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For Your Sake

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             When Suki brings out the old, expensive-looking sake bottle from Zuko’s family’s abandoned kitchen, Sokka and Zuko are the only ones who stay interested. Aang and Katara refuse to try it. Toph takes one sip, ignoring Katara’s glare, and announces that it “sucks compared to the good Earth Kingdom stuff.” Suki takes one sip before agreeing with Toph’s assessment. Sokka isn’t sure when it happened, but now it’s just the two of them, passing that bottle back and forth by the fire Zuko started at sunset. Sokka is sure that he feels pleasantly warm, passing the bottle back and watching Zuko recount a story from Aang’s training earlier that day. It’s nice, this sake. And it’s nice that Zuko’s finally on their side, because really, he’s wasted on the Fire Lord and his evil minions. Too nice, for one. Underappreciated as a fighter. Underappreciated in other ways, too. The way his eyes glow in the fire light, and his arms are super buff, and his lips are curved upward, and he’s…staring at Sokka? Like he’s waiting for him to speak?

            “Sokka,” Zuko says, and he sounds slightly exasperated. “Are you listening?”

            “Uh,” says Sokka. He can’t think of a witty response, and he can’t stop looking. Every time he tries to slide his eyes away, they go back to Zuko’s lips. Sokka’s not sure how he never noticed how soft and moist they look before today. Thankfully, Zuko drops whatever he was talking about. When he closes his mouth around the bottle and takes another sip, Sokka’s throat goes dry. Zuko holds the bottle out and quirks his eyebrow. “Yes?”

            “Uhhhhhh,” Sokka says, again, because now that Zuko’s lips are off the bottle, he’s having some vivid mental images of Zuko putting his lips on other places. Preferably on Sokka’s face, but you know, if Zuko wants to get creative…

            And if Sokka were by himself, in his room (but he usually sleeps next to Suki, his traitorous, sake-fogged brain whispers. She’s his girlfriend. Kind of. Maybe. You know, it’s really unclear. They should talk about it.), he might let that line of thought continue, but Zuko’s still there, kissable lips curving into a slow smile, so Sokka takes stock of the tightness in his chest and pants and resolves to change the subject to the least sexy thing he can think of.

            First, he needs to grab the bottle out of Zuko’s hands and take another gulp. “Do you think we’re all gonna come out of this alive?”, he blurts.

            “Uh,” says Zuko, because apparently, it’s his turn to be speechless now. When Sokka holds out the bottle again, Zuko takes a swig, and Sokka’s eyes drift to his face, now pensive. Zuko takes another long sip before answering.

            “Well, in the Fire Nation, we learned that it was a great honor to die for the glory of the Fire Lord.” He lets out a dry, humorless chuckle.

            It’s really, really not funny, which is why Sokka’s laugh comes out stilted and only a little short of hysterical. It’s also why he makes sure the bottle is in his mouth before he responds, and spirits, how did they already drink half of it? Maybe that’s why he has to focus so much to get his words out. Zuko’s sad, serious expression isn’t helping, so Sokka clears his throat and points dramatically at Zuko, finger bumping into his chest. “You,” he says, a little louder than normal maybe, but it needs to be said, “are no longer loyal to the Jerk Lord of the Jerk Nation, so it’s a good thing you’re living through this. Cause Aang is. And Katara and Toph are. And—” he hiccups for a good thirty seconds, and by the end Zuko’s smile is real again— “Suki is. And I am. So you double need to, cause the Jerk Nation needs you to restore it to it’s former glory of not being jerky. Not in the tasty way.” And maybe talking about Zuko becoming the next Jerk—Fire Lord is the wrong thing to say, because Zuko’s (soft, beautiful) lips are frowning again, and he’s reaching across Sokka’s body to grab the bottle and take another long swig. But his face brushes Sokka’s as he reaches, so close that Sokka can smell his sake-laced breath, so it can’t be that bad. And after Zuko takes that swig, he moves so that instead of facing each other, they’re on the same side of the fire, shoulders touching. Zuko takes another deep sip before passing the bottle to Sokka and opening his mouth.

            “I don’t know if I’ll be a very good Fire Lord,” Zuko whispers, his words slurred like they weren’t before. His head drops sideways, closer to Sokka.

            Sokka’s mouth drops open. He turns his head, which maybe isn’t the best idea because now Zuko’s beautiful lips are right there and it’s making it even harder to focus through the sake fog, but— “How could you say that?”, he blurts, and Sokka’s definitely yelling because Zuko’s unscarred eye widens and he recoils, reintroducing the space between them.

            “Sorry,” Sokka says, much quieter. “I didn’t mean to yell.” He takes a sip and offers the bottle to Zuko again, keeping it close enough to his body that Zuko has to move his body closer. Zuko does, eyeing Sokka like a startled young polar bear-dog, but when Sokka doesn’t shout again, Zuko settles back into their previous position. “It’s just,” Sokka says, wishing he’d taken another sip of the sake, even though his tongue feels heavy and the firelight is moving in a way it wasn’t before, “You’re so strong. And brave. And kind. And beautiful. You’ll be a great Fire Lord.” Beautiful? Tui and La, did he really say that? Should have just offered to be the Fire Lord’s consort as a gesture of goodwill between their two nations.

            The idea of being Zuko’s consort is sending Sokka’s brain back to places he thought he’d left behind, so he’s beyond grateful when Zuko finishes his sip and replies, tactfully not mentioning Sokka’s slip. Or maybe Zuko didn’t notice, because his golden eyes are semi-glazed, and now that Sokka thinks about it, haven’t Zuko’s sips of sake been a lot longer? And is that bottle almost empty? “It’s not,” Zuko says, and he’s definitely slurring his words, head lolling onto Sokka’s shoulder, “It’s not about being strong, or brave. It’s about loyalty. I was banished, and I had to regain my honor, and I came back, and then I betrayed them. How do you think the Fire Nation will feel, having the traitor prince on the throne? How do you think my father’s advisors will feel?” Zuko turns his head away, whispers so softly that Sokka barely hears. “How am I supposed to feel?” It looks like there might be tears on his unmarred cheek, but the world is really spinning now, so it’s hard to say. Sokka’s finding it hard to say anything. He may be the chief’s son, but he knows it’s not the same. The Fire Nation is the only country with a single ruler, not like the Water Tribes and their villages. Sokka’s really not sure how it works in the Fire Nation, but he resolves to find out as soon as the war ends. He’s already the plan guy. He can be the government guy.

            Thankfully, Zuko keeps talking. “It’s not just that I’m a traitor to them. I was gone for three years. Three years where the crown prince is supposed to start learning about the intricacies of ruling. And the rituals.” He tilts his head back and when he hands the bottle back to Sokka, there’s only a sip left. Sokka dutifully takes it, but almost chokes when Zuko moves again, moves so they’re facing each other. So close that if Sokka moved his arm a little, he could cup Zuko’s scarred cheek and—

            And what? Sokka shakes his head and plunks the empty bottle down hard enough to kill that thought. When he tunes back in, he realizes that Zuko has picked the bottle off the ground and is now gesturing with it, in the middle of some tirade Sokka missed because he was fantasizing.

            “—court of the Fire Lord has rituals and traditions with sake. It’s customary for the crown prince to join, starting in his mid-teens. And I don’t even know those, because I was chasing the Avatar around the world in exile, so how am I supposed to know the other things and prove myself as the rightful head of the Fire Nation?” Now Zuko is shouting, and behind his back the fire shoots up. Sokka starts (he’s not scared, it’s just—fire is scary). He tries to cover it up, but Zuko notices—and why is he so spirits-damned perceptive about all the wrong things—and buries his face in his hands. The fire reduces to some smoldering coals while Zuko mutters “And now I—fuck, I’m sorry, I’m so—,” and when Zuko hiccups and looks up, Sokka sees how unfocused his guilty eyes look, and tugs Zuko toward him. It’s a testament to how wasted Zuko is now that he doesn’t jump at the sudden force, just lets himself be pulled until his head is on Sokka’s shoulder.

            When Zuko’s body settles, Sokka picks up the empty bottle of sake and waves it under Zuko’s nose. Once Zuko is looking at him quizzically, Sokka says, “I don’t know. I think this is a pretty good ritual. Passing a sake bottle back and forth in front of a fire? You should institute it after you become Fire Lord. Definitely a lot more fun than whatever they would have taught you at that stuffy old palace.”

            Zuko chuckles. “A lot needs to change.”

            “Yeah,” Sokka agrees. “It does.” His hand has somehow found its way into Zuko’s hair, but neither of them are moving away. Sokka tugs a strand and adds as lightly as he can: “You’re the right guy for the job. And—” Zuko stiffens, but Sokka plows on. “You won’t be doing it alone. You’ll have all of us.”

            There’s silence, long enough that Sokka wonders if Zuko has fallen into a drunken sleep. Then he hears a soft “Thank you.” He looks down to reply, but Zuko is smirking and whatever Sokka was about to say has fallen out of his brain and knotted in his stomach. Zuko speaks again, louder this time.

            “You have some great ideas. Maybe after I’m Fire Lord I should make you an ambassador.”

            Sokka would prefer consort, but he’ll take it.

            “What?”

            Did he say that out loud?

***

            Sokka wakes up at sunrise with a pounding head, just in time to watch Zuko peel himself off the ground. At some point in the night, they fell asleep next to the fire. Zuko’s weight was pressed on Sokka’s side, and his arm and head hurt, but Zuko looks even worse than Sokka feels. So when Katara comes out with her “I-told-you-so” face, Sokka finds himself praying to Yue that her lecture ends quickly. Mercifully, she says nothing and leaves them with two cups and a pitcher of water. Even more mercifully, she’s alone. When Aang and Toph come out a couple hours later and start chatting (or mocking their hangovers, in Toph’s case), the headache takes a turn for the worse. At some point in the morning, Zuko and Aang disappear to train. By the time Suki returns from the market with food, Sokka’s headache is rivaled only by his stomachache. He eagerly takes firsts and seconds. When he’s reaching for thirds Aang and Zuko stumble into the courtyard. Sokka moves over so Zuko can sit next to him, but his chest still warms pleasantly when Zuko takes the seat. Zuko looks…slightly less dead than that morning.

          “Future ambassador Sokka,” Zuko whispers.

          Sokka jumps. How much does Zuko remember from last night? He tries not to worry about it, cracks a smile and doesn’t drop his cup. Success. “Yes?”

          Zuko groans. “Never, ever, ever let me drink that much ever again.”

          Sokka bursts out laughing, and soon Zuko joins him. Sokka attempts a sitting bow. “Of course, future Fire Lord Zuko.”

         Ambassador will do.

         (For now).