The topic of the winter solstice comes up by chance on Ember Island before the end of the war.
“What’s your favorite part?” Katara asks one night. It turns out that the four nations are different in one more way— they all celebrate differently.
“At the temple, Monk Gyatso would bring out these bundles of bells every year for us to wear, and for the three days leading up to the solstice all you could hear was jingling,” Aang says softly, grey eyes sad but sentimental.
“In the Earth Kingdom, we have a huge dinner and decorate a tree that gets put in the middle of the house,” Toph tells them. “For good fortune for the next year.”
“Nah, the best part about solstice is the presents,” Sokka declares without having to think about it. “Mostly for family but whoever you really care about it. We kinda skipped this past one because of Avatar stuff...”
“We do the presents and the tree,” Suki says consideringly, “Makes sense, since we’re a little bit mixed.”
They all look at Zuko.
“What about you, grouchy gus?” Sokka asks. “And don’t say that you don’t celebrate it, because I know for a fact that you guys do.”
Zuko chews on his lip.
“It’s not as big of a thing as the summer solstice,” he says eventually, “But we—“
Zuko will definitely get made fun of for his favorite part of the winter solstice.
“Yeah?” Katara prods, and Zuko stares down at his feet, twists his hands in his lap.
“I’m not sure if my favorite thing is a Fire Nation thing or a my mom thing,” he says, “When I was little,” (before everything in his life had gone to absolute shit) “My mom would hang these little green plants called mistletoe in the doorways, and if you stopped with someone underneath the mistletoe, you had to, uh, you had to kiss. Not like a gross kiss,” he defends, “But like...a nice one.”
Because Zuko remembers finding excuses to pull his mom through the halls by her hand until he found a sprig and pretending like it was an accident, even as Ursa beamed at him and always, always knelt down to kiss his temple, cheek, or forehead. He remembers Uncle or Lu Ten scooping him up and hauling him, howling with laughter, to a doorway, and kissing them on the cheeks.
He remembers Azula, tinier and less twisty than she is now, scowling and grabbing him by the collar to yank him down, and kissing her on the nose for her trouble.
“We haven’t done it in...a really long time, so I don’t know.”
Sokka opens his mouth to say something, but Aang beats him to it, shoving an elbow directly into his ribs.
“I think it sounds really great!” He says, like he doesn’t just want to kiss Katara under it.
The first solstice celebration of Fire Lord Zuko’s reign is an important one, and he’s not messing around about it.
The palace is going to be filled with people from all nations, least of which are going to be his friends and Zuko...he wants to make it good.
The tree in the main hall is absolutely massive, full, and piney. Toph mentioned the strands of popcorn and cran-cherries that went up on the one in her house; Zuko’s taken it a step further and added delicate blue baubles of blown glass and the brass bells that had to be ordered special months ago, and hung shards of shining black, volcanic obsidian through the branches.
“It is a magnificent tree,” is what everyone who sees it says.
Their opinions are not the ones that matter most to him, though.
The day Toph arrives is memorable because she has no compunctions about making herself known, and when she stomps through the doors and slams them open, mouth wide to announce herself…
Everyone present gets to watch her go very, very still, and very, very silent. She gives a long, deep, inhale, and her face wavers to something soft and a little vulnerable.
“Did...did you put a tree in here, Sparky?”
Zuko grins, just a little shyly, at her from across the room.
“Do you like it? I tried to find one with a strong scent.”
Because it’s not like Toph can give a crap about what it looks like, but that pine smell is something that hits the instant the doors open, and immediately sends her back in time to when life was...well, not easier, but maybe a little more innocent and a little more simple.
Toph definitely doesn’t sniffle, not even a little bit, but she does walk forward all the way until she hits branches, buries her face in pine needles and takes another deep whiff.
The movement of the branches jingles the bells, and she laughs, startled.
“You know that Aang’s going to cry when he gets here, right?” She asks, definitely not burrowing herself closer to the trunk until all anyone can see of her is her feet poking out from the bottom of the tree. She somehow manages to not step in any of the gifts carefully laid out underneath it.
Zuko laughs and lifts a hand and twists it. Bells jingle brightly off of his wrist.
“You think he’ll like it?”
“Let’s just say, Sparky, that if he doesn’t cry I’m gonna punch him until he does.”
Aang definitely cries when he gets there.
More specifically, he spends about five minutes helplessly wiping his eyes at the sight of the bells on the tree and five more outright sobbing and squeezing Zuko around the waist when he realizes that the other boy is wearing them too, softly jingling brass cuffs around both wrists.
“I know it’s not the same, but I hope it’s good enough,” Zuko mumbles awkwardly around his armful of airbender, and Aang squeezes him a little tighter for it.
“It’s perfect .” Aang declares into the Fire Lord’s chest. “It’s perfect.”
Because it is, and made even more so when he’s presented with a set of his own, which he clasps around his ankles.
“Maybe we’ll have to start calling you Jingles instead,” Toph says from inside the tree , “You and Sparky both.”
“I don’t wanna hear it from you, Pine Fresh,” Zukko teases back.
“Ooooh, Sparky’s got jokes now? Maybe we need to have a solstice celebration more than once a year.”
Zuko considers telling her that they do celebrate more than once a year, it’s just that the summer celebration got lost in the shuffle, but he realizes that that’s definitely more of a Fire Nation-specific sort of thing, and lets it go.
Aang pulls back and looks around, searching. Frowns.
“What?” Zuko asks.
“Where’re your plants? The mistletoe. You’ve got all of our traditions, what about yours? You said that it was your favorite part.”
Zuko shifts uncomfortably and looks away.
“I was thinking about it,” he says finally, “And I didn’t...want to make it weird, you know? Like there’s an obligation , if somebody didn’t want to? It would be inappropriate, especially if someone ended up under it with me, they might feel like they had to— and I wouldn't want to—” He cuts himself off.
And Zuko doesn’t want to have to defend the things he likes from others, even if having the chance to finally make the decisions and not going through with it squeezes at his heart.
Aang’s frown goes pouty.
“I still don’t think it’s weird,” he mumbles, “I think it’s sweet.”
Toph makes kissy noises at him from inside the tree.
“You should really think about it.”
Zuko does think about it, all the way up to the day of the solstice, and in the end decides against the mistletoe. It’s more trouble than it’s worth, especially with so many foreign dignitaries in the palace for the celebrations, even if Aang won’t let him forget about it.
Seriously, he really won’t forget about it.
He stares up into every doorway, sees that it’s empty, and then fixes a grumpy, pouty stare on Zuko without fail, every time. He stops saying anything about it but the look remains.
It’s not like Zuko doesn’t want to, either. He just doesn’t feel like he can without catching somebody’s criticisms about it, and he can handle just about anything except for someone trash talking his mother’s favorite solstice tradition.
If that happens, Zuko cannot guarantee that something won’t catch fire.
Zuko’s still learning how to be a good Fire Lord, but he’s pretty sure that setting a hapless politician on fire is not the way to do it? It’s always a little bit tempting, though, he thinks, before firmly squashing down his temper.
Zuko wakes up bright and early, at sunrise, on the shortest day of the year.
He wakes up and nearly punches Aang in the face because he’s hovering over him on a rolling sphere of air, like an absolute creep.
“What the fuck— “
“Happy Solstice!” Aang chirps, and rummages around in his robes to pull out—
A sprig of mistletoe.
Grinning like a maniac, he holds it up in the air above their heads, wiggles it like an offering, and then without further ado leans down and presses a warm, soft kiss to Zuko’s forehead.
And then leaves without another word, his laughter following him all the way down the hallway.
Zuko stares at the ceiling and feels his own forehead before rolling over and burying his face into his pillow.
“Presents! Presents! Presents!” Sokka chants and rummages through the wrapped gifts underneath the tree, checking tags and doing all the mental calculations of whose gifts were whose. Katara grabs him by his hood and pulls until he’s out of touching range.
“ No ,” she tells him, “Don’t be rude. Breakfast first, then we’ll see what everyone else is doing.”
Aang and Toph are already waiting for them at the table, and Sokka throws himself into a chair next to them.
“Do we really have to wait for Zuko? He takes forever ,” Sokka grumbles, looking longingly at the empty table that won’t be filled until the Fire Lord makes his appearance, because that is just how it works.
“It’s not his fault,” Aang pipes up, “We were walking together and one of the generals stopped him to give him solstice regards.” There’s something funny about the way he says regards, and Sokka pokes him until he continues. “I think the guy likes him.”
“Sparky!” Toph bellows and stands up in her chair, “Hurry up! Your guests are starving to death!”
The door opens and Zuko enters, looking flustered and holding a small wrapped box in his hands. He’s dressed casually, and he’s not wearing his crown at all.
Toph grins at him.
“Morning, Fire Lord Hotpants.”
Zuko glares at her.
“I will fight you.”
“I’ll take back your solstice gifts.”
“I’ll take back yours, then.”
“I’ll put the tree in the bonfire tonight.”
“ You wouldn’t dare .”
Zuko grins at her and finally, finally sits down next to Katara, leans down and sets his chin into his palm.
“No, I wouldn’t.”
There’s a moment of content distraction as palace staff finally begin to bring in platters of food, pastries and warm, spicy rice, fresh breads and buns, smoked meats. Katara fills her plate and sits back, only to have the box Zuko came in with covertly pushed into her lap. He won’t look at her but looks very, very uncomfortable, and Katara thinks that there may have actually been some merit to Aang’s claims.
It’s just a shame that he can’t look happy about it.
She has mercy on him and shuffles it into her pocket. She’ll save it for him if he wants to open it later, but she has a feeling that he probably won’t.
“Here, you’ll like this one,” Zuko says and puts a bao that she didn’t get for herself on her plate.
She takes a bite and goes very still, the flavor inside flooding her mouth and filling her with a sentimental nostalgia that makes her heart clench in something that’s not quite pain.
“Crab and sea prune, yeah,” he says quietly, letting his hair fall into his face in a very un-Fire Lordy way. “I sent a hawk to your Gran-Gran for the recipe a while back. I know it’s not exactly the same, but I wanted to make sure you and Sokka had something that tasted like home, since you’re so far away for solstice this year.”
Katara definitely feels like she wants to cry, but not from pain so much as gratitude.
Katara does not cry but rustles around in her other pocket for the mistletoe that Aang had thrown at her that morning, holds it up in the air between them. Zuko’s eyes follow her hand up to the little sprig of green tied with a red ribbon, and his eyes go wide and soft.
“You too?” He barely has time to ask before Katara’s learning in and kissing him twice, once on each cheek, and then going in for the hug, squeezing tight.
“Me, too,” she whispers amidst the cackling of their friends, “Me, too.”
Breakfast involves the other international delegates but presents are personal things, and even Aang: Champion People Person Of All People People puts his foot down about it and airbends the doors to the main hall shut. Toph is still completely enamored with the tree and takes charge of distributing gifts like a benevolent spirit of goodness, only short and with really dirty feet.
Soon the room is filled with ripped wrapping paper and ribbons, and Sokka’s cooing over the new boomerang that Toph made for him, tipped with meteorite.
Katara and Aang are still giggling grossly over having gotten each other matching gifts, because they’re disgusting, when Zuko presses an envelope into her hands.
“Here, Toph,” he says, “This one is from me.”
She rips open the envelope and pulls out a single piece of paper. Toph glares at him and Zuko gives an unflattering snicker. She thrusts the paper at Katara.
“Here,” Toph demands, “Read it.”
Katara looks at the paper, flips it over once, flips it back over.
“Uhhhh...all it’s got is letters. I-O-U. Other than that, it’s blank.”
“What the hell, Sparky? That’s rude as shit.”
Zuko starts laughing so hard he almost cries.
“No, no, sorry, it’s just—“ he pulls himself together, “It’s not really something I could wrap. My gift to you is that whenever you’re ready to settle down and start up your bending school, whenever that is or wherever that is, I want you to send me the invoice. Whatever it ends up costing, I've got you covered. It’s not charity or anything— I just...you know, you deserve it.”
Toph sits there in silence for a good thirty seconds.
Zuko starts to shift away, suddenly uncomfortable and worried that somehow he’s misstepped.
And then Toph is a flurry of movement as she tackles him to the ground, whipping the slightly smushed bundle of mistletoe out of her pocket. She throws it directly at him so that it smacks him in the face and then leans down to pepper his face with affectionate, overenthusiastic kisses.
“I always knew you were my favorite!” she declares over Zuko’s shocked sputtering, and then wraps her arms around his neck and squeezes tightly. “You’re my favorite .”
It’s the closest Toph ever really comes to saying I love you, but she thinks that Zuko knows what it means, because his posture and his heartbeat both go warm and soft and cuddly and he hugs her back before shoving her off of his lap, complaining about her dirty feet all over him.
Nobody’s fooled, though, especially when Zuko makes a soft sniffling sound and covertly ducks his head, wiping his eyes on his sleeve.
Because of the bonfire later, the big feast happens during the afternoon with dancing in between, and say whatever you want about the Fire Nation but when they are ready to party? They party hard.
Hard enough that more than a few politicians in red are happy and tipsy and perfectly content to learn how to dance, with varying degrees of talent and skill, with whoever is willing to partner up.
Which is hilarious, Suki decides, because Zuko’s Minister of Agriculture is very obviously flirting drunkenly over rice yields to one of the Earth Kingdom generals, who is very much Into It, and way more interested in said rice yields than they probably would be otherwise.
Zuko himself is honestly looking pretty trapped.
He’s been stuck in an endless cycle of dancing with just about all of his ministers, and a good-sized selection of delegates from other nations eager to see what it’s like to dance with the Fire Lord, and currently looks like he’s about to start climbing the curtains to get away from them. Suki sets down her drink and moves towards him, ducks in between him and a woman in decadent green silks, and takes his hands.
“Excuse me, cutting in!” She singsongs and sweeps them away with flourish.
Zuko’s gratitude is written all over his face, and Suki can’t help but laugh at him.
“You know, you could at least pretend to have a good time?”
“It just doesn’t stop ,” he grumbles and spins her. “I also can’t tell when people are being polite and when they’re hitting on me?”
“Nobody’s tried to touch your butt, have they?”
“No, thank Agni, but I just don’t get it.”
“What don’t you get?”
“Like...day-to-day, nobody acts like this.”
Zuko is genuinely confused, and Suki tries really, really hard to not laugh at him, and only mostly succeeds.
“You’re forgetting something, though,” she says, “This isn’t just some thing, though. This is the very first celebration of its kind in the last century where people from all the nations have managed to come together and have fun. The alcohol is flowing, and let’s be real, here,” this time Suki is the one who spins him, “Nobody would have the balls to ask your dad to dance. Nobody would dare ask your granddad to dance. But people know that you’re good, and that you’re kind. They’re boozy, and you’re young and pretty even if your people skills are a little special. So of course they can’t leave you alone.”
“Ignoring the fact that you just called me pretty—“
“Pretty much everyone thinks you’re pretty, but go off—“
“But that makes no sense.”
“It is what it is,” Suki tells him, “I just tell it like I see it. It’s not a bad thing, you know. Unless there’s someone in particular you’d rather be dancing with?”
Zuko’s pale face colors, but in the end he shakes his head.
“No, no, I suppose there’s not,” he says like he’s not actually sure, and Suki laughs at him again.
She reaches into her pocket and pulls out her mistletoe and taps Fire Lord Zuko in the cheek with it.
“Here, I’m going to let you hold onto this for the rest of the night,” she tells him, “But first, kiss tax.”
Zuko’s not stupid, not even a little bit, and leans forward dutifully to receive a chaste, friendly kiss on the lips. Suki pats him on the cheeks and releases him near a doorway.
“Go and decompress, Fire Lord. If anyone asks, I haven’t seen you.”
The bonfire is massive and beautiful, and everyone shows up to watch it. There’s the one on the palace grounds, Zuko explains, but also one in each quadrant of Caldera City, and one in pretty much every town and village in the Fire Nation the moment the sun goes down.
Even as the days get shorter, he says, it’s just as important to be gracious and respectful for what they’re given by Agni, just as the Water Tribes give that same respect to Tui.
Sokka just wants to roast something, even though he’s definitely eaten enough food to keep him full for upwards of a week.
He looks around for his friends, sees Toph and Suki making nice with some dangerous looking girls in red, and there’s Aang and Katara holding hands like the adorable children that they are, and that just leaves…
Sokka does a walkaround and finally spots him, standing by a large oak-maple off by himself.
The flames from the bonfire reflect in his eyes more than Sokka’s ever seen, giving them an almost unnatural, dragon-like glow in the otherwise unlit darkness.
“Hey,” Sokka says on his approach, bumping the other boy with his shoulder, “You good?”
Zuko blinks, startled, then nods.
“Yeah, I’m good. Just...maybe a little burnt out on people needing my time, today. Not that I’m talking about you guys!” He backpedals, realizing suddenly how that might have sounded, “Just…” Zuko trails off, “you know.”
“Hey, I get it,” Sokka tells him, “It’s been a lot today.”
Because they’ve had plenty of downtime today, but Zuko? Every moment he hasn’t been spending with them, he’s been spending with other people who need him or want him, and he’s definitely gotten better about it, but there’s always going to be a little part of him that misses his isolated little boat on the sea.
“Hoenn gave me his, uh, regards , for solstice,” Zuko mumbles. He twists his hands together and Sokka looks closely at him. Something about the way he says regards makes Sokka think that it doesn’t mean exactly what it usually does, and remembers Aang’s comments from the morning.
“Hoenn? General Hoenn?” He asks. “He’s a pretty nice dude. Young, too. Good looking.”
“....yeah, I suppose.” Zuko doesn’t look happy or comforted with this information.
“By regards, you mean he’s got feelings for you and decided to try and shoot his shot, right?”
Zuko’s face goes red and he actually begins to steam a little bit.
“Uh...yeah. I guess, yeah. I mean, he was very respectful about it! Just...I didn’t expect it, is all. He didn’t seem to need an answer. Most royal marriages have been arranged, historically, but I’ve made it clear that I don’t plan on following that tradition. So I suppose that it’s opened the door for such things.”
“And do you like General Hoenn?” Sokka asks curiously and fights down the funny little twist in his stomach at the idea that Zuko might, actually, despite the anxiety and discomfort that’s written all over his face.
“I don’t know him.”
“But you could, if you wanted to. Who’s going to tell you no?”
Zuko stares intently into the fire, and Sokka may be hallucinating it but for just a moment he thinks he sees it grow and shrink, just the tiniest bit, with the Fire Lord’s breaths.
“I just...I don’t know. I don’t think that I want to.”
“Then don’t. There’s nothing wrong with not feeling it, you know? If it’s not there, it’s not there.”
“I guess you’re right.” Zuko goes silent.
“Should I go?” Sokka asks quietly, “If you need some space.”
“I’m alright,” Zuko replies, “I don’t need space from you.”
Sokka leans over and bumps him again, but doesn’t move away on the rebound. He stands very still and very quiet and lets the line of Zuko’s body warm his side, and waits for Zuko to move away from him…
And he doesn’t.
“You know, you did a really, really good job on pulling this together,” Sokka tells him.
Zuko ducks his head.
“I didn’t do much, all I did was ask the right people for what I wanted.”
“Yeah, but you still asked, ” Sokka insists. “Aang didn’t think he was ever going to get to wear bells with anyone else, and you made that happen. You had the tree brought for Toph. You wrote to my grandmother . That’s way more than anyone could have expected.” The more he talks the more words he has, and the more important it suddenly is that Zuko understands .
He reaches out and touches Zuko gently on the shoulders, squeezing until his fingers push decadent robes into his skin.
“Solstice ain’t over yet, you know,” he murmurs, his heart suddenly pounding a drumbeat through his head.
Zuko stares at him.
“No,” he replies after some visible deliberation and a release of a slightly shaky, whisper of a breath, “No, it’s not.”
Sokka moves, then, tugs Zuko gently behind the tree and reels him in to kiss him soundly, warm lips on warm lips. Zuko makes a soft, startled noise. Sokka’s sure that he’s going to pull away, only he kisses him back instead, hands tangling in the back of Sokka’s collar and pulling him closer until his back hits tree bark.
“Where’s—“ Zuko’s interrupted by his own breathless exhale when he pulls away, “Where’s your mistletoe?”
“ Shit , I forgot it—“
And then Zuko reaches into his pocket and pulls out the snip of green that Suki gave him earlier that day. Smiling wryly, he tucks it into Sokka’s wolftail.
“There,” he says, “Problem solved.There’s still plenty of solstice left, right?”
Sokka grins at him and runs his hands through dark hair, brushes a bit that’s coming loose back behind Zuko’s ear.
“You bet there is,” he replies, and leans back in to kiss him again.