The first thing that Sokka was aware of as consciousness started to creep stubbornly into his brain was a sense of stickiness. Not really a dirty stickiness -- but rather the feeling after a long work-out on a cool afternoon. It wasn't something he often woke up to as personal hygiene was extremely high on the young ambassador's list of priorities, and having access to private baths every day had only worsened his aversion to anything he deemed unpleasant.
This feeling though, curiously, wasn't unpleasant. Maybe it was because of the warm, comfortable body that he was wrapped around -- were they naked? He wasn't unused to waking curled tightly against Zuko's body (sometimes to the Fire Lord's protest at being choked or having a leg suddenly hiked violently over his stomach) but they'd never been naked before. Oh, wait. That's right. Sokka woke only enough to grin a sleepy, contented grin and nuzzle into Zuko's warm neck, his tired limbs giving a squeeze to Zuko's frame. A pleased hum vibrated somewhere deep in his chest.
A fond sort of laugh echoed Sokka's contentment, and Zuko's hand came to rest on the side of his head, brushing back his tangled hair. "Finally awake," he teased. "Sleep well?"
"Mmm... yeah," came the reply when Sokka found his voice, as sleepy as it was. "The best ever... let's not go home." He squeezed again at Zuko's middle, as though he could get any closer or steal any more of that pleasant and radiant warmth.
"Mm-hm," Zuko agreed, rubbing idly at the curve of Sokka's ear now. "Don't you think your hawks would miss you though?" He knew it was more or less useless to talk to Sokka before breakfast, but clearly couldn't resist just a little teasing.
"No..." A sigh and then a very long pause until Zuko nudged him lightly. "They can fly..."
"Hawkie Four might get lost..." Zuko pointed out, grinning as he watched Sokka battle with the desire to fall asleep again.
"Yeah... that's okay." Another sigh and then he let one blue eye sliver open. It must have been daylight but with red silk drawn across the windows, the room was bathed in pink sunset light. Sokka smiled and it glowed in his sleepy eye. "Hi."
"Hi." Once more Zuko laughed, a light-hearted, gentle sound. Sokka had drooled on his shoulder, but the young Lord seemed not to mind. He made no mention of it, instead, dipping close to press a quick kiss to the tribesman's grinning mouth. "Want some breakfast?"
"Yes," Sokka replied, started to move away and then made an irritated noise as the difference in temperature. He quickly pressed back against the other. "Does that mean we have to get out of bed?" he whined.
"There's grilled goosebear and eggs..."
"Mm... fine. Bath first though, if we're meeting with the others..." There was more coherence seeping in to his voice and gaze, seeming as if he might actually be able to force himself out of bed. First though, he curled his arms around Zuko's neck, pressing their foreheads lightly together. His smile was just a little chagrined then, cutting through the sleepy haze with finality. "Thanks... for last night, I mean..."
"Mm-hm," Zuko answered, bumping Sokka nose to nose. "Thank you. For giving me a chance to show you... not so bad, hm?"
"Quite the opposite," Sokka smirked, then considered. "Although by the third time I was having some muscle cramps."
"It'll get easier," Zuko assured him. "And even better."
Sokka laughed. "Guess we'll just have to get in a lot of practice, huh?"
"You'll have no complaints from me. If I can pull you away from your desk once in a while."
"That shouldn't be a problem." A soft kiss was pressed to Zuko's mouth.
When Zuko pulled back for breath, he was smiling, his eyes glowing with something stronger even than the fire in his blood. "I'll remember you said that."
Breakfast instead ended up being lunch after a rather extended bath that found the sun at mid-day by the time they left the room. When they met with the rest of their party in the cafe, Aang greeted them with a smile, Toph with a smirk and Katara with an only slightly irritated expression.
"Good morning!" Sokka chirped, his good mood rising above his sister's suspicious (but not disapproving) glance to the point that he could feign obliviousness. "I'm starved, what's the special today?"
"Well, there was meat," Toph piped, bare feet propped on the edge of the table. "But you ladies took so long getting dressed that we ate it all."
"That's a lie -- this is the Fire Nation and there's ALWAYS meat," Sokka protested indignantly, though he neglected to protest the jab itself. Aang laughed and took pity on him, waving down a server to have their table restocked.
"Only two more days," the airbender lamented once Sokka was piling up his plate. "Where's our next vacation gonna be?"
Zuko spoke up. "Well, you know that Uncle has a standing open invitation to stay at his tea house in Ba Sing Se. We only have to warn him if we're coming since he spends so much of his own time traveling these days."
"It has been a while since we've seen Iroh," Katara nodded, reaching over with a casual hand to lift Toph's feet away from her plate.
"Hey, works for me," Toph put in. Just as casually, she flicked Katara's fingers away with her toes. "Anywhere I don't have to travel over water is okay in my book and Ba Sing Se's practically my back yard."
"It might be nice to spend some time there without the watchful eye of the Earth gestapo," Sokka considered, recalling their first visit in the capital city. "They've made huge progress in breaking apart their rigid class structure."
"And I've heard they're considering adopting a cargo system similar to the one in Omashu!" Aang added, with no small amount of excitement. "They'll need someone to test it, and who better than me!"
Toph chuckled. "The mighty Avatar!"
"Saving lives and delivering mail?" Katara joked with a fond smile for her travel partner.
"And vegetables!" Aang added.
"Sounds like a plan!" Zuko laughed, cutting into his own breakfast-lunch with a contented hum.
Lunch was a long and pleasant experience, accented by the lifted spirits of the oldest members of the party. Without the heavy thoughts that had been weighing them down, their laughter was easier and Sokka's jokes became more outrageous. When they finally split up, Aang and Zuko made their way up the hills that shadowed the inn where they would be able to get in some firebending practice together as planned.
It took three breaths after they were out of earshot of any patrons for Aang to chirp happily, "Toph said you were getting busy this morning!"
Zuko managed somehow to choke on nothing but air. "Toph says a lot of things!" he protested, red-faced. "Most of them are better ignored."
"It's okay!" Aang said with a laugh and a slap on Zuko's back to 'help' ease his coughing. The Avatar's cheeks were just a tiny bit pink. "It seems like Sokka is in a way better mood, though."
"Y-yeah," Zuko admitted, smiling, though still embarrassed. "Stuff... worked out," he finished, vaguely.
"That's good," Aang said, nodding. Then a long, pregnant pause. "What's it, like... you know... like?"
If Zuko had thought or hoped that Aang's previous observation was going to be the last of it, he had been sadly mistaken. It was only luck that kept him from choking a second time. "W-well, you know... um. Good. It's... good."
"Yeah?" Aang said, blushing a little more. "I mean, yeah, of course." He laughed a bit, then paused again. "Is it like... um, I mean... does it seem like something was missing before...?"
"Well I--" Zuko began, paused, glanced toward the waiting face of the Avatar and swore inwardly. "I mean... before it was... uh... and now, I mean... now Sokka and me... well we're talking better, instead of ignoring problems, but that's not really because we decided to take that step... um. I guess what I'm saying is that what what missing most was good communication?"
"Oh." Aang worried his lower lip briefly. "But you were pretty... unhappy, before, right? That Sokka didn't want to?"
"Well... y-yeah, I guess I was... I mean, because I was afraid he didn't... well, like me as much I liked him? You know? But!" Zuko hastened to add, "I mean, that was because we weren't talking as much as we should have. You know, about our feelings. A-and our fears."
"Yeah..." Aang sighed, shoulders slumping as he trailed slightly in their trek up the foothills. "But... augh!" He pressed the heels of his palms to his bald temples. "It's not that I'm afraid!" he finally exclaimed, dropping the pretense that hovered over their conversation. "It's just... complicated! It's not like I don't want to!"
Zuko nodded sympathetically, frowning in thought though truthfully he was relieved to have Aang speaking honestly instead of in analogy. It made his head hurt. "When was the last time you and Katara talked about it?" he asked gently, slowing his steps to let the younger man catch up.
"I dunno..." Aang sulked, but he did fall back in to step with his friend. "A while ago. I just don't know... how do I know if she's really okay with it or she's just saying so? I mean I'm not really okay with it! How could she be?"
Zuko considered this for a long moment. "I think that..." He sighed and put a hand on Aang's shoulder, drawing him closer. "I think that no matter how she feels about this thing... the truth is she cares about you. A lot. Enough to respect whatever it is that you feel you need to do. And... maybe if you're... having second thoughts or... something. Maybe now is a good time to talk to her?"
"M...maybe..." Aang stammered just a little, rubbing at the back of his neck. "Yeah. I guess you're right. I just feel... dumb and bad for even thinking about it, you know? And I'm afraid she'll think I'm...wishy-washy and uncommitted for having second thoughts."
Zuko squeezed a little tighter at Aang's shoulder. "She won't think that. You're a good man, Aang. And... I know she loves you. And, no matter what, you're committed to her, right?"
"Yeah." He found a sheepish grin to offer. "Thanks, Zuko. I'm really glad you're happy. You and Sokka, I mean."
Zuko breathed a sigh of relief, sensing that --though he wasn't quite sure how-- he'd managed to actually offer useful advice. He hoped it was a sign that his uncle's wisdom was rubbing off on him. "Yeah," he nodded, smiling back. "I'm glad too. And, you know, I know you and Katara are good for each other, just... talk to her. Okay?"
"Okay," Aang replied, nodding a little sheepishly. "I'll send you a hawk about how it goes!"
"I'll look forward to it. Now! Are we gonna do a little firebending today, or what?"
"So did you cry?"
"NO I DID NOT CRY!" Sokka shrieked indignantly, instantly flustered in spite of himself. Toph had a knack for that.
After brunch, Toph had unceremoniously dragged Sokka away for a "walk" which all present understood to mean "getting the dirt". Katara had been glad for the opportunity to finally spend a few hours on herself. There was a private bath with her name all over it.
In the meantime, Sokka suffered at the hands of the girl who was currently using her newly gained growth-spurt to lord over her older friend. "Did you scream like a little girl?"
"NO!" Sokka snarled back, his face cycling through various shades of the red spectrum. "Just because every guy you've ever slept with has cried and screamed doesn't mean I do!"
Toph blinked, unphased and almost managed to cover the mischievous grin that threatened at the corner of her mouth. "Did Zuko then?"
This warranted a resounding smack of palm over Sokka's face. "No, Toph. Nobody cried. Or screamed. It was altogether a very pleasant, masculine and dignified experience. And before you ask, there was none of that...thing we discussed the other day."
"Hah! Told you. You virgin boys... always thinking sex has got to involved someone sticking something into someone else." She shook her head. "So, it was good, huh?"
"Yes. It was very good," Sokka answered, looking away with a grudging scowl. But then there was a pause and his mouth quivered with the strain of attempting to quell a grin -- and failing. "Okay, fine, you were right. It was great. I don't know what I was so worried about. And I dunno, I might have to double check that he's never been with a guy before because I mean... wow."
Toph laughed and punched Sokka in the shoulder. "Sweet," she declared with a genuine smile and hardly any trace of teasing. "I knew you could have fun if you just learned to relax a little." She punched him again for good measure.
"Yeah, all right, you're right again." Sokka rolled his eyes and leaned back in his seat with a relaxed sigh, admiring the view over their suite's balcony. Ice cubes clinked in the glass in his hand. "Man, I can't believe how quickly the week went by..."
But Toph cut him off before he got any farther into his casual small talk. "Woah woah woah, hold up there lover boy. Did I say I was done with you? Stop, back up, give me the dirt. I told you all about my fun times. It's your turn." She leaned forward, propping her chin in her hands, turning her face toward Sokka with a focused attention that seemed almost creepy coming from someone whom he knew couldn't 'see' him.
"What?" There were times when Sokka as almost glad that Toph couldn't see him -- because then she couldn't see his expression or the humiliating blush that appeared on his tan cheeks. "I--you--I don't know if that's safe! You're going to find something to use against me!"
"Oh please." Toph waved her hand. "If you don't tell me the good stuff, I'm just gonna make it up and trust me, I'll think of things WAY more embarrassing than what actually happened."
"It's not embarrassing!" Sokka shot back, regretting the pitch his voice took. "It's just... well... embarrassing..."
"So you guys had a private dinner, hm?" Toph prompted.
Sokka groaned, slumped bonelessly in his chair and resisted the urge to pour his drink over his head. Or better yet, Toph's. "Yes..." He wondered if he could run fast enough to escape this situation. He doubted it though, considering the building was made of stone. "He arranged everything and surprised me... got a private suite with its own bath..."
"Oh ho!" Toph put in, quietly enough to avoid too much interruption. When Sokka paused anyway, she summoned a pebble from a nearby potted plant and began tossing it idly. "How was the bath then?"
There were very few things in the world quite as intimidating as Toph with a rock in her hand. So he resigned to his fate and tenuously continued. "It was really nice... real big... that's where stuff began. And he... well, you know."
Toph grinned, nodding. "In the bath... I like it. Clever. A nice relaxing soak, and a friendly hand on your thigh and that leads into the rest. He's good, your Princess. I'll give him that. And then?"
Sokka's pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger."And then.. well.. honestly, he stopped in the middle of it and I almost killed him. But... yeah. He definitely knew how to get me to... relax."
"Tell me he at least let you use the bed for your first time!" Toph was always up for creative locations, but she knew Sokka and she knew the tribesman would never fool around on the floor when there was a bed nearby.
"What!? Of course we did it in the bed -- and it WASN'T my first time, dammit!"
"Calm down, Snoozles! Your first time with the Fire Queen, is all I meant." She reached out a hand and patted his arm. "Did he bring any of that handy Fire Nation rope?"
Sokka stared at her for a long moment with an expression somewhere between deadpan and disgust. "Those things you told me about you and other girls. Are they true?"
There was a long moment of contemplation following Sokka's question, Toph set aside her pebble to rub her chin thoughtfully. "Which things?"
"The dirty things. With the sex."
"Oh. Yeah. Why would I lie? Oh, except about your sister. I didn't really do your sister." A shrug. "Not for lack of trying! But that is a one-man woman, right there. I'll tell you."
"Well. I suppose that's good to know. I think." He paused and set down his glass. "Want to go get massages from hot girls?"
At this, Toph broke into a shit-eating grin, and punched Sokka in the arm. "Hell yeah! Tch, always the guy with the best plans. Let's go."
The last few days of vacation were far more relaxing and pleasant than the first few days had been – in spite of Toph's frequent jeering to both of the eldest male members of the Avatar's coterie. Finally though came the day that they parted ways again: Aang and Katara were to continue on their journey, Zuko and Sokka to return to the capital city and Toph to catch a ship back to the Earth Kingdom where her disciples awaited her return. An excellent meal was shared the night prior, and though it was quite late when they finally retired to their rooms, there was a grin shared beneath the sheets of Zuko's bed and a hush to stay quiet for the shared walls.
The next morning brought tight hugs (and rattling thumps on the back from Toph's hand), kisses on a sibling's cheek and noogies to Aang's bald head. At last, they bid their final goodbyes and the doors of the private carriage were securely shut behind Sokka and Zuko. The Ambassador had paperwork waiting for him in the carriage and Hawkies 2, 3 and 5 perched on the edge of one window. The birds only protested occasionally to the rock of the vehicle with a squawk or a nip at each other. Before they arrived home, it was revealed that Sokka would need to travel to the North Pole for several weeks to provide his voice in some vital negotiations.
Otherwise, their trip home was largely uneventful, as was the handful of days following their return. There was work to be caught up on and free time was a luxury for both men. It was almost a week and a few brief and hurried encounters later that Zuko was ready to burn the next "extremely important and highly time-sensitive" scroll which passed his desk. Sokka, on the other hand, seemed almost content -- cheerful even – to be back to work, his office filled with the flapping of hawks coming and going. He was taking most of his meals there, one hand holding a pair of chopsticks, the other his quill.
It was perhaps only Zuko's authority that got him past the guards at Sokka's door, set to deny entry to any visitors while the tribesman made the preparations for his trip North. One energetic young man announced Zuko presence before he had the chance to tell him such formalities wouldn't be necessary. The Fire Lord cringed as the guard's voice boomed into Sokka's rooms.
"HIS MAJESTY, FIRE LORD ZUKO--!"
"Yes, thank you, you may go." Zuko waved him off, stepping in to the rooms, an apologetic look on his face.
A deadpan brow was quirked as Sokka stepped out to greet him. "That new recruit is going to shatter someone's eardrums," he remarked. His fingers were smudged with ink and a few ropes of hair had been worked into his style and accented with blue beads for the trip into his tribe's territory.
"Enthusiastic, at least," Zuko chuckled as the boy closed the door with a smart salute, finally allowing the Fire Lord to relax out from under the stare of watchful eyes. He followed Sokka back to his office, stretching his arms over his head with a cracking of knuckles. "How's it going? Haven't seen you since breakfast. Ready for the trip?"
"Just about." Sokka flopped back into his chair, behind the desk littered with scrolls. "I'm arranging new clothes to be delivered when I arrive -- better to have something more regionally traditional for this trip anyway. I've just gotta get through this last bit. I hate leaving things unfinished, especially when I'll be away for so long. I will give conquering one thing, versus peaceful politics -- I bet there's a lot less paperwork."
Zuko nodded, offering a smile of both sympathy and humor as he leaned against the side of Sokka's desk, eyes scanning the papers. "I really don't know how you manage to keep track of all this..." He frowned a little then, as the rest of the words penetrated his consciousness. "You've got another day, though, right? I mean..." he shrugged. "You're caught up on the backlog now, and you're mostly ready for this... long trip..." Zuko hadn't wanted to push Sokka too hard. After all, when there were important things to be done, he appreciated the dedication of his ambassador. But he'd also rather hoped that their recent vacation might have reminded Sokka of the power of occasional relaxation.
"I do, indeed," Sokka said thoughtfully, engrossed for a moment in flipping through his calender. "And it would appear that I haven't scheduled anything for the rest of the afternoon or evening and have my rooms on lock-down. Huh." He peeked up at Zuko with a smirk.
Zuko blinked, for one brief moment, not quite following, or perhaps just not quite believing what he was hearing from Sokka's quirking lips. "Is that right?" he finally answered, raising a curious brow. "Huh. Well. Perhaps I should check my schedule as well?"
"I already cleared that too," Sokka replied, smirk shifting to a grin as he rose to his feet. He was confident, hands firm when he pinned the Fire Lord against the edge of the desk with arms sliding around his waist. "I hope you don't mind."
"Mind?" Zuko's voice was a hum as Sokka's hands splayed up his back. "Well... I suppose we can discuss appropriate... discipline as a later date. For now... maybe we should... retire for a confidential meeting?" He was surprised, he wouldn't hide it, surprised and pleased at Sokka's initiative and all his worries began to fade. He almost felt guilty for beginning to doubt.
"That might be fore the best." A kiss to cheek, to chin, to neck. "There's some pretty important business to take care of..." He was still grinning as he tugged Zuko away from his office and toward his bedroom instead. When the door was shut and layers of formal silk were being tugged at and hungry kisses pressed to a warm mouth, the playful pretense dropped in the face of underlying passion. "I'm gonna miss you," Sokka confided quietly, ink-stained fingers sifting through equally inky hair. Blue eyes looked into gold and were naked in all their emotion -- chagrin, sadness, joy and longing all at once.
And Zuko melted under that honest attention, pulled Sokka down beside him and kissed him hard and sure and grateful. "But I'll be waiting for you when you come back," Zuko reminded him, Sokka's face in his hands. "And I'll honor your return however you'd like." It was a promise Zuko had no qualms about keeping and his hands and eyes told Sokka that now was as good a time as any.
"I'll think about that every day," Sokka answered with a little smile that warmed them as much as the glow of Zuko's fire might. And after that, his words faded in favor of the new language between them -- the speech of hands and bodies and breaths that seemed almost to communicate more than any spoken words ever did. The connection they shared then overpowered the faint ache that had settled in Sokka's chest. And he knew the feeling would stay with him no matter how long he was away from this that he now called home.
And thus ends Borderlines. Keep an eye out for its sequel coming soon.