Zuko wakes up sweating. It’s not uncommon—as one would expect, his body runs warm, even when it’s cold, and he wakes up in damp sheets more often than not. This is different though; his heart’s pounding, his mouth is dry, and his father’s—Ozai’s—voice keeps echoing from one ear to another.
A stain in the history books of the Fire Nation.
You were lucky to be born.
“No, no, no no no,” Zuko mumbles, sitting up and hugging his knees to his chest, putting his head between them, rocking back and forth slightly. “No, you’re okay, you’re okay, he was wrong, Zuko, he was wrong and he hurt you and–“
There’s quiet rustling, and then footsteps in his direction. Zuko thought Toph was bullshitting before, when she said offhandedly that anyone could learn to recognize patterns in people, listen to their rhythms and identify them—he won’t admit she was right, but Sokka’s solid footfalls are so easily distinguished, even when exhaustion makes him drag his feet on his way over to Zuko.
“Leave me alone.” Zuko covers his head with his arms. Not a second later does he feel Sokka sit heavily beside him, not saying anything at first. Eventually Zuko lifts his head to glare at Sokka, who blinks back at him in mock confusion.
“You said to leave you alone. I’m leaving you alone.” Sokka leans back on his hands. He says it so matter-of-factly, the way he always does when he knows he’s being a smartass.
“Do you have to sit right next to me?”
“It’s cold and you’re freakishly warm. Why don’t you use your little fire fingers, that way I don’t have to sit on top of you, o powerful one?”
Zuko narrows his eyes. Sokka’s gaze flicks to the left—to his scar, his blind eye—then back to meet Zuko’s. It’s just the full moon illuminating them, casting a pale blue glow across Sokka’s skin, washing out its normally rich russet tone. His eyes look almost gray in the moonlight. He’s tired—Zuko can see that much on Sokka’s face. There are deep hollows beneath his eyes, his brows knitted together in a permanent frown. Someone—Aang or Toph, Zuko can’t be sure—turns over and emits a quiet sigh, and Sokka is quick to peer over at them, then at Suki and Katara, and then around the perimeters of the clearing they’re currently camping in. Zuko watches his eyes pick through the semidarkness with care, taking a long minute to make sure everything’s okay before facing Zuko again. Zuko thinks of how Sokka’s been a protector for so long, protected them from him for so long, and now he’s here, sitting beside Zuko, watching the tear tracks on his face with an indecipherable expression.
Zuko nods. “It was about my father.”
“Oh, I get those too.”
“About your dad?”
“No, about yours.” Sokka half-smiles. “What was it about, though?”
“Have I ever told you how I got burned? Most people of the Fire Nation believe it was a training accident. It wasn’t.”
“I figured. It was Ozai, wasn’t it?”
Sokka takes Zuko’s silence as an answer in itself, and deflates a little.
“He challenged me to an Agni Kai for speaking out against him. I was only thirteen years old.” Zuko’s voice has dropped flat, monotone, as he recalls the incident. “I didn’t want to fight him—I apologized, I begged, anything I could, but he said I needed to be taught a lesson. I had to be taught respect. And he made sure the mark of my shame would never leave me. Everyone would know I was the dishonored prince, banished by the Fire Lord.”
A far cry from Zuko’s blank expression, Sokka’s has twisted into one of horror.
“So he did that to you? Your own father?” Sokka gets to his feet, running his hands through his hair—Zuko only notices now that it’s not pulled back, falling over his eyes and ears at this point. “That’s so...that’s so fucked up, Zuko.”
“Shh,” Zuko points to the others, and Sokka widens his eyes, nodding as he shuts his mouth and continues to pace.
“I was so convinced for so long that if I found Aang and brought him to the Fire Nation, everything would be forgiven, poof, one big happy family again. But we were never a happy family to begin with. I realize now that even before I was banished, I was my father’s deepest embarrassment. Azula was born lucky, I was lucky to be born. That’s what he told me. I was weak and nothing I did would ever be enough for him.” Zuko pulls some grass from the ground and watches as it starts to hiss, dehydrate, and finally burn up into ash in his palm. He lets the fine powder fall through his fingers.
“It was never you. You know that, right?” Sokka stops his pacing, peering down his nose at Zuko. It’s funny, how much Sokka looks like his and Katara’s father sometimes—it’s in that stern, but gentle expression, so full of anger and hurt for Zuko, for what he went through, but still warmed by compassion, by...something. “You were only a kid and he hurt you for no reason other than to prove some..some ridiculous point about his power to everyone else watching.”
“I know,” mumbles Zuko, but Sokka shakes his head, grabbing Zuko’s wrists and pulling him to his feet. Even for Zuko, Sokka’s cold hands feel like fire and lightning where they’re wrapped around his wrists. He can’t help but observe how Sokka’s hands are bigger, less delicate, fingers callused from years of gripping his boomerang, his sword, from years of hunting and fishing for the Southern Water Tribe and for their group alike. He has various scars and scrapes on the backs of his hands, on his arms—a newer, pinkish burn scar on his inner forearm catches Zuko’s attention. “Where’d you get that?”
“Oh, Azula just barely got me, when we left the Boiling Rock.” Sokka turns his arm palm-up to show the scar better, and then, almost as if it were an afterthought, as if he forgot he was even still holding Zuko’s wrist, he lets go. There’s a ticklish feeling traveling somewhere between Zuko’s heart and his stomach, hitting him in little bursts like lightning. If only he could redirect this feeling as easily as real lightning, because he wants it gone.
“I’m sorry,” Zuko mumbles, but Sokka shakes his head.
“Don’t be. It wasn’t you, and besides, Katara healed up the worst of it. I think it looks cool, personally. Not as cool as yours, I mean. Yours is pretty cool.”
Zuko blinks, and Sokka cringes a little. “Yeah, sorry. Should’ve read the room. Anyway, come on. Let’s go for a walk.”
Skeptical, it takes Zuko a moment to follow after Sokka as he starts into the woods.
“What would you do if you had to fight Ozai now?” Sokka asks. He’s walking swiftly, purposefully, and Zuko has to lope to catch up until he’s walking beside Sokka.
“In an agni kai? I’d beat him, I know it. It...it would still be hard, but I’d have to. There’s still a part of me that wants so badly for him to just love me, to tell me he’s proud of me and actually mean it, but it’s not going to happen. And I need to accept that.”
“For what it’s worth, I’m....we’re proud of you, Zuko. All of us.” Sokka stops to look into Zuko’s eyes with a new intensity Zuko hasn’t seen before. It’s different from the ice in his gaze Zuko’s seen in the past when he was on the receiving end of Sokka’s wrath.
Taking Zuko’s wrist again, Sokka tugs him along through the trees until they reach the creek everyone had gathered around earlier to watch Katara and Aang practice their waterbending. There’s the quiet rush of water, and Zuko starts to slow down, opening his mouth to ask Sokka what they’re doing, but Sokka isn’t stopping, tugging Zuko further up the stream.
“I don’t want to. What if I burn you on accident?” Zuko pulls against Sokka a little, realizing what’s going on.
“Then it’s an accident, it’s not like I’ll run screaming that you chose evil again and tried to kill me. Seriously. Aren’t you angry? Wouldn’t you want him to know what he did? How it hurt? Don’t you want to let that out?” Sokka steps closer to Zuko, frowning.
“Of course I’m angry, Sokka.” Zuko swallows hard, struggling to keep his voice even. “But I can’t let it control me. I promised myself—and my uncle—that I wouldn’t. I always hurt people when I’m angry, I let it get out of control and–“
“Maybe you should let it, Zuko. Just once.” Sokka crosses his arms. “I think it might be better that way.”
“What do you know about me?” Zuko’s voice raises, and he snatches his arm away from Sokka’s grip, coming closer. Sokka stares evenly into his eyes. “Who do you think you are, my uncle? Stop trying to pick my brain apart! You don’t know anything about how I feel!” Letting out an enraged shout, Zuko spins, kicking his leg high out to the side and bending a jet of fire from his foot directly into a nearby boulder. Of course, nothing happens save for a few bits of rock crumbling away, but Zuko faces Sokka again, panting. “Is that what you want? You think this’ll make me feel better?”
“I think you’re still really angry. And it’s not good to keep it in.” Sokka crosses his arms. Yelling again, this time Zuko uses his hand to shoot another burst of flame directly over Sokka’s shoulder, close enough that the heat makes his skin prickle, singes his sleeve. And yet, Sokka doesn’t flinch—he just keeps staring Zuko down, eyebrows raised. “Well, is that it?”
No, Zuko thinks, it isn’t. And maybe it isn’t just Sokka slowly driving his temper up, digging up such dark, white-hot anger that had been buried so deep for so long Zuko had convinced himself it didn’t exist anymore. This time, when Zuko yells, he spits fire too, turning away from Sokka and charring the ground around them instead. He keeps screaming, directing his fire at everything around him—everything except for Sokka.
“I was never good enough for him!” Zuko screams, spewing a jet of fire that burns blue-hot with his anger, “I never did anything right! I tried so hard and nothing was ever enough! He didn’t want me to begin with! I didn’t deserve it!”
Zuko doesn’t know how long it’s been by the time he can’t carry on anymore, his palms turning red and irritated from the heat, his bending reduced to little spits of fire no bigger than a candle’s flame. He’s sweating, his breathing ragged, and he drops to his knees, facing away from Sokka so he doesn’t see Zuko cry. It’s pointless, because he’s crying so hard his chest hurts and he’s gasping for air in between sobs, clutching at the front of his own shirt. Red and black spots tinge the edges of his vision, creeping over everything like a piece of paper slowly smoldering from its corners inward.
“Zuko, breathe.” Sokka’s voice, muffled at first, reaches Zuko through the ringing in his ears and brings him back. It takes a moment for Zuko to blink away the colors clouding his vision, but when he does, Sokka is there, squatting in front of him and trying to meet Zuko’s eyes. “It’s okay. You’re okay.”
“Do I look okay?” Zuko laughs bitterly. Sokka offers a sad smile, getting to his feet and walking over to the creek’s edge. He unties the cloth belt around his waist holding his shirt closed, folding it up into a square and leaning down to dip it into the water.
Sokka returns to sit cross-legged in front of Zuko, who hasn’t moved from where he’s kneeling. “Can I touch you?”
Zuko eyes him suspiciously, but nods. Sokka is so gentle when he wipes the sweat from Zuko’s face, the damp fabric cooling his skin with each careful swipe. Then, he takes Zuko’s hands, turning them palm-up one by one and gently pressing the wet cloth onto them.
“Katara got all the cool powers so this is the closest you’re gonna get to healing from me...they’re hardly burns, though, I think you’ll be okay..” Sokka gets up to rewet the cloth, wringing it out a little and coming back to put it on the back of Zuko’s neck. “Feeling better?”
“Physically or emotionally?”
“Whichever.” Sokka combs his fingers through Zuko’s hair to push it off of his face, and Zuko can’t help but lean into his touch. It’s been so long since someone’s been gentle with him—no one has since he still had his mother to stroke his face at night, to promise him he would be okay no matter what.
“I don’t know. I feel...different. It’s not bad.” Zuko stares down at his hands. “Thank you.”
“Nah, don’t thank me. Let’s head back.” Sokka stands and holds out his hands to Zuko, helping him up as well. “Are your hands okay?”
“Yeah, it’s fine.” Zuko walks beside Sokka, their shoulders nearly touching. His hand brushes against Sokka’s more than once, and each time it sends a little spark up his arm, but Zuko just keeps walking.
“Well..” Sokka’s whispering now that they’re back at their camp, squinting around to make sure everyone is still asleep. “You think you’ll be able to get back to sleep?” He makes a quiet noise of understanding when he sees Zuko’s face. “Here, lay down.”
Zuko eyes Sokka skeptically, but Sokka nudges him towards his sleeping bag. “Mine and Katara’s mom used to play with our hair until we fell asleep if we had nightmares or anything, it worked every time. I probably won’t be as good at it as she was, but still...”
Zuko doesn’t have anything else to compare it to, so maybe his judgement is skewed, but once he’s lying down, Sokka’s fingers slowly combing through his hair feel like pure heaven, his scalp tingling and a shiver running down his spine. Sokka’s movements are gentle and methodic, moving from one side to the other, raking his fingers all the way to the nape of Zuko’s neck and back up. Zuko’s lids grow heavy within minutes.
Zuko wakes up feeling better rested than he had the day before.
“About time you got up,” Toph drawls from where she’s perched on a boulder. Zuko glares, then remembers she can’t see him.
“Good morning, campers,” Sokka grumbles from where he’s throwing their stuff up into Appa’s saddle. There are dark circles under his eyes, and Zuko feels a pang of guilt for keeping him up the night before—he may not have been with them long, but it’s been long enough that he knows Sokka needs his sleep.
“Are you hungry? We’re having to ration a bit, but we’ll be able to get more food soon.” Katara approaches Zuko with some bread and fruit, which he takes gratefully, smiling at her. She smiles back, and Zuko breathes a sigh of relief. He’s not really sure how he ever underestimated Katara—for all the kindness and compassion she holds in her heart, she can be as cruel, cold, and ruthless as the water she bends so well, and Zuko realizes now that he much prefers being in her good graces.
Zuko eats while rolling up his sleeping bag, which he tosses up into Appa’s saddle with the rest of their stuff. It doesn’t take long before they’re all climbing up onto Appa’s back as well, Aang taking his spot at the reins, and they’re taking off.
“Geez, Sokka, were you up late or something?” Katara eyes her brother skeptically when Sokka starts dozing off almost immediately.
“Shh. Trying to sleep.” Sokka waves a hand in her direction.
“It’s a little too windy for that, don’tcha think?” Toph crosses her arms. Sokka shakes his head, scooting over so he’s closer to Zuko.
“Have you been near this kid? He’s like a human campfire.”
“Yeah, that’s me..” Zuko exhales sharply, producing a little jet of flame as he does so.
“See?” Sokka mumbles, before he’s closing his eyes again.
Flying makes Zuko sleepy, and eventually he slides down in his seat to nap as well, arms crossed loosely over his chest.
“Wait, they look kinda cute...”
“Aang. Aang! Look...”
“Shh, you’re gonna wake them up!”
Opening his eyes, Zuko grumbles, “You know, none of you are very quiet.”
Aang, Katara, Suki, and Toph all look at him like fox antelopes caught in headlights, and Zuko squints at them.
Suki is the one brave enough to answer him, and it’s by pointing down at Zuko’s chest. He looks down and discovers that Sokka’s practically lying on top of him, one arm slung across Zuko’s middle and his head resting on Zuko’s chest directly over his heart. Zuko’s eyes widen, and he looks at the others for help. Katara holds her hands up, apologetic.
“There’s no waking him up now. Sorry.”
Zuko groans. Then he wonders if he’s really even bothered or he just wants everyone to think he is.
“I think it’s sweet,” Toph says, a smirk that Zuko doesn’t like on her face.
“You can’t even see it,” Zuko points out, satisfied when Toph’s expression sours.
“You’re lucky we’re on Aang’s turf and not the ground, prince shitbag,” she points past Zuko, then falters. “I’m not even pointing at you, am I?”
Zuko isn’t sure when he dozed back off, but when he wakes up again, they’ve landed, this time deep in the lush green of a vast field. He’s been moved to the shade of a tree, his rolled-up sleeping bag serving as a pillow. Sitting up, he stretches his arms over his head and grunts quietly when his spine clicks into place.
“Zuko! Come eat, we got food,” Sokka waves at Zuko from where he and the others are lounging in the sun, grinning.
“When did I get off of Appa? And how long have we been here?” Zuko rubs his eye, getting up and ambling over to the others.
“Oh, Aang moved you with his funky airbender stuff. And it’s only been a couple hours, we just decided to let you sleep ‘cause you looked so cute, like a widdle not-murderous baby,” Sokka teases, pinching Zuko’s cheeks. Zuko swats his hands away and hopes he isn’t blushing when heat creeps into his face.
“Here,” Aang brings over a bowl of something. “We actually stopped in a Fire Nation town, so we figured you’d eat whatever we got. This was the, um...what was it?”
“Spiny squid-snake soup,” Zuko answers for him, recognizing the dish, and Aang beams, nodding.
“That’s it! It got cold while you were sleeping, but you can just heat it back up, so...”
“Thanks, Aang.” Zuko smiles up at him, and Aang nods again, waving to Zuko before going back to his seat beside Katara. Zuko isn’t alone for long, because Sokka plops down beside him as he’s using his bending to heat his soup back up.
“Is that good? I was too weirded out to try it,” Sokka makes a face, and Zuko snorts.
“Yeah, it is. Here,” he offers a spoonful to Sokka, who instead of taking the spoon, just lets Zuko feed it to him, leaning closer and brushing shoulders in the process.
“Oh, it is good! Wait, it almost reminds me of this dish we make in the Southern Water Tribe with polar hound whenever we can get it...” Sokka rambles on, and Zuko just watches while he eats, a smile creeping onto his face.
“....and Katara said I’m not allowed to have fire flakes anymore, but I’m older and she isn’t the boss of me, so–“
“Aren’t I?” Katara grins.
The only other times Zuko felt this welcome, this at home, was with his uncle. He grimaces at the very thought of Uncle Iroh. Zuko isn’t sure how he’ll ever fix that—Aang may be forgiving by nature, but Zuko thinks this could just be one too many fuckups for Iroh to overlook.
“How long do you think we have before we should move on?” Aang asks Sokka, giving Momo a fire flake and watching with curiosity. Momo nibbles, then chitters noisily, starting to run in circles. Sokka watches, clearly trying not to laugh as Aang apologizes profusely to Momo as if the lemur can understand him.
“Uh, a couple days, maybe?” Sokka shrugs. “If even. It’s really not safe for us to stay in one place for too long. In the meantime, you should work on your bending, though. You need to be ready to fight the Fire Lord.”
Aang casts his eyes downwards, nodding. “You’re right.”
“Come on, twinkle toes, earth comes before fire.” Toph gets to her feet, giving Aang an affectionate punch on the shoulder, although not before smirking in Zuko and Sokka’s direction.
Zuko is positive Toph is still awake when he creeps over to Sokka’s sleeping bag by the light of their campfire’s smoldering embers, because she doesn’t have her feet propped up as she typically does when she sleeps. Toph doesn’t say anything or move a muscle, though, so Zuko just tries not to think about it as he squeezes Sokka’s shoulder.
“Sokka?” Zuko murmurs. It takes a moment for Sokka to wake up, his eyes slowly opening and peering blearily up at Zuko.
“Nightmare?” Sokka rubs his eyes, sitting up to look at Zuko properly.
Even if he did have any nightmares, Zuko doesn’t remember them at this point, so maybe it’s a lie, but he nods, because it’s a reason to be close to–to be close to anyone. That’s what Zuko tells himself.
Opening up his sleeping bag, Sokka makes space for Zuko and pats the spot beside him invitingly. He yawns, “C’mon, then.”
Sokka doesn’t mind one bit that Zuko is wholly pressed against him, just strokes Zuko’s hair slowly and presses his cold hand to his forehead.
“You’re so warm,” Sokka observes, slipping one leg in between Zuko’s and shifting a little to get comfortable. Zuko feels like he might actually burst into flames, resting halfway against Sokka’s solid chest. “Loosen up, you’re stiff as a statue.” Sokka starts playing with Zuko’s hair as he says it, and Zuko can’t help but relax, practically melting against Sokka.
“Thank you,” Zuko mumbles, and Sokka just scritches his scalp gently in response, humming. His heartbeat is strong and steady, and it eventually lulls Zuko to sleep.
When Zuko wakes up, he and Sokka are both sweating, but Sokka doesn’t mention it—just like everyone else doesn’t mention them sharing a sleeping bag. There are some things that don’t need to be acknowledged.
“I think we should leave today. I’m not getting a good feeling,” Sokka tells the others as he digs through his bag for something to tie his hair back with. The next moment he’s diving out of the way of a blast of fire, yelling out in surprise. “Shit!”
They’re surrounded by Fire Nation soldiers, Zuko realizes as he looks around, but it isn’t so many that they’re outmatched. He’s sure of it.
“Oh, boy,” Toph cracks her knuckles, “About time we had some action, the lovebirds were making me sick.” She stomps her foot, and as easily as that she’s sending two of the soldiers flying with solid columns of rock that jet up from the ground.
“Zuko, duck!” Zuko has barely enough time to do so before Sokka hurls his boomerang right where he’d just been standing, hitting the soldier that had tried ambushing Zuko from behind.
“Thanks.” While he’s down, Zuko sweeps his leg around, creating a whorl of flames around them, and takes out two more soldiers. Katara makes sure they stay down with a few sharp snaps of her water whip.
“Come on, let’s go!” Aang leaps up onto Appa’s back, waving frantically for everyone to follow. Zuko hurries after the others, letting them go before him. He’s peering around to cover them as Katara helps Suki up into Appa’s saddle. Not a second too late does he push Sokka down and out of the way of a rain of arrows sailing overhead, a few of them bouncing off of Appa’s thick coat. Zuko lands on top of Sokka, his face inches away from the latter’s. Sokka stares up into Zuko’s eyes, and then—
“Ow!” Sokka rubs his rear, having been launched up onto Appa’s back by Toph’s earthbending. Zuko lands in a heap beside him.
“Now is not the time, you two!” Toph insists shrilly, following after them with significantly more grace.
“Is everyone okay?” Sokka shakes his head, peering around at the others one by one. When his gaze lands on Zuko, it lingers for a moment too long, brows pulling together into an expression he can’t quite read.
“Yeah. What about you?” Zuko has to look away. He sees Suki elbowing Katara, shaking her head, and Katara hides a smile.
“Yeah, I’m..I’m fine. Except where Toph bruised my fucking tailbone.” Sokka pushes his hair back, having never gotten the chance to tie it up.
“Cry me a river, fruitcake.” Toph blows her bangs out of her face, taking a breath like she wants to say more, then thinking better of it and merely returning to her typical sour expression. Sokka looks puzzled for a moment, then seemingly decides to ignore it.
“Where do we go, guys?” Aang interjects, peering over his shoulder with a troubled expression. Zuko goes to join him between Appa’s horns, placing a hand on Aang’s shoulder.
“I know where we can go,” he says, waving Aang off and taking the reins.
Aang smiles, mumbling a, “thanks, Zuko” as he joins the others back in Appa’s saddle. Zuko swears he feels Sokka’s eyes on him, but he’s too...scared doesn’t feel like the right word, but he’s too something to turn around and see for himself.
Zuko rubs Appa’s nose, smiles a little when the giant bison grumbles happily and continues eating the greens Aang had gathered for him upon reaching Ember Island. Everyone else is still checking out the house, but there’s nothing there for Zuko, so here he is, on the beach with Appa.
“Everyone’s wondering where you are, you know. You planning to run off or something?”
Zuko nearly jumps out of his skin and turns to face Katara. “I’ve been down here in the same spot since we arrived. And no, I’m not. What do you need? Did you change your mind about the Southern Raiders?” Eyeing Katara cautiously, Zuko can only blink when she laughs.
“No, but Sokka wanted someone to come see if you were down here. We’re about to eat, are you hungry?”
“No. I’m fine down here.” Zuko trudges through the sand and plops down closer to the water’s edge, hugging his knees to his chest. He can hear the soft crunch of sand under Katara’s feet as she comes to sit next to him.
“Is there a reason you don’t wanna go up to the house?”
“I just don’t,” Zuko answers sharply, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath when the heat starts rising in his palms.
“Okay.” Zuko is grateful when Katara backs off, standing up and brushing the sand from her clothes, “Just...come up at some point, at least to eat. It’ll make us all feel better.”
Zuko nods, listens to Katara’s footsteps getting further and further away until he can’t hear them anymore. He keeps his eyes closed and tries to breathe in time with the push and pull of the waves.
Sokka tries to keep his pounding heart to a minimum as he makes his way down to the beach, one hand resting on the hilt of his sword. It seemed to have slipped past everyone else, the fact that Zuko never returned for dinner, as they’d gone to bed without mentioning it, but Sokka had done a head count twice just to be sure—Zuko was missing.
“Zuko?” Sokka lopes down the path to the beach, squinting through the darkness. He doesn’t have to once he’s past the cover of the trees and the moon is illuminating the pale sand, making everything easy to see. Appa’s under some trees, and then Sokka sees Zuko, just a dark heap in the sand, dangerously close to the tide coming in. Sokka makes his way over and kneels in the sand beside Zuko, shaking his shoulder. “Hey, dude, you good?”
Zuko stirs a little, then sits up abruptly, scooting away from Sokka. His eyes are wide and Sokka can see his chest rising and falling quickly, so Sokka leans back, holding his hands up.
“Whoa. Just me.”
“Right. Sorry.” Zuko eyes Sokka cautiously, the tension in his shoulders gradually releasing. There’s something oddly familiar in the way Zuko looks at him, something Sokka struggles to place right now, with the sound of the waves and his own erratic heart pounding in tandem with each other to create a cacophony that only he can hear.
Thump. Crash. Thump. Crash.
When Zuko speaks again, it’s like everything stops just so Sokka can hear him.
“I guess I fell asleep. Sorry.” Zuko clamors to his feet. When he isn’t fighting or bending, Sokka finds that Zuko’s actually a bit clumsy, long-limbed and awkward in a way that’s almost...endearing.
“Well why don’t you come sleep in an actual bed?” Sokka stands as well, reaching to dust the sand from Zuko’s hair and clothes. Zuko watches him with a curious expression.
“What are you still doing up?” Zuko accuses, though his half-smile tells Sokka he’s only teasing.
Sokka glances over his shoulder at the moon as he and Zuko start back up to the house. Sorry, Yue. We’ll have to catch up tomorrow, he thinks. She’d understand.
“Looking for you. Thought maybe you hijacked Appa.” Sokka grins when Zuko bumps their shoulders, making him stumble a bit. “Hungry? Katara set aside some food for you earlier.”
“Sure,” Zuko looks down at his feet. “I didn’t think you’d even notice I wasn’t there.”
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but without me I’m pretty sure Toph would’ve wandered off and gotten lost forever a long time ago, and Aang would forget his arrow if he could, so I kinda have to keep track of everyone. That means you too now.”
“Yes,” Sokka crosses his arms, “as the leader of the group and all–“
Zuko laughs, tipping his head back. “You’re the leader? Says who?”
“Says me! You’ve got a lot of nerve.” Sokka glowers, but Zuko just laughs some more, bumping their shoulders once again.
Zuko crosses his arms, peering around the theater with a sour expression to match the taste in his mouth. He doesn’t want to be here, quite honestly, but he’d been outvoted five to one, so here he is.
“Lighten up, it could be fun!” Sokka nudges Zuko, grinning.
By the time they reach the intermission, Sokka’s optimism has been properly dampened.
“Yeah, this is painful. I’m gonna go get a drink.” Sokka wanders away from the group, in the direction of the concessions. Suki and Katara go off in search of a bathroom, leaving Zuko with Aang and Toph. Zuko slides down the wall to sit on the floor beside Toph.
Peering over his shoulder, Sokka makes sure none of the others can see him as he slips out onto one of the theater’s balconies. The sky is clear, and although it isn’t quite full anymore, the moon is still bright. Sokka leans against the balcony’s railing and smiles a little.
“Hey, Yue,” Sokka sighs, “Sorry we haven’t caught up in a while. It’s been crazy. You remember Zuko? The crazy prince with the ponytail that tried to steal Aang? Well, he’s good now, and he joined our group to teach Aang firebending.”
Yue doesn’t answer; she never really does, being the moon and all, but Sokka knows she’s listening, so he continues, “Yeah. It was kinda weird at first, but he really is good, I promise. He went with me to find my dad, and we found my friend Suki too. I would’ve been screwed without his help. He’s...like us. Just kind of a dumb kid too. He’s been through a lot, y’know? I don’t think he’s ever had real friends before now.”
A breeze ruffles Sokka’s shirt, and he crosses his arms, goosebumps rising on his skin.
“He comes to me when he has nightmares. I dunno what that means, but he’s always warm and I wake up sweating because of it but I don’t mind. I would say he’s part of the family now, but I dunno if that’s the right word. Sometimes...” Sokka trails off as realization sinks in, that prickle that starts at the top of your head and works its way down making his entire body feel like melting ice. What it all means, every lingering touch and lasting gaze, the sneaking under Sokka’s blankets with him, that moment when Zuko had saved him from the Fire Nation archers and had stared into Sokka’s eyes, his own gold eyes molten with something.
“Sometimes he looks at me the way you used to look at me, Yue.” Sokka scoffs a little in disbelief, wiping away tears he hadn’t noticed were following. “Like he wants it too, but he’s scared of something. And that makes me scared. If we kiss and he immediately turns into the fuckin’ sun or something I don’t think I’ll survive it, losing you was hard enough.”
Tell him, Sokka.
Only Sokka can hear her, Yue’s voice echoing around in his head, and he gives it a shake. “Alright, I’m losing it.”
No, listen to me. Tell him. You’ll love and you’ll lose, Sokka, but you have to keep loving. It’s who you are. You love with every ounce of yourself, and you’re gentle and kind but you’re still a warrior. You fight for what you love. It’s why I love you, it’s why your friends love you. It’s why Zuko loves you. Tell him while you have the chance.
“It’s all gonna be okay, right..?”
Toph sneaks away from the balcony, having heard more than enough of Sokka talking to the moon. She smiles to herself, makes her way back to where Zuko is still sulking on the floor.
“Hey. You know I can feel you start vibrating whenever you’re close to Sokka?” Toph plops down beside Zuko, fiddling with the tassels on her headband. Zuko scoffs.
“Nuh-uh. I bet if I told Aang and he focused on it he’d notice it too. Why do you do that?”
“I didn’t even know I did it. How would I know why?”
“Is it because you liiiike him?”
“I can tell you’re lyiiing.”
Zuko shushes Toph as Sokka comes back inside, eyes red and a little smile on his face. He watches Sokka lope over to Suki in the concessions line, sling an arm around her shoulders and say something that makes Suki laugh.
“Sokka and Suki are a thing anyways.” Zuko leans his head back against the wall.
“What? They used to be, but Suki doesn’t like boys like that anymore, she told me. She ‘n Sokka are just best friends.” Toph shakes her head. “Not for nothing, but we’re only a few days away from having to fight shitlord Ozai, so I think if you want Sokka to know how you feel it’s better to tell him now while you have the chance.” Because you might not after the comet, is the unspoken fact between them.
“Maybe you’re right.” Zuko sighs and pulls his knees up to his chest. Toph punches him hard in the arm. “Ow! What the–that hurt, what was that for?”
“That’s how I show affection.” Toph beams.
Aang is nowhere to be found, which is an issue, to say the least. Katara in particular still seems to be reeling from what June had said.
Your friend’s gone. He doesn’t exist.
“What if he doesn’t come back?” Sokka peers down to where June’s riding Nyla over the rocky terrain, the group following above her on Appa. “And–and what if your uncle can’t stop Ozai?”
Zuko, who’d been sitting quietly with his arms crossed until this point, takes his hood down and looks out at the sky. It’s cloudy tonight, most of the stars hidden from view.
“I don’t know. But we can’t let him win.”
Zuko can feel Sokka’s eyes on him the entire time he’s setting up his tent, and it unnerves him in a way he’s never experienced before. His emotions are already strung high, tension prickling at the base of his neck and behind his jaw. Zuko is about to duck into his tent when Sokka approaches, clearly waiting to follow after him.
“Sorry,” Sokka says once they’re inside the tent, staring down at his feet, “I wanted some privacy.”
“What’s up?” Zuko crosses his arms. Sokka shuffles his feet, then messes with his arm wraps, like he’s stalling, or maybe trying to find his courage, for whatever he’s about to say next.
“Do you...you know what, I’m sorry. This was stupid,” Sokka backs away, shaking his head. “Sorry. I’ll leave you alone.”
Sokka turns to leave, but Zuko grabs his wrist, stopping him. “What, Sokka?”
“Do...do you think about me too? Like, do you feel the way I feel about you?” Sokka faces Zuko again, looking like he’s trying very hard not to break eye contact. His chest is rising and falling quickly, color flooding to his cheeks, and when Zuko realizes what he means, the shock makes his palms burn hot enough to make Sokka yelp and snatch his arm away.
“Sorry! Sorry, I..” Zuko shakes his head, holding his hands out. “Yes. I do.”
He doesn’t get the chance to say anything else before Sokka’s lips are pressed against his, cold hands cupping Zuko’s cheeks and drawing all the burning heat right out of him. Zuko kisses Sokka back like he’ll die if he doesn’t.
When they finally part for air, Sokka gulps, lips parting to speak again. “I was so scared I was imagining the way you looked at me, because it made me feel so....I’m so scared I won’t have the chance for this after tomorrow.”
Zuko’s never seen Sokka so vulnerable. He’s always been strong, capable, the one to show no fear—Zuko thinks back to the very first time they met, when he’d fought off a clumsy-but-determined Sokka as easily as a cat batting at a fly, only to be bested by Sokka’s fucking boomerang—but now Zuko can see the fear Sokka’s talking about in his deep blue eyes. He’s already lost so much to the war, and now Zuko can see just how terrified Sokka is of losing anything or anyone else.
“It’ll be okay. We’ll be okay,” Zuko promises, bringing one hand up to cradle Sokka’s face. Sokka closes his eyes and leans into it.
“What the hell are you guys doing in there?” Toph yells shrilly from outside, her voice laced with a tinge of panic that makes Sokka and Zuko both start laughing.
When Zuko jumps in front of Katara, redirects Azula’s lightning, it’s Sokka’s face that flashes behind his eyelids before all the others as he collapses.
When Sokka’s grip on Toph’s hand begins to slip and he’s finally accepted that no, boomerang isn’t coming back this time, he briefly thinks of Zuko, and all he went through to help put an end to the war.
Sokka leans on his crutch for support as they make their way into the royal city, the palace looming overhead. It’s foreign to him, the way the crowds in the street part for them to make their way through.
“Is everyone staring at us?” Toph asks Sokka under her breath, and he hums an affirmation.
“This is weird,” he responds in a stage whisper.
“It’s about to get even weirder,” Aang says, pointing up towards the front steps of the palace. Zuko’s waiting there with Katara, but there’s three more figures that Sokka takes a second to put names to.
“Holy shit! Is that Jet?” Sokka exclaims, trying to quicken his hobbling towards the castle. Toph laughs at him, but Aang comes to his side to help him if he falls over, biting back his own smile.
“Did you say Jet?” Toph gasps. “No way!”
“Be gentle, I’m still delicate,” Jet jokes when Aang goes to hug him, appearing a little surprised by the kid’s enthusiasm. Longshot and Smellerbee both offer solemn nods, but Sokka’s pretty sure he sees the threat of a smile on Smellerbee’s face.
“You’re alive!” Aang beams.
“Yeah, we thought you were a goner!” Sokka waves his crutch in Jet’s face, only to get it batted away.
“Sokka, are you okay?” Zuko appears beside him, brows drawn together in a frown.
“Oh, yeah, just a broken ankle, nothing major,” Sokka answers, leaning against Zuko automatically. “What about you?”
“My sister struck me with lightning but other than that, pretty good.”
“Uh, hello? I’m fine, Sokka, thanks for asking.” Katara crosses her arms, though she’s trying not to smile.
“Of course you are! You’re a master waterbender, we all knew you could kick Azula’s ass.” Sokka scoffs, limping over to give Katara a long hug anyways. Katara rolls her eyes, but once Sokka can’t see her face, she allows herself a pleased little smile at the compliment.
“I also healed your boyfriend, you’re welcome.” Katara flicks Sokka on the forehead once they part. Sokka blows a raspberry at her.
“Boyfriend? Do I really need to kick your ass this time?”
Zuko turns around and finds Mai standing there, hand-in-hand with a beaming Ty Lee, who’s dressed in full Kyoshi warrior garb, the other Kyoshi warriors following not too far behind.
“What the hell! Suki, Ty Lee’s pretending to be a Kyoshi warrior again.” Sokka points his crutch at Ty Lee, who just giggles and pushes it away.
“No, she’s one of us now.”
“Me and the girls really bonded in prison! After a few chi-blocking lessons they said I could join their group!” Ty Lee bounces up and down, grinning. “Oh, and me and Mai also bonded.”
“By which she means we made out.” Mai grins at Zuko. “Looks like we’re both flamers, Zuzu.”
Sokka squints at Mai, then bursts out laughing. “Oh, I get it! Flamers...cause you guys are....good one, Mai...”
Zuko shakes his head and puts an arm around Sokka’s shoulders, smiling to himself. Everything’s gonna be okay. Well, almost everything. There’s always his dad and Azula—but he won’t worry about them for now.