Sokka never thought he'd be paying so much attention to Zuko, but after returning from the prison, Suki and his father in tow, he couldn't help noticing certain things about the firebender.
Little things like how he subconsciously touched his scar sometimes before seeming to realize he was doing it and forcing his hand down, eyes flickering around to make sure he hadn't been caught.
Or how he went out of his way to make sure the others were comfortable at night, warming their blankets when when he thought no one was looking.
But most of all Sokka noticed how he acted around his father.
Hakoda treated all the children like they were his own, and Sokka was far from jealous. He thought they could all use a little fatherly touch, some more than others. Zuko was actually top of that list and yet --
Every time he saw his father approach Zuko, he would startle out of his skin and rush away with a polite bow.
Sokka almost felt bad for his dad, the way his shoulders would slump and he'd shake his head, turning the other direction and walking off. But he knew, now more than ever, that Zuko wasn't doing it on purpose. Despite their rocky past, and some of Zuko's persistent issues, Sokka knew he never intended to be mean or rude.
Which just made him wonder why, exactly, he was so against his father's affection.
He obviously hadn't gotten much of it from his own father. Sokka would think, logically, he would enjoy the attention from Hakoda. To make up for what he hadn't gotten as a child. Made sense to him.
Sokka asked Katara about it and she just looked at him like he was an idiot.
"What?" he asked innocently.
Rolling her eyes, she turned away, a bundle of twigs in her arms for the nightly fire. "You are unbelievable, Sokka," she said and that was the end of that.
Sokka debated just letting it go after that. Until -- one night during supper, Hakoda offered Zuko what was left of his serving and he froze, blinking owlishly at Sokka's father. His father leaned in, a worried crease between his eyebrows. "Son, you okay?"
Zuko jumped up so fast he kicked up dirt. "Um. I - I need to - " He gestured wildly at the woods before rushing off.
Sokka watched as his father sat back with a frown, glancing at the stick. The meat had been ruined for all, covered in dirt from Zuko's hasty escape. Everyone was silent, even Toph.
Finally Sokka stood up. No one questioned him as he turned and followed Zuko's tracks. He grabbed his boomerang and sword on the way. The woods were hardly safe at night.
Thankfully finding the firebender was hardly a task; he just followed the glow of fire.
Parting some branches, he saw him, sitting on a fallen log with a small flame in the palm of his hand. Zuko looked up at his entrance, mouth twisting. "I would prefer to be alone," he muttered, looking back down.
Sokka shrugged. "Too bad," he replied as he walked over and joined him.
They were both silent. Sokka watched the flame in Zuko's palm, flickering and dancing in the wind. Finally, the silence was broken by Zuko: "I'm sorry."
Sokka blinked. He hadn't been expecting that. "For what?"
Zuko shrugged, staring ahead, an almost wistful look on his face. Sokka's heart squeezed at the sight, feeling like he was overstepping by watching him. But he didn't look away. He couldn't.
"Your father. He's - I know he's trying, but I don't know how to - deal with that."
Sokka blinked again. "Deal with what?" he asked, not understanding.
"Someone caring about me," he replied, fire glowing brightly before dimming again.
Sokka looked away finally, stomach churning. He knew bits and pieces about Zuko's past, of course, but he didn't know the full story and now he wasn't sure he wanted to. They had all had their own problems, sure, but Sokka had always had the gift of a family that cared. His mother before she was killed. Katara. His father. Zuko never had that.
He hadn't realized how much of a privilege that was. He had taken it for granted so many times.
"Your father was that bad?" he asked finally, quiet. He didn't want to hear the horrors of his childhood, but maybe he needed to. Maybe Zuko needed to talk about it. If so, Sokka could be there for him. Could do that for him, especially after all he had done for him.
It was a stupid question, of course. Ozai was heartless, they all knew that, but Sokka had always assumed it had to be different inside the palace. That he treated at least some people decently. Like his own family. He had obviously been wrong. He felt childish for believing there was any good in him.
Zuko closed his eyes. The fire glowed brighter again before dimming. Sokka was starting to understand the correlation. Emotion to fire. Fire to emotion.
"I don't think he even deserves to be called that," he answered after a long stretch of silence. "What kind of father disfigures their own child for speaking out of turn?"
Sokka stiffened before forcing himself to relax. He glanced at Zuko's scar just to feel guilt. He looked away again. "No one deserves that," he said. It was a stupid thing to say. An obvious thing to say.
But Zuko smiled slightly, opening his eyes. "No," he agreed, staring up at the sky. "For a long time, I chose to be angry. But now I won't give him that satisfaction."
Sokka let out a huff of amusement. "You're one hell of a guy, you know that?"
Zuko's head snapped in his direction, an odd quirk to his mouth. "What do you mean?"
He smiled softly. "You survived all that and now look at you, with us. Doing the right thing. I don't know if I would've ended up here if I'd been in your shoes." He swallowed around the lump in his throat. He had a hard time being genuine. He could do jokes, or empty flattering remarks to pretty women, sure, but this was different. He meant it every fiber of his being, which was why he needed to say it. Why he knew Zuko needed to hear it. "You're really strong."
Zuko blinked once before he was blushing, mostly only visible on his right side. Sokka couldn't help thinking he looked kind of cute. He swiftly pushed that irrational thought away, heart pounding. Zuko ducked his head, flame going out. Thankfully they could both still see, somewhat, by the stars in the sky. Sokka grinned, unable to help himself.
"Aw," he said, poking him in the arm. "Is someone embarrassed?"
Zuko smacked his hand away, still blushing. "You are the absolute worst."
"I'm not and you know it," he replied, standing up and extending a hand. "Now come on."
Zuko took his hand without much of a fight, which surprised Sokka but he was hardly complaining. His skin was unnaturally warm. A result of being a firebender, maybe. Or maybe it was just a Zuko thing. Or a mix of both.
Sokka actually found himself kind of disappointed once Zuko pulled his hand free.
They walked back, quiet for most of the way. Until -- "You don't have to do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable," Sokka said, slowing a bit. Zuko slowed with him. "But just know my dad isn't trying to make you feel like that. He just - he wants you to know you're not alone. And I'm with him. You're not alone." Sokka ignored the thump of his heart. "You have us now."
Zuko looked at him. With just the stars as a source of light, it was hard to tell just what kind of expression he was wearing. But Sokka could easily see his eyes, bright even in the dark.
"Thank you, Sokka," he said quietly. "For everything."
Sokka swallowed thickly. "I should be thanking you for helping me," he said. He had thanked him already but he was pretty sure no amount of thanks would ever be enough. "You risked a lot to help me get my dad back."
And Suki, but for some reason he didn't feel like mentioning her in that moment.
He would think more on that later.
Once they returned, the fire was still roaring but most of their group had retired for the night. Not Hakoda, though. He stood up once he saw them, looking out of place and stiff. Sokka suppressed a small smile. "Zuko," he said with a curt nod. "I realize I might've been making you uncomfortable without realizing it, and I am - "
Zuko stepped forward. "Don't apologize," he interrupted, eyes flickering to Sokka and back again before bowing slightly. "Thank you for welcoming me so warmly, especially after everything I've done."
"Don't thank me," he said softly, and then looked almost guilty. "I might not have been so welcoming if it hadn't been for Sokka. But I trust my son, and if he trusts you, so do I."
Zuko's head snapped up. He blinked once before ducking his head again. "Right, of course."
"Well, boys, I'm retiring for the night," Hakoda stepped forward and patted his son's back. "Make sure you put the fire out before you sleep."
Sokka watched as his father walked to his tent before turning his attention back to Zuko. From this angle, he could just barely see that his cheeks were flushed again. "What is it?"
"Nothing," he replied instantly, sitting heavily on one of the logs. "Just - none of them would trust me as much as they do if it weren't for you, Sokka."
He joined him on the log. "They would," he said, meaning it. "Eventually. I just sped things up a little."
Zuko nodded, staring at the fire that reflected beautifully in his eyes. Sokka forced himself to look down.
"I'm glad I'm here," Zuko said after another long stretch of silence.
Sokka glanced at him, chest tight. "Yeah," he said, harshly clearing his throat. "Me too."