My first Avatar fic. Sorry about the slightly lackluster ending.

Aang may have been the Avatar, but that didn't mean he ever really abandoned his culture as an Air Nomad. Sokka had only first realized that consciously when they visited the Northern Air Temple, and his friend had freaked out so much. Of course, there was nothing wrong with Aang refusing to abandon his native way of life, even if finding him healthy vegetarian meals was a bit annoying at times. As the last Air Nomad in the world, it would've been ridiculous for Aang to throw away his traditions – if he did, they'd be lost forever. Sokka understood Aang's clinging to the old ways, could see how much those meant to his friend, and it killed him a little when Aang's glider was destroyed or when Aang had to abandon shaving his head in order to keep a low profile. Those were necessary adjustments to life on the lam, yes – but that didn't mean Sokka had to like them, not when he could see how much they cost Aang.

So Sokka understood why Aang wasn't exactly taking the completely removed view that Avatars were traditionally supposed to. It was enough, wasn't it, that Aang attempted to understand other cultures as well as his own, even those of the Evil Nation? Of course it was. Balance was all very well and good, but no one was infallible and it wasn't like Kyoshi or Roku had really abandoned their homes and people either. Well, Roku had to some extent, but he'd still managed to settle down enough to have kids (who had kids who had kids who had Zuko) so he couldn't have been too entirely impartial to the world. There just wasn't anything wrong with that.

But something Sokka did notice, after a while, was that even the cultures of the other Elements that Aang tried to keep in mind and incorporate into his understanding of the world and its various peoples – well, those were a century old too. Aang was set in the old ways to an extent no one probably even noticed, hidden as it was behind his fun-loving and slightly air-headed personality. He tried, but never quite with all his heart, to adapt to the new ways.

No, oddly enough, the person who incorporated most traits from all the various elemental peoples was actually Zuko, Crown Prince (then Banished Prince, then Wanted Prince, then Reinstated Prince, then Traitor Prince, then Fire Lord… he'd been through a lot of turmoil, huh) of the Fire Nation. Sokka didn't realize this all at once, of course. It took a while, but once he started looking, there were signs everywhere.

He wouldn't have started looking at all, wouldn't have ever considered the idea in the first place… but Zuko could swim faster than him. Faster even than Katara unless she used Waterbending to give herself an added advantage, and he could hold his breath far longer than either of them.

The gang discovered this little fact a relatively short time after Zuko joined them, and at the time he'd just shrugged, uncomfortable when faced with Sokka's bruised Water Tribe pride. "The Fire Nation is really just a series of islands," he told them, "and unlike the South Pole, the water there doesn't give you frostbite. I used to swim a lot. Diving is good Firebending practice."

No one understood that at all, until Aang's eyes lit up and he raised his hand, splashing eagerly up and down in the water. With a roll of his eyes, Zuko pointed at him.

"That's because Firebending comes from the breath! If you can hold your breath for a long time, then – you can make more... I guess?" Initially very sure of himself, Aang trailed off uncertainly, but Zuko nodded curtly. Sokka still didn't like the idea that Zuko of all people was a better swimmer than he was – but, well, it made sense when put like that, and he had to let it go.

But after that he'd kept his eyes open, and had begun to notice other details about Zuko that didn't seem to quite fit at first, until you thought about it and then they too made perfect sense. The first things Sokka noticed were related to the first revelation; he'd been on the lookout for any other similarities in culture to his own, determined not to be bested again in his own arena.

He fished far better than Zuko, which was a relief; of course, Zuko explained that away by saying that as Prince, no one had ever really made him catch his own dinner before. But Zuko swore (when he swore, which wasn't often) like a sailor, with that simply impressive range of epithets no other profession ever really acquired. Sokka had been proud of his own abilities in that regard, but ever since that one time when Toph pranked Zuko by sliding the dirt under his feet in a way that made him stumble, stub his toe, then fall into the cookpot, he freely acknowledged Zuko's greater skill there. Well, there was something to be said for traveling the world three years straight – you just picked some stuff up.

Once that thought had hit him, Sokka looked to see what else Zuko had picked up… and what he saw surprised him. Perhaps he'd just never been privy to this side of Zuko before, or perhaps these abilities were recently acquired during Zuko's time spent in hiding in the Earth Kingdom. Still, he never would have guessed previously that Zuko knew how to sew, even if it was limited to stitching together ripped clothing. He could weave grass hats, too, and once again they weren't particularly well-made, but the fact that they had been successfully made at all was just odd.

And it was in the way Zuko moved, as well – Sokka couldn't quite explain it, but sometimes Zuko walked like Toph did. Firm, stable steps that kept him fully grounded and made it even odder that in his Blue Spirit guise he seemed to float, like a real ghost or spirit, like Aang of all people.

Fire was the element of aggression. Water used its opponent's strength against them, Earth defended, and Air avoided. If all that was too complicated for someone, all they'd have to do would be look at the footwork of the various benders, and they'd understand.

Maybe that was why Zuko got along oddly well with Toph. They had a lot in common. Not so much the fact that they both came from the upper-upper classes, but more in their mannerisms and personality, the extreme stubbornness so inherent in their natures. They both would choose something and stick with it, far beyond the point of reason or even ordinary stubbornness. Compared to the resolve Toph and Zuko put into even the simplest things, Aang's oft-sidetracked quest to defeat the Fire Lord was a bit embarrassing.

Of course, that much determination and resolve could be a bad thing, too – hell, no one else would've ever put up with the craziness of Zuko's family and still been loyal enough to spend three years searching the world for a superpower that had been missing for a hundred years and which, if found, could presumably destroy any enemies in an instant. Putting the jerk's determined chase of them like that, Sokka was kind of amazed anything had managed to break Zuko's loyalty at all. At least he could pretty much count on Zuko not betraying them; now they'd finally gained his loyalty for themselves, and Sokka for one sure didn't plan to maim his friend, send him on a hopeless quest, then try to kill him for not doing it one hundred percent perfectly against all odds.

But Sokka wondered, sometimes, just how Zuko had grown up into the sort of person who would think that way so stubbornly, cling so much to his status as even Banished Prince, look down on the other nations so much – and yet unexpectedly be the one to bring back healing herbs one day when Sokka ate a poisonous berry. None of them recognized it as poisonous, either, but Zuko took one look at the array of fruits and snatched them away from the rock Toph had formed into a table of sorts.

"Are you all imbeciles?" Zuko had hissed. "Have you already fed the Avatar these? They're deadly poison."

Of course, Sokka freaked out and tried to spit it back up, but it didn't really work, and internal injuries were difficult for Katara, so they had no idea what to do. Zuko just snorted and left. Twenty minutes later he returned with a handful of rounded leaves, which he used to make the most disgusting tea Sokka had ever tasted.

"It – it's supposed to taste that way!" Zuko claimed, but his cheeks also got rather red, and Toph snorted, so Sokka doubted it. Still, gross flavor or not, he wasn't immune to the fact that Zuko had just saved his life or at least serious stomach pains.

That time was much harder to get Zuko to explain how he'd gained his knowledge of the berry and antidote, leading Sokka to suspect that Zuko had done the same thing at some point. Iroh would've healed him of course, and given the Dragon of the West's knowledge of tea, Zuko's antidote probably tasted absolutely heavenly, which was just unfair.

But more importantly, that incident brought about a little more openness in their relationship, giving Sokka the opportunity to do what he'd been a little nervous about for some time: ask for a spar. Ever since he'd seen the dual dao blades Zuko carried, he had wanted to test himself against them, but it was an awkward place to go, asking for a fight like that. Zuko agreed pretty easily though, and that was how Sokka ended up cementing his theory that had Aang not made it and the Avatar cycled through to Fire by this time, then Zuko would've been it.

Zuko fought like the world in balance. He moved light on his feet, acrobatic like an airbender at first, only to leap back solidly once Sokka had gotten him in a tight space, and shift his clever evasions into a counterattack that would've made even Master Pakku proud had it involved waterbending at all. This next clashing of blades brought Zuko to and advantageous spot higher on a slope than Sokka; and for the next ten minutes, no matter how he tried to maneuver the fight away from that place, Zuko held his ground so firmly as to be incredibly irritating. All the while, he waited – and when Sokka got frustrated and left an opening, Zuko lunged into it with a reckless surge of aggression that brought fire to play along the metal of the dao blades and ended with Sokka flat on his back with a foot on his chest and two halves of a sword on either side of his neck.

And even though Sokka instantly claimed Zuko's win didn't count because he'd used firebending at the end there, and refused to admit otherwise, from that moment on he trusted Zuko. Truth be told, he really admired Zuko. Maybe part of that was because Zuko was the only boy close to his own age he'd ever really gotten to know well, and maybe part of it was because Zuko was willingly taking on the world's most difficult task of peacefully governing the world's most hated and violent nation despite being only sixteen years old and very unsuited towards politics (seriously, Aang kind of had it easy – at least once he defeated the Fire Lord, he was done).

But mostly, Sokka respected Zuko for being able to pick up on enough elements of all the nations – and enough perspectives from all the different peoples; every now and then Zuko burst out with this very empathic perspective on beggars or thieves or sailors or farmers – to be able to embody them all so effortlessly, so unknowingly. Everyone could identify with Zuko; there was something in him that spoke to everyone, from good to bad to just plain weird (Sokka refused to believe that Zuko could ever have a good explanation for his creepy knowledge of whatever makeup Katara sometimes tried to wear, even if his defensive excuse of Ty Lee being responsible was eerily easy to picture).

So by the time, years after Zuko had been Fire Lord, they finally found Ursa and discovered that she was not only a skilled firebender, but also conversed with spirits; in fact, when in exile she had hid her bending and relied on her knowledge of spirits to make a living – by that time, it didn't come as much of a surprise that Zuko had always been spirit-touched. He'd been born far too early and nearly died, and Ursa prayed to Agni for his life.

That night, she had dreamed of the Spirit World, and in the morning Zuko was already recovering. Zuko was surprised to hear this tale, and actually let slip a favorite saying of his father's, which made Sokka kind of want to visit him in prison and kick him in the teeth: 'Azula was born to be lucky; Zuko was just lucky to be born.'

Seriously, that explained a lot of things about Princess Psychopath.

But the enraged Ocean Spirit at the North Pole hadn't killed Zuko, and Avatar Roku had favored him greatly whenever he got the chance to do so without revealing too much. It was just a fact: the Spirits had their eyes on Zuko, and honestly Sokka couldn't muster up even the slightest bit of shock. Everyone had their eyes on Zuko by that point, anyway; the entire world was watching the Fire Lord very carefully. Their reasons ranged from mistrust to hatred to loyalty to worry for him, but the fact was that Fire Lord Zuko lived a life in the world's thoughts just as much as in reality.

Well, it kind of sucked, but that was the way it had to be in the wake of a century-long war. Sokka wasn't stupid enough to expect otherwise, and Zuko never complained about it – he was full-swing back into the whole 'this is my duty' and 'that is my honor' and 'get some manners you infuriating Water Tribe peasant and stop dripping fruit juice on the throne room floor' mentality by this point. You couldn't get him to complain about his job no matter what you did, except the general sort of 'work sucks' complaining whenever the nobles got too snooty or someone tried to assassinate him again.

Sokka wouldn't ever want that life for himself – but he couldn't deny that Zuko had always been meant for it. And honestly, if he had to choose one person for the world to focus on, in these days when the nations struggled for peace and an example of true balance was desperately needed… he wouldn't recommend Aang, Avatar or no. He'd vote for Zuko every time.

Because Fire Lord Zuko was the world in balance, whenever he allowed himself to be. And even if no one other than Sokka ever consciously realized that, maybe it would worm its way into their subconscious and they'd start to emulate that kind of reality. Then Zuko really would lead the world to peace, although he'd never realize it because he would take it the wrong way and be horribly insulted if Sokka ever tried to explain to him.

With Aang to be the cheerful hero, and Zuko to be the surly balance, the world would right itself in no time. Sokka believed that.