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Diplomatic Negotiations

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Sokka can feel his excitement mounting with every step, as the Water Tribe delegation draws closer to the Fire Nation Capital. They have been traveling for weeks, but finally the city is in sight, it’s familiar shingled rooves already visible above the horizon. If you had told him five years ago that coming back to the Fire Nation would feel like coming home, he would have called you crazy. Now, he can’t wait. The South Pole will always be his first home, but as the city walls rise up before him his heart sings out home, home, home with every beat. Or, more accurately, Zuko. Really, they are one and the same.

He hasn’t set eyes on these grand walls and palaces in over six months – it’s the longest he’s ever been gone, visiting both the Northern and Southern Water Tribes. In the nearly six years that he and Zuko have known each other (or, well, known each other in a not mortal enemies kind of way), it’s the longest they’ve ever been apart. As he passes through the city gates, he feels anxiety mingle with joy in the pit of his stomach. He reminds himself that he received a letter by messenger hawk from Zuko not two days ago, full of excitement and plans for his impending return. Zuko can’t have fallen out of love with him over the last two days. Not after six months apart, anyways. They’ll be together soon.

Not alone, of course. After all, the Fire Nation loves their ceremonies – it’s the worst part about coming home. He’ll have to listen to some agonizingly long speech from an old Fire Sage about the importance of diplomacy and balance between the nations, all the while trying not to stare too long at Zuko up on the dais behind him. Zuko, who always looks so damn beautiful tricked out in his greatest Fire Lord finery, like some kind of golden God. He’ll have to kneel before Zuko and present him with the gifts he brought back from the Water Tribes, and try to maintain a straight face that in no way communicates his thoughts, which are usually something along the lines of there are better things I could be doing on my knees in front of you.

Sometimes, if the sages are feeling talkative, the ceremony can go on for hours. Sokka doesn’t think he can stand that today. He wonders vaguely what the old sages would say if he just launched himself across the room and into the Zuko’s arms. He’s fantasized about it on more than one occasion, while Fire Sage Whoever droned on – imagined their stupid shocked faces, mouths falling open like puppets as the Distinguished Ambassador from the Water Tribes plants one on the Fire Lord. He imagines Zuko, freezing for just a second before melting into him, pulling him into his arms and kissing him within an inch of his life, the way only Zuko knows how. At this point in the fantasy, the room always erupts into applause.

Of course, he could never do it. Not that they’re exactly a secret – everyone in the palace (hell, everyone in the Fire Nation) knows that the Fire Lord enjoys an especially close relationship with the Water Ambassador. But Zuko would probably kill him if he tried. He hates public displays of affection under the best of circumstances, and official Fire Nation ceremonies are pretty much the opposite of that. So Sokka will wait, and stare, and pine, and feel like his cheeks are on fire and his heart is going to beat right out of his chest, and then finally – finally – the ceremony will end and he will make some lame and completely transparent excuse to his retinue and hightail it straight to the Fire Lord’s private chambers, where Zuko will be waiting for him. He can do that. He is almost 100% certain that he can do that.

Well, 95.

They arrive in the palace courtyard, and Sokka dismounts, followed by the rest of his party.

“Ila?” he gestures to his deputy.

The Northern tribeswoman nods in understanding, and hands him the gifts they have brought back – an ornate spear, tipped with glittering obsidian, from the Southern Water Tribe, and a luxurious coat made of mink pelts from the Northern Water Tribe. (Sokka is especially excited about that one – Zuko is going to accept it graciously and then, when they’re alone, take one look at it and exclaim “what the hell am I supposed to do with that?” and then Sokka is going to get to keep it for himself.) Compulsively, he feels in his satchel for his own gift, relaxing a little when he feels his fingers brush over the smooth ribbon and round stone. His heart thumps wildly in his chest as he rubs his thumb across the carved stone face, and he pushes the necklace deeper into the satchel.

Later, he tells his erratic heartbeat. That’s for later.

He turns and gives a weary smile to Ila and the rest of the delegation.

“This is it, gang. Just an hour or two of the usual formalities” he rolls his eyes generously “and then we can all go home to our families.”

“You gonna make it, boss?” Ila teases, cocking one white-blonde eyebrow.

“Are you?” Sokka retorts. Ila’s wife is a Kyoshi Warrior, one of Zuko’s private guard. She finds these ceremonies just as torturous as he does.

“I’m not the one who spent the last five days talking nonstop about how his boyfriend is ‘the hottest man in the Fire Nation, pun intended.’”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Sokka replies, lifting his chin stubbornly. “I’m a model of self-restraint.”

Someone in the back of the group cracks up.

“Alright, alright,” Sokka grumbles. “The less time you spend harassing your devoted leader, the sooner you get to see your families.” He shakes himself a little bit, squaring his shoulders and plastering on a stoic expression. “Let’s make the Water Tribes proud, gang.”

They fall into line behind him, making the familiar procession up the palace steps and down the long hall toward the throne room, where two Kyoshi Warriors stand guard. When they see him coming they nod, and the heavy doors slide open, seemingly of their own accord. One of the warriors winks as they pass, although he isn’t sure if it’s directed at him or at Ila.  

Ahead of him, a long aisle stretches into the depths of the throne room, carpeted in deep red. Ornate tapestries, crimson and gold, hang between the pillars, and dozens of courtiers in their finest silks line the sides of the aisle. Sokka doesn’t notice any of it. Because there, at the other end of the room, is Zuko. His hundred-mile journey home has shrunk to just a few dozen steps.

Even at this distance, Zuko is magnificent. Resplendent in red and gold silks, his jet-black hair – longer than the last time Sokka saw him – spilling over his shoulders and glimmering in the lamplight. His posture is every inch a king, shoulders squared and chin lifted proudly.

Sokka feels his knees start to shake, but he makes his way down the aisle with his head held high. The closer he gets, the faster his heart beats. He stares at Zuko’s blank, regal expression and wonders if his heart is beating just as fast. Sokka has gotten pretty good at reading even his most minute expressions, but after six months he’s a little out of practice. He stops just short of the dais, and drops to one knee on the carpet.

“Fire Lord Zuko,” he says, and he’s proud of the fact that his voice rings out full-throated and clear, even though his insides are a bundle of nerves.

“Ambassador Sokka,” Zuko greets. Sokka isn’t supposed to look him in the eye until he’s been told to stand, but he can’t help his gaze from flickering up, although his face remains downcast. Their eyes meet for a fraction of a second, and he could swear he sees the corner of Zuko’s lips quirk up, although it might just be his own frenzied imagination. “Please rise.”

Sokka stands smoothly, and looks Zuko head on. His golden gaze is cool and dispassionate. He’s so good at playing this part. It sends an unsettled shiver up Sokka’s spine.

Behind him, he hears Ila clear her throat, and realizes he must have been staring. He shakes himself, and steps toward the foot of the throne, his arms extended with the gifts in hand.

“I return to you from the Water Tribes of the North and South Poles. The Tribes have sent these gifts, as tokens of their friendship, to you and to the Fire Nation.” He kneels again, close enough for Zuko to reach the gifts, and sets them at his side. At this distance, he can smell Zuko’s familiar, smoky scent, and it turns his head for a few seconds. He forges on. “From the people of the Southern Water Tribe, this hand-crafted obsidian spear.” He extends it with both hands, and Zuko plucks it up, examining it with an appreciative gaze. Why he can’t look at Sokka like that is beyond him.

“This is indeed fine craftsmanship,” Zuko says with satisfaction, and passes the spear off to the Kyoshi warrior on his right.

“And from the people of Northern Water Tribe, this coat made from the finest mink pelts.” Sokka extends the coat, and Zuko takes it with considerably less enthusiasm.

“What… soft fur,” Zuko says, faltering only a little over the compliment. Sokka snorts, and covers it with a cough, which is almost as impolite. He’s going to be in trouble for that later.

“The Fire Nation thanks the Water Tribes for their generous gifts, and for their continued friendship,” Zuko says smoothly. “And I thank Ambassador Sokka and his delegation for their continued service to the Fire Nation.” He inclines his head slightly, but Sokka still can’t make out anything familiar in his gaze. “Now, Fire Sage Hoshi will give the ceremonial address.”

Sokka gives a final bow, and falls back in line with Ila and the rest of his people, as the old sage steps forward. Ila elbows him in the ribs.

“You were doing pretty good up there, until you laughed at the Fire Lord in front of the whole court,” she teases.

“Shut up,” he grumbles back.

He tunes out whatever Fire Sage Hoshi is saying about honor and alliance, and tries to catch Zuko’s gaze. This is his favorite ceremonial game. Over the past six years, Zuko has perfected the art of playing the cool, collected Fire Lord, the opposite of his hotheaded father in every way. It took some practice for prickly, reactive Zuko, whose emotions are always so close to the surface, but he’s improved with age. He’s cultivated the even gaze, the regal tone, the way he can make Sokka feel like he doesn’t even recognize him when Sokka knows he is just as desperate to get him alone so they can get their hands on each other. But inevitably, while Hoshi or whoever is droning on, Zuko will slip and look at him, and his eyes will be the eyes of Zuko, the man Sokka loves, instead of Zuko the Fire Lord. Sokka just has to be vigilant enough to catch it.

Today, however, Zuko’s gaze remains resolutely focused on the sage, and the few times it does stray, it glides right over Sokka as if he’s not even there. Sokka gives up being inconspicuous and just outright stares at Zuko. He notices one of the Kyoshi Warriors standing at Zuko’s shoulder smirk, but Zuko doesn’t so much as glance in his direction. Anxiety pools in his stomach, and crawls up into his chest. What if Zuko did fall out of love with him in the last two days? Or worse, what if he fell out of love with him sometime in the past six months and he didn’t really mean those things he wrote, was just going through the motions until he could break it to Sokka in person?

Intellectually, Sokka knows that these fears are unfounded. Zuko has never given him any reason to worry that his feelings for him have changed. Zuko – gorgeous, golden Fire Lord Zuko, who could have anyone he wanted – has chosen Sokka time and time again. But the longer he avoids Sokka’s gaze, the less Sokka feels like this is true, even if he knows it to be. After all, it’s been six months since they’ve seen each other. Six months since they’ve held each other, gone to bed together, lain in the dark together, where Zuko finally feels safe enough to plaster himself to Sokka’s chest and whisper that he loves him.

A lot can change in six months. Sokka grew a goatee. Maybe Zuko hates it.

The speech drags on, and Sokka’s heart sinks deeper and deeper with every minute. He hadn’t realized just how much those few stolen glances had sustained him in the past. He’d thought he was desperate before, clinging to the tiniest signs for proof that Zuko is still his – but without those few, minute signals, he is utterly at sea. Hoshi is going on at length about the Water Tribes’ important role in bringing down the old Fire Lord and restoring peace to the kingdoms, but Sokka can’t even pay attention to the praise for himself and his people because the longer Zuko avoids looking at him, the more convinced Sokka becomes that something is very, very wrong here. And suddenly, Sokka finds himself wishing that Fire Sage Hoshi would go on forever, because he fears that when this ceremony is over, he and Zuko will be, too.

Of course, even Fire Sage Hoshi can’t go on forever. He finishes the speech, and bows his head respectfully to Zuko, who in return thanks the sage for his inspiring words, once again thanks the Water delegation for their service – never once looking directly at the leader of said delegation – and then turns and sweeps out of the room.

Panic lurches in Sokka’s chest. He knows Zuko will be expecting him in his chambers any minute now, but he suddenly feels a fierce desire to delay the inevitable. He catches Ila by the arm as she turns to go.

“Hey, what are you up to right now?” he asks. “Wanna grab a drink?”

“Are you serious?” Ila laughs, as she pulls her arm away. “I’m going to see my family. Like you should be doing.”

“Katara’s not even here, she went to visit the Eastern Air Temple with Aang.”

“I’m not talking about Katara, idiot,” Ila replies fondly. “Seriously, what is with you? You’re usually the first one out the door after these things.”

Sokka can’t bear to speak his fears aloud, but Ila seems to figure them out anyway, because her expression softens and she puts a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“Quit worrying, Sokka. Didn’t you ever hear that absence makes the heart grow fonder?”

“Yeah…” Sokka sighs, unconvinced. Ila gives his shoulder a sympathetic squeeze.

“Go, get out of here,” he tells her, trying to muster up a smile. “Say hi to Yawen for me.”

“Yeah, that’s the first thing I’ll do,” Ila jokes, already turning to go.

Sokka looks around desperately for someone else to keep him occupied. Most of his people have already dispersed, but he catches sight of Tuktu on his way out. Tuktu’s whole family still lives at the South Pole, so he can’t have anyone to rush home to.

“Tuktu, buddy!” Sokka exclaims, catching up with him and clapping him on the shoulder. “You wanna grab a drink?”

Tuktu winces. “Sorry boss, but I’m beat. Almost fell asleep on my feet back there. Another time?”

“Sure thing, sure thing,” Sokka sighs, releasing the other man, who scuttles off gratefully.

Sokka casts his gaze around the chamber, now almost empty, and when it lands on the Kyoshi Warrior who smirked at him earlier he realizes that he recognizes the face underneath the makeup.

“Suki!” he cries, rushing toward her before she can make a getaway. “Heeey, Suki! How ya been?”

“Nice to see you, too, Sokka,” Suki replies, returning his enthusiastic hug with a bemused smile. “I’m surprised to see you’re still here.”

Sokka ignores the comment. “Hey, waddaya say we grab a drink, for old times’ sake?”

Suki’s painted eyebrows skyrocket toward her hairline. “Uh, thanks, but I’m not trying to get my head chopped off today.”

 “Oh, come on!” Sokka chides, hearing the desperation edge into his tone, despite his best efforts to hide it. “Just one little drink, between old friends!”

Suki just shakes her head. “I don’t know what’s going on with you, but you better get over it. He’s been miserable without you, and when he’s miserable he makes all the rest of us miserable, too. Go make him un-miserable, Sokka.” She gives him an affectionate pat on the shoulder, and then she, too, is gone.

Sokka watches her go, his despair only deepening. Of course Zuko has been miserable – he’s been planning to break up with Sokka as soon as he gets back. And now he’s back.

Sokka turns to face the empty throne room with a sigh. He should just go back to Zuko’s chambers and get it over with. No use delaying the inevitable any longer.

And yet, Sokka’s a stubborn bastard. And the very thought of facing Zuko right now, of having to look at him in all his stupid handsome splendor while he tells Sokka that it’s over, is more than Sokka can bear. He has his own rooms in the outer reaches of the palace, not that he uses them for much other than storage, and he decides to return to those to wash up first. It’s been a long day, and he might as well be fresh and clean when he gets his heart broken.

He drags his feet as he makes his way through the palace hallways, ignoring more than one surprised look from a passerby at being found so far from the Fire Lord’s chambers. He manages to make what would have been a five-minute journey last almost fifteen, but eventually he finds himself in front of his door. He heaves a sigh, and pushes it open.

The door is barely shut behind him, when he finds himself slammed up against it.

Where the hell have you been?

"Zuko!” he gasps, staring up into the irate amber eyes of his boyfriend.

Six months!” Zuko hisses. His hands are on either side of Sokka’s shoulders, boxing him in against the door, and Sokka is too shocked to fight him. “I let you go for six months and when you get back you have the gall to leave me waiting even longer?”

The shock wears off, and now Sokka is pissed. He is the one who is about to get broken up with, he should be the one doing the yelling. He grabs Zuko by the forearms and in one, swift motion, he is the one pinning Zuko to the door. When they first met, Zuko was the taller one, but Sokka sprang up another three inches the summer he turned eighteen, and he makes use of every extra millimeter now, as he looms over him. Zuko gasps, his eyes wide with surprise and something more primal that Sokka doesn’t let himself dwell on.

“Forgive me for not being eager to get back to someone who, after six months apart, can’t even look at me!” he growls. He means for it to sound wrathful, to let the anger drip out with every syllable the way Zuko does, but he’s never had that talent. Instead, it comes out sounding the way he’s feeling, which is more hurt than anything else. Zuko’s eyes widen again, and then his whole posture changes. He sinks back against the door, a lopsided smile spreading across his face.

“Sokka,” he rasps. His long fingers curl around Sokka’s wrists, and Sokka feels his pulse quicken at their touch. “I didn’t look at you because I knew that if I did, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from throwing myself at you, Fire Sages be damned.”

“Oh.” Sokka blinks in surprise. His shoulders relax, as his body catches up with his brain, and he feels a relieved laugh bubble up from somewhere within him.

Zuko just shakes his head, glancing down as he bites back a grin. “I swear, you are the dumbest genius I have ever met.” When he looks up again, his gaze is like liquid gold, lighting Sokka up from the top of his head to the tips of his toes.

“Now is the part where you kiss me,” Zuko supplies dryly. Sokka does not need to be told twice.

He ducks his head and captures Zuko’s lips with his own, using one hand to pin his hip against the door while the other slides up to frame his impossibly sharp jaw. Zuko gives a satisfied moan and curls his fingers around the back of Sokka’s neck, angling his head so he can deepen the kiss.

They only part when they are both gasping for air, and Sokka can’t resist tangling his fingers in Zuko’s long, black hair and pushing it out of the way so he can kiss down the side of Zuko’s neck.

“I missed you so much,” Zuko gasps, one hand drifting to Sokka’s waist to pull him closer.

“Missed you more,” Sokka retorts, raising his head and pulling Zuko into another blistering kiss.

“Oh yeah?” Zuko laughs against his lips. “Why don’t we go back to our rooms so you can show me?” He breaks off into a surprised moan when Sokka wedges his knee between Zuko’s thighs, pressing him firmly against the door.

“I’ve got a perfectly good bed right here,” Sokka counters, with a challenging grin. “I don’t need anything fancy to show you just what you’ve been missing, Fire Lord.

Zuko shoves him back with enough force that he lands on the bed in question, then stalks after him, climbing onto the bed as Sokka pushes himself up onto his elbows. Zuko straddles his hips.

“By all means, Ambassador Sokka,” he replies. His tone is cool and regal, his chin lifted proudly, but his golden eyes sparkle – the eyes of the man Sokka loves. “Show me what I’ve been missing.”

 

*

 

Zuko shifts against the lumpy pillows, pouting. “See, this is when it would have been nicer to be back in our own bed.”

Sokka’s heart gives an embarrassing thump at hearing Zuko call his bed theirs, and he tries to cover it by rolling his eyes. “Pampered prince,” he mutters, through a yawn. “Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve slept in a bed this nice?”

That much is true. And while Zuko’s right that this bed doesn’t come close to the comfort of the grand four-poster in the Fire Lord’s chambers, Sokka still feels like he could fall asleep right here and now

Zuko ignores him, just squirms around trying to get comfortable until he eventually gives up and flops so his head is in Sokka’s lap instead. Sokka lifts a hand, lazily stroking through Zuko’s shiny black hair.

“Your hair got longer,” he comments.

“So did yours,” Zuko teases, reaching up to pinch Sokka’s newly bearded chin.

“They’re common among the Water Tribes,” Sokka shrugs self-consciously. “Do you hate it?”

“Actually, I don’t,” Zuko murmurs, sounding like he’s surprised by this information himself. “It suits you.” He rubs his thumb over the patch of hair on Sokka’s chin, and then uses his grip to pull Sokka down to kiss him. Sokka is more than willing to comply.

When they part again, Zuko gives a satisfied sigh, his eyes slipping closed as Sokka’s fingers card through his hair. He’s always at his most vulnerable like this – too blissed out and sleepy to remember that he is supposed to have a fortress around his heart.

“I hate it when you’re gone,” he murmurs.

Sokka swallows thickly, feeling so full of love he is in danger of overflowing. When he was gone, missing Zuko had been like a physical ache in his chest, a secret pang that he carried around with him day after day, night after lonely night. Lying awake beneath the diamond studded skies of the poles, he had promised himself that when he finally got back to Zuko he would ask him the question that had been growing inside his heart for the past year.

Sokka makes himself say it before he has the chance to second guess. “I have another gift for you.”

“Another?” Zuko yawns, lifting his head to watch as Sokka leans over the side of the bed to rummage in his discarded satchel. “Better not be another fucking fur coat,” he grumbles. “The fuck am I supposed to do with that? Don’t they know it never gets below 70 degrees here?”

Sokka is pretty sure the coat was intended as a gesture – ensuring that Zuko would be well-equipped should he ever choose to visit the Water Tribes personally. But if Sokka tells him that, he might not let him keep it.

“Shut up about the coat already,” Sokka tells him. He finds the necklace at the bottom of his satchel, and closes his fist around it, sitting up again. His heart is beating so loudly he is sure Zuko can hear it, but the other man just raises a casual, curious eyebrow at the sight of Sokka’s closed fist.

“This one is from me,” he says, and opens his hand. The necklace pools in his palm – a smooth white stone, carved painstakingly by Sokka’s own hand, strung onto a heavy red ribbon. Zuko’s eyes widen and Sokka hears him draw in a shallow breath. He’s familiar enough with Katara’s engagement necklace, inherited from their Grandmother, to know what it means.

Zuko reaches out and lifts the necklace from Sokka’s palm, carefully, as if it were made of gold.

“It can be just for us,” Sokka says quickly, feeling like he has to fill the silence as Zuko stares, transfixed, at the image Sokka carved into the stone face – a Water Tribe crescent moon curled around a Fire Nation flame. “I know you have an image to maintain and I don’t want to interfere with that, so we don’t have to tell people. I won’t mind.”

He’s had enough time to think about this, over six months of lying alone every night yearning for his Fire Lord, to have made peace with the idea. Of course he wants the world to know that he is Zuko’s and Zuko is his – he would shout it from the rooftops of the palace if he could – but he doesn’t need that. All he really needs is Zuko.

Still, his heart skips a beat when Zuko declares, “Absolutely not. When I marry you it’s going to be very public. I’ll declare a national holiday.”

“Is that a yes, then?” Sokka grins.

“You haven’t actually asked me anything…” Zuko points out flatly, the effect somewhat ruined by the smile tugging at the corner of his lips.

Sokka rolls his eyes. “Oh high and mighty Fire Lord Zuko, will you marry me?”

Zuko’s answering kiss is so enthusiastic it knocks Sokka back against the pillows.

“Okay, I’m almost certain that that was a yes,” Sokka laughs when Zuko finally releases him.

“Yes!” Zuko mumbles against his lips, kissing him again. “Definitely yes.”

Finally, Zuko sits back. His face has a pretty flush to it as he presses the necklace into Sokka’s hand and turns his back. Gently, Sokka reaches out and pushes the hair off of Zuko’s shoulder, relishing the other man’s shiver. He leans in and kisses the back of Zuko’s neck, then reaches the necklace over his head, lowering it until the stone rests in the hollow of this throat. Carefully, he knots the red ribbon behind Zuko’s neck, then leans in again to drop a kiss to his bare shoulder. Zuko shivers and sighs, leaning into Sokka’s touch.

Sokka wraps his arms around Zuko from behind and pulls him back against his chest.

“The Water Tribes would like to formally thank Fire Lord Zuko for accepting Ambassador Sokka’s offer,” he says, ruining it halfway through with a yawn.

Zuko snuggles back against him. “Fire Lord Zuko would like to formally thank the Water Tribes for sending Ambassador Sokka back to him. And humbly requests that he never, ever leave for that long again.”

“I’ll have to run that one up the chain,” Sokka admits, with a laugh. He tugs Zuko closer as his eyes slip closed. “But I think you’ve got yourself a deal.”