One of the servants came to get him on the fourth morning, hovering in the opening of his tent as he sat waiting for Zuko to arrive for breakfast, trying to think of funny things to say when he eventually showed up.
Sokka glanced up, already mourning the train of thought he lost, figuring that he might have finally thought of something good before getting interrupted.
“Uh, I don’t think Firelord Zuko will be coming to eat today.”
He’d known Zuko long enough to know he was an early riser, to know that he should have been up before him, should have been sitting fully dressed across from him by now, sipping his morning tea and making dry comments about his clothes. And for lack of him, something dark in his belly swirled like a bad omen come overdue. He found himself up and brushing past the servant before he could let the thought take form, marching out into the camp, towards Zuko’s tent, refusing to hesitate, refusing to let whatever menacing thing that had been churning in his belly all morning derail him. Instead he threw open the canvas tent flap and strode into Zuko’s tent with his chest puffed out, trying to feel bold and not even a little bit afraid, not even a little bit wary of something he couldn’t name.
“Hey, asshole,” he started talking loud like he could drown out the niggling voice that told him something was wrong, “its fucking morning.”
For days now they’d been moving steadily through the mountains, to the far reaches of Southern Water Tribe territory, in and out of valleys, alongside the frozen rivers and forests heavy with snow. Sokka had made it out to his advisors like it was some sort of diplomatic tour, him and the Firelord ambling around the wilderness for a couple weeks, “securing favor with the Fire Nation,” he’d said. He remembered feeling clever, thinking it was a pretty good plan, knowing that the only point of the trip was that it was a trip. All it was, all it had to be, was a few weeks of not having to talk about the government. No trade, no alliances, no grievances, just a full trip of eating breakfast with Zuko, drinking in the evenings, trading stories of their least liked colleagues, of their most public fuck-ups, both of them empty of titles, empty of grief, happily vacationing together in the snow.
And Zuko had agreed to the plan in exactly the way Sokka had known he would, writing back to him a week later, I’ll be there in a month, make arrangements. It had felt like a victory even then, reading the letter over and over, feeling almost stupid with delight, counting down the days. He’d buzzed while he’d waited, so excited to spend a few weeks failing to meet each day, no new deadlines, no new problems needing to be solved, no new complaints, so used to spending his days fending off issue after issue, always on his heels. At least here he could just spend some time with an old friend, with someone who knew him well, that needed no favor, owed no debts or vice versa, laughing at his jokes from across a dinner table, eyes all a-glimmer in the candlelight, dark hair tucked behind his ears.
Zuko barely moved at his arrival.
Buried beneath his covers, no part of him showing, he hardly seemed to shift with his own breathing. And Sokka couldn’t maintain his own momentum looking at him, empty of courage the moment he stepped inside, suddenly feeling too loud, too clumsy, worry twinging in his chest. He found himself creeping around the bed with anxiety knotted in his belly, so used to seeing him always so pristine, always up early, hair combed, clothes perfect, Firelord Zuko wafting around camp, sharpening his swords with a snarl. But now he wasn’t even rising to greet him, didn’t even seem to know he was there, curled up in a ball on the bed, nose tucked into his covers, and Sokka could only stand over him, rubbing at his chest like he could still feel Zuko’s shoulder there.
Sokka had been pointing out the landscape as they’d walked along together, explaining how he’d loved it here when he was a kid, tagging along on hunting trips, learning to see the tracks left by animals in the snow and stand downwind from the dear. All he’d heard was a breathless swear before Zuko’s knees had seemed to buckle beneath him and he fell sideways, knocking against his chest. Fear had burst through him in an instant, around his throat like a choke hold, yelping as his arms had jerked out to catch him, pulled against his chest in a panic.
“Sorry,” Zuko’s voice had been breathless, eyes distant, hand fisted in his coat, “I-I just felt lightheaded for a second.” For a moment they’d just stood there in the snow with their arms around each other, his heart still pounding, but eventually, Zuko had patted his chest and narrowed his eyes, “Yeah, you can let go of me now, idiot.” Sokka had snapped backwards, hands raised, face hot, knowing that he wanted to hold him and make sure he was okay, but never sure how many cards he could show before things got weird.
All the way back to camp he’d wanted so badly to touch him, to reach out pull his arm over his shoulders and make sure he was okay, to offer his hands, his spine, offering body parts as though he could only care for him through the tips of his fingers. Instead he’d kept his hands to himself, walking just close enough to catch him if he fell, knowing that he had old wounds in him, old wounds always on the verge of reopening, always thinking of those warfare years, the blows they’d all taken as kids, close shave after close shave. And now he was haunted by those moments, by the scars they shared, by who he’d been then, the mistakes he could have made, haunted by his weight in his arms, wanting to touch him, just to make sure he was still there, that things were different now.
But he’d said he was fine. He’d said he was fine each time Sokka asked, said he was fine even when Sokka noticed his hand shaking beneath the table at dinner, said he was fine even when Sokka pointed out that he’d barely eaten, of course by then he’d actively switched to telling him to fuck off. Sokka had watched him from across the table with unease settled in his stomach, feeling as though he should have been able to do something, should have had some action to perform, something to offer, anything. Instead he’d drunk alone when Zuko retired early, gazing at the seat he’d vacated, thinking again of that closeness, the weight of him in his arms, the fear that had coursed through him, still heavy in his belly.
He’d decided to drink until bed, just to avoid having to contemplate it.
But he could see now that he’d waited too long to worry about him, to go looking for him, gazing at his face as he knelt by the bed like he could will him awake, like he’d wake up and everything would be fine and they’d be back to enjoying their holiday and he’d be okay. But even then, he was still calculating how quickly he could get him to a healer, if he could ride with Zuko in his lap, how quickly he could get them going if he was sick, knowing that he’d carry him on his back if necessary, if it would just get rid of the darkness in his stomach.
“Hey,” his voice came out of him small, reaching out to shake his shoulder, feeling all indelicate and clumsy, “Hey Zuko, wake up,” he didn’t, not even when Sokka shook him harder, feeling desperate and no longer in control, fear in his throat, so afraid he wouldn’t wake up, that something was really wrong with him, “Please, man, you’re scaring me.”
Zuko was barely responsive, but he stirred, just a little, his eyes squeezing closed, complexion pale, seeming to bury down deeper into the blankets with his eyebrows furrowed.
“Fuck off, Sokka.” His voice was a weak whisper, breathless between the words as though it took great effort to force them out of his mouth, exhausted by the act of it, a hand appearing from the blankets to swat him away like he was a fly. Sokka caught it, held onto it as if he just needed something to hold on to, some part of him that he could keep from receding back into sleep. Zuko’s skin was dangerously cold and Sokka felt his heart leap into his throat, so cold that he almost felt like marble, the tips of his fingers so cold they were like glass, as though he was slowly turning to steel, freezing beneath his blankets.
Sokka felt his grip tighten before he could help himself, panic rearing through him, realization hitting him smack in the forehead.
“Is that what this is?” He whispered, holding onto him with both hands, hand pulled to his chest, “Zuko, are you fucking cold?”
Zuko didn’t respond, couldn’t respond, nothing like himself and empty of conviction, weak-willed and distant, trying to tug his hand back with no sort of strength, and Sokka just held on to him tighter, feeling panicky and uniquely unqualified, holding on to him like if he let go he’d slip beneath the blankets and never reemerge. All he could do was hold the hand he was given, bringing it to his lips and blowing warm air onto his frozen skin.
He’d seen this happen before, knew how bad it could get, knew the shake of breath, the flushed cheeks, heartbeat going slow and sluggish, fingers cold and clumsy, unable to get out of bed, every limb going leaden, mind going blank. And now that he thought about it, these past couple days had been cold, pretty cold. Now that he thought about it, he hadn’t checked Zuko’s clothes, hadn’t offered him any extra layers, knowing that he favored silk rather than fur, probably not enough blankets, not compared to what he was used to.
And he cursed himself for it, rubbing Zuko’s hand between his own as though if he could just warm up this one part of him, he might become himself again, all full of rage and conviction, put together so perfectly, never unraveled, never unclear, always just himself.
He couldn’t understand how he hadn’t been able to see it, how he’d been so distracted, almost neglectful, so distracted by the absence of work in his thoughts, by the ease of travel that he hadn’t seen the shiver until it was too late. How he could have been so distracted by him, by his presence at his table, by the sharpness of his laugh, canines curling out of his mouth as he smiled, leaning down on the back of his wrist and sipping his drink, so distracted that he hadn’t noticed that he was waning, too cold for too long, still human, still delicate.
It was a failure and for a moment all he could do was sit kneeling by the bed with his fingers in his hands, holding him as though it was a prayer, mind racing, thinking about all the things he was going to do, all the things that would need to be done, how far he’d go to fix this. He found himself reaching out before he could stop himself, his mouth pressed to the back of Zuko’s hand, reaching out as if to comfort himself just by touching him. He stroked the back of his knuckles down his cheek, over the rippled skin of his scar down to the corner of his mouth, touching him with all the tenderness his could manage, desperate to have something to offer, even if all he had was clumsy gentleness.
Zuko didn’t even have the energy to bat him away.
Most times it felt good to be reduced down to fifteen next to him, to forget his age, forget his responsibilities, the expectations ever-present on his shoulders. It felt good to look across and see Zuko as he could have been, as they could have been then, two kids laughing as they ate, forgetting diplomacy for a moment, reclaiming the youth they’d lost. It felt good to be fifteen and stupid, stupid with him, with his dry jokes and his eyes always on him, watching him as Sokka would pour him another drink, midway through some rambling joke, thoughtless together.
But now, he’d do anything to feel clever. He do anything to feel wise, to feel as though he was confident in his answers, rushing around camp with his own bedclothes in his arms, a few of his good, heavy cloth tunics, calling for tea, for soup, his voice shrill, the servants rushing around behind him as though his panic was contagious. He found himself almost wishing that Katara was here, knowing that she’d know what to do, would have had all the good answers, her hands on his hips and her voice firm. But instead, all Zuko had was him, him who hadn’t noticed, hadn’t insisted, hadn’t checked to be certain, hadn’t thought of his welfare just as long as he kept eating at his table and letting him tell his stupid fucking jokes.
He knew, intellectually, that this was okay, that he could manage this, that he knew what to do, what moves to make, knowing that he’d need to get warmer, not too fast and not to slow, knew that he’d need to eat eventually, would need rest, lots of rest, tea to keep sickness at bay, whatever.
But it felt different when it was Zuko, Zuko who he’d known for years, his closest ally, his closest friend. It felt different when his heart still pounded every time Zuko’s hand brushed his own as they walked together, sending him away just so that Zuko would smile and embrace him when they met again after weeks apart. He remembered years ago in some darkened drawing room, half drunk and barely awake, watching his hands as they unpinned his hair, his arms raised and his back turned, dark hair slipping down around his shoulder, and he remembered identifying that feeling for the first time, knowing that there was something wrong with him and it was the sort of thing people had written poems about. And he’d been stuck with it ever since, knowing that something in him saw Zuko and loved him and made up excuses to spend time with him.
But now, like this, he could only feel uncertain, inadequate, could only feel as though to care for him would show his hand, would make everything clear, every quiet, patient feeling, every daft excuse and limitless delight. He knew in his belly that he’d been feeling that delight for years but it still felt strange to have to think it, quietly guided by that part of him that was blind to the limitations, to the doomed trajectory, so delighted that someone like Zuko could simply exist, someone as delightfully imperfect as him, making dry comments as he stirred his tea, dressed in silk in the South Pole and still looking just right, snarling proverbs when he was annoyed.
He’d figured then that he’d ask for no more than this, than trips into the wilderness and sitting together at diplomatic meetings, slinking into each other’s accommodations to drink and giggle about the missteps of their counterparts, learning to risk nothing, not with something so valuable to him. But he’d die before he let Zuko know that.
Even so, he couldn’t not care for him, couldn’t send someone in his place, not with the worry growing like weeds in his ribs, it had to be him, knowing that Zuko was his friend, his responsibility, his failure among dozens.
When he stepped back into Zuko’s tent, he’d told the servants that he didn’t want to be disturbed, that he’d call for food when it was time and they’d let him go with the promise of good-natured gossip, fastening the tent flap behind him with blankets shoved under his arm and tension in his stomach. He turned towards the bed to find Zuko looking back at him, standing in the middle of the floor with his hands on his elbows and his eyes unfocused, shivering in his nightclothes, linen. It was the South Pole, and he wore fucking linen, and it wasn’t charming anymore, not when it was causing him such harm.
“What is wrong with you, asshole?” His voice was harsh, stressed like they were back in wartimes, “Go back to bed.”
And he should have had something harsh to say in return, should have snarled, said something irritated, returned the blow, but he didn’t, couldn’t.
“Sokka,” Zuko barely got to the end of his name before his eyes rolled up into the back of his head and his knees buckled, unable to hold his own weight. And Sokka could only throw the bundle in his arms to the ground and dive towards him, anything to keep him from the floor, from cracking his head against the furniture, whatever. And for the second time that morning he found himself on his knees, Zuko heavy in his arms, head on his shoulder, his breathing shallow and body cold, wracked with shivers against his chest.
“T-There,” his voice was weak, stuttering even though Sokka had never heard him do that before, hand pressed into his stomach, “there is something wrong with me.” And for a moment Sokka just held him, both of them on the floor, his heart still beating all the way to his ears and the tips of his fingers, knowing that it shouldn’t have been him, it should have been anyone but him.
“Yeah,” he answered, voice soft, “I noticed.”
Eventually he managed to haul him back to bed, limp in his arms as Sokka dragged him back to his own pillows, not sure what had inspired him to get out up in the first place, cursing the whole way like he could distract from the way his hands were shaking. He sat Zuko among the blankets and didn’t give himself time to think about it before he began pulling the linen over his head, ignoring the way it felt all wrong to do so, tossing it away with misery so steady in him it was like a boulder heavy on his chest.
And he figured it was probably good that Zuko was so out of it, that he probably wouldn't notice the way Sokka refused to look at him, refused to watch his skin prickle in the cold, knowing that he was still all lithe and lean like he always had been, built from porcelain, almost moonlike filtered light. He couldn’t look at him, not when he was like this, not when it felt so much like taking advantage, looking at him and knowing that something in him burned at the sight, obsessed with the faint freckles over his shoulders, all those lovely sharp lines. He couldn’t look at him, couldn’t let his hands linger, so instead he cursed and pushed one of his good wooden tunics over his head and down his shoulders, Zuko blearily threading his arms through the sleeves, unaware of it all, bringing the fabric to his nose as Sokka pulled it down his sides.
“This smells like you,” he said, voice slow, looking up at him as though voicing a grievance, eyebrows furrowed as though he couldn’t understand it, unable to see all the ways this situation was absolutely fucking him over.
“Yeah, well, it’s all we’ve got so don’t get greedy.”
His voice was still harsh, his stomach still doing flips, his cheeks still hot, not sure he was emotionally ready for this, if he could take it. And god, he wished Katara was here. She would have made it simple, made it easy, stripped of any pretense, crawling into bed with him like it was military tactic, full of that dogged determination of hers.
Zuko just blinked at him, fabric still over his nose, gazing up at him through his eyelashes, made slow and defenseless by the cold, shivering still and Sokka could only force a sigh out through his nose at the sight, knowing that he was so easily taken out at the knees, not sure what to do with the thought, rubbing at his face.
“Lie down, asshole,” he said, tone defeated, “get some rest.” He could do nothing to make this feel better, easier, but Zuko lay down when he asked, eyes slipping closed as Sokka pulled the blankets over him, the furs he’d taken from his own bed, linens that had fallen to the floor, organizing insulation like it might be enough. It wasn’t, he knew it wasn’t, having lived in this place all his life, knowing the protocol like the back of his hand, knowing exactly how to put someone back together when they came apart like this, knowing that they had been built to share warmth, that they were designed for it.
But it was still harder than it should have been to slip off his shoes and into bed with him, knowing that if Zuko had been Water Tribe he would have understood, would have known that it was just what people did, that to fold his body against Zuko’s was old and sacred practice, his arms slipping around him, hands finding his hands, knees tucked togethers like traditional prayer.
Zuko didn’t even still, didn’t stiffen, just leant back against his chest and hummed distantly, as though he couldn’t feel Sokka’s heart pounding or the misery in his belly, trying to convince himself that he’d understand, that he wouldn’t see the devotion in the act. He could only hope that Zuko wouldn’t see him offering everything he had to give if he would just become himself again, warmth and contact and care, love and honesty even when he lied so often, all the while hoping that Zuko wouldn’t understand what it meant that he was ready to give it all away.
Instead he was stuck with the chatter of his own mind, cursing himself for wanting this, for always waiting for the next opportunity to touch him even if it made his heart race, even if it meant nothing, knowing that he held him now for no other purpose than to keep him warm. Holding him was a practice of care, was a millennium of his ancestors singing through his skin, knowing to hold loved things when they were cold, all the bedding heaped upon a single bed and arms wrapped around him. He could only hold him while he slept, breathing in the smell of woodsmoke always in his hair, refusing to step any further, holding his freezing hands and trying to think nothing but that it was good, this it what he wanted, to hold him and for him to be warm. That was all.
But for lack of good answers, he lay awake all morning while Zuko slept, lulled by the sound of his breathing, by the feeling of his fingers growing warm in his hands, stuck with his own sense of defeat, knowing that he was going to be stuck remembering this each time they saw each other, stuck remembering what it had felt like to be close to him, his weight against his chest.
It took Zuko hours to wake up, nose tucked into Sokka’s chest having turned over in his sleep, recovering slowly, forehead rested against his collarbones, and Sokka listened to his breathing change and hitch as he began to muscle towards the surface, sighing as he woke, stretching out his legs and shifting towards consciousness. And he waited, waited for Zuko to wake up and push him back, flinch away from him when he found himself in Sokka’s arms, unable to understand that he hadn’t wanted this, that he’d made his peace with the distance between them, hadn’t lain himself down beside him because he was greedy but because he’d every single fiber of his being had told him to. Every part of him was built to hold him and go looking for him when he didn’t come for breakfast, listening to his breathing, always wanting to be near to him, but he’d never say it aloud, not with so much at stake.
Instead, Zuko just leant back, hands fisted in his shirt, squinting up at him as though he was barely out of the haze of sleep. Sokka peered down at him and Zuko gazed back, still a little dazed, always looking a little annoyed right after waking, at his scruffiest, no silks, no jewels, no daggers with golden hilts, nothing but himself and his own vague irritation.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” He murmured, eyebrows furrowed, voice gruff, “I knew it was you.” Sokka blinked at him, then blinked again.
“I’m not- I’m not looking at you like anything.”
Zuko squinted at him, silent for a moment while he processed the answer, still slow and pliant with sleep, empty of flinches, no part of him stiff, comfortable in his arms. He was comfortable in his arms. The thought was hypnotizing to him.
“Whatever,” Zuko muttered eventually, eyes drifting, one hand leaving Sokka’s chest so that he could rub it over his face, barely awake. But he shivered and Sokka caught it, had been watching for it. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice, wasn’t going to fail again, not when he’d already risked so much to get him to this point, already pulling the blankets back around him, up around his shoulders.
“Hey, are you cold? You gotta tell me if you’re cold.”
In a half second Zuko went stiff in his arms, eyes snapping to his face, zeroing in on him like he was a bird of prey spotting a rodent in the tall grass, something sharp in his gaze like he could see him clearly, saw all of him clearly, but couldn’t quite identify what it was in his eyes.
“Sokka, are you-” he cut himself off, eyes flickering, gaze narrow and sharp, “I think you’re in love with me.”
And Sokka went completely fucking still.
Zuko had the audacity not to even praise it as a question, hold firm on his shirt like he was making certain that he couldn’t flee, his gaze clear and his grip tight, never once looking away from him, nose wrinkled like he knew exactly what he was accusing him of. Sokka’s pulled his hands from around him almost involuntarily, jerking away as though he could take it all back, shrinking back on himself, heart ricocheting off his ribcage like it was a firework in a small room, feeling defenseless, already done for, having crawled into bed with him, shown all his cards, breath trapped in his throat, panic rising like bile. He rubbed his hands over his face just to avoid looking at him, him and that easy ferocity he had, cleverer than he was given credit for, a good nose for lies, for truths hidden in thoughtless statements.
“I mean,” he stammered out, voice tight, mind racing for any other answer, “I mean, yeah,” he let it out in a single breath, “but not, like, on purpose. I wasn’t gonna mention it.”
For a moment there was a silence, but he felt Zuko’s hands tightening in the fabric of his shirt, and all he could do was lie there and wait for it to be awkward and terrible and taken from him for the rest of their lives, head buried in his hands.
“Sokka, you’re such a fucking idiot.”
Behind his hand his eyes flew open.
Zuko could be foul mouthed, but rarely like that, talking so harshly, something almost like anger in his voice, fury like a campfire doused with liquor. A second later, Sokka felt him move, his hands moving like it was combat, as if to disable him, quick and harsh, hand fisted in his collar as Zuko pushed him onto his back and swung a leg over his hips, pushing him down into the pillows. Zuko wrenched his hand away from his eyes, strong fingers wrapped around his wrist, pinning it down beside his head so that he’d have to look at him, have to stare up at him sitting on his stomach with his eyes fierce, looking wrathful and beautiful and perfect, unbreathing beneath him.
“Sokka, what the fuck do you think I’m doing on this frozen fucking island?” his voice was harsh, forceful, spitting out the words, and Sokka just stared up at him, “it’s a fucking island, Sokka, and I am cold all the time!”
“What the fu-”
He was cut off, cut off by Zuko’s hand on the back of his neck, by the feeling of Zuko kissing him, kissing him like it was a kind of violence, a kind of redemption, a kind of bone crushing relief. And instantly, he all but fell to pieces, fell to pieces like an ice shelf falling into the ocean, feeling ignited, enflamed, Zuko’s mouth against his own, the weight of his body on his stomach, hand halfway around his throat. It was fucked, the effect it had on him, leaning up against his mouth, desperate for more, desperate like a child snatching the first offered hand, like he was starving.
Every part of him disregarded whatever he’d heard, whatever hesitation he was capable of, whatever Zuko had been going on about, just so that he could get as much of this as he could, kissing him like he was some hungry, rabid thing, like he was running from the authorities, never sure how long he could make it to last, but unwilling to let it go. He felt Zuko laugh against his mouth in that quiet way that he did, all bent over him, hair falling over them, dressed in his clothes, here in his cold home, the cold home that Zuko agreed to sink into every now and again.
And something in him had snapped. He’d felt it happen like a rock thrown through a window, reaching up to him to pull him down, pushing his hand through his hair knowing that he’d been wanting to for years, years of wanting to touch him, to kiss him and be kissed by him, to feel his hands on his skin. He’d be so certain that he was content, that this was fine, sitting for years with a table between them, sleeping in separate tents, holding him only when he grew so cold he couldn’t get out of bed. But he wasn’t. There was no contentment, could be no contentment, and suddenly he had no idea how he’d thought there was.
His hands found his jaw, found smooth skin, found his throat, long hair, his hands finding strong shoulders before he found the strength to force Zuko onto his back, pushing him down into the furs, relishing in the small sound of surprise as their positions reversed. He delighted in it, delighted it in his all, starring down at him, his hair splayed out on the pillow, golden eyes fierce and on him, always on him, hands fisted in his collar, snarling at him.
“Are you really here because you like me?” His voice came out a whisper, looking down at him, both of them wrapped up in bedclothes, not enough presence of mind to even think of getting up, so distracted by the thought of him, by of ten some years of pent up suspense and the potential of it, of being in Zuko's bed and welcome there, tucked against him even when he was awake and looking at him, blinking at him as though he could barely understand the question.
“Sokka, it’s the South fucking Pole,” Zuko gestured vaguely, “there is literally no other reason to be here.”
He laughed, breathless like he'd been running for hours, falling to pieces willingly, on purpose, kissing him while he laughed, letting the seams come apart, the chinks in the armour, cracks spreading, letting it all come tumbling down, letting it overflows and trickle down the sides, so full of love and devotion that he exhaled it in every breath, knowing that he didn't have to contain it any longer, that Zuko could see and saw.
“Hey, I think I’m gonna head to bed.”
Zuko glanced up at him as he stood by his chair, eyes tired , looking at him in that comfortable way that he did, like he was the only place his eyes could rest without strain, the only person in the world.
“I won’t be far behind, I’m just going to finish this,” his voice was soft as he spoke, sitting at the table with his papers spread out in front of him, reports needing to be sifted through, old treaties, new treaties, complaints, requests, all of it needing to be read and filed away, distributed to whoever could deal with it. But it wasn’t so bad that it couldn’t wait till morning and Sokka found himself smiling at him, equally fond, looking down at him with that easy warmth in his chest, all heavy and serene, knowing that later, Zuko would creep into bed with him and he’d enjoy it.
“I’ll see you then.”
Zuko raised his cheek to be kissed and he did so, hand on his shoulder, lips pressed into a dimple before he made for the door, barely recognising the sound of the book Katara had been reading hitting the floor before she spoke.
“Okay, what the fuck just happened?”
Sokka looked back at her, blinked once, and froze, Zuko too, staring back at her as she stared at them, every pair of shoulders in the room stiff as boards. Katara’s eyes flickered between them, her gaze wild, accusatory like she wasn’t sure what she was accusing them of, but she knew it was something and she had very strong feelings about it.
“What?” Sokka could think of nothing else to say, nothing else that wouldn’t reveal everything, no excuse that wouldn’t be seen as an excuse, cursing himself for his carelessness, for forgetting she was there, going through some paperwork, helping out while she stayed in the palace. Just because Zuko looked at him like he was the only person in the world didn’t mean he was. Fuck.
But Katara was steadfast, vulnerable to no ploys, confident in what she’d seen.
“You, you kissed his cheek, like right then, I saw,” her voice was harsh, pointed, baffled, frantically gesturing between them, waving her hands like it was only getting more confusing the longer the concept stayed in her brain.
“W-what? No, no I didn’t.” Nothing else came to mind, almost inching back as Katara advanced on him with twitching hands. Out the corner of his eye, he saw Zuko take a sip of his tea, eyes back on his papers as the situation unraveled around him, looking as though he’d decided it was none of his business.
“Yes, you did,” conviction grew within her in that way it always did, getting up in his face just so that he wouldn’t be able to back away, “I saw, I saw you kissed his cheek.”
“Yeah, so?” He let out a tight laugh, panic bouncing through him, “I’m just- I’m just doing that to people now.” His eyes flickered towards Zuko, “Hey, are you gonna pitch in or anything?”
Zuko put aside one scroll and picked up another, not even looking up.
“No, I’m fine, thank you.”
“Oh, fuck you.”
Zuko sipped his tea.
He might as well have found a door and firmly closed it between himself and them, going peacefully back to his work.
“Dear?” Katara meanwhile shrieked, “fucking dear, Sokka?”
Hours later, Zuko slipped into his room.
Sokka him watched from bed as his silhouette moved through the darkness, watched him carefully coming apart with steady hands. The watched him as he lifted the sword from his hip, daggers removed from his sides, hair pins taken from his hair, earrings removed and tucked away. Sokka watched him as he removed layer after layer of ceremonial clothing, undressing until he was down to his underclothes, quiet and slow, growing defenseless, knowing that the only other person in the room was to be trusted. It was a lovely vulnerability, the parts of him only Sokka was allowed to see, the sweetest parts of him, easiest, no warfare, no weapons, just himself, brushing his hair by the window, empty of authority, no weight left to his shoulders.
Eventually he slipped into bed beside him, lying on his side with his head propped up by his elbow as though he knew was awake no matter how Sokka kept still, eyes glimmering in the low light.
“How did it go?” His even voice came to him in the dark, as close to gentle as he got.
“No better for you being there, asshole,” Sokka snapped, couldn’t help but snap, lying on his back in the dark with his arms crossed across his chest, knowing full well that it wouldn’t last, that he never managed to hold onto it for long.
“How did it go?” Zuko repeated again, unruffled. Sokka found himself sighing in the darkness.
“She yelled at me for two hours,” he closed his eyes as he spoke, remembering it. He figured the news would be out by mid-morning at the latest and then everyone would know, political advisors sending him letters congratulating him on his cunning, general constituents calling him a traitor, Zuko’s servants trying out new and awkward forms of address, he wasn’t looking forward to it. The word wouldn’t get out through Katara, but unfortunately for everyone she’d gone and married herself a liability, fucking Aang and his big fucking mouth.
Zuko’s hand landed on his chest, warm and steadying, as though he knew how close he was to just giving in and becoming his own father, muttering under his breath and all.
“So, better than expected then?” And again his voice was sweet, steady, and Sokka shrugged.
“I mean, yeah, better than expected.” Katara was prone to wrath, he’d known she was prone to wrath, was prepared for it. He could have written to her the night after it happened, and she would have found some way to be angry at him for it. Two hours wasn’t the worst, she certainly could have gone on longer. He’d take his victories, rolling on to his side to look at him, Firelord Zuko gazing back in his night clothes, careless, looking as though he too had known this was coming and he wasn’t afraid.
But for the moment he just smiled at him in that sly way that he did and leaned across to press a kiss against his mouth, hand on his jaw, pressing their foreheads together as they broke apart.
“I’ll release a statement in the morning,” he whispered, and that was all it took for the agitation to melt out of him, a kiss, a hand, his even voice, sharing a bed with him and he was done for, letting out a breath as he nuzzled against his skin without more than one thought in his head at any given time, stupid together.
“I love you,” he whispered back, listening to Zuko give a low laugh as he spoke.
“I love you too. Goodnight.”
And despite it all, he was filled with contentment like it was a patch of sun on the concrete, staying awake just so that he could listen as Zuko’s breathing go deep and slow, knowing that he loved and was loved in return, and in achieving that, he figured he could do just about anything else.