Princess for a Day
Notes: Finally we're getting around to posting some older stories that have been lying around unfinished... This one will be relatively short, about four parts of this length. It's meant to be set shortly before Boiling Rock in the Avatar timeline. Aaaand... this fic is pretty much crack. To give a little background, the entire premise of this fic came from a conversation on the capslockatla lj community. It was intended to be a short, silly ficlet specifically for that community... and as we are prone to doing, it instead spiraled into something rediculously long. And that said, in capslock fashion, this is definitely the crackiest thing we've ever posted and might be a little out of character... but we're told it's in an in character way. Yeah, we can't really explain it either.
Thanks very much to AvocadoLove, fantastic beta extrordonaire for helping us reign this into something readable! And now, on with the crack.
Things had been going quite well at the Western Air temple. Much better than any of the troupe would have believed possible. The ex-prince had blended surprisingly well with the rest of the group, even with the high tension between him and Katara, and Zuko's attitude was always improving. His training with Aang was going better than expected and when the Avatar took time to work on his Earth and Water bending with Toph and Katara, Zuko and Sokka polished their hand to hand combat, making for a well-rounded daily routine. All in all, there was very little to complain about. Except...
"So, is anyone else getting sick of fish and berries?" Toph spoke up over dinner one evening.
"Fish!" Aang scoffed, frowning down at his bowl. "At least you eat fish! I miss rice..."
"We shouldn't be complaining," Katara put in. "At least we have food."
Haru was nodding quietly in agreement, but Katara didn't sound convinced even by her own words and was pushing around the strange mash of fish and fruit that had been Sokka's latest experiment in 'new flavors'.
"Maybe if you guys learned to bend rice, wheat and cattle, we could have a well rounded meal for once," Sokka grumbled, poking at his own dinner. "I tried! Culinary arts aren't mastered in a day when you only have two ingredients!"
The Duke, beside him, patted his shoulder with a tiny hand. "You did your best."
"I did do my best," Sokka agreed with a self pitying sniff.
Zuko looked up from his own half finished meal, glancing around the somber circle of faces, a hesitant breath on his tongue for a while before he finally worked up the nerve to speak up. "Well... you know the Western-most peninsula of the Earth Kingdom isn't very far from here... There's a small village there too, right on the coast. M-maybe a market?"
The entire group looked up from sulking over their meal, eyes lighting. "A market?" was the unanimous response.
"But..." Teo spoke up, frowning. "We barely have any money. I'm not sure we'd even have enough for a bag of rice."
"Well um..." Zuko looked uncomfortable, and plucked a bit of invisible lint from his knee. "I kind of have a little..." He hadn't wanted to take anything belonging to his father when he'd left, but the practicality of the situation had won out and he had given in and brought a small pouch of coin. After all, he'd reasoned, it had been obvious from his previous run-ins with the Avatar that his ragged little group didn't carry much money themselves. "Enough for food, anyway."
Murmurs of approval and gratitude spread around the fire, and even Katara caught his eye with a tiny smile -- though she quickly looked away. In the surprised moment that followed, Sokka startled him by throwing an arm around Zuko's shoulders with a whoop. "Perfect! Zuko and I will leave in the morning! Manly shopping trip!"
"What!" Toph protested. "Why you two!?"
"Because he has the money," Sokka explained, poking Zuko in the side of the head. "And I like shopping better than any of you."
Zuko was already considering, tapping a finger to his chin. "We could have Appa drop us off a mile or two down the coast from the village to avoid being seen."
"It is probably better for Aang to stay here," Katara admitted reluctantly. "If I give you a list, you have to promise to get the things on it and not omit something because you want to buy new sandals, okay, Sokka?"
"Katara!" Sokka protested, wounded. "Do you really think I would let my friends go hungry for a pair of sandals? A nice pair of boots, maybe, but not sandals."
"Conveniently 'forget' anything and we'll be fitting you for a pair of STONE shoes, right Haru?" Toph growled and the other Earthbender hid a snicker behind his hand.
"O-okay, well!" Zuko interjected quickly, nervously. "I guess it's about time for bed, huh guys? Long day ahead of us tomorrow..."
Toph cracked her knuckles and shot a disturbingly sharp warning glare that fortuitously landed in the direction of the soon-to-be travelers. "Goodnight, boys."
Katara rolled her eyes. "We'll have a list for you in the morning."
It seemed, the following morning, that they had finally discovered the way to get Sokka out of bed at a decent hour. Half the time, it took Katara physically kicking him out of his sleep sack to get him moving -- but not this morning. He was up before anyone, aside from Haru who had the last watch of the night and stared at him when Sokka appeared in the morning mist with a cheerful smile and only a small yawn. By the time Zuko woke and the gang was gathering for breakfast, Appa's saddle was cleaned and packed.
Zuko raised a brow as he glanced over the preparations, still trying to smooth down his unruly hair as he joined the others. Their breakfast of native fruit didn't go very far and didn't take long to finish, When Zuko stood to stretch and finish getting ready, Katara handed him the list.
"I trust you with this more than I trust him," she explained. It must have been saying something, Zuko figured, considering her history of death threats.
He only nodded and folded the paper away, tucking it into the pouch at his belt, along with the money. "I'll make sure he doesn't buy anything we don't need," Zuko promised, and tried for a smile.
"Good," Katara replied shortly and turned on her heel to warn her brother about traveling safely and keeping the trip short.
It wasn't long before Sokka was sitting at the front of Appa's saddle and the breeze was blowing in their hair. The bison didn't seem to mind being saddled up again, letting his six legs stretch for the flight over the slowly roiling ocean.
Sokka glanced over his shoulder at the other boy, then back, humming to himself. "So..." He looked back again. "Does anyone ever notice... you know..." He indicated vaguely at his own face. He wasn't honestly sure how recognizable Zuko's visage was outside of his own country.
"Well..." Zuko considered this. "There's the wanted posters, but my hair is different now and there's lots of people with burn scars from the war so... it's not too unusual." He stretched out, watching the clouds overhead as they traveled. "Plus I've got the hood," he pointed out, pulling the drab brown garment over his head. "Most people don't look too closely."
Sokka arched a brow, watching the other boy. "You're really going to go shopping in that?" he questioned. "You do realize there are more comfortable and less... burlappy ways you could cover it up."
Zuko scowled and tossed the hood back again. He knew it wasn't the most flattering attire, and that in some circumstances such a getup might inspire more attention than without. "Like what?" he frowned, only a little offended.
The younger of the pair rolled his eyes and tied off Appa's reigns -- they were on a steady course anyway. "Look, sit up," he chided, crossing the saddle to sit beside Zuko and dig in his pack. He produced a comb which he used to start working through Zuko's shaggy hair without bothering to ask for permission. He went as far as to get water from their flask to wet the other boy's hair until he had styled it to part over his good eye, his bangs almost completely covering the scarred one. "There, see?" he said, sitting back to admire his handy work.
Zuko frowned deeply, eyes turning up as though he would actually be able to 'see' how he looked. "I feel ridiculous," he complained. "No one wears their hair like this..."
"Some people do," Sokka reasoned, paused looking at him for a moment. "Poets do."
The look Zuko shot him was withering. "I'm not a poet," he retorted, completely deadpan. Still, he supposed it would at least keep him from having to wear that particular sack of a garment.
"It really doesn't look bad!" Sokka assured, then snickered. "Maybe you'll start a new trend."
"Right, because I look like a trend setter." A scoff and a roll of eyes. Still, by the time the shore line came in sight and Appa landed as planned, a mile and a half down the beach, hestill hadn't touched his hair. Though Zuko said nothing further, the hooded robe stayed in the saddle when they began their hike to the village and its market.
"Have you ever been to this market?" Sokka asked, trying to contain his excitement as they crested a hill that brought the village into sight. The others understood his love of shopping -- they were even supportive enough to take him out when he was feeling down. He realized though that his enthusiasm might not be as well-met by another boy his age, whom he'd realized since leaving his village of women and toddlers were not always the kindest people. So he made it a point to try to have only the manliest sort of interest in their outing.
"No," Zuko shook his head, as their steps carried them toward the small town. "We only stopped here to refuel. Not long enough to shop." He fidgeted self-consciously with his flop of hair, "Whenever we did stop at a market it was always for pai sho tiles, or tea pots. Uncle hardly ever wanted to shop for cl-- So! Our list. Um. Here it is." He reached into the pouch at his belt and pulled it out, making a somewhat exaggerated show of reading it aloud. "...and rice and let's see, oh, pigcow milk!"
Sokka looked at him strangely from the corner of his eye. He'd never seen anyone so enthusiastic about groceries. "Well... that's good," he tried, unable to think of anything else to say. It's not like they couldn't have gone over that list as they were, you know, shopping. "So just food, huh?" He tried not to sound disappointed. No weapons. No hides. Just food.
"Yeah. Just food." There was a long silence that stretched between them then as the village with it's tempting promises grew closer. "Of course... I didn't actually tell anyone how much money I had... so... I mean. We could maybe... look at some other stuff, right? I mean like you know, knives. Or boots. Or... whatever."
"That's true!" Sokka agreed before he could reign in his hopefulness. "I mean -- it's not like they expect us back until tomorrow anyway. Grocery shopping is gonna take, like, no time at all." The path that led into the town's main street was under their feet by now and while the town had looked small from a distance, it was clear that their economy was based heavily on trade. The market was bustling. Sokka glanced at Zuko. "Window shopping never hurt anyone, right?"
Zuko offered what he hoped was a friendly smile. "Right," he agreed, tucking the grocery list back away. "Plenty of time to look around. It's like... a cultural experience."
"Exactly!" said Sokka with a relieved sigh.
And then he was grabbing Zuko by the elbow and dragging him toward the nearest shop -- which just happened to be a weapons shop. Though he released the other boy once inside, he stayed close as they browsed, testing the waters with a question or two about daggers or throwing stars. He knew that the ex-prince was ultimately more worldly than him about some things -- he hadn't left the South Pole until he was fifteen, after all. And although he could have easily asked the questions of the shopkeeper, he was interested in finding out just how knowledgeable Zuko was about weapons, not to mention seeing if he might open up a little outside the scrutiny of their group. For his part, Zuko offered answers to Sokka's questions whenever he could, and waved down the attention of the shopkeep when he couldn't. After a while, however, they moved on, spending some time looking over the various weapon sellers before they came to a cobbler's stall. Zuko waved Sokka in and they began to ogle an astonishing collection of finely crafted leather boots for both men and women.
Sokka sighed wistfully as they looked through shelves and shelves of little pieces of art for feet -- decorated with designs burned into the hide or gold leaf on the details. "You know, these are great but no where up here has anything like penguinseal boots," he informed Zuko. "They're really sturdy but they're soft and they dry almost instantly if they get wet."
"The boots I had for my-- my uniform," Zuko began, just catching himself from uttering the words 'Fire Nation', "were water-proof and fire-proof and lined in the warmest, softest fleece..." He sighed. "I wish I'd brought them."
"Fire-proof?" Sokka repeated, impressed. "I guess it makes sense." He filed away in his head to ask about how that was done later, in case they could adapt some Fire Nation techniques for fireproofing. As it was, they were moving through the shop with an almost eerie sense of unity and Sokka was starting to wonder if maybe -- just MAYBE -- Zuko liked shopping almost as much as he did. "You know, I'd never seen shoes like that until I left home," he remarked as they passed the delicately embroidered women's slippers. "If a girl wore something like that in the South Pole, they'd be ruined in two minutes and she'd lose a few toes to frost bite. Fashion can be really challenging in the snow."
Zuko chuckled faintly. "I bet. I mean, how did the girls of your tribe show each other up without being able to buy the most expensive shoes and then brag about them?" He glanced over his shoulder at Sokka as he moved on to a shelf of plainer boots, made of sturdier materials but still boasting impeccable craftsmanship.
Sokka snorted in response. "The girls in my tribe show each other up by who can kill a bigger seal. There's really not a whole lot of room for things that are dainty or pretty, honestly. My sister was probably the 'daintiest' thing in the village, if that gives you an idea." Not that Katara wasn't pretty -- but with the temper of a scorpion and a punch that could rival an Earthbender, she wasn't exactly what Sokka could call a princess. "When you're busy trying not to freeze or starve, things like say --" He picked up a lovely shoe. "Embroidery aren't really high priority."
Zuko raised a brow, and let his fingers drop away from the soft leather of a men's boot. "So the girls kill seals... and the boys... wear make-up," he recalled from his brief visit to the Southern Water Tribe.
"It's war paint," Sokka replied, suddenly defensive but he couldn't help the way he flushed. Probably just because their first meeting hadn't exactly been a high point in his warrior's career.
Zuko looked a little startled, as though he hadn't been trying to make fun of Sokka, but rather only practice his newly found and still shaky sense of humor. "Oh, I mean... yeah. That's cool," he backpedaled awkwardly. "Um, should we... keep looking around?"
"Er..." Sokka rubbed at his arm, feeling a little embarrassed for both of them as the comfort melted back to awkwardness. "Yeah," he managed.
The shopkeeper gave the two boys an odd look as they left the store. In the weird silence that settled as they moved on, both struggled for something to say to ease the tension. But then they were both slowing simultaneously as they passed the entrance of the town clothier's where fancy Earth-colored robes were on display, varied tints of green silk shining in the afternoon sun. Sokka glanced at Zuko. "I bet you've worn all sorts of fancy stuff like that, huh?" he said, neutrally, curiously.
Zuko tore his eyes away from the inviting doorway, shrugged faintly, doing his best to seem uninterested. "Oh. Yeah. Yeah... I guess I used to wear a lot of stuff like that."
"C-C'mon, let's go in," he urged, giving Zuko a nudge. "No hurt in looking, right?"
Sokka offered a charming smile to a young woman who was helping another patron as they stepped in. The shop was very large and though green dominated the colorscape, it was clear that they were also traders since there were some other colors mixed in among the fabrics. "Man..." Sokka murmured with a glance around. "There's a lot in here..."
Zuko followed Sokka's gaze, then stepped past the younger boy to lift his hand and run his fingers through the fine garments hanging in rows, separated by color and size. "There's even some Fire Nation fashions here," he whispered, surprised. Still, it might be prudent to avoid showing particular interest in those outfits, so he found his gaze drawn by a rack near the back. "Hey," he called over his shoulder. "Is this Water Tribe clothing?"
A shop girl appeared suddenly, perky and cheerful. "Oh yes! These are all the latest fashions from the Northern Water Tribe! Looking for something for your girlfriend?"
Zuko flushed darkly, cringing when he tried to imagine Mai wearing anything so... bright. And blue. "Um... n-no," he answered. "Th-that is..."
"A handsome boy like yourself? Unattached?" The girl seemed shocked, and brushed his shoulder sympathetically with manicured nails. "Well, I can show you just the outfit that'll make the girls take notice."
Zuko began to look mildly panicked. His eyes darted around the shop, searching for Sokka but was startled when a hand clapped down firmly on his shoulder.
"We're just browsing," Sokka told the girl plainly, offering a friendly smile. "But thanks."
She eyed them for a moment, taking note of the more tattered blues of Sokka's clothes, considerably less impressive than the Earth style garments that Zuko had borrowed from Haru for the trip. Then with a roll of her eyes, she stepped away, quipping, "Let me know if you need anything."
"You have shopped for yourself before, right?" Sokka said, amused at how easily overwhelmed the ex-prince sometimes was.
"Um, once or twice?" he admitted. "But Uncle is really good at it and the shopkeepers were... well, back home, I guess they were pretty much intimidated by having us in their stores at all so..." He waved his had vaguely at the retreating girl. "They weren't so... pushy, I guess."
Now that they could browse more or less in peace, Zuko found his eyes drifting back to the rack of assorted blues, once more giving in to the urge to touch the fabrics. "This stuff looks pretty fancy," he pointed out, returning to Sokka's previous comments about the practicality of Water Tribe 'fashion'.
Sokka scoffed, joining him to pull a dress of fine silk in beautiful shades of blue from the rack where a sign boasted that they were imports from the frozen north. "It's not from the Northern Water Tribe. It's something locally made. This isn't a pattern any Water Tribe tailor would use -- it's just a modified Earth Kingdom pattern," he explained. "So it's 'Water Tribe exotic' but not too weird to buy." He stepped away from the blue rack to find a similar dress in green, holding them up together. "See?"
Zuko nodded seriously, faintly surprised by Sokka's knowledge, but not thinking too much of it. "Hmm." He frowned thoughtfully. "I wonder. Lemme see that?" he asked, reaching for the green dress to carry it back over to the smaller section of red clothing he'd seen. And sure enough, upon closer inspection, he found that even these outfits, despite the occasional pointed sleeve or black trim, were no more authentic than the 'Water Tribe' dress had been. Still...he considered, moving away to inspect a row of rich browns, the Earth Kingdom fashions were worth a second glance. He paused to finger the fine trim on one such tunic. Really, he told himself, having a set or two of Earth clothing couldn't be a bad thing. Safer than running around in red, and less awkward than continuing to borrow Haru's clothing.
As Zuko wandered off, Sokka stayed to browse through the blue fashions. Most of them were dresses and women's tunics -- Earth men were proud of their heritage, but foreign women were popular and donning different colors was probably a good way to get a little bit of attention, he mused. Even though the dresses weren't traditional Water Tribe patterns, the adaptation between the two styles was pulled off tastefully and the color choices were attractive, not gaudy or ugly. They were really very nice in their own way... soft fabrics and delicate, fine details... Sokka felt his face heating in spite of himself as he fingered through the dresses. Certain unwanted thoughts filtered through his mind. The foremost and most embarrassing of which being the fact that he wanted one of them. He cursed internally as he found it -- the dress. Long and bell-sleeved with a mandarin collar and embroidery on the left hip.
He wanted to blame this interest on Suki. It was much easier on his conscience to think that it was because of the fact that his first experience of any kind with a girl his age had involved being dressed in girl's clothes. But he couldn't completely pin it on her -- it hadn't been until they'd made it to real civilization with shops and tailors and crafts where pretty, delicate, shiny things were sold that he realized that he had a problem. It was then that his fascination with shopping had begun -- who could blame him though!? He'd lived on an iceberg where the closest thing anyone came to shopping was trading a fish to your neighbor for a different fish!
Not, of course, that his fascination with pretty things (from women's clothes to jewelry) had anything to do with a lack of manliness. It wasn't like he wanted to wear them all the time or anything. It was just the idea of wearing something like that maybe once in a while... the thought was thrilling and more sexually exciting than he could even admit to himself.
With a shifty glance around, Sokka took the dress and ducked further into the back of the store, finding a mirror tucked in a corner. There was no way he could get away with trying it on but he could just take a quick look... Even when he was sure no one could see him in the corner, he was blushing as he held the dress up to himself, laying the silken sleeves across his bare arms -- like heaven. It was just his size and the Earth patterning would even accommodate his broader shoulders if he were to try it on, since the shoulder seams were low and the sleeves long.
"Well, I think you should try it on."
Sokka's entire body jerked with surprise, and he nearly dropped the dress before he managed to tear it quickly away from his chest. Zuko was standing hardly four feet away, weighed down with an armload of greens and browns, tunics and trousers and even a robe or two in vaguely reddish shades. His expression was one of mild amusement, but strangely little surprise.
"W-what?" Sokka managed to get out and forced a bark of laughter which did little to hide the bright pink of his face or the way his eyes darted ANYWHERE but the other boy's face. "No! Haha -- I was just -- thinking about it for my girlfriend. And you know, seeing what it would feel like on her. I mean -- you know -- in my arms, like that."
Zuko raised a brow, shifted his burden to the other arm, and stared, clearly unconvinced. "It was you, wasn't it?" he pressed, stepping closer, lowering his voice a little, politely. "On Kyoshi Island." He pinkened just a bit, embarrassed to bring up his past... activities. "Fighting in women's garb."
Shit. Shit shit shit. This was bad. "That -- I was training with them," he tried to explain, his voice dropping almost to a whisper. It was hard to keep the panic out of his voice, though. "That's all. I had to wear the outfit or she wouldn't teach me."
"Oh," Zuko replied. "I guess that makes sense." It seemed, for a moment that the ex-prince was going to let it go, to maybe even pretend like the last few minutes hadn't even happened. He stepped past Sokka to browse the blues, slinging his own selections over one shoulder as he browsed. He first pulled a couple of men's outfits, then grabbed one or two Earth Nation garments as well. As Sokka watched, he stole a quick glance in the Water Tribe boy's direction, then picked out another dress, this one in darker shades, dip-dyed with purple that blended beautifully into the blue hues. On top of this, he piled the others and passed the whole lot to Sokka. "You should try these on," Zuko said, a faintly awkward half-smile offered as well. As he handed over the clothes, he stepped close enough to add discreetly. "If you like it, I'll buy it for you," he spoke low, under his breath. "...If you wear it for the rest of the day."
Sokka couldn't do anything but stare. Openly, utterly shocked. He had no idea how to react, feel, or think in that moment. But Zuko was serious. What was he doing? Why would he do that? "A-are you... why?" The only thing that he could imagine was that the other boy was trying to get blackmail material from him -- but he felt like he'd gotten to know Zuko well enough over the last few weeks that he was pretty sure that wasn't like him.
Zuko just shrugged. "I won't tell," he added with a faint scoff. "You can still give it to your girlfriend later, or whatever." When Sokka simply continued to stare at him, Zuko sighed. "Look, I'd really rather no one else know that I miss buying expensive clothes... so I'm not going tell anyone that you like wearing them."
The other boy hesitated only a moment longer before nodding faintly, finally looking away. "O-okay," he murmured. He felt like his face was going to melt off and his stomach was nestled somewhere near his ankles. But he finally managed to make himself move and step away to find the dressing room. It was a good twenty minutes later that Sokka finally returned, still red-faced and unable to meet Zuko's gaze or say anything to him when he handed the other boy the dress that Zuko had picked off of the rack.
Zuko smiled. "I'm sure your girlfriend will love it," he said, taking the garment from Sokka and adding it to the practical-looking, but exquisitely soft Earth Nation tunic and slacks he'd tried on and fell in love with. "Maybe next time I'll get something in blue, too," he considered, tapping thoughtfully at his lips as he approached the merchant with their purchases.
Sokka was too confused and mortified to say anything as Zuko paid for their new clothes. He kept looking for malice or sarcasm in the other boy's words, but was completely unable to find any. If anything his smiles were kind and his words were cheerful and genuine. Finally, as they were leaving the store, Sokka murmured a quiet thank you as they fell into step again.
Zuko just grinned and handed him the dress, wrapped in brown paper by the shopkeeper and tied with a green ribbon. "Think there's a public bath somewhere around here?" he wondered. If Sokka was going to wear the dress for the rest of the day, they'd need to find somewhere for him to change.
It was only then that it really hit Sokka that this was actually happening and that Zuko was serious about him donning the new garment for the afternoon. "W-well, even if there is... I can't just... I mean, I can't go in like this--" He indicated to himself. "--and come out like this..." He indicated to the carefully wrapped dress. Sokka swallowed hard, stomach churning and mind racing. The idea of what he'd agreed to was both terrifying and thrilling. "I--I can just change in an alley," he decided. "If you'll keep an eye out for me."
Zuko seemed surprised to find that Sokka was more comfortable with the risk of public nudity than leaving a bath house dressed in women's clothing, but he shrugged. "I'll keep an eye out for you," he agreed.
When they'd found a shadowed corner, well enough off the main road and suitable for Sokka's purposes, Zuko drew out another small package with a grin that bordered on the mischievous. "Oh, I got this for you, too," he said, placing it in Sokka's hand.
Sokka took a peek in the package to find that Zuko had sneaked away to buy some make up while he was trying on clothes. He flushed all over again, and then hurried to duck out of Zuko's sight, leaving the other boy to stand guard. How had this happened? How had an innocent day of shopping turned into Zuko coaxing out his secret debauchery? He still couldn't figure out WHY the other boy was urging him into this -- facilitating it, no less. He tried not to focus on the fact that getting the items as a 'gift' from a young man only further fueled the fantasy behind the desire...
It was a good twenty minutes later of rustling fabric and long silence that finally, Sokka spoke up from around the corner in clearly mortified tones. "Ugh -- Z-Zuko -- I can't do this..."
"You fought a whole contingent of Fire Nation soldiers dressed in women's clothing and makeup without a problem," Zuko pointed out, speaking over his shoulder. "No one's gonna know," he added, much gentler. "I bet no one'll even be able to tell you aren't a girl. Come on... Have a little fun."
Finally, Zuko heard a deep breath taken and Sokka stepped around the corner. Even through the layer of make up he'd applied, his dark, deep blush was visible, blue eyes looking sharply down. The dress fit him perfectly when tied all the way in the back, seeming to hug his body in all the right places and flow loosely in all the others so as to accentuate his lithe but not curvy figure. The sleeves fell just past his fingers, hiding travel roughened hands and unmanicured nails and the mandarin collar both slimmed his throat and hid his adam's apple. He'd styled his hair down, parting it a little off-center so that it made a small bang to one side and a fuller bang to the other, sweeping across his forehead and gracefully around the corner of his eye. The make-up had been applied with surprising skill -- as though maybe it hadn't been the first time Sokka had done it. It was modest, but pretty and flattering -- a little color around his eyes, lashes darkened and lips painted a dark pink.
Sokka managed to glance up at Zuko once before he was trying to dart back around the corner. "I'm gonna die of humiliation," he moaned but Zuko was already reaching out to take his arm, to prevent him from running off again with a firm hand. He pulled Sokka back into the open, taking the chance to get another long look. When he lifted his gaze to Sokka's face, Zuko's eyes were wide and it took a minute to find his voice.
"You look... really good," he said, clearly a little surprised despite his earlier confidence. "If I'd never met you before, I would never guess you were a guy under all that." He fell immediately silent then, flinching a bit as he realized he wasn't sure that Sokka would want to hear those words. He'd meant it as a compliment, but...
Thus far, it was indeterminable whether Sokka was actually wearing blush or if he was just constantly blushing. His wide, blue eyes only seemed that much bluer in the reddish hue painted around them. "T-thanks..." he mumbled, looking away again quickly, hesitated and looked back to Zuko with a grimace. "Even with...?" he plucked at the fabric at his chest, the darts loose with nothing to fill them.
Zuko considered this, rubbing at his jaw for a moment while he thought. "I dunno," he shrugged. "I mean, lots of girls... you know," He indicated with a vague wave, "and they look fine." He frowned faintly, then shrugged. "If it bothers you, though, we should be able to come up with something."
Five minutes later, they'd decided on a combination of Sokka's arm wraps and the complimentary set of shoulder pads the shop keeper had thrown into their order. "Do my shoulders look that narrow to you?" Zuko asked with a shake of his head as he handed them over. "I mean really..."
The other boy's attempt at joking eased Sokka's nerves and brought a sheepish smile to his painted lips. "They're not, I'm sure he was just trying to get repeat business," Sokka replied as he shifted the makeshift falsies into place under the dress. It was a modest change, not buxom by any means, but just noticeable. He sighed then, feeling a little more at ease -- something about completing the look made him feel a little less nervous. He felt like he looked more passable, more like at a glance he would look like a girl and not a guy in a dress.
"So..." he ventured nervously, looking up at Zuko again finally. "Why exactly aren't you making fun of me...?"
Zuko shrugged, gathering up the remnants of the package and taking Sokka's bag from him to stuff it all away. "I dunno," he answered vaguely. "I guess because I don't think it's particularly funny? Whatever. Lots of people like fancy clothes." Then he smiled, and somehow managed a wink without looking horribly awkward. "Plus, you know, merchants always give better deals to pretty girls."
Before Sokka had the chance to respond, Zuko slung the bag over his shoulder and turned to duck back down the alley. "Your turn to keep watch." If Sokka was going to wear new clothes, then he wasn't going to stay in his borrowed garment. Besides, he didn't want to seem like a total hobo next to Sokka's suddenly pretty and polished look.
Sokka's heart wouldn't stop racing as he listened to Zuko change behind him. This was weird. Really. Really weird. And a little bit guilty. This was like... a fantasy for him, something that was meant to stay in his head and maybe acted upon alone once in a while. It was strange and intimate and now Zuko had somehow made himself a part of it, and he was going to be spending the entire afternoon with the other boy like this... It felt like the most disturbed, kinky date anyone could come up with. He couldn't imagine that Suki would particularly approve of Sokka at Zuko's side, strolling through the market like this...
Perhaps the biggest problem: now that his imagination's desires had been fulfilled, it was moving on to the next level and the way that his hormones seemed to rage in response to the situation was really not helping.
He startled when he felt Zuko touch his shoulder, and glanced at the other boy. He looked much sharper in his new clothes which fit much better than what he'd borrowed from Haru. The colors were a darker, deeper green which suited Zuko better than the brighter forest hues. "Those are really nice," Sokka commented, lifting a hand to feel the fabric of Zuko's sleeve. "It suits you."
The smile that Zuko offered in reply seemed to be coming more naturally to him lately, and he shrugged offhandedly. "Thanks. It's nice to wear new clothes, huh?" He hefted Sokka's bag, now bulging slightly with their old clothes and took a step out of the alley, cocking his head for Sokka to follow. "Come on, let's walk around and try them out."
Sokka hesitated, his stomach still churning. "O-okay," he murmured, trying to overcome the terror that he was going to be caught, that Zuko was just messing with him, and he was very obviously just a guy in drag. But even with that fear coursing through his veins, it was exciting -- is was dangerous and deviant and the way that his heart raced wasn't quite a bad thing. He fell hurriedly into step with Zuko , focusing on making his steps smaller and quicker in sharp contrast to his usual swagger. "Where should we go?" he asked quietly as they stepped back onto the streets. He realized he was going to have to talk as little as possible to strangers.
"You choose," Zuko offered generously. "Bags or jewelry?"
This required a moment's thought -- the truth was, though he had experienced some buyer's remorse initially over his bag, he was ultimately quite happy with it. But, he considered as he studied the bag on Zuko's shoulder (it went nicely with his new getup) he did enjoy looking at bags... but then again... "Um -- jewelry, I guess," he finally murmured back.
"Okay," Zuko murmured, preening just a little in his new threads as they stepped out into the bustle of the marketplace, merging easily with the crowd. "I guess I should do most of the talking." He leaned close to be heard above the cacophony of voices and sounds of the market around them. "But that's okay. Just keep... looking pretty."
Just when his flush had managed to fade a little, the other boy's words brought it racing back, heating his cheeks. Sokka didn't say anything though, just stayed in step with Zuko and avoided eye contact with any strangers as though they would know the moment he looked them in the eye. He noticed the way that Zuko's air changed, how he carried himself differently, more confidently in his new clothes. He also noticed all but immediately, the glances that were coming their way which he wasn't used to. Almost every man that they passed gave them at least a quick look and it instantly put Sokka on edge. Each time a smile was flashed at him, he was sure they were figuring him out.
Sokka lifted a sleeve to hide his mouth when he whispered anxiously to Zuko, "People are staring. I think they know..."
Zuko rolled his eyes, but his chuckle was more friendly. "People are staring because they see an attractive woman," he pointed out. "You're not used to it because people don't usually look at guys that way." He shook his head with a grin. "Just keep looking forward and act uninterested if it bothers you," he suggested as they made their way toward the first of many jewelry stalls.
"O-oh," Sokka murmured, but he found himself unable to take Zuko's advice because it wasn't so much that it bothered him, it was just that he noticed it. It wasn't even that he didn't like it. If what Zuko was saying was true, it was flattering -- although he quickly was able to sense a difference in certain smiles, from a friendly, flirty smile to a lecherous leer which inspired a grimace and brought his steps a little closer to Zuko's. He even caught himself, in the midst of everything, offering his own smile which he'd never really been aware of to a couple of pretty young ladies in Earth colors. They smiled back in a way he'd never seen on a girl -- a sickly, sour sort of smile followed by a covetous glance toward Zuko and a toss of hair. He had the distinct impression that in their minds, he was a Water Tribe girl stealing from them a fine specimen of Earth Kingdom manhood. There were no words to describe how strange that moment was in his own head.
Just as it seemed like they were about to break from the crowd and immerse themselves in the simple joys of shopping once again, a rather large-framed young man, head shaven and sleeves torn off at the shoulders --no doubt to give people a good look at his bulging biceps-- stepped in front of them and stopped, forcing first Zuko, and then Sokka to slow their steps.
"Hey," he said, swaggering up between the two of them to stand, just a little too close to Sokka. "Water Tribe, huh? And what's a pretty little thing like you doing so far from home?"
Sokka's nose wrinkled with distaste, cringing away from the tall man. Why did guys like this even think that they had a chance with random girls? Especially random girls who had a guy at their side? Even Sokka himself could be a little thick headed about girls sometimes, but he would have known to back off in this situation. Compared to this muscle-headed sweat machine, even Sokka was a prince.
He squared his shoulders (not noticing the way it made his falsies jut out) and was about to give the jerk a piece of his mind when Zuko interjected, "She's here with me." He strode boldly forward to size up the much larger Earth Kingdom man. "And she's not interested."
"With you?" the guy scoffed, a cocky brow lifted at Zuko. "They doing hawk-order brides from the North Pole now? Let her speak for herself." He brushed past Zuko to catch Sokka's wrist in his wide hand. "What do you say you dump this nance and come spend a night with a real man?" he smarmed, an ugly smile twisting his lips.
Before Zuko could come to his rescue, Sokka stamped down hard on the guy's toes (he still wore a sturdy set of boots under the falls of the dress) and jerked his hand away in the gasp of pain that followed. "Real men have fashion sense," he shot from behind his sleeve, voice lifting to a falsetto. He grabbed Zuko's arm, pressing into the other boy's side to urge their escape.
The unwanted advancer seemed unwilling to accept rejection and with a snarl of irritation, grabbed for the arm of the brash young lady. Zuko, however, wasn't about to let his company be treated in such a manner and he spun a circle around Sokka, placing himself once more between them with a smart jab of elbow to the man's wrist. Zuko didn't draw the blades slung to his back, but he did lazily reach a hand over his head, fingers resting lightly on the joined hilts. The stranger sneered angrily, nursing his injured wrist.
"Next time, keep your hands to yourself," Zuko growled, "and off the lady." He shared a brief glance with a trio of local peace-keepers, nodding respectfully and backing away as they moved in to keep an eye on the troublemaker. Satisfied, Zuko turned back to Sokka and put an arm around his back, palm settling on Sokka's waist as they resumed their path. "Nice moves back there," he chuckled.
"Thanks for that," came the murmured reply. Sokka wasn't sure he was going to be able to survive this day. Between all the stares they were receiving and Zuko -- with his -- like they were dating-- All of this heating of his cheeks was starting to make him a little dizzy. When Zuko didn't move away, even when they left the brute behind, he had no idea what to do with himself -- with his hands -- with anything. But maybe it was a good idea. If that guy had similar friends with greedy eyes, Zuko's protective arm might be a deterrent. So he eased just a little closer, steadfastly avoiding the other boy's gaze until finally they made it across the open square to the open booths of glittering jewelry which were also peppered with decorative knives and horns and the like.
Only then, did Zuko ease away, shrugging, as his hand lingered just a moment longer in the small of Sokka's back. "Hey, no one deserves to be treated like that. That jerk gives real gentlemen a bad name." He paused as they moved onto the first of the jewelry stalls, eyes darting from one sparkling item to the next. He grinned suddenly, turning back to Sokka with a cocky expression. "Still," he continued, leaning in close to whisper across Sokka's ear, to any observer looking like any other young couple sharing secrets. "He fell for you completely. I told you no one would be able to tell."
Sokka chuckled quietly, his nerves easing greatly because he realized that Zuko was right. And, he realized, he was really in a very pleasant situation as long as no one found out. He was able to enjoy a few of his favorite things. Shopping, of course. And the secret pleasure of the little fantasy he was playing out. But also attention, which it was no secret that he was a sucker for -- negative or positive, really. And even if it was the attention of strange men, it was in its own way flattering. But what was infinitely more flattering, he found, was the attention he was earning from Zuko. He wasn't exactly ready to face what that meant -- but he still liked it.
He kept his sleeve in front of his face as he murmured his own secrets back to Zuko, feeling suddenly bold. "Well, I don't know what he was thinking," he said, his voice taking on a teasing tone. "If I've got a handsome, well-dressed guy on my arm, why would I give him a second thought?"
Zuko chuckled quietly, flattered and confident. "Be that as it may, if the girl is pretty enough, sometimes the risk is worth it," he countered, playing the devil's advocate just for the opportunity to turn the compliment back on Sokka. A pause. "He was pretty slimy, though."
The laugh they shared was interrupted then by the preening smooth talk of the jeweler, sliding up across from them opposite his display of wares. "Such a lovely couple. Perchance m'lord would allow his lady the luxury of trying on a piece or two? This smokestone would lay lovely on your skin, my dear."
It was then that Sokka was again reminded of how weird this situation was -- it seemed that the game had evolved into him actively playing Zuko's girlfriend. So much for boring grocery shopping. Still, he balked when the jeweler addressed them, afraid that the man would surely figure him out if he lingered so long and so close. Sokka shook his head lightly, stepping back and playing like he was shy, though he didn't speak up.
"Hey," Zuko spoke up gently, a warm hand finding his shoulder, rubbing lightly. "It's okay. We don't have to buy anything," he coaxed, playing his part and giving the jeweler a look that warned him not to pressure the young lady or he'd answer for it. "You can try something on. Just for fun? How about these?" Zuko suggested, picking up a set of earrings, blue stones in red-gold settings.
At least the dizzying, raging sort of blush had subsided to something more manageable, Sokka mused as Zuko so kindly touched him. It was a little strange to pretend to be so coy -- but that was part of the game, part of the allure of what was happening. It wasn't really that different from when he got out his beard and took on the persona of Wang Fire. Except that being Wang Fire didn't earn him leers and Zuko's hands all over him. He looked up at the smiling and expectant jeweler and nodded, earning him a pleased chuckle as the man brought over a polished mirror.
Sokka was startled by his own appearance in the glass -- he'd applied his make up with the reflection in the back of one of the metal make-up tins and had no real idea of what he looked like. It was only then that he realized that Zuko wasn't kidding when he assured that Sokka was passable -- and he really couldn't decide whether it was great or embarrassing. Both, really. He couldn't help but be secretly very pleased with what he saw. He met eyes with Zuko in the mirror as the other boy handed him the earrings and Sokka quickly looked away when he caught Zuko's knowing smirk.
They were clip ons -- easy enough to put on, simple and elegant with gleaming stones that weren't gaudy or overwhelming.
"Ah, perfectly lovely," the jeweler said, clearly buttering Sokka up. "They match your eyes perfectly -- and sparkle only a tiny bit less!"
It was difficult not to roll said eyes, but nonetheless he forced a smile at the compliment and attempted a little giggle. It wasn't terrible but he immediately decided never to do it again because it was kind of disgusting.
Zuko managed somehow to cover his own snort of laughter at the sound with a fist and a cough, and coaxed Sokka to turn toward him, looking him over carefully. "I like them," he agreed, then added. "But why don't we look at a few more?" He bent over the jeweler's display and pointed out another pair.
And so it went, until Sokka had worn what felt like half the man's inventory. Then, Zuko was pulling him close again, grinning as he helped take the latest dangling jewels from Sokka's ears. "Why don't you pick a pair to have this nice man set aside and if we don't find something you like better at another stall, we can come back and get them here. Hm?"
Sokka looked at him with concern, guilt tugging at his insides for a great many reasons. He leaned into Zuko's frame and lifted his sleeve to murmur to him again, sharing more secrets. "Are you sure? We still have to buy food..." As much fun as this game was turning out to be, as much as he was enjoying Zuko lavishing gifts on him, they had originally come for grocery shopping and if his sister ever found out that they had spent the food money on Sokka dressing in drag, he was pretty sure that she'd make him a step closer to female herself.
"I have enough," he murmured quietly, laying a hand on the side of Sokka's head and pressing his nose briefly into the younger boy's hair to give his answer. "Don't worry about that. Just make a choice and watch."
If that was the case... He turned back to the matter at hand, trying to look disinterested as he looked through the jewels that he'd tried on, careful to keep the sleeve over his fingers. He indicated a pair of tear-drop earrings that were an impressive stone that was red toward the top and melted into a deep blue.
"Ah, an excellent choice," the jeweler said, catching Zuko's eye. "I can keep an eye on them for you but sadly if another lovestruck young man comes my way in search of a gift, I cannot hold them... I might be willing to lower the price to know that they'd be framing such a lovely face, however. Say, five gold pieces?"
"You are more than generous, Sir," Zuko nodded, "But I feel I would hardly be a gentleman if I were to urge my lady make her choice so early in the day, when there is still the rest of the market yet to see." He turned to face Sokka, took his sleeved hands and gazed adoringly into blinking deep blue. "I want you to have the best, my dear," he purred, somehow able to keep a completely straight face while he delivered the line.
For a moment, Sokka was unable to quell the incredulous cock of eyebrow that jumped in response to Zuko's more than corny words. He caught on quickly though and schooled his expression, inwardly shocked at how much Zuko also seemed to be enjoying playing the part of the dashing, romantic boyfriend. Still, Sokka managed to summon a bat of lashes and instantly felt silly for it so he ducked away, out of Zuko's gaze, giving a tug at his shirt from behind. "You're such a ham," he whispered in the other boy's ear. "Let's go."
"Ah --" the jeweler spoke up again as they started to turn. "What about four gold coins? At that price, you could buy your lovely lady a necklace to match. And I can guarantee you won't find any other midnight sunset stones in the market... and none more perfectly matched to this beauty." He indicated to the red-framed blue of Sokka's eyes. The younger of the pair thought he was going to die.
Zuko put on a good show of considering the merchant's offer, his mouth twisting into a grin as he leaned over the table and placed a single gold coin down. "I'll put this coin down as collateral," he replied, "on the promise that you hold these earrings for me and only me."
The jeweler considered the counter offer and then nodded. "You have a deal, young man. But only for today," he warned. "I close shop at sunset. Now you two kids go have some fun." He gave Zuko a wink.
Zuko bowed politely before he offered the jeweler a smirk and pulled Sokka in close, both arms around his slighter shoulders. "You're a good man, sir," he said. "I'll be sure to recommend your shop to others looking for quality works."
Sokka blinked as Zuko led him away, still holding him close with an arm around his shoulders. He looked at the other boy from the corner of his eye, brow cocked and then, not to be outdone in this little game, reached behind Zuko to give him a smart pinch on the opposite butt cheek. He smirked when he heard the jeweler give a hoot of laughter behind them and himself laughed aloud (daintily) when Zuko jumped in surprise and let out a decidedly unmanly squeak.
He wondered how long Zuko's arm was going to stay around him, but he didn't bother asking since it wasn't doing any harm. It meant that he could murmur to the other boy, in the hushed conversation that kept his voice hidden. "I think at this rate we're going to be doing our grocery shopping before we leave in the morning," he commented as they moved on, browsing more casually through the stalls. He was still wondering how exactly he was in this situation, even as he began to enjoy it more and more.
The older boy chuckled faintly as they inspected a collection of necklaces. "We'll be fine. We can get the non-perishables today, like the rice and grain and dried meat and the rest tomorrow before we go."
Sokka let Zuko lead him, finding the sensation more than a little odd and was always unsure of what to do with his own hands. Finally he ended up folding his arms loosely under his spongy falsies. "You're thinking pretty far ahead," Sokka mused quietly, ignoring the booth's jeweler trying to catch his eye. "I thought I was supposed to be the planning guy."
"Not today," Zuko grinned. "Today, you're just... a girl out for a shopping trip in the market." He reached then, taking Sokka's hand and fixing it in the crook of his elbow as they moved on to the next booth, belts and buckles and filmy sashes all laid out to touch and admire.
Sokka snorted faintly but it was an amused sound and he could appreciate the ease with which Zuko said the words. "So how did you get so good at shopping for girls?" he asked, his other hand on Zuko's bicep as they browsed. "I guess a prince must have lots and lots of girlfriends -- do they all get this kind of treatment?"
Zuko laughed quietly at first, then realized Sokka was more or less serious and he coughed, shook his head, still smiling. "Um, no... not really." He was thoughtfully quiet for a minute, feeling the silk and leather and metal, searching for the right words. "I've had.. one girlfriend and... there was another girl, in Ba Sing Se? If we'd stayed there maybe..." He shook his head, fighting with a surge of self-consciousness. "My uncle made me go on this date... it was the most awkward thing..." He chuckled quietly. "I wanted to-- tried to do nice things for her, but I barely managed not to trip on my own feet."
Darkened lashes blinked with surprise, Sokka glancing at Zuko's face. "Really?" he said, not bothering to mask his shock. "I would have thought... I mean, you were doing that like you're an expert at it." He shrugged, trying not to sound critical. "But I guess girls -- real ones --" He coughed quietly. "--can really throw a guy off kilter sometimes, huh?"
Zuko blinked, stared at Sokka as though this were a conclusion he hadn't considered. "Y-yeah," he finally answered. "Yeah, I guess so, huh? I mean... well, with my girlfriend now, it's more just like... she's not the type to enjoy this... this kinds of thing." He gestured, taking in the market, their clothing... all of it. "So... you know. It's fun. This stuff." The smile he offered Sokka was crooked and more bashful than he'd been all day. "Wearing nice clothes, taking a girl out and buying her nice things..."
Sokka couldn't help but grin a little, relieved. Zuko's words let him know he actually was enjoying himself. It made him stop wondering what the other boy wanted to get out of him, what he expected of him. Which was good because with the way they'd been touching for the last hour, it was quickly starting to derail into thoughts that were really just not at all appropriate. The mention of Zuko's girlfriend and reminder of his own helped that matter some, too. Not all of it, but some. "Yeah, well," he murmured, turned so that he could whisper directly in Zuko's ear. "Just don't forget that this girl is still a guy underneath..." Sokka had no desire to actually BE a girl, he wanted that much clear. This was just a game. Doing this every day would be exhausting! "But... thanks..." he added on a warm breath. "I'm having fun." Even if it might have been obvious, it was a little embarrassing to admit.
Zuko laughed, turning to whisper back, "Are you kidding? If I actually forgot you were really a guy, I'd probably do something totally stupid like accidentally set your dress on fire." He flushed a little, unexpectedly, humiliated by this admission on the tail end of a morning full of smooth moves and impeccable fashion.
Sokka had to lift a sleeve to stifle a bark of laughter that definitely would have given him away, managing to quell his reaction into hissing snickers. "I guess I'll consider myself the luckiest girl you've ever taken out then," he teased, smirking as he gave Zuko's arm a friendly squeeze, and leaned heavier into him to escape a lady merchant who was trying to put a scarf around his neck.
"Yeah, that's pretty much true." Zuko chuckled, twirling Sokka around to his other side. "No, thanks." He nodded politely, to the shopkeeper, taking Sokka's arm again and steering him back out into the crowd. "You're popular," he teased.
"I'm popular because you look like you have money."
"I do have money," Zuko bragged, "And you're popular because you're more interesting than the usual Earth Kingdom girls that frequent this market."
"I guess that's true," Sokka said with a shrug. "Those girls are pretty, though. It's like these guys have never seen a tan before."
Zuko's shrug mirrored his own. "It's not just that," he said, but trailed off and didn't elaborate.
Sokka watched him askance, silently, for a long moment. He was starting to wonder where the game ended and the real Zuko began. After a moment, he laughed quietly, bumping Zuko with a shoulder, trying to break the sudden discomfort with a joke. "You better quit or I'm gonna start thinking you mean it."
Zuko's steps stilled for only a moment, his feet trying valiantly to trip over themselves, but he paused, stole a glance, caught Sokka's playful grin, and started walking again . "Haha, yeah. Shut up," he threw back, reaching over to subtly poke Sokka in the ribs."So, did you find anything you liked better than those earrings?" It was almost a smooth attempt at changing the subject.
After a moment's thought, Sokka shook his head, feeling only just a tiny bit suspicious again of Zuko's motives. "You're... you're not gonna like, make me do all your chores back at the temple forever or something are you?" he asked and though there was a tiny bit of worry in his voice, it was mostly just his characteristic skepticism showing through. With Sokka's luck, he'd taken a huge risk in spending the afternoon like this at all. Truth be told, he wasn't sure he'd be all that upset even if Zuko did just that.
"I hadn't thought of that..." Zuko perked up, rubbing his chin. "It's a nice offer. Tempting." But then he shook his head, "I don't need a servant," he decided, looking to catch Sokka's eye. "But I wouldn't mind a cup of tea. Let me take you to the tea house we passed."
"A cup of tea?" Sokka repeated, incredulously. But he was never one to look a gift hippohorse in the mouth and shrugged, offering a smirk and even dropping his head to rest it on Zuko's shoulder with a murmur of, "I'll make it the best cup of tea you'll ever have."
Zuko raised a brow. "What's your idea of good tea?" he wondered. "Bacon instead of milk and sugar?"
"Don't give me any ideas, buster," he shot back with a pinch to Zuko's arm.