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.
This is all going somewhere, I swear. :)
Sokka flailed, and may or may not have let out another unmanly shriek of surprise. But the Dark Spirit made no move to attack. Only watched like a predator waiting for its prey to make a wrong move.
Her filmy-eyed gaze fell to the still sleeping Zuko and she edged forward.
“Back off.” Collecting himself. Sokka deliberately stepped in her line of sight, putting himself between the two. “What are you doing here? What do you want?”
No reply. She just stared with a cold hunger radiating off her as if she were a block of ice.
Okay. Time to try a new tactic. “You say that you’re Azula’s mother, but that would make you Zuko’s mother, too.” Pause. “Why are you letting Azula take him to the Fire Nation? We both know what Ozai will do to him.”
“You are so young.”
Her voice was like weevil-rats skittering over dead leaves. Sokka fought down a shudder. He straightened, trying to look taller and… meaner. “I’m old enough to go ice-dodging.”
“Young,” she repeated. “Lucky.”
That took him aback. “What do you mean?”
Then, without any sign of movement, she was suddenly there, standing right in front of him. Sokka flinched but stood his ground. To give her space meant giving her access to Zuko and that wasn’t going to happen.
“You haven’t felt it,” she rasped. “It hasn’t built in you. The hunger for life.”
“What… What do you mean?”
Her smile was a leer from needle teeth. “Life is pain, the sweetest pain. Azula harvests it for me—she is such a good daughter. She will be in charge of the execution.” She leaned forward into Sokka’s space, crooning as if to a lover. “There are ways to burn a firebender slowly, keeping the temperature low, to make the death last. You will watch and experience every moment of it with him. The death you cannot have.”
Sokka was going to be sick. “That’s…What is wrong with you?!”
“Afterward,” she continued, “You’ll have to find another. Growing hungrier, more desperate for life by the day. It may take years… ” She raised one skeletal hand as if to touch his cheek. “And in the end, you’ll be like me.”
Behind them, Zuko’s voice rang out with the force of a command. “Get away from him.”
It was as if some sort of spell had broken. Sokka jerked back, stumbling away from the dead hand that had about to brush his face. Zuko was on his feet, heat washing off him in angry waves—heat Sokka could feel, even if he could feel nothing else without a body.
It was like soaking in a bit of the sun. As if invisible clouds had parted and he was solid and real.
If Zuko’s presence gave Sokka a boost, it did the opposite to the dark spirit. She cringed back, hissing.
Zuko drew himself up, regal, for all that he was in chains. He strode forward, facing the thing down. “You aren’t my mother. She was kind and good, and she loved her children. How dare you haunt Azula in her name!” His lip curled into a sneer. ”You will never try to lay a hand on Sokka again. You aren’t welcome here, Spirit. Leave and never come back.”
The Dark Spirit let out a hollow, aching cry. Turning, she fled straight through the solid steel wall.
Sokka waited a second. Then another. She didn’t reappear.
“Is she… gone?” Sokka asked.
Zuko slumped. “Just from the cell, I think. Right now, it’s the only place I can call my own. I can’t exactly banish her from Azula’s ship.”
Sokka turned to stare at him, questions tumbling around in his mind. “What do you—Did you just… Since when can you do spirit mumbo-jumbo?! How could you even see her?” Last time, Zuko had needed Sokka’s help just to see the Dark Spirit.
“I don’t think that’s the kind of spirit you can unsee, Sokka,” Zuko snapped. The shackles clanked as he reached to pinch the bridge of his nose. “And I don’t know. I tried to banish you from my ship with you when you first showed up, remember? It didn’t work.”
“… Huh.” He rubbed his chin, looking towards the spot in the wall where the Dark Spirit had phased through.
“Did she hurt you?” Zuko demanded.
“No, I wasn’t the one she was looking at like a snack.” Or threatening to burn slowly to death.
Zuko visibly shuttered. Then he cast Sokka an annoyed glance. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“What, that she was here? You’d just gotten to sleep, you insomniac.” Did Zuko remember the dream? Sokka had sometimes remembered his own—especially the weird ones about food eating him, but…
“No, about—” Zuko hesitated. “She said there was… a hunger for life? What does that mean? You’re hungry? All the time?” He seemed horrified. “Is there anything you can eat?”
Sokka didn’t get cold anymore, but he swore he felt a chill sweep through him anyway. He tried to brush it off. “Zuko, she’s crazy and undead. I don’t get hungry, or tired, or… or anything!”
“It’s a good thing.” He waved his hands around. “It’s not like there’s seal jerky on this plane of existence.”
His good eye narrowed. “But… you feel nothing?”
Unexpectedly he thought of when he walked in on Zuko’s massage. The physical stir of arousal that should have been there, but wasn’t.
Yeah. He wasn’t telling Zuko about that one, either.
Sokka held up a finger. “On the bright side, no more stubbed toes. Or, you know that feeling when you hit your elbow in the wrong place?”
He rolled his eyes. “You’re right. That is absolutely worth it.”
Sokka grinned. Zuko’s sarcasm was a glorious thing to behold.
“If I want a taste of the old life—” or any life at all, really, “I’ll spend some time inside you.”
Zuko made a face at the phrasing, just like Sokka hoped he would. Thankfully, he let it drop. He leaned back against the far wall and dropped, pulling his knees up to his chest.
“Hey,” Sokka started, uneasy. “What she said about the way they execute people in the Fire Nation—”
“It won’t come to that.”
Which was not what Sokka wanted to hear. ‘No Sokka, of course the Fire Nation doesn’t execute people by slowly burning them alive’ would have been better, but it was the Fire Nation so of COURSE they did.
Zuko cast an uneasy glance at the wall, the place the Dark Spirit had phased through. “I don’t think I’ll be getting back to sleep any time soon.”
That made two of them.
They both watched the wall warily for the next hour, both deep in their own thoughts.
Zuko might have “banished” the Dark Spirit from his cell, but for how long? Had she gone to tell Azula about Sokka’s walk within Zuko’s dream? Then again, it didn’t seem like those two had the type of relationship where they spoke to one another. She seemed more like a parasite than a… whatever he and Zuko were.
But Sokka was starting to get why Iroh and Yue were so twitchy about dark spirits.
I’m not like her, he told himself. There has to be more than one type of spirit. And whatever I am… I can’t be like her.
Zuko was off brooding in his own corner and whatever his thoughts were, he wasn’t sharing them.
Then, without warning, footsteps echoed down the hall outside the cell. But these weren’t the confident, bored step of the usual guard. These steps were light and jerky. Hesitant.
Sokka and Zuko exchanged looks. Not being constrained by mere walls, Sokka rose to his feet and phased his top half through the bulkhead. He took a good look down the corridor and then pulled back, surprised.
“It’s Kato. “
"Who?" Zuko asked.
“One of the soldiers from the poker games," Sokka said. "He's one of the guys on your side."
Or at least, he had been in public. Azula's ship seemed understaffed with no one regularly guarding the cell. If something were to happen to Zuko... who would ever suspect meek, mousey Kato who always seemed to wear a helmet too large for his head?
All of this occurred to Sokka in a flash. "Be careful," he said.
Zuko gave him aimed a dismissive look his way as he stood. His shoulders straightened, settling himself into a stance that centered his weight forward, as if ready to strike. “Assassins wouldn’t just walk down the hall.”
“Bad assassins might,” Sokka said. “Assassins who don’t have to worry about being caught might.”
The footsteps came closer and then stopped in front of the door. There was a very, very long pause.
Proving his patience was worse than a South Pole toddler, Zuko called, "Who's out there?"
“Crewman Kato, sir." There were some fumbling sounds and then the small slit window slid open. Sokka tensed, but Kato only peered inside and then quickly dipped his head in a bow. "I mean no disrespect, uh… I hope I'm not bothering you, your highness.”
"What do you want?" Zuko asked, but not harshly.
Koto’s words came out in a rush. "My older brother was part of the forty-second division."
"Shit," Sokka muttered.
The blood left Zuko's face. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be. You are the only one who tried to save them"
"You tried, which was more than..." He broke off as if even now, in the bowels of the ship, he still couldn’t bring himself to speak aloud against the Fire Lord. Instead, Kato bowed again, lower. "I wanted to let you know that for what it's worth, highness, you have my support and the support of the rest of my family."
Zuko looked taken aback, but to his credit he recovered quickly. This was it. The opportunity they had been waiting for: Someone who was willing to stand up and be on Zuko's side.
"Thank you," Zuko said. Surprise had him a little windblown, but he wasn't stupid. He pounced on the opportunity for information. “Crewman, how far are we from the Fire Nation?"
"Two days out from Azulon Harbor, sir."
Two days? They had made better timing across the Western Sea than Sokka had thought possible. Even he hadn’t gotten that info on his field trips outside the cell. He’d had to keep them short, for fear the Dark Spirit would catch him wondering or worse, attack Zuko.
Sill… their time was running out.
Can I waterbend him all the way back to Earth Kingdom shores? He wasn't sure it was possible.
Yes, he had bent the currents to take Iroh's and Zuko's raft from the North Pole to the edge of the Earth Kingdom, but that had been across a wide peninsula. Not an idea entire ocean.
Sokka felt a distinct chill and it took him a few seconds to realize that cold had nothing to do with fear. It was outside of him. Which meant... Oh no.
"She's here," Sokka said and didn't have to elaborate who ‘she’ was. "Get him out of here."
Zuko jerked in surprise, his eyes flicking all around the tiny cell. There was no sign of the Dark Spirit, but Sokka could feel her cold in his bones— or the equivalent of whatever he had.
"We're being watched,” Zuko said. "You need to leave."
"I'll return tonight with others who think the same way,” Kato promised and bowed a third time. "You have friends here, Prince Zuko."
Then he shut the window and, locked it, and turned and left.
Sokka didn't need prompting. He stepped outside the walls of the cell to watch him leave.
And there, at the end of the corridor, stood the Dark Spirit. Her leer was a thing of triumph. Kato passed right through her without noticing. She turned and followed after him.
Sokka hesitated, torn. He wanted to follow after, but it only took the memory of the Dark Spirit’s cold, dead hands on him to think twice. When she had touched him, spirit to spirit, it had been as if her corruption had tried to seep into him.
“In the end, you’ll be like me…”
Turning, Sokka phased back into the cell. He looked at Zuko and shook his head. “She was at the end of the hall. I don’t know how much she heard.”
Zuko nodded shortly as if half-expecting that. “Either he will come back with others, or he won’t.”
He nodded, both glad and ashamed Zuko wasn’t asking him to follow and spy. Did that make him a coward? But what could he even do if Kato got into trouble?
Zuko paced back and forth across the tiny length of the cell, his shackles clinking. His expression was dark. Definitely not like someone who had just been tossed a possible lifeline.
Sokka watched him for a few minutes before he broke and asked. "What's wrong?” He waved his hand around. “Other than... everything."
Zuko shot him a black look, then his shoulders relaxed. "It's stupid."
"Spit it out, jerkbender." Ha. Jerkbender. He mentally patted himself on the back for that one.
In answer, Zuko turned and gazed at the outer hull as if he could see through the thick metal plating, through the water and out to the open. "This is the closest I've been to home in three years. I never imagined I would return like this."
"You thought you would be bringing the Avatar back."
He nodded. "When I was banished... I know that the crew thought I was a fool, but it was the only hope I had left. I thought it was my destiny."
"And now?" Sokka prompted. Had he changed his mind on Aang?
But Zuko only shrugged and held up his hands ruefully. "Now I'm the one returning in chains."
This was a dangerous path to tread on. And there was only so much moping that Sokka could take. “We're getting you out of here,” Sokka said and before Zuko could reply he forged on. “How well do you know the outer Fire Nation islands?"
"Well enough on a map. Why?"
"Because I don't think I can waterbend you back across the whole ocean," Sokka said bluntly. "Ice raft? Sure. Waterbending the currents? Done that. But…” But you're half-starved, and I know how much you've managed to sleep. “I’m not sure I have the stuff to get you across the entire ocean in one push."
"We'll figure it out," Zuko said with the confidence of someone who never planned out anything. Then he surprised Sokka again. “And we’re not going alone.”
Zuko gave him a long-suffering look, as if Sokka was the one who was being an idiot. “I’m not going to allow good men and women to mutiny for me and then leave them with the punishment.”
The image of the Fire Nation sage who had helped Katara and Aang flashed through his head. He had been left behind. They’d been outrunning a volcano and hadn’t had much of a choice, but it hadn’t been right. You didn’t leave Tribe behind. Sokka had to get out of the mindset of Tribe being only… well, Water Tribe.
“That complicates things,” Sokka said slowly, thinking fast to cover the shame that he hadn’t thought of Kato at all. “I’m guessing you don’t want to explain me to them, am I right?”
Zuko’s wince was as good as a yes. Not that Sokka could blame him, much. Considering Azula and the Dark Spirit.
But it also meant no waterbending to freedom. Not that Sokka was confident in those abilities. If the Fire Nation used boomerang’s as weapons, then he knew he could be some help.
Sigh. He missed boomerang.
Silence fell between them again. Zuko paced. Sokka—well, he definitely didn’t brood, but he was deep in thought.
Zuko was the first to break the silence. Flopping back down in his corner, he let out a long sigh and tossed a tiny bit of gravel across the room where it landed with tiny ping. “Who are Koto’s allies anyway?”
“I don’t know. They didn’t seem like mutiny-type at the poker game. They mostly talked about…” He stumbled, remembering. “Uh, other things.”
Of course Zuko immediately pounced upon it. “What other things? Something useful?”
“That kinda depends on what you’d consider useful,” he hedged.
“Sokka.” Uh-oh, that was Zuko’s ‘I’m not in the mood’ tone. If this was how he was feeling now, he was not going to be a happy flame-thrower soon.
But maybe this needed to dragged out to the open. For both of their sakes.
Sokka rubbed the back of his neck, caught himself doing it, and stopped. “Welllll… They were kind of talking about the Agni Kai between you and Ozai.”
Zuko looked away. “Of course they were,” he said, bitter.
He plowed on. Now that the topic was out there, he had a few questions of his own. He was not going to rat out Iroh for telling the story to crew, so he fudged the details a little. “From the way Kato and the others were talking, you went in thinking you were going to face an old washed-up general, and you got the Fire Lord instead.”
Zuko’s complete non-reply was as good as a yes.
“If that’s the case,” Sokka continued. “Was the Agni Kai even legal? Valid?”
“Water Tribe,” Zuko scoffed, like it was an insult instead of, you know, being from clearly the best part of the world. “You don’t understand.”
“Then help me out. An Agni Kai is an honor duel, right? Aren’t you supposed to face the same person you challenged?”
“It was the Fire Lord’s war council. Disrespecting the general was the same thing as disrespecting him.”
“That’s pretty thin, buddy, but let’s say that’s true,” Sokka said.
Zuko opened his mouth to argue, but Sokka plowed on.
“What would have happened, theoretically, if you had fought Ozai and won?”
“You would have become the new Fire Lord? Right?”
“Do you think it’s easy?” Zuko snapped, which was as good as a yes. “Do you think you could kill your own father?”
“So an Agni Kai is an honor duel to the death.”
“Well—no,” he admitted. “Not usually, but when you challenge the Fire Lord you’re challenging the chosen of Agni and… a Fire Lord has to show he’s the strongest. Always.”
Sokka ignored that. “Ozai pulled strings to trick his own son into a death-duel of fiery death—”
“—and when you refused he had to walk it back. and ended up banishing you, instead.”
“You’re twisting things!”
“Am I? Because from here it sounds like your father tried to publicly kill you! But you outsmarted him by refusing to fight at all.”
“I was a coward. I agreed to an Agni Kai.”
“You agreed to challenge someone else.”
“I misunderstood the terms.”
“Did everyone else in that war council ‘misunderstand’, too? Was Iroh there? The guards? Your sister? Your friends?”
Zuko let out a broken little laugh at that. Sokka wasn’t quite sure why.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing,” Zuko said. “Absolutely nothing.” He scrubbed at his face and then looked at Sokka. “Why does it matter?”
“Because the Fire Lord—” burned his own son, the absolute bastard “took away your title under false pretenses and then sent you on this really messed up quest to do find someone who had been missing for one-hundred years. And just because you didn’t do it fast enough, he’s sent your sister after you to drag you to prison. Or worse.” Sokka threw his hands up in the air. “Who does that? And why can’t he do any of his dirty work himself? Is that a Fire Lord thing?”
“Shut up!” Zuko finally snapped, sparks in his teeth.
“No, I won’t! And you can’t make me.”
Zuko turned away. His silence spoke for him.
I pushed too far, Sokka thought, but then grew angry with himself. No, Zuko needed to know he was worth more than how his family treated him, and Sokka would tell him if no one else would.
“I didn’t have any,” Zuko said, cutting into his thoughts.
He shook his head and stared up at the metal ceiling of the cell as if that had all the answers in the world. “Friends. To tell me what was going on.” Another breathless laugh. “Azula was allowed to have… companions. She chose Ty Lee and Mai for their usefulness instead of friendship.” He looked down at his own hands. “But I was the crown prince. I was supposed to be above all that. Aside from my family, I only knew the servants, who couldn’t… they couldn’t have known. And Uncle. He would have told me if he knew, I think.”
“I asked once when I woke up, after. If he knew who I would have faced. If I… misunderstood.”
And now Sokka realized he was prodding at an old wound. Zuko had a big blind spot when it came to his father, but he wasn’t stupid. Deep in his heart, he had known he hadn’t ‘misunderstood’ the challenge.
He also got a bad feeling he knew what Iroh’s reply had been. “Oh man, let me guess…”
“Yup,” Zuko confirmed. Then he roughened his voice, taking on a creaky Uncle Iroh tone. “Nephew, life is like a river. Sometimes, even when you see the bend ahead of you, your boat can still run ashore…”
He was torn between laughter and annoyance on Zuko’s behalf. “No offense, but there’s a time and a place for old-man proverbs.”
“Yeah,” Zuko agreed, but he did look wistful. Sokka guessed he was missing his uncle a lot right then. “But he always has called me ‘Prince Zuko’. I thought that was his way of telling me that my birthright was still legitimate. He was the only one I could call a friend. The only one on my side. That’s pathetic, isn’t it?”
Yes, but not for the reasons Zuko thought.
Sokka made himself shrug as if it didn’t matter. “Not really. You saw my village. I didn’t have any guys to hang around with. Everyone else went to war. Even a boy only a year older than me. That stung.”
“Ouch,” Zuko agreed.
“I thought that my dad would send someone for me the next year, but he never did.” Sokka had never told anyone that. Not even Katara. “I knew he was busy with the war, so I figured he wanted me to protect the village. All the women and children.”
“You did,” Zuko said.
They shared a look with slightly ironic smiles, remembering the day Zuko arrived at the South Pole village.
Zuko cleared his throat. “If you were there with me at the war council… what would you have told me?”
“That your dad is a dick.”
That earned a low chuckle. He seemed more tired than upset, now. “You wouldn’t make it very far in the court.”
“Probably not,” Sokka agreed airily. “I’m a Water Tribe peasant.”
“A mouthy Water Tribe peasant,” Zuko corrected, his expression… almost warm. His gaze touched on Sokka’s lips.
Sokka was the first to look away. He regretted it instantly, but when he glanced back, Zuko was carefully studying the wall as if it were the most interesting thing in the world.
“I had to try,” Zuko said at length. “To speak up at the council, I mean. They were going to massacre those troops. When I failed—They did. The Fire Lord retired the division, afterward, in honor of their sacrifice.”
Sokka’s non-existent gut twisted. “Ozai is the one who lost his honor that day. Not you.”
Zuko looked away, blinking rapidly. Sokka pretended not to see.
Nothing was said between them for a long time until Zuko husked out a quiet, “Thanks.”
“What are friends for?”
Eventually, Zuko settled back in his corner, raised his knees and put his head down. Within a few minutes, his breaths became deep and even. Sleeping again. This time, hopefully, without dreams.
... Though Sokka wouldn't have minded another dream-trip to the South Pole.
Eventually, a few hours later, there was a clanking sound from the down the hall. Several pairs of heavy, booted feet. Those... didn't sound like Kato's friends.
“We have company,” Sokka said.
Zuko came awake, rubbing at his bad eye. He gave a full-body flinch of surprise at the marching feet—close now—and stood.
Just in time. The scape of a metal key in a lock and the heavy door swung open to reveal three imperial guards decked out in full regalia. Kato was not among them.
“What do you want?” Zuko demanded and this time his voice held the bark of command.
“Princess Azula requires your presence on the top deck,” the guard in the middle said. Taking that as a signal, the other two stepped inside to flank Zuko on either side. No one attempted to unlock his wrist or ankle shackles. One made as if to grab his arm, but Zuko yanked away with a snarl.
“I’ll walk there, myself.” His gaze flicked to Sokka who stood as close as he could without any of the guards walking through him.
“If you get a chance to break away, jump overboard,” Sokka said. “I’ll get you out.” It wasn’t going to be easy. Sokka had no idea what he was doing, really, with waterbending. Not to mention Zuko’s chains would weigh him down. His body was exhausted, starved, and they would have firebenders blasting down on them the entire time… Another day in his life ever since Katara cracked open a glowing iceberg.
Zuko nodded, face grim.
It was clearly humiliating for Zuko to hobble up the several flights of stairs, thanks to the short ankle chains. He managed it though, and when he reached the top deck, he and Sokka were greeted by the sight of the entire crew standing lined up at parade rest.
Azula stood before them, and next to her was the Dark Spirit.
“Are you the guest of honor, or the sacrificial camel-cow at the mid-winter feast?” Sokka muttered.
It wasn’t a funny joke. Not even much of a joke at all, but the corner of Zuko’s lips quirked up.
“Guess we’ll find out,” he said and stepped forward.
The Dark Spirit swayed in its spot, but made no move toward them. Knowing how fast she could move, Sokka watched it warily. What if Azula told it to feed on Zuko in the same way it had fed on her? Sokka kept close to one side of him, just in case.
The rest of the assembled crew looked uneasy. Glances were quickly thrown in Zuko's direction and then away again.
Azula said nothing as Zuko was brought to her, only surveyed her people. She, too, had a dark, hungry look in her amber eyes.
When she spoke, her voice seemed to carry effortlessly across the deck. A trick of public speaking Sokka had noticed in his own father. It was a chief’s voice. A voice of authority.
"Thank you for arriving so promptly," she said as if she hadn't ordered a ship-wide muster. "Fellow loyal Fire Nation citizens, we have treason within our ranks."
Zuko tensed, taking instant offense. "I've committed no treason!” he snapped and it was clear that he'd never had the same voice training lessons. His voice was deeper, but didn't carry as far, seemed to be taken up and made thin and weak by the wind. "I am loyal to the Fire Nation!”
Azula laughed. "Oh, Zuzu, not everything is about you." Then she turned to the crowd. "Bring forward crewman Kato."
"Oh, Monkeyfeathers," Sokka muttered.
There was a tense ripple through the assembled crew, as if a couple dozen people were all breathing a sigh of relief. Then a small scuffle from the back. Kato, pale and visibly frightened, was brought up by two soldiers gripping his arms on either side of him. One was Hari—the outspoken Ozai loyalist in the poker game. Sokka didn’t know the other one, but he had a dark, angry expression.
"Oh man," Sokka groaned. "Play dumb. Deny everything."
"I don't understand," Zuko said. "What's going on?"
"Not that dumb!"
Zuko shot Sokka an annoyed look.
“You don’t?” Azula asked, voice sweet. “Why, this is the crewman who has been engineering a plot to let you escape.”
"I don't know who that is!" Zuko insisted.
“Oh Zuzu, you've always been a terrible liar.”
Zuko snarled, dropping the act in an instant. “Azula, listen to me: Whatever that spirit—that thing—told you, she's lying. She is not our mother. She—”
It happened in a flash. All composure fell from Azula’s face to be replaced by an ugly, feral thing that was, for the briefest of instants, made her look like the Dark Spirit.
"Shut up!" she screamed. ”You're jealous. You always have been. I am father's heir and now I have mother’s love, too, and you have nothing. You are nothing!” Spittle flew from her bottom lip at that last word and even her guards edged away.
Zuko stood in place, his good eye round with shock. "Azula--"
“Shut up. Shut up. SHUT UP! I promised father I'd save you for the trial. Mother wants you to die on Fire Nation soil, but I won't allow treason on my ship. Among my people. You can't turn them, Zuko. Their lives are mine! MINE.”
And with that she turned, looping her hands in two opposite arcs, pointer fingers extended.
"No!" Zuko lurched towards her, but was held steady by his guards. They all looked as frightened as Sokka felt, but he didn't understand what Azula was doing--
Her fingers came together and a ragged bolt of lightning shot out of her hands and leaped across the desk, striking Kato… as well as the two who were holding him.
All three were blasted back to lay still on the deck, black holes where the bolt had struck.
Except to Sokka’s eye, their spirits remained behind, staring at still Azula in shock.
"But I was loyal..." Hari wailed in a ghostly voice that reached no one but him, falling to her knees. “What did I do wrong?”
The second man looked at his hands and then up, pleading at the sky. “My daughter. What will happen to my daughter...?"
Kato, though, looked straight at Sokka. “Tell the Prince I'm sorry. I tried… I tried…"
Sokka had no answer. He stared at them, frozen in horror. Before his eyes, the spirits faded as if they were insubstantial as wind. It seemed they were pulled away without going anywhere. Kato met Sokka's eyes again, beseechingly, before he became transparent, and then… nothing.
They were gone.
There was utter stillness across the deck. Thunder rolled in the distance as if in answer to Azula's lightning.
The Dark Spirit, which had stayed close to Azula's side, drifted down to the bodies, kneeling over them as if bathing herself in the last of their life.
"What have you done?" Zuko said, turning to her. Both eyes were very wide. "Those were Fire Nation citizens... they deserved a trial. They deserved to defend their honor. What have you done?!"
Azula turned her back to him. Her mask of composure was firmly back in place. It was just as unnerving as the brief glimpse of madness. "Secure the prisoner back in his cell,“ she told the guards and tossed one dismissive look over her shoulder at the still smoking bodies. “Roll the traitors into the water.”
"Azula!” Zuko raged. “You can't do that!"
Sokka he reached out—for comfort, for reassurance, for just a little human touch. He didn’t know. He wasn’t even thinking. His hand wrapped around Zuko's upper arm.
In that moment, he felt stronger. More solid.
Zuko didn't seem to notice, too busy yelling at his sister. Sokka tightened his grip about his arm. He looked on from the still slightly smoking bodies, to the place where their spirits had stood, to the crewman standing arranged on the deck, still staring forward, teeth grit as if the routine of duty were the only thing keeping them upright.
No one said anything. No one made a move to stop this, to stand up to Azula, to put the rightful royal forward.
"What is wrong with you!" Sokka yelled. "You know this is wrong. She’s insane! She just murdered your friends. Do something, you cowards!" The last two words were ripped out of him, with a force that almost hurt.
Several crew-members stiffened and looked around as if searching for a distant voice on the wind.
They heard me? he thought in shock. Then in the next moment, the guards had shoved Zuko away—Sokka’s hand went through his arm like the invisible ghost he was.
None of the crew moved or dared to speak up. They stood, a sullen vigil as two men wearing officer’s knots went to go toss the bodies into the sea.
With a shudder, he turned and followed Zuko down below deck. Zuko didn’t go willingly. He cursed and fought, sparking fire between his teeth in his rage.
But he never turned his flames on his own people, and the guards escorting him didn’t take their grip off him for a second. They were too terrified of Azula not to. Zuko had no opportunity to escape.
Sokka wanted to say something encouraging, wanted to cry, wanted to throw up. He could do none of it. As soon as the cell door closed, Zuko fell to his knees and lit a kindle of fire in his cupped palms. He held his hands up as if in supplication.
"What are you doing?" Sokka asked.
"Memorial fire,” he said shortly. "Do you want more unquiet spirits running around the ship?"
Sokka wanted to ask if that was safe, all things considered, but he felt no weird pull as Zuko murmured over the fire. Casting prayers into the flames, his own rites for the unjustly killed. Sokka couldn’t hear what was said, but thought he caught Kato’s name more than once. Zuko only paused his chants long enough to ask a quick question.
"Who were the other two?"
“The woman, Hari—She was an Ozai loyalist. The other... I don't know. He said he had a daughter."
Zuko closed his eyes and nodded.
Eventually, his prayers stopped and with a sigh Zuko folded his fingers over the fire, extinguishing it. He brought his hands back down to rest loosely in his lap.
The cell was dark and cold.
“I never used to be pious,” Zuko said into the silence. “I don’t know—I didn’t pay enough attention in Fire Temple teachings. I don’t know the proper phrasings… or what you’re supposed to do, really.”
“I think they appreciate it.” At least, he didn’t see their restless spirits anymore. That had to count for something.
Silence fell between them. Sokka wasn’t sure what to do next, or how to help. What was one supposed to say to someone who just watched their sister kill three innocents in cold blood?
Zuko was the one who spoke first, his voice hollow. “It won’t take two days.”
He shook his head, disgusted and exhausted in equal measures. “Azula. She was born lucky. The wind or the currents or both will be in the ship’s favor. I’ll be back home on Fire Nation soil this time tomorrow.”
Sokka’s non-existent stomach gave a flip. “And then what happens?”
He let out a breathy laugh that was completely void of humor. “Then I plead my case in front of the Fire Lord.”
And Sokka only had to look at the left side of Zuko’s face to see how that had gone the last time.
Note: The events at the end of this chapter are what inspired this whole arc. I've been waiting MONTHS, you guys. So excited to finally publish this.
Note 2: I decided 'Snipe-hunt' in the Avatar universe is still 'snipe-hunt' (not, like, camel-snipe) because snipes aren't real. Haha, get it?.
As it turned out, Zuko was wrong again. They didn’t make the Fire Nation port by the next evening.
They arrived just before the sun rose that morning.
Sokka was minding his own business, trying not to be bored out of his mind while Zuko slept. (Seriously, people with bodies slept so much. So many empty hours..)
He passed the time thinking of escape plans which grew more and more outrageous as he went along. (He could get some water… somehow, then figure out a way to control that globe of water to sit over a guard’s head, distract him, and then use that distraction to grab a key someway. Weren’t spirits in the tales able to move around furniture and spook people out of their own huts? How did he get ahold of those powers?).
It took a few minutes to realize that the ever-present hum of the Fire Nation coal engines had shut off. It was silent, save for the distant slosh of water against the hull.
He glanced down at Zuko, who was curled up in his corner of the cell, using his arm for a pillow. The fingers of his right hand were twitching—a sign he’d be waking up soon, which meant it was close to dawn. Zuko had never slept past the sunrise. It was a firebender thing.
Still, there had been no sign of the Dark Spirit since the execution, and Sokka had a bad feeling about those engines.
He’d only be gone a few minutes.
Rising, Sokka phased out the cell door and jogged down the hall and up the stairs a few levels, blithely walking through a couple gossiping crew members on his way out. He wasn’t a fan of the almost hopeful looks on their faces. Like they were finally at the end of a long scary journey.
Sokka made it to the top deck and got his first eye-full of the Fire Nation.
Well okay, technically he had seen the Fire Nation when he went to Crescent Island with Aang and Katara. But that had been a barren, volcanic rock. He expected the entire Fire Nation to look like that: Black and ugly and smelling slightly of sulfur.
There was, indeed, a big giant volcano, but this one appeared to be covered in lush jungle vegetation. The water around the ship was a pearlescent blue in the pre-dawn and in the distance gentle waves crashed upon pure white sand beaches.
The mouth of the harbor was straight ahead. Two huge stone statues off an old Fire Nation man stood at each end of the harbor, glaring down at the incoming vessels. Sokka realized they were actually were two giant posts to a huge sea gate which was currently open, but could be swung closed and locked into place. For a moment he was both in awe of Fire Nation engineering, and hated them more than ever. Oh, what he wouldn’t give to see how the thing worked, or even to find out how it was pulled shut? By incredibly powerful tug boats? Or by a complex system of pulleys and lines from the shore?
The air was filled with the harsh cries of sea birds, and numerous little fishing boats, mid-size, and deep water fishers sailed by. Most looked patched hastily made. As individual as the people who crewed them. Unlike in the South Pole, he doubted they were in a race against time before the long dark months of winter hit. Some of the fisher’s crew were sitting down, eating their breakfast of fish and rice.
They have so much, he thought. Why were they trying to take over the world?
And he understood, a little, why Zuko was so desperate to get back.
He made it back down to the cell as Zuko awoke.
"We're here," Sokka said.
Zuko, who had been rubbing his bad eye with a knuckle, stiffened and straightened. He cast a look at the wall as if he could see the outside beyond. “Where?” he rasped.
“No idea. We’re coasting into a harbor—there are two big old guy statues.” He tried to keep his tone light, but a horrible thought struck him. “Is that Sozin?”
“Azulon, his son. My grandfather.” And Zuko didn’t say anything more no matter how much Sokka provoked him.
Not long after, a tremor ran through the ship as it docked.
Sokka had the opportunity to feel useless a lot since he lost his body. All he could do was stand by and watch as the guards came for Zuko and led him out of his cell. The two guards were Big Shen and Len Zao, the only two left alive from the poker game. They had red-rimmed eyes and their skin was a few shades paler. From grief, fear, or exhaustion, Sokka couldn’t say.
Zuko stared straight ahead, not resisting, every muscle tense. He took a breath reached the top of the stairs. Sokka thought he heard him murmur, "Home," under his breath. Then he took the final steps to the top deck.
Still chained in wrist and ankle shackles, he stood and stared out, expression shocked. Sokka did the same.
From afar, the island had looked idyllic and beautiful. Seeing it close up was a different story entirely. The pristine white beach was filled with debris: snapped logs as thick as Sokka’s waist, drowned scraps of fabric and dried seaweed dragged up from the deep. What had once been a pier was gone and a new replacement hastily rebuilt using mismatched boards and logs.
Several boats were sunk and lay below the water line, tipped on their sides and visible down below in the clear blue ocean water. Sokka had no idea how the ship's captain had managed to thread the needle between it all to dock Azula's massive warship at the temporary pier.
Entire swaths of jungle trees, bigger and lusher than anything Sokka had seen in the Earth Kingdom, were laid flat as if pushed by a giant hand. There were no houses in sight... none that were still in one piece, at least.
Sad looking men and women dressed in rags picked through the piles, while dirty children scrambled up in the places they could not reach.
"What happened here?" Zuko asked and Sokka realized he was not the only one who stopped and stared. The guards, too, looked on but with no surprise in their eyes.
He didn't expect an answer, what with Azula's habit of murdering someone with lightning for disobedience, but Big Shen rumbled, ”Tsunami."
Zuko turned to him, incensed. "Why didn’t the Fire Sages warn of the earthquake? Weren't the Gates of Azulon closed?”
“Because it wasn't an Earthquake.” Len Zao spit to the side. "And there was no warning."
"I don’t—“ Zuko started.
Big Shen gripped his arm and led him along "It was the night the moon disappeared."
Sokka and Zuko exchanged a horrified look.
“Oh. Oh, man…” Sokka groaned. “The moon controls the tides, and the moon was full that night. If it was a super low tide when Zhao slew the moon spirit, the pull was gone and all that water rushed back in…” He stopped, feeling sick. Was it like that along coastlines all over the world? He didn’t see any damage at the Earth Kingdom spa, but maybe they got lucky.
Zuko, though, looked grim. “The Ocean was angry enough to try to possess the Avatar. It knew who was responsible for his wife’s death,” he said in a short undertone.
Sokka got it. The onrushing tide was bad enough, but the Ocean probably added his own push. He had specifically targeted the Fire Nation.
There was a flat cart at the end of the makeshift pier, with a man-sized cage on top. A moveable cell with steel bars. Still shackled, Zuko was led to it. He visibly seethed as he was loaded in, but stood in place, looking out as if trying to reconcile what had been a bustling harbor town with the flattened devastation.
Some of the tsunami survivors stood close to look on curiously, but no one said anything. They looked hungry and hollow-eyed.
Sokka wasn't usually one to keep quiet, but he wasn't sure what to say. These were his enemies, but he never expect his enemies to look like the poorest, most beat down Earth Kingdom farmers. These people had lost everything.
Finally, Zuko had enough. He closed his eyes, disgusted. "Curse Zhao under to the third generation.”
Azula was last to leave the ship. Decked out in her military best, she strode past Zuko's cart, the dark spirit in her wake. She mounted a fire rhinoceros at the head of the possession. The crew members walked marched behind her—many fewer than there should have been.
A winding road cut through the jungle and headed straight toward the caldera. The devastation lessened the further they got from the coast and as they climbed into the higher land. Suddenly there were homes again, and people working fields and gathering from fruit trees.
Seeing the precession, more and more people stepped out of their houses. That was when the boos and hisses started.
Sokka didn't think that these people knew what was happening, or even who Zuko was. But Azula was their princess and he was clearly her prisoner. That made him their enemy. The boos took up strength. These were people who had not been directly affected by the tsunami and seemed to have more energy for anger. Soon, people were outright jeering.
Zuko bowed his head, his fists clenched so tight the white stood out from his knuckles.
Sokka had rarely felt so helpless. There was nothing he could do but stand there and offer silent support.
A few even threw old fruit, though those hit the bars and splattered on the inside. Zuko grit his teeth and kept looking down. Wisps of steam rose from his shoulders and the juicy splatters of fruit in his short hair. He was literally smoldering in rage.
The rim of the caldera had looked steep from sea level, but the road cut a meandering path that made it easier for transport carts. The ascended the rim on a low-cut dip.
And that was when Sokka got his first view of the Fire Nation capital.
It was a sprawling city, laid out from wall to wall inside the volcano. And, glittering like a little lick of Fire in the middle, sat the palace itself.
Zuko looked on with both pain and longing in his face.
This is home to him. No matter how terrible the circumstances.
"It's... all right, I guess,” Sokka said, pretending not to be as impressed as he felt. "I mean, it's no Omashu."
“You're not serious," Zuko said flatly. “You cannot seriously be comparing Caldera City to that ugly lump of rock.”
"You wouldn't be saying that if you had ever ridden the mail shoot slides." Those were pretty wild. Does your ugly city have mail scute slides? I think not.”
Zuko snorted. "Water tribe."
The cart trundled down the other side of the volcanic rim to the palace. This was obviously the rich side of the city—the quality of the houses took on a definite uptick. But no one else threw fruit at the cart. In fact, the streets were empty, the shops shuttered and the fine houses empty of life. It was as if the entire volcano were holding its breath.
“Why is everything closed?” Sokka wondered. “Fire holiday?”
Scowling, Zuko shook his head. As they got closer to the palace, he’d fallen into brooding silence. Sokka had the feeling he knew why the streets were silent, but didn’t want to talk about it.
Once inside the palace walls, Big Shen and Len Zao fell back. They gave final nods—almost respectful, but a far cry from mutiny in the prince’s name. Azula’s hold on them was too strong. Zuko was ushered out of the cart and into the custody of four other guards, all large and scowling and silent. He was then led inside to a room where his wrist and ankle shackles were removed. He was given a bucket to wash off the rotten fruit, along with and a different change of clothes: A black red tunic with gold trim, dark pants, and knee-high boots. Definitely the finest thing he’d gotten to wear in weeks.
Sokka thought he heard people—a lot of people—not far away. While Zuko spruced up, Sokka stuck his head outside the far wall to take a look around.
For once, he was glad his ghost-like powers let him phase through solid objects. It made it easy to hide the expression on his face.
Beyond the next wall lay a courtyard he had seen before in Zuko’s nightmares. It was the place where he’d had his Agni Kai.
If anything, the stands were more densely packed than the had been in the dream. There was not an empty seat to be seen, and beyond the lower rows it was standing room only. Judging by their fine garb, this was where everyone within the caldera had gone.
Two gilded chairs, one higher, one slightly lower. were set up on the far end of the courtyard, underneath delicate red silk hangings to protect their occupants from the sun.
The chairs were empty, but Sokka would bet a week’s worth of seal jerky they were for the Fire Lord and the Princess.
He took a moment to take it all in, and another to control his reaction. Then he phased back.
Zuko was done with the wash bucket and was putting on his clothes, ignoring the guards like they weren’t there. “Well?” he asked, tight and controlled.
“I never thought the Fire Lord would be a big fan of drama.”
Zuko leveled him an unamused look.
“He’s brought an audience,” Sokka admitted. “Looks like anyone who is anyone has made it.”
He had the feeling this wasn’t a good thing, but the way Zuko closed his eyes confirmed it.
Whatever was about to happen, Ozai wanted it big. He wanted it public.
“Hey.” Sokka reached out as if to touch Zuko’s wrist and then stopped himself, remembering. Duh. “Look at me.”
Zuko’s gold eyes snapped to him, and for a second Sokka’s words died on his lips. He hated the next things he had to say—hated every syllable—because this was the Fire Lord and therefore probably the worst person on the planet. But…
“He’s not just the Fire Lord. He’s also your father. That has to count for something.” Right?
A mix of emotions flashed across Zuko’s face. Not a huge leap to guess that ‘Father’ had been a loaded word for some time.
At that moment the murmur of the audience outside fell silent. Sokka could guess why. The royals were taking their seats.
“Stay with me,” Zuko said, fast, desperate. “Whatever happens?”
“Yeah, I’ll be right here.”
Zuko took a deep breath and nodded once. Then he turned to the guards.
Of course, they weren’t on Zuko’s time. They were on the Fire Lord’s. The five-minute wait seemed to stretch to hours before finally, finally the signal came and the doors were opened.
One of the guards shoved Zuko forward, causing him to stumble and almost fall.
“Hey!” Sokka barked. “Unnecessary roughness!”
Collecting himself, Zuko stepped forward.
Together, they walked to the courtyard into the light and the gazes of hundreds of Fire Nation citizens. And Sokka got his first look at Fire Lord Ozai.
He was not as tall as he’d been in Zuko’s nightmares. Actually, he was lot less impressive in person overall. He and Zuko shared the same coloring and features—dark hair, pale skin, golden yellow eyes, high cheekbones, and sharpish nose. But Ozai had a weirdly pretty face for a man in his middle years along with a weak chin he was trying to hide behind a pointed beard.
Azula sat beside him, quietly smug, and the dark spirit prowled back and forth in front of her chair. Under the bright noonday Azula looked… diminished in a way he couldn’t put his finger on, which was weird because Azula was a firebender.
Sokka had never mentioned it, but he had been worried that Ozai would be able to see him. Or worse, have a spirit haunting him too. Something that was somehow more terrible than Azula’s dark “Mother”.
But his gaze didn’t flicker to Sokka.
Zuko came to the middle of the arena and sank to his knees, forehead touching the floor in full submission.
Sokka didn’t bother with that. He threw Ozai and Azula a rude gesture he’d picked up in the Earth Kingdom. No one in the courtyard or audience reacted. He was still invisible to them all.
Ozai’s expression betrayed nothing. Nor did Zuko rise. The only noise came from the shuffling of the audience. Finally, after an age, Ozai spoke. “Rise.”
Zuko did, though he stayed on his knees.
“Zuko,” Ozai said, “My eldest child, born in the smallest hour of the night on a midwinter’s day. Early, small, and weak.”
“Dick,” Sokka said.
“Yes, Fire Lord,” Zuko said.
“In light of your gross disrespect and cowardice, you were stripped of your honor, but I gave you a chance to redeem yourself. I was most merciful.”
“Oh yeah,” Sokka said, “A three year long snipe-hunt. Real merciful.”
Zuko winced. “You did, Fire Lord.”
“You were banished and ordered not to set foot on Fire Nation soil until you brought the Avatar back in chains.” He paused, his voice practically boiling displeasure. “Yet, here you are.”
“Wait,” Sokka said, caught up short. “What?”
Zuko shot him a look, clearly confused as well. “I didn’t return by choice—“
“Full of excuses as well, I see. Have you learned nothing in three years?”
Sokka had enough. “What is with this guy? You would still be out hunting Aang if he didn’t have his psycho daughter drag you back here.”
To his surprise, Zuko parroted back his words. “Fire Lord.” He swallowed. “Father. I would be in the Earth Kingdom trying to complete my mission if Azula had not brought me back here.”
“You dare blame your betters for your own weakness.” Ozai spread his hands in a grandiose gesture. “How long does it take to capture a twelve-year-old boy?”
The audience laughed at the Fire Lord’s tiny joke, long and hard.
Zuko cringed and then straightened. For the first time, anger flashed in his eyes. “I have done nothing for three years but hunt the Avatar. I was the first Fire Nation citizen in a century to lay eyes on him. I flushed him from the South Pole and and faced him in battle multiple times along the way. I followed him to the North Pole at the cost of my ship.”
Ozai sat back and the look on his face could only be described as satisfied. “Yes, let us speak about the North Pole.”
Oh Appa turds, Sokka thought. He had the bad feeling he knew where this was going.
Zuko was once again caught flat-footed. “I would have sent a report, but as I said, my ship was destroyed—”
“And what of the reports I received? Sworn testimony that you were seen fighting along side the Avatar?”
Zuko cringed and Sokka was certain that every eye in the audience saw it. “That wasn’t what it looked like.”
“Enlighten me,” Ozai said. Cold.
Then, to his surprise, Zuko rose fully to his feet and excited a military perfect bow, his hand shaping the flame. “I regret to report of Admiral Zhao’s treason against the Fire Nation.”
“Admiral Zhao was one of our most decorated veterans of our navy.” Ozai’s voice was like dark silk. “And you dare accuse him of treason.”
And suddenly, Sokka saw Ozai’s plan as if it were pieces on a Pai Sho table. The Fire Lord was reeling from the double loss at the North Pole and the devastating tsunami on his own island. Had to be. He needed someone to blame. Publicly.
So he was going to blame his own son.
“Zuko,” Sokka said, “This is what he wants. He’s looking for a fall guy for the siege of the North.”
Predictably, Zuko forged on ahead anyway. “Admiral Zhao led his forces against an army of waterbenders at full moon, when they were at their most powerful. He then sneaked into a sacred temple and slayed the Spirit of the Moon.” He had to raise his voice over the general outcry of the crowd. “If not for a coalition of myself and several allies, she—the Moon Spirit—would have stayed dead.”
Ozai’s face grew darker as Zuko spoke. He was still weirdly pretty, so his expression made him look like a mutinous child. “You little fool. Admiral Zhao, may he join Agni’s light, was following my orders.”
The crowd went dead silent.
Zuko choked. “What?”
Figures, Sokka thought, not surprised. Hadn’t Zhao said the same thing? But Zuko had not wanted to believe him.
Now Ozai raised his voice and it was clear he was speaking not to Zuko, but to the assembled noblemen.
“Several months ago, Admiral Zhao came to me with a proposition. He had been in search for years for the secret hiding place of the spirit of the moon. He found it at last, behind the walls of the North Pole. Walls, which had been impenetrable. I knew the sacrifices would be great—too great. But when my failure of a son chased the Avatar to the North Pole, I knew the power would soon be in our enemy’s grasp. We had no choice. And when we succeeded it would be the Fire Nation’s single greatest victory since Sozin’s comet. Our forces prevailed and we were poised to win,” he leveled a look full of displeasure down at Zuko, “until my son stepped in.”
“I had no choice—” Zuko protested, voice weak.
Ozai easily overrode him. “He, inserted himself in a wartime campaign, allied with the enemy, and set himself against our people.”
“You don’t understand!” Zuko cried out at last.
“Do you deny it?”
“Father!” He caught himself. “Fire Lord Ozai, the Spirit of the Ocean tried to take over the Avatar in revenge. That would have given him more power than any of his past lives, all aimed at the Fire Nation. I couldn’t allow that to happen, so yes, I defended the sacred temple against outsiders. And when she was killed, I did not stop the Water Tribe princess from giving her life to restore the moon.”
“That sounds like a confession to me,” Azula said lightly, crossing one leg over the other. Beside her, the dark spirit leered. “That was easier than I thought.”
“The moon controls the tides, Azula,” Zuko snapped. “Didn’t you notice the tsunami damage at the harbor?”
She flicked her fingers. “There would be an adjustment period, but all loyal Fire Nation citizens know great Agni fears no other spirits.”
“Adjustment?! How many families were washed away? The moon was gone for only a few minutes. If she stayed dead, what would have happened the weather, the currents, our fishing fleet? You do like to eat, don’t you?” The audience murmured, but Zuko ignored them. He seemed to remember his argument was not with his sister and his attention back to Ozai. “Father, whatever Zhao told you… we cannot pit the Fire Nation against the great spirits. The tsunami was a taste of what could have been.”
Ozai’s face was like stone. As his silence grew, the audience took notice and quieted. Finally, the Fire Lord spoke. “Time and time again, by almost every metric, you have been proven a coward and a failure. As a child, your firebending lagged behind your younger sister. You are unable and unwilling to make the hard decisions all leaders must make in war. During your banishment, you showed neither the aptitude or the wisdom to lead. How many times did my foolish brother have to step in to keep your own crew from mutiny?”
Zuko grit his teeth but bowed his head.
But Ozai was not done. “Twice now, you have shamed me. First, by showing your disrespect, and now by allying yourself with an enemy against your people, your Fire Lord, and your father.” He paused, his voice lower. “Zuko, there will not be a third time.”
Sokka found he was staring at the Fire Lord, slack-jawed. Every word had been aimed to cut. If Hakoda had ever said a quarter of that to Sokka—and in front of the other men—he would be a puddle of shame on the floor.
Yet Zuko stood there, taking the full force of it without flinching. What was more, even though his hands were visibly trembling, he raised his gaze to look back up at his father. Square in the eyes.
“I’m sorry to have disappointed you, Father, but I was not wrong to help save the spirit of the moon. I would…” He took a deep breath and shot Sokka an apologetic look.
“Whatever you’re thinking, Sokka said, “it’s a bad idea, isn’t it?”
Zuko’s lips quirked up for a half-second. He answered Sokka, not Ozai, his voice ringing. “I am prepared to defend my honor in an Agni Kai.”
If he wasn’t busy being a supportive friend, Sokka would have slapped his forehead.
The silence that fell in the courtyard held weight.
Then, unexpectedly, Ozai laughed. “Would you fight this time, Zuko?”
“This time I know who I am facing.”
There were a few gasps in the crowd, quickly hushed.
Can Zuko defeat him? Sokka thought. He had no idea how good fo a Firebender Ozai was, but thought the answer was probably ‘very good’. Meanwhile, Zuko had been three quarters starved for the past week. And he probably wouldn’t want to allow Sokka to help out. Honor and all.
Then another thought occurred to Sokka: The Agni Kai would be a better death than the pyre. He bet that was what Zuko was aiming for.
He wasn’t sure if he blamed him.
“You have no right to challenge,” Ozai said.
“It is the right of every firebender to challenge his lord for being unjust.”
But the Fire Lord shook his head, almost pitying. “You are a traitor to the country. You have no lord.”
“Ozai is declining,” Sokka realized with shock. He looked at Zuko. “I think… I think he’s afraid of facing you.”
Ignoring him, Zuko stepped forward. In that moment, he looked taller, older, confident. Sokka saw the man he could grow into if he survived this, and he was magnificent.
Zuko’s words rang with the force of conviction. “Fire Lord Ozai, I, Prince Zuko, call you cruel and unjust. For the insult you have given the Great Spirits, for the people your actions have killed, for the forty-second division of young recruits you sacrificed for no gain, for forcing me back to Fire Nation soil and then condemning me for it—”
Ozai gestured to the waiting guards. “Gag him.”
“I challenge you to an Agni Kai!” Zuko yelled just before a red scarf was forced between his teeth. His hands were locked in shackles behind his back before the guards shoved him back on his knees.
There was some anxious shifting from the audience.
“As I was saying,” Ozai said, and the audience stilled once more. “Through your cowardice, your greed for power, for allying yourself with the enemy and single-handedly causing the loss of the North Pole, your birthright has been stripped from you. You are no longer a prince. You are no longer my son.”
Zuko glared up at Ozai. His eyes were bright, but no tears fell.
Ozai continued. “It was with a heavy heart that I sentence you to death. At sunrise tomorrow morning, you will be cleansed by fire on traitors hill in front of the people you have betrayed.”
The guards led Zuko out of the courtyard, still gagged. It took until they were two halls away to not hear the crowd jeering his name. Zuko didn’t offer a fight. He walked as if in a daze, his head down and his eyes focused a few steps in front of his feet.
They put him in a tiny side room with bench seating, closing the door without removing the gag. Zuko sat.
“Your dad,” Sokka said with feeling, “Is a dick.”
Zuko swallowed and closed his eyes. He couldn’t speak with the gag, but to be fair, Sokka wasn’t sure what to say either. So he sat next to Zuko and hoped it would be enough.
“Murmph,” Zuko muttered at last. It sounded like a swear word.
Sokka sighed. “Yeah, buddy. I know.”
Zuko trembled, his head turned away. From the snuffling sounds and short breaths of air, Sokka knew he was crying.
He didn’t say anything, letting him have his privacy.
Zuko regained his control well before the door opened a few hours later. He looked up as if expecting his visitors.
Sokka, however, gave a start. It wasn’t the guards, but two tall, spindly men in blood-red robes and high hats. He rose to his feet, alarmed. “Hey… Hey, wait a minute. It’s not morning yet.”
The robed guys, who had to be Fire Sages, ignored him. Seeing Zuko’s state, one tisked under his breath and stepped in to untie the gag. “Come with us.”
“No,” Sokka said. “Don’t do it. It’s not morning yet, Zuko. They can’t do this!”
He stood and worked his jaw for a few seconds. “It’s fine,” he said shortly to Sokka.
“None of this is fine!” Sokka snapped.
Of course, the Fire Sages didn’t know Zuko had been speaking to him. “That depends on you, the sincerity of your repentance, and how forgiving Agni is feeling.”
Zuko rolled his eyes. It was the most life out of him Sokka had seen since the trial. “You’re not taking me to the pyre, you’re taking me to the temple,” he said, for Sokka’s benefit.
“For your final rites,” the second sage confirmed, as if Zuko was an idiot.
Sokka let out a breath of air he didn’t really have. Not the pyre. Not yet.
The sages walked on either side of Zuko down another few halls, across a courtyard and into a temple.
There were guards everywhere and Sokka did not doubt that Fire Sages were firebenders, too. Zuko’s hands were cuffed. Not much of a chance of escape.
But Zuko didn’t seem that interested in trying to get away. In contrast to before, his head was held high, with an arrogant tilt.
“I know that look. That’s your: I’m planning something stupid, look,” Sokka said.
In answer, Zuko gave him a half quirk of a smile. It made him look roguish.
Then the Fire Sages stepped into a wide temple.
It was guided gold from top to bottom. Dragons and flames and the bright beaming sun were depicted in every piece of artwork, and engraved anywhere there was a spare inch. And of course the sun. Sokka hadn’t seen a temple for water, but there was no way it could look this tacky.
Then Zuko was led up wide stairs to a dais where a golden flame burned out of a shallow oil lamp.
While one of the sage’s unlocked Zuko’s shackles, the other spoke to him. “Take all the time you need for your final respect to the great spirit.”
Then the sages moved to either side of the platform. Zuko regarded the dais for a moment, looked at Sokka and jerked his chin, indicating he wanted him to come along too.
Sokka did, though he wasn’t sure if he should. Because—hello, this wasn’t exactly his people’s Great Spirit. Plus, this seemed kind of… private.
Zuko dropped to his knees in front of the dais, touched his forehead to the floor again in a full bow. Sokka stood to the side, feeling sort of awkward.
Rising back to his knees, Zuko scooped some of the living flame into his hand.
“I’m not here to apologize,” Zuko said at last, his voice rough. “I’ve done nothing wrong. Everything I’ve done was to regain my honor, to serve my Fire Lord, to save my country.”
“Um, Zuko. Should you be sassing the Great Spirit?” Sokka asked.
“I don’t care,” he snapped. Then turned his attention back to the flame. “I’m not going to apologize, and I would take back none of it.” He snorted, regarding the flame with irritation. “And if Agni has a problem with me, well, he can tell me in person, tomorrow.”
Sokka felt a swoop in his stomach, but Zuko went on.
“Great Agni, I have only one final request. This is Sokka. I don’t… I know he wasn’t born fire, but he is good and loyal. He’s… He’s the only friend I’ve ever had, and when I’m gone he will be alone.” His voice warbled dangerously for a moment, but he shook his head, pressing on. “I ask nothing for myself, but please watch over him. Please help him find his way back to the material world.”
Sokka’s jaw dropped. “Zuko, you can’t do that.”
“I just did.” Transferring the flame back into the bowl, he made a final perfunctory bow, rose, and walked back to the sages.
From the pinched, constipated looks on the sage’s faces they caught a little of what Zuko had said
Not that Zuko seemed to care. He walked, stiff-backed and proud, out of the temple. Outside, they were met by no less than six guards who escorted him of the palace and to a rise Sokka assumed was traitor’s hill.
Out of the grounds, people were streaming in. It looked like common folk had been let in and were setting up tents and selling items out of carts. It had the air of a festival. Everyone had come to watch the traitor prince burn alive.
A little ways away set atop a little mound was a pole and pyre being heaped with logs and oily straw. Near to that stood a little fortified prison cell with walls on three sides and open bars on the forth. This, too, had a bench seat to sleep and eat on. The bars looked directly out to the pyre.
Zuko was led inside the cell and the guards shut the door, nodding to a steaming bowl. “Your final meal.”
“I don’t suppose that flask is filled with water,” Sokka said hopefully.
“It’s a wine flask.” Zuko picked it up and gave it a shake. Very little liquid sloshed around. He made a face. “And I think the guards already helped themselves.” He threw it to the side. Prince that he was, he didn’t want to drink from a vessel someone had already touched.
Sokka sighed. Well, he didn’t think he there was much of a chance against half a dozen guards, anyway.
Zuko ate in silence, occasionally looking out at the pyre. At least the food looked decent.
Off in the distance, instruments could be heard from among gathering crowds. Children laughed. It all sounded very far away.
Finally, Zuko spoke. “He never wanted me back, did he? I wasted the last three years of my life.”
Sokka couldn’t argue with that. “What do you need? What can I do?”
He closed his eyes in a visible effort to master the fear. “It’s stupid.”
“Can’t be more stupid than anything else I’ve seen you do.”
“Could you… I don’t want to sleep tonight. Help keep me awake?” he asked. “I, um, don’t have long and I don’t want to miss the time I have left.”
Sokka’s non-existent heart felt like it someone had just torn a hole in it. It was everything he could do to keep his voice even. “Yeah, buddy. I can do that.”
Sokka spoke. He spoke of the best hunting and fishing in the South Pole (Zuko got a weird look when he mentioned the polar-dog sledding, but said nothing), of some of the Tribe’s funnier legends of lecherous heroes and spirits, basically anything he could think of to take Zuko’s mind off the pyre.
Zuko hardly cracked a smile, laughed even more rarely, but he was an attentive listener and sometimes offered up Fire Nation stories he’d seen in operas and plays. Surprise surprise these were over-the-top flamboyant in a way only a people of fire could be. Zuko was contained and disciplined almost to the point of being repressed. Fire Nation art was… not.
Despite his best intentions, Zuko started dozing off around midnight. Sokka woke him up a couple times, but the third time he let him rest. Just for a bit. He clearly needed it.
Sokka sat there in the dark and listened to him breathe. Tried to memorize the sound of it because soon… well, it wouldn’t happen anymore.
This time tomorrow, Zuko would be gone. Sokka wanted to scream out to the Fire Lord and the sky and moon about the injustice of it all, but that would just wake Zuko up and upset him. This was his last night. He had to keep it together.
So, swallowing his feelings, Sokka sat next to him and just… kept him company. He wished he could put an arm around his shoulders or something.
A breeze he couldn’t feel rustled Zuko’s short hair, and the full moon beamed through the bars to cast light across one half of his face.
Wait… The full moon? That couldn’t be right.
Rising, Sokka went to the bars and peered out. Sure enough, the moon was full and bright in the sky, even though it was still at least two weeks until that should have happened. She cast silvery light down on the whole caldera, lighting it up bright as a night snowfall.
And highlighted the looming, boiling thunderheads gathering just over the eastern rim.
“Zuko,” Sokka hissed. “Wake up!”
He jerked awake, blinking, looking around. “Wha—”
“Get over here.”
As Zuko joined by Sokka’s side, he pointed, “Um, I think there’s a big storm coming.”
“What do you mean? It’s not monsoon season—” He stopped, his good eye growing wide.
In the next seconds, the thunderheads had roiled to twice their height… and kept growing. Dark, thick, and angry, they loomed over the rim of the volcano like an animal poised to pounce.
The impossible full moon was in full view, the light cutting through the cloud cover. It gave the clouds a garishly purple cast.
“That’s not normal, is it?” Sokka asked.
Zuko’s lips formed the word ‘no’ but all sound was drowned out as the storm struck. The wind howled, gusting so loud that the walls of the prison shook. Drops of rain, each as fat as Sokka’s thumb, sheeted down in a silver waterfall. In an instant, the ground was soaked, and rivulets of water ran over the lip of the bars and into the prison cell. Within seconds, Zuko was standing in water that covered the toes of his shoes.
And still the impossible full moon shined down.
“This is your storm. Use it.”
It wasn’t a voice. It was an echo of a voice, of a girl they’d both once known. Sokka both heard and didn’t hear it, but knew with zero doubt in his heart that it was Yue.
He and Zuko exchanged wide-eyed looks. Then Zuko shifted, splashing water that was now to his ankles. He bared his teeth, opening up his arms to Sokka in invitation. “What are you waiting for?”
Sokka grinned back, wolfish, and stepped in.
The first thing he was aware of was the heat. Back home in the South Pole, it only rained during the warmest summer months, but it was still cold. The rain was more like drips of ice. The wind he could now feel whipping past his face was so warm it was almost hot, as the clouds had gathered the strength of the volcano. The air was so heavy with moisture it was thick to breathe.
The second thing he felt was power. Waterbenders were at their full power during a full moon. Sokka felt Yue’s silvery light roaring through his veins, echoing the push and pull of the distant ocean.
There were shouts from outside—guards yelling at each other to secure the area against the sudden storm.
Sokka raised his hands and the warm tropical water raised along with him.
He didn’t know any of the official waterbending moves, but with the full force of the moon’s power giving him the strength of a master, he didn’t have to.
Besides, he had always been good at improvising.
With a shout, he threw the water in a wave that crashed against the bars and froze into a solid block of ice, instantly as dense as permafrost.
Gritting his teeth, he swept both arms back like he was going to throw his boomerang really far, and swept forward in an arc, putting every bit of the energy he could feel shining down from Yue’s moon.
The solid block of ice shot forward, taking the bars, the entire frame they’d been sunk into, and the wall along with them.
Look at that, Zuko snarked deep in his own mind. Waterbending is finally good for something.
Blasting the whole wall out hadn’t gone unnoticed. The shouts from the guards took on a panicked edge, and they sounded like they were coming closer.
Sokka considered for a moment. “You want to give them a show?”
Zuko didn’t hesitate to reply.
Grinning, he ran into the lashing storm, and freedom.
With the full moon shining and his element sheeting down, the guards didn’t have a ghost of a chance. A master waterbender could have worked with less, but Sokka had all the advantages. The guards found themselves knocked down by standing water which had suddenly become a swift current.
“Hey! Jerks! Why don’t you chill out!” Sokka yelled gleefully, striking out what had supposed to be a water whip but ended up as a messy blob of rainwater which crashed down on two guards hard enough to send them to their knees. “Ice to meet you!” A second blob (more slush than the block of ice he’d been going for, but whatever) struck a third guy who tried to blast fire his way. The guard’s flame sizzled out in the pounding rain before Sokka had to worry about it. Then, at Sokka’s gesture, both the firebender’s hands were encased up to the elbows in ice.
Needless to say, the rest didn’t have a chance. There had been a dozen guards. The fight lasted one minute. Tops.
But there where was more shouting coming from the thick mists. Backup was arriving. Time to leave.
Sokka turned and ran. The now knee-high water parted at his command. His path took him right past the waiting pyre.
Give me back my body, Zuko demanded.
Sokka stepped out. Zuko paused long enough to smirk over his shoulder at the staring guards, most of whom were still locked in ice. Then he punched fire at the pyre. Even soaked, the oily straw and wood surrounding pole caught immediately.
The confusion from the guards was both audible and deeply satisfying.
“Oh! Oh! Tell them you learned that from Aang,” Sokka yelled, bouncing on his toes.
Zuko turned back to the guards. “When my father asks, tell him I learned a few tricks from the Avatar.”
“Yeess!” Sokka cheered, punching the air in glee.
Then, they both ran for it.
The sudden storm not only gave them cover to escape, but wreaked havoc on the crowds that had camped out overnight to witness the execution. Tents and carts were blown over, pig-chickens ran wild, and parents shouted to children as everyone tried to get to higher ground.
In the chaos, Zuko easily blended in with the crowd.
Zuko ducked behind a swaying palm tree while Sokka looked back to see if any guards had managed the follow them. No one had.
Then Sokka and Zuko stared at each other, eyes wide.
Sokka wasn’t sure who started laughing, only that in a few moments Zuko had to stuff his knuckles in his mouth to keep it down. It was a combination of ‘Did that actually just happen?’ to ‘You saw that, too. I’m not crazy, right?!” and such shocked, intense relief that it was almost painful.
A new roll of thunder growled across the sky.
Palming rainwater out of his face, Zuko looked up at the sky. His almost hysterical merriment died and he turned fully back the way they had come.
The thunder continued, on and on like a growl from an impossibly large monster. Around them, people stopped trying to fight the storm and stared upward, uncaring about the rain beating down into their faces—the ever-shining moon almost painfully bright.
The growling deepened—as unnatural as the full moon—it built and built until it was a roar, until it was as if the clouds themselves rolled like waves overhead, churning with an angry wind. The clouds lit, orange and white, the shadows in the negative space looking for a moment like a coiled dragon.
Then, that dragon struck.
A thick white blue bolt from the sky lanced down and struck the prison cell. The second hit the flaming pyre. Then again. Then again. The same spots, over and over.
People cried out in fear and alarm. Then they fell to their knees right there in the mud and rainwater.
With a gasp, Zuko did too.
“What’s happening?” Sokka yelled over the sound of rain and wind.
All the blood had drained from Zuko’s face. “It’s Agni’s fire.”
Sokka darted a glance at the moon. “Sounds like he’s pissed.”
But Zuko shook his head. “He could have struck me down while I was in there. He’s… covering for me. Destroying evidence of my escape.” Lower. Reverent. “He heard me. I asked him to tell me if I was wrong, and this is his answer.”
And if that wasn’t enough of a display of the great spirit’s rage, the final bolt hit the top of a distant building. The palace. In an instant, every fire inside the glittering building was snuffed dead.
With the last bolt, the rain stopped in an instant. The clouds parted, and the remains rolled out to the ocean.
When Sokka looked up, the moon was as thin as a snake’s fang. As it should have been.
The place where the pyre and cell had been was a vaporized ruin. Sokka hoped those guards got out in time.
Around him, people in the crowd were murmuring, clutching at one another. Pointing and gossiping.
“The execution was unjust…”
“… Agni took the prince home…”
“I heard the Fire Lord declined an Agni Kai. The great spirit is making his will heard…”
“He is angry.”
Zuko rose to his feet as people started to move. It was dark enough to blend into the crowd and he was able to snag a red cloak with yellow trimming which had blown away from a campsite and snagged on a tree. It was red with yellow trimming and had a deep enough hood to hide his face. He pulled it up with shaking hands. “We need to get out of here.”
He wasn’t the only one who thought so. People were quickly packing up their campsites and leaving. Their great spirit was angry, and even if opinions differed if he was angry at the current Fire Lord or his son, most of the common folk knew they wanted nothing to do with it.
Most agreed the caldera felt like a haunted place.
They walked along with the escaping droves, losing themselves in the crowd, down the road which took them over the lip of the caldera. From above, the remains of the tsunami looked even bleaker in the starlight.
Zuko peeled off from the main road and headed down to the harbor, picking his way through the debris. There were a few rowboats and skiffs they could use to make their escape from the island. He stopped at the water’s edge and turned back. Against the night dark sky, the caldera glittered with the light of a hundred tiny lamplights. But inside, where the palace lay, was the lone dark spot, like an ugly stain on a nice carpet.
Zuko’s eyes, however, focused not on the glittering background but the devastation on the beach. The remains of people’s homes. Their lives. The result of a disaster that had happened half a world away. When he spoke, his voice was quiet.
“All my life I have been told that the war would spread the greatness of the Fire Nation, but look what it’s done. It’s destroying us. It’s setting us against our own Great Spirit.”
Sokka edged closer, lending his company. “Sounds like your Great Spirit had something to say about it tonight.”
“Yes, Agni has spoken,” Zuko said heavily. “The moon gave you the power of a master waterbender, but the lightning was all Agni. They were working together. In balance.”
Sokka never held much stock in spirity-stuff, but he did know this much. “Our tribe always said that the sun was a brother to the moon.”
“The Fire Lord ordered Zhao to kill the moon,” Zuko said. “But then both the Sun and Moon went out of their way to save me tonight. I think,” he hesitated, feeling his way through, “I think it means Ozai was wrong and I was right. My destiny isn’t to follow Ozai’s way.” He took a deep breath, like a diver to make the plunge. “It means the war must end. I’m supposed to help restore balance to the world.”
I am amazed and humbled by the reaction the last chapter received. Although I'm still very busy with all the essential-working, I didn't want everyone to wait too long for the next bit.
Thanks all! Your reactions, comments, and screaming at me through the screen all brighten my day. :)
General Fong clenched his fists and Katara suddenly sank up to her waist into the sand. She let out a cry that cleaved straight through Aang's heart.
"No! Please, stop!” he yelled. “I’m trying to get into the Avatar state!"
"You're not trying hard enough." Fong made another sharp gesture. Abruptly Katara sank to her shoulders.
Aang reached for the indefinable power he knew must be laying deep inside him, but it was like trying to grab onto smoke. Every other time he had gone into the Avatar state, it had just happened. Now, he faced an entire fort’s worth of uneasy soldiers and a big crazy General.
It was only himself and Katara against all of them, and if he didn't do this—if he didn't master the Avatar state right now...
Katara cried out, terrified. His concentration shattered.
Frantic, Aang rushed forward to help, readying a blast of air to try to sweep Fong off his feet. But he could see that the general was deeply rooted, his stance as solid as the earth.
Suddenly, a blast of orange flame crashed right beside Fong. The concussion from the impact sprayed chips of rock in all directions, and Fong fell.
Katara stopped sinking. No longer under the power of an earthbender, the soil around her lost its sucking sandy quality and became firm again. Aang fell to his knees and started digging her out by hand—water or air wasn't going to help here. Within a few moments, he had gotten her shoulders free and she was able to wiggle out.
Finally, Aang looked up and took in the fighting around him. His jaw dropped.
The old portly firebender who followed Zuko around was now fighting General Fong and at least five of his officers head-to-head. His fire blasts were huge, and he had the initial element of surprise, knocking down several men at a time. But now the earthbenders were regrouping and he was quickly being surrounded.
Hadn't Zuko called the man his Uncle? Where was he? Aang looked around, but Zuko was nowhere to be seen.
"Aang, we need to get out of here," Katara said, coughing dust.
Aang agreed. He had more than enough of Fong and his men. After helping Katara to her feet, he reached under his shirt and brought out his bison whistle. Appa must have already been alerted by the sounds of fighting because he flew over the fort walls almost immediately. As he landed, his big paddle tail slapped down to sweep a few more earthbending soldiers off their feet.
Katara ran for the saddle. Aang turned to the firebender. "Come on!"
He saw Katara's surprised look. She hadn't intended the old man to come too. Well, he had saved her life and Aang wasn't the type to leave a possible new friend behind.
Besides, Aang had been practicing waterbending for weeks now, and he was starting to see the tide of battle turn.
Zuko's Uncle must have seen the same, for he turned and ran faster than Aang expected out of a guy his age. He caught up to Appa's side and swung himself into the saddle.
Within a few seconds, they were all in the air with General Fong yelling from down below and boulders flying at them. But Appa was faster, and in the sky they were free and safe.
Aang turned and bowed with his fists together. "Thank you for your help, sir. I didn't expect Fong to go crazy like that."
The old man nodded warily. "General Fong is not known for his mercy, even among my people."
"Where is your nephew?" Katara asked, and under her words Aang heard 'And where is my brother?'
The firebender's amber eyes darkened. "That is why I have come to you, Avatar." Now he bowed, deep and low. "I believe my nephew is in grave danger. I need your help."
They built a small campsite hopefully too far away for Fong's earthbenders to find them. On the plus side, firebenders were really good at setting up a campfire. Aang and Katara used to have to work for hours to build up a fire hot enough to cook with. Sokka used to have some kind of trick to do it in minutes, but... he wasn't around anymore.
Every time Aang thought about Sokka being trapped in the Spirit World (or as a spirit, he still wasn't quite sure) he felt a big gaping hole open up right underneath his heart.
So he tried not to think about it.
But was hard when the old firebender guy—Iroh, he called himself—began to speak while passing cups of freshly brewed tea.
"My nephew has returned to the Fire Nation," he said simply.
Aang took a cautious sip and realized the tea was really good. Not exactly brewed the way the Air Nomads used to make. Instead, it reminded him of the way Kuzon's mom made tea. Just a hint of spice.
"I thought that was Zuko wanted,” Katara said. "He told me, before when..." She faltered, blushing. “When he ‘rescued’ me from the pirates. He said he needed to restore his honor and return home."
"This has nothing to do with Zuko's honor,” Iroh replied heavily. “His sister, Princess Azula, assured us that the Fire Lord had changed his mind regarding his banishment. I had my doubts. My brother... is not the type of man who forgives easily.”
"Your brother?" Aang said in surprise. When he heard that Iroh was Zuko's uncle, he assumed it was on the other side of the family. How old was the Fire Lord anyway?
Iroh smiled, and Aang saw a little bitterness there. "It is a tale, perhaps, for another time," he said gently but in the way that grownups had when they really meant that it wasn't Aang's business.
He and Katara exchanged a look.
"So… what happened with Zuko?" Katara asked.
"My nephew is determined to believe the best of the Fire Lord—“
“The Fire Lord is his father," Iroh said, again with gentle rebuke. Then he sighed. "We disagreed. I went out to give him space and by the time I returned, the ship was pulling out of port.” He looked at Katara. "I assume your brother went along with him. I can only hope he can keep Zuko safe in the Fire Nation.”
"Keep him safe?" she repeated. "Zuko is our enemy!"
"Katara," Aang said, “Zuko helped out at the North Pole."
"No, he said we were allies until the moon was safe. But that didn’t matter in the end, did it?” she spat. "The Fire Nation attacked her anyway. A Great Spirit! And the Water Tribes sacrificed to bring her back again."
Aang shot a nervous look across the fire, expecting Iroh to take offense. Firebenders usually did whenever their honor was even slightly called into question. Instead, the old man just looked sad.
"What Admiral Zhao did was unconscionable," he said. "I cannot defend it."
That seemed to knock the wind out of Katara's sails for a moment, but then she rallied. "No, you can't. And Sokka…” Her voice wobbled on his name. “Do you know what's wrong with him? Is he... Can he come back to us, or—or move on?"
They didn't talk about Sokka much, and the tears shining in Katara's eyes broke Aang's heart anew.
"I am not certain," Iroh said. "I have some dealings within the Spirit World, but I have never encountered a situation quite like young Sokka's. I can only say that there seems to be a bond of friendship between your brother and my nephew. Sokka can say things to my nephew that I cannot, and what is more, Zuko listens to him and takes his words into consideration. I can only hope that whatever viper's nest Zuko has sailed into, your brother can keep him safe."
"How?" Aang asked. "No one can see him."
Iroh smiled. "A friend can make all the difference."
Katara looked away from them both, blinking rapidly.
For what had to be the hundredth time, Aang wondered if he were the one responsible for what had happened to Sokka. Why hadn't the Hei Bai spirit given Sokka back like he had with the rest of the villagers? Aang was supposed to be the link between the two worlds, but he had no idea how to set this right. Or even what he had done wrong in the first place.
Katara had regained control of her grief. She looked straight at Iroh. “So, what do you want?”
Iroh seemed to steel himself, and then he looked right at Aang. "Avatar Aang, I have come to you to seek passage to the Fire Nation."
Both Aang and Katara leaned back, horrified.
"You want Aang to go to the Fire Nation," Katara said in shock.
Iroh nodded once. "Specifically to Caldera Island. Or, perhaps, to the Boiling Rock. If I know my brother, he will want Zuko both contained and close at hand to keep Azula in check.”
"How do we know this isn’t a trick?" Katara shot back. "That this isn't some convoluted plan to capture the Avatar?"
"If I coveted the throne, I would be on the throne.” Iroh set his empty teacup aside. "I love my nephew and I only hope I haven't been too long in launching a rescue. I am not in need of the Avatar, I'm in need of an Air Nomad, or more specifically, a sky bison."
"Appa?” Aang glanced to his old friend who was munching on some nearby bushes. “Why?"
“Because traveling to the Fire Nation is simple, but escaping will take haste. A Pai Sho player protects all his flanks."
Again, Aang felt guilt crashing down on him, the way the weight and expectations of an entire world seemed to crash down on him sometimes. Sokka going all spirity, Sozin's comet, learning all the elements faster than any other Avatar... it was all so much. Now this man had put all his hope in Aang, even though they were technically enemies. It wasn't fair and he wasn't sure what to do.
He looked over at Katara and could tell she felt the same way. But instead of anger, there was hope gathering in her gaze.
"Maybe if we find Zuko, we can find a way to get Sokka back too," she said.
Well, the monks always said that if there was a choice between two decisions, choose the one which was the right thing to do... even if it was more difficult.
Aang bowed. "I will help rescue your nephew."
"This is weird," Katara muttered a couple days later as they made camp. She glanced over her shoulder at Iroh who, as usual, sat brewing tea by the fire.
"I like Uncle," Aang chirped.
With effort, Katara bit back, 'He's not your Uncle' and settled for a sigh. She knew that she was being unfair, that emotionally, she blamed the old man for Sokka's disappearance even though he had had nothing to do with it.
But it was hard not to look at him and think of Prince Zuko. And thinking of him made her think of Sokka...
"Well, it’s probably not a Fire Nation plot,” she admitted. "And he does make great tea."
At least she was mostly sure this wasn't a convoluted way for the Fire Nation to get their hands on Aang. That's what her brother would think, and without him here… Well, someone had to be suspicious.
But the more she got to know Uncle Iroh, the less likely it seemed. He was nice and he genuinely seemed to care about his loud, spoiled nephew. It was weird, but nice, too. Iroh didn't act like Aang was the enemy or a reluctant all. He was an adult but treated Aang like he was the one in charge, even while suggesting waypoints as they made their way down the Earth Kingdom to a port that would mark the crossing to the Fire Nation.
There, Iroh planned to receive news from his Fire Nation friends and they would set out to rescue his dumb nephew.
Though Katara was a little unclear about how that would go. What if Prince Brat didn't want to come back with them? What if Iroh was wrong and he was happy in the Fire Nation? Would Sokka be able to talk some sense into him?
We might have to knock Zuko out and kidnap him, she thought. That would be a twist.
Either way, there was no way she was going to allow Sokka to stay in the Fire Nation. Even if he was in ghost form.
She missed him so much. She missed his stupid jokes and his annoying lectures about being the leader. They only had each other to depend on in the last couple years while in the South Pole. Katara hadn't expected it to feel like half of her was gone when he... left.
What if Sokka is dead? What do I tell Dad?
Her eyes started to sting and she quickly wiped them on the edge of her sleeve. No, she wouldn't go there. Not now.
Bad enough when she and Aang had run into Bato at an abby right before they arrived at the North Pole. Thinking fast, Katara had told him that Sokka was still back at the village, protecting the women and children. She couldn't bring herself to explain that she had lost her brother in the Spirit World.
Then, later, she had found out it had been so much worse.
Hang on Sokka, she thought. We're coming for you.
The Earth Kingdom sea town was a typical fishing village. Katara had flown over enough of them by now that they more or less looked mundane. A child of the sea, she automatically searched for the ships at anchor in the small harbor. She was surprised at the flags on one of them—since when did the Fire Nation sail using wooden boats? It was a smaller, sleeker thing than the usual metal monstrosities or even her own tribe's deepwater fishing vessels. The draft was low. This was a ship built for speed.
"Uncle," she called, not realizing until Iroh turned her way that she had used the word. "There's a ship running a Fire Nation flag."
The old man crossed the saddle to peer down. A look of surprise creased his features. Then he sat back, tucking his hands within his sleeves.
"That ship belongs to an old friend. He will offer no violence to you. You have my word on it. Although," he paused, "I'm surprised to see him here."
Somehow Katara thought that was an understatement.
They landed and despite Iroh's reassurance, Katara touched her waterskin at her side to make sure it was full.
There was no attack. In fact, as soon as they landed, one man walked down the gangplank. He was nearly as dark as someone from the Water Tribes, but with a straight-backed posture of a warrior and a fine sword at his hip.
As Katara and Aang looked on curiously, Iroh strode up and bowed.
"Piandao," Iroh said, loud enough for them to hear, “My old friend, I’m surprised you came in person. A message would have been more circumspect.”
Piandao wore his stony expression like a mask. "I came as fast as I could, Iroh… though I expected to find you on a ship and not with the Avatar."
"I thought it likely Ozai would confine Zuko in the Boiling Rock. The bison would mean a quicker getaway."
Piandao closed his eyes, pained. "I'm afraid that's no longer necessary."
Iroh stilled. "What do you mean?"
"Prince Zuko was put to trial the moment he stepped onto Fire Nation soil. He was held responsible for the Fire Nation's defeat at the North Pole and charged with the highest treason." Piandao looked down at Iroh and said, "I'm sorry."
Iroh staggered and fell to his knees. Aang rushed forward to help, but Katara stayed where she was, frozen as if by ice.
Perhaps it made her a terrible person, but her first thought was: What did this mean for Sokka?
Sokka and Zuko commandeered (outright stolen) a small rowboat from the harbor. Then, after stepping into Zuko’s body, Sokka used what little waterbending he’d figured out to patch the holes with ice, and then push the boat along the dark water.
Once they got past the initial swells, the ocean became eerily still in a way neither had ever seen out in the sea. The water was glassy, and there was not a hint of wind. The Great Spirits, it seemed, were still lending a hand.
Good. Fine. Sokka had no real direction in mind other than away. Not only did they have to get out of sight of Caldera Island by dawn, but out of range of the fishing boats… And it would kind of suck to be spotted by any one of the fleet of warships currently anchored in the harbor.
“The water’s not exactly a safe place to be right now, that all I’m saying,” Sokka said as he knelt and made exaggerating swimming motions with his arms. That was the technique he had thought up while helping get Iroh and Zuko’s raft to the Earth Kingdom. Luckily, this wasn’t a half-rotten raft. They needed to go faster.
After a few minutes of experimentation, he found if he windmilled his arms stiffly in a circle, the boat picked up a lot of speed. The water churned white at the stern, and the nose even tipped up enough to catch air.
This is undignified, Zuko snarked deep in his own head. I'm glad it's dark and no one can see you waterbending like this.
"I'm glad it's dark and no one can see you waterbend," Sokka said pointedly. "Have any idea where to go?"
… Out to sea?
Sokka sighed, but he didn’t have any better ideas.
No use trying to navigate by the stars. The orientation of the constellations were different in the equator versus the South Pole, and Zuko apparently needed a star map. So, Sokka focused his attention on pushing the boat along as fast as he could.
Getting out of sight of Caldera Island seem to take forever, and yet no time at all. Zuko's body was exhausted. He didn't have a lot of reserves from the horrific trip coming in, and adrenaline from the escape could take him only so far.
His arms burned. Once or twice, Sokka asked he wanted to take a break, but he should have known better.
No, keep going.
"You're going to be feeling this in the morning," Sokka said.
I don't care.
Well, it wasn't his body he was abusing, but Sokka got it. He would have made the same decision.
Finally, another island loomed up ahead. This one was flatter then Caldera Island, without the giant volcano, and covered with trees that looked black in the night air. There were no fires burning on it either, which probably meant no firebenders.
Or, no firebenders who were awake.
Sokka aimed for it, and before long he was pulling the little rowboat up past the waterline and safely hidden in the vegetation.
If anything, the jungle was denser then what he'd seen on Caldera. There were no buildings or roads in sight. It looked like it had never been touched by human hands.
Give me back my body, Zuko said
Sokka stepped out and Zuko staggered as he regained control of tired, aching muscles.
"I'm just gonna…" Lurching over to a bare patch of sandy soil, he sat down with a thump. A scraggly bush blocked him from direct sight of the sea.
"Get some shut-eye," Sokka said. "I'll let you know if any man-eating sabertooth-moose-lions start sniffing around."
Zuko gave him a look.
"What? They don't have those around here?" Technically, he hadn't seen any in the Earth Kingdom either, but he had heard stories.
"No,” he grumped, laying back, using his arm a pillow.
"What about dragons?"
"No," he said again, voice distant and fading. "All dead. Grandfather… Fire Lord Sozin, and…"
The rest of what he said was lost in a mumble, but Sokka got the gist. Fire Lord Sozin did exactly what a genocidal maniac’s do and started a popular trend of killing dragons. Figured.
"Go to sleep," he said again, but Zuko already was.
Zuko slept like the dead despite all the creepy animal shrieks, clicks, and buzzing from the jungle behind them. Sokka figured it might have had something to do with being imprisoned in the dark, or the lack of food, or all the water/firebending last night. One of those.
He didn't even stir until the sun was well above the horizon, which was weird for a firebender.
Finally, Zuko flinched and groaned, sitting up and rubbing his bad eye. His dark hair had grown long enough to stick up slightly, giving the (former?) prince of the Fire Nation a case of bed head. "Where are we?"
"The Fire Nation," Sokka supplied. “Why do you keep asking me that?" He patted his shirt. "I don't exactly have a map on me."
Zuko shot him a sour look. He slowly stood, rotating his shoulders and wincing. "What did you do to me?"
"Hey man, waterbending takes a lot of work. It’s not punching the air and hoping something comes out like some bending I won’t name. I’m moving large amounts of water with my mind. And arms. Also, you got sand in your hair."
Immediately, Zuko scrubbed at the back of his head which helped with the bed head, but also made his dark, fluffy hair stick up at all angles. It didn't look… bad. Sokka decided not to say anything.
Zuko looked around again, seeming more awake. "Where are we?" he repeated but the tone of his voice, Sokka knew it was rhetorical. "Have you seen any people around?”
"No…" There was no sign of civilization or footprints up and down the beach. There were no boats out fishing in the light blue, incredibly beautiful cove, either. Sokka hadn't thought anything about it because, let's face it, the South Pole wasn't exactly a bustling city. "Is that weird?"
"This close to Caldera Island? Sort of." Zuko shielded his eyes to look at the pristine, empty ocean beyond. "What direction were we going last night?"
"I was mostly concerned with getting away." Sokka fluttered his fingers expressively.
Zuko grunted. Turning, he took a few tentative steps to the jungle. Those steps turned into a skipping run, and he launched himself at the nearest tree. It was a weird Fire Nation tree with a long trunk completely bare branches and crowned by a top of fern-like foliage. Faster than Sokka could say ‘seal jerky’, Zuko was climbing the thing like a hog-monkey.
For a second, Sokka wondered if he could do something like that too, or if he would just phase through it as he did with walls. Yeah, he didn't want to embarrass himself by trying.
Zuko stopped near the top and took a look around. He gazed off over the jungle for what seemed to be a long, long time. Then, he jumped back down and landed on the beach in a crouch. “It’s all jungle, and I didn't see any smoke from fires or anything. Except… I think there are some old ruins far off in the distance. They looked abandoned.”
"That could be a good thing," Sokka pointed out. "We don't exactly want to advertise that you are alive."
"At least not until I'm out of the Fire Nation," Zuko said.
Zuko gave him a fierce look. "I was saved for a purpose. It wasn't to spend the rest of my life hiding."
Well, Sokka supposed that answered the question of whether Zuko was serious last night with the war being wrong and joining the avatar and everything.
He should have known better. Zuko was always serious, and he didn't make declarations lightly. He did not go back on his word. Ever. Sokka could respect that, even if it had made him a scary enemy.
Or an even scarier friend.
Casting another look to the jungle, Zuko seemed pensive. "Those ruins I saw almost looked like…" He stopped and caught his bottom lip between his teeth in thought.
He shrugged. “They looked a lot like drawings I’d seen of the temples and ziggurats of the ancient Sun Warriors, but that's impossible. The place where their civilization used to be was on the other side of the Fire Nation. We would have had to go through or around several islands, and… it’s just not possible to get that far in a few hours.”
Sokka did not have a body anymore, but he swore he felt a chill go up his spine. “Um, Zuko? Do I even need to remind you what happened last night? Full moon? Freaky Lightning Dragon guy saving you from certain doom? What's a little bit of instant teleportation?”
"You're ridiculous," Zuko said, but he looked worried. Again, he turned a long look toward the jungle. "But if that's the case… Someone wants me to go there.”
Sokka did not like this. All of his tribe’s stories of spirits meddling with the affairs of mortals usually didn't end happily for the mortals. Unless they were the Avatar… Except for that one time with the last Water Tribe Avatar.
Zuko would not be happy if his face was stolen.
But it seemed like an even worse idea to turn his back on a very specific sign.
Sokka clapped his hands together. “All right. Let’s go visit ancient fire ruins. What happened to the Sun Warriors, anyway?”
Zuko shrugged. “When the first Fire Lord became ruler, he brought all the islands under his control. Some of it was by force.”
"Great. Dead people who good reason to hate one of the great great great great great grandchildren who did them wrong,” Sokka said. "My favorite."
Zuko shrugged one shoulder and started walking to a likely path just visible in the thick jungle foliage. "Actually, the Fire Lord was backed up by the Avatar at the time. An Air Nomad. So their spirits will probably hate you too, the current Avatar’s friend.”
"Even better!" Sokka said with as much false cheer as he could muster. "What can possibly go wrong?"
"You need to stop asking what can go wrong," Zuko muttered from the corner of his mouth, two days later.
Holding a piece of the ‘eternal flame’ in his hands, he faced down an entire Tribe’s worth of not-so-dead Sun Warriors. Apparently, he either had to ascend the giant staircase up the ziggurat and be judged by the ancient Masters, or die right here.
Sokka sputtered. “How is this my fault? I said we should go back after we ran into those stupid traps. Dead people do not set up traps, Zuko!”
“You said you wanted to see how they worked!”
“And then I found out. And then we could have left if you didn’t want to look at those ugly dancing statues!”
“Whatever,” Zuko muttered in a sulky way that told Sokka he knew he was secretly right, but didn’t want to admit it.
Sokka took a look around. There were a couple of fluted water pitchers not too far away. “Look, you don’t have to do this. Drop the fire, and I’ll slap a few people around with waterbending. It’ll probably surprise them so much, we can lose them in the jungle.”
Zuko considered for a few moments. “No, I want to see what’s so special about their Masters.”
As if on cue, some of the warriors began to split off to firebend in elaborate ritualistic ribbons, others to beat on deep drums. The Chief gestured for Zuko to make the climb up the long staircase.
Flame cupped between his hand, Zuko stepped forward. Then, unexpectedly, a shaved-headed woman with a long bone piercing through her nose stepped in his path.
“He goes alone,” she said.
Sokka froze. “You can see me?”
The woman did not answer and her brown-gold eyes did not flick in Sokka’s direction.
Zuko waited a beat and then said, “You can see him?”
“Your guardian spirit? No, but I can feel its presence.” She frowned down. “And I could see you talking out of the corner of your mouth, boy.”
Sokka slapped his own forehead.
Straightening his spine, Zuko looked down his nose at her. “So, what if I was?”
“The Masters will not take kindly to ones such as him around you.”
“What are they? More spirits?” Sokka asked. Of course there was no answer.
He and Zuko exchanged a look. Sokka shrugged. “Up to you, buddy.”
“Fine,” Zuko said. Then he raised his voice, not even pretending he wasn’t speaking to Sokka anymore. “But if something goes wrong, we’ll do Plan B.”
“Assuming ‘Plan B’ is jumping into your body and waterbending the heck out of here, agreed.”
Zuko smirked and then turned and nodded to Bone-Nose Woman. She stepped aside, and he walked past to start up the staircase.
Sokka hung back. It was a tall climb, but if Zuko needed help, he figured he could get up there pretty fast. Not like he got out of breath anymore. Whatever happened, Zuko could take care of himself until then.
It was only a few minutes later he realized how wrong he had been. The dragons weren’t extinct at all.
And that was when Zuko started… dancing?
Sokka was about ready to tear his hair out—figuratively, if there was one bonus about his out-of-body state it was no bad hair-days—as Zuko made his way down the long staircase.
Zuko was pale. Well, paler. And he moved in a loose-limbed, slightly disjointed way that made Sokka think he was in some sort of shock. Good shock, maybe? His eyes were as bright as if someone had lit a fire behind them.
Plus, he hadn’t been eaten by two huge dragons. So that was good.
“I can’t believe there are still living dragons,” Zuko murmured to Sokka, to the Sun Warrior Chief, or to himself… Sokka wasn’t sure. His gaze was unfocused. “My Uncle Iroh said he faced the last dragon and killed it.”
Sokka glanced up at the caves where the dragons had returned after blowing a tornado of rainbow fire around Zuko. “Guess he never saw those two.”
The Chief broke in. “Iroh was the last outsider to face Masters.” He and Zuko both glanced back to the cave, reverent looks in their eyes. “They deemed him worthy, and passed the secret onto him as well.”
“What secret?” Sokka wondered.
“It’s like the sun.” Eyes still luminously bright, Zuko pressed a hand against his chest. “But inside me.” Suddenly, he looked a lot less steady on his feet as he looked wildly around. “Do you guys realize this?”
“He’s going down,” one of the Sun Warriors muttered.
Sure enough, Zuko was listing to his left like an unsteady ship. He didn’t even seem aware of it.
“Zuko!” Sokka stepped forward, but it seemed the Sun Warriors were watching for this. Several men and the Chief grabbed him before he hit the ground.
Sokka cursed. “What’s wrong with him? What did you do?”
Of course, no one heard. Zuko was out cold.
For a moment, he considered jumping in and possessing his body. Yes, he had done it before when Zhao blew up Zuko’s ship, but then Zuko had been stunned, not knocked entirely unconscious. Whatever made him faint now might mean his body was incapable of working… or Sokka might hurt him more if he tried.
Then he remembered that odd moment on the deck of Azula’s ship, how he had gotten enough of a boost from Zuko for the crewmen to hear him. Worth a shot.
Concentrating hard on not falling into Zuko’s body and accidentally possessing him, Sokka knelt and rested a hand on his shoulder. It wasn’t exactly like touching. He couldn’t feel Zuko’s skin under his fingers, but immediately he felt… it was hard to describe. Not solid. Just more.
An image flashed through his head—Azula’s dark Mother feeding off Azula like a parasite.
It’s not the same! He thought. He hoped.
Either way, pulling this stunt might mean he was taking something from Zuko. Better make this quick.
As loud and as firmly as he could, Sokka said, “What’s happened to him?”
Several people flinched. Others looked around, startled as if Sokka had whispered in their ears.
Bone-Nose lady looked right at Sokka. Or at least, in Sokka’s direction. Her gaze was still a little off. But she was the only one who had figured out where his voice had come from.
“That,” she said to the alarmed crowd, “would be the boy’s guardian spirit.” She made a complicated gesture with her hands—formal, like a ritual—and ended it with a bow. It did nothing for Sokka. She spoke to Sokka with great respect. “This reaction is not unusual. It is a sign his spirit has been deeply touched. The Masters have approved of him, which puts him under our care. We will not harm him.”
Then she knelt before Zuko—Sokka quickly scrambled back to avoid touching her, breaking his hold on Zuko.
Bone-Nose Lady waved a trail of fire over Zuko in a quick, fluid motion that looked a lot like waterbending. Her fire shimmered in light reds and pale lavender.
She sat back, nodding. “He needs sunlight and recuperation. He will wake as the sun wanes, hungry.”
“You really don’t know Zuko. ‘Recuperation’ is not in his vocabulary,” Sokka said, though he was relieved.
He stood back as Nose-Bone Woman directed several helpers to pick Zuko up and gently lay him out on a nearby flat rock, in full view of the sun. She removed Zuko’s shirt while her helpers put up a fence of woven reeds to act as wind-screens. Then they left Zuko alone to take in the sun while they went off to prepare what looked like a feast.
“You sleep so much,” Sokka complained, sitting next to him. “And I used to be the champion of sleep.”
There was no answer. Zuko didn’t even stir. With his shirt off, he was painfully thin.
“Recuperation is a good idea,” Sokka continued. “Any idea how to actually make you do it?”
Nothing, except for Zuko’s deep breathing and the distant sounds of the Sun Warriors laughing and talking.
“I got nothing either,” Sokka said. “But I’ll think of something. That’s why I’m the plan guy.”
He drew his legs up to his chest and looked out to the tribe, so different and yet very much like his own. A wave of homesickness washed over him and he looked at his own fingers, slightly translucent in the bright noonday sun.
“Or, I was,” he added softly.
The sight of the boomerang hit Katara like a punch to the gut.
She snatched it off the store shelf and had it cradled against her chest. It wasn't Sokka's boomerang. For one thing, it was made of wood, without the wicked edge for hunting. The blade was flatter to give it lift. But… he would have loved to see it.
"Katara!" Aang called happily from further down the aisle. He pointed to a hilariously floppy red hat on his head. "Do you think Uncle will like—Oh, what's wrong?" In an instant, he was at her side. "Why are you crying?"
"I'm not," she said and quickly turned away. With reluctance, she put the wooden boomerang back. She didn’t need it, really. She had her brother's real boomerang tucked in with her belongings, from where it had landed, uncaught, back in Hei Bai's village. It wasn’t that important… really.
Aang's hand pressed feather-light against her shoulder. "I miss him too."
Fury rose up within her like the tide. Unworthy, mean thoughts that crashed like waves against her stony heart. How could you let the spirit take him? Why can't you go into the Avatar State and find him? Aren't you supposed to be the bridge to the spirit world?
She was glad she was turned away. The logical part of her knew it wasn't Aang's fault—not really—and she knew the Avatar state didn't work like that.
But her brother was lost out there in the Fire Nation... Unless he had sense enough not to go with Prince Zuko. For all Katara knew, he could be standing right next to her right now, as close as a whisper and as far away as the South Pole.
"I'm so frightened for Sokka,” she confessed, hurriedly wiping her eyes and turning back. "I don't know where he is, or if we can get him back—Aang, I shouldn't have let him leave."
"It wasn't your fault," Aang said firmly. "It's mine. I had to face Hei Bai alone, but everything happened so fast—“
"Not then," she corrected. "At the North Pole. When he was... when he used Zuko's body to say goodbye.”
She expected Aang to judge her, but she should have known better. His gaze was filled only with compassion. "Katara, he couldn't stay like that. You heard Yue: a body can only have one spirit at a time.”
"There was ice and snow everywhere—a whole pond nearby. I could have—If I did, Zuko wouldn't have skipped off to the Fire Nation and Sokka wouldn't be lost..."
Aang drew her into a hug, and even though he was younger and shorter and already had the weight of the world on his shoulders, she leaned into him, and he was strong enough to bear it.
She regained control of herself shortly and stood again, wiping her eyes. She had been weeping in a small port-side store. She was surprised the merchant hadn't tossed them both out on their ears by now.
Aang tried to smile up at her, forcing brightness. “We're going to get Sokka back. I don't know how, but... it's an Avatar guarantee.” Then he held up the silly hat. "So, what do you think?"
"I think," she said, with a watery smile, "Uncle would prefer tea. Isn't that what we came in here for?" Before they got distracted browsing the wares.
With a gusty sigh, Aang put away the hat.
Katara found packets of dried leaves that seemed spicy enough to appeal to a firebender. Piandao said they would break their fast after sunset. When she and Aang left them, they were sitting in vigil on top of a hill in the full sun.
She had not liked the drawn, hollow look on Uncle’s face. He looked… frail.
Grief, she knew, could physically hurt the heart. That could be dangerous for the elderly.
That bratty prince didn’t deserve him, she thought with a clutch of grief in her own heart. Or Sokka.
When she and Aang went to the counter to pay, she realized why they had been able to browse in the back without supervision—the merchant was far too engaged in gossip.
This harbor town was a mix of Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom, an unofficial colony that served whoever landed their ship. The merchant himself was as swarthy as an Earth Kingdom man, with muddy hazel eyes that could either be dark green or brown. He was in talks with a round woman of similarly mixed origins.
"I'm telling you, it was the dragon of Agni himself," the merchant said.
The woman made a disgusted sound. “Ridiculous.”
"My brother saw it and he's no liar. Says the full moon made up its eye."
Aang opened his mouth, maybe to ask about dragons. Katara put her hand over his mouth and pushed him a few steps down the next aisle. Then, pushing away a stack of bright red and gold fabrics, they leaned to listen in.
The woman pointed one orange-lacquered fingernail upward. “Full moon! That’s a laugh. It's a new moon tonight.”
"That's the point."
"Let's say it was the Great Sun Spirit. He took the traitor Prince himself, didn't he? Killed him right on the spot. Good riddance, I say."
"He could have had his spirit the next morning. Everyone was gathered for the burning. No, they say Agni himself swooped down and took the Prince home. And on the way out, he snuffed every fire in Ozai’s palace."
"You can’t—You can't say that kind of thing where good people might hear."
The merchant grinned wide enough to show missing teeth. “I don't see any good people 'round these parts, do you?"
"Why would Agni show displeasure to the Fire Lord?"
The bell to the front door jingled and a huge jaunty looking man stepped in, dressed in red. Quickly, Katara turned, found the stupid floppy hat where it sat on the shelves, and jammed it over Aang's arrow.
None of the adults paid the slightest attention to them.
"You talking about your Prince?" the new man asked, in a loud booming voice that belonged to earthbenders. “All the shipmen back from the islands are telling us he rode up to the stars on dragon made of lightning. Tell me, Wan, does that side of your family drink cactus juice?"
The woman sputtered in outrage.
Merchant Wan leaned forward, "Agni took the Prince home, after Ozai declined an Agni Kai. The Fire Lord tried to burn him at the stake, instead.” He snorted. "Didn't work."
"Never did like Ozai," the earthbender said with zero disregard for who he was offending. Then again, the fact he stood nearly a foot and a half over the already tall merchant probably had something to do with it.
"Ozai was chosen by Agni—“ the woman started, and then stopped at the men's looks. For the first time, she seemed uncertain.
The earthbender looked thoughtful. "I'd hoped when old Azulon kicked the dust, his other son would take the throne. What was his name?"
"The Dragon of the West," the woman sniffed. This point, she apparently agreed with. "Prince Iroh. A fine Commander. He would not have allowed that disgraceful burning of Honshu.”
Katara and Aang exchanged wide-eyed looks.
"Well, if Ozai's showed himself to be so much of a coward that your own Great Spirit noticed..."
That was apparently a bridge too far, even for Merchant Wan. The adults were so busy in their own circular argument with increasingly wild stories which included Zuko waterbending that Katara and Aang were able to slip out, unnoticed when Aang airbent a couple coins on the counter for the packets of tea, and the hat.
Katara and Aang didn't say much as they trudged their way back up the hill overlooking the harbor town. Appa gave a low groan of greeting, and Momo chittered sleepily from a nest atop his head.
Iroh and Piandao, who were sitting vigil for Zuko in the full sun, didn't stir.
Katara glanced at the sun, which was starting to sink toward the horizon. They had a few hours yet. She nodded to Aang and drew him to the other side of Appa, where they could speak without being overheard.
“Should we tell Iroh what we heard?” She asked. “It might help to let him know Zuko’s death was… quicker than he thought.”
“Yes,” Aang said immediately, but caught Katara’s wrist as she made to move on, “But not until the vigil is over. I spent a lot of time with Kuzon’s family. Grieving until sundown is important. It shows respect and honor for the lost spirit.”
She hated to think of him suffering any more than necessary, but either way, his nephew was dead. Plus, there was another elephant-koi in the room.
“Aang, when you confront Fire Lord Ozai and stop the war, Uncle will have to take over the Fire Nation… won’t he?”
“Yes,” Aang said calmly. “I think it means he’s supposed to be my teacher, after I learn earth,” he said quickly, with a grimace. Katara was just glad that Aang was thinking about firebending again after what had happened with Jeong-Jeong. Having a useful, friendly firebender around had helped.
“Earth, first,” she agreed, and to her surprise, she felt better. Sokka always loved making plans, and she let him because he had been so insistent on being the leader. After he’d gone into the spirit world, they had continued onto the North Pole, because that had been part of his plan, too.
Since leaving the North, she’d felt adrift. Now there was a goal.
“We’ll find you an Earthbending teacher,” she continued, “And once he’s up to it, Iroh can teach you firebending. And if we learn anything about how to get someone back from the spirit world…” She trailed off, uncertain if that was what had truly happened to her brother.
But Aang was nodding, also looking more chipper. “We will.” He held her hands in his own. “I told you, you’ve got my Avatar guarantee.”
Her smile was wobbly, and she quickly turned away. She was so done with crying. “I’ll start on that tea.”
Standing over someone while they slept was weird, so Sokka ended up laying down beside Zuko. There was barely enough room for it. Just two guys, laying side-by-side taking in the sun on a rock. He was not going to make it weirder than it already was.
Zuko started to stir again in the evening just as the sun touched the horizon. He winced, an arm covering his eyes. “What happened?” he asked, voice muzzy.
“You fainted,” Sokka said. “Totally swooned in the arms of the Chief.”
He lowered his arm and squinted at him with his good eye. “I did not.”
Sokka grinned. “The Bone-Nose Lady said your spirit was ‘deeply touched’ by the Masters. How ‘touched’ are you feeling?”
To his surprise, Zuko actually seemed to consider his question. He dropped his arm and turned on his side so they were facing each other. The reed windscreens gave them the illusion of privacy, as if they were in their own room.
They were barely a handspan apart. Sokka could reach out and rest his hand on Zuko’s bare waist if…
… If it were possible to touch him at all.
“Good,” Zuko said and Sokka had a moment of panic before he realized he was answering his question. Then Zuko frowned. “Kind of… relaxed, I guess?”
“Do you even know what relaxation is?” Sokka asked.
His lips quirked up on one side, and he pointedly did not answer. “What the dragons showed me… what I saw in their flames, it was amazing.” Sitting up using his elbow, he rested his other hand between them, palm up, and breathed out. Flame lit within his hand, more golden and vibrant than Sokka had ever seen before.
The exact color of his eyes.
Zuko stared at the flame. “I never knew it could be like this.”
“Like what? Gold?” Pretty?
“I’ve always known fire was inside me, and I thought I was bending it to my will. I never realized, I was bending myself.”
“I thought fire was a tool,” Zuko clarified. “A firebender’s power comes from his breath and determination, but it’s enhanced by anger.” Zuko closed his hand and snuffed out the flame. He was smiling. “But that’s wrong. Sokka, I don’t have to be angry anymore. Not to firebend, at least. It’s freeing.”
“I’m glad,” Sokka said, his voice rough.
Zuko’s gaze snapped to his, and Sokka briefly forgot everything he had been about to say. Then his words tumbled out. “I’m not a bender, but it sounds really unhealthy to tie your own element to hate and… and rage.”
“Yeah.” He sighed again, and for a moment they just… looked at one another.
Sokka wanted to reach out and rest his hand on Zuko. Touch his skin, draw him close. Not close enough to possess, but maybe…
The Dark Spirit’s voice rasped in his memories: You haven’t felt it… The hunger for life.
Sokka sat up. For a moment he wasn’t sure what to do with his own arms and legs, and just sort of… looked around like he found the sky and far Sun Warriors super fascinating. “So, uh, it looks like they’re preparing a feast or something. For celebration. You know, since you weren’t eaten.”
Zuko sat up, too. He didn’t say anything at first, though his unscarred cheek was flushed. Quickly, he located his shirt folded not far away and tugged it on. “I think they would have had a feast if I was eaten, too,” he grumped.
Say something, Sokka yelled at himself, but he wasn’t sure what.
Breaking the silence with another sigh, Zuko looked up at the sky. “I wish Uncle were here,” he said abruptly. “Or… that he trusted me with the secret of the dragons. I wouldn’t have told my fa—the Fire Lord. Not about this.”
A change of subject. Thank the spirits. “I don’t know, Ozai might have wondered why your fire was suddenly rainbow-colored.”
“My fire isn’t—“ Zuko started but was interrupted by a loud growl from his stomach. He looked down and blushed.
Sokka grinned. “Bone-Nose Lady said you’d be hungry.”
“I don’t think that’s her name, and… I am hungry.” He sounded surprised about it, and then looked over the reed windscreens, much more interested in the Sun Warrior activity. “What’s that smell? Roast pig-chicken?”
“Don’t ask me,” Sokka said lightly, jumping to his feet and making a show of brushing invisible dust from his legs. He was both glad and sorry that the moment between them was broken.
He remembered Suki kissing him on on the cheek, but for the life of him he couldn’t recall exactly what that rush of feeling had been like. His heart had been beating almost out of his chest, he remembered that much.
But he had no heart anymore. Nothing to measure against… whatever was happening between himself and Zuko. Sokka wasn’t an idiot, and he wasn’t going to lie to himself that these moments didn’t keep happening.
Was this what a crush felt like?
Or was he just hungry for life?
Sorry for the wait! This chapter gave me a hard time. But I think we're back on track now.
Check out the fan art I received from an Anon! :D
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
As soon as Zuko emerged from behind the reed screens, a steaming wok of broth was pushed into his hands and he was told to take it to the kitchen prep area.
Shooting Sokka a startled look, he did so.
He was far from the only one shoved into a task. The entire tribe of Sun Warriors, men, women, and children, were running back and forth preparing the upcoming feast as if racing against time. Large roasted animals were dug from sand-covered pits, fruit were hastily chopped with knives as long as Sokka's arm, vegetables were thrown into flavorful broths which were then set to a roiling boil by firebenders.
And there were spices. Lots and lots of spices. So much that it dusted the air red and orange.
Sokka had the feeling if he still had a body, his eyes would be watering. Even Zuko, who he had once seen eat a flaming chili raw like a leopard-seal gulps down a fish, coughed once or twice and rubbed an arm against his watering eye.
None of the Sun Warriors commented on it, or him. They seemed to treat Zuko as one of their own, with no regard to rank or his standing as their guest.
As soon as Zuko was done with one chore, he was immediately pushed into another. Zuko completed his tasks with stiff, unsure dignity. Although he shot Sokka puzzled looks when he wasn't sure what exactly to do.
"Don't look at me," Sokka said. "Cooking is women's work in the Water Tribe."
"Cooking is everyone's work," Zuko muttered. "Everyone needs to eat, don't they?"
"Oh? You've cooked, Mr. Fire Nation Prince?"
Zuko flushed, but at that moment a woman with thick arms relieved him of his bowl of noodles. Apparently, it was meant for the pot she was stirring.
Before she could shoo him away to a new task, a deep gong sounded. The Sun Warriors gave a cheer and about half of them peeled off from kitchen duty to take seats on straw-woven mats set in a large, cleared circle.
The Chief himself walked up to Zuko and looked him up and down.
"I see you're up," he said in greeting. "Let's see your fire, then." And he held out his own flat hand.
Brows furrowed, Zuko lit his brilliantly gold flame in his palm. At the Chief’s gesture, he passed it to him like someone handing over a baby bird.
The flame did not so much as flicker or change color. It was as if, for a moment, the Chief held the essence of Zuko.
The Chief lifted the flame to his eyes and grunted at whatever he saw. Letting it die out he said, "Good, good. Eat up tonight. Your body needs more protein and salts." Then he walked away to direct two men who were hauling platter of roasted meat.
"He can tell that from your fire?" Sokka asked.
Zuko shrugged. "I don't think so."
He went to the circle and sat down on an empty straw mat. Trays of rice, steamed vegetables, and roasted meats were brought out by many willing hands to be placed in the middle of the circle. The last of the kitchen workers arrived and sat with the rest.
Then, with the entire tribe arranged, they turned to the setting sun as one.
“This is a little like my tribe’s Winter Solstice feast," Sokka said. "We welcome the first of the year's new moon like this."
Of course, those celebrations were held indoors in the tribe’s main greenhouse. Those nights were always filled with songs, dances, and stories of their ancestors passed down to the new generation.
A wave of homesickness washed through him, not unexpected, but still painful. These people of an opposite element, who lived in a wildly different place, were so much like his own.
The similarities with the Southern Water Tribe ended the moment the setting sun touched the horizon.
A cheer went up through the Sun Warriors as if the sun had done something marvelous. They whooped and hollered and quite a few shot fire into the sky.
Sokka had his fair share of flames shot at him from Fire Nation soldiers. Much of it from Zuko himself. Except that the flames had come from their fists and feet, their fire had been nothing of note. They’d been like campfires, only aimed at Sokka's face.
Each of the Sun Warrior's flames, however, all carried their own distinctive shade: From deep ruby red to bright butter, several degrees lighter than Zuko's now golden fire.
It was as if each person’s flames carried a key signature, as individual as the one who made it.
Uncertainly, Zuko shot his own gout of golden fire into the sky. He refrained from hollering, though.
The Chief stood up from his prime place in the middle of the circle. Instantly, everyone quieted.
"Today," he said, "the Masters have spoken and delivered the sacred knowledge of fire into a new heart. Tomorrow, the sun will rise on Zuko. From now until his last sunset, he will be known and welcome among us as one of the sun touched. Zuko! Eat, and be welcome!"
With that short speech done, the Chief added his own flame to the sky which was a stunning sunset orange.
The Sun Warriors took that as their cue to grab a plate and dig in.
Sokka sat back to watch the feast, happy that Zuko wasn't going to be fed to the dragons or anything, but also missing his own people so hard it hurt. There was so much life around him. Life he could see, but could not touch.
Not that he wanted to. Not that he was hungry or anything, he thought with a small jolt of panic. Just… lonely.
Luckily, Zuko didn't seem to notice his quietness. He was too busy eating like a recently starved man... Which he had been, so that was fair.
There was friendly conversation around his mat, but no one engaged Zuko directly. And Zuko, in his awkward way, didn't attempt to bridge the gap with small talk.
Sokka found it interesting that no one asked about Zuko's 'guardian spirit' either.
Toward the end of the feast, Sokka saw a figure rise from the Chief’s side and wind her way around the mats over to them.
"Heads up. Bone-Nose Lady is coming," Sokka said.
Zuko hastily swallowed the last bit of his red spicy looking...something. He stood as she approached and bowed.
Bone-Nose Lady bowed in return, though shallower. "Let me examine your fire."
Zuko repeated the procedure with her, and she spent several long moments looking at his flame. She even poked it once or twice with her finger before she nodded.
"Tomorrow, I will teach you to firebend."
Zuko blinked. "I already know how to firebend."
She sneered. "Sozin's techniques." She spat on the ground, thankfully missing the mats. "Perverted and strange forms. No! Tomorrow, you will learn the original forms. The true forms."
"More than the dancing dragon?" he asked.
Her brown-gold eyes glinted in the firelight. "Much more."
Zuko hesitated, but then nodded and bowed again. "I would be honored."
The feast wrapped up. As with the preparation, everyone was expected to help with the cleaning.
"Waterbenders would really come in handy right now," Sokka quipped as he watched Zuko scrub out a truly massive soup pot.
"You're right," Zuko grunted. "Know any?"
"Wow, what is that, two jokes in the space of a week? Who are you and what have you done to Zuko?"
Zuko's lips twisted into something that might have been a smile, but came out as a grimace. He fell silent again, practically folding himself in half to reach to the bottom of the pot.
The other Sun Warriors were also hard at work. They, however, chatted back and forth with one another. Zuko was his own little island, with Sokka for company.
A small cheer went up around them as the last of the meat was scraped onto giant platters. Several strong men lifted it onto their shoulders and headed to the stairs to give what remained to the dragons.
Eventually, the work done, the Sun Warriors trooped back through the jungle to their individual huts. The huts themselves were made of packed mud and earth, curved in a way that were not unlike igloos.
They apparently had provisions for guests. Zuko was directed to his own hut which had a simple pallet for a bed and a fire pit in the middle. Zuko lit a fire and then sat stiffly on the bed, looking pensive.
As soon as the noise outside died down, Sokka asked, "Okay, what's with the broody face?"
"Excuse me?" Zuko asked.
"You know." Sokka made a gesture to Zuko's face. "The 'Oh woe is me, I'm so crabby even though I just learned the secret of fire and have a full belly with a feast in my honor and I wasn't fed to the dragons today…’ That face."
Zuko rolled his eyes, but he didn't deny it. "I can't waste time learning relearning firebending forms."
"Why not? Do you have anywhere to be?"
"Yes!" he exclaimed. "I have to... to do something. Find my uncle, maybe locate the Avatar again and tell him there is a comet coming—“
Sokka waved a dismissive hand. "I'm sure Aang knows about the scary once-every-hundred years comet—“
"I have to find my destiny," Zuko said firmly. "Agni and Yue saved my life for a reason. I have to pay them back somehow."
"Seriously?" Sokka asked, but he didn't know why he bothered. Of course Zuko was completely serious. “Didn’t you say you were brought to this island for a reason?”
"Yes," Zuko snapped. "To learn the true meaning of fire from the dragons, which I did."
"And now Bone-Nose Lady wants you to train with her. That seems pretty clear to me."
"Is it?" Zuko shot back. "The Avatar and your sister are probably somewhere in the Earth Kingdom. They could be surrounded by enemies right now. And my Uncle... I don't know what happened to him. He probably thinks I abandoned him and ran off with Azula by choice."
That brought Sokka up short. Zuko had never mentioned that specific anxiety before, but he couldn't disagree.
Sokka let out a long sigh, although he didn't need to. Old habits died hard.
“I’m worried about Aang and Katara, too. You have no idea how much. But however Aang is going to deal with the comet, everyone is going to need you at one-hundred percent. I've gotten real up and personal with your body—“ Zuko reddened and sputtered. Sokka raised his voice, “—and I know you are on your last legs."
"I can keep going,” he said stubbornly.
Sokka frowned. "Buddy, you literally fainted after your little dance with the dragons today."
"It's not a dance. They are ancient fire bending forms, and it was a very spiritual moment!"
"Sure," Sokka said, dismissive. "But I'm telling you—as someone who has literally been inside you—that you've got no reserve left."
Zuko looked down, jaw tense.
"For spirit’s sake." Sokka threw his hands in the air. "Haven't you ever taken a vacation?"
"Once, at Ember Island. Back when my family was happy."
Oh boy. He was not going to touch that with a ten-foot bargepole.
Sokka sat next to him on the bed. The rope mattress didn't make a squeak. "Do you want to learn new firebending from Bone-Nose Lady?"
Zuko hesitated and then nodded as if it pained him. "I really do, but... it's going to take time, Sokka. I'm not a fast learner."
"So? What if learning this stuff is part of your 'great destiny'?"
"What if it's not?"
Sokka shrugged. "Empirical evidence suggests that Agni will throw a lightning bolt or something to let you know."
Zuko made a strangled sound that was almost a laugh.
Sokka continued, “For now you have an opportunity to learn the 'true firebending forms...'". He made his voice as mysteriously sarcastic as possible. "You're seriously going to turn that down?”
Zuko let out a sharp breath. "I do want to learn," he said quietly as if it were a shameful secret.
"We'll give it a few days, see how you like it. Meanwhile, sleep in, eat, and do weird Sun Warrior stuff," Sokka said magnanimously, knowing he had won.
He only hoped he was steering Zuko in the right direction.
Hold on, Katara. We'll find you once Zuko's back on his feet.
The Sun Warrior's day began, predictably, at dawn.
It was kind of weird watching from an outsider's perspective as people stirred and woke at the exact same time, as if they all had invisible arctic-roosters crowing in their brains.
Bone-Nose Lady met Zuko just as he was coming out of his hut, blinking in the bright dawn morning. He spotted her and bowed.
"I apologize," he said. "I never got your name."
"You may call me Tiamat. Come, we will begin your training at once.” She waved in Sokka’s general direction. “Your guardian spirit may accompany us if he does not interfere."
"How would I interfere?" Sokka demanded. It wasn't like he could pick up a rock and throw it at them or something.
“Um, about him," Zuko stammered, "You've called him my guardian spirit before. Is that what he is?”
Tiamat sniffed and turned to walk out of the village. "I am not here to teach you about the other world. I am here to teach you firebending."
“But you're the one who brought up spirits," Zuko said doggedly, rushing to catch up. "Do you know what's happened to Sokka. Is he my guardian spirit?"
“I vote no," Sokka said.
"Is he?" Tiamat parodied back at him. "You tell me. You are the one he has attached himself to."
Sokka sputtered. "I didn't attach myself to anyone!"
"He was my enemy when we first met," Zuko said. "He was cursed by a greater spirit."
She nodded. "Then there is your answer."
"That is such a non-answer!“ Sokka said. He was getting a bad Aunt Wu vibe from her.
"But you can sense him,” Zuko insisted, “Even if you can't hear him?"
"I am this tribe's medicine woman. I sense spirits, great and small, and sometimes the wishes of Agni when he wills it." She turned to poke Zuko in the chest with one long finger. "You have the same gift."
Tiamat scowled. "Long have I begged Agni for a daughter to pass down my knowledge. Instead he sends me a boy, not of my loins, and whose destiny lies elsewhere."
Sokka groaned. She said the D-word.
Zuko, of course, picked up on it instantly. “What do you know of my destiny?"
"I know that the sun is rising, and if we do not move quickly, this morning will be wasted. Come." Tiamat turned and continued striding through the jungle.
"Well, that was helpful," Sokka said with false cheer.
"She knows more than she's saying," Zuko muttered.
"Or she's a crazy fortuneteller type who gets things wrong more than she gets them right. She saw you talking to yourself yesterday and put two and two together."
Zuko did not take his eyes off the back of Tiamat's shaved head. "No, there is something else…” Trailing off, he increased his pace to walk beside her again.
Sokka would never, ever admit it, but he was a little glad Tiamat was pulling the Aunt Wu ‘saying nothing while saying everything… while saying nothing’ schtick.
Deep down inside he feared she would say something along the lines of: Yeah, your friend is dead as last year’s frozen halibut-eel, and what is left of him is super attracted to feeding on your life-force.
He supposed Tiamat could have good news for him, too. But then why not come out and say it?
Tiamat and Zuko stopped in a bare-earth clearing. Judging by all the black soot scars, it was regularly used for firebending practice.
The training session that followed was... Well. It sure was firebending!
It wasn't really Sokka's thing.
Tiamat led Zuko through the Dragon Dance again, correcting his steps as they went. Then they started talking about other forms he would soon learn and the way chi sparked into energy and...
Sokka got bored and wandered off to explore the jungle perimeter.
When he returned a few minutes later, Zuko was again going through the first few steps of the dance. From an outsider’s point of view, his moves were more easy and fluid than they had been before. His bright golden fire snapped out around Zuko like a living thing.
His expression was almost... serene. Gone was the focused intensity, the anger and boiling frustration that had always pinched his face while practicing on the ship.
Now he looked... good.
Good enough to eat? Sure. But was that literally or figuratively…?
Swallowing, Sokka decided it was a good time to check the parameter again.
Tiamat ended the lesson in time for lunch, which was handled communally within the tribe. It was a much simpler affair than the feast, but again Zuko was pressed into service the moment he got within sight. He was real good at carrying bowls from one food prep station to another
When food was served, Zuko took a plate of rice and some kind of meat and ate by himself.
Sokka, watching his back, noticed a small group of older teenagers pointing at him and chatting among themselves.
"Hey, those guys are eyeing you."
Zuko didn't bother to look up. "What else is new? People are always looking at me."
"Okay grumpy, well now they're getting up and coming this way."
Zuko tensed and stood, turning to them. Sokka saw him place his feet carefully, readying himself for a fight.
"Hey, new guy," one of the teenagers said. His head was shaved the same way Zuko's used to be, though his phoenix tail was braided down the length of his spine. All three were shirtless--even the girl, wow—with decorations and red paint, gold rings on their arms, and a few in their noses.
Zuko eyed them one by one. His gaze didn't linger on the topless girl. He looked like he was analyzing them to see which he needed to hit first. "That's me."
The oldest teenager jutted out his chin. "You hunt?"
Zuko stiffened. "Excuse me?"
"You know. Food," said the girl.
That was when Sokka spotted it: The third guy wore a wooden boomerang on a strap across his back. It was longer than his own had been, the blade flatter, but close enough that Sokka ached.
"Say yes!" he blurted.
"Yes?" Zuko repeated Sokka more than answering the other guy.
"Great." The oldest clapped Zuko on the shoulder. "Come on. We have some tropical caribou birds of paradise around here."
"Whoa," Sokka said, "Are those related to arctic caribou birds of paradise? It’s been ages since I hunted one of those!”
Zuko shot him a look. "Well... it's been a while."
"Too late," the girl said cheerfully. "Everyone who is anyone hunts. Come on, we'll make it easy for you, Fire Nation."
"I got this," Sokka said. "Get me a boomerang and I'll show them how a real huntsman works."
Zuko let out a breath and turned his face deliberately away from Sokka. "I just started learning forms with Tiamat. I don't think I’m up to firebending at… animals.”
The girl looked scornful. "Hunts are sacred. You don't use firebending for them."
"Besides," said the guy with the boomerang, "It's no good setting the trees on fire. That just scares all the prey away. How are you with a slingshot?"
Sokka was in the middle of an elaborate dance behind the guy's head, pointing extravagantly to the boomerang.
"Actually..." Zuko practically cringed. "I'm pretty handy with the boomerang?"
Everyone's eyebrows rose.
"Really?" The guy unholstered his own and held it out. "Prove it."
Zuko took it and looked meaningfully at Sokka.
He needed no further invitation. Sokka stepped in.
Immediately, he became aware of how hot everything was—no wonder most of the tribe had stripped to their loincloths. Not only was it hot, the air was heavy with the weight of water. Thick and cloying, like he was trying to breathe through a wet rag.
No matter. He hefted the boomerang in one hand, testing its weight.
"Go on," the guy said. "Give it a toss." No one seemed to notice that Zuko's eyes had just changed color from gold to blue.
"All right," Sokka said, leaned back, and threw.
It... wasn't the best throw. The weapon was made of wood and the spin was off. It didn't even return properly.
You know, I think I might have done better myself, Zuko snarked in his mind.
But Sokka had the feel of it now. Smirking, the guy told him to try again. Sokka threw the boomerang in a deliberately wider arc and caught it deftly on the return.
His third throw knocked a distant red fruit off a tree.
Now the teenagers gave him looks that suggested they were taking him more seriously.
"Nice throw," the oldest said grudgingly. "Let's see how you do under the pressure of a hunt."
Sokka grinned. He tried to return the boomerang to the third guy, but he gestured for him to keep it, holstering his own slingshot.
"After you," Sokka said magnanimously.
"Admit it," Sokka muttered in an undertone to Zuko a few hours later as he and the other hunters trekked through the jungle, victorious. "I am master of the boomerang—Any boomerang."
He and the tall teen whose name was Tao, walked up front while the other two carried a trussed up caribou of paradise tied to a long pole between them. As the two who had finally taken the beast down, they did not have to haul it back. It was a rule with the Sun Warriors.
The tropical caribou was a much more colorful version of the arctic type, but Sokka was willing the jerky would be just as good.
Tao gave Sokka a sideways glance. "You know, you're all right for Fire Nation."
"Thanks," Sokka said brightly. "I like to think so."
He felt Zuko's emotional equivalent of rolling his eyes.
Sokka dropped back a few steps to give himself privacy. "You want your body back?"
A pause. No, you're enjoying yourself. Just don't get too friendly with these guys.
"Why not? You don't like interacting with the peasants?"
He felt Zuko's cringe. I'm not like you, Sokka. I'm not... easy around people. Remember the guards?
Of course he did. That had been one disaster after another. Sokka sobered, nodded, and rejoined Tao with his sternest 'Zuko' face on.
I do not make that expression! Zuko snapped.
“Who has been watching your dumb face since Crescent Island?” Sokka muttered. “Oh yeah, me.”
"What was that?" Tao asked.
"Nothing!" Then waved his hand around. “Spirit talk.”
Tao nodded. Word of Zuko’s ‘guardian spirit’ had gotten around, so this was apparently an acceptable excuse with the Sun Warriors.
The hunters were welcomed back with nods and slaps on the back. Cooks, male and female, grabbed the beast from them.
Now that it looked like Zuko was about to be pressed into kitchen duty again, Sokka graciously let him have his body back.
As the days passed, Zuko spent sunrise to noon training with Tiamat. It was all firebending stuff, no mention of spirits or ‘the other world' allowed.
Although bending was not really his thing, Sokka saw how Zuko excelled. He picked up the new katas with more ease than he had while firebending on the ship. His forms took on more fluidity. Slowly, day-by-day, the pinched, stressed-out look permanently etched into his face, eased.
He smiled more often, laughed unprompted. Days of good eating had returned some needed flesh to his bones. He was nowhere near as thickly muscled as he had been before his ship exploded, but his cheeks no longer had a hollowed look, and his ribs were not visibly showing.
His third day, he joined the hunters in the heat of the day in Sun Warrior garb: bare chest, a red-brown kilt, and his short hair up in a spiky queue.
He also had a thick line of red paint smeared from his collarbone down to his pecs.
"Suumi insisted on the paint," Zuko said, touching it to see if it was still wet. She had also painted red streaks on his arms to imitate the gold rings most of the warriors wore. "She said firebenders rarely get sunburned but the paint helps reflect the sun rays back up, anyway."
Sokka nodded, trying not to swallow his own tongue.
Suumi was the female hunter who went around topless—most of the women did in the heat of the day, but those topless women didn't put their hands all over Zuko.
He could still see her finger streaks in the paint.
"Yeah," he said, short and clipped. "It's nice. Very... warrior-like, I guess."
Zuko squinted at him. "You sure you're okay with it?"
"Yes! I’m fine! What's with the questions?"
"... Because you're going to be the one hunting with the paint on?”
Oh. Duh. "Yes," Sokka said. "That is exactly what I meant. A true hunter can hunt in anything, am I right?" He forced a laugh and it came out high as if he didn't have enough air... which was ridiculous.
Suumi had touched Zuko, and Sokka...
Get a grip, he told himself, but it did nothing for the strangeness bubbling under his non-existent skin. Something dark and ugly. The worst part of him.
Zuko looked at Sokka for a moment, clearly not believing him. "It looks stupid, I knew it. I'll put on a shirt."
"No! I mean... Uh." An idea came to him and he grinned sharp and wolf-like. "Do you happen to have any more of that red paint lying around?"
Sokka stepped into Zuko's body and did the work himself—he was an excellent artist. It was worth it to see Suumi’s eyes bulge slightly at the Water Tribe type swirls decorated up and down his arms. Most of it, coincidentally, covered up her marks.
"What are those?" Suumi asked.
"They're to honor the spirits," Sokka said, still with that wolf-like smile.
He noted with satisfaction that she did not offer to paint Zuko again.
One morning, nearly two weeks in, Sokka returned from his morning patrol of the jungle to see Zuko and Tiamat having a quiet conversation.
"You have done very well mastering the forms so far," Tiamat said. "Another few months of diligent work and I would be willing to put you up for your mastery exam before Ran and Shaw."
Zuko blinked, startled. "But... Are you sure? I thought my progress was… adequate."
"You are more than adequate. Do you doubt my teaching?" she demanded.
"No, but I have never excelled in anything before. The only way I've gotten good at anything was by working hard at it. Nothing has ever been easy for me, before."
"Before, you were learning the twisted way rooted in anger and hate. You are naturally impatient, yes. Most young men are. But angry and hateful? No. The Fire Nation first had to plant those seeds before they took root. They did not grow naturally and required much tending. Now, they are starting to wild."
Zuko stared at her for a moment. His shoulders sagged. "You know, I think that's the first metaphor I truly understand."
This... was a conversation he wasn't meant to hear. Sokka backed away into the jungle.
That next night, a full two weeks after they arrived, the moon rose full and bright. The real full moon this time. Not the vengeful spirit kind.
Sokka sat outside Zuko's hut and watched her transit the sky.
He was surprised when Zuko got out of his bed and joined him, sitting on the bare dirt with his knees pulled up to his chest.
"Can't sleep?" Sokka asked.
Zuko shook his head. "You?"
Sokka just looked at him, and Zuko flushed, glancing away. "Sorry. There's a lot on my mind."
"Yeah?" He waited, expecting Zuko to tell him the good news of his upcoming mastery trial. Yes, it was a few months away, but that would be well before the comet. Meanwhile, Zuko would be hidden and safe. He liked it here.
Instead Zuko said, "Moon's full. Want to practice?"
"Huh?" Sokka was thrown. "What, firebending?"
Now it was Zuko's turn to give him a look. "There's a pond just down one of the hunting trails."
"Oh... Oh! All right," he said with much more enthusiasm than he ever thought he would have for mystical element shenanigans.
He and Zuko made their way down to the pond in companionable silence. Every once in a while, Sokka would catch Zuko glancing up at the moon. Neither said it, but they were both remembering the girl who had given her life to bring it back to the world.
The pond itself was small and stagnant looking with its fair share of insects dotting ripples along the surface.
Sokka assessed it critically, hands on his hips. "Looks like a prime breeding spot for elbow leeches."
Zuko scrunched up his nose. "Whatever you do, don't dip my elbows in."
Then he sat down and started unlacing his boots. He typically went around in Sun Warrior garb during the hottest part of the day, but in the cooler morning and evenings, he dressed in his Fire Nation outfit.
Rolling up his pant legs to his knees, Zuko stepped into the reedy water at the edge and held out his hands. "You ready to waterbend?"
Sokka grinned and stepped 'in'.
The first thing he noticed was, once again, the ever-present heat and humidity. He had no idea how Zuko could stand it. The pond water itself was unusually warm, especially to someone used to ice-melt run-off. He took a half step into deeper water and felt mud squelch through his toes.
Mostly though, he was aware of the silvery light of the moon beaming down on him. Sokka closed his eyes and shivered. It felt like a silvery sun, warming him from the inside out.
"Oh yeah," he said, "That's some good moonbeam."
It's no sun, Zuko muttered in the back of his mind.
Sokka wondered briefly if this was how Zuko felt every noon-time and if that was why he ran around shirtless.
He’d give that a good think, later. Right now he had water to splash around in.
Sokka raised his hands and droplets of water came up with it, crystalizing into diamonds of ice. Then, Sokka began to experiment.
This was the first time he had been able to waterbend while not in battle, trying to keep Zuko alive, or not with his hands bound.
With large arcing movements, he sloshed the pond water around, cataloging how each movement pushed and pulled the water around him.
"I wish I had a scroll or something to write this down. There has to be a system, or a code."
Focus on your breathing, Zuko suggested.
“Pretty sure waterbending doesn’t come from the breath."
Breathing regulates your chi, which does help bending, he said primly. Plus, I saw your sister exhale and change water to ice when we were fighting in the North Pole.
Now that was useful information. Sokka tried, breathing in from his stomach as Zuko suggested, and sort of got it to work. Exhale: Water to ice. Inhale: ice to water. Exhale: Water to ice...
"Boring," Sokka decided, half-giddy from the power bathing his body. "I'm gonna figure out how to make a whip to slap some people around. Hey, how much does a bucket of water weigh, anyway?"
How am I supposed to know?
“Didn’t you have ballast for your ship?"
There was an embarrassed pause. I think the engineer took care of it.
“Not a princely duty, huh? That's fine. Let's say a bucket of water weighs the same as four medium rocks.”
Why does it matter?
"Because," tipping up his hands, he lifted the maximum volume of water as he could—and it was a lot. The vast amount of the pond rose to his command, leaving the rest muddy and squelchy with a lot of flopping fish and gasping elbow leeches. "There is no way I should be able to move this much weight with my mind—or chi, whatever. It doesn't make sense."
Sokka. Zuko sounded amused. I don't think there is an equation for bending.
He grinned, sharp in the silvery moonlight. "I bet there is."
He let the water drop—less gently than he should have, it splashed everywhere—and focused on working with a much smaller amount to get a stable ribbon floating through the air. It took a while to figure out how to turn in place and have the ribbon follow him instead of collapsing back into the pond. It was all about making the movements smooth.
He just about managed it when he caught sight of a figure out of the corner of Zuko’s bad eye.
His concentration shattered and the ribbon collapsed. Sokka turned fully.
Tiamat stood at the other edge of the pond.
"I can explain," Sokka said, though he wasn't quite sure how or why or even if he was really in trouble.
Tiamat gave him a long, searching look, then turned her attention down to her bare feet. Ice rimmed the edge of the pond—Sokka had meant to fix that when he was done.
She bent and touched it, curiously.
"I have visions of water doing this before," she said, "But I have never seen it for myself."
Sokka experienced a moment of utter bafflement. To him, ice was as common as the sun in the sky. The season of the melt was the exception to his life, not the rule.
But then again, to people who lived on the equator, how often would they see ice? Or snow? So weird.
Tiamat rose and gestured to him. "Come closer, spirit."
In for the spark, in for the whole fire, Zuko muttered. Let's see what she wants.
Sokka waved his arms and go the icy platform he'd been standing on to move to the water's edge. Tiamat met him there and looked closely into his eyes.
"So you are the one who has been such a successful hunter."
He felt Zuko cringe.
Sokka laughed nervously and scratched the back of his neck. "Well, I'm pretty good with the boomerang."
"And this?" Tiamat gestured to the pond.
"It's the full moon, so I thought I would get some practice in. I'm... not a bender. I'm sort of using Zuko's bending—totally with his permission," he added hurriedly, remembering Iroh and Yue's concern. "It was his idea."
Oh, thanks, push me under the rhino cart.
"And I promise I'll put it back to normal when I'm done," Sokka finished.
Tiamat flicked her fingers. "It is no matter. The rising sun will put it to rights." Again, she looked at Sokka's face. "You are just a boy."
“Hey, I’m Zuko's age!”
Zuko registered a complaint at that so he amended, "Nearly Zuko's age. And I was traveling with the Avatar when a spirit, uh, spirited me."
He fidgeted, hope and fear warring in equal parts within his heart. Did she know what had happened to him? What if she did and it was bad? But what if she knew how to fix him?
"You have questions,” Tiamat said but Sokka did not like the pity in her eyes.
Sokka couldn't hold it in any longer. “Am I a real spirit? How I can get my body back? Can I get my body back? Am I…” He couldn't finish that question, changing midway. "This isn't the afterlife, is it?"
The pity in her eyes deepened. "I'm afraid I do not have those answers for you."
Sokka's heart dropped and Zuko cursed.
"But," Tiamat continued, "I know who does."
"What do you mean? Who?"
In answer, she held out her own flame which was a snapping patina gold, perhaps a shade or two darker than Zuko's.
"I was in meditation, and the great one," she flicked her eyes upward to the sky, “came to me. It is time.”
Sokka's breath caught. “Time for…?”
"There is a rite of passage that the spirit touched of the Sun Warriors go through. Their task is to travel to a distant place, seek the Spirit of Knowledge, treat with him, and return with information no Sun Touched have seen before. It is very dangerous." Again, her gaze flicked to Sokka's own. "The great one told me you two will be long away on this journey, if you return at all."
"But I'll be able to find my answers from this spirit?" Sokka asked.
"If not from him, then no one else."
Sokka sucked in a breath and nodded. "Thank you." He bowed, Water Tribe style to her, and then stepped out of Zuko's body.
Zuko straightened—he held his body much more rigidly than Sokka did. "What do we need to do?"
"First, you need to take a piece of original knowledge with you, as trade. I will give you this in exchange for the fruits of the hunts you have given to our people."
She handed him a woven mat scroll. Zuko unrolled it. The mat was a stylized depiction of Ran and Shaw, upright and breathing a rainbow of fire over their heads with their front claws outstretched. Between their claws lay a golden egg.
Zuko's good eye widened. "There are three dragons in the world?"
"There will be, when the egg is ready. Dragons are not like our young. They hatch in their own time."
Zuko swallowed, looking touched. “I am very happy to hear that.”
“As are we. You will leave for your journey tonight," Tiamat said.
"I can't say goodbye to the others? The hunters?"
She shook her head. "They will understand you are spirit touched. This journey was only a matter of time. When the sign is given, you are to carry only the knowledge to trade and what you have with you." She turned to the forest. "Come."
Sokka and Zuko exchanged glances and followed.
As they traveled, the jungle grew thickly around them. The moon was completely blotted out and Tiamat and Zuko had to light fires to see their way forward.
Sokka fidgeted and Zuko glanced at him a few times.
"What is it?” he hissed.
He hesitated, trying to put anxiety into words, but then just came out with it. "You don't have to go with me."
Zuko stopped, turning to him. "What do you mean?"
Ahead, Tiamat turned her head but said nothing. She kept walking, perhaps figuring they would catch up. Or not. It might be part of the quest.
"Look," Sokka said, "The last time I met with a great spirit, it did this to me." He gestured to himself. "Trust me, you don't want that."
Zuko’s eyes narrowed. “You want to go alone?”
“Well… Yes, “ he admitted. “You have a great hiding place where no one in your crazy family can find you, and I know Tiamat wants you to take your firebending mastery soon. That's important to you, isn’t it? And..." he trailed off. Zuko was glaring at him.
"Are you done?" Zuko asked, short and irritated.
“I’m just saying there’s a pattern, Zuko! The last time you went off to confront a spirit, you were hauled off to the Fire Nation."
Zuko turned and kept walking. “And I escaped.”
He stopped again, turned. His lips were pinched and his nostrils flared like an angry dragon. He looked pissed. Weirdly, he wasn’t yelling. “How about this: I'm going with you to find this Knowledge Spirit and help you get your answers, and there is no way you can stop me."
That was, unfortunately, the truth.
"Why?" Sokka blurted.
“Shouldn’t you know? I thought you hung around the goody-goody Avatar."
"Zuko," he said, "By this point, I've hung out with you far longer than I have with Aang."
Zuko seemed surprised, and then his expression hardened. He looked Sokka up and down, deliberately. “Then you should know why."
With that, he turned to follow Tiamat.
Sokka stood there, two wildly conflicting answers bumping together in his heart.
Zuko had meant honor, right? Of course he did.
But what if...?
“Are you coming or not?” Zuko yelled from ahead.
Sokka shook himself and scrambled to catch up.
Finally, Tiamat stopped. There was a wall of black jungle in front of them. It was so dark, it seemed to absorb the light from the firebender's flames.
"What now?" Sokka asked.
"You will travel from this place to find your answer, and perhaps, your destiny.” Tiamat nodded to Zuko, "May the sun shine on you again, Zuko of the Fire Nation."
Zuko bowed. "Thank you for your wisdom and all you have done for me.”
Tiamat nodded, something like grief flashing across her face, before she turned unerringly to Sokka. "And may the sun shine once more on you, Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe."
Before he could form a reply, Tiamat turned and walked back the way she came. Within seconds, the darkness had swallowed her up. Flame and all.
"Um, when did I ever give her my name?" Sokka asked. “Do you think she could hear me this whole time?"
"No...?" But Zuko looked unsure.
They both exchanged wide-eyed looks, but there were no answers. They turned to regard the wall of dark ahead.
"So... what, you just walk into the forest?" Sokka asked. “Is that where the spirit lives?”
Zuko shot him a look “You can't see it?"
Sokka peered. He would have bet good seal jerky that his night vision was better than Zuko's, but all he could make out were the vague outlines of plants, some wet leaves and moss scattering the forest floor. "No?"
Zuko sucked in a breath. "Okay, um, let me try something. You've let me see things. Let's see if it works the other way." With the hand not holding the flame, he reached out carefully—very carefully—rested it where Sokka's shoulder should have been.
It was as if invisible sunlight broke over Sokka, bathing him in warmth. Sokka shivered from head to toe. He wanted to just... close his eyes and bask in it.
"Look," Zuko insisted.
Sokka turned his head.
... And saw a vast gaping maw like the throat of an animal, opened just ahead of him.
Sokka yelped and jumped back. Zuko's hand fell through him, but now that Sokka had seen the thing... he could not un-see it.
The giant mouth had not snapped shut. In fact, the gaping mouth and razor sharp teeth seemed to be an illusion created by the creepy plant life. He hoped.
Though the more he looked, the more the way the plant life resembled a huge, flat-muzzled creature with curly hair and a large mass, like a shell, behind it. But it might have only been the shadows made by the vines.
Sokka gestured. “She wants you—us—to walk into that?"
"Yep," Zuko said in that flat way he had when he was scared but about to be stupidly brave anyway.
"Into that sinister animal-mouth shaped hole in the ground?" Sokka confirmed, just to make sure they were on the same page.
"... It might be a test of bravery?” Zuko shrugged. "It couldn't be worse than facing the dragons."
"Except there's no light down there!"
“The light’s no problem.” He held up his hand with the flame lit over it, meaningfully.
Well, they had that going for them. Sokka supposed, if push came to shove, he could do something with waterbending. He had no idea what. A boomerang would be handier.
"All right," Sokka clapped his hands. "Looks like we got ourselves a field-trip."
He and Zuko stepped forward.
The tunnel was every bit as forbidding as it looked on the outside. Not to mention drippy. Zuko stumbled twice, catching himself on the tunnel walls. Seriously, it was as if they were descending into the long throat of an animal—skipping the whole being chewed part and just introducing themselves to the stomach.
"You don't smell, like, belly gas do you?" Sokka asked suspiciously.
“No. Just rotting vegetation," Zuko muttered. The golden flame in his palm remained steady. Sokka kept an eye on it, in case it flared with hidden pockets of gas.
Finally, after traveling downward for a long time, the stairs ended to a sandy, level floor.
Much less drippy. And not much like a stomach at all.
A long, long, long tunnel stretched out ahead. Sokka could not see the end.
Zuko let out a breath and started walking.
They walked, and walked, and walked. The sand ended and the floor became echoing stone. The only sounds for hours were Zuko's boot-heels striking the floor.
Sokka periodically had Zuko stop to check the wall in case there was hidden knowledge carved in or something. But there was nothing. No knowledge, no spirits with knowledge. Just more tunnel ahead, and darkness behind.
They kept walking.
"Do you know what time it is?" Sokka asked.
Zuko frowned. "I haven't been able to feel the sunrise, but it seems like we've been walking long enough for it to have happened.”
They walked on. And on. And on.
Sokka began to grow a little worried, for Zuko's sake. There was nothing but more tunnel ahead and the last thing the guy needed was to be starved or dehydrated again.
"You okay, buddy?" Sokka asked, eventually.
He shrugged. "Just wondering. It's been a while since dinner."
Zuko rolled his eyes. "Stop mothering me. I'm not even hungry. I'm fine."
Yeah, he did not trust Zuko's 'I'm fine' as far as Sokka's ghostly body could throw him.
But they had no choice but to keep walking.
And walking. And walking. And walking.
“Wait.” Sokka stopped. “Do you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Zuko turned his right side forward, frowning.
Then Sokka heard it again. Voices. Distant voices and one sounded familiar.
“No way,” he breathed. He broke into a jog and then a flat out run. “That’s Katara’s voice!”
“That’s not possible.” Zuko huffed, catching up to him. “There’s no one down here—Sokka, stop! It’s probably a trap.”
But Sokka would know his sister’s tone and cadence anywhere, and was that… light? Light at the end of the tunnel?
“Katara!” he yelled, forgetting that even if it was her, she would not be able to hear him.
Then, impossibly, came her voice made thin by distance.
His heart leapt into his throat. “Katara!”
“Sokka, no! Stop!” Zuko reached for him, but of course his hand passed right through Sokka’s shoulder.
Sokka didn’t care. He pelted forward, heedless of any danger, calling his sister’s name, and he heard her calling him back.
A figure appeared at the end of the tunnel, dark against the light. Then she jogged in, and it was her.
They recognized each other at the same time.
“Sokka!” she screamed, hand flying to her mouth. She ran to him, and he to her.
… And they passed through each other as if Sokka were as insubstantial as smoke.
They skidded to a stop and turned back. Sokka laughed sheepishly, too overjoyed at seeing her again to care about his lack of body. “Oh, right.”
But Katara stared at him, wide-eyed. “What—What’s going on? What are you doing here?”
“Me? What are you doing in the Fire Nation?”
“We’re not in the Fire Nation, we’re in the middle of the desert—“
“Sokka?!” Aang yelled in shock from the tunnel mouth. With a blast of air, he sped towards him, but then thankfully slowed to a stop moments before he repeated Katara’s mistake, staring past Sokka.
Correction. He stared through Sokka.
“Zuko?” Aang asked, shocked.
“Zuko?” Katara repeated, turning. The blood drained from her face. “But… he’s dead.”
Zuko, who still held a flame in one hand, had slowed to a walking pace and stopped well back from the group. “No, I’m not.” He awkwardly bobbed his head to Aang. “Hello, Avatar.” He did the same to her. “Katara.”
Confused, Katara turned back to Sokka. “You’re really here? But… how can I see you? What’s going on?”
“Creepy spirit stuff?” Sokka suggested.
“My guess?” Zuko said grimly. “Either we’re all about to die, or we’ve descended into a part of the spirit world.”
A portion of darkness seemed to detach itself from the tunnel wall. The shape was like a man in a hooded cloak, so large it blocked the entire tunnel. Then, with eerie fluidity, its head turned all the way around on its shoulders to face them.
“Or both,” the owl spirit said.
To preempt any questions: I don't think it's possible to walk all the way to the Earth Kingdom from the Fire Nation, even underground. Sokka and Zuko pretty much took a spiritual warp zone to the library.
More will be explained in the next chapter. Thank you for reading!
Check out my Tumblr for Avatar stuff, memes, and fanfic rambling.
*DISCLAIMER* The author is fully aware that the love advice given by the twelve year old boy in this chapter is probably not sound for real life relationships, however it IS what the other character needed to hear at the time.
At the sight of the huge ten-foot owl, Sokka, Zuko, and Katara backed away.
Aang, however, bounced right up to him. “Hi. Are you Wan Shi Tong, the Knowledge Spirit?”
The owl spirit seemed to draw himself up. “I am indeed Wan Shi Tong, he who knows ten-thousand things.”
“Great!” Aang chirped. “I’m Aang, the Avatar. Uncle told us all about you—Well, he’s not really my uncle, but we all call him that—”
The giant owl spirit blinked unimpressed eyes at him. “Did he also tell you that I am sick and tired of mortals coming to this library seeking my knowledge to fight their petty wars?”
Sokka looked around. “This place doesn’t look like much of a library.”
“The library is through there, idiot boy.” Wan Shi Tong gestured to the glowing end of the tunnel. Then he paused and bent down, his great eyes studying Sokka. “But you are not merely a boy anymore, are you?”
Sokka stiffened. “I’m… temporarily without a body.”
“Do you know why can we see him?” Katara asked.
“My library straddles the line between the spiritual and the material world. Things that are usually hidden may be seen.”
Sokka opened his mouth. He had so many questions, but Zuko stepped forward and bowed low, Fire Nation style. “My name is Zuko, prince of the Fire Nation,” he paused. “Or, I was. Does your library contain knowledge of the spirits?”
The owl eyed him. “This is a spirit library. Of course it contains knowledge of the spirits.”
Zuko wasn’t put off for a moment. “What about Fire Nation laws?”
“From which dynasty?”
“Modern Imperial,” Zuko answered.
The owl snorted. “Indeed. My helpers have gathered scrolls from the Dragon Bones Catacombs. I believe you will find my collection satisfactory.”
Sokka shot him a look. “What are you planning?”
“Later,” Zuko muttered.
The owl spirit peered at them all. “Am I to believe you do not come to my library seeking the knowledge to destroy your enemies?”
“Nope, I’m a pacifist,” Aang said.
“That’s right!” Sokka agreed. “We’re here for, Uh… knowledge sake.”
The owl looked less than convinced.
Aang bowed low. “We will not abuse the knowledge in your library, good spirit.” He stood up, fingers crossed behind his back. “You have my word.”
Zuko looked sternly disapproving at the lie, while Sokka tried not to face palm. Katara shook her head, her expression wide-eyed, but she kept her silence as well.
Then, to Sokka’s surprise, Zuko stepped up to Aang’s side. “I come seeking knowledge to help my friend and my sister. And I need to brush up on Fire Nation inheritance laws.”
Ah, now Sokka knew where he was going with this. Zuko may be the literal definition of the word impulsive, but he was no fool.
“Very well,” the owl said, “but in order to prove your worth as a scholar, you must present a donation to my library.”
What followed was fairly interesting. Zuko drew forth the scroll Tiamat had given, Aang showed his own wanted picture, and Katara handed over a waterbending scroll. Not, Sokka noticed, the same one that she had stolen from the pirates.
That was when Sokka realized he didn’t have anything.
“Uh…” He patted his ghostly pockets.
“Only the mortals require a toll.” Wan Shi Tong handed the items over to a large red fox who was waiting helpfully nearby. “Please file these away.” Then he stepped aside, gesturing with a wing to allow them to pass.
They walked through the tunnel and into the library. Zuko and Sokka stopped in their tracks. It was bigger than Sokka would have imagined, bigger than even the large courtyard in the Fire Nation. The bottom floor alone could have fit the deck of Azula’s massive ship twice over. And there were at least seven stories, going up to the top. And all were stacked row upon row of books and scrolls. Dozens of foxes darted here and there with scrolls in their mouths.
“Oh, wow,” Sokka said.
Katara who had already seen the sight, and who never loved scrolls as much as he did—with the exception of the waterbending scroll—turned to him at once. “Okay, what happened to you two? How are you here? And you,” she pointed an accusing finger at Zuko. “Everyone thinks you’re dead! Your Uncle has been grieving for weeks.”
“Wait, you know Uncle Iroh?” Zuko demanded, startled.
“Uncle’s great,” Aang confirmed. “He makes tea just like Monk Gyatso used to make.”
Zuko sputtered. “He joined you?”
“We split up for a while, but met again at the Misty Palms Oasis. He’s up there right now, keeping Appa and my friend, Toph, company.” Aang pointed to a long trailing rope that went from the ceiling to the floor. It looked like they had climbed down into the library from the very top spire, not taken a tunnel as Sokka and Zuko had.
Zuko stared up at it, visibly hesitating.
“You should go to him,” Sokka said. “I know you want to.”
But Zuko’s shoulders sagged. He shook his head. "If I leave, I don't think I'll get another chance to come down here, and what I’m looking for is important. I can wait a little longer to see my uncle.”
Sokka felt bad for him, but he couldn't disagree. “All right, then we’ll do as much research as we can while we’re here.” He looked around. "This library is huge. Where do we start?”
“Well,” Aang said, “Uncle said I should learn about Avatar Roku’s life and how the war started.”
“Don't call him that,” Zuko snapped. “He's not your Uncle.”
Katara put her hands on her hips. “Oh, so you’ve been a great nephew to him? He’s thought you’ve been dead for weeks!”
“I didn’t exactly return to the Fire Nation by choice!”
“Guys!” Sokka stepped between them all. He felt like he was back in the South Pole, breaking up a scuffle between toddlers. “Zuko’s right, we only have this one visit—I don’t think that Owl Spirit will let us in again. We can’t waste our time fighting. I think the best idea is to split up. We can cover more ground.”
“Great idea!” Katara laid on her sarcasm so thick, Sokka was impressed. She’d learned a few tricks while he was gone. “Then Zuko can have all the time he needs to try to capture Aang.”
“How can you trust him, Sokka?”
Because he's a good person. Because he's been through more pain and suffering than I could imagine, and come out the other side stronger and more empathetic than before. Because I think I might have a crush on him, and I'd like to think that I have good enough taste not to fall for evil people… Maybe. Hopefully.
Sokka could say none of that, of course. His tongue felt locked to the roof of his mouth.
Zuko, who never passed up an opportunity to speak about destiny, straightened. “My mission is not to capture the Avatar anymore.”
Aang brightened. “Really? That’s great! So we can be friends now?”
Katara, though, was not so easily swayed. “Why not? Did the Fire Lord give you a different evil mission to reclaim your honor?”
“No,” he said, through grit teeth. “He ordered me to be executed. The only reason I’m alive is because the Great Spirits of the Sun and Moon intervened. You can ask Sokka if you don't believe me.”
All eyes turned his way.
“It’s true,” Sokka confirmed. “The winds were crazy strong, like woooooosh. And then moon was full when there was no way she should have been. She beamed down a crazy huge amount of moonbeams like whoooo, and then the rain started—”
“Okay, I got it,” Katara said, looking like she was getting a headache.
Sokka grinned. He missed sister baiting.
Aang, though, looked at him strangely. “Why did it matter if the moon was full? Zuko is a firebender.”
Oops. It was easy to forget that Aang was not actually an airhead. The explanation was simple, but Sokka did not have time to go into all of it. (Or savor Katara’s outraged reaction when she discovered he could waterbend, too. Sort of.)
“Look," Sokka said, “the point is, Zuko is on our side. I’ll vouch for him. And we probably don't have a lot of time here with Mr. Creepy Owl. We need to get a move on.” He turned to Aang. “The Roku stuff will probably be in the Fire Nation section. You should go look with Zuko.”
“No, I’ll go with Zuko," Katara said, her eyes narrowed. “He's not going anywhere alone with Aang.”
Zuko shrugged. “Just don't get in my way.”
“Fine,” Sokka said. He would have preferred to have some catching up time with Katara, but he understood her paranoia. “Then the Great Bridge between the mortal and the spirit world will help me look for spirit stuff. There has to be something about Roku in there.”
No one looked particularly happy. Ahh, the perfect compromise.
Aang scratched the back of his head. "I forgot how bossy you could be, Sokka."
“I’m not bossy. I'm the leader," Sokka said, ignoring Zuko's snort. He turned around. "So where is the spirit section...?"
“I know, let's ask him!" Aang ran up to a large red fox with a scroll in its mouth. "Hey, Mr. Fox Spirit, sir? Do you know where the spirit section is?"
"Aang, that's just a fox—” Katara started to say, but stopped as the fox nodded its head up and down. It turned and trotted a few steps, looking over its shoulder deliberately at them.
"I think that's a yes," Sokka said.
Katara and Zuko were glaring daggers at one another as if challenging the other to be the one to go ask for directions next. Zuko was the first to turn away with a muttered, "This is so stupid..." But he headed to the next nearest fox.
Sokka would bet good seal jerky that there was going to be a bending fight between the two of them sooner rather than later. Hopefully, they wouldn't destroy many priceless scrolls during it.
Their own fox led himself and Aang through several ceiling-high rows of books and scrolls (and considering how high the library ceilings were, that said something) and to a separate round room completely crammed from top to bottom with even more materials.
In the middle of the roam stood a table with a small models depicting light beaming into the sky and an old dead tree in the middle. Sokka glanced at the labels as he passed. Spirit portals? Weird.
Abruptly, Aang turned to him. He spoke quickly, like he had been holding the words in all this time until he couldn't take it anymore. Now, it all exploded out at once.
"I'm so, so sorry what happened. I really thought you were trapped in the spirit world until the North Pole, and then things sort of spun out of control—you would not believe all the crazy stuff that’s happened since then—and I really want to fix what happened to you, but I have to learn all the elements faster than any other Avatar has before, and—”
“Aang, stop,” Sokka said, taking pity on him. “What happened to me was not your fault.”
Aang's gray eyes glinted wetly in the light. "But I'm the spirit bridge. I should know how to fix you, but I don't. I don't even know who to ask!”
"Hey, that's why we're here, right?" If he had a body, he would have put his arm over Aang's skinny shoulders. "Let's look around. Maybe the answer is in this room."
They only started to look through the crammed shelves before there was the clicking sound of talons coming their way, and the sweep of feathers against wood.
Wan Shi Tong ducked his head slightly to step into the room. He looked around in that eerie owl way, twisting his head without turning his shoulders.
"Well, I am glad to see there is no destruction in here yet. This is one of my favorite sections." He looked at Aang. "Why does the Avatar need to know about the spirit world from my library?”
"It's for my friend, Sokka." Aang waved to Sokka, then hesitated. "You can see him, right?"
"He talked to me, remember?" Sokka stepped forward to the spirit. "The medicine woman of the Sun Warriors said you would know what had happened to me. I lost my body after encountering the Hei Bai spirit. Has this happened to anyone else before?"
Wan Shi Tong clicked his beak. "Mortals," he muttered to himself. "They all think they are so unique. Of course this has happened before. You are hardly the first to be caught between life and death."
"Is that what happened to me?" Sokka asked. "The Hei Bai spirit sort of blasted me, and the next thing I knew—”
"Your body was no doubt destroyed on the atomic level, leaving only the spirit behind.”
Sokka felt like a deep hole had opened beneath his feet. He was falling… falling into a deep abyss. “Are you're saying I'm really dead?"
"You are between life and death. There are several scrolls written on the subject." With one wing, he reached out and plucked a few from a nearby shelf and looked at them in irritation. "But they were mostly written by amateurs who had never traveled to the spirit world, much less dealt with hungry spirits."
“Oh! I know what hungry spirits are. The monks used to talk about them," Aang said at Sokka's side, making him jump. He had forgotten that he was there. Then Aang slumped. “But Sokka is not one of those. They're supposed to be twisted and... sort of evil."
"I think I've seen one, too," Sokka said. "It's attached herself to Zuko's sister, Princess Azula."
The owl paused. "Indeed? Then perhaps rumors of her instability are not unfounded."
Quickly, Sokka blurted, "But Aang's right. I’ve seen the dark spirit suck from Azula like she's her favorite flavor of snow-cone. I don’t do that. I'm not… hungry."
But that wasn’t entirely the truth, was it? The times he wanted to touch Zuko, the aching want that just left him hollow inside…
Hunger? Or a crush? He couldn’t tell. He didn’t know.
Wan Shi Tong shrugged. ”You are yet untwisted. Most likely because you found a suitable host within a short amount of time."
That stopped Sokka cold. "Host?"
"Someone whose soul resonates on the same frequency as your own. Someone who is able to see you despite the fact you exist in neither the material or the spiritual realm." The owl did not quite roll his eyes. “Some people call them soulmates. I prefer to think of them as especially compatible."
Soulmates? Yue had been able to see him, too. Did that mean…? Could he be ‘especially compatible’ with several people?
The dark spirit’s rattling words echoed in his mind. “You’ll grow hungrier, more desperate for life by the day. It may take years… And in the end, you’ll be like me.”
Sokka took a step back. "But... But I don't feed off of Zuko. I wouldn't—”
"Don't you?" Wan Shi Tong asked. "Do you not feel warmer in his presence? More alive? The boy is a firebender. I would imagine you receive some warmth, some measure of comfort from his body."
Yes. Yes, he did.
The last of his hope withered on the vine. This was exactly what he had dreaded hearing, and yet in the depths of his heart he had not truly believed it could be true. "Are you sure?"
The owl favored him with an annoyed glance. "I am He Who Knows Ten-Thousand Things. I am not He Who Creates Ten-Thousand Lies."
"What do we do?" Aang's voice was small. "There is to be something."
"There is," said Wan Shi Tong. He flicked a wing at Sokka. "He can still choose between life or death."
"What?" Sokka breathed.
"For you, it is exceedingly simple, considering you have managed to find someone so compatible, so early in your immaterial existence. So, choose."
"I can? Then, life! Duh!"
The owl lowered his head to look at him. "Then take the fire prince’s body.”
Sokka recoiled. “What do you mean? I don't want Zuko's body. I want my own. It was made for me!”
"Then you choose death." The owl shrugged. "The longer you go without a body, the more separated from life you will become. It is an unnatural state which twists the spirit." The owl leaned closer until his yellow eyes filled Sokka's view. "It takes but a moment, a slight stutter of a heartbeat, an instant between life and death for the body's natural spirit to become unmoored and for you to slip in and claim it for you own."
Sokka shuddered from head to foot, cold and dread and a weird sort of desire twisting within him as if the owl spirit were plucking hidden strings inside him. He ached for Zuko. To see him… to touch him.
He took a step back. "No."
Wan Shi Tong straightened. "Or, if you prefer, the Avatar can do it."
Aang looked distinctly green. "No," he said. "Never."
"Why not? It would solve many of your problems. A way for your friend to return fully to the material world, a future Fire Lord with water in his heart instead of fire." He paused. "Don't you wish to stop the war, Avatar Aang?"
Aang shook his head and sent Sokka a look that was childlike, pleading for him to understand. "Not like this."
"No," Sokka agreed. "Not like this."
"Pity," the owl said, "Some of your past lives knew that true balance meant hard choices. It figures that when your world needed him most, this Avatar ends up being an idealist."
"Hey, lay off him," Sokka said.
Wan Shi Tong turned back to him. "There is one other option: You may stay here. This library is neither in the spirit world nor the material world. Here, you can work and find purpose again."
A red fox took that moment to trot by with a scroll in its mouth. It stopped to stare at them, and for a moment its eyes looked green and... human again.
Sokka recoiled. "It's a nice library and all, but I don't want to stay in it forever."
"Hmm. Well, the offer is open. In the meantime, these scrolls may be what you’re looking for." Wan Shi Tong dropped the scrolls into his Sokka's arms and walked off, presumably to creep out Katara and Zuko.
Sokka stood there, his arms full of scrolls, feeling like the world had shattered around him.
"Sokka?" Aang said tentatively.
My feelings for Zuko aren’t real, Sokka thought as shock gave way to dark realization. I want to... to eat him, or something. He's my host. I'm a spiritual parasite... and he...
The scrolls tumbled out of his arms to clatter around his feet. Sokka sat down, clutching his head. He wanted to howl, scream the injustice of it all, but he couldn’t breathe. His nonexistent heart didn’t beat.
So why did it feel like it was crumbling to ash?
"Sokka!" Aang knelt next to him, reaching for his shoulder, but of course his hand phased through. "Sokka, it's going to be all right."
"Don't tell Zuko." He looked up at Aang, pleading. "Or Katara... I can't let them see me like that. I… I have to leave. I’ve seen a hungry ghost before. I can’t… I can’t do that to him.”
"Sokka!" Aang's voice broke on the word and Sokka realized he was crying. Tears spilled down to his chin.
Sokka wasn't, only because spirits didn't have tears.
"I promise we'll figure something out,” Aang said. “I promise. You're not going to turn hungry."
"I... I think I already am." Those times he’d ached to touch Zuko… Was it hunger? Attraction? He didn’t know. He didn’t know.
"No," Aang said firmly. He wiped his face with the back of his sleeve and glared at Sokka. "I am the Avatar, I would have noticed if you had become unbalanced. Wan Shi Tong said you found your soulmate quick, before you had a chance to become twisted. That should give us time to figure something else out.”
Sokka choked back a sob. “What if it doesn’t? What if I hurt him?”
"Do you love him?" Aang asked, abruptly.
That shocked Sokka to his core. He dropped his hands. "What? Who said anything about—Aang, you can't just throw that word around..."
"Why not?" Aang asked. "I love Katara, and I love Appa and Momo, and I love you, too."
"That... that's different," Sokka said weakly.
Aang plowed on with more force and conviction than a kid his age ought to have. "Your souls ring on the same frequency. That means something, Sokka. And if you love someone—really love them with a pure heart—you won’t hurt them.”
He shook his head. “It’s not that simple. The hungry spirit that's sucking off of Azula... I think it might be her mother."
Aang's gray eyes darkened with grief. "The monks used to talk about that, too. They called it selfish love. It’s love that was more about yourself than the person you cared for.”
“It’s her mother,” he insisted.
Aang just looked both sad, and way older than he should have been. “Not all people make good parents.”
Yeah. Sokka had seen plenty of evidence of that. Thanks, Ozai.
Aang continued. “If you love Zuko, purely and unselfishly, you won't hurt him. You can’t. That’s how it works.”
Sokka let out a breath and shook his head. He wasn’t sure if he believed Aang or not. It was a little pie-in-the-sky perfect. Very… airbender.
But it was also a lifeline, and Sokka was on the verge of drowning.
"Did the monks say how you're supposed to tell the difference between pure and unpure love?” he asked.
"Um." Aang looked abashed. “I think we were supposed to get those lessons when we were older."
Sokka barked out a choked laugh. Figured that was the Air Temple version of sex ed. “I don’t know how I feel about Zuko. I like him but… what if it’s not enough?”
“I have faith in you, Sokka,” he said. “You’re a good person.”
It should have sounded trite, but Sokka had no doubt Aang was entirely sincere.
He took a breath he didn’t need and said, "You're pretty wise for a little kid, aren't you?"
Aang smiled. "Thank you." Then he looked serious. "I won't tell Zuko or Katara if you're uncomfortable, but I think you should."
He nodded, mostly because he didn't have an answer. Then, before he could let the awkwardness build, he turned and picked up one of the scrolls.
"Let's see what the Spirit of Bad News picked out for us to read.” He unrolled it and then stopped and stared.
Aang was staring, too. "Um, how are you doing that?"
"Oh, wow." Sokka dropped that scroll and picked up a heavy book. It had weight. He could feel the weight of it in his hands, the soft leather on the cover and the embossing over the marks. He flipped through the pages, just because he could. "Makes sense, I guess. If the spirit foxes can grab scrolls and books and stuff, I can too." Then he dropped the book and unrolled a second scroll, just for the feel of it.
“Wait…” Aang moved to read the scroll over Sokka’s shoulder. He tilted his head. “What kind of waterbending is that?”
Sokka squinted and turned the scroll this way and that. In it, a figure surrounded a beastly animal with ribbons of water that seemed to glow within the vellum. The next figure showed the beast slim and friendly looking. “It says… spiritbending?”
“Waterbending can do that?” Aang gasped.
“Uh, Aang, I’m not the one you should ask.” Sokka hesitated, wondering if he should mention he could bend—through Zuko. But it wasn’t his bending, really. Plus, bodily possession felt like a charged topic right now.
Aang spoke again, shattering his thoughts. “Waterbending can heal… so maybe?”
“Sure—Wait, waterbending can heal?”
“Oh yeah, I forgot you were gone for that.” He looked sheepish. “Funny story…”
“Are you saying Katara could have healed me every time I got a fishhook stuck in my thumb? All this time?!”
Luckily, for Aang, they heard Katara’s calling their names. Her voice echoed distantly through the halls.
"Sokka? Aang? Where are you?"
Aang turned to call back, “Over here!"
“Where's here?” came Zuko's grumbling voice
Suddenly, Sokka forgot to be incensed about fishhooks. At the sound of Zuko’s voice, the place where is heart should be flipped over and a sense of dread settled in his stomach.
He couldn’t wait to see him… and at the same time he thought he might be sick.
Sokka knew his conflicting emotions must be written all over his face because the look Aang sent him was way too compassionate for a twelve-year-old. “It will be okay, Sokka.”
How will it be okay? I’m Zuko’s soulmate, whatever that is supposed to mean, and also I’m sort of an undead parasite?
Katara poked her head in the room. "There you are," she said, exasperated.
Aang bounced up while Sokka stood to gather the scrolls—and take a second to get ahold of himself.
“Katara! Did you find anything good?"
“No,” Katara said. “A firebender got there, first."
Zuko appeared next. He looked as dazed as if he had been clubbed over the head.
"What happened?" Sokka asked to him.
But Katara was the one who answered. "It's gone! All of the whole section of the Fire Nation has been burned down to ashes. Wan Shi Tong said the last human visitor did it.”
“That must be why he was so welcoming to us,” Sokka said.
Aang looked gut-punched. “That's terrible. It’s all gone? The whole section?”
“Well, not all of it…" Katara’s expression turned sly. She aimed a look at Zuko who seem to start awake and glare back at her.
Aang glanced back and forth between them. "What happened?"
Katara smiled. “The royal family tree was painted on the wall, and wasn’t damaged. You’ll never guess what was on there…”
All eyes went to Zuko who had turned bright red. He muttered something and Sokka thought he caught the word, “Roku.”
“Roku, what?" Aang asked
If anything, Zuko’s good cheek flamed redder. His gaze locked to Sokka as if he could not bring himself to face Aang.
“Avatar Roku is my great-grandfather. On my mother side," he said, quickly.
Sokka felt his eyebrows lift as he took that in.
Aang was first to react. “Grandson!" He skipped to Zuko, arms wide as if to encompass him in a big hug.
“Get off!" He shoved the enthusiastic Avatar away. Sokka knew he didn't mean it. He wasn't throwing fire.
"So one half of your one ancestor family tree comes from Sozin and the other one is Roku," Sokka said. “That's… Interesting."
Zuko scowled. "I can't believe this was hidden from me. No one ever spoke of my mother's side of the family but my father had to know. My mother—she never said anything.”
“Maybe your mother kept her from your father," Katara said. "Our Gran-Gran never told us she was from the North Pole. Maybe they fell in love and the rest didn’t matter.”
“They weren't in love," he looked away. “It was an arranged marriage."
That stopped her short. “Oh.”
“Yes, oh!” he snapped. “It means what the two sides of myself are at war with one another! No wonder I—” he stopped and visibly swallowed. “No wonder my life is so full of strife. Azula, too.”
“It's not that bad," Sokka said. “Okay, so the Fire Nation is a little more obsessed about ancestors than normal people, but it's not the end of the world. You aren't Sozin, and Aang is literally Roku—sort of.”
"That's right," Aang said. “I wonder if that’s what Uncle wanted me to find down here.” Then, before anyone could begin to process that he added, “Hey do you think that's why Roku saved you on Crescent Island? Remember, he burned your chains away, too.”
“I don't know, why don’t you ask him?" Zuko grumped.
“I think I will, next time," he replied calmly.
“So, did you two find anything interesting?" Katara asked
Sokka and Aang exchanged a glance.
“Sort of?” Aang said.
“Sure did," Sokka said brightly and tossed a book to Zuko. "Think fast."
Zuko caught it, glanced at the cover to see what it was about, and then stopped and looked sharply back at him. "How did you do that?”
Sokka mimed brushing invisible dust off his shirt. “I can touch objects in this library like a real boy.”
“Oh, and Katara, look at this!” Aang rushed over, unrolling the scroll. “New waterbending moves!"
“Really?" Thoroughly diverted, Katara took the scroll and looked at it. She frowned. “This is said to cleanse unbalanced spirits and ease them back into the spirit world. Waterbending can do that?"
Zuko stepped over to read over her shoulder. Then he glanced at Sokka and they knew they were thinking the same thing: Azula’s ‘Mother’.
“Do you think this could help you, Sokka?” Katara asked.
“Sokka’s not unbalanced,” Aang said, so firmly that Katara glanced at him in surprise. “Also I think this sends spirits back into the spirit world, and that wouldn’t be a good idea.”
Oh man, he owed Aang big time. Sokka spoke up. “But it's good to know next time we come up to a Hei Bai or… something else.”
Zuko sucked in a breath.
Down one of the halls, there was the muted sound of feathers against stone followed by the frantic yipping of a fox.
Wan Shi Tong stepped into the room, two fox spirits bouncing at his heels like overly-excited polar dogs. It was difficult to read an expression on a bird's face, but Sokka got the impression he was not a happy owl.
“Avatar, you said that you were not here to use my knowledge for war.”
“I’m not," Aang said.
“Then why do my foxes tell there is a fierce battle going up above?”
“What!" Aang exclaimed.
Katara rushed forward. “What kind of battle?"
One of the foxes yipped excitedly. Wan Shi Tong brushed a wing over his head to silence him.
“She says two of your party—a firebender and an earthbender—is currently battling against several of the local sandbender tribes.”
“Uncle! I have to get it to him. How do we get out of here?” Zuko demanded.
“If there was an attack, I'm sure is unprovoked," Katara said.
The owl turned to her. "Nevertheless, the Avatar and his party are no longer welcome in my library. This is a place of knowledge, not war.”
“Fine," Zuko snapped. “Where's the exit?”
“I’ll show you.”
Sokka had just enough time to hide the scroll under his shirt before the owl eerily turned his head in his direction. “Have you made your decision whether to remain or leave?”
That stopped them all short. "What is he talking about?" Katara demanded.
Sokka winced. “… I could stay and become one of his foxy assistants, if I wanted to."
“No," Zuko snapped. “That's ridiculous. Why would you want to do that?” One of the foxes growled at him, and Zuko was quick enough to add, “Although I'm sure it is an honorable position.”
Wan Shi Tong did not look pleased, but he bobbed his head. “Very well… though the offer remains open.”
Sokka bowed to him, probably not as deep as he should have, but he was trying to conceal the scroll up his shirt. “Thanks.”
“This way!” Aang yelled, opening up his glider to bound into the air.
Everyone sprinted after him. Sokka reached for Zuko to catch his attention. Of course, his fingers went through the other boy’s wrist. But Zuko turned back as if he could feel it all the same.
“Here. Hide this.” Sokka slipped out the scroll and handed it to him. Maybe it was his imagination, but he thought he felt Zuko's fingers brush over his own while they both held the scroll.
Then Zuko dropped it down his own shirt where it rested where his sash cinched tight. He hadn’t questioned Sokka at all, and the exchange was so smoothly done it might have been practiced.
"Oh please," the owl spirit muttered behind them, “I’ll just clean up after you’ve taken all these books down, shall I?"
“Thanks!" Aang said.
They followed Aang and Katara through the mazes of bookshelves and to the main library dome. There was a rope dangling down from the ceiling. Above, at the very top spire, several of the windows were still above the sand. Shadows passed before the age-tinted glass as if someone was running by it. And then, a bloom of orange flame.
Zuko took a running leap and grabbed the rope, hauling himself arm over arm up. Katara did the same. Aang opened up his airglider and was near the top first.
Sokka reached for the rope… and of course his hand phased right through.
He tried to grab it again, with the same result. Apparently whatever spiritual magic which had allowed him to hold books and scrolls didn't work for objects partially outside the library. "… Little help here!"
Zuko, who was already halfway there, glanced down. Sokka saw the exact moment the same realization hit him: He had a choice to help his Uncle or help Sokka.
Zuko glanced up to where his uncle was fighting off earth benders, grit his teeth, and slid back down the rope—jumping off completely before he could run into Katara.
He landed heavily before Sokka. “Get inside me!”
Sokka hesitated. Now that he knew the truth about himself—what he was—bodily possession seemed to be a really bad idea.
“Sokka!" Zuko snapped. “What are you waiting for? There's no time!"
He was right. Sokka stepped in.
As usual, things felt a hundred times more real and present while in Zuko’s body. His heart was racing so fast Sokka could hear his pulse in his own ears. He grabbed the rope, felt the rough weave of it against his palm, started to climb.
But it was slower going than before.
It wasn't like Sokka had a lot of experience climbing rope in the South Pole and Katara was slower than either of them. Aang fluttered down to help her up, but Sokka was aware of every second that passed.
In his head, Zuko screamed at him to hurry.
There were no more blasts of orange through the windows.
They were last atop the spire. Aang, who had anxiously waited for them, reached down and grabbed his arm to haul him the rest of the way. Once Sokka was on solid ground, Aang opened the window.
Hot, dry heat rolled in as if they stood in front of an oven.
A sky bison bellowed, enraged and desperate.
“Appa!" Aang cried, and rushed out.
Where is my uncle? Zuko demanded.
Sokka looked around. Even Zuko's eyes, used to looking at flame, felt watery as he tried to make sense of shapes against the bright searing desert. With a lot of blinking, it came into focus: Several people dressed in brown rags had thrown ropes around Appa and seemed to be trying to coax the bison onto some sort of sand ship. More sandships—at least a dozen of them—were scattering in every direction. Their sails let them fly over the sand as if it were the ocean.
With a yell, a mound of sand exploded outward a few feet away and a little girl in cream and green outfit jumped free of the crater.
“You're going to regret burying me!” she yelled and swung her fist in a low arc. The sand before her rose in an unsteady wave, crashing right before it hit a group of other sandbenders.
Sokka rushed to untie some of the ropes around Appa’s neck. Behind, he heard blasts of air from Aang’s bending, and the snap of a waterwhip. Water from Katara’s pouch, no doubt.
No free water in the desert, he thought. Then again, when had he ever needed bending to fight?
“Wait!” He leapt onto Appa’s saddle, dug through the bags, and there it was. His fingers closed over the sweet grip of his boomerang. “Finally!" Rising, Sokka aimed and let fly, knocking away a sandbender who had been trying to bend the sand under the little earthbender girl’s feet.
Appa bellowed again and lurched. The last of the rope snapped and the bison was free. Cries went up among the sandbenders. They retreated to the remaining view ships. Raising their sails, they cast away. Like the others, they scattered in all directions.
I don’t see Uncle. Where is he? Zuko demanded. Give me back my body!
Sokka stepped out and Zuko looked freight frantically around.
“Uncle!" he yelled. “Uncle!”
Iroh was nowhere to be seen.
“He’s gone.” The little earthbender girl sounded shaken. “I tried to help, but my feet can’t see a thing in this sandy soup.”
Immediately, Zuko turned to her. “Where is he?”
Head bowed, she clenched her fists. She shook. Not out of fear, but helpless rage. “I don’t know! Uncle was trying to save Appa… but then they took him, instead.”
Happy Holidays, everyone!
In addition to this chapter, I received three new fanart pics by the lovely and talented Sinuous. For some reason AO3 is giving me fits when I try to add them to the chapters, so for now here are the direct links. I think it has something to do with the mobile upgrade AO3 is doing with images. They'll be added to the chapters (starting at chapter 4) later.
Zuko whirled to the little earthbender girl. “Which ship is Iroh on? Which one took him?”
“How should I know?” she yelled. “My feet can’t see a thing out here.”
"Where is Sokka?" Katara demanded, shrilly over the two of them.
"I'm right here." Sokka waved his hand, but Katara's gaze passed through him, unseeing.
Realization slumped Sokka’s shoulders. Now they were out of the owl’s Spirit Library and back into the real world, Zuko was the only one who could see him again. He wished he had told Katara goodbye. Her expression was devastated as she looked around for him, and saw nothing.
Too bad Zuko, Aang, and the new girl were too busy yelling at each other to console her.
"I told you! I don't know where they went!" Frustrated and sandy, the girl stomped her foot to raise a puff of dust.
"Why didn't you fight them?" Aang demanded. "Why you let them take Uncle away?"
“I didn’t let anyone do anything!” The little Earth Kingdom girl turned to Zuko. “And who are you again?"
Zuko ignored her, turning to Aang. "We have to catch up to those sandbenders. We can't let them get away."
"Where's Sokka?" Katara yelled, over them all. "Did we leave him back in the library?"
"He's right here!" Zuko pointed directly at him. A space none of them could see.
"Tell her I'm fine," Sokka said as Katara's gaze swept over him again.
Smoke was literally coming out of Zuko’s ears as he growled, “He's fine, but my Uncle won't be if we don't catch up to his ship soon!"
“He’s right. Everyone aboard Appa," Aang said.
Everyone piled on the waiting bison’s saddle, and Sokka heard Zuko suck in a breath as Appa launched upward into the sky. There was nothing like that first stomach swooping sensation, like he had left his stomach back on the ground behind him.
… Even though Sokka felt nothing like that this time around. Not even the rush of air against his skin.
Once the sky bison reached a respectable height, he leveled out. Balancing with effortless ease, Zuko stood in the saddle to look around. Sokka did too.
The landscape had changed drastically from the Sun Warrior’s island, as if they had been transported across the world. Lush jungle had been replaced by endless desert. Orange sand dunes stretched on and on, looking like distant ocean waves.
Rapidly receding dots to every point along the horizon indicated fleeing sandbender ships. They had scattered in a circle. Smart.
"They have to meet up together again at up point," Sokka mused.
Zuko frowned. "Unless they're separate tribes. This is the Si Wong desert. The sandbenders here are disorganized and fight among each other as much as with the Fire Nation."
“So, how do we know which one to follow?” Aang asked.
Zuko's frown turned to a scowl as he shook his head. He didn’t know.
Sokka thought for a few moments, then snapped his fingers. “We need to find out where they’re heading. Zuko, where would they take Iroh?"
If anything, Zuko's expression darkened. "Ba Sing Se."
"What?" Katara and Aang asked at the same time.
"Why?" Sokka asked.
Zuko answered Sokka. “Earthbenders have captured my Uncle before. The Earth King would want nothing better than to put the Dragon of the West on trial."
"Wait." The Earth Kingdom girl sat up, suddenly alert. Sokka realized she had been the only one not desperately searching the horizon. Now he took a moment to look at her, he saw why: Her gaze was clouded and blank. A blind Earthbender?
The girl continued, voice rising. “You're saying that kind tea-making old man was the actual Dragon of the West? The one who sieged Ba Sing Se for six hundred days? Whoa!”
"Yes," Zuko replied through grit teeth. "And they'll want to bring him to what they see as justice.”
Oh man. Time was of the essence. "Okay, that's our direction, then. Which way is Ba Sing Se? Who has my map?"
Zuko repeated his request, and Aang and Katara looked guilty.
"You guys got rid of my map?" Sokka demanded. "That thing was an antique!"
Aang shrugged and dug sand out of his ear. “It sort of washed downstream when we were fighting the pirates."
“Great!” Sokka glared at Zuko. “Thanks for that.”
Zuko, however, didn’t look the least bit guilty. “That was months ago. How have you two known where you were going since then?”
"Oh, that's easy. An airbender always knows—“
"Nope." The earthbender girl shoved a hand right in front of Aang's face. “You just float wherever the wind takes you and call it good. An earthbender always knows her direction. Ba Sing See should be to the northeast. Get me down to the ground and I'll point the way."
“Down on the—Ugh! We don’t have time for this. They're getting away!" Zuko grumped, gesturing to the fleeing ships, but no one listened.
Aang pointed Appa down to land again. The moment the bison's feet touched the sand, Toph was out of the saddle. She shifted around in the sand, head cocked as if listening for something no one else could hear. Then she pointed. "That way."
They were off again. By this time, the sand-ships were well out of view. Zuko sat at the very edge of the saddle as if he longed to jump out and cross the distance himself.
“It's going to be okay," Sokka said.
Zuko shook his head. "Last time this happened, I stopped the earthbenders just as they were about to crush Uncle’s hands. They may not make the same mistake and wait twice. Can't this thing go any faster?"
"Chill out, hot stuff." To Sokka's surprise, the blind girl crawled over and clung onto Zuko's arm like he was an anchor point. He flinched in surprise and looked down at her, then up at
Sokka in confusion. Sokka could only shrug.
"I'm Toph, by the way," the girl said. "So you're Uncle's nephew? I thought he said you were dead."
"Stories of Zuko's death are highly exaggerated," Sokka said.
"I'm hard to kill," Zuko said flatly.
She patted his arm. "So is your Uncle."
"Toph's right," Aang said with way too much cheer. "Appa is flying as fast as he can. He’ll get us there in time.”
"Do you guys see that?" Katara asked suddenly.
Everyone turned to where she was pointing. It took a few seconds for Sokka's own eyes to pick out what she meant… then there it was. A smudge against the bright blue sky.
"Little help here for the girl who can't see?" Toph demanded.
"Smoke." Zuko's voice was satisfied. "Rising smoke. That is where my uncle will be."
Turns out it wasn't one sandbender ship that was on fire. It was three. Two were fully engulfed in flame and one was halfway there. Several men crawled away, coughing. Others lay on the sand, unconscious.
The second Appa landed, Aang and Katara ran to search the wreckage.
Zuko jumped down and grabbed one crawling, coughing man to haul him up by his collar. "Where is he? Where is General Iroh?"
The man shook his head, dazed.
Zuko shook him. "Tell me!"
"... He was like a one-man army,” the man gasped.
“You’re saying Iroh did this?" Toph demanded.
“Him and his friends…. We were betrayed..." The man slumped, sliding into unconsciousness.
In disgust, Zuko let him fall. Then he looked to Sokka.
"Sounds like he escaped," Sokka said.
“Yes, but where did he go?"
Sokka pointed. "There are other ships on the horizon. Maybe he hijacked one?" But that didn't sound quite right to him. Surely it took more than one person to steer a sand-ship?
He looked around. The man that Zuko had interrogated seemed to be doing the best out of the bunch. Katara was bent and healing some, while Aang tried to put out the flames of one of the ships, but it was a losing battle.
Suddenly, Toph pulled on Zuko's sleeve. "There's something in the sand over here. Help me find it. My feet can't see a thing."
"Why are you always talking about your feet?” he snapped.
"I see using earthbending, but it doesn't work so well when there are a hundred million billion grains of sand under my toes."
"I didn't know that was possible," Sokka said.
Zuko shrugged but let himself be pulled about twenty feet to the side. It was a little funny. Toph was about half his height, but yanked him along like he was her personal seeing-eye deer-dog. She stopped in place and pointed downward. “It’s about here.”
Bending down, Zuko raked his fingers through the sand and then frowned as he came back up with something. "Is this a pai sho tile?"
Sokka peered closer. "It's the white lotus tile."
"That's the one Uncle and Master Piandao used to play." Aang bounced over. Judging by the three cheerily burning ships, he'd had no luck putting the fires out.
"He's not your Unc—” Zuko stopped. "Master Piandao? How do you know him?”
"He's Iroh's friend," Toph said. "He dropped Iroh off with Aang right before we hit the desert."
Aang was nodding. "He's very serious."
"That sandbender said they were betrayed..." Sokka mused.
Zuko's gaze snapped to him. "What are you thinking?"
"What do you mean?"
"I know that look. You’ve thought of something. What is it?”
"Um, who is he talking to?" Toph asked.
"Katara's brother. Only Zuko can see and hear him right now. Sokka, this is Toph, my Earthbending master. Toph, this is Sokka," Aang said, not realizing introductions had already been made. Also, he was facing completely the wrong direction.
"Sokka is standing here, not there.” Zuko snapped, and Sokka felt a flush of satisfaction that he was defending him.
"I'm just wondering if Iroh has more friends than you know about,” Sokka said. "The sandbender said he was betrayed. Master Piandao, who I assume is Fire Nation 'dropped' Iroh off, which means that they were doing other things, before. Time you can’t account for. And now you’ve found this weird pai sho tile. It's all pointing to something."
"Yes,” Zuko grit out. “but what?"
"I don't know!" He threw his arms up in the air. "But it's connected, somehow."
"Iroh was always playing pai sho with friends. That's what old men do!"
"But what if pai sho wasn't just a game."
Zuko looked at Sokka as if he had knocked loose an ice floe.
"What is he saying?” Aang asked.
"He doesn't know," Zuko said. “He has no idea what he’s talking about.”
Appa bellowed and their heads swiveled. Several points of dark lacquered hulls with pointed sails were growing larger on the horizon. Other sandbander ships coming to the aid of their friends.
Standing from the last wounded man, Katara replaced her water back in her waterskin at her side and jogged up to them. “Looks like the sandbenders are bringing back-up. We have to get out of here."
Zuko looked torn.
So did Aang. He glanced at Zuko, shyly. "You are coming with us, right?"
Again, Zuko looked to Sokka who shrugged. “Destiny, right?"
With a sigh, Zuko nodded. With that, he officially joined the Avatar’s group.
There was no sign of the ship that Iroh had escaped on. The desert was like a sea, just as vast as the one Sokka knew at home, and equally hard to locate a missing person.
They searched for hours, flying low whenever they spotted a sand ship— and then hastily flying high again when sandbenders bent jets of sand Appa's way. Clearly, none of those were the ship that Iroh had escaped on.
As the sun lowered, Zuko grew increasingly frustrated and worried.
Appa slowed, too. The heat was particularly hard on him. And according to Aang, there were no helpful thermals to help him lift. As evening set in, he was forced to land Appa again.
It was a quiet, dispirited group who set up camp. Zuko was anxious, which put him in a foul mood. Toph seemed upset that the sand wouldn’t let her “see”. (Whatever that was supposed to mean. Bender magic never made any sense.) Katara started making soup out of their rations and her bending water. (Yuck.) But she kept turning to stare, frowning, at Zuko.
Finally, Zuko turned to Katara. "What?"
"What?" she echoed.
"You keep staring at me."
She drew herself up, but didn't deny it. “I want to know how is Sokka is doing.”
“He’s fine," Zuko snapped and turned to gaze moodily over the desert again. In the gathering dark, there were no signs of sand ships.
"Can I hear that from him?" Katara asked, pointedly.
Zuko visibly bristled.
"Come on," Sokka said. "There are no ships in sight."
Zuko turned to glare at him, so Sokka turned on his most potent puppy dog eyes.
The corners of Zuko's lips twitched—just for a second before he smoothed his expression out again.
“Whatever,” he grumbled, turning fully to him and dropping his crossed arms.
It was as good of an invitation as he was going to get. Sokka stepped into his body.
The first thing he felt was warmth. Not the wet, moist jungle air he had come to associate with Zuko's time with the Sun Warriors, but dry, baking heat. Even though the sun had set nearly an hour ago, it was as if he stood near a bread baking oven.
"Are you serious?" He shook his fist to the sky, the hot, hot, hot desert sand below, the world at large. "Ugh, this heat is terrible. How can you stand it—oomph!”
He was cut off as Katara practically tackled him in a hug.
"Katara!" he whined, staggering. When had she grown so tall? "I just saw you a few hours ago."
"I know, but I couldn't hug you, then."
She leaned back and Toph stepped forward to grab his wrist in a very strong grip. Her eyebrows went up. "Whoa."
"What?" Sokka asked.
"Your heartbeat changed. Your breathing, too. You really are a different person.”
"It did? Wait, you can feel my heartbeat?"
"Earthbending," she said which was no explanation at all. "So you're Katara's ghost brother?"
Suddenly, even though the air was baking hot, he felt cold. "I'm not a ghost!"
No, he was something worse...
Katara didn't seem to notice darkening his mood. She looked shifty. "Sokka, I have something to tell you." She paused. "Is Zuko listening right now?"
"Well, yeah, it's his ears."
Trust me, whatever she is about to say I've heard worse from you, Zuko griped inside his head.
“What’s wrong?” Sokka asked.
Katara bit her lip. "We ran into Bato."
"What?" Sokka yelped. "When?"
"Right before Aang and I made it to the North Pole.”
“Why wasn’t he with Dad?”
“It’s… a long story. He was recovering from an injury, but he’s fine. He must be back with the rest of the men by now.” She shook her head, distraught. “I told him... Oh, Sokka, I'm sorry. Bato asked about you and I didn’t know what to say. I thought you were still trapped in the spirit world, and I didn't want him to blame Aang, so I told him you were still back home with Gran-Gran."
“… Oh." He wasn't sure how he felt about that. On one hand, he didn't want Bato—or his dad—to worry. On the other hand, he didn't like the idea that his father and the other warriors thought he was the type of brother to sit at home and let Katara go on a trip across the world by herself.
Katara continued. "I'm sorry," she said again. "I panicked. And then there was the ice dodging—”
"Wait, Bato took you ice dodging?"
"Well, there wasn't any ice around so we used rocks, but it still counted. I passed. I got the Mark of the Brave... Are you okay?"
"I..." He wasn't sure. Oily jealousy sloshed around in his gut, mixed with the knowledge he had missed out on something special. Not only that, but his Dad might think he was a coward who had chosen to stay back home while his sister helped the Avatar…
Katara looked at him with guilt in her eyes.
Sokka swallowed feelings down and forced a smile. "Congratulations. Really. Who would have thought that my little sister would become an adult before me?"
He knew right after the words came out that it had been the wrong thing to say.
Aang, who sometimes could be oblivious said, "I got the Mark of the Trusted."
Aang. Twelve-year-old Aang had gone ice dodging? Great. That was just... great.
Sokka had been twelve when Hakoda and the men had left. He begged and begged to be allowed to ice dodge. If he was to stay behind, he should at least be a man. But Hakoda was firm: By the tribe’s rules, you had to be at least fourteen.
Unless, of course, you were the Avatar.
Are you okay? Zuko asked.
"It's fine," Sokka said to him, to everyone. "I'm happy for you guys. Everything’s great."
Even Aang's face fell.
Want me to take over? Zuko asked.
“I’m fine!” Sokka insisted with enough boiling anger that he knew he sounded like Zuko. “I’m dying to eat. What's cooking?"
Katara stepped forward. "Sokka—”
“Would you just stop? I told you—”
He slashed his hand in emphasis… and felt something outside of himself tug along with it. Abruptly, half the soup Katara had been boiling in the kettle slopped out and hissed into the fire, dousing it.
Everyone went abruptly silent.
"Um—” Aang’s head whipped back and forth so fast he looked in danger of giving himself whiplash.
"Did you just—?” Toph started, toes curling in the sand.
Katara just stared with wide eyes. “… Sokka?"
He winced, rubbing the back of his neck. "So, fun fact: When I'm in Zuko's body I can hijack his bending, and since I'm Water Tribe..."
Katara stared. “You're a waterbender?"
"No! I'm just waterbending in his body. It’s not the same.”
But suddenly Katara looked as gut-punched as he had felt a few moments before.
Toph tipped her head back to the sky and cackled. "I guess you're not the only waterbender in the family, Sugarqueen."
"Guys, I'm not a waterbender! I'm still the boomerang guy."
You’re a lot more than that, Zuko said from deep within his mind. And you know it.
He stopped. Was Zuko saying...?
You're the plan guy, too, Zuko finished.
Ha. Right. Of course. "I'm the plan guy, too!" he added and prayed to every spirit he ever heard of (except Hei Bai because screw that guy) that Zuko had not felt his body's heart lurch in his chest.
Aang, of course, barely listened. "Wow, that means you can learn waterbending with me now.”
“No way. You need to focus on your earthbending, Twinkletoes," Toph said. "You've had enough waterbending for a while. And I'm sure Sparky will want his shot with you and firebending."
Sparky? Zuko snorted.
"Toph, you're my new favorite member. I am so glad they added you to the group," Sokka said.
"No problem, ghost boy."
"I'm not a—Never mind." He turned to Katara, realizing she had been quiet, and found her returned silently to tending the soup—or what was left of it.
Thanks to Sokka's waterbending oopsie, they all had half portions. Sokka ate, shooting looks at Katara. She smiled back at him, but he suspected she was as 'fine' as he was.
I’m not a waterbender, he wanted to snap. But the petty part of him thought that if he couldn’t have ice dodging… at least he could have this.
He gave Zuko his body back after the meal. Shortly after that, Zuko took Aang aside to talk about firebending.
Zuko stomped back to Sokka a few minutes later, looking especially pissy.
"What’s—” Sokka started.
"He's afraid of fire!" Zuko looked ready to boil something. Preferably a monk’s head. “He sought out a master already, but got scared off and doesn't want to continue firebending at all!”
"Um, but he's the Avatar."
"I know!" Zuko scowled. "I'm waking him up at dawn and we will meditate. Maybe that will get his head on straight."
"Did that ever work for you?"
Zuko's glare was answer enough.
Toph trotted up, clearly having heard Zuko. "Good for you." She punched him in the arm. "Glad to see you're not going to coddle him, like his girlfriend does. I practically had to beat his head in with a rock to get him to earthbend."
"See?" Sokka asked. "Wait, what do you mean, girlfriend?"
He never got a satisfactory answer. Toph, it seemed, like teasing everyone. Even people she couldn’t see.
Eventually, they had to bed down for the night, and Katara made a few noises about sleeping in shifts to keep a lookout for sandbenders. When had she gotten so reasonable?
Zuko snorted softly. “Sokka doesn’t sleep. He’ll keep watch.”
“Thanks for volunteering me, jerk,” Sokka said lightly.
Everyone dropped off quickly–even Appa and Momo because they had an exciting day. As usual, Sokka was left by himself.
The night crawled on, bright stars spinning overhead. Sokka paced back and forth, bored and anxious, wringing his nonexistent hands.
Searching for Iroh provided a good excuse for him not to think of what the owl spirit had told him. Now that all was quiet, his mind was spinning, playing Wan Shi Tong’s words on the same loop over and over. And then, following like a looming storm cloud was what the Dark Spirit’s said:
You’ll grow hungrier, more desperate for life by the day. It may take years… And in the end, you’ll be like me.
He had to tell Zuko. It was the right thing to do. Not telling him would totally be a Dark Spirit type of thing to do, and Sokka wasn’t going to be that guy.
Besides, he didn’t trust Aang to keep a secret for very long. He’d already caught him looking at Zuko a few times with a worried expression.
“Okay,” he swung his hands back and forth, psyching himself up. “I can do this. Zuko knows tons of things about me… He’s—our souls ring on the same frequency, or something… He’ll probably think me being a hungry spirit who may or may not be sucking away his life-force will be fine. Just fine.”
What if he wanted nothing more to do with Sokka?
Well, it wasn’t like he could get rid of him. He’d tried that already, the first few weeks on the ship. Maybe it was a dark spirit thing, but for better or worse, they were stuck together.
Plus, Sokka was with the Avatar. Aang would think of something. Right? He just had to defeat the Fire Lord, first. Then... maybe?
With that thought in mind, Sokka walked over to wake Zuko up. It was a few hours until true down. He’d be stirring soon, anyhow.
As Zuko lay sleeping, the tips fingers twitched, his eyes rolled and fluttered under his lids. The muscles around his lips jumped and ticked. He was dreaming.
Sokka paused, considering.
If it was a bad dream (most of Zuko’s dreams were), he’d be in a bad mood when he woke. Sokka hesitated for a moment, then, as he had done on the ship, laid his hand on Zuko’s shoulder. Not enough to possess him, but enough to join with him.
Abruptly, Sokka found himself running through the jungle, broad leaves slapping him in the face. The air was warm and heavy with moisture, but in a much more pleasant way than it had been on the Sun Warriors Island. Silken and welcoming.
A few steps ahead of him, Zuko panted as he ran, “Come on. Hurry up.”
“Where are we going?” Sokka asked.
“You’ll see in a minute.”
They broke cover to stumble upon a white, pristine beach. It was daylight, high noon, and the waves rolled up halfway, the water was an achingly beautiful light blue. In the distance, families with children played and someone flew a kite shaped like a whipping red dragon.
Sokka looked around. The air was now thick with the scents of spices and frying things. Further off stood a row of rich estate houses.
He glanced at Zuko for an explanation and found him grinning in a way he hardly did: free and open without a hint of self-consciousness.
“Where are we?” Sokka asked.
“Ember Island. Isn’t it great?” Zuko looked around. “I haven’t been here for years. I’ll show you around.”
Then he grabbed for Sokka’s hand, as easy as you please. Like Sokka was solid and real. His fingers closed around his wrist, warm and secure.
Zuko pulled him along. “I’ll show you to my family’s house.”
They walked and walked, but in the way of dreams, the houses never got any closer. Not that Sokka minded. The feel of Zuko’s touch the only thing he could concentrate on. Skin against skin. He turned his hand slightly, so they were palm to palm. Their fingers interlaced.
Zuko glanced over at him, cheeks tinged pink.
“Let’s sit,” Sokka suggested.
Visibly swallowing, Zuko tugged him to a line of trees further up the beach. They chose a spot under the shade of a wide palm tree and sat as close as they could, shoulder to shoulder. The line of their arms where they touched felt like the center of Sokka’s world.
Ahead, pale blue waves rolled in and out. Their linked hands rested between them. Heart beating fast, Sokka squeezed. Zuko squeezed back.
“I miss this place,” Zuko said at length. “We haven’t been back to Ember Island since my family was happy.”
He nodded to the side, and there as if she had been the entire time was Azula— younger, maybe seven or eight years old, carefully patting a sandcastle into place. The tip of her tongue stuck out of the corner of her mouth in concentration. She looked more full of life than Sokka had ever seen her before. As if the Dark Spirit had sucked something vital from her.
That reminder was enough to put a damper on the scene.
Sokka inhaled, closed his eyes. “Zuko, there’s something I need to tell you.”
“Can it wait?”
Sokka looked at him, and Zuko’s voice shook. “I haven’t been back here for years. I don’t want to leave. I don’t want you to leave.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Zuko let out an unsteady sigh, as if Sokka had just said the most comforting thing imaginable. His head rested on Sokka’s shoulder.
Daringly, hardly believing what he was doing, Sokka looped his arm around Zuko’s waist. His skin was solid and real and so soft. His thumb smoothed up and down the ladder of his ribs. Zuko shivered and leaned closer, tucking up to him.
It would be so easy for Sokka to dip his head, for Zuko to look up, and then…
Of course, Sokka’s big fat mouth got it in the way. “I wish you would dream like this more often. There’s a lot less fire and a lot more beach. I like it.”
He meant it as a joke, but the edges of Zuko’s mouth turned into a frown. Out to sea, sudden clouds gathered, casting a shadow that rolled in.
“This is a dream,” Zuko said, stiffening, pulling away. Then he turned, looking at Sokka as if for the first time. “I’m dreaming. Why are you here?”
And abruptly, the world around them shattered.
Sokka found himself back in the real world, kneeling over Zuko, whose eyes were opening.
Caught, Sokka jerked back, but it was too late.
Zuko sat up. “Were you… Was that you?”
“Huh?” Sokka asked, hoping playing dumb would get him out of trouble.
He blinked “I dreamed you were with me on Ember Island.” Then he stilled and stared hard at Sokka. “What did you do?”
“Nothing! I mean, I was trying to wake you up, and…”
“You entered my dreams?!” his voice broke in horror.
Guilt crawled up his throat. He never knew if Zuko remembered him being in his dreams before. Zuko never said anything, and Sokka always had problems remembering his own dreams.
Zuko was no fool, or maybe he could read Sokka too. “Was this the first time? Wait, so every time I dream of you, I—” He stopped, face turning red.
“No! I mean, I don’t know! Maybe?”
“This was the third time,” he admitted. “The first two were total accidents. This time sort of was, too. I only meant to wake you up.”
“You accidentally entered my dreams three times?” Zuko’s face was practically scarlet. It was as if he were burning from the inside.
“Okay, look, it’s not like that.” He stopped because, yeah, it was. Then his thoughts flicked back to what else Zuko had said. “Um, do you dream about me a lot?”
Somehow, Zuko’s face managed to grow redder.
Aang and Katara were starting to stir. Probably because Zuko hadn’t bothered to keep his voice down.
“Zuko?” Aang sat up, rubbing his eyes. Seeing Zuko, he brightened. “Oh wow, it’s really weird to see you when you’re not chasing us.”
Zuko ignored him. With jerky, angry motions he threw his blanket to the side.
“Zuko, I’m sorry—” Sokka started.
He whirled on him. “This is my head, my thoughts, my private dreams. You had no right!”
“What’s going on?” Katara asked.
Zuko swung around at her. “None of your business!” Then, seething, he started walking away.
“Where are you going?” Sokka asked.
“I want to be alone. Don’t follow me!”
He stumped off, over the nearest sand dune.
Katara looked at Aang. “What was that about?”
“Lover’s quarrel,” Toph said.
“It was not…!” Sokka started.
But Aang just nodded sagely, throwing him right under the bison. Thanks, Aang.
From the distance, there was a boom. Zuko, it seemed, was angry enough to throw fire around.
“Sounds like quite the fight…” Katara said. “Should we stop them?”
Because she assumed that Sokka had gone with him, that Zuko wasn’t working out his range on his own.
“Let him have his tantrum,” Toph suggested. “It’s not like he can hurt a ghost.”
I’m not the one who got hurt, Sokka thought glumly.
“I wonder what set him off?” Katara asked. “Something about dreams…?”
“It’s my fault.” Sokka looked to the rising sun, feeling lower than dirt. “I screwed up.”
The only person who could have heard him was too far away. His voice was lost on the breeze.
Katara made breakfast from the last of their soup and called Zuko over, but he was in too much of a sulk to join them.
Sokka stayed near Aang and his sister, watching them chat and eat, completely unaware he was there at all.
Finally, as the sun crested fully over the horizon, Zuko joined them, still looking sullen. He didn’t glance Sokka’s way, once.
Toph handed him a bowl with a pathetic amount of soup in it. “Got it out of your system, Sparky? You happy now?”
“I’m never happy,” he grumbled.
That was a lie. Sokka had just seen him happy in his dream. But he wasn’t dumb enough to mention that.
Toph just punched him on the arm.
“Ow! What was that for?”
“It’s how I show affection. You ready to find your Uncle?”
Somehow, she had said the exact right thing. Zuko’s face turned from petulant to serious. This was his game face.
“We should head back to Misty Palms Oasis. That’s where we met up with Uncle and his friend before we found the library. Maybe he made it back,” Aang said. “Or someone heard something about a stolen sand-ship. It’s the biggest town around.”
Zuko continued to ignore Sokka as everyone climbed in.
“Wait, don’t let Appa take off yet.” Katara looked at Zuko. “Is Sokka aboard?”
Finally, for the first time, Zuko shot a glance at him.
Sheepishly, Sokka waved.
Zuko grimaced and looked away. “He’s here.”
And that was that.
They arrived at the Misty Palms Oasis midday. The town was... a little sad. There were exactly two palms and Sokka could not see any mists at all. But the town, or what there was of it, was in an uproar.
People ran back and forth, throwing their belongings onto carts pulled by ostrich horses. Hardly anyone looked up as Appa landed. Apparently, the Avatar was a secondary concern.
"What's going on?" Aang called.
One seedy-looking man with a single eye squinted up at Aang. "You're the Avatar, boy?"
"No, he’s not,” Zuko said aggressively. "Who's asking?”
“Yes, I am,” Aang chipped. "Zuko, we try to start conversations on a more upbeat note.”
Zuko rolled his eyes.
The old man seemed to be more in line with Zuko's way of thinking. “If you’re the Avatar, you best get out of here if you know what's good for you."
"Why?" Katara asked, one hand drifting down to her waterskin.
"The Fire Nation's on the move. Word is, we've got a whole army heading here. I heard they're traveling to Ba Sing Se, and have burned down every stop on the way.”
Oh, that was not good.
"Who's leading this army?" Zuko demanded.
"Why, I hear it's the Crown Princess herself." He turned. “And if half the things I heard about her are true… well. Anyone who can leave, is skedaddling. I suggest you do the same."
Everyone looked at each other, except for Toph who faced the ground, frowning.
"Oh,” Zuko said softly. "So this is what it feels like to be on this side of things."