In 0 ASC, we sailed the open seas. For glory, honor, and gold in the Fire Nation Army. For the other worlders are heathens and now Avatar-free. Or so we have been told by the Fire Nation Royalty.
Soldiers were standing on the docks, where one large, metal warship floated. They kissed their wives and loved ones goodbye, tears and hope for a better life shimmering in their eyes. One individual, dressed in complete army attire, walked forcefully towards the ship as the crowds parted for him.
“Hey, is that Prince Zuko?” One gray-haired man asked the soldier beside him.
“Oh, that’s him all right. The disgraced prince.”
“Crown Prince Zuko! I’ve heard some crazy stories about him!” One bright-eyed recruit said.
“Are you coming on this voyage, too?” The first man called out to him, taunting.
“Of course he is, you half wit. You can’t attack anyone without Prince Zuko,” the other laughed as Zuko walked onto the ship, his trademarked glare on his face.
“If I were you, I’d keep my mouths shut,” Zuko sneered and stormed past them. As the ship neared cast off, Admiral Zhao appeared and boarded the boat, Zuko’s uncle Iroh following behind him. Everyone waved their goodbyes.
For glory, honor, and gold in the Fire Nation Army.
A vicious storm tore at the ship, tossing it to and fro. Most of the soldiers clung desperately for their lives, but Zuko was attempting to keep some semblance of control. “Tie off that cargo!” He barked commands as he ran through the ship, trying to keep as much on board as he could. The bright-eyed soldier from before was clinging to a rope before hearing the command from the prince. He let go to grab a box of provisions that had gotten loose, but a wave cashed over the side and knocked him off the deck. He clung to a porthole on the side of the ship and Zuko jumped from his position to grab the recruit. He pulled him aboard and both fell onto the deck.
The storm seemed to calm down and one of the other soldiers pulled the recruit to his feet. “You’re a lucky young man.”
“Well, that was refreshing,” Zuko mumbled to himself, helping himself onto his feet.
“Well done, Zuko,” one of the soldiers sneered.
Zuko was going to send back a scathing retort, but Admiral Zhao suddenly appeared on the deck of the ship. Did that bolt of lightning have the most perfect timing? “Trouble on deck?” The contempt was practically dripping in his tones.
Zuko’s nostrils flared in contained anger and Iroh walked over to his side. He put a soothing hand on Zuko’s shoulder. “This young recruit almost fell into the ocean. Zuko saved him.”
“Well, thank goodness for the Prince’s bleeding heart,” Zhao sneered and turned on his heel. Zuko’s skin grew hot and steam poured off him in droves, leaving his skin as dry as it was before the storm.
“Don’t worry, men. Soon we’ll be reaching the Water Tribe. And remember what awaits us there. Freedom. Prosperity. The adventure of our lives. You’re the finest,” he glanced at Zuko, as if to say “mostly” “the fire nation has to offer. And nothing: not wind, nor rain, nor a thousand Waterbenders will stand in our way. Carry on.”
Zuko had walked off during his speech, unable to hear more of Zhao’s drivel. The recruit he’d saved, Qin Lee, seemed to be extremely grateful and now followed him around. “This is going to be great, Zuko. When we get to the Northern Water Tribe, I’m going to get as much money as I can, get a great big house, and if any Waterbender tries to stop me, I’ll blast ‘em!”
“You just worry about that fortune of yours, Qin Lee, and leave the Waterbenders to me,” Zuko said quietly, and a bit sarcastically, trying to brush the annoying recruit off.
Another young soldier appeared on the upper deck with them. “Do you think the Waterbenders will give us much trouble?” She asked worriedly.
“Not as much trouble as Zuko will give them!” Another young soldier announced with both confidence and sincerely. Zuko glowered and sunk down into a slouch. One rescue and he was suddenly the hero on the ship? He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned on the edge of the railing while the boy jumped onto a box and put his helmet on a barrel. “We’ll kill ourselves a Waterbender! Or maybe two or three!” He said loudly, while a few other recruits laughed with him.
Qin Lee walked over to Zuko on the railing and looked out at the ocean while the others carried on behind them. “What do you suppose the Northern Water Tribe will look like?”
“Like all the other cities, I suppose,” Zuko shrugged and turned to face the ocean as well. “I’ve seen hundreds of new cities, Qin Lee. What could possibly be different about this one?”
Through the mists above the ocean, a flying bison glided along. The rider in the front stuck out his hand and touched the clouds as they passed. A call sounded in the distance and the group looked down, seeing the Northern Water Tribe come into sight. Appa flew in circles above the city before settling in the central square. Staff in hand, the Avatar stepped down from bison and stood before the Earth King. “We defeated the Fire Nation soldiers at Kyoshi. Thanks to the help of the Kyoshi warriors, another city once again belongs to the Earth Kingdom.”
Katara burst forward and looked around as the crowd in the square cheered.
“It seems like almost all of the Northern is here,” Suki commented, smiling to herself.
“Yes, but there is one person I don’t see,” she crossed her arms over her chest. “Where’s Sokka?”
“You know how he is,” Suki shrugged. “He’ll show up eventually.”
“SOKKA!” Katara called as she walked through the palace. He had to be around somewhere. “SOKKA, GET OUT HERE! YOUR LOVELY SISTER HAS RETURNED!” She yelled, getting more and more frustrated by the moment. Soon she heard a crash and Sokka skidded into the hallway. He slipped and ran into a column.
“Why does that always happen?” He moaned and stood up slowly, rubbing his backside.
“What are you doing?” Katara put her hand on her hip.
“They polish these floors all day long! They’re slippery!” He complained and she ran forward to give him a quick hug.
“It wouldn’t happen if you would walk around like a normal person,” she said as they parted. “Come on! We’ve got to say hello to everyone!”
“Fine, fine,” Sokka huffed. “I did see you guys just last week, you know.”
Katara’s brows furrowed. “You know, Sokka, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you didn’t like us.”
“I do! I do! But a week isn’t that long,” he pulled away from her, fearing the wrath of his sister. But he dropped the joking attitude for a moment. “Seriously, though, sis, I’m glad you’re okay.”
They walked into the throne room of the chief, where Aang was recounting the battle of Kyoshi. Suki was standing with him, interjecting here and there in support. Yue was next to her father, listening intently. A small smile crept onto Katara’s face and she nudged Sokka in the side.
“What?” He whispered to us and she looked pointedly in the princess’s direction. “Yue?”
“You like her, don’t you?” Katara muttered under her breath, trying not to distract from Aang.
“Yeah. Yue’s great,” Sokka said noncommittally, looking towards the princess. He suddenly felt unsure of himself. He should like seeing the princess, right? But why wasn’t he happy to see her? He was glad she was there, sure…but he wasn’t exactly…excited to see her. Sokka couldn’t look at Yue anymore and he walked from the room. Katara followed him into the large, vaulted corridor.
“Sokka, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing. It’s just…I feel weird. I don’t know,” he shook his head as if trying to clear it. “This whole thing with Yue and these strange dreams about keys…”
“Keys?” Katara inquired curiously, but one look at her made Sokka put his “man” face back on. He didn’t want his sister being concerned about him. Besides, dreams were just dreams.
He took a long, languorous stretch before talking again. “It’s nothing. I’m sure I’ve just been going crazy here. Sure I’m helping with war plans, but the chief is busy with lots of things. It’s not easy to find things to do in a castle. I’m a warrior, Katara. I’m meant to be out there fighting!”
“Not everything is about fighting, Sokka.”
“Sure it is,” Sokka retorted, but Katara stepped in front of him with her hands on her hips.
“You need to stop being so ignorant, Sokka! There’s a girl in that throne room that wants to be your girlfriend. You’re giving advice to the chief! You’ve got two other best friends and your sister! And all you can think about is fighting and eating! You need to stop all of…this,” she motioned to him, failing to decipher what it was she wanted him to stop, exactly.
Sokka’s eyebrows fell and he scowled. “You just gestured to all of me.”
“You’re so simple-minded!” She practically screamed and stormed off.
Sokka raised an eyebrow and then picked at his teeth. “…Simple-minded. Yeah. Wish I was,” he muttered and slumped off. “She’s the one who’s simple-minded. It’s all about hope and boys. Girls,” he tutted and stopped, feeling he was being followed. He looked behind him to see Momo staring up at him with his round eyes. “What? I can talk to myself all I want! Sheesh! Everyone’s so judgemental!” He glared, as if to challenge Momo, but the lemur just continued to stare. “Now I’m yelling at lemurs. This is not my day. I’m getting weird dreams, I don’t like Yue anymore….Maybe I am just getting antsy,” he started walking again, pondering to himself.
“Sounds like you’ve got yourself a problem,” Sokka nearly jumped out of his skin and turned to see Toph behind him now instead of Momo. She was leaning against on the pristine columns with her arms crossed over her chest.
“You don’t like Yue now, huh?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Then how about these dreams?”
Sokka sighed and decided it was better than talking about Yue. “They’re stupid, really,” he tried to convince her…but she just raised an eyebrow. He slumped and let his arms hang at his sides. “Well, in the dreams, there’s a lock in front of me and I’m in a room full of keys. And I’m trying to find the key that unlocks it…and finally I do. I go to open the door and…then I wake up.”
Toph seemed to consider this for a moment before heaving herself from the wall. “It sounds like a sexual metaphor to me.”
“Argh!” Sokka said and started walking away in a huff. He did NOT want to hear that from Toph!
“Wait!” Toph jogged after him. “Fine. Do you want to know what I really think?”
“Doesn’t matter, as long as you never say ‘sexual metaphor’ again.”
“Listen, key-boy. I think it’s telling you where to go. In life, you know? If you find the right key, you’ll know which path you have to take.”
Sokka paused for a moment to look at the young Earthbender. “That’s very…enlightened of you, Toph.”
“Yeah, well, don’t tell anyone about my ‘enlightened’ qualities. I have a reputation to maintain.”
“Warrior’s honor,” he smiled and noticed something out of the tall castle window. “What’s that?”
“What?” Toph asked.
“It looks like…black clouds,” in the distance, billows of black smoke were pouring over the walls of the city.
“Look at it, men. The Northern Water Tribe ripe for the taking,” Zhao gestured to the walls surrounding the kingdom.
“And loads of tea waiting for us, right, Zuko?” Iroh nudged Zuko, but the firebender scowled.
“No time for tea, uncle.”
Zhao curled his lip at the pair and mumbled to himself, “and he came so highly recommended.”
“It’s incredible!” The female recruit Zuko had met, Ming Na, gaped at the expansive walls of the city.
“I’ve never seen anything like it!” Another recruit, Jing, stood awestruck as well.
“It can look like Zhao’s underwear for all I care, as long as I get some action!” Qin Lee was the last to speak on their approach to the city. As the group approached, all but one failed to notice the disappearance of the prince. Iroh raised an eyebrow, but did not sound the alarm.
“What do you think, Zuko?” Qin Lee whispered, but when he wasn’t met with an answer, he looked around and noticed him missing. Iroh put a finger over his lips and winked. The soldier seemed confused, but didn’t say anything. Zuko was around a different part of the ship, crawling into a kayak, pulling off his Fire Nation uniform to reveal the clothing of a member of the Water Tribe. He had cut off his traditional ponytail a few months before, leaving his hair looking less like that of a firebender. He was not with the group to attack the tribe itself…he had heard rumor the Avatar was there…He needed to get inside in order to capture the Avatar and regain his honor. An invasion would last years, if it was successful at all. He had a plan to get him through. Hopefully he could enter the city before the attack from the fire nation was noted.
It didn’t take long for Zuko get to the closest point to the walls. He pulled the clothes close to himself and dove into the water. He swam underneath the wall and came to a thin patch of ice. He used his bending to get through. He glanced idly at the animals lounging about before moving into the city. It was an actual city. Zuko had expected huts and snow…not buildings, streets, fountains….and… a castle. Inevitably, the Airbender must be within the palace walls, so he started walking in that direction, hopefully inconspicuous amongst the members of the water tribe. He pulled his hood up so they wouldn’t notice his pale skin and yellow eyes.
A bell sounded in the distance and people began to go into a panic. Zuko got lost in the midst of the crowds of people both running towards the grand walls of the Northern Water Tribe and away – towards their own homes.
Zuko, however, headed towards the palace.
“The Fire Nation has attacked. We must remember the sorts of people these men are. They are not like us. They’re beasts with heavy armor and machines. They prowl the earth like ravenous wolves, consuming everything in their path.”
Sokka thought the description was a bit overdramatic. The Fire Nation was the enemy, sure. But ravenous wolves?
“We need to protect the city!” Yue announced and Sokka almost responded sarcastically with “no shit,” but restrained himself. He got that strange feeling in his stomach again, like something was horribly wrong. He shouldn’t want to argue with the beautiful princess. He glanced around to make sure no one was looking before slipping out the door. Why was he acting like this? Was it Suki’s presence? It couldn’t be…he’d started acting like his around Yue before Suki’s arrival.
He grabbed his club and walked beside one of the canals in the city. He took a long deep breath…what he needed was a walk. Or a fight. He glanced down at the reflective water and caught a glimpse of pale skin beneath the hood of someone walking nearby. Sokka spun around and yanked the hood down, club raised. The other looked right back at him, but it wasn’t fear he saw in the foreigner’s eyes. It was as if he was challenging Sokka to hit him. He was obviously not Water Nation.
“You’re one of them,” he hissed and this seemed to awaken the firebender. Suddenly, he ran and it took Sokka a moment to realize he was gone. The warrior shook his head, as if clearing it, and tore after him, his club aloft. He caught up with the pale boy – he obviously didn’t know his way around the city and ran into a dead end. “What are you doing here?” Sokka demanded.
“I’m not going to hurt anyone,” he held up his hands, but Sokka still kept wary – he might be a bender, after all.
“You’re Fire Nation!”
“I’m not going to do anything.”
“Are you a spy?”
The dark-haired boy shook his head. Something in his eyes made Sokka lower his club. “The Fire Nation is attacking, you’re in the city, and you’re not going to hurt anyone?”
“The Fire Nation’s not in the city, yet, if you’ve noticed. I’m not with them. I have nothing against the Water Tribe.”
“Then why are you here?” Sokka was still suspicious, but slightly less alert.
“My name is Zuko,” he held out his hand, ignoring the question all together. Sokka looked down at the hand in confusion – he was introducing himself? He should have thought this suspicious, but he clasped the other’s hand.
They stared at each other for a long moment. Sokka didn’t know what to say, but it didn’t feel awkward, strangely enough.
“Are you a waterbender?”
“Nah,” Sokka shrugged, slinging his club over his shoulder. He saw Zuko flinch slightly when he swung the weapon. “Are you a firebender?”
“Yeah,” Zuko seemed unsure as to whether or not to act ashamed or not.
Sokka’s natural hesitation around Fire Nation seemed to melt away, no pun intended. But something still bothered him about the bender. “Why are you here?”
This time Zuko didn’t avoid the question, but he didn’t look Sokka in the eyes when he answered. “I’m looking for someone.”
“Who?” Sokka asked, trying to garner his attention again.
Zuko did look back at Sokka this time, but his answer was so quiet, it was almost inaudible. “The Avatar.”
“Aang? Why are you looking for Aang? Are you in some sort of trouble?”
Zuko nodded, “you could say that.”
“Well, I happen to be friends with him. I could talk to him for you.” Zuko’s expression suddenly changed, but Sokka had never been good at deciphering emotions. “What’s wrong?”
The firebender pulled his hood back up slowly. “Do I look that much like Fire Nation?” He asked quietly.
“Well, you’re certainly not Water Tribe,” Sokka admitted, but considered him further. “I suppose you could pass for Earth Kingdom, although you’re a bit pale…but you don’t have one of those stupid Fire Nation haircuts.”
“Of course. I bet you had one. Was it one of those stupid ponytail things?” Sokka began teasing.
“Who’s talking about a stupid ponytail?” Zuko retorted defensively and Sokka glared.
“This is a warrior’s wolf tail!” He snapped back and they stared each other down for several seconds before Sokka burst out laughing. Zuko began to laugh hesitantly.
The bells sounded in the distance again and Sokka looked up, the smile dropping from his face. “I need to go,” he said, turning to leave, but then looked back at Zuko. “I’ll meet you again, okay? We can go talk to the Avatar.”
The firebender hesitated but then nodded.
“I’ll find you as soon as I can,” Sokka said before running off to join the ranks of the soldiers.
Thoughts of the firebender wouldn’t stop haunting Sokka. No, harassing Sokka. They were harassing him! All he knew was he had to see him again. After fighting the Fire Nation back from the walls for a brief period, Sokka disappeared from amongst the warriors.
Thanks to his fantastic hunting skills, Sokka was able to locate Zuko fairly quickly. Although it helped that most of the water tribe citizens were hidden or at the walls. He found the lone bender walking down a street. “Zuko!” He called after him and he turned towards Sokka and let his hood fall back.
“I didn’t think you were coming back.”
“I’ll have you know I keep my promises,” Sokka announced and looked behind him to make sure no one was watching the pair.
They stood in relative silence – only sounds of yelling at the walls pierced the quiet. Finally, Zuko spoke. “It’s nice here.” It was a rather lame conversation starter, of course, but Sokka picked it up quickly.
“I can show you around,” he offered, but Zuko looked hesitant. He assumed it was because he was a firebender. “Don’t worry. No one’s really out right now. And if we see someone, you can just put that hood up.”
Zuko still looked uncomfortable, but nodded his agreement.
“Come on,” Sokka grabbed Zuko’s gloved hand. He noticed he caused a blush across the firebender’s cheeks and, if possible, Zuko looked even more uncomfortable. Sokka shrugged it off and led him through the Northern Water Tribe, giving him the “official tour” that Sokka had worked up. Zuko seemed to grow slightly more comfortable with the handholding.
“So, do you belong to the Fire Nation?”
“I don’t belong anywhere.”
“You could belong here,” Sokka said without thinking. When Zuko looked at him, Sokka had the sense to be embarrassed. “I mean – Princess Yue and I are pretty close. I could talk to her for you. You’re obviously no friend of the Fire Nation, so it wouldn’t be a problem.”
Sokka had never seen someone look incredulous, embarrassed, and perplexed at the same time. Nor had he ever met someone who could be both expressive and impassive at the same time. Suki was always extremely expressive, just like Sokka: they could be ready like an open book. Yue’s face was always a mask of calm indifference, with slight variations thereof. Zuko was different. His expression was usually blank, but when emotion shone through, the signs were minute, but intense. Not only intense, but complex. Sokka liked to think of himself as a simple man – he pretty much boiled down t omeat and sarcasm. Suki was more complex than himself, but she was pretty straightforward and behind Yue’s demure, kind exterior was a demure, kind interior. Zuko was something he hadn’t dealt with before. Sokka got the feeling he was hiding a lot, and not just information, but emotions. “How close?”
Sokka hadn’t realized there’d been a long silence between them until Zuko spoke. And there was that minute reveal of expression on his face. One of his brows, the good one, had lifted minutely with the query, but there was something else in his expression. But what? Trying to make up for the cheesiness and possible queerness of his previous comment, Sokka put on a fake grin and nudged Zuko with his elbow. “Very.” Zuko had not been prepared for the gesture and stumbled to the side before scowling back at Sokka. They fell back into their silent walking, but something was apparently still bothering Zuko.
“Obviously,” he muttered to himself and, at first, Sokka wasn’t sure to what he was referring. Obviously? Was he obviously into Yue? He doubted it. Why was Zuko upset? …Ooooh.
“Obviously not with the Fire Nation,” Sokka said aloud and Zuko didn’t deny it. Sokka, being ever so tactful, decided to clarify. “Your scar. It’s not like that’s an Earthbender scar.”
“I’m well aware!” Zuko snapped suddenly, “I don’t need it pointed out!”
Sokka backed away from him slightly, but tried to remain nonchalant. “No need to get so angry. Sheesh. I’m just saying it helps your story. Fire Nation can lie, so the scar just helps prove you’re telling the truth,” Sokka attempted to explain, but Zuko still had a dark expression. “Besides,” Sokka shrugged, trying to lighten the mood, “it makes you look hot.” When Zuko stared at him, Sokka realized he’d slipped again. “I mean hot temperature wise! You know, since it’s a burn…from fire….” He floundered, “those are very hot things! Temperature wise! Why are you still looking at me?”
Zuko blinked rather slowly for a moment. “You think I’m hot?”
“No!” Sokka protested immediately. “Didn’t you hear me just explaining? I was clarifying that I was saying you were hot in temperature, not in sexiness! You’re a firebender, right? You’ve got to be hot! Warm! Hot as in warm!” Sokka was getting flustered, and a flustered Sokka was not a happy Sokka.
“You said I looked hot,” Zuko seemed unconvinced.
“Your scar looked hot! Because it’s a burn- forget it!” Sokka huffed and started storming off, seeing no other option. Either stand back there with that stupid, sexy Zuko and his stupid, sexy brain thinking stupid, sexy things or run away…except that stupid, sexy Zuko was following him. Dammit! Couldn’t he ever get a break?
“Are you running away?” Was he amused by him? If that tiny smile pulling at the corners of Zuko’s stupid, sexy mouth was any indication….yes.
“No, I’m just picking up the pace. This is a big city. If we keep walking so slow, we won’t see everything,” Sokka lied and continued on, but letting Zuko follow him. “This is…umm…” he tried to point out landmarks to avoid talking to Zuko again. He could let something slip….again. “Well….it’s…a bridge.”
“Yeah, I could figure that out myself.”
“Would you let me give the tour?!” Sokka snapped in desperation and kept talking, despite Zuko attempting to hide a smile. “And that’s…a…building,” he said slowly, noticing Zuko watching him.
“Would you stop looking at me with your stupid, sexy eyes?! I’m trying to give you a tour!”
Zuko looked both taken aback and like he was about to laugh. “My stupid, sexy eyes, huh?”
After going through a few implausible explanations in his head, Sokka deflated and let out a long sigh. “Dammit,” he muttered to himself, but Zuko didn’t seem anything but mildly surprised and pleased. “What? Okay, so you’re an attractive guy and I noticed. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“Not at all,” Zuko agreed, but Sokka suspected he was employing sarcasm…and Sokka should know. He was the king of sarcasm.
“All right. Fine. You’re hot. I’m having trouble with girls. It doesn’t help that you’re mysterious and suave and all interesting…”
“Suave?” The look of confusion on Zuko’s face was taken as skepticism for Sokka’s explanation.
“I just…” Sokka groaned. “I don’t even like Yue or Suki anymore and I think something’s wrong with me. And then you come along with your stupid, sexy ass and make me laugh and get all embarrassed every time I talk to you. And I’m trying to act cool and manly and then you look at me…” Sokka trailed off, seeing Zuko look at him. “You’re doing it now!”
“Sorry,” Zuko apparently thought Sokka was actually upset with him because the firebender stared at the ground now.
“I mean, I kinda like it when you look at me, but that’s the problem,” Sokka complained, but Zuko was looking at him again, with both a slight smile and blush on his face.
“I’m not sure I see the problem.”
Sokka stopped and stared openly at Zuko, who had lost the smile, but the blush was significantly more prominent. Suddenly, bells sounded again in the distance, which knocked Sokka out of his reverie. “I shouldn’t be here,” he looked away towards the walls and turned towards the palace.
“Where are you going?” Zuko managed to snag Sokka’s sleeve as he was leaving.
“I’m supposed to be at the palace. The others will be worried about me.”
“Can I come with you?”
Sokka shook his head. “I have to make sure you won’t be killed on sight first,” he tried to start walking again, but Zuko kept a firm grip on his sleeve.
“When will I see you again?” He asked insistently and Sokka almost told the bells to go fuck themselves and stayed with Zuko.
“When I can, okay?”
Zuko didn’t seem satisfied with this, but he nodded before releasing Sokka.
When Sokka arrived at the palace, he was quickly snatched by his sister. “Where have you been?” She demanded. “We’ve been worried sick!”
“I was just….walking around….thinking…”
“Thinking? More like eating.”
“Hey! I was not eating! Although I would like to eat now. I’m starving.”
“Well, you missed dinner, so you’ll just have to starve,” Katara had her hands on her hips. “I’m going to go let everyone know you’re still alive!” She stormed off, mumbling something about “stupid brothers” or similar, but Sokka chose to ignore her. He wanted something to eat. His stomach gurgled and he groaned to himself.
“Sounds like you’re hungry , my friend,” behind him, Toph was leaning against a wall with an amazing-smelling bag in her hand.
“Is that for me?!” Sokka leapt forward and Toph handed him the bag. “You’re the best!”
“I know,” Toph shrugged with a smile on her face. “So what were you really doing?”
Sokka looked up from shoveling food into his face and took a moment to swallow. “Well….I kind of…met someone.”
“Met someone?” Toph asked skeptically, moving from her leaning position.
“Yeah. We were just…talking…” Sokka said slowly, food still arriving in his mouth, although he wasn’t consciously aware of it.
“So Sokka has another lady love in his life? Good for you!” Toph punched him in the arm, but Sokka shifted his weight hesitantly.
“Not exactly…” He mumbled through a mouthful of food. At Toph’s curious expression, Sokka let out a long sigh. “It’s not exactly a lady love.”
“Ooooh,” Toph said slowly and then a grin spread across her face. “Sokka! I didn’t know you bend for the other element!”
“Shhh!” He attempted to quiet the rather loud girl. “I don’t want everyone around here to know!”
“Your secret’s safe with me!” She exclaimed and then a confused look crossed her face. “Who’s there?” She demanded and a figure appeared from behind one of the columns.
“What are you doing here?!” Sokka demanded, seeing Zuko, though with his hood up.
“I had to see you again,” he said quietly. “There are soldiers everywhere. I couldn’t stay where I was…I didn’t know if you would be able to find me again,” he seemed to suddenly notice Toph and shifted uncomfortably.
“Don’t worry. Toph knows.”
“She knows?” Zuko whispered.
“Sokka!” It was Yue calling down the hallway. Katara must have told her he was back.
“Quick! This way!” Sokka grabbed Zuko’s hand, but turned to Toph before leaving. “Please don’t say anything,” he whispered and the pair began running. As they rounded a corner, Toph felt something on the ground that hadn’t been there before. She knelt down to pick it up just as Yue walked into her proximity.
“Toph, do you know where Sokka is?”
“Not in the slightest,” Toph assured her, tucking the object into her pocket.
“Sokka can’t keep running off. It’s dangerous out there. Please tell him that. He listens to you,” the soft spoken girl sounded concerned before she left to continue her search.
Toph snorted. “Sure he does.”
“Zuko, you can’t just waltz up to a Water Tribe palace!”
Zuko, however, was stubborn, and seemed adamant. “Didn’t you want to see me again?”
“Of course! Look, we can’t just sit out here on the palace steps-“
“We’re not on the palace steps,” Zuko pointed out bluntly, but Sokka waved his hands.
“That’s not the point! Look, I’ll meet you tonight, okay?” When Zuko looked suspicious, Sokka continued. “Where we first met…at sundown.”
Finally, Zuko nodded and let out a relieved sigh. “Will you talk to the Avatar for me?”
“Yes!” Sokka said quickly…he had forgotten Zuko wanted the Avatar’s help. “Could you tell me what you need help with?”
Zuko looked uncomfortable and stared down at his hands. “It’s…it’s complicated.”
Sokka rolled his eyes. “All right. All right. Fine. If you don’t want to tell me, fine. I get it,” he put his hands up defensively.
“That’s not it, Sokka.”
“Sokka!” Someone was calling again and he grimaced.
“Dammit. Look, Zuko. I’d better go before they send the whole castle after me. I’ll meet you like I said, okay?”
Zuko nodded and then secured his hood before disappearing from the central plaza. Sokka started walking back up the palace steps when he ran straight into Suki. “Suki!” He exclaimed and the girl smiled.
“We’ve got a war meeting to go to! Come on,” she grabbed his arm and pulled him the rest of the way up the steps. They walked to the council room together – where the majority of the others were already seated. “I found him!” Suki announced and the pair sat down. Toph had a slight smile on her face while Katara looked extremely annoyed. Aang seemed to be blissfully unaware and Yue was her usual calm, demure self.
Chief Arnook and the other council members seemed satisfied that everyone was present and began the meeting. At first, there was nothing Sokka did not already know from the battle earlier. Of course it was important for Princess Yue and Chief Arnook to hear, as they had not been at the battle, but Sokka spent several of the minutes picking at his teeth. When he had gotten to discreetly smoothing his hair (what? He was going to see Zuko later), the conversation took a turn that got Sokka’s attention.
“We have come to believe that Prince Zuko, son of the Fire Lord, is with this battalion.”
“Prince who?!” Sokka exclaimed, drawing everyone’s attention to himself.
“Prince Zuko, Sokka,” Katara was clearly annoyed, but Sokka wasn’t concerned about being rude.
“He was disowned by the Fire Lord and is charged with the capture of the Avatar.”
“What?!” Sokka exclaimed and stood up. He rushed out of the room before anyone could follow him. What was that stupid, sexy, scarred dork playing at?! It was near sundown anyways. He would find that firebender and when he found him…well, he hadn’t decided what he would do yet, but he would think of something.
He found Zuko exactly where he’d asked to meet and stomped towards him. The firebender turned towards him with a concerned look on his face. “Sokka, there may be firebenders in the city-“
Before Zuko could finish Sokka closed the distance between them and shoved him. “When were you planning on telling me?”
Zuko had fallen to the ground and now he looked up at Sokka with a confused expression. “Telling you what?”
“Don’t play dumb with me, Prince Zuko! Did you think that I was stupid? That I wouldn’t figure it out?”
Zuko’s eyes widened and he stood up quickly. “Well, I’d hoped you wouldn’t,” he said quietly to himself and grimaced. “Look, it doesn’t change anything I told you. I don’t belong there.”
“Oh, the prince thing I could live with,” Sokka snapped, “but you used me to get to Aang! Oh yeah, I know you’re hunting the Avatar!”
“I wasn’t using you, Sokka!” Zuko countered, but his voice suddenly got quiet. “I need the Avatar to regain my honor. I wasn’t going to hurt him, just take him to my father.”
“Oh, big difference!” Sokka snapped and then dug his fingers into his hair. “I can’t believe this!”
“Sokka, would you please just calm down for a moment and hear me out?”
Sokka took a deep, calming breath and nodded. “Fine. Fine. But it won’t change anything.”
“I’m just asking you to listen,” Zuko said and Sokka nodded once again. “I’m not Fire Nation. I wasn’t lying about that. I don’t belong there. And a firebender did do this to me,” Zuko indicated his scar vaguely. “My father,” he had to take a shaky inhale between that sentence and the next. “I needed to capture the Avatar to return to my family, but…I wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” he admitted, not meeting Sokka’s gaze. “I was planning on capturing the Avatar, yes, but I had also contemplated helping the Avatar to rid the world of my father’s rule…Admittedly, the latter only occurred to me once or twice, but both times were after I met you. Sokka, I lied. But I didn’t use you and I didn’t lie about how I felt…about…you,” this time his gaze met Sokka’s and he closed the final space between them. Slowly Zuko’s arm’s encircled Sokka, who relaxed enough to reach his arms forward and touch Zuko’s hips.
Despite all that Zuko had lied about, Sokka couldn’t stop himself from leaning forward. Zuko closed his eyes and tilted his head slightly as he closed the distance between them. Their lips touched tentatively and Sokka let his arms slide around Zuko’s back. As soon as the kiss deepened, Sokka heard an audible gasp. “How dare you?!” A voice rang out – it was a Fire Nation soldier. “How dare you touch Prince Zuko!” He screamed and ran towards Sokka with his sword raised. Sokka backed quickly away, but Yue was suddenly in front of him just as the sword came slashing towards him.
Yue fell in a crumpled heap on the ground and Sokka fell to his knees beside her. “Yue?” He asked quietly and pushed some hair from her face. She blinked up at him once before going still.
“Qin Lee! Get out of here!” Zuko yelled at the soldier, who was looking down at Yue in astonishment. “I said, ‘go!’” he snapped and the soldier scrambled away. Zuko moved towards Sokka as soon as the other was gone. “Is she…?”
Sokka nodded and heard yelling and screaming behind him. Water Tribe soldiers were running towards them. They grabbed Zuko and Chief Arnook knelt next to his daughter. “Yue? Yue?” When he got no response, he closed his eyes and pulled her body close. “Your weapons may be strong, Firebender, but our anger is stronger,” he said softly and then turned to his soldiers, “at sunrise, he will die.”
“Chief!” Sokka protested, but Katara was at his side immediately.
“Sokka!” She yelled. “Haven’t you done enough?”
Sokka shook her off, “Zuko didn’t kill her! It was another Fire Nation soldier! Yue was just trying to save me from him! You can’t kill him!”
“Lock Sokka up as well,” the chief commanded and Sokka was grabbed as well.
Katara turned on the chief now. “You can’t lock up my brother! He didn’t do anything!”
“Take her away as well! Take all of them away!” Arnook commanded and the team was seized. They were reluctant to fight those who had been on their side merely minutes ago and fought little when they were jailed.
“Help! Somebody, help! Help!” Qin Lee had run back to the ship and was intent on waking the entire battalion.
“Easy, what is it?” Iroh was the first to address the distraught soldier.
“It’s Zuko! They’ve got him!”
“Who got him?” Ming Na demanded.
“The Water Tribe!”
“They captured him and dragged him off!”
“Where’d they take him?” Iroh asked calmly.
“They headed to the palace! We’ve got to save him! He’s saved my life before!”
“Qin Lee is right!” Jing agreed. “We’ve got to do something!”
“And so we shall,” Zhao had emerged from his cabin with a smirk on his face. “I think it’s time to rescue our brave little prince. At daybreak, we’ll attack,” he looked around at the faces of his soldiers. “What can you expect from filthy little heathens? Here’s what you get when the races are diverse. Their skin’s a hellish red. They’re only good when dead. They’re vermin as I’ve said and worse. They’re barely even human. We’ll drive them from their shores. They’re not like you and me, which means they must be evil. We must sound the drums of war.”
“They’re dirty shrieking devils!” One of the soldiers houted.
“Sound the drums of war!”
“This is what we feared,” Arnook was saying quietly. “The firebenders are demons. The only thing they feel at all is greed.”
“Beneath that burning hide,” Pakku scowled, “there’s emptiness inside.”
“I wonder if they even bleed!” Another soldier cried out.
“They’re barely even human. They’re killers at the core,” tears stung his eyes as he looked at the body of his daughter.
“They’re different from us, which means they can’t be trusted.”
“First we deal with this one, then we sound the bells of war.”
“If we just talk to someone….the chief is upset. He just lost his daughter…” Katara was saying, pacing the room. Aang was watching her closely, while sitting next to Toph, who was leaning casually against the wall. Sokka, meanwhile, was uncharacteristically brooding.
“They’re going to kill him at sunrise,” he looked out the small window at the slowly brightening sky.
“Well, you have to stop them. He’s not guilty, right?” Suki interjected.
“I can’t. We’re in a jail cell or did you forget that?” Sokka snapped. “Unless we can dig a tunnel in the next half an hour or one of us magically makes a key, we’d never make it in time.”
“Guys,” Toph said slowly. “Not only could Katara or Aang get us out of here in ten seconds flat, or did you forget this place is made of ice, but I might actually have the key.”
“What?” Aang exclaimed and leaned over Toph, who provided a key-shaped contraption from her pocket.
“Zuko dropped it earlier. I think it’s some sort of skeleton key,” Toph held it out and Sokka snatched it immediately. It was made of metal and had a standard key handle, but the end was some sort of device.
“A skeleton key?”
“It conforms to any lock! Oh, this is so cool!” Sokka exclaimed and ran over to the door. He shoved the key in and turned until he heard a click. “It worked! Let’s go!” He ran without even looking back at his companions. He didn’t really know what he could do….he wasn’t a bender and to go against the Water Tribe? …But he had to try. Sokka ran as fast as he could through the halls of the palace. Where did one perform executions anyways? Was there a special room? He took his best guess and assumed in the central plaza or on the steps. He prayed to whatever spirits could hear him that he wasn’t too late.
Sokka could hear bells and drums in the distance and tried to quicken his pace without his heart or legs giving out. As he ran through the entrance, he saw massive crowds of both Water Tribe and advancing Fire Nation in the central plaza. Sokka pushed past Water Tribe onlookers and saw a raised club in the center. Zuko was tied down on a platform with his eyes tightly closed. Sokka shoved one last soldier and ran forward just as the club was coming down. He threw himself over Zuko’s body and the executioner faltered. “No!” He shouted, clutching at Zuko’s thick coat.
“Sokka, move!” Chief Arnook, who was standing not far away, commanded.
“I won’t!” Sokka clenched his eyes shut and twisted the material in his grip. “If you kill him, you’ll have to kill me, too!” When no blow was delivered, Sokka slowly opened one eye. “Zuko is innocent!”
“Sokka!” Katara screamed and pushed the executioner out of the way as she entered the plaza. “What are you doing?” She turned towards the chief. “Executing an innocent person? Look around you! This is where the path of hatred and fear has brought us! Sokka has shown you what the world should be like! We’ve all come here with anger in our hearts, but he comes with courage and understanding!”
Goddamn, did Katara know how to make a speech. Everything she said made him sound like some sort of courageous revolutionary when all he’d wanted to do was save his boyfriend (should he even call him that?) from dying.
“Release the prince!” She commanded and Zuko was released with the chief’s nod.
Zuko and Sokka stood up together and quickly captured each other in a tight embrace.
“Now’s our chance!” Zhao yelled from the advancing Fire Nation soldiers, but one of the young recruits in the front lowered his weapon. “No.”
“They’re letting Zuko go!”
“They’re not going to fight!”
“It’s a trick, don’t you see? Fire!” Zhao yelled, but when the young recruits simply lowered their weapons, Zhao motioned to an archer on the walls. “Fine. I’ll settle this myself.”
Zuko apparently had known about the archer’s presence and jumped into its trajectory, which had been heading straight for the chief. Zuko stumbled and fell to the ground – Sokka was immediately at his side. Iroh showed up from the Fire Nation side and dropped to his knees beside Sokka.
“We need medical attention at once!” He yelled. “Bring your healers, please!”
“You shot him!” Qin Lee yelled at Admiral Zhao.
“We never should have listened to you!”
“Traitors!” Zhao yelled as he was attacked and apprehended by his own soldiers. “Unhand me, I say! How dare you!”
“Put him in chains!”
“I’ll see you all hanged for this!”
“And gag him as well!”
Zuko was being carried away by several healers and Sokka and Iroh followed him. Iroh glanced back to see the admiral being tied up and let out a long sigh “and he came so highly recommended.”
When Zuko awoke, blinking against the harsh light, he had kisses pressed all over his face. “You’re alive!”
“You are always welcome here,” another voice said and Zuko looked up to see the chief….in fact…a lot of people were in his room. He suddenly felt very self conscious and would have sunk under his blankets had it not been for Sokka’s arms wrapped tightly around him.
“Oh! Zuko! This is Aang, Toph, Suki, and my sister, Katara!”
The small girl described as Toph punched him in the shoulder and he winced. “Ow.” Zuko greeted the rest with a slight nod and Katara moved forward. “I can help with the pain. I learned a few healing methods here.”
“What pain?” Zuko asked, “I’ve had worse pain than this,” he looked over to Sokka, who was simply grinning like an idiot. “What now?”
“Well,” Sokka glanced back at the group, “we were thinking you could come with us.”
“You mean…stay with all of you,” he glanced at the Avatar and then back to Sokka.”Does he know what I was sent to do?”
Sokka nodded. “They all do. But, we’ve all agreed that you’ve pretty much redeemed yourself. Besides, it’s not like you’re in the condition to run off with Aang in the middle of the night,” Sokka laughed, but then looked immediately concerned, like he’d just realized what sort of condition Zuko was in. He planted another long kiss on his lips and Aang cleared his throat.
“Zuko, I was just wondering, since you’re a firebender and all…perhaps you could be my teacher?”
Zuko considered the option for a moment, “I suppose I can teach you a few things.” He looked around at the people in the room – the now-eager face of the Avatar, the waterbending girl who had a concerned look on her face that seemed to be reserved for those around her, the rather painful Toph, the Kyoshi warrior…and Sokka, who’s hand was clasped tightly with Zuko’s. Maybe, just maybe…Zuko had finally found were he belonged.