Funny, Sokka thought later, how a life could completely change— or end, whatever—in the blink of an eye.
One moment he was huddled with Katara along with some unfortunate Earth Kingdom villagers, watching Aang get smacked around by a very angry black and white spirit monster.
When the spirit wasn’t taking swipes at the Avatar, it was literally punching buildings. At this point, the town didn’t have very many left.
Sokka’s patience finally broke when Aang was struck so hard, he went flying across a field.
“That’s it!” Sokka yelled, rising. “He needs help!”
“Sokka, wait!” Katara called.
Oh, how he wished he listened to her.
But he didn’t. He went charging out of the town hall, slipped and accidentally skinned his elbow, then rushed straight over to Aang. Future savior of the world aside, the little airbender had become like a part of the tribe. And you didn’t leave your tribe to fight angry spirits alone.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Aang confessed as Sokka helped him stand.
Yeah, that was obvious. “It’s okay,” Sokka said. “We’ll figure this out together.”
Then Aang’s gaze focused at a point over Sokka’s shoulder. His eyes went wide.
Sokka didn’t think. He whipped around, throwing his boomerang. “Take that!”
His trusty boomerang hit the oncoming black and white beast… and bounced right off with an actual boinking sound.
The beast roared and swept one hand out to knock Aang to the side again. Then it stood over Sokka. Its jaws parted to show rows of teeth.
Piercing blue light blasted down on Sokka with enough force to knock him to the ground. It was so white hot it felt cold, and so unimaginably loud he felt it in his bones. Sokka might have screamed, but couldn’t hear himself.
Then, just as quickly as it started, it ended. Closing its mouth, the black and white monster raised its head—dawn was approaching, brightening the east horizon. Then it turned away and lumbered back to the dark forest.
“Sokka!” Aang cried.
“I’m okay.” Shakily, Sokka climbed to his feet… and watched in confusion as Aang ran past him.
“Sokka!” Aang called again. His air staff snapped out and he took to the air, chasing after the monster. “No, bring him back!”
“Aang!” Sokka yelled. “You’re going the wrong way. I’m right here!”
The monster disappeared into the forest shadows, gone like it had never been there. Aang flew after it.
Seeing the monster gone, the villagers began to come out of the town hall. Katara pushed past them all and ran forward.
“Aang chased after the monster,” Sokka said, frustrated. “I couldn’t stop—”
His sister ran straight through him.
There was no sensation at all. Not even a little bit of wind. Sokka clutched his chest, more out of shock than anything, and turned. Katara was still running blindly forward, yelling his name.
“Katara? Wait, Katara! I’m here! I’m right here!”
His longer legs allowed him to catch up. She didn’t act like she could see him. Not even when he waved his hand in front of her face.
His sister’s lost and scared expression as she stared into the dark forest broke his heart.
One of the villagers approached her cautiously. “Your brother must have been taken to the spirit world with the others. The Avatar will surely find him.”
“But I’m right here,” Sokka said. No one heard him.
What followed was one of the worst, most confusing days of Sokka’s life. And that was saying a lot, considering his tribe was mired one-hundred years deep in war, and he had spent the last few weeks traveling with the Avatar.
No one could see or hear him; No matter what he did, or how loudly he shouted.
His hands would pass right through objects if he tried to pick them up—and he would pass right through people if he didn’t watch his step.
By lunch, he found out he could just as easily pass walls like they weren’t even there—that was good because people had an annoying habit of closing doors behind themselves.
Sokka was a man of science, and science told him that the spirit had done some magic mumbo-jumbo on him. It must have known how much he hated to be ignored, and had inflicted on him the most annoying punishment known to man.
… Although there were no signs of the other villagers who had been “kidnapped”. Maybe they were as invisible to Sokka as he was to everyone else.
“I wasn’t kidnapped,” Sokka muttered. “I was blasted.”
For lack of anything else to do, he followed behind his sister like a polar dog puppy as she recovered Sokka’s lost boomerang and searched for Aang. He rode in the back of Appa’s saddle — Appa and Momo acted like they couldn’t see him either, which didn’t make sense. Weren’t they supposed to have animal instincts?
He was there when Katara finally found Aang, who was meditating on top of a bear statue.
He watched, making witty, sarcastic comments no one but him could hear as they waited the day out. Hopefully, whatever Aang was doing in the spirit world would fix this.
It had been more than half a day since he went invisible, and he only realized he wasn’t the least bit hungry or thirsty when he watched Katara dig around in his pack for a his stashed seal jerky.
“Hey, that’s mine! I knew it wasn’t Momo who was sneaking around in my pack. You’re so busted!” he fumed. “That’s my special jerky stash. No sisters allowed!”
But, considering how sad and lonely Katara looked, he figured he’d allow her some of the good jerky. This one time.
By evening, the tattoos on Aang’s body dimmed. He woke and told Katara he had been in the spirit world, but hadn’t seen sign of Sokka.
“Because I’m right here!” Sokka complained. “Hello! Open up your ears, Avatar!”
The monster roared in the distance, back towards the direction of the village. The sun was going down and it was back on the attack.
“All right,” Sokka said, reaching for his boomerang only to remember he didn’t have it with him. Well, whatever. His mind was sharper than any boomerang. “Round two. Let’s do this.”
He hitched a ride on Appa, and was startled when Katara stood with Aang against the monster. But before Sokka could think of what else to do (like give the monster a piece of his mind) Aang grabbed up an… acorn, of all things.
“You’re the spirit of the forest,” he said, and wonder upon wonders the angry monster actually stopped to listen. “I was hurt and angry when I saw how the forest had burned, too, but then I saw this. The forest will return, Hei Bai.”
Yeah, sure. In like a generation, Sokka thought.
However, the monster somehow must have thought this was a good answer and shrank down. Suddenly, it was a cuddly looking panda-bear. It turned and wattled into the forest.
… And people started to step out of it. The lost villagers, looking both bewildered and happy.
Sokka watched, heart in his throat, as Katara rushed forward, calling for him.
“Katara… I’m right here.”
Not seeing her brother anywhere in the crowd, Katara turned back. “Aang, where’s Sokka?”
“I don’t know.” Aang scratched the back of his head. “I’m not sure the spirit actually kidnapped him. It sort of roared and…” He stopped and went very pale.
“What?” Katara asked.
Sokka, though, had a bad feeling he knew where this was going. “No. You’re wrong, Aang.”
The airbender looked down at his shoes. “Hei Bai was really angry when Sokka attacked him—”
“I didn’t attack him. I was defending you!”
“Katara, for a second… it looked like Sokka was… was kind of splintering. I had thought he was sort of knocked into the spirit world, but what if… What if he—”
“What are you saying?” Sokka yelped. “I’m not dead. This isn’t death!” His mother always talked about a place beyond. Not a place right here. Plus, everyone with sense knew ghosts weren’t really real. They were just stories told to scare toddlers.
Katara shook her head, her hand coming up to touch her necklace. “No… No, you’re wrong. The Hei Bai spirit took my brother and so it can give him back. Go back to the spirit world and tell it—”
“I can’t!” Aang cried.
“Why not?” Katara and Sokka yelled in unison.
Aang took a breath. “Because when I was in the spirit world, Roku told me I had to meet him at his temple during the winter solstice. He has a message for me, and it’s really, really important I meet him.”
“The winter solstice?” Sokka repeated, hand coming up to slap his own forehead. “Aang that’s only two days away.”
“That’s two days away,” Katara said.
“Hey, I just said that!”
Aang looked down again. “Maybe… maybe Roku will know where Sokka is, and how I can get him out of the spirit world?” Though to Sokka’s ears it sounded like he was just guessing.
Katara, however, managed to look both hopeful and doubtful at the same time.
“Or you can go back into the spirit world now,” Sokka suggested, “and we can head off to Roku the second I’m back to normal!” Of course, no one heard him.
“Where is this temple at?” Katara asked.
“That’s just the thing…” Aang said. “It’s in the Fire Nation.”
Sokka and Katara made identical faces of horror.
Had Sokka actually gotten a vote, it would have been to stick around and trying to get him see-able again.
But he didn’t get a vote, so off to the Fire Nation they went.
It was terrible.
Sokka, it turned out, didn’t need to sleep. He didn’t even feel the urge.
Aang said he was going to keep watch as they traveled, but nodded off an hour in, leaving Appa to fly by his lonesome without anyone steering him. And as much as Sokka yelled, stomped around, cursed, and flailed his arms, he couldn’t wake anyone up.
Not even when a blockade of Fire Nation ships came into view.
Luckily, good old Appa made an alarmed groan which startled Aang awake. Then Sokka had to sit back and watch in (not so silent) horror as they all dodged flaming boulders.
Why were the Fire Nation blockading their own waters, anyway? Who were they guarding it from? The non-existent Earth Navy? And that lone ship down there… was that Prince Zuko’s ship following them, too? Great.
Somehow Appa made is through all the fire and rocks to Roku’s Temple Island just as the sun was starting to sink to the horizon.
… Then it turned out the Fire Sages who manned the temple were treacherous, because they were in the Fire Nation. Of course they were.
Except for one named Shyu, who Sokka didn’t trust at all. Not that anyone listened to him.
He was so sick of this.
No paid attention when Sokka suggested making it look like the locked fire doors had already open, either. Luckily, Shyu eventually came up with the same idea.
They were almost in the clear when Zuko turned up out of nowhere, of course, holding Aang like he had caught the biggest fish in a hunt.
“Let him go!” Sokka yelled, frustrated almost beyond words.
“Or what?” Zuko sneered.
That caught Sokka short. “Wait, you heard me?”
The evil prince didn’t respond, but a look of confusion flickered over his face. His yellow eyes stared straight at Sokka. Not past him, like everyone else.
Then Aang took the opportunity to flip Zuko over his shoulders and dash into the temple doorway as it was closing.
Sokka laughed aloud.
Then… things got even more complicated as Zhao showed up, flanked by like twenty other fire benders. Wow. This vacation to the Fire Nation officially sucked. Sokka wanted a refund.
The newcomers grabbed Katara and Shyu and tied them up to a nearby stone column. To Sokka’s surprise, they did the same with Zuko.
Zuko’s eyes kept flicking to Sokka. He was clearly puzzled why everyone was acting like he wasn’t there.
“Hey,” Sokka said, walking up to him. “You can see me?”
At that moment, he accidentally stepped in the path of a guard who walked through him. Zuko’s eyes widened—well, eye. The scarred one didn’t do much of anything— and shook his head at Sokka, looking alarmed.
“Aha!” Sokka exclaimed. “You can see me! Awesome. Tell my sister that I’m here.”
Pinching his lips into a thin line, Zuko looked away.
“Hello! I know you can hear me!” Sokka stepped in front of Zuko’s line of sight, only to have the prince turn his head the other direction. Sokka balled his hands into fists. “Come on, you soulless jerk. This costs you nothing!”
He was interrupted by Zhao who came over to do a little Zuko tormenting of his own. “This is my lucky day. I’ll return home with the Avatar and the traitor prince…”
Traitor prince? Sokka had no idea what that was about, but as he watched them bicker back and forth he realized: Wow, aside from Zhao tying up Zuko… those two really hated each other.
As the sun finally set, the doors to the temple opened. Katara screamed Aang’s name.
Only Aang wasn’t the one who stepped out.
And that’s why everyone with sense fears angry Avatars, Sokka thought a few moments later as the floor crumbled under them and gouts of actual lava boiled up. In a nifty trick of firebending, Avatar Roku vaporized the chains holding Katara and Shyu—and Zuko, for some reason. Huh. Can’t account for taste.
Zhao’s men were in chaos, running for their lives.
The last sliver of the sun dipped below the horizon at last, and the specter of Roku disappeared to reveal… Aang.
“Aang!” Katara and Sokka rushed forward, but only Katara could catch him before he crumpled completely. “Are you okay?” she demanded. “What did Roku say?”
Aang looked up at her, and his gray eyes were haunted. “I’ll tell you when we’re in the air.”
“But what about Sokka?”
Aang shook his head. “We didn’t even get to talk about Sokka—”
“WHAT?!” Sokka was so frustrated he could scream. “Aang, come on! What am I, chopped seal liver?”
“… what Roku told me was worse,” Aang finished.
Katara looked taken aback, too. Then her lips firmed and she nodded. Appa groaned from where he hovered by the window. The temple was sinking into the volcano. They had to leave.
A flash of movement caught Sokka’s attention. Zuko was escaping out the back, leaping over a literal river of lava to get to safety.
And he was the only one who could see him.
Sokka felt wrenched by the decision, but he wasn’t honestly sure his sanity could take another night of being ignored. And if Aang wasn’t even going to ask about him… it was up to Sokka to follow any lead he had.
“Take care of my sister,” he told Aang. Then he pulled away and pelted after Prince Jerkbender.
I feel bad because so many were looking forward to Iroh's reaction to Sokka. That'll have to wait a bit. (But hopefully the reveal and the reason why I've done what I've done is worth it.)
Also, this chapter is a little short BUT it's also a little early. So there. :)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Sokka followed Zuko as the prince ran down the barren blackstone slope, away from the newly spouting volcano behind them. There wasn’t a spot of vegetation in sight. Seriously, did the whole Fire Nation look like this? It sucked.
“Hey! Jerk! Wait up!” Sokka called.
Zuko actually looked over his shoulder. Ha! He could totally hear him.
“What are you doing?” Zuko scowled. “I forbid you to follow me!”
“Too bad,” Sokka said, falling into step beside him.
Zuko’s ship was docked and waiting on the other side of the island. Now that Sokka had gotten an eyeful of Zhao’s ship, he saw how much of an old bucket of bolt’s Zuko’s was in comparison. Wasn’t he supposed to be a prince?
The gangplank was lowered and Zuko paused before stepping onto it, leveling a glare at Sokka.
“I don’t invite you into my home, spirit.”
“I’m not a spirit,” Sokka said, and easily followed Zuko up onto the deck.
Visibly gritting his teeth, Zuko turned away from him to bark at the crew, “We need to leave Fire Nation waters. Push the engines as hard as they’ll take. ”
The old, fat guy who followed Zuko around stepped up. He looked over the prince, concerned, but seeing no burn marks, seemed satisfied. He didn’t so much as glance Sokka’s way. “I am glad you’re well, Nephew. What happened?”
“I would have captured the Avatar, if Zhao’s men hadn’t gotten in the way,” Zuko complained.
His uncle hummed. “Or, Zhao might have captured the Avatar if you had not gotten in his way.”
“I have no patience for your puzzles, Uncle!” Zuko snapped.
“Wow. Rude much?” Sokka said.
Zuko’s glower deepened. “I’ll be in my room. Alert me if anything happens.”
He turned and strode away.
Naturally, Sokka followed. “So, you going to explain why you can see me?”
Zuko ignored him.
“Because you’re the only one, so far,” Sokka continued. “Even Aang couldn’t see me. And he’s supposed to be in tune with that sort of thing.”
Zuko ducked into his cabin and shut the door right in Sokka’s face.
Like that was going to do anything. Sokka didn’t even break step as he phased right in after him.
The pattern between them was set, and dragged on the rest of the evening as Zuko eventually emerged from his cabin to make his rounds around the ship and yell at the crew for not doing their jobs fast enough.
Sokka knew Zuko could hear him—he had started developing a twitch over his good eye whenever Sokka monologged at him, but refused to look in his direction or acknowledge his existence.
But Zuko had to sleep. Sokka, apparently, did not.
“ENOUGH!” Zuko broke about three hours past midnight, while Sokka was describing all the types of fish one could catch in the short, polar autumn harvest. Sitting up from his bed, he shot a blast of fire straight at Sokka.
Sokka yelped and covered his face, but of course the flames passed completely through him to hit the far wall.
“Ha!” He lowered his arms, laughing. “Look at that. I’m flame proof!”
Zuko glowered for a few moments. Then, abruptly, slumped. His hands rubbed at his face “What do you want?”
“Why can you see me when no one else can?” Sokka held up one finger, then another. “And how do I undo whatever’s been done?”
“How should I know?” Zuko snapped. “I don’t know what killed you!”
“I’m not dead!”
“I’ve seen my Uncle walk through you.”
Sokka waved that away. “Doesn’t matter. I would know if I died, and I didn’t. So there.”
For the first time, Zuko looked uneasy. “Seeing ghosts is supposed to be very unlucky.”
“I’m unlucky.” The word was weighted somehow in a way Sokka couldn’t quite understand. “People see ghosts when they’re on the edge of death, themselves.”
“That sounds like a really stupid Fire Nation superstition,” Sokka decided. “Plus, it doesn’t count because I’m not a ghost.”
Zuko let out a long, gusty sigh. “Fine. How did you end up this way?”
So, Sokka told him about his encounter Hei Bai (emphasizing how much the Fire Nation was very much at fault for burning down the forest in the first place). When he was done, Zuko stared flat at him. “So a spirit killed you, and in punishment isn’t letting you go to whatever Water Tribe afterlife you have. Great.”
“That is… that is absolutely not what happened!” Sokka sputtered. “Have you been listening at all?”
“Whatever.” Zuko flopped back down. He looked exhausted. “I don’t know what happened to you, and right now I don’t care. Let me sleep. I’m going to be up in three hours and forty minutes.”
“The sunrise. Firebenders rise with it…” He trailed off, eyes sliding shut.
Did he just fall asleep? Sokka would have poked him, if he could.
He looked closer and noted the even rise and fall of Zuko’s chest. Definitely asleep. Asshole.
Watching someone sleep was stupid-boring. So Sokka went about exploring the ship. Most of the crew was also asleep—even those supposed to be on the watch, he noted with snide amusement.
Zuko’s uncle’s snores could be heard through half the ship. Even through bulk-heads. Yikes.
Sure enough, the jerk was awake, looking half-dead but moving, as soon as the sun rose. So were most of the ship.
He was also back to ignoring Sokka.
That was fine with Sokka because —hello— he was invisible on a Fire Nation ship. He was the ultimate spy! As soon as he was visible again, he could tell Aang everything.
… But, it turned out there wasn’t much he could report on… Other than the crew liked to call Zuko really unflattering names when he was away. The impressions were spot-on, though.
Not his Uncle, however. The man was either really good at keeping his opinions to himself or really cared for his nephew—which was weird because Zuko routinely said disrespectful things that would have gotten Sokka slapped across the face if he’d repeated them to his Gran-Gran.
Whenever Zuko actually acknowledged Sokka’s presence (always in the privacy of his own cabin where no one would see him talking to empty air) their conversations mostly went like this:
“Tell me where the Avatar is heading.”
“How should I know?”
“Well, where is he most likely to stop?”
“Wherever he wants. He’s a twelve-year-old boy with the attention span of an arctic goldfish.”
He jabbed his finger at the map. “Well, what about this port?”
“Seriously? Why would I help you capture my sister and friend?”
“If you want my help, you will corporate, peasant!”
“Hey, jerk, The only reason I’m here is because you’re the only one who can see. me. It’s not by choice.”
Then Zuko usually would throw a fireball at Sokka, which did nothing. In fact, it happened so often that after a few days, Sokka didn’t even flinch any longer. Or Zuko would walk away. (Sometimes, Sokka would follow along anyway just to hiss annoying things in his ear.) Or they’d get so sick of each other that Zuko would stomp off to be an asshole to the rest of his crew, and Sokka would stomp off in the other direction, wondering what he did wrong in his past life to deserve this… and missing Katara and Aang so much that he ached.
Then, the day came where Zuko ignored the advice of his own navigator and ordered the ship to head to a nearby port, determined that the Avatar must have stopped there… and ended up sailing his ship into the middle of a hurricane, instead.
“Good going, asshole,” Sokka said, joining Zuko on the deck as the ship bucked and rolled under truly massive swells. “You’re probably going to get half your crew washed aboard.” He paused for a beat. “Oh well, less Fire Nation for decent people to worry about.”
“Shut up!” Zuko snapped and was treated by very startled looks from the rest of his crew.
“I’m sorry, sir?” Lieutenant Jee said.
Zuko flushed and whipped around to him. “I know what I”m doing! Keep this heading, Lieutenant. That’s an order.”
He stomped off. Sokka stayed behind and didn’t miss the hateful looks the rest of the crew threw at his back.
To his horror, he actually felt a measure sympathy for the crew for having to be stuck on the ship with Zuko. This whole thing had been a waste of time. The moment they hit the next port, Sokka was out.
For lack of anything else to do, Sokka followed Zuko’s uncle for a few hours… though he proved to be just as boring as Aang and Katara. It so tedious hanging around someone who couldn’t see or hear him. Sokka had an active, social personality. Solitude drove him nuts.
He followed the crew down to the hold and listened to them bitch and complain about Zuko. He’d heard it all before, but with drink and the misery of being stuck on a rolling ship, the talk was more vicious, more bitter than usual.
Shit, Sokka realized. If the asshole’s not careful, he might have a full mutiny on his hands soon.
He wasn’t the only one who was concerned. Just when the complaints got truly dangerous, Iroh stepped in from the shadows.
The crewmen were startled and rightfully worried. Sokka sat back, waiting for the fireworks.
But Iroh was… understanding. He sat among the crew, took a drink, and started to tell a story.
… A very horrifying story of a boy who’d been only a little older than Aang, standing up for the safety of his people… and getting half his face burnt off by his own father because of it.
“That doesn’t excuse the way he acts,” Sokka said, trying not to act as shaken as he felt. “Bad stuff happens. My mom was killed. My dad left me and my sister to fight the war, and I don’t take it out on other people.”
Judging by the looks the crew were throwing at each other, many thought the same thing… though the mood wasn’t as darkly ominous before. These were no longer dangerously angry men who were revving themselves up to do something drastic. Just sad, frustrated… and resigned.
Then a cry came up the deck. Lightning had struck the ship.
Sokka arrived with the rest of the crew—some walking through him, he hated that—in time to see one of the helmsmen hanging from his fingertips from the crows nest… and Zuko braving the storm to climb up the rain-slick ladder and save him.
“You idiot!” Sokka yelled, helpfully. “You’re going to fall!”
He watched Zuko slip twice before he reached the dangling man, but his sheer bullheadedness won out.
Sokka was torn between exasperation and admiration. Okay, so maybe Zuko wasn’t one-hundred percent evil, but that still left a lot of evil. He was still the enemy of the world, and to everyone Sokka cared about, specifically.
Then Sokka received ultimate proof that the universe hated him because at that very second the skies parted and Appa could be seen overhead.
“The Avatar!” Zuko turned to Sokka. “What is he doing?”
Sokka squinted. Unlike everyone else, the driving rain didn’t bother his eyes. “Saving a fisherman. Can’t you see the boat?” He could just make out two figures aboard Appa. Katara and Aang—to far away to get to, even if Sokka didn’t have to worry about drowning.
“Sir!” Jee yelled. “We can’t take another lightning strike like that.”
Zuko visibly warred with himself: Go after the Avatar, or save the ship. “Turn around. We need to head to the eye of the storm. The waters will be calmer there.”
Zuko turned his back on the Avatar as if it pained him.
It’s not really about Aang, Sokka realized, remembering part of Iroh’s story. He can’t go home again until he captures the Avatar.
Shitty position to be in. Sokka could at least acknowledge that even if it didn’t change the fact that Zuko was still his enemy.
However, the crew’s attitude improved after the storm. Zuko had earned a little of their respect, and the eye-rolls and muttered backtalk went down quite a bit. In return, Zuko became less prickly. Sokka hadn’t even realized Zuko had noticed—or cared—how much the crew hated him.
They sailed out of the weaker side of the storm, but repairs meant a couple days of downtime.
Zuko took the opportunity to harangue Sokka over maps, or else practice firebending out on the deck with his uncle. After every firebending session, his Uncle would rope him into a game of Pai Sho.
Zuko, sullen and irritable, would sit down at the game table, make faces over tea, and barely play, rolling his eyes at every turn. It never helped that he got his ass-kicked by the old man every. single. time.
“Wait,” Sokka said. “Don’t move that piece.”
Zuko actually stopped. “You know how to play Pai Sho?”
Iroh looked up form his tea. “Excuse me, Nephew?”
He colored. “Nothing, Uncle.”
“No,” Sokka said, “But he’s making the same exact play that he was yesterday. Remember how you lost in, like, ten moves?” He pointed toward an earth tile in the corner. “Move that forward. His flank is weaker there.”
Zuko’s eyes flicked to him. Then, miracle upon miracles, he moved the tile.
“Interesting strategy,” Iroh commented, and moved his own.
They exchanged pieces for a few moves. Zuko was a halfway decent player when he was paying attention.
Sokka sat, watching the play with a hand on his chin. “Stop. That’s a trap.”
Again, Zuko’s hand halted, a hair above the tile he was about to move.
Sokka bent to examine the board more closely. “Seems a little too obvious, doesn’t it? That he’d just happen leave all these tiles exposed?”
“Maybe I’m winning,” Zuko muttered under his breath.
“Trust me. You’re not,” Sokka said. “Is your Uncle the type to go easy on you?”
“No one ever goes easy on me,” he grumbled.
Iroh was now looking at Zuko curiously. “What was that, Nephew?”
Zuko shook his head and reached again for the tile.
“I’m telling you, don’t move that one,” Sokka insisted, coming around to sit beside Zuko. He pointed to another rank of tiles on Zuko’s side. “Use these air tiles to attack from above.”
Again, Zuko hesitated.
There was no need to whisper — Sokka could have yelled from the top of his lungs and Iroh couldn’t have heard him. He had no excuse to do what he did, bending down to whisper it directly into Zuko’s unburned ear. “Trust me.”
This close, Sokka saw a shiver roll down Zuko’s spine, as if he felt Sokka’s breath on the back of his neck.
Zuko moved the air tile.
Iroh actually set his teacup down, brows furrowed. He tried to correct with a defensive move, but the damage was done. Two more rounds and Zuko had taken Iroh’s Avatar tile.
“The game goes to you, Nephew.” Iroh looked across the game board at Zuko oddly. Clearly, this had never happened before. “Well done.”
Standing, Zuko bowed. “Thank you, Uncle.” A pause. “I believe the loser puts away the pieces?”
Then he turned and walked off.
Sokka let out a whoop, and let the full victory dance commence, jerking his arms and swaying hips to a sweet beat only he could hear in his mind.
“What are you doing?” There was a weird expression on Zuko’s face. It was almost—almost a smile.
“What does it look like? This is my victory dance!” He preceded to wave his arms like he just didn’t care.
“You look like an idiot.”
“I look like a victor! Whoo!”
The evil prince actually smiled before he caught himself with a shake of his head. Then he walked off to go yell at his men for slacking off swabbing the deck.
Sokka’s victory dance is totally Callum's jerk-face dance in The Dragon Prince. :)
I am distracting myself from my upcoming re-rootcanal appointment (because that's a thing. Thanks, universe.) by writing. So, lucky you. Here's another chapter! :)
Iroh requested Zuko stop the ship at a port overnight to restock and refuel. Zuko, predictably, made a big production out of “losing his trail on the Avatar” even though he had no idea where Aang was. In the end, he caved and did exactly what his uncle asked.
Sokka was starting to notice a pattern. Zuko never seemed to actually deny anything his uncle requested… he just liked making a dramatic stink about it, first.
The next morning, however, the ship was blocked from leaving port by a much larger, newer Fire Nation vessel. Specifically, Zhao’s vessel. Worse, it ran up the flag asking to board.
“What does Zhao want?” Zuko muttered.
Sokka mused on that for a moment. “Head-shaving tips, maybe? Those mutton-chops are getting a little thick."
The corner of Zuko’s mouth twitched, but the constipated look on his face returned as Zhao strode across the gangplank and aboard his ship as if he owned it.
“He’s wearing new colors,” Iroh murmured behind a cup of tea.
“I noticed,” Zuko replied grimly.
“What?” Sokka peered, but honestly couldn’t tell the difference. Were they talking about the new bits of sparkle on Zhao’s uniform? How many medals did one man need?
But before he could ask, Zhao marched right up to Zuko. His bow was shallow—barely short of an insult. “Prince Zuko, General Iroh. You may have heard that Fire Lord Ozai has given the hunt for the Avatar prime importance. As such, he has promoted me to Admiral.”
Sokka’s stomach plummeted.
“You’ve been promoted?” Iroh asked, as if they were all old friends and this was welcome news. “Well, good for you.”
Sokka shot the older man a quick look, wondering what his game was—because he totally had one. Or was that just his way of being sarcastic? Huh. He would have to remember that trick.
“Thank you, General.” Zhao’s smile was oily and he made a point of looking down at the shorter Zuko. “As such, all information regarding the Avatar must be given directly to me.”
Zuko visibly grit his teeth. “I’ve got nothing to report to you. Now get off my ship.”
“Ah, but you forget, Admiral has the same military rank as prince during wartime… Or can you still claim that title?”
Whoa, Sokka thought. Those are fighting words of the Fire Nation kind.
Zuko took a dangerous step toward Zhao, but Iroh got there first.
“Prince Zuko is still commanding this ship, Zhao. On this deck, he outranks you.”
“Indeed,” Zhao drawled. However, he turned as if to leave, conceding the point. “You should make yourself comfortable. The port is closed. I’m not allowing any ships in or out.”
“You can’t do that!” Zuko snapped.
“Yes, unfortunately he can,” Iroh said.
Zuko growled. “Get off my ship!”
Zhao threw one look over his shoulder. “Good luck with your hunt for the Avatar. May the best man win.”
“I plan to,” Zuko said.
They all watched as Zhao made his way back to his own ship. He didn’t bother with the plank between the decks—simply leapt the short distance and landed with ease on his own deck.
“I used to think that you were the worst,” Sokka said, after a moment. “But now I think he’s taking first place.”
Zuko shot him a glare, then jerked his chin towards the direction of his cabin. Then he turned to his Uncle. “I’ll be in my room.”
Sokka got the message: Zuko wanted to talk, and he couldn’t exactly be seen speaking to thin air.
This will be good, he thought as he followed Zuko back to his cabin. It was the one place where they could hold a conversation without Zuko looking like a crazy person… as long as Prince Angry remembered to keep his voice down.
The second the door was closed, Zuko turned to favor Sokka with a glare. “Now Zhao’s an Admiral, he has the full resources of the Fire Nation behind him.”
“Yeah, about that,” Sokka said, “The Fire Lord promoted him and told him to hunt Aang? He has a funny way of showing that he wants you back home.”
Zuko went red up to his ears. Well, ear. His crap-tastic father took care of the other one. “What do you know about it, peasant? My father expects me to be able to handle all challenges that come my way. You think being Fire Lord will be any easier? I have to earn the throne.”
“I can’t believe you just said that with a straight face,” Sokka said. “Do you even hear yourself right now? Don’t Fire Lords have trusted people around them to help them out with stuff? Also, newsflash: My dad is Chief of our tribe, and he has plenty of other tribesmen and elders who help advise him.”
“That… That’s not the point!” Zuko snapped.
“Then what is it?”
“As an admiral, Zhao can call up any resources in the area: Additional ships, more troops, even the Yu-Yan archers. The Avatar won’t stand a chance. If you care about him at all, you’ll tell me where he is.”
“How am I supposed to know where he is? I’ve been stuck here on this ship, remember?”
“Don’t you have… spiritual senses?”
Sokka answered with a rude gesture he had picked up from the rest of the crew. He turned away.
Sokka stopped short. Until this moment, he hadn’t even known for sure that Zuko even knew his name.
Zuko’s golden eyes were flinty. “Admiral Zhao will capture the Avatar, and he won’t be kind about it.”
“And you will?”
He colored. “What kind of a monster do you think I am?”
“Hmm. I don’t know, the one who is hunting down the last chance the world has left?”
“Don’t make me laugh. We killed the air nomads. The Avatar will try to do the same to my people the moment he has a chance.”
Sokka stared at him. “Wow, you seriously believe that?”
“Of course I do!”
“Well, you don’t know Aang at all.”
He made a sound of frustration. “Look—“
A knock came at the door. “Nephew? Is… someone in there with you?”
Zuko’s face flushed red all over again. Normally when he spoke to Sokka, he kept his voice down. But their conversation had gotten a little heated. “What do you want, Uncle?”
The old man opened the door and looked around. Sure enough, his gaze flicked right past where Sokka stood, though Sokka noticed a quick look of concern he shot to Zuko before speaking.
“Is everything okay?”
“No, how can anything be okay?” Zuko looked like the wanted to kick something. He glanced to the side, muttering, “Nothing has been “okay” for a long time.” He raised his hand as if to touch the left side of his face, then stopped, catching himself, and lowered it again.
“Don’t give up hope yet,” Iroh said, voice gentle. He had clearly caught the motion, too. “You can still find the Avatar before Zhao.”
“How, Uncle? With Zhao’s resources, it’s just a matter of time before he captures the Avatar.” Zuko turned away. “My honor, my throne, my country… I’m about to lose them all.
“Something will come up. I know it will.”
Zuko shook his head and took a deep breath. “Leave me alone. I need… I need to think.”
Sokka knew that he meant both of them. He felt a little bad for the guy, but at the same time, he wasn’t going to help him capture Aang. The request for privacy though, he could do. Plus, he sort of wondered what the rest of the crew thought about Admiral Muttonchops.
He followed Iroh out.
Something changed in Zuko’s demeanor that night. He was quiet and… almost contemplative. He barely even yelled at the crew before retiring to his quarters early.
Suspicious, Sokka followed soon afterward and caught Zuko dressed in a tight, dark outfit. He was packing a few items in a bag—it looked like a basic first aid kit, and was that a mask?
“Where are you going?” Sokka asked, because it was clear as day Zuko was planning something.
“Out,” he replied, not looking up. “And you can’t stop me.”
“How am I supposed to do that?” Sokka demanded, exasperated.
Zuko shrugged and took down a pair of broadswords from their place on a wall. Huh. Sokka had thought that those were decorative.
“So, where are you going?” Sokka repeated.
“To humiliate Zhao.” He looked at Sokka. “Are you in?”
By the end of that night, Sokka wasn’t sure who he wanted to strangle more—Zuko, or Aang.
Zuko was scary badass while sneaking into Zhao’s Fortress of Evil. His plan was simple and surprisingly effective: Break in, defeat the guards, release Aang and get him back out… And do it all without firebending to tip them off who was under the mask.
For his part, Sokka did his best to watch Zuko’s back and warn him about someone coming up from behind or his left side (he'd noticed while watching firebending practice that Zuko was a little blind on the left. No surprise.) But mostly it was all he could do to keep up with the two of them. Especially when Aang got with the program and used airbending to help them both escape.
Then Zuko, being Zuko, tried to capture Aang—not that Aang apparently noticed—and ended up getting himself knocked out by an arrow. He was lucky the mask stopped the arrowhead short. Not even Zuko could walk off an arrow to the brain.
Luckily, Aang did the honorable thing by getting him away, even after the mask slipped.
… And then stuck around. For some reason.
While they both waited for Zuko to wake up, Sokka yelled unflattering things at Aang, waved his hands in front of his face, did the full on ‘victory dance’… Anything to get his attention. It was like screaming at a blank wall.
Zuko woke. Aang tried to be friends and Zuko, predictably, shot fire at him.
“You are such an asshole,” Sokka said.
Zuko’s eyes widened. “Wait!” he yelled at the sky. “Wait, I know where Sokka is!”
There was no answer. Aang had fled out of hearing range.
“You complete asshole,” Sokka said viciously. “I hope that knot on your head really stings.”
Grimacing, Zuko, got to his feet, holding his head. His eyes were strangely out of focus. The pained grunt was probably an affirmative.
“Good. Using me against my friends is totally out of line. I thought you were supposed to… to respect spirits.”
“I thought you weren’t a spirit,” Zuko muttered.
Sokka gasped. “Don’t use reasoned arguments against me!”
“It doesn’t matter,” Zuko said, his voice still thick and fuzzy. He took a step, winced, and touched his head. “Zhao doesn’t have him. That means I…still have… I still have a shot.”
He decided to take a page out of Iroh’s book and put on a crap-load of false-cheer. “Oh good, I am so happy for you.”
Zuko shot him a look like he knew exactly what he was doing, but said nothing.
It was a long, long walk back to the ship.
Iroh was on the deck as Zuko staggered up the gangplank, a cup of tea in hand, and visibly concerned. "Where have you been, Prince Zuko? You missed music night! Lieutenant Jee sang a stirring love song."
Zuko brushed him off. “I’m going to sleep. No disturbances.”
“That is not a good idea with a concussion,” Sokka said, following him into his cabin.
“Well, if I stop breathing, you can call for help.” Shutting the door, started pulling off his sweat-soaked clothes entirely.
Sokka’s brain stuttered to a halt. First, the bruise on Zuko’s forehead was not the only one, nor the worst one of the night. It looked like he had been through a brawl—which wasn’t too far off from the truth. How many guards had he fought without firebending? There was an actual imprint of a boot on his back.
Second, he was wayyyy more muscular than the oversized Fire Nation clothes had let on. All that obsessive training had done him some good. Real good.
Realizing he was staring, Sokka looked away.
Zuko either didn’t seem to notice, or care. He stripped down to his loincloth and then more or less fell into bed and passed out. On his back. Which Sokka was mostly sure you weren’t supposed to do—or was that when you were drunk? He couldn’t remember.
Gritting his teeth, he stayed put and watched to make sure the asshole didn’t… choke on his own tongue or stop breathing or something.
Not that there was anything he could do.
Watching someone sleep was so boring. Normally when Zuko slept, Sokka made himself scarce to spy around the ship. So he was completely unprepared when, a few hours later, Zuko let out a low, pained groan. His eyes moved frantically under his eyelids. His fingers twitched.
Ah damn, he was having a dream. And by the way fresh sweat broke out across his forehead, it wasn’t a good one.
“Zuko,” Sokka said. Then, louder, “Zuko!”
Instinctively, he reached to shake his shoulder, and fell forward…
Suddenly Sokka found himself standing shirtless in the center of a bare arena, with what looked like an entire village’s worth of people staring down at him from the stands. His heart pounded, terror consuming him like living fire. A man at least ten feet high stood over him, his face sunken in shadow. And his hand was wreathed in flame—
“Ahh!” Sokka screamed and sat up, a hand out as if to shield his face from the strike he knew was coming.
The blankets fell from his shoulders. His head pounded, and the world tilted and spun, making him feel dizzy.
That didn’t matter because things also felt… More substantial in a way they hadn’t since meeting the Hei Bai spirit. He hadn’t even realized what was missing, but now he could feel the soft, rough give of the mattress under him, the layer of warmth between blankets and skin, and smell the slight scent of smoke from old candles…
He stared at his own hand, which was pale. No, it was Zuko’s hand…
WHAT IS THIS? WHAT’S HAPPENING?
Zuko’s shout of rage and fear was like a bell toll in the back of his own head. No, not his head. Sokka was in Zuko’s body.
“Ahh!” Sokka screamed again and lurched out. In the next moment, he was away from Zuko’s body.
Zuko leapt from the bed, literally snorting fire. “Did you just—how did you do that?!”
But Sokka too was busy freaking out, himself, running his hands down his arms as if to scrape slime off. “Ugh! UGH! I was in your body! Gross!”
Zuko stalked forward, fists clenched. “If you ever, ever do something like that again, I swear—”
Iroh didn’t bother to knock this time. He opened the door and strode right in, cutting Zuko off mid-rant.
“Nephew? Is all well?”
“Uncle!” Zuko yelped, grabbing for his blanket as if to preserve his dignity. “I’m not dressed!”
Iroh did not even blink. “Who were you speaking to?”
“It’s… It’s no one! It was a nightmare!”
His uncle took a long, searching look but from his point of view there was no one hiding in Zuko’s spare room. “When you have a moment, the crew are awaiting their new heading.”
“I’ll be up in ten minutes,” Zuko said crispy as if his head wasn’t throbbing and he wasn’t almost sickly dizzy—Sokka should know. He’d felt it himself.
Sokka opened his mouth to mention that, but then shut it again. If the jerk wanted to be miserable, that was his problem. It was better if they both forgot that this had ever happened…
… or that Sokka had seen a bit of the dream/memory right before Zuko had woken up. And had experienced his terror as if it had been his own.
Iroh took one last look around the room before he left, shutting the door behind him.
“Hmm,” Sokka said in false consideration “Do you think he knows something’s up?”
“Shut up,” Zuko snapped, though a lot quieter.
He turned to dress, and Sokka looked away. The air around them was thick with anger.
Finally, Zuko turned to him. “Did you know you could possess bodies?”
“Are you kidding? You have seen people walk through me, right? How was I supposed to know that would happen?”
Zuko crinkled his nose, looking like he wanted to yell at Sokka, but was forced to admit he had a point. “Never, ever do that again.”
“I won’t. Trust me. I want my body!” He thumped his chest meaningfully. “Not yours.”
“Can I have your word on that?”
“No one wants your body, Zuko!”
The way the other boy’s jaw clenched and he looked away, made Sokka think he might have gone a bit too far. Especially after that nightmare.
“I meant because you’re a creepy firebender,” Sokka said, “Not because of… the other thing.” He wasn’t fooling anyone. They were both talking about the giant disfiguring scar across his face. That thing.
“I know what you meant.” Zuko’s good eye narrowed. “Trust me, no one wants you inside them, either.”
“Good!” Zuko echoed, then winced, realizing he had gotten loud again. He cast a quick glance at the door and then strode off.
Silently, Sokka followed.
Note: WaitWaitWait... the Waterbending Scroll came BEFORE the Blue Spirit episode?
They didn’t talk about the incident. Frankly, Sokka was happy to forget that it ever happened. Other crew members continued to walk through Sokka like he wasn’t even there. He didn’t know why Evil Prince Jerk was different.
But as hard as he tried to shake it off, he found himself remembering how… real everything had felt. The rough weave of blankets against his skin. The warmth of the bed. Sokka hadn’t even realized he had missed out on that sort of stuff now.
He caught Zuko giving him considering looks now and then, as if afraid Sokka was just going to jump into his body out of the blue. (Yuck and nope, in that order.) But after a few days, he started to relax. Zuko went back to bothering Sokka about where the Avatar was, and Sokka went back to annoying the very irritable prince at every opportunity.
The sad part was, despite everything, Sokka had started to convince himself that Zuko was some kind of human being. A really messed up human being with the moral thickness of a thin sheet of ice and the temper of a fire rhinoceros with a toothache, but... a person, at least.
Sometimes—occasionally—even an interesting person.
Then Zuko’s ship pulled into port (Iroh really needed a special Pai Sho tile) where they ran into a bunch of pirates. Or, more specifically, ran into the pirates while they were chasing after Katara. She had stolen a waterbending scroll from them, which just proved that Sokka needed to find a way to become see-able as soon as possible. What other morally questionable things had she and Aang been up to while Sokka had been gone?
And where was Aang, anyway?
Before Sokka could intervene, Prince Asshat saved his sister from the pirates… only to turn around and order his crew to tie her to a tree.
Zuko strode up to Katara, all swagger and confidence. “I’d like to propose a trade.”
Katara snarled at him, struggling against the ropes. “You have nothing I want!”
“Want to bet?” Zuko asked, voice almost silky. “If you tell me where the Avatar is, and I'll tell you about your brother."
He didn’t have a body anymore, but Sokka’s stomach still felt like it had dropped all the way to his shoes. "Oh, you low son of a hog monkey."
Meanwhile, both Iroh and Katara were staring at Zuko in confusion.
"What are you talking about?" Katara’s expression fell. Then brightened. “Wait, you know where Sokka is?"
"I know exactly where he is," Zuko confirmed.
This was the absolute last straw. Sokka slid between his sister and Prince Asshole. "Let her go right now, or I'll jump inside you and make you do the victory dance."
Zuko’s gold eyes flicked to Sokka.
"The full victory dance," Sokka confirmed.
Katara lunged against the ropes. "Where’s Sokka? What have you done with him? If you hurt him, I swear—“
"He's not hurt,” Zuko said, and then actually smirked. “You could say he's my... guest."
"Bullshit!” Sokka yelled.
Katara’s face twisted. "Let me see him!"
"Nephew," Iroh stepped up, a hand landing heavily on Zuko’s shoulder. "May I have a word?"
Between the force of Sokka's glare, and the hand on Zuko's shoulder that looked supportive, but was probably hard as steel, Zuko was forced to back off. "Think about it," he growled, turning away.
Sokka followed them, but looked back over his shoulder at Katara, wishing he could find some way to comfort her. As soon as Zuko left, she sagged, biting her lip in a way she only did when she was trying not to cry.
Iroh stopped his nephew when they were out of hearing range. "I cannot believe I have to lecture you on honor, Prince Zuko. Why have you offered an exchange for something you cannot provide?"
Zuko flushed, but his eyes flicked to Sokka. "I know what I'm doing. Trust me.”
"Trust you?" Sokka yelled. "You have my sister tied up to a tree!"
The dig on his honor seemed to have made him incautious. "I just saved her from the pirates!" Zuko snapped at Sokka.
Iroh looked utterly taken aback. "Nephew..."
But Zuko swung around and marched back toward Katara. Sokka followed.
"Look," Zuko said. "It's in your best interest that the Avatar be here."
"Why?" she asked.
"He's the bridge between the spirit and the material world. Only he can help your brother."
"I don't understand,” Katara said. “What’s wrong? Where is he?"
"Standing right next to you," Zuko replied.
For once, Sokka had nothing to say. Zuko was a completely immoral jerk, but... damn it all, he missed his sister.
Katara glanced over... in the wrong direction, but that was okay. Seeing empty air, she recoiled. "You're insane."
Zuko grimaced and turned to Sokka. "Tell her something only you would know."
"What?" Sokka yelped, then looked between the two of them. Katara had involuntarily followed Zuko’s gaze and for a second it almost, almost was like she was looking at him. "No way! I'm not helping you capture Aang!"
"Not even to help yourself?" Zuko demanded, frustrated.
"I don't know what kind of game you're playing, but this is not funny!" Katara snapped.
Zuko turned back to her. "On my honor, your brother is standing next to you right now with a stupid expression on his face. He... he...." He struggled for a moment as if to find something incontrovertible, "He talks about seal jerky about twenty times a day!"
“I do not!”
“Yes, you do. You’re obsessed!”
It was that moment when Aang and Appa showed up... along with about twenty pirates who decided that capturing the Avatar was worth more to them than whatever Zuko had promised to pay for the waterbending scroll.
Through a combination of luck and the two forces of Zuko’s crew and the pirates getting in each other’s way, Katara and Aang managed to escape.
There was a moment where Sokka could have followed after his sister. He hovered, just as torn as he had been on Crescent Island. Clearly, Katara and Aang needed someone to talk sense into them…
There was no point being with Aang and Katara right now. They couldn't see him. They wouldn't even know he was there at all.
As much of a complete jerk Zuko was, not being seen at all was… torture. He couldn’t handle it. With a sigh, he stepped away from Appa.
Zuko was so pissed about missing his shot at capturing Aang, he both took his anger out on the crew and ignored Sokka completely. It was like going back to day one.
That was fine. Sokka wasn’t exactly happy with him, either, and laughed unpleasantly when Zuko received summons to join his uncle for tea in his quarters. Iroh was never this formal with his own nephew, and judging by the darkening of Zuko’s scowl, these weren’t the type of summons one could ignore.
Sokka followed along, just to see how Zuko planned to play this.
"Sit, nephew," Iroh said and pushed a cup of steaming tea across the table to Zuko. He looked unusually grave. "I wish to talk about what happened today.”
“I know, Uncle. About that—”
“I never knew you were that good of an actor.”
Iroh’s voice remained mild, but Zuko looked down, chastened. "I... didn't want to tell you I've been seeing ghosts, Uncle. I didn't want you to worry."
“Really? How many times, Zuko? I am not a ghost!" Sokka snapped.
Iroh, though, had rocked back in his seat. "For how long?"
"Since Crescent Island. The idiot Avatar got his friend killed by the spirit of the Hei Bai forest, and he's been haunting me ever since."
“You take that back. I'm not dead!"
Zuko turned to him. "Yes, you are. Accept it and move on. Preferably into your next life!"
"Why has he attached himself to you?" Iroh’s voice had a too-steady quality. The voice of someone who was deeply concerned and trying not to show it.
"Because even the Avatar cannot see him. I'm the only one."
Iroh toyed with his own teacup for a moment, considering this. “Prince Zuko, you know I have some experience with the spirit world. I have sensed nothing.”
“I know Uncle, but—”
One look by Iroh stopped Zuko cold. Whoa. He never acted like it, but the old man had some power. “And by all rights, the Avatar should be the ultimate authority on the spirits. If he also cannot see this ghost..." He put the teacup down. "Nephew, you have pushed yourself quite hard over the last few weeks."
Zuko’s pale skin flushed red. “I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not cr—I’m not like her, Uncle!"
“You are stressed and you have recently had... several injuries, a few of which were to the head."
Zuko seemed to be at war with himself. Then he turned to Sokka. “Fine. Do the thing."
“You know.” He touched his chest meaningfully.
"What... get inside you? No way!"
"I hate it when you say it like that. But yes."
Sokka glanced over and saw the open worry on Iroh's face. Worry and… a healthy dollop of sadness, too. No shock, though. That was interesting. “Why isn’t he acting more surprised? It probably looks like you’re talking to yourself.“
"My sister—“ Zuko stopped and grimaced. “Because my sister talks to voices only she can hear when she gets... stressed."
Zuko had a sister? Oh, the poor girl.
"Sokka... just do it. Okay?"
"Wow,” Sokka said. “That’s twice you’ve used my actual name. I’m impressed.”
But he didn’t really see a choice. Not unless he wanted to leave Zuko hanging. And as pissed off as he was about the pirate thing, Sokka wasn’t that sort of guy.
Sighing, Sokka stepped up to Zuko. As naturally as breathing, he found himself sitting in a chair facing Iroh. Instantly, he was aware of the warmth of the room, thanks to the nearby fire, and the taste of fragrant tea on his tongue. “I honestly don't know what he expects to prove, here,” he said with Zuko’s voice. “What am I supposed to do? Sing a Water Tribe song?"
Iroh's teacup slipped from his hand. "Zuko, your eyes--"
“That’s the thing: I’m not Zuko," Sokka said.
What's wrong with my eyes? Zuko wondered from the back of his mind.
Sokka took the teacup in hand and looked down. It was a quiet tea blend, and the liquid was more orange than brown. Thanks to the well-lit room he got a pretty good reflection. Sokka blinked.
His own blue eyes stared out of Zuko's face.
Iroh seemed to have gotten over his moment of shock. He came around the table and grabbed Sokka's shoulders. "Spirit, I beg of you. Release my nephew at once. Return him back to me. Please.”
“Sure,” Sokka said. “It’s not like I want to be in here anyway.”
With a feeling like he was stepping away, Sokka found himself, once again, outside Zuko's body.
Instantly, Zuko's eyes were his normal bizarre gold color.
Neither were ready for Iroh's reaction. Every candle in the room flared to life, the flames curling up to the ceiling. "That was incredibly foolish, Zuko!” His grip on Zuko’s shoulders became white knuckle tight. “Never, ever invite a spirit to possess your body. What if he had decided not to leave?"
“Why in the world does he think I like being inside you?” Sokka grumbled.
"Stop making it sound like that!” Zuko barked before turning to Iroh. "Uncle, that won’t be a problem."
"Nephew, listen to me. The most dangerous spirits are the ones who can possess others. Once they are within a barrier of flesh, there is no exorcizing them out.“
"I don't want his body!" Sokka yelled, frustrated. "I want my perfectly good body!"
He half expected Zuko to rise to the bait about the 'perfectly good' thing, but he only snorted. “I don’t think Sokka is that sort of dark spirit. He’s obnoxious, not… dangerous.”
Iroh eyed him for a moment and then sat back in his chair. "Tell me what happened, from the beginning."
Zuko told the story of Sokka’s encounter with Hei Bai, and, like the asshole that he was, he made it sound like it was all Aang's fault.
"He didn’t know I wasn't in the spirit world!" Sokka complained. "That wasn't on him."
Zuko rolled his eyes. "The Avatar has no idea his friend is here." He looked at Iroh. "Which means I have an advantage, and inside knowledge."
“Spirits you are such a… ugh!” He couldn’t even think of a bad enough word. Zuko had been crystal clear about his motivations from the beginning, but it still sucked to hear. "You're a real... a real... asshat, you know that?"
Zuko turned to him. “An asshat?"
"Yes! Like a hat... with an ass on it. You know what I mean!"
Zuko smirked, but then turned to his uncle. “I know you have walked among the spirits, Uncle. Have you heard of this before?”
Iroh had calmed down with the aid of two full cups of tea. The color had come back to his face, too. He mused for a moment, pulling at his beard. “Not exactly, but I do have theories. It sounds as if the forest spirit’s attack was very quick. And if the Avatar is convinced his friend is alive, it may be that he has not been given the proper rites according to the traditions of his people."
"I don't need rites because I'm not dead!"
"He is in denial about being dead," Zuko said flatly.
"Hmm. An unquiet spirit." Iroh favored his nephew with a look. "Those are usually the most dangerous."
"I hate this theory," Sokka said. "What's his other one?"
Zuko smirked and turned to Iroh, the picture of fake politeness—just to piss Sokka off, no doubt. “You had another option, Uncle?"
"Yes." Iroh took a sip of tea. "It is said that the first Fire Lord was the strongest Fire Sage in centuries, and that he could speak with ghosts. Perhaps you have inherited this gift."
Zuko wrinkled his nose in distaste. "What does that have to do with Sokka?"
"Your singular focus for three years has been to find and capture the Avatar. Now, one of his own companions is bound to the material world when he should have moved on. You may be the one holding him here, without realizing it."
Zuko and Sokka exchanged a look. Sokka crossed his arms.
"That still doesn't work because I'm. Not. Dead."
Zuko gave a reluctant sigh and shook his head. "If I had any power over him, he would have been banished from this ship when he first arrived.”
Sokka opened his mouth to object, then shrugged. "That's fair." Then he glanced between them. “So what’s about your sister?”
“Azula?” Zuko said. “What about her?”
“Um, hello, you said she talks to people no one could see.” Sokka couldn’t believe he had to spell this out. Zuko was a jerk of the highest order, but he wasn’t actually stupid.
“She’s… That’s different.” Zuko glanced at his Uncle as if for confirmation, but seeing as Iroh only heard half the conversation, he didn’t have anything to add. “He wants to know about Azula.”
“Ah.” Iroh let out a sigh, but then to Sokka’s surprise and pleasure he turned to face him. His eyes were sort of looking a little too far to the side, but it was the thought that counted. “My niece is, unfortunately, a very troubled young woman.”
“It’s not something we talk about outside the palace,” Zuko added as if Sokka would go blabbing it to… well, anyone. “It’s not just the voices. Sometimes she gets paranoid, and… small creatures and pets have a habit of… self-immolating when she thinks someone’s wronged her. No one can ever prove it’s her, but…” Swallowing, he looked down. Not a big leap to guess he’d lost a pet or two.
As usual, his mind was going a million miles a minute, making connections that usually got him into trouble.
“Zuko, if you your father doesn’t lift his banishment, who becomes Fire Lord after him?”
Zuko let out a sound that was probably could have been a huff of a laugh, if it weren’t sad. “You’re starting to see why I need to go home.”
Oh man. Aang better hurry up on the mastery of those elements. Ozai might not be the worst thing coming down the river.
There was a knock at the door.
"Come in," Zuko said.
Lieutenant Jee walked in and saluted. "Sir, we have cleared the port. Have you decided on a new course and heading?"
Zuko as of a few weeks ago would have snapped something rude at the older man. This time he seemed to pause. "Tell the navigator I am determining that now."
"Yes, sir." Jee saluted again, his face stone though there was a gleam of approval in his eyes.
Zuko waited until Jee had shut the door before turning to Sokka. “My sister aside, it’s in your best interest to tell me where the Avatar is heading."
"How do you figure that?"
"Because if you're right, and you're still alive, he's the bridge between the spirit world and the material world. Only he can undo what has been done. If Uncle is right, then he and your sister are still needed to perform your tribe's death rites to lay you to rest."
Sokka was silent, head bowed, thinking.
"What is he saying, nephew?" Iroh asked.
"He's trying to think of a way out of this, but there isn't one.” Zuko's intent gaze never left Sokka. “His only shot at returning to normalcy is cooperating.”
And damn it, he was right.
"I won't let you capture Aang or hurt my sister," Sokka said. "But you might be right about the other stuff.” He paused, hating himself. “They're headed to the Northern Water Tribe. Katara and Aang want to learn waterbending there.“
Zuko stood. "Then that's where we will go."
For once, Sokka didn't follow him out. He looked at Iroh, and even though he knew the old man could not hear him he said, "I hope I've made the right choice."
Iroh was quiet, sipping his tea. "I don't know if you can hear me, young man," he said at length, “Or what kind of spirit you truly are, but I believe you have had a positive effect on my nephew. For that, you have my gratitude."
They were, Sokka thought a few days later, at a stalemate.
Zuko wanted to capture Aang. Sokka wouldn't allow him to do that and refused point-blank to help him. In response, Zuko made noises about letting his Uncle preform Fire Nation last rites, sending Sokka to whatever version of the afterlife the Fire Nation had. (Sokka wasn't too clear on the details, but imagined it was somewhere hot and fiery.) In return, Sokka told Zuko if he tried it, he was going to jump into Zuko’s body and lead the crew in music night.
Neither made good on their threats. And still the ship chugged northward.
At their current rate, they were going to hit the North Pole within the week, and Sokka wasn't honestly sure what to do. He couldn’t warn Aang or Katara, couldn’t talk Zuko out of his Quest To Restore His Honor. He was completely and utterly useless.
There hadn't been any concrete sightings of Aang for days from any of the sub-arctic Earth Kingdom villages. Sokka had to believe that it meant he and Katara had made it to the Northern Water Tribe.
All he had at this point was hope.
One evening, Sokka phased through Zuko’s cabin door, saw what he was up to, and groaned aloud. “What, seriously? Again?”
Zuko ignored him. He sat cross-legged in front of a low table, his hands on his knees and a lit candle in front of him. The flame rose and fell in time with his breaths.
He could do this for hours, and Sokka was bored. Zuko was far from his favorite person, but at least Sokka could interact with him. He’d interact with a boar-q-pine if he was bored enough.
… Actually, Zuko had a lot in common with an angry bour-q-pine.
Sokka sighed (loudly, through his nose) and flopped down dramatically on the other side of the low table. “You know, Katara doesn’t need to do all this… sitting and breathing stuff to do her bending. Why’s that?”
Zuko was fully capable of ignoring Sokka for hours while meditating. However, he must have been ready for a break, too, because his eyes cracked open into gold slits.
“Your sister can barely throw a snowball straight,” he said in the deep, measured way of someone still using breath control.
“Hey!” Sokka yelped. “That’s not… she’s way better than that. She can freeze puddles just like that.” He snapped his fingers.
The corner of Zuko’s mouth actually twitched upward for a second before it settled back in an angry line. “Impressive.” He turned his palms upward and twin flames lit into life within them. The ease of the action spoke volumes.
Now Sokka was the one who was scowling… until his sense of scientific curiosity took over. He would never, ever ask Katara because she was far too proud about her bending abilities already. Sokka’s ego would take too much of a hit. Zuko was safe simply because the firebender possibly couldn’t have a lower opinion of him.
“So, what’s it like?” Sokka asked, keeping casual.
Again, his eyes cracked open. “What’s what like?”
“You know…” He made an airy motion with his hand and then punched out as if blasting fire. “Firebending?”
Zuko frowned and went quiet again for so long Sokka figured he wasn’t going to answer at all. Then abruptly he said, “It’s like seeing all that’s inside of me… made real.”
“There’s fire inside you?”
Zuko opened his eyes all the way, and the fire caught them perfectly. The way the firelight caught them made them look molten. “Yes.”
“… Huh.” He tipped his head back up to the ceiling, considering. Was there actual water inside Katara? She could be as changeable as the ocean—angry as the sea, caring as a spring brook.
Ugh, this was getting too poetic for his tastes. That’s what happened when he was stuck on a stupid Fire Nation ship for weeks without being able to hunt or fish or do anything manly at all. His mind went all funny.
“I could show you, if you want,” Zuko said, out of the blue.
“Huh?” Jerked out of his thoughts, Sokka stared at him. “What do you mean?”
“You know… You could…” Looking like he was regretting the offer already, Zuko touched his own chest. Then he sent a glare Sokka’s way. “But hands only, and nothing weird!”
Was he offering what he thought he was offering? Huh. Zuko fresh from meditation was actually more of a laid back guy. One who didn’t heed his Uncle’s warnings about body possession. But whatever, they both knew Zuko had nothing to worry about.
And let it not be said Sokka wasn’t willing to try anything once. “Yeah, sure. Okay.” He walked over and sat down by Zuko, so close that their shoulders should have brushed—if Sokka had a physical body.
Zuko held out his right hand across them, which still had a lick of flame dancing in the palm.
Sokka reached over and lined up his own arm.
“This is going to be so weird,” he decided, as his arm merged with Zuko’s.
He felt a flash of heat on the palm—sort of warm and tickling—and the fire snuffed out.
Zuko snickered. “Good job.”
“Hey, you’re the one with fire living inside him,” Sokka shot back, which… wasn’t an insult at all, but he was flustered. It always put him off balance when Zuko acted like a normal human being. “What do I do?”
“Concentrate. Reach for the core of power inside you and bring it out. You spark fire with a breath.”
Which made absolutely no sense to Sokka. He did not have a core of heat inside him. He had muscles and bones, thank you very much. But he wasn’t about to give up yet.
Zuko’s face was inches from his own. It reminded him of their Pai Sho game where they were whispering to each other, even though there was no need.
“Core, heat, breath. Got it,” Sokka said, and sort of squinted and willed something to happen in Zuko’s palm. For long seconds there was nothing. Then… “Is that smoke?”
A airy gray substance was gradually coalescing above Zuko’s palm. Or Sokka’s palm. Whatever. Sokka had control of the hand and he flexed his wrist to run his fingers through it.
Cool and wet. Like mist.
They both realized what was happening at the same second. With twin yelps, they pulled away. The mist faded back into the air.
“What was that?” Zuko demanded, shaking his hand out as if he had touched something nasty. He stared at his fingers and then glared at Sokka. “What did you do to me?”
“Nothing! That wasn’t my fault. I’m not a bender!”
“You just waterbent moisture from the air,” Zuko snapped. He flicked flame into his palm and then snuffed it again, probably just to check he wasn’t damaged somehow.
“I… did, didn’t I?” Sokka said. “Huh. I didn’t know that was possible.”
“It’s a humid day, of course it’s possible,” Zuko said. “But how?”
Zuko was just as frazzled as a polar cat with its fur on end. Sokka, though, was chasing down a mystery.
“Because I don’t have fire or whatever inside me. I must have water. And when I’m inside a bender’s body… Boom. Waterbending.”
Zuko shot him a disgusted look. “That is not how it works. Bending comes from the spirit.”
Sokka held up a finger. “The evidence suggests otherwise.”
Secretly, he was delighted. He’d always been told the same—that Waterbenders were touched by the moon and ocean spirits, that they were more spatially connected. But what if they were just born with a physical quirk?
Zuko looked like he dearly wanted to argue, but couldn’t figure out how. “Whatever,” he grunted and stomped toward his door.
“Where are you going?”
“To check on the ghost watch.”
“They’ll be asleep at the helm.”
He turned back, his eyes gleaming. “Good.”
Ah. Someone for Zuko to yell at.
Sokka followed, ready to see the show.
He had no idea what Zuko planned to do once he got to the North Pole—his ship couldn't sail right in. And judging by the way the Prince reverted back to crabbing at anyone who looked at him funny, Zuko didn't know either.
His ship tied up to port one night, Zuko sulking in his room and Sokka peering at his maps trying to decide if he actually had a plan to get into the Northern Water Tribe (and if so, how Sokka could disrupt it) or if Zuko just planned on winging it the whole way (which seemed a lot more like him) when there was a knock at the door.
Turning to it, Zuko snarled, “Uncle, I told you I’m not playing the tsusi horn at music night.”
As had become usual, Iroh opened the door anyway. “No, it’s not about that. I’m afraid I have some bad news about our plans.”
And the next thing Sokka knew, Admiral Zhao was shoving past Iroh into Zuko’s room like he owned the place.
It went downhill from there.
Admiral Zhao left the ship, taking Zuko’s crew along with him. Sokka watched them disembark, feeling conflicted. On the plus side, it meant Zuko had no way to get to the North Pole and try to capture Aang. On the way negative side, Admiral Zhao was now hot on Katara and Aang’s trail, which was even worse.
Admiral Zhao didn’t share what he needed Zuko’s crew for, but Sokka counted the lights of at least a half dozen Fire Nation battlecruisers out in the water. Whatever Zhao was up to, it was bad.
With a disgusted sigh, Sokka returned back to Zuko’s cabin. He found Zuko laying on his bunk, hands folded over his stomach and contemplating his ceiling.
“I’m surprised you didn’t go with them too,” Zuko said, not even looking his way.
“What, with Zhao? Why?”
“Because they’re headed to the North Pole.”
Sokka rolled his eyes. “That’s a great idea, Zuko. Why didn’t I hitch a ride and warn my sister and Aang he’s coming? Oh wait.” He wanted to kick something, but his foot would just go through it. Very unsatisfying.
Zuko said nothing. From his angry, pinched expression. He was in full blown sulking mode. Well, this was bad. Zuko couldn’t steer the ship himself. They were officially dead in the water.
“So what’s the plan?” Sokka asked.
His voice came out despondent. “Capture the Avatar. Return to the Fire Nation and reclaim my honor.”
“For the record,” Sokka said, “I hate that plan.”
This was usually the point where Zuko would blow up, call him a water tribe peasant who knew nothing about honor, etc… etc.
This time he stayed silent, still staring at the ceiling.
Sokka sighed again. “Okay, so how specifically are we going to get to the North Pole? Ideally before Zhao gets there first, because we both agree that is not good.”
“I don’t know,” he said, flatly.
What Sokka needed was a sky bison. A sky bison who could see him. “Maybe you could rent a ship. Or a small boat. Or… steal one. Hey, do you have an extra river steamer, like that—”
“Well I don’t hear you coming up with bright ideas—”
Zuko sat up. “I said be quiet,” he hissed again. “I think someone’s on on the ship.”
Sokka’s jaw snapped shut. Zuko rose from his bunk and padded to the door in his sneaky-silent way of his. Opening his cabin door, he peeked out.
“Uncle? Is that you?”
Sokka hadn’t heard anything in the first place, but followed along beside Zuko as he walked down the empty corridor and to the command deck.
A flash of green caught their attention along with a flutter of wings. A lizard-parrot landed on the sill of the main window.
“Hey,” Sokka said, “I’ve seen that lizard-parrot before…”
He and Zuko both looked at each other, Sokka read the same realization in Zuko’s.
Zuko’s good eye widened. With a sharp gesture, he cast a shield of fire.
Then the ship exploded.
If Sokka had a physical body, he supposed that shock would have made the next few seconds fractured. As it was, he saw every horrible moment—how the concussion from the blast knocked Zuko out the opposite window, the steel walls shattering around him like crumpled paper, pieces of the bulkhead flying away to land in the water.
The explosion didn’t affect Sokka at all. He stood on the sinking remains of the ship, staring at the spot in the night-black water where Zuko had gone in.
“Zuko!” he yelled. “Zuko!”
No answer. The seconds stretched on. Zuko didn’t reappear. He was still under water.
Sokka dived in.
The sky was night dark, the moon still a few days from being full. But the fires from the explosion cast a flickering light underwater. Sokka was able to catch a glimpse of Zuko—limp and sinking to the dark, silty bottom.
Sokka grabbed for him, but of course his fingers passed right through Zuko’s hand.
There was only one thing he could think of.
Sorry, he thought before he entered Zuko’s body.
Cold. Pain. Cold.
Water crushed down on him, pulling him into inky blackness. The shocking cold bit into his skin like thousands of needles in a way that it hadn’t a moment before. Sokka thrashed in surprise, and white agony shot up his side. He would have screamed, but he needed the air.
His legs were fine, and he kicked upward, head tilted up to the nebulous light that was the moon.
He broke water and gasped in a ragged breath. The searing pain in his side from expanding lungs made him hunch and sink under again.
He kicked and thrashed, lungs burning and mouth opening to draw in breath—even if it was water—when his hand hit a floating piece of debris half on accident. He pulled upward with one good arm—the other clutched to his chest too tightly to move.
Sokka broke water again and gasped a second lungful of air before he heaved himself up, half-laying across the floating pieces of wood. Gasping, he kicked for shore. He had to get out of the freezing water before the cold caught up to him. To Zuko. Whatever.
The explosion had caused a ruckus in the small harbor town, and there were people gathering at the pier. One stood at the shore, calling Zuko’s name.
Sokka aimed for it.
All this time, had Zuko remained silent in his head. Sokka could sense thoughts, but they were vague and unorganized. Knocked out? Stunned? Seemed like it.
As he got close, he realized the person calling out was Iroh.
“Nephew!” Iroh waded in, heedless of the cold.
“I’m n-not… Zuko…” Sokka gasped. He was trembling all over from shock and chills, and it seemed for a second that his legs wouldn’t let him stand. Iroh was stronger than he looked and helped take his weight. Together, they staggered up the shore and to the bank.
Iroh cast a glance at him—at his eyes, Sokka realized. Must be blue again—and stopped. Shocked. “Why are you possessing my nephew’s body, spirit?”
“He wasn’t swimming—knocked out or stunned.” He grimaced. “I couldn’t leave him underwater!”
Iroh looked out to the flaming wreckage and then back again. “Then you saved his life.”
“I…” He couldn’t take that in. Truthfully, he wasn’t sure what he did was a good idea or not. Zuko was his enemy… wasn’t he? But Sokka hadn’t even thought twice about following him underwater. He went on before he could think about what he did too deeply. “We saw the captain’s parrot lizard… just before the explosion.”
“An assassination attempt,” Iroh said. “Not the first Prince Zuko has survived. Can you get him to the house?”
Not the first? Why wasn’t Sokka surprised. Anyone who had met Zuko in person probably had wanted to kill him at one point or another.
But this had been a serious attempt on his life. If Sokka hadn’t been there… “Yes,” he said. “I can make it.”
Sokka had no idea how Iroh knew the people of the house. They spoke quietly, and Iroh flashed what Sokka thought was a lotus tile off a pair sho set, but that couldn’t be right. Then they were shown toward the back.
There was a low table as well as medical supplies. Gingerly, Sokka lowered himself on it. Every movement sent fresh agony through his ribs—including taking a deep breath. Iroh had to cut Zuko’s shirt away.
At least there were no new burns.
Iroh was finishing up wrapping up what looked look at least three fractured ribs when Zuko finally came around.
What… what’s going on? Where am I? He murmured, deep in his own brain.
“Don’t freak out,” Sokka warned, under his breath.
Zuko, predictably, freaked out. What… ARE YOU IN MY BODY?
“Zuko’s awake,” Sokka said to Iroh. “I’m just going to…” he made a fluttering motion with his fingers.
Iroh nodded. “That is for the best.”
“Just a heads up, he’s kind of pissed off.”
“I assure you I can deal with my nephew in his worst of moods.”
Your funeral, Sokka thought then stepped out from Zuko’s body.
“—HOW DARE YOU! Get out of me, right this instant!” Zuko snarled, which was impressive considering the ribs and all. Then he stopped, realizing he had control over his body again, and glared at Sokka. “Stop taking liberties with my body!”
“Stop making it sound like I have a fetish for being in you!” Sokka snapped back.
Zuko’s outrage cracked his voice in three places. “Fetish?”
Iroh coughed. “Welcome back nephew,” he said mildly. “I was given to understand your spirit friend swam you to shore.”
Zuko colored and turned his back on Sokka. “Yes, Uncle. What’s the status of my ship.”
“I’m afraid it’s a total loss.”
He closed his eyes. “Just my luck.”
“Luck, my foot,” Sokka said. “Someone tried to murder you. Murder you dead.”
Zuko rolled one shoulder in a shrug then stopped, wincing as his ribs protested. “Doesn’t matter. How can I capture the Avatar without a ship?”
“Seriously?! You are such a… UGH!” If he had physical hair, Sokka might have torn it out. “One track mind doesn’t even cover it. Do you know the meaning of giving up?”
Despite the fact his lip was split, his good eye was so bruised and swollen it matched the bad eye, and he had a handful of broken ribs, Zuko smiled. “I haven’t ever yet. Why start now?”
“As it happens,” Iroh said. “I may have a way to get us all to the North Pole.”
Although he couldn’t see it, both boys turned to him, identical expressions of surprise on their faces.
Iroh’s grand plan was to offer himself as a consultant to Admiral Zhao’s siege of the North Pole, steal a Fire Nation ensign’s uniform, and sneak Zuko aboard as an ensign.
Thank the moon and sea for full Fire Nation faceplates while on duty, because no one recognized Zuko. The crazy plan actually worked.
The fact that ensign duties were limited to swabbing decks and mucking out the fire rhinoceros stalls in the bowels of the ship was just icing on the cake.
Sokka felt a little bad for Zuko, considering his broken ribs and all, but not badly enough to keep from laughing at him. Because Sokka was a nice guy, he also kept an eye out in case Zuko drew any suspicion from the real ensigns. Luckily, Zuko’s surly nature and complete lack of ability to small talk kept him apart from the rest of the crew. Zuko wanted nothing to do with them, and the feeling was mutual.
Still, the ship was crowded and Zuko couldn’t risk being seen having a conversation with empty air. So Sokka was taken completely by surprise when he heard his name being called after light’s out that first long day.
Zuko’s voice was whisper quiet and easily lost in the snores from the rest of the shipmen in the small, cramped sleeping area that served as bunks.
Sokka, of course, didn’t have to worry about sleep, or being cramped. He glanced over to see Zuko laying not far away—the ship was too crowded to afford luxuries like individual beds for the ensigns. The best anyone could do was pull up a piece of free floor and close their eyes. Zuko had been forced to take off his helmet, but lay hidden in the shadows, no doubt to hide his very recognizable face. The only thing visible in the half-light was the gleam of his golden eyes.
Rising, Sokka stepped over, wincing when he actually had to walk through a few sleeping people. It seemed like Zhao had shipped every warm body he could to the North Pole. They packed them in tight.
“What is it?” There was no reason for Sokka to keep his voice down, but he did anyway. Best to keep up the ambiance, and all that.
Zuko’s reply was so quiet it was barely above a breath of air. “Have you gone up to Zhao’s quarters?”
Zuko gave him a look.
It took Sokka a second to get it… and then he felt like a total idiot. “His invasion plans. He’ll have maps and charts up in his personal quarters, won’t he?”
Zuko dipped his head in a nod.
Ugh. Prince Jerk-Face had actually out-planned him? This was unacceptable. Clearly, Sokka needed to get back on his game. Sokka sent Zuko a stern look. “I hope you don’t expect me to help you capture Aang.”
Zuko bared his teeth in a mean smile. “I expect you to do everything you can to save the Northern Water Tribe.”
Well… monkey feathers. He kind of had him there.
“Fine,” Sokka said, rising. “Just so you know I’m not your personal message hawk.” He looked down at the other boy and added. “Get some sleep.”
Zuko’s eyes glinted again, this time with amusement.
Admiral Zhao’s personal quarters—yes, he had quarters plural. While the lower ranks were crammed cheek to jowl, he had several rooms to himself—were richly furnished and equally ostentatious, decorated in red and gold. So tacky.
Zhao was awake, candles burning on either end of a heavy wooden desk while he hunched over several ancient-looking scrolls.
“Just so you know,” Sokka said conversationally, “you’re not going to defeat the Water Tribe. I’m going to find a way to stop you.”
Zhao didn’t react. Naturally.
Stepping up behind him, Sokka read over his shoulder.
What he found both made no sense at all and made his stomach swoop in instinctive horror.
“The moon?” Zuko repeated, albeit quietly, the next day. He had been stuck mucking out the rhinoceros stalls again—a task no one else was eager to do, so he was alone to speak freely to Sokka. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“I know!” For once, Sokka was glad no one else could see or hear him. Unlike Zuko, he was able to gesture wildly and be as loud as he wanted. “But Zhao had scrolls, maps, and diagrams all over his desk. Apparently there’s a sacred temple in the North Pole where the moon spirit lives. He wants to kill her and destroy the moon.”
“You can’t kill the moon,” Zuko huffed, exasperated. Then he paused. “Can you?”
They looked at each other. Sokka shrugged.
“It doesn’t make sense, scientifically. But this is… spirit stuff.”
“You can’t kill the moon,” Zuko repeated firmer. “It’s way up in the sky. How would he even reach it?”
“No idea,” Sokka said. “But I wasn’t misreading it. That is really Zhao’s plan.”
Zuko shook his head, but Sokka caught a flash of worry. “I have to speak with Uncle. He’s the one who knows about spiritual matters.”
Getting Zuko in touch with Iroh took a little doing.
Sokka could spy on Iroh’s location, but as a young shipman, Zuko’s duties put him firmly in the lower decks. Luckily, the fact that there were so many extra people crammed on the ship worked to their advantage. The crew didn’t know each other, and not many asked questions when someone was out of place.
With Sokka acting as a lookout, Zuko struck to the upper decks. Then, when the guards’ backs were turned, he slipped silently into Iroh’s small, but private cabin.
The other man sat up from his bed with surprise and was on his feet with surprising reflexes.
Zuko removed his faceplate. “Uncle, it’s me.”
Iroh visibly relaxed, straightening from a martial stance. “Nephew. What brings you here?” His amber eyes sharpened. “Is all well?”
“Depends,” Sokka said. “Would you say you’re a fan of moonrises?”
Zuko shot him a quelling look. “I need to speak to you about something. Sokka was spying on Zhao in his cabin…” And he went on to repeat everything Sokka had relayed to him.
Sokka had to give Zuko credit—he didn’t exaggerate or add his own color commentary. He reported exactly what Sokka had said nearly word-for-word. Good memory. Too bad he generally used it for evil.
He had the feeling that half the reason they were there was for Zuko to receive reassurance from his uncle. He didn’t act like it, but he clearly respected Iroh and valued his opinion… when he wasn’t busy yelling and screaming about finding the Avatar.
However, if he was looking for confirmation that the whole ‘killing the moon’ idea was too stupid to be real, he didn’t get it. Iroh’s eyes went very wide and he cast an eye outside his porthole window where the moon was visible, just rising. The blood drained from his face.
“Is he certain?” Iroh rasped.
“Yes,” Sokka said.
Zuko hesitated, then nodded. “Is it possible, Uncle?”
“It is monstrous,” Iroh said. “But possible?” He took a deep breath and nodded. “It is said that the spirits who have the greatest effect on the material world do so through mortal bodies. Yes, I am afraid they can be killed.”
Sokka found himself exchanging another amazed look with Zuko. Then Zuko turned back to his uncle.
“Because without the power of the moon, the waterbenders will lose their connection to their element. We firebenders are connected to our element through the sun. For waterbenders, it is the moon.”
Zuko turned to Sokka. “Why didn’t you tell me that?”
“What? How was I supposed to know! I’m not a waterbender!” Sokka waved a hand vaguely to the north. “That’s not technically even my tribe. I’m from the South Pole, remember? We haven’t had any contact with them for a hundred years, thanks to you guys.”
Zuko turned away from him, hands forming fists at his sides.
“Prince Zuko,” Iroh said, “If Zhao goes through with this… it will be an unimaginable transgression against the spirits. The backlash against the material world—against the Fire Nation…” He trailed off and looked sick. “I cannot begin to imagine it.”
Uh-oh. Zuko was getting that crinkle between his brows that he normally got when Aang had escaped him again. It was a look of pending rage. “Destroying the moon will change everything. The fleets use the tides to sail, and the outer Fire Islands use the moon’s cycle to plan their fishing harvests. Without the moon, there will be famine within the month!”
“I’m afraid so,” Iroh confirmed.
“It’s treason,” Zuko growled. “Zhao misled my father into this sham of an attack against the Northern Water Tribe when his methods would devastate the Fire Nation.”
“I believe the siege is real, for what that is worth,” Iroh said. “Perhaps he believes the honor he receives from pulling the teeth from the Northern Water Tribe will outweigh the damage done to the Fire Nation.”
Zuko’s expression darkened. “Then Zhao must be stopped. I beat him in an Agni Kai once—”
“No, Prince Zuko,” Iroh said sharply. “Zhao would be a fool to accept a second challenge from you. He would have you thrown in the brig for interfering with the invasion, or executed on sight.”
Ah, now Sokka thought he understood part of the reason why Zhao hated Zuko so much. “You beat him in a fire duel?” he asked. “Good job.”
The corner of Zuko’s lip twitched, but he became serious again. “This is bigger than me, Uncle. You said it yourself: The Fire Nation is in danger. I am a prince, and I will not have my people suffer because of Zhao’s quest for power!” Zuko drew himself up. The firelight reflected off his uniform, and at that moment.. yeah, he managed to look a little regal. Scars, bruises, and all.
“You have to tell Aang,” Sokka said.
Zuko whipped back to him. “What?!”
“What did he say, Nephew?” Iroh asked.
Sokka walked forward. “The Avatar is the bridge to the spirit world. Protecting the balance between people and the spirits is what he does.”
“Because he did a great job saving you!” Zuko snapped.
Iroh was quick on the uptake. “The Avatar?” He grunted in surprise and then stroked his beard thoughtfully. “He could, perhaps, assist the moon spirit. He does have an advantage of already being at the North Pole.”
“I don’t want to warn the Avatar!” Zuko snapped. “He’s my enemy!”
“Aang is not your enemy!” Sokka said.
“If Zhao attempts to destroy the moon, he is the greater threat,” Iroh said, on the heels of Sokka’s words. “There is an ancient proverb of the enemy of my enemy…”
“That was about a Fire Sage who was eventually killed by his own friend!”
Iroh looked delighted. “So you did pay attention in history classes.”
“Zuko,” Sokka said.
Zuko whipped back to him. His gaze was so fierce, so direct, that Sokka felt his non-existent breath catch. He made himself meet that fierce golden gaze head-on. “You want to get back home to the Fire Nation? Fine. I get that. I don’t agree with your methods, obviously, but I get it.” Sokka paused. “But if Zhao goes through with this… there won’t be a home for you to go back to.”
He saw the fine muscles along Zuko’s jaw clench, could practically see the battle he was fighting in his own head.
“I’m going back home,” Zuko growled. “I will take the Avatar back to the Fire Nation in chains. I will regain my honor and my birthright. That doesn’t change,” he let out a breath that steamed in the air, “But for this… To save the Fire Nation, I can make a temporary truce. Will the Avatar honor it?”
“Aang? Yeah. My sister might try to splash you, though.”
“Well,” Zuko said, almost smiling. “You’ll have to come along and make sure that doesn’t happen.”
At midnight after the first day of the siege, Zuko and Sokka silently slipped into a small, often ignored part of the lower decks. Sokka gaped in surprise at the racks of tightly stored canoes, all tied down and covered against the elements. “Why does the Fire Nation have canoes? Did you steal these from the Water Tribe?”
Zuko shot him a puzzled look. “You do realize the Fire Nation is an island chain, right? How else are you supposed to get from one island to another?”
“... Huh.” Sokka bent to examine the nearest canoe. Hard to tell for sure without being able to feel the grain of the wood, but it looked like it was carved out of a totally different tree than the pine-oaks his tribe used. Thinner and lighter wood, but with none of the decorative carvings the water tribe etched into their hulls.
Perversely, it annoyed him that both the Water Tribes and the Fire Nation depended on navigating the water.
There was a small cache of supplies nearby. Zuko changed out of his bulky shipmen’s uniform into a heavy coat and weather-proof pants. He dragged one canoe out and was lowering it into the water when Iroh came down to see them off.
“If you’re fishing for an octopus, my nephew, you need a tightly woven net or he will squeeze through the tiniest hole and escape.”
“What does that even mean?” Sokka asked.
“Who knows.” Zuko sighed and turned to Iroh. “I don’t need your wisdom right now, uncle. I’ll be fine.”
A look of pain flashed across the older man’s face. “I’m sorry. I just nag you because, well, ever since I lost my son…”
Zuko glanced down. “Uncle, you don’t have to say it.”
“I think of you as my own,” Iroh said.
Well that explained why he put up with so much of Zuko’s nonsense.
Zuko bowed. “I know, Uncle.”
Iroh bowed back, shallower. As if from a father to a son. “Where is your spirit friend now?”
Sokka jerked in surprise. “Who, me?” He wasn’t sure he liked being labeled as a friend. He was more of an… unwilling sarcastic advice giver.
Even Zuko hesitated, but didn’t seem to be in the mood to correct him either. “Standing by the launch-out.”
To Sokka’s surprise, Iroh turned towards him. “Young Sokka, I would consider it as a personal favor if you helped keep my nephew safe while he is in enemy territory tonight.”
Zuko made a choking sound.
That, and the particular weight Iroh put on the words gave Sokka a pause. “What does he mean by favor?”
Zuko sighed in an aggravated fashion. “He means he would be bound by his honor to assist you in return. It is… very good to have the Dragon of the West owe you one.” He turned to Iroh. “Uncle, you don’t have to—I can take care of myself!”
“Nevertheless,” Iroh said, “it is my favor to give.”
“... Sure,” Sokka said slowly. “I mean, Zuko is sort of the only one I can talk to. I do want him to stay alive.”
“I won’t need his help,” Zuko said flatly. “But Sokka said he will do his best.”
“That is all I ask.” Iroh eyed the spot vaguely where Sokka stood. Then he turned to fuss over Zuko, reminding him about his breath of fire and to keep his hood up against the cold.
Weird guy, but nice. For being Fire Nation.
Judging by the way bits of ice whipped off the high glacier cliffs, it was both windy and bitterly cold as they set out. Not that Sokka felt it. He sat on the edge of the canoe in a way that would have totally tipped it over if he had a body. There were a couple of benefits to being spirity.
Ahead, the Northern Water Tribe was blocked by way of a giant ice wall.
How to get over? Ice hooks? Dangerous, but Zuko might be able to manage it. Talk his way in? Not a chance, unless Sokka wanted to jump into his body to do the talking. “Too bad we can’t just load you into one of Zhao’s catapults and fling you over the top,” Sokka mused.
Zuko bared his teeth in a smile. “I thought about it. No way to know where I’d land.”
“That was not a serious suggestion! Wait… was that a joke?”
His expression was flat. “I never joke.”
Sokka rolled his eyes. “Keep your day job, Fire Nation, and leave the humor to the guys who are actually funny.” He turned back towards the ice wall. “How do you plan to get in?”
“Every wall has its weak point.”
He hoped that didn’t mean Zuko meant to melt his way in. Sokka was about to suggest that Zuko paddle closer so that he could phase through the wall and see what was on the other side, when Zuko put his paddle down and pointed. “Where are they going?”
“What?” He looked and saw a turtle seal dive from the ice into the water. “That’s just a turtle seal. They nest all over the place in the South Pole, too.” And they weren’t even good eating. The eggs were okay, though.
“They breathe air,” Zuko said.
Sokka had a bad feeling about this. “Yeah? So?”
Zuko let the canoe drift over to where the seal had dived in, and then dragged in one deep breath, then another in that same style he did when he was meditating.
“Oh no,” Sokka said. “You are not thinking what I think you’re thinking.”
Zuko’s eyes slit open, the gold luminous in the night. “Keep up if you can.”
And then he dived over the edge.
The next few minutes, watching Zuko almost drown, were… pretty bad.
Sokka could do nothing. He couldn’t pull Zuko faster through the ice tunnel, couldn’t do anything about the ice itself, couldn’t even jump into Zuko’s body because he couldn’t firebend, and by the way Zuko was struggling he didn’t have enough air to return to the canoe.
Luckily adrenaline or maybe Zuko’s ancestors actually smiled down on the idiot because he was able to melt his way into the turtle seal colony.
“That was the stupidest, most badass, stupidest, stupidest stunt I have ever seen,” Sokka yelled as Zuko dragged himself, gasping and coughing, to dry rocks. “You took ten years off my life! Did I mention that you’re stupid, yet?”
“Worked though,” Zuko gasped, shivering convulsively.
“You are insane. And now you’re going to die of cold.”
At least, he would be half-dead from hypothermia if he was a normal human being. But no one who had ever met Zuko would ever call him normal. Zuko coughed, heaved out some seawater, and then dragged himself upward to breathe deep like he did during meditation. A flick of fire escaped his lips and color returned to his skin.
By the ocean and moon, firebenders were scary. Determined did not even cover it. Zuko did not give up. Not ever.
“I’m not dying until I stop Zhao.” He stood, quite normally, to his feet. Steam rose from his shoulders and his shivers were gone.
“That is not how dying works!” Sokka snapped only because it was better than admitting how worried he was.
And that was not admiration he was feeling. It was exasperation.
Zuko shrugged and rose to shove past two barking turtle seals. “You’re the expert on dying.”
Sokka did the most mature thing he could think of, and flipped him off.
Zuko almost smiled. “Sun’s up in six hours. We have that long to warn the Avatar.”
Right. He had not come all the way to the North Pole to snipe at Zuko. “Aang and Katara could be anywhere in the city. We should check to make sure the moon spirit is even here, first. According to what I saw on Zhao’s maps, there’s a sacred temple in the middle of the city. Come on.”
The city was dead quiet—its people exhausted after fending off the Fire Nation all day. Zuko kept to the shadows in that sneaky way of his—Sokka had no need, obviously— and between the both of them, they were able to make their way with no issues.
Even at night, the grander of the Northern Water Tribe was… a lot to take in, and in stark contrast to the way Sokka’s tribe lived. Man, while he’d been slumming it on Zuko’s ship, Katara and Aang had been here. Must have been nice.
The location of the sacred temple wasn’t completely obvious, and yet depressingly easy to find after looking at a map. If the moon and ocean spirits really were there, they were so screwed.
“Should be through this moon door,” Sokka said, pointing to the round wooden door with a helpful carving of a moon. He took the opportunity to phase through without worrying if it was locked. Hey, there were advantages of being without a body.
He reached the other side and stared. Green grass, a tranquil pool, and…
Katara and Aang.
Aang was sitting by the pool in his meditation pose, his tattoos glowing. Katara stood nearby him, speaking to a lovely girl with white hair. They both turned as the moon door opened.
“Zuko!” Katara yelped and gestured to the pool. A huge wave came at her call. Whoa, she had been practicing.
“Wait!” Zuko barked, and then rolled out of the way as the water came crashing heavily down. “Stop! I’ve come for a truce!”
“Katara, who are these boys?” asked the girl with the white hair.
Katara ignored her. She was too busy trying to stab Zuko with spears of ice. Wow. She really had gotten good. “I can’t trust you! You’re crazy!”
“Zuko, tell her!” Sokka said.
Zuko was sort of busy dodging ice-darts, but managed to reach into his pocket and pull out Katara’s necklace. The one she had left behind after the whole pirate fiasco. For some reason, Zuko had kept it on his person and so it survived the explosion. Sokka had asked, but Zuko had flushed and muttered about ‘Water Tribe insurance’ whatever that was meant to mean.
At the sight of the necklace, Katara froze.
Zuko spoke quickly. “Your mother gave you this necklace. She got it from your father’s mother, who everyone calls Gran-Gran.” He tossed it over and she caught it, silent and staring.
Zuko went on, “Your idiot brother broke his leg when he was eight, and his favorite food is seal jerky. Yours is stewed sea-prunes. How do you think I know these things? It’s because Sokka told me.”
The girl with the white hair stepped forward. “Katara, is that your brother?”
But she wasn’t looking at Zuko. She was looking directly at Sokka.
“Whoa,” Sokka said. “You can see me?”
The girl nodded, her lovely face grave. “Yes, I can see you, spirit. Has no one performed your last rites, yet?”
In an instant, all his happy feelings fled. “I am not a spirit!” He turned to Zuko. “Tell her!”
“He’s touchy about being dead,” Zuko said flatly.
Katara made a small sound of distress and sank to the ground. “Yue… you’re saying Sokka’s… dead..?”
“Oh no.” Sokka rushed to her, but of course there was nothing he could do to help. He couldn’t even pat her on the shoulder. “Someone tell her I’m not dead. I’m just… I’m just temporarily without a body, and I’m working to get it back.”
Yue bit her bottom lip, deep sadness in her crystal blue eyes.
“Sokka’s probably not dead,” Zuko said almost gently… for him. “He’s just… um, sort of removed from life right now.”
“Thank you so much, Zuko,” Sokka snapped. “That is a whole lot better.”
Katara made a gasping sound and wiped her eyes. “Is he in any pain?”
“No, I’m fine!”
“He’s not in pain. Just loud, obnoxious, and annoying.” Zuko looked at Yue. “How are you able to see him?”
She folded her hands into large sleeves. “When I was a baby, I was born sick and weak. The Spirit of the Moon granted me life, and since then I’ve been able to see things no one can see.” She looked at Zuko, his very distinctive face and gold eyes. “You are Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation, aren’t you? Why have you trespassed on this sacred place?”
“Because he wants to capture Aang.” Giving herself a shake, Katara rose to her feet. Her expression darkened. “Tell Sokka that I can’t believe he’s helping him!”
“He’s right here, and trust me he hasn’t help one bit!” Zuko growled, which was a little unfair. Sure, Sokka hadn’t helped him capture the one last hope for the world, but he’d totally been there for moral support for Zuko’s non-evil deeds.
Before he could point this out, Zuko continued, “The Commander of the Fire Nation armada is Admiral Zhao. I’m here because Sokka discovered that Zhao knows about this temple. He isn’t here just to conquer the Northern Water Tribe in honorable combat. He’s coming to slay the Spirit of the Moon.”
Yue gasped, hand flying to cover her mouth. “No! He can’t!”
“Yes, he absolutely can,” Zuko said. “The full moon is tomorrow night, which makes the spirit at its most powerful… and most vulnerable.”
“Zhao has his whole evil plan outlined in scrolls and maps in his cabin. Practically in bullet-points,” Sokka said to Yue. “I’ve seen it.”
From the look on her face, Katara wasn’t convinced. “But you’re Fire Nation, Zuko. Why are you helping us, and not him?”
Zuko drew himself up. “I am not your friend,” he said in a stiff, formal way he got when he was at his most pompous. “But today, I can be your ally. The Fire Nation needs the moon just as much as the Water Tribes. We live on islands and our food supply is dependent on the fruits of the tide.” He added, viciously, “I don’t know what Zhao is thinking!”
“How do I know you’re not here to try to take Aang?” Katara pressed.
“I won’t move against the Avatar until the Moon Spirit is safe from Zhao. You have my word on my honor.” Zuko bowed.
“Honor is kind of a big deal in the Fire Nation,” Sokka told Yue. “They’re obsessed with it.”
The corner of Yue’s mouth twitched in a smile. Wow, she was pretty. Liked his jokes, too.
Zuko shot Sokka a look of pure venom. “Are you saying there’s no honor in the Water Tribes?”
“Sure, but we don’t talk about it ten thousand times a day.”
“What else do you talk about? Oh wait, how many words for ice and snow do you have again?”
“Yue, he is speaking to Sokka, right?” Katara said uncertainly. “He’s not just… talking to himself?”
“Yes, he’s speaking with Sokka,” she confirmed, smiling.
Zuko got a vaguely constipated look on his face. With visible effort, he stopped bickering with Sokka to turn to Yue. “Princess Yue, you should know that in the Fire Nation… seeing ghosts like Sokka is considered a bad omen. I already know I’m unlucky, but seeing spirits means you’re close to death, yourself. So, um, you should be careful.”
She nodded. “I will. Thank you, Prince Zuko.” And she bowed.
He flushed. Not that Sokka could blame him. She was really pretty. Or maybe it was just because someone besides his Uncle acknowledged that he was a prince for once. Either way, Sokka decided to let it go that he’d called him a ghost again. This time.
“Sokka…” Katara was looking a little to the right of where Sokka was standing, but he’d take it. “I’m sorry. We’re going to fix this. Aang will figure out what to do.”
“I know,” Sokka said, wishing she could hear him. He turned to Yue. “What’s going on with Aang, anyway?”
This whole time, Aang had not so much as twitched an eyelid. He sat by the pool, his tattoos glowing.
“The Avatar is visiting the spirit world to seek guidance on what to do about the Fire Nation.” Yue looked at Zuko pointedly.
“Well, can you call him back?” Zuko asked. “The Moon Spirit needs him here.”
“Where is the Moon Spirit, anyway?” Sokka asked. “Why don’t we just tell her to go hide?”
“That… isn’t possible,” Yue said.
“Because she lives in the pool.”
Both Sokka And Zuko turned to look at the tranquil little pond. From where he stood, Sokka could see koi fish swimming around.
Zuko strode over, but Katara stepped in his way.
Oh, right. Aang.
“I’m not going to capture him,” Zuko said through clenched teeth, and added because he was an asshole, “Tonight.”
“You say you’re here for a truce, but I can’t trust that.” Katara looked up at the big bad Fire Prince and poked a finger at his chest. Wow, if she were threatening him with a shoe, she’d be Gran-Gran’s double. “You can stay and you can help, but you will not lay a hand on Aang. Or so help me, I will make sure you regret it.” The water in the pool trembled.
“Take it from me,” Sokka said with great satisfaction. “You do not want to piss her off.”
Zuko glanced at the pool. “You’ve found a waterbending master.”
“That’s right,” she said.
His voice turned silky in the way it did when he was at his most evil. “After this is over, you and I are going to have a fight. You can show me how good you really are.”
Katara’s smile was just as dangerous. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Sokka looked at Yue. “Benders are insane.”
They entered a tense truce where Aang continued to do his Avatar mumbo-jumbo with tattoos a’glowin’, Katara and Yue retreated to one side of the pool, and Zuko sat on the other side.
No one trusted each other, but neither one of the angry, volatile benders were throwing elements either. So that was a win in Sokka’s book.
Sokka saw Katara cast a quick, distrustful glance Zuko’s way before she walked over to Yue. “Can you call Sokka over here?”
“There’s no need,” replied the princess, serenely. “He’s standing next to you.”
Katara jumped and glanced around. Her eyes passed over Sokka without seeing him. That sucked. It was one thing for Iroh or the members of Zuko’s crew to not know where he was, but it hurt to be feet from his little sister and her not realize it. He couldn’t even talk to her without an intermediary.
“What’s wrong?” he asked Yue.
“I don’t trust Zuko. I can’t believe Sokka does,” Katara replied when Yue relayed his words.
“Hey, it’s not like we’re best friends. I’m just… making the best out of a bad situation.” Sokka cast a glance Zuko’s way. The prince was sitting on a grassy hill, looking towards the moon door. His unburned ear was turned towards them, though. He was totally trying to eavesdrop.
Sokka remembered how, back before the hurricane, Zuko had acted like he didn’t notice or care how the crewmen on his ship talked about him. He used his pride and short temper like a shield, but Sokka would bet a piece of seal jerky that it had still hurt him when he had caught their unkind words. Thus, all the snarling and general dickery.
“I know my brother: He has to have some kind of insane plan in the works. Ask him what it is,” Katara said.
“Come on, Katara,” Sokka said. “Can you stop talking to me in third person? I’m standing right next to you.”
Yue, bless her, relayed his words faithfully, albeit without the sarcasm. Katara blushed and turned Sokka’s way. Sort of. “All right, smart guy. What’s your plan for when Zuko turns on us?”
“He won’t turn on us,” Sokka said firmly and added, a touch louder, “Zuko keeps his word.”
Zuko’s total non-reaction was pretty telling. No one stares at a door that hard.
“Besides,” Sokka continued, “there’s something to be said for fighting fire with fire. Zuko’s beaten Admiral Zhao in a fire duel before. He can do it again.”
“Are you sure?” Katara asked after Yue was finished repeating what Sokka said.
“I’m sure. He’s a jerk, but he keeps his word. Besides,” Sokka added, warming up to the idea, “if Zuko decides totally throw away his honor and break our truce… I can stop him.”
“You can stop him?” Yue was too surprised to repeat Sokka’s words. “How?”
Sokka grinned. “I’ll take over his body, have him strip down to his fancy Fire Nation underwear, and do a traditional Southern Water Tribe jig.”
He was looking for a laugh from the pretty girl. He did not expect her to recoil, alarmed, and make a warding sign that his Gran-Gran used when she thought evil spirits were in the air. Of course it did nothing to Sokka (See? Totally NOT an evil spirit and/or dead. Thank you.).
“What?” Katara asked. “Yue, what’s wrong?”
Yue stared at Sokka with wide eyes. “Your brother says he has the ability to possess others.”
“Just Zuko,” Sokka said quickly. “And the first time was totally an accident. I sort of fell into him. It’s not like I liked it.”
“The feeling is mutual,” Zuko grumbled, not even pretending he wasn’t listening anymore.
“I don’t understand,” Katara said. “It’s kind of weird, but what’s wrong with him possessing someone?”
“Bodily possession is a power of very dark spirits.” Yue sounded almost apologetic to Katara, but she did not take her eyes off of Sokka for one second. It was as if she had suddenly discovered he was actually a razor-toothed leopard seal in disguise.
Katara put her hands on her hips. “Sokka is not a dark spirit.”
“I’m really not.” Sokka flashed a smile at the pretty princess. See? Totally harmless.
Zuko snorted but thankfully kept his snark to himself.
“In fact,” Katara continued, “I think it could be a good thing. He could possess Zhao and make him leave the Moon Spirit alone.”
“Um, it doesn’t work like that. And even if it did…” He shuddered. The thought of being in Admiral Zhao’s skin was vile.
Yue lifted her chin. “No. Sokka, I forbid you from that practice while you are here.”
“Sure,” Sokka said. “But I don’t understand what’s so bad about it. I mean, I’m the one who has to put up with being in Zuko’s body.”
“What’s wrong with my body?” Zuko demanded, turning to them.
“One, your night vision is the worst. Two, you still have fractured ribs. Three—”
“I still don’t understand,” Katara said, overriding Sokka. “What’s so bad about him possessing someone else’s body?”
“I just asked that—” Sokka broke off, throwing his hands in the air, frustrated. Being invisible and un-hearable to Katara was awful.
Yue, however, seemed to have regained some of her composure. “It is a perversion of natural law. A body is only truly capable of holding one spirit, so when a dark spirit possesses another’s body, they supplant the natural spirit. It’s not sharing—it’s taking over. Imagine being forced to move and speak without your consent, though you’re aware of what is happening the entire time.” She glanced at Zuko who nodded once.
“It’s not… I don’t… It’s not like I enter him willy-nilly!” Sokka snapped, gesturing wildly at Zuko. “And for your information he does consent to it most of the time!”
Zuko groaned and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Sokka. Stop talking.”
“What did he say?” Katara demanded.
He was saved from explanation by a loud BOOM coming from outside. The entire temple shivered.
Sokka and Zuko exchanged a look.
The Fire Nation’s attack had resumed for the day.
He’d screwed up big time with Yue, and now she watched him with suspicious eyes. So he made sure to keep a distance from her, and stood near Zuko instead. Outside, they could hear the sounds of the continuing siege—impacts from hurled boulders and yelled commands from the defending Water Tribe men.
Sokka glanced again and again out the moon door. Waiting for action sucked.
He wasn’t aware he was being twitchy until Zuko slanted a suspicious look his way. “What is it?”
Something went BOOM outside. Sokka winced. “It’s nothing.”
Zuko’s eyes narrowed. “If you’re holding anything back—”
“I’m not. It’s just…” He gusted a sigh (which was ridiculous because he didn’t actually breathe. But whatever. It hurt his head if he thought about it too closely—metaphorically speaking because his head didn’t actually hurt, either.) “My sister tribe is fighting for its life. I just wish I could be out there, helping.”
He expected Zuko to snark something at him. To his surprise, he looked down. “Yeah. Me too.”
Naturally, Zuko meant fighting for the Fire Nation, of course, but his answer still took Sokka by surprise. “Really?”
“Of course! I’m not a coward, and this has to be the biggest military engagement since the siege of Ba Sing Se. If my father knew I was hiding away with the Avatar…” He looked pained.
“You’re doing the right thing,” Sokka said. “And I’m not just saying that because I don’t want another firebender on the other side.”
He snorted. “Thanks.”
“I’m serious,” he said, earnestly. “No matter what happens out there… the world needs waterbending and your people have to have a home to go back to. That won’t happen if Zhao takes out the moon.”
“I know that,” Zuko growled, and lapsed into sullen silence.
Sokka, however, didn’t do silences well. With one lingering glance towards the moon door, he forced himself to turn away. Folded his legs, he sat beside Zuko. “So, what happened at Ba Sing…. What was it called again?”
“Ba Sing Se. You actually don’t know?”
He shrugged. “News doesn’t often travel to the South Pole.”
“It’s only the largest city in the world,” Zuko sneered.
“Zuko,” Sokka said, “you’re being an asshole.”
The other boy blinked as if taken aback. He probably wasn’t used to people calling him out. To Sokka’s surprise, he didn’t flare up. Instead he gusted a long breath and absently pulled at some grass. “The Fire Nation laid siege there for six-hundred days. They said that the walls surrounding the city were impenetrable.”
“Let me guess, not against fire?” Sokka asked dryly.
Zuko shook his head. “No… I mean, yes, the great walls fell in the end, but… the losses were too heavy.” He closed his eyes and there was genuine pain on his face. “My cousin, Lu Ten, was killed. It was too much for Uncle Iroh. He broke the siege and came back home. The shock… they say the shock was too much for my grandfather Azulon’s heart. He died, but not before naming my father as crown prince in Iroh’s place. That was, um, the same night my mother disappeared.”
“So you see,” Zuko said, “winning is very important.”
“Gotta be honest… I’m not sure what all of that has to do with one another.”
Zuko’s expression darkened. He looked back down as if picking the grass apart was the most important thing in the world. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“Guess not, but it sounds like you lost your cousin, your grandfather, and your mother at the same time. That must have been hard. How old were you?”
“Ten,” he muttered. “I got over it.”
Did you? This, along with a few other tidbits Zuko had dropped had forced a grim picture in Sokka’s mind. The only people that ten-year-old Zuko would have had left was a sister who, apparently, was crazy and sadistic, and a father who later went on to burn him. And Iroh. But it sounded like he was getting over the loss of his own kid.
Another boom outside and the shout of panicked voices. Zuko glanced at the door and then frowned. “What about you?” He gestured to the outside. “You said you wanted to go out there and help, but what would you even do if you had a body to fight with?”
“No offense, but this is a battle of benders.”
“Hey! I have my boomerang and my brain. And I totally beat your uncle in Pai Sho!”
“Only because you helped me cheat.”
“Still! I’d think of something. I’d…” Sokka trailed off, gaze falling to the closed moon door. Then he stood. “I can do something. Or, you can, with my help.”
Now Zuko was the one who was puzzled. “What?”
“Yue!” Sokka called, and it was so satisfying to see her look over at him. Having two people around who heard him made it easy to pretend that things were normal. “Could you get fishing line? The heavy-weight stuff for deep water fishing?”
She cocked her head, considering. “Would walrus-gut twine work?”
“That’ll be perfect.”
Katara looked between her and Zuko. “What’s going on?”
“No idea.” Zuko turned to Sokka. “What are you planning?”
Sokka grinned. “I’m rolling out the welcome mat for Admiral Zhao, Sokka style!”
Yue came through with the walrus-gut twine, and Sokka talked Zuko through setting up some simple loop snares and a few trip-wires. Without any trees as anchor points, they wouldn’t be strong enough to, say, hoist a full-grown man, but they could trip someone up. In any other circumstance, teaching Zuko how to set a snare which would be able to ruin a person’s day was a bad idea.
It turned out that Zuko knew a few sailor knots, which he added to some of the lines. He and Sokka argued back and forth about which was better. (Naturally, Sokka favored the more rustic and complex Water Tribe knots.) Their conversation grew heated, and he caught Katara frowning in their direction more than once. From her point of view, it probably looked like Zuko was sniping to himself.
Then, completely without warning, Aang let out a gasp and came awake, tattoos dimming.
“Katara, The ocean and moon spirits are in danger!” he yelled. “We have to help them!”
Zuko stood to his full height, arms crossed and looking severely unimpressed. “No kidding.”
Aang glanced over his shoulder at his voice, did an impressive double take, and flailed up to his feet. “Zuko?! What are you doing here?!”
“It’s okay,” Katara said. “He’s on our side. I think,” she added with a warning glance in Zuko’s direction.
He ignored her. “Admiral Zhao intends to slay the spirit of the moon. I came here to warn you, Avatar… and to help stop him.”
“Why?” Aang asked. “I thought… well, you didn’t want to be my friend.”
Sokka let out a sigh. Oh, Aang…
“This has nothing to do with being friends,” Zuko sneered. “I won’t let the Fire Nation suffer because of Zhao’s ambition.”
Katara pulled Aang aside and spoke to him in a low tone, probably explaining everything that had gone on while he’d been off in the spirit world, doing Avatar things. Sokka knew she’d gotten to his part when Aang suddenly whipped around again, his gray eyes wide as he stared at Zuko.
“Sokka is in spirit form? And he’s with you?”
“Technically,” Sokka said because he knew it would piss Zuko off, “He’s with me.”
Zuko scowled in his direction. “You’re not with me, you’re haunting me. There is a big difference.”
Poor Aang looked so lost. “But I don’t understand. Why can you see him when I can’t?”
“I don’t know!” Zuko snapped. “You’re the Avatar. You tell me.”
He scratched the back of his head. “The monks always taught me that the ones we love never really leave us.”
Sokka and Zuko exchanged a horrified look.
“But… it doesn’t sound like Sokka is dead,” Aang finished.
“Aang, buddy, I could kiss you right now,” Sokka said.
“So what’s happened to him?” Katara asked.
Aang shrugged. “I don’t know, but Hei Bai isn’t an evil spirit. It was just really upset at the time, and it didn’t actually hurt any of the other villagers…”
"Didn't hurt...?!" Sokka stared at him, jaw dropped. "It destroyed like three-quarters of the village!"
Zuko couldn’t help but dig the dagger in. “Do you hear that Sokka? The spirit was just really upset. You’re cured.”
Aang scratched the back of his head, looking sheepish. “Hei Bai gave me a ride back to my body, and it didn’t mention Sokka… though I’ve never heard him talk. I’m not sure he can.”
“What does that mean?” Yue asked.
“Maybe it was an accident?” He shrugged. “I’m just saying Hei Bai isn’t a vengeful spirit.”
“Great. Well that’s just great,” Sokka said. “How do we undo it?”
“Can you fix him?” Zuko translated bluntly for those who couldn't hear Sokka.
Aang looked down and when he glanced up again he seemed somehow older. “Sokka’s my friend. I’m going to find a way to bring him back.”
“Yeah.” Somehow Sokka couldn’t find it in himself to be relieved. It sounded like Aang had no more of an idea about that to do than anyone else. At least now Aang knew Sokka was on this side of the spirit world, though. That had to count for something…. Right?
“Your friend has great faith in your abilities,” Yue translated when Zuko said nothing.
At that moment the yelling outside from the Northern Tribesmen who were guarding the temple door took on a distinctly panicked pitch. Zuko backed a few steps, putting him near—but not too close—to Katara.
Sokka thought about phasing through the wall and seeing what was going on outside, but there was no need. With a gout of orange and yellow flames, the moon door burst open and Admiral Zhao stepped inside, flanked by two uniformed firebenders.
The Admiral took a long satisfied look around. “This is it.” Then he saw Zuko and did a double-take that put Aang’s earlier one to shame. “You! You’re supposed to be dead.”
Zuko’s grin was feral. “You can’t get rid of me that easily.”
“Zhao.” Aang stepped forward, hands held out in a peaceable gesture. “Stop. We know what you want to do, and killing the moon will hurt the Fire Nation just as much as the Water Tribes.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. True firebenders rise with the sun. We don’t need the moon.”
“Our islands and fishing fleets depend on the tides, you moron,” Zuko said, cutting across the air with a hand that trailed smoke. “This will cause alter the currents and cause mass starvation across the islands. When my father hears about this, he’ll execute you for treason.”
Zhao sneered. “You little fool. Who do you think authorized this siege? The Fire Lord knows my plan, and he approves. It’s past time for the Water Tribes to be exterminated. He has the strength to do what must be done.”
Oh, shit, Sokka thought.
Zuko rocked back as if he’d been punched. “You’re lying!” His gaze flicked to Sokka for a bare second—as if for reassurance, but Sokka could only stare back, horrified. Maybe Zuko couldn’t believe that his father would plunge his country into chaos and famine to hurt an enemy, but Sokka could. His thoughts must have been clear on his face because Zuko sort of grimaced and turned back to Zhao. “If you want to get to the moon spirit, you’ll have to go through me.”
“And me,” Katara said, stepping up beside him.
Aang stepped to his other side, set and determined in a way he rarely got. “Me too.”
I’ll just be on the sidelines, shouting encouragement or whatever, Sokka thought.
While all this was happening, more firebenders poured in behind Zhao. The good guys were way outnumbered.
The admiral obviously liked his chances. “The Avatar, the waterbending barbarian and the failure of a prince all at once place? This will be too easy.”
With an outraged roar, Zuko leaped forward with his fists blazing fire. Zhao and his army did too, and within seconds it was a free-for-all.
Aang and Katara focused mostly on the Fire Nation grunts—air and water were good at pushing back multiple people at the same time, and Katara had really, really been practicing her bending moves. Way to go.
Zuko and Zhao faced off one-on-one. While they both used fire, Sokka noted how their fighting styles were different. Zhao’s fire blasts were larger, wilder at the edges but less constrained. He actually set one of his own guys on fire with an ill-timed blast. Zuko was just as forceful, but his flames burned brighter both with more heat and control.
In the chaos, Sokka was glad to see that some of his traps were sprung. Zhao’s forces suddenly stepped in the wrong place and found their pointy boots and angles tripped up by loops of wire, or they’d trip and fall at a wrong moment. It was a small help, but better than absolutely nothing.
Despite Zhao’s boasting, none of the rank and file firebenders targeted Zuko directly—maybe they were afraid of fallout from the Fire Lord. Instead, they focused on Katara and Aang, and as good as those two were, they were pushed back towards the pool.
… Until the moon door opened and Iroh arrived, blasting fire like a one-man army.
Sokka had suspected on and off that the old man had been holding back. Certainly, the few time’s he’d been truly exasperated with Zuko, his nephew had sat up and paid attention. Now Sokka saw why: He had precision and force that threw enemy firebenders off their feet like leaves scattering in the wind. He made it look easy.
Suddenly, Sokka understood why Zuko was so short tempered and angry with his own progress during firebending lessons. He couldn’t match his Uncle. He wasn’t even in the same league.
But even with Iroh’s help, were a lot of firebenders. Sokka saw in horror two of them corner Katara, cutting her off from the source of water she needed to defend herself.
“Katara!” Sokka cried, but it was no use. She couldn’t hear him, and he couldn’t do one single thing to help.
Zuko did her him, though, and could help. Turning from Zhao, he blasted a bolt of fire to make the men duck away or risk getting flame-broiled. It gave Katara the second she needed to regain her footing.
And it gave Zhao the opening he needed to step away from Zuko and head directly toward Princess Yue.
“No!” Sokka stepped in his way. Of course, he went right through him. A second later, he’d grabbed Yue and swung her around, a dagger of fire an inch from her heart.
“STOP!” Zhao yelled! “Or she dies!”
“Zhao! Don’t!” Zuko yelled.
Iroh blasted one of the last firebenders still standing and joined by his nephew’s side. “Whatever you do to that girl, I’ll return to you ten-fold! Let her go. NOW.”
Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen, but Zhao didn’t know that Sokka was there. Invisible powers to the rescue… he hoped.
Sokka slid up beside her. “It’s going to be okay, Yue.”
Her frightened eyes focused on him. It was clear she had no idea what to do next. She was a princess—unlike in the Fire Nation, they coddled their royalty here. She had no idea how to defend herself. Sokka did, and she could see him. He knew with certainty that he could possess her body and do the fighting for her.
Before he could think of how to ask, she shook her head vigorously. No, she didn’t want that. Not even to save her life.
“Okay.” He didn’t agree with it, but he did respect it.
Admiral Zhao, meanwhile, had completely lost it. A sheen of sweat had broken out across his forehead. His men were down all around him, but he was acting like he won, bragging that people would know him as Zhao the Moon Slayer, Zhao the Invincible, that he was death inevitable…. etc. Crazy-pants stuff.
Sokka glanced over his shoulder and found Zuko watching him intently. “Get ready!” Sokka said and then turned back to Yue. “Okay, on the count of three raise your right foot and stomp down as hard as you can on the arch of his foot. Okay? As hard as you can. Then go limp.”
He glanced over and saw Zuko murmur to Iroh, hopefully relaying the plan.
“One… two… three! Now!”
Yue stomped and those seal-moccasins had some power behind them. Honestly, though, it was only a moment of distraction. Zhao cut off his rant with a wince and the flame dagger in his hand sputtered for the briefest moment. Yue relaxed her muscles and became instant dead weight, nearly slipping from his grasp.
That was all Iroh needed to send a perfectly aimed bolt of fire directly at Zhao’s head. With a yell, the admiral ducked but was still trying to use Yue as a shield. Then Aang stepped in with a cycling blast of air that knocked him—and Yue—off their feet. They fell, but Yue was quick enough to scramble away, leaving Zhao without his hostage.
Unfortunately, it had knocked Zhao nearly to the edge of the pool. He glanced up, saw his enemies approach him, and with an inhuman snarl blasted fire right at the two circling koi fish.
The black one escaped. The white was hit dead on.
The moon disappeared from the sky and color drained out of the now night-dark world.
“NO!” Zuko’s outraged flames at Zhao sparked a little bit of light and life to the temple, but they went out in a second as if they were no longer as hot, either. Then again, the moon did reflect the sun’s light.
Aang would have said that showed how everything was in balance. Sokka just figured they were super-screwed now.
Zhao scrambled up to his feet, his eyes so wide the whites showed around them, and looking more than a little insane. He turned tail and ran for the temple door. Zuko started to follow, but Iroh grabbed him by the collar.
“No, Prince Zuko. He is a mad dog. I will put him down. Stay here and see if there is anything to be done for the moon spirit.” Then, without waiting for a reply, he jogged away.
Sokka glanced up at the open night sky and the place where the moon had been. Only the stars twinkled down at them, looking brighter and colder then he’d ever seen before. “Oh no…”
Outside the temple cries of despair drifted up from the tribe as they, too, took notice of the missing moon. Or maybe they were noticing that their waterbending wasn’t working. Katara bent by the pool to try to do something, but the water remained inert to her gesture.
Aang, meanwhile stared at the pond, slack-jawed and devoid of all expression. The single black koi fish swam in frantic, wobbling circles around its dead mate.
Aang took a single step forward.
“Zuko!” Sokka yelled, though looking back he wasn’t sure why. Zuko glanced at him and he pointed to Aang who was walking straight toward the pool like he was possessed.
“Avatar! Stop!” Lunging forward, Zuko yanked Aang back a second before his foot touched the pond.
Aang blinked as if coming out of a daze. “Wait, what…”
“Let him go!” Katara gestured to the water to aid her, but nothing happened.
Ignoring her, Zuko knelt to put himself on level with Aang, his hands tight on the boy’s shoulders. “What were you thinking? Never, ever open yourself to a vengeful spirit!”
“But Sokka can possess your body,” Katara snapped, hands on her hips.
“Sokka is a human being. He knows right from wrong. The ocean doesn’t care.” Zuko turned back to Aang and gave him a tiny shake. “You never turn your back on the ocean.” It sounded like an old saying.
“But what do I do?” Aang asked, and wow the world must have gone insane because he was asking the Fire Nation guy. “I’m supposed to be the bridge to the spirit world. I can’t sit back and do nothing!”
“There’s nothing we can do, now. It’s over,” Yue murmured. She had come to the side of the pond and knelt to cradle the dead fish in her hands.
Zuko started to reply and then stopped, staring at her. His unburned eye widening. Sokka followed his gaze. Yue’s blue eyes were the only spot of color in the world. He and Zuko traded a glance.
“You have the power of the moon spirit, don’t you?” Zuko asked.
She looked up at him. “Yes.”
Understanding seemed to pass silently between them. Zuko closed his eyes, pained. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t understand,” Aang looked from Yue to Zuko and back again. “What does that mean? What’s she doing?”
“She’s doing her duty,” Zuko said grimly. The corners of his lips turned down as he turned away from Aang to bow deeply to the princess.
Sokka stared. He couldn’t mean… No. “Wait,” he said. “Wait, there has to be some other way.”
“I don’t have any other choice, Sokka,” Yue said softly. “I must return the life that was given to me.”
“No!” Sokka reached out, but then pulled his hand back. If he touched her, he might possess her body. Zuko had been right—Sokka did know the difference between right and wrong, and stopping her from giving her life to save the world would have been wrong.
Katara was openly crying, but she wasn’t trying to talk Yue out of it.
Meanwhile, Aang looked like he’d been hit over the head. “But… Yue, you can’t! You’ll die.”
“A royal’s greatest duty is to give their life for their people,” Zuko said.
His way of thinking was so messed up. Sokka wanted to scream at him, but for once he had no idea what to say.
Yue turned to Aang. “Avatar, help my father understand what happened here today. Tell him.. tell him that I love him and that I’ll always watch over our people.”
Then she laid her hands over the body of the white fish. She fell forward and then… went away.
The fish flicked its tail and returned to swimming in a circle with its mate. And the moon… the moon was once more visible in the sky.
She was gone.
Zuko had been right: Yue had been on the edge of death all along.
The next few minutes had them all in a daze of shock and grief. Katara was weeping into her hands, Aang was staring blank-faced at the pool, and Zuko turned away, swallowing hard and wiping his good eye with the back of his hand.
Sokka felt grief, but literally didn’t have tears to cry.
By the sounds of battle outside, the Northern Water Tribe were rejuvenated by the reappearance of the moon. The shouts and orders from the Fire Nation took on a distinctly panicked edge.
Iroh arrived a few moments later, looking exhausted, sooty, and grim.
“Zhao?” Zuko asked.
“It’s over,” Iroh replied simply.
“Good riddance,” Sokka said, wishing he could spit on the grass in insult to the man’s memory.
Zuko nodded at his uncle and then sneaked a glance at the Aang. Perhaps Iroh saw the considering glint in his eye, too, because he gripped his nephew’s shoulder. “The Northern Water Tribe warriors are rallying. Our armies will call a retreat at any minute. Prince Zuko, we must leave.”
There was a crystalline moment where Zuko hesitated. Then he glanced at the pool where Yue had just given her life to save both the Water Tribe and the Fire Nation and nodded, once.
Sokka’s stomach sank. This was it. The truce was over, and he had to leave Katara and Aang behind again before Zuko did something stupid.
“Wait.” Katara stepped forward to Zuko. “Tell Sokka… Tell him that I love him very much. We miss him every day, and… and things aren’t the same without him.”
Zuko looked pained. He turned to his uncle. “I’ll be along in a moment, Uncle.”
“I’ll be at the shoreline. Please hurry. It will not take long for the Northern Water Tribe to regroup and discover there is a Fire Nation royal within their walls.”
Zuko nodded, and when Iroh was out of sight, he looked at Sokka. “Fine, you can use my body to say goodbye.”
“What?” Sokka stared, hardly daring to believe what he was hearing. “Really?”
“Hurry up before I change my mind,” he snapped and then muttered, “That girl better not cry all over me…”
Well, Sokka wasn’t about to look a gift arctic-yak in the mouth. He stepped forward, slipping into Zuko’s body.
A moment later the world had weight in a way it had not before. He breathed in, tasting the cold, humid air, and felt the give of spongy grass under his boots. He opened his eyes and looked at his sister.
Katara stepped forward, cautious hope written all over her face. “Sokka?”
“Yeah,” Sokka said. “It’s me.”
She threw herself at him, and he caught her in a hug, laughing with Zuko’s voice. There was a thump of impact as Aang joined in, making it a group hug.
“Sokka, wow! This is so weird. You’ve made Zuko’s eyes go blue.” Then Aang stepped back, his grin dying away. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know how, but I’m going to find a way to get you back to your body.”
“I know you will, buddy. Until then, take care of Katara for me?”
“I can take care of myself,” she sniffed stepping back and wiping away a tear.
“I know you can, but I’m your big brother. Worrying about you is my job.”
He felt a weird hitch in Zuko’s thoughts at that, as if he had struck a nerve. But the other boy remained silent.
Not for long, though, because Katara grabbed his hand and said, “You don’t need to go.”
“Sokka, we need your and your map reading and your… your stupid leader instincts.” Her chin trembled with the effort of holding back tears. “I need my brother. Come with us. I don’t care that you’ll look like Zuko.”
It was strange to feel someone else’s horror so close up. Horror and stark fear as Zuko tried to throw Sokka out… and couldn’t.
GET OUT OF MY BODY. NOW! He roared, with a feeling like flames.
Sokka jerked his hand out of Katara’s grasp. “You don’t know what you’re asking.”
“I’m sorry.” Her eyes glistened with unshed tears. “I just miss you.”
He did, too. So much that it was like a physical pain. But Iroh was right—Zuko couldn’t be caught here. Especially after Yue had given her life thanks to efforts of the Fire Nation.
“I know. I do too, and… and this sucks, but I have to go. I gotta get Zuko out of here—He’s super pissed about the whole ‘possessing him forever’ idea.”
Katara had the grace to look down, ashamed.
He didn’t want to leave them like this, but his time had run out.
“Take care of each other,” he told them, and then turned to run. Once he was out of earshot, he muttered in an undertone to Zuko, “For the record, I’m not even tempted.”
Then give me back my body!
“I will the second I know you’re not going to do something stupid!”
... I wasn’t going to do anything.
“Zuko, I know you.”
Zuko snarled curses at him, but the visceral fear was gone. Deep down inside, he must have trusted Sokka to keep his word.
Sokka “stepped out” the moment Iroh was within sight, standing at the shore with a makeshift raft. Where did he find that, anyway? Oh well.
Zuko stumbled for a second, and then regained his footing with a scowl in Sokka’s direction. But he didn’t go back to try to capture the Avatar, simply strode forward to help his uncle prepare the raft.
This chapter was originally supposed to carry us through the first episode of Season 2, but then emotions got involved and... things blew up. (Or iced over. hahaha). So it got split in half.
Zuko looked utterly exhausted, the bags under his eyes highlighting the scuffs, cuts, and bruises he still had from the explosion. Plus, stubble had grown from his scalp—which was telling. He was usually so scrupulous about keeping himself neat.
The moment the makeshift raft had drifted out of sight from the walls of the Northern Water Tribe and the retreating Fire Nation armada, he laid down with a muttered, “I’m tired.”
“Sleep,” Iroh said kindly. “A man needs his rest.”
“Get some shut-eye, jerk,” Sokka added. He turned to look back the way they had come. A tiny strip of white was all he could see of the polar tundra. He sat down next to Zuko, keeping watch. “I’ll wake you if anything interesting happens.”
Zuko flashed a grimace of a smile before he shut his eyes and turned, using his bent arm as a pillow.
Nothing interesting happened.
Zuko slept soundly through the evening and while the tiny raft drifted on tiny swells. Good thing, too. Iroh didn’t have as much as a paddle to help them along.
Spirits knew how, but the older firebender stayed up through the night on silent watch. He didn’t talk to Sokka—waking Zuko up was a bad idea now that he had finally gotten some sleep—though he did sometimes sing low Fire Nation-y songs which contained a lot of euphemisms about fiery women.
After being able to speak to Yue and those brief hours of time where it was like things had turned back to normal, it sucked to be invisible again.
Sokka grew bored.
The raft was exactly three paces wide and three long. Or two if he jumped. Or one if he really jumped. Which meant he could make the perimeter with four good leaps, avoiding touching Zuko’s sleeping body because accidental possession was not a pleasant way to wake up.
Anyway, by morning, Sokka was sick to death of the endless ocean—and he was Water Tribe, so that said a lot.
Zuko stirred just as the first rays of sun pierced the false dawn. Sokka swallowed a cheer, settling for, “Wakey, wakey, ostrich-horse eggs and baky.”
“Where are we?” Zuko asked, sitting up and looking around blearily.
In answer, Sokka waved an arm around. “The ocean.”
Ah, jerk-bender baiting. His favorite hobby. Sure enough, Zuko narrowed his eyes. “I meant, what’s our specific heading?”
“Currently drifting deeper out into the northern ocean,” Sokka elaborated.
As usual, Iroh was much nicer than Zuko’s snippy comments deserved. “If we are lucky enough to be caught in the arctic current, we can expect to reach Earth Kingdom shores in just over two weeks.”
Sokka whipped around to stare at him. Two weeks? “And… if we aren’t lucky?”
Zuko grimaced, and he and Sokka traded a grim look. Sokka did not need to eat or drink, but Zuko and Iroh did.
“Well, there’s always fishing,” Sokka said. “And… rain.” They both looked up at the clear blue sky.
Zuko closed his eyes. “We can’t be out here for two weeks.”
“I know, buddy,” Sokka said. “We’ll think of something—”
“The Avatar can be anywhere by then!”
That stopped Sokka short. “What?”
“You seriously don’t think he’ll stay at the North Pole, do you? Your sister can teach him what waterbending she knows, and with the Fire Nation armada in retreat, he’ll be free to leave. And at the speed that bison travels…” Zuko slammed a smoking fist down, disgusted.
Ugh. Sokka suddenly wanted to be as far away from him as possible. Like further than the other side of the tiny raft. “Of course. Of course, just when I think you might be a sane, rational human being—” He scrubbed his hands down his face. “I can’t believe you. No wait, I can. You are a grade-A jerk of... of royal proportions!”
“What is your problem?” Zuko snapped. “Didn’t I make it clear that was a temporary truce to save the Moon Spirit—”
“Oh, you mean that time you did the right thing for once in your life—”
Zuko leapt to his feet. “The only way I can restore my honor is by bringing the Avatar back in chains. I’ve been given a direct order by the Fire Lord. That hasn’t changed!”
“Did it ever occur to you that your dad is—” an evil, child abusing asshole “—wrong?”
“He’s my liege, and the Avatar is the enemy to the Fire Nation,” Zuko yelled.
“You have met him, right? Little twelve-year-old monk? Like’s peace and balance?”
“Don’t make me laugh. He wants to stop the war!”
“So what?” Sokka snapped. “Look me in the eyes and tell me that’s a bad thing.”
Zuko glared straight at him and snarled, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Until two months ago, you’ve never been outside the South Pole. My father, he—he knows what’s good for the world.”
He doesn’t even know what’s good for his own son! Sokka wanted to scream, but unlike some people he had some control over his temper.
Plus, arguing with Zuko was like playing Pai Sho. Zuko had put up an impenetrable defense in his mind, but Sokka was an adaptable guy. He chose a new angle of attack.
“Fine,” he said. “So, let’s say all your dark, secret wishes come true—”
Zuko bristled. “I don’t have any secret wish—”
“Let’s say you capture Aang and bring him back to the Fire Nation,” Sokka continued, barreling forward, as intractable as flood waters. “What happens then?”
That brought Zuko up short. “What?”
“What do you mean, ‘what’?” Sokka repeated. “You’ve been hunting the Avatar for two years, right?”
For the first time, Zuko broke his glare. He looked down. “Three, next week.”
Something in Sokka’s heart squeezed. It felt dangerously close to sympathy. He brutally pushed it away. “So, three years. You have thought about what happens if you succeed, right?”
“I… get my honor back.”
Zuko looked back up at him, defiant. “I’m restored to my rightful place as crown prince.”
Sokka held the moment, looking at him eye to eye. “And what happens the next time you speak out of turn?”
“I…” Zuko went pale, then flushed hot with anger.
“What did your friend say?” Iroh asked.
Both boys jumped. In their argument, they’d forgotten Iroh was there. He sat at the other end of the tiny raft in the lotus position, watching, but not participating.
Zuko’s gaze flicked to his Uncle, but he didn’t answer him. Clenching his fists, he turned back to Sokka. “It won’t… I learned my lesson. I will never be disobedient to him again.”
“Zuko, you’re a hothead. You always say what’s on your mind, and you do it in the bluntest way possible.”
“I… fuck you!”
“It’s not always a bad thing.” Sokka stepped closer. “But we have a saying in the South Pole: You don’t let a polar bear dog bite twice.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Zuko snarled, turning, “Uncle, tell him!”
Iroh stared at his nephew, bemused. To him, it probably looked like Zuko had been carrying on a one-sided yelling match. “What shall I explain to your friend, Prince Zuko?”
“My father is Fire Lord. He has to be strong, and he can’t allow people to question his will. He had to… to…” He swallowed. “He had to.”
There was a long, strained moment.
Come on, Iroh, Sokka thought. Be the Uncle he needs you to be. Tell him the truth.
“I cannot agree,” Iroh said softly. “As a father, or as a human being. It is, after all, why I followed you to exile.”
Zuko swallowed hard, blinked, hands curling and uncurling into fists. He shook his head. “He wouldn’t. I can change. I won’t be disrespectful again.”
“Even if he tries to wipe out the moon?” Sokka asked.
The moment the words were out of his mouth, he knew he’d gone too far. Zuko turned away from him, stalking to the far edge of the raft (all two and a half steps) and sat down, facing determinedly away.
Sokka looked at Iroh. Say something to him, he silently implored. Something that makes sense and isn't a proverb!
The old man simply sighed and rested a hand on his shoulder. Zuko shook it away in a sharp angry gesture, and Iroh did not reach out again.
The raft fell into silence.
The change came on so slowly, Sokka wasn’t aware of it until it was almost too late.
He gradually became aware of a… melodic song among the waves. Notes, half imagined, in the wind. Like his mother calling him in for dinner, just the suggestion of her voice in the wild, snowy tundra.
It was the sound of someone beckoning him home.
Sokka took a half-step toward it and it was only then he realized he felt… weird. Weak, somehow. If he had real legs, they might have collapsed under him.
He clutched at his chest, suddenly, acutely aware of the still space where there should have been a beating heart.
“Zuko…” he gasped.
The other boy ignored him, staring sulkily out to sea.
The voice, the summons, were growing louder. Tears sprang up to Sokka’s eyes, which was weird because he could not cry, but it was… it was so, so beautiful.
I don’t belong here, he thought, looking out to sea. I belong there. I belong home.
Out there, he could stay. Here he could rest.
Zuko’s voice, the command, loud and urgent, tore his attention away from the beckoning. More than that, it was an anchor that held him fast. Sokka was, he realized, a moment away from stepping into the sea. But it would have been more than that. He would have stepped out of this world completely.
“What?” he asked, dazed. He looked at his hands. They were… weirdly transparent.
Zuko was beside him. “You need a barrier of flesh. Get inside me.”
It took a huge effort of will—he almost was too far gone. The voice, the feeling of welcoming him home, was so strong… It almost had him.
Sokka lurched toward Zuko, and in the next moment was staring at where he’d been standing. And he felt a lot better. Stronger. Clear-headed again. He could not hear the beckoning.
“What was that?!” he demanded with Zuko’s voice
Idiot! Zuko snapped. You were pulling away from me.
Iroh’s fell to his shoulder. “Nephew?”
“Sorry,” Sokka said, turning to let the man see his blue eyes. “It’s me.” Then to Zuko. “What are you talking about?”
I could feel it—like a band being stretched. Zuko sounded oddly shaken. Let me guess—the Water Tribe practice mass rites to bury the dead after battles, too?
“Mass rites?” he repeated dumbly, not liking where this was going at all.
Iroh grunted. “Ah, yes. Not all bodies can be found, after a large battle. The most efficient way is to have a shaman perform a mass ceremony to lay the dead to rest.”
And even miles away, Sokka had almost been caught up in it.
“But…” Sokka said, “But I’m not dead.”
Zuko’s reply was bitter. And my father truly loves me.
The world swam around Sokka. For a terrifying moment he thought he was going to faint, or retch, or just… just scream. Horror crashed over him.
I’m not dead. I can’t be dead!
The waves, bouncy and playful, suddenly roiled around them. The raft tilted up suddenly and crashed back down. Iroh yelled in surprise and knelt, holding on to the raft for dear life. Sokka stood steady. His boots were locked in ice. More ice vined out across the surface in twenty feet in all directions, only to shatter in the suddenly violent swells.
Sokka barely noticed, too busy gasping air. Why wasn’t Zuko’s body working right? He could taste copper in the back of his throat, and he was breathing, he knew he was, but why didn’t it feel like he was taking in breath?
Zuko was screaming something in his mind, and he…
He would never hold boomerang again. All the seal jerky he didn’t eat, ceremonies under the full moon he'd never participate in again. He had such plans, it felt like life had just started and... and... He’d never see his dad, Gran-Gran, Katara and Aang…
It wasn’t fair. He didn’t want to die. Not when he had so much to live for…
Sokka! Finally, Zuko’s voice sheered through panic. If you kill Uncle I will kill you.
He let out a laugh that was half a sob and only then realized the waves were his doing.
Like Katara when she was in a snit. Her magic water reflected her moods, like the uneven reflection in a mirrored pool.
Ice snapped all around their tiny raft. Only luck had kept the wood under their feet from splintering. Unfortunately, that realization caused more fear… and look at that, the ice was easily a foot thick. They were practically in the middle of an iceberg. More stable, now, though. Iroh was carefully climbing back to his feet, wide-eyed.
“Quick! How do I unbend?” Sokka yelled, flapping his hands at the crushing, thickening ice. “Shoo! Go away!”
“If you wish to control the elements, you must first master control of yourself,” Iroh said.
“That’s a load of—You have met Zuko, right?” Sokka yelled, and something in the ice went snap.
Breathe! Zuko yelled within the depths of his mind.
“Oh, great idea! Because I haven’t been doing that my whole life—” And he never would again, not in his own body.
Iroh wisely knelt to take a good grip the wood planks again as the ocean picked up on Sokka’s mood and tried to toss the raft around like a toy.
Sit your ass down and breathe! Zuko yelled. In through your nose, out through your mouth. I'll count you: four in, eight out.
Grimacing, Sokka sat, shut his eyes, and did it. Zuko counted him through, making him take long breaths in, hold, and exhale even slower.
The water calmed like spitting arctic-fox kitten being gentled. Even when the waters lay still, Zuko didn’t let up the exercise. Sokka didn’t have any better ideas, and thinking was... bad right now, so he didn’t stop either.
Finally, after a long period of time, Zuko said. I don’t think you’re dead.
Speaking was probably not a good idea, either. The water was currently calm, but there was a lot of ice floating around and sticking to the poor, battered raft.
At least, not in the classical way, Zuko added because he was an asshole.
“That doesn’t make sense,” he muttered. This was why he liked science over stupid magic elements. Science was proven and repeatable under experiments, and it made sense.
It's just a feeling. Ask Uncle about mass rites.
He peaked his eyes open. “Ask what?”
Iroh was sitting not far away. He too, had decided it was a good idea to sit and meditate. No, he had been breathing along with Sokka. Spirits knew why—probably a bender solidarity thing.
“Is there something on your mind, Young Sokka?” Iroh asked, noticing him watching.
That man could do dry like only a firebender could.
“I…” He cleared his throat. All that breathing made thirsty work. Too bad there was only saltwater all around. “Sorry I bounced you all over the ocean and back.”
Iroh regarded him levelly. “I wasn’t aware you were a waterbender.”
Don’t talk about him past-tense, Uncle, Zuko snapped even though his uncle could not hear him.
Sokka grimaced but his heart was too heavy to correct Iroh. Besides, if that was the only censure Iroh had for him, he was getting off lucky. “I’m not. Zuko’s the bender. I just, um, provide the water.”
Iroh rubbed his chin. “Most interesting.” Then he pinned Sokka with a mild look that didn’t fool him at all. If Iroh knew a way to pry Sokka out of Zuko's body, he'd be doing it. Sokka would have jumped out, himself, but then he'd get caught up in the rites again. No, he needed Zuko's body as a barrier for now, and he also needed a way not to sink the raft.
Sokka rubbed at the back of his neck. “Zuko wanted me to ask you about, um, mass rites.”
Do they only lay the dead to rest, or all spirits? Zuko asked, and Sokka relayed his words. Kinda opposite to what happened in the North Pole, with Zuko and Yue having to translate for him.
Iroh thought. “I have only attended Fire Nation funerals, and the exact wording depends on the sage. But it does seem… prudent to ease spirits as well as dead souls.” Another look. "Especially if the spirit of the Moon has been recently offended.”
Not dead. Maybe. Sokka let out a breath. He didn’t know if he was fooling himself or not, but he was going to hold onto this scrap of hope for all that he was worth.
“You are using a barrier of flesh,” Iroh mused, repeating Zuko’s words from earlier. “That was quick thinking of my nephew. It is nearly impossible to exorcise a spirit once within a body.” Another mild look.
Sokka made himself grin as if to say, 'Only friendly spirits aboard this raft. Yup. That's me!' “Zuko says thank you.”
No, I didn’t!
“Well, you should have.” Then, before Iroh could figure out that Sokka hadn’t been speaking to him, Sokka stepped to the edge of the raft. Most of the ice had melted and wonder upon wonders, the wooden planks didn’t look worse for wear. They were holding together, at least. “Hmm. How long do funerals like this take?”
“Possibly several hours.”
“Then, while I’m here, I might as well experiment.” He made a pushing motion at the waves. Nothing happened. But no new jagged ice, either. Yay.
Water Tribe moron, Zuko said, though the insult seemed almost, almost… fond. You need to have iron will be behind every motion. When bending, your intent is the weapon.
“Intent is a weapon. Got it.”
With Zuko’s ‘guidance’ Sokka thought really hard about moving water right under their raft. Pictured the current as river running under his raft and him as the paddle. He pushed again.
The raft shot forward, causing Iroh to stumble to catch his balance.
Sokka grinned and pointedly rolled up the sleeves on Zuko’s stolen uniform. This time his movements were a lot smoother. He turned and shaped the water in front, too. Soon, the raft picked up speed, cutting through the water as if it were a lumbering sea vessel and not a raft strung together by planks, rotten rope, and a prayer.
It was working, and Sokka was willing to bet with a little… experimentation, he could separate pure water from sea-salt, too.
Sokka grinned back at Iroh.
“How long again until we get to Earth Kingdom shores?”
Turned out, with very creative thinking from an amateur waterbender, pure stubbornness (courtesy of Zuko), and some confusing proverbs (all Iroh), the answer was two days.
The sea vultures didn’t even have time to circle by the time they made it to land.
I always get a little twitchy when I start messing around with established canon rules, but stick with me for a min. There will be explanations in time. :)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It seemed their luck had finally turned because they hit land near a spa which was friendly to Fire Nation nationals.
Sokka never found out what Iroh used to pay for the services, but he made sure to have a good laugh when Iroh pestered Zuko into going down for a massage. “It will be good for your chi, Nephew!”
“Yeah,” Sokka agreed, cheerfully plunging in the verbal knife. “And those scented oils they use around here will make you smell sooo pretty.”
Zuko gave him a look that could have melted ash. Sokka learned he was partial to citrus scents. “Why am I not surprised the Water Tribes don’t know what real luxury is. Do you have any society at all?”
“Luxury-schmuxery. The only massage a real man needs a hunt on the ice,” Sokka replied airly. “Speaking of, I’m going to for a walk. See what I can see.” Including if any nosey spa staff were sending messages to nearby Earth armies about their newest guests. “You should try the pedicure. Hey... Do you think it's extra to add ribbons in your hair?”
Zuko’s outraged sputter was like music to his ears. Sokka grinned to himself as he made his exit via the closest wall.
Despite his ribbing, he had a good enough read on Zuko’s temper to know he wasn’t actually offended.
Still, something had changed between them. Maybe it was a result of what had happened at the North Pole, or maybe it had been changing for a long time. Now Zuko didn’t spit fire every time Sokka annoyed him, and Sokka didn’t long to find the nearest iceberg just so he could kick Zuko off it.
In light of their new friendship (Truce? Whatever) Sokka still teased him, but didn’t bring up the awkward ‘your dad is evil and will burn off the other half of your face the second he gets a chance’ subject, And Zuko didn’t mention hunting down Sokka’s friend and sister more than once a day. Not ideal, but better.
The grounds of the spa were peaceful, and the staff went about their business with a quiet sense of purpose. Sokka stuck around to eavesdrop on a few people and guests—mostly Earth Kingdom, with the occasional Fire Nation Colonial—but the conversations weren’t nearly as interesting as he’d hoped. Business talk, mostly. And local business, which didn’t help either Zuko or Aang. Boring.
After awhile he wandered back to the wing Zuko and Iroh were staying with, phasing through walls—doors were for people with bodies, and he was now above that sort of thing—until he came to Zuko’s room.
His greeting died on his lips. Zuko must have finally caved to Iroh because he was laying stomach down on a table, face turned away from Sokka, a white towel covering his lower half while a woman worked on the knots in his back.
He’d lost a little weight, what with all the explosions, fighting, stress over the Avatar and being lost at sea. He still looked good. Real good. Hard muscles, developed from fighting were visible under the long length of his back, his ribs, and the dip where the shoulder met neck. That was the spot the masseuse was working on now.
Zuko let out soft, involuntary grunts as the woman moved down his back.
A fission of warmth, of desire, shot through Sokka. And it hurt. Not in a physical way. It was that he became aware suddenly, viscerally, that the place his heart should be, laid still in his chest. He didn’t even breathe.
Zuko’s little pleasured noises made him want, but Sokka's body didn’t stir because… because he had no body. He didn’t get hungry, or thirsty, and he didn’t need to sleep. He also, apparently, couldn’t get aroused.
Sokka watched the masseuse’s hands as they pressed into Zuko’s skin, and then at his own, curling his fingers in.
This is Zuko, a part of him yelled. Zuko! Prince of the enemy of your people! He might be trying to think of a way to hunt down your friend right now. Why are you looking at him like he's the last piece of seal jerky at the end of a long winter?
But that all felt secondary to the gnawing, gaping knowledge that he had lost something he never realized he had in the first place. He could look, but never ever touch.
Suddenly melancholy, Sokka backed out via the nearest wall and away.
Zuko found him later, sitting on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea.
He looked good in the setting sun. More relaxed, like he’d taken a nap after his comfy massage. Sokka swallowed down the bitterness and weird hunger he was just becoming aware of. It wasn’t like normal food hunger. It was deeper than that. As if seeing—wanting—Zuko had opened a door he wasn’t sure how to shut.
He tried to do it, anyway, glancing at the other boy. “You smell like sandalwood, man. What have you been doing?”
Zuko lifted up his sleeve to sniff, then scowled. “I requested she use lavender. It’s supposed to be calming…” His scowl deepened as he realized Sokka was messing with him. “You can’t smell anything on me, can you?”
Rolling his eyes, Zuko faced towards the water. There were dangerous thoughts churning in the fires of his mind. Sokka could tell. Sure enough, after a few moments, Zuko blurted, “Uncle has written to the royal salvage yards to request a ship.”
“You want a salvaged ship?”
He nodded. “That’s how I got the Bonfire. She’d been recently decommissioned, and if he can secure another… Well, it’s a long shot, and even if I manage something I still will have to hire crew from local ports, but…” He trailed off, awkward.
Sokka sat back on his arms. He had an idea what Zuko wanted, and he wasn’t going to help him along.
“Or,” Zuko continued, “There are nearby shipyards that have wooden ships. It’s unusual for them to fly Fire Nation flags, but more traditional—steel battlecruisers have only been in service for about forty years.” He spoke faster and faster, “You’ve been around them, right? You know what makes a sound vessel. The Water Tribe—”
Thankfully, he stopped. Sokka could only take so much watching him dig his own hole.
“You want me to help you pick out a seaworthy ship,” Sokka said keeping his voice level, “So that you can continue hunting down my friend and sister. Do I have that about right?”
Zuko did not flinch from the words. He turned to look Sokka right in the eye. “I’ve been speaking with Uncle. There are Fire Sages who are wise in spiritual matters. If I can get home, if I’m restored to my birthright I’ll have the full power of the crown behind me, including access to the Dragonbone Catacombs which hold all Fire Nation records. What has happened to you has to have happened before. I’ll give you my word I won’t rest until I find an answer for you.” He paused. “It’s more help than the Avatar has offered.”
Damn it all to the depths of the ocean. He had a point there. Aang had been to the spirit world three times since Sokka went all spirity, and as far as he knew he hadn’t even asked about him.
But just because Zuko had a point, it didn’t make him right.
“Nope. That isn’t happening,” Sokka said.
Zuko’s pale gold eyes flashed, brilliant against the orange sun. “What are you saying? You don’t want to be stuck like this forever, do you?”
“I’m saying,” he said, “You’re coming at this the wrong way.”
He grinned the grin of a man who knew he couldn’t get burned by a pissy firebender. “The only way for you to go home is if the Fire Lord gives the okay, right?”
Zuko clenched his hands. “I was ordered to find the Avatar and return him—”
“But he’s the Fire Lord,” Sokka interrupted. “His word is law.”
“Yes.” A breath that steamed. This was a touchy subject. “And the law says I can’t step foot on Fire Nation soil until my banishment is lifted.”
Sokka held up a finger. “It’s not a law, though. It’s a man, and a man can change his mind.”
“UGH!” Zuko clutched his head. “Why are you starting to sound like Uncle?”
“Zuko.” He turned towards him and if he had a body, he would have put his hands on his shoulders. All he could do was look him in the eyes. “I’m not going to help you capture the Avatar. It’s just not happening, but believe it or not—I want to help you go home. I want to help you figure out a way to get your dad to change his mind.”
A cascade of emotions flashed over Zuko’s face. Disbelief, hope, then falling into despair. “My father doesn’t change his mind, Sokka.”
“Everyone changes their mind sometimes,” Sokka said. “And I want to do it in a way that restores your honor, your crown, and will make Ozai think twice about ever laying a hand on you again.”
The blood drained from his face. Sokka half expected anger—flames, yelling, the whole bit. He did not expect Zuko to suddenly turn away as if he found the skyline incredibly interesting, his breath catching as he said, “How?”
“No idea,” Sokka said honestly. “But I’ll think of something. I’m the plan guy.”
Zuko made a strangled sound that wanted to be a laugh, but was too bitter. “I want to go home,” he admitted the words. “I want to go back to the way things were… before.”
“I get that,” Sokka said. “I used to spend hours some days waiting for my dad’s fleet to appear on the horizon. Never did.” He gave Zuko a sidelong glance. “The only one who ever showed up was you.”
“I’m not going to apologize for what I did that day,” Zuko said. “But… I could have used different methods.”
“I’m not apologizing for what I did, either,” Sokka said. “Hitting you with that boomerang? So satisfying.”
“It hurt,” he grumped. “You embarrassed me in front of the whole crew.”
Zuko smiled. It was a tremulous thing and in the fading sunlight it made him seem like the teenager he was. Just a boy Sokka’s age, sitting and talking as if they didn’t have one-hundred years of war and pain and possibly mortal planes of existence between them.
They looked at each other for a long moment. Then Zuko cleared his throat. “So, will you help me with the ships?”
“Yeah,” Sokka said. “Yeah, I guess I will.”
They planned to visit the shipyard that next day. However, in the morning, an unexpected visitor showed up.
Huh, she’s pretty, was Sokka’s first thought. He wasn’t exactly hormonal anymore, but he did know beauty when he saw it. The fact that she looked a lot like Zuko caught his eye... and should have been his first clue.
“Hello, brother. Uncle,” the girl said.
And… nope. He was never, ever, ever telling Zuko he’d had thought his sister was pretty. Sokka was taking that one to the grave. The real grave.
Then Azula spoke again, and things went downhill from there.
“Father… forgives? He wants me back?”
The longing in Zuko’s voice made Sokka want to punch something. He’d spent all night while Zuko and Iroh were sleeping making and discarding plans to somehow convince Ozai to lift the banishment—everything from blackmail to making Zuko such a pain in the ass that it would be safer to keep in the Fire Nation than the Earth Kingdom. He never considered the man would just do it on his own. He also didn’t trust it.
“This doesn’t add up,” Sokka said. “Why now?”
“Why?” Zuko repeated, more towards Sokka, but Azula picked up on it immediately.
“Family has suddenly become very important to him. Father can be a generous man. He forgives.” Her voice softened. “Your banishment is over, Zuko. He wants you home.”
“Great, can you get that in writing?” Sokka snarked.
Zuko blinked and seemed to come out of his shocked daze. “Can I see the decree?”
“The what?” Azula asked, looking taken slightly aback.
“When I was banished, I was given a royal decree with my terms. The head Fire Sage delivered it to me. Father… didn’t want to see me again until I returned.”
Something dark flashed in Azula’s amber eyes.
“It’s on the ship. Of course you can read it.” A pause. “I can see you need time to take this in. I will call on you tomorrow. Good evening.” With that, she swept out.
The second the door was closed, Zuko turned to Sokka. “Will you go after her? If she’s telling the truth, she should have the decree in her cabin.”
Sokka hesitated, not because Zuko was actually thinking for once, but because he’d asked like Sokka was a real person with thoughts and feelings and everything.
“Sure.” He paused. “I hope I come back with good news. If this is true, you can stop trying to capture Aang, right?”
Zuko drew himself up. “If he is a threat to the Fire Nation, he will always be my enemy, but… yes.”
Sokka grinned. “Aang wouldn’t threaten a butterfly-cub. See ya.” Then he ducked out, following after Azula and her entourage in a trot.
As he left, he heard Iroh mutter toward his nephew, “This is good news. Perhaps too good…”
Sokka feared the same.
It wasn’t hard for Sokka to find Azula’s ship. It was parked out in the harbor in all of its tacky metallic Fire Nation glory. It was also about four times the size of Zuko’s old rust bucket. Spirits, it even smelled new.
Sokka scowled. If this wasn’t a sign of favor from the Fire Lord to Azula over Zuko, he didn’t know what was.
He was also annoyed that he was so annoyed by it. But it was just—How could Zuko be so blindly loyal to Ozai? What would it take for him to look in the mirror and—
All right, operation ‘catch Zuko’s little sister in a dastardly plot’ was officially on.
Sokka strolled his way up the Fire Nation pier, past men who couldn’t see him, and resisted the childish urge to stick his tongue out at the stern looking guard at the top, barring his way to the deck. Sokka ducked easily under his arm and looked around.
Okay. Which way to Azula’s quarters?
This was a different class of ship from Zuko’s, structured more like Zhao’s, so Sokka found her immediately. Naturally, her quarters were about four times the size of Zuko’s had been… and decorated a lot less tackily than Admiral’s Zhao.
Azula was sitting at a rather nicely carved wooden writing desk and seemed to be examining the map of the Earth Kingdom. There was no formal decree in sight, nor was she cackling or monologuing her evil plans or whatever.
Just in case, Sokka waved his hand in front of her face. He didn’t get as much as an eye-blink. She didn’t have her brother’s gift for seeing him.
Sokka was just trying to figure out how to look in her desk (he could pop his head in the drawers, but he didn’t have any light to see with) when a chill went up his spine. As if a cloud had moved over the sun.
It phased right through the wall, just like Sokka could.
Naked, with brown gray skin shriveled to a husk, it might have been a woman at one point. Now, its dark lank hair fell in front of its eyes in dirty tangles. What emanated off it was worse than a smell, it was a feeling, a hunger so deep it had twisted itself into malice, or maybe it was all rolled up into the same emotion. Sokka couldn’t tell.
“Wha—what?!” He backed away so fast he tripped over his own feet and fell, scuttling backward, to the other side of the room. He gulped air even though he wasn’t actually breathing.
The thing took no notice of him. Instead, it lurched toward Azula, one skeletal clawed arm outstretched.
“No! Azula, watch out!” he yelled. Pure instinct had him reach for the place where his boomerang should be, but came up empty.
The thing latched ghostly, needle teeth to the side of her neck and started… started swallowing with thick, meaty sucking sounds.
Azula sighed, but tilted her head to give more access. “Not now, Mother…”
My sister talks to voices only she can hear when she gets stressed, Zuko had once said.
Oh no… No, no, no.
As the thing that might be Zuko and Azula’s mother drank—Fed?—it turned its face in Sokka’s direction. The eyes were blank and gray like a corpse that had been left underwater for weeks. And they stared at Sokka in possessive jealousy. It released her neck with the sound of a releasing plunger.
The dead, stiff lips did not move as it hissed, “This one is mine.”
Pure terror had him on his feet in an instant. Sokka ran. Heedless, he phased through the walls, through patrolling soldiers as if they weren’t there or, more specifically, he wasn’t.
I can’t do this, he thought nonsensically. I’m the meat and sarcasm guy. The spirits are Avatar stuff and I can’t…
Then, as clear as a bell toll in his mind.
… I don’t want that thing anywhere near Zuko.
The bolt of horror that came with that thought lent him more speed.
Back at the inn he barreled straight through the walls, not bothering with halls and thank all the spirits, found Zuko exactly where he left him in his room. Iroh was gone.
Zuko looked up. “Well?”
“We need to get out of here. Now. NOW. Pack your stuff. Why aren’t you getting—never mind, forget your things. Where’s Iroh? Why aren’t you moving?!”
He stared as if Sokka was the one being unreasonable one. “What’s going on? What happened with the decree? Is it…” he paused. Swallowed. “Does she have a warrant, instead?”
“A what?” He wanted to laugh, and might have his throat weren’t constricted with horror. How could he think of Fire Nation paperwork at a time like this? Completely forgetting himself, Sokka made to grab Zuko’s arm and drag him out of that thing’s reach if he had to… only for his hand to pass through. “No, but we gotta—I’ll explain on the way. Move!”
“Sokka!” Zuko jerked back anyway, startled. “What’s going on?”
“There’s something… something awful on that ship.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your sister called it—” He stopped, not sure if he should continue. Would he want to know if he were in Zuko’s place? He honestly didn’t know. Could it really be Zuko’s mother, or was Azula just under some freaky spirit spell? “It doesn’t matter. We need to leave. Like, five minutes ago.”
“Azula called it what? Calm down and explain what you saw!”
Sokka opened his mouth, but he just couldn’t do it. “I think it’s a dark spirit, and it was feeding on your sister. Azula was aware it was happening. She let it.”
Zuko jerked as if he had been slapped. “What? It was—what?!”
“I don’t know! This is spirit stuff! She—Azula couldn’t see me, but I could see it. And it was feeding on her like she was the last snow cone under the moon festival. So, we need to get out of here. Now.”
“You’re saying something—some kind of dark spirit is attacking my sister?” Zuko’s voice turned low and smokey with anger. “And you want me to run? What kind of a coward do you think I am?”
Sokka had clearly spent too much time with Zuko because he knew where this was going. “No. NO.” He made an X in front of his chest. “Listen to me, this is the one thing you can’t set on fire. You can’t fight a spirit, Zuko!”
Zuko was already walking to the door. “I can’t not fight a spirit.”
Sokka threw his hands in the air in exasperation. “That doesn’t make sense!”
“Would you stand by if something was attacking Katara?”
That stopped him short. No, of course he wouldn’t. Sokka sighed. “Let’s at least get Iroh. Where is he?”
“Searching for shells.” Zuko scowled in a way that made Sokka think that he and his uncle had an argument while he’d been gone. Great. “And if Uncle can’t even see you. How is he supposed to help Azula?”
Point. Sokka paused and sighed, resisting the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. He was not going to copy Zuko’s mannerisms, no matter how much he stressed him out.
Zuko must have sensed he won. His lips curled in a smirk that made him look dangerous in a whole different way. “Besides, how better to fight a spirit than with another spirit?”
“I am not—”
Zuko shook his head cutting him off. “I’m going. Are you coming or not?”
“This is the worst idea you have ever had,” Sokka said. “Of course I’m coming.”
Soooo, on a scale of catastrophic to death-by-lightning, how badly do you think this will go?
Deviating from canon is tricky, and I appreciate all the lovely comments and encouragement. With that said... I've pretty much crumpled up and thrown out the original outline. Zuko just HAD to go to Azula without Iroh for backup...
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Zuko marched up the gangplank to Azula's ship, back stiff and step as crisply formal as if he were wearing military reds instead of soft, wide-legged spa pants and a tunic.
This is such a bad idea, Sokka thought. He looked around for Iroh—sometimes he could talk his nephew out of a bad idea, or at least irritate him enough to stop and think. He had been wearing a salmon pink obi today, hadn’t he? There was no sign of that color, or him, near the piers or out on the beach.
One of Azula's guards placed himself at the top of the gangway, barring Zuko from the deck. He looked down at Zuko, at least six inches taller and severely unimpressed.
Zuko clenched his fists at the insult. "I am Prince Zuko, and my father has lifted my banishment. I wish to speak with my sister." His good eye narrowed to match the bad one. "Stand aside. That is an order."
There was a moment of crystalline tension, broken when the guard actually stepped to the side to allow Zuko to pass. Phew.
"You have got to work on your people skills, buddy," Sokka said.
Zuko smirked and in a very quiet undertone said, "Worked, didn't it?"
Zuko couldn't turn to watch his back while he was doing his stuck-up prince thing. Sokka, though, had his head on a swivel. He didn't need to be subtle or quiet about what he saw, either.
"We're being flanked. Three guys following us, ten steps behind." He paused. "These don't look like an honor guard. Last chance to run. If you need to, jump right off the deck. I can waterbed us out of here." At least, he mostly sure that he could. He'd bent currents under a raft. How much harder could doing it while swimming be?]
... Eh, best not to find out.
Zuko thought about it for the space of three strides. Then he shook his head, minutely. “If it’s a trap, Azula won’t debark until she has Uncle, too," he murmured under his breath just above a whisper.
Sokka eyed him. That was reasoned thinking, but... “Nope. Not buying it. You don’t get to pretend that was your idea all along. I’ve seen you plan.”
His smirk grew a little sharper.
He was briefly challenged again as he tried to leave the deck and to the corridors leading to the officer quarters and the bridge. Again, the bemused guards let him proceed, though now a guard walked ahead of him—along with three additional guys behind, leaving Sokka and Zuko stuck between them in a trouble sandwich.
Up a set of stairs, turn a corner, and then the lead guard stopped in front of the wooden door to Azula’s cabin. "Princess, Prince Zuko has arrived with a request to speak to you.”
There was a pause. "Send him in."
Here we go. Bracing himself, Sokka walked in.
Good news: The thing—dark spirit, whatever— had stopped sucking on Azula. Bad news: It stood in a shadowed corner like a horrific piece of furniture. It made no move when they entered. Just stood and watched, swaying back and forth slightly.
Zuko's gaze flicked around the room, not settling on it. He couldn't see it.
Azula rose. "Brother, I'm surprised to see you already. Where's Uncle?"
"Azula..." Zuko started and then stopped, glancing at the guards behind him. "Please wait outside the door. I wish to speak to my sister in private."
The guards did not move.
Oh shit, Sokka thought. Prince or not, they aren’t listening to his command. They belong to Azula.
“You’ve come about the decree.” Azula’s voice was warm, but something in it sent a chill through the air. “You don’t trust my word?”
Zuko hesitated before answering, gaze flicking to Sokka. The question was clear in his eyes. Is it here?
Sokka nodded with his chin. “It's in the corner by that tacky vase.” He sent a worried glance the guard’s way. “We’re standing on the edge of a breaking iceberg here. I think—”
"This one is yours?" the dark spirit hissed.
Sokka whipped his head back. In the second he took his eyes off it, the dark spirit had somehow crossed half the room. It simply stood there, its drowned-corpse eyes locked on Zuko. Sokka had not seen it move.
"Gah!" Startled, he didn't know why he did what he did next except in no way did he want thing touching Zuko. Zuko was his.
Focusing on the dark spirit, his hand landed on Zuko's shoulder and for once did not phase through.
Now Zuko jerked in surprise, eyes widening as his focus landed on the dark spirit, seeing it for the first time. In a second his fist cocked back, knees bent and ready to leap away in a classic firebending pose.
"Azula, what is that thing?"
The girl stopped. She regarded her brother, narrowly, eyes flicking back to him, the dark spirit, and back again. A slow smile spread over her face. "Well, well. You have learned a thing or two in your banishment after all."
One of the guards spoke up, unsure. "Princess?"
Both royals ignored him.
"What is it?" Zuko demanded, clearly shaken. The dark spirit simply stood there, head listing to the side like a sinking ship, but made no move to attack. Zuko looked at his sister. "Has she… Are you okay?“
Azula smiled. “Don't be such a child, Zuzu. Don't tell me you don't recognize her."
Uh-oh. Then again, the dark spirit’s features were so twisted, she barely looked human.
"What do you mean?" Zuko asked.
Azula’s smile widened. It was a touch too wide and there was something in the back of Azula's amber eyes that made Sokka uneasy. Like that time he had come across a sick giant razor-toothed leopard seal lurching too far ice, foam dripping from its jaws as it attacked snowdrifts, other seals, its own shadow… anything that moved and a few things that didn’t. Mad with rage. If his father or the men were there, they all might have been able to take it down. But alone? No. Sokka had to watch and wait from a safe distance, nearly the entire day, until it fell. Then as he walked up to give it mercy it had looked at him. Azula's eyes held a shadow of that same sick madness.
"You know," Azula said, rising silkily from the desk and walking around. Every step was liquid and her head canted to the side, in the same direction as the spirit. "For the longest time I thought she loved you best. Most loved, first born. I was the better heir, but she had such a soft heart for the weak."
Zuko's eyes widened and for a second he looked... very young. He shook his head. "No. No, Azula that's not her."
"She's taught me everything I know. Secrets about firebending you could never dream of." She raised one hand and the fire that kindled in her palm was blue. Sokka didn’t think that was possible.
"Mom wasn't a firebender! Whatever it said, it's lying to you."
"Jealous, Zuzu?" Azula came to a stop shoulder-to-shoulder next to the thing in an unconscious parody of the way Sokka and Zuko stood. The dark spirit turned to her, mouth gaping with teeth too long and needle-like to be human. Hunger rolled off it like a miasma. It looked like it was seriously thinking of swooping in for second breakfast.
Sokka felt Zuko's shudder under his hand. "Leave her alone!"
He blasted fire that went through the spirit as if wasn't there. The guards flinched, tensing. Azula didn't so much as blink. "Jealous, Zuzu?"
"Azula, I can help. I didn't know—I thought, well, it doesn't matter, but I can help you. Help... her. The Fire Sages must know something of this."
She laughed, tossing her head. Again, it was a touch too loud and too long. As she were putting on a play of a girl laughing.
“Zuko has a companion of his own," the dark spirit hissed. "A boy. Weak."
“Hey!” Sokka complained. “At least I kept my good looks!”
Azula’s unhinged gaze darted around, seeking Sokka, but not landing on him. The dark spirit was not touching her. ”Too little, too late Zuko." Azula’s voice turned cold. “Take him."
He thought she was only talking to the guards. Zuko did, too, turning around with daggers of flame in each hand.
Something struck Sokka from behind, knocking him forward. Then the dark spirit was on him.
Her touch… it was like someone had reached into the core of Sokka, a piece of him that was precious and sacred and only his. He let out a short scream of fear, of pure revolution, flailing to try to knock her away. But that hurt, too. Her skin was moist and fish-belly cold. He wanted her away, but everything in Sokka wanted to recoil, do anything but to touch her.
Her hunger clung to her like a miasma. A rot that went up his nose and down his throat, making him gag. She twisted his arm up behind his back, sitting on him to keep him down. Sokka writhed, not fighting with his usual intelligence, just struggling to get away—and Zuko was shouting too—a bolt of fire passed through them, hitting neither. Zuko was trying to help, but more guards had poured in and the numbers worked against him.
Shortly, they had him on his knees, his hands behind his back. The lead guard stripped him of his only weapon, a pearl-hilted knife, and laid it on the desk.
Azula’s grin was wide. White sparks danced between her hands.
"Poor Zuzu," she crooned. "You try and you try, but you've always come up second best."
Lightning, Sokka realized, horrified. Could firebenders even do that?
Apparently, the answer was yes. The sparks coalesced into a very zappy looking ball between her hands. Held on his knees by three visibly terrified guards, Zuko couldn't even block—
In an instant the dark spirit had released Sokka. He rolled away, gasping air he didn’t need (it was the principle of the thing), rubbing his arms and half expecting slime to come off.
In an eye blink, the dark spirit stood before Azula. "You must not."
"Move aside, mother,” she grit out.
Sokka scrambled up to his feet. He felt weirdly weak, but better by the second. Staggering, he forced himself to stand in front of Zuko. “Don’t touch him.”
Azula and the guards couldn’t hear him, of course. But the guards looked even more alarmed by the second. If Sokka had to guess, she'd kept her 'talking to people who weren't there' to a minimum until this point.
"My darling, my pet... please..." The dark spirit raised one skeletal hand as if to run fingers through Azula's perfect hair. The spirit leaned in, her voice low, but Sokka could still hear every crooned word. "You promised that he would suffer."
The lightning between Azula’s fingers flickered and died. “I did promise that. Didn’t I?“ she said. Then she turned and grabbed for the pearl hilted knife from the desk. Taking it hand she strode forward.
"No!" Sokka yelped. "Stop! Don't hurt him!" But there was literally nothing he could do. He swung, hitting nothing. Azula walked through him as if he wasn’t there. “No! No!”
The guards holding Zuko saw the danger, too. One let out a half-voiced protest, "Princess—!”
Zuko didn’t fight, didn’t flinch or close his eyes. He just tensed for the blow.
The knife flashed.
And then Azula had Zuko's hair in her hand. She had cut his ponytail it to the scalp in a perfect slice that left only a diamond stubble on his head.
Looking up, Zuko snarled in wordless rage. Azula just smiled again.
"You asked for your decree, brother. Here it is: By order of Fire Lord Ozai, you will return to the Nation in chains to be sentenced as a traitor—" Pause. “—where you will be cleansed by fire before Agni.”
"I am not a traitor!" Zuko yelled, half-rising before the guards forced him down again. “You lied to me."
"Oh, like I've never done that before." The hair caught blue fire. She let the ashes drift to the floor. “Lieutenant, secure the prisoner."
Unlike Zuko’s old ship, Azula’s had a brig. Set on the bottom level, it was dank and dark. No windows, or bed, with an open pipe-hole for a toilet. A thick slab of metal functioned as the door, with a smaller hole at chest level to shove food into.
The guards took no chances, shackling Zuko with heavy ankle chains that connected to his wrists with little give. Nothing could stop a firebender’s bending, but it did restrict his movement.
Zuko went more quietly than Sokka expected. He seemed to be a state of numb shock, though his hands trembled with stress. The second the fireproof door was shut, he whirled on Sokka.
“That thing is not my mother,” he snapped as if Sokka had been arguing for it the whole time.
Sokka held up his hands. “Hey, I didn’t see a resemblance.”
Zuko glared at him. “And I’m not a traitor!”
That… was a little trickier to argue, considering that Sokka didn’t consider being a traitor to the Fire Nation a bad thing. He didn’t know what got the Fire Lord’s panties in a bunch, but considering what he’d done to his son so far…
So instead of debating that point, Sokka redirected to a new one. “Is being ‘cleansed by fire’ what I think it is?”
Zuko grimaced, looked down, and nodded. “It’s reserved for the worst criminals. Rapists, murderers… high treason. It’s done so the evil that pollutes the spirit won’t follow it into the next life. In theory.”
“I hate that theory,” Sokka decided. “We need to get you out of here.” Before the Fire Lord could finish the job he started three years ago and burn his own son alive.
Zuko let out a sharp breath, visibly collecting himself. He looked around the bare room. “We’re three decks down. Should be below the water-line.”
He saw right away where the crazy jerk-bender was going with this. “This hull is solid steel. I’ve never seen Katara make water punch through solid metal.”
Sokka held up his hands. “Hello! I’m not even a bender. I’m just borrowing your dumb magic when using your body. Plus, even if I can knock a hole large enough to squeeze through, you’ll have to swim while weighted down with those chains, probably with Azula’s men blasting at you from the deck.”
Zuko’s eyes flashed gold and dangerous. “Drill the hole. I can swim.”
“Zuko, since I’ve known you, you’ve almost drowned twice.”
“I just need to make it to shore.” He winced. “And get Uncle’s attention.”
Sokka brightened. Oh, right. He’d forgotten about Iroh. Nice to have that kind of fire power on your side, literally. “After this is over, he is going to make you drink so much calming tea.”
“He’s going to be insufferable,” Zuko muttered, angry and miserable as any kid facing the pending disappointment of a parent. “He’s not going to say, ‘I told you so, Nephew’, but he’ll imply it so much…”
“My Dad always told me being a man is about knowing when to take your lumps.”
Zuko grit his teeth, turning his face away. “I’ve taken mine before. I can do it again.”
Oh man. Open foot insert mouth. Before Sokka could think of what to say, Zuko spoke again.
“What about you?”
“Are you hurt? When that dark spirit attacked you…” He looked at him, concerned. “The way you screamed—”
“I did not scream,” Sokka said. “That was a manly shout of surprise, and manliness.” But he shuddered, hugging himself, trying to put a concept into words he only half-understood. They had touched, spirit-to-spirit. And hers was awful. “She’s evil. Corrupted. And I think… I don’t exactly have a body for a barrier, so when that wrestles you to the ground…”
“A lot of manly screaming?” Zuko asked, wry.
“Like having tape-worm ticks crawling all over your skin.”
Zuko made a face.
“You would have manly screamed, too,” Sokka insisted, and then gave a start. What was he doing? What had happened to him was icky and wrong on all the levels, but Zuko was the one stuck in chains and he was trying to comfort Sokka? They had to get out of here.
As if on cue, a low rumble shuddered through the ship. For a second, Sokka thought it might be the aftermath of a blast—hopefully by a vengeful Uncle come to rescue his idiot nephew. But the shudder went on and deepened into a low hum.
It was the massive coal fire engines starting up.
Zuko cursed. “Get topside. Hurry!”
“What? Why? I thought Azula was going to wait for your uncle.”
“Looks like I was wrong about that, too,” he said grimly. “I need to know if she’s taking the eastern or western route from the harbor. So when I escape…” he took a breath, looking down at the heavy chains. “I need to know which direction to swim back to land. I’ll only get one shot.”
Sokka groaned. “Oh man…”
Weird, the times that homesickness hit him. He missed riding with Katara and Aang on Appa’s back, when even when things were dire… he never once had to worry about gauging the correct direction or else watch his friend founder under the waves.
Zuko, though, didn’t look afraid. He looked determined. “Sokka, go!”
He went, phasing through the wall and heading for the nearest stairwell. He kept an eye out for Azula and the dark spirit, but didn’t spot either one. The top deck was a scene of busy industry, all hands making ready to set sail. In the few minutes since the engine started, the ship had already pulled well away from the pier. Crap. Even if he figured out how to punch a hole in the hull with waterbending right away, Zuko was facing a long, long swim.
The water isn’t as cold here as it is at home, he reminded himself. I’m not going to let him sink under. I’ll just figure out a way to waterbend him to shore.
A distant shout, half lost on the wind. None of the crewmen seemed to have heard, but Sokka turned to see a portly figure in a coral pink spa robe running along the beach as if trying to catch the ship. Iroh shouted again, Zuko’s name, panicked.
But Iroh was too far away and the ship was picking up speed. Soon he was a distant dot, lost among the retreating horizon.
Note: Don't worry—Zuko is not taking Ozai accusing him of treason in stride. He's just a little stunned after being hit with so much at once.
I've been torn on how to post this next plot arc. At first I thought I'd do two longer chapters... only they ended in weird places, and it felt rushed because a LOT is going to happen to the boys, emotionally. Plus the plot kept getting longer and longer.
So now I'm going to post shorter chapters, faster.
Sokka stayed up on the top deck of Azula’s ship for awhile. Part of him expected Iroh to pull a last minute save. It wasn’t until the little harbor was completely out of sight that he had to admit there was no rescue coming.
He and Zuko were on their own.
Or really, Zuko was on his own, and Sokka was there for moral support. Or whatever. Wasn’t like he could throw his boomerang to knock a few heads.
Sighing, he turned around in time to see Fire Nation men and women in uniform march up from the lower decks. As Sokka watched, commanders barked out orders and the crewmen (and some crew-women. That was strange. There hadn’t been any women on Zuko ship) lined up in orderly ranks.
Something was definitely up, and since it was happening on a Fire Nation ship, it couldn’t be good.
Sokka was sure no one could see him, but he still inched back and stood next to one of the giant coal smoke pipes… just in case he needed to phase through a bulkhead or something and get out of there.
He wasn’t a moment too soon. The door to the officers quarter opened, and Princess Azula stepped out, the dark spirit following in her wake. Close as a whisper. As ominous as a predator stalking its prey.
Azula stood in front of them all upon a raised platform. Although the wind was whipping off the sea, it didn’t so much as ruffle one hair out of place. Sokka had to give it to her: She got the royal presence down. When Zuko tried, he mostly just looked angry.
“I know some of you have must have mixed feelings about seeing a member of the royal family in chains. I understand.” Her voice took on a chill tone. “But my brother has disgraced the Fire Lord and brought shame on all of us. The royal family is the will of Agni remade in flesh. We do not allow weakness to fester in our ranks.”
As she spoke, Sokka glanced over the crew members faces. They were paying attention, but the looks weren’t awe, or even annoyance (he’d gotten to know that expression real well from Zuko’s crew). It was fear.
This girl was probably Katara’s age, and she had full grown adults shaking in their very pointy Fire Nation boots.
Azula went on, something-something “Glory of the Fire Nation”, blah, blah, blah… Sokka had heard enough. He had a jerk of a prince to save.
He returned to find Zuko sitting on the bare floor, his head in his hands. In the low light of the cell and without his proud hair plume, he looked smaller.
The walls behind him were scorched black with recent fire. Sokka guessed he’d tried to blast himself out of there, or else just lost his temper. He’d bet good jerky on the second one.
“Hey jerk,” Sokka said, “did you try to melt yourself out of here or something? You weren’t even going to wait for me? Not cool.”
Zuko didn’t react to his prodding.
“Something wrong?” Sokka asked, then winced and gestured around. “Other than the, um, everything?”
Zuko took in a ragged breath. “I never believed her. All this time I thought my sister was —Azula always lies, and she’s vicious, but also… fragile.”
“She didn’t look very fragile,” Sokka said thinking of the speechifying going on a few decks above. “But I won’t argue against vicious.”
Zuko let out a broken sound that might have been a laugh. Then he took another shuddering breath. “I never even suspected she was haunted.”
“How would you know? You weren’t exactly around the last few years.”
He dropped his hands to glare at Sokka. There were no tears, but his eyes were suspiciously red rimmed. “And who’s fault is that?”
“Um,” Sokka said. “The Fire Lord?”
Wrong thing to say. Zuko shot to his feet. “I’m her brother. I’m supposed to protect her! That thing… that thing is horrible, and Azula’s had to live with it, telling her that she’s our mother. And I wasn’t there!”
Sokka stared at him. He’d expected Zuko to be freaking out about the fact his father wanted him dead—but then again, maybe he was used to it. (And how sad was that?) But no, he’d been tearing himself that he hadn’t been able to help his sister…. The same person who’d just imprisoned him.
He wasn’t sure if it was admirable, or really self-destructive.
“Zuko, I know, all right? This is terrible, but you have to get a grip. She has you locked in a cell. Unless we can get you out of here—”
“I know that!” he shouted. “I’m not an idiot!”
Shouty Zuko was good. Sokka had a lot of experience handling him at his loudest. “Good news is, Iroh knows you’re out here. He definitely saw the ship leave the harbor.” He was not telling him the part about his Uncle running after the ship as if he could catch it. That had been hard to watch. “So he might be able to help when you get to shore.”
Zuko took a deep breath, then another. He nodded once, the expression on his face going from pained to grim. “Is the ship heading east or west?”
“Tacking west along the coast.”
He nodded, fists clenching in his shackles. “That will put us back to the home island just outside of a weak, if the weather holds.” He looked away bitterly. “And it will. Azula’s always lucky.”
Man, he was in a mood. Not that Sokka could blame him. “All right. You ready to try this?”
He nodded. “The sooner we get out of here, the less far I have to swim.”
Sokka stepped forward into him, and a moment later, the room was much darker to his eyes, colder with humid air.
He felt stronger, too. The clinging weakness he’d only been partially aware of was gone. He felt whole. Felt alive.
… Which probably wasn’t a good sign. What had that dark spirit done to him?
He also felt Zuko’s guilt and horror up close and personal.
I’ve failed, his emotions seemed to scream without words. Failed my mission, failed my sister, my mission. I am a terrible brother and son…
This isn’t your fault, Sokka wanted to reply, but he also wanted to give Zuko at least the illusion of privacy. He was the one sharing his body.
So Sokka let it go. He turned, eyeing the outer wall. He raised his hands as far as the shackles would allow, and pushed at the water that should be on the other side of the hull.
“Here goes nothing.”
Nothing is exactly what happened.
Sokka tried. He could say that much. He was even pretty sure he got water moving on the outside of the hull, which hey, was a lot more than he’d been able to do back when he’d had a body.
It wasn’t enough.
Part of the problem was that his range of movement was severely limited by the shackles. Water was sort of heavy in large amounts (See: The entire ocean), and bending it required a large range of motion. And experience, probably.
Zuko was not helping either. He was impatient and snarled different instructions at him and other methods to try, changing tactics about every thirty seconds.
Why isn't this working? Zuko snapped and then before Sokka could answer, he complained, You aren’t trying hard enough.
Sokka dropped his hands. “Hey, asshole, how about I step out and you try boring through metal with ice you can’t even see!”
Maybe I should!
“That doesn’t make sense!”
Yes it does! You just suck at bending!
“Yeah?! Hello? Of course I do! Besides,” he added, “A sharp mind can cut deeper than any stupid magic water.”
Oh yeah? How is your mind going to break me out of here?
Sokka thought for a second. “How about I play dead, then when the guards come to investigate—WHAM! Punch them right in the nose, grab the keys, and get out of here.”
Zuko couldn’t snort in his own brain, but he might as well have. That is ridiculous.
“I’ll have you know I am an excellent actor. I could totally pull off—”
He stopped as the small window to the door opened. A very unimpressed guard’s face was just visible beyond. Sokka wondered how much he’d heard. He swallowed down a surprised ‘urk’ and quickly did his best to make Zuko’s stupid face look innocent. Hopefully the darkness of the cell would conceal the fact that “Zuko’s” eyes were now Water Tribe blue. “Hi! Uh, I mean, hello there. Can I help you with something?”
The guard peered at him, confusion writ large on his face.
“I’ve brought your evening meal, Prince Zuko.”
Sokka shuffled to the window (leg shackles sucked), and the guard shoved a tin bowl through. It was filled halfway with watery brown broth.
"Thanks," Sokka said wryly. "Where's the rest?"
The guard at least had the grace to look abashed. “This is what the Princess has ordered."
Great, so they meant to starve Zuko, too.
This is an outrage! Zuko snapped. We treat prisoners with dignity in the Fire Nation.
Sokka ignored his raging (he'd had lots of practice), and cocked an eye at the guard. He still had the window open, maybe intending to watch him eat or… make sure he didn’t use the bowl as a weapon or something. But while he was here… “Hey, I have a question."
“Yes, my Prince?" the guard replied cautiously.
"What Azula said earlier about the royal family being Agni remade into flesh…. do you guys actually believe that? Seriously?”
The man blinked. “Um, what do you mean, sir?"
Even Zuko had stopped his raging. What are you doing?
Again, Sokka ignored him. He was warming up to the topic. "It's just strange to me. Uh, me being Prince Zuko, I mean. It’s just… None of the other countries worship royals like that. Or at least the Water Tribes don’t, when I—Prince Zuko—visited them,” he added, just to be clear. “I put on my pants one leg at a time like everyone else. I’m sure the Fire Lord does, too. So, what makes the royal family so special?"
What are you doing? Zuko demanded again. The royal family are the fire and the sword to protect the entire nation. The Fire Lord has the direct ear of Agni, himself.
Which was still stupidly ostentatious, though better than ‘great spirits remade into flesh’. Still, Sokka wanted to hear it from the guard.
The man, though, was visibly sweating.
"It's not a test," Sokka said. "I just get bored in here, and I start thinking. Why are you so loyal to the royal family?”
"How did you hear what the Princess said, sir?"
Oh. Whoops. That had been like five decks above and Zuko was sort of in a cell at the time.
Sokka thought fast, came up with nothing, and decided to bluff. “Members of the royal family have the ear of Agni."
A startled gasp and the door slammed shut.
"Huh," Sokka said.
Are you done now terrorizing my people, now?
Sokka grinned and brought the bowl up to his lips. Awkward, because he couldn't lift his arms up past his chest. He had to duck his head to meet the bowl and take a sip. The broth was suspiciously watery. Not satisfying at all. He lowered the bowl.
"Bet that guard tells all his officer buddies what I just said."
What? That I’m as insane as my sister?
“That Prince Zuko somehow knows things he shouldn’t. That maybe he’s more powerful than his unstable sister.”
Zuko was silent. Sokka could actually feel the gears in his brain turning. He wasn't an idiot, and when he wasn't angrily snapping at things, he did know how to think.
It won't work, he said at last.
Didn’t you see the uniforms? These aren’t regular officers. They’re imperial guards under the direct authority of the Fire Lord. They’ve probably served in the palace for years.
“Even better. They know your sister openly talks to dark spirits, and she’s a little… off.” He paused. “I’m just saying, waterbending is getting us nowhere, and I think he heard me talking about playing sick. You got any better ideas?”
... No. he replied, mulishly. Fine. Do it.
Sokka ‘stepped’ out of Zuko’s body. He started across the room, but turned back, suddenly feeling bad about leaving Zuko all alone in this small cell with his thoughts and some seriously watery broth.
“Hey, are you going to be okay in here?”
Zuko shot him a disgusted look and pointedly raised one hand to make the shackles jingle. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Which hadn’t been what he’d been asking, and they both knew it. But, fine. It seemed they weren’t going to talk about Zuko’s firey little breakdown from before. Sokka could respect that.
“I won’t be gone long,” Sokka promised, before he backed through the nearest wall and down the hall to hear whatever gossip he could from the shipmen.
Chapter 13: "Mother" (Fanart)
(Fanart for Unchained Melody)
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Received this awesome fan art of The Dark Spirit on chapter 11 and completely forgot to link it for 12. I thought it was fitting for "chapter 13". Thank you, Anonymous! (And if you want me to add your name, let me know.)
New chapter will be out next week!
“Okay.” Sokka stuck his head though the solid metal door and looked down the hall on the other side. He pulled back a few moments later. “It’s Big Shen and he’s bringing dinner.”
Zuko groaned (though that could have been hunger talking. He was checked on three times a day, but only fed once, with a bowl of watery broth.) Plus, Big Shen was not the most friendly of guards.
“This is stupid,” Zuko said.
Naturally, being ravenously hungry did not put Zuko in the best mood. It was up to Sokka to keep positive.
“No, no. You got this. Remember what I told you—Shen has three kids. One is in the Navy, one in the Army.” He had been talking about them over poker. Or really, grunting. Shen was not a great conversationalist. He and Zuko had a lot in common. “The third is too young to serve.”
“Three children,” Zuko growled like he was reciting mission parameters by route and not about to have a a friendly chat to butter up his guard.
“And be nice! Smile!”
Zuko glared at Sokka just in time for the tiny window to his cell to slide open. Then he turned his glare on Big Shen.
Big Shen, for his part, stared impassively back. He was built roughly on the scale of a mountain. Even his standard issue uniform had gaps in it that the stretched fabric couldn’t quite cover.
Wordlessly, Shen pushed the bowl of broth though the window. Zuko took it, immediately bending to take a sip. Then, lowering the bowl, he stared at the guard.
Big Shen stared back.
“So,” Zuko began. “You have children in the military.”
“Nicer!” Sokka said, flapping his hand anxiously.
“Uh, that must be… nice?” Zuko tried. “You must be worried about them. Considering the war.”
Most would have asked how in the world Prince Zuko knew any of this. Big Shen simply stared. Then he rumbled low, “Are you threatening my children?”
“No! No? I—um, just… you must be proud of them? For serving the Fire Lord so honorably?” Zuko said.
The seconds stretched on.
“You going to finish your dinner?” Shen finally rumbled.
Anger flashed over Zuko’s face. Sokka had a second to think ‘uh-oh’ before Zuko threw the bowl to the side.
“This is ridiculous! I am sick of broth. I am a prince, I should be given parole on my honor! I demand to speak to Azula at once!”
“Oh man,” Sokka groaned.
Shen, however, only eyed him. “Trust me, son. You do not want the princess’s eye on you.”
“You’re safer in here.”
That stopped Zuko short. He exchanged a quick glance with Sokka. “What has she done?”
Shen did not move, but something—disquiet, perhaps—flickered in his golden brown eyes. All he said was, “If you’re done with your meal, please pass back the bowl.”
Zuko glanced to the side and the upturned bowl. He grimaced as if remembering that had been his own meal for the day. But he also had his pride. He straightened. “If you would be so kind,” he said through visibly grit teeth, “to pass along a message to my sister for me?”
“Sir,” Shen said, as patient and sturdy as a mountain. Why this guy wasn’t born into the earth kingdom, Sokka didn’t know. “Don’t make me come in and get that bowl.” Pause. “We both don’t want that.”
Zuko glared a moment, but then seemed to deflate. Sullenly, his wrist and ankle shackles clinking, he grabbed the empty bowl and passed it through the tiny window. Shen slid the window shut, plunging Sokka and Zuko back into darkness.
“Well,” Sokka said, “let’a call that a practice round.”
Zuko sat against the wall, heavy shackles hitting the floor with a clatter. He rubbed at his forehead. “I have a headache.”
Probably from hunger. It had only been a few days, but his cheeks had taken on a little bit of a hollowed look. Stubble had grown out from his bare head, too. Zuko rubbed a hand over it, grimacing at the new sensation.
“Want me to talk to him, next time?” Sokka asked.
“I can do it!” he snarled, pricklier than a prickle-snake and about as good tempered.
Sokka held up his hands. “I’m just saying maaaybe throwing a tantrum isn’t the best way to get people on your side.”
“I am not throwing a tantrum!” Zuko yelled with literal flames in his mouth.
Zuko made an inarticulate sound of rage and twisted to the side, blasting fire against the opposite wall.
Then he froze. The flame had been reflected in the shallow puddle of broth in the corner. “How much water has to be in a liquid to waterbend?”
Sokka did a double take. He knelt by the spilled broth, poking at it with a finger. Of course it went straight through. Old habits died hard. “Huh.”
“Try.” Zuko ordered. “If you can freeze the lock on the door…”
“What, stop people from coming in? How does that help?”
“If nothing else, it’s a weapon. It—”
The window opened with a snap.
With a rattle of chains, Zuko was on his feet in an instant. Big Shen glared through at the other side. Then abruptly he sat a steam bun on the ledge. It was so fresh it steamed in the cold room.
Zuko snatched it up. He opened his mouth to ask a question, but the window snapped shut again.
“Huh.” Sokka said again, rubbing his chin. “Guess he likes you after all.”
Zuko bit into the bun, chewing deliberately slowly to make it last. He cast one look at the puddle in the corner, and sort of grimaced. Sokka would have bet good Water tribe money that he was remembering the waterbending failures from a couple days ago and was wondering if it was worth it to try again.
Then again, the puddle of spilled broth was going nowhere, and Shen’s behavior was new. If he was warming up to Zuko…
Zuko seemed to come to a decision.
“Follow Shen, and…” He hesitated. “Try to find out what else Azula has been doing.”
Bet she's up to nothing good, Sokka thought.
Fifteen minutes later, Sokka phased through the bulkhead wall to the usual guard hang-out spot. It was one of the larger quarters owned by a lieutenant. (Unlike Zuko and Zhao's ship, there were a lot of empty quarters. He had a bad feeling that was because there were fewer crewmen on board now than when the ship had first set out.)
He was in time: a card table had been set up in the room and by the number of empty bottles laying around, the game had just begun.
Needless to say, the crew members drank often during dragon poker nights. And when they drank, they gossiped.
It wasn't always a fruitful conversation. In fact, for being part of an evil nation bent on taking over the world, most of the gossip was quite normal: The weather, which shift was incompetent, and other officers who were trying to suck up to the Princess. Average sailor stuff.
It took a few rounds before anyone dared to bring up their prisoner. As usual, it was chatty Kato who brought him up first. He was a mousey little firebender who always wore a helmet two sizes too large for his head.
"I heard you got babysitting duty today, Shen," he said, after throwing his cards down on the table.
Big Shen was not a talker. It usually took like four tiny cups of sake and three lost hands for him to open up. He just grunted at Kato in acknowledgment.
There was a strained silence. Several officers glanced at one another. Sensing a change in the air, Sokka sat up and paid attention.
"How's the brat holding up?" the only woman in the room, Hari asked. She had a young face but steel gray hair and usually put up with no-nonsense.
She was also, Sokka had learned, a stanch Ozai loyalist.
"Fine," Shen grunted. He laid down a card and then added, "Talks to himself."
More glances were exchanged around the table. Kato ventured, "Like the princess...?"
Hari gave him a quelling look and Kato seemed to shrink under his overlarge helmet.
"A little," Shen replied.
There were more glances exchanged around the table. Worried.
Oh, Appa turds. This wasn't what Sokka had planned. He had wanted them to like Zuko enough to consider mutiny in his name. But it was a tall order to inspire loyalty that fast. And let's face it, Zuko wasn't the warmest of people. Even for a firebender.
Then Shen spoke again. "He reminds me of one of my kids."
“Which one?” Hari asked. "That boy you have in the Army?"
"No. The youngest." Shen arranged the cards in his hand. "Doesn't know how to talk to people. Can't look most in the eye, but when he's up on stage... When he's dancing—”
"Your son is a dancer?" that was Len Zao, the highest-ranked officer in tonight's group. He practically sneered the words.
Shen looked up from his cards. His glare could have melted glass. Despite being older and of higher rank, Len Zao shut his mouth.
"When he's dancing," Shen repeated quietly, but the room was so silent every word was clear, "it's like you're seeing his soul. He can damn well break your heart. His conscription's coming up," he added, "I worry about him sometimes."
Somehow, that felt like an understatement.
"War will make a man out of him," Hari said. "It always does."
Shen grunted but didn't comment further.
Kato cleared his throat. "I heard some stories about the prince before his banishment. It was said he was a kindhearted boy."
"Well, look where that got him," Hari snapped. "We don't need kind-hearted leaders. We need strong, decisive ones."
"He participated in an Agni Kai at thirteen years old," Big Shen rumbled. "Sounds tough to me."
"He lost an Agni Kai," she replied.
"From what I heard," Len Zao said, "He didn't even fight."
Hari threw down her cards in triumph. "See?"
But Len Zao shook his head. "No, you don't understand: Prince Zuko forfeited."
More exchanged glances. Shen rumbled, "Then he got the scar from a training accident, after all?”
“It was the Agni Kai. My cousin was there," Kato said. "I remember him coming back to the house, shaken. All of the elite of the caldera attended expecting to see the Prince versus General Ling. No one liked Ling—he's a war hawk who uses battle tactics that were old in Sozin's day, and keeps expecting them to work—and they expected the Fire Lord to step in and chastise the general for daring to challenge his son and heir.” The next words came out rushed. “No one expected the Fire Lord himself to take the general's place—”
"Watch your tongue," Hari said. "Your cousin doesn't know what happened."
"You can't let someone else fight for you in an Agni Kai," Shen rumbled, but his broad face looked troubled. "That's an insult to Agni."
"You can do whatever you want when you're the Fire Lord. If you're the voice of Agni, you can," Len Zao said. "I've heard the same—that the Prince had no idea he'd be facing his father, either. That was why he refused to fight."
"Cowardice," Hari sniffed.
Sokka really didn't like her. He was glad she was never the one who delivered the food.
Kato spoke up, cautiously. "Why did the prince challenge the general, anyway? I never heard."
The table was silent for several seconds. Sokka got the impression that people knew, but no one wanted to say it.
Interestingly, it was loyalist Hari who spoke up.
"You remember the tragedy of the 42nd?"
Kato started. "All those new recruits who got slaughtered, out by Omashu-way?"
She nodded and tapped her cards straight. Coming from her, it was a nervous gesture. "Sacrifices have to be made in war. We all know that. We'd all die for our nation. Well, the Prince didn't understand. He challenged the General's wisdom and battle tactics.” She shook her head. "An older, honorable man who seen more battles than he'd seen years. And the Fire Lord declared that his son would have to defend his words in an Agni Kai."
There was dumb silence as the implications of that went around the table.
"But... but you can't order someone else to fight an Agni Kai. It’s a duel of honor. And you can't replace—” Kato snapped his mouth shut.
Which was a good thing because Hari looked like she was about to spit fire. "Choose your next words carefully, Kato. I'll hear no treason from you.” Her gaze swept around. “Any of you."
"No treason here," Shen said. "Only cards."
"The Fire Lord is the voice of Agni," Lao Zen repeated easily. "We all know his decisions are guided by the great spirit. He is Agni’s voice in the mortal world.“
Kata swallowed with an expression like he tasted something bitter. But he nodded, "I'm just... surprised is all. Of course, the Fire Lord knows best."
Hari relaxed, nodding once, curtly.
They got back to their game.
The first time he'd heard about Zuko's Agni Kai, he'd been firmly entrenched in camp, "Zuko is an evil dick" which to be fair, he was.
But he'd never thought through the implications of what Iroh had said. Stupid of him. Then again, he hadn't known as much about Fire Nation culture. Now, things were different.
A lot of things were different. He was different.
... But that wasn't a road he could afford to go down right now.
Most of the guards looked uneasy, but not nearly enough to let Zuko out and lock his crazy sister away, instead.
Pity was a long way away from actually doing something.
Shen hadn't mentioned to the others how Zuko knew things he shouldn't. No one thought he was special. Or even Fire Lord material. They just felt a little bad for him.
Figuring he'd heard all the useful conversation he would today, Sokka phased through the wall and headed back to the cell. His thoughts were troubled.
Did Zuko even know how much he had been screwed over in the Agni Kai? Sokka got the feeling that either he didn't, or he didn't want to admit it.
Zuko had been just thirteen years old. The same age Sokka had been when his dad had left the South Pole to go to war.
It was with that grim realization in mind that Sokka reached Zuko's cell and phased through. His greeting died on his tongue. Zuko was curled up and asleep in the darkest corner of the cell.
It would be hours before he woke up. People with bodies slept so much.
With a sigh, Sokka settled on the other side of the room. The next few hours would be empty and boring.
His thoughts, though, were soon interrupted by a low groan coming from Zuko's direction. He glanced over, seeing Zuko's fingers twitch. He was dreaming, and judging from the wrinkle between his brows and another small pained sound, it was not a good dream.
"Buddy... Zuko, wake up," Sokka tried, but there was no response.
The last time he had tried to wake Zuko from a nightmare, he had discovered accidental bodily possession. Sokka was in no hurry to try that again.
But he also didn't want to leave him suffering.
He thought back to a few days ago when this whole mess had started. He had been able to sort of rest his hand on Zuko's shoulder to allow him to see the dark spirit. It had not quite like touching, but... could he do something like that again?
Only one way to find out.
Kneeling next to him, Sokka concentrated with all his might and carefully, carefully put his hand on Zuko's shoulder, doing his very best not to fall inward.
It didn’t work. He was instantly pulled in.
It was... not exactly like bodily possession. At once, Sokka found himself standing upon a hill. Hot wind whipped past his face, and his ears were assaulted by the sounds of the shouting, roiling crowd below.
Part of him was aware he was kneeling next to Zuko's sleeping body. Part of him was also here, sharing Zuko's dream. Unlike last time, he wasn't dreaming he was inside Zuko's body. He was standing right next to him on top of the hill, watching a crowd dressed in red, orange, yellow, and brown roiling like living fire.
The crowd wasn't focused on him and Zuko. Their hatred was directed to where two guards pulled a pair of bound and gagged figures toward a wooden post surrounded by firewood and loose straw. A pyre.
The condemned prisoners struggled while the Fire Nation crowd booed and spit, screaming for their blood.
The prisoners were Katara and Aang. Katara writhed, fighting every step of the way, but she could not break free.
Sokka only had a second to register what he was seeing, to feel horror hit him like a punch in the stomach. Then, someone in Sokka's own voice screamed out:
"You have to stop this!"
Sokka whipped around focus on Zuko standing right next to him. His prisoner rags were gone. Now he was dressed in fancy red silks, his dark hair grown out and tied up into a nobleman's queue with a three-pointed flame crown. And standing on the other side of him...
It was Sokka.
Only this dream Sokka was a little taller, a little broader with a slightly more defined cut to his jaw. Somehow, subtly more handsome than Sokka had been in life. His eyes were a piercing shade of blue that could not be natural.
That's me? Then with a shocked realization, Is this how Zuko sees me?
Dream Sokka gestured down to the crowd. "Are you going to stand there and let this happen?" he demanded, quite rightly Sokka thought.
Zuko looked wretched. His skin had gone paler, with a waxy sheen that made it look like he was about to throw up. "I don't have a choice."
"That's bull shit!" both Sokkas said at the same time.
Dream Sokka and Zuko paid him no attention. However, Dream Sokka stepped forward, snarling in Zuko's face. "You know that this war is wrong. This is the kind of world you want? You want him to lead your people?” He gestured again, towards another hill Sokka hadn't realized was there. It was high and grand, and sitting on top of a gilded throne was a tall figure with his own flame-pointed crown. The Fire Lord, Sokka guessed, though he was too far away to see his face clearly.
That was when he realized Zuko was standing in the midpoint between two hills—between joining his sister and father on one side, and saving Aang and Katara on the other. Below them, the audience was made up of Fire Nation people, almost maddened with blood.
For a metaphor, it was a little on the nose. But whatever. This wasn't his crappy nightmare.
Aang and Katara had nearly reached the pyre. Katara had loosened her gag enough to let out a wail. The sound nearly cleaved Sokka's heart in two. He balled his fists at his side.
This is just a dream, he reminded himself. Just a messed up dream. This isn't really happening.
"I don't know what I can do!" Zuko told Dream Sokka. "I want to help them, but I'm not a traitor to my country. Help me."
The other Sokka's face twisted. "You know what you have to do."
"No, please. The last time—”
"You have a choice. You can call this off any time you want!"
"Sokka—” Zuko reached for him, but Dream Sokka shoved him viciously back.
"You're a coward.” Dream Sokka's voice dripped with contempt. Then he turned and ran down the hill. The angry crowd swallowed him up like a surging tide.
Zuko looked like someone had torn his heart from his chest. "No, Sokka!" Picking up his robe, he ran after him.
He only got a few paces before the world suddenly shifted around them.
Suddenly, Zuko was standing in the middle of an arena. The crowd was no longer the angry sea below them. Now they packed the stands, jeering. This time it wasn’t for a prisoner’s blood: It was for Zuko’s punishment.
Sokka had seen this before, that other time he'd fallen into Zuko's dream. Sure enough, across the arena stood a man who had to be ten feet tall, his face in shadow.
The Fire Lord stepped forward and with one snap, his hand wreathed in flame.
Zuko looked too frightened to move. He simply stood there, wide-eyed—and accepting of his fate—as the Fire Lord advanced.
The other Dream Sokka was nowhere to be found. Time for real Sokka to step in.
"Screw this," Sokka said and stepped forward to grip Zuko's shoulder. This was a dream, right? Normal rules didn't exist in dreams.
He concentrated, and abruptly the world changed around them again. White, crisp, clean, and cold.
They were surrounded by snowy fields as far as the eye could see. Instead of a crowd cheering for pain, there was only the jingle of hardness, excited polar dog panting, and the shush of sled rails against snow.
Zuko looked around, confused. "What...?"
"I've had enough Fire Nation drama," Sokka said, deliberately casual as if he hadn't just waltzed into Zuko's mind and mentally transported him down to the south pole.
They were riding on the back of a sled pulled by a team of yelping polar dogs. Normally, there was only room for one person on the back of a dog sled, but in the way of dreams, they both stood on a rail, their shoulders pressed against one another.
Zuko looked around, completely bemused. Sokka expected him to ask questions—how they got there, why he was suddenly wearing a fluffy blue parka, and what Sokka was doing in his head to begin with.
Instead, he gazed forward and asked, "Do these things go any faster?"
Sokka grinned, the cold wind sharp enough to make his teeth ache. "You bet they do." He called a sharp command, and with excited yapping, the dogs sped up.
Zuko laughed into the high, endless blue sky.
Carefully, so as not to jar him awake, Sokka took his hand off Zuko's shoulder. The moment he broke contact, he was out of the dream and back in the cell.
Zuko's eyes still rolled under his lids, but the twitching and the terrible sounds were gone. His face had relaxed, and a slight smile tugged at the corners of his lips.
I did that, Sokka thought, gazing down at him. Something warm expanded in his chest.
Zuko had looked good in blue.
Something—a sound, a sixth sense of danger—made him look up.
The dark spirit stood crouched half in shadow on the other side of the cell, hungry gaze fixed on them both.