“Hey, pass me some more of that egg, will you?” Sokka asked, his mouth still full of the last of the scrambled egg on his plate. Across the campfire, Katara passed the bowl obligingly to Aang, who passed it to Teo, who passed it to Suki, who passed it to him, and he scooped out a hefty portion to refill his plate. On Katara’s other side, Zuko was handing out the last cups of tea from the tray he was carrying around to everyone.
It was weird, seeing Zuko serving tea like some common tea shop worker when he was quite literally the prince of the Fire Nation. But he wasn’t really a celebrated crown prince anymore, Sokka supposed; Zuko might be legal heir to the throne, but Sokka didn’t think Fire Lord Ozai would be particularly keen on welcoming back the son who had turned his back on his nation to join the Avatar he’d been trying to hunt down the last few years. And from what little Sokka had heard Zuko say about his brief time in Ba Sing Se, he’d worked in his uncle’s tea shop, so, you know, he did actually have experience in customer service.
It was still weird.
But it was nice, too. He’d found that Zuko was much less crazy than he’d originally thought—much less bad-crazy, at least. He was still pretty crazy for following Sokka on what could easily have been a suicide mission to Boiling Rock, especially given than Zuko had absolutely no reason to go there. It wasn’t like Zuko had a father and ex-slash-almost-girlfriend who were imprisoned and who needed rescuing. And it wasn’t like Zuko could make up for his past mistakes by rescuing a couple prisoners who were only prisoners because of a decision he’d made while trying to invade the Fire Nation.
And Zuko himself was, well, nice. Awkward and uncertain at times, almost always intense and high-strung, but nice. It had been a pleasant surprise to get to know him better, which Sokka definitely had done during their little adventure to the highest-security prison in the Fire Nation—because you can’t really go on a high-stakes mission and have multiple near-death experiences with someone without getting to know them better, right? And Zuko was brave, and selfless, and loyal, and Sokka had wondered several times already why Zuko had been so intent on getting his honor back when he’d shown himself already full of it on that mission. Not that Sokka would ever say anything that sappy out loud. And not that it was sappy, either; it was honest, that’s all.
“This tea is great!” Toph exclaimed, slamming down her now-empty cup. “And that’s a lot, coming from me, you know. I’m used to getting awesome tea in my family.”
“It’s my uncle’s,” Zuko said. “And it’s even better when he makes it. Tea is probably what you could call his lifelong passion.” Done passing out the cups, he set the tray down and took a seat on Sokka’s right. Sokka handed him the bowl of egg with a slightly sheepish grin.
“Sorry, not much left. There’s more fish though!”
Zuko looked less than impressed as he peered into the almost-empty bowl. “Hm.”
“And plenty dessert to go around!” Hakoda announced, emerging from a little path out of the cave with a large tray of fruits which he set down a few feet away from the campfire.
“Moon peaches!” Aang exclaimed, jumping to his feet.
“And plums and berries,” Haru added from behind Hakoda, also carrying a large tray of fruits. “We found them further down the cliff earlier today; there’s a bunch of them growing in a little cove.”
“This is awesome!” Aang yelled. “Momo, look! Moon peaches!”
There was no need for him to have called the lemur, because Momo was already zooming like an arrow towards the fruit. He literally dive-bombed the first tray, sending berries flying and plums and peaches rolling.
“Momo!” Katara yelped, as the overjoyed lemur chittered excitedly and chased the wildly rolling fruit.
“Oh, you wanna throw fruit around? Take that, Momo!” Toph said, throwing a small berry good-naturedly at the lemur but hitting Suki instead as Momo scurried away.
“Hey!” Suki exclaimed, as Sokka burst out laughing. She took the now somewhat smooshed berry and threw it with unsurprising but slightly terrifying accuracy back at Toph, who retaliated with now a handful of berries. Suki dove out of the way and Toph cackled, jumping up to avoid a shot of berry juice that Aang sent her way.
“No one throws berries at Momo!” Aang yelled with mock-fury as Katara heaved a long-suffering sigh and Appa rumbled from a few meters away.
Still laughing, Sokka nudged Zuko who was calmly eating his eggs and fish. “I bet things never got this chaotic in the Fire Nation, huh?”
“Azula and I threw food at each other all the time,” Zuko deadpanned, taking another bite of egg.
Zuko looked at him, a small smile curving the corners of his mouth. “I’m joking, Sokka.”
“What—oh! Wow, I didn’t think you were capable of joking,” Sokka said, grinning. “Guess my trickster-jokester brilliance is rubbing off on you, huh?”
“I don’t know if I’d call it brilliance,” Zuko said, and Sokka spluttered indignantly.
“I’m plenty brilliant, Jerkbender, so watch it,” Sokka said when he could speak again.
“You better watch it, or you’ll get hit with these flying berries,” Zuko smirked, ducking under a stream of fast-flying juice.
“Hey!” Teo yelped as berry juice splattered into his plate.
Aang whizzed by on an air scooter, a wild expression on his face. “Sorry! That was supposed to be at Toph but she jumped out of the way!”
“Of course I did, Aang, no one’s hitting me with berry juice today!” Toph cackled, hurling a block of earth up in front of her to block Aang’s next attack. The berries exploded upon impact and sent juice everywhere—onto Momo’s fuzzy rear as he made a daring pass for another pawful of fruit, into Suki’s hair as she bent down for a deadly projectile of ripe peach, all over the front of Sokka’s shirt.
“Hey, this is my best shirt!” Sokka exclaimed. “That’s it, Toph, you’re going down!”
Toph whooped and skipped out of the way, easily avoiding all the shots of berries and berry juice sent in her direction, but then suddenly there was a resounding splat, and the girl’s eyes widened in surprise. Purple juice was dripping down her face, the attack seemingly come out of nowhere.
“Got ya,” Katara said with a grin.
“Alright, alright,” Hakoda chuckled. “There’s a lot more fruit growing down the cliff, but it’s not endless. I think using up an entire tray of berries for a food fight is enough for tonight, and good thing Haru had the good sense to hold onto the second tray so there’s still some left to eat.”
Toph sniffed, but she held up her hands in defeat. “Fine. I’m beaten for today, but that’s only because of Katara’s surprise attack. Y’all wouldn’t stand a chance against me otherwise!”
“It’s okay, Momo forgives you,” Aang said, smiling at the lemur who was already well on his way through demolishing his second moon peach, so blissed out he didn’t even seem to notice the purple berry juice on his backside.
After wiping berry juice off the best they could, they all sat back down around the campfire, in high spirits and chattering away with each other. Sokka selected a rather nice plum from the second fruit tray for himself and returned to his seat by Zuko, grumbling mostly good-naturedly but also somewhat legitimately miffed about the disgusting and sad wetness of his favorite shirt.
“Told you,” Zuko said. “You got hit.”
Sokka rolled his eyes. “Happy now?” he huffed.
“I’m never happy,” Zuko said.
Sokka rolled his eyes again. “Okay, edgelord.” He wiped fruitlessly at the purple stain for a few moments before giving up and biting into his plum. He glanced over at the other boy, about to ask if Zuko was going to get any fruit, and his eyes widened in surprise.
“What?” Zuko demanded. “Why are you staring at me?”
Sokka giggled, swallowed his mouthful of plum. “You’ve uh, got something on your face.”
Zuko raised his eyebrows. “On my face?”
“Yeah. A bit of berry juice. Um, just under your left eye.”
Zuko flushed. “Oh.” He brushed at his cheek, missing the spot completely. “Is it gone?”
“No, it’s here,” Sokka said with a laugh, reaching out without thinking because that was something he would’ve done with anyone else in their gang and Zuko was part of their group now, but as he reached for Zuko’s cheek the other boy recoiled like he’d been struck, looking suddenly tense, a shadow passing over his face.
Sokka stopped, face feeling very hot. “Um.” He cleared his throat, quickly lowered his hand. “Sorry.”
Zuko didn’t respond. He was still staring in Sokka’s direction, but his eyes were a little unfocused and he was breathing a little faster than normal.
Sokka frowned, stopping himself before he reached out instinctively again. “…Zuko?”
Still no answer.
Sokka tried again. “Zuko? Hello? Everything okay?”
It was like Zuko came out of a trance. He blinked hard a few times, and the vacant look in his eyes gave way to the normal golden glint. “It’s nothing,” he said. “I’m fine.” But his voice was unconvincing, and there was something hunted in the stoop of his shoulders.
Sokka bit his lip, looked down at his feet. “I didn’t mean to—”
“It’s nothing,” Zuko said again, his voice rough. “Forget it.”
“Forget it, I said,” Zuko snapped, and Sokka drew back, abashed.
“Okay,” he said quietly after a pause, trying unsuccessfully not to feel utterly crushed even though there was no good reason for him to feel that utterly crushed. “I’ll forget it.”
There was an awkward silence between them.
“Sorry,” Zuko mumbled after a few moments. “Didn’t mean to snap at you.” He swallowed, took a few unsteady breaths, stood. “I should probably go. I’ll um, see you tomorrow.”
Sokka glanced up at him briefly. “Yeah. See you.”
Then Zuko was gone. The others were still laughing and teasing each other, but Sokka’s spirits were rather lowered by now, and his participation in the joking was halfhearted at best.
It shouldn’t have mattered that much—or at least, it shouldn’t have felt that personal. Zuko was bound to be touchy about certain things, after all, and he’d always been rather reactive. Sokka knew he snapped easily and that it wasn’t necessarily anything about him, but it…it stung. And if he’d only snapped because Sokka had done something that offended him or scared him, well, that stung even more.
“Whew! I’m off to bed,” Katara announced after a while, when the fire had died down and the fruit was long gone.
“Good call,” Hakoda yawned, as Haru nodded his agreement. “Me too.”
“Same,” Aang echoed. “Goodnight, everyone—wait, where’s Zuko?”
“He left,” Toph said. “I think we wore him out.”
“Can’t imagine why,” Katara said. She stretched and stood. “See you in the morning!”
There was a chorus of “yeah’s” and “me too’s” and “goodnight’s” and “sleep well’s” as the number around the fire dwindled, and before long, it was just Sokka and Suki left staring into the embers. Distantly, Sokka wondered if Zuko was doing the same thing up in his room; he wondered if the prince had made a little fire for himself too and was crouched in front of it, sullen and morose and brooding as usual, the light casting shadows behind him of his stupidly sharp jawline and perfect profile and reflecting brightly in those stunningly golden eyes.
Perfect profile, huh. At least he’d rid himself of that dumb ponytail.
“Something’s bothering you,” Suki said quietly after a few moments of silence.
Sokka gave a noncommittal grunt.
“It’s Zuko, isn’t it?”
“What makes you say that?”
“I saw what happened,” Suki said, not unkindly.
“Oh.” Sokka swallowed. “Um.”
“You’re upset that he was upset,” Suki said. It wasn’t a question.
“I guess,” Sokka said. “I actually…well, I don’t know.” He sighed. “I mean, I know I messed up. I know I shouldn’t have just reached out like that. He’s a prince, for spirits’ sake! People don’t exactly go around wiping berry juice off princes’ faces. And especially since it was the side of his face with the scar, I…I don’t know, I should’ve figured that he might be sensitive about it. Or worse, he freaked out because it was me doing it.”
“What do you mean?”
“What do I—I don’t know! Like, maybe he doesn’t want someone touching his face who he doesn’t really know that well. Or maybe he doesn’t want me specifically touching his face because he’s the literal prince of the Fire Nation and I’m a lowly Water Tribe peasant and I’m not fit to touch Mr. Royal Perfectface. Not that I think his face his perfect. And not that I want to touch his face, why would I want to do that? It was just a bit of berry juice under his eye and it looked kind of ridiculous so if anything I was doing him a favor by trying to wipe it off. And he’s not even in the Fire Nation anymore, he’s with us, so my lowly Water Tribe peasant status doesn’t matter and neither do all his princely royal titles.” He was rambling a bit now, as he usually did when he got worked up, and he knew Suki knew that.
“You know he doesn’t think that about you,” Suki said quietly. “Not after what he risked, coming with you to Boiling Rock to get us out. He thinks more highly of you than that, Sokka.”
Sokka groaned and buried his face in his hands. “Okay, okay, yeah, but…what if you’re wrong?”
“And what if I’m not? Which I rarely am, by the way.”
“You’ve got a point there.”
Suki nudged his ribs with an elbow. “Sokka. You know what I think?”
Sokka peeked out at her from behind his fingers. “What?”
Suki grinned. “I think you like him,” she said.
“Well of course I like him, he helped get you and Dad out of prison, didn’t he?”
“No,” Suki said. “I think you like him. Which is amazing and cute, by the way. And I think that’s why you’re disproportionately upset and worried that he reacted that way because of you.”
“…Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
“I’m saying that I don’t think it’s about you personally even though you might feel like it is. And I think that’s what he’ll say too if you talk to him about it. Without prying, obviously. Y’know, be sensitive.”
Sokka decided not to address the comment about him supposedly liking Zuko. “You…do you think I should go after him? Now?”
Suki shrugged. “I don’t think anything bad would come of it. He did seem pretty upset earlier, so if anything, it’s probably good that someone checks on him.”
Well, if Suki said it was okay…
He ended up outside Zuko’s room a few minutes later. Suki was right, of course; he was worried that Zuko had reacted that way because of him personally, but she was absolutely not right about it being because he liked Zuko. Because he didn’t. Absolutely not. Not in that way. Zuko was nice and brave and selfless and loyal even if he was a bit high-strung, but Sokka didn’t like him, even though he noticed nice things about him. Because he didn’t have to like someone to notice that they were actually very kind under the rough and tough mask they put out, right? That was something any perceptive person would see. And he didn’t have to like someone to believe in their goodness, or to notice that despite all the edginess they tried to project they actually cared a lot and had a really wonderful smile, or to notice the fineness of their facial structure or admire the slight pink of their cheeks as they laughed or the bright gold of their eyes like hot flame shining like the sun itself—
Sokka jumped. “Zuko! Hello! Um, how did you know—”
“I could see your shadow at the bottom of the door,” Zuko said bluntly. Then he tilted his head, looking a little confused. “What are you doing here?”
“Nothing!” Sokka smiled brightly, then faltered. “I mean, actually, I uh, I just wanted to check in. On you. Um.” He trailed off awkwardly.
Zuko blinked. “Oh,” he said.
“Since you seemed pretty upset earlier,” Sokka supplied helpfully. “Um. And you left earlier than everyone else. And since I probably made you uncomfortable which is why you left in the first place. Just uh, wanted to say sorry again and make sure you’re okay?”
Zuko flushed and looked down. “It wasn’t your fault,” he mumbled.
“Okay, but still.”
Zuko glanced up at him, and if Sokka didn’t know better he would’ve said that the other boy seemed shy. “Thanks for checking in,” he said quietly. “I…appreciate it.”
Sokka smiled awkwardly and rubbed the back of his neck. “Anytime,” he said. He paused. “But seriously. Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Zuko said. “Yeah, I’m fine now.”
“Right. Good.” Sokka bit his lip. “I’ll uh, leave you to sleep now, then.”
There was an awkward pause.
“Well, goodnight!” Sokka said brightly, and fled.
When all was said and done, that wasn’t technically the worst that it could’ve gone. Zuko could’ve yelled at him. Or slammed the door in his face. Or not opened the door at all. Or opened it and then decided that Sokka would best serve him as a charred black spot on the floor and burnt him to ash. Which he didn’t, so Sokka counted that as a bit of a win. And when he thought about it, he couldn’t really have expected it to go much better, right? Yeah, it was a bit awkward, but…he got his point across, and Zuko didn’t hate him.
So there. It went pretty well in the end, didn’t it?
The next day was warm, bordering on hot, and especially with the bright afternoon sun shining down after lunch, Sokka found himself paying more attention to the cool breeze than the ongoing discussion about the plans to invade the Fire Nation. Not that the plans were unimportant or boring, it was just…hot. And maybe a little bit boring. And maybe he was still thinking a little bit about Zuko. About how their conversation had gone yesterday, about the slight pink of his cheeks and the little smile Zuko had given him, about the softness of his voice. About how Zuko had been fearless at Boiling Rock and fighting the Combustion Man and every other time Sokka had seen him in action but then flinched away when Sokka had reached out last night, as if he was afraid Sokka was going to hurt him.
Okay, so maybe he was thinking a bit more than ‘a little bit’ about Zuko. And okay, yeah, Suki was right, Sokka definitely liked him. But not a lot, okay? It was just a teensy little crush. Yeah. That was it. A tiiiiny little crush that absolutely did not interfere with anything.
Apparently, his desire for temporary escape did not go unnoticed.
“Go take a break, Sokka,” Hakoda said with a smile. “You look like you’re about to fall asleep.”
“I’m not,” Sokka lied, and tried to sound indignant about it.
Hakoda shook his head. “We’ll fill you in when you get back, but you deserve a break. You’ve spent almost every waking hour helping us plan ever since we got back from Boiling Rock.”
“But,” Sokka began, and then broke off. What was he really arguing for, anyway? Another few hours of poring over the same maps and trying not to fall asleep? “Okay,” he said. “Fine. Thanks, Dad.”
He stepped out from under the stifling overhang and let out a satisfied sigh as the breeze swept around him. Yes. Much better out here indeed. He could hear the birds chirping where they flitted around the cliffside, and there was a faint rush of water far down below where a small waterfall tumbled into a river in the canyon floor. It was a beautiful place, really. Almost as beautiful as—
“Hello, Zuko!” Sokka said brightly. “Fancy seeing you out here!”
“I thought you were working on plans with your father?” Zuko asked, looking equally surprised.
“I was,” Sokka said, a little sheepishly. “But I was starting to fall asleep, so my dad figured it best if I take a break.”
“Oh. Makes sense.”
“So what are you out here for? Just enjoying the breeze?”
Zuko shrugged. “I was going to practice.”
“Practice…firebending? Sword skills?”
Zuko cracked a smile. “Sword skills,” he said, patting the hilts of the twin swords resting in their sheaths at his side.
Ah, right, Sokka should’ve been able to figure that out on his own. “By yourself?” he asked tentatively, not entirely sure Zuko would want him to crash a training session especially after how Zuko had reacted to him yesterday, even if he had said that it wasn’t Sokka’s fault.
Zuko shrugged again, a tinge of pink on his cheeks, and Sokka felt a smile tugging at his mouth at the sight before he realized he was staring and looked away quickly.
“I guess you can come if you want,” Zuko said. “If you’re not busy planning, I mean. Or busy taking, um, a break.”
Sokka brightened. “I’m not busy! Let me go get my sword, I’ll be right back!”
Zuko was still waiting for him by the time he returned with his sword in hand, and Sokka followed the other boy down a path hewn into the cliffside. It was windy and rugged, but while it was narrow and close to the edge, the ground beneath their feet was stable. Even airbenders liked having solid ground to walk on, Sokka supposed, especially when the alternative was a several-hundred-foot drop to the river below.
The path wove a little up and down, but overall it seemed like they were descending. Sokka followed Zuko for what was probably the good part of half an hour until they reached a clearing looking out over the river below. The sound of water was louder here, and though the clearing opened to the west, it was still sheltered from the high sun by the rest of the cliff looming up above them. Small shrubs and wildflowers grew in the crevices between the rock, and some even clung bravely to the sides of the cliff above and around them.
“I found this place the first time I was here,” Zuko explained, when Sokka looked around in wonder. “With my uncle. We’d stayed here for a few days looking for the Avatar. Um. Back before I joined you, obviously.”
“It’s beautiful,” Sokka said, walking over to the edge and looking down at the canyon. “And look, moon peaches! And berries! That must be where Dad and Haru found all the fruit yesterday.”
“Must be,” Zuko agreed. He paused, hefting his twin blades. “So, uh, you still need some time to take in the view or are you ready to spar?”
Sokka turned to face him, a devilish light in his eyes. “Definitely ready to spar.”
Zuko might once have been able to beat Sokka no problem, but Sokka had trained with Master Piandao now and he was determined to make the old swordsman proud by not being taken down immediately. He deflected the other boy’s first lunge and parried the second before striking at Zuko’s left side, temporarily exposed.
But Zuko was good, too. He spun quickly out of the way and Sokka’s blade met empty air, and before Sokka could regain his balance, he was knocked forward with the butt of one of Zuko’s swords and went sprawling.
Okay. So the fire prince was faster and more agile than he’d anticipated.
Sokka could work with that.
He rolled out of the way of a blade that stuck into the dirt where his head had just been, springing to his feet and attacking. If Zuko was fast, he’d just have to be faster. And stronger. And probably use his surroundings to his advantage too, because Zuko was like, solid muscle and had also been probably training with masters from a young age and Sokka didn’t think he could keep up with that for very long.
Loose dirt should do the trick. It had worked on Piandao, hadn’t it?
They sparred for a long time, until sweat was running in rivulets down their faces and the sun was peeking over the top edge of the cliff to shine into the clearing. Sokka managed to knock one of Zuko’s swords out of his hands thanks to his loose dirt trick (“take that, Zuko!”), and then it was one blade each, flashing in the sun and ringing through the canyon as metal met and clashed. Then Sokka’s grip slipped, the hilt of his sword slick with sweat, and before he knew it, the sword was clattering away on the ground and he wasn’t far behind.
“Okay,” Sokka huffed, flopped down on his back. “You win.”
“You gave a good fight though,” Zuko said breathlessly, flopping down nearby. “Even if you cheated a bit.”
“What—I didn’t cheat!” Sokka exclaimed. “I used my surroundings to my own advantage. That’s not cheating, that’s brilliance!”
Zuko let out a huff, and it took Sokka a moment to realize that it was a laugh. “I’m kidding.”
Unable to come up with a witty response in time, Sokka stuck his tongue out at him, and Zuko laughed again.
“You should fix your grip, though,” Zuko said after a pause. “That’s why you lost. Well, I guess it was also because of my superior swordsmanship, but you would’ve held out longer with a better grip.”
“I know, I know. The wrapping came a bit undone, and I haven’t had time to redo it yet.”
“You mean you forgot,” Zuko said.
Sokka stuck his tongue out at him again.
They lay there in silence for another few minutes, letting heart rates come back down to normal, letting the heat dissipate from their bodies, letting fatigue slip from their muscles.
Presently, Zuko spoke. “Don’t you have planning to get back to?”
“Huh? Oh, you mean with my dad?” Sokka shrugged. “That can wait. He said I deserved a break, and don’t get me wrong, I know the war isn’t going to wait for me to be done taking my break, but…I’m sure my dad and the others can handle one day without me.” He glanced over at the other boy cautiously. “And…this is fun.”
Zuko looked at him, and Sokka thought he saw a flicker of surprise pass over the other boy’s face. But he didn’t say it. “I’m glad,” Zuko said instead, and then he stood and walked over to the edge. He stood there for a long time unmoving, not even seeming to be looking at anything in particular, and then he sat down with his feet dangling over the ledge.
Sokka pushed himself up on his elbows, looking after him curiously. Every time he thought he’d gotten to know Zuko a little bit better, he was reminded that there was so much he still didn’t know. Every time he thought maybe Zuko had opened up to him a bit more, there was another wall waiting behind the door. And Sokka supposed it shouldn’t have been surprising that there were things Zuko hadn’t told them, and he knew that he was a fair bit more outgoing and sociable than the other boy, but he wanted…
What did he want, exactly? Closeness? Friendship? Trust? (A relationship? Something traitorous in the back of his head suggested.)
He stood, following Zuko over to the lip of the clearing. “Whatcha looking at?” he asked, trying to keep his voice light and casual.
“Um. The sky, I guess,” Zuko said. “The clouds. They’re…fluffy.”
Sokka huffed a laugh and sat down on Zuko’s left. “Yeah,” he said. “Like on the day you came with me to Boiling Rock.” He glanced at Zuko out of the corner of his eye. “And like your hair,” he added, on a sudden rush of courage.
Or maybe it was a rush of stupidity, based on the look of shock and indignation that Zuko gave him which a few weeks ago he was sure would’ve foretold his immediate annihilation. But Sokka laughed, and then the other boy’s features relaxed into a grin, softened even more by a faint dust of pink on his cheeks, and Sokka’s heart did something funny.
Oh, spirits. Sokka was gone for this boy.
“I…had fun, too,” Zuko said after a pause. “Thanks.”
“You don’t have to thank me for making things fun,” Sokka said, trying to keep his voice level despite the sudden double-time of his heartbeat. “It’s a special talent. And I’m a busy man, but I’m sure I can make time to spar again tomorrow if you want?”
“Oh.” Zuko blinked. “I’d like that.”
They sat in silence for a while. Sokka looked out deliberately across the canyon so he could better prevent himself from staring at the boy next to him; there was a faint mist rising from the waterfall not far away, but if he squinted, he thought he could see trees clinging onto the cliffs on the other side. Presently, a light breeze swept in and Sokka let out a breath of relief, letting the cool air and the setting sun dry the sweat on his skin.
“We should probably head back,” Zuko said, as the sun began to slip further down in the sky.
“Yeah, you’re probably right.” Sokka stood, about to reach out a hand to help Zuko up, but then he hesitated. Zuko hadn’t exactly reacted super well the last time Sokka had reached out to him, so even if the prince had said that it wasn’t his fault…maybe it was better to keep a bit more physical distance.
He took a step back, ran a hand over the back of his neck awkwardly. “Um. Just, uh, let me know if you ever, like, need more space or anything,” he said, unable to fully meet Zuko’s gaze. “You’re with us now, and the rest of us are used to spending a lot of time together. And I know I especially can get kinda touchy and clingy sometimes. But we’ve all got different boundaries, and I don’t want to cross yours again.”
Zuko looked a bit confused for a moment, and then his expression cleared. “Yeah,” he said quietly. He stood and dusted himself off, and they picked up their swords and headed back.
They went back again to spar the next day, and the next. Having repaired the grip of his sword as Zuko suggested, Sokka indeed held his own against Zuko for a bit longer than the first time, and Zuko seemed more relaxed around him, too. There were more smiles, more laughs—even a couple jokes that were actually really funny, which was pretty impressive by Sokka’s brilliant standards.
“So does most of Fire Nation know how to use dual broadswords, or is that just a Zuko thing?” Sokka asked, as they arrived at the clearing on the third day.
“I wouldn’t say it’s just me,” Zuko said. “Most of the Fire Nation army has been trained in various types of weaponry, including dual broadswords. But I think benders usually default to just firebending.”
“Why, is bending easier?”
Zuko shook his head. “Not necessarily, I think it’s just what they’re usually most comfortable with because it’s what they learn first. And it can be a lot more powerful and far-ranging, as I’m sure you know from my sister. She happens to be a bending prodigy. Me, on the other hand…it never came easy to me. I liked swords better for a long time.”
“You’re damn good at both now, though,” Sokka said with a grin.
“Hard work,” Zuko shrugged. He glanced at Sokka. “Do you want me to teach you?”
“The swords, you mean?” Sokka blinked. “Wow, yeah. I’d like that, actually.”
“It’s not that much different than what you’re already doing with one blade,” Zuko said, handing Sokka his blades hilt-first and tapping Sokka’s wrist to fix the angle of his grip. “You want to keep a solid stance and strong connection with the ground so you don’t get off-balance. It’s a fast, reactive style, but even when you jump and turn, you want to know where your center of gravity is. And the biggest mistake a lot of people make is to see them as two separate swords. They’re twin blades for a reason; two halves that make a whole. One is just an extension of the other.” He stepped back. “Try a few moves and see how they feel.”
The blades were lighter than Sokka expected, probably because they were each made specifically to wield with one hand, and he wasn’t quite used to how swiftly they cut through the air. But they were well-balanced and responsive, and there was definitely something to say about having two deadly sharp edges in hand instead of just one.
Well, he supposed his own trusty sword had two sharp edges, but it was still just one sword.
“Keep your stance a little wider,” Zuko said. “And stand a little more on the balls of your feet. You have two weapons that you should be using to react with now; never forget that. If you’re using one hand constantly just to block attacks, you’re better off with a shield.”
“Oh, I get it,” Sokka said with a grin. “Just like when I’m using my battle club and boomerang! This should be easy!”
The dual blades were not easy.
By the end of the hour, Sokka’s usually-not-sword-arm was sore and tired, and his head was swimming from all the tips Zuko had given him.
“Phew!” he exclaimed, pausing to catch his breath. “I’ll hand it to you, these swords are harder than they look. Now how about you have a go at my boomerang? One lesson for another, if you will.”
Zuko looked dubious. “I’ve never even held a boomerang before.”
“That’s okay, neither did I before I did it the first time! Here.” Sokka pulled it out from where it was strapped to his back and handed it to the other boy. “Hold this end of it. The other end is the leading end. Also, uh, I never really officially learned from anyone, so I suppose there’s probably other ways to hold it, but I hold it like this.”
Frowning a bit, Zuko held up the boomerang questioningly.
“Almost! Just a little closer to the end. Yeah. Now when you throw it, think about spinning it more than you think about throwing it really far. Kind of like what you said about your swords earlier; it’s not about the strength, but more about the speed of the strike. And don’t throw boomerang yet, but when you do go to throw it, you don’t want to be too low. No, not that high either, like this,” Sokka said, stepping forward and adjusting Zuko’s arm. “And there’s a lot to think about with wind direction and wind speed and everything, but let’s say you’re facing this specific breeze or one of similar strength,” Sokka continued, turning him to face the slight breeze directly, “you’re probably going to want to release it in right about this direction.” He touched Zuko’s wrist to guide his arm. “It’s just a flick. Send it off, and it’ll come right back to you.”
Zuko did not reply. Sokka was about to suggest that he give it a throw when he realized just how close he was to the other boy. Right next to him, in fact. With one hand that had somehow sometime slipped down to his waist and the other still resting gently on his right wrist.
Sokka gulped. He stared at Zuko, who was staring back at him with his unburnt eye wide, breathing a little fast, his face a delicate shade of pink. Sokka could see the roughness of the scar, pink and shiny and webbed, and he could see the rapid pulse in the other boy’s neck.
“Um.” Sokka cleared his throat, stepped back, let his arms drop quickly and firmly to his sides. “So uh, your form looks great! Yeah. Perfect. Go ahead and give it a throw.”
It took Zuko a few moments to reply. “You sure it’ll come back and not like, fall off the cliff or something?” he asked uncertainly, face still a little pink.
“Yeah!” Sokka gave him his most winning, most confident smile, even though he couldn’t deny that the thought of losing boomerang was particularly painful. “You got this. Once you know the form, which you do because I instructed you on it, the most important thing is believing you can do it.”
Zuko hesitated, took a deep breath, and threw. The boomerang sailed out of his hand, spinning rapidly until it was a speck in the distance…and then the speck grew larger and larger as it came flying back.
“See! I told you,” Sokka exclaimed as Zuko caught the boomerang, looking rather surprised.
“Huh,” Zuko said. “Still, maybe it’s better if we find somewhere a little flatter to practice my boomerang throwing. You know, in case I mess up and throw it into the river.” He handed the boomerang back to Sokka, but Sokka thought he looked a little pleased with himself.
“We can find somewhere like that tomorrow,” Sokka said. “Or the next day. Whenever. Well, I guess not literally whenever, since we’re not staying here forever, but you know what I mean.” He bit his lip awkwardly, looked down at his feet. “Also, I’m uh, I’m sorry.”
“For getting into your space again. I didn’t mean to freak you out or offend you or anything, I know I shouldn’t have crossed the line like that. It won’t happen again.”
“Oh.” Zuko blinked. “I thought you were going to say something else.”
“I dunno. I thought you were planning invasion stuff with your father? I can’t…I feel bad taking you away from your duties all the time. I thought you were going to say we couldn’t do this as often.”
“Oh. Right.” Sokka rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. “Technically, yes, I’m supposed to be planning. But I have to be good at fighting too, right? We all do. And what we’re doing here is useful! We’re practicing fighting and learning things that make us more versatile. You never know when you’re going to need to throw a boomerang at someone!” He paused. “And you do know I wouldn’t be coming out here with you unless I actually liked this, right? There have been plenty of opportunities for me to back out.”
Zuko stared at him for a moment, and then looked down with a small smile. “I guess, yeah,” he said quietly.
There was a moment of silence. Sokka did feel a little bad about leaving the planning to the adults when he was supposed to be the ideas guy, and he knew that there was quite literally a war that was still being fought and which needed his attention, but…he liked spending time with Zuko. He liked sparring with him. He liked talking with him. Spirits, Sokka liked him. And it wasn’t that bad to be a little bit selfish once in a while, right? Especially if he was still doing something productive?
Zuko’s voice pulled Sokka out of his thoughts, and he realized he’d been staring.
“Whew, it’s hot in here, isn’t it?” he blurted out, fleeing to the edge of the clearing and sitting down with his feet over the abyss, praying fervently that Zuko had not noticed his incredibly deep blush that was currently making him feel like his face was on fire. “Better catch some of this nice breeze before I overheat! Ahh, yes, much better over here.” He stretched and sighed, letting himself flop onto his back. “You coming over?”
There were a few beats of silence, during which he thought Zuko would actually just stand where Sokka had left him for the rest of the day, but then he heard light footsteps behind him and a moment later, Zuko sat down. Sokka glanced at the other boy, but Zuko didn’t speak, so neither did he.
It had become a choreography of sorts, Sokka thought, even though it had only been a few days. He and Zuko would come to the clearing, train, and then, when they were done with training, sit down at the edge of the clearing with their feet dangling off to let the breeze cool them down. As before, Sokka was on the left, Zuko was on the right, and the birds flitting around in the canyon carried on singing in front of them. Sometimes they spoke; sometimes they didn’t, but what mattered (to Sokka at least) was that they were spending time in each other’s company, and it was nice. Really nice.
“The scar is from my father,” Zuko said suddenly, breaking their silence.
Sokka glanced at the other boy. “Oh,” he said, trying to keep his voice neutral despite the surprise of the abrupt statement. “I thought it was an accident or something.”
Zuko clenched his jaw. “No. I got it when I was banished. From an agni kai. Which I lost, obviously.”
Sokka wasn’t entirely sure where this conversation was going or why Zuko had suddenly started talking about his scar, but he’d go with it. “…I’m guessing that’s some kind of traditional duel?”
“Yeah.” Zuko sounded subdued. “For firebenders, at least. The agni kai was against my father.” He looked down at his feet, still dangling over the ledge and the abyss below. “He said it was to teach me respect after I accidentally spoke out against him. But he didn’t just burn me, it was the way he did it. He…did it with his hand. Against my face. Made it just about as personal as it could be. And I was naïve enough to think he wouldn’t actually do it, all the way until the moment he lit my face on fire.”
Sokka looked up, eyes widening. Now that he looked more carefully, the scar did vaguely resemble the shape of a hand. Especially if said hand was shooting flames.
“So you reaching out to me…it just caught me off-guard the other night, that’s all,” Zuko said. “Nothing against you personally. Since you seem to be pretty worried that it is.”
Ohhh. So that was what this was about.
Sokka swallowed, tried to think of something to say. “Sorry I freaked you out anyway” is what he ended up settling on, which, yeah, of course he was sorry for spooking the former Fire Nation prince by doing something that definitely brought back very bad very scary traumatic memories, but which also sounded like a very extremely meh apology and response, especially when Zuko was here trying to make him feel better about doing something that had probably completely freaked Zuko out. He winced. “And uh, that sucks. To have to have gone through that,” he added. He winced again; another impressively poor attempt at sympathy.
“It’s fine,” Zuko said simply. “It’s in the past.”
Sokka hesitated. He didn’t want to make Zuko talk, but…talking was supposed to help, right? It was like the whole thing Suki once told him where talking things out helped the process of healing. And Suki was pretty much never wrong.
“Still,” Sokka said, a little cautiously. “Just because something is in the past doesn’t mean that it can’t still affect us, right? I know you weren’t just startled that night. I know it was more than that. And even if you say it wasn’t anything to do with me, I just...I’m sorry for what you went through that caused that. And for what your father did to you.”
“It wasn’t like I was his favorite child to begin with, anyway,” Zuko said wryly. “Or even any child to him at all. That was always Azula. Naturally gifted in firebending, ambitious and ruthless like the Fire Lords before her…I was always a disappointment. Too soft. Too weak. Ozai wanted me dead from pretty much the moment I was born, so I guess it was only a matter of time before this happened.”
“You’re not weak,” Sokka said quietly, and he meant it.
“Maybe,” Zuko said with a shrug, still looking down at his feet, and now that he was talking, he was being remarkably open. “But despite everything he put me through, despite the way he treated me for as long as I can remember, all I ever wanted was to be worthy to him, you know? To be needed and wanted. To be loved by the man who was supposed to provide that for me—he was my father, after all. But I guess there isn’t really a contract you have to sign before you have kids. There’s nothing preventing anyone from dueling a thirteen-year-old child and banishing him until he completes a fool’s quest.” He huffed a laugh.
“You mean until you capture the Avatar,” Sokka said with a frown. “But when he banished you, everyone knew the Avatar had been missing for a hundred years. Everyone thought he was dead.” Anger tightened his grip on the lip of the ledge. “Your father sent you on a quest that he didn’t think you had any hope of achieving.”
“As good as permanent banishment, for all he knew,” Zuko said with another shrug. “And like I said, he never thought of me as his son, even before he banished me. But I had to hold onto something, so capturing the Avatar…that became everything to me. Because I wanted to belong again. I wanted to be welcomed back home. I wanted to have a home again. I wanted everything that my father’s order had taken away from me, including what I perceived to be my honor, which in the end of course only meant my father’s love. And my father’s rejection, losing everything…it consumed me.”
Sokka hesitated, gave Zuko a light nudge. “Hey, but you turned out alright in the end, right? You’re here with us now. You and Aang relearned firebending the proper way. And you helped get my dad and Suki out of prison.” It was far less than what he meant to say and far less than he felt Zuko deserved for having the guts to stand up to Ozai like that, but he couldn’t come up with the words and it didn’t seem like the right time for joking around. Not that there were any jokes he could really make about this, because what kind of messed up guy would deliberately burn his kid? What kind of father would banish a thirteen-year-old child and send him out in the world alone—well, not exactly alone, given that Iroh had been with him, but that was beside the point.
“Yeah,” Zuko murmured. “Better than Azula, at least, though that’s not saying much.” He sighed, looked up at the sky. “Anyway, this is all just a long-winded way of getting to the point: I know better than to look up to my father now. I know he’s a terrible person and I know I don’t need his validation anymore. I’m free of him. If only I’d realized that a little sooner than I did, maybe I’d have done a bit less harm to the world. To you.” He glanced at Sokka, and there was a faint blush that reddened his cheeks as he looked away. “Um. Sorry to burden you with this. I didn’t mean to unload everything on you.”
“Yeah, this isn’t exactly the conversation I expected to have when we came out here,” Sokka mused. “But I’m happy to listen,” he added quickly, seeing the other boy’s cheeks flush darker. “Really. And if you’d care for some advice…well, kind of like I said before about the past. Just because you’ve realized you don’t need your dad’s approval anymore doesn’t mean that you’re not still affected by what he did to you so like…don’t expect to just be normal now, okay?”
“Um.” Zuko blinked. “…Thanks?”
“Wait, that didn’t come out right,” Sokka said, wincing again. “But you know what I mean, healing isn’t linear and all. So uh, be kind to yourself and everything, yeah?”
“Oh,” Zuko said, blushing, if possible, even harder. “Yeah. Thanks.” He paused, gave Sokka a nudge. “You too. With the being kind to yourself. Not everything is your fault, you know. And you don’t have to be so paranoid about being in my space, other than that one time that night I really didn’t mind.” Then he broke of abruptly, blinking in surprise as if he hadn’t meant to say that last part out loud.
It took several moments for Sokka’s brain to register what Zuko had just said. “Oh,” Sokka said, also blushing heavily and unable to think of anything else to say. Because first of all, he was hardly a sappy guy, and he figured emotional intelligence was something quite important if Suki said it was (which she had, multiple times) but he didn’t figure himself particularly gifted or comfortable in that department. Second of all, being in a conversation with the fricking prince of the Fire Nation about his feelings and father-induced childhood trauma was not a situation he thought he would ever be in, especially so soon after Zuko joined their little gang, so it was still a tad awkward even if he’d gotten closer to the other boy recently and even if the prince was rather cute, and third of all, said prince was in fact very extremely cute and really rather sweet and sensitive when he wanted to be (not that he’d ever tell Zuko to his face) and Sokka was actually perhaps a little bit extremely infatuated with him.
“I think,” Zuko began, a little hesitantly and seemingly oblivious to the fact that Sokka’s brain had temporarily short-circuited, “I think I am getting better now that I’m with you. All you guys, I mean. You…accepted me when my family didn’t. I know Katara is still a little suspicious—”
“She’s suspicious of everyone,” the autopilot part of Sokka’s mouth said, which was a lie, but that wasn’t the point.
Zuko cracked a smile. “What I mean is that you’ve showed me that I’m more than what my father says I am or makes me out to be. More than what my scar tells people I am. I know it scares people who don’t know me sometimes, makes them think I’m someone I’m not.”
“It doesn’t make you ugly,” Sokka blurted out completely without thinking again because he was still a little caught up on the fact that Zuko had said that he didn’t mind having Sokka in his space, and he internally cursed himself for letting that be the first thing out of his mouth once his brain had reclaimed its most minimal bits of control.
Sokka flushed and tried very hard and unsuccessfully to keep his voice casual. “Nothing! What were you saying?”
Zuko stared at him for a few seconds longer, then looked back out across the canyon. “I’m not usually even that bothered by my scar anymore. I’ve gotten to be proud of it, actually, because it reminds me of what I survived and what I’m fighting for now, with you and Aang and everyone else. And that makes me feel like I’ve moved on from everything. But sometimes the memories still get the better of me, especially if I’m not paying attention. I can’t help it. And I hate flinching away as if I’m still scared because I’m done being scared. I’m done letting my father affect my life like this and I hate that I can’t ignore all the reminders of what he did—”
“Hey,” Sokka interrupted. “What did I just say about being kind to yourself about healing?”
He’d meant it to be a light reminder, but Zuko stopped and looked at him, his unburnt eye wide with surprise. “Right,” he said after a moment. He swallowed; Sokka couldn’t help but watch the movement of his throat. “That’s uh…new, you know. I’ve gotta…gotta work on that. Thanks, Sokka.”
“Hey,” Sokka said again, but more gently this time, and suddenly his chest ached because had no one ever told this boy that it was okay not to be strong and perfect all the time? That it was okay to forgive yourself? Well, he supposed Iroh probably had at some point, but clearly there was still a lot to be done before Zuko truly believed it. “You gotta be patient with yourself is what you gotta do,” Sokka said. “That’s what I meant when I said healing isn’t linear. You’re going to flinch from time to time. You’re going to remember things that you don’t want to and sometimes you’re going to react to things in a way that no one understands—believe me, I know. The same thing happens with me and memories of my mom. But that’s okay. You have years of stuff to unlearn; that’s not gonna happen in a day.”
Zuko’s eyes were still wide. He stared at Sokka for another few moments, and then he blinked and looked out across the canyon. “You know a lot more than you let on, Sokka,” he said.
Sokka quirked his mouth in a grin. “I know, right?” But his voice was a little unsteady, a little soft, because Suki had been more than right, he was absolutely whipped for Zuko. And right now he was staring into the bright gold of Zuko’s eyes and they were reflecting the sun that was staring to set on the other side of the canyon and Sokka was starting to get lost in their brilliance. He reached out hesitantly, not even particularly sure of what he was doing until he saw his right hand hovering over Zuko’s left cheek. He stopped, mouth slightly open, not sure what it was exactly that he was asking.
Slowly, Zuko turned to face him. “You can touch it,” he said quietly. “I trust you.”
Sokka let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. Trembling a little bit, he reached forward until his fingertips were resting on the other boy’s cheek. Zuko shivered when Sokka touched him, eyes fluttering shut. Sokka swallowed on a dry throat, letting his fingers drift, feeling the scarred and puckered skin around Zuko’s eye; his skin was warm under Sokka’s touch, almost hot, even though it had to be dead layers deep and Sokka wasn’t sure if there was any feeling left there. He reached out even further until Zuko’s cheek was resting in his palm, and he felt the heat spread from his fingers up his arm into his shoulder and the rest of his body, and he didn’t even realize his thumb was caressing the ridge of other boy’s cheek until Zuko leaned into him and whoa, he was not expecting that, he was not expecting the prince to lean into his hand like someone touch-starved, with something akin to desperation but also something almost like affection—
Zuko sensed it. He stiffened, drew back, and golden eyes flashed briefly again until he looked away. “I’m sorry,” he said roughly. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable—”
“You didn’t,” Sokka said, and Zuko looked up at him in surprise. There was a flush to the prince’s cheeks. “You didn’t make me uncomfortable,” Sokka repeated. “Surprised, that’s all.” He took a breath, lifted his hand hesitantly again, touched the scar when Zuko didn’t draw away. “Actually, I think you’re really cute,” he said, without thinking, without even realizing what he said at first.
There was a very long, very quiet pause, during which Sokka briefly contemplated running for his life because he was sure Zuko was going to murder him.
“I’m not cute,” Zuko said finally, but he covered Sokka’s hand with his own when Sokka made to pull away, and Sokka could feel the heat of his blush in his palm.
Sokka took a risk. “Yeah, you are,” he said.
Zuko frowned, but to Sokka’s surprise and relief, there was no real heat in his expression. “If you say so,” he mumbled.
Sokka’s heart did something funny and he was pretty sure this is when he started to forget to breathe. He wasn’t reading this wrong, was he? Zuko liked him. Zuko like liked him. There couldn’t be any other reason for this, right? Why else would Zuko say he didn’t mind Sokka being in his space? Why else would Zuko agree that he was cute when Sokka was pretty sure he would’ve burnt anyone else to a crisp who dared call him that? Why else would Zuko literally want Sokka to hold his face in his palm?
“I like you,” Sokka said, a little unsteady. “A lot, I think.”
Zuko just stared at him. He looked a tad stunned.
“And I think it’s been for a while,” Sokka said, a little lightheaded from staring into Zuko’s eyes for so long without really breathing properly. “I was just too dumb to realize before. Guess I’m not as brilliant as I call myself, huh?”
Sokka swallowed, suddenly unsure, suddenly worried that he’d read this wrong and Zuko did not like him at all. “Is that…is that okay? The me liking you part, I mean, not the me being dumb part.”
Zuko blinked once, slowly, took a shuddering breath. “Sokka,” he said quietly, a bit uncertainly, a bit hopefully. “Can I…can I kiss you?”
“Oh,” Sokka whispered. Definitely not wrong. “I mean, yeah. Yeah, we can definitely kiss.”
Sokka had kissed his fair share of girls—he was a hot young stud, after all—but he’d never kissed a boy before. And this…this was nice. More than nice, actually. Zuko was hot, in both the metaphorical and literal sense probably because he was a firebenders and having a mega-hot body temperature was probably their thing or whatever, and kissing him was a bit like being burned because of that, but his lips were soft and his tongue was wicked and Sokka in fact liked this very much. And this was not at all what he expected when he came out here with Zuko to spar, and holding the very scary very powerful prince of the Fire Nation in his arms was not at all what he expected when he’d first seen said prince for the first time in all his terrifying bald-headed fury not actually that long ago when he’d attacked the Southern Water Tribe looking for Aang, but this was fine. Very fine. As crazy as it sounded, he was kissing Zuko and he never wanted to stop.
Apparently, this same thought process did not apply for Zuko.
“Sokka,” he said, drawing back abruptly. “What about Suki?”
Sokka’s head was still swimming, and it took enormous effort to form a coherent response. “We’re not dating. Now get back here,” he said.
“Sokka, wait,” Zuko said, and that was enough to make Sokka pull back. The prince’s face was flushed, partly from kissing, partly from embarrassment, and there was a bit of uncertainty in his voice when he spoke. “What about…what about girls?”
Sokka looked at him in confusion. “I mean I like ‘em, if that’s what you’re asking,” he said. “But you’re not a girl and I like you, don’t I?”
There was a very long silence.
“I’m not dating Mai anymore, either,” Zuko said finally.
Sokka pursed his lips thoughtfully. “I guess I should’ve asked you that before we kissed,” he said. Zuko laughed at that; it was quiet, but it was pure, bright, and joyful, and it took Sokka’s breath away. “So we’re dating now?” he asked, when he was able to speak.
Zuko hesitated. “Um—”
“I mean, do you want to be dating now? Because I’ll only say it if you want to be.”
Zuko glanced at him, looked down, looked back up with a shy smile. “Yes,” he said quietly.
“That settles it, then!” Sokka crowed. “We’re dating!” And he kissed Zuko again, because, well, he couldn’t really resist it. And if Zuko ended up in Sokka’s lap running his fingers through his hair that had somehow come loose of its ponytail, and if Sokka’s hands started wandering a little bit onto hot bare skin, Sokka thought that was more than fine and would definitely happen again in the near future.
“How are Katara and your father going to react when they find out?” Zuko asked, a good while later as they packed their blades and Sokka’s boomerang and started heading back to the others.
Sokka shrugged. “That’s a good question,” he said. “But you know what? That’s a problem for later. And assuming you’re on board, I’m not gonna let the fear of getting soaked by my sister or the fear of my father’s Eyebrow of Doom prevent me from sitting in your lap at dinner tonight.”
And he didn’t.