Zuko’s phone vibrates underneath his pillow.
Still half asleep, Zuko bats at it blindly, instinctively trying to turn off an alarm...that won’t turn off. Groaning a little, he manages to open his eyes just enough to blink blearily at the screen, and it takes an embarrassingly long time to register that the reason he can’t turn his alarms off is because someone’s trying to call him.
Not just someone—Sokka is trying to call him.
It’s 3:23 in the morning.
Zuko groans again, mumbling under his breath about how this had better be good, and swipes to answer.
“H’lo? What the fuck, Sokka?”
“Hey, Zuko? I’m so sorry to wake you up. I know it’s a ridiculous hour. ”
Because Zuko is an idiot and also still half asleep, he nods into the phone before realizing belatedly that no one can see him.
“S’okay,” he says. It’s impossible to miss the tension in Sokka’s voice, like he’s vibrating. Nobody should be vibrating at this hour. “What’s up?”
There’s a moment of brief, uncomfy silence and when Sokka answers, his voice is quiet and very wrong.
“I. Um. I was wondering if you could come pick me up.”
Zuko sits up, suddenly very awake. His heart’s jerked out of its slow, steady rhythm and feels like it’s living in his throat.
“Are you okay? What happened? Where are you?” The words tumble out of him in a quick, panicky rush. Zuko pushes himself out of bed, grabs a hoodie out of his closet, and fumbles around in the drawer for his keys. “Yes, I’m coming to get you. Where are you?”
“Can I—can I tell you what happened when you get here? I’m fine, I promise, I just don’t want you to freak out.”
Zuko’s already on the driveway and unlocking his car, throwing himself into his seat, keeping the phone tucked between his ear and his shoulder.
“I’m already freaking out. Tell me where you are.”
Sokka tells him. It absolutely does not make anything better to know that Sokka is on the side of the interstate about five exits down, alone in the middle of the morning. It doesn’t help at all.
“I should hang up and let you drive—“
“No,” Zuko interrupts, already pulling out of the driveway at too quick of a speed for the suburbs, “No.” It's not for his own sake at all is what he tells himself. Yes, he’s shaken, but more so because it’s clear that Sokka is upset and that’s what feels unacceptable. “I mean, if you want me to, I can. Do you want me to hang up?”
The vehemence is a surprise but also gratifying, and at the next light, Zuko switches to speaker and sticks his phone in the cup holder.
“Then I won’t,” he says. “I’m right here, and I’m on my way. I’m coming.”
Sokka’s response is a few quiet, trembling breaths that sound deafening in the surrounding silence. Zuko takes his cue and sets up an awkward litany of what he hopes is soothing nonsense, verbatim from all the times that Uncle has had to talk him through a panic attack. It all means absolutely nothing, of course, except that it at least helps calm himself down.
Sokka doesn’t say another word throughout the drive, except to make quiet noises every time Zuko testily questions whether he’s still there. It’s weird and awful for him to be so quiet. Zuko’s the one prone to moody silences, and it’s weird to be on the end of one from someone who, as a general rule, is way better at using his words.
Zuko expects to see some flashing hazards or something as he approaches where Sokka says he’s broken down, he sees nothing. That’s also weird. The dark, anxious hollow in his guts gets a little deeper, and when he finally manages to catch sight of Sokka’s grey four door, he can’t hold back his gasp of horror.
The whole back end is crunched.
That’s the best way to describe it. The back half of his car, crunched up like an accordion all the way up to the driver’s seat, and Zuko cannot see him. Is Sokka still inside that mess? If he was, why wouldn’t he have called somebody else? Anyone else? Someone who could actually help?
Zuko veers off to the side and flicks on his own hazards. He’s still on the phone call when he flings himself out of his car and shouts, “Sokka?”
His own voice is tense and reedy and Zuko doesn’t recognize it.
He’s hung up on and a dark shape uncurls out of the grass beside his wrecked car, and Zuko doesn’t think twice about barreling towards him and tugging him into his arms. Sokka’s in one piece, at least, even as he winces in Zuko’s tight hold.
Zuko pulls back, suddenly terrified that he’s hurt him.
“Fuck, I’m sorry, I didn’t even—are you hurt? Did I hurt you?”
The only light is from a distant street light and from Zuko’s own headlights, but he tries to scope out any injuries anyway. Now that he’s looking, he can pick out the form of a dark bruise forming above Sokka’s eyebrow. There’s no blood, but there doesn’t have to be.
“You didn’t hurt me,” Sokka says, “The only thing that hurt me was the fuckhead in the truck who rear ended me and then left me.”
Zuko’s cold fear shifts into a familiar, comforting rage. Someone crashed into him, hurt him, and then left him. Zuko is going to kill a man.
But not until he fixes this.
Zuko brushes off Sokka’s feeble protests and reaches out to cradle his friend’s cheeks in his palms, leaning closer to examine his pupils. The fear is subsiding, now that he’s here, but it doesn’t really make him feel better.
“Get in the car,” Zuko says firmly, mind made up in a way so comforting that it can’t possibly be the wrong decision, “We’re going to the hospital.”
“What? No! It’s a bump. It’s fine.”
“It’s not fine. What if you have a concussion? What if you’re bleeding internally?”
“That’s where the blood is supposed to be! I’m not going to the hospital.”
Sokka scowls at him. Zuko digs his heels in and prepares for a fight.
They go to the hospital.
Sokka tries to talk him out of it the entire time but Zuko’s stubborn on a good day and moreso when he’s been frightened, and will not budge. Maybe he’s crazy, but he keeps thinking that Sokka’s pupils are uneven, or that the way he’s blinking is somehow out of the ordinary, and tightens his hands on the steering wheel. If he holds it until his fingers stop trembling and his knuckles are white, then that’s between him and the spirits.
“Zuko. Zuko.” Sokka bats at Zuko’s thigh with a hand, when it becomes clear that he won’t be changing his mind. “I can’t afford this. It’s nothing, it’s fine, I can’t afford thousands of dollars in hospital bills on the off chance that I’m really hurt. You get that, right?”
Zuko frowns, feels the telltale throb of what will likely promise to be a nasty stress headache forming in the furrow between his eyes.
“You have insurance,” he points out tightly.
“Yeah, but it won’t cover the whole thing. Come on.”
“Whatever it doesn’t cover, I’ll take care of.”
Zuko got exactly one good thing out of spending his teenage years sending his shithead father to jail until he’s about ninety, and that one thing is a company trust fund. Technically he’s not supposed to mess with it much until he’s thirty, but this is important. Sokka is important. Uncle’s the only one who’d have to deal with it if it became a problem, and Uncle would understand.
“I can’t let you do that.”
“And I can’t take you home without knowing that you’re okay.” It’s hard to be honest, harder than anything, but the words spill out of him without Zuko having to force them. “If.” He swallows hard and doesn’t think about the things that will hurt him, “If it turned out that—that we missed something. I don’t think—I can’t. Okay? I can’t. You’re seeing a doctor whether you want to or not. Whatever we need to do, we’ll figure it out.”
Zuko realizes, distantly, that there’s no reason to be a we. Sokka is a grown up adult with good insurance and a decently paying job. They’re not married. They’re not even dating. He’s only been the love of Zuko’s life from the moment Zuko realized what he wanted and Zuko knows that if anything was going to happen, it would have happened by now. Even so, Zuko’s been in deep for years, and even if he wasn’t…
Sokka is his very best friend.
Zuko’s let enough people walk away from him and never come back. If Sokka’s going to leave him, it’s not going to be because he’s hiding an injury that could have been prevented.
That headache is going to be bad. It’s going to be real bad.
Zuko doesn’t know what his face looks like, but it’s bad enough that Sokka’s next indignant slap to his thigh gentles on its way down, becoming a soft tap instead.
“I’m okay,” Sokka mumbles, “I really am. You don’t have to worry so much. Don’t look at me like that.”
“Not your fuckin’ business how much I worry.”
Sokka has nothing to say to that except a conflicted twist to his mouth. Zuko parks as close to the entrance as he can and definitely doesn’t hover, even if he has to shove his treacherous hands into his pockets to keep from reaching out for Sokka’s arm.
Miraculously, it’s a short wait. The nurse working the desk takes Sokka’s insurance card and gives him a few papers to fill out, and before long Zuko’s alone in the emergency room waiting area, trying not to crawl out of his skin while also not looking too hard at anybody.
Sokka comes out eventually, juggling a white paper sack of prescriptions and a stapled packet of care instructions. Zuko does hover, then, shamelessly and blatantly.
“What did they say?” He asks, ignores Sokka’s protests as he reaches out to take the bag out of his hands before he drops it.
Sokka doesn’t have to let him but he does.
“Super mild concussion and a lot of bruising.” Sokka makes a gesture that traces the lines of an invisible seatbelt across his chest and belly. “Nothing major. I’m okay. My guts and blood are all where they’re supposed to be, and the doctor said I was good to go home, take some drugs, and go to bed. That means that you can breathe now, buddy.”
He’s so relieved that he honestly doesn’t think that he could speak if he tried, but Sokka’s content with the quiet. He doesn’t question the way that Zuko doesn’t drive him back to the townhouse he shares with Aang but to Zuko’s rented apartment instead. He doesn’t make fun of the way that Zuko is very, very careful the entire drive back home. He doesn’t question what they’re going to do about his wrecked car still on the side of the road on the interstate.
That’s future Sokka’s problem and he’ll figure out when he gets to it.
It feels like Zuko manages to blink just once before he’s pulling into his assigned parking spot in front of his apartment and turning off the car. Before he can unbuckle his own seatbelt, Sokka’s reaching across the center console to grab at his sleeve.
“Hold on a sec,” Sokka’s not looking at him but Zuko freezes anyway. “I just. Um.” He looks up now, and the sincerity on his face is so open and genuine that Zuko feels his heart stutter in a traitorous vibrato. “Thank you for coming for me. For answering even though for all you knew, I could be drunk and calling about something stupid.”
It’s not like Sokka wouldn't have had other options if Zuko hadn't answered. He could have called Aang, or his sister, or if he was desperate enough he could have called his dad. Even so, Zuko’s glad that he called him and gladder still that he had answered. Sokka has no shortage of people in his life, and while it used to make Zuko jealous, now it just makes him feel grateful to be able to be one of them.
It’s hard to make words happen, and he spends a few seconds too long swallowing hard like a frog overflowing with feelings, but Zuko manages in the end.
He means to say you’re welcome but that isn’t what comes out.
“I’ll always come,” spills out of him, a very quiet, very honest avalanche. “I’ll always answer. If you need help, I always want you to call for me.”
Sokka squeezes a little at the fabric of Zuko’s sleeve, covers up his flash of vulnerable surprise with a loose, easy smile.
Sokka makes a weak, half-hearted attempt at trying to insist on the sofa but Zuko absorbs exactly none of it. He gently hustles his best friend into his bedroom and over to sit at the edge of his bed. It’s still sleep-rumpled and messy, because Zuko didn’t bother to straighten it before leaving, and something about Sokka sitting in the middle of his mess is pleasing.
“Don’t lay down yet,” Zuko tells him firmly, “I’ll get you some water for your meds and then you can get some sleep.”
“I really can just take the—“
“Shut up. Not happening. Not a chance in hell.” What kind of friend would Zuko be if he did such a thing? How could he sleep at all, knowing how badly the couch downstairs hurts anyone under five and a half feet? He should get a new one. Zuko will buy a new couch when he gets paid, just in case.
For now, though, Sokka stays exactly where Zuko wants him: in the midst of Zuko’s space, a clear bit of calm inside his hurricane.
Zuko leaves and then comes back with water, watches Sokka carefully read through his prescriptions and down the appropriate pills. Then and only then does Zuko allow him to lay down.
“Thank you again, for coming for me.”
Zuko feels his fingers begin to buzz and buries them in the fabric of his pants.
“I already said, didn’t I? I’ll always come.”
Sokka just kind of boggles at him and Zuko reaches out to press at his unbruised shoulder to encourage him to lie down. Sokka yields to the pressure and allows himself to be pushed, very gently, onto Zuko’s pillows. Normally he’d tease about the mother henning and the way that Zuko gathers up the edges of his comforter to tuck up around his body, but Sokka’s either content to be bossed around or simply accepted that this is happening whether he likes it or not. The slow, disconnected way that he’s blinking has Zuko inclined towards the former.
“Go to sleep. If you need anything, holler. I’ll hear you.”
Sokka’s already half asleep by the time Zuko’s started talking and completely out of it by the time he’s finished. For a good moment, all Zuko can do is stand in his own doorway (like a creep, good lord, thank god he’s already asleep) to convince himself that Sokka is still breathing.
Sokka is fine. Sokka is laying there, sleeping comfortably, in Zuko’s bed, in Zuko’s home. There’s no safer place that he could be. There’s no place that Zuko would rather have him.
This doesn’t stop Zuko from spending a good fifteen minutes hyperventilating in his bathroom, trembling fingers gripping the edge of the counter and his entire face in the sink. Somehow he manages to not throw up but it’s a near thing, and he still spends a few minutes with head in the toilet just in case. It’s not the worst panic attack that Zuko’s ever had but it’s not a pleasant experience, zero out of five stars, would not repeat.
He’s survived everything else that life’s thrown at him and, like always, Zuko survives this too. Eventually he manages to find his own bones again and drag himself upright, weakened and shivery like a newborn kitten. There’s coffee leftover from the previous morning in the pitcher that didn’t get cleaned today, and Zuko chugs it without a second thought, before rinsing it out and preparing another batch to brew.
Sleep will not happen. Zuko knows this and knows better than to try. He’s too on edge and still running off of residual terror that has nowhere to go for anything good to come of sleeping, and he’s always been better at fighting through it anyway. Coffee will at least keep him awake and functional enough until it’s safe for him to crash.
He’ll pay for it when the time comes, but that is future Zuko’s problem to worry about it. Current Zuko downs his first cup of coffee standing up at the kitchen counter before pouring another and then settling down at the kitchen table to look up reputable towing companies.
When Sokka wakes up, his first thought is a sharp, orchestral ow.
His whole body hurts from his head to his toes, so intensely startling that it takes an embarrassingly long time to remember why he hurts so bad. On instinct, Sokka digs the heels of his palms into his eyes and regrets it immediately.
“Ow,” he grumbles, “Fuck. Fuck me.”
The sun is shining brightly through Zuko’s bedroom window, and Sokka bolts upright. He regrets that too.
Shit. He’s supposed to work today. Shit, shit, shit. How’s he supposed to work like this? How’s he even supposed to get there? Are they going to think he abandoned his job? Sokka’s brain barely registers the door opening and a fluster of movement in the doorway before hands, strong and familiar and gentle, are pushing him back down into Sokka’s puddled cocoon of blankets.
“I was supposed to—“
Zuko’s interruption draws him up short.
“Calm down, I already called you out.”
Sokka goes still.
“You. You what, now?”
Zuko stares at him, managing somehow to look both endlessly patient and impatient all at once. Maybe a little annoyed? Or just exasperated. But his eyes are warm and his face is fond, so Sokka figures that he’s not, like, mad about it or anything.
“Called you out,” he repeats. “I told them what happened and that you’d had to go to the hospital, so you’re excused for the rest of the week. Your boss says to tell you to take it easy or she’s coming to find you and sit on you.”
Had to go to the hospital, as if Sokka hadn’t been stubbornly bullied into going in the first place.
Still, it’s a relief to know that he doesn’t have to go in for the next few days. His chest aches a hard, persistent throb, and Sokka’s tempted to rub at it. He doesn’t, but Zuko’s eyes flick instantly over as if he knew exactly what was happening.
“I called your sister too, she said she’d come around this evening after her classes and make sure I’ve kept you in one piece.” Sokka tries not to wince. Katara is a hurricane on a good day but being in the process of getting a medical degree has amplified those tendencies up to eleven. Sokka will be lucky if she doesn’t come by with twenty-five bottles of orange Gatorade and a vat of chicken soup. “It’s been long enough,” he offers, “You can take your meds if you’re in pain. Probably should eat first, though.”
“You offering?” Sokka’s joking, except that Zuko jerks his head in the direction of his kitchen.
“I was. Um.” Something in the way that Zuko’s holding himself, tense and closed off and very careful, sets off alarm bells in Sokka’s brain. He can’t nail down what it is, exactly. Not bad —not anything like hell on wheels, pre-therapy Zuko of high school infamy, but not right. “You know I’d be happy bumming some cereal off of you, right?”
Zuko’s face doesn’t change, doesn’t so much as twitch, but it doesn’t have to. Sokka’s known his best friend long enough to know when he’s chosen something to be stubborn about.
“No,” he says firmly and with no room for argument. “I can do better than that.”
“You don’t have to—“
“I can do better than that,” Zuko repeats, and then turns on his heel and walks out. Sokka can only sit there, still half-covered in Zuko’s blankets and warm from his bed, and wonder what he’s missing.
Sokka basks in the relieved, lazy knowledge of not having to go to work today before the pain in his body and the hollow in his guts demand that he drag himself out of bed. Zuko’s bed, he reminds himself as he makes a half-hearted attempt at straightening the comforter enough to look like he tried a little. He wonders, idly, if he probably could have convinced Zuko to bring him breakfast in bed.
Probably, his brain teases, and Sokka squashes the thought down.
Zuko’s done enough for him in the past twenty four hours. Maybe if Sokka didn’t have so much to be grateful for, he’d take advantage of him a little bit. Instead, Sokka gives a pillow one last perfunctory fluff and heads for the kitchen.
Zuko’s normal breakfast for himself is usually whatever leftovers he’s got from pretty much any meal that isn’t breakfast. Sokka’s not remotely picky but he loves breakfast, and has to add one more thing to the annoyingly long list of nice things that his best friend has done for him in the last day when he smells the unmistakable smell of French toast. French fucking toast.
“You’re gonna spoil me and then I’m never gonna leave,” Sokka comments from the doorway.
Zuko flips a piece of sizzling brioche in the pan and says nothing. It makes Sokka want to poke at him a little.
“How about it?” Sokka teases. “I’ll just scuttle around your house like a cockroach and make you take care of me until you can’t stand it anymore.”
Zuko gives the brioche another aggressive flip in the pan before he slides it onto a waiting plate. He doesn’t return the teasing. He also doesn’t deny it.
Turns out that it’s not just French toast—it’s French toast perfectly fried and just this side of crispy, with sliced strawberries and banana and drizzled with thick syrup that actually came out of a glass bottle shaped like a leaf. A mug with coffee, already lightened with cream and sugar, is pressed into Sokka’s hand without him asking for it.
“How’s your head?”
Zuko doesn’t like to eat a lot in the morning, but it’s going on eleven o’clock now. He consumes coffee only, until Sokka bullies him into accepting a syrupy banana slice off of his fork. He should be eating something, at least. It’s almost lunchtime! Zuko eats the banana slice, winces a little at the sweetness of it, and then downs his own entire mug of coffee.
Oh, shit. Sokka’s been asked a question.
He shrugs a little.
“It’s not awful.” The worst pain actually comes from his chest. Sokka hasn’t checked yet but he’s sure that he’s a rainbow of bruising between the impact and the seatbelt, and he has a feeling that drugs are very much going to be in his future. “Can you get me some of…” Fuck. They gave him so much shit last night. Sokka doesn’t even know what he needs.
He doesn’t need to know, apparently, but Zuko at least does. He’s actually already arranged Sokka’s meds in a neat line on the countertop, and he gets up to eyeball them.
“Is it okay-bad, medium-bad, or bad-bad?”
“Eh, I’m still upright? Let’s go with medium-bad.”
Zuko plucks a bottle out of the lineup, carefully measures out a pill into his palm, and offers it to Sokka with a glass of water. It’s testament to Sokka’s unshakeable trust in him that he doesn’t even ask what it is before he swallows it down with a swig of the water.
“Do you need to go back to bed?”
Zuko’s face is so anxious and earnest that it physically hurts. Sokka doesn’t know what to do with that kind of care.
“It’s fine,” Sokka insists, trying hard for a grin. Zuko’s hovering, while sweet, is not something that he’s used to. “I’m off work for a week so this can be like a vacation, right? I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
This is a joke that Sokka has made before. It’s familiar on his lips like an old friend, and he waits for Zuko’s inevitable huff of exasperation that always comes when he says something that’s patently nonsense. That huff never comes. Instead, Zuko’s face goes very still, like he’s frozen, and Sokka knows instantly that he’s made a mistake.
There’s a pause, a shift, and for just a moment, Zuko looks devastated.
Before he locks it down.
Sokka’s so thrown and baffled that Zuko’s already turned away from him by the time he gets his shit together, taking the plates off the table and taking them to the sink. He scrubs at them with a ferocity that’s neither needed nor deserved, until his own hands and knuckles are red from hot water.
“Zuko, I—“ He stops, watches the stiff line of his best friend’s shoulders, starts again, “I’m sorry. I know it’s not funny. You know that’s how I deal with shit. It wasn’t funny. I’m sorry.” Sokka hopes that that’s enough, that it’s enough to settle things down, but it’s not.
Zuko hands still for as long as he speaks, but he doesn’t turn back around. Because he doesn’t want Sokka to see what kind of face he’s making? Because he doesn’t trust himself to keep it together?
Sitting at the kitchen table and somehow still finding himself being waited on, Sokka flounders.
Zuko in a tiff is normally so easy. Scuffle around on the ground a little if he’s gotta, pet a neighborhood dog or two, mess with him until he explodes. This isn’t Zuko in a tiff. This is Zuko, very possibly having the quietest meltdown that Sokka’s ever seen, and he doesn’t think that letting himself be put into a full nelson is going to help matters. At any rate, his pain meds haven’t quite kicked in yet, so wrestling at all is out of the question.
It’s a shame, because it generally tends to be foolproof.
He frowns at Zuko’s tense, hunched shoulders and wishes that he could see his face.
“Hey, bud?” He asks, voice dipping into the kind of soft, quiet cadence he might use on a stray cat, “I think I changed my mind. I’m not feeling great. Can you come sit on the couch with me? Come on,” Sokka wheedles and makes grabby hands. “Help the infirmed.”
Maybe it’s mean to poke at Zuko’s guilt to get what he wants, but it’s the only road that Sokka can see right now. And he really does feel like garbage. In the end, despite himself, Zuko helps Sokka out of his chair and very gently plonks him onto his sofa. It’s horrendous for sleeping but it’s lovely for sitting and for a quick catnap, and there’s only a couple of sriracha stains. Zuko tries to escape but Sokka grabs him by the hem of his t-shirt and yanks hard, reeling him in until he has no choice but to collapse into his own squashy, floral cushions.
Sokka refuses any attempts at eye contact and instead fumbles for the remote for the tv and switches it to the trashiest thing he can find that requires the least amount of brainpower—something about buying a house, or switching husbands, or something like that. Low effort is where it’s at.
“How’d you even manage to sleep on this last night?” Sokka mumbles. He leans a warm line against Zuko’s body—shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, thigh to thigh. The throbbing pain in his chest and belly is finally beginning to fade, so quickly that it leaves him feeling airy and breathless. “It’s too short, man. You’d be all— pfft, you scrunch up like a slinky.”
Zuko’s scrunching up now. The couch really is too short for anyone who isn’t good buddies, and luckily for Sokka, he and Zuko are good buddies. Great buddies. Best buddies. Bosom buddies.
Shit. Is he high? Is Sokka fucking high right now?
“You might be,” Zuko mumbles. “Those are some serious painkillers. No heavy machinery for you.”
“So much for my forklift dreams.”
“Or just generally driving a car.”
Sokka remembers his baby, crunched up on the side of the interstate, and wants to cry a little. He does not do this. He does let out a tiny groan of grief and drag Zuko closer with a vice grip arm around his shoulders. “That’s not the point. Stop playing dodge dick with my question. It’s not nice. How’d you sleep?”
“...Didn’t,” Zuko finally answers, and when Sokka gapes at him, he won’t meet his eyes.
“Dude, no wonder you’re wigging out right now.” Sokka swings his whole torso into Zuko’s shoulder. Pain meds are delightful. “It’s because I took your bed, right? Nobody can sleep on this thing.”
Zuko swallows hard.
“Don’t you wanna go take a nappy nap? God, I could take another fucking nappy nap. Hang out underground and ferment a little, vibe with the worms—“
“Stop talking about dying.”
Zuko wrenches himself out of Sokka’s grip and scrambles to his feet like a rocket. The composure he’s been trying to hold onto so hard is in tatters and Sokka can only boggle at him. He’s never seen someone look so much like they want to never see him again and simultaneously like they can’t ever let him out of their sight. He looks upset and furious and also really tired, and Sokka is exhausted just looking at him.
And suddenly Zuko’s behavior makes a lot more sense.
“Okay,” he says, very quietly. He’ll say anything he has to if it gets Zuko to fix his face. “Okay, sorry, bud. No dying jokes for a little bit.” Or at least until he gets a nap.
Zuko scrubs his hand hard across his eyes. He’s not crying, he’s not, but it’s an imminent threat regardless. Sokka’s too tired to be walking on eggshells but his heart hurts over it anyway.
“Can you come sit back down, please?”
Zuko shakes his head, silent and still looking like he’s replaying scenes from a horror film behind his eyes. Fine. Be like that. Sokka hauls himself bodily up off the couch. Zuko, despite himself, is propelled into action, and immediately reaches out with both hands to grip Sokka underneath his armpits like an unruly cat.
“Go sit down,” he says.
“Not til you do,” Sokka tells him. “I’m high as tits and I’ll do what I want.”
Zuko glares at him but, like, in a distressed way.
“Actually,” Sokka amends, “I changed my mind. I wanna go back to bed. Take me away.” Sokka’s not sure how much bossing he can get away with before Zuko tells him to fuck off but he hasn’t hit the limit yet, apparently, because a stabilizing arm wraps around his waist and helps drag him back into the comforting familiarity of Zuko’s bedroom. Sokka takes a second to puddle on the mattress before he remembers why he did this in the first place, grabs Zuko by the pockets of his pants, and yanks.
Zuko’s stiff and motionless in his own bed. Sokka pats him on the head.
“Shhhh,” patting turns into petting, “Be comfy. I’m a comfy guy so be comfy with me. I’m too high to do emotional labor. Shhhhh.” He’s not actually that high and they both know it, but it’s awfully convenient. Still, Sokka is a resourceful kind of guy and it seems like the petting is helping a little, so he does it more.
Slowly, very slowly, Zuko uncoils.
“Good job, good job,” Sokka coos, “Good boy.” Zuko’s bed is great. He’s never spent this much time in it before and he doesn’t ever want to get out of it. It’s even better with Zuko in it. “Take a minute, take a breath, take a break. Everything is fine. It’s okay. We’re okay.”
Is he saying it for Zuko’s sake or for his own? Does it matter?
“...You scared me,” Zuko finally mumbles, his face buried in his own arms. Sokka’s hands on the back of his head go pat-pat-pat. “I saw your car and it didn’t matter that you were okay. It didn’t matter what the doctor said. I just—“ he visibly flounders, curls into a tighter ball of anxious misery. “I didn’t mean to be weird about the way you handle your—your stuff. You can say whatever you want. I just—I don’t like to hear it. I don’t even want to think about it.”
Zuko’s so stressed out that he’s vibrating. Or maybe Sokka’s so high that the world is vibrating. In the end, it doesn’t matter.
“I was scared too,” Sokka whispers, so quietly that if things hadn’t already been silent, no one would have heard. Even as medicated as he is, it still feels like an exposure. “I’ve never had an accident before; I didn’t know what to do. I think that’s why I called you first.”
Zuko goes very still. Sokka keeps going.
“I knew that if—if I could get you to pick up, you’d take care of it. That’s what you do , man. As long as someone can keep your shit together, you’ll make sure that everyone comes out in one piece.” He swallows hard. “So here I am, and I’m gonna help keep your shit together so that I can come out of this in one piece, okay?”
Sokka thinks of his crumpled car abandoned on the side of the interstate and wants to cry. Has anyone come and towed it, yet? Has anyone pulled over to check that he’s not still trapped inside? That’s a thought he hasn’t had yet, and one that he’s been actively avoiding in order to keep from spiraling about it.
“I don’t—“ he chokes a little around the sudden, unexpected lump in his throat, “I don’t know that I can do this shit without you right now. Okay? Can you keep it together for me? Please?”
Sokka’s not sure what he expects in response to that admission but it definitely isn’t the hug he gets. Zuko stares at him for exactly half a second in horror and Sokka knows that he heard his voice shake, and then flings his arms around him and hauls Sokka, very carefully, into his chest. Somehow, Zuko manages to curl his whole body around Sokka’s frame, tucking his face stubbornly into the juncture of his neck and shoulder.
“I’ve got you.” Zuko’s voice is quiet, barely a whisper, but so determined that Sokka has to believe him. “I’ll take care of it. I’ve got it.” And like this, Sokka believes him.
“Thank you for calling my boss,” Sokka mumbles into Zuko’s chest. He feels kind of floaty and he’s not entirely sure if it’s because he’s high or if it’s from nebulous relief at having someone else deal with it. It being the equally nebulous concept of anything remotely stressy right now. “I’d be dy—I’d be miserable right now if I had to go in.”
“I know,” Zuko says, voice just as muffled, into his hair. His breathing’s been kinda funny for the past few minutes but he finally seems to be calming down properly. Sokka thinks, for a moment, that he imagines Zuko closing his eyes and pressing his nose to his temple.
Sokka feels warm and safe and like he doesn’t have to worry about a thing.
Sokka bursts into tears.
Zuko goes frozen even as his hands flail, as if he’s not sure whether to shove Sokka away or pull him closer. Sokka doesn’t let him make the decision, buries his face into the fabric of Zuko’s t-shirt instead.
“I left my holographic Charizard in my glovebox.” Tears, hot and shameless, drip down Sokka’s cheeks and onto Zuko’s clothes like a flood. “I forgot it. Fuck. I forgot it.”
Zuko’s arms around him squeeze and hold. His heartbeat that was finally beginning to slow is thundering rabbit-quick in Sokka’s ears.
“Sokka, it’s just—I know it’s your favorite, but it’s not—“
All Sokka can see right now is the crumpled wreckage of his own car in the dark. He saw it from the inside before he dragged himself out, and he saw it while he waited for Zuko to come get him, and he saw it in the rear view mirror as they drove away.
And he sees it now.
“You don’t get it, I forgot it.” Sokka feels like he’s drowning under waves of metal and his head throbs. “What if I—what if you hadn’t—?” Just a little bit farther, a little bit harder, a little bit different, and maybe Sokka wouldn’t be here right now. He’s been trying so hard not to think about it but now it loops in an echo in his head.
Zuko’s next inhale stutters like he’s been hit. His hold on Sokka is still very, very gentle even as it feels like it’s the only thing that holds him together. He’s Sokka’s very best friend and probably the only person who’s going to understand that Sokka’s grief doesn’t stem from losing a pokémon card.
This time it’s Zuko’s turn to pet Sokka’s hair. He rolls over, just a little, so that his weight is pressing Sokka down into the mattress.
“I’ll go get it for you,” he says softly. “When you feel better. I’ll go get it for you.” Zuko sounds a little like he’s soothing and a little like he’s pleading. Sokka would laugh at him except that he’s still crying too hard to do anything else. It shouldn’t be remotely comforting but god , it is. Sokka feels, at this moment, like he could ask for anything without reprimand or rejection. That’s a dangerous game because Sokka doesn’t know how to stop asking until he’s told no.
“You’re too good to me,” Sokka sniffles. Zuko’s weight is like a weighted blanket and he’s very aware of how much weight he’s putting down and where to avoid all of his bruises; the pressure coming from anyone else would feel smothering but from Zuko? It makes Sokka feel cared for and precious.
“Not enough, though.” Zuko doesn’t make eye contact where he says it, even though Sokka jerks his head up to goggle at him. He opens his mouth to interrupt him in the contrary, only to go abruptly silent at what comes out of him next. Because Sokka doesn’t recognize the look on his best friend’s face right now. For the first time in years, Zuko Huo is completely unreadable to him. “What’s enough, anyway?”
For some reason, this of all things is what is what rattles Sokka down to his bones.
“Don’t leave me, please.”
Maybe it’s cheap and selfish to ask that, but it’s not enough to stop him. Sokka feels like a baby the instant the words leave his mouth but he can’t take them back.
Zuko stares at him, a little horrified. His lower lip gives a single, treacherous tremble before he visibly clenches his jaw and then, very gently, he drops his head forward to press his forehead to Sokka’s. He always seems to run hot but right here, right now, like this? Sokka has never been warmer.
“I’m here,” Zuko insists. With every word his voice gets louder, as if that will somehow make him more believable. “And I'm not going anywhere. I’m here and so are you.”
Sokka kisses him.
It’s probably the dumbest thing that Sokka’s ever done but right then at that very moment, there’s nothing that can keep him from it. He doesn’t know how to do anything else, not when Zuko is so sweetly, awkwardly kind.
And then he realizes what he’s done.
“Shit,” he whispers. “Shit.”
Sokka waits for what seems like an eternity for Zuko to snap out of it and yank himself out of Sokka’s grip and...it never comes. He doesn’t even pull away, his lips motionless against Sokka’s for so long that every point of contact feels fizzy.
He tries again.
“Zuko, I’m sor—“
Zuko shuts him up by kissing him back. Zuko is brash and impulsive and prone to throwing things but he knows very well how to be gentle. He’s gentle now, ever as he uses his hands to tip Sokka’s face to a more comfortable angle. Sokka breathes a shaky breath into his mouth, and when Zuko finally pulls away, the look on his face is so quietly pleased and nakedly affectionate that Sokka’s heart pounds.
“Don’t say sorry,” Zuko butts in before Sokka can try apologizing to him again. “Unless you didn’t mean it.”
Sokka’s words get caught in his throat and he chokes a little on them. Mean it? Mean it ? How could Sokka not fucking mean it? Does Zuko think he goes around kissing every pretty face that makes him breakfast and keeps track of his meds and offers to dig his favorite Pokémon card out of his totaled car? How many people like that does Zuko think he has in his life? How fucking many, Zuko?!
“I meant it. Of course I meant it. Who the fuck wouldn’t mean it? You think I go around kissing everybody like a common harlot, or Aang ? You trying to say I’m easy, Zuko Huo?”
Zuko’s mouth cracks into about the sweetest smile that Sokka’s ever seen in his life. It’s too sweet and Sokka cannot handle him looking like that, not even a little bit, not even at all.
“Is this a good time to tell you that I’ve made a list of all the top-rated towing companies in the area and have them arranged in a folder by price and number of positive Yelp reviews?”
There isn’t anything that Sokka can do in response to that other than to wrap his arms around Zuko’s neck and squeeze as hard as he dares.
“Only if this is a good time to tell you that I love you dearly but also you’re a crazy person and I’m not doing shit all until both of us get some sleep.”
Zuko opens his mouth to protest except that no words come out. He doesn’t even deny being a crazy person, which he is , just boggles at Sokka like he doesn’t know what to do with him. He looks shocked and happy but also kind of like he’s going to start crying. Sokka can’t have that, not even a little bit, and gives him another squeeze.
“Come on, sweetheart,” he says gently, “Sleep time, then you can feed me some more and tell me I’m pretty.”
“And deal with your car.”
“And deal with my car,” Sokka agrees.
“And wait for your sister to show up with gallons of soup.”
“And get your Pokémon card.”
“And get my— hey, quit distracting me and roll over. I’m gonna use you as my pillow. Can I kiss you again?” Zuko nods so enthusiastically that his hair flops into his face. He rolls over onto his back and Sokka crawls half on top of him, presses his lips first to Zuko’s temple, then his cheek, then once more to his mouth. Zuko melts into it and sighs so deeply that if he were anyone else, it would sound fake as hell.
It’s not fake, just all of the tension leaving him, leaving him slack and boneless underneath Sokka’s body. Zuko spends so much time being held upright by his own anxiety that the moment it’s gone, he’s a helpless puddle. Sokka pets his hair a little more and kisses him again.
“Sleep,” he insists. “Then other shit.”
“Then other shit,” Zuko mumbles in agreement. He sounds half asleep already and when Sokka picks himself up enough to look at him, he is, blinking blearily up at the ceiling like it’s all he can do to stay awake.
“Sleep.” Sokka’s allowed to bully him a little now. He’s got rights. Kissing rights. “Sleep with me, honey.”
And then Sokka yanks the blanket up over the both of them, tucks his face into Zuko’s shoulder, and then knows nothing else.