Zuko’s face is a little funny, warm and indulgent in his surprise. He very gently pries Sokka’s hands off of his collar.
“In eight hours, then,” he says softly. “One more for practice? Just to make sure it looks natural. You know, to sell it properly.”
That makes sense, Sokka thinks, and tips his face up just as Zuko slouches down to press their lips together one more time. Just for practice.
Just for show.
“See you in eight hours,” Zuko tells him, and backs up into his apartment, closing the door with a click and a slide of the lock. Sokka stands there for a few moments longer than he should and tries to understand the tide of warmth that settles into his guts to make a home.
“I have a chart,” Sokka says at six-thirty the next morning, and drops it directly onto Zuko’s sleeping face.
“I hate you so much and I’m breaking up with you.”
“You can’t break up with a fake boyfriend.”
Zuko groans and slaps blindly at him. He misses, of course, because he’s stuffed his head underneath his pillow.
“How did you even get in here?” Zuko’s voice is muffled but still audible, and Sokka flops onto the edge of the mattress.
“Katara made all of us keys the last time you were awake for three days and drank so much coffee that you crashed and we all thought you were dead.”
“Yeah,” Sokka says with a satisfying jingle of his keychain, “Oh. Are you ready to hear the game plan for today or not?”
Zuko groans again and Sokka takes that as his cue to continue.
“First order of business is fancy coffee. They open at seven, so you need to get moving. Bet there’s a couple’s package on brunch at The Good Egg so you’d better be ready for omelettes and mimosas. Then at eleven I’ve got us reservations for a couples massage package at Zen Oasis, thanks for the birthday gift, Mr, Valentine—“
“Hold on, Sokka, hold on, did you just wish St. Valentine a happy birthday?”
“Yeah, duh. Why else would there be a holiday for the guy?”
Zuko just blinks at him from halfway under his pillow. Still being half asleep makes him look even more baffled. Sokka pats him on the very top on his dark head.
“I don’t know enough to say for sure, but I’m pretty sure it’s because he died.”
“Well, RIP to Mr. Valentine, then, but I’m different. Come on, schnookums. First order of business is pink coffee at that fancy place down the road.”
Zuko mumbles a few profanities under his breath and drags himself out of his bed. He trudges over to the closet and yanks the doors open and then shut around him. Sokka snorts.
“Seriously? You’re still changing in the closet? How old are you?”
“Shut up!” Zuko’s voice is a little muffled, “Mind your own business.”
“Wear something comfy,” Sokka tells him, “Massages.”
Zuko stomps back out in a pair of black skinny jeans and—
“Is that my fucking shirt?”
Zuko looks down, smooths out a nonexistent wrinkle, and raises an eyebrow.
“Don’t you is it? me,” Sokka says, throwing himself off the bed. Zuko slaps at him a little with his hands. “I know that shirt. I love that shirt. How dare you?”
“You didn’t find shit!”
“I found it,” Zuko insists. “Besides, wouldn’t it be better if we went out together and I was wearing your clothes? It’ll make things more authentic. I’ll give it back after.”
Sokka pauses. It might be Sokka’s shirt but it fits Zuko well, the blue a nice contrast on his skin. It looks good and the sudden, fervent want to have it back drains out of him.
“Okay, you can wear it, but that means I wear one of yours”
The shirt that Sokka picks out for himself is one that he knows for a fact is one of Zuko’s favorites. Serves him right for being a shirt-stealing monster. It’s black with red detailing, and Zuko must want it back real bad because he keeps watching him in it.
“You get it back after,” Sokka reminds him. Zuko tears his eyes away.
“Yeah,” he mumbles, “After.” Zuko brushes his hair and throws it up into a ponytail, tugs on a pair of boots and shoves his wallet into his back pocket. “Now that I know you’ve got a key, I don’t even need to bring mine.”
Sokka wants to give him shit for it, but the crooked little smile Zuko sends his way somehow shuts him right up.
Coffee is delicious but brunch is better.
Zuko’s a bear in public before he’s caffeinated and spends the entire time in line glaring sullenly at people and holding onto Sokka’s hand in a tight, grumpy grip.
“Drink up, buttercup,” Sokka says, desperately trying to not laugh as he hands Zuko his latte, extra espresso with a heart made of pink steamed almond milk. “Here’s your go-go juice; don’t say I never gave you anything.” He takes a sip of his own and says nothing about the way that Zuko starts chugging his.
The Good Egg is chock full of couples and Sokka gives himself a pat on the back for having the brains to make a reservation the night before. Zuko declines the offer of a mimosa in favor of another cup of coffee, and by the time they get around to ordering food, he’s downright cheerful.
The couples special is a platter of heart-shaped, soufflé pancakes and strawberry compote, little heart-shaped apple cutouts, a pile of scrambled eggs, and sausage patties. And a single fork.
“Open up, schnookums.” Sokka gives his shin a kick under the table and nyooms that fork around with a bite of fruit and pancake on it. “Go ahhh~”
Zuko flushes high on his cheeks and glares.
“Sweetie,” he grits out, “Darling. Love of my life. I am not five goddamned years old.”
Sokka grins at him and gives the fork a little wave, kicks him again.
“Om nom nom, honeycakes. Open wide.”
The look on Zuko’s face could kill a man but at that very moment their waitress is approaching, and he opens his mouth to be filled with pancake to avoid having to talk to her. That’s fine, Sokka decides, Zuko doesn’t have to talk to anybody he doesn’t want to.
“How’s the food, guys? Good?”
“Everything’s great? Right, moonbeam?”
Zuko glares daggers across the table but nods anyway, closed-mouthed and exaggeratedly chewing.
After brunch is what Sokka’s been looking forward to. The Zen Oasis is fancy and unaffordable normally, and since he paid for brunch, Zuko’s agreed to handle this. Sokka’s booked them in for a couple’s massage with aromatherapy and something else involving hot rocks that he’s going to just let Zuko be surprised by.
The longer they’re there, the more excited and relaxed Sokka gets, while Zuko seems to only get more tense.
“Hey,” Sokka mumbles to him while they wait, “You okay? You wanna tap out?” It’d be a bummer to cancel but if Zuko’s not going to enjoy himself, what’s the point? He’s funny sometimes about touch but he hadn’t protested it, so Sokka thought that he was okay with it.
Zuko is possibly less okay with it than he’d thought.
Despite being given the out, Zuko shakes his head.
“I’m fine. Just..kind of in my head a little bit. I’m fine.” Zuko’s hands are twisting wrinkles into the hem of Sokka’s favorite blue shirt underneath his hoodie. “I’m fine.”
“Saying it more doesn’t mean I believe you.”
Zuko won’t meet his eyes, though, even when Sokka sticks his tongue out and pokes at him with his foot. He won’t look him in the eyes when Sokka tugs on the end of his ponytail or when Sokka asks if he’d like some water. Sokka is not good at being ignored.
He’s really, really bad at it, actually.
Since Zuko won’t look at him, Sokka just has to put himself in an unavoidable view. So he does, slipping out of his seat and getting to his feet. He stands stubbornly in front of Zuko for long enough that he knows he’s being stared at, and then finally reaches out with both hands to cup Zuko’s face.
His friend startles hard with a jerk and stares up at Sokka before he can remember that he’s trying his best not to.
“If you don’t want to,” Sokka says firmly without blinking, “We don’t have to.”
“But your plan—“
“Is just a plan. It’s our plan. If you wanna walk out that door right this second, I’ll hold it open for you. We’re a team, good buddy.” A team in scamming. Crime team. The Valentine swindlers or something. But it doesn’t matter. “Say the word and we’re out.”
Zuko visibly swallows but doesn’t pull himself out of Sokka’s hands. He doesn’t move at all.
“Come on. Do words.”
“We can stay,” Zuko mumbles finally. “We can stay.”
Sokka keeps a closer eye on him now that he knows he needs to. Once their names get called and they’re lead into a warm room with dim lighting, it’s not a struggle at all to reach out for Zuko’s hand. They’re given a list of aromatherapy options and Sokka’s not sure exactly what any of them are supposed to smell like but he chooses the one that’s supposed to help with anxiety anyway.
“Maybe I’m stressy,” he says loftily when Zuko sees what he’s done. “Maybe I need help with my anxiety.”
“Maybe you’re a butthead,” Zuko grumbles, and then freezes. “What are you doing?” Sokka stops in the middle of pulling his shirt over his head.
“Uh, getting ready to get a massage? Can't do it in a jacket, bud. They said to undress for comfort.” Sokka yanks his jeans down his hips with fanfare, cackling at the way Zuko recoils.
“If you take off your underwear in this establishment, I’m—I’m gonna—“
“Gonna what, babydoll?”
“I’m gonna divorce you.”
Sokka’s underwear stays on and he manages to work Zuko down into peeling off his hoodie and t-shirt. The massage tables are comfortable and warm and close enough that if he so wanted, he could whack Zuko in the shoulder. Which he does several times throughout the process, every time he feels like he can see him start to shudder a little too much. Eventually he just reaches out and bats around making a nuisance of himself until he can find Zuko’s hand to squeeze his fingers around.
In the end, it goes well. The aromatherapy is actually amazing and Sokka nearly falls asleep about halfway through his massage. Zuko doesn’t but he does relax more and more as it goes on and doesn’t run out of the room screaming, so Sokka’s going to take that as a win.
The hot rocks are a surprise. He’s not sure what he was expecting but actual hot rocks lined up and set up on his bare skin is not what he thought he was getting. They feel good, though. Sokka’s going to have to be poured out of this place. They’re gonna have to pour him into a bowl and dump him out into the bushes at this rate.
Sokka may be a step away from dropping to the floor for a nap but Zuko might already be there. He tugs his clothes back on slowly like he’s in a daze, so very unlike his normal self that Sokka has to tug him aside before they walk about together.
“Are you good?” He asks with immense skepticism. Zuko’s rubbing at his eyes. “We’ve still got so much stuff to do. Don’t tell me you’re chickening out.” Zuko physically slumps and lets his head drop to Sokka’s shoulder.
“Nrrrrrgh, fuck off,” he mumbles.
“That’s fuck off, honey, to you.” How did Sokka become the responsible one here? How could this have happened?
Zuko with all of his tension taken out of him is apparently a surprisingly obedient water balloon that is perfectly content to hold onto Sokka’s hand and turn over his credit card to the wolves of capitalism.
“Where to next?” Zuko asks with his eyes closed in the passenger seat of Sokka’s car.
“That depends on whether you’d rather have more coffee or a nap.”
“Yeah, okay. How many fingers am I holding up?” Sokka holds up his closed fist in front of Zuko’s face.
“Wrong. Nap it is.”
Sokka drives Zuko back to his apartment and is actually able to park close today. He walks him up anyway because he’s the only one with the key, shouldering open the front door and judging Zuko into his own home.
“Go to bed for a few hours so you can be awake for dinner.”
Stubbornly, Zuko crosses his arms over his chest.
“I changed my mind, I want coffee.”
“What you want is to be a huge pain in my ass, apparently,” Sokka tells him and with no small amount of glee physically manhandles Zuko into his bedroom and into his bed. “Go to sleep. Naptime. Night night time. Sleepy time.”
“Oh for the love of—“ Sokka sits down on the edge and yanks Zuko’s comforter up to his shoulders, tucking it around him. “A nap will not kill you. If you want, I’ll even bring you some damn coffee later, but if you don’t sleep you’re going to be completely insufferable.” Zuko frowns at him, looking a little hurt. Sokka pats his head. “You’ve gotta be well rested so that you can pretend to be my boyfriend. Free food, bud. Think of the free food.”
“Not free.” Zuko turns his head and stuffs his face into his pillow. “On sale. Not free.”
Sokka has a nebulous plan for how to make it free, but the success of said plan depends on Zuko not knowing about it. So he doesn’t fight with him about it.
“Yup, on sale. You gonna go to sleep for me?”
“No,” Zuko insists. His eyes are closed.
“Alright, alright. No nap. Just chill out with your eyes closed.” Content to not be argued with, Zuko wraps his arms around his pillow and presses himself against Sokka’s thighs, curling around his back like an oversized cat. “I’m gonna lock the door when I leave. You know where your keys are at?”
Zuko slaps in the general direction of his desk, curling his fingers in the fabric of Sokka’s jeans when he begins to scoot off the bed.
“Yeah? You need something?”
Zuko tips his face up. He’s mostly asleep already but forces his eyes open to blink blearily in Sokka’s general direction, trusting in a way he so rarely is with anyone else.
“Kiss?” He asks timidly. “For—for practice.”
Sokka’s heart stutters in his chest and then speeds as if making up for lost time. He hesitates, just for a moment, and then leans over. It’s just for practice. It’s not like...it’s not like it means anything, really. Zuko’s just tired and worried about being able to keep the charade going—of course he might think he needs the practice.
That doesn’t explain why Zuko’s soft, serious, vulnerable face is making his heart hurt.
It’s just for practice.
Sokka tries to keep that in mind as he tucks a few of Zuko’s dark flyaways behind his ears, dips his head down to kiss Zuko’s pursed, expectant lips.
“Go to sleep, sunshine,” he says quietly, slipping out of Zuko’s quickly loosening grip, “I’ll pick you up at seven.”
Sokka pauses in his mental debate between the assortment of shirts he’s laid out on his bed. Katara stands in the doorway of his bedroom, a single eyebrow raised and a plate of pizza bagels in one hand.
“Yeah, I’ve got a date. I mean, not a real date. Zuko and I are fighting the system.”
The eyebrow climbs higher.
“By….going on a date on Valentine’s Day.”
“Correction, baby sister. By going on a date on Valentines Day to take advantage of couple shit without actually being a couple.”
“Okay, but—and correct me if I’m wrong, here. Stop me at any time. You’re getting dressed up.”
“I mean, kind of, we’re going to Omashu Cheesecake Factory—“
“You’re getting dressed up and going out with a your best friend on the most tackily romantic day of the year to spend money you wouldn’t normally spend, to...fight the man?”
“It sounds stupid when you say it like that. And if all goes well, I won’t be spending any money.” Sokka fiddles with the little box in his pocket. “It’s the perfect plan. A victimless crime.”
“Sokka, you’re an idiot.”
“Blue or green?” Sokka asks, “Or maybe orange? Shit, maybe I should have bought a corsage. Are you supposed to buy a dude a corsage when you propose—?”
Katara drops her bagels.
“What the fuck, Sokka.”
“Pretend proposing!” Sokka puts down the shirts and helps Katara pick up her bagels. “So dinner’ll get comped. That shit happens all the time. I got this ring out of—“
“Sokka, that had better not be the ring I got out of a bath bomb last year—“
“Then it’s definitely not that ring.” Sokka picks a little piece of carpet off of a pepperoni and puts the last bagel back on her plate. “Why are you worried anyway? You hate this holiday. You said it was corporate trash and that it was stupid.”
Katara frowns a little and won’t look at him.
“Why are you even home right now? Didn’t Aang plan anything for you guys?”
“....I told him I didn’t care about whether he did anything or not. I know that it’s stupid, and I didn’t really think that I cared, but—”
“And he believed you? Even I know better than that.”
Katara makes to swat him upside the head. Sokka dodges but barely.
“I’m gonna smack him. Okay? What a dipstick.”
“Don’t smack my boyfriend.”
Sokka rocks back on his haunches. He eyeballs his sister and then his sister’s plate of linty pizza bagels. He runs his finger over the corner of the box in his pocket. Katara talks a big game, but she’s sensitive. Things mean stuff to her, even when she wishes that they didn’t.
“You’ve gotta go do something. You can’t just stay here by yourself, even if it is corporate garbage and it’s stupid.” Sokka chews on his lip and then makes his mind up. “I’m texting Aang to get his shit together and you guys can use our reservation. Go out and have a good time.”
Katara blinks at him, startled, and opens her mouth to protest.
“No, don’t say anything. Just...go and have fun. You deserve it.”
Hopefully Zuko won’t be too mad about it. Katara sets down the plate and flings her arms around Sokka’s neck, squeezing him hard.
“Thank you,” she says. “Rest in peace to your petty crime?”
“Eh, we’ll figure something out,” Sokka replies with a shrug. “We always do.” Katara gives him another right squeeze and if Sokka had had any reservations about letting his plans go, they evaporate when he sees her face. It’s the right decision, even if it’s a bit of a bummer. “Get out of here, then, and go get your shit together. I’ll throw your plate in the sink.”
Katara scrambles to her feet and is half out the door when she stops and turns around.
“You should go with the blue.”
Sokka’s not sure where he’s going, but he goes with the blue.
He has Zuko meet him in the little park that’s close enough for him to walk to. Sokka gets there early and parks, the lone car in the lot, and tries to swing high enough to make it flip over the bar. He fails miserably.
“So much for cheesecake, huh?”
Sokka falls out of the swing and into the dirt.
“How long have you been there?”
“Long enough.” Zuko doesn’t look upset or angry or surprised, but he’s dressed nicely anyway in classy black slacks and a dark red button-up accompanied by a matching black peacoat, a bulging canvas bag slung over his shoulder. God, he’s wearing a tie. Statistically, he’s wearing cuff links right now. Sokka feels like an asshole in his jeans and hoodie.
“I’m really sorry, dinner’s off—“
“I know,” Zuko interrupts. He looks well rested. “Aang texted me having a meltdown about what to wear. He told me what you did for him .” Zuko sits down in the next swing over, settling his bag in his lap.
“You’re not mad?”
“Nah,” Zuko says. “The deal wasn’t that good anyway.”
(It would have been pretty damn good if Sokka had been able to go through with his plan, but he keeps that to himself.)
“I don’t know what we’re gonna eat now, though. Even the fast food places are nuts.” Sokka drags himself up off the ground. “I’m sorry.”
Zuko cocks his head and adjusts his bag.
“As if you aren’t the only person who can throw something together.” There’s a tiny little sparkle at his wrist and Sokka realizes that Zuko’s wearing the pink stone bracelet from yesterday. It clashes entirely with what he’s wearing and manages to fit right in, somehow. “If you can find us a table, I’ve got the food.”
Zuko’s brought an assortment of food from The Jasmine Dragon mixed in with what’s clearly leftovers out of his own fridge. There’s a variety of little finger sandwiches with no crust and some scones with little sprinkles of flaky sugar on top and sweet fruit cream to spread inside, a tupperware of bao and one of dumplings, a few little cups of sauce, some pickled veggies and some slightly squashed mochi filled with red bean and peanut butter. There’s a vacuum thermos of tea and a still-chilled bottle of wine, and a pair of chintzy plastic wine glasses.
“It’s not fancy,” Zuko says with a wry, crooked grin, “But it’s better than nothing.”
It’s way, way better than nothing. The tea snacks from Zuko’s uncle’s shop are always delicious and Zuko himself isn’t a bad cook, either. It’s good food and there’s a lot of it, and the wine is of the cheap and tasty variety that Sokka loves. They drink the tea first, sitting at a picnic table with Zuko’s feast spread out between them, passing the thermos between them.
The food isn’t anything special but Sokka finds his stomach warmed by the wine and his heart warmed by the company. It feels like his body isn’t big enough to contain the affection he feels right now and how grateful he is that Zuko’s the one he’s sitting here with.
The ambient light from the street lamps reflects back out of Zuko’s pretty golden eyes, and Sokka only realizes abruptly that he’s been watched just as intently as he’s watching. It’s the middle of February and the air snaps with chill, and Sokka should be cold, but he isn’t.
He’s far too warm to be cold.
A single, fat frosty snowflake lands on Zuko’s cheek and melts with the warmth of his skin, leaving a tiny smear of water. Sokka wants to wipe it away, or maybe he wants to be that snowflake instead.
Sokka wants to be melted, suddenly, and wants Zuko to be the one to do it. If he got to be that lucky, he wouldn’t mind at all.
“Hey,” he croaks, surprised by the raspiness of his voice. “Can I. Can I ask you something? It’s kind of a—it’s a weird something.”
Zuko blinks at him and then nods without hesitation.
“You can ask me anything,” he says.
Under the table, Sokka lets his hands twist up. He forgot to take out the pretend proposal ring, and his fingertips brush the edges of the box. Zuko looks a little confused but not concerned, and that’s what gives Sokka the confidence to get up and move around to the other side of the table.
He then proceeds to drop to his knees and whip out the ring box. Zuko’s entire face goes slack with shock.
“Will you be my Valentine for real?” Sokka exclaims in an anxious tumble of words. “I’m dumb as hell, okay, and maybe I’m reading this entirely wrong, and please don’t freak out, if you don’t want to then please erase this moment from your brain and never bring it up again for as long as we live—“
“Oh, for the love of—get over here.”
And then Sokka’s bring kissed within an inch of his life. Zuko rockets off of the bench and throws his arms around him to crush him into a hug, and he tastes like wine and snow and mochi.
“Not for practice anymore.” Sokka hadn’t realized quite what he wanted until he gets it, Zuko’s mouth warm and honest on his, his body warm and honest in his arms. “Don’t have to pretend anymorE.”
“It was always for practice,” Zuko mumbles with a smile into Sokka’s mouth, insistent and correct, “But it was never pretend.”