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The Ancient Art of Jerkbending

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Zuko, Sokka has decided, is being very suspicious.

Katara may argue that Zuko is always suspicious, because the guy is a traitorous jerk, but Sokka knows better. It doesn’t take Toph’s magical toe sense to tell when the guy is lying because it turns out that Zuko is a terrible liar. He probably couldn’t lie to save his life, and it certainly would have helped him when he was making his case to join Team Avatar and ended up sputtering out that he’d hired an assassin to kill Aang.

Yeah.

He clearly didn’t get the family subterfuge gene. Sokka, master of disguise, would know.

Which is why it’s painfully obvious when Zuko’s being sketchy.

Sokka gave Zuko a room in the air temple on his first evening with the group, and Zuko does sleep in there, but he also barely brought any stuff with him. Sure, he’s got some clothes and a frankly unfairly touching portrait of that old guy Azula shot full of lightning that Toph tells Sokka is probably Zuko’s uncle, but that’s it. And he keeps sneaking out when he thinks nobody is looking, staying out for way longer than a bathroom break would take.

When Sokka brings this up to his friends, their reactions are mixed. Toph scoffs at the idea that Zuko could be dangerous to them because, apparently, he gets “scared as a field lizard-mouse” every time Katara so much as sneezes. Aang seems uncomfortable with breaching Zuko’s privacy with some kind of investigation, which is pretty weird for a kid that grew up with monks that believe in communal property ownership. And Katara, who Sokka really expected to be on his side about this, just shrugs aggressively.

“I don’t know what you expected,” she says, wringing out her recently-washed hair more harshly than the action warrants on its own, “He’s probably planning something awful, like betraying us to his sister. Again.”

And then she goes to get dressed for bed, as though the matter is thoroughly addressed. Sokka doesn’t even bother asking Haru, Teo, or the Duke at that point. He’s clearly in this on his own.

Step one in Operation: Uncover Zuko’s Nefarious Plot is stalking Zuko. Sokka is pretty experienced in this, having spent a fair amount of his childhood attempting to stalk big game on the ice. His success in actually hunting anything that way prior to the age of twelve was limited, but despite what Katara calls his “big mouth” with varying degrees of affection and ire, Sokka knows how to sneak quietly.

The problem is, Zuko knows how to sneak even quieter. Sokka would be annoyed by this revelation of Zuko’s apparent ninja skills if he wasn’t busy with 1) Using it as further evidence of nefarious deeds, and 2) Trying to figure out where the hell Zuko went. Sokka is not aware of anywhere to hide in the forested area at the lip of the Western Air Temple’s gorge.

It’s not even fair, because Sokka is pretty sure Zuko is not actually trying to be as sneaky as he’s ended up. The guy just walks like that all the time. He has two settings: Angry stomping and silent shadow. Until recently, Sokka has only been privy to the angry jerk setting, featuring yelling, fireballs, and military boot clomping. After joining them, though, Zuko has been hard as hell to pin down just by virtue of making zero noise with his footfalls.

Unless sufficiently badgered by Aang during training. But that’s irrelevant to the current point, even if it’s hilarious.

The point is that Sokka is really tired of trying to get through leafy underbrush quietly and without the use of his machete (like hell is he going to use Space Sword for this). He is very close to giving up his quest to track down where Zuko went and just going back to the temple - if he can even find it at this point - when he stumbles through one last patch of dense shrubbery and into a small clearing with way more Fire Nation red than the average forest.

And a lot more Fire Nation prince, too.

A lot more suspicious, shocked-looking Fire Nation prince in the middle of laying out clearly poisonous herbs to dry while he plots to cripple the Avatar with his sketchy plant bounty!

“I knew it!” Sokka shouts, brandishing a finger in Zuko’s direction. Zuko jumps up, blinking rapidly, and dried leaves scatter across the dirt ground as a gout of fire bursts from Zuko but quickly dissipates.

“You’re up to something!” Sokka goes on, bravely striding forward heedless of the flames, “And I’ve caught you red-handed!”

“I - what?” Zuko sputters, the stricken look on his face fading into a frown. There are two red spots high on his cheeks that are quickly getting both bigger and redder. “Caught me what? What are you even doing here?

“Unearthing your nefarious plot,” Sokka says, and crouches down to prod at the evidence. The leaves are pretty normal-looking, as far as these things go, if weirdly dry. Actually, they look like they’re from some of the trees scattered around the temple. There was a copse of particular-looking trees that Aang said most likely used to be an orchard of some sort that grew wild over the years. The kid looked pretty bummed out about that, so Sokka hadn’t pressed.

Figures that Zuko would go back to the scene of his family’s crimes.

“What plot.”

Sokka glances up, pausing his poking for a second. Zuko stands above him, arms crossed and scowling fiercely.

“Your plot,” Sokka explains slowly, “To poison us, or whatever you’re doing with these.”

Zuko’s face does something really interesting, then. Sokka can’t tell if it’s the scar or the clearly terminal case of emotional constipation, but Zuko is just horrible at expressing emotions other than anger like a normal person. It’s really exemplified when his mouth twists like he’s offended, his face goes red like he’s embarrassed, and his one remaining eyebrow goes up like he’s confused all at the same time.

Zuko sputters. “It’s not that bad!”

“Wh - of course it’s that bad!” Sokka exclaims, shooting back up to his feet. “How is poison not bad?!”

“Because it’s not - I just - you’re wrong!” Zuko declares. “Uncle said he likes my tea, and Uncle definitely knows tea. So if you think it’s poisonous, then maybe something’s wrong with you.”

Sokka blinks and then looks back down.

“This is tea?” he asks.

“... What did you think it was?”

Sokka shrugs. “I dunno. Literal poison? I’m not gonna lie, your princeliness, I don’t know what’s wrong with your uncle, but I kinda stopped drinking your tea after the first time. I think the only one who can tolerate that stuff without going blind is Toph, and that’s only ‘cause she’s already blind.”

The only response Zuko has to that is a frustrated kick at the ground before he turns and stalks away, leaving Sokka with dust and tea leaves drifting down to the forest floor around him.

So! Operation: Uncover Zuko’s Nefarious Plot is not an immediate success. That just means that Sokka has to try harder to circumvent Zuko’s ninja wiles. Luckily, he soon gets an opportunity to catch Zuko’s suspicious behavior at dinner.

Life at the Western Air Temple is stressful, what with the ‘constant fear of being attacked by the Fire Nation.’ In Sokka’s (at this point quite expert) opinion on living a stressful life, the best thing at the end of a long, stressful day is to unwind around the cookfire and talk about how amazing and cool his girlfriend is.

Aang - his current conversational recipient of choice - seems to disagree. For some reason, he keeps nodding enthusiastically and bringing the conversation over to Katara, instead. After several attempts to bring Suki back up, which Aang circumvents with the expert avoidance of an airbender, Sokka scoffs, waving Aang off dramatically, and turns to Zuko instead.

“You just don’t understand because you’re too busy ogling my sister,” Sokka decides. “Which, by the way: gross. Zuko, though - Zuko gets it, right?”

Zuko stares at Sokka, looking vaguely unimpressed as he puts down a small, tin teapot - or, well, maybe that’s just how Zuko’s face looks. It originally took Sokka a solid minute to realize that, actually, Zuko doesn’t really look angry all that often, if Sokka remembers to pay attention only to the un-scarred side of his face. The injured side is twisted into a permanent scowl that Zuko doesn’t seem to be able to move much, and it makes Sokka feel like an asshole to think about how often everyone probably misreads his expressions because of it.

“Get what?” Zuko asks, and okay, yeah, he does look kind of frustrated, but he’s mostly directing it towards the teapot. That tracks - today’s tea is way more bland and watery than normal.

Not that it matters, because Sokka has more important things on his mind. Namely: “How beautiful Suki is,” Sokka declares, clasping his hands together and sighing. “Aang - “ Who has escaped this conversation by scooting to the other side of the campfire pit and is getting physically assaulted by Toph in the name of affection. “ - keeps making gross eyes at Katara, so he doesn’t get it, but you get it, right?”

“Um,” Zuko says, staring down at his teapot with more intensity than Sokka thinks hot leaf juice warrants. Then again, his uncle had a thing for tea, too. And, apparently, he had worked in a tea shop - no, two tea shops - back in Ba Sing Se. Sokka would probably be weird about tea if he had to work with it all day, too.

“Sure, I guess,” Zuko settles on.

Sokka frowns, crossing his arms. “You guess? What’s that supposed to mean? Is Suki not pretty enough for you?”

Zuko finally looks up at Sokka, eyes widening in increasing alarm that shows up even through the signature Fire Nation Glare. “Uh, no,” he stutters, “I mean - yes? She’s really pretty! And - strong? She’s just not really my type!”

Sokka frowns harder.

“Not that she shouldn’t be your type!” Zuko continues, waving his hands in front of him and stumbling forward over his words like he doesn’t know how to stop. “I mean, you’re dating her, after all. She’s, uh, totally gorgeous, and you’re lucky to have her. Um - and I actually already have a girlfriend - I think. We kinda broke up, maybe, but Suki is a lot like Mai, except with - with fans? Instead of knives?”

“So she is your type!” Sokka declares, pointing at Zuko. “I knew it! You’re into my girlfriend!”

Zuko’s eyes are on the verge of bugging out of his head. “No! No, I’m not into your girlfriend!”

“But you just said that she’s exactly like your ex-girlfriend!”

“I’m not into her!”

“You’re not into your ex-girlfriend?”

“I’m not into your girlfriend! And - Mai and I broke up for a reason!”

Zuko looks ready to climb across the fire pit to get away from Sokka, and Sokka’s feelings are starting to get a little bit hurt by how many of his friends seem to be onboard with fleeing his conversational skills. Not that he and Zuko are friends, exactly, but - they could be! This was supposed to be part of the process: the whole ‘bonding over girls’ thing that Sokka’s never actually had a chance to do with anyone because he’s never had a chance to hang out with a guy his age. Aang is too young and way too into Sokka’s sister, and everyone else Sokka grew up with was either female, related to him, a toddler, or some combination of the above.

Except Sokka has kind of underestimated how uncomfortable the thought of someone as cool and mysterious as Zuko potentially being into Suki makes him. Girls like cool and mysterious. Sokka can be cool and mysterious, too, but not for very long. He likes talking too much for that, whereas Zuko doesn’t even know how to talk to people half the time.

“Hm,” Sokka says, leaning forward to squint at Zuko’s face. Zuko leans back slightly, and Sokka can’t quite tell in the campfire’s low light, but it looks like he’s gone all red in the face. “I get it.”

“You - you do?” Zuko looks, if anything, even more alarmed.

Sokka nods sagely.

Because that’s the crux of it, really: Zuko may be cool and mysterious, but he’s also incredibly awkward once you get past the acrobatic, fire-throwing, half-scowling exterior and realize that he just yells a lot because he doesn’t really know what to say and is frustrated about it. Suki’s super smart, so she would figure that out very quickly, if she hasn’t already. And she would let Sokka know if she felt any differently about him.

Sokka’s still not on board with Zuko liking his girlfriend, though, even if he supposes that he has to appreciate the fact that Zuko’s clearly trying to be respectful about it. The jerkbender may be, well, a jerkbender, but at least he follows the bro code.

“Mm-hm,” Sokka confirms, leaning back and crossing his legs at the ankles to emphasize how unimpressed he is. Arms crossed, legs crossed - the more crossing, the better! He’d cross his fingers, too, but it’s not like Zuko would be able to see it in this lighting. Plus, that would be weird. “But don’t worry. I’ll keep your secret. So long as you keep your eyes and hands to yourself!”

Zuko kind of winds into himself in this weird, hunchy way where his shoulders go up to his ears and his hands wrap carefully around the teapot in his lap. His shaggy hair falls over his face when he looks down, which is another grudging point in the ‘mysterious’ column. Sokka’s warrior wolf tail is definitely cool, but Zuko’s hair game is pretty alright when he’s not running around with most of his head shaved. Or looking like a kicked baby penguin-otter, like now, which is pretty unfair considering they’re discussing Zuko keeping his hands off of Sokka’s girlfriend.

“Yeah,” Zuko says, raspy in that way he always gets when he goes quiet. “Sorry. I wouldn’t do anything like that.”

And that’s that! Zuko’s promised to stay away from Sokka’s girlfriend, and Sokka can go on happily knowing that someone, at least, is properly aware of how amazing and wonderful Suki is.

Except, maybe, Sokka is still kind of, sort of, just a tiny bit overestimating his comfort with this situation.

Because, well - Zuko keeps his promise. Mostly. He doesn’t get weird at Suki, at any rate… at least, not until Sokka works up the courage to kiss her first for once, when he thinks they’re the only two in their abandoned little corner of the Western Air Temple. Sokka has checked - Aang and Katara were practicing waterbending; Haru and the kid from Jet’s old gang are off gathering firewood and setting up for lunch with Zuko; his dad is sleeping because he’s been insisting on keeping night watch and is tired during the day.

And Sokka and Suki are sparring in the room with the giant pai sho table, because Suki may be the most impressive, badass fighter this side of Ba Sing Se, but Sokka has come a long way since they last trained with each other. A lot of what she taught him went into his fight with Master Piandao, but Master Piandao’s teachings have in turn helped Sokka expand his fighting style in a way that, for once, gives him an edge over Suki -

Well, sometimes. She still knocks him flat on his ass half the time. It’s very beautiful of her. So beautiful, in fact, that Sokka finally gets over the thrumming feeling of ‘it’s been so long and she was happy to see you but was she happy to see you specifically - ‘ that’s been making him queasy for the last few days, and kisses her.

Her lips are so, so soft, and the way his hands settle at the curve of her waist makes Sokka’s breath catch. Suki smiles into the kiss, which makes him smile, too, so Sokka has to turn his head to get a better angle, and -

And Zuko is standing behind her, clutching a soup pot at the edge of the twenty-foot pai sho board as he stares with wide, wide eyes. His face is slowly tinting red, way more obvious in the bright mid-morning light filtering through the open-air temple windows than the other evening. He meets Sokka’s eyes for a few long seconds before averting his gaze so suddenly that it’s practically a flinch, hefting Katara’s soup pot higher in his arms.

Sokka’s brows furrow, and the kiss’s lightness is gone - but the passion is still there. He tightens his hands at Suki’s waist to pull her closer (at least until a surprised “Watch it, Sokka!” prompts him to loosen his grip), and closes his eyes so he can concentrate on kissing his girlfriend instead of the guy that was just staring at them like a creep. Let Zuko look at what he can’t have. Sokka doesn’t care. He doesn’t care at all!

By the time Sokka opens his eyes again, Zuko is gone.

Then the crazy princess attacks, they get separated from half of the group, and things sort of… change after that.

Zuko has been a bit avoidant of everybody in their little group except for Aang, to a certain extent Haru and Jet’s kid, and after a while, Toph. …Okay, actually, Zuko has pretty much only been avoiding Sokka and Katara, probably because they both have an understandable amount of personal beef with Zuko. He wasn’t exceptionally keen on Dad, either. Still, the Duke was the same, and Sokka’s been assuming that people’s indiscriminate father figure issues are none of his business and probably at least somewhat reasonable. Even if he’s a bit sad that it’s directed at his father.

Anyway, the point is, Zuko had definitely been avoiding Sokka less after what happened at the Boiling Rock. They were getting along pretty well, even, and while Sokka absolutely misses his dad, he hopes that fewer people being around means that Zuko will have more time to actually get over his awkwardness with what remains of their group. But Zuko holes himself up in his own separate room at Ember Island, and Sokka doesn’t see hide nor hair of the guy aside from when he’s training Aang until Suki, of all people, tells him where his room is.

And that kind of rubs Sokka the wrong way. And maybe he doesn’t deal with it too great.

Zuko still makes it to mealtimes, scrounging leftover non-perishables and deathly Fire Nation spices from his family’s summer home’s cupboards. The next such mealtime, Sokka breaks his habit of flopping onto the sand next to Zuko when they set up their beach campfire and instead maneuvers himself to the other side of the fire and waves Suki over. When Sokka finds Zuko and Suki sparring one day, twin swords against twin fans, he panics and drags Suki away with the excuse of a sea monster emergency that ends with Zuko standing alone in a clearing, sword tips dipping towards the ground, and Sokka spending thirty minutes scouring the beach with Suki looking for a fake sea serpent. When they have a beach party after Zuko’s stress-out about training Aang, Sokka just… conveniently forgets to let Zuko know about it.

And, okay, here’s the thing: Sokka already feels kind of bad. The guy’s clearly trying so hard to fit in that he’s attempting and failing to remember his uncle’s jokes even though he couldn’t deliver a deliberately funny line to save his own life. On top of that, Sokka’s not just being unfair to Zuko, but also using Suki to do it.

Sokka… hasn’t had much experience with being jealous before. Not like this. It’s always been ‘Yue is engaged and sacrificing her life to save the moon spirit’ this and ‘Suki diving into serpent-infested waters because she’s better-equipped to rescue Toph’ that. This whole thing, where it’s just, y’know, a guy that might be into his securely-established-as-dating-Sokka girlfriend? That’s more what normal guys have to deal with, and when Sokka lets himself, he’s depressingly aware that he never really got to be a normal guy growing up. Not really enough people between the ages of fourteen and sixty in the Southern Water Tribe for that, aside from him and Katara.

Anyways, the point is, he should probably apologize to both Zuko and Suki, because he hasn’t been dealing very well with this issue. And that’s going to be really awkward, because it means he’s going to have to inform Suki that something was even happening in the first place. Zuko is the easier part of that equation, and he’s making it even easier by asking Sokka to talk with him alone in an isolated copse of unfamiliar tropical trees.

It’s kind of a romantic spot, actually, once he gets past how sketchy it is. The evening light filters through the branches in a way that scatters dappled light across their faces, softening even the harsh grooves of Zuko’s scar. Sokka should take Suki here later.

… After he apologizes to both of them. Sokka sighs, propping one hand on his hip and rubbing at the prickly-short hair growing in at the nape of his neck with the other, and opens his mouth -

“I’m sorry,” says Zuko.

Sokka closes his mouth, blinking, then opens it again. “Whuh?”

Zuko isn’t looking at him. Actually, Sokka hasn’t seen the guy this obviously nervous since he offered himself up as a prisoner to join the Boomer-Aang Gang. (Yeah, Sokka’s still sticking with that name. It’s cool, shut up.) Sokka would call him off-balance, even, but he learned enough from Master Piandao to see that Zuko is actually very rooted - like he’s expecting something to try and knock him over.

Sokka has the creeping realization that he might be that ‘something’ in Zuko’s expectations. Zuko’s staring at the ground so hard that the only part of his face Sokka can see is his scar, through a gap in his fringe where it stretches past his temple’s natural hairline. Tough haircut to manage, that.

“I apologize,” Zuko repeats, low, and bows curtly. His words are strangely formal like he’s reading from a script. “If my presence has been making you uncomfortable. I understand, and I simply wished to request that you continue to practice discretion until - “

And here Zuko’s words trip up. His hand flies up and rubs his upper arm, and he turns to stare even further into the trees.

“ - until the Avatar defeats my father,” Zuko continues, “It’s, um. I promise I’m not going to make anything weird, I - I learned my lesson after Jet - it’s just that it’s illegal in the Fire Nation, and if we’re going to - “

“Wait,” Sokka interrupts, frowning, and he’s not sure which part of that sounds more ridiculous. “It’s illegal to like someone’s girlfriend in the Fire Nation? Also - you knew Jet? Crazy-hook-sword-Jet? Jet had a girlfriend? Someone actually dated that guy?”

Sokka should feel worse saying that, given there’s a decent chance that Jet isn’t even alive anymore after what happened under Lake Laogai, but - Water Tribe sticks together, okay? Katara was really hurt by what Jet did. Just because Sokka told her Jet was a creep doesn’t mean it was okay to hurt her like that.

“What?” Zuko asks, and Sokka doesn’t have to double-check both sides of his face to make sure the guy’s actually frowning. The confusion is thick in his voice, and he’s crossing his arms defensively.

“What do you mean, what?” Sokka says right back. “Hey, what’s even the legal punishment for liking someone else’s girlfriend? Can you go to prison for that? That’s really weird, Zuko. It’s not like people can control how they feel - “

“For the last time, I’m not interested in Suki!” bursts out of Zuko like a kettle boiling over, and he flings his hands into the air in a dramatic motion that ends with him pulling at his own hair in a frustrated gesture straight out of a stage play. “I don’t care about your girlfriend! I never cared about your girlfriend!”

“Well, that’s just rude,” Sokka comments. Zuko responds with a noise of inarticulate rage.

“Seriously, though,” says Sokka, “What’s the problem, then? If you don’t like Suki, what are you even apologizing for?”

“I thought you - it’s not - “ Zuko visibly stops himself, biting at the inside of his cheek, and then he’s back to staring at the ground. He just wilts the same way he did at the campfire the other night - like he’s giving up - and it’s so weird and unlike Zuko that it’s making Sokka really nervous. That’s getting really old, in no small part because it makes Sokka feel like he punted a baby pygmy puma that doesn’t even have the self-respect to claw him for it.

“It’s nothing,” Zuko starts muttering, and Sokka shakes his head, wagging a finger.

“Nuh-uh,” he interrupts, “It’s obviously not, since you brought me to this sketchy-slash-romantic-I-haven’t-decided-yet patch of forest. You can’t just start talking about Fire Nation law and Jet and all that stuff, and - “

Zuko pulls harder at his own hair for a moment, and then drags his hands down his face.

“ - Are you having some kind of breakdown? Is that what’s happening here?” Sokka asks.

Zuko switches things up, staring up at the sky instead. It makes his hair fall back, and Sokka can finally see his face. He looks...

Really upset, actually.

“I’m not into your girlfriend,” Zuko mumbles, “I’m not into any - girls. I thought you had already figured that out earlier.”

Oh.

Oh.

Sokka is not an idiot. He can put one and two together - or, in this case, ‘Zuko doesn’t like girls’ and ‘it’s illegal’ and, unfortunately, ‘Jet.

That’s...

Sokka isn’t sure about the Earth Kingdom, but it’s not illegal in the Southern Water Tribe. In fact, Sokka is pretty sure that his dad and Bato are closer than two best friends would typically be. And even though that hurts the same way that thinking about how Katara has taken on their mother’s role in their lives after she died hurts, there’s nothing wrong with it, especially since his dad’s already fulfilled his parental duties by having two kids. But he’s seen how stiff and sad and messed up all those little Fire Nation school kids were in the cave during Aang’s dance party. They were so scared to do anything at all to set themselves apart - to express themselves even a little bit, as Aang kept insisting. The visible relief in some of them when they let loose - you don’t get that way without someone working really hard to tangle you up inside.

Making it illegal just to feel things? That’s a pretty good first step. Sokka isn’t surprised that the Fire Nation stuck their grimy, evil little fingers into love, too.

The longer he stays quiet about this, the more tense Zuko gets. When Sokka takes a step forward, Zuko’s shoulders jerk back, hands flying into fists as he shifts into a recognizably defensive stance -

He’s stiff when Sokka wraps him up in a hug, but at least Sokka doesn’t get a fireball to the face for it.

“The only thing that makes me uncomfortable about your dating preferences,” Sokka says firmly, “Is that you and Katara both have the worst taste in guys.”

That gets him a twitch and a sort of wet-sounding choking noise. Zuko doesn’t hug him back, so Sokka pulls him in tighter and bundles him down until Zuko’s head tucks under Sokka’s chin. The Fire Nation probably doesn’t do good hugs, either, and someone has to teach Zuko how to be a person. Zuko may technically be older than Sokka, but Sokka has years of experience being a pretty decent big brother.

“What?” Zuko croaks because ‘what’ is, apparently, just the word of the day now.

Sokka pulls back a little bit, but doesn’t let go of Zuko’s shoulders.

“I’m sorry,” says Sokka, “I was being a jerk because I got jealous over something that I shouldn’t have been jealous over, and now it turns out that I was being even more of a jerk than I thought I was. I didn’t know you liked guys - “

Zuko’s throat bobs visibly, and he twitches out a sailor’s swear that Sokka magnanimously ignores.

“ - But nobody here is going to judge you for it,” Sokka goes on. “Like - have you met Aang? He stepped on a ladybug once and gave it Air Temple funeral rights in miniature. Toph is the last person who would ever judge someone for wanting to be themselves. Suki’s from Kyoshi Island and would probably kick anyone’s butt if they said something. And Katara - she was only so upset with you because she cares a lot and feels like you took advantage of that.”

“Which, by the way, is exactly what Jet did,” Sokka adds, and shakes Zuko lightly by the shoulders. “Seriously. You couldn’t have picked, like, a nice Ba Sing Se university boy? They’re pretty dorky up there, but anyone is better than Jet.

Zuko lists forward, and his head thunks onto Sokka’s shoulder. His shoulders are shaking slightly, and Sokka isn’t sure if he’s laughing, crying, or both. He saw a sheen over Zuko’s eyes before he went down, but it’s hard to tell like this.

“Please stop talking about Jet,” is all Zuko says. “Trust me. I’m aware.”

Sokka pats him on the back. “That,” he says with the gravitas of a man who’s found an opportunity he’s been anticipating for far too long, “Is rough, buddy.”

Zuko’s shaking increases slightly in intensity, and Sokka finally lets himself smile, snickering into his ear.

Sokka’s not that great at talking to people about their feelings. He does it when he has to, and he understands why it’s important, but Katara is a lot better at knowing what to say than him. The benefit of being the meat and sarcasm guy, though, is that when someone just needs you to treat them like normal - well, Sokka is definitely good for that.

Still, he should probably at least…

“I’m sorry that you grew up thinking that it wasn’t okay,” Sokka says quietly, “I promise I won’t let anyone be a jerk about it.”

Zuko’s exhale is shaky, and he lifts his head. His eyes are still watery, but there aren’t any tear tracks on his face. He still won’t quite meet Sokka’s eyes, but he does have a rare, wavering smile on his face.

“Thanks,” he manages roughly, and stops. That is, apparently, all he has to say on the topic.

What speaks more loudly is the way that Zuko just kind of goes boneless when Sokka pulls him back into the hug and the way his hands come up: awkward, stiff, slow, but just barely wrapping around Sokka’s back in return. Sokka feels another pang of guilt at the realization that Zuko’s been winding himself up about this ever since their fireside chat, and it’s only now that he feels safe enough to release all that tension.

“I don’t think anybody’s ever said something like that to me,” Zuko admits into Sokka’s shoulder. “I thought - I mean, I know things are different in the Fire Nation than they are in the rest of the world. The laws about - people like - um, that was one of the things that we were supposed to be bringing to the other nations. To civilize them. It’s considered - perverted - “

“It’s not!” Sokka exclaims, alarmed. And then, because Zuko keeps talking in circles like he’s scared to even say the word: “You being gay and stuff - it’s normal. Your nation’s just run by hateful people. You guys don’t even dance in the Fire Nation, and that’s one of the most normal, human things you can do!”

Zuko finally draws back, and this time Sokka lets him go. He doesn’t go far - close enough to deliver a friendly elbow jab, at least, when Zuko says, “I kind of got the impression you thought me and Aang dancing was stupid.”

Sokka raises an imperious finger. “That’s because it was, and you only made saying so funnier with how above dancing you acted like you were.”

“... Huh,” Zuko says, like he’s actually thinking about what Sokka just said. This is fair and good, but also Sokka is just about at his limit for depressing conversations about Zuko not being allowed to be a person for this particular twenty-four hour period, so he hooks an arm around the guy’s shoulders and starts tugging him back to the campground.

“Okay, but,” Sokka says, “Since you are disqualified from judging how beautiful Suki is, riddle me this, jerkbender: Am I beautiful? Wait, don’t tell me - I gotta ask if I can borrow Suki’s war paints first - ”

Zuko sputters all the way back to the beach bonfire.

And that, thinks Sokka, is that. Nefarious plot discovered, issues resolved, everything can be copacetic again while they focus on saving the world from Zuko’s crazy, genocidal dad. Except, a couple of days later, Sokka realizes -

Zuko has been ignoring Sokka.

At first, Sokka kinda got it. The whole romance conversation the other day was pretty embarrassing even for Sokka, and Zuko probably grew up being told that if he talked about his feelings too much, then he’d get some kind of disease. So he’s willing to cut Zuko some slack! A day or two of embarrassed slinking around, even.

It is, however, starting to get a little bit annoying at this point. And rude.

It comes to a head when Sokka, like the magnanimous person and bigger man that he is, reaches out a friendly hand and asks Zuko to spar. It goes well, at first. Zuko really is crazy-good with those two swords of his, and Sokka has picked up a thing or two from Piandao. Zuko wins pretty much every bout, which Sokka is okay with at first. He gets it - the guy needs a pick-me-up. But he starts getting tired of it a lot faster than he got tired of Aang knocking him around at an ancient airbending sport. For one, Zuko isn’t bending. For another, distracting Zuko from his own awkwardness doesn’t really hit Sokka on the same level as distracting Aang from the death of all of his loved ones.

Before long, Sokka finds himself putting his all into the sparring match. Zuko is still winning, for the most part, but it lights a fire under him. Something between unabashed delight and grim determination shines in Zuko’s eyes -

Until Sokka wins.

The match where Sokka finally trounces Zuko feels different. Their matches were fun, at first, and felt like they were both coming at each other in good spirit even if Zuko really sucks at dialing it down from ‘battle to the death’ to ‘friendly spar.’ However, the longer they go on, the more frantic Zuko seems to get. Sokka almost wants to call the whole thing off, but Zuko is also getting sloppier in his anger, and this is the best chance that Sokka is going to get to actually beat him!

He comes to regret the decision, because by the time Sokka twists one of Zuko’s swords out of his grip and levies Space Sword at Zuko’s throat, Zuko’s practically snarling. His eyes are narrowed, his grip is white-knuckled around his remaining dao blade, and there’s actual steam coming out with every puff of his breath.

Sokka doesn’t take notice quickly enough. “Hah!” he cheers, “Master Piandao was right! I am so awesome!”

His proclamation is met with sullen silence. Sokka’s been a good sport about losing, so far, and kind of wishes that Zuko would extend the same to him.

“Um,” Sokka starts slowly, lowering his sword from where Zuko is glaring at it. “Best two of three? All the other ones don’t count, of course -”

Zuko scoffs right in Sokka’s face, and stalks off. He doesn’t even take his lost sword with him.

“Well, then,” Sokka tells the empty clearing, “That was weird.”

He has to find Zuko, of course. He takes a long break first, though - enough time to pick up and clean their swords, to cool down, and to wash his face in a nearby stream. Whatever is wrong with Zuko, confronting him while his temper issues are at a ten out of ten is not a good idea.

Eventually, though, Sokka follows the sound of fireballs getting punched into the ground. Clearly, Zuko is not currently employing ‘sneaky ninja’ mode. The sounds trail off before long, and by the time Sokka finds Zuko, he’s leaning against a tree with his head in his hands.

Sokka clears his throat politely. Zuko doesn’t startle, probably having heard Sokka coming, but he does drop his hands and push off from the tree.

“Hey,” Sokka says, and toes at the ground.

“Hey,” Zuko says back, not quite meeting Sokka’s eyes.

There’s a lengthy, awkward pause, and then they both start talking at the same time.

“Look, I’m sorry - “

“I apologize for - wait, what?“ Zuko interrupts himself, “What are you saying sorry for?”

Uh-oh. Is this another one of Zuko’s issues? Does he not know how to accept apologies, either? From what Sokka has seen of her, Azula really doesn’t seem like the type to say sorry and make up, and Ozai probably isn’t any better. What if Sokka’s going to have to straight-up explain apologies to Zuko?

“For, uh - well - ” Sokka stutters. He’s not great at this. He’s never been the touchy-feely one in the family, and while he’s not an idiot, he can see when something’s up, he also just… it’s never been his job to explain emotional stuff. That’s always been Katara’s thing, especially after their dad left and they were left with no parents immediately present.

It’s also something Katara always gets on his case about, though. Sokka can be as great as he wants at protecting his friends and family from danger, but he’s starting to see that he needs to get better at protecting them from less tangible issues, too. Especially as the oldest member of Team Avatar - traveling with two pre-teens really brings the differences in emotional maturity home. He’s not sure how Katara put up with him when they were younger.

Sokka sighs, but then takes a deep breath and squares his shoulders.

“I’m sorry,” he says, “For the fight earlier. I clearly did something that upset you, and - well, after all the stuff we’ve talked about recently, I figure I probably stepped into a sensitive issue again.”

Sokka expects Zuko to look angry again like he did when Sokka invaded his personal belongings or accused him of trying to steal Suki away. Instead, Zuko ducks his head and rubs at the back of his neck, looking almost… sheepish?

“Uh,” Zuko articulates eloquently, “Not really.”

Huh?

“Wait, what?” Sokka asks, “But then why’d you storm off like that?”

Zuko shrugs his shoulders, crossing his arms, and then immediately uncrosses them to rub at his face. When his hands come away, his face is flushing slightly.

“I should be the one to apologize,” Zuko admits. “You really didn’t upset me, Sokka, and you really don’t need to walk on eggshells around me. Honestly? I was just kinda jealous.”

Jealous?” Sokka sputters, “You? Mister Master Swordsman Firebending Ninja Prince? Of what?

Zuko’s mouth twists, and he scrubs a hand through his hair.

“Of your sword?” he says, voice lilting the answer into a question. “It’s, uh. Pretty cool, actually. And the fact that Master Piandao said you were such a good student. He’s the one who taught me how to use my dao, too, but he was a pretty harsh teacher. I mean - I was used to it! And he taught me well, and it was basically relaxed compared to my firebending training, but... “

Zuko shrugs again, smiling at Sokka apologetically.

“I guess I’m more competitive than I thought I was,” he admits. “I always saw Azula as the competitive one - I just wanted to be able to catch up to her. She used to be pretty mean whenever she beat me. But sparring with you was really fun, and not stressful at all, and I got used to winning. So when you finally beat me, and then you said those things about Master Piandao…”

Sokka winces sympathetically, but can’t hold back a relieved grin.

“You were overwhelmed by how cool I was?” he offers.

Zuko scoffs, reaching out to shove Sokka’s shoulder.

“You wish,” Zuko complains, “Just take the apology, okay? I was being really full of it - it wasn’t your fault.”

Instead of replying verbally, Sokka shoves him back with his own shoulder. Zuko yelps, clearly not expecting the attack, and grabs Sokka’s sleeve as he falls - sending both of them sprawling in the dust.

“Great,” Zuko drones from under Sokka’s armpit, “You hated my apology so much you attacked me.”

“What’re you gonna do about it?” Sokka taunts, “Get the blind twelve-year-old to defend you?”

Zuko shoves his arm to the side and blinks up at Sokka through his mussed hair.

“She could destroy us both, and you know it.”

“Yeah, okay,” Sokka admits, “Maybe. But seriously, man, it’s cool. I’ve been there, too, y’know. Why do you think I even went to train with Master Piandao in the first place?”

“Because he’s a renowned master swordsman and an incredible teacher?” Zuko guesses.

“That, too,” Sokka cedes, “But we mostly found him by chance, actually. I was feeling really rough about being, like… just me, on this team of superpowered freaky bending children, y’know? I’m the oldest, I’m supposed to make sure everyone is okay, but how can I do that when Toph can bend metal, Katara is a master waterbender, Aang is the avatar, and I’m just… me?”

“Hey,” Zuko starts, frowning as he sits up, crossing his legs.

“No, shh,” Sokka interrupts, “Lemme finish! So I went to Master Piandao because I wanted to do something special, too, y’know? And while I was gone, they all missed my brilliance and master-mindedness, and Master Piandao taught me the value of my creative mind! And also how to swordfight. And how to make a space sword. Anyways, the point is, I know what being jealous of someone else’s cool stuff is like, okay?”

“Okay,” Zuko says quietly, looking down. His hands are overlapping each other in his lap, and after a moment, he meets Sokka’s eyes.

“Thanks, then,” Zuko says, “For what it’s worth, I think you do a great job taking care of everyone. You’re a really good friend.”

“Awww,” Sokka croons, launching himself forward to flop onto Zuko again and squish his cheeks together. “Thanks, buddy! That was a whole feeling you just expressed!”

Zuko goes down with a satisfying ‘oomph’ and wheezes laughter as he tries to catch his breath.

“I know I said I wasn’t going to make it weird before,” Zuko mumbles past Sokka’s hands, “But you have a girlfriend, and I feel like you’re making this weird.”

Sokka hums thoughtfully, before nodding in acquiescence and promptly leaning his elbow into Zuko’s stomach. If he won’t take affection, then he’d better be ready for hazing.

“I take it back,” Zuko gasps, “You’re the worst friend - you keep trying to kill me!”

“What if I let you borrow my space sword?” Sokka asks.

Zuko stops wheezing, staring up at Sokka with wide eyes. Sokka smirks.

“Deal.”