Sokka stretched out as he moved slightly closer to the fire as the cold night air moved into his bones. He watched the fire dance high into the clear dark sky where he could see all the twinkling stars. It was a good start to a holiday, he thought.
“More drink?” Zuko offered to everyone, as he moved to stand.
“I thought you would have forgotten how to serve yourself.” Katara poked fun at their royal friend.
“Haha. I’m fixing a nation that’s been at war for a hundred years, I’m not exactly basking in the luxury of being a tyrannical ruler.” Zuko knew the teasing was in jest, yet he always responded with logic and reason - just incase. Sokka found it endearing.
“I’m fine thanks,” Suki yawned in response, “I might head to bed if I’m honest.” She said sheepishly.
“Boo!” Aang and Sokka chanted in unison.
“Hush you two, I had to be up early to finish some training for the latest Kyoshi Warriors before I could come here.” Sokka knew it was a fair point. But he also knew he had no idea how to interact with Suki now… Well, now she was his ex. He decided to go with teasing. Thankfully, Aang and he were on the same mindset at least.
Sokka would never have said this outloud, but he was very apprehensive for this holiday. It was something they’d agreed to try and do yearly. Hang out on Ember Island, find a week in their dairies to just… pretend they weren’t world leaders. The war had ended seven years ago and after a six year on-again-off-again relationship, Suki and Sokka had finally realised it wasn’t working. It was okay when they’d been in the Fire Nation together as guard and ambassador respectively. It had worked when he was in the South Pole and her back on Kyoshi Island. But then he had the offer to work in Republic City. His father encouraged him and so did she. But the distance was too much, he was too needy and despite inventing the telephone to talk to her…
It was for the best, he knew. Sixteen was young to find your forever person, but now he’d spent his first adult birthday single and was twenty four and looking at dating. A scary prospect for anyone, he empathised. But he had sat on the inaugural council of Republic City. He was brother-in-law to the Avatar, had personally taken down the last invasion from the (old) Fire Nation and he jumped onto the new Firelord to hug him like they were lost lovers without guards taking him out. Dating famous was… hard.
He hadn’t thought it would be a problem. Afterall, he wasn’t a bender and wasn’t even really that integral in most of the ending the war stuff. He was the brother, the friend, the boomerang guy. It was an insecurity he never thought he’d had at sixteen. He knew he was special, he was clever and knew how to do plenty things. Now, looking back, he could recognise what he had been covering up.
“Here.” A drink was being waved over his face.
“You look like you could use it. What’s put that expression on your face anyway?” Sokka moved to sit up cross legged as Zuko carefully sat in front of him before handing the drink he’d been provided.
“Just thinking, you know how it is, being a genius.” Sokka smiled, okay maybe the covering up hadn’t quite left him, “or maybe you don’t?” Sokka stuck his tongue out.
Zuko fake gasped, “that’s dangerously close to treason, you know!”
“What you gonna do, lock me up and throw away the key?” Sokka winked as he took a sip. A long sip. A big sip. Zuko always knew what he liked, always worked out what he needed.
“Nah, you’d enjoy it too much.” Sokka almost choked on his drink at that. “Anyway, your sister still scares me too much to hurt you.”
“And I’m meant to be the protective big brother.” Sokka rolled his eyes.
Zuko gave him a calculating look. Sokka may tease him but the Water Tribe man knew this Fire Nation man was one of the cleverest there was. Not because of the Palace Tutors or constant updates of information. Zuko could do what most never could: work people out. It had taken years to learn, to overcome what the Fire Lord called social ineptitudes. ‘ When I was a kid, I just never knew what to do, you see? But, I guess I kinda taught myself and now… it’s almost natural. Almost. But when I need to stop and think, that’s when I see what other people don’t. ’ Sokka remembered the drunken conversation. Zuko had let him play with his hair that night.
“Both of us should know birth order dictates very little.” Non-memory Zuko pointed out.
“Ironic coming from a monarch.” Sokka quipped, “hey, did that rhyme?”
“Enough.” Zuko smiled as he took a drink from his own cup.
They stayed up talking, like old times, and watched as everyone else trickled off to bed. It was late when Zuko’s head began to droop.
“Hey, we should get you to bed.” Sokka smiled at his best friend.
“Mm. I get a lie in tomorrow, Sokka.” Zuko’s eyes brightened even amongst their tiredness. Sokka took a second to appreciate just how beautiful a happy Zuko was.
“If Aang doesn’t wake you!” He teased, making Zuko groan playfully.
The two men stood up, helping steady each other under the buzz of alcohol and drag of tiredness, Zuko put the fire out and Sokka shivered.
“Why does the Fire Nation get so cold?” He asked.
“Climate isn’t the same all year round on the north and southern areas, Sokka.” His friend joked, “a previous ambassador should know that.” Sokka merely shrugged in response as they walked inside, finding their luggage, now standing in ridiculous looking places having had those around it collected by their owners.
Sokka picked up his blue bag and turned to his room, looking forward to the big warm double bed.
“Shit.” He stopped in his tracks, staring at the door. Zuko looked over, his hair coming over his eyes with the quickness of his head turn.
“Zuko… there’s four bedrooms.”
“I know Sokka, I kinda own the place.”
“Zuko, one for Katara and Aang, one for Toph, one for you and one for…” Zuko drew in a breath.
“You and Suki.” He finished Sokka’s sentence. “I…”
“I guess the sofa is free at least?” Sokka smiled at his old friend.
“Well…” Zuko looked around, putting his suitcase at the bottom of the stairs. “Let me find some blankets.”
They looked in the downstairs linen cupboard and the upstairs one. They checked the bathroom and Zuko’s room. They checked every cupboard they could think of, and no spare bedding.
“It’s okay, man. You go to bed. I’ll use a jumper or something.” Sokka smiled, he was almost too tired to care at this point.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Zuko protested. “Have my bed, I can warm myself up with my bending, remember?”
“What? No! I can’t take your bed.” Sokka insisted.
“We…could share it?” Zuko offered. Sokka froze. They’d shared before, slept on the same ground together, shared a tent. But never as Fire Lord and Councillor. Only as two teens, with no one to look out for them. And they had never quite shared a bed - only space.
“If.. you’re sure?” Sokka was inclined to accept. The thought of a warm bed was far more appealing than a sofa in a cold living room.
“Of course I am. I sleep on the right side though, if that’s okay?”
“Sure, man. I’m not fussy. Thank you.”
The two men got ready for bed one after the other, Sokka pulling over a soft t-shirt even though he usually slept shirtless. He didn’t want to make Zuko uncomfortable, after all. He fell asleep quickly, despite his thoughts going round and round his head. The tiredness was just too much.
Zuko woke up with the sun, but he’d learnt to fall back asleep when he had time to rest, which was rare. This morning, however, he took a little longer, because he’d woken up lying on his right side. He always went to sleep with his left ear in the pillow - his left ear’s hearing wasn’t as good, even since the…accident, as he insisted on calling it. Even now. He always tried to sleep in a way he could hear attackers. He so rarely ended up on his right side, able to sleep deeper with less noise, but more vulnerable. Even in the Palace, he only ended up on his right side when Uncle was visiting. Not that he didn’t trust the guards. But Ember Island, while not a dangerous place, didn’t usually relax him this much.
A gentle snore pulled him out of his thoughts, he slowly turned around and saw his best friend, curled up, facing the other way. It had been a while since he had had anyone in his bed, and even longer since he’d woken next to anyone in his bed. Yet, this felt right, he thought to himself, as he drifted back to sleep, breathing moving in time with the man lying mere centimetres away from him.
He woke again, the sun much higher in the sky, to a slightly warm, but empty bed. He hadn’t moved sides this time so was facing the crinkles of the sheet that were proof he hadn’t been alone last night. Zuko stretched, feeling the warmth of the sun coming through from the open curtains that had been neglected to be closed the previous night in favour of a few more seconds of sleep. The room smelled dusty, having not been touched or used in almost a year, but a warm salty smell lingered. A smell Zuko knew well. He glanced at the tousled pillow next to the one he had used last night, and found himself leaning towards it.
Zuko jolted and shook his head, quickly abandoning the bed to rush to the kitchen.
There, he saw a oddly familiar sight that made his heart tighten. Aang, Toph and Sokka had clearly tired to make breakfast together. Katara and Suki had sat at the kitchen island, waiting for the disaster.
“Can we help?” Katara asked in her sickly sweet voice. Zuko knew that one well.
“Please-” Aang began.
“We’ve got it, Katara.” Sokka rolled his eyes.
“Hope you don’t want eggs, Zuko.” Suki smiled at him as she caught sight of the Fire Lord.
“We have eggs!” Toph pointed out.
“Yes, but none of you will manage not to break them.” Katara explained Suki’s joke drily. Zuko was incapable at hiding the grin that covered his face, he was back with his best friends. He wasn’t the Fire Lord this week, he was Zuko. They had known him at his worst, yet loved him anyway. Zuko made eye contact with Sokka, who gave him a soft smile as if he knew what his best friend was thinking. Then his cheeks began to redden as he turned back to cooking. Zuko wondered where his mind at gone.
The day was spent making the most of their time. Making the most of the time, meant relaxing. They lazed around on the beach, Toph often bending the sand to create the most beautiful and bizarre sand sculptures, and one time hiding Zuko from Sokka, causing the Water Tribe man to freak out. They all found it hilarious. It was so nice, Zuko thought to himself. It reminded him in the few days before they ended the war. In a weird juxtaposition, it was almost his most peaceful time. He had made peace with himself, found a family amongst his friends, and wasn’t the all powerful leader of a quarter of the world. Or, a third, he supposed, with a bitter thought. Perhaps even more, given the death and destruction his ancestors had..
“Zu-u-u-ko!” Sokka’s voice pulled him away from those dark thoughts, “I’m hungry!”
“Hi Hungry, I’m Zuko.”
“Didn’t realise you were a dad.” Scowled his friend, “please come make lunch with me?” Sokka battered his eyes and Zuko knew from experience he couldn’t say no to Sokka normally, and very rarely when he pulled puppy dog eyes.
“Fine,” Zuko rolled his eyes, “anyone else want anything to eat?” He yelled out so Katara who was currently in the ocean could hear. All of their friends agreed that food sounded like a good idea, so the self-elected chefs wandered into the beach house.
“Thanks for letting me sleep in your bed last night, by the way.” Sokka began, sheepishly. “My knee has been acting up and I know my healer would have been mad had I slept on the sofa.”
“No worries, Sokka.” Zuko smiled.
“I hope I didn’t disturb you much, I know that -”
“Honestly, Sokka, you’re fine. If your knee is acting up perhaps you should take the bed for the rest of the week? There’s no way we can get another bed, even with me as the Fire Lord.” Zuko joked.
“What? No! I was going to… well, I don’t know what I was going to do but… I don’t want to kick you out your own bed. That’s probably some kind of treason.” The wink he gave with the last line made Zuko’s chest tighten, which was a weird reaction. “I guess… if we continued to share? But if I snore, just hit me with a pillow or something.”
“Is that something you’re into, Sparky? Should I leave you alone to hit Snoozles in peace?” Toph called as she wandered into the kitchen, clearly looking for food.
“What? No!” Zuko was thrown off by her sudden appearance. He had forgotten things weren’t just him and Sokka for a while.
“What’s for lunch, boys?” Toph climbed onto a stool in the kitchen.
“Do sandwiches work?” Zuko asked, moving to the cupboard and pulling out a fresh loaf.
“We have lots of meat for them!” Grinned Sokka, “and cheese and stuff for Aang I guess.”
“Sounds like a good choice then, get a move on, Snoozles, I’m hungry!” Toph grinned.
Lunch was carnage, as ever, with Sokka and Toph jokingly fighting for the last few bits of meat while Aang convinced Katara to share his vegetarian option with him. Zuko had barely been reunited with his friends for twenty four hours, but he felt his batteries recharge quicker than they ever did in the Fire Nation without them. Even the worried apprehension for tonight couldn’t overcome the happiness he felt at the one week a year he got to be what he truly was: a young adult.
Except that apprehension managed to come up just in time for bed, which made sense, he reasoned. None of the others had seemed to clock that there were four bedrooms for six people and no longer two couples, even Suki was too focused on getting to bed with her exhaustion paired with a refusal to nap and miss any fun on the island to realise she usually had a warm body next to her on their holidays. Somehow, that made Zuko more nervous. One night could be explained as an emergency, but two nights?
“Bed time?” A yawn interrupted his thoughts, which were completely put to bed themselves when Sokka took his shirt off.
See, the thing was, Zuko had always been attracted to girls and boys. He’d told his mother with no discrimination about all the pretty people who grabbed his attention. She had smiled indulgently, until he’d mentioned Azula’s teasing about Mai and wondered why she didn’t tease him about the kitchen boy too. It didn’t make sense to him, after all, they were both pretty, what did Mai being a girl have to do with anything?
It turned out, a lot. Ursula’s eyes had widened in absolute fear when she had realised the reason for her son’s insistence on discussing all genders equally. His confusion at heteronormativity had outed him, causing his mother to pull his hair in fear as she checked they were completely alone, even checking the places Azula used to spy on them. She had explained that Zuko could find boys pretty, but he could only ever want to do anything with pretty girls. She had been so serious, he had nodded, but not quite understood why he wasn’t able to play with boys.
It wasn’t until his mother was gone for several years, just before his banishment, he had put together what she had actually meant. Ozai had publicly punished two serving boys. Claimed he was merciful at only sending them to join the army, and not banish them. Zuko had thought for a while into his own banishment that perhaps his father knew, deep down.
So Zuko suppressed that side of himself. It was easy to do amongst men many decades older than him due to being given a crew close to retirement, to not detract from the war effort. He figured at least he did like women. He had heard rumours of those who did not, who only liked men. His life was lonely enough already.
It was one of the first laws he repealed. Dating Mai at the time gave him cover - he wasn’t one of them, so it was easier to convince people it was the right thing. But when Mai and he broke up, it wasn’t entirely not because of the shirtless man in front of him right now. Zuko shook himself out of the double negative, hoping Sokka hadn’t noticed the staring. He was still folding his t-shirt, thankfully.
“Same sides tonight?” He asked cheerfully. Zuko nodded in response, disappearing in the bathroom to splash cold water on his face and only just remembered to brush his teeth before he turned the door handle already in his palm. Finally, after actually completing his night time routine, Zuko carefully got into bed, moving slowly to ensure he didn’t accidentally touch Sokka. The man looked at him strangely.
“Zuko, I’m not lava.” He grinned.
“You can touch me, you know? In fact,” The Water Tribe Man dived for his friend, turning to his side and pulling him into a hug. “I’ve missed you, buddy.”
“I’m a firebender, why would lava put me off?” Zuko was too baffled to realise he was now all but being spooned by his friend. While Zuko lay on his back, Sokka clung to his side like a pentapus.
“Floor is lava, don’t touch the floor, that kinda thing? Sorry been thinking about that game all day.”
“Floor is lava?” The Fire Lord had never looked so confused.
“Dude! Did you not play that with friends?” Zuko turned his head and was shocked at his friend’s closeness, he could smell the fir tree scent Sokka always had after washing his face and see into the blue eyes that so often held wonder. Right now, they showed only sorrow and shock. Zuko merely shook his head.
“Tomorrow.” The word was as heavy as a promise but the grin that came with it was one of pure childhood joy. Not for the first time, and not for the last, Zuko wondered what growing up with a loving family and friends around would have been like.
“Good night, Sokka.” Zuko decided that was the safest thing he could say right now. With a flick of his wrists, the fire lighting the candles went out.
“That’s so hot.” Breathed out the man laying next to him.
“What?” Zuko was shocked.
“I mean, good pun, right? Fire? Hot?” Sokka’s tone was not his usual ‘I just made a great joke’ tone. It sounded… worried.
“Oh, very good.” Zuko responded, blandly. He was disappointed, like an idiot. Did he expect a love confession? He turned on to his left side, and Sokka loosened his grip, but didn’t move back.
“Is this okay?” Sokka whispered, quietly, adjusting his arms to move loosely around the Fire Lord’s waist. Zuko could feel the warmth of the question on the back of his neck, and only trusted himself to nod in the quiet.
Tonight, he would let himself imagine he was safe in Sokka’s arms. Maybe he’d even dream of a life he could never have.
Despite worrying he would never get to sleep for fear of losing the feeling of being in Sokka’s embrace, Zuko woke up the next morning, feeling well rested and content. He was warm, but not uncomfortably so. The sun peaked through the imperfect curtains and allowed him to flutter his eyes open slowly. As he moved to stretch, he paused suddenly. Through the night, he and Sokka had clearly swapped. Sokka was now in his arms and he was spooning his best friend. His best friend he had a huge crush on. Clearly, Sokka was either awake or just waking up. Sokka stretched himself then moved to turn to face his friend. His eyes were soft with sleep and they crinkled open in the sunlight.
“Morning, baby.” Sokka smiled at his friend and Zuko’s breath caught. It had to be a dream, waking up with Sokka, feeling a warmth firebending could never bring him, hearing a term of endearment from an almost decade long crush actually directed at him. Zuko felt he could indulge in his dreams, just this once. It felt so real, unlike many of the others.
“Hey handsome.” Zuko winked - very out of character, but he felt he may as well.
Sokka stilled, playful smile frozen almost comically. He was unsure on that response, shocked at Zuko’s tone, wink, body language and, well, everything, really. He took his chance and leaned forward slowly, only his eyes moved quickly, looking into the deep pools of his best friend’s eyes, then back to his lips. Making his intention clear, giving the man holding him every opportunity to pull back. He didn’t - the opposite happened, in fact. Zuko met Sokka halfway. Their lips collided in the most beautiful of motions and feeling. Sokka tasted his friend in a way he’d dreamed of for years. The kiss deepened as Zuko pulled Sokka on top of him, giving the surprised man better access to his face and hair. Sokka’s fingers went straight to the flowing locks he had watched grow for the last eight years.
Finally, the Water Tribe man pulled back, leaning his forehead against the Fire Lord’s. A giggle escaped his lips.
“I just kissed the Fire Lord.”
“You did. Would you like to do so again?” Zuko’s shyness threatened to shut him up, a flight mode engaged in his lower stomach, but he pushed through. This was his chance.
“Why your majesty, I thought you’d never ask.”
They missed breakfast that morning, but both felt it was worth it.
Until Toph’s teasing, of course.