Author: Scuttlebutt Inc PM
Modern AU. Zuko has to deal with settling in a new school after expulsion, dealing with an angry ex and an abusive father. Maybe his new found friendships and growing closeness with Sokka will help him make it through. Slash. Jetko, Zukka.Rated: Fiction M - English - Romance/Humor - Sokka & Zuko - Chapters: 39 - Words: 154,388 - Reviews: 685 - Favs: 606 - Follows: 515 - Updated: 07-20-12 - Published: 09-23-08 - Status: Complete - id: 4555190
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Well, can't say we're proud of the fact that it's been... 2 years or so since we last posted on this fic. Heh. Truth be told, we haven't written much fic in the last few years since we've been working on our own project which you can find at . BUT! We're finally sucking it up and digging up the last of this fic with many apologies to all you awesome people who have read it over the years.
Please forgive any typos or any unfinished feelings - this last bit of the story didn't get proofed and this particular chapter is the one that really had us stuck. Shoulder through the next couple and the finale will get better!
Toward the end of school the next day, Sokka's stomach was in knots. It wasn't that he thought they'd be figured out - he'd got Katara to promise not to tell, had warned Aang and Toph very sharply not to say anything weird. He knew Zuko wouldn't do anything dangerous. But none of this seemed to ease his nerves at all as their extended family dinner crept closer.
When Sokka left school, the others waved cheerily and Zuko, who was getting a ride over with Toph said they'd be there at 5, as GranGran had already instructed. In the meantime, Sokka was to help his father get the house ready for guests and help GranGran with the last of the dinner preparations.
Aang arrived early with Katara and was quick to busy himself helping Grangran in the kitchen. At five sharp, the Be Fong family's driver parked in front of their house and Toph kicked the car door open. "They're here," Katara called from the front room and went to the door to let Toph and Zuko in.
"Yo Sugar," Toph announced as she stepped into the house, followed closely by Zuko, dressed in a collared shirt and black slacks, more done up than Katara had ever seen him and looking just a little uncomfortable beside Toph's bright green hoodie and jeans. "So I hear Hakoda is in town," she grinned. "I was starting to miss having someone to talk shit about you all with."
Hakoda's laughter could be heard from the dining room as Bato joined them in the front room, chuckling. "Hello, Toph," he greeted.
"Zuko, this is Bato," Katara introduced politely. "He's our dad's friend - he's like our uncle."
"Nice to finally meet you," Bato said with a smile and a firm handshake for the teen.
Zuko returned the shake and nodded politely, glancing between Bato and Katara, wondering just what the man had heard about him. "It's a pleasure," he answered, swallowing his own nervousness and doing his best not to look around for Sokka.
As for Toph, she was already making her way toward the dining room, steps sure in the familiar house. "I hear you laughing, you old fart," she grinned. "Are you ready to face the wrath of the Bei Fong arm of steel? I've been practicing and I'm totally taking you down this time!"
A door shut upstairs and Sokka trotted down the steps, startled when Toph passed him at the bottom. "Oh! You guys are here!" He hurried to the front room, giving Zuko a little grin. "Hey. Come in!"
"Hello, Zuko," Grangran greeted him as they crossed paths in the dining room, her voice as unimpressed as it was unless she was ordering someone around. "You are looking very sharp."
Zuko managed to shake away the flush that threatened to spring to his cheeks. "Thank you, GranGran," he nodded shyly as his eyes swept over the figures already in the room, settling on Sokka for some sort of guidance. "And thank you for having me," he added.
Grangran hummed in response and Aang called his greetings to both his friends from the kitchen.
"Come meet my dad," Sokka said, reaching to give Zuko's sleeve a little tug and get just close enough to whisper, "You do look really nice."
Zuko tried to rub the blush away from his cheeks before they reached the threshold. "Thanks," he mumbled back. "Uncle picked it out..."
Hakoda, Bato and Toph had moved to the living room and Bato was laughing as his friend was squaring fists with the small girl. "Hakoda, I am *never* going to let you live it down if she actually beats you."
Hakoda managed a huff of laughter as Toph gained an inch to her advantage. "And then I'll let you go second," he threatened.
"Hey, Dad?" Sokka interrupted and in that one tiny fraction of distraction, Toph snarled like an animal, startling everyone in the room. So much so that when she gave a great surge of strength that thumped Hakoda's hand down on the table.
"AAAHAHAHA!" she screamed with laughter, jumping to her feet and throwing her head back. "TOPH IS AGAIN VICTORIOUS!"
Bato dissolved into laughter and even GranGran shook her head, hiding the quirk of a grin behind her weathered hand.
Hakoda sighed good-naturedly and turned toward his son with a raise of brow. "Do you see this?" he chuckled. "See what you made me do?"
"Oh yeah, Toph rules. The crowd goes wild. 'Ahhhhh. Ahhhhhhh"..."
Sokka just shrugged and inspected his nails. "Maybe you should have better focus next time."
Hakoda shook his head and reached out to snatch at his son's arm, drawing him close enough to rough up his hair. "Listen here, you, that's no way to talk to your old man."
He was rewarded with an indignant squawk, Sokka struggling in his father's grip. "Not the haaaair, Dad!" he shrieked, wrenching free to frantically try to fix the disaster. "Um - Dad - This is Zuko."
Zuko snapped to attention, looking vaguely startled when he finally met Hakoda's eyes. "I-it's very nice to meet you," he said quickly, bowing just a little too deeply and cursing the heat in his cheeks. He was only meeting Sokka's dad. And only as a 'friend' anyway. Why should he be so nervous?
Hakoda chuckled and grasped Zuko's hand in a tight grip, his other hand closing over both of theirs. "Nice to meet you, young man," he said earnestly. "I've heard good things from my entire family about you. Thank you for joining us for dinner."
For a moment, Zuko could only nod, eyes fixed on their joined hands and steadfastly avoiding Hakoda's face. "Y-yes. Thank you for having me." He wasn't quite sure he believed that Katara had said anything nice about him, but still, the gesture was a kind one and it, at least somewhat, began to let Zuko feel a bit more at ease. "Sokka... has told me a lot about you as well," he added.
With a clap on the back of his hand, Hakoda released Zuko's grip, catching Sokka's watchful eye with a smile. "Maybe you boys should see if Grangran needs anymore help. I think I've got a rematch to take care of."
"What is this girl *made* of?" Bato demanded to know from behind them, at the table with Toph who was giving him a run for his money, teeth bared in determination.
"Steel and guts!" Toph crowed, gritting her teeth hard and refusing to be distracted by those around her.
Zuko silently thanked Hakoda for providing a momentary escape and he nodded, bowing out of the dining room to seek out GranGran in the kitchen.
Sokka laughed at their antics, giving Zuko's shoulder a friendly bump as they crossed the house again. He didn't say anything though, just worked on setting the table while Grangran instructed Zuko on putting the finishing touches on the baked fish. The house smelled incredible with the aromas of fish fresh from the arctic filling the air. More than once Zuko and Grangran and Aang kicked Sokka out of the kitchen when he tried to steal samples.
"If I keep letting you taste it, there won't be any left for your father!" Zuko protested, the third time Sokka tried to sneak up on the fish when Zuko's back was turned.
Sokka laughed and then yelped when his grandmother smacked him on the back of the head with an oven mitt and chased him out of the kitchen with threats to whoop him like he was eight.
Katara finally joined them in the kitchen to start taking the food out to the table. "So this is our family," she said a little quietly to Zuko. "Too weird for you yet?"
Zuko laughed a little, shook his head. "You haven't spent an evening with -my- family. This... this is amazing," he answered truthfully. "Your family."
Katara offered him a smile but quickly turned away to take some food to the table. Only a few minutes later, everyone was being called in and dinner was being served. The table was tightly cramped between the many mouths to feed and dishes to be had. Big bowls of salad and steamed vegetables were passed around and Grangran served the marinated sea bass in generous portions. Aang and Toph were quick to demand stories from the two family members more often than not absent and were rewarded by a retelling of an amazing catch that had recently brought more fish on board than their deck could even handle.
Zuko listened with rapt, but quiet attention, contributing little more to the conversation than a curious ear and the occasional nod or exclamation. Still, it didn't take long before he started to relax, to remember that Sokka's father or no, he was among friends and thus far hadn't done anything terribly stupid or awkward.
"Have you ever tried to bust a fish in half with your bare hands?" Toph wanted to know.
"Toph!" Aang, on the other hand did not want to know this or think about it at all.
Where Aang and Katara were horrified, Sokka, Hakoda and Bato burst out laughing at the question and Hakoda answered, "No, I can't say as I've ever thought to try that."
Toph only smirked back, having clearly expected this answer and cocked a finger haughtily his direction. "Practice that a few times and then get back to me on the arm-wrestling. It's not fun unless it's a challenge."
Hakoda gaped while Sokka and Bato only laughed harder and Aang and Katara were even more aghast.
"PLEASE don't actually do that, Dad," Katara begged.
"But Katara!" Hakoda protested, only half joking. "I've got my honor to protect!"
Zuko, meanwhile, was chuckling into his drink, stealing glances at Sokka, glad to see him clearly having so much fun.
"Only a real man could tear a fish clean in two," Bato leaned over to tease, clapping Hakoda on the shoulder. "I'll make sure to have a camera ready when you try."
"Maybe start with something simple, Dad," Sokka joked, elbowing his father. "Like a goldfish!"
"UGH - Enough of this at the table!" Katara snapped, slapping a hand down."Grangran, say something!"
Everyone glanced at the old woman.
"Your father isn't man enough to tear a fish in half."
"GranGran!" Hakoda protested, his expression very near pouting.
Bato, Sokka and Toph were moved to tears, Aang and Zuko both snickered into their cups and even Katara quirked a very quick smirk before steeling herself with a shake of the head. "You're just encouraging them!" she gaped.
Grangran just shrugged and took a bite of her fish without a word and chuckling, Hakoda assured his daughter that he would never tear a fish in half unless the fish started the fight first. With chuckles and chatter dissolving around the table, pitchers and platters were passed around. Hakoda spoke up again, turning his attention to their newest guest at Sokka's side.
"So - Zuko, do you play Pii Sho as well?" he asked. "Is that how you two met?"
"It's *PAI* Sho, Dad," Sokka interrupted with exasperation.
Zuko smiled and Hakoda coughed. "Forgive me my sins, my son," he intoned, giving Zuko a good idea of the origin of Sokka's own love of sarcasm.
"My uncle tried to teach me, but I'm afraid I'm a lost cause," Zuko explained, casting an amused look to Sokka. "No, actually we sort of met at the arcade. Then later again at school through Aang."
"They hated each other at first!" Aang piped, grinning at Zuko, clearly pleased to have been remembered.
"We didn't *hate* each other," Sokka protested sheepishly. "We just didn't necessarily... *like* each other."
"They hated each other," Toph put in helpfully while Katara pushed some peas around on her plate silently.
"Well," Zuko rubbed at his arm, clearly a bit embarrassed "I was going through a difficult time then and Sokka ended up being a really big help, so..."
"Everyone thought he ate babies and worshiped Hitler," Toph added seriously, nodding as she helped herself to more fish.
"-I- didn't!" Aang pointed out.
"No one REALLY did," Sokka said with a roll of his eyes. "It was just a bunch of dumb rumors."
"Kids can say really nasty things," Hakoda said with a chuckle, clearly unshaped by Toph's announcement. "You two are in the same grade then?" he asked.
Zuko nodded. "We have history with Mr. Zei together. And Math."
Between mouthfuls of peas, Aang added, "We had Home Ec together. Zuko makes awesome cake."
"Ah... th-thanks," Zuko mumbled, finding it a little awkward to be the center of the conversation.
Sokka smirked at him, giving the other boy a nudge from ankle to ankle under the table but then startled a little when his father spoke up again.
"Well, a friend of Sokka's is always welcome in our house, just so you know," Hakoda said with a warm smile. "You boys are just a little older than Bato and I were when we met. Now just look at how old he is."
Though Zuko's mouth was open to mumble further thanks for Hakoda's kind words, he didn't have the chance before a back of incredulous laughter came from the other end of the table. "Me?" Bato interrupted, laughing, "Old? Nonsense! You conveniently forget I'm two months younger than you!"
"And you look two years older," Hakoda shot back with a wry smirk.
"And I can haul in twice the catch you can," Bato replied, aiming a pointing finger across the table.
"Not for long," Hakoda shrugged. "Once that arthritis starts to kick in."
"At least I can still remember where the head is," Bato replied with a sad shake of his head, turning his voice to Katara beside him. "It's so terrible, your father's Alzheimer's."
Katara rolled her eyes, but it was evident that she was making a valiant attempt not to break into giggles.
"Oh I remember where the head is," Hakoda answered. "It was poor Bato here who ended up mistaking it for his own bunk one night. We found him all curled up the next morning drooling on the floor with his hand in the-"
"Kids," Bato interrupted, gravely serious. "Don't listen to anything your father says. Ever."
When the laughter had quieted, Aang spoke up, "Working on a fishing ship sounds awesome. Except for all the dead fish."
Hakoda chuckled, nodding in understanding. "It's a tough job," he agreed, "And the smell of fish isn't a pretty one, but how many people can say they get to spend every day with their best friend?"
Bato snorted. "I think he means putting fish guts in the bed roll of his 'best friend'."
Sokka gave a bark of laughter. "Did you really do that, Dad? That's awesome."
"That reminds me of the time that Katara and I put all of your underwear in the freezer," Toph mused, tapping her spoon against her lip.
"That *wasn't* awesome," Sokka groused.
Katara chuckled. "Oh yeah, it was awesome."
"I'm sorry I missed that," Zuko added. "Did you get them wet first?"
"We smushed them all into a pail and then poured water over it," Toph elaborated. "So the next morning it was like a tighty whitie popsicle."
"Are you sure you're not one of my kids?" Hakoda wanted to know.
"You'll have to take that up with my mother," Toph sassed.
"Just don't let Mr. Bei Fong find out," Bato joked.
GranGran just cast her son-in-law a fierce stare as if daring Hakoda to sully her late daughter's reputation. The glare that could melt lead was pretty difficult to avoid and nervous laughter suddenly fell from Hakoda's lips. "Just kidding, just kidding!"
"Hmph," was Gragran's reply. "Besides, if Toph was family, she takes after *me*."
Toph grinned. "GranGran is awesome," she announced, then with a raised brow, addressed both Hakoda and Bato. "-She- could beat me at arm-wrestling."
Both men groaned quietly as the children laughed at them. "We're never going to live this one down," Bato complained.
As the conversation shifted and Hakoda turned his attention to Aang and Toph, asking them about school, Sokka spared a glance at Zuko, making sure he looked like he was okay. Zuko caught his eye just briefly, smiled a little, nodded almost imperceptibly. There was still an air of nervousness about him, but he'd relaxed considerably since earlier and though the urge to reach for Sokka's hand under the table was strong, he swallowed it back reminding himself that there would be plenty of time for that later.
Dessert was served and for a good five minutes, all talk around the table faded as those assembled happily devoured peach cobbler and ice cream. After, Katara and Sokka cleared the table and allowed their father, grandmother and guests to retire to the living room where the siblings could hear the laughter and carrying on resume, if a little quieter than at the dinner table while everyone let their food settle.
"Well," Katara murmured, not unpleasantly. "Dad seems to like him."
"Yeah," Sokka replied with a wide grin as he carried a pile of dishes to the sink. "I'm really glad... I mean, not that I ever had a doubt. What's not to like?"
Katara managed to mostly cover her wry snort, but in all honesty, her mood was too good for arguing and she was, at the least, glad to see her brother relaxed and happy.
With the dishes soaking, they joined the others and Katara pushed her way between her father and Bato on the couch. Sokka meanwhile tugged at Zuko's sleeve, more or less unnoticed when he coaxed the other boy to follow him through the sliding glass and into the cool night air.
Zuko was a little surprised, but he followed Sokka quietly, honestly relieved to step outside for a moment. Once they were alone, he took a deep steadying breath, stretched and offered Sokka a grin. "Your dad's a good guy," he observed.
Sokka wandered across their stone patio and into the darker recesses of the lawn where the light from the house and the street lamps on the other side didn't reach. "Yeah," he agreed with his own grin to match, relieved to see Zuko smile. "He likes you. Even Katara said so."
Zuko gave a small but audible sigh of relief. "Do you really think so? I was sort of quiet through dinner..."
"It doesn't matter," Sokka assured him, crossing the lawn to lean against the worn wooden fence that circled their yard. "Dad's a good judge of people. And what matters is you said the *right* things." He grinned at the other boy, teeth a dim shine in the dark. "Thank you for coming..."
Zuko joined him, taking a spot against the fence, close enough to reach for Sokka's hand, but not quite daring more than a brief brush of fingers. "Thank you for wanting me here," was Zuko's answer.
"Of course I do," Sokka chided, his own fingers stretching a little when Zuko's brushed his. He turned a little, shoulder and temple to the fence as he followed the outlines of faint, distant light as they traced Zuko's features. He hesitated. "You're... um... okay, right?" he asked, wincing inwardly as the words left his mouth.
Zuko's answer was subdued, his smile fading to something more thoughtful. He understood Sokka's meaning, understood that comparing this family to his own was inevitable. And yes, his thoughts had strayed there more than once, but he couldn't bring himself to be upset or dwell on feelings of jealousy. Not when every member of Sokka's family -even Katara- was already treating him as though he belonged there. "You're very lucky. To have a father who loves you so much," he murmured, acknowledging Sokka's worry with words that were admittedly difficult to speak. "But... I guess I'm pretty lucky too. To have a boyfriend who welcomes me into his home and trusts me with his family."
Sokka pushed down a swallow that he found tight in his throat, equally tight in his chest. He couldn't stop himself from reaching for the other boy's hand, threading his fingers with Zuko's warm ones, telling himself that no one would be able to see them anyway. For once in his life, he couldn't think of anything to say - damnably enough, he thought, especially when he couldn't wrap his arms around the other boy like he wanted to. That temptation drew him a little closer, fingers squeezing tight at Zuko's hand and lips longing to press a kiss to his cheek, his mouth.
Curled closer into the dark space they shared, Sokka murmured reluctantly, "I guess we shouldn't stay out here too long."
Zuko nodded, sighed around the urge to press his brow to Sokka's, to keep him outside longer. "Yeah," he agreed, then added. "Go ahead and go in. I'll be in in a minute." He smiled to reassure Sokka that all was well and squeezed his hand once more.
Sokka's blue eyes hesitated but then he nodded, understanding and pushed away from the fence with a lingering and reluctant brush of fingers. The glass door scratched open and shut behind him, leaving Zuko in the quiet yard momentarily. It wasn't but a minute or two later though than the sound of the door startled him again and Sokka's father was shutting it again behind him. On the patio, he dug in his pocket, producing a pack of cigarettes which he packed against his palm a few times before he glanced up to notice the young man across the yard. With a smile, he tucked the pack back in his pocket and crossed the patio to sink into a lawn chair at the edge of the grass.
"It's a nice evening, isn't it?" Hakoda spoke up casually.
Zuko blinked a little, but pushed away from the fence, standing straight again, politely. He nodded, allowed a small smile to tug at his lips. "Really nice," he agreed, tucking his hands away in his pockets, a nervous gesture.
The older man's chuckle just barely made it to his ears, Hakoda sinking more comfortably into the seat and closing his eyes. "I almost forget how nice it can be when I'm away from home," he mused. "It's hard sometimes to remember what above twenty feels like!"
Zuko echoed Hakoda's quiet laughter, shifted his weight from one foot to the other, debating whether to sit or remain standing. But it was awkward to loom over this man, so he crossed to the second chair and sat on the edge, his feet on the ground and elbows on his knees. "You don't get much time alone with your family," Zuko murmured after a moment. "It's... generous of you to welcome me- well, us, into your home."
Hakoda opened his eyes to offer a smile to Zuko. "It's important to me to know as much of my children as I can while I'm at home - and one thing that I can't see through letters and phone calls is their friends. It's heartening for me to know that my family is in good hands when I'm not here."
Zuko was grateful for the dim yellow of the patio light and the dark sky that hid the way his face flushed with Hakoda's words. "He talks about you sometimes," Zuko murmured. "I think he'd do it more but..." He trailed off, surprised at how easily he'd almost begun to talk about himself.
The aged blue eyes that matched Sokka's looked at him, questioning but he didn't press Zuko to finish, instead speaking up again. "I'm very lucky to have a family that's so understanding," he stated. "My job is difficult for all of us but I think they've come to forgive me."
Zuko's eyes widened a little. "Oh, no, Sokka is so proud of you!" he answered, worried that he'd given the wrong impression. "When he called me Sunday to tell me you were coming... he was so happy! He... he knows that what you're doing is important. I- I guess it's not my place to say so, but I think he feels really lucky to have you for a dad." Zuko fell suddenly quiet, a little embarrassed by his outburst and he turned his eyes away from Hakoda to stare at the ground.
Hakoda blinked at him a few times, then smiled softly, turning his head to cough a little, then rubbed at a shoulder momentarily. "Thank you for saying so," he said quietly to Zuko. Then a steadying sigh. "Sokka tells me you live with your uncle."
Zuko looked up again, a little surprised that Sokka had spoken of him to his father enough for Hakoda to know this. "His name is Iroh. We live at the bottom of the Hill? About 15 minutes from here. Near Toph's family."
A nod. "That's a nice neighborhood. Sokka also said you two built him a deck this spring."
Now Zuko smiled. "Yeah... I think Uncle gave us the project mostly to keep us out of trouble, though." He laughed a little, rubbed at the heat that lingered stubbornly in his cheeks. "I'm not very good at building things," he explained.
Hakoda chuckled at this admission. "That doesn't matter as long as you enjoy it," he said, then amended. "Well, and maybe not break any limbs. It's all finished then?"
"Uh huh," Zuko nodded. "And no broken bones! Maybe a few smashed fingers though. A couple splinters," he admitted. "Mostly me. Sokka's much better with a hammer."
"I'm home until next Monday," Hakoda mused. "Perhaps... if your uncle wouldn't mind... I might be able to stop by and see it?"
"Huh? Uh, y-yeah, of course," Zuko blinked curiously, a little surprised by the request, but a moment later realizing that he'd probably like to see something his son had built. "I'm sure he wouldn't mind. Um, anytime after school, I guess?"
"Or," Hakoda continued thoughtfully, "I mean, if your uncle is the sociable type, of course... I did bring home plenty more fish... and it's really much better barbecued than baked..." He thumbed at his goatee, brow furrowed in consideration.
Zuko laughed. "Uncle? He's just about the most sociable person I know. And he's pretty good with a barbecue too... He was busy tonight, but... I'm pretty sure he's free for the rest of the week."
"Only if he wants the best salmon he's ever tasted," Hakoda said with an innocent shrug and a wink for the young man. He certainly didn't want to just invite himself over.
"I'll talk to him tomorrow, first thing," Zuko nodded, beaming. "And... I'll have Sokka pass on the message?"
Hakoda chuckled approvingly. "Sound perfect. Thank you," he added.
"Thank -you-," Zuko corrected. "You... I mean..." he flushed, looked down at his knees. "I think Sokka -is- lucky. You... seem like a really good guy."
The older man laughed but it wasn't a callous or jarring sound, but a mirthful, pleased laugh. "Thank you, Zuko," he said, eyes crinkling with his smile. "You seem like a really good guy too." He paused, settling in a little more in a comfortable slouch. "One of the hardest things about being a parent is when your kids start getting old enough to really make their own decisions." He caught Zuko's gold eyes in the dim light as he spoke. "But it's a lot less scary when you see them deciding to bring good people into their lives."
For a long moment, Zuko could only stare, eyes tentative, but settling on Hakoda's face as though looking for some sign there, something that would reveal a lack of sincerity. But he found nothing except that his own throat was tight and Zuko swallowed hard, finally nodding. "I- I'm really glad... It- it's really... really good to hear you say that," he finished, voice breaking embarrassingly on the last word. "You don't know how much that means," he added, unable to speak more than a whisper. Maybe it was dangerous to show Hakoda how effected he was by the man's words, but he couldn't help it. He wasn't any good at hiding his feelings.
Hakoda closed his eyes briefly, gave a faint nod. Then, "If I know my son, he's probably inside panicking about what embarrassing things I must be saying to you."
Zuko laughed then, a short awkward bark and he pressed a palm to each eye briefly, sniffed back the emotion he had managed to mostly contain. "Yeah," he agreed, then shook himself mentally, searched for his center again and grinned. "So aren't you gonna tell me at least one embarrassing story that I can hang over his head later before we go back in?"
He considered this briefly. "Once when he was three, he ate about a dozen snails, shells and all and we had to take him to the hospital to have his stomach pumped."
"Really?" Zuko gaped, then dissolved into helpless laughter. "Oh, that's good. I'll save that for the next time he criticizes my food choices," he shook his head, still chuckling at the image of three year old Sokka with a mouthful of snails. "I guess I should go back in," he murmured after a moment. "Let you have your smoke break," he added apologetically.
Hakoda just smiled and told him, "I'll be in in a minute."
After he'd stood and began to move toward the door, Zuko paused and looked back. "Maybe you can bring out the baby pictures next," he suggested with a mischievous grin.
Eyebrows were raised. Then a smirk. "I like the way you think. We can embarrass both of them at once."
"Sounds good," Zuko chuckled, then lifted a hand and nodded before ducking back instead, his pulse a little fluttery but his heart much lighter.
The night went much better than either of the boys could have imagined, even when Hakoda got out the photo albums and Katara shrieked in horror at him while he proudly showed off pictures of her in Halloween costumes from a decade earlier. They passed the albums around and laughing, Aang would describe each one to Toph, only adding to the utter humiliation. It was even comfortable enough that Sokka was able to toss an arm around Zuko, squeezing his neck with threats of violence were he ever to describe a photo of when at age six, his sister had convinced him into letting Katara experiment with his mother's make up on his face.
For his part, Zuko was able to relax much more after his conversation with Hakoda, and when, once or twice, he glanced up to find Hakoda smiling fondly in their direction, instead of feeling awkward, he just felt... warm. Like he was somewhere he could belong.