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Eleven

 

Hakoda had been annoying the shit out of him. He wouldn’t stop— following Bato around, talking his ear off about things that he couldn’t care less about. He had gone to the ice fishing hole to get a little peace— get away from his father— and Hakoda had somehow found him. He couldn’t even tell him to leave him alone, because Hakoda was the chief’s boy and they might not be as traditional as the Northern tribes but they still needed to show respect. Bato stared into the murky water and tried to ignore the chatter beside him, gripping the icy pole with stiff fingers. 

 

“...I’ve been thinking, do you think penguin-eel can fly? ‘Cause eel can’t fly of course but my buddy Byo said he saw a penguin fly once in front of his own eyes. Imagine that, right?” He was lying on his front with his chin propped up in his hands, comfortable as if he wasn’t on a block of ice. Something about his ever present ease irritated Bato immensely. 

 

“Hn,” Bato grunted. 

 

“What are you doing all the way out here anyway? You’re lucky I saw you when I did, it’s dangerous to be out here alone. Didn’t chur dad ever tell you that?” 

 

Bato set his jaw. “No,” he said shortly. 

 

“Well, mine did. We go ice fishing all the time. It’s great fun, you should come sometimes! You could invite your pa too.”

 

“Sure.”

 

“Hey look, I think my line’s tugging! It’s gonna be a big one, I can feel it. Come on, help me tug.” 

 

Bato reluctantly moved to the edge of the ice, listening for any cracks that would warn of danger. Hakoda’s line was being pulled down by a heavy force, and Bato grabbed the end of the rod Hakoda was struggling with. Working together they managed to pull the thrashing fish out of the water, but even then it was close. 

 

Hakoda grabbed the fish by its gills and thrust it out in front of Bato’s face for him to examine, grinning at the weakly flopping fish. Bato edged back, annoyance returning in full force. 

 

“Wowee,” Hakoda crowed. “Wait till my dad sees this one. This is bigger than anything he’s ever caught, I bet.” Hakoda finally seemed to notice Bato’s stormy glare. “Oh, you can have it if you want, it’s not that big of a deal. Your dad would definitely be pretty proud of you, huh?” 

 

Something in Bato snapped, and before he could stop himself his arm was swinging out, catching the boy clean across the jaw. He panted, staring at Hakoda’s shocked face, then looked at his own fist in horror. He just punched the chief's kid . His dad was going to murder him, not to mention the rest of the tribe— 

 

A sharp blow knocked him out of his horror, and he yelped, clutching at his bleeding nose. 

 

“Wudja do that for?!” Bato demanded, pinching the bridge to stop the blood. 

 

“Why did I do that? You hit me first!” 

 

Bato stared. Hakoda didn’t seem at all sorry. Neither was Bato, honestly. A giggle escaped his throat before he could stop it, and all of a sudden he was laughing harder than he had in months. He heard Hakoda join in, felt the other boy collapse against him as they both just shook with it, trailing off before one of them giggled and started the whole thing over again.

 

“I can’t believe you hit me,” Hakoda said breathlessly, rubbing his jaw where already a bruise was forming. 

 

“You deserved it,” Bato said, voice slightly nasally. 

 

“Well, what the hell for?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“Come on, you can tell me. Bato. Bato,” he poked Bato in the stomach, then the arm. 

 

“I just— don’t like talking about my dad, okay?” 

 

Hakoda was silent for a long time. “Okay,” he said finally. “We should get the healer for that nose, though.”

 

In the days that followed, something strange happened to Bato. Hakoda kept on following him around, but instead of it being annoying it was strangely— nice. Hakoda dragged him along with all of his crazy schemes, and Bato hadn’t even realized before that there were so many ways to get in trouble in their small village. 

 

It was a few weeks later, watching Hakoda determinedly gut an octopus— because he insisted if he wore it over his head his mom would believe he was a water spirit— that Bato realized what it was. Oh, he thought as Hakoda gagged but persisted in wrapping the arms just so. This is what having a friend is like. 

 

Fifteen  

 

The day it happened was a day like any other. After lessons, Bato and Hakoda had been putting the final touches on the prank they had been working on for weeks: they had rigged up a complex pulley system in the dining pit so anyone who tried to enter would get a face full of snow. Bato had been waiting for Hakoda’s signal to start the trap, when a shadow fell above them. They twirled around. It was the chief, and he didn’t look happy. 

 

“Hello Bato,” he said, nodding at him. “Hakoda. I need to speak to you.”

 

“Can’t it wait? We’re kind of busy,” Hakoda said, with that hint of arrogance that seemed to come naturally to him. 

 

“Now.” The chief's voice left no room for argument, and he pulled Hakoda away. Hakoda shot him the same befuddled look Bato was sporting. He didn’t know what was going on either. 

 

It wasn’t, in fact, until the next morning that he saw Hakoda. He was feeding the seal-wolfs they rode on when Hakoda came into the stables. His face was ashy, and he seemed unsteady. 

 

“Koda! Where have you been, I haven’t seen you all day.” Bato took in Hakoda’s state and frowned. “Hey, what's wrong?”

 

“It’s Dio. He’s dead.” He spoke hollowly, and for a minute the words didn’t process in Bato’s mind. Hakoda’s older brother, dead? It seemed impossible. He knew most of the men were being sent off to fight in the war, but Bato didn’t know anyone who actually died. It was usually the older men, who he knew just by face. 

 

“He’s dead?” Bato asked stupidly. “But— how?”

 

“Fire nation soldiers ambushed their fleet.” He sat down heavily on the hay strewn ground. Bato followed, feeling the wet snow soak through to his knees. “Dad just got news. We’re having the funeral in a week.” They sat in silence for a moment, both a little stunned. Hakoda’s face was splotchy, and Bato ached for his friend. 

 

“Hakoda,” he said slowly. “If Dio is dead, that means you’re—“

 

“Going to be chief. I know,” he nodded, face miserable. Bato couldn’t take it anymore, so he pulled his friend into a hug, which he melted into, shaking in his arms. 

 

 In the days that followed, Bato could see the stark difference in him. The childish arrogance had seemingly disappeared overnight, an adult seriousness taking its place. Bato didn’t see him as much, due to Hakoda getting special lessons from his father on how to lead. “Ass kissing lessons,” Hakoda had muttered at one point to Bato. 

 

Still, Hakoda snuck out to the ice shore almost every night to talk to Bato, and he often nodded off mid conversation, exhausted from lessons and training from his dad. Bato would look at him, tan skin streaked with moonlight and high cheekbones casting shadows across his face and would feel— something, in his stomach. 

 

Twenty two

 

“I think my balls are gonna freeze off.”

 

“Your balls are fine.”

 

“You don’t know that. I’m gonna go down in history as the first person to die because he was living in a ship so shitty and cold that his balls fell out of his body and he died from blood loss.” Bato might have been being slightly over dramatic. Only slightly. 

 

The Water Tribe had recently agreed on a treaty with the Earth Kingdom, supplying the Water Tribe with ships and supplies if they gave them their men. Or so Hakoda had explained. It seemed to Bato that the only real difference between the ships was size, because the Earth Kingdom ships sure weren’t warmer. They got their own cabins though, if they doubled up, which was nice. 

 

“I could help you with that,” Hakoda said, rolling over and smushing his face into his pillow. He had recently gotten two beads strung in his hair, which Bato thought, paired with his cheekbones, made him look almost regal. 

 

“What?” Bato said distractedly.

 

“Your blue balls. I could help you with that.”

 

It took him a moment to realize what he was implying. “Hakoda!”

 

“What,” he said, shifting his head and cracking open one ice blue eye to meet his. 

 

“You can’t just— say things like that!” Hakoda had always been brash, strutting through life as though it were easy, but this was a little too far. It didn’t help that Bato had realized for a few years now that the swoop in his chest he got every time he looked at Hakoda wasn’t a normal friends swoop. 

 

“Why not?” Hakoda asked, unconcerned. “It’s just friends helping each other out.” He slipped out of his cot and moved towards Bato, who was feeling distinctly prey like. “Don’t you want to know what it feels like?” Hakoda murmured. In the past few years Hakoda had grown out of the baby fat he had been sporting, and he cemented this change by seemingly discovering girls for the first time. He seemed to have a new girl from their village on his arm every week, and Bato as usual followed him one step behind. They both had girlfriends waiting for them back home, but for some reason it wasn’t sweet, giggling Myra he was thinking of right now. 

 

“Just friends?” he confirmed with Hakoda, who was standing almost between his knees. 

 

“Well I’m not going to carve you a betrothal necklace,” Hakoda said, looking amused. He pushed Bato back on his cot and Bato spread his knees a little, still unable to believe this was happening. Hakoda seemed to have no such compunctions, pushing up his tunic and unraveling his trousers to reveal his cock, standing at half mast. It too, seemed confused about the situation it had found itself in.

“You’re big,” Hakoda said mildly, as if this were completely normal conversation. “I thought you would be.” He ducked his head down and licked his way up his shaft, and Bato gasped. He swallowed Bato down, and it was as if his whole world was being rearranged one slow suck at a time. 

 

It was over soon enough, and Hakoda tucked him back into his tunic while wiping a stray bit of cum off his chin. 

 

“Do you— should I,” Bato rasped. 

 

“Mm. Maybe later,” Hakoda said, and tucked himself into Bato’s side, throwing an arm over his chest and falling asleep. Bato laid there for a long time, watching him, before eventually he succumbed to sleep as well. 

 

Twenty five 

 

“So you’re the famous Bato,” Kya said, leaning against the stable rack while intermittently popping a bit of seal jerky in her mouth. 

 

Bato grunted, wiping down the rotting wooden stalls. 

 

“Hakoda’s told me a lot about you. Is it true that you once took down a whole Fire Nation fleet?”

 

“Sure. In a dream.”

 

She laughed with her head tilted back. “He makes jokes, too!” He kept wiping the stall. There was one stubborn spot that wouldn’t get out, no matter how hard he rubbed. When Hakoda had brought a foreign woman home from one of his trips— not very foreign, still from the South, but enough to make people uneasy— it had caused a lot of talk. Kya, on her part, seemed to let the muttered comments slide off her back like water off a turtleduck. Bato had assumed she would leave, soon enough, but it hadn’t happened. Kya remained, and her and Hakoda remained incredibly, stupidly happy. He had been avoiding her, for the past few months, and had been hoping to keep doing so. No such luck, apparently. 

 

“I was hoping you’d be able to show me around a little. You know this place best, maybe a little tour of all the best spots, what do you say?”

 

“There’s nothing here except snow and ice.”

 

“Now I know that’s not true. What about that old haunted ship over that way?”

 

“It’s old. It’s haunted. That’s the story.”

 

“Come on—“

 

“What are you doing?” he interrupted. “Why are you here?”

 

“I wanted to talk to you. You’re important to Hakoda, so I want to get to know you.” Bato scoffed. “And,” she continued, undeterred, “I want to let you know that I don’t want to get in between whatever thing you two have.” 

 

Bato froze. “There’s nothing between us,” he said, throat dry. 

 

“Sure,” she said, finally finishing her snack and shoving the bag into her pocket. 

 

“I’m serious,” he hissed. He strode toward her, looming over her tiny frame. “You can’t just say things like that. People have been banished for less. I don’t know what game you’re playing, but Hakoda’s the chief which means he has certain responsibilities, and I’ll be damned if you’re gonna get in the way of that.”

 

“I know,” she said solemnly. He looked at her for a moment, sizing her up. Nothing about her said she was joking. 

 

“Okay,” he said. She twisted her mouth up in a half grin, and quick as lightning leaned up and pressed a kiss onto his mouth. He leaped back, scrabbling at his face. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he demanded.

 

She was laughing again. “Oh man. Hakoda was right, you do have the prettiest blush.” Bato was not sure what to say to that, so he stayed silent. She chatted amiably with him as he finished cleaning the stall, and he did end up giving her that tour. 

 

Thirty one  

 

“Bato, good, you’re here.” Hakoda marched up to him and suddenly his arms were full of squalling baby. 

 

“Oh, actually I was—“

 

“I have a meeting with the elders to attend. Kya is in the back, if Katara cries just give her my spear to chew on, she likes that.” He was off as quick as he came, and Bato blinked at the baby in his arms. At only one year old, Katara was a tiny thing with waving fists and Kya’s eyes. 

 

“I guess it’s just you and me, huh?” Katara spit on him in response. “Yeah that seems about right,” he grimaced. He sat cross legged on one of the fur mats covering their hut. “I actually was doing something very important,” he informed her. “Not that your daddy cares.”

 

She stared at him, and her tiny face seemed understanding somehow. “It’s not that I mind watching you. You’re actually extremely cute. It’s just that this whole second in command thing is a lot more work than I thought. I know, who’d have guessed it, right? Still, it’s nothing compared to your dad. He’s kind of having a rough time with this whole war thing. The raids aren’t stopping and this winter is going to be a cold one. Got any ideas?” 

 

She gurgled. “Yeah, I guess not,” he sighed. He had been gone all day, trying to coordinate with Kanna the distribution of furs and food, and setting up a date for the next hunt. Hakoda had slipped into the position of chief all those years ago with the casual ease that he did most things in life, but even then it was a hard transition. The tribe seemed to dwindle by the day as the war reduced their once mighty tribe to only about three dozen fighting men, and Bato— and the rest of the tribe, he knew— felt every loss keenly. The men lost weren’t just members of the tribe, they were family, people that Bato had grown up with. There seemed to be a new funeral every month, and the dining pit where they usually ate together and orated stories was more subdued than usual. 

 

“Bato?” Kya’s voice came from behind him. 

 

“Hey.”

 

“You know she can’t understand you, right?”

 

“Take that back right now. Lady Katara is an extremely intelligent young woman. Isn’t that right, sweet thing?” He bounced her in his arms, and she giggled. “Where’s Sokka?” he asked over her head to where Kya was putting together a plate of food. 

 

“Bed. Poor kid conked out after an hour straight playing warriors and princesses with Hakoda.”

 

“Hakoda was the princess, wasn’t he.”

 

“Do you even have to ask,” she said with a tired grin. Kya sat across from him, shoving the plate across so they could share. “Think he’ll make it?”

 

Bato didn’t have to ask what she meant. “It’s a bad one. Everyone’s getting nervous with winter coming, and Tunio has been making noises about Hakoda not being fit for chief.”

 

“Damn,” Kya muttered. “Anything I can do?”

 

“Yes, actually. There’s been a lot of infighting in the dining hall over food portions. Anything you could do to mediate would be appreciated.”

 

“Consider it done,” she said firmly. 

 

“Okay. Now it’s my turn to ask. Is there anything I can do? I know all this hasn’t been easy on you.”

 

“Me? I’m fine,” Kya said, scooping Katara up from his arms. 

 

“Come on, Kya. I’d like to think I know you a little better than that.”

 

“I’ll be fine,” she said absently. “I always am.” He looked at her quietly until she drew her eyes up to his. There were dark shadows under her eyes, and her furs were hanging more loosely from her frame than normal. Kya held his gaze for a moment before her mouth twitched up. She moved over to him as he wrapped an arm around her waist, leaning into each other. They stayed like that for several moments taking comfort in the contact, Katara gurgling between them. 

 

“Well,” Hakoda's voice came from the door, “isn’t this a pretty picture.” He walked over and pressed a kiss onto Kya’s mouth. Bato jerked his eyes away. “My best friend making a move on my wife while I’m gone? How scandalous. Maybe I should banish you.” He collapsed down on Bato’s other side, pulling Katara onto his lap and leaning his own head on Bato’s shoulder. 

 

“Which one of us?” Kya asked, curious. 

 

“Hm?”

 

“Which one of us would you banish?”

 

“Both.”

 

She snorted. “Please. You wish you could get rid of us that easily.”

 

“Hm, I really don’t,” he said, smiling and kissing her again, which she returned with interest. Bato, being directly in the middle of this, was unsure whether to be turned on or uncomfortable. He settled for uncomfortable, as it was the safer and in all honesty more familiar of the two options. 

 

“Could you please not do this right in front of me?”

 

“Well, if you insist,” Hakoda agreed, dropping his head once more on to Bato’s shoulder. The lamp lit the tent up cozily, casting dark shadows across their faces as Bato studied them. They looked vaguely similar in the way most people from the south did, but there was a certain softness to Kya’s features that even years in the harsh icy climate couldn’t erase. Nuzzled up against her, the sharp lines that made up Hakoda's face seemed more stark than usual. 

 

Sitting there, pressed against on either side by the two people he loved most in the world, it was almost easy to forget the war, the deaths, the responsibilities. He watched the familiar way Kya finished the last bits of rice on the plate, the way Hakoda soothed a fussing Katara, and felt safe for the first time in a long while. 

 

Thirty five 

 

Bato entered the tent silently, plate in his hands. Hakoda was curled up in a corner, looking like he hadn’t slept or eaten in days. It had been four days since Kya had been— since Kya was gone. Sokka and Katara were with their grandmother, and Bato had been busy putting out fires with the tribesmen after the raid. Hakoda had not stepped outside since that day. 

 

“Hakoda,” he said quietly, shaking his arm. “You need to eat, get up.”

 

Hakoda’s eyes cracked open, and Bato realized with a sickening lurch that he wasn’t asleep, but drunk. “Fuck off,” Hakoda said. 

 

“You need to eat.”

 

“Don’t.”

 

“Yes, you do.” He tore off a piece of meat and handed it to him, watching as Hakoda chewed balefully. 

 

“There. Now will you fuck off?”

 

“Not quite. You need to finish this plate.”

 

“The hell makes you think you have the right to tell me what to do, huh?” He was glaring at Bato with eyes rimmed in red. 

 

“I’m your friend. I care about you.”

 

“Care about me,” Hakoda scoffed. “Care about sticking your cock in me, maybe. What, you think you were being subtle? Is that what this was about then, now that Kya’s—“ he sucked in a painful breath. “Now that she’s gone, what, you think this is your chance? Well come on then, I won’t stop you. You never were very good at sucking cock, let's see if you’ve improved. Or better yet, why don’t you just fuck off.” He was panting, eyes dark. 

 

Bato stared at the plate in his hands for several moments, letting the hurt flood through him. Hakoda had taken every sore spot, every weakness he could find and had carved with ruthless accuracy. As far as driving people away, Hakoda was the master. 

 

“Eat,” he said hoarsely, and Hakoda ate. 

 

He sat with him through the night, putting a bucket in front of Hakoda’s face as he heaved out whatever little he ate. On the second day, Hakoda drank every spirit he could find. On the fifth day, he sat through hours of Hakoda alternating between stony silence and harsh vitriol spat at him. On the seventh day, Bato woke up and he was gone. 

 

“Shit,” he swore, tugging on his boots and running outside the hut. It was still dark outside, dawn just peeking out over the horizon, and the relative quiet made Hakoda easy to locate. He was out by the water preparing a boat for sail, tossing rope and spears into the bottom. “Where exactly do you think you’re going?”

 

“Out,” Hakoda said calmly, still pooling the rest of the rope in. 

 

“I can see that. Out where?”

 

“Where do you think?”

 

“I think you’re being stupid and reckless.”

 

“Do you now,” he said mildly, as if it didn’t matter to him one way or the other. 

 

“I do. Hakoda. Please tell me you’re not doing what I think you are.”

 

“If what you think is that I’m going to avenge Kya, then I’m sorry to disappoint. That’s exactly what I’m doing.”

 

“And what exactly is your plan when you get there, huh?” He was shaking, he realized distantly. “What, you’re gonna sail up to him in a boat and stick him with your spear? Is that what you’re gonna do?”

 

“If I have to.”

 

“You have a boat. They’d grind you to pieces before you even get on board, and if by some miracle it does work, what then? You’re going to march on board with an army of firebenders surrounding you?”

 

Hakoda tossed his spear down. “What do you want me to do? Let it go? Say, well, mistakes happen, let’s move on?”

 

“I want you to fucking think for one second. You think you’re the only one who loved her? She was like a sister to me, and I can’t,” he licked his lips. “I cannot lose you too. Please do not make me. Koda,” the boyhood nickname fell out of his lips instinctively. “Please don’t make me do that. Please.” 

 

Hakoda stared at him for a moment, face pained, and stumbled. He looked around, and for the first time seemed to notice where he was. “I don’t know—“ he started, voice rough. “I don’t know how to go on. Without her.” He fell to his knees, and Bato was there to catch him, relief strong enough to make him almost cry. 

 

“I know,” he whispered, rocking Hakoda in his arms as he shook apart. “I know.”

 

Thirty six

 

“Sokka,” Bato said, hovering outside the enormous igloo. “Can I come in?”

 

A pause. “Sure.” 

 

He stepped in, examining the gleaming ice. “This is beautiful work, Sokka. You should be proud.” The boy shrugged, arms around his knees. His eyes were rimmed in red, and he was sniffling. 

 

“Do you want to tell me what’s wrong?”

 

“Nothings wrong. I’m fine.” Sokka sent a shaky grin his way. Bato sat next to him and pulled out the seal jerky he had stashed in his pocket, watching fondly as Sokka absentmindedly started plowing through it. Sokka was exactly like Kya, in that way. Always needed something to chew to take his mind off things. 

 

“Is that why you’re here, sulking in your igloo, instead of back home?”

 

“‘M not sulking.” Bato waited. “Are you and Dad leaving?” Sokka said in a rush. 

 

The question startled Bato so much it took a moment for him to respond. “No. Why would you say that?”

 

“I heard you. In the pit. You said the raids were getting worse, and he said you might need to leave soon.”

 

“Sokka,” Bato sighed, for a moment unsure where to begin. 

 

“It’s okay. You don’t need to lie to me. I’m man enough to take it.” He squared his small shoulders and jutted his chin out, and something in the motion was so painfully familiar that something in his chest cracked open. 

 

“The raids are getting worse,” he said seriously, looking at the boy in the eye. “But your dad is going to hold down the fort here as long as he can. The tribe is important to him, but so are you and Katara. He’s not going to leave if he has any other choice.”

 

He finally looked up, ice blue eyes catching Bato’s gaze. “How long?” he said, voice scratchy. 

 

“Hm?”

 

“How long until he has to leave?” That was also like Sokka— he was very meticulous, always needed to have a concrete date and plan. 

 

“A year, at least. Maybe more. There’s no telling with these things.”

 

Sokka nodded. “And you?”

 

“What about me?”

 

“Will you stay too?” His voice caught at the last word, and Bato felt a rush of warmth flood his chest. This spirits damned family. 

 

“I’ll do my best.” Sokka finally uncurled himself from the ice wall and rubbed at his eyes. 

 

“I’m not actually crying,” he informed Bato. “I’m allergic to— ice.”

 

“Really?” Bato said, amused. “You’d think we’d have noticed at some point, with us living in the South Pole and all.”

 

“It’s not my fault you’re unobservant.”

 

“Unobservant, huh? Was I unobservant when I saw you fall on your butt penguin sledding the other day?” Sokka leaped to his feet with a yell, and Bato laughingly batted him away as he tried fighting him. Sokka was relentless, though, so eventually Bato just dragged him over his shoulder by his ankle, jostling him until Sokka collapsed onto his back, shaking with breathless laughter. 

 

Thirty seven

 

Bato woke up, and for a disorienting minute he couldn’t tell where he was. He was lying in a bed, and the lamps above him lit the room in a dull glow. There was a small desk pushed up against one wall, and sitting beside him was Hakoda, head tilted onto his fist and exhaling softly as he slept. Captain's quarters , he realized. But why? The last thing he remembered was coming back to the ship with the men after a successful attack against a group of Fire Nation soldiers who had been terrorizing a village. They had been laughing and shoving each other around, giddy with adrenaline after the fight. Hakoda had an arm draped over his neck and then— nothing.

 

He pushed the covers off and sat up, moving towards the door, but before he could the walls started spinning and the ground became suddenly closer. Iron hands caught him before he could fall, pushing him back in the bed. Hakoda's stern face glared at him from the side. 

 

“Why am I here,” Bato said hoarsely. “I’m not injured.”

 

“Actually, you have a wound on your back that needed stitches. Which you didn’t think was important enough to tell us about. But that’s not actually why you collapsed.”

 

Bato waited, but Hakoda did not elaborate. “No?” he prompted. 

 

Hakoda’s jaw tightened. “No. Byo ruled it as exhaustion.” His eyes met Bato’s, and Bato realized with a jolt that he wasn’t irritated, but furious. “When was the last time you slept before this?” Hakoda asked. 

 

Bato was silent. He couldn’t actually remember. The crackling of the fire in the back was the only noise in the cabin. 

 

Hakoda sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “You need to take better care of yourself, Bato.”

 

“I’m fine,” he said automatically.

 

“You’re not fine. You’re so exhausted you’re passing out, what about that seems fine to you? Byo was worried. So was I.”

 

“I have things to do, responsibilities. The world doesn’t stop turning because I get a little tired.”

 

“You’re running yourself ragged. You won’t be able to take care of anything if you pass out in the middle of a battle and someone takes your head off. Why don’t you just hand some of these responsibilities to the rest of the men?”

 

“You’re making this into more of an issue than it is. I’ll be fine,” Bato said, irritated. 

 

Hakoda swore under his breath. “You know, I really don’t understand you sometimes. You’re always after me to take care of myself, but when it comes to you it’s like you don’t even care,” he accused. Bato glared sullenly over his shoulder. Hakoda’s shoulders tensed up with every second of silence. “Fine,” he said shortly. “If you won’t listen to me, maybe you’ll listen to this. If you don’t take care of this, you’re not second in command anymore.”

 

Bato jerked his head to stare at him. Never, in the entire time they had known each other, had Hakoda ever pulled rank on him. Nothing in the man’s face said he was kidding. “You cannot be serious,” he said lowly. 

 

“What other choice do I have,” Hakoda demanded. “You’re a liability in battle if you can’t even keep your eyes open long enough to see if someone’s throwing an axe at you.”

 

“You know I would never go to battle like that!”

 

“Obviously not,” Hakoda said coldly. “Because you just did.”

 

“You don’t get it.”

 

“Then help me to!” Hakoda yelled. Bato flinched, and Hakoda froze in his seat. “Bato,” he said, and his voice was soft again, pleading. “I want to help you. This whole partners thing? It’s not going to work unless you can be honest with me. Talk to me. Please.”

 

Bato watched him silently for a long moment. When he spoke the words scratched in his throat. “Do you know that moment, when you’re ice dodging, and your lookout tells you it’s full speed ahead, you won’t hit the ice? But from where you are by the wheel you can’t see that, so you’re bracing for impact for the glacier that you know is going to hit you. You trust your crew to tell you the truth, and your mind knows you won’t get hit, but the rest of you— that’s harder to convince. It’s like that. You’re telling me I need to take care of myself, telling me people will care if I don’t, and on good days I know that. But I’m working against years of experience telling me different.”

 

Hakoda was silent for a long moment. Finally, he rubbed his hand roughly over his mouth. “Everything—“ he cut off, voice cracking. “He was wrong. Everything he told you was wrong.”

 

“I know that. I do. But sometimes it’s hard to believe it.”

 

“Then I’ll remind you.” He looked up finally, and his eyes were dark with emotion Bato couldn’t begin to puzzle out. “I’ll remind you everyday until you believe me. It matters. You matter.” Hakoda cupped his hand on Bato’s cheek, a familiar gesture from their childhood. Now, though, there were rough calluses which brushed against day old stubble. 

 

Bato was— he was tired. He was more exhausted than he had been in his whole life, maybe. So he couldn’t quite control the small noise that escaped out of him, or the way he leaned into the warm palm. “It’s okay,” Hakoda murmured. “You’re going to be okay.” He drifted, Hakoda's rough hand still warm against his cheek, and when he finally drifted off it was to a sleep more sound than he had in months. 

 

Thirty eight 

 

“What the hell are you eating?” 

 

Hakoda looked at the stick he had procured from seemingly nowhere. It was split in half and seemed to have some sort of white pulp in the center, which Hakoda was chewing on thoughtfully. “You know,” he said. “I’m not actually sure.”

 

“Give me that,” Bato said, snatching it from his hands. “You can’t just eat whatever plants you find. It could be dangerous.”

 

Hakoda grabbed it back before Bato could stop him, looking highly offended. “Jealousy is an extremely unattractive trait,” Hakoda informed him. 

 

“Yes, that is definitely the issue here. I am jealous of your stick.”

 

“It wouldn’t be the first time a man was,” Hakoda said smugly.

 

Bato smacked him upside the head. “Stop making sexual puns!”

 

“It’s half of my personality.”

 

“Only half?”

 

“Maybe two thirds,” Hakoda conceded. “And I will not. We are fighting the Fire Nation for my spirits damned right to make sexual puns.”

 

“Is that why we’re fighting them? Call off the men, I don’t think they knew about this when we pledged ourselves to the cause.”

 

Hakoda barked out a laugh, and Bato grinned. They had traipsed into the woods, officially, to scout for Fire Nation soldiers. Really, it was because Hakoda had been looking more tense than usual, and Bato had thought the walk would do him some good. Especially since each time Hakoda saw a tree he got distracted in his delight. Bato wasn’t much better, honestly. They were just so strange. Tall and brown and nothing at all like the flat icy wilderness they spent their childhood in. 

 

Sunlight beamed down through the trees as they ambled along, the only sound the crunch of leaves underfoot and the calling of birds. It was nice, for once, to be off the ship without constantly being on the lookout for Fire Nation soldiers. Hakoda, on his part, had immediately thrown caution to the wind and licked the first vaguely food-like item he had found, so perhaps this wasn’t as good an idea as Bato had thought. 

 

Suddenly he was being pushed behind a tree, rough bark digging into his back and Hakoda’s body pressed tight against his. 

 

“What—” he started, but Hakoda pressed a hand over his mouth. He was about to kick him indignantly when he heard the voices. 

 

“...in place. We just need General Li’s command to unleash the trebuchets over the north west quadrant of the bay. After that it’s just... up the ashes...” 

 

They stayed there in tense silence until the voices faded away, and Hakoda finally pulled his hand off Bato’s mouth. Hakoda stared at him, eyes dark. Bato could count every eyelash, see every line in his face from this close. The moment stretched on. Bato should have shifted away, made a joke about personal space, but he stayed in place, frozen. Some unidentifiable emotion crossed Hakoda’s face, complex and shifting too quickly for Bato to understand, and Hakoda’s gaze flicked to his mouth. Almost against his will Bato found himself leaning in, drawn forward by some gravity that only seemed to exist around Hakoda, and was it his imagination or was Hakoda leaning back—

 

A sharp cry from a bird snapped them from their trance, and Hakoda stepped back quickly, something like embarrassment fleetingly crossing his face before it was smoothed away by his usual self assured grin. “Well,” Hakoda drawled, no sign of what had just happened present in his voice. “Looks like we have our next target.”

 

“Right,” Bato said, throat dry. 

 

“Come on,” Hakoda said, picking up his stick and stripping off some pulp before shoving it in his mouth. His eyes determinedly looked away from Bato’s. “If we hurry we’ll make it back to camp by sundown.”

 

Thirty nine 

 

The ground shook, and Bato vaguely registered that his side was wet. It wasn’t raining though. Blood he realized, and he should have been more worried about that but for some reason he wasn’t. There was an explosion in the distance, and Bato shut his eyes as sand exploded against his face.

 

“...cover…get him…here.” A familiar face appeared over his, brow furrowed and blood oozing from his cheek. Hakoda. Bato wondered why he looked so worried. He wanted to smooth out the line between his brows. 

 

His face disappeared though, and Bato had a second to feel sad about that before his side and shoulder were screaming in pain, and he was being lifted from the ground. Bato panted, nausea building in the back of his throat. He was being carried behind a— tree? Away from the line of fire he knew in some distant part of his mind. He lost some time, and the next thing he was aware of was a white hot flare of pain as a hand pressed against his side. He gasped through it, focusing his woozy vision on the face in front of him. The wolf helmet Hakoda normally wore was gone, and he looked scared. Terrified, really. Someone that lovely shouldn’t look like that. He was going to tell him so, but the words stuck in his throat so instead he reached his hand up, cupping Hakoda’s cheek in his palm. Hakoda held his gaze, eyes terrified but so steady. He grasped Bato’s hand in a shaky, bloodstained one of his own, and pressed dry, cracked lips tenderly to his palm. Oh, Bato thought. Oh. 

 

His chest cracked open with some unidentifiable emotion, and his last memory was tender blue eyes looking into his. 

 

When he woke, there was soft bedding underneath him, and his whole body was throbbing. He tried to get up, and immediately fell back down, coughing. 

 

There was a hand cupping the back of his neck, helping him slowly sit up, and cool ice chips pressing against his mouth which he sucked on. 

 

He focused on breathing, and when he could do that he looked to his side. They were in an airy, well lit room. Some sort of hospital, perhaps? There didn’t seem to be any medical supplies or healers around, only— Hakoda. He looked ill, dark circles under his eyes and usual coiled and beaded hair swept up in a high bun. Bato could have been thinking about a lot of things— could have been thinking about the stiff bandages running their way up his whole body, or the way he couldn’t quite feel his left leg, but honestly there was really only one thing he was thinking about. It was as if while he had been sleeping Bato had been putting the facts together, and now that he was awake he could see it in front of him, clear as day. He looked thoughtfully at Hakoda as he squeezed water from a towel and leaned forward to wipe his face. 

 

“You love me,” he rasped. It was not a question. 

 

Hakoda froze. “Of course I do,” he said finally, continuing wiping down Bato’s arm. 

 

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “No, you’re in love with me.” He watched Hakoda's face, just inches away from his, with interest. Hakoda stiffly tossed the cloth into the basin and ducked his head down, pressing his fist against his mouth. 

 

“Yes,” Hakoda murmured finally. “How could I not be? I’ve loved you in one way or another my whole life, but this—“ he shook his head, eyes pained. It made Bato ache for him, reminded him of a little boy with too sad eyes. He reached a shaking hand up and caressed his cheek, so spirits damned sharp he could cut steel with it, and Hakoda flicked startled eyes up at him. 

 

“Koda,” he murmured, and a sharp keening noise came from somewhere in Hakoda’s chest. “Sweetheart,” Bato said. “Come here.” He pulled Hakoda alongside him and watched as he pressed his fist to his mouth, shaking. 

 

“I thought,” he gasped. “When I saw you lying there, with burns all over your body, I thought— it was like you were—“

 

“Shh, it’s okay,” Bato soothed, rubbing circles onto his skin with his one good arm. “I’m right here, I’m not going anywhere.”

 

“Please don’t make me go through that again,” Hakoda sobbed. “I can’t do it, I won’t do it.”

 

“I’m not going anywhere,” Bato promised. He held his shaking body tight against his own, and tried to make himself believe it. They stayed like that for long moments, Hakoda calming down until they were breathing together, as one. Bato reached a hand up and stroked a stray piece of hair back in place. 

 

“I’m sorry,” Hakoda said, voice scratchy. “I didn’t mean to make you— uncomfortable. I understand if you don’t want to—“ He broke off, blinking rapidly, and it was only because he was pressed so close to Bato that he could feel the hitch in his breath. “If you don’t want to talk to me after this,” he finished, voice resigned. He doesn’t know Bato thought in astonishment. All this time, and he still doesn’t know. 

 

Bato exhaled, a long, slow thing. Hakoda's face was still tucked against his collarbone, so he cupped his hand against his jaw, infinitely tender, leaned down and captured Hakoda’s mouth with his own. 

 

It was a slow, hesitant thing. Hakoda’s lips were chapped, and there were a good few moments where Hakoda didn’t move, surprise freezing him in place. Finally he made a small sound deep in his chest, and their mouths moved together, exploring. They hadn’t done this since they were kids, and even then it hadn’t been with this tender longing and aching want. Hakoda smelled of ash and perfume, and something purely him. Bato considered, briefly, that perhaps Hakoda might love him a tenth of the amount Bato loved him. 

 

They broke apart eventually, and for long moments they cupped each other’s faces in their palms, foreheads touching together and breath hot on each other’s skin. 

 

Bato cracked his eyes open. Hakoda’s lips were chapped and red. There was an ugly yellow bruise marring the side of his face, and a scabbed cut running from his hairline to just above his right eye. He was the most beautiful thing Bato had ever seen. 

 

Hakoda’s eyes drifted open and met his, and for long moments they let their eyes rest on each other. A slow, quiet smile started at the corner of Hakoda’s mouth, and it was like watching the dawn break after months of darkness. 

 

They kissed more, less hesitant and more— inquisitive, maybe, seeing what worked and what didn’t. Each time was a shock to his system, a constant litany of I can do this, this is allowed. Bato wondered if he would ever get used to this. He hoped not. 

 

Bato’s body eventually protested, muscles aching and skin sensitive against the bandages covering his body. “You should get some rest,” Hakoda murmured, pressing one last kiss against his jaw. He drew away, and it was almost painful, the thought of them being apart even for just a moment. 

 

“Stay,” Bato pleaded, and Hakoda stayed. 

 

Forty 

 

Bato unlaced his boot from his foot quickly, grimacing at the damp dirt that came off on his hand. The cabin door on the ship swung open, and Bato looked up to see Hakoda holding a clearly asleep Katara in his arms. He looked exhausted, and sad, and Bato could only guess as to what they had talked about that led to that. 

 

Hakoda laid her down on the bed beside Bato carefully, sitting next to him as Bato finally finished pulling his armor off. Hakoda stayed there, silent, and while he waited Bato pulled the covers over Katara, tucking her in. She had obviously been crying. 

 

“I,” Hakoda said finally. “Am the worst parent in the world.”

 

“No you’re not,” Bato said immediately. “Trust me.”

 

Hakoda shot him a look. “What that man did to you was not parenting,” he said darkly. “And yes I am. What kind of father leaves their children alone for two years, right after they lost their mother?”

 

“They had Kanna.”

 

“It wasn’t enough.”

 

“We’re at war, Hakoda. You were trying to make a better world for them to live in.”

 

“A better world. That’s what I told myself when I left my eleven year old daughter behind. And look where it got me. We’re counting on children to end this war, Bato. Capable children, yes, but still children. If I had an ounce of common sense I would have sent them back to the South Pole as soon as I saw Sokka step into that tent.”

 

Bato watched him thoughtfully for a moment. “Do you remember,” he said, “the time Katara and Sokka had disappeared for the entire day, and Kanna was going hysterical because she thought they had been eaten by an arctic hippo?”

 

“What does—” Hakoda started, brows furrowing.

 

“Do you remember what you told her, when she accused you of not caring?”

 

“I...“ he rubbed a hand across his mouth. “Bato—“

 

“What did you say?”

 

Hakoda sighed, a rueful grin crossing his face. “I said they were their own people, and I had taught them all the skills they needed to look out for themselves.”

 

“Exactly. Koda, these are your kids. Forget that, these are Kya’s kids. If you had forced them back to the South Pole they would have gone straight back out again, only this time without any help you could give them. And besides, what safer place is there than by the Avatar’s side?”

 

Hakoda huffed. “Since when did you become so wise? I’m supposed to be the smart one in this relationship.”

 

“Ah, that has never been true. You never have any idea what you’re doing.”

 

“Yeah, but no one’s supposed to know that.”

 

“Well, I figure if we take turns being the smart one eventually we can make something like one fully functioning adult,” Bato said. Hakoda grinned, and caught his jaw to kiss him. The armor he was wearing was cold against Bato’s bare arms, but his mouth was warm, tasting of sea spray. 

 

“I’m guessing you want me to clear out for the night?” Bato said when they broke apart, Hakoda’s hand still rubbing small circles against his hip. 

 

“If you don’t mind,” Hakoda said apologetically. 

 

“No worries,” Bato said easily. He would sleep in his cabin tonight. Hakoda’s kids would always come first. For both of them, honestly, though obviously the relationship was different on Bato’s part. 

 

“Right,” Hakoda sighed. “Did you put your burn ointment cream on yet?”

 

“I’m fine,” Bato said with a twinge of irritation. 

 

“Hm,” Hakoda said, but didn’t press. This was a common disagreement between them. 

 

“I’ll let you get your sleep,” Bato said, eager to avoid that particular fight. 

 

“Okay,” Hakoda said, leaning up to steal another kiss. “Sleep well. Love you.”

 

He said it thoughtlessly, like it was something easy and certain. As usual, Bato’s heart skipped a beat upon hearing it. 

 

“You too,” Bato said, and left. Before he turned the corner toward his cabin, he chanced a glance back in the room. The last thing he saw before he left was Hakoda, armor off, curved around Katara, who was digging her small hands into his shirt in her sleep. 

 

Forty (Reprise)

 

“Ah!”

 

“Stay still.”

 

“I am staying still.”

 

“If you would stop squirming maybe this wouldn’t be so painful,” Bato scolded from his side where he was redressing his burn. Hakoda’s head was tilted back against the damp stone wall where they, and the rest of their invasion force, were holed up. It was more of a holding cell than a prison, just a large, low stone room with metal bars keeping them from escaping. It had been a few days since they had been shoved here, and to Bato’s relief Hakoda’s wound hadn’t worsened, and the man had remained mostly lucid. 

 

“Hm,” Hakoda said, eyelids sliding shut. “You know, if you really wanted to rip my clothes off, you should have just asked.”

 

“A bit traumatizing for the rest of the prisoners though, wouldn’t you say?”

 

“Not at all. I have been reliably informed that my body is a work of art. They wish they could get an eye full of all this.”

 

“And I wish that you had been dropped less on your head as a child. Life is full of these little disappointments.”

 

Hakoda snorted. “Harsh. Lucky for me, I know that insults are how you show your love.”

 

“Or maybe your ego is getting to your head again.”

 

“I feel like I would have noticed that.” His eyes lazily drifted open, and a soft smile started on the corners of his mouth. “Spirits, you’re beautiful,” he said quietly, the noise of the fifty or so people behind them almost drowning out his words. Bato rubbed the jut of his hip from where he was rewrapping the cloth fondly, and Hakoda’s smile widened. 

 

“Careful,” Bato said. “Since when have you been going all sappy on me?”

 

“Since I swallowed about two grams of ashwa leaves.” 

 

Bato reeled back. “Are you high right now?” he said incredulously. 

 

“Only a little.”

 

“Why— how did you even get that?”

 

“Pipsqueak knows a guy.”

 

“Because of course he does. You do realize your entire tribe is here?”

 

“There’s nothing I can do for them.”

 

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean you can just—“

 

“It helps with the pain,” Hakoda said quietly. Bato was silent for a moment. 

 

“You didn’t tell me it was that bad,” he said finally. Bato knew, more than anyone else, how insanely high Hakoda’s pain tolerance was. If he was medicating to avoid pain, that meant he would probably be passed out on the floor right now if he wasn’t. Bato had been doing his best to keep the wound clean, using torn pieces of his shirt to keep pressure on it, but in a prison with no medical supplies to treat a serious burn— well. 

 

“You didn’t need to worry.”

 

“Of course I needed—“ he started, but Hakoda’s eyes flicked behind him and he went silent. Bato watched unhappily as Hakoda stood to his full height and looked the man dead on, not a twitch or flutter indicating that he was anything less than one hundred percent. It was one of the prison guards. Here to gloat, most likely. They had been taking random men from their group every day, and each time they would return with bruises and burns. Each time they would ask where the Avatar was. It gave Bato a fierce sort of pride that each time the guards would return more frustrated than the last, still no closer to breaking them. 

 

“Chief,” the man said mockingly. They had singled Hakoda out as the leader pretty quickly, despite none of them telling even that to the guards. Bato suspected it had something to do with the way their men gathered around him at the first sign of danger. Even in a prison cell, they were fiercely protective. 

 

“I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” the guard sneered at his wound. “Where you’re going, that’ll be the least of your problems.”

 

“What do you mean,” Bato asked sharply. 

 

The guard tossed a cold look his way. “Tell your dog to shut up, or I’ll be more than happy to do it for you. I did so enjoy hearing the screams of the last one. What was his name? Piko? Riko? I never could remember the names you savages kept.” Bato’s jaw clenched. Miko was the youngest of their crew, only about twenty years old. He didn’t deserve this. 

 

The guard seemed to get irritated at Hakoda’s impassive silence. He threw a blow at the side of his head, but Hakoda simply rotated his jaw and looked at him once more. Bato could see Byo and the rest of the crew in the background, ready to attack, and shook his head minutely. The guards outnumbered them ten to one. 

 

The man snorted irritably. “Whatever,” he scoffed. “Soon you won’t be worrying about anything at all. You’re being transferred, pretty boy. To Boiling Rock. And they don’t play as nice as I do.” He gave an ugly smile, and moved away. Hakoda watched him for a minute until he moved out of sight, then collapsed against the wall. His normally tan skin was ashy pale, bags under his eyes almost purple.

 

“You think he was lying?” Hakoda said, brows furrowed and breath hitched. 

 

“I think they would be stupid not to move you, at this point.”

 

“Yeah,” Hakoda sighed. “That’s what I thought you might say. You’ll watch over them while I’m gone?” Bato snorted, not even dignifying that with an answer. Hakoda’s mouth twitched up. 

 

Bato finished knotting the cloth methodically, letting his hands rest a little longer than needed on flat stomach before drawing away. By common consent their relationship remained hidden from the rest of the crew. A man lying with another man would be normal to them, natural even. Loving each other? That their tribe wouldn’t forgive so easily. 

 

“Well,” Bato said. “At least they’re most likely going to treat you before they move you. This way you won’t have to get high in prison.” He was mostly just giving him a hard time to distract him, and Hakoda went along with it gratefully. 

 

“Come on, it’s not that bad,” Hakoda laughed weakly. “We used to do this all the time back when we were kids, what happened to that?”

 

“You got married and had children,” Bato said, unimpressed. 

 

“So I did,” Hakoda said thoughtfully. “Though if I recall it wasn’t my marriage that ended that. Me, you, and Kya used to get up to quite a few things, back in the day.”

 

“Oh spirits. Do you remember the time she came back from visiting her home village with a bottle of Absinthe?”

 

“As I recall you crawled into her lap and wouldn’t leave until she braided your hair. If I was a jealous man I might’ve done something stupid.”

 

“Who exactly would you be jealous of in that scenario?”

 

“Both? Both sounds good.”

 

“Hm. You know, the first time we met she kissed me? Just laid one right onto me, before I could do anything. I couldn’t look you in the eye for days.”

 

“She did not,” Hakoda said, shocked, before he tilted his head back and laughed for several moments, white teeth flashing in the dark room. He came down slowly, chuckling a few times and wiping his eyes. “Is that why you couldn’t look at me? I thought for sure I had done something to upset you. I spent days worrying about it before she knocked some sense into me.”

 

“Well, she always was the smart one, between us.”

 

“That she was,” Hakoda agreed. They smiled at each other for a moment, caught in memories, before Bato’s grin slipped off his face. 

 

“What do you think, about this new prison?”

 

“Probably higher security. Not that that would be hard.”

 

“What do you think our chances of escaping are before that?”

 

“Not great,” Hakoda said, looking resigned. “They hardly let us out in the first place, there’s no chance we could find a blind spot. And these guards are a little easy with their fire, I don’t want to put anyone in unnecessary danger. Without an inside man, or a pretty damn good distraction, I don’t think we’re leaving anytime soon.”

 

“Hm. We could try tomorrow, when the medic comes.”

 

“I thought of that, but the place will be crawling with guards. I think we’re just going to have to wait this one out.”

 

“Right,” Bato sighed. “Well, be careful in there. Just follow what they say, don’t try to act smart.”

 

“Now when have I ever done that?” Hakoda asked innocently. Bato rolled his eyes. “I’ll miss you,” Hakoda murmured, eyes going soft. Bato desperately wanted to reach out and touch him, tell him everything would be alright, kiss his bruised cheek. He wasn’t sure if he would ever see Hakoda again, and he had to sit here and pretend like it wasn’t ripping his heart out. He was abruptly angry, angry at the world, at the Fire Nation for starting this war, angry at the tribe for forcing them to be hidden. 

 

But mostly he was just angry at himself. He had let Hakoda get injured, and he wasn’t doing anything to help their tribe out of this mess, and maybe, if he had been quicker or less broken… He didn’t know what was on his face, but Hakoda touched his hand, the small motion hidden by the position of their bodies. Bato slumped a little, mouth still set in an unhappy frown. 

 

“We won’t be apart for too long,” Hakoda said softly. “I know it.”

 

Forty one

 

“Forgive me, Chief Hakoda,” the man sneered. “But I don’t recall inviting you to the Fire Nation Palace.”

 

“You didn’t,” Hakoda said unconcernedly. “There was a battle. There’s a new Fire Lord now.”

 

“Really?” the ambassador said, rolling his eyes. “I hadn’t noticed.”

 

“How terrible,” Hakoda said, brows furrowing. “Someone should have informed you.” He glanced Bato’s way. “Bato, tell this man there’s a new Fire Lord.”

 

“Thank you, Chief Hakoda,” Fire Lord Zuko said tiredly. “And ambassador Li, these men are honored guests. Please treat them with respect.” The ambassador snorted in disgust. 

 

Damnit. Hakoda and him had a running bet on the amount of times they could be backhandedly insulted in a meeting, and this would put Hakoda in the lead by two. There was an entirely separate section labeled ‘implication of being a backwards (or any other type of) savage’, which Bato was skimming the lead on. If he didn’t up his game, Hakoda would win and make him— well, he wasn’t sure what he would make him do, but it wouldn’t be pretty. 

 

“Be that as it may,” the ambassador continued. “There is absolutely no possible way we can pay reparations to your— tribe. With the war over, we barely have enough coin to run our own country, much less throw money at every nation that looks at us.”

 

“A waiting period then,” suggested a diplomat in Earth Kingdom green. “We will give you a period of time to get your finances in order, after which we will reconvene to decide what these reparations will look like.” 

 

“That might work for the Earth Kingdom,” Bato said, leaning forward. “But it will take more than money to help our tribe. The war took our warriors and our homes, yes, but it also took our shamans, our benders— our culture.”

 

“We do not have time to help you find your ‘shamans’—“ ambassador Li began icily. 

 

“There is one bender left in our whole tribe,” Bato said evenly. He saw a few of them duck their heads down at that. Benders were important to them. They were the cornerstone of a nation's culture, what they based their military, agriculture, and inventions around. It had been why the genocide of the Air Nomads had been so horrifying, and to hear the state of their tribe shamed them like nothing else could. It was heightened by the fact that each of these men knew exactly who Bato was referring to, with Katara being a war hero and the well known teacher to the Avatar.

 

“What would you have us do?” Fire Lord Zuko asked. 

 

“A restoration project,” Hakoda said from beside him. Bato, Hakoda, Sokka, Katara, and Pakku had all spoken on this before, hammering out the details. “The Northern Water Tribe has agreed to work with us to restore our tribe. What we need is transportation. The Fire Nation has a large navy. I’m sure you could spare some ships for the purpose of transporting our people from the North and South Poles.”

 

“Of course,” Zuko nodded. “That seems doable. If you need any more help with this project, we can discuss it at a later time.” Later, being perhaps when Katara would drag him to their family dinner because she thought he was overworking himself. She wasn’t wrong. At just seventeen the boy had the responsibility of a struggling nation on his too narrow shoulders. “Too damned serious,” Hakoda had been known to mutter to Bato from time to time. Hakoda seemed to have all but adopted the boy himself, though Zuko would never put it like that. Sokka had complained of favoritism, after the fifth time Hakoda had forced them all to relocate to another room to talk after Zuko had fallen asleep yet again in his noodles. Hakoda had cuffed him about the head and told him that when Sokka needed to run a country, Hakoda would stop forcing him to wake up before noon everyday. 

 

Out of all of Sokka and Katara’s friends though, Bato liked Toph. She had taken to following him around the palace at odd moments, gleefully insulting delegates and Fire Nation nobility alike during the negotiations they were trying to reach. Bato would have put a stop to it if it weren’t so amusing. She had even confided in him emotionally, though at the time he had no idea why. They had been chatting, walking through the halls and talking about nothing in particular when she had hesitantly talked to him about her parents. Bato had made sympathetic noises in the right places and gave her a hug when she was finished, which she melted into. 

 

He had brought it up with Hakoda after a long day of conferences, befuddled as to why Toph had chosen to confide in him. Hakoda gave him a look that said he was being even more stupid than usual, which was impressive considering he was sprawled across the bed with most of his face smushed into a pillow. 

 

“She misses her parents, dumbass,” Hakoda had said, voice slightly muffled. “Or at least, the idea of her parents. You seem to fit the bill, to her.”

 

“What?” Bato said, shocked. “I’m not anybody's parent.”

 

“You’ve been parenting Sokka and Katara for years.”

 

“No I haven’t! I've been— I don’t know, their uncle or something.”

 

“You used to sit by Katara every night so when she woke up from nightmares she would know it wasn’t real. You took Sokka to his first ice dodging, for spirits sake.”

 

“In an uncle way.”

 

Hakoda shot him another look. “Oh shit,” Bato said weakly. 

 

“Yeah,” Hakoda said, pushing his face fully into the bedding and going lax. 

 

“A parent. A father! I don’t know how to be a father!”

 

“Join the club,” Hakoda said grumpily. “Can we please go to sleep now? I’m tired.” Bato strode over and smacked him upside the head. “What was that for?” Hakoda demanded, looking up and clutching the back of his head. 

 

“Oh don’t even try that, I know it didn’t hurt. What the hell did you have to tell me this for?”

 

“It’s the truth.”

 

“What, like you’ve never heard of lying ?” Bato demanded. Hakoda sighed, and all at once Bato was being pulled onto the bed, limbs rearranged against Hakoda's body. “I don’t—“

 

“Shh,” Hakoda put a hand over his mouth. 

 

“Mmph,” Bato complained. 

 

“Bato. I promise, you can freak out about this tomorrow, and I will be very considerate, and very sympathetic. But right now—“ he smushed Bato’s head into his chest, “sleep.”

 

Now, the rest of the delegation was arguing about various ways to connect their economies. Bato let them talk, interjecting occasionally with an idea of his own. He chanced a glance at his side and saw Hakoda with his head in his hand, eyes glazed over. Wonderful. 

 

After what seemed like an eternity they were finally allowed to leave, politicians and diplomats trickling out the door. Zuko caught up to them after he was done exchanging farewells, wearing an ornate robe and a hangdog expression. 

 

“I’m, uh, sorry for what he said,” Zuko said. “I’ve been trying to replace some of the people in power, but it’s going— slowly.”

 

“No worries,” Hakoda said cheerfully. “You keep interrupting him, and Bato will get in the lead.”

 

“What?” Zuko asked. 

 

“Don’t worry about it,” Bato said kindly. “Are you coming to dinner tonight?”

 

“Yes, if I can finish writing letters to the delegates of Ba Sing Se. You are coming to that, right?”

 

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Hakoda said somewhat sourly, although Zuko didn’t seem to notice. They chatted all the way to their room, where Zuko left them with a smile and an awkward wave. 

 

Dinner that night went without a hitch. Or at least, it would have, had Bato not found himself rooted to his seat staring into a bowl of fire flakes, jaw clenched and muscles tight with pain. This happened, sometimes, ever since his injury. His muscles would randomly start burning, or would lock into place, like now. He clenched the edge of his seat, white knuckled, and he distantly heard Hakoda ushering out the kids. 

 

“Sweetheart,” Hakoda said, crouching down by his side. 

 

“I’m fine,” Bato panted. The pain was shooting down into his joints now. 

 

“You’re not fine, just let me—“ he tried reaching for Bato’s side to massage it, which sometimes helped, but Bato could already tell it wouldn’t be that kind of day.

 

“No,” Bato gasped, pushing him away. “No, stop—” he staggered up and almost immediately fell down, his joints grinding together like so much dust. Strong arms caught him and dragged him to the bath chamber, because this place was so decadent they had a whole room just for shitting, and he barely made it before he started throwing up everything he just ate. 

 

Bato heaved for what felt like hours, and when he was done he rested his forehead on cool stone. There was a hand on his neck, holding his hair back, and he jerked away, dropping against the wall, hands shaking. The flickering lamp light cast the small room into shadow, the stone bath and tiled floor making even the smallest noise echo. Hakoda looked across to him and Bato dropped his eyes, unwilling to see what was on his face.

 

“What is this,” Bato rasped. 

 

Hakoda’s brows knitted together. “What do you—“

 

“What are you doing here? I’m broken. I can barely move my arms over my head most days, and you just saw me collapse because my joints can’t do their fucking job. My body is more scar than skin at this point so I know you’re not here for my looks.” That came out more bitter than Bato had wanted. “There is— absolutely no reason you could want to stay. With me. You don’t need this, me and my fucking— problems. Just leave, before this gets any more painful than it has to.”

 

Hakoda rubbed his hand over his mouth roughly, and his eyes— Bato didn’t know how to describe them, other than to say that he had never seen Hakoda’s eyes look like that before. Gutted, maybe, was the word for it. Like his insides were bleeding out, and if he just moved his tunic aside Bato would see his organs spilling out onto the floor. “That’s really what you think,” Hakoda said hoarsely. “That’s really what you think about yourself.”

 

“It’s the truth.”

 

Hakoda swallowed, throat bobbing. The flickering light from the lamp cast his face in deep shadow, the lines in his face standing out in stark relief. His hair was graying a bit at the edges, and Bato could see the top of a scar peeking out from beneath his collar. He looked beautiful. 

 

“When Kya— died,” Hakoda said, and Bato looked up sharply. They did not talk about this. “Why didn’t you leave me? I know I wasn’t fun to be around. I said horrible things to you. I was snappish and rude and awful to be around for months, even though I knew you were hurting just as much. Why didn’t you just— go?”

 

“Spirits,” Bato said. “Do you really think that low of me? Of course I wouldn’t leave you.”

 

“I know,” Hakoda said gravely. “But why?”

 

“Because—” Bato blinked, licking his lips. “Nothing you do could ever make me leave,” he said slowly. “I belong to you. I would set myself on fire, if you asked, and I know intimately what that feels like. I've loved you my whole life, and I will love you until I die, and if there is a life after that I will love you in that as well. That’s the truth.” The words hung in the air for long moments after he said them. It was the most open Bato had ever been about how he felt. Most things went unsaid, between them. 

 

Hakoda moved then, crawling into his space and cupping his hand against Bato’s cheek. It was a gesture as easy and familiar to him as breathing. “Bato,” Hakoda said quietly. “It’s the exact same for me. Do you understand? The exact same.” Oh, Bato thought, and it was like the world was being flipped, rearranged in front of him. The world he was living in now was not the same world he had lived in a day ago, because Hakoda loved him. He had known, in some distant part of his mind, that Hakoda cared for him, perhaps even deeply, but he had not connected that to Hakoda loving him like this— like it hurt, like he could take all the pieces of him and break him apart. Like Bato loved him. He had long ago resigned himself to it. The sun rose from the East, seal jerky tasted like manure, and Bato loved Hakoda more than Hakoda loved him. It turned out he had been wrong about a lot of things.

 

Bato leaned forward and buried his head against Hakoda's chest, and Hakoda’s hand started stroking soothing lines down his back. The fact that it was littered with rough scars didn’t seem to bother him. “I’m sorry I’m so bad at this,” Bato mumbled against his neck. 

 

“I’m not exactly excellent at it myself.”

 

“I really fucking hate these burns.”

 

“I know.”

 

“And I really do love the hell out of you. Even if I don’t say it that much.”

 

“I know that too.”

 

“Okay,” Bato sighed, relaxing into his arms. “Okay.” They stayed like that for long moments, Bato trying to come to terms with the revelations of the past hour while Hakoda continued stroking his back, his hair, his cheek. 

 

Finally Hakoda shifted a little. “Do you want to go to bed?”

 

“I don’t actually think I can get up, right now,” Bato admitted. His joints felt like they would collapse in on themselves if he tried. Hakoda smoothed his hair back and pressed a kiss to the top of his forehead, and Bato shut his eyes against the sweetness of the gesture. His skin felt overly sensitive, like one touch could send him falling apart, and he didn’t think he could entirely blame the burns for that. He felt Hakoda's arm wrap around his waist, and they hobbled their way to the bed. It was a monstrous thing, decked out in red and gold silks and enormous pillows. Hakoda had spent days making terrible bed themed puns the first time they saw it. They laid together quietly, breath lining up. 

 

“Hakoda,” Bato said. 

 

“Mm.”

 

“Did we just kick the kids out in the middle of dinner, without giving them any reason why?”

 

Hakoda paused. “Yes.” Bato burst out laughing. “I think Toph thought we were having sex,” Hakoda confided. “She gave me a little wink before she left that I’ve been trying not to think about too hard.” He sounded horrified. Bato laughed harder. 

 

“She could probably feel your heart rate spiking up,” Bato said, still laughing a little. 

 

“She can feel heart rates? Wonderful. I now have to deal with the knowledge that every time I get horny a thirteen year old girl knows all about it. Stop laughing!”

 

“It’s okay, I’ll protect you from the mean— teenage girl,” Bato choked out. 

 

“But what I can’t figure out,” Hakoda said, still with that thousand yard stare. “Is why? Do we really seem like the kind of people who need to have sex so badly that we need to interrupt dinner?”

 

“Take it as a compliment,” Bato suggested. “And, Hakoda, she’s thirteen. I don’t think she thought it through that much. The extent that she thinks about romance probably ends with Sokka.”

 

“What? What does Sokka have to do with this?”

 

Bato lifted himself up on one elbow to look at him. He wasn’t joking. “Tui and La,” Bato said softly. “I didn’t realize people like you actually existed.”

 

“Toph and— and Sokka? But he’s with that Kyoshi girl!”

 

“It’s called a crush, Koda,” Bato said, amused. “I had one on you for several years, if you’ll recall.”

 

“Really?” Hakoda said, pleased. “Was it my dashing wit and good looks that did it for you?”

 

“I think it was around the third time I saw you fall out of your boat because you couldn’t be bothered to check which way the sail was facing, actually. I never said I had good taste.”

 

“I, on the other hand, have incredible taste,” Hakoda said, nuzzling into his neck. Bato paused. “You can’t say I’m wrong,” Hakoda said smugly, nibbling at his jaw. “Because then you’d be insulting yourself. But you can’t say I’m right either because you would never do that.”

 

“You’ve got me in a bind, here,” Bato agreed. Hakoda barked out a laugh. Bato rolled over so he was on top of him, kissing and biting him until Hakoda was moaning underneath him, pliant beneath his hands and thoughts swept away. 

 

Forty five

 

Bato carefully made his way through the rocky terrain, relishing in the salty wind blowing his hair back from his face from the ocean next to him. The cold winter had finally retreated from their village, leaving the coast with just a dusting of snow covering the millions of rocks twinkling beneath him in the sun. It was only a few more minutes before he saw who he came looking for— Hakoda, sitting against an enormous boulder and staring out into the ocean. He sat next to him without saying anything, and after a moment Hakoda reached out silently and laced their fingers together. 

 

Bato wondered what this was about. Hakoda almost never came here unless he was struggling with some sort of decision. Bato had found him here when his father had offered him the position of chief, and when the Earth Kingdom had come to them with a proposition for joining the war. That, of course, was long past. The years after the war had seen massive changes in the Southern Water Tribe. Pakku had led the effort to restore the tribe to its former glory, bringing new families and water benders to repopulate the tribe. Sokka had been of innumerable value, pushing for factories and jobs to be made to create an area that would become an economic hub, and already Bato could see the change. It was tiring work, but satisfying, at the same time, to watch the tribe become something like Bato remembered in his earliest memories.

 

Bato watched in interest as Hakoda straightened up, shoulders broadening and a determined look settling upon his face. A decision had been made. Whatever it was, Bato would support him, even if it was—

 

“Let’s get married,” Hakoda said, and it was so casual that for a moment Bato just nodded along, not processing. When he did, he stared. 

 

“Tui and La,” Bato muttered. 

 

“Actually it’s just me. Though I’ve been told the resemblance is—”

 

“Have you lost your spirits damned mind,” Bato demanded. 

 

“Not exactly the reaction I was hoping for, I have to admit. Listen, Bato, I know what you’re thinking—“

 

“Oh you really, really do not.”

 

“I know what you’re thinking because I’ve been thinking the same things, but this could work.”

 

“It could work,” Bato said, and he scrambled up to his feet, pacing. Hakoda just watched him from his seat on the ground, still with that infuriating calm on his face. “There are a thousand reasons this shouldn’t even exist, much less work. The elders would tear you apart, not to mention the tribe—“

 

“So we’ll leave.”

 

“Leave! You’re chief! This is your home—“

 

“My home is wherever you are,” Hakoda said, and Bato faltered a step before going back to his furious pacing. 

 

“You can’t just abandon them. You’re chief, you have a duty toward them.”

 

“Fuck duty,” Hakoda said, so viciously that it startled him. “We did our duty. We fought and we bled and we killed for our tribe. We deserve some happiness. Besides, Sokka is ready. He’s more than proved himself, and if he doesn’t think he’s prepared then Byo can take over until he is.”

 

“You’ve actually thought about this,” Bato said, a tad wonderingly. 

 

“I have. I think it could work, and even if it doesn’t I’m prepared to try. Bato, I love you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I’m sick of this hiding, as though what we’re doing is shameful. Like it’s wrong. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me, and if you’d let me I’d scream it from the top of the mountains so everyone in the tribe would know.” Bato drew forward, and Hakoda gently grabbed his wrist to pull him down so they were sitting across from each other. 

 

“Sokka and Katara,” Bato said half heartedly, in a last ditch attempt to avoid this madness. 

 

“I told them about us weeks ago. Sokka was fine with it. Katara took some time to come around, but she said she’s glad I’m happy.”

 

“Ah. I am… glad I was not around for that conversation.”

 

“It was an awkward few dinners,” Hakoda agreed, eyes smiling. Bato sat in silence for a moment, trying to wrap his mind around the idea. Marriage. It had never seemed like something that was for him. He had convinced himself, a long time back, that it was the idea of marriage that he disliked, that he didn’t want to be tied down in that way. It was a pretty lie to disguise the fact that he couldn’t, not with the way he was. And here Hakoda was, ramming down all his walls as usual. He tentatively prodded at the idea, the thought of being someone’s husband, of Hakoda being his husband, and found a quiet awe building in him. Was this how it felt for everyone? This quiet wonder at something that felt so much bigger than himself?

 

“So, leave, huh?” Bato said finally. “Where were you thinking?” Hakoda grinned, and Bato found himself helplessly smiling back. Hakoda leaned forward and captured his mouth in a kiss, and it was like his brain went quiet of all his doubts and worries, just for that moment in his arms. 

 

“Wherever you want,” Hakoda promised once they drew back. “Though I was thinking Omashu first, maybe. They don’t really have any laws against that kind of marriage, there.”

 

“Spirits,” Bato muttered again. “We’re getting married.”

 

“I know,” Hakoda said, grinning. He slid into Bato’s lap and kissed away all the air in his lungs. Bato gave himself up to it, to his beautiful, impossible man, let his weight pin him down and quicken his pulse and open his heart. He let his thumbs brush against that face which was more dearer and familiar to him than his own, and kissed it until every thought was swept away.