And, well, that’s the thing. Sokka knows its stupid.
But he’s excited, and in a really good mood. And the weather is perfect for driving. And, and! Probably a bunch of other reasons. Definitely a whole bunch more, all of them having nothing to do with pretty brown eyes and an expression full of determination.
Okay, so maybe more of the reasons have to do with the eyes of the boy standing there than Sokka wants to admit. But he’s so cute, and Sokka watched the bus leave without him. By, like, minutes. Maybe one, one singular minute. So like, he was clearly actually going somewhere, and a hitchhiker couldn’t be that bad of an idea. Right?
just don’t tell katara just don’t tell katara just don’t tell katara-
Sokka does a shitty k turn in the parking lot across from the bus station, pulls up to the curb where the boy is looking determinedly at his phone, and rolls down the passenger window. “Hey! Which way were you going?” He may die, but at least his conscience will be clear.
The guy blinks at him.
Oh, he’s prickly.
Sokka is stupidly resilient at all times, though, and for no particular reason. A challenge can be fun, right? So instead of respectfully deciding to turn away now and make his trip as intended, he presses harder. “I mean, okay. I can leave. Or you can tell me where you’re going, and I can give you a ride if it’s in the same direction.” The guy looks past Sokka, over in the direction of the missed bus. Too easy. “That way is towards Yukon, right? I’m headed out of Alaska, if you are too.”
The guy doesn’t look impressed. But he doesn’t look angry, either. “Why do you care?”
Sokka shrugs. “I gotta try and get into heaven somehow. Maybe this’ll tip the scale.”
The guy snorts, but not in a completely dismissive way. “I don’t know how far out of Alaska you were going, but I’m-” He’s cut off by a loud honk, and right, I’m still in the middle of the lane.
“Shit. Come on, just get in!”
He can’t believe the guy does it, but. The guy does it. He pulls open the back door, throws in his only bag, and then ducks into the passenger seat.
Sokka peels away from the curve and speeds through the now-yellow light. He takes a closer look at his new friend from the corner of his eyes. Just making sure he doesn’t have any obvious blood or dirt on him, don’t want to let a cold killer in my car. And he doesn’t look messy at all; his clothes are simple, his jeans acid washed, but everything about him is very clean and purposeful. He has a gold hoop through his septum, and two more in his ear. Sokka likes to think it’s romantic, the whole dichotomy thing they’ve got going on. His own horseshoe septum is silver, the color of moonlight through the clouds, and the boy sitting next to him clearly has everything to do with the sun.
Sokka doesn’t make the rules, that’s just how it is.
They’re a couple minutes into driving when Sokka clears his voice. “So. Look like we’re headed the right way?”
“And how far am I taking you?”
“As close to San Diego as you’re headed.”
And damn, damn . That works out. Surprisingly so. But Sokka’s gonna play it cool and casual, because he is cool and casual. All the time.
“How does Los Angeles sound?”
The guy whips his head away from the window to look at him. “Are you serious?”
Sokka grins. “Somehow? Yes. I’m dead serious.”
He looks back out the window, but he doesn’t look so paralyzed, this time. “I guess we’re really doing this then. Fuck.”
Sokka supposes they are. Bet.
It’s pretty quiet, up until the point where they stop for coffee. Sokka already had a cup, sure, but he’s doing all the driving today. And probably tomorrow. They haven’t really talked yet about how this is going to work.
Sokka buys his coffee and busies himself at the self-help counter. Their cream isn’t flavored here, so he dumps in a few extra packets of sugar, the kind that looks like little clusters of crystals and comes in brown paper packaging. The stirrers are vibrant green, and the cardboard sleeve around the cup has the shop’s name stamped on it with ink.
When they meet back up, which is really just the guy wandering over to where Sokka is at the counter, Sokka can see a sharpie written name on the cup. He pointedly looks away, because it feels kind of rude to get that kind of information without asking, but he realizes he does kind of need to know this guy’s name. Which means he has to actually ask for it.
He keeps looking into his coffee, picking up one of the stirrers while he talks. “I’m Sokka. Just thought you may want to know who’s driving you to a whole new country.”
Sokka tosses away the stirrer and snaps his lid back into place.
“Pleasure. You gonna add anything to that?” Sokka points at the cup, looking back up, but Zuko shakes his head.
“I drink my tea plain.”
Oh, yeah, there is a tea bag hanging out from the side of the cup, isn’t there.
A name. A preference for tea.
That’s two whole things more than Sokka knew just five minutes ago.
It takes a little while for Zuko to warm up to the joking. A little while being a whole day, which is long in Sokka time. At first, Zuko ignores it. Mostly he blinks, like he doesn’t get it, or maybe like he wasn’t listening. Sokka isn’t watching him too hard, because he’s driving right now, so he’ll never know. But sometimes, when he can turn his head just enough to watch Zuko and the road, he can see a smile. A small, thin lipped one, but a smile nonetheless.
“How long do you think this trip will take?”
It comes out of nowhere, cutting through the quiet that had settled between them. The music is already turned low, and as dusk sets in the streetlights flick on.
“Why, you goin’ somewhere fast?”
Zuko shakes his head. “No, I just. Thought I’d ask.”
They’re nearing the end of their first night of driving, and Sokka doesn’t feel quite as tired as he expected. His initial excitement seems to be giving him energy, even now as the sky turns grey. Trees disappear against the low onset of fog that rolls out from the wilds and over the lip of the asphalt.
“Well, it’s about a twelve day trip, give or take. I like to sight see, so. Expect at least two weeks?”
Zuko hums in thought.
Sokka bites. “What?”
“I’d expect something like that from my uncle, but I didn’t think it’d take quite so long with you. You seem like the type to be hiding ten speeding tickets in your glovebox at all times.”
Sokka distinctly doesn’t comment on that. He pushes Zuko away from him as much as he can in the cramped car, eyes never leaving the road. “Oh no. The doors are unlocked.” His straight face starts to break. “Make sure you don’t accidentally open yours and fall out. Oh no.” There’s absolutely no gusto to what he’s saying, and if that didn’t give him away the watery smile on his face absolutely would. But he thinks he isn’t really going to have to explain to Zuko that he’s joking, not when Zuko starts laughing next to him, for the first time in their entire trip so far. Sokka wishes he could just stop the car and watch.
It’s like listening to liquid gold, summer-y and warm. Just like Zuko’s voice. “Right, that’d be a shame.” Zuko’s pushing Sokka’s hand off him and leaning his head against the window, but Sokka can tell that Zuko is still looking at him. It would be, Sokka thinks. Then I wouldn’t be able to hear you laugh like that again.
He feels pretty confident that it’s going to be a long two weeks.
Sokka wonders if he’s annoyed. Zuko, that is. Sokka wonders if Zuko is annoyed, and he thinks that’s really not fucking fair, considering Sokka is giving him a ride for absolutely free. Okay, well. Zuko says he’ll pay for gas, and they’ll split the driving, so he’s pitching in his fair share. But there’s no ticket cost, unless you count the money wasted on the bus ticket that sits uselessly crunched in Zuko’s bag. Sokka does not, in fact, count it. But Zuko seems bothered the whole second day when they pull over to every rest stop they see, or when they make a wrong turn, or whenever he realizes they aren’t going above the speed limit despite the lack of any cops in the vicinity.
Well, he’s either bothered, or he’s just more of a somber person than Sokka initially thought. Zuko stays quiet, mostly looks out the window, and sometimes puts in his own headphones instead of asking Sokka to change the song. At times Sokka is almost able to forget he has a passenger with how little room Zuko tries to take up, and that bothers him more.
All Sokka can do is shrug and smile. “It’s my trip, I’m gonna enjoy it. Don’t wanna get burnt out.”
And to his credit, even if he looks fucking miserable at times, Zuko doesn’t argue back. He just acts grateful to be in a car and going somewhere, instead of sitting outside in the cold, looking for a quick alternative way home that isn’t waiting for another bus that probably won’t come.
Rest stops, motels, and bathroom breaks aside, they make their first real stop on their second day of driving. True to his word, Sokka likes to sight see, which includes dingy little shopping centers. The one they’re at now is really just three different buildings, one of which seems to be an office of some sort. The center and left buildings are definitely selling stuff, though. The more modern of the two is decorated by bulletin boards, covered in flyers. Some of them are recent; many of them are old, even by a couple of years. They can tell from the way the shop sign hangs on the door, with a mismatched name on the paint above the frame, that this building has gone through the hands of several different owners. Right now it seems to sell candles, mostly, and soap.
They walk through the isles carefully, side by side. Zuko doesn’t seem to have an interest in looking at anything on his own, and Sokka doesn’t mind anyway if Zuko just follows him. The whole shop smells like sugar and lavender. Sokka has to hold the jars right beneath his nose to smell the individual candles through the overwhelming amount of scents around them.
Some of the soaps ooze like honeycomb. Some are a deep shade of cranberry, and others are made up of too many shades of blue and green to count. A third of them are translucent, with crushed flower petals preserved inside. Most of them feel like gel, but a couple of them are chalky, and Sokka grimaces at his hand after he touches them. Sokka doesn’t really need any of it, considering it’s not good for travel, but Zuko lingers by the back of the shop. When he finally returns to the front, he stops by the cash register, and Sokka gets closer to look at what’s in his hand.
The soap is a creamy colored green, opaque besides the waves of white washing over the top. It looks simple, none of the sparkles or flowers some of the others had, but its fragrance is nice. Sokka hears the clerk say ginseng and jasmine, and he tries not to eye the price of it too hard. He may have a job, and a job that he likes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’d be willing to spend this kind of money on a bar of oil and butter.
Zuko seems happy, though. At least, as far as Sokka can tell.
They check out the other building, too. It looks drab from the outside, and everything makes sense when they look through the windows and see all the antiques and thrifted clothing. The antiques are all clearly kept in excellent condition, and the clothing looks decently organized, so it’s only really the building itself that’s overly worn.
Stepping inside is like stepping into an entirely different world. This shop has no friendly greater conveniently placed up front. Some parts of it are packed together tightly, and the two of them have to flatten themselves to step through. Lanterns and old radios sit on the highest shelves, knick knacks pour out of open desk drawers. Sokka can’t tell if some fabrics are extremely decorative hand towels or old embroidered rugs. There’s a bunch of hats on hooks, and Sokka knows he’s going to stick all of them on his head. Zuko sets aside a couple of old, shallow tins and starts pulling out faded polaroids and family photos.
The glass counter in the back is covered with bowls, some holding stones, others cheap rings. Carved chimes and whistles swing above them. Behind the glass sits engraved flasks and lighters, and pendants and brooches shine from their place atop the velvet sheets. There’s a lot of brass and wood everywhere Sokka looks.
Zuko starts describing objects to Sokka. Completely ordinary objects, but the way he talks, they sound so important. The absurdity of something so specific existing makes it valuable. A tiny porcelain giraffe with a pink nose. Hand painted tea cups with broad, confident strokes and hardly any chips. Stuffed frog plushies. Old books, bound in leather and kettle stitched with unbleached linen thread. Mirrors with ornately sculpted trim and a slight haze across the surface. Zuko gravitates towards the crafted things, and Sokka follows along behind him, focused on his words. It’s a direct flip of the candle shop from only twenty something minutes ago.
The books lead to a corner of the store, covered in maps and scrolls and surrounded by globes. There’s star charts and copies of illustrated patents, some framed and others buried in folders. Everything is brown or red or yellow, stained by the warm electric lights above them.
Sokka does try to buy a couple too many things here. Zuko is gentle when he suggests Sokka narrow it down, so Sokka leaves with only the porcelain giraffe that he became impulsively attached to, and one of the engraved lighters. He doesn’t even smoke.
Sokka’s love of stuff leads Zuko to wonder what else Sokka likes to hoard, so he takes to proclaiming he’s playing the game “What random shit does Sokka have in his car?” at whatever odd hours he feels like rummaging around. Sometimes Zuko will take advantage of them being stopped to check out the trunk. Sometimes he undoes his seatbelt and shimmies between the two seats to dive into the back, stretching out his legs before he starts searching. It’s kind of stupidly endearing. He only checks the glovebox once, and is actually surprised to find it very organized, with only the ownership records, licensing papers, the car manual, and a miniature first aid kit within it.
“Are the band-aids in this kit just as small as the bag? I don’t think it’d cover a papercut.”
“It’s only for quick emergencies, Zuko. The big first aid kit is in the trunk.”
“But like, what if I start dying now, and you can’t get in the trunk? Do you think fifteen little bitty band aids would cover it?”
“I guess you better hope you're a light bleeder, for your own sake.”
Sokka becomes a little more aware of just how much stuff he has in his car after that. Bent paperclips that he likes to pull apart when he’s mindlessly fiddling with things to keep his hands busy. A bag of change, mostly quarters. There’s also some foreign coins mixed in, but he isn’t actually sure how they got there. A deck of uno cards, even though that is a last minute choice when it comes to game night. His friends get too vicious, himself included.
Several blocks of sticky notes. A bag of pens, though only about two thirds of them work. A box of silver thumbtacks, though he doesn’t have a cork board with him. He points out to Zuko that his LED lights would be super cool, if only the batteries hadn’t run out. Zuko looks pensive at that.
And pictures, he has lots of pictures. There’s one of his mom, taped to the inside of the driver side’s visor. She’s not so much a distraction anymore; now she’s more like a comfort, her presence literally watching from above him. He has a photo of Hakoda, Bato, and Katara that they mailed to him when he first left for college and immediately felt homesick. There’s a couple pictures of his friends, from group photos taken on polaroids to bad selfies printed out on copy paper. He likes to surround himself with stuff that reminds of his family, some of them by blood and some of them by choice.
The stuff never really stops accumulating; it's just all small things, the type to inevitably get lost or replaced, so it doesn’t pile up. Sokka insists on looking at the gift shops in every rest stop they happen to find, even though it's all garbage. The keychains are by far the worst, in Zuko’s opinion, but then again it’s a hard choice. All the names read things like “Sarah” and “Chase.” They’re perfectly fine names, he guesses, but overall it’s boring and predictable to see the same set of twenty five names at every single store. Hadn’t society moved past the need for ugly keychains that could never possibly be diverse enough to include all who passed through?
No, he guesses not.
He voices this out loud the whole time they’re shopping, which is how Sokka knows that Zuko detests the keychains so much in the first place.
But hey, Sokka wants to look at them, so he will. And Zuko will, almost always, end up standing beside him to look at the terrible keychains too. They mostly end up making fun of the atrocious ones and jokingly try to gift each other the particularly offensive ones, shitty keychains covered in phrases like “#1 Princess” or “World’s Worst Driver.” Sometimes a shop will have patches, and those usually aren’t too terrible, but pretty much every place has at least one sort of fish-based hat, and Sokka takes a picture in each one.
It’s a terrible fate to share, but Sokka tries to force Zuko into the fish hats anyway. It never works, but trying is where all the fun is at.
It’s somewhere between Tok, Alaska and Haines Junction, Yukon that Katara calls. The service sucks (“It’s absolutely abysmal, Zuko, what the fuck”) but Sokka knows he should try and answer anyway.
Except, he hasn’t told her yet that he’s got a buddy with him now, and he knows she’s gonna freak out. In a totally understandable way, but freaking out is freaking out.
Zuko does that stupid eyebrow raise at him, and Sokka has a feeling he’s going to be seeing that a lot in the next few weeks. “You better answer that while you still have service.”
“Stop being right.”
Zuko is kind enough to pull out his headphones without being asked, offering Sokka some kind of feigned sense of privacy, and Sokka wonders what he’s going to listen to.
He answers the call.
“Sokka! Where are you? You’ve left already, haven’t you? I thought you’d have called me by now to rant about how bored you are.” She sounds good, happy, and god Sokka missed his sister. They don’t often split up for such long periods of time. He’s glad that he hasn’t worried her too badly, glad that if anything it seems like she called him just because she missed him.
“Aw, I didn’t know you’d miss my voice so much, Katara. I could have left you some voice memos to listen to.” He can hear her snort on the other end of the phone.The enthusiasm in his voice is genuine, and he pretends any of his distracted energy comes from the fact that he’s still driving. “And I would have called, for sure, but I’m actually not bored! And service hasn’t been all that great as usual-”
“Wait. Why?” It’s not really a question. It goes quiet for just a second, and Sokka can see the face Katara’s gotta be making at him.
“Service is never that good on this drive, you know this Katara. Come on, you’ve come up with me before!”
“Okay, so, it’s kind of a long story-”
He sighs. He knows how stubborn his sister is, there’s no point arguing with her. “I sort of picked up someone.” And oh man, it’s so quiet, his funeral is so already being planned.
“You’re an idiot. An idiot! Show them to me.”
Sokka sighs. “We aren’t at a rest stop, Katara. I can’t just stop.”
“Oh yes you can.” He can. He really can. “You know I could make this worse. Should I keep going? Should I tell you to hand the phone over so I can talk to them?” And that’s just kind of how it goes. There’s a back and forth, and inevitably Sokka gives in. He pulls out his phone and turns it towards Zuko. He doesn’t even bother giving Zuko a heads up, but Zuko does look over at him, headphones still in place, as Sokka’s snapping the pictures. He looks like he wants to say something, and Sokka can’t tell if that’s confusion or aggravation, but all he can do is shrug and return the phone to his ear.
There’s a small pause, and he assumes Katara is waiting for the message with the picture attachment to come through.
Laughter is the first thing Sokka hears. “Oh, Sokka. I see. You gave him a ride because you think he’s cute.”
“I did not!”
“Mhm. Do you want me go off on you about how stupid this is? Do you want me to call dad?”
No. Katara is not playing games. And Sokka really isn’t up to being yelled at, or for getting a call later from Hakoda. He’d rather his dad not find out until after he’s safe at home, no stranger in his car. Which means sad, sad defeat for Sokka. “No. I don’t.”
“Then I guess you better get used to the bullying. If you aren't murdered by the time you're back in Cali, ask him out. Love you!” She hangs up, and Sokka is frustrated, but he at least has the thought to toss his phone in Zuko’s lap. He takes out his headphones again and looks at Sokka. “Can you text Katara that I love her? She hung up before I could tell her.”
“It’s important to me.”
The phone is already unlocked, and Katara should be the top contact. It doesn’t seem to take Zuko long to figure it out and send the text, but he still stares at the screen for a couple moments more than he should. Sokka’s not thinking about it too hard. “This is an okay picture.” Zuko’s voice is quiet when he speaks, an attempt at being casual. Or is it just surprise?
And that’s a fucking understatement. Sokka saw the picture, he took it. It may be a little bit blurry, and he blames the moving car over the slight shake to his hands, but it’s still gorgeous. He hadn’t really let himself think about it when he was taking it, too distracted by Katara, but now he kind of feels like he has free reign to. Zuko’s hair is partially pulled back, tied into a knot, while the rest of it hands free and curls around his shoulders. Thick, choppy bangs hang across his face, and from beneath them eyes that look golden in the light watch the camera. His face is flush, highlighted by the warm lighting that’s pouring in through the car’s windows. It’s the kind of picture Sokka would set as his lockscreen, if he could.
Yeah, it’s a pretty damn good picture. More than okay for sure.
“Do you want it?”
Zuko takes a pause, and Sokka waits. “Kind of.”
“Add your number in and send it to yourself.”
He’s pretty sure Zuko does it, and he must do something else too, because he’s on Sokka’s phone for a really long time. It seems purposeful at first, but eventually his movements slow down. When Sokka is able to glance over, he sees - a game. Zuko is playing games on his phone. And not even good ones.
“Is that an off brand version of brick breaker?”
“Mhm.” He keeps tapping at the screen, and he doesn’t even pretend to be embarrassed that he still has Sokka’s phone. He doesn’t offer to give it back, either.
It’s adorable. God.
They spend three and a half days in Alaska. Sokka knows they could’ve been out in two. Zuko probably knows that, too. Sokka isn’t going to check.
“Should we open up to each other?”
They’re eating lunch; fries in greasy wrappers and paper cups full of soda. Their table smells like cherry vanilla and carbs, and it’s perfect.
The rest stop is about as empty as all the roads have been so far, so it doesn’t feel totally out of place here to have what should be a private conversation. Sokka’s not paying full attention. He’s absolutely starving, so he’s cramming his burger into his mouth to take bites as large as he possibly can. Not that he wants to ignore Zuko, he’s just. Multitasking.
“I don’t know. We’re spending two weeks together. It just…. Seems important.”
Sokka snorts. He gets it, but he’s still gonna laugh. And maybe choke on his food after that, just a little. Zuko looks concerned, and he’s totally ready to bolt over to help, but Sokka holds up a hand to indicate he’s fine. What a stupid way that would’ve been to die. He coughs, takes another sip of his drink, and breathes deep. “Okay, I’ll go first. Everyone thinks I’m going to like chips, because I’m the snack guy, but they kind of suck. Like, I’ll obviously eat them, but they’re so dry. I don’t know why that would be anyone’s go-to, especially if they’re going to be eating the chips without sauce. It’s like eating shittier fries. It’s the absolute worst.” Okay, so maybe even when he’s not eating, Sokka still has food on his mind. He can’t help being hungry, okay?
Zuko laughs his way through Sokka’s rambling, but just a bit. His eyes are what really seem… off. Like they’re almost vacant, like they’re registering what they’re seeing but only just barely. He’s a little more reserved than he’d been the past seveal days, and it’s a shame, because Sokka felt like they were getting somewhere. He doesn’t know where that somewhere is - or, well, he knows where they’re headed physically, but not emotionally. So he enjoys Zuko’s snort, the way he enjoys every different kind of laughter he gets from Zuko, but he’s smart enough to wait for the other shoe to drop.
“My family is the worst.”
Sokka nods like he understands. He doesn’t know, but he understands. And that seems to be enough for Zuko, if the way he loosens up after that speaks to anything. Sokka doesn’t ask more questions and doesn’t feel like he needs to. He just holds out his fries as an offer to Zuko, and makes sure to pass over the aux cord once they’re back to the car.
The first night they stay at a campground, it’s a little uncomfortable. They make it five days staying in motels; the motels were easier. They’re still somewhere in Yukon now, but all the Watson Lake lodgings are already reserved by the time they’re close, and there’s nothing else vacant and cheap. Nothing else vacant, period.
So they find a campground instead. Sokka was always prepared to camp on this trip, and Zuko had obviously managed to keep himself alive somehow. But all Zuko has with him now is a duffel bag full of clothes and a laptop, a wallet in his back pocket, and a pair of headphones in his front.
“You know, the car is an option.”
“To sleep. The cars an option to sleep in. I only have one sleeping bag, and you really aren't gonna want to sleep in a tent without one.”
Zuko’s face is clearly displeased, and yeah, Sokka gets it. The car is cramped, they’ve already been in it for hours today, and they’ll be in it for hours again tomorrow. And all the days following.
Sokka, fortunately, is a quick thinker. He’s always been good at pulling plans out of nowhere. “I do have extra blankets in the trunk. We could share if we laid out the sleeping bag fully unzipped, and then throw the blankets on top. It might, uh, it might be cold though. I don’t know how used to this weather you are.” Sokka himself might even get cold, but hey, at least it’s familiar to him.
Zuko shrugs, but his eyes have a little more light to them now that there’s another option, and that’s enough to make Sokka feel like maybe this was a good call. “I tend to run warm. I should be okay.”
Sokka sets the tent up. Zuko offers to help, but Sokka’s better at pitching it when it’s just him. It’s his tent, he already knows it front to back.
Zuko tries not to watch him, but Sokka can feel eyes on his back. He feels bad to just leave Zuko standing there, even though it won’t take him long to get the space sleep-ready. “The blankets are in a bag in the back. Like, in a reusable grocery bag. If you wanna grab them. The one where the vegetables have smiley faces.”
And Zuko does it, he shuffles over to the car and starts pulling stuff out. There’s a couple of thin blankets in the bag, and one incredibly fluffy one that Sokka keeps for the texture alone. Zuko even pulls out a comforter from behind the bags, one that Sokka had long forgotten about. It’s grey and patchy, with stitchwork in mismatched threads holding it together. The sleeping bag gets unzipped and spread out, the blankets go on top, and the two of them look at each other.
That is. The stupidest thing you could have said, Sokka.
He gets under the blankets anyway. His preferred side is on the right, and he wonders if he should ask Zuko which side he wants. Except he’s already laying down, and maybe it would just be more awkward to switch now. Sokka keeps as far to the right as he comfortably can to give Zuko space to get in, and then he just. Stays there. Stays there as Zuko slips under the covers with him too, sheets pulled tightly to his chest before he rolls over.
It’s fine. It’s actually mostly quiet, the only noise being the slight wind outside. Considering the circumstances, it’s oddly peaceful. Sokka would almost say it’s relaxing, if not for the fact that he does actually get cold. It’s kind of hard to sleep when you’re shivering, no matter how slight it is.
He’s so busy frowning at the ground that it shocks him when Zuko starts speaking.
“You can move in some, you know.”
Zuko shifts, and the blankets rustle. Sokka only knows Zuko has turned to face him because Zuko’s voice sounds louder, now. “I’ve been told, I mean, I know I’m something of a personal heater. And you’re all the way by the edge of the tent. If you’re cold, you can come closer.”
“Or you can pretend you don’t know what I mean, that’s fine too, it’s. Yeah, it’s fine.” He can tell Zuko rolls back over. His brain may be lagging a little, but he’s following what Zuko is saying, and he’s still cold.
He wants to not be cold. “Are you sure that’s really okay?”
“Yeah. I’m pretty sure I owe you anyway.” This time, Zuko doesn’t turn around when he talks.
“Bro, you don’t owe me anything. You’re paying for gas and keeping me company, we’re even.”
Sokka thinks he hears the slap of skin against skin, like Zuko is facepalming. He finally rolls over, instead of waiting and hoping for Zuko to come to him instead. It would wound his ego a little less, since he’s the one that had doe-eyes for Zuko from the start, but considering he’s the one who needs the help he can’t really complain.
He finally looks at Zuko as best as he can in the dark. Zuko is pinching the bridge of his nose between his fingers. “Can’t you just say yes and let me save face when I’m basically giving you permission to use me?”
“Oh my god, do not say it that way. I’ll scootch over, just shut up .”
Sokka feels Zuko’s laughter more than he hears it. “Just get the fuck over here. I want to sleep.” Sokka shimmies closer and wonders what would be the most effective, least embarrassing position. Putting his arm around Zuko to pull them together tightly would be the obvious choice, except that he’s a rational human being with a sense of boundaries. That’s a shame. He honestly is getting colder, though, and he wants to be closer. He could roll over on his back, but it's his arms that are cold.
In the end he walks the line between respecting Zuko’s personal space and respecting that Zuko had straight up told him that he could move in. Pride cast aside, he curls up to Zuko’s back. He doesn’t put his arms around him, but instead he tucks his arms against his own chest, in between his body and Zuko’s. It’s already a bit warmer, and Sokka’s teeth stop chattering long enough for him to form a coherent thought.
The thought is mostly Damn, I’m tired.
It feels vulnerable to be here in this position together. Not just physically close, but to be together in a version of the wilderness. The campground may be safe, but that doesn’t stop it from feeling different from being so within an enclosed space. The lack of walls, and therefore the complete openness of their situation, is what makes their proximity so intense. He starts to drift off, and instincts drive him to try and get a little nearer to his heat source. If he snuggles up a little bit more to Zuko’s back, he’s too far gone to notice. Sleep takes him.
They don’t wake up tangled in a pile of limbs, or spooning, or anything wild. But Sokka is pressed firmly against Zuko’s back still, and he feels his face go warm. Which is funny, considering he ended up here because he was cold.
Sokka blinks the crust out of his eyes. He still feels tired, and he’s powerless against the yawn that works its way out of his mouth. From where he is, flush against Zuko, he can feel the warm rumble of Zuko’s laugh. “Good morning, moonshine.”
Sokka gives him a very eloquent response. “Mmm. Mhm.”
Zuko is playing on his phone, and Sokka lifts his head up just enough to watch what he’s doing. It looks like a puzzle game, and Sokka is really good at those, but right now he would rather watch than help. He’s comfortable. He doesn’t want to get up. They should get going soon, for real, but maybe... maybe not quite yet. He wants to stay here just a little longer, listening to Zuko talk out loud and dozing off just a little bit more.
They promptly raid the gas station’s convenience store once their tank is full. Sokka ends up with six drinks and a couple of snacks cradled in his arms. Zuko raises an eyebrow, a more modest amount of roadtrip snacks in his own hands, and Sokka just holds his things tighter to his chest. “I deserve them, thank you very much.”
“A bit defensive, Sokka. I didn’t say you didn’t.”
“No, but you were looking at me like I didn’t. I know that face.”
Zuko raises both his brows this time, head tilted to the side, before a smug look crosses his face. “Maybe.”
“Aha, see! You can’t even deny it.” Zuko shrugs halfheartedly, still looking completely satisfied with himself. “Just for that, I won’t even share with you.”
Zuko’s shoulders shake with laughter, even as he walks towards the cashier. “Sokka, for fuck’s sake, put the snacks on the counter before you drop them.” He places his own things down, and Sokka trails up behind him. Sokka doesn’t really think anything of the fact that both their piles are being scanned until Zuko fishes in his jacket pocket for his wallet, pulls out a couple of bills between his index and middle finger, and pays for all their stuff.
“Aw bro, you didn’t have to do that. I didn’t mean to make you feel that bad about being an absolute bully to me.”
Zuko flips him off all the way back to the car.
The drinks, when Zuko looks at them, are absolutely atrocious. Everything is at least fifty percent sugar, and none of it matches whatsoever. There’s fruit juice and red bull and iced tea, plus some kind of coffee amalgamation Sokka made himself at the self-serve counter. The plastic bag holding all their goodies goes on the floor under Zuko’s feet, but not before Sokka picks one drink out at random for himself and also shoves a koolaid into Zuko’s hand.
“This isn’t mine.”
“You technically bought all of this, so it’s all yours. Drink the damn kool-aid.”
The kool-aid is blue, the clearly superior color, and comes in a little plastic bottle with a twist off top. For all Zuko’s whining, he drinks it. Another win for Sokka, baby!
It feels like a fever dream when Sokka puts on his playlist that consists entirely of life is a highway on repeat for as close to an hour as he could get it. (Which, for the record, is thirteen times. Takes him right up to fifty nine minutes and fifty two seconds, just short of an hour.)
Zuko looks at him with a death glare the first time the song loops, and only by the third he’s smacking himself in the face one too many times. Which is just twice, but Sokka worries, okay?
(He’d worry more if he wasn’t laughing so hard.)
“Dear god, please just let me drive. You’re going to kill us.”
Sokka declines, but he does change the playlist. To i love it by Icona Pop. Zuko does not, in fact, love it, but his complaints are drowned out by Sokka shouting along to lyrics about crashing and burning cars.
Zuko retaliates in his own quiet way, the kind where Sokka doesn’t know it’s happening at first. Not until he checks his phone and sees that he has “Seventeen snapchats, what the absolute fuck, Zuko?” Zuko does not, in fact, indulge him on this either. He just takes more pictures of Sokka, bad angles and filters and all, to send over. Some have “Welcome to British Columbia” slapped on in god awful bubble letters, and a couple of them distort Sokka’s face.
“Dude, your head is huge.”
“That’s because I have so much brain in there.”
Sokka doesn’t bother screenshotting any of them at first, since they’re all just his own face, and he takes plenty of selfies. But then there are a couple of pictures of Zuko slipped in there, and in the panic of watching the time tick down in the upper right corner, Sokka screenshots one of them. And then one more. In the first one, Sokka is still there in the background, focused on driving. Zuko is looking over his shoulder at Sokka, sunk down into the corner of his screen, the lower half of his face cut off. It’s as if the camera isn’t even there, not to Zuko, even though he took the picture. Sokka can tell he’s grinning from the crinkle of skin around his eyes. They’re really pretty, and it’s not the first time Sokka thinks this, and he knows it won’t be his last when he thinks it again as he looks at the second picture. It’s just Zuko this time, chin resting in his palm, looking out the window. His eyes are on the camera this time, and Sokka’s in a trance. He doesn’t wonder what Zuko might think when he gets the notification telling him Sokka took the screenshots. Not at all.
Which, like, makes sense. They got a much bigger head start today than usual, so it’s early morning, and the sun hasn’t quite warmed everything up yet. Zuko’s wearing layers, but those layers include a denim jacket and flannel and a cotton shirt that is maybe long sleeved instead of short. So it makes sense, like Sokka said. Zuko doesn’t even say anything, just crosses his arm and leans away from the window, even though his eyes are drooping and every now and then he jerks his head up. Zuko keeps his mouth shut about it, all the way up until Sokka decides to pester him about it.
“Dumbass. You’re going to need to nap at some point.”
Zuko mumbles when he speaks back. “The window’s too cold.”
Sokka can see how tired he is, the same way he can see him shiver just a bit. Zuko’s duffel bag is in the trunk, so that’s out of reach. Sokka, however, is pretty much always prepared for the cold. Half his wardrobe is hoodies at this point.
He hikes up his right leg. No one is on the road this early and this far out, so he doesn't feel particularly bad about using his knee to keep the wheel steady. He reaches behind his own chair, not even needing to look behind him, and walks his fingers across the seat until they snag on soft fabric.
He throws the sweatshirt at Zuko and forces himself not to laugh when it hits Zuko in the face. (It doesn’t work. His laugh is very boisterous.)
“What’s this for?” Zuko holds the article of clothing up like it offends him.
“For keeping warm, idiot.”
Like he doesn’t know what to do with it.
Like he’s never been lent a hoodie before.
He undoes his seatbelt and shrugs out of his denim jacket as best as he can while in the car. It’s tossed in the back, where Sokka’s hoodie had just been hiding, and then he sticks his arms through first and wiggles into it. The sleeves are too long and the shoulders too wide, but it looks like a comfortable kind of big. The blue has almost faded to grey; he’s had this particular hoodie for a long, long time. Two white stripes run down the side, and a small moon cycle is embroidered over the heart. It’s a sweater Sokka cares a lot about, given him to an ex however many years ago. He keeps watching as best as he can in his peripherals, now that both hands are back on the wheel again. Zuko tugs the elastic cuff over his fingers. It’s all too fucking sweet, if Sokka’s being honest. Then, after a pause, Zuko uses both hands to gently pull the collar up over his lips, right up to his nose, and settles his head against the window to try and nap.
Sokka’s going to be thinking about this moment long after Zuko wakes up, but he forces himself to keep away from his phone’s camera and to focus on the road instead.
The diner is shitty, but they kinda like it that way. They try some wild foods while they’re on the road, specialties and exotic stuff, but there’s nothing quite like familiar, mediocre diner settings. There’s no expectations here for how they have to act in public, and they can seal themselves away in a corner booth by a window. The parking lot is barely a third full, so no one is really walking by the storefront or using the chance to look at them eat through the windows.
Instead all it lets in is light, the last light they’re going to get for the day. The drive from there to the room they booked on their phones a couple hours ago isn’t long, and they’re starting to get a rhythm down. One drives, the other figures out their plan for the evening in between being a distraction and controlling the aux cord.
They talk a lot in general, now. They sort of have to, there’s not a ton of other stuff to be doing on the long drive, outside of making stops. But eight days in, and it’s less out of necessity now and more because they like to.
It’s weird to think that they went almost a week before they learned anything more than shallow information about each other. Sokka is coming from Alaska after visiting family. Zuko went off to do some travelling on his own, in a “soul searching” sort of way. And now they’re here, a couple days after that talk, having dinner and chatting as if they’ve been hanging out since middle school.
Sokka is a breakfast for dinner kind of guy. He orders an extra side of bacon, covers his pancakes with a respectful amount of syrup, and takes no shame in topping it all with whipped cream and fruit. Sokka doesn’t let Zuko get off the hook either, because grilled cheese and fries and french onion soup are not dinner either . “It’s absolutely lunch, Zuko!”
“I don’t remember arguing with you.”
“Yeah, but you’re not agreeing with me either. Disgraceful.”
Not that it ends up mattering much. They end up pushing their plates together in the center of the table, trading half a sandwich for a pancake, fries for fruit. It’s kind of disgusting, except in a really cute way, Sokka thinks. They share the entirety of their meals, and Sokka can’t drink orange juice when he’s eating soup, so he switches that out for Zuko’s coke, too. It’s a thin balance between sweet and savory.
Maybe the straw sharing is a little bit on purpose, but nothing else.
It’s when their plates are being taken away and their coffee refilled (for dessert!) that the waitress hovers by their table, just for a moment. “You make a sweet couple.”
Sokka decides to take his cue from Zuko. And Zuko just smiles politely at her, so Sokka says nothing. They finish their coffee and split their bill at the counter, where pictures of the staff are lined up on the wall. The wood is stained and scratched, proof of more than just Sokka and Zuko having found this temporary haven. The bell of the door rings as another couple, no, just a couple, steps in. Sokka takes that as his cue to move them out of there, as if the magic will be broken by having more than one set of customers at a time. He snags a couple of extra mints, shoves them into the depths of his pocket to probably be forgotten about completely, and Zuko grabs a toothpick.
By the time they’re back in the car Zuko is trying to convince Sokka to share his mints, Sokka is asking him why he didn’t just take some of his own when they were right there, and neither of them bring up what the waitress said to them.
“Want some gum?” Zuko holds it out to him. The packaging is black, decorated with blocky letters and silver mountains. It’s like a smaller, more foil-y version of what they’re driving through.
The casualty of it all is incredible. They’ve come a long way since day one, back in Alaska, and not just in physical distance. Emotionally, they’ve really grown close. Being in a car for nearly all day every day for a week and a day does that to people. It pushes their boundaries and their comfort zones, and Sokka likes to push those boundaries even further and further each day.
“Yeah. Feed it to me? My hands are kinda busy.”
He doesn’t even need to look over to know Zuko is rolling his eyes at him.
And then an unwrapped stick of gum appears in Sokka’s vision, and he realizes Zuko is actually feeding him gum. Oh. This is fine.
He opens his big stupid mouth, the same way he does any time he talks, because he can only blame himself. He set this up, he played himself. He takes the gum and hums a thanks, and he isn’t entirely sure if Zuko responds, because by that point he’s far too gone thinking.
Pining. That’s this feeling, that’s what he’s doing. Mother fucking pining . Sitting around with this boy he’s become absolutely obsessed with. Touching him when he can, on his knee or the small of his back. Sharing camp with him at night. Giving him his hoodie. He’s dancing, and he thinks Zuko is dancing with him, but neither of them are asking out loud what kind of music is playing. They’re just… existing, somewhere between action and inaction.
Sokka asks Zuko what’s in San Diego. The response is a very simple, “Home, I think.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Sokka can be a really good listener. He’s good at distracting people, too, but sometimes he thinks Zuko never had someone tell him that he’s allowed to talk. And that’s starting to change, slowly, so maybe that isn’t true. Maybe that’s just how it comes off, when Zuko is talking to absolute strangers. It’s not like they knew each other before this trip. But Sokka doesn’t really like taking chances, and he does like listening to Zuko, so he’s going to ask. Because sometimes Zuko looks very afraid when Sokka starts asking questions about him, like he knows what he’s inevitably going to be asked, and Sokka wants to teach Zuko otherwise. In his own head Sokka promises himself that unless Zuko wants to talk about it, he won’t bring it up. He’s a curious person, not an asshole, and it doesn’t matter to him. Never has. Zuko has looked beautiful since day one, standing on the sidewalk with a jacket too thin and his hair a mess from the wind.
Back in reality Zuko sighs and looks out the window, but he starts talking. “It’s not where I’m from, but my uncle lives there.”
“Do you live with him?”
“I used to. I might do it again, when I get back, until I can find a place of my own. I think I’d like to stay close to him, though.”
“What’s it like there?”
“At my uncle’s house?”
Sokka doesn’t hold back his laugh. He thinks he’s allowed to laugh, here. The conversation is important, but not somber, and he wants Zuko to know this is a good thing that they’re discussing. It’s not about whatever Zuko is running from; it’s about whatever Zuko is chasing. “No, no, San Diego. I mean, unless you want to describe his house to me. Or is it an apartment? Are the walls beige? Is his couch comfy? I feel like I should know that last one.”
Zuko elbows him with complete disregard for “Our safety, Zuko, I’m driving.” As if Sokka really cares.
“It’s… comfortable. Yeah. And warm, the whole city is warm. It’s a lot of beaches and parks and art shit. Galleries, studios, museums, gardens. I like that a lot.”
And that’s how it starts. Sokka prompts Zuko with a question, and Zuko hesitantly answers. Sokka asks if he wants to continue, and Zuko finally takes the prompt and runs with it. He doesn’t seem to notice when Sokka shuts the music off completely to listen to him better. It begins with questions about the galleries, the studios, the creative world that Zuko had spent part of his life growing up in. Sokka lets Zuko lead the discussion, away from his tragedies and towards the things he loves.
“It’s so interesting to perceive. I’ve never gone to The Globe in person, but I’d love to. The modern pronunciation here is fine, but seeing Shakespeare performed is all about respect. I can analyze Shakespeare’s writing for you all day, and I can tell you which ones I find to be his finest work. I can tell you which were completely overlooked or which were completely overhyped. Which, to be fair, I don’t think many were. Modern renditions, and in particular parodies, have begun withering his name, but he was truly revolutionary. His work is art.”
They switch seats partially through, and Zuko keeps talking as he drives.
“So like, it doesn’t make sense to use original costume, original music, original instruments and choreography, but never the original pronunciation.”
Zuko rattles off some examples from the top of his head. Gracious, father, hope . They sound startlingly different.
War sounds nothing like itself in old pronunciation, but closer to “w-uhre”. The “h” in holiday disappears. Tongue rhymes with song in original pronunciation, instead of sung as it does now. Window is said closer to its modern pronunciation, yet on its own wind is pronounced the same way as the verb is, like a winding path.
“See, it makes a difference! And there’s three kinds of evidence that shows us what stage pronunciation should be, so there’s no excuse not too.
People used to write observations on plays all the time. They talked about what rhymed and how performances sounded, and that’s crucial. Then the second way involves the spellings, which were much more reflective of pronunciation then our spelling is today. And finally, from a dramatic point of view, there are rhymes and puns that work in original pronunciation but not modern pronunciation. It alters not just what the actors say, but the way they perceive their part. Everything is faster, and some people use different registers of their voice, and that reflects in their character. So when you’re taking away original pronunciation, you’re taking away a dynamic that was very purposely written in. By wrongly assuming the translation will get lost on modern audiences, you’re actually changing the dimension of it, and losing integral pieces and double meanings within the writing.
Anyway, my point is that there’s no value in analyzing and ranking Shakespeare’s work if you can’t appreciate any of them, and can you truly do that, if the language is so different from its intended original form? By taking away the original pronunciation, you’re removing the context, so I honestly can’t tell you which of his plays were written best. I can only tell you which of the performances I saw were best, and if I had the choice, I’d probably go see a performance put on by college playwrights instead. What about you?”
There is, finally, a pause. Zuko lets out a breath. Sokka would smile, but he’s been grinning for the past twenty minutes, so any more and his skin might split.
“I’ma be real with you, Zuko. I have no idea what you’re talking about. I have had no idea what you’ve been talking about for the past forty minutes. I mean, I was following along, but I don’t have these kinds of complex thoughts on theater. I like listening to you, though, so you should keep going.”
Zuko seems to think on his words, and the corners of his mouth tuck down.
“You have to be so bored. You didn’t even argue back, I don’t know how I didn’t catch that.”
Sokka shrugs. He really doesn’t like it when he frowns. “Zuko. I’m a techie; I fix machines for a living. Theater? Not my thing. You could give me a week, and I could catch up on this kind of theory to properly debate you, if that’s what you wanted. But as it stands, I am not informed enough to have an opinion on this. Which means, this is entertainment for me. I don’t have to care, because I don’t have a weighted stake in this. I get to just sit back and listen to someone smarter than me in this field go off about something they’re passionate about. This is like a real life, more intense podcast. How is that not cool?”
Zuko can’t really argue with him. They’re both happy here. Sokka hasn’t forgotten his entire crisis about the fact that he’s pining, and given the topic of conversation he wonders what the origin of the word pining is anyway. The fact that his casual thoughts are being subjected to literary analysis probably means he’s in too deep, but he can ignore it. He’d rather sit here and keep listening to Zuko babble anyway, only occasionally interrupting to point out the animals they pass on by.
Zuko checks out the shopping center across the street while Sokka pumps gas.
It’s an interesting place to be. Back in Alaska, Sokka had been the only one who wanted to stop anywhere . Zuko used to follow him around stores, and Sokka had to prod and push for him to look at anything at all.
Now Zuko takes initiative to explore on his own when Sokka is busy, and vice versa. They switch off who pumps gas, and the other dutifully reports back on if they’ve found anything interesting.
Sokka doesn’t take too long, but by the time he’s pulling into the parking lot just across the street, Zuko’s already on his way out. He hands Sokka a white, unlabelled box held shut with silver elastic. Sokka slips a finger underneath the band and pulls it off, flipping the lid open.
“It was a sample set. I couldn’t really guess your favorite flavor, and I thought this was more interesting anyway.”
Inside is an assortment of fudge. Sokka can smell peanut butter and chocolate. There’s ten different little pieces, some with chunks of cookie inside and others with nuts. He doesn’t know how to say thank you, so he doesn’t.
“Oh man, I can’t wait to eat these. But like, dinner first?”
Their take-out meal comes with fortune cookies.
Sokka doesn’t want them to eat the cookies in the car, because they always break apart into a bunch of little pieces. Zuko doesn’t look like he believes him. They eat outside anyway, sitting on the curb and passing containers back and forth. Sokka clearly hates the silence, especially while chewing, so Zuko eventually takes his phone out to play music in the background quietly. He doesn’t even ask before doing it, and the gesture is sweet. It makes Sokka feel cared for, to have his feelings noticed like that.
They finally get to the cookies. Zuko cracks his in half and eats the first side before he pulls out his fortune.
While it is always best to believe in oneself, a little help from others can be a great blessing.
Sokka goes for the paper first, not shoving any of the cookie into his mouth until he’s already reading it.
Sometimes the best way to solve your own problems is to help someone else.
They throw out their trash as soon as they get up, but the fortunes come with them. Sokka digs out some tape from a backpack, and the two strips of paper get pasted on the dash above the gas tank’s gauge.
The streetlights go rushing by, like individual moons that come and go. It’s dark by now, eerily dark, and Sokka can’t tell if it’s mist or snow outside his window. His eyesight is too blurry to get a good look.
He’s tired, and Zuko’s driving, but he’s tired. He doesn’t want to be. Where did all of his energy go?
He tries to look out the window again, but he doesn’t really take anything in except that it’s particularly calm. The trees are dark blurs, and the mountains have faded into the sky. How long has the music been off? He tries to look over at the clock to gauge how long he’s been asleep for, but he doesn’t remember when Zuko took over the wheel, or when he began dozing off. He isn’t pressed about it, he’s just. Curious. He can feel Zuko’s eyes on him, a couple times actually, and it surprises him a bit how much he likes it. It’s easier to be honest with himself when he’s half asleep.
He really likes spending time with Zuko. It was scary, for sure, to invite a total stranger into his car. Even though it was his own damn idea. But this trip has been so much better with company - with Zuko’s company - and Sokka is happier for it. He likes hanging out together. He likes being around Zuko. He likes the way Zuko lights up when he laughs, and the way he curls up when he sleeps, and the way Zuko had crawled out of his cage and started screaming along to shitty music too. He likes Zuko when he’s formal just fine, but he likes casual Zuko even more. Likes it when he lets his hair completely down, when he doesn’t guard his smiles, when he pushes and prods and bothers Sokka just as much as Sokka does all that to him.
So yeah. It’s nice, feeling those brown eyes check up on him every now and then. Sokka feels himself wearing a dopey grin, feels his eyes slipping shut. He could lean his head on the window, but he’d be farther from Zuko then, so he doesn’t. He shifts his chair to lean back a little more, curls up as close to the center console as he can, and sighs. He feels a few strands of hair tucked behind his ear, but he can’t tell if he’s done it himself, or if Zuko has done it for him. Either way, he’s feeling relaxed and emboldened by his delirious state. He reaches over, loosely curls his fingers into Zuko’s shirt, and lets himself finally fall asleep again.
It’s a silent agreement that they should stop when they do.
They spend an extra night in Vancouver, a whole day off from driving. They don’t do much; it’s a break, and they really don’t want to spend it running around doing stuff. They’re both kind of exhausted, and their legs hurt.
Their extra day off starts with a spot just off the road that’s empty and perfect. There’s no painted white lines or concrete wheel stops, just gravel and off-branching paths into the surrounding trees. Wooden signs talk about the park’s history, and normally Sokka would hang onto every word of something like that, but tonight he doesn’t read them. All of his focus is elsewhere.
The car is hot and cramped and wouldn’t be worth staying in on such a beautiful evening, even if they weren’t already begging for an excuse to get out and stretch anyway. They pull out some of the same blankets that they use at every campsite. The car is turned off, and all of their lights are out. The blankets get thrown over the trunk. They climb up together, side by side, and lean their backs against the glass of the back window.
“Too bad I don’t drive a pickup truck.”
They crack jokes back and forth, chatting idly. Zuko kicks off his shoes and pulls his feet up onto the trunk, his arms wrapped around his knees. The sky above them continues to darken, until stars appear like dust against the deep waves of blue. Sokka loves them. He could name most of the big ones, if he tried. He could probably name a handful of them even without trying too hard, actually.
He loves stars, loves space in general. He could go on about it for days. Going into astronomy had always been a very real possibility for him, before he had settled on engineering. Every now and then, he still wonders if he made the right choice. It’s not that he doesn’t love what he does now; it’s just that he also loves space exploration. He thinks about what he could learn in a masters course on astrodynamics. That had always been a fault of his; he was too passionate. There were too many things he wanted to do. Now, as an adult, he thinks maybe it’s okay that not everything he likes is turned into a career. It doesn’t always soothe his headaches, but he repeats it until his heart rate settles down.
So space is important to him. Very important to him. And he likes sharing the things he loves with the people he cares about, too. He starts talking about space, about stars and moons and comets, pointing out to Zuko different constellations and explaining several types of phenomenon that they won’t even be seeing tonight. Both of their eyes are cast upwards, watching the sky, when Sokka feels fingers loosely curl around his own. He doesn’t look over to Zuko, not right away, but he does give a gentle squeeze.
The light is so beautiful here.
There’s no pollution, no buildings, no distractions. Sokka loves the city, but he’s wise enough to know that true appreciation of something can only come after experiencing it’s absence. Skyscrapers and crowds provide comfort to him in their own way, but they would become overbearing if not for moments like this. Moments without the world peering over his shoulder. It’s just them and an obscenely large canvas of navy above.
When he finally looks over at Zuko, Sokka finds he’s already being watched. Zuko quickly looks away. Sokka squeezes his hand again until Zuko lets go of the breath that Sokka could see he was holding in. The tension seeps out with it, and Sokka can physically see when Zuko starts to get comfortable. Good. There’s nothing here for them to worry about. Sokka doesn’t want Zuko to feel like he has to be added to that list.
The stillness of the surrounding woods sing to them like a lullaby. Everything settles into a quiet calm, and the only sounds are from somewhere deep behind the trees.
Sokka adds this to the list of places he wishes he could get away with sleeping at.
You can’t really sleep somewhere like this when you have places to be, though. He wishes he didn’t need to be anywhere . He wishes he had years to spend in this moment, propped up on the back of his shitty car with Zuko’s hand in his. Right here and now feels like the only place that’s ever mattered, that ever should matter.
A chill rolls in.
This time, Sokka has enough layers on to not really feel it. His own blue denim jacket is trimmed with cream colored fur, and he wears it over top a lightweight hoodie. The material is thin and breathable, but comfortable. Zuko shivers next to him. Their blankets are either directly under their ass, or in the trunk (with their asses settled firmly on top of the lid, keeping it shut). Either way, it won’t be a quick fix, and Sokka doesn’t want to risk pulling away and breaking the moment. Instead he gently unravels their fingers and tries not to feel the pang of guilt too hard when Zuko looks at him with fear in his eyes. Sokka wants to tell him not to worry, that nothings wrong.
He says it with actions instead of words.
They’re already sat so close to each other here that Sokka doesn’t even have to move over. He gently drapes his arm around Zuko’s shoulders and pulls him towards his chest. Zuko leans against him with ease, melts against his skin like this is how they’ve always been meant to sit. They stay there like that for a while. Sokka wonders if Zuko is falling asleep against him, but every time he speaks, Zuko responds. Zuko hangs onto the way he talks and asks questions full of wonder.
Sokka, in turn, wonders what he did to be blessed with the soft vision of Zuko by his side, dressed in the silvers and purples of the moonlight. The stars reflect back at him, and Sokka thinks it’s kind of funny to see the moon trapped inside eyes the color of the sun. It’s all Sokka can think about for the rest of the night.
Zuko changes the playlist when they cross the border.
It's definitely a new playlist. Sokka only knows because they’ve been in the car eleven days at this point, and some of these songs he hasn’t heard before at all. There’s a lot of emo ass music and shitty pop punk (“I’m not going to say it, Sokka, stop asking me if pop punk is dead”) and a bunch of 80s classics, too. But. There’s also a bunch of stuff they’d been listening to before. Stuff from Sokka’s playlists, stuff he’s been belting as he pushes 100mph on the highway, the wind from the open windows so loud that he can’t hear himself as he shrieks the lyrics. It’s stuff Sokka likes, some of it stuff Sokka loves. 2000s pop and 90s rock and the entire Mamma Mia! discography. He knows the lyrics to all the words, even the ones Zuko has never heard him sing before.
And then there’s a couple of loose songs, songs that don’t fit exactly. Songs that are fine, sure, but don’t really feel like Zuko’s normal taste.
“It’s just stuff that seemed like it fit the vibe.”
And hey, that’s fair. Who is Sokka to tell him what should speak of road trips and adrenaline? So he nods, grins, skips songs he just isn’t in the mood for, and always, always lets the out of place ones play. They’re usually fine songs. Good songs, even. The only downside is Sokka pays so much attention to the lyrics that his mind sometimes wonders. He forgets for just a moment that they aren’t in a music video, that the trees rushing by are real, that the words floating over the radio aren’t a secret underlying truth for their journey. The sweet ones, the fond ones, the longing ones. Those get to him the most, and he has to remind himself that he’s living in the real world.
It seems a bit counterproductive in hindsight, but sometimes Sokka reminds himself of this by placing a hand on Zuko’s knee. His other remains on the wheel.
With a couple of the songs, he swears he hears Zuko sing. He doesn’t dare turn his head to look, he doesn’t want to shatter the moment. But he lets himself smile more than he had before, and he doesn’t think he’s imagining it when Zuko’s singing gets louder immediately after.
They’re well into Oregon when they decide to take a detour. Sokka doesn’t say why, or where, but Zuko feels like it might have to do something with the bag of stuff sitting in the back seat. Sokka had made him wait in the car while he shopped, passing by gas stations and convenience stores until they had come to a real grocery shop. He had been sure to use the canvas tote bag from the trunk, too, so Zuko wouldn’t be able to see what was inside. Sokka knows it taunts him, but he gets all smug when Zuko brings it up, so Zuko stops asking. He figures he’ll be told sooner or later, and he’s right. They go down some side roads, far away from what the GPS has been telling them, and when they finally stop the bag is the first thing Sokka goes for.
There’s no attraction here, no shop or diner or inn. Just the beginnings of fields and forests and wide open land. The sky is a soft grey blue above them when they pull over, off into the dirt. The clouds are salmon pink and dusty orange, moving so slowly they almost looked stagnant.
Sokka sets the bag atop the roof of the car and swings his door shut with more force than necessary. He’s full of excited energy, and it’s contagious. Zuko seems to liven up when Sokka starts bouncing on his toes, and he’s kind of proud of that. Every time Zuko’s eyes slide over to the bag, Sokka grins, like he just knows the mystery of it all is irresistible. It’s half of why his plan is a secret in the first place.
He is decidedly less smug when Zuko stretches, and Sokka watches his body move assuredly.
Zuko is in his element when swimming in sunlight. He acts so much more sure of himself, and Sokka will never stop correlating the two. Early morning and mid golden hour are just when Zuko thrives. The illumination brings him to life. Sokka loves to watch the strength in Zuko’s stance, the ease in which he rolls back his shoulders. He doesn’t realize he’s staring until Zuko is looking over his shoulder, wearing his own self-satisfied expression.
Sokka’s face is warm, but he’s not embarrassed.
He’s pretty content at having been caught, actually.
His blankets are getting more use then they usually do. Sokka pulls one out and throws it in Zuko’s direction, locking the trunk afterwards and shoving his keys back in his pocket. No one is going to be out here to try and rob them, but the peace of mind is what counts. He’s not about to let anything ruin this moment for them.
They don’t have to walk far to find a spot to settle. Sokka had done some googling, and everything thereafter he was winging. Oregon is known for its nature conservancy, and known to be beautiful, so he isn’t surprised to see the land around them is so flourished. He had even looked at pictures. He is still not prepared; the pictures pale in comparison to the real thing. Breathtaking doesn’t cover it, and Sokka isn’t sure if he’s talking more about the scenery, or about Zuko taking it all in for the first time.
The rolling hills are painted over in rich pinks and deep, mahogany reds. Small clusters of flowers pour through the grass like wine. The cool tones of the mountains in the distance are washed over in warm purples, the color of sangria.
The lake below is trimmed by tall strips of foxgloves and violet lupines. Light reflects off the water like glitter. Where the sun sets behind it, the sky’s blue turns to vermillion and coral. Wild flowers dot the horizon in shades of white and apricot orange. Swatches of burgundy gather near the trees, leaves full and flush, and behind them are giant walls of rhododendrons and azaleas. Their leaves are thick and flat, split by bundles of pink petals.
The whole valley is covered in flora. Multicolored hyacinths wind side by side. Coneflowers grow in fluorescent purples and yellow oranges. Blazing star seeds sit in rows. Baby's breath sprout in bushels, thin and white and delicate. Sokka only knows the names because Zuko is saying them all out loud, pointing to things and rattling off the meaning of a few.
It’s so goddamn sweet. Sokka hadn’t even known, he just thought flowers and soft grass would be nice. But Zuko is looking at each and every flower like it tells a story, has them all framed and memorized in the back of his head. Sokka is stuck in a trance. Zuko’s voice isn’t smooth the way people describe romance in books; it’s raspy and low and Sokka adores it. Could listen to it for hours and days and years. That’s what romance is to him. Something real, something appealing for exactly what it is.
It takes all of his willpower to move, and he only does it because he started this plan, he’s going to finish it. Zuko is so busy looking around and talking that he doesn’t notice Sokka slipping the blanket from his arms and spreading it out on the flat grass at their feet. The birds here are loud, their calls sounding of song and melody.
When Zuko finally looks down, Sokka has spread out the contents of his bag for them both.
There’s jams, and bread, and little single servings of hummus and veggies. A separate bag, clearly from the deli, has meats and cheeses wrapped up in small stacks. The bottles of water are flavored, the label reading white peach ginger. The packaging has fruit slices on the side, between the logo and the nutrition facts. The tiny pouches of applesauce sit next to packets of cinnamon. None of it are strictly things Sokka had to be alone to buy, but it’s the fact that they’re here that’s the surprise. The view, the food, the escape. Sokka knows they both needed this, in a way; the whole trip, sure, but this. Some time purposefully away from the road and the rest of the world. For him in particular, more time with Zuko.
That’s the break he needs.
Zuko kneels next to Sokka and won’t stop looking at him. His eyes flicker back and forth between Sokka, the picnic spread, and the lake. His surprised expression slowly melts into a smile, albeit a hesitant one. When he leans in, Sokka isn’t really sure it’s happening. Can’t believe it’s happening. He can’t breathe, and he’s not really trying to; all the air is gone from his lungs. But Zuko is moving so slow, so gentle. His hand rests on Sokka’s arm, and he presses their lips together.
“I’ve never felt so free as I do with you, Sokka. My whole life has been planned before me, and every time I said no I worried it was a mistake. Getting to travel with you these few weeks has taught me that I was never wrong to want something different for myself. Thank you for that.”
Oh. Sokka can finally breathe, and the first thing he does is kiss Zuko again.
Once, twice, a third time. Their kisses are soft. It’s easy to forget that neither of them knew each other only something over a week ago. Sokka could probably count the days in his head, but he’s too distracted to care. What matters right now other than the fact that he’s kissing Zuko? Kissing this beautiful boy who only wears grey and knows the names of all the wild plants they come across. Who makes playlists out of both their music tastes, despite the different genres. Who is slow to open up but who laughs with his entire body.
Sokka is so irrevocably stuck on him. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
They eat the food after, peeling off seals and brushing hands. Only occasionally do they throw stuff at the other. They eat slowly, stopping to touch one another or to hold each other’s hand. This is exactly what Sokka described to himself earlier; something real, something appealing for exactly what it is. They stay there until the sun sets, watching it fully dip behind the horizon until the sky is no longer red.
Sokka has his hair down. Zuko doesn’t stop staring.
He’s wearing a tank top today, and yeah, Sokka knows he looks good. And it’s maybe a little bit on purpose. He spent a lot of years learning to love himself, to appreciate himself. That’s more about his worth as a human, but it includes his looks too. He likes the way his tattoos curl around his biceps in thick bands, and the way his smile lights up his whole face. He likes how animated he is when he talks. It’s nice to feel positive about himself, and it’s nice to think Zuko might feel similarly.
Maybe it’s half his imagination, but it feels like a music video right now. All the little details adding up together to create something like art. His nails are painted blue, and they tap against the steering wheel in rhythm with the beat. His sunglasses almost match, the stupid translucent rimless ones Zuko bought for him a whole state ago. He loves them, loves them in all their reflective, blue glory. A clear plastic cup with a colorful straw sits in the cup holder beneath the dash, half full of sweet lemonade. Zuko has a bright pink lollipop in his mouth, the kind that has gum in the center. Sokka was never patient enough to wait for it without crunching through.
They’re living in the feeling of summer, full strength no stop. The breeze is warm, and it smells of flowers and salt and the coconut air freshener that hangs from Sokka’s rear-view mirror, hidden behind the braided friendship bracelet Katara made him. He’d wear it, but it’s far too small for his wrist now. Zuko is trading him in stupid jokes, the punchlines getting worse and worse, and their laughter gets lost among the lyrics to watermelon sugar.
It’s Sokka that looks around, takes this moment in, and has an idea.
“How do you feel about the beach?”
Zuko shrugs. “I haven’t been in a long time.”
“Dude, you live in California. For real?”
“For real.” Zuko doesn’t look quite the same when he talks about his life, and the things he’s missed out on. Sokka doesn’t like it.
So Sokka decides they’re making a beach detour. How can he not?
They clearly aren’t in a rush. Sokka never was in the first place, and Zuko… looks like he needs it, actually. Sokka doesn’t like thinking about those implications too much, but he does like the way Zuko seems to open up whenever Sokka suggests they try something new. It’s like he’s afraid to ask for something, but when offered, he’ll try it all.
And maybe Sokka needs it, too. He took a sabbatical for a reason. Professional burnout is real.
They reach the shore a couple hours after midday. They leave their phones in the car, powered off to keep them from overheating. Sokka toes off his sneakers and throws them to the car floor. He leaves his tank top on; it’s baggy and light, and the breeze flows right through it. When he looks over to Zuko, he’s already shed his own layers down to a simple black t-shirt and his loose jeans; they’re pale and cuffed at the bottom, with the knees blown out.
Neither of them bother to bring towels or a blanket. Their walk takes them down to where the sand is wet and cooler against their bare feet, and the seagulls’ calls turn to background noise. Zuko holds out a hand, a silent question, and Sokka takes it. He stands to Zuko’s left, and he knows not to take this for granted. The sun is hot and sticky on Sokka’s skin, and he can see the shine of sweat on Zuko’s neck, but the crash of waves beside them and the breeze that rolls in with it keeps them from overheating. The moment is so open and sincere, and he gets to be the safety net between Zuko and the expanse of the ocean stretching out beside them. It’s just the two of them, the clean air, and the feeling of being lost in the best way possible.
No set path, no deadlines to return to just yet. It’s freedom in its purest form. There’s this overwhelming sense of belonging that Sokka feels next to Zuko’s side, like he’s found himself all over again. All the pieces were there, and he had already been whole, but with Zuko he’s elevated. It’s liberating.
Zuko steps a little closer to Sokka’s side, and Sokka pulls him nearer. Their shoulders brush, and then Zuko is leaning completely against Sokka. The weight is comforting; Sokka feels like a protector, here. The white noise of waves lapping at the shore settles around them, and Sokka feels himself sink into serenity. He notices a little too late that Zuko is starting to grin wickedly at him, and realizes a little too late that Zuko has been edging him closer to the waves this whole time. Suddenly Sokka is ankle deep in the water. He hasn’t lost his balance yet, but then Zuko is bracing both his hands flush against Sokka’s chest to push him in.
Fuck, it’s cold.
He falls, and the water splashes up around him. He has a second of panic where he thinks about their phones, before remembering they purposely left them in the car. He isn’t underwater long, but he is definitely soaked by the time he sits back up. Completely drenched. His hair is dripping and sticking to his forehead, because this was the one day he wears it down, and Zuko reaches over to brush the strands out of his face. Looking up at him, the sun setting behind his head like a golden halo, Zuko looks ethereal. Even having just pushed Sokka into the freezing ocean. And Sokka just wants to stare at him forever, with the sky above them turning pink and orange. The clouds are gone, and there’s nothing but light. Zuko reaches out a hand to him, foolishly. A little like he knows what’s going to happen and doing it anyway, huh. Sokka grabs his forearm and swiftly pulls Zuko down with him.
His fall is stupidly graceful. Sokka pushes him underwater by his shoulders. When Zuko surfaces, he flips his hair out of his face and spits out water. They’re both laughing, and Zuko’s glistening, and Sokka can’t help it. He pulls Zuko in with both hands on his face and crushes their lips together. This time is less gentle. He’s full of adrenaline, and the waves are crashing around them, and Zuko is gorgeous. Zuko is kissing him back like he needs Sokka’s mouth to breathe. It feels like electricity running through his veins, the effect felt tenfold from standing in the ocean.
Zuko tastes like synthetic watermelon. Sweet and sugary.
They're covered in sweat and saltwater, their hair is gross, and they’re both still in jeans. It’s disgusting, and Sokka loves every second of it.
“You know what? Fuck it. It’s already gonna need to be washed.” Sokka peels off his drenched shirt and tosses it in the direction of the sandy shore, with Zuko following suit. The jeans stay on, but having one less layer of fabric clinging to his skin is better than nothing. The clothing is already a lost cause, and they might as well enjoy the remaining sun while they swim. Swim and kiss, mostly. It’s a little sloppy, and neither of them hold back like they did before. Sokka’s hands keep coming back to Zuko’s hips, and his neck, and the dip of his back. Zuko can’t seem to stop running his own hands across Sokka’s cheeks, across his shoulders. Zuko pulls him closer by the arms, and Sokka follows through obediently. The water is deep enough to rise to their chests, and Zuko leans his weight on Sokka. They float together, arms wrapped around each other, loose and comfortable. The more gentle waves break against them. Zuko closes his eyes and softly breathes out. Sokka traces patterns against his skin. It’s like a dream, to be here with him like this.
The heat and sun and swimming absolutely drains them. If they could have collapsed right there on the sand to sleep, they would have. Instead they drag themselves away from each other, reminding themselves that they need to get back on the road. They briefly mention the idea of returning, back to this same beach, when they can. Some night when they can bring a blanket and food, when they can lay together and watch the sun dip all the way behind the waves. There’s no commitment behind it, but the thought is a sweet one.
The first thing they do when they return to the car is stuff their wet shirts into one of the plastic bags from their snack runs. Neither of them want to get into clean clothes until they can stop for the night and shower off the salt, so they throw towels over their seats and drive. Their hands find each other atop the console, and their fingers stay laced the whole way.
The closest shop they find is an over glorified gas station. The windows boast terrible tourist attire, but it works. Zuko rolls his eyes. Some of the shirts are tye-dyed, and others have ugly phrases written in even uglier fonts across the front. Zuko doesn’t look pleased at the selections, even if the shirt is only meant to last the rest of the night.
Sokka holds a shirt with wolves on the front up to his chest. “What if I match with you?”
Zuko keeps looking through the weird postcards and doesn’t turn to him. “How could that possibly make me feel better about this?”
Sokka doesn’t point out that Zuko is already smiling, even if he’s trying to hide it in the shelves of stuff he’s looking at.
They explore separately after that. Zuko wanders over to the magazines and travel guides. Sokka keeps searching through the racks of clothing. There’s a small section for hair accessories, mostly things young girls would wear, that Sokka is irrevocably drawn to. They have headbands and press on nails and butterfly clips. There’s a package labelled “Daylight,” and Sokka knows exactly why he likes it.
He buys the little accessory package while Zuko is looking at cards, and he slips it into his pocket. He waits until they’re back at the car, throwing stuff into the backseat and enjoying the stretch of their legs to show it to Zuko. They dry off their skin, their (yes, matching) shirts waiting for them on the roof of the car. Zuko can’t resist rolling his eyes one more time.
Sokka steps into his space, towel in hand. “Let me.” He hand dries Zuko’s hair with the towel, making sure to be gentle. Zuko hums under his breath. Sokka is tender and methodical in a way he’s not with his own hair. By himself, he would just shake his head like a dog and rub at his head furiously with a towel. With Zuko? He leans him up against the car door and starts separating the strands. Each strip he treats delicately, wrapping it in the towel’s edge and rubbing it between his thumb and forefinger. It’s not until he’s finished and running his hands through Zuko’s hair that he asks.
“Can I borrow your knife?”
“The one I know you’ve been trying to hide to keep me from thinking you’re a serial killer. Which is stupid and a little too late. It’s a pocket knife, most normal people carry a pocket knife.”
Zuko flicks his forehead affectionately, but he does go digging in his bag. The knife itself is sharp; not just the blade, but the look of it. It’s a sleek, matte black, with a silver trim. It’s heavy, too; a solid weight in Sokka’s hand. That’s how you know it’s good quality. And Sokka’s gonna use it to cut off the thin white fastenings that keep the clips attached to their paper backing.
He throws them (security seals? beaded zip ties? It’s funny the amount of things he can't name when he thinks about it) and the cardboard stock back in the car and closes the door. He’ll clean it up later, for sure. Obviously. Sometime after he’s already dropped Zuko off.
He’s not gonna think about that part just yet.
He doesn’t really explain what he’s going to do when Zuko looks over at him, just holds the clips in his open palm while he tucks a large chunk of Zuko’s hair behind his left ear. Sokka doesn’t ask directly if it’s okay for him to touch this part of Zuko’s face, but he does move slowly to give Zuko room to say no if he wants.
Zuko doesn’t say anything.
The bangs don’t stay until they’re clipped in place. Sokka puts three of the little barrettes in Zuko’s hair, the plain enamel kind that snap into place. They’re yellow and silver and white, and they shine in a stupid kinda way that does something for Sokka. It’s absolutely ridiculous, and Zuko is humoring him clearly, but the moment is… kinda nice. Really nice.
He can’t help the dumb smile on his face, either. He’s sure he looks all kinds of whipped looking at Zuko in this parking lot of all places, but he’s happy here. The sun will set soon, and they’ll get to sleep, and Sokka will dream of the Zuko from this moment.
“I didn’t get to take any photos at the beach.” Having his phone on him may have kept Zuko from pushing him into the ocean, but that wouldn’t have been worth it at all. He likes where they ended up. Zuko’s looking up at him now, and his eyelashes catch the light. It’s almost like they’re glowing. “Can I take one now?”
He doesn’t say You look stunning. He doesn’t say You take my breath away, or I think I may be in love with you. Is that okay? But he thinks it. He thinks it really hard as Zuko nods affirmatively and pulls out his phone.
And hey, yeah, they may be in a parking lot. But it’s an empty parking lot, just the two of them. And it’s golden hour, so everything is orange and shimmery and alive. And there’s Zuko, the most beautiful guy Sokka has ever fucking seen. He doesn’t know how he ended up inside of a book, or some fucking movie, but if this isn’t peak romance then nothing is, parking lot be damned.
They take a couple of photos. Blue sunglasses, little hair clips, and bright, brilliant smiles. If a couple of them are a little blurry, because Sokka is distracting himself by wiggling up to Zuko as close as he can, so what? It’s them, and it’s perfect.
He makes sure to get one where he’s kissing Zuko’s cheek, and then is thrown off guard when Zuko turns his head to catch the kiss directly. He keeps taking photos, some while they kiss and others while they look at each other, but he takes more of them just laughing. Zuko’s smile is brilliant; it might just be Sokka’s favorite thing in the whole world. Before even turning the car back on he sets that one, the one of Zuko laughing real big and open, as his lock screen. He’s pretty sure he sees Zuko do the same.
That night, they only book a single bed. Sokka pulls Zuko close to his chest, and in turn Zuko pulls the blanket over them. He lets out a quiet sigh, and they relax against the cool cloth of their pillowcases. Zuko doesn’t stay there for long, before he’s nudging closer still and nestling his face into the crook of Sokka’s neck. He can’t stay there for long, because he needs air to live, but Sokka can feel Zuko breathe in deeply before pulling back. Sokka loops his arm around Zuko’s back, and they lay there, watching each other. Unable to get enough. The room is dark and tranquil. Sleep comes to them soon after, and though Sokka can’t remember his dreams, he wakes feeling rested and refreshed.
The mountains are still in view behind them. They’re only barely into California, far, far up north, and they could stop if they wanted. The busiest streets are lined with old buildings, orange and cream and ugly teal. An old coca cola mural is painted on the side of a brick building, one from back when advertising was still an art. The door to the building is blue, the fire hydrant in front of it is yellow, and all around the town seems to have no consistent color palette.
Sokka and Zuko share a look, say hello to the town, and immediately say goodbye after.
Weed, CA is still within driving distance for the day if they gun it, and Sokka won’t stop laughing at the name. He’s shamelessly giddy, but Zuko isn’t telling him to stop. In fact, he almost looks fond. It’s a tender moment, outside of all the “blaze it” and “420” jokes.
Sokka can’t resist stopping at the fruit stand. It’s cute, and it’ll be, like, another moment. And they’ve run out of snacks again anyway. Besides, it’s already on the way to Berkley, and they have time.
(They have all the time in the world, technically, but Sokka doesn’t think they’d both fit if they had to sleep in the car for a whole night.)
He says all of this to Zuko.
They pull into a dirt lot, and gravel crunches beneath their shoes when they step out of the car. There’s strawberries painted onto all the wooden signs, and oranges hang in nets. The crates out front hold an array of produce, and are pushed up against white lattice. Overgrown plants wind their way through the patterned slits, and hanging above them are smaller signs that all look hand drawn. Sokka is immediately engaged. Zuko is much slower to follow. He seems distracted, not looking at anything in particular, until Sokka starts pointing things out to him.
There’s things like plums and figs and passion fruits. Berries in green cardboard containers line the shelves inside, from blackberries to raspberries to blueberries. Sokka wonders how many different kinds of fruits can be in season at once, but he knows that humans like to push their limitations and refrains from googling it.
He starts holding things up to Zuko to get his opinion. He seems to have no interest in the packaged goods, tamarinds and various nuts crammed into bags. Sokka thinks that maybe he’ll care for the dramatic ones, like the odd shape of starfruit or the fluorescent purple skin of passion fruit, but Zuko doesn’t seem too interested in them either. Sokka doesn’t know why he cares , except that he wants to know what Zuko likes. And that it feels kind of domestic, to shop together.
It’s the plainer ones they almost pass, in the end, that Sokka watches Zuko eye up. Persimmons and papayas and tamarillos. They look humble from the outside, with thick skin in tones of orange and green. The persimmons have thick, flat leaves, and the tamarillos have long stems that stretch up from their ovalesque bodies. They don’t bag any of the fruits up, but Sokka knows what he saw in Zuko’s expression. He makes a mental note, right before glass is catching his eye, and then he’s dragging Zuko over by the hand to a whole new little novelty section.
He’s very excited, and talking very fast, and he doesn’t quite catch the fondness in Zuko’s expression this time.
But Zuko can’t just let him have something, because that’s who he is, and unfortunately Sokka is endeared by it. He likes the teasing. “Really? You stop us for fruit and snacks. And you want us to leave with fancy balsamic vinegars?”
He says “us” so easily. Sokka tries not to lose his mind thinking about it.
“They’re novelty! Besides, they also have assorted hot sauces.” Zuko’s eyes light up at that, just like Sokka knew they would, and he finally finally starts to join Sokka in looking through the wares hands-on. They pick up bottles, examine labels, pass them to each other to laugh. Some have lemon zest, others smell of garlic without even opening the cap. None of them seem to be plain, and Sokka guesses that’s why you’d go somewhere so specific anyway. For specific things.
Sokka can’t imagine what kind of heat the sauces pack, considering he already feels a warmth spreading through his chest just looking at them. But that’s not really anything to do with what they’re buying, and he knows that.
They’re equally interested in a couple of different things, and they do end up going back and buying fruit. Sokka pays attention for a reason. But they buy the novelty things, too, and laugh about it the whole time. Neither of them talk about the impracticality of buying large, kitchen-sized bottles meant for sharing when they don’t even live in the same city.
They don’t talk about it, until they do. It’s a short conversation. Neither of them have an answer, but neither of them want to forget this happened, either. Zuko ends up being the one asking if they can make this something more permanent, if Sokka wants that. It shouldn’t surprise Sokka so much that they feel the same way.
The windows are down. It’s warm enough, here, that they can be. It’s just after six, and everything is covered in orange light. Golden hour does wonders on Zuko’s complexion. His eyes shine brighter, full of flames and laughter and pure presence. It’s invigorating, and Sokka is so glad that Zuko’s driving right now, because Sokka just wants to get drunk off watching him.
There’s nothing particularly interesting about this moment. It’s not something he’d tell in a story later, except maybe to talk about just how fucking pretty Zuko looks. He sits up straighter when he’s focusing, but his music is blasting through Sokka’s speaker, and he’s nodding his head to it. It makes him look so much more confident, one hand on the wheel, the other tapping on the side of the car where his hand rests out the window. They hardly slow down, and Sokka has his hair pulled up again to keep it from whipping into his face. Zuko’s hair is pulled back into a bun, but it’s not nearly as practical as Sokka’s style, because a bunch of it still hangs down around Zuko’s neck and drapes over his shoulders. It’s a good look.
They’re one day out (so two days in Sokka time, at least) from LA, and they haven’t figured out yet the plan from there. But it’ll be okay, Sokka just knows it. And not in the fake kind of way where he’s trying to hype himself up into believing it, but in the kind of way where he just feels complete peace because he knows it's true. Maybe Zuko will come with him, will meet Katara for real and his dad for the first time. Maybe Sokka will say fuck it, and he’ll take Zuko to visit his uncle in San Diego first. Maybe he’ll straight up move, like a love-sick moron, or maybe more realistically he’ll just make the two hour drive from Los Angeles to San Diego every weekend. He doesn’t know.
What he does know is that he’ll figure something out. That they’ll make it work. Because they want to, both of them. Because Sokka’s obsessed with this stupid, beautiful boy, who goes on lengthy and impassioned tangents about literature and yet simultaneously forgets if he’s eaten that day. Because Zuko keeps glancing over at Sokka, and he wears this dorky little smile when he does it, the kind that says I missed you every second I wasn’t looking at you. Because they’re young, and they have options. Because though neither of them has said it yet, and neither of them will say so any time soon, they're both in love.
So yeah, there’s nothing particularly interesting about this moment. Not to anyone except Sokka. But he feels warm here, and happy. No big words cover it the way the word happy does. It’s a good feeling, all across his body, his elbow on the door and his face resting in his palm. Languid. Slow. Like there’s no rush, despite how fast the car is going. There’s absolutely no traffic, or maybe there is and he’s just too distracted to see or care. It feels so free out here on the open road. Just the two of them. Sokka is comfortable in his spot, legs pulled up onto the seat with him, and he doesn’t even bother to pretend he isn’t watching Zuko.
He wants to remember this moment. Just because. Just for himself.
Sokka’s lock screen changes often over the following years, but their picture from that day at the beach is the first of many to get printed and taped up inside his car. It goes on his dash next to other photos of his family, right where it belongs.