Disclaimer: I own no rights to the characters, universe or plot devices that are derived from 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' and may be used herein. I mean no offence by posting this and make no money from it.
Sokka's never regretted this thing they've got. Never once. Well, okay, maybe a few times. More than a few times. Mostly all the time except when they're actually, you know, doing the thing.
Zuko's... well, he's a good guy. Heart of gold. Or fire or whatever, which is practically golden anyway, to hear all the old guys in the long robes talk about it. So yeah, Zuko's a good guy and more importantly, he's on their side and so Sokka doesn't really care if Zuko's got the manners of a komodo rhino.
Twice in four days now has the Agni-given Fire Lord actually shot fire at one of his advisers.
Zuko being a good guy, though, he pulls his punches. The first one didn't even fizzle the air around General Cho or whoever it was. The second one went left and burned the tapestry instead. It was a pretty ugly tapestry so Sokka doesn't think anyone minds.
The worst part of all this is that no one else seems to care. General Cho or whatever the guy's name didn't do more than lean backwards a bit. And the other guy, who was saved by what might just be bad aim, only bowed low and said he apologised if he had caused offence.
Sokka had to shake his head a few times to see if anything rattled. He even stuck a finger in his ear experimentally, in case taking a bath had left some water in there that was distorting his hearing but that wasn't it. He hadn't misheard and he hadn't gone mad so it stood to reason that there was only one explanation.
Zuko is being an ass and no one's calling him on it.
As a friend paying another friend a 'visit', Sokka isn't sure he wants to have this conversation. Also, Aang has said nothing and the Avatar of all people can tell when someone is being an ass. Sokka has no particular love for the Fire Nation and being a little harsh could only be good for the evil bastards who almost took over the world and killed everyone he loved. But Zuko is moving from beyond harsh into tyrannical.
Which is strange.
Sokka wouldn't have thought Zuko would be so openly tyrannical. Not with his 'I am not my Father' guilt-trip and his 'I care about my people' honour.
But there it is. And maybe, Sokka thinks, he shouldn't be so surprised. Zuko comes from a family where everybody seemed to want to kill everybody else. Hell, at one time everybody seemed to want to kill Zuko. And everybody who didn't, didn't seem to want to fight the people who did.
Sokka could get protective about things like that. Not that the Fire Lord needs protecting. Especially from a Water Tribe nobody who can't actually best him in a fight, even two out of three with Zuko not allowed to bend.
Sokka is seriously considering going to find Piandao for some more training.
He could do it easily enough. It isn't far to where the Master lives. He could take a bodyguard, maybe Maki, that young kid who keeps dropping his sword and doesn't seem to know which way to hold it. He'd have company. Maki knows really dirty jokes and Sokka knows a kindred spirit when he sees one.
His eyes widen. Maybe, he thinks suddenly, maybe he could get Zuko to come too. They'd need a couple more bodyguards, of course, but it would be worth it. They could camp out, like when they were kids, and there'd be all that fun stuff with being other places that weren't the inside of a very expensive and very breakable palace.
Seriously, it's like living in a museum. After two days of exploring the place with the palace steward saying 'that's irreplaceable' or 'that's an heirloom' or 'that's three hundred years old, sir, don't drop it', Sokka was ready to scream.
He's been 'sir-ed' so many times he thinks he might go mad. 'Sir', indeed! He's only eighteen. Yeah. And they know this because he's the same age as Zuko and Mai, and when those two were together two years ago some old law guy had muttered a lot about barely legal.
Sokka doesn't hold with barely legal. If he was old enough to die taking down Fire Nation airships two years ago, then two years later he is definitely old enough to be pounded into the mattress by a Fire Lord who was born only four months before he was. Is barely an inch taller. Maybe a little bit broader. Weighs a bit more. Whatever.
Anyway, Aang was only thirteen when the whole Fire Nation was out to get him so no. Law guy was told roundly where to shove his ancient and unimpeachable written edicts of the Fire Nation.
But beyond the sex thing, two years doesn't make a hell of a lot of difference with being 'sir'-ed.
Zuko said it was just 'showing proper respect' but where Sokka comes from, respect has a lot to do with age or wisdom or both. There aren't, as he has tried to explain, that many ranks in the Southern Water Tribe. Never were.
Especially not once the Fire Nation ruined their small towns and cities and decimated them to a bunch of people who lived in igloos hoping to survive the winter. Even the well born, such as they are, buckle down and roll their own sleeping furs, fetch their own water.
And it isn't as if Zuko doesn't understand that. That's what Sokka really can't wrap his head around. They've been to the South Pole. He went back with his Dad and Zuko eventually trailed after him on a ship like some lovesick prince in one of Gran-Gran's old stories- almost scaring the life out of warriors who really didn't have good memories of soot mixed with snow- and Sokka would, for the record, like to say that he didn't swoon into Zuko's arms with 'yes, my love, I'll be yours' and Zuko had been too frozen to make pretty speeches.
Sokka had got an 'I want you to come back with me'. Which was pretty romantic anyway. So much so, he agreed suspiciously to pay a visit, just to see how it would go.
And then they'd been stuck having a long talk because Hakoda was not going to let his son wander around being some painted palace trollop and Sokka never, ever wanted to hear that description again, because it made Zuko tease him for weeks about that time on Kyoshi Island.
"It was warrior's face paint," Sokka insisted.
"Not the way you looked in it," Zuko mumbled, and licked the inside crease of his elbow in such a way that Sokka's knees gave a funny tremble and slid out from under him.
Which, in the end, isn't the point. The point is that Sokka came back. He came back to Caldera to live in a suite of rooms much bigger than four of the tents he grew up in, with a door that connects him straight to the Fire Lord's private apartment where no one except his personal bodyguard and his five personal servants are allowed, and there seems to be something wrong about the whole deal.
"It's not her fault," Sokka said quietly, not two days after they got back, winded from hearing Zuko bark viciously at some poor girl who'd brought him the wrong tea leaves from the cabinet.
Zuko shot him a look but didn't answer.
Which Sokka was okay with, mostly due to the fact that Zuko often doesn't answer the things he says. Because Zuko is gloomy and short when he isn't making speeches about peace and honour and the Avatar, and even then Zuko is gloomy and short, though somewhat apt to talk in flowery sentences.
The girl got it right on the second try and Zuko thanked her. So Sokka didn't think much of it at the time.
Then the deal with the two advisers happened, both times when he'd sat in on the Council meetings for fun.
Then there was the time that Zuko had thrown everyone out of a formal dinner that he himself had organised. Sokka had no idea where to look because he'd been talking to someone and then Zuko had kind of just cleared the room, snorting like some fire breathing dragon.
There was the Captain of the Guard that Zuko had shouted at for fifteen minutes straight in his study, which everyone passing by could hear, and then there's the way he dumps his things and leaves them there for the servants to pick up.
A trail of clothes to a very naked Fire Lord in bed is okay so long as it's done for Sokka's benefit- once or twice, say, so it doesn't get old too fast- but the problem is, it's someone else picking up after them now. It's not done only once or twice. And Sokka frankly is beginning to feel some pity for the poor people who clean up after Zuko.
The funny part is that Zuko is never like that with him. Sokka would have expected it from a guy as prickly as a boar-q-pine and with a temper like a mad panther bull. And if Zuko had treated him like a fragile flower of maidenhood, well, Sokka would have gotten a little shout-y himself.
But it isn't like that.
Zuko is considerate enough for someone who's running a country. He assumes Sokka isn't a shrinking phoenix violet and leaves him to do his own thing. He jostles him, he annoys him, he teases him, and when the doors are closed he is more than happy to get a little touchy-feely. They have their little romantic interludes, though for them it's the very special occasion of a midnight sparring session with a lot of sword action and sweaty muscles and watching the sun rise in lax contentment from under the tree beside Zuko's mother's turtleduck pond.
With the way Zuko behaves to everyone else, Sokka was expecting to sport bruises soon, or be told he was an idiot and don't meddle. Or even, horror of horrors, be pushed around like some possession. Like he was just another servant, only a very high class one who served the Fire Lord in a very dirty way.
But that isn't it at all. So why, Sokka frowns, is Zuko being so weird?
By the time Aang turns up, over a month later, Sokka is seriously fed-up with the attitude.
"What's his problem?" he demands, when he can finally get Aang alone.
Aang looks wide-eyed and innocent and says, "Have you met Zuko's family? What did you think he'd be like?"
Sokka's jaw drops.
"Also," Aang says, "These people don't understand anyone being nice to them. Some of them, you really have to shout if you want to get things done or they think they can walk all over you. Zuko's learned from his father and they learned it from their fathers and now that's just what they do."
"But- but... the war's over," is all Sokka can find to say. It pretty much boils down to that in his head anyway, because if the war is over, and if the good guys won, then all this violence and hatred and suspicion is just stupid.
Aang pats him cheerfully on the shoulder. "It takes a bit of getting used to."
"Do you yell at people here?" Sokka asks, dying to see that.
"Sometimes. If I'm in the meetings with the Council. But not at the servants or anything."
"Zuko yells at the servants."
"Zuko likes yelling," Aang says, and carefully selects a ripe moon peach from the huge bowl in his room.
"Yes, but he's vicious to the servants."
"I know. I don't like it myself but you never know. Maybe they did something wrong?"
"Still. I don't... it's really weird."
Aang talks through his mouthful of moon peach- "You should talk to him if you're so worried."
"Maybe I will," Sokka says, and thinks maybe he has to.
It's bad enough Zuko acts like an ass but it seems Aang's getting into the act too. What is it with the Fire Nation? Do they put something in the food?
He runs Zuko to earth looking at some maps with two guys who are beautifully dressed in rich, stiff robes.
"Sokka, come in," Zuko says, and his mouth softens.
Sokka hovers in the doorway for a minute and waits to hear a bellow telling him to either get in or get out but either way shut the door. Nothing happens. Zuko watches him patiently for a couple of long seconds and then introduces him to the men. Who turn out to be engineers. Go figure.
"We've got a landslide problem here and here so we're trying to get another road system set up," Zuko explains.
Sokka bends over the map, rubbing his chin and frowning as his brain ticks over, trying to examine what little he understands of landslides in general.
The next thing he knows is that Zuko goes tense beside him, and then seems to radiate that pure anger and disgust that makes the air heat up and stands the little hairs on Sokka's arms upright with static, and then he opens his mouth.
"What the hell do you think you're doing? Get out," he snarls, and Sokka's head whips up, wondering what he's done wrong.
But Zuko isn't looking at him. He's glaring at his engineers. Both of whom look guilty.
"What?" Sokka yelps, and flails a bit wondering what he's missed.
Nobody's answering him but the two the men look cold and resigned as they make their bow and then make themselves scarce.
"Zuko, what the hell just happened?"
"I won't have insubordination in my palace. I am the Fire Lord! I will be treated with respect."
"But they didn't say anything."
"They didn't need to," Zuko says darkly.
And Sokka is really, seriously creeped out, because that's Ozai talk and Zuko from two years ago would have known that. Would have looked embarrassed and ashamed and would have sunk into a gloomy pit of self-doubt. Well, sunk further into the pit.
"Get a grip," Sokka snaps, "Nobody said anything! What did they do- give you a rude gesture? Stick their tongues out at you? What?"
"You wouldn't understand."
"No, but you've been nasty to tons of people for ages and I don't understand that at all. What's going on? What am I missing? What happened to...?"
He wants to end that sentence with 'Zuko' but since 'Zuko' is standing right there, it maybe implies that the Fire Lord is not 'Zuko' and if it does, then Sokka's stuck wondering if Zuko will just say this is not working for them, obviously, and Sokka should just go back to the Southern Water Tribe where he belongs.
Sokka wouldn't mind, except he likes Zuko. He came to the damn Fire Nation and let his Dad talk about painted palace trollops for Zuko. He knows he used the word 'vacation' but he had really hoped that it wouldn't end up being such a short stay.
So he ends that sentence with a lame, tame, "... you."
And it seems to do the job. Zuko looks confused, and then upset, and then hesitant, and then blackly determined and, frankly, a little angry. Like, smoke from nostrils angry. Sokka is fairly sure there's smoke in the air. He can smell it.
"You want to know what happened just now?" Zuko asks.
"Those guys were insulting you."
Sokka's brain fails to compute. "How? They never said anything to me."
"They looked it," Zuko tells him.
This isn't getting any better. Now Zuko's moved on to Azula talk.
"When we were looking at the map, those picken-brained little shits pointed at you, and then did this-" Zuko holds up two fingers, spread apart, and slips his tongue down them to where they spread.
It's clearly sexual so Sokka feels the faintest wisps of need wake up and bid him a cordial good afternoon. He ignores them.
"Maybe it was a compliment?" he suggests weakly, "Or maybe they just think it's funny that you want to sleep with a guy like me. You know, no birth, no beauty- all that stuff that girls need to get a Fire Lord. Or guys, because I'm clearly not a girl. Nothing girlish about me at all."
He's babbling, he knows he is because Zuko is raising an eyebrow, looking like Sokka just hasn't got it and is being an idiot.
"Look," Sokka bursts out, "It doesn't matter. Gah, I'm not some girl, Zuko. Those clowns want to make stupid gestures behind my back, it's not my problem. Anyway, I do that. Nothing wrong with people knowing what I do. I'm not ashamed."
"Trust me," Zuko says blandly, "You are ashamed. That's a big enough insult that you'd fight an Agni Kai for knowing they used it against you in another country."
"Because it means you don't take turns. You just... take it."
"Take... oh. Like I'm always...?"
"Yeah. That's the basic meaning. The rest of it is that you're a whore. And girly. And you'd do it anywhere at any time with anyone with not much incentive."
"That's the, er, definition of 'whore' alright," Sokka says.
Zuko studies him. "Feeling insulted yet?"
"Yeah, but it can't all be about that. What about those servants? The Captain you yelled at? Those people who came for the dinner?"
"The Captain failed to notice the illegal gambling den that's been operating in the grounds of my palace. He also failed to notice that most of the men on night patrol end up at this gambling den, leaving my palace mostly unprotected. The nobles were pretty much the same as the engineers. You really had no idea they were all laughing at you?"
Sokka feels his knees go a bit trembly again. And that's the good thing about good ol' Zuko; he knows just how to be blunt and brutal and honest.
"No. I mean, no one was actually, you know, saying anything to me."
"It's like that. It took me a year to get them to stop laughing at me too. I thought I was going mad or seeing things, but after I lost my temper they were all so scared they forgot to actually pretend not to look guilty. They did the same thing with you at the dinner. How did you not notice?"
"I wasn't looking."
"It's kind of hard to see, I guess." Zuko suddenly sighs and sits down on the edge of the table. "I'm sorry," he says softly.
"Not your fault."
Of course what Sokka is really thinking is that he'd been so caught up in watching Zuko that he'd forgotten to pay attention to what was going on around him. And clearly he'd missed some spectacularly awesome feats of subtle mockery and jokes at his expensive because Zuko hadn't just yelled, he'd ordered everyone out.
It's all a little bit lowering.
"It just takes time," Zuko murmurs, carefully not touching him.
"It's not everyone either."
There's a question brewing. Sokka looks up when he notices Zuko's foot tapping a little nervously.
"I'd understand if you wanted to go home, Sokka."
"Oh. Do you want... I mean, I guess it'd be easier for you. Nobody would be insulting you or, you know, the guy you choose to spend a little time with. Or-or girl. I get that too. You were thinking of marrying someone soon anyway."
Without warning, Zuko snorts. It almost sounds like he finds something funny.
So Sokka asks, feeling like he could do with a bit of a joke now that he's been pummelled in some place in his psyche that he hadn't realised was so tender. "What?"
"Half these people are dead bores and the other half are dangerous. I spend most of my time with them wondering if it's going to be another talk about the annual rainfall or a knife in the ribs that's going to send me to an early grave."
"But you need to have a family."
"I need to turn twenty-one," Zuko points out, "I've got a lot of years left. Yeah, I want to have a family but I don't want to do it now. Besides," he waves a hand, "I've got some distant cousins somewhere. They'll do until I decide it all."
"Distant... cousins? After everything you did to get this throne you're willing to let distant cousins take it?"
"Well, if I married you, you could take it. Only then you'd probably have to put down an entire Fire Nation uprising, and I don't think even the Avatar could manage to take the whole army on without some hassles. And after that, there'd be the problem of your successor. It can't be Water Tribe on the Fire Lord's throne."
"Hey, Water Tribe would be a damn good change to this little barrel of laughs."
Zuko raises his eyebrow at him. "It's not all that funny."
"No, you're right. Fire Nation has no sense of humour. Anyway, I don't want the throne. And I don't think I want to marry you. No offence."
"None taken," Zuko says calmly, "But it still doesn't answer my question- do you want to leave?"
"Because of your moronic Council people? Please, if they want war, they've got war. Water Tribe can be very insulting when we try."
"No! Don't do anything! Let me handle it."
"What, with all the yelling and kicking people out? That never works. Trust me," Sokka throws an arm around Zuko's shoulders and tries not to let the pokey shoulder piece stab him in the armpit, "I've got a few ideas for some payback."
Zuko looks horrified, and then starts to grin, and then wipes his face blank and says, "No, no, no. Oh spirits, you're going to get me into trouble, aren't you? No!"
"Payback," Sokka says firmly, and then, "Hey, wait. That doesn't explain the servants. You yell at the servants all the time. Do they hate me too?"
"Actually, no. They like you. I'm just... kind of used to yelling at servants," Zuko says uncomfortably, "Um, I can try to do better?"
"You might have to. They might start trying to get revenge."
Zuko groans and buries his face in his hands. Sokka pats his shoulder again and really, he feels much better about the whole thing.