Zuko doesn’t spend much time with his uncle, with Iroh being a general and away for long stretches in the Earth Kingdom, but he secretly cherishes the time he has in the man’s presence. He doesn’t say this to anyone, but besides his mother, Uncle is the only one who doesn’t make him feel afraid.
Most of what Uncle says is confusing, and Zuko is an easily frustrated boy. His outbursts are only ever met with laughter and offers of tea. Sometimes Zuko accepts, because he isn’t really mad. Other times, it only frustrates him more and he stomps away to sulk, hoping that his sister doesn’t find him easily.
Time with Uncle is limited when he first arrives back from the walled city of Ba Sing Se.
“Why isn’t Uncle coming out of his rooms more?” he asks his mother.
“He’s still sad, Zuko. There is no greater pain than losing a child. It would be like losing a part of yourself,” his mother tells him, weary but ever patient.
Zuko recalls the turtleduck mother, and how it had hurt when she bit him.
Ty Lee cartwheels over to where Zuko is practicing with his knife. He flinches and straightens as she bounds up beside him; he doesn’t dislike his sister’s friend, but she has the bad habit of startling him and standing too close.
“Mai likes you, you know,” she leans in to whisper.
Heat floods Zuko’s face. Before he can respond, Ty Lee is gone and Azula is beckoning him over to play a game.
Too many of her games end with Zuko in the fountain, and this one is no different. He storms back to his room, water sloshing in his boots, and thinks again that girls are crazy.
Dry and in bed, he wonders if he likes Mai, too.
There are so few children his age around the palace. It makes sense that he and Mai would become friends. And they do. It happens naturally. Zuko appreciates the quiet girl and the fact that even though she is friends with his sister she is never cruel to him.
She’s pretty, a fact that matters both more and less as they age.
His mother is gone and she takes with her Zuko’s knowledge of who he is. There’s only one person now who doesn’t make him feel afraid, but he is afraid that he, too, will eventually leave. That Zuko will either be too much or not nearly enough.
Zuko, bored, once tries reading some of the stories that his mother seems to be so fond of. Most are too mushy for his taste, with not enough sword fights or firebending to keep his attention for long. He prefered when his mother read them to him, anyway, rather than hearing his own voice in his head. How unfortunate that now his voice is the only option.
One story manages to grab him, and he holds a candle to the scroll to read long past when he should have been asleep. He tucks it away for later.
“Uncle,” he says after sipping tea the next day, “do you believe in soulmates?”
He waits impatiently for long moments. Iroh always seems to have an answer at the ready for every question. Zuko thinks it strange that he takes so much time to answer something that only requires a yes or no.
“I believe, nephew, that we have a great capacity for love. We should not shy away from loving as many people who cross our path as we can.”
Zuko rolls his eyes, because that answer is so very Uncle. “Right, but do you think that there can be one person for another who is their other half?”
“No,” Uncle says. “I do not believe that.”
When his father hurtles a fistfull of flame at his face, Zuko thinks he understands what it is to lose a part of himself.
He loses several things. The first, the loss of his skin and ear and maybe even his eyesight, and the replacement of those things with a burning wound, isn’t as painful as the others.
His honour, his dignity, his birthright—it’s agony when those are stripped from him.
Sokka’s childhood is a happy one at first, spent with a loving family. He rarely knows so much as a harsh word, even when he is making trouble.
Then his mother is gone, and his father follows not many years later. The chief’s being gone is theoretically temporary, but Sokka knows enough to understand that theory can turn to reality in an instant.
His childhood ends when he and Katara find the last airbender.
It’s laughably easy to disarm the Water Tribe boy who runs at him. If he weren’t so single mindedly focused on capturing the Avatar, Zuko might have taken stock of the expression on the boy’s face and found it amusing.
He’s not laughing when the boomerang hits the back of his head, but the wound to his pride is soothed when the Avatar is willing to leave with him.
Later, while his crew digs the ship out from under an avalanche of ice, he thinks of everything that went wrong that day. It’s a long list. It only serves as a reminder that he needs to be better.
That he is not good enough. Not yet.
It smarts, how easily he is tossed aside by the Fire Nation teen who is barely older than himself. Sokka doesn’t like to give up, but over the following months there are times when he sees his sister and Aang and Toph do things so amazing he can’t help but feel useless. Even just for a moment.
Contrary to what most might believe, Zuko thinks a lot about people other than himself. He thinks about the Avatar, mostly, but the Water Tribe girl who bested him at the North Pole has proven herself a formidable adversary and Zuko considers how to outdo her next time they meet. He thinks about his Uncle, naturally, and his father and sister. He tries not to think about his mother.
The Water Tribe boy...well, he doesn’t think about him at all.
Sokka wishes, fervently and on a daily basis, that he could forget about the snarling, angry, scarred prince who insists on chasing them around the world.
He chases, and catches, and loses, over and over.
Zuko looks at the man tending to his wife, heavy with a swollen belly, and wonders if the pair thinks they are soulmates. He thinks that if he had a soulmate, he would try to give them a comfortable home.
Despite the haze of hunger threatening to consume him, he still manages to find that thought absurd.
Zuko doesn’t know what a comfortable home is.
To see the Avatar and the waterbender and the newcomer, who appears to be an earthbender, face down his sister is not surprising. For the nonbender, the Water Tribe teen to also join the fray—Zuko has to admit that, frankly, that takes balls.
Seeing and hearing the prince’s pain when the old man—Zuko’s uncle, apparently—gets hit by Azula’s attack sparks the first instance of Sokka’s sympathy for the Fire Nation teen.
Not for the first time, he thanks the spirits for giving him Katara as a sister.
Being the Blue Spirit means being free, just for a few minutes or hours.
Looking back, Zuko isn’t sure he can pinpoint the moment he realized that his eyes tend to wander to men as much as they did to women. Being banished at thirteen had limited his opportunity for exploration. In all likelihood, he would have just continued to explore with Mai. There hadn’t seemed to be other options.
His obsession with capturing the Avatar diminishes any of the typical adolescent urges he might experience. He grows up at sea, where relationships seem insignificant.
In Ba Sing Se, settled and working in a tea shop, Uncle encourages him to explore again. His single date is nice. He wants to make it pleasant for her, as much as he can through the cloud of his ever present loathing for himself and the things around him. The chaste kiss they share is lovely and tender, but Zuko pulls away because he is undeserving of these things.
Not long after that a boy about his age comes to the tea shop regularly. Zuko can’t help but steal glances at him, even when he seems to get caught more often than not.
Neither of them makes a move.
Ba Sing Se has been, in truth, rather boring so far. Sokka almost wishes that Zuko would show up and attack them, just for something to do. Almost.
He certainly didn’t predict that freeing the bison would have sent him spiralling into the worst illness of his life. When he emerges, he doesn’t feel like a beautiful prince. He feels lighter, in some ways, or tells himself that he will if he can keep smiling like this for just a little longer.
He betrays his Uncle, and by extension himself, down in the crystal catacombs. It haunts him almost immediately. Zuko thought he knew anger, but he is just now making its acquaintance.
Zuko is on a boat deck with Mai.
They don’t talk about it, the fact that he was gone for three years. They don’t talk about how he thinks he might be an entirely different person now.
She didn’t ask for his life story, after all.
Mai just kisses him, and he guesses that means they’re together now.
Sokka is on a boat deck with his father.
They trade stories and laugh, and sometimes a sombre moment of reality will set in as they acknowledge that Aang still has yet to wake.
When his father leaves, Sokka thinks a lot about his friends and those they’ve helped and those they couldn’t help.
Often, he thinks about the scarred prince. He blames it on Yue’s influence shining down on him, but he wonders if anyone has ever really tried to help him.
Zuko has a lot of time to think. Too much time.
There is very little that is required of him around the palace. He is rarely invited to meetings, and he can’t expect Mai to always be available to entertain him. He trains, both his bending and his swords, though that can only occupy so many hours in a day.
He thinks a lot about the Avatar, almost certainly alive. Anxiety that he will be found out gnaws at him incessantly. He thinks about Azula, what she must be planning. He wonders where his mother is and if she is alive. He tries and fails to avoid thinking about his Uncle and how he is being treated in prison.
Occasionally he thinks about the boy from the tea shop and wonders what it would have been like to kiss him.
He berates himself for it, because he has far better things to be spending his time on. The most pressing being how to avoid being discovered as a traitor to his nation once more.
Zuko admits to himself that he may like certain men in a not-so-platonic way.
He’s already so full of shame that there is no more room to feel ashamed about this fact.
Still, he doesn’t tell anyone.
He doesn’t hate her, too, but does that mean he loves Mai?
Yes, in some way, he definitely does. He likes kissing her and looking at her and listening to the subtle peaks and valleys of her voice, so maybe that’s love in another way.
Zuko thinks of his uncle’s words from long ago, and tries to love her better.
Mai, licking the remnants of a fruit tart off her fingers, asks him the same question he posed his uncle several years prior. She sounds bored when she asks, but he suspects that she is interested in his answer.
He scoffs. “Don’t be stupid.”
“What do you feel, when you’re with me?” Mai asks.
“Yes, you big dummy. Feelings. Emotions. You know the ones?”
Zuko could laugh at Mai getting on his case about feelings, of all things, but he refrains.
“I feel...good,” he tells her, and winces, because it comes out half a question. “Good,” he says again, more decisively. “I feel really good when I’m with you.”
It’s not a lie, no matter the answer the voice in his head supplies.
I feel alone.
Facing his father is the most terrifying thing Zuko has ever done, and the bravest. Resolve is chipping away at anger.
Sokka has never known failure so intimately as when the invasion plan is unsuccessful and his father is captured.
When the prince shows up asking for clemency and offers to teach firebending to the Avatar, Sokka doesn’t have it in him to buy the story. Maybe before the eclipse, before his own failure, but not now. Even if he seems to no longer be the angry boy who kicked him off a gangway all those months ago.
Then Zuko helps save them from Combustion man—Sokka’s boomerang did most of the work, however, a fact he will preen about for the rest of his life—and Aang trusts him, so he tries to as well.
He’s accepted into the Avatar’s group, eventually, and it’s painfully tense at first. Apart from the blind earthbender, they all have more than enough reason to hate him. Well, she might now, on account of her feet.
The Water Tribe boy—Sokka—shows him to a room in the air temple. He’s courteous about it, which is more than Zuko has a right to expect. It’s endearing, in a way, the awkward attempt to include him.
Zuko hates to tell him about the prison.
Zuko tells him he’s never happy, and all Sokka can think about is how sad that is.
Sokka tells him about his first girlfriend, and Zuko says the first thing that comes to his mind, and it’s painfully stupid, it really is, but apparently it is also the right thing to say, because they lapse into comfortable silence and a wall that existed before seems to have crumbled, just a little.
If a year ago someone had told Sokka that he would be in a war balloon, heading to a volcanic prison with the traitor Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, discussing his first girlfriend and hearing the perfect response, the exact words he needed to hear—“That’s rough, buddy”—he would have told them to lay off the cactus juice.
While they’re trying to escape from the prison there isn’t time for Zuko to think about anything other than getting everyone out alive, before his sister can capture or maim them.
Mai saves all their asses, and he loves her for it.
Later he thinks about how fearless Sokka—a nonbender, he sometimes has to remind himself— was to run at his sister with a space sword and no second thoughts.
But then again, the same boy once ran at Zuko with no training and no hope of winning, so he shouldn’t be surprised.
This time he was running in front of Zuko, toward Azula on his behalf.
He’s lucky to be able to call the boy a friend.
Zuko cares what Katara thinks about him. He wants her trust, knows he doesn’t deserve it, wants to try and earn it anyway.
His jaw drops when he enters Sokka’s tent and sees the other boy stretched out, pantless, obviously expecting someone who is not Zuko.
He doesn’t dwell on how much he likes Sokka with his hair down from its usual wolf tail. Now is really not the time.
Zuko asks instead about his mother. It’s a hard question and a personal one. He is shocked when Sokka, the boy he’s only been not actively trying to hunt along with his friends for a few weeks now, tells him everything without hesitation. It’s staggering how much he trusts him with this. How vulnerable he is willing to be. Even after the prison, Zuko thinks that if Sokka asked him a similar question, he would probably yell something unfair and storm away.
When, the next day, Katara dares to suggest that Sokka didn’t love their mother the way she did, Zuko understands. She’s angry and in pain, and oh, Agni does he understand that. It doesn’t stop the strange defensiveness that springs up in him, the urge he feels to say something to remove the hurt look from Sokka’s face.
He doesn’t say anything.
They find the man who killed Katara’s mother. She forgives him.
He thinks about finding Sokka.
Eventually he hears the story from Katara, hears what his mother’s murderer was like.
His sister is strong, and she doesn’t need protection, but he is a brother and worrying is what he does. So when he hears how Zuko helped her, Sokka is grateful in a way he will never be able to express.
Aang is looking wistfully into the fire, and Zuko can easily guess that his thoughts are on the pretty waterbender next to him.
“Do you guys believe in soulmates? Your other half?” he asks.
Yup, Zuko thinks. Definitely thinking about Katara.
He can’t blame the kid, really. She is smart and powerful—she’s handed him his ass a few times—and bewilderingly compassionate. He’d entertained a fantasy or two about the girl himself, back after she touched his scar and offered to heal him. He was happy now that they were friends, but there was no other feeling there. What he had liked, what fueled those brief fantasies, was the possibility of being cared about. Something Katara does so deeply for anyone she meets. Uncle would approve of her worldview.
“Nah,” Toph says. “Who could handle all of this?” She turns her thumbs toward herself, and the group laughs.
“Having seen my parents together...yeah, I like to think that there is something like a soulmate out there for each of us,” Katara says. It’s a heavy statement. Zuko still smirks lightly at the way Aang perks up when she speaks.
Neither Sokka nor Suki answer, but the Water Tribe boy smiles at the warrior tucked under his arm. He probably believes in soulmates, Zuko thinks. It must be easy enough when you’ve found yours.
Sokka prides himself on being practical. Too practical to believe in soulmates, certainly. He loves Suki though, so maybe his mind will be changed yet.
The play is terrible for so many reasons. Who in their right mind would want to watch all their mistakes thrown back at them in a painfully melodramatic manner? And Zuko’s mistakes are numerous. His new friends are seeing sides of him that he’d prefer nobody ever uncover.
He’s interested when he sees the rendition of the Northern Water Tribe princess turning into the moon spirit. Sokka had never told him the full story—why would he, really—but Zuko sees it and is reminded again that he is not the only one who has lost someone important because of this war. He knows that, knows it full well, but seeing it enacted on a stage in front of him forces Zuko to consider that they’ve all had their childhood stolen from them in one way or another.
The meat and sarcasm guy is no exception, no matter how carefree he can sometimes appear.
He’s embarrassed when the play suggests he and Katara have a thing, and silently hopes that Aang will not try to talk to him about it later.
Zuko knows that Sokka and Suki are cuddling on the bench behind him. He pointedly does not look at them throughout the play—not because he’s jealous, of course not, but because it has been so long since Zuko has known what it is to have easy affection like that. Until Mai, the occasional hug from his Uncle were the only moments of contact that weren’t meant to cause harm.
He’s hungry for touch without pain, and he hates how weak that makes him.
He wasn’t the one who died on stage—he wasn’t much of a player in the production, to be honest, but that’s fine because Sokka has come to terms with his role in this war and doesn’t need the validation, even if it would have been nice—though he feels sorry for his friends who did have to watch themselves go up in flames.
Katara has always been better at comforting Aang, as much as he loves the kid. So Sokka seeks out Zuko that night, offers to have tea with him in case he wants to talk.
He doesn’t want to talk, which is not a surprise. It stings only a little.
Sokka reaches over to squeeze the other boy’s shoulder before he goes, just once, in solidarity, but such a small, strangled noise slips from the back of Zuko’s throat that he can’t leave him.
They don’t talk, but they spend hours looking into the fire between them.
“You were the Blue Spirit?!” Sokka exclaims.
Aang has just told the story of when he was imprisoned by Zhao. Zuko was surprised to find that their friends weren’t already aware of his masked alter-ego.
“Hey, you didn’t think it was that exciting when I was the Painted Lady,” Katara complains.
Sokka waves off her annoyance. “The Painted Lady never ran around with super cool swords and a bad—ass mask. But the Blue Spirit was a legend! There were wanted posters and everything!”
“Sokka, we’ve all had wanted posters of us at some point,” Toph reminds him.
Sokka leans over to Zuko and mock-whispers behind a raised hand, “Don’t listen to them, buddy. I’m a fan of the Blue Spirit.”
Zuko just shakes his head, a little embarrassed. He hopes the evening light hides the blush that creeps up his cheeks at the open admiration from his friend.
“So, do you still have the mask?” Sokka asks him later, on their way back from Zuko accompanying him during a trip to the market.
“No. I, uh, kind of let it sink to the bottom of Lake Laogai.”
Zuko blushes again at the genuine disappointment on his friend’s face.
Sokka really did want to see the mask.
Piandao is a great master, but their time together was short. Sokka thinks he could learn a lot from the Blue Spirit.
He watches Sokka slice through the melon that represents his father. Doesn’t flinch. Admires how easily the other boy made the killing blow. Tries to feel remorse that this is what must happen to the man who sired him, for all his faults, and cannot.
“Does it bother you? The fact that Aang is going to have to kill your father?”
“Okay. Just...I’m here for you, buddy. We all are.”
“You restored your own honour, and only you can restore the honour of the Fire Nation.”
Zuko wants to believe his uncle, and he doesn’t dare contradict him in front of his friends, in front of everyone counting on him to help end the war and usher in an era of peace.
His honour might be back. He wonders if that means he’s good enough to lead a nation yet.
When Aang, Toph, Suki and Sokka arrive with his father, still alive and rendered harmless, Zuko is shocked at the relief that he feels.
Not relief, he tells himself, just a pragmatic realization that maybe now, finally, he can find out where his mother is.
Sokka watches for any sign of distress on Zuko’s face the first time he lays eyes on his father, the dethroned Phoenix King.
Seeing none, he breathes again.
Zuko is pleased to see Mai before his coronation. She helps him into his robes and holds him and says, in her threatening way, to never break up with her again.
He’s good now, he knows he is. They ended the war. His part in that was not small, yet remnants of doubt and uncertainty about his own worthiness reside in his chest.
Mai is probably more than he deserves. He kisses her anyway and makes a promise to himself that he will try to be enough.
He is sure his soul is a patchwork, a threadbare quilt of things that Zuko has scraped together over his lifetime. He’s spent so long trying to form something from the vestiges of himself since his mother left that he’s not confident in who he really is anymore beyond his title.
She told him to never forget who he is. He lost that knowledge when he lost the left half of his face.
He was starting to understand, when he joined the Avatar and finally felt his intentions align with his heart. But as his friends fly and sail away from the palace and he is left to pick up the pieces of a fractured country, he feels like they take fragments of him with them.
It’s harder than he would have expected, leaving the Fire Nation. Leaving behind friends there instead of running from enemies is an odd reversal of the state of things, one that Sokka is grateful for, to be sure. It’s still hard.
Right before Appa carries them too high to see the figures on the ground, Sokka thinks that he catches a glimpse of the new Fire Lord’s face crumpling. Guilt spears his gut.
Zuko isn’t sure why he has such a fascination with the concept, but not long after his friends leave to start their lives, new and no longer dictated by war, he visits the catacombs again to look for information on soulmates.
He’s settled into a comfortable pattern with Mai, but there are parts of himself that he isn’t sure she can ever understand or accept, and he might not be brave enough to give her the opportunity to try. Perhaps that’s what has him looking for something that tells him that there is no chance of anyone being that person, ever. If that were the case, he could accept what he has and give up childish wishes for something...more.
As it turns out, the Fire Nation has long rejected the idea of soulmates, despite the other nations’ belief in them. The Air Nomads and Water Tribes, in particular, apparently used to teach that there every soul has a twin, so everyone has someone that completes them when the souls are reunited. The Fire Nation barely approves of love matches, let alone those that are fated by the Spirits in some way.
That doesn’t offer much clarity for Zuko, and he tosses the scrolls back onto their shelves. Dust billows and he sneezes.
He confronts Iroh about this information, telling him that soulmates must not be real, or at least not anything special, if the Fire Nation has dismissed the very idea for over a century. His uncle only shakes his head and tells him that the universe is all about balance, and that balance extends to who each one of them spends their life with.
Zuko throws his hands above his head in frustration. “Uncle, you were the one who told me that soulmates don’t exist,” he shouts.
Iroh smiles enigmatically. “No, nephew. I told you that there is nobody out there who makes up your other half.”
“That’s the same thing!”
His uncle’s dry chuckle follows him as he storms back to his chamber.
Mai leaves him—again—and Zuko is upset, yes, but he understands. He has too many secrets, from her and from himself. He isn’t what she needs.
This time, he also thinks that maybe she isn’t what he needs, either. Not anymore.
Sokka is accepted as a man and a warrior in the Southern Water Tribe, and really, truly, he is happy to be back at home.
The issue is he can’t help but feel that he is needed more elsewhere. He hasn’t felt useless in this way since before he learned to use a sword and lead a team, and he doesn’t like it.
He confronts Hakoda one day, as they’re building a new central community igloo. “Hey, dad. Can we talk?”
“What is it, son?”
His father looks at him with such pride that Sokka almost falters, almost doesn’t say what he’s been planning to say, but he pushes through it.
“You don’t need me here, not really. I love being here with you and Gran Gran and Katara, when she’s home, but…”
He trails off as understanding blazes from his father’s eyes, even as Hakoda’s lips tremble in their effort to keep smiling.
“Go, Sokka. Your talent is being wasted here. Take as long as you need to rest, but then let us older folks handle things down here. Your mind is better put to use making change elsewhere.”
Sokka embraces his father, unashamed of the tears that spill onto his parka.
Three letters are sent, the last one to the Fire Nation Palace.
When everyone arrives in the capital a few weeks later at his request, Sokka’s own gut finally settles. He thinks Zuko feels the same as he embraces Katara and Aang before they’ve even completely slid off of Appa.
“Yikes, Zuko, you really put that guy in his place,” Katara says as they leave a meeting. She’s referring to an old general that served under his father. The man is still on staff because he denounced loyalty to Ozai, and it is easier to keep an eye on him if he stays close. That hadn’t stopped Zuko from lashing out by the tenth time the general had pushed back on sending additional financial aid to Omashu.
“That old guy had it coming,” Toph says.
Zuko rubs the back of his neck. “Sorry. I need to get better at controlling my temper.”
“The monks taught us that—”
Aang is cut off by a collective groan.
“Don’t worry, buddy. You didn’t challenge the guy to a jerkbending duel or anything. He needed to be dealt with,” Sokka reassures.
The conversation moves on, and Zuko tries to relax.
But there is still time to end up like his father.
Katara is Zuko’s first choice for emissary from the Southern Water Tribe, but her duties lie with Aang for the foreseeable future, she tells him.
Sokka is offended to be the second choice. Zuko curses Katara for not being able to keep a secret from her brother.
“It’s not because I didn’t think you would do a good job,” he tells the affronted warrior, “I just thought you might want to spend more time at the South Pole to help with the rebuilding.”
“I do,” Sokka says. “Of course I do. But there are plenty coming from our sister tribe to help with that, and if you need me here more, then I’ll be here.”
They shake on it. Sokka is delighted, grinning and making jokes about how he is going to knock some Fire Nation heads in a figurative sense, and how he is finally going to beat Zuko in a sword fight. Zuko feels a bit of the longstanding tightness in his chest release.
Sokka takes permanent rooms in the palace, even though he’s gone every couple of months. He’s good at what he does, and he feels needed here in all the ways he didn’t back in the South Pole.
Working alongside the world’s moodiest teen monarch every day has its downsides, but Sokka thinks he can slowly pull Zuko out of his awkward turtleduck shell. He’s excited by the challenge.
“Does that make me a bad Avatar, Sokka? That I can’t do it?” Aang asks him.
“No,” Sokka reassures, fighting to keep his voice calm even as his teeth are grinding. “No, you’re a great Avatar. The Fire Lord is just a jerk.”
The young monk seems calm enough for two now, so Sokka lets his anger consume him as he storms through the palace, cursing every few steps.
If he looked a little deeper, Sokka would see that the anger is fueled by hurt. He keeps his purview shallow.
Zuko’s study door slams open. He is on his feet in a defensive stance before even thinking about moving.
He relaxes when he sees Sokka stomp into the room, the door slamming closed again behind him.
“Sokka, you startled me. What can I do for you?”
Suddenly his friend’s hands are fisted in his robes, and he is yanked nearly nose to nose with the other man. Blue eyes are icy as they bore into his own.
“I heard what you spoke to Aang about,” Sokka says with terrifying calm.
Zuko reaches up to grasp his friend’s wrists, gently trying to pull them off of him. Sokka releases his hold enough to let Zuko stand straight again, but doesn’t entirely let him go.
“I’m not going to apologize for it,” Zuko says.
He’s shoved lightly backward as Sokka pushes away from him to pace around the room. Sokka curses, loudly. “Zuko, you don’t get to decide these things. Think about what you asked Aang to do. You know who he is—why would you ever think it’s okay to put something like this on him?”
“I do get to decide these things, Sokka. It’s my life and my country. Aang is the Avatar. His job is to keep balance. I only made him promise me that he would do his job.”
“He’ll never do that, Zuko.”
Zuko’s fear quickly turns to anger. “He might have to!” he half—shouts.
Sokka stops pacing to look at Zuko.
He has to turn away from the pitying expression on Sokka’s face. He doesn’t need anyone to feel sorry for him, he just needs them to ensure he won’t send the world into chaos again. He doesn’t trust himself enough to prevent that.
He stiffens as broad arms are wrapped around him, enveloping him in a hard hug. “Zuko, you’re so good. You’re not going to be like him.”
Sokka leaves with a last glance, something soft in his face. Later Zuko will shed tears when he hears those words over and over again in his mind.
He apologizes to Aang, when it’s all said and done. Zuko was wrong. He’s grown enough to acknowledge that.
Back at the palace, he sets out to find Sokka, because Aang was not the only person he had hurt, and he was stupid not to realize it.
The Water Tribe man is slung across a couch in a rarely used sitting room, absently eating a pastry of some kind as he stares at the ceiling. He starts when Zuko sweeps into the room, sitting up. Zuko thinks he looks pleased for a moment before his face is schooled back to an expression of disapproval.
Zuko rolls his shoulders back and speaks.
“I’m sorry for what I did. It won’t happen again. I thought that it was up to those around me to prevent me from becoming like my father. I realize now that the power to stop that was only ever mine.” Sokka stands, and Zuko falters slightly before continuing, “I didn’t think I was strong enough, before. I still don’t know if I’m good enough, and the world deserves someone better than me, but I promise I’ll try—”
“I just want to say—”
“Stop.” Sokka is standing in front of Zuko now, his hand clasped on the Fire Lord’s shoulder. “You’re pretty dumb for a guy who managed to chase us around the world.”
“Zuko, you’re the only one who doesn’t think you’re good enough for this job. Even Iroh was confident in leaving the Fire Nation in your hands, and while you know I think the guy’s a few tea leaves short of a full pot, he knows about this stuff better than anyone. You’re doing fine. Just stop asking your friends to kill you and get on with it. You are good enough.”
Zuko’s throat is tight. “It won’t happen again,” he croaks.
“It better not.” Sokka is smiling now, though he grows momentarily serious again as he says, “You really had me worried. I’m not sure what I would do without you around, buddy.”
Zuko fidgets, torn between wanting to draw away from Sokka’s scrutinizing gaze and wanting to keep the warmth of the hand on his shoulder for as long as possible. Sokka saves him by clapping his arm and asking, “Wanna go sneak fire flakes into General Ito’s soap?”
Sokka hates it, the self-loathing that seems to be woven into Zuko’s very flesh. He wants to tear it out of his friend’s body and replace it with something better.
He’s not sure when the angry firebender with a terrible ponytail became his best friend, but he vows that they are going to work on that warped self-image of his.
He spends two years doing just that, happily. Zuko is difficult and short-tempered and generally pretty miserable. Sokka lets it roll off of him. He knows, when he plays go-between for the advisors Zuko has no patience for or when Sokka brings him a later dinner because Zuko hasn’t left his office in hours, that his efforts are not unappreciated.
“He’s not going to dance with you if you just keep staring at him all night,” Sokka says, emerging from the crowd to stand beside Zuko. The Water Tribe man is, not surprisingly, holding a large piece of meat in one hand.
Zuko can only sputter, “Wh—no, I—that’s not—”
Sokka—mercifully—cuts him off with a hard clap on the shoulder. “Hey, Zuko, it’s cool.” He tilts his head, considering the young man from the Northern Water Tribe that Zuko has been admiring for most of the evening. “He’s cute,” Sokka says with a shrug. He leans closer, his breath tickling Zuko’s scarred cheek as he tells him, “Use your words, Fire Lord.”
He waves the meat as a goodbye as he disappears into the crowd again.
Zuko has never been good with words. He does not ask the man to dance.
Sokka saw the look of longing on his friend’s face, traced it to a man from his own sister tribe, and thinks he might understand the Fire Lord a little bit better.
“I’m worried about him,” Suki admits to him as they prepare for bed that evening.
“I’m worried, too,” he says.
“He’s lucky to have you around,” she tells him with a kiss to his temple.
Sokka knows that is the case, and the thought sends warmth through him.
The man is present at the next ball several weeks later. Zuko has learned his name and that he is part of the delegation from the Northern Tribe that is staying in the capital to discuss trade.
He doesn’t ask him to dance, but as the evening wears on he approaches and asks if he would like to have a drink in the courtyard.
To discuss trade, of course.
And they do discuss trade, for a brief few minutes, before the man sets his glass of wine on the ground and grabs the back of Zuko’s neck to pull him into a kiss.
It’s sloppy, the first time Zuko has truly done this with someone other than Mai. It feels good, but it doesn’t feel right. He thinks maybe he was wrong, that the attraction was just a passing admiration of symmetrical features, or something, and says goodnight to the man. He doesn’t see him again.
Zuko wasn’t wrong, if the Earth Kingdom woman a few weeks later is any indication. He at least speaks to her a few times before they wind up on a couch in his sitting room, and it feels really good.
In the morning, it still doesn’t feel right.
He rises with the sun and refuses to look at the portrait of his friends on the wall while he waits for her to wake.
Sokka wants details of these events, and Zuko can’t even look him in the eye as he refuses. The other man knocks his shoulder against his and laughs.
“I’m just teasing you, buddy. But I mean, hey, that’s big, right?”
“You and that guy. Is that...new for you?”
Zuko groans and slumps back into the grass. It’s not becoming for the Fire Lord, but better that his servants see him this way than tangled with some stranger behind a tree. He’s lucky he wasn’t seen several weeks ago. Maybe he’s just lucky his servants have discretion.
“Yeah,” he says. “I guess you could say that’s new for me.”
“I’m happy for you.”
“There’s nothing to be happy about.”
“Why not? Love is love, right? Not that you were in love with him or anything, obviously.”
“Love is love,” Zuko echoes softly, then snorts. He doesn’t think he’s ever been in love. “Not in the Fire Nation.”
“It could be. You’re the Fire Lord. Make it so, by royal decree or whatever it is that you do.”
Zuko snorts again, and Sokka drops it.
When Zuko declares—not by royal decree but after months of pushing against his most traditional advisors and garnering support from new ones, with Sokka’s help—that love is love in the Fire Nation, he tells himself that it’s because the people of his nation deserve better, that he needs to be better for them.
A tiny voice in his mind that doesn’t quite sound like his own whispers that maybe he deserves better, too.
He asks Sokka to have a drink with him to celebrate. They toast on his balcony under the watchful gaze of the moon. Sokka looks beautiful, and it takes all of Zuko’s hard-won restraint to stop himself from whispering it into the night.
Toph spends more time at the palace than anyone from Team Avatar besides Sokka. She’s taller now, taller than Sokka would have expected based on her stature at twelve, and she doesn’t have to reach up to latch onto his arm anymore when they’re somewhere she can’t earthbend.
Being who she is, she picks up on things before others have a chance to realize them for themselves. Sokka appreciates this skill far more when he isn’t the one having a revelation forced on him.
“So...Sparky,” she says one day over lunch, her feet propped up onto a wooden table that is probably an antique of some kind.
Sokka knows that his pulse is betraying him, skittering the way it sometimes does when he talks about his best friend. “What about Zuko?”
Sokka kicks the table out from under her feet.
An advisor shoots Zuko a confused look when Toph tries winking at him in the hall, and Zuko can only shrug.
It’s been too long since I’ve seen Suki, he tells himself.
Sokka is in his room after a morning spent watching Zuko spar with some of the palace firebenders. He’d accepted that firebending could be kind of pretty—when it wasn’t being used to attack you—a long time ago, after Aang and the then-prince visited the dragons.
He’d never looked at Zuko, the man himself, and thought with aching clarity that he was beautiful, however.
He tries to avoid watching him firebend too often after that, and he’s thankful every time the Fire Lord leaves his shirt on when they practice their sword fighting. If anyone asked, he would say it’s because it covers the lightning scar and the memories that go with it.
Sokka asks Zuko for a vacation, which he is readily granted. He needs time to breathe, and he plans to spend a month at the South Pole and a month on Kyoshi. Aang and Katara are going to pick him up, and it’ll be the three of them for a little while, just like old times.
“Write to me?” Zuko asks as Sokka gets ready to climb onto Appa, and the question is so unsure, so fragile, that Sokka’s chest constricts.
“You’ll be sick of trying to read my writing by the end of this trip,” Sokka tells him, smiling broadly.
He’s on snow for a week before he misses the palace. Time passes more quickly on Kyoshi, but Suki looks at him sometimes, when she doesn’t think he’ll notice, and he hopes that his being there while his mind is elsewhere isn’t hurting her. He loves her, and she doesn’t deserve that.
Letters aren’t enough. Zuko misses his friends. He’s never by himself in the palace, and certainly not ever outside of it, and yet he still feels alone.
Mai is a good friend and Zuko thinks that her new fiance could be a friend eventually, too, if he would stop trying so hard to stay on the Fire Lord’s good side. She visits so rarely, though, and his advisors and security detail are hardly the types that would take to him confiding in them.
Zuko doesn’t even know what he has to confide in someone about. He thinks that Uncle would probably know, and considers sending another letter, but he also suspects that the advice would be convoluted and vague and Zuko does not have the brainpower these days to decipher Iroh’s cryptic meanings.
Sokka would probably know, too, but he at least would tell him straight up to get his head out of his ass.
He sends one letter.
When the response says only to stop brooding and that Sokka will be back in the Fire Nation by the end of the month, two weeks ahead of schedule, Zuko doesn’t analyze the elation that pulses through him.
“Where’s Suki?” Zuko asks, as Sokka releases him from a hug. “I thought she might come, too.” It’s been a year since the Kyoshi warrior left the Fire Nation. Zuko misses her companionship and gentle caring.
“I’m not enough for you?” Sokka smiles, slapping his shoulder. “Don’t worry, my other half will be here by the end of the week. Now, how’s Fire Lord Cranky doing these days?”
Zuko suppresses the twang of jealousy that rears as his friend so casually mentions his other half. He’s not envious of the people, but he covets the certainty they share.
“It’s been a long few years, huh?” Sokka says. The young men are taking in the view of the city from Zuko’s balcony as the sun sets. Sokka isn’t in the Fire Nation on official business, but he had still attended various meetings throughout the day.
He’s not here on official business, and he’s not here to see Suki or his sister or any of their other friends. That just leaves Zuko. The idea that Sokka may have made the trip back early just to see him is intoxicating in a way that Zuko doesn’t entirely understand.
“In some ways, yeah. In other ways…” he sighs and runs a hand through his hair. “In other ways it doesn’t feel like anything has changed at all.”
“It has, though,” Sokka says, emphatic. Zuko looks at his profile, sharp lines against the fading sun. It is rare for Sokka to be so serious.
“Yeah,” he says again, lamely. And then, because he doesn’t know what else to say, “They’re really on me lately about an heir.”
“Damn. We really are getting old.”
Zuko’s lips quirk up at that. It’s far from the truth. “I guess we are. They’ve been parading noblemen’s daughters around me pretty conspicuously for the past year.”
“Any of them catch your eye?”
“Not really,” he sighs.
“What about any of the noblemen’s sons?”
“Sokka,” he groans.
The other man laughs and slings an arm around his shoulders. “Relax. You’ve got time. They can’t force you to the altar with anyone, right? And it’ll be a long while before you need an heir.”
And then, words Zuko hasn’t heard in such a long time and didn’t realize he needed to hear, “I’m proud of you. You’re the best damn Fire Lord they’ve ever had.”
“But I’ve made so many mistakes,” he mutters, recalling what he told his Uncle before the comet.
Sokka shrugs. Zuko is drawn slightly closer to his side with the motion, the weight of his arm still draped across his neck. “Sure, but at least you learn from them.”
Zuko asks Sokka to come with him when he visits his sister. It’s been a long time. The more time that passes, the harder Zuko finds it to see Azula this way. Unhinged. Sad.
Sokka comes without question, and says nothing when Zuko leaks tears onto his shoulder when they arrive back at his chambers.
He doesn’t just feel not afraid with the Water Tribe man, he realizes. He feels completely safe.
Zuko is awkwardly patting Sokka on the shoulder. They’re sitting in the palace courtyard. The sun has long sunk below the horizon, and moonlight makes the tears on Sokka’s face glisten as he tells Zuko that Suki decided that her duties elsewhere were making it too difficult to maintain their relationship. She was tired of being apart for so long, so often.
Zuko is the Fire Lord, the leader of a nation recovering from war. A commanding title, and still he has no idea how to respond. So he repeats what he said on the war balloon all those years ago, and again, miraculously, it’s the right thing to say, because now Sokka is laughing through the sobs.
Zuko isn’t happy—he could never be happy to see one of his best friends so devastated—but there’s a tiny part of him that takes pride in making the other man laugh at a time like this.
A bit of relief trickles through him at just knowing that his friend will be alright. Eventually.
Suki never ended up coming, the last time he asked her to visit. She sent Sokka a letter instead, and he was not surprised to read it, but it devastated him all the same.
He tells Zuko, because who else is he going to tell right now, and he worries as his friend rubs gentle circles into his back that he’s not quite devastated enough.
“What in Agni is that?” Zuko asks, peering over Sokka’s shoulder at a small chunk of wood in his hand.
Sokka whirls, the carving knife raised as he retorts, “It’s a turtleduck, clearly.”
He holds the figure up. Zuko looks between it and the turtleducks in the pond. Tries to see the resemblance. Fails.
“Oh. It’s, uh, nice.”
Sokka rolls his eyes and waves him away, turning back to hunch over his work.
His muscles scream from exertion and the female guard he begged to let him do this is shooting him dirty looks as he climbs. If they’d have let him into the room the normal way, Sokka wouldn’t have had to go this route. He supposes it’s fair though, that the Fire Lord’s chambers are off limits following yet another assassination attempt.
Zuko better appreciate this, he thinks.
Zuko lifts the figure from its perch on his windowsill. How Sokka managed to scale the wall to his balcony without the guards raising an alarm, he has no idea.
His face aches, suddenly.
He’s smiling, actually smiling, a broad, reckless thing that stretches his cheeks and mouth for the first time in months. Heat blooms up his throat as he admires the wooden carving and designates a prominent spot for it on the mantle of the fireplace in his private chamber.
It still does not look like a turtleduck.
Zuko reads more of his mother’s favourite stories, some of them more than once. They keep him occupied whenever he has precious few spare hours to himself. It’s stupid, he thinks, that the characters never seem to realize they’re in love until the very end. How could someone not know? It’s so obvious to him as he reads.
Time passes quickly, too quickly, for Sokka’s liking. He enters his twenties, and wonders if he made the right choice, staying here as an ambassador.
When he sees Zuko smirk a little at his poor jokes, he thinks he did.
“You kept that thing?”
Zuko freezes. Sokka is behind him. He followed him into his chamber so he could grab his dao swords for a sparring match. Zuko forgot about the carving, still on his mantle nearly two years later.
He could say he set it there and forgot about it. That would be a lie. The wood is worn in several places from fingers rubbing over it methodically, the smooth spots produced during sleepless nights interrupted by unwanted dreams.
“I like it,” he says, and because he is a coward, he doesn’t look at Sokka until a moment later.
His friend’s eyes are still on the figure. Zuko can’t interpret the expression on his face. Or perhaps is just unwilling to for fear of being wrong.
He’s been wrong so many times before, after all.
Sokka shrugs, finally, and says, “Well, I did make it for you.” He turns and smiles. “Ready to get your ass kicked by my swordbending?”
Zuko rolls his eyes. “Sure, Sokka. Keep dreaming.”
If he didn’t know before, he knows when he sees the turtleduck carving on Zuko’s mantle. They are best friends, but there is also more blooming there.
Sokka panics slightly at first, but Katara—Spirits bless his sister—talks him down while Aang and Zuko meet about the new republic.
“I don’t quite get it,” she says honestly. “I mean, it’s Zuko. But if it makes you both happy, then that’s all I want.”
“It’s not weird, you know, because…”
“Well, I’m surprised. You were with Suki for so long...I didn’t expect you to be interested in guys, too. But it’s not a bad thing.”
“Obviously it’s not a bad thing,” Sokka says. In the Water Tribes, it’s really not a thing at all. People are who they are, and partnerships form where they will. “And I don’t even think it’s, like, men, even. Just him.”
Katara tilts her head, considering. “The scar is kind of a hot look, I’ll give you that.”
His sister giggles, and Sokka can’t help but join her.
Aang and Zuko wear matching expressions of confusion when they leave their meeting, but the siblings ignore their questions.
“Suki will be here when everyone else arrives next week,” Zuko tells Sokka as they take a break from sparring. “Are you going to be alright?”
“Totally,” comes the response, without hesitation. “It’s going to be so good to see everyone together again.”
“You aren’t worried?”
“What’s there to be worried about?”
Zuko waves his hands, searching for the words. “That, you know, it’ll be weird. I mean, she’s like your soulmate or whatever, but you’re not together. That’s kind of strange, isn’t it?”
Sokka seems to consider this for a moment. A small crease appears between his brows. “Maybe a little. I still love her though, and she loves me, so it’ll be fine. We’re friends no matter what.”
Sokka flings his shirt off. Zuko averts his eyes.
They start sparring again and Sokka says, almost too quietly to hear over the clashing blades, “I don’t think she was my soulmate, anyway.”
Zuko has to ask about it, later. The questions are burning him from the inside out.
“You do believe in them, then.”
“You seem weirdly happy about this. It’s freaking me out,” Sokka says. Zuko worries for a moment that he must have been too obvious, scared his friend, but then Sokka adds, “I’ve seen some crazy stuff. Just because I used to think fortune tellers and Spirit World trips and past lives are a bunch of hooey doesn’t mean I don’t think there are some special bonds that exist between certain people.”
“This, coming from a man who once called bending ‘magic,’” Zuko teases.
“Whatever. You really don’t think it’s possible? Spend a little more time around Aang and Katara and tell me that’s natural.”
“Maybe. It seems kind of sad, though, to have to wait around to find the person who completes you. What if you never find them...you just stay incomplete for your entire life?”
It is the first time Zuko has explored his thoughts on the concept of soulmates outside the confines of his own mind.
“Well, okay, sure, when you put it like that it sounds a little depressing,” Sokka says. “But that’s not how it works. Nobody completes you. You’re you, and they’re them, and then you decide if you want to make it work together, but still as your own people. That’s important.”
Zuko doesn’t have a response to this. His mind is racing.
“Or something like that. Who knows,” Sokka grumbles.
He meditates, trying to clear his mind. It doesn’t work. He is still too focused on what his friend said earlier.
He sees it. He sees himself. Zuko is a patchwork, but the pieces make up something whole.
There is nobody out there who is your other half.
You restored your own honour.
Nobody completes you.
Zuko has scraped and clawed the pieces of himself together. None are perfect and many are ugly things that he might always wish he was without, but he has earned every single fragment of himself.
Zuko is a whole person, and he loves himself in that moment more than he ever has before.
Sokka nods as he passes Zuko in the hall, blue eyes barely flicking up from the scroll he reads as he walks.
Zuko grabs his shoulders and pulls him into an embrace, crushing the scroll between them. Sokka makes a sound of mild protest. Zuko squeezes once and says, “Thank you,” before letting go.
Sokka, smoothing out the scroll, asks, “For what?”
Zuko is already moving in the other direction, face burning as he ignores the question.
Sokka asks Zuko again at dinner what the display in the hall was about.
“Just...appreciating your friendship.”
“Well, that’s nice and all. Can I get a raise, in the spirit of friendship?”
Zuko laughs at that. Sokka’s grin when he hears that rare sound cannot be contained. “You’ve probably earned a raise anyways,” his friend tells him.
“Obviously. It’s not like you can keep this place running by yourself.”
Zuko sobers, and Sokka is drawn in by something in the other man’s golden eyes. “I mean it, though. I hope you know that. You really do...balance me.”
Sokka nods. He’s not sure what Zuko is getting at, but he can sense it’s something significant.
Zuko finally finds his mother, when Sokka encourages him to take the time to look. Once, he thought that the reunion would mend a part of his soul, but because he is already whole, finding the former Fire Lady is the fire flakes on top of what is already a good life.
It was a rocky start, he is the first to admit it, but on the five year anniversary of his coronation Zuko is touched by the support of his people.
“They love you, Fire Lord Zuko,” Sokka tells him, deferential until he knocks an elbow against Zuko’s ribs.
“I don’t know about that,” he protests.
But he does know it. Every program his administration has developed in the years since the war has been an eventual success, and relations with the other nations are better than ever. It’s not perfect, it never will be, but the world is healing. He attributes much of it to Avatar Aang, but he can accept that he has had a hand in it as well.
Sokka watches Zuko, observing the crowd with a bit of pride and, just maybe, happiness in his gaze, and hopes that the Fire Lord finally sees how good he really is.
Zuko sips jasmine tea with his uncle. He was shocked, when he first got off the boat and wrapped Zuko into a hug, to see so much more white streaking the grey of the man’s hair and beard. Looking at him now, he still seems to be the same. Zuko can’t imagine a time when his uncle will truly be out of reach—not just in Ba Sing Se brewing his special brand of hot leaf juice.
He puts his cup down. “Uncle,” he starts. He swallows thickly when Iroh looks at him and presses on. “You once told me that there is nobody out there who can be the other half to a person. I thought that meant that I was destined to be incomplete forever, because I didn’t deserve anyone else. I realize now that I had to complete myself. I had to go through all of my struggles to fulfill my destiny of helping the Avatar end the war and bring balance back to the world, but it also led me back to myself, in a way. I forgot who I was for a long time, Uncle. I think I know who I am better than ever now.”
Zuko’s voice breaks, and he’s not even sure whether anything he said made any sense. He finishes with, “Thank you, Uncle.”
Iroh pulls him into a hug, so that the younger man is nearly falling into his lap. “My nephew,” he says into Zuko’s shoulder, “You have traveled such a great journey. It is never easy to truly look inside oneself.”
Zuko pulls back, scrubbing at his face with his sleeve. He gives his uncle a watery small. “Only then will your true self reveal itself.”
Iroh’s brows knit together. “What was that, nephew?”
Sokka has known he’s in love with the Fire Lord for a while now.
“I’m just waiting for him to realize it,” he tells Toph. She’s surprisingly enthusiastic in her support, and Sokka loves the earthbender more than he thought possible.
“You might be waiting a long time for that. Sparky’s not the brightest firebender, you know?”
“Hey, now,” Sokka chides gently.
“What’s the game plan? Want me to trap the two of you in a rock igloo for a while until you figure it out?”
“Tempting, but no. I think he just needs time.”
“Okay, but really, what have you been doing?”
“Well...I carved him a turtleduck. That was a couple years ago, though.
Toph snorts. “Yeah. I’ll be gray before you hogmonkeys get together, at this rate.”
“I also complimented his hair last week!”
“Ooh, that’ll do it.” Toph laughs again. “And here I thought you actually had moves, with all those girls after you during the war.”
“I have moves!” Sokka asserts.
“Sure you do, Sokka.”
He’s not sure he can take it anymore. He thought for a long time that this was just what it was like to have a best friend, someone you were vulnerable with. Then he thought it was just because of his long, self-imposed dry spell, but when he’s honest with himself it’s far more than that.
Sokka’s attractive, that much is obvious to anyone who can see and even some of those who cannot. Zuko may, sometimes, be attracted to him. Mostly when Sokka’s hair is down or his shirt is off or he is practicing with his sword or speaking in a meeting or eating breakfast or—
So, he thinks Sokka is hot, that’s fine, that doesn’t mean he is in love with the guy.
But then Sokka has him pinned for the second time that morning—it’s clear Zuko has been spending too much time behind a desk and not enough time in the sparring ring, not that he was entirely distracted by anyone in particular—and he just doesn’t think he can take it anymore.
He wants this. This man, his best friend—Agni, he is screwed.
His friends are all visiting, and it’s at the precise moment that Sokka spits sake out his nose from laughing at his own bad joke that Zuko realizes he is in love with him.
Sokka has always been a flirt, Zuko knows that. So when he sees the man flirting with several of the women around the palace nearly a year after he and Suki part ways, Zuko tries to be happy for his friend.
He tries to stow away the bone-crushing jealousy that he feels. He has no right to it.
Sokka seriously wonders if there is something wrong with the Fire Lord’s wiring such that the man cannot take a freaking hint.
He wouldn’t call himself patient, but Sokka knows that when it comes to Zuko he has to bide his time. His friend doesn’t react well when pressed too hard.
Still. Come on.
He changes tactics, when his casual touches and excuses to spend time together go unacknowledged. Zuko gets jealous—Mai told him that much over drinks one night, in the form of a hilarious story about a party when they were teens—so Sokka figures it’s worth a shot to stoke his envy. Maybe that will spur him into making a move.
He flirts with several women around the palace, even tries hitting on a male guard once. Only once, though, as that ended with his nose being sore for days.
Nothing. Sokka knows he hasn’t misread things, because he knows Zuko.
He resolves to wait a little longer.
“Fire Lord Moody!” Toph shouts.
Zuko waits for the girl to catch up before striding again down the palace hall.
“Toph. What is it? I’m busy.”
Not in the damn mood, is what he doesn’t add.
“You and I are finally taking that life-changing field trip you owe me.”
“What? No, Toph, I don’t have time to listen to your childhood sob stories right now.”
He says it more harshly than he intends, but Toph has never been easily offended. She only smirks. “Too bad. And it’s not going to be life-changing for me. You’ve got some serious issues to work through, my friend.”
He groans. Still, he doesn’t protest much further—there’s no use, as he knows she will go so far as to kidnap the Fire Lord— and soon Toph is waiting for him as he saddles a komodo rhino for their trip.
“You get one day,” he tells her.
“Yeah, yeah. Just let me work my magic.”
She tells him where she wants to go, and they set out.
Zuko considers Toph a friend, but has spent very little time alone with the petite earthbender. Certainly he’s never shared a saddle with her for hours at a time. He is relieved when she does most of the work of making conversation.
Her childhood does come up. He can’t help but feel some solidarity this time as she recounts the strained relationship with her parents. When she turns to stories of her time as the Blind Bandit, he is impressed and amused more than he would like to admit.
“Here we go,” he tells her when they arrive at the spot she specified. He’s not sure why she wanted to come here, of all places. It’s a valley like any other in the Fire Nation, hot and dry and deserted.
The girl jumps down from behind him and wiggles her toes in the dirt. Zuko hears knuckles crack, and a cavern opens below them.
“I really hope this isn’t an assasination plot.”
“Get in the hole, Zuko.”
He does, lighting a flame to illuminate the dark underground space. They’re standing in a tunnel, tall enough for Zuko to not have to duck. Toph seals the earth above them, blocking out the light from the midday sun.
“Follow me,” she says. They walk in silence for a few minutes, the orange glow of Zuko’s flame bouncing off the walls of the tunnel.
He gasps audibly when they come to a river.
He increases the flame to see better. It’s a shallow stream, the water a nearly opaque turquoise. The colour is unlike anything Zuko has ever seen, and he’s been around the world more than once.
His friend sits, and he follows suit. The hard ground beneath him is surprisingly warm.
“Toph, how did you know this was here?”
She shrugs. “We camped out here once. I felt this place under us. Thought it might be nice.”
“So, are you going to make me ask or what?”
Zuko swallows. Toph will feel every lie he says, but even if she couldn’t, he is so tired of evading the truth. “I have no clue what to do, and it...it hurts.” His voice breaks on the last word.
For a moment, he thinks Toph isn’t going to respond. She sighs, finally. “Look, Zuko, I’m not an expert at these things. But I spend enough time around you boneheads to have a decent idea of what’s going on. It’s not my place to say anything, but you really should just talk to the guy.”
“It’s not that simple, Toph. I’m in charge of a nation, and Sokka is an emissary and my best friend. I have to think about what my actions do to the people around me that I care about.”
“You’re assuming that your inaction doesn’t hurt anyone.”
The earthbender has clearly been spending too much time with Iroh.
“I...I hear you. It’s just—it’s Sokka,” Zuko says. He’s almost crying and can’t for the life of himself figure out why.
“I get it,” Toph says. Zuko knows she does. He’d seen the blushes at the air temple.
Several more long minutes pass. Zuko puts out his flame, plunging them into total darkness, and tries to let his other senses take in the river and the cavern. He lets the tears drip down his cheeks and silently thanks Toph for not mentioning anything, if she knows. Which, of course, she does.
“Thank you for this,” he says softly, finally. “I know what I want to do.”
Unnervingly accurate in the dark, Toph punches him hard in the arm.
Toph leaves for the Earth Kingdom and her metalbending school, and Zuko knows better than to try and hug her goodbye. Instead, he squeezes her hand and says thanks again, and to not stay away so long this time. She tells him to stop being an idiot.
It hadn’t been planned that Sokka would take over most of the Fire Lord’s scheduling. Zuko had an assistant, a kind lady who liked to gently remind him that he needed sleep and food and days off. She’d retired last month with a generous parting gift and Sokka had readily filled the role. Zuko protested, at first, because Sokka’s actual role already carries plenty of responsibility, but ultimately who was he to deny the man the chance to do what he was best at?
Gentle reminders about rest and sustenance turn into foully-worded castigating, and somehow Zuko likes it better.
They’re sitting near the pond, where Sokka finds Zuko most evenings. Zuko is half listening to the packed itinerary for his upcoming tour of the Earth Kingdom, half enjoying the sound of the voice reading it to him.
He looks over at the man beside him and smiles lightly as he eases back into the grass. He admires the moon for a moment before closing his eyes. He would have liked to speak to her, just once, about the person they both love.
Turtleducks rustle their wings as they settle in the reeds for the night. The itinerary review carries on.
“I love you, Sokka.”
He’s half asleep when it slips out, and later he can try to blame the wine he had earlier or the dreamlike quality of Sokka’s voice, but the reality is the confession hangs in the air between them like the heat of a dissipated flame.
Sokka’s voice hitches, just for a moment. Then he goes back to reading.
Maybe Zuko should feel hurt by this—there’s no way the other man didn’t hear him—but he can’t bring himself to. Even if Sokka doesn’t feel the same way, even if he never acknowledges it, Zuko would have regretted never speaking one of the truest statements of his life.
Sokka hears Zuko say it, and he keeps reading.
He wants to hear it again, he wants to hear it over and over until he’s memorized every possible way Zuko can rasp the words, and then he wants to hear it another time.
Sokka is doomed, he was doomed a long time ago—but is it really doomed if he wants something with every inch of himself?
He’ll wait. He’ll wait to hear it again when Zuko means to say it, when he’s not half-asleep in the damp grass. Then he’ll say it back.
Sokka will never be the one to do it, Zuko is certain of this. Sokka knows him too well, knows that Zuko has to do something for himself before he can believe that it’s a good idea. So, no, Zuko must be the one to take that step.
He decides to take it when they finish sparring a week after his sleepy declaration, both sweat-drenched and panting from the summer heat. The tour leaves tomorrow, and Sokka won’t be on it. At least if this goes terribly wrong Zuko is giving the other man space to figure it out alone.
He drops his swords, letting them clatter to the cobblestone at his feet. Normally he’d never disrespect the blades like that, but at this moment he doesn’t mind.
“Mm? Are you admitting defeat?”
Zuko steps closer, so that they are nearly chest to chest. They’re both breathing hard from the fight, and Zuko from nerves as well. Something flashes in his friend’s eyes, though he makes no move to put distance between them. Zuko’s never been good with words, so this will have to do.
“Sokka,” he says again, softer, and reaches to press his fingertips to Sokka’s jaw. A muscle jumps under his touch.
The other man is slightly taller now, and Zuko does his best to lean forward to rest their foreheads together. He closes his eyes for a moment to avoid seeing something in the face before him that might scare him enough to abandon this moment. Then with a final breath, he finds Sokka’s lips with his own.
The touch is gentle, featherlike. Sokka’s mouth is salty and unyielding. It is still perhaps the best moment of Zuko’s life.
He pulls away and steps back before daring to open his eyes. Sokka is looking at him with a guarded expression, sword still hanging limply at his side. He hasn’t moved or said anything. Zuko is worried he has miscalculated, though he refuses to regret his actions. Sokka could have stopped him at any point.
He draws his shoulders back and meets his friend’s eyes. “I hope to see you in several weeks when I return. Please, enjoy your time off.”
Zuko bows, deeply and with a formality he has not used with his friend in years, if ever, and leaves the courtyard.
Sokka’s soul is on fire.
He makes it to his chamber before grasping at his hair with unfiltered anxiety. His heart threatens to hammer his ribs into dust, and he throws himself onto his bed with a moan.
Zuko’s done all he can do. He will leave in the morning, and his duty will keep him occupied and his mind busy until he returns. He can deal with the aftermath then.
Nobody completes you echoes over and over in his mind.
No, he thinks. But somebody might be able to destroy me.
He falls asleep only when he resolves to trust that Sokka would never do that.
Zuko has hardly left the Fire Nation before Sokka calls on Toph for a favour. She’s done a lot for them both already, she can’t mind one more request.
Sokka explains what he wants her to do, holding a small box of objects out to her.
“Really? Already?” she asks, disbelief dripping from the words.
“I won’t give it to him right away. I need to make sure he’s certain, first.”
“As long as you’re sure, Sokka.”
“I’ve never been so sure about anything.”
It’s only a month, but for Zuko it could have been years.
He looks for Sokka immediately when his ship docks and he steps onto Fire Nation soil for the first time in a month. He doesn’t see the familiar blue silhouette, but has no time to be disappointed before his attention is called away. There is no rest, even for the formerly wicked.
On the third day of not seeing the Water Tribe man, Zuko cuts a meeting short and dismisses his advisors. Behind the wall of fire in his throne room, he works up the courage to go ask for an answer to the question he posed weeks ago.
It’s an unspoken rule, in Zuko’s mind, that Zuko doesn’t go to Sokka’s chambers. The Fire Lord’s own room has long been open to his closest friends, but he has always left their spaces untouched by his presence.
So it’s not a surprise that Sokka looks entirely shocked when he opens the door to Zuko.
“Can I come in?”
Sokka steps aside to let Zuko in and closes the door behind them. Now that he’s here, Zuko has no idea what to say. He’s a red anomaly in the sea of furs and blues that make up Sokka’s private oasis. As much as he wants to look around, to learn more about his friend, he forces himself to turn to face the man himself.
Agni, he nearly forgot how much he loves that face. His mouth grows dry.
“How have you been?” he tries.
Sokka frowns. “Is that really what you came here to talk about?”
Zuko doesn’t have a chance to ask what that means before he is being dragged against Sokka, his open mouth caught in a kiss that sears. His eyes flutter closed and he returns it, trying to pour all of his emotion into the brief action.
It is too few seconds before Sokka pulls away. His hands slide to Zuko’s hips and stay there. Tentative, Zuko reaches up to brush back a strand of dark hair that has escaped Sokka’s wolf tail.
“What...I don’t...do you—” Zuko stops himself when he notices Sokka’s smirk. His face heats. “What is it?” he demands, more angrily than he means to.
“Catgator got your tongue, Fire Lord?”
Zuko extracts himself from Sokka, starting to get frustrated by his own uncertainty. “Can you please just tell me what this is,” he says.
Sokka shrugs, looking entirely nonplussed. “What do you want it to be?”
“Answer my question first,” Zuko snaps.
“Sit down, then.”
Zuko looks around for a couch, but there are none. He’d rather not squat on a fur, so he perches on the edge of the bed instead. Sokka joins him, their knees brushing.
Sokka looks straight ahead as he speaks. “You’re my best friend, you know that, right?” Zuko nods, but Sokka is already continuing. “There’s a lot that still needs to be done, even years after the war has ended. Somebody tried to kill you again just a few months ago, so it’s not like everything is fine just yet. Aang and Katara and Toph are all doing amazing things and we don’t get to see them much these days. My family is still down at the South Pole, and I wish I could visit them more.”
Zuko nods again. Sokka spends a couple months a year at the Southern Water Tribe, but he should have known that wouldn’t be enough. Should have expected that he would eventually want to return there for good. He opens his mouth to say this, but is cut off by a hand on his thigh.
“Look, Zuko. I love my position here. This—and I swear I haven’t touched any cactus juice—this place feels like home for me, now. It has for a long time.” Blue eyes finally meet gold, and Zuko is no longer breathing. “I had to think about a lot of things, and I’m sorry if it seemed like I was avoiding you. I just needed to know what you really wanted. I think...I know I want to try this with you, Zuko, but I won’t risk it unless I’m sure that you’re not only going to do it halfway.”
Zuko blinks several times, trying to process what he’s hearing. The kiss wasn’t confirmation, not in the way Zuko needed, but these words are the balm to soothe an ache he’s been nursing for nearly half a decade.
He grins. “When have you ever known me to do anything halfway?”
Sokka returns his smile and reaches forward. Zuko thinks he means to kiss him again, but he only tugs the pin out of his hairpiece and releases the dark locks into his face. The crown is tossed onto the mattress and suddenly hands are in his hair, pushing it away from his eyes as his head is tugged toward Sokka.
Their lips meet again and Zuko melts.
It feels better than anything before it.
It also feels right.
“I love you, Fire Lord Hotman.”
A year later, Zuko poses the question that has plagued him since childhood. He has his own answer, now, but needs to know Sokka’s.
They’re already by the pond. Sokka had requested they take an afternoon off weeks ago, and being the schedule master, had ensured it happened.
Zuko is thankful for the half glass of wine already working to loosen him up when he asks, “Do you believe in soulmates?”
Sokka’s eyes go wide. Zuko waits, unhurried and unconcerned that his partner is going anywhere. After a moment Sokka lets out a breathy chuckle. “You just couldn’t let me have my moment, could you?”
Zuko’s brow furrows. “What do you mean?”
Sokka reaches behind him into the basket that carried their drink and food. He pulls his fist away, holding it out to Zuko for a moment.
With a huff of breath, Sokka opens his hand to reveal a metal cuff. A pale blue stone is set into the center of the metal, a delicate carving adorning its opalescent surface.
It almost looks like a turtleduck.
Zuko can only stare, until Sokka’s voice calls his gaze up to his face. “I think...I think I do. Maybe. Well, definitely. Believe in soulmates, that is.”
Zuko beams at him, giddy beyond comprehension. The question hasn’t been asked, but Zuko answers by pulling the cuff onto his wrist and admiring it in the sunlight.
“I do, too.”