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Princess for a Day

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Things had been going quite well at the Western Air temple. Much better than any of the troupe would have believed possible. The ex-prince had blended surprisingly well with the rest of the group, even with the high tension between him and Katara, and Zuko's attitude was always improving. His training with Aang was going better than expected and when the Avatar took time to work on his Earth and Water bending with Toph and Katara, Zuko and Sokka polished their hand to hand combat, making for a well-rounded daily routine. All in all, there was very little to complain about. Except...

"So, is anyone else getting sick of fish and berries?" Toph spoke up over dinner one evening.

"Fish!" Aang scoffed, frowning down at his bowl. "At least you eat fish! I miss rice..."

"We shouldn't be complaining," Katara put in. "At least we have food."

Haru was nodding quietly in agreement, but Katara didn't sound convinced even by her own words and was pushing around the strange mash of fish and fruit that had been Sokka's latest experiment in 'new flavors'.

"Maybe if you guys learned to bend rice, wheat and cattle, we could have a well rounded meal for once," Sokka grumbled, poking at his own dinner. "I tried! Culinary arts aren't mastered in a day when you only have two ingredients!"

The Duke, beside him, patted his shoulder with a tiny hand. “You did your best.”

"I did do my best," Sokka agreed with a self pitying sniff.

Zuko looked up from his own half finished meal, glancing around the somber circle of faces, a hesitant breath on his tongue for a while before he finally worked up the nerve to speak up. "Well... you know the Western-most peninsula of the Earth Kingdom isn't very far from here... There's a small village there too, right on the coast. M-maybe a market?"

The entire group looked up from sulking over their meal, eyes lighting. "A market?" was the unanimous response.

"But..." Teo spoke up, frowning. "We barely have any money. I'm not sure we'd even have enough for a bag of rice."

"Well um..." Zuko looked uncomfortable, and plucked a bit of invisible lint from his knee. "I kind of have a little..." He hadn't wanted to take anything belonging to his father when he'd left, but the practicality of the situation had won out and he had given in and brought a small pouch of coin. After all, he'd reasoned, it had been obvious from his previous run-ins with the Avatar that his ragged little group didn't carry much money themselves. "Enough for food, anyway."

Murmurs of approval and gratitude spread around the fire, and even Katara caught his eye with a tiny smile -- though she quickly looked away. In the surprised moment that followed, Sokka startled him by throwing an arm around Zuko's shoulders with a whoop. "Perfect! Zuko and I will leave in the morning! Manly shopping trip!"

"What!" Toph protested. "Why you two!?"

"Because he has the money," Sokka explained, poking Zuko in the side of the head. "And I like shopping better than any of you."

Zuko was already considering, tapping a finger to his chin. "We could have Appa drop us off a mile or two down the coast from the village to avoid being seen."

"It is probably better for Aang to stay here," Katara admitted reluctantly. "If I give you a list, you have to promise to get the things on it and not omit something because you want to buy new sandals, okay, Sokka?"

"Katara!" Sokka protested, wounded. "Do you really think I would let my friends go hungry for a pair of sandals? A nice pair of boots, maybe, but not sandals."

"Conveniently 'forget' anything and we'll be fitting you for a pair of STONE shoes, right Haru?" Toph growled and the other Earthbender hid a snicker behind his hand.

"O-okay, well!" Zuko interjected quickly, nervously. "I guess it's about time for bed, huh guys? Long day ahead of us tomorrow..."

Toph cracked her knuckles and shot a disturbingly sharp warning glare that fortuitously landed in the direction of the soon-to-be travelers. "Goodnight, boys."

Katara rolled her eyes. "We'll have a list for you in the morning."

It seemed, the following morning, that they had finally discovered the way to get Sokka out of bed at a decent hour. Half the time, it took Katara physically kicking him out of his sleep sack to get him moving -- but not this morning. He was up before anyone, aside from Haru who had the last watch of the night and stared at him when Sokka appeared in the morning mist with a cheerful smile and only a small yawn. By the time Zuko woke and the gang was gathering for breakfast, Appa's saddle was cleaned and packed.

Zuko raised a brow as he glanced over the preparations, still trying to smooth down his unruly hair as he joined the others. Their breakfast of native fruit didn't go very far and didn't take long to finish, When Zuko stood to stretch and finish getting ready, Katara handed him the list.

"I trust you with this more than I trust him," she explained. It must have been saying something, Zuko figured, considering her history of death threats.

He only nodded and folded the paper away, tucking it into the pouch at his belt, along with the money. "I'll make sure he doesn't buy anything we don't need," Zuko promised, and tried for a smile.

"Good," Katara replied shortly and turned on her heel to warn her brother about traveling safely and keeping the trip short.

It wasn't long before Sokka was sitting at the front of Appa's saddle and the breeze was blowing in their hair. The bison didn't seem to mind being saddled up again, letting his six legs stretch for the flight over the slowly roiling ocean.

Sokka glanced over his shoulder at the other boy, then back, humming to himself. "So..." He looked back again. "Does anyone ever notice... you know..." He indicated vaguely at his own face. He wasn't honestly sure how recognizable Zuko's visage was outside of his own country.

"Well..." Zuko considered this. "There's the wanted posters, but my hair is different now and there's lots of people with burn scars from the war so... it's not too unusual." He stretched out, watching the clouds overhead as they traveled. "Plus I've got the hood," he pointed out, pulling the drab brown garment over his head. "Most people don't look too closely."

Sokka arched a brow, watching the other boy. "You're really going to go shopping in that?" he questioned. "You do realize there are more comfortable and less... burlappy ways you could cover it up."

Zuko scowled and tossed the hood back again. He knew it wasn't the most flattering attire, and that in some circumstances such a getup might inspire more attention than without. "Like what?" he frowned, only a little offended.

The younger of the pair rolled his eyes and tied off Appa's reigns -- they were on a steady course anyway. "Look, sit up," he chided, crossing the saddle to sit beside Zuko and dig in his pack. He produced a comb which he used to start working through Zuko's shaggy hair without bothering to ask for permission. He went as far as to get water from their flask to wet the other boy's hair until he had styled it to part over his good eye, his bangs almost completely covering the scarred one. "There, see?" he said, sitting back to admire his handy work.

Zuko frowned deeply, eyes turning up as though he would actually be able to 'see' how he looked. "I feel ridiculous," he complained. "No one wears their hair like this..."

"Some people do," Sokka reasoned, paused looking at him for a moment. "Poets do."

The look Zuko shot him was withering. "I'm not a poet," he retorted, completely deadpan. Still, he supposed it would at least keep him from having to wear that particular sack of a garment.

"It really doesn't look bad!" Sokka assured, then snickered. "Maybe you'll start a new trend."

"Right, because I look like a trend setter." A scoff and a roll of eyes. Still, by the time the shore line came in sight and Appa landed as planned, a mile and a half down the beach, hestill hadn't touched his hair. Though Zuko said nothing further, the hooded robe stayed in the saddle when they began their hike to the village and its market.

"Have you ever been to this market?" Sokka asked, trying to contain his excitement as they crested a hill that brought the village into sight. The others understood his love of shopping -- they were even supportive enough to take him out when he was feeling down. He realized though that his enthusiasm might not be as well-met by another boy his age, whom he'd realized since leaving his village of women and toddlers were not always the kindest people. So he made it a point to try to have only the manliest sort of interest in their outing.

"No," Zuko shook his head, as their steps carried them toward the small town. "We only stopped here to refuel. Not long enough to shop.” He fidgeted self-consciously with his flop of hair, “Whenever we did stop at a market it was always for pai sho tiles, or tea pots. Uncle hardly ever wanted to shop for cl-- So! Our list. Um. Here it is." He reached into the pouch at his belt and pulled it out, making a somewhat exaggerated show of reading it aloud. "...and rice and let's see, oh, pigcow milk!"

Sokka looked at him strangely from the corner of his eye. He'd never seen anyone so enthusiastic about groceries. "Well... that's good," he tried, unable to think of anything else to say. It's not like they couldn't have gone over that list as they were, you know, shopping. "So just food, huh?" He tried not to sound disappointed. No weapons. No hides. Just food.

"Yeah. Just food." There was a long silence that stretched between them then as the village with it's tempting promises grew closer. "Of course... I didn't actually tell anyone how much money I had... so... I mean. We could maybe... look at some other stuff, right? I mean like you know, knives. Or boots. Or... whatever."

"That's true!" Sokka agreed before he could reign in his hopefulness. "I mean -- it's not like they expect us back until tomorrow anyway. Grocery shopping is gonna take, like, no time at all." The path that led into the town's main street was under their feet by now and while the town had looked small from a distance, it was clear that their economy was based heavily on trade. The market was bustling. Sokka glanced at Zuko. "Window shopping never hurt anyone, right?"

Zuko offered what he hoped was a friendly smile. "Right," he agreed, tucking the grocery list back away. "Plenty of time to look around. It's like... a cultural experience."

"Exactly!" said Sokka with a relieved sigh.

And then he was grabbing Zuko by the elbow and dragging him toward the nearest shop -- which just happened to be a weapons shop. Though he released the other boy once inside, he stayed close as they browsed, testing the waters with a question or two about daggers or throwing stars. He knew that the ex-prince was ultimately more worldly than him about some things -- he hadn't left the South Pole until he was fifteen, after all. And although he could have easily asked the questions of the shopkeeper, he was interested in finding out just how knowledgeable Zuko was about weapons, not to mention seeing if he might open up a little outside the scrutiny of their group. For his part, Zuko offered answers to Sokka's questions whenever he could, and waved down the attention of the shopkeep when he couldn't. After a while, however, they moved on, spending some time looking over the various weapon sellers before they came to a cobbler's stall. Zuko waved Sokka in and they began to ogle an astonishing collection of finely crafted leather boots for both men and women.

Sokka sighed wistfully as they looked through shelves and shelves of little pieces of art for feet -- decorated with designs burned into the hide or gold leaf on the details. "You know, these are great but no where up here has anything like penguinseal boots," he informed Zuko. "They're really sturdy but they're soft and they dry almost instantly if they get wet."

"The boots I had for my-- my uniform," Zuko began, just catching himself from uttering the words 'Fire Nation', "were water-proof and fire-proof and lined in the warmest, softest fleece..." He sighed. "I wish I'd brought them."

"Fire-proof?" Sokka repeated, impressed. "I guess it makes sense.” He filed away in his head to ask about how that was done later, in case they could adapt some Fire Nation techniques for fireproofing. As it was, they were moving through the shop with an almost eerie sense of unity and Sokka was starting to wonder if maybe -- just MAYBE -- Zuko liked shopping almost as much as he did. "You know, I'd never seen shoes like that until I left home," he remarked as they passed the delicately embroidered women's slippers. "If a girl wore something like that in the South Pole, they'd be ruined in two minutes and she'd lose a few toes to frost bite. Fashion can be really challenging in the snow."

Zuko chuckled faintly. "I bet. I mean, how did the girls of your tribe show each other up without being able to buy the most expensive shoes and then brag about them?" He glanced over his shoulder at Sokka as he moved on to a shelf of plainer boots, made of sturdier materials but still boasting impeccable craftsmanship.

Sokka snorted in response. "The girls in my tribe show each other up by who can kill a bigger seal. There's really not a whole lot of room for things that are dainty or pretty, honestly. My sister was probably the 'daintiest' thing in the village, if that gives you an idea." Not that Katara wasn't pretty -- but with the temper of a scorpion and a punch that could rival an Earthbender, she wasn't exactly what Sokka could call a princess. "When you're busy trying not to freeze or starve, things like say --" He picked up a lovely shoe. "Embroidery aren't really high priority."

Zuko raised a brow, and let his fingers drop away from the soft leather of a men's boot. "So the girls kill seals... and the boys... wear make-up," he recalled from his brief visit to the Southern Water Tribe.

"It's war paint," Sokka replied, suddenly defensive but he couldn't help the way he flushed. Probably just because their first meeting hadn't exactly been a high point in his warrior's career.

Zuko looked a little startled, as though he hadn't been trying to make fun of Sokka, but rather only practice his newly found and still shaky sense of humor. "Oh, I mean... yeah. That's cool," he backpedaled awkwardly. "Um, should we... keep looking around?"

"Er..." Sokka rubbed at his arm, feeling a little embarrassed for both of them as the comfort melted back to awkwardness. "Yeah," he managed.

The shopkeeper gave the two boys an odd look as they left the store. In the weird silence that settled as they moved on, both struggled for something to say to ease the tension. But then they were both slowing simultaneously as they passed the entrance of the town clothier's where fancy Earth-colored robes were on display, varied tints of green silk shining in the afternoon sun. Sokka glanced at Zuko. "I bet you've worn all sorts of fancy stuff like that, huh?" he said, neutrally, curiously.

Zuko tore his eyes away from the inviting doorway, shrugged faintly, doing his best to seem uninterested. "Oh. Yeah. Yeah... I guess I used to wear a lot of stuff like that."

"C-C'mon, let's go in," he urged, giving Zuko a nudge. "No hurt in looking, right?"

Sokka offered a charming smile to a young woman who was helping another patron as they stepped in. The shop was very large and though green dominated the colorscape, it was clear that they were also traders since there were some other colors mixed in among the fabrics. "Man..." Sokka murmured with a glance around. "There's a lot in here..."

Zuko followed Sokka's gaze, then stepped past the younger boy to lift his hand and run his fingers through the fine garments hanging in rows, separated by color and size. "There's even some Fire Nation fashions here," he whispered, surprised. Still, it might be prudent to avoid showing particular interest in those outfits, so he found his gaze drawn by a rack near the back. "Hey," he called over his shoulder. "Is this Water Tribe clothing?"

A shop girl appeared suddenly, perky and cheerful. "Oh yes! These are all the latest fashions from the Northern Water Tribe! Looking for something for your girlfriend?"

Zuko flushed darkly, cringing when he tried to imagine Mai wearing anything so... bright. And blue. "Um... n-no," he answered. "Th-that is..."

"A handsome boy like yourself? Unattached?" The girl seemed shocked, and brushed his shoulder sympathetically with manicured nails. "Well, I can show you just the outfit that'll make the girls take notice."

Zuko began to look mildly panicked. His eyes darted around the shop, searching for Sokka but was startled when a hand clapped down firmly on his shoulder.

"We're just browsing," Sokka told the girl plainly, offering a friendly smile. "But thanks."

She eyed them for a moment, taking note of the more tattered blues of Sokka's clothes, considerably less impressive than the Earth style garments that Zuko had borrowed from Haru for the trip. Then with a roll of her eyes, she stepped away, quipping, "Let me know if you need anything."

"You have shopped for yourself before, right?" Sokka said, amused at how easily overwhelmed the ex-prince sometimes was.

"Um, once or twice?" he admitted. "But Uncle is really good at it and the shopkeepers were... well, back home, I guess they were pretty much intimidated by having us in their stores at all so..." He waved his had vaguely at the retreating girl. "They weren't so... pushy, I guess."

Now that they could browse more or less in peace, Zuko found his eyes drifting back to the rack of assorted blues, once more giving in to the urge to touch the fabrics. "This stuff looks pretty fancy," he pointed out, returning to Sokka's previous comments about the practicality of Water Tribe 'fashion'.

Sokka scoffed, joining him to pull a dress of fine silk in beautiful shades of blue from the rack where a sign boasted that they were imports from the frozen north. "It's not from the Northern Water Tribe. It's something locally made. This isn't a pattern any Water Tribe tailor would use -- it's just a modified Earth Kingdom pattern," he explained. "So it's 'Water Tribe exotic' but not too weird to buy." He stepped away from the blue rack to find a similar dress in green, holding them up together. "See?"

Zuko nodded seriously, faintly surprised by Sokka's knowledge, but not thinking too much of it. "Hmm." He frowned thoughtfully. "I wonder. Lemme see that?" he asked, reaching for the green dress to carry it back over to the smaller section of red clothing he'd seen. And sure enough, upon closer inspection, he found that even these outfits, despite the occasional pointed sleeve or black trim, were no more authentic than the 'Water Tribe' dress had been. Still...he considered, moving away to inspect a row of rich browns, the Earth Kingdom fashions were worth a second glance. He paused to finger the fine trim on one such tunic. Really, he told himself, having a set or two of Earth clothing couldn't be a bad thing. Safer than running around in red, and less awkward than continuing to borrow Haru's clothing.

As Zuko wandered off, Sokka stayed to browse through the blue fashions. Most of them were dresses and women's tunics -- Earth men were proud of their heritage, but foreign women were popular and donning different colors was probably a good way to get a little bit of attention, he mused. Even though the dresses weren't traditional Water Tribe patterns, the adaptation between the two styles was pulled off tastefully and the color choices were attractive, not gaudy or ugly. They were really very nice in their own way... soft fabrics and delicate, fine details... Sokka felt his face heating in spite of himself as he fingered through the dresses. Certain unwanted thoughts filtered through his mind. The foremost and most embarrassing of which being the fact that he wanted one of them. He cursed internally as he found it -- the dress. Long and bell-sleeved with a mandarin collar and embroidery on the left hip.

He wanted to blame this interest on Suki. It was much easier on his conscience to think that it was because of the fact that his first experience of any kind with a girl his age had involved being dressed in girl's clothes. But he couldn't completely pin it on her -- it hadn't been until they'd made it to real civilization with shops and tailors and crafts where pretty, delicate, shiny things were sold that he realized that he had a problem. It was then that his fascination with shopping had begun -- who could blame him though!? He'd lived on an iceberg where the closest thing anyone came to shopping was trading a fish to your neighbor for a different fish!

Not, of course, that his fascination with pretty things (from women's clothes to jewelry) had anything to do with a lack of manliness. It wasn't like he wanted to wear them all the time or anything. It was just the idea of wearing something like that maybe once in a while... the thought was thrilling and more sexually exciting than he could even admit to himself.

With a shifty glance around, Sokka took the dress and ducked further into the back of the store, finding a mirror tucked in a corner. There was no way he could get away with trying it on but he could just take a quick look... Even when he was sure no one could see him in the corner, he was blushing as he held the dress up to himself, laying the silken sleeves across his bare arms -- like heaven. It was just his size and the Earth patterning would even accommodate his broader shoulders if he were to try it on, since the shoulder seams were low and the sleeves long.

"Well, I think you should try it on."

Sokka's entire body jerked with surprise, and he nearly dropped the dress before he managed to tear it quickly away from his chest. Zuko was standing hardly four feet away, weighed down with an armload of greens and browns, tunics and trousers and even a robe or two in vaguely reddish shades. His expression was one of mild amusement, but strangely little surprise.

"W-what?" Sokka managed to get out and forced a bark of laughter which did little to hide the bright pink of his face or the way his eyes darted ANYWHERE but the other boy's face. "No! Haha -- I was just -- thinking about it for my girlfriend. And you know, seeing what it would feel like on her. I mean -- you know -- in my arms, like that."

Zuko raised a brow, shifted his burden to the other arm, and stared, clearly unconvinced. "It was you, wasn't it?" he pressed, stepping closer, lowering his voice a little, politely. "On Kyoshi Island." He pinkened just a bit, embarrassed to bring up his past... activities. "Fighting in women's garb."

Shit. Shit shit shit. This was bad. "That -- I was training with them," he tried to explain, his voice dropping almost to a whisper. It was hard to keep the panic out of his voice, though. "That's all. I had to wear the outfit or she wouldn't teach me."

"Oh," Zuko replied. "I guess that makes sense." It seemed, for a moment that the ex-prince was going to let it go, to maybe even pretend like the last few minutes hadn't even happened. He stepped past Sokka to browse the blues, slinging his own selections over one shoulder as he browsed. He first pulled a couple of men's outfits, then grabbed one or two Earth Nation garments as well. As Sokka watched, he stole a quick glance in the Water Tribe boy's direction, then picked out another dress, this one in darker shades, dip-dyed with purple that blended beautifully into the blue hues. On top of this, he piled the others and passed the whole lot to Sokka. "You should try these on," Zuko said, a faintly awkward half-smile offered as well. As he handed over the clothes, he stepped close enough to add discreetly. "If you like it, I'll buy it for you," he spoke low, under his breath. "...If you wear it for the rest of the day."

Sokka couldn't do anything but stare. Openly, utterly shocked. He had no idea how to react, feel, or think in that moment. But Zuko was serious. What was he doing? Why would he do that? "A-are you... why?" The only thing that he could imagine was that the other boy was trying to get blackmail material from him -- but he felt like he'd gotten to know Zuko well enough over the last few weeks that he was pretty sure that wasn't like him.

Zuko just shrugged. "I won't tell," he added with a faint scoff. "You can still give it to your girlfriend later, or whatever." When Sokka simply continued to stare at him, Zuko sighed. "Look, I'd really rather no one else know that I miss buying expensive clothes... so I'm not going tell anyone that you like wearing them."

The other boy hesitated only a moment longer before nodding faintly, finally looking away. "O-okay," he murmured. He felt like his face was going to melt off and his stomach was nestled somewhere near his ankles. But he finally managed to make himself move and step away to find the dressing room. It was a good twenty minutes later that Sokka finally returned, still red-faced and unable to meet Zuko's gaze or say anything to him when he handed the other boy the dress that Zuko had picked off of the rack.

Zuko smiled. "I'm sure your girlfriend will love it," he said, taking the garment from Sokka and adding it to the practical-looking, but exquisitely soft Earth Nation tunic and slacks he'd tried on and fell in love with. "Maybe next time I'll get something in blue, too," he considered, tapping thoughtfully at his lips as he approached the merchant with their purchases.

Sokka was too confused and mortified to say anything as Zuko paid for their new clothes. He kept looking for malice or sarcasm in the other boy's words, but was completely unable to find any. If anything his smiles were kind and his words were cheerful and genuine. Finally, as they were leaving the store, Sokka murmured a quiet thank you as they fell into step again.

Zuko just grinned and handed him the dress, wrapped in brown paper by the shopkeeper and tied with a green ribbon. "Think there's a public bath somewhere around here?" he wondered. If Sokka was going to wear the dress for the rest of the day, they'd need to find somewhere for him to change.

It was only then that it really hit Sokka that this was actually happening and that Zuko was serious about him donning the new garment for the afternoon. "W-well, even if there is... I can't just... I mean, I can't go in like this--" He indicated to himself. "--and come out like this..." He indicated to the carefully wrapped dress. Sokka swallowed hard, stomach churning and mind racing. The idea of what he'd agreed to was both terrifying and thrilling. "I--I can just change in an alley," he decided. "If you'll keep an eye out for me."

Zuko seemed surprised to find that Sokka was more comfortable with the risk of public nudity than leaving a bath house dressed in women's clothing, but he shrugged. "I'll keep an eye out for you," he agreed.

When they'd found a shadowed corner, well enough off the main road and suitable for Sokka's purposes, Zuko drew out another small package with a grin that bordered on the mischievous. "Oh, I got this for you, too," he said, placing it in Sokka's hand.

Sokka took a peek in the package to find that Zuko had sneaked away to buy some make up while he was trying on clothes. He flushed all over again, and then hurried to duck out of Zuko's sight, leaving the other boy to stand guard. How had this happened? How had an innocent day of shopping turned into Zuko coaxing out his secret debauchery? He still couldn't figure out WHY the other boy was urging him into this -- facilitating it, no less. He tried not to focus on the fact that getting the items as a 'gift' from a young man only further fueled the fantasy behind the desire...

It was a good twenty minutes later of rustling fabric and long silence that finally, Sokka spoke up from around the corner in clearly mortified tones. "Ugh -- Z-Zuko -- I can't do this..."

"You fought a whole contingent of Fire Nation soldiers dressed in women's clothing and makeup without a problem," Zuko pointed out, speaking over his shoulder. "No one's gonna know," he added, much gentler. "I bet no one'll even be able to tell you aren't a girl. Come on... Have a little fun."

Finally, Zuko heard a deep breath taken and Sokka stepped around the corner. Even through the layer of make up he'd applied, his dark, deep blush was visible, blue eyes looking sharply down. The dress fit him perfectly when tied all the way in the back, seeming to hug his body in all the right places and flow loosely in all the others so as to accentuate his lithe but not curvy figure. The sleeves fell just past his fingers, hiding travel roughened hands and unmanicured nails and the mandarin collar both slimmed his throat and hid his adam's apple. He'd styled his hair down, parting it a little off-center so that it made a small bang to one side and a fuller bang to the other, sweeping across his forehead and gracefully around the corner of his eye. The make-up had been applied with surprising skill -- as though maybe it hadn't been the first time Sokka had done it. It was modest, but pretty and flattering -- a little color around his eyes, lashes darkened and lips painted a dark pink.

Sokka managed to glance up at Zuko once before he was trying to dart back around the corner. "I'm gonna die of humiliation," he moaned but Zuko was already reaching out to take his arm, to prevent him from running off again with a firm hand. He pulled Sokka back into the open, taking the chance to get another long look. When he lifted his gaze to Sokka's face, Zuko's eyes were wide and it took a minute to find his voice.

"You look... really good," he said, clearly a little surprised despite his earlier confidence. "If I'd never met you before, I would never guess you were a guy under all that." He fell immediately silent then, flinching a bit as he realized he wasn't sure that Sokka would want to hear those words. He'd meant it as a compliment, but...

Thus far, it was indeterminable whether Sokka was actually wearing blush or if he was just constantly blushing. His wide, blue eyes only seemed that much bluer in the reddish hue painted around them. "T-thanks..." he mumbled, looking away again quickly, hesitated and looked back to Zuko with a grimace. "Even with...?" he plucked at the fabric at his chest, the darts loose with nothing to fill them.

Zuko considered this, rubbing at his jaw for a moment while he thought. "I dunno," he shrugged. "I mean, lots of girls... you know," He indicated with a vague wave, "and they look fine." He frowned faintly, then shrugged. "If it bothers you, though, we should be able to come up with something."

Five minutes later, they'd decided on a combination of Sokka's arm wraps and the complimentary set of shoulder pads the shop keeper had thrown into their order. "Do my shoulders look that narrow to you?" Zuko asked with a shake of his head as he handed them over. "I mean really..."

The other boy's attempt at joking eased Sokka's nerves and brought a sheepish smile to his painted lips. "They're not, I'm sure he was just trying to get repeat business," Sokka replied as he shifted the makeshift falsies into place under the dress. It was a modest change, not buxom by any means, but just noticeable. He sighed then, feeling a little more at ease -- something about completing the look made him feel a little less nervous. He felt like he looked more passable, more like at a glance he would look like a girl and not a guy in a dress.

"So..." he ventured nervously, looking up at Zuko again finally. "Why exactly aren't you making fun of me...?"

Zuko shrugged, gathering up the remnants of the package and taking Sokka's bag from him to stuff it all away. "I dunno," he answered vaguely. "I guess because I don't think it's particularly funny? Whatever. Lots of people like fancy clothes." Then he smiled, and somehow managed a wink without looking horribly awkward. "Plus, you know, merchants always give better deals to pretty girls."

Before Sokka had the chance to respond, Zuko slung the bag over his shoulder and turned to duck back down the alley. "Your turn to keep watch." If Sokka was going to wear new clothes, then he wasn't going to stay in his borrowed garment. Besides, he didn't want to seem like a total hobo next to Sokka's suddenly pretty and polished look.

Sokka's heart wouldn't stop racing as he listened to Zuko change behind him. This was weird. Really. Really weird. And a little bit guilty. This was like... a fantasy for him, something that was meant to stay in his head and maybe acted upon alone once in a while. It was strange and intimate and now Zuko had somehow made himself a part of it, and he was going to be spending the entire afternoon with the other boy like this... It felt like the most disturbed, kinky date anyone could come up with. He couldn't imagine that Suki would particularly approve of Sokka at Zuko's side, strolling through the market like this...

Perhaps the biggest problem: now that his imagination's desires had been fulfilled, it was moving on to the next level and the way that his hormones seemed to rage in response to the situation was really not helping.

He startled when he felt Zuko touch his shoulder, and glanced at the other boy. He looked much sharper in his new clothes which fit much better than what he'd borrowed from Haru. The colors were a darker, deeper green which suited Zuko better than the brighter forest hues. "Those are really nice," Sokka commented, lifting a hand to feel the fabric of Zuko's sleeve. "It suits you."

The smile that Zuko offered in reply seemed to be coming more naturally to him lately, and he shrugged offhandedly. "Thanks. It's nice to wear new clothes, huh?" He hefted Sokka's bag, now bulging slightly with their old clothes and took a step out of the alley, cocking his head for Sokka to follow. "Come on, let's walk around and try them out."

Sokka hesitated, his stomach still churning. "O-okay," he murmured, trying to overcome the terror that he was going to be caught, that Zuko was just messing with him, and he was very obviously just a guy in drag. But even with that fear coursing through his veins, it was exciting -- is was dangerous and deviant and the way that his heart raced wasn't quite a bad thing. He fell hurriedly into step with Zuko , focusing on making his steps smaller and quicker in sharp contrast to his usual swagger. "Where should we go?" he asked quietly as they stepped back onto the streets. He realized he was going to have to talk as little as possible to strangers.

"You choose," Zuko offered generously. "Bags or jewelry?"

This required a moment's thought -- the truth was, though he had experienced some buyer's remorse initially over his bag, he was ultimately quite happy with it. But, he considered as he studied the bag on Zuko's shoulder (it went nicely with his new getup) he did enjoy looking at bags... but then again... "Um -- jewelry, I guess," he finally murmured back.

"Okay," Zuko murmured, preening just a little in his new threads as they stepped out into the bustle of the marketplace, merging easily with the crowd. "I guess I should do most of the talking." He leaned close to be heard above the cacophony of voices and sounds of the market around them. "But that's okay. Just keep... looking pretty."

Just when his flush had managed to fade a little, the other boy's words brought it racing back, heating his cheeks. Sokka didn't say anything though, just stayed in step with Zuko and avoided eye contact with any strangers as though they would know the moment he looked them in the eye. He noticed the way that Zuko's air changed, how he carried himself differently, more confidently in his new clothes. He also noticed all but immediately, the glances that were coming their way which he wasn't used to. Almost every man that they passed gave them at least a quick look and it instantly put Sokka on edge. Each time a smile was flashed at him, he was sure they were figuring him out.

Sokka lifted a sleeve to hide his mouth when he whispered anxiously to Zuko, "People are staring. I think they know..."

Zuko rolled his eyes, but his chuckle was more friendly. "People are staring because they see an attractive woman," he pointed out. "You're not used to it because people don't usually look at guys that way." He shook his head with a grin. "Just keep looking forward and act uninterested if it bothers you," he suggested as they made their way toward the first of many jewelry stalls.

"O-oh," Sokka murmured, but he found himself unable to take Zuko's advice because it wasn't so much that it bothered him, it was just that he noticed it. It wasn't even that he didn't like it. If what Zuko was saying was true, it was flattering -- although he quickly was able to sense a difference in certain smiles, from a friendly, flirty smile to a lecherous leer which inspired a grimace and brought his steps a little closer to Zuko's. He even caught himself, in the midst of everything, offering his own smile which he'd never really been aware of to a couple of pretty young ladies in Earth colors. They smiled back in a way he'd never seen on a girl -- a sickly, sour sort of smile followed by a covetous glance toward Zuko and a toss of hair. He had the distinct impression that in their minds, he was a Water Tribe girl stealing from them a fine specimen of Earth Kingdom manhood. There were no words to describe how strange that moment was in his own head.

Just as it seemed like they were about to break from the crowd and immerse themselves in the simple joys of shopping once again, a rather large-framed young man, head shaven and sleeves torn off at the shoulders --no doubt to give people a good look at his bulging biceps-- stepped in front of them and stopped, forcing first Zuko, and then Sokka to slow their steps.

"Hey," he said, swaggering up between the two of them to stand, just a little too close to Sokka. "Water Tribe, huh? And what's a pretty little thing like you doing so far from home?"

Sokka's nose wrinkled with distaste, cringing away from the tall man. Why did guys like this even think that they had a chance with random girls? Especially random girls who had a guy at their side? Even Sokka himself could be a little thick headed about girls sometimes, but he would have known to back off in this situation. Compared to this muscle-headed sweat machine, even Sokka was a prince.

He squared his shoulders (not noticing the way it made his falsies jut out) and was about to give the jerk a piece of his mind when Zuko interjected, "She's here with me." He strode boldly forward to size up the much larger Earth Kingdom man. "And she's not interested."

"With you?" the guy scoffed, a cocky brow lifted at Zuko. "They doing hawk-order brides from the North Pole now? Let her speak for herself." He brushed past Zuko to catch Sokka's wrist in his wide hand. "What do you say you dump this nance and come spend a night with a real man?" he smarmed, an ugly smile twisting his lips.

Before Zuko could come to his rescue, Sokka stamped down hard on the guy's toes (he still wore a sturdy set of boots under the falls of the dress) and jerked his hand away in the gasp of pain that followed. "Real men have fashion sense," he shot from behind his sleeve, voice lifting to a falsetto. He grabbed Zuko's arm, pressing into the other boy's side to urge their escape.

The unwanted advancer seemed unwilling to accept rejection and with a snarl of irritation, grabbed for the arm of the brash young lady. Zuko, however, wasn't about to let his company be treated in such a manner and he spun a circle around Sokka, placing himself once more between them with a smart jab of elbow to the man's wrist. Zuko didn't draw the blades slung to his back, but he did lazily reach a hand over his head, fingers resting lightly on the joined hilts. The stranger sneered angrily, nursing his injured wrist.

"Next time, keep your hands to yourself," Zuko growled, "and off the lady." He shared a brief glance with a trio of local peace-keepers, nodding respectfully and backing away as they moved in to keep an eye on the troublemaker. Satisfied, Zuko turned back to Sokka and put an arm around his back, palm settling on Sokka's waist as they resumed their path. "Nice moves back there," he chuckled.

"Thanks for that," came the murmured reply. Sokka wasn't sure he was going to be able to survive this day. Between all the stares they were receiving and Zuko -- with his -- like they were dating-- All of this heating of his cheeks was starting to make him a little dizzy. When Zuko didn't move away, even when they left the brute behind, he had no idea what to do with himself -- with his hands -- with anything. But maybe it was a good idea. If that guy had similar friends with greedy eyes, Zuko's protective arm might be a deterrent. So he eased just a little closer, steadfastly avoiding the other boy's gaze until finally they made it across the open square to the open booths of glittering jewelry which were also peppered with decorative knives and horns and the like.

Only then, did Zuko ease away, shrugging, as his hand lingered just a moment longer in the small of Sokka's back. "Hey, no one deserves to be treated like that. That jerk gives real gentlemen a bad name." He paused as they moved onto the first of the jewelry stalls, eyes darting from one sparkling item to the next. He grinned suddenly, turning back to Sokka with a cocky expression. "Still," he continued, leaning in close to whisper across Sokka's ear, to any observer looking like any other young couple sharing secrets. "He fell for you completely. I told you no one would be able to tell."

Sokka chuckled quietly, his nerves easing greatly because he realized that Zuko was right. And, he realized, he was really in a very pleasant situation as long as no one found out. He was able to enjoy a few of his favorite things. Shopping, of course. And the secret pleasure of the little fantasy he was playing out. But also attention, which it was no secret that he was a sucker for -- negative or positive, really. And even if it was the attention of strange men, it was in its own way flattering. But what was infinitely more flattering, he found, was the attention he was earning from Zuko. He wasn't exactly ready to face what that meant -- but he still liked it.

He kept his sleeve in front of his face as he murmured his own secrets back to Zuko, feeling suddenly bold. "Well, I don't know what he was thinking," he said, his voice taking on a teasing tone. "If I've got a handsome, well-dressed guy on my arm, why would I give him a second thought?"

Zuko chuckled quietly, flattered and confident. "Be that as it may, if the girl is pretty enough, sometimes the risk is worth it," he countered, playing the devil's advocate just for the opportunity to turn the compliment back on Sokka. A pause. "He was pretty slimy, though."

The laugh they shared was interrupted then by the preening smooth talk of the jeweler, sliding up across from them opposite his display of wares. "Such a lovely couple. Perchance m'lord would allow his lady the luxury of trying on a piece or two? This smokestone would lay lovely on your skin, my dear."

It was then that Sokka was again reminded of how weird this situation was -- it seemed that the game had evolved into him actively playing Zuko's girlfriend. So much for boring grocery shopping. Still, he balked when the jeweler addressed them, afraid that the man would surely figure him out if he lingered so long and so close. Sokka shook his head lightly, stepping back and playing like he was shy, though he didn't speak up.

"Hey," Zuko spoke up gently, a warm hand finding his shoulder, rubbing lightly. "It's okay. We don't have to buy anything," he coaxed, playing his part and giving the jeweler a look that warned him not to pressure the young lady or he'd answer for it. "You can try something on. Just for fun? How about these?" Zuko suggested, picking up a set of earrings, blue stones in red-gold settings.

At least the dizzying, raging sort of blush had subsided to something more manageable, Sokka mused as Zuko so kindly touched him. It was a little strange to pretend to be so coy -- but that was part of the game, part of the allure of what was happening. It wasn't really that different from when he got out his beard and took on the persona of Wang Fire. Except that being Wang Fire didn't earn him leers and Zuko's hands all over him. He looked up at the smiling and expectant jeweler and nodded, earning him a pleased chuckle as the man brought over a polished mirror.

Sokka was startled by his own appearance in the glass -- he'd applied his make up with the reflection in the back of one of the metal make-up tins and had no real idea of what he looked like. It was only then that he realized that Zuko wasn't kidding when he assured that Sokka was passable -- and he really couldn't decide whether it was great or embarrassing. Both, really. He couldn't help but be secretly very pleased with what he saw. He met eyes with Zuko in the mirror as the other boy handed him the earrings and Sokka quickly looked away when he caught Zuko's knowing smirk.

They were clip ons -- easy enough to put on, simple and elegant with gleaming stones that weren't gaudy or overwhelming.

"Ah, perfectly lovely," the jeweler said, clearly buttering Sokka up. "They match your eyes perfectly -- and sparkle only a tiny bit less!"

It was difficult not to roll said eyes, but nonetheless he forced a smile at the compliment and attempted a little giggle. It wasn't terrible but he immediately decided never to do it again because it was kind of disgusting.

Zuko managed somehow to cover his own snort of laughter at the sound with a fist and a cough, and coaxed Sokka to turn toward him, looking him over carefully. "I like them," he agreed, then added. "But why don't we look at a few more?" He bent over the jeweler's display and pointed out another pair.

And so it went, until Sokka had worn what felt like half the man's inventory. Then, Zuko was pulling him close again, grinning as he helped take the latest dangling jewels from Sokka's ears. "Why don't you pick a pair to have this nice man set aside and if we don't find something you like better at another stall, we can come back and get them here. Hm?"

Sokka looked at him with concern, guilt tugging at his insides for a great many reasons. He leaned into Zuko's frame and lifted his sleeve to murmur to him again, sharing more secrets. "Are you sure? We still have to buy food..." As much fun as this game was turning out to be, as much as he was enjoying Zuko lavishing gifts on him, they had originally come for grocery shopping and if his sister ever found out that they had spent the food money on Sokka dressing in drag, he was pretty sure that she'd make him a step closer to female herself.

"I have enough," he murmured quietly, laying a hand on the side of Sokka's head and pressing his nose briefly into the younger boy's hair to give his answer. "Don't worry about that. Just make a choice and watch."

If that was the case... He turned back to the matter at hand, trying to look disinterested as he looked through the jewels that he'd tried on, careful to keep the sleeve over his fingers. He indicated a pair of tear-drop earrings that were an impressive stone that was red toward the top and melted into a deep blue.

"Ah, an excellent choice," the jeweler said, catching Zuko's eye. "I can keep an eye on them for you but sadly if another lovestruck young man comes my way in search of a gift, I cannot hold them... I might be willing to lower the price to know that they'd be framing such a lovely face, however. Say, five gold pieces?"

"You are more than generous, Sir," Zuko nodded, "But I feel I would hardly be a gentleman if I were to urge my lady make her choice so early in the day, when there is still the rest of the market yet to see." He turned to face Sokka, took his sleeved hands and gazed adoringly into blinking deep blue. "I want you to have the best, my dear," he purred, somehow able to keep a completely straight face while he delivered the line.

For a moment, Sokka was unable to quell the incredulous cock of eyebrow that jumped in response to Zuko's more than corny words. He caught on quickly though and schooled his expression, inwardly shocked at how much Zuko also seemed to be enjoying playing the part of the dashing, romantic boyfriend. Still, Sokka managed to summon a bat of lashes and instantly felt silly for it so he ducked away, out of Zuko's gaze, giving a tug at his shirt from behind. "You're such a ham," he whispered in the other boy's ear. "Let's go."

"Ah --" the jeweler spoke up again as they started to turn. "What about four gold coins? At that price, you could buy your lovely lady a necklace to match. And I can guarantee you won't find any other midnight sunset stones in the market... and none more perfectly matched to this beauty." He indicated to the red-framed blue of Sokka's eyes. The younger of the pair thought he was going to die.

Zuko put on a good show of considering the merchant's offer, his mouth twisting into a grin as he leaned over the table and placed a single gold coin down. "I'll put this coin down as collateral," he replied, "on the promise that you hold these earrings for me and only me."

The jeweler considered the counter offer and then nodded. "You have a deal, young man. But only for today," he warned. "I close shop at sunset. Now you two kids go have some fun." He gave Zuko a wink.

Zuko bowed politely before he offered the jeweler a smirk and pulled Sokka in close, both arms around his slighter shoulders. "You're a good man, sir," he said. "I'll be sure to recommend your shop to others looking for quality works."

Sokka blinked as Zuko led him away, still holding him close with an arm around his shoulders. He looked at the other boy from the corner of his eye, brow cocked and then, not to be outdone in this little game, reached behind Zuko to give him a smart pinch on the opposite butt cheek. He smirked when he heard the jeweler give a hoot of laughter behind them and himself laughed aloud (daintily) when Zuko jumped in surprise and let out a decidedly unmanly squeak.

He wondered how long Zuko's arm was going to stay around him, but he didn't bother asking since it wasn't doing any harm. It meant that he could murmur to the other boy, in the hushed conversation that kept his voice hidden. "I think at this rate we're going to be doing our grocery shopping before we leave in the morning," he commented as they moved on, browsing more casually through the stalls. He was still wondering how exactly he was in this situation, even as he began to enjoy it more and more.

The older boy chuckled faintly as they inspected a collection of necklaces. "We'll be fine. We can get the non-perishables today, like the rice and grain and dried meat and the rest tomorrow before we go."

Sokka let Zuko lead him, finding the sensation more than a little odd and was always unsure of what to do with his own hands. Finally he ended up folding his arms loosely under his spongy falsies. "You're thinking pretty far ahead," Sokka mused quietly, ignoring the booth's jeweler trying to catch his eye. "I thought I was supposed to be the planning guy."

"Not today," Zuko grinned. "Today, you're just... a girl out for a shopping trip in the market." He reached then, taking Sokka's hand and fixing it in the crook of his elbow as they moved on to the next booth, belts and buckles and filmy sashes all laid out to touch and admire.

Sokka snorted faintly but it was an amused sound and he could appreciate the ease with which Zuko said the words. "So how did you get so good at shopping for girls?" he asked, his other hand on Zuko's bicep as they browsed. "I guess a prince must have lots and lots of girlfriends -- do they all get this kind of treatment?"

Zuko laughed quietly at first, then realized Sokka was more or less serious and he coughed, shook his head, still smiling. "Um, no... not really." He was thoughtfully quiet for a minute, feeling the silk and leather and metal, searching for the right words. "I've had.. one girlfriend and... there was another girl, in Ba Sing Se? If we'd stayed there maybe..." He shook his head, fighting with a surge of self-consciousness. "My uncle made me go on this date... it was the most awkward thing..." He chuckled quietly. "I wanted to-- tried to do nice things for her, but I barely managed not to trip on my own feet."

Darkened lashes blinked with surprise, Sokka glancing at Zuko's face. "Really?" he said, not bothering to mask his shock. "I would have thought... I mean, you were doing that like you're an expert at it." He shrugged, trying not to sound critical. "But I guess girls -- real ones --" He coughed quietly. "--can really throw a guy off kilter sometimes, huh?"

Zuko blinked, stared at Sokka as though this were a conclusion he hadn't considered. "Y-yeah," he finally answered. "Yeah, I guess so, huh? I mean... well, with my girlfriend now, it's more just like... she's not the type to enjoy this... this kinds of thing." He gestured, taking in the market, their clothing... all of it. "So... you know. It's fun. This stuff." The smile he offered Sokka was crooked and more bashful than he'd been all day. "Wearing nice clothes, taking a girl out and buying her nice things..."

Sokka couldn't help but grin a little, relieved. Zuko's words let him know he actually was enjoying himself. It made him stop wondering what the other boy wanted to get out of him, what he expected of him. Which was good because with the way they'd been touching for the last hour, it was quickly starting to derail into thoughts that were really just not at all appropriate. The mention of Zuko's girlfriend and reminder of his own helped that matter some, too. Not all of it, but some. "Yeah, well," he murmured, turned so that he could whisper directly in Zuko's ear. "Just don't forget that this girl is still a guy underneath..." Sokka had no desire to actually BE a girl, he wanted that much clear. This was just a game. Doing this every day would be exhausting! "But... thanks..." he added on a warm breath. "I'm having fun." Even if it might have been obvious, it was a little embarrassing to admit.

Zuko laughed, turning to whisper back, "Are you kidding? If I actually forgot you were really a guy, I'd probably do something totally stupid like accidentally set your dress on fire." He flushed a little, unexpectedly, humiliated by this admission on the tail end of a morning full of smooth moves and impeccable fashion.

Sokka had to lift a sleeve to stifle a bark of laughter that definitely would have given him away, managing to quell his reaction into hissing snickers. "I guess I'll consider myself the luckiest girl you've ever taken out then," he teased, smirking as he gave Zuko's arm a friendly squeeze, and leaned heavier into him to escape a lady merchant who was trying to put a scarf around his neck.

"Yeah, that's pretty much true." Zuko chuckled, twirling Sokka around to his other side. "No, thanks." He nodded politely, to the shopkeeper, taking Sokka's arm again and steering him back out into the crowd. "You're popular," he teased.

"I'm popular because you look like you have money."

"I do have money," Zuko bragged, "And you're popular because you're more interesting than the usual Earth Kingdom girls that frequent this market."

"I guess that's true," Sokka said with a shrug. "Those girls are pretty, though. It's like these guys have never seen a tan before."

Zuko's shrug mirrored his own. "It's not just that," he said, but trailed off and didn't elaborate.

Sokka watched him askance, silently, for a long moment. He was starting to wonder where the game ended and the real Zuko began. After a moment, he laughed quietly, bumping Zuko with a shoulder, trying to break the sudden discomfort with a joke. "You better quit or I'm gonna start thinking you mean it."

Zuko's steps stilled for only a moment, his feet trying valiantly to trip over themselves, but he paused, stole a glance, caught Sokka's playful grin, and started walking again . "Haha, yeah. Shut up," he threw back, reaching over to subtly poke Sokka in the ribs."So, did you find anything you liked better than those earrings?" It was almost a smooth attempt at changing the subject.

After a moment's thought, Sokka shook his head, feeling only just a tiny bit suspicious again of Zuko's motives. "You're... you're not gonna like, make me do all your chores back at the temple forever or something are you?" he asked and though there was a tiny bit of worry in his voice, it was mostly just his characteristic skepticism showing through. With Sokka's luck, he'd taken a huge risk in spending the afternoon like this at all. Truth be told, he wasn't sure he'd be all that upset even if Zuko did just that.

"I hadn't thought of that..." Zuko perked up, rubbing his chin. "It's a nice offer. Tempting." But then he shook his head, "I don't need a servant," he decided, looking to catch Sokka's eye. "But I wouldn't mind a cup of tea. Let me take you to the tea house we passed."

"A cup of tea?" Sokka repeated, incredulously. But he was never one to look a gift hippohorse in the mouth and shrugged, offering a smirk and even dropping his head to rest it on Zuko's shoulder with a murmur of, "I'll make it the best cup of tea you'll ever have."

Zuko raised a brow. "What's your idea of good tea?" he wondered. "Bacon instead of milk and sugar?"

"Don't give me any ideas, buster," he shot back with a pinch to Zuko's arm.

 

Chapter Text

The jeweler's booth was a quick stop on the way to the tea house, the merchant pleased as punch to see them back. Zuko even managed somehow to talk the man down to three coins for the earrings, grinning with satisfaction as they turned away from the stall.

"They look perfect," Zuko offered, when Sokka clipped them into place.

"Thanks," Sokka said quietly, sheepishly, musing over the fact that in other situations, he would have taken a compliment with only the proudest boasting. Again, he wondered about where the edges of the game were, even in himself. It's not like he knew how he would react if Zuko complimented him on a normal day. Ugh, this was getting confusing. And as they stepped away from the booths, Sokka felt weird -- their conversation had run so comfortable and there was no immediate reason to touch again, no obstacle in the game to overcome for the moment so he wasn't sure what to do with himself. He let himself fall quiet as Zuko led the way to the tea house, suddenly too nervous to get close enough to speak to him in their secretive murmurs.

On the other hand, Zuko didn't seem to notice his discomfort, holding an easy quiet until they were pushing through the doors of the tiny establishment, not too unlike the place he'd had with Iroh in Ba Sing Se. It smelled earthy and inviting, and a pretty young girl in green greeted and directed them to an empty table toward the back of the bustling shop.

Zuko passed Sokka a list of the offered teas to peruse. He already knew what he wanted.

"I'll be right back," Zuko murmured, hand lingering on Sokka's arm for just a moment before he went off in search of the tea house's facilities.

When he returned, hands clean and dusty hair smoothed out once more, he found their table not quite so empty anymore.

"Hello... what's all this?" he wondered, brow raised, but with a smirk that spoke of confidence and a lack of concern.

Sokka looked up with him with wide eyes filled with relief, seeming like a cornered animal before Zuko had come back. He stood up abruptly, further startling the three young men that had settled at their table. The boys were maybe a year or two their senior and much more well-groomed and polite than the brute that they'd had the run in with earlier in the day. One of them offered Zuko a good natured grin. "We were just trying to welcome your lady friend into town but she's so shy she wouldn't even tell us her name," he explained. "Does she speak the language?"

"Yes!" Sokka interrupted in a frustrated version of his falsetto, as always muffling his voice behind his sleeve.

A second boy laughed. The one who'd spoke was clearly embarrassed. The third addressed Zuko, "Are you just traveling through?"

"Leaving tomorrow," Zuko confirmed, smiling easily as he slid onto the bench beside Sokka, snaking an arm around his waist and pressing a kiss to his cheek. "Hey, miss me?"

Sokka just made a faint whining sound, not really that out of character when he wasn't in drag, embarrassed and flushing but he didn't put up much of a fight, not really wanting these guys to think that he was available.

"I'm San," the first speaker introduced himself. "This is Ni and Ichi. Where are you from?"

"I'm Lee," Zuko answered, hardly caring if this 'San' had meant to be introduced to the 'lady'. "From Ba Sing Se. This is Sokka," he offered, not seeing any need to change Sokka's name when none of these Earth men would likely know enough about Water Tribe culture to know it was a boy's name anyway. "She's from the Northern Water Tribe."

"Ma'am." They nodded politely to Sokka, and he was more than a little confused by their behavior, watching them warily but nodding back.

"Your name's just as pretty as you are," the one called Ni told him and it was all Sokka could do not to grimace. Instead he managed a nervous smile and moved a little tighter into Zuko's hold since this particular member of the party was sharing their bench.

"It's not often you see Water Tribe folk in this area," San spoke up again, catching Zuko's eye. "You're a lucky fellow."

"I hear Water Tribe girls are the best at keeping their boyfriends warm," Ichi put in with a wink.

"Well, I've never had a Fire Nation girlfriend. So I can't say for sure... " He stole a teasing look at Sokka, reaching over to affectionately tuck a bit of hair behind his ear.

"I dunno," Ni said with a smirk. "Sounds to me like he's not so sure."

"Sounds to me like he picked up the wrong foreign girl!" Ichi put in.

"Sounds to me like he doesn't appreciate properly such a fine lady," San said with a good natured laugh and the wink was this time aimed for Sokka who just rolled his eyes.

Zuko shook his head with a chuckle. "Oh, I know I picked the right girl. The only question is if she thinks she picked the right guy." He turned his attention on Sokka then, a faintly goofy smile on his face.

Deadpan, Sokka smothered Zuko's face with his sleeve, earning hoots of laughter from their self-appointed company.

"I dunno guys, I think she might be single in a minute!"

In spite of his delicate rough-housing, when Sokka's hand fell away he was smirking over his shoulder at Zuko.

"Oh, my heart!" Zuko declared, clutching the front of his new tunic and fighting the urge to pull Sokka into a headlock-- a move completely acceptable between men, but just a bit to shocking to pull on a lady. It wasn't too strange, however, for him to bow down, still grabbing his heart and then, in one movement, duck under Sokka's arm to wrap both of his around the younger boy's waist, easily lifting his lithe frame off the bench on onto Zuko's own lap. "Gotcha." He grinned, cheek pressed to the fine fabric at the side of Sokka's torso.

Again, Sokka protested with a sound in his throat, flushing deeply and squirming a little before he grudgingly gave in. One arm went around Zuko's shoulders as he snorted. "Show off," he murmured, just loud enough for the whole table to catch, earning more laughter.

"She's a pretty feisty little thing. How'd you two meet?"

Oh, this would be good, Sokka thought, letting his sleeve slide around his wrist. Idly, his fingers moved into Zuko's hair, watching his face for the story while running fingers along his scalp.

"Oh, you want that story hm?" Zuko laughed, but it was good natured and he settled Sokka more comfortably before he began. "Well, let me tell you. She didn't like me at all at first. The truth is, I didn't much care for her either. I know, believe it or not," he chuckled, catching Ichi's look of skepticism. "In fact, she hit me in the head with a stick and pushed me right off the side of a boat."

Sokka looked at him curiously, surprise flickering through his eyes. He'd expected some heroic war story where Zuko saved his helpless female life or something. Not any inkling of truth or hints to how they'd actually met. Sokka realized his heart was beating fast. Sitting in Zuko's lap was better than he'd expected, warm and comfortable and after a moment, he gave in to a whim and rested his head in the curve of Zukos shoulder as he listened to the story.

"After that, we only saw each other occasionally, and usually parted on bad terms. But then, you know, I started getting my life together, started thinking about what was important and what wasn't. And," he chuckled, "I couldn't stop thinking about her in Earth Tribe warrior garb. It's those fans, you know?" He mimicked a movement, badly, and let one hand come to rest on Sokka's waist again. "Well, I found the courage to leave my father's house and seek my own path, and... well, mine crossed with hers." He laughed and shook his head. "Then her sister waterbended a wave on me and Sokka poked me in the head with a stick. Again. But... nicer this time."

His heart was pounding in his ears as Zuko finished the story and he couldn't figure out why his face was so hot. Maybe just from his cheek pressed to Zuko's neck. His fingers were still in the other boy's hair. This was wrong. As quickly as he could have the thought, he was brushing it off -- it was just the game. It was all a joke, a challenge. He was just letting it get to him too much.

The story seemed to calm their company a bit who chuckled. "A sister, huh?" San said, backing off of Sokka himself. "Maybe you could introduce us!" The three boys laughed again.

Inwardly, Zuko laughed, trying to imagine just what Katara would do if these guys actually tried to hit on her. "Oh I'm sure she'd just love you three, hm, Sokka?"

Sokka tried not to cringe at the thought. If Katara knew anything about this, The Weirdest Day Of His Life, she would slaughter both of them.

"In any case," Ni spoke up, smirking again, "I don't see any engagement charm -- you better watch out cause she's not really yours till you make her an honest girl!"

The other boys laughed and Sokka squirmed a little, wishing they would go away. But at the same time, he knew if they did, he'd lose the excuse to be wrapped around Zuko.

"Sorry to dash your hopes, friend, but just because you don't see a charm, well that doesn't mean the we're not... completely 'honest' with each other." He smiled, shrugging in false-apology. "Besides, Water Tribe customs are different."

"Just lotsa nose-rubbing kisses, huh?" San proposed with a laugh and inwardly Sokka groaned at that particular cultural myth.

Zuko scoffed, not bothering to hide what he thought of this observation. "Clearly," he began, his tone of voice both as bored and as condescending as possible. "Someone needs to teach you about real Water Tribe culture." He turned, coaxing Sokka to lift his head. "Hey, Sokka," he said, and that was the only warning he gave.

And then, his hand was on Sokka's neck, drawing him close, taking advantage of the younger boy's lack of preparation to close the very brief distance between them. Zuko's mouth was hot, and Sokka could feel the smirk that still lingered there for the benefit of their suddenly rapt audience.

Sokka stared, shocked, into Zuko's face for a moment as though uncomprehending of what was happening. All he knew was two sources of heat -- the one that was bubbling up in his stomach and the one that was Zuko's mouth on his. But then the smirk registered and his own mantra beat its way back into his thoughts. It's only a game, it's only a game, it's only a game. And so he snapped back into attention, lashes sliding shut and he showed the boys how they kissed in the Water Tribe. And with the advantage of his position, he pushed his painted lips firm against Zuko's, the fingers that were in his hair suddenly clenching into a fist. One of the boys whistled as he forced his tongue into Zuko's mouth, again determined not to be out done by Zuko's shock value and not to be labeled by strangers as a shy, demur girl.

Sokka's tongue, forceful, lashing, quite literally wiped the smirk from Zuko's face. Still, somewhere along the way, the kiss had become a clash of sorts, a battle. And the once-Prince of the Fire Nation was not going to lose this fight. Not if he could help it. The hand on Sokka's neck dropped to his hip, fingers digging just the enough to be felt and then Zuko's tongue was in Sokka's mouth and Zuko's teeth were on his lip.

Sokka felt his fingers relax, instead sliding through Zuko's shaggy hair, shocked at how a shiver built from that touch at his hip, at how good Zuko tasted. This wasn't like any kiss a girl had given him -- this wasn't like any kiss he could have imagined. He was reeling with how simultaneously wrong and right it was, dizzy with the danger and the taboo and the risk of what they were doing even as his free hand went to Zuko's jaw, sliding silk against his cheek beneath the sleeve.

And then, all of a sudden, they broke apart with a shared gasp, faces heated, and Zuko turned toward the boys who shared their table. The smirk was back, though his pulse still thudded dizzingly. "And that, gentlemen, is how you kiss a Water Tribe Girl. And also why I don't need an engagement charm for Sokka to know who's hers."

Their company laughed and hooted, applauding the very private little show they'd just been given. For a moment, Sokka stared at Zuko but before the boys could say anything further, he was scrambling out of the other's lap, mumbling quickly, "I need some air." His feminine grace left something to be desired as he hurried for the door.

The young men who'd been sharing their table watched Sokka go and then looked at Zuko with brows raised.

"Women," San said, holding up his palms. "Am I right?"

Outside the teahouse, Sokka ran around the corner, hiking his skirt up so that he wouldn't trip. Panting faintly, he fell against the wall, resisting the urge to sink to the ground. That -- that was almost more than he could handle. Zuko clearly had no idea what this experience was like for him, that there was an ever-present underlying current of sexuality to this game. He thought he could ignore it at first, for the chance to have some fun and for Zuko to treat him to the nice things he had provided.

This is why it was a private thing, Sokka groaned inwardly, running a hand through his loose hair. Even so, when Zuko had made the proposal that afternoon, he hadn't expected it to go this far. Even when Sokka had used this sort of thing as a fantasy -- if it involved anyone else, it was just Suki -- once or twice he'd thought about having some girl-on-girl fun with the warrioress. But never a boy. He just hadn't considered it. But with the idea shoved roughly upon him, it was disturbingly enticing, especially in this public forum. The way that everyone cooed over he and Zuko, admired what a lovely couple they were -- all without knowing that under trousers and skirt, they were the same.

WHY was that so intoxicating? So much in fact, that he irritably had to adjust himself under the skirt with a frustrated sigh. Now it was going to be weird because he'd run out. Why couldn't he have just kept it going? He should have just shot superior smirks at the boys and then pulled Zuko away to put an end to it.

With a sigh, he pushed away from the wall, forcing himself to face the music. But just as he started back for the end of the alley, rough hands were suddenly on him, jerking him back and closing over his mouth. He squeaked in the grip of a tall man that must have been lurking in the shadows.

"Quiet now, girlie." Hot breath was in his ear and he cringed away with disgust, squirming in the man's hold. "I'm not gonna hurt you if you stay nice and quiet. Now you wanna tell me where you keep your money in this fancy dress or should I go searching for it?"

An angry sound rattled behind the man's grubby hand. Sokka's nose wrinkled as he realized his make up was probably ruined. He pried at the robber's wrist, but his hand held fast.

"Hmm, these shinies are a good place to start," he mused and lifted a hand to pull free one of Sokka's earrings. "Pretty thing all alone back here, what's that about? Your boyfriend run off?" Sokka's eyes widened with horror as he felt the wet heat of what had to be a tongue on his ear and his frame stiffened with fury.

Teeth clamped down like a platypusbear trap on the man's hand, eliciting a yelp of pain. "Screw this!" Sokka snarled, dropping the falsetto as he jabbed an elbow into the mugger's side, then whirled around in a swirl of blue silk to knee him, hard and precise, right in his gut. As the man choked and doubled over in shocked pain, Sokka's boomerang was in hand, landing a neat blow to the back of the man's head to knock him out. Sokka bent to retrieve his purloined earring and also plucked the man's wallet from his pocket before turning to take his leave, boomerang still in hand as he returned the earring to its rightful place.

When he looked up, Zuko was standing at the mouth of the alley, eyes wide as he glanced between Sokka, slightly disheveled, and the mugger, out cold. "I--” He stopped, tried again. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay-- didn't want those three coming after you first, but-- I see you really can take care of yourself, even in a dress-- where were you keeping that?" he boggled, brow raised as he pointed to the boomerang still in Sokka's hand.

Sokka just smoothed his hair with his free hand and shrugged, tucking the boomerang in his bag on Zuko's shoulder as he walked past. "Let's go shopping," was all he responded with, tossing the purse which was heavy with coin in one hand, the other on his hip and a smirk aimed at Zuko. "My treat this time."

Zuko spared only the briefest of glances for the hapless criminal they left lying in the alley before he was throwing an arm around Sokka's shoulders, and letting him lead them back out into the marketplace. He said nothing further about Sokka's earlier sudden departure, said nothing about the kiss. He seemed, for the most part, as relaxed as he'd been ten minutes before.

"We should bring back presents," Zuko suggested. "Something for everyone."

"Agreed," Sokka said, trying to be just as calm and collected as Zuko himself. He tucked the purse in his bag as well, ignoring the way his heart quickened yet again when Zuko tugged him close. But determined not to seem weird, not to approach the game any different than Zuko, he slid an arm around Zuko's waist, his hand on the other boy's back, sharing his warmth as they navigated back into the crowd. This was at least much more comfortable than being in Zuko's lap. He could keep his cool this way, though he was endlessly wondering what was going on in Zuko's head. "So, I think you made those guys pretty jealous," he murmured into the other boy's ear, voice cocky.

Zuko snorted quietly in reply, paused for just a moment to rub a smudge of lip color from the side of Sokka's mouth. "Yeah," he agreed as they began walking again. "I guess we did. They totally fell for you." He grinned. "That was pretty fun, huh?"

"Yeah-- ugh -- should I re-do my make-up?" he fretted, realizing that guy's dirty hand had been all over his face. "I must be a mess."

"It's fine," Zuko chuckled. Then admitted, "Maybe a little lipstick. But that came off before your back-alley rumble." His voice dropped just a enough to sound (to Sokka's ears) rather suggestive. "Although the natural look suits you too."

Sokka was not blushing about that. He just wasn't. There were plenty of other reasons for him to be flushed pink at that moment. "It looks good on you too," came his casual response, not bothering to do anything about the dark pink that was smudged all around Zuko's mouth.

Zuko touched his mouth on instinct and mirrored Sokka's blush when his fingers came away colored. He quickly scrubbed his lips clean and turned what could only be called a pout on Sokka. "Jerk. See if I ever buy you something nice again." But his eyes were still laughing even if his mouth was turned in a pointed frown.

He had to wonder a little how this play flirting came so natural. He guessed it wasn't that different than the banter that they sometimes exchanged every other day, just with a different tone. Sokka dug in his bag on Zuko's shoulder and pulled away from him as they crossed the square, stopping at the fountain in the center of the village to sit down briefly. "I don't need your money now," he replied coolly as he inspected his reflection in the polished brass of a compact. He wiped away a few smudges and touched up briefly. "You'll have to find a different way to keep me, I guess," he added before pausing to reapply his lip color. Zuko might think he looked fine, but the less pristine his appearance, the more likely he would be identified as an impostor.

"Aw, come on," Zuko whined as he sat down nearby. "You don't really want me to wear an engagement charm, do you?" He sighed dramatically. "Those guys were right. 'Women'."

At this, Sokka couldn't help but snicker. "I suddenly realize why Katara and Toph win every argument," he mused.

Zuko shook his head, not quite hiding the smile. "I don't know how I feel about you being automatically granted these womanly superpowers. I'm not sure it's at all fair. At least before I had a fighting chance!"

He took Zuko's offered hand to stand again, then twined their fingers together, aiming his again pink smirk at Zuko. "All I can say is you better find an extra nice gift for my sister. We have a pretty over-protective family. Also, did I mention the traditional bride price?"

"Brideprice?!" Zuko put on an expression of disbelief. "Then what was all the money we spent today?"

"Courtship, obviously," Sokka scoffed, then shrugged. "I guess you did do a pretty good job of that part though."

Zuko preened for just a moment before casting Sokka a hopeful glance. "Can't we just elope? And like... never tell your sister?" he joked as he began pulling them back toward the clothing merchants stalls.

"Yeah, okay," Sokka finally agreed, snickering. The playful banter had him relaxing again, enough even to pull Zuko's arm back around his shoulders. "So, I guess we're shopping for good-bye gifts now, huh?"

"More like 'Don't kick Zuko's butt gifts'," Zuko joked, then stopped and blinked. "Actually, no, yeah. I mean really. They are kind of like 'don't kick my butt' gifts." He laughed a little awkwardly. "I mean, you and Aang are cool and Toph, I think might have forgiven me... but you know. Gifts can't hurt, right?"

Sokka couldn't help but laugh -- there was something that was almost adorable about Zuko when he was so awkward and pathetic. "You don't need gifts," Sokka said, all of his teasing tone fading away to instead reassure the other boy, lifting a hand to poke him in the cheek. "But they can never hurt."

Zuko rubbed at the spot Sokka had poked him, pouting only a little. "Right, exactly," he agreed. "So let's go get them."

Their first successful stop was at a little accessory shop where Sokka helped Zuko pick out a hair clip for Katara that he swore up and down his sister would love. While trying to decide on something for Toph, they passed by a scroll seller and Sokka picked out a scroll full of numbers and diagrams and notes that meant nothing at all to Zuko, but Sokka promised that Teo would be more than appreciative. Neither of them knew The Duke very well, but a small leather pouch seemed practical and good-looking.

"What about Haru?" Zuko asked. "Do you think it'd be appropriate to buy him a razor? Too subtle?"

Sokka was helpless to stop the burst of laughter that erupted from his lips, earning him an odd look from a nearby shopper before he lifted his sleeve to his lips with a bat of lashes and fled to Zuko's side. "I wish we could," he snickered in response. "But Aang could use a new one." For Haru, they decided on a pair of leather arm bracers and Toph got a pair of deep-green, fingerless gloves from the same stall.

By the time they'd finished their shopping and escaped a few close calls where Sokka spoke too loudly or let his exposed hands linger outside their sleeves too long, the sun was starting to set and they'd only gone through half the money that Sokka had pickpocketed from the pickpocket.

"Everything's closing," he fretted, realizing they'd frittered away their day on extravagance and hadn't done any grocery shopping.

Zuko checked his own funds, weighed them against the remainder of Sokka's pouch and grinned. "Here's what we can do," he said. "We've got plenty of money left, right? So, we rent a room in town, save us the trip in the morning and hit the grocers early, right when they open. We grab the food and are home while the sun's still rising!"

"A--a room?" he repeated, blanching a little under his make up. Spending the night with Zuko in an inn after this, The Weirdest Day of His Life? The thought honestly terrified Sokka. But then again, maybe everything would change and be perfectly normal when he got out of his clothes... No, that didn't come out right in his head at all. "Isn't -- wouldn't that be really expensive?"

But Zuko just shook his head. "Not if we don't mind going cheap. And personally, I've got no problem with a tiny, plain looking room as long as there's a bed without bugs in it. Honestly, the cost will probably be less than those earrings."

"O-oh," Sokka mumbled, blushing faintly. He guessed he couldn't really protest the money spent after he'd let Zuko shower him with expensive gifts all day. Sokka's stomach chose that moment to growl. LOUDLY.

Zuko laughed, squeezing Sokka's shoulders firmly enough to set him a little off balance and turned their steps back toward town. "Now dinner," he said, "is something we definitely have enough money for. And I'm starving. Shall we sample the local cuisine, Madame?"

Dress or no dress, Sokka never had any objections to food. And though his mind was still racing a little at the prospect of sharing a room with Zuko, he didn't pull away from his public affection. It was dinner time so the cafes were crowded, giving them a wait for a table. They found themselves in a dim corner and yet again Sokka pushed the envelope, pulling Zuko's arms around his waist and leaning back against his chest. Even as he felt the other boy's warmth seep through their new clothes, he had to question what he was doing, tried to figure out why he couldn't seem to leave well enough alone. But the truth was, the affection, as conjured as it might have been, felt good.

"Maybe we'll get better service if we're a cute enough couple," Sokka whispered to him with a snicker, leaning back so that his nose brushed Zuko's ear.

Zuko seemed perfectly comfortable, content to wait like this, with his arms around Sokka's middle and exchanging quiet banter while others milled about them, either ignoring their presence or giving them a glance and a smile. "Maybe," he murmured back, "or we make the wait staff so jealous that they spit in our food." Nevertheless, the older boy made no mode to disentangle himself from Sokka.

It'd been a long day and especially with hunger settling in hard, and it was almost sinfully easy to let himself relax against Zuko's warm frame and they fell quiet for a few minutes. It made Sokka's cheeks heat a little as he realized that he was sharing more physical affection with Zuko that afternoon than he really had with either of his girlfriends before. It was just so easy when he kept encouraging it, as though constantly testing the waters with each other to see how much further they could push the game. And in the silence, with his heart fluttering, it only took the slightest turn of his head to place a light kiss and then a second on Zuko's jaw.

Zuko blinked, clearly a little surprised by this display of affection without, it seemed, any particular goal, but he only shifted faintly, a quiet hum in his throat. Pleased. "There's an old couple watching us," he whispered after a moment, turning his head, dipping his chin enough so that the words were breathed almost across Sokka's mouth. From the sound of his voice, and the way he pulled Sokka in just a little tighter, he didn't seem mind. "They're smiling," he continued. "Don't you want to show them something sweet? Something that makes them remember their youth?" But he didn't wait for an answer before tipping into a gentle, chaste kiss, barely a brush of lips.

With a tiny tremble, Sokka allowed the kiss, realizing as he hadn't been able, in their earlier roughness, just how soft his mouth was. He watched the one visible golden eye, and wondered at the smile that he found there and who this Zuko was, so very far removed from the angry exiled prince that had chased them across the world. At his waist, his fingers slid from hiding in his sleeves, fingertips playing across Zuko's knuckles as he kissed back very faintly.

Zuko smiled when they heard the older couple murmur appreciatively of young love and 'isn't she just lovely'. But before any further words or gestures could be exchanged, a young man dressed in rich brown appeared to escort them to their seats.

Sokka wasn't sure how to feel about the tiny, candlelit table they were given but it hardly mattered when the menu was placed in front of them. He had Zuko order for him. The waiter stared when he pointed out the largest steak on the menu, and Sokka smiled sweetly.

"I could eat two of those but I think I'd pop a seam," Sokka confided once they were alone, patting the tight fabric around his middle.

Zuko chuckled quietly. "How did you ever survive at the South Pole with only fish and the seals your girlfriends clubbed for you?" he wondered.

"Pffft, girlfriends? Hah. The only girl my age in the village was my sister! Only person for that matter. If anything, you were the best looking thing to ever cross my path down there," he remarked.

"Oh, well," Zuko snorted, "So you suppose you'll settle for me, then, hm?" He laughed quietly. "I'm not sure if I should be flattered or wounded."

"Oh, be flattered," Sokka said easily, putting on a smirk that he would normally aim at a cute girl. The look was a little disconcerting when coming from a cute girl. "In the long run, I had all four nations at my fingertips and I chose you, right?"

Zuko chuckled. "So you chose me over... let's see, your sister, a twelve year old boy and a... well pretty much another twelve year old boy. Oh yeah, I'm definitely flattered."

"That's not what I meant and you know it," Sokka chided, marveling over how realistic this particular flirting conversation felt.

"No, no," Zuko waved him off, "I see how it is. Shave Haru's mustache and I'm sure your interest in me would vanish as quickly as the steak you're about to eat."

"Oh, spirits, are you kidding?" Sokka said, incredulously and he realized that his flirty, coy voice had dropped, affecting his own quiet tones. "You're way cuter than Haru. I mean he's a good looking guy but..."

"He is?" Zuko raised a brow skeptically.

"Believe it or not," Sokka shrugged. "The mustache gets in the way."

"Aah... that makes sense," Zuko nodded sagely. "He does have nice hair. You don't see a lot of guys with long hair who actually take care of it, you know?"

"Way more nice hair in the Fire Nation though," Sokka agreed with a nod. "I wouldn't want to take care of all that, ugh."

Without a thought, Zuko reached across their little table and buried his fingers in Sokka's hair, feeling for the layer of short, hidden fluff. "This is getting pretty long," he noted. "It was totally shaved when we first met."

Sokka's cheeks heated faintly, his gaze dropping for a brief moment. "I-- I let it grow out while we were in the Fire Nation," he replied in a murmur. "You know, to be less conspicuous..." Zuko's wrist was brushing his cheek.

"I like it." Zuko shrugged, and lingered for just a moment longer before pulling back when a small basket of bread was delivered to their table.

Sokka couldn't help but chuckle when the waiter stepped away, glancing back up at Zuko over his water glass. "I like yours, too," he said with a smirk. "As intimidating as your old scary topknot was."

Zuko chuckled. "Cutting it off was hard," he mused quietly, "But I needed to do it. Wouldn't be here now if I hadn't, really. The first step."

Sokka watched him carefully, finding it interesting that he wasn't sure he'd heard such a sincere and open voice from the other boy before. Thus far, the relationship that they'd developed was based on teasing the ex-prince constantly and nursing Zuko's emerging sense of humor. "Well, you look good in any case," Sokka told him casually and shrugged as he set his hand lightly on top of the other boy's between them.

Despite all the shared physical contact between them all day, this small move seemed to surprise Zuko and he stared at Sokka's hand for a moment before shaking himself from his trance. "Th-thanks."

Thankfully, Zuko was spared any further immediate response by the arrival of their meal.

The meal was shared in a strangely comfortable, yet uncomfortable silence. Sokka couldn't quite figure it out, but wasn't sure how to break it -- or even if he should. Luckily, he was distracted by the healthy portion of meat set in front of him, earning a few wayward glances in his enthusiasm over the meal. Zuko didn't quite have the heart to tell him to eat more lady-like, not when the sight of a delicately pretty girl practically moaning over her steak was such an amusing one. Zuko was somewhat more subdued with his own meal of meat and rice, but he had to admit the food here was well-prepared and far, far better than fish and berries.

When they'd finished, Sokka gave a heavy, delighted sigh, slouching a little in his seat. "I really needed that," he said, considerably more relaxed.

"You're telling me," Zuko agreed, patting his own stomach with satisfaction. Then, "Why don't you have some tea?" he suggested, nodding over a server. "I'll go settle the check and ask about lodging in the area."

"Mm..." Sokka nodded, having the awareness to sit up a little straighter when the serving girl came over and smiled at him when Zuko ordered his 'lady friend' something to drink. There was a certain side of him that was impressed with Zuko in a strange way. He had the ability to be a very kind gentleman when he wanted -- something that Sokka had attempted before and had been told that he was 'adorably silly'. Which maybe wasn't a bad thing, but still, he knew it wasn't as easy as it looked.

The girl made the tea for Sokka right there at the table, pouring and mixing, smiling sweetly as she did. "How long have you been together?" she asked.

Inwardly, Sokka was startled by her question, almost having forgotten over their meal the getup that he was in. He gave a tiny cough before trying out his girl voice again which he was afraid was horribly transparent, but he couldn't say nothing. "First date," he murmured, unable to think of anything else without making some elaborate story. The less words the better.

The girl seemed surprised. "Really? I wouldn't have guessed. I mean, the way he looks at you..." she sighed, wistful, cheeks just a little pink.

He blinked at the girl, confused. "How?"

"Oh, don't tell me you don't see it!" She grinned. "Stars in his eyes. Really!"

"What?" Sokka had to make an effort not to laugh -- this was a girl who loved romance. People could find what they wanted out of any situation. "No," he chuckled quietly with a shake of his head.

But the girl only shrugged, finished preparing the foaming tea and placed it gently in front of Sokka. "Give him a chance," she suggested. "Maybe you'll see it too."

After thanking the serving girl, Sokka was inexplicably blushing when Zuko returned and feeling very silly about it. Of course it seemed like Zuko was looking at him like that -- that was exactly his goal. He was just playing the game. But her words made his stomach feel weird.

"Good news," Zuko was saying as he sat back down. "There's an inn just down the street. Real cheap, no bugs! How's your tea?"

"Good," Sokka replied simply, his stomach only knotting tighter at the mention of the inn. He dragged out sipping at his tea as long as he was able before he finally let Zuko escort him out to friendly waves and a wink from their waiter.

"Oh man," Zuko said once they were back out on the street. "I can't remember the last time food tasted so good, huh?"

"Definitely," Sokka chuckled, trying to lighten up a little. Zuko's mood helped a bit. "I can't wait to see everybody's faces tomorrow when we get back."

"Heroes!" Zuko declared.

This elicited a laugh from Sokka, able to speak at a slightly higher decibel now that the sun had set and the stars were out, the streets much less crowded. "You watch -- my sister is going to find some reason to freak out. And then she's going to pout for a day. And then she's going to be really sweet. I bet you."

Zuko chuckled awkwardly, dropping his hand to rub at his hair. "Yeah, no, I won't bet against that. I just hope she actually gets to the 'sweet' part and doesn't try to stab me with the hair clip while I sleep."

"She won't!" Sokka protested with a laugh, then considered the alternative, that the gift would completely turn her opinion and that Katara would realize that Zuko was the best-looking eligible bachelor in their group. The twist that he knew could only be jealousy made him inwardly cringe. He clearly needed to get out of this dress. It was playing tricks on his brain.

"You say that, but the only thing that's predictable about your sister is her distrust of me!" Still, he didn't sound too bothered by this, and anyway, it was only a minute later that Zuko's steps stilled and he turned them toward an unimpressive door to a quiet looking little building. "Here it is! The Three-Toed Badgermole Inn. Huh, that's a mouthful."

Finally, Sokka's stomach bottomed out when Zuko held the door for him. But, nonetheless, he entered and told the butterflies that raged in his middle that inns were for sleeping.

 

Chapter Text

The inn's lobby was small and quiet, modest but clean, and the man that greeted them was old and full of friendly smiles. Sokka fell back into the role of quiet girlfriend, letting Zuko do the talking to arrange their stay. "Just one night for the lovely couple?" the innkeeper asked, grinning at Zuko as he licked the quill that he then poised over his books. "Where are you two hailing from?"

Zuko shared a quick glance with Sokka before answering. "Ah, Ba Sing Se, by way of the Northern Water Tribe," he explained. "And yes, just the one night. We're here for the market."

"Ba Sing Se?" Silvery brows arched. "You're a long way out -- the both of you. I don't suppose you're eloping, hmmm?" He smirked as he handed the book over to Zuko to sign in.

"Of course not." Zuko grinned, offering the man a wink as he took the quill and signed his assumed name. "In fact, we're returning to the North after this trip so I can ask her father's blessing."

"Good man, good man," the innkeeper laughed. "Honesty's the best policy! Especially with such a beautiful young lady -- that's the way to keep her!"

Sokka hid behind Zuko's shoulder, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. "Indeed, sir, it is," Zuko agreed, nodding politely. It wasn't difficult to maintain his game-face while the man led them upstairs to their room, but still, when the door closed behind them, something like relief crossed Zuko's features and he sank onto the edge of the bed. "I never realized just how prying people can be! Everyone's got advice, or their own two cents and everyone wants to know all the intimate details. It's so weird!"

The. Bed. Sokka noted, lingering by the door and twisting the silk of a sleeve in his fingers. The single, large bed with invitingly turned down sheets. Considering the size of the small inn, this was probably the honeymoon suite. "Maybe it's because we're an interracial couple?" he suggested with a shrug. "They're all super-interested in how you found me. Next time you should tell people I was a mail order bride."

With Sokka's bag and their purchases safely deposited in one corner, Zuko pulled his boots free and tossed them away. He stretched out across the surprisingly thick mattress. "This bed is huge!" he noted, spreading his arms to reach either side. "Although it more or less takes up the whole room.” He noted the narrow strip of floor space where Sokka still stood.

"Yeah," was all Sokka could think to say, fidgeting for a moment longer before he forced a swallow and sat down beside Zuko on the very corner of the bed. "You tired?"

"A little," Zuko answered. With a shrug, he sat up, back to the wall at the head of the bed.

Sokka should have been undressing by then. There was no reason to keep all this on -- he could wash his face and get into comfortable clothes... but the moment the dress came off, the game was over. The attention from strangers was done with and Zuko would no longer fawn over him, no longer steal obvious touches or look at him with 'stars in his eyes'. And the longer the moment stretched, the less Sokka wanted the game to come to an end just then. So with gathered courage, he finally moved and laid down beside Zuko on his side, propping his chin on his hand under one long sleeve. "You know," he said, looking up at the other boy. "I never was really sure you were actually a prince until today."

Zuko laughed a little, and rubbed at his neck in something like embarrassment. "I'm not a prince," he corrected. "Not anymore, anyway."

"Well you're good at acting like one," Sokka said with a shrug. "Any girl would fall hard for you."

"Well..." Zuko also shrugged, no good at taking a compliment now that there wasn't any audience to play to. "Only two ever did and, haha, I kinda messed up both of those chances..."

Sokka felt dizzy. His heart was racing and his cheeks were pink but he couldn't stop himself, even as common sense warred with roiling, guilty desires. And then his hand was touching Zuko's knee, smoothing up just a little higher and he was looking up at the other boy, blue eyes seeking out gold. "You didn't mess up this time.”

Zuko blinked, startled, stared at Sokka for a long moment. Then shook himself, laughing a little, but ready, it seemed, to play along. "I didn't?" he asked, fishing for more.

"Nope," Sokka replied, amazed at how steady his voice came when he felt like his insides were shaking. His fingers stayed, playing lightly across Zuko's thigh just above his knee. Then he pulled himself up a little, sitting on his hip with silk fanned around him. His hand stayed on Zuko's knee. Close. "In fact, you did everything just right..."

"I should... haha, ask for that in writing, cause no one will ever believe that I could..." he trailed off, a strange, goofy little smile on his mouth. "You look really good in that dress."

Sokka flushed under the make up he still wore, his lips pushing into a pout though it wasn't a displeased expression. "How good?" he wanted to know.

"Good enough to... do something crazy," Zuko answered, breath hitching almost imperceptibly.

That was what he wanted to hear. "Good." And the hand on Zuko's knee lifted instead to his tunic, fingers grasping the front lightly to reel him in, leaning forward to force their lips to meet for the third time that day. And the third time was a different sensation -- not rough and showy or faint and sweet. This kiss was slow and passionate, but hesitant – he was so sure that Zuko was going to just laugh and playfully shove him off the bed and that would be the end of all this.

And probably, this would have been the best and safest option. The smartest one too. Zuko never was very good at listening to his common sense, though. He let Sokka lead the kiss, returning it, but only gently, as tentative as Sokka was himself. He flushed when they broke apart. "But I haven't even gotten your father's blessing yet."

"He doesn't have to know," Sokka replied, playing along as he lifted his hand instead to run his fingers through Zuko's hair, raking it away from his face. His fingers were trembling faintly but he never released the other boy's gaze.

"Your sister will kill me," Zuko tried, eyes fluttering half-closed at the touch of hands in his hair.

"She definitely doesn't have to know," Sokka answered, almost laughing in spite of himself. Fingers trailed down Zuko's cheek, cupping his face, and it was obvious that they weren't hands meant for the sleeves they'd been hiding in all day. Then he was leaning just a little closer and his lips were so near Zuko's but they didn't meet. "Please," was all that he breathed there.

It must have been enough, because in the next moment Zuko's hands were on his arms, dragging him close enough to take his mouth again, hungrily this time, teeth grazing Sokka's lip before he pulled back with a gasp. "It's just... you know. I mean..." He didn't finish the thought, distracted by the paint-smudged lips, and the way Sokka's eyes held him, just waiting. He sat up, arms sliding around Sokka's back, reveling in the feel of the silk, the rougher bits of embroidery, the way it all clung to his frame, flattering him in a way Zuko never would have thought possible.

Sokka could feel his pulse down to his fingertips, his own arms slipping around Zuko's neck, instantly caught up in everything again. Especially now with Zuko's hands trailing over whole new places. And with fingers again buried in the other boy's hair, he went in for another kiss, pressing himself into Zuko, letting his weight force them a little closer to the pillows. Boots left by the door, a bare ankle hooked behind Zuko's as Sokka clung to his mouth with deep, needy kisses, tongue grazing into the warmth of the other boy's mouth, nails raking across his scalp.

When he finally pulled back this time, Sokka was a little breathless, eyes a little cloudy as they looked into Zuko's. "It's just for fun, right?" he whispered, searched. He could force all of his hesitation aside if he knew that -- if this was just play, just a game -- then it didn't count. Because they weren't really them.

"R-right, yeah," Zuko agreed quickly, relieved, his hands squeezing just a little harder at Sokka's hips. "For fun. Yeah." He tried a smile, and found it coming to his lips without too much trouble. "I mean, who wouldn't want to take a girl like you to bed, right? Those guys at lunch... were all over you."

"Hm..." Sokka chuckled faintly, flushing a little. He sank down to the pillows then, willing the shakiness to leave his limbs and his insides as he rubbed at the back of Zuko's neck faintly. "I was too distracted by your hands all over me to notice," he replied, attempting to sound coy.

"Well," Zuko answered, falling easily for the attempt. "I just didn't want them to think they had a chance with you." He turned on his side then too, facing Sokka with a grin, leaning into the touch at his neck. "When you ran off though, I had to fight them back from going after you before I did."

"I'm certainly glad you found me first," Sokka responded. Lying nose to nose on a shared pillow, searching Zuko's amber eyes, he could almost see what the girl who'd served him tea was talking about. And what he couldn't see, he could imagine. That was what this was all about anyway, right? And he kissed again at Zuko's mouth, a slow and soft but quietly demanding sort of kiss that lingered for long minutes, tasting him, testing him slowly while fingers dipped under the collar of Zuko's tunic.

"Mm." Zuko shifted, undoing the ties at his collar, letting the shirt fall open under Sokka's exploration, kissing back almost lazily. It was easier to relax now that they had a mutual understanding, to enjoy the way Sokka's hand, just a little rough, felt on his bare skin. "I'm glad I did too," he murmured, "though from the scene I found, it certainly looked like you could take care of yourself just fine."

"But there's other things I need help taking care of," Sokka breathed across Zuko's mouth, even before he could reconsider the words, adding a squeeze to Zuko's shoulder under the silken fabric.

"Yeah," Zuko answered, a little dumbly just before their mouths met and he took Sokka's invitation, climbing over him to straddle silk-clad hips. He broke from the kiss just long enough to gaze down Sokka's body, the narrow waist and surprisingly convincing, if modest, breasts he wore, the long neck disguised by high, slim collar and his sculpted features. Never once had Zuko thought those features to be feminine, but made up like this, they took on a gentler look that suited him surprisingly well. It wasn't hard to imagine him being a girl, but the advantage here was the knowledge that he wasn't and somehow that gave Zuko the confidence to proceed, to not dissolve into fumbling awkwardness. It was time to bring this game toward it's completion, the natural end result of a day of flirting and courtship, the desired end that raging teenage hormones demanded of them both. "Gods," Zuko breathed. "You're really... you look... wow."

Heat rushed through Sokka's face. He blinked up at Zuko with surprise at his words, at his expression. No one had ever looked at him like that and the part of Sokka that reveled in attention thrilled in the way that Zuko's eyes raked over his prone body. All they'd done was kiss and Sokka was humiliatingly aroused and a little glad that Zuko was over his hips and unable to see the way that the other boy's simple touch was affecting him. Hands found the well fit, fine fabric of Zuko's trousers, palms sliding up his thighs -- Sokka's heart was racing but his eyes were smoldering -- after a whole day he needed this and his body was not about to let him get away with anything less. Not when Zuko was looking at him like that, with those eyes that wanted him. "I was thinking about this all day..." he confided quietly, thumbs rubbing at the points of Zuko's hips. Sokka's breath came slow and a little heavy -- it was more than a little shameful to admit when before today he'd never thought about another guy like that. But he could hardly help it with Zuko kissing and touching and holding him all day.

The admission made Zuko flush deeply, but he didn't disagree and Sokka could feel him shake when his palms pressed into the older boy's thighs. "You... when those other guys looked at you, I wanted to punch them in the face for even thinking of touching you," Zuko murmured. He lowered his face, enough to breathe across Sokka's ear, heating the metal of his earring just enough to feel.

Sokka laughed quietly, another delighted little thrill rippling through him, warring with the shiver that threatened from Zuko's lips. "My hero," he whispered back, only partly teasing. Arms lifted to slide around Zuko's shoulders and with a breath, Sokka turned his head a little, inviting further attention beneath Zuko's warm lips. It was an easy matter to let the fine stone slide between his teeth. Zuko's lips closed around the lobe of Sokka's ear to warm the earring with a carefully controlled breath, a faint tug, a quiet moan as he lowered himself enough to touch his chest to the other's. This time Sokka couldn't quell the shudder and Zuko felt it between his lips and in Sokka's arms. The dark skinned boy's brow was tight, cheeks flushed dark when he turned his head more, chin tilting, all but begging for Zuko to kiss his throat. Hands slid down the silk over Zuko's back and caught the edge of his tunic, pushing it up so that his fingers could reach warm skin, smoothing over firm muscle. "Zuko..." he murmured, voice catching in his throat.

With one last nip, Zuko let the earring slip from his lips, turning his attention toward the offered stretch of neck, half-concealed by fabric. With one hand, Zuko plucked loose the fastenings at Sokka's collar, pulling it open to find bare, flushed skin. He felt the vibrations of Sokka's throat as he kissed there, felt the thud of his pulse under his tongue, and hummed along hungrily.

Sokka had to wonder if he was going to make it through this -- the more Zuko's lips touched his skin, the more he was sure that he was going to pass out before anything happened. With that hot, hungry mouth on his throat, he found himself unable to quell the moan that rose from somewhere in his center and up through his throat, chin tilted to the ceiling. He shuddered, nails raking up Zuko's back lightly as lips brushed light over the bob of his throat. Suddenly he felt a little self-conscious, a little afraid that it'd ruin the illusion. So he ducked away, and then was surging up, stealing Zuko's mouth again in a rough kiss. Hands were buried under his shirt, the long silk of his own sleeves bunched at his elbows as he pressed between Zuko's shoulders with his palms and demanded his mouth, tongue sliding past his lips with an urgent sort of sensuality. Not to hurry up -- but just for more, to taste, to feel -- and he lapped slow and hard at the inside of Zuko's mouth, leaning upward from the pillow.

If the small evidences of Sokka's masculinity bothered Zuko, he made no sign of it, and anyway, how could he, with Sokka devouring his mouth as though he was starved for it. He didn't let Sokka hover there for long, though, pressing him back into the pillow with kisses returned, a lash of tongue that forced Sokka's back into his own mouth, forced his own taste, his own heat onto the boy laid out beneath him. It was with a quiet gasp that Zuko broke away, thighs shuddering as he sat up quickly, tore his shirt over his head and tossed it away, ridding them of at least one layer of unnecessary fabric. He took just a moment to look down at Sokka again, to reach and feel the angles of his body disguised by ripples of blue silk from hips to waist to ribs, and then finding his arms and taking his wrists, gently, almost too slowly.

When Zuko pinned Sokka's hands above his head, their bodies pressed near-flush to each other, and when Zuko leaned down to breathe hot across Sokka's cheek, he could feel the firebender's arousal, hard and hot against his stomach.

Another moan was impossible to hold back, Sokka's breath hitching and quickening perceptibly. That firmness -- knowing it was his, that Zuko's body was throbbing for his, for him... He squirmed, arching his back and pressing his belly up between Zuko's legs, fingers stretching for something unseen from beneath his grip. The weight on him felt amazing, and though the increasing need for friction under the rustling teases of his skirt was intense, Zuko was distracting enough that he could ignore it for the moment. It was nearly as thrilling to writhe under him, knowing he was creating friction against Zuko's own affliction while he arched and strained for the ex-prince's throat, tasting the color from his own lips when he suckled faintly at skin and moved on to another spot.

It was tempting to echo Sokka's moans, and though Zuko swallowed the urge back, still his breaths were heavy, almost given voice as his hands tightened, hips beginning to grind against the movement of the body beneath him, almost on instinct. "Sokka..." was a hot hiss in the other's ear, and his skin shivered where Sokka's mouth left tiny temporary marks.

Zuko's voice whispering his name like that made Sokka's hips buck, finally meeting pressure against the front of Zuko's trousers and he gasped faintly, surprised by it. So many layers of fabric -- the cotton of his under garments which were stifling him, the silk, the rougher weave of Zuko's pants. The movement of his body was obscene, utterly wanton as he writhed, undulating under Zuko to achieve friction. Teeth scraped the other boy's shoulder as he alternately arched his spine, pressed his stomach into Zuko's heat and rocked his hips and shuddered, panted at the pressure, and rough friction it earned him.

For a moment, Zuko was startled to feel that sudden touch, the press of Sokka's arousal, trapped tight beneath him, beneath their clothes. For a moment, just a moment, he hesitated. But then Sokka's teeth were on his skin and it was both too much and not enough all at once. He let go of Sokka's wrists, hands bracing on either side of his head as Zuko took a breath and slid lower, knees alongside Sokka's thighs as hip met hip. A rough groan left his throat and as clothed heat brushed, and Zuko forgot to hesitate. In the next breath, his body was flush to Sokka's and then nothing mattered but how good it felt.

"Oh god," Sokka stuttered, thighs trembling as he strained to keep himself under control. He was shocked at how natural it felt and how easy it was to rock, to grind into Zuko's heat through stifling layers. With his hands free, his palms were immediately seeking out warm skin, roving over back and chest and arms. Then pressing into the small of his back, nails digging in as his hips arched and bodies pressed and slid in the basest sort of need. "Feels good..." he moaned quietly, breath hot in Zuko's ear, preceding his tongue and a nip of teeth

"Y-yeah," Zuko agreed, almost surprised. It did feel good, not only the delicious friction, the teasing drag of fabric over flesh, but also just to know that he wasn't alone in his desire, and to be able to feel that Sokka was equally effected. Hand clutched at the mattress, his cheek grazing Sokka's temple as they moved. "Are you okay?" he heard himself ask, his voice a heady rasp. "I'm not too heavy?"

"No," Sokka hurried to answer on a panted breath. "Please don't stop..." His neck arched then, lips seeking Zuko's but not in the fervent way they had been, instead with grazing touches and mingling breaths. Hands slid over shoulders and neck to frame his jaw, tongue reaching to trace his lower lip before finally tipping more into a kiss. Hips were finding a steady way of moving, of rocking up when Zuko shifted just so, constantly seeking friction. But the satiny inside of the dress was his undoing, slippery over the cotton of his undergarments, driving him crazy with frustration and arousal.

Zuko groaned quietly, shivering when Sokka's tongue grazed his lip. Despite his bare torso, he felt overheated, dizzy with need. He wanted more. But was it taking it too far? To shed further clothing, to bare more skin, would these things breach unspoken rules? He didn't know, couldn't be sure. But he wanted something else. So in one quick motion, Zuko grabbed for Sokka's shoulders and rolled them over, dragging the slighter boy on top of him and looking up into that startled face with pointed hunger. "I want to see you," he breathed.

For a moment, Sokka hesitated, panting quietly and unsure what to do with himself. But then with a toss of his head, he shook his hair out of his eyes and moved, gathering his skirt around him as he resituated. Knees planted on either side of Zuko's hips and he released the hissing fabric as he sank down on top of the other boy's lap, unhampered by silk while everything still remained hidden by it. The added friction and removal of that slippery layer sent a shudder ripping through him and shoulders tensed as he ground down hard against Zuko's trapped heat. Hands fell on Zuko's bare chest, fingers splayed and digging into pale flesh, lips parted as he curled over the other boy, his stomach surging with arousal at the way their lengths dragged along each other even trapped under material.

"Oh, that's-- that's better," Zuko breathed, finding his hands settled just right on Sokka's thighs, the feel of hard, lithe muscle under soft, shifting fabric an exquisite sensation. His lips stayed parted with short, heaving breaths and Sokka swore he saw a flame or two flicker across Zuko's tongue, snuffed out by eager half-stifled moans. It seemed only natural that Zuko's touch would find its way under the dress's hem, fingers sliding beneath fabric, to thumb at the crook of a hip, a tug and Sokka found his undercloth loose, easy to pull away.

Sokka gave a breathy gasp of relief, suddenly unrestricted and achingly hard. He shifted, spreading his thighs a little wider, shivering as the silk ghosted his sensitive flesh and the rougher weave of Zuko's pants rubbed below. Only when he glanced down did he notice the result of being freed: the tent of blue silk that his need created and the damp spot showing through. Humiliated, he hurried to put his hands over it, to hide it.

"No--!" Zuko rasped, then a little gentler, "No. It's okay." His free hand lifted and drew Sokka's away by the tips of his fingers, allowing the older boy a good look at the cause of Sokka's embarrassment. Then, as though steeling his courage, Zuko guided the hand he still held to press, palm flat against his own arousal as though to remind him that they were both similarly affected.

Wide blue eyes searched Zuko's face over darkly flushed cheeks, but quickly his mild sense of alarm faded only into further want and he added his own touch into the one that Zuko initiated. Then drawing away, he reached beneath the fabric, finding his way blindly through silken folds until he was touching the front of Zuko's trousers. Sokka almost surprised himself with the delighted sigh he heard from his own lips when his fingers felt out the arousal meant for him, tracing it in the confines of cloth. But then with the other boy's name a quiet moan on his breath, he was deftly tugging at buttons until he could drag Zuko's pants to his thighs and reach inside the thin fabric that held him. The damp, hard heat that he found made Sokka moan again, in a sort of aroused sympathy as his fingers traced and curled, torturous teases in the tightness of his undergarments.

In truth, Zuko hadn't intended to ask for even that much. A quick rub maybe, and he'd have been satisfied with grinding against Sokka's hips. But what he'd meant as reassurance had, instead, become a suggestion. And now that Sokka's hand was there, touching skin, fingers stroking with a surprising confidence that Zuko couldn't have stopped it if he'd wanted to. And he didn't. Instead, he gripped Sokka's knee with one hand and thumbed a little harder at the angle of Sokka's hip, encouraging. "Yes," he mouthed, licked his lips, watched Sokka's face through hooded eyes.

And Sokka met his gaze, finding himself amazed at how the want that was evident on Zuko's face made his own loins heat and coil and all he wanted was to inspire more of that. That smoldering. And so with his tongue running over his pinkened lips, he was pulling away the cloth that held Zuko in place and replacing its hold with his own fingers. With fingers rough from spear and sword and boomerang, he gripped Zuko's length in earnest, with one hand bracing, splaying across his chest. "You're so hot here," he whispered as he started to stroke in slow, tight movement, eyes conveying how pleased he was with Zuko's desire.

"I'm a firebender," Zuko answered, his voice a gasp as he struggled to maintain control of his own body, fingers tightening on Sokka's hip. "And... that feels really, really good," he admitted, flushing darkly at his own words. Sokka's hands might have been rough, but he handled Zuko as skillfully, as well as his own weapons, with as much respect as he'd handled the the fine fabrics of the clothing they'd tried on that day. "Your dress," he breathed, somewhat regretfully, as his free hand left Sokka's thigh to graze almost accidentally over the damp spot, the strain of his arousal trapped in silk.

Sokka fought back a shiver, that tiny brush seeming to vibrate all the way to his core. "M-maybe it'll come out," he murmured, fingers trailing over every contour of the head of Zuko's arousal. Around his crown, following curves and dipping just so lightly at his tip. "You're not mad?" Zuko had paid for the dress after all.

But Zuko only shook his head. "I'm not mad," he assured Sokka, bolstering his courage to rub the side of his thumb across his hidden arousal, curious, wanting to feel Sokka shiver again like that.

And shiver he did, thighs tensing on either side of Zuko's, fingers curling tight and hand jerking slightly. "Ah--!"

"Isn't this the best use for it after all?" Zuko continued.

"Mmm..." Sokka shut his eyes tightly for a moment, brow tensing in what almost looked like pain but seemed to be an attempt to focus. "Y-yeah," he murmured back. "It is..."

At this, Zuko couldn't help but grin, just a little mischievously. "Well, if we'll have to wash it anyway...." he reasoned, beginning to rub more pointedly now, his hand coming to completely encircle Sokka's erection in blue silk, squeezing, thumbing at the growing dampness. "Might as well have some fun first..."

Sokka's grip froze with a gasp, his hand startled into inaction. His head dropped, hair falling over his face and the sight of Zuko's hand curled around him, squeezing him in the maddening hold of silk made his stomach twist into knots. He felt dizzy with embarrassment and arousal as he watched the damp spot that Zuko was teasing spread under the attention. A moment later, he realized he was panting and pressed his eyes shut and tried to shake some focus back into his head but Zuko squeezed just so and he gasped quietly again with a murmur of, "Oh gods..."

"Do you like it?" Zuko wanted to know, his touch never faltering as his fingers tightened, slid across silk, coaxed another shudder from Sokka's shoulders. He hardly noticed that the other's touch had stilled, a sort of focused determination entering his motions, and his other palm rubbed at his thigh, hungry to hear Sokka's voice again.

"Yes!" Sokka choked out, in a voice much more frantic than he'd originally intended. It was weird and almost uncomfortable but incredible at the same time and so very frustrating. With breath shuddering, he curled forward, falling onto one arm beside Zuko's head on the pillow. His lips stopped just a breath short of Zuko's, his panting cool compared to the other boy's heat. "Feels so good... I'm gonna go crazy..."

"You look... amazing," Zuko heard himself breathe, neck arching just enough to move his lips across Sokka's, a hot breath cast across Sokka's cheek. "I want... can I watch? Just a little?" he wondered, his free hand lifting to Sokka's shoulder, fingers ghosting down the length of his arm to find his wrist and guide him to Sokka's own trapped arousal, still swathed in damp silk.

Somehow Sokka managed to flush darker, sitting up again as Zuko guided his fingers over the tight strain of his arousal. He bit his lower lip lightly as he curled his grip around it, hips rocking faintly into his own touch. This was getting to be torture -- the fabric was starting to chafe and the way it rubbed against his tip when he stroked was agonizing. A quiet moan spilled from his lips, head tilting back this time while a bead of moisture pushed through the fine fabric, gathering on the now dark wetness that surrounded his weeping head.

"Yeah," Zuko murmured encouragingly, fingers grazing Sokka's knuckles, coaxing him to continue while his gaze shifted from Sokka's hand to his face and back again. He relished the clenching of his middle when the hiss of a moan slipped between Sokka's teeth and he managed mostly to ignore the growing throb of his own arousal as he watched Sokka pleasure himself.

"Nnnnngh..." Sokka shifted, squirming and effectively rubbing against Zuko beneath the falls of his dress. "Can I..." he panted, "Can I go underneath?" Cheeks and lips flushed, he met Zuko's gaze imploringly -- if he didn't get some real friction soon he was going to lose his mind.

"But you look so cute like this," Zuko teased, adopting once more the voice of the confident boyfriend he'd used during their day in the market. He was as flushed as Sokka himself, but grinning without subtlety. "All pink-cheeked and breathless..."

For a moment, Sokka got flustered and indignant, squirming angrily at being teased -- but then, he realized, two could play at that game. And he caught Zuko's eyes with his own hooded ones in sultry arousal and lifted a hand to brush his fingers across the other boy's lips, forcing him to breathe the scent of his need. His own lips parted, hair falling haphazardly in his eyes and chest heaving slowly, he purred, "Please touch me..."

It took a certain amount of self-control for Zuko to swallow back the urge to flip Sokka onto his back and do... well even more unspeakable things than they already were doing. Instead he circled Sokka's wrist gently, holding his fingers to his lips, kissed them once and again. "I couldn't stand all the men in the village looking at you," he breathed. "I knew they'd never be able to appreciate you." Another kiss and the tips of Sokka's fingers slipped between Zuko's lips, suckled lightly as he reached out to draw him closer with his other hand, just near enough to pull open the first knotted clasp at Sokka's hip.

Sokka managed to quiet himself enough to enjoy the moment and the other boy's words, lightly stroking at Zuko's tongue with a fingertip. "You seem to appreciate me pretty well though..." he murmured, lifting his other hand to sift his fingers through Zuko's hair.

Another stretch of fingers and another loosened fastening and the front of Sokka's dress fell loose, easily pushed aside over one thigh to leave him bare and exposed. Zuko kissed once more at Sokka's fingers and withdrew them from his mouth to grin up at him. "What's not to appreciate?" was his honest-sounding response.

The dark skinned boy snorted faintly then, smothering Zuko's face with a palm, to hide his own expression. "Now you're just trying to embarrass me," he grumbled.

Zuko chuckled. "Maybe," he admitted. "But it's not a lie when I say you're cute when you're embarrassed." He licked at Sokka's palm then, reaching out to brush teasing fingers across Sokka's flushed and dripping head, eyes on his face as he did so.

A delighted shiver ripped through Sokka's frame at that first flesh-on flesh contact --- the air alone was a blessing on his heated and suffocated nethers and his hips rocked sharply, Sokka biting his lower lip to keep back the whimper that wanted to spill forth. As it was, it was only muffled in his throat instead, preceding his breathless voice, "I... I'll be whatever you want me to be if you do that more..."

Zuko's grin grew hungrier as Sokka shuddered under his touch. He shouldn't like this, he knew. He should get so much pleasure out of seeing Sokka laid bare and begging before him. But he did. And it was strange, but not... somehow, unwelcome. "Anything?"

"That's what I said!" Sokka whined, feeling somewhat indignant at being asked twice. But he made an effort to soften, pouting heavily as his fingers brushed Zuko's wrist. "Please..."

Sokka's eyes, and the way he pleaded, lips full and neglected, were almost Zuko's undoing. He drew a breath, centered himself and smiled. "How could I say no to such a face?" he asked aloud, finally, finally, letting his finger slide up needy flesh, then, watching Sokka carefully, took him fully in hand, feeling his own cock throb in response. "What if I told you I just wanted you to be Sokka?"

The dark skinned boy moaned, unable to stop the sound when Zuko's hand curled around him in earnest and his thighs squeezed at Zuko's hips with the effort to be still. "W-what?" he asked, blue eyes hazy but it was evident that whatever Zuko wanted, he would get it.

Zuko reached up to take hold of Sokka's loosened collar, pulling him down, close enough breathe across his mouth, to take his lower lip and roll it just a little too hard between his teeth. "I don't have to worry about being too rough if you're just you," he explained, a quick stroke and a kiss to the side of Sokka's mouth let him know he wouldn't be cruel. Just... maybe a little less careful.

Desperate breaths beat against Zuko's lips, brushing lightly, wanting. "What, do you think all girls are delicate flowers?" he purred, almost growled against Zuko's mouth and groped at the front of the other boy's trousers roughly, giving him a squeeze.

"No, just you," Zuko chuckled, teasing with words, issuing an unspoken challenge while his hand never failed to move, sliding slick and warm around Sokka's arousal, thumb grazing less gently across his tip.

A groan faded into a long, frustrated whine and then Sokka's mouth was on his in a rough kiss that pressed Zuko into the pillows. The heel of his palm rubbed at Zuko's length through his clothes, fingers clumsy with attention stretched too thin. Between forcing his tongue into Zuko's mouth and the perfect roughness of his palm and the way his stomach fluttered and churned.

Zuko groaned appreciatively, his touch growing faster with the attention Sokka had begun to pay him and he shifted, enjoying the pleasant weight still pinning his thighs to the bed. He bit and licked at Sokka's mouth in between deep, but quiet moans. "Don't hold back," he breathed. The dark skinned boy smiled a pleased and breathless smile and then fabric was being tugged. And with a lazy sort of determination he started to stroke, slow and tight and attentive to every reaction he coaxed from Zuko as he tongued at his ear.

It was almost too much, but a few steady controlled breaths, and Zuko's eyes squeezed tight shut and he settled the surging sensation into something manageable, enjoyable, a slower build. "You-- you're a fast learner," he remarked breathlessly, fingers tightening on the deceptively lean muscle of Sokka's thigh.

"It's easy to tell what you want," came the smug whisper in Zuko's ear, followed by Sokka's tongue tracing all the way around it. He hooked an ankle at the other boy's calf, easing his thighs apart just a bit more. As much as he had enjoyed Zuko's attention all day, it was empowering to feel him shudder under Sokka's power, to taste the salt of his neck when teeth scraped there, nipped and sucked hard enough to leave marks that would hide under the falls of hair.

Zuko frowned at this announcement, squirmed at the touches that would leave marks, however hidden. "And what do I want?" he wondered, turned to catch Sokka's lip with his teeth before he could abuse the tender flesh beneath his ear again.

"Me," Sokka purred into the other boy's mouth, eyes smoldering like ice as he squeezed confidently at the base of his arousal.

"O-oh," Zuko answered, more groan than legitimate response. "Don't stop. Sokka..." He reached for Sokka's mouth again, kissing hungrily, pressing without subtlety into Sokka's grip.

"Mmm," he moaned quietly into Zuko's mouth, his own hips rocking again against Zuko's thigh with need and sympathy. Then he was shifting again, never letting his hand leave Zuko's hardness as he moved on top of him, straddling his lap. He groaned again as his own arousal brushed his occupied hand and Zuko's heat -- and in a moment of weakness and blinding desire, thinking only of friction, he shifted his grip, pressing his own length against Zuko's, pressing them both against the paler boy's stomach and rubbing them together. Breath shuddered, too desperate for sensation to really be embarrassed despite his flamingly pink cheeks.

If it had been good before, this could only be better and Zuko moved beneath him, arching his back as well as he could, desperate for sudden friction, for more of that touch of heat on heat, slick and hot and a little awkward but not enough to matter, to make it any less exactly right. "Yes," Zuko breathed, wanted to shout. "Don't you dare stop." He groaned, eyes hooded but still sharp, watching Sokka. His hands came to grip at Sokka's knees, grounding himself, demanding no hesitation.

Sokka whimpered faintly, though it wasn't a reluctant sound but rather under the power of sensation when Zuko's hips pressed up into his weight. Back to discovering and exploring and trying so hard to find something that worked, he fumbled under the wrinkled silk, sort of grinding against Zuko's lap while pressing himself down against the other boy's length. He could feel them both sliding under his hand, trapped against the tight, flat muscle of Zuko's stomach. It was slick with sweat and desire and only getting slicker by the moment. "Zuko..." he whispered, exposed thigh quivering, lips parted with heavy breath.

"Yeah," Zuko answered, licking his lips as hot breaths left his open mouth and his gaze darted from Sokka's face, to the curve of his shaking body and down, to where his hand covered them, teasing and coaxing as he felt for every sweet spot. "Feels... really good," he mumbled, barely enough spare thought process available for speech.

His sleeves were getting in the way and a frustrated sound whined in Sokka's throat as he fumbled to push them back with trembling hands. That frustration quickly spread to Zuko, and after a single attempt at helping the other boy with his sleeves, he frowned, reached up to grab for Sokka's hips and promptly dragged him down to the bed, rolling over to press him firm and pointedly onto his back and taking the place Sokka had occupied a moment earlier. With only the briefest of pauses, Zuko stared down at the boy beneath him, hungry and impatient. Then he lay himself out between Sokka's legs and propped one arm beside his head. "Sorry," he breathed, but he wasn't sorry at all when his weight was settled across Sokka's body and he began to grind against him in earnest.

"Oh god," Sokka gasped, hips arching into Zuko's, the added weight only making the sensation better. "Please..." Thighs spread wider, body arching, rocking into Zuko's rhythm. Finding his own hands suddenly free, he reached to the other boy's bared skin, close enough that he could slide his arms around his ribs. Blunt nails clutched at Zuko's back as they moved together, driven by need and instinct and panting lips reached wantingly for Zuko's, just barely out of reach.

They stayed like that, breathing each other's air, the occasional brush of mouths as they moved, frantic and hot and slick with perspiration and pleasure until Zuko began to shake, his head bowed and eyes closed tight as he fought back the inevitable wave of climax. "S-Sokka," he breathed, hissed through grit teeth. "I-- I'm-- I can't--"

"Yes --" Sokka panted back, a hand raking up Zuko's neck and into his hair, clutching at the sweaty strands. "I want it," he was begging, shuddering with the desire for Zuko to lose control. His own chest heaving, so close and so worked up -- heated and head spinning and focused on only Zuko Zuko Zuko -- "Please!"

Zuko shouted when he came, hard and shaking and Sokka's name on his tongue, in his head. Hips pressed Sokka into the bed, hard enough to bruise, and he didn't stop moving, though his motions came stilted and rough. He curled forward to press his face into the curve of Sokka's neck, his mouth on Sokka's shoulder, teeth scraping, muffling the moans that slid freely from his throat. "Oh gods, oh shit, oh..."

The younger of the pair was no more in control of his senses, one hand gripping hard at Zuko's hip and only forcing him rougher, yanking Zuko against him and struggling to keep pace. Head tossed back, he gasped for air in voiced cries, quivering and sweating and grabbing for more. The rushing, wet heat of Zuko's climax in the storm of his rough movement made Sokka gasp with delight. And before he could completely crash back down, he was dragging Zuko's mouth to his by his hair, frantic and demanding sounds muffled in that clumsy crush of mouths as he jerked, thrust up against the other boy, into the slick heat of his come between their still hard cocks. And with a sharp cry into Zuko's mouth, hips jumped hard from the mattress twice more before his own wet heat was pulsing between them and his nails were digging into Zuko's skin, frame shaking and sobs of pleasure muffled.

Zuko groaned, shivered as Sokka clung to him, kissed at his mouth, and reveled in the mess and the release and the way a sweet ache was already beginning to creep into his thighs and stomach, his arms gone shaky. So he allowed himself to collapsed completely, to cover Sokka's body with his own, his kisses turning to nudges at his throat. He wanted to say something, anything, but he couldn't quite muster the effort needed. And Sokka felt so good, body still shuddering occasionally, aftershocks still passing between them.

Trying to get his breath back, Sokka's fingers raked blindly through Zuko's hair, holding him close. His moans hadn't quite left him, though they were now reduced to quiet, satisfied breaths against Zuko's lips. He was nearly delirious when finally he found it in himself to push Zuko off so that he could pry off the very mussed and abused dress, leaving it in a pile on the floor and making him sigh with delight at the feeling of air on his naked, sweaty skin. He blew out the lamp and fell back into bed, instantly clinging to Zuko with incoherent mumbles in the dark. Nothing mattered at that moment except wrapping himself around Zuko and soaking in afterglow and exhaustion and sleep.

It was a determination that Zuko was only too happy to share, and he found his own arm circling Sokka's shoulders without any conscious thought. Nothing, he thought in that moment, could feel as good as this. Except perhaps the sleep that was already tugging insistently at his limbs. "Mm," he mumbled into Sokka's hair, a sound which may have meant 'good-night'.

 

Chapter Text

It was very warm. And kind of... well, sticky really... But there was a sense that the air outside the blankets was cool morning air. There was something all but coiled around Zuko's body as sleep started to fade and it was keeping him hot and sweaty. When he tried to move, it coiled around him tighter and whined. When he finally fought his eyes open, he was accosted by the sight of what had to be a monster resting on his chest, hair a ratty, tangled mop and face smeared with black. It was drooling on him.

Zuko groaned, nose wrinkled in sleepy distaste at the sensation of pooled saliva. When he blinked fully awake, recognition finally hit and his stomach flopped over as he remembered the night before. Briefly, he wondered if it wouldn't just be possible to go back to sleep and wait for Sokka to wake up first, let him roll out of bed and act like nothing had happened. But there was little chance of this, not with his torso in the vice-like grip of Sokka's arms and the drool beginning to drip into his armpit. "Sokka," he hissed, pushing at the other's shoulders. "Sokka! Ugh..."

The sleeping monster grumbled with irritation but blearily opened its eyes, looking up into Zuko's with an unpleasant morning grouchiness and seemed not to recognize what he was looking at. But then suddenly those bleary eyes snapped open and Zuko felt Sokka's entire body stiffen and he reeled away, barely managing not to go careening off the edge of the bed. "S-sorry," was all he managed to mutter, hurrying to mop at Zuko's damp chest with the sheet before he scrambled out of bed. It took him another beat to realize he was completely naked and then he snatched the top blanket off the bed to cover himself as he made a dash for the washroom, mumbling incoherent things. The old, caked and smeared make up did little to hide the deep red his face took on as he snapped the door shut behind him.

Despite the awkward and vaguely disgusting state in which Zuko found himself, he couldn't help but smirk a little when Sokka left the room in such a fluster. He sat up then, stretched, sighed and looked out the window at the rising sun, still barely above the rooftops of the little town.

Twenty minutes later Sokka still had not emerged. Zuko had to pee.

He knocked, a quick rap of knuckles against wood. "You okay?" he called through the door.

"H-huh?" came the muffled reply from the other side. "Y-yeah, I'm fine. I'm -- just gonna take a shower, then it's all yours..."

Zuko sighed faintly, but turned from the door to take in the room's state of disarray: the clothing on the floor, the wrinkled sheets. Casually pulling on the pants he'd worn the day before, Zuko set to straightening up, waiting to hear the shower start before he set aside his task and returned to the washroom door. He pondered why, exactly, he'd decided last night to lay down the cash for a room with private plumbing. Again he knocked on the door. "I'm coming in," he announced, pushing the door open as he spoke.

"What?" Zuko caught one quick glimpse of Sokka before the shower curtain was yanked quickly to cover his peeking face. In the shelter of the shower, Sokka let the water drip over his face, willing his heart to stop racing. "W-what's up?" He tried to sound casual.

"Sorry," Zuko answered and shrugged, equally casual, but much more genuinely so. "Gotta pee." He smirked a little and wondered at how relaxed he felt given the circumstances and given Sokka's evident discomfort. "No peeking.”

"Ha-ha," was Sokka's nervous attempt at a response, feeling very weird as he listened to Zuko pee. "I-I'll be out in just a minute. Sorry for being such a chick with the bathroom." The moment the words left his mouth, he inwardly groaned. WHY, Sokka, WHY?

To Zuko's credit, he took the high road and ignored the potential tease Sokka had so nicely set up, instead chuckling a little and answering, "Hey, no problem. Take your time."

"Thanks," Sokka mumbled, his forehead pressed against the tile wall. When he finally emerged, hair pulled back for the day, he had a towel tightly wrapped around his waist. "All yours." He offered Zuko the quickest smile in the history of smiles before he started going through their packs in search of his normal clothes. Even if he'd wanted to play dress up again, the dress wasn't exactly in wearable condition.

For just a moment, Zuko's gaze lingered on Sokka's shower pink, damp form, slightly curled shoulders. Then he coughed, returning the smile with one that lasted a bit longer and headed toward the bathroom. "I'll just be a few," he promised. "Then we can finish our shopping."

When Zuko returned, Sokka was the Sokka that he faced every day, if a little more nervous looking. He was wrestling on his boots and steadfastly avoiding looking up when he heard the door open.

"You never appreciate real showers until you live in a broken down air temple where indoor plumbing was, apparently, forbidden," Zuko chuckled, rubbing briskly at his damp hair with both hands, fluffing it into something bordering on ridiculous.

"Bathing is too lavish for monks," Sokka managed his first joke of the day as he adjusted the guards on his boots. Then glancing up, he couldn't help but laugh out loud.

"What?" Zuko blinked, hand pausing in it's motion. Then his eyes turned upward and he smirked faintly. "Oh you think I look funny, do you? Bet we could make your hair do even stupider things."

"My hair looks great no matter what I do with it," Sokka shot back haughtily.

A spark took Zuko's eyes and he stepped closer. "Oh really? Want me to test that theory?"

Sokka looked up and eyes widened, cheeks flushing at the sight of the other boy advancing on him and wearing nothing but a towel slinging low on his hips. He hurried to look away and then duck around to put something in his bag. "O-okay, you're right -- I wake up with terrible bed-head--"

Zuko flopped easily down onto the bed beside him, glancing curiously down at the other's bag. He didn't ask, but he did tilt forward until he'd caught Sokka's eye again. "We were both kind of a mess this morning, huh?" he smirked mischievously, again surprising himself with what a pleasant mood he'd found himself in.

Sokka only flushed darker, nearly crimson and he rubbed at the back of his neck uncomfortably. "That was really stupid of me, falling asleep with all that... stuff on my face. Sorry for being so gross."

Zuko scoffed, waving off Sokka's apology. "Believe me, I've seen scarier things."

"Heh," was all Sokka could muster, moving to peek out the tiny window in the small room, getting as far from the half-naked boy as he could manage. "So groceries and home?"

"Yeah, of course.” Zuko's eyes followed him across the room, frowning a little. "Sokka?" he risked. "You... okay?"

Sokka tensed visibly at the question, glancing over his shoulder at Zuko briefly before back out the window. His frame was hunched. "I... I don't know," he admitted and forced down a swallow. "Last night was... really messed up."

"Oh..." Zuko replied, hesitated, some of his good cheer fading a little. "I didn't... you know... hurt you or anything, right?"

"Huh? No. It's just -- it's like -- it was my first time having sex. And it was with a guy. And I was in -- in a -- DRESS -- and it was AMAZING," Sokka started ranting, rubbing at a temple. "That's really messed up. I mean, that's like -- the kind of thing you do with somebody after you're like... married FOREVER! You don't do crazy whacko perverted stuff on your first time! How is anything else going to ever be as good!?"

Zuko blinked, opened his mouth to reply, then closed it again, threading his fingers through his hair. He frowned. "I guess... it's a little weird... but... you know, I mean it's not like... I'm the only person who'll... ever want to do... weird things with you. Or whatever." He shrugged, sighing when Sokka's discomfort began to rub off on him despite his best efforts to remain cheerful. "Whatever, right? It's no big deal."

The silence that descended then was heavy. Sokka glanced up, his stomach bottoming out as Zuko looked away from the eye contact that had been denied to him all morning. "I... I guess," was the best Sokka could come up with for a long moment. He plucked at the edge of his tunic and recalled the words murmured between them the night before, in the moments that temptation and desire warred with chastity and morality. The promise that it was only a game, letting Sokka pretend that it wasn't him and Zuko doing things he never would have normally done. At the time, the promise seemed like the perfect solution. The ultimate flaw was the fact that, though he may have been playing at someone else, the memories were fresh in his mind and the faint, pleasant ache of his body only served to reinforce them. "It really was good," he mumbled at length.

"Yeah," Zuko answered, "It really was." A lingering awkwardness hung between them then as neither knew how to --or if they even should-- continue the conversation. Finally Zuko coughed and stood, stretching before he crossed to the corner where his own satchel lay. He dressed quickly in Haru's borrowed clothing and shot Sokka a smile as he slung his re-packed bag over one shoulder. "Ready to shop?"

Sokka found it a somewhat surreal experience to tread back through the town that he had wandered the day before attached to Zuko's arm. He caught himself walking too closely as they stepped onto the cobblestones and quickly made sure to keep a more appropriate amount of space between them. As they entered the marketplace, there were no glances or smiles tossed his way, no greedy girls giving him catty looks. In their plain traveling clothes, shopkeepers barely gave them a second thought since they looked like they had no money. Zuko was not called at to buy something nice for his date, no cajoling or waggled brows or subtly suggestive comments about the attractive and well dressed young couple.

The grocery shopping was as boring as it was awkward. Sokka found himself blushing when their hands brushed while picking out fruit or Zuko pressed lightly against him in a crowded shop to avoid bumping into a stranger. After the previous day, haggling over a sack of rice hardly seemed worth the effort and reminded him of the delicate stone earrings that were now safely tucked away in his bag.

He shared a glance with Zuko and offered a sheepish, almost apologetic sort of grin to the other boy as he tucked the rice under his arm. "Even food can't really compare to the shopping we did yesterday, huh?"

Zuko returned his look with one that seemed vaguely guilty, as though Sokka had caught him thinking something similar, had read his thoughts. He smiled, if a bit sheepishly. "Shopping for necessity is never as exciting as shopping for fun," Zuko agreed. He was torn between relief that they were no longer drawing attention and disappointment that once more, he was a simple, poor commoner. "But... at least we'll be eating more than fruit and nuts, right?"

"Yeah." Sokka made a concerted effort to coax some of his usual, cool cockiness into his voice. "I guess being a hero isn't always fun."

"Maybe not, but sometimes for men like you and me, it's a burden we must bear," Zuko spoke with mock severity, a hand on his chest. He almost seemed to be trying to make a joke.

Sokka grinned at him with a silence that lasted just a little too long. Then a cough. "So, what else is on the list?"

They crossed in front of the crafter's stalls on the way to the butcher and both boys were startled when a merchant called out at them for the first time.

"Hey there, boy!" It was the jeweler from whom they'd purchased the earrings. "What happened to the lovely lady you had on your arm yesterday? I'd so hoped you'd stop by again."

They froze, staring. Sokka glanced at Zuko's blank face, then back at the jeweler. Then, he shrugged and slid his arm under Zuko's elbow. "He decided to trade her in for me. My sister's not really his type." His heart raced but he smirked when Zuko's glance jerked his way.

It took only a short awkward pause before Zuko recovered, trading his blinking confusion for a sly smirk. His arm slid easily around Sokka's shoulders and they shared a grin before he turned his attention to the jeweler. "What can I say?" he shrugged. "All the exotic looks of the girl, but a total tigerwolf in bed."

The choke that Sokka was barely able to hold back matched the expression on the jeweler's face – a mix of horror and shock. The only difference was the laughter that threatened to erupt from Sokka's throat. "Thanks for the earrings!" he called, offering a wave to the sputtering merchant as he steered Zuko away with a hand on the other's back. Only when they were completely out of earshot did Sokka let that laugh burst from his lungs, leaning heavily into Zuko in his mirth. "Oh MAN!"

"Did you see the look on his face?" Zuko choked in return, grin wide enough to make his cheeks ache. "Absolutely brilliant." His grip on Sokka's shoulders loosened a bit, but instead of pulling away, he offered a companionable slap to Sokka's back. "We make a pretty good team, hm?"

Sokka laughed again, easing away comfortably, rather than as if burned and the grin didn't fade from his face. "Yeah. Guess we do." He felt the tension between them starting to melt, little by little and found it in himself to bump his shoulder into Zuko lightly. "Let's get this over with so we can get back to that crappy hideout."

The remainder of the morning was considerably more pleasant after that point. Grocery shopping still wasn't the most fun chore but at least their next stop was the butcher. Zuko teased his companion as Sokka salivated at the sight of fresh cuts of meat and managed to talk him down from purchasing an entire boar to roast that evening.

The hike back to Appa's resting spot was a long, uphill trek which seemed three times as long when they were laden with groceries. When they finally arrived and loaded the saddle, both boys were exhausted and sweaty from working under the warm afternoon sun. When Appa's course was set and the coast was fully clear, the ocean stretching forever beneath them, Sokka joined Zuko in the saddle, flopping down beside the other boy. He untied his hair to let the wind rake through it, sighing happily as the air cooled his skin.

A long moment passed in silence and whipping wind, almost comfortable. Sokka stretched, back arching and arms raised, then sank back into the weathered leather of the saddle. "Thanks," he finally said, just loud enough to keep his voice from being stolen by the velocity of their travel. "For everything."

"You don't need to thank me," Zuko said, but he was smiling, if not quite looking at Sokka. "I-- had a good time."

"Yeah." Sokka let his head fall back against the rim of the saddle and let the sun beat on his face. Then he snickered, an almost rueful sound. "I'm not sure the dress is salvageable." Thinking back on the day and night before made his stomach churn with guilt and a lingering, shameful sense of arousal. He probably shouldn't have even mentioned it -- let it go unspoken of ever again, never EVER let Suki or his sister find out and chalk it up to the undeniability of teenage hormones. But he couldn't just leave it be, somehow, like a healing cut that itched. He wanted to talk about it, to think back on what Zuko felt like and tasted like and tease him for the face he made when Sokka had touched him just so.

And though Zuko didn't say as much, the glint in his eye, the faint quirk of his mouth and the way he leaned back against the edge of the saddle, casual, but maybe trying just a little too hard -- all of that added up to maybe, just maybe suggest that his thoughts ran along similar lines. Perhaps he wanted to talk about it too, maybe to tease Sokka in kind, for the sounds he'd made or the way he'd blushed so pink. And maybe he understood too, that it wasn't something for anyone else to know but them. Perhaps he should have laughed and nodded and let it lie. Instead he caught Sokka's gaze, reigned in a smile and said, "We can always buy a new dress."

Blue eyes blinked at him for a long moment and Sokka felt his cheeks heat the way they'd been doing the entire day before. He felt his heart thunder, chest tighten with an unbidden inkling of hope. All at the thought that Zuko might want to do that with him again. "M...maybe," he managed and looked away, embarrassed. He swallowed, leaned back against the leather again. "Who knows what will happen after the war?"

"R-right," Zuko laughed, made just a little awkward by Sokka's embarrassment. "Um, if things work out... I mean, in the war-- well, there's lots of great shopping in the Fire Nation. Especially when you aren't having to worry about being caught. I mean-- caught by Fire Nation soldiers."

"Yeah." Sokka smiled a little and closed his eyes. In the brief silence that followed, he felt tired, the complete exhaustion of their nocturnal activities having settled in his muscles. The breeze eased his tension and he made sure his eyes remained shut as he moved just a little closer to Zuko, until their shoulders touched.

"Why don't you get a little sleep?" Zuko murmured, leaning a little nearer in turn. Sokka could feel his warmth where their arms touched. "I'll wake you when we're close."

"Mm..." Sokka sighed faintly, a smile still tugging at his mouth. "That does sound nice..." He slit his eyes open enough to glance once at Zuko and then he was leaning in earnest against the warmth of his frame, arm to arm and head hovering above his shoulder when Sokka closed his eyes again. It was innocent enough, he rationalized, just a little bit of physical comfort...

Zuko hesitated only a moment before slipping an arm around Sokka's shoulders. There was a small intake of breath as though he were about to speak, to say something more, but then nothing was forthcoming and after a moment, Sokka could feel him relax. Sokka himself didn't relax quite as quickly but slowly he sank into the pleasant warmth of Zuko's body, resting against him as he had so often the day before. He was almost able to convince himself that the contact was purely platonic, just a friend offering his arm to allow him better sleep. And telling himself this, he let his head come to rest on Zuko's shoulder. It took him a long time to fall asleep, feeling Zuko breathe and soaking in his warmth as the air that had been so pleasantly cooling now chilled his skin just a bit.

One last bit of contact before things would really and truly go back to normal. Whatever lingered the day after of their game would be snuffed out when Appa landed and they were again surrounded by friends and responsibilities and pressures. It was perhaps this thought that made Sokka squeeze in closer still, pressing against Zuko's side in such a fashion that stretched the label of 'platonic'. Later, there would be a war to fight and logistics to be planned and girlfriends and parents and the whole world to be saved. But just then, for just a little bit longer, the world had filtered down to warmth and comfort and the whipping breeze and Zuko's smell when he pressed his cheek, just slightly, into the curve of his neck. For just a little while longer they could both pretend and forget and enjoy this brief period of comfort, of contentment. And with this in mind, Sokka was able to drift into a light sleep.