The night following their breakout from the Boiling Rock, Sokka felt as though they had already won the war. Sozin’s Comet was still imminent and the Firelord was still at large, but for one day, luck was on their side. They had saved his dad. They had saved Suki. Azula had finally lost.
What made it better was that despite the fall of Ba Sing Se and the failed eclipse invasion, Sokka’s plan for their escape had worked. He didn’t even need his talented bender friends for the heavy-lifting, as he often felt they did. But he had redeemed himself. It was his adaptability and his quick thinking that had gotten the group out alive. That and of course, Zuko.
Sokka would admit it now, it was nice having Zuko around. After spending two years being the oldest male in their village and then spending half a year with his sister and two twelve-year-olds as his prime company, it was nice to have a guy around who was his age. True, the whole Former Prince of the Fire Nation thing and the whole Used to Hunt Down the Avatar as His Life’s Purpose thing made things awkward at first, but it soon became apparent that Zuko not only on their side but wanted to make amends and was truly a different person than he had been before.
Being a former prince and all, Sokka had expected Zuko to be a high society asshole-type, but he wasn’t. Like, at all. Toph “it is your pleasure” Beifong might have abandoned stuffy rich people conventions but what she kept was an inflated sense of self-worth (which to her credit, given her abilities as an earthbender and the whole inventing metalbending thing, she totally deserved it, unlike most rich assholes). Zuko, despite being a talented firebender, stealth master, and swordsman, did not seem to realize his abilities for what they were. And Sokka cannot believe this guy when, after he describes Zuko’s firebending duel with Azula on top of the gondola he just shrugged off the praise.
“Next time you guys have a prison break make sure to bring me,” said Toph, after Sokka had finished recounting the last 48 hours to the Western Air Temple refugees surrounding the fire.
“Well we might need to break out Zuko’s girlfriend at some point,” teased Sokka. “Did you guys know Zuko and that girl with the knives used to date?”
“She has a name,” snapped Zuko, visibly flustered. He looked at the ground, not wanting to think about what Azula had done with Mai after her betrayal. He pinched the bridge of his nose and bowed his head. “She might be at the Capitol prison now, my sister would want to keep a close eye on her.”
“I’m glad she came through for us in the end but I’m still kind of mad she put me in prison in the first place,” Suki commented. Which, yeah, fair.
“Sorry about that, again,” Zuko muttered. Luckily, Suki was more apt to forgive him for his past transgressions than the others had initially been or as Katara still was and was able to shrug it off. They were even now.
It was late and five of the present company had had a very long day.
Before joining the others to sleep in the main room, Sokka went to check if there were any extra blankets kept in Appa’s saddle. Sokka didn’t realize that he had gone almost two days without sleeping, but his body definitely realized it as any amount of energy drained from him the second he lay down to search the saddle pockets. Sleeping on Appa was as good (let’s be honest, it was ten times better) as sleeping on the ground. He was out like a light until the sun hit his eyes at the crack of dawn.
He attempted to go back to sleep before hearing footsteps coming closer and peered over the edge of the saddle. Zuko was sitting next to Appa, facing the sun as he meditated. The footsteps had come from Hakoda who was walking up to Zuko, neither one aware of Sokka’s presence.
“Mind if I join you?” Zuko’s body visibly tensed up as Hakoda approached him.
“No, sir,” the former prince replied, respectfully. Hakoda sat down and mimicked Zuko’s meditation position. Sitting next to the chief, Zuko looked young. Sure, Sokka knew he was sixteen, but he sure didn’t act like it and it was easy to forget that Zuko was a teenager just like the rest of them.
“Is this a firebending practice?” Hakoda asked warmly. Zuko nodded in affirmation and left a couple of moments of silence before saying, “my uncle used to meditate with me.”
“Did he now?” Zuko had heard that phrase before, but it had always been spoken in disapproval or painfully false enthusiasm from Ozai whenever one of the fire sages updated him on Zuko’s training progress. The Firelord would barely attempt to hide his disappointment in his eldest child. The words were not sinister coming from Hakoda.
“We couldn’t firebend when we were in the Earth Kingdom or we would have been arrested, but we could always meditate in the morning,” Zuko explained, relaxing a little. His Uncle was a safe topic. Being fugitives from the Fire Nation was also a safe topic. Both were things he thought the Southern Water Tribe chief wouldn’t judge him for.
“Your Uncle is the Dragon of the West, isn’t he?” Ah, so perhaps his Uncle wasn’t as neutral of a topic and Zuko would have liked. He sometimes forgot about Iroh’s history as a general, but after learning about his membership in the White Lotus and the truth about the dragons, he wondered if he had really known his Uncle at all and berated himself for not trying to know more when he had the chance.
“He was.” These days, Zuko had a clearer understanding of what this war really meant in Fire Nation history. For years he had been taught that his country’s efforts were for international prosperity, for spreading greatness. After months of living as a refugee, hearing stories of suffering and loss by the fire nation’s hands (and realizing that he had some of those stories too), Zuko saw the war for what it really was: nonsense. There were things about his life that Zuko had questioned and come to terms with, but there was one thing he was certain of: his Uncle was right and good and may have done things in his past he wasn’t proud of, but he had changed his ways for the better. He didn’t want Hakoda to get the wrong idea. “He’s not exactly on good terms with the Fire Nation anymore.”
“I see,” Hakoda was curious as to how the legendary Dragon of the West had gone from breaking the walls of Ba Sing Se to being a wanted traitor, “and where is he now?”
“I don’t know,” Zuko confessed. “He escaped from prison on the day of the eclipse. I went to break him out but he was gone before I got there.”
“I’m sure you’ll find him once this is over,” reassured Hakoda. And yes, of course, Zuko hoped to find Iroh, but he was terrified of what that would be like. The possibility that Iroh would not forgive him for his betrayal in Ba Sing Se made Zuko sick to his stomach and terrified him more than his return to the Fire Nation had been months back. And he didn’t want to admit this to Hakoda, he didn’t want Hakoda to think of him in terms of the worst mistake he had made in his life.
“I hope so,” was how Zuko decided to respond. There was much unsaid and Hakoda knew it. From what he knew about the Fire Nation royal family, he knew it was more complicated than the former prince was letting on. The look on the kid’s face was one he wished he didn’t recognize: it was a look that told him the boy had seen too much and had been forced to make impossible choices no child should have to make. Sokka had worn that face too much for Hakoda’s liking.
“He’d be very proud of you if he knew what you did.” It was common in the water tribe to show appreciation in physical affection, but Hakoda did not think that the cultural aspect translated to the fire nation. Zuko didn’t respond and silently hoped Hakoda was right.
Though the southern water tribe’s waterbender population had phased out when Hakoda was young, he knew that traditional waterbender meditation was done with the palms rested on the knees and face tilted slightly up, hands to the ocean and face to the moon. Traditional firebender meditation was apparently done with the hands cupped, as if one were cradling an invisible flame, and the face basking in the sun’s light. Hakoda readjusted his hands to match Zuko’s. There was a reason he had come to talk to the boy and he decided to wait until the firebender was comfortable to broach the subject.
“I spent two years without seeing Sokka and Katara. The men of my tribe had decided to give naval assistance to the earth kingdom. It was the hardest time of my life.” Zuko felt a lump grow in his throat. Two years on the sea, that hit close to home. But this was evidence that Hakoda didn’t trust him. He was still the fire nation prince.
“I’m sorry,” Zuko said quietly.
“It’s not your fault,” Hakoda replied in earnest. Zuko was avoiding eye contact. “While I was at sea I heard a lot of stories. People would say a lot of things about the Fire Nation, but from my own experiences I could usually tell what was real and what was exaggerated.” He turned to the teenager sitting beside him and looked for eye contact, but did not meet any. “There was one story I was sure was propaganda. I was sure of it until I saw that.”
Hakoda didn’t touch Zuko’s scar and stared at it until the former prince understood what he was referring to. He expected to be met with anger or bitterness, but Zuko’s expression dissolved into shame. The boy self-consciously raised a hand up to his left cheek. Hakoda chose his words very carefully after being met with that reaction.
“You’ve been through a lot, more than anyone your age should have been through. I can’t imagine the pain you’ve endured.” Hands that were once cupped limped in Zuko’s lap. It wasn’t like he had never had this conversation, but he was not used to being met with sympathy on the subject. Whenever people in the Fire Nation had mentioned his banishment they had praised him for accomplishing his fool’s errand and some even had the nerve to tell him that the mark wasn’t that bad.
Their eyes still shifted to the right side of his face when they spoke to him.
“I know you haven’t been on the best terms with my children in the past,” Hakoda continued, ‘understatement of the century ’ Zuko thought, “but Sokka has great trust in you and I trust you. We never would have escaped without your help.” Cultural barriers aside, Hakoda decided to set his hand on Zuko’s shoulder and his entire body stiffened, much to the chief’s concern. “Son, you are an incredibly brave individual and it’s important that you know that we’re looking out for you now. We protect our tribe.”
Zuko stopped breathing at the word ‘ son’ and only continued once Hakoda gave his shoulder a parental squeeze.
Zuko fumbled over his words. “Thank you, Chief Hakoda.”
“Thank you, Prince Zuko.” He held his forearm out and was met with a confused stare. Zuko eventually raised his own arm up to meet Hakoda’s grasp, which normally would have been firm but was adjusted to be looser.
Hakoda then retreated, leaving Zuko to his morning meditation, and Sokka was left wondering what his dad knew about his friend that he didn’t. He knew Zuko was currently deemed a traitor to his nation. He used to command a ship for his Avatar hunt. He used to have some weird ‘honor’ obsession (but that was just a weird Fire Nation thing, right?). His Uncle was really good at making tea. And he had a gloomy knife-wielding ex-girlfriend.
‘Huh,’ Sokka thought, ‘that’s actually a pretty short list.’
Hakoda had mentioned pain and protection and Sokka had no idea what he was talking about. Did that make him a bad friend? To know less about Zuko than his dad did? In fairness, Sokka reasoned, they hadn’t exactly been on conversational terms until recently. This mystery was going to drive him crazy, but Sokka didn’t think he and Zuko knew each other well enough for him to just go up and ask “hey I wasn’t trying to be a stalker, but what was that stuff you were talking about with my dad this morning about you having gone through a lot of pain?” Yeah, definitely not.
The conversation was in the back of Sokka’s mind throughout the day and he finally decided to just ask Hakoda when they went fishing alone.
“You were spying?” Hakoda raised an eyebrow, partially in disapproval but more so in amusement.
“I didn’t mean to,” Sokka protested. “I was sleeping on Appa and you guys started talking.” He spoke from the other side of the trawl net they were dragging.
“I see,” he wasn’t angry. “So you didn’t know what we were discussing?”
“No, and I just think it’s a little weird that you seem to know more about him than I do.”
It was Hakoda’s turn to be confused, but his expression eventually settled into a grim understanding. They laid the trawl out on the beach to pick out anything worth cooking. “Sokka do you not know about Zuko’s exile?”
“Of course I do,” Sokka pulled out a few shrimp-squids, “he abandoned the Fire Nation on the day of the eclipse and now he’s a traitor.” Was his dad not there for the part where Zuko had been thrown in Fire Nation prison?
Hakoda’s mouth formed a tight line, “it’s not my place to tell another man’s past. That’s something you’ll have to learn from Zuko if he chooses to tell you.”
“Dad, what are you talking about?” They set to drag the trawl out again.
“This is a conversation for you and your friend.” And that was the final statement, Sokka knew that much.
But Tui and La, it was going to drive him insane not knowing.
In his defense, Sokka’s formal sword training had lasted less than a month while Zuko had been studying the blade for what had to have been years. Sokka sincerely hoped he had studied for years because Zuko kept kicking his ass in their sparring matches .
What made matters worse was that Zuko would end every match by helping Sokka get up and then compliment him on all the things he had done right. Dodge. Twist. Lung. Leg swipe. And space sword would go flying across the corridor. That’s usually how it went. Then the fucker would give him constructive spirits-damned criticism.
“You move quickly and that makes keeping up with you difficult for your opponent, but you’re ignoring your back foot. There was one time when you had it positioned right and you were able to pivot but if you don’t have it at the correct angle you’ll have to put more effort into turning around than you have to.” He wasn’t even smug or condescending about it, he just seemed genuinely impressed when Sokka did well. That bastard.
Not to mention the whole using two swords thing. That was just unfair. They’re two halves of a single weapon. Sure Zuko. Whatever.
The two boys stand twenty meters apart before starting to advance. Sokka made the first move and attempted an attack from the left. Zuko’s right dao came overhead while the left defended his middle. Underhand. Right. Clash. Space sword attempted a circular swipe at the dao hilts. Zuko smirked as he caught Sokka’s blade with his own and yanked it from Sokka’s hands. And that was that.
“Good match.” Sokka wanted to wipe that smug smile off the prince’s face (okay it wasn’t really
but that didn’t mean he had to like it).
“Yeah, super good.” Zuko was not (to his later regret), paying attention to Sokka’s irritated expression or sarcastic tone, but was rather reworking his stances and studying his own footwork.
“The hilt attack would have probably worked if I was left-handed,” Zuko explained nonchalantly, “but I’m ambidextrous so…” He shrugged.
Sokka had really tried to follow Master Piandao’s words in the weeks following his training. Respecting your opponent was a crucial aspect of sword mastery. Never underestimate your opponent. Never expect victory, no matter what the circumstances. Your opponent was a fellow artist, as no nation owned the art of the sword. As long as your opponent respected the etiquette of sword fighting (and even if they didn’t), you must respect your opponent with the same etiquette.
Sokka decided to forgo the etiquette of the blade for a moment and engage in the ever so reliable Sokka Style.
“What are you-” Zuko only had a split second to realize that the water tribe boy was charging at him before his body hit the hard ground. Fucking ow. There was no strategy behind Sokka’s attack, it was pure aggression. He had pinned Zuko's arms down and was being met with equally aggressive resistance by Zuko’s efforts to push him off with his feet. The firebender tried to break the support of Sokka’s arms by hitting him at the elbows —”dude come on just let me win one”— and was unsuccessful. With all his strength, Sokka managed to step one foot over Zuko’s fighting leg and had him stuck.
“Sokka this is ridiculous.” Zuko gritted through attempts to push the other boy off with his free leg. He was almost wriggling out of Sokka’s grasp (‘eel-snakes dipped in grease are easier to keep a hold of than him’ thought Sokka). “You know, you’re pretty good at sneak attacks when you don’t announce them beforehand.”
Oh, that did it. “Ahhhgh!” Screamed Sokka, he let go of Zuko’s left arm and held it off enough with his elbow in order to cover his mouth so he wouldn’t have to hear another spirit forsaken compliment. Zuko decided to take advantage of his free hand, squirming almost completely through and ready to pin down Sokka himself, until a hand made contact with his face.
Zuko’s entire body froze.
Torches lighting the Agni Kai room. Knees meeting the floor in a bow. It smelled just like grandfather’s cremation. “ You will fight for your honor.” Cold marble. Sweat dripping down his back. A single singe racing it’s way up to his loose hair strands before meeting his scalp. Cooking skin. Spectators surrounding him. The Fire Nation insignia decorating every wall. “Rise and fight, Prince Zuko.” Ozai’s shadow covering half of the stage. Ecstatic golden eyes and a wicked smile. Blisters and puss. Every muscle in his body shutting down. “You will learn respect.” The palm of Ozai’s hand being the last thing his left eye saw for months. “And suffering.” The palm of Ozai’s hand coming closer to his face. “Will be.” It was only warm for a minute and it felt nice, for a second he thought it would stop there and he would be okay. “Your teacher.” It didn’t stop there.
It took him a minute to realize that Sokka was no longer touching his body. He was sweating, but his body felt cold. He was hyperventilating. ‘Get it together, you’re not fucking thirteen. You’re fine.’
Sokka had seen his twelve-year-old friend take out an entire navy in the Avatar state, he had seen Aang become a terrifying entity in fits of rage. Sokka had seen his baby sister project the ferocity of a dragon in battle. Sokka had seen his father cry like a small child after Kya had died. There was always a way to handle it, whether it was a hug or a distracting joke or someone else who knew what they were doing. There wasn’t anybody around now and Sokka had no idea what to do.
Because this was Zuko. This was burn-down-villages, fight-a-waterbender-in-the-snow, learn-firebending-from-actual-dragons, break-into-a-fire-nation-prison-despite-being-a-wanted-traitor, date-crazy-girls-with-knives, fearless, unstoppable Zuko. And he was frozen on the ground, pupils constricted, and hyperventilating.
‘What would Katara do?’
Give him space, that was probably step one. So Sokka took a couple of steps back and knelt down to show Zuko that he wasn’t going to touch him. What would step two be? Snap him out of whatever state he was stuck in. He started yelling Zuko’s name.
The firebender eventually bolted upright and blinked repeatedly. All color had drained from his face, the only spot that regained any color was, well…
‘Fuck, of course. Sokka you idiot.’ He had forgotten about the burn scar.
“Hey, buddy, I’m really sorry I didn’t mean to-”
“It’s fine.” Zuko cut him off before rising to his feet, Sokka decided to stay on the ground, not wanting to alarm Zuko anymore than he already had. He was still visibly shaken. His jaw was clenched and there was still fear in his eyes.
“Do you want to talk about-”
“I said I’m fine Sokka.” Which, no, he was very clearly not and Sokka knew it. He watched Zuko retrieve his swords and walk to the other side of the corridor. The natural instinct for Sokka was to hug him, that’s what he did when dad was crying after mom’s funeral and that’s what he did for Katara when she thought Aang might die. But the last thing Zuko needed was for someone to touch him. The firebender stood with his swords at the ready and called out, “what are you waiting for? I thought we were sparring?”
And that sounded hothead Sokka was used to, but were they really just not going to address what had just happened? From the now serious look on Zuko’s face, the answer was clear. No. That’s not what was going to happen.
Sokka picked up his sword and for the next few matches, he lost intentionally.
The night following the incident, Sokka lay awake thinking about what had happened and eventually realized that he had no idea how Zuko’s face had been burned.
Well, with fire. Obviously.
It could have been an accident. Sokka had his own history of almost freezing to death and almost getting attacked by wild animals in the South Pole. Maybe growing up in the Fire Nation was the same in that regard, only warmer. Zuko could have had a really unfortunate run-in with a volcano or something.
But that didn’t explain his reaction when Sokka had put his hand to his face. It had to have been a firebender. Azula was the first candidate that came to Sokka’s mind. Again, it could have been an accident (La knows Katara had given him enough ice burns for him to know how much of a hazard bender siblings were), but the royal siblings had none of the affection or love that he and Katara shared. That much was obvious as only the other week they had been trying to make the other fall into a boiling lake. So if it was Azula, it probably wasn’t an accident. But that didn’t make sense when Zuko had joined her in Ba Sing Se. There was no way Zuko would fight with someone who had done that to him.
Sokka glanced over to the spot where Zuko was sleeping. He couldn’t see the scarred side of his face and from this angle, the fire prince looked normal, even peaceful. Did he just look angry all the time because of the scar?
He thought back to the conversation he had overheard the other night. Hakoda had gone on about “pain” Zuko had endured and how they were going to protect him now. His dad knew, he totally knew. And after the events that had happened today, he needed to know now more than ever.
The group split up the next day in the middle of an attack on the temple. Sokka didn’t have a chance to ask Hakoda about what he knew.
And the bitterness with which Zuko said “of course she did” upon seeing his sister survive that fall made Sokka reconsider his discounting of Azula as the culprit. But knowing Zuko, a blunt approach to the subject probably wasn’t the best approach.
This was why Sokka decided to initiate Operation Get Zuko To Tell Us About His Giant Scar, which started with what he thought was a subtle approach at the campfire that night.
“Okay, so, what’s the worst injury you’ve ever had?” Sokka asked the group.
“Oh! I have one,” started Aang, “this one time I was riding the mail shoots with Bumi and I air bended us out of our seat before we landed but there was another shoot coming above us and we crashed into it and fell. We had concussions for like a month, his mom was so mad.”
“Didn’t you get shot with lightning and almost die?” asked Toph.
“Oh yeah, forgot about that.”
“Well I know mine,” Sokka started, in an effort to ease the topic of the Consequences of Having A Bender Sibling out of no one in particular, “this one time when we were kids Katara was trying to get back at me for something and tried to splash me with water, but she froze the water instead and crushed me with a huge ice block.” He ran over to a person-sized rock to provide a visual. “It was like, this big!”
Katara rolled her eyes, “Sokka you were fine. ”
“You broke my wrist!”
“Ha, ha, good job Katara,” Toph chided. Sokka paid attention to Zuko who was trying to hide his amusement.
“What about you Zuko, I bet growing up with a crazy firebender sister couldn’t have been fun.” He grimaced and chewed his food slowly before answering.
“No, but she’s just always been, you know…” he shrugged in place of any details. Awkwardness consumed him as the others looked at him for more. “Worst injury…. okay, so I guess it might have been when my ship blew up.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot you used to have a ship,” Aang reminisced, “it blew up?”
“Yeah, pirates,” he said as if it were an everyday occurrence. “I had sprained ribs and there was this ringing in my ears for two weeks.”
Okay, so not the answer Sokka was looking for, but an interesting piece of trivia nonetheless.
“That’s rough buddy.”
Zuko flicked some rice at Sokka’s face.
“Wait so what were you doing in Ba Sing Se if you weren’t looking for us?”
Zuko, with an expression worthy of facing Koh, took another shot without breaking eye contact with the space in between Sokka and Aang, set down the glass with a clank, and said with contempt the two younger boys hadn’t heard from the firebender in months, “Tea.”
Listen, the fact was that at some point in the very near future, they were going to have to face the Firelord and the very real possibility that they might lose was something Sokka tried not to think about. But that didn’t mean he was going to die without getting absolutely shitfaced at least once in his life. Raiding the Firelord’s long-abandoned liquor cabinet was reward enough and upon discovering it, Sokka made the executive decision that after the horrendous play they had watched, they were in desperate need of a long, drunk boys night.
How exactly he had talked Zuko into joining him, he couldn’t remember. Unlike Sokka, this wasn’t the first time he had drunk. The last time he had been at Ember Island he had made the wise decision to snag a bottle of rice wine from the party they trashed and had proceeded to share a memorable post-makeup night with Mai. Jet had thought he was corrupting Li when he handed him a stolen bottle of liquor to share with him that night on the ferry, but didn’t know that Zuko had spent the past three years sneaking much stronger stuff from the men on his ship (a practice he would rather his Uncle didn’t know about, thank you very much). That being said, Zuko wasn’t tolerant by any means, as much as he thought he was.
“Tea?” Sokka asked.
Aang, decidedly not taking part in the current activity, he was doing his best to make sure the two older boys didn’t do anything too reckless and positioned himself to catch Zuko as he started to stand up. Sokka had it in mind for Aang to join them in the spirits to which he, and Zuko for that matter, declined ( “ he’s twelve” “technically he’s a hundred and twelve” “ no Sokka” ).
Zuko was able to stand on his own, albeit with a slight sway, and started waving a finger around in the air. “Sokka, Aang, do you know who’s—” he nearly fell over but caught himself on the bedpost, “just the worst?”
“No…wait yes!” Sokka knew people who were the worst. He knew so many people who could carry the title of being The Worst. “Your sister!”
Zuko rolled his eyes and threw his head back, “no, I mean, yeah kind of, but this is a different person.”
But Sokka was determined to get it right, “Zhao?”
“No, he’s dead, he can’t be the worst,” said Zuko, incredulous, “he was the worst.” Aang could agree with that statement, but still wasn’t as comfortable at disrespecting the dead as the other two were.
“The prison warden?”
“ No. I mean, yeah, he is the worst.” Zuko was talking slowly but moving around with abject carelessness. Aang was chasing him around the room to make sure he didn’t hit anything. “He’s like, beyond the worst.”
“Okay okay, I’m going to get it….” Sokka thought as hard as he could and almost immediately forgot the task he had assigned himself. Zuko took it upon himself to just continue with his rant.
“This one, woman she came in like, every week,” Zuko sat across from Sokka on the floor and then grabbed Aang’s wrists to bring him down to the spot next to him so he could listen too. “And she ordered the worst fucking tea.”
There were a lot of details that the firebender had failed to mention, but neither Sokka nor Zuko were in a place where they could realize that. Aang, on the other hand, was incredibly confused. “Came in where?”
“ Aang don’t interrupt,” Sokka slurred and looked over to a riled-up Zuko, “finish your thing buddy.”
“She just was there like … all the time and she didn’t tip and…” he almost screamed in frustration but then remembered how he had dealt with his customer-related anger at Pao’s and took a bit of his shirt to bite and scream into.
“Zuko, please stop biting my shirt,” pleaded Aang.
“What? Oh sorry. Anyway, she came in like all the time and she was just the worst. She complained so fuckin’ much and it was uncle’s tea. He makes such good tea guys.”
Tea. Water. Either sounded really nice to Sokka right now. Why was his mouth so dry?
“This one day, she got matcha which is gross, it’s a bad tea.” Zuko leaned over to Aang and put both hands on his shoulders, staring at him with a scary intensity, “Aang I need you to listen to me, this is a firebending thing you need to know.”
Aang’s eyes widened, “...okay?”
“Are you listening?”
“Are you listening?”
“Okay, here’s a thing you need to know.” He had to stop himself from throwing up before telling Aang, “matcha is really, really gross. Now you know.” He was immensely relieved that he had saved Aang from the drink.
Drunk Zuko was officially Aang’s favorite version of Zuko, though he’d never admit it.
“So she—” this time Zuko did throw up in his mouth and Aang hurried to find a bucket to collect it. Drunk Zuko was losing some of Aang’s favoritism. “She ordered this matcha, right? And then she drinks the whole thing and she goes—” he stood up, much to Aang’s concern, and mimicked the customer in a high-pitched voice, “ young man, I need to speak to you about this tea.”
Zuko then proceeded to reenact the argument he had with this woman who had complained that her matcha tea tasted ‘too much like a green tea latte,’ ( “ That’s what matcha is! That’s what you ordered!”). While Sokka enthusiastically supported Zuko and his fake argument, Aang was dying with laughter.
“Ugh,” Zuko slumped against the side of the bed once he finished his rant, “just: the worst.”
“No offense buddy but,” Sokka decided that the best way to make his way across the room was to pull himself with his elbows instead of using his legs, “your sister is the worst. She tried to kill us like…” he attempted to count on his finger and kept having to start over before giving up, “a lot of times.”
“Yeah, she does that. She’s weird.”
“Not to mention the whole, you know,” he pointed to Zuko’s scar before his body decided that was too big of an energy expense and it dropped to the floor, “that. Whoever gave you that is probably the worst.”
Angry at a Fake Tea Shop Customer Zuko was quickly slipping into something more serious than he wanted to be right now.
“Yeah.” Subject. Topic. There had to be something else to talk about. Something that wasn’t that. “You know what’s also just, the worst?”
“The hangover you guys are going to have in the morning?” Teased Aang. Sokka crawled back to the place he was sitting in order to put a finger to his mouth in order to properly “shhhhush” him.
“No the fuckin,” Zuko waved his arms around again to gesture to something neither Sokka or Aang understood, “play… people.”
“Those guys?” Sokka understood this topic, the tea shop customer rant was entertaining but he had no clue what Zuko was talking about if he was being honest. “They suuuuuucked.”
Zuko buried his hands in his head and tilted to Sokka’s lap for a minute, curled up in a fetal position trying to either remember or repress some memory. “Do you guys know how badly they fucked up Love Amongst Dragons?”
And they did not know, nor did they really care, but Zuko cared. He cared so much. For what felt like the next hour he talked about how the Ember Island players had taken quiet, intimate scenes and filled them with unnecessary background dancers. How they had chosen the absolute worst actor to play the dark and tragic protagonist. How they had “taken the production as an excuse to show off flashy effects but didn’t care about the story.” Sober Zuko usually didn’t talk about his opinions or feelings or much of anything unless you pried it out of him, but Drunk Zuko had a lot of opinions. And all of them were related to how much the Ember Island Players had fucked up Love Amongst Dragons.
But even with barely any functioning brain cells left, Sokka vaguely remembered that before the conversation he had said something to Zuko about his scar. Zuko hadn’t said anything about it and right now he was deflecting.
Deflecting. That was the word. Katara had used that word all the time for when Sokka would avoid talking about mom or dad or Yue or any number of things. Deflecting. Zuko was deflecting.
Or maybe he just really cared about this play because spirits above he would not stop talking about it.
The scar was on the wrong side.
Not just in the play they had seen the other night, but on Zuko’s new Fire Nation wanted poster. They had gotten most of the other details right, his now grown-out hair, gold eyes, pissed-off expression. But the scar was on the wrong side. Idiots.
“Hey Toph check this out,” He pointed to the poster on the board, “it’s Zuko’s new wanted poster.”
“At what point are you going to remember that I can’t see?”
“Okay, fair I deserved that.” He unpinned the poster to take.
“What does it say?”
“Okay so it says ‘Wanted: Former Prince Zuko. Wanted for treason against the Fire Nation and attempted assassination. Wanted dead or alive. Will pay any amount.” The phrase ‘wanted dead or alive’ sent chills down Sokka’s spine.
“Will pay any amount? Do you think it’d be worth it to pull another scam again with that kind of reward?” Toph joked.
“You know, I think that might not be the best plan.” Zuko had only left the house to see the play because the risk of someone spotting him was too high. Aang might be able to cover his tattoos without much difficulty, but Zuko didn’t exactly have the same option with his scar.
“They got his scar on the wrong side,” Sokka noted, “oh, I guess you don’t know about his scar do you?”
“What do you mean? Of course I know about it.” Toph looked at him with one of those ‘every time you say something dumb you set a new bar for yourself to say something dumber and you never fail to do so’ looks. “Everyone knows about it.”
“Oh, so someone told you about it.” Kind of rude, Sokka thought, but it was a notable characteristic. Toph was still confused.
“We are talking about the same Zuko, right? Prince of the Fire Nation Zuko?”
“Well, he’s a former prince now according to this,” Sokka had no idea what Toph was talking about. She, on the other hand, had no idea why he wouldn’t assume she knew about it, given the widespread knowledge of its origin. “Why do you ask?”
“Well cause of… you know,” she whispered.
Toph took a second to realize how clueless Sokka was about their new group member and decided that it was a long shot to assume that he knew as much about something as she did. Zuko had trusted her not to talk about it to them but… how could they not know?
“He kept talking about how they got it wrong in the play, it was super annoying.”
Sokka accepted the answer and didn’t think any more of the conversation.
Sokka had never really been a tea guy. Zuko, Tui and La bless him, tried his best to brew the group tea and Sokka always drank it out of politeness, but it was just… weird water to him. There was nothing wrong with water. Why did everyone feel the need to add this leaf bullshit?
That being said, Sokka considered the possibility that he could totally become a tea person upon drinking Iroh’s jasmine for the first time.
Too many months spent on the run and too many times Sokka and his friends had been required to fix problems and save people nobody else could had made him forget that there were adults who could do those things. There were adults that they knew who could fix all those problems. Being surrounded by Piandao and Pakku and Iroh reminded Sokka that as much as it felt like it, the entire weight of the world did not, in fact, rest solely in their hands. Iroh wanted them to know that. Iroh wanted to be there to take care of them after they had spent so long fending for themselves as he brewed tea and served them breakfast. It felt like he was back home with Gran-Gran.
“So, Sokka, Master Piandao says you are quite the swordsman,”
“I mean, I’m alright. I’ve gotten a lot better practicing with Zuko.” The firebender in question was sleeping in Iroh’s tent as, after staying up half the night, his uncle had ordered him to get some rest. The warmth of Iroh’s smile was palpable.
“Don’t sell yourself short. Master Piandao does not give out praise to everyone, I’m sure you are very talented,” he took a sip of his tea. “I am happy to hear my nephew has found someone to share his passion with. He was always skilled with the dao blades.” He spoke with great pride.
“Yeah, Sparky’s pretty great,” Toph said from Iroh’s other side, “he kicks Sokka’s butt like, all the time.”
“He fights with two swords, it’s not like it’s ever a fair fight.”
Iroh refilled Sokka’s cup for the third time, chuckling softly.
“It warms my heart to know that my nephew has found friends who care for him. He’s always had a, um, difficult time with people his age. He’s very lucky to have been accepted by such brave and wonderful people.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Sokka caught Toph giving a sincere smile.
“He talks about you all the time, you’ve really helped him.” Sokka wanted the General to know.
“I never doubted that he would choose the right path, but it has been a difficult journey for him. Ever since his father burned him I had hoped he would see the Firelord for the man he truly was but he was lost for such a long time and I only wish I could have helped him find his way sooner. I am glad that he found his way and I am very glad he found his way to you.”
Sokka replayed the words in his head, surely he hadn’t heard that right. “I’m sorry, what did you just say?”
Iroh looked down, perhaps in shame, perhaps in sadness that even though his nephew had grown stronger and had finally learned to care about others and let them care for him, he still wouldn’t discuss that day. “Zuko has not told you the reason he was sent to find the Avatar in the first place.”
And then Iroh told Sokka the whole story. Zuko, thirteen and full of hope. The general’s plan he had spoken out against. The challenge issued for Zuko to defend his so-called ‘disrespect’. The misunderstanding of who the thirteen-year-old boy was supposed to duel. How that thirteen-year-old boy begged for forgiveness and was publically mutilated by his own father’s hand for weakness of all things. The impossible task the prince was then given to regain his honor.
Sokka’s eyes stung from the glare he was shooting at Iroh. His voice was quiet and deadly. “You watched it?”
Iroh nodded, his expression certainly filled with shame this time. Sokka stood up, towering over the war veteran, shaking with fury. “And you didn’t stop it?”
He shook his head, “if I had known what my brother was planning that day, I would have done everything in my power to-”
“YOU’RE A FIREBENDER,” there were several people at the campsite that were now staring but Sokka didn’t care. He was too busy screaming at Iroh. “HE WAS A KID. HE WAS A KID AND YOU JUST STOOD THERE. HOW COULD YOU JUST STAND THERE AND LET THAT HAPPEN TO HIM.”
Toph put her hand on Sokka’s wrist in an attempt to calm him down, “Sokka, he didn’t know, I thought you already knew about it anyway.” He swatted her hand away and rounded on her. The anger in his face was lost on her, but his rapid heartbeat was not. “You knew about this?”
Toph was silent. He looked to Katara for evidence that he was not the only one who had been left in the dark, but she avoided eye contact, having clearly heard the story before. He couldn’t believe them.
There had been times when he had been this angry. After mom died and he was eight and small and couldn’t possibly fight the entire fire nation to avenge her. When he had first met Aang and he had sent up the fire nation (signal on accident). When Katara got burned (again, by accident). When Azula wouldn’t shut up about Suki giving up on him during the eclipse. But Sokka had known what to do with that anger. Fight. Protect. Save. But in this case, the damage was done. It had been done long ago and there was nothing he could do to fix it.
Zuko was supposed to be his friend and he hadn’t even given him the chance to try and fix it. Any part of it. But apparently the others knew about it. With nothing but pure hatred for the Firelord and the Fire Nation, he thought that maybe Aang wouldn’t be necessary for taking down Ozai. Aang. Did Aang know?
Katara walked over and tried to touch her brother’s shoulder, “Sokka I know it’s hard to hear but I don’t think this is how Zuko would have wanted you to find out.”
‘No,’ he thought bitterly, ‘if it were up to him, I wouldn't have known at all.’
“I don’t care.” Sokka pushed Katara’s hand aside and stormed off to Zuko’s tent. The others had known about it already. He deserved an explanation as to why he didn’t.
Zuko wasn’t sleeping when Sokka barged in. The comet was tomorrow and even though he knew sleep was an essential source of combat fuel, he lay awake worrying about anything and everything that could go wrong. Besides, he couldn’t sleep in the middle of the day. Firebenders just weren’t wired like that.
And Sokka had something serious he needed to discuss, that was obvious enough. “Hey Sokka, what’s on your mind?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” He demanded. Zuko had no idea where the hurt and betrayed look was coming from, but it was all over Sokka’s face.
“Tell you what?” Agni above, what had he done this time?
“Iroh told me— you and— fuck, why didn’t you—” The words couldn’t come out. How the General could tell the story so eloquently Sokka didn’t know and he didn’t want to think about. What he managed was looking Zuko right in the eyes and saying, “your dad burned your face.”
Zuko didn’t flinch at Sokka’s rage-infused revelation. He frowned, blinked, and avoided eye contact, but otherwise, his expression remained unchanged. “Yeah.”
“ Why didn’t you tell me?”
Any other day and he would have cared that Uncle had told his friends about the day of his banishment. It was bad enough talking about it with Toph and Katara, but they had at least had the decency to not define him by what his father did to him. He wasn’t exactly eager to have this conversation with anyone else and he was learning that it was kind of just part of the whole having-friends-thing. Maybe if Sokka had asked he would have told him, Agni knows he had been skirting around the topic for weeks now. But the comet was imminent. There wasn’t room for him to get upset about things. He had bigger things to worry about and so did Sokka.
“It wasn’t important.” Sokka looked like he wanted to strangle him.
What Sokka actually wanted was to hug him. Or maybe slap him. He didn’t know himself. Because of fucking course Zuko didn’t think it was important. It didn’t have to do anything with Aang’s firebending training or finding his Uncle or any number of priorities he had in mind. It wasn’t like it explained the past year of Zuko’s actions or oh yeah, that huge scar on his face. It wasn’t like it gave context to the man Aang was going to have to face upon the comet who was, turns out, someone who publicly mutilates their child for refusing to fight him. It wasn’t like Sokka had trusted him and it wasn’t like they were friends or anything and that was just a thing you were supposed to tell your friends.
Maybe it wasn’t. It wasn’t like any of Sokka’s other friends had half of their faces burned off by their fathers.
“You told Katara and Toph.” It was an accusation rather than a question.
“They asked.” Zuko shrugged again.
“Does Aang know?”
“What does that mean, probably not?”
“It means I didn’t tell him about it but it’s not that big of a deal if he does or not.” Zuko decided that the confined space of the tent was not where he wanted to be and tried to make his way out before being blocked by Sokka, “it doesn’t matter right now.”
Sokka grabbed Zuko’s wrist and made intense eye contact, “we spent our last few days with Aang trying to convince him that he needed to kill the Firelord and now he’s who knows where on some spirit quest and we have no idea if he’s going to go through with it right now.” He might have if you had told him about this was unsaid, but Zuko understood the implication and matched Sokka’s glare.
“Look, this isn’t about me. This is about saving the world. My dad’s done a lot worse, believe me, and telling Aang wouldn’t have made a difference.” It would have been petty and personal and that’s not the point was what Zuko made clear through his stare. But Sokka wasn’t going down without a fight.
“He should still know,” he let go of Zuko’s wrist, “he’s your friend. I’m your friend. And you didn’t think we needed to know yet you told Katara and Toph about it apparently.”
Zuko breathed in and out, reminding himself of the comet and the Earth Kingdom and the fact that millions of people would die if they didn’t get their shit together. That focused him. He didn’t have to get worked up about what Sokka was mad about right now. “Look, it’s not something I like talking about. I don’t go around telling everyone about the worst day of my life, okay?”
“I told you about the worst day of my life,” Sokka shot back. Which he had, and doing so resulted in his sister going on a vengeance quest for the man who killed their mother.
“Okay! I get it, I’m sorry,” Agni, he just wanted this conversation to end. He wanted to get out of the tent and go back to planning for the comet. “It doesn’t matter right now and you already seem to know everything so why do you want to keep talking about it?”
“It’s fucked up man. It was a fucked up thing that happened to you and you thought we wouldn’t care.” You’re my friend and you’d do anything for me and you thought I wouldn’t care was what Sokka thought, unable to comprehend the apathy in Zuko’s face. “You don’t seem to care about it.”
All pretense of calm slipped away.
“You think I don’t care?” He forced Sokka to take a step back as he started yelling, “Yeah, you’re right. You did tell me about the worst day of your life. But I’m guessing people didn’t get fucking invitations to the worst day of your life. I’m guessing people felt sorry for you after your mom died and they should have, but I wasn’t that lucky. You’re right, it’s fucked up. It’s fucked up that my father didn’t get me to a doctor after he burned half my face off, he just walked away and left me there. It’s fucked up that I couldn’t see or hear out of this side for six months. I couldn’t bend Sokka. It’s fucked up that I blended in so fucking well as a refugee because people assumed that some random soldier had done it to me. It’s fucked up that little kids are scared of me when they see my face for the first time, literally, that happens. It’s fucked up that people thought I deserved it and that he thinks I deserved it and that for the longest time I thought I-”
Zuko’s eyes widened before he cut himself off. He had never said any of that aloud before, he had never let himself get that angry about it. The tirade had just slipped out on its own.
Sokka was speechless. And he really wanted to give Zuko that hug now. “Zuko, I…” but there was nothing he could really say. He was the one who had demanded the story and was regretting ever being angry at Zuko for keeping it from him. He moved to embrace but Zuko stepped aside.
“The comet’s coming soon. That’s what’s important right now.” Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose and hung his head. “Just drop it. Please.”
Okay, he could drop it. They didn’t have to talk about it, but Sokka needed to clean up the mess he made. His friend had to know that no, he absolutely did not deserve what had happened to him and that he would do everything in his power to right the wrongs Zuko had endured. That Ozai would pay, soon. Sokka reached a hand out to Zuko’s shoulder and was jerked away. “Zuko I’m so-”
‘Okay,’ Sokka thought, ‘I have seriously fucked up.’
And the last thing he wanted to do was leave Zuko in this state. He was the one who had reopened the wound and he needed to bandage it up. “I’m not leaving.”
Zuko looked at him with a mix of anger and desperation. This wasn’t something he could deal with on any given day, but definitely not now. Definitely not when they didn’t know where Aang was and the war would end one way or another tomorrow. He choked down his anger and spoke in as reassuring a voice as he could, “I’ll be okay. It’s okay.”
And Sokka had no choice but to heed his friend’s request. Zuko was right, they could talk about it after they saved the world. He turned to leave the tent, “okay.”
Except, no. It wasn’t. It had never been okay.
Of course Zuko had to do the stupid heroic thing and jump in front of literal lightning to save Katara, but Sokka had never been more thankful for Zuko’s whole ‘do first, worry about the consequences later’ approach to life. Because his little sister was okay, even if Zuko was very much not.
How, and more importantly why, he was standing after getting shot was both impressive and irritating. He had apparently partially redirected Azula’s lightning before it hit Katara, but hadn’t completed the process before his body absorbed it. Regardless, he should not be standing right now and Sokka knew it.
“Get back in that bed!” Was the first thing he said to the soon-to-be Firelord upon reuniting. The palace guards had let Sokka in and had allowed him to wander around until he found Zuko’s room, where he found him in the middle of pacing around reading some official-looking scroll.
“Okay Katara,” smirked Zuko, eyeing Sokka’s crutch and injured leg, “you’re one to talk.”
“Hey, I’m not the one with a chest full of lightning,” protested Sokka. And he noticed that even though his entire torso was wrapped in bandages and, well, everything had changed since they had last seen each other, Zuko looked calmer and happier than Sokka had ever seen him.
“It’s good to see you’re okay, I heard about the air fleet.”
“I heard about what you did too.” Sokka hobbled over and carefully put an arm around Zuko, “thank you. I can’t thank you enough. I don’t know what I would have done if… well, you know.”
Zuko reciprocated the hug, also careful to accommodate for the injuries, “of course.” Sokka pulled him over to the bed and Zuko reluctantly sat down and entered a topic Sokka hadn’t expected to come up so soon. “Were you there when Aang did it?”
“When he took away the Firelord’s bending” Zuko nodded, “I saw what he was like after.” For years Sokka’s imagined Firelord had been this larger-than-life monster, as one of the monsters in the scary campfire stories his dad used to tell them. After he had learned what happened to Zuko, the image of Ozai changed to something more human, which was honestly more terrifying to think about. But in the aftermath of the comet, the first time Sokka laid eyes on the Firelord he wasn’t anything like that, he was a shell of a person.
And yeah, maybe Sokka had taken the opportunity to kick him when he was already down and maybe it hurt like a bitch as his other leg was already broken, but it was the most satisfying experience of his life.
“What did he look like?” Zuko asked in a soft voice, laying down on the bed.
He didn’t say it with apathy, but rather let himself express every ounce of disdain he had for the man. Sokka took a seat next to him and the silence lingered for a stretch of time.
“Hey, I need to apologize to you,” Sokka began. Zuko looked at him in confusion. “About what I said to you before the comet. I shouldn’t have made you talk about it, I was mad at you for not telling me but you weren’t ready and I wasn’t considering that. I’m sorry man, I’m really sorry.”
Zuko stared up at the canopy decorating the bed, unfamiliar with being on the receiving end of an apology, “it’s okay, it was kind of a bad time.”
“Yeah, I realize that now.” A comfortable silence followed after that, Zuko looking for words he had never needed to formulate before.
“I just…” he was still looking up at the canopy rather than at Sokka, “I never really talked about it before. I didn’t—it wasn’t—I didn’t know what you wanted me to say.”
Sokka shook his head to dissuade Zuko from that thought process, “Hey, there’s no right way to talk about something like that. You’re going to process it how you process it. You don’t have to talk about it at all if you don’t want to, but if you need to, I’ll be here to listen.”
Zuko swallowed past the lump in his throat and let Sokka’s words sink into him, nodding slightly, “I don’t think I know how to talk about it yet,” he confessed.
“Okay.” Sokka let silence happen again, but he needed Zuko to know, “you didn’t deserve it, you know that right? Please tell me you know that.”
“I do now, believe me,” some bitterness reentered his speech, “I didn’t for a long time but I realized a lot of stuff this year.” Sokka sighed in relief and flopped down next to his friend. Say what you will about the Fire Nation, they knew how to make a silk sheet, was what Sokka thought.
It was a weird feeling to breathe, now that the war was officially over. They’d been suffocating for so long and breathing should feel normal, but they were both waiting for the air to stop flowing at any moment. They kept waiting for the moment where everything would start to go wrong but remembered that this safe respite wasn’t a respite at all. This was what life could be now that it was over.
“So, it looks like you’re going to be Firelord soon,” he had never said that title in a sentence and felt hopeful.
“Yeah, crazy.” Zuko still couldn’t quite believe it himself. Even after he had returned months ago, the notion that he would one day be Firelord didn’t seem real. There was always Ozai on the throne in his mind and the idea that anyone but Ozai could hold the position, nevermind him with his subpar bending and inability to be ruthless, was inconceivable. Yet, now Ozai was nothing. He was rotting away in a prison twenty miles away. No bending. No power over him or anyone else. “I don’t think I can do it.”
Sokka smiled and shook his head, “no man, you’re going to be great.” And that was the damn truth. Because anyone who would take a bolt of lightning to save someone was worth following. Because Zuko had saved his sister and he had saved his dad and he had saved all of them. Because he had saved himself after all the shit he had been through. He closed his eyes and said, content with the prospect for the state of the world for the first time in his life, “they aren’t ready for how great you’re going to be.”