Zuko was the first to stand. "Well. Good night," he said. It was addressed to Aang, as most of the things he said were. It had been like this every night since he'd first joined them, as if he could only stand the company of so many other people for so long.
"Goodnight!" said Aang brightly. He smiled, and Zuko's lips twitched up at the corners.
Their little group was sitting around the campfire, a half-circle against one of the temple walls. Zuko skirted around the edge of it -- away from Katara, who glared at him ferociously. Teo and Haru, deep in conversation, didn't look up. The Duke was already asleep with his head pillowed on Haru's leg.
Sokka met Zuko's gaze briefly as he passed. "Goodnight, jerk," he said, his grin lopsided. Zuko scowled and looked away, quickening his pace, and Sokka watched him as he conjured a small flame in one upturned palm and stalked out of sight. A glow lingered in the doorway he'd passed through, warmer than Zuko himself ever was.
Zuko rarely responded to anything Sokka said, except to yell at him when his teasing went a little too far. Sokka didn't really mind. He'd learned a surprising amount about their new ally in the last few days, and foremost among this was the realization that Zuko was hilarious. Not the way he, himself, was hilarious of course. Or Toph. Zuko was never funny because he meant to be. But at some point during the first day, as Sokka had watched him struggle with his Firebending, it had occurred to him that Zuko wasn't that much of a jerk, really -- he was just incapable of behaving like a normal human being. Suddenly, Zuko's frequent outbursts weren't alarming so much as laughably overblown.
Katara bent drops of water out of her flask, one at a time, and watched them hiss out of existence as she sent them into the flames. "He's not your friend."
Katara set her jaw against whatever retort was struggling to burst out. She glared at the campfire for several seconds, nostrils flared. "Just don't turn your back on him," she said darkly once the worst of her anger had passed.
Sokka looked away. "Whatever."
Beside him, Toph stretched into an exaggerated yawn. "Well. Not that this is horribly awkward or anything, but."
"Yeah, bed sounds good," said Aang, joining her as she stood.
The Duke was snoring softly, now, and Haru carefully scooped him into his arms. He smiled politely at Sokka. "Coming?"
"I'll be up in a while," said Sokka. He didn't relish the idea of pretending to be asleep while Katara muttered to herself across the room. "You guys go on without me."
"Don't forget, you're helping me rig that pulley system in the morning," said Teo, meaning the plans they'd worked out to make scaling the cliff face easier. Particularly for him, what with his chair and all.
Sokka tossed off a mock salute. "I won't stay up too late, I promise."
Finally they left. Sokka closed his eyes and lay back on the stone floor, wondering how he could kill an hour. It wasn't like he actually had anything he wanted to do out here. It was too dark to go exploring. The latest draft of the invasion plan was in his room, as were his sword and boomerang. Sharpening them would make too much noise, anyway.
He sighed and opened his eyes again. He could see two lit windows, now, winking at him in the darkness. The others must be getting ready for bed.
The Western Air Temple had many rooms, some in the hanging pagodas and some within the honeycombed interior of the cliff face itself. A dozen or so were habitable, if in need of little cleaning -- Sokka could easily have had his own, if he'd chosen to. And he'd thought about it at first. He liked the idea of having a door -- a door he could push large objects up against when he wanted his sleep to go undisturbed, that gave him some small amount of warning before his sister burst in, that meant he didn't have to listen to Toph snore or shove Aang in the early morning to get him to stop kicking. In all his life, he'd never had a door for more than one night at a time. That had been the only upshot of staying in Hama's inn, really -- a feather mattress and four walls all to himself.
But then, he'd had trouble sleeping that night. Not just because of the creepiness of the place, but because of the silence. At home, he'd always slept surrounded by other bodies, had huddled under a blanket with his sister and grandmother on more than one dark winter night. He didn't feel comfortable on his own; couldn't sleep properly without the soft sounds of someone else's breathing.
So he shared one of the larger rooms with his friends -- Aang, Toph, Katara and himself, one against each wall. None of them had suggested this arrangement specifically. It had just happened, seemingly on its own, and no one had objected. The Duke, Teo and Haru had followed suit in a chamber father down the corridor, friends of circumstance who sought company in the sudden absence of family.
When Zuko had joined them, another unspoken agreement had been reached. He'd been given his own room, on a different floor of the same pagoda. He was older than the rest of them; a prince who'd had his own wing of a sprawling palace. They'd assumed that he would want privacy. And the distance made things a little less awkward; provided some relief from the strangeness of his being there.
He hadn't seemed to mind; had smiled gratefully when Sokka showed him where to put his things. If he was lonely, he didn't say. And none of them asked.
Sokka heard the soft scratch of careful footsteps behind him. It was impossible to walk silently on the wide porches of the temple -- even the smallest noise echoed off the rock walls. He sat up and turned to look over his shoulder, in time to see a dark outline appear in the nearest doorway.
"Hello?" He pushed himself to his feet and brushed the dust off his pants. The outline froze, a hand jerking toward the sword hilt that rose above one shoulder. Zuko. "You forget something?"
"No." Zuko let his hand fall and walked toward him, into the circle of light cast by the fire. "Why are you still here?"
Sokka grinned at him again. "It's a nice night." That much was true, at least. It was pleasantly cool, a relief after the moist heat of the afternoon. They'd been in the Fire Nation for nearly a month, now, but the climate was just as unbearable as it had been the first day.
Zuko crossed his arms and shrugged. "I guess."
"Where you going?"
Sokka laughed. Zuko looked startled for a moment, then glared at him, which only made him laugh harder. "That much I guessed," he chuckled. He tried to sober his expression, one finger along the side of his jaw. "Out where?"
"For a walk."
He nodded, still serious. "A walk. Excellent."
"Might I join you?"
Zuko looked very much like he wanted to say 'no,' but after a moment he sighed loudly and turned away. "If you have to," he muttered.
He seemed to have a destination in mind, and Sokka fell into step just behind him. The moon was nearly full, and the sky clear. Zuko strode across the wide veranda, through deep blue shadows cast by the supports, as if melting in and out of existence. Sokka had never gone this way before, but Zuko's walk was purposeful as they left the temple proper. A narrow path had been carved into the cliff face, winding its way up toward the rocky plain above. They climbed in silence, and Sokka could hear the long descent of every pebble their footsteps sent tumbling down into the ravine. He kept his eyes on the path, which crumbled dangerously in places. Months spent on a sky bison's back had lessened his nervousness around heights, but he knew better than to be careless about them.
"How did you know this was here?" Sokka asked. Zuko jumped a little at the sound of his voice, as if he'd forgotten he had company. He paused and glanced back over his shoulder.
"What? The path?"
Zuko shrugged, and started walking again. "I know this temple pretty well."
Sokka smiled a little. "Fast work."
"Not really." The path doubled back on itself, bringing Zuko's face into view. He was frowning, as if unsure if he should continue. Then, as Sokka rounded the bend, "I've been here before."
"Three years ago. With Uncle. Right after..." He hesitated again. His hands curled into fists, but when he spoke again his voice was quiet. "After I was banished."
"Oh. Well, I guess this would be a good place to start."
The silence lasted through several more twists in the path. Sokka didn't really know what had happened back then; why Zuko had been banished, or how events had played out. News like that never made it to the Southern Water Tribe. He'd heard rumors while they were in the Earth Kingdom, but they struck him as melodramatic -- nothing that sounded likely. No father would ever do that to his own son.
Zuko had never spoken about his banishment before, and even if Sokka had thought to ask, he wouldn't have. He didn't ask now; he doubted he would have to.
"It had only been a week, " said Zuko. It was hard to hear him over the crunch of their footsteps. "I could rappel down into the temple, but I couldn't climb the rope back out again. Got too dizzy. Almost fell when I tried." Another turn. Zuko's face was stoney, his eyes fixed on the ground. "So I found a way to walk up instead."
The old rumors resurfaced in Sokka's mind, unwelcome. "I'm surprised they let you travel with an injury like that," he said. He found himself hoping he'd guessed wrong.
"Uncle didn't want me to," said Zuko. "I insisted. I had a lot of ground to cover. Besides, it hurt less when I was busy."
Sokka nodded, even though Zuko couldn't see the gesture. "That makes sense. When I broke my leg, one time, Gran Gran tried to make me stay inside off my feet. But I went crazy just sitting there all day, with nothing else to think about. So i got Katara to help me into a canoe and spent the next couple weeks fishing. Drove Gran Gran up the wall, but it got my mind off things."
"Yeah," said Zuko. "Yeah, that's...that's how it was."
"You're lucky you didn't get an infection or something."
"You're lucky your boat didn't capsize." Zuko's tone was defensive and a little annoyed, which made Sokka chuckle.
It was a long climb, and they were breathing hard when they reached the trailhead, marked on this end by white stones stacked in a pyramid. It was the only variation in the flat, desert landscape, bleached by moonlight and revealing nothing of what lay below. It had been days since Sokka had been out in the open like this. He stretched his arms toward the night sky, fingers entwined and palms turned out, and his spine aligned itself with a series of satisfying cracks.
The sun had set hours ago, but it had been a cloudless day, and Sokka could feel captured heat rising from the ground. There was a smooth, metallic sound, and Sokka turned his head in time to see the tips of Zuko's broadswords slide from their sheath. At another time he might have been afraid, caught alone and unarmed so far away from his friends, the weight of past experience bearing down on him. But in the blue silence of the desert he was merely curious.
"Practice?" he asked, louder than he'd meant to.
Zuko held the blades at his sides, parallel to the ground. The muscles in his arms were tense with the force of his grip. "That was the idea," he said curtly.
"You should have told me. We could've sparred if I'd brought my sword." Zuko snorted. It was difficult to tell in the dark, but Sokka suspected he'd rolled his eyes as well. "What?"
Sokka frowned. "No, seriously. What?"
Zuko shifted his grip, turning the blades so that they pointed behind him. "I've been training with these every day for three years," he said.
"You didn't have that sword before."
Sokka was momentarily surprised that Zuko remembered anything about what weapons he had or had not owned previously, but pushed that aside in favor of irritation. "So?"
Zuko scowled at him for several seconds, as if considering how best to phrase his next words. "I wouldn't want you to get hurt," he said finally.
"You wouldn't want me to get hurt," Sokka repeated, incredulous.
"The Avatar would be upset."
"And your sister would kill me."
"I think you're missing the point I'm trying to make." Sokka pulled back his shoulders, striking a more confident pose. "Look. I know you're new to the group, but there's some stuff you should know about it. Like that I'm the weapons guy."
"I thought you were the plan guy," said Zuko, without a hint of irony.
Zuko shrugged. "You're pretty good with that boomerang."
"I'm amazing with a boomerang," Sokka corrected. "And I'm only marginally less amazing with a sword."
Another shrug. "If you say so."
"Hey, I don't like to brag, but..." Sokka leaned in, his voice lowered conspiratorially. "I trained with Piandao. And he was very impressed."
"He's...what do you mean who?"
"I don't really know much about the Water Tribe," said Zuko, faintly apologetic.
Sokka stared at him open-mouthed. For a moment he struggled with the urge to press the issue, but this quickly gave way to a sort of resigned acceptance. There was no point in arguing, clearly. Which meant he'd have to explain himself in a way that even Zuko would understand. He held out his hand and raised an expectant eyebrow.
Zuko looked at it, then at his face, visibly confused. "Do you want me to shake it?"
"No. I want you to give me one of your swords."
Zuko stepped back, his good eye widened in alarm. "What? Why?"
"So we can both practice, jerk. Two swords, two guys. Not complicated."
"They're dual swords," said Zuko, with the tone of one explaining something to a very small and wrongheaded child.
"Yeah, I gathered." Sokka closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. He shouldn't waste sarcasm on Zuko. "It might help to know how to fight with just one of them."
Zuko looked down at his hands, his face sliding into shadow. Sokka was starting to question the wisdom of having followed him all the way up here when, without warning, Zuko's left arm jerked toward him hilt-first.
Sokka took the sword from him and hefted it briefly, testing the weight and balance. He'd never seen it up close like this, and he was surprised by how plain it was, all bronze and leather and steel, smooth and starkly functional. Not what he would have expected from royalty. He swung it experimentally, pleased with how it felt in his hand.
He sunk into a fighting stance, the sword at a sharp angle, his left arm extended behind him. "Ready?"
Zuko nodded, once, then rushed forward in a blur of movement. Sokka blocked this first attack, but only just, and as he scrambled out of range he overbalanced. Zuko's hand darted out to catch his wrist, holding him steady until he'd found his feet again.
"I told you," he said.
"You just surprised me." Sokka crouched again, his jaw set.
Zuko sighed as he returned to his original position. "This is pointless."
Sokka's answer was to swing the borrowed sword at his head. Zuko ducked beneath the blade's arc, his eyes widened. As he rose again, vulnerable in the moment of transition, Sokka planted one foot on Zuko's chest and shoved him backward into the dirt.
"Completely pointless," he said, the sword's tip pointed at the end of Zuko's nose.
Sokka lay on his back, panting, his limbs spread. A light breeze rose out of the ravine, delightfully cool as it dried the sweat on his skin. He turned his head to one side. Zuko was a few feet away, no less exhausted. They'd both stripped off their shirts some time ago, and Zuko's pale skin was flushed.
Sokka licked his dry lips. "You want to go again?"
Zuko grunted and covered his face with one arm. "Tomorrow," he said, his voice muffled.
The moon had slipped out of view without their noticing. In the east, the stars were beginning to fade. "I think it's already tomorrow," said Sokka. "You're lucky Katara's been avoiding you. At least she'll let you sleep in."
"I always wake up at sunrise," said Zuko from behind his arm.
Sokka frowned up at the lightening sky. "Do you always train at night like this?"
"Not always. Recently."
It had not occurred to Sokka that this might be too personal a question. When Zuko didn't answer right away, Sokka glanced over at him again. He'd moved his arm back to his side, his eyes fixed on the stars. "I don't sleep very well here," he said finally.
"Really? But it's so quiet."
"I know." When Sokka showed no sign of understanding, Zuko sighed and added, "I lived on a battleship for two years."
"I guess. But weren't you in Ba Sing Se for like a month?"
"I shared a room with Uncle. He snores."
"I thought servants were supposed to be seen and not heard."
"A quiet person is still a person."
Sokka turned this over in his head. "You don't have to sleep by yourself, you know. We just figured you'd want to."
"It's fine." Zuko's profile hardened. "I'm fine on my own."
He was a terrible liar, even when he clearly wanted to believe what he'd said. Sokka pushed himself up and sat cross-legged in the dirt. Zuko wouldn't look at him. Even in the dim starlight, Sokka could see that his cheeks were flushed. He was careful to keep his tone light when he said, "Did I mention that Katara talks in her sleep?"
"She does. And sometimes Aang Airbends. Very drafty."
"If you say so."
Sokka ran his thumb along the dull edge of his borrowed sword. "It might be nice to get a break. Be somewhere a little less crowded."
Zuko sat up as well and folded his hands in his lap. Sokka waited. This couldn't come from him.
"The room next to mine has two beds," said Zuko, his voice stiff with awkwardness.
"I wouldn't mind moving. If that's what you want."
"You saw right through me!" Sokka laughed and raised his hands in surrender. "Yeah, it might be nice, you know? Just us guys."
"The Avatar is a guy."
"Aang's just a kid. It's not the same."
"I guess," said Zuko. Sokka could already see the tension melting from his shoulders. "We can try it. If it'll make you happy."
"It totally will."
"The Avatar won't mind?"
"Of course not."
"And your sister?"
"Well, yeah, she'll mind, but she minds that you have a pulse, so you know...not a whole lot we can do in that area."
"I guess not."
Sokka reached for his discarded shirt and then stood. He held the sword between his knees as he got dressed. "We should get back," he said. He waited until Zuko had finished tying his belt, then handed the sword to him. "I don't really need anything from my room. We can just try the new one out tonight, if you want."
Zuko matched up the hilts of his broadswords, spun them once as a pair, then slid them into their scabbard. "Sure." He sounded nervous but pleased.
As they picked their way down the trail Sokka stayed in the rear. When his footing was solid he glanced up at Zuko's back. Zuko, who had followed them for so long, hunting them across oceans and continents, across half the earth. Now Sokka followed him, for the second time that night, and he couldn't quite shake how strange it felt. Not wrong. Just strange.
The room was clean and dry. Faint light shone through two hexagonal windows, just enough to see by. One of the beds still had a mattress, and Sokka sat down on it while Zuko went to get his things. When he came back a few minutes later, his bag was slung over his shoulder and his arms were full of blankets and the mattress from his old bed. He dropped the mattress into place, then held the blanket out for Sokka to take.
"You can use this," he said. "I'll just sleep under my robe."
"Won't you get cold?"
"I'm a Firebender," said Zuko, as if that explained everything.
Sokka shrugged. "Whatever." He reached up and untied the leather thong that bound his hair, then bent to unfasten the straps of his shin guards. He felt Zuko's eyes on him but didn't mention it. It wasn't until he'd kicked off his shoes that Zuko moved to follow his example.
Sokka lay back on his mattress and pulled the blanket up under his chin. "Hopefully Katara won't figure out I'm in here right away. It'd be nice to sleep in for once."
"Yeah." Zuko tugged off his boots, then lined them up neatly on the floor. "We'll see, I guess."
Zuko's robe wasn't very long; when he curled up under it, his feet stuck out past the bottom. It was odd to see him like this, so thoroughly undignified. Sokka tried to reconcile the tousle-haired boy across the room from him with the prince who'd kicked him off a gangplank all those months ago. He gave up when Zuko yawned.
"Goodnight, jerk," he murmured as his eyelids fluttered closed.
Another of Zuko's long pauses. Then, "Goodnight."
The idea of the lift was simple enough: a sling attached to a series of pulleys, which would allow them to quickly winch each other up out of the ravine without needing Aang or Appa's help. After the fight with the assassin, it had made sense to ensure that no one would end up trapped in the temple, regardless of who might come looking for trouble or when. Teo had come up with the idea, initially, and Sokka had been the obvious choice for a partner -- what he lacked in experience he more than made up for in unorthodox problem solving.
The Airbenders hadn't been mechanically minded for the most part, which left Teo and Sokka very little in the way of raw materials for their project. With Aang's unexpectedly willing help, they'd disassembled the complicated air lock inside the temple for spare parts, which Toph had then reshaped to match Teo's designs. They'd already anchored the main pulley to the cliff's edge high above, and the ropes had been threaded through and tested. All that was left was the winch they'd use to raise and lower the sling. It worked, just not very well. The counterweight did its job decently enough, but they needed a catch of some kind that kept the mechanism from slipping backwards. And of course, there was the problem of needing someone else to crank you up -- if one person couldn't operate the lift on their own, it lost a lot of its practical value. And Sokka prided himself on being practical.
They'd decided earlier that morning that they would model the catch after the brakes on Teo's chair. He'd retreated to his makeshift workroom to put something together, leaving Sokka to rig the new pulleys for self-lifting. He was up to his elbows in the guts of the mechanism when he heard footsteps behind him. He said something that was meant to be "Hey" around the wrench in his teeth. He was surprised, but not disappointed, when Zuko's voice replied in kind.
He finished wrestling a gear into place, then took the wrench out of his mouth and glanced back over his shoulder. Zuko stood several feet away, arms crossed as he watched Sokka work. "This is the lift?" he asked.
"Eh. Nothing I can't handle." Sokka laughed and tapped his head with the wrench. "Idea guy, remember?"
Several seconds passed without his saying anything else. Sokka wondered if he'd thought to invent an excuse for coming over. "So...you need something?" he asked.
"No. The Avatar wanted a break." Apparently not.
"Then you might as well make yourself useful," Sokka said cheerfully. He pointed to a coil of rope nearby. "Hand me that, would you?"
Zuko picked up the rope and carried it over. He hovered uncertainly after Sokka took it from him. "You ah...brought your sword," he said, gesturing vaguely to where it was leaned against a column.
"In case we have time to practice later."
"Ah. Well that's..." Zuko trailed off.
"Sit down, you're making me nervous."
"Sorry," said Zuko. He slowly lowered himself to the ground, looking nervous himself, as if he expected Sokka to tell him to move father away. Sokka had no problem with Zuko sitting next to him, and couldn't imagine why he would. But the proximity meant he noticed the other boy was damper than usual.
"She get you again?"
"I thought she promised to knock it off."
"She said she thought my shirt was on fire."
Sokka chuckled as he threaded the rope through the pulleys. "You're kidding."
"She has to start coming up with better excuses."
"I know." Zuko snorted. "If my shirt had really been on fire she would've just left it."
Sokka laughed out loud at that. "Oh man. I mean...I know she's my sister but..."
"Yes. Yes, I'm sorry to say, she is completely crazy." Sokka yanked a handful of rope out of the works and held it out. "Here, hold this for a second."
Zuko took it from him, and watched with interest as Sokka tightened the bolts securing the winch in place. "You're still better off than I am," he said.
"That's true. Katara's never tried to kill me."
"She's only threatened to kill me."
"You're not serious."
"When I first got here. She said..." Zuko thought for a few seconds, his lips pursed. When he continued it was in a sort of singsongy falsetto, his free hand poking an imaginary person's chest. "Let me tell you something right now. You make one step backward, one slip-up, and I'll make sure your destiny ends, right then and there. Permanently."
It took a moment for Sokka's brain to process what it had just heard; when it did, his laughter was so loud and so sudden that Zuko dropped the rope. "Shit...shit, Zuko that was the..." He gasped a little, trying to catch his breath. "That's the worst impression I've ever heard."
Zuko's face was red as he picked the rope up again. "Sorry."
"No! No do not be sorry!" Sokka wiped away a few tears. "She actually said that?"
"What the hell did you say back?"
"Nothing. I mean...what could I say?"
Sokka rolled his eyes as he took the rope back, still chuckling. "'Sorry, crazy lady, I'll try not to betray your boyfriend! You know, even though I just ditched my entire life to come here and help him!'"
Zuko smiled a little at that. "You don't sound worried."
"Please." Sokka picked up the wrench again and used it to bang an axle into place.
Zuko sat in pensive silence until Sokka was finished, his fingers wound together. "But before, when I first...when I asked to join you-"
"That was before," said Sokka, cutting him off. "I didn't know you. Now I do."
When Sokka looked up at him again, Zuko's smile had widened, warm and genuine and little startled. He looked younger, disarmingly so, and Sokka found himself smiling back.
Zuko flushed again, as if remembering where he was and who he was with, then cast about for something else to look at. The rope caught his eye, and he squinted up along its length, to where it disappeared past the ceiling. "So um...how does this work?"
"You really want to know? It's pretty boring."
"No it isn't."
"Suit yourself," Sokka said with a shrug. Then he started to explain.
At first, he tried to keep it simple, unsure as to how much detail Zuko was actually interested in. But the other boy interrupted periodically with questions, and in the end, Sokka walked him through the whole system from start to finish. It hadn't occurred to him that Zuko might care about this sort of thing. But then, it hadn't occurred to him that Zuko did impressions.
He was going through the finer details of the counterweight when voices and the soft rumble of wheels made him pause and look up toward the rest of the complex. Teo and Haru were crossing the veranda, the latter's arms full of the new brake assembly. Even as Sokka waved to them, he saw the tension return to Zuko's features, his smile dissolving into some mix of worry and suspicion.
"How's it going?" Teo asked as he rolled to a stop.
Sokka got to his feet, pulled a rag out of his pocket and used it to wipe the grease off his hands. "Pretty good."
Haru glanced at Zuko, then back to Sokka again. "Nice that you had help," he said neutrally.
"Yeah, well we're pretty much done for now, I think." He looked down at Zuko, who was still seated, as if not sure what to do with himself. "Whaddya say, jerk? Think Aang's had enough of a break?"
"Yeah. Probably." Zuko stood as well, though he didn't meet any of their eyes.
Sokka picked up his sword and slung it over his shoulder. Then he thumped Zuko good-naturedly on the back. "Come on, then. Can't have him slacking off."
As they walked toward the temple fountain -- which Katara insisted all Firebending lessons take place in front of -- Sokka shot Zuko a sideways grin. "You know, Haru and Teo don't have a problem with you or anything."
Zuko scowled. "I know that."
"They're nice guys. You should give them a chance."
Zuko glanced back over his shoulder. "Has he always had that mustache?"
Sokka snorted with laughter. "No, he has not. Why, not up to your exacting standards?
"It's ridiculous," said Zuko. "It looks like two caterpillars died on his face."
Sokka's laughter startled a flock of birds into flight.
"All right. Let me see you go through those forms again." Zuko raised his arms and settled into one of the basic Firebending stances. Sokka was beginning to recognize them himself, after a few afternoons spent heckling him during Aang's lessons. "And watch your footing. This isn't Airbending. You should stay connected to the ground."
Sokka liked watching them like this. Since their return from the Sun Warriors' city, Aang and Zuko had spent many hours reworking the techniques that Zuko had been taught growing up. With a patience Sokka wouldn't have guessed either boy had in him, they had moved through the traditional forms one by one, adapting them to better fit the insight the dragons had given them. The difference was striking, even to him. The movements had lost their wildness and sharp edges, the familiar blur of jabs and kicks smoothed into something more deliberate and controlled. Every day, they pulled their Firebending further away from the extremes that Fire Lord Sozin had pushed it to.
Twin bursts of flame poured over the edge of the veranda as they completed the set. "Better," said Zuko. "Let's try again." Aang beamed at him. Even that much praise was rare.
Sokka looked away, then, and noted that his sister hadn't returned to her own practice. She glared at Zuko's back, the surface of the fountain twitching along with her fingers. He wondered how long it would be before another "accident" soaked Zuko to the skin. "Hey, Katara! Help a guy out?"
The water stilled, but Katara's expression remained stoney. "With what?"
She sighed, but smiled a little despite herself. "Same as yesterday?"
Sokka unsheathed his sword and offered an exaggerated bow. "Please."
Fingers splayed, she extended her arms behind her, pausing to take a deep breath before her hands snapped forward again. The sword flashed as shards of ice flew toward him, shattering with a sharp, brittle sound as he cut them out of the air. It felt good to hold his own blade again.
"That was awesome!" said Aang. He'd stopped to watch, it seemed, and now looked genuinely impressed. "You're getting a lot better! You hardly missed any of them that time!"
"Why thank you," Sokka replied magnanimously. He would have said more, possibly about how much ass he was going to kick later, but he found himself suddenly at a loss. Zuko was looking at him. Staring at him, really, in a decidedly weird way. Sokka met his gaze and held it for several seconds too long.
"We, uh...should spar later," he said as he looked away. The suggestion was thoughtless, the first thing that came to mind as he scrambled to fill the suddenly awkward silence.
He snuck a sideways glance. Zuko's gaze had shifted to the ground, his cheeks flushed. "Uh, yeah. Yeah, we should."
"Why not now?" Aang suggested.
"We're in the middle of a lesson-"
"Here, look, I'll practice during the match!" Aang bent a small flame in the palm of one hand, then elbowed Zuko good-naturedly. "Come on, Sifu Hotman! It'll be fun!"
Zuko turned even redder. He also let the "hotman" go without comment. Very very weird. "I guess. I...it's not like it's very interesting..."
"Oh, I think it'll be plenty interesting to watch my big brother kick your butt," said Katara. She seated herself on the edge of the fountain, her face expectant with an edge of nastiness.
Sokka swallowed through the lump that was forming in his throat. Her confidence was flattering, but embarrassingly unwarranted. Zuko had won nearly all of their matches the night before.
The twin broadswords had been hung over a broken column. Zuko went to retrieve them, moving slowly, as if trying to think of a way to get out of this. Sokka knew just how he felt -- it was one thing to practice alone in the desert in the middle of the night. This felt uncomfortably like a performance.
Zuko drew the swords, leaving the scabbard where it was, and moved to stand across from Sokka.
Sokka readied his own blade. "Two out of three?" he offered.
Zuko's sword had been ill-adapted for the techniques Sokka had learned from Piandao. The curved blades were built to be swung, and in Zuko's hands they cut through the air in lethal arcs, whistling softly as they caught the edge of Sokka's tunic. With his own sword gripped in both hands, the leather smooth and cool against his palms, Sokka realized just how much of an advantage the other boy had had as they sparred at the lip of the ravine. His attacks were a series of thrusts and quick cuts, more about the point of the blade than its edge. His arm darted forward, the sword an extension of that arm as it tested the edges of Zuko's defense. He found a hole, exploited it almost without thought, caught the other boy's arm with the flat of his blade. A broadsword clattered to the ground, and Zuko stood with his mouth open, breathing hard, his forehead beaded with sweat. The edge of Sokka's sword was a hairsbreadth from his neck.
"I told you I was amazing," said Sokka. He smiled, and Zuko couldn't duck his head fast enough to hide the darkest blush yet.
"Yeah," Zuko muttered. He retrieved the fallen sword, then raised both blades again. His eyes were focused on Sokka's chest.
"Not so cocky now," Katara sneered.
Zuko ignored her. Sokka wondered if the other boy always blushed this much, and he just hadn't noticed before.
"I knew last night," Zuko said abruptly.
Sokka blinked. "Knew what?"
"That you were good." Zuko's words were stilted, as if he had to struggle to say them. "I could tell from the way you held my sword."
"What's he talking about?" Katara asked. Sokka could hear the frown in her voice.
Zuko looked up, finally, and Sokka caught and held his gaze. He had seen that look before, in another pair of eyes. Blue ones, set against a painted face. He understood with a sudden, wrenching clarity. "Let's go again," he said, and lifted his sword.
Sokka wasn't a modest guy, especially not around friends. But he felt vaguely uncomfortable as he got ready for bed that night. He knew it was ridiculous -- Zuko had seen him in his underwear before, and just last night they'd run around without their shirts on for hours. Tonight it felt different. He was aware of Zuko's eyes on him.
"I'm gonna go wash up," he said.
There was a small washroom on every floor of the pagoda, primitive but useful. Water ran down from the fountain above, through a long trough with polished copper mirrors hung behind it. Aang had explained this extravagance by pointing to his own, bald head. Sokka splashed cold water on his face, willing it to snap him out of his strange, heavy mood.
He studied his reflection, distorted in places by imperfections in the metal, and wondered how he looked to Zuko. During their time in the Fire Nation, more than one teenage girl had gawked openly at him; a few had even asked about his coloring, so much darker than was typical in this part of the world. "I'm from the colonies," he'd said by way of explanation, when their comments were too pointed to ignore.
Zuko knew where he was from. He'd been there. Had he ever seen someone from the Water Tribe before that day? During their brief stay with Hama, she'd told them stories of tribesmen and women kept as servants in the palace. Now Sokka wondered if those stories were true; if it was the novelty of exotic features that drew Zuko's gaze, or something else.
But then, he suspected he already knew the answer. He couldn't be sure yet, but he was usually right about these things -- he'd known with Yue, and with Suki. He knew with Toph, though he hadn't figured out what to do about that yet. And now this. The knowledge sunk like a stone to the pit of his stomach, hot and unsettling, if not entirely unwelcome. It wasn't as if he'd never thought about it -- this kind of thing wasn't uncommon in the Water Tribe, and he'd watched his father and Bato with some curiosity. He just hadn't thought about it in this particular context with this particular person, with whom he was sharing a room on this particular night.
He thought about it now as he leaned against the edge of the trough, watching the clear, cold water flow by. He thought about what it was that Zuko might want from him, and what he wanted from Zuko, and what he was willing to give. The latter two were surprisingly open-ended. The first, impossible to be sure of until he pushed a little harder. Which he found himself thinking about not in terms of if, but rather how and when.
Sokka returned to find the room dark and Zuko already in bed, curled up under his robe again with his back to the room. Neither of them spoke as Sokka stripped off his shirt and dropped it onto the pile of shoes and shin guards on the floor. Then Sokka pulled the blanket off his bed, and Zuko made a startled little sound as Sokka climbed in beside him and spread the blanket out over them both.
"What are you doing?" he asked in a strangled-sounding voice.
Sokka closed his eyes and pulled the blanket up under his chin. Whatever happened or didn't happen later, this was nice. The temple could get chilly at night, and Zuko's body felt pleasantly warm beside him. "Going to bed," he said.
"Your bed is over there."
"I know. But I forgot to grab another blanket from upstairs."
"You don't have to..." Sokka could hear him swallow. "I can get you one-"
"Do you not want me here?" asked Sokka gently. It seemed fair to give Zuko an out.
"That's not...I mean, it's fine..." Zuko swallowed again. "I don't mind."
"Then I don't mind, either."
Sokka felt him move closer to the wall, which was helpful, as the bed wasn't very wide. It was wide enough that Zuko could have broken contact entirely, but he didn't -- his forearm pressed against the bare skin of Sokka's back, and their legs fitted together at the knees. It felt strange and intimate to lie there in this way. Sokka hadn't shared a bed since leaving home; had never shared one with someone who wasn't family. He found that it didn't bother him, and smiled to himself in the dark.
"Goodnight, jerk," he said.
He could feel Zuko's breath on neck. "Goodnight."
Zuko watched as Sokka tapped the last stake into the ground, using the flat side of a rock as a hammer. "Is this actually going to work?"
"Hope so." Sokka wiped his brow with the back of one hand as he stood. "It'd be nice to have a little warning next time someone tries to kill us."
"I said I was sorry."
Sokka laughed. "I still can't believe you hired that guy."
"He was only supposed to kill the Avatar," Zuko mumbled.
"Yeah, I'm sure he was real concerned about sparing the rest of us."
Zuko's shoulders were hunched up to his ears. "Look, I'm sorry, okay? It was a stupid thing to do."
Sokka rolled his eyes as he went to gather an armful of leaves. "I'm just teasing you, dork."
"I know that," Zuko snapped.
"Of course." The leaves smelled pleasantly musty as Sokka scattered them over the taut length of rope he'd just strung. Months had passed since they'd left the South Pole, but vegetation was still a novelty, and he was glad to spend an afternoon in the lush, damp forest that grew a mile or so away from the ravine. Zuko had camped there, briefly, and Sokka had used that fact as as an excuse to drag him along. Not that Zuko had complained.
After watching Sokka go through several rounds of leaf-scattering, Zuko moved to imitate him. He glanced back at Sokka's efforts every so often, as if to make sure he was doing it right. Which was kind of funny, really, as it wasn't exactly precision work. Sokka was more worried about him accidentally stepping on the tripwire than improperly arranging leaves.
"Do you think your sister's gonna come looking for us?" Sokka asked.
Zuko frowned as he carefully placed another handful of leaves. "If she thinks she has to."
"She knows we'll come to her. It just depends on if she feels like waiting."
Zuko shook his head. "I'm not going to pretend like I have any idea what she'll do. I don't understand her. I usually just ask Mai, but..." He expression darkened, and he busied himself with the leaves again.
Sokka watched him as he worked, considering. "Mai's your...girlfriend, right?" Zuko nodded but didn't turn. This was the first time he'd mentioned her name since he'd joined them, at least within Sokka's hearing, and the set of his shoulders suggested that he already regretted it. "Why isn't she here, anyway?"
"I didn't ask her to come." Zuko's words were clipped. "Her parents are important. Nobility. She'd have been disowned." He made a helpless sort of gesture, his arms raising a little and then falling limply back to his sides. "You can't ask that of someone."
"I guess not." Sokka walked along the hidden tripwire, to the next section still left exposed. "Did you break up, or..?"
"No. Maybe..." Zuko looked properly miserable, now. "I left her a letter. To explain. I don't know how she took it."
"Man, I'm sorry." Sokka swore inwardly. What the hell was wrong with him? "I shouldn't have asked."
"It's fine," said Zuko. "I'm...it's good. That you asked. I should probably talk about it." He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. "And it's not like I have anyone else to talk to."
Sokka didn't ask why he hadn't talked to Aang. He understood -- it wasn't like he'd really confided in anyone about Suki, either. "You can talk to me about whatever you want to."
"I know." Zuko busied himself with more leaves, but Sokka could tell he was flustered. "You're easy to talk to. For me. It's just...it's a little..."
"Weird," said Sokka, smiling to show he didn't mind.
"Yeah. Yeah, it's...it's a little weird." His undamaged ear was bright red as he bent over the tripwire, his back to Sokka.
Another hundred feet of wire disappeared without either of them speaking, their work settling into a comfortable rhythm as they cut across the woods. It was hot despite the shade, the air sticky with humidity. Sokka's tunic was plastered to his back with sweat, and stray wisps of hair that had escaped from his wolf-tail kept getting in his eyes. He found he didn't mind much -- it was worth it, to have something concrete to do. He wasn't much for waiting around for things to happen.
Zuko spoke suddenly and without preamble, a conversational style that Sokka had come to expect from him. "Look, about last night-"
"What about it?"
"What you...what we did..."
"No, but...next time..." Sokka had never seen him look so uncomfortable, not even when he'd first approached them on the veranda of the Air Temple. "I don't know if-"
"Stop." Sokka's voice was soft but insistent. The other boy looked up at him, startled. "Zuko, do you actually want to have this conversation?"
It took Zuko a moment to recover enough to answer. "Not...really. But I kind of feel like we should..."
Sokka wasn't used to spelling things out like this, but it seemed likely that Zuko needed him to. "You're the only one who knows what you're okay with," he said simply. "You don't need to explain to me."
"But...what about you?"
"Let me worry about myself." Sokka's back was starting to hurt from all the stooping, and he stretched it now with relish, rolling his shoulders and swinging some of the stiffness out of his arms. He could hear a stream somewhere nearby, the murmur of water just audible beneath the wind-rustled trees. "We should go swimming."
"I thought you said we needed to finish this by tonight."
"We do," said Sokka. "But I'm gonna die of heat stroke before then if we don't take a break."
Zuko glanced around them, getting his bearings. "There's a pretty good place over that way," he said, pointing.
Sokka grinned at him. "Race you?"
Sokka tore off into the brush, careful to leap over the wire. A moment of surprised hesitation, then Zuko yelled an indignant "Hey!" and crashed in after him.
The spot Zuko had in mind was at the base of a small waterfall. A deep, round pool had been carved by the falling water, and sunlight streamed down through gaps in the canopy above. It was cooler here, but Sokka's run through the woods had more than made up for the difference. He'd already stripped off his shirt when Zuko stumbled out of the bushes behind him.
"I won," said Sokka as he draped the shirt over a branch. "Just to be clear."
Zuko laughed as he tugged off his shoes, hopping on one foot and then the other. "Only because you cheated."
"You insult my honor, sir!"
Sokka gaped at him in mock-offense. "Too far, sir, too far!"
Zuko flashed a grin as he stepped out of his pants. "Yeah? What're you going to do about it?"
Sokka's answer was to shove him into the water. Zuko's indignant yelp was cut short as he disappeared under the surface, and a few seconds later he came up spluttering, his hair in his face. Sokka was too busy laughing to notice what Zuko's hands were doing, until one of them closed around his ankle and dragged him in.
The splash fight that followed quickly devolved into wrestling, the two of them yelling taunts and curses as they shoved each other's heads underwater. Sokka would swear, later on, that it was completely innocent when it started. He'd never had a guy his own age to mess around with, and it was easy to get carried away, his hands scrabbling for purchase on Zuko's slippery body as they both gasped for air. He'd never heard Zuko laugh like this, honest and unselfconscious.
He wasn't sure when it was, exactly, that things changed. Maybe it was when he grabbed the back of Zuko's loincloth, part of an attempt to flip him over. Maybe it was when Zuko came up behind him and pinned Sokka's arms to his sides, his hands clasped together just below Sokka's navel. Probably it was the misjudged effort to climb onto Zuko's shoulders. But whenever it happened, it happened. And suddenly they were no longer two friends goofing around in the water. They were two mostly-naked boys, alone in the middle of the woods, holding each other in a sunlit pool.
The moment hit them at the same time. They were facing each other, their legs kicking slowly to keep them afloat. Sokka's hands were on Zuko's waist, and he left them there. He could feel the muscles moving under Zuko's skin as he swam. He could feel the heat of Zuko's palms against his shoulders. Their eyes met and he wondered, wildly, if the other boy would kiss him.
Zuko's thumb slid up the side of his neck, past his jaw and along the curve of his cheekbone. He took a breath, and Sokka realized he'd been holding his. Zuko licked his lips, then said, "We should get back to work."
"Yeah." Sokka drifted away from him, his hands lingering on Zuko's skin a moment longer than they needed to.
"Goodnight!" Aang smiled and offered a silly little wave as he stood.
Zuko's head jerked up. He'd been staring into the fire again. "Goodnight," he said.
"Yeah, goodnight," said Sokka. He watched Aang trot after Katara, following the bright smear of his clothes until it disappeared into the darkness. Which left just the two of them, alone again in the flickering pool of light.
Zuko's fingertips rose and fell, the fire waxing and waning in time with his movements. The silence was thick and obvious, impossible to settle into. Sokka tried to think of something to say, but nothing came to him. Inevitably, his mind would drift back to that afternoon.
He stood and stretched his limbs. "We should probably hit the sack," he said.
"Yeah. I guess." Zuko held out a hand, palm down, and as he lowered it the fire was reduced to a thin wisp of smoke.
Sokka could feel the awkwardness creeping up on them, a wall of embarrassed silence that had grown and solidified since they'd left the waterfall. He'd allowed it earlier, while they'd trained with the others that evening and eaten dinner around the fire. But now it was just stupid. And of course, he would have to be the one to do something about it.
Sokka grinned and sidled over to the other boy. "How'd you sleep last night?"
"Fine," said Zuko. "You kicked."
"Did I now?" Sokka draped his arm across Zuko's shoulders. He could feel the heat of Zuko's body through their clothes; the muscles of his neck, taut with nervousness. "You can sleep on your own if you want."
"I didn't say that." Zuko glanced over at him. "Unless you...I mean if you want-"
Sokka rapped him playfully on the head. "Don't even start, jerk."
They walked together along the temple corridors and up three flight of stairs, their footsteps in sync. Sokka didn't move his arm, and Zuko didn't pull away.
The straw-stuffed mattress rustled as they sat down on it. They'd already undressed for the night, and Sokka didn't bother to pretend he wasn't staring. Zuko was a good-looking guy, lean and muscular, pale skin marked by paler scars that only made him more interesting to look at. He remembered how that skin had felt against his, slick with water and sweat.
Zuko was looking at him, too, his expression pensive. Their faces were so close. Sokka could see every tortured crease of the scar, the places where it had cracked and re-healed over the years, the ruined skin taut against Zuko's cheekbone.
"You're staring," said Zuko. There was no trace of irritation in his voice.
Sokka grinned lopsidedly, but didn't look away. "I can stop," he said.
"No. It's fine." Zuko's eyes were fixed on his, now. They looked almost green in the moonlight. "It's just...most people only stare when they think I won't notice." He paused. "Or they don't look at it at all. Which is...weirder."
"I guess it would be, yeah."
"I know what I look like," Zuko murmured.
"You look fine." Sokka's grin widened. "Chicks dig scars."
Zuko laughed a little. "Do they?"
"Oh yeah," said Sokka, confident. Then, "Some guys do, too."
Even in the darkness of their room, Sokka could tell Zuko was blushing again. It was kind of cute. "Oh. Well, I wouldn't...I don't know anything about that..."
"If you say so."
Zuko was silent for a long while, thinking. Sokka could feel the other boy's breath on his skin, stirring the soft hair at his temples. He was so close.
"You can touch it if you want," said Zuko, quietly abrupt. He looked surprised at his own words, as if he hadn't quite meant to say them out loud. But he didn't take them back.
Sokka didn't stop to think about it. He lifted his hand and brushed his fingertips along the dark, ragged edge. It was smooth and dry; softer than he would have guessed. His touch wandered upward, over the deep valleys on Zuko's cheek; his temple, half-hidden by messy locks of hair; the ridge where his eyebrow should be.
"Does it hurt?" he heard himself ask.
Sokka wanted to push his fingers into Zuko's hair and feel it slide between them, but wasn't sure if he should. Not yet. He pulled his hand away. Zuko came back to himself once the contact was broken, looking embarrassed. "Maybe we shouldn't be doing this."
"I..." Zuko stared down at his lap. "I mean...I don't know what's going to happen. If I'll ever see Mai again. But if I do..."
"I don't want to steal you away from your girlfriend, Zuko" said Sokka quietly. "I have a girlfriend, too, you know? You just seem like you could use some company." He smiled. "So could I."
Sokka lay down on the bed. "Come on," he said. "Enough worrying for one night."
Zuko stayed where he was for several more seconds, wrestling with his options. Then slowly, gingerly, he slid down beside Sokka. His back pressed against Sokka's chest, warm and solid. After some consideration, dense with logistics and his own comfort with such things, Sokka draped his arm loosely around the other boy's ribs. He could feel how tense Zuko was, coiled like a spring. He kept their hips a few inches apart -- his own interest was such that Zuko couldn't help but notice, and there was no sense in freaking him out.
They lay together for what seemed like a long time. Sokka felt Zuko's body relax against him, bit by bit, the muscles unwinding as his breath and heartbeat slowed. Then his hand began to move, fingers skimming across Sokka's knuckles, over the boney knob at his wrist, down cords of tendon toward the soft hollow on the inside of his elbow. It made him feel a little dizzy, to be touched like this. His skin tingled as Zuko's fingers explored the muscles of his arm, gentle and slow.
"Hey," Zuko whispered.
Sokka chuckled, soft as a breath. "I have a name, you know."
"I know." A little of the old standoffishness crept into Zuko's voice, completely transparent.
Sokka kissed his neck, then spoke against his skin. "Really?"
"I know your name."
"What is it, then, smart guy?"
It was so strange to hear the word in Zuko's raspy voice, much stranger than Sokka had expected. It unsettled him a little, and his own voice cracked as he said, "You got me, there."
Zuko threaded their fingers together. "Sokka," he said again -- it sent a jolt straight through him. "Why are you doing this?"
Zuko squeezed his hand. "This."
Sokka thought for a moment, though he didn't really have to. "The usual reasons, I guess," he said. "I like you. And you're pretty cute."
"Girls are cute."
"They are," Sokka agreed. "And so are you."
Zuko turned around in his arms, then, catching Sokka off guard. He was scowling, but the scowl was as transparent as the standoffishness had been. "I'm not a girl," he said quietly.
Sokka met his eyes and smiled. He could get used to that blush. "You sure?"
Zuko pulled their hips together, his hand on Sokka's waist. The hard bulge between them made his point for him. "I'm sure," he said.
A wave of lust passed over Sokka. For the second time that night, he touched the scarred cheek. Then he leaned in and kissed Zuko's mouth. It was so warm. Zuko's thin lips were soft as they parted, his tongue hot and wet. His hand slid up the back of Sokka's shirt, making him shudder.
"Does this mean you want to practice your swordbending again?" Sokka murmured.
Zuko groaned. "That was terrible."
Sokka laughed even as he pushed his leg up between Zuko's thighs. "I couldn't pass up that kind of opportunity."
"Yes, you could," Zuko muttered, already sounding distracted. "You just didn't want to."
"You're probably right." Sokka hooked a finger under the waist of Zuko's pants. "I am kind of a jerk."
Zuko made a vague noise of agreement. Sokka kissed his throat and reached down between them. "I'll make it up to you," he said.