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Apparently even the disaster with Zuko and the Unagi and an entire burning village wasn't enough to keep Aang from getting sidetracked. Sokka had taken charge of the map a long time ago but it didn't make a bit of difference. He might fall asleep for even a couple of minutes, really just an extended blink if you thought about it, and Appa would suddenly be heading towards yet another place completely irrelevant to their itinerary. At this rate they would never reach the Northern Water Tribe. They wouldn't even get out of the Earth Kingdom, which was ridiculously dangerous, because that maniac Zuko was hot on their heels, still, and okay so Sokka couldn't literally feel it, but figuratively speaking, the scalding breath of the Fire Nation down the back of his neck was making him kinda nervous.

He hemmed and hawed and dragged his feet but Aang was insistent and skilled in the art of guilt trips, and Katara gave in way too easily, so here they were making camp. On top of a mountain, no less. The site was very impressive, not that Sokka thought so personally; a snowy field which curved like the palm of a hand between four rocky outcroppings, the ocean a narrow gleam in the distance. But it was really high up, above the tree-line, and Sokka couldn’t help but think this might not be such a good idea. At the very least because the four bare peaks rained down icy gravel whenever the wind blew, or Aang got particularly excitable, both of which were happening right now.

"This is an ancient sacred site for Air Nomads." Aang said, and airlifted to the top of one of the boulders at the foot of the nearest outcrop. He re-directed the small shower of rocks with a swipe of his hand and Sokka flinched. "Gyatzo once told me that this is where the Four Winds meet, represented by the four directions. See, here’s the White Tiger, the symbol for the west.” He pointed up above their heads, to a tiger-like shape carved into the flat rock surface, “My people used to gather here and meditate to get closer to the true spirit of airbending.” He paused, and his enthusiastic tone faltered, “I would have gone with him, when I came of age.”

 Sokka rolled his eyes, even as he felt bad, "That's great and all, but does every Air Nomad place have to be so...so inconvenient?”

"Not inconvenient at all, since we have Appa." Aang chirped. Which was completely beside the point.

They split up and went exploring. There were definitely more pleasant places Sokka could imagine spending the night. He didn't mind the cold and snow separately, but in combination with an absolutely furious wind (or winds??), it was hard to get into the spirit of things. Aang appeared to be having no such trouble.

“Look at this, guys!” Aang’s voice boomed across the field, projected by the wind. When Sokka and Katara joined him, he pointed up to another symbol carved into the rock-face, “The Northern Tortoise. Won’t this be useful for navigating, Sokka?”

Sokka refused to be placated so easily, “Sure, yeah. If we ever actually made any progress. And besides, I can navigate perfectly well on my own.”

“It’s going to get dark soon.” Katara said reasonably, “So even if we hadn’t stopped here, we’d still only have managed another hour or two of flying. Why not settle in for the night?”

“Fine, fine…” Sokka and the others explored in relative peace for a little while longer until Katara found a stream, more of a spring really, cascading down from the Southern Phoenix outcrop, collecting in a series of small pools and disappearing into the dense forest below. She put out a call for dirty clothes. Quite frankly, Sokka saw no reason for them to do laundry now. Nothing he owned was that dirty, except for the lingering acrid scent of smoke, and this was just a pit stop (okay, an extended pit stop) before they got on their way for real. He tried to sneak away and hide behind Appa, just for a little while, but she caught him and Sokka found himself digging through his pack and eventually stripping to surrender his underclothes to her outstretched and impatient hand.

"I don't stink that bad, do I?" Sokka asked Appa, and was gratified to hear his answering rumble, "Yeah, I thought so."

Sokka pulled his anorak and boots back on over bare skin and sat beside the stream with Aang to watch Katara try (unsuccessfully) to waterbend the laundry. He knew better than to complain about the cold, because nothing, nothing was colder than where they’d come from. But his legs were still getting kinda chilly. And all the splashing water wasn’t helping. He’d just opened his mouth to say something he might regret when Katara turned to him and said, “If you’re just going to sit there gaping like a fish, why don’t you do something useful and gather some firewood?”

"Why me?" He said, and actually felt his voice splinter and leap as he said it, "Why can't Aang do it?"

"Because he needs to stay here and watch my technique." She answered, making a slightly larger splash for emphasis. Aang's innocent nod was ruined by a huge grin, "Yup, that's right."

"Fine!" Sokka didn't storm off, but he certainly could have. If he was the kind of guy who sulked. No. He was glad to be on his feet again, get the blood flowing. And, uh, scope out any possible threats and neutralize them. Right. The forest began where the curving field dropped off; sheer sides without even a path to guide him. The sudden transition from open and light, from a luminous grey horizon stretching in every direction, to the closed shelter and dark green gloom of the forest was startling. He felt like he'd walked into another world, all stillness and silence and fir trees. Not even a hint of the four winds buffeting the peak.  There was something kinda spirity about it. Sokka shook his head. These weren't useful thoughts to be having right now, or ever. His mission was safety, firewood, and maybe a little something to cook for dinner. At the thought of dinner his mood brightened considerably.

He found it while he was hunting. Okay, while he was trying to hunt, which was a lot harder than anyone gave him credit for. Katara might be perfectly happy to eat vegetarian 'food' until the end of time, but Sokka was a growing boy and needed meat. It was the only thing that quelled the constant hunger gnawing at his stomach. And he deserved it. He'd already assembled a good-sized pile of firewood, if he said so himself, and persuaded Aang to start the fire for him. With two benders in the group, the laundry got washed and dried a lot quicker than it normally would have, so dressed in a fresh pair of trousers and tunic beneath his anorak, Sokka went back into the forest intent only on coming back out with something to show for his hard work. 

After two near-successes, he was starting to get tired and the shadows cast by the trees had doubled in length. It was probably time to head back, just in case Katara started worrying or something. He turned to retrace his steps when he heard a rustling somewhere in the undergrowth. He froze and tried to listen more carefully, but his heartbeat kept getting in the way. There it was again…a frantic rustling, twigs snapping. His pulse leaped, and he reached for his boomerang. It sounded huge, like a…a gorilla goat or something. He crept forward,  the sharp edge of his boomerang digging into his fingers, and took a deep breath before violently parting the closest bush and peering beyond it. Nothing. He couldn't have been imagining things, could he? He looked again, and there was…something. It twitched.

A bird with one large outstretched rust-red and white wing lay motionless on the snowy ground. He wasn't sure if it was dead or not. The animal who was attacking it must have gotten away... He tried to ignore the sinking feeling of disappointment, the twisting ache in his stomach. Not that he would have preferred a gorilla goat, but still... Just as suddenly as it had fallen silent, the bird began to flap its wing frantically, skidding through the snow in a circle, unable to lift off. He caught a glimpse of its clever yellow eyes and strong curved beak. A hawk! This was even better, unbelievably, than an actual kill. A hawk could be trained to hunt for him, could bring in twice the amount of game. He knelt beside the bird and reached out to grab it, but jerked his hand away when it tried to bite his mitten.

“Hey, that wasn't very nice.” He said, scowling, “I’m not going to hurt you. You’re too scrawny to eat, anyway.” At this, it nipped his sleeve like it could understand him. There was some kind of strap or harness around the hawk’s neck, but he couldn't see it clearly. If he could just get a little closer…And then he had an idea.

Pulling off his anorak, he thanked it for its many years of faithful service, and gently wrapped it around the bird, which began to squirm and shriek, claws digging into the fur. Sokka restrained the bird against the ground with his forearm and pried off the strap with quick fingers. There was something attached to it but he shoved it into his pocket without a glance. He’d take another look later. For now, he picked up the struggling bundle and made his way back up the slope, trying not to lose his balance and constructing arguments in his head. Aang and Katara could laugh at him all they wanted for failing to live up this one time to his reputation as an excellent hunter. He was making a long-term investment. 

The only problem, besides a teensy bit of arguing about sudden whims and dangerous birds of prey, was that the bird was injured. It was pretty obvious, and Sokka had definitely noticed back in the forest, but it didn't seem to matter at the time. Katara insisted, however, that it did matter.

“I thought you were good at healing things. I know MomI mean Gran Gran taught you some stuff...Can’t you figure out what to do?” He asked helplessly. The bird was still pretty unhappy, but at least it had stopped trying to claw them to death. Instead, it was just lying in Sokka’s anorak looking at them shrewdly with its yellow eyes.

“I’m not a healer, I have no idea what to do!” Katara said, and stalked away to start dinner, her back tense. He was going to tell her about what the bird was carrying, the strap and the tube and the medallion, but if she was going to act like this... It was totally unreasonable for her to get mad, anyway. If anything, she should be flattered Sokka placed so much faith in her abilities. Sokka looked at Aang, who shrugged.

“You could try…splinting it or something?” He suggested.

Sokka rolled his eyes but got to work. If Katara wasn't going to help him, he’d just have to do it himself.

Several hours and quite a few bruises later, Sokka lay back in his sleeping bag and stared up at the blank sky above him, waiting for the others to fall asleep. The wind was whistling forlornly around the four peaks, scattering sparks still rising from the fire-pit, and tugging Sokka's hair free from his wolftail. Sokka forced his eyes to stay open and resist the urge to sink blissfully into sleep. He had to listen for the tell-tale change in breathing. It didn't take long. As soon as he was confident he wouldn't be disturbed, Sokka moved closer to the fire and took the strap out of his pocket to inspect it. What he thought at first was just one strap actually turned out to be two, designed to cross over the hawk's chest, joined by a red medallion. Whatever had attacked the bird also snapped the second strap and gouged the sturdy leather with its claws. A small metal tube with a cap hung loose from the back of the harness. A message carrier. So, his unfriendly new pet was a messenger hawk of some kind. At least he knew now the bird was trained, if not for exactly his purposes. Sokka's fingers fumbled to uncap it, hoping for a letter. 

He was in luck. Sparing no thought for the twinge of guilt he felt about reading someone else's private correspondence, Sokka unfolded the paper and tilted it to catch the light from the embers. His excitement died like it'd been doused with water when he saw the text. Characters flowed together sloppily down each line as if made with one long exaggerated brush stroke. It could be written in another language for all he knew. Still, if he squinted...the loops and lines transformed into something more recognizable. It was just calligraphy. Really fancy calligraphy. Not like what he’d been taught in school, although admittedly, Sokka hadn't been to school in a long time. 

I usually burn my letters without sending them since I know you will never receive them, but tonight I thought, why not? At least now I can hope.

I miss you. I miss you all the time. I wish you hadn't left. If you were still here, none of this would have happened. You would have found a way to stop it, no matter what it took. NOT that I need protection, but it would have been

Things are not going at all well with me. Big surprise. Uncle says I should be more patient, but I think he just says that to slow me down. He tries to undermine my progress all the time. He won’t even let me advance beyond the basic forms, and it’s been years! I know he doesn't really support me. He just doesn't understand. You would. You always did.

But how do I really know that? It’s been such a long time, and I’m a different person now. Maybe you are too.

I hope wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, you remember me. I hope you’re well. I love you, Mother.

Your son.

Sokka knew from the start that he shouldn't, this letter wasn't meant for his eyes, but he just couldn't stop himself. Not out of prurient curiosity, at least not anymore. He kept reading because he couldn't count how many times he wished he could put the feeling of loss into words, notoriously tricky things that they were, instead of carrying it around like an empty space inside him wherever he went, whatever he did. It was hard, no, it was impossible to fill that space all by himself. Even if he tried really hard. Even if Katara was trying really hard too. Sokka closed his eyes and tried to picture his mother’s face. All he could come up with was a vague image of her blue amaat, the ticklish white fur at her wrists, her brown hands serving him a bowl of stew. Somewhere above his head she was smiling, but he could only remember being hungry and happy to be fed in the warm blue-white circle of her arms, their home.

The memory of his father’s departure was much clearer. But he didn't want to think about that right now. He couldn't, not when he’d already been thinking about Mom, otherwise he might… This was why he didn't want to be the feelings-guy. Sokka blinked his eyes several times in rapid succession, glad no one was awake to see him, then folded the letter back up and tucked it safe inside his pack. Once the messenger hawk healed, Sokka would return the bird to whoever owned it. It was the only decent thing to do. Maybe he’d even write a short message to send along with it. Might do the other guy some good to know he wasn't the only one who…well, that someone else out there understood.

He was just about to crawl back into his sleeping bag before he remembered he’d left the message carrier by the fire, and went to go get it. He took one last look at the harness with its tooled leather and gleaming hardware, and suddenly everything in his body prickled with an intense unpleasant heat. Painted in black on the red metal medallion was the curved and rising flame of the Fire Nation insignia.

Chapter Text

Sokka didn’t sleep well that night. Or rather, he slept well, but only in the sense of deeply. His dreams were all guilt and flight and Suki’s earnest painted face haloed by fire as she said goodbye, goodbye, there’s no time, goodbye. He woke at dawn to the howling of the four winds and a fresh layer of snow covering everything, including Appa and their sleeping bags. Appa snored on contentedly with Aang and Katara curled up beside him, sharing his warmth, oblivious. Sokka jumped out of his sleeping bag, brushed away his dreams and all the snow, and pulled on his anorak before he could get cold. Get cold now and he’d never warm up, not ‘til they made camp again.

Morning was the best time of day. He didn’t feel at peace or any of that nonsense, rather, he felt pleasantly restless, the day’s full potential unrolling out in front of him. He was just about to wake everyone up, really obnoxiously if he had to, or even if he didn’t technically have to, when his hand brushed against his pocket and he remembered what he was keeping secret. Now would be a good time to tell them. They always woke up faster if they were frightened. He’d just wake them up and say he’d discovered something to do with the Fire Nation. They could be camped out nearby and Sokka, Aang, and Katara wouldn’t even know. Maybe Fire Nation soldiers were watching them right now.

He took a step towards Katara, then another, and another. His hand was on her shoulder, he was looming over her, prepared to give her a good scare, and…he just couldn’t do it. Whoever had written that letter never intended anyone to read it. Sokka swallowed hard and shook Katara awake anyway.

“What? What is it?” She gasped, still half-hidden in sleep, wisps of hair escaping her braid.

“Time to get up.” Sokka said, and stretched his mouth into the widest grin imaginable, “Nice and early, the way you like it.”

“Ughhhhh.” Katara groaned, and tried to bury her head back under her arms, “Leave me alone…”

“No can do.” Sokka blew in her ear, and tugged her hair, and when all else failed, began a jaunty rendition of an old seal-hunting song, “Oh, out on the iceberg, with a spear in my hand, I—“

“Okay, I’m up.” She gave him her best annoyed look, and he figured his job was done. Aang was a much easier target, but his delight at greeting the day quickly foiled Sokka’s plans to be on the road, well, in the sky, by mid-morning. Apparently now was the perfect time to do some meditation, skipping breakfast entirely, then ride the air currents way high up and all over the place, spiraling around the outcroppings, swooping down into the distant valley. Aang’s shouts and calls were snatched away by the wind before anything but their distorted fragments reached Sokka and Katara watching from the ground.

“Looks like he’s having fun.” Katara said fondly, and frustration coiled tight inside his chest.

“This isn’t the time for fun! If we’re going to get to the North Pole before we’re as old as Gran Gran, we need to make some progress. Doesn't he know what’s at stake here?”

“Of course he does! But he’s still a kid. I admit he isn't always the most practical thinker, but life can’t just be about the war.” She glanced at him sharply, “Anyway, what’s gotten into you? Bad dream or something?”

“Uh. Something like that.” It didn’t feel right to keep this from her, not when they used to know everything about each other, growing up. Not when he swore when their father left that he’d protect her at any cost. Maybe it would be easier to tell her alone, without Aang around. He opened his mouth, the words on his lips, “I’ve been meaning to tell you. I found…”

“What?” She asked, but she wasn’t looking at him anymore, she was watching Aang as he made a particularly daring loop-de-loop.

“I found a great name for my new hawk!” He laughed nervously, “How does Hawky sound?”

Katara rolled her eyes, “Creative as always, Sokka. C’mon, help me make breakfast.”

By noon, they were finally on their way and Sokka could enjoy the real benefit of being friends with the Avatar, namely air-travel. It was the closest he got to the magic world Aang and Katara lived in and really, he couldn’t complain about Appa’s efficiency as they sailed over an increasingly desolate series of mountains. He reclined in his usual position at the back of the saddle and watched the gradations of grey in the clouds above his head. They were so close, if he just reached his arm up his fingers would skim through the thick air. He thought about trying but his whole body was warm and lazy in the cocoon of his anorak. No harm in relaxing now that they were on course and making, if not good time, at least time. He looked back up at the sky and thought briefly about home before he closed his eyes.

When Sokka woke up, Katara was expertly fixing the clumsy splint he’d made for Hawky’s wing, the liar, and they were heading to, of all places, Omashu.

“Are you kidding me?” He jumped to his feet, wobbling a little, “What’s in Omashu?”

“You’ll see.” Aang said mysteriously, “But it’s gonna be loads of fun. Even better than the Four Winds!”

“Well, it wouldn’t have to try very hard…” Sokka grumbled, and snatched the map from Aang’s traitorous hands. He winced apologetically. Gritting his teeth, Sokka made another mark on the map. Another day wasted. It wasn’t like he didn’t care that Aang’s people were all dead and he’d been trapped in some kind of weird stasis for a hundred years. He did. But Aang was asking a lot of Sokka’s patience with all this lost-youth stuff. At least Aang didn’t have to see his childhood taken away before his own eyes.

Katara crawled over to where Sokka was sitting, Hawky perched unsteadily on her arm with one wing bandaged to the rest of his body. 

“I think he’s gonna be okay.” She said, handing the bird over to Sokka, whose forearm actually gave out, but only for a second, from the bird's unexpected weight, “The break isn’t that bad. Maybe while we’re in Omashu we could get him a cage so he won’t be tempted to fly around.”

“Yeah.” He said. 

“Are you okay?” Katara asked softly.

“I guess. I was just—I was thinking about home. I kinda miss it.” It wasn’t exactly the truth, but it would do.

“Me too.” She leaned against his shoulder, and they fell silent, looking out over the passing landscape together. The sudden appearance of the sun turned the mountains golden. Her hand rose up unconsciously to play with the pendent at her neck, and he knew in that moment that he wouldn’t tell her about the letter. The danger, if there even was any, had passed leagues ago. And as much as he appreciated Katara’s quiet sympathy, she just didn’t get it. She had the only tangible reminder of their mother, she had a whole village of women to teach her how to be a…a woman, she had bending, the pride of her people. He had nothing except the overwhelming sense that he had failed, that he kept failing all the time, every day. All he had was her, and she didn’t need him anymore.

Aang cried out that they were approaching Omashu, and the sight of the city, a multi-layered cone rising high above a great sandy gorge on a slab of rock, completely derailed Sokka’s train of thought. Which was probably for the best, he had been sailing towards another pity-party at a fast clip. Appa landed at the start of the long, narrow path leading to the stone gates of the city and they dismounted. Every one of Sokka’s muscles was tight and sore; he’d been in the air too long. This was one of the many downsides of being friends with the Avatar. But he couldn’t deny the scenery.

“We don’t have anything like this in the South Pole!” Katara exclaimed, and Aang looked disgustingly pleased.

“They have buildings here that don’t melt…” Sokka said admiringly, eyes wide. He’d never seen a real city before, not even in his dreams could he have imagined it would be so…big. And dry, despite the dusting of snow. 

“Well, let’s go, slow-pokes. The real fun is inside the city!” Aang said, and whirled up into the air and down the bank. 

“Who are you calling slow-poke…” Sokka said, but didn't mean it.  They were here and, in all honesty, he was a little excited at the prospect of seeing the city up close. All he could do now was to approach the long road and the possibility of capture (another downside of traveling with the Avatar…) with a mixture of terror and wonder, and try to keep some of Aang’s more suicidal ‘good ideas’ in check. Which, of course, was always harder than it looked. 

Chapter Text

So, Omashu was weird. Apparently even among so-called friends they could still be imprisoned, almost eaten by rock candy, and subjected to ridiculous and dangerous tasks all for the sake of proving a point. It was a good point, though, and Sokka definitely tried to think like a mad genius, albeit who also happened to value common sense and a thorough calculation of risk. The rest of the visit wasn’t so bad; a comfortable (prison) bed, a feast in their honor, and massive destruction of property, although he was blaming that one on Aang. Even better, King Boumi had the court physicians take a look at Hawky’s wing, which was quite decent of King Boumi but still not quite enough of an apology for trying to get them all killed.

Aang gave his most solemn air-bender promise that they’d set a course for the North Pole immediately following the Omashu incident, and though Sokka was not inclined to believe him, they were making progress. A full day of flying with only one—no, two—pit-stops counted in Sokka’s book as progress. Beneath them, the canyons and mountains transformed into forests and scattered villages. There was some arguing about whether to spend the night in a village or not, but they had supplies from Omashu and, this was Sokka’s main argument, whenever they were around people, bad things happened.

So, instead, Appa landed in a clearing in the middle of a vast uninhabited bamboo forest, just as the sun was slipping over the horizon and a thin slice of moon was rising. Aang said something a little too enthusiastically about bamboo and good luck, with a meaningful glance at Sokka, but Sokka wouldn’t put it past the universe to throw bad luck at them anyway, just out of spite. Which, really, he at least didn’t deserve.

They set up camp, clearing the ground of snow air-bending style, and lit a fire, the yellow blaze of light chasing some of the more ominous shadows back to the forest where they belonged. A small shrine sat at the edge of the clearing, but not to any god of the Water Tribe, so Sokka didn’t feel particularly compelled to do anything about it. If there was some spirit to appease, the Avatar would figure it out. Probably. Maybe.

They ate an unexciting meal of rice and (cabbage??) dumplings, ignored Sokka’s attempts to come up with a schedule for the following day, and went to sleep to the sound of the bamboo trees creaking and knocking against each other hollowly in the dark, the roar of rustling leaves like an unseen stream coursing nearby. He’d never heard anything like it, never thought a forest could be so creepy and…un-forest-like, but there were other things on his mind to distract him.

The best part about camping out in the open was, paradoxically, the potential for privacy. He’d wanted to do this since before Omashu but there wasn’t time, and when there was time, there wasn’t opportunity. Sokka waited until everyone was asleep, then snuck out of the clearing, picking his way through the bamboo trees and the thin shadows they cast in the faint moonlight. Not too far away, just enough to be out of sight. He leaned back against a particularly thick bamboo tree, which only swayed a little, and closed his eyes as he felt his cock through his pants. He sent a quick prayer to…whoever…that no one would find him, and tugged his pants slightly down his hips. He was half-hard already from thinking (and not thinking) about this for hours.

How she moved, terror and grace. The cool edge of her fan against his neck, hot breath. “Not bad,” She said dismissively, and he tumbled to the floor, hand bound to foot. He felt bad and good all tangled together. She laughed and the other girls—no, warriors—laughed and his cock hurt he was so hard, it was embarrassing in the training hall and it was embarrassing now, too, but not enough to stop. What if she’d noticed, then, that he was…what if she’d done something about it…or made him wait, endlessly, maddeningly. 

He quickened his pace, hips rocking forward. The wind in the trees, the cold, everything narrowed down to want. He wanted—he needed to come, his whole body shivering with it. Didn't know if he'd be able to stand up much longer. Right on the edge, so, so close. The slide of her breasts beneath her armor as she moved. But then the vision flipped and he was on the ground, yes, and Suki was there, but he wasn’t watching her; he’d been laid low by someone else, his skin prickling with the sudden surge of heat. Sokka didn’t need to see the face in his memory to know it was Zuko, stepping over his body without sparing him a single glance. “Stop it, stop it,” he hissed, knocking his head against the tree, trying to forget, trying to see her again, but it was too late—he tightened his fingers one last time in a short stroke, and came with a groan stifled against his teeth.

Sometimes Sokka thought he’d be scarred for life before this whole thing was over.

He crept back to camp and curled onto his side in his sleeping bag. His hand was still sticky but the warm buzz had faded, was gone almost before he’d finished. Maybe it was time to give thoughts of Suki a rest. Which was hardly fair, since he’d only met her a week ago.

Sleep found him quickly, despite how weird he was feeling somewhere between his skin and his bones, like nothing fit him quite right. Then the dreams came, and he was home again. Springtime fissures in the pack ice and dizzying sunlight reflected on melting icebergs. The songs of the wales as they returned to Southern waters. His first tigerseal hunt; a long journey up the coast from the village, the stories of men and their ivory spears, pearl-smooth to the touch. His father placing a consoling hand on his shoulder when he didn’t make a kill. “Next year,” His father said, “And we’ll have a feast in your honor. I’m sure of it.” But there was no next year, and Sokka woke suddenly to winter darkness.

He was just trying to settle back into sleep when a new sound in the forest caught his attention. Twigs snapping, footsteps. And then the rumble of a voice.

“They can’t really think the benders are hiding out here, can they?”

“Listen, if I had any say in the matter we’d still be at home, asleep. But orders are orders.”

“I’d like to see Captain Meng stumbling around the forest at this hour.”

“Quit your grumbling, I think I see something.”

The footsteps halted, and Sokka glanced frantically around the campground. What could they—oh, no. The embers in the fire-pit! Before he could do anything, a sharp cry pierced the air.

“No, Hawky—you’ll give us away!” Sokka whispered, but it the soldiers had already heard it.

“That’s got to be them.” The soldier’s voice was low, almost inaudible, “The captain said they’d stolen a hawk to send messages to the other refugees. Let’s move closer.”

Sokka held his breath and slid out of his sleeping bag, moving almost soundlessly to where Katara slept. He woke her with a hand over her mouth, silencing her question before she could even ask it.

“Go wake Aang as quietly as possible.” He whispered urgently, “I’ll create a diversion, but we’ve got to get out of here.”

She nodded, sleep dissolving from her face as she tensed, eyes wide. He turned away from her and headed over to the little shrine. This could work, this could definitely work, if only he…

“Let me help you.” Aang had caught up with him, and together they crouched behind the shrine. The soldiers were almost at the clearing, he could see their outlines among the swaying stalks. If he could see them, then they could probably see Appa’s huge white form climbing reluctantly to his feet at Katara’s muted urging. Hawky, the traitor, gave another piercing cry. There wasn’t much time, if any. 

“What are you thinking?” Aang whispered excitedly. 

“This is a shrine, right? So…spirits.”

“Awesome.” Aang almost laughed, but clapped a hand over his mouth just in time, and sent out a massive wind shear with his other hand. The blast caught the embers in the fire pit and cast them up into the air. Sokka heard the exclamations of the two soldiers as the embers came hurtling towards them.

“What the—Ow!”

“You dare defile my sacred grove!” Sokka shouted, and the wind made his voice sound like it was coming from everywhere and nowhere at once, “Take your weapons and go!”

“Is that—it can’t be—“

“I am the spirit of this forest! Take your weapons and go before I take your lives!” He roared, “My vengeance will be terrible! I’ll—“ Aang interrupted him by grabbing his arm, saying, “It’s working, they’re turning away! We gotta go.” Together, they ran towards Appa, and climbed on. He heard the soldiers shouting, then the clean whistle of a fireball as it shot past them. Appa swerved, just missing it, and rose rapidly through the air.  Sokka glanced down,  and saw the upturned faces of the two soldiers just barely visible as they stood stunned in place. They sent up another fireball but it missed widely, and then it was over. 

“Good work, Aang.” Katara said, once they were safely away, “And Sokka. You guys really fooled them.”

“Maybe that’ll keep ‘em from coming back and terrorizing more benders.” Sokka said, and possibly broke into hysterical laughter. They were all safe. It seemed like a miracle every time. A familiar screech came from somewhere below them and Hawky soared up, circled twice around Appa, and landed on the edge of the saddle. Sokka tried to look pleased but mostly he felt a return of the heavy pull of dread. 

Katara smiled, looking back from her perch on Appa’s neck, “Looks like he can fly again. Good thing, too. I didn’t even know we’d left him behind.” Her smile faded, and she asked seriously, “Were they looking for us, do you think?”

“I don’t know…they only mentioned benders, not the Avatar. Maybe they were looking for someone else, and we just happened to be there.” Sokka answered optimistically. The soldiers knew where to find them because of the bird, it had to be. But how? How do you track an animal that flies? 

Katara shrugged, and handed Appa’s reins over to Aang, “I guess we’ll never know.”

It wasn’t until the next morning when they stopped to let Appa rest by the bank of a small stream that they realized they’d left all their food supplies behind.

“No breakfast?” Sokka said, and the look Katara gave him was equal parts annoyed and sympathetic.

“Not unless you can find us something to eat.” She said, and refilled the water pouch at her hip, “Maybe there are some fish in the stream?”

“Good idea!” Sokka said, and launched into an extremely unsatisfying morning round of catch-the-fish-without-a-fishing-pole-because-his-idiot-sister-left-that-behind-too. Hawky watched him with a certain, self-assured look in his eye. Sokka might even call it smug. 

"You wanted this to happen, didn't you?" He said accusingly, then felt like a fool for talking to a bird. Finally, when Sokka was completely sick of wasting his time in the frigid water, he turned to Hawky again. It was admitting defeat, but there was no point in letting his potential talents go to waste just because he was a spy in their midst. Sokka decided not to think too hard about it. 

“You have a lot to make up for, Hawky. I'm blaming all this on you. Now, are you gonna try to earn forgiveness or are you just gonna keep staring at me like that?” Sokka asked sternly, and Hawky cocked his head like he was listening, “Let’s go hunting.”

It turned out that Hawky was a pretty decent hunter, although he did tear into a few squirrels before Sokka could rush over with his game bag. Still, the real reward would be juicy meat roasting over a fire. Maybe he could find some…tubers or something, to make Aang happy. Sokka returned to camp pleased and proud and definitely in the right mindset to forgive the bird his transgressions, at least for now. Unfortunately, the squirrels were less of a hit with Katara than he’d expected.

“I can’t eat them, I just can’t.” She said staunchly, refusing to even look at the carcasses, “They’re so…the little faces…I can’t.”

“Hey, if you want to go hungry, that’s not my problem. It’s not like I forgot the food supplies or anything.”

“That’s unfair, I packed almost everything else!”

Aang looked warily between the siblings and wisely chose not to get involved, not when Katara was in battle stance. 

“Yeah, like your sewing kit, and calligraphy set, and—and—“

“You are so unbelievably selfish!” She yelled, “All you think about is feeding yourself, you couldn’t care less about anything else. I mend our clothes, I cook the food, I do the laundry…” The water in the stream began to rise, spilling over the banks, and soaking their feet.

“That’s—that’s completely beside the point!” He spluttered. The water coursed closer and closer towards their packs and he hated this about her, he really did.

“If you’re going to be like that, fine!” She said, and walked away, dragging Aang along with her, “We’re going to find something better to eat.”

Sokka looked at the squirrels, then at Hawky, “It’s not your fault. You did great.” He tossed another carcass to the bird, “You might as well have Katara’s share as a treat. Doesn't mean I'm not still going to get rid of you somehow." He said, warningly. 

Aang and Katara were gone for the better part of the morning, which suited Sokka perfectly. He started a fire and set the squirrels to roast on a spit (who said he couldn’t cook?) and leaned back against Appa’s warm, soft side to relax. To pass the time, he took the letter out of his pack. It was creased and a little stained, he'd read it so many times. He didn't mean to. But there was something comforting about it, or maybe that's because it was just his, one private thing in a life barely his own. He liked the feel of the paper, the refined scrawl, the words...all frustration and sadness mixed into one true thing, saying what he could not say except in anger, and even then... Arguing didn't help, not when the one true thing wasn't a statement at all but a question: what are we going to do? how do you move on? How do you stop up the hole? How do you even talk about? He wished Katara didn't set him off all the time, wished he didn't do the same to her.  The fights got them nowhere, made them both feel worse than they already did. He traced one character, then another with his finger. I miss you all the time...Uncle just doesn’t understand…you would…I hope you remember me…

Before he’d even really thought the idea all the way through, Sokka brought out the crumpled roll of paper, bottle of ink, and brushes from Katara’s pack. She was using them to keep some kind of  journal but he figured she could spare one sheet. It was for a worthy cause, after all. He spared a thought for how grateful he actually was that she'd remembered to bring all kinds of stuff in their midnight flight, then rolled the paper out on a flat rock.

Hey, I know I probably shouldn’t have been reading your letter but I found your hawk in the forest a while ago with a broken wing and my sister and I healed him. I was going to keep him, since he’s actually a very good hunter, but I got into an argument with my sister and thought you should probably have him back now. Also, your letter made me think about my mom, who died when I was a kid, and I felt bad. So here you go. I hope you’re not too mad.

            S.

It wasn’t poetry or anything. It wasn't even good. Actually, it was so completely insufficient he wanted to tear it up and start again. But he couldn't think of how to say anything differently. To a stranger. To an enemy. He rolled the letter up into a tight cylinder and put it into the message carrier he’d been carrying around in his pocket like a guilty fool for days. The broken strap made it hang awkwardly on Hawky’s back, but for the first time, Hawky looked very perky about something not related to food.

“I want you to take that back to your owner. I mean your real owner, okay? And don't come back.” He frowned, and ran his finger down Hawky's red crest, "Sorry about the name. I'm usually much more creative. It doesn't matter now anyway." The bird nipped his finger gently, and then took off into the bright sky. Sokka watched him fly until he disappeared in the distance.

Chapter Text

Katara was very nice to him all week in a guilty kind of way, probably because Sokka did nothing to disillusion her that it was her fault Hawky was gone and they were reduced to eating nuts (or maybe-nuts). He’d tell her at some point, of course, but she'd really toned down the nagging, which was a relief, and he didn't want to have to explain the whole Fire Nation part. He could only imagine how she’d feel about such reckless endangerment.

Actually, now that he thought about it, reckless endangerment was exactly the kind of thing Katara liked best, so long as she was the one doing the endangering. How else could he explain why, in the face of a potential threat, she went rushing towards it? Luckily Haru turned out to be very nice, if a little…bland. Hidden safely away in Haru’s family storehouse, they set up their makeshift beds, and were just about to cook when Haru showed up with a simple meal packed in a basket. He put the basket down for all of them, but spoke only to Katara, “My mother and I had some leftovers and thought you might like some. And…I was wondering…after dinner, if you wanted to go for a walk around the village?”

“I’d love to.” Sokka said, just because he knew it would annoy them, and got great pleasure out of Haru’s blush, and Katara’s hesitation. He let them stumble around for a while, trying to find a polite way to exclude him, before saying, “Fine, I know when I’m not wanted. Let’s eat!”

The food was boring, and hanging around the storehouse after they left was boring, and the most boring thing of all was hanging around the storehouse with Aang, who was moping and wouldn’t admit it.

“C’mon, just because Katara’s busy doesn’t mean we can’t have fun.” Sokka said, trying for enthusiasm, “We could go back to the market street and go shopping?"

“No, thanks.” Aang said despondently.

“Why don’t you show me that new air bending trick you were working on?” When Aang didn’t reply, Sokka sighed, “You can’t possibly want to just mope around here, can you?”

 “I’m not moping.” Aang said, obviously a lie, “You can go wander if you want. I’m fine here.”

Sokka rolled his eyes, “Suit yourself.” He’d gotten no further than the foot of the hill before he saw a messenger hawk swooping down from the golden sky to land on a stump beside him. The resemblance to Hawky was uncanny; the bird favored his right wing slightly, and had those extra-long red feathers at the sides of his head. Unless it actually was Hawky…which it almost definitely was. He considered just walking away and ignoring Hawky’s sudden return. It was the right thing. He’d already convinced himself of that at least a dozen times. But the bird was staring him down impatiently with yellow eyes and before the rational part of his mind could catch up, Sokka ducked into a thick stand of evergreen trees with Hawky perched on his forearm.

“I thought we had an agreement.” He said sternly, and set the bird down on the ground. Hawky flapped his wings, as if to say get on with it, “Alright, alright.” The message carrier on Hawky’s back had been replaced with a new one of a slightly different model; the insignia wasn’t quite as prominently displayed. Despite himself, relief began to uncurl in his chest. The very fact of a messenger hawk pretty much screamed Fire Nation to anyone who saw it, but maybe if the holder was less visible…the bird could deliver messages to him unnoticed, and he could keep claiming the bird was only for hunting. How would anyone, and by that he meant Katara, tell the difference? 

Sokka knew his sister too well to underestimate her like that. She’d figure it out immediately. He paced on the soft pine needles, his pulse pounding through his limbs faster than a drum dance. This was stupid. He was being stupid about this. It was just a hawk, just a symbol, just a letter…

His knelt down, hands fumbling on the message carrier, which earned him a sharp nip from Hawky’s beak. He tucked the message into his anorak without even glancing at it.

“Shoo, now. Get away from here.” Sokka made the appropriate shooing gestures, but Hawky looked perfectly content to just stand there on the ground, watching him without blinking even once. 

“You really are annoyingly persistent, you know.” Sokka said, and thought he should probably get out of the trees before someone saw him talking to himself and thought he'd lost his marbles, "I bet you were trained to wait for a reply. Just my luck. But if you’re going to stick around, at least go somewhere inconspicuous.” He walked quickly out of the stand of trees, forgetting to duck. Low-hanging boughs smacked his face, but it didn’t matter. He had…ugh, his face stung…he had a reply, which was much better company than Aang or Appa or Katara or her new "friend."  

Sokka climbed the rest of the way down the hill and veered off onto a path before reaching the village, looking for a place far away from other people to look at the letter in safety. The path went further downhill than he was expecting, but it was overhung with trees and it took him a while to realize he’d been effectively walking down a gorge. The walk up would be hell—where was Appa when you needed him?—but he might as well keep going for the sake of it. He walked until the path leveled and the trees grew sparse. A series of hills rose up from the valley he'd reached, each one of them segmented as if a giant had taken his hands to the earth and organized it into a vast array of precise steps. Which wasn’t altogether unreasonable. This was the Earth Kingdom after all. The sun was to his left, nearly set, the sky now a brilliant red. The burning line of the sea in the near distance cut between the the sky, the hills, and the valley as if the Fire Nation had set it alight too. He wonder how the villagers must feel, watching it burn like that every evening, knowing that their people floated captive just beyond. 

The terraced hills were abandoned, probably because it was winter, and when Sokka approached the lowest terraces, he saw that their muddy bottoms were frozen with sheets of delicate, lacy ice. He perched on the bank of the terrace, knees tucked up, and looked up and down the abandoned valley again. It was a perfect, empty, alien place and he felt strangely empty himself. He reached into his anorak for that hidden pocket where…he hoped…yes, the letter.

The calligraphy was entirely different this time, neat and straight and almost crisp, and at first Sokka wasn’t sure if it even from was the same writer. Maybe, and this thought made him want to kick himself, the letter wasn’t actually for him. Maybe Hawky was an imposter, but that was impossible—he’d helped set the wing himself—or Hawky was simply dropping by for a visit on his way to... Sokka scanned the letter more closely, wishing for another few minutes of daylight, dreading the walk up the hill (mountain?) in the growing dusk, and caught the first few words of the line. He could have laughed out loud. Actually, nothing was stopping him. He let out a whoop and heard it echoed back and forth in the hills.

You were right, you shouldn’t have gone anywhere near that letter. Of course I’m mad, who wouldn’t be? I hope, at least, that you didn’t tell your sister about it. The shame of one person knowing is enough.

What’s worse is that you had the audacity to write back, and poorly, at that. Some people never know when to leave well enough alone.

Besides, you would know if you read the letter properly that my mother, unlike yours, is not dead, so I don’t need your sympathy. I’m already sick to death of my uncle’s pity.

Unsigned, but that didn’t matter. It was for him. He could barely see the characters anymore as the final rays of light slipped behind the curtain of the hills, but that didn’t matter. He’d read it again in the morning, before everyone else got up. Or he could read it by the light of a lantern after they were asleep.

So the writer was mad at him—well, who wouldn’t be? Sokka certainly would. And Katara would probably still throw a fit if she found out he’d stolen some of her paper. Precious resource, and all that. He'd deal with that when it happened. Right now, he wanted to hold the letter and know that it was real. There was something terrifying and exhilarating about this one, small thing; knowing that a piece of him was in the Fire Nation and a corresponding piece of the Fire Nation was in his hands. 

He was out of breath and sweaty by the time he got back to the storehouse. Katara and Haru’s romantic walk had concluded with a collapsed mine, illicit earth bending, and a saved life, all of which apparently made quite a favorable impression on Katara. Aang was putting on an almost convincing act of being happy for her, but when he said, “You must have really inspired him,” Sokka could hear the faint edge of bitterness lurking underneath. Eventually Sokka couldn’t take it anymore and had to make a few not-so-subtle gestures in Katara’s direction to get her to shut up about how Haru was such a good earth bender with a really strong sense of moral purpose who understood her so well.

“Everyone should get some sleep. We’re leaving at dawn.” Sokka interrupted, and waited for the resistance he had come to expect from Aang and his sister.

“Can’t we sleep in for once?” Katara asked, and Sokka couldn’t believe her, he really couldn’t.

“Absolutely not! This village is crawling with Fire Nation troops. If they discover you’re here, Aang, we’ll be eating fireballs for breakfast. Goodnight!” He rolled onto his side, pulling the scratchy blanket up over his shoulders, and didn't feel guilty at all. Not even a little bit. The rough-hewn wall in front of his eyes grew shadowed as Katara blew out the lantern. Thoughts, mostly about the letter and his annoying sister and the ever-present fear that something terrible could happen at any moment, kept cycling through his mind. He tried to relax but every sound, every creak of the storehouse, every whuff of Appa's snoring, kept him awake. He was afraid if he closed his eyes for even a moment…

He must have dozed off without realizing it because when he woke, the moon was high outside the window and his companions were fast asleep. He stretched and rolled onto his back, reaching out instinctively to feel the crinkle of paper in the pocket of his anorak next to him. Maybe now would be a good time to read it again. Send a reply too, if Hawky was still around. And he half hoped Hawky wouldn't be. 

Sokka pulled the anorak and his boots on, grabbed the lantern from beside Katara’s pack, and her calligraphy set from inside it, then closed the storehouse door softly behind him. He didn’t even need the lantern, the moon was so bright. It was nearly full, a lopsided blue-white sphere hanging in the sky. Sokka found a ladder at the back of the storehouse’s exterior wall, and climbed up to the roof. It was the kind of place Aang would probably sit, Aang who had no fear of heights or falling, but Sokka was increasingly familiar with the benefits of elevation now that he’d gotten used to riding Appa. The main benefit in this case was privacy. If Aang or Katara woke up and went looking for him, they would never think to look here. And the silver hills, dark feathery trees, and sloped roofs of the village made him feel like he was in a world apart from the real world. No Fire Nation here. No war. 

He re-read the letter then leaned back against the roof with his hands folded across his chest. The letter-writer had a sharp tongue (brush? pen?), but Sokka still couldn’t find it in himself to be bothered. He knew shame. He knew the tension of anger, fear, and unhappiness all together, body and mind drawn taut like a bow. A tremor beneath the skin, invisible but acute. It doesn’t matter if your mother is dead or just ran off to sleep with another man, he wanted to say, even as he knew he wouldn’t. We are the same and I will make you see it. Gone is gone is gone. Except it wasn’t, quite.

 A little thanks would be appreciated! It’s not like I had to go through all the trouble of fixing your hawk’s broken wing to return him to you, did I? My sister doesn’t know about any of this, but I don't know why you care so much, since I have no idea who you are. Besides, if you were really so mad, why write back? I didn't write out of sympathy or pity. Your letter reminded me mostly of…well, me. Sometimes I think it’s worse if they’re only gone, because then you keep wondering if they’ll come back. My dad left too, to fight in the war. I have no idea where he is, if he’s alive or dead, and I think about him every day. I ask myself if he would approve of what I'm doing, if he'd be proud. The answer isn't always yes, I'll admit. My sister and I haven't heard from him or any of the other men of our village since they set out. It's been two years and I'm getting kind of worried. But there's nothing I can do.  I never thought of writing him a letter, I didn’t know messenger hawks could find people even if they didn’t know where they were.

            S.

Sokka had just wiped the brush clean with some spit and whistled for Hawky when he saw a trail of floating lanterns further down in the village. He paused, letter still open in his hand, and watched as they made their way towards the main street. The lanterns were being carried on poles, the poles were carried by Fire Nation soldiers, their elaborate armor casting grotesque shadows across the ground. Sokka froze, hoping not to draw any attention to himself. He need not have worried; they marched single-minded and single-file to one of the houses, opened the door, and seized the person standing behind it. The scene was too far away for Sokka to catch who exactly it was, but he watched with a heavy heart as whoever it was got dragged away, a woman’s wail rising from the house behind them. Tomorrow, another earth bender would be known as missing. Tomorrow, he and Katara and Aang would be on their way again. Everywhere they went was the same. The war would never leave them. He was a fool to think it might. 

Hawky landed on the edge of the roof not long after, and with hands slightly numb from the cold, Sokka curled up the message and fed it into the tube.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this.” Sokka muttered, “I can’t believe I’m doing this. Alright, Hawky. You know where to go. I have no idea how you found me again, but I’m sure you’ll manage it next time too. Just try not to make my life any harder, okay? No conspicuous entrances? No scaring my sister? You’re a pretty big bird, and with that harness…”

Hawky literally nodded in agreement, he was seriously the weirdest bird ever, and took off into the sky.

“I still don’t trust you!” Sokka called out after him, but it meant nothing now.

Chapter Text

The next morning, everything became clearly and horribly linked together. Sokka watched as Katara crumbled, just for a moment, before announcing that she was going to rescue Haru and they were going to help her. Sokka wanted to argue, but he couldn’t deny that yes, it was her fault, and yes, it would be cruel to just leave after all this. More importantly, he couldn’t deny her the chance to make things right the only foolhardy way she knew how.

He helped organize the earthbending ruse, got into a slightly too-real fight with Katara which left him feeling, incredibly, more self-conscious about his appearance than before, and watched as she was taken away from him. He trusted her but he was scared. He held her shoulders, whispered the plan in her ear, and felt her tremble. With determination or fear, he couldn’t tell. But she trembled and he let her go. He already couldn’t forgive himself.  

Sokka and Aang followed the Fire Nation down to the port in disguise, then circled back to get Appa and followed the ship over water. Once they knew where the main prison base was, it seemed safer to fly back to land and hide in the forest until Katara’s twelve hours were up.

They selected a spot right on the coast, a sheltered rocky cove too narrow for Fire Nation ships to enter, where they could see the tall spire and platform of the prison in the distance. It was an ugly structure, a blight on the shifting sea. Sokka couldn’t imagine how unpleasant the Fire Nation itself might be, if the things they built were anything to go by.

The cove, on the other hand, was peaceful and soothing, which felt unnatural at a time like this. Sokka was used to the contradiction. It had come to govern his life since joining the Avatar; long periods of boredom and inactivity punctuated by sudden terror. Appa hid in the trees edging the beach, while Sokka and Aang lounged in the sun on the warm rough sand. By mid-day the air was almost warm too, or at least warm enough for Sokka to take his anorak off and lie back on it, stretching his arms out into the sand.

“This is pretty nice, huh?” Aang asked, “D’you want to go swimming?”

“Are you kidding me?” Sokka exclaimed, but didn’t put any real energy into it, “This isn’t some beach mini-vacation. It’s winter.”

“Big deal. You’re from the South Pole. This has gotta feel like spring to you, right?”

It did, actually, but Sokka still didn’t want to get in the water, “Do whatever you want. I’m staying here.”

“Spoilsport.” Aang stripped down to bare skin and ran top-speed into the water, laughing and yelling. Sokka propped himself up on his elbows to watch. It did look kind of fun. Who was he kidding? No matter what Aang and Katara did, there needed to be someone keeping watch, always on guard. Staying on shore while Aang frolicked bearing wriggling fish in his hands or particularly long strands of seaweed. Anything could happen if Sokka got distracted.  

“Come on, Sokka! Just for a little while. Appa will let us know if people come by.” Aang called, and after another minute of fierce inner conflict, Sokka reluctantly climbed to his feet. He took off all his clothing and piled it up by his pack. He reminded himself not to worry about the size of his cock in relation to Aang's, which was a ridiculous worry to begin with, Aang was just a kid, and approached the water. Although the sun and sea-breeze were warm enough for him not to need his anorak, his whole body prickled with a chill now that he was naked. Too late to back out now, as far as his pride was concerned. His toes ached when they reached the water's edge. And then, without warning, a wave rose, swelling across the whole cove, and broke over his head, drenching him to the bone and pulling him out to where Aang was treading water. The cold was like a knife and Aang’s stupid grin was not doing anything to make him feel better.

“Fun, right?”

“You—you…that was totally a waterbending move. I know. I’ve seen Katara try it.”

“Who, me?” Aang looked suspiciously innocent, “But I don’t know how to waterbend.” Sokka tried to start a splashing and get him in back, but Aang’s air-shield repulsed all the water onto him. Sokka's head re-emerged to the sound of Aang’s delighted laughter. He laughed even harder when Sokka eventually trudged out of the water, his skin practically shriveling off his bones.

“I can’t believe I let you convince me that was a good idea!” He shouted from the shore, shivering, and Aang sailed past on a cushion of water, the picture of relaxation, “Just because he never gets cold…” Sokka muttered, and set about drying and dressing himself. A fire would be nice, but if the idea was to not attract attention, they’d probably just have to rely on Appa’s warmth for the rest of the afternoon and evening.

Sokka had just put on clothes and his warmest pair of mittens when he heard Hawky screech from somewhere close by. A sudden shiver of anticipation and something else, something like fear, ran through his body at the sound. Hawky flew in over the water from the west, and landed on the sand near where Sokka stood. Sokka checked to see if Aang was preoccupied—he was, with a particularly engaging game of walk-on-water, which would completely blow their cover if anyone saw—and quickly unfastened the harness around Hawk’s body, stuffing it once again into his anorak pocket. It was becoming a habit, and Sokka wondered when he’d gotten so used to hiding things from his friends.

He waved to Aang, catching his attention at last, and called out, "I’m going hunting!”

“I thought there was food in Katara’s pack.” Aang yelled back. 

“Yeah, but…meat…” Sokka edged away towards the trees, Hawky flying in after him and landing on a low branch, “What, did you think I’d let you off the hook when I sent you back? I'm going to rustle up some game, then I want you to go after it while I read this. Sound fair?” Hawky didn’t give any particular reply, but Sokka interpreted the avid look in his eyes as a resounding yes. 

He wandered around, rustling branches and piles of leaves until enough little creatures had gotten startled out of their comfortable dens, then sat down on the ground, leaning back against a mossy boulder. Nearby, Hawky latched his claws into a rabbit which had foolishly left its warren and literally ripped it to shreds. Well, he didn’t need this first kill anyway, he thought as he unrolled the letter. 

Messenger hawks can’t find people they don’t know. It was a stupid idea.

Since you told me your story, I’ll tell you (part) of mine, even though it’s none of your business. My mother left when I was a child. I wasn't a happy child by any means, and I relied on her to help me make sense of what was going on and keep me safe, but then one night I went to bed and the next morning she was gone. No one would tell me where she was. My father especially was tight-lipped. I think she came to my room that night to say goodbye but I was half-asleep and it was so long ago, it might have been a dream. I hope it wasn’t, but I’m still not sure.

I can’t help but think she betrayed me by leaving, even if she said she was sorry, even if she said it was to protect me. Whatever her intentions were, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive her. I don't think anyone could, in my position. 

The worst part was that when she left, everyone pretended that she had never existed. It made me kind of crazy, remembering her all the time with no one to talk to. It’s easier now that I’m living with Uncle. Even if he is the most infuriating old man on earth.

On another note, you might try to improve your handwriting. It really is awful, and I don’t have time to waste on deciphering your chicken scratch.

Sokka smiled at the parting shot about his handwriting, and raised his head, eyes blurring. He'd forgotten to blink. Compared to the writer's story, his own seemed so simple. Neither his mother nor his father would be gone if they'd had any choice in the matter. If there hadn't been a war. There was no mystery beyond his father's current fate. Nothing unspoken, besides, perhaps, the slightest bit of resentment. Betrayal. Sokka would never use that word, but it was still there, brought to mind. And the feeling was nothing he'd ever tell his father, or his sister, or anyone at all. It wasn't enough of a feeling to really matter. He wanted to be mad at the writer for reminding him. But he couldn't. 

Sometimes he saw them as specters, his parents, united in death—a fear and a hope all at once—before telling himself he didn’t believe in ghosts or spirits or shades of any kind. Nothing but what he could touch and taste could possibly, reasonably, exist. And if he occasionally thought he might be living in a dream world too, well, obviously his thoughts couldn't be trusted. Which he knew already.

Sokka called Hawky off the hunt once it seemed like the bird had eaten his fill. There was no point in trying to hunt for himself, he couldn’t light a cook-fire. And besides, rabbit didn’t taste nearly as good raw as seal did. Together they rambled aimlessly through the forest near the cove, staying out of Aang’s sight, if Aang was even looking. With the comfortable weight of Hawky perched on his arm, Sokka felt some of the tension from the day before break free in his chest like ice in a thaw.

“If something bad happens tonight, I’ll know it’s you who’s been bringing bad luck to us, and I’ll never write another letter. But if things go well, then we can just consider the whole Fire Nation thing forgotten. Deal?” He looked into the bird’s eyes, and Hawky blinked, “Good.”

He brought out the small calligraphy kit from his other pocket. He’d put it there before they left the village, just in case he needed it. Katara certainly wasn’t going to notice its absence, imprisoned as she was. There was no solid flat surface to write on except the boulder he'd been leaning against earlier, so Sokka returned to the spot and knelt on the forest floor, spreading a small scrap of paper out onto the least mossy part. 

I am trying. It’s not easy finding a good place to write when I’m on the road every day. Sorry about your mother, that sounds rough. What you said about betrayal got me thinking. I already forgive my father for what happened. I miss him too much to stay mad. Even though he left me to fend for myself, and in charge of our whole village, when I was only twelve, I know he did it for the right reasons. I only wish I could have joined him. It's just—I could have helped. I shouldn't have been left behind. I shouldn't have had to grow up without him.  Sometimes I wonder what I’m like compared to other people who still had someone around to help them, as you said, make sense of things. Like maybe I could have turned out very differently. About your mother…even if it was just a dream, at least it was a nice dream, right? At least you got to say goodbye. I never had the chance. My mother died during a raid, and I was so caught up trying to help my father defend our village that I just…I didn’t even know she was in danger. My sister was the last person to see her alive, and that’s hard for her, but sometimes I wish I had something, you know? Some last memory. It's my own selfish fault that I don't. Anyway, so you live with your uncle? Where’s your dad?

           S. 

Sokka rolled up the message, put it in the holder, and clipped the harness back onto Hawky, fastening it under his rust-red wings. He didn’t want the bird to go yet, liked the company. This must be what Aang felt about Appa, except completely different, of course. Sokka wasn’t the avatar, and Hawky wasn’t his animal guide. Still…“We’re friends, right?” He murmured, “Even if you don’t belong to me. Right?”

Back at the cove, Aang was perfectly dry and warm, munching on a cold bowl of rice and vegetables in the warm crook of Appa’s neck.

“No luck?” He asked, mouth full. A clump of rice fell from his lips back into the bowl and he scooped it back up with his chopsticks, “There’s plenty of this left over if you want some.”

“Yeah. Sure. Looks delicious.” Sokka said, full-sarcasm, which Aang cheerfully ignored as he usually did. The sun began to set as they ate, and by the time they were finished, just the faintest rim remained poised over the sea. Sokka blinked and it disappeared. Gold, red, purple, and blue curtains descended over the sky until the moon and stars overhead appeared. Just as the day was extinguished, so did the whole world seem to quiet until only the gentle hush of the sea remained. A damp sea-breeze blew. Neither of them felt like talking. Distantly flickering fires were the only trace of the prison base they could see, but even that infernal machine seemed innocuous.

Aang kept track of time, calling out an hourly countdown, apparently by monitoring the movements of the stars. Sokka honestly thought that was nonsense. What twelve-year-old kid knew the stars that well? When he confronted Aang about it, the Avatar just claimed it didn't really matter what time they retrieved Katara from prison so long as it was dark out when they did it. Sokka fought the urge to face-palm. Yet another thing he hadn't thought of in advance. 

At some point (according to Aang, three hours to go), the prison fires dimmed slightly. Maybe the prisoners had all gone to sleep. He let himself be lulled by the water and the breeze and rise and fall of his own breath, in and out of time with the waves. He wasn’t bored, exactly. Not anymore. And only a little impatient. He hoped whatever Katara was doing, she wasn’t being too rash. Then, for no good reason, he wondered where Zuko was, if he was still chasing them. They hadn’t seen him in a while. Not that Sokka was complaining. That was the last thought to pass through his mind for quite a while, although he didn’t notice; he was sliding between waking and sleep, anxiety and calm, sliding through the in-between the space, restful. 

And then, something started to glow in the water. Not one thing, but many; blue glowing spots rising from the depths just beyond the cliffs and drifting slowly towards the shore. A whisper of panic touched his pulse then receded. Something told him there was no need to fear. Aang’s face was open with wonder as he watched the blue shapes fill the cove with their light.

“What are they?” Sokka asked.

“Firefly squid.” Came the reply.

It was the strangest, most beautiful thing Sokka had ever seen. He crouched down at the water’s edge and trailed his fingers through it, brushing over the slippery backs of the squid as they crowded towards the shore, brought in by the tide.

“I wish Katara was here.” Aang said from somewhere behind him, and Sokka agreed, but not for the same reason. He'd shared almost everything with his sister since she was born, and as much as she annoyed and infuriated him, he still wanted her to be there. Meanwhile, Aang's tone was wistful, longing even, and Sokka wished he could un-hear it. Of course, if Suki was here, he’d put his arm around her and pull her close. They’d watch the luminescent cove together, watch the blue lights sway in the waves, hear the distant cries of seagulls from the port. He’d kiss her and she’d say it was the loveliest evening of her life. If this was even the kind of thing she would like. It was hard to tell with girls. Or maybe it was just hard to tell with her. He didn’t know why he was picturing her, now, but he wanted—someone. Someone by his side. Someone to want.

The squid began to get pushed up onto the sand, glowing gelatinous lumps, tentacles tangled together. Sokka watched, transfixed—and he didn’t even like squid—and ignored the way contentment had turned suddenly to loneliness, until he heard Aang calling his name, a little impatiently.

“Sokka, it’s time to go.”

“Alright, I’m coming.” Sokka shook his thoughts away and joined him on Appa’s back. They flew soundlessly through the night towards the lights of the waterborne prison.

Chapter Text

The next letter came the following day. Exhausted after staying up all night to fight some mediocre firebenders in the morning, Sokka stayed awake just long enough to make sure they were on course before letting himself fall asleep, curled up with his back against Appa’s saddle while Aang and Katara took turns steering. He gave it two hours before they completely ignored his itinerary for the day. It's not that he didn't trust them, he just...okay, he didn't trust them. Sokka wanted to care, wanted to take a look at the map and mark out an exact route for the next leg of their journey to the North Pole, wanted to stay up to enforce it, but he just didn’t have the energy. He slept most of the afternoon and woke up again when it was evening. Aang was steering with Katara leaning over the saddle to talk to him, telling him something about conditions in Fire Nation prisons, about perseverance, about hope, their low voices mingling as Aang replied. She reached over and laid a hand on Aang’s shoulder, comfort or reassurance or something else altogether, and Sokka decided to let them know he was awake before things got even more intimate. He stretched, jostling their packs, yawned loudly, and sat up, scratching his neck. He didn’t want to admit it, but he could definitely use a bath sometime soon. The salt from yesterday’s swimming adventure made his hair coarse and his skin slightly, but perceptibly, crusty.

“Well, look who’s up.” Katara said, looking back at him, “Hello, sleepyhead.”

“Did I miss anything?” His mouth was dry, he could use some water too.

“No, not really. Oh, but…” She paused, frowning, “A messenger hawk has been following us for the past hour or so. It’s got….well, we think it’s got a Fire Nation harness on. Aang tried to scare it away but it came back again.” She pointed off to the right, somewhere below them, and Sokka saw—oh, no, this really was the worst timing—Hawky’s uneven wing-span gliding in a wide circle then beginning to gain altitude, coming up level with Appa.

Sokka tried to seem surprised, “Maybe it’s just heading in the same direction. It’s not like a bird can keep watch on someone, how would it tell anyone what they saw?”

“I thought you’d be more worried.” Katara said, and the crease between her brows deepened.

“I am worried.” Sokka insisted, “I’m just…I’m thinking. What if we lured the bird here to see if it’s carrying a message? If it is, and it’s about us, we can destroy it. And if not, we don’t need to worry anymore.”

“I don’t know about this…” Katara hesitated, but Sokka was already whistling for Hawky, who came and landed blithely on the edge of the saddle, as if he had no idea that anything was wrong. Sokka had so many words for this bird as soon as they were alone together. Stupid, stupid, stupid. He uncapped the message carrier and peered inside. A rolled-up piece of paper, the same eggshell white with red-tipped edges that his—his whatever used.

“Is there anything written?” Aang asked, craning his neck to see above the saddle, “What does it say?”

Sokka pulled out the letter and scanned it quickly, holding it away from Katara so she couldn’t see the characters, “Just some nonsense about the winter plum harvest getting damaged by the warm weather. Nothing important.”

“Let me see.” Katara said, holding her hand out, but Sokka stuffed the letter back into the holder and shoved Hawky off the saddle into the air, “Hey!”

“No,” Sokka said, and felt like the worst kind of hypocrite, “It’s someone’s private letter and has nothing to do with us. No one else should read it.”

“It could have been a code or something.” She insisted, “I just don’t understand what’s gotten into you lately." 

“What do you mean?” He asked, wincing when his voice cracked, “Why are you making such a big deal out of this?”

“Why are you?”

“I’m not, okay. Just leave it.” He narrowed his eyes at her, wishing he could somehow send the message straight into her head, “Just leave it.”

Katara looked surprised at his vehemence, and almost like she was about to ask him something else before she stopped herself and sighed, “Whatever.” She crawled back up to where Aang was steering and pointedly began talking to him about something that had nothing whatsoever to do with Sokka. Sokka, meanwhile, leaned back against the saddle and watched the rolling green hills pass them by. 

The few words he’d caught of the letter were tantalizing but not quite enough. They never were. He sent off every letter hoping that the response would be more, more words, more something, than the last. He wanted to grab the person holding the brush on the other side of the paper and bring him (her? no, him) through the paper into life. He knew this was not a rational reaction, but the war between his rational side and his crazy, desperate, seeking side kept going wrong, and the scales kept tipping towards the latter. It was like the absence in his chest kept driving him, and whatever rational thought was left over went in service of that drive. But maybe that’s what everyone was doing, and they just didn’t talk about it. Sometimes he thought Katara might be the same. 

Sokka got ahold of the letter when they landed that night to make camp. He went out of sight to piss and collected the it from a rather irritated Hawky when he was done.

You’re not from the Fire Nation, are you? I should have known. We have much higher standards of education here. Are you from one of the colonies, or…? Why do you keep writing to me? This whole situation is ridiculous.

Does your sister know? If she did, would she call you a traitor?

 Mine would. Fortunately, she’ll never know, and I’m already in dishonor so there isn’t much she can do to me anymore. Still, I wouldn’t put it past her to try. To answer your question, my father and I never really got along, which was more my fault than his. We had a fight when I was thirteen and I failed him was sent away. My uncle took me in. He’s an annoying old busybody but he’s been good to me. I can admit that much here, even if I don’t want to give him the satisfaction of telling him.

Look, I’m sorry about your parents. I could tell you the usual things about the price of war and the just fate of colonials who resist our rule, but you almost certainly don’t want to hear it. And I don’t want to say it. If my calculations are correct, I’m only a couple years older than you, so I can guarantee I had nothing to do with what happened, but if you don’t want to keep writing that's fine. 

It wasn’t a question of not wanting to keep writing. Sokka knew already, without having to look deep inside himself, that he’d keep writing even if the worst happened and this person turned out to be…oh, someone awful. He’d started the whole thing already knowing that his correspondent was Fire Nation, what could stop him now? He’d probably have to draw the line at Prince Jerkbender, but Zuko didn’t exactly seem like the kind of person who’d pour his heart out to a stranger. In fact, Sokka wasn’t even sure he had a heart.

Sokka’d had to return Katara’s calligraphy set to her pack when they broke her out of prison, so he waited until both Katara and Aang were occupied with cooking dinner (well, Katara was cooking and Aang was hanging around, looking helpful) before he could sneak it out of her things, along with her severely depleted stash of paper. He promised her silently that he’d replace what he’d taken next time they went to a market town even though he knew he probably wouldn't. Where would he get the money? 

The whole area, including their campsite, sloped downwards to the rocky bed of a dried-up stream, surrounded by oak-trees that still hadn't lost their leaves. Then again, the weather was decidedly warmer here—it felt more like autumn than the depths of winter. An old, overgrown road wove through the forest and would have crossed the stream over a wooden bridge which was now almost completely unusable. Sokka was reluctant to make camp near a possible thoroughfare, but it was pretty obvious after a closer look that no one would be coming by. He hid behind what remained of the bridge's base and laid the paper out on a large, perfectly smooth river-stone.

It’s not my sister’s business who I write to. Even if you are Fire Nation scum. No offence. It’s good to have someone my age to talk to, I guess. Gives me something to think about. Why do you keep writing to me? Our village was recently attacked and nearly destroyed, but never colonized. I know that I, at least, would rather die than have the Fire Nation flag hang from our walls. We still had to leave, though. My sister and I are refugees, I guess you could say, traveling with a friend in the Earth Kingdom. You must miss your home a lot, too. I don’t know how what happened could be your fault, though, if you were only thirteen. Your dad sounds really unfair. After all, aren’t parents supposed to forgive us, even when no one else will? But what do I know…Your sister sounds like a nightmare. Seriously, what is wrong with your family? My sister is too, kind of. We fight all the time, about everything, but I don’t know what I’d do without her. The real problem with her is that even though I’m older, I can’t seem to keep her out of trouble. She just won’t listen to me, and it drives me crazy. When Dad left, he made me responsible for her safety, but neither she nor our friend seem to respect me at all. I guess it’s because I’m not a bender. Are you a non-bender too?

            S.

Katara called him to eat half-way through composing the letter, and he rushed to finish it and send Hawky off. When he came out from behind the bridge, she thrust a bowl of cold congee and preserved eggs into his hands.

“This would have been warm if you’d come when I called. What were you doing over there?” She demanded when he took a bite and gagged.

“I was just—you know.” He made a suggestive gesture, trying to fight down a blush, and she fixed him with a stern look that she had to have gotten from Gran Gran, the true master of making him feel small. 

“Well, I hope it was worth it.” She said, and turned away, muttering, “Boys are so disgusting…”

As if his body was punishing him for his lie, he surfaced from sleep that morning just as a swell of pleasure he didn’t even know had been building in him crested. It was the nastiest, coldest, cloudiest crack of dawn and a wet pool of cum right around the region of his cock was already sinking into his sleeping bag. It took him a moment to figure it out, hand reaching down to touch himself lazily, the last few moments of warm and yes and good, before he woke all the way up and…ugh. Not again. It was the third time in as many weeks and his sleeping bag was beginning to really smell bad.

He knew from experience that the wet spot would get cold and gross soon, so he forced himself out of the sleeping bag and into a clean pair of pants. He looked around the gloomy campsite, shivering. Aang must have woken up before he did (since when?) because he was nowhere to be found. Katara, at least, was still curled up, dead to the world. Thank the spirits for small mercies.

He wished he could remember what the dream had been about, it would help him get off again. He usually needed to after an incident like this. Otherwise residual arousal would keep coiling up in his body throughout the day and he’d never get any peace from it. But maybe the dream was about nothing. That happened sometimes. Just the delicious build of pleasure until release, only darkness behind his eyes. He closed his eyes and let fragments of the dream re-emerge and sweep over him. Not darkness this time. Something…oh—someone behind him, his hips jerking back to meet them, their hands on his cock. He kept twisting around in the dream to see who but couldn’t, the angle was all wrong. The only thing he could see was that they were in the tower room of what he imagined an Earth Kingdom palace would look like, all soothing yellows and greens, if one had been magically transported to the South Pole, a large stone window with curtains blowing in the warm (??) breeze looking out onto the ice flows and blue sea, and Sokka, getting almost-fucked on the bed beneath it, his fingers clenched in the sheets. A ridiculous dream. Things would probably be different once he had real actual experience with another person—at least, it would be easier for his mind to stay focused instead of drifting off and imagining impossible things. Discouraged and maybe even a little disgusted, Sokka decided to forgo his usual second-time’s-the-charm ritual to find Aang.

Aang, as it turned out, was on the hunt for breakfast. Not literally, of course. He’d already filled a basket with groundnuts and wood ear mushrooms and was attempting to enlist Sokka’s aid in finding more.

“I’ll help you if you take over wake-Katara-up duty this morning.” Sokka said, and Aang frowned, blushing idiotically.

“I—I could, I guess. But shouldn’t you do it? I mean, you’re her brother.” He stuttered.

Sokka knew a pushover when he saw one, though, and countered with, “Yeah, but I’m sure she’d be much happier to see you first thing than me. Especially today.”

Aang, if it was even possible, blushed harder, but agreed. Sokka couldn’t suppress his grin of relief, “Good. You'd think she actually likes making my life harder the way she complains at the sight of my face every morning.”

“Well, you and she have been arguing a lot lately. Any idea why?”

“She’s been really touchy since she lost Mom’s necklace.” Sokka said, but he knew that wasn’t it. Or at least, not entirely. Katara could probably sense he was hiding something, even if she didn’t know what. Even if she hadn’t entirely realized that she’d sensed it yet. Aang’s face twisted with sympathy, and the issue was dropped.

They walked back to camp, only getting lost once. While Aang woke Katara up, Sokka rolled up the offending sleeping bag and climbed up to strap it in place on Appa’s saddle. Something unseen caused a flock of birds to rise from some nearby trees, a great movement of black wings into the sky and away, and then Hawky appeared from between the maze of branches at the edge of the forest.

“Are you kidding me?” Sokka exclaimed, forgetting himself, and slid down Appa’s side. He approached the hawk cautiously, checking behind him. No one was looking; Aang was helping Katara grind some groundnuts into a weird paste, and Katara was yawning sleepily, rubbing at her eyes. Sokka collected the message from its holder, told Hawky to wait in the forest until he called for him, and leaned back against Appa’s side to read it. He might not get another chance. When he’d have time to write back was another matter entirely.

Don’t pass judgment on things you know nothing about. My father is a great man, but I dishonored him and our whole family with my weakness. What happened is entirely my fault. If I’d stayed at home, he would have continued to be embarrassed by me. I needed to learn how to work harder and be a better son. And I am learning. Things are going to change for me soon. I can feel it.

A few days ago, I found something that I’m sure will help me return home. It’s my father gave me a task to prove myself with. I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to complete it, but now I finally have a plan and the means to carry it out. I can’t tell you more because I don’t want to tempt fate, but…wish me luck. If you want to, of course. 

It would certainly be hard to respect a non-bender in the family. There’s just so much that people like you don’t understand. So much that you can’t do. It’s not a problem I’ve ever had to deal with since everyone in my family has always been blessed with the ability.

To tell you the truth, though, I’m not actually very good. Another way I failed my father and his legacy. Sometimes I wish He thought I was defective when I was a child because I could barely produce any fire at all. My mother always had faith in me. It’s because of her that I’m any good at all.

Uncle says I dwell too much on the negative, which is probably true. So, just to make him happy even though he has no idea I’m writing this, I’ll tell you that I am very good at sword-fighting. My father says it’s a low art, useful only because my bending is weak, but I enjoy it. It’s important to learn as much as you can to be a more flexible warrior. I mean that in terms of mind-set, but also physically. These are dangerous times for everyone, and I’ve got a history of bad luck. Mostly, it just feels good to excel at something. Anything.

I don’t want to talk about my family anymore. I don't know why I keep writing to you. Maybe I'm bored. 

He was a bender. A firebender. Responsible, at least by proxy, for everything that had gone wrong in Sokka’s life. Sokka tried to tamp down the rage that filled him but it did no good. His entire body was trembling. A non-bender he could have sympathized with. But there was no mercy for someone who wrote people like you as if Sokka was a slug. He’d promised himself this a long time ago. No mercy for the Fire Nation. No friendship. Fight them with everything he had until his last breath. And he’d already twisted his promise, made it bad.

Whoever was writing him had to be close by. There was no way a hawk or any other animal could travel all the way to the Fire Nation and back several times a day. Or maybe…actually, he had no idea. He could check the map, try to calculate distances, but he’d realized long ago that it wasn’t the most accurate map in existence, and really, why drive himself crazy over something he should just stop doing? Should have stopped doing a long time ago.

Sokka crumpled the letter, groaning. Why did fate always play the worst jokes on him? Even his anonymous letter-writer couldn’t possibly compete with Sokka’s bad luck. Not that it was a competition. He might as well just accept that this was just another thing that had to end and move on. Still, a part of him wanted to write back, as if he hadn’t read the part that said bender and fire. He remembered the not very good. He remembered wish me luck if you want to. He remembered defective and embarrassed and better son.

And as suddenly as his anger had risen, it deflated. This revelation changed nothing. He was still weak and selfish and he’d wish the guy whatever luck he needed. Maybe ask for some in return. Ignore the arrogance, the insults, the defensiveness. Focus on the letter underneath the letter. The one that wasn't written entirely of other people's words but the writer's own, the wavering note of honesty beneath all the bite and burn. 

And he liked the undercurrent of him. Whoever he was. That was the worst part.

Sokka didn’t get to reply until late that night. He needed time to think and, more importantly, he needed to fix things with his sister. He’d been completely reasonable all day about the sheer number of pit stops they’d had to make while flying, accepting Aang and Katara’s excuses without argument. Oh, let’s go explore that strange rock formation. Oh, there’s a nice little stream, let's take a bath (which all of them really, really needed). He even tried to enjoy the detours. He’d helped Katara fix dinner that night. He hadn’t made a single (okay, maybe only one) comment about the dismal lack of meat. He hadn’t complained about how hungry he still was, always was. Katara looked at him a little suspiciously, but seemed to accept it. And that was good.

The three of them stayed up talking long after dark, the fire burning low, laughing at each other's jokes and planning what they’d do when they finally got to the North Pole. Aang expressed surprise that neither Sokka nor his sister knew much, if anything, about the Northern Water Tribe, beyond its existence, but quieted as soon as he remembered what, exactly, their village had looked like. Sokka was glad he didn't need to remind him. A handful of huts on the ice populated by frightened women and insolent children, lead by an untrained teenager; everyone still shivering at the sight of the old Fire Nation ship scarring the pack-ice, looking to him to protect them against the Fire Nation a second time. Before Prince Zuko shamed him in front of everybody and wrecked their walls. 

Maybe it was the thought of home, or just the silence that had fallen over them, but Katara leaned her head on Sokka’s shoulder and whispered, "I'm sorry I've been so difficult lately. I know I get like that sometimes. I'm just mad at myself, I guess. For losing Mom's necklace. And—and putting us all in danger on that ship." He laid a hand in her hair and said he was sorry too. She had no idea how much.

A happy evening of reconciliation didn't deter Sokka from stealing Katara’s calligraphy set as soon as he was sure she was asleep. He uncrumpled the letter in his pocket, re-read it, and started to write. He tried to leave his anger from earlier behind, but couldn’t quite manage. It didn’t matter. Might do someone from the Fire Nation good to know that they weren’t actually the Spirits’ gift to mankind just because they could bend. Or maybe that was just his own frustration speaking. 

Fine with me. You don’t need to tell me more. Talking about that stuff can be depressing sometimes. Good luck with your plan. Seriously. I hope you get what you’re looking for. It’s kind of the opposite situation with us, my sister’s the only bender left from our village. I always thought it was just a waste of time but I’m beginning to see how useful it can be. I’m no use against a fire bender, and she’s helped save my ass more times than I can count. I feel so powerless I’m much more of a weapons guy myself. I’m pretty good with a boomerang, not as good with the machete, and then there’s hunting weapons, like spears and harpoons. I’ve never used a sword before, but I’d like to learn. I bet you're really good, the way you talk about it. Unfortunately, with all the men from our village gone and us on the move, I just can’t see myself finding a master any time soon. Not that this is something my sister and our friend have to worry about. We’re actually traveling specifically to find them a master bender. Meanwhile, I might as well be invisible. You wouldn’t understand. Even mediocre bending is still something. I can’t believe I’m writing to a firebender. But I bet if your uncle read the letters I’ve been writing he’d tell me to be more positive too, so how about I say instead that I’ll try to find a master when we finally get where we’re going, and then I can give Prince Jerkbender a run for his money. I wouldn’t want to bend anyway, it seems really dangerous and more trouble than it’s worth.

            S.

He whistled for Hawky and spent a few minutes talking quietly to him, warning him yet again to stay out of sight for goodness' sake. It really couldn’t be that hard to understand, even if Hawky was, technically, just a bird. Any more close calls, and Sokka knew he'd be reduced to a jumpy mess, his anxiety visible to all. Eventually Sokka sent him on his way and lay on top of his sleeping bag dressed in his anorak and winter furs. The climate in this part of the Earth Kingdom might be warmer, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t still chilly at night. And there was no way he was getting back into that sleeping bag. He drifted off to sleep while behind him, watching in the dark, Aang felt something nervous come to life in his stomach.

Chapter Text

Aang had been acting weird all morning. Withdrawn and kind of twitchy, like he had fleas or something to say. Sokka didn’t need to think very hard about which option it might be. He just hoped whatever Aang had to say wouldn’t mean more bad news for their schedule, like the absolute necessity of risking their necks to ride hog monkeys. Katara left them by the cook-fire after breakfast to go deal with some stuff, as she put it, and put them in charge of breaking up camp. It was the full moon, so she was probably bleeding. But Sokka wasn't going to share that with Aang. In fact, he'd rather not have known himself. They collected dishes and stamped out the fire while she was gone, Aang shooting Sokka nervous looks the whole time, like he thought Sokka wouldn't notice. 

Eventually Sokka couldn’t stand it a single minute more and turned to Aang, saying, “What is it? What’s up?”

“N—nothing! Nothing at all!” Aang’s eyes and mouth widened into that innocent smile of his which always foretold disaster.

“C’mon, spit it out. Is it something to do with…Katara?” He asked, and hoped against hope that it wouldn’t be. He was not prepared to deal with any kind of girl-talk quite this early. 

“No.” Aang’s smile changed to puzzlement, as if, just this once, Katara was actually the furthest thing from his mind, “It’s just…I was wondering…uh, if you’ve seen Hawky lately?”

Panic hit him like a kick to the gut, “No! No, of course not. Absolutely not, haven’t laid eyes on him in forever. He’s long gone. Why do you ask?” He laughed nervously, and knew from the way Aang’s face fell that the question was a test and he’d failed it.

“No reason.” Aang said quickly, frowning now, “Let’s get this packed before Katara comes back.” They worked together silently, loading all their bags onto Appa’s saddle. Sokka tried to pretend his (false) sense of security hadn’t just been blasted to pieces, but it was hard. What had Aang seen? Was it that time Hawky followed Appa? Had he put two and two together and gotten Sokka’s keeping a secret? It wouldn’t be that hard, Sokka knew he wasn’t the best liar in the world, especially not when he was caught red-handed and had to scramble for excuses. He wanted to smack himself in the face. Why couldn’t he have just kept his mouth shut? He always had to laugh and give himself away.

It was inevitable that Hawky showed up at some point. Sokka's skin was practically vibrating with dread and anticipation as they sailed away on Appa's back, waiting for the moment when he made another mistake and confirmed the suspicions brewing in Aang’s mind. Instead of the shouting and confrontation and guilt he'd expected, he got lucky. Hawky flew in from the east just after they’d landed in a broad valley to eat some lunch and landed far enough away that no one but Sokka noticed him. He sent up a mostly-serious prayer of thanks to whatever spirits might be listening, and went to fetch the letter. There was no real privacy on the plain, no trees or boulders to hide behind, but he’d gotten pretty good at figuring out how long it would take before Aang and Katara noticed his absence, and managed to slip away to the other side of Appa’s enormous bulk to read what the hawk had delivered.

Bending is dangerous. But at the same time, it’s the most incredible feeling in the world when all that energy builds up inside you…it’s like, well, I’m sure you can guess. Firebending doesn’t just involve the element of fire, but heat too you can alter its flow and push it around your body, even move it to the body of another. It’s all about focus and breath. I forget that sometimes because I’m usually so angry, even furious, when I bend that I just stop thinking altogether. It still feels really good, though. Without thought, everything becomes sensation, every breath a new surge of heat and power and the irresistible urge to release.  Anger and pleasure are two sides of the same coin. At least for me. I wish I could show you what I mean

I’m not sure why I wrote all that. I wouldn’t have if I knew who you were, I’m much more embarrassed reserved in person. For a lot of reasons, but also because my family is very high-ranking, as you may have guessed, and it's not often I have the chance to talk to someone who doesn't already know me. Or at least know of me. 

Enough about me. I hope you find a sword-fighting master soon. I’m sure you will. If you’re ever in the Fire Nation. The Earth Kingdom can’t be completely useless. No offence. Boomerangs are rare in the Earth Kingdom, are they not? I've only seen one in action a few times, but it certainly made an impression. 

Uncle has, in fact, been asking after my “secret friend.” Those are his words, not mine. I wish there was some way I could convince him that I’m an adult, and don’t need someone nosing into my personal life all the time. Still, if I could bring myself to gratify his curiosity, I’d tell him what you said. I’m sure he’d be pleased.

Is your sister at all suspicious who you’re writing to? She must be, not that there’s anything to be suspicious about, but—

Who is Prince Jerkbender??

This whole letter is a mess. I haven’t been sleeping well. Days are frantic, at night I fall deeper and deeper into my own thoughts. I’m trying to make my plan a success but things keep slipping between my fingers. I can’t bear another failure. No, that’s not true. I can bear anything fate tosses my way. But it gets harder every time to keep standing up after I’ve fallen down.

Maybe I won’t send this to you at all. Or I’ll rise tomorrow morning to discover that this whole time I’ve been writing only for myself.

By the way, if you are real, my far-away friend, my weapon of choice is the double broadsword. 

Oh. Oh. He didn’t even need to grab his cock to know he was hard. Adolescence was hell. He needed to think about something else, now. He needed to…the rest of the letter was depressing enough to warrant a re-reading. The tenuous hold his—what did the crossed-out words of the letter say?—his far-away friend had on reality was uncomfortable to read and even more uncomfortable to think about. What kind of life was he living that he couldn’t be certain the letters were real? That Sokka was real? Sokka wanted to shake him, say I’m here. Don’t doubt me. Even if you doubt everything else. Maybe he would, when he had the chance to respond.

Katara called him to lunch and he went, hungry as a polar-bear dog, with the letter and Hawky’s incriminating harness stuffed into his pocket.

Whatever curiosity Sokka might have felt towards firebending because of the letter soured once they got up in the air again. They flew for a few hours up above the clouds, a peaceful world neither Sokka nor Katara ever imagined seeing. Sokka secretly hoped the novelty would never wear off. For Aang, of course, it was all perfectly normal to be airborne and see the backs of the clouds. Hawky flew far below them, a red-grey speck appearing and disappearing beneath the spotty cloud-cover. But even if he came closer, it wouldn’t matter without the harness. Sokka relaxed at the back of the saddle and sharpened every blade he had, just for the joy of creating a keen edge. Something to keep his hands busy as tension ebbed out of his body bit by bit. Katara said something silly and Aang took it as an opportunity to show off a cloud-dive, which would have been significantly more impressive if he wasn't already an airbender. Katara looked laughed and looked like she was about to say something but Sokka never found out, because her eyes suddenly focused on something behind him. 

“What is that?” She asked, and the three of them turned to look out over the valley at a large black stain cutting through lush green forest.

“It’s like a scar…” Sokka said wonderingly. The scorched earth reminded him of Prince Zuko’s face a little bit, but only in the sense that the two were unbelievably ugly and caused by fire. Aang steered Appa down to land on the soft, ashy ground. The three of them scattered to gawk at the charred stumps, dark brittle streaks like the shadows of a forest without any actual trees. Ash stirred a little in the breeze but that was it. Here there was nothing. 

“It’s so quiet. There’s no life anywhere.” Sokka said, and kicked at the ground. The sight made him sad and so angry at the same time. This was what the Fire Nation did. To the land, to communities, families…even to their own people. But who knew how Zuko got that scar. He probably deserved it. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t still horrible.

“Those evil savages make me sick! They have no respect for—“ He started, and Katara shushed him.

"What, I can't be angry?" Sokka asked, lowering his voice. Apparently not. At least not while Aang was also upset, which didn't entirely make sense. What made Aang’s moods so special that they had to be catered to constantly? Was it his status as Avatar: Savior of the World? He was sorry as soon as he thought it. The difference between them was that Aang actually knew how to express himself. And all Sokka did was tie his tongue in knots trying.

Katara did do an admirable job at cheering them all up, though, with her hopeful-acorn act. Sokka was about to suggest they climb back on Appa and keep going, something about the burned forest made him feel uneasy, when an old man appeared out of nowhere and came shuffling up to Aang.

“Are you the avatar, child?” He asked, and Aang nodded, “My village desperately needs your help!”

Sokka rolled his eyes. Here they went again, off on some completely irrelevant mission to—oh, whatever. He swallowed his protest, took Appa by the reins, and followed the old man to the village. And if he happened to drag his feet a little, well, who’d be able to tell?

The old man took them down a path in the forest to a small, orderly village bounded by a set of rectangular walls. Several of the houses were collapsing and abandoned, a few survived only as foundations, but it didn't look like the Fire Nation had been there since nothing was burned. They were led to the steps of a small palace at the head of the village and greeted at the wide doors by a tall, green-robed man. 

"It is a great honor to meet you, Avatar." The man said, bowing, "I am the governor of Senlin Village." 

Aang grinned, "Nice to meet you too!" But his grin faded when they found out what, exactly, his avatar-powers were needed for. 

"For the past few days at sunset, Hei Bai, the black and white spirit, has attacked our village, causing devastation and destruction. It has seized our people, trapping them in the spirit world. We are powerless to stop him, especially since the Winter Solstice is approaching and the barrier between the worlds is growing thin." 

"So, what do you want me to do, exactly?" Aang asked uncertainly. 

"You are the great bridge between our world and the spirit world! Who better to speak with the spirit and send it away?" The old man exclaimed, and the governor leveled him a sharp look. 

"We can discuss the matter over dinner. There are several hours to go before sundown. In the meantime, if you would be so kind as to accompany me to the tea-room." The governor said, sounding hopeful, and waited for Aang's chipper "Sure!" 

The governor’s honored guests were shown into a small, well-decorated room off the main hall by a servant and seated around a low table where tea was served. The governor was so thrilled to have the Avatar in his home that he kept pouring them all round after round until Sokka’s bladder hurt. He excused himself as politely as he could (still not enough, according to the look Katara gave him) and found the bathroom. A very state-of-the-art affair, he thought as he pissed. Nothing like the buckets they used back home. The room was small but weirdly nice, like it wasn’t supposed to be a bathroom, all dark wood and golden screens and porcelain painted blue.

Now that he’d escaped the excruciatingly boring company of the governor, who was a nice man and really didn’t deserve to be thought of badly by anyone, not that Sokka could help himself, he pulled out that morning’s letter and read it again. Well. Only the first part. It was easier to be honest with himself in this little room. That one line, crossed out and barely legible. I wish I could show you what I mean. I wish you could too, Sokka thought, which was the most absurd thought that had ever passed through his thrice-cursed mind, and leaned his head back against the wall. If he could just get this over with now, then he could think about other things, like helping Aang figure out what to do with the spirit-monster. Save the town, be a hero. That kind of thing.

He imagined hands pushing him down, tight on his wrists, he imagined struggling for release. He imagined the lick of fire over his skin…actually, he didn’t have to imagine that one. He’d felt it before, knew the arch of his own body rising inadvertently to meet the flame, and if he just didn’t think about who was bending it, whose hideous face was glaring at him from across the deck of a ship, he could lose himself in the memory. Heat coursed through his chest down through his stomach and pooled between his thighs in a concentrated point of almost painful need. Hours of waiting for this, his hand on his cock, I wish I could show you what I mean.

Sokka bit his lip and felt the warm tang of blood fill his mouth as his body tensed all over and he spilled into his hand. Okay, so he’d been a little messy and gotten some on the floor too. He’d clean it up, no one would know. He just wanted this to stop

They were done with tea when he got back all loose-limbed and sweaty. Katara gave him a piercing look like she knew exactly what he’d been up to, which was so unfair. Just because she’d been doing his laundry since he was thirteen years old didn’t mean she knew everything about teenaged boys. The meal that followed tea was simple and, like he’d begun to notice was usual with Earth Kingdom food, a little bland. Still, he could hardly complain when he got to eat his fill of braised beef. The sky outside the large windows of the governor’s house had begun to fade into a red-orange sunset. Aang got up from the table and walked over to the window, looking out over the village.

“You seem a little unsure about all this…” Katara said, joining him. Sokka followed. 

“Yeah, that might be because I don’t know anything about the spirit world.” Aang said, and tensed his shoulders at their twin expressions of surprise, “It’s not like there’s someone to teach me! Maybe whatever I have to do will just…come to me.” He relaxed into a hopeful smile and Katara smiled with him. Idiots. Sokka forgot sometimes that the hope of the world was just a child. A child with a particular dislike of planning  and thinking ahead.

“Yeah..." He smiled too, and let his tone fall flat, "We’re all gonna get eaten by the spirit-monster." Katara huffed at his pessimism, all "That isn't the kind of thing Aang needs to hear right now," but the nervous flare of Aang's eyes told him it was a distinct possibility. The governor, his attendants, and the weird old man gathered by the window with them to watch as Aang walked out of the governor’s palace and faced the sun setting between the gate of the village. Any minute now. 

“This isn’t right, we can’t sit here and cower while Aang waits for some monster to show up.” Sokka said, but no one seemed to agree.

“If anyone can save us, it’s the Avatar. Only he stands a chance against the Hei Bai spirit.” the old man said, which was alright for him, it’s not like he was the one going out there completely unprepared and alone to battle a spirit-monster out of the sheer goodness of his heart. Katara just clutched at Sokka’s shoulder and breathed tightly, trying hard not to give away her fear. It’s alright, he wanted to tell her. I’m scared for him too.

But then Aang was doing some clever little thing with his staff and turning away from the gates, as if the job was done, and for a moment Sokka thought it might be. Right up until an enormous black and white spirit-monster with too many arms shrieked blue in Aang’s face and sent him scrambling around the village in pursuit.

I can’t sit here and watch this, Sokka thought, and it was clear what he had to do, "That's it. He needs help." 

“Sokka, no!” Katara called out behind him, but Sokka was already bursting through the palace doors and running towards Aang and the monster, boomerang poised. The boomerang did nothing, didn’t even attract the monster’s attention. Aang looked horrified to see Sokka coming towards him, tried to send him back, but Sokka couldn’t hear anything above I have to help I have to help pounding in his head.

“We’ll fight him together, Aang.” He said.

“I don’t want to fight him, unless I—” Aang protested. Before Sokka could take even a full breath to interrupt, he was snatched up in the spirit-monster's tight fist and carried at break-neck speed through the gates and into the forest. It happened so fast it didn't see real, but he screamed and called out for help anyway.  Aang dipped down on his glider to follow the running monster and Sokka had never been so grateful for airbending in his entire life, never been so grateful to link fingers with Aang’s sweaty hand, to hope that he might be saved. Never been so devastated to feel Aang’s fingers slip (literally!) through his own as he was drawn into the otherworld. 

A world of jagged rocks and dead trees beneath a rust-iron sky. Hot, dry wind parched his eyes as he was carried in Hei Bai’s grip, and he shut them. He didn’t want to see this. Seeing would only make it real. The realization that he'd have to know where he was in order to escape forced his eyes back open again. By then, they'd reached the edge of an immense pit filled with a dense fog. Bizarre rock formations curled over the lip of the canyon like overgrown fingernails and Sokka recoiled. If this was the spirit world, it was ugly. He’d expected much more from the stories Gran Gran told him. Once again, his breath was snatched away as the spirit loosened its grip and he tumbled down into the white blanket of fog. Just like Aang and the clouds, he thought as he fell. And then he hit the ground with a dull thud.

It took Sokka while to get to his feet. This was going to bruise later, he was sure of it. His whole left side. He’d worry about that once he got out of here, wherever here was. Speaking of which, where was he? He could barely see his hands in front of his face through the fog, and each lungful of viscous air made him feel more and more uncomfortable.  He knew instinctively that he shouldn't take any deep breaths of this fog, but he couldn’t just stop breathing, that was impossible. Maybe if he breathed through some kind of mask…he ripped off part of his tunic’s hem and tied it around his mouth and nose. It would have to do.

Sokka turned around and tried to walk back to the edge of the cliff he’d been dropped from, but maybe he’d already turned around and was now heading in the wrong direction. He stopped, trying to orient himself, but there was nothing to see. Frustration rose in him and he bit it down. Frustration wouldn't get him anywhere, and he had to get out of here. 

“I have to get out of here.” Sokka said out loud, trying to sound confident, “I have to protect my sister and Aang. I can’t leave them alone for some spirit to attack them. I’m going to find a way.” He decided to walk in a straight line until he hit a cliff and climb out. No turning, no doubts. Just one foot in front of the other.

The fog was completely silent. He wondered if anyone else was in it besides him. He wasn’t sure if he hoped to be alone or not. Or maybe there were more spirit-monsters lurking just out of sight, waiting for him. He walked for a long time without coming across anything but more and more fog. Maybe he wasn't as good at orienting himself as he thought. Maybe he’d just been walking in circles. No. He couldn’t let this happen, he had to get out!

And what are you going to do when you get out? Something inside him asked.

“I’ll help Aang defeat the spirit-monster, then we’ll fly to the North Pole.” He said, “I'll keep them safe and on course.”

Do you really think so?

“Of course I do!” But Sokka felt like a fool talking to himself like this, even if there was no one to hear him. He'd stopped walking without even realizing it, and started up again. 

Why would they need you when you can’t even bend?

“They need me. They do.” Sokka insisted, but even as he said it, he knew it wasn’t true. What could they possibly need him for? His hunting skills? Katara could catch three fish before he'd even caught one. All he had was a boomerang and a lot of talk. A deep, aching hunger and no way to fill it. 

“I have to protect them.” Sokka said, and his determination wavered for a moment. He hoisted it back up. They were children—children!—and he’d die for them if he had to. He’d do anything to protect them if it meant they went on to save the world.

What good would your death do? Is that the best you can offer? It’s not very much.

“Shut up!” He yelled, and was embarrassed to hear his voice break. He held his hands over his ears, but the voice was inside him, and nothing he did could block it out.

You’re worthless to them. You will fail them in time. Just like you failed to save your mother. Your village. Yourself.

Sokka closed his eyes and crouched down on the dusty ground. He had to get this voice out before it—before it told him everything he already knew. 

That ice-bright day in the South Pole. Running up the gangplank, weapon raised, and Zuko kicking him aside like he was nothing.

Katara in the circle of igluit, no longer crying his name. Instead, she stood still and gazed at him with an expression of such profound disappointment that he’d give anything to never see again. Then, slowly and deliberately, she turned her back to him. Beside her were their parents, holding hands. He wanted to call out to them. He missed them so much, never thought he'd see them together again. But they had the same look on their faces. Next to them was Gran Gran and everyone—their entire line from the present day to the start of the world, when there was no land besides what the great Lion Turtle carried on his shell—and he watched with horror as they all turned their backs to him too, unwilling to watch him flounder in the snow.

“You don’t understand!” He cried desperately, “It was just once, it won’t happen again.”

It will happen every time you try. You’re no match for this world.

Their voices rose up over the village in a chorus, Katara and Mom and Dad’s loud and clear above the others: “There is no place among us for the weak.”

“Please!”

And they walked away from him without even looking back, a sea of blue and white backs.

Alone in the fog, side aching, he wept.

Time passed. A long time or a short time, there was no way to tell. He could have spent a lifetime crouched on the ground and wouldn't have noticed. 

And then something sharp and warm cut through the fog, right through his chest, and there was Prince Zuko, looking at him intently, ponytail like a black brushstroke against the white. Looking at him and almost—almost smiling, saying, “Your friend will be expecting a reply soon.” Sokka blinked up at him, body and mind moving at less than half his normal speed, and took the hand offered to him. Stood up. With the sound of groaning metal and fire blasts and a voice in his ear even as the world went exquisitely bright, saying, "Quickly, quickly, take this, hurry..." the fog loosened its hold and he found himself climbing out of a bamboo thicket, Katara's round face beaming at him from the crowd of villagers. 

“What—what happened?” He asked hoarsely, surprised to have a voice at all. 

“You spent almost a full day in the Spirit World!” Katara exclaimed, embracing him tightly. He breathed in the warm smell of her neck and hoped this was real, “How do you feel?”

Terrible. The worst he’d ever felt. But he couldn’t say that. That was something to think about later. He focused on the sensations returning to his body. Bruised side, sore eyes, headache. He needed to piss again, badly. All that tea. 

Out of everything, it seemed safest to say, “Like I really need to use the bathroom!” He walked quickly (ran) to the back of one of the nearby houses, where he relieved himself and tried not to fall to pieces. He braced himself with both hands against the rough wattle-and-daub wall and took a deep breath. It wasn't enough. A wave of nausea rose up and out of him, splattering what was left of his long-ago dinner onto the ground. Even the sound of his breathing was too loud in this world.

“Get a hold of yourself, Sokka.” He whispered, and wiped off his mouth, “For her sake.”

The other villagers snatched by the Hei Bai spirit seemed equally, if not more, disoriented as they were greeted by their loved ones. Had they gone to the same place? It didn't matter, now. Sokka hugged his sister again and it wasn’t so hard to smile for her, really. Not when she seemed so happy. He supposed he was happy too.

Chapter Text

There was barely any time to rest and recover after solving Senlin Village’s spirit problem. Aang needed to speak to Avatar Roku at his temple in the Fire Nation and had one day to do it. Sokka scarfed down another dinner with the governor and his household, because hypothetically there was nothing a good meal couldn't fix, and mulled over Aang’s dilemma. When asked, Sokka said, “Why not?” It's not like they weren't already living a high-risk lifestyle, what was one more near-death experience? Of course, he never thought, even for a minute, that he’d willingly enter enemy territory. But there was a time for principles and this wasn’t it. But Katara put her foot down.

“There has to be another way for you to contact him.” She told Aang, “What did you do the last time?”

“I didn’t do anything, he came to me.” Aang explained, “And told me to go to his temple. What other option do I have?”

“I’m sure we can think of something…” Katara said, and yawned, “But first, let’s get a good night’s sleep. The governor’s offered us his guest-rooms and I’m exhausted. I can only imagine how tired the two of you must be feeling. We’ll come up with a plan in the morning.

Aang still looked tense but didn’t argue back. Instead, he went to say goodnight to Appa in the stables, then retired alone to the “honored guest room” in the governor’s wing of the palace. Sokka didn’t trust his silence. He was probably planning something stupid and selfless right now, without anyone to talk some sense into him.

Sokka was bone-tired, but couldn’t rest, not when he might be able to do something useful instead. Or really just do anything at all. He spent two hours lying down, trying to sleep; stomach churning, body tense, every minute a struggle between heavy eyelids and memories waiting to re-appear in living color behind closed eyes. Eventually he gave up and went over to the window, watching the moon move slowly in an arch across the night sky. Now that he was up and thinking, he felt much better. If he’d really been expendable, he would have stayed in that fog forever, right? He had to have come back for a reason. Even if that reason was just to keep writing to his…friend. Or maybe the whole friend-business was just to remind him of other things keeping him here, tethered to the earth. Still, this was the longest he’d gone without replying, and he felt bad. But he didn’t have time to think about it, either the letter or what he might write in response, because once he did, he’d also start thinking about Prince Zuko and the smile and the endless puzzle of why his mind chose to play that particular trick on him in the spirit world.

Sokka squared his shoulders and took a deep breath. No matter the reason, he’d been given another chance to help Aang and Katara, and he wasn’t going to waste it by wallowing in self-pity. Katara was probably fast asleep in the womens’ quarters by now. When she woke in the morning, well-rested and full of ideas, it would be too late. They had to do something tonight. He had to do something.

He got dressed, packed his bag, and crept silently out of the room, down the hall, and into the women’s quarters. There were several women asleep on mats laid out on the floor around a large curtained bed. He didn't see Katara anywhere, but of course it was hard to tell, and he started to worry if he'd gotten the wrong room until the parted the curtain slightly, praying he wasn't disturbing some terrifying old noblewoman, and saw the end of Katara's braid peeking out from beneath the blankets. 

“Hey, Katara!” He whispered, nudging her awake. She opened her eyes sleepily and rolled onto her back.

“Sokka? What are you doing here? The governor's wife will be furious if she catches you.”

“I know. Can you come with me for a minute? I want to talk to you about something.”

She sighed and drew herself up out of bed, padding after him with slippered feet down the hall until they were a safe distance away and their voices wouldn’t carry.

“Look, I know you’ll tell me this is a bad idea, but I really think we should go with Aang to the temple. Wait—“ He held up his hand before she could interrupt him, “I just…I think he might be planning to go alone, which would be even more dangerous. I don’t know any of this for sure, but I have a hunch.”

“I wasn’t going to argue, actually.” Katara snapped, but she looked thoughtful instead of defensive, “Your hunches are usually right, except when you’re being paranoid. And this sounds like the kind of thing Aang would do. When do you think he’s going to leave?”

“Sometime before dawn. Get dressed and pack up your things, then meet me in the main hall. We can watch the stables from there and stop him when he goes to get Appa.”

She nodded seriously and disappeared back into the shadows. 

The wait lasted a couple more hours, and Sokka let her doze off on his shoulder. Now that he had a plan, all his exhaustion was replaced by wakefulness and energy. He kept his eyes on the gleaming stable roof, his fingers counting out a quick rhythm on his thigh to match his heartbeat. A familiar shape landed on the railing outside. An owl, or...no, Hawky. Somehow, with his remarkable, even supernatural, tracking powers, the bird knew they were going to leave tonight. Despite himself, Sokka smiled. Well, that was one less thing to worry about. The moon was gone from the eastern horizon, replaced by the faintest trace of yellow in the low, streaky clouds. Everything still, everything waiting, everything peaceful in the pre-dawn. The palace seemed to be breathing, slowly and steadily, like it too was asleep. It was hard to believe anything bad could be happening in the world at a time like this. Katara shifted slightly at his side, a wisp of her hair tickling his nose, and he was about to flick it away when he saw a flicker of color and movement from the corner of his eye.

Sokka jumped to his feet, dislodging Katara onto the ground. She grumbled but stood up after him. 

“He’s here. Get your stuff.” Sokka whispered, and exited the main hall, hoping Aang wouldn’t see them and startle. He needn’t have worried; Aang couldn’t see anything but Appa at the moment. He had Appa by the reins and was pulling them, coaxing and threatening in turn, but Appa groaned and dug his feet into the ground, ignoring him. 

“I think he’s trying to tell you something.” Sokka said, enjoying the flabbergasted look on Aang’s face when he finally spotted them at the bottom of the palace steps. Apparently all the noise had attracted several villagers along with the governor himself, all of whom gathered to watch the spectacle.

“We can’t lose you to the Fire Nation.” Katara stepped forward, “We need you, Aang. I need you.” Sokka manfully resisted the urge to gag. Now really wasn't the time. 

“But I have to go…there’s no other way…” Aang said, sad and determined and too young.

“We’re not letting you go into the Fire Nation.” Katara said, and glanced at Sokka. He let her words sit in the air, heavy, relishing the moment, drawing it out. Sokka liked a plan that appealed to his flair for the dramatic.

“At least, not without your friends.” He said at last, and the tension broke. Aang grinned in sudden relief, and he grinned back, “We got your back.”

And so away they went into certain danger and possible doom.

They gained access to the temple easily. Almost too easily. Besides having Prince Zuko in hot pursuit, a Fire Nation blockade, a few catapulted fire-balls, and the anti-Avatar Fire Sages, nothing stood in their way besides the sanctuary’s own protections. Even Sokka's failure turned out to their advantage; Shyu tricked the Fire Sages into opening the sanctuary doors for them, and they subdued the remaining Fire Sages.

“Now, Aang!” Shyu yelled, and they waited. But nothing happened. 

“Aang?” Katara called again, and, still…nothing. Sokka knew with horrible certainty that something was wrong.

“The Avatar’s coming with me.” It was Prince Zuko, of course, coming out from behind one of the pillars with Aang stumbling in front of him, skinny arms pinned back. He forced Aang towards the staircase, calling for the Fire Sages to close the doors now. As quickly as they’d gotten the upper hand, they lost it. The Fire Sages seized Sokka and Katara and cornered them against one of the pillars, the threatening heat of their latent fire as effective as any weapon to keep them afraid and unable to resist. Beside him, Katara’s eyes were wide with worry and fear as she craned her neck to keep sight of Aang was he was pushed down the stairs. It’s useless, Sokka wanted to tell her, we can’t stop him being taken with hope alone. But then—but then with a fancy bit of footwork and a blast of air, Aang broke away, catapulting over the sages’ heads and through the doors right before they clanged to a close. The whole chamber filled with smoke and eerie blue Avatar-light. Zuko climbed back up the stairs, limping a little, and told the Fire Sages help him open the doors.

All attempts to firebend the doors open failed, however, which really made Sokka feel better about his own attempt earlier that evening, “Why isn’t it working?” Zuko demanded, and the Great Fire Sage shrugged, which only seemed to infuriate Zuko more.

“It must have been the light…” The sage said, “Avatar Roku doesn’t want us inside.”

Zuko paced a narrow shape on the floor, thinking furiously. Or just scowling furiously, which for him kind of seemed to be the same thing, “Bring me the traitor.” He said at last, and Shyu knelt before his Prince, restrained by two of the Fire Sages.

“Tell me how to get through this door.”

“I can’t, my Prince.” Shyu said, pretty respectfully all things considered, and Zuko kicked him in the face. Katara gasped and clutched Sokka's hand very hard. 

“Don’t lie to me. You got the Avatar up here undetected, surely you know a way.” He crouched down to pull Shyu upright by the clasp of his cloak, speaking very close to his face with that raspy voice. Sokka shivered in sympathy; he usually tried to think of Zuko as pathetic but sometimes he was undeniably frightening.

“There’s no way in once the doors are sealed,” Shyu said, and bowed his head, bleeding from the corner of his mouth, “I would not lie to you, my Prince.” The emphasis was strange.

A frown of confusion passed quickly over Zuko’s face before it was gone. He climbed to his feet and smoothed out his uniform with forced dignity, “Yet you have no trouble betraying the Fire Lord.” He appeared to be waiting for an answer, then changed his mind, “Why did you help the Avatar?”

“Because it was once the Sages’ duty. It is still our duty.” Shyu said sadly. Sokka knew the chances of making his making it out of the temple alive were growing slimmer by the second. Sokka waited for it, for Zuko’s sudden burst of temper and fire. But the confrontation went no further. Someone was clapping, walking into the room from a side-door at the head of a contingent of white-masked Fire Nation soldiers. Now it was Zuko getting arrested, arms pinned back, and called a traitor. The banished prince.

“Did you forget what would happen if you were found in Fire Nation territory?” Commander Zhao asked with a smile, “I thought our little blockade might have reminded you.”

To Sokka’s surprise, Zuko, who appeared capable of protesting literally anything under the sun, had nothing to say about his own arrest. He tried half-heartedly to twist free, but when that failed, he only said, “You’re too late. The Avatar’s inside and the door are sealed.”

“I’ll just wait until he comes out, then.” Zhao was all smugness, all confidence. He ordered Zuko to be chained against the pillar adjoining Sokka and Katara’s and took up formation again by the door. It did Sokka good in his soul, if such a thing even existed, to see Zuko chained up just like the rest of them, rage and resignation in turn playing across his face. The sight tasted like vindication.

“Banished?” Katara mouthed to him silently, and he shrugged. There were probably lots of things they didn’t know about Prince Zuko besides his sadistic drive. But this fact was particularly interesting. Maybe it was a Fire Nation thing, fathers casting out their children. He could write to his friend and ask about it. Or, better not. They’d already agreed to stop talking about family matters, and how would he even phrase the question? 

Waiting for the sanctuary doors to open was excruciating, but when at last they parted with a creaking of metal gears and exhaled smoke out into the room, Aang wasn’t there; instead, the tall, lanky form of Avatar Roku rose out of the smoke and sent Zhao’s fire back in a clean spiral, melting away the chains holding Sokka and Katara to the pillar and scattering the Fire Sages along with Zhao’s men.

“He’s going to destroy the temple!” Shyu yelled, pulling free from his own melted bindings, “We have to get out of here!”

“Not without Aang.” Katara insisted, but when she looked at the sanctuary doors, Aang still wasn’t back. Avatar Roku bent down to split the floor with his hands, drawing magma up from the volcano’s depths, and the air filled with waves of shimmering heat and the unbearable stench of sulphur. Shyu shot them an apologetic look and ran for the door, barely making it before a plume of red-hot lava burst through the floor. Then, as suddenly as the pyrotechnics had begun, they ended. The smoke parted to reveal Aang’s unsteady body about to collapse where he stood.

“We’ve got you.” Sokka said, running over with Katara to help him walk. They helped him towards the exit but it was blocked by rapidly cooling lava.

“We’re trapped!” Katara said, voice tight and high.

“No, we’re not. The blast left a hole in the wall, right there…” Sokka pointed, and was about to take them to it when he heard a shout amid the rumble of rock and hissing air. Prince Zuko’s chains hadn’t melted. He was still trapped, struggling as he shouted with rage and frustration, fire billowing out of his mouth. There wasn’t time to think, although Sokka did allow himself a second to realize with certainty that this was probably the stupidest thing he’d ever done in his life, before he slid out from under Aang’s arm, leaving Katara to carry his slumped form alone.

“Sokka, what are you doing?” Katara yelled as part of the roof started to rain down around them.

“Just go, I’ll catch up!” He jumped over the widening fissure in the floor and made his way towards Zuko, staying out of range of his fiery breath.

“Be careful!” She called after him. The building began to shift ominously, slumping in its foundations. He gave it—what? A minute? Two? Before the whole thing fell down and became the volcano. Zuko saw him and began to struggle harder, the hot chain leaving scorch-marks on his uniform with the faint sizzle of burning skin.

“Get away from me.” He snarled, sparks flying. The ungrateful jerk was obviously intent on burning to death in the temple. Sokka ignored him.

“Just hold still, would you?” Sokka pulled a pair of shears from his bag. They weren’t the strongest but they’d work. They had to. He couldn’t see Katara and Aang anymore, a huge chunk of the ceiling had fallen, the lava was pooling across the floor. He'd be having nightmares about this for sure. 

Zuko went perfectly still except for the heaving of his breath and watched Sokka work with narrowed yellow eyes, a creepy color for a creepy guy. The floor tilted sickeningly beneath them.

“C’mon…nearly there…” Sokka sawed away at the weak point of one of the links, “I swear, if I die because of you…” The veins in Zuko’s neck were jumping. It was good to know he wasn’t immune to fear, at least.

“Hurry!” Zuko hissed, and Sokka applied a little extra force, desperate now. He was going to die, he was going to die, and it was all this bastard’s fault—but then the chains fell slack and Zuko was free. He fell one awkward step forward, banging his chin against Sokka's cheekbone (seriously bad manners), and stood there paralyzed, like he hadn't yet realized he could leave. His senses returned to him soon enough, and he pushed Sokka away. Sokka didn’t need to be told twice. He took off at a run to where he’d left Aang and Katara and reached the edge of a gaping hole in the temple’s outer wall beyond which Appa hovered, waiting. He clambered onto Appa’s back and they soared away into the darkening sky.

“What did you do that for?” Katara put the reins aside and rounded on him before he’d had a chance to catch his breath, “He would have left you there if the situations were reversed.”

“I know that.” Sokka didn’t have a good reason, he’d been acting on instinct, so he said the first thing that came to mind, “I just didn’t want Aang to have death on his conscience. Even if he’d been uh…possessed by Avatar Roku at the time.”

Katara’s anger evaporated, and she glanced quickly at Aang’s prone form, “That was surprisingly noble of you, Sokka.”

“Hey, I have my moments.” He grinned, relief coursing through his veins, and lay back on the saddle. The sky above them was an ashy-orange. Typical Fire Nation, ruining even the sunset. A plume of ash rose from the crescent island and the temple was no more, just a foundation slowly being consumed by the rising lava. Just in time. Zhao’s large metal ships were already pulling out of the bay, and from the other side of the island, a much smaller boat sped northwards. Something in his chest loosened. So, the bastard had gotten away safely after all. Not that he cared. But at least his work wasn’t for nothing.

“Where are we headed?” Sokka asked, turning away from the island and the ships and the ash.

“Somewhere quiet where we can get some rest.” Katara replied, and patted Appa’s head, “We deserve it.”

“Yeah.” Sokka agreed. Hawky kept pace with them in the air, but Katara was focusing on some point in the distance and Sokka was tired enough to just lie back and stop worrying. For once in his life. He’d done his part.

The place Katara found for them was quiet. It was secluded, too, and might have even been nice. If Sokka was somebody completely different. Katara steered Appa towards a small green island just far enough away for Sokka to think it might possibly be in the Earth Kingdom. Instead of landing on the promising white sand beach, Katara took them to the heart of the island where jagged cliffs rose out of the luscious green forest-cover. She guided Appa down over what looked like a dark bare patch—was it burned?—and it wasn’t until they’d sunk below ground-level that Sokka realized it was a cave. The air quickly turned cool and thick with mist as they sank carefully into the growing darkness. Moonlight only reached down into the earth exactly where they'd landed beneath the collapsed ceiling of the cave, but that didn't make it much better. 

“Katara? Um…Katara?” Sokka began, and found his throat was dry. He wanted to cough but…no, the hitch in his stomach told him he was nauseous. Bad idea. “How did you find this place?”

“Aang told me about it.” She said brightly, and he heard her leap off Appa’s back into the unknown, “Said he’d come here when he was visiting his friend Kuzon. They discovered it together."

“I’m sure that’ll be a nice surprise for him when he wakes up.” Sokka said, and hoped she picked up on the sarcasm this time, “In the meantime, I can’t see.”

“So light a fire, smart-ass.” Her voice echoed around hollowly, then all was silent. Distant dripping water. Easy for her to say, it was a cave. There wasn’t any wood…except, wait. There actually was. He found a few dead branches by feel alone and piled them up, hoping that when he needed to find them again, it would be by falling over them. He needed light. He needed light so badly he almost wished they had a firebender with them instead of the unconscious barely-trained Avatar and his ridiculous, ridiculous sister.

“Can’t find the flint?” She asked, walking back into earshot. Something hard hit his shoulder, “Here you go.”

He wanted to make some smart remark, show her how unimpressed he was, but all he could do was say, “Okay, okay. Light. Okay,” and strike the flint against steel with trembling hands. The spark kept missing and frustration and panic—mostly panic, at this point, blind and unthinking and everywhere—twisted tight inside him like a fist.

“Come on, Sokka. Hurry up already. I want to set up our sleeping bags.” Katara said, and suddenly she was beside him, taking the flint and steel away and aiming the spark from an expert strike right into the pile of dead leaves he didn’t even know were underfoot. She looked at him in the flare of yellow light and asked, “Are you doing alright?”

“Fine. I’m fine.” He snapped a few of the twigs he’d found and fed them to the hungry little fire, “Just tired.” He forced his lungs to keep doing their damn job. Eventually the shaking would stop.

“Okay. Well, once that’s gotten going, help me lift Aang down from the saddle.”

Neither of them had the energy to cook once camp was all set up. The fire was burning brightly and Aang was settled near it on Katara’s sleeping bag. An interesting sacrifice; she’d be sleeping in the dirt tonight. Maybe Sokka should tell Aang next time he got down about his chances with her that there might be more hope than he thought. Or maybe he could let them figure it out on their own. Sokka closed his eyes and buried himself deeper in his sleeping bag, curling around his empty stomach. He was certain he’d be able to fall asleep after nearly 48 hours awake. So what if the dreams came, right? How did he even know they would?

They came. They came heavy like mist, like poisoned air unfurling in his lungs, as monumental as the darkness, the rock. They came with feet skidding on the ice as he ran, stitch like a stab-wound in his side, eyes sun-blind already. He had to reach—he had to run—he had to escape.That monstrous hulk rising from the ice, resisting it, refusing to get crushed and sink to the depths. To be forgotten. A scar. It loomed larger, growing in his sight. And he was young, and his legs were very short. His father said, “A warrior knows when he’s not needed, son.”

“Don’t leave me alone here.” Sokka begged but his father kept walking away, disappearing through a hole in the side of the metal ship without even a glance behind him, “I’m not a warrior yet.”

And the world collapsed into fire.

He was back in the temple, lava creeping hot and bright across the floor, only this time it wasn’t Zuko whose chains hadn’t melted. Aang and Katara were long gone, as they should be. He was holding them up. Still, he tried to break free, he didn’t want to die like this. He wanted to go back to his people, his home, to die on the ice the way he was supposed to. He hated fire, hated it.

“If I’d been in your place, what would I have done…?” Prince Zuko asked, pressed so close, breath disgustingly hot on Sokka's face, because apparently Sokka never caught a break even in sleep. Especially not in sleep, “Would I have left you to the volcano?” 

“I—I don’t know. Probably.” Sokka replied.

“You have to tell me. What would I have done?”

“I don’t know!” He lunged forward, trying to get away, but the chain was a bruising line across his chest, “I can’t make your decisions for you!”

“Choose, Sokka. Life or death?”

But he couldn’t answer, his mouth was frozen shut by the wrenching, debilitating, unspeakable pain starting in his feet and rising up to his knees; lava rooting his feet in place like Katara’s ice, fire spreading quickly up his legs. Zuko’s hand reaching out to cup Sokka’s jaw, lips moving, was the last thing he saw, “Not fast enough.”

When Sokka woke, his throat hurt. He’d probably been yelling in his sleep. He hoped no one had heard him. This was not what he wanted. He thought he’d be able to deal with it. He thought he could deal with anything. But it gets harder every time to keep standing up after I’ve fallen down. He reached into his pack without a second thought and took out the last letter. He needed something to focus on if he stood a chance of calming down enough to sleep until morning. This could be it. A whisper of movement just on the other side of the fire startled him.

“Aang? Are you awake?” He asked, hoping, hoping…

“Sure am.” Aang said. Great. His voice cracked sleepily, “You were making a lot of noise. Where are we?”

“Sorry about that.” Sokka said, and quickly hid the letter in the folds of his sleeping bag, “I’m not sure. You should ask Katara in the morning.”

“I must have been out for ages. How did everything go? Is anyone hurt?”

“No. We’re all fine. You did great.”

“What about Shyu?”

Ah, well… “He got captured, I think. It couldn’t be helped.” Sokka tried to sound reassuring.

“Oh. I—I should have—“ Aang started, but Sokka interrupted him, “You did everything you could. It’s not your fault. I think he was just grateful for the chance to help you.”

“I guess…” He sounded so small. Sokka wanted to help but he just didn’t have it in him right now.

“Go back to sleep. We’ll figure it out in the morning.” Sokka said, “I’ll try to keep the noise down.” If he could possibly help it. 

“Okay.” Aang said, and Sokka thought he was going to get lucky and actually be listened to for once. But he was wrong, “Did I interrupt you? Were you going to write a letter?”

“How did you—what? What are you talking about?” Sokka asked, and oh, if this wasn’t the worst night ever.

“A letter. You were going to write a letter, weren’t you?” It wasn’t a question. Aang sounded much more awake right now. Sokka kissed his chances of talking his way out of this one goodbye, “Who are you writing to?”

“No one. It doesn’t matter.” Sokka said, palms sweating. He hoped Aang couldn’t hear the dread and desperation leaking into his words, “No one dangerous. I swear.”

“Okay…” Aang said again, slowly, “Then I guess I’m just wondering about why you're using a Fire Nation hawk.” There was something uncertain about his tone, like he was at once making an accusation and hoping Sokka would refute it. Prove him wrong. Trust restored.

So Sokka grit his teeth and lied, “I know Hawky’s got a Fire Nation harness, but I’ve been writing to someone from…somewhere else. A…friend. You trust me, don’t you? I wouldn’t put you or Katara in danger. I swear.”

“Yeah, I trust you.” Aang said, but it sounded grudging, “Be careful, Sokka.”

“I’m always careful.” He said, because really, that should be obvious by now. He would have ended this conversation on a strong note if he had been able to stop himself from blurting out one last thing: “Please don’t tell Katara. You know how worried she gets and I don’t want—I’ll tell her at some point. Just not right now.”

The silence stretched between them, giving Sokka more than enough time to curse himself thoroughly, before Aang said, “Tell her soon.”

Even that ominous turn didn’t stop Sokka from waiting up until Aang was hopefully—no, almost certainly—asleep again to continue re-reading the letter. The first part of the letter didn’t turn him on tonight, but then again, he wasn’t sure if he’d have been able to get it up even if he had wanted to. Still, when he closed his eyes, he could imagine a kinder heat than in his dream, could imagine it helping. Healing. He needed these letters like he needed light, air, water. Food. Aang had no right to take them from him or taint them with guilt.

I’m sorry it took so long to write back to you. Things have been crazy lately. And I guess I didn’t really know what to say. I am a guy, you realize that, right? But maybe these are the kinds of things guys talk about with each other. I don’t actually have any male friends my own age. The friend I’m traveling with doesn’t count, he’s got a huge disgusting crush on my sister and clams up whenever the subject comes to…well, you know. I thought a lot about what you wrote, maybe too much.  I had no idea firebending could be used to make people feel good. So far I’ve only seen it used for destruction. Did someone teach you all that stuff about heat and breath? I guess I’m a little jealous of benders now, after what you wrote. As if I wasn't already. For me, when I’m…anyway, the feeling doesn't extend past my own body. I can’t make it bigger than myself, I can’t make it do things. It’s just trapped inside me, making me think stupid things. And if I do manage to, you know, get it out, I still don’t feel satisfied. But you really don’t need to know any of that. This anonymity thing is pretty great, I won’t lie. People generally think I haven’t got much going on upstairs, but that’s just because I have a hard time expressing myself in person. I get awkward and crack stupid jokes and before I know it, the moment has passed. So, thank you. I guess. For being eyes instead of ears. I hope things have calmed down on your end and your get-home-soon plan is working out. And that this letter proves I’m real and not some figment of your imagination. I like to think I’m a pretty reliable person in general. So, I guess what I’m trying to say here is: you can rely on me to be real. I haven’t been getting much sleep either, but that’s mostly because we’ve been on the run for the past few days. And now that I have a chance to rest I just can’t, for some reason. I’ve got a lot on my mind. My sister is suspicious. She knows someone’s been stealing her paper. But it’s our friend who’s the most worried. I think he might already know. They certainly don’t know where you’re from. I’m not stupid. Anyway, it’s probably better if we don’t share too much about ourselves. So much has happened to me recently, though, that it’s weird you don’t know any of it. Today, for instance, I nearly died. But that’s nothing compared to what happened earlier this week. I haven’t told anyone and I wasn’t going to tell you, but I can’t stop thinking about it and turning it over in my mind again and again. Maybe getting it off my chest will help. A few nights ago there was this vengeful forest spirit and I thought I could help our friend fight him, but instead I got captured and trapped in the spirit world for twenty-four hours. The spirit dumped me into this weird canyon filled with a fog so dense I couldn’t see anything but white, everywhere white. I tried to escape but instead my mind started to wander and I saw my worst fears like they were real, like they were the only real thing in the whole world, and the only thoughts I had were the worst thoughts I’ve ever had, one after another. There was this voice inside me questioning everything I believe in about myself and other people. I know I tell myself a lot of lies just to get by, but I guess I didn’t realize just how many until then…and that they could be so easily undone. Funny, how fragile our self-worth really is. I didn’t think I was going to get out. By the end, I didn’t even care. But then, and this is the incredible part, the one person I hate most in the world appeared again, only this time he wasn’t trying to attack me. He smiled and said something like “Your friend will be expecting a reply soon.” He must have meant you. I guess I just…came alive again. The next moment, I was back in the real world, and everything was over. I don’t know why I’m telling you this, but I guess I just want you to know that there’s always hope, no matter what. Even if I’m having a hard time believing it just now. 

S.

Sokka whistled for Hawky and waited. The ink still had to dry, anyway. He’d never written so much in his life. It took Hawky a while to come, probably lost somewhere in the dark expanse of the cave, or enjoying all the good food roaming the surface world. Sokka whistled again, and exhaled with relief when he heard the flap of wings. He could send this letter away, and all his problems away with it. At least for tonight.

Across the campfire, Aang lay very still on his side, watching with half-closed eyes as Sokka curled the letter up and put it in Hawky’s message carrier. Sokka whispered a few words to the bird, too low for him to hear, and Hawky took off into the night. This was Aang’s chance. There wasn’t a minute to lose if he wanted to follow the bird’s course, but Sokka was still awake, staring down at his ink-stained hands with an unfamiliar look on his face. Aang was starting to get the impression he didn’t actually know very much about his friend.

A few more seconds passed, then Sokka flopped back down onto his sleeping bag with a loud sigh. Before Aang could second-guess himself—this was the right thing to do, Katara would surely back him up if she or Sokka ever found out—he got soundlessly to his feet and grabbed his glider from where someone had considerately laid it within easy reach. He soared up into the sky through the collapsed ceiling of the cave, and smiled into the rush of cool night air when he realized at last where Katara had taken them. She was so…He shook his head. Okay, Aang. Focus. In the cave it was pitch-black besides the fire, but the sky outside was filled with the moon and a blanket of stars. He spotted the hawk flying straight out into the ocean in no time, and put on an extra burst of speed.

All that time he'd spent passed out fortunately hadn’t affected his ability to airbend, and as soon as he caught up to the bird, he relaxed into a series of steep dives, just for fun. The bird dived down with him, always a little bit quicker, and Aang realized it wanted to play. He made a few tight loop-de-loops, his new favorite, and grinned when the bird followed him. Just like the flying lemurs at the Southern Air Temple. His grin faded. It was easy to forget his purpose, but sometimes he wished he never had to think what had happened to his home, his people, to him, again. He straightened out his glider. No more playing.

Aang and Hawky flew side by side for half an hour more until they came upon another island, larger than the last. He saw the dark shape of a ship floating in the shallows right off shore, and swooped lower when Hawky did, hovering out of sight. There was someone on deck, probably the night watch, or… no, someone else. Someone leaning against the ship’s railing, looking up at the stars. Hawky screeched and whoever it was greeted him, arm already outstretched. He—it had to be a man, he was wearing a Fire Nation uniform—stroked Hawky’s head and took the letter out of its carrier. Aang landed silently on the opposite railing to get a better look, a light current of air keeping him steady. 

The soldier lit a small fire in his palm and held it close to the letter, careful not to burn the paper.  It took him ages to read it, which was understandable. Sokka’s handwriting really was terrible. And then he started pacing up and down the deck, stopping every few steps to re-read another section, like whatever the words said kept pulling him back. Aang didn’t get it. Sokka was funny, yes. A good brother and good friend. But none of that made him interesting. Aang felt bad. He really tried not to think this kind of thing, not when Sokka risked his life over and over again for him, but he couldn’t help it. Katara, on the other hand…

Aang’s thoughts flew right out of his head when the soldier finally put the letter down and leaned his back against the railing, face tilted back up at the sky with a smile or just a trick of the shadows. It was hard to see in the dark, hard to see with that—with that…The rhythm of Aang’s heart faltered and started again at a frantic pace. It was—but it couldn’t be. He let out an involuntary noise of surprise and Zuko glanced his way, all suggestion of a smile gone without a trace.

“You…” Zuko said in a strained voice, and for a long moment neither of them moved, “You followed…” It sounded like a question, like he was putting together a difficult puzzle and didn’t like what he was seeing.

“It wasn’t me.” Aang said quickly.

“I know.” Zuko crumpled the letter in his fist and shifted into a fighting stance as if daring Aang to make the first move. But Aang knew he'd seen more than enough. He soared out of Zuko’s range, or so he thought, but the blast of fire that came shooting towards him singed the fans of his glider. He swerved to avoid the next blast, and beat a steady course back to camp. Still, every time he glanced over his shoulder, blazing streaks of fire were lighting up the sky and reflecting in the sea, even though Zuko had to know Aang wasn’t there anymore.

Chapter Text

When Sokka woke the next morning, the entire cave was suffused with shafts of light spilling from the tall collapsed ceiling, and what had inspired despair the night before was beautiful today. He sat up, eyes wide, all memory of dreams erased. They'd set up camp in the smaller of the two caverns, ceiling intact and walls slick with water and rippling limestone, looking out onto the main cavern where—and this explained the mysterious availability of wood—trees and vines were growing up towards the light. A small waterfall, more of a trickle really, cascaded down from the lip of the open cave ceiling through mossy rocks. He’d never seen anything like this before, never thought so much life could exist in such a strange place. Flowers and ferns and long tangled vines. A place without winter. Unbelievable even though he was seeing it, even though he’d heard the stories Gran Gran told him about traders in the old days, before they stopped coming, from distant places where snow never fell. Katara really knew her stuff when it came to picking campsites, he’d give her that.

What caught his eye next, and really should have caught his eye first, was the symmetrical pavilion sitting on an earthen rise, it's gold roof caught by the sun just right and blazing. Red pillars, black floor, and an altar bearing a golden statue illuminated by a perpetual flame. Sokka got to his feet and walked towards it hesitantly, like architecture could bite. He wouldn't put it past the Fire Nation. 

“Hey guys.” He called back, “Guys! Wake up.”

Aang and Katara made identical groans of displeasure, but quickly shut up when they saw what he was pointing to.

“Tell me you didn’t know this was here.” He asked Katara, and she tugged at her braid uselessly.

“I had no idea—Aang never said…”

“It wasn’t here when I visited.” Aang replied, rising from Katara’s sleeping bag with the energy of someone who hadn’t been totally incapacitated by the ghost of a former life possessing his body and performing incredible feats of bending just the day before. The kid really was irrepressible, “It must have been added later. Let’s go check it out.”

“Are you kidding me?!” Sokka exclaimed but, as usual, they ignored him. Well, it wouldn’t hurt to get a closer look. Unless…maybe the little flame burning in the altar was attuned to non-Fire Nation intruders. Maybe it would leap up and engulf them, send out an alarm—okay, he was being paranoid again. He wasn’t ashamed to admit it.

“It’s a temple of some kind…” Aang said, already inside, “And look, there’s an inscription!”

“What does it say?” Katara asked, climbing the black stone steps.

“Um…lemme see…” Aang paused, and began to read aloud.

 

O Agni the purifier who shines in the darkness, to you we come with our devotion

O Agni first among the Gods who waxes day by day, to you we bring our sacrifice

O Agni father of our line and glory of our people, to you bring our prayer

O Agni the devourer, the conqueror, the victorious, to you we dedicate our war

As Aang read, it seemed like the temperature in the cave dropped a few degrees, while the two-headed statue of Agni only shone brighter in the flame. Sokka shivered and rubbed his arms, while Katara pressed closer like he could somehow protect her. Aang backed away from the gold-lettered inscription in the black tablet, looking vaguely horrified.

“Well, that explains why I didn’t remember the temple being here. It was built by Fire Lord Azulon in memory of his father Sozin.”

“Sozin as in…the comet guy?” Sokka asked.

“Yeah. Comet-guy.” Aang shoulders slumped, “We should get out of here.” They roused Appa from his deep slumber in the sunlight and packed up camp. Katara made them a quick breakfast, washed the bowls in the waterfall, and they were in the air before mid-morning. Aang seemed unusually restless, even for him, pacing as he told them about the comet in detail, about the war, about the mission Avatar Roku had tasked him with to master all four elements before summer’s end.

“C’mon, it’s not all that bad. Would you sit down, at least?” Sokka said, hoping some humor might lighten the mood. He really should have done a better job at comforting Aang the night before, not that it would have made much of a difference, “It only took you a hundred years to master airbending. Three more elements should be a breeze!” He suppressed the urge to laugh at his own pun (admittedly, a bad one) when Aang kept pacing on Appa’s saddle, mid-air, like he had some kind of death-wish. But then again, airbender. No danger there.

“I haven’t even started to learn waterbending and we’re nowhere near the North Pole!” Aang protested.

“And whose fault is that?” Sokka asked. Aang shot him an unhappy, frightened look with something unidentifiable shifting underneath, something that made him nervous without quite knowing why. But then Katara took Aang’s hands and pulled him down to sit with her, saying just the right words at the right time, comforting and reassuring and hopeful, always hopeful. Mother, Sokka thought, and wished she still had that necklace.

“I can teach you what I know about waterbending, if you want.” Katara was saying, and Aang perked up again.

“You’d do that, really?” If Sokka wasn’t such a realist, he would have said Aang looked distinctly starry-eyed.

“Of course I would. Now let’s find a good source of water.” She peered over the side of Appa’s saddle.

“I’m sure we can find you guys a puddle around here somewhere.” Sokka said a little meanly. Just what he needed, more waterbending in his life. But it was him who felt like a fool when Katara who found the immense waterfall. How did she do that? He’d been on the lookout the whole time. 

Floating in the river, cleaning Appa’s toes, Sokka watched the waterbending lesson with a mixture of resentment and amusement. Once again, he’d been shunted to the side just so Aang and Katara could play with magic water. But from the way the lesson was going, he didn’t actually mind. Katara’s eyebrows got crazier and crazier, a sure sign that she was losing her patience, and yeah he really was glad not to be her student right about now. He went back to his scrubbing. At least he didn’t hate animals.

He wished that just this once he could have someone—not a flying bison—to play around in the water with. Preferably a non-bender, so they’d be equal, but he was willing to accept applications from benders too. Just not a waterbender. Katara sent an uncertain wave in his direction and he dodged it. 

Sokka closed his eyes, trying to hear only the comforting roar of the waterfall and not his sister’s increasingly annoyed voice. Blurry red flecks floated through his vision, traces of sunlight on the surface of the water. If he focused, he could see the temple again, see the shining statue of Agni, this time with his two faces replaced by the two sides of Zuko’s face: scarred and unscarred, wreathed in fire, multiple arms outstretched. Agni the destroyer. And Zuko, born of fire; so much rage in the body of an ugly teenager no more than an inch taller than Sokka. No wonder he pursued the Avatar like it was his right, like he had a right to everything in the world…

“Does the Fire Lord really believe he’s descended from the fire-god?” Sokka asked aloud, opening his eyes again. Aang and Katara dropped their stances, looking at him with surprise, “What? Is that such a weird question?” 

“Yeah, he does. At least, I think so.” Aang piped up, “Kuzon told me a—a while ago. The royal family belongs to a special caste and everything. Why?” He asked, suddenly suspicious.

“No reason. I was just thinking.” Sokka replied.

“That’s crazy.” Katara laughed, “Explains why Prince Zuko’s got such a big stick up his butt, though, doesn’t it? The Divine Prince Zuko, Majesty of the Heavens…” She pitched her voice low and gravelly, like she was trying to do an impression, but really she should leave the impressions to him, because she had not inherited their family’s comic genius. Still, he laughed with her, because it was true and Zuko deserved it.

He let his laughter fall away when a second thought crossed his mind, “But how can his Divine Majesty inherit the throne if he’s banished?”

“Oh. Well…” She hesitated, and looked to Aang, but Aang shrugged, as puzzled as they were, “You weren’t there for that.” She explained rapidly, “Apparently Prince Zuko’s in exile and not allowed to enter Fire Nation territory. Zhao arrested him but then Sokka broke him out of the temple when you—I mean Avatar Roku—didn’t melt off his chains.” Aang sent a quick glance in Sokka’s direction and Sokka's skin prickled. He wished his sister would just shut up, “It was very noble of him, really.”

Another look from Aang. Sokka wanted to pull his hair out, he hated not knowing what was going on. He settled for tugging his wolf-tail loose and retying it. Just act casual. So what if Aang’s lips were practically burning with whatever it was he had to say...

“So, uh…why’d you do it?” Aang asked, “Free Prince Zuko, I mean.”

“Hey, if Katara’d been the one to save him, would you really be asking her the same question? No. You’d be congratulating her on being so selfless and—“

“Lay off, Sokka.” She rolled her eyes, and put her arm around Aang’s shoulders, “Tell him what you told me.” At that, Aang’s eyebrows went way up.

“Nobody deserves to die in a horrible pit of fire.” Sokka said flatly, “Not even Prince Jerkbender.”

“Oh…right.” Aang said, sounding disappointed, which didn’t make any sense. He re-positioned his hands towards the river, drawing up a stream of water and flicking it around aimlessly, “What else have you got, Katara?”

“Well, there’s this one last move…” She started, and Sokka took advantage of their distraction to guide Appa towards the other side of the river, both to avoid further confrontation and the side-effects of waterbending practice. His attempt failed when a massive wave sent by Aang’s overenthusiastic hands came crashing over him, knocking him into the water.

“I think that’s enough practicing for today.” Katara said testily.

“Yeah, I’ll say.” Sokka called from the shallows he'd been cast into, “You just practiced our supplies down the river. My life was hard enough when you were only an airbender.” And Aang had the gall to look sorry.

The upside was that they got to resupply at the nearby port. Normally, Sokka would be extremely interested in food-shopping since it directly concerned his well-being, but today he had another goal in mind. He left Aang and Katara at the vegetable stall and asked a series of increasingly unsavory characters where he might buy paper until one old sailor pointed wordlessly (toothlessly) in the opposite direction and there—at last—it was. A covered booth hung with several open scrolls flapping in the breeze, boasting BEST PRICES IN TOWN and LETTERS WRITTEN HERE. Sokka approached, fingers seeking out the one copper piece he’d hidden away in his pocket, the copper piece that neither Katara nor Aang knew about or they’d surely have spent it on something as useless as a silent whistle or a new hat. Not that there was anything wrong with new hats, of course.

“Need to have a letter written?” A man with a long, droopy mustache came rushing out from inside the booth, “Got a sweetheart back home?”

“Uh. Just. Uh.” Sokka spluttered and flushed, and seriously, where was his cool? “Just looking for some paper, actually.”

“We have many excellent varieties of paper.” The merchant spread his arms wide, “We have three types of Xuan calligraphy paper, lined paper, two types of rice paper for watercolors, colored paper arranged by Nation, and…” He leaned in conspiratorially, “For our more discerning customers, we have a selection of exquisite spring pictures.”

“No,” Sokka laughed, “No, I—uh. Just some normal paper. I’ll look through what you’ve got out here." 

“Are you sure? It’s obvious from your clothing that you’re a world-traveler. Travelling can be very lonely, can’t it Wouldn't you like something to entertain you?” The merchant looked at him with persuasive, albeit false, concern, and Sokka wasn’t sure, actually. Although he didn’t know how landscapes might solve any of his problems.

“Sure. Okay. Show me.” The merchant clapped his hands in glee (!?) and hurried him to a table at the back of the booth, where he drew out several scrolls and a handful of loose prints. Instantly, the subject matter became clear. Sokka couldn’t believe he’d been so naïve, although to be fair, the print on top did show a landscape. Even if his eyes gravitated first to the enormous, dripping cock being shoved into—his face burned, but it was only polite to keep looking now that he was here.

“These are particularly popular with our Fire Nation customers.” The merchant said, unfurling one of the scrolls, “The Twelve Trials of the Crown Prince.” Sokka closed his eyes immediately, terrified the indistinct figures he'd glimpsed on the scroll might be Zuko. He opened them again when he heard the merchant laughing, “No, not that crown prince. It’s an antique. Priceless. Rare. Yours for a hundred gold pieces.”

The merchant was right. Not Prince Zuko. The jaw was slightly too broad and there was no scar, no silly ponytail, nothing truly in common but the same tight dance of muscle, the same look of intense concentration. Ivory skin and black hair, his crown of flames and pointed shoulder-pieces picked out in gold. Twelve scenes, twelve couples. His partners changed but the figure of the prince stayed the same. Sokka looked closer. The prince straining, erect, between a woman’s fleshy thighs, pink flash of tongue as they kissed. Outdoors, indoors, in bed, on the floor. One hand reaching between the red folds of his robe, steadying his cock, while the other gathered spit at his lips, about to—about to drive into the ass of a young man whose eyes were closed, neck bared, already clutching the bed in anticipation. Sokka stepped back, and the heat of his blush rippled down his whole body.

“I—I don’t—” He was about to make his excuses and run away, sacrifice the ability to write letters to his friend for a modicum of self-respect, when he heard, “Hey, Sokka. What’re you looking at?” It was Aang. At least he couldn’t possibly be blushing any harder. He could deal with this. He dealt with this all the time. Just put one set of thoughts away and pull out the other set, the rational set. The merchant took one look at Aang, barely reaching Sokka’s shoulder, and snapped the scroll closed with a particularly sour expression. Sokka stepped quickly out of the booth.

“I wanted to get Katara some replacement paper for her diary since I’ve been—” He could probably say it, it was just the two of them—barring the gross old merchant—“Since I’ve been using most of it to write to my friend. And besides, who knows when Prince Zuko’s going to attack us next. I might not have another chance.”

Aang’s eyes went wide with astonishment. There was no other way to describe it; his jaw literally dropped, “You don’t know?”

“Know what?” Sokka asked, flipping through the nearest bin of paper, “If you’re just gonna distract me, go find Katara. I’ve got serious business to take care of.” Go away go away go away

“The name of your pen-pal.” Aang recovered quickly, “You don’t know it?”

“Of course not, what kind of an idiot do you think I am?” Sokka asked, moving on to another bin of paper. Medium-thickness calligraphy paper, the label said. His heart was still pounding, but fortunately the shock of Aang’s arrival had put an end to what could have been a very embarrassing physical problem in no way related to what he’d just seen.

Aang laughed nervously, “Sure. Okay. Well, we better get moving. Never know when Katara’ll get impatient and blow up in our faces.”

“What’s bugging you?” Sokka asked, turning towards him at last, his voice calmer than he felt, “You’re acting awfully jumpy.”

“Fine, I’m fine!” Aang gestured to the paper Sokka was holding, “That looks nice, you should get it! I’m going to go find Katara.” And he scampered away. Sokka shook his head, confused. Had Aang seen the scroll? He hoped not, he’d hate to have to explain it to him. The few cautious questions Aang had already asked about so, hypothetically, if there was a girl… were bad enough. Now that the merchant knew he wasn't going to be pocketing Sokka's non-existent hundred gold pieces, he was a lot less friendly, and grudgingly took a copper piece in exchange for two rolls of eggshell white, medium-thickness paper before Sokka went on his way. This was what he got from leaving the group to go out on his own. He knew better now, he wouldn’t do it next time. But he couldn’t unsee what the merchant had shown him.

And, like the many other things he couldn’t unsee, most of them his own fantasies, the scroll kept coming back to him throughout the rest of the day. Exploring the hold of a pirate ship? Fingers meeting lips, spit-slick; the secret things you can do in the dark. Running from pirates? Tensed back, folded legs, soft curve of his ass.

Something fundamental had shifted inside him when he saw that scroll. It felt a little bit like realization. Maybe that was how Katara felt about the waterbending scroll. Or maybe the two were completely different. Katara already knew she was a waterbender; it was part of her heritage, a latent ability carried in her blood, her bones. Sokka didn't know for sure what the spring scroll had told him, only that it rang true. That there might be another explanation for what was wrong with him than simply that he was wrong. Maybe, just maybe, he—no. What about Suki? The sharp edge of her fan against his neck, bright grin. His dreams lied to him all the time. It was probably best not to trust anything he thought about this right now. It would all get straightened out eventually. 

In the meantime, they had pirates to evade, shouting to do, and special splashing techniques to master. As they readied for sleep that night, he hid the stolen waterbending scroll in his bag. If anything, this afternoon showed that he was still the more responsible one of the group, which was really saying something. He crawled into his sleeping bag and spent the night in a nauseating mix of terror and pleasure; half nightmare, half wet-dream. He closed his eyes and the burning statue appeared with Zuko’s two faces, the scar all fresh, bubbling flesh, red and raw. He opened them to the darkness and closed them again. The tight knot of the anus, exposed and waiting to be breached. A sympathetic longing deep inside him. Emptiness, a phantom ache. The rush of blood into his cock. He had to jerk off at least twicejust to fall back asleep. 

When he woke, one hundred percent ready to forget that yesterday had ever happened and in dire need of a bath, cum sticky and cold in his sleeping bag, on his stomach and hands, Katara was gone. He couldn't believe it; she never woke up earlier than he did. Except—the scroll was gone too. Of course. Foolish, foolish girl. He had enough time to change clothes and alert Aang before the first pirate showed up and dragged him to the ground. In the ensuing struggle, Aang got bagged, and the pirates headed back towards the river, leaving him behind.

“What? I’m not good enough to kidnap?” He called out, refusing to be separated. What if something happened to them without him? One of the pirates—Shirtless, he was dubbing him—shrugged and bagged him too with his net-slinger. 

“I thought scar-face said to leave the Water Tribe kid behind.” He heard the other pirate—Blue—say, not sounding particularly upset about disobeying orders.

“He did, but the kid was asking for it.” Shirtless replied, and they laughed hoarsely. Bouncing along the ground in the net, Sokka wondered how Prince Zuko kept finding them. It was getting pretty annoying. And he’d really rather not have Prince Zuko’s mercy, or whatever it was, if this was his version of a life for a life.

“Thanks for nothing.” Sokka muttered, and let himself be dragged to his feet, hands bound, (not a dream, not a dream, gotta get out of this) past Katara and into a crowd of pirates facing a line of Fire Nation soldiers lead by Prince Jerkbender himself. Zuko blanched when he saw them.

“I told you to—“ He started angrily, and shook his head, “Never mind. Give me the monk.”

“Give us the scroll.” The pirate captain said.

And Sokka realized that the pirates had no idea who they were, “You’re really going to hand over the Avatar for a stupid piece of parchment?” He grinned—this could be fun—in contrast to Zuko, who looked like his own good day was being snatched away before his very eyes.

“Shut your mouth, Water Tribe peasant!” Zuko shouted, suddenly furious, “Don’t listen to him, he’s trying to turn us against each other.”

The captain ignored him and turned to Aang, surprised, “Your friend is the Avatar?”

“Sure is, and I’ll bet he’ll fetch a lot more on the black market than some stupid scroll.” Sokka sidled over to the captain, “Just think about how much the Fire Lord would pay. You’d be rich beyond your wildest dreams.”

“Keep the scroll. You’re not getting the kid.” The captain said to Zuko, and laid a beefy hand on Aang’s shoulder, “We’re gonna take him to the Fire Lord ourselves.”

Zuko's face contorted, scarred skin around his bad eye actually twitching, but it still wasn't the maddest Sokka'd ever seen him. Something was throwing him off-balance. He kept breaking concentration, forgetting his part in the drama unfolding. Eyes flicking away from the captain, away from the Avatar. Nervous, almost. Sokka didn’t have more time to think about it, because everything quickly degraded into fire and fighting. Sokka cut the rope around his wrists with a discarded knife and crawled through the haze left by the pirates’ smoke bombs, calling out for Aang and hearing him in snatches.

“Where are you?”

“I’ll find you!”

What Sokka found instead was someone in a Fire Nation uniform, the tense line of Prince Zuko’s shoulders recognizable even with his back turned, waterbending scroll was tucked into his belt. Oh, this was too good. Sokka got to his feet and was about to snatch it and run when that skinny Earth Kingdom pirate was thrown backwards into him out of nowhere and Sokka slammed up against the solid stretch of Prince Zuko’s back. The impact forced all the air out of Sokka’s lungs and probably Prince Zuko’s too, judging by his soft, surprised exhale.

Zuko was putting out a lot of heat and smelled, well, surprisingly good. For a firebender. Nothing like bad dreams, only skin and faded incense and the sweet musk of sweat. Sokka leaned close, lips just brushing the shell of his ear, and said, “I’ll be taking this off your hands now.” He reached between their bodies to extract the scroll and was definitely imagining things if he thought Zuko shivered. Zuko half-turned, grabbing his wrist painfully tight, but Sokka twisted free and got in an elbow-jab for good measure. Zuko was off his game today, disoriented by the smoke or the inevitable prospect of defeat or something, because he let Sokka slip away.

“Now this is the proper way to thank somebody for saving your life.” Sokka waved the scroll jauntily before another razor-sharp spear came hurtling through the air and he ran like hell out of the smoke-cloud.

The letter didn’t come until long after they’d escaped the pirates, the Fire Nation, and the waterfall of doom, and were safely in the air and on their way north, the late-afternoon sun receding into golden yellows, a vast forest-green carpet beneath them. Another stretch of blissful calm. Katara fell asleep after Sokka presented the scroll to her, happy but exhausted, and was snoring softly, curled up against their packs, when Hawky appeared out of nowhere and landed magnificently with a flare of red wings on Sokka's arm. Sokka greeted him happily and didn't mind that Aang averted his eyes, looking very busy with whatever airbending trick he was practicing up on Appa's neck. He was grateful, actually. It preserved the illusion of secrecy. 

 

I didn’t think you were going to write back. I don’t know what it says about you that you did. But I refuse to keep asking about your motives. None of this makes any sense at all.

My uncle has been training me since I was banished left home, and he taught me about the importance of breath. Most proficient benders can heat things up using breath of fire. But I figured out the rest of it on my own. I’ve spent a lot of time alone, waiting for things to happen these past three years, and I needed something to take the edge off. It almost works.

I don’t really have any friends my age. No girlfriend either. I’m not really interested in I used to have my sister’s friends, but I haven’t seen them since I left home. And they were all girls anyway.

I know you’re real. That was just a bad night.

Uncle says what you described sounds like the Fog of Lost Souls. Apparently it’s a spirit-prison for humans. Almost no one ever gets out because the fog is itself a spirit which poisons your mind and imprisons you in your own worst memories and deepest fears. The longer you stay there, the less likely you are to escape or even remember that there’s another world to escape to. I hope you aren’t mad that I told him; he traveled to the Spirit World a lot after his son died, and is very knowledgeable. I thought it might help to know what exactly had happened. For instance, even if you do tell yourself a lot of lies, they might not all be lies…maybe some of the things you tell yourself are true, more true than your fears, but the spirit-fog was just feeding on fear and twisting your mind…I don’t know what I’m trying to say here. I guess you never really know what's a lie and what isn't, you just keep going. 

Uncle says you should reflect on your experiences through meditation. It’s not what I would do, but then, I’ve always had a hard time meditating even though I try really hard. Even if you don’t take his advice, I’ll tell him you did. He’ll be glad.

I’m trying to make amends, another thing I’m not very good at, after upsetting him yesterday. Before you ask what I did and we waste more time between letters, I’ll tell you. I got some bad news and didn’t handle it well, as usual. So I set my room on fire while meditating and forgot to put it out before I fell asleep. Someone smelled the smoke and called my uncle. I’m completely fine, of course. But Uncle thought I’d tried to, well, do something stupid. Which I guess I did. But not in the way he thinks. Anyway, I didn’t mean to cause any damage to the ship house, and I didn’t mean to upset him. I was just having a hard time calming down and let my fire get away from me. That’s all.

Ever since, he’s been trying to get me out of the shi house to accompany him on random, pointless errands. I don’t understand why he doesn’t respect my wish to be left alone. Does he really think spending time in one shitty port-town after another will make me feel better? I lost another chance to go home today. Nothing is going to make me feel better. He’s an idiot.

Sometimes I forget I’m writing to someone and not just writing. I wish I could stop

Chapter Text

Sokka implemented his three part strategy to avoid the Fire Nation immediately after lunch. Part one involved staying very far away from any form of water, much to Aang and Katara’s disappointment. Part two involved staying on the ground. He hadn’t gotten around to mentioning it yet, but he would. Soon. He anticipated that part three would be the least popular, and the least possible to enforce: don’t do anything reckless. He’d had more success keeping his little band of kids—warriors—in line back at the South Pole. No matter, he was determined to keep Prince Zuko and the Fire Nation from finding them again. The risk was just too great, and growing greater by the day. He wasn’t sure how many more encounters they’d be able to survive. Besides, if they were going to get the North Pole, if Aang was going to master the elements in time to save the world, they couldn't keep wandering around aimlessly. They needed something or someone to keep them in line. Leadership. Direction. And who better to give it, really, than him?

They’d been flying over forest for the better part of the day, gradations of green occasionally broken up by the sharp spines of an ancient mountain-ridge mostly eroded away. Was there anything besides trees in this part of the Earth Kingdom? Once, Sokka would have been thrilled to see even one tree—elevated to mythic proportions in his grandmother’s stories—let alone a whole bunch of them, but it turned out they weren’t very interesting. Of course, just when he’d gotten tired and was ready to write off the whole day as an exercise in boredom, something came along to change his mind.

Katara glanced over the side of Appa’s saddle and gasped, causing Sokka’s heartrate to spike dangerously. But it wasn’t anything bad, this time. 

“Look, Sokka. The forest is red.”

It was, in fact, unbelievably red. Every tree, every leaf—even the sky had begun to take on an orange tint as the sun set.

“Wow.” Aang said, climbing to his knees, “We gotta stop here for the night. Can we, Sokka? Please?”

“Oh, alright.” Sokka steered Appa lower until they were nearly brushing the tops of the trees. Katara laughed delightedly and dipped her hand down to grab at the leaves, letting them scatter in the wind behind them.

“This is weird, right?” Sokka asked, trying hard to seem unimpressed, “I can’t be the only one who thinks this is weird.”

“Don’t worry Sokka.” Aang laughed, “You aren’t. Looks like autumn came late here.”

They were setting up camp when the trouble began. A strange grunting and howling started up nearby, and Aang’s ears literally twitched, “Sounds like hog monkeys! Let’s go find ‘em. I’ll show you how to get on their backs, they’re tons of fun to ride.”

“I’ll bet.” Sokka said sarcastically, but he couldn’t exactly say no, not now that they’d already stopped for the night. Aang scampered off through the trees with Sokka and Katara close behind, following the sound. They stopped at a clearing. The hog monkeys sounded close. Very close. So close, they could almost be…above them. Aang whirled up into the air, pushing off from tree to tree, but Sokka was quicker with his boomerang and cut the hanging cages free. As soon as they touched the ground, the hog monkeys were gone, scrambling up the thick tree-trunks into the red canopy and out of sight.

Aang kicked a tree-root in disappointment while Sokka took a closer look at the traps. The metal was stamped with something, a seal of some kind or a maker’s mark. He struggled to read the unusual characters. Fire Nation military land supply.

“These are Fire Nation traps.” Sokka said, and showed them the seal, “There must be soldiers in the area. We’d better pack up camp and get moving.”

Fortunately, no one brooked an argument. At least, not until he decided to implement stage two of his plan.

“Appa’s not too noticeable!” Katara insisted, which was ridiculous, because the evidence was plain to see. Appa groaned in agreement, baring his large flat teeth, but Sokka stood firm.

“I know you all want to fly, but my instincts tell me we should play it safe this time and walk.”

“Who made you the leader?” Katara asked, hand on hip, “Your voice still cracks!”

Sokka tried to lay out his reasoning but then his voice cracked, the traitor, and he got completely side-tracked arguing with Katara about whether or not he deserved to be the leader of their group, an argument which hinged—unjustly—on whether or not he’d kissed a girl before. He got that Katara was just trying to remind him not everything had to be a re-enactment of their lives at the South Pole, their father hadn’t put him in charge of the Avatar, for heaven’s sake, and girls didn’t need male guidance to succeed. But she wouldn't be arguing if she would just stop and look at her track record… imprisonment? Pirates? Did she even remember any of that?

He won the fight, because it wasn’t like Aang and Katara had any better ideas for how to stay out of the Fire Nation’s way, but the snide remarks they shot in his direction the whole, tedious walk made his victory ring hollow. Especially when they ran into a Fire Nation army camp anyway.

All the humiliations that followed were no more than to be expected from a not-so-bad day that had suddenly gotten much, much worse. The problem with Jet was that he could needle all of Sokka’s weak points so smoothly, so effectively, that it made Sokka look like the unreasonable one for getting upset.

It was hard to tell exactly what irritated Sokka most about him. Was it the blade of grass he never took out of his mouth even when he talked, or his long-limbed slouch, or the way he flirted shamelessly with Katara when it was obvious that she was too good for him, too good by far? Or was it the way he handled his hooked blades, effortlessly taking down every soldier Sokka got close to? Or the way he spoke to his followers, inciting them to cheer, raucous and adoring, at his every word? Or how petty, insecure, and jealous he made Sokka look in comparison, destroying whatever little credibility Sokka still had in the eyes of his companions.

Sokka felt petty and insecure and jealous right now, because really, he got shown up enough by Prince Zuko. At least Zuko was a familiar enemy. Angry and irrational and relentless as he was, there was always a person lurking somewhere underneath, appearing in flashes in his strange moments of unpredictability. Jet was too good at what he did for it to be unintentional. For it to be anything other than a mask. So Sokka let his natural suspicion do its work, untangling the threads of mistrust.

“Now, the Fire Nation thinks they don’t have to worry about a couple kids hiding in trees. Maybe they’re right…” Jet waited for the booing, “Or maybe they’re dead wrong.” Sokka didn’t join in the cheering, but watched Jet’s face instead, animated by the light of the lanterns, grinning sharp and wild like this was a game and he was winning it. In that moment, Sokka didn’t doubt that Jet meant what he said, and a new fear filled him. They were no safer here than wandering the forest on foot, about to stumble into a Fire Nation encampment at any moment.

He should have expected that they wouldn’t be leaving that night. Jet even roped him into coming along on a mission the next morning, which Sokka decided to use as his chance to figure out what Jet was really up to and not because he was slightly (but only slightly) gratified to have been asked, to have been noticed, seen. Pipsqueak showed them to a scrap-wood and wax-cloth hut built on a platform right against the trunk of a massive tree that was theirs for the night. Katara unrolled her sleeping bag and fluffed it out, looking inordinately pleased with where they’d ended up like she was ready to settle down for a few days or even—spirits help him—a few weeks. Sokka didn’t even touch his pack, much less remove anything from it, until Aang had gone off to explore the tree-house village with The Duke, who apparently didn’t keep regular bedtime hours, and Katara’d left to go sit with Jet in the lantern-light and continue to discuss their tragic childhoods.

Not that he had anything against that kind of conversation. It was good to talk about it if you could, when you could, to whoever would listen, but sometimes he worried she believed it gave her more in common with the person she was talking to than it actually did. Grief was one thing. But living with it changed people, made them do things. And that was where the differences began to show. They’d just never stuck around one place long enough for her to realize that. Sokka counted himself lucky to have found someone whose story was close enough to his own for the letters to have started in the first place. But he’d realized early on (well, kind of…) that they were different people with different circumstances, that it could never make them the same as much as he might want it to. As much as he wished there was some template for how to deal with things, some model he could follow that would tell him what to do, how to feel, how to keep going even when it seemed like everything good in the world had been stripped away.

He closed his eyes, listening to her soft laughter and the answering cadence of Jet’s voice. He should be a little less hard on her, he knew that. She was looking for nothing he hadn’t already looked for, and didn’t find. She’d realize that soon enough. 

With Katara and Jet seemed sufficiently wrapped up in their muted conversation, Sokka felt safe enough to unroll a new sheet of paper, smooth to the touch and so white, not like the water-stained stuff Katara’d been using for her journal, and set out the ink and brush of her calligraphy set—he really should have gotten one of his own, curse that merchant and his scrolls—on the bumpy surface of the floor.

I thought we went through the whole why-are-you-writing-to-me thing. We’re friends, right? Why would I stop? Writing to you keeps me sane. There. I’ve said it. Anyway, I’ve been meaning to ask you something. I heard people actually believe the Fire Lord and his family are descended from the god of fire. Is that true? Where I come from, we’re all children of the union between sea and sky, so it seems kind of weird. But it does explain why the army keeps fighting for the Fire Lord even though it’s obvious the war is wrong We’re staying with some members of the Earth Kingdom resistance right now. My sister is totally taken in by their leader, but I don’t trust him. I think there’s something he’s not telling us. You know, I’ve never been afraid of “our side” before. I always assumed no one could be worse than the Fire Nation, but now I’m not sure so sure. I can’t see them as monsters anymore, just people. I blame you. Well, not entirely. I saved the prince’s life a while back, and I think he tried to save mine. It’s hard to tell. Things have been complicated lately. My sister wants revenge for what happened to our mother. All I want is to make sure it never happens to anyone ever again. I’m tired of dreaming that there’s something I could do to make her come back. For both my parents to come back. Sometimes I think if I had someone, this would all be easier. A friend. Or maybe more than a friend. I’ve never even kissed a girl. And the only girl who’s ever seemed interested in me just liked to beat me up. Not that I was complaining about it at the time. It’s lonely, travelling. I wish you were Today wasn’t the best day I’ve ever had. It started out fine, but you know how things go when they go wrong…Speaking of, I’m sorry you’re not doing well either. I wish I could help somehow, but there isn’t much I can do from here. That’s always my problem; I want to fix things. I learned the hard way with my sister that it’s not always appreciated, but I hope you’ll take it the way I mean it. Not as pity. Just…I don’t know. I care, I guess. Yeah. I care. And I want you to succeed. I hope you do succeed. I hope you get back home. And I hope whatever’s waiting for you there is just what you were looking for. Well, I think I’ve embarrassed myself enough for tonight. One last thing: I know you crossed it out and all, but what did you mean, you’re ‘not really interested in…’? You don’t have to tell me. I’m just curious.

S.

He fell asleep that night still sitting up, propped against the tree-trunk with the roll of his sleeping bag bolstering his back. He didn’t want to get comfortable here, still ready to run at a moment’s notice even as his body sank deeply into sleep. But he wished he had slept lying down when morning came, and he was summoned on his mission by Jet himself, who laughed unkindly to see him scramble stiffly to his feet. Sokka was still cracking his neck and back when they reached the tree Jet had decided would be their vantage point.

“Need any help?” Jet asked from one of the lower branches.

“No.” Sokka said stoutly, and wished Jet would look away as he wrapped his arms around the broad trunk and began to climb, sweating and trembling as he went. He obviously needed to work out a lot more. Anyway, where were those handy rope-things when he needed them? Jet merely smiled, mocking, and pointed to the branch above him. That was there that Sokka spent most of the morning, watching the forest for any signs of Fire Nation activity. The waiting quickly grew boring, and he did hope, absently, that a deployment of soldiers might come through and give them something to do. Some way to prove himself competent. He was not expecting Jet to leap down into the road at the sight of an old man in red robes, not expecting him to kick the man’s cane away and send him tumbling into the dust, pleading with wrinkled lips and missing teeth, “Please let me go…have mercy…”

 “Does the Fire Nation let people go? Does the Fire Nation have mercy?” Jet screamed in his face, unhinged, and wrong.

“Stop!” Sokka couldn’t let this go on any longer, no matter that he was outnumbered by the Freedom Fighters and Jet had beaten him at every turn so far, “This doesn’t feel right. He’s just an old man.”

“The Fire Nation killed your mother.” Jet turned to him, and Sokka hated his sister for giving him this ammunition to use against them, “Don’t you remember that? Don’t you care? Remember why you're fighting!" 

“That’s no excuse—“

But Jet wasn’t listening, “Let’s get out of here. Smellerbee, take his stuff.” They walked back through the forest, leaving the old man on the ground, struggling to stand. Sokka hesitated—caught between helping the man up and following—before he chose to follow like the coward that he was.

He tried to get Aang and Katara to leave with him again that night, but Jet had fed them some lie about a forest fire and Katara was like a stranger to him now, hissing in his face that he was jealous, dismissing all his concerns just for the chance to spend another night talking to Jet, his lazy, confident voice making her blush with every compliment. Sokka could only imagine what Jet was telling her now; how beautiful she looked in her Water Tribe blues, about how unreasonable her brother was, how undedicated to the fight. Only you and I truly understand how it is, how the war must go. We are the only ones who have countered the sting of loss with a desire for revenge. You should stay with me and my Freedom Fighters, we could really use a bender around… Jet’s voice low and warm or blazing with intent, hair falling into laughing eyes.

This whole thing made Sokka feel sick. He left the hut, taking his knife and whetstone with him, and sat on the platform with his legs hanging into open space. Moments like these made him wish, as always, for someone he could trust to take his side. Someone who saw things as he did. Instead, he had a stubborn sister and a twelve-year-old Avatar who would rather have fun than face the truth. Yes, Sokka wasn’t very much fun right now, but neither was assaulting innocent civilians, and that was all on Jet.

There was something unnaturally peaceful about sitting near the top of a tree at twilight, watching the sun dip through the leaves, casting slanted beams of light across the tree-house village, the air filled with a rustling breeze and children—they were all only children—calling out to each other as they zipped from one tree to the next. He wondered when his friend would write back. He hoped he hadn’t put whoever it was off with his…his stupid impulse to be honest. I care. What was he even thinking? He could count the number of times he’d said that to his sister in the past month on one hand. Maybe these really weren’t things you said to a male friend. Maybe he’d gotten things all wrong and mixed up. Again. Maybe he wasn't supposed to care so much. He wished whatever was going on inside him would stop, and end these thoughts—impulses, rather—that kept coming up, powerful and all-encompassing and obviously, obviously inappropriate.

Sokka didn’t see Jet approach until he landed lightly on the platform. It didn’t look like a social call. He had hooked blades in hand, and possibly the unfriendliest look Sokka’d seen on his face yet.

“I found something of yours.” Jet said, and dropped something into Sokka’s lap. It was—oh, spirits—it was Hawky’s harness, complete with message carrier.

“That’s not mine.” Sokka said blandly, but the hand holding his whetstone slipped and the edge of his knife bit into his finger. He hissed and smeared the welling drops of blood on the wooden platform beneath him.

“Don’t lie to me, Sokka. I saw you send a hawk last night.” Jet said, crouching down next to him, his voice low so no one but Sokka could hear him, “Paired with your… disappointing performance today, how do I know you’re not a spy?”

“I’m not!” Sokka contested, “I know this looks bad, but—“

“It looks really bad.”

“Did you read—“

Jet scowled, “You’re going to read it to me.” Sokka shook his head, clutching the message carrier to his chest, but the cold metal of Jet’s hook stilled his hand, “You’ll do it. Even if I have to force you.”

Sokka pulled the letter out slowly, giving himself time to think. C’mon brain, work with me here. He did have one idea, but it was crazy—it would never work. But if the spirits were on his side (not that they ever were), maybe…just maybe…Either way, it was his only hope.

He cleared his throat, and pretended to focus on the characters. 

Dear Sokka, I hope this letter finds you well. Winter is in full-swing here, dark all day and night. More snow than last year. Aapak had her child, a boy, during the last blizzard. Yesterday, a polar-bear dog cub wandered into the village and gave us a good scare until we realized it was just hungry, poor thing. Lost its mother somehow. Nanauk lured it away with one of her carcasses to the air-holes just up the coast. Hope it gets the message that there’s hunting to be had. Give my best to your sister and let us know how your travels with the Avatar are going. Everybody’s looking forward to your next letter, I’ve been reading them out loud. Gran Gran.

He’d only needed to imagine his grandmother’s gruff tone and the content of the letter came easily. He wished he could have something like this; news from the South Pole, even the most mundane, would be welcome. Why hadn’t he thought of writing home before? It was a genius idea. He would have to suggest it to Hawky next time he saw him…

Jet narrowed his eyes, almost more suspicious now than he’d been before: “I know you’re still hiding something. Let me take a look at that.” He snatched the letter out of Sokka’s hand and gazed down at it uncomprehendingly.

“I’m not, I promise.” Sokka said, “Now give it back. Where did you get this?” He jangled the harness, suddenly worried that he’d been concerned about the wrong thing all along, “Did you kill Hawky?”

“No.” Jet admitted, and Sokka sighed with relief, “The bird flew away before I could. But don’t think I won’t if I see it here again. I don’t want any living thing from the Fire Nation tainting this camp.”

“Hawky’s not Fire Nation. I just use the harness so he won’t get intercepted.” Sokka lied, the lie he’d been practicing in his head for weeks and weeks, and watched to see if Jet would take it. They locked eyes for a long moment, Sokka's held breath burning in his lungs, until Jet’s frown suddenly relaxed. So, he was going to let it slide. For now.

“I’m watching you, Sokka.” Jet said, his voice a warning, and Sokka shivered deep in his bones with fear and adrenaline and—something else too, those dark eyes narrowed intently, the warm forest smell of Jet’s clothing…

Sokka shook the thought away, “Well, I’m watching you too.” It was a weak comeback and they both knew it. Jet shook hair out of his face and spat dangerously close to Sokka’s knee before getting up and stalking away, calling for Longshot and Smellerbee as he went. Sokka's shoulders sagged with relief. He was free. Free to take his letter and the harness and disappear for a little while down into the red forest, where no one could accidentally find him and give him something else to worry about.

Of course you would ask me. I’m probably the only person from the Fire Nation you’ve ever bothered to talk to. You seriously have no idea who I am, do you I’m surprised you didn’t already know, I thought it was common knowledge. Yes, the royal family is descended from Agni. Fire Lord Ozai is Agni-on-earth—a living god—worthy of absolute devotion and loyalty. Our army would fight to the death for him rather than face dishonor. If you hoped this information would give you some kind of advantage, you were wrong. The war will only end when the Fire Nation is victorious. There is no other way. Too much is at stake for us to be able to lose without destroying ourselves in the process. Even you must be able to see that.

Uncertainty isn’t an option for me. Even if I I’d rather take my own life than betray my father my people again. Like everyone else, I have a part to play in this war. And in exchange for playing my part well, I get to return home with my honor restored. Nothing is more important than that. Not a girlfriend, or my uncle’s foolish dreams, or look, it’s easy for you to say you care about my fate when you don’t actually know who I am. But if you had the choice between remaining my friend and winning the war for your side, I know what you would choose. Don’t deny it. I’d choose the same thing.

So where does that leave us? I wish I knew.

The more we write, the more I find you surprisingly difficult to understand, like I’m missing something. Like I'm waiting for the punchline to a terrible joke.

 I should really stop rambling, but I’ve got four more hours before sunrise and nothing to fill them with. So, back to your previous question about Agni. Would you like me to tell you how it all began? Every child in the Fire Nation, even in the colonies, knows the story, and some —but not all of it should be familiar to you too. 

 In the beginning there was the sun and the moon; man and woman, husband and wife. From them came twins, two brothers: water and fire—Agni. The sun and moon fought and reconciled many times, for their temperaments were both alike and unlike, but eventually the other gods grew tired of their quarreling and they were separated into night and day. Water joined his mother in night and the cycle of tides, while Agni joined his father in day and the cycle of seasons.

 At this time, humans were created out of clay, and the wind breathed life into them. All lived in harmony for many ages until the eternal battle between the two Great Spirits caused the boundary between our world and the spirit world to be broken. Spirits poured into our world, and humans lived in great fear of attack, closed in on all sides by dangerous spirit wilds.

One day, a sage went to Agni’s temple and prayed and burnt offerings that the strife might end. The sage’s prayers were answered when a young man climbed out of the sacred fire, Agni’s son. Born of fire, he shone with all the glory of his grandfather the Sun. He was rightfully accepted as the leader of all fire-worshipers and brought peace to the world by sending away the worshipers of water, earth, and air to the distant corners of the world to seek protection from the lion turtles. From then on, it has been the responsibility of the descendants of Agni—the Fire Nation royal family—to lead their people to their true glory and destiny as rulers of the world.

You’re right to be wary of the resistance fighters—sometimes desperation makes people do things they otherwise wouldn't. Or it twists them until they’re different. Unrecognizable. I wonder if the people I knew back home would The Earth Kingdom isn’t as innocent and good as they make themselves out to be. Uncle has told me stories you wouldn’t believe…maybe I’ll write them down for you another time. Meanwhile, stay safe. And don’t take this to mean more than it does, but I admit…it’s nice having someone to talk to. There haven’t been a lot of nice things in my life for a long time.

The last few lines made Sokka grin, huge and happy. He’d been wondering if this whole letter business actually meant anything to his friend—and they were officially friends now, weren’t they? Why he kept writing back even though it was clear he didn’t think very highly of Sokka.  Except, maybe he did. Apparently enough to tell him stories in the early hours of dawn and pass along advice from his uncle about the spirit world and stay safe. Like Sokka intended to do anything else.

He read back through the letter, letting the content of the story itself sink in. It was without a doubt the biggest load of Fire Nation propaganda he’d ever heard. It was still hard to wrap his head around the idea that people truly believed betraying a man—just a man, though he claimed to be a god—who was clearly leading them into death was a better fate than admitting that there would always be resistance, whether it came in the form of the Freedom Fighters or Sokka’s band of toddlers back home. Admitting that there could never be a total victory, not so long as people had hope. It was the most Katara-like speech he’d ever given. At least he hadn’t said any of it aloud. He had a reputation to uphold, after all.

His joy over some, albeit small, confirmation that he did actually matter had faded. He’d hoped his friend would agree with him and say there were some things he, too, wouldn’t do in the course of a war. But maybe that was expecting too much. The knowledge that his friend was right twisted uncomfortably in his stomach. Sokka would choose winning the war over everything, but he’d make sure—so long as he lived, so long as he could argue and haggle and plead sense into Aang and Katara’s heads (mostly Katara's, actually)—that they didn’t win it cruelly. Even if that meant going against Aang and Katara's new favorite person of the week. 

Sokka folded the letter and put it in his pocket. Better not stay away from camp too long. But he lingered just a moment more, taking the message carrier out and examining it for any damage Jet might have inflicted. When he opened the tube, a tiny scrap of paper fell out into his lap.

I almost forgot : the idea behind crossing something out until it’s illegible is that it deters people like you from trying to read it anyway. I don’t want to talk about it.

Where was the fun in that? Sokka smiled again despite himself. He’d hit upon something important, he could feel it. His friend had a bad habit of clamming up whenever things got too honest. And this was something Sokka needed to know with a kind of imperative he didn’t entirely understand, the same way he didn’t understand why the confident, confiding tilt of Jet’s neck made Sokka so incredibly angry, except that it did. His friend wasn’t interested in…something. Sokka wanted to know if it might be something he wasn’t entirely interested in either. But this line of thinking was exactly what Sokka did not have time for right now. He got up off the ground and guessed his way back to the hidden village, tripping over roots and rocks distractedly and probably making a ton of noise until Pipsqueak came plummeting down from the trees and said that Jet would really appreciate it if Sokka didn’t give away their location by wandering around, muttering things like “I know that secret Freedom Fighter village has got to be around here somewhere…” Sokka wondered how Jet could hear him. But he guessed that was Jet’s way of keeping an eye on him. What a creep.

Chapter Text

They made it out of Jet’s red forest alive and well, no thanks to Jet and his Freedom Fighters. At least Sokka had a serious victory under his belt now, although—surprisingly—it was a victory which worked in the Fire Nation’s favor. Still, he couldn’t really complain when he thought about what might have happened had he not been suspicious enough of Jet’s motives to find out what he was really planning.

Katara was pleased and proud and a little chagrined as they climbed onto Appa’s back and took off, heading north (or so Sokka thought). But he couldn’t be right about everything. That, at least, he was willing to admit. He was just glad he’d redeemed himself, that what he’d learned from…caring…about his friend could be bigger than letters, bigger than secrets. Could be big enough to save lives, Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom alike. And impress Katara, too. She’d never apologize for all the terrible things she’s said earlier while she was still under Jet’s spell, but he didn’t really need an apology.

Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to tell her sometime about his friend. Maybe she’d understand. Or…maybe not.

“I should have known…” Katara said, taking Sokka’s usual place at the back of the saddle while Sokka steered, “I should have known he was a liar. I can’t believe I trusted him.”

“Hey, I trusted him too.” Aang said comfortingly, “What counts is that no one got hurt.”

“But think about all the other people who Jet might’ve hurt before we met him, all the people he might hurt again…”

“You’ll drive yourself crazy thinking like that.” Sokka said without turning around, he could imagine the guilty frown on her face easily enough, “Aang is right. We got out safely and so did everyone else. Next time we’ll be more careful.” He didn’t like including himself in the ‘we’ but it probably wouldn’t make her feel any better to say the I told you so tugging at his lips.

“But that’s exactly the kind of thinking that got Jet started with his—his—cruelty! His callousness. We can’t just think about ourselves.”

Katara was working herself up into a state, so Sokka heaved a sigh and turned around on Appa’s neck to face her. It was time for some straight-talk, “We aren’t. We’re trying to save the whole world, Katara, and everybody in it. As peacefully as possible, I might add. But if we don’t get Aang to the North Pole in time, everybody’s screwed. I get that you feel bad for not recognizing Jet as the slimy monster he obviously is, but it’s a little too late for guilt, don’t you think? We’ve got more important stuff to take care of.”

She scowled, like she had something more to say, a thousand stubborn words of argument, but stopped herself. It was a remarkably mature moment for them both, all things considered.

“You’re right, Sokka. We do need to focus. Aang, where’s that map?”

They spent the rest of the evening planning their journey for the next few weeks, which mostly consisted of Aang making enthusiastic suggestions and Sokka shooting them down, feeling more and more like the bad guy again when so recently he’d been the hero. Their itinerary took them over the Great Divide, a canyon that Aang insisted was a must-see, and back towards the ocean. Technically, Sokka couldn’t approve of any plan which involved getting within one hundred leagues of Prince Zuko and his ship, but it would be nice to be near open water again. Sokka and Katara just weren’t cut out for inland life.

Memories of Jet and the flooded village kept them flying later into the day than they usually would have, and it was dark when they eventually landed to make camp in the comforting hollow of a hill. If they kept making good time like this, Sokka wouldn’t say a word when they reached the ocean and, with it, certain danger. Not a single word. He whistled for Hawky when he was sure neither Aang nor Katara were watching, not that they could see much in the darkness, and was gratified when the bird appeared no more than a few minutes later. 

"I don't have a letter for you yet." Sokka explained quietly, "But if you stick around, I'll have one ready in an hour. And no, no food either." He fended off Hawky's inquisitive beak and took out the calligraphy kit to write by the fire. 

Look, I’m not going to say you’re right and my side is doomed to failure, no matter what you tell me about loyalty and divine right and devotion. But I admit I had no idea things were so complicated in the Fire Nation. It’s not like that at all where I’m from. Our leaders are chosen based on their ability to rule, and how much people trust them to do the right thing. Isn’t that how things should be? Well, except that all my people’s leaders are off fighting the war or dead. Let’s not talk about this anymore. It just makes me angry. You too, probably. You’re right about one thing though, I’ve never really talked to anyone from the Fire Nation besides you. But I did rescue a Fire Nation encampment from the Freedom Fighters a few days ago, that has to count for something, right? I just thought about how you could be anyone, in any Fire Nation town or colony, and I’d never know. How would I feel if I’d unintentionally condemned you to death because I didn’t stop someone when I should have? Even if none of the soldiers were you, what if they were someone else’s friend, or boyfriend, or brother, or…you get what I mean. I know you’ll tell me I’m being stupid. That my letters are some kind of terrible joke, if I’m quoting you right. But I mean it. There’s no choice to make. I’ll be your friend no matter who you turn out to be. That doesn’t mean I’m a traitor, though. I’m not going to blindly follow a leader who doesn’t have my best interests at heart, and I don’t think anyone should, so I’m going to fight for as long as it takes for that to be true. At the same time, my worst nightmare (well, one of them…) is waking up one day and realizing I’ve become the thing I hate. So if there’s a way to fight with…I don’t know what word I’m looking for exactly. Compassion, maybe. Yeah. If there’s a way to fight with compassion I’m going to do it. I hope you get a chance to do the same thing at some point, so you can have all the things that seem less important right now. You deserve them. I mean, everyone does. Of course. Thanks for the story, it was interesting. I know about the moon and water goddesses splitting off from the sun and fire, but the rest was new. I guess it does kind of explain why Prince Z certain members of the royal family act the way they do. Another question, though. Do you know what happened with the crown prince? Why has he been banished? You don’t need to answer if you don’t know. No pressure. I should probably stop using you to get information about the Fire Nation, but I’m sure you’ll stop writing if you really mind being asked. Things are good with me. We’re making progress in our trip, so I’m pretty happy. Starting to run out of food, though. You should definitely tell me your uncle’s stories about the Earth Kingdom. Until this year I hadn’t travelled at all so there’s a lot that I don’t know. How did you know I’m not actually from the Anyway, I’m glad you like writing to me. I like writing to you too. I wish there was some way we could meet I’m going to stop now before I say anything even stupider. Hope you’re doing okay. Get some sleep, if you can.

         S. 

He wished he could have written something cleverer, but every time he put the brush to paper, nothing sounded right. Telling his friend that he liked writing to him was as much of an understatement as saying Aang liked detours... But there wasn't really any way of putting it that wasn't either too much or not enough. Sokka read through the letter one last time, frowning. It would have to do. At least his friend couldn't see the embarrassment splotched all over his face as he rolled up the letter and stuck it in Hawky's message carrier, imagining the teasing he'd get if Aang or Katara read it instead. He sent Hawky off, got into his sleeping bag, and waited for sleep. It didn't take long to find him. 

Two days (and no letter) later, to everyone's surprise, they reached the ocean. The Great Divide had been about as impressive as a huge dry riverbed could be, no matter what Aang said about earth spirits and other unlikely things, and Sokka was glad for the umpteenth time that they had Appa and didn’t have to walk across it on foot. And, okay, it was kind of impressive. But he didn’t have to tell anyone that if he didn’t want to.  

They spent that night on a rocky outcropping close enough to the ocean to smell its salt on the breeze, but not so close any scouting Fire Nation ships might spot them. Sokka thought he’d sleep well, surrounded by the familiar sound of the water lapping the shore and birds calling to each other across the broad blue expanse, but he was wrong. He dreamed of the spirit world again, the tilt of Zuko’s head and that ponytail brushing past his shoulder, the sharp corners of his armored shoulder-pieces cutting through the fog.

“Come with me.” Dream-Zuko said, and Sokka couldn’t find any reason to say no. It was his dream, after all. He could end it at any time. So he took the hand outstretched to him. The fog melted away to reveal a place like no other he’d ever seen before. It still had to be the spirit world—there were butterfly flowers and everything, even down to the grass, was too vivid to be real. Trees edged the meadow like living walls and the sun shown dazzlingly bright above them.

“I didn’t know the fog was hiding this.” Sokka said stupidly. Even in a dream, he didn’t quite know what he’d say to Zuko if they weren’t fighting against each other.

“It wasn’t.” Zuko didn’t look at him, but kept walking intently forward through the meadow, tugging Sokka along by the hand.

“Where are you taking me?”

“You’ll see.” They walked until the end of the meadow, where the ground dropped down into a valley. It looked familiar somehow, besides all the weird pink flowers that fluttered up into the air whenever Zuko’s pointy boots kicked through them. He’d seen this valley before. Burned stumps among the trees. A scar.

“I don’t want to see this again.” Sokka stopped in his tracks, “I already know what the Fire Nation is, what it does. Why can’t you just leave me alone for once?”

“No, not that.” Zuko pointed upwards, where the sun had increased in size until it appeared to be eating the whole sky, so close to the earth that it was burning the trees. The scar was spreading across the earth and across Zuko’s face, melting his eye, twisting his mouth “That.” He smiled, but it was a dangerous thing, unpleasant to see, “My great-grandfather.”

“That’s just a children’s story. I don’t believe a word of it.”

“You don’t need to believe in something for it to be true.” Zuko said, which. Yeah. He had a point there. Sokka shook himself. He really needed to wake up, this wasn’t good. Zuko continued, and the skin of his face began to blister and peel, “In the beginning there was the sun and the moon. From them came twins, water and fire…”

“I’m not a waterbender, I can’t put out the fire—“ Sokka said, but Zuko wasn’t listening to him. He seemed to be burning up from within, his uniform smoking and charring, his face almost unrecognizable.

“Try.” He said, and those were the last words before the entire bottom half of his face began to slide down into his neck and Sokka awoke with a gasp, heart pounding, disgusted.

Aang and Katara were already awake, talking in muted tones about Aang’s bad dream, which Sokka personally thought couldn’t be much worse than his own. He was about to tell them that, but realized once his mind had cleared slightly that he probably shouldn’t go around advertising that he dreamed about Zuko. And certainly not that he dreamed about him…regularly.

He fell back asleep and had perfectly mundane dreams about talking animals and carnivorous fruit for the rest of the night, just normal enough to make him almost forget the image of Zuko literally melting from the heat of—no, this was ridiculous. Stop thinking, Sokka. He didn’t need any more Zuko-related trauma. He sat up and got dressed, telling himself rather firmly that it was a beautiful, warm day and nothing—not the sun and certainly not a watermelon—was going to eat them.

They flew down on Appa to the nearby harbor village, thankfully free of any sign of Fire Nation red, and stopped to resupply. Seagulls were floating lazily out on the ocean, and fishermen called out to each other as they cast their nets. It was a comforting morning scene he’d known since childhood though, admittedly, not one he’d seen in quite a few years. His heart ached a little, remembering his father and their companionable silence as they sat together to knot nets, his joy whenever Sokka made a catch, meager though it often was. Sokka gathered up vegetables in one of Katara’s baskets in a daze and didn’t realize until the basket was full and Katara was arguing with the produce stand’s owner that they were out of money.

Apparently Katara had realized the same thing, because she handed the melon back to the saleswoman (Sokka could have told her, melons were bad news!) and said, “I just realized we’re out of money anyway.” She shrugged, and the woman grabbed the basket from Sokka’s hands.

“That’s just great.” Sokka said, and the worm of hunger gnawed a little deeper into his stomach lining, “What’re we supposed to do now?”

“Get a job, smart guy.” Katara said, a throwaway comment, but maybe…maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea, after all. He was hungry. They were all hungry. What would his father want him to do? After Sokka’d made up his mind, not even some angry old lady’s dire weather predictions could dissuade him from going to work for a grumpy old fisherman for double (!!) the pay. But that was where things really started to go wrong.

The storm Sokka was so sure wouldn’t hit them did, in fact, hit. And it hit hard. The old fisherman put him to work pulling the lines tight, trying to control the sails, until eventually they had to give up and let the wind just blow them any which way. The deck was slippery beneath his feet and he was nearly cast overboard countless times, too frantic to do more than think if I die now, I will hate myself for until the end of time and Spirits of the water or the sky or whatever, please don’t let me die as he clung to the mast along with the fisherman, waiting for yet another wave to pound into them, the whole day’s catch spilling out onto the deck and overboard. A loss that somehow, more than anything else, made him unspeakably angry. He pulled out another bargaining chip: Spirits, if I have to die, at least make sure Aang and Katara get my wages. Or some fish. Don’t let this be for nothing. He hoped, he really hoped they weren’t going to come and rescue him. This counted as risky behavior in his book—how could he have been so stupid—even though he did want them to come, so badly. His lungs were filling up with water and he knew, without a shadow of a doubt now, that he would die and even if they did decide to rescue him, they wouldn’t get there on time.

But then another wave hit, and there was no more time to think. Despite his pessimism and the ferocious waves, if he had looked up he might have seen Appa heading towards him through the oppressive clouds and sheeting rain, the faint orange and blue specks that were Aang and Katara clinging to Appa’s saddle, right before they saw him.  

“There’s the boat!” Aang yelled, pointing ahead to where the mast of the fishing boat was barely visible through the downpour, bucking violently in the waves. Lightening shot in scattered pillars from clouds to sea, barely missing Appa as he dodged and weaved towards the boat. The sails had ripped and were fluttering in rags from the lines, but neither Aang nor Katara could see Sokka and the old fisherman on deck. Katara scanned the turbulent water for any sign of their bodies, but it was hard with how Appa kept canting this way and that in the strong winds. Suddenly, she caught sight of something almost more terrible than the corpse of her brother—the curved bow of Zuko’s warship emerging from the fog like a gruesome claw. She grabbed Aang’s shoulder, pulling him around to look down at the men gathered on deck, who were looking up at them at the same time.

“We have to evade them somehow, we can’t let Zuko get you again!” She yelled, and heard shouts rise from the deck below as the men snapped out of their surprise. 

“Change course—follow that bison!” It was Zuko’s voice, she’d know it anywhere—a piercing mixture of gravel and that adolescent squeak Sokka was so embarrassed about. Aang pulled Appa to a sharp left and Katara hung on to the saddle for dear life as a massive wave rose and nearly crested over their heads, Appa rearing just high enough to miss it.

“I lost the boat!” Aang yelled, “Can you see it?”

“It’s right down there—oh, no. Quickly, Aang, please!” Zuko’s helmsman hadn’t been able to match Appa’s quick change in direction, and was heading instead on a collision course for the fishing boat. Zuko, who’d been watching their flight with unwavering attention, glanced towards the boat right as his metal bow splintered through its wooden hull. He stumbled at the impact, but stayed on his feet.

“Who’s on the boat?” He yelled up at them as loudly as he could, cupping his mouth with both hands. Aang and Katara peered down at him, stunned, and he yelled again, more slowly, “Who is on the damn boat?

“Sok—” Aang started.

“No, don’t tell him.” Katara tried to cover his mouth, but Aang squirmed away.

“Katara, he might be able to help us.” He didn’t wait for her to argue, even though she would have—she’d trust Zuko with her brother’s safety when the South Pole became a tropical rainforest, and only then—but carved out a tunnel in the wind for his voice, “Sokka. Sokka is!”

Zuko heard him on the first try. He nodded shortly, and turned away; all his needle-sharp focus on a new target, ordering his men to fetch ropes and flotation devices. The crowd of men scattered, and Zuko waited for them to return, clutching the railing with bloodless knuckles, while Aang steered Appa back towards the boat.

Katara took a deep, steadying breath, squinting to see through the curtain of rain. There was still a chance they could get there before Zuko’s men did. The fishing boat was low in the water and sinking quickly, but there was Sokka—waving his arms frantically at no one in particular, or at both of them—up to his waist in water while the old sailor clung to the swaying mast.

“C’mon Appa.” She heard Aang say, and they put on an extra burst of speed, heading down towards the surface of the water. Salt sprayed up into their faces and mouths, but they were close—just within hearing range—and hope sang in Katara’s heart. But it shut up almost immediately as it started.

Zuko had beaten them to it. One of his crew was already repelling down the side of the warship, throwing ropes to Sokka and his employer. The old man balked at the Fire Nation sailor’s help, shaking his head and holding even tighter to the mast, though his toes were already dipping into the rising sea, but Sokka…Sokka took the buoy when it was tossed to him, and with a long look at both the ship and the flying bison, cast himself into the sea.

“We can get him. Fly lower!” Katara yelled, and Appa’s six feet skimmed the water. They were close, so close, and then the sea began to bottom out and Sokka was dragged further and further away. Katara and Aang looked up at the same moment to see a wave—the mother of all waves—rising precariously above them.

“Just a little further, boy.” Aang urged, but it was too late. The wave broke and they were engulfed in freezing water, Katara torn from the saddle and set adrift in the swell. Her eyes stung in the salt or it could have been with tears. They’d failed him, he’d been counting on their rescue and they’d failed. Aang began to glow with all the force of the Avatar-state and Katara found her way back to the saddle in time for them to begin to rise up, out of the water, Appa’s massive legs struggling against the push and pull.

When she blinked her eyes clear, she saw that Sokka’d gotten washed up on deck and was being restrained by Zuko’s men. Zuko flashed them a lightening-bright smile, and something cold and dark clenched in her heart. That traitor… she couldn’t believe Aang had trusted him to help.

“What should we do?” She asked, and Aang frowned with indecision, “Should we go after him?”

“I—I’m sorry, Katara…” He said, and she wanted to shake her head no, this couldn’t be happening, “It’s too dangerous right now. We need to try again when the storm has cleared up. Zuko’s ship won’t get far in this weather, anyway.”

“You’re so—so—” She was going to say selfish, but couldn’t finish the thought. She knew Aang wanted to save Sokka as much as she did (well, probably not quite as much) but she also knew he had responsibilities beyond her and her brother. He’d been charged to save the fisherman, and to save the world, but what if they got trapped in an iceberg for another hundred years? The story of his disappearance was too fresh in her mind for her to ignore it.

“You’re right, Aang.” She bowed her head, and caught sight of the old man floating in the frothy water, gulping it in like it was air, “Look, over there!” With a last look at the warship, where Sokka was being marched down to the hold, struggling and shouting, his neck twisted around to watch them, she nodded for Aang to steer Appa towards the drowning fisherman. They scooped him up and headed back towards shore, her heart as heavy as unburnt coal. Sokka was gone.

“I’m so sorry, Katara.” Aang told her earnestly as soon as they were back in the cave, and the fisherman was being embraced by his cranky wife, “I honestly thought he would help.”

“Why?” She asked. It was the only thing she could ask. Anything else would be accusations and anger and bitter, bitter regret.

“I—don’t know.” He said remorsefully, unable to meet her gaze, “After Sokka saved his life in the Fire Temple and everything…I thought Zuko might be having a change of heart. He did try to get the pirates to leave Sokka alone when they caught us that one time.”

That one time.” Katara said, and sat down heavily on the stone floor, “I just can’t believe we lost him, again. We failed him…”

I failed him, Katara.” Aang said, and she was glad he could admit it, but she wished he wouldn’t look so sad, too.

“No, Aang. We both did. We’ll go out after him as soon as the sky has cleared.” She laid her hand on his shoulder, and gave him her bravest smile, “Deal?”

“Deal.”

Back on the warship, Sokka was hauled to his feet by a pair of hands while a voice, belonging to the hands, yelled, “Take him below!” Sokka stumbled down the stairs in front of a pair of soldiers, his arms pulled behind his back in their vice-like grip. He shook his head viciously, trying to get his wet hair out of his eyes so he could see—then he’d worry about escaping—and the soldiers pushed him a little harder.

“Keep moving, Water Tribe.” They grunted, and he tried to keep his feet going at the same pace as the rest of him was. They walked him down two corridors, each identical to the next, and finally stopped in front of a windowless door. The ship made a sudden shift at that moment, and they all slid across the floor to slam into the opposite wall.

“I don’t know what that idiot was thinking to make us take a prisoner in this storm.” One of them grumbled, and the other hushed him up.

“You know I’m right.” The grumbler insisted, and finally found the right key among the many hooked to his belt. He unlocked the door, and pushed Sokka in when he wouldn’t enter willingly. The room was split into two parts—one was open to the door, the other was enclosed by thick iron bars. Three guesses where Sokka'd be spending the night. 

“Hope the accommodations are to your liking.” The other soldier said, and tossed Sokka bodily into the barred section, locking one door and then another as they left. He hit the floor, knocking his head against the cot’s metal frame, and stayed there. It was hard to find his breath all of a sudden. He kept his eyes closed until he heard the soldiers leave the room, locking the first door behind them. He was wet and cold and imprisoned. His head hurt. This had to be the stupidest thing he’d ever done to himself. But he had to get up. He had to get on his feet, and wring out his clothes, and if he had to shout himself hoarse to get someone’s attention, then he would. He wasn’t going to just be left here, forgotten until useful as collateral in Zuko’s mad pursuit of the Avatar. He was going to get out.

But he’d had thoughts like these before. Thought he could keep walking and he’d find a way. That no prison—with or without walls—could hold him if he chose to fight. Sokka got as far as wringing out his shirt before collapsing on the bed, panic overwhelming him. He squeezed his eyes shut again and focused on breathing. In and out, simple. Okay, so he was a prisoner of the Fire Nation. So what? He just had to think clearly long enough to come up with a plan.

Unsurprisingly, he couldn’t think clearly for very long. The tossing of the ship was beginning to make him nauseous, and while he was usually comfortable in boats—he’d been on fishing trips since he could walk—this metal contraption was a completely different matter. The ship creaked and shuddered ominously in the water, and he had to clap a hand over his mouth, swallow the sour taste down. Oh spirits. He huddled against the wall, waiting it out. The storm couldn’t last forever, right? Aang and Katara would be coming for him soon. Maybe they were already on deck, fighting their way down to the hold. Or maybe they weren’t. Maybe they’d done the sensible thing for once in their lives and headed back to safety.

He didn’t know which option he would prefer. The ship made a particularly violent dip and rise, and he vomited onto the floor, his hand, and part of his pant-leg before he could stop himself. Oh, gross. He tried not to smell the acrid mess but it filled the tiny cell, and he gagged. Thank the spirits he hadn’t had much to eat earlier that day. It would be over soon. Soon.

And then it actually was over. The waves must have evened out, because the ship was no longer heaving, and his stomach soon followed suit. The scuffle of voices and footsteps drew near the cell door.

“I’m fine, I don’t need to see the physician. Let go of me!”

“Nephew, please. We need to make the most of the calm waters. Who knows how long it will take to get to the next safe port?”

A few seconds later, the outer door opened and Prince Zuko appeared, rain-drenched and scowling, his uncle—or someone, an old man—standing behind him.

“Why didn’t the Avatar come after you?” Zuko demanded, entering the room. He grabbed one of the bars of Sokka’s enclosure and rattled it for emphasis. His other arm was cradled gingerly against his chest, “I was sure he would.”

“Don’t ask me, I don’t know.” Sokka said, climbing to his feet, voice low and ragged, the taste of stomach acid lingering in his mouth, “But hey, if I’m no good to you as bait, why not let me go?”

“Let you swim, you mean?” The prince asked nastily, “You may not have lured the Avatar here now, but I’m sure he’ll be back for you soon.” He wrinkled his nose, suddenly noticing the pale rice-colored vomit sliding across the floor, almost reaching the upturned toes of his stupid Fire Nation shoes, “Got a little seasick, did you?” He backed away to the door, “Uncle, send someone in to clean up that mess. I’ll be in the control room.”

The old man peered in after him, sniffing the air and frowning, but looking more concerned than malicious, and closed the door behind them.

Sokka wallowed in his humiliation—it’s not like he’d wanted to throw up, c’mon—until one of the crew came in with a mop and a clean set of clothes in a dull but recognizable Fire Nation red.

“I’m not wearing that.” Sokka insisted, though he wanted to keep wearing his soggy clothes even less.

“You don’t have a choice.” The man shook them in Sokka’s face, “Either you put them on yourself, or I’ll put them on you. And you can trust my kids on this one, I’m not known for my patience.” He tossed them on the cot and quickly mopped up the mess on the floor, never once turning his back to Sokka, like he was a threat. Which, maybe he was. Friend of the Avatar and all. That kind of reputation had to emerge at some point.

“Well, what’s it gonna be?” The man turned back to him. Sokka took the folded clothes off the cot and slowly, so slowly and deliberately, lowered them into the mop-bucket’s dirty water.

“Over my dead body.”

The man snatched the sodden clothes from Sokka’s hand, and left the barred cell, locking it after him, mop and bucket clanging awkwardly at his side, “I’ll be reporting this to the prince, boy. And then you’re gonna be sorry.”

“Oooh, I’m scared.” Sokka pretended (well, it wasn’t actually fake) to shiver, and the door slammed closed. Alright, Water Tribe. Good job, he told himself. Now you’re still wet and everybody hates you.

He didn’t want the cot to get wet, not if he was going to be spending the night there, but he grabbed a blanket from it and wrapped it around his shoulders as he sat on floor, back against the wall. The rocking started up again, but not as bad as before, and by the time all motion stilled, Sokka had (unbelievably) managed to slip into sleep. He was shaken awake by another member of Zuko’s crew, this one dressed in full Fire-Nation regalia, standing over him in the gloom of his cell.

“We’ve docked for the night. It’s a little late, but Cook thought you might be hungry.” He was holding a tray, and on it was a bowl of plain congee, a spoon, and a cup, “Don’t look so disappointed. It’s what the rest of us had for dinner too. Cook will need to resupply tomorrow, apparently the storm wreaked havoc in the kitchen. We usually eat much better. Also, the general wanted to know if you were feeling better. He hopes this tea will help." The soldier gestured to the cup, which Sokka now noticed was steaming slightly. 

“Why are you telling me this?” Sokka asked suspiciously, but he took the tea without complaint and drank it down. Almost too hot but not quite. 

“Look, kid. We’re not all like the prince. We don’t believe in making people’s lives miserable for no reason. But, uh, don’t tell him I said that.”

“That’s reassuring.” Sokka replied. But his interest had been piqued. So, Zuko’s crew didn’t like him very much. No surprise there. He could only imagine how miserable it must be to bear the brunt of Zuko’s constantly frustrated attempts to capture the Avatar. How angry he probably was now, too, for only having Sokka instead of Aang. Not Sokka’s problem. He dug in to the congee, ignored its vaguely disgusting texture, and found that he was actually quite hungry. The soldier nodded, saying, "Just put everything back on the tray when you're done and someone will pick it up in the morning," and left. 

Sokka spent most of the night awake, staring up at the ceiling. His clothes were still damp, but he gave in eventually to the siren call of the cot’s lumpy mattress. He was exhausted, but there was something so strange and wrong about being trapped in a small dark room that he couldn’t settle down. Maybe it was because he was still cold, despite the blankets. Or maybe…He’d heard whispered stories about how people of the Water Tribe went mad sometimes when they were caught by the Fire Nation. Not from torture or fear—the Water Tribe was strong, they could withstand almost anything—but from the closeness of the walls. There were no prisons in the South Pole, not even in the old days. The greatest punishment was to be banished to the icy waste, far from water and food and family, left to the mercy of the spirits. Some survived, some didn’t. But Gran Gran always said it was the kindest way, the most civilized; that the worst thing you could do to a person or animal was trap them in a cage. He should probably stop thinking about it, it only made him miss his grandmother and his home and his sister, only made him wonder why he hadn't been rescued yet. Maybe they thought he was strong enough to do it by himself. But it was hard to stop himself from getting lost in fear. 

Sometime in the middle of the night—though it was hard to say exactly when, without a window, without the light of the moon and the movements of the stars—he heard footsteps pass his cell door once, twice, then pause. He almost hoped someone might come in and give him a hard time, just to take his mind off things, but no one did, and eventually whoever it was walked away and left him in silence again.

Chapter Text

The next morning—at least, Sokka thought it was morning, he’d woken up and there were noises outside his door, men’s footsteps and voices—Zuko came down to question him. Sokka was hungry, a twisting gulp that made him especially uninterested in Zuko’s dramatics. It didn’t look like he’d be getting breakfast, though. At least not until he’d answered a few questions.

“Why hasn’t the Avatar come back for you yet?” Zuko demanded. He was pacing outside the bars of Sokka’s cell, one arm secured against his chest in a sling, looking very much like he hadn’t slept and was running purely on stubbornness and strong-brewed tea.

“I don’t know.” Sokka replied. He thought they’d gone over this already, “He makes his own decisions, and I couldn’t exactly be kept in the loop considering I was drowning in the ocean at the time.”

“Don’t talk back.” Zuko snapped, and Sokka rolled his eyes (when Zuko couldn’t see him, of course. He hadn’t come all this way just to die now), “You made no pact with him, no previous agreement?”

“No.”

Zuko looked disbelieving, which was his own problem, “Where is he now? Do you know that at least?”

Sokka shrugged, “As I said, he makes his own decisions. Usually without consulting me.”

“You must have some idea!” There was no mistaking the frantic note in his voice now, the widening of his good eye while the eye on the scarred side of his face stayed frozennarrow. The iris was slightly filmy. Sokka’d been running into him for ages now, but he’d only just noticed how disgusting the scar really was, how misshapen it made Zuko’s face. It reminded him of his dream—the one where Zuko was burning and melting into the fiery grass. He wanted to look away but he couldn’t stop staring, remembering Zuko’s last word, try. Not pleading, not asking, but gentle—a gentle word from a blistered mouth. A hope. Try.

Zuko seemed to have noticed the direction of Sokka’s gaze because his good cheek flushed red and he asked, voice cracking, “What are you staring at, you filthy peasant?”

“Nothing.” Sokka said, finally managing to avert his eyes, “Look, even if I knew something—and I don’t—I wouldn’t tell you. So try all you want, but you’re not getting anything.”

Zuko paused, then, and tilted his head like he was considering something very seriously. He walked a couple steps forward until he was no more than a foot away from the bars. Sokka watched him warily, fearing sudden movements or fire, but there was nothing.

“So much loyalty, to someone who couldn’t even protect you.” His voice was low and soft and it made Sokka shiver—this was the way Katara had described him taunting her with the necklace. All the frantic rage gone, replaced by something quieter and much more dangerous.

“I don’t—I don’t need protection.” Sokka knew he was already losing ground.

“No? But you’re so weak. Neither a true warrior nor a bender. Do you know how easy it’s been to defeat you, over and over again?”

“That doesn’t mean anything. I’m still—“ Oh Spirits, it was the Fog of Lost Souls all over again, and he felt panic pressing tightly on his chest, “I’m strong in other ways. But I guess you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you? About—about loyalty and friendship and—“

“Don’t.” Zuko frowned, “Don’t talk to me about loyalty.” Something bright like pain flashed across his face.

“Then don’t talk to me about my friends like that either.” He said, and his voice no longer faltered. He’d won this argument without even realizing it. Somehow, he’d said the right things. Amazing. A grin pulled at his mouth, “Anyway, who was it that saved you at the Fire Temple, huh? ‘Cause I don’t seem to remember you complaining when a weak non-bender like myself cut you free from those chains.”

“That’s different. That was—I know how to repay my debts.” Zuko said defensively, like he was continuing an argument that had started somewhere else, “You’re safe now. We’re even.”

Sokka felt he had full rights to visibly roll his eyes at that bold, and erroneous, claim, “I would have been safer if you’d just let my friends save me.”

“They weren’t going to get to you in time.” Zuko said, suddenly intent, “You were going to die and there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it.” He touched one of the bars of Sokka’s cell with his uninjured hand and curled his fingers around it absently, “The Avatar himself told me to—told me you were on that boat.”

“Aang what!?”

Zuko sounded like he was grinding his teeth. The quiet menace from earlier was gone, replaced by frustration, “The Avatar told me you were on the boat. You should be thanking me.”

And the sheer nerve it took to say that when Sokka was shut up in a tiny cell, hungry and cold and alone, made him so angry he stopped thinking about calculated risks and what-would-Katara-not-do, and spit into Zuko’s good eye. It was probably the most satisfying thing he’d done in years. Really.

For a moment Zuko looked stunned. Then he lunged forward until he was flush against the bars, sparks spilling from his mouth as he hissed, “You’ll pay for that, you ungrateful piece of shit.” He hadn’t even bothered to wipe his eye, and Sokka’s spit dripped from his eyelashes. It had to sting a little. He hoped it did.

“Fuck you.” Sokka said, sounding more rebellious than he felt, as he tried not to look like he was shying away. The room was getting hotter by the second, a sure sign that Zuko was going to lose it. There was only one place for all his rage and fire to go. Sokka’d really done it now. His skin prickled with sweat.

“I should never have—” Zuko cut himself off, exhaled a new breath of pure heat. Sokka noticed with some alarm that the bars of his cell had begun to glow faintly orange, “You will tell me where the Avatar is, whether you want to or not. I will make you.” In that moment, trapped in a box of red-hot metal, Sokka believed him completely. But then the outer door swung open and it was the old man, poking his head in with a hastily-concealed look of alarm.

“Hot in here, isn’t it?” He asked pleasantly, stepping inside. Zuko literally growled, and stepped away from the bars, sucking some of the heat back into his body, “I hate to interrupt, Nephew, when you’re obviously making progress, but Lieutenant Jee would like to speak to you in the control room.”

“Tell him to wait.”

“I really think it would be best if you spoke with him now.” The old man—Zuko’s uncle?—said firmly, and after a moment’s more hesitation, Zuko stormed out without even a glance behind him. The old man approached slowly, taking deep, even breaths, and gradually the temperature in the room lowered.

“I’m sorry about my nephew.” The old man said, and tested the bars to see if they had safely cooled, “He’s a little, ah, hot tempered. It runs in the family.”

“You mean he’s crazy.” Sokka said bluntly, and the old man shook his head. 

“No. Just very…dedicated. It’s an admirable quality, although perhaps under different circumstances.” The old man smiled reassuringly, “My name is General Iroh, but you can call me Iroh. Of course, I already know who you are. You must be hungry.”

“Uh. Yeah.” Sokka said, even though the thought of breakfast hadn’t crossed his mind since Zuko came in the room.

“Good. I’ll have Cook make you something.” He turned to go, mumbling something about pork meatballs and scallions.

“Wait!” Sokka called out, “I was wondering, did the Lieutenant actually need to talk to Zu—Prince Zuko?”

The General looked back at him, winked, and asked, “What do you think?” He locked the door behind him but the resulting silence didn’t sound as dismal as it had before. What a disconcerting transition from one generation of Fire Nation royalty to another...Sokka wondered what had gone wrong, but the fault was probably in the Fire Lord's direct line. 

Sokka couldn’t quite believe that Aang was to blame for his current situation. It was just the kind of thing Zuko would make up to justify his pointless imprisonment. Still, the thought left a bad taste in his mouth. What if…what if it was true? But it couldn’t be. Aang was his friend, he’d never abandon him to the Fire Nation. Except, of course, that he had. He lay back down on the cot, and pulled the blankets up to his chin. He was cold again, colder even than he’d been before Zuko’s crazy and, in all honesty, impressive display of pyrotechnics. He was tired of this day already, and it had just started.

He didn’t get any more visitors that morning besides an anonymous guard delivering his breakfast and replacing the toilet bucket in the corner of the cell. Apparently he had the General’s influence to thank for the presence of pork and scallions on his congee, but he was still underwhelmed. Oh well. At least it was better than those nuts he’d found in the woods… The memory made him smile, which was a victory in and of itself.

He paced in his cell for a while until he got tired, then lay back down to imagine behind closed eyes all the ways he’d get revenge for what was happening to him. One day he'd get the chance to humiliate Zuko, make him beg for forgiveness...It was a nice fantasy but it felt wrong, even though Zuko obviously deserved it. He shifted uneasily beneath the blankets. He knew what a much more interesting fantasy would be, he had them sometimes when he was too sleepy or bored to realize what was going on and stop himself in time. On hands and knees with burning fingers digging into his hips as he bore down, spine arching, whispered encouragement in his ear and merciless hard hot sweet— 

How the two fantasies were connected, though, Sokka didn't want to speculate. He reached down to squeeze his cock, telling himself that now was absolutely not the time, and was grateful when opening his eyes to the depressing reality of his cell was enough to cool his arousal. Still, couldn't be good for him to lie around all day, if these were the kinds of thoughts he was having. He got out of bed and started doing his usual calisthenics. Half-way through a set of sit-ups, he got so winded he had to stop, muscles screaming in protest. Had he really gotten so out-of-shape? It was embarrassing. Fortunately no one was there to see it. 

No sooner had he thought that than the door opened and General Iroh appeared. He smiled at the sight of Sokka on the floor, "Having a bit of a rest?" 

"I, uh—no!" Sokka scrambled to his feet, swaying slightly in place. 

"Oh, not to worry. It must be very boring to be stuck in here all day. Would you like to walk around on deck with me for a while?" 

The offer sounded too good to be true. Prince Zuko was probably just waiting for him to show his face on deck before casting him overboard and forcing him to swim. Except, no...probably not, if Zuko was still convinced he could be useful in the hunt for the Avatar. Either way, Sokka had his doubts. 

“It’s safe.” The General said, like he could read minds, “Prince Zuko is in the middle of a training session with Lieutenant Jee. He doesn’t like to be interrupted.”

“Which one?”

The general stroked his beard, considering, “Both of them, I suppose. But my nephew most of all. Come, let’s go up. A bit of fresh air will do you wonders.”

Sokka was surprised at how tired he got just climbing the stairs behind the general, pausing at the top to catch his breath. The general glanced back with concern, but Sokka let go of the railing and smiled as broadly as he could. Sunlight. Fresh air. Water. Good things. 

On the other side of the deck were the flashes of light and heat of Zuko’s training, a look of extreme concentration on his face not so different from any of his other expressions—tense and angry. Even with one arm incapacitated in a sling, he moved with fierce, semi-precise energy. His sleeveless silk shirt was plastered to his back with sweat, and Sokka noticed with poorly-concealed jealousy that Zuko’s arms were significantly more defined than his. It didn’t seem fair. Couldn’t Sokka have at least one thing going for him besides his boomerang skills and moral compass? But as he watched, Zuko lost his balance and stumbled in the middle of practicing a particularly difficult-looking form, covering it up by kicking a wave of fire in the lieutenant’s direction.

“Good.” Sokka heard Jee say, “You recovered quickly. But can you tell me why you lost your balance in the first place?”

“I—it won’t happen again. I’ll re-do the form. It’ll be perfect.” Zuko said tightly, and got back into the starting position.

Jee’s long-suffering sigh was audible even from a distance, “I believe you. But it’s by going over your mistakes that you can learn from them.”

“Don’t patronize me.” Zuko warned, and sent the first blast of fire. Sokka could feel the heat from all the way across the ship.

The general chuckled, “Poor Lieutenant Jee. He thought this ship would be captained by me, he would never have signed on otherwise.”

“He’s okay.” Sokka said. It was probably the most complimentary thing he’d ever said about someone from the Fire Nation.

“Ah, yes. Of course. He brings your food.” He shook his head fondly, “He’s always been a bit more open-minded than most men in his position, I don’t doubt he enjoys the chance to speak with someone from the Water Tribe. I believe he once tried to travel there with the Southern Raiders. Of course, that was before he realized what they were about and joined me in Ba Sing Se instead.”

“You don’t approve?” Sokka asked cautiously. He didn’t want to give away too much in case he'd gotten the wrong message, but this was the first he’d heard of dissension within the Fire Nation army.

General Iroh scowled, “The Southern Raiders were barbarous to the Southern Water Tribe. I imagine most of it happened before you were born, but you must have heard stories. Of course, this isn’t a popular opinion, but I don’t believe in the eradication of the elements. It will only throw our world into more chaos. And waterbending is such a noble pursuit, so lovely to watch…” He trailed off nostalgically.

“My, uh. My mother was killed by the Southern Raiders.” Sokka said when it was clear the general was done speakingm “I thought all Fire Nation troops were like that.”

The general looked at him with profound sympathy, “Many good people have been lost in this war. And while it is true that the Fire Nation military is renowned for its efficiency and innovation, not all of its members are cruel. That is not to say, however, that you should trust whatever soldiers you may come across when you leave here.”

Sokka snorted, “I’m not stupid.” He realized a second too late that it may have been the wrong thing to say, and flinched. Instead of yelling fire into his face the way Prince Zuko would have done, the general merely laughed. 

“No, you are not.” The general clapped him on the back, nearly sending him tumbling to the ground—he was surprisingly strong for an old man, Sokka told himself. They walked around to the stern of the ship, where they sat and drank some tea while watching the sun edge closer to the horizon. A slight breeze had started up, which normally Sokka wouldn’t have minded, but this one seemed to cut right through him. Even the hot tea didn’t do anything, just burned his throat even as his skin hurt with cold.

“Tea for the prisoner?” One of the passing crew members said, eyebrows raised, “Very luxurious.”

“Only the best for a companion of the Avatar.” General Iroh said, and smiled at Sokka, “Isn’t that right?”

Sokka really didn’t know what the old man expected him to say besides obviously not, so he took a sip of tea instead. His hands were shaking. How had he not noticed that before? The man who’d spoken looked at him curiously.

“I thought Water Tribe was supposed to be used to the winter?” He asked under his breath to the person beside him, who shrugged. Zuko, because of course Zuko would notice this from fifty paces away, sent him a look—the first since Sokka’d gone on deck—which clearly said what he thought. Weak. Sokka wanted to argue, he was usually very used to the cold and this hardly counted as winter, but for some reason he couldn’t stop shivering. The breeze—no, wind—was unbearable, starting some deep chill in his bones, as if he’d spent the entire day out on the ice in the depths of dark winter.

General Iroh frowned with concern and said something about going back down to the hold. Sokka’d be a fool not to agree. He stood up, weak-legged, and felt weirdly faint. He steadied himself on the railing and followed the general across the ship to the stairwell. Apparently Zuko had finished training for the day, because he beat them to the stairs, pausing right on the threshold.

“Answer me this.” He said to Sokka, barring the way, “Why would you sacrifice yourself for him if he wouldn’t do the same for you?”

It only took Sokka a second to figure out what he meant, “Because even I know that some lives are worth more than others.”

Zuko narrowed his good eye, apparently not happy with the answer. Thin chapped lips and sweat coursing down the back of his neck. He smelled like acrid smoke, but was solid and real and so normal (for an ash eater) it boggled the mind. Sokka swallowed down a sudden clenching in his chest that couldn't entirely be attributed to revulsion, if he was going to be honest, because it seemed like Zuko was going to ask him something else, and he didn’t want to say something he might regret. He’d had enough near-death experiences for one day. But then Zuko turned on his heel and climbed down the stairs without another word.

The general made a sound very like Gran Gran’s signature humph, like every relative in the history of the world when faced with the ridiculousness of youth, and waved Sokka down the stairs in front of him. He unlocked the door to the cell but prevented Sokka from entering the smaller enclosure with a hand on his shoulder. 

“I know you didn’t mean any harm,” General Iroh said in a soft, serious voice, “But I’d rather you didn’t say things like that to my nephew. It gives him ideas.” Sokka must have looked very confused, because the general continued with a sigh, “I mean, it makes him think about himself, and…I hope I can trust you not to be a gossip.” Actually, he couldn’t, but Sokka wasn’t about to admit that. He nodded. “A few weeks ago, my nephew attempted to kill himself.”

“He…what?” Sokka asked before he could stop himself. It was the last thing he'd expected to hear.

General Iroh’s mouth curved downwards with a weary kind of sadness, “He locked himself in his room and set it on fire. It was pure chance that Lieutenant Jee smelled the smoke as he was heading back from night watch.”

The news sent Sokka reeling. He nodded again, numbly, and the general seemed to understand that there was no more to be said, so he left the cell, closing the door behind him. Sokka sat heavily on the cot, head in hands. It was—it was such a coincidence. An unbelievable, insane, one-in-a-million coincidence. It had to be. There was no other explanation. So what if it sounded exactly like what had happened to his friend? Surely loads of aristocratic Fire Nation teenagers with bad home lives tried to set their rooms on fire. Sokka could certainly imagine Katara doing the same, considering the ferocity of the tantrums she threw as a child. Fire was such a dangerous element, and could get out of control in a heartbeat…Yeah, that was it. 

But the longer he spent alone in his cell that evening, the harder it got to believe. He tried to reason with himself. It was impossible. His friend was intelligent and kind and helpful and—and not at all the kind of person Prince Zuko was. His friend, after all, hadn't tried to kill himself. It had only seemed that way. But Sokka's curious mind picked at that thought, too. Had his friend been lying? Had he actually—? And then, of course, there was Zuko, unpitiable and constantly the maker of his own misfortune. He was kind of like Sokka in that sense. No, of course he wasn't. Sokka didn't know where that had come from. Zuko deserved to lose to the Avatar. But he still wondered what it meant that Zuko, who normally seemed so riveted to whatever goal he'd set his sights on, had lost that intense concentration, even for a night. That he was uncertain and afraid and maybe even hated...what? The Fire Nation? His bizarre quest for the Avatar? Himself? It was all so unlikely and yet... Sokka's mind spun in circles. In the end, it all came down to whether his friend was the kind of person who would cause Sokka any harm or not. And he wouldn’t. They were friends. But he’s also already said he’d choose the Fire Nation over you, his mind supplied unhelpfully.

“Shut up.” Sokka said aloud, and pinched the bridge of his nose. All this uncertainty was making his head hurt. Sure, his hunches were usually right. But sometimes they were wrong. It didn’t matter either way. He wasn’t going to accept that they were the same person because they weren't, and that’s all there was to it.

Thinking about his friend like this made his chest ache. He wished there was some way to make sure. They’d never let him write a letter…but maybe he could write something else. Just for himself. It might help if he put his thoughts down on paper. It usually did. He’d ask the lieutenant tonight, when he came with dinner. Of all the people on the ship—besides General Iroh—Lieutenant Jee seemed the most susceptible to persuasion. 

He only had to wait an hour or two before he heard someone unlock the door to his cell. He got out of bed, but kept the blanket wrapped around his shoulders. He could sacrifice some dignity for the sake of staying warm. Lieutenant Jee looked amused at the sight of Sokka all bundled up, and his lips twitched like he wanted to laugh. Sokka appreciated that he held back. Now that Sokka knew his name and rank, it made even less sense why he’d do such a menial task, no matter what the general said. He didn’t ask, though. He wasn’t that interested. And besides, he had a bigger question which needed answering. The lieutenant told him some of the banal goings-on of the ship, and Sokka replied appropriately, until he felt the moment had come. 

“So…theoretically, if I really wanted to write some stuff down, would I be able to do that?” Sokka asked, drinking some of the tea General Iroh had sent down with the usual cooling mass of congee, “I mean, would you be able to get me paper and a brush?”

Jee looked pensive, “That's some request.” He thought it over some more, “I wish I could, kid. But the prince doesn’t even like me taking your meals down to you. Doesn’t want too many members of the crew mingling with the prisoner. He's a real hard-ass about rules on this ship." 

Sokka tried not to let his disappointment show, until he realized it might actually help his case. He sagged, and poked dejectedly at his food, “I get it. Just…it gets lonely in here, and I thought it would be nice to, I don’t know…write my thoughts down or something.”

Jee hummed and sat forward, resting his scarred forearms on his knees, “Just for your eyes? Not a secret letter or anything?”

Sokka’s face probably spasmed the way it usually did when he was lying through his teeth, but it wasn't really a lie, so he said, “Just for me.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

He must have talked to Prince Zuko as soon as he left Sokka’s cell, because Zuko came down not fifteen minutes later. Sokka was still licking clean the bowl (he was a growing boy, okay! And the paltry amounts of rice porridge he was being fed couldn’t possibly sustain him), but shoved it aside as soon as keys rattled in the outer door’s lock.

“So, the prisoner is already making demands.” Zuko said, walking closer. Sokka reminded himself that the last thing he wanted was a repeat of this morning, unless his smart mouth ran away with him again. Zuko certainly wasn’t making it any easier, though. “I didn’t know Water Tribe peasants could write.”

“Just shut up and give me the supplies." Sokka muttered, hoping Zuko couldn't hear him. 

“What did you say?” Zuko demanded. 

“I said, may I please have some paper, a brush, and ink.” He hated Zuko for this, he really did.

Zuko frowned at him, considering, "A bit presumptuous of you, isn't it?" Sokka didn't answer. Then he sighed like he was doing Sokka an unimaginably huge favor, which he kind of was, and said, “Fine. But just remember that I will read whatever you write and if I see something I don’t like, I'll burn it in front of your very eyes.”

“But that—“ He was going to say it defeated the entire purpose of writing, which was to have some space where he put his thoughts that wasn't all jumbled up inside his own head, to imagine what he might say if he had someone to talk to, if he had his friend.  A purpose which was by nature private. But Zuko raised his lone eyebrow, which communicated don’t fuck with me very clearly. Sokka coughed, “That…sounds fair.”

What was a little bit (a lot) of humiliation, anyway? This whole situation was humiliating beyond belief. And the worst part was that Sokka still hadn’t figured out a way to get out. But then again, he hadn’t actually put very much thought into it. Which was strange. But he'd worry about it later. 

Neither Prince Zuko nor Lieutenant Jee brought down the paper and calligraphy set, not that he expected them to. Instead, it was the first member of Zuko’s crew Sokka’d encountered—the one who tried to get him to wear Fire Nation clothing. It was like Zuko wanted to punish Sokka for taking a perfectly reasonable request by sending down the one person on the ship who seemed to hate Sokka more than Zuko himself did.

“Remember,” the man said right before he left, “This is a privilege. It can be taken away at any moment. Don’t get cocky, just because the prince has decided to humor you this once.” He said the title with more than a little irony, and Sokka marked another person who didn’t like Zuko off his mental checklist. Then again, maybe the guy just didn’t like anyone.

“Yeah, yeah, I got it.” Sokka said, and waited for the door to lock before unfurling the paper on the floor. Smooth like eggshells to the touch and a little stiff, but otherwise perfectly ordinary. No better than what he’d bought at that Earth Kingdom market a lifetime ago. He didn’t know why that surprised him. It shouldn’t have.

 

 

I know you’ll never get this and it isn’t my turn to write anyway, you still haven’t written back to me (and I’m afraid that if you do, Hawky will get intercepted), but things kind of took a turn for the worse lately and I thought you might want to know what was going on. I know it’s stupid and pointless but just pretend. Spirits, I don’t know why I’m so defensive, it’s not like you’ll ever actually say that to me. Well, you would if you got this. I wish you wouldn’t. Make fun of me, I mean. I already know I can be too much to handle, I know I’m invasive and demanding and…Okay, moving on. A few days ago, there was a terrible storm. More of a typhoon really. Did you get it where you are, too? Anyway, I got captured by Prince Jerkbender of the Fire Nation, three guesses who that is. It could be worse, I guess. Some lightening damaged the engines (and the kitchen—I still don’t think the cook’s recovered, he keeps making me the blandest food ever. I’m so confused, I thought Fire Nation food was supposed to be spicy?) and you-know-who hurt his arm somehow, I think. Not sure on that one. Doesn’t matter. For the most part, I’m treated pretty well—for a prisoner. There’s a guard who doesn’t like me much, and a guard who does. It works out. But otherwise I’m alone for most of the day and that’s when things get bad…I can’t stop thinking about the spirit world. I thought I was over it, I was sure I was over it, but it keeps coming back. I thought that was the worst things could get, but I forgot how walls close in on you until you can’t breathe anymore and you think you’re gonna die, trapped in a little iron room in the middle of the sea, suffocated by loneliness and fear. I know this all sounds pretty overdramatic here, but I’m being serious. I wish you would take me seriously. No one ever does. You know, it’s so much easier to write to you when I don’t have to worry about what you would say in response. I wonder if it’s like that for you too. No, probably not. You only write when you’ve run out of anything else to do. Well, I’ve run out of things to do too. I don’t even know what time of day it is, without a window. Funny how everything that seems solid and good can disappear in an instant. I’m not even a waterbender but I miss the moon something fierce. There’s nothing to do but think in here. That’s probably why it reminds me of the spirit world. It’s so easy to lose hope.  Let’s pretend you’re curious how this all happened. I was going out on a fishing boat to make a little money so we could eat. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. I knew the storm was coming but it just didn’t seem important at the time. I regret my decision now. I’m never usually that careless, but I was hungry, and my sister and our friend were hungry, and I just didn’t see any other way to solve the problem. Trapped in here, though, I’m even more useless than before. You know how much I hate that. I’m just glad they let me write. Not to you—they don’t know about you (unless Hawky has tried to find me…)—but they probably wouldn’t care then either.  It's not like this will ever get sent, and the chances of you coming to rescue me are basically zero. No offence. I guess I could have tried to write to my sister, but that letter never would have made it off this ship even if I'd tried. But to be honest—and I can be honest here, can’t I? I need to keep reminding myself that. To be honest, you’re the only person I even want to talk to right now. Of course I want to see my sister but she doesn’t really know what to say. We used up all our words when our mother died. She needs me to be easy to understand, so I make sure I’m easy to understand. Is it sad that you probably know more about me than she does right now? And you don’t even know my name. I think. I hope.  My sister and our friend will come for me. I know they will. I just wish they’d hurry up about it. Until then, I have you.  Who are you, anyway? Well, nevermind. I already told you it wouldn't matter to me, and I meant that.  I bet this is how you feel when you’re staring down the night, waiting for it to pass. All those empty hours. Makes your brain go kind of funny. I seriously have no idea what time it is. I got fed a little while ago, and then the prince came in to insult me, so maybe it’s afternoon or evening? He looked tired, but I kind of think he always looks tired. Forgot he’s gonna read this oops I’m lucky to have ended up here, really. The storm might have killed me if I’d been out in it even a minute or two longer. I’d be more grateful if I weren’t a prisoner. At least I get food and blankets and a bed, even though I’ve been cold for two days straight. My sister would slap me if she knew I’d worn wet clothing and got sick because of it. Then she’d make some of mom’s healing soup, and apologize for slapping me, and tell me stories about home and our lives before, until we’re both laughing and crying (a little, and only her). Not that I’m sick. Just…maybe I’m getting sick? Possibly? I've been cold all day and...whatever. Either I get sick or I don’t. There’s nothing I can do about it, so I’m not (very) worried. I hope you’re not worried, either. Although I don’t know why you would be since you don’t know what’s happened. Okay, actually, I hope you do worry about me. Even just a bit. Spirits, I’m pathetic. At least you’ll never see this. This whole letter is just a waste of paper, I don’t feel any better. Well, not a lot better. But it was stupid to think this would be enough. I wish you were here. I wish I knew what your voice sounded like. I wish I knew what you looked like. Letters just aren’t enough. I really really hope I’m not the only one who thinks that.

Sokka folded the paper when he was done writing and tucked it under his lead-heavy pillow. No chance it wouldn't be found there if Zuko decided to conduct a thorough search, but it was the best he could do. Outside his windowless cell, evening faded into night as the faint light of the stars scattered across the sky grew brighter. Sokka lay down in bed again, fully dressed and curled up to preserve whatever warmth he could, coughed through the thickness in his throat, which took a few minutes, and fell into an exhausted sleep. 

Chapter Text

Sokka woke coughing from a blurry half-sleep the next morning. His throat hurt. He must have been coughing for a while. It was early, probably, or very late, since there was no sign of movement outside his cell. Or maybe he just couldn’t hear anything over the pounding in his head. During the night his lungs had filled with phlegm, viscous and heavy, which rattled around whenever he tried to take a breath. His sheets were damp with sweat but he was ice-cold, tense and shivering beneath the thin blanket. He didn’t need to open his eyes to know that today was a day he wouldn’t mind missing if he had the choice. He could probably get away with sleeping through it, unless Zuko came by to interrogate him some more. And wasn’t that something to look forward to.

Unfortunately, now that Sokka was awake, he tossed and turned, trying—and failing—to get comfortable. He hated the way the sheets clung to his skin, hated how the lumpy mattress made his body hurt, although that was probably the fever’s fault. He did have a fever, didn’t he? If only Katara was here…she’d know. This was the longest they’d ever been apart, including all those overnight fishing trips he’d taken with his dad and Bato back in the good old days. He wondered how she was doing, whether she and Aang had made it out of the storm alright, if she was sick too, if she was looking for him. Or maybe they were just glad to have Sokka out of the way for a while. It would explain why they hadn’t come rescue him yet and why they’d abandoned him to Zuko in the first place. He curled deeper into his bed, suddenly feeling very sorry for himself.

If he’d known these would be the consequences of leaving the South Pole he wouldn’t have been in such a hurry. Not that any of this was his idea in the first place. It was funny, though, how he’d longed to fight the enemy when he was still living at home, but now that he’d had his fill, if he never saw another firebender again, he’d live the rest of his days without a single regret.

“After Aang defeats the Fire Lord.” Sokka reassured himself out loud in a hoarse voice, “Then I can go back to the South Pole and pretend this was all just a dream. A really bad dream.” He tried not to think about the improbability of a twelve-year-old battling the greatest firebender in the world and winning. He tried not to think about what would have to be sacrificed to make that happen. Lives and cities and every last shred of childhood. Instead, he drifted off into the blue-ice world of home. All the men would be back from their long war and they’d help him rebuild the city wall until it rose, tall and proud, above the gleaming igluit and tents of their village. And maybe one day the village would once again be the biggest city in the South Pole, like it was in Gran Gran’s stories. That was why he fought. Not because of anger or revenge, not like Jet, but out of hope for the future. Because if he didn’t fight the Fire Nation, if he didn’t fight Zuko, there would be no future. No hope.

It was too early for these kinds of thoughts, and Sokka was feeling too sick. He coughed into his pillow until he tasted salty phlegm on his tongue and gagged, spitting it out onto the floor by his bed. Maybe Zuko’d slip on it, and then at least he could have a good laugh out of this whole nightmare. A key twisted in the lock of his cell door and there was General Iroh instead, stepping inside with his omnipresent tea-tray. Sokka sat up quickly, head swimming. The general’s usual cheer seemed a little forced, and he frowned absently as he poured the tea and asked how Sokka had slept, like he really was just a harmless old man.

“Slept fine.” Sokka said shortly, and took a labored breath.

“Mmm.” The general glanced up at him, and handed a too-hot-to-touch cup of tea through the bars. The tips of Sokka’s fingers felt like they were burning off and he just barely avoided dropping the cup onto the floor. Boiling water sloshed over the side anyway. He laughed nervously, but the general politely didn’t notice, “I thought we might go up on deck today for breakfast after we’ve finished our tea, but you’re really not looking very well. How are you feeling?”

Sokka tried to answer but the sound got strangled in his throat. Don’t cough don’t cough don’t—damn it.

“I’ve been better.” He managed, which was such an understatement it was almost insulting to the general’s intelligence. He took another sip of scalding tea and felt it burn fissures through his icy core all the way down to his stomach, where it spread out in weak tendrils before eventually getting swallowed up by the shaking chill again, “And outside is, uh. Cold.”

“That’s very true,” The general thought for a moment before exclaiming, “But the boiler room isn’t! I’m sure Cheng won’t mind if I take you down there to warm up for a while. At least, not if I bribe him with an extra portion of Cook’s famous beef noodles…”

“I’m okay here.” Sokka protested, pretty weakly. Sitting next to a massive furnace of red-hot coal was pretty much the last thing he wanted to. It was bad enough being surrounded by firebenders on this ship. Although some of that warmth would be nice… and this way he could check out the inner workings of the ship himself. Good plan, Water Tribe. Escape always on the mind. But even he could see that he wouldn’t be much good at escaping right now.

“Nonsense, you’re shivering. Come on.” The general unlocked the barred door and herded Sokka out of the cell. Now that Sokka was standing up, it made perfect sense why he’d been so dizzy and weak the day before. He was awake but it felt like he was sleep-walking, caught somewhere between dream and reality, trying (and failing) to navigate distantly-familiar things like floor, wall, door. Feet. The general caught him by the arm before he could tumble down an unexpected flight of stairs.

“Yes, good, no—turn here.” It was warmer in the belly of the ship already. The door to the boiler room opened and Sokka was met with a blast of dry, dusty heat. A short man with slightly lopsided shoulders grunted in greeting, before turning back to watch over the three men—smeared black and sweating—shoveling coal into three rectangular slots red with leaping flames.  From where Sokka stood, they looked less like the maws of some angry fire spirit than he'd expected, and more like three hungry little polar bear dog cub's mouths, begging for scraps at the Thunder Moon Festival. He laughed and tried to describe it to General Iroh, but the general was already talking to the boiler-man loudly enough to be heard over the furnaces, “Our guest is feeling a bit cold, I hope you don’t mind if he joins you. Is there somewhere he could sit?”

“Sure.” Cheng the boiler-man shrugged and pointed to a bench against the wall closest to the door, facing a small table where a number of used tea cups were clustered around a sooty log book. Sokka walked over to the bench at the gentle suggestion of General Iroh’s hand on his shoulder, sat when the hand told him to sit, and exhaled as the cold began to leave his body in one long shiver. He took back every bad thing he’d ever said about fire. This felt so good. 

“Now you stay here,” General Iroh told him seriously, “And I’ll be right back with breakfast. There’s chicken congee with fried dough today, I believe.”

“Oooh, I love fried dough!” Sokka said automatically. He wasn't sure if he was hungry yet, needed to gauge how he was feeling. His mouth tasted sour, throat sore. But fried dough was a temptation even stronger men than Sokka couldn't resist. 

“Good.” The general chuckled, and turned to the door, “Cheng, keep an eye on him, would you?”

Cheng muttered inaudibly, but shifted around so that Sokka was in his direct line of sight. He waited until General Iroh was well out of earshot before asking, “So, what’d you do to get the prince so angry at you?”

“You mean recently or in general?” Sokka asked, and the men laughed.

“What’d you do to get stuck on this ship, is what I mean.” Cheng replied.

“I, uh. Nothing, actually. I mean, he’s been chasing me and my friends around for a while, but that’s not why. I think he was trying to save my life.”

Cheng looked skeptical, but when he said, “You were out in the storm,” it wasn’t a question.

“Yeah. I bet you guys were nice and safe down here though, right?” Sokka asked.

The four men exchanged glances, “Boiler of a ship’s not exactly the place you want to be in any kinda incident.” Cheng explained, “If it goes down, all the officers on deck get saved. We, on the other hand, drown like rats. I thought you’d know that, being Water Tribe and all.”

“We don’t have ships like this at the South Pole,” Sokka said, and tried not to think of it as a betrayal, “Much smaller, powered by the wind. How do the boilers work? You put the coal in, and then…” He waved his hand vaguely in the direction of the huge circular drums holding the bright furnace mouths.

Cheng perked up a little. He wisely chose not to bring Sokka over to inspect the boilers, since there would undoubtedly have been an accident involving sudden dizziness, a lot of fire, and screaming, but explained in great detail how the combustion chamber heated up the water in the drum, producing steam, and so on. Sokka only wished he didn’t feel quite so terrible. This was all very interesting and might even come in handy at some point in the near future. If he just thought a little harder about it, he could probably figure out a way to escape right now. The general was gone and it didn’t look like any of the boiler-men were firebenders…hadn’t he figured out something with coal and a Fire Nation ship not too long ago? Except Aang was there, and earthbenders, and it really wasn’t the same situation at all. At some point during Cheng’s long-winded explanation and his own muddled thoughts of escape, he dozed off despite himself. 

The nap didn’t last long. He jerked awake, suddenly drenched in sweat and disoriented. His mind felt like it had been melted down and pulled apart, cooling in strings like tar. He tried to lift his head up from the wall but there was a crick in his neck. What could possibly be taking the general so long? Was this supposed to be some kind of punishment? He was warm now—hot, even. Uncomfortably so. And more than ready to go back. Anything to lie down, press his skin against the cool metal of the walls (not the walls downstairs, no, here it was boiling and so fire, he still didn’t understand why that wasn’t bothering him as much as it usually would have) and drink at least one bucket of water, maybe two. But the general didn’t come.

And Sokka was glad he didn’t, because as soon as he stopped assessing his state of health, he recognized the rise and fall of voices by the furnaces as the unmistakable sound of people gossiping. Sokka’s ears literally pricked like a dog’s. He kept his eyes half-closed so anyone who glanced back at him would think he was still asleep, but listened as closely as he could.

“I still can’t believe his father would do something like that.” One of the men set his shovel down to wipe a smear of coal-dust across his forehead, “It’s cruel. Branding’s only for animals and prisoners, and even then, not on the face.”

“With a hardened criminal, I’d say go right ahead.” Another man said, and heaving a particularly large load of coal into the furnace with a grunt, “Branding’s the least of what they deserve. But he was so young. He still is, I guess. It’s easy to forget, the way he carries on. At least he was of legal age to fight an Agni Kai.”

“Yeah, barely.” The third man scoffed, “It’s just a wild goose chase, that’s all it is. Ozai’s trying to clean up the line of succession. We all know the kid’s never gonna make it home. How many times has the Avatar slipped through his—“

“Don’t say that word in here.” Cheng said sharply, “You know he always shows up a minute later, demanding to know what you were talking about.”

“Sorry, sir.” There was a moment of (relative) silence in the room in honor of Zuko’s uncanny skill. 

Then Cheng spoke again, “Anyway, I don’t understand why you’re all suddenly going easy on him now. The general should never have said anything. You’d think he was trying to make us forget how Prince Zuko’s been running us into the ground for the past three years.”

There was a murmur of disagreement, “Maybe, but since we found out what happened, it’s hard not to feel at least a little sorry for—“

“Of course I feel bad for the kid.” Cheng continued, “He’s a spoiled brat, and even though I’m not against giving ‘em a hiding when they deserve it, I agree his punishment was a step too far. But one tragic childhood story doesn’t take away all the times he’s made our jobs impossible or our lives miserable. I mean, hey, I wish my wife wasn’t dead and I got to see my kids again. After all, we’ve been away from home just as long as he has, but none of that gives me permission to act like a total pain in the ass.”

“Yeah, well, you’re not the son of Agni-on-earth.” At that, the men laughed.

“I still don’t think it excuses him—“ Cheng grumbled, but shut up as soon as the boiler room door opened. There was General Iroh, bearing a tray piled high with bowls and cups. The other boiler-men looked overwhelmingly relieved, and Sokka wondered distantly if Cheng had been about to say something treasonous.

“My apologies that took so long,” The general said to Sokka, setting the tray down carefully on the table, “Here’s your porridge.’ He smiled warmly and handed over a hot bowl of mush, which had congealed into the most unappetizing substance imaginable. At least he still wasn’t very hungry. Which was weird. Yeah, he was definitely sick. The general turned to the rest of the men, “I had Cook whip up some noodles just for you. You can take a break whenever you’re ready.” Two of the men dropped their shovels, leaving a third and Cheng to pick up the slack, while they crowded around the table and ate with a voracity even Sokka couldn’t match on his best days. As soon as they were finished, the other two replaced them.

Sokka picked at the food in his bowl. There wasn’t enough fried dough to make it worthwhile, and the few chunks he did find were soggy. He knew he should eat, had to keep up his strength for that hypothetical escape he wasn’t really planning, but instead he just laid the bowl in his lap and continued sweating out the majority of his bodily fluids.

“Have any of you seen my nephew?” General Iroh asked, and the boiler men exchanged guilty looks before saying as one, “No.”

“That’s odd. He’s usually training on deck by now, but no one’s seen him. Not even Lieutenant Jee.” The general stroked his beard pensively then shrugged, “I suppose he’ll reappear when he’s ready to talk.” He turned to Sokka, “Feeling any warmer?”

“Oh yeah.” Sokka said, “It’s like a furnace in here.” He paused, considering, “I mean, it actually is a furnace. Is this where you usually take sick people? Because you should probably invest in a couch or something.”

“Hmm. Not a bad idea.” General Iroh said, and pressed his hand against Sokka’s forehead. Sokka flinched, firebender, but the general just pulled his hand away again, slowly, while making a fist. A small bit of the heat coursing through Sokka’s body went with it, tugged out like a fish from a stream, and left him feeling pleasantly cool for a few short seconds, “You’ve got a bad fever. We should get you back in bed so you can rest.”

No kidding, Sokka thought. “Good idea,” He said, slurped down a few spoonfuls of congee so he wouldn't feel guilty for wasting food, and let himself be hauled to his feet and guided along the hazy journey up stairs, down hallways, and into his cell—the four walls and unmade bed disorienting and familiar at the same time. He curled up on top of the wrinkled blankets and waited for the general to leave before reaching blindly beneath his pillow for the letter. He felt weird and vulnerable having his thoughts outside his body like that and he wanted to see if they were still there, still safe. He wanted to feel the paper and pretend that it was a reply, his friend’s (imagined) voice, biting and kind in turn, telling him something to get his mind off things.

It scared him a little, how desperate he was for something to hold onto. How intensely he cared. Sure, with Aang it was kind of life or death sometimes, but that’s because it was also literally life or death—and without Sokka and Katara by his side, Aang would definitely have floundered by now and the whole world would be plunged into fire. This was different. This was like he’d inadvertently given some unknown person the ability to reach inside his chest and twist his heart around. And even that didn’t feel like enough but he didn’t know how to ask for more. Didn’t even know what that would be like, just hoped his friend felt the same.

Lost in thought, he’d stopped paying attention to what he was feeling beneath the pillow. No wonder he hadn't found the letter yet. He opened his eyes and sat up to begin to search in earnest. The two corners of the mattress, and the crack along the wall. Every wrinkle and fold of fabric. A quiet note of panic began to sound in his chest. It was gone. No, it couldn’t be. Yes, it could. The letter was gone.

Sokka exhaled the breath he’d been holding and collapsed headfirst onto the pillow. He was done for. He’d be dead from embarrassment within the hour if Prince Zuko didn’t get to him first. He blinked away sudden, stupid tears of frustration. He’d thought…he didn’t know what he’d thought. That Zuko might forget to check his cell. But Zuko never forgot anything. This was it, this had to be it. The low point. He pulled the blanket over his shoulders and closed his eyes. He knew it was tempting fate to think things couldn’t get much worse than this, that he couldn’t get any more pathetic, but he hoped, for once in his spirits’ forsaken life, that he was right.

He lost track of time for a while after that, vacillating between sleeping and waking, his dreams all loops he spent trying to explain something to Katara over and over again, defensive and insistent and never quite successful in making his point, never quite sure what his point actually was. But these were normal sick dreams, even if they did make him so tense that his mind interrupted the argument sequence to suggest that something very heavy and alive was sitting on his shoulders. He woke up in a panic, certain that he’d been crushed to death by Appa’s fantastic weight, but found instead that he was curled into himself, every muscle painfully tense, and a key was rattling in the lock. He opened his eyes. Someone—Lieutenant Jee—was coming in with a tray.

The cell filled with the beautiful aroma of food, powerful enough to reach through his clogged nose. Sokka took such a deep breath that he had to cough for a while, but he didn’t care that he was a mess, swaddled in blankets and hacking his lungs out, because there was food and the answering growl of his stomach. He sat up quickly, already beginning to salivate.

“The general said you might be hungry. You look like shit. How’re you feeling?” Lieutenant Jee asked, and let himself into the barred section of the cell to sit beside Sokka on a stool, handing over the bowl. Sokka grabbed it hungrily.

“Not so hot. You know, 'cause I’m not a firebender.” Sokka laughed at his own joke even though the lieutenant didn’t, and took a bite, “What’s in this?” He asked, mouth full, tongue burning with an unexpected burst of chili-oil. Some kind of meat, and noodles, and ah—it was so good.

“Shredded beef and scallions in Cook’s special hot sauce. Good, right? Cook’s operating on a limited budget as it is, and there’s no allowance made for feeding prisoners, but the prince insisted you get what we’re having. Not a bad kid, really. But he’s got a voice on him alright. You should have heard the yelling this morning…”

Sokka didn’t know what to do with another probably misconstrued example of Zuko’s so-called kindness, so he ignored it, “Yelling about what?”

“It’s not my business to say.” He leaned back against the metal wall and a thoughtful look passed over his gruff face, “But I suspect you might have caught word of it anyway. Guards have a bad habit of gossiping like they forget prisoners have ears.”

“You mean, the scar and the, what was it again? Some kind of dual?”

“Agni Kai.” Lieutenant Jee answered, “That’s the long and the short of it. Found out from the helmsman that his uncle’d blabbed about his private business, as he called it, and went ballistic. No matter that almost all of us like him a lot better now that we know.”

“I didn’t catch the whole thing. What happened exactly?”

The lieutenant glanced sharply at Sokka, then chuckled, “You’re pretty sneaky. I’d love to tell you, but I can’t. The prince would have my hide if he knew I’d gossiped about him. More than I already have.”

“S’that why he didn’t train today?” Sokka asked, unwilling to let it go.

“Probably. But if I know him at all, he’ll be back on deck by tomorrow morning, making a nuisance of himself like nothing happened.”

“Sounds like Zuko.”

Lieutenant Jee laughed, “He’s brave, though, I’ll give him that. I used to think it was arrogance, but it’s hard to be arrogant when you’ve got a daily reminder that—well, you’ve seen the scar.”

“Yeah.” Sokka set aside the empty bowl and licked his lips clean, “Hey, I was wondering. Is this kind of thing normal in the Fire Nation? You know, disowning your kids when they embarrass you and making them do impossible things to prove their worth or whatever?”

He paused, thinking, “Not really. I guess it happens sometimes in upper class families, where there’s a lot more at stake. Still, it’s not so bad. Most disgraced heirs get set up in a nice mansion somewhere in the colonies and live out their lives in peace. I’ve heard they’re usually pretty happy about it. Of course, Prince Zuko’s situation is different. He was banished with only the clothes on his back. No supplies, no food, not even any medicine—that burn took months to heal, you should’ve seen it. Apparently General Iroh found him trying to row a fishing boat—of all things—out to the Western Air Temple, alone, and said enough was enough. He’s the one who negotiated for the ship, the crew, the stipend, everything. He’s a good man.”

“What, for doing the bare minimum? In the Water Tribe—“

“Save it, kid. I know the Water Tribe doesn’t believe in banishing anyone besides the worst criminals, and frankly, I approve. But things are different here. I mean, with us. You may have noticed—or, well, probably not—that the royal family doesn’t exactly have a good history of taking care of their own.”

“So that’s why the Fire Lord won’t let him come back until he…you know.”

“You mean until he captures the Avatar?”

“No, no, don’t say that word,” Sokka hissed, “I don’t want him to come in.”

“Oh, please. Where’d you hear that? It’s just a silly superstition, there’s absolutely no way he—” The words died in his throat as soon as the cell door opened and Zuko appeared, looking almost as displeased to see Lieutenant Jee there as the lieutenant was to see him. Sokka stifled his laughter with a cough, which wasn’t difficult, except that once he started coughing it was hard to stop.

“What are you still doing here?” Zuko snapped, “No fraternizing with the prisoner.”

“Yes, Sir.” Lieutenant Jee jumped to his feet and made a swift exit, handing off the keys to Zuko who made sure to lock the door of Sokka’s cell after him so the ‘dangerous prisoner’ couldn’t escape. Sokka leaned back against the wall, and tried to swallow down the dread rising in his throat. Zuko was in a bad mood (big surprise) and that couldn’t mean anything good. But Zuko didn’t speak, just stood there in the middle of the room, keys dangling from his fingers, looking off to the side like he was conducting a very serious and very private argument with himself that Sokka just happened to be present for.

The longer the silence stretched, the more nervous Sokka got. And when he got nervous, he tended to babble, “Don’t you have something better to do? It’s not like I’ve got anything to tell you. Why can’t you just leave me alone?”

Zuko looked up at him, eyes narrowed, “This is my ship, and you’re my prisoner. I have every right.”

“Whatever.” Sokka would have rolled his eyes in response but they hurt in their sockets. Huh. Weird. Come to think of it, his neck hurt too, not to mention his head. Now that the distraction of food was gone, he realized he was feeling a lot worse than he had before. Maybe he was allergic to Zuko’s presence. He wouldn’t be surprised.

Zuko deliberately relaxed his posture in a failed attempt to seem less intimidating, but his voice was still tight, “It isn’t personal, you know. If you didn’t keep getting in the way, none of this would have to happen.”

“Thanks, I’ll definitely keep that in mind while I keep getting in your way until we’ve won this war. Whatever it takes to stop you from capturing Aang.” These were thoughts he’d had a hundred times before and as he said them, they sounded tired even to his ears. No, wait—he sounded tired.

“I don’t think you’d be much of an obstacle right now.” Zuko said, eyeing him critically, “You look terrible.” It felt like an unfair comment, because of course Sokka looked terrible, he was a prisoner. Still, Sokka knew it was true. Even his bones hurt beneath the skin. Sokka closed his sore eyes, hoping when he opened them, Zuko would be gone. No such luck.

“I’m fine.” Right on time, his breathing snagged in a cough. Seriously, what was with the people on this ship that they had to point out every little thing like oh, looks like the prisoner is dying of a cold, maybe we should criticize his appearance for a while instead of actually doing anything to help him. Not that he would let them do anything even if they offered. “Let’s just get this over with. Aren’t you going to interrogate me or something?”

He hoped to get Zuko angry enough that he’d storm away, but not quite so angry that he’d reduce Sokka to a little pile of ash. It didn’t work. Zuko narrowed his good eye, but when he spoke, his voice was oddly measured, “That’s not why I’m here.”

“Okay…” Sokka had more he wanted to say, a lot more, along the lines of haven’t you made my life miserable enough? Instead, he doubled over, coughing hard, until he felt that sick tug in his stomach and realized if he didn’t stop soon, he’d throw up. Through the bars and his own watering eyes, he saw that Zuko’s nasty expression had dissolved into thin air.

“So, you really are sick.” He said it slowly, like all of his thoughts had suddenly scattered and he was trying to pick them back up, “I’ll—I’ll send for the physician.”

“No way. He’ll probably just poison me.” Sokka gasped, but it was just token protest at this point, “Anyway, what do you care?” He swallowed heavily and tried to breathe, in and out, nothing to it, easiest thing in the world.

“I don’t!” Zuko protested, scowling, and the scarred tissue beneath his bad eye twitched. His fingers brushed up against one of his pockets and hesitated, before pulling out a folded piece of paper, “This is why I—” He broke off, “This…came for you.”

“What is it?” Sokka asked, although he already knew what it was, with its familiar red edges, didn’t even have to see the calligraphy to know. His friend, somehow…

“From—” Zuko’s voice came out a little scratchy, so he tried again, “From your friend.”

“You read it?” His stomach bottomed out. Zuko was going to burn it, wasn’t he? Just like he’d threatened. This was going to be some horrible, petty revenge for whatever Sokka’d written the night before. He hadn’t even written anything that bad, unless Zuko counted Sokka’s complaints about being imprisoned as personal insults.

“Only a little. I—I had to. It wasn’t exactly addressed to you or anything.” He said grudgingly, scattering Sokka’s assumptions in the wind, and held the letter out through the bars. Sokka snatched it before Zuko could reconsider and tucked it safely inside his shirt.

Thank you,” Sokka said and hated how much he meant it. He should be suspicious, this was definitely not normal Zuko behavior, but he was so grateful, despite himself, and Zuko looked so…Zuko was looking at the floor again. He shouldn’t be, Sokka thought, and tried to catch Zuko’s yellow gaze. He wanted—he didn’t know what he wanted. Something stupid, probably.

“How did—is Hawky here? Is he okay?” Sokka asked instead, “You guys didn’t hurt him, did you?”

“I have no idea who that is.”

“Oh. Okay.” Sokka thought for a moment, “He’s Fire Nation anyway… By the way, did someone take that let—that thing I wrote—out of my cell?” Zuko still wouldn’t look at him, but his hands curled into fists at his sides, “It’s okay, I don’t mind. I mean, I guess I did at first, but…can I have it back?”

“No personal effects allowed in the cells. That’s the rule.” When Zuko finally looked up, his face was full of directionless anger, “I knew this was a bad idea,” he muttered. Then, a little louder, “You can read the letter while you wait, and—and I’ll be right back with the physician.” He stomped out of the cell, leaving Sokka blinking in his wake. Oh well. Katara wouldn’t have wasted a second analyzing Zuko’s behavior so he shouldn’t either.

It’s been a while since your last letter. I would say I’ve been busy, but that’s not a good excuse. Even I can’t find something to fill every hour of the day with. The truth is I’ve been angry at you and every time I started to write this letter, it came out all wrong. This version isn’t going to be much better. I’ve got a lot on my mind.

I am was angry because you make things sound so easy when they aren’t. They can’t be. You say you want me to have the things that make life “normal.” You seem to think that I’d feel better if I had them. But you don’t understand, I don’t want them. The only thing that matters to me is captur going home again. After I was banished, everything just fell away. Now I can barely sleep and food tastes like ash. I spend all day training, losing myself in fire, pushing my strength to its limits until I’m so exhausted I can barely walk. I have no friends, no girlfriend, and no use for compassion. It wasn’t shown to me and I’m doing fine. I needed to be taught the hard way, otherwise I never would have learned. This is what my life should be like. This what I want. This is the only thing that will save me.

You’re so certain about what lies ahead. I guess I am too. I mean, I know what I have to do, and I know how to do it, but I wish it didn’t involve hurting people I care I care about. Agni, what am I even trying to say? Forget everything I’ve written, I begged for compassion the day I was banished. It was weak of me, I know that, but I still wanted it. I’d have given anything. My whole life is such a lie and I’m not fooling anyone. You know I’m doing terribly, you know how much I hate this and want it to end, and you care and it fucking kills me that I

Have you ever messed up so badly you can’t imagine anyone in their right mind would forgive you? I bet you haven’t. You’re a good son, a good brother, a good friend. I know you’re afraid of letting people down, but unlike me you haven’t. No matter what you might think, it’s obvious that you haven’t. You’re so—I hate you sometimes, you know that? I tell myself at least you’re not a bender, at least I have that one thing for myself, and it does make me feel better. Until I remember that if you ever met my sister, you’d see what true fire really looks like, and then you’d know. You’d know how much of a failure I am, and you’d never want to

I think about you all the time and it’s driving me crazy. No matter how hard I try to concentrate and clear my mind, you’re there. When I’m training, when I’m meditating, when I’m traveling, or talking to the crew staff. When Uncle tries to lecture me about his stupid Pai Sho game, or when I’m lying awake at night, or when I’m [heavily crossed out]. I worry when you don’t write back. It’s pathetic and inconvenient and too much, way too much. But don’t ever think you’re too much for me or anyone else to handle because I’m the same or actually worse, I’m so much worse, I’m a fucking mess, falling apart throughout the day just to put myself back together in the morning with the sunrise. You were right, in the beginning. We are similar, in ways I could never have predicted.

This is the first letter I’ve written to you while it’s still light out. I do usually write to you at the end of the day but that’s not because you’re less important than but that’s because it’s lonely at night. There’s nothing to do and no one around besides the night watch, and they hate it when I come up to bother them. I’m usually too tired to concentrate on studying or planning so my mind starts to wander to places I don’t want it to go. The more I think, the worse I feel, until sleep is impossible. That’s when I usually write to you. So long as I’m putting my thoughts to paper maybe they won’t get so tangled up, maybe I won’t get as overwhelmed. I’m never quite sure if you’re a dream or if you’re real, which makes everything easier. Even when I don’t have a letter to write, I still think of you, wondering if in another world, we’d be able to talk face-to-face. What your voice would sound like. I wonder whether, if you knew my name and you had a choice, you would still chose me. I think about that one a lot. I guess I just wish you were here with me for real.

I can’t afford this kind of distraction, I don’t have time for it. I have to this is so stupid. I’d stop if I could. All of it. I’m betraying my people, my father, and myself for the sake of a friendship that shouldn’t have started in the first place, but I couldn’t stop writing back if I tried. And I hate you a little bit for that too.

No. I didn’t mean that. I don’t hate you. It’s just…I don’t know how to be anyone’s friend, okay? But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to, that I’m not trying. No one’s ever wanted to get to know me as much as you have and it’s hard to wrap my head around. You have to understand that I’m not usually very well-liked, so it comes as a surprise that you seem to like me. If you don’t, if I misunderstood, tell me. I’d understand if you didn’t feel the if this disaster of a letter isn’t something you want to read. Just tell me so I don’t end up humiliating myself even more.

Agni, this letter isn’t what I hoped it would be. I thought I don’t know. I thought I could try to be optimistic for once. Tell you that things will be alright. That you’re strong, and brave, and you’ll make it through no matter what happens. That your friend and your sister are probably very grateful for all the things you do to protect them. I know things aren’t easy for you either, but all I seem to be able to do is complain. I don’t deserve you deserve better.

I’ll save the story of Prince Zuko’s banishment for another letter, although I’m surprised you don’t already know it. In the meantime, take care of yourself and write me back soon, even if just to say you never want to write again.

Sokka doubled over in a coughing fit as soon as his concentration broke, but he made sure to shield the letter from any flying phlegm. He felt disgusting. He was disgusting. But it wasn’t enough to distract him from the hammering of his heart in his chest, breath constricted with more than coughing, hands faltering on the paper. Something important had just happened. Something huge. He wanted to go back through and look for every word, every broken-off phrase, every rambling sentence that could tell him what exactly it was that he’d just read.

How was he supposed to respond to the knowledge that his friend hated him and didn’t at the same time? That he’d somehow caused this. That he was the reason for doubt, for guilt, for humiliation. For hope. That his friend—that his friend was as tied up in knots as Sokka was, that his great, desperate, grasping need was the same, was matched.

The letter satisfied just enough to leave him hungrier but unable to say for what, some nameless thing right within his reach but just out of sight. Sokka felt sick with embarrassment and guilt and excitement and anticipation and also, well, just sick. Feverish and sweaty and shivering, although maybe not just from the flu. He couldn’t let Zuko see him like this—oh Spirits, he couldn’t believe Zuko had read it…How long would he have had to read to know it was addressed to Sokka? He quickly scanned the writing. To the fourth paragraph, at least. And now Zuko was going to come back with the physician in tow and look at him knowing this, the most intensely personal thing in Sokka’s entire life. Zuko’s mockery and easy cruelty would cut him to the bone now that he had fewer defenses than usual. Sokka hated being sick. He hated being on this ship, and he hated Zuko most of allfor being just unpredictable enough to throw all of Sokka’s expectations out the window.

He read through the letter one last time, although he couldn’t quite concentrate, already worrying about Zuko’s impending reappearance, and decided to hide it somewhere slightly more secure than under his pillow. He decided on the crack between the mattress and the bed-stand, where it fit if he folded it several times over, and Zuko was less likely to look.

The physician, General Iroh, and Zuko reappeared a while later, although his pulse still leaped when he heard them at the door and he got to his feet woozily, prepared for any situation, but especially one which involved running very far away. He was safe, he was safe. He needed to remember that. Although how safe was he really, at the hands of a Fire Nation physician? More likely to kill him than cure him. The medicine he was given did little to allay his fears, making him even loopier as it eased his headache and the pressure in his lungs. After drinking three absolutely disgusting herbal decoctions, and one even more disgusting cup of General Iroh’s special tea, whatever that was, Sokka allowed the physician to coax him back onto the bed, head lolling on the pillow, absorbed in a world he couldn’t quite see and certainly wasn’t having any success in communicating.

Zuko was unusually quiet as he watched in the corner. He was probably planning an attack, this was exactly the kind of calculating silence that had preceded that incident with the glowing bars and temper tantrum the first day Sokka’d gotten captured.

“C’mon, aren’t you gonna fight me?” Sokka called out, pulling his arms into an approximation of a battle stance, except he didn’t have his boomerang, too bad, “How ‘bout one of those fire duels? Ag Nico. No, that’s not it. Agni Kan? Whatever. I can take you, I’m the best warrior in the South Pole.”

“Sure you are.” Zuko replied automatically. Humoring him. Sokka was sick of being talked down to like he was a child.

“I may not have magic fire powers but I can still—” He choked on his words as the physician poured another foul liquid down his throat, “Ugh. I can still kick your ass!”

There was a rumbling chuckle from General Iroh’s direction, who was entirely too happy with his pot of wretched tea, and Zuko’s face tightened until it looked like a mask of skin over sharp bones. He barked out to his uncle, “Post two guards—not Chen—inside the cell as soon as you leave and tell them to give an alert if his condition worsens or changes in any way.” And left the cell. With him went a lot of the heat in the room, which was too bad, because Sokka was freezing.

Sokka woke blearily in the night with the persistent need to piss. How long had he been out? The last thing he remembered was challenging Zuko to a fight. An Agni Kai? Maybe. He wouldn’t put it past himself. His legs felt like lead, his eyes like sand, but unless one of the guards was willing to bring the bucket to him on the bed, he had no choice but to—oh. No choice but to get up and piss in front of Prince Zuko, who had apparently replaced the guards while he was out, and was currently reading a scroll by the flickering lamplight, dressed in a wrinkled rust-red robe, his hair out of its ponytail and twisting, long and black, over his shoulder.

At the sound of Sokka’s clumsy attempt to climb out of bed, he looked up, blank-faced.

“What are you doing?” He asked.

“What does it look like?” Sokka said and turned his back, pulling out his cock and trying hard to pretend he was alone, so alone, no one near him for miles—certainly not Crown Prince—ugh. It wasn’t working, “Could you make yourself scarce for a moment?” Sokka asked, eyes squeezed shut like that would somehow make him feel less embarrassed…

“Not on your life.”

Fine. Sokka took a deep breath and tried to relax. It took a painfully long time, and when he finished, he noticed that Zuko had set aside the scroll and was looking if not amused, then at least a little less severe.

“How are you feeling?” Zuko asked, and Sokka really hoped that wasn’t a jab of some sort.

“Like someone took a battering ram to my brain. But otherwise, fantastic.” He lay back down in bed, but wasn’t feeling quite as tired as he should be, so he propped himself on his elbows and asked, “What are you doing up this late? Or is insomnia some kind of Fire Nation thing?”

“Huh? No.” Zuko frowned absently, “It’s actually quite uncommon." 

“Oh, so you were just planning new and increasingly creative ways to make my life hell.”

The corner of Zuko’s mouth hitched upwards, almost a smile, “Something like that.” He picked up the scroll again, “I’m reviewing the day’s route. Since you haven’t given me a shred of useful information about the Avatar’s whereabouts, I figured it was time to take matters into my own hands.”

“I told you, I have no idea where Aang is—“ Sokka protested.

“I know.” Zuko sounded a lot calmer than he usually did when talking about the Avatar, and Sokka wondered if General Iroh hadn’t given him some of that special tea too… “Just go back to sleep.”

“I’m not tired anymore.”

“That’s not my problem.” But amazingly, he lifted his eyes from the scroll and looked into Sokka’s cell, searching him out in the gloom, “I can call the physician to give you something for your headache. If you want.”

“I—um. Yeah. That would be…that would be great.” Sokka stuttered, surprised. Zuko didn’t leave the room, but pressed some kind of button on the wall by the door and spoke into a box beside it. Within minutes, the physician appeared, still rubbing sleep out of his eyes. He gave Sokka a draught of the same foul herbs but almost immediately the waves of pain began receding and Sokka was grateful for whatever weird Fire Nation medicine he’d been fed this time. He rolled onto his side to watch Zuko covertly through a haze of blankets, unwilling to fall asleep while Zuko was there (never fall asleep in front of the enemy was practically the first rule of warrior training) and a bit surprised that he hadn’t left yet. It had to be the early hours of the morning, but he was still there, silent besides the whisper of his breath and the rustle of paper.

If Sokka was going to be completely honest, it was kind of nice, actually. To have him there. To have anyone there. A reassuring presence, like the little candles flickering at his side. Zuko looked different in their light. Softer, more diffuse. All his harsh angles smoothed out besides his scar, picked out by shadows in deep and excruciating detail. He was frowning, but he looked more serious than angry, an exasperated sigh escaping his throat as he traced a path with his fingers across the paper.

“You know, I’m usually the navigator when I’m travelling with—” Sokka’s voice rang out loudly in the silence. He didn’t know why he said it, wished he could take it back as soon as he did, but at least he didn’t mention anyone’s names and ruin the moment, “I could help, if you want. If you’re having trouble with the map.”

“I don’t need any help!” Zuko tensed so quickly that he crumpled the edge of the scroll. But he didn’t follow it up with any scathing remarks about the state of Water Tribe navigational technology, so he obviously didn’t mean it.

“Okay, okay. Sorry I asked.” Sokka rolled onto his back, “Where are we, anyway?” There was a long pause.

“I…don’t know.” Zuko said, and his voice was soft and hoarse again, the shadows of his face no longer fierce, “Somewhere around here.” He lay the scroll on the floor and drew a vague circle with his finger around what was probably water near a jagged coast.

“Bring it over here, let me—I, uh, can’t see it very well.” Sokka amended, and secretly congratulated himself on his diplomatic skills. If only Katara could see him now. Actually, if Katara could see him now, she’d chew him out for aiding the enemy. Which was, technically, what he was doing. But everything felt different in the space between dusk and dawn, like all his usual anxieties and concerns had been stripped away, or didn’t matter, or something. Zuko hesitated before getting up and walking over to the bars of Sokka’s enclosure to kneel down and unfurl the scroll out on the floor. Sokka slid off the bed, still draped in blankets, and curled up against the bars so he could see the map and smell the fresh, wet scent of Zuko’s newly-washed hair. It was strange to think of him doing such a human thing and then, or so Sokka guessed, putting on his robe and padding down to the (gross, unwashed, sleeping, sick) prisoner’s cell to pour over that day’s route and try to memorize the next day’s itinerary. Strange to think of him as human at all, really. But he was.

Sokka shook the thoughts out of his head and focused on the chart. It was confusing, he’d give Zuko that. The water was one big blank expanse, sparsely dotted with labels such as shoals and sandbar. He stared at it for a while longer and thought.

“Have you sighted land at all recently?” He asked.

“Yes. Today.”

“Okay, well…what did it look like?”

Zuko shrugged, “Rocks. Little beach. Some trees, evergreens I think. It was hard to see at that distance.” He finished defensively.

Sokka bit back a laugh. This really wasn’t Zuko’s strong suit, “Was there a cove? Was it big enough to fit a ship?”

“Not really.”

Sokka turned back to the map. Little beach, rocks…There were at least fifteen different places drawn on the coastline which fit Zuko’s description. This was useless. But he kept asking questions, pulling the short answers out of Zuko (who was definitely neither a poet nor a skilled navigator) until he could say with relative confidence that they were seventy leagues away from the nearest port, Nang Hue, and would be passing by a particularly smooth stretch of coast the next day.

“You know, you could always just draw in the progress made each day so you don’t forget where you are on the map.” Sokka suggested, and wished he could swallow his tongue as soon as he did. The look on Zuko’s face was unsurprising, but still a little scary.

“Lieutenant Jee doesn’t need to, so why should I?” He snapped.

“Well, it kinda seems like Lieutenant Jee has more experience on ships than you do, so that might explain it. No offence.” He mentally slapped his palm against his forehead. What was it about being sick, or maybe just being around Zuko, that made him say the stupidest things?

“That doesn’t matter!” Zuko shoved the map aside like it had personally insulted him, “I’m the commander of this ship, I’m the one who should know how to do everything.” But even in his angry tone, there was something left open, a small window, a question.

“Sure, with some practice. I mean, hey, I grew up by the water and on boats. It’s what I’ve been doing since I was a kid. But Aang, for instance, he can’t even figure out which way to hold the map, much less…” He trailed off. It was wrong to talk about his friends to Zuko. It was wrong to talk to Zuko at all. The only acceptable thing to be doing in this situation was plotting, and executing, an escape attempt. But Sokka was so tired—so tired of the war, and the constant running, and the fear, all of it—that he just couldn’t bring himself to care. If this came back to bite him in the ass at some point, he’d deal with it then.

“You don’t understand, I’ve had practice. Three years of it.”

Three years. That was how long his friend had been—no, Sokka. Don’t go there.

“That’s how long I’ve been on this spirits-forsaken ship and I can’t—I can’t stand it anymore.” Zuko jumped up and started pacing, apparently too agitated to sit still, kicking up fire from his heels as he went, “I mean nothing out here, I have nothing, barely even my name. You don’t know what that feels like, how much it makes me want to—” He cut himself off, “I thought being banished would teach me how to be better at everything a ruler should know how to do, but instead I’m still as mediocre as ever. So I have to learn how to read the maps just like Lieutenant Jee does, don’t you see?”

Sokka didn’t know what to say, how to respond to a situation so completely over his head. Zuko was—he was angry, yes, and frustrated, all of the usual emotions which coursed through him and poured out into the air, his shouts rising as he trained or argued with his uncle and the crew. But he was something else, too. Good eye forced open wide in contrast with the narrow, scarred slit on the other half of his face, the question even louder in his voice. Don’t you see? Sokka leaned his head against the bars, exhausted but thinking fast. Does he want me to see? Or could it be anyone? Does it matter?

He wasn’t going to answer, or he was just going to say something thoughtless and awkward, because Zuko’s self-esteem problems weren’t his problems, he hadn’t signed up for this when he became a prisoner—in fact he hadn’t signed up for anything. Then he remembered his friend, whose father believed he was defective because he wasn’t good enough at firebending, who still thought that someone, a friend, across the world would think less of him for it. He remembered his own sour, secret thoughts, why couldn’t the spirits have given me bending so I could truly protect my people? Why am I so weak? Why is everything so hard?

“You’re a lot of things, Prince Zuko,” Sokka said carefully, “But not mediocre.”

Now would be the time for someone normal to muster up a thank you. Instead, to Sokka’s horror, Zuko’s scowl crumbled for exactly one second before he hoisted it up again and snatched the map from the floor. He stood there, paralyzed, halfway to the door like he was about to make a run for it but hadn’t quite gotten his muscles to obey his mind. Or maybe it was the other way around. His wet hair had left crisscrossed tracks of damp on the silk of his rust-red robe, such a small thing but it made Sokka’s chest ache deep inside like an impending cough.

“I need to go…sleep.” He said at last, without turning around.

“Yeah. Yeah, it’s late.”

“I’ll send for the guards again.”

“Yeah, okay.”

Zuko pressed the button and spoke into the little box, his voice low enough that Sokka couldn’t catch the words. Then he sat back down by the wall, avoiding all eye contact, apparently willing to wait for the guards to arrive even though his fingers were twitching like he wanted—needed—to leave. Sokka knew he should probably get back in bed, but the floor, or rather his blankets, were comfortable and he was tired. So tired. And Zuko was there, and the little lights were there, and it was no hardship to let his eyes slip closed to the sound of whispering breath and a heat which ebbed and flowed like the tide.

Chapter Text

Sokka was confused and disoriented to find himself curled up against the bars of his cell the next morning. Waking up to the dismal damp metal walls of his cell was bad enough, since in his dreams he was still free, still riding in the limitless blue sky. He massaged away the crick in his neck, rubbed the sleep out of his sore eyes, and tried to remember. Sometimes, he reasoned, people did things under the influence of a fever that made no sense when the fever lifted. Not that the fever had lifted even in the slightest, he was still shivery and achy and sick. Apparently sometimes he did things that made no sense to begin with. 

Like helping Zuko last night. He really shouldn’t have done that whole thing with the map. Zuko needed help, that was obvious, but he didn’t need Sokka’s help. But it did explain why he was miserably sick and on the floor instead of miserably sick and in bed.

It took him a while to realize that something was off, besides his own health. There was no sensation of movement beneath him, not even the faintest rumble of the ship’s engine. They were standing still. Had they docked at a port somewhere? He wished, for the thousandth time, there was a window he could look out of. Instead he had to wait until someone came by to give him news and food, although not necessarily in that order. 

He didn’t know what time it was when Lieutenant Jee arrived, but his stomach told him it was significantly past breakfast and could probably be classified as late lunch. The lieutenant looked more harried than usual, his cropped grey hair sticking up like he’d been running his hands through it.

“Looks like someone's hungry.” He smiled, but it was a little strained, “Sorry ‘bout that, kid. Everything’s upside down today.” He pushed a bowl of noodles with shrimp and flaky white chunks of fish emerging from a hot chili broth towards Sokka, who took it with greedy hands, and just barely managed to aim his next coughing fit away from the steaming bowl.

“What’s going on?” Sokka asked, slurping the noodles up with no small amount of pleasure and eye watering. In a good way, of course. 

“Admiral Zhao.” The lieutenant said, and spat on the floor, “Says the Avatar is his business now and that the prince should give over whatever information he has. That man really is a first-class asshole. Always has been.”

“So…” Sokka didn’t like the sound of this. Aang had enough to handle with just Zuko as his enemy. Zhao was ten times worse, and significantly more ambitious. Or so it had seemed their brief run-in at the Fire Temple, “So he’s going to be Avatar-hunting from now on? Instead of Zu—the prince?”

“Not if we have any say in the matter.” Lieutenant Jee said staunchly, then froze, “Look, I know he’s your friend. The Avatar, I mean. I don’t know the kid personally, of course. He’s done plenty of damage to our ship though. And you have to understand…” He looked like he was mulling the words over, trying to choose the right ones, “For better or worse, we’ve hitched our wagon to the prince’s star. If he rises, we rise with him. He’s not the only one who wants to go home.”

“Makes sense.” Sokka said, and waited until he’d mostly finished chewing before saying, “If you care more about the comfort of home than doing the right thing.” He meant it more generally, of course, but he was saying it to himself too. How many times had he wished Aang just hadn’t shown up in the first place? But he felt like a bad person for thinking it. Easier did not mean better. Didn’t even mean things would be easier in the long run.

“Don’t be a smartass. Do you really think there’s anywhere else we could go when—I mean if—he fails? When the money runs out? Because it will, at some point. And then even the furthest backwater colony won’t take us, not with the black mark Fire Lord Ozai is sure to put on our records.” Lieutenant Jee looked like he’d was repeating a speech, and not for the first time either. It must have been running through his head every time Zuko let the Avatar slip between his fingers, must have made Zuko’s moments of incompetence sting all the more bitterly, “As the saying goes: if you do right by the Fire Lord he’ll do right by you.”

And that, of everything the lieutenant had said, sounded like a lie. He sat down on the stool and ran his hands through his hair, making it stand even more on end, “Prince Zuko hasn’t said anything since Admiral Zhao’s messenger came, not to the crew, not to his uncle.  He's just out there on deck, throwing fire around. He’s got no idea what to do. We’re fucked. Pardon my language.”

Sokka closed his eyes, hoping that if he did, his headache, the lieutenant’s worries, and the entire Fire Nation would go away so he could have a moment to think. This wasn’t good. This was completely and utterly no good. Aang could reasonably keep standing up to an unhinged and impoverished prince and his skeleton crew of disloyal men. No way was he going to evade Admiral Zhao—the title had to be new, he didn’t remember it from before—with the entire weight of the Fire Nation army at his back. So, crazy as it seemed, Sokka was going to have to side with Zuko on this one.

“I’m sure he’ll come up with something eventually.” Sokka said, and slurped up another mouthful, “He might be a jerk, but he’s a determined jerk.”

The lieutenant chuckled, like that was something he’d wanted to say too but hierarchy prevented him, and rightly took Sokka’s return to shoveling food into his mouth as a sign that the conversation was over.

“Just leave the bowl by the door of your cell when you’re done, someone will come to pick it up later.” The lieutenant said, and stood, “Meanwhile, I’ve got a crew to keep under control, and they’re getting restless.”

After the lieutenant left, Sokka realized he should have asked why he was being told any of this, why General Iroh, and Lieutenant Jee, and Prince Zuko—especially Prince Zuko—felt he needed to know it. Why they thought it was his business. But of course the answer was simple. As worthless as he was, as powerless as he felt, as disgustingly feverish and shivery and full of phlegm, he was still the Avatar’s companion. Right hand man, really. And they seemed to be making an effort to make him see their side of things. Which is probably what he should have been doing instead. Maybe it was just a Fire Nation thing, the desperate need to be understood—to force your views on people who didn’t have them and didn’t want them either. His friend certainly did it a lot. 

He finished his soup, which was pleasantly spicy at first but had begun to fill him with an unpleasant, buzzing kind of heat, and set it aside. Sweat was gathering at his forehead and the back of his neck, dripping down from his underarms and soaking into the folds of his sour, unwashed shirt. He stripped off his shirt and cast the blankets aside to lie on the bare mattress of his cot, the world suddenly spinning in a different direction than he was used to. He would probably feel better if he closed his eyes for a little, he thought, so he did. He didn't doze for long. A particularly nasty fit of coughing woke him, made him gasp thickly for breath, a stitch in his side making it all harder to bear. He coughed until he felt like some kind of evil spirit had flown up and out of him, throat scratchy and sore. Gran Gran always said malicious ice-dwelling spirits were to blame for colds. They climbed down  your throat and ran amok in your lungs. Of course, he didn't believe in any such thing, not anymore, but it would explain why the physician's cures hadn't worked...

Then followed a return to fitful sleep, shivers, and sweat. When next he woke, it was to a voice, loud but indistinct, echoing off the walls.

“You have to tell me where he is, I know you said you don’t have any idea, but you—I need—you’ve got to know something, Sokka. Please.”

“You need to draw them out,” Sokka replied, “The spirits, I mean. With a song. Gran Gran knows it, you should ask her. No, first you need to get some tiger seal fat, and—”

“What are you talking about?”

“Labrador tea. Not that gross Fire Nation stuff, no way, I don’t care what you say but you guys are not qualified health-care professionals, not in my book.”

“I’m going to get Uncle.”

“I guess ginger root is alright, if you have it. Katara swears by it, says the sting makes ‘em leave, but I still have to check with Appa to see if he has any. Gran Gran ran out ages ago. Hey, where are you going?”

The voice was gone. Sokka didn’t really feel like talking, now that there was no one to talk to, so he rolled onto his side, but his back hurt, so he rolled onto his back, but then he started to cough, again, so he rolled onto his stomach, but then he couldn’t breathe, and eventually he just gave up and let the wheezing and choking happen unabated.

The door to his cell opened, and someone, or several someones, entered. The physician was among them, obviously, because the whole cell smelled like medicine, earthy and bitter. Faces leaned over him but he couldn’t crack his eyes wider than a sliver to see who they belonged to. He could see, however, a pair of hands hovering over his chest, undulating like the sea as they soaked up the burning under his skin and loosened the congestion in his lungs with gentle nudges of redirected heat. It wasn’t long before his breathing began to ease and the racking cough stopped. He relaxed into the mattress of his cot like a pool of melted blubber. Then the flowing, swirling heat left and he became aware of the distorted sounds of conversation.

“How’d you get ‘em out without singing the song?” He asked, unsure if he was speaking aloud or in his own head.

Gentle laughter, “I’m sure Prince Zuko and I could rustle up a song for you, if you wanted. I know a particularly nice one from the Earth Kingdom. It goes like this—”

“There’s no time for your nonsense, Uncle,” An urgent voice, “Did it work?”

“We have to wait and see.”

Sokka was pretty sure he could remember the song on his own, without Gran Gran’s prompting, since he’d heard it so many times as a kid. He figured even if he was the one singing, it couldn’t do any harm. He tried to start, but had to skip over a lot of the verses, and it was getting hard to breathe again, too. The tickle in his throat starting up again, each deep, labored breath triggering another wave of coughing, his whole body shaking with it. Fuck the song, which had never really worked to begin with, he wanted those hands back.

“Why aren’t you trying again?” Asked the same urgent voice.

“It’s not working, sir. I can’t keep the fever down long enough to make a difference but if it goes any higher it might kill him. "

There was a muted shout. Someone must have gotten angry, because the old man was speaking now, his voice pitched soothingly, like to a child throwing a tantrum, “Nephew, please. Doctor Ma knows what he’s talking about. We’ll have to think of something else.”

“Like what?”

A sigh, “Just wait it out, I’m afraid. Even a cold as bad as this will pass with time.”

“That’s not good enough!”

Sokka lifted his head slightly, trying to see who’d spoken, but before he could get his eyes open the door to his cell had slammed shut and it was just the physician and General Iroh standing over him, glancing at each other with a shared look of resignation.

“I can take over, if you would like.” The general said generously.

“We’ll take turns.” And then the soothing hands were back, relieving the pressure in his chest and siphoning away his excess heat. Sokka sank into glorious sleep. He drifted in and out for hours until waking with a jolt for absolutely no reason at all to find General Iroh still sitting beside him in the cell, eyes distant as if in deep thought. The general was quick to hear the change in Sokka’s breathing and handed him a cup of cold, clean water to drink.

“Where is he?” Sokka demanded as soon as he’d drunk enough to clear his throat, “Prince Jerkbender. Where is he?”

“You mean Prince Zuko?” The general asked, white eyebrows raised, “My nephew is out at the moment. But he’ll be back soon, I hope. I’m sure he’ll appreciate your concern.”

“No, no.” Sokka shook his head, felt his thoughts trail along after in slow motion, “Don’t do that. I want him to leave me alone.”

The general frowned, “Understandable.” He then poured a cup of tea from the teapot sitting beside him and handed it to Sokka, who extended just his fingertips outside of his blanket to hold weakly onto the hot porcelain rim, “But you should be a bit more gracious, considering all the trouble he’s going through for your sake.”

Sokka scoffed and tried to take a sip of tea. It burned his tongue so he spat it out rudely onto the floor,“That’s not very Zuko of him.”

“Perhaps not. Still, after the physician exhausted all his own methods for curing your flu, my nephew decided to cut short his training today in order to seek out a healer from the inland herbal institute. He should have returned by now, but I suppose it’s taking a little longer than he expected.” The General sipped his own tea but didn’t look very calm, “Healers can be tricky folk, and sometimes reluctant to give away their cures for someone else to administer.”

Sokka racked his brain for something to say besides you have a blind spot for Zuko’s no-good personality a mile wide. Eventually he settled on, “What about Zhao?” Dim memories of that morning’s conversation suddenly resurfacing.

“In that respect, I suppose I should be thanking you for taking my nephew’s mind off his own troubles.” The general said, and settled more comfortably on the floor, “He’s a good boy, with a kind and generous heart. It warms me to see him going above and beyond to help others.”

Sokka started to laugh. That blind spot again. The thought of Zuko’s kind and generous heart was so ridiculous that he ended up nearly choking to death on a poorly-swallowed mouthful of tea and his own bad lungs. He let General Iroh take the cup away from him and closed his eyes again, exhausted. The general poured him a second, slightly cooler cup of tea, and helped him drink it. Sokka let him, feeling like a child curled in his mother’s lap, one of those rare moments of her attention he got after Katara was born.

There must have been something in the tea, because that was the last time he remembered being conscious. The quality of his sleep changed too, filled with deep, paralyzing dreams. He wanted to wake up again, was trying to swim to the surface world, vaguely aware of people and voices floating above him, but he couldn’t reach them. He wished he could, he was lonely in the water and afraid—afraid of suffocating, trapped beneath the ice, the gatherer of the dead calling to him through the gloom, summoning him to the barren kingdom.

“I don’t want to go.” He said, but the sound that escaped his mouth in the bubbles of air was garbled, “I’m not ready.”

Not ready to see your mother and father? They’re waiting for you.

“But Dad isn't...” He couldn't know for sure, though, "Even if he is, neither of them would want to see me. Not now. I'm still too young and this is just a cold. The physician said so." The growing tightness in his lungs made him regret every word as a waste of air. He was beginning to sink further from the sheet of ice blocking his way to the surface world, the water growing darker around him.

The physician was wrong. What does a foreigner know about the spirits who cause us ill? How can any mortal forestall the inevitable?

“I mean, I guess, but...No. You’re trying to trick me.” Sokka realized, “Dad isn't dead and Zuko won't let me die, he's too stubborn. It won't work,  I won't fall for it." 

Too late. You’re already falling, can’t you tell?

And Sokka was, he was falling, deeper and deeper into the frigid water. His lips were numb and he felt like he was about to burst, so he took a breath, knowing it would be what killed him, water flooding his lungs. This was not how he wanted to go. How stupid, how pointless it was to die right after Zuko’d snatched him from the storming sea. All for nothing. And his sister, and Aang, and his village, and his friend and the letter, which read like a confession that barely confessed anything, and Zuko’s incomprehensible kindness (it was kindness, wasn’t it? He could admit that now he was about to die). So many loose ends still left to tie up. Sokka’d always hoped the end would be neater, when at last it came.

“It’s not—this isn’t right. All things have their time and this isn't mine.” He'd reached the end of the air in his lungs but he was swimming, strong strokes upwards through the water. He felt the water grow warmer, his body more buoyant. He saw the ice sheet fast approaching and flinched, convinced he was going to collide with it, but instead it parted for him and he was awake, and sitting up, and gasping for breath with something cold and delicious on his tongue. 

“Just keep this in your mouth, alright?” A voice was saying, but it was rough and achingly familiar, not like the watery voice from before, “I know it’s disgusting, but you have to—”

“Mm, no, it’s great.” Sokka mumbled around whatever it was in his mouth. It had a pleasant kind of spicy-sweet flavor he could literally feel coursing through his body, evaporating his sickness as it went. Frozen fruit? Maybe. Some kind of strange Fire Nation fruit. Or was it...he spat the half-defrosted frog out of his mouth as soon as its front legs began wriggling, and wiped his lips off with his sleeve.

“Ugh, I can’t believe you gave that to me.” He said, thoroughly disgusted, “But I guess I should have expected this kind of treachery from the Fire Nation.”

“It’s not—I got it from an Earth Kingdom healer, you stubborn peasant.” He was expecting Zuko, owner of the voice and apparently also an untrustworthy frog-wrangler, to get angrier than that. Or at least indignant that Sokka’d insulted the great and powerful Fire Nation. Instead, surprisingly, he caught the faint trace of a smile on Zuko’s face, “Sounds like you’re feeling better.”

“Loads.” It wasn’t even a lie. The heavy fog was lifted and all his senses were clear. Even the murky thoughts of the past few days had disappeared along with the fever. He was still a bit tired, despite having spent most of the day in bed, but more energized than he'd felt in a while. He was ready to be up and out of bed, ready to do things, even if those things just consisted of arguing and walking around on deck. 

“Good.” Zuko nodded awkwardly, like he didn’t exactly know how to be polite, but was giving it his best shot, “That’s...good. I—I’ll leave you to rest.” He got up from the edge of the bed where he’d been sitting. Sokka had the mad impulse to ask him to stay, but he couldn’t justify it, even to himself, so instead he said nothing and let Zuko leave.

Resting was one of the last things Sokka wanted to do. He’d always gotten bored easily, unless he had something or someone around to distract him. He got up and paced for a while, stretching out his unused legs, and then climbed back in bed on top of the blankets, avoiding the sweaty cocoon he’d been lying in, unawares, for far too long. Then the crinkle of paper beneath his pillow reminded him that he did, in fact, have something to distract him, a letter he could barely remember, something about sleep and wanting—longing—no, that wasn’t the right word. He’d probably gotten it all wrong, mixed up in the churn of his fevered brain. Now it was time to set his memory straight.

He had to set the paper down half-way through and close his eyes and breathe before starting up again. It hurt a little (oh, who was he kidding, it hurt a lot) that his friend hated him. It was a perfectly human thing to feel and Sokka definitely hated a lot of people for a lot of petty reasons, and some not so petty reasons, but their friendship had never been a competition for him, even when everything else in his life felt like it was. And he was blindsided by the realization that for his friend, as close as as they may have gotten, it was a competition, something that needed to be won. What was probably the most surprising of all was the idea that his friend thought for some reason he wasn’t winning.

If there was anything Sokka wanted to tell him, besides shouting through the paper write me back when you’ve made up your mind, do you hate me or not?, it was that his friend had nothing to be worried about. Sokka'd let him win, if he needed to. Of course, Sokka would have preferred, in an ideal world, a friendship filled with a little less manic nationalism, but this wasn’t an ideal world and he didn’t really have much room to complain. It’s not like he had any other friends. Besides Aang, but that was brotherly more than anything else. A piece of his flesh and blood he’d do almost anything for (barring, of course, sacrificing his own actual flesh and blood, i.e. his sister).

This friendship was different. It wasn't exactly more, either, but it felt more sometimes. And that was where the niggling sense that there was something slightly off about this whole situation lived. He didn’t care about the growing number of coincidences, the Fire Nation would always remain incomprehensible to him, and so what if teenaged firebenders all apparently acted the same. He mostly wondered if this was what friendship was like for everyone. If it always had a kind of life or death feeling with no bearing on the real world—no matters of actual life or death, no angry spirits and destroyed towns and idealistic twelve-year-olds who’d only just begun to feel the burden of responsibility—but felt like it did, like every letter and crossed-out word holding the secret to his survival, without which he would have fallen deeper into the icy water and let the spirits take him into their bloodless arms.

No. In retrospect, no matter how many stories Gran Gran had told him about fearless hunters sacrificing themselves for the sake of their companions, enduring the perils of winter and moonless nights, he couldn’t make the comparison. There wasn’t one to make. Take away the letters, and the friendship would disappear like it had never even existed. No one would sing songs about it, neither he nor his friend would show their scars and tell old stories, like Bato and his father, because it did nothing, it simply was.

But if he lost it, whatever it was, that thing between him and a stranger sewed together with words, he’d feel the ache as if it had been as real as anything else in the world. Funny how far you could get without the exchange of names. Funny how he never used to believe in anything he couldn’t see with his own eyes. Funny how—

The key rattled in the lock and Sokka shoved the letter back under the pillow. He didn’t notice until Zuko had already stormed into the cell, crackling with energy, that the red-tinted corner was still peeking out. Sokka hastily moved to cover it, but Zuko wasn’t even looking, just fumbling with the keys at his belt, something—a bird—on his arm.

“Get up,” He snapped, “Quickly.”

Sokka wanted to question him, draw it out, prolong the inevitable (he was going to get interrogated in one of those special rooms he’d heard all Fire Nation ships were equipped with, he was going to get tossed overboard and forced to swim to the distant shore), but knew better. He sat up and put his discarded shirt back on, stiff with sweat and sea-salt. As soon as the fabric pulled clear from his eyes he realized that the bird on Zuko’s arm looked vaguely familiar.

“Is that—“ He started, voice cracking with surprise.

“Don’t ask questions.” Zuko hissed, and deftly unlocked the door to the barred enclosure and held it open. This was too easy, it had to be some kind of a trap. When Sokka hesitated, Zuko groaned and hauled him out of the enclosure by the front of his shirt, “I don’t have time for this,” Zuko handed Hawky off to him, “Take the bird. And hurry!”

“What are you—why—?” Sokka spluttered, the familiar weight of the bird on his arm almost as disorienting as the fact that Zuko was against all the odds, against all logic and precedent, helping him escape. This couldn’t be real. A dream, maybe. He’d fallen asleep re-reading the letter and dreamed that he’d woken up. But Hawky’s claws were sharp and strong on his arm in a way dreams never quite managed, and peered at him with intelligent yellow eyes like they knew each other. Which Sokka supposed they did.

“I said no questions.” Zuko said grimly, then, “Your little friends are here.” He shoved him in the direction of the door. Sokka balked, not believing him for even a moment, but that’s when he heard it. Somewhere on deck—down the hallway, up the stairs—almost lost among the shouts of Zuko’s men, someone was exclaiming bright and happy, “Nice one, Katara!”as the ship groaned and shifted ominously in the water.

He quickened his pace, heart leaping in his chest, nerves singing. He was getting off this spirits-cursed ship and there wasn’t a damn thing anyone could do about it. Zuko must have stayed in the cell, because the hallway was deserted. Sokka made it almost the whole way to the hatch before the ship jolted even more violently (what were Aang and Katara doing up there?) and he was thrown hard against the wall.

Hawky screeched right in Sokka’s ear with displeasure at being jostled, and took off in the direction of the open hatch above them. That bird had the right idea, Sokka thought as he steadied himself against the wall. He’d better get off the ship now, because he wasn’t sure there was going to be much ship left when Aang and Katara were done with it. There were definite perks to being friends with the Avatar, but he did wish the ship would stop bucking beneath his feet. Walking was like trying to paddle a canoe in a windstorm.

He heard the scuffle of boots and an exhale of breath not far behind him and knew that Zuko's followed him, although he should have expected it. He wasn’t going to look back. He didn’t want to. Didn’t want to know if Zuko was planning to kill him in cold (hot?) blood as he “attempted” to escape, would rather the fire, if it came, came out of nowhere and struck him down unawares. Didn’t want to spend another minute on this ship if he didn’t have to.

But he looked back anyway, just to see if Zuko was okay. He’d never been very good at letting things go. The disfigured side of Zuko’s face was shadowed almost into non-existence in the dim corridor, and it was so much easier to read him now. Zuko froze when he caught Sokka’s gaze, tense and uncertain. He’d been wrong this whole time. What looked like anger when paired with the perpetual scarred scowl was actually fear. And for the first time, he realized that Zuko really was barely older than him. By a year, at most. 

“Why are you doing this?” Sokka asked, turning to face him head-on. Maybe re-reading the letter had knocked a screw loose inside him because this seemed more important than running towards his friends and freedom. They’d taken on the Fire Nation before, they’d be fine. They’d be waiting.

Zuko swallowed heavily, his voice a whisper, “Doing what?”

“This—the hawk—all of it.” Sokka gestured expansively.

Zuko didn’t answer, and didn’t answer, and didn’t answer. Sokka shifted impatiently from one foot to the other, glancing up at the hatch—he hoped they were doing okay—and resigned himself to not getting one. This was just another thing Zuko did that made no sense. He might as well get a move on, there was nothing left for him here.

The ship jolted ominously before the thought could become action, and Sokka lost his balance, tumbling to the floor. He started to right himself, but his ankle had begun to hurt and he was distracted by the sudden appearance of Zuko’s broad hand outstretched in what would, if it belonged to anyone else, look like an offer to help him up. He stared at it for a long time—or maybe just a few seconds—an absurd feeling of déjà vu coming to him full force, before he grasped Zuko’s calloused palm and let Zuko pull him to his feet, impressively strong as always.

But then Zuko didn’t let go, fingers sliding up to curl around Sokka's wrist, keeping him in place. Not tight, just...touching, fingers twitching like they wanted to move but he kept them still. Sokka’s heart was beating out of his chest—this was definitely a contender for one of the strangest things that had happened to him since he left the South Pole, and a lot of strange things had been happening to him lately—and he stood there, and he didn't want to leave. Was this supposed to be some kind of—but Zuko’s unnaturally yellow—no, bright gold—eyes were looking straight at him, his palm so hot. Up close, Sokka could see that Zuko’s lips were peeling slightly, like he’d been picking at them, one small weakness added to a mountain of others. The sight should have been disgusting but it wasn’t—it wasn’t—and he didn’t know why.

“Don’t forget this.” Zuko pressed a sheet of crinkled paper into Sokka’s free hand, “Your friend will be expecting a reply soon.” He said it like it was the most obvious thing in the world when it wasn’t, it really wasn’t, and Sokka didn’t even know what it would be like now, to face him in battle when they’d been this close and not exchanged a single blow, a single insult. When Zuko’d helped him. Zuko swallowed heavily, let go of his wrist, and urged Sokka towards the stairs,“Go, before anyone sees you!”

So Sokka went, and didn’t look back a second time, running towards the hatch and the sound of shouts and fireballs, the night sky dotted with stars, and the relieved and astonished faces of Aang and Katara who greeted him on deck amid the battle they were winning two against seven.

Chapter Text

you guys should check out this magnificent art by Your_Royal_Madjesty if you haven't already!


 It was a bad idea to ask the prisoner for help. Zuko knew that and did it anyway. He told himself at least seven different ways as he walked to the cell that just because Sok—the prisoner—had helped him with the map last night didn’t mean he was going to help Zuko again. It didn’t mean anything at all, in fact. When the prisoner got out (if, he reminded himself, if…) he’d probably tell his companions all about it, how Zuko couldn’t even read a map, a useless commander of people, unfit to rule his nation, and they’d laugh, him and his sister and the little bald monk around a campfire at night, huddled for warmth against that bizarre animal they flew around on. Or maybe, if he got lucky, he and So—and the prisoner—might sit next to each other across the bars and the prisoner would tell him where the Avatar was hiding, show it to him on a map, even, that he taught Zuko to read. Just give him a clue. Maybe he would, if he knew how much success would mean to Zuko. 

All his stupid hopes vanished into thin air as soon as he reached the cell. The prisoner was sprawled out on the bed, half awake and dreaming out loud, sheets twisted around his half-naked body like thick rope. Garbled speech, eyes open but unseeing. The prisoner responded to his questions (his begging, actually, but Zuko didn’t need to admit that if he didn’t want to) with ramblings about spirits and his miserable little family down south and whatever stood for medicine in the Water Tribe. Like he could hear that someone was speaking to him but couldn’t grasp the content of the words. Zuko’s determination to wring an answer out of him stuttered to a halt.

Something was very wrong. Sokka—the prisoner—was sicker than he’d thought. Too sick. Zuko’s pulse leaped. He needed to do something. He needed to fix it.

But he couldn’t move, paralyzed by the suffocating smell of Sokka’s unwashed body and the panic beating tight and fast in his blood. He needed to fix everything, somehow. The Avatar and Zhao and and his uncle and his honor and future and by all rights, Sokka should be last on that list, somewhere below re-establishing trade routes to the South Pole, but he wasn’t. So Zuko blurted out, “I’m going to get Uncle,” and left without even locking the door behind him.

Bad move, Zuko, he heard his sister whisper in his ear, You never were very good at strategizing.

“Shut up, Azula.” He muttered and heard her laugh. Talking to yourself? So you really are crazy, Zuzu. I always wondered. They hadn’t set eyes on each other for nearly three years and he thought he might have finally gotten rid of her, but no. She’d always been the voice of his conscience, nagging at him to be better, smarter, faster. She was the winner in an eternal game of catch-up.

He tried to pretend he hadn't run the whole way to his uncle's private cabin, but his ragged breathing probably gave him away. “What’s that?” His uncle asked, bewildered by the intrusion into his usual meditation hour, “The Water Tribe what?”

“Is sick.” Zuko insisted, “We need to find the physician and go to his cell.”

“Why, Nephew, I had no idea you cared.” He looked disgustingly pleased.

“You’re missing the point! He needs medical attention now.”

“Alright, alright.” His uncle extinguished the six candles glowing at the altar with a wave of his hand, and closed the door behind him, “What seems to be the matter?”

“You’ll see for yourself if you hurry up.” They walked deeper into the hold, down to the mess hall where Doctor Ma usually spent his time gossiping with the cook. Uncle looked at the scene with fondness, but to Zuko’s mind it was inexcusably wasteful. Any man who didn’t pull his weight on the ship deserved to be cast overboard. He could barely afford to pay them all as it was.

“Doctor Ma, your presence is required immediately in the prison hold.” Zuko said as soon as he entered the hall, and both heads snapped up from their game of Liar’s Dice. The physician’s lips tightened almost imperceptibly with displeasure. Zuko took a steadying breath. He was ready to yell if he had to, or even if he didn’t. He could feel the anger rising in his throat and the dry heat of his fire inexorably linked with it. Yelling would help cast the fire and anger somewhere else for a little while, even though more would just pour in to fill the empty space. He clenched his fists, tendons tightening in readiness, but the physician stood up from the table of his own accord, and willingly followed them up to the cell.

Sokka was just as delirious as when Zuko’d left him, his eyes unable to focus on Doctor Ma’s diagnostics. The little bit of heat stolen from his skin seemed to make a difference. His breathing eased, no longer a terrifying rattle, and Zuko almost thought the worst was over. But that, of course, would have been too easy. The cough returned with a vengeance, Sokka’s thin brown shoulders hunched as he bent in half, gasping for air. None of this was going the way Zuko’d planned. No one was supposed to get sick.

“Why aren’t you trying again?” He asked, and hated the desperation in his voice.

“It’s not working, sir…” Doctor Ma said, “I can’t keep the fever down long enough to make a difference, but if it goes any higher it might kill him.”

Zuko wanted to burn the pitying look off the physician’s face. Sokka didn’t need pity, he needed a cure. Zuko bit down on the swell of heat that rose to fill his mouth but couldn’t quite contain it, so he directed all his fire towards the ceiling with a shout. There had to be something more they could do. He couldn’t let the worst happen, not when there were so many things that needed to be said, so many letters he’d planned but hadn’t had the chance to write. So many ways of telling his friend who he was, and watching it all fall apart. Unless he could somehow figure out the right words to say, and for that he needed more time.

“We’ll just have to wait it out, I’m afraid,” His uncle said, like that was any kind of solution at all, “Even a cold as bad as this will eventually.” 

“That’s not good enough.” Zuko didn’t understand why none of them were taking this more seriously. He didn’t want to leave yet, but he couldn’t stand to watch Uncle and Doctor Ma work their ineffectual medicine a moment longer, “I’m going to my room. I’ll be—don’t disturb me.”

He stopped by the bridge on the way to his room to snatch a few maps while Lieutenant Jee wasn’t looking and took them back with him to his room, where he laid them out on his desk and tried to arrange them with some semblance of order. Always figure out which way is north, Sokka had said. So Zuko looked at the faint lines he’d drawn (so faint he hoped perhaps Lieutenant Jee wouldn’t seen them, although of course he had, and hadn’t refrained from making a snide remark) to chart the day’s progress and then at the more detailed maps of the coast, all the inlets and bays and fishing villages marked with minuscule characters.

Frustration boiled up in him faster than it should have. A ruler needs patience, Uncle said. His father called it discipline. He took a deep breath and started again. Where was the ship? Where was the coast? Where could he find help? Half an hour into his research, right as he was on the verge of completely losing himself in fury—at himself, at Doctor Ma, at Uncle, at the lieutenant, at Sokka—he caught a glimpse of two small words printed in the middle of a series of strange sloping lines. The symbol for mountains, he remembered Sokka telling him. The words said Herbal Institute. The map also said, in a slightly smaller character beneath them, Abandoned.

With nothing more than those three uncertain words and a navigation scroll tucked into his belt to go by, Zuko crept into the Komodo rhino hold, saddled Daiyu, his favorite, and attempted to sneak an armored one-ton animal from the cargo hold into his skiff and, somehow, into the water. He’d barely gotten Daiyu outside the rhino enclosure before several crewmembers came running.

“Leave me alone!” He tugged on Daiyu’s reigns, trying to urge her unwilling bulk past the men, “I know what I’m doing.”

“No disrespect, sir. But do you, um, have permission to use one of General Iroh’s Komodo rhinos?” The bravest among them asked in a tremulous voice.

“I don’t need permission to use my own animal on my own ship!” Sparks flared with his words and the non-benders flinched back, but he felt, all in all, that to expect anything less in retribution for such an insult would have been unreasonable.

“Of course, sir. Sorry, sir.” The man backed away. Zuko made a mental note to have him dishonorably discharged as soon as they reached the next port city.

Uncle appeared on the stairs not more than two minutes later, very out of breath, and insisted that Zuko abandon the riverboat idea and instead wait the forty minutes it would take for the ship to dock at the nearest village, citing Daiyu’s notorious hatred for being stuck in small crafts on open water. Zuko wanted to argue back, but couldn’t. His uncle had played an unfair game, yet again, and given Zuko no choice besides defeat. At least Zuko was able to refuse to let Uncle come along, despite all his pleading. 

He felt like the ship would never reach land in time. He’d already packed the things he needed: water, his mask, his swords, and a treat for Daiyu to reward her if she made good speed. Now he was reduced to pacing outside the prisoner’s cell, listening to the faint sounds of conversation between Uncle and Doctor Ma as they discussed their patient’s condition.

"Help me hold up his head, I can’t get him to drink." 

"Is he dehydrated?" 

"A little, maybe." 

The powerlessness was driving him crazy. It had been the only constant in his life for the past three years but that didn’t mean he’d gotten any better at handling it. He was on the verge of bursting back into the cell and taking matters into his own hands, not that he even knew where to start, unable to stand waiting outside any longer, when he felt the ship’s motion slow, then stop. He ran back down to the cargo hold and was on Daiyu’s back before the gangplank had even fully lowered.

It was a long ride past the miserable collection of huts that passed for a village on a winding dirt track towards the distant green haze of mountains. But Zuko was used to long journeys. The only truly unpleasant part, besides Daiyu’s jolting gate beneath him and the muggy heat foretelling thunderstorms, was the way his mind hummed with a thousand persistent thoughts that he couldn’t seem to quiet. He knew if he let himself think even one of them fully, he’d get trapped in an endless loop and wind up as paralyzed by fear and indecision and guilt as he had been in Sokka’s cell. He couldn’t afford to get trapped today. Tonight was a different story. Once the sun set, he could be alone with the cooling embers of his fire and the scratchy silence his mind loved to fill with phantoms. But for now, Sokka needed him. No, he corrected himself. Sokka didn’t need him. Sokka just needed someone’s help, and Zuko had, once again, like the idiot he was, decided to offer it. 

He steered Daiyu sharply to the left when the dirt track forked and continued up the mountain on a slightly wider road paved with cracked white slabs of stone. The herbal institute couldn’t be too far, now. He considered changing into his disguise ahead of time and asking for help anonymously, just in case, but thought he might have better luck if he had the weight of the Fire Nation on his side, if it came to that. He sent up a brief prayer to Agni that He might shine fortune upon his wayward grandson, for once in his damn life, and there would be someone at the Herbal Institute: Abandoned he could talk to.

At first he thought Agni had ignored him, again. The huge complex, perched on a cliff and reachable only by a dizzying flight of stairs, seemed completely abandoned, just like the map had warned. It reminded him ominously of the air temple, and all the good luck he’d had there. The doors were unlocked, leading to dusty halls littered with broken pots and bowls, and the gardens outside were overgrown. He stomped across the grounds in the rising wind, which flattened the tall grasses into a rippling carpet and sent dust flying into his eyes, and nearly tripped over an arrow. No, a series of arrows. He recognized them immediately. But what were the Yuyan Archers doing here? It was Zhao, it had to be. Somehow.

This new revelation was distracting, but even so, he managed to find three round greenhouses behind the main building, in the shadow of the tallest mountain peak. Two of them were locked shut but the door of the third stood invitingly open, and he caught the fresh, damp smell of plants.

“Hello? Is anybody in there?” He called, and stepped into the greenhouse. The howling of the wind disappeared. In the diffuse light pouring through the translucent ceiling he saw that the room consisted mostly of a small garden, as lush as anything growing in the Fire Nation capital, though of course the plants were plainer and there was grass growing through the cracks in the stone floor and vines twining around the wooden beams. An old woman in Earth Kingdom green stood at the table, grinding a mixture of foul-smelling herbs with a mortar and pestle, and ignoring him entirely.

Zuko walked into the center of the greenhouse and straightened his posture, like a true prince of the Fire Nation. He cleared his throat, “Madam, I have come to—“

“Yes, yes, I know why you’re here.” The old woman waved away his words, and set aside her pestle, reaching for a small box instead, “Quite a busy day for us, isn’t it, Miyuki?” Zuko looked down to see she had addressed it to a white cat sitting contentedly by her feet, “Two visitors in a row!”

“Who was your first visitor?” Zuko asked, trying to ignore the crawl of humiliation in his chest at being treated like this by a toothless Earth peasant.

“The Avatar, I believe it was.” She said, and suddenly peered up at him with frightening intensity, “But if you hope to find out where is from me, you’ll have to ask my corpse.”

“No, I—“ He inadvertently stepped backwards, and took a deep breath like Uncle always said to do. It really didn’t help, his mind was racing. This was the last thing that he’d expected, but it was real, he had a lead on the Avatar’s whereabouts and he’d be damned if he didn’t follow it to the ends of the earth. Except by that time, Sokka’d probably have expired in that tiny cell and “That’s not why I—I’m just here for a…for a friend. To look for a cure for my sick friend.”

“Not for tax collection?” She shrugged, “Well! In that case…” She must not have recognized him. He thought everyone in the Four (well, three and a half) Nations knew who he was. Maybe it was for the best. Especially if the Avatar was close. He felt a thrill of adrenaline course through his veins. The Avatar was close. That Water Tribe girl had been out in the storm too, almost as long as Sokka had. She was probably just as sick. The Avatar was probably a sitting duck right now, nursing his little girlfriend back to health, it was the perfect time to—

“Now, where was I…” The old woman said. Zuko hoped she hadn’t been speaking the whole time and he’d missed some crucial information, “Ah, yes. What are the symptoms?”

“I don’t know, I’m not a physician.” Zuko snapped. When she looked at him expectantly, he thought a little harder, “He’s got a high fever. Coughing. Chills. He’s delirious, hallucinating…”

“Oh, that’s nothing!” He could have killed her for her dismissive tone, “Your friend just needs to suck on a frozen wood frog. There are plenty down in the valley swamp.” She pointed vaguely to the west, although it was hard to tell in the disorienting circle of the greenhouse, “Make sure they’re frozen, though, or else they’ll be useless.”

“A frozen—” He shook his head, “If this is some kind of a trick, you’ll be sorry.” The old woman laughed. Cackled, rather. How dare she make fun of him? This trip was supposed to be simple. He felt his anger boiling up and tried to take another calming breath. Fuck it, it was too late—“Do you have any idea who I am? I can make your life miserable—“

Now the old woman puffed out her chest like an indignant bird, “I’ve seen everything there is to see, young man. Treated every kind of illness known to man or spirit. Nothing you could do to me is worse than the injury you inflict on yourself by doing it. You and the rest of your nation would do well to consider that.”

So maybe she had recognized him after all. Zuko regretted not bringing Uncle along, but someone had to stay back and watch over Sokka. Someone trustworthy, or mostly trustworthy. He could really have used Uncle’s diplomatic skills, though.

“Enough of your riddles.” He gathered a knot of heat in his fists, “I’ve wasted enough time here. If you won’t give me a real answer, I’ll be forced to have a conversation with the commander of the nearest outpost and see if he can’t raise your taxes a little bit.”

“Don’t get your nose out of joint, young man. I have givenyou an answer. It’s your choice whether to believe me.”

Zuko still didn’t trust her, she was obviously loyal to the Avatar and no friend to the Fire Nation. But those arrows were a question at the back of his mind, and the Avatar was too close for him to spend even a minute longer on this Agni-forsaken mountain.

“Fine. But I’ll be back if I find out you’re lying.” He warned, and left the greenhouse. The door didn’t slam behind him even though he tried to shove it closed. The wind was even stronger when he re-emerged, trying to hurl him down the side of the cliff. He remembered what Uncle had taught him about anchoring himself in the earth, a distinctly impure way of firebending, but it had its merits; Zuko didn’t find himself knocked off his feet even once by the violent gusts. He ran back down the hundreds of stairs as quickly as he could, legs trembling with exertion.

“Come on Daiyu, let’s go! You’ll get the best treat of your life if you’re fast enough.” He swung onto her back, and spurred her into a run towards the swamp. Or what he thought might be the swamp. It was down the mountain, at any rate, a valley of dark trees piercing the ominous grey sky. The humming thoughts from earlier were back, and even louder. Think realistically, Zuko, Azula told him, as close as if she was riding behind him on Daiyu’s back, what matters more in the long run? A ruler always has to keep the bigger picture in mind. Of course, I never had a problem doing that.

“I know you haven’t,” He told her, the whispered words swept away by the wind, “You’re perfect.”

One of us has to be. So what do you choose, your friend or your honor and throne?

“I—that’s not a fair choice.”

Tough luck, little brother.

And then she was gone. She always disappeared before giving any useful advice. He supposed she didn’t have to, he knew what he should be doing.

Daiyu had successfully reached the edge of the swamp, a murky grey stretch almost indistinguishable from the sky, punctuated by the black stumps of dead trees. Zuko dismounted and waded into the frigid water, wincing as it soaked through his clothes. He hadn’t done something as degrading as this for any reason besides capturing the Avatar in years, he thought. Not since those excruciating performances for his father, and before that, his grandfather. It made him feel sick to remember how pathetic he’d been, and how much of a fool he’d made of himself all for the sake of winning approval that never came. Zuko closed his eyes and took a deep breath. This was not the same situation. It wasn’t. But it was about as futile. No way would a few frozen wood frogs make Sokka like—would change anything.

Gritting his teeth, he plunged his arm into the water and felt around for the hard lump of a frog buried somewhere in the oozing, silty bottom. If only Azula could see him now, how she’d laugh…

He stopped mid-reach. If Azula could see him now she’d tell him how much of an idiot he was being, again. Wood frogs, Zuzu, really? I see how much you value your nation.

It would have been easier to pretend he was really doing this in service of the Fire Nation if it had been even remotely true. He knew why he was wading through filthy swamp water and it had everything to do with how fast his heart raced when a messenger hawk appeared on the horizon and the crushing disappointment when it was from yet another of his uncle’s old war friends. He’d never been one to savor things, besides a grim kind of vengeance in recent years, but the feel of the paper in his hands, the crackle and flare of anticipation, was one secret the Fire Nation and his uncle’s prying eyes couldn’t have. A secret he’d be branded a traitor for.

The ghost of his father’s hand brushed across his face again but he pushed it away. Those were thoughts he absolutely did not have time for, not if he didn’t want to go mad trying to claw his eyes out so he never had to look at himself in the mirror again, look at the face of a—

This outing wasn’t so treasonous anyway. If Sokka hadn’t gotten sick, Zuko wouldn’t have been able to pick up the Avatar’s trail again. It all worked. But even that thought was too dangerous, it was accompanied by a rush of guilt that made his skin crawl. He shouldn’t be feeling guilty. This was his own war within a war, waged against his own bad luck. Every clue that lead him closer to victory had to be seized. Even if it meant abandoning his friend, who was hardly his friend at all, who’d turn away from him in disgust if he knew who and what lay behind the letters. Anything that could be burned into nothingness barely existed in the first place.

There wasn’t a choice to make, in the end. Zuko would pursue the Avatar until he succeeded and was seated at his father’s right hand, and Agni forgive him for wishing things could have been different. Zuko let go of the frozen lump of the one frog he’d managed to find and stood up straight to better survey the swamp. It was a nice, open area, despite the sparse clumps of rushes and fallen trees, sheltered on all sides by dense forest. Perfect for hiding in. He’d just decided to tromp back out of the water when he caught sight of the arrows again, their red fletching the only spot of color in the landscape, besides—oh, thank Agni—besides the orange of the Avatar’s clothing as the Yuyan archers pinned him to a distant fallen tree, materializing out of thin air as they always did. Zuko wondered absently if they were part airbender, the way they moved, but decided his father would never have let them live if they really were.

Zuko ducked out of sight and watched through the rushes as the archers bound the Avatar in a net (he could have told them it wouldn’t work for long) and hauled him along with them as they rejoined the road heading towards the coast, where Zuko suspected Admiral Zhao’s outpost was located. All the half-formed plans spurred by Zhao’s morning visit solidified into one. He was going to get the Avatar back. He itched to follow the archers immediately, but made himself hold back and change into the clothes and mask he’d brought. There was nothing Zhao would like more than to catch the disgraced prince of the Fire Nation skulking around his outpost, and Zuko was not about to give him that satisfaction.

He felt different as soon as he put on the mask and took up the swords he’d been carrying in his pack, like he’d slipped into another skin. A skin without a name. This was his other secret, and after tonight, even more likely to get him killed than the letters. But he needed it to breathe—needed both to breathe, if he was being honest with himself, which usually he wasn’t—otherwise he’d have set himself on fire ages ago and left his uncle to mourn a second corpse. The men all said he was too stubborn to ever do it, he heard them talking behind his back, but they didn’t know him nearly as well as they thought. They didn’t know how weak he really was.

Zuko gave Daiyu strict orders to stay behind at the swamp, which she seemed perfectly happy to obey, already lumbering towards the stagnant water with an eye to douse herself in mud like the predictable creature that she was, and went on foot through the forest path he’d seen the archers disappear down. The sun had already dipped below the treeline by the time he reached the clearing, beyond which stood the tiered black, red, and gold towers of a Fire Nation military outpost. He waited under cover of the forest and the encroaching night until he heard the tell-tale creaking of a supply cart. His fire leaped with anticipation but he held it in check. Tonight was a time for swords and silence. And capturing the Avatar.

If there was anything that actually surprised Zuko, it was how well he and the Avatar worked together for a mutual goal. If the Avatar hadn’t turned against the Fire Nation, the war would have been won decades ago and no one would have to get hurt. Least of all some stupid child who preferred to evade rather than to fight. Although when he was forced to fight, he did a decent job of it, Zuko had to admit. Oh, the look on Zhao’s face every time the Avatar blasted away another group of soldiers impeding their progress towards the gate. The bitterness in his voice as he ordered the gate open was so sweet now that Zuko had the Avatar trapped by the twin blades of his Dao sword and breathing quick with fear.

He barely had time to savor the taste of victory before he was hit hard in the mask with something—an arrow? —and he collapsed on the ground, the world fading to a dizzying blur and then winking out into darkness.

Zuko regained consciousness in the forest somewhere, cradled by a dip between two trees. The Avatar was still there—stupid child—and glanced over at him as soon as he saw Zuko was awake.

“You know what the worst part about being born over a hundred years ago is?” The Avatar asked, not that Zuko wanted to know. It was dawn already, the sun rising pale pink among the trees. His head was killing him and he had the nagging feeling that he’d forgotten something that would explain how he’d gotten here.

The Avatar continued without prompting, “None of the things I used to do are even possible now. Everything changed and I wasn’t there to see it. My old friends are—” He faltered, “They’re dead. I had this Fire Nation friend, Kuzon. We were really close. I used to visit him all the time before the war started. We got in and out of so much trouble together. But now…” He trailed off, frowning, and rested his chin on his folded arms, “I know you’re the one Sokka’s been writing to.”

Zuko looked away, his next breath caught somewhere in his throat. That was what he’d forgotten. There was no point denying it, either. The Avatar knew, had seen the letter and its flight with his own eyes. Zuko asked in a low voice, despite himself, “Does he?”

“No.” He heard the Avatar ruffle a pile of leaves with a sigh, “I’ve been keeping it a secret. But only for his sake. If you—if you do anything to him, I’ll make sure he never writes to you again.”

It was a pathetic threat without any power behind it. Except that it would be so easy to fulfill. All the Avatar would have to do would be to say the words, such simple words—you’ve been writing to Prince Zuko—and it would all be over.

“The Water peasant is safe.” Zuko said, and sat up, feeling the ache in every pulled muscle. It wasn’t technically a lie. So long as Doctor Ma and Uncle were watching over him, the chances of Sokka having survived the night were high. Not high enough, though. His empty stomach flipped unpleasantly at that thought.

“I don’t believe you.” The Avatar didn’t even flinch under Zuko’s glare, “How can I after everything that’s happened?”

“You can’t.” Zuko should have stopped, but his mouth kept moving as it usually did, “That doesn’t mean I—You have to understand, I wouldn’t—he’s my—he’s got nothing to do with this. I don’t want to hurt people if I don’t have to. I’m not a savage.”

His answer seemed to make the Avatar even less happy, if that was possible, “I just don’t get it, though. Why him?” He asked, sounding miserable, “You and I could have been friends too. I bet we’d make great friends."

“We’re not friends.” Zuko snapped, his patience quickly fraying, “He wrote to me and I wrote back. I was bored. That’s all there is to it.”

“He wrote to you first?” The Avatar looked a little alarmed.

“He—it doesn’t matter,” Zuko wanted to bite his own tongue off, “He has nothing to do with anything.” He coaxed his fire down his arms, until it filled his skin up until the tips of his fingers, anxious to bleed out into the air around him. It was time to put this conversation to an end.

“Sokka is one of my best friends, of course he’s got something to do with—” The Avatar’s next words were drowned out by the rush of fire that Zuko shot his way. For a split second, the Avatar looked profoundly disappointed, like Zuko had done something to let him down, and then he was off soaring into the air and darting through the tops of the trees until Zuko couldn’t see him anymore and he was alone in the forest with his headache and sore muscles and useless disguise.

“He’s one of my best friends too, you know.” Zuko told the trees. Not that it mattered. Everything had gone wrong. The Avatar was supposed to stay and fight, but obviously Zuko had miscalculated. Hadn’t everything he’d read told him how the Air Nomads were pacifists, able to defend themselves if provoked but otherwise masters of evasion? He should have been better prepared. He should have thought things through more clearly. But he’d gotten so distracted talking about someone who didn’t—shouldn’t—matter at all and forgot.

The lapse was unacceptable and inexcusable and when Zuko closed his eyes he felt the roar of pain that had accompanied the burn and knew he deserved it a hundred times over. He was angry but it didn’t send fire coursing through his veins, threatening to explode out of him. It didn’t turn the air in his lungs to smoke. Instead, he felt cold and tired. He was a failure and there was no one to blame for that but himself.

He thought he might throw up. Instead, he picked his mask up from the ground and started walking back in the direction of the swamp. It wasn’t far, he could already hear the frogs croaking. He’d get back on the ship and look over the maps and start again. That’s what he was good at, after all. Persistence. It seemed futile to keep hoping, time after time, that things would be different, but Zuko couldn’t stop himself, he wanted to see the crater walls of Caldera city so badly it hurt.

At least Zhao no longer had the Avatar. But that poor consolation.

He reached the edge of the swamp where Daiyu was grazing on the rushes at the edge of the water, her hide and saddle equally covered in dried, caking mud. She snorted and rushed up to him as soon as she realized he was there, and lowered her neck for him to swing up onto her back, “Thanks for sticking around, girl,” He said, and gathered the dirty reins, “Let’s go.”

She took a few steps towards the forest path before he stopped her. The frogs. A few more moments lingering by the swamp weren’t going to hurt anyone. He couldn’t return to the ship empty handed, everyone would know he’d failed, and his friend would—he just couldn’t, that was all. So he combed through the cold mud, searching, until he had enough frogs to justify the trip to his uncle if he was asked, which undoubtedly he would be.

The ride back to the ship was shorter than he remembered, but it took long enough that all but one of the frogs he’d collected had defrosted by the time Daiyu was safely stabled in the Komodo rhino hold. He tried to keep them in his pack until he had a chance to pitch them over the side of the ship, but they were smarter and faster than he was, and hopped into the dark recesses of the hold, deep croaks echoing from unreachable places. Not his problem.

Up on deck, his uncle was playing the tsungi horn to an audience of none. It was noon, according to the height of the sun, and there was no one else to be seen. Hopefully the other soldiers and sailors were attending to their work and not sleeping off hangovers, as Zuko suspected they were. The ingrates always took advantage of his absence like they didn’t think he’d call them out on it later.

“Ah, nephew.” Uncle Iroh said as soon as he saw Zuko, and rested the horn on his knee, looking relieved, “What took you so long? Our guest was asking after you.”

“He—what? There were complications.” Zuko said without halting his progress towards the stairs. If he delayed even a minute longer, the last frog might defrost and start wriggling its way out of his bag, and then he really would have lost the only salvageable part of the past twenty-four hours.

“That is unfortunate.” His uncle set down the horn and got up to join him, “And you missed music night too. The men had an excellent time. Lieutenant Jee—“

“I don’t care what Lieutenant Jee did.” Their footsteps rang loudly on the metal stairs, “You were supposed to be watching over Sok—the prisoner!”

“Doctor Ma and I took turns. It didn’t seem fair to deprive the men of their fun. But I suppose you’re curious as to how our patient is doing.” Uncle said, which was true, even though Zuko didn’t respond. It was usually safer not to, and Uncle always told him anyway, “He’s been resting peacefully since I gave him some calming tea. It put him right to sleep.”

“You mean that awful stuff you keep trying to force on me?” Zuko asked, the sheer memory of its taste enough to set his teeth on edge.

“Yes, but he seemed to quite like it.” He sighed and cast a pointed look in Zuko’s direction, “If only more people appreciated the true nature of tea. It has so much potential to heal both body and spirit…”

“I have more important things to worry about, Uncle. When is he going to wake up?” Zuko stopped at the door of the cell and held out his hand for the keys. The guard standing on watch—at least his uncle hadn’t completely lost all sense of the gravity of the situation while Zuko was gone—handed them over.

“Not for another few hours. But please, try not to bother him with too many questions. He’s still very sick.”

“I know what I’m doing.” He slammed the door in Uncle’s face and locked it behind him. The cell was deathly silent, the air too still. Sokka was fast asleep but the sight of him buried beneath blankets and unmoving was eerie, rather than reassuring. Zuko unlocked the second door to the barred enclosure and stepped inside. It was strange to be on the other side of the bars with him, he understood a little better now how difficult it would be for someone who lived his life out doors to be confined in this tiny space. He didn't want to waste time feeling guilty, this was the last time he could be here without the war getting in the way and he wanted—he wanted—

Zuko sat gingerly on the edge of the cot, armor creaking loudly. He was going to mess this all up somehow, and the consequences were going to be terrible. Nothing good ever came without a price. But for right now, with no one to see him, he could stop pretending that he didn’t care.

He was close enough to see the slight rise and fall of Sokka’s breathing under the blankets and feel the fever chill radiating off his skin. It was almost palpable, like a firebender’s qi. Zuko exhaled in surprise. He never knew non-benders even had qi, but if he closed his eyes now he was sure he’d be able to see in a way that was beyond seeing the tight knot of breath and energy struggling against itself in Sokka’s chest.

“Here goes nothing.” He whispered, and closed his eyes. He stretched out his hand and focused hard on the tangled threads. He tugged at one and felt it respond, silvery-warm. Slowly, deliberately, he began to follow its path and pull it free from the others. His bending wasn’t used to this, it careened out of control and he lost the thread he’d started with. He took a deep breath and tried again, euphoria flooding him as he started to understand, like mastering a form instead of just going through the motions, only this was another person and the understanding was so much more private and profound. He was tracing the very energy that made Sokka live, the source of his strength and all his weaknesses, and redirecting it. No one had ever taught him how fragile qi was, that it pulsed like a heartbeat, that it could be something other than a weapon, a tool. He felt—good, for the first time in a long time. Your heart in my hand, he thought. But it was the other way around, wasn’t it?

He wondered if Sokka liked it, if the sensation of someone’s qi reaching right into his body was as irresistible and electrifying as it was for Zuko, like the all boundaries that separated them from each other had disappeared, leaving him raw and overwhelmed and desperate for more. But his friend wasn’t awake to answer and even if he was, Sokka wouldn’t answer as a friend. Zuko dropped his hand. The euphoria left him empty as it faded away. Was he worth it? Azula asked, but it sounded more like his own voice than hers, Are you sure?

“I didn’t choose you.” Zuko told Sokka’s sleeping form, glad Sokka wasn’t conscious to hear him, “I didn’t. It just happened this way.”

Sokka sighed and shifted restlessly on the cot, casting blanket off his shoulders. Zuko glanced at him, then looked away. Tight brown nipples and the faint ridges of his ribs, untied black hair strewn across the pillow and falling into his eyes. Zuko itched to brush a few stray strands away from Sokka’s face, but he didn’t. It was wrong to be here feeling like this when Sokka was so miserable.

Sokka tensed again, mumbling bitten-off syllables. He seemed close to waking, but Zuko knew from experience that once his uncle’s horrible calming tea dragged you down into sleep, it trapped you in nightmares from which you were unable wake even if you tried. There was a reason he refused to keep taking it.

He reached into his bag. The last frog was still frozen, but softening quickly. Sokka flinched when Zuko held it up to his mouth, “Open your mouth, please, just keep this in your mouth. I know it’s disgusting, but you have to—”

“Mm, no, it’s great.” Sokka mumbled after a beat, his voice rough, and Zuko drew away immediately, heart beating double-time with relief. Sokka’s eyes were fluttering open, he was awake. He spat the frog out just as the first leg began to twitch back to life, “Ugh, I can’t believe you gave that to me. But I guess I should have expected this kind of treachery from the Fire Nation.” Sokka propped himself up on one arm and wiped at his mouth. Despite his words, he didn’t sound angry at all, which was unexpected.

“It’s not—I got it from an Earth Kingdom healer, you stubborn peasant.” Zuko’s indignation didn’t sound convincing either, not when he was still so aware of Sokka’s bare chest and the barely-perceptible dance of his qi beneath, “Sounds like you’re feeling better.”

“Loads.”

He couldn’t stay where he was with Sokka still looking at him like that, curious and open—intensely blue eyes a little bit bloodshot—so he said, “Good, that’s good. I’ll leave you to rest,” and stood up as quickly as he could without making it obvious—who was he fooling, it was obvious—where he’d been sitting. Sokka didn’t stop him, not that he was expecting him to.

Uncle was waiting outside the cell door with the guard, and Zuko froze before closing the door all the way behind him and locking it. He felt guilty and caught out, even though he hadn’t done anything wrong. No, he’d done exactly what he was supposed to, and if it meant that everything would go back to normal now, then so much the better. He squared his shoulders and tried to look confident and alert, but the exhaustion from earlier had returned and he just wanted to sleep until he died. If only he could.

“Well, how is our patient?” His uncle asked, his jovial tone only slightly forced.

“Fine.” Zuko handed the keys back to the guard, “I’m going to bed. No disturbances.”

He undressed and lay down in his too-big, empty room. How long would it take before the thoughts caught up with him and he was too tense to sleep? Maybe he shouldn’t try at all. He was hungry for Cook's fried dumplings, he was sure Uncle had saved some for him, and the officers on board would be suspicious if he didn’t show up at some point to check on them and give the orders. His uncle would be too. But he needed sleep—he needed to forget what had just happened so he could show his face to the men again. Pretending everything was fine kept getting harder, the harder he fell.

He couldn’t bear to look at the Fire Nation insignia hanging on his wall anymore, so he rolled away from it, burying his head in his arms. Agni, please take this away from me, he prayed. But Agni was not a merciful god, all the sages told him so. He tried not to think of what his father would say if he knew this secret too. That was the true fear. Azula was just a messenger. But it hurt less to think of her, even though it all made him feel like shit in the end.

“I’ll do better.” He said, voice muffled by his arms, “I can.”

It was time to end the dream-world he’d been living in these past few days. He couldn’t keep doing this to himself. As he kept telling his uncle, to no avail, there were more important things to worry about. Simply because no one else agreed with him didn’t mean it wasn’t true.

The first step was obvious. He had to get rid of the letter beneath his pillow. And after that, all the others he was keeping in his calligraphy box on the desk. He didn’t want to, the thought made him almost frantic, but that was his selfishness speaking. Sokka hadn’t written them for him, after all. He’d written them for his friend, for himself, for anyone besides Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation, his most hated adversary and the bane of his existence. Zuko tightened his hold on the paper until it crumpled in his fist. It would be so easy to just set it on fire and never have to see it again.

He got up from the bed and went to his desk, retrieving the bundle of curling paper, some water-stained, others splattered with ink. It was so obvious now who the person on the other end was. He should have guessed it from the start. Today he would burn them all, without re-reading, into a pile of ash at his altar. An offering to the Fire God. An exchange of weakness for purification. After this, he could forget the letters and his friend, only remembering when it felt like the night would swallow him whole, and only in order to remind himself that he was better off living without the lie.

Zuko knelt by the altar and held up the first letter. The few short lines of characters glowed faintly red-black—hey, I know I probably shouldn’t have been—as fire coursed from his fingertips to the edge of the page without burning him. Fire was greedy, it wanted to consume. He waited until the last few embers had floated down before picking up the second—sometimes I think it’s worse if they’re only gone—then the third—I wish I had some last memory…it’s my own selfish fault.

He held the fourth letter over the altar and waited for it to burn but his fire didn’t come, he was shaking, he couldn’t do this. The slow crawl of hours before sunrise had been so much worse when he was truly and totally alone. Since that first letter, though, things were different. Better, even, if only in a small way. He could stop all the rest—his uncontrollable want—if he really tried. Probably. But he couldn’t cut his friend entirely out of his life. He didn’t want to see the loss mirrored on Sokka’s face the next time they met each other in a fight. It was asking too much.

Zuko put the letters back in their box and nearly dropped the whole thing when Lieutenant Jee began banging on the door, yelling that they were under attack. Zuko threw his clothes on and met the Lieutenant in the hallway.

“What’s going on?” He demanded, hoping he didn’t sound like he’d just spent the last few hours wrestling with his conscience.

“The Avatar.” Lieutenant Jee replied, “And that little waterbending girl.”

“Fuck.” By the look on Lieutenant Jee’s face, he agreed with the sentiment, “Rally the men and get them on deck. Don’t let the Avatar damage any more of the ship than he has to. I’ll be—I’ve got something I need to do.”

“Yes, sir.”

Zuko waited for the lieutenant to turn the corner before heading straight to the alcove where the messenger hawks lived. He could do this one good thing, as if it would make up for a lifetime of mistakes, and maybe then there would be no need for lies anymore. If he just said the right thing—he knew exactly what that would be, the perfect signal, even someone as oblivious as his friend couldn't miss it—then they could be real to each other, at last. He couldn't possibly lose more than he'd already lost. 

Chapter Text

Sokka stumbled across the deck, reeling like he’d just been hit on the head. How did Zuko know? How could he have known to say just the right thing at just the right moment, with just the right almost-smile, and the right—everything? It didn’t make sense. But there wasn’t time to think, the ship lurched for what was probably the last time, and began a slow descent into the water. Zuko’s soldiers cried out in alarm, and he tried to take advantage of their distraction by sneaking past unnoticed.

Someone spotted him anyway and shouted, “The prisoner is escaping!” Lieutenant Jee hesitated for a long moment before giving the order for the soldiers to regroup, his mouth a hard line. Sokka ducked and weaved through the blasts of fire. His ankle hurt, his muscles were stif and sore from disuse, but he had to get to the other side of the ship where Appa roared, teeth bared.

Aang caught Sokka’s eye and grinned, then pushed the attacking soldiers several steps backwards with a sweeping gust of air while Katara sent a wave of sea-water flooding across the tilting deck, freezing their feet in place. Good work, but it distracted him, and he almost collided with a blazing whip of fire. Sokka put on an extra burst of speed, smelling his own singed hair. But he was so close, almost there. 

Suddenly he was airborne, lifted into Appa’s saddle with a simple flick of Aang’s hands. Sokka barely had a chance to catch his breath before Katara threw her arms around his neck, knocking him flat on his back. He didn’t mind. He was home, burying his nose in the soft fur of her hood, breathing in her faint, familiar scent.

 “Yip yip!” Aang shouted, and they rose swiftly into the air. Unexpectedly, and against all odds, the fire didn’t follow them.

Sokka shrugged off his sister’s embrace and looked curiously over the side of the saddle at the damaged ship below. Zuko had arrived, looking soft and strangely out-of-place in his civilian clothes surrounded by fully-armored men. He yelled something indecipherable to the soldiers, and they reluctantly dropped their stances.

Unbelievable. He had called off the attack.

Sokka didn’t have to believe it for it to be true. He let out a loud whoop that he hoped could be heard down on the ship, now just a blip of light receding into the dark ocean. He felt like a burden had been lifted off his shoulders. The wind was blowing his hair out of its tie, Hawky flying just off to Appa’s left side, a familiar shadow, and he was free. Appa was already too high up for Sokka to distinguish the faces peering up at them from the deck but he imagined he still could. Prince Zuko, General Iroh, Lieutnant Jee, Doctor Ma, the cook, the boiler men, all those surly guards—he felt a tug somewhere in the region of his heart. There wasn’t any reason he should feel bad for leaving behind a sinking ship, and he didn’t, he just. His wrist tingled—no, it burned.  

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” Katara reached out to take his hand in hers. He let her smooth, cool palms—waterbender hands—replace the memory of Zuko’s fingers. His eyes were welling up, but that was to be expected, he had missed her so much.

“I’m glad you guys are too.” He said.

“I’m sorry we didn’t come find you sooner,” Katara said, “But I was sick for a while and then Aang got captured by Admiral Zhao. We came as soon as Aang escaped. You smell terrible, by the way, don’t they have baths on Fire Nation ships? And how did you get on deck so easily? I was sure we’d have to come down and rescue you.”

“I didn’t need rescuing—“ Sokka protested before his brain caught up with him, “Wait, never mind. Admiral Zhao?” He wondered why Zuko hadn’t been a complete wreck about it. Maybe he hadn’t known. Or maybe Sokka had just been too feverish to notice.

“He’s horrible,” Aang said with feeling from where he was perched on Appa’s neck, “He’s got a whole bunch of soldiers under his command now, and these scarily accurate archers too. I barely made it out.”

“What I still don’t understand is why Zuko wasn’t there.” Katara told Aang, and Sokka had the feeling he was witnessing a conversation they had had several times before, “Isn’t it his mission to capture you? Not that I want him to keep showing up wherever we are, but it’s strange, don’t you think?” She turned to Sokka, “Did you hear anything about it while you were his prisoner?”

“A little.” Sokka said and didn’t meet her gaze. He wanted to tell them everything he’d seen and heard, but it seemed wrong, somehow. Like he’d been let in on something he didn’t have the right to share, “One of his crew told me Admiral Zhao’s been put in charge of the search for the Avatar. Apparently it came as kind of a shock. I didn’t get too much more information though, I was pretty sick most of the time I was there,” He made a face, remembering, “Until Zu—someone stuck a frog in my mouth.”

“Me too!” Katara said, way too enthusiastically, “Aang went to talk to this crazy herbalist up on a mountain who told him to get a frozen frog from the swamp to heal me. That’s how he got captured, though.” 

“Hey, I bet Zuko got mine from the same place.” Sokka said and wanted to eat his words as soon as he saw the stunned look on Katara’s face, “It—it’s not what it seems. He just—I’m sure he had an ulterior motive. He always does.”

“No, it makes perfect sense!” Aang exclaimed, “I was wondering how he found—” He paused, sheepish, “I guess I didn’t tell you this part, Katara. Someone helped me break out of Zhao’s fortress. He was wearing a blue theater mask, so I couldn’t see his face. He didn’t seem like a bender since all he was using was a pair of curved swords. He saved my life. But right as we were heading to the safety of the forest, one of Zhao’s archers knocked him out and the mask came loose.” Aang paused for dramatic effect, or maybe just because he was reluctant to say, “It was Prince Zuko.”

“Are you serious? Why would he do something like that?” Katara asked, suspicious and surprised. Something suspiciously bright and warm leaped in Sokka’s throat. Hope. He let me escape. He called off the attack. For me. He helped the Ava

“I don’t know. I guess he wanted to capture me for himself.” Aang shrugged, and Sokka’s heart plummeted into his stomach, “He shot fire at me when he came to, but I didn’t want to fight, so I ran away as fast as I could." 

Of course. Zuko must have heard that Zhao had the Avatar and gone chasing after him like he always did. He probably never intended to cure Sokka in the first place. Sokka was such an idiot. How could he have thought Zuko might have changed? The only reason Zuko called off the attack was because his ship was fucking sinking. The ghost of Zuko’s warm fingers on his wrist repulsed him, he should never have let the enemy touch him and trick him into thinking…it didn’t matter now.

Never trust someone from the Fire Nation. That was the rule and he was going to stick to it from now on.

“You waited for him to wake up?!”  Sokka said, because he had to say something, and Aang sighed.

“Yeah, I thought…” He shook his head, “I don’t know what I was thinking. But hey, at least I got away safely, right?”

“Right. Like that wasn’t a chance-in-a-million,” He rolled his eyes, stinging with anger and hurt. Pathetic. “Zuko will do whatever it takes to get what he wants, even if he has to lie and—and pretend to be nice to get it. He’s a monster, just like Zhao.”

Aang looked back at him curiously, “I don’t think he’s a monster, exactly. He’s just—“

Fortunately, Katara felt even more strongly about this than any of them, and rushed to Sokka’s defense, “I agree with Sokka. We can’t let Zuko’s weird behavior get to us. If there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that he’s dangerous and he never gives up. I bet he’ll be even more unpredictable now that Zhao is threatening his precious hunt for the Avatar.”

Sokka felt the slightest twinge of guilt. He thought he remembered Zuko coming to his cell and calling him by name, begging him for help, good eye wide and—and frightened. Please. But that was what fevers did. They created illusions.

He tugged his hand out of Katara’s too-tight grip and settled in his usual spot at the back of the saddle. It was time for everything to go back to normal. He was among people who actually cared about him. And if he had almost…enjoyed the chance to live his own life for a few days, a life that had nothing to do with them, that was an illusion too. Everything had to do with Aang and Katara.

Zuko would probably never even have looked twice at him if he hadn’t been trying to get an edge on the search for the Avatar.

Sokka clenched his jaw. He needed to think about something else, fast.

“Where are we going, anyway?” He asked.

“Haven’t decided yet.” Aang said, “We were waiting for you. You are the navigator, after all.”

Maps. Right. Yet another thing Zuko had tainted for him. Even if that was technically Sokka’s fault. He’d been the one to call Zuko over and give him advice, sticking with it even when Zuko turned out to be (surprise!) a stubborn asshole. But he hadn’t minded very much at the time. He’d been distracted by trying—he could admit it now that he knew how much of a fool he’d been—trying to catch covert glimpses of Zuko through the bars. The way his hands moved, sturdy and competent. Blunt fingers. A long wet lock of hair falling into his face before he tucked it behind his undamaged ear. The bob of his throat as he swallowed, a little nervous, eyes flickering up to meet Sokka’s, then away. It disgusted him now, how he’d stared. He wanted to scrub his skin until every last memory peeled away.

“Somewhere near water,” He said, “Katara’s right. I could really use a bath.”

They flew for another hour, putting some distance between themselves and Zuko’s ship, not that it was going anywhere anytime soon, before landing on the bank of what sounded like a river. It was hard to tell in the dark. But the air smelled cool and damp, filled with the murky scent of rotting forest undergrowth. Sokka was hungry—starving, actually—but he was too tired to do more than help Katara set up the tent and crawl inside, reunited at last with his sleeping bag. Katara lingered outside, talking quietly with Aang, but Sokka didn’t bother to eavesdrop. If it was something important, he’d find out sooner or later.

He was right on the edge of sleep when Katara slid into the tent beside him. She rustled around for a while, then lay still. A whisper jolted him awake, “Was it really terrible? Being Zuko’s prisoner?”

Sokka blinked his eyes open and tried to come up with the right words. It wasn’t a betrayal to say yes, not now that he knew the truth. And it would be easier if she never found out how easily he’d fallen for Zuko’s manipulations. That all it took was one late-night conversation and a few ambiguously good deeds for him to think Zuko actually saw him and cared.

“Sokka, are you awake?” She asked again, uncertainly.

“Yeah.” He replied, stretching the word until he knew what he wanted to say, “It…it was horrible. He didn’t believe me when I said I had no idea where you guys were so he…he kept pestering me about it. Once, he almost melted the metal cell he was keeping me in because I wouldn’t give him any information. I was pretty sure it was all over at that point.”

“I’m sorry.” She said, and fumbled for his hand in the darkness. He took it. He needed something to hold onto, “I feel so bad for leaving you there.”

“It’s okay.” He said, and squeezed his eyes shut, “It’s over now.”

When he woke up the next morning, he didn’t know where he was, at first. A bright blue place, ground solid and still beneath him. The ship? No. A tent, light filtering through the canvas. He sank back into his sleeping bag, hugely relieved. He was safe and free and healthy. Today was a new day.

Katara must have gotten up already, her pack was neatly rolled up at the end of tent, and he smelled smoke blowing in with the breeze. He smiled and stretched every sleep-sore muscle, a delicious feeling. There was no reason to worry. Firebending smelled different on an instinctive level. Acrid and unnatural. But flint and steel-started campfires smelled like home, like blue-green flames lapping the sticks of driftwood he and Katara collected when the currents were right.

Now would be a good time to write to his friend. He was calm and centered enough to wade through all those words and make some sense out of them, argue back if necessary—you haven’t lost me, I’m still here, I said I’d be here no matter what—But then he remembered Zuko pulling him to his feet, pulling him so close Sokka could almost taste his breath, and a shudder passed through his body. Your friend will be

It didn’t seem like a coincidence but it had to be. It had to be.

Sokka climbed out of the tent before he could drive himself crazy thinking about it. Today was supposed to be a fresh start. Katara was crouched on the sandy bank, pouring rice into a pot heating on a bed of hot stones, with Aang sitting nearby, doing something complicated with a mess of string. He’d missed the sight of them, he really had.

“Good morning, guys.” He said, and ambled towards them, sniffing the air. His stomach rumbled.

“Morning, cheerful.” Katara put a lid on the pot, “Sleep well?”

“Like a log.” He replied, “What’s for breakfast?”

“Well, we’re a little low on supplies, so it’s just rice.” She said, looking apologetic, “We might be able to stock up in a town later today, though.”

“Are you kidding me?” He exclaimed, “I can’t even remember the last time I ate! I’m so hungry I think my stomach’s trying to eat itself.”

“Too bad.” She shrugged. Sokka sat heavily in the sand and tried to distract himself by looking around their new campsite. The river was more of a stream, really, nestled between huge boulders and evergreen trees, but it flowed slow and deep. He got up and walked to the pebbled edge and caught sight of a silvery shape darting beneath the surface. Fish! Sokka went over to their packs and began digging around for the fishing pole. It had to be here somewhere.

“Sokka, look!” Katara called, and he turned just in time to see a large green and yellow fish flip through the air before diving down again with a splash. Perfect. There was nothing better than grilled freshly-caught fish, all crispy skin and tender flesh. Besides, of course, slices of tiger seal lung cut still bloody and warm from the carcass. He grabbed the fishing pole, salivating in anticipation, and cast it over the water.

Nothing. He cast again, then realized what was wrong.

“Guys, where’d the fishing line go?” He asked, and knew immediately from the blush on Aang’s cheeks who the culprit was.

“Sorry, Sokka. Didn’t think you’d need it.” Aang airlifted to his feet, and held something out to Katara, “I wove it into a necklace for you, since Zuko still has your old one.”

She stepped forward to take the necklace with a smile, “Thanks, Aang. I love it.”

Sokka groaned into his hands. How could they still be so naïve after everything that had happened? Left to their own devices, he was convinced they’d toss out all their survival gear one item at a time—because they didn’t think they’d need it—until they had nothing left. One day he wasn’t going to be around to save both their asses, and then they’d be sorry.

He heard a splash and there was the fish again, looking distinctly smug as it summersaulted through the air, fins trembling. Oh, yes, that fish was going to be breakfast. Sokka threw the fishing pole into the water with all the force of his pent-up frustration, hoping it would act like a harpoon. When that didn’t work, he waded in himself, ignoring the water's cold bite. The fish thrashed around, evading him, and he thrashed after it, grabbing randomly at shadows.

“Well, how does it look?” He heard Katara ask, as she struck a pose, tilting her head so she could display the necklace to its best advantage. Aang gazed at her with literal hearts in his eyes and mumbled something embarrassing and incoherent, blushing very red.

In a sudden, and surprisingly successful move, Sokka scooped the protesting fish out of the water. Finally! He looked back to the bank and laughed at what he saw, his resentment momentarily forgotten in his desire to make good on his older-brotherly duty to tease, “Oooo, looks like someone has a crush!”

“Stop teasing him, Sokka!” Katara admonished, but she seemed pleased, too.

Unfortunately, the fish took advantage of that moment of distraction and wriggled out of his arms, but not before slapping him in the face as a farewell fuck-you. Sokka tumbled into the water at the impact, as if he hadn’t been soaked enough already. At least now he didn’t have to take a bath anymore. Sokka trudged out of the current, slipping on submerged rocks, cold and hungry and definitely on the verge of sulking. This was one part of his daily life he really hadn’t missed.

The day only went downhill after that. At the sound of a platypus bear’s roar, they came running, only to find some gullible fool who refused to take their advice and fend the bear off because some fortuneteller from his village told him he’d have a safe journey.

“It’s awful nice knowing your future,” Said the gullible fool with an infuriating smile, long thin moustache twitching like the fish’s whiskers. 

“Yeah, it must be.” Katara replied dreamily, and Sokka knew as soon as he saw her eyes light up that there was another detour in their very near future.

"Oh, Aunt Wu told me to give this to any travellers I saw." The man said, and handed them a wrapped package before going on his way. What a weird guy. 

At least Sokka got a huge platypus bear egg out of the deal. He could almost smell it frying over the fire…His stomach rumbled, and then the sky rumbled, and all his plans for consuming anything besides soggy, slightly-undercooked rice flew out the window when it started to rain—damn that man and his ugly orange umbrella for making Sokka look like the irrational one.

“That proves it! I think we should go visit Aunt Wu in the village.” Katara said, stepping under the umbrella Aang was holding out for her graciously, “I could definitely use some predictions about my future.”

“Come on, fortunetelling is nonsense. You can’t really tell the future.” Sokka protested. 

“Then I guess you aren’t really getting wet, then.” Katara smirked, and right on cue, the egg slipped out of his hands and broke precisely on his head, one long tendril of egg white oozing down his face. It was as if the universe actually enjoyed testing his patience.

Back at the campsite they loaded everything onto Appa’s saddle, the rice in their bowls quickly becoming more soup than solid in the rain, eating quickly as they worked. There was no point trying to fly anywhere in that kind of weather, Appa didn't like it, and neither did they. Getting pelted by ice-cold rain at top speed was no one's idea of a good time. Turns out there were downsides to everything, even air travel. So they followed the path to the man’s village on foot, Aang and Katara safely ensconced beneath the orange umbrella, Appa lumbering behind. Every time Sokka glanced up at the tops of the trees, he saw Hawky perched there, following their progress discreetly. Good bird.

Meanwhile, down on the ground, Sokka probably looked as miserable as he felt, squelching along the path. There was egg in his hair, he was still hungry, and he couldn’t stop thinking about what Zuko had said back on the ship and he didn’t want to keep remembering, he wanted to forget.

If it actually was a coincidence, it was a pretty far-fetched one. About as far-fetched as some woman claiming she could read the future—when all she could actually read was the weather and people’s hopes. He had to think about this rationally. Sokka crossed his arms against the chill and laid out his options while he walked. On the less-likely side of the spectrum, maybe the Zuko who had offered him a hand in the spirit world was merely a vision of the future, showing him something, a meaningless incident that was going to happen whether or not he told anyone about it. But he didn’t believe people could predict the future. No, he knew they couldn’t, belief had nothing to do with it. He had to be pretty desperate to be grasping at straws like this. Still, it was almost better than the alternative, which was that Zuko had somehow managed to peer into his secrets and make a mockery of them.

The thought made his throat constrict with something like fear but sharper, more all-consuming. He was terrified. What if Zuko had gotten his hands on the letters somehow, figured out who they were from? It wasn’t unreasonable, he was probably monitoring all the messenger hawks that passed through his general area, scanning the letters for clues about the Avatar. It would be just like him, in fact, paranoid and overdoing it as usual.

Then again, how could he have recognized Sokka’s handwriting? Neither of them had ever signed their names. Maybe Sokka had mentioned something about the spirit world in that letter Zuko confiscated. Yeah. That was probably it. He took a deep breath, trying to steady himself. That’s all there was to it. So why didn’t he feel any better?

“Still sulking?” Katara asked, and he was pulled so forcefully from his train of thought that he stepped deep into a puddle without even realizing it, “Just admit you might be wrong, and you can come under the umbrella.”

“I’m not sulking.” He said, “And I’m not wrong. Just because two things happen that seem to be related, doesn’t mean they are. It could just be a coincidence, or…or maybe Aunt Wu had some insider knowledge that we were coming. We don’t even know who this Aunt Wu is, she could just be making stuff up. For all we know, she could be a Fire Nation spy!”

Both Aang and Katara gaped at him, and he realized he might have forgotten exactly who he was talking about for a moment. Katara huffed, annoyed, “Are you even listening to yourself? Aunt Wu is not a spy. You’re being ridiculous." 

Sokka was going to argue back, some half-formed thought already on his lips, when he stopped in his tracks, followed quickly by Aang and Katara.

Out of the mist loomed the cone of a massive volcano, bare rock grounded by a thick pine forest, the same forest they were passing through now. Sokka had heard about volcanoes, once or twice. He knew they were a Fire Nation thing, but never, not in his whole life, had he expected to see one. It was—not beautiful, not really. He didn’t think about scenery that way. But it was impressive. And it made him realize again how far away he was from the South Pole. A glance in Katara’s direction confirmed she felt the same way, her eyes wide, mouth a little bit sad.

“Let’s keep going, guys.” Aang said cheerfully from the comfort of the umbrella, “I bet we’re almost there.”

And they were. The rain quit right when they caught sight of the green gate and carved roadside spirits, but not before giving Sokka yet another chance to humiliate himself in the name of science. He had no idea how he was going to get through a full day (it would be longer, it was always longer) of dealing with people who insisted that even the most random of coincidences had meaning when they didn’t. Correlation was not the same as causation. But he’d lose his voice before he hammered that point through their thick skulls.

“Aunt Wu is expecting you,” A white-haired man greeted them at the door of a grand house looking out onto the square, two stories and a tower, all gold and white, and ushered them into Aunt Wu’s Palace of Fortune.

“I can’t believe we’re here in the house of nonsense.” Sokka said, settling down on a limp cushion on the floor and taking off his wet boots, flexing his toes. For all the grandeur of the room, he’d hoped the accommodations might be a little more plush, the offers of snacks just a little bit more forthcoming.

“Try to keep an open mind, Sokka.” Katara said, and that light was back in her eyes, “There are things in this world that just can’t be explained by reason or science. Predicting the future is a gift from the spirits. Don’t you want some insight into your future? Aren’t you even curious?”

That was precisely what he didn’t want. He didn’t want to hear about his love-life the way Katara and Aang did. He didn’t want to know who he’d marry, how many children he’d have. He’d worry about all that once the war was over. If he even survived the war. And that was another thing he didn’t want to hear from Aunt Wu’s lying lips, any kind of prediction of death or doom or—it’s not that he was afraid, exactly, but okay, maybe a little.

He just wasn’t sure what he was afraid of most; hearing about his own death, or being given a vision of the future that didn’t correspond with the vague image in his head of Suki, older, taller, even more beautiful, standing beside him, engagement necklace gleaming in the midnight sunlight of the South Pole. Not that he thought anything Aunt Wu told him would actually come true anyway. But it didn’t stop him from worrying, just a bit. He couldn’t say any of that to them though. They wouldn’t understand, and the teasing would be endless.

“What I want is some food. D’you think they’re going to offer us any or should I start asking?”

“Ugh.” Katara’s shoulders slumped.

At that moment, the screens parted in front of them and a tall, grey-haired woman stepped into the waiting room in a cloud of incense and heavy perfume. She was wearing unusually red-themed robes, for the Earth Kingdom, and a golden headdress. Looked like she thought pretty highly of herself. Sokka snorted. It had to be Aunt Wu. Who else would make such a big production out of entering a room?

“Welcome, travelers.” She said, voice warm and just the slightest bit commanding, "Come to have your fortunes read? Who’s next?” In the moment of indecision that ensued, she said, “Don’t be shy.”

Katara who stood up first and disappeared behind the intricate screens with Aunt Wu. The waiting room fell silent besides the faint sound of Aang's fidgeting.

“So, what do you think they’re talking about in there?” Aang asked.

“Beats me. Probably girly stuff, though, like love, marriage, kids. The usual.” Sokka shrugged, and caught the eye of Aunt Wu’s attendant, who was hovering by the door, and mimed eating out of a bowl. The attendant sniffed, but disappeared into a back room, hopefully the kitchen.

“Right…I—I’m going to go find a bathroom.” Aang shot to his feet and Sokka was alone in the room. He didn’t mind, though, especially not when the attendant brought out a bowl of bean curd puffs, which Sokka happily shoved in his mouth, content to forget all the reasons he didn’t want to be here right now.

Unfortunately, he remembered them once Katara reappeared, glowing with misplaced optimism, Aunt Wu at her side. No doubt she was going to gush about how wonderful and informative it had been, all the good things she’d heard, and insist he try it. Don’t be such a spoilsport, she’d say, and he’d feel bad like he always did.

“Okay, okay.” He said, before anyone could prompt him, “Let’s get this over with. I’m ready to hear my fortune.”

But Aunt Wu didn’t seem very welcoming, not to him. With a distinctly unimpressed look on her heavily made-up face, she said, “Your future is full of struggle and anguish, most of it self-inflicted.”

He felt slightly winded, like he’d been hit, “But you didn’t read my palms or anything!”

“I don’t need to, it’s written all over your face.” Aunt Wu said, and dismissed him without another word, beckoning towards Aang instead—Aang of the Great Big Destiny and Even Bigger Crush on Katara. No secret what he was going to be asking Aunt Wu about. Sokka sank back down onto the cushion and drew his knees to his chin. It wasn’t like he actually wanted to get his fortune told. It still would have been nice to be considered worthy of the honor of hearing lies about his own future. Whatever. The sooner they left this village the better.

When at last everyone had had their turn, they headed out the door, only to be stopped by the white-haired attendant, who practically growled, “It’s customary to show your appreciation with a donation.”

Sokka shook his head. Extorting people after giving them ridiculous lies passed off as the future. It was just wrong. Aunt Wu’s authoritative voice cut through Aang and Katara’s scrambling to find a suitable gift just in time, Sokka could see Katara already had her fingers around the communal purse, “That’s alright, Gan. I consider the honor of assisting the Avatar and his friends enough for me.”

Gan frowned, but let them pass.

“Well, I hope that showed you how fortunetelling is just a hoax.” Sokka said as they walked into the main market square, “I bet she told you all about how wonderful your lives are going to be, how you’ll have fifteen grandchildren, and meet your one true love on an ice-bridge under a full moon, like the songs say.”

“What’s so bad about that?” Katara asked jauntily, “You’re just bitter because she said you’re going to make yourself unhappy for the rest of your life.”

“Exactly! She’s crazy!” Sokka’s voice was rising in pitch and volume, but he couldn’t stop himself, “Everything she says is a lie. My life will be calm, and happy, and joyful!” He kicked a stone on the road, which rebounded and hit him in the forehead, sending him to his knees, “That proves nothing!” He yelled, but Aang and Katara were already laughing and walking away. He picked himself up from the ground and followed them, bruised pride hurting maybe more than it should.

The skies still looked ominous as the afternoon wore on, even though the rain had stopped. Sokka was still holding onto the hope that they'd leave once Katara had finished shopping at the market, but neither she nor Aang thought it was a good idea to travel until the following day.

“Appa doesn’t like thunderstorms.” Aang said, and Sokka couldn't argue with that. 

“There’s a little inn just up the hill.” Katara said, “Clean and inexpensive. Aunt Wu told me about it.”

“Did she also tell you what groceries to buy? And what clothes to wear tomorrow?” Sokka asked sarcastically, but knew from the caught-out expression on her face that she had, in fact.

“I didn’t want to take any chances!” Katara protested, and Sokka rolled his eyes so hard he thought he might have strained them. 

“Fine.” Sokka sighed, “But we’re leaving tomorrow. No arguments.”

“Fine.”

The innkeeper recognized them not as the Avatar and his companions, but as a group of three travelers that Aunt Wu had predicted would bring him good luck. The man insisted on giving them the biggest room in the place, which was wasn’t very big, at a reduced rate.

“Anything I can do for you.” The innkeeper said reverently, bowing as he backed out of the room, “Anything at all.” It was creepy.

This whole village was creepy, in Sokka’s opinion. There was nothing he hated more than watching a bunch of suckers fall even deeper into their delusions. Aang and Katara, of course, didn’t feel the same way. Katara was anxious to go back for another reading, already thinking of new questions she could pester Aunt Wu with, and Aang had been so starry-eyed since the necklace thing that he undoubtedly would accompany her, even as he tried to play it cool.

“What am I supposed to do, then?” He asked, when she announced she was heading out again.

“I don’t know, Sokka. Figure it out.” She shrugged. Aang shot him an apologetic look and slipped out the door behind Katara.

Sokka flopped back on one of the beds, which creaked at the impact. It reminded him a little of the cot he’d had on Zuko’s ship. A narrow metal frame bolted into the plate-metal floor, groaning every time the ship shifted in the water or he rolled over. It felt like a week had passed since he’d escaped (been set free) from the miniscule cell.

Now that he was completely alone for the first time since leaving the ship, he felt—he had no idea how he felt, actually. Weird. He felt weird. And a little lonely, if he was being honest. He wondered what Aang and Katara were doing right now. It wasn’t hard to imagine. Aang was probably trying to flirt, poorly, while Katara remained oblivious, distracted by whatever dream Aunt Wu had spun for her.

At least she knows what she wants for her future, he reminded himself. He had no idea what he wanted. He only knew what he didn’t want, which was exactly what Aunt Wu had predicted for him. It was so unfair. Why was he always the one who got side-lined and made fun of, when Aang and Katara were equally ridiculous in their own way? Not that he was ridiculous. But he did tend to get carried away sometimes.

Mostly he got carried away by wanting things so desperately that reason never stood a chance at convincing him they were a bad idea. Like the letters. All the secrets he’d told because he thought he’d never have to see his correspondent’s face. Now when he imagined his friend’s face, it was Zuko’s. Narrowed eyes, sharp chin, thin lips. It was Zuko’s face, and he was saying something, the words falling precise as blows. Sokka couldn’t stand to think about what it all might mean.

Sokka thumped his head against the hard pillow, trying to straighten out his thoughts. Suki would probably never stand next to him on the Southern ice. He’d only met her once and the memory of that encounter grew less vivid with time. Other things had taken its place, like the thrill of reading a stranger’s words and knowing they were his.

He wanted his friend. That much was clear.

What wasn’t clear was everything else.

Sokka got up from the bed. He started digging through his sister’s pack, looking for the calligraphy set. She’d written a few more entries in her journal since he’d last stolen paper. He was tempted to look, but that would be wrong. Let her keep her secrets, if he could keep his. Sokka unfurled a piece of paper and laid out the ink, brush, and ink stone on a low table by the window, catching grey light as it spilled through the rice paper window-shade. There was a lot on Sokka’s mind but this was one thing he could do. His friend deserved a response. He was waiting. 

Thanks for the letter, I guess…It came at kind of a bad time, and I'm still not sure what exactly I want to say in response. Before I try, though, I wanted to tell you that you haven’t misunderstood anything I’ve written. I like you. I do. I want to hear (or read, I guess…) everything you have to say even if it’s not pleasant. I justaagh. I don’t know how to say what I’m thinking, I’m not even sure what it is I’m thinking in the first place. Okay. Start again. I just really like you. This past week was pretty rough. And confusing, and terrifying. I got captured, and then I got sick. I wrote you a letter but it got taken away from me. It’s probably better that you don’t have a chance to read it anyway, it was mostly full of whining and self-pity. See? Another thing we have in common. You said I deserve better but I don’tI deserve exactly what I have, and I hopeha,  you can probably only imagine what my rambling is like in real life, if it’s this bad on paperI hope I have you. Is that something I’m allowed to say? I don’t even know if I mean it or notno, scratch that, I mean it. Just. This is all new to me. Despite what I’d like my sister to think, I’m just a kid from the backwaters who never left his village until a few months ago and I don’t know shit about the world, no matter what I pretend. And I don’t know shit about…this. Whatever it is. I do know that it really sucked, reading that you felt so bad when I couldn’t even tell you I was sorry. I wish I could have been with you, then. I wish I were with you now. It doesn’t matter where you are, in the Fire Nation or the colonies or whatever, I’d be there if I could. I’d keep you from getting lost in your thoughts. If I could. I know there’s not much I can do, and you’ve never asked me for help, but I’d like to help anyway. You mean a lot to me. And if I did anything to make you hate me, I’m sorry, okay? I know you said you didn’t mean it but part of me thinks you do, and thatthat’s the last thing I want. But please don’t hate me for this idea you have of me in your head that isn’t even true. It’s not my fault you keep writing to me, andwhatever you might think, and I don’t know where you got this idea, I’m not that great of a person either. I’ve done things I’m not proud of and hurt people. When the friend we’re travelling with first came to our village, I thought he was a Fire Nations spy, and decided to banish him. He would have died out there without any food or shelter. My sister wanted to go with him, and I forced her to choose between him and her family, her people, her home. It wasn’t a fair choice, and I was wrong to judge him so quickly. Everything worked out in the end, but I was willing to cut her out of my life if she made what I thought was the wrong decision. You see? I’m stubborn and narrow-minded and selfish. But I would also sacrifice everything I have, even give my life, to help the people I love if I thought it was the right thing to do. What I’m trying to say is that no one is entirely good or entirely bad. I mean, besides a few obvious exceptions. Well, obvious to me, anyway. I guess I wanted to ask: are you actually learning anything from being in exile? Or are you just suffering for the sake of suffering? Cause that’s what it looks like to me. No offence. I'm one to talk, though. Today my sister made us visit a fortuneteller (you can imagine my excitement), who told me that my life will be, direct quote, “full of struggle and anguish, most of it self-inflicted.” Not too inspiring, I have to say. Of course, everyone laughed, but I hopeI don’t believe in this stuff at all, just to make that clearI hope she’s wrong. I really, really hope she’s wrong. Because underneath all the obligations I have to my sister and our friend and my father and the memory of my mother and my tribe and the world, I just want to be happy. It’s such a little thing, but it’s hard. I want you to be happy too, however that happens. I know you’ll probably say it’s just another one of those things you don’t have time for, but…isn’t that what you’re working towards anyway? Or have you not asked yourself that question yet. After getting your father’s approval and going home, then what happens? I hope at some point you’ll have time for me other things. Things that make life worth living. Don’t be too hard on yourself in the meantime. Sometimes in order to do the stuff you have to do, you need to tell yourself lies. Trust me. I know that. We all have to survive one way or another. You and I’ve both made it this far, so who’s to say we won’t make it all the way to the end? That’s what I’m hoping, at least. Anyway, my sister and our friend will be back soon, so I should probably say goodbye. Take care.

S.

Sokka methodically cleaned the brush and the ink stone so Katara wouldn’t know he’d used them, and packed away the rest of the equipment in her bag, taking his time so he wouldn’t have to make a decision about actually sending the letter. Hawky was waiting somewhere outside. All Sokka had to do was whistle, and then letter would be gone and he could pretend he hadn’t just made a total fool of himself to someone who—well, to someone who'd kind of made a fool of himself too, in that last letter. 

Still, it was a risk. It hurt him deep in his bones to imagine a world without any letters, without his friend, but he’d manage. Besides, he’d written this whole long thing and there was no point in letting it to go waste. 

Sokka opened the window and whistled for Hawky. He half expected Aang and Katara to burst through the door any moment now and catch him with the letter and ink-stained fingers, probably some ink on his face too (it always got there, but he had no idea how). They’d ask questions he had no answers to. Who are you writing to? How could you endanger us like this? How could you be so selfish?

What would he tell them? What would he tell himself? Some jumbled story built out of crazy suspicions and theories that made no sense? Or the easiest answer of all, something they'd have no trouble accepting. That he’d seen the future in the spirit world and his vision had come true. Sokka laughed out loud in the empty room, feeling more than a little unhinged. This is what he got for spending time around Aunt Wu and her disciples. But it wasn’t a bad idea, all things considered.

Aunt Wu had read his face, read him like a book (like a letter), and even if he didn’t want to believe what she said, there was no denying that it rang true. He was making himself miserable over this, for instance, when he could just go and ask her—figure it all out, once and for all. What harm could it do? Aang and Katara were already laughing at him behind his back (and to his face), poor, stupid Sokka who just didn’t   get it . And, okay, yeah. He didn’t get it. He could still try, though.

Hawky landed on the windowsill with a rush of air and broad wings. The bird’s beak and claws were a little bloody, and Sokka grinned despite himself.

“Good hunting?”

Hawky blinked slowly, which Sokka took as a yes. Maybe they’d go out hunting together, when Hawky came back. If Hawky ever came back. Not a good thought. His stomach turned over. He was still hungry, but all this worrying had transformed the sensation into something much closer to nausea than he was entirely comfortable with.

“Hey, I have a letter for you. Hold still a moment.” Sokka rolled the paper up and stuffed it into Hawky’s message carrier, “And, uh. Even if you don’t get a reply, try and come back to me, okay? Just so I—just so I don’t end up waiting for something that’s not going to happen.”

He didn’t expect the bird to understand the directions, but Sokka hoped he would anyway. He watched Hawky circle once in the sky before heading off towards the coast, where they’d come from. When Katara finally returned from her mission to learn everything that would ever happen to her, she found Sokka still sitting by the window, looking out across the gold and green rooftops as evening fell, the volcano growing larger in the shadows.  He must have been a little slow to react to her entrance, because she laid a hand on his shoulder and asked, “Are you okay?”

“Totally. Totally fine.” Sokka jumped to his feet, “Where’s Aang?”

“He wanted to feed Appa before coming back to the inn.” Katara said, frowning slightly, “What have you been up to since we left?”

“Oh, just, uh. Napping, mostly.”

“By the window.” She deadpanned.

“Hey! I can sleep sitting up, you know that.”

“If there’s something bothering you, you can tell me.” She had on her concerned voice. It would have bothered him if she hadn’t sounded so much like their mother, “Is this about what Aunt Wu told you? Because you have to admit, sometimes you—”

“Nah, I’m not worried about that.” He tried to laugh, “It’s just taking a while to get used to being off the ship, that's all.”

“Oh.” Her frown deepened with sympathy, “Is there anything I can do to help?” She looked sincere and he was hit with a sudden urge to tell her everything. He was so confused and he’d just sent the stupidest letter ever and this wasn’t how his life was supposed to go. He was supposed to help Aang win the war then settle down in the South with a nice girl, not this, not fall in love with his—

“It’s okay.” He said, and pushed away the words, “I think I’m going to go for a walk, though. Stretch my legs. It’s tiring, doing all that sleeping.”

“If you’re sure.” Her hand slid off his shoulder reluctantly.

“I’m sure.”

He walked all the way back to Aunt Wu’s house, each step harder to take than the last. Did he really want to know? What did he have to lose? Everything, said his racing heart, his sweaty palms. The attendant wasn’t waiting by the door. Obviously Aunt Wu was not expecting this visit. He hesitated outside, memorizing the grain of the painted red door. This was a terrible idea, but it was his last resort. Beyond this was only the sickening realization that he knew, he knew what Zuko had meant with those parting words. A code that only two people in the world shared. He took a deep breath, and raised his hand to knock. He’d been holding onto an illusion with the sheer force of his will and it was time to let it go.

It took an excruciatingly long time for someone to answer the door and Sokka contemplating leaving several times before it pulled open and Aunt Wu’s surprised face appeared in the gap.

“What do you want?” She asked, “It’s past business hours.” When he didn't answer right away, she opened the door all the way and let him come in. This was a conversation he'd rather have in private. 

“I—I have a question. You’re the only person I thought might be able to answer it.” He said in an almost-steady voice.  She nodded and led him through the darkened waiting room to her inner sanctum, where the coals of a fire still glowed in a depression in the floor. He felt very young and out-of-place in the lavishly decorated room, but she gestured for him to sit on one of the (much fluffier) cushions and sat herself down opposite him.

“What can I help you with?” She asked.

“I have a question about the spirit world. When I was there—“

You’ve been to the spirit world?” She asked, sounding more shocked than was entirely flattering.

“Uh. Yeah. Once.” Sokka said, trying not to flush. This wasn’t a good start, she wasn’t taking him seriously at all.

“But it takes many years of preparation and meditation to make the journey. How did you—?”

“I was captured by a spirit.” He said, on the defensive, “It doesn’t matter. I was just curious.”

“Go on.” She said, reverting back to her earlier professional distance. 

“So, hypothetically, if someone happened to go to the spirit world and saw someone do something totally unlikely, and then told someone else about it, and then the unlikely thing happened actually happened, but the thing that happened and the person who was told were completely unrelated…what would that mean?”

“I’m not quite sure I follow.” Aunt Wu said, looking perplexed. 

“I guess I’m wondering if you can see visions in the spirit world. Of things that will happen.”

“I suppose so…I’m not an expert, but I do know of some places in the spirit world where one could see glimpses of the future. The Tree of Time, for instance. Although that has been unusable since the Battle of the Great Spirits.”

“What about the Fog of Lost Souls?”

Immaculately drawn-on eyebrows shot up her forehead in surprise, “Goodness me, where did you hear that? No, no. The Fog of Lost Souls only shows what one fears. Even if those fears come to coincide with reality, they are not themselves true instances of foretelling.”

“Are you sure?” Sokka pressed. He didn’t like where this was going. His hands were shaking, so he sat on them.

“No, I am never entirely sure.” Aunt Wu smiled, sadly.

“So, there’s still a chance that—”

“Don’t delude yourself. The art of fortunetelling is often imprecise, but I know that what you saw in the fog wasn’t the future. It was a fear, and it has come true, and you must accept that.”

Not a vision, then. Just something he’d told a friend. Something that had gotten spit back at him at the worst possible moment, by the worst possible person. He swallowed heavily and hoped he wouldn’t vomit all over her nice wooden floor.

“I wish I had something more pleasant to tell you.” Aunt Wu continued, like she wasn’t watching him fall apart next to her, “I might have, if you had asked me to predict something specific for you.”

“You just said fortunetelling is inaccurate.”

Imprecise.” She stressed, “I am rarely wrong, but sometimes the future does not reveal itself the way I expected it to. In those cases, what matters most is knowing what people wish to hear.”

“So you lie just to keep them happy. I knew it!”

“It gives them hope to believe something good will happen in their futures. It makes them feel like they have a semblance of control in all the chaos. We’ve been sheltered from the worst of the war here, but that doesn’t mean it won’t come for us at some point.” Her expression hardened, and he saw another woman in her face, one at odds with the gaudy clothing and jewelry.

“You’re only abusing their trust! They’re not in control of their lives, not if they actually rely on you as much as they seem to.”

She sighed, “I suppose you’re right, in a way. But I feel a great responsibility towards them. This village took me in and showed me kindness when I had nothing besides what I carried on my back. I will do whatever I can to ensure they do not regret their decision.”

“Why did you—you know what, nevermind. I don’t need to know.”

“You can still ask.” She said calmly. She was offering him a distraction and he took it. Anything to stave off the panic.

“Okay, then. Why did you come here?”

“The volcano reminds me of my mother. You see, where we used to live in the Fire Nation—” She laughed at his sharp intake of breath, “No need to fear. I am of Earth Kingdom stock through and through. But I did live in the Fire Nation, yes." Her eyes looked very far away, and she spoke like she was telling a story,  almost sing-song.

"Many years ago, when I was just a child, the Fire Nation burned our village to the ground. My father was killed and my mother taken prisoner. She was very beautiful, and had been selected by the guards to be taken to the court of Azulon in Caldera, the imperial city, but she refused to go unless I accompanied her. A very brave woman, to stand up to the soldiers and win. It did not prevent her from becoming Firelord Azulon’s concubine, however. But I suppose nothing could have. There were many foreign women at the court then, and I was raised among their children. I came to love the palace as my home, forgetting what had come before.” She paused, staring into the flickering blue flames rising from the coals, “It was not to last. As he grew older, Firelord Azulon became increasingly mistrustful of foreigners. She was his favorite, one of the last foreign concubines in the palace, until he killed her one night in a fit of paranoid rage. I was fifteen. They sent me from the palace in disgrace, and banished me from the Fire Nation forever. I wandered through the Earth Kingdom for many years, learning all I could about divination and how best to predict the future. I never wanted to be blind-sighted by misfortune again. But eventually I grew wearing of travelling. It was not until I came to this place and saw Mount Makapu that I knew I was where I was meant to be.” She closed her eyes briefly, and when she opened them, she said, “It’s the only volcano in the Earth Kingdom, you know." 

“I had no idea.” Sokka shook his head, stunned. He should have guessed, from the red and yellow robes she was wearing, but he hadn't. “I just can’t imagine there being any foreigners in the Fire Nation. I’ve heard—it sounds like a pretty intolerant place.”

“I imagine there are still quite a few, living in secret. I am lucky to have left when I did. Fire Lord Ozai is far worse than his father ever was. It is a pity Iroh did not take the throne…”

“Did you know him?” Sokka asked, suddenly a lot more interested.

Her smile was genuine now, “Certainly. I doubt he would remember me, but we were playmates as children. He was a kind boy.”

“He’s pretty okay as an old guy, too.” Sokka said and a spark lit in Aunt Wu’s dark eyes. He hadn’t come here to gossip about the royal family, though, so Sokka soldiered on with the last of his courage before she could say anything, “Maybe you could help me with something else, then. Since you know a lot about the Fire Nation. I have some letters…”

“Are they in the common tongue?”

“I don’t need help reading them,” Sokka bristled, “And I’m not saying I believe any of this stuff, but if you can read faces, can you read handwriting too? Can it say anything besides the words?”

“Of course. Let me see one, and I’ll tell you what I can.” She held out her hand with its long polished fingernails, and Sokka reluctantly reached into his shirt and pulled out the most recent letter, the one he’d been keeping close to his skin, spirits only knew why.

“Please don’t—” Sokka burst out, and felt ashamed, “Please don’t read it. Just…look.”

“Very well.”

Aunt Wu peered closely at the first few characters, then held the paper over the faint light of the embers, so close Sokka was sure the paper would burn. He wanted to reach out and stop her, but kept his hands where they were, tucked under his folded legs. It wasn’t doing much good, though. The shaking had moved to the rest of his body.

“This paper is of very good quality, as I’m sure you noticed. It also has a firemark, see? Where the light shines through.” She held it up to the embers again and there it was, Sokka's chest tightening as he saw the unmistakable outline of the Fire Nation insignia, the cup and rising flame, “This, if I’m not mistaken, and I don’t think I am, is authentic imperial stationary used only by the Fire Lord and his family.” She glanced at him curiously, “Where did you get this letter?”

“It doesn’t matter.” Sokka said quickly, heart beating so fast it hurt, “What else can you tell me?”

“The calligraphy is also recognizably Fire Nation. Certain stylistic elements suggest that it is the calligraphic style used primarily by the royal family.” She smiled humorlessly, “I can’t imagine it’s gone into general use. The royal family is not very good at sharing, to say the least.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I got that.”

“Was this letter written to you?” She asked casually, handing back the creased paper.

He didn’t want to tell her, but she’d already seen this much, seen the best thing he had burn to ash before his very eyes, even if she didn’t know it.

“Yes. It was.”

“Be careful, then.” She said, and her voice was so gentle he thought she might be trying to comfort him, “I won’t presume to guess who might have written them, thought I suspect you already know. The royal family can be charming, and all that power is often very seductive, but they will turn on you in an instant if it suits their purposes. Believe me.”

He nodded, feeling so sick, head and heart pounding as one, “Is that a warning or a prediction?”

“It’s not a prediction.” Aunt Wu said, and glanced out the window, where the moon was already high in the dark sky, “I think I should retire for the night. Tomorrow is our annual cloud reading, and I need to be well rested.” She stood to show him out, stopping him right before he walked out the door into the night, “I admit I misjudged you before. You have inflicted even more struggle and anguish on yourself than I could ever have imagined.”

“Wow. Thanks.” His voice cracked, but she probably couldn’t see his face, so that was good.

“Do the right thing and end it before it’s too late.” She said, and squeezed his shoulder so tight it hurt, “We’re only mortal, only human. And they are descended from a god. There’s no place for us by their side." 

Sokka nodded tightly and pulled away. He needed to get as far away from that house as he could, his legs and his lungs working in tandem. He was running but that was okay, the dark forest beckoned and he could be alone there. Not for long, just to get his breath back, just so he could stop shaking. He wasn’t crying but wished he would, dry-eyed burn, throat so thick. He couldn’t go back to Aang and Katara like this. Not with his heart in pieces and his head a wreck.

Twigs cracked beneath his step, the tree-cover blocking out the moon. He walked until it was so dark he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. Then he knelt on the ground and tried to pull himself together.

It was Zuko. It had been Zuko all along, since that first spirits-cursed letter. Zuko, whose mother was missing. Zuko, whose bending was weak, who said he worried, who seemed to care, who wrote about fire like it was a good thing, made Sokka think it might be too—who wrote Sokka a letter like they were friends when Sokka was his prisoner. Only a prisoner. Nothing more. 

This was the punchline, he realized. To the terrible joke his friend was waiting for. Only it should have been Sokka who was waiting, because the joke was on him. He choked a little, tried to keep his breathing even. Aunt Wu was right, he had to end it. Except—oh, spirits—he’d sent that letter. That awful, trusting letter. Stupid, he was so stupid, he’d poured his pathetic heart out and for what?

Sokka drove his fist into the solid bark of the nearest tree, then again. And again. Knuckles flaring to life with stinging pain. He had to get the anger out, it was swallowing him, he was so, so angry, and so, so sad. This must be how Zuko felt all the time. A flicker of sympathy passed through him before he could shut it down. Fuck Zuko, who ruined everything he touched. Fuck him for doing this.

Zuko must have known this was how he’d react. Zuko had been bracing for it this whole time, but Sokka had read his surprise and suspicion as insecurity and made all kinds of promises he’d never be able to keep now. All those stupid, soppy things he’d said before he knew. All the stupid, soppy things he’d thought. If I could just see him, just once, I’d be happy. Just to know he’s real. If I could just hear the sound of his voice. If I could touch him.

He’d never been so disgusted with himself. He wanted to forget the past few months and go back to a time when Suki’s breasts were the only thing he saw when he jerked off, when he’d never read a single letter, when he didn’t need anything or anyone besides Aang and Katara and the memory of his parents to keep him going. But he couldn’t. Time moved in only one direction.

Sokka stood and brushed himself off. It was getting late, Katara was probably worried. He walked back towards the path, back towards the village, back to the inn as if in a dream. All the lanterns were lit and the rooms glowed a merry gold. He thought he saw the flash of Aang’s bald head at the window, heard the sound of Katara’s laughter drifting down to the street. It was for the best if they never knew what had happened. That would make it so much easier to pretend. He started to climb the stairs, heavy footsteps. They’d hear him coming, they’d have questions. Where did you go? He’d come up with answers. He paused before opening the door, took another breath. The letters would have to go, too. He couldn’t keep them around anymore. But he’d do that tomorrow, when he didn’t feel so weak.

Chapter Text

 so, for those of you who haven't seen it yet, Your_Royal_Madjesty drew some more incredible art for this fic! 


 Sokka was grateful for the volcano incident. He really was. If Aunt Wu hadn’t read the clouds wrong he would never have had the chance to scream at a lot of hapless villagers, piss off his sister, climb all the way up Mount Makapu, climb all the way back down Mount Makapu, do some more yelling, and eventually come face-to-face with fiery volcanic doom for the second time in his life. It was like the universe was finally giving him an outlet for how incredibly fucked up he felt.

The only problem was that once the lava had cooled and the village was saved, they’d gone back to the inn, gotten in their respective beds, and blown out the lanterns, leaving him alone in the dark with his spinning thoughts and a black hole eating away at his chest. He wanted to sleep—he needed to sleep. They were waking up early the next morning for the last (he hoped it was the last) leg of their journey to the North Pole. But despite the calming rhythm of Aang and Katara’s breathing and the sound of crickets chirping from the edge of the forest, he just—couldn’t.

This was Zuko’s fault. Everything always came back to him. Stubborn, pathetic, unbalanced, cruel—Sokka knew that from the start. What Sokka hadn’t counted on was Zuko being able to ruin his life so…effortlessly. But that was his own fault, really. He’d been naïve and trusting, everything he told Aang and Katara not to be. And he’d given Zuko the power to make him pay for it. This whole time he’d felt so helpless, witnessing the pain of someone he cared about from far away, unable to help, unable to do anything but write and write and write. Until it turned out his friend had been with him the whole time, dogging his heels like a stray that didn’t know when to quit.

No, not his heels. Aang’s. The only two things his friend—Zuko, Zuko—cared about in the whole world were capturing the Avatar and regaining his honor. No matter what he wrote or how he felt, there was no way Sokka could ever have competed with that kind of obsession. And that’s what made him feel the worst, out of everything. In the end, it was all just a trick—yet another way for Zuko to get at the Avatar from any angle he could find. Zuko must have hoped that with enough time, enough kind words and empty gestures and lying letters, Sokka’s loyalties might start to shift.

And they had. That was the worst part. Sokka saved that Fire Nation village from Jet’s mad scheme, and told himself it was because he was a good person, trying to do Katara and their father and the memory of their mother proud. That imagining his friend in every Fire Nation face he saw had nothing to do with it. Or the time he’d saved Zuko’s life in the burning temple and it had—it had everything to do with Zuko, never mind what he’d told Aang and Katara. It had everything to do with the look of absolute naked fear in his yellow eyes, the way his throat worked as he strained against the un-melted chains, the hiss of his breath. Stupid, stupid. If only Sokka hadn’t put any of these thoughts in words. If only he hadn’t told the friend Zuko pretended to be that he hoped he’d get home soon, that his plans would work, only to be kicked into the dirt during the course of those very same plans by someone who knew who he’d been writing to, knew this whole time. It was inconceivable, unbearable. How could Zuko know and still—? How could he?

He hated Zuko so much for making him into a liar. For making him say so many things and mean them, and have to take them all back.

Exhaustion began to win out as the hours passed, and he started losing track of the train of his thoughts, but still sleep wouldn’t come. If Sokka hadn’t understood before why his friend—why Zuko was so afraid of those long, hazy hours before morning, he definitely did now. The darkest, quietest, coldest stretch—when night felt endless and unchanging—inspired a kind of manic hopelessness, but when the end finally came, he was filled with new resolve.

Sokka stumbled down the stairs and outside right as dawn was breaking. Silvery mist curled around the dark pines, and even though the village was silent, the forest was alive with the sound of birds calling and frogs croaking on the banks of the hidden river. He walked through the front gate, hurrying past the eerie forms of the roadside spirits rising out of the mist alongside him as a shiver coursed down his back (it could have been the cold, too, the air was very chilly this morning and no way was he scared of statues), until he came to the water. He sat down on the pebbly bank and brought out the packet of letters he’d slipped into his shirt. It was time.

He couldn’t bear to re-read them, he knew if he did he’d end up keeping them, and keep holding onto something that was never going to happen. Zuko had made sure of that when he gave the game away in that narrow hallway back on the ship. Sokka was just a—a nobody, a non-bender from the backwaters of the Four Nations, and Zuko was a prince, the son of Agni-on-Earth. There was no place for him by Zuko’s side even if Zuko had held his wrist like what he actually wanted was to hold Sokka’s hand, thumb pressed gently against Sokka’s racing pulse.

Thinking like that only made what he was about to do harder. Sokka separated the first letter from the bundle and flattened it on a smooth rock, closing his eyes before he could decipher the characters. He was so tired that he felt worn-out, empty. His arms were sore from digging ditches all evening, his stomach ached from being up all night without any food, but somehow—for once—he didn’t mind. They were easy sensations to understand. They distracted him from everything else.

He sat there, listening to the low rush of the water, and tried to remember the motions of his grandmother’s gnarled fingers many years ago, on that all-dark winter day, with Mamiak’s infant lying still and blue on the furs behind them and Sokka’s head sore from crying. He had just reached the age when death began to mean something, even if it didn’t mean as much to him as it did to Mamiak, bleeding from where she’d raked her fingernails across her cheeks, her eyes red-rimmed and weepy.

Gran Gran said it was the proper way to mourn the dead, her voice as dry and brusque as the paper she was folding, and she didn’t mean the tears. Sokka didn’t actually know what she meant, but he would learn later that day, when the whole village accompanied Mamiak and her son as far as they could go out on the ice. Once they could walk no further, the little body was slipped beneath the water in the company of a fleet of boats—they would make the rest of the journey with him, floating out into the open water where the Mother of the Sea was waiting for her prize: one soul, very young.

Sokka had never seen anyone make spirit-boats before. He was young. It was the first time he’d seen paper, too. He figured it was just another thing the Fire Nation had stolen from them; this knowledge, and the means to use it.

So it was fitting that he try to take it back now. Sokka tried to fold the letters into precise, identical shapes the way Gran Gran did, telling himself this is how you say goodbye, this is how you keep the dead from coming back, but the pages were all different sizes and he’d never been very good at this kind of thing anyway. He kept trying until he couldn’t stand to look at his failed attempts anymore. Then he crumpled the letters up one by one in frustration and tossed them into the river where they floated like ashy chunks of ice through the current, bobbing and swirling.

He breathed a sigh of what didn’t feel like relief but had to be. It was over. Done. Like it had never happened. He was free now.

He watched the crumpled letters disappear around a bend in the river, the last time he would ever see them, except—no, wait—they were stuck, somehow, behind a half-submerged fallen tree. Why hadn’t he noticed it there before? He could see the letters caught against it, taunting him with all the words he could still hear echoing in his head.

“Just take them!” He yelled at the water, and okay, he was really losing it now, “Just—why won’t you take them? I don’t want—I don’t want—” I don’t want to lose you.

And that’s when he realized he’d made a terrible mistake.

Sokka plunged headlong into the water, gasping as the cold shocked him to the marrow, and swam towards the fallen tree bridging the width of the river. He swept all the letters into the circle of his arms, collecting them in his shirt, and began to walk out of the water, struggling against the current first, and then the weight of his own body and wet clothes, dragging him down as the water grew shallower. Please let them be okay, he prayed. Please.

But they weren’t. Every single sheet of paper was translucent with water and streaked with running ink. He could barely distinguish one character from the next even though he knew them nearly by heart. Sokka laid the letters out on every flat river-rock he could find so they might dry, but nothing, nothing could undo what he’d done. Sokka hunched over, burying his face in his arms, and stopped pretending he didn’t want to cry.

The sun was well above the line of mountains when Sokka made it back to the village with the leathery, half-dry letters hidden back in his shirt. He didn’t know what he was going to do now, but he’d figure it out eventually. He had time. At least until they saw Zuko again, or Hawky showed up. No—not thinking about that. He was so tired his eyes were blurry. He’d do anything for a rest, just a few blissful hours. There weren’t many people out on the streets yet, it was probably still early. Maybe he could sneak into the room, climb in bed, and pretend he’d hadn’t even been gone.

Unfortunately, that plan never got off the ground. It turned out that Aang and Katara had been searching over an hour for him. Aang was the first to spot him from across the village square, and signaled a very confusing warning with grimaces and hand-gestures before Katara descended, all sisterly (motherly) rage and berated him the whole way into Appa’s saddle without letting him stop to get a drink of water or a bite to eat. He wanted to ask whether he’d missed breakfast, but it would only have made her angrier, and besides, she didn’t give him the chance to get a word in edgewise.

“What were you thinking!? You can’t just disappear on us like that! We looked for you for ages, and now we’re behind schedule when you were the one who wanted to get up early. You’re so irresponsible, I can’t believe it. What was Dad thinking when he told you to protect me? I don’t need protecting. You’re the one who keeps wandering off and getting in trouble. I just don’t know what your problem is. Is reaching the Northern Water Tribe even important to you anymore?”

“You can calm down now, Katara.” He said before she could open her mouth again, and looked at Aang, hoping for backup. No luck, “All I did was go for a walk. That’s not a crime, is it?”

“You went without telling either of us where you went!”

Sokka sucked in a slow breath. He could already feel his face twisting to match her furious expression. He had a lot of pent up rage too, and he was dying to release it. A screaming match would be just the thing—but then he looked at her again, at her eyes, and realized she was scared, not angry.

“I wasn’t in any danger. It was just a walk.” He said, and let the breath out, “I’m not stupid enough to get captured twice in a row.”

“I wouldn’t put it past you.” She grumbled, but all the venom was gone from her voice. He nudged her with his elbow, and she gave him an exasperated smile which he took as forgiveness. She settled comfortably next to him at the back of the saddle and took out a pair of shears and a length of white cloth, origins unknown, from her bag. When he gave her a curious look, she said, “Your arm-wrappings are disgusting. I’m making you some new ones.”

“Hey, thanks! D’you think you could patch the elbow-hole in my shirt too, while you’re at it?”

“Don’t push your luck.” She flashed him a grin.

“Ugh. Fine.” He slumped back against the edge of the saddle, pouting, but he didn’t mean it. He was grateful—grateful that Katara was acting like everything was normal, because then he could too. She held out her hand impatiently for his wrappings, but he took his time unwinding them, marveling at how long it had been since he’d last removed them. Dirt had slipped in through the cracks and stained his skin in a muddy spiral going up his forearms. It must have been sometime before the storm, since even a few subsequent soakings hadn’t been enough to wash them clean.

“I really don’t want to think about what’s probably caked on these.” Katara said, holding them pinched between her thumb and forefinger, attempting to use one to measure out a new length of cloth.

“Just snot, mostly.” Sokka grinned, “And some of General Iroh’s spilled tea.”

“Yuck.” She mock-shuddered, and he felt light as air. This was what he was meant to come back to, the familiar ritual of teasing and caring in turn. If everything that had gone wrong up until now was meant to lead to this—to remembering that family stood before everything in the world—he could live with it.

That didn’t stop him from watching the volcano recede into the distance and thinking about how he should have climbed back up there this morning—instead of going to the river, like the sentimental Water Tribe fool that he was—and tossed all the letters in, given fire back to fire. He wouldn’t have had a chance to give in to his weaker impulses because there would have been nothing left to save.

When Katara had finished, he accepted the clean wrappings and wound them back up his arms, marveling at how dark they made his skin look in comparison to their stark whiteness. Katara smiled at her handiwork, told him in no uncertain terms to keep them clean this time, and the three (well, four, counting Appa) of them fell into companionable silence.

The longer they were up in the air and the further away the volcano, the more it seemed like the jagged edges of his thoughts were worn smooth. Like he’d managed to leave all the reasons he’d been upset down on the ground. He was so unbelievably tired. So he sank down in the saddle and curled up with his back against the side. Katara raised a mocking eyebrow at him, and he made a face back. It was comfortable, that’s all. He was just resting his neck. The hood of his parka was a perfect pillow. But eventually he proved himself a liar, once again, by drifting off to sleep.  

Katara shook him awake right before they landed for lunch. The sun was just past its highest point, heat cutting through the cold, thin upper air. The coast was to their right, mountains and barely-visible volcano to their left, but once they descended into the forest, all Sokka could see were the tall trunks of trees and heavy undergrowth ringing a small clearing. Not the best vantage point for spotting upcoming trouble, but at least no ships could see them either. A firepit in the center of the clearing suggested that they weren’t the first people to make use of the site. Katara refilled her water-skin from a nearby spring and handed out seaweed-wrapped rice balls and salty-sweet jerky. Sokka didn’t even bother finding somewhere comfortable to sit down before digging in. He was ravenous.

“This is delicious! Can I have some more?” He said, mouth full, and Katara grimaced, but gave him a second piece of jerky anyway.

The food helped. He didn’t feel so cold and empty anymore, although getting some sleep had probably helped just as much. He even accepted a cup of tea without it reminding him too much of General Iroh’s hospitality on-board the ship and his attempts to convince Sokka that Zuko wasn’t a monster. Had the General been in on Zuko’s lie the whole time? It would explain why he’d tried so hard to seem generous and accommodating, a foil to Zuko’s erratic temper tantrums. Spirits, the whole thing made him sick

“Hey, uh, Sokka?” Aang’s voice broke through his jumbled thoughts, “You just spilled tea all over yourself. Hello, earth to Sokka?”

“What?” He looked down, and the burning started as soon as he saw the wet patch on his leg, “Oh.”

Katara laughed, somewhat uneasily, and Aang asked, “Are you going to drink the rest of that, or can I have it?”

“Go ahead.” He passed the cup over, relieved to be rid of it. Obviously he was going to have to do a much better job at reining in his thoughts. Any more incidents and they’d start to think something was actually wrong.

After lunch, Aang and Sokka went for a walk while Katara finished packing up the leftovers. Not far from the fire pit, the clearing expanded into a grassy meadow which dropped sharply towards the sea, bounded on each side by bushes and trees. Aang had an easy time making it to the bottom of the hill because he was a cheating airbender, but Sokka wasn’t too far behind.

Aang stooped to pick something up, then called out, “Look, a spear made out of a whale tooth!”

“Let me see that.” Sokka skidded down the steep slope and snatched it out of Aang’s hands to peer closely at the leather-wrapped handle and the etchings on the curved blade, “This is a Water Tribe weapon.” He said, with absolute certainty, “I think it’s from my village. I can tell by the markings.” At least, he thought he could.

Every man’s weapon was uniquely his own. The carvings were meant to be both a story of his greatest triumphs and a prayer for good hunting. When Sokka tilted the bone blade at an angle to the sun he caught the shape of an arctic hippo, an assortment of polar bears and tiger seals, a circle of igluit inside a walled enclosure, two tall-sailed boats, and—crowded onto the edge of the blade—the crude outline of a Fire Nation ship, a recent addition. Sokka raised his head, blinking, and realized Aang had been watching him curiously.

“What’s it doing here?” Aang asked, and Sokka shrugged, scanning the landscape. He didn’t know, but he wanted to find out. His heart was leaping in the best possible way. The trees bounded the meadow on three sides, separated by a thick layer of shrubs. A good place for hiding. Or ambush. At his suggestion they split up, searching in the bushes for more clues.  

Katara came by not long after, “Did someone lose something?” She asked.

“No, we found something. Come over here.” Sokka beckoned, and held up another spear, broken this time, with a razor-sharp stone point. He showed them the smoky residue left by burning, and caught sight of similar scorch-marks on the tree behind Aang’s shoulder, “It looks like there was a battle. Water Tribe versus firebender.”

Katara gasped, excited and frightened in turn, and shared a grin with him, following as he scrambled down the path, piecing together the subtle signs out loud.

“Water Tribe warriors ambushed some firebenders and drove them down this hill—towards the water.” Sokka said, and leaped over some boulders onto the wide beach, leaving behind the line of trees, “But I can’t tell you what happens next.”

“Why not?” Katara demanded.

“The trail just…stops.” He said, feeling about as disappointed as she looked. Whatever tracks were left in the sand had vanished long ago, and the beach was smooth—punctuated only by the timbers from old shipwrecks which had washed up on shore. All of a sudden, Katara said in a bright voice, “What about that?”

Sokka followed her line of sight and there it was. At the far end of the beach, one of their boats, resting on one side of its curved hull, faded blue sails rolled up in disuse. All three of them ran up to it with renewed energy.

“Do you think this is Dad’s boat?” She asked, but he shook his head. He was sure he’d recognize it if it was. He’d spent the last hours of that last day perched on top of the village wall, never losing sight of his father’s boat among the fleet until they vanished, all at once, over the horizon. Who could forget something like that? Still, he rested his hand on the bow anyway, reverently, like it had a heartbeat.

“No. It might be from his fleet, though.” He said, for his own sake as much as for hers, “Let’s stick around and see if whoever it is that left this here comes back.”

“But—“ Aang broke in, sounding a bit hesitant, “Are you sure? I thought you wanted to make more progress today. We could keep flying for a few more hours?”

“No way.” Sokka scoffed, “Anyway, you’re the one who likes detours so much. I thought you’d be happy!”

Aang sighed, not looking very happy about it, but he didn’t argue either, so Sokka decided it wasn’t worth the bother trying to figure out Aang’s moods right now, not when they had an airbison to unpack.

It didn’t take them long to set up camp. Once they got settled in, Aang went for a walk along the beach while Sokka and Katara hung around the boat, unwilling to get too far away in case the owner showed up while they were gone. It would be just his luck, Sokka figured. To pass the time, he took out his whetstone and got to work on sharpening his collection of knives.

First he sharpened his fish-gutting knife, then his whale-tooth knife, then his machete. He focused on the creamy bone, testing the edges with his thumb until they drew blood. His knives were old friends, as familiar to him as the coastline of home, as his father’s face. He was pretty sure he’d know if this was his father’s boat. But he couldn’t help the spark of hope that the sight of it had ignited. What if it was Dad’s? What if they got to see him, after all this time?

Katara seemed to be thinking the same thing. She kept gazing at it, almost in disbelief, whenever she looked up from her mending. There was something undeniably exciting about being this close to a Water Tribe anything. Sokka set aside his knives, lost in memories of his first hunting trip with Dad and Bato, his first ride in Dad’s boat. His first kill. How they’d hoisted him up on their shoulders and paraded him back into the village after he’d killed his first seal, proclaiming the new-blooded hunter who’d help keep them alive during the winter.

We’re all relying on you now, Dad said, hand on his shoulder, but you’ll never be alone with that burden.

But he was—they had left him behind.

His life back on the South Pole felt so far away from him now and it shouldn't. He was Water Tribe, that's all he was, all there was to him. The longer he spent away from home and his people, the more of himself he seemed to lose. This morning, for example, was the first time he'd cried in as long as he could remember, except, okay, that one time in the Spirit World too. But that only proved his point. He was cracking. Ever since their father went off to war he’d tried to stay strong. Someone had to. Katara was so hurt. She had enough hurt for the both of them—so Sokka tried not to feel it. But it kept him perpetually—secretly—winded, like a puncture wound to his lungs. Like an empty space. That was the reason he’d started writing in the first place. 

And look at all the trouble it had brought him. 

His head jerked up at the all-too-familiar sound of Hawky’s arrival, heart racing like he’d accidentally summoned the bird just with his thoughts. He immediately glanced down again, trying not to look suspicious. Had Katara noticed? Was he being too obvious? But she kept sewing a patch onto her threadbare parka with calm, even stitches while Sokka wrestled with himself internally. This was literally the last thing he wanted to deal with, but he couldn’t ignore it either. He knew he couldn’t. And it wasn’t just because he didn’t want Hawky hanging around for too long.

There was something in him, even now, that wanted to read what Zuko had to say more than it wanted Sokka to live a long, happy, peaceful life. So he got to his feet and stretched his back until it cracked, “Well, I’m uh, gonna go catch up with Aang. See what he’s up to. I’ll be back!”

“Okay.” She gave him a weird look. He was probably acting jumpy. He was feeling jumpy. To say the least. He wandered across the sand, trying to look casual as he searched for Hawky. Inside, he was reeling. I shouldn’t do this, I shouldn’t do this a constant refrain in his head. He had no idea what Zuko might have written, but he knew he should expect the worst. Although, honestly, what could be worse than what he'd already learned? 

Actually, there were a lot of things that were worse. For instance, Aang and Katara finding out who he was writing to, now that all his plausible deniability was gone. They’d call him a traitor, just like his frien—like Zuko said they would. He wouldn’t blame them if they kicked him out of their little group, too. It’s what he would do, if the situations were reversed.

Sokka heard another screech in the distance and broke into a jog. He couldn’t see Aang anywhere on the beach or the edge of the forest, but it was only a matter of time before he showed up again, and Sokka wanted to be very, very done with this letter business by then. Eventually he spotted Hawky terrorizing some seagulls. At Sokka’s whistle, he perched blithely on his outstretched arm as if he hadn’t just been about to tear another bird’s wing off.

“Well, what’ve you got for me?” He asked, and fumbled with the latch on the message carrier. This was the moment of truth. He held his breath—not sure what he was expecting, or dreading, most. His fingers met paper. A letter. Oh spirits, it could be anything. He thought his heart might pound out of his chest.

“Couldn’t you have waited to deliver this to me?” He asked Hawky, who appeared unconvinced, in an undertone, “Y’know, give me a little while to recover from the past few days? It’s just like Zuko, though. He never knows when to back down.” It felt strange saying his name out loud like that. Unbelievable, almost. Zuko. Zuko was writing to him.

Hawky nipped hard at his nose, obviously impatient to get back to the seagulls, so Sokka let him go and took the little folded sheet of paper back to the edge of the forest, where he could sit on a boulder and read without interruptions. His hands were shaking. His whole body, actually. He should just pitch this note into the sea without looking at it. But that self-destructive something inside him made him unfold the paper and focus his eyes on the characters.

I don’t have much time, so this will be short, but I had to reply to your last letter. I still can’t believe you wrote me back. I know I always say that, but this time I was so convinced I’d ruined everything and you’d never you’d never want to talk to me again.

But, as usual, you’re full of surprises. I like that about you. I like that about you.

It’s probably obvious you’re not the only one who doesn’t know what they’re doing. This is the first time I’ve ever[big ink splotch] Spirits, what’s wrong with me? This isn’t the first time, exactly. There was this one girl, years ago. But we barely even admitted we liked each other at the time. I’m not like you. I can’t give away words like they’re nothing.

Do you ever think about what the repercussions of this will be? I can’t seem to stop. Then again, I’m basically a living example of the old saying that actions have consequences. It’s just so hard to believe you said all those things to me even after I I guess I’m worrying wondering if you’re trying to pretend you still don’t know the truth.

I hope not. I don’t want to be another lie you tell yourself. So tell me that I’m not. Tell me my name. I need you to. Please, Sokka.

He folded the paper up again and tucked it in his shirt. He should have ended this when he had the chance. Now it was too late. Zuko thought he actually meant everything he’d said. He was probably thrilled he’d managed to win over the stupid Water Tribe peasant at last. The right thing to do would be to write back and ruin Zuko’s delusions, tell him all the terrible things he’d thought about the prince over the months, as if that person wasn’t also his friend (false friend), as if the two could be separated.

But the sight of his own name on the page caught Sokka in the sternum like a fishhook, a sharp ache. He’d been doing fine before that, kind of. He’d been angry and able to keep his distance, remain unconvinced. But this... it just...it didn’t feel like a lie. None of it did. Some of the things Zuko wrote...they seemed so desperately personal. Like he hadn’t even really meant to write them, but he did anyway.

Zuko wants this to be real as much as I do, he realized with sudden clarity. And that was almost more terrifying than the prospect of a trick. Tell me my name. Make this real.

“Zuko.” Sokka whispered, touching the pocket where the letter was kept, “It’s you.”

“Hey, Sokka, is that you?” Aang’s voice filtered down through the trees, and Sokka jumped to his feet, whirled around, and nearly tumbled off the boulder, “Talking to yourself?” Aang came to a rest on the boulder opposite Sokka amid a shower of leaves. Had he been up in the trees that whole time?

“Yeah...I—I was.” Sokka said, sounding incredibly nervous, he knew. A dead give-away, if Aang was looking for it.

“What’re you up to?”

“Nothing.” He couldn’t think of an excuse, the letter was burning a hole through his shirt, “I’m—I was just thinking.”

“Okay...” Aang looked at him warily, then apparently decided to accept it, “Well, wanna go explore some more with me? I found this really cool—“

“I, um. We should probably stick close to the boat. I don’t want to miss it if someone comes by.”

“Oh. Okay.” Aang’s shoulders slumped, “I guess I’ll come back too, then.”

They waited all afternoon and into the evening. Eventually Katara crawled into her sleeping bag, and fell asleep. Aang curled up on one of Appa’s massive legs not long after, and Sokka was the only one left awake. He stared into the fire as he poked it with a stick, sending sparks up into the night sky, the discarded whale-tooth blade resting beside him on the sand. He wondered who it really belonged to, what stories its etchings told. He’d considered carving some on his own spear, but he didn’t exactly have a lot of triumphs to speak of. And the things that did feel like victories were victories of the wrong sort. Zuko’s small revelations—I like that about you—, the way he looked when he was smiling, this fragile thing between them building over time...

Oh spirits. He was so fucked. He liked Zuko so much.

Sokka groaned. He couldn’t think about this now. Not when he was so close to his father, in spirit if not in location. Thinking about the two of them in the same breath felt wrong, somehow. They belonged to two worlds, two lives, which should never meet. He knew if his father ever found out—about the letters, about how he felt, the things he thought—he’d be so disappointed and angry. Sokka couldn’t stand imagining it. He gave the fire a particularly vicious poke, and almost didn’t hear the muted footsteps in the sand over the crackling logs.

“Who’s there?” He called out as soon as he did, every sense heightened at the hint of danger, hand on his boomerang, ready to strike if he had to. Then his eyes widened in disbelief and sheer joy, “Bato?!”

Chapter Text

 

Bato stepped into the circle of light, looking like the recreation of some distant childhood memory, “Sokka, is that you?”

Sokka couldn’t believe it. Bato was here, and no, he wasn’t their father—but close enough. He’d been such a permanent fixture in their lives as they grew up, especially after their mom died, that he was practically an uncle. He wrapped Sokka and Katara in a hug, telling them how happy he was to see them, how much they’d grown, and for a moment Sokka felt incredibly light, like he could forget everything that had happened since his father left him behind.

Then he noticed the bandages covering Bato’s arm and torso. He pulled out of the hug, about to ask what had happened, but Katara beat him to it with a much more important question.

“Where’s Dad? Is he here?”

Bato shook his head, smile fading, “No, I’m sorry. Your father and the rest of the men are probably in the Eastern Earth Kingdom by now.” At their disappointed looks, he continued, “I’ll catch you up on what’s been going on, but first let’s get back to my lodgings. It’s chilly out here.” He shivered for effect, like he used to when they were kids.

Katara doused the fire with water bent from the sea, and they loaded their packs back onto Appa’s saddle. Bato lead them down a narrow path through the trees, while Aang and Appa flew on ahead, and Sokka and his sister pestered Bato with nearly three years worth of questions. Eventually Bato laughed and held up a hand, “One question at a time, please. How about I just start at the beginning?”

Sokka and Katara nodded enthusiastically. 

“Let’s see...” Bato thought for a moment, and then his voice took on the easy tone of storytelling, “Since we left the South Pole, we’ve been helping the Earth Kingdom patrol their borders, offering whatever protection we can to the free ports that remain. It isn’t easy work, since the Earth Kingdom’s army is stretched very thin, and often we’re the only line of defense against Fire Nation incursions, but I like to think we’re making a difference. We sailed here two months ago because your father made an arrangement with the governor of this state that we’d patrol for the warmer months, then head south for the winter. Usually the ash eaters don’t cause too much trouble this far north when it’s cold, apparently the climate doesn’t agree with them.” He gave them both a conspiratorial grin, and Sokka felt a rush of pride to be from the Water Tribe.

“It’s lucky we were here, because a month into our patrol, a raiding party showed up in the middle of the night. They were heading to the city of Anbei, which is less than a league west of here, but they made the mistake of sending their Komodo Rhino cavalry right through our camp.” His smile turned sharp, “They won’t be making that mistake again.”

“So there was a fight?” Sokka asked, trying to sound casual, “Is—is everyone alright?”

“Mostly scrapes and bruises—those rhinos are no joke. Your father’s hands were blistered for a few days—and don’t worry, he’s fine—but I’m the only one who had to stay behind.”

“Yeah, no kidding.” Sokka eyed the bandages around Bato’s neck, which fell just short of covering the very edges of his burned skin, “How did it happen?”

“I got caught in a fire-blast during the fight and didn’t roll away fast enough,” Bato shrugged dismissively, “It looks worse than it really is.”

Sokka wasn’t sure he believed that, because it looked like almost half of his skin had been burned away. He was surprised that Bato didn’t have more to say about it, too. The Bato he knew never met a story he didn’t like to tell. Sokka’s first impulse was to press the issue, but he stopped himself. Maybe there was just something about scars that made the people who bore them clam up. Or maybe there really was nothing more to tell.

“So you’ve been recovering here this whole time?” Katara asked. They emerged from the forest path onto a deeply-rutted road where Aang and Appa were waiting for them. 

“After I was injured, your father carried me to a nearby abbey, and I’ve been staying there ever since. It’s just down the road, you’ll see it in a moment.”

They walked a little longer until they spotted the abbey’s tall, whitewashed walls shining dully through the dark trees up ahead. At Bato’s signal, the wooden gates swung open, and he ushered them into the wide stone courtyard where a group of white-robed women were gathered.

“Mother Superior, these are Hakoda’s children,” He said, and a woman in a fancy folded headdress turned to greet them, “They’ve been travelling with the Avatar.”

Aang brightened immediately and exchanged the usual so-honored-to-meet-you-I’m-the-Avatar stuff with the Mother Superior. Sokka sighed, impatient—they went through this every single time they met people who didn’t want to kill them, and there were only so many times he could hear the same thing before getting tired of it.

He caught the rich, salty smell of food wafting through the air from somewhere nearby, and took that as his opportunity to interrupt, “Hey Bato, what’s cooking?”

Bato shook his head knowingly, “It’s a surprise. You’ll see.”

When Bato opened the door to his quarters, Sokka froze at the threshold, eyes suddenly stinging, breath caught in his throat. It looked and smelled so much like home, down to Bato’s pitched tent and the pelts on the floor, the cauldron bubbling away on the central fire-pit, that he felt like he was about to step through space and time back to the Southern Water Tribe.

“This is incredible.” Katara breathed beside him, eyes wide, maybe a little teary too.

“Helps keep the homesickness away, although I don’t think I’ll ever stop missing the ice,” He turned to grab a set of bowls from one of the shelves, “Now, who wants some stewed sea-prunes?”

They settled around the fire and talked, and ate, and laughed long into the evening. This was the best Sokka had felt in ages—relaxed and happy in the company of people he cared about. Sure, he wished they could travel with Bato to see their father as soon as they got word of his location, but he’d accepted a while ago that his loyalties were first and foremost with the Avatar, even if the Avatar was just an annoying kid sometimes. Aang was acting really weird tonight—jumpy, like he had something to hide or he was just jealous not to be in the spotlight for once in his life. Sokka decided that just this once he didn’t care—he’d let Katara worry about it if she wanted to. He’d just given up his first, and possibly last, chance to see his father again all for the sake of Aang’s super-important mission to save the world. He was entitled to some selfishness.

And maybe he also didn't want a reminder of life outside the walls of this abbey. It was so easy, with his stomach full of sea-prune stew and his fingers buried deep in a polar leopard pelt, watching Bato and Katara’s faces animated by the flickering light, to pretend he still lived in a world without war, without grief, without fear. A world where he’d never written a single letter, never left his village, never fallen in love with someone he shouldn’t have.

And that was the crux of the issue. No matter where his thoughts went, they always came back to that—to Zuko. He stopped trying to follow the thread of Bato and Katara’s conversation and focused on the fire instead, remembering how it looked, blooming in Zuko’s hands. Remembering the heat of his palms and how good they might feel against bare skin without the intent to hurt. He’d always tried to keep the before separate from the after; the person he used to be separate from the person he was quickly becoming. It was easy to fall into the before for a little while, but it wasn’t real anymore. He looked around the room at the parka hanging from a hook on the wall, the fierce helmet of a Wolf Warrior, the polished weapons gleaming in the light, and wondered if he’d ever feel completely at home among them again.

Next to him, Katara yawned hugely and stretched her back, “I’m exhausted. Goodnight, Bato. Goodnight, Sokka.”

“G'night, sis.” Sokka said, and watched as she before curled up on a particularly lush polar bear fur and dropped almost immediately into sleep.

Somewhere along the line, Aang had left to sleep with Appa in the stables, citing concerns that Appa would get lonely, so it was just Sokka and Bato left awake. For a moment, Bato’s cheerful expression dropped away and he looked somber and a little sad as he stared off into the middle-distance, before Sokka’s nervous cough drew his attention.

“Hey,” Sokka said in a low voice, “I wanted to ask you something.”

Bato nodded encouragingly, so Sokka continued, “I got the feeling you didn’t tell us everything, earlier, when you were explaining how you got injured. I don’t want to pry or anything, but I guess I was just wondering...”

“What actually happened?” Bato supplied, “I don’t mind saying; I just didn’t think it was necessary. It’s a bit embarrassing, actually.” He smiled faintly, “It all happened very quickly. One moment I was asleep, and the next I was on fire. It was just the tent, at first, but my shirt caught pretty quickly. Luckily, your father woke before it spread to our, uh—to the sleeping bag. He got out fine, but it was a close call, since we were—we were sharing a tent.” Bato looked down at his hands, remembering, “When he tried to pull the burning shirt off, it took some of my skin along with it. As soon as the flames were extinguished, your father and the rest of the men chased the cavalry down to the beach, where they disposed of them. Then he came back for me.”

 “Oh.” Sokka said stupidly, “Oh.”

“We were arrogant, that’s why it happened. We didn’t think we’d need a night watch on such an isolated stretch of coast. When the cavalry came through, they must have seen our tents and decided to ambush us while we were vulnerable.”

“I saw some traces of the ambush yesterday, right by the beach, but I assumed it was the other way around.”

Bato laughed, “That’s a much more flattering version, I admit.”

“It must have hurt, though.” Sokka said, thinking of Zuko, of Firelord Ozai—his father—pressing a palm full of fire right onto the fragile skin beneath his eye, “It must have hurt a whole lot, right?”

“Like no pain I’d ever felt before.” Bato said, and unpinned a section of the neat, white bandage at his wrist, unwinding it to his elbow. The skin underneath was a vicious pink, wrinkled and pitted with scars. Here and there were patches of dark red scabs crusted with yellow, “It’s still healing, but the nuns agreed I’m finally well enough to travel.”

Sokka scrambled for something to say that would be worthy of Bato’s scars and everything he’d sacrificed for the war and the Water Tribe. 

“My father always said scars were the mark of a brave warrior.” His voice only faltered a little. He couldn’t imagine what it was like to walk around with the reminder that your father wanted to hurt you permanently displayed on your face. Zuko was brave too, in his own way, for waking up every morning.

“He said the same to me. In my case, though, they’re more the mark of a very deep sleeper.” He tried to make it sound like a joke, but Sokka didn’t buy it. He didn’t know what else to say, though, until he remembered the whale-tooth spear still wrapped up safely in his pack.

“I found a weapon back at your campsite yesterday. Do you want to see it? You might be able to figure out who it belongs to.”

“Sure.”

As soon as Sokka brought it into the light of the fire, Bato’s eyes widened in surprise, “That’s mine, actually. Thank you for picking it up, I was wondering where it had gone...”

Sokka looked at the blade with renewed interest, filling in the stories behind the carvings now that he knew some of them. The Arctic hippo debacle was a classic.

“Is one of these boats yours?” Sokka asked, pointing to the carving of the two Water Tribe boats, and Bato nodded, “So who does the other one belong to?”

“Oh. Well, that one belongs to your father.” He noticed Sokka’s confusion, and grimaced, “Look, it really shouldn’t be me telling you this. Hakoda would want the one to—he’d want to be here.”

“What? What is it?” Sokka asked, suddenly terribly worried.

Bato took a steadying breath, looking like he wished he could be anywhere other than here, “Sokka, you have to understand. Since your mother’s death, your father has been...well, it’s been a very lonely time for him. And after a few long months on campaign, far from home—we didn’t mean for it to happen, but—”

“You, you mean—you and Dad are—“ Sokka swallowed, “You mean, you’re together?”

“Yes. That’s what I mean.”

Shit.

“Shit.” Sokka said, and shook his head, “I don’t get it. I always knew you guys were close, but I thought—I thought like brothers. We called you Uncle Bato.” He felt a little betrayed, like his memories had turned out to be lies.

“We were.” Bato gave him a deeply apologetic smile, “But things change.”

Sokka closed his eyes, taking it in. This was not what he’d expected at all. But he wasn’t about to begrudge anyone—especially not his father—happiness where they found it. Not considering his own questionable life choices.

“It’s okay.” He said at last, and Bato looked relieved, “I don’t mind. It’s fine. I’m—I’m glad, I guess.”

“You can tell Katara if you want. Or I can tell her, if you think that’s best. You know her better than I do, now.” Bato said.

“I...I think maybe neither of us should tell her for a while.” Sokka decided, glancing at her sleeping form, the steady rise and fall of her breath, “She’d take it hard, like you were replacing Mom or something.”

“And you don’t?”

“Mom is dead.” Sokka said bluntly, and felt a little bad, “And nothing anyone does will ever bring her back. My dad can do what he wants.”

Bato looked surprised, almost impressed, “You’ve grown a lot in the past few years, Sokka. And I’m not just saying that because you’re finally taller than your sister.” Sokka flushed at the reminder of a particularly dark time in his past.

“A lot has happened.” Sokka said, not wanting to get into it. He looked down at his hands against the white fur—brown skin, ink-stained fingers. Zuko.

“Your father is so proud of you.”

It was what he’d been waiting, hoping, to hear for so long—but for some reason it didn’t make him feel as good as he thought it would. His father only felt that way because he didn’t know anything, didn’t know the kind of traitor his son had become. A wave of guilt passed over him like nausea. Bato had been honest, he deserved honesty in return. Then Sokka could be free of this.

“Have you, uh—“ He licked his lips, mouth inexplicably dry, not feeling nearly as brave as he needed to be, “Have you heard of Prince Zuko?”

“Yes.” Bato said, perplexed but rolling with it, “I’ve met him, actually. Why?”

“You met him?” Sokka asked, stalling.

“A while ago. He and his uncle, or whoever, were resupplying at the same port as our fleet. As soon as he realized we were from the Southern Water Tribe, he kicked up a huge fuss and had us all brought onto his ship one-by-one for questioning.” He shook his head in disgust, “He’s a real piece of work, isn’t he?”

Sokka snorted, amused—that was an understatement if he’d ever heard one—then wanted to kick himself for getting distracted. He had to say it, say it now, before he lost his nerve.

“Yeah, he, uh—” Sokka started, but Bato cut him off unwittingly.

“He mentioned you by name, as a matter of fact. Sorry, what were you going to say?”

“No, no, keep talking.” Sokka waved him on. Spirits, he was such a coward and a fool, “What did he say?”

“He just asked if we’d been in touch with either you or Katara, and if we knew the Avatar’s whereabouts. Or at least, that’s what he asked me. Apparently he laid into Hakoda pretty harshly once he learned Hakoda was your father, but Hakoda wouldn’t tell me exactly what was said. That’s how we found out you and Katara were travelling with the Avatar.”

Sokka’s stomach clenched. This was all his fault. If he hadn’t written those letters, then Zuko would never have known a single thing about him or his family and would never be in the position to hurt any of them, even just with words. It was on the tip of his tongue to tell Bato the truth, but months of silence were hard to break. The moment passed, and he knew he wasn’t going to. Not now. Maybe never.

He stretched, trying to ease the tension in his shoulders. When he spoke, he sounded more bitter than he meant to, “Zuko has been trying to hunt us down for months. Well, he’s been hunting Aang. Katara and I are just collateral damage.”

“Does that bother you?” Bato asked, uncannily perceptive, and Sokka shrugged, trying to play it cool.

“I mean, I wouldn’t want to be Aang, let’s put it that way.” He shook his head, “It doesn’t matter. He’s not the worst of them. Zuko, I mean. Yeah, he’s annoying and persistent and he did nearly kill us a couple times, but people like Firelord Ozai and Admiral Zhao are much worse. Destroying the whole world isn’t enough for them; they want to destroy their own people too.”

“I did hear rumors...” Bato said slowly, “About the circumstances surrounding the prince’s banishment. I never thought they could be true. What father would do such a thing?” He sounded genuinely angry on Zuko’s behalf, just for a moment, and it gave Sokka his courage back.

“He doesn’t like that story getting around, but yeah. It’s true.” Sokka said, words spilling out of him without a second thought, “He’s done a lot of inexcusable things, but he’s not—he’s just really confused, I think. I don’t think he would have done half of them if his life hadn’t been so messed up.”

Bato looked at him then, very curiously, as the silence began to drag. Sokka realized with horror what he’d said and wished he could cut his tongue off. Just when he’d already decided not to give anything away...He glanced compulsively in Katara’s direction to make sure she hadn’t woken up and heard everything.

“Sounds like you know him pretty well.” Bato said at last, sounding perfectly calm and non-judgmental. Sokka knew it was only a matter of time before his composure broke, and he cast Sokka out on his ass like he deserved.

“Yeah, I—“ He hung his head to disguise his panic. Bato could always tell when he was lying, just like his father and, once upon a time, his mother could. He’d have to find some version of the truth, “I was a prisoner on his ship for a few days. He talked to me a bit. That's all." 

Bato frowned slightly, like he knew there was more to the story, but after a few moments of deliberation, he said, “Just be careful, okay? It sounds pretty dangerous travelling with the Fire Nation's Most Wanted." 

“Okay.” His voice was surprisingly steady, "Yeah. Okay." He faked a yawn and said, “Well, I’m gonna go to sleep now. See you tomorrow.”

“Goodnight.” Bato said, and smiled like he hadn't just almost heard the biggest and worst secret Sokka had ever kept. But that was the thing—he hadn't heard it. Not directly. Sokka waited for him to bank the fire very carefully and climbed into his tent, before unrolling his sleeping bag. He buried himself in its comforting warmth, and tried not to think too hard about any of the things that had been said that evening. He'd have to think about them at some point, obviously, but right now he was tired and wrung-out and the letter was still hidden beneath his shirt, crinkling when he rolled over onto his side. Re-reading it would be yet another mistake in a long line of mistakes he'd made today and almost every other day since Kyoshi Island. But he did it anyway. 

This is real, Sokka thought, holding the letter. He's real. And he likes me.

 

Chapter Text

While the morning was still pale and cold, the abbey’s courtyard began to fill with a strange, terrible noise—drums and clanging bells, women’s voices rising and falling—which woke Sokka from a deep sleep. He got out of bed groggily and padded over to the door to see what the commotion was all about. Outside, hundreds of white-robed nuns were gathered, sitting on the temple's platform and swaying as they chanted in no language he could recognize, although he remembered that the Four Nations used to have their own tongues, in the old days. A soft warmth at his side indicated that Katara had joined him, still wrapped in a blanket to ward off the chill. He tugged a corner free from her and wrapped it around his own shoulders. 

"What's going on?" She asked.

"No idea." They stood transfixed by the door. It was like nothing he'd ever seen before; the ghostly nuns, their eerie singing, the smoke from four large incense burners rising to mingle with the early morning mist. He recognized Mother Superior as she mounted the platform with a smaller figure dressed in orange and red following after her, walking slowly in time with the drumming. 

"Aang..." Katara said with a look of wonder on her face. 

Mother Superior lead Aang to each of the four incense burners, then into into the temple’s inner sanctum to deposit offerings. He emerged empty-handed, and was anointed with oil by Mother Superior while the nuns chanted their blessings around him. Sokka was struck by how serious, almost grown-up, Aang looked. Like Sokka had always imagined the Avatar to be. But then the ritual finished, music fading, and Aang was a kid again—bounding over to them with a goofy smile, clothes dripping some kind of incredibly pungent substance.

“Morning, guys!”

“Good...morning...” Sokka and Katara both tried not to gag.

“What’s for breakfast?”

Thankfully, Bato had woken up and could answer for them, since he was seemingly immune to the smell.

“You get used to it after a while,” He said, and started reheating some seaweed dumplings in the coals of last night's fire, “The nuns are expert perfume-makers; they supply sacred oils and fragrances to almost every religious institution in the Earth Kingdom, and quite a few boutiques in Ba Sing Se, too.”

“But the noise...” Sokka said, settling down to wait impatiently for food, “Does that happen every morning?”

“Just about.” Bato laughed, “Like I said, you get used to it.”

Sokka was glad he wasn’t going to be staying long enough for that to happen. He planned to head out later that morning, once they’d eaten and said goodbye to Bato. A cowardly part of him wanted to leave right now, but he wouldn't have been able to justify it. Still, the possibility that Bato knew—must have figured it out, Sokka had been so obvious—nearly kept him from eating.

He kept waiting for Bato to turn to Katara over their breakfast of dumplings and tea and give his secret away, ruin his whole entire life with a few easy words. But Bato said nothing, carrying on like they hadn’t talked at the night before. Sokka didn't trust his silence, but forced himself to relax. He didn't want to draw any attention to himself. 

After breakfast, Bato helped them gather their things and bring them out to Appa. He took one look at their half-empty packs and threadbare clothes in the light of the day and refused to let them leave until they'd had a chance to resupply from his own personal stores on his boat. Aang said he didn't need anything extra, but Sokka couldn't deny the appeal of new clothes and weapons. Katara was absolutely in favor of restocking, but Sokka wasn't sure he wanted to risk it, since the chances Bato said something incriminating about him increased considerably the longer they stayed. He was conflicted right up until Bato promised him some jerkied seal blubber in a shameless act of bribery, which Sokka was unable to refuse. 

Aang tagged along on their walk back to the beach, weirdly anxious not to let them out of his sight, like they might disappear if he wasn’t there to stop them, which Sokka thought was ridiculous; hadn't they already passed up a chance to see their father for him? What more could he ask? Still, he seemed to be in a better mood than yesterday; laughing along with them at the stories Bato told as they walked. Each time he finished one, Katara begged for another, almost desperately. Bato seemed happy to oblige, smiling at the request like there was no one else in the world he’d rather be talking about. It made Sokka a little itchy to see but he was glad his dad had someone who cared about him that much. 

The most recent story was of Bato's first ice-dodging, one Sokka knew almost by heart. He listened anyway, just to hear Bato tell it in that way he had; Hakoda manning the mainsail, fierce winds, rough sea, dangerous ice-floes. Narrowly skirting an iceberg only for a huge chunk of ice to break off right as the boat passed by, nearly crushing them into oblivion. 

"We were lucky to survive." Bato laughed. They were nearing the boat, "You can still see the scar on its side. How about you, Sokka? I bet you have some good ice-dodging stories." 

“He never got to go.” Katara said, when it took Sokka a little too long to form the words, “Dad left before he was old enough.”

"Oh. Right." A look of unbearable pity passed over Bato’s face and Sokka cringed, but it was gone as soon as it had come, replaced by a growing smile. It turned out there was something Bato liked even more than telling stories: solving problems.

Which was how Sokka found himself steering Bato’s boat through the dangerous rocks just off the coast at top speed, shouting orders over the roar of the wind and pounding waves, completely united in purpose with Aang and Katara, every other thought chased out of his mind. Working together like this made him confident that they could overcome any odds, accomplish anything they set their minds to. They were brave, and strong, and unconventional, and Fire Lord Ozai was just another jagged rock in the sea.

After he’d successfully gotten the boat to safe waters, Bato took over and steered them back to shore. Sokka leaped down into the shallows and waded onto the beach, exhilarated and weak with relief, soaking wet from the surf. He was damn good, and he knew it, and now everyone else did too. This was a story he could tell for the rest of his life. Bato jumped down after him, and gently asked Aang and Katara to wait by the boat while he took Sokka aside to exchange a few words in private.

In a flash, all of Sokka's loose-limbed joy evaporated. He'd been waiting for this moment for a long time; ever since Katara went for a talk with Gran Gran at her first blood and wouldn't tell him anything about it. The passing down of secret information from father to son was an integral component of the coming of age ritual, but he'd always thought—well, he thought it would be his dad taking him aside. He didn't know what Bato had to tell him, but he worried it wasn't anything good. 

They walked down the beach until they came to a weathered tree trunk washed up on shore, far enough from the boat to be out of earshot. Bato sat down first, and reluctantly Sokka joined him He stared down at his feet buried in the sand, ignoring Bato's amused expression. 

“Hey, relax, you look like I just sentenced you to death.” He laughed, “I have nothing bad to say. You did great out there, your father will be proud of you when he hears about it. Unless you want to wait and tell him yourself?"

Sokka vaguely registered that Bato had asked him a question, "No, uh. That's fine. You can tell him."

"Okay." Bato nodded, "I'm sure he wishes he could have been here today. He’ll have things to tell you, when you see him next. I can’t guess what they might be, so I won’t even try. But I—” He paused, assembling his thoughts, “Well, you’re like a son to me. Always have been. I know we already talked last night but I got the feeling there were things you didn’t have a chance to say. Whatever’s on your mind, I’m here. I’m listening.”

“Uh, thanks, I guess.” Sokka said, suddenly aware of how heavily he was sweating, “But I don’t—I’m not—I don’t have anything to tell you.”

“That’s fine, just thought I’d offer.” He looked down at his hands clasped in his lap, pensive, “I admit, I'm at a bit of a loss. The advice my father passed on to me isn’t really relevant now. His generation lived through great hardship, so they valued survival above anything else. He taught me that a man’s worth comes from starting a family, providing for them, and protecting them at any cost. And that’s a perfectly fine way to live, but it’s not for everyone. It's certainly not how my life worked out." 

“So, you never had a—a wife? I thought maybe...” Sokka broke off. He’d always wondered why Bato had no family of his own but never had the guts to ask. He assumed they’d been killed, like his mother.

“It wasn’t a conscious decision on my part, to stay unmarried.” Bato replied, “When I was younger, I wanted someone by my side, but there weren’t enough women in our village, or any of the villages along the coast, so eventually I stopped looking. Until everything happened with your father, of course.” 

“Do the men know about you and Dad?” Sokka asked, hoping he seemed casual, “Do they mind?”

Bato shrugged, “They know. Some mind, but it’s not my problem unless they start mouthing off about it.”

“What about Gran Gran? Does she...?” Sokka asked. He knew he was giving himself away with how nervous he sounded, but he couldn’t not ask. 

“Not yet. She will.” Bato sighed, and looked out at the sea, lapping against the shore, “Times have changed. We can’t go back to the old ways, the old beliefs.” He turned to Sokka, serious now, and Sokka curled into himself, away from the force of his gaze, “Don’t be afraid of whatever it is that you want, even if you think your father or your grandmother might disapprove. I can’t guarantee they won’t, but you’re an adult now in the eyes of our people. No one but you can decide the course of your life. Trust that you know what is best for yourself.”

“And what if—” Sokka swallowed hard, “What if the things I want aren’t what’s best for me, or anyone else? What do I do then?”

Bato smiled, knowing and sad, “I wish I could answer that. When you figure it out, be sure to tell me.”

“Will do.” Sokka said, and they both laughed without really meaning it, “Thank you. Uh, again. That actually—helped.”

“Glad to hear it.” Bato stood up, motioning for Sokka to join him, “Let’s not keep them waiting any longer. There’s still something left for us to do.”

“Okay.” Sokka got to his feet, feeling a little shaky but good, actually. Excited, even, for the next part in the ceremony. That had not gone at all as he'd expected. He followed Bato back to the boat, where Aang and Katara were idly making waves dance along the shore. As soon as Katara spotted him, she ran over and threw her arms around him. He hugged her back, and tried not to embarrass himself by getting watery-eyed. 

“Mom and Dad would be so proud.” She whispered, and he nodded mutely. He couldn't believe it was really happening—the ice-dodging was fun, in its own way, but this was the most important part. This was when he became a Wolf Warrior for real, and not by default. He could wear a helmet now, and all the symbols of their clan. He was an adult

They lined up, and Bato dipped his fingers in a dish of blue paint, marking each of them according to their strengths. Sokka squared his shoulders and accepted the mark of the wise, paint drying cool and tight on his forehead. He looked over at Katara and Aang standing beside him, at Bato speaking solemn words to each of them in turn, and knew deep in his bones that he loved them—his family by blood and by choice. If his bad decisions came to hurt them in any way, he’d never forgive himself.

But he also knew that wasn’t going to be enough to stop him. He wanted so badly he thought he might suffocate in it. And if there was the slightest chance that Zuko felt the same, wanted him back with the same crazy intensity, then he had to try. Strange, he thought he’d feel guiltier, standing there with seawater drying in his hair and salt on his lips, looking at the people he loved and wishing for someone else, but all he felt was warmth. They’d figure things out, somehow. He’d make it happen.

Everything was going really well right up until the Aang situation suddenly and unexpectedly blew up. 

“You knew where our father was this whole time and you didn’t tell us?” Sokka snatched the map away from Aang, spitting mad, “How could you lie to us like that?”

“You have to understand, I was afraid you guys would—” Aang pleaded, but Sokka didn’t want to hear it.

“We trusted you.” Sokka snarled, “And you betrayed us.”

“That’s not fair, Sokka. You know that’s not fair.” Aang said, with a tremor in his voice and a determined look in his eyes, “Not when you’ve been lying to everyone for months about the lette—”

“Shut up!” Sokka yelled, terrified, and both Bato and Katara turned to stare at him in shock, “Just—shut up. It’s not the same.”

“What is he talking about, Sokka?” Katara asked, and he shook his head.

“He’s full of shit, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Sokka said, trying to ignore the look on Aang’s face like his whole world was ending, “You can find your own damn way to the North Pole. I’m going after Dad.” He beckoned for Katara to join him. She hesitated, and he feared he might have just lost her a second time to the Avatar, a terrible thought, but he couldn’t back down from this, not now while he was scared out of his mind and so, so angry. Eventually she walked up to him and took his hand, squeezing tight.

“I’m coming with you to find Dad,” She said, sounding like the words were forced out of her, and he squeezed back, “I’m sorry, Aang.”

Aang only nodded unhappily, and followed them at a distance back to the abbey. Sokka seethed with anger as he walked, unable to calm down even a little bit. He wished Aang hadn’t said that thing about the letters—it would have been so much easier to forgive him. Oh well. Too late now.

He packed in a daze, concentrating on getting his tent rolled up and strapped to his bag so he wouldn’t have to face the concerned looks Bato and Katara were sending his way. True, he might have overreacted slightly, but that was Aang’s own fault for bringing up the letters in the first place, like they were even remotely the same situation. It wasn’t something he could explain to them.

“Sokka, it just doesn’t seem ri—” Katara started, and Sokka abruptly decided he was finished with the tent.

“Let me see the map again.” He cut her off, unwilling to meet her eyes. Bato handed it to him with a wry smile.

“You know, your father always does that when there’s something he doesn’t want to talk about.”

“Well, guess what? I’m not my father.” Sokka snapped, and immediately felt bad, but not enough to take it back. He stared down at the map, mentally tracing the coastline, calculating distances in his head, “We need to head out. I want to get to Guoqing before nightfall.” Bato nodded in confirmation, gave him one last disapproving look, then left him alone, thank the spirits.  

They passed Aang and Appa on their way out the gates, packs loaded up with everything they’d need on the road. The straps hung heavily on Sokka’s shoulders—saying goodbye to air travel was fine in theory, but his back would probably be killing him by the time they reached the temple at Guoqing. Katara stopped briefly to say goodbye, but Sokka still didn’t want to look at Aang and his miserable face because then he’d feel guilty and there was too much at stake for him to start feeling guilty now. He waited at the gates with Bato until Katara rejoined them, and then they were off down the road on foot—Bato starting at a brisk pace with his long legs, and Sokka and Katara working hard to keep up.

It was inevitable that the further they got from the abbey, the worse Sokka felt about leaving Aang behind like that. Yes, he’d done an unforgivable thing, but so had Sokka, over and over again. Aang at least had come clean about it. Sokka just kept lying to everyone around him all the time, and he couldn’t—he couldn’t face his father like that, with that on his conscience. He had a duty to the Avatar and the world, and a whole bunch of secrets he wasn’t ready to reveal, and apologies to make, and he knew, as sure as the wolf howled, that he’d have to turn back—that they would both have to turn back, and rejoin Aang, and do the right thing even if it killed his pride to do it. 

Bato seemed to understand. They said a heartfelt goodbye, and went their separate ways; Sokka and Katara retracing their steps down the road through the forest. They weren’t more than half a league away from the abbey, although by now, Aang could be anywhere. Hopefully he’d told one of the nuns where he was headed, and they could follow after.

They’d been walking for a while, the dense evergreen of the forest breaking here and there into patches of sunlight, when he heard it. At first he thought it was just Hawky, who’d followed them from the beach to the abbey and back, but this sounded larger, like the crashing a giant animal as it ran, getting closer and closer, until—

He thought his heart was going to stop. An enormous creature leaped down from the high embankment onto the road, blocking their path. It slobbered and sniffed the air—a tracker, with sightless eyes. That was bad enough, but then he saw who was riding on its back and thought, hysterically, that this was exactly what he deserved for being such a hypocrite. 

He grabbed Katara’s hand and tried to pull her out of the way, but there was nowhere to go, the animal had them cornered. This was all his fault. He’d made them vulnerable. Zuko must have used one of the letters to track them down. He should have let Aang tell Bato and Katara about the letters. He should have told them himself. Then he’d be out here alone, cast out from the group, and no one else would get hurt.

 At least there was one silver lining to his selfishness, he thought as they backed up against the embankment. Aang was safe.

The animal lumbered closer, nose twitching, and Sokka braced himself for it’s approach. It would recognize him immediately, if it was going to recognize anyone at all. Yet, inexplicably, the animal wasn’t interested in him. It was interested in Katara, shoving its nose at her as if it smelled her fear. Or something else.

“The necklace!” He gasped, and Katara’s face flushed with pure hatred.

“He won’t get away with this,” She said in a strangled undertone.

But he already had. When Zuko shifted in the saddle, they could both see the necklace tucked into his belt, blue ribbons fluttering against his armor. Taunting them both, but mostly Katara, who looked murderous. Sokka touched her shoulder, reminding her to stay calm. She nodded, took a deep breath, stood straight and brave.

Thank you, Sokka sent up to the heavens in a fervent prayer, weak with relief. Thank you spirits, or whoever you are, for making this not my fault. I’ll be better, I swear I’ll be better.

A skinny woman dressed all in black sat at the front of the saddle. The tracker, he assumed. She reined in her animal and looked down at Sokka and Katara, considering, “So this is your girlfriend,” She said, “No wonder she left, she’s far too pretty for you.”

Katara bristled, and Zuko scowled at the woman’s back, “She’s not my—”

“Whatever you say, angry boy.” She waved her hand at him dismissively, and Sokka was caught between amusement and a weird kind of jealous anger. He wondered what Zuko had told her. 

Zuko jumped down from the saddle and stalked towards them as they backed up against the crumbling embankment. Sokka's first instinct was fear, but he couldn’t deny the shiver of anticipation running down his spine. Zuko looked exactly the same as he always did—the slide of plate armor as he moved, pale skin, hair slightly tangled by the wind. Sokka didn’t know why he expected to see some change in him.It was just—Zuko made it sound like there was something between them now, something real, and as Sokka stood there, watching him approach, he felt like his entire heart was open for the world to see. 

 “Where is the Avatar?” Zuko demanded, “He was supposed to be with you!”

And then there was that.

“We split up ages ago.” Sokka said quickly, “I have no idea where he is.”

“How stupid do you think I am?” Zuko snarled.

“Pretty stupid.” Sokka shot back, figuring if Zuko could pretend nothing was going on then he could too. He must have been imagining the momentary flare of hurt in Zuko’s eyes before it was replaced by rage, “Katara, run!”

They didn’t get far. The animal’s barbed tongue lashed out and struck them both, poisoning them through their clothes. They crashed hard to the ground. Sokka tasted dust on his tongue and tried to move his arms, his legs, anything. But it was no use; he was completely paralyzed, like his body had disconnected from his brain.

“What should we do now?” Zuko asked from somewhere behind them, sounding frustrated. Then Sokka heard clawed feet approaching—the tracker’s animal, sniffing close to Sokka’s pack with that atrocious tentacled nose.

“She’s seeking a different scent. Something the Avatar touched.” The woman said. Sokka could feel things shifting in his pack as the animal nosed through it until something fell free and rolled past his head. The map.

“Well?” Zuko prompted.

“Let’s go, she’s got the trail.” The woman called out eagerly, and Sokka imagined an avid grin on her narrow face as she leaned forward in the saddle, whip raised.

Zuko mumbled something in response.

“What, nephew?” General Iroh asked.

“I said, we can’t just leave them here.” There were footsteps, and then Zuko came into view. He laid a hand on Katara’s still back. Her eyes widened with outrage, and Sokka had a moment to wish he could break free of the paralysis to intervene before Zuko was hauling her into the air by the fabric of her dress alone and handing her off to his uncle, who must have deposited her in the saddle because they both disappeared from Sokka’s sight.

“You next.” Zuko said quietly, and his touch was warm between Sokka’s shoulder-blades as he eased the straps of Sokka’s pack off his shoulders. 

He picked Sokka up off the ground just as easily as he had Katara, which was a little surprising, but mostly just really hot. It didn't even make sense, the situation was all wrong. He could barely feel his own limbs, but he felt Zuko’s arm tight around his waist, the warmth of his breath against Sokka’s cheek. For a moment, he let himself stop freaking out and breathed in the slightly spicy smell of Zuko’s skin where it was hidden by his uniform’s collar. Fuck, he wanted to be closer, wanted to kiss him, wanted time to stop. Wanted to be able to move. But he couldn't, so he filed the thought away for another day, if they were lucky.

 “Don’t worry, it’s not permanent.” Zuko murmured as they limped towards the tracker’s animal, which didn’t make anything better.

He readjusted his hold on Sokka’s waist, then lifted him up almost over his head and threw him across the back of the saddle next to Katara, knocking the air right out of his half-paralyzed lungs. He gasped shallowly for breath and tried to turn his head so he could see if Katara was suffocating too. The saddle creaked as Zuko swung up on the other side of Katara’s motionless form, keeping her securely in place between them. Sokka heard the tracker's whip whistle through the air, and the animal lurched into a full-out run.  

They burst through the gates after the most hair-raising ride of his life and came to a stop. He thought the worst was over, until out of nowhere the animal reared up he slid off, landing face-first on the stone pavement. He strained his eyes in every direction to find out what was going on, but all he could see were wisps of his own hair and Zuko, staring up at the sky.

Next to him, Katara breathed, “It's Aang, he came back." 

Sokka groaned, trying to break free of the paralysis once more. The day was going from bad to worse; and now he couldn't keep any of them safe because he and Katara were lying useless right in the middle of the courtyard, sitting ducks in the fight that was about to break out.

Aang swooped down on his glider, passing through Sokka's line of sight right before landing in the courtyard. Sokka heard the tracker's animal charge at him, and then Appa's roar. Things got pretty confusing after that so Sokka stopped keeping track. He shut his eyes when the fight got too close. Eventually he opened them again and saw that three people were standing right by his head, judging by the number of feet. The two pairs of sandals clearly belonged to nuns, and the pair of pointed Fire Nation boots were probably General Iroh's; the only sane person in the Fire Nation.

“What did you do to them?” One of the nuns asked angrily.

I didn’t do anything.” That—that was Zuko's voice, “The animal’s tongue has a toxin. She said it wears off in a few hours.”

“It had better.” The nun threatened, and remarkably, Zuko didn’t blow up at her. Didn't say anything at all. Sokka wished he could see what the hell was going on. His wish was quickly granted when the nun who'd been speaking grabbed his shoulders and wrestled him onto his back. Zuko looked uncomfortable, like every second not spent battling Aang was a serious test of his will-power, but something was keeping him in place. Sokka knew better than to think it was concern, but he hoped...yeah, he hoped it was. 

The nun tried to drag Sokka’s dead weight across the courtyard by his arms but had to stop, panting, after a few feet. Sokka slumped back onto the ground, head hanging at an awkward angle. 

 “I’ll take it from here.” Zuko said, coming forward, and the nun dropped Sokka’s arms without protest. He knelt over Sokka, his shoulders blocking out the sun as Sokka blinked into the shadow, eyes adjusting until he could see the details of Zuko’s face, “Are you okay?” He asked. 

“Perfect.” Sokka answered, and the corner of Zuko’s mouth twitched in amusement. Then he slid his arms around Sokka and pulled him up, bending slightly to drape Sokka across his shoulders. The warmth of Zuko’s hands holding his arm and leg in place cut through the toxin’s sensory haze; he could feel it radiating beneath his skin. He probably looked ridiculous, getting carried for the second time that day, but he didn't care. He never wanted this to end. But then he heard Aang yelp with pain, and a building crumble somewhere behind them, and the moment was over.

“You didn’t use my—“ Sokka started, but couldn’t bring himself say my letters out loud, “Why didn’t you?”

For a moment, Zuko’s sure stride faltered. Then he was walking again, shoulders barely trembling under Sokka’s weight, “I don’t know. I thought about it, but I already had the necklace. And it—it didn’t seem—” He broke off.

“You mean the necklace you stole from my sister.” Sokka knew, technically, that that wasn’t true, but he wanted the necklace back, was kind of pissed that Zuko still had it, after all this time. Zuko stopped when he reached the wall, a safe distance from the animal’s tongue and terrible claws, “You should give it back.”

“What’s the big deal?” Zuko asked, lowering Sokka to the ground, “It’s just a necklace.”

“It’s not just a—it belonged to our mother.” Sokka shot back, and Zuko hesitated, face falling as realization sank in, but then a distant noise caught his attention and his will-power finally broke. He turned on his heel and ran back to where Aang and the tracker's animal were playing a game of cat and mouse, fire ready at his fists.

Together, the two nuns managed to drag Katara over to join him, and they sat motionless against the wall together, watching the fight as it played out before their eyes.

“I tried to get your necklace back.” Sokka said after a while, “It didn’t work.”

“If he still has it when this wears off, I’ll take it back from him myself.” She replied, her vicious tone tempered by being unable to form the appropriate facial expression. He believed that she would try. All their previous attempts had failed, but maybe now that he’d finally gotten the message across that the necklace was more than just some trinket, that it had meaning, maybe Zuko would give it back.

Or maybe he was putting too much faith in Zuko’s common decency. It wouldn’t be the first time.

A particularly loud explosion from across the courtyard distracted him. It was hard to watch the fight without being able to participate, he felt so useless—unable to put his new-found confidence as a Wolf Warrior to work. And although he wanted Aang to win, knew he would win, he couldn’t help wincing every time Zuko got slammed into the roof, into the pavement, into the wall. Hated the way it made Zuko’s face bleed from a series of small cuts, his lip beginning to swell, and fire still eager in his hands.

“Poor Zuko’s having a hard time today.” Katara said sarcastically, “I hope he doesn’t get too banged up.” She probably thought it would be some kind cosmic retribution if he did.

Sokka stayed silent. She didn’t seem to notice. Not so long ago he would have agreed with her, but that might as well be another lifetime now. Since that last letter—and probably before, too, maybe even since before he knew who was writing to him; he could think of so many small moments, and the dreams—his thoughts had been humming with Zuko in a constant low-level refrain.

Seeing him like this, obviously off his game and suffering for it, tripping over his feet even as he picked himself up off the ground, made Sokka feel faintly sick. If only he could step in right now and end the stalemate between Aang and Zuko before it destroyed the whole monastery and themselves in the process, he would.

Instead, he was stuck watching with a bad feeling in his stomach as Aang regained consciousness in a pile of crushed roof tiles just in time for Zuko to come charging at him, running with perfect balance along the narrow peak of the roof. Zuko sent an arc of fire up over his head in a precise alignment of muscles and intent, and he was so glorious that Sokka had to look away, stomach clenching with guilt and desire.

“I hate this.” Katara said, “I hate not being able to help.”

“Me too.” Sokka replied, aching with it, "Me too." 

The fighting moved onto to the roof directly above their heads, and although he couldn’t see what was going on, he could imagine it. Shouts, the rush of air and fire. Rubble rained down on them, burying them in stone and splintered wood. It—hurt. Which was good, actually. He was beginning to get feeling back in his body. Not long after, a tingling sensation passed across his skin and he found he could move his limbs again, albeit slowly and stiffly. A nun came over with a little bottle of something that smelled unbelievably foul and held it beneath their noses to breathe in. The scent did manage to revive him the rest of the way, although it left him with a splitting headache. A small price to pay, though, because now he could act, now he could fix things.

It didn’t take long to chase off the tracker’s animal. In a stroke of genius that even Sokka couldn't have planned, the animal's toxic tongue zapped all three of its riders before running away, leaving them stranded, paralyzed, and unable to retaliate. Sokka allowed himself a moment to revel in his success, both intentional and not, before forcing himself to walk across the courtyard and give Aang the apology he deserved. 

 “I’m sorry I yelled at you like that.” He said, "Me and Katara’s place is with you. I was—selfish. And unfair. You were right.”

“I’m sorry too. I shouldn’t have hidden the map to begin with.” Aang replied with a look of remorse in his wide eyes. 

 “Call it even?” Sokka asked, hopeful. When Aang nodded, he said, “You’re our family too, you know. We’re not going to abandon you, not ever.”

“Thanks. That means a lot to me.” Aang said, but then his smile dimmed. He glanced at Katara, who was very obviously keeping her distance so they could make up, and continued in a low voice, “You need to tell her. I don’t want there to be any more secrets, and she’s your sister, she deserves to know.”

Sokka sighed. What was it about today and difficult conversations? “I know, but it’s complicated.”

“I’m worried about you.” Aang said helplessly, “You’ve been acting really weird for months and you said it’s not a big deal but it has to be or else you wouldn’t keep lying about it.”

“It’s not a big deal, I just—you have to understand. I didn’t get very much for myself, growing up. I’m not special or talented or blessed by the spirits or anything. I’ve never had a friend that I made on my own. Or really any friends besides my si—what I’m trying to say here is that I’m careful, alright? I’m really careful not to give anything away. You have to believe me.” Sokka lowered his voice, but he couldn’t hide the fact that he was pleading, “I would never willingly put you guys in danger. But I’m also not ready to say goodbye. He’s my friend too.”

“What if your friend isn’t who you think he is?” Aang looked like he really didn’t want to say what he was saying, “What if he’s just using you to—“

Sokka couldn’t deal with this right now, “To what? Get to you? I know who he is, okay, and it’s none of your business.” 

“You know?” Aang choked, and his eyes flickered over to where Zuko was still down for the count, which Sokka was not expecting. Alarm washed over him, but he didn’t have time to deal with this horrifying new development because Katara was hovering ever closer, ready to get in on the conversation, and this was one thing she couldn’t overhear.

“I can explain. I’ll explain everything, later.” He said, although he hoped he would never have to. Then, raising his voice so Katara would hear, “I made a promise that I’d keep you and my sister safe. I’m never going to go back on that promise, no matter what happens. Nothing is more important. You can trust me.”

It was such an obvious lie, Sokka expected Aang to call him out on it, but instead all Aang said was, “Okay. I trust you.” And that was the worst of all. Apparently Aang was aware of who he’d been writing to—spirits only knew how—and he trusted Sokka anyway. Sokka didn’t deserve this kind of loyalty.

“Let’s go,” Katara said, walking over, “I don’t know about you guys, but I’d rather not still be here when they come to.”

“Yeah, me neither.” Aang laughed nervously, “Come on, Sokka.”

But Appa was still under the toxin’s effects, slumped drowsy-eyed on the ground, and it became clear they weren’t going anywhere soon. Aang and Katara went to sit with him and stroke his massive shaggy head, murmuring things like you did such a good job, thank you for protecting us, while Sokka tried and failed to pretend his sister wasn’t actually directing her adoring praise at Aang, who was blushing furiously. 

He turned away, unable to watch the sap-fest any longer, and noticed that General Iroh had recovered remarkably fast from the animal’s toxin, or maybe he hadn’t been hit with it in the first place. He was sitting up and talking seriously to his nephew, who, despite not being able to move almost any of his muscles, was radiating intense displeasure. Sokka didn’t blame him. Especially if he hated feeling powerless as much as Sokka did, which Sokka suspected was the case.

Without really thinking it all the way through, he approached one of the nuns cleaning up some of the rubble left over from the fight with a broom, and asked if he could get ahold of some of that strong-smelling stuff that had helped him and Katara break out of the paralysis.

“You know,” He said, gesturing vaguely, “Little bottle? Smells like it could wake the dead?”

 “Yes, I got the picture. But are you sure it’s a good idea?” She asked, peering at him suspiciously. He recognized her as the nun who’d tried to carry him to safety before Zuko took over.

“No, but I’m pretty sure you don’t want Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation sticking around any longer than necessary, either.” At the emphasis, she winced.

“We are grateful to your father and his men for defending our abbey from that raid.” She said, and touched his hand, “And to you three, too. We’ve avoided the worst of the war, thank the spirits. It would be terrible if...” She trailed off, then nodded, “I’ll get the smelling salts.”

An uneasy truce hung over the two groups as Zuko and the tracker slowly picked themselves up off the ground. Zuko’s lip had swelled to twice its usual size, and he kept rubbing his left shoulder under the armored plates like it was bothering him. Sokka suspected it was the same shoulder he’d injured in the storm. It was surreal, knowing part of the history of Zuko’s body, and wanting to know more.

Now that Zuko was back on his feet, Aang and Katara were understandably anxious to leave. Appa had started reviving too, just in time, so Sokka went back over to help them load their belongings back into Appa’s saddle. They’d have to find their abandoned packs in the forest before they resumed their journey to the Northern Water Tribe, but that wouldn’t take long. 

Sokka knew they had to leave the abbey as soon as possible, but he didn't want to—a strange reversal of this morning. Regardless, the chances of another fight breaking out grew higher the longer they stayed, and he wasn't the only one who thought that. Right after he’d finished securing the sack of food Bato had given them, Katara grabbed his arm and hissed, “He’s coming towards us. Find Aang, we have to get out of here.”

Zuko was, in fact, walking in their general direction. But he stopped, half-way across the courtyard, and stood there kind of awkwardly, fists clenching and unclenching at his sides like he was convincing himself not to go any further. Sokka took a deep breath and stepped around Appa’s tail to face him, trying to project a silent warning to stay back. They locked eyes for a long moment, and Sokka forgot about the people watching them, lost in the gold of Zuko’s eyes and the slight flush spreading across his cheeks. Sokka was so tired of the letters, of having to wait to talk to him, when all he wanted was to ask are you okay, have you been getting any sleep, did you really mean the things you wrote?

“Sokka.” He heard Katara say, “Sokka, what are you—”

He ignored her and took a step forward. This was—something. Something important, although he didn't quite know how. Zuko stepped forward too, breaking eye contact briefly as he fumbled for something tucked into his belt.

“I shouldn’t have this.” Zuko said roughly, and tossed the necklace over to him. Sokka barely caught it in time, he was so surprised. He rubbed his thumb against the waves engraved on the pendant, and felt his heart swell to twice its size. 

“Thanks.” He said, trying to make the word carry all the other things he wanted to say and couldn't. Zuko's cheeks flushed a deeper red, before he turned away to rejoin his uncle and the tracker, snapping some unintelligible order as he went. 

Sokka walked back in triumph to where Katara was waiting, smiling through her incredulous tears.

“Hey, sis.” He said, grinning like an idiot, and pressed the necklace into her hand, “Zuko wanted me to make sure you got this." 

"How did you—Oh, Sokka—" She nearly choked him with a hug, then pulled back, recovering slightly, "That's so sweet of him. Why don't you give him a kiss for me, next time you see him?" 

"Yeah," He said, safe in the knowledge that she never needed to know how much he meant it, "I will." 

 

Chapter Text

They started the last leg of their journey to the Northern Water Tribe in high spirits. Even Sokka couldn’t maintain his usual pessimism after such a successful escape. He sprawled out in Appa's saddle, sharpening his knives with the new whetstone Bato had given him, as the abbey disappeared from sight, swallowed up by leagues of forest, and Zuko along with it. They were getting further apart, but Zuko's letter was still buried in his bag, an unbroken connection between them wherever they went, and the necklace was back around Katara's neck, where it belonged. 

It had to mean something huge, that Zuko was willing to give up an easy road to the Avatar for him. Well, technically for Katara. But Sokka had made it happen, could talk sense into Zuko when Katara's anger and Zuko's own conscience couldn't. Every time Sokka thought about it, he had to suppress a smile. He'd done the right thing, trusting Zuko. Never mind that Zuko messed up basically every chance he got. This time, Zuko had pulled through. It made him think there might be hope for them yet. 

Katara kept reaching up to touch the pendant hanging at her neck as if she couldn’t believe it was really there. Sokka wished he was able to explain how he got Zuko to give the necklace back, but she wasn’t ready to hear the truth yet. Maybe one day. Maybe one day soon. 

They flew until the stars were just starting to come out, then stopped to make camp. As they sat around the fire waiting for the rice to boil, Sokka's thoughts turned back to Bato and how close he'd come to actually seeing his dad. He didn't regret choosing to stay with Aang, exactly, but it still would have been nice to be able to show his dad all the ways he'd grown up, taken responsibility for his life and the lives of others, just like his dad had told him to. 

Of course, he also wished he could have avoided the possibility of Bato relating some of the less-than-ideal life choices Sokka was making, without giving Sokka the chance to defend himself or lie. The likelihood of his dad being even remotely forgiving about the whole Zuko thing was slim, given what Bato had told him about their bad first meeting. A thread of anxiety wove through Sokka's good mood, dimming it slightly. 

He took out the map Bato had given them, just to look at the mark on the coast where his dad and the rest of the men were stationed again, and wish he was on his way there, but Katara gave him a significant look and he stopped.

“Not now,” She whispered, “Wait until Aang’s asleep. He doesn’t need any more reminders of how we almost abandoned him today.”

“Fine,” Sokka said, shoving the map away, annoyed, “I get it. But he could at least acknowledge that we had to give something up, something that meant a lot to us.”

“I’m sure that’s why he feels so guilty,” Katara said, but she usually took Aang’s side, so it didn’t mean as much as it could have.

“Whatever. I’m going to go look at the map somewhere else. I’ll be back.”

He would have made a dramatic exit, but first he had to pull out a small soapstone lamp from his bag, another gift from Bato, and set it up—pouring the oil, rolling a wick out of moss found underfoot, and lighting it with a twig from the fire. When that was done he grabbed his bag and walked off into the darkness, far enough away from the fire until he was sure they couldn’t find him even if they looked.   

He read the map for a while, tracing Bato's route and calculating how many days it would take. But that couldn't his attention for long, not when he had other, more pressing, business to take care of. He pulled out his calligraphy kit and set it on the ground beside him, the brushes gleaming dully in the flickering lamplight. He was starting to run out of paper and ink again, so he took his time, making sure not to spill or ruin anything. 

There were so many things he wanted to say that he hadn’t been able to before, and the prospect of putting his thoughts into words made him feel kind of shivery and raw, but in a good way. Definitely a good way.

Despite what you think, I do mean everything I say and everything I’ve said to you. It’s not that I don’t think about consequences, I’m not an idiot, I just—this is more important to me than—I guess I think the risk is worth it. Do you? Well, I guess you do, or else you wouldn’t keep writing. I wish I could see you right now and we could go somewhere, just the two of us, where the war doesn’t exist, where we could talk or fool around or whatever. I’m embarrassing myself just writing this, but I wanted to let you know that, uh. I’m interested. In that. If you are. Anyway. Thank you for giving back our mom’s necklace. My sister was feeling really lost without it. Especially since we were going to visit my dad today, but then decided not to go. It was a hard choice. But leaving wouldn’t have been the right thing to do. I guess it’s just been a weird couple of days. We ran into a friend of our dad’s yesterday. He’s—well, kind of my dad’s boyfriend, I guess? Which was a lot to take in, let me assure you. So many childhood memories to rewrite. It’s a long story, though, so I’ll tell you some other time. Either way, it was great to be around someone from home. I mean, he’s known me and my sister since we were born. But it also made me miss everything so much more. The longer I’m away the more I understand what you’re going through. And you’re right, it really sucks. You deserve your father’s forgiveness, you deserve to go home. You deserve everything good in the world, and I wish there was a way I could give it to you or help you somehow without putting anyone else I care about in danger. It’s so weird talking to you about this stuff, now that I know who you are.  Oh, also, something happened today that you should probably know about. Aang  The AvaThe friend I’m travelling with hid an important piece of information from me and my sister, and when we were arguing about it, he tried to tell my sister about the letters. These letters. I was so scared he was going to ruin everything that I said some things I really didn’t mean and ended up almost leaving him behind. We made up later, but I guess I’m still a little mad. Or, well, a lot mad. He knows how important this is to me. I explained that to him the first time he caught me about writing to someone. But I just found out today that he knows it’s you. I have no idea how. I swear I didn’t tell him. So yeah. I’m just really hoping he doesn’t say anything else about it. Because I don’t want this to stop, not now. I don’t know if I could take losing you. And don’t think for a second I’m in denial about who you are. It was hard to come to terms with at first, yeah, and there’s still some stuff we have to talk about, at some point—like that whole time I was on the ship and you were lying to me—but I know it’s you. I know you’re Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation. And, spirits, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but that makes everything better. Because I know you and the way your voice sounds and how warm your skin is, I don’t have to keep dreaming about someone I thought I’d never get a chance to meet. It feels good being able to finally say all this stuff. Hope you feel the same way. Hope you're doing okay, too. Write me back soon! 

Sokka

His hand was cramping with how fast he’d written. It was easy to just spill out words on the page, now that he didn't have to keep second-guessing himself. He whistled for Hawky, and re-read the letter while he was waiting, eyes catching on his name and Zuko's. They'd reached a turning point—there was no backing down after he sent this, no more plausible deniability. Surprisingly enough, he was okay with that. 

A strong breeze nearly extinguished the lamp, and Sokka thought he smelled rain in the air. Katara was calling for him to come eat, so he rolled up the letter tightly and packed it away with the rest of his kit. Hawky hadn't shown up yet, but he was probably nearby. Sokka would mail the letter later tonight. 

But, of course, the universe had different plans.

Sokka stayed by the dying fire after Aang and Katara went to sleep, intending to send the letter, but he was tired from a day of doing basically nothing. He closed his eyes for a moment—only a moment!—and when he opened them again it was the middle of the night and raining. All he wanted to do after that was crawl into the tent and wrap himself in approximately seventeen warm blankets, so the letter had to wait. He didn't want to risk it getting wet. 

The rain continued unabated through the night and into the morning until even Aang gave in and joined Sokka and Katara in the tent to wait it out. By mid-morning, Sokka was hungry enough to brave the torrential downpour for some breakfast, but their supplies must not have been wrapped as well as they thought because everything—all their rice, seal jerky, and seaweed—was rain-soaked and swiftly re-hydrating. 

He yelled for Katara, who emerged grumpily from their tent, and grimaced as she took in the food situation.

“Aang, get out here!”

The three of them stood in dismay around the parcels of food where they sat in a deep puddle.

“So...” Sokka started, “Does that mean no breakfast?”

“Don’t worry, you’ll still get your breakfast." Katara replied patronizingly, "But we’ll have to throw out whatever we don’t eat by tomorrow in case it goes rancid."

Sokka took a moment to mourn the tragic loss of the jerkied seal blubber, then got to work building a shelter over the fire pit while Katara measured out handfuls of soggy rice and limp sheets of seaweed into the cookpot.

The wood was so wet, though, that none of the kindling would catch, so Sokka had to call Aang over to help.

“I wish you’d hurry up and learn firebending already,” Sokka muttered as Aang sent little gusts of air towards the smoldering pine-needles, encouraging them to light.

“Me too,” Aang said regretfully, and coaxed a single yellow flame to flare up along the edge of a dead leaf, “Okay, Katara, we’re ready for you.”

Katara came over and began to siphon water out of the logs until the fire got going and she could begin to cook.

After breakfast, all Sokka wanted to do was hang out in the tent until the rain stopped, but according to their schedule, which he had drawn up himself so he couldn't even argue against it, they needed to keep moving. So they loaded all their gear into Appa’s saddle and took off. He scanned the horizon for any sign of Hawky’s distinctive feathers as they flew, but couldn’t see him. Sokka felt a burst of panic that Hawky might not have followed them all the way here or had gotten tired of waiting for Sokka to give him an errand, but he tried not to dwell on it. Hawky had always found him in the past.

It took them two days to get past the storm system flooding the whole valley, the driving rain making it hard for them to fly beneath the clouds long enough to find a village to stop in. They rationed their food, but by day two they’d run out and were hungry. Starving, even, a full day of skipped meals gnawing at Sokka’s stomach.

Once they got beyond the thick clouds, and could see dark green forest spreading beneath them and the curve of the coast in the distance, they stopped at a crossroads to take stock of where they were (Fire Nation colony, according to the map) and what they were going to do next (find food, if Sokka had any say in the matter).

The forest was damp and lit up with diffuse yellow light coming through the thick foliage. It reminded him a little bit of the jungles he’d seen on the southern part of their travels, back when they were skirting the edge of the Fire Nation archipelago, all the trees draped in moss and vines. The air was colder, but the whole place felt Fire Nation in a way other place didn't. 

Sokka climbed down from Appa’s back with Aang and Katara, grateful for the chance to stretch his legs, and went over to check the noticeboard where a bunch of posters were hanging. Most of them were of the help wanted, lost-and-found variety. Seeking reliable household help, only Fire Nation nationals need apply. But then Aang pointed out a very large, very tackily decorated poster for a Fire Days Festival in the nearby outpost.

"This could be my chance to see firebending masters up close!" He said. 

Sokka’s instincts told him to shut that idea down immediately, and he was right—the entire other side of the noticeboard was filled with actual wanted posters, Aang’s portrait pinned right on top.

“I, uh, don’t think that’s such a good idea,” He said, and Aang and Katara came round to inspect the wanted posters with him. There were a few pictures of military defectors, which was interesting in its own right, and something he’d think about later, but for right now he was distracted by the image of a fanged blue-and-white mask accused of rescuing the Avatar.

“This was while I was a prisoner on Zuko’s ship, wasn’t it?” Sokka asked, and Aang’s enthusiasm, which had miraculously not been affected by looking at the wanted posters, faded.

“Yeah. Looks like they’re calling him the Blue Spirit now,” Aang said in a weird tone of voice, “Zuko is so...I just don’t get him.”

Sokka was not touching that statement with a ten-foot pole, so he said, “I bet the Fire Nation would be really pleased to know their prince is the Blue Spirit, huh?”

“Probably not,” Aang said, and the weirdness left his voice, “Anyway, I still think we should go.”

They went. Against Sokka’s wishes, as usual. He didn’t like the idea of being surrounded by a bunch of colonists literally fired up with patriotism and Fire Nation propaganda, but Aang made several very pitiful arguments about this being his only chance to learn firebending and Katara quickly folded under the pressure. Which left Sokka, who decided, once again, that his presence was needed if only to save them from themselves.

The village was a short walk away. Even though the gates were thrown wide to welcome visitors, there were guards stationed on either side of the road and along the walls, hassling the few people dressed in Earth Kingdom green among the crowds who were trying to enter. Sokka pulled Aang and Katara into the bushes before they got near enough for the guards to see them, and together they came up with a quick diversion plan involving slightly better disguises and some strategic airbending. 

Once they were safely inside the gates, they had a chance to really look around. Tall gold and black houses loomed over them, the spiky ornamental trim looking like flames licking along the roofs. The main street was a sea of red banners and red clothes, but everyone's faces were disguised by masks. It was unsettling, looking into so many blank, expressionless gazes. It made Sokka's skin crawl. As they picked out their complimentary Fire Days festival masks, he realized that while he really didn't know much about the Fire Nation outside of war stories, this was pretty much how he'd pictured it—equal parts lavish and menacing. 

But then his stomach rumbled as the rich, delicious smell of food came wafting through the air towards them and he stopped thinking about anything besides making a beeline to the nearest stall selling food. Going for the flaming fire flakes as opposed to any of the milder options was maybe not the best decision he’d ever made, but once the sensation of hothothot died down and his mouth stopped burning, he conceded that they were really kind of delicious. For foreign food. Aang and Katara laughed at him, but Sokka kept thinking about those fire flakes as they walked down the main street. 

The propaganda level was extreme, just as Sokka had predicted. It made all of them deeply uncomfortable, except for Aang, whose grin was mirrored by the mask he was wearing. Sokka figured it only made sense—Aang genuinely had no sense of self-preservation. He was worse than Katara, even. And Katara was trailing behind Sokka like a nervous shadow as they walked down the street to the main square. He thought about taking her hand to reassure her, like when they were kids, but figured she’d reach out to him if she needed to. The last thing he wanted was for her to accuse him of being freaked out, which he wasn’t.

Except. Okay, maybe a little. While they lingered by a puppet-show, he wondered about all the kids sitting there watching the Fire Lord set some adversary ablaze against a painted backdrop. How many of them were of Earth Kingdom descent? Did their parents teach them any of the history that had come before the Fire Nation? Or was it slowly being forgotten as they learned the customs of their conquerors? The possibility of the same thing happening in the Southern Water Tribe, if the Southern Raiders had stayed, if Zuko’s expedition had been about more than the Avatar, made him shiver. 

The curtains closed, and then opened again on a new puppet act. Aang seemed impatient to get to the next booth, saying something about a display of painted figurines in the shape of Fire Nation animals, but Sokka wasn’t ready to leave. The first pair of puppets appeared, and then a second pair. They seemed familiar somehow, like he recognized them, or at least recognized the story they came from.

Once the narration started, Sokka realized that it was the same story Zuko had told him about the royal family’s origins, long enough ago that he couldn’t remember the details, only his vague disgust at reading about the inner workings of Fire Nation minds, and disbelief that ever, in the history of the world, had Fire and Water been anything besides enemies.

Obviously, he was thinking a little differently these days.

He watched with growing unease as the story unfolded. It was not the version Zuko told him, where the two opposing elements were brothers who came together and pulled apart. Instead, all they did in this version was fight, and that whole middle section of the story where the elements lived harmoniously on earth until the spirits came, was gone. Instead, fire defeated water in a totally unfair battle, by Sokka’s standards, and became a human god—the Fire Lord—just in time for the kids’ attention spans to begin to wander. The parents applauded loudly, and Sokka was finally ready to move on, feeling slightly sick.

In the meantime, Aang’s attention had been caught by a crowd gathering at the stage set up at the far end of the square. Fireballs swooped overhead, and the crowd gasped and pressed in closer. With a bang, the flames exploded into doves. It was impressive, if you liked that kind of thing. Aang clearly did, since he shouldered his way up to the front to watch more closely with Sokka and Katara reluctantly in tow.  

The show looked like it was just getting started, more people swarming into the square by the moment, and Sokka decided that if they were going to be standing here for half an hour, or more, watching some guy perform magic fire tricks, he was going to need something more to eat.

When they reached the edge of the stage, Sokka turned to Katara and said, “Hang on, I’m going to get more fire flakes.”

“Are you serious? You burned your mouth on them like ten minutes ago!” Katara said, exasperated.

“Hey, I’m still hungry. And they were delicious,” Sokka shrugged, “Try not to do anything too dangerous while I’m gone.”

“Yeah, yeah, oh venerable leader,” Katara sketched a bow, and Sokka made his way back through the crowd towards the food vendors.

The line was longer than he expected, so it was a while before he had a chance to place his order. He could hear people cheering in the square behind him, and he was glad for the wait. It gave him a chance to watch people as they walked by. Underneath the eerily static masks, people were talking and laughing. Children ran around the booths or clung to their parents’ legs. It was all so...normal. 

So this was what the Fire Nation was like, Sokka thought. Zuko would probably have a lot to say on that matter, but Zuko wasn’t here right now, and Sokka was free to think whatever he wanted. He wasn’t sure when it had happened, but he couldn't muster up the same all-encompassing hatred of the Fire Nation. This was Zuko's world, and it had been a secret to Sokka until now, so he wanted to know more about it. Wanted to know everything he could.

Sokka was lost in thought when he gave his order for Earth Kingdom-style fire flakes, and it wasn’t until the vendor placed the steaming bag on the counter that he realized he didn’t have any more money.

“Sorry!” He said to the irritated vendor and stepped back, almost colliding with someone who was standing very close behind him. An impatient customer, he thought, and moved aside. But it wasn’t.

He caught a glimpse of a red and white mask and the sharp wing-tipped shoulders of a uniform right before whoever it was grabbed his wrist and said, in an all-too familiar voice, “Sokka?”

Sokka flushed hot and cold all over, “Zuko?” His voice cracked, and he cleared his throat, “What are you doing here?”

“Extended shore leave,” Zuko said, not sounding very happy about it, “Uncle says the men are homesick.”

He pointed over his shoulder, and there was General Iroh, recognizable even in a ridiculous long-eared animal mask, engaged in a lively discussion with the person manning a booth selling puppets. Sokka couldn’t see the rest of Zuko’s crew, but they were probably nearby, he just didn’t know them well enough to recognize them with their masks on.

“So you don’t—you’re not here because of the hunt for the Avatar and all that?” Sokka asked skeptically. His heart was beating fast and loud, and all his instincts were telling him to run, but another part of him, a stronger part, wanted to stay and see where this took them.

“No. Believe it or not, I had no idea you were going to be here,” Zuko said defensively, but with his scowl hidden, he didn’t sound very intimidating.

“What a coincidence!” Sokka laughed nervously, then tried to stop himself, “I had no idea you were going to be here either. But I’m, uh. I’m glad you are.”

Zuko made no reply, and now Sokka was afraid he’d said the wrong thing. He wanted the mask gone so he could see the expression on Zuko’s face, if he was smiling, or…

“Are you here alone?” Zuko asked, after an awkward silence, and Sokka raised his head from where he’d been staring down at Zuko’s pointed shoes in disbelief. Did Zuko really expect him to answer that honestly? It made no sense. Of course he was going to lie. Any sensible person would.  

Then it hit him. Zuko was choosing to trust him, take his word for it, just this once. Maybe Zuko even suspected that Sokka would lie. Maybe he didn’t care.

“Yeah, I came alone,” Sokka said, matching Zuko’s serious tone, “All our food went rancid, so I’m here on a supply run. I didn’t want the other two to risk it.”

Zuko nodded, accepting it, “Okay. So, do—do you have some time?”

Sokka really, really didn’t. He needed get back to Aang and Katara before they got themselves into some kind of trouble. This whole festival was a recipe for disaster. But he was tired of looking after them, and never having a chance to do exactly what he wanted when he wanted it. 

So he said, “Definitely! All the time in the world. I kind of wanted to wander around, anyway. Come with me?”

Zuko paused for a second, and then he nodded again. And that was that. They were in the clear. Or, almost. All Sokka had to do now was make sure Zuko didn’t accidentally run into Aang and Katara, which meant keeping him far away from the stage.

“It makes sense your uncle decided to come here,” He said, and started edging away from the booth, in the opposite direction of the main square, “What with it being the Fire Days festival and all. I bet it reminds you of home.”

Zuko snorted, following him, “This is nothing like my—our home. If gaping at cheap tricks with the rest of these backwater peasants makes the crew happy, then they’ve been away too long to remember what it’s really like.”

“Oh yeah? You didn’t want to come?”

“No,” Zuko said shortly, and didn’t say anything else. Sokka glanced over at Zuko but he was inscrutable beneath the mask.

“Why not? You’ve gotta be just as homesick as they are,” He said. He knew how poorly Zuko responded to people pushing him, but wasn't about to let this one-in-a-million opportunity for them to actually talk end just because they’d stumbled across yet another subject Zuko didn’t want to discuss. 

“Of course I’m homesick. But this…” Zuko’s voice was even hoarser than usual, “This is nothing like home, but it still reminds me of everything I’ve lost and everything I stand to lose if I—if Zhao—” Sokka expected fire, but there was only sadness and Zuko’s ever quickening stride. He was upset. Being here upset him. Sokka saw it all so clearly now, how the general must have cajoled and pleaded and made a number of increasingly unconvincing arguments, how Zuko had raged and refused without ever giving a reason why. How he’d gotten dragged here anyway.

“Hey,” Sokka said, and Zuko flinched like he’d been startled out of his own head, “That really sucks about Zhao. He’s an asshole.”

“Yeah, he is,” Zuko said angrily, “Everywhere I go, he’s there first, trying to take away the one thing I have to redeem myself. He keeps insinuating that I’ve got information I’m not giving him, which I don’t , not that I’d tell him even if I did.”

“Why can’t you stop him? You’re the prince, doesn’t that count for something?” Sokka asked, and was met with a derisive snort.

“Not much of a prince anymore,” Zuko said, and sounded so miserable that Sokka reached out and touched Zuko’s arm, a little afraid, and Zuko ducked his head, but he didn’t brush Sokka off.

Spirits, Sokka thought, awed. This was happening, this was really happening.

They walked deeper into the maze of booths. All around them people were selling every Fire Nation-themed item imaginable—toys, souvenirs, jewelry, clothing, food. On any other day, Sokka would have stopped to look at each booth. Today, though, he was with Zuko, who didn’t glance at any of the trinkets they passed by. It was like he didn’t even see them. Maybe he couldn’t, with his mask on.

Sokka’s thoughts kept gravitating back to Zuko, walking steadily by his side. He struggled to think of something that could break the silence and wished he had thought to bring his bag and the unsent letter it contained. He should have expected how difficult doing this in person would be. There were so many things he wanted to say and do, but he didn’t know where to start saying them out loud, was feeling kind of overwhelmed, which was stupid because he was supposed to be the idea guy, and if he didn’t know, then how could Zuko?

Zuko was apparently following a completely different line of thought, because he said, “Do you ever wish you could go back in time to one perfect moment? Maybe the only perfect moment, or the last one, or something. Where everything was right, and—and you didn’t know that things could ever be wrong.”

“Yeah,” Sokka said, suddenly plunged into a memory of his family happily reunited on the ice after a long hunting trip. A time he thought would last forever, “Yeah, I—I think about that a lot.”

“What do you do about it?” Zuko asked, “What helps you forget?”

“I don’t try to forget. I don’t want to forget. Sometimes I talk to my sister, reminisce a little. But mostly I just...sit with it. I don’t know. It doesn’t always help.”

Zuko stayed quiet, and Sokka felt that tug of gravity again, pulling him to Zuko. It was that same crazy desperate want for more, more of anything his friend could give him, that he felt so often before he knew the face and the voice and the name behind the words.

“Tell me about your home,” Sokka said, in an impulsive but, if he said so himself, brilliant idea. This could be just like the letters, he realized, only better, because now Zuko could tell him everything he wanted to know without having to wait for a reply, without the awkwardness of writing everything out and having to look at it, “I mean, if you want to.”

“I thought you hated the Fire Nation,” Zuko said with an edge of confusion, “You always—”

“I do. Well, kind of. It’s complicated,” Sokka brushed the issue aside, “Just...tell me something. Anything. Like where your favorite place in the Fire Nation is,” When Zuko hesitated, he said, “I mean it. I want to know.”

Zuko still seemed reluctant, but then he started talking, voice low and words kind of jumbled, giving the impression that he didn’t get a chance to say this stuff out loud very often, “I used to—I live in Caldera, that’s the capital city. It’s built in the crater of a dormant volcano, so there isn’t a lot of space, because all the nobles try to build their mansions as close to the royal palace as possible. There was this villa we lived in before my mother went away, right outside the palace walls. That’s when my grandfather was still Fire Lord, so we didn’t have to be at the palace all the time, except when he summoned us, which wasn’t that often. Or, I mean, as often as my father wanted. But I didn’t mind. The gardens were full of fruit trees and had all these secret places where I could hide from—where I could go to be alone. My mother and I used to sit in the shade by the pond and feed the—the, um, turtleducks for hours during the summer, when the heat got really bad. It was—nice, I guess,” He paused, “Peaceful.”

Sokka thought about a younger Zuko, before the scar, before his father took the throne. Sokka imagined him happier, maybe. Or at least not wearing armor like he'd been born with it. 

“So you don’t like the palace?”

“I never said that. I like the palace fine,” Zuko snapped.

“Okay...” Sokka rolled his eyes, “What’s it like, then?”

“Huge, dark, empty,” Zuko said immediately, “Outside, it’s surrounded by walls and a ring of scorched earth where nothing grows, so the guards can see intruders more easily.”

“That sounds...unpleasant,” Sokka ventured, and to his surprise, Zuko nodded.

“It’s meant to be, to make visitors uncomfortable in the face of true power.”

Sokka had some thoughts about that so-called true power but he shut them down. He didn’t want to bring the war in from where it was hovering on the edges of their conversation and ruin the moment.

“What about you?” Zuko asked tentatively and Sokka grinned beneath his mask, pleased and surprised.

“I love everything about the South Pole,” He replied, “The ice, the sea, the sky—it’s all home to me. There isn’t one specific place I like best. It’s not like your city at all, I guess—we have nothing but free, open space, which is pretty awesome. But if I had to pick a favorite part, it would be the feeling of water moving beneath my paddle when I’m out in my kayak, or maybe the dancing lights in winter. When we were kids, Gran Gran used to take us out to see them, and she would always let us make up our own stories instead of forcing us to listen to the same old myths.”

“The dancing lights—they’re green, right?” Zuko asked, “I think I saw them when I—when I was at the South Pole.”

“Oh. Yeah,” Sokka had forgotten about that. Or, not forgotten , just...wasn’t thinking about it. Didn’t want to think about it, “You probably did.”

“They’re really...pretty,” Zuko said the word like it tasted bad, and Sokka laughed despite himself.

“Don’t strain yourself,” He said, and then got totally sidetracked by a particularly attractive booth selling more of those wooden figurines Aang had been so interested, “Oooh, look! Do you mind?” He gestured to it.

Zuko sighed loudly and followed him anyway, waiting off to the side while Sokka examined the miniature animals—dragons, komodo rhinos, armadillo bear, turtle ducks, and messenger hawks—all intricately painted in red and gold. He got so caught up in handling every single one of them, much to the displeasure of the vendor who growled at him to either buy something or move along, that he didn’t realize Zuko had snuck up on him until Zuko was right there, leaning in to murmur, “That’s a flying dolphin fish—you can ride them,” and Sokka could barely suppress his shiver at the subtle pressure of his hand on the small of Sokka’s back. 

“I bet Aang would love that,” Sokka replied, and then bit his tongue when Zuko made a pained noise and backed away, “Sorry, I—”

“Don’t apologize,” Zuko said, sounding angry, “It’s not—none of this is your fault.”

“It’s not your fault either,” He said, a thought which kind of came out of nowhere but he was suddenly convinced Zuko needed to hear.

“You have no idea,” Zuko said fiercely, “You don’t know anything. How many times do I have to tell you that I brought this on myself?”

“No, look, I don’t mean the whole banished from your homeland thing, although that’s definitely not your fault either, so don’t even argue,” Sokka held up a hand to block Zuko’s protest, “I just mean, yeah, this is a shitty situation. I’m not going to lie and say it isn’t, that I don’t wish things were different. But I don’t blame you either. This war is bigger than any of us.”

Zuko looked away, like he disagreed but didn’t want to fight about it. Sokka wanted so badly to hold his hand, but he was afraid, and feeling the vendor’s irritable gaze in their direction wasn’t helping.

“Alright, let’s go,” Sokka said at last, his interest in the figurines finally exhausted.

Zuko hesitated, “Wait, I—I, um.”

He walked back to the booth, snatched up a figurine, Sokka couldn’t see which one, and demanded, “How much?”

“That’ll be two silver pieces, sir,” The vendor replied, all politeness now that he was getting a sale.

Zuko practically threw the coins at him, leaving the vendor to scramble after them, and came back to Sokka, pocketing the figurine before he glimpsed it.

“What did you get?” Sokka asked curiously as they started walking again.

“It’s not important.”

“I promise I won’t laugh. It’s a flying dolphin fish, isn’t it? No, wait, I bet it’s a turtleduck,” Sokka prompted, but Zuko was like a brick wall.

“I told you, it’s not important.”

C’mon...” He whined. Zuko just shook his head and wouldn’t say.

The stalls opened out onto a quieter section of the festival, a small square lit by lanterns where old-timers sat around on benches, eating fire flakes by the handful and chatting to each other. Children ran in circles, waving red streamers, their laughter echoing against the tall, narrow houses.

Zuko turned a corner onto a side-street and Sokka followed him without a second thought because he seemed so confident, like he knew where they were going. It was only when Sokka realized they were halfway a dark dead-end alleyway, deserted and hidden from the square, that he started to get a little worried that it might all have been a trap, and oh spirits, he really hoped it wasn’t. That would be the absolute worst. 

“Take off your mask,” Zuko said, out of the blue.

Sokka spluttered, “What?”

Zuko apparently decided it was easier to just not answer, because he came forward impatiently and reached up, his fingers grazing Sokka’s neck and the back of his head as he worked to untie the mask. It fell to the ground with a clatter and Zuko stepped back, leaving Sokka to fight for breath, which had frozen in his throat.

“Take off your mask too,” Sokka said, because they had to be equal in this, he wasn’t going to just stand here all exposed while Zuko wasn’t.

Obligingly, Zuko set his own mask down on the ground and now, at last, Sokka could see his expression. It was tight, as always, with the kind of unhappiness Sokka was beginning to realize couldn’t easily be undone, but an unexpected flush stained the bridge of his nose and his undamaged cheek and he was biting his lip almost nervously.

“So I, uh. I got this for you,” Zuko reached into his pocket and brought out the figurine he’d bought, turning it several times in his hand before holding it out for Sokka to take, “I thought since we—with the hawk and everything—” He broke off, blushing harder, and kept his eyes fixed somewhere to the left of Sokka’s shoulder, “I thought it might remind you of me.”

“You got me Hawky!” Sokka exclaimed, holding up the small painted carving of a messenger hawk, his heart so full he thought it might burst. 

“That’s not his name,” Zuko frowned, “I don’t know why you keep calling him that.”

“Hawky is totally his name,” Sokka insisted, grinning, “I don’t know why you can’t just accept it.”

“Because it’s not—ugh. Never mind,” Zuko rolled his eyes and Sokka knew he’d wear him down on the subject of Sokka’s awesome naming skills at some point.

“Thank you, though,” He said, more seriously, “You’re—this is—this is perfect.”

Technically, he was talking about Hawky II, but he meant Zuko too. Zuko must have picked up on that, because he got this look of total, almost angry concentration on his face, and before Sokka could get a handle on what was happening, Zuko was in his space, crowding him back against the wall, hands circling Sokka’s wrists and holding him there.

And then Zuko was kissing him.

Sokka made an extremely undignified noise against his lips, and Zuko swallowed it down like there was nothing he wanted more in the world, exhaling pure heat in return. 

Instinct took over, and Sokka started kissing back, his pulse racing out of control. He felt so off-balance, still waiting for the reality of what he was doing to crash over him like an ice-bath, but it didn’t come—there were only Zuko’s hands, and Zuko’s breath, and the swipe of his tongue against Sokka’s lips as they kissed.

Sokka opened his mouth slightly to let Zuko inside, and Zuko groaned, a helpless sound, kissing back hard and wet. Arousal sparked bright and insistent in Sokka’s gut, and all of a sudden Sokka was starving, didn’t know how he could have ever lived without this. He pressed against the hot weight of Zuko’s body, trying to get closer, trying to get more, more of the fleeting taste of his mouth, almost sweet, more of the danger and heat running like a current beneath Zuko’s skin, threatening to overflow.

He was getting turned on so fast it was almost embarrassing. The metal plates of Zuko’s armor dug into Sokka’s chest but he didn’t care—he didn’t care , because his hips were jerking forward involuntarily, seeking heat and hard . Zuko froze, and stayed frozen even when Sokka did it again—this time a bit more intentionally, wanting to see what would happen, wanting to feel. Then, tentatively, Zuko rolled his own hips in return.

“Is this—is this okay?” Zuko asked breathlessly, pulling away. Even in the dim light, Sokka could see the red staining on his cheek, the way the gold in his good eye was almost eaten up by the black of his pupil. It seemed like Sokka had been the one to take him by surprise this time, and Sokka reveled in it for a moment, that this could be his first time doing anything with anyone, and he was managing not to fail completely.

“Yeah,” Sokka said, just as breathless, “Yes. Really, really okay.”

And then they were kissing again, drowning in it.

Zuko released one of his wrists and brought his hand down to cup Sokka’s jaw tenderly, like it might break, and Sokka whined a little, because it wasn’t enough, damn it.

“More—” Sokka managed to say, hips rocking against Zuko’s, desperate for friction. Nearly impossible with all those layers. Impossible to tell if Zuko was even hard too. Oh spirits, he hoped he was, “I need more —”

Zuko moaned and oh yeah, he was hard, yes, he was perfect. Sokka took it, greedy for scalding breath and burning fingers against the skin of his throat, stomach clenching as Zuko’s teeth caught on Sokka’s lip and bit down.

Zuko tasted so good, and smelled so good, and felt so good against him in their frantic rhythm. Sokka never wanted this to end, but heat was pooling between his legs and he knew he wasn’t going to last. And that would be fine, great even. But he really wanted to come in Zuko’s hand, and not just against the tense line of his thigh.

“Touch me,” He said, or rather demanded, without breaking the kiss for more than a second, and Zuko breathed back, “Yes.”

He let go of Sokka’s other wrist and reached down to cup Sokka’s erection for a brief, aching second, then he tugged the black cloak up and over Sokka’s head, tossing it aside on the ground. With both hands free at last, Sokka tried to find a chink in Zuko’s armor—that there were still this many layers of clothing separating them was criminal —but obviously Fire Nation design was terrible and cruel, because he couldn’t find one

Zuko pushed away his wandering fingers and got to work on the tie of Sokka’s pants, both of them looking down, breathing hard, as Zuko tried and failed to figure out their logic. He kept tightening the knots instead of loosening them, and Sokka let him struggle for a few moments, just because he could, because it was funny, before he got tired of waiting and decided to help Zuko out.

“Your pants are ridiculous,” Zuko mumbled, clearly embarrassed, and Sokka laughed, unable to stop himself, full-body and exuberant. He was so—happy. That’s what that feeling was. Happiness.

Zuko looked a bit startled but then he leaned forward and nipped Sokka’s lip again, almost playfully, and said, “Shut up.”

“Make me,” Sokka challenged. It was possibly the oldest line in the book, but it worked—Zuko reached into Sokka’s pants and brushed calloused fingers against Sokka’s cock, and after that it was hard to think at all.

Zuko started to move his hand loosely up and down the shaft, memorizing every detail with his fingers, and Sokka shifted his hips, turned on and impatient and a little uncomfortable. He liked to think of himself as a pretty confident guy, at least sometimes, but there was something about Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation—what the fuck was Sokka’s life—looking down at his cock with a stunned look on his face that made him feel way too exposed and open, like there was more at stake here than just a handjob. Which there totally was, but whatever.

Zuko licked his lips, hand still moving excruciatingly slow, and Sokka couldn’t take it anymore, had to close his eyes against the double-impact of his own arousal and this new vulnerability.

He swallowed a couple times, finding his voice again, “Don’t just - ah - leave me hanging here.”

Zuko huffed, sounding suspiciously like a laugh, and kept rubbing his thumb in tiny circles against the head of Sokka’s cock, making Sokka shudder and gasp, over-sensitive. Eventually he let go—ignoring Sokka’s protests—to spit into his hand, and then he was back, gripping tight at the base and going for it, fast and hard, with the same absolute, intense focus he brought to everything he did, awkward angle and inexperience be damned.

Every jerk of Zuko’s hand sent an overwhelming rush of sensation through Sokka’s whole body, and he arched into it, letting out a ragged sound and accidentally knocking his head back against the wall. The pain barely even registered—diffusing easily into pleasure.

“Look at me,” Zuko said quietly, under his breath, and Sokka tried, but it was hard. Eventually he gave up trying to focus on anything that wasn’t the feeling of Zuko’s hand on his cock, letting his eyes drift closed again. 

He was coming undone so unbelievably fast, hips jerking forward uncontrollably when Zuko did this twisting thing on the upstroke, which wasn’t something Sokka had ever done to himself, but it felt incredible, made him gasp and reach out blindly to hold onto whatever part of Zuko he could find, unable to handle this alone.

“Fuck,” Sokka moaned, “Oh fuck, Zuko—”

“You can—yeah, like that,” Zuko murmured, and Sokka started thrusting into his hand, too far gone to find a rhythm, but it didn’t even matter, he was so close, right on the edge, trembling with it.

“Almost, I’m almost—” Sokka’s voice caught in his throat and Zuko picked up the pace, pushing in to kiss him, making little noises against Sokka’s lips like he was just as into this as Sokka was.

Pleasure broke like a wave through his body and he came all over Zuko’s hand and wrist and sleeve.

Sokka sagged back against the wall, breathing deeply as he came down. For the first time, he was aware of the sweat on his forehead, cooling in the night air, and the sound of the festival going on around them. He looked at Zuko, still flushed and gorgeous, who was staring down at the mess on his hand like he didn’t quite know what to do with it.

“You got…” Zuko started, pulling at the fabric of his uniform, caught somewhere between disgusted and pleased, “I can’t walk around like this, Uncle will know.”

“Pretty sure that’s not my problem,” Sokka grinned lazily, “Anyway, it’s hot.”

“Yeah?” Zuko asked, the corner of his mouth lifting in a shy almost-smile, and he brought his hand up to lick at his thumb. Sokka groaned at the sight, committing it to memory. Zuko was really going to be the death of him someday.

“So, how do I taste?” Sokka asked.

“Weird,” Zuko decided, “Good.”

Sokka got that tightness in his chest again, like he was feeling too much to possibly contain, so he leaned in for another kiss, the slick heat of Zuko’s mouth making him forget for a while what he meant to do.

Eventually Sokka pulled back and asked, “You still good to go?”

“I—yes. Only if you want to,” Zuko replied.

“Of course I want to,” Sokka huffed, “Now get over here and show me how this stupid uniform works.”

Zuko guided him through a complicated series of buckles fastening each individual piece piece of armor until, at last, Sokka was able to slide his hands under Zuko’s shirt, feeling the muscles in his abdomen twitch beneath his touch. Zuko held himself very tense and still, as if afraid to move, and Sokka couldn’t help teasing a little, taking his time as he trailed his hands slowly back down to where Zuko was hard and hot and waiting for him, already a little wet at the slit.

“Tell me if I do this wrong,” Sokka said, and started jerking Zuko off the way he’d done it earlier, with that twist at the head. He wanted to make Zuko fall apart, but he didn’t know if the pace was right or really what he was doing at all. 

He must have been doing something right, though, because Zuko’s breath hitched, and his hips jerked forward involuntarily.

“I’m really, uhn, I’m really close already,” Zuko gasped.

“That’s good,” Sokka said, and kept going, hard and fast like he usually did right at the end, “You’re good, you’re so good—”

Zuko made another helpless noise, exhaling hard, and sparks flew from his lips, little pinpricks of pain that landed on Sokka’s face. Sokka tried to capture them in his mouth, because damn, but Zuko turned his head away, like he was afraid to burn Sokka, which was probably a valid concern, except for how much Sokka really didn’t care. 

“No, it’s okay, I want—I want you to—” Sokka panted, chasing his lips, and Zuko just...lost it. He shuddered and fell forward, biting back a groan that seemed to come from deep inside him, air crackling around them like twigs in a forest-fire as he spilled into Sokka’s hand.

Sokka worked him through the last few aftershocks until Zuko was soft and spent. They stayed pressed together, Zuko’s breathing slowing into sighs against Sokka’s neck. If they never had to move again, Sokka would be happy. More than happy. He felt elated and exhausted like he’d come a second time, just from making Zuko fall apart.

The come on his hand was starting to cool a little, but before he wiped it off, he tried it—in the interest of fairness, of course, and also because the idea was pretty appealing. The taste, not so much, though

“You’re so good,” He said again, anyway, and Zuko leaned against him for another moment before pulling away abruptly.

“You had your eyes closed, earlier. When I was...” He sounded unhappy, like he didn’t want to say it but felt he had to, for whatever reason, “Is it the scar? Did it—”

Sokka didn’t know what he was referring to, but, “No, you’re fine. I don’t care about the scar.”

It wasn’t the right answer. Zuko was doing the opposite of calming down, heaving in quick breaths, golden eyes angled away. Sokka searched the unscarred side of his face, trying to figure out what was going on, what Zuko was feeling, but all he knew was that the moment was slipping away, and Sokka was powerless to stop it.

Seriously,” Sokka insisted, casting around for any words, hopefully the right ones, “It’s part of you. I know that.”

Unnoticed, fireworks began to scream and explode in the sky above them.

Zuko nodded jerkily, but he didn’t seem convinced. Sokka’s syrupy-warm afterglow began fade, and he was left feeling as cold and unsure as Zuko looked.

“I wouldn’t be here if I minded,” He said, a little desperately, and Zuko took one step backwards, and then another.

It was probably for the best. Sokka had already spent too much time here. He needed to go find Aang and Katara, make sure they hadn’t gotten themselves thrown in jail or anything, but he’d come this far already, and what he needed more was not to have to watch Zuko walk away from him.

Sokka closed the distance between them on a mad impulse, praying it wouldn't make things worse, and reached out to press tentative fingers against the edges of Zuko’s scar, just enough to feel the difference in texture.

Zuko flinched but didn’t push him away. Instead, he stood there rigidly, arms at his sides, hands clenched into fists. Sokka took that as permission and explored the scar as gingerly as he could with the tips of his fingers—all the subtle ridges and valleys of waxy skin. Half-melted ear, narrow, filmy eye without lashes or brow.

“Can you see out of this eye?” Sokka asked quietly, not expecting Zuko to answer. His fingers rested on the vivid crease right beneath it, feeling the muscle spasm uncontrollably.

“Yes. A little,” Zuko said. He was trembling and not in a good way.

“That’s gotta make fighting hard. Without good depth perception.”

“Sometimes.”

The scar was familiar to him from staring into the face of the enemy so many times with fascination and disgust, but now it seemed completely different, or maybe he was experiencing it differently. It was a little beautiful, because Sokka thought basically everything about Zuko was a little beautiful, but mostly it was just there , an unavoidable fact of life. He remembered all the ugly things he’d thought and said before he knew who Zuko really was and wished he could take them back, or that there was something he could do to make up for it.

He traced the shell of Zuko’s ruined ear with his fingers and then, impulsively, with his lips. Zuko exhaled shakily and twined his fingers in Sokka’s wolf-tail, pulling him over for another kiss, lips meeting quiet and heart-wrenchingly tender beneath the exploding sky.

“I’m here with you,” Sokka repeated, when they paused for breath, “I know that. You know that.”

“Yeah,” Zuko whispered, and kissed him again and again, “Yeah.”

Sokka slid his hands up to Zuko’s shoulders and wrapped his arms around him, keeping him there, keeping them together. Even those few minutes apart felt too long. 

“I've wanted to do this for ages,” Sokka said, leaning his forehead against Zuko’s, “It was driving me crazy.”

“Me too,” Zuko said, voice hushed in the space between them, “Since the beginning. I’d think about you, and then I’d see you, and it—”

“It nearly killed me, last time,” Sokka said, “You were so close, and I still couldn’t—”

“I was so sure I’d lost you,” Zuko said and closed his eyes, like the admission was too much, “I never thought—I never thought you’d—”

Sokka shook his head, “You were wrong. I mean yeah, it was hard at first, but I always thought there was...I don’t know. Maybe I was reading too much into things.”

“No,” Zuko said, smiling now for real, and it was better than any victory Sokka had ever won, made him feel like he was on top of the world, “There was something between us. I felt it too.”  

“Do you think we—” Sokka started, but he didn’t get a chance to continue. There was some kind of commotion coming from the square at the end of the alley. Sokka glanced over just in time to see a haphazard group of soldiers run past the alley's entrance, shouting urgently, “The Avatar! He went that way!" 

Zuko froze, then shoved Sokka away.

“You didn’t tell me you were here with the Avatar,” His voice was as cold as ice.  

“I thought you knew! I thought that’s what this was about, you choosing to ignore it!” Sokka protested, ignoring the sinking feeling in his stomach, “Did you really expect me to tell the truth?”

“Yes, yes I did! I can’t believe this,” He snarled, more furious than Sokka had ever seen him, and kicked the ground, setting it ablaze. Sokka scrambled to get out of the way, but his sleeve still got scorched, “You know how much it means to me.”

“I guess I do,” Sokka said, and blinked away the sudden pressure of tears. He didn’t care, he didn’t care, he wasn’t going to care about this. 

For a moment, Zuko’s anger faltered, and it looked like he might stay and try to work things out, but then another group of soldiers ran past the alley’s entrance, shouting that the Avatar was close and Sokka could see he was dying to join them. 

"Go," Sokka spat, heart breaking, "Just go." 

Zuko's lips tightened and he shoved roughly past Sokka, running out into the square without looking back. 

Sokka watched him leave, and every good thing Sokka had been feeling was gone, replaced by a dull, empty ache. 

He didn’t know how he would be able to face the world with the traces of what had happened still on his clothes and his lips—kiss-swollen, slightly chapped. Their masks lay on the ground, along with the crumpled pile of his cloak, and he had a gift from Zuko burning a hole in his pocket. He'd never be able to forget this, not one minute of it. How quickly everything turned to shit with the ghost of Zuko's body still pressed against him in all the places where they'd fit together so well that Sokka had thought—for a second there he’d really thought—

Sokka wiped away a few stupid tears, and tried to get himself under control.

Appa flew by overhead, brushing the rooftops and sending down showers of tiles, and he heard Katara calling out in a high, frantic voice, “Sokka! Sokka, where are you?”

“Down here!” He yelled up at them, and followed Appa’s path out into the square.

It was chaos. Soldiers were running around everywhere, the pikemen bristling with spears and the benders sending fire-blasts into the air as Appa came back into range. Sokka couldn’t see Zuko but it didn’t mean he wasn’t there. He wasn’t looking very hard anyway.

“Sokka!” Katara yelled, sighting him, and Aang’s wind-shear knocked down enough soldiers for Sokka to fight his way through and climb onto Appa’s back. They rose through hot, ashy air, dodging volleys of fire, and Sokka didn’t look down. he kept his eyes focused on Katara as she clutched his hands.

“Where were you?” She asked him, “I was worried sick, we thought you gotten captured again.”

“No, nothing happened,” He said, forcing the words past the lump in his throat, “I—I got distracted. Sorry.”

They were heading north, away from the village, away from the fireworks still lighting up the night, and Sokka couldn’t shake the empty feeling. He had lost something in that alley, given Zuko a piece of his happiness that he was never getting back. The dull ache spread beneath his skin like a bruise.

Katara was giving him a searching look and he wondered how much of what he was thinking had played across his face, “What happened to you?” He asked to distract her.

She glanced at Aang, who cringed, “Some misplaced heroics, that’s all. We’re lucky to have made it out.”

“What kind of misplaced heroics? I told you not to do anything dangerous,” Sokka said, voice rising.

“It’s not Aang’s fault!” Katara argued back, “He was just trying to protect me, because you weren’t there to do it.”

“Yeah, that’s the point. I leave you guys alone for a minute—” He ignored Katara’s muttered more like an hour, “ No, listen, I leave you guys to your own devices once, just once, and everything goes to shit. It’s like you're trying to get into life-threatening situations—”

“Hey, guys, uh—” Aang started, but Sokka was on a roll, and couldn’t be stopped.

He was so, so angry at Zuko, at Aang, at Katara, but mostly at himself, and he needed to get it out before he started crying again right there in front of them. So he brought up petty disputes from childhood and Katara responded just like he knew she would—trading blame back and forth for half-forgotten insults and injuries—until someone coughed pointedly from the other side of Appa’s saddle, and Sokka turned his head so fast to see who it was that he almost sprained his neck.

"Who are you?" He demanded, and once he got the answer, he abandoned the argument in favor of trying to get his head back in the game. There was no more time for feelings. He had a real live Fire Nation defector right in front of him, and there were questions that needed to be asked, plans that needed to be made.

Chey was very forthcoming, and welcomed their questions. Somewhere during Chey’s explanation of his former role in the Fire Nation infantry, Sokka shot Katara a silent look of apology, trying to convey that he wasn’t mad anymore, not at her. He shouldn’t have blown up like that in the first place. Usually he was good at getting his head back in the game when he needed to, but he was having trouble pushing aside what had just happened. No matter how hard he tried to pay attention to Chey's rambling about some crazy firebending master hiding out in the woods, he kept seeing the look of betrayal mixed with fury on Zuko's face right before he turned away and felt all over again the same punch of misery right in his gut. 

"He's trustworthy, in case you were wondering," Katara said in an undertone, her words coming to him from very far away, "He helped us escape when Aang was discovered." 

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Sokka said automatically, thinking of Zuko. 

“Maybe not. But Aang wants to meet this Admiral Jeong Jeong, and I think we should let him.”

“Yeah, and look what happened last time we listened to Aang about anything.”

Katara frowned, “What's wrong with you? You’re not usually this mean.”

“Nothing’s wrong, I just—" He shook his head, not trusting his voice, "I'm sorry." 

"You can't expect me to excuse you that easily when you're acting horrible all the time," She said, but it sounded like she was on the verge of forgiving him anyway. 

"I know," He closed his eyes, stomach churning with guilt, "I'm really sorry. I—some stuff happened. While I was gone. I'll tell you about it later, when we're alone." 

He wasn't going to. He couldn't, it was too humiliating and he'd been humiliated enough already. But she didn't know that. 

"Okay," She said, and let him lean against her shoulder as he was hit by a fresh wave of sick, angry longing.

He’d been selfish and irresponsible and look what it got him. One perfect moment that dissolved as soon as reality broke in—like it hadn’t really happened at all. But it had. That was the worst part. It had. And he could never go back in time to before he knew what Zuko looked like shuddering against him, undone by desire and the friction of Sokka's hand. 

He wasn't going to let it happen again, though. He had a family and friends and a suicide mission to save the world and that was going to be enough for him, it had to be. He was suddenly so grateful that he hadn't been able to give Zuko the letter he'd written. Zuko didn't deserve to read it now that everything had changed. Sokka had been ready to give them a chance, a real chance, and Zuko had fucking ruined it, like he always did.

There was no going back from that. Not anymore. Sokka had had enough. 

Chapter Text

The weirdest thing about having a broken heart was that life just kept going with the same urgency and danger, the same petty annoyances, as if Sokka didn’t also kind of feel like he was dying inside.

He was doing a decent job, he thought, of putting the whole thing out of his mind and dealing with the current crisis; i.e. how to avoid Zuko. He wondered why no one else was as concerned about it as he was, since it seemed like a pretty big deal, and then he realized he was the only one who'd seen Zuko. 

“Zuko was at the festival,” He blurted out, interrupting whatever Chey was saying.

“What?” Katara exclaimed, “Did he see you? Does he know we were there?”

Sokka hesitated for a moment, caught. He wanted to tell her the truth, or at least part of it, but that couldn’t be done unless he wanted to tell her the whole truth. So instead he said, “Yeah, he saw us. He was in the square as we were leaving.”

Sokka ignored the bug-eyed look Aang was giving him.

“Is that Prince Zuko you’re talking about?” Chey asked, curious.

“Yup,” Aang answered, when it was clear Sokka wasn’t going to say anything, “He’s been tracking us since we left the Southern Water Tribe.”

“Huh. That’s interesting. You know, I’ve heard some rumors about him…” Chey continued and Sokka couldn’t listen to it, not today.

“Look, can we focus on the real issue here?” He snapped, “Zuko could be after us and we need to find somewhere safe to spend the night.”

“We can camp in a section of forest under Jeong Jeong’s control, and then follow the stream to the village in the morning,” Chey said, “I’ve done it a hundred times.”

That seemed enough to convince Aang and Katara. Sokka...not so much. It wasn’t that Sokka didn’t trust Chey to direct them to safety, it was just that, well, he didn’t. Chey claimed he knew the whole surrounding area inside and out, but Chey didn’t know Zuko. Didn’t know how hard he would search if he thought he had even an outside chance of capturing the Avatar. Sokka swallowed down the rising misery that thought provoked, and grilled Chey about the forest, the village, anything he could think of that might give him a reason they shouldn't stop.

He couldn't find anything, so reluctantly he agreed to land in the forest and walk to a clearing where they could set up camp for the night. It could be worse, he thought. At least Chey wasn’t a firebender. Or, he didn't seem to be. They had to use flint and steel to light the campfire. 

The air was wet and cold, and the four of them gathered around the flames for warmth. It was getting late, but Sokka didn't set up the tent. He didn’t want anything to slow them down if they suddenly had to run. As they relaxed (well, except for Sokka) and warmed up, Chey talked to them for a while longer about Jeong Jeong the ‘living legend.' The more Aang heard, the more he pleaded for them to go visit the guy. He made a good point, too. Jeong Jeong probably was the only firebender in the world who wasn’t going to capture or kill the Avatar on sight, but that didn’t mean Sokka liked it.

Aang also made the argument that they might be able to get more food and supplies if they followed Chey to the village. And Sokka couldn't deny that was tempting, because of course, none of them had remembered to stock up on food, which was literally the only reason they’d gone to the Fire Days festival in the first place. Well, in all honesty, he was the one who should have remembered, since it was his idea in the first place. But then he ran into Zuko and it's not like he was exactly thinking clearly, after that. 

The conversation drifted back to Jeong Jeong's extraordinary vision of pacifism and unity between the nations, but Sokka stopped paying attention. He thought he heard something in the trees. Not Hawky or the wind, but some kind of dull roar. He got up from the fire and went to investigate. It wasn't long before he found the source of the noise. So much for Chey's stream, this was a river, broad and fast-flowing. Wide enough for Zuko’s little boat to make its way up easily. He turned to go—he had to get his friends and go, they weren't safe here—but first he needed to lean against a tree with his eyes closed and breathe for a while. 

The problem was, he wanted Zuko to come after him so badly. Not in pursuit of honor and the Avatar, but because of Sokka. Wanted him to sail up the river and jump into the water and wade to shore and apologize out loud for leaving, for ruining everything. Wanted Zuko to tell him there’s nothing I want more in the world than to be with you.

But it was never going to happen. He knew that. He knew that. So why was it so hard to get the thought out of his head? 

When he got back to the fire, he told them what he'd found, and emphasized yet again the importance of moving on. 

"We're right by a major waterway, less than a day's trip away from the town, and you can bet the guards have already alerted someone that we were spotted. Now It’s just a question of who will get here first—Zuko or Zhao.”

“But Sokka, this could be my only chance to find a firebending master who would be actually willing to teach me,” Aang said, eyes wide, pleading.

“It can’t hurt just to talk to him.” Katara agreed, "We won't have to stay long." 

“That’s what you said about the fire festival, and look how that turned out!” He threw up his hands, “Why doesn’t anyone ever listen to me?!”

But he had to admit, the chances of Aang finding someone else to teach him firebending were pretty slim. He was on the verge of conceding when his suspicions were confirmed in dramatic fashion by being ambushed and marched at spear-point to the village by Jeong Jeong’s other followers. Always a fun way to spend an evening.

What made it even better was that Jeong Jeong didn’t even want to teach Aang firebending. He refused to see Aang once they reached the hidden village, which of course Aang ignored entirely. Despite Sokka’s warnings, he barged into Jeong Jeong’s hut to make his case. Sokka sighed and sat down heavily on the grassy bank outside the hut, joined by Katara and Chey. At least they'd be close if Aang needed them. No one was talking much, mostly focusing on trying to eavesdrop. Sokka listened for a while, but all the shouting just made him think of Zuko, so he tuned it out. It was easy enough to distract himself with the sound of the river as it flowed wide and dark beyond them, and the flicker of fireflies as they landed in the grass. 

He held out his hand, and one of the insects flew onto his cupped palm. It tickled slightly as it walked, its body blinking greenish-bright, and he tried to hold still. He could stay like this forever. A little hungry (again), but peaceful too. The throb of his head and heart momentarily easing.

“Sokka, did you hear that?” Katara whispered, and Sokka shook his head, “They’re arguing—or...someone is? Do you think that's the spirit of Avatar Roku?”

“Who knows?” Sokka shrugged. If the spirit of a past avatar was getting involved, he wanted no part in it.

Eventually Aang—and not Avatar Roku—came out, elated with success. Katara hugged him tightly, but Sokka, who was feeling better but not entirely, clapped him on the shoulder, and said with false enthusiasm, “Congratulations, you're going to be an ash eater!" 

It was meant to be a joke, or kind of a joke, but Aang’s face fell a little, and Katara swatted Sokka on the arm, “Be nice!”

Sokka resolved to keep his mouth shut for the foreseeable future, and went to go assemble their tent in silence. One of the men who’d ambushed them stopped him (by shoving his spear in the way, very polite) and said, “No tents. Too noticeable. You will sleep where we tell you to sleep.”

“Okay…” Sokka stuffed the tent back into his bag, annoyed, “Lead the way.”

They were taken to a small, dusty hut on the edge of the settlement. There were enough cobwebs in the corners to convince Sokka that this village didn’t get guests too often. Or at all. Katara was yawning, tired from their eventful day, and laid out her sleeping bag on the dirt floor. Sokka did too, just to have something to do, but he wasn't sure he necessarily wanted to be left alone with his thoughts just yet. Unfortunately, Aang and Katara dropped off to sleep shortly after, and he was left staring up at the dark ceiling arching above them.

He’d had a taste of what losing his shit over Zuko felt like before, and it terrified him. Going through that again wasn't an option. He needed to get over it as fast as possible so it wouldn’t keep slowing him down, making him vulnerable. Zuko was—Zuko was the best thing that had ever happened to him, and also the worst, but it was time for him to face certain facts.

The facts were: he was deeply, stupidly in love with Zuko, and Zuko liked him back (how much was yet to be determined), and he needed, somehow, to stop being in love with Zuko so he could help save the world and maybe one day live a quiet, happy, normal life. If he survived. The chances of which were greatly improved by him not being in love with Zuko anymore.

The problem was, he didn’t know how to stop it. He could remember a time when he didn’t feel like this, before the letters, before the revelations and the kissing and the heat of Zuko’s cock in his hand. But he couldn’t go back there—couldn’t recreate the version of him from before, because he knew, now, what it felt like to have Zuko’s breath in his lungs, and Zuko’s eyes meeting his, burning with want and something almost like fear, like Sokka could hurt him if he wasn’t careful.

Of course, Sokka was the one who ended up getting hurt. 

Sokka rolled over, burying his face against the fabric of his sleeping bag. He was consumed by a nauseating mix of anger and sadness, and wasn't sure which one was the strongest. He wanted to punch someone (Zuko, mostly, but also himself). He wanted to tell someone. He'd finally realized this wasn't just about two people. It never had been. It was always also about nations, innocent lives, the entire war. And that was too much to carry alone.

He sat up in his sleeping bag, too restless to stay still. Zuko probably expected Sokka to forgive him, ignoring whatever was happening in real life like he always did. He was probably expecting Sokka to write him another letter, pretending everything was fine. Pretending that they weren't on opposite sides of a chasm that couldn't be bridged even if Sokka had thought for a moment that it could.

Zuko had put an end to that, and now he had to let Zuko know it was over. No more letters, no more secret stolen moments in the middle of fighting. No more pretending. 

Sokka climbed out of his sleeping bag and pulled his writing materials out of his bag, along with his lamp, just in case the moon wasn’t bright enough for him to see by. He didn’t take them outside with him yet, but he would. Once he’d walked around for a while and figured out what to say. Once he’d figured out how to take his feelings out of himself and put reason and logic in their place.

He wandered around for a while, down to the banks of the river. The fireflies weren’t out anymore, so he just watched the reflection of the crescent moon on the water—divided like Zuko’s face between light and shadow. He picked up a stone from the bank and skipped it hard across the water, shattering the moon into fragments.

The sound of the skipping stone must have alerted someone to his presence, because when Sokka went to climb back up the bank, he sensed someone approach him—and for a moment, he thought it was Zuko, and his heart sang despite himself—but then he got thwacked across the chest by a spear. And yeah, that wasn't Zuko. It was one of the guards. Sokka’s heart tumbled down into his stomach, and he stopped in his tracks. 

“Easy, easy. I’m here with the Avatar,” Sokka held his hands up in a non-threatening manner, “You wanna lower your spear?”

The guard looked distinctly unimpressed, but he did, after a long tense moment, lower the weapon. 

“No walking around after dark,” The guard barked.

“You got it. I’ll, uh, just be going….” Sokka backed away, keeping his eyes on the guard until he got back to the hut.

It was a risk, but he lit the lamp anyway, throwing caution to the wind one last time, and set out his writing kit. The light bounced off the rough walls of the hut, but when he looked over at Aang and Katara, they both still seemed asleep. He took a deep breath and dipped his brush into the ink.

“Hey, Sokka?” Aang’s voice was quiet and sleepy, but Sokka still startled, dropping the brush, splattering ink on his pant leg, “Are you writing to…you know...”

“What are you still doing up?” Sokka whispered, ignoring the question.

“Too excited about starting my training tomorrow to sleep.” Aang admitted. After a moment, he asked, “Is he really your friend?”

And that—oh. There were too many ways to answer that.

“He was,” Sokka said, going for the honest approach, “I thought he was.”

“What happened?” Aang asked, even quieter.

Sokka almost didn’t answer, but the words were on his tongue and he had to tell someone. Why not Aang? Why not now? He set the brush aside and shifted closer so their whispering wouldn’t wake Katara.

“It all just kind of...fell apart,” He said, “I ran into him today when I was getting more food. He didn’t know we were going to be there, so I told him it was just me, on a supply run, and he believed me. Which is pretty, y’know. Not normal Zuko behavior. But anyway, I guess he—we both wanted to talk. And um. Yeah. We talked,” His cheeks heated briefly at the memory, until the angry sadness overwhelmed him again, and he had to force himself to continue.

“I thought he—I thought we were—I thought it meant something to him. But it turns out he really does only care about capturing you. The moment he found out you were there, he turned on me, and...” He touched the cuff of his sleeve where it was slightly singed and Aang’s eyes followed the movement in the low light.

“You trusted him,” Aang said, and Sokka nodded, wordless, still looking down at his sleeve, “If it makes you feel any better, you’re not the only who thought he could change. I wanted him to be my friend too. I even talked to him about it, but he turned me down.”

At that, Sokka looked up, sudden jealousy twisting at his guts, “What do you mean, you wanted to be his friend?”

Aang shrugged, “I used to have lots of friends from the Fire Nation. Good friends. Back then, it didn't matter as much where you came from. We had so much fun together. I loved learning about their culture, seeing the sights. The Fire Nation is an incredible place. But now they’re all gone. This village has the only Fire Nation people I’ve met so far who think what the Fire Lord is doing is wrong, and even they don’t really want me here...” He sighed, “I guess I just didn’t expect to wake up in a world like this.”

“I’m sorry you had to,” Sokka said. He felt kind of guilty for being jealous, even only for a moment, “I hate the war. I hate what it does to us.”

“Me too,” Aang said, his thin shoulders drooping, “I guess what I'm trying to say is, I understand why you did it. Even though I still think this is something Katara should know about. Zuko could have burned you. He could have used you to get to—"

“Don’t say that,” Sokka said in a too-loud voice. He took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, then continued much quieter, “I know, okay? I know he’s an untrustworthy, manipulative piece of shit who would do anything to get to you. I know he doesn’t care about anything else. I just—you were right. I trusted him, and I’m an idiot. What else is new.”

Aang made a pitying face at him, and Sokka looked away.

“He does care about you, though,” Aang said, cautious, “At least, I think he does.”

“What gives you that idea?” Sokka asked, but it sounded more desperate than dismissive, “It doesn’t matter, anyway. It’s over now, I’m never writing to him again.”

“That’s probably a good idea,” Aang said, and Sokka didn't think he was going to answer the question. But he did.

“I followed your hawk. That’s how I found out who you were writing to. You said it was safe but I didn’t believe you, so I followed the hawk all the way to the coast, where Zuko picked up the letter. I didn’t know who it was at first—I couldn’t recognize him until I saw the scar. He looked so different, reading your letter. He looked...happy.”

Sokka covered his face with his hands so Aang wouldn’t see all of his feelings displayed there helplessly.

“He—really?” Sokka’s voice came out muffled.

“Yeah. I mean, I think so. After that I spent a lot of time watching him to see if he was going to do anything, like hurt you somehow. But mostly the things he did just confused me. I could never really tell if he was going easier on you or not.”

“Tell me about it,” Sokka half-laughed, even though he felt like his chest was collapsing, “ I think he spent the entire time I was on his ship trying to figure out if he was my enemy or my friend.”

“Which one did he decide on?” Aang asked.

“Friend. Not that it means anything. He made his real choice very clear tonight,” Sokka couldn’t keep the bitterness out of his voice.

“I’m sorry,” Aang said, and put his hand on Sokka’s arm. Sokka resisted the urge to brush him off. His eyes were burning. Fuck.

“I just—” His throat hurt, tight with feeling, “I just love him so much.”

There. He’d said it. He started to panic almost immediately. He’d made a terrible mistake. Aang was going to hate him now. He should never have opened his big, stupid mouth.

Aang made a surprised noise, looking very embarrassed, “You mean like, love love? I didn't even know you liked boys.”

And his reaction was so Aang, it almost made Sokka laugh. He didn't, but he did relax a little, some of the tension leaving his body, “I didn’t either, until him,” He ran his hands over his face, his hot cheeks, his stinging eyes. Let his cold fingers and the rough fabric of his wrist wrappings center him, “I guess there weren’t enough guys my age back home for me to figure it out. Or, well, any.”

“Wow,” Aang shook his head, “Wow. Zuko.”

“Yeah,” Sokka did manage a smile now, “Pretty unbelievable, right?”

“Does he—does he know? That you, uh...”

“He started it,” Sokka said, “He told me he liked me, that he was going crazy thinking about me. He said a lot of things. We did some stuff too.”

“I do not need to know about that,” Aang said, pretending to block his ears, blushing.

Sokka grinned, “You mean you don’t want to hear about the size of his dick?”

“No!” Aang squeaked, then covered his mouth.

It was so good to talk to someone about this, finally, that Sokka nearly forgot where they were and what had happened. He sobered quickly.

“I know I need to tell Katara,” He said, “But she’s going to be so mad. I could have messed everything up a hundred times over. It’s not like the guilt hasn’t been killing me this whole time, but I guess I didn’t want to think about it. I was being selfish.”

“She is definitely going to be mad,” Aang agreed, “But you still have to tell her. She’s your sister. She loves you more than she hates Zuko.”

“I think you’re underestimating her,” Sokka said, in full knowledge that this was the wrong time to make a joke, “She hates Zuko a lot.”

“Okay, maybe you’re right,” Aang said, and half-smiled. He knew Katara too.

“If I…” Sokka started, then paused, gathering his words, “If I tell her most of it, but not the whole thing, will that be okay? Will you keep the rest a secret?”

“You mean the part where you apparently know the size of Zuko’s, uh, um,” Aang asked bravely.

“Yeah. If I keep that part a secret, and tell her the rest, that’s enough, right? I just can’t bear the thought of her yelling at me about how stupid I am for wanting him when I’m, when it just ended and I’m pretty…” Now he couldn't finish his sentences either, “When I’m pretty messed-up about it, honestly.”

Aang thought about it for a long moment. Sokka had to stop himself from fidgeting.

“Okay,” Aang said at last, “I’ll keep your secret. It wouldn’t be right for me to tell her anyway. Not if you don't want me to.”

“Thank you,” Sokka exhaled, felt the last of the tension leave him, “You’re a good friend. And I’m not just saying that.”

“Thanks,” Aang said, “You’re a good friend too. I know you don’t want to be here right now, but I appreciate that you are anyway.”

“I just don’t like that we’re putting ourselves in obvious danger for a man who doesn’t even want to teach you,” Sokka shrugged, “But who am I to judge, at this point.”

“He’s my only option.” Aang said, “I’m just grateful he’s giving me a chance at all.”

"Well, if things go wrong, Katara and I will be here to help," Sokka said, and it was more than a promise. It was a first step towards making things right again. Getting his priorities in order. 

This time, he waited until Aang was actually asleep before taking up his brush again. The letter he’d written and left unsent was sitting right on top of the stack of paper. He couldn’t bear to re-read it, could barely stand to touch it. A relic from a more hopeful time. How quickly things changed. 

I had a different letter all written out, but after what happened today, I can’t send it to you. I’m writing to tell you I can’t do this anymore. You turned on me in the one moment we had to be together, just the two of us, right when I started thinking we had a real chance. You ruined everything. And yeah, maybe I ruined things too, but I’m not sorry I lied. I need to keep Aang and my sister safe. That’s more important than anything I might feel have felt for you. I know you’re in a tough situation, but guess what, I am too, and it doesn’t make me act like a total asshole to you. I can’t keep doing this to myself, always making excuses for you in my head. I guess it’s finally hit me that we’re not just on opposite sides of the war, we are the opposite sides. Even so, I thought we could make it work but you showed me we can’t. Thanks for that. I especially appreciated getting burned. Spirits, this was all so much easier when I didn’t know who you were. And I know it makes me a liar and a coward and a terrible person for backing out now when I said so many things I can never take back. But I guess I’ll just have to live with that. Don’t write to me anymore.

S.

Sokka was shaking by the time he finished writing the letter. It was so much harder to end things when he'd had everything he wanted within his grasp, just for a moment. But he understood now, how wrong it really was to keep lying to Aang and Katara. To himself most of all. He packed away his writing supplies and remembered the first time he ever met Zuko. He hadn't thought about it in a while. That fateful day when the Fire Nation ships drove their ice-breaking hulls all the way up to the edges of their village wall, and Zuko, descending from the gangplank, kicked him aside like he was nothing. Much less than a threat. A nuisance, maybe. An insect. Some things never changed. 

He rolled the letter up and stepped outside the hut, scanning the darkness for any sign of the guards. When he couldn’t see anyone, he whistled for Hawky, and settled in for a long wait at the doorstep while Hawky disentangled himself from whatever nighttime activities he preferred. Sleeping, probably. It was very late.

When Hawky finally flew down and landed on the stoop beside him, Sokka talked to him for a while, keeping his voice low so no one would hear him as he said things like you’ve been great, I’m going to miss you, I hope Zuko treats you right and lets you go hunting as much as you want. Sokka included specific instructions too that Hawky wasn’t supposed to bring a letter back to him, even if Zuko sent Hawky back, even if there was a message in his carrier. 

“It’s not your fault,” He said, stroking the crest of Hawky’s head, “It’s Zuko. You know how he is. I think I’ll do better if I don’t hear from him for a while. Talk some sense into him, would you? Tell him he’s being—” His voice cracked. Spirits, this was embarrassing, he was embarrassing himself in front of a messenger hawk, “Tell him he’s being a huge jerk. Tell him he broke my fucking heart. No, wait. Don’t tell him that. Whatever. It’s not like you can talk, anyway.”

He slid the letter into the message carrier and said a last goodbye, then watched as Hawky lifted off into the night sky for the last time. He watched for a while, until there was nothing in the sky but the crescent moon and a few hazy stars, and then went back inside and lay down and managed to fall asleep for the few remaining hours until sunrise.

Chey woke them up the next morning at the crack of dawn, which was much, much earlier than Sokka would have liked. On the bright side, they got to join the other ex-Fire Nation villagers for a communal breakfast of delicious, spicy meat dumplings, which kind of made up for the lack of sleep. At least in Sokka's opinion. 

He was worried Aang might act differently towards him now that he knew all the things he knew, but Aang was too focused on the start of his training to be weird. Instead, it was Katara who was acting strangely. Distant, even cold. She shut down everything he had to say with curt, one-word answers. It made him uneasy. He was sure she couldn’t have heard anything last night since she’d been fast asleep the whole time, but he also didn't have an explanation all the long, disapproving looks she was giving him when she thought he wouldn’t notice.

He tried to push his worry aside and went to talk to Chey, who was still feeling bad about the welcome they’d gotten, and very willing to fill Sokka in on anything he wanted to know about the Fire Nation’s military. Sokka wasn’t one to turn down free intel, plus Chey liked to talk. Win-win.

Once he got started, it turned out that what Chey really liked to talk about was himself, which turned out to be more interesting than Sokka expected. He told Sokka about the mandatory military service every Fire Nation civilian goes through once they come of age, and how he’d stuck with it even once his three years were up for lack of anything better to do. How disillusioned he became with every new battle, watching the destruction of innocent lives as the Fire Nation pushed into new colonies, this one included. How he started hearing rumors that there was another option, if you were brave enough to take it. Starting hearing about Admiral Jeong Jeong’s radical ideas.

Sokka asked him what must have been a million questions, trying hard not to think about Zuko and what might have happened to him if he hadn’t been cast out by Firelord Ozai. Sokka asked about how the army was organized, if were there any soldiers still enlisted who were sympathetic to the deserters’ cause, whether Chey knew how many deserters were out there. The good thing about Chey was that he didn’t pretend to have all the answers, and told Sokka as honestly as he could everything he knew.

For instance, he didn’t know for sure how many other deserters there were, living on the fringes of the Fire Nation colonies, but he did know that after Jeong Jeong left, more and more soldiers started leaving too. Maybe they were killed, or maybe they disappeared into the forests and hidden valleys, or took on new identities in the Earth Kingdom, condemned to live as fugitives for the rest of their lives.

Sokka thought of Aunt Wu the fortuneteller, raised in the Fire Nation before the troubles really started, and wondered how many more there were like her living incognito in the Earth Kingdom. If Sokka had come across any more of them during his travels and didn’t even realize. He mentioned it to Chey, just out of curiosity, and Chey nodded, “Growing up, I heard my grandmother was half dirt, but I couldn’t get much more out of my parents than that. It’s not something people talk about in the Fire Nation.”

“Dirt?” Sokka asked. He hadn’t heard that one before.

“I probably shouldn’t call them that, but…” Chey shrugged, “It means someone from the Earth Kingdom.”

“Is there a word for people from the Water Tribe? In the south, we just call ourselves the People,” Sokka asked, and Chey rubbed his chin, uncomfortable.

“Water savages, that’s what we call you,” He answered reluctantly, “Sometimes water-dogs, too, or fish-eaters.”

“Hey, everybody eats fish, except for the Air Nomads!” Sokka protested, and Chey grimaced.

“Never said it was fair.”

They got called to lunch after that—rice-balls with spicy seaweed and dried fish, the food here was good—but the conversation stuck with Sokka. It didn’t surprise him that the Fire Nation didn’t think very highly of the other nations, but he'd never seriously considered that Zuko might feel the same way. Might think Sokka was less than human, and not just because he wasn’t a bender. He wished he could ask in a letter, but that was over now. He would never get to ask Zuko what he thought ever again.

Katara was still giving him weird looks, when she wasn't ignoring him outright. He told himself she was just tired. They’d gone to bed pretty late last night. Or maybe he’d managed to annoy her somehow. It was totally possible.

He did ask Aang about it, though, when Aang came slumping over to them during one of his breaks from “sitting and breathing” practice.

“Do you think Katara is acting kind of off today? She keeps giving me all these looks,” Sokka asked, and Aang sighed.

“I don’t know. She’s probably just tired. I wish Jeong Jeong would let me burn something…”

And he was off again, complaining about his nonexistent progress. So Sokka resolved to ignore it and focus on fishing, which was something he was (moderately) good at, and had nothing to do with feelings whatsoever.

The river was murky and brown, overhung with trees and vines. He had found a good boulder to perch on, right on the edge of the bank, where the water beneath it was deep and slow, and he got a lot of bites on his line although no fish yet. At least, not any fish large enough to keep instead of throwing back in. Katara was practicing waterbending beside him, filtering the water of impurities as she drew it out of the river, and cycling it between her hands in a complicated rhythm.

He didn’t envy her identity as a waterbender anymore. Maybe a little, still, but not much. All he wished now was that he could have an equally strong sense of himself as anything besides a fuck-up who’d jeopardized the safety of the people he loved for the sake of some...whatever it was with the prince of the Fire Nation. 

Katara gave him another side-long look as she drew a fresh sphere of water from the river, and Sokka couldn’t take it anymore. He set down his fishing pole and snapped, “What? What is it?”

“Nothing,” She said quickly, but he didn’t believe her. He’d been reading her tone of voice his entire life.

“Seriously, what is it?” He asked, sliding down the side of the boulder to land on the marshy ground. He un-stuck his feet from the mud and walked right over to her, “Is it something to do with being here, or Aang learning how to—”

“It’s about what I heard you saying last night,” She interrupted, and he had a moment to think oh no before the floodgates burst open and she was yelling, “I can’t believe after everything we’ve been through you didn’t have the guts to tell me you’d been going behind all of our backs and putting us in danger. You are such a hypocrite. All you do is complain about how we never listen to you, when you don’t even listen to yourself! You’ve been writing him letters, for months. Did you ever stop and think that it might be a bad idea? Did you consider that there was more at stake here than your feelings?”

“You—you heard everything?” He managed, humiliated and afraid. He glanced over to where Jeong Jeong was instructing Aang in the noble art of breath control and wished she’d lower her voice just a little.

“You bet I did,” She said, and stepped in close, going for the kill. Sokka shrank back, crossing his arms defensively, “I heard you making jokes about the fact that you’ve been lying to us, to me, for months, and fraternizing with the enemy in secret like this is some kind of game. I just don’t understand, Sokka. Have you always been this unbelievably selfish? You could have gotten us killed! You could have gotten Aang locked up for life in some Fire Nation prison! You could have made us lose the war, and then what? Sit back and watch the Fire Nation burn the whole world?”

She was exaggerating. She had to be. She always did when she was angry. But her words hit him hard, right in his weakest parts, and he had nothing to say that could make this better. He'd made bad choices, and these were the consequences. 

“I’m so disappointed in you,” She said, and stepped away, like she was so disgusted she couldn’t even be near him, “You jeopardized everything we’ve been fighting for. Everything Mom died for. I feel like I don’t even know you anymore.”

At that, Sokka took a shaking breath and tried very hard not to cry. This was exactly as bad as he’d feared, except infinitely worse.

“I’m sorry, Katara,” He said, and hugged himself tighter, “I wish I could go back in time and stop myself. I wish I had never met him. I’m so sorry.” Maybe the universe would do him a favor and let him sink into the mud and disappear.

“There’s no going back,” Katara said, “You need to deal with this mess. You need to make sure it's over, for real, and won't come back to haunt you. You need to do your job for the first time and keep us safe.”

“It is over. I promise,” He said, even though he knew his promises didn’t mean very much anymore, “I’m never going to contact him again. I sent Hawky away. It's over." 

“Good,” She said firmly, “I still don’t get what were you thinking, though, getting involved with Zuko when you knew he was going to let you down. I thought you were smarter than that." 

“I hoped he—” He bit his tongue. He thought he was smarter, too. Except when it came to feelings, apparently. 

“You hoped he would, what? Become a completely different person? Zuko is scum. You deserve so much better than him.”

It took him a moment to realize what she’d said.

“Wait. So you don’t mind that I—you’re not mad at me for—” He asked, tentative.

“Yes, I’m mad. You have no idea how mad I am. I couldn’t sleep last night just thinking about all the ways you’ve let us down. But not about—” She stopped, looked at him. He couldn't meet her eyes, “Not because you like boys. Never because of that.”

“Oh.”

“Is that what you thought I was angry about?” She asked.

“Well, yeah,” He shrugged, passing it off as nothing, even though his heart was pounding in his ears, “Kind of. I mean, I told myself you wouldn’t care, but I guess I didn’t really believe it. I think that’s one of the reasons I kept lying. I didn't want you to hate me.”

She blinked at him, looking suddenly like she might cry, too.

“I hate what you’ve done,” She said at last, face scrunched up like she was fighting to keep her voice steady, “But you’re my brother. I couldn’t hate you.”

“That’s, um,” He took a deep breath, “That’s really good to hear. I don’t want to lose you. I'm so sorry. I never meant for any of this to happen, I never meant to—” He couldn’t finish that thought. Of course he never meant to fall in love with Zuko, but he had. That was the problem.

“I know. You just did whatever you wanted and didn’t think about the consequences,” She said, and then she cracked a small smile, “Guess it runs in the family.”

“Hah. Speaking of running in the family…” He said, latching onto her attempt to lighten up the mood, “What are the chances there would be two of us, am I right?” But then he remembered that Bato hadn't told Katara yet, and groaned, “Sorry, you’re not supposed to know about that.”

She laughed, now,  “It’s hardly a secret. I knew about Dad and Bato before they even got together.”

“What?? How?” Surreptitiously he wiped a couple left-over tears from the corners of his eyes—if no one saw them, it’s like they were never there.

“Come on, don’t tell me you didn’t notice. Bato’s been in love with Dad forever,” She said, like that explained anything.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Sokka whined, aware (this time) of how hypocritical he was being, “Bato wanted to talk to you about it, but I thought you'd be upset if you knew.”

She gave him a wry smile, “And I didn’t tell you because I thought you would be upset if you knew.”

“We’re idiots,” Sokka said, and was rewarded by her eyeroll.

“Don’t think this changes anything, though,” She said, serious again, “I’m still furious with you. And I don't know if I’ll ever be able to trust you the same way again.”

“I understand,” Sokka said, even though it was the worst, hearing that from someone he'd known since her first breath, “I’ll make it up to you. I promise. I’m never going to do something like this again.”

“Yeah, well… We’ll see,” She said, which Sokka figured was about as good as he was going to get. 

She went back to her waterbending practice after that, concentrating as she held a sphere of water in her hands, losing herself in the feeling of the water in her soul or however waterbenders felt, and he went back to his fishing. Emotional confrontations or not, they were still going to need food for their journey. 

In an unexpected reversal of fortune (and seriously, why were people only around to witness his bad luck?) he caught three fish pretty much in a row. He took out his knife and filleted them right then and there, slicing quick down their bellies and reaching in to delicately remove their spines.

He was still sort of in shock that Katara and Aang knew everything now. Well, not everything, but enough. Enough to get some of the heavy guilt off his chest. They didn't need to know the details of how he'd opened himself to Zuko and watched (and read) Zuko do the same, day by day, only for things to collapse at the worst possible moment. They didn't need to know how awful he still felt, thinking of his friend sitting in that metal ship, tearing himself apart to become something he could never be. Or the way Zuko shivered under his touch. Those memories were just for him, like the hawk figurine still buried in his pocket, too new and too precious to discard yet. 

Down below, Aang seemed to have finally been given some fire to work with, if his excited shouting was any indication. Katara walked over to get a closer look, and Sokka set aside his knife and clambered down from his perch as well. It didn't seem right to see the the little flame dance in Aang’s hands, but hey, if there was anyone he trusted not to become some power-hungry firebender, it was the Avatar. 

Katara said something cautionary to Aang, but Sokka was still to far away to hear exactly. Aang really seemed to be getting the hang of it. Maybe a bit too fast, but still... The flame in Aang’s hands blazed and spun, spreading out like a shockwave. There was a shout and Katara curled into herself, clutching her hands to her chest.

Sokka started running.

In retrospect, he probably could have dealt with the situation better. Shoving Aang onto the ground and yelling at him didn’t make Katara’s hands any less burned. But in the moment, he could only feel a flash of fear—his sister was hurt—and then all the guilt of the past months came rushing back. He’d failed her too many times. He had to do something.

But after watching Katara run away in tears, he realized he hadn’t helped at all.

Aang was obviously distraught that he’d burned her. He bowed his head to the ground and said, miserably, “I’m just as bad as Zuko now.”

Sokka shook his head, but didn’t trust himself to say anything. Beneath the anger simmering under his skin, he knew Aang hadn’t meant to hurt her. Aang was just being careless, a child.

And Sokka might not have hurt her directly, but he’d done the same, maybe worse.

Jeong Jeong approached, a thunderous look on his face, and shouted at them to pack up their things and go. Sokka was more than happy to leave Aang to wallow in his guilt—let him see how it felt, this time—and go back to the empty hut. He rolled up his sleeping bag and put it away. The crinkling sound of paper in his bag reminded him of last night. He took out his calligraphy set and extra paper and placed it in Katara’s bag, alongside the journal she had stopped writing in a long time ago, probably because she had (mysteriously) run out of paper and ink. And brushes. Maybe she could start up again. It’s not like he needed the stuff anymore.

At that, he buried his head in his hands for a moment. It felt like everything was falling apart. And they weren’t even at the Northern Water Tribe yet. The task of keeping himself and everyone else together was just too big, especially now. There was nothing to do but keep going, though. 

He packed up the rest of his belongings, fingers brushing against the stack of letters hidden among layers of clothing. He should throw it all out. But he’d tried that before, and it didn’t work. He was too weak. Now, though... He pulled the letters out, ran a finger along the edge of the first, felt his heart squeeze nearly to death in his chest. 

There were running footsteps outside the hut. Sokka dropped the letters and stood up in alarm. The curtains parted and Katara burst in, breathing hard.

“We have to leave,” She panted, “Zhao is here!”

Sokka’s first response was a mix of relief and disappointment. On the one hand, it wasn’t Zuko. On the other hand, it wasn’t Zuko.

“Where’s Aang?” He asked, snapping out of it and grabbing his bag. He followed her out the door, “And your hands—are you alright?”

“I’m fine. But I couldn’t find Aang,” She said, “I’m going to look for him, you get Appa ready.”

“Will do.”

The sound of fighting drifted up from the river, although the action was hidden behind mossy trees. Sokka worked faster, tying their bags onto Appa’s saddle. Appa was restless, too. It was definitely time to leave. 

Sokka was leading Appa down the slope when Katara came running up again.

“Jeong Jeong disappeared, and Aang is taking on Zhao single-handedly,” She said, “I tried to stop him, but… We need to make sure we’re ready to go when he’s done.”

“I should go help him,” Sokka said, holding out Appa’s reins for her to take, “He shouldn’t be fighting Zhao alone.”

She sighed, “I don’t need both of you out there acting like idiots trying to prove yourselves. Let Aang do his thing.”

They took Appa down to the riverside to wait for Aang. It was hard, as always, to stay on the sidelines and watch as Aang jumped from river-boat to river-boat, goading Zhao into even wilder outbursts of fire. But Sokka saw what Aang was doing and knew he would make it out okay. They all would. He looked over at Katara, who was watching the fight intensely, with wide eyes, and couldn't help wondering again why Zuko hadn't come. 

Chapter Text

Zuko took a step backwards, stunned, breath caught in his throat, his heart pounding in the sudden silence.

“You didn’t tell me the Avatar was here,” He said, numb. He wanted Sokka to deny it, tell him it was a false alarm, but Sokka just winced, looking guilty.

“I thought you knew!” Sokka said, and rage flashed through Zuko, white-hot.

Sokka had lied. He’d really lied. Of course he had. It must have been so fucking convenient to know the one thing that would distract Zuko enough he wouldn’t doubt Sokka’s word. Now Zuko didn’t know if any of it was even real, or if Sokka had said and done those things just to keep him away from the Avatar, no matter what it took.

Zuko thought he might be sick. Instead, he started yelling, letting his anger and hurt spill out into the air until it shimmered between them like heat from a fire. Sokka yelled back, justifying his choices, his lies. His betrayal.

None of it meant anything—all those things Sokka had written to him, I’d help you if I could, and all the times Zuko had held onto those words like they were something precious, like they were the only thing in the world he truly had.

“How could you do that?” Zuko shouted, words scorching the back of his throat, “You know how much this means to me!”

“Yeah, I guess I do,” Sokka said, and his voice was awful; distant and bitter and cold, like the fight had drained completely out of him.

The trajectory of Zuko’s rage went suddenly askew. He thought, desperately, no, wait, I didn’t mean it like that, but it was already too late.

He didn’t know what to do. None of their other fights—that long series of rematches starting with the time he kicked Sokka off the gangplank of his ship and didn’t stop to consider he might regret it—had ever been as desperately personal as this. Just a few minutes ago Sokka had been kissing him, sweet and slow with his hands on Zuko’s hips, and now he was standing there looking like he never wanted to see Zuko ever again.

Boots pounded the broken pavement, drawing Zuko’s attention away for an instant. That was where he belonged—out in the square with his people, fighting beside them against the Avatar. Not here in the shadows with his breaking heart and the taste of Sokka’s come still lingering faintly bitter on his tongue. But he didn’t move to leave—he couldn’t. Not while Sokka was watching him like this, like he was aware of Zuko’s internal debate and was waiting to see what he would choose.

Zuko had already chosen him once before. He’d chosen to let the Avatar go so Sokka could live. Maybe Sokka didn’t remember, he’d been so sick. But he had to know—he had to realize Zuko couldn’t make the same decision again. Once was bad enough. Twice was—unforgivable.

The tense silence between them stretched and stretched. Zuko knew he should say something, but all his words were trapped, ashen, in his mouth.

Sokka looked away first, “Go,” He said, disgusted, “Just—go.”

Zuko hesitated, giving Sokka the chance to change his mind. He wanted to say if you send me away now I’m never coming back, but that would be a lie. He knew that as long as Sokka wanted him, he would always, always come back.

Sokka didn’t say anything, though. He just cradled his arm against his chest and waited for Zuko to leave.

Something twisted painfully inside Zuko as he ran out into the square, still feeling Sokka’s presence behind him, a tangible awareness almost like sensing another person’s qi. It tugged at his conscience, telling him to turn back, that it wasn’t too late. But Zuko didn’t turn back, and he could feel it when the connection between them grew weak, and eventually broke. Sokka hadn’t followed him.

He threw himself into the noise and confusion of the square. The Avatar’s bison was close, circling low overhead while the waterbender—Katara—called out for her brother, her voice drifting in and out of hearing range.

Zuko elbowed people aside until he had enough space to move and started punching fire up at the Avatar, forcing the bison to swerve defensively. He had to keep them away from the alley—as soon as they found Sokka they would leave, and Zuko needed time to think, to plan, to strike. He was still shaken by how easily everything had fallen apart. How quickly they had gone from—from whatever they were back to enemies again. He just needed time.

Zuko got in enough well-aimed shots that the Avatar was forced to change direction, reacting to the threat. The bison started flying towards the city walls, getting further and further away from the alley and the square. Zuko shoved his way back through the crowd of soldiers and ducked down a side-street, following the Avatar’s path. He couldn’t run as fast as the bison could fly, his path blocked by carts and stalls and irregular streets, but he kept the Avatar in his sight and kept throwing fire up at him, forcing him to dodge and weave through the sky.

None of the soldiers had followed Zuko out of the square. It was probably for the best—they were all useless non-benders anyway, gawping at the Avatar’s airbending and acting like they’d never even seen a flying bison before. Zuko was the only one who stood a chance against the Avatar. He would have to do this on his own.

The Avatar flew to the edge of town and then started to circle back. Katara sounded even more worried now, still calling for Sokka even though Zuko was sure he couldn’t have gone this far. The alley Zuko left him in was a dead-end, and he would have had to pass through the square to leave it. Zuko would have seen him.

A thin thread of worry worked its way through him. Sokka should have found them by now. It had been a long time—and it felt longer, like the world had collapsed and then remade itself in all the time that had passed. For a moment, Zuko considered going back to find him and see if he was okay, if he hadn’t been—hadn’t been captured by those incompetent soldiers. But that was just being stupid.

Zuko lost sight of the Avatar over some rooftops, and came to a stop, breathing hard. This wasn't working. He was just exhausting himself and getting no closer to his goal. He needed to think—oh Agni why was it so hard to think?

His side hurt, a fragment of pain lodged like a stitch beneath his ribs. Zuko ignored it. Wherever Sokka was, the Avatar was going to have to land, just for a moment, to pick him up. Zuko was going to have to get there at the same time so he could use that moment of vulnerability as his chance to strike. All he had to do was find Sokka again.

It was funny, he thought humorlessly as he started running again. Sokka was always someone’s weakness. But not Zuko’s—not today.

The Avatar’s bison came back into view just as Zuko pushed past a group of soldiers standing around holding their spears like they didn’t know what to do with them and re-emerged into the square. He scanned the crowd, but there was no sign of Sokka, and he felt a thread of worry work its way through him. If those fucking idiots captured Sokka as leverage against the Avatar, Zuko was going to have their heads. No one was allowed to do that except him.

Except, he’d done that once before too—and the Avatar had left Sokka behind to be Zuko’s prisoner. It still made him mad, even now, remembering the way Sokka had crumbled when he saw his sister and friend fly back to the safety of land without him.

Zuko shook his head, trying to clear it. He needed to stop thinking like that, like those days on the ship, like their letters, like what had happened this evening changed things. Nothing was different, nothing had changed. He still had a mission to capture the Avatar, and Sokka was still standing in his way. But everything had gotten mixed up in his head, and now he—he couldn’t do anything anymore without thinking of Sokka first.

If only he hadn’t sent that letter to his mother, and read Sokka’s reply when it came. If only Zuko hadn’t kept writing back. Then he would never have walked up to Sokka with his heart in his throat, hoping, and let Sokka lie to him and lead him away, and he would never have known how shattering it would be to kiss him and feel Sokka respond, warm and eager and so real, so lovely, so close to being his.

Zuko took a deep breath, or tried, but his lungs had seized up and it hurt. The Avatar still didn’t even know he was here—just that there was a firebender. Zuko called up what reserves of power he could find and sent his qi hurtling outwards, upwards, anything to get the Avatar’s attention.

Fight me, he tried to yell, but his voice was frozen in his throat.

Fire flooded the air, messy and uncontrollable. Zuko was dimly aware of the soldiers around him scrambling back. Any minute now would come the whispers, the usual gossip. The scorn. He wished they’d all just leave him alone for once so he didn’t have to hear their murmurs of Agni, would you look at that scar? Sonovabitch must have hurt like hell as he fought through his humiliation and rage; that vast, endless furnace that never gave him any rest.

The Avatar’s bison roared with pain, and the stench of singed hair permeated the air. Zuko faltered, then kept going with an uncoordinated fireball that almost took Katara’s face off as she leaned over the edge of the saddle to see who was attacking them. If he didn’t get ahold of himself soon someone was going to get hurt, but calming down felt impossibly out of reach.

Sokka was still missing. He couldn’t get that out of his head either. Sokka was missing, and that meant someone must have taken him. One of the soldiers, those incompetent louts. Zuko was a half-second away from going after him, when Katara screamed, “Sokka!” Her voice full of relief.

There was a sudden commotion, and then Zuko saw him. He was fine—he was free. For now. The soldiers must have realized who Sokka was—or at least his connection to the Avatar—because they started shouting and throwing spears at him, his blue shirt like a bullseye as he darted across the square.

Distantly, Zuko was aware of his heart racing and the rush in his ears as he stumbled forward. This was it, his last chance. The Avatar’s bison was landing in the center of the square, soldiers scattering in fear. Zuko started running.

I can do this, I can do this, he told himself, whispering it on a jagged exhale, his feet pounding the uneven pavement. The possibility of success was singing in his veins. It was always like this—boundless hope followed by crushing defeat. Not this time. This time he’d show them all. His uncle, Admiral Zhao. Sokka. He didn’t need any help.

He ran until suddenly Sokka was right there, swerving into his path. Zuko reached out to him, hoping to grab the back of his shirt and yank him down, keep him here, make the Avatar come to them. But right before he could, the Avatar sent out an unexpected wind-shear, knocking everyone except Sokka to the ground. Zuko was the first to scramble back up to his feet, palms stinging.

He kept going. He was gong to make it. The Avatar didn’t even know he was coming, too focused on Sokka and the soldiers to notice. Zuko had the advantage—he could take them by surprise. Just a few yards more. He could do it.

Everything happened very fast, after that. Sokka reached the bison first, hauling himself up into the saddle, and Zuko drew his qi into his hands from deep within him, preparing to strike, and that’s when he saw it—the black scorch-marks on Sokka’s sleeve. It stopped him in his tracks.

The white cloth winding up Sokka’s forearm was singed and coming undone, revealing angry red skin at his wrist. Someone—a firebender—had burned him. What if—Zuko thought, unbidden. But no, it couldn’t be. Zuko would never do something like that to someone he—someone he cared about. He wasn’t Azula. He wasn’t—

He was the only firebender around. It had to be him. Flames flickered in his palms and went out. There was no way to tell how deep the burning had gone. If it would—oh Agni, if it would scar. Zuko gasped for breath, sherds of ice spreading needle-sharp through his stomach, his lungs, his arms, and legs. He shivered convulsively. Sokka was never be able to forgive him. Never be able to look at him again, think of him again, without thinking of this.

The Avatar’s bison took off, soaring into the sky, and Zuko made a last-ditch effort to gather the qi in his body, to do something, anything, to stop them from getting away, he couldn’t. His fire was gone.

Zuko stared up at them until they vanished into the distance, and then squeezed his eyes shut. Spots of firework greens and reds trailed behind his eyelids. He’d failed. Again. He let it sink in, the brutal disappointment he could never get used to, and the gut wrenching realization that now he had nothing to redeem himself with, no way to make up for all the ways he’d gone wrong.

There were footsteps against the cobblestones, growing closer, and his eyes flew open. It was the captain of the guard, standing before him at decent, if nervous, attention.

“Excuse me, Sir,” The captain said. He had a slightly reedy voice, “Uh, Sir?”

Zuko blinked hard, trying to re-focus. The captain was taller than him, but not by a lot. In a month they’d probably be the same height. He focused on that, letting irritation prickle through him.

“What? What do you want?”

“My men are willing and ready to assist you in your pursuit of the Avatar,” The captain said, sounding the opposite of willing, “We await your orders, Sir.”

Zuko had to stop himself from immediately saying no. It was a good plan, maybe the best plan he’d had access to in a while. He could take the extra men and go by land. The Avatar had a head-start but on Komodo rhinos, they’d be able to overtake him. Not easily, but. Zuko was willing to be the garrison’s stables were better stocked than his own, even if the rhinos were of inferior quality.

He should say yes. He needed to say yes. But that would mean organizing a search party right here, right now, and pretending the whole time that his hands weren’t shaking, that there was no awful emptiness where his qi was supposed to be.

“I can take care of the Avatar myself,” Zuko snapped, “You’ve done enough already by letting him escape.” And then he walked away before he had to see the look of relief on the Captain’s face.

Zuko made his way back through the festival, skirting all the moon-eyed peasants gathered around the flaming straw torch, a crude spectacle that would have no place in the capital. As he got nearer to the front gate, he saw Uncle Iroh standing there, waiting for him, with the men already assembled. A fresh wave of panic swept over Zuko, and he ducked quickly into an unlit alcove before they could spot him. He leaned back against the wall, pressing his hands against his face. He felt like he was going to explode.

Focus on your breathing, his uncle would say, but Zuko couldn’t—he couldn’t. The last time he felt like this, he’d ended up on his knees, begging his father for a pardon that didn’t come. What would Iroh say if he knew what Zuko had been doing? What he’d risked? How utterly selfish he’d been?

Or, worse, what if someone had seen him in the alley—seen him with a boy, the enemy. A whole garrison worth of soldiers had passed by. Someone must have seen. They could be telling the captain of the guard right now—they could be sending a black ribbon message to the Fire Lord.

It hit him then, the stark reality of his situation. He could never do this again. And no one could ever, ever find out. Not if he didn’t want his father to declare him an enemy of the state and sentence him to be executed in some colonial backwater with only strangers to witness his shame.

With trembling hands, Zuko started to re-do all the fastenings of his armor, erasing Sokka’s presence one buckle and tie at a time. He was so fucked. He’d let Sokka touch him—touch his scar. He’d looked into Sokka’s eyes—a clear, perfect blue—and swallowed every word he said, and then he’d turned around and burned him.

Finally, when he couldn’t delay any longer, Zuko left the alcove and walked very slowly towards Uncle Iroh and the men, each step more difficult than the last. He didn’t know what to say or do. There was no way he could pretend nothing had happened. Uncle Iroh would know something was up as soon as he walked out there. Underneath his harmless old man act was a keen mind capable of perceiving Zuko’s weak spots and ruthlessly exploiting them. And then there would be questions Zuko couldn’t answer, and all kinds of uproar, and at some point, inevitably, Uncle Iroh would realize what kind of a person Zuko was and Zuko—Zuko really didn’t want that.

It was painful, wrong, an invisible wound.

Uncle Iroh’s vague look of concern deepened for a moment as Zuko approached, and Zuko thought this is it, he’s going to say something, but then, unexpectedly, his uncle’s concern vanished, replaced by a broad grin.  

“Looks like I had no reason to be worried after all,” Uncle Iroh boomed, eyeing him knowingly, “Clearly you were in good hands.”

And then he laughed heartily at his own joke.

Zuko made the mistake of glancing down at his clothes, at the—oh, right. At the stain. His face burned suddenly hot.

“It’s not what it looks like—” Zuko started, but Uncle Iroh just waved him off, looking obnoxiously pleased, like Zuko had finally done something he considered ‘normal behavior’ for a sixteen year old.

“There’s no reason to be embarrassed, nephew! Why, when Lu Ten was your age—” He rambled on, oblivious to the barely stifled laughter of the crew, who were exchanging wide-eyed looks like this was the most hilarious thing to happen in months.

For them it probably was. Zuko wished they’d stop. He could already hear the boiler-room gossip that was going to come out of this, and it made him want to die.

“The Avatar was here,” Zuko barked, trying to grab their attention, “We need to get back to the ship immediately.”

Lieutenant Jee was the first to recover, “We’re not pursuing over land?” He asked, voice a little strained, still looking like he was likely to burst out laughing any moment. Zuko shook his head impatiently.

“There’s no time for that. The Captain of the guard has probably already sent a hawk to Admiral Zhao,” Or Firelord Ozai, his mind helpfully supplied “We’re faster on water than on land, we need that advantage.”

He didn’t say anything about the Komodo rhinos, or how useless he was right now without his bending, or the fact that despite all their best efforts Admiral Zhao was probably still going to beat them to the mark. Everyone already knew that last part anyway. They’d been playing catch-up with the Admiral’s warship for weeks.

The trip back to the ship was a nightmare. The crew had been drinking heavily since early afternoon and were still in high spirits despite their evening getting cut short. They sang as they walked, boisterous and off-pitch, but they were still better company than Uncle Iroh, who wouldn’t stop asking who Zuko’s ‘lady friend’ was, like he thought Zuko might actually tell him if he kept trying.

Their exchanges never failed to amuse the crew, who got worse and worse at concealing their amusement as the hour dragged on. Eventually Zuko was forced to ride ahead of everyone, cutting his uncle off mid-word, trying to seem contemptuous but mostly feeling deeply ashamed.

As soon as they got back to the ship, Zuko took Daiyu, his Komodo rhino, to the stables in the hold and set her up for the night. He didn’t trust the two drunk cavalry-men to do it properly. Daiyu was special—she’d come with him from the palace, and she seemed to like him, which was more than he could say for the majority of people he met.

Once he finished hauling some fresh hay into her stall, he paused there, rubbing the rough skin of her head until she huffed at him happily.

“I did something really bad,” He whispered. It was easier to talk to her than anyone else. Her dark, steady gaze held no judgement, “I wish I hadn’t.”

She held his gaze a moment longer. Sometimes he wished she could talk—wished she could tell him what to do. It was pathetic.

Zuko sighed, and stepped back, “Okay, girl. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

He didn’t run into anyone on his way back to his room, they were probably all passed out in their bunks already, but he locked the door anyway. Uncle Iroh could still get in, of course. He had the master key. And every time Zuko told him not to use it, Uncle Iroh just brought up that one time he’d accidentally set fire to his own locked room, which wasn’t fair at all.

Someone started knocking on his door not long afterwards. Zuko ignored it, focusing on removing his armor piece by piece, but the knocking continued.

“Who is it?” He shouted, and Lieutenant Jee spoke up.

“I had a question, sir, about—”

Zuko groaned, and opened his door just a crack, letting yellow light spill in from the hallway.

“What is it? Spit it out,” Zuko said.

Lieutenant Jee was standing upright, unassisted, which put him in a much better position than half the men, but he still looked tired and drunk and old. What was the standard age of retirement in the Navy? Or was he waiting on Zuko to capture the Avatar before retiring, just like Uncle Iroh was, like everyone was.

“I was wondering if you had any idea where the Avatar might be, sir,” Lieutenant Jee said, and Zuko stiffened. He quickly added, “I mean, if there’s a particular course you want me to set.”

“You’ll know when I do,” Zuko snapped.

He’d had enough time to remove all his armor, which was piled in a heap on the floor, but he was still wearing the offending shirt, and he could feel Jee’s gaze slide with almost unwilling curiosity towards his sleeve.

Zuko crossed his arms defensively, hiding the stained cuff, “You’re dismissed.”

Lieutenant Jee ignored him.

“I—” He started, uncharacteristically hesitant, “I wanted to apologize on behalf of the men for their behavior earlier. Sometimes they forget their place. They meant no disrespect.”

Zuko turned away. Jee had tried harder than the others to keep it under control, but he’d been laughing too. Zuko had seen him, “Get the hell away from me.”

There was a long pause.

“Yes, sir,” Lieutenant Jee said finally, and left.

Back in the sanctuary of his room, Zuko pulled off the rest of his clothes and threw them into the corner. He’d burn them later, when his bending came back. Then he wouldn’t have to be reminded of this day anymore. Not that it would help.

He was never going to be able to live this down. A year from now, the men would probably still be fixated on whether he’d found someone willing or if he’d had to pay. With a face like that… he imagined them saying. People talked like that about him all the time when they thought he wasn’t listening.

Not Sokka, though. Sokka had looked him in the eyes—in the face—and said I’m with you, I know that. He’d called Zuko by name and Zuko—Zuko had let Sokka touch him, touch his scar. He’d looked into Sokka’s eyes—a clear, perfect blue—and swallowed every word he said.

Zuko closed his eyes against the sudden rush of longing. Despite everything, he still wanted Sokka. It was—stupid, he couldn’t think of Sokka without remembering how stupid it was, how trusting he’d been, how easily Sokka had manipulated him. Couldn’t think of Sokka without remembering that moment of wild, blinding fear right before Zuko kissed him, when Zuko still wasn’t sure he was going to do it even though he’d been dreaming about it for weeks.

It had taken all his courage, all his determination, everything Zuko had just to pin Sokka against the wall. And Sokka had responded—had been blatant, shameless in wanting him. Zuko almost couldn’t believe that he’d—that they’d—done something like that with another person, not just his own hand in the darkness while trying not to think of someone he shouldn’t. He could still feel the thrill of being let a little deeper into Sokka’s inner world, learning his responses, what he liked and how he showed he liked it.

Zuko took a deep breath and bit his lip. Of course it was good, he thought. It was Sokka—and Sokka was ridiculous and impossible and perfect.

For a moment, Zuko’s body started to come alive again, the tangled frozen lines of his qi unfreezing from the liquid warmth of arousal. Zuko pressed his palm against his abdomen, feeling those little sparks in him again, lighting him up.

But then the moment passed, and he remembered Sokka’s burned wrist, a mistake he could never undo, and Admiral Zhao, and the Avatar, and how the whole spirits-forsaken world was against him, and always had been.

Zuko sat heavily on the edge of the bed, digging his knuckles into his stinging eyes. He should have been expecting this. Sokka was always going to betray him. No matter what they said to each other behind the cover of half-anonymity, they were still enemies, and this was still a war. Sokka was the Avatar’s right hand man. It was ridiculous, absurd. What had Zuko even been thinking?

You weren’t thinking, though, were you? Azula asked in her snake voice, You never do, when it comes to him.

“Of course I was thinking,” Zuko said angrily, “It’s not like my brain just stopped. I knew it was a bad decision from the start.”

But you did it anyway. Typical.

There was nothing he could say to that. It was true.

If only Sokka hadn’t lied. He’d seemed so sincere with every word, every action, when the truth had been staring Zuko right in the face the whole time. I thought you knew, Sokka said, I thought that’s what this was about.

So there it was. Zuko was a fool. He should have known.

Zuko buried his head in his hands and drew in a long, shuddery breath, releasing it slowly. He heard footsteps outside his door again, and then his uncle’s voice. Uncle Iroh apologized, again, for what exactly Zuko wasn’t sure, and asked to be let in so they could talk Zuko wanted to shout go away, but that would only serve as encouragement.. He just had to sit still and wait, and wait...

Eventually the footsteps retreated, and Zuko let himself fall back against his bed, staring up at the shadowed ceiling. His eyes burned and his stomach ached and he was still so cold. He knew from experience that his bending would eventually come back, it had to, but he couldn’t help worrying. What if it didn’t? What if he’d screwed himself over forever? Agni, that would just be so typical.

Whatever advantage he might have had against Admiral Zhao was slipping away with every moment he lay here, powerless. Sokka would object to that word. He’d say just because a person can’t bend doesn’t mean they can’t fight. And it was true—Zuko could take his mask and his dual swords and go it alone through the jungle, seek out the Avatar and catch him by surprise. But Zuko didn’t even know where to start to look, and the thought of facing the Avatar again so soon after everything, with Sokka standing right there, fighting alongside him—it was too much to bear.

Azula would never have gotten herself into a situation like this. There were no knots, no tangles in her head. Everything she did was calm, cold, and precise, the result of her fierce intellect working constantly on the world. She would have trailed Sokka back to the Avatar’s hiding place, or used Sokka’s attempts at manipulation against him. She would have come out on top.

But, of course, she would never have gotten herself banished either, so the point was moot.

Zuko didn’t know what time it was, but he hoped it was late enough that no one but the night watch would be awake. He needed to get out of this room, out of his head. He felt like he was choking on his own thoughts.

There was no one on the stairs, or in the hallway, which was a good sign. Zuko emerged into the night air, and took a deep breath, breathing through the constriction in his chest. This was what he needed. A chance to think and breathe without the walls closing in on him. A chance to figure out what to do about the Avatar, about all of it. His whole ruin of a life.

Zuko walked over to the port side of the ship and leaned his elbows on the railing. The moon was burning in white fragments on the shifting sea. There was a damp breeze blowing, and the ship creaked as it swayed gently in the water. The shore was a dark line on the starboard side.

Sometimes—on nights like tonight—he wished he had his uncle’s easy ability to put his problems aside. Zuko never been good at it, always struggling to push past the shadows. They felt like a dark weight, hounding him wherever he went, whatever he did. He hoped they would recede when he eventually made it home, but he didn’t know for sure how much he had changed in the past few years, and how permanent those changes were.

He stood there in the cold salt air for a long time. The night watchman walked by a few times, but they ignored each other. It was hardly the first time a member of the crew had seen him up this late at night. How strange to think he’d hated this ship when he first came aboard it, and now—

It’s not that he didn’t still hate it, in a way. But the truth was, for all Zuko talked about home, the ship was more familiar to him than the palace had ever been. He knew every inch of it, from the hold to the command tower. He knew how much it cost to maintain, what repairs needed to be done. He knew the men—knew who the best dice player was and who owed the most in gambling debts and who tried to bribe Lieutenant Jee for a better watch shift. Zuko hadn’t set out to learn any of it, it just came to him, picked up over the years through proximity.

It probably said something about Zuko that he’d gotten used to this way of life. But that didn’t really matter. If he lost the Avatar to Admiral Zhao, he would be dishonored in the eyes of the nation and cut off from his ancestral line, written out of the history books as if he had never existed. He’d be lucky to have a ship after that. He’d be lucky to have his life.

In the old days—lying in bed in the dark, sweating through yet another fever brought on by, as his uncle called it, overexertion—he used to try to fix every detail of the palace in his mind so he would never forget who he was and where he was meant to be. It made him miserable, but he was already miserable. And then, when he wasn’t quite as miserable anymore, it became a habit. He could still walk himself through the maze of corridors from his bedroom to the reception hall, or to the portrait hall, or to the banquet hall. Could still hear his footsteps echoing in the empty hallways, and his sister’s laughter, somewhere up ahead...

But for all that, it had never felt like his.

Zuko walked the perimeter of the deck a few times, getting out his restless energy, his mind growing clearer with each lap. It didn’t quite occur to him why until all of a sudden he realized his bending was back. His hands and feet were tingling sharply, the pathways through his body throbbing, and the world was alive to him again.

Zuko smiled, so far away from how he’d been feeling this evening that it felt foreign on his face, and opened his hand. A small yellow flame was dancing in his palm. He sent a quick prayer of thanks up to Agni, and then immediately tried out the three-part form Uncle had been teaching him in their last lesson.

It was too much too soon. He dropped out of the form, gasping in sudden pain. It faded as quickly as it had come, but he didn’t try again. He needed to be more careful with his bending if he was going to go after the Avatar soon. Tonight, even, if he could just figure out where to go.

A hawk called out from somewhere to the east and Zuko turned instinctively towards the sound, scanning the dark sky for any sign of motion. In all likelihood it was just another message for Uncle from his boring old friends about the latest Pai Sho tournament in the homeland, but he couldn’t help the tight squeeze of his heart in his chest. Anticipation and something else. Something like fear.

The hawk cried again, and Zuko could hear the sound of its wings beating the air over the water lapping the sides of the ship. It could be from anyone, Zuko reminded himself. It might not be for him.

But it was. Guo landed heavily on his outstretched arm, unbalanced ever since he had broken his wing and someone—Katara, spirits, why did he know this—set it. A heady mixture of fear and anticipation pounded through him. There was only one person this could be from, only one person who ever wrote him back. His hand trembled as he reached for the message carrier and took the letter out and saw Sokka’s messy brushwork bleeding through the cheap paper.

It could mean anything. It didn’t necessarily mean forgiveness. But Zuko couldn’t kill the last remains of his hope. He sent Guo off in the direction of the night watchman, who could probably be persuaded to give up some of his late-night snack to a bird with very sharp claws, and started to unfold the letter, careful that the paper didn’t tear.

His fingers were clumsy, almost numb, but he was still able to hold a flame in his hand steady enough to see by.  He’d never been this afraid of a letter before—not even when he got the reply to his first letter and thought for a second, before he opened it, that it was from his mother.

Zuko read the once, fast, and then slower, the characters swimming before his eyes, his heart going so fast he thought it might stop in his chest and kill him.

He wished it would kill him.

“Fuck,” He said loudly, his voice breaking the silence, and crumpled the letter in his fist, which flared mercilessly hot for a moment until the paper disintegrated into ash, “Fuck.”

Zuko had been right all along. He had burned Sokka. Not in self-defense or in the heat of battle, but while Sokka was just standing there, mouth a little swollen, eyes dark in the shadows. He could barely even remember doing it—everything about those final moments was a blur aside from Sokka telling him just go, just go, just go, the words echoing endlessly in his ears.

But it didn’t matter if he remembered or not. He’d done it. He’d lost control and burned the one person he’d never meant to hurt.

Zuko wiped his hand off, leaving a vicious smear of near-white ash on his shirt, and punched fire towards the shore, flames arching and falling into the water. Pathetic. He tried again, and again, trying to get his feelings out of him before they burned him up from the inside. The night-watchman wandered closer, concerned or just curious, and Zuko shouted, “Leave me alone!”

He felt nauseous, fire-sick like he’d swallowed too much qi. Sokka would always remember this, always hold this against him. Whenever he looked at his wrist, he would be reminded of what Zuko had done.

Sokka betrayed you, went the voice in his head. He deserved it. But Zuko couldn’t believe that anymore. All Sokka had done was protect himself and his sister and the Avatar. It was exactly what Zuko would have done in his position, exactly the right thing to do. And so what if he’d been hoping Sokka might forgive him, that they could have a second chance. It turned out Sokka had never really forgiven him for any of it, in the end. He’d only been making excuses.

Zuko bowed his head, bracing himself against the railing. He hadn’t cried when he was banished and he wasn’t going to cry now. This whole thing was nothing but a sick joke, just like he’d always suspected, and he wasn’t going to cry over it.

Zuko stayed there for a while, willing himself not to fall apart, before he pushed himself upright and headed back towards the door. Everything looked different now—the moon, the stairs. He stumbled, overcome with vertigo, but managed to stay upright. This whole thing had been a mistake—just another mistake he needed to make up for somehow.

Wherever Sokka was, the Avatar was too. Zuko had to find them, but oh, spirits, it was going to be so much worse now that Sokka had—had broken up with him. And to think he’d been looking out at the same sky as Sokka, the same moon, hoping for a reconciliation...

It hit him as soon as he reached the last stair. The letter, of course. The one thing Zuko promised himself never to use against him, not that it mattered now. Guo had flown in from the east. If Zuko had been looking for a sign, this was it. Something to go on, no matter how slight.

Zuko went straight to the control room, where he found the map Lieutenant Jee had been using that day still unfurled on the table. It was hard to focus, but he managed to locate the ship’s current position in a small, sheltered bay used mostly by local fishermen. The town was directly inland, in a broad valley bordered by hills. And somewhere beyond those hills, to the east, was Sokka.

He scanned the eastern portion of the map, trying to picture the landscape instead of just seeing it as meaningless symbols. He had Sokka to thank for this too—for his voice in his ear, showing him what to do.

On the eastern side of the hills was a narrower valley, cut by a twisting river marked in several places with the word Rapids. Barely navigable, then. Zuko tried to think about what the Avatar would look for in a campsite. Water, maybe, for the waterbender, and so Sokka could fish. Somewhere defensible or hidden.

It was a start. It was better than what he had before, which was nothing. Zuko rolled up the map, and took it with him as he ran down to the crew quarters. He pounded insistently on Lieutenant Jee’s door until it opened.

“What’s going on?” Jee asked blearily, peering at him, “Is everything alright, sir?”

“I know where the Avatar is. We need to assemble a small crew and go by riverboat up the Yang,” Zuko said firmly, trying to cover his own breathlessness.  

“We what now?”

“We need to go. Zhao could be there already for all I know, and I won’t let him steal my victory.”

Lieutenant Jee sighed and scrubbed a hand through his short hair. Zuko had always wondered what he’d done that was bad enough to lose his topknot, reassuring himself that whatever it was, it had to be worse than Zuko’s own crimes.

“I’m sorry to say this, Prince Zuko, but I don’t think there are enough sober men to go with you. Even I’m still a little…” He made a so-so gesture, “Wait until the morning, after they’ve slept it off.”

“This can’t wait,” Zuko insisted, “Don’t you understand? If we start in the morning, we’ll be too late, and you can say goodbye to the thought of ever seeing your home again.”

Jee shrugged like he personally didn’t care so much about going home, but then he took a second look at Zuko, studying his expression. Zuko refused to look away. He had no idea what Jee was seeing—how much of what he was feeling was written on his face—but he had learned a thing or two in the past few years about maintaining authority.

“That’s an order, Lieutenant,” Zuko said, holding his voice as steady as he could. And then, when Lieutenant Jee still didn’t respond, “Please.”

Jee scrutinized him for one last, excruciatingly long moment, before he heaved another sigh and said, sounding like he hated everything about this moment, “I’ll round up a few of the lighter drinkers. You might want to wake your uncle yourself.”

“General Iroh is not coming with us,” Zuko replied, and watched Jee fight down the urge to question his judgement.

“Of course not, sir,” Lieutenant Jee said, blank-faced. It would have to do. Zuko had to go get ready—he couldn’t stand here all night arguing his methods to a subordinate.

Zuko was ready and waiting in the hold in record time. He’d already loaded the supplies he thought they might need into the riverboat, and now he was just drumming his fingers on the hull impatiently, waiting for Lieutenant Jee and the men to show up.

Usually the times he felt best were right before the chase—when anything seemed possible and he was buoyed by hope. But tonight all he felt was grim determination. He had already lost so much today, but there had to be something he could salvage from the wreckage. Something Admiral Zhao couldn’t take away from him.

Zuko leaned his shoulder against the riverboat, the metal a cold contrast against his fever-hot skin, and crossed his arms over his stomach. Somewhere along the line, he must have started to believe in Sokka, in the lies he was spinning. There was no other reason why he was taking it so hard 9when all Sokka’s letter had told him were things he already knew.

He knew they had no future. Everything Zuko valued, everything he’d been taught, the pride he had in his lineage, his history. His nation. Sokka wanted to tear it all down. Zuko couldn’t be associated with that. Couldn’t even wish things were different. One day, if Zuko got back on the right path, he would be the one blessed by Agni and the spirits of fire, standing at the helm of the world, and Sokka would be—

Sokka would probably be in one of the work camps, sentenced to life for aiding the Avatar.

There were footsteps moving through the hold, and Zuko straightened, squaring his shoulders, trying to clear his mind, or, failing at that, at least chase the misery off his face.

“Look, I’m not about to go get myself killed just because Prince Zuko is having a bad night,” Someone was hissing, the words harsh echoes in the hold, “Why not make him go alone, if he can’t sleep—”

Two other voices shushed him loudly, and then Lieutenant Jee appeared, coming around the other side of the riverboat followed by Helmsman Sho and Pikeman Li. Zuko scowled at them, trying to figure out which one had said it. All three looked haggard, like they had been dragged extremely unwillingly from sleep, but otherwise unrepentant.

“Took you long enough,” Zuko said angrily, “Let’s go.”

Together they launched the riverboat and made their way along the coast until they reached the river. The Yang was wide and slow-moving at the mouth, but further upstream, it grew shallow and clogged with branches from past floods. Helmsman Sho was a decent navigator, at least on the main ship, but he managed to run them aground on some unmarked rapids one hour in, and they wasted the rest of the night standing knee-deep in dark, frigid water, trying to dig the boat out.

It was morning by the time they finally broke free and could continue on their way. Zuko was used to sleepless nights, but it was obvious he was the only one. Sho and Li looked worse for wear in the pale pink light, shivering and wet without any bending to warm them, so Zuko reluctantly took over the wheel and sent them to the cabin to dry off next to the boiler.

He expected Lieutenant Jee to join them, leaving Zuko alone to do all the work, but instead Jee stayed outside to help keep watch for any sign of a campsite. It wasn’t easy—the riverbanks were wild and overgrown with vegetation too dense to see through, and Zuko’s vision kept unfocusing, exhausted. He was grateful for the lieutenant’s help although he couldn’t help wondering if it was born of something closer to pity than loyalty. Whatever Lieutenant Jee had seen on his face back in the hallway, it had been enough to convince him of something. Zuko wasn’t sure exactly what.

He thought about asking, but got distracted by the acrid smell of smoke. A moment a later, he saw it too—a grey smudge above the tree canopy, dispersing in the breeze. The river took a broad turn, and as soon as they cleared it, the source of the smoke became apparent. Flames were billowing upwards in greasy plumes from the burning remains of three Fire Nation riverboats. 

“Oh, no,” Zuko breathed, fingers clenched around the railing so tightly he could feel them cramp, “We’re too late.”

“This might have nothing to do with the Avatar, sir,” Lieutenant Jee said, “We shouldn’t jump to conclusions.”

“No, it does. I can feel it.”

And he was right. As they drew nearer, the unidentifiable group of people on shore resolved themselves into Admiral Zhao and his men. Some were trying desperately to douse the flames before the fire did any more damage, but one of the boats was already half-submerged, and the other two were sinking fast.

Beside him, Lieutenant Jee’s mood appeared to have changed. He chuckled, “How’s that for a lesson in humility?”

Zuko glanced up at him, surprised by the joke and not sure how to respond. Jee shook his head, looking at the burning boats appreciatively, and Zuko couldn’t help mirroring his sentiment.

There was yelling coming from the shore. Zhao’s men had spotted the boat and were shouting and waving their arms, hoping for a rescue. A cheer went up when Zuko brought the boat to shore a short distance away, but it died down once they recognized him, stark realization replacing their relief.

Admiral Zhao looked particularly displeased, like Zuko was a sour taste in his mouth he couldn’t seem to get rid of.

“Having some trouble with your boats?” Zuko asked, and watched the muscle twitch in Admiral Zhao’s jaw.

“A minor inconvenience,” Admiral Zhao replied dismissively.

Zuko snorted in disbelief. He turned to a crewmember standing nearby, the First Mate judging by his uniform, “Tell me what happened here.”

The man glanced nervously at Admiral Zhao before replying, “It—it was the Avatar, Sir. And the deserter, Jeong Jeong. They tricked us.”

“So the Avatar did this?” Zuko confirmed, but the First Mate shook his head, indicating Admiral Zhao instead.

“He—he did.”

And, oh, that was even better.

“How embarrassing for you,” Zuko said, turning to Admiral Zhao, hoping he sounded as sympathetic as he felt, “It’s a long walk back to town. You should probably get started if you want to reach it before nightfall.”

Admiral Zhao exhaled sparks, and Zuko grinned, feeling sharp and bright as a knife. This was probably how Azula felt all the time, watching her enemies kneel before her in the dirt.

No one from Zhao’s crew would tell him anything further about where the Avatar had gone, or what he’d been doing here in the first place. Zuko was tempted to try going after the Avatar anyway, but even he could recognize how woefully underprepared they were to go through the forest on foot. The exhaustion of the men and lack of food would slow them down, and, more importantly, they couldn’t leave their riverboat behind unattended. Zhao’s men, huddled and miserable in their muddy uniforms, were eyeing Zuko’s intact boat like they were three minutes away from taking it for themselves, anything to get out of this miserable jungle that much faster.

 “Sho, Li, stay back and guard the boat. Lieutenant Jee, with me,” Zuko called back to his crew. Then he told Zhao, “I’m going to go have a look around.”

“You won’t find anything. The Avatar is long gone,” Zhao said, sounding like he was trying to keep the upper hand and failing, “You’re too late.”

Zuko smirked, and turned to go, “I think I’ll take my advice from someone who didn’t set his own ships on fire.”

That got a snort of laughter from Lieutenant Jee as they walked up the slope towards the village. Zuko smiled briefly, vindicated. His instincts were right after all. The Avatar had been hiding out along the river, but not in a small campsite. He’d been staying with Jeong Jeong the deserter, apparently, in some kind of rebel village half-hidden in the landscape.

The name Jeong Jeong sounded familiar, and Zuko wracked his brain trying to place it. Maybe he’d come across it in one of his scrolls? Or, no—from the wanted posters hanging on the noticeboard on the way to town. He remembered the uneasy mix of amusement and dread he felt at seeing his mother’s mask and his own swords staring out at him, labeled an enemy of the realm. But there had been other posters too, of the Avatar, a soldier, an Admiral.

Admiral Jeong Jeong, that was it. A firebender wanted for the crime of desertion. Having failed at the Fire Days Festival, the Avatar must have come here to find the one firebender in the realm who could teach him fire bending and wouldn’t turn him in to the Fire Lord. Zuko couldn’t imagine Sokka had been very happy about that decision, not after Zuko—

He started walking faster, trying not to think about it. Lieutenant Jee lagged behind, and Zuko barked back at him, “Hurry up, old man, we don’t have all day!”

Lieutenant Jee replied, “Yes, Sir,” through gritted teeth, his good humor gone.

The village was nestled into the slope, the dull metal huts draped in moss and vines. Deep mud footpaths lead from one entrance to the next. It was the perfect hideaway—inaccessible to almost anyone who didn’t already know it was there, on the banks of a river that was, at best, partially navigable.

Zuko and Jee split up to search each hut individually for traces of the Avatar’s presence. It felt like the old days, when everywhere they went was just a shot in the dark, guided by ancient scrolls and instinct. He used to think once he found the Avatar, everything would change, but that turned out not to be true. He was still banished, still alone. Sokka didn’t want to hear from him again, and the only person his crew hated more than him was Admiral Zhao.

He climbed higher up the path to the huts edging the tree-line. Maybe there really wasn’t anything left for him to find, and he’d have to leave here empty-handed. He ducked into one run-down hut after another, each of them empty. Although the village had been abandoned in a hurry, there were no personal belongings left behind. No trace of the Avatar or the people travelling with him.

Zuko yanked aside the curtain covering the doorway of the last hut, fabric ripping slightly in his fist. Empty, again. Dust lay thick on the floor, disturbed only by a few sets of footprints. Another storeroom, he thought, and was about to leave when he noticed something lying discarded in the corner. It was probably just trash, but he stepped through the door to get a closer look anyway.

It wasn’t trash. Zuko knelt down and carefully picked the bundle up, recognition like a punch in the gut. The pages were bound by a thin yellowed cord. Sinew, maybe. And the paper was thick, worn and wrinkled, edged with red.

They were letters. His letters. The ones he’d written and never thought he’d be forced to see again. The ones he’d signed his name to. And Sokka had—Sokka had left them here for anyone to see.

Zuko stood and stumbled, catching himself on the doorframe. He felt off-balance, like the ground had shifted beneath his feet. From one of the neighboring huts, Lieutenant Jee called out, “All clear!”

Zuko stuck the letters under his belt and jogged out of the hut, “All clear here too.”

No one needed to know about what he’d found. The letters didn’t tell him where the Avatar had gone, only that Sokka meant exactly what he said. It was over. There was nothing left to wish for.

Zuko went down the hill and marched right up to Admiral Zhao and shoved him backwards, raising a handful of fire to his face. Zhao flinched, just barely, but he had already given himself away. Zuko knew from painful personal experience just how instinctive the fear of fire was, even for a firebender.

“You’re going to tell me where the Avatar went right now,” Zuko hissed, letting his breath grow hot, threatening.

“That’s impossible,” Zhao said, smug even as his gaze flickered ever so briefly back towards the flames poised in Zuko’s palm, “I can’t give you with information I don’t have.”

“I don’t believe you,” Zuko insisted, “You’re lying to me.”

“Why would I lie?” Zhao asked, and there was that double-edge to his voice again, half guileless, half mocking. It made Zuko want to scream.

“I am a prince of the Fire Nation and I demand you give me whatever information you have on the Avatar immediately,” Zuko said, letting the flames in his palm flare up. There was a hand on his shoulder, tugging him away. He shook it off, “I order you.”

“Sir, stop,” It was Lieutenant Jee, pulling him away forcefully, “Stop before you get yourself into trouble.”

“You’d be wise to listen to your lieutenant, Prince Zuko,” Admiral Zhao said, the title derisive in his mouth.

Zuko closed his hand into a fist, extinguishing the flames and sending the excess heat back up his arm in a painful aftershock.

“He’s lying,” Zuko insisted again, but he could feel himself losing ground. Admiral Zhao stepped forward, and Zuko stepped back.

 “You know, if I was a less forgiving man, I’d have you flogged for attacking a superior,” Admiral Zhao said.

 “You’re not my superior—” Zuko managed.

Zhao interrupted him easily, “I am, however, in a forgiving mood. So, as an Admiral of the Fire Nation Navy, instead of punishment, I hereby requisition your vessel for the use of me and my crew. Step aside.”

“You can’t just—” Zuko started, and the smile Zhao gave him was pure malice.

“If you were at all familiar with the Naval Code, you’d know that I can, and will,” Zhao straightened his uniform, and signaled to his men to approach the riverboat, “Now step aside, or I’ll have to use force.”

Zuko shot Lieutenant Jee a panicked glance. Jee knew the Naval Code. He was always lecturing Zuko about it whenever Zuko had a new idea he didn’t like. But Lieutenant Jee just shook his head minutely, as if to say don’t fight this.

Zuko swallowed back a cry of dismay. He couldn’t give up the riverboat to Zhao. It would take all day to get back to the ship on foot, by which point Uncle would be furious with him and probably forbid him from ever going on another solo expedition again, which would make tracking the Avatar down even more difficult.

Think, Zuko, Azula said impatiently, like she was lecturing a child, You never think these things through.

“No,” Zuko said suddenly, ignoring her, “You can’t have the boat.”

Zhao laughed, “You really are very young, and very foolish. What are you going to do to stop me?”

Zuko didn’t know. He had lots of wild thoughts, none of them useful. This was Azula’s territory—he should have known better than to try a power play on someone like Admiral Zhao in the first place.

“I—I—” He stuttered, panic rising in him fast.

“With all due respect, Admiral, we’re not a military commission,” Lieutenant Jee said suddenly, and Zuko stared at him. That wasn’t true. Or at least it wasn’t what Uncle Iroh had said. And then he realized that Lieutenant Jee was lying through his teeth.

“Excuse me?” Admiral Zhao looked as shocked as anyone.

Lieutenant Jee continued, “Prince Zuko became a civilian when he was banished, and the General is retired. In order to requisition a civilian vessel in foreign waters, you need to—”

“You can’t be serious. The fate of the Fire Nation is at stake,” Admiral Zhao said incredulously, but Lieutenant Jee didn’t back down, not even when the Admiral’s incredulity turned to anger.

“Come back with a court order,” Lieutenant Jee said, and turned to walk towards the boat, nodding at Zuko, “Captain.”

Zuko followed him back to the boat, still not quite believing his luck.

They were getting away with it. Not forever, but at least for as long as it took Zhao to look them up in the official Navy roster and disprove Jee’s story. That was long enough. They would be well on their way to the Northern Water Tribe, and this time it would be Zhao who was struggling to catch up.

Zhao and his sinking boats disappeared around the bend in the river, and Zuko exhaled shakily, still coming down from the adrenaline of the moment. So this was what it was like to have the loyalty of his crew. To have them working with him, for him, for once.

Zuko tried to think of a way to thank Lieutenant Jee somehow without thanking him too much but he didn’t get a chance. The moment they rounded the bend, and Zhao’s burning ships disappeared from sight, Lieutenant Jee turned to him, arms crossed over his chest, not even bothering to hide the contempt on his face.

“What is it, Lieutenant? Spit it out,” Zuko said, “If you’re mad at me—”

“Mad doesn’t even begin to cover it, sir,” Lieutenant Jee said, “What in Koh’s name were you thinking?

Zuko bristled, “He was withholding information from me! He had no right to do that.”

“So what? He had every right. You’re the one who put us all in danger when you attacked him and accused him of lying without proof!”

Sho and Li made themselves as scarce as they could for the duration of the shouting match, but the windows of the cabin were open, and they could probably hear every word Zuko and Jee yelled at each other. It didn’t bother Zuko, except maybe a little when Jee called him a reckless, selfish brat unfit to command this ship. That hit too close to the bone, a fresh bruise Zuko didn’t know how to conceal.

Everything hurt—his head, his heart, his arms, shoulders, and back. All Zuko wanted was to sit down and rest, but he couldn’t, not without losing face. So he grit his teeth and stayed standing and told Jee how he should be stripped of his rank and banned from ever serving on a ship again if this was the kind of respect he showed to his superiors.

For a moment, Lieutenant Jee visibly struggled to restrain himself, and Zuko itched to push him just a bit further. Crossing the line into violence would be such a relief, a distraction from his aching heart. There was no one here who could stop them—no Uncle Iroh to offer tea and snacks, and treat them like squabbling children.

“Well, do you have anything to say for yourself?” Zuko challenged.

Lieutenant Jee took a breath, like he was about to speak. And then another, like he had convinced himself not to.

“No, sir,” He said between gritted teeth. And that was that. The argument was over.

Zuko could sit down now on the bench bolted against the wall, his whole body in pain, and rest his head against the cool metal. With a sigh, Lieutenant Jee sat heavily on the opposite bench, and started rubbing his knee through the fabric of his uniform, working the knee-cap back into place.

“You’re going to get yourself killed if you keep going like this, Sir,” Lieutenant Jee said after a while, when the peace between them had stretched just long enough for Zuko to think he was in the clear.

“Like you care,” Zuko snapped, “I bet everyone’s life would be easier if I just disappeared.”

Then Uncle Iroh and the crew could finally go home, and Sokka would never have to see him again, and no one would be forced to suffer for Zuko’s mistakes except for Zuko.  

Jee looked uncomfortable, and Zuko thought with a vindictive thrill, knew it.

“Sir, I—” Lieutenant Jee started, then paused, “You’re my captain, and the crown prince. Of course I don’t want you dead.”

It was a diplomatic answer, but Zuko wasn’t in the mood to pretend.

“Not much of a crown prince if I can’t even show my face in the Fire Nation without getting arrested,” He said bitterly.

Lieutenant Jee stayed silent, but Zuko knew what he was remembering. He’d been there for that mad dash towards the border blockade. He’d been there for everything, and fought Zuko tooth and nail on most of it.

“For what it’s worth, Sir,” Lieutenant Jee said, eventually, “None of us want Admiral Zhao to capture the Avatar. You deserve that honor.”

“Does that mean you’ll actually help me, when he comes back?” Zuko asked pointedly, “Instead of just standing around waiting for orders?”

A hint of irritation returned to Jee’s expression, but he sounded sincere, “Yes, sir. I’ll help to the best of my ability.”

And that was—that was a start. Zuko had never been very good at inspiring loyalty in people. Even now, everything the men did, they did for his uncle. But he needed to learn if he was ever going to become Fire Lord. That was another one of the worries that kept him up at night. When he eventually did capture the Avatar, what next? He had already missed out on so many years of training with the royal tutors, years of being groomed to assume the throne. How could he possibly catch up?

Sokka had said something similar once. I hope at some point you’ll have time for other things. The things that make life worth living. But what the fuck did Sokka know about any of it?

Zuko rubbed his knuckles into his eye-sockets. When he was tired like this, the scar of his eyelid itched and burned like it was still healing. He’d have to ask the physician for some of that soothing salve when he got back to the ship.

Lieutenant Jee shifted, hands moving to his other knee. When he realized Zuko was watching him, he said, “It’s nothing serious, sir. I must have thrown my knees out clearing all those branches out of the water. It’s happened before.”

Zuko nodded. He felt almost—guilty. Lieutenant Jee had probably wanted to sit down just as much as he did during their argument earlier. Uncle Iroh was always talking his ear off about being sensitive to the needs of the crew, whatever that meant.

“Very well. You are excused from your duties until tomorrow,” Zuko decided.

Now it was Lieutenant Jee’s turn to look surprised, “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

Zuko hoped that would be sufficient to fill his debt to Lieutenant Jee. Zuko didn’t like feeling indebted like this. But he also didn’t like the alternative, which was having no help when he needed it. If Lieutenant Jee hadn’t been there to step in, things might not have gone well with Zhao, and Zuko wouldn’t have been able to talk his way out of it.

He might, maybe, have been able to fight Admiral Zhao to a draw. He’d been training especially hard lately, channeling all his frustrations into fire. And Zhao was—not old. But older.

Experienced, his uncle would say. Was probably going to say, in fact, as soon as they got back to the ship and Uncle Iroh discovered the purpose of Zuko’s absence. You confronted an experienced firebender with groundless accusations?  As if Zuko wasn’t experienced enough. As if he didn’t know what fire was, what it could do.

The boat shuddered along through the murky brown water, Sho steering, Li monitoring the boiler, and the two of them sitting there in silence. Eventually, Lieutenant Jee let go of his knee and looked at Zuko again, a level gaze that Zuko instinctively wanted to avoid.

“Something happened to your bending earlier, didn’t it?” Lieutenant Jee said. It didn’t sound like a question, “That’s why you didn’t go after the Avatar right away.”

Zuko froze, then tried deliberately to relax. He hadn’t known it was obvious. But of course it was—he couldn’t be the only bender in the world who was able to sense other people’s qi. This meant Uncle Iroh probably knew, too. Fuck.  

“I—I don’t see how that’s any of your business,” Zuko replied. He could still feel the awful shivery waves of cold radiating outwards from the black hole in his stomach, a sensation he was unlikely to ever forget.

Jee sighed, “This is why the General has been trying to teach you more about breath-work. If you’d just—”

“Don’t lecture me,” Zuko snapped, “It’s not going to happen again, okay? It was just. I just.”

Lieutenant Jee’s expression softened almost imperceptibly, “You’re right. It’s none of my business. But you need to be careful, that’s all I’m trying to say.”

“I am careful,” Zuko said, but even he could hear the lie in it, “I’m always—I always try to—”

“If you’re going to attack someone like Admiral Zhao without cause, you need to be ready to fight to defend yourself when the time comes. You need to know what to do if your fire starts to desert you,” Lieutenant Jee said, sounding a little less patient.

“I had cause, he—”

“He’s an asshole, yes, and he probably did see what direction the Avatar went in, but your reaction was completely out of proportion,” Lieutenant Jee interrupted, and for a moment Zuko thought they were going to get into another fight, “You put us all in danger, for nothing.”

“I—I thought—” To his horror, Zuko found his voice was wavering dangerously. He couldn’t tell the lieutenant what had really happened—what he’d found. How much it had upset him. But he wanted to. To have one person who knew, someone who had been dishonored the way he had, who might actually understand.

“I guess I wasn’t really thinking at all.”

Jee didn’t contradict him, but said, resigned, “He’ll find a way to pay us back for that, somehow. Admiral Zhao’s the kind of man who keeps scores.”

That’s what Zuko was afraid of, too. But it was over and done with now, and it still wasn’t the worst thing he’d done in the past twenty four hours.

Zuko looked back out the window, at the overgrown forest passing by, reflected green and yellow in the water. It was the journey of a few hours back to the ship, and a much longer way to the North Pole after that. Lieutenant Jee wasn’t wrong—Zuko needed to be ready for what was to come. It would be a harder task than ever before, to steal the Avatar from behind the Northern Water Tribe’s walls. His bending would be unreliable in a land of ice at this time of year, when the sun was still weak. He’d have to fight twice as hard for half the reward.

But all of that felt so far away right now. The letters tucked under his belt crinkled as he shifted against the wall, and Zuko resisted the urge to touch the sinew cord again, the only thing he had left of Sokka that wasn’t in words. It was always strange to go to a place that Sokka had so recently been in and not find him there. How different the place looked. He’d gone back to the prison cell a dozen times after he’d helped Sokka escape, trying to feel close to him, as pathetic as that was. But after it had been cleaned and the cot stripped of bedding, it was like Sokka had never been there.

Zuko leaned forward, and buried his head in his hands for a second. He’d been awake for Agni-knew-how long. Weeks, it felt like. He was so tired, and everything was falling to pieces around him, and he didn’t know what to do. Didn’t know if there was even anything he could do.

“Has that ever happened to you before?” Zuko asked, half-hoping the sound of the engine would drown out his voice before Jee could hear it, “Losing your fire?”

He glanced up to check if Jee heard him, and saw Jee nod slowly, almost reluctantly, looking down at the muddy metal floor beneath their feet, “Once. In Ba Sing Se. The first time I ever burned someone alive.”

Zuko’s stomach clenched, “You—”

“I don’t expect your uncle tells you a lot about those days,” Jee said in a stiff voice, “We all did things we’re not proud of. So whatever you think it is you’ve done that’s so terrible, I can guarantee you I’ve done worse.”

Zuko shook his head reflexively. What Lieutenant Jee did was in service of his nation, not some selfish dream he never stood a chance at fulfilling.

“Was the person—was it someone you knew?” Zuko asked, when he could find his voice again.

“No. Just another wall soldier,” Jee said gruffly, and then stood up, bringing the conversation to an end. He gestured out the window to Sho, who stepped away from the helm to let Lieutenant Jee take over, and left the cabin. Zuko stayed behind, staring out at the churning water.

For a moment, he tried to imagine really burning someone alive, all the way. Not just—not just what he’d done to Sokka. Or what had been done to his face. He tried to imagine the way it would feel. The way it would smell. Lieutenant Jee probably threw up, after. Zuko still remembered the way the air had smelled after his—after the duel. When all he could smell was his own burnt flesh, the scent haunting him long after his face had begun to heal.

In the privacy of the cabin, Zuko took the letters out and held them for a while, running his thumb over the sinew cord until he had memorized the feel of it. The paper was incredibly water-damaged, more so than he first realized, and he wondered what Sokka must have gone through to keep them, only to give them up at the last moment. What stories Sokka hadn’t told him, or simply hadn’t told him yet.

And now he would never know. Sokka didn’t want anything to do with him anymore, didn’t even want the reminder of Zuko tainting his life. And all the things Zuko had hoped for, alone in his bed when the longing for home had grown unbearable and he thought the ocean might swallow him whole, would never come to pass.

He shoved the letters back into his pocket and went out on deck. The river had widened and it smelled brackish. Seabirds called overhead. He hated it, hated everything he saw.

“How far are we?” Zuko asked. He just wanted to get this over with.

“Nearly there, Sir,” Helmsman Sho answered.

They made it back to the ship by early afternoon. Zuko wanted to go straight to his room, but he went to the kitchen instead. He knew he needed to eat even if he didn’t feel like it. Uncle Iroh was waiting for him there, furious but trying but trying to pass it off as worried.  

Zuko sat through his uncle’s lecture, mindlessly eating congee from the bowl Cook handed to him even though it tasted bland and thick, like paper. When he finished, he shoved the bowl across the table, stood up, and started to walk away. Uncle Iroh trailed off, mid-sentence.

“Zuko, what are you—”

“I don’t need to listen to this,” Zuko said, “Lieutenant Jee already told me everything I did wrong today.”

“Nephew, wait—” Uncle Iroh called, but he wasn’t Zuko’s father, and Zuko didn’t need to obey.

“I’m going to bed.”

He pushed past Uncle Iroh and went to his room. He was so tired he felt sick, but he was still wearing all his armor. It had never really bothered him before, how complicated it was, how long it took to put on and remove. Now every buckle reminded him of Sokka’s hand pressed flat against his stomach, slowly sliding lower and lower.

Zuko was probably breaking the leather straps and denting his armor, ruining it, as he tore it off and let it fall to the floor. Sokka was never going to smile at him like that again, like he had done something really, really right just by touching him, just by making him come, hard, into his hand, body arched tight against his own.

It had been so fucking good. Couldn’t Sokka see that, what he’d thrown away? They all had bigger things to worry about than some stupid break-up, or whatever this was, but Zuko hoped he was feeling as terrible about it as Zuko was. He wanted Sokka to regret it and want him back. To beg.

Zuko felt like begging. Like he’d say anything just to get a chance to do those last few moments over again. He hadn’t gotten the Avatar anyway, not then, and not later either. It had all been a huge waste.

And the worst part—the worst part was that for a while there, Zuko thought he’d finally found the one thing the war couldn’t take away from him. It was, in retrospect, incredibly naïve. Sokka was right. They were the opposing sides of the war—a washed-up Prince and the Avatar’s right-hand man. It couldn’t work. He knew that. But it had never made any difference before, so why would it now?

All the things he’d dreamed of, the nights he’d spent wondering what it would be like to take Sokka back with him to the Fire Nation and show him everything. It was impossible, absurd. There was no future in which Sokka was anything other than an enemy of the state. But Zuko hadn’t been able to kill off the part of him that wanted it to be real.

Zuko crawled into bed, groaning softly as the tension in his sore body started to ease, and closed his tired eyes. He just wanted to go home. It was the only place he’d ever been happy. Talking about it with Sokka had brought back memories, all the more vivid for being spoken aloud. The way the breeze blew through the windows of his old bedroom, thickly scented by jasmine bushes growing outside in the garden. The sound of bells ringing in the Fire Sage temple, a distant, slightly discordant melody. His own body, sinking deep into clean sheets. Not surrounded by an alien ocean. Not smelling of coal smoke or metal. Home.

He just wanted this to be over.

Zuko woke up a few hours later, bathed in sweat, still half convinced his frantic dreams were real. That was the problem with falling asleep, once he finally managed it. Someone was knocking on his door, which must have been what woke him. He sat up, still heavy with sleep. In the dim red light of his room it was hard to tell what time it was.

“I’m sleeping!” He yelled hoarsely.

The knocking stopped, but then came his uncle’s voice, muffled through the door, “The cook made some excellent fried swordfish for dinner. Would you like me to bring you some?”

So it was evening, or later.

“No,” He said. His uncle would interpret it as an invitation to talk, and Zuko didn’t want that, no matter how hungry he still was.

“Are you sure?”

Zuko sighed angrily, “Yes, I’m sure. Leave me alone.”

After a moment, he heard his uncle’s reluctant footsteps retreat slowly down the hallway, and then nothing. He’d probably hurt his uncle’s feelings. Again. Zuko pushed aside the pang of guilt. There was only so much he could do, so much he could give.

Lu Ten would never have done any of this. Lu Ten was an honorable son of the Fire Nation who died for his country. But Zuko would never be Iroh’s son, no matter how much his uncle wanted him to be.   

Zuko thought about getting up, but instead he rolled over, curling up on his side. If Sokka, the best person Zuko knew, couldn’t find it within himself to forgive him, then how could Zuko expect anyone else to? Lieutenant Jee had probably already told Uncle Iroh how irresponsible he was for jeopardizing the crew’s safety. The food was just an excuse for Uncle Iroh to lecture him some more. And that was the least of it. If they knew—if Uncle Iroh knew—

Zuko buried his face against his pillow, trying to block out his thoughts and the dull red light, but it didn’t work. Every time he thought he was getting ahead and making progress in his search for the Avatar all he did was prove to the world how truly dishonorable he really was. Maybe, in the end, getting his heart broken was no less than he deserved.

Zuko managed to pull himself together enough the next morning to leave his room and chart a course to the Northern Water Tribe with Lieutenant Jee. Then he went back to bed until Uncle Iroh dragged him out for dinner with the promise of dumplings in fire-chili sauce, which were Zuko’s favorite and a shameless attempt at manipulation.

Zuko gave in anyway. Sometime over the past forty-eight hours, the message had apparently reached his uncle that Zuko didn’t want to talk, because Uncle Iroh didn’t press him anymore. But he obviously hadn’t heard about the blow-up with Admiral Zhao yet. Zuko was certain if he knew, he wouldn’t be so persistent in his new effort to cheer Zuko up. His latest effort involved co-opting Zuko into performing on music night, despite his many refusals.

“Why not? You haven’t even touched the tsungi horn I bought for you yet,” Uncle Iroh said sorrowfully. And then to Helmsman Sho, standing nearby waiting for a second helping of dumplings, “He was such a talented musician as a child.”

Zuko couldn’t believe his uncle didn’t remember having to sit through all those awful recitals. It couldn’t have been a pleasant experience, having to watch a prince of the Fire Nation forget the entire last half a song he’d been working on for months in front of the entire royal court and get publically reprimanded by both his father and his grandfather.

“My uncle is growing forgetful in his old age,” Zuko told the helmsman, who looked very much like he wanted to escape. Uncle Iroh made a reproachful sound.

“How could my own nephew say such a thing,” He started, but Zuko took the opportunity to duck out of the conversation, and go harass Lieutenant Jee at the other end of the officer’s table about ice floe currents. Helmsman Sho was not so lucky.

They made progress up the coast of the Earth Kingdom over the next few days, sticking close to land until they reached Hailun, the last colonial outpost before the North. They reached the miniscule, understaffed harbor in the early afternoon and made a trip inland to resupply. The merchants kept asking if they were part of the invasion fleet, which was the first Zuko had heard of any such thing, but he instructed the crew to say yes anyway, for the sake of getting the discount.

They were back on the ship by evening. The sun didn’t set until late, and it seemed to make everyone onboard agitated and sun-drunk despite the cold wind coming off the water.

Uncle Iroh had announced at least seven times in the last hour how wonderful it would be to have the tsungi horn as part of their ensemble for music night that evening, but Zuko was pretending to ignore him. He thought by throwing himself into the preparations for their trip he had successfully convinced his uncle that there was nothing wrong and he didn’t need to be coddled, but apparently he was wrong.

It was only with great difficulty that Zuko managed to avoid his uncle and the men without resorting to locking himself in his room again. He waited until Helmsman Sho was busy helping load barrels of provisions into the hold before going up to the helm, where he stood on the balcony, looking out at the steel-grey sea.

Somewhere beyond the edge of his vision was the Northern Water Tribe, its unbroken white walls a problem that would need to be solved. But that was for later. Tonight he was alone, leaning against the balustrade watching the sun dip lower and lower over the horizon, practicing his breath of fire in the cold air.

The coastline looked similar to the barren rocky islands that bordered the Southern Water Tribe, snow still clinging to the mountains, untouched by the change in seasons. Zuko felt like he had come back to the place it all started—replacing one pole for another. He still remembered how blankly terrifying it had been to be surrounded by nothing but ice, unable to draw upon the strength of the weak autumn sun.

No one knew what to expect for that first journey to the South. None of the Fire Nation raiders who’d made incursions inland were great record-keepers, and what scrolls Zuko had found were all a hundred years out of date. Obviously he knew things had changed, but it was still a shock to find all that remained of the fabled capital city were a few driftwood tents and snow houses, defended by a teenager with nice eyes and no training.

Sokka once said he would rather die than have the Fire Nation flag hang from the walls of his village. Zuko hadn’t known, then, what he was referring to—that snowy embankment Zuko’s ship ploughed through with ease. One more thing Sokka must have been holding against him this whole time.

“Nephew! I was just looking for you,” Uncle Iroh’s voice boomed from behind him, and Zuko startled, “The men and I are going to start setting up for music night before it gets dark. I’m sure they’d be honored if you joined us.”

 “I am not playing the Tsungi horn,” Zuko didn’t know how many times he had to say it before it sank in, “I don’t want anything to do with your stupid music night.”

There was a pause.

“I just thought it might help you get out of your head,” Uncle Iroh tried again, softer.

“Well, it won’t,” Zuko whirled around, facing him, “The only thing that can help me is capturing the Avatar.”

Uncle Iroh looked chastened, “I know you think so now, but—”

“But nothing,” Zuko snapped. Everything his uncle tried to offer was only a distraction, meant to keep him from getting what he needed, being who he needed to be, “I’m going inside. Don’t disturb me.”

He could tell from his uncle’s expression that he knew exactly where, inside, Zuko was going, and that it disappointed him. Too bad, Zuko thought viciously as he descended down the stairs towards his cabin. He had other, bigger things to worry about.

Of course, it wasn’t so much an issue of finding the Avatar as it was of getting to him. Zuko knew exactly where the Avatar was—a mere thirty leagues away in the Northern Water Tribe capital, learning water bending and having the time of his life, while Zuko was stuck in his room feeling wretched over Sokka again.

Zuko knew he could do it—sail in, infiltrate the walls, capture the Avatar, and sail away again undetected—but he just didn’t know how. There was so much standing in his way, so many people who wanted him to fail. The only person he could rely upon was himself.

He’d brought some of the maps back to his room, and he looked over them again now, in bed, trying to find weaknesses and points of attack, but he kept getting distracted by the faint strains of music coming from down below on deck. Even with the door closed, he could recognize the opening bars of Four Seasons of Love, his uncle’s favorite.

Zuko was very glad he’d decided to stay upstairs. War songs were okay, when he was in the mood for them, but the more the men drank, the more sentimental they got, and the last thing Zuko needed right now was to see was a bunch of grown men getting teary-eyed over a fucking love song.

He wished he’d been able to get Uncle Iroh to ban them from being performed onboard the ship. But they’re good for the crew’s morale! Uncle Iroh said whenever he tried, and then proceeded to ignore Zuko when he protested that they were bad for his own. It made Zuko wonder who was actually in charge of the ship—him or his uncle.  

Zuko went back to bed, abandoning the maps. He’d been trying, lately. He’d actually been putting an effort in. He trained hard with Lieutenant Jee every day, harder maybe than he should have, judging by the residual soreness in his shoulder and knees, the sites of old injuries he could barely remember sustaining. He read maps and scrolls and made plans, he ate in the mess hall, he left his room. But he still couldn’t get the tight, unrelenting knot of unhappiness to go away.

At least the music had finally stopped. It was probably just the men arguing over what song to play, he thought, but he’d take what small mercies he could get. But the music didn’t start up again. Instead, bootsteps moved through the tower of the ship, one set, no, two and coming closer, ringing out on the metal stairs, down the corridor, and coming to a stop right outside his door.

Zuko sat up, tense all over. He should have remembered to lock his door. If this was another attempt to get Zuko to join in, Uncle Iroh would have to go away disappointed. There was a quiet, almost apologetic knock, and then Uncle Iroh was letting himself in. Light spilled in from the hallway, and Zuko winced. He had no idea what he looked like, but probably about as rough as he felt.

 “For the last time, I’m not playing the Tsungi horn,” Zuko said, voice cracking, frustrated.

 “No,” His uncle said. He sounded strange, almost hesitant, and Zuko got the terrible premonition that something was very wrong, “It’s about our travel plans. There’s a bit of a problem...”

And that’s when Zhao stepped into the room, and took away what little Zuko had left.

The crew had a few short hours to pack up their belongings, gut the ship of its stores, equipment, and the supplies they had just purchased in Hailun with the last of that month’s allowance, and be on their way to their new assignments in Admiral Zhao’s fleet—two hundred fully-outfitted warships docked only half a day away south of Hailun, headed to the North Pole with the Firelord’s direct approval.  

“I can show you my orders,” Admiral Zhao said, smugly, “They were written by Firelord Ozai’s own hand.”

Zuko had refused, although a part of him desperately wanted to see his father’s calligraphy again, to have even that small piece of contact. Admiral Zhao must have seen it in him, how desperate Zuko was, because he laughed, and somehow his laughter was worse than anything else he could have done. But then he grew silent again, a deadly stillness. Zuko followed his line of sight and felt the pit of dread deepen in his stomach. He was looking straight at Zuko’s dual swords.

After Admiral Zhao’s departure, Uncle Iroh lingered for a long moment in Zuko’s room.

“Don’t,” Zuko said, turning away, his voice thick, “Don’t tell me this is a sign I should give up.”

“I wasn’t going to,” Uncle Iroh said, but Zuko knew better by now, and he didn’t believe it.

“Just—leave me alone. I want to be left alone.”

“Nephew...” Uncle Iroh started, then sighed, “I can’t force you to do anything, but I wish you could trust me enough to tell me what’s wrong.”

And oh, for the love of—“What do you think is wrong?” Zuko shouted, “Admiral Zhao just took away my crew! Now leave me alone to think.”

Uncle Iroh frowned like he knew that wasn’t all, but left anyway, shutting the door gingerly behind him. Once his uncle’s footsteps had retreated a safe distance down the hallway, Zuko left too—heading upstairs back to the control room, hoping to grab the maps and charts he needed before anyone else could get to them.

Lieutenant Jee was already there, arguing with the helmsman, who was pulling all the scrolls out and throwing them into a bag. Zuko froze in the doorway, and then barged in anyway.

“What’s going on?” He demanded, “Those are mine!”

“Not anymore, they’re not,” Helmsman Sho said, and there was something vindictive in his voice. Zuko hated him—hated his pettiness. He’d dislocated his shoulder saving Sho in the storm, and this was the thanks he got?

Traitor,” Zuko spat viciously.

“You little shit,” Helmsman Sho abandoned the maps, coming towards him, “You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting to speak my mind—”

Lieutenant Jee had to break them up, using his superior height and weight to throw Zuko back, holding them at arm’s length from each other. Zuko wrest himself free, but he didn’t go for another attack.

“This isn’t the end of the world,” Lieutenant Jee told Zuko firmly, “You still have a chance against the Avatar.”

“Don’t lie to me!”

Lieutenant Jee’s lips thinned, and then he turned to Helmsman Sho, who had taken the opportunity to slip away and resume throwing scrolls into the sack, “Helmsman, put down those maps. They’re staying right here.”

 “But the Admiral said—” Sho sputtered.

“I don’t give a shit what the Admiral said,” Lieutenant Jee replied, and Helmsman Sho fell deathly silent, “Everything stays here for the use of Crown Prince Zuko. That’s an order.”

Maybe it was the use of Zuko’s title that did it, or maybe the helmsman didn’t, in the end, have the guts to cross Lieutenant Jee. Either way, he bowed his head, resentful but obedient, and left the control room, leaving the bag on the table, maps spilling out across it and onto the floor.

If they were still Zuko’s crew—if they had ever really been Zuko’s crew—he would have ordered Sho to apologize and then put all the maps back. But Zuko didn’t have that kind of authority anymore.

“Good luck, kid,” Lieutenant Jee said, clapping him on the shoulder, and then he too was gone.

Zuko went back to his room after that and lay down on his bed, again, arms folded tightly against his chest to keep his heart from falling out. This was it. There was nothing more he could do. Admiral Zhao had the paperwork and the authority and all Zuko had was an empty ship with no one left to man it. He let out the breath he’d been holding and blinked rapidly at the shadowed ceiling until the intense, burning pressure behind his eyes eased up.

He should be used to this by now. Everything he had, he lost, one way or another. The only things that stayed with him were his name and the blood in his veins—a source of strength and a bitter reminder all at once. If he had been a better son, if he had been selfless and noble, none of this would have happened. But he was always so selfish—always put the things he wanted above anything else and let them ruin him.

Uncle Iroh returned an indeterminate time later with tea, which Zuko didn’t touch, and useless platitudes.

“The crew wish you safe travels,” He said, and Zuko felt his face spasm in disbelief. They could all rot in the Fog of Lost Souls for all he cared, even Lieutenant Jee.

“It’s a nice night for a walk,” Uncle Iroh suggested, “Perhaps you’d like to join me?” At Zuko’s pointed and continued silence, he sighed, “Or just sit here in the dark. Whatever makes you happy.”

Zuko was sick of his uncle’s passive-aggressive comments. How blind could he be, not to realize how bad things were? How hopeless? Zuko wanted to tell him that he’d never been happy, not even once, since he left Caldera, but he didn’t.

It would be a lie, when just a few weeks ago he’d been standing on deck with a letter in his hand and his heart full of light. I like you, Sokka had said, I do. I just really like you. And sometimes Zuko could barely even let himself think it, but he wanted Sokka to know he felt the same. Wanted to touch him, show him without words how he made Zuko come undone.

He’d done all that and more, but it hadn’t been enough, in the end. Not for Sokka, and not for him either.

There was a noise, faint but unmistakable through the iron-clad door. Someone was moving around on the ship. Zuko got to his feet, pulling his robe around his shoulders roughly. It was probably just Uncle, coming back from his walk. His very short walk. But he needed to be sure it wasn’t someone else.

Zuko left his room, locking the door behind him out of habit, and started down the hallway.

“Uncle, is that you?” He called, to no answer. Maybe Helmsman Sho had been sent back for the navigation charts, as if Zuko was going to give them up so easily.

He went up to the control room, but it was empty, all the scrolls still strewn across the table, spilling onto the floor. Lieutenant Jee had left a condescending list of instructions on how to use the navigational equipment tacked up on the wall. Zuko read through it, irritated. The ship was silent. Maybe he’d been imagining things...

There was a horrible screech just outside the window, and Zuko’s head jerked up in time to see Guo swoop down and start attacking a green parrot-lizard, wrenching it from its perch on the railing outside. They fought, tumbling through the air, Guo’s deadly beak tearing at the parrot-lizard’s wings.

Zuko took a step closer, and then there came a thunderous noise and the world exploded into heat and light.

The next thing Zuko knew, he was lying on his back on a table blinking up into the cobwebbed rafters of some kind of shed. The sky outside the small window was a blinding white, and the air smelled like wet, caustic smoke. Then pain hit from every direction at once, and he made an involuntary noise, closing his eyes tightly against the onslaught.

There was a scraping sound, like a chair being pushed back, and then footsteps. Zuko forced his eyes back open.

“Uncle?” He croaked, turning his head slightly. It was a mistake. His vision swam and a latent headache ricocheted through his skull, settling in his temples like a hammering nail.

“Zuko!” His uncle’s voice was too loud as he appeared, beaming over him, “How are you feeling?”

Zuko groaned. He tried to move his fingers, but the skin of his hands was tight and intensely painful. He knew what that meant. His heartbeat started to speed up. No no nonono -

“Is it bad? The burning?” He asked urgently, “Is it as bad as—”

“No, nothing like that,” Uncle Iroh rushed to reassure him, “The force of the blast threw you into the water, which was cold enough to stop most of it from getting worse. I’m sure you’ll be all healed up soon.”

Zuko exhaled shakily. He wasn’t sure he believed that, but he couldn’t really hold onto his thoughts right now. The light was very bright through the window and it was starting to turn his stomach. 

“Where are we?” Zuko asked, swallowing back his nausea.

“The harbor master was kind enough to let us stay in his home while you recover,” Uncle Iroh said, gesturing around the space like it was some kind of palace. That meant they were still on the coast near Hailun. Zuko vaguely remembered some little hovel set back from the dock, protected from the wind by immense craggy hills on either side.

“I tried to go to your room and get the things you asked for, but the ship was so destroyed in the explosion that I couldn’t get onboard,” Uncle Iroh continued apologetically, “This was all I found washed up to shore. Your mother’s mask, and these.” He held up two packets of letters, ink-streaked, their edges slightly singed, “They must have been protected from the blast.”

“You—” Zuko started panicking. This was bad. Very bad. He didn’t even remember asking for anything. Beyond the explosion, his mind was a blank, “Those aren’t mine.”

Uncle Iroh gave him a searching look, “Are you sure? You mentioned them specifically after I pulled you out of the water. You said they were in the lockbox you wanted me to find. Don’t you remember?”

Zuko shook his head, and regretted it immediately. He was so, so dizzy, the room sliding past his eyes in nauseating circles.

For the first time since Zuko regained consciousness, Uncle Iroh looked concerned. He asked slowly, “What is the last thing you remember doing?”

“Uh,” Zuko stalled. He remembered being in bed. He remembered the noise, the parrot, the fire—, “The explosion, I think.”

Uncle Iroh’s shoulders sagged, “Thank the spirits. I was worried you might have amnesia.”

Zuko realized, too late, that he should have played it up a little. Now there was no way he could plausibly deny the letters.

Uncle Iroh looked down at the water-stained papers and sighed, “Well, if they’re not yours, then there’s no way to tell who they belonged to. The water washed most of the ink away. Guess I’ll just be throwing them out.”

He moved to stand, and Zuko said, helplessly, “No, wait.”

Uncle Iroh turned to look at him, very slightly amused, “No?”

“Can you just—give them to me? Maybe I...maybe they are mine,” He said, hating the sound of his voice as he gave himself away. Uncle Iroh just chuckled, like he expected as much, and set them down on the table by Zuko’s arm.

“I’ll go get you some water,” He said, and disappeared into another room of the hut.

Zuko took a deep breath, bracing himself, and moved his hand just enough to brush his fingers against the edge of the letters. His fingertips were numb with dry pain. They must have gotten burned too. He didn’t look down at them, to see the extent of the damage. He couldn’t bear to.

Of all the experiences in his life he hoped he’d never have to repeat... And yet, here he was again, with his dreams lying shattered into pieces at his feet. Everything was gone. The ship, his Avatar scrolls, all the maps Lieutenant Jee had saved for him. He would have to start over from nothing, again.

Air Nomad teachings on the virtue of loss, on doing without and letting go, had felt like a slap in the face when he read them at thirteen. Now he wondered if it wouldn’t have been easier to start with less in the first place, just so he wouldn’t have to watch it all slip between his fingers like sand.

Something warm and wet slid down his cheek. Fuck. Sometimes, in his weakest moments, Zuko wished the spirits could have chosen a different element for him. One that didn’t hurt so much.

Uncle Iroh returned with a cup of water and helped Zuko sit up enough to drink. The water was cool and soothing against his lips, but then it reached his stomach and the nausea hit full-force. He leaned over the side of the table and threw up onto the floor.

There was something seriously wrong with him. Uncle Iroh seemed to realize it too, because he immediately jumped to his feet and started pacing the miniscule room. He said something about concussions and calling a medic, but Zuko was too focused on keeping his breathing steady to pay attention.

“Don’t call a medic,” Zuko said eventually, when the worst of the danger had passed, “We don’t have any money.”

Uncle Iroh frowned, like he wanted to argue the point, “I have connections, even in Hailun. I could call in a favor...”

“Don’t,” He said again. The medic would only tell him what he already knew—that he needed to rest and in a few weeks he’d be better. But Zuko didn’t have a few weeks. He barely even had a few days.

 “There’s no shame in stopping here,” Uncle Iroh said, pulling the chair closer and sitting down next to him, “Admiral Zhao is a formidable opponent. But if you choose to keep going on this path, your body and mind will not thank you. It’s time to think seriously about your next move.”

Zuko knew that. He remembered living in darkness for a month as his face healed. It probably wouldn’t have taken so long if he hadn’t gone to the Western Air Temple one week into his banishment. The visit had made him feverish and sick, all that running around and scaling cliffs, but he’d done it anyway. He would always do what needed to be done, no matter how much it cost him. In that way—as in so many others—he and Sokka were alike.

“This is my destiny, Uncle. I can’t give up now,” Zuko said, “It would mean everything I’ve done, everything I’ve been through, was for nothing.”

His voice cracked embarrassingly on the last word. There was a silence, and then Uncle Iroh sighed. Zuko braced himself for what was coming next. Maybe this was the point at which Uncle Iroh gave up on him. Maybe this, at last, was more than the bond of family obligation was worth.

 “I see your mind is made up,” Uncle Iroh said slowly, carefully, “In that case, I’ll do everything I can to help you.”

“You—really?” Zuko couldn’t hide his surprise and relief. He had no idea how much he needed to hear that until now, how scared he’d been.

“Of course,” Uncle Iroh said, and he looked so sad that when he offered Zuko some more water, Zuko almost said yes. But he wasn’t quite willing to risk it.

This changed things, having Uncle Iroh on his side. They could figure something out. Abandon the ship and go on foot, or—

“What about Daiyu and Guo?” Zuko asked suddenly, “Did they escape too?”

Uncle Iroh gave him a mournful look, “I don’t know about your hawk, but Daiyu is certainly dead. I’m very sorry, I know she was your favorite from the palace.”

He reached out to pat Zuko’s shoulder consolingly, but Zuko jerked away. The motion made his head spin. Poor Daiyu, fuck. She didn’t deserve any of this. He should have left her at home, where she was happy.

Zuko waited until the dizzy spell had passed before saying in an almost steady voice, “We’ll have to go on foot, then. I can do that. Just give me a day to recover, and—”

“Actually, I had another idea,” Uncle Iroh broke in, and there was a note of determination to his voice that reminded Zuko of the old days, when people called him the Dragon of the West and Zuko still believed he could do anything.

Zuko listened to his uncle’s plan, the possibilities starting taking shape. He was going to get another chance. Maybe it was his last, but that was okay. This time, things would be different. He wouldn’t fail. He had nothing left to lose.

Chapter Text

Sokka craned his neck, eyes wide, trying to take in as much as he could. Everything was made of ice—towers, bridges, walkways, walls so thick and tall no one could break through. So this was what waterbending could do, he thought, and let the wonder of it wash through him. Beside him, Katara’s eyes were brimming with tears, but she was smiling—smiling like she’d come home, and he felt a momentary pang of regret that he’d been such a jerk about her bending pretty much since the first instant she discovered it.

He was about to say something, not apologize exactly, since that would go against his brotherly code, but acknowledge that he understood, now, how much it meant. But then a boat passed them, gliding smoothly along the canal, and Sokka’s whole entire attention was captured by the girl poised in the prow, her hair shining white as moonlight, as snow.

Huh. So yeah. Northern Water Tribe: not too shabby.

The girl, of course, turned out to be Chief Arnook’s daughter, which was just so perfect it made Sokka want to crawl into a hole and never come out. Why couldn’t he be interested in some normal person he actually had a chance with? Why did they always have to be royalty?

He made the best of it, though, like he always did. Some small talk over dinner, some harmless flirting. A healthy dose of embarrassment, too, which was entirely Katara’s fault. But at least she was laughing with him (or, more accurately, at him) again. It felt like normal, like all was forgiven, and even though Sokka knew it wasn’t, he was willing to pretend for as long as she did.  

After the feast, Chief Arnook showed them personally to their lodgings, a massive guest house in the middle of the royal plaza. Around them, the whole city gleamed blue in the moon’s pale light, speckled with the yellow of torches lighting up the palace and grand avenue.

“Do you think our village used to look like this?” Katara whispered, “When we still had waterbenders?”

“I don’t know,” Sokka replied, unsettled by the thought, “Maybe a long time ago.”

It would have had to be a very long time ago, before even Gran Gran was born. She’d told them stories about the old days, when there were still traders who crossed the sea to meet them. When there were still Waterbenders. But she’d never said anything about a city—not a city like this.

Sokka had a hard time imagining their tiny village as an international capital—with real city walls and houses and shops, the streets full of people from all over, familiar faces mixed with new. And his father at the center of it all, a chief living in a grand palace, their family still intact.

Maybe then Sokka wouldn’t feel so much like a poor country bumpkin, and he’d be able to ask Yue out on a date without making a total fool of himself.

Maybe then it wouldn’t have been so easy for Zuko to dismiss him. 

It all went back to the Fire Nation, in the end. They had taken so much. Destroyed generations of his people. And now, looking around at the riches of the Northern Water Tribe, Sokka couldn’t even muster up a sense of wonder anymore. He just felt sad and maybe a little mad. 

It was better inside the guest house—the differences less stark. Wall-lamps burned with a warm, familiar light, and an even more familiar smell of seal oil. Buffalo Yak hides were laid out to form a insulated floor, and Sokka had to resist the urge to flop down onto it and let the soft fur envelope him.

They said their thank-yous to Chief Arnook, who expressed once again how honored he was to meet Avatar Aang and his companions. Sokka was on his best behavior, pulling out manners he didn’t even know he had—things Gran Gran had taught him, long ago. After all, this was Princess Yue’s father. Katara gave him a knowing look, but he ignored her. He’d had enough of her snide comments at dinner.

After Chief Arnook left, Aang poked around the guest house curiously while Sokka and Katara got their things ready for sleep. He was full of questions about the Northern Water tribe, and for some reason he thought Sokka and Katara were just the right people to answer them. It was a little humiliating, to be honest, how little Sokka could remember. If he’d even known any of it to begin with.

“And what were those big bear faces carved into the pillars in the palace? Do you guys have some kind of bear-spirit? I wonder if Hei Bai knows him...or her,” Aang cast a nervous look at Katara, but Katara wasn’t really paying attention.

“I’m...not sure,” She said slowly, “Sokka, did Gran Gran ever—”

“No,” Sokka said, “She didn’t tell us anything. And anyway, even if she did, everything is so different here I bet our spirits are too.”

“But isn’t the Southern Water Tribe part of the Northern Water Tribe?” Aang asked, and Sokka felt a sharp spike of irritation.

“So what if we are? Their last representative left our village before I was born. They haven’t helped us at all.”

Aang looked chastened, and Sokka felt a little bad. He hadn’t meant to snap.

“I think we should try and get some rest. Tomorrow is a big day,” Katara said in her peace-keeping voice, “Sokka, would you come outside with me for a moment?”

Sokka rolled his eyes. Now what? But he reluctantly followed her outside the curtained door.

“Take it easy on Aang,” Katara said in a low voice, “He doesn’t know what it’s been like for us. A hundred years ago, things were different.”

“So? This is the way things are now,” Sokka said harshly, “There’s no point in letting him live in some fantasy world where everything’s just the way it used to be.”

Katara bit her lip, like she had something to say she knew he wouldn’t like, and Sokka just wished she wouldn’t say it, for once.

“Look, I know you’ve been kind of down since Zuko—”

“I don’t want to talk about Zuko right now, okay?” He said, and took a step backwards, “In fact, I don’t want to talk about Zuko again ever.”

“Sokka...”

“I’m going to bed,” He said, and went back inside, shoving the curtains aside. Aang was doing a good job at pretending he hadn’t been eavesdropping, but Sokka was too tired and annoyed to really care.

“Goodnight, Aang,” He said, and pulled off his parka, then curled up inside his sleeping bag and closed his eyes. No matter how awake he felt with all that anger still swimming in his veins, they’d leave him alone if they thought he was sleeping. Maybe.

After a moment, he heard Katara slip back through the curtains, and then the low murmur of a hushed conversation with Aang. He couldn’t pick out any of the words, not that it mattered. He knew what she was saying. Blah blah blah, Sokka’s an over-dramatic idiot, blah blah blah.  

And yeah, okay. Maybe he had overreacted just a tad. But it had nothing to do with Zuko, and he resented her for even bringing that up. Being in the North just reminded him of how much work there was to be done at home. It reminded him of why he was fighting this war to begin with—so that what had happened to his family, to his people and his homeland would never happen to a place like this. 

Aang and Katara’s whispers fell away, and then the lamp-light flickered, and went out. Sokka could hear the soft sounds of his sister unrolling her sleeping bag next to his. With his eyes closed, one hand curled into the Buffalo Yak hide beneath him, breathing in the seal and salt air, he could almost pretend that they were home again. 

Tomorrow would be a better day, Sokka decided. It was a miracle they’d made it to the Northern Water Tribe in the first place, especially after their most recent run-in with the Fire Nation at the air temple, and now that he was finally here, there were things to do, people to meet, pretty girls to impress. He wasn’t going to let anything or anyone get him down.

Waterbending practice started at first light, so when Sokka eventually woke up, he was alone in the guest house. His dreams had been—well, he couldn’t remember his dreams, exactly, but he was achingly hard so he could pretty much guess. He pushed his shirt up and took his cock in his hand with an exhale of relief. It was nice being alone—he could take his time with this, really draw it out. Get as loud as he wanted, even. 

His dream had gotten him most of the way there, already, so it only took a few hard strokes before he was close to the edge. What had he been thinking about? Someone's hands pressing his legs apart, the liquid heat of someone's mouth. 

Sokka pulled his hand away, forcing his eyes open to the light. Don't think about him, he told himself. Think about something else. But his mind kept circling back to that one image—Zuko kneeling between his knees, sucking him off—and eventually he gave in to it, let it play out. He wouldn't know what he was doing, neither of them would, but he'd do it anyway, he'd—shit—he'd make Sokka feel so good. 

He came like that, still thinking about Zuko. For a moment, he lay there with his own come cooling in his palm, a sense-memory that threw him back into the alley, but he didn't want to think about that day any more than he had to, so he sat up and got out of bed, washing off as quick as he could. The mid-morning sun was streaming through the windows, and there was seal jerky and seaweed dumplings to eat for breakfast. It was time to start his day. 

Aang and Katara would be gone until evening, safe with Master Pakku, that sour-faced waterbending teacher, which meant Sokka didn’t have to worry about them even a little bit as he went to join in the training exercises at the palace. Chief Arnook had invited him, and Sokka wasn’t sure, but he thought it was probably a pretty big deal to get invited by the leader of the Northern Water Tribe himself. It was probably only because Sokka was one of the Avatar's friends, but he wasn't about to let that dampen his excitement. 

He stepped out the door into the cold, dry air, the ruff of his winter parka tickling his face in the wind. When all was said and done, being here felt right in some bone-deep, instinctive way. This was his world, a place where he mattered—where he could make a difference.

Sokka got as far as Turtle-Bear Canal before he spotted a vaguely familiar boat slipping through the water up ahead. He ran after it—tripping over his own feet, pushing people aside. Rude, yes. But there she was—Princess Yue, turning around at the sound of him calling out her name.

She was just as lovely today as she was yesterday, and Sokka knew he looked like an idiot with a crush, trying to keep pace with her boat, weaving around pedestrians, but she was teasing him in her soft, sweet voice, and he liked it, wanted her to keep making fun of him forever if it meant she was talking to him, looking at him with her pale blue eyes. Seeing him.

“I’d love to,” She said, and he almost couldn’t believe it, was she actually saying yes? And then she pointed up ahead of them, an eager smile on her lips, “Meet me on that bridge after sunset.”

“Yes! Absolutely!” Sokka said, too eager maybe, “I look forward to it! See you—”

And then the ground gave out beneath him and he plunged into the canal. He rose to the surface, gasping, shocked. His lungs hurt, like all the air had been knocked out of them by the cold, but he smiled and waved at her anyway as she glided past, her laughter only barely concealed behind her small dark hand.

So that was great. Better than great, it was unbelievable, a stroke of out-of-this-world good luck. But it did mean he had to go back to the guest house and change out of his good parka into a threadbare one that had seen a few too misadventures with fish hooks and, in one memorable instance, fireweed brambles. The whole ordeal was going to make him seriously late for warrior training, but even as Sokka hurried back towards the palace, he felt buoyed by the prospect of...if not technically a date, at least something close to it. An activity in a place for some time. And wasn’t that all a date really was, anyway? 

Training was fun, but exhausting. There were enough differences in Southern and Northern styles of fighting that Sokka felt off-balance, less experienced than he really was. And he questioned, once again, whether he'd been invited for any reason other than his association with the Avatar. It didn't matter, he told himself. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to train with the best of the Northern Water Tribe, and besides, maybe he had something to teach them, too. He, at least, was the only one of their number who had ever fought face-to-face against the Fire Nation and come out on top, at least once or twice. 

The warriors were served seaweed noodles for dinner, which at first Sokka was a little disappointed by, until he caught a glimpse of all the available toppings the servers were bringing in. Then the only question was which combination of toppings would he try first. Sea Prune and Earth Kingdom-style pork belly? Eggs three ways? Or, the more traditional option: fish livers. Or all of them. 

"Eat as much as you want, we don't want our warriors going hungry," Chief Arnook had told him at the start of the meal, and Sokka intended to take that advice to heart. 

Sitting on the floor, cushioned by buffalo-yak furs, eating familiar food—if Sokka just didn't look at the blue walls of the palace rising impossibly high around him, he could pretend he really was at home. Of course, nobody could fry fish livers like Gran Gran could, but this was a reasonable approximation. And the furs weren't turtle-seal pelts. But okay. Good enough. 

It turned out, Chief Arnook had done it specifically for him—a nod to his Southern roots. 

“You know, I could really get used to this,” Chief Arnook said heartily, setting down his chopsticks to take a drink of the fermented buffalo-yak milk they’d been passing around,  “Maybe we'll have to do it more often. It feels so primal, like we’re out on a hunting trip.”  

Sokka took the skin when it was handed to him and took a long sip to disguise his discomfort. Chief Arnook probably meant it as a compliment. And then he nearly spit the stuff out. It tasted foul.

“Don’t worry, son, you’ll get used to it,” One of the warriors said, pounding him on the back as he gagged, “Now pass it here.” 

Before long, Sokka glanced out one of the palace windows and saw the tell-tale orange stain along the horizon. The sun was setting. He got to his feet and swayed, unsteady, while the warriors all laughed around him. 

"Guess we should've warned you, it's pretty strong," One of them said, and Sokka laughed too. He was about to go on a date with Princess Yue. They could laugh as much as they wanted.  

“Got somewhere to be?” Chief Arnook asked, with a knowing glint in his eye. While he’d seemed very stern and formal earlier, now he seemed just like one of Sokka’s dad’s friends, someone Hakoda and Bato and all the others would work side-by-side with on the boats, or in the hunting camps, or around a driftwood fire in the evening. 

“Uh...nowhere in particular,” Sokka said, feeling his face flush up, “Just, uh. Gotta go...get some carving done. At the house. Yeah.”

And he walked away as quickly as he could without drawing suspicion. He'd perfected that art under Gran Gran's watchful eye. He didn't want to stay longer and give anyone the chance to weasel any more details out of him. Chief Arnook was her father. 

The sun took a while to set—something he'd forgotten about these long spring days at the poles. So he ended up at the house anyway, looking to fill his time before it got dark. There were a few pieces of ivory left in his pack, ones that had escaped being fashioned into replacement fish-hooks after all those times Aang or Katara managed to either lose or destroy his fishing gear. He pulled one out, along with his smallest knife, and got to work, keeping his hands busy while his heart raced ahead, full of anticipation. 

He was maybe a little tipsier than he'd expected—that stuff really was strong—and didn't maybe do the best possible job on the carving, but that was okay. It didn't matter. Princes Yue would appreciate the gesture—that's what Gran Gran always said whenever he gave her what he'd made. Plus, it's not like he accidentally nicked himself with the knife more than once or twice. There wasn't even any blood on the ivory. All of which were improvements. 

The buffalo-yak milk kept him warm as he walked across the plaza and onto Turtle-Bear Street, and although it didn't totally stop his heart from pounding, it did make him feel bolder as he approached the bridge, eyes locked on Yue’s shadowed figure, backlit by the rising moon.

She was beautiful like this. Sokka still couldn't believe she'd agreed to meet with him. He tried to stay cool (and definitely failed) as she asked him about his day, and he told her about warrior training, and the meal. 

"Did they bring out the fermented buffalo-yak milk?" She asked, nose wrinkled. 

"Yeah," Sokka said, matching her expression, and she giggled. He liked making her laugh, he decided. So he started coming up with increasingly ridiculous ways of describing the taste until she joined in too, both of them standing so close they might as well be touching, dissolving into laughter. 

It was nice to see her without anyone else around. The difference wasn't anything he could pin down precisely, but she seemed more relaxed, more like herself. Sokka wanted to know who that person was. This whole thing was—nice. There were no mental gymnastics he needed to perform in order to let himself want her, no guilt, no secret hidden shame. She was a girl, too. That helped. He hadn't been sure he even still liked girls until now. 

Eventually their laughter died down to companionable silence. That's when he pulled out the carving he'd made for her. Even though the ivory lump sitting in his palm didn’t totally look like it, Sokka had meant it to be one of those salt-water fish who darted through the waves, the light gleaming silver on their backs. He meant it to remind her of, well. Her.

And maybe that’s what did it. Maybe it was too much, for a first date. Maybe he came on too strong. Because she turned her head away from him, suddenly withdrawn. When he asked her what was wrong, she replied, in a wretched voice, "I made a mistake. I shouldn't have asked you to come here." 

"Yue, please, wait—" 

But she was already running away from him without a single backwards glance. 

Sokka stood there and watched her go, feeling like his entire life was one long bad dream he couldn’t seem to wake up from.

It made perfect sense, if he thought about it. Even the most hated person in the entire Fire Nation, maybe even the world, thought he wasn't good enough. And still Sokka went and tried to impress a princess with his awful carving skills and his clumsy flirting, his bad jokes. 

He hurled the fish into the canal in a fit of sudden frustration, and regretted it a moment later when he remembered how long it had taken to find that ivory in the first place, scavenging along the beach back home. Too late now, though. If he'd wanted to keep it, he should never have tried to make something nice out of it. He should have stuck to fish hooks. Those, he knew how to carve. 

Aang and Katara had arrived back at the guest house while he'd been gone, and when he stormed through the door, he stopped short, trying to school his face into something less dejected. But they seemed to be in about as bad a mood as he was. 

“How as warrior training?” Katara asked hopefully, and ugh—Sokka didn’t even want to think about that, because that meant thinking about Yue and how happy he’d been this morning. He groaned, and dropped down onto his sleeping bag.

“That bad, huh?” Katara asked, sympathetic. 

“It’s not that, it’s Princess Yue,” He said, muffling his face against his sleeve, “I can’t figure out what she wants. One minute she’s asking to meet under the moonlight, and the next she’s telling me to get lost.”

“Maybe she doesn’t know what she wants,” Aang said, entirely too reasonable for Sokka's current emotional state. 

“I don’t wanna talk about it,” Sokka said, punching his sleeping bag one more time for good measure, “How was waterbending practice?” 

When they groaned in unison, and Sokka thought well, at least I’m not the only one who had a shitty day.

The next day wasn’t necessarily an improvement. First of all, Sokka had a headache and his mouth tasted...yak-y. And then Katara got into a big shouting match with both Chief Arnook and Master Pakku, destroyed some public property (in the form of half the palace’s grand entryway, oops), and soaked everyone in the vicinity during her suicide-mission to prove to Master Pakku she was a worthy waterbender. 

Sokka couldn’t fault her for trying. The rules in this place were completely unfair, and he could only imagine her fury at having come all this way hoping to find a master, and instead get shunted to the healing huts. But did she always have to prove a point in the most dangerous way possible?

He guessed it was his lot in life as her big brother to constantly find himself in this position, standing on the sidelines with his hands clenched into fists, hoping she’d see reason and back off in time to save herself and their entire diplomatic mission. 

Princess Yue was there during the whole confrontation, of course. Another one of Sokka’s inadequacies thrown into his face. But she seemed to be ignoring him entirely, which made it easier to ignore her, if being acutely aware of her presence counted as ignoring. She looked—unhappy. Not that he was looking. She also looked tired, shadows under her eyes like she hadn't slept much, and the soft feeling he got in his chest when he saw them was too similar to what he'd felt before with Zuko that he had to look away. 

The fighting continued out into the plaza, all the way up until Katara's necklace got sliced off and landed on the ground. Sokka took an unconscious step forward—nobody messed with that necklace, not if he had anything to say about it—but Master Pakku had already picked it up, holding it so tenderly it almost felt worse than if he'd kicked it aside. Then he started spinning some story about once upon a time being engaged to Gran Gran, their Gran Gran, and how she ran away from their arranged marriage and started her own life in the South. Which totally sounded like Gran Gran, don’t get him wrong, but if it was true, wouldn’t she have said something? Wouldn't she have mentioned, in one of her secret womanly talks to Katara, oh by the way, I used to be engaged to this total jerkface back in the North Pole, don't ever get married to a man like that? 

For a moment, Katara seemed shaken, and then—true to form—decided to start using this new information as a way to tear down Master Pakku's self-esteem and simultaneously insult every single member of the Northern Water Tribe in the audience.  

"That's because Gran Gran wouldn't let your tribe's stupid customs run her life," Katara spat, and Sokka cringed, just a little, "I bet that's why she left. It must have taken a lot of courage." 

Master Pakku opened his mouth to say something pathetic in defense of arranged marriage, but Sokka wasn't paying enough attention to hear it. His attention was caught by the way Princess Yue had suddenly folded inwards with a sob. He hadn't even been looking. Was she crying? Was she sick? He watched after her as she fled up the stairs, torn. He wanted to go after her so badly and comfort her, if she'd even let him. 

Don't do it, he told himself. Don't go where you're not wanted.  

“Go get her,” Aang said softly, nudging his elbow, and Sokka went, nervous, following her up the palace steps, glancing behind him to see if his departure had been noted. 

He found her just inside the vestibule, hiding around the corner behind a huge carving of some spirit or another. She must have heard his footsteps approach, but she didn’t move, and he wondered if she knew it was him and didn't mind, or if she just didn't care either way. 

“Hey,” He said, stopping a few feet away from her, “Are you—are you okay?” 

She shook her head wordlessly, still crying, her perfect hands pressed up against her perfect face.

“What’s uh. What’s the matter?” He had no idea what to say. That was the main hitch in this plan. Katara he knew how to comfort, after long years of trial and (mostly) error. A few sympathetic words, and then a nice neat formulation of revenge. But Yue was a different person, a different kind. A princess.

“I can’t tell you,” She said miserably, "Not here."

He wanted to reach out to her, but stayed standing where he was, helpless, "Is there somewhere else you could tell me?" 

She sniffed, and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. The slight redness of her eyes made her irises even bluer, "Meet me after sundown on that same bridge, and I’ll explain. I’ll explain everything. Now go before anyone sees you here!" 

He hesitated for one long moment, and then did as she told him. 

Sokka went to warrior training after that, Katara and Master Pakku's dispute having been solved, but it only took up part of the day. He spent the rest of the evening was pacing the guest house back and forth trying to figure out what Princess Yue could possibly have to 'explain' to him. It was probably just a way of letting him down easy. She didn't even want to be seen with him. 

He got the bridge first, this time, and stared down at the water flowing darkly in the canal beneath him until she arrived. He could tell just from the look on her face that this wasn't going to be a particularly fun conversation, so he tried to make it quick—explaining what he'd guessed so she didn't even have to say it. The words hurt less when he was the one saying them. 

But she just shook her head, “That's not true. I do like you, but—" 

“But you’re a princess, and I’m just a peasant from the Southern Water Tribe." 

“No!" She looked up at him now, "The reason I can’t see you anymore is because I’m engaged,” And she pulled down the ruff of her parka, revealing the milky pendant tied flush against her neck.

Realization hit him like a punch to the gut. 

“Oh," He said. That explained a lot, actually, “But do you—who is it? Do you love him?”

“That’s not important right now,” She said, even though it really was, “I just needed you to know. I don’t want to lead you on. You’re a great guy, anyone can see that. And maybe if things were different...but they’re not.”

“So when’s the wedding?” Sokka asked, trying for jovial and failing. 

“Not for a while,” She said, and sighed, “I’m sorry. I should have told you sooner.”

“No, that’s—" He started, still hung up on maybe if things were different...“That’s okay. Can we still be friends even though you’re engaged?”

“I’d like that,” She said, a smile in her voice, and Sokka felt better, almost. At least he wasn’t going to lose her entirely. 

The next day brought an entire Fire Nation fleet on the horizon and black snow falling from the sky, acrid and ashy and exactly like one of the worst days in Sokka's memory. He'd taken Princess Yue for a ride on Appa's back, soaring through the morning like they could do anything and nothing could stop them. Happy and hopeful with her tucked up against him for warmth, his arm around her shoulders. He'd even been one breathless moment away from kissing her when he saw it, and had to draw away from her, recognition a sick lurch in his stomach. 

"We need to turn back," He said, and she looked confused until he rubbed the snow between his fingers, revealing it to be soot. They reached the stables just as the gongs started ringing danger out over the city, sentries in the watchtowers yelling out the news. 

"Come on," Sokka said, urging her along with him up the palace steps, "We need to get to safety. They could attack at any moment." 

“Go ahead without me,” She said, pulling back, away from him, and he turned to her, incredulous. 

“I can’t leave you behind,” He said, stating the obvious, “Just come with me, I promise I won’t try anything with your father there.”

“No," She stood her ground, "We already went too far. I shouldn't have gone flying with you. That was wrong." 

“Just let me get you somewhere safe, and then you don’t ever need to talk to me again, okay?” Sokka said, desperate now. People were running towards the palace, hurried and frightened, infants crying as their mothers struggled up the stairs with children in tow.

“Go on ahead,” She said, and it felt oddly like she was the one protecting him, "My people need me." 

And then she turned and ran back down to the square. There was no time to spare, but Sokka watched her anyway, beauty in motion as she stood at the foot of the steps, showing people where to go, helping them, comforting them. Reassuring them with her quiet strength. She was a better leader than Sokka would ever be. He was too selfish. In the end, the people he loved would always matter most to him. The world could burn, so long as they lived. 

Sokka volunteered for Chief Arnook's dangerous mission anyway. Part of it was just to see the look on Yue's face as he stood up and walked to the front of the hall. She blanched, but kept looking straight ahead, always the perfect princess, the perfect daughter. He could be selfless too. He could be brave. Give whoever her fiance was a run for his money. 

“Many of you will not return,” Chief Arnook said, grim words in the hush, “But know that you are serving something greater than yourself. Come forward to receive my mark if you accept the task.”

When Sokka reached him, he asked, "Are you sure, son?" And Sokka nodded, trying to keep his stoic expression from cracking. Satisfied, Chief Arnook dipped his thumb into the little pot of pigment, then swiped it across Sokka's forehead—a streak of cool, wet paint marking him, maybe for death. 

"Who's next?" Chief Arnook called out, "Who will join this young man in defending our nation?" 

There were fifteen of them, all told. Sokka was the youngest by a decent margin, but he'd trained with them and they knew he could hold his own. As they assembled behind Chief Arnook, ready to carry out his orders, whatever they may be, Sokka glanced around, compulsively wondering who among them was Yue's fiance. 

The first wave of Fire Nation attacks came not long after—a distant, sporadic booming that lasted into the evening. It was hard to stay in the armory, talking strategy instead of throwing himself into the fight alongside Aang and his sister, but this was what Sokka had come here for. To learn how to become a warrior in his own right. 

"The Avatar has already dismantled three ships," Chief Arnook said, addressing the gathered men, "But he cannot fight the Fire Nation alone on our behalf. We must move behind enemy lines and infiltrate, take them down from the inside. Defeat them before their soldiers even reach our shores." 

And then he called forward his son-in-law to lead the mission. Sokka gaped, then shut his mouth with a snap. What a stupid let-down. He'd been expecting someone like Taisuk, maybe—a good fighter, strong and capable. Attractive too, with his broad shoulders and broad hands and slow, white smile. But no. Instead, it was Hahn, a spoiled, arrogant jerk who didn’t deserve to even be in the same room as Yue, much less marry her.

Sokka managed to contain his fuming anger until lunch, when hunger became the main thought occupying his head. Princess Yue stopped by to help the servants lay out a meal of turtle-seal jerky, seaweed, and dried berries.

"We eat the food of our ancestors," She said, raising her hands to the ceiling, another invocation, "So that we remember who we are and what we're fighting for." 

The warriors murmured a prayer together with her, their future leader. Sokka bowed his head too, although he didn't know the words. After that, they broke to eat. Sokka hadn't realized, before, how much Earth Kingdom influence there was on the cuisine here until it was gone, and he could fill his bowl with the same exact foods he'd helped hunt and gather and prepare every day of his life. 

"Our ceremonies and traditional foods remind us of our origins as people of the ocean and the moon," Chief Arnook said, coming to stand beside Sokka, who startled, caught in the act of watching Princess Yue do her thing, talking to each of the warriors individually while they ate, "Doesn't she look like a queen already?" 

Sokka had no choice but to say yes. 

“It’s what her mother would have done, if she were still with us,” Chief Arnook said, and fell silent. Sokka kept his mouth shut too, remembering. This city hadn't known loss for a long time, but soon it would. And its inhabitants would need someone like Princess Yue more than ever. Someone who could turn that pain into healing—into strength. 

The moment ended abruptly. Hahn, currently Sokka's least favorite person in the entire Northern Water Tribe, was getting up in Yue's business, grabbing her arm like he was trying to stake his claim to her in the room full of men. Sokka hated to watch her draw away from him, flinching when his voice got too loud. 

Sokka tried to meet her eyes from across the room, but she wasn't looking at anyone. Not even her father, who didn't seem to have noticed her distress. Or if he did, he clearly didn't care. Sokka hated him too, didn't want to be near him—be near any of them—while they pretended Hahn had every right to intimidate her just because they were engaged. 

When Yue eventually left the armory, her face a thundercloud, it was no hardship for Sokka to make his excuses and slip out the door after her. She was walking fast, but he caught up with her easily. 

"You didn't tell me you were engaged to Hahn," He said as soon as he was within earshot, and she whirled around. 

"I told you it didn't matter!" She said, a little too loudly. Then, in a quieter voice, "You shouldn't be talking to me." 

"So take me somewhere where we can talk," Sokka said, and with a frustrated, almost tremulous huff, Yue pulled him into a nearby store-room and closed the door behind them. 

"Did you choose him?" Sokka asked as soon as they were in private, "Do you love him?" 

"It's a political match," She said, "He's the best option. Trust me. I met them all." 

“But you don’t even love him," That much was obvious, "How can you marry someone you don’t love? Doesn’t that bother you?” 

The look she gave him was so sad he could hardly stand it, "It's not that easy, Sokka. I'm not like you—I can't go wherever I want, doing whatever I want." 

"That's not fair," He said, "This hasn't been some kind of all-expenses paid vacation through the Earth Kingdom. What I wanted was to stay home, not get my ass kicked by the Fire Nation in every city from here to Kyoshi Island." 

"No, I know," She crossed her arms, looking down, "I know that. I'm sorry. It's just—I can't change things, just because I met you. Just because I like you better than Hahn. What happens after you leave? What am I supposed to do then?" 

"We'd figure something out," Sokka said, sounding more confidant than he felt, "It wouldn't be the first time I've made the impossible happen. That’s what I’m good at. I’m the plan guy.”

“But I have responsibilities to more than myself. I have to do what’s right for my people. What I want—”

“Don’t tell me that what you want doesn’t matter, okay? Because it does.”

Yue bit her lip,  “You’re right. But this is what I want. To—to marry Han and carry out my father’s wishes.”

“I don’t understand,” Sokka admitted, “I just—don’t.”

And it made him so angry that every time he thought he caught a glimpse of something real and good and true, it was so bound up in pain and obligation and the war, always this awful, sickening war, that he couldn't have it. 

“Have you ever loved someone so much that it doesn’t matter what you have to sacrifice or what you have to suffer through, you’ll always put their needs first?” Yue asked, and something in her soft voice echoed bittersweet in him, “Even if you sometimes hate them for it? Even if you wish with all your might that things could be some other way?” 

“My sister,” He said without hesitating.

She nodded, “That’s why it doesn’t matter if I love Hahn or not. I’ll never love anyone or anything more than I love my tribe.”

And Sokka understood now—just as he understood that he’d never have her, that no one would. And it hurt. He wasn’t about to pretend it didn’t.

“So I was just—” He started, unwilling to say a distraction. 

“It’s been nice having you here,” Yue said, a pretty blush staining her cheeks, “Too nice, maybe. But I think I let things get this far because what I really wanted was to not have to think about my real life for a while. I wanted something just for myself." 

So he was a distraction, after all. But that wasn't a surprise to him. The memory of Zuko tugged at him, a wound that hadn’t healed, but he kept his voice steady as he said, “I think I was looking for a distraction from my real life too. Not that you’re not real, I mean,” He laughed nervously to disguise how he was falling into pieces, again, “Obviously you’re real.”

She smiled at him, and then the smile faded away, “I meant it when I said what we’re doing is wrong. I can’t spend time with you anymore. When you’re around, things are too confusing, and I need to think clearly for what’s ahead.” Then, more gently, “So do you.”

She wasn’t wrong. But it was too sharp, too painful to admit.

“I need to go,” Sokka said abruptly, even though it meant cutting short their last few minutes. She didn’t stop him, not that he thought she would. She just let him walk out the door and back into the armory—back into real life, the war. 

The rest of the afternoon was, unsurprisingly, a disaster.

Sokka tried to impart some good intel to Hahn about the inner workings of the Fire Nation navy, but Hahn was just so insufferable. And the way he talked about Princess Yue, like she was a piece of meat, made Sokka furious. But when Hahn started insulting Sokka too, that was the final straw.

“What do you care?” He asked snidely, “You’re just some simple rube from the Southern Tribe. What would you know about the political complexities of our life? No offense.” 

His tone clearly implied full offense. And Sokka had never been great at diffusing situations when he was already upset. Which was how Chief Arnook found them in a full-on fistfight, Hahn’s nose already started to leak blood a little (just a little), Sokka’s hair yanked out of it’s wolf-tail.

“Break it up, boys, break it up!” Chief Arnook’s voice boomed out, but it wasn’t until he and one of the other warriors pulled them off each other that the fight ended.

“You’re just a jerk without a soul!” Sokka shouted, a parting shot, “No offense.”

“Sokka,” Chief Arnook said sharply, and Sokka looked up at him, dread starting to creep in as the adrenaline faded, “You’re off the mission. Hahn, with me.”

The warriors filed out of the room behind them, and Sokka stayed behind. So went the end of his illustrious career as one of the Northern Water Tribe’s elite warriors. This was probably how Zuko felt, looking back at all the bridges he’d burned. Not that Sokka was wasting any of his time thinking about Zuko’s feelings. 

It would probably take Hahn hours to infiltrate the Fire Nation navy, and even longer for him to successfully make it out. If they thought Sokka was going to spend all that time sulking in the armory, sharpening his boomerang, they were mistaken. He gathered his things and made his way out of the palace, down to the edge of the city, where craggy ice tumbled down into the sea in a natural wall. Watchmen were patrolling nearby, but they just waved to him. Even in the twilight, they could see he was wearing the chief’s mark. 

He walked for a while, mindful of the perilously fragile ice at the edge, looking out at the Fire Nation ships stretching into the distance and trying to count how many there were. He got to forty-five before it grew too difficult to distinguish between pack ice and iron hulls in the pale light of the moon. Local waterbenders were still out there too, freezing up ship after ship, untiring even though they must have been working for hours. That was good. At least something was being done. It’s not like Hahn’s stupid mission was going to get them anywhere.

Thinking about Hahn just made Sokka angrier. At himself, mostly. He should be out there right now sneaking onto a Fire Nation ship, instead of sitting around waiting for them to attack all because he didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut.

He had to admit, in the privacy of his own mind, that he might have gotten in too deep with Yue if this was how torn-up he was feeling after only having known her for, what? A week? In his limited experience with girls, he usually fell hard and fast. But even so. He just couldn't stop thinking about how beautiful and good she was, and how when she laughed (at him, usually) it felt like all of his skin was vibrating in tune with her smile. 

This would all be so much easier if Sokka could stay in one place for longer than a week. It was lonely, being on the road with only his sister and Aang for company, relying on letters and hurried encounters with someone who kind of hated him to keep him from going crazy. And maybe it was kind of shitty of him, but what he really wanted was something easy. 

But nothing could be easy, not when the whole world was at war with itself. Not when, in the end, Yue was right. Once the siege was over, Sokka would have to leave, and she would have to stay. There was no future for them, either. 

Distracted, Sokka started veering towards the edge of the cliff, not watching where he was going. It wasn’t until the ice started creaking beneath his feet that he realized what was happening and yelped, scrambling towards safety. And not a moment too soon. With a groan, the ice he’d literally been standing on just a second ago detached from the face of the cliff in one huge chunk and crashed into the water far below. He sat there for a while, waiting for his heartbeat to slow back to normal. He'd just climbed back to his feet when he heard a noise. 

It could be nothing, an echo from one of the ships or the sentries guarding the wall. But Sokka got down on his stomach anyway, and shimmied closer to the edge, peering down at the ocean heaving itself against the huge slabs of ice bunched-up against the base of the cliff. 

A group of turtle-seals must have been disturbed by his shout—they barked up at him reproachfully. Sokka laughed, getting back up onto his knees. It wasn’t a voice at all, just some animals. But then he saw an unexpected movement out of the corner of his eye and froze.

There was a person down there, all dressed in white like they were going turtle-seal hunting. Tonight was not a great night to go hunting, not with the wind pushing the ice in the way it was. There was a big storm blowing in, by the looks of it. Plus, this person didn’t seem to have a clue about what they were doing. Everyone knew stomping around and making a lot of noise was the worst possible way to catch your prey unawares.

If this were any other day, when the might of the Fire Nation navy wasn’t lurking outside the gates, Sokka would have left them to it and wished them luck. But today wasn’t just any old day.

Fully aware that he was doing exactly the kind of thing he always told Aang and Katara not to do, Sokka began to climb down the face of the cliff, hoping against hope that nothing would fall and crush him. The ice creaked and groaned as he made his way painstakingly slowly, but it held. As soon as he was close enough to jump, he did, landing lightly on his feet. 

The other person couldn't see him from here, and he couldn't see them either. When he didn't hear any footsteps approaching, no one calling out who's there, he ducked out from behind the spur of ice and started walking silently towards them, focused on their turned back. Those weren't Water Tribe hunting clothes, he realized as he got closer. The boots had upturned toes, a distinctive print he'd know in his sleep. Fire Nation. 

He reached his hand into his pocket, finding his knife. He'd never stabbed a human before, but he could do it if he had to. Probably. He'd make it quick; a good, clean kill. He'd make Chief Arnook proud. 

The interloper was only a few feet away now, and Sokka was finally close enough to hear him mumble a curse under his breath, and then, louder, to the nearest barking turtle-seal, “Shut up, won’t you just shut up, I’m trying to think here.”

Sokka stopped dead. Oh, spirits. He knew that voice.

His first instinct was to turn around and scale back up the cliff somehow, pretend he'd never come here, never seen this. He hoped he'd have more time to prepare himself. But he took a deep breath instead, fighting the urge to run, and told himself not to be a coward. 

"Thought you'd try to sneak in and grab the Avatar while everyone else was distracted?" Sokka asked loudly, and Zuko whirled around, weak flames blooming in his palms. 

“What are you doing here?” Zuko demanded, voice coming out muffled. With a snarl, he pulled away the piece of cloth covering his mouth. His hood fell back at the same time, and Sokka stared at him, horrified. There were red welts spread across his face and dark bruising on his jaw and around his good eye.  

“I—" Sokka tried to remember what he’d been about to say. Some stellar comeback like I should ask you the same question, and then cue the fighting. But the only words that came out of his mouth were, “You look terrible.” 

“I know,” Zuko said irritably, but he lowered his hands, flames dying out easily in the cold. The red marks on his palms looked like burns, too. It must have hurt bad to firebend. 

“How did it happen?” Sokka couldn't help asking. 

Zuko sighed, smoke and steam curling up into the frigid air, “It was Admiral Zhao. He stole my crew and then blew up my ship. With me in it,” He laughed humorlessly, “But the joke’s on him, I’m still alive.”

“That’s crazy,” Sokka said, feeling nauseous. It must have happened only a few days ago his injuries looked so fresh. A few days ago, Sokka had been busy falling for Yue, telling himself not to think about anyone else, only think about her. 

Zuko just shrugged, “It’s politics."

And Sokka didn't know how he could say that so easily, as if it was just your average everyday political assassination. As if it had happened to someone else. 

"What did Zhao even think he was going to get by killing you? I mean, you're the firelord's son, for Tui's sake." 

“I was in the way. I was a threat,” Zuko said, and almost unconsciously seemed to straighten his spine, standing tall like Zhao’s assassination attempt was somehow a compliment.  His ponytail blew in the wind like a black flag and he looked, in that moment, every inch a soldier, “Admiral Zhao will do whatever it takes to win this war, and so will I. My father understands that." 

But what Sokka heard was the awful possibility that Firelord Ozai didn't actually care if his son died. Zuko wasn't an idiot. He probably knew, too. And if there was ever anything to make someone feel like they had nothing left to lose, it was that. 

Sokka slid his hand back into his pocket, fingers curling loosely around the hilt of his knife. He wanted to ask what Zuko meant by whatever it takes. Wanted to ask how far he'd go, really. They hadn't covered this in their letters—what Zuko would do when he'd lost nearly every single thing he had left, stranded in the frozen north with only Sokka and a city wall separating him from the Avatar.

"It's still bullshit," Sokka said, finally. He didn't like this, being afraid of someone he—of Zuko. He didn't want to be. 

"You don't know anything about—" Zuko started, his usual defense, when there came a distant crash. Part of the damaged city wall falling into the water. They both turned to look for it, the whitewater heaving as the ice bobbed back up to the surface, and a chorus of barking turtle-seal started up again.  

Zuko winced, briefly covering his ears, “Ugh, I wish they'd just stop. How can you stand them?”   

“You get used to it, I guess. They’re really not so bad," Sokka said and grinned, "You should hear ‘em during mating season.”

Zuko shook his head, horrified, “I don’t ever want to do that.”

Sokka laughed, and for a moment, it seemed like Zuko might laugh too. But then he winced again, and rubbed his temple like it pained him.

“Headache?” Sokka asked, concerned again. 

“Since the accident. Uncle says I’ve probably got a concussion, but what does he know,” Zuko huffed, “He’s not a doctor.”

“Actually, he’s probably right,” Sokka said, and stepped closer, "Have you been having any balance problems, or—" 

Zuko flinched backwards, and Sokka stopped, confused.

“Don’t pretend you care,” Zuko said, suddenly vicious, “I got your last letter.”

Right. The letter. Writing it, Sokka thought he'd never have to be alone with Zuko again, never have to face up to what he'd said. And I know it makes me a coward and a liar and a terrible person… Words he'd chosen specifically to hurt. 

“I—of course I care,” Sokka said, raw, “Just because I can’t do this anymore doesn’t mean I want you to die.

“Whatever,” Zuko started pacing again, visibly on edge, “It doesn’t matter. Anything that doesn’t involve capturing the Avatar is a waste of my time.”  

And just like that, Sokka was furious. 

“That’s your default, isn’t it, whenever you don’t want to deal with something. Oh, never mind your fucking feelings, I need to go capture the Avatar and fulfill my destiny, blah blah blah,” Sokka said, suspecting that he was stepping directly into the hornet’s nest, and not caring, “Well, guess what. I’m sick of being a waste of your time, so if that’s really what you think, I’m glad I wrote that letter.”

“I don’t sound like that,” Zuko said. His hands twitched, like he wanted to curl them into fists and punch fire, “And I never said—”

“You literally just did. Right now.” 

“That’s not what I meant,” He argued, and then seemed suddenly to lose his nerve. He looked down, studying the cleats attached to his boots, "You know how I—how I feel.”

As if that even meant anything anymore, when the Fire Nation was poised to attack again tomorrow, and the next day, and however long it took until the Northern Water Tribe fell. When people would die all for the sake of some messed up Fire Nation pissing contest. Sokka couldn’t imagine what Firelord Ozai was like in person, if these were the lengths his subjects were willing to go for him.

Sokka was going to say all that. He was going to stand strong and tell Zuko it was too little too late. They were over. 

But what he said instead was: "If that's—if you have feelings for me, then do something about it. Something real," His voice cracked. He was such an idiot, but here he was—giving Zuko another chance, practically begging him to take it, "Help me. I don't know what I'm doing either. I need you." 

“Sokka—” Zuko reached out to him, an aborted movement. Then he folded his arms tight across his chest.

“Because otherwise more people are going to suffer and die in this stupid, pointless war, and we’ll never know how good things could be." 

“If you gave up the Avatar, no one would have to die," Zuko said. Then, as if that wasn't bad enough, he continued, quickly, "I’d make sure you didn’t end up in a work camp. You or your sister. Maybe we could even see each other sometimes.” 

Sokka honestly couldn’t believe he was hearing this with his own two ears, “Oh, yeah? And what about Aang? What would happen to him ?”

“My father wouldn’t kill him,” Zuko said confidently. 

“But he’d keep Aang locked up in some high-security prison for the rest of his life, right?” Sokka asked, and the uneasy look on Zuko’s face told him everything he needed to know, “That’s wrong. You know that’s wrong. Aang’s barely twelve years old. He’s just a kid.”

“He’s the Avatar,” Zuko said, like that could excuse all cruelty, all injustice. And maybe for him, it could.

“Yeah, he’s the Avatar,” Sokka shot back, “All he wants to do is bring the nations back into balance, not wipe out the Fire Nation. Not like you guys did to the Air Nomads. He’s not in this for revenge. He doesn’t want to make the Fire Nation weak—he just wants every nation to be strong. How does that make him deserve to spend life in prison?”

Zuko’s lips pressed together in a thin bloodless line. He looked awful, sick, like the only thing holding him together at this point was the sheer force of his will.

“I didn’t ask for this,” Zuko said quietly, almost pleading, “I wish things were different. I want things to be different, you have no idea how much. But they’re not.”

“Well, I didn’t ask for this either, and neither did Aang, but we’re working to make things different. We’re trying to do what’s right, not just for our families or our countries, but for the world." 

But Zuko just shook his head again. “You don’t understand,” He said, voice quiet, urgent, “I can’t disobey my father. Even if I—even if I wanted to. He’d have me killed.”

Sokka opened his mouth, then shut it. There was nothing he could say to that bare statement of fact, not with Zuko's terror bleeding through, something he'd only caught glimpses of before. 

I hate this, he thought, looking at Zuko. His skin was so pale that the burns and bruises stood out in stark, almost violent contrast. “Don’t get yourself killed,” Sokka said, uselessly, “Whatever you do, just. Stay safe.”

Zuko looked up at him, expression unreadable.

“Come here,” He said roughly, and Sokka went, against his better judgement and all his resolutions to stay strong, to stop caring.

He reached out and ran his fingers lightly along the worst of the bruising on Zuko’s jaw. Zuko shivered and pulled Sokka’s hand to his mouth, kissing his fingers, distracting himself. They both knew what was waiting for them as soon as this spell broke.

“We shouldn’t be doing this,” Sokka said, feeling strangely like Princess Yue.

Zuko shook his head, “I don’t care.”

Then he slipped his hand into Sokka's hood and cupped the back of his neck, drawing him in slowly, deliberately, for a kiss. Giving him time to say no, Sokka realized, and that in and of itself was enough to make him lose his hesitation. He kissed back immediately, suffused with sudden warmth. He'd been such an idiot to think things were over, could ever be over, between them. This was what he wanted. Who he wanted. Fuck the rest, he'd figure it out somehow. 

The kiss lasted for a perfect, dizzying moment. Too soon, Zuko started to pull away. 

“Take my boat when you go,” Zuko said. He seemed just as reluctant to part as Sokka was—still looking at Sokka's lips, still touching him, holding him close, “I won’t need it anymore.”

“What are you going to do? There’s no way in from here,” Sokka said, casting a dubious glance at the ice-wall, the rough surf, “I mean, unless you’re planning to swim.”

He meant it as a joke. That’s the only reason he said it. But Zuko just got that determined set to his jaw and Sokka realized with dawning horror that that was already his plan. He was going to swim beneath the ice into the city, something not even a waterbender would do if they had any choice. 

“Are you serious? That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard,” Sokka said, stepping back, his voice rising in pitch and volume, "You can't possibly think—" 

“Save it,” Zuko snapped, crossing his arms again, like now that they'd separated he was cold again, “Just take the boat and get out of here." 

“I can’t let you do this.”

“You have to,” Zuko said, exasperated, and shoved him, not very roughly, towards the kayak, “Go. I don’t want to hurt you." 

For a wild moment, Sokka considered putting up a fight anyway. It wouldn't be the first time Zuko had hurt him, intentionally or not. But he could see the unspoken please in Zuko's eyes, and it's not like he had a better plan for how to get back to the city. Climbing back up that cliff a second time sounded like the textbook definition of tempting fate. 

“I’ll be fine,” Zuko said, a blatant lie. His expression softened, “Promise.”

Sokka couldn't help himself. He darted in for one last kiss, fierce and desperate and longing. By the end of the day he'd probably hate Zuko again, but for right now...for right now, Zuko was kissing him back, 100% right there with him, and Sokka thought, again, you can change this, things don't have to be this way.

But he wasn't going to say it again, not when Zuko didn't want to hear it. Slowly, reluctantly, Sokka broke the kiss. Then he turned away and started to pick out a path across the unstable ice towards Zuko's kayak. He nearly glanced back like twenty times, but he forced himself to focus on where he was putting his feet so he didn't fall into the freezing water. Once he reached the kayak, at last, he was able to safely look back, but when he did, he saw that Zuko was already gone.

Sokka paddled out to the main gate as fast as humanly possible, dodging waves and ice-floes, pushing through the burn in his arms. It still took him longer than he'd hoped. He was grateful for the light of the nearly-full moon, though, low in the sky as it was. Otherwise the sentries wouldn’t have seen him, much less recognized him on sight, and he would have been stuck shouting up at the wall in darkness until dawn.

“Who goes there?” One of the sentries called out.

“Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe. I need to report to Chief Arnook about our mission," Sokka lied. 

It was the only thing that could explain away his clearly Fire Nation Navy-issue kayak. The sentries let him in with a minimum of suspicion—it was amazing what having the Chief’s mark could do for a person. Too bad he was abusing that trust so thoroughly. 

He paddled down the maze of canals, trying to make his way to the guest house. He didn’t know where Aang and Katara were, but he figured that was as likely a place to start as any. Of course, they could just as easily be at the palace, up late strategizing despite Katara's insistence on everyone getting a good night's sleep. He'd try there next. 

Sokka docked the kayak by some stairs, not even bothering to tie it up, and ran across the plaza to the guest house. Dawn was breaking, the end of another short polar night. It was only a matter of time before— 

There was a distant boom of impact, and then another, and another. Sokka didn't want to know what had been hit, but he turned to look anyway, catching it just in time to see an enormous section of the city wall fall like an avalanche into the ocean. Then he burst through the door of the guest house, yelling for Aang and his sister, only to find that they weren't there.

Shit

He turned on his heel, and headed towards the palace instead. He’d barely reached the bottom of the steps when someone ran directly into him. He stopped, rubbing his shoulder, and Princess Yue gasped, "Sorry, I'm sorry. Where have you been? I've been looking everywhere for you!"  

“I, uh—”

“Never mind," She continued. She'd clearly been running too, silver hair coming out of her braids and flying around her face in the stiff breeze, "You need to come with me. There’s a firebender attacking the Avatar!" 

Sokka didn’t waste even a single second trying to guess who it was.

“We’ll take Appa,” He said, and together they made their way to the stables. 

It was a little awkward, getting thrown together like this after she'd told him in no uncertain terms that they shouldn't see each other again. Fortunately (he couldn't believe he was thinking this), they had the siege to talk about, which kept him from inadvertently confessing how after her rejection he'd gone right out and kissed the first person he saw. Yue updated him on everything that had been happening while they flew—Aang seeking help for the upcoming battle in the spirit world, Zuko’s sudden appearance, Katara’s insistence she fight him alone.

“Sounds like my sister,” Sokka said grimly, and wondered how the fight was going.

If something happened to either Aang or Katara today, it was entirely on him. He should have tried harder to stop Zuko from entering the city, he knew that. He'd known it at the time too, how guilty he would feel. And yet. 

Anyone else would have left Zuko bleeding out on the ice, one less piece of Fire Nation scum to worry about. And maybe this was Sokka's fatal flaw, but he'd never be able to do that. Not to Zuko. Maybe not to anyone. 

I'm not a traitor, he told himself fiercely. He'd make this right, one way or another. 

The oasis was just up ahead, Yue said, even though from here it just looked like a huge hole in the ground. It wasn't until they flew directly overhead that Sokka realized there really was an oasis down there, obscured by fog from a needle-thin waterfall cascading from the top of the pit. 

What is it with the spirit world and foggy pits, Sokka wondered, a bit of the old unease creeping back in. He wasn't going to think about that now. He guided Appa towards the ground, looking for something, anything. There was no fighting. There was no orange shirt, no Aang. Fear rose up in him, an almost physical feeling.

Beside him, Princess Yue covered her mouth with her hand, eyes wide. Please don’t let this be what it looks like, Sokka prayed, but he could see as soon as they landed that it was.

Katara was alone, lying unconscious in the charred grass, and there was no sign of Aang. Sokka ran to her and knelt down, shaking her by the shoulders, calling her name. She didn’t revive. Panic almost overwhelmed him. Fuck Zuko, fuck his I don't want to hurt you. Didn't he know that everything he did to Sokka's sister he did to Sokka too? 

He checked her pulse. Still beating, strong and steady. She was just knocked out. So he slapped her face, hard, and her eyes flew open with a gasp.

“Sokka!” Katara tried immediately to sit up, but she was a little woozy, so he let her lean her head against his shoulder, supporting her until she could get up on her own, “I’m so sorry. I thought I could handle Zuko alone. But he appeared out of nowhere, soaking wet, covered in bruises, and started attacking me. I barely had time to think.”

“How long has it been since he took Aang?” Sokka asked. 

“Not sure. I had him caught in ice, but as soon as the sun rose he broke free and attacked me again. That’s the last thing I can remember.”

“Well, he can’t have gone far in the storm. Not with a concussion, anyway," Sokka said thoughtlessly. 

“You talked him?” Katara asked, turning to him, almost accusatory, “You knew he was here?”

“I—yeah. I mean, no,” He said, feeling his pulse speed up, “I spotted him outside the wall and came to warn you guys. That’s when Yue found me.”

Katara gave him a searching look, “But how did you—”

“I only saw him from a distance. That's all. The concussion—I'm just guessing. I don't know for sure,” Sokka said, acutely aware of how much better he'd gotten at lying, lately, “We need to get going if we’re going to find them in time.” 

Katara made a guilty noise at that, like she thought she was the one responsible for Aang's disappearance, and Sokka wished he could tell her how profoundly it was not her fault. He couldn't, though. Not right now. He'd deal with the emotional fall-out of all the lying and the guilt later, when there was time. If there was ever time. 

“You did everything you could,” Sokka said, trying to sound reassuring. He held out a hand to help her climb to her feet, but she brushed him off, stubborn as always, "And now we’ll do everything we can to bring Aang back.”

As they flew above the city, they could see the extent of the attack, which was going full-force. The main walls had been breached, leveled almost to the ground in parts by fireballs and the spines of Fire Nation ships, and there were soldiers streaming through the streets with tanks and armored Komodo rhinos. 

From somewhere behind him, he heard Princess Yue say in a constricted voice, “We need to find the Avatar so he can stop this.”

Sokka glanced back at her. She was staring out over the destruction, eyes glittering with tears, her fingers clenched so tight on the edge of the saddle they were almost white. 

“We will,” Sokka said, determined. He took one last look at the smoking city, a reminder, and then steered Appa straight into the storm.