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a study in underachievers and deductive learning

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Zuko was late to his math class. Again. He had hit snooze too many times, then his kettle wouldn’t work, and then the train was late. It was a shit show. He looked down at his watch for what was probably the thousandth time that morning as he sped across campus: 9:47. Great, almost twenty minutes after the class was supposed to start. Maybe he would get lucky and the professor would be late. Zuko shook his head at the thought as it came to him. Yeah, as if.          

When Zuko finally reached the building his class was in, he barely flashed the security guard his ID as he rushed past. He banked around a couple of corners and tried not to fall out of the slippers he wore, and shit, he was still wearing his slippers. Zuko was fully in sweatpants and a pajama shirt and this professor was absolutely going to hate him after the semester was over.

He tried to duck into the classroom without being seen, but almost every head turned and watched as he entered. Zuko grimaced and took a seat. The professor was used to his punctuality issues at this point, anyways.

Zuko wasn’t a bad student, per se, he just solidly believed in the whole C’s get degrees thing. Especially when it came to required introductory courses that he would never use again in his adult life. Really, it’s what he gets for going to a liberal arts school that advertised a “rounded curriculum”. If he had sucked it up and done business, or something equally as soul-crushing, at least his father would have been paying and he wouldn’t feel bad for skipping class. He probably would have actively neglected them, actually, just for the satisfaction of wasting his father’s money.

But, no, he had to listen to his Uncle’s stupidly wise advice to follow his heart and pursue his dream, or whatever. He did love the dramatic writing program he managed to get into, but he would also love to not think about the hundreds of dollars he wasted whenever he accidentally slept through a lecture.

Zuko tried to pay attention to whatever topic the professor was teaching that day, he really did. He ended up doodling in his notebook instead. He was beginning to have an impressive collection of them.

Zuko thought idly about how he should start to get his shit together for this class while he sketched himself being crushed by a textbook. It wasn’t his fault that math was a boring and terrible subject. And, if he was going to be a writer, he probably wouldn’t need anything beyond basic multiplication anyways.

He let out a huff and attempted to blow a few strands of hair out of his eyes. What was his fault, though, was the big, fat F he had gotten on the midterm. No getting around that one.

Zuko had been so caught up in his own thoughts that he almost didn’t hear the symphony of students beginning to unzip their bags. He quickly packed his things and stood to leave. He would have been the first out the door but, because his bad luck never seemed to run out, his professor called his name before he could reach it.

“Yes, professor?” Zuko sheepishly approached the table where he sat. He was a nice man, but Zuko had never been good at talking with his teachers. Or any authority figure, for that matter.

“Zuko, about your exam grade,” Yikes. “I’m worried about you passing this class. I understand that this is just a requirement and you probably don’t care all that much, but unfortunately, you need the credit to graduate.” Zuko nodded in uncomfortable agreement. “I’m sure you wouldn’t want to have to take this class again, so I’m going to e-mail you the list of tutors. If you turn in all of the homework and pass the final, you’ll be alright.”

The older man gave him a reassuring smile. At least he was trying to help, Zuko supposed.

“Thank you, professor. I’ll make sure to schedule a session as soon as I can.”

“I’m glad to hear it. Oh, and I know you writer types love staying up late and brooding, or whatever it is you do, but try not to sleep through you alarm anymore?” Great, now even Zuko’s professors were teasing him.

“Yes, sir.” And with that Zuko left, hoping he didn’t look as stupid as he felt.

***      

After moping over how awful re-taking his class would be, Zuko dejectedly scheduled the tutoring session. He glanced at the list that was sent to him and ended up picking a random guy solely because his name sounded cool. Sokka, some sort of engineering major, according to the information he was given.

It was fine, Zuko thought. He just had to put up with some nerd being nerdy and thinking they were better than him for an hour every week until the final. It was a small sacrifice for a passing grade, truly.

So, Zuko was stuck in the library on a Thursday night when he had about a million other things he could be doing. Like brood over his writing. Zuko sighed as he punched his floor into the elevator. He wondered what the guy would look like. Sokka said he would be in a blue hoodie, though that was all his email described. Maybe he should have done some online stalking before this.

The elevator stopped with a ding! and Zuko stepped off. With heavy feet, he walked to their agreed-upon room. It was only mildly packed, what with midterms just ending, but enough so that his tutor was still difficult to find. Zuko scanned his eyes over the room a few times before they finally landed on a man in a blue hoodie, aggressively typing away at his laptop.

As he walked up to the table, Zuko realized several things at once:

  1. The guy was drop-dead gorgeous. He was buff and had a stylish undercut that showed off his (many) piercings and he absolutely did not look like the type of person to be an engineering major.
  2. He was a huge, gay disaster and could not go through with this.
  3. It was probably in his best interest to just walk away.

And he had every intention of doing just that. That was, until the man looked up from his computer at the exact right moment for them to make eye contact. Shit. An unfortunately stunning smile spread across his tutor’s face.

“Zuko, right?” A few people shushed him, and he gave them all a dirty look in return. “Come on, let’s get started.”

Zuko wanted to scream. Perhaps, bang his head against the table that he was now approaching several times. Maybe set himself on fire, just a little bit. Instead, he took his seat and resigned himself to the fact that this was his life now.

“I’m Sokka, it’s nice to meet you, man,” He stretched his arm across the table in greeting. Zuko shook it and tried not to notice how warm and big Sokka’s hands were.

“You too,” Zuko replied simply.

“We’re working on Prob and Stats today, right?” Zuko nodded as Sokka shuffled around some of his notebooks. Zuko did his best not to stare, but the guy was the epitome of hot college students. His hoodie that bore the school’s emblem stretched snugly across his chest. Several strands of dark brown hair escaped a perfectly messy ponytail to frame his face. A pair of dark-framed glasses rested on the table next to his laptop and when he put them on, they somehow made his eyes look even more blue. “Well, that sucks. I can’t lie to you; I hated that class. So boring.”

Boring was not the word Zuko would use. Unbearable, excruciating, torturous, and the bane of his existence were much more accurate.

“Alright, just tell me what you’re struggling with and we can go from there,” Sokka said with another devastating smile.

“Is everything an acceptable answer?” Zuko replied plainly. Sokka laughed loudly, earning him another round of shushes.

“When it comes to Prob and Stats? Yes. Let’s just have a look at your homework first.”

Once Zuko relaxed and stopped thinking inappropriate thoughts, Sokka actually began to make sense. His explanations, though long-winded, were easy to understand. Zuko was amazed at how effortlessly he described the problems in front of them. The material Zuko hadn’t understood in months clicked in minutes with Sokka’s help.

Sokka must have been tutoring for a long time, Zuko guessed. He seemed to have mastered the balance between being serious and casual. Sokka explained the problems in a way that made him sound very smart and professional, but he didn’t make Zuko feel bad if he didn’t understand a concept. Zuko was more than grateful for this; it was much better than having to deal with some stuffy, know-it-all asshole.

Zuko finished his homework assignment with ease and they moved on to another topic. Then, just as quickly as before, they were done. Zuko was sure that their session had just started but when he looked at his watch, an hour and a half had passed.

“Oh shit, I’m sorry for holding you over the time,” Zuko began to pack his things.

“It’s fine, dude. I practically live here anyways. May as well spread the knowledge to the masses while I do,” Sokka winked at him. Zuko’s brain ignored it in an attempt to save itself from short-circuiting. “Same time next week work for you?”

“Uh, yeah. That should be fine,” Zuko held his books in front of his chest as if they could protect him from something. He wasn’t sure what that something was. “See you then.”

“Yeah, see ya. Happy math-ing!”

Zuko gave him an awkward wave and all but sprinted back to the elevator. Happy math-ing. God, Zuko was not about to start crushing on his hot, dorky tutor. Nope, that was not a thing that he would allow to happen. Not at all.

***

Over the course of the following sessions with Sokka the Hot Tutor, Zuko realized it was absolutely a thing that was happening and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

Zuko learned that Sokka wasn’t just a hot nerd. He was also a hot guitar player and a hot cook. He was in a band that played house shows occasionally (“We aren’t great, but it’s way too fun to quit!”) and he had won MasterChef Junior as a kid (“It runs in the family.”) And, if that wasn’t enough, Sokka volunteered at the local animal shelter on the weekends. Because of course he does.

They were working in the campus coffeeshop when Sokka brings up the animal shelter, and Zuko realized the name sounds familiar. He racked his brain for reasons that might be and remembered that Aang, one of his few friends, also volunteers there.

“I can’t believe you and Aang are friends! Small world, huh?” Sokka leaned back in his chair. They were taking a break after a particularly difficult problem that only pissed Zuko off a lot. “How do you guys know each other?”

“We’re in the same theater club. He actually got cast as the lead the semester they chose to perform one of my plays,” Zuko smiled softly. The club was sort of his baby. He was very proud.

“That is so cool. I can’t even imagine how hard it is doing your major, I could never,” Sokka shook his head, looking impressed. Zuko couldn’t imagine why. He was sure that if he looked up the definition of “perfect” in a dictionary, Sokka’s face would be there, smiling up at him.

“It’s not so bad. I just write a lot and wear turtlenecks and drink too much cheap wine,” Zuko said, getting another laugh out of Sokka. Zuko had never thought of himself as funny, but he was pulling out all the stops in order to hear Sokka’s laugh. He didn’t think he could ever get tired of it. “Besides, it requires nowhere near the level of brain you have.” Okay, he needed to stop. This was getting a little too flirty and he was pretty sure that wasn’t allowed, or something.

“Whatever! You’re just as, if not smarter than I am. It’s just a different kind of smart,” Sokka smiled. Zuko decided to not think too deeply about the compliment.

Sokka yawned and stretched his arms. He wore a t-shirt today, revealing sculpted biceps that were wrapped in black tribal tattoos. Zuko wanted to trace every line and curve of the ink. Definitely with his tongue, but he kept that thought locked deep in the back of his brain.

“Want another coffee?” Zuko asked, already reaching into his bag for his wallet. Really, it was the least he could do after the guy was practically re-teaching him every lesson that he didn’t pay attention to.

“Hmm,” Sokka raised a hand to his chin as he pondered the question. “Usually, I would say no, because it’s polite or whatever. But I am very caffeine-deprived today and I really do want another coffee.”

Sokka then prattled off a complicated order and insisted he pay Zuko back for it. Zuko didn’t let him. He also refused to let Sokka pay him back for the croissant he bought for them to share.

They sat in silence for a while, tearing off little pieces of the croissant as they passed it back and forth. If Zuko let his fingers brush against Sokka’s as they both reached for the paper it sat on, well. That was no one’s business but his own.

“So,” Sokka, as he usually did, broke the silence first. “Why’d you pick the major you’re in?”

Zuko crossed his arms, a little defensive. He hated having this conversation. People always wanted to put in their two cents, as if what he decided to do with his life affected them. They would ask how he expected to find a job, or how he would pay his bills, or if he was good enough to be successful. The sudden change in his mood must have been obvious, because Sokka immediately began to backpedal.

“Hey, no need to get all sulky. Just an innocent question. All the stuff you do is so different from my course load, I was just curious,” Sokka explained. Zuko felt bad for a moment, for being so quick to judge. He should know by now that Sokka wasn’t the type to care about things like that.

“I don’t know, I guess I just always enjoyed theater. My mom used to be in a drama troupe when I was little and I loved going to see her,” Zuko paused, deciding if he should continue further. Whatever, it’s healthy to joke about his past, something he needed to get used to. Or, so his therapist said. “Also, because my Dad didn’t want me to do it.”

“Why not?” Sokka asked. Zuko just shrugged in response, deciding that now was not the time to get into his sad childhood. “Well, it doesn’t matter. Fuck him for not being supportive.”

Zuko stared at Sokka as he took a sip from his monstrously sweet coffee. He wasn’t prepared for that response at all. Usually when he brought up his family, people would apologize or become silent with discomfort. The fact that Sokka so readily came to his defense was . . . nice. Really nice, actually.

“Yeah, fuck him,” Zuko said after a few seconds. They fell back into silence, but all Zuko wanted was for Sokka to keep talking. He flipped through the filing cabinet of conversation starters in his brain. He wanted to ask Sokka all of them; what was his favorite color, or movie, or where did he want to retire. Zuko decided that they all seemed way to personal, too intimate, so he blurted out the next thing that popped into his thoughts: “So, uh . . . you met Aang’s dog?”

Sokka’s face split into a huge grin. Zuko was just relieved that he didn’t think it was a weird question. “Are you kidding? Appa is the best boy in the world – no, scratch that, the whole universe. I would straight-up kill for that dog.”

“Agreed.”

***

“Is it illegal to try to date a tutor?” Zuko asked Aang. They were quietly striking the set from the night’s rehearsal. He didn’t really mean to say the thought out loud, but it just sort of slipped out.

“Well, it isn’t really illegal to date anyone, so we can start there,” Aang gave Zuko a funny look as he stacked a chair on top of a pile.

“No, I mean,” Shit, Zuko should have just kept his mouth shut. “Like, here. One that works at the school. That you may or may not have worked with. You know, hypothetically.”

“Uh-huh. Hypothetically.”

Zuko and Sokka have had four sessions now, including the last one at the coffeeshop, and Zuko couldn’t deny that he had a huge, embarrassing crush on the man. Sokka invaded most of his passing thoughts and daydreams. Zuko thought about what it would be like to take him on a date, to run his fingers over his tattoos, to see what his hair looked like out of that stupid ponytail. He had it bad.

“You know what, forget I ever said anything,” Zuko took his aggression out on some paper streamers.

“What do you even need a tutor for? You’re by far the best one in your program,” Aang stacked the last chair and put his hands on his hips. A look of realization dawned on his face. “Wait, you’re taking your math requirement this semester, right?” Uh oh.

“Yeah, why?”

“Because I know a certain math tutor. A very attractive and charming one, at that.”

“Probably not the same one.”

“Is it Sokka? You know, he’s Katara’s brother,” Aang had a huge shit-eating grin on his face. He knew he was right, the little fucker.

“I don’t know,” And Zuko could tell that was a mistake as soon as it left his mouth. What, like he didn’t know the name of the tutor he’d been studying with for almost a month now? He wanted to disappear.

“It is Sokka, isn’t it? Oh man, this is great, I have to tell Katara – “ Before Aang could unlock his phone, Zuko grabbed it right out of his hands.

“Don’t you dare,” He said dramatically. Zuko tried to hold the phone out of Aang’s reach, but he just wrestled Zuko to the ground and grabbed it back. Aang stood over him and laughed. Zuko questioned their friendship for a brief moment, before Aang offered him a hand and pulled him back up.

“Fine, I won’t tell her,” Aang agreed with a huge, sarcastic sigh. He paused for a moment. “But to answer your question, I don’t know.  I guess it would make sense, though, since they’re technically employed by the school and all.” And that was the answer he didn’t want confirmed.      

Zuko huffed at Aang’s response instead of saying anything back. He picked up his bag and they made for the door together. Aang kept quiet for a few minutes, though he looked like he was deep in thought.

“What if,” Aang started again, holding the door open for Zuko, “He wasn’t your tutor.”

“Well, as much as I would like that, he is actually very good. And I need to pass this class.”

“Okay, but couldn’t you just fire him from being your tutor, and then once he falls in love with you, he can give you math pointers whenever you want?” Yeah, because what Zuko wanted to be doing with Sokka in their free time is talk about math.

“Your plan is great except for the fact that there’s no way he would fall in love with me,” Zuko stated, like it was obvious. He grabbed onto the strap of his bag anxiously. As if someone like Sokka would even look twice at him.

“What, but you’re such a catch! You’re creative and cool and you make the best cup of tea out of anyone I know,” Aang gestured wildly with his hands and Zuko took a step to the right in an attempt to get out of the danger zone. He smiled at Aang’s compliment. If there was one thing Zuko was confident in, it was his tea-making abilities. “Look, next time you have a session with him, just ask. It might not even be a thing that tutors can’t date students.”

If only it were that simple.

***

Unkown number: Hey so this is super weird but I’m currently dog-sitting for Aang while he’s on his spiritual yoga retreat or whatever it is he does, would you mind meeting me at his place today?

Unkown number: this is Sokka btw got your number from Aang in a very professional and non-creepy way

Zuko read the texts that had just appeared on his lock screen several times. Mostly because he wanted a distraction from the lecture he was currently in, but also because he was trying to process the new information that they gave him.

On one hand, he really needed to go to his tutoring session today. He had been completely lost in this week’s classes and knew that an hour with Sokka would clear things right up. On the other hand, though, this meant he would be spending time with the man in a private place. With no one else around. And nothing to stop Zuko from doing something stupid.

Zuko sighed and saved the number in his phone. Against his better judgement, he typed out a short response to Sokka.

Outgoing: That’s fine with me. Same time?

Sokka Hot Tutor: Yes! Thank you so much, you’re the best tutor-ee ever :)

He stifled the grin that Sokka’s compliment got out of him. Now was not the time to be blushing like a little kid over a perfectly normal and professional text.

Zuko had some time between when his class let out and his tutoring session, so he decided to grab himself and Sokka a coffee before he began the walk to Aang’s apartment. He only remembered Sokka’s order because it was something so ridiculous and sugar filled that he couldn’t help but make note of it.

A short walk later with their coffees in hand, he was at Aang’s building. It was like any other building in the area; if Zuko hadn’t been there several times already he probably would have walked right past it. He buzzed Aang’s apartment number and the front door unlocked soon after.

Zuko began to walk up the familiar, rickety stairs. He could feel himself getting more nervous with each step. What if this was horribly awkward without the buffer of other people being around? He thought back to his and Aang’s conversation and briefly considered asking Sokka out at the end of their session. He shook his head and threw the idea out just as fast as he thought of it.

He finally reached the door and knocked on it a few times. He bounced on his heels for a second before the door opened dramatically, Sokka on the other side.

He was dressed much more casually than their past meetings. He wore a pair of grey sweatpants and a soft-looking, worn tank top. His hair was down and had a few beaded braids in the front, his glasses pushed on top of his head. It took all of Zuko’s willpower to not jump him right then and there.

“Did you bring me coffee?” Sokka asked, his familiar smile plastered on his face. Zuko nodded and held out the cup for him. Sokka took it and looked at the label. “Aw, and you remembered my order? It’s official, you are my favorite student now.”

Sokka held the door open for Zuko as he walked in. He had always liked Aang’s apartment. It had huge windows allowing lots of sunlight in, which was necessary considering how many house plants the guy kept. His furniture consisted of several mis-matched, colorful items that were definitely found at thrift stores. Before he could take another step, a huge, fluffy dog bounded up to him. He managed to save his iced coffee, holding it above his head before the dog could knock it out of his hands.

“Hey, buddy,” Zuko scratched behind the dog’s soft ears. Appa licked his hand a little more enthusiastically than Zuko would have liked.

“Isn’t he the best?” Sokka walked over to the big, orange couch that took up most of the living room space and plopped down on one end. Appa followed him and sat happily at his feet, letting Sokka scratch his belly. It was horribly cute. “One of these days, I’m just gonna steal him. We’re gonna leave town and run away together into the sunset. Aang will never know.”

Zuko let out a small laugh and sat on the opposite end of the couch. He started to set his stuff on the coffee table in front of them, next to where Sokka’s things were strewn about. He glanced at the mess – several notebooks with complicated-looking equations written in sloppy handwriting, some big sheets of paper with what Zuko assumed were blueprints to something, and a few textbooks whose titles alone could have given Zuko a headache. He noticed that Sokka doodled a lot in his notes, too.

Sokka made a grab for Zuko’s notebook and kicked his feet up on the table while he looked at the most recent pages. Thank God, Zuko hadn’t drawn anything embarrassing in them. This time.

“Alright, so, estimation of parameters? Not too bad, but definitely boring as hell. How did your class go this week?” He took his glasses from where they sat atop his head and put them on. Zuko watched as he tucked some of his hair behind his ear. He realized he hadn’t seen Sokka with his hair down before, one of the many things that occupied his daydreams. It looked good. He definitely did not think about how it would feel if he were to grab a handful of it, or if Sokka liked having it pulled. He absolutely did not think about those things.

Sokka looked up and raised an eyebrow at him, and Zuko realized he was waiting for an answer. Okay, Zuko needed to get it together. This was a strictly professional relationship. Sokka saw him as nothing more than some lame student that probably couldn’t do long division if his life depended on it.

“Not great. I didn’t really grasp the concept in class,” Zuko trailed off. He knew Sokka wouldn’t judge him, but he couldn’t help feeling embarrassed that he was so bad at this subject.

“That’s fine! Let’s start with simple linear regression . . .” Sokka scooted a little closer to Zuko in order to point to his notes and textbook. It made Zuko want to spontaneously combust, just a little bit.

As always, Sokka explained the topic smoothly and Zuko, miraculously, understood. He was beginning to think that Sokka was doing witchcraft in secret. Maybe he had stolen a lock of Zuko’s hair at some point and made a little voodoo doll with it that he spoke incantations over. Zuko was sure that was more in the realm of possibility than him actually getting it on his own.

After half an hour of studying, Sokka decided it was time to take a break. Zuko watched his muscles flex as he stretched his arms above his head dramatically and made for Aang’s kitchen. He rooted around for a while before bringing back some generic-brand chips. He must be pretty close with Aang to be so comfortable in his apartment. Or, maybe Aang just let him do what he wanted since he was dating Sokka’s sister. Zuko wondered how they had never run into each other before now, considering how close their social circles were.

Sokka sat back down on the couch, another few inches closer, and held out the open bag casually. Zuko took a few chips with a grin. Sokka tucked his feet under him, his right knee bumping Zuko’s left one gently. Zuko had already gone through the seven stages of gay panic in the time Sokka grabbed a remote from the table and turned on Aang’s TV.

“Ever watch Bob’s Burgers?” Sokka asked, flipping through different streaming apps quickly.

“Of course, I’m not a complete recluse,” Zuko said. The joke earned him a little laugh from Sokka. It was softer than his usual raucous, loud one, but it still made Zuko want to sigh dramatically like some love-stricken Shakespearean figure.

They watched an episode together, eating chips and chuckling occasionally. Zuko realized all of the nervous energy that was swirling around in his gut had completely dissipated. There was something about Sokka that set him at ease. Zuko wished he could have that comforting energy around all the time.

The episode they watched followed Bob and Linda going to some hipster party where the host was serving homemade whiskey. Sokka said it was one of his favorite episodes.

“I tried to make homemade booze like that once,” he giggled, as the characters continued to get more and more drunk on screen. “It, uh, didn’t end very well.”

“I have to hear more about this,” Zuko laughed. He didn’t doubt what Sokka said at all; he seemed like the exact type of person to do something that stupid, and he had the brains to pull it off.

“Well, early last year there was one weekend that we were completely snowed in,” Zuko remembered that weekend. It had snowed almost a foot and a half, and he spent the whole weekend by himself, with no one to bother him. It was great. “I was bored out of my mind. So, like any respectable college student, I decided to make moonshine in my tiny dorm kitchen.” Zuko let out another laugh. This man was going to be the death of him.

“I already had most of the stuff I needed,” He continued. “I rigged this whole setup, including but not limited to a pressure cooker, a 10-gallon pot, and lots of tubing. I even went out and bought a bunch of cherries and pickles to soak in the shit when it was done. I would have gotten away with it, too, but one of my roommates scheduled a room inspection without telling us.” Zuko must have made a surprised face at that, because Sokka burst into a fit of laughter.

“How are still allowed to attend this school?” Zuko asked incredulously.

“I think the RA was too impressed to be mad. She told us she wouldn’t do anything if I promised to throw all of the stuff out,” Sokka shook his head mournfully. “It was a sad day. I had a funeral for the pressure cooker and everything.”

“You’re insane,” Zuko pointed out, looking over at Sokka.

“Only a little bit,” He replied, a crooked grin on his face.

Zuko couldn’t stop himself from staring again. Here was this perfect person in front of him, someone who looked like he sprung straight from the pages of Men’s Health but was also a certified genius who made illegal liquor in his free time. Zuko was so, so fucked.

After an attempt to pay attention and make his brain shut up, he noticed Sokka was raising an eyebrow at him.

“Is there a reason you’re blushing like that?” Sokka was even closer to him now, enough that Zuko could smell his cologne. It reminded him of the ocean on a sunny day mixed with campfire smoke. His arm was propped against the back of the couch and his voice was noticeably lower and Zuko couldn’t tear his eyes away.

Fuck it, Zuko decided. School policy be damned.

Zuko lifted his hand to Sokka’s cheek and quickly, before he could convince himself to stop, pulled him in for a kiss. It had a little more force than he intended, causing Sokka to make a surprised sound. It was only a chaste press of lips, and Zuko pulled away just as fast as he initiated it.

They looked at each other for a second. Sokka blinked at Zuko. Every alarm bell and whistle were going off in Zuko’s head – abort mission, cancel, retreat! But before Zuko could move, Sokka had his hands on Zuko’s waist and shoulders and was pushing him back onto the cushions roughly. Zuko’s head hit the arm of the couch, definitely leaving a bruise, though that was the last thing he was worrying about in the current moment.

Sokka kissed him back hard. His lips were soft and supple and everything Zuko had hoped for and more. He brought up a hand to Zuko’s cheek (the unscarred one, thankfully), which was big enough so when he spread out his hand, he could thread his fingers through Zuko’s hair.

Zuko opened his mouth in invitation and Sokka took it. As Sokka kissed him even deeper, Zuko realized he could finally do all of the things he had been daydreaming about. He brought his hands up to Sokka’s neck and brushed them over his undercut, then softly grabbed fistfuls of his hair. Sokka moaned hotly into Zuko’s mouth.

Sokka nipped at Zuko’s bottom lip, then continued a trail of kisses down the line of his throat. He began to suck at a spot on Zuko’s neck, just enough to be teasing. Zuko had to bite down on his lip from making any embarrassing noises. He started to slide his hands under Sokka’s shirt, the skin there warm and tight, but Sokka froze. He suddenly stopped, letting his head fall onto Zuko’s shoulder as he laughed nervously.

“Shit. Shit,” Sokka sat up, knee still in between Zuko’s legs. “Look, uh, I’m sorry. This is like, so unprofessional, and I am breaking so many rules, and taking advantage on so many levels.” He pressed his fingers into his eyes and stood. “Fuck, I’m so sorry.”

Zuko sat up, confused. He blinked a few times and shook his head, as if it would make the fog that had clouded his brain go away.

“Uh, It’s fine. Don’t worry about it,” Zuko said, finally. It was not fine, though. He wanted to find a cave to crawl into and pass away, never to be found. Of course, Sokka wouldn’t actually be interested in him. Even if he was, he was too good of a person to break any serious rules that his job had in place.

Zuko started to put his things back into his bag. He stood and looked at Sokka, who was biting his nails and knitting his eyebrows together.

“We can just forget about it,” Zuko said, even though that was the opposite of what he wanted to do. “Seriously, it’s no big deal.”

“Are you sure?” And the sincerity in Sokka’s voice sent a stab right through Zuko’s heart.

“Yeah, of course,” Zuko paused. God, this was all his fault. He fucked up and embarrassed himself in front of the most beautiful man on earth. And, as the cherry on top, he probably lost the best tutor he ever had. Time to kiss that passing C away, Zuko thought miserably. “Look, this was my fault. So, I totally understand if you never want to see me again, but . . .” Zuko sighed. This sucked. “I really need to pass this class, and you’re the only person that has actually helped me understand this stuff.”

“Hey, you don’t even have to ask,” Sokka’s hands fidgeted at his side, like he couldn’t decide what to do with them. He ended up crossing his arms in front of his chest. “Of course, I’ll still tutor you. How could I say no to my favorite student?” He gave Zuko a smile, but it didn’t have its usual brightness behind it.

“Thanks, Sokka. I, uh. I should probably head out.” Zuko clutched the strap of his backpack and headed towards the door.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’ll see you next week, then?” Something in Sokka’s voice sounded strained.

Zuko gave him a small nod and left without another word.

He all but ran down the stairs and out of the apartment building. Fuck. Fuck, how could he be so stupid? He felt his throat go dry and blinked back a few tears, hoping he was walking fast enough so that no one would notice.

Zuko took a deep breath and tried to calm himself down. It was fine. He just had to get through two more sessions with Sokka and then he had the final and would never have to see him again. Two more hours of his life and that was it. Surely, he could get through that without embarrassing himself any more than he already had.

***

The last month of the semester passed in a haze of over-caffeination and late nights spent pouring over textbooks. Zuko had two final papers, several exams to study for, and a short screenplay due all at once. It was awful

The most awful, though, was having to spend time with Sokka and keep his feelings from exploding out of his chest. Sokka, professional as ever, treated Zuko just like when they had first met. As if nothing had ever happened.

Zuko noticed Sokka seemed to be on the same level of frazzled and stressed out as he was, though. During their last session, he gulped down three cups of coffee and Zuko did not make any comments about how bad his eye bags were. Finals spared no man, apparently, even if you happened to be the most captivating one on the planet.

As Zuko was gathering his things to leave he must have looked even more sad and constipated than usual, because Sokka offered him a small smile. He carefully placed a reassuring hand on Zuko’s shoulder as they both stood.

“Don’t worry, buddy, you’re gonna do fine on the exam. You’re easily my best student, and I’m not just saying that because you remembered my coffee order,” Sokka gave his shoulder a squeeze and then let his hand drop. “Take it easy, okay?”

Zuko smiled back at him. “You, too.”

And Sokka had been right. Zuko was now convinced that the man was a secretly a witch, because his math final was one of the easiest things he had ever done. He breezed through it and was one of the first to leave the testing room. If Zuko cared a little less about what his classmates thought, he probably would have skipped out of there.

He was more than relieved. The Prob and Stats final had been his last one of the semester, and now he was finally free. It almost made his heartache better. Almost.

It did put him in a good enough mood, however, to accept Aang’s invitation to his end-of-semester party. It was thanks to that decision that he was now stuffed in Aang’s tiny kitchen, listening to Ty Lee talk about how she was going to be leading a prenatal yoga class over the summer and how she was just so excited for it.

Zuko sipped from his drink and nodded along to her chatter. He was only half-paying attention, as he kept glancing around the room. The tiny apartment was packed with people and Zuko was beginning to regret his attendance. A small part of him hoped to see Sokka again, though he didn’t have to admit that to anyone but himself.

After a few more minutes of listening to Ty Lee, he made eye contact with Aang and raised his eyebrows in what he hoped conveyed please help me, I love Ty Lee but I hate talking to people, sort of gesture. Aang nodded and made his way to Zuko, Katara trailing closely behind him.

“Hey, Zuko, Ty Lee, I’m glad you guys made it!” He gave both of them a hug, a small price to pay for getting him out of more talk about how different yoga poses can help alleviate birthing pains.

Ty Lee squeezed Aang back, thanking him for the invite, and then excused herself to go look for her girlfriend. Something about making sure she wasn’t terrorizing anyone too much.

“Why did you need the save?” Aang asked, filling his and Katara’s cups with water.

“Better that you don’t know,” Zuko replied. He felt confident that Aang would survive without a run-down of their conversation. Aang shrugged his shoulders and leaned against the counter.

“Alright then, anyways . . . I don’t think you and Katara have met, officially,” He offered.

“No, but I’ve heard plenty about you,” Katara raised a knowing eyebrow. He wasn’t really sure what she meant by that. Sure, they shared a lot of mutual friends, and he and Aang knew each other pretty well, but who would she be talking about? It isn’t like he went out of his way to make lasting impressions on people. Katara sighed at him. “My brother is your tutor. You know, Sokka? Stupid hair, even worse decision-making skills?”

“I don’t think his hair is stupid,” Zuko said dumbly. How did Katara even know that? The only way she could is if Sokka . . .

“Of course, you don’t. He talks about you all the time, about how you’re one of the only students who actually tries to do well, or how cool and mysterious you are,” She gestured to Zuko’s general direction vaguely and took a sip from her solo cup. “I guess I can see it.”

Aang crossed his arms and frowned. “Hey! I’m right here.” Zuko could tell he was definitely just doing it to get her attention. It worked. Katara giggled and wrapped an arm around his waist.

“Oh, please. Sokka would probably murder me before I could even think about flirting with you, Zuko.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Zuko snapped. He already knew Sokka wasn’t interested. No point getting his hopes up again.

“You two are perfect for each other,” Katara rolled her eyes fondly. “Look, he should be around here somewhere. You should ask him yourself what it means.”

“He made it pretty clear that he wasn’t interested.” Zuko frowned and took a gulp from his cup. Aang had concocted some sort of fruity, red punch for the party that tasted like it contained no alcohol whatsoever. Zuko prayed that wasn’t the case.

“So?” Aang asked. “I mean, the semester’s over. He isn’t your tutor anymore.”

Zuko considered this for a moment. Aang was right, he wouldn’t technically be breaking any rules now. He wondered if that was the only reason that Sokka turned him down. He did kiss Zuko back, but he also could have just done that out of pity.

“Don’t think too hard about that, I feel like smoke is gonna start coming out of your ears any second,” Katara joked. She wasn’t wrong.

“I think, uh, I’m gonna go get some air,” Aang and Katara nodded, and Zuko refilled his cup before leaving the kitchen.

Zuko weaved his way through all the people that somehow made it on Aang’s guest list. He saw a few people he knew from the theater club and did his best to not make eye contact. Zuko eventually made his way down a hallway that he knew led to the fire escape. The window had been left open, a cool breeze making the curtains billow softly. He was relieved to see no one was out there.

Zuko climbed through the window and sat on the landing, letting his legs dangle through the bars. There wasn’t much of a view as Aang’s apartment was only on the third floor, but the fresh air was nice. It was the perfect mix of warm and humid that only happened on summer evenings. Zuko took a deep breath, letting the thickness of it fill his lungs.

Katara’s comment kept invading his thoughts. Sokka talked about him. He talked about how he thought Zuko was cool and mysterious. He talked about Zuko enough for Katara to think that they were perfect for each other. But, Sokka had been the one to reject him. If he wasn’t interested, then why say all that stuff?

Zuko let his head hit the bars in front of him and groaned. Maybe he could just get a bunch of shitty jobs that summer and he would be too busy to think about Sokka. Yeah, right.

A soft knock from behind Zuko made him jump, bringing him out of his thoughts.

“Hey,” a familiar voice said. Zuko whipped around and to find Sokka standing on the other side of the window. “Aang said you might be out here.” Traitor. “Mind if I join?”

Zuko nodded and gestured to the space next to him. Sokka climbed through the window carefully and sat next to Zuko, so that their thighs almost touching. He didn’t say anything, and Zuko sure as hell wasn’t going to start the conversation.

“So,” Sokka said, after a few seconds, “How’d your final go?”

“It actually went really well. I haven’t gotten the grade back yet, but I’m not worried about it. I should thank you, really,” Zuko smiled as Sokka knocked their shoulders together. It only made his heart hurt a tiny bit.

“That’s great! What can I say, yet another School of Sokka Success Story,” He puffed out his chest proudly and laughed at his own joke. Zuko would deny that he laughed, too. “But seriously, I’m proud of you, man. I know that class is super hard, and you pushed through it. You did a good job.” His voice was softer now, with less bravado than before.

“Thank you,” Zuko replied. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes, watching the moon rise in the sky. Zuko wondered how late it was getting. He usually only stayed for a short appearance at these things. It probably wouldn’t hurt to make an exception for Sokka, just this once.

“Can I say something?” Sokka said, so quietly that Zuko almost missed it. When he looked over, Sokka seemed to be nervous. His eyes were wide, and he was wringing his hands together. Zuko nodded at him. “I know I already said this but, uh, I’m sorry for that day. When I was dog-sitting for Aang. It was really unprofessional of me to do that.”

“Not like you kissed me first,” Zuko said, a little more angrily than he meant it to be. Sokka looked a little stunned at that.

“Look, Zuko,” he let out a huff of air. The sound of his own name in Sokka’s mouth sent a chill up his spine. “I came out here to say that I want to try again.”

“What?” Zuko turned his head to look at Sokka. His expression was tender and honest and Zuko wished he would stop looking at him that way.

Sokka turned so his body was facing Zuko’s, his legs crossed. He leaned over and, reverently, tucked a piece of hair behind Zuko’s ear, being careful around his scar. His hand lingered on the nape of Zuko’s neck. Sokka had leaned in closer, enough that Zuko could feel his breath on his own cheek.

“Can I?” Sokka asked. As if Zuko would ever say no to him.

In place of an answer, Zuko brought his hand up to cup Sokka’s jaw and closed the small gap between them.

It was different than the previous kiss they had shared. It was shy, much less urgent. Zuko moved so he could hold Sokka’s bicep with his other hand, like he had thought about so many times. The feeling of his skin sent sparks of electricity up Zuko’s fingertips. Sokka’s arm was hard and warm and Zuko decided he was going to find out if the rest of his body felt the same way, even if it killed him. There was a very high chance that it would.

Sokka kissed him back cautiously. Everything about the way he did it – how gentle he was, how he stroked Zuko’s hair, how he sighed into it – made Zuko feel safer than he ever had before. It was almost too much for him to bear.

Zuko, reluctantly, broke off the kiss, slightly scared that he might die from all of the emotions running rampant in his body.

“Will you go out with me?” Sokka blurted out, still holding onto Zuko. It almost made him jump with how sudden it was. “Uh, please?”

Zuko laughed and kissed him again. And once more, for good luck. When he pulled back, Sokka was blinking slowly and had a dopey grin on his face.

“Of course, I will, dumbass,” Zuko answered.

Zuko let his head rest on Sokka’s shoulder as they watched the stars begin to appear above them. He wasn’t sure what would happen next, but, for once, he was eager to find out.

***

Epilogue.

 

“Sokka, can you call my phone? I can’t find it and we’re going to be late,” Zuko was frantically searching his apartment while fixing his tie. It was the opening night of a local short film festival and his was the headliner. He was beyond stressed.

“Yeah, babe,” Sokka called from the other room. Zuko heard a faint buzzing, but he couldn’t pinpoint where it was coming from. “Wait, I think I found it – “ Zuko was too busy checking his bag for the sixth time to notice that Sokka went quiet. That was, until he marched into the living room with a grin plastered on his face, holding up Zuko’s still-ringing phone.

“How did I not know that my name in your phone is Sokka Hot Tutor?” Zuko went bright red. They had been dating for six months now and he hadn’t even thought about changing the contact name.

Sokka walked up to him and handed Zuko his phone. He took it guiltily, and Sokka just shook his head at him. He began to re-do Zuko’s tie, arranging it into a perfect knot.

“I forgot to change it, I guess. Besides, it’s still accurate,” Sokka rolled his eyes at Zuko’s line. He smoothed down the front Zuko’s tie and brought his hand up to cup his face.

“You are going to be the death of me,” Sokka grinned, using Zuko’s tie to pull him into a quick kiss. “Now, come on, we don’t want to be late.”

Sokka opened the door and swept his arm toward it, bowing dramatically. “After you, Zuko Hot Boyfriend.”