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The Greatest Thing You'll Ever Learn

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Sokka is on the phone taking a dinner reservation from an elderly woman with a tendency to ramble when the new guy walks in and changes Sokka’s life forever.

Well, okay, it’s not quite as dramatic as all that.  First of all, the new guy doesn’t come into the restaurant, but stops in the hotel lobby, and Sokka doesn’t know he’s the new guy yet either. All he knows is that there’s a gorgeous man in a very, very sharp suit, glancing at his watch impatiently as he waits for Katara to finish checking a family of tourists into their room.

The lady on the phone keeps talking, and Sokka pencils in what he hopes are the pertinent details while keeping sharp-suit guy in his peripheral vision. One of the perks of practically living at the host stand is that he gets an excellent view of the people who come in, and he’s not ashamed about the way he’s salivating over this guy’s ass and broad shoulders. He’s gotta get his kicks somehow, right? Keeps the job interesting.

Katara finishes up with the tourists and suit-guy steps forward, but Sokka doesn’t get a chance to see what happens after that, because a party of four comes in for lunch and he has to hang up the phone quick and take them to a table. For whatever reason, they don’t like the first table Sokka shows them, or the second, or the third, and then they want to talk, so it takes a while. The lunch crowd is usually a lot more chill than dinner, which is part of the reason Sokka asked for this shift on what is supposed to be his day off (landlord raised the rent again, you know how it goes), but assholes are assholes any time of day.

When he gets back to the host stand and glances into the lobby again, the guy he was ogling is now standing behind the front desk, arms crossed over his chest as Katara shows him something on the computer. Sokka waves and tries to catch his eye - he sincerely hopes this is the new concierge hired to replace Aang after his promotion, because that would be awesome. 

The new guy looks up, but doesn’t smile back. For the first time, Sokka gets a good look at his face and he - well. He’s got an enormous scar across half his face, which his sexy-shaggy hairstyle isn’t doing much to conceal, and a death-glare to rival Katara’s on a bad day.

Sokka just grins wider. This is gonna be fun.

By 2:30 PM, lunch is almost over. No new parties have come in for a while, so Sokka goes out into the lobby to bug Katara and the new guy. On the way, he checks himself in one of the lobby’s many floor-to-ceiling mirrors to make sure his hair isn’t doing anything too embarrassing, then saunters over to the counter and leans across it, peering at the edge of the computer screen and the stacks of papers on the desk below.

“How’s it going, guys?” He asks, “Any exciting new bookings?”

It's a legitimate question. Sometimes they get celebrities, even if no one on staff finds out until after the celebrity has already checked out. 

“Get out of here, Sokka. I don’t have time right now,” Katara says, still shuffling through some files, and he can see the tension in how she’s holding herself, the furrow between her brows. Looks like the new guy is kind of a pain in the ass to train. He hasn’t uncrossed his arms yet, hasn't relaxed an inch, and he’s staring down at Sokka like he resents the interruption, which, rude.

“Hey, you know you love me,” Sokka reaches out to smack her shoulder, and turns to the new guy, shooting him his winningest smile, “I don’t think we’ve been introduced yet. I’m Sokka. I work in the restaurant, but you’ll see me out here a lot, we’re always back and forth, you know?” He kind of waves his hand to indicate the short distance between the reception desk and the restaurant doors.

He ramps up his death-glare to 110% and Sokka is almost giddy with how much he wants to get under this guy’s skin, wants to tear him apart. It’s not, like, entirely a sex thing - although it’s that too, no lie. It’s just. He’s so - ugh.

“Zuko,” The guy says grudgingly, and it takes Sokka a second to realize it's a name - his name. They don’t shake hands, but that’s okay, baby steps or whatever.

“Awesome to meet you, man,” Sokka smiles up at him and after a split-second, Zuko averts his eyes, “You ever need anything, like food or whatever, you know where I work.”

Sokka leaves them alone after that, because he knows if he doesn’t, Katara will be on his case about annoying her at work again the whole bus-ride home. But he’s feeling pretty pleased with himself.

Katara has nothing but the worst to say about Zuko on their ride home. And don’t get Sokka wrong, he loves gossiping about the other employees, but something about Katara’s criticisms seem excessively harsh, for only a first impression. While she’s telling him about how Zuko thinks he’s too good to work at the front desk, too good to answer the phones and deal with customers, Sokka thinks about the way Zuko kept his arms crossed defensively for three hours straight, and yeah, it looked like he really didn’t want to be there, but maybe not for the reasons Katara thinks.

When Sokka comes in the next day, it's the dinner shift and Zuko isn’t there. Suki is though, working the front desk with Teo, and they’re always a good time - giving him shit for abandoning the host stand and sneaking him glasses of the good water from the cooler in the bellhop’s closet.

It’s a Sunday night (why yes, Sokka has worked fourteen days in a row, thanks for asking) and the restaurant is reasonably busy, lots of couples coming in but no big parties, not right before Monday. Sokka takes people to their tables and fields a couple of take-out orders, gets asked a lot of questions by hotel guests along the lines of “so this is an Asian restaurant?” and “is there anything on the menu besides raw fish?”

Sokka exhales slowly, gives Mr. and Mrs. Whitebread America two menus, and resists the urge to tell them there’s a McDonald’s a block away.

Once the couple have decided they actually do want to sit down, and Sokka has taken them to a table (“not this one, the air-conditioning’s too strong” and “no, no, we want a booth, do you have booths here?”), he feels a momentary burst of pity for the waiter who will take them, and then seeks out someone who isn’t too busy to bitch to.

Jet, the restaurant’s resident bad-boy, also busboy, is loitering by the entrance to the kitchen, pretending to look busy by fiddling with the napkins he’s supposed to be folding. He’s sympathetic to Sokka’s whining for about fifteen seconds and then he interrupts with a story about last night’s party, and how hungover he still is at seven in the goddamn evening. Sokka doesn’t know why he even bothers. 

When the dinner rush is over, Sokka goes back out to the lobby, and there - surprise, surprise! - is Zuko, standing by the lounge chairs and talking to Iroh, the hotel’s owner. Sokka has only met him maybe twice, in the whole time he’s been working here, but Iroh seems to remember him, waves jovially and asks how he’s doing.

“Good, good,” Sokka says, a little surprised. Zuko still has that unfriendly glare, but his arms aren’t crossed, and before Sokka entered the lobby he could have sworn he’d heard someone laugh.

“Have you met Sokka yet?” Iroh asks, and Zuko nods curtly. 

Now that Iroh (and Zuko) are here, Sokka doesn’t feel as comfortable going out into the lobby to hang out with Suki and Teo. But he can’t just turn around and go back, that would be awkward, so he’s kind of stuck. Fortunately, Zuko turns to Iroh and says, “Okay, I’m going now,” and with Iroh’s attention thoroughly distracted, Sokka can sneak back to the restaurant and wait out the last hour of his shift.

Sokka has three days off in a row after that. He and Katara make rent, barely, but have enough money leftover to buy some cheap beer and invite the gang over for videogames and good times, as if he doesn’t see enough of them at work. Aang, Toph, Suki, and Teo show up, and even Jet makes a brief appearance before he goes off to do whatever it is he does on a Monday night. It’s not a party, per se, but it’s exactly what Sokka wants: all his friends in one place, out of their fancy work-clothes, just shooting the shit.

Katara and Suki disappear off into the kitchen to bake delicious things that smell of deliciousness, and Sokka pauses the game to ask Aang something that’s been on his mind.

“So, you spend a lot of time in the general manager’s office. What do you know about the new guy, Zuko?”

Aang kind of startles at the name, which is interesting, but he says, “I, uh, can’t really tell you that much about him. It wouldn’t be fair.”

Fair to who? Sokka wants to ask.

“He knows a lot about the hotel business,” Aang says hopefully, like that will satisfy Sokka’s curiosity.

“He doesn’t seem like a customer-service kinda guy, though, am I right?”

Aang grimaces. From the kitchen, Katara’s supersonic hearing must have picked up the sounds of gossip, because she shouts, “Are you guys talking about Zuko?”

“Yeah!” Sokka calls back, and Katara comes out, flour up to her elbows, a smear of something (butter?) on her chin.

“He is without a doubt the worst employee I have ever had the misfortune of training,” She says, and there’s a gleam in her eye like she’s just getting going, “He’s entitled and condescending, he doesn’t listen to directions, he is a disaster with the guests… I have no idea what Iroh was thinking by hiring him.”

Aang shrugs helplessly.

Katara rants for another five minutes before Suki drags her back into the kitchen to put the second batch of cupcakes in. Sokka drinks another beer and lets Aang off the hook, just this once. He obviously knows something, but he’s not telling, and the problem with Aang is that he’s possibly the most principled person Sokka knows, so Sokka will just have to find out about it another way.

Turns out, he doesn’t even have to, because a week later, the bomb drops.

During that week, Sokka goes over to the front desk every single day Zuko is working, and does a great job of annoying the shit out of him but not of making friends, because Zuko refuses to acknowledge his existence even when Sokka asks him direct questions. The few times he does acknowledge Sokka, it's to say things like, "God, do you ever shut up?" It’s a little disheartening, to be honest, but Sokka is nothing if not persistent. 

Also during that week, Katara leaves the front desk during work hours a total of four times for non-work-related reasons so she can go complain to Sokka in vicious tones about how she can’t keep working with this over-privileged, under-qualified asshole. 

Also also during that week, Sokka gets into two explosive arguments with Paku, one of the head waiters, who accuses Sokka of shorting him on tables and reducing his tips, which is bullshit. Sokka would never do something like that on purpose, it’s just that sometimes the customers have very definite ideas about where they want to sit, and he can’t do anything about that, seriously.

So to recap: it’s not a great week. The upside, however, is that regardless of whether Zuko talks to him or not, Sokka still gets to spend several hours a night looking surreptitiously in the direction of the front desk, watching Zuko work - which is much better entertainment than watching fish swim around in the fish tank across from the host stand. It’s an honor and a privilege, really, that he gets to admire the way Zuko fills out a series of extremely expensive suits. The guy is definitely rich, and it makes Sokka wonder why he’s got a pretty low-paying job as a concierge, but whatever. More eye-candy for Sokka.

First of all, that ass. Sokka only gets to see it sometimes, when Zuko is reluctantly helping people load their bags onto the luggage cart, which involves a lot of bending over and grappling with heavy objects and yeah, Sokka thinks about that a lot. Wants to get him out of those clothes and lay him out on a bed (Sokka’s bed, even, although he bets Zuko’s got nicer sheets) and lick him open and then fuck him, fingers first and then with his dick. Wants him sweaty and breathless and calling Sokka’s name.

But he also likes the way Zuko’s hair falls into his eyes when he’s distracted, staring hard at the computer screen. Likes the way he bites his lip sometimes, the lower one, teasing it as he concentrates. Even the scar is appealing - but maybe that’s just because Sokka has reached the point where basically everything about Zuko is irresistibly attractive, which is directly linked to the fact that Zuko is completely unattainable.

And that’s because Zuko doesn’t talk to him. Then again, Zuko doesn’t talk to anyone. The closest Sokka gets to actually figuring out what’s on his mind are those quiet moments when Katara isn’t around and Zuko thinks no one is watching him, when he slumps forward onto the desk and puts his face in his hands. Sokka can appreciate what having a bad first week at work looks like, he's had plenty of those in his life, and always gives the guy some peace immediately afterwards. He's fine with being annoying, but he doesn't want to be a jerk. 

Sokka still wants to take him apart, but now he also wants to get the guy to smile, which is - unexpected, maybe. But then the bomb drops, and puts an end to that for a while.

Obviously, it’s not a literal bomb. It starts with a whisper.

When Sokka comes in, he sees Suki and Teo talking to several of the waiters, plus Jet, their voices low murmurs in the echoing lobby. All of that is fairly standard - what else are you supposed to do before customers come in? But Sokka picks up a distinctly distressed note in their conversation, which is not. He makes a questioning face at Jet, who just scowls and shakes his head.

Sokka has to punch in his time-card, check the phone messages for any reservations, write them into the book, check OpenTable, make sure all those reservations are also written in the book, organize the menus, adjust the lighting and the air conditioning, refill the mints and the toothpicks, seat some early-bird customers, before he has a chance to go back out into the lobby and ask Suki what the hell is going on.

Suki shushes him and whispers, leaning forward so they can't be overheard, “Someone in management let slip today that Zuko is Iroh’s nephew.”

Sokka nods, waiting for the big news, but that seems to be it.

“Seriously?” He asks, “This is what everyone is up in arms about?”

“Apparently he’s being groomed to take over after Iroh retires next year.”

That doesn’t sound like a great idea, given Zuko’s apparent lack of people skills, but still not outrageous.

Suki sighs, annoyed that Sokka isn’t getting it, “Okay, so you know how this used to be the Ba Sing Se Hotel back in the 90’s? And then it got sold to that huge multi-national hotel chain? And there were all those workers-comp lawsuits and the place nearly got shut down? And then it was sold to Iroh a few years ago and became the Jasmine Hotel?”

Sokka does know, actually - his uncle used to work in this very same restaurant back in the day, when the hotel was still owned by the chain, until he was severely burned in a kitchen fire. Sokka remembers his dad having lots of angry conversations on the phone with Uncle Bato, not angry at Bato, but angry at the hotel, angry that Bato could be put out of work for four months while he healed and not receive a single dime of compensation.

“Well,” Suki continues, “Iroh is the last owner’s brother. And Zuko is the last owner’s son.”

“Wait,” Sokka gasps, stuck on that last part, “Does this mean Zuko is like, basically, Paris Hilton, except without the sex tape? Oh my god, please tell me there’s a sex tape.”

Suki makes a face, “Come on, Sokka. This is bad news. If New Ozai Hospitality Inc. gets control of the hotel again, we could all be fired, just like last time.”

“Oh. Shit,” Now he gets it, “So you think the hotel is going to go back to the company that owned it before?” He confirms, “Kind of?”

“Yeah, in all but name,” She shakes her head, “It’s disgusting.”

He doesn’t ask how she knows all this, but he believes her. Front desk staff are like, the keepers of secrets. It’s a thing.

“So what do we do?” Sokka asks, and Suki just shrugs.

“I wish I knew.”

A group of middle-aged businessmen walk into the lobby, and Sokka goes back to the host stand just in case they’re one of the 5:30 reservations. Things pick up in the restaurant after that, and for a while he’s too busy to think a lot about what Suki told him. But once the 6:00 to 7:30 rush is over, and Sokka is back by the kitchen entrance printing out the guest check for a to-go order, he catches the waitstaff talking very seriously about how Zuko is going to bankrupt the entire hotel if Iroh lets him take over, and whether or not they should quit before that happens. Sokka even hears his uncle’s name bandied about as one of the horror stories from the old days before the Jasmine was the Jasmine.

The whole thing makes Sokka very uneasy, and he can only imagine what Katara will have to say about it when he tells her tonight. Unless he saves it until after her shift, because she hates coming in to work enough just knowing she has to spend it confined behind the same desk as Zuko, he doesn’t want to make that worse.

Katara must have found out on her own, though, because she’s on the phone with Aang when Sokka unlocks the door and dumps his bag on the floor by the entrance.

“I just hate stuff like this,” She’s saying, and she sounds upset, on the verge of tears, “It’s so unfair, you know? I went to hospitality school. I’m good at my job. And he’s - he’s -”

Sokka perches next to her on the worn-out sofa, arm around her shoulders. She leans into him, and Sokka can hear the garbled sound of Aang saying reassuring things into the phone.

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” She says, “I just - he doesn’t deserve it, that’s what really gets to me. If anyone should replace Iroh, it should be you. You’ve got the credentials. And then I could take your place in the office. I had it all worked out…a whole plan...and now we’re all just gonna get fired.”

She’s openly crying now, and Sokka feels helpless and small at her side.

Eventually she hangs up, and they sit there together, silent, for a long time.

“I hate him,” She says, wetly, “I really, really hate him.”

Sokka just nods, presses a kiss into her hair. “I hate him too,” He says, but he doesn’t entirely mean it, and that makes him feel even worse.

So things are tense at work after that. Super tense. Ridiculous levels of tense. Everyone who works at the hotel has banded together against Zuko, even the custodial staff, and are doing their level best to make him feel unwelcome. It would be funny to watch, if it didn’t make Sokka so uncomfortable. There are a lot of pointed comments and angry conversations and hostile silences. Someone has even been taking Zuko’s personal items out of his cubby in the bellhop closet and hiding them in increasingly creative places around the hotel.

Sokka isn’t sure who’s responsible for that particular prank. It sounds like something he would do, but it’s not. And it’s definitely not Katara either, or so he hopes. Jet gives Sokka some shit for not joining in on the get-Zuko-to-quit effort, but Sokka just reminds anyone who will listen that Zuko isn’t just some random recent-hire who will walk out during a shift and never come back. He’s the owner’s nephew, he’s here to stay - and when he gets any kind of power at all, he’ll make them all sorry.

Of course, Sokka doesn’t actually think that Zuko’s going to become some evil overlord or anything - the guy can barely keep track of how to cut keycards, if Katara is to be believed - but it gets Jet and the others off his back.

Privately, Sokka suspects Zuko is going to reach his breaking point soon, and then things will change. To be honest, Sokka is kind of impressed that Zuko has toughed it out this long. If Sokka were in his position, he’d quit within the hour, fuck all the bills he’s maybe sort of overdue on paying. But that’s because he has self-respect, and from where he’s standing now (behind the host stand, waiting for the 6 o’clock party of ten to arrive), it’s beginning to look like maybe Zuko doesn’t have as much of that as he thought.

Instead of making him lash out, all the tormenting just makes Zuko even more silent and withdrawn. It’s like Zuko believes he deserves this kind of treatment even though he genuinely hasn’t done anything wrong yet, besides, you know, being pretty mediocre at his job. Or maybe that’s a point in favor of his guilt. Who fucking knows? Sokka prefers to believe that the son is not responsible for the sins of the father, at least not until proven otherwise. 

He wants to reach out, say something like dude, it’s not your fault my uncle has third-degree burns across half his body, but he figures it would be weird, because they haven’t exactly spoken since the first day Zuko came in.

So he waits, and watches, and then one day when Katara is helping one of the bellhops bring some guest’s luggage (and pet parrot, in a cage, but still) up to their room, Sokka gets his chance. Zuko walks towards him and holds out a piece of paper still warm from the printer. 

“Room service order,” Zuko says stiffly, and turns to go.

“Hey, no, keep me company for a little while?” Sokka asks, waving the printout, “C’mon, man, I’m so bored right now.”

It’s not strictly true. Jet was entertaining him with a story about this crazy underground club he discovered, where you have to us a special secret key in order to get in, but as soon as Zuko approached, he vanished back into the dining area, leaving Sokka alone by the host stand.

Zuko looks uncertain, but Sokka just flaps the paper around some more, enticingly, until he sighs and says, “Fine. But only so you stop doing that.”

Sokka grins - the guy has a sense of humor, who knew? - and starts entering the room service order into the computer system as quickly as he can. Zuko rests a hand on the host stand, rubbing his thumb along the faux wood absently, nervously. Up close, it’s obvious the strain of the past week is getting to him. He looks exhausted and miserable and like he spilled something by accident on the sleeve of his designer suit, which is black this time, with a red and gold tie.

“Okay, look, I gotta be upfront with you,” Sokka says, once he’s done typing in the order, “People are saying a lot of things about you.”

“I know,” Zuko says. Miserably.

“Well, I just wanted to tell you that I’m not one of them,” Sokka says, and some unrecognizable expression flickers across Zuko’s face before it’s gone, “This whole thing has been taken way too far. You’re just a guy with a job, and not even a job that you’re very good at, and I don’t think it’s fair that people are judging you so hard for something you didn’t even do.”

“But you - wasn’t your unc -” He swallows back the words, which is good, because Sokka does not want to discuss his uncle right now, “Okay. Uh. Thank you.”

“No problem, man. Now, let me introduce you to the fish.”

They spend at least fifteen minutes over by the fish tank. It’s saltwater and full of jewel-toned fish that each have names (which Sokka spent several slow dinner shifts coming up with) and unique personality traits. His favorite is the shrimp, but it’s pretty reclusive, and even though they peer into all the crevices of the coral and rock centerpiece, they can’t find it. That doesn’t matter, though, because Zuko goes back to the front desk looking slightly less unhappy, and although Sokka didn’t manage to get him to laugh, Zuko definitely blushed when Sokka told him his tie was awesome.

Katara gives him hell about it later, when she finds out he’s been fraternizing with the enemy, which, what even? But Sokka thinks it’s worth it for how the next time he comes into work and Zuko is already there, Zuko nods hello in his direction before going back to filling out paperwork.

That’s how it starts. It’s not a big deal, really. All they do is talk sometimes when Zuko brings over the room service orders or Katara is away from the front desk. Occasionally Sokka brings him stuff from the kitchen, sweets or whatever, because the confused look on Zuko’s face when he does is hilarious, but mostly they just talk. 

Sokka finds out that Zuko has a sister who won't speak to him, a Masters’ in business administration from UCLA, and a black belt in Northern Shaolin kung fu. He used to live in fucking Beverly Hills (Sokka had so many questions about that, none of which Zuko will deign to answer) until something went wrong between him and his father, which is how Zuko ended up living in his uncle's guestroom in San Francisco. Sokka doesn’t pry, although he wants to. He's just so curious about what, exactly, went wrong, and the scar, and just, well...everything. But he respects the guy's privacy. 

To compensate, he overshares about his dead mother and the six years his dad was in Iraq and how he and his sister basically raised themselves, and when Zuko nods and says, quietly, "I know how you feel," he believes it. 

If at first Sokka was pursuing him primarily out of sexual interest, that’s over now. The more he learns about Zuko, the more he realizes that what Zuko needs most is a friend, rather than a one-night stand. Because it would - could - only be a one-night stand. When it comes to relationships, Sokka has a bad habit of crashing into people’s lives and then leaving when the responsibility gets to be too much.  It’s not something he’s proud of and he doesn’t want to do that to Zuko. Or to himself. Again.

So he tries to stop flirting, doesn’t reach out and brush Zuko’s hair out of his eyes, even though he’s tempted. Even though they’re standing so close, and Zuko is rolling his eyes at Sokka’s corny jokes but also laughing a little. Even though Sokka really, really wants to.

He isn’t able to stop himself from watching Zuko from across the lobby, though, but that’s okay, because nobody knows about that part. That part is just for Sokka.

Katara, meanwhile, has been keeping up with her campaign of giving Zuko the cold shoulder and refusing to speak to him beyond what is absolutely necessary for them to do their job. Everyone in their family is a talker, though, so Sokka gets all the words she saves up during the day - mostly in the form of complaints about how insufferable Zuko was today, how poorly he handled this or that situation, all accompanied by significant glances in Sokka’s direction, like she has thoughts about his association with Zuko, even though for the sake of peace in their apartment she keeps them unvoiced.

Zuko must know what Katara thinks about him, it’s certainly no secret, but he doesn’t complain about it, at least not to Sokka. The most he ever says is, “Your sister really doesn’t like me, does she?” And he sounds resigned, which makes Sokka feel like shit even though there’s not much he can do.  

It’s been a month since Zuko first started at the Jasmine Hotel, and they’re standing out in the first-floor hallway, hidden around the corner from both the lobby and the restaurant. The Friday night dinner rush is about to start, and of course Zuko chooses to bring this up now, when they should both have been back at their stations like, five minutes ago. 

“It’s not you,” Sokka says, “I mean, it is. But she’s mostly just worried about keeping her job. Money’s tight right now. Well, always.”

“Why would I take her job?” Zuko asks, frowning, “I’m only here part-time. Was she thinking about quitting?”

“No, no. It’s like, all that stuff with your father, you know? She just doesn’t want the hotel to change ownership and for everyone to get fired.”

“That’s not - what?” Zuko splutters, “The Jasmine isn’t changing ownership. I’m not -” He takes a deep breath and his expression hardens, all of a sudden, “I’m not in my father’s pocket, okay? I want you to know that.”

“Oookay…” Sokka says, startled by his intensity.

“Is that what you’ve been thinking this whole time?” He demands, and Sokka shakes his head.

“No, just, what other people think. What she thinks.”

“I can’t believe - god. Look,” He runs his hands through his hair, messing it up a little, “Here’s the full story, alright? You deserve to hear it. I wrote my thesis on the ethics of certain business practices in the hospitality sector. When my father found out I’d used his company as a case study, we got into a huge fight and he disowned me. I should have expected it, I wrote some pretty incriminating stuff, but I never thought he'd actually read it. He took away my job and cut me off from my whole family and the only person who will even talk to me anymore is my uncle.”

“I’m so sorry -” Sokka starts, but Zuko clearly isn’t finished.

“Uncle Iroh found me a job at the hotel so I’d have some money while I try to figure out my whole fucking life all over again. That’s all it is, I promise. I’m probably not even going to be working here for much longer, so you can tell your sister to stop worrying. I didn’t come here to fuck anyone over.”

“I get that. But what do you mean, you’re not going to be working here for much longer?”

Zuko looks down at the carpet, and says in a rough, quiet voice, “It’s just getting to be a little too much for me. All the hostility. I guess I shouldn’t have taken the job in the first place, nepotism and all that, but I thought...I thought things would be different here.”  

“Oh,” Sokka says again, and he feels this weird, empty ache right in the middle of his chest, “Dude. I’m sorry to hear that. Is it okay if I tell Katara? It’ll get her off your back, at least.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Zuko says, and meets Sokka’s eyes, looking up at him like he’s trying to say something without words, “Tell her whatever. I just wanted you to know.”

“I appreciate it,” Sokka says, and finds a smile somewhere, plasters it on his face, and doesn’t lean in to kiss Zuko even though it’s killing him not to, “Seriously.”

By mutual agreement they don’t walk back into the lobby together. Zuko goes down the hallway in one direction, while Sokka heads in the opposite direction to take the back entrance into the kitchen. It’s easier that way, but now that Sokka knows the truth, it feels awful, too, like he’s buying into the whole Zuko-is-a-bad-guy thing just as much as everyone else.

Sokka tells Katara all about it on the bus ride home and can’t help but rub in how hypocritical and narrow-minded she’s been acting. He so rarely gets to take the moral high-ground with her, he needs to enjoy it while it lasts.

“I bet you never even asked him for his side of the story!” Sokka says, loud enough to draw the attention of the other late-night passengers, “I can’t believe you’d do something like that.”

“It’s not like he didn’t have the chance to tell us this himself,” Katara replies.

“Would you have listened?”

Katara frowns, and skirts the question, which tells Sokka everything he needs to know, “I don’t get why this is such a big deal to you. You don’t even work in the same part of the hotel as him.”

“You’re the one who’s always going on and on about fairness,” Sokka counters, “And anyway, we’re friends.”

Katara snorts, “As if. You just want to get into his pants. Don’t think I haven’t been watching you watch him.”

“That’s not the point,” Sokka says, but he’s blushing, and yeah.

“Look, I’m willing to believe it and ease up,” Katara says, “But only if he tells me himself, in person. It’s not right that he’s using you as some kind of messenger.”

Sokka wants to argue more, just on principle, but this is as good of a concession as he’s going to get from her, so he lets it drop and they talk about other thing for the rest of their ride home.

Sokka has a few days off from work after that, and he’s really hoping when he comes back in, Zuko won’t already be gone. It’s irrational, probably, to be this afraid of Zuko leaving without saying goodbye, but that doesn’t stop the thoughts from happening. He’s massively relieved when he comes in on a Wednesday evening and there’s Zuko behind the front desk, subbing in for Teo who’s out recovering from yet another knee surgery.

Sokka stops by the desk to say hello and can’t help grinning when he sees Zuko is wearing that red and gold tie again. He’s been wearing it a lot, ever since Sokka said it looked good, and it makes Sokka think wild, improbable things.

“Good weekend?” Sokka asks.

“It was okay,” Zuko shrugs, “Uncle Iroh took me to the opera, said I need more culture in my life.”

“What, this isn’t enough culture for you?” Sokka gestures to the tastefully painted shoji screens visible from inside the restaurant, the koto music playing softly on the speakers.

“Apparently not,” Zuko huffs, “He made me sit through three hours of Madame Butterfly. It was the worst. He kept humming along with the music, and then at the end he started crying openly in front of everyone.”

Sokka laughs, “Wow, sign me up. What was the opera about?”

Zuko makes a weird face, “Uh, unrequited love.”

“Oh,” Sokka is probably making a weird face too. He clears his throat, “So, uh, I’m gonna go punch in and stuff.”

“Yeah, okay.”

Sokka doesn’t like it when things are awkward between them. They shouldn't be - they're friends now. He thought he was making progress. It bugs him, distracting him as he tries to take down info from the voice messages. He writes the wrong reservation into the wrong slot in the book like, twice, before he manages to snaps out of it.

So what if Zuko is acting strangely? It doesn’t mean anything. The worst case scenario is that Zuko has somehow figured out that Sokka has feelings for him and isn’t cool with it. Which would, admittedly, be terrible, but Sokka has weathered worse. And it’s not like he’s been subtle about the whole feelings thing, either, not after all those private conversations in the hallway where he practically spilled his guts about his own family tragedy stuff, and all those red bean mochi he smuggled from the kitchen because he knew they were Zuko’s favorite.

Okay, so he’s really gone on the guy. Whatever. It’s not going to happen, so just. Whatever.

He avoids Zuko for the rest of the night for no reason other than he’s busy, okay, he has a job to do, even though he can barely concentrate on it for more than five minutes at a time.

But, he reflects as he’s lying in bed that night, feet and back still sore from standing up for hours, the real problem is not the awkwardness, it’s that he can tell that the same thing he went through with Suki is happening all over again, and it’s scaring the shit out of him.

With Suki, he fell hard and fast, convinced her to let him move in with her way too soon, and then - right on time, right when he started feeling anxious and antsy, started acting out - the whole thing imploded, Suki screaming at him about irresponsibility and cowardice and being a fucking adult for once in your life, Sokka, while he screamed back that he never said this was forever, that he never meant for it to go on this long. They’re friends now, of course. But it took months of cold silences and a lot of hard work to get there.

Zuko deserves so much better than that.

Anyway, aside from Sokka’s mini internal crisis, things are going pretty well. Sokka finds out through the grapevine that Katara has been talking to the other employees about not giving Zuko such a hard time or hiding his stuff all over the hotel. The nasty whispers start to die down, and Zuko stops spending the last fifteen minutes of every shift hunting for his jacket and umbrella. No one actively goes out of their way to apologize or anything, but Suki and Katara have both started making small-talk with Zuko during their respective shifts, which Zuko is astoundingly bad at responding to, and that’s a start. 

Sokka selfishly hopes that now things have changed, Zuko won’t want to leave his job anymore. And when Zuko doesn’t say anything else about it, Sokka thinks, tentatively, victory.

One Thursday, in the middle of March, Sokka misses the bus to work because he’s an idiot who decided to take a nap in the middle of the day when Katara wasn’t there to wake him up. He’s forced to take his awful one-speed bike all the way across the city. It’s raining a little, and he arrives at the hotel late, wet, and totally exhausted. Fuck whoever invented hills.

He walks his bike into the lobby and asks Zuko to let him into the bellhop closet so he can stash it where it won’t get stolen - bike theft is a serious issue, okay. Zuko ribs him about his soggy shirt, now mostly see-through, and limp ponytail, and Sokka gives him shit right back even though he thinks Zuko looks amazing as always.

Zuko unlocks the door and switches on the lights, then waits for Sokka to finish positioning his bike in the cramped space. There isn’t a lot of room in the closet what with the water cooler, employee cubbies, cleaning supplies, and...a beach umbrella? Whatever. The silence is getting kind of awkward, like it has been recently, so Sokka cracks some stupid joke about going back in the closet, he can’t even remember exactly what he said, but it makes Zuko’s face contort.

“What? C’mon, it was funny,” Sokka says, and Zuko groans in frustration and grabs the front of Sokka’s button-down, tie catching in his fist, and pulls him closer. But that’s it, he doesn’t do anything else, just stands there looking pained. 

“You’re so - you’re so -” Zuko says and leans his forehead against Sokka’s, eyes closed, “Fuck.”

“Zuko...” Sokka whispers. It’s not fair. He wants this so much, and Zuko is right here, wanting him too, and he’s not superhuman, okay? There’s only so much he can take. So he angles his face forward and presses their lips together, and then they’re kissing, hot and wet and desperate.

In for a penny, in for a pound, he thinks, and he slides his hands down Zuko’s back, pulling him flush up against Sokka’s body, just dying to get a handful of his ass. He does, and it’s as glorious as he thought it would be, round and firm and lush, and the sound Zuko makes against his lips when he squeezes sends a white-hot jolt of arousal through him. He can’t wait to get Zuko naked, holy shit, can’t wait to fuck into that ass and fill him, make him shake.

Sokka is getting hard. He can’t help it, he’s got Zuko up against the closet door and is kissing him like it’s the last time (which it is). Their hips are pressed together, leaving him with no illusions that Zuko isn’t feeling the same. Zuko’s hands come up to tangle in Sokka’s hair and Sokka lets him, for a second, before he pulls away. He has to stop this before it goes any further.

“What’s up?” Zuko asks, breathing heavily, flushed down to his neck, “Aren’t you into this?”

And Sokka can’t lie, not now, “Oh my god, I am so into this, you don’t even know.”

“Then why didn’t you - I kept thinking you weren’t, because you never made a move…” Zuko trails off, bites his lip. 

“I’m kind of a disaster,” Sokka shrugs, more casual than he feels, “Not at sex. I’m awesome at sex, just fyi. But I didn’t want to screw you up while things were already so stressful for you at work.”

Zuko shakes his head and insists, “You won’t screw me up. You’re one of the best people I’ve ever met. You’re the only good thing about this place anymore.”

“That’s kind of what I mean,” Sokka sighs, “Look, I like you a lot, and I don’t just want this to be a one-time thing, you know? But I don’t exactly have a good track record.”

“I don’t want this to be a one-time thing either,” Zuko says, and leans in to kiss him again. It breaks Sokka’s heart to shy away, “What? What’s wrong?”

“I need to tell you something,” Sokka says, and wishes they could be having this conversation anywhere but in the bellhop closet in the middle of the dinner shift, “I don’t really like to talk about it, but since we’re - y’know. Since we’re here. My first serious girlfriend had leukemia. We lived together, we were going to get married. She was - I thought she was the love of my life. I stayed with her ‘til the end, but then she died, and left me alone. After that, I haven’t been - I haven’t been able to make a relationship work. All I seem to do is leave people behind.”

“What are you saying?” 

“I’m saying I can’t do this,” Sokka looks hard at the beach umbrella, can’t bear to see the expression on Zuko's face and know that he caused it. Zuko touches his shoulder so, so gently and it’s the worst.

“I have to get back to work,” Sokka says, and brushes away his hand, still not looking at him, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Zuko nods mutely, and lets him pass. Sokka walks down the hallway, his feet quiet on the carpeted floor, and blinks away the burning in his eyes. There’s a birthday party coming in at 7:30 and he needs to make sure the busboys get one of the big tables set up for it, but all he wants to do is go home and cry.

Katara stands up from the desk in alarm when she sees him, his red eyes and messed-up hair, and he walks straight over to her - fuck his job, fuck someone else’s birthday - and lets her take his hands in hers and hold tight.

“Are you alright?” She asks.

“No, but it’s okay,” He says, and his voice only cracks a little, “I couldn’t do it. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with me.”

“There’s nothing wrong with you,” She says, even though she has no idea what he’s talking about, “We’re gonna discuss this when we get home, alright? Piandao already took two of your walk-ins and seated them himself. You need to get back to work.”

“Yeah, I do. I will,” He lets her squeeze his hands one more time, and then goes over to the host stand, straightening his tie and readjusting his ponytail. Half of the birthday party has already arrived, and they’re waiting by the restaurant doors for someone to tell them where to go. Sokka gives them a smile and a couple jokes and takes them to their table when it’s ready. Jeong Jeong, another one of the head waiters and a total asshole, gives him an irritated look, all where did you go, but Sokka ignores him.

It’s two hours until the end of his shift. Two horrible hours. When at last the time comes for him to leave, he punches out, says goodnight to the guys in the kitchen, and waits outside the main entrance for Katara to join him. She links their elbows as they walk to the bus stop, her presence a reassuring tug at his side, and he tells her - in brief - how he ended up making out with Zuko in a closet, and then turning him down, even though it was the last thing in the world he wanted to do.

Katara makes all the right sympathetic noises and doesn’t tell him to get over himself, which he appreciates. He has managed to break his own goddamn heart tonight, and it sucks, but Katara suggests it’s also a sign that he’s growing up and learning to do the mature thing. Sokka isn’t so sure about that, but he does tear up a little when she says she’s proud of him.

“Can we eat the good ramen tonight?” Sokka whines, and it’s a testament to how sorry Katara is feeling for him that she says yes, and gives him a foot massage afterwards that he didn’t even have to beg for.

He falls asleep right there on the couch and wakes up the next morning with a sore neck, a headache, and a stomachache. He thinks he might be hungover, but there are no beer bottles on the floor, and when he thinks back over the past twelve hours, he realizes he’s just sad. So...that’s fun.

He’s tempted to call in sick to work, but that wouldn’t be the mature way of dealing with the situation, so instead he hangs around the apartment and plays video games until it’s time to catch the bus, then marches right into the lobby, gives Zuko a big fake grin, and decides that he’s going to pretend nothing ever happened even if it kills him.

Zuko seems to be thinking basically the same thing, because he does a decent job of pretending not to be someone who was just shot down by a co-worker in a storage closet. Sure, he doesn’t stay to chat for as long as usual after delivering the room service order printouts, and he’s made eye contact maybe once since the whole thing happened, but he still says hello and goodbye, asks how Sokka is doing. It’s not a total loss.

The rest of March passes pretty much like that. There’s some new drama in the restaurant to keep Sokka occupied - Jet comes in to work high one too many times and nearly gets fired, Paku and Jeong Jeong continue to fight for the best tips, which inevitably means that Sokka gets dragged into the middle and blamed for it. Sokka promises earnestly that he’ll try to divvy up the tables more equally in the future, then confides to Piandao that recently, he actually has been seating the best-tipping customers in Piandao’s section, just to spite them. Piandao is his favorite waiter, never snitches on Sokka for slacking off or sneaking food during his shifts.

One day in the beginning of April, Sokka is playing deliberate phone-tag with a Yelp representative, who wants to “discuss the restaurant’s Yelp page” with the “manager,” when he notices that Zuko is actually looking at him from across the lobby, for the first time in like, a month.

What? He mouths, and Zuko just shrugs. Which - Sokka is not having any of that. As soon as the latest phone call is done, he walks over to the front desk and drapes himself halfway across it, like he always does, to give his back a break from standing up for so long.

“What’s up?” He asks, peering up at Zuko in what is probably too flirtatious a way for the “just friends” thing they have going on.

“I, uh. I gave my two weeks’ notice,” Zuko says, and that’s not what Sokka was expecting, “I thought I should tell you.”

“You’re leaving? For real?”

“Yeah. Uncle Iroh doesn’t want me to go, but I owe him so much already, and I think it’s time for me to stand on my own two feet.”

“That’s - good. Really. I’m happy for you,” Sokka pulls himself together and tries to sound enthusiastic. He still can’t help asking, “You’re not leaving San Francisco, though, right?"

“No, I’m not leaving the city. I really like it here, I think one day it might even feel like home. I just need to get out from under my family’s shadow,” Zuko says. He licks his lips, and Sokka makes a valiant attempt not to notice.

"Any leads on a new job?" 

"There's a couple non-profits I'm interested in. I don't really know. I'm trying to get out of the hospitality business," He looks down at his hands, and then back up at Sokka, "I really want to be able to see you again after I go, even just as friends." 

"Me too," Sokka says, and feels sad all over again. He smiles, even though he's not totally feeling it, but he doesn’t want Zuko to know how much he’s going to miss him, how much this sucks.

“So, should I be planning some kind of leaving party?” Sokka asks, trying for light-hearted, and Zuko gives him a look of pure judgement.

“Absolutely not,” He says, and then, “Don’t take that as a challenge, oh my god.”

But Sokka is grinning for real now, and Zuko is grinning too, and there is definitely going to be some kind of a leaving party if Sokka has anything to say about it.

He starts with Jet, because Jet knows where to party in this city, and Jet might not be a particularly forgiving person, but even he can admit that he might have misjudged Zuko, just a little. It takes Sokka half the evening to convince him that the party is a good idea, and then the rest of the evening trying to weasel one of those super-special underground club keys out of him.

Right before they both punch out at the end of their shift, Jet takes him through the kitchen and into the storage room, then pulls a little brass key out of his pocket, holding it up in the air and out of Sokka’s reach, “This is a sacred honor conveyed only unto the worthy, so treat it with respect and Do. Not. Lose. It.”

“Aye, aye, captain,” Sokka salutes, because Jet hates it when he does that, and then pockets the key, “See you." 

Zuko’s last day isn’t until next week, so that gives Sokka a little more time to plan, a little more time to lull Zuko into a sense of false security. They’ve been talking more often since Zuko broke the news that he’s quitting, which is great. Also kind of terrible. Mostly great. Sokka is feeling so much better now that he has a plan, something to focus on, even if the prospect of what he’s going to do after Zuko leaves is a dark pit of anxiety at the edge of his positive attitude.

Katara is still feeling pretty sheepish over the whole hate-campaign thing she was waging, so she generously agrees to sneak in balloons, party hats, and a banner that Sokka made himself (it looks a little wonky, but it’s the thought that counts), although she draws the line at confetti.

“It’ll be all fun and games for about five minutes and then who will have to clean it up? Me, that’s who,” She says, which is a compelling argument. 

On Zuko’s last day of work, Sokka gets in well before his own shift is supposed to start, so he and Katara will have enough time to set up all the decorations, including hanging the banner over the front desk. Some of the glitter floats down to the floor, but as long as Katara doesn’t notice and harass him into sweeping it up, he’s golden.

He’s really excited to see the look on Zuko’s face when he realizes what’s happening. Iroh (via Aang) has promised to be there with a camera in hand to document the moment, but Sokka bought a disposable camera of his own for the occasion - he’s going to want to cherish these memories later, when Zuko is gone and Sokka is still here, missing him like hell.

Sokka assembles the gang, most of whom were off today but agreed to come in just for the party, and has them hide in the hallway to the lobby so that when Zuko walks through the main doors, he won’t see them. Sokka meanwhile takes up position at the host stand, seats a few people while he’s waiting, and counts down the minutes.

Five minutes past four, the front doors slide open and Zuko walks in. He’s a little late, which is a first, eyes angled down at the floor as he heads straight for the desk. He glances up, mouth opening to say something to Katara - an apology, probably, for not arriving at 4:00 on the dot - and then stops, mouth gaping open.

“What the fuck?” He says, and that’s when everyone jumps out yelling surprise!

Looking back, Sokka still thinks it would have been better with confetti. But the bewildered shock on Zuko’s face, the laughter, the hugs, Iroh’s tears - Zuko was right, the old man really does cry at everything - that’s all pretty good, too.

The lobby is filled with balloons, and the cookies Katara helped him bake (which only taste a little strange) are laid out on the desk for everyone to eat. Iroh gets so inspired that he decides to order them all pizza for dinner as a special treat. While Iroh is speaking excitedly about toppings into the phone, Zuko snags a cookie and goes over to inspect the banner a little more closely. 

“Is that glitter?” He asks, caught between disgust and amusement.

“You bet your sweet ass,” Sokka says, and Zuko whirls around, pointing at him accusingly.

“This was all you, wasn’t it?”

Sokka sketches a bow and says, “These guys helped too, though,” because he’s a believer in giving credit where credit is due.

“Still. You, um. Put a lot of effort into this,” Zuko says, and even though it’s true, Sokka is still embarrassed to be called on it.

“I guess.”

“Do you really want me gone this badly?” Zuko asks, and Sokka feels his smile drop off his face.

“No, that’s not - I just wanted to do something nice...”

“Hey, it was a joke,” Zuko says, and claps him awkwardly on the shoulder, “I know you don’t. And it is nice.”

Sokka’s chest is tight with feelings he doesn’t want to deal with right now, an he's saved from having to reply by Suki, who calls, “Get over here, guys. Iroh wants to get a group photo.”

They gather together in front of the desk with Sokka’s awesome banner behind them, crowding into each other so they’ll all fit inside the frame until Sokka is pressed up against Zuko’s side like he belongs there. Iroh takes several pictures on his phone, and then a few more on Sokka’s little plastic camera. Sokka hopes he doesn’t look too stupidly in love and give himself away, but he probably does, and that’s okay. It’s not like he’s in denial about it or anything.

Most of their friends go home after that, except for the ones who still have to work, but Sokka exacts promises from them to meet up later that night. Zuko still doesn’t know about phase 2 of the leaving party, but he quickly figures it out when Sokka and Katara intercept him on his way to his car. Unsurprisingly, Zuko is pissy about being prevented from climbing into his Audi and driving home, but when Sokka asks him what he’d be doing instead of going out with them, Zuko doesn’t really have a satisfactory answer. “Going to sleep, Sokka, what the hell do you think?” does not count.

“Yeah, I thought so,” Sokka says, and grabs him by the arm, steering him in the direction of the bus stop, “Alright, so Jet gave me the directions...”

“We’re going somewhere Jet suggested?” Zuko asks suspiciously.

“It’s a surprise,” Sokka insists, “You’ll like it.”

“Doubtful,” Zuko huffs, but he follows Sokka and Katara onto the bus when it comes, and then they’re off into the night. 

It’s shaping up to be a great evening. He’s already gotten texts from Suki, Teo, and Aang that they’re on their way. Toph always gets into arguments with the voice to text function on her phone, which is probably the only reason he hasn’t received anything from her yet. Sokka has them all assemble at the bus stop he'll be getting off at, because if he's being honest, he doesn't entirely know where, exactly, the club is. Jet did give him instructions, though, plus it’s in the Castro district, which Sokka is intimately familiar with, so Sokka is sure they’ll be fine.

And they are. It only takes about twenty minutes to find the place, located in back of a brick building which operates as a barbershop during the day. It’s a little tricky getting Teo’s wheelchair across the broken pavement, but they manage. Sokka tries the key in an unmarked red door next to some overflowing trashcans, and miracle of miracles, it opens, spilling music out into the alley. There's a bouncer, who inspects the key to make sure it's legit, but no cover fee, and they get in without a problem. 

The place is crowded, but not packed - it's still early, for a Friday night. The first room has red walls and red lights and weird dismembered mannequin parts hanging from the ceiling, and it's filled with people talking and drinking at the tables. The next room has a dancefloor and stage shrouded in ethereal blue light (fuck yeah, fog machine), and the room after that is the bar, all warm yellow lamps and candles. The clientele seems pretty diverse, which is what Sokka likes - what makes him feel comfortable in a space.

Zuko, of course, is less than impressed, not that Sokka expects anything different. He takes one look at the bar, its haphazard collection of bottles on bookshelves, and asks in an appalled undertone, “Does this place even have a business license?”

“No, but I think that’s kind of the point,” Sokka says, and elbows his way through the crowd to the bar, “Shots!”

Toph follows him, because she doesn’t trust his choice in alcohol, and they bicker for a while until the bartender comes over and they end up settling on double shots of vodka from the well, just to get everyone warmed up. Toph stays behind at the bar to chat up the bartender (she likes the girl's voice, apparently, and Sokka has to agree with that assessment) while Sokka brings the goods back to their friends. 

The music is good, and the vodka is gross but makes Sokka feel good, and by round two the party mood seems to have settled in. Zuko has draped his suit jacket over the back of a chair, and his cuffs are rolled up to his forearms. He’s a little flushed from the alcohol, and looks like he’s enjoying himself talking to Teo about whatever it is they’re talking about. Sokka allows himself a minute to relax, just watching his friends around him - Katara shimmying a little to the music, Aang watching her with hearts in his eyes, Suki in her fierce winged eyeliner, and Toph coming over with the bartender in tow.

Things are kind of a blur after that. Toph uses her powers of persuasion to get the bartender to make them all some kind of mixed drink Sokka doesn't want to know the contents of. The drink acts a lot like jungle juice, which Sokka remembers from his college days, in that it fucks him and everyone else up really, really efficiently while tasting almost too sweet to bear.

Sokka is pretty sure they all end up on the dancefloor not long after that, is pretty sure he wraps his arms around Zuko’s neck and grinds against him, reveling in the feeling of Zuko’s hands at the small of his back, holding him close. He thinks he and Katara might get into a dance-off at some point, and he definitely remembers going back to the bar, ten seconds away from ordering another of Toph’s signature, when the last dumb trace of reason crawls through his head and asks, don’t you want to be able to remember the first time you took Zuko out?

So he gets a cup of water instead, and goes to sit down with Suki, whose shoes are hurting her feet. She lets him put his head on her shoulder and steals sips of his water. 

“Having a good time?” She asks.

“I’m having a great time. Everything is great,” Sokka says, “He’s leaving, but I’m fine. I really am.”

“I know,” Suki says, “I know you are.”

“I mean, he’ll still be in town, so it’s not like I can’t just - can’t just see him, whenever I want to, right?”

“That’s true,” Suki says, not like she’s humoring him at all, and Sokka is overcome with gratitude for her continued presence in his life despite the awful things he did and said two years ago, and since. 

“I’m sorry I was such a -” He waves his hand vaguely, “To you."

She laughs, “It’s okay, Sokka. Drink some more water.”

He does what she says, and then goes up to refill the cup. All the dancing has worn him out, and he’s happy to stay sitting next to her until the others join them - laughing and sweating through their clothes. Katara has her arms around Aang’s neck, and he’s whispering in her ear, making her blush. Sokka suspects she won’t be coming back to the apartment tonight. The less he thinks about that, the better. 

Everyone looks like they’re enjoying themselves, even Zuko - who’s all loose and drunk and happy, draping his arm across the back of Sokka’s chair, thumb pressing into Sokka’s shoulder. Sokka reminds himself to thank Jet for the recommendation. The music from the dancefloor combined with the roar of conversation makes it hard for them to talk, so eventually Sokka suggests to Zuko that they go somewhere quieter. Zuko follows him into the red room where they collapse into a couple of unoccupied chairs, angled towards each other.

Sokka is definitely starting to sober up now, tiredness is replacing all his exuberant energy, and he doesn’t mind that the night is winding down. Zuko finishes telling him some story about his uncle, and they’re silent for a moment before Zuko says, out of the blue, “Suki was talking to me earlier.”

“What do you mean, Suki talked to you?” Sokka asks. He’s freaking out a little. Well, more than a little.

“She told me a lot of stuff. I think she was kind of drunk,” Zuko says, and the chorus of oh fuck grows louder in Sokka’s head, “She said you guys used to date, and it ended pretty badly because both of you rushed into the relationship and then didn’t know how to deal when things got rough, didn't know how to communicate, and that it isn’t your fault even though you think it is.”

And that is - that is absolutely not how Sokka remembers it. He remembers the rushing, sure, but he also remembers all the gut-wrenching nights he spent lying awake next to her, thinking I can’t stay, I can’t stay, remembers knowing it would break her heart and not caring enough to stop himself.

“I don’t wanna talk about this right now, okay?” Sokka says, feeling slightly sick, “Tonight is supposed to be about you having fun, not dealing with all my shit.”

“I am having fun,” Zuko says, frowning, “I mean, not right now, but before. You did a great job with the whole leaving party thing. I’ve never had friends who would do something like this for me.”

“Friends, yeah.”

Zuko frowns some more, “Don’t give me that. You know I want us to be more. You’re the one who -” He shakes his head, “Whatever. I wasn’t going to bring any of this up. Suki told me that if I’m serious about you, I need to give you time, and I’m going to. I’m going to give you all the time you need.”

“I -” Sokka begins, and doesn’t know where to go, “Zuko, I -”

“You don’t have to say anything. I don’t want to pressure you or whatever. I just - I wanted you to know. That I still have feelings for you.”

“Shit, Zuko,” Sokka says. They’re leaning in very close now, and he can smell Zuko’s breath, warm and slightly sweet from that gross mixed drink. He wants to kiss him, but he’s still too drunk to be making big decisions like that without discussing them first, so he does the next best thing and buries his face against Zuko’s neck. Zuko wraps an arm around him, holding him tight.

“Keep talking,” Sokka whispers, “Please.”

And Zuko does, all “we won’t know how things will turn out until we try,” and “I don’t mind that you have baggage so long as you don’t mind that I’ve got some too,” and “I think we could be so good together, Sokka, I really do.”

“When did you get to be such a fucking optimist?” Sokka grumbles into his skin. It's unfair how good he smells. 

“I’m not an optimist,” Zuko says, and sounds so affronted that despite himself, Sokka starts to laugh. Zuko tenses for a moment before he starts laughing too, probably at Sokka, but whatever, Sokka will take it.

“Okay,” Sokka says, pulling back and taking a steadying breath. He really needs to drink some more water, “Okay. You’re right. I mean, I think we should probably talk about this when we’re sober, to make sure we’re still on the same page with stuff, but yeah, I - I want to try, too.”

He watches as the words register, watches the wonder and joy suffuse across Zuko’s face, “Seriously? You really want to?”

“Hell yeah,” Sokka says, even though he still doesn’t feel any braver than he did when he was turning Zuko down. It’s still terrifying to think of hurting him, of being hurt, being left, and it’s almost enough to stop him, but not quite. It comes down to whether he wants Zuko more than he’s afraid of having him, and he does, oh god, he does, “Let’s do this thing.”

Zuko looks like he doesn’t know what to do with himself, “We’re going to take it slow, though, right? And talk about things, and make sure we don’t -”

“Yeah, yeah,” Sokka says, and he’s laughing again, he’s feeling better than he has in years, “We will. I promise we will. But right now I really want you to kiss me, so could we make that happen first, please?”

Zuko rolls his eyes but he’s leaning in and cupping Sokka’s face in his hands, and when their lips touch, it feels so right Sokka could weep.

They go home to separate apartments that night. It’s not how Sokka usually does things, and there’s a part of him that wants to say screw taking it slow, but Zuko’s eyes are so lovely and golden in the streetlights as they say goodbye, and he’s smiling so softly, and the way he kisses Sokka feels like a secret, just for the two of them, and Sokka doesn’t want to rush that, doesn’t want to ruin it.

“Meet me for brunch tomorrow?” He asks instead, “There’s this great place in Mission. I’ll text you the details.”

“Sounds good,” Zuko says, presses one last kiss to his lips. He looks a little like he wishes they weren’t going their separate ways either, but everyone is waiting around on the curb for them to wrap it up, and Toph has made three highly suggestive comments already, and it’s just...it’s time to go.

Zuko gets into a cab, and Sokka takes the bus. Aang and Katara join him for the first two stops, then get off, and he rides the rest of the way alone. It doesn’t bother him. He just looks out the scratched-up window at the passing city lights and thinks: this is how good things begin. This is you change your life.