Zuko isn’t quite sure where he fits, after they return from the Boiling Rock. He’s tired, and can’t navigate a conversation, and worried about Mai and Ty Lee. Sokka is darting between clinging to his girlfriend’s arm and his father’s side, grinning madly. And Toph, the only other person he’s really comfortable with, is on Aang-training duty for the day.
So Zuko doesn’t stick around — he heads for his room to meditate, and hopefully recharge before dinner.
At dinnertime, there’s enough people that two groups form. The kids: Aang, Katara, Toph, and the others Zuko vaguely recognises but doesn’t know the names of. Then there's the adults and the older kids, or rather everyone who’d been at the Boiling Rock.
Zuko half-fills his bowl with food and is tempted to take it back to his room and eat there, but Sokka calls out to him and waves him over.
The two sit down together. Sokka’s knees knock against Zuko’s, but Sokka doesn’t seem to care, so Zuko lets him. On Sokka’s other side, Zuko sees he has his fingers locked between Suki’s.
Zuko stays quiet for most of dinner, only politely answering questions directed at him or replying to Sokka’s remarks here and there. He picks nervously at his meal. After today, he’s hungry, but it’s Water Tribe night, meaning the tastes and textures are nothing like Zuko is used to. After much consideration, he manages the rice, then sets his bowl aside and turns his attention to the conversation being had.
“So,” Chit Sang begins. He nods in the direction of the trio of teens. “How did you three meet?”
Sokka, halfway through a mouthful, hurriedly chews his food and swallows. “This guy,” he says, and throws an arm around Zuko’s shoulders. Zuko freezes. This kind of casual touch is still very much new to him. But coming from Sokka, he finds he doesn’t mind it. Sokka continues. “... Crashed his boat into my village, beat me up a little, broke my favourite spear, threatened my grandma and then kidnapped a child. But, I hit him on the head with my boomerang, so I see that as a plus.”
Oh. Everyone’s staring at him now, and Zuko’s face is turning red. He shrinks back into Sokka's side, making himself as small as possible.
Sokka’s father splutters. “You threatened my mother?”
Fuck. Zuko’s gone and pissed off another dad. This can’t end well. “I didn’t mean to threaten her,” he argues defensively. “I was just… The Avatar is meant to be, like, a hundred years old, so I… and she’s also, y’know, kind of old?? I wasn’t going to hurt a grandma, I swear!!”
Sokka laughs, and his dad — what was his name? Hakado? Zuko's too nervous to ask — seems to relax.
“Well…” Chit Sang makes an awkward attempt to continue the conversation, after a beat of silence. “What about the rest of you?”
Suki answers this time. “Sokka came to stay at my village for a while, then we met again on the way to Ba Sing Se,” she says. She smirks. “And Zuko here invaded my village with a horde of Komodo-rhinos, fought some of my girls, and burned down my village! He was trying to kidnap the child again.”
Zuko knows he deserves this.
“Yeah, I’m… really, really sorry about that…” he mutters. “I never meant to burn your village, it was an accident. I would have put the fires out after! But I was too focused on capturing Aang, and then…” He hangs his head. "I'm sorry."
Suki doesn't respond. When Zuko lifts his head, she's looking at him with a neutral expression. Which means nothing. Is she accepting his apology or not? Zuko thinks he'd even prefer it if she outright refused his apology. It's not like his words truly made up for it, and at least that way he would know how to tread around this topic. Zuko will never understand why some people (by which he mostly means his Uncle) feel the need to be so cryptic.
“Sounds like you all had a bit of a rocky start,” chuckles Chit Sang, and Zuko is glad someone is moving the conversation forward. “So... How did you three put all that past you to start dating?”
Chaos ensues. Zuko and Sokka pull twin faces of horror at the assumption, spluttering. Suki just smirks again.
“We’re not dating!” the two boys say, at exactly the same time, in exactly the same tone. They turn and look at each other in surprise.
“You’re not?” Sokka’s dad — Hakoda, that’s his name! — asks. His thick eyebrows deepen into a confused frown. Zuko dies a little. Even Sokka's dad had thought they were dating?? Zuko still isn't sure how to act in a friendship, and now he thinks maybe he's been doing it wrong this whole time.
Sokka looks absolutely betrayed. “No! I would never date Zuko!!” Zuko blinks at that. Sokka seems to realise what he’d said, though, because he turns to Zuko and quickly corrects himself. “I mean, I would totally date you, but I’m kinda already involved with Suki…”
Zuko is distinctly aware of everyone watching them. Unsure how to respond, he shrugs awkwardly, face hot.
Suki shakes her head. “We Kyoshi Islanders don’t get so hung up about monogamy versus polyamory as you outsiders do. Love as many people as you love. I don’t mind if you date Zuko too.”
Sokka pricks up like a puppy-parrot when someone mentions the word 'walk'. “Really?” he says. “Cool! Then, I would definitely date you, if you wanted to.”
“You would date me?” Zuko is taken aback. The idea that anyone could genuinely like him enough to date him is... hard to wrap his head around. Mai had only dated him as a ruse so she could really see Ty Lee. But this is Sokka. Sokka would date him? That’s stupid! Sokka is... amazing, and Zuko has hurt him and his friends in the past. And he’s barely been able to make up for it. No, Sokka deserves far better than Zuko.
“Of course, man! You’re like, my best friend!” Sokka says, as if it should be obvious. “And you’re like, so pretty with your new hair. You’re cool!”
Zuko’s brain short-circuits. He thinks he might actually burst into flames. “You think I’m pretty and cool??”
“Dude, I think you’re hella pretty and cool!! I know; I’m surprised too. Your old haircut was…" he grimaces, "But glow up of the century, damn.”
Pink grows across Zuko’s cheeks. His heartbeat races as butterflies flutter in his stomach. Ever since his scar, he’s always assumed he can be nothing but ugly. It covers nearly half his face, after all. A mark of shame and dishonour — there’s nothing pretty about it. About him.
Well… Zuko is trying to unlearn his preconceptions about his Nation and his father, and by extension those about himself and his scar. He knows, now, it doesn’t have to mean failure and shame. It’s a trauma he had to go through, and in the end he grew because of it. (Even if it took... a long time to get here...)
But the thought that he can still be seen pretty? Pretty in spite of, or even including, his scar? Zuko’s never really considered it. He remembers Jin, in Ba Sing Se. Uncle had insisted she had a crush on him, and he couldn’t understand why she would have. He'd been so insistent she was onto them, until that awkward date... But if Sokka, the most attractive person Zuko knows, thinks he’s pretty...?
“I think you’re pretty and cool too,” Zuko admits quietly. He holds his fingers out in the half-heart shape Sokka had taught him. Sokka matches the other side, making the heart-shape. His face is equally as flushed, a red ink wash staining his cheeks.
They finish their moment in a flash that feels far too quick for Zuko's liking, and they both turn to look back to the rest of the group. “Anyways, we’re not dating,” Sokka says.
Zuko shakes his head cluelessly. “Yeah, I don’t know why you would think that.”
They’re met with astonished gaping from the adults.
(And an exasperated sigh from Suki, because her idiots have fallen in love.)