um so it bears stating that this is my first fanfic. It also bears stating that I do not entirely understand how to use this website, so if things seem wrong, that's why. I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender and this is yaoi (boy love) so don't read it if that doesn't float your boat.
There's no yaoi in this chapter though. It seems I'm pretty awesome at taking forever to set stuff up but I promise there will be Zukka slash, and angst, and torture, and all of that amazing stuff eventually.
Sokka gazed upon the front of the tea shop wearily. He still wasn't entirely sure why he'd made the decision to come here after leaving Kyoshi Island but as he felt the warm wave of nostalgia and familiarity spread through him, he knew he'd made the right move. His mind had been in a fog the entire way to Ba Sing Se. The passage of time had been a blur and he barely remembered the uneventful ferry ride. It wasn't so different from how he felt all of the time now just, maybe, a little worse after this most recent trip to the Earth Kingdom. Everything had changed since the end of the war and Sokka wasn't sure where his place in the world was now. He'd thought that when the war was over, returning to the South Pole and his old life would be a relief, but he was finding now that he was restless. He'd lived more in one year than most people lived their entire lives and the four years since just hadn't been enough.
He'd made the decision to take this trip when Aang and Katara had last visited the tribe, spontaneously asking if they would make a detour in their travels and take him to the Earth Kingdom island. He didn't feel bad leaving. Things were stable and even though stress was still put on the need for every pair of able hands, Sokka knew the tribe would survive without him. His father had actually been encouraging him to take a trip for some time, to go see Suki. He sighed dejectedly when he thought about her and pushed open the Tea Shop door. The bell above the door tinkled pleasantly, announcing the presence of a customer at the Jasmine Dragon.
The fragrance that filled the shop was warm with the scents of different spices and plants and immediately helped to calm Sokka's overwrought nerves. This is why his subconscious had dragged him here instead of sending him home. He needed a friendly ear and some objective advice and the owner of this shop was one of the best people he knew to get that from. The interior hadn't changed much since the last time he'd been inside. A few more tables, some new paintings adorning the walls, two very cute servers giggling behind their hands at the back, their eyes trained on him. Sokka felt the corner of his mouth turn up as he made his way further into the room. This was definitely the right decision. There was only one other patron in the shop, he noticed, taking a seat about halfway in and making sure to send a flirtatious look in the direction of the two girls before sitting down. He only spared a cursory glance at the other man, enough to see what the back of his head looked like, before pretending to turn his attention to the menu.
The other man was slumped over the table, resting his forehead on his arms, long black hair draped like a curtain around his face. Despite the fact that he couldn't see any defining features and the nondescript Earth Kingdom clothes that didn't tell him anything about the man's wealth or rank, Sokka sensed something familiar about him. He stole a few more looks in the man's direction, hoping to get a glimpse of his face, but the man didn't move an inch and Sokka was beginning to think he might be asleep. He thought about going over to make sure the man was alright since the servers seemed to be completely ignoring his presence but he was interrupted by the sight of pale, green, embroidered silk blocking his view and the sweet sound of a pretty girl's laughter coming from above him.
Sokka looked up and flashed his most charming smile at the girl, a satisfied feeling settling comfortably in his belly when she blushed and hid behind her hands again. Boy, this did feel good. Even if going to Kyoshi Island had been a disaster he could still salvage some of his trip and start working on rebuilding his confidence while he was at it.
"Can I get you anything?" She asked shyly, lowering her hands so they rested in a wai below her chin.
"I believe I will try your White Jade tea. I've heard from a very reliable source that it's one of the sweetest teas in the world." He leaned toward her and winked, pleased when a deep blush colored her cheeks. He sat back happily and draped an arm across the top of the cushion he was sitting against. When the girl continued staring at him he raised an eyebrow inquisitively. She giggled nervously again and cast a furtive glance back at her friend, who nodded vigorously at her. Taking a deep breath the girl gestured at Sokka's blue clothing.
"Are... Are you Water Tribe?" She whispered, bowing her head as if her question were shameful. Sokka let out a hearty laugh at the innocence of the inquiry. From her shifty behavior he had been expecting something a lot worse.
"As a matter of fact I am. Southern Water Tribe. The name's Sokka." He pointed at himself with his thumb, "Do you not get a lot of travelers around here?"
"We do. Many." The girl responded, nodding her head, "but not Water Tribe." She nearly gushed, her eyes wide with appreciation. This was a feeling that Sokka had definitely forgotten. It had been a long time since his dark skin and blue clothing had stood out to anyone. Focused on the attention he was getting from the girl, he didn't notice the other patron suddenly sit up at the mention of his name and heritage and he didn't feel the other man's eyes staring holes into his skull.
"Well I'm glad I could add some adventure to your day," Sokka said lightly, ignoring the way his heart sank when he mentioned adventure. The girl smiled brightly and began to turn away, probably anxious to tell her friend what she had learned, but Sokka stopped her with a small tap on her arm. "I wonder, is the owner of this shop in today? He's a friend and I was hoping to speak with him." She opened her mouth to speak but a lower, gravelly voice cut in from behind her.
"You'll have to wait your turn, Water Tribe Peasant." The man sounded tired but he'd managed to inflect a good amount of emotion into the insult that he'd thrown Sokka's way. It was a familiar moniker but this time it wasn't said with malice or disdain, it was affectionate and Sokka felt his heart jump with recognition. He craned his neck to see around the girl and was delighted to find his suspicions confirmed as he saw the other man moving towards his table. The man cast a reproachful glare at the girl, from beneath his black mop of hair, that sent her fleeing to the back. Sokka stood and reached forward, grasping the other man's forearm tightly in welcome.
"Zuko!" A rare smile brightened the other's features as he returned the greeting with equal enthusiasm. They stood there for a few seconds longer than what seemed appropriate, both too shocked at the other's presence to let go, until Zuko finally released his grip and Sokka automatically gestured for him to take a seat.
"It's good to see you, Sokka. It's been a long time."
"Nearly two years," he agreed, nodding slowly.
"Too long." Zuko's voice tapered off as he spoke, so that Sokka had to strain to hear him. He sounded exhausted, Sokka noticed, and he suddenly wondered if Zuko had been asleep when he walked in.
"I'm sorry I didn't say anything when I got here but, " he gestured across the table at the green clothing. Zuko looked down at himself, forgetting momentarily that he was dressed as a normal Earth Kingdom citizen. "Seems a little toned down for the Fire Lord, dontcha think?" Zuko grimaced slightly at Sokka's mention of his formal title and then sighed.
"I suppose that's what I was going for." He said slowly.
"Don't tell me that being the ruler of an entire nation of people isn't all it's cracked up to be. " Sokka deadpanned, bringing a small smirk to Zuko's face.
"Then I won't tell you." He responded, enjoying Sokka's expression of mock horror despite himself. Sokka leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest, waiting for Zuko to elaborate. Realizing that Sokka wasn't going to accept his quip as an explanation, Zuko sighed and scrubbed his face roughly with the heels of his hands. "It seems that peace is actually a lot more work than war." He glanced down at the simple green clothing he wore again, before looking back at Sokka. "You know, when Uncle and I were refugees here, even after I accepted that the Fire Nation was no longer my home, it still never felt right to pretend that I was an Earth Kingdom citizen. Now, I'm choosing to dress like this. Choosing to hide who I am." He gave a choked laugh and laid his head in hands.
Sokka started slightly and unfolded his arms, leaning forward and laying a comforting hand on Zuko's shoulder. "Hey. Hey, Zuko, talk to me. We're friends. I had no idea this was so hard for you." Zuko swallowed and brushed Sokka's hand away. He lifted his head and met Sokka's concerned gaze.
"It's not so bad," he protested softly, "I'm simply tired. How are you? Why are you... here?" He waved his hand in front of him, indicating the shop, but Sokka knew that he meant the Earth Kingdom in general.
He fidgeted for a few seconds, taking great interest in imaginary lint on his clothes. His problems were nothing compared to Zuko's. Being a little confused about the future was completely normal for a twenty year old, especially one who'd played a key role in ending a hundred year war when he'd barely even hit puberty. Getting dumped by a girlfriend was, unfortunately, also normal. Two things that in no way compared to the stress of being in charge of an entire nation that had, up until four years ago, been pretty intent on eliminating everyone else in the world. Sokka immediately felt ashamed of himself for ever thinking that Zuko had it easier than he did.
"Sokka?" Startled out of his reverie, Sokka looked up, meeting Zuko's golden eyes. His heart broke slightly when he saw his own previous concern reflected back at him. He remembered how much he'd hated Zuko once, and he wondered briefly how that had ever been possible. He steeled his face to lie to Zuko but he hadn't realized how much of his emotions he'd let show on his features while he thought, because Zuko spoke again before he could. "I know that something's wrong, Sokka. You wouldn't travel halfway around the world to talk to Uncle just to say hello. He's the closest person to me in the world and I don't even do that." Zuko cringed at his own words, no doubt remembering how poorly he'd treated his uncle in the past. Sokka was aware that Zuko's relationship with his uncle was a touchy subject, though he didn't know as much about it as Toph, he resentfully admitted, and he regretted forcing Zuko to bring it up, however inadvertently.
"This wasn't my first stop. I... I just needed to talk to someone and Ba Sing Se is a lot closer to Kyoshi Island than the South Pole."
"You were living there?" Sokka sat back, surprised at Zuko's question.
"No. I've been living at the South Pole. I thought you knew that."
"I did. Is it so unbelievable that you would move, though? The woman you love lives on Kyoshi Island and it boasts a much more agreeable climate."
"Well, it is a nice place... Hey! The South Pole has a perfectly agreeable climate! Sorry that it doesn't completely suit your needs Mr. Fancy-pants firebender! We Water Tribe folk..." His rant died in his throat when Zuko leaned back in his seat and started chuckling.
"Are you still planning on pretending that nothing is wrong?" He narrowed his golden eyes and appraised Sokka knowingly.
"Suki broke up with me." His mouth worked ahead of his brain, blurting out the news before he was sure he was ready to. Zuko's face softened.
"I'm sorry, Sokka." He eyed Zuko's expression warily and nodded. He was sorry and that only served to make Sokka feel guiltier. He struggled to think of something that would easily change the subject and realizing something he glanced around the shop, straining to see out the windows.
"I get why you're dressed in Earth Kingdom clothes and all that. Discretion..." Zuko nodded, "But where are your guards? I don't believe that you'd be allowed to roam around, pretending to be a commoner, without some guards following you. You are the Fire Lord. No matter how much it might suck." He added the last bit quietly after seeing the frustration in Zuko's face.
"I'm sure they're around somewhere. I've been in here for a while." He ran a hand through his hair, momentarily pushing it out of his face and giving Sokka a clear view of the infamous scar. He was surprised to see how much it had faded in the last few years. It was still the most notable feature on his face, Sokka thought sadly, but it had lightened in color. It would never disappear completely, it was far too extreme of an injury, but it was slowly healing just as he hoped Zuko's inner injuries were.
"How's Mai?" He asked, trying to keep the conversation going. He remembered the way Zuko's face would light up, however slight, when Mai's name was brought up. He also remembered how she had saved their lives at the Boiling Rock prison. Mai seemed like a fairly neutral topic of discussion. He was understandably surprised then, when Zuko only looked away.
"Mai... she's..." He was interrupted by the hesitant approach of the second server, the one Sokka had not had the chance to work his charms on yet. It was sad that he found the first girl's hesitance to return amusing but, he mused, even though he'd stopped being afraid of Zuko a long time ago he could understand how the regal presence, dominating scar tissue, and all around anger could scare someone off. This was also Zuko's uncle's shop, so it served to assume that the girl knew who he was despite his disguise and Sokka decided that she was fully justified in her terror. As a non-bender who'd been forced to live and fight among four master benders he completely understood the feeling.
"Yes?" Zuko spat nastily in the girl's direction, a spark of the old personality that Sokka so loved to hate shoving its way into his carefully crafted demeanor.
"I...I...I am so sorry, sir, but you... you... your," Sokka's heart broke at the girl's tentative attempt to do her job. If he had merely thought that the poor girls knew who Zuko was earlier he was sure of it now, and he felt bad for them.
"You'll have to excuse my friend here," he interrupted, flashing her a dazzling smile that exposed his pearly white teeth against deeply tanned skin. She seemed to calm down exponentially when she looked in his direction and Sokka felt another brick being laid in the wall of his confidence. "In all of his royal training he was clearly never taught how to properly speak to a pretty girl." The girl rewarded him with a blush the same shade of maroon as a beet and Zuko rewarded him with a series of grumbled swears and threats, all of which he chose to ignore as he basked in the glow of the look of admiration that the girl was sending his way. He glanced down at the girl's empty hands and raised his eyebrow when his gaze returned to her face, much the same way he'd interacted with the initial server. "No tea?"
She faltered for a second, glancing at Zuko quickly before returning her focus to Sokka. "Your tea is ready but I was only supposed to let you know that..." She was interrupted again by a calm, wise voice that expressed more understanding than Sokka could ever hope to show.
"You are free to leave Hua, and Lei. You will be paid for an entire day's work but I think I will be closing the shop now. It seems I have family in town." The old man made sure to acknowledge both girls as he addressed them, his kind features putting them at ease. He also looked both Zuko and Sokka in the eye when he mentioned his family, something that Sokka appreciated immensely even as he was sure that Zuko didn't notice. He didn't think that Zuko would mind very much if he had noticed though, Zuko was his family just as much as Aang was, almost as much as Katara or his father was, and he hoped that he fit into Zuko's family just as easily. He looked at Zuko first, before acknowledging the man he'd initially come there to see, and felt an uncharacteristic flutter in his chest when his sea blue eyes met gold and he recognized the accepting and possibly loving look in those eyes. He couldn't bring himself to look away even when Zuko slid his gaze to the side and smiled.