“I can take you back to your cell now if you’ve learned your lesson.” Sokka was using his guard voice. The hallway was empty, but just to be safe.
There was a dark lump in the corner of the cooler. At the sound of Sokka’s voice, a couple nuts and bolts fell to the ground with a clank, then a wrench, but no movement from the lump. Sokka took a step into the freezer — and gosh it was cold — to investigate. “Zuko?” He asked, no longer in his guard voice. The lump shifted slightly, until a sliver of pale skin containing two gold eyes and one red scar were visible. “S-s-Sokka?” Asked an impossibly weak voice.
Sokka’s heart started with concern, which surprised him, because he was still slightly wary of the firebender. But here was Zuko, huddled on the floor, at his mercy. “Zuko, are you okay?”
Again, that impossibly weak voice. “G-got th-the b-b-bolts...” Zuko whispered. Sokka looked at the frosty bolts on the floor. He scooped them up and dumped them in his pocket carelessly, never taking his attention away from Zuko. “Great, you got the bolts, but are you okay?”
The lump curled in on itself. “C-cold...” It whimpered. Sokka knew the dangers of hypothermia, growing up in the Southern Water Tribe, and he realized Zuko had it bad. He knew the best way to warm him up was with hot water, but that wasn’t really an option, so the second best bet would be his own body heat. Sokka was a little uncomfortable with that, seeing as how he would have to snuggle with Zuko, which would be awkward even if they hadn’t been mortal enemies less than a week ago, but Zuko needed it, and Sokka was mature enough to suck it up and hug the guy.
“I’m getting you out of here, okay? “
Zuko moved slightlly so his eyes were visible again. “Wh-what ab-b-bout th-the escape?” He asked. Now Sokka could see his lips were blue.
“We will escape when you’re better, but right now I’m taking you back to your cell and warming you up.”
Zuko shivered. “I’m f-f-fine.”
“No you’re not. C’mon, get up.” Sokka bent down to grab Zuko underneath the armpits and hauled him to his feet. He was taken by surprise when Zuko failed to support himself and immediately clutched to Sokka’s shoulder for support, shuddering. Shit, he was worse off than he thought.
“You alright? Can you make it back to your cell?” He asked. Zuko shuddered and straightened himself. He flexed his arms and fingers and it looked like he was trying to bend, but no fire came. “Yeah,” He breathed quickly.
“Okay.” Said Sokka, only sort of believing him. “I have to handcuff you while we walk back so we don’t look suspicious, but after that, we’ll get you warmed up.” He explained. Zuko nodded and his teeth chattered but he let Sokka bind his wrists and stand at his back as they walked through the prison blocks to get to Zuko’s cell.
Sokka held on to Zuko’s hands while his wrists were in the handcuffs as they walked. Partially to look like he was somewhat restraining him, but he was also massaging and trying to warm them in an attempt to get the blood flowing once again. Zuko walked slowly and clumsily, mostly letting Sokka guide him. His shoulders were hunched and he wouldn’t stop shivering.
When they were safe inside his cell, Sokka undid his handcuffs. Zuko brought his hands up to his chest, hugging himself, and a huge shudder wracked his body. Sokka had to do something.
“You have hypothermia” He explained a little awkwardly. “I got it once in the South Pole. Katara made me strip down and take a hot bath, but we don’t have that here, so you’ll just have to use my body heat.” He paused, looking to Zuko for his reaction, but found none. He couldn’t tell if the firebender was too cold to react or didn’t care. “... Is that okay?” He tacked on awkwardly. Zuko nodded through shivers and chattering teeth, so Sokka decided to go for it.
Skin to skin contact was ideal, but Sokka wasn’t exactly comfortable with that yet, so he took off his shoulder armor and helmet and stood in front of the firebender. Zuko wasn’t looking at him, but instead had his head turning away, like he was trying to hide in his own shoulders for warmth. When he felt Sokka start to rub his arms, he looked up at him for a moment. Then, to Sokka’s surprise, he leaned into his touch and rested his forehead on Sokka’s shoulder, exhaling.
Sokka had to stop himself from catching his breath. Even after Zuko joined their group, never in a million years would Sokka think he would be in this situation with Zuko. Zuko! Of all people. It felt so out of character for him. The Fire Prince was always so standoffish and cold. But right now he seemed so vulnerable, leaning into Sokka for protection like a scared child. It felt like such an intimate moment for Zuko that Sokka had never considered before.
He hadn’t really thought about it but Zuko was just as human as he was. He had been a child once. He had played with his friends. He had hugged his mother. Even when he was chasing them on his ship, he’d still worn pajamas and brushed his teeth and said goodnight to his uncle every night. Normal people things.
And now here he was, frozen, vulnerable, unable to bend, in need of support more than ever, and allowing himself to be helped. Helped by a former enemy no less, and held, and comforted, and touched, and cared for. He might just be too cold to protest right now, but Sokka could tell these things were hard for him and he felt an unexpected pang of affection towards the prince. He trusted Sokka enough to let him do these things that were so hard for him, and Sokka felt personally responsible for making sure nothing came along to hurt him while he was like this.
Zuko said something. So soft that Sokka could barely hear it. “Did — did I do good?” He whispered.
Sokka was caught off guard. “What?” He asked, even though he’d heard what Zuko had said.
“Did I do good?” He asked, slightly louder. He didn’t take his head off of Sokka’s shoulder but his eyes looked up at him with hope.
Sokka was confused for a moment. Did he do good? At what? What was he talking about? Did he do good at walking back to his cell? Being in the freezer? Then he realized. To Zuko, firebending on purpose, getting put in the freezer, and removing the bolts was a mission. He was expected to do those things, they were his job. He wanted to know if he’d done a good job. If he’d earned Sokka’s approval.
Sokka had thought of the whole escape as a team effort. Zuko getting the bolts was just one of many moving parts. A function; not a job to be done “good” or “bad”. But Zuko was different, and not only was he allowing Sokka to take care of him when he needed help, he was looking to him for approval. Sokka closed his eyes and leaned his head in to Zuko. He moved from rubbing his arms to his back, embracing him. “Yeah.” He said, “Really good.” Zuko leaned in even harder. “Thank you, Sokka.” He whispered through his blue lips.
He let his hands fall from their position hugging his chest. Tentatively, he wrapped them around Sokka. And then they just stood there, hugging, breathing, trusting. It felt good.