Zuko sees him when he walks into Philosophy 101 for the first time. He’s sitting in the first row, elbows on the table, hair tied up and gazing to his left. He’s stunning. Zuko feels almost guilty looking at him.
Someone bumps into him and he realizes, oh right, he’s still standing in the doorway. He walks towards the other end of the classroom, and his heart speeds up a little when he nears the boy. Up close, Zuko can see the smooth expanse of his brown skin and blue eyes and long eyelashes and cheekbones.
He knows he’s staring again, so he ducks his head, and shoves his hands in his pockets and walks past the boy’s seat. He sits two rows behind him, and does a fairly good job of not looking at him in favour of setting out his pen and notebook, adjusting his bag so it doesn’t come in the way of people walking down the aisle, and fixing his fringe.
Then the boy reaches for the bag strewn over the chair beside him, and Zuko finds himself looking at his strong muscular arms and long fingers. Pretty boys shouldn’t be allowed to wear sleeveless tops, he thinks, a little distractedly. He’s saved from further embarrassing thoughts when the professor walks in.
The boy raises his hand thrice in an hour-long introductory lecture. This would be annoying if it were any other student, but the boy is charming and asks questions that are funny and also thoughtful. Even Professor Kyoshi, who seems hard to impress at times that aren’t eight in the morning, fondly rolls her eyes when the boy raises his hand for the third time.
“So, Plato says that everything is a copy of reality, because everything is perceived which automatically makes it false, like when frat boys discuss the Matrix movies, right?” There’s a ripple of laughter in the class, and Zuko finds himself uncovering a fascination for this ridiculous boy. “Does discussing reality make it more false? Because that’s another perspective in the mix, and that alters one’s original perspective, making even the first perspective untrue and so on?”
“According to Plato, probably,” Professor Kyoshi starts. “But practically speaking, that sounds a little unlikely, doesn’t it? All fifty of us in the class here heard you ask something: let’s call that the first copy of the truth which you thought of in your head. Now, what we all thought of when you asked your question, that is the second copy in our heads, but a different second copy. For example, you,” she waves at a girl at the edge of the room, “have understood something different from- what did you say your name was?”
She’s looking at the boy. He grins cheekily. “I didn’t. It’s Sokka.”
Professor Kyoshi nods, turning back to the girl. “You understood something different from Sokka’s question than I did, but..”
Sokka. It’s a nice name. It fits him, which is a stupid thought, because it’s not as if Zuko could have known him by any other name. He whispers it to himself under his breath and then he feels like an idiot. So the boy was pretty and smart and funny. Whatever. That doesn’t mean Zuko has a crush on him.
Zuko has a crush on the boy. He realises this in the library two weeks later when he takes a break from writing an essay due the next day on Romantic poetry through a feminist lens. He pushes away his laptop and takes a sip of his now-cold coffee. He rubs his eyes and buries his face in his hands.
Unbidden, his thoughts turn to the boy. Sokka. Zuko thinks of the way he had looked two mornings ago, with his hair down, brushing his jaw and framing his face beautifully. He had accidentally walked into a girl when he was talking to someone, then he helped her pick up the books she had dropped. Zuko had watched as he sheepishly rubbed the back of his neck and apologised, mouth widening in a crooked smile.
Zuko imagined what Sokka said, probably something equally funny and humble, which made the girl laugh in turn and shake his hand. He had worn a crop top that day. His high-waisted skinny jeans covered the rest of his torso, but there was a sliver of brown skin that peeked out from under his t-shirt that had made Zuko blush and grab a pen so his hands would have something to do.
He recalls the feeling and smiles to himself, before remembering he’s in public and he should probably not do things like that. Then he remembers that he shouldn’t even be thinking of the boy in his Philosophy class as motivation to do his assignment. And then he thinks, oh fuck.
He has a crush on Sokka. It isn’t a big deal. Well, okay, it kind of is, but it’s hardly worth mentioning. Sokka is just a boy Zuko finds interesting and attractive. There’s no harm in that. Unless Zuko’s silly little crush potentially ruins any interaction they might have, but he’s pretty confident in his abilities to tone it down.
And because, more importantly, Zuko’s not an idiot. And he has eyes. Sokka’s breathtakingly beautiful and he’s smart and makes other people laugh. Zuko has a half-burnt face and a deaf ear. It’s not rocket science. It’s not as if he’d ever want to talk to Zuko.
He allows himself a moment to indulge in the memory of Sokka’s face when he laughs, then sighs and turns back to his essay.
Zuko’s late to the next Philosophy lecture. He stayed up late to submit an assignment on Shakespearean sonnets, and he slept through his alarm. He’s running across campus with his bag clutched in his arm, because Professor Kyoshi is famous for not tolerating late-comers, irrespective of how early in the morning class is.
He’s just in time, he finds, as he skids to a stop in the open door. Professor Kyoshi is just setting up the PowerPoint, and she waves him in with a mild flick. He’s halfway through to his usual seat before he realises it’s taken.
He quickly scans the room for an empty desk, increasingly aware that he’s standing in front of the class like a total idiot, but to his dismay, he finds it seemingly full. How does this place even fit these many students?
He’s about to give up and maybe walk out of the class because he is very much not in the mood to sit on the floor today, when a voice pipes up. “Hey! You can sit here.”
He looks up to spot an enthusiastic hand waving at him. It’s Sokka. Of course it is. Zuko smiles back at him in acknowledgement, but it probably looks more like a grimace. Perhaps the only thing worse than sprinting a kilometre at eight in the morning after only getting two hours of sleep is the torture of sitting next to Sokka and trying not to look like he’s pathetically pining after him.
He blames the fatigue for the fact that he doesn’t even realise he’s sitting on Sokka’s right until he’s placed his bag on the ground. That means Sokka’s on his left, and that means all Sokka can see is his scar, and he’s freaking out.
He blinks, and tries to act normal. Sokka probably hasn’t even looked too closely at him. The burn is visible at a distance, but he knows how much more horrible and ugly it looks from a few inches away. He lifts his hand to pull his hair down further, uncaring of the strands that get into his eyes and make his eye tear up. He rests his chin in his left palm, his fingers covering the side of his face.
He’s desperately hoping that Sokka doesn’t decide to turn towards him. He knows it’s stupid. He can’t hide one half of his face forever, but for Sokka to see him like that… it might ruin whatever minimal chances Zuko has to get to know him a little.
Luckily, Professor Kyoshi begins discussing (though Zuko privately thinking the word ‘roasting’ is better suited to what the class is doing) Seneca and assorted Roman philosophers. He feels wrong-footed, longing for his usual seat at in the left corner. Every time Professor Kyoshi walks to that end of the room, Zuko has to strain to hear her, and if the rest of the students are talking, it’s nearly impossible.
He knows he should just turn to the left and tilt his head so he can listen better. But he’s sitting in the front row and he knows the movement won’t be inconspicuous. And it would be rude and awkward to shove a face full of scar into Sokka’s space after he gave him this seat just so he can catch the tail-end of a sentence he barely caught to begin with.
To his surprise, Sokka starts narrating what’s happening in the class. For a moment, Zuko wonders how he figured out that Zuko was half-deaf, before he realises that Sokka is dictating his own notes as he writes them.
He tries not to find that endearing. He fails, especially when Sokka adds his own commentary while speaking to himself, witty and somewhat ludicrous. “Stoicism believed that emotions were a kind of false judgement- yeah, no shit, they’re literally called Stoics.” Zuko presses his chin further into his palm to hide a smile. “And only morally and intellectually perfect people, called sages, will be able to not undergo emotions. Someone should tell them the modern world has a word for that, they’re called sociopaths and they’re not exactly the most morally upstanding bunch that- sorry.”
Zuko snaps his head to look at Sokka. He’s, fuck, attractive, even in such close proximity. He has a lovely jawline and clear skin and soft, lipbalm stained pink lips. Thankfully, his hair is tied up, or Zuko would have probably imploded by now.
He tracks Sokka’s eyes as they rove over his scar. It douses him in cold water, and he resists the urge to avert his gaze and turn back to his notebook. All that will do is give Sokka more burned skin to look at.
“Sorry,” Sokka repeats, lifting a shoulder apologetically. “I have a bad habit of doing that. I hope I didn’t disturb you.”
Zuko blinks. It takes him a second to realise he’s supposed to respond to that. “Uh, no. I mean, it’s fine. Funny,” he adds lamely, then wishes the ground would just swallow him whole.
Sokka beams at him, and his heart does a little tap-dance. “You think so? It can be annoying. Professor Kyoshi told me to meet her during office hours because I asked too many questions in class.”
Zuko realises he hadn’t felt Sokka’s hand go up once during the whole class. “They probably just take a lot of time to answer properly. I don’t think she likes to half-ass it.”
“Huh. I never thought of that.” Sokka looks contemplative. There’s a slight furrow between his eyebrows which is kind of cute and Zuko decides to stop creepily drinking in Sokka’s face. “Thanks, dude.”
Zuko takes that as an exit and nods quickly, turning back to face the front. He tugs his hair down reflexively, and wills his heart to stop hammering in his chest so he can at least try and pretend he can listen to Professor Kyoshi’s words.
She’s winding down, explaining the assignment they have to turn in next week, but among the whispering that always goes up at such announcements, her words drown. The other students are already packing up and heading towards the door.
He decides he’ll just text the TA if he doesn’t understand the assignment, and feels a pang of guilt for it. Aang probably thinks he’s the dumbest or laziest student in the class with the amount of times that Zuko asks him to repeat the topics for assignments.
He sighs and digs his phone out his pocket. Hey Aang. It’s Zuko here. Once again, he thinks to himself sardonically. I’m sorry to bother you, but could you send me the details of the latest Philosophy 101 assignment? Thanks so much. He wonders if he should add another ‘sorry’ at the end, but figures it might be overkill.
“Hey,” he hears at his left. His eyes widen when he sees Sokka still standing there. He had thought Sokka would have left already, but of course he couldn’t have heard if Sokka was still there. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Oh. It’s Zuko.”
“Zuko,” Sokka says, tasting the word. Zuko’s body tingles with the way it sounds. He’s treated to another wide smile, the kind that takes up his face. “I’m Sokka. It was nice to meet you.”
Right. Because most classmates don’t know each other’s name before they’ve properly met. And spoken. Zuko smiles. “You too.”
Sokka hovers for another moment, and Zuko darts his gaze around nervously, wondering if he’s supposed to say anything else, and not knowing what it could be. He can feel how uncomfortable he’s making what should be a simple, normal exchange. Sokka nods at him, and turns towards the door.
Zuko slumps in his seat, watching him go. The class is nearly empty, only one or two stragglers who’ve stayed back to have a quick chat with Professor Kyoshi. As Sokka approaches the door, a beautiful brunette steps in, eyes immediately landing on him.
Zuko notices how Sokka’s arms rise slightly, and he knows that if he could see his face, it would be lit up. The girl puts an arm around his shoulders, a smirk on her face, and hands him a coffee. He squeezes her in turn, and they untangle themselves, chatting as they disappear out of sight.
Well. It’s not like the chances of Sokka being single were that high anyway. Zuko isn’t disappointed. He isn’t, he tells himself. He puts his notebook back in his bag slowly, trying to explain that heavy feeling in his chest away. And even if he were, Sokka’s type is gorgeous brunette with sharp eyes and an impeccable sense of clothing, not awkward and disfigured.
He clenches his jaw and heads in the direction of his dorms. He’s going to sleep off his exhaustion (because that’s what this feeling is, exhaustion) until his next lecture at noon.
The next week, Zuko wakes up on time and legs it to Philosophy 101. He gets there when the class is barely a quarter full, but he speed-walks to his wonderful perfect fourth row left corner desk anyway, in case the seat taker from last week is here again.
There’s another ten minutes to go before class is due to start, so he unwraps an apple and fishes out a paperback from his bag, some reading material for his Modern Writing and Interpretation module. He resolutely does not look at the front of the class, where any moment now a certain blue-eyed boy will walk in and sit.
He’s decided that his crush on Sokka is becoming a little more than just a nice and fascinating pull to the boy. It certainly shouldn’t result in him daydreaming about being late to class and getting to sit next to Sokka again. Or perhaps even him asking for a pencil, and their fingers brushing lightly before Sokka flashes him a quiet smile and pulls away. Even his imagination is embarrassing.
After some introspection, which realistically lasted about three minutes, Zuko had come to the conclusion that he should simply ignore his feelings for Sokka and let them go away on their own. He’s not confident it will work if he keeps selfishly seeking out the boy.
When the noise in the classroom rises as it is wont to do with an increase of students, Zuko tucks his book away and opens his notebook. The last page he has written on only says Seneca – Stoicism – “that which is” – bodies that can act and be acted upon – corporealists – non-corporeal things are subsistent like time – sokka says what is subsistent is his anger towards these unnecessary classifications - :) ha.
Despite himself, he smiles at the memory and the exasperation that had been in Sokka’s voice when he had said that. He shakes himself out of it, and focuses on Professor Kyoshi, who has just walked into class. His gaze automatically falls to the first row, where he can make out Sokka’s head, his hair left untied today. It looks soft, like he had washed it the previous night.
Damnit. Zuko wrenches his eyes onto his notebook, trying to keep up with the relationship between truth and God that one Thomas Aquinas was apparently very horny for. He keeps it up for almost the whole lecture, only looking up when he needs to read the lips of a student seated a few rows behind him when she asks a question so he doesn’t strain his ear.
It’s sort of like fighting an addiction, so when the clock ticks closer to nine, Zuko just kind of wishes the class would end, even though it’s one of his favourite courses (irrespective of any hot boys one might find). Professor Kyoshi is giving them their weekly assignment, and Zuko has already resigned himself to asking Aang the TA to once more please help him. Maybe he should buy Aang chocolates. Or a pen stand.
It’s when the vaguely annoying boy who sits two seats away on Zuko’s right says loudly to a girl in the row ahead of them, “Ugh, I thought Professor Kyoshi never gives partner assignments. Who did you get?” that Zuko panics and tunes back in.
He looks around desperately for Aang, because obviously his stupid deaf ass missed the calling of names. His partner is probably waiting for him to show up and Zuko doesn’t want to get off on the wrong foot with them before they find out he can’t present in class because of his hearing problems.
He spots Aang’s bald head a few rows ahead, bent over a list with a girl, probably searching for her partner’s name. Zuko quickens his pace so he can ask them to check for his too, but he’s stopped halfway down when someone taps on his shoulder.
He really doesn’t have the time for this, but he spins around. Sokka’s standing there, smiling hesitantly. He brushes a stray lock of hair behind his ear. “Hey, Zuko.”
Holy shit, Zuko thinks. Sokka remembers his name. But he remembers the trouble and quickly replies, “Hey. I’m sorry, I’m kind of in a hurry.”
“Oh, yeah, of course,” Sokka nods. “It’s just that we have to decide on a topic by the end of the week. And I don’t see you in other classes so…”
What? “Topic,” Zuko repeats, dumbly. And then it hits him. Fuck. Fuck, it’s Sokka. Sokka is going to be his partner for this assignment. Zuko is going to have to see Sokka outside of Philosophy 101 and spend time with him and talk to him and not act like a mess the whole time. “Right. Our topic.”
Sokka is looking at him a little oddly, eyes crinkled at the corners. “Yes. You know, the one on which our final grade depends.”
“Wait, what? Final grade?” The sinking feeling in his chest takes a breath’s pause to halt before doubling its speed. “I thought this was a weekly assignment.”
“Nope,” Sokka says, popping the p. He leans on the table next to him, crossing his arms. Zuko’s eyes follow the movement. “We have to submit it at the end of the semester.”
Zuko frowns. “I didn’t think Professor Kyoshi was a fan of group projects.”
Sokka lets out a high-pitched, breezy chuckle. “Yeah. It’s so random how she chose this semester to start doing that. Ha.” Zuko stares at him. He’s trying his best not to get distracted by Sokka’s, well, everything but even looking at his eyes is kind of stressful. Sokka clears his throat, and Zuko realises that he is once again looking at Sokka very intensely without saying anything. “So, um, why don’t you give me your number? So that we can discuss it some other time, the assignment I mean, when you aren’t busy.”
Zuko squints at him. Sokka’s acting a little different, sort of… flustered. He wonders if Sokka wants to do this assignment with someone else but he’s too nice to tell Zuko. Besides, there’s probably a strict policy on switching. “Uh, yeah. One sec,” he replies, fumbling open the notebook he had grabbed off the table in his haste. He scribbles his number down and rips the paper. “Here you go.”
He holds out the piece of paper to Sokka, who takes it. Their fingers brush. Zuko’s heartrate doubles and he seriously doubts he can get through this entire ordeal without developing a serious cardiovascular disease.
“I’ll text you soon, then. Bye, Zuko.” Sokka smiles, turns around, and makes his way to the exit. Zuko’s frozen for a long, stretched-out moment. He can feel the way Sokka had said his name still hanging the air.
He stuffs his notebook in his bag, and solemnly bids goodbye to any plans he had of getting over the boy.
He had been in his Epistemology and Metaphysics class when he got the text. It was a simple hey, this is sokka :) but Zuko’s brain stuttered on the fact that he had Sokka’s number now. He had agonized over what he should text back before simply sending back a hey.
Luckily for Zuko, Sokka actually knew how to hold a conversation. They decided to meet at Sokka’s flat in the evening, and before Zuko could even start being nervous about the fact that he was going to be in Sokka’s goddamn living space, he was freaking out about what he should wear.
He scowls at himself. He shouldn’t want to impress Sokka. How does one impress someone who’s probably surrounded by beautiful people, anyway? And is a beautiful person themselves? It’s an unfair demand.
He glances at the mirror across the room. His scar looks just as drawn and angry as always, peeking out on his forehead under his fringe. His cheek is covered with splotchy marks, blending in and out of his normal skin. He sighs. It’s not like it mattered what clothes he’d wear.
He looks down at his faded black t-shirt and skinny jeans. He looks like he always does, which will do. He grabs a hoodie and his bag before he begins his ten-minute walk to Sokka’s building.
When he knocks on the right door, the door is pulled open to reveal Sokka. He’s a little dishevelled- there’s a grease mark on his temple that dips into the hollow under his cheekbone a little too nicely to be healthy for Zuko’s sanity.
“Zuko! Come in.” He steps aside to let Zuko in, and it puts him in the unfortunate position of brushing past Sokka and catching a whiff of a very nice lemony smell mixed with ocean salt. “Sorry I’m such a mess,” Sokka laughs apologetically. “I just got back from the lab.”
Zuko realises he hasn’t said a word yet, and he’s just awkwardly standing in Sokka’s living room and looking at him. “Lab?” He asks weakly.
“Yeah. I’m in engineering.”
“Oh.” Zuko isn’t sure how engineers work, but he’s stuck with a visual of Sokka in a tank top lugging around heavy pieces of machinery. Maybe Zuko’s watched a few too many crappy romance movies over the last week. “That’s… interesting.”
“You’re wondering why I’m in Philosophy.” Sokka’s looking at him knowingly, and his lips are still upturned, not looking the slightest bit offended. Zuko shrugs. “I like humanities. Those science-y types get a little too narrow-minded sometimes, you know.”
Zuko does know. “I had a Statistics requirement to fill last semester. It was disappointing to find out that writing a thousand-word analysis of inferential statistics wasn’t what the professor meant when he said to ‘use examples from the real world’ and solve a sum.”
Sokka laughs, his teeth flashing, even though Zuko doesn’t think what he said was even that funny. “Thousand words? Really?”
Zuko blushes. “How was I supposed to know?”
Sokka’s still smiling. There’s a little warmth settling behind Zuko’s ribcage at the fact that he’s caused that. “You could have asked literally anyone else. See, you Literature majors need a crash course in problem-solving.”
Zuko blinks. “How did you know I’m a Literature major?”
“Inferential statistics.” Sokka winks. He says it with such a teasing tone that Zuko can’t help but let out a small giggle. Sokka’s looking at him with a weird look in his eyes. “Anyway, I’m uh, going to go change real quick. Make yourself at home.” He waves a hand at the couches, before going down the hallway.
Zuko gingerly seats himself at the edge of the surprisingly soft couch. The table is littered with loose papers and highlighters, looking very much like a stressed college student’s study area. His eye catches on a paperback of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Zuko reaches out to it, more than a little surprised. Sokka had said he liked studying humanities, but reading Dostoyevsky took a little more than mild interest.
Even Zuko didn’t enjoy reading his works as much: too many convoluted sentences. But he flips through the book, somewhat reassured by the familiar feeling of holding a book in his hand.
“I hope you didn’t think that’s mine,” he hears from behind him, much closer than anticipated. Curse his stupid ear. Zuko flinches, placing the book back on the table quickly.
“I’m sorry,” he says. He really should learn not to let his curiosity get the best of him. It makes him less alert.
Sokka shoots him an odd look, sitting on the other end of the couch. “It’s totally fine, dude. It’s mostly my sister’s crap anyway. We live together,” he explains. “She’s studying law. Probably because it’s the only acceptable way to spend your life yelling at other people to not be dicks.” He says it with a fond, familiar tone, as if this isn’t the first time he’s described it as such.
“I’m sure there are lawyers who don’t yell,” Zuko says, then wants to slap himself for saying something that dumb.
“Yeah, Elle Woods,” Sokka says, nodding sagely. Zuko wonders if he’s supposed to know who Elle Woods is, and what he’s supposed to say in response to that statement that doesn’t make him sound ignorant or stupid. His confusion must show on his face, because Sokka looking at him incredulously. “Legally Blonde?” Sokka tries, and Zuko shakes his head, embarrassed.
Sokka slaps his hands together, a determined look on his face. “We’re going to fix that.” Zuko sits, stunned, as Sokka crosses the room and hooks up his laptop to the TV screen.
What the hell is happening? He’s going to apparently watch a, a movie? At Sokka’s house, together, alone on a Thursday night? Zuko sits back and decides to just accept his fate, knowing he’s going to freak out about this later anyway.
It turns out Sokka is not only smart and funny and pretty, but he’s nice and passionate and kind of a dork. Their first study session devolves into eating nachos noisily, with Sokka punctuating the ends of scenes with declarations such as “How iconic was that?” and “God, what an absolute dick.” Zuko watched the movie if only to stop himself from staring across the couch at Sokka in the dimmed lighting of the living room.
To his surprise, he actually had enjoyed the plot. He wound up explaining to Sokka how great the character development had been, and the finer points of the feminist stereotype that the movie had done a brilliant job of breaking down.
Sokka had looked at him with that same look he often gives Zuko, mouth lifted in a half-smile. Zuko had realised he’d probably been talking continuously for the better part of two minutes, and winced. “Sorry.”
“No, no! I’m glad you had fun,” Sokka had said quickly. He then glanced at Zuko’s abandoned bag guiltily. “Though I am sorry I diverted us completely. We didn’t even get any work done.”
They had scheduled to meet two days later, because they really did have to decide on a topic for their project and give it to Aang by Monday. That time began with them arguing the pros and cons of various historical figures and ended with Sokka putting on a hat and holding up Katara’s copy of Crime and Punishment, saying “I did not bow down to you, I bowed down to all the suffering of humanity” in the most exaggerated Russian accent while Zuko laughed hard enough that there were tears in his eyes.
Zuko feels ashamed at how eagerly he looks forward to their study sessions. He can’t believe that there was a point he thought it would be enough to see Sokka from afar and admire him, because this version, the version of Sokka that snorts up water when he sees Zuko sarcastically talk to their textbooks when he’s frustrated, is so much better than anything he could have created in his head.
It also becomes increasingly clear that Sokka has no idea that Zuko is semi-deaf. Zuko is always careful to sit on the left side of the couch when he goes to Sokka’s flat, and he keeps him in eyesight in case he needs to read his lips. Which is why it’s a problem when Zuko enters Philosophy 101 and sees Sokka pointing to the seat next to him.
He had thought that Sokka wouldn’t want to sit with him in class with other people around. But last week Zuko had claimed his seat before Sokka had even entered the class. He considers for a moment, just sitting there, but he knows Sokka would like to sit like that all the time, and Zuko’s ear can’t take that.
He tightens his grip on the strap of his bag, because he knows he has to tell Sokka. It’s not like he can’t keep it a secret, he’s been in study groups for weeks at a time without needing to disclose information about his disability. But that isn’t an option.
He doesn’t want to tell him because he likes the way Sokka looks at him now. Like he isn’t weak or needs to be treated gently. Or worse, like he’s a burden. Fuck. Sokka could get angry that Zuko’s been lying to him for more than two weeks now. Jesus. He’s fucked this whole thing up.
He stands in front of Sokka, and grits his teeth. “I- I can’t,” he pushes out, pointing to the seat next to Sokka. He sees a flash of hurt flit across Sokka’s face. He drops his eyes to the desk in between them, and says, “I’m deaf in my left ear. I’m sorry.”
Then he walks away as quickly as he can to his usual desk, heart thumping. He allows himself a moment to miss all those great times he had gotten with Sokka, the way he had felt light and free and careless. It makes something deep inside him ache, and he shuts down his thoughts immediately.
He hears a rustle on his right, and when he turns, it’s to see Sokka placing his bag on the table. It makes him irrationally angry, that Sokka out of some misplaced sense of duty has inconvenienced himself just so Zuko wouldn’t feel bad.
It must show in Zuko’s eyes, because Sokka just looks at him calmly and says, “I’m here because I want to sit next you.” The fact that he doesn’t care where that is is implied.
Sokka turns back to the front, almost as if he knows Zuko can’t bear to be looked at right now. Zuko spends the rest of the day wondering what he has done to deserve such regard.
Sokka hands him things only from the right now, even though it hadn’t been that much of a problem when he hadn’t known Zuko was deaf. He walks on Zuko’s right, and carefully places the speakers in his flat so they’re both on Zuko’s hearing side. When they go to the café, he picks up Zuko’s coffee for him because it strains Zuko to hear his name called out over the din of the other patrons.
And Sokka never, ever mentions it. It still floors Zuko, because Sokka still smiles at him and jokes with him and teases him: as if it doesn’t matter that he’s half-deaf, as if he doesn’t mind making small adjustments just to suit him.
He wonders if Sokka has said something to his sister, Katara. He has met her once or twice in passing, now that he spends at least two evenings a week at their flat. She’s perfectly polite, and he can’t help but notice that she stands at his right to talk, too.
But he remembers the time she had beaten Sokka at Mario Kart, and Zuko, curled up on his spot on the couch, couldn’t help but smile fondly at Sokka’s empathetic declarations that Katara had somehow hacked the game. She had caught his eyes, and Zuko knew what she had found there. She looked like she was assessing him, and Zuko had dropped his gaze, not wanting to see the pity in her eyes once she realised Zuko was pathetically pining for someone he could never have. He feels shameful, talking to Katara after that.
They’re watching one of the Star Wars movies today, but it may as well be background noise at this point. Their Philosophy work, now half-done, has been left unsupervised on the table. Sokka is chucking popcorn at Zuko’s face from across the couch, and Zuko misses spectacularly once again, the kernel bouncing off his forehead.
“That’s it. I can’t waste any more of this cheesy, buttery goodness, Zuko,” Sokka says dramatically. Hearing his name from those lips still ignites something in him. Sokka leans forward, his thumb brushing Zuko’s fringe, presumably to rub off the popcorn grease. Zuko’s kind of struck with how close Sokka is, and the way he smells: lemony, like the polish he uses in the engineering lab.
Zuko’s hair has grown longer in the past month, the tips almost reaching his cheekbones. Sokka’s fingers brush his hair away, tucking the strands behind Zuko’s ear. He flinches, but neither of them break eye contact.
“Doesn’t it bother you?” Sokka asks, softly, as if holding something very fragile.
He knows Sokka is giving him a way out. He can reply with any number of jokes about butter or emo haircuts that Sokka has gleefully shown him. He looks down to where Sokka’s other hand is curled between them on the couch cushion. He whispers, as if saying it loudly will make it any less embarrassing: “It’s not nice to look at.”
“Maybe.” It’s as if he knows that Zuko doesn’t want to hear any more reassurances that he’s still worth looking at. He’s knows he’s ugly. Sokka’s hand clenches on the couch, the tendons pulling. The green veins have always looked so lovely under his brown skin. “But I like your eyes.”
It’s shocking enough that Zuko lifts his head in surprise, staring at Sokka because he can’t believe he said that. Sokka’s smirking, looking smug that he’s shaken Zuko, but his eyes are honest and sincere.
Zuko stands abruptly. He can’t look at Sokka right now without feeling like the worst person in a twenty-kilometre radius. “I’ll go get more popcorn.” He grabs the bowl off the table and makes his way to the kitchen.
He knows Sokka won’t follow him, because he knows Sokka somehow always knows when to give Zuko his space. He clutches the counter and breathes, trying to dispel the tangle of guilt in his chest. Sokka was so kind and forgiving. And Zuko, Zuko took advantage of that.
Sokka was only trying to be a friend, and Zuko kept taking it as a hint that they could be something more. The way Zuko keeps watching Sokka, the way he keeps finding excuses to rub their arms together- it’s not right. And if Sokka found out about it, he’d never want to look at Zuko again. He wouldn’t trust Zuko again, not enough to let him in his home or tell him about the teacher he was having trouble with, or when Katara was in a bad mood and he needed to vent.
If Sokka found out he might be disgusted by Zuko, that he had let Zuko be so close to him while Zuko was holding onto such ideas. Zuko squeezes his eyes shut and tries to swallow the sense of wrongness coming up his throat. Fuck. It meant so much that he was allowed to be Sokka’s friend, have even a small part in his life- however temporary. And Zuko is betraying Sokka, ruining even that little bit that he is granted.
He has to tell him. Even though he knows telling him is as good as walking out of Sokka’s life. He can’t lie to him anymore, can’t keep pretending to be worth any of this. He should go out right now and tell Sokka the truth.
But Zuko has never been strong. And he has always been selfish. He can’t bring himself to think about doing it now. They still have to submit their Philosophy assignment, he remembers, feeling as if his own mind is grasping an excuse to stay a little longer. He nods to himself. The last study session they have: that’s when Zuko will come clean.
He rubs at his face and hopes he doesn’t look as weighed down as he feels. It is an odd feeling to have in Sokka’s presence. He sits down on the left side of the couch and trains his eyes on the screen, the way Sokka has. He can’t help but notice how Sokka doesn’t even ask him why he’s returned without the popcorn.
They’re sitting in Sokka’s room, because Katara has turned the living room into a warzone of books and notes. Privately, Zuko is slightly glad. At least he won’t have to ruin the memories of that place with what he’s about to do.
Sokka shifts in his chair, eyebrows furrowed as he types out Professor Kyoshi’s email ID so they can submit their assignment. His hair is open today, the tips tickling his jawline. Zuko tries to commit him to memory, the glow of his laptop reflected in his blue-grey eyes, the slant of his nose, the way he bites his lip when he’s waiting for something to happen.
“Done!” Sokka exclaims, smiling at Zuko. He stands, and languidly stretches. Zuko carefully turns his head away. Sokka topples onto his bed, reaching for his phone. “We should celebrate. What do you think, coffee? Maybe dinner?”
Zuko’s heart is louder than it’s ever been. “Actually,” he begins, but it sounds breathy, like he’s choking on something. He swallows. “I have to tell you something.”
Sokka’s looking at him worriedly, and he can’t take that right now. He bends down to clutch at the straps of his bag, not wanting to stay for the aftermath of his next sentence. “I like you. In more than a friend way. I’m sorry. I hope you can forgive me.”
He hears Sokka’s shocked gasp, so he takes his cue and stands up, making his way to the door. “Wait, Zuko- ”
He sighs, stopping in his tracks, because he knew this would happen. His fears had gotten the better of him when he’d made this decision- Sokka wouldn’t be disgusted or feel betrayed. Sokka would try to spare Zuko’s feelings. “It’s fine. I understand.”
“No, listen,” Sokka replies, and Zuko can hear him moving from the bed.
He spins around, not wanting to say this out loud, but Sokka needs to know that he has no obligations to Zuko. When he looks up to meet Sokka’s eyes, there’s something in them he doesn’t recognise. He takes a shaky breath. “Look, I get it. I know you don’t feel the same way. It isn’t complicated. You’re so wonderful and brilliant, and I’m… me. You should know that I don’t expect you to- to force yourself to pretend you like me, or keep hanging out with me. I’m lucky to have known you, and I’m glad-”
“Stop.” There’s something pained in Sokka’s face, and it blindsides Zuko so much that it stuns him into silence. He hates himself a little more for doing that to Sokka. “Stop, Zuko, God, how could you even think that?” Sokka takes another step closer to him, hands hovering in the air as if he has no idea what to do with them.
“You’re one of the loveliest people I’ve ever known.” Zuko blinks, feeling lost, like an actor whose script has been snatched. No one has called him ‘lovely’ before. “Give me the chance to prove that to you.”
What? What is Sokka saying? Zuko doesn’t understand what’s happening anymore, but he shakes his head because he knows it isn’t correct. This is not how it’s supposed to go. “No, you can’t-”
“I do. I promise you, I do.” Sokka sounds desperate. He must see all of Zuko’s confusion, plainly written on his face. “I think you’re cute and careful and thoughtful and precious- ask anyone. Ask Katara.” He flings his arm towards the table. “Ask Aang!”
“Aang? Our TA?” Zuko is feeling something fluttering under skin, something singing hope.
Sokka brings his hands to cup his own face, laughing hoarsely. “Yes, our TA and my best friend. I asked him to convince Professor Kyoshi to do a partner assignment. And to make me your partner.”
“You- what?” Sokka had asked for him. “You didn’t even know me.”
“I wanted to. I chose to be here, with you. This whole time.” Sokka’s smiling now, a thin and somewhat crazed smile. Zuko can’t believe what he’s hearing, can’t figure out what to say except Sokka’s name. Sokka takes one last step towards Zuko, and looks at him, really looks at him. “I’m going to kiss you now,” Sokka says, and he does.
Zuko’s hands curl into Sokka’s hair without a second thought. His lips are warm and unimaginable. Zuko breathes in Sokka’s lemon scent and tries to convince himself he isn’t dreaming, but he knows he isn’t. Even in his wildest dreams, he hadn’t thought this was possible.
Sokka pulls away, but his hands are still on Zuko’s neck and shoulder, like he can’t bear to be any further away. He grins, and Zuko’s heart- like every single time since he laid eyes on this boy- beats faster. “So, dinner?”
The laugh spills out of Zuko before he can stop it. He pulls Sokka back in as an answer.