Title: Boys' Night
Universe: Avatar the Last Airbender
Theme/Topic: N/A
Rating: PG
Character/Pairing/s: Zuko, Sokka, Toph (basically my favorites okay. My bias, it shows…), also mentions of past ZukoxMai and jabs at other pairings that make me laugh. That is all.
Spoilers/Warnings: Post-series, so um, everything. Also, probably OOC, but hey, IN THE FUTURE ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE, RIGHT.
Word Count: 12,510
Summary: Zuko gets dumped. Sokka is the world's best wingman. There is chloroform.
Dedication: So I was torn between what to write for your birthday, gaisce, but in the end, after many stalled attempts, I could not write Ty Lee or Azula, I'm sorry. Here, have antics instead.
A/N: Special thanks to mousapelli for giving this a look through, and to juin for encouraging me to start/finish this. LOL
Disclaimer: No harm or infringement intended. All is just for fun.

Zuko gets dumped ten days before his birthday, a little over one year into his rule as Fire Lord.

Sokka and Toph are there when it happens, because Sokka is the acting ambassador for the Water Tribes and has dutifully taken up residence in the east wing of the Fire Lord's inner palace as such. Toph is there because she is using Sokka's diplomatic immunity to hide from her parents. She could still be an official Earth Kingdom diplomat herself if she really wanted to, especially given her role in bringing peace to the three nations, but then again, they've discovered that being diplomatic is not really her strong suit. Or is having a job. It's a thing.

In any case, Mai leaves the Fire Nation two days after she breaks up with Zuko because palace life is boring, because she doesn't want to satisfy her mother's royal ambitions by sticking steadfastly to her first boyfriend ever just because he's the Fire Lord, and oh, because she's still a teenager. There are adventures to be had and worlds to see that are— most importantly— not here, under the constant and increasingly less charitable scrutiny of the Fire Nation nobility and the even more constant and increasingly less subtle gossip amongst the court ladies surrounding Mai's potential role as the mother of Zuko's heirs (barf and barf). Also, she really needs to visit Ty Lee more, hasn't gotten to throw her knives at anything other than Zuko for way too long now, and her baby brother is at that precious stage in his life where screaming at the top of his lungs is the only answer to anything ever. Plus, after seeing the ridiculous hours Zuko spends just working, she's pretty sure that the person she is right at this moment—a teenager for god's sake— is not worldly or patient enough for the whole seriously-contemplating-life-as-Zuko's-future-arm-ornament thing or for doing his paperwork and going to his public appearances for him for the rest of their lives because he's slow to make decisions and shy in large groups of strangers. She needs time to grow on her own and experience life on her own terms, or something.

Blah, blah, blah. The point is, Zuko is dumped. Zuko, doing the only appropriate thing that a strong and dignified leader of an entire nation can do in these dire (and teenaged) circumstances, quietly holes himself up in his office and proceeds to sulk in private as a result.

Sokka, who knows a little thing or two about broken hearts himself (his experience with the whole Yue situation being a little more um, permanent, than Zuko's), also knows that the best thing he can do for the Fire Lord in these circumstances is to distract him from the pain of his fresh wounds until they can slowly scab over on their own. Sokka is a worldly man of the world like that. Also, Zuko being a miserable pathetic shut-in means that things get done in the palace at an even slower pace than normal, which means Sokka gets left in the east wing practically all day, waiting for paperwork to get delivered to his desk. It is a far cry from finishing his work up as quickly as possible like he usually does (often before lunch), so that he can spend the rest of the afternoon out shopping for things like manly bags and manly clothes that he most definitely needs for manly reasons. But the shopping (or the not shopping in this case) is not the point. The point is that Sokka's buddy Zuko needs him, and Sokka has never been the kind of guy to abandon a friend in need, especially so close to that friend's birthday.

So, after leaving Zuko to the appropriate solo-sulking period of about a week, Sokka wakes up on the eighth day and gathers up Toph, formulates a plan, and bursts into Zuko's chambers intent on using them both, despite the many protests of Zuko's kiss-ass advisors and the hulking of his big, dumb bodyguards. There's nothing they can do to stop him anyway.

His diplomatic immunity is kind of amazing like that.

Anyway, he bursts into the Fire Lord's chambers in all his diplomatic glory (though in later retellings Toph will insist that everyone is just afraid of her, which is probably a fair possibility as well), and as expected, the pair of them find Zuko ensconced by the window, looking the complete part of the angsty young hero even though he is clearly not the lead in this story of action and adventure at all.

"So what's the plan?" Toph asks, once they are in the Fire Lord's chambers. She cracks her knuckles like she expects the plan to be a tremendous, ass-kicking, all-out fight, wherein Zuko can purge himself of his inner turmoil through the cauterizing fire of external rage and fisticuffs. You know, man-therapy.

Which isn't a bad idea, except Sokka does not fancy being burned alive or crushed to death given the obvious disadvantages he would have if he gets involved in any sort of man-therapy that involves Zuko and Toph that does not also involve safe activities like buying manly bags and manly clothes.

"The plan is to smuggle him out of here without anyone noticing," Sokka explains to his young cohort, and hopes she will stop cracking her knuckles like that. It's not like she actually punches people with them. Plus, the sound is kind of gross and doing it is probably bad for her hands.

Toph's excitement falls considerably at his explanation of the plan. "You haven't been able to get him to come out of here for like, a week," she points out with a huff. "And not because you didn't try, either. I should know, you whined to me about it for forever. It was so whiny and girly it made me seriously think about going home."

Sokka frowns. "First, I did not whine, I was just sharing facts. Second, it only didn't work because I asked him to come out with me all those times. This time, I'm not asking. I mean, why do you think I told you to come with me? Obviously, you're the muscle, I'm the brains."

Toph's eyebrow twitches. "Rephrase that."

"You're stronger than me," Sokka rephrases, dutifully.

She accepts that.

"You do realize that smuggling the Fire Lord out of the palace against his will is like, a national crime or something, right?" Toph asks next, reasonably. "Diplomatic immunity probably can't save you from that."

Sokka considers this. Eventually he shakes his head and points to Zuko, who is in the corner, still wearing his angsty face. It is a face they have seen from him one too many times over the years, and it usually leads to bad things for everyone involved if left unchecked. Hopefully an Aang-hunt is not on the itinerary or anything this time around, but you never know with these Fire Nation royals. They are eccentric at the best of times and tend to go crazy when things don't go according to how they want. Sokka obviously does not want Zuko to go down that dark and probably megalomaniacal path; it is already a path that is way too crowded with members of Zuko's family as is. "Well, we have to do something," Sokka implores Toph hotly. "I mean look at him, he's so...droopy. Plus, it's almost his birthday. He's not allowed to be miserable on his birthday."

As if on cue, Zuko sighs.

Toph crosses her arms. "So you seriously want to sneak him out of here? They'll know he's missing in five minutes. Someone will walk in here asking if they can wash his feet or wipe his butt for him or something, and then they'll see that he's gone."

"Not," Sokka explains with a flourish, "if he's not gone." He waggles his eyebrows at her, in full expectation of her awe and delight at his plans.

"Have you been drinking the cactus juice again?" she asks, after a beat.

Sokka sighs; it is simply genius's curse to be misunderstood by the masses. "He won't be gone, because you'll be here," Sokka tells her smoothly, and wishes she could see how smug his expression is right now, because he is amazing.

Toph's blank, dead eyes blink back at him. "First," she says, "get that stupid look off of your face. Second, you want me to impersonate the Fire Lord?"

"You're the muscle and the decoy," Sokka clarifies. This plan is really working out better than he'd originally hoped for. There's all this coming-together of it in new and unexpected ways that make him look really good.

Toph, unsurprisingly, is not as exuberant as he is by this perfect conflagration of events. "So wait, you want me to sit here in this fancy office, pretend to be lord flaming pants over there, and risk being caught and flambéed by an entire country full of people who until very recently, were trying to kill everyone?"

Sokka nods. "You'll hide behind one of those fancy screens over there." It all makes perfect sense.

Except clearly not, because Toph starts doing that cracking-of-her knuckles thing again, except in his direction this time, and Sokka's very good self-preservation instincts tell him that even if she does not often directly punch things with her fists, it does not mean that she will never try. Also, maybe he should phrase these ideas of his in a more pleasing and diplomatic manner. That's what diplomats do right?

He thinks fast.

"You can spend the entire day making them do whatever you want!" he says hastily, just as she raises her fist over her head, clearly aiming for the dreaded dead-arm blow (though to be honest, the way she has it angled is closer to his elbow).

The fist stops abruptly, mid-air. "Keep talking," Toph prompts, after a moment. She sounds intrigued.

"Like, a buffet! You could have them bring in a buffet full of candy. And, I don't know, you can have a bloody, unnecessarily violent tournament in the Fire Lord's name or get them to proclaim a national holiday in your honor. You could even get them to run down to the markets and buy you all the latest fashionable sling bags, which I hear are not only functional, but completely stylish for the upcoming cold season as well."

Toph's lips curl up into an abrupt smile. The fist descends back to her side. "A national holiday, huh?"

Sokka breathes a sigh of relief and quickly composes himself again (not that he'd been freaked out or anything, just now). He eyes her carefully. "So… you in?"

Toph goes to sit in the Fire Lord's really comfortable, intricately carved work chair. It's probably a thousand years old and worth more than her family's entire house or something. "I'm in," she declares, and with a breezy wave of her fingers, makes one of the fancy screens at the back of the room slide forward with a rumbling of dirt. It positions itself to obscure the view of the Fire Lord from the doorway perfectly.

Toph puts her feet up on the desk and folds her hands behind her head, looking devilishly content.

Sokka pumps a fist. "Alright, it's on!" he declares hotly, while Zuko frowns and finally glances over his shoulder at them when he hears it.

"Oh, hey, Sokka. Toph," the despondent Fire Lord says, and looks a complete mess. He doesn't even seem to notice that Toph is in his fancy ancestral chair with her feet up, getting dirt all over the woodwork. "When did you guys get here? Do you have more paperwork for me?" He actually sounds hopeful for more paperwork.

Seeing his friend in such a sad state, Sokka does not feel a single shred of remorse when he swings his fashionable sling bag around on his shoulder—from last season's Flaming Ash collection, unfortunately—and pulls out the bottle and the rag he'd been holding in there especially for this occasion. He advances casually on the wary-looking Fire Lord while pouring the contents of the bottle onto the rag, making sure to move much like a hungry hunter might advance on an unsuspecting baby Polar Sea Lion back at the South Pole (that is to say, sneakily). "So, Zuko," he begins conversationally, and with a complete look of I'm-not-plotting-anything-no-really on his face, "you feel like going out tonight? Hitting the town? You look like you could use it, man."

Zuko stares. "No. I already told you, I don't want to do anything like that." Pause. "Is that chloroform?" he asks, when Sokka gets really kind of uncomfortably close to him. "Where did you get…"

Sokka moves like a fearsome warrior of the night— or something equally as cool sounding— when he lunges forward and clamps the rag firmly over Zuko's face.

Zuko gives him this confounded look, like he can't quite believe this is happening and has no idea what to do about it, while Sokka pats him reassuringly and loves diplomatic immunity all over again. Before long (and before Zuko can burn Sokka's eyebrows off), Zuko's eyes flutter closed and he slumps awkwardly over the chaise.

Sokka only takes a moment to survey his handiwork with an air of total satisfaction before he's rolling Zuko up in the fancy rug sitting on the floor of the office.

"That whole thing sounded incredibly creepy from here," Toph chimes in, when Sokka has Zuko firmly ensconced in the rug and is on his way out the window with the unconscious Fire Lord.

"He'll thank me later," Sokka assures her. He winces when he drops Zuko over the window ledge and the rug lands roughly onto the stone walkway below, instead of onto the grass like he'd been aiming for. He turns to look at his accomplice over his shoulder one last time before he flees. "You sure you got this?"

Toph waves him off dismissively. "If I get caught, I'll just say I got real lost. It's so scary when you can't see, you know?"

Sokka grins. Clearly his genius is rubbing off on her.

He climbs out the window.

When Zuko wakes up sometime later, he realizes that he is not in the palace anymore. He also realizes he is wearing ridiculous clothes—Sokka's clothes, he thinks—and that he is currently under a tarp, in a moving wagon that smells a lot like preserved fish.

Zuko sits up abruptly. "Wha…"

Sokka clamps a hand over his mouth before he can finish. "Quiet, man, or we'll get kicked off," Sokka implores him, in a hissed whisper. When Zuko gives him a look that says things could start burning at any minute, Sokka hastily withdraws his hand.

"What is going on?" Zuko demands, though he has obligingly lowered his voice to a strained sort of murmur.

Sokka grins, because clearly that means all systems are go. "Fire Lord Zuko, we are hitting the town tonight. It's man night!"

Zuko blinks at him. "I told you already, I don't want to hit anything." Pause. Frown. "Well, maybe you, a little."

Sokka sighs in that way he does when he thinks that no one understands genius anymore.

"Well we're already halfway into the city, so you might as well suck it up and enjoy it," Sokka tells him, before slinging an arm around Zuko's back and giving him a series of hearty man-pats. "I'm using my diplomatic immunity to demand manly bonding time."

Zuko eyes him. "You do realize that I'm the one who grants you diplomatic immunity in the first place, right?"

Sokka is unfazed. "And it would suck of you to take it away, especially since we're pals. So. Manly bonding time!" He strikes an appropriately exuberant, manly pose to commemorate the start of the festivities.

Zuko just kind of silently eyes Sokka, as the Water Tribesman keeps giving him this idiotic look and does that thing with his eyebrows that is, Zuko supposes, some sort of gesture that is meant to be convincing.

One the one hand, the whole thing is completely ridiculous—he'd been chloroformed and kidnapped for god's sake— but on the other hand, Zuko has never had a friend who is willing to out and out commit something that could be misconstrued as an act of war between their two nations just to get him over a little heartbreak before.

It's kind of nice.

Creepy and weird and probably wrong on so many levels, but nice.

Eventually Zuko sighs helplessly, when Sokka starts tilting his head and gets jabby with his elbows in a wink, wink, nudge, nudge kind of way.

"Fine, manly bonding time." Pause. Frown. "But do I really have to wear these clothes?"

Sokka is too busy being excited to hear that last part.

"This…is a clothing store," Zuko says a little while later, after Sokka forces them to leap out of the preserved fish cart in a magnificent tuck-and-roll scheme that has them tumbling into an empty—but luckily freshly mucked— stable. From there, they brush one another off, straighten their ridiculous clothes, and march into the heart of the capitol city's bustling marketplace, where Sokka's favorite clothing manufacturer boasts an unnecessarily big, unnecessarily loud two-story monstrosity of a store, with windows and doors all advertising fresh markdowns and exclusive previews of upcoming lines for frequent buyers.

"This is not a clothing store. This is Flaming Ash," Sokka corrects, like the dozens of racks displaying what is very clearly clothing for sale somehow makes Zuko's statement wrong.

Zuko suddenly feels a little bit relieved as Sokka pushes him deeper into the depths of Flaming Ash with an excited, almost incoherent burbling noise. Of course manly bonding time for Sokka would involve retail therapy. Sokka's love of gaudy bags is not exactly a mystery to anyone. Zuko probably should have guessed this would be the extent of their adventurers today. They'll probably be back in the palace before anyone can even miss him.

Zuko chuckles a little to himself as he comes to this realization. Admittedly, there had been a small but persistent streak of terror burning hot in the Fire Lord's heart when he'd first found himself on this unscheduled adventure; the look in Sokka's eye back in the preserved fish cart had made Zuko think that maybe Sokka expected him to go out on the town and dance and schmooze and talk to actual girls (Toph and Katara don't count as actual girls as far as Zuko is concerned, mostly because like Azula, he thinks of them in a sisterly way in that they have both tried to very seriously kill him before). He'd also thought Sokka would say a lot of ridiculous and mortifying things about getting back in the saddle, or bouncing back from the punches, or something equally stupid and inappropriate, and that Zuko would find himself awkwardly in the middle of town, being forced into talking to girls he had no interest in.

Silently in his heart, Zuko apologizes for judging Sokka so wrongly like that, and as they head farther into the depths of the enormous, dual-story clothing shop, Zuko supposes that this whole scheme can't be all bad after all; Sokka will shop and talk a lot, and Zuko will respond appropriately, and at the end of the day, Sokka will be pleased with himself for helping Zuko get out into the fresh air again while Zuko will not actually have to talk to any girls. Afterwards, he can return to the palace where it is safe and familiar and go back to sitting in dark corners, contemplating where it all went wrong with Mai. So far he's narrowed it down to that failed trip to the islands—it got cancelled when a border incident between Earth Nation refuges and Fire Nation soldiers got snippy and a mini-war almost broke out on the open ocean—and the incident involving Mai's mother at his birthday party, and how Zuko had only been able to nod dumbly at the woman as she'd preened and loudly declared that she hoped that the honorable Fire Lord would be willing to declare his intentions towards her daughter in the next few months, if only for her peace of mind as a loving mother to her young and impressionable only daughter.

It's a toss up, but Zuko's leaning towards incident number two, mostly because that had been the one where Mai had stabbed him in the thigh under the table with her fork.

Anyway, after deciding that he can go along with this ridiculousness so long as it's as simple as shopping, Zuko wanders over to a discount rack advertising sales specials on last season's line; something awful and unbelievable called Ashes to Sashes. From what he can tell, the discount rack holds lots of brilliantly colored scarves in various shades of maroon and purple that can't possibly have any sort of functionality in a place like the Fire Nation, but that are, admittedly, pretty enough when they catch the light. Sokka joins him with enthusiasm, and before Zuko can comment on how ridiculous these prices are even on sale, the Water Tribe diplomat is suddenly elbowing the Fire Lord in the ribs. Sharply.

"Ow," Zuko mutters, while Sokka pssts at him and elbows him again. "What? Why do you always do that?"

Sokka grins and gestures with his eyes to a flock of girls standing on the other side of the clearance aisle, amidst the women's clothing. "Hey," Sokka adds, when Zuko just looks on in confusion, "don't freak out or stare or anything, because you'll scare them off, but I think those girls are checking you out, man!"

Zuko can't help it when his eyes immediately dart up to the aforementioned girls. Sokka grabs his face by the chin and yanks it back towards his own. "No. You'll scare them with the I-am-Fire-Lord-Hear-Me-Roar face," Sokka chastises quickly, and Zuko doesn't even know what that means. He just looks at people like normal, okay?

Sokka leans closer to whisper. "Okay, be cool. Just be cool. We'll casually work our way over there, and then you know, comment about the upcoming Flame On line and strike up a casual conversation about clothes. I think that one with the ponytail is totally cute, and she's the one who can't take her eyes off of you, so I'll try to corral her towards you while I distract her friends…"

Zuko stares at him. "Corral?"

Sokka looks long-suffering. "It's a valid technique, okay. Look. She is completely cute and has been staring at you since you walked in here, I noticed."

Zuko blinks. "Really?"

"Yes, man! This is what I am here for. I am your wingman. I've got your back. I… ooh, I've been looking for a sash this color to go with the pants I bought last month. They bring out my eyes."

Zuko's chin is abruptly dropped in lieu of a purple and magenta swirled sash monstrosity hanging in the 80% off section of the rack.

Zuko rubs his jaw. "Look, Sokka," he begins, patiently, "I appreciate everything you're doing, but I'm not ready to be dating again so soon after M…"

Zuko's heartfelt confession is abruptly interrupted by a tugging on the hem of his shirt.

He blinks, turns, and comes face to face with the pretty girl with the ponytail, as she smiles up at him with wide, admittedly terrifyingly intense almond eyes.

Zuko starts. "Er…yes?" he manages after a moment, while from behind the girl, Sokka makes abrupt thumbs-up motions at him and sidles away towards the 90% off section while the rest of the girl's friends continue to hang out on the women's end, looking speculative and hopeful. Sokka picks up a muddy-brown and blood-red swirled sash and pretends to very seriously contemplate it, despite the fact that he can't quite wipe the ridiculous look off of his face as he obviously eavesdrops on Zuko's conversation.

In the meantime, the pretty ponytail girl giggles sweetly and looks up through her lashes at Zuko. "Sorry to bother you," she begins, cheeks pink, "but are you the Fire Lord?"

Zuko does some awkward fumbling. "Er…yes?" he says again, and in the background, Sokka slaps a hand to his forehead.

Before Zuko can recover with something more assertive, ponytail girl's expression goes from sweet to a look that makes Zuko's spine instinctively go cold. It's exactly the same feeling he used to get whenever he'd look Azula in the eyes for longer than a second, or whenever Katara would storm into his office in hot, unreasonable anger because his policies on Fire Nation war criminals is too lenient for her liking (there is a reason why Sokka is now the ambassador for the Water Tribes and not his sister).

In either case, it is a look that Zuko does not like to see on girls, because it is scary and makes him want his mommy again.

"Oh my god, I knew it was you," Ponytail breathes, and starts bouncing on her feet in barely contained excitement. She still hasn't let go of his shirt by the way, and her hand is now bunching the material tightly enough between her fingers that the fibers are going to start to give at any second now. "I mean, I saw you from across the room just now, and I thought, there can only be one person in the world with beautiful scars like that."

Zuko stares blankly. And in horror. There's probably some of that too. This is what he does when words are crazy and make zero sense.

"I mean, I look at your face every day…" This is where she magically trails off and releases her death-grip on his clothing so that she can reach into her sleeve and pull out what looks to be a well-worn magazine with Zuko's likeness on the cover. "… in my Fire Tiger Heat Magazine, so of course I should be able to recognize you, even from two hundred feet away, right?"

Zuko takes a cautious step backwards. "Fire Tiger Heat?"

"Yup! It's my favorite magazine ever. This week's issue said that you and your girlfriend just broke up! It's totally true, right? I mean, they have this article…" she pauses to flip through the magazine a bit, before finding the right page and practically shoving it into Zuko's face, "…about how the romance between you two has totally gone cold. Look at that illustration!"

The illustration is one of Zuko and Mai walking in the garden two weeks ago, when Zuko had been stopped by one of his advisers for a signature on some food rations going out from the Fire Nation to the parts of the Earth Kingdom that had been scorched by his father's insane march to take over the world. Mai is by the turtle-duck pond, looking bored.

"That's just a drawing, you know," he starts, though he can't take his eyes off of it. Are there seriously people who do this for a living?

The girl's expression falls. "Wait, so you haven't broken up with her?"

Zuko flinches. "No, I have, but…"

She lights up again. "See? Totally accurate! And for the best, I think, I never really liked Mai; she's way too gloomy-faced and boring. Can you imagine what kind of nightmares any public appearances with her would have been? Personally, I think you should hook up with Katara; I love how royals always have these totally romantic political marriages with relatives of diplomats from foreign nations. You know, to cement alliances and stuff. I watch plays about it all the time. It's dreamy."

Zuko takes another cautious step backwards. He thinks that maybe if he launches into a run during her next very long sentence, he might be able to outrun her to the door because she'll be half out of air from talking so much. Except that her friends are kind of lingering over in that direction, still watching them (and with similar unholy glints in their eyes). Zuko could probably use his fire-bending to subdue them, but then again, they're also unarmed Fire Nation citizens, so that might be a bad idea for other reasons.

"Oh my god, they were totally right, your angsting face is your cutest face!" Ponytail shrieks suddenly, and Zuko is viciously ripped back into the present situation by it. Those words are enough for him to give up on the whole backing away slowly thing, and he kind of just jumps away in this completely uncool and un-Fire-Lord-like manner. "I can't wait to tell everyone in the fanclub that you're in town today, they will be so jealous that I met you! Are you going to the fireworks show tonight? Of course you are, they're in honor of your birthday, right? Do you want to go with me? Can I have a piece of your ha…"

"OH HEY LOOK, IT'S THE AVATAR!" a voice suddenly calls out, and in a flash of simultaneous movement, Ponytail's head swivels instinctively to get a look, Zuko gets yanked backwards, and the entire store erupts into an excited cacophony of motion as shoppers attempt to catch a glimpse of the foremost celebrity of the post-war world.

In the chaos, Zuko finds himself crouched inside one of the circular clothing racks, hidden by hanger upon hanger of ridiculously priced, ridiculously colored clothes. Sokka is sitting next to him, bewildered.

"Man," Sokka breathes, voice disbelieving, "your fans are crazy."

Zuko, heart still beating way too quickly in a fear-for-his-life kind of way, takes a deep breath and shudders down to his shoulders. "Yeah," he answers, "looks like."

With that in mind, they manage to sneak out of the store with their faces wrapped in a pair of matching red and gold swirled scarves before local law enforcement can arrive to calm the crowd.

"We should go back to the palace," Zuko intones once they've found safety in one of the alleyways on the edge of the shopping district. "I think I'm ready to go home."

Sokka frowns at him. "You're giving up that easily? So the first cute girl who smiled at you and invited you to watch fireworks with her was kind of nutso. It happens to the best of us."

Zuko is sure that's true, but he's beginning to think he's had an unfair amount of nutso compared to everyone else. He doesn't say it out loud though.

Sokka, in the meantime, continues looking plotty. "Though she might not have been wrong."

Zuko stares. "What? No wrong about what? I am not datingyour sister."

Sokka looks wildly horrified and offended at the thought. "No! Not that. About the fireworks. There's supposed to be a fireworks thing to kick off your big, week-long birthday bash tonight right? That's what I mean. Never mention dating Katara again, okay? Make it part of my diplomatic immunity. Under the do not torture clause. Deal?"

Zuko grimaces. "Deal."

Sokka regains some of his perkiness. "Great," he declares, and rubs his hands together anticipatorily. "I think we're going to need some disguises."

While Sokka and Zuko are very craftily putting together disguises at Sokka's behest, Toph is still in the palace. It is kind of awesome.

"My lord, are you sure you are feeling quite all right? We can have the court physician examine you, if you'd wish?" Chu Wi, Zuko's kiss-ass aide, intones from the doorway, as the screen sits very firmly in place between himself and the Fire Lord's desk.

From behind said screen, Toph munches on sweet tangerines and iced chrysanthemum tea. "Nah, it's just a cold. Wouldn't want to trouble you. I figure as long as I have a steady stream of vitamin-C and entertainment, I'll be fine."

Chu Wi coughs, delicately. "And the necessity of the screen, my lord?"

Toph sighs, because people are dumb. "It's there so I don't get you sick or anything. Obviously."

"A very kind and generous gesture on your part, my lord," Chu Wi answers, obsequiously. "And in so appealing to my lord's kind and generous nature, I must admit that I find it a difficult task to organize a full theatrical production to pay homage to Miss Bei Fong's exploits in the war in time for dinner tonight. Perhaps the court musician would be sufficient, in creating a brief song of tribute instead?"

Toph shrugs. "Sure, that works, I guess. So long as they don't forget about how she single-handedly disabled the Fire Nation's air fleet."

Chu Wi winces. "Of course, my lord." Pause. "Forgive me, my lord, but your voice sounds uncommonly rough right now. Are you sure the iced tea is a good idea? If you'd allow me, I could get you something warmer, perhaps with some hon…"

Toph throws a tangerine peel over the screen, where it hits Chu Wi in the head. "Just go get me my tribute. Er, Miss Bei Fong's tribute. I want to surprise her at dinner tonight, so chop, chop, Chewy. Time's a wastin'."

Chu Wi's eyebrows dart up at the much loathed nickname. Toph winces when she realizes she'd used it, just a moment too late.

"Pardon me, my lord," the wily old advisor begins, as he steps closer to the screen. "I'd like to just clear away your tangerine peels for you, if you don't mind. I wouldn't want them getting in the way of your work."

"Uh, no, no, that's okay. I like the smell. They're uh, refresh…"

Chu Wi darts behind the screen unexpectedly, to find Toph mid-tangerine peel, looking sheepish. He glares. "Impudent little…"

Toph winces and jumps to her feet before he can scream for the guards. She closes her fist, swings her arms, and ends up ripping the iron curtain rod from the window, making it bend and warp and wrap itself around Chu Wi, effectively binding and gagging him in one fluid motion.

"Man, you guys really don't have any respect for Flamey Pants, do you?" she breathes in relief, while Chu Wi attempts to make outraged sounds at her.

Toph knocks him out with a lamp when he starts jumping up and down and crashing into things.

After he slumps bonelessly to the ground, the first thing she wonders is where she's supposed to hide the body.

The second thing she wonders is who the heck is going to tell the court musician to get her ode done by dinnertime.

"Perfect!" Sokka, incredibly pleased with himself, takes a step back from the freshly disguised Fire Lord so that he can make a frame with his fingers and slot Zuko right into the middle of it. It's a picture perfect fit if Sokka's pleased expression has anything to say about it.

Zuko, face half obscured by a very thick muffler from the jaw up and by a rather large, droopy turban from the top of his head down to just under his eyebrows, glares back at Zuko through his pretend viewfinder. "I look like a marauder."

Sokka is unfazed. "Of course, because that is completely what I was going for. Girls dig that kind of thing these days. You know, being abducted by a handsome but grumpy bandit-slash-vampire only to find out he's secretly a runaway time-traveling prince sent from the future to search for a princess for his people. They know that under the grumpy exterior, you really like to cuddle and talk about your sad past."

Zuko stares. "That's stupid."

Sokka shrugs, helplessly. "Kids these days, right?"

Then he dons his own turban—it has a purple and emerald feather in it—and throws his cape over his shoulders. He does not look like a marauder, Zuko notes. He looks like a lunatic.

Zuko hopes that's not in with the kids these days either. He makes a mental note to maybe check up with the youth education and civic standards board when he gets back to the palace.

In the meantime, Sokka pushes him out of the turban store and back onto the street, steering Zuko and his droopy new clothing towards an alleyway from which the Fire Lord can discern a great and terrible wailing coming from. He balks, naturally, because those types of inhuman noises usually mean monsters. Azula is a case in point.

"Where are we going?" Zuko asks as they get nearer to the noises, and has to grab his giant, floppy turban before it pitches forward over his eyes.

"Karaoke," Sokka responds simply, and doesn't seem bothered at all by the horrible sounds of death and dying.

Zuko stares. "Kara-what?"

Sokka looks at Zuko like he's grown another head. "Man, have you ever left the palace even once since you became Fire Lord?"

Zuko just gives him a look because Sokka already knows the answer to that question; he'd been there the last time everyone had gathered at his uncle's tea shop. Either way, it doesn't answer Zuko's question at all, and those crazy screeching wailing sounds are only getting nearer.

Sokka sighs and waves his hand absently in the air. "Karaoke is…a thing. I don't know, apparently now that they're devoting fewer resources to the upkeep of a full wartime military force, the people on Kiyoshi Island are inventing all sorts of great stuff with their extra free time. Anyway, after the karaoke thing got big over there, it kind of just made its way over here with all the travel and trade between nations you're always advocating."

That makes sense to Zuko. What doesn't make sense is the horrible, animal-slaughter noise coming from the street they are headed towards. "What is karapokey?" he asks again, because he really feels he ought to know.

"Karaoke," Sokka corrects, and looks at Zuko with this intensely pitying and judgmental expression. "It's a thing where there's a band, and someone tells them they want to sing a song, and then the band plays the song, and then the person sings along with it in front of everyone else."

Zuko stares. "What if the band doesn't know the song?"

Sokka starts pushing Zuko forward again, while he explains. "Well that's why there's a list of popular songs to choose from at each karaoke place. The band is guaranteed to know every song on that list."

"That seems needlessly complicated," Zuko says, as he catches his turban before it threatens to eat his face. "Why would anyone want to sing in public anyway? Didn't that used to be torture in some tribes?"

"Girls love it," Sokka assures him.

Before Zuko can protest that he doesn't care what girls love right now, his turban falls into his eyes again and Sokka pushes him down towards the nearest dark, strangely dingy karaoke bar entrance.

The inside of the bar is exactly as the entrance had advertised it; dark, dingy, noisy, and of dubious cleanliness. And the killing of animals onstage seems to be in full swing, even this early in the evening.

Sokka looks ecstatic, while Zuko is still trying to keep his turban on his head as he warily eyes a group of four girls on stage, shouting out the lyrics to a song that makes them sound like they enjoy public orgies and drinking cactus juice until they're stupid. Everyone seems to be having a good time and it's mind-boggling.

"We should go," Zuko murmurs, because his fighting instinct is actually kicking in, and it's telling him to either raze this place to the ground or snap his own neck. Which says a lot, because his father and sister had always said he'd had the lousiest battle instinct out of anyone in the history of the Fire Nation's royal line. If his is acting up here, then clearly only very bad, very violent things happen in this den of iniquity.

Sokka doesn't seem to have any such qualms about the likelihood of surviving amidst these crazed teens, and jabs Zuko with his elbow again. "Look over there," he whispers, and is completely unsubtle as he gestures towards a group of girls seated in a booth just to the side of the bar, bobbing their heads along with the singers on stage but not hooting and hollering at them with abandon like the other patrons. "Classy, am I right?"

A girl at the table with her hair up in an intricate bun looks on shyly while two of her friends start throwing their hands up and dancing on top of their table.

"Yeah," Zuko echoes, numbly. "Classy."

Sokka eyes him. "Well? Anything catch your eye?"

"No," Zuko answers. He pointedly looks away from the shenanigans happening on the table now, because if he doesn't, Sokka is going to get ideas that are not the ideas Zuko wants him to get at all. It's like that time when they'd been in a meeting over the limit of goods the Earth Kingdom could export to the Fire Nation and the Water Tribes a few months ago. Sokka had thought that Zuko's staring intently at the treaty outline in thought had meant to go hardline on his policies suddenly and he all but attacked the Earth Kingdom emissary for being mercenary in his intent.

Needless to say, after negotiations had broken down with insulted Earth Kingdom representatives (fruit may have been thrown), Zuko and Sokka had both experienced a terrifying and angry visit from Katara the following morning about diplomacy and building bridges and blah, blah, blah. This moving speech about getting along with others was pointedly illustrated when she slapped them both in the face with the morning dew a few times. In either case, no one wants that to happen ever again.

"You know what? I think I know your type," Sokka starts up, as he steers Zuko towards a table halfway between the girls' booth and the stage. "Quiet, kind of cute, but kind of not that cute at the same time, right?"

Zuko blinks. "Hey."

Sokka waves him off. "You know what I mean. I mean, your ex had that whole tragic-me thing going on; that can be kind of cool sometimes, I guess. It was the basis for the Flaming Ash's Choking on Volcanic Smog Collection last winter." Pause. "Though personally, I think you should go for something a little different than your usual. Considering how your last relationship went, you know what I mean?"

"The relationship that ended a week ago," Zuko answers, dryly.

Sokka hits his hand against the table like Zuko had just uttered some sort of ingenious theorem. "Exactly. So go for someone fun, cheerful, sweet. The opposite of what you had."

Zuko glares again. "Hey."

Sokka doesn't notice. "How about that one? The one with the bun. Looks how cute she is; every time she takes a drink she wrinkles her nose. Every time." Sokka falls backwards admiringly. "That's adorable. Isn't it?"

Zuko eyes the girl with the bun. It is kind of cute, but at the same time, kind of stupid. If it tastes that bad why not stop drinking it?

Once again, Sokka takes Zuko's contemplative silence for the go-ahead. This is why they can't work together at a negotiating table. "Alright. I'm going to go ask her two friends if they want to sing with me," Sokka begins, clasping his hands together in anticipation, "then you sidle up…"

Zuko scowls. "No. I'm telling you, I'm not interested in hitting on random girls I don't know." Pause. "Plus I don't know how to sidle. What does that even mean?"

Sokka sighs in a completely put-upon manner. "Yeah well, you can't know them until you introduce yourself, obviously. And if you don't do it now, you're just going to keep putting it off and putting it off. Kind of like your sculpture sitting."

Zuko moves to protest, but Sokka stays him with a hand in the air. "Oh I know all about that. Chewy won't stop complaining about it to everyone. You, Fire Lord Zuko, are an ace procrastinator."

"That has nothing to do with picking up women."

"Sure it does," Sokka insists. "You're avoiding both because you're shy and kind of awkward and each of these activities make you look at yourself in a different way, or something. I don't know… it was more profound when my sister was talking about it."

Zuko moves to protest again, but stops himself this time, because yeah, that's kind of true. It's also kind of disturbing that the siblings discuss him when he's not around, but he tries not to dwell on that part.

"This is where I'm putting my foot down, as your wingman of awesome," Sokka insists.

Zuko looks pained. "I don't think I'm ready yet, okay?"

Sokka is impassioned. "You know what you have to do when the mongoose lizard you're riding throws you? You get back on the mongoose lizard." Pause. "Well, in this case, you get a different, less violent and crazy mongoose lizard first. Or trade it for a friendlier, cuter ostrich horse. Then you take that nice, cute, ostrich horse and you saddle it, and you ride it."

Zuko winces at the mental image that provides, which forces Sokka to consider what he'd just said by replaying it back to himself silently in his mind. He blushes. "You know what I mean," he mutters. "Take the komodo rhino by the horn."

"I don't know if I want to take dating advice from a guy who keeps comparing girls to animals," Zuko grumbles in the meantime.

Sokka snorts. "Hey, this guy has managed to keep a long-distance relationship alive for years, okay."

Zuko supposes that's true too. He does not mention that maybe it works as a long distance thing because Suki is not here to listen to all of the words that come out of his mouth.

While Zuko is thinking these not-so-charitable things, Sokka looks contemplatively over his shoulder, back towards the table of girls. "Okay, how about this? We'll practice what you're going to say first, and then once you feel a little more comfortable, I'll steer us over there. Think of it as dress-rehearsal."

Zuko is skeptical. "Practice."

"Right. You be you, and I'll be Cute Hair Bun over there, and you just say what you'd normally say when you introduce yourself."

"That's stupid."

"Or I could just go over there now," Sokka adds, with a shrug. "Doesn't matter to me, oh great and fearless Fire Lord. Maybe they're part of your fanclub too. I could ask."

Zuko scowls. Slumps. "Hi, I'm Zuko," he says, flatly.

Sokka, pleased, takes a moment to stretch before folding in on himself and sitting lower in his chair, to appear at the same approximate height as Cute Hair Bun. Then he twitters, hides his mouth behind his sleeve, and says, in an awful falsetto, "Hi."

Zuko stares when Sokka doesn't say anything else. Eventually, Sokka gets impatient and slips out of character in order to wave Zuko on. Zuko panics. "Uh… so, you like karecrokey."

Sokka looks pained, but when he speaks again, his voice is still high-pitched and ridiculous. "I love karaoke. Do you come here often?"

"No," Zuko answers. "Never."

"Oh, you mean this is your first time but you're really excited?" Sokka gives him a look that is not in the vein of Cute Hair Bun.

"Er…yes," Zuko answers.

Sokka's expression softens. "So, what's your favorite song?"

Zuko stares. "I already said this is my first time here. I don't know any songs."

Sokka puts his sleeves down from in front of his mouth so Zuko can see his big fat frown. "C'mon, man, you're going to make her throw her drink in your face. Be nicer."

"I didn't think that was mean," Zuko protests. "And you're not giving me a lot to work with here. It's like trying to flirt with Toph."

Sokka looks scandalized. "You take that back."

"It's true."

"How would you even know what Toph does when she flirts?" Sokka rejoins, crossing his arms.

Zuko glares back, which only causes his turban to fall lower on his head, obscuring his view. "I don't, but it has to be better than what you were doing just now," he says, evenly.

Sokka huffs. "Hey, sorry if normal girls throw you off, pal! I'll try to be more sullen on the next try, how's that sound?"

Zuko's eye twitches. "She wasn't sullen she was emo. Apparently there is a difference!"

"Is that what she said?"


"Do you even know what emo means?"


At this point, both of the disguised heroes are arguing so fervently with one another that Cute Hair Bun, who had finally managed to gather up the courage to approach the boy with the interesting turban, is forced to stop in her tracks.

She pauses, standing between the two arguing gentlemen, and is at quite at a loss as to what to do, looking back anxiously at her friends, who just shrug helplessly at her.

She sighs, gathers up her courage, and raises her voice. "E-excuse me!" she starts.

Both turbaned gentlemen turn from seething at each other directly on to her. "What?" they shout in tandem, and do it so sharply she takes an involuntary step backwards.

"Um, never mind," she squeaks, brokenly, and scurries back at her friends.

It is at this point, with most of the bar having gone eerily silent, that Sokka and Zuko realize that everyone is glaring at them, and that they are probably the biggest jerks on the face of the planet. Apparently the entire population of the bar had noticed how adorable Cute Hair Bun was, and is now indignant on her behalf.

"So we'll just be going now," Sokka announces after a beat, in which the karaoke place feels a lot like his cell back on the Boiling Rock, except without the sparse cleanliness or the warm ambiance.

"Nice place," Zuko adds, quickly. "Great… singing."

The two boys leave a sizable tip as they hastily slide out of the club.

When they make it back onto the street, there is no time to glare or fight or blame each other for this whole fiasco, because a horde of starry-eyed fangirls waving around crumpled issues of Fire Tiger Heat are waiting for them at the mouth of the intersection, auras alight with holy insanity and smiles tinged with a little foaming at the mouth.

Ponytail girl is at the mob's head.

"I knew it was him under all those turbans!" she shrieks in delighted triumph. "I look at his picture every day so of course I could tell it was him!"

The crowd roars in cheerful agreement.

Sokka and Zuko turn to look each other in that moment, and find that when in the heat of battle, with their lives on the line, the two of them can work as well in concert as any specially trained military task force, despite their differences.

In that moment, they forgive, forget, and run.

Toph has a dilemma.

So apparently, despite his haughty obsequiousness and general grumpiness, Chewy is more than just Zuko's wacky palace sidekick.

The fact of the matter is, Chewy is a much more important member of the palace staff than Toph had initially believed him to be. He is not, in fact, Zuko's personal towel boy or his butler; he's not his manservant or personal well of nonstop hilarity either, despite how often Sokka and Toph had always teased him about being the latter. He is, in all actuality, the person in charge of orchestrating the daily goings on of the palace. He organizes the servants, plans the meals, creates the work shifts, and is the one guy in the whole household who the other servants and guards go to when they have questions about things that are beneath Zuko's notice.

Thus, when he goes missing, people are going to start freaking the hell out.

And by freaking out, Toph means they may have shit themselves running all over the palace looking for Chewy, and as such, may or may not have caught her with him, right when she'd been in the middle of trying to stuff his struggling, surprisingly heavy body into one of the really big, really fancy, family-heirloom type urns that had adorned Zuko's office. She says had adorned because she might have broken it when she'd made the clay particles it was composed of collapse in on themselves so that she could form a rock wall with which to hit the charging battalion of guards that had been trying to stop her from doing any more bad things to Chewy.

She'd tried to explain a few minutes later— as the guards had flopped around the now ruined office, lolling and bleeding and dizzy—that this whole fiasco is happening solely for the benefit of their heartbroken leader. It is for the greater good of the Fire Nation.

They hadn't listened, mostly because when they'd asked her where the Fire Lord was, exactly, she'd answered that Sokka may have taken him out the window unconscious, while rolled up in a rug.

Things had kind of gone downhill from there.

Now, some hours later, she is sitting in the actual throne room of the Fire Lord's inner palace, surrounded by its entire staff of angry servants, bodyguards, soldiers, and courtiers. They are all tied up with whatever antique earthenware, iron fixtures, and combination thereof that she'd managed to find in the palace (which was, admittedly, a lot).

Most of them are wrapped up in metal bindings and submerged up to their necks in the ground. Some are outright unconscious, with their bodies pushed half inside the walls.

All of the ones who are conscious are probably glaring bloody murder at her. She can't tell.

All that, however, is not her current dilemma.

"So," she says, as she takes a seat on the throne, "How's it going? You guys comfortable?"

No one answers, mostly because they can't. They're probably still glaring, though.

Meanwhile, outside, the rest of the palace's Royal Security Corps is applying a very heavy, very loud battering ram to the front doors of the Fire Lord's inner palace. War horns may or may not be blowing all across the grounds, and word is that a foreign assassin with deadly powers has somehow managed to infiltrate the court and has taken Lord Zuko and the entire population of the inner palace as hostages. It is such a big freaking deal that it will probably make the evening newspapers, despite Toph's very thorough explanation of the happenings earlier, the one that no one had believed.

She sighs and hopes that Sokka's diplomatic immunity is really freaking amazing.

Sokka thinks it might be the adrenaline that gets to them, after he and Zuko end up running through a mile's worth of winding, twisting, crowded alleyways, after they tear off their new turbans and prop them on the back of a cabbage wagon headed out of town, after they trade their capes and mufflers for a pair of ridiculous hats and dark-shaded glasses. Or it might be the fact that they've had more near-death experiences today than they've had in almost an entire year.

Whatever the reason, they soon find themselves ducking into a fancy teashop around dinner time, and can't help it when they both collapse against the wall in a sudden fit of disbelieving, slightly hysterical laughter.

"Oh man, your fans," Sokka guffaws, slapping himself in the leg with one hand and cradling his stomach in the other. "Your fans."

Zuko apparently understands what he means when he says that anyway, and chuckles as well, quieter but no less mirthful. "This is why I stay inside the palace," he manages around one of those rare, genuine smiles, while the hostess stands frozen at her station, just kind of staring at the pair of them in blank confusion. Eventually, she clears her throat.

"Welcome to Cha Boiled," she manages, once Sokka's guffawing has dwindled down some. "Party of two?"

Her very serious, vaguely confused question makes Sokka start giggling again, while Zuko manages to stand up straight, school his features (kind of), and say, "Table for two, please."

Looking somewhat relieved, the hostess picks up two menus. "Right this way, gentlemen," she says, leading them further inside, past a small replica of the garden inside the Fire Lord's inner palace and towards an open area shielded by an enormous skylight, where the first of the evening stars are just starting to become visible.

Sokka, finally sobering as they pass an indoor koi pond surrounded with green bamboo shoots and gently bobbing water lilies, crowds up behind Zuko and murmurs, "Hey, maybe we can find you a date in here. I mean, we've still got some time before the fireworks, and I bet somewhere in these walls is a nice, tea-loving, zen-following girl for you to watch them with."

Zuko has often admired Sokka's determination, his creativity, and his ability to adapt to whatever situation he finds himself in when push comes to shove.

Right now though, he kind of wishes the other boy would shut up and just take the entire afternoon's adventures as the universe's sign that Zuko and girls probably need to spend some time apart. For the sake of everything. "Sokka, we should just have some tea and go back to the palace. Toph can't fool everyone forever, you know. Chu Wi will catch on eventually, if he hasn't already."

"But this might be perfect! I bet there are some completely refined girls here that won't try to eat your face or set you up with my sister. Plus, you have to see the fireworks. They're for your birthday. You can't ditch your own birthday party. That's just crass."

"The celebration is for the citizens," Zuko clarifies. "They're just using my birthday as an excuse."

"Whatever. We are here, we might as well see the show. This tea room is the perfect place to find a mature, refined date to…"

Sokka is abruptly cut off as they enter the main dining area, where it turns out that the city's Seniors Single Night is in full swing on the far side of the room.

Several octogenarians look up at the two teens as they enter and smile at them appraisingly. "My," one very small, very hunch-backed woman says, through pink, toothless gums, "what a couple of nice looking young men."

Zuko and Sokka manage watery smiles back.

"Mature, huh?" Zuko grits out, without changing his smile at the host of elderly ladies now twittering at them.

"Okay, never mind then," Sokka answers back, in the same, frozen manner.

They spend the next hour getting their cheeks pinched.

In the meantime, Toph hopes no one will notice the missing steel gates from the main guard tower of the outer palace. Or the giant rock formation that has suddenly taken up residence in their place.

By the time Zuko and Sokka escape—stumbling, red-faced, and mortified—from the clutches of every young man's worst granny nightmare, the streets are filled with masked revelers, flaming torches, and portable food carts that mean fireworks and general revelry is on the menu for the night, as the capital city prepares to celebrate their young Fire Lord's birthday for the entire next week.

"Perfect!" Sokka declares when he catches sight of all the brightly colored masks hanging from the novelty vendors' stalls. Most of them are replicas of the faces of the heroes who ended the war.

Sokka grins and grabs them masks of themselves, citing,"I bet none of your crazy fangirls will figure this out," as he steers them towards the main thoroughfare, where young people are gathering to wait for the fireworks presentation.

Zuko grudgingly puts on the mask of his own face over his face. "Somehow," he begins reluctantly, "I feel like we're really pushing our luck here."

Sokka's answer is to jab him with an elbow. "Check it out, twelve o'clock," he hisses, in a screamed whisper.

"It's nearly eight," Zuko grounds back, rubbing at his ribs. "Stop doing that."

"No, twelve o'clock," Sokka insists, and when Zuko just gives him another confounded look, sighs and points straight ahead.

Zuko looks straight ahead and sees a cute girl with her hair down but clipped back, with a few stray blossoms of white jasmine scattered throughout the dark waves. She's smiling with a friend, clutching a fan in one hand and pointing to some artistic looking sweets a peddler is vending with the other. She has an Aang mask fastened to the side of her sash.

"That hairstyle is totally Earth Nation," Sokka whispers, waggling his eyebrows. "So I'm guessing, tourist? She probably won't recognize you."

"My face is on the money now," Zuko reminds him.

Sokka waves it off. "No one pays attention to that. Plus, she's an Aang fan, so she's probably sane. Even if she does recognize you, it's unlikely she'll try to set you up with my sister."

Zuko supposes he has a point about that.

"Now c'mon, we'll slip in, act like tourists ourselves, and see if they don't mind wandering around with us for a couple of hours. Then, before the fireworks start, I'll steer her friend in one direction, you steer her in the other, and I'll meet you back at the palace before midnight." Sokka pauses to give Zuko dual thumbs ups. "Happy birthday, man!"

Zuko scowls. "It's not my birthday yet."

"Whatever. We celebrate now. Life is for those who go out and take it for themselves, right?"

Before Zuko can answer that it's that kind of thinking that probably got the Fire Nation in trouble in the first place, Sokka grabs him and pulls him towards the sweets stall.

And practically shoves him at the cute girl with the jasmine blossoms in her hair.

"Oh wow, that taffy is in the shape of a dragon!" Sokka crows in over-exaggerated, much too loud wonder. "Hey, we should buy some to take back to our homes, which are far, far away. I bet your little sister would love one of those, huh?"

Zuko looks at him like he's crazy.

Sokka elbows him in the ribs again.

"Ow...yeah. My little sister would love to bite its angry growling face off," Zuko manages, while rubbing at his ribs sorely.

Cute Jasmine Blossoms laughs a little bit. Sokka's eyebrows jump up, so that they show above the part of his face that the mask is covering. Zuko can imagine that their dance is one of encouragement and other distastefulness.

"Er… hi," Zuko manages, when Jasmine Blossom finishes laughing at him.

"Hi," she answers back, and doesn't say anything else for a bit. It irritates Zuko to know that Sokka had been accurate in his girls-they-don't-know portrayal earlier. At least the way this girl is doing it is way cuter.

"So uh, do you think a girl would like dragon-shaped taffy?" Zuko poses next, before the silence can get awkward. His attempts earn eyebrow-motions of approval from behind Sokka's Sokka mask.

Cute Jasmine Blossom looks thoughtful, nose slightly wrinkled, lips pursed. "I think it depends on the girl," she says after a moment, carefully. "But I would personally like the tiger more."

Zuko looks between the dragon taffy and the tiger taffy uncertainly. Both look equally fearsome to him. He was kind of hoping she'd say she liked the one in the shape of a lily.

Cute Jasmine Blossom seems to understand his confusion and leans closer to whisper into his ear. "The tiger is bigger, but costs the same," she explains with a little grin.

Zuko finds himself grinning back, because hey, that makes sense to him, and from over his shoulder, he can see it when Sokka introduces himself to her friend. "So, I'm Sokka! Tell me all about you!" he says loudly, with a wink over his shoulder at Zuko that just looks out and out creepy through the eye slits of the mask. Sokka steers her friend towards a nearby balloon catching game.

"Your friend's subtle," Cute Jasmine Blossom manages, once they're alone.

Zuko is slightly sheepish. "Uh, yeah. Sorry about that. So, you're a fan of the avatar?"

"A fan of his work," she answers. "I haven't actually ever seen him in person. For all I know, he doesn't look like this at all."

"Yeah me too," Zuko says. Pause. "I mean, I'm a fan of his work too. I have seen him in person, though. The mask is pretty accurate, I guess. For a mask."

He winces when he realizes this admission might just be an invitation for her to bring out the inner fangirl crazy.

But Cute Jasmine Blossom just reaches out to tap her Aang mask thoughtfully. "Really?"

Zuko chuckles. "Well, not really. His head is normally rounder."

She laughs, and at the sound of it, Zuko can't help it when he abruptly asks, "So I should buy you the tiger?"

"Sure," she answers, before digging into her sleeve for her own coin purse.

He looks at her in confusion.

She gestures to the stall, "Which one do you want?"

Zuko smiles from behind the mask and supposes this probably means Sokka really is the best wingman ever.

Sokka, over by the balloon catching game with Cute Jasmine Blossom's friend, whose name in his head is Crazy Laugh, tries to catch one of the many floating balloons with his slip of paper before it breaks from the weight of the water. He fails, of course, and the brightly colored balloon goes splashing back into the pool.

Crazy Laugh laughs crazily. "Man, you blow at this!" she crows, and already has three balloons of her own from that one measly slip of paper. Who wins that many balloons anyway? Who needs that many? She should save some for the little kids.

"Do you want me to win you one? What color do you like?" she offers, when Sokka doesn't say anything. In the meantime, his soggy paper-loop finally breaks, sending the green balloon he'd been finessing splashing back into the water with a thunk.

"I think I got a defective piece of paper," Sokka starts, which earns him a skeptical snort and a clap on the back that is not unlike getting hit with one of Toph's rocks upside the head. What is with these Earth Kingdom girls and doing violence onto him?

Meanwhile, Crazy Laugh pauses in her demolition of the pool's balloon population to eye her friend, who is with Zuko over by a stall where you can win goldfish by catching them on a paper net. They seem to be having fun.

"Your friend better not be creepy," Crazy Laugh says after a beat, and ruins the nice picture Zuko and Cute Jasmine Blossom make.

"What? Creepy? He's not creepy," Sokka insists, looking kind of indignant on his friend's behalf. "Sure, he's a little bit weird, and kind of awkward, and has the worst relatives ever, but he's you know, a pretty decent human being."

Crazy Laugh laughs again. "Man, clearly you're the weird one out of the two of you," she says, before shoving her collection of balloon winnings at him. "Here, put these in your purse for me."

Sokka stares. "This is not a purse," he insists.

"Whatever. Handbag," she corrects, and Sokka thinks that Zuko better appreciate all the things he has to go through just to get him a date to watch fireworks with.

He grudgingly holds open the flap to his sling bag for Crazy Laugh and glares into the middle distance while she piles her balloons into it.

It is at that moment, while he is still glaring into the middle distance and mentally listing off all the ways having balloons is useless, that Sokka sees it.

At first it's kind of like a wavy blur of motion in the distance, punctuated by a low rumbling noise. Kind of like what they'd heard as Azula's armies had advanced on Ba Sing Se.

"That can't be good," Sokka says out loud to himself, which earns him a strange look from Crazy Laugh. She turns to look over her shoulder as well, and is just in time to see a mob come to a complete standstill right in front of the intersection beside the goldfish booth. Ponytail, much to Sokka's dismay, is once again at the head of the pack, clutching her now mangled copy of Fire Tiger Heat. Zuko, apparently sensing great danger approaching as well, pauses in the middle of his attempts to net a goldfish and looks up.

"That's him!" Ponytail girl shrieks suddenly, and Sokka can hear it when the army behind her suddenly takes a collective breath of anticipation upon having Zuko's identity confirmed. "I look at him every day, so of course I can recognize him, even when he has his own face on!"

"Uh, no it's not," Zuko attempts, in vain.

"Yes it is!" Ponytail insists.

Zuko sighs.

"Oh my god, did you get a new girlfriend?" Ponytail adds, when she sees Cute Jasmine Blossom standing beside the Fire Lord, holding her Aang mask and looking weirded out as all hell. "I hate her already, she's totally ugly!"

Some of the other girls in the mob murmur in agreement. Others declare, "I bet she's evil!"

From there, they begin a heated debate about the best way to get rid of her.

"Um," Cute Jasmine Blossom begins when she hears that, and turns to Zuko uncertainly, "does this happen to you a lot?"

"Say no!" Sokka's voice shouts out, over the din of the crowd.

Zuko ignores it, slumping slightly at the shoulder. "Yeah, kind of," he admits.

Cute Jasmine Blossom looks at him apologetically. "Um, you're nice and all, Zuko, but I think maybe your life is a little too action-packed for me. I… don't really want to die because your fans are crazy."

It is surprisingly calm and sensible in the heat of all the seething hatred, and makes Zuko think that maybe he should go for more of Aang's fans in the future, when he's safely behind the walls of the palace.

But for now, Zuko can do nothing but sigh as he removes his mask. "Yeah, I get that," he tells her, with a sheepish smile. "It was nice meeting you, though."

She nods. "Yeah you too." Then she pauses and looks over at the crowd of fangirls, as they seem to come to a consensus that involves Zuko needing to be ripped away from the evil influence of girls who want to date him. Cute Jasmine Blossom takes a step to the side. "You should probably run. I know I'm going to." These are more sensible words, and Zuko is sorry to see her go.

He waves a little, and then takes her advice. He runs.

Sokka, in the meantime, pulls Crazy Laugh's balloons out of his bag and shoves them back into her arms without very much delicacy. "Yeah, that's my cue. Nice meeting you, I hope I never see you again."

He turns and takes off after Zuko.

"Oh my god, does this mean you're gay!" Ponytail demands as the two boys race off into the gathered crowd together, "Because I might be okay with that!"

Sokka and Zuko run faster.

The fireworks start just as Zuko and Sokka manage to lose the mob again, the pair of them climbing blindly over a series of fences, through a hole in a wall, and over some porches and verandas before coming out on the rooftop of a stable that houses a pair of unimpressed komodo rhinos.

They are out of breath and dirty from a few alleyway garbage can collisions they might have been involved in. Most of all, Zuko is still completely and utterly dateless.

"What a disaster," Sokka breathes when he can again, stretched out on an awkwardly balanced piece of sheet metal that's been propped over the stable to keep the sun out during the day. "I can't believe nothing I did worked."

Zuko sits with his knees up against his chest, breathing deeply and watching the fireworks out of the corner of one eye. "My fans are just crazy," he says apologetically.

"No joke," Sokka agrees.

"But everything that happened today was also kind of pointless," Zuko adds.

"Okay, I get it," Sokka mutters. "Sheesh."

"And tiring, and slightly against the law," Zuko continues, anyway.

Sokka huffs. "Right, so no more wacky adventures of Fire Lord and Wingman. You've made your point, your royal highness."

Zuko's lip curls slightly upward. "But it was kind of fun too. You know, after being ridiculous, pointless, tiring, and criminal," he admits.

Sokka blinks. "What, really?"

Zuko shrugs. "Sure."

"Huh." Sokka pushes himself up to a sitting position, while fireworks that explode into flowers and pinwheels shimmer in the sky over their heads. "Really? Fun?"

"I said kind of," Zuko reminds him. "But yeah. So…thanks. It got my mind off of things for a while."

Sokka preens a little at that. "Well of course it did. I'm the world's most awesome wingman, and manly bonding time is my specialty."

Zuko nods and concentrates on the fireworks from there. He even wishes Mai well on her journeys adventuring across the globe. Everyone should do it at least once, and not purely for the sake of hunting the Avatar. She'll probably have fun.

Sokka, seeing the contemplative look on his friend's face, clears his throat, awkwardly. "You uh, you don't want to talk about your feelings or anything right now, do you? Because that's not really my thing. That's my sister's thing, not mine."

Zuko smiles a little, wryly. "I don't want to talk about it."

Sokka relaxes visibly at being let off the hook like that. "Great fireworks," he says, eventually. "You put that together yourself?"

Zuko shakes his head. "Chu Wi, I think. He wanted my birthday to be spectacular. Probably to offset the whole thing with Mai."

Sokka nods once. "Man's got flair. I didn't know they made fireworks in the shapes of your face."


They manage to idle like that for a few more minutes, just watching the fireworks, while people ooh and aah in the distance and the komodo rhinos stamp their feet and settle in for the night, down in the comfort of the stables below.

Eventually, something occurs to Sokka. "Hey, did those fangirls of yours really think that you and I were…"

Zuko shrugs. "Probably." He doesn't need to turn to the side to know the weirded out expression that Sokka is making; it's a lot like the one he'd made when the fangirls had insinuated that Zuko and Katara should try dating. "We did spend the whole day running away from them together."

Sokka shakes his head in disbelief. "Man, is there no such thing as friendship between men anymore?"

Zuko snorts. Then adds, "Maybe you should get rid of the purse."