The man on stage was a first rate actor. Everybody listened with rapt attention as he spoke, the theater so quiet you could hear the click-thump clack of his boots as he strode towards his leading lady. Every eye was on him.
Every eye except for Zuko’s. He, as always, was pin-focused on Sokka. He couldn’t see him well in the dim theater, but the thrill and the comfort of just knowing he was there far outweighed any value he got from the play. He was listening to that too, of course. The romantic, elegant lines wormed their way into his ear and down his spine until all he could think about was kissing along the illuminated curve of Sokka’s cheekbones and reciting them word by precious word until Sokka understood how much he meant to him.
All Zuko had to do was reach out and say, That is how I feel about you and nothing will change it. But Agni, after every trial he’d faced this might be the thing to test his courage. His hand was moving without his awareness or permission; he watched like a curious bystander, intrigued by the spectacle but powerless to change the outcome as his hand crept forward like a pale ghost towards Sokka’s. Then it made contact and it was his hand again and Zuko froze at the warmth underneath his fingertips. Sokka glanced over at him.
All the courage sept out of his body and trickled down between the floorboards. Below them, the play went on, but he couldn’t take in a word of it. He just stared back at the ambassador, lips parted around the shape of the words he’d lost.
Sokka leant in towards him and asked in a whisper, “You alright, buddy? Do you need to get some air?”
The part of him that wasn’t caught in the thrill of Sokka’s warm breath on his ear sank. Buddies. They were friends and nothing more. Who was he to ask for anything else?
Nobody, that’s who. Friends is more than I ever thought I’d get, he scolded his traitorous heart.
His hand skittered back to his side and he clicked his mouth shut. They both averted their gazes and turned back to the play, each watching the other from the corner of a sparkling eye.
“I’ll miss coming here with you this winter,” Zuko managed to say, then winced. It sounded clunky, and it’s not what he wanted to confess- needed to confess, but it was true nonetheless.
“So will I, buddy. But it’s just a couple months.”
“You’ll come back,” Zuko breathed, less as a question and more as a prayer or a plea. The lead actor spoke his final lines and the lanterns on stage flickered out. In the dark, he swore he saw Sokka’s eyes shining as they stood with the rest of the audience to give their applause.
When they’d sat back down, Sokka rested a hand on his shoulder. Zuko wished he wouldn’t; spontaneous combustion wouldn’t be a good look. “I’ll always come back.”
“Of course you will,” he said, more stiffly than he meant to. “Your commitment to your duties is really admirable, Sokka.”
Sokka laughed sharply just once. There was a jingling of jewels and glass as several wet-eyed nobles craned around to shush him. Smiling up to his eyes, he leaned in close to Zuko.
“I mean to you, Zuko. You know that.”
And somewhere, under all the humbleness and hopelessness and humility he’d learned to dress himself in, he did.
Zuko had never been great with his words. This was no secret, especially not to Sokka.
“Hi! Sokka here,” he teased as he often did, popping headfirst into the courtyard. Zuko groaned and threw a big, burdensome sleeve over his face.
“It isn’t that funny.”
“It really is.”
“Well, it got the job done, didn’t it? I was Zuko and I was there!” It wasn’t his strongest argument. He went back to his book in hopes Sokka would drop it altogether.
He did, and after a while they end up as they always did- slouched below a wisteria in the gardens with their legs slungover one another. It was far too casual a position for the firelord and one of his colleagues to be discovered in; it was also the best part of the day. Flipping aimlessly in a worn out volume to distract himself from the thought of how well their ankles fit together, Zuko stumbled on a haiku in his volume. He’d read it before, but for some reason, today it made his heart ache far more than it ought to, and he briefly debated showing it to Sokka- after all, do friends share love poetry? He certainly wouldn’t be nudging Toph or Aang or Katara to show them a verse, but here he was sticking a sharp elbow into Sokka’s side and pulling the page taught with his fingers at the spine and a thumb at the edge. Again Zuko found himself pinned by Sokka’s eyes- not particularly intense or searching. Just the fact they were on him at all. Again, the words lodged in his throat.
By way of explanation he murmured, “Isn’t this nice?” He held the book out and leant into Sokka’s side, definitely closer than he had to. They stay like that for several moments, the best of his week so far.
“That’s beautiful,” Sokka said. He sounded genuine, like he wasn’t just humoring him. “I’ve never heard of that author. Can you read me another?”
Zuko flipped to the index and skimmed for the poet’s name. He shook his head. “That’s his only work in this volume.” Sokka pouted and without thinking he rushed out, “But I’ll find more for you!”
The next afternoon, while Sokka was down at the docks preparing his travel arrangements, Zuko went by the Ambassador’s suite and deposited several small scrolls and books onto his bed. Bookmarked, dog-eared, outlined in red. (So Sokka might think of him when he read them. If he read them.) All the same poet, plus a few from the same school, just to be safe.
He was never sure exactly what Sokka did with the scraps he left him. Did he keep them? Burn through and discard them? Had he read them at all? Maybe it had been a little overkill to track down every work by the guy, but Zuko had a royal library and issues with restraint.
More than once in the week after, he caught glimpses of tiny scraps of paper scattered across Sokka’s desk or peeking out of his pockets. He failed to repress the thrill it gave him. He wished it could be his words, instead, but it was the best he could do. He could never say it, but maybe someone else could get the message across.
“Oh, oh, oh!” Sokka cried, tugging on Zuko’s hand. He practically had his face up against the case like a curious child, blue eyes wide as he admired the paint set inside. “Look at the craftsmanship on these babies! And these pigments are so bright, I bet they’d last me a whole year!”
“Do you want them?” Zuko blurted without thinking.
Sokka chewed on the inside of his cheek while he considered, and Zuko thought he could combust from how cute this boy was. “I mean, I do, but it’s too much of an indulgence. I still need to get presents for Dad and Katara and Gran-Gran, plus I told Aang I’d keep an eye out for a new bison whistle, and then Toph will be pissed if I don’t-”
“No, I mean, I’ll get them for you.”
Sokka reddened. “Oh, I dunno. It’s probably not worth it.”
You’re worth it, he didn’t say. “It’s not any trouble. If it makes you happy it’s worth it.”
Sokka made out like a bandit that day. He insisted on paying for everyone’s gifts with his own money, but Zuko declared that anything else Sokka wanted was on him, since the Ambassador’s salary comes out of the national treasury anyway. He was therefore ready to reach for his purse anytime Sokka so much as looked as something, be it fire gummies, expensive soaps, or glimmering jewelry (“It’s an accessory, completely fit for an international diplomat,” Sokka insisted as he clipped on a dangling sapphire earring. And anyway, they went with his eyes.) Sokka’s proudest acquisition of the day was an elegant ivory carving knife imported from his sister tribe. The guards trailing them grimaced and exchanged looks as he brandished it toward the Firelord, who just waved them off and asked if he wanted some wood finish to go with it.
“You didn’t have to do all this, you know.”
“Oh, well, it’s my duty to stimulate the economy. And-” And what? And it’s worth it to see you smile. And nothing is too good for you. And I love you. Zuko found again that he couldn’t say it; instead he just shrugged lamely. Sokka gave him a skeptical look and tugged him onto the next stall.
He’ll say it. He will. But not today.
On the day that Sokka left for the South Pole (as he was always going to. It was his home and Zuko had no right to make him stay. So how could it hurt so bad? How could he already miss him?), Zuko presses a small parcel into his hand and avoids his eyes. The gift was folded into a golden silk handkerchief spotted with white and red flowers, pulled closed with fine red thread. It was only half as large as one of his palms, but his heartbeat turned staccato as he pulled his hands back.
“Please don’t open it until you’re away,” he pled softly. He couldn’t bear to see him open it now. If he refused the gesture, if he tried to hand it back, Zuko wouldn't be able to hide his absolute dejection. Sokka looked at him strangely but complied, sliding Zuko’s gift softly into his breast pocket and patting it twice to assure them both it’s tucked away safely. Then, without pretense or decorum, they both went in for a bear hug.
“I’ll miss you,” Zuko said into his shoulder. He was barely restraining himself from grabbing the front of Sokka’s and hauling him back into the palace.
“Not for long,” Sokka promised. As soon as he left Zuko’s arms, he wanted him back.
Not for long, Zuko repeated to himself as he waved at the ship crawling towards the horizon. Not for long, not for long, not for long.
The longer he stood on the edge of the pier, the more that bittersweet feeling sunk into the pit of his stomach and morphed into something sour and afraid. Oh, spirits. What had he done? Now Sokka would know for sure; he wouldn’t come back, wouldn’t want to be friends, much less anything more. As soon as the boat pulled out of sight, Zuk fled back to the palace and rushed into his study. He spread a blank shoving all of his scrolls aside in his haste. His messenger hawk perched on the windowsill as he held the brush, shaking, above the blank parchment. He knew what he had to write: I was wrong, I shouldn’t have taken that liberty. I don’t know what I was thinking. I beg your forgiveness. A spot of ink was blossoming out from below the brush, but he couldn’t write those words. He wasn’t sorry. He meant it. He wanted Sokka to know.
He had to know.
Miles away, silk fluttered to the floor of the ship’s cabin where Sokka sat cradling a long lock of sleek black hair bound in golden twine. With something resembling reverence, he gently coiled it back up in its wrappings and tucked it back into his breast pocket, the one above his heart.
I hope this is waiting for you when you arrive. I hope you had a safe journey and you find everyone well at home. I hope...
I don’t know what you made of my gift. In fact I’d prefer not to know, just until I can talk to you in person if you still want to come back. I’m not good with words either way, but if I try to write them I’ll just stress myself and never end up sending it. And I don’t want to not talk to you.
Of course I’m coming back. I mean, what would you do without me? If you want to wait to talk about it though, of course it can wait. I’m well. So’s Dad, but he says you too have been corresponding separately, so you know that already. I know you’re world leaders, but I can’t help feeling a little left out. (Just kidding :) )
The National Theatre Company is producing “Love Amongst the Dragons” this Spring. I never thought I’d be bored at the theater, but I do miss your running commentary. If it’s good, I’ll have them extend the run or do an encore performance so we can see it together. If it isn’t,
I’ll execute them. I shouldn’t joke about things like that. Sorry. You were always the funny one.
I am the funny one, but I still like hearing you
attempt to make jokes. You have to do what you can to keep yourself entertained now that your wittiest, handsomest, most intelligent and ingenuitive colleague is abroad. It must be dire times in the Fire Nation.
I can’t wait to see it with you! I have a feeling you’ll be the one doing most of the talking during this one, I know it’s your favorite. But I’m always happy to listen.
I can’t wait, either.
For once I’m not dreading your questions about politics. Not much has happened here, somehow. The council has recess this week, and my advisors are insisting I take time off, too. Relaxing is so difficult. How are things in the Arctic?
Yours as Always, Zuko
His Royal Hotness,
Good to hear you’re finally getting a break. Maybe by next week your ministers will have unclenched enough to pull the sticks from their asses.
And F.Y.I., the Arctic is in the North. Didn’t they check if you had a child’s understanding of geography before they put you in charge of a country? I’ll tell you about my week if you can send your next letter to the right continent.
Yours as Always, Sokka of the Northern Water Tribe, Apparently.
Your Decidedly Non-Royal Jackassness,
Love, Sokka. (Really.)
Sokka came back, naturally. He’d promised, after all. He got his big banquet and toasts in his honor and more celebrations than could probably be justified for an ambassador (especially considering that two diplomats from Omashu had been left forgotten at the docks for an entire night the week before.)
As the evening wound down, Sokka gently took the cup of rice wine from his hand and set it on a passing tray before coming in close to speak just loud enough for them to hear.
“Zuko, could I- I have…” He sighed, obviously having trouble voicing his request. Zuko understood the feeling quiet well. “Come with me, please? I’d like to give you something.”
The quarters Sokka led him to then were the same ones Zuko had decorated specifically for him when he first took up the role of ambassador; he made sure they were always kept up in his absence. They were a bit bare with most of Sokka’s stuff still in his luggage beside the bed. Zuko paused at the door, suddenly feeling unsure of himself, but Sokka waved him in with a bright smile and there was nothing he could do to refuse. Sokka took a deep, preparatory breath and pulled something from his trunk.
The little pine box appeared unassuming at first, but when he came closer he saw that it’s intricately detailed. Fairly light, too, he noted as Sokka placed it into his open palms. The air felt heavy all of the sudden; there were no cheesy jokes to fall back on, just his old best friend’s eyes on him as he weighed the gift in his hands.
It was covered in several little scenes, and while the Southern Water Tribe art style was incredibly different from his own nation’s, he recognized the level of skill and precision it must’ve taken. Pods of orcas chased each other across the sides of the box, flanked by schools of fish and canoes of tribespeople. Some were rowing and some cast out their nets, while girls leant out of each boat to practice their bending on the arctic waves. On its lid there was a wolf baying below a crescent moon, facing towards a delicately carved dragon haloed in sunrays. Zuko felt himself growing giddy as he traced the border, a raised braid wound around the edge of the lid, but his fingers stilled on the ivory clasp.
Zuko struggled for breath and for words. “Sokka, this is-”
“I’ve never seen a dragon before, so I only had Aang’s word to go off,” Sokka blurted out, red in the cheeks. Zuko was glad for the interruption, because he hadn’t found the words quite yet.
“Aang wasn’t supposed to tell you about the dragons,” he replied.
They stared at each other for a tense, then burst out laughing. The bubble popped, and all the air rushed back into the room They’d both said totally the wrong thing, but somehow it made it feel real and familiar. This was really happening; it was him and it was Sokka, face to face, unsure what to say. Just like always. Nothing was new here except the way he allowed himself to hang on Sokka’s gaze.
Despite its lightness, the box was full to the brim. His eyes flickered between Sokka’s face- expectant, open, a little nervous- and the contents of the box as he began poking through. Mostly, it was full of text- rumpled strips of parchment, haikus in both of their handwriting. Lines of red ink and crinkled stanzas clipped from familiar volumes. Letters, worn at the edges despite how carefully they were folded. He read them! Then, He kept them. Even the one that just read, “Shut up.” Below that, there was a dark smudge. It was the word love, he realized, faded from being rubbed with a fond thumb. The carving knife he’d bought Sokka rested at the bottom. It’s blade wasn’t so sharp as it used to be, no doubt dulled from practicing for these intricate carvings. Beneath its blade, shining strands of jet-black hair peek out of golden silk.
“You kept it?” he whispered. “All of it?” Sokka nodded. He looked scared and happy at the same time. “Why?”
“You know why.”
Zuko had been working for years on restraining his impulsive behavior, but no force known to man could have kept him back when Sokka opened his arms. They both said it then. They had never spoken it aloud, but it was far from the first time they’d said it. The little pine box stuck painfully into their ribs as he pulled Sokka in for a kiss, then another, and then another.
He knew, he knew, he knew.