Zuko regretted everything. Zuko regretted his whole life. Zuko regretted agreeing to—
“Okay!” Jet started, clapping his hands and grinning manically. “So, here’s what’s going to happen. Each team has a flag. The flag has to stay at your “base”. The flag cannot be touched by any member of your team, except to steal it back from a fleeing member of another team. Including but not limited to carrying, touching, poking, hiding it in their clothes, touching with gloves, touching with a stick, hitting it with an arrow— Longshot, a fan— Suki and...the rest of them, biting it to move it, or asking, in any way but especially by flirting, a passerby to move it. Please.” Jet gave a pointed look to Ty Lee.
“Oops. The more you know!” she said with a very insincere, apologetic smile.
Jet sighed and continued, “A team wins when they get all three flags in their own area. The forest is split into three areas, which all of you have a metal copy of, courtesy of our resident,” Jet looks at his notes, “Greatest Earthbender of all time, inventor of Metal Bending, trainer of the danciest Avatar of all time, Avatar Aang, the Twinkletoes of—”
“Anyway!” Suki cut in. “We have played the Freedom Fighters a few times—”
“Which has led to a resounding tie.” Jet announced.
Zuko heard Katara mutter under her breath, "And multiple broken bones and a concussion," which...explained her last-minute "vacations" to Kyoshi Island.
“I was getting to that—” Suki continued, a grin splitting her face and one hand already twitching towards her belt-knife.
“Just wanted to make it clear. You have not beaten us,” Jet insisted.
“We’ve beaten you half of the time.”
“Well, not the other half.”
“Jet, I will beat you right now if you want—”
“Oh, yeah fan girl? Bring it. Bring. It.”
“Cmon Hooky, show me what you—”
“Suki, what were you saying,” Aang intervened, before they had a repeat of last years solstice party, which ended with him, Sokka, Jet, and Suki all being grounded to their bedroom for three days (by Aang freezing the door shut because they “didn’t get outside privileges back until they proved they could treat it nicely.”)
“Oh, yeah. Thanks, Aang.” Suki switched gears, smiling and flicking her hair back (which hit Jet in the face). “We are having a new group join us today. Aang, what is your team name?”
“Team Hotness!” Aang suggested.
“Team Hope?” Katara asked.
“Team Toph,” Toph declared.
“Team Boomerang, Featuring Toph! And others!” Sokka said with a shout.
“Okay, great!” Jet cut them off. “I’m just going to call you Team Three because you’re the third team. Good? Great, amazing. Suki, you’re still on Kyoshi Warriors, so I’m taking another person from Team Three, just to be fair.”
“Okay, Jet,” Katara drawled, “I’ll join your stupid team—”
“Zuko. Fire boy. With me. Plus, Ty Lee is still with the Kyoshi Warriors, so, gloomy girl with the knives. We got you too.”
Zuko held back a snort. No way would Mai go for—
“Cool,” Mai said with no expression, detangling Ty Lee from herself.
“Alright.” Sokka grinned. “We good? You good? I’m good?”
“I’m good,” Jet said.
“I’m great,” Suki countered.
“I’m amazing,” Jet returned.
“I’m sick of this.” Toph interrupted. “Sparky and Sharpy are with the Freedom Fighters. Let’s go. Whoever draws first blood wins.”
“That’s not—” Zuko started...just as Toph decided to leave. “Toph, that’s not...Toph! Toph that’s not what we’re doing!” Toph kept walking. “Toph, it’s important to me that you know that’s not what we’re doing.”
“Yeah, we got it Sparky,” she called back. “We’ll see you in the infirmary.”
“Sorry ,” Sokka mouthed as Toph bent an earth hand to drag him away. Along with the rest of Team Three.
“Okay,” Suki said, “So, maybe we should—”
She got cut off (literally) by a knife slamming her into the tree behind her— and then three more making sure she stayed there.
“See you later, Ty Lee,” Mai said. “We have the head start.”
And, with that, she vanished into the forest.
“That was— Holy shit —” Jet yelled, him and his group following after her, “That was badass, come on , gloomy knife girl!”
“You know her name,” Smellerbee said, eyes rolling.
“Yeah,” Jet sighed, “Yeah I do,” continuing to dreamily follow as Smellerbee made a throat cut gesture at Suki and then dodged as another Warrior threw a rock at her, disappearing with the rest of the Fighters.
Well, maybe Toph would be right about the first blood.
Zuko ducked as another Warrior threw a rock at him and ran after his team.
Zuko sat in a tree. Jet’s group was very fond of trees.
In fact, Jet had made sure Zuko knew how to climb trees very well before this, which was a slightly painful collection of afternoons with a lot of swords and a lot of Zuko falling out of trees.
He was better at...fighting in them. Not so much climbing or jumping from tree to tree, which seemed to be one of Jet’s favorite past times.
But, now, many injuries later, he knew how to keep up with them.
“Hey, how many knives do you have?” the small child named the Duke asked Mai, hanging from a branch above Jet.
“That looks dangerous,” Mai dead-panned.
“Jet lets me do it,” The Duke said.
“Jet is an idiot.” And with that, she grabbed the Duke and deposited him on the tree next to Zuko, placing a pin to keep him in place.
“Hey, what the— Why—”
“Here,” she said, giving him a honey-maple candy. This shut him up.
“What do we do now.” Mai said.
“We steal their flag.” Zuko answered.
“And how do we do that.”
“Ugh. This forest is disgusting.”
“I thought you said you liked it here.”
“I do. It’s charming.
As always, classic Mai.
“When is your boy coming back?” Mai asked.
“Hey! He is not my boy.” Zuko was— Affronted. He was absolutely affronted. Jet was not his boy.
“Details.” Mai said with a wave of her hand.
“And he’ll be back in a few minutes probably. I think that—”
And with that, Jet fell out of the trees and in front of Mai.
“Hi,” she said with a raised eyebrow.
“Hi,” he smirked back.
“Okay, so, first things first, we are going to destroy them. All of them. We have talked about it and the Freedom Fighters refuse to lose. Ever. And the Warriors have bested us too many times. We are going to grind them into dust!”
The Fighters cheered and brandished their knives. Scary.
“Second, we need to get you all in your war paint, which Bee is already so graciously modeling for us.”
“We should wear it all the time,” she added.
“Eh, we should. But we don’t.” He grinned at Mai. “But we will now! Because, once this is on, it is war ! 24 freaking 7!”
This might not be such a relaxing weekend as Suki promised, Zuko thought to himself.
And then Jet swept him away for full face war paint.
That was day number one.
On day number three, Zuko began to question Jet’s sanity.
Or, at least, that was Zuko’s thought process when Jet brought them yet another fully cooked squirrel, along with the information that he had set the tree next to Suki’s campsite on fire.
When Zuko asked why he didn’t just take the opportunity to go for the flag, Jet said that wasn’t how war was done and he was showing their greater ability to wait out the Kyoshi Warriors (to starve them out with suffering and show that the Fighters, once and for all, were the best military force of children in the world).
Then on day five Jet brought them all of the Warriors food supply. And Suki’s hair piece. And a letter for Mai from Ty Lee about how much she loved her and also she was going to kill her (in a friendly, loving way, Ty Lee promised).
Conveniently, this was the same day the Warriors decided to steal all of their food supplies, so it kind of evened out.
Zuko started to question his own sanity on the seventh day.
That was the day that Jet convinced them all to dive into the Unagi’s lake as a show of bravery and as a distraction while the Warriors made an attempt on Team Three’s flag that...Zuko didn’t want to talk about (Katara had to make a trip to their camp as a neutral party for...a number of injures).
But, Mai was loving it. A slightly concerning amount. A lot.
Especially since Longshot was now, apparently, working with her on how to combine his bow with her knives for super-launched knives. A test run buried a knife so far into a tree that the hilt wasn’t visible. And their further testing was not something Zuko wanted to see the end result of.
Or the end result of Smellerbee teaching her to identify every poisonous or venomous thing in the forest.
Or Jet giving her a sword.
Which was what led to him wandering a bit away from their camp, (where Mai was currently bringing a new plan to Jet and when Zuko heard the phrase “and then all we have to do is paralyze them a little”, he immediately turned around and walked away) and into the forest a little bit.
And maybe that was why he didn’t notice his surroundings until the acorn hit him in the head.
“Pppsst. Pssst. Zuko.”
He ignored it. The trees were so pretty. All the light...just...lighting up the place.
“Zuko over here!”
Another acorn hit him.
Another acorn. And two more after that.
“Guys, I’m coming over there, stop throwing stuff at me.”
“Sorry,” Sokka whispered.
“Sorry,” Suki whispered.
“What do you want?”
“Do you want a piece of chocolate?” Suki offered.
“Or fish? Perfectly roasted,” Sokka asked.
“Or to give these back to Mai?” Suki said, showing a...large number of knives, why did Mai have that many? And why did Suki have them? When had Mai had an opportunity to throw so many at them?
“What...do you want, I— fine, thank you,” He took the chocolate and started eating. Which was when...Sokka whipped out more food. And a blanket. And a basket. And offered Zuko a pouch of some kind of juice.
“Yes. Thank you too. Anyway, so, me and Suki here, we’ve been thinking—”
“Thinking out loud. And—”
“ And aren’t you tired of all this?”
“The sleeping outside?”
“The poisoning of water supplies?”
“The pitting wild animals against each other—”
“We— wait what, you guys have been doing that?” Zuko asked.
“Not the point. Anyway. Me and Suki have been talking. We’re hot, right. Sexy, smart warriors, right?”
“Right, Zuko? You think so?”
“Great. Look, we don’t need teams. We can cinch this thing. All we need is maybe one more sexy, hot, smart warrior to join us.”
“You want me to ask Mai?”
“Because, I mean, usually she’s all for a double agent but I think she’s kinda adopted um...everyone? In the...whatever team we are.”
“No, Zuko, we weren’t talking about Mai.”
“Well, if you want Jet, I don’t think he’ll turn on them, he’s gotten very, very protective— not that he wasn’t before, but it’s become...a lot lately? Last night, he spent over an hour giving a speech about how proud of all of them he was.”
“Not Jet, listen, Zuko—”
“Smellerbee won’t come without Longshot.”
“Zuko, we’re talking about you.”
Zuko’s brain shorted out.
Like that one time Jet dared him to hang upside down for two minutes and then run as fast as he could.
He’s not... They don’t... He’s not...that word. Suki and Sokka don’t think he’s smart and...sexy and...hot. Like Sokka said. Right? They don’t… and he’s not. He’s not great on a team, probably, and he’s not...he can’t.
It’s probably a fire bending pun.
Hot. Like fire. Which he can make.
They wouldn’t think that.
And Katara had banned them from puns after the Great Pun-Of of Punniness (that, surprisingly, Aang actually won).
“I don’t have very good vision in the dark.”
“Spirits above—” Sokka face-palmed.
“Zuko.” Suki grabbed his shoulders. “We don’t care. Point is, all of us, tired, hot , and too good for this. Plus, we can cook and could make a hell of a feast. And also, I think if someone doesn’t stop all of them we might be stuck here for a month.”
“That’s a long time.”
“And also I think our friends might kill each other. Like, literally. Yesterday, I saw Ty Lee putting down bear traps. Bear. Traps.”
“Two days ago, I had to talk Toph out of putting scorpions in the warning pits. I told her it wasn’t much of a warning if they just killed people and she said it was a warning to keep their spirits from coming back.”
“Mai is trying to paralyze people. Our friends are insane.”
“Yup,” Sokka said, clapping him on the back, “And it’s our job to keep them from killing each other. So, you in?”
Zuko took a long sip of juice.
It could be fun.
He did miss a real bed.
And not sleeping in a tree.
And not worrying about Toph killing someone.
“I’m in. But, we need a better team name. I’m not going to let Jet call us Team Four.”
Sokka loved planning.
And Zuko loved watching him plan. It was an organized chaos unleashed. And, hopefully, no one would die.
Sokka’s eyes got dangerously excited, his hands gesturing wildly, hair getting loose from his wolf tail until he just let it down out of frustration, talking all the while.
He would look at you like you were the whole world, like everything hinged on your conversation with him— he would look at you like a god if you made a single good suggestion.
“They would trust us if we looked like each other,” Zuko said slowly. “And we still would be following the rules of the game.”
Sokka’s head snapped towards him, his eyes lit up, his hand grabbing Zuko’s wrist.
“We should totally switch! Zuko, you’re a genius!”
“Mmhmm,” Zuko managed to choke out.
“Suki! Suki did you hear that? Zuko just had the best idea!”
“Sokka, I am right next to you.”
“We should switch face paint!”
“It’s a good idea.”
“It’s a great idea.”
“It is a very good idea.”
“I know!” Sokka continued. “Genius! If we switch then we can all just sneak into each other’s bases, steal the flags, reconvene, win the thing, stop everyone from inevitably breaking each other, and maybe escape for a quick picnic dinner.” Zuko’s heart stuttered as Sokka touched his shoulder. Maybe he was more worried about this...Sokka touching him...and talking to him... wait, no, about the coup and flag stealing thing than he thought. “Just the three of us.”
“Great!” Suki cut him off. “That. Sounds. Great. Just great. What a wonderful idea, Zuko, really, we all have such better ideas when you’re with us.”
Zuko swallowed. Look at the sky. Got no answers from it.
“I do love a good break-in.” Zuko mused.
“And a disguise!” Sokka added.
“And a disguise. Okay, I’m in.”
“Great.” Sokka beamed at him, stepping closer and Zuko could feel, in his toes, where Sokka’s shoes bumped up against his own, his breath catching and his heart fucking up again.
Yeah, he needed a real bed again as soon as possible.
“To the painting and planning station!” Sokka called, walking away.
“Give him time,” Suki said, her nose wrinkled in amusement. “He takes a while to get with the program. Especially when there are hijinks to be planned.”
“Oh, yeah, of course.” Zuko forced a smile. Sokka would focus in and they would get this done. Then they could all go home. “We’ll get it soon. I promise.”
“I’m sure you will,” Suki said with a smile and a squeeze to his hand.
But, Suki was very nice so it made sense. She was probably happy they were all together again and trying to put a stop to all this.
Or maybe this was a ploy to get her team to win.
Which, honestly, Zuko wouldn’t mind because it would still lead to them all getting to go home. Or hanging out on the island. Eating fruit. Seeing how far they could throw the pits.
“Thanks, Suki,” he said.
“C’mon,” Suki said, jolting him forward with a push to the shoulders. “Time for a make-over, pretty boy.”
And with a grin and a slight shove (that Suki returned by a slightly harder shove which Zuko returned by shoving her harder which Suki responded to by shoving him off the path and into a bush), Zuko made his peace and made his plans.
Time for some chaos.
Some planned chaos.
“So, here’s what’s going to happen,” Sokka said, looking unhinged with his hair falling out of his wolf tail. It was sweet. It was— Zuko was tired. Sokka looked like a mess. A terrible, terrible mess. “I’m going to be Zuko, wait no, Zuko will be Suki—”
“Why does Zuko get to be me?”
“You can’t be you—”
“Because then you’re just a traitor. Not a...a person seeing past the need for team boundaries. And the Warriors won’t accept that as an loss. Plus it’s against the rules for you to touch your own flag. Plus it’s more fun.”
“It is more fun,” Zuko agreed. “But I’m not gonna wear the dress.”
“Why can’t you wear the dress.”
“The dress is an honor— ” Suki hissed.
“Giant chest scar. Doesn’t work well with heavy armor yet.”
“Well,” Suki added, “You know, maybe, Zuko just thinks that Sokka would look nice in the Warrior Paint.”
Now Zuko wished for the full face paint. To cover up his face that was definitely turning red.
“Right, Zuko? Wouldn’t Sokka look ni—”
“No. I mean, yes. I mean, he’d look like you. And you look...like you do.” Zuko wanted to die. He could fix this. “I think that...if Sokka was you the plan would work.”
Yes. Got it. Perfect. Zuko was great at interacting.
Sokka interrupted, “I mean, yeah, I look super hot in the facepaint, we know this, and Zuko agrees, ALL RIGHT, okay, so, I will be the hot Kyoshi Warrior in the dress-battle armor—”
“That is an honor —”
“That is an honor to wear, yeah, yeah, yeah. So then Zuko can be me and Suki can be Zuko, badda bing, badda boom, that’s a plan.”
“Hell yeah.” Suki said.
“Fuck yeah.” Zuko said.
“Heck yeah,” Sokka corrected.
“Wait, Suki can you do the…” Zuko faltered.
“The...well, they’re always up in the trees so you have to be able to do all the...tree stuff.”
“I can do tree stuff.”
“Well, it’s specific tree stuff.”
“Alright, fine squirrel boy, why don’t you show me how it’s done and then I’ll see if I can do your special tree stuff.”
And with that, Zuko made his way to a tree, the trunk wide and thick, a couple feet across. He took a few steps back. A few more back.
And ran straight at it.
His momentum helping him up the trunk, running up the side of the tree, twisting before he could fall, grabbing one of the strong branches and using the momentum, not stopping for a second, throwing himself through the air and landing, perfectly, on his feet on the branch of the neighboring tree.
“You call that special!” Suki called up and then, of course, perfectly matched it, straight down to the special way he has to twist to avoid tearing at his stomach.
She was incredible.
“Not terrible,” Zuko snorted when she came to rest next to him.
“Not bad yourself.” She poked him in the shoulder, then her eyes flitted down.
And Zuko looked to see Sokka, his face red, his mouth open, the spluttering about to start.
He must be so in awe of Suki. Which, Zuko would be too, if he was dating someone like that. Who could just...do that, run up a tree like it’s nothing.
Zuko grinned at her, holding back a bitter congratulations on landing the perfect, in love boyfriend, with the stupid in-love face to match. He was not going to be jealous. He wasn’t jealous. Zuko was sure he would find a great guy in about thirty years that he could marry and, knowing his luck, they would both die in a fiery explosion soon after and then they would both be done with it.
Zuko jumped out of the tree, landing in an easy roll, right in front of Sokka.
“Some girl, right?” Zuko smirked. Since Sokka was obviously so in love with her.
“Some...yeah. Yup. Some girl,” Sokka said, his eyes still wide and his jaw still slack.
Suki landed next to Zuko, and Sokka seemed to remember he was supposed to be planning.
“So, now here’s what we gotta do. Um. Um.” Suki pushed him to snap him out of it, and Zuko laughed, easy, echoing in the forest, and Sokka seemed to short out like a candle spluttering in the wind. It’s sweet that he still loved Suki so much. “Um. Zuko, you um….”
Oh no. Zuko’s stomach twinged. “What.”
“You. You have to.”
“You have to be me.”
“Okay. That’s not hard.”
Now Sokka actually sputtered, a series of random sounds and hand gestures that probably meant he was a little bit outraged. “I— You— I cannot believe.”
Then, Zuko might have had a good idea as he stood up and perfectly copied Sokka’s spluttering and hand gestures, straight down to the accidentally hitting himself in the face.
Sokka hummed. “Hmm...not bad. Not—”
“Bad at all,” Zuko finished for him, enjoying Sokka’s glare, accompanied by Suki’s cackle.
“He’s got you down pat .”
“Well, he, uh, he can’t— Suki . Well… I bet he can’t do this .” And with that, he pulled out his famous boomerang and gave it a wide throw.
Previously, Zuko would have just scoffed but now he knew to duck. Or...just...hide behind Suki.
Perfectly timed as the boomerang landed back in Sokka’s hand, flying right through where Zuko’s head previously was.
“Here, you do it,” Sokka said, sidling up to him.
“So, you gotta throw it, buddy.”
“Yup. Okay. Yup.” With a breath and a small prayer, Zuko threw it.
Directly into a tree.
Where it embedded itself an inch into the wood.
“Well...you definitely have the power down,” Sokka said, nudging at it. It did not move. At all. Even when Sokka tried five times to remove it. “Suki! Suki, we need the big guns, please?”
“Yup, got you, honey,” she said, easily pulling it out of the tree and giving Sokka a kiss on the cheek.
Zuko watched as he stared at her with love-sick eyes as she walked away.
He wished he had eyes in the back of his head so he could know if Sokka looked at him the same way.
Wait, where did that come from?
Weird Weird Weird.
Maybe Mai had slipped him something, which would be a fine and normal reason for him being so strange today. Strange, strange thoughts. Not normal. Not at all.
Zuko was so distracted that he didn’t even notice where Sokka was until Sokka’s arms wrapped around him.
“You have to extend your arm, let me show you—” Sokka said, his arm trailing down Zuko’s, lifting, his hand wrapping around Zuko’s hand, pulling it up, extending it— “There you go! Dude, perfect!” He shouted as the boomerang twirled through the sky in a matching arc to how Sokka always did it. “Now, you have to catch it.”
Which Zuko did. He raised his arm and caught it.
Zuko smiled. He had thrown the boomerang.
“I threw the boomerang.”
“You threw the boomerang.”
“I threw the boomerang! Sokka, I threw it! I threw the boomerang!”
“Heck yeah, dude!”
“I threw it! Suki, I threw it! This is amazing!”
Zuko didn’t even notice he was jumping or that he had grabbed Sokka, his hands on Sokka’s biceps.
Or that he was so close to Sokka.
He stopped jumping.
“I did it,” Zuko said, very close to Sokka’s face.
“You did it,” Sokka said, not moving away.
“I should probably try it again, just for practice,” Zuko said, turning abruptly and maybe hitting Sokka in the face with his shoulder.
Just a little. Oops.
“Okay, you have to keep the paintbrush straight. Straight. Straight , Sokka, you’re terrible at this, let me do it.”
“Well, it’s not my fault you use brushes , which are terrible and awful and stupid. ”
“Shut up and let me do your lipstick.”
Zuko watched as Suki traced the lines of Sokka’s lips.
The lines were red. Curving. Around his mouth. That Zuko kept staring at. To make sure the lines were straight. If Sokka looked like a mess then the plan would never work.
“I’m going to go…um. Wash my face.”
“No, Zuko, you’re not,” Suki said, pulling him back down to land on his butt, hard.
“Suki, that hurt!”
“Your ass can take it, stop whining, and Sokka, stop moving. And talking. And looking at me, I get nervous when you look at me this much.”
“Suki, I need to wash off my Fighter paint.”
“Nope. Not yet. You still have to use it for reference for mine.”
“I’m doing yours?”
“Well, yeah, obviously, who else would be?”
Zuko could do this.
Zuko had to do this.
“Well, I can’t see my own face.”
“Sokka can see it, he can help you.” Suki dismissed any more concerns.
Awful. “Great. Great idea Suki, that sounds great.” Zuko forced a smile.
“Shut up, Sokka!”
And next Zuko had to do Suki.
Not that...other thing. Suki was very pretty but he wasn’t into...that kind of pretty.
He was into other kinds of pretty, like Sokka.
NOT LIKE SOKKA .
Like people like Sokka, like…
“Alright, Suki, I’m going to do your make-up now!” Zuko stated.
Then he did not move.
“Whenever you're ready, hot stuff,” Suki said.
“Yup,” Zuko said.
He moved his wrist and almost poked her in the eye.
“You got this Zuko,” Sokka said from his side, painfully reminding Zuko that he still existed.
Then, Zuko tried to paint Suki’s face without any paint on his hand.
“Okay, alright, okay, I got this,” he said.
He needed to focus.
Sokka did not exist, Sokka wasn’t there, and Zuko wasn’t attracted to him at all if Sokka did exist.
Zuko drew a line on Suki’s forehead.
He could focus.
He could do this.
He started with drawing straight lines down and across Suki’s forehead.
Him and Jet had spent long nights making war paint designs.
They hadn’t worked with his scar. They made the tissue irritated again, itchy and painful at best and opening up again at worst.
But, Zuko wanted to enjoy time with his friends. He wanted to go on supply runs and dress up to take down other small time warlords or corrupt officials or anything else the Fighters realized was a problem that Zuko couldn’t deal with in official capacity.
So he just...toughed it out. He ignored the million times that Jet said he didn’t have to do this, he didn’t want Zuko to get hurt, he could just wear the mask, that Zuko was a stubborn bitch, and every other tactic Jet tried to use on him to stop using face paint that was toxic to his skin.
But, it was important to them, so it was important to Zuko.
He wasn’t going to waste an opportunity to be a part of a group.
But then Jet and Sokka had come to him with a new paint, made out of a new mixture, that didn’t bother him at all and Zuko was able to join the Fighters on supply runs, training exercises, or just fun.
He had thanked them by making a new safe for Jet. Toph and Katara helped make a water-proof one so the Fighters could keep books and papers in their weird tree-house thing, which they struggled with for years since they kept getting destroyed or water damaged or blown away.
But, Zuko couldn’t figure out what to make Sokka.
He thought about it for weeks and weeks until he just made him a sweet bread, brought it to his chambers late at night with a special made tea, split it with him while looking at the stars.
Sokka had said it was the best gift he could give him.
Zuko moved onto Suki’s eyes, drawing the face paint idea that Smellerbee had.
He drew large circles over and around her eyes, red spreading out and ending in points like the edges of a flower, curling over to join the lines on her forehead and extending to the bottom of her cheeks.
It didn’t cover the scar. But it didn’t ignore it either. It was perfect.
He finished with her mouth, three diagonal lines going over it, repeating the same design over her forehead in yellow.
“It looks perfect,” Sokka breathed next to his ear, startling him.
His wrist jerked and knocked a streak of yellow into Suki’s hair.
“Shit, sorry, it—”
“It’s fine,” Suki said.
“It’s my fault,” Sokka talked over her, “My— I shouldn’t have—”
They all stopped talking. Sokka was very close to him.
Very, very close.
And Zuko desperately needed his brain to stop thinking certain types of thoughts.
Suki saved him. “Here, Zuko, do my hair!”
“Yup. Hair. I can do that.”
“Sokka,” Suki asked, “Why don’t you go get your paints? For Zuko?”
Shit. Sokka had to do that for him. Sokka had to look at his face. He might have to do eye contact with Sokka.
Zuko focused on braiding Suki’s hair.
A braid in the middle, going down her skull, ending short at the nape of her neck, just like Zuko’s.
“I’m sure his plan is great, it’ll work and then we’ll all get to have a nice relaxing vacation. Or, as relaxing as our friends will allow.”
“Mm-hmm,” Suki agreed. “And…”
“And…?” And what. What did she want. Sokka was great, did she need him to tell her that? Sure, it wouldn’t hurt to hear, even though Zuko had probably said it half a million times. “I’m sure he’s a great boyfriend? Because he’s a great friend.”
“He is . I highly recommend him. He is just wonderful. Perfect. Amazing. Best boyfriend one could ask for.”
Zuko pulled her braid a bit tighter. She had a great boyfriend. Good for her.
“Well, I’m sure everyone hopes for someone as great,” he returned.
She probably didn’t notice the braid. That’s just how tight they all do it. Can’t have hair getting in your face while you're attacking...well, anything really, probably not a good idea.
“Oh, Zuko,” she said, just as Zuko finished. “I think you already have. You know—”
“I’m back!” Sokka yelled, entering their clearing and promptly tripping over his own feet.
And next, Sokka got to do Zuko.
Zuko had to stop...saying it like that. Thinking it like that, really.
He was very, very, very grateful none of his friends were mind readers. As far as he knew.
And Zuko got to see Sokka do it, close to his face, feeling his breath on his cheek and Sokka focused and the pad of his thumb moving across his skin.
Sokka’s skin was soft. He must moisturize.
Zuko got to see Sokka working with his hands, how his tongue pokes out of his mouth, how he constantly managed to get paint right on the tip of his nose and let Zuko brush it off only for it to end up back there in a matter of minutes.
Sokka stopped him from putting his foot in his mouth even more: “Ah-Ah-Ah Zuko. No talkie! Sokka is working!”
It was sweet. It was fun.
“There you’re done,” Sokka said, all too soon. Zuko hadn’t even noticed the time moving, his brain quiet and still.
“Thank you, Sokka. Your hands are soft.”
“Thank you, I moisturize,” Sokks said with a wink and Zuko was grateful for the make-up covering his blush.
“Now...uh…” Sokka started. “Outfit switch.”
“Oh, okay,” Suki said, immediately stripping.
“SUKI!” Sokka shouted.
“WHAT!” She shouted back.
“We are in public ,” Sokka hissed.
“No we aren’t. We are in a forest , well-hidden, and it’s nothing you haven’t seen before and it’s nothing Zuko is even interested in, so!” Suki punctuated by pulling her armor off and throwing it at him.
“Wait, Zuko, you—”
“Yup,” Zuko cut him off. He didn’t have to say it. It was fine. He was fine with it. And no one would be weird or mean about it because Zuko was in charge of a country and could outlaw it and if it was someone from a different country he could get his powerful friends to not allow it.
New world, no one would be mean about people liking other people. Nope.
But, Zuko might care a little bit about hopefully Sokka not wanting to be mean about it.
“I thought you were dating Mai.”
A crack rang out as Suki violently face-palmed and Zuko, against his will, started laughing so hard he couldn’t breathe.
“Mai?? MAI? She was practically on top of Ty Lee!”
“So!” Sokka countered. “People can date more than one person!”
“What.” Zuko said.
“What.” Sokka said.
“Um. No, I’m not dating her. And...I was not aware of that.”
“Oh,” Sokka said. “Yeah. I mean, it’s common like...everywhere. Except where you live. So it makes sense you might not...know that much about it. But, people do date more people than one person and um, liking your own gender is cool which I would know because I do too, just like you, which is good because—” Sokka cut himself off. “...I’m going to change now.”
Zuko’s brain felt like it was simultaneously burning itself out thinking too fast and also on a complete pause.
This was weird. Too many things were happening. He needed to focus on not letting his friends kill someone.
He pulled his tunic off.
“Right,” Sokka said, his eyes wide. “I’m just gonna...turn around.”
Weird. Even more weird.
Sokka probably didn’t like seeing the scar. It was a little much, even for Zuko.
Zuko decided to not focus on that or the planes of Sokka’s back while he changed, focusing on getting his own clothes off and putting on what Sokka threw over his shoulder as fast as possible.
“Okay, I’m done!” Zuko called out.
“Done!” Suki said.
“Almost!” Sokka said, struggling with...something. “Hey, Suki can you—”
“Sure thing, here, Zuko, help me!” She said, her smile...looking a little too much like Azula’s when she had a good idea. “Here, can you hold this?” She gestured to Sokka’s waist.
He had to hold Sokka’s waist. He had to touch Sokka’s waist. And stomach. And…
“Sure,” Zuko said, holding the pieces of armor together, not paying attention to Sokka’s muscles or warm skin and ignoring when Sokka rested his head on Zuko’s shoulder to complain into it while Suki cinched the armor closed.
“There you go,” Suki said cheerfully, and Sokka was done.
And staring at him.
“Did I put it on wrong?” Zuko asked.
“Nope!” Sokka squeaked, coughing, and then resumed in an aggressively normal voice. “You look perfect. I mean, you look fine. You look fine. Yup. Anyway, plan time. We all have our outfits. Our face paint. Meet back at the cliff next to the beach where Toph pushed Katara in the ocean as soon as you have the flag!”
“Alright!” Suki agreed.
“Okay,” Zuko said.
“Go Team Four!” Sokka cheered, turning on his heel and taking off into the forest.
“We are not— dammit,” Zuko said as he lost sight of Sokka.
“C’mon, Team Four isn’t so bad. Go Team Four!” Suki gave him a slap on the shoulder and then jogged off in another direction.
And Zuko was left alone with his thoughts.
The main one being that he had way too many weird fucking friends.
Zuko crept over the line, demarcated by a large, long dip in the earth that Toph, presumably, had made.
Hopefully there weren’t too many booby traps.
Or they hadn’t added any that Sokka didn’t know about.
Zuko carefully stepped over the trip wires that Sokka had told him about, the hidden ice, the earth pit, cage traps, and Aang’s touch, the small, permanent vortex the kid had managed to create.
These children were terrifying.
Zuko crept past the final cage trap, breathed a sigh of relief, and promptly walked into a new rock that had risen out of the ground.
“Hi, Toph,” Zuko moaned from the ground.
“Hi Sparky,” she cackled.
“Good to see you.”
“Good to see you too, I take it you’re here to do something stupid.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Your heart's fast. Just like it is whenever you’re about to do something stupid. Almost as fast as when you see Sokka.”
“Your heart picks up whenever you see him. It’s like when Aang looks at Katara or when Mai looks at Ty Lee or when Jet looks at fairly written policy reforms. You know?”
“Well, that’s just people looking at what they love. That’s not— Wait.”
“Hmm...have a realization, Sparky.”
“I think I am…”
“Yeah, no shit, Sparky. So, what are you going to do now?”
“I guess I have to ask Katara about it.”
“Fair. Good plan.”
“And then I’ll write to my uncle.”
“All right, I mean, sure.”
“And then, I guess, enjoy the time I still have.”
“Sparky, what the fuck do you think is happening.”
“My heart’s wrong?”
“I mean, in a way, yeah.”
“Probably from the lighting.”
“Don’t know about that.”
“So,” Zuko took a deep breath. It was fine. It would be fine. “I’m going to die.”
Toph stared at him.
It was a shame, losing too many people while she was so young.
Then, she punched him.
“ OW , what the fuck Toph.”
“Fuck you, Sparky!”
“Fuck you, back!”
“Well, fuck you back times two!”
“Well fuck you back times infinity! Times infinity plus one! Goddammit. Shit.” Zuko held his nose. No blood. Yet.
“You’re so fucking stupid.”
“You’re four foot three and don’t know how to do math, bite me.”
Zuko avoided Toph’s teeth.
“You aren’t fucking dying, Sparky, you absolute stupid, idiotic buffon,” she yelled at him.
“You don’t know that!”
“Yes, I do!”
“Well, if I’m not dying then it…” Zuko trailed off.
“Then it means…”
Oh no, oh no.
If he wasn’t dying then the thing that was fucking up his heart was…
This is worse. Is this worse? This must be worse.
Toph cackled. “You finally got it! A full year later, Fire Lord Zuko manages to form a complete thought. Someone tell the press.”
Zuko snorted and gave Toph a light punch in the arm. Which she returned many times harder.
“I’m in love with Sokka.”
“Hell yeah you are buddy, what are you gonna do about it?”
“I’m going to steal your flag.”
“Okay, cool. Sounds fun.”
“You’re cool with that.”
“I miss Smellerbee. We were going to prank all the old people and we can't if we’re still on separate sides.”
“Will it be deadly?”
“I’ll take it. Um, and then I will...tell him? And hope he feels the same?”
Toph snorted. “Sounds like a great plan, Sparky.”
“Unless you think I shouldn’t.”
“Oh, I definitely think you should. I’m very sad I won’t be there to see it.”
“Well, I don’t want him to just laugh at me if that’s what everyone is going to do when I just finally—”
“Calm down Sparky.”
“I just...Toph, I haven’t…”
“Oh, I know. I think we all know.”
Zuko hoped that her earth feet thing couldn’t see how his face fell at that. Of course they all knew, he obviously wouldn’t have...and no one would…
No one said anything and Sokka hadn’t either which meant...
“Oh, cool it Sparky, stop freaking out. I’ll tell you one thing, okay?”
“Okay.” Zuko’s tongue felt thick and dry in his mouth. He couldn’t tell Sokka. He couldn’t face the mortification. As soon as this was over, he was going to run away. Maybe live in the swamp Katara had told him about.
“The thing your heart does? Whenever you see Sokka? Sokka’s heart does the same when he sees you.”
“No, I, heart, you. I just...That means…”
“And I also…”
“Fuck yeah!” Zuko shouted.
‘Fuck yeah!” Toph shouted back, and threw a giant chunk of earth at a wall to punctuate it.
“Well, um.” Zuko faltered for a second. “That is my distraction. I will go...steal your flag.”
“Fuck yeah, go get it, Lover Boy!” Toph cackled. And then threw another lump of rock into the forest.
Zuko heard Katara yelling in the distance and decided to head off before any more damage could be done.
Or, at least, damage that Zuko would see being done.
All in all, the flag was pretty easy to steal.
It had been totally frozen in an ice block that was underground but Zuko was prepared for that and blasted through it quickly, ignoring the clear rule violation that flags had to be visible and not buried because...well, who was following rules anymore?
Getting out of the hole Zuko had made proved a little tricker, since the dirt kept falling as soon as he got a grip but the boomerang did prove its usefulness.
Zuko attached a rope to the end of it and threw it, the sharp thunk showing that it had, indeed, buried itself into another tree. Then Zuko just had to pull himself up and ignore the twinging in his stomach. Or, at least, say it was the injury and not any nerves.
It was a good boomerang, indeed. Zuko could see why Sokka liked it.
And then Zuko heard Toph and Katara arguing far off and thought it would be time to make himself scarce.
One flag was down.
Time to go see how his friends— well, possibly not just friends, depending on the new information from the gremlin child— had done.
Zuko was the first one back.
Which gave him time to think.
His heart rate picked up when he saw Sokka. He thought Sokka was cool. And nice. And perfect. And would be a good boyfriend, just like Suki said.
Who wasn’t...a reason he couldn't like Sokka, like he had thought for...well, since Sokka grabbed him at Boiling Rock and Zuko’s stomach had done flips to rival Ty Lee.
Sokka liked boys too.
Which he said was good because…
And Toph said that…
So, he had to tell Sokka.
He might be ending today with a stolen Team Flag and a new...something.
By the end of the day he might have a something.
Which was exciting. Zuko’s stomach started the same old flips and his heart was buzzing with excitement, thumping loudly against his chest, and—
“Good job Zuko!” Sokka’s voice said, right next to his ear.
“Hi, Sokka!” he said, about an octave higher than his normal voice.
Sokka stared at him.
He stared back.
Now would be a good time. He should tell him. And it would be fine because Toph said so and…
Sokka got there first.
“By the way, your face looks nice. The paint. It looks good on you.” Sokka looked at his feet. “I think it looks nice.”
Zuko’s brain went empty.
That probably wasn’t good.
He should say something nice back.
“Suki!” he yelled, seeing her come into the clearing, another flag dangling from her hand. “Sokka, sorry, sorry, I just have to, go talk to, you understand, Suki time.” Fuck. “Bye. Uh, stay here. I don’t want to talk to you.”
And with that, into the forest he went.
Why did he say that???
Why did he say he didn’t want to talk to him?
Why did he—
“Hi Zuko,” Suki said when Zuko walked a safe distance away, his hand in a vice grip around her arm.
“Hi, Suki. Sorry for grabbing you. Your boyfriend said he liked my facepaint.”
“Oh.” Suki’s eyebrows knit together. That’s not good. “Well...that was nice of him to say?”
“Yes,” Zuko said. “I think he’s very nice.”
“I think he’s very, very nice.”
“Cool. I guess we both...think Sokka is nice?”
“Well, more than one person...can think he’s nice?”
“Yes.” Suki tilted her head. “I guess they can. I mean, I certainly think so.”
Zuko suppressed a smile. He didn’t want to seem too excited. That would be weird. He is excited but not too excited. He was excited a normal amount. He was very excited.
“Okay, cool. Nice. Good. Nice. Cool. That’s cool. You’re cool, Suki. I’m glad we both like Sokka’s being nice abilities. I’m um, I’m gonna go tell him…” Zuko took in a breath. “I’m gonna go tell him I like his too.”
“Okay,” Suki smiled, knowingly. Which made sense because now...now she knew. She knew! And it was okay! “You go do that.”
Zuko nodded and then turned and then turned back.
“Wait, do you like it too?”
“Oh, I like his, yeah.”
“No, um, I meant um, mine.”
“It’s fine if you don’t.”
“No, I mean it’s, it’s fine. Not really...my style. Plus, I hate the Freedom Fighters on principle due to our ongoing war so…”
“Not that I, I don’t, I’m sorry, it’s—”
“No, it’s fine, you aren’t really the type of person I want liking my face paint.”
Zuko smiled and then turned to go back to Sokka. Suki followed along.
Sokka was pulling the flags up on a pole Toph had erected months ago, muttering to himself and looking adorable, which Zuko could admit now.
“Stupid, foot in your mouth, Your face looks nice, this is just like Yue, idiot boy—”
“I like yours,” Zuko blurted out. “I like yours. Too. I like your face paint too.”
Sokka squeaked and then dropped a flag on himself and then looked up at Zuko.
“Yeah.” Zuko hoped he didn’t seem too breathless. Zuko hoped he wasn’t misinterpreting. Zuko hoped his face pain wasn’t smudging. With the heat. And all.
Sokka was so close.
Zuko leaned in. He realized they were really close. He might have started freaking out, just a little or a lot and was about to pull away—
Then Suki shoved him.
Then he was kissing Sokka.
Then he was grabbing Sokka, wrapping his arms around Sokka’s neck, and kissing Sokka.
Yes, he was attracted to him, and yes he liked him, and yes , he thought Sokka was wonderful and amazing and—
“Perfect,” Zuko said, coming up for air, “You’re perfect.”
“You’re a monster,” Sokka said, over his shoulder at Suki.
“You love it,” she said back.
“I sure do,” Sokka said. Then, smaller, looking at his feet. “I love both of you.”
Zuko felt like his whole chest was filled with warm, hot, something, like going in the sun after being inside all day, like sitting in front of a fireplace.
“I...you too. You—- I—. I feel the same. For you. Not for Suki, in the same way, even though I love her a lot, it’s not, I, I love you.”
Zuko was a mess.
Thank Agni Sokka liked it.
Loved it, Zuko corrected.
“But, now, I think we need to get back at Suki,” Zuko mused. “Not sure what we need to do but she did shove me so…”
“You wouldn’t.” Suki said, eyes wide.
“Oh, I think I would.”
Suki tried to make a break for it but Zuko caught her, spinning her around and over the cliff into the water.
“You’re gonna regret that, Fire Boy!” she yelled back from far below.
“Oh, you are so gonna regret that. You can’t treat my girlfriend that way. Not even my boyfriend can treat her that way,” Sokka grinned, advancing on him.
“Oh, and who is that? Just to be clear. Who is—”
Sokka cut him off with a kiss.
“You are, you stupid dumbass. My lovely boyfriend. Who I love so much.” Sokka gave him a kiss on the nose, a last bit of paint rubbing off onto Sokka’s mouth.
And with that Sokka shoved him into the ocean.
Water washed over Zuko, the sound of rushing being replaced with cackling as he came up again, only to be covered again with a loud splash as Sokka jumped in next to him.
“Okay, fair, fair, fight over! Fight over!” Zuko yelled as Suki made her way towards him.
“Okay, truce!” she agreed as Sokka started to splash her.
“Okay, fine,” Sokka gave in, after one final splash.
“I think we need a new team name by the way,” Suki said, smirking again. “I think we should all be joined by the thing we have in common.”
“That would only be fair,” Zuko agreed.
“Alright, motion passed. From now on, we will be Team in Love with Sokka.”
“I am not—” Sokka protested.
“Oh, I’m sure you are—” Suki splashed him.
“But at least we are too,” Zuko said with a grin, and a kiss to Sokka’s cheek, the make-up running down it.
He really liked kissing Sokka. And he would be able to kiss him plenty of times, from now on.
Suki pressed a kiss to his other side and then pushed Sokka’s head under the water.
“You said truce!” Zuko protested.
“I lied,” Suki said, and dove for him, held back by Sokka pulling her under and grabbing Zuko’s leg as well.
Zuko laughed, joining the fight above the water and jumping on Sokka’s back as Suki tried to grab his legs and pull him off.
As they fought, they started to hear the yelling of camps realizing their flags were gone. Or, maybe, seeing them put up at the top of the hill.
He had some weird fucking friends.
But, now he had a boyfriend and girlfriend-in-law to add to it.
Which was a pretty fucking good deal.