“Can you run the plan by me just one more time, Sokka?”
“This has been the fourth time you’ve asked me that. I didn’t know you were such a paranoid guy, Zuko,” Sokka teased as he adjusted his hair tie and pin, checking it against a mirror.
“Shut up,” Zuko glared. “Don’t pretend you don’t like retelling your plans either.”
Sokka chuckled nervously. It was true, he was just as anxious as Zuko. His stomach hurt at the thought of what they would be getting themselves into in just a few minutes’ time.
“Buf fwe dn’t evn hav muk of uh pln,” mumbled Sokka. He had placed his red hair ribbon between his lips as his hands coaxed his hair into the proper shape.
“ ‘Not much of a plan’ is still a plan,” Zuko rasped stubbornly as he tried to tease the excess strips of bandage around his scarred eye into a tight knot. “No matter how small a plan is, if you mess it up, you mess it up.”
“It would take a special person to mess something like this up, Zuzu,” Sokka teased.
Satisfied with his hair tie and pin, Sokka turned away from the large mirror he and Zuko were sharing and was met with a heated, one-eyed glare from the older teen.
“Sorry, sorry,” Sokka apologized sheepishly, hands up in mock surrender. “Here, let me fix that for you, then we can go over it one more time. I swear, if even just a hint of that scar shows, were doomed.”
As Sokka rewrapped Zuko’s scar with the bandage (“How in the name of the spirits did you knot this thing!?” “I dunno. It was on the back of my head, I couldn’t see it.”), they went over various scenarios and reminders. Zuko reiterated the different Fire Nation celebration customs that Sokka would have to be aware of to blend in. Sokka, on the other hand, recited a list of different pieces of intel and news that they’d have to keep their ears open for.
After finally getting the bandage to cooperate, Sokka and Zuko stood side by side, facing the large mirror of their room. They were both dressed in fancy, high-quality Fire Nation clothing. Sokka nodded at his reflection approvingly. The bright red and gold shades actually did suit him just as Zuko claimed when he picked out the outfit for the Water Tribe boy. He thought fondly that the Fire Nation clothes he wore as a disguise some time ago were nothing compared to what he had on now. Looking over at Zuko, Sokka took notice of his own choice of clothing. Zuko looked reminiscent of his days as Fire Nation royalty. He favored a combination of deep maroon and shiny gold. Stylish and regal.
He caught Zuko’s eye. It seems Zuko was appraising his outfit as well. Nodding in silent agreement, the two teens walked out of their shared room and locked the door.
Sokka and Zuko had been fixing themselves up for a Fire Nation party they planned to infiltrate. This particular celebration, held in honor of the city’s patron spirit was a big social event that many influential citizens were likely to attend. It was the best occasion to do some recon work. Thanks to Iroh's connections in the White Lotus, they could use this opportunity to get caught up in the latest news and gossip from all around the Fire Nation.
Katara, Aang, Toph, and the rest of the gang were meeting with the different allied forces to coordinate their plans. It was Sokka and Zuko’s job to ensure that their intel remained up to date. In a weeks’ time, they would rendezvous outside the Fire Nation borders. Until then, Sokka and Zuko were to lie low within the city and keep an eye out for new developments.
To blend in with their fellow party goers, they had booked themselves a nice room in an apartment building within the city center, just across the mansion the main celebration would be held. That way they could pretend to be from another city or colony, as well as have an excuse to accompany potential news-bringers and suspicious individuals outside after the day’s festivities.
Sokka and Zuko had arrived the day before and used that time to book the room, scope out the surrounding buildings, and buy appropriate clothes, food, and bandages for Zuko’s disguise. The people of this city were of a higher class standing and would most probably recognize the banished prince if they weren’t careful. Though Zuko had argued that people in rich cities like these haven’t seen him since he was thirteen, Sokka made it a point to hide any visible distinguishing features anyway, in this case, Zuko’s scar.
The argument regarding ‘distinguishing features’ also made Sokka bring up his blue eyes and tan skin. Surely, he would stand out in a room filled with pale, golden eyed aristocrats. Zuko stared at him incredulously as he pointed out that anyone who stays under the sun long enough would have tan skin, so there was no trouble there.
The discussion on blue eyes, however, made Zuko shift uncomfortably as he explained to the younger teen that, in the Fire Nation, blue eyes were rare alright, but not that rare. Due to some soldiers’ disgusting tradition of bringing home women as… ‘prisoners of war’, blue eyes were mostly seen in servants and lower-class citizens from the colonies. But once in a while, if a blue-eyed individual proves him or herself, regardless of their unfortunate ancestry, then it isn’t surprising to see them with a rank or even owning a small fortune. This news disturbed Sokka in the worst way possible, making him close his eyes and count backwards from ten to make sure he didn’t punch anything. It was another motivator for him to end this damned war once and for all.
The afternoon of the celebration finally approached as Sokka and Zuko made their way across the road towards the enormous mansion. Held up by pillars of crimson, the yellow and gold building towered spectacularly over the green gardens surrounding it. Slowly, the attendees began to make their appearances. Some pulling up on carriages, others dismounting from their own beasts, and some were even accompanied by handmaids, guards or servants. Young and old, they all sought to show off their power or wealth in subtle ways. In just a few minutes, the mansion’s gardens were filled with guests and servers.
A gong echoed across the mansion grounds, gaining the attention of all the guests. Looking up, the crowd focused on the night’s host, a large, round-faced, richly dressed man with rings on nearly every finger. As he gave his introductions and opening remarks, Sokka and Zuko silently locked eyes and walked away from the other, towards strategic positions amongst the crowds of noblemen and women.
The mission starts now.
Amidst all the festivities, night had fallen in almost no time.
Sokka and Zuko made their rounds carefully, stopping here and there to take a few drinks and small servings of food. They blended in with the mingling crowds and made sure to walk slowly beside the few tables scattered around the mansion grounds, hoping to find tidbits of useful information. Once in a while, they’d pass each other discreetly, whispering updates on their search around the rim of a glass or a bite of meat.
They would join small groups who were listening to war stories from old generals, chat with a few girls, and make small talk with the occasional tipsy middle-aged businessman. If they could help it, they tried not to pass the same people twice, for fear of someone recognizing them or getting suspicious about their presence. In the vastness of the mansion, it was actually quite easy to do so.
The gong sounded for a second time that night. All the guests were being invited inside the mansion ballroom for the final toast.
At this point, Sokka and Zuko had abandoned their worries of being seen together. They made their way inside the mansion, relieved that the night was nearly over. As Zuko complained about the complete lack of any useful information, Sokka noticed an odd figure blending in with the shadows of the moving crowd. He squinted and noticed that a red cloth obscured the lower part of their face. As quickly as he appeared, the mysterious individual vanished. That alone was enough to make Sokka suspicious, but as he couldn’t just point Zuko to thin air, he kept his mouth shut and stayed alert.
“—, right, Sokka?” Zuko turned to his right to see his younger companion frowning in thought.
“Yes, oh. Right. What were you saying?” he said in his usual sheepish tone.
Zuko rolled his eye and was about to repeat himself when a server nudged him from behind. Zuko turned to see a glass of liquor for the toast being handed to him. He accepted it and awkwardly voiced his gratitude to no one in particular. Whoever handed him the drink was gone.
Sokka, however, was able to catch a glimpse of the server’s retreating back. The same red cloth he saw on the suspicious stranger earlier was wrapped around the back of his neck. Before he could say anything, the figure in question had blended with the crowd.
By now, the large room was filled with guests, and similar drinks in different colored goblets were being passed around. Zuko tapped Sokka’s shoulder and led the way as they sought out a less crowded area to stand in. The moment they settled into an area with lesser people though, Sokka immediately caught a glimpse of the bright red cloth he’d been watching for.
He turned and squinted at the suspicious figure a few yards in front of them. He couldn’t be sure but the stranger definitely seemed to be staring in their general direction.
Frowning, he glanced discreetly at his older companion, and without putting too much thought to what he was about to do, Sokka stepped in front of him, effectively blocking the stranger’s view of the ex-prince. Swiftly, he grabbed Zuko’s hand, the one holding onto the stem of his dark brown cup. Sokka wrapped his fingers over Zuko’s and the thin stem of the cup they held.
Yanking the cup towards him, Sokka plucked an identical one from a server’s tray behind him and shoved it into Zuko’s vacant hand despite the latter’s confused protests.
Sokka just smiled sheepishly as he stepped away like nothing happened. He really hoped his hunch wasn’t correct, but no matter. Either way, Zuko was going to be fine, and Sokka sure as hell wasn’t afraid of a little mystery drink… wasn’t he?
As the party host went about his speech on prosperity and fortune for the coming years, Zuko elbowed Sokka’s side.
“Ow. What was that for?” Sokka whined.
“What’s up with you and our drinks?” Zuko demanded in a harsh whisper. “I swear, if you spat on this or something—”
“What? No- No way! Gross.” Sokka sputtered. “I just… don’t have a good liquor tolerance, you know? Your cup had slightly less than mine. So, I… er… switched them.”
Very smooth. Sokka fidgeted under Zuko’s disbelieving gaze and was grateful when the host finally finished his piece and held his own drink up for a toast.
“To the Fire Nation.” he called out.
“To the Fire Nation!” responded the audience. Men and women were sharing triumphant looks along with the clinking of cups. One by one, their drinks were consumed and refilled as the celebration went on its final stretch for the night.
Zuko turned to Sokka, raised his cup, and whispered quietly; “To victory.”
Sokka smirked back at him and raised his own cup, offering a toast of his own. “To honor.”
Zuko huffed in mock annoyance at the not-so-subtle jab at his want of ‘honor’. As their cups touched, he smiled softly and looked down at his reflection within the liquid’s surface.
“To the future.”
Sokka mirrored Zuko smile and nodded. That smile was rare, and it made Sokka’s chest warm with joy and fondness, especially considering that Zuko was once a sworn enemy of theirs. Sokka shook his head at the memory. That was all in the past. The future they toasted to was all they could count on now. And they were molding it with their own hands.
With that thought in mind, Sokka’s worries about Zuko’s cup was lost, and they both downed their drinks in unison.
Sokka pulled the empty cup away from his lips in subdued shock, remembering just a little too late his previous suspicions about the drink. He stared down at it for a while, trying to gauge whether or not the drink had any effect on him, aside from the familiar burn that accompanied most liquor. He was jolted back to the present as he heard Zuko call his name worriedly.
“Hey, Sokka?” he rasped. “Are you alright? Does the drink disagree with you?”
Sokka looked back up at him and smiled his trademark grin.
“No no no, I’m fine. It just tasted… fancier than I’m used to,” he lied smoothly. Truth be told, he wasn’t able to taste it at all. He was too engrossed in his own thoughts both during and after drinking it.
Zuko nodded and puffed his chest out slightly. Of course, that was to be expected of Fire Nation parties, and he would be lying if he claimed to have let go of his pride for his home nation. Briefly, Zuko let his mind wander back to his old memories of the castle celebrations. Only the finest food and drinks were served, especially the liquor. The burn of alcohol was always held in high regard amongst the Fire Nation, as it resembled their own element coursing down their throats and into their veins. Though Zuko had not been able to try any of the high-quality liquor before he was banished at thirteen, he was able to take his fair share of drinks aboard the ship he commanded in his search for the Avatar. After his years of travel, he could say that he knew good liquor from bad, just as well as he knew good tea from bad ones (though that could be thanks to his Uncle).
Zuko told Sokka as such, and after a few minutes of discussion regarding different types of liquor and Fire Nation celebration customs, Zuko found it fit to give their mission one last shot before retiring for the night.
“Well then, let’s get on with gathering whatever intel we can still find. I know this party’s been useless for any new or important information. But keep your eyes and ears open, alright?” he reminded. “And don’t get drunk on me,” he added with a smirk.
Sokka shook his head, chuckling, “As if. You’d make sure Katara and the gang would never let me hear the end of it.”
Even if Zuko was mostly teasing, he was getting a bit worried about his younger companion. Sokka had been going in and out of focus during their last discussion and he was leaning far too heavily against the pillars they’ve been standing against. He could have sworn he also noticed Sokka stumble once or twice, only to disguise it with an exaggerated laugh or another casual lean against the nearest surface. Maybe Sokka really had too much to drink? He only had one cup though. He shook his head, smirking. Boy, was Sokka not kidding when he admitted having low liquor tolerance.
Turning away from Sokka, Zuko casually walked over to a group of Fire Nation teens chatting near the mansion balcony. Maybe he could score some good gossip from their discussion. If there was anything he could count on the young spoiled brats of rich families for, it would definitely be gossip. Zuko knew it was likely these guys were trying to one-up each other with the different insider information they supposedly found out. He should know, it was through these rumors that he was able to stay up to date with the world and the war despite being cooped up inside the palace.
Sokka, on the other hand, chose to walk stiffly towards a group of older, and more official looking men and women engaging in what seemed like a serious exchange. It better not be more old people gossip this time, he thought. He was tired of spending the entire night hearing who was currently doing great at their business, or whose child was admitted to the Royal Navy or Fleet, or even who supposedly slept with who and how many times. Sokka cringed at that last one, an unexpected wave of nausea overwhelmed him as he recalled a disturbing conversation a few hours ago, where a buff, bearded man offered more… explicit details to those who wanted to hear it.
Approaching the buffet table conveniently close to the pillar Sokka’s target group of elderly officials were standing against, he proceeded to get himself another drink and a piece of bread. As he refilled his glass, he discreetly channeled all his attention towards the discussion to his far right. He couldn’t hear much aside from low-voiced mentions of the Fire Lord and the Royal Family, as well as the Navy and the colonies. He narrowed his eyes at his now filled glass. It wasn’t the liquor he and Zuko drank earlier, his current drink was a rich shade of dark red and smelled sweetly of fruit and berries. He took a sip and regarded his glass approvingly. He’d have to ask Zuko about this one later.
For a brief moment, his vision swam as his heart thumped painfully in his chest. His hand shot out to lean on the buffet table for balance, the sudden movement made some liquid spill out of his cup. What was going on? Before he was able to think much about his condition, the pain and nausea diminished to a barely noticeable discomfort.
Then from one of the women to his right, he heard, in a disgusted tone, a mention of the water tribe. That caught his attention for sure. Scooting over to the plates of filled and spiced breads, he positioned himself closer to the group, and was finally able to hear more of their discussion. The mention of the water tribe seemingly made the group more agitated, as they were gesturing more animatedly. Pretending to examine the variety of breads, he listened closely.
“—so close!” one of the men muttered angrily.
“Imagine what we could have done if the Northern Water Tribe fell to our armies that day,” huffed an older woman.
“The commander of the invasion, Zhao, told me all about it,” a bushy haired man said smugly. He added in a more conspiratorial tone, “The disgraced Dragon of the West and that coward and ex-prince, Zuko, are to blame. Apparently, the brat didn’t like being shown up by the older soldier and lashed out irrationally during the more sensitive part of the invasion, causing the whole thing to fail spectacularly! The senile Dragon of the West was roped into it by the boy as well, effectively branding himself a traitor after infiltrating Zhao’s ship and betraying his trust.”
A pinch faced older woman tutted disapprovingly, “That man was such a waste. With his skill and power, he could have been so much more.”
“Unlike the brat prince,” a balding man added. Sokka recognized the voice as the angry tone he first heard when he approached. “not only is he a coward, but I’ve heard that he also switched sides. He’s now aiding the Avatar in his futile quest for peace. He is a disgrace to our nation, a dirty stain in our legacy.”
There were many nods of approval amidst the listeners. Sokka was trying hard not to lose control of his temper. The bread in his hand was the unfortunate recipient of his pent-up anger, as it was becoming squeezed tightly in his fist, some of the savory meat and sauce that once filled it were seeping out slowly.
“The Fire Lord was right to banish him, but if I had a son like that, I would have ordered him to be sent to prison… or better, killed,” said the pinch faced older woman.
The bushy haired man nodded, “Now, because of that traitor, the Avatar surely has intel on our nation’s army and inner circles.”
“Oh, haven’t you heard?” the balding man smirked, one eyebrow raised. “There’s now quite a hefty price on the ex-prince’s head. It seems even the Fire Lord is finally aware of how much of a disgrace he had become, staining the reputation of the royal family. The traitor may be in hiding right now, but as soon as he shows his face in the field, it can be assured that he would never do so another time.”
Sokka’s blood ran cold at that new piece of news. He stuffed the squashed bread into his mouth and downed it with his drink. He made to turn around and nearly choked when he overheard that the bounty on Zuko’s head was second only to the Avatar’s. For a few moments, he was too shell shocked to move. If that were true, then staying out any longer was too risky. He was glad he thought to disguise Zuko, but their luck could run out any moment now. It was a miracle enough that none of the people they’ve seen up until this point didn’t recognize him, but Sokka wasn’t going to take any more chances.
Leaving his glass on the nearest servant’s tray, he walked briskly towards the loose crowd of mingling people, hoping to find Zuko and scram. As he stumbled around the tables and various party goers, he was becoming increasingly aware of a worsening burning sensation in his chest. Dammit, he thought. Where’s that prince when you need him? Maybe Zuko was right about the Fire Nation liquor disagreeing with him.
After a few minutes of searching, Sokka found that he could no longer go on. He silently cursed the sheer size of the mansion and stopped to take a rest in a quiet corner, under the shadows of a nearby pillar. With his back to the crowds, he leaned against the pillar heavily and was becoming acutely aware of a throbbing in his head. He used his right hand to balance himself against the pillar’s surface as the palm of his left pushed against his forehead. He couldn’t help himself as he doubled over and emptied the contents of his stomach on the pristine golden floors of the mansion. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and clutched at the fabric of the clothes on his chest.
In a few seconds, his eyes were screwed shut and he was sweating profusely and panting in pain. The burning in his chest was now a full on agonizing sensation of huge claws raking down his lungs from the inside and threatening to explode outward. He gritted his teeth, not wanting to cry out and draw attention to himself. If he cried out, people would notice him, if people noticed him, Zuko, who would almost certainly rush to help, would definitely be noticed too. He needed to find Zuko on his own, and fast.
Sokka turned slowly towards the crowds and found out, unfortunately, that that was all he could manage. He sought refuge under the shadowed part of the room precisely because of the overwhelming light, and facing the crowds meant an assault of painful yellow brightness. The throbbing in his head worsened to a sharp pain, like someone ran a skewer into his brain, and he dropped to his knees.
This time, he wasn’t able to completely smother his agonized cry. His breath hitched as his knees hit the ground and he felt, once more, that he was going to vomit. As his torso was parallel to the ground, one of his hands gripped the pillar for support as the other covered his mouth in an attempt to stop the impending release. He thought he succeeded. The nauseating feeling diminished but was replaced by a ticklish feeling on the back of his throat.
He coughed once. Twice. Thrice. The pain in his chest flared up each time a cough shook his body. Then he saw it. His vision, blurry from unshed tears, registered glaring circles of red against the golden floor in front of him. He frowned and withdrew the hand covering his mouth. It was a matching shade of bright scarlet.
At this point, both his consciousness and his vision were deteriorating quite rapidly, he barely registered Zuko’s frantic footsteps, his worried cries of Sokka’s name, and the older teen’s arms gripping his shoulders. Sokka also didn’t remember going limp and pitching forward into Zuko’s chest.
The next time Sokka blearily opened his eyes, he found himself staring up at Zuko’s chin and the scar on his face. Beyond Zuko’s head was the night sky illuminated by city lights, the stars, and the full moon. Sokka subconsciously registered that Zuko was carrying him as he ran outside the mansion grounds.
Zuko’s mouth was moving. Was he saying something? Sokka couldn’t hear anything. He should probably try to listen, but everything hurt. So at the moment, he decided he really didn’t care. Before he lost consciousness for a second time, he remembered two important things he wanted to tell Zuko. But they never made it past his lips as his next intake of breath had him groan sharply in pain. The first thing he wanted to say was that Zuko had a huge bounty on his head. The second one was something along the lines of ‘Forget the mission!’ and ‘Hide!’.
Zuko then made a slight stumble as he ran, which was the last straw for Sokka’s pain-wreaked body. At the final second of Sokka’s consciousness, he connected several things.
Stranger. Red cloth. Drink. Zuko. Bounty.