Damn, you guys. This is it. We started posting this fic in 2008 and had been working on it for a while before that... which means this fic has been in the works for almost 5 years. _ It was a labor of love for us and must say again that we're sorry it took us so long to get all of it posted! We also have quite a bit of the Jetko prequel (Delinquence - the first chapter is in our archive) of this finished but we're deliberating on whether to post it... it's... considerably more dysfunctional than this fic. Also, it's not finished. But anyhow!
Thanks for reading this monstrous fic. Enjoy the last chapter.
Sokka always found it rather remarkable how adult his afternoons with the White Lotus group made him feel. As a sixteen-year-old boy, he imagined that he should have felt young in the setting with five men, all over fifty. But the fact that they all treated him with respect - treated him *as* an adult made all the difference. There was also the fact that next to Bumi, there were times he looks like a Harvard graduate in comparison.
"Natural twenty! My Yu Yan archers DEMOLISH your Sabre-toothed Moose-Lion! Take that! AHAHAHAHAHAHA!"
Pakku arched one white brow, not nearly as delighted as Bumi flicked his tile off the table in a fit of joy. He looked at Piandao. Piandao shrugged. Pakku sighed and retrieved the tile.
Sokka frowned to himself, discreetly checking his phone again under the table. He'd texted Zuko half an hour ago because neither Iroh or he knew where the other boy was. He wasn't working the tea shop and if he had studying to do at the library, he would have let Sokka know. He didn't want to be overbearing though, texting over and over to find out where his boyfriend was. Unfortunately Sokka's brain also had a tendency to spiral out of control when a worry happened to pop up. He had two exes to potentially contend with - what if Jet had shown up again? What if the sex they'd had was laughable compared to sex with Jet? What if right now they were - He'd been talking to Mai online too. Maybe she wanted him back. How the hell could he compare to a pretty girl? She was all soft and pale and Zuko would probably rather -
A merry chime interrupted Sokka's whirling thoughts, accompanied by the vibration of his cell phone. When he pulled it out to check, there was the hoped for text from Zuko. Be home soon. Can you come over?
Already here, Sokka texted back. White Lotus tonight. Are you okay? Do you need a ride?
It took almost 5 minutes before his phone chimed again and Iroh gave him a curious look when Sokka scrambled to check the message. Oh yeah. No its ok. Just got off the bus
Ok, see you in a few.
Sokka looked up to focus on the game for a few more minutes. "Zuko's almost home," he told Iroh quietly.
"Is he? Good, good. The tea is still warm. Perhaps you can offer him some when he arrives? Ah-ha! A clever move, Jeong Jeong, but I'm afraid you underestimated the defensive capabilities of my fire barrier!"
The sun had slipped behind the distant mountains by the time Zuko arrived home, and Iroh proudly turned on the lights he'd set up on the boys' deck. Those assembled were offering their comments, praise or otherwise on the strands of tea-cup shaped lights Iroh had special ordered when the faint scrape of the sliding glass door caught Sokka's attention.
The youngest member of the group perked instantly, still vaguely on-edge from his panicky (and admittedly a little paranoid and pathetic) thoughts over the last hour. "Hey!" he said eagerly, waving to Zuko from the table though in the shadows from inside, he couldn't see his face. When the other boy didn't join them outside, he frowned and rose to make his way to the door.
As Sokka approached, Zuko ducked back into the house, leaning up against the wall in the dark kitchen. "Could you ask Uncle to come inside too?"
"Oh - sure..." Sokka frowned, trepidation creeping up in him but he hurried to return to the deck. With a gentle tug on Iroh's sleeve he murmured in the older man's ear that Zuko wanted to talk to them.
"Gentlemen, if you'll excuse me for a moment, my nephew has returned. Please, feel free to enjoy the tea-lights -haha!- and help yourself to the tea and cookies."
He still wore his easy smile as he followed Sokka into the house, closing the glass door behind him. Zuko wasn't in the kitchen, but it only took a moment to find him. The living room light was on, and Zuko was there, sitting on the edge of the couch, hood pushed back from his face.
Both smiles faded quickly as they got a good look at Zuko - his split and swollen lip and the bruise around his good eye that was only a hint of what it promised to be in a few hours.
"Zuko!" Sokka cried, his stomach bottoming out so intensely and so quickly that it made him dizzy. He surged forward to kneel in front of the other boy, horror written all over his features. "What happened? Are you okay? Is anything broken? Oh my god!"
"I'm going to get some ice," Iroh said quickly and hustled into the kitchen.
"I'm okay," Zuko shook his head, his voice still a little raspy and his eyes still a little red, but he put on a smile that, though small, was sincere as he held out his hands to take Sokka's. "Really. Nothing's broken. Just some bruises." He rubbed gently at his throat, coughed to clear it.
He waited until his uncle had returned, gratefully accepting the bag of ice Iroh had wrapped in a thin hand towel and held it up with a hiss to the side of his face. "Ow, hah." He looked up then, into two worried and expectant faces and sighed. He had to tell them eventually. "Um. I went to see my father this afternoon."
Two sets of eyes widened like owls'. "What?" Sokka choked. "Why?"
Zuko shared a brief glance with his Uncle and looked back down at his hands. "Yesterday Azula came into the tea shop. She told me my father wanted to talk to me. That he'd... had time to think about things and wanted me to come back home. I went back to the house today because... I guess I wanted to hear what he had to say. To see if she was telling the truth."
Iroh sighed quietly. "I thought it might be something along those lines. There is no reason Azula would come to the shop unless Ozai sent her."
Sokka had settled beside Zuko on the couch, one hand on the other boy's knee because damned if he wasn't going to be touching *something* right now. "What happened? Did he want you to come home? Or did he just want to beat you up again? That god damn bastard - I wanna go right up to his door and just - Augh!"
Zuko lay his own hand over Sokka's, gave it a squeeze. "It's okay. It's.. it's over now. I went over and saw him. Azula was right. He wanted me to come home. But he..." Zuko stopped, sniffed a little, shook his head. He would be damned if he continued to shed more tears over this man. "He told me I could come back to Hakan, that he'd forget everything I'd done, he'd clear my record."
Repeatedly, Sokka felt that his heartbeat couldn't thump any louder, his stomach couldn't sink any lower and his eyes couldn't get any wider. This time his mouth went dry too. It was like his worst nightmare come true. Zuko's father offering him everything he wanted and luring him back in to his abusive clutches. He couldn't even speak though inside he screamed to know what Zuko had said. His father beating him up had, in the past, been no indication that Zuko had let go of his desire to make Ozai happy. Even when he'd been beaten and kicked out initially, he'd been more determined than ever to win his father's favor.
Iroh lay a gentle hand on his shoulder. "That must have been an extremely difficult offer to face."
Zuko laughed quiet, just a huff of breath and he shook his head. "I thought it would be. I really believed that was everything I wanted, you know? Then I asked him what his conditions were. I knew, you know, that it could never be that easy." Here, Zuko's hand clutched tighter at Sokka's, his jaw clenched as he fought to speak aloud what happened next. "His first condition was a rehabilitation camp. To 'cure' me of my... morally objectionable behavior."
Iroh frowned hard but Sokka's was almost guilty, though he squeezed back at Zuko's hand.
The bitterness in his voice clearly expressed his opinion of this idea. "But it wasn't even that that was the worst. It was when he told me that I would not be allowed to see you again," he met Iroh's gaze. "Or you," he turned to Sokka. "That I'd have to give up everything that's made me happy for the past three months. All the people who care about me..."
Zuko caught a glimpse of Iroh's jaw tightening under his beard, matching the angry set of his eyebrows. "After everything he's put you through... he would ask for such a thing."
"No listen. Even then, even -then-, if he'd given me any indication... if he had made me believe that he really just... had my best interests in mind, I might have... I might have heard him out. If he'd told me... if he'd told me he loved me and just wanted me to make the right choices, if he'd shown any sign at all of being my -father-, of -caring-..." Zuko frowned, guilt tight in his chest. "But he didn't. He didn't. He only cared about his reputation. People were talking; it reflected badly on him that his son lived somewhere else, that he had... problems. He only... in the end he only cared about how I made him look. He didn't even deny that it was why he wanted me back." A beat. "So I told him no. I wouldn't do it. Not if he made me give up everything that made me happy." A breath and Zuko looked at the boy beside him, almost wincing.
He didn't get a good look at Sokka's face though because before he could, the younger boy was sliding his arms around Zuko's shoulders. His cheek was cool from being outside when he pressed it to Zuko's scarred cheek and squeezed him. Iroh's wide hand was warm on his back.
"Dammit," Zuko swore when he felt the wet on his cheeks. He'd promised himself he wouldn't cry again. "He said I didn't have a choice, I argued with him. I... said he was a bad father, and he grabbed me. He called me weak... a- a faggot, I told him to let me go. Then he- he threw me against the wall and said my mom was a whore and a worthless burden and I was just like her." The words fell from his mouth now without stopping. He couldn't stop them or the angry tears that dripped down his nose. "I used a throw, got him on the ground, punched him in the face. I was yelling, told him never to say that about my mother."
Sokka's arms around him tightened, as though wringing the tears from him, pressing their temples and cheekbones together tightly. Trying to hold him tight enough to replace all of those terrible things with his touch.
"Nephew..." Iroh's voice was tremulous.
"He got me on my back, started to choke me. S-said... he should have killed me back when- and then he said he'd rather see me dead than..." his eyes flickered to Sokka. "He said bad things about Sokka so I.. I hit him again. I couldn't breathe and I hit him really hard. He was... bleeding everywhere. I broke a cup and I got up and said I was going home. And Azula tried to stop me but I left. I just left. And I walked for a while, and then I waited for the bus and... and I came home."
Iroh couldn't stand it anymore. He wrapped both boys up in his arms, careful of Zuko's bruised cheek when he rested his own cheek against Zuko's hair. "I'm so proud of you, Nephew. For standing up for yourself and doing what's right for you."
Sokka's voice was a tiny whisper in his ear and only when he heard the hoarseness of it did he realize that the other boy was crying silently as well. "You're safe now."
"I'm okay," Zuko breathed. "I'm really okay. I- just... wanted to come home. Back here. I'm okay now. Don't worry, okay?" His chest hurt with the tightness of the arms around him and the emotion he felt but he didn't care. He was smiling. "Don't worry."
Both boys heard the trembling sharp breath that Iroh took and he squeezed them tight enough to seem as though he intended to break bones. "Welcome home, Zuko," he said gently and then sat back, laughing and wiping at his creased and tear-filled eyes. "Ah. I think I'll put some fresh tea on. Does that sound all right?"
Zuko nodded. "I'd love some, Uncle... Thank you." He reached out then, before Iroh pulled entirely away, and gave the older man's hand a squeeze. When his uncle had slipped into the kitchen, Zuko turned his gaze apologetically on Sokka. "I'm sorry about all this. You didn't sign on for all this... this drama." He sniffed, scrubbed at his face, offered a bashful shrug.
"Shut up," Sokka ordered, somehow managing to be both sharp and pouting at the same time. Hands on Zuko's jaw drew him into a careful but sound kiss, minding his split lip. It was wet with both of their tears and Zuko's mouth tasted like copper but it was good. And when he drew back, Sokka looked into his eyes and smiled. "You're awesome."
Zuko's answering smile was embarrassed, but in truth, just being back here with Sokka and his Uncle... already he felt better than he had two hours ago. "Oh my god. I think I broke his nose."
Sokka laughed - maybe it was inappropriate but he didn't care and it felt good and he was /impressed/. "Are you serious? That is so bad ass. Oh man, I love you." He grinned wide for a beat before he realized what he'd said and the grin melted into complete and utter chagrin under the firey heat of his beet-red cheeks. "I-I mean - because - because you're so tough! Like a kung-fu movie!"
"Oh- right! Yeah!" Zuko laughed too, face as red as Sokka's and if the moment was awkward, well it was okay. Because right now, it felt like the only way things could go was up. He was making his own choices now, following his own path. and walking hand in hand with the people who cared about him. And he was happy. He was shaken and sore and still a little shocked about what had just happened. And he knew that these weren't the last tears he would shed no matter what he told himself. But he was -happy-. Right in this moment, he was happy. And while Sokka blustered, Zuko circled him up with his arms and kissed him till it hurt.
Initially Sokka squeaked with surprise and hesitated because he didn't *want* to hurt Zuko... but after a breath, there was no stopping it and he sank deep into the kiss. He wrapped his arms around Zuko's ribs and he clutched at the back of his shirt and he kissed. There weren't enough words to say how proud he was of the other boy or how happy he was in Zuko's decision. Maybe he'd try later. But right now he just poured that all into the mesh of lips, emotion and adoration electric between them in such a way that made his chest tighten and then swell. He smiled against Zuko's mouth and hugged him tighter.
They only pulled away when a polite clearing of throat drew their attention to Uncle Iroh, standing nearby, a tea tray in hand. Zuko was already flushing pink when he noticed that his uncle wasn't their only audience.
On this cue, Sokka glanced over his shoulder and blanched, then blushed again. Really, this was a dangerous and exhausting evening for his circulatory system. As it turned out, the place they'd chosen on the couch provided just the right angle that they were visible through the dining room and the sliding room glass door that the members of the White Lotus were getting quite a show. They all very quickly looked away, busying themselves with their tiles when Sokka glanced toward them - all except Bumi who whooped, muffled through the glass, and shot Sokka a thumbs up and a disturbing grin.
Iroh politely set the tea down for them and excused himself. "I do believe it may be time for me to say goodnight to my guests."
"I interrupted your Pai Sho game," Zuko realized, apologetically, already reaching for a tea cup and a second to hand to Sokka.
Sokka rubbed at his cheeks, trying to will them to cool before he picked up his own cup. "We were almost done. It's no big deal. I was worried about you so I couldn't concentrate anyway."
It took some amount of will power for Zuko not to apologize yet again. Instead he hummed vaguely. "I'm okay though," he assured Sokka. relishing the heat of his tea as he held it to his lips. "I mean... I will be. I- I'm sort of glad that it's... over, you know?"
"I definitely understand." It wouldn't have sounded right to say it out loud, but inside, Sokka was glad of that too. He squeezed the other's hand. Before they could say anything else though, the glass door shrieked and the men from outside shuffled in to take their leave.
"Good night, boys," Jeong-Jeong said politely as they passed. Piandao offered a wink to the youngest member of the Lotus.
Pakku raised a disinterested brow and caught Sokka's eye. "Give my regards to your grandmother."
As Iroh walked his guests to the front door, Bumi's voice carried (unsurprisingly) through the house. "Young love is so magical. I remember my first love. Of course I was fifteen and she was forty-six but DAMN was it MAGICAL!" His snorting laughter, Sokka decided, was the world's most efficient mood killer.
"Remind me again why I car pool with you?" said Piandao right before the door shut behind them.
"Now then, boys," Iroh hummed as he turned back to the couch. "If your grandmother allows, Sokka, you may stay the night. As for me, I think it's about time to whip up a little something for dinner. What do you say?"
Sokka smiled sheepishly, marveling not for the first time at how pleasant and convenient it was that Zuko's uncle let him stay over so often. Not to mention never raising a brow at anything they did. Aside from the occasional jibe that left both of them blushing furiously. "That sounds great. Thank you, Uncle."
"Thank you," Zuko echoed, smiling up at his uncle gratefully. Here was where he belonged. Here was his home.
As long as he kept up on his chores, GranGran rarely had any objection to anything Sokka decided to do with his time. So he put off his homework (a gesture truly indicative of his priorities) and spent a quiet evening at Iroh's. They made dinner and forced Zuko to rest and after eating, Iroh tended to the cuts and scrapes on his face. When Iroh went to bed, Sokka dragged Zuko to the couch to relax and watch a movie and ice his bruised face a little more, Zuko's head resting in Sokka's lap.
"Remember the first time we did this? Then the second time when we slept all night down here?" When Sokka glanced down, Zuko was smiling, the ice off his face, and searching for Sokka's eyes. "I think this is the best time so far."
Sokka couldn't help but grin and it came out just a little bit quirky, a little bit goofy and warmed in his blue eyes. "Yeah? Hmm... I guess you're right. Since this time I can do this." He curled in, doubled over to press a soft kiss to the other boy's mouth.
A pale hand found it's way around the back of Sokka's neck, holding firm while Zuko returned the kiss, a swipe of tongue wetting his mouth before falling back to Sokka's lap. "Yeah, that's pretty nice."
For the moment, the movie was forgotten, Sokka only able to smile down at him, eyes darting over Zuko's face. He was bruised and scraped and scarred and wonderful. And yappy, bubbly Sokka found that there weren't any words that could properly say that, nothing that could encompass how happy he was just then or how he just wanted to squeeze Zuko until he couldn't breathe. So he didn't say anything. Instead he just smiled.
But Zuko knew the right words, and though he was tired and bruised, there was a spark in his eyes as he turned a grin upward and closed his hand around Sokka's. "Hey," he said, waiting for Sokka to lift a questioning brow. "I love you too."
Surprise flickered through Sokka's features and he blinked several times, as though processing the information. But he knew what Zuko was referring to and he flushed all over again, turning a dark pink. "I-" He bit his lip and found his smile again, even if it was an embarrassed one. "I love you too, too."
Zuko laughed, but he wasn't making fun, he wasn't teasing. "Good," was his answer. "Good," he said again, his eyes closing and his fingers twining tighter.
Sokka squeezed Zuko's hand back and smiled his chagrined smile for a few moments longer. "You wanna go to bed a little early? You had a pretty rough day."
"Mm, yeah." Zuko shifted somewhat reluctantly, stretching his arms out and groaning only a little dramatically. "Carry me?" he hummed, only half joking.
Sokka laughed and flopped back against the couch, letting Zuko stretch, supine, across his lap. "I think the last thing you need is me dropping you down the stairs. You know it'd happen."
"Aw..." Zuko turned over, propping himself up in Sokka's lap. "You're no fun."
Sokka just grinned and nudged Zuko reluctantly to his feet. With the television off and the house dark, they felt their way up the stairs. "Do you have any idea how many awesome points you earned today?" Sokka whispered, dogging his heels. "It's pretty much off the charts. It's gonna take you a long time to redeem all those points."
It made their going a bit clumsy when Zuko wrapped his arms around Sokka's waist as they climbed the stairs, but neither cared much, laughing a little as they stumbled down the hall toward Zuko's bedroom.
Once instead, the door closed behind them, Zuko straightened up, hand's resting lightly on Sokka's hips, walking him backward toward the bed. "And how do you think I should redeem all these points?" he wondered, voice low, breathy in the dark.
Sokka's grin was a moonlit gleam in the dim light. "I could think of a few things..." Arms slid around Zuko's neck carefully as Sokka's calves bumped against the end of the low bed. "I don't want to hurt you... but..." He smirked just a little as he leaned in to oh so softly kiss Zuko's lips. "I do want to reward you for being so tough and brave..."
Zuko smiled, lips moving against Sokka's, warm breath shared. "Why don't you just show me that you're happy I came home..."
"I am. Really happy." Tan fingers lifted to sift lightly through inky hair. "Thank you." And he sank into Zuko's kiss with all the appreciation and happiness that still burned hot in his chest.
It was nothing like the first time. Where they'd once been furtive, fumbling for release, Sokka forced Zuko to lie back and indulge in his slow, careful attention. Under the sheets it was warm and dark and naked. Sokka kissed so softly at bruises, as though he could kiss them lightly away, while his hands learned new things about Zuko's body and soaked the memories into the maps of his palms.
When the sheets and pillows embraced them and their skin glowed with relief and relaxation, Sokka snuggled close and wrapped an arm around Zuko's middle. "Mine," he growled, spent and playful and affectionate.
Zuko's answer was a thankful sigh. He felt drained, and yet so, so full. "Mine too."