At first, Sokka dismisses it.
He notices, they all do, that Katara feeds Zuko less. A lot less. He notices that Zuko’s portions are often burnt and lacking any care, so even the little bit he does get is barely salvageable.
Sokka notices, but he doesn’t care.
‘It’s the least he deserves,’ Sokka thinks vindictively as Zuko meekly accepts his meager portion, ‘He should be lucky that he gets anything at all.’
Even as Toph scowls and Aang purses his lip, no one says a word.
And if Sokka hears Jerkbender’s stomach growl ferociously every night as he walks to his room, he doesn’t pay it any mind.
He and the others had made due with eating far less, after all. It’d just take Princey’s spoiled, royal stomach some time to adjust.
Call it character building.
Sokka starts to pay a little more attention after Zuko and Aang return from their field trip.
Sokka’s not one for comparing when it comes to Zuko. After all, Sokka was smarter, better-looking, funnier,and far more charismatic; but the one thing that Sokka will admit that Zuko has on him is mass. The Firebender was built like a freaking tank.
And when he’d first come to them, the way his clothes fit, baggy and flowing enough to show an (admittedly) impressive amount of definition, had reflected this.
Now… they didn't.
It wouldn’t be obvious if you weren't paying close attention, but Sokka, who’d taken a page out of Katara's book, who watches Zuko like a Hawk whenever he dares to be in their presence, definitely notices.
Notices how loose sleeves seem even looser.
Notices how starkly a collarbone sticks out against a wide collar.
And Sokka pays attention because it’s a mystery he can’t quite crack.
Sokka doesn’t say anything, doesn’t approach Zuko. He’s curious, but that doesn’t mean that he cares.
Still, it doesn’t make sense. People don't lose weight that quickly.
Yet as Zuko’s prominent cheekbones start to pull at waxy skin suddenly Sokka isn’t so sure anymore.
Sokka was always watching Zuko, but now….
He watches him a little more closely.
Sokka notices that the pieces start to fall into place during their time together on the War Balloon.
There’s a thin layer of peace between them, bolstered by Zuko’s genuine, albeit clumsy, attempts to connect and Sokka's growing fondness for the awkward firebender.
Sokka’s not really much of an asset on the way there. ( He comforts himself with the knowledge that he’ll be doing most of the brain work when they arrive) and thus he has plenty of time to sit and observe in a more contained setting.
What he sees… unsettles him.
Zuko, who’d always been pale, looks near translucent in the blazing afternoon sun. There’s a fine sheen of sweat against his skin, a weariness in his movements that seems to grow with every flame he feeds into the furnace. He falls asleep in seconds when they shift out for watch.
And perhaps most alarming of all, when it’s Zuko’s turn to stand watch, Sokka can feel every bone in his shoulder when he goes to rouse him. He has plenty of time to count in the ten minutes it takes for Zuko to stir.
Clues start to connect, the mystery becomes clearer and with that a sick, twisted feeling begins to grow in Sokka’s stomach.
But then they’re at the Boiling Rock and all of Sokka’s focus shifts to getting them in and getting them back out.
Sokka doesn’t put it all together until they’re well into the rescue operation.
Zuko’s now part of the general prison populace and Sokka’s attention is split halfway between worrying about his cover being blown,worrying about getting Suki out , and making sure this whole operation doesn’t blow up in their faces.
That’s probably why he doesn't notice the other Guard coming up until he's being hoisted up by his collar.
“New Guards help the cook serve the rations.” Is his only explanation as he whisked towards the Kitchens. His fellow Guard gives him a shit-eating grin before shoving an apron into his hands.
“Good luck newbie.”
The cook is a dour-faced hulk of a man who spoons out food with the force and strength of a raging tigerdillo. Sokka is only slightly terrified of him.
The next hour is spent handing trays to the cook so he can dole out food, and honestly after the constant worry of planning an escape from the most well-guarded Prison in the nation, Sokka welcomes the mindless monotony.
That is until the second wave of prisoners comes in and Sokka notices something that breaks him out of his daze.
“The fuck you staring at newbie? ” The Cook growls, as if Sokka’s reaction is weird. As if no one would stare at someone shoveling a literal mountain of food onto a lunch tray. Suddenly the Cook’s giant muscles make a little more sense.
“Why are you putting so much food on that tray?” At least Sokka thinks he’s putting it on a tray, he can barely see it under all that food. “Are these guys the Wardens favorites of something?”
The look the Cook shoots at him is particularly nasty.
“The Warden ain't got no favorites. Now hand me another tray.”
“The other Prisoners didn't get that much food.”
“That’s cause they weren’t firebenders, dumbass.”
“What does being a firebender have to do with anything?”
Sokka jumps as the cooks slam his ladle against the table. “Look brat, I’ve got too many fucking mouths to feed to deal with your shit. Joke in the lounge with the other fuckers when you're off the clock, cause I don't tolerate that shit in my kitchen. Now, do your job and hand me the fucking trays!”
Normally, in the face of such rage coming from such a hulk of a man, Sokka would listen to his self preservation instincts and let it go. But that same sick feeling he’d felt before, on the war balloon, is bubbling in the pit of his stomach.
He can't let it go.
“Do firebenders … have to eat more or something?”
Sokka’s question is genuine enough that the cook actually doesn’t get mad. Instead, he turns to Sokka, astonishment plain on his face.
“Of fucking course. That’s a common fucking fact.” the cook puts down his ladle and turns to face him fully, “Did you seriously not know that? How in the fuck……. did you not know that?”
Sokka pieces together his story in the few seconds it takes for the disbelief in the Cook’s eyes to shift into suspicion.
“I’m from a pretty small farming town in the colonies. W-we didn't have any firebenders.”
Suspicion gives way to exasperated annoyance. The cook rolls his eyes and mutters something that sounds suspiciously like “A colony brat. Should've known. They love sending them duffers here.”
Before Sokka can figure out if he’s been insulted or not, the cook sighs and shoots Sokka a disgruntled glare.
“Look, firebenders they gotta have fuel, ya see?”
Sokka doesn’t see and that must reflect in his expression because the cook lets out an aggravated huff.
“They don't teach you damn colony brats shit. Listen newbie, unlike water rats and dirt snakes, Fire Benders make their own fire,see? And fire needs fuel to burn. If they aint got enough fuel for the fire ,the fire will eat them up instead. So they gotta eat and they gotta eat alot.”
“Eat..them...up?” There are so many horrible implications behind that, Sokka can barely focus on one nightmare scenario before his mind conjures up another.
“Mmmhmm, It don’t take long at all for a firebender to die of starvation either, especially if they’re using their flames too mu- hey newbie, you good?”
Sokka can't answer the cook. His world shifts abruptly and he’s foundering, desperately trying to find hold of something to steady himself. His head spins as the pieces of the puzzle rapidly slot into place and he understands everything with perfect clarity.
The waxy, translucent skin.
The rapid weight loss.
The worrying weakness.
Sokka thinks back to the vicious satisfaction he’d felt watching Zuko pick at his tiny portion of food, trying to find an edible section.
Tui and La, he’s going to be sick.
“Hey! Don't you get sick in my fucking kitchen!”
A meaty hand close around his elbow, yanks him forcefully through the air. He’s slammed against the wall with strict instructions to put his head between his knees, and a gruesome play by play of what will happen if he vomits on Cook’s clean floors.
Sokka sits there, in that tiny dirty corner, for a long time trying to remember how to breathe.
That night, Sokka catches a glimpse of Zuko at dinner. He’s scarfing down a mountain of food with a desperate fever that takes even the other firebending inmates by surprise. When he’s done, he sets off a wave of laughter when he shyly asks for seconds.
“Teenage firebenders.” A guard near Sokka says with an indulgent chuckle. He gives Sokka’s arm a friendly nudge. “They’re like bottomless pits, am I right?”
This time Sokka’s not able to hold it in.
He’s barely able to makes it to the bathroom in time.
There hadn’t been time afterwards.
Not with seeing his father and battling that crazy Fire Princess and escaping by the very skin of their teeth.
There hadn't been time on the ride back.
Not when all he wants to do is sit at his fathers’ side and drink up the knowledge that he’s safe and whole and alive .
There hadn't been time when they landed.
Not with the tearful reunions, sheepish explanations and hasty introductions.
Now that everyone is asleep, and there’s only him and Zuko and this new budding friendship?
Now there’s time.
Zuko is in the process of stumbling to his room, his hunched form carrying a now achingly familiar weariness, when Sokka ambushes him. He grabs Zuko roughly by the wrist, tries not to think of how easily his fingers wrap entirely around it, and drags him deeper into the endless halls, where no one can hear them.
“Sokka! Wha-” Sokka pushes Zuko against the wall, his hands on either side of his head, effectively boxing him in. There’s a flash of fear, a spark of something deeper, darker, in goldenbrite eyes, but Sokka can only handle so much at one time. He focuses solely on the matter at hand.
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
Fear is quickly replaced by confusion.
“Say anything….about what?”
There’s so much that Sokka wants to address he doesn't know where to start.The weakness, the weightloss,the silence? The fact that Zuko had literally been dying in front of their eyes and hadn’t said anything ! Sokka instead settles for grabbing Zuko’s wrist, in a much gentler hold this time, and raising it to his face.
“This." He shakes Zuko (thin,skeletal,bony) wrist for good measure, “Why didn’t you say anything about this?”
Surprise is a footnote against the kaleidoscope of expressions that flashes across Zuko’s face. Sokka recognizes another flash of fear followed quickly by shame. Resignation eventually wins out.
“How did you find out?” Sokka grits his teeth against the rising tide of anger. He shouldn’t have had to find out!
“Not. The. Point. Why didn't you say anything?”
Sokka knows he should calm down. It’s not fair to Zuko, who looks so small and feeble against the hard stone wall, to bear the brunt of his anger for something Sokka should have addressed sooner. But the knowledge that they’d been subjecting Zuko to treatment worse than he’d gotten at a fucking maximum security prison, that they’d been slowly killing him and he’d blinded himself to the obvious signs that something was wrong, all in the name of petty revenge, is almost too much for Sokka to bear. The guilt is choking him. He actually thinks he might drown in it.
So lost in the tidal wave of self depreciation, Sokka almost doesn’t hear Zuko's mumbled response.
“What.. did you just say?” Because Sokka obviously heard wrong. He had to have heard wrong.
Zuko sighs tiredly, a sound almost deafening in the empty oppressive silence and leans heavily against the wall.
“I said, I… didn’t think I deserved too. I mean, I understand, I know that you guys didn't trust me and I know I deserve worse for the way I treated you all in the past, so I wasn’t really bothered with eating less. Plus,I didn't have any right to complain. All things considered it’s the least I deserve. It’s not that big a deal.”
Of all the things Zuko could have responded with (And there were many answers Sokka was expecting, “I was afraid of saying anything to your sister, I was afraid I’d eat through the rations, I just don't like your food.”) that was probably the most unexpected.
As such, his equilibrium is completely thrown off. How in the name of Tui’s Mighty Waves do you address something like that?
“Zuko, we’ve been starving you! We could have killed you!” Would have killed him is not for a virtual suicide mission. And all because Sokka hadn’t said anything. Because it didn't matter if the others had noticed. What mattered was Sokka had noticed. He’d noticed and he hadn’t said anything. He’d noticed and pushed it aside, like Zuko’s health hadn’t mattered, like his suffering was justified all for some cheap amusement. And even after all that, Zuko had joined Sokka on a suicide mission without any hesitation, had waltzed into the most notorious prison in the nation with a literal target painted on his back, had forgone any chance of escape on slim chance, and he hadn’t asked for anything in return.
And here he was brushing it off, as if it was not a big deal, as if he hadn't been literally running on fumes for who knows how long.
“I wouldn’t have let it get that far, Sokka.” Zuko's face is a picture of soft compassion, “I'm not helpless. I would have scavenged for food. I've done it before.”
“But you still wouldn’t have told anyone.”
Zuko’s silence effectively answers that question, and oh does it make Sokka want to scream. Instead, he takes a deep breath, and another and another….
“I’m going to have a talk with Katara tomorrow. AH NO!” he cuts Zuko’s retort before it even has a chance to form, “No arguing. I’m talking to Katara first thing tomorrow. No more feeding you crap or tiny portions that wouldn’t even fill up Momo.
“You don't have to do that! I can handle it.”
It takes all that Sokka has to resist grabbing Zuko by the shoulders and shaking that stubborn, resilient look off his face.
“You don't have to, Zuko! You don't have to handle anything! You deflected from your nation. You’re teaching Aang firebending. You helped save my Dad. The least we can do is make sure you’re not starving!”
“But I’ll burn through the rations!”
“Better than burning through your life!” And now Sokka is shouting and he really doesn’t care because ZUKO JUST ISN’T GETTING IT! “Look Zuko, there are some things you can’t do without becoming friends and staging the only successful prison breakout at the highest security prison in the nation is one of them. We’re friends now and friends don't let friends starve! I don't care if I have to hunt from sunup to sun down so you don’t go hungry. I’ll do it cause I’ll be damned if some Fire Nation Prison takes better care of you than us. UNDERSTAND!?”
Zuko’s face is a red beacon in the dark. Sokka really wants him to say something, because that shy, embarrassed look on his face is doing things to Sokka’s emotions. He really hoped Katara’s mother-henning wasn’t a genetic trait.
“I-I-I mean, if th-that’s what friends do.” Zuko’s not looking at him, which is good, because now that the anger is wearing off, Sokka is feeling pretty embarrassed himself because Zuko looks like Sokka just handed him the world by calling him a friend and Sweet La , Sokka has so much work to do with this guy, “I understand. Thank you Sokka.”
“As long as you understand.” Sokka says gruffly, if only to remind himself that he was a strong Warrior of the Water Tribe and strong warriors did not turn to mush after being thanked, “Now come on.”
“Come on where?”
“To my room. I have a secret stash of food under my bed. You are going to eat every last drop of it.”
“Sokka, you don't have to -”
“EVERY LAST DROP OF IT ZUKO!”
The next morning, Katara serves Zuko first, and if his bowl is filled to the brim with food, if he’s immediately served seconds and then thirds the minute said bowl is empty, well…..
Nobody says a word