Stories, he’s come to realize, were one of his favorite things in the world. He loves them. More than maps, more than science, more than – okay, not Suki, but it’s close.
He just. Loves. Stories.
Stories told around campfires in the middle of nowhere. Stories to scare, stories that made him laugh, even the ones that made him cry. He likes to think of them as a bridge. A way to remember the past, to keep it in memory, for it to speak to the world.
He’s heard stories told in a thousand ways a thousand times, not all of them good, but that’s what makes them special. No one told them the same way. A man in the South Pole could tell the same story as a woman in Caldera or a kid in Ba Sing Se, and yet somehow it would just be…different.
And now, staring him in the face, is another story. One he’s never thought of before.
Discovering it was an accident in the first place. He and Zuko had been sparring, as had become their norm, and as Sokka had blocked one strike and flicked his wrist to block another, there was a flash of color. It was brief, just a single moment, and he’s thinking he’s going crazy when he sees it again.
Was it a bruise, maybe? Something left over from their stint in the Boiling Rock? Or maybe Katara had thrown a pot at him again – that had been a weird night. If it were a bruise or contusion or something, it would make sense why he didn’t know about it. Zuko kept quiet about his injuries. It hurt Sokka to think about, to think that Zuko didn’t trust them yet, but he could understand it.
So whatever on his arm was a mystery, and now that he’s thinking about it, he can’t stop looking for glimpses. And he keeps on seeing it. He’s so distracted he doesn’t notice Zuko’s feint, and the next thing he knows he’s lying on his back in the dust and one of his friend’s startlingly sharp dao is pointed at his chest.
“Draw?” Sokka tries, and Zuko just smirks.
“You’re getting better,” the older boy concedes, and lowers his dao to help him up. As Sokka clasps his arm and jumps to his feet, the flash of color he’d seen appears in his mind. He picks up his sword, and as they go over to their waterskins, he decides to finally broach the question.
“Hey, Zuko, what’s that on your arm?” Sokka asks. Zuko seems to know what he was talking about, because almost immediately he sighs and rolls up his sleeve. There, curled across his bicep, is a beautiful blue-and-gold dragon. Fire bursts out of its maw and its body is wreathed in flames and Sokka could swear it’s sparkling.
“Wow,” he breathes. He reaches out to touch it, then thinks better of it. What was he thinking, anyways? You can’t feel a tattoo, it’s under the skin. But still…it’s mesmerizing.” That’s…that’s incredible.”
Red flares in Zuko’s cheeks, and he looks away.” Uh…thanks, Sokka.”
“Does it…represent something? That’s something people do, right?”
“Uh…yeah, yeah it does. That one is of Ryūjin, the dragon god of the sea,” he answers.” I didn’t want to get it, at first, but my crew…they could be, uh, persuasive.” They share a breathless laugh as Zuko rolls his sleeve back down.
“Zuko, Sokka!” Aang’s voice calls from a platform up above.” Katara says it’s time for lunch!”
“Coming!” Sokka shouts back. He turns to Zuko and says,” Tell me more later?”
Zuko’s face brightens up, and he nods; just by a hair, but still – Sokka sees it. He was quiet and awkward, he’s realized, but he’ll talk endlessly if you let him.
“Hey, guys, did you know Zuko has a tattoo?”
Zuko shoots him a glare almost immediately, one that whispers murder and death instead of his usual vague anger, and it suddenly occurs to him that maybe, just maybe, he shouldn’t have said that.
“He has a lot of them, apparently,” Toph shrugs.” I couldn’t feel them, though, so I didn’t care.”
“You’re missing out, Toph!” Ty Lee exclaims.” They’re beautiful!”
Wait. What? They?
“You mean…he has more than one?” Sokka whispers, incredulous. He turns his head to look at Zuko.” You have more than one?”
“Yes,” Zuko sighs, setting his bowl down.” I have quite a few. I don’t really tell people about them, though. It’s…kind of frowned upon for the royal family to do such things.”
“Really? Well that’s pretty damn stupid,” Sokka snorts. Zuko opens his mouth, but Aang bursts in before he gets the chance to talk.
“I still haven’t seen Zuko’s tattoos!” he says, looking over at the Fire Nation trio. They’d taken to sitting next to each other at meals, and to be honest, Sokka can’t blame them.
“Oh, yeah, he has loads!” Ty Lee says, and this time it’s the acrobat that gets the glare. Serves her right, Sokka thinks. Let the man tell his own story. Zuko, though, doesn’t complain. He just sighs and shakes his head.” Do you guys really want to see them?”
“You don’t have to show us if you don’t want to,” Sokka says, setting his bowl down.” We’re not gonna hold it against you. It’s just…we didn’t know, and to be honest, it’s really cool.”
A faint redness creeps up Zuko’s neck.” No, no, it’s okay, just…not used to doing this.”
One of Sokka’s eyebrows climbs up his forehead as Zuko stands, and its twin follows as Zuko shucks off his shirt. He hears Suki suck in her breath next to him, and while he’s not jealous – alright, maybe he’s a little jealous – but to be honest, he totally gets it. And he’s not even attracted to guys! Except now he’s got to re-think that because Zuko is built like a freaking god.
And the tattoos…they’re everywhere. They’re on his chest, on his side, on his arms, and when he spins around they’re on his back, too. There’s a thousand colors, a thousand shapes, and Sokka can’t help but think: how many stories do they tell?
“Wow,” Aang breathes, eyes gleaming.” Zuko, we can be tattoo buddies! You have to tell me what they all mean!”
“Uh…yeah, I-I guess I can do that,” he blinks.” Uh…where should I start?”
Aang smiles.” Wherever you want.”
It takes him a minute to decide, and it starts slow and halting, but once they start, the stories flow. He points them out, one by one, written on his skin. Hearing the story is different, but seeing them likes this – it’s…different, somehow.
Sokka is enraptured through it all.
He laughs out loud as Zuko tells them about the stars on his chest. He tells them about the time Teruko, Hiraku, and Jiang dragged him to a bar for his fifteenth birthday, and he accidentally started a barfight by asking a man if he had a girlfriend and if she was single.
There’s the Blue Spirit mask on his right arm, and Aang erupts into astonished laughter that Sokka can barely decipher as ‘Pouhai’, whatever that means. Zuko says that the Blue Spirit is just a character in a play and in Fire Nation mythology; Sokka doesn’t need Toph’s magical seismic sense to know he’s lying.
Zuko tells them of the swallows on his side, how they symbolize the distance he’s traveled, about how he traveled literally around the world to find them. He tells them stories of Miyu and Kouji’s pranks, and how they taught him all about how to weld and how to use tools and all about mechanics, and how he learned to care for the Komodo rhinos from an angry old private who everyone simply called ‘Dusty’.
They hear about music night and ‘Pai Sho Sundays’, and as Zuko’s eyes go far into the distance Sokka feels himself follow, and for a while, it’s like he can see it, like he’s there, listening to a bunch of rowdy sailors play the sounds of home in the cold night air on the other side of the world.
He tells them, red-faced, about his ‘shellback’ ceremony when he first crossed the equator, and having to kiss ‘The Royal Baby’ – he refused to say what that was, exactly – on the belly, after it had been coated with grease, and about the insane party his crew had thrown for him that night.
The sun and waves on his lower back, he says, don’t really symbolize anything, he just thought it was cool. But he likes to think of it as a reminder that there’s always another day, another tomorrow, just waiting for the sunrise. He shows the fire lily on his ankle, tells them it’s for love, for passion, for all the things that are fire. He talks about the koi and the tiger on his back, how they’re symbols of courage and strength, of facing trials, and it reminds Sokka of the wolf and the polar leopard seal that his dad and Bato have.
Toph pulls out some lie-detecting when Katara asks if he has more, and Mai’s eyes glint as she confirms that yes, Zuko does have more. They all laugh when he has to tug his pants down and there’s a nearly-naked geisha on his thigh and a fucking turtleduck on his ass. He laughs out loud, harder than he has in a long, long time, so hard he’s crying and Suki is crying against him, too.
“I was drunk,” he says, pulling his pants back up, his face turning the same red as his shirt.” Sakiko was one of the ship’s pets, and apparently I really wanted to pet Sakiko at the time. That’s what I was told, anyways.”
“Zuko, you really shouldn’t drink so much,” Katara admonishes.” You’re only, like, seventeen.”
“There’s no laws in international waters,” he shrugs.” Besides, it’s a sailor thing. You drink, drink, and drink some more because there’s jack shit else to do.”
“I’m guessing the cursing is another sailor thing,” Suki says. Zuko’s grin back is all the answer anyone needs for that.
“Hey, Zuko, I have, uh, one more question,” Sokka asks between breaths.” Those swallows…why did they have lines through them?”
“Oh. That.” Zuko takes a deep breath, his hand ghosting over his side.” The line is a dagger. It means that someone you cared about is…no longer with you.”
The mood sobers almost instantly. It’s strange, in a way. A year ago, he wouldn’t have ever entertained the thought of people from the Fire Nation being people. He’d always been taught they were horrible, they were monsters. He had seen it. Lived it. But…he can’t pretend. Zuko’s crew…they more than monsters. They’re people. Just like him. If anyone deserved to have their stories remembered, it was them.
Looking at his friend, he thought that perhaps…perhaps they were.
And as long as Zuko was still alive, the stories written in his skin would tell their tale – and a thousand more.