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Relief Next to Me

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Just about all of the comfortable, even extravagant lodgings the gang came across in the past several months have been short-lived, Sokka thinks — mostly thanks to their relentless, fiery pursuit by Zuko and his abominable sister. Thus, he tries not to get his hopes up for any sort of longevity as Appa touches down in back of the Fire Lord’s beach house on Ember Island.

But he does have to check he’s not drooling.

In large, imposing clusters, particularly when nestled into the heart of a dormant volcano, imperial Fire Nation architecture can be intimidating. A striking-fear-in-one’s-heart level of intimidating, even.

But this — a luxurious, summer getaway, tucked away on a hill between palm trees and a crag of rock on an island where wearing sleeves is optional — takes the cake.

While Katara, ever pragmatic, questions the safety of staying in what is technically the Fire Lord’s own home, Sokka envisions himself sipping lychee juice on the sand as he lands a slap to Zuko’s shoulder and sighs, “I think if you’d followed ‘hello, Zuko here’ with ‘I have a beach house’, things might’ve gone a bit more smoothly at the start.”

Toph laughs, hopefully at him — she knows what I’m talking about — but Zuko gives him that ever-present distasteful look from the corner of his eye. “Don’t get too excited,” mutters Zuko. His nostrils flare. Sokka thinks he needs a massage. He wouldn’t even put it past the Fire Lord to have a hot stone masseuse in his beach house. “I was here a few months ago. I sincerely doubt anyone’s cleaned the place in close to a decade.”

“That’s alright. Toph loves cleaning,” Katara remarks as she hops up the steps to the doorway.

“Listen, sweetness, these floors are stone, and I will find you in the middle of the night.”

It’s gray and dusty inside, but Aang sweeps open curtains as they go, letting pale, purpley early evening sunlight pour in and bleed across the dusty floors. Sokka wanders through in a trance, hacks up the occasional cough at the dust he kicks up. The tapestries are elegant and the ceilings high — and it’s wondrous, really, how his expectations have inflated since first laying eyes on houses that didn’t melt in even moderate heat.

“Look at this!” Sokka screeches as he steps out into an expansive stone courtyard. His voice… it echoes. He whips out his boomerang and sends it whirling in an arc that doesn’t even scrape the columns on the courtyard’s perimeter. Before his boomerang’s back in his hand, he’s already reaching for the hilt of his space sword — “I’m challenging every single one of you to a duel if that’s what it takes to get to rough someone up out here!” — but has to falter when he recalls he’s probably left it on Appa’s saddle. In grasping for his nonexistent sword, he sees over his shoulder that he is, in fact, alone, and takes a leftward step just in time for the boomerang to whiz past his face and bury itself in a wooden pillar. Ozai won’t mind.

Sokka traipses inside, back up the grand staircase. “Why does no one care about the huge —”

“I call the one with the window toward the beach!” Aang shouts. Sokka stands at the top of the stairs, clutching the handrail, eyebrow raised, and somehow in sync, everyone appears in separate doorways. Katara offers him a sympathetic smile.

“Look, Sokka, there’s only five bedrooms,” she says reluctantly, as if Sokka hasn’t slept comfortably on rocks and dirt and a flying bison. Suki smiles kindly but evades his eyes, hugging herself in her doorway, and… it’s fine. It’s fine! He won’t get all angsty about it. It’s only day two since she told him she might be in need of a bit of space, given the… well, the circumstances. The flaming comet hurtling their way, for one. Totally understandable. Of course Sokka wants it all to be over for the good of mankind and the planet and whatever, but also so they can ‘reevaluate’ things like she said they could.

“The bed in my room is kind of big, though,” Katara offers, “if you want to —”

“I’m not made of paper, Katara,” Sokka huffs. “Don’t be dramatic. All of you.” He bats the air aimlessly to shoo away the mildly guilty look on Aang’s face.

“Katara’s just concerned you’ll throw a fit if you don’t get a fancy bed,” Toph says, turning in her respective doorway. “Please don’t be more annoying tomorrow when you find out you hate the couch. Wake me up when dinner’s ready.” She slams her door shut.

Sokka resolutely ignores her. “I’ll be perfectly fine on the couch.” Momo chirps as he hops onto Sokka’s shoulder. “We’ll be perfectly fine on the couch.” If it’s a couch fit for Fire Lords, Sokka has nothing to worry about.

He should probably ask Zuko if Fire Lords sleep on hot coals.

Granted, he doesn’t really have time. Zuko snaps his fingers and points at Sokka — no, not Sokka, the staircase — and says, “Avatar, courtyard. Fifty hot squats to warm up.” As Zuko stalks past, his eyes flit over Sokka like he’s a piece of shit on the side of the road.

Aang follows, dragging his feet. Momo, the traitor, lopes onto Aang’s shoulder in passing. At Sokka, Aang makes a dramatic, long-suffering grimace, but when Zuko calls from outside, “Keep me waiting and I’ll make it a hundred,” Aang shoots off in a dusty sprint that leaves both Sokka and Momo in a sneezing fit at the top of the stairs.

 


 

Sokka will have to have a talk with the Fire Lord’s royal carpenter.

He’s ninety percent sure dragons are, like, gone, but he wouldn’t be too surprised to find out that dragon’s leather couches have been passed down in the royal family and placed in their many beach houses. More specifically, tough, age-hardened dragon’s leather couches stuffed with tiny, jagged rocks, and, for good measure, an elusive, peanut-sized lump that jabs Sokka in his lower back whenever he reclines but disappears when he pats around to locate it.

Anyhow, sleep has kept its loving distance from Sokka for what feels like hours. It doesn’t help that the wide, airy space of the living room is filled with what, during the daytime, were Fire Nation battle memorabilia, but in the dark are sinister shadows; suits of armor and weapons on display, blood-red tapestries that billow whenever a gust of ocean air slips through the window. It’s fucking haunting, and Sokka can’t close his eyes without hearing the rustle of tapestries on metal, fully convinced he can’t rule out the possibility that the armor will come alive and firebend him to a crisp on this dreadful couch.

He doesn’t want to give in to Katara’s offer when she more than deserves a night away from his snoring, but tonight, if he doesn’t snore at all, he’ll be letting Toph win when he inevitably wakes up grouchy.

He tiptoes into the hallway, stands where he’d stood earlier as Zuko and Aang brushed past. He remembers… he remembers Toph’s door, where she’d been when she’d insulted him. Remembers Aang’s window faces the beach, remembers where Suki had been when she hadn’t looked at him. That leaves two. He chances the first of the remaining options, light on his toes as he slides the door open and shut again behind him.

The room is dark, and Katara’s nothing but a dark-haired, unmoving lump under the covers. As Sokka lifts the sheets, he drones, “Yeah, yeah, you were right, I didn’t like the couch, shut up,” and slips underneath, sighs with bliss at the feeling of sinking into a proper mattress.

Sokka must have knocked right out, because when he’s compelled to peel open his eyes, it’s to the glaring light of a damnably early sunrise whiting out his vision. He grunts as he squints against it, attempts to lift his hand to shield his eyes, only to realize his arm’s trapped underneath a rather heavy weight.

Katara’s a hugger, he knows this. It’s not that often that she hugs Sokka, unless he’s fresh out of peril or giving her a begrudging apology, but it isn’t completely out of the ordinary for her to seek out a cuddle when she’s feeling her lowest. She’d seemed herself the day before, though, so he’ll probably have to ask a probing question and make sure she talks it out before it all bubbles up and she explodes.

What Sokka is slowly registering, though, still trying to block out the sun with his fingers, is that the weight on him doesn’t feel like Katara or smell like Katara. There’s plenty of dark hair pillowed on his chest that he has to spit out, but Sokka’s palm rests openly on a warm, bare, hard upper back, and — spirits

“You’re not Katara!” he squawks.

Zuko, who is, indeed, slumped over Sokka’s chest, blinks open startled, sleepy eyes, takes one look at their compromising position, and scrambles backward to the other side of the bed, clutching the sheets to his chest like he’s got something to hide. His hair sticks up in the front like a messenger hawk’s feathers, presumably where it’d been matted to Sokka’s chest. “You’re not — you’re — I don’t know who I thought you were!” Zuko rasps, and he whips around like he’s checking there isn’t an audience in his bedroom. “Why are you in my bed?”

Sokka flounders. “I thought this was Katara’s room!”

Zuko squints at him, then gestures wildly around his scar, as if that proves something. “Clearly —”

“It was dark!”

Zuko’s lips pinch together tightly. Then he turns to face the foot of the bed, lets the sheets slip from his grasp so he can bury his face in his hands. Sokka forgets they’re having a conversation, or fighting, or whatever they’re doing, because he’s looking at the meat of Zuko’s biceps. They flex as he scrubs at his face in anguish. “You weren’t in here when I fell asleep,” Zuko states, muffled by his palms.

Sokka blinks, warily looks at Zuko’s profile. His brows furrow, because, well, that much should be obvious. He’s tempted to ask Zuko if he cozies up to everyone in his sleep, but he already looks mortified, so instead, Sokka asks the second-to-worst question: “You… you sleep okay?”

Zuko drops his hands and glares Sokka’s way. He seems to hesitate, though, his fingers doing a strange tangley thing in his lap. “Yeah.” Zuko looks at the wall again. “Better than I have in ages.”

Sokka wasn’t expecting such a lukewarm answer, so his hackles are up for nothing. “Riiiight.” He feels a belated, unpleasant flush come to his cheeks. “Well, according to my solar calculations, it looks to be about five in the morning, which means it’s a new day, which means I should be getting up to do…” He grimaces, rubs his hand up the back of his neck, feels exposed when he remembers his hair is down. Not that Zuko hasn’t already seen him in this vulnerable state — Sokka can still feel rose thorns clawing their way down his throat.

Right. Sentence. Finish. He smiles, forced. “Things. By the way, have you ever slept on that couch?” He whisks the sheets away, ties his hair up as he stumbles from the bed. “I’d like to do a survey of anyone who has. For science. Okay, bye.” He slams Zuko’s door shut with too much vigor.

Out in the hallway, he can finally take a breath. But after that breath, he has to confront the fact that Toph is in her doorway, frowning in his direction and looking for all the world like she’s gotten up on the wrong side of the bed — the wrongest side, at that. He’s never seen her hair so messy. He pictures her rolling off the foot of the bed.

“I heard screaming,” she explains, blank.

Sokka says nothing, tries not to even breathe, and takes what he thinks is a sneaky backward step.

“Sokka,” says Toph immediately, and Sokka’s eyes bulge out of his head. “Why were you in Zuko’s room?” She frowns in thought. “Your heart’s beating real fast. I hope you didn’t kill him. We’ll be shit out of luck if you — ah, no, there he is.” Sokka hears the bed creak beyond Zuko’s door, then sets off in a purposeful, huffy speed-walk toward the stairs.

“Whatever,” mutters Toph, and whips her door shut.

 


 

As not to feel useless while the jerks with bending capabilities practice the various arts of jerkbending, Sokka convinces Suki to explore the island with him, head into town in search of food and important supplies and… whatever. Naturally, he’s sidetracked by news of a fucking play about the Boomeraang Squad’s months on the road — or in the air, ha — that everyone else insists would be a waste of time. At dinner, having just scarfed down the last of his stew, he’s planning on sneaking off post-meal to go see it — alone, he thinks bitterly, aiming a side-eye at Katara — when Zuko sits down next to him, his bowl still full and steaming. Next to him, as in… as next to Sokka as he could be.

Zuko doesn’t even look at him. Just cups his bowl in his hands, stares into it as if he finds the tasteless lumps floating in broth mesmerizing.

Sokka casts a glance around the posh, still-dusty dining room. Everyone is absorbed as Toph explains the intricacies of metalbending, because all benders can talk about is bending, apparently. Sokka clears his throat, then says, “Hello?”

Zuko places his bowl on the table, shaken from some undetectable reverie. “Sorry,” he mutters, looking Sokka’s way but not at him. He continues to eyeball the stew. “I just thought it would be appropriate to, uh… apologize.” The tips of Zuko’s hair seem to tickle his eyelids. “For last night. This morning.”

Sokka snorts and leans back in his chair until it teeters on its back legs. Apologetic Zuko is a breed of Zuko he has yet to fully get used to. “You’re apologizing? I’m the one who accidentally ambushed you.” He shrugs, laces his fingers behind his neck. “For all we know, maybe in your sleep you thought I was, like… a giant pillow.”

Zuko grimaces. His fist clenches around air on the tabletop. “Your chest is too hard to be a pillow.”

Sokka promptly eats it — as in, he loses any modicum of balance his body has ever held and topples backward in his chair. “I’m okay!” he screeches before he’s even landed on the floor. It’s carpeted, but the impact knocks the wind out of him. The room goes silent, and the worst part might be that he doesn’t even have a chance to regain his dignity, because Aang airbends both him and his chair into an upright position. Everyone’s staring at him, which is unsurprising; everyone but Zuko, that is, who has a faint twist to his lip, vaguely smile-like. Katara lets out a giggle, to which Sokka says, “Shut up,” only to be humbled by a chorus of laughter from the whole table.

Then Toph, putting him out of his misery, starts, “As I was saying, before Mr. Klutzy Bumbles ate shit while seated…”

Sokka rolls his eyes.

Under the cover of Toph’s overloud voice, Zuko murmurs, “I just meant you’re bony.”

Sokka gapes. He doesn’t make the mistake of leaning back in his chair again, but his voice does rise an octave. “Bony? Dude, I think what you felt was rock-hard muscle.”

“You were flexing in your sleep?”

“If you train hard enough, your muscles will always be well-defined —”

“Sure.” Zuko actually looks at him that time, assesses him, but it’s vaguely condescending. Sokka squints back. It’s not of much use when Zuko looks into his bowl again. “It’s just… I don’t think I’ve had a good night’s sleep in three years. Not even when I was back at the Fire Nation, supposedly redeemed. Except…” He folds his arms over his chest. “You know that girlfriend I mentioned?”

Sokka blinks, then nods. “Dark and twisty, knives in her sleeves? Saved our asses at the Boiling Rock?”

“Yeah.” Zuko pauses, then sighs. “I could never sleep unless she was there with me.”

Sokka nods again, tries to digest the fact that Zuko is maybe-probably opening up to him. Despite that, he swiftly smirks. “Were you her wittle spoon?” he simpers, tickles his fingers into Zuko’s ribs.

Zuko’s hand whips out like lightning to grab Sokka by the wrist, and his palm goes frighteningly hot on Sokka’s skin. But when Sokka wrenches his arm away with a shriek, he’s unharmed. Just warm. Zuko mutters, “You’re a numbskull,” then rises to take his bowl to the kitchen.

Katara, ever the observant one, gives him a disapproving look across the table. Sokka smiles with utmost innocence and excuses himself to go ready his couch — sleeping quarters. Quarters of slumber!

Yeah, alright, the damn couch.

 


 

That night, Sokka only waits until the last of the lanterns has been snuffed, the beds have finished creaking and the doors sighing shut. Even Momo doesn’t curl up by his feet for long; the second Sokka sits up on the miserable couch, Momo leaps off toward the open window to join Appa, snoozing out in the courtyard.

Sokka’s feet guide him again to Zuko’s door.

He can see what he now knows is Katara’s door. Logically, it would only take him three more steps to get there.

And yet, here he is.

He doesn’t hate Zuko, not in that way he’d become accustomed to throwing that feeling of hatred around, back when Zuko had… well, embarrassed Sokka in front of his whole tribe. Tried to kidnap Aang. Stalked them. Shot fire from his fists at them all on multiple occasions. But in the end, he’d helped Sokka get Suki and his dad back, so… in Sokka’s mind, it almost makes up for the fireballs.

Sokka jumps when Zuko’s door slides open. Behind it, Zuko is shirtless again, cupping a flame in the upturned palm of his hand. His face faintly aglow, Sokka realizes he looks less than amused, but then he steps aside with a sigh. “If you’re going to come in, it’d be nice if you didn’t stand out there all night breathing on my door like a creep.”

“I wasn’t —!” Well, of course he was breathing. “I wasn’t creeping,” protests Sokka, but he schleps in past Zuko, shoulders slumped. “Can’t a man have a moment to think?”

“Not outside my door.”

It’s a bizarre thing to witness, Sokka thinks, as he and Zuko head for their respective sides of the bed. Zuko climbs under the covers, lays on his back like a corpse, but he waits, flame flickering in hand, as Sokka unties his hair and wrestles his way onto the bed. It’s as devastatingly comfortable as it was twenty-four hours ago.

A bed in the Fire Lord’s beach house would be overzealously pillowed. Sokka takes one of the many throw pillows and props it up between himself and Zuko decisively. “There. Now you don’t have to worry about… I dunno. Waking up with my drool on your hair.” He’s not sure why he can’t bring himself to sound disgusted.

Zuko extinguishes the fire and the room goes dark. “Great.”

Sokka can hear him, not see him. It’s unsettling.

But the bed is exceptionally comfy.

“Well… good night, then,” Sokka says, yawning.

Zuko grunts somewhere beyond the barricade, three feet away.

Sokka falls asleep in something like three heartbeats.

 


 

Sokka snaps into wakefulness. It’s still dark, and it takes a moment for his eyes to adjust, but there’s no need to wait to notice Zuko thrashing on the other side of the bed.

“Zuko?” he whispers, sleep-rough, and then Zuko sits up ramrod straight, gasping and grasping at his hair. Sokka watches his dark silhouette as he hunches over his lap, dragging in harsh, deep breaths like he’s gulping air.

Sokka props himself up on his elbows. “Everything okay over there?”

Zuko shrugs him off, as expected. “Just a nightmare. Go back to sleep.”

Sokka lifts an eyebrow. He flops back onto the sheets. “I guess if I can sleep on a flying bison, I can sleep on a trembling bed.”

In his head, he can see the snarl Zuko makes. But Zuko says nothing, remains a dark figure in the corner of Sokka’s field of vision, back rising and falling as his breaths grow slower.

Decidedly, Sokka rolls onto his side, hugs their barricade pillow to his chest and lays his cheek atop it. He smiles coyly. “Was it scary? Does the fiery prince require a cuddle?” Zuko isn’t even watching, but he adds the waggling eyebrows for effect.

“Fuck. Off.” Zuko rolls his shoulders back. A series of joints pop. Then, sighing out his nose, he grumbles, “Are you offering?”

Sokka blinks eight times. His mouth might hang open. He barely gets a breath in before Zuko sputters, “Forget I asked,” and grabs the sheet, keeling over with his back to Sokka.

Sokka swallows down his shock and chucks the pillow from his arms. “Wait!” He scoots over in the bed, nearer to Zuko, who’s motionless. Technically, they’re sharing the sheets, so the moment Sokka’s a bit closer, he can feel the warmth radiating off Zuko’s body. “Dude, I was just asleep. Give me a second to — process.”

Zuko says nothing.

Sokka hesitates, one hand hovering over Zuko’s shoulder. “So… you weren’t joking, right?”

Again, silence.

Sokka rolls his eyes. “Throw me a bone here, man, I’m —”

“No.”

Sokka stares. He has to weigh whether that’s a response to his question or his demand, and he’s pissed off Zuko too much to ask. His eyes scan him slowly, from bedhead to his shoulders — broad, probably broader than Sokka’s own — and the taper down to his waist. He chews his lip, and if he’d just be smart and listen to the warning signs his body and his fucking flushing cheeks are yelling at him, he wouldn’t sigh in surrender and hesitantly lay his arm across Zuko’s waist. But he’s not being smart. Not at this time of night.

“Alright, then, c’mere,” mutters Sokka, squirming up higher on the mattress and pulling Zuko flush to his body. It’s like some sort of bloodbending miracle the way Zuko goes pliant against him as soon as Sokka’s head hits the pillow beside his. Speaking of Sokka’s head, he’s trying pretty damn hard not to concentrate on Zuko’s firm stomach under his hand. Nope. And yet, he holds him there firmly, feels all the warmth and fire living under his skin, as if Zuko might shoot fire from his eyes any minute now.

Or breathe it, like he did in the cooler at the Boiling Rock.

Spirits, that was hot. And not just temperature-wise.

But Sokka can’t see his face, so he’ll presume his own safety until he feels a searing burn or sees himself engulfed by flames.

Zuko only breathes calmly. He might even be asleep. Sokka, on the other hand, is inadvertently breathing in Zuko’s hair whenever he reaches the brink of his held breath, and it smells clean like the trees brimming the courtyard, like the smell after a blown-out candle. Go the fuck to sleep. Zuko, though, is warm and firm and even the crooks of his knees are fitted over Sokka’s, and Sokka can’t even sure when that’d happened. He’d peer over his shoulder at the glow of the moon through the window, maybe pray a little, beg for mercy from his favorite moon spirit that he won’t have a full-on unwarranted biological reaction, but he doesn’t want to jostle Zuko.

He squeezes his eyes shut, lets his face sag into the back of Zuko’s neck.

 


 

From the pale colors painting the room, it must be dawn when Sokka opens an eye.

“Your snoring’s even worse when it’s right in my ear.”

He would leap five feet in the air like a frightened cat owl, but — he can’t. The arm beneath his body is asleep, and Zuko — fuck, Zuko — has his arm pinned under his own from elbow to fingertip. His fingers rest lightly over Sokka’s, drumming his knuckles absently.

Even worse, Sokka’s sporting some blatantly obvious morning wood against Zuko’s backside.

So… he freezes, goes rigid. “Did it keep you up?” he asks, clears his throat. His eyes are intent on the back of Zuko’s head, but still crusted with sleep.

“No. I slept through the night.”

In a high voice, Sokka breathes, “Oh.”

Like the words grind with reluctance against Zuko’s tongue on their way out, he says, measured, “Thanks to you.”

“You’re welcome,” Sokka says brightly, like he might create an adequate distraction to this dilemma with his voice. “I’ve been told I’m a good big spoon.”

Zuko turns his head then, and Sokka’s forced to look at him in profile. He looks hot in the light of dawn, like, lickable, all sleep-ruffled. Shut up! Shut up. “Have you.”

With googley eyes, Sokka mutters, “No?”

Zuko smiles at the ceiling, that faint, faint quirk of his mouth. Then he turns away again, Sokka’s arm still trapped beneath his own. A nice kind of trapped, though. Sokka’s not trying to escape. Or is he?

Against his chest, he feels the shift of Zuko’s back muscles.

Yeah, no, he’s not.

Sokka’s eyes flicker down to the… situation. “So…”

“You must’ve had a nice dream.” Zuko shifts innocuously, but probably not innocuously at all because that’s friction Sokka feels, and Sokka sucks in a sharp breath as the heat of a thousand campfires rushes to his face.

“It, uh…” He has to collect his wits, because he’s just spilled them all over the mattress. “To be fair, I don’t remember dreaming, so it’s probably… just… you.” He grimaces, blinks, draws and releases a shallow breath.

Zuko frees his arm, rolls onto his back. He considers Sokka, fingers laced over his stomach, and looks at the ceiling.

Sokka actively tries not to drool all over his chest. He gets onto his elbow, feels at his mouth — just to check.

“It’s because of me?” asks Zuko, like he’s trying to torture him. But he’s also not moving away. But he’s also not smiling. But then he shifts his thigh just so — and that gets Sokka absolutely nowhere. Are dudes this complicated, too? Sokka’s sure he’s the only simple man out there. Simple being. Simple being with simple needs. He coughs to bury a groan in his throat.

“Mhm,” Sokka confirms. His voice cracks.

“Okay.” Zuko hugs himself tighter, glances at Sokka like he’s trying to not get caught, but, spirits, they’re laying in bed together, perfectly adjacent, half-naked. And Sokka can’t take his eyes off him, so. He sees it, alright.

“So…” Sokka sucks on his bottom lip, lets it go with an awkward suction noise. “Wanna make out?” He grins, as enticing as he can possibly look after snoring for hours into Zuko’s ear.

Zuko glances at him, then sits up so fast as if to abandon him that it sends Sokka’s heart plummeting into his ass. I’ve lost my touch! But Zuko gazes down at him and says, “Not with that morning breath. Maybe once you’ve cleaned your teeth.” Then he swings his legs off the bed, swipes up his clothes, and leaves the room.

Sokka sags into the sheets, which smell like a snuffed candle. Sweet victory. At least, he’ll call it a fucking victory, so very close to the edge of rejection.

They just don’t make out as soon as Sokka would like. Jerkbending training is the priority, after all, with the impending doom of Sozin’s Comet.

But again, Sokka heads for the couch at nightfall. Toph is the last to leave for her room. Sokka’s feigning sleep, semi-authentically snoring when he cracks an eye open to find Toph looming over him. “Have fun in Zuko’s room,” she sneers.

“Fuck out of here!” hisses Sokka, batting his hand at her. He misses. She stomps off, giggling maniacally.

He waits for Toph’s door to slam before he tiptoes into the hall. Standing at Zuko’s door, he rolls out his neck, cracks his knuckles, hops a bit on the balls of his feet. Showtime, baby. Sokka’s fingertips are an inch from the door when it slides open, and Zuko, with his little flame and a hand suddenly on the back of Sokka’s neck, leans in fast to kiss him on the mouth, hard and a little wet like he’d licked his lips just before. Sokka hums with pleasant surprise, and he reaches out only for Zuko to pull back. There’s a soft smack as their lips separate.

Zuko heaves a breath, lets the flame in his hand dwindle a bit after it’d seemed to flare up seconds earlier. “I told you not to creep at my door,” he says accusingly, nose wrinkled in that petty way of his.

Sokka’s initial dragonflies-in-his-belly shock fades into a smirk. He settles a hand on his hip, and one on Zuko’s chest. “That was a most terrible punishment, Your Royal Jerk-y Fieriness.”

With a glance at Sokka’s hand, the flame in Zuko’s hand grows brighter. His face is halfway between irritated and blank, like he’s not sure how to react. “That’s a stupid nickname.”

Sokka shrugs. “Eh, you’ll still kiss me.” He rises to his tiptoes, then, with a point to prove as he presses his lips to the corner of Zuko’s mouth, nips at his lip in a way that makes Zuko keen, soft. Sokka lowers to his feet, satisfied.

Maybe it’s the color the fire gives off, or maybe Zuko’s face does just bloom like a fire lily. He rolls his eyes, and he must think Sokka can’t see his smile as he turns to recede into his room.

Outside, Sokka pumps a fist in the air. Then he steps over the threshold with the utmost civility.