*AN – I don't own them or profit from them. Story is set sometime after Zuko joins the Gaang at the Western Air Temple, just a bit of Zuko/Sokka friendship. Also – I don't hate Katara - I wanted Sokka to explain her actions and emotions, but not forgive her attitude. So I hope it doesn't seem like I'm bashing her, just trying to offer perspective on where she might be coming from.*

Of Friendship and Firecrackers

Zuko kicked a pebble angrily, sending it ricocheting into the shadows of the temple. The brisk night did nothing to cool the roiling temper that raged beneath his skin. Why did she always, always, always manage to break his resolve?

After every confrontation he promised himself that he would remain calm and level-headed when he next dealt with her. Inevitably, however, she would provoke him and he ended up snapping at her, only reinforcing her bad impressions of him.

"Hey jerkface."

Zuko fought the urge to snarl at Water Tribe member number two. He could do without the clownish antics right now.

"You know, we all have our moments with Katara, but man, she really lets out the full beast with you."

"Thanks," Zuko rasped sarcastically, "that makes me feel so much better."

Sokka ambled up to the ledge Zuko had occupied as his favorite place to seethe and settled himself on a piece of crumbled pillar.

Zuko tensed.

He wasn't used to amiable companionship from anyone, much less boys his own age.

Silence stretched between them, the hum of the cave crickets that lived in the abandoned temple filling the night air. When Sokka finally spoke again it was in the softer, measured, and sincere tone he reserved for serious moments.

Zuko had come to understand the group's dynamics a little in the past couple of weeks, and he had seen how Sokka's comic behavior could effortlessly diffuse an impossibly tense situation. But he had also seen that the humor overlay a deeply ingrained sense of duty, loyalty, and honor.

Sokka's external attitude and outlook we so different from his own, and yet they were driven by a desire to fulfill the same basic principles.

"It's harder for her than for most of us." Sokka sighed and leaned back on his elbows, tilting his head back to look up past the stonework and into the sky, "Katara…she's an idealist."

Zuko was intrigued despite himself.

"You know she believes in Aang. And not like most people believe in Aang. Her faith in the Avatar's ability to bring peace to the world isn't bounded by reality or experience." Sokka paused to sigh heavily, "I know that even if the Firelord is defeated we have years of hardship before us. The war won't just end like that, and people won't forget the wrongs their neighbors have done them overnight. But Katara believes. She believes that we do this one thing and BAM! Everything goes back to the way it should be. She would sacrifice everything she has to bring it about."

Sokka's chin came down and he regarded Zuko with mild amusement. Around a smirk he drawled, "You know, now that I think of it it's kind of funny. When she was little, when most little girls wanted to hear stories about handsome princes riding in to sweep young maidens away she could have cared less. But she would sit and listen for hours about stories of the Avatar. It only got worse once mom died."

There was a tight twisting feeling in Zuko's chest. Having found out that his mother might still be alive there was nothing he wanted more than to find her. He had so many questions for her, so many things he wanted to say. But he knew that right now he had to be where he was needed. He had to help right the wrongs that he and his family had done. Telling himself that he was doing the right thing, the honorable, thing was sometimes the only thing that kept him sane. Telling himself that his mother would be prouder that he was working against the odds with former enemies than she would be if he sought her out at this time.

"She…Katara told me that she was killed by the fire nation."

Sokka looked down at his feet for a long moment, his jaw working as he swallowed heavily, "Yeah. I mean, it's more complicated than that, but yeah she was."

There was another long bald silence, "I'm sorry. I really am." Zuko leaned on the railing and stared down into the dark abyss of the canyon. Even during the day it was a long way down to the river below, but at night it felt like you were standing on the edge of the world, "I wish I had the power to undo what my people, what my family have done to the world."

Sokka offered him a crooked smile, "You're doing something now, and that's what matters."

Zuko made a frustrated sound in the back of his throat, "Is it?" he demanded.

"Yeah. It. IS. You can't judge what the entire world thinks of you on how Katara treats you. She's suffered more disappointment in the past year than she could have ever conceivably expected herself to and she's dealing with it by shoving all the blame onto you because it's the easy thing to do. Believe it or not, your coming here makes it even harder for her, because she wants to believe that you're sincere. Desperately wants to believe it. She wants to believe that change is possible, that the world can become a better place."

"Then WHY won't she give me a freaking break?"

Sokka laughed and patted Zuko on the back in commiseration. Zuko fought the urge to tense, unfamiliar with casual physical contact, "Katara always has to be the grown up. She's always taking care of everyone else, making sure that we're fed, clothed, warm enough, cool enough, managing our money. But she's just a kid too, I mean c'mon, I get to play around with weapons and she has to cook and clean for a bunch of rude stinky boys. And for the record Toph does not count as a girl in this case."

Zuko snorted, "I wouldn't have argued otherwise."

"You should have seen some of the fights she and Katara have gotten into. Might make you feel better about your situation."

"Thanks," Zuko drawled sardonically.

Both boys fidgeted a little as the silence stretched.

"Sorry. I'm not very good at this," Zuko finally admitted.

"Good at what?"

"Being …friendly with people. I grew up without many people my age and with so many people trying to curry favor with me that I never really had to be nice to anyone."

"Well, no one here is interested in currying anything of yours."

Zuko shot the other boy an irritated glare, but after a moment it softened, "I know… I like that about you all. Even if you don't trust me, even if you don't like me, I know that you'll be honest with me. You'll make it very clear if I'm crossing lines. I never had that honesty growing up. Well, maybe with my mom…but Azula has been a liar since she could talk, and with everyone at court bowing to my every whim... Recently I've been wondering if anyone ever really liked me. I've never learned how to be likable."

"Well it certainly can't help with the ladies. Am I right or am I right?" He nudged Zuko in the ribs with an elbow.

Zuko 'humphed' awkwardly.

Sokka held up his hands and lifted his shoulders, "Hey, I'm not throwing stones! The first time I asked a girl out I suggested that we 'do an activity together'."

Zuko offered a half-smile, "Well my first date was pretty bad. First my Uncle gave me this awful hairstyle," Zuko reached up and smoothed his hair down to demonstrate, "Then I told the girl I could juggle and ended up with food all over myself. It was pretty awkward."

"Oh come on, that's not that bad!" Sokka exclaimed, warming up to the topic, "The first time I tried to flirt with girls I ended up dressed as one. In full makeup. And then they kicked my ass. With fans."

Zuko chuckled, "You're right. That is pretty sad. I'd been living on a ship with only men for the past three years. What's your excuse?"

"Hey, it isn't my fault that all the women in my tribe were either ancient or married or like five years old."

Or dead.

The unspoken third option hung between them and awkwardness descended on them once again. Zuko shifted and coughed, "Well, thanks, y'know. For the advice. Or reassurance, or whatever it was."

"Hey, I'm just a simple guy who wants a simple life. I feel for ya, I mean, I see you trying. Besides… what are friends for?"

Zuko turned his face back to the dark canyon, "I don't know," his voice was a little rough with bitter embarrassment, "I don't think I've ever really had one."

Sokka was quiet for a moment, seemingly torn between diffusing the tension with humor, or returning to his serious side. In the end he settled on somewhat of a combination, "Well Aang is definitely your friend. Of course he'll be friends with just about anyone or anything, so I'm not sure what that says. And Toph seems to like you, but then she likes anyone who she can humiliate and abuse…"

Zuko gave a halfhearted smile at the jab.

"…And…uh…" Sokka rubbed the back of his neck, then slowly extended his hand, "… and I'm your friend too."

Zuko looked up.

"You're one of us now. So we're friends." Sokka stated with more confidence.

Zuko straightened and reached out to shake Sokka's hand with an honest smile, "Friends."


*Peace y'all*